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THE LAST REDWOOD CIRCUS

Winner 2024 Nautilus Book Award – Fiction

High wire star Delicia Fortunado walks into a new battle in an old California war. It’s bad enough that a corporation is set to clearcut a forest of old-growth redwoods. But the land is also the 1856 massacre site of Pomo Indians. Drawn to Pomo reporter Ishi Darkhorse’s resistance to the coming sacrilege, Delicia joins his fight by putting her body in the trees. Her fame and fearless antics two hundred feet in the air attract national attention. Rumors about a love affair between her and Ishi rock the news.

As Ishi’s passionate articles expose the veritable circus of political corruption, violence, and calamity, he and Delicia find themselves in the crosshairs of government and corporate thugs. When a young Pomo dies, an odd regiment of townspeople, farmers, environmental activists, and Natives draw up battle lines to save the trees. But neither they nor the government and corporate players are aware that a more dangerous enemy is waiting in the wings.

“Magical alchemy; a tale for our times.” Damyanti Biswas, author of  The Blue Bar

“A mythic love story.” Tom Joyce, award winning author of The Missing Peace

THE LAST REDWOOD CIRCUS - CHAPTER ONE

Greenley,  California

Ishi Darkhorse switched off his kitchen light and went outside to be with the moon. A few days before full, it had just risen behind the decrepit trailer that came with his job at the newspaper.

Settled on the stoop, he marveled at how the light softened the remains of the burned-out house across the road. How, in the middle view, it cast long shadows of live oak trees onto the dead grass of the valley floor. And beyond, how it cast a golden tinge on the third-growth Douglas fir and redwoods that climbed the coastal hills.

An onshore wind from the Pacific rattled the leaves of the yard’s huge eucalyptus tree. Like everything in the valley, the tree was fighting to stay alive in that fifth year of drought. The rainy season had offered only the ghost of a storm, and that had been back in December. This late in the winter, odds were against any more coming.

A month before, Ishi had stood five miles further west, on the cliffs of Northern California’s rugged coast, hoping to salve the worst of his wounds from his time halfway around the world. Over and over, that moon had shot horizontal bolts of platinum into the curls of waves breaking after traveling all the way from Japan. Now, as he remembered that night, his subconscious added deformed seal pups tumbling out of that surf and flopping helplessly on the sand. In a flash, he saw the story that would keep him up most of the night.

The next morning, Ishi trotted up the redwood slab stairs to the office of the Post-Ethical Times. Though it was early, Efan Brodie’s enormous back greeted him. Brodie’s fingers were flying over his keyboard. His desktop screen was loaded with text. No steam rose from his coffee cup.

Ishi couldn’t figure out what drove his boss to spend most of his waking hours in a room that hadn’t been upgraded since the 1960s. Flat, hollow core doors. Wooden desks. Linoleum. Stacks of old newspapers impersonating indoor ornamental trees.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Darkhorse.” Brodie’s voice was cheery. His typing rolled on.

Four months in, Ishi was getting used to the old man. “I’m an optimist,” Ishi said, settling at his corner desk. “Someday I’ll be like you, successful in not having a life.”

Brodie chortled, still typing. “I have faith in you. Funny, isn’t it? Readers consider exposing the misdeeds of others to be romantic. Living with purpose. If that were so, I’d be living several lives concurrently.” He raised his hands like a concert pianist at the end of a piece, and joined his palms over his heart. “God rest my fractured little soul. I wonder which one of me would die first.” Nothing about Brodie qualified as little—his body, his confidence, his voice. Least of all his vision.

Ishi opened his laptop and turned his chair toward Brodie’s. “You said it would happen someday. I’m here to report.” He waited a beat. “I finally have a great idea.”

Brodie turned, eyebrows raised.

“Not even a year after the nuclear meltdown in Japan, it’s already fallen off the radar. And I figured out why. People aren’t dying, at least not dramatically.”

Brodie jutted his chin. “I grant you, Fukushima is a disaster. But it’s five thousand miles away.” He turned back to his work. “We have to sell papers here.”

“Hold on,” Ishi said. “Tokyo Electric Power is lying. They say everything at the site is under control. But they’re releasing radioactive cooling water into the ocean. And I researched it last night. Only one international outfit still has a dedicated team there—De Volkskrant.”

Brodie harrumphed. “Of course, the Dutch.”

Ishi’s enthusiasm would not be crushed. “They’ve done great work. They’ve reported on internal refugees, public anxiety, radiation, and the thousands of very polite fishermen unable to even give their catch away.”

Brodie stopped typing and looked at the ceiling. “You’re not telling me anything I haven’t read.”

Ishi rapped his index finger on his desk. “Here’s the story. No one’s asking if the ocean can handle the radioactivity, and if it can’t, how much of it will reach California—which is where our readers live . . . and fish.”

Brodie’s look told Ishi what was coming. “If and when scientists tell us radiation is getting close, we’ll nail that story.”

But no one here is studying it. We need to sound the alarm. Which is exactly what this little paper of yours is famous for.” He glanced at the banner a devotee had sent Brodie years ago: Americas Last Real Newspaper. Brodie had quickly adopted it for the subscript on the papers masthead.

Brodie’s tongue pushed his bottom lip out. He tapped the “Save” key on his document, turned toward Ishi, and rested his forearms on his thighs. “Not bad. Keep it in a drawer somewhere. For now we’ve got to report in present time. The real threat to us this year is fire.

“I can’t think of another local newspaper that has subscribers from Mississippi to Alaska. What draws them are local stories composed with absolute authenticity. The way we tackle state politics rings with global sensibility. Your talent is going to make you a great fit here. Your pieces on the night raids in Afghanistan were amazing. ‘Native in a Strange Land’ is brilliant. It has insight, emotion, and not a whiff of judgment.”

One-handed, Brodie rooted in his briefcase. He pulled out a letter-sized sheet and laid it on his desk. “Here’s today’s work. My snitch in the county planning office faxed it over last night. She figured I’d want to find out why a shiny-shoed lawyer bought a landlocked piece of dirt up behind state land. My old knees aren’t up to a walk in the woods. I need you to take a look.”

The document was a detail of a US Geological Survey map. Brodie fingered a hand-drawn square in the middle, where topographic lines pinched tight on an already steep slope.

“You’re free to call him, aren’t you?” Ishi asked.

“And he’s free to say nothing. It might help to get your eyes on it first.”

“Who’s the seller?”

“The county’s largest landowner, Hanover Timber Company. Just over an acre. A steep one at that. The sale closed for $475,000. An ungodly price! What it would go for if it were in downtown Sacramento, next to Hanover’s main offices . . . I’m counting on you.”

Ishi sighed at the wreckage of his plans. “Okay, but for the record, I’m telling you there’s a Japanese invasion on its way.”

Brodie tossed a casual salute. “Duly noted. As for the mission here, I suggest you take your gun.”

The Last Redwood Circus - Audio Sample

by Thomas Henry Pope

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