Mona Moon picked up her dusty knapsack and battered valise, making her way down the ship’s ramp where the New York City dock bristled with baggage porters, dock workers, cabbies, newspaper reporters, police, hustlers, and families welcoming loved-ones with flowers and kisses. There were no kisses and flowers for Mona. No loved-ones, tiptoeing and stretching their necks on the dock, searched for her. Mona was alone.
She hurried through customs, anxious to be off before all the cabs were snatched up. It was after midnight, and the last thing Mona wanted was to be stranded on a lonely pier.
Luckily, Mona was able to hail a taxi and give her address. “Chinatown,” she muttered, sick with exhaustion. She had spent five months in Mesopotamia mapping the river systems emanating from the Zagros Mountains. Worn and thin from months of privation, Mona was ready for a hot bath, a clean bed, and a meal. Any kind of food would suffice. Then she wanted to hibernate in a deep sleep for several days.
It had been an arduous expedition fraught with danger. It was good that Mona always kept her pistol handy. It had saved her on many occasions—too many for her taste.
The cab screeched to a halt at Mona’s address, and a sleepy driver let her out. He didn’t bother to help her with the luggage as he disapproved of women wearing trousers instead of dresses.
Mona showed her disapproval of the cabby’s disdain by withholding a tip. She briskly strode through the building’s door and was out of earshot as the driver sneered, “This ain’t no jitney, lady . . . oh, excuse me, you must be a sir, but who could tell?”
She climbed some rickety stairs leading to a little one-room apartment and unlocking the door, stumbled into her tiny efficiency, sighing with relief. Her room was as she left it with the exception of a stack of mail on a table, which acted as both desk and dining area, accompanied by one chair, one bookcase, and one single bed neatly made.
Mr. Zhang had come through for her, collecting her mail and dutifully saving it, even though she owed him back rent.
Mona set her luggage by the door and dove into the letters. She was expecting a letter and a fat check from the National Geographic Society, inviting her on their Amazon expedition.
She quickly perused the stack of letters, mostly bills, until she found one with the return address she was hoping for. Quickly tearing the envelope open, Mona read:
Dear Miss Moon,
Thank you for your application to join the Amazon expedition, which the National Geographic Society is funding some months from now. Even though your credentials and experience are quite impressive, we feel the Amazon expedition is not suitable for a woman, even for one as yourself with such superior attributes.
Please feel free to apply for another expedition where the day-to-day exertions would be less taxing for one of the fairer sex.
Mona let the letter fall to the floor. She was in deep trouble. Without the income from the upcoming Amazon expedition, Mona was in a financial crisis. She had three hundred dollars in her pocket out of which she had to pay back rent, buy food, and support herself until the next assignment materialized. Even though three hundred dollars was a princely sum during the Depression, it would not last long unless she could obtain another source of income between gigs in her field. Tomorrow, she would start looking in the paper for a job. Even a salesgirl’s position sounded good at the moment. Times were hard, and one had to do what one had to do to survive.
A sharp knock on the door broke Mona’s train of thought. Startled, she glanced at her wristwatch. It was close to two in the morning. She grabbed the revolver from her purse. “Who is it?”
A man’s voice filtered through the flimsy wooden door. “Am I speaking to Madeline Mona Moon?”
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Dexter Deatherage. I’m a lawyer from Deatherage, Combs, and Sharp. I represent your Uncle Manfred Michael Moon’s estate.”
Throwing open the door, Mona pointed the revolver squarely at the man’s forehead. “What do you want, Mr. Deatherage from Deatherage, Combs, and Sharp?”
Mr. Deatherage’s eyes grew large as saucers, but he tried to quiet the quiver in his voice. He was a respectable man and was not used to having women point guns at him. “I have important business to discuss with you.”
“At two in the morning?”
“I am sorry but I have waited a week. Your ship was late arriving, and I’m afraid time is of the essence. I was at the dock earlier and called out your name. Did you not hear?”
“Oh, was that you? I thought it might be a bill collector.”
“Miss Moon, may I come in? I don’t think we should be discussing our business in a public hallway.”
“Drop the briefcase, turn around, and put your hands up against the wall.”
Mr. Deatherage protested, “This is outrageous!”
Flicking the revolver at him, Mona ordered, “Do it, Bub, or else.”
Seeing he had no choice, Mr. Deatherage put down his briefcase, turned, and put his hands high above his head against the wall.
Mona expertly patted down Mr. Deatherage’s navy pinstriped double-breasted suit, paying special attention to any pockets and even ran her hand up the inseam of his trousers, eliciting a high-pitched whimper from the prim attorney. She took out his wallet and went through it, finding five hundred dollars in small bills, a driver’s license, and a worn snapshot of a woman with two children, supposedly his family, plus New York restaurant receipts and a railroad ticket stub. Finding no weapons, she went through his leather case.
Mr. Deatherage started to turn, but Mona barked, “Stay as you are.” Seeing nothing suspicious, Mona put the gun in her pants pocket. “Okay, you can come in. I’m sorry, Mr. Deatherage, but a lady can’t be too careful when a stranger knocks on her door in the middle of the night. Understand?”
The lawyer staggered inside and eased onto the apartment’s one chair. “May I have a glass of water? I’m not used to this kind of treatment, especially when I bring glad tidings.”
Curious, Mona was silent as she let the washbasin faucet run until the rusty-looking water turned clean before filling a chipped glass and handing it to Mr. Deatherage.
He looked askance at the glass before taking several sips. “That’s better. Just give me a moment to compose myself.” The lawyer took several deep breaths.
Mona sat quietly on her bed, watching Mr. Deatherage and wondering what his business had to do with her. He had stated he was bringing glad tidings. She could use some good news and patiently waited for him to speak.
Mr. Deatherage wiped his forehead with his linen monogrammed handkerchief before opening his briefcase and laying papers on the table. Clearing his throat, Mr. Deatherage straightened the knot in his tie and spoke in a loud firm voice, “Miss Moon, I’m here to inform you that your uncle, Manfred Michael Moon died two weeks ago. In accordance with his wishes and Last Will and Testament, Mr. Moon has bequeathed to you his property, all real and liquid assets, to be distributed immediately upon his death.”
Looking up from his papers, Mr. Deatherage said, “Miss Moon, did you hear me? You are a very wealthy young lady. All you need to do is sign these papers and all will be yours. There are only a few stipulations. One is you must take up residence at Moon Manor, the family residence in Lexington, Kentucky, and use it as your permanent domicile. All property, real and liquid, must stay within the bloodline of the Moon family upon the event of your demise, which excludes any husband you might acquire along the way, and any offspring of yours must maintain the Moon moniker as their surname.”
Mr. Deatherage peered over his papers. “You don’t have any husbands tucked away, do you?”
“I’ve never married.”
“Been too busy making a living to have time for romance.”
“Any entanglements I should know about?”
“Look around. I don’t even have a plant.”
The lawyer seemed relieved. “At least, we don’t have any inconvenient domestic details to muddy the waters.”
“You say I’m wealthy. How much money are we talking about?”
“I don’t have the exact figures with me, but you will never have to work another day in your life, and your inheritance comes to you debt free. Mr. Moon was very frugal, but scrupulous about paying his bills. I wish all my clients were like him. Mr. Moon left his affairs as tidy as one could hope for in a patron.”
Mona was taken back by this information. “Why would my uncle leave me the Moon fortune when my father was disowned by the family because of his marriage to my mother?”
Mr. Deatherage winced. “I was hoping that unhappy bit of history would not raise its ugly head.”
“How could it not?”
“You’re quite right. There are some bequests for his sister, your Aunt Melanie and her children, but the rest is yours. All you need to do is sign these papers.” He retrieved a Parker Duofold fountain pen from his coat pocket and held it out to her.
Skeptical, Mona said, “I’m not sure.”
“Miss Moon, I don’t understand your reluctance. I assure you this inheritance is above-board. Don’t you want to be wealthy, and get out of this rabbit warren of an apartment building?” Mr. Deatherage looked about the shabby room.
“I can’t forget how my father lost his inheritance, and the curt brush-off my mother got from the Moon family when Father died.”
“That is not entirely correct, Miss Moon. I know for a fact your uncle underwrote your education.”
“My father’s annuity from his maternal grandmother paid for my education.”
“No, Miss Moon. Your uncle paid for your college education. I would know because I wrote the checks myself.”
“How could my mother not have told me?”
“She was sworn to secrecy by your uncle. He wanted to undo the enmity between your father and the Moon family, but had to wait until Moon senior had died to make amends. Unfortunately by that time, your father had passed on as well.”
“Yet my uncle was content to have my mother live a life of toil when he could have easily summoned us both back to Moon Manor.”
“That would not have been possible, Miss Moon. Even you can see that. It would have put the Moon family in a very awkward situation socially. Of course, society is not as strict now as it was thirty years ago.”
“All the principal characters involved in your parents’ scandal are now deceased, except for your aunt. Being a mid-life child, she was very young at the time of your parents’ marriage, and not really connected to your father since he was so much older.”
“Why didn’t Uncle Michael leave her the Moon fortune?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“Ah, come on, Mr. Deatherage. You’re among friends.”
Forgetting discretion, Mr. Deatherage leaned forward and whispered, “He couldn’t stand her—his own sister. Very bad business there.”
“But why me? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Mr. Moon kept watch over you through the years. He was pleased that you graduated from college with honors and of your exploits as a cartographer and explorer. He was proud, Miss Moon. Very proud. I think he wanted to right all the wrongs done to you and your mother.”
“I don’t know. The whole thing sounds fishy.”
“Miss Moon, I’m very tired. I will leave the papers with you to peruse. If you sign, you will become one of the richest women in the country. Think of what you could do. You could underwrite your own expeditions. And there is a loophole. If for some reason you wish to relinquish your position as head of the Moon fortune after presiding over Moon Manor, you may turn over the responsibility to your aunt and live on a stipend provided in the will.”
“Please sign, Miss Moon. I wish to go to my hotel and sleep. It is way past my usual bedtime, and I’m exhausted as you must be as well, but if you insist, I will call tomorrow expecting your answer.” Mr. Deatherage rose, gathering his briefcase.
Mona glanced around the pathetic efficiency. She had worked her fingers to the bone since graduating college, gaining respect and accolades for her work, but this was as far as she had gotten in life—a run-down apartment, scraping for every dime, and now no immediate employment due to some outdated prejudice of a Winston Banks because of her gender. The idea she might have money to finance her own expeditions was intriguing, and there was that clause to release her from any obligation if Moon Manor turned out to be a bust. “Just a minute, Mr. Deatherage. You’re right. I have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. May I borrow your pen?”
“Assuredly, Miss Moon,” Mr. Deatherage answered, handing over the fountain pen. “You won’t regret this.”
“I’d better not, or you’ll be the first person on my list.”
“I think you know what I mean.”
Mr. Deatherage did indeed. After all, he was from Kentucky where folks still settled grievances with a gun. He had been hoping Miss Moon was of a different temperament, but apparently the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree, so to speak.
Mona Moon’s little revolver had proven that.