MARCH HOUSE PRESS presents...

C.A. Rodriguez's

THE RETURN OF RAMON


   

Uneasy. That's what the author called her singular Illusian Sequence. Now we know what she meant. Each of the books can be read separately, and each one has its own style, its own charms, and indeed its own fan base, but the fourth and final novel, THE RETURN OF RAMON, is the one that makes clear why the Sequence is a sequence.

Darker and more ambiguous than the previous books, THE RETURN OF RAMON follows the relationship of a night waitress at a lonely diner and a shabby but strangely courtly customer who does not speak--and may be trying to kill her.

All of Rodriguez's books can be read on many levels, starting with the most basic ones--rich language, vivid characters and an intriguing story. But the intellectual workings become clearer as we begin to recognize the recurrence and variation of themes, patterns, images--even actions and relationships--that we have seen before, like the working out of musical motifs. Again we find ourselves in the seaside city of Illusia. Again we find ourselves dealing with issues of death, the allegiances of love, and imperfect people trying to be good to one another. Again we find ourselves in a world pierced in unexpected ways by the Wonderful. THE RETURN OF RAMON is a swift and compelling narrative, straightforward and yet never what it seems. A fairy tale. A fantasy. Or a final reality.

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Excerpt from THE RETURN OF RAMON

Chapter 1

Desecration

The moon was large, round, and very white, shining with unusual brilliance. The night was still, but brutally cold. And there was white frost on the landscape, as if a star had shattered, strewing a fine, sparkling debris over all the visible landscape.

And yet there were half a dozen skaters on the hard pond. Thick-sweatered and athletic, with knitted wool well-wound around their throats, even up to the eyes, and well-gloved hands. The scrape of blades was explicit in the stillness. No one spoke much, perhaps unwilling to gulp the cold. But some skated in couples, and some did small tricks that others, moving leisurely by, turned to see. The clunk and scrape of blades continued.

Ramon leaned against the car, one foot on the running board, his hands shoved deep into his pockets. He'd left the motor running and the exhaust billowed into the frigid air. Although his gums were chilled and he could feel the moisture stiffening in his nostrils, it wasn't the cold that was bothering him. He realized that the plan wasn't going to work.

The pond was perfect. It should have been perfect. Small, but extremely deep, with underwater channels. Strong, streaming currents that ran underground for a long, long distance. Far enough, in fact.

But he was going to have to think of something else.

He opened the door of the old car and slid into the driver's seat, hesitating a moment before pulling the door closed again. The inside was stuffy and stank of cigarette smoke and stale beer. And other things. He rested his head on the steering wheel, trying to resign himself. At least the heater worked. The car had been cheap, after all, and he needed to be careful with his resources. He shuddered once, as his cold clothes absorbed the heat and his edgy body adjusted.

Perhaps if he waited a week or two. It was almost March. If the ice were only a little more fragile and the skaters went away, it would be a simple thing to cut a hole in the pond's frozen surface unobserved, and ease a woman's body through. The tools were in the glove compartment.

But he didn't have a week or two. He could feel that.

He began to think again about how he would do it, as he had a hundred times. She would fight him, of course. And he was not as strong as he had been in the beginning.

No. He was going to have to think of something that would work around the difficulties, something a little more complex. And he was going to have to think of it very soon.

He sat up and switched on the lights, put the car in gear and, easing the clutch carefully, backed up in an arc until the beams of the headlights swung round and peered down into the long, tunnel-like drive overhung with trees that led back to the highway. He needed coffee and someplace warm to think. Someplace with a less nauseating smell. The frost-hardened ground crunched under the tires as he pulled away.

All the core establishments of the main road were closed and mostly dark-the gas station, the tire outlet, the tree nursery, the Ye Olde Inn and Attic Treasures. It was pretty late, after all. But he knew where he was going.

   

The sole all-night waitress at the Silver Bullet Diner on Route 9 was coming out of the Ladies when he came in. She recognized Ramon, but didn't smile, not because she had anything against him, but just because smiling at customers wasn't something she went in for.

It wasn't as if she could have missed him. He was the only customer in the place.

She pulled a menu from the rack on the counter and a paper napkin from the box and went over to the blue-and-silver booth where he had seated himself.

She put the menu down in front of him, and the napkin more or less where it was supposed to go, took out her pad and pulled a stump of pencil out of her hair. And waited. A rangy, faded blonde with the withered face of a heavy, long-term smoker, she had no illusions about how little remained of the roses of her summer, but hey, she could look. And the guy was decidedly good-looking. Kind of foreign in an interesting way. Long face, high cheekbones, neatly-blunted goatee shot with gray, and dark, soulful eyes. Distinguished, you might say. Nice manners. Even though he never actually spoke. She wondered if he was a mute or just didn t speak English. He seemed to understand everything though.

"Nice lemon meringue tonight," she said, aware that her own voice had a quality some people called "whiskey," even though she really didn't drink that much any more. "Nice and fresh. Haven't even cut into it yet."

He smiled gently at her, as he always did, looking directly into her eyes, courteously, but with a slight air of expectancy, as if he hoped she might recognize him in some way that she didn't. Nice, though. Gave you the tiniest little thrill. Hey, take it where you can get it.

He put his index finger to his lips and then tapped the air slightly with it as if to say, "Just the thing," or maybe just, "Yes, I ll have that." He never seemed embarrassed or frustrated in not speaking. Or apologetic. And he always seemed to make himself clear enough. Not that their exchanges were that complicated.

"Coffee?" she asked, scribbling his order.

He nodded, and she deftly repossessed the menu and went back to the counter. There weren't a lot of tips on the night shift, but at least the people you got were pretty much not in a hurry. Hey, there were crummier ways to make a living. She knew. She'd done them.

Ramon watched her retreating form, appreciating the long lines of her body, the narrow, graceful hips and well-shaped buttocks. Even the over-washed pink long-sleeved sweater that she wore under her cheap short-sleeved uniform was sweet to him. And the socks over her nylons. She held herself erect, and moved in her thickly crepe-soled shoes in a lounging sort of way. The plan might have to be a little more complex. And the more complex it was, the greater the possibility of failure.

He turned his gaze away as she rounded the back of the counter to get the pie out of the fridge case. A truck went by on the highway outside. Nothing. He closed his eyes. He could feel the urgency in his body. An eerie pain everywhere, in his blood. He had done things with his body. And not only his own.... No, he could not wait for weeks.

And if he failed. . .well, she would not remember him. What difference would it make?

It would make all the difference. It was all that mattered.

In a minute or two she brought the plate of pie and the hot coffee, and set them on the table in front of him. Undecorated diner crockery, big-lipped, white. A plate and a cup set in a saucer. He moved the paper napkin to one side as she pulled a fork and a teaspoon from her apron pocket. And the plan came to him, whole and complete.

   

Place was empty again the next night when he came in. Again he smiled gently and nodded to her in a way that had a certain dignity to it. He ordered pie, custard this time, and black coffee as usual. Never spoke, of course. She leaned on the counter and scanned the local paper spread out in front of her. Not that she was interested in what passed for local news, really, but it was something to do to pass the time. And it didn't cost anything, because when she was finished she could just fold it up and put it back in the pile by the cash register.

Sometimes there were letters to the editor that were kind of a hoot, anyway. Some people walking around out there were nuttier than peanut brittle.

The stranger seemed a little agitated, though. And she was sensitive to people. You had to be in the kind of work she had done.

Yeah. There were a lot of lost souls that wandered through, just stopping to use the facilities and to grab a cup of coffee to get them through a long drive. The war had disconnected a lot of people from their old ties, from the places they thought they'd spend the rest of their lives and the people they thought they'd spend them with. From the things they thought they were going to do. Even from most of the reasons. Some of them were just kids you could have grown up with, with faces that had seen too much. Some were from someplace else, like this guy.

He scarcely touched his pie, seemed lost in thought, from time to time looking out the window, where there really wasn't all that much to see. The empty highway, the big electric sign that sizzled on and off in a way that it shouldn't have, the parking lot with three cars in it-hers, the cook, Patsy's, and that pile of junk the stranger drove.

He held a small, letter-sized envelope that he had taken out of his jacket at some point. Now and again as he sipped his coffee, he looked at it, dark brows knit, handled it nervously, tapped the edge on the table. Stared out the window. Finally he collected his jacket and hat and scarf. Took out his wallet and absently left a tip. Dropped his gloves and retrieved them.

Re-collected his things and the check and brought them over to the cash register. She had folded up the paper by then and was waiting for him.

"How was the pie?" she asked, looking down into the cash drawer as she rang it open, not meaning to sound too friendly. She was just sorry he was agitated. Guy was lonely, had stuff on his mind. Didn't hurt to be decent.

He seemed not to have heard her, however, preoccupied. He was already pulling on his jacket, and he started to leave, forgetting his change.

"Hey," she said, calling him back. "Your change."

He turned back and took it, stuffing the money into his pocket without looking at it. He nodded at her courteously but briefly, and hurried out. She could see him through the plate glass window get into his rotten car and pull away. She stayed there, leaning on the register for a little while, looking out the window at the highway and the two cars in the lot, and the sign that sizzled on and off. There was no hurry.

Patsy the cook came out of the kitchen and sidled behind the counter to get himself some coffee, and she let him through. He wasn't a bad guy. Didn't try to grab a little something as he went by like that slimy Fritz who used to work this shift. Patsy was overweight, with a mostly bald head with some ribbons of hair combed across it. He had a wife with what he called "Arthur-itis" and kids in another place and frequently in trouble. But he didn't complain much.

"Why don't you put some music on?" he asked, coming round to park himself on one of the stools and sip his coffee.

"I don't know," she said. "Music in an empty place makes me lonely." She went over to clear away the booth where the stranger had been.

"Hey," said Patsy good-naturedly. "It ain't empty. I'm here."

"Holy...!" she replied irrelevantly. She was holding the tip she had picked up and staring at what was still on the table. The guy had always left good tips, but this was so big that it had to have been a mistake.

"What?" inquired Patsy.

She held up a bill that had been lying underneath the quarter. "Ten bucks!"

"Holy crap," the cook agreed. "He must really like you. You gonna meet him later?"

"No, I m not gonna meet him later. I think he was just...you know...his mind was someplace." She felt bad for him. It was none of her business, but hey. "Hope this isn't gonna leave him short."

"Didn't even touch his pie." Patsy had come over, and regarded the plate of untouched custard pie with a reproachful air.

She hardly noticed. Patsy picked up the unused fork and the plate, and began to show the good piece of pie more respect.

"Oh no," she said. "look at that. He's left his letter." It had been under the plate. Funny.

"Well, he'll be back then."

"I hope he remembers before he's gone too far. Poor guy. Hope this doesn't mess him up."

"Is it to him or from him?"

She had been looking at the envelope with some interest. It was sealed and addressed, but there was no return address and no stamp. It was the writing that was funny. "From him, I think. But look at this."

Without laying down his plate or fork, Patsy leaned over. "Hah," he said, bouncing his eyebrows up and down. "To a woman in the city."

"Yeah, but look at this writing."

"Yeah. Very classy."

"No, but who writes like that?"

"I don't know. Some people have that control, you know. My handwriting always looks like I held the pencil in my elbow. Teachers in school were always on me. Angie, on the other hand, has this really pretty handwriting. Little, small, neat. Really ladylike. Or she used to. But yeah, that's some swell writing there."

"It looks like - what? Like whatdyacallit. Like some formal thing, doesn't it?"

"Like a wedding announcement."




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