Excerpt - Mortal Wounds

Chapter 1

     Butte has always operated in its own orbit, a city in another galaxy in the minds of many. Even Mesa Dawson could never have predicted exactly how dangerous that July’s fireworks might become.
     When Vivian Jobe called with an impromptu invitation to lunch at the Metals Bank Sports Bar, Mesa gladly accepted the excuse to get out of her office at the Mining City Messenger. In the main dining room that had once been the Metals Bank lobby, they sat together by the tall windows with a panoramic view of the East Ridge and the Summit Valley floor. Mesa briefly contemplated the Canada Day special, a.k.a. a Vault burger with peas and French Fries smothered with gravy, but thought twice. She would only pick at it.
     “A curious guy came into the Archives this morning,” Vivian said, toying with her gold necklace while she scanned the menu.
She wore a pearl gray blouse and scarf, and Mesa wondered where in Butte she could have bought something so stylish. One of her mother’s closest friends, Vivian’s reappearance in Butte that past St. Patrick’s Day had sparked a strong connection. So much so, that Mesa confided in her often, especially after the unexpected death of her boyfriend, Shane Northey in March.
     “He’s from England,” Vivian continued, placing the menu precisely on the corner of the table. “Some kind of filmmaker. Documentaries, I think.”
      Looking up, Mesa let out an audible sigh. “Vivian,” she said, careful not to sound pesky, “you’re not trying to set me up, are you?”
      Just because she had refused to invite an attractive, software salesman into her office for an impromptu chat, everybody seemed to be turning into a matchmaker. She had told Irita, the office manager, to have him make an appointment for the next day, which he hadn’t kept. She had told everyone who would listen, no doubt including Vivian, that Mesa had turned away another “golden opportunity.”
     Vivian’s shoulders sagged and she looked out the window for a second as if to gather her thoughts. “Mesa, you should know me better than that by now.” Then she smiled to soften the rebuke.
     “So what’s this Englishman making a film about?” Mesa asked after the waiter had taken their order. Mesa had decided to throw caution to the wind and ordered some sweet potato fries.
     “I don’t think he’s entirely sure yet,” Vivian said, “but your articles on the Internet about Elsie’s Babies are what brought him here.”
     Mesa had to smile. Irita had been bragging that morning about the Mining City Messenger and her perception of it as Montana’s, if not the world’s, best community newspaper. “I suppose somebody there could have seen the blog,” Mesa said.
     “He says he has to convince his partners that coming to Montana to film is a viable project,” Vivian continued. “So he’s putting together a proposal with as many photographs as he can to tempt them with the possibilities. He went on and on about how the American West constitutes a deep allure for the British.”
     Mesa rolled her eyes and Vivian joined her in a quick chuckle. “Nana would love this guy,” Mesa said. Both women had heard her grandmother refer to the “Gary Cooper spell” that she had fallen under when she had met Grandpa Ducharme, an American airman in Cambridge back in the fifties. “He was truly tall, dark, and handsome,” she always said.
     “You seriously think he came to Butte because of my articles? He never called me,” Mesa said. “What else did he say about the film?” Butte had been the subject of more than a few documentaries in recent years. A couple of Hollywood actors had come to town to make a contemporary western. Matthew McConaughey had even been seen scouting the mine yards. Nevertheless, Mesa thought more outside interest was a pipe dream.
     “He didn’t actually say, but he struck me as serious. You should meet with him,” she added. “He’s only here until Tuesday. He’s staying at the Finlen. Then it’s back to London.”
      When Mesa did her best not to act interested, Vivian continued. “I was thinking we could combine a little business with international hospitality,” she said, “and invite him to your grandmother’s garden party tomorrow afternoon. She would enjoy meeting another Brit.”
     Again, Mesa had to agree, but then she became uneasy about what else she and this serious filmmaker could discuss. Her articles about Elsie Seppanen, Butte’s infamous ‘baby seller,’ had followed the recent DNA match on an online genealogy site. One of the adult adoptees had discovered a half-brother in Butte. The New York Times had even picked up that story.
     Once again, Irita’s connections had triggered the story. Her best friend since childhood, Dolly Blinn, had registered her DNA almost on a whim and had learned that her prim and proper uncle Michael had fathered a child before heading off to the Vietnam War. Now she had a new cousin who was the spitting image of her long-deceased uncle. “We’ve invited him to come for Christmas!” Dolly had told Irita, who had promptly passed the tidbit along.
     “Most of what I know is in those three articles,” Mesa said. “Finding other people who will talk is a struggle. Everybody is drawn to that story partly because of how little actual information there is to substantiate what happened. Then there are the ones who don’t want to bring up the uncomfortable past. If Elsa Seppanen did sell babies to barren couples, they certainly didn’t want to talk about it, not even to their own children once they were grown.
     “Is there a particular aspect of the story that he’s so curious about?” she asked, unsure how much of the weekend she wanted to spend on this guy. Lately, she had been considering that a few days off might help her mood. After all, who read the paper in July? During the dark winter months, which in Montana meant from October to May, people paid closer attention to the news.
     “He did mention the Dumas and the other houses in the red-light district,” Vivian said. “We showed him the Montana Standard news articles about Elsie’s trials back in the 1940s, and what we have about the madams. I told him I would try to get in touch with you, and meet him back at the Archives this afternoon. Maybe send him down to you then?”

Marian at the Butte Archives

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