Phantasmacore

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Dangerous Rendezvous

October 24th, 2012

by Grove Koger

No doubt about it, Eric Francis was my father’s meal ticket. Oh, Dad corresponded now and then with Talbot Mundy and knew Sax Rohmer well enough to have a drink with him when they happened to be in Manhattan at the same time, but the big markets had them sewn up tight. Wonder Tales and its sister mags, on the other hand, featured writers a couple of rungs down the ladder: struggling newcomers and struggling has-beens, tomorrow’s big names (Dad liked to boast) and yesterday’s.

But Eric Francis was the magazines’ bread and butter.

Francis broke into print with “Dangerous Rendezvous,” in which a little party of Francisco de Montejo’s men happen upon a warrior queen and her retinue of slaves in the lowlands of Mexico. “Web of Fate” followed, and featured a sizeable arachnid guarding the entrance to an Olmec ruin. (You may have seen reproductions of the famously sinister illustration.) “Vanished Empire” was about a long-lost colony of Olmecs in Florida. The plots were cheesy, but the details–those huge stone heads, the temples and causeways, the oppressive jungle, the stifling humidity–well, Francis made them real. And was prolific to boot.

The response from readers was more than gratifying, and Dad was able to increase Wonder Tales’ circulation almost every issue for two years and hold it there for nearly a decade. Francis could easily have found a book publisher but instead asked Dad to act as agent and allowed him to collect fees for a series of contracts with Bobbs–Merrill. No problem!

We moved frequently in those years, and we weren’t just moving. We were moving up. Dad owned a succession of Lincolns, each a little grander than the preceding model. We summered on the Cape and even skied in Sun Valley its second season.

When archaeologists discovered the Olmec ruins of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in ‘38, Dad even ran a rare factual piece with photos–it was more detailed than the coverage in the New York Times–playing up what he called the “astonishing” resemblance to the descriptions in Francis’s stories. But in light of what happened next, I wonder about its impact, because it was shortly afterward that Francis retired.

That’s when Dad initiated what I think of as his “letter campaign.” He spent a full page of Wonder Tales describing how he’d collect dismayed readers’ letters and forward them to Francis in Florida. As it turned out, he filled three mail bags in no time.


I don’t dwell much on my father’s life–or my own early life, for that matter. I knew that things had changed, but I was caught up in my own affairs by then–school, baseball, then girls–and I didn’t have much time for anything or anybody else. Maybe my father’s disappearance didn’t have the impact it should have. Everyone thought that I was a heartless young man, and maybe I was.

But it’s in going through Dad’s old papers, his and those of Wonder Tales and the Edwards Literary Agency, Clive Edwards, prop., that I’ve come to realize how much I miss him. I knew my mother, for she had survived my father’s disappearance by two decades. But I had never really known my father, and I regret it.

He had set out one day on a road trip. We had just returned from the Cape–the rental had been a modest one that last summer, and I had just begun the sixth grade the week before. It was normal for my father to arrive home a little before 5:00, at which time my mother would mix martinis and sit down with him for a round of small talk. But that day he appeared unexpectedly early and was pretty excited. It seems that in going through the office mail he had found a letter from Francis’s daughter! It had been sitting in his basket for three days, and since it had no sender’s name or address, his secretary hadn’t bothered to forward it.

My father talked over the details with Mom that evening, so I picked up the gist. It seemed that Francis had died of a stroke the preceding winter, soon after giving up writing, but the daughter had found a trunk full of old manuscripts that my father might be interested in. Might be! Such a trove might revive the fortunes of Wonder Tales and the Edwards Literary Agency at one fell swoop.

If Dad could check into the Such-and-Such Tourist Court in Pensacola that Friday–“Thank God we returned when we did!” I overheard the poor man exclaim–the daughter would send a car around to pick him up. She apologized for such cumbersome arrangements, but pleaded the difficulties of dealing with probate.

No problem! Afterward Dad thought he would continue on down to St. Petersburg to see Talbot, who was getting up in years by then, before swinging back up into the Midwest to visit a few clients. He had asked his secretary to reserve rooms for him in a couple of courts down the coast–we didn’t call them motels until after the war–as well as the one in Pensacola.

Here in the file are the carbons of her notes, yellowed and curling.


Dad left early the next morning in his two-year-old Zephyr after drinking his coffee and giving my mother a hug and me a pat on the shoulder. He would call the next night–which he did–and then again from Florida–which he didn’t. We never heard from him again.

After a week my mother phoned the court in Pensacola to learn that Dad had arrived but had never checked out. His bags were in his room, as the concerned manager had determined after missing him for several days. Would my mother please pay the bill and make arrangements for the car and the bags?


I need to explain that even now only a handful of people know that Eric Francis was a woman.

It seems that his/her first manuscript–what would become “Dangerous Rendezvous”–had come in “over the transom,” as they used to say. Return address P.O. Box such-and-such, Pensacola, Florida. Dad made it a practice to read, or at least skim, every submission. You never knew when the next Talbot Mundy might come along.

Well, the story had possibilities. That’s the word I heard my father use when he told and retold the story of his greatest discovery–“possibilities.” Too much of it read like an encyclopedia article, he said. “Interesting, but flat.” There was a story there, but it was buried. This Francis was clearly no pro, but the story had possibilities.

So he returned the manuscript–this amateur had been professional enough to supply a self-addressed stamped envelope–with a kindly worded note explaining what needed to be done. Then I suspect that he forgot about it.

After a couple of weeks, however, the manuscript came back, and it was–“perfect!” I remember my father’s excitement the evening after he received it and read it over. “I need to take out some commas,” he told my mother over the martinis, “and clear away a jungle of español. Otherwise it’s perfect!” Just as he would that afternoon years later, he fetched a cigar from his humidor and went through his fussy little routine with cutter and cedar spill. To this day I associate Francis with the pungent smell of Bolivar Habanos.

Dad must have sent an acceptance out the very next day, and must have offered pretty good terms by the standards of Wonder Tales. Avarice was forever at war with generosity in my father’s heart, but Francis was a fish he wanted to hook.

Francis wrote right back accepting his terms, and dropped the bombshell in the same letter. And here was the part of the story that Dad never told in public. She–she!–was, she explained, the sole survivor of an old Florida family and had simply been working up some of the notes that her long-dead father, an amateur archaeologist, had left her. She knew that a woman’s name on the story would interfere with its acceptance by the magazine’s male readership. She had chosen Eric C. Francis, she went on to explain, for its resemblance to a family name, and if my father felt it was acceptable, she would ask her lawyer to set up an account in that name at a Florida bank.

Dad was a little puzzled, but he agreed. After all, she was absolutely right. “Eric” would sound the right masculine tone, he said, but added that he’d like to drop the initial. So Eric Francis it was!

The carbon copy of his letter lies in front of me, yellowed and curling.

Mother, I remember now, seemed preoccupied that evening. As I learned later, she had good reason to worry whenever another woman was mentioned.


The police didn’t do much. There was no indication of foul play–they actually said that! There were no leads. People often disappeared, for one reason or another. There was, after all, another woman involved. Dad was an adult. The case would remain open . . .


The private detective Mother hired might as well have been the Invisible Man so perfectly ordinary was he. I remember a brownish hat perched above a brownish suit, but nothing in between, even after he removed the hat. He must have had a very ordinary voice, for I don’t remember the sound of it. He didn’t wear Aqua Velva, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear. He was as unlike the private eye of popular fiction as you can imagine.

What I do retain is a sense of the man’s thoroughness. He asked to see my father’s study, and spent an hour or so there carefully picking up and setting back down one pile of papers after another, one book after another. I saw him at one point sitting in my father’s leather chair, mouth slightly open, simply staring into space. He seemed neither surprised nor disappointed in anything.

His performance at the office must have been quite similar, although it took an entire morning. There, I gathered from what she told us afterward, he asked the secretary to type out copies of her notes for the courts along my father’s route, as well the last few letters from Francis. Father had apparently taken the daughter’s letter with him.

The detective–Paul Smith was his perfectly ordinary name–found more than the police did, and I think he must have felt that he was within striking distance of the truth.


For the firm’s few remaining months my father’s grief-stricken secretary kept up the files, one of which she devoted to his disappearance. It contained a few newspaper clippings, Smith’s final report, and his bill. The last was as ordinary as the man, neither large nor small.

The report was a dry affair, describing the detective’s questioning of each tourist court manager along the way and his perfunctory call on the St. Augustine police. The chief allowed that the department had never been called to the Ponce de Leon–that was the court in Pensacola–“for any reason.” The crucial part comes in Smith’s description of his stay at the Ponce:

Manager Lou DiSpazio repeated his story as reported to Pensacola Police Dept. September 21.

Subject’s former cabin no. 17 being occupied the first 2 days of my visit, I rented cabin no. 19. During this time I acquainted myself with the neighborhood and visited the bank to which subject’s firm mailed checks. The Francis account has been closed, but information re its ownership is held confidential by the bank, and as there is no link to a crime the police cannot be of assistance.

I also consulted library files of the Pensacola Journal for the week preceding and week following disappearance of subject. This yielded 1 item of potential interest in light of subject’s diary (below). Story involved an incident at the Pensacola docks 2 days after subject’s arrival. I have purchased a copy of the paper in question and enclose clipped portion, but the reporter, whom I have questioned, is unable to provide any further details.

Upon departure of occupant I rented cabin no. 17, at which time I was able to examine it thoroughly. I recovered from the interior of an air conditioning unit what appears to be a diary (enclosed) kept by subject over the preceding weeks. I draw your attention to the last entry.

The diary does not provide location of the house to which subject was apparently driven. Despite a lengthy search I have been unable to identify the house or trace the identity of the driver mentioned in the diary. The 2 policemen called to the docks failed to secure the name of the female individual involved.

The freighter Aurora is registered in Vera Cruz, but as a tramp it follows no set itinerary and was not required to file a destination or provide information re passengers. I am legally prohibited from operating outside the US but am able to recommend an agency in Mexico City should you wish to proceed.

Sincerely,

Paul Smith

Enclosed: 1 photo subject, 7 copies letters etc, 1 diary, 1 newspaper clipping, 14 receipts


Smith’s “subject” was, of course, my father. And here is the photo that Smith returned, a studio portrait of a man whose round face was not quite rendered debonair by his pencil-thin mustache. (It’s my face, too, although I’ve never grown a mustache.) And no, Mother did not want to proceed, did not wish to follow the trail to Mexico. There was, after all, another woman involved.

After seven years Mother managed to get Father declared legally dead and collected on a modest insurance policy. In the meantime Hitler and Il Duce sent the world to hell and me with it. Mother shriveled into a little old woman and died, I married and divorced and married and divorced. And here I am today.


The last entry in my father’s otherwise mundane little diary ran this way:

No time to think

Taciturn driver, long drive. Why? Why not book me closer? Old Spanish place, I would write the number down but there wasn’t one. No street sign

A remarkably beautiful woman, Mayan features. Was her mother?

And those monkeys. Stinking. All male. Filthy. One stared at us while it

Her mother’s monkeys, she said

Old manuscripts a jumble of trash. Old all right. Notes, nothing more. No stories. No nothing. She watched me, the slightest smile. Oh yes I said these need some work but I think there are possibilities here and she smiled. She said come back tomorrow morning, when we’ve both rested. The car

How can she know so much? As if I were talking to the writer herself. Am I a character out of Wonder Tales?

Very tired, but I think I’ll find a safe place for this

Tomorrow things will be clearer


And perhaps they were. But that’s it–the entirety of Dad’s last entry.


Smith was right about the newspaper story, which reads:

September 18. Authorities were called to Slip 2B this morning to retrieve an ape that had escaped from its cage while being loaded aboard the “Aurora.”

Happening to be on the scene, your reporter was glad to assist in the recapture of the recalcitrant animal, which endeavored unsuccessfully to bite its captors and its lovely owner. Only when stunned with a handy timber could it be returned to the cage it shared with its gibbering fellows.

We at the “Journal” bid the charming senorita farewell with the greatest reluctance, but wish her noisome menagerie the swiftest of passages.


In reading over what I’ve written, I realize that this has been a tale of many tales–Dad’s, Francis’s, the private eye’s, the reporter’s. And it’s thanks to yet another reporter’s tale–a recent article in our local newspaper–that a pattern has finally become clear. An intern digging through the paper’s morgue read the stories about Dad’s disappearance and tracked me down in hopes of filling out a series about unsolved crimes. So Dad–photo and all, the same one that PI Smith had taken with him–ended up being featured as a “long-lost literary figure” in a moderately accurate account of his disappearance. I dated the intern a few times and added her article to file.

But within a couple of months another story by Eric C. Francis showed up. Or rather, a familiar story in an unfamiliar guise. This one arrived at my apartment in the mail, without a return address but with a Vera Cruz postmark. A large manila envelope. It contained a Spanish-language magazine printed on the cheapest of paper, pulpier than the pulps of my father’s day. Paradoja it called itself–Paradox. The cover was garish beyond description. There were three stories–I know enough Spanish to get a sense of what they were, had the illustrations left any doubt–and a reprint–una reimpresión–of something quite a bit older. It was Cita peligrosa–“Dangerous Rendezvous”–by one Francesca Montejo y Coatzacoalcos.

It’s not surprising that Francis’s works would be reprinted from time to time—there had been a “rediscovery” over the past few years. What was surprising was the illustration. Here was the beautiful warrior queen surrounded by a horde of monkey-like creatures, several in an obvious state of arousal.

A card marking the page bore the inscription “Elogios del Autor”–“Compliments of the Author”–in an elegant feminine hand.

It was easy to find the right issue of Wonder Tales since I’d retrieved it a few weeks before to show the reporter. Now I reread the story, I admit for the first time in decades. Page 18, paragraph 3: “Standing before them was a bronzed, scantily clothed woman flanked by a retinue of grotesque, simian-faced attendants.” The clue had been there all along, hidden in plain view.


I’ve had time to consider any number of questions. Why did Francis start writing in the first place? Was the material really her father’s? How did she manage to get so many of the archaeological details right, details that were still awaiting discovery? Was it really her daughter my father met in Pensacola? And why did she–whoever or whatever she was–lure him there? Did she feel threatened? Challenged? And did she issue a challenge in return?

I’ve been bored for as long as I can remember. I’ve come down in the world and gone up again, and I’m still bored. I know that Dad was bored, and after all, I am my father’s son. I’m even–talk about coincidences!–the age he had reached when he disappeared. Was Francis bored too? Bored with too many years and too many memories? Did she roll the dice when she submitted “Dangerous Rendezvous”? And were Dad’s article about San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán and his letter campaign more than she bargained for? But now that I read over what I’ve written, I know the answer. She gambled. Only a gambler would have let him go that first night in Pensacola, betting that she could reel him back in.

It’s taken me a few weeks to get my affairs in order, and the clock has just struck midnight. It’s the second day of November. I’m dropping these notes in the file, the same file that our long-dead secretary opened so many years ago. Will I be adding another installment? I don’t know, but this afternoon I fly to Vera Cruz, where one way or another I’m going to finish the tale of Dad’s dangerous rendezvous.

 

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