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About the author:
Mark grew up on both coasts, first in Westchester County, New York, then in Westlake Village, California. Mark and his wife, Kim, now live in Castle Rock, Colorado, with their two dogs, Sammi, and Lilly. Mark got his start as a corporate marketing manager and then fell into indie-filmmaking—Producing/Directing the popular Gaia docudrama, 'Openings — The Search For Harry'. For the last nine years, he's been writing full-time and with thirty-four best-selling novels under his belt, he has no plans on slowing down. Thanks for being part of his community!
What inspired you to write your book?
My usual genre is science fiction. So, writing this book, The Test Pilot's Wife—a Romance/Historical Fiction novel, is quite a departure from the norm for me. I wrote it because the heroine of the book, Lura Lee Dunn was my grandmother (my mother's mother).
The story is about how my grandmother met and fell in love with Eugene Hoy Barksdale, a famous WWI flying ace who was a test pilot in the 1920s.
I am very close to my mother, Lura Lee Genz, who just turned 91. The book was in honor of and dedicated to my mother and grandmother.
Here is a short sample from the book:
Lura Lee Dunn
January 29, 1918—Manhattan
After parking her mother Edna’s meticulous navy-blue Buick Tourer Classic midway down First Street, Lura Lee waited for a jalopy milk truck to rumble by before coming around the still-ticking grill. She hurried to help her mother, who was already sliding out from the passenger seat.
“Hold on, Mother…let me help you with your coat. Jeez, weather like this could freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”
“Talk like that is not becoming to a young lady,” her mother sniffed, her words slightly muffled behind the wool handkerchief she’d pressed to her nose. “Don’t forget to latch the door, dear.”
“Uh-huh, already doing that,” Lura Lee answered automatically, tempted to roll her eyes.
Taking her mother’s luxuriously round arm, they crossed First Street. Flurries were falling again, adding to the mound of gray slush along the gutter.
Lura Lee advised, “Up and over…big step now.”
“I’m not an infant,” her mother announced, still holding Lura’s arm tightly. “You don’t have to talk down to me. I speak the Queen’s English quite nicely.” She tipped her nose into the cold air.
“Then you can eloquently describe this as the Mount Everest of snow mounds.”
Her mother replied with a huff, which exuded a warm cloud of breath.
Once safely on the sidewalk, Edna Dunn came to an abrupt stop. Determining there was no gentle tugging and pulling that would move the woman, Lura Lee heaved a long-suffering sigh.
“What, Mom? What is it?” But Lura Lee knew. Of course, she knew. The man they had come for was dead. There was no getting around that.
Edna’s tears flowed as she dabbed at her cheeks with her handkerchief. “He was so young.”
Lura Lee nodded, not knowing what to say. She wasn’t good with emotions. They were so awkward. The whole consoling rigamarole was not in her nature. Perhaps it had skipped a generation. Her mother seemed to be perfectly fine with all those flowery feelings.
Shivering, she glanced up, seeing what must have been one of the last gas streetlamps still in existence within the city. She was tempted to shimmy up the post and press her face against the glass. To feel even the slightest modicum of heat would be a blessing worth the effort.
Edna’s whimpers were now coming out as billowing steam, and Lura finally allowed herself to roll her eyes, her lashes like icicles. My mother, the Stanley Steamer.
Edna looked up to the heavens and murmured something pained and indecipherable. Perhaps she’d muttered a prayer.
“Mother, let’s just keep moving. It’s so wretchedly cold. My feet are like two blocks of ice. I swear, I can’t feel my toes.”
But her mother wasn’t listening to her, like when she’d first gotten the terrible news. And once again, she was crumbling—not physically, but certainly emotionally. Her ample frame was still strong, but her heart was overflowing. Lura wished it would give off some heat.
As quickly as her mother had fallen to pieces, she was now on the move again. They walked, careful not to slip upon the icy Manhattan walkway, with Lura Lee desperately checking addresses as they passed one building’s street facade after another.
Then she was sure they’d found it. “Here we go; this next one should be it. Goodness, it’s drab enough to be a morgue.”
“Must you insist on using that word?” Edna interjected with a loathing tone.
Lura Lee pointed a gloved finger at the brightly lit sign above. “This is it, the New York Medical Examiner’s Office. Happy?”
She knew the second she’d said it, it was a mistake. Of course, she wasn’t happy. They were at the city morgue, for God’s sake. What lay lifelessly inside there was devastating her mother. Strange to a degree, but devastating just the same. Why in God’s name am I so insensitive?
“Sorry, Mother. That was stupid.” Lura Lee tried the door, but it was locked. Checking her wristwatch, she let out a steamy breath. “It’s after hours.”
Her mother nodded blankly.
Lura Lee thought she heard voices inside and made a frantic tap tap tap with her frozen knuckles upon the oversized metal door. The door opened, and a tall young man wearing green rubber overalls peered down at them. His deep-set eyes and sallow complexion couldn’t have been more apropos for the situation.
“We are closed,” was his deep, ominous reply.
“Thank you for stating that in person, sir. But do you think we are here by choice? Perhaps sight-seeing? We’d like to come in. My mother is half frozen to death!” Lura stopped herself. I really need to think before I speak.
The grim reaper growled and complied, leading the two of them down a narrow hallway, which seemed to go on and on forever. Walking deeper into the facility than Lura thought possible, they eventually were ushered into a small, sterile waiting room.
“Please wait,” the tall man in overalls said and left through another door.
Glancing around, Lura Lee took in the decor. The walls were painted the color of pea soup. Unoccupied wooden benches lined three of the walls. Lura Lee wondered who would ever wait here. It wasn’t like one would make an appointment for an autopsy. Then again, weren’t they here by appointment? It was all so grim and confusing…and still cold.
Edna plopped down onto the bench closest to the door and fidgeted with her handkerchief. Lura Lee tried to decide if she should sit or remain standing as the man in overalls returned. “Please come this way.”
Glancing around while trying not to look like an eager toddler on her first trip to the city zoo, Lura Lee couldn’t help but think this was obviously where the medical procedures took place. Hiding just below the smell of stringent cleaning agents and antiseptic was a far more feral smell—and that would be death.
Edna, fidgeting nervously and shaking like she was ready to faint, took Lura Lee’s arm in hers as they were led to a cordoned-off side room. Here, a doctor wearing a white coat, exhibiting a glistening bald pate and thick, rimless spectacles, was already offering his hand to Edna in deference. “I am Dr. Medling. Thank you for coming.”
Edna reluctantly shook the man’s gloved hand. She cleared her throat. “Can we get this over with, please?”
A stark white sheet was neatly draped over an approximately six-foot-long mound. Dr. Medling asked, “Are you ready, ma’am?”
“No, I don’t believe I am. Is anyone at times like this?” Tears formed in Edna’s eyes again.
“No, I suppose not,” the doctor said with placid sympathy.
The man in the green overalls who had been hovering nearby did the honors. The sheet was pulled down just far enough to reveal the face of a dead man. His eyes were open—dull and lifeless. Handsome, though…even in death.
Lura Lee noticed for the first time, there was a woman, straight-backed, seated at a nearby metal desk. Before her, a heavy black Underwood sat poised beneath extended fingers.
Dr. Medling intoned, “Today, this twenty-ninth day of January 1918.”
The typewriter keys clunked away with staccato efficiency.
“You are here to identify that these are, in fact, the remains of one Arthur E. Dunn.”
Edna and Lura Lee continued to stare down at the man on the steel-topped table. Then, clearly having had enough, Edna spun on her heel and buried her face back into her handkerchief. Witnessing her sobbing mother, Lura Lee embraced her tightly, her mother’s tears dousing her winter coat. This had never happened before between Lura and her mother. She knew her mother and uncle had been close, but…
To Lura’s surprise, her mother wanted to get out of there quickly after identifying the body. In fact, Edna seemed to be rushing. She flung open the examiner facility’s back door, only to discover a man waiting right outside. He was stern, ready with a notepad and pencil in hand. “Mrs. Dunn…I’m Detective Green. A few questions, please, before you two head off.”
Edna was startled by his presence, while Lura Lee was just annoyed. The man was short and stocky. His gray suit was rumpled beneath an unbuttoned wool trench coat, his Fedora pushed back, exposing a receding hairline.
“It’s late, and we’re tired,” Lura Lee said, wishing the whole ordeal was done.
“Yes, tomorrow would be better,” Edna added carefully, stepping down off the concrete landing.
“Tell me, ma’am. How were you informed of your brother-in-law’s…untimely death?”
She stopped and considered his question. “A phone call to the house. By you…by the police.”
“And where exactly was your brother-in-law living? Most recently. We can’t seem to find a home address…”
Edna and Lura Lee exchanged a quick glance. Edna explained, “With us. With my family…in Hollis Estates here in New York.”
That took Green off guard. “So, he lived with you?”
She gave a confused half shrug. “Isn’t that what I said?”
“All right…so you and your husband are his only family? Only kin?”
Edna shook her head and peered at him as though he were daft. “And our children,” she hesitated. “Actually, he had a family. In Montana, I believe. Wife and one young daughter. Oh my! I suppose they’ll need to be notified right away.”
“You think so? That’ll be your sister-in-law and niece, correct?”
Pursing her lips, Edna opened her purse and fumbled for something.
Lura Lee and the detective watched as Edna pulled on a pair of brown leather gloves. This is a damn strange experience.
The detective gave Lura Lee a head-to-toe once-over. “And you, young lady…you are her daughter?” Green queried.
She let out a long, exasperated breath. “Detective Green, will this take much longer?”
“Just a few more routine questions. Your name, miss?”
“Lura Lee. I have an older sister, Idris, and a younger brother, Bobby.”
Detective Green looked up from his scratchings and redirected his focus to Edna. “Ma’am…your brother-in-law,” the detective gestured to the door with his pencil, “He stayed at your home with your family?”
“We’ve been through this, Detective,” Lura Lee interjected.
“And where might your husband be? Mr. Robert Lee Dunn? It is he who I expected to be here. To have, um…identified the remains.”
Men. Lura, about to answer, felt her mother’s hand on hers.
Edna said hurriedly, “My husband is away…on business. He’s been gone for the last few months. He travels…well, he travels a great deal. Has responsibilities.”
Lura Lee chewed the inside of her cheek as a prolonged silence ensued. The detective continued his note-taking as Lura considered how to hoist her mother over her shoulder and run.
Looking up, Green cocked his head to one side. “So, Mr. Dunn…Mr. Arthur Dunn was living with you while your husband was away for…” He looked at his notepad, “for the last few months?”
“I don’t think I like your insinuating tone, Detective,” Edna scoffed, her shoulders straightening—a new fire in her eyes.
“Me neither,” Lura Lee echoed.
“I’m just reading back your own words, Mrs. Dunn. And I don’t deal in insinuations. I deal in facts…facts and crimes.”
Having had enough of this, Lura Lee took a step forward. “We are tired and must be on our way. It is late and cold!” Simple logic.
“Are you aware that the deceased carried a portrait? A small photograph?”
Lura Lee shook her head and turned to look at her mother with a questioning brow.
Green raised his chin, and squinting, pointed his pad up toward the flickering streetlamp. “It’s a portrait of you, Mrs. Dunn.”
Lura Lee received an emotional punch to the solar plexus, but she recovered quickly, as she was wont to do.
Green continued, “It’s how we got your phone number…it was written on the back.”
“This ends now, Detective! This is my mother, my father’s wife. How dare you cross-examine her in such a way?”
Edna had gone quiet, and Green looked at her in an accusatory manner.
Cretin. How dare you?
“Let’s move on, shall we? Your brother-in-law Arthur was shot in the…” Green flipped his notepad several pages back, “…in the gut, the stomach area.” He gestured with a circular motion to his own prominent breadbasket. “Do you have any idea who would’ve shot him? And do so, apparently, at close range? All the while not bothering with his money in his wallet, his gold pocket watch…oh! And that nice leather-bound photograph. A portrait of…you?”
“No! Of course not. I have no idea!” Edna blurted. “Arthur was a troubled man. Yes, a kind man, but troubled. He was an unlucky man who subsequently had dealings with…let’s just say, the darker elements of this city.”
“You’re saying he was a criminal.”
Lura interjected, “Those are your words.”
Green shrugged. “He was a photographer, from what I’m told. Artists.” He rolled his eyes.
Lura Lee gritted her teeth, but her mother beat her to the punch. “As is my husband!” Edna exclaimed. “So what?” She puffed out her chest like a mother bear going to battle.
Green replied knowingly, “Your husband, Mrs. Dunn, was the esteemed photographer of three American presidents. If I’m not mistaken?”
Neither Lura nor her mother made a sound.
“One more question…when exactly is your husband due back? Or has he already returned?”
Through the tension that gripped her entire body, Lura Lee could no longer feel the cold.