The Eighty-eighth Key, Ch. 32

Featured

Part IV

Chapter 32

____________________________________

Lloyd Callahan wasn’t quite frantic, yet, but it had been five months since he’d last seen his son, and that had been just after the premiere of Imogen’s concerto.

Harry had changed. Sara’s murder had done something he’d never expected would happen to his boy: Harry appeared to have simply given up. Like a party balloon that had slowly deflated, by the time Harry and the team made it back to Israel – after the brief stop in Davos – his son looked like a different human being.

He’d stopped eating and his eyes seemed to have sunken deep within their sockets, and around his eyes Lloyd had noted splotchy dark circles. When offered food Harry pushed it away, though from time to time he drank coffee…black coffee.

Then he’d done something Lloyd never expected: Harry had gone out to his mother’s crypt. He’d been followed, of course, but even his followers had little to report. Harry had reportedly sat in some modest shade and had talked – quietly – for an hour or so…to at least two people who remained invisible. When Colonel Goodman relayed that information, Lloyd felt sick to his stomach. 

Was Harry coming undone? Would the affliction that had plagued Imogen all her life now come for their son? Would Harry fall under the dark spell of that voice?

That Goodman girl wouldn’t let him to see his son, and he’d immediately resented her for that unwarranted bit of sanctimoniousness. And though he’d sat next to his boy at the premiere, Harry had sat there quietly, almost stoically, through the entire performance, the only emotion on display coming as the final crescendo approached. Lloyd had seen his son’s hands grip the armrests, could feel the tension rise in his boy’s quivering arms and legs, but then there had come un unexpected release, like the explosion Harry had been expecting didn’t come. And at first Harry had seemed confused, then relieved when the expected calamity didn’t materialize…

But then…nothing.

Harry had returned to the compound and disappeared into his room – what had once been his mother’s and Avi’s room – and the next morning he was gone.

And now, after one round trip to Hong Kong just completed, Lloyd was home for a scheduled rest-leave and not due to captain another sailing until early December. With almost a month on his hands, he had wanted to tackle some long overdue home maintenance – but had halfway been expecting his boy to come around to lend him a hand.

He was sitting on the covered front porch sipping his favorite Good Earth tea, watching homes come alive as his neighbors got home from work. Dogs were leashed and taken for walks, backyard grills lit-off and grilling burgers filled the air with their own uniquely familiar aroma, and, yes, he could hear a loud argument over mismanaged money already underway just across the street.

Life on the street was as boringly predictable now as it had been almost forty years ago, but even so he couldn’t stop himself from thinking about Harry’s girlfriend, June. He looked to the right, looked where their old house had been before some yuppies came in and built a multi-unit condo. In another world, another life, maybe she would be sitting out here with him, both of them waiting for Harry to get in from work. Or better still, Lloyd Callahan thought, Imogen would be in the kitchen…making dinner for the four of them.

Nothing had turned out the way he’d expected, he thought. Or wanted.

And now…all this bullshit with vigilantes and Columbian drug-lords, the police department in tatters and his son’s career up in the air.

It felt like the entire world was coming undone.

The Iranians taking the embassy almost four hundred days ago, all those people still hostages, Ronald Reagan looking like he might actually run that that peanut farmer out of the White House. The commies in Cuba lending a hand in Nicaragua, exporting their revolution to Central America, while the U.S. still seemed to be lost inside some kind of narcissistic coma after the Fall of Saigon.

Yeah…what had happened?

It wasn’t all that long ago, he thought as he sipped his tea, that Kennedy had challenged the nation to land men on the moon. And these crazy Americans had pulled it off, too. They’d fought a war in Southeast Asia and done it all at the same time, hadn’t they?

Then Oswald and the Grassy Knoll became a part of the lexicon, just before John, Paul, George and Ringo came along and She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah was all the rage.

Was that all a happenstance, he wondered? Could we have had the Beatles without Kennedy falling by the wayside? Would they have made sense to us without all that despair? Could everything that happened after – the free-speech thing over in Berkeley, all those wild groups up at the Fillmore giving birth to the next ‘real’ counter-culture – have happened without Kennedy’s murder? And all the murders that followed?

He looked down into his tea, swirled the cup and looked at the scattering leaves, wondering what might come next…

“Hey Dad.”

He looked up, saw what looked like just another long-haired freak standing on the steps to his house, but no…there was something in the eyes…

“Harry?”

“Yeah Dad, it’s me.”

He stood, almost stumbled to the floor but his son caught him; they stood staring at one another for a moment…then Lloyd Callahan grabbed his son and pulled him close, wrapped his arms around this cool echo of himself and held on tight.

_______________________________________

They walked down to the waterfront, down to their favorite clam-shack for a basket and a schooner of beer, and Harry talked to his father about where he’d been, and a few of the things he’d done. About the girl in New Orleans and a friend of his from ‘Nam out in West Texas. About his bus ride from there up through New Mexico, where things had gotten dicey…

“Dicey? What do you mean by dicey…?”

“Oh, the bus stopped in the town out in the middle of nowhere, Farmington…something like that. Time enough to go into this little diner for a burger. Some redneck started to beat up on his girl and she was like nine months pregnant. She went down hard and, well, so I intervened…”

“Which means what? You beat the ever-lovin’ crap out of the guy?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“And…?”

“He was the mayor’s kid.”

“Hoo-boy. Have your badge with you?”

“No. I called Didi from their little jail.”

“Jail? No shit?”

“No charges filed. Turns out the kid’s father went and beat him up even worse.”

“What did Didi do?”

“Shit, I don’t know. About a half hour later they let me out and the mayor put me up in a hotel.”

“What happened to the girl?”

“Baby boy, healthy.”

“Uh-huh. What are you not telling me?”

“She wanted out. Out of that town, out of that relationship…”

“So you made that happen too, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What? Did you buy her a house?”

“Something like that?”

Lloyd shook his head. “Harry, man, I don’t know what’s eating you, but I’m not sure buying-up other people’s troubles and making them disappear is going to make all yours go away…”

“Yeah? Maybe not, but let me tell you something, Dad. If you’ve ever looked into someone’s eyes and seen despair, and I mean real despair, and you had the capability to snap your fingers and make it all go away, are you telling me you wouldn’t? Because the look in peoples eyes when you do that is something you wouldn’t believe…”

“I don’t know, son. Is it really your place?”

“Who’s place is it, Dad? I mean, really, and I hate to get all holy-roller on you, but didn’t someone say we should strive to be our brother’s keeper? Ya know, like once upon a time? To treat others as you’d treat yourself?”

“I know, but…”

“There aren’t any buts about it, Dad. No man is an island, right? We either look after one another or we don’t. Only thing I can tell, really, is that helping people when they’re down makes a difference. It changes things. Like a domino falling, maybe. You never know what the end results might be, but that doesn’t matter. If you see someone down on their luck and simply ignore them, think of it as a missed chance, or a missed opportunity to change the flow of all our falling dominoes.”

“Okay. So that’s what you’ve been up to?”

“I wasn’t up to anything, Dad, at least not anything I can make sense of yet, but all of a sudden I felt like I was drowning in history. My history. June, An Linh, then Stacy and Sara, all of it. I kept falling – back – into that stuff and as I was listening to mother’s composition I heard something different. Like a voice within the music telling me that it was time to, well, fall…forward? Does that make any sense?”

“Fall forward? I don’t know. Not really…”

“I know. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but it was there, in the music. As clear as any voice I’ve ever heard. Stop looking to the past. Move on to the future. And moving on, to me, meant finding a way to change the course of some of those falling dominoes.”

“Son? Don’t all dominoes, sooner or later, end up falling?” 

“Maybe so, Dad. But there’s something else going on here too, something I really don’t understand. And I’ve kept thinking about it, too… Take that girl in New Orleans. What drew her to me? Why did she follow me? Why didn’t I push her away, let her domino fall. Now, suppose she actually does become a physician, and suppose she ends up saving a bunch of lives? I mean, think about it, Dad. Is it all simple coincidence, or is their something else at work here…?”

“I don’t know, Harry. You’d have to go to seminary to find answers to questions like that…”

“Seminary? Oh no, Dad…you’re not going to put all this on God, are you?”

“What else?”

“Seems unfair. Everything we don’t understand gets dumped on Him. Kind of lazy.”

“Lazy?”

“Yeah, Dad. Like we really don’t take the time to look at things like this. The things that are hard to explain. We don’t even take the time to acknowledge them, let alone the why of it all.”

Lloyd looked at his son then shook his head. “You seem…different. What are you going to do now?”

“Get back to work.”

“At the department? Really?”

“Yeah, sure…why not? Got eight more years, ya know, ‘til I can draw retirement…”

They both laughed at the absurdity of that idea.

“What about you, Dad? What are you up to?”

“I’ve got four weeks off. Gonna get new shingles on the roof and paint on the gables.”

“Want some help?”

“I don’t know. You up to it?”

“Hey, Dad. I just put up three miles of barbed-wire fence in Alpine Texas. You got no idea what that means…”

“Fence is fence, Harry. What was so…”

“Rattlesnakes. I’ve never seen so many fucking snakes in my life…”

“I hate snakes,” Lloyd whispered.

“Who doesn’t?”

“Did you kill any?”

Harry looked away, and Lloyd could feel the change that came over his son in that seismic moment. 

“Only one more snake to kill, Dad.”

Lloyd nodded even as a chill ran down his spine. “So, you’re gonna go through with it?”

“She killed my wife, Dad. She made it personal.”

“Did you ever stop to think…”

“It doesn’t matter what she thought, Dad. She did what she did. Her choice. Now I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.”

Lloyd looked at his son and could only shake his head. “You know, Stacy was a little girl too, once upon a time. Maybe she just made a mistake, Harry. Maybe there was nobody around to keep her domino from falling.”

“Yeah. Ain’t life a bitch.”

____________________________________

“I’m glad the pitch is what it is!” Harry called down to his father. “Not sure I could handle it if this was any steeper.”

“We’re makin’ good progress, son. At this rate, we may finish by sundown.”

“What do you make it? Two more squares?”

“‘Bout that. Maybe a tad more.”

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Why red?”

“What?”

“Why red shingles. Don’t you think that’s carrying the whole red thing a little too far?”

“They’re not red, Harry. The color is called Redwood Breeze.”

“Looks fuckin’ red to me, Dad.”

“I just couldn’t see doing gray again. She needs something new.”

“She?”

“This old house. She’s carried us through some times, ya know?”

“Reckon so.”

“Besides, after I’m gone you can change the color to whatever you want.”

“Dad? Would you stop with the ‘after I’m gone’ bullshit? It’s creepy.”

“Creepy?”

“Yeah, creepy.”

“I haven’t heard that one since you and Junie watched those horror movies…”

“Horror movies?”

“Oh, you know, like that Beast from 20,000 Fathoms thing. Crap like that.”

“That wasn’t crap, Dad. That was Art.”

“You say so.”

“Gonna need some more nails up here soon.”

“I’ll go get some. Why don’t you knock off for a minute? Go get us a couple of Cokes?”

“Will do.” Harry put his roofing hammer down and walked over to the ladder, then made his way down to the yard. Everything about this old place still felt like home, like a pair of old shoes…comfortable old shoes. He took a deep breath and turned to face the sun, held his arms out to soak up all the sun’s warmth, then he looked away, shook his head and went inside to the kitchen. 

It was the same refrigerator that had been in the same spot from when he was a spud, the same faucet at the sink, too…everything was the same, like his dad was afraid to change anything, afraid he might lose all his associations that had formed between Imogen and the things in this space.

He pulled a couple of glasses down and filled them with ice cubes, and he heard his dad sitting on the front porch as he poured the drinks. 

“Want anything to eat?” he called out.

“No, I’m good.”

He carried the drinks out, sat down beside his father as he passed over a glass.

“Feels good to do this together again, Harry.”

Harry nodded. “Yeah. It almost feels like we’re connected to the earth through this place. When I think of home, this is it. I really used to like it when we put up the tree, had all those Christmas decorations and lights up.”

Lloyd nodded. “Took me a while to get used to all that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I grew up in Scotland, son. Christmastime in the 1930s wasn’t exactly like California in the 50s. If I got a new sweater for Christmas that represented a real financial burden for my parents. Things got different after the war, after the depression ended.”

Harry shook his head. “Hard to imagine.”

“People have gotten used to this life. Not sure they could go back to the way it was.”

“Maybe we won’t have to.”

“Things change, son. And if it’s predictable, it ain’t change. Remember that, okay?”

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s okay. We’re gonna be alright.”

Lloyd took a deep breath, held it a second then let the air slip away. “Yeah, I hear you.”

“What did you think of Mom’s concerto?”

“Over my head. A couple of parts seemed unfinished, the ending most of all.”

“Yeah, I felt that too.”

“It felt like, to me, that the last few minutes of the thing were written by somebody else.”

“Yeah. Like somebody was trying to hide something,” Harry added.

Lloyd nodded. “Yeah. I was just going to say that.”

They both sat there for a moment, then Lloyd spoke again. “You think she was trying to tell us something?”

The thought hit Harry, and he leaned forward, took a sip of Coke from his glass. “Not sure, Dad. I thought it was more like that conductor had, maybe, changed something.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Again, I’m not sure, Dad, but something felt wrong.”

“Anyway you could check?”

“Well, I’d have to compare her original composition against what’s published, but the only person who was there was that Karajan fella, so he’s the only one who truly knows what she meant to say.”

“Who has the original?”

“I’m not sure. Technically, it belongs to me.”

“Who can you call to find out?”

“Didi.”

“Does that girl know everything?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

“She’s cute, don’t you think?”

“I don’t want to think about her like that. I can’t. She’s holding things together for me right now.”

“Well, if you can ever get your head out of your butt take a good look at her. She’s cute as hell, son.”

“Why don’t you go after her, Dad?”

“No way. That goddamn psychiatrist squeezed the bejesus out of my nuts. I’m done with all that for a while.”

“What? No more Caverject?”

“Well now, I didn’t exactly say that…”

“Man, I don’t know how you do it…”

“Do what?”

“Give yourself a shot, in the willie…”

“You think about something else. Notably, about how good it’s gonna feel to pop your nut…”

“The doc? How was she?”

“Kinky as shit.”

“No kidding?”

“Yeah. They do things differently in Switzerland.”

“Really? Not just tab A into slot B?”

“No way. She was a fuckin’ trip, son. Leather, whips, chains…”

“Whoa, Dad! Too much information!”

Both of them laughed, nervously, like fathers and sons often do.

“Anyway, I couldn’t handle her kind of medicine.”

“Jeez. I had no idea.”

“You know who’s weird? That Frank Bullitt character.”

“Frank? Really? How do you mean?”

“The whole time back at the compound, that woman never let up on him. Screaming at him all the time, and he just takes it.”

“He loves her, Dad.”

“Yeah? I’d sure like to know why, because I couldn’t live with anyone who went after me the way that woman went after him.”

“I must’ve missed something…”

“She was hitting on him, Harry, biting, you name it…”

“Maybe it’s menopause?”

“Yeah? Maybe. Anyway, I doubt those two will last much longer.”

“Too bad. I’ve always liked Cathy – kind of classy, ya know. Too bad.”

“Well, maybe they’ll get it together,” Lloyd added.

“You get those roofing nails?”

“Yeah, I put ‘em down by the ladder.”

“Oh well,” Harry moaned, “we better get back at it. We’re burnin’ daylight.”

“You gettin’ tired?”

“No. You?”

“I got a little bit left in me.”

“Well, let me buy the clams tonight, old man.”

“You ain’t exactly a spring chicken, ya know?”

Harry finished up the shingles, even running the ridge-line, then he went down and helped his dad get paintbrushes into thinner. After a quick shower, they met out front and were about to walk down to the waterfront when an old green Ford Mustang pulled up out front. Frank Bullitt jumped out of the car and ambled over.

“Lloyd,” Bullitt began, “good to see you again.”

“You too.”

“Harry? Long time no see. You get it all figured out?”

“Think so. What brings you out here?”

“Just thought I’d drop by. Y’all headed out?”

“Just down to the clam-shack. Wanna join us?”

“Sounds great. Wanna drive down?”

“Nah,” Lloyd said. “I need to work the kinks out. Legs’ll cramp up if I don’t.”

Bullitt nodded as they began the short walk down to the waterfront. “So, Harry. Where-ya been?”

“All over. New Orleans, Texas, New Mexico. Just looking around.”

“Oh? So…What are you going to do now?”

“What’s going on at the department?”

“Same ole same ole, but it doesn’t feel the same with Sam gone.”

“Nothin’ feels the same, Frank.”

“I know,” Bullitt sighed. “Anyway, Dell made lieutenant, so I just lost him.”

“When’s the next captains’ test?”

“December,” Bullitt replied, matter-of-factly.

“You going for it?”

“Yeah. Sam thinks I should.”

“I do too. It’s time. The division needs someone like you.”

“We could use you too, Harry.”

Callahan looked down, then nodded. “I kind of figured I’d put in my time, put in my twenty, anyway.”

Frank looked at Lloyd. “What are you going to do, sir?”

“I was eligible for retirement last year, Frank. I’m just not sure I’m ready to retire to my back yard yet.”

“Uh, Dad…we don’t have a back yard.”

“Goddammit, Harry, you know what I mean.”

Frank shook his head. “So, you going to keep at it a few more years?”

“Ya know, I’ve been wanting to go back to Scotland, visit relatives while I can still get around easily…”

“You’ve never mentioned that before, Dad…”

“And I’ve never told you I have hemorrhoids, either. So what?”

“I’d like to go with you, that’s all. That’s a part of me I know nothing about.”

“Are your folks still alive, Lloyd?” Frank asked.

“Goodness, no. They both passed during the war. I’ve got a sister in Glascow, though. I’d love to see her again.”

“I have an aunt? And I know nothing about her?”

“Aye, that you do, laddie,” Lloyd said…only now speaking in a thick brogue. “You’ll no doubt be awantin’ to meet her too, I reckon.”

“So, when are we goin’, Dad?”

“Well, she wants to come visit here. That may happen first.”

“Oh.”

“Anyway, I’m shipping out in a month. I’ll be gone through the new year, but we can talk about it when I get back.”

They arrived at the clam-shack and grabbed a table out on the wood deck overlooking the water; the tide was out and the briny shore was strong-smelling after a few hours in the sun. The last of the afternoon sun was slanting through houses and trees across the street, and a waitress clicked on patio heaters as the deck fell into shadow.

“Almost too cold for a beer,” Lloyd said.

“Never thought I’d hear you say that, Dad,” Harry said as their waitress walked up to the table.

“What’ll it be tonight, fellas?”

“I’m starting with an Irish coffee, Stella. The boys will be taking a pitcher of Anchor Steam, if I’m not mistaken. Then let’s have some fried clams. Any scallops tonight?”

“Yup, and fresh, too.”

“I’ll have a plate of broiled scallops then, Stella.”

“Me too,” Bullitt said.

“Better make it three,” Harry added.

“Slaw and fries?”

“Yup,” Lloyd said, just as Stella dropped her pencil. He bent to pick it up just before she did, and the sniper’s round slammed into her left shoulder before the sound hit the patio, spraying Frank and Harry with blood and bits of flying bone fragments. Everyone on the patio dove for cover…

…Everyone but Bullitt…

…who sprinted from the deck, his 45 drawn…

“You carrying, son?” Lloyd asked as he cradled Stella in his arms.

“Nope. I’ll get an ambulance headed this way…”

“You do that, boy,” Lloyd whispered, then he turned his attention to the wounded girl. “You hang on now, you hear? Help’s on the way, so you just hang on…”

He looked into her eyes, saw the stark terror lurking in her eyes, then came the fast, ragged breaths, the bloody foam from her mouth and nose…

“It’s alright now, lassie,” he whispered as he took the girl’s hands  in his own. “That warmth you’re feelin’? That’s God’s open arms cradlin’ you, cradlin’ you in his love. There’s nothin’ to be afraid of now, lassie. You’re going home now…”

She squeezed his hands once, tried to speak one more time – then she was gone.

Lloyd Callahan held her until the paramedics arrived, and when Harry found his father he was still sitting on the patio deck, his face awash in tears, his bloody hands shaking uncontrollably…

Frank had a patrolman drive them up to the house, and the two of them wrestled Lloyd into a hot shower before they got him into bed. Harry poured his old man a Scotch and made him drink a few sips, then he went out to the front porch.

Frank was waiting for him.

“Witnesses say it was a black Sedan de Ville, only plate information is the last three: 274.”

“It’s Threlkis,” Harry snarled.

“This isn’t over yet, Harry. Not by a long shot.”

“You got my paperwork ready?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I’ll be in first thing in the morning.”

“Could I make a suggestion?”

“Sure.”

“Get your dad outta here. Ireland might be far enough away, but I doubt it.”

Harry nodded, and after Bullitt left he went inside and called Didi…

© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse…[and a last word or two on sources: I typically don’t post all a story’s acknowledgments until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until work is finalized. Yet with current circumstances (a little virus, not to mention a certain situation in Washington, D.C. springing first to mind…) so waiting to mention sources might not be the best way to proceed. To begin, the primary source material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two seminal Hollywood ‘cop’ films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s brilliant screenplay. Steve McQueen’s grin was never trade-marked, though perhaps it should have been. John Milius (Red Dawn) penned Magnum Force, and the ‘Briggs’/vigilante storyline derives from characters and plot elements originally found in that rich screenplay, as does the Captain McKay character. The Threlkis crime family storyline was first introduced in Sudden Impact, screenplay by Joseph Stinson. The Samantha Walker character derives from the Patricia Clarkson portrayal of the television reporter found in The Dead Pool, screenplay by Steve Sharon, story by Steve Sharon, Durk Pearson, and Sandy Shaw.  I have to credit the Jim Parish, M.D., character first seen in the Vietnam segments to John A. Parrish, M.D., author of the most fascinating account of an American physician’s tour of duty in Vietnam – and as found in his autobiographical 12, 20, and 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam, a book worth noting as one of the most stirring accounts of modern warfare I’ve ever read (think Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, only featuring a blazing sense of irony conjoined within a searing non-fiction narrative). Denton Cooley, M.D. founded the Texas Heart Institute, as mentioned. Many of the other figures in this story derive from characters developed within the works cited above, but keep in mind that, as always, this story is in all other respects a work of fiction woven into a pre-existing historical fabric. Using the established characters referenced above, as well as a few new characters I’ve managed to come up with here and there, I hoped to create something new – perhaps a running commentary on the times we’ve shared? And the standard disclaimer also here applies: no one mentioned in this tale should be mistaken for persons living or dead. This was just a little walk down a road more or less imagined, and nothing more than that should be inferred, though I’d be remiss not to mention Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, and Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt. Talk about the roles of a lifetime…]

Beware of Darkness, VIII

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

Another foray into the unexpected. Sorry, but that’s just how things go sometimes.

Music matters? Yup, always:

So? Ready? Well then, off we go…

Part VIII

Blinding Light

Sun turnin’ ‘round with graceful motion

We’re setting off with soft explosion

Bound for a star with fiery oceans

It’s so very lonely, you’re a hundred light years from home

Mick Jagger / Keith Richards        2000 Light Years From Home

Boston, Massachusetts                                             September 2002

His hands were still shaking, eyes closed and with his head bowed forward, sweat running down his face – now resting in his outstretched, cradling hands – as if hands alone could hold these errant, fleeting thoughts. ‘I think this is what you call an existential crisis,’ he muttered into the thin air surrounding the palms of his trembling hands. ‘That, or I’m losing my mind…’

But then he leaned back and looked at his skin wondering if it really was his – or maybe it belonged to someone or something else, like maybe to the echoes that just wouldn’t stop?

He was in his faculty office and had just started sitting for his daily office hours session, but already he felt like getting up and leaving. It was only the first week of the term and surely no one would drop by after just a few days of class…?

But no, he heard someone knocking on his door.

“Come on in,” he groaned. “Door’s open.”

But no, the head of the department stuck her head in the door to see if he was alone, then she came in and shut the door behind her. Then, without saying a word, she came and sat across from him.

“Gene? How’re you doing?”

“I’m not sure, Susan. Matter of fact, I’m not really sure of a whole lot right now.”

She shook her head and looked out the window: “You should’ve taken the term off, Gene. It’s just too soon, and I’m not even sure how you’re functioning right now.”

“Habit,” Sherman muttered, as he looked down into his hands.

“Do you want to talk to someone?”

“You mean, like a shrink?”

She shook her head. “Do you think you need a psychiatrist?”

“No. No I don’t. Of course I feel bad about what happened but I don’t feel responsible or even guilty, for that matter,” he said, trying his best to keep a lid on what had happened two days ago, just after he’d returned from his trip out west. “But things happened, Susan, bad things. I watched them happen and I can’t get the image – of them falling – out of my mind.”

“I couldn’t either, not if I’d seen something like that. In fact I’m not sure how you made it down off the mountain…”

“In a helicopter,” he said sarcastically, scowling as another memory came flooding in. “Hans and I came down in a helicopter.”

“That was a good call.”

“Do you climb?”

“A little. Nothing like what you’ve done.”

He nodded. “I’m done. With climbing, that is.”

“That’s understandable, Gene.” She hesitated, looked at him for a while then decided to ask the question that had been bothering her since she learned of the accident. “Gene? Do you believe in God?”

He shrugged. “Oh, I suppose like most of us I try to keep an open mind, Susan, but by and large I haven’t given the matter a whole lot of thought.”

“Well, teaching cosmology…I’d assume you’re at least conversant in the basics…?”

“I am, at least I think I am. But Susan, what are you driving at?”

“You seem confused, Gene. And I don’t want to intrude but you are, in a very real sense, my professional responsibility, and I need to be sure that you’re able to meet the needs of our students.”

He groaned inwardly, because he knew the hard pitch was coming next: “And what do I need to do to assure you I’m competent,” he sighed.

She took a deep breath, hovering over the edge of her own indecision, then she stepped into the heart of it: “If you don’t think you need to speak with a psychiatrist, what about, well, what about a theologian?”

“You mean like a priest? Excuse me, but are you fucking serious?”

She looked him in the eye and nodded. “There’s someone I know over at BC. He’s a Jesuit and a historian but he also teaches a series on the history of science, religion and science, those kinds of courses.”

“And – so he’s also a priest, I take it? I mean, Jesuits are priests, right?”

“Kind of,” she said, chuckling a little. “He’s a Jesuit and a priest but he’s also the most open minded…well, he’s so open-minded he’s almost an atheist, and, well, in this city that’s saying something. Anyway, he’s developed a reputation around town as a good listener.”

“Listener? Is he, like, are you saying he’s a counselor? Is that what you’re telling me? That I need to speak to a priest in order to keep my job?”

“No, actually, he’s not a counselor, and no, you don’t have to talk to anyone about this if you don’t want to. As long as you’re meeting our students’ expectations…”

“Okay, yeah, I got it. So, this priest. Why him? What is it about this guy that makes him…”

“Gene,” she said, passing over a post-it note with a name and telephone number written on it, “give him a call…but only if you want. You don’t need to tell me if you do, it’s all up to you, but I hope you do.”

She got up and let herself out, and as soon as she was gone he looked at the post-it note sitting on his desk, then picked up the phone on his desk and dialed the number.

+++++

He didn’t really know where else to meet this priest so he settled on The Chart House. It was the most relevant place he knew to the events in question – and besides, it still felt like a safe space.

Father Andrew Kerrigan, SJ, arrived a few minutes early and walked up to Sherman, who was then at the hostess’s desk checking in. “You Sherman?” Kerrigan asked.

“Yup,” Sherman said as he looked at the collar, then holding out his right hand.

“Would you like to sit outside?” the hostess asked Sherman.

“I’d rather not,” Sherman said quickly, perhaps a little too quickly. “I’ve had a too much sun this summer, if you know what I mean.”

Kerrigan shrugged. “Suits me, but you might regret that decision come, say, next January.”

“On second thought,” Sherman said as he grinned at the girl, “outside sounds about right.”

Either of you care for a cocktail?” the hostess asked as she seated them close to the patio’s edge, and they had a semi-unobstructed view of the harbor and Logan airport beyond. Sherman watched a group of small sailboats rounding a big orange buoy in the middle of the inner harbor and he almost smiled. 

“I never learned to sail,” he sighed as he looked up at the hostess. “That almost looks like fun. And I’ll guess I’ll have a MaiTai, if you please.”

“Never too late to learn,” Kerrigan said before he turned to the hostess. “I’ll have the same.”

She walked off and Kerrigan turned to Sherman. “So, you never learned to sail?”

“No, I was into football and skiing, and summers I usually spent with my dad up in the mountains.”

“Camping?”

“Climbing. He was addicted to hot showers and camping wasn’t really his thing.”

“Sounds sensible to me; I like him already. Is he still around?”

Sherman shook his head. “Passed a month ago.”

“Sorry. Did I read something about you in the Globe? A climbing accident in Zermatt?”

Sherman nodded. “Yup.”

“I noticed your leg walking in. You made the climb with a prosthetic limb?”

“I did.”

“Pardon my French, but that takes balls – like big brass ones. So, what happened up there?”

Echoes buffeted him and he tried not to grab hold of the table, but then he realized his eyes were clinched tight and when he opened them again Kerrigan was looking away, looking at the boats out there on the water.

“Sorry about that,” Sherman said.

“Flashbacks?” the priest said.

And then Sherman took a deep breath, deciding then and there that he had to trust someone and that someone might as well be a priest. “Tell me, do multiple people usually experience the same, well, call them flashbacks, and at the same time? And, well, is it possible that, to the same degree, the experience leaves them all physically exhausted?”

And Kerrigan shrugged, turning back to look at Sherman: “Who am I to dispute what you say?”

Sherman seemed taken aback by that, like he was expecting this priest to roll his eyes and get up and leave.

“You know,” Kerrigan added, watching the expression on Sherman’s face, “why don’t you start at the beginning and get me up to speed on all this?”

And so, for the next hour Gene Sherman did exactly that, covering the entire year – from when he’d first met Beth Cohen to the accident on the Matterhorn’s summit – and he did so in as much detail as he could muster. Yet it turned out that Kerrigan was not simply an attentive listener, he had a prosecutor’s eye for detail and he asked probing questions of his own, especially concerning the guides on the climb and their role as both guides and also as de facto climbing instructors.

“Is this the sort of climb rank amateurs routinely make,” Kerrigan asked, suddenly perplexed by the idea that such a climb was routinely made by anyone who wanted to give it a try. “This whole climbing thing seems rather strange to me.”

“Well, I take it Europeans are somewhat more lax regarding personal choice, especially when it comes to mountaineering. I think they look at it as something like: ‘Well, it’s your life, so…’”

“But how many people have died on that mountain?”

“Oh, I think it must be close to 400 now. Usually about ten a summer. Falls and exposure, of course, but most accidents that happen usually involve people with little to no experience, and of course those trying to make the climb without a guide. The results are predictable, I think.”

“And it’s legal? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Again, I don’t think the people over there are into that kind of regulation, but the fact of the matter is the same situation exists over here, even in our national parks. Lot’s of people try to climb Half Dome in Yosemite every summer, and more than a few don’t make it. All that’s required these days is filling out a permit and off you go, no background checks, no nothing.”

Kerrigan shook his head. “Extraordinary,” he sighed. “Reckless, too. Did you feel that Beth and Betty were qualified to make the climb?”

“Yup. And both guides evaluated each of us before we set out. They would have stopped any one of us from making the climb if we weren’t fit enough, or not competent enough, for that matter.”

“Well, that’s that, then, isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t.”

“I see. The flashbacks. When did these start?”

“You know, I’m more comfortable calling the phenomenon an echo.”

“An echo? How strange. Why an echo?”

Sherman looked down and clinched his fists, then he looked at the priest again. “I’m trying to be precise now, because words matter, but it gets weird from here on, Father. Okay?”

Kerrigan shrugged. “I can handle weird.”

Sherman nodded. “We’ll see. Anyway, turns out about the time the accident happened on the summit my old man died. I mean like almost down to the minute, okay? Hans, my guide, called a helicopter to take us down to the village and after that I packed up and left the hotel. I mean right then. I had a cable from home, my mom telling me that dad was close and to hurry home…”

“But I thought you said…”

“Yup, the cable was about eight hours old by then. Anyway, I flew straight home, to California, and once there I learned Dad had passed, and I also learned I had a son, a 30 year old son…”

One of Kerrigan’s eyebrows arched. “Indeed. How unsettling that must have been, given the circumstances, I mean?”

“Yeah. Understatement of the year, but yeah. After we spread my dad’s ashes we came back here to pick up Beth and Betty’s ashes and to take them to Colorado. My guide, Hans, showed up at Logan with their ashes and he wanted to go too…”

“Go…where?”

“To Long’s Peak, in Colorado.”

“They wanted their ashes spread from…?”

“Yup. We spelled all that out before we left for Zermatt, by the way. And then Hans gave me the contact information for Betty’s surviving family, which turned out to be her twin sister…”

“And don’t tell me, she decided to come along, as well?”

“Yup.”

“And how did that go?”

“Strange. That’s when the echoes started, but my son, Jordan, was the first to experience them. While we were driving west. These things started with, for him, visions, nausea, unsettled dreams.”

“And you?”

“Not until, no, well, we were in Colorado Springs, at the Broadmoor.”

“And you experienced the same things?”

“I did, yes. And Hans did as well, but his started on the day we set out for the summit, but that’s when everything went all to hell…”

“Explain?”

“It’s difficult to put into words, but I felt like I was phasing into another time and I was back up on the Matterhorn one second and then I was back on the Boulder Field…”

“Boulder Field?”

“Part of the climb up Long’s. About a mile or so of hopping from boulder to boulder on your way up to something called the Keyhole.”

“And phasing in and out? You saw both places? At the same time?”

“Yup.”

“And all three of you did?”

“At first, yes, then all four of us…”

“You mean Betty’s sister?”

“Heather. Yes.”

“She experienced this as well?”

“Parts, yes.”

“Okay. So, what’s the bad part?”

“We were falling then, falling towards some kind of ocean…”

“An ocean? Really?”

Sherman closed his eyes and grabbed the table as another echo crashed through his conscious mind.

“Excuse me,” the priest said, now staring at Sherman’s right hand, “but is it happening again? Now, I mean?”

Sherman shivered, shook his head. “Just an echo,” he said, grimacing.

“Look at your hands, Doctor Sherman.”

He opened his eyes and looked down, and he saw blueish static discharges arcing off his fingertips.

“Does this usually happen when they come?” Kerrigan asked.

“Nope. First time.”

“Up on the mountain, you were falling? What happened next?”

Sherman kept staring at his hands, only now several people at nearby tables were staring at them, too. “In a sense nothing happened. I was aware we were hovering over the rocks…”

“The Boulder Field, you mean?”

Sherman nodded. “That’s right. Like maybe ten feet up, then we woke up – but we were all drenched, in seawater. Only now we were surrounded by a bunch of other people making the climb, and all of them told us pretty much the same story. They saw us inside a blue sphere, hovering over the rocks…”

“A blue sphere? Surrounded with blue discharges like these?” Kerrigan said, pointing at Sherman’s hands.

“Yup.”

“Okay. You said something happened a couple of days ago. What? What happened?”

“Well, oddly enough I think all this started then…”

“But, this all happened a few weeks ago, did it not…?”

“That’s right, and I understand your confusion. But first, tell me, Father, just for purposes of this discussion, do you think that time travel is possible?”

Kerrigan stiffened then slowly leaned back in his chair. “Why do you ask?”

“A simple yes or no will suffice here, Father. Do you think it’s possible?”

“No, I don’t imagine I do, but I think that perhaps we ought to pay up and get the fuck out of Dodge, Professor, before those hands of yours get us onto the cover of the National Enquirer…”

“Know anywhere we can talk for a while?”

“Are you kidding?” Kerrigan said, smiling as he grabbed the check.

“No, please, let me,” Sherman asked.

“No way, Professor. If you reach into a pocket you’ll probably burn your clothes right off your body, and that just wouldn’t do! Know what I mean?”

+++++

They sat inside the nave inside St Mary’s Chapel, across from the Jesuit residences on the Boston College campus, and Sherman’s hands were still simmering, still glowing an iridescent cobalt blue.

“So, what has time travel got to do with all this?” the priest asked.

“We climbed up Long’s,” Sherman sighed. “Hans said a prayer for Pete, up on the summit.”

“Pete? The priest?”

Sherman nodded. “Yeah. The odd thing about it, Father, is that there were maybe thirty people up there with us, and they’d all seen us inside the sphere. Once they learned why we were there a kind of mystical aura surrounded our climb…”

“You mean a visible aura?”

“No, no…sorry. Poor choice of words. Maybe ‘purpose’ is a better one. Anyway, most of the people up there were serious climbers and a few had heard about our Matterhorn climb, so there was a kind of reverence, if you know what I mean…?”

“I do.”

“Well, every one of us, I mean the four of us as well as this entourage we’d acquired, made it back down the mountain and we each went our separate ways. We, the four of us, went to Palo Alto and dropped my son off, then Hans, Heather and I drove over to the Grand Canyon. I also asked Heather if she knew of a way to send the car back to Europe with Hans and that gave her something to work on while we drove back to Charleston.”

“The car?”

“Oh, yeah. The Beast. A flame red Eldorado convertible with a white interior…”

“Dear God in Heaven,” Kerrigan grinned, crossing himself. “You mean, like, a real pimp-mobile?”

“Exactly. And Hans loves the thing. Anyway, by the time we got to South Carolina Hans and Heather were screwing like rabbits and madly in love so I dropped them there and flew back here, and that pretty much brings us up to the events of a few days ago.”

“And this is the part of the affair that involves time travel, you say?”

“Yup. First, a little back-tracking. An associate of mine at MIT, and she’s a Nobel laureate…”

“Her area?”

“Quantum mechanics, quantum field theory…”

“So, not exactly a crackpot – isn’t that what you’re really saying…?”

“Yup. She came to me with a Harvard undergrad, music theory, a pianist I think, with the usual crackpot BS about ‘if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?’ Well, I said it was improbable at best but that I thought that if something happened once that was probably it. You couldn’t change time…”

“You do know that’s a remarkably, well, a theological point of view, Sherman.”

“That’s what she said, too.”

Kerrigan nodded. “Basic Determinism, pure and simple.” 

Sherman nodded. “Yeah, well, that wasn’t what drove my answer…”

“Not consciously, anyway.”

Sherman shrugged. “Anyway, a couple of days ago she comes by my apartment with this kid and they ask if I could go back to the Matterhorn and change the outcome would I?”

“Would you what?”

“Go back and change the outcome.”

“You didn’t. Tell me you didn’t.”

“I did.”

“Shit…”

“You just about got that right, Father.”

+++++

His left hand on the large fixed rope, his right getting the Leica out of his pack, Gene Sherman knew in an instant he was back on the Hörnli Ridge, not far from the icefield and the final stretch to the summit, and then, without looking down he realized that Peter and Beth were just below him, Betty still climbing up to reach them…

…and yet his mind knew, really knew on every level imaginable that the three of them had been dead for weeks – and that he was in the living room of his apartment…

…then he was photographing the dawn and repacking his camera…

…and following Hans up the icefield to the summit…

…waiting at the statue of Saint Bernard, digging the camera out of his pack again, shooting the same images again as Beth, then Betty gained the summit…

But this time, when Hans asked him to cross the ridge – he did. And he insisted on holding a solid belay when Pete and Beth and Betty crossed. When it was time to cross again, back to the lower summit, he again insisted that Hans lead, but that Pete bring up the rear in order to maintain a really solid belay on the girls while they crossed.

And this time the same gust tore into Pete, now bringing up the rear, and this time he pulled Betty and then Beth over the edge. Again.

Same outcome, only the order of their return had changed a little, and yet this change in order, he suspected, had caused a spreading series of changes that, like ripples spreading across a pond, were reverberating across time.

“Only there’s absolutely no way to know which actions or what results belong to what timeline,” Sherman sighed.

“I’m curious, Sherman. When you returned to the Matterhorn this second time, what was happening to your quantum mechanic and her musician friend?”

“They never left my apartment.”

“So, you think these echoes happened as a result of your second trip to the mountain?”

Sherman shrugged. “I have no idea, not really, but it’s the only thing that’s come to mind.”

“Have you noticed your hands?” Kerrigan whispered. 

And Sherman looked down, saw his hands were ‘normal’ again, just the pale flesh of his usual self.

“I’ve been watching them as you talked,” Kerrigan said. “The more you talked, the more you recounted those events, the brighter they became, then everything just stopped.”

“When?”

“When you were describing your second visit to the summit.”

Sherman began to shiver and he suddenly felt like crying. “Something is happening to me, Father. Something inside has changed, is changing.”

“Oh? How so?”

“I feel like I’m on the wrong heading, going the wrong way…”

“Wrong? What makes you say that?”

“Obviously something won’t let the past be changed, and obviously that something has to be God.”

“That seems obvious to you?”

“Doesn’t it to you?”

“Not in the least, Sherman. You might just as well have stumbled upon some new law concerning the nature of reality, or even of the universe, and that doesn’t necessarily imply divine intervention. Tell me, if you don’t mind, what is your academic background?”

“Annapolis, naval aviation…”

“You were a pilot? In the Navy?”

“That’s where I lost the leg, Father.”

“Oh, okay. Then what?”

“I thought about going to med school but settled on astronomy, got my Ph.D…”

“Where?”

“Stanford, then I came here, to MIT, to work on a post-doc in cosmology, and I got a second Ph.D.”

“Why medicine? Or really, why didn’t you go into medicine?”

“My dad, I think. We were both into astronomy.”

“What did your parents do?”

“Dad taught physics at Stanford, mom was a physician and a lecturer at the medical school there.”

“Ah, of course. You mentioned being on the wrong heading, so that comes from your background as an aviator, but I’m really rather curious now. If you could change your heading again, which way would you go – now, not then?”

“I’ve been thinking of little else since the Matterhorn, Father.”

“And?”

“I, well, I’ve been thinking about medicine again, at least I was until…”

“Until your second trip to the summit? Yes, I can only imagine. And now?”

“I’ve been thinking about seminary.”

Kerrigan nodded. “Yes, of course. I think I would too, under the circumstances. But why not do both?”

“Both? What do you mean?”

“Are you catholic? Ever been married?”

“Yes, and no. What are you saying?”

“Get your medical degree while you work on your studies as a seminarian.”

“What? Here? Is that even possible?”

And Father Kerrigan laughed at that, he laughed long and hard. “After what you’ve just been through, what you’ve experienced, you’re asking me if that’s possible?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean simply this, Professor Sherman. With you the line between the possible and the impossible seems to have been blurred a bit. By what or by whom I have no idea, but in light of this I feel that the rest of your life will be rather meaningless unless you are looking for an answer to why that line has been muddied. And, well, I could be wrong about this, but you don’t really strike me as the sort who simply throws his hands up in despair and gives up.”

Flickers of blue erupted from Sherman’s fingertips and he held his hands up, looked at the glow as torrents of fear and awe washed over him.

“And frankly, Professor, I don’t think this is the type of decision you can put off. Not for long, anyway. You’ll probably run out of clothing, and soon, too.”

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

We’re in the home stretch, so don’t give up yet…

Beware of Darkness, VII

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

A gentle piece full of the wind in your hair and, perhaps, the stuff of dreams.

Music? A little, if the spirit moves you:

Part VII

Coherent Light

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats        Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

There were errands to run, of course.

He needed to drop off all the rolls of Kodachrome he’d shot – on the Breithorn and on the Matterhorn – even if he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to look at them.

He needed a car, too, but it had to be the perfect car, didn’t it? But what was the perfect car for a cross country road trip? Jordan wanted a Beemer, and of course it had to be a ragtop. Hans voted for a Mustang, preferably a ragtop, but whatever the choice it had to be, of course, blazing red, and it had to have a huge engine. Sherman was leaning towards a Volvo wagon, which prompted jeers and a solid round of boos from the peanut gallery, and that was while they were still at the Chart House.

Then, of course, the unexpected came calling. Again.

“The lawyer in Bern wanted me to give you this,” Hans said as he passed over an envelope. “He said it is important.”

And suddenly no one was laughing anymore.

Gene opened the letter and read through it once, all three pages, then he went back and read it again.

“What is it, Dad?”

“A note from Betty. She wasn’t close to her family, and these are her instructions. For the call, you might say.”

“You mean,” Hans asked, “they don’t know?”

Sherman shook his head and shrugged. “If the lawyers didn’t call then they probably have no clue. I don’t have any contact information and Betty said they only talked when Beth went down for a visit.”

“Which means,” Jordan sighed, “that Beth was close to the people there. Shit Dad, that blows.”

“Jordan?” Hans said. “You have a talent for understatement so already I like you. We will be simpatico, no? That is the correct word?”

“That’s the one,” Sherman sighed. “Well, fuck. I’m not drunk enough to make this call. At least not yet.”

“How many have you had, Dad?”

“Not enough.”

“You know,” Hans said to Jordan, “I am with your father for a week, maybe more, and I see him drink maybe one beer. And now this. Who would have thought this possible?”

“You obviously don’t know many navy pilots,” Sherman grinned. “I can puke and hit the ten ring from five meters.”

“What is this ten ring?” Hans asked.

“Never mind. I got to go phone a find,” Sherman said as he pushed himself up unsteadily from the chair, grabbing his cane as he stood. He wobbled a couple of times as he compensated for his left leg, then he marched off in the general direction of the front desk, and when their waiter came by Jordan asked for the check.

“So, no more drinks?” the boy asked.

“I think he’s had enough, don’t you?” 

The boy shrugged. “I haven’t ever seen anyone put down that much rum. Not ever.”

“Uh-oh, I think he is headed for the bathroom,” Hans cried, then came – a belated: “Oops!”

“I’ll go find a mop,” the kid sighed after he put their bill on the table.

+++++

He called Heather Sutherland later that evening, after a short nap and some coffee revived him enough to see the telephone. Still, he was not happy about having to make the call and was more than a little nervous when he dialed the number Betty had provided.

He asked for Heather Sutherland and introduced himself, then told her the nature of the call – and this was met with cold silence.

Then: “I know a little about what happened. A lawyer in Switzerland called and let us know she was gone, Beth too, but I don’t know the details.”

So Gene Sherman spent the next ten minutes going over his relationship to Betty, and Beth, and then the climb itself, which was met with incredulous shock.

“My sister climbed the Matterhorn? Are you serious?”

“I am. And your niece made the summit, too. It was really just a freak accident…”

“No such thing, Mr. Sherman. There’s no way she was qualified to make a climb like that, so I’d like to know what she doing up there?”

“Chasing a dream, Miss Sutherland.”

“What?”

“She told me she’d wanted to climb the Matterhorn ever since she was a kid, back at some camp in Estes Park…”

“You mean Cheley?”

“I suppose I do, yes. As a matter of fact, we’re headed that way in a couple of days. Betty and Beth wanted their ashes spread from on the summit of…”

“Don’t tell me, let me guess. Long’s Peak, right?”

“Yup.”

“And you’re gonna do it?”

“I am.”

“You flyin’ across, or drivin’?”

“Driving. Why?”

“I’d like to make that trip, if you can handle it.”

Sherman took a deep breath and leaned back on his sofa, closing his eyes then slowly letting all the air out. “Oh, sure, why the Hell not,” he sighed.

“Where are you? New York?” she asked.

“Boston. Recall I mentioned that Beth was a student of mine?”

“Oh, right. So you teach, huh, and that would be at MIT?”

“I do.”

“Then it’s Doctor Sherman, right?”

“Yup.”

“What do you teach, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Astrophysics and Cosmology.”

“Well goodness, of course you do. Sorry, but I’m not really sure what either of those things mean.”

“Don’t feel bad. Neither do I.”

That was worth a laugh, and at least the sound of her laughter didn’t grate on his nerves too much.

“So, let me see if I can get a reservation and how ‘bout I call you right back?”

“I’ll be right here. And try for the day after tomorrow, or even the day after that. We’re still picking up the pieces over here.”

+++++

Early the next morning found the three of them, Jordan, Hans and Sherman, at a Cadillac dealer in Brookline, Mass, and there was a brand-spanking new Eldorado convertible just sitting there on the lot waiting for someone stupid enough to come along and snap it up. The beast was fire engine red with a sparkling white soft top and the soft tufted leather interior was white with red piping here and there.

“It’s a goddamn pimp-mobile!” Sherman whispered when he saw the thing. “All it needs is some shag carpet on the dash.”

“It’s perfect!” Hans cried.

Jordan’s eyes were saucer-like, full of disbelief. “Can’t we go to that BMW dealership down the street?” he pleaded – again. “This thing looks like something out of Thelma and Louise.”

“I don’t know, Jordan,” Sherman said, grinning sadistically. “Its kind of got something special going on, ya know?”

“Like what? Herpes? Or maybe a good case of the clap?”

“Exactly!” Sherman said as a salesman approached. 

“Want to take her out for a test drive?”

“Sure,” Sherman said. “Why the fuck not. Do you provide condoms, or should we bring our own?”

Jordan rolled his eyes. Hans started jumping up and down, just like any other five year old might. And somewhere up in the clouds Betty Cohen was probably getting ready to hurl a couple of thunderbolts at Gene Sherman.

+++++

They rode the T to a camera store while the car was readied for delivery, and Sherman picked up his slides from the climb, and while they were there Gene put the slides on a light table and Hans stood with him, slowly going through the stack and picking out the best shots. Then Sherman asked the tech if they could make some eight-by-tens of their selections by tomorrow, then, when the tech hesitated he decided to buy two new lenses for the Leica, a 21mm and a 75mm – “for the trip!” he said before they headed back to the dealership. The tech smiled and went to the darkroom.

The Caddie was hideous, exactly the kind of car a hooker would lust over, yet with the top down Sherman’s new car took on a completely different look…like now it looked like something made for a Gene Wilder – Richard Pryor movie. “Like Silver Streak, only this time the cross-country trip will take place in a full-blown pimp-mobile,” Sherman said. Jordan looked at the car like it carried the plague. Hans was in love – because the dealer had thrown in white pin-striping and the furry pink dice now hanging from the rear view mirror – and all at no extra charge.

So, Sherman drove the Caddie to his building and the parking attendant didn’t know what to say when he saw staid old Professor Sherman behind the wheel as it drove up and stopped.

“This yo car, Doc?”

“Sure is, Mal. Like it?”

“Like it? Like it? He-he. You boyz gonna go out looking for some girls tonight?”

“Nope. Road trip. Tomorrow.”

“No foolin’? Where y’all headin’?”

“Colorado, Mal. We’re going to the mountains. We’re gonna go climbing.”

“I thought you just come back from climbin’, Doc. You goin’ climbin’ again already?”

“Sure am, Mal. We all are, but first, it’s back to the Chart House, ‘cause we didn’t get near drunk enough last night.”

“You going for the record, Doc?”

Sherman smiled the smile of the condemned man walking to the gallows.

+++++

By the time he found Heather Sutherland and got her out of the baggage claim area and out to the car, she would have been happy to find Sherman had a rickshaw – but it seemed the red Caddie was a bridge too far.

“What the Hell is this!?” she cried when she saw the thing. 

“My new car,” Sherman said. “Like it?”

“Like it? Hell, I love it! You just get it?”

“Picked it up yesterday.”

“It’s perfect!” she bellowed, her southern accent so thick it made the hair on the back of Sherman’s neck stand on end. 

Jordan rolled his eyes when he heard what to him sounded like a rebel war cry.

“So, you ready to roll, or do you need to make a pit stop?” Gene asked, trying his level best not to stare at Heather Sutherland’s outlandish bouffant hairdo.

“Nope, ate some nuts on the plane so I’m ready to roll.”

“Okay, let’s get this road on the show,” he added after he got her suitcase loaded in the boot.

Hans and Jordan took the back seat; Gene hit a button on the dash and the top retracted, then it was on to the Mass Pike – westbound, with Hartford their first planned stop – for gas. Sherman continued to ignore Heather as best he could, but it wasn’t easy. Aside from the hair she looked just like Betty, but maybe that was because they were twins. Identical twins, as it turned out.

He handed her a big white envelope after they made it out of Boston, and she opened it and pulled out the pictures Gene had taken in Switzerland. She looked at each one for the longest time, lingering longest over images of Beth, and when he looked at her once she was crying just a little. She put the pictures away as they passed Sturbridge on their way to Hartford, then she turned to Gene Sherman and just stared at him for about twenty minutes, maybe like she was trying to memorize his features.

They stopped at a diner about halfway between Hartford and New York City and that was really the first opportunity they’d had to talk – because talking with the top down had proven almost impossible. And when he walked up the steps to open the door into the diner she realized Sherman had only one leg.

“Excuse me, but did you know you only have one leg?” she said, exasperated.

“No? Really? Gee, I never noticed that before.”

“I mean, Gene, you aren’t supposed to climb mountains with just one leg, are you?”

“You know the pictures you were just looking at? The ones on top of the Matterhorn?”

“Yes?”

“I took ‘em, Heather. All of ‘em. Any questions?”

“I am amazed, Gene Sherman,” she cooed, her accent a mix of Deep Carolina and Antebellum Georgia, kind of like a Dior gown covered in cream gravy, maybe with a side of fried okra.

“You and Betty? Twins, I take it?”

“Yes indeed. What was the first clue?”

Sherman grinned. “I’ve been trying my best not to stare. Sorry.”

“Dad?” Jordan said. “Are you saying Betty looked just like Heather?”

“Almost. You’re a little taller, right?”

She nodded. “By about an inch, and I’ve got more freckles, too.”

Sherman looked at her face and once again he tried not to stare. “Uncanny,” he whispered at last.

And Jordan could see the love his father had felt for Betty just then. In fact, anyone looking at the man sitting across from the woman at that table would have assumed he was very much in love with her. It was obvious, as obvious as it was incorrect.

Yet he found it curious that the Caddy’s top stayed up for the balance of that first day, and Jordan was able to listen as his father began to fill in all the blanks about the trip to Zermatt he’d missed so far. And, as it happened, this accidental son began to feel a sense of wonder as he listened to the many changes that came over his father as he spoke to Heather. It wasn’t really love, was it, but then again…what was lurking in their conversation if not love? An echo? Could it be that Heather was little more than an echo of her sister, and if that was so was it also possible that his father was speaking to this echo? And as he listened he thought, just for a moment really, that he was getting a handle on this whole love thing, but the complexities were subtle – though real enough to feel, even in the back seat of a pimp-mobile. Watching his father and Heather soon felt a little like watching a chemical reaction, or maybe even an electric discharge, though maybe in slow motion. But most of all, he soon realized, love was most like gravity. An uncertain, tentative gravity – true – but a force to be reckoned with – and ignored, he soon felt in his gut, at great peril.

At one point Jordan asked to see the pictures his father had taken up on the summit of the mountain and he looked at them again and again, one by one, but this time going slowly through each captured emotion, taking his time to see beyond the obvious. And in time Jordan studied everything he could about Betty and her eyes. While there really wasn’t a lot to see, besides all the obvious climbing gear, he most often found a studied determination on her face, yet when he focused on her eyes he thought he saw a deep, uncompromising love.

‘But of course she felt love,’ Jordan told himself. ‘She was looking at the photographer, at my father, so why wouldn’t she?’ Yet he saw other emotions in her eyes, as well. Subtle things, complex and confusing, too, like maybe the things only two lovers know about one another?

They stopped for the night outside of Pittsburgh and Jordan thought saw the same look in Heather’s eyes when she looked at his father, but he really wasn’t all that surprised. Chemistry, gravity, whatever you wanted to call this thing…he had to assume the look was the same here in Pittsburgh as it had been over there on top of that mountain. So he had to wonder – maybe because Jordan had just seen almost the very same impish, secretive look in Heather Sutherland’s eyes, why his father seemed almost happy. 

But that had to be a good thing, right?

Even if his father was listening to an echo?

+++++

Hans and Jordan sat up front on the second day of the trip, Hans proving to be a capable driver and Jordan an attentive listener. Heather and Sherman sat in the back seat, and once the sun was well over the horizon she asked that the top be retracted again, so for the next several hours they cut a swath through Ohio and Indiana, finally relenting and putting the top back up when the afternoon proved too warm and the insects too gooey. 

Jordan tried to keep an eye on his father but with the top down that proved impossible, so he passed the time talking with Hans as best he could, usually about climbing, but they also talked about the places they liked to ski. It turned out the only time he got to listen to Heather and his dad that day was when they stopped to eat, and he learned that Heather was a lawyer practicing in Charleston and that she like the mountains too. She had recently hiked the entire Appalachian Trail over the course of two autumn treks, and he began to think of her as a little more complex than he had initially thought. And of course Heather had gone to the same summer camp in Estes Park that both Betty and Beth had, and that she too had climbed Long’s Peak. Twice, as a matter of fact, but not the Diamond Face. Sane people, she said, didn’t tackle that face.

Jordan handled the driving chores that afternoon, and they wound up stopping on the east side of Kansas City. Sherman was unusually quiet that evening, and Jordan could tell something had changed over the course of the day. An unseen switch had tripped somewhere in the afternoon, and the train had changed directions, because his dad seemed distracted and almost distant when they sat down for dinner. Heather, too, seemed different.

Then it hit him.

Heather and his dad were acting just like teenagers. Maybe like they were trying to hide something big…from…who? Him?

And sure enough, about an hour after lights out his father slipped out of their room and he didn’t come back. When Jordan and Hans finally woke up the next morning they found a note from Sherman telling them to come to the restaurant across the parking lot and join them for breakfast, and they both grinned.

“Maybe this will end up being a good trip for your father, you know?”

“Yeah. Maybe. Don’t you think it might be too soon to get involved again?”

Hans had stopped brushing his teeth and seemed to consider an answer, then he shook his head and started brushing again.

“What’s wrong, Hans?”

“Does something feel strange today? To you I mean…does it feel strange? Like we have been here before maybe?”

“I felt something weird last night at dinner. I kept thinking something felt like an echo.”

“An echo. Yes, that is what I was thinking. Exactly so, yes.”

And it was the same at breakfast. Jordan’s father was doing his best not to act like a sixteen year old who had just done the deed for the first time, and Heather appeared to be even more distanced and distracted than she had been at dinner the evening before. Everyone ate a big breakfast then they loaded up in the Beast, as Hans had taken to calling the Caddy, with Heather driving now, Gene riding shotgun, and the boys in back. Heather, of course, had put the top down before they left the parking lot.

“So, where to today, Professor?” Hans asked, looking at the big book-like road atlas, now spread open to show all of Kansas.

“We ought to make Estes Park today, but we won’t get in ’til late if we do.”

“Why don’t we stop early,” Heather said, “and maybe not beat ourselves into the ground?”

“What?” Gene sighed. “You mean…like Sherman’s march to the sea?”

“Exactly,” she said. “We need to find a place with a nice pool to just lay back and relax for a day.”

So the next time they pulled off the highway for gas, Sherman made a few calls.

“So? Did you find something for us?” Heather asked, her smile wicked enough to scare the shit out of Scarlett O’Hara.

“I’ll never tell,” Gene said, grinning as echoes danced all around them, all like ghosts in the walls.

+++++

The little group made a slight detour, to Colorado Springs, and they ‘camped out’ at the Broadmoor Hotel for a couple of days. They ice-skated the next morning and then went swimming under the hot noonday sun, and on a lark they hopped in The Beast and drove over to The Garden of the Gods, getting out and walking a few of the most popular trails, even running across a pleasant little rattlesnake along the Cathedral Valley trail. And Jordan hung back a little on these walks, now more than ever a little perplexed because these echoes were – if that’s what they were and if something like these were even possible – growing stronger and stronger, as if the closer the group came to Estes Park, and to Long’s Peak, the more intense these echoes became.

+++++

“Man, look at all those stars!” Jordan said, his voice now husky with excited anticipation. “It almost looks like you could reach out and grab onto one, ya know!”

Sherman looked up and nodded. “It’s colder than I expected,” exhaling and looking for vapor. “Too dry,” he added.

“I am surprised so many people are here already,” Hans said.

It was just after three in the morning and they’d left the Long’s Peak trailhead parking lot for their ascent about ten minutes earlier. They carried daypacks large enough to stow the layers of clothes needed, and Hans had insisted on bringing along crampons and rope – just in case. Heather had made sandwiches to enjoy on the summit, with black forest ham, Dijon mustard and Gruyere cheese on pumpernickel her weapon of choice, and though she’d made two for everyone she was pretty sure that wouldn’t be enough so she packed a couple more. This was a nine mile walk and climb and out of necessity the trek was made on an empty stomach, because starting out at nine thousand feet and ending up over fourteen thousand, a full stomach used up too much vital oxygen, especially on the long trek up the Boulder Field, so it was considered best to wait and eat on the summit.

And Gene Sherman carried Beth and Betty Cohen in the bottom of his backpack. He would be responsible for them once again, and see them to their final rest – as he’d promised to do – ‘if something happens…’

And because something had happened he was on this trail, making this one last climb. Because he was sure now this would be the last time he ever set for on a mountain. Talking with Heather for the past few days had been a necessary part of this journey, but in the end she had proven to be little more than an unexpected diversion. She was indeed beautiful, perhaps even more so than Betty, and she was an articulate, energetic dynamo, opinionated in the extreme but even so a decent listener. She’d also been married – twice – and had just broken up with a boyfriend after three years of living together, and it wasn’t hard to understand why. She’d been raised in a hyper-competitive family and was chronically insecure – and in ways Betty never had been, because Betty had been the winner. Betty made it into Dartmouth, Heather had just made it into Clemson. Betty went straight to medical school at Columbia while Heather took a year off after graduating – because her board scores weren’t good enough to make it into a decent law school.

And she was still competing with Betty even now, always trying to sell herself as the more accomplished, and Sherman knew where any relationship with her would end up. It took a few days but she was transparent enough, and after their stay at the Broadmoor he started spending more time with Jordan. And she was bright enough to know the score, to move on gracefully.

And Sherman didn’t feel any sense of loss, despite the sudden fall. He liked her, well enough to want to keep in touch with her when all this was over and put away for good, and he didn’t have any lingering issues with her now that they were on the trail. On the contrary, she had been telling them about the summers she and Betty had spent at Cheley, about the many mountains in the park they’d climbed together and the trail horses they ridden to secluded campsites high up in the surrounding mountains. Tales of camping in covered wagons and roasting hot dogs on sticks over roaring campfires, and of fishing for trout in high alpine lakes then dipping the cleaned fish in cornmeal and frying them in butter.

She was, when all was said and done, a good companion to have along on the trip. Life, too…maybe…if she could ever let go…of the past…

The trail was relatively flat at first, but then a series of sharp switchbacks took them up out of the pine forests and onto tougher, boulder-strewn terrain, and their headlamps illuminated the sandy-dirt trail as it wound around large boulders dotting the grassy landscape. They talked less as they gained altitude, and by the time the first amber traces of dawn arrived they were well into the Boulder Field. There was no grass here, and rarely enough dirt for even the strongest wildflower, but there were rocks. There were boulders as big as cars up here, and some that were merely the size of a small cow, but now the trail pointed relentlessly up. There were no more switchbacks, not even a trail now, just trail markings pointing out the way up through the boulders.

And maybe because of his leg  Gene Sherman was content to let Hans and Heather lead the way now, and he followed Jordan, too, watching all these people who had come together to celebrate the life and death of the two people he now knew would be the only two people he would ever really love.

He watched Jordan and tried to understand the boy’s life as anything other than an echo of his own. Essentially born and raised by his parents and a girl who probably had no real idea how she’d been manipulated, Jordan had been the glue that held his parents together after he left home.The question rattling around in Sherman’s mind was simpler still: knowing that he was soon leaving home, had his father kept Beverly around as a ‘babysitter’ so that, well, so that she could have a baby? A blood relative, what would amount to another son?

It wasn’t beyond his father, he knew. 

Maybe his father had toyed with the idea of fathering a child with Beverly, but perhaps he recognized the dangers to his marriage if he did. Using his own son to get Beverly pregnant, on the other hand, ensured that his wife would be an enthusiastic participant in the scheme. And that also explained why his parents had kept Jordan out of sight until after his own father passed. Dead men tell no tales, right?

His mind set adrift against this raging sea of rocks, he slowly played in the countercurrents of thoughts like these, not really sure where these swirling interpretations of his life were taking him, only accepting that he – somehow – needed to be thinking about these things. 

So by the time the sun began to show itself he was like a castaway washing up on an unknown shore. Alone and not really sure of anything anymore, it dawned on him that of all the people with him now, he’d known Hans the longest. Hans had taken part in the most momentous moments of his life; indeed, without Hans perhaps he too would have perished on the mountain.

He sighed inwardly, wishing there was some way to turn off his mind, to stop the endless flow of tortured ideas from washing through his conscious thoughts, but just then he felt besieged by a shimmering assault of memory. No, what he felt now was more like a series of echoes, but of…what?

“Dad! Look at the horizon!”

He looked up, saw Jordan pointing to the east, so he turned and looked…

…and furious echoes of the sunrise on the Matterhorn slammed into him, pushing all other thought from his mind. He was aware, for a moment, that he was looking out over Loveland and the great prairie beyond Interstate 25, yet he felt the rope in his hand from the Matterhorn climb, then of steadying himself against the ridge while he pulled his camera from his pack, then composing images, setting the aperture and shutter speed and fiddling with the focus to get everything how he wanted it to be, then he looked around and saw he was standing in a field of boulders and that some strange kid was calling him ‘dad’ and none of it made the slightest sense to him…

“Dad? You alright? The altitude getting to you?”

He shook his head, tried to clear the cobwebs, and then he recognized Betty up ahead…

‘…but that’s not right…she’s coming up from below, under Pete and Beth…and what’s she doing with Hans…?’

“What the fuck is going on?” Hans screamed as he fell to he knees, and then Heather bent down to help him.

“Dad? What’s going on? What’s happening to you? Hans? What’s going on?”

He realized he was on his knees, hanging on to a…to a rock…clinging to it…hanging on for dear life…

…and then he was falling…and all he could see far below was the sea…

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

The Paranoia Chronicles, Vol. 1

strange-1

Of course music matters. How could it not?

So, I was in the yard earlier today, cleaning up my grill for the winter and otherwise minding my own business when up there in the sky a rather large formation of USAF C-17 military transport aircraft rumbled by a few thousand feet overhead. Then an even larger formation of F-15 and F-16 fighters came along, tailing the transports. Heading northeast, as it happened.

But, you see, the thing is, there is a huge military base not far from here that focuses on preparing US ground forces to fight under extreme winter conditions. Also, I live fairly close to the Canadian border and the only relevant things northeast of here are the airways used by airliners – and military transport aircraft like the C-17 – flying between North America and Europe. But this was no big deal, I reasoned, because I didn’t see any long range refueling aircraft accompanying these formations.

So of course, cue the KC-10 Extender refueling birds, entering the scene from stage left and now dutifully following the transports and fighters on their way to heaven only knows where, yet by then I was having a full-blown moment of raging paranoia.

Why, you might ask? And why should you even care?

Well, because of a short article in the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, which earlier this week exhorted the people to begin stockpiling food. Why? Well, the first reason mentioned in the article was that climate change has been disrupting traditional sources of food. Okay, so what does this have to do with my raging paranoia? Well, first let’s take a step back for a moment. The analysis I am referring to was in a daily China brief I receive as  part of a subscription with Foreign Policy, a respected (read: not really too biased) journal put out by and for diplomats and other assorted foreign policy wonks (yes, this includes yours truly, once upon a time, anyway). So, the analysis concluded that both recent flooding and ongoing supply chain disruptions have really put a big dent in the Chinese food supply system.  Okay? With me so far?

But also hidden in this article, in the CCP People’s Daily, was another little tidbit, namely that people needed to stock up on food because war over Taiwan now appears inevitable. Read that last sentence again and let the implications wash over you for a moment, then let’s put that in our pipe and smoke it for a while, because as funny as this information is…it is not by any stretch of the imagination the funniest thing that happened last week.

No, for an advanced course in human levity we need to amble on over to Ukraine and to a press conference held by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, late last week. Mr. Zelenskiy advised that multiple intelligence services had uncovered a plot to overthrow the Zelenskiy government, and that approximately a billion USD had been invested by sources in Russia to initiate a coup d’état on or about the first of December.  

Okay, so no big deal, right? Putin is always pulling off this kind of crap. It’s his main thing, ya know?

Except that Putin has been moving elite armored and other mechanized units to the west, amassing these units along not just Ukraine’s border, but also into a position to strike Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland. Into NATO’s eastern flank, you might say.

So, two big questions come to mind now:

  1. Russia and China are allegedly allies these days, so is there a coordinated effort to divide US forces at play here and now?
  2. Has intelligence exposing the coup attempt changed the timing of any potential invasion of NATO and/or Taiwan?

And why now? In December, of all things? Well, Russia has a much shorter supply chain to protect, and any effort by NATO to resupply a winter campaign would face the usual extreme weather challenges. Implicit here is Russia expecting to fight a brief war with very limited objectives. So…

Why Taiwan? Why now? Well Xi can no longer appear weak on the issue as he’s been pushing the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland for too long, and guess who’s facing an election? Well, kind of an election, because, well, you know…let’s not go there right now other than to say that Xi dare not appear weak on the issue RIGHT NOW.

And in the United States? We have Sleepy Joe Biden in the White House.

Sleepy Joe Biden. Let’s put that in our pipe and smoke that, too.

Because if Russia and China are banking on Biden being an indecisive dove, well, shit, about all I can say is they’ll be making a really big mistake, a mistake of historic proportions. Joe Biden is about as articulate a president in the foreign policy arena that we could have at a time like this, yet Republicans have painted a portrait of Biden as a doddering incompetent who is drooling his way to the old folks home. Putin knows better, so I assume Xi does as well, so why is the Russian’s propaganda machine (and by that I mean Fox News) piling on the ‘Biden has dementia’ byline? Could it be they want to set the stage for another little coup attempt over here to get things going again?  Another January 6th action to really shake us up? Destabilize the US so our response to protect both Taiwan and NATO would be hamstrung by domestic political divisions? 

So yeah, food for thought.

There’s another narrative floating around out there in the Facebook Metaverse that’s been gaining traction since the beginning of the pandemic, and this one is absolutely loaded with raging paranoia. 

So yeah, one of the Big Things floating around in places like Davos is this thing some people have been calling the Great Contraction. The GC has a simple premise, namely that there are too many people on the planet and the best, most expeditious way to save the planet from climate collapse is to, well, get rid of a bunch of people without destroying the planet in the process – because, let’s face it, global thermonuclear war would get rid of a bunch of people but the rest of the planet would pretty much be gone, too. Not exactly an optimal outcome, ya know?

So why not make an easily modifiable virus and turn it loose?

Guess what?

Well, the thing is, when you drink enough Paranoid Brand® KoolAid, all this virus stuff begins to sound pretty good. Logical, even.

That’s why the “good vaccines” are only making it to the places where you find the “good people” – aka White Republicans who watch Fox News or OAN. Except those folks aren’t exactly lining up to take the vaccine, are they? And both Fox and OAN claim that vaccines are laden with microchips or guacamole with too much cilantro or God only knows what, so taking the vaccine makes you, at the very least, a commie sympathizer. Which is bad. Except that Trump and Putin, well, you know.

VladTrump

Again, let’s not go there. Really, why bother?

That’s the problem with paranoia. Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, right?

So, what’s the point here?

Well, there are a bunch of people out there who still think that nuclear wars are ‘winnable’ and unfortunately a bunch of those people are in the Soviet, uh, no, that’s the Russian Duma, their version of our Congress – only a little less bat-shit crazy. Maybe Mr. Putin thinks he can win a short war over Ukraine, and maybe even a couple of small Baltic states thrown in for good measure, too. And maybe Xi thinks getting his hands on Taiwan will be an easy, bloodless affair. And maybe Putin and Xi think that Sleepy Joe Biden will be the biggest pushover since Chamberlain.

But here’s my takeaway, my two cents – for what it’s worth, if you will.

The skies over central Wisconsin were full today. Full of troops, I’d say. Well trained, battle-hardened troops. Troops being sent in harm’s way, full of angry purpose, because the defense of Europe is as vital today as it has ever been. My guess is troops are headed out over the Pacific, if they aren’t out there already. I hope that Putin and Xi pay close attention to this and pull back from the brink. Failing that, I hope someone reminds them to watch Dr. Strangelove, because war is about nothing so much as it about unintended consequences.

As for all this vaccine bullshit? Well, so far I’ve had three doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and I’m now absolutely convinced my jabs were absolutely full of extra guacamole. And I know this is true because my farts now smell like cilantro, so what else could possibly be behind it all?

Sorry. Bad pun.

Must be time to go.

Really, I’m so sorry. I just can’t help myself.

Mad

But remember, Christmas is almost upon us, so get out and spend some money. And don’t forget to spend a little on yourself, just go easy on the guacamole.

Beware of Darkness, VI

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

So yeah, the beat goes on, and the drums keep pounding that rhythm to the brain. Oh, lot of ground to cover in this chapter, so grab a cup of (insert your choice of frosty beverage here) and settle in for a quiet read…

Music? Start here, ’cause I did too, and as an aside, Graeme Edge, the Moody Blues drummer from, well, yeah, from the beginning, passed away last week. Just thought you should know as it kinda bothered me here and there as these words found their way to the page.

Part VI

Black Light

Cold hearted orb that rules the night

Removes the colors from our sight

Red is gray and yellow white

But we decide which is right

And which is an illusion

Graeme Edge & Justin Hayward      Nights in White Satin

How strange, he thought as he looked at the passing landscape sliding by in the darkness below. Strange, because he could see Yosemite down there through the clouds, and for a moment he was sure he’d just seen Half Dome in the twilight. Strange, because his father had always wanted to climb that one. Funny, too, as he’d mentioned wanting to climb the Matterhorn one day. Strange now because his father had asked that his ashes be spread from Clouds Rest – “so I can can spend eternity watching over my favorite place on earth.” And he’d said so often enough, too, at least he had whenever the subject came up.

Strange, indeed. Because even now, descending over the Sierra Nevada, Sherman found he had two more mountains to climb. The first with his father would be a kind of goodbye, a last walk together. So first he had to come full circle with that distant past, then he had to get back to Boston and be there when Betty and Beth’s remains arrived from Zermatt. At least, if everything went according to their contingency plans, their ashes would arrive and, as they’d discussed together a few months before their planned return to Zermatt, Betty and Beth wanted their ashes spread from the summit of Long’s Peak, in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Now that’s an odd choice,” he recalled saying to them at the time, but as is so often the case, the choice was rooted in their past as well as their future.

“We both went to summer camp in Estes Park, Gene, at Cheley, and we both climbed Long’s when we there. I guess you could say that’s where it all began for us. Only about thirty years separated my experience from Beth’s…”

Sherman had heard about Long’s Peak, of course. About the so called Diamond Face and the more accessible Keyhole route, but he’d never seen it and his father had had no interest in climbing there so they’d never made the trip.

“And now I guess I finally will,” he sighed to the passing clouds under his Swiss A-340. “Lucky me,” he added wistfully, just as a flight attendant came on the speaker and advised they’d be landing in ten minutes…

“Yes, lucky me.”

+++++

His mother met him at the airport but she insisted he drive home,

“I can barely see now, Gene.”

“It’s just cataract surgery, Mom. It takes ten minutes and doesn’t hurt, but you know all that so why don’t you tell me what the real problem is…?”

But she’d simply shrugged and hugged him again. “It is so good to see you again, to feel you in my arms. Even under these awful circumstances.”

Sherman looked away. “Circumstances?” he sighed.

“What an awful thing,” she added, “but let’s not talk about all that, not this trip. We have other things to take care of concerning your father.”

“Concerning Dad? Really?”

“Oh, yes, and I mean beyond the trip to Yosemite. How long can you stay?”

“I have to be back in Boston on the tenth, so call it eight days.”

“Good, that will be enough, and by then you will be quite tired of me…as you have always been,” she said happily, though a little carefully.

“I never get tired of you, Mom.”

“But I was never a part of your life, either,” she sighed. “You were your father’s son, and I know that. In fact I cherished that about him most of all.” He also noticed she had trouble walking now, and he was glad her old Porsche wasn’t parked too far away.

He looked at her as he put his carry-on onto the shelf behind his seat and sat down behind the wheel, and he wasn’t sure where she was going with this conversation, but he knew her well enough to be on guard now. She slapped her seatbelt on and sighed, and again he got the distinct impression she was hiding something.

“What is it, Mom? What are you not telling me?”

“I have a glioblastoma, and it is metastasizing aggressively,” she said as she slammed her door shut.

He nodded as he fully understood the implications. “How long? Six months?” he asked.

“Maybe, but I am foregoing treatment, so probably a little less.”

“Okay. I think I understand.”

She shrugged again. “Surgery, chemo, then radiation and go through all that and possibly add two months to the balance sheet? No thanks. I have seen the outcomes of these treatments and at my age I have no interest in such things.”

“Okay. What do I need to do to help?”

“You need to start the car, Gene, because I haven’t had anything to eat today, so please, head straight to the Oasis. I feel a strong need to have an extended coming to terms with a hot pastrami sandwich!”

A half hour later they were in the same booth they’d always tried to get, and he could still find where he and his father had carved their initials into the old wood table – now almost forty years ago – then he looked at his mother looking at his hand on the initials carved down there in the old varnished wood.

“You remember those days too, don’t you?” she asked fondly.

“I’ll never forget. You were perfect parents, you know?”

She smiled at that. “Hardly perfect, Gene, but we always tried to do the right by you, to lead…”

“…by example. And you did, Mom. You taught me the value of being committed to your work while at the same time loving your family. You two were always so much in love, too…”

“And that eluded you, until Betty came along? Yet there were other things, too…”

He nodded. “That’s right,” he sighed. “Until Betty came along.”

“I’m sorry I never met her daughter. What was she like?”

“Mom…ya know, I think she was a survivor, at least she had to have been to get through that childhood.”

“Was it a mixed marriage?”

“I guess. Markus Cohen, Betty’s husband, is from a prominent manhattan family, investment bankers one and all…”

“So, a Jewish family?”

“I assume so, but I never asked. They met at Dartmouth and she went to med school at Columbia, did all her post-grad work in New York City…”

“Where was she from?”

“Charleston.”

“Do you think you would have married her?”

He nodded. “She wanted to, I think very much, and I think Beth wanted that to happen, too.”

“But…what about you? What did you want?”

“I guess, well, I’m not sure, Mom. Everything is confused right now.”

His mother’s right eyebrow arched, a sure sign she was growing a little perturbed. “You’ll never be sure, will you, Gene? I feel this is the one place we let you down. You say you saw how much your father and I loved one another yet I am left to wonder. If this is indeed what you say you experienced why have you never felt this way too?”

He resettled in his seat, felt uncomfortable in his skin as he tried to formulate an answer, then he gave up and looked down. “I’m not sure I’m capable of feeling love, Mom. At least I pretty sure I haven’t, not yet, anyway, and at my age if it hasn’t happened I don’t think it ever will.”

“Well, at last we finally have the truth!” his mother said. “So much for setting a fine example!”

“Don’t say that, Mom. It isn’t true and you know it.”

“Oh? I do? So tell me, Mr. Genius Astronomer, just what did we teach you about life?”

“You taught me humility and determination. You taught me self-respect and empathy. Dad taught me the value of curiosity, and I think he developed in me the patience to explore. All in all, Mom, those aren’t bad things.”

“No, surely not. Those are each good things, noble things, at least they are in and of themselves – yet, I wonder what these things are worth in a life without love. I mean a deep, abiding love. A love worth living your life for. Ah…they are calling our number! Would you go get our sandwiches?”

“Sure, Mom.”

They ate in silence, Sherman marveling at the consistency of the memories this place engendered. The table: the same. Their sandwiches: the same they had been for the past forty five years. Even the air smelled the same, and the memories that followed were echoes bouncing off the same walls, the only thing missing now – his father and the giant shadow he’d cast over all their lives.

“Two of your father’s friends will join us to Yosemite, if that is alright with you, and of course Beverly will join us, as well,” his mother said when she finished half her sandwich – and as she had for the past forty five years, she wrapped the other half in a couple of napkins to take home and eat a few hours from now.

“Of course I don’t mind. Who’s coming?”

“Neal and Patricia, as well as Beverly – and her son,” she said.

“Her son? Have I met him?” Beverly had been his father’s secretary for the past twenty years, maybe more, and a more dedicated soul he’d never known. Still, he had his own secret history with Beverly that went a little deeper than infatuation.

“No…no you haven’t, but now I think it is time that you did.”

“Oh?”

“Well, he is almost your brother, after all.”

Sherman felt an icy claw grip his chest as his mind stammered through the implications. “What does that mean?” he just managed to say.

But his mother smiled evasively at his question. “Yes, perhaps a brother. Because, or so it seems, your father was indeed just a man after all, and perhaps he was not the paragon of virtue you might have imagined he was.”

“Well…I be damned.”

“You? Saint Gene? Oh, surely not. But your father? Well, the jury is still out on that one, oh son and heir to the throne, but be careful. Things are rarely what they seem.”

+++++

And now, eight days later and here he was, sitting in yet another airliner – this time a Delta 757 headed to Boston. He looked out over the city as it slid by a few miles below, the TransAmerica Pyramid still the most easily identifiable icon within the ever growing skyline, and he had to admit that, once you scraped away a little surface paint, things hadn’t changed all that much down there. Silicon Valley had changed the nature of the game just a little, but San Francisco had always been about making money, and a lot of it, usually as fast and with as little risk as possible. San Francisco was the “sure thing” city, where West Coast new money went after the easy money, and Sherman scoffed when he recalled that when the “right coast” mob decided to move out west, the first stop on their easy money train was Frisco. 

Yet the other side of this equation was dark. Real dark.

Because San Francisco was the West Coast’s version of Manhattan, she had quickly become another ‘City of Broken Dreams,’ and now there were a lot of desperate people living down there in an exceptionally small city, with all the usual, and predictable results. But that was California now, too. Sinking under the weight of too much and too many. Too many people chasing the dream.

And who knows, maybe Beverly Bishop had been one of the good ones, one of the good girls that had gotten swooped-up in all the drama that swirled around the whole Silicon Valley thing. She wasn’t really bright, after all, and with just (barely) a high school diploma in hand, she hadn’t really been considered well educated, but she sure was cute as hell and she’d had really nice legs – and for a young girl just striking out on her own and trying to find work as a secretary, in the late-70s those were her most valuable assets. And it goes without saying she knew how to exploit those assets to her greatest advantage. Her high school education had certainly taught her that much.

Then again, Neal Sherman had proven to be the antithesis of who or what she had expected. As a ‘boss’ and more importantly as a human being.

True, he was a physics professor and there was usually a pocket protector tucked neatly inside his shirt pocket. True, an HP-41 graphing calculator always hung from his belt. And, yes, true, his trousers were hemmed about two inches too high. He was also nice. He never ‘bossed’ her around. He was always empathetic, always let her have some time off when her ‘little friend’ hit too hard and the cramps became almost unendurable. And on the rare occasions when the Sherman’s went out to dinner in The City, or when they went to academic conferences of some sort, Beverly Bishop stayed at the Sherman house in Menlo Park, ‘babysitting’ for Gene, making sure he didn’t get into too much trouble.

The trouble with this arrangement was simple enough to understand. Gene Sherman was, by the time Beverly entered the picture, already a teenager. He was a little nerdy, too, but he was a good looking kid, AND he was the quarterback over at Palo Alto High, which made him a real BMOC, or Big Man On Campus, and not a Pretender. And Beverly was cute. And if anything, Beverly was a little oversexed, which is a polite way of saying that when she met Gene Sherman she got a little moist down there where the sun don’t shine. And one night, when the Shermans were up in The City, she taught Gene all about kissing, and all the other little ins-and-outs that usually attend such studies. And as he was in everything else he did, Gene Sherman was a quick study and he began to look forward to his parents heading out to dinner.

And then he was gone. Off to college, to some place called Annapolis, and all Beverly Bishop really understood about all that was that Gene Sherman was on the opposite side of a very big country and that she was now very, very pregnant.

+++++

And of course Gene Sherman was good at arithmetic. He could add and subtract, and he could count months and years and the passage of time and the numbers tended to work out neatly. Yet the sums he arrived at now were inescapable.

So when Neal and Patricia Hefti and Beverly and Jordan Bishop met up at the Sherman house on Arbor Road, Gene Sherman was a little on edge, maybe even a little bent out of shape. Nervous might even be a better descriptor. Because, while he knew on a visceral level he was headed to Yosemite to spread his father’s ashes on the wind, he also understood he had reached one of those turning points in life, a point that had been concealed and too long denied by all parties.

He understood, in other words, that he was, quite probably, about to meet his son. And he was scared shitless, too.

The boy wasn’t really a boy, not now. He was a young man in his thirties and he worked at H-P designing circuit boards and chips. And Jordan Bishop was, for all intents and purposes, a knock-off of Gene Shepard, and standing side by side that interesting fact became instantly, and embarrassingly clear to everyone standing out there on Arbor Road. They were the same height. Their hair color was identical, eye color too. And it was the eyes that gave it all away, because Jordan and Gene looked exactly like father and son. Probably because…well, you know…

Yet if this was some kind of revelation it seemed that Gene Sherman was the only one who really hadn’t been keeping score over the intervening decades. The Heftis certainly knew, and when he looked at his mother he realized that she too had known all along. So, what was going on?

And so, when it came time to divide up into cars for the drive over to the park, Gene asked if Beverly could ride with him for a while. Beverly graciously consented, because of course she had been waiting for just this exact moment for, uh, well, for thirty two years.

+++++

“Your father was worried that, well, that if it came out it might wreck the whole Annapolis thing, and then everything just sort of spun out of control from there. Your mom and dad took care of me, Gene. And they have ever since.”

“This is kind of hard to believe, Bev,” Gene growled. “I mean…that’s my son, my boy, and I might have died last week on that mountain and never known a thing about him…”

“I know. When you came back last year, well, once we learned about Betty we decided to put it off again. It wasn’t some kind of grand conspiracy, Gene. It all just kind of happened, and everything developed a momentum…”

“Now you’re talking like Dad.”

“Maybe because I’ve been around him all my life, Gene. I loved him, too, ya know. Like a father, because in the best way possible that’s exactly what he was to me…”

“And a grandfather…?”

“Yes,” she whispered, “that too.”

“So…I have a son.”

“You do.”

“A son I don’t know. Now, ain’t that ducky…”

“Look, I know how bitter you must…”

“No, you don’t, because I’m not, Beverly. Not really. Shocked? Hell yeah, but not bitter. I can see my old man, ya know? Was he there for the delivery?”

She nodded. “He held my hand, Gene. He even took pictures, because he knew that one day you’d want to see…”

“Jesus H Christ on a motorbike. Yeah, I got it. Hell, I can almost see it all happening…”

“Of course you can. Because he was decent and honorable, and he did everything so that you could stay focused…”

“Stay focused?” Sherman cried. “Focused on what? Playing football? Looking at the stars? Is all that supposed to be more important than being a father? For being there, for my kid?”

She looked at him and shook her head. “You still don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“You’d just left home, Gene, and now they were alone, but then all of a sudden along came Jordan and all that magic came back into their lives. Do you realize we spent the first three years of Jordan’s life living with your parents, and you never came home, not once. Your dad went out to your graduation at Annapolis, and again he went to Pensacola, but you never once came home…”

Sherman’s eyes filled with tears and he started to pull over to the side of the road but managed to wipe them dry.

“Then the thing with your leg and you came home after that. You came home when you needed them and they were there for you, weren’t they?”

“And where were you?”

“Oh, we’d moved out by then. Your dad took out a second and bought us a little cottage over by Menlo College.”

“So…he kept you close?”

“Wouldn’t you have done the same thing, Gene? The most important thing was always protecting you and your career, but taking care of us became a real focus for them once you were gone.”

“I assume he knows I’m his father?”

“Of course. You’ve been like some kind of God to him, Gene. He’s terrified right now; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more upset. Afraid of being rejected, afraid you’ll push him away, push all of us away…”

And that was it. All Gene Sherman could take. First Betty and Beth, then his father, and now this. He pulled over to the side of the road and their little convoy pulled over, too.

“Are you okay, Gene?”

“No,” he said, staring off into space. “No, not really.”

“You come on over and sit in this seat,” she said, opening the Porsche’s right door and stepping out onto the road’s shoulder. But he hadn’t moved, not even a little, so she went and got Jordan and together they moved him, and got him buckled in.

And then Jordan got behind the wheel, and once his mother was in the Hefti’s station wagon off they went, onward to Yosemite.

+++++

“You know how to drive this thing?” Gene asked the stranger by his side.

“I learned to drive in this car, Dad. I even took my driving test in it.”

“Of course you did.” Sherman sighed, sitting there in a state of shock, hearing but not quite realizing that this kid had just called him Dad, and that this otherwise unknown human being sitting behind the wheel of his mother’s Porsche was in fact his son.

“I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult all this must be for you,” Jordan said.

“Really?”

“Really. What happened over there, Dad?”

“Over where?”

“On the Matterhorn?”

“Strong wind out of nowhere, just like this.”

“Like this? You mean, oh…as in meeting me?”

“Unexpected,” Gene Sherman whispered. “Everything has been so unexpected. So, losing my dad must be like…”

“Yeah,” Jordan sighed, and that was all he said.

“I’m sorry. That was insensitive of me.”

“Doesn’t matter, Dad. Like I said, I don’t know how you’re able to process all this?”

“Process? What does that mean?”

“So many conflicting emotions coming at you so fast.”

“Oh. So, did you and my father come up here a lot?”

“Yosemite? Oh yeah, sometimes every weekend.”

“He taught you to climb?”

“Yeah, and to ski, up at Tahoe usually.”

Sherman nodded, the picture becoming much more clear. “Did you play football?”

“Yup, but I was nowhere near as good as you. I played two years at Berkeley then blew out my knee.”

“Quarterback?”

“Yeah.”

“Which knee?”

“My left, why?”

“Oh, just wondering. Does it bother you much?”

“Not too much these days,” Jordan added. “Why? What’s on your mind?”

“Betty and Beth are coming back next week and they asked that I spread their ashes from a mountain in Colorado. If you have some time you could take off, I’d appreciate the help.”

“Really? I’d love that, Dad.”

Sherman ignored the incongruity of the boy’s response, wondering if the tacit selfishness was innate, or something a little more…peculiar…? But then again, he said to himself, how would it be to grow up with a web of deceit and evasion right outside your door?

+++++

Another Delta 757. Coming into Logan about an hour after sunset, Jordan in the seat next to his. And now, after almost a week together, he had to admit the boy was good company. They got on easily enough, too, at least once all the tiptoeing around hidden landmines was over and done with. Or maybe that was the point. There’d never be enough time to skirt all the inherent drama, because now it seemed as if both their lives, the entirety of both their lives, had been and was nothing less than a living tissue of lies.

And how did you overcome something so pernicious? Sherman had no idea.

Was something so intricately woven into the fabric of time subject to such understanding and empathy? He found himself looking at this stranger, his son, not really able to put the context of life as he’d known and understood it into the ever expanding subterfuge of Jordan’s day-to-day existence.

But was it really fair to look at the boy’s life under that kind of lens? Parsing meaning out of emotions he’d never witnessed, let alone experienced?

The 757 was circling out over the bay, lining up to land with the downtown skyline glittering behind the airport, and he realized that almost all his memories of Beth and Betty were tied up in and around that island of glittering history. Like a gayly wrapped Christmas present, complete with festive bows and ribbons…to: Gene – from: Santa Claus – they’d all come together here, like atoms pulled by an uncertain gravity into the nucleus of life in just this one particular city. Then again, flying over the United States at night was kind of like looking down on a series of globular clusters spread out across an unseen landscape, and Boston was just the end of one chain…

“I wanted to apply to a couple of schools back here,” Jordan said.

“Why didn’t you?” – but he already knew the answer, didn’t he?

“No scholarship money. Wasn’t good enough, I guess.”

Which, Sherman knew, was just a part of his ever expanding fabric of lies, the private tapestry built up around his life. I’d probably just moved to Boston around that time, Sherman thought, and had just started teaching at MIT, so Jordan’s sudden emergence might have interfered with all that, too. Because once the lie began it had developed a momentum all its own, and like some kind of hideous runaway fission reaction the lie consumed truth as easily as it devoured fuel rods, or even the Cheerios both of them had eaten for breakfast all their lives. They were living in a hall of mirrors, their lives a series of distortions, even the one basic truth they shared had withered under the sheer weight of this tapestry.

“You seem to have done well enough at Berkeley,” he replied, continuing the charade.

“It’s a good school.”

“You got your Masters, right?”

“Stanford. Double-E.”

Now here was another minefield best avoided. ‘Did Dad pull a few strings to get him in?’ But no, don’t go there, “Lot of good connections, good networking opportunities. Is that how you got hooked up at H-P?”

It was all so easy, like all you had to do was hitch up your trousers and follow the good old yellow brick road, so yeah baby, just Sing, Dorothy! Sing! – ’cause there’s no place like home!

The jet touched down and he was pulled into his seatbelt as reverse thrust kicked in, then they were spit out of the belly of the beast and into the beating heart of his memory. Beth and Betty had been his truth for almost a year, yet all that waited for him now was Dorothy and her red slippers – in the shape and form of this stranger by his side.

“You live over by MIT?” Jordan asked as they took the escalator down to the T.

“Yeah. It’s not a bad walk from the Red Line, so it’s convenient.”

“Any good places to eat around here?”

“You hungry?”

“Always.”

“Steak sound okay?”

“You bet.”

So yeah, of course the yellow brick road goes right by the Chart House, doesn’t it? I can get two birds with one stone tonight, so on to the Blue Line we go, and off at Long Wharf and yeah, maybe I’ll have a Mai Tai with my salad, and make mine a double, would you? 

‘He’s a good kid, ya know?’ he said to himself as he polished off drink number one.

“So Dad, I have to ask. What was it like to fly off a carrier?”

And Gene Sherman didn’t really know how to respond to that question anymore. That was the first question just about everyone asked once they learned he’d been a Naval Aviator, but he’d found that, more and more often recently, that his leg got in the way of any answer that came to mind…but then again this was his son and his son deserved an honest answer, especially given the circumstances…

“I hate to say it, Jordan, but carrier aviation and mountain climbing have an awful lot in common. You have to balance the equations, that’s all. In the beginning, when you’re learning and still a nugget, the equation is fear versus confidence. Later on, say after you’ve got a couple hundred hours logged, the equation changes on you little by little. It becomes arrogance versus self confidence. The word is that the most dangerous person in the world is a naval aviator with 200 hours of flight time, because by that point he’s sure he’s God’s gift to the aviation world and can therefore make no mistakes…”

“What did you fly?”

“The A-6.”

“That’s the Intruder, right?”

“Yup.”

“What’s the deal with flying the A-6?”

“Something called DIANE, which means Digital Integrated Attack/Navigation Equipment, which all-in-all is nothing but a convoluted way of saying the aircraft could take off and land from a carrier in zero visibility and then fly to a target in the middle of the night, and in the worst weather imaginable, and put bombs on targets no larger than a mouse’s ass.”

“No shit? But I thought the Intruder was designed back in the 50s?”

“Yup, it was. And one of the guys working on the original design also developed the F-14 and the lunar descent module, so those guys knew a little something about computers, even way back then in the stone age.”

“Could you, I mean, did you ever carry nukes?”

Sherman shrugged. “The Intruder was capable of that, yes.”

“How’d you get shot down?”

Sherman tried to maintain eye contact but somehow he knew the kid was going to ask the one question he just didn’t want to answer – and yet now there was nothing to it but to answer him. “An Iranian F-14, well, there were four known F-14s ahead of us but another came in low and got past our Hawkeye. That one launched from down on the deck, from my six, and we never had a chance. Funny, ya know, because we trained their pilots. They knew our doctrine, our ROEs, and man…did they catch us with out pants down.”

“That happened during the hostage thing, right?”

Sherman nodded as he took a long pull from his second Mai Tai. “Yeah, that’s right.”

“So…landing at night on a carrier? Is that as hard as it sounds?”

“Remember that equation? Arrogance versus self confidence?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, there are very few arrogant Naval Aviators, Jordan, and yet there are none that are afraid of landing at night in a storm on a carrier. The training is all about getting you to the point where you’re confident in your skills. If you don’t get there you don’t get your wings, simple as that. Now, how’s your steak?”

“Good. GrandPa said you wanted to try for the astronaut program?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I lost that when I lost my leg.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I mean, I’m sorry about everything that’s happened this summer…”

“You learn to roll with the punches, and if you go down you have to get back up on your feet and get going again.”

“Is it really that simple, Dad?”

Sherman looked away for a moment, lost inside the easy sounding bullshit the question implied. “I’m not sure yet, Jordan. I’m still down on the ground, still trying to figure out when I’m going to find the strength…”

+++++

He wasn’t sure about the what or the who or the how of Betty’s and Beth’s return, only that someone from Switzerland was accompanying their remains and that they’d be on the noon-thirty flight from Zurich, so both he and Jordan were waiting outside of the main Customs exit at noon two days later when he saw Hans walk out into the concourse. He waved and Hans smiled as he walked over.

“Professor, you look surprised to see me?”

“Actually, I think that’s because I am. Hans, good to see you, and how are you doing?”

“Better. Still not one hundred percent, but better. Now, who is this with you?”

“Hans, this is Jordan Bishop. Jordan, this is Hans Castorp.”

“A friend or a student?” Hans said as he held out his right hand.

“My son.”

“Indeed. Well, Jordan, nice to meet you.”

“You too, sir.”

“Did you eat on the plane, or would you like to grab a little something to eat? And what are your plans, Hans?”

“Maybe we could find someplace quiet to talk? I am curious about some things.”

So, one more time…follow the yellow brick road…like maybe this was getting to be a little too easy?

+++++

“So, this is a Mai Tai? It is somewhat strong? Rum, I think?”

“Yup, rum. And a lot of it, too.”

“I think I like it,” Hans said after he downed the glass – in one long pull. “Yes, I think I like this very much.”

“So, what’s on your mind, Hans?”

“You are going to Colorado. To Long’s Peak. This is correct?”

“This is correct.”

“I want to go with you.”

Sherman inhaled sharply. “Really?”

“Is this a problem?”

“No, not at all. I’m just curious, that’s all.”

“Well, I have brought Father Pete with me, as well. I think he would have liked this, no? To be with Beth and Betty up there on this mountain. You see, he climbed the Diamond Face twice, and I think this was a special place for him.”

“I’m not really familiar with it, Hans, only that Betty wanted me to take a trail called the Keyhole. Something to do with how both she and Beth made the climb when they were kids.”

Hans shrugged. “The way to the summit is irrelevant, only that we gain it together. And I must tell you, Professor, that I have set aside some of the, well, you know…”

“Please tell me you’re kidding?”

“No, no, not at all. I have set a little of each one aside, in case you might care to return to Zermatt next summer and carry them to the summit again.”

Sherman tried to pretend he hadn’t heard the remark and casually turned to signal their waiter. “I think we’re going to need a shitload of these,” he said once the kid made it to their table, and then, pointing to their empty Mai Tai glasses with a grin, he added: “so keep ‘em coming ’til one of us either pukes or cries uncle.”

“Gee Dad, that sounds like fun,” Jordan said, grinning a little too madly.

“What does? Puking?”

“No, doing the Matterhorn together.”

“Fun? Gee, you know what, kid? You and me, we got real different opinions about what constitutes fun. Know what I mean?”

“But wait! Does this mean,” Hans cried, apparently lost in reveries all his own, “that we are going to get to take a road trip? Like, maybe, the Great American Road Trip?”

“Maybe,” Sherman sighed. “But first, well, I don’t quite know how to say this, but, well, first thing is we’re gonna need a car.”

“Alright!” Hans cried, slapping the table. “Fuckin’ A! The professor doesn’t own a car!”

“And what’s the next thing, Dad?” Jordan asked as he watched his father down his second drink.

“I’m gonna need another fuckin’ Mai Tai,” Gene Sherman said – just before he started giggling. “Holy Mother of God. A road trip. Well Betty, looks like you get the last laugh after all…”

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

One stop left on this train:

Hasta later, y’all…

Beware of Darkness, V

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

Even after climbing a few mountains in my time, including the one in question, I still have no idea why we do it. “Because it’s there!” seems a trivial, even an off-putting and banal denial of the risks involved. Then again, why does the chicken cross the road? Or – which came first, the chicken or the egg? And oh yes, let’s not forget to ask why we still threaten to annihilate our perceived adversaries with hydrogen bombs? And why, for God’s sake, would anyone eat escargot? Are we simply stupid, or is it something in our humanity that compels us to climb higher and higher? Just something to think about while you read.

And oh yes, music matters very much.

And as if that wasn’t enough, don’t forget this one:

Part V

Reflected Light

It is said that before entering the sea

a river trembles with fear.

She looks back at the path she has traveled,

from the peaks of the mountains,

the long winding road crossing forests and villages.

And in front of her,

she sees an ocean so vast,

that to enter

there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.

But there is no other way.

The river can not go back.

Nobody can go back.

To go back is impossible in existence.

The river needs to take the risk

of entering the ocean

because only then will fear disappear,

because that’s where the river will know

it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,

but of becoming the ocean.

Kahlil Gibran             The River Cannot Go Back

He struggled to find his way to sleep, but it never came his way. Too excited? Perhaps. Or maybe it was something else? Something else pulsing in the night sky?

Sherman finally gave up just before 0200. He’d showered earlier before hitting the sheets, hoping the heat and the water would ease the way ahead, but no, that was simply not to be. There was nothing to do now but wait for the rest of them to wake up, so he dressed and walked down to the restaurant, scents of freshly baked bread filling his mind’s eye with comfortable memories of other mornings, of distant fires and other impossible dreams.

He soon found he wasn’t the only person unable to find sleep. A dozen or so climbers sat alone at tables nursing cups of herbal tea, no one wanting to drink so much that they’d have to stop and pee on the mountain. But really, everyone knew that at this altitude dehydration was the biggest danger. Any perspiration that managed to appear on your skin up there on the mountain would evaporate almost instantly, and between the sun and the wind your body was constantly fighting a losing battle with hydration. Why the big deal? Well, a gallon of water weighs more than six pounds, and that’s six pounds you have to balance with other, more immediate needs…things like rope, for one.

Sherman saw Father Pete sitting by himself, sitting as if lost in a trance, staring out one of the huge panoramic windows that looked out over the valley below, and to the Klein Matterhorn region where they’d practiced on the Breithorn earlier that week – just a few days ago, really. How odd, he thought, that everything they’d done right over there now seemed like it had happened in another lifetime.

‘Time is so fluid up here,’ he said to another passing memory of his father. ‘Isn’t that what you always used to say…before time came and stole all your memories?’ He couldn’t believe how fast he had deteriorated after the strokes.

And how odd that, of all things, he and this priest full of doubt had fallen into one extended conversation about God, a drawn out affair that always picked up where it left off – yet always after another ascent or the next traverse. And how odd that this endless looping conversation  always seemed to circle back to the mysterious pulsing light coming from Messier 22. 

“Really, Gene, what do you think the light means?” Father Pete asked just before they made it back to the tram to ride back down to Zermatt.

But Sherman had simply evaded the question like any trained astronomer might. “It’s hard to ascribe meaning to something we haven’t had time to study, and as far as meaning goes you might remember that the photons tickling your retina last night got started on that little journey almost eleven thousand years ago…”

“So? Maybe God wanted to send you a message, and knowing where you’d be he snapped his fingers and there you have it…! Instant pulsing light!”

“Do you really think like that?” Sherman remembered asking, and he remembered the impish grin spreading across Father Pete’s sun-drenched face, and the twinkling in his eyes.

“I told you, Professor Gene, about my doubts. Do you not have any of your own?”

“About globular clusters?”

“About belief, or this non-belief of yours.”

They had just stopped outside the gondola station and were taking off their packs, and Father Pete had taken out a fresh bottle of water – yet he handed this bottle over to Sherman, smiling as he did, as if the water might be taken as a peace offering.

“I’ve studied the stars my whole life,” Gene said as he took the bottle, “and I have no idea what it is.”

“And so I assume you’ve had no time to study your fellow man?”

“My fellow man? What has man got to do with beliefs, and God?”

Which made the smile on Peter’s face spread even wider. “But Professor Gene…of course they are one and the same thing. Man is God, and God is man, and to study one is to study the other…”

Sherman scowled and nodded. “Then I understand why you turned your back on the priesthood.”

“Ah? How so?”

“Your story about the two thieves. Human nature guides our destiny, and if that is so then our destiny is inescapable.”

“True enough, Gene, yet I am not so sure about this life, that in our ignorance perhaps we can only perceive the surface of the question. Still, I think that further study will require a trip to the other side, and this I am not sure I am ready to undertake just yet.”

“Perfectly rational point of view, Father Pete. I understand that much completely.”

Now, up here at the Hörnli hut and with the start of their climb up the Matterhorn due to start in an hour and a half, Father Pete was still looking deep into the heart of Sagittarius, into the pulsing globular cluster flailing away to the beat of a distant, unseen drummer. ‘Perhaps he is thinking about his God?’ he thought, somehow finding the notion comfortable.

“She still doing her thing?” Sherman said as he walked up to Pete’s table. “Mind of I sit?”

“No, please. I see you too did not sleep well.”

“No, not well, maybe a couple of hours.”

Pete shrugged. “It is not so unusual. We are now at 3300 meters; the air is very thin. Do you have the headache?”

“No, I drank a bunch of water at dinner, and that seems to have done the trick. I hope I am not intruding, but you seem worried. You okay?”

“Me? Yes, I am fine. If I have any concerns it is about Beth. I think perhaps she has a touch of acrophobia.”

“Then she shouldn’t make this climb,” Sherman said.

“I have watched her, and I have talked to her about this, yet she remains adamant she is going to make this climb. In truth, Gene, this climb is not so difficult. The summit ridge and the Icefield will be the worst for her, and these can be easily avoided.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes, I think so. I mention this now as you will be ahead of us today, so you will be able to talk with her as we climb. So, yes, I think it will be important that you do.”

“Do you have a contingency plan in mind?”

“Yes, of course, and Hans and I have gone over this. If she has a problem then Betty will join you and I will bring Beth down here to the hut. I will then return to assist with your descent.”

Sherman shook his head. “Peter…I’m not sure this is worth the risk.”

“Well, apparently she does. Gene, I am not sure why she is making this climb, not really, but again I think she is doing this for you.”

“What are you saying, Pete?”

“I am not saying anything, Gene. Yet, perhaps, if because you were not able to sleep you feel that it would be unsafe for you to make the climb, then perhaps she would stay here with you.”

“Oh no, Goddamnit,” Sherman cried, “don’t you dare put this on me! If you see danger you and Hans are being well paid to help us avert trouble. Am I being clear?”

“Yes, Gene, of course, but there is no need to shout. It was just a suggestion that came to me just now. We will proceed as planned, but you keep an eye on her too and let me know what you think. So far, as you have seen, she is an able climber, and I think she will do well, but again, I would keep her off the summit ridge.”

A moment later Betty and Beth came into the dining room and Betty waved at Gene and Pete before she went for tea. Hans followed a few minutes later and they sat together and ate their recommended breakfast in silence, each lost inside that other world, that other place where dreams and reality run into one another…

+++++

“Damn!” Betty screeched. “It’s fucking cold out here! What time does the fucking sun come out?”

“It is 38 degrees Fahrenheit right now, and we climb in darkness for more than two hours,” Peter said gently as he checked their headlamps once again, “and don’t forget, there may be ice on the rock…usually a thin layer this time of the morning…so make sure your hand has a solid grip before you shift weight.”

“Gene!” Betty shouted up into the darkness. “What’s it like up there?”

Sherman looked down at the three headlights gathered about twenty meters below him: “Easy going so far. It’s not as steep as it looked yesterday, and the rocks are almost spaced-out like stairs.”

“Cool!” she replied. “That’s great!”

“Okay,” Peter said to Beth and Betty, “now we begin. Again, I will lead, Beth will come next and Betty, you will follow. Beth, stay close so you can see where I place my feet, and Betty, do not fall behind as I do not want to let-out so much rope. And again, whatever you do, do not step on the rope.”

“Got it!” Betty said…a little too loudly. She turned and looked at the hut, still tantalizingly close in the darkness, still only about fifty meters below, then she turned and looked up at the long string of headlights marching up the mountain like luminescent ants – because there were a hundred and forty climbers making the ascent and already they were strung out at dizzying intervals. And because of Gene, and his leg, their little group had elected to go last, which had only made sense.

The rock under lamplight was the same mottled rusty grey-yellow-brown it had been yesterday when they’d made their hike up to the hut, only now they weren’t walking on an old, well-worn trail. She watched Beth make her first few steps, aiming her own lamp to aid with hand placement, then she reached up and felt the rock, savoring the moment.

“One hand after the other,” she sighed, gritting her teeth as the stark terror of the moment finally sunk in. ‘How can I feel so scared and so full of…joy?’

+++++

One hour in and finally Hans stopped.

“Time for a sip of water, Herr Professor. How is the leg?”

“Better than expected. How much further until we need crampons?”

“Another hundred or so meters and then we will stop and see. You still have good water left?”

“Yes, plenty.”

“Your hands are warm enough?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Look,” Hans said, pointing across the valley. 

“Sweet Jesus,” Sherman sighed as he took in the night sky – and at that pulsing light in Sagittarius – but then he could also just make out the thinnest orange light defining the eastern horizon and the sight was gorgeous. “That’s just outrageous!”

“No camera will ever capture such beauty, Professor, so look now so that you may remember this moment.”

Sherman nodded as he scanned the eastern horizon, purple blending to orange and just now an amber tinge was appearing within the misty line, the horizon line suddenly a serrated jumble as he looked out over the alps – now stretching all the way to Austria – and just then it seemed like visibility was at least a hundred miles, maybe more.

“Gene!” he heard Betty call out. “What is it? Are you okay?”

“Turn and look at the sunrise! I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!” he replied. He soon heard their appreciative gasps and he took another sip of water, then put his bottle away and turned to Hans. “Ready when you are.”

Hans nodded and turned back to the rock. “A very steep pitch comes next, Professor, but there is already a large rope in place. Check that your gloves have a good grip, okay?”

“Got it,” he said as he watched figures within the rock begin to morph through shades of red and orange and a strange, mottled purple-black, then he reached up with his right hand and found the next perfect handhold, then he pulled his rigid left leg up until he sort of felt it slide solidly into the foothold he’d chosen, his eyes always on the rock just overhead, his mind on the hole in his life left by an absent leg. Next, he said to himself, bring the right leg up again and push the body up, then reach up with the left hand and find a solid hold and get stabilized again, then do it all over again. And again. 

A moment later he saw the rope Hans had mentioned and he reached up for it, getting his right foot stabilized…again…then he pulled his way up to the next foothold…

+++++

Beth watched Peter’s ass. She had since the sun came out, and now she was sure this priest had the best looking ass on planet fucking earth. Yet there was something almost magical about the way he moved up here, too, like he was some kind of Buddhist monk at one with the rock. His motions were both spare and fluid, and there was never any hesitation, either. He reached and he moved up, simple as that. He never retreated, he never made a mistake. When she remembered hearing him say he had only ever known God up on top of these mountains…well…now she understood what he meant.

And then the funniest thing happened. As she watched Peter move, as she moved where he moved, she felt all her fear just sort of wrap itself in a ball and fall away. She leaned out from the rock and looked down the ridge and felt not the slightest whiff of fear, only a deep need to see what was up ahead.

“You are climbing nicely,” Pete said as she came up to him. “Very strong.”

“I’ve never felt better in my life,” she said as she took out her water bottle. “God, it’s magic up here, ya know?”

“I do,” Pete said before he took another sip of water. “The next segment is rope all the way. Very, very steep but there are excellent holds for our hands and feet. One warning, however. Grasping the rope for so long leads to cramping, so switch hands as much as you can,” he said as Betty came up from below. “If you feel your hands cramp get your weight on your feet and shake it out. Wrap the rope around a forearm and just shake it out. Now Beth, just pay attention to where my feet go and try to follow me exactly…

“Exactly,” she sighed as she stared at his ass again. “Can do!”

+++++

‘My serum potassium must be low,’ Betty said as another cramp wracked her left thigh, this one leaving her breathless as the pain crushed her will to move up – yet again.

‘It’s not your fucking potassium, you fucking wimp,’ the tormenting inner voice screamed at her again, ‘it’s you! You! You’ve been running from me all your life, haven’t you? Running from me and my fear! But you know what, you stupid low country cunt, you ain’t ever gonna get away from me! Never, because this is the day I’ve been planning for us all our life!’

She stretched her left leg by pointing her toe towards the emptiness below, then she brought her knee up to her waist. She rotated her foot and then took a deep breath before she reached up and felt for the next handhold. She looked up just then and saw Beth on the rope, and she was filled with love and hope. Again. ‘That’s my daughter, my love, my everything!’ she sighed.

‘And fuck you,’ she said to the fear crawling up the hard face of her gut. ‘You ain’t ever gonna beat me so just shut the fuck up and leave me the fuck alone!’

+++++

“How is the crampon?” Hans asked.

“Better, but I wish we’d made the two front blades a little longer.”

“That’s what everyone says when they are on the ice,” Hans said, smiling. “Well, the next fifty meters are not so steep but now it is all snow, and there is no rope already there for us so I will lead and place anchors in the ice, and from perhaps twenty meters up I will go ‘on belay.’”

Peter was now just below Sherman, and both Beth and Betty were close behind, listening and looking where Hans pointed. “We move slowly here as we are exposed to sudden wind gusts now that we are close to the summit. Remember, use both axes now as you would use your hands and I will keep the rope tight and out of your way.”

“And once Professor Sherman is off belay,” Peter said, “I will move up and get the rope ready for you, Beth. Betty, you will wait here until I send the rope down to you, then it will be your turn.”

“And this is the last pitch before the summit?” Beth asked.

“Yes, we are almost there. This is the steepest part of the final pitch, what is called the ‘Icefield.’ Once we get to the top of this steep pitch we will walk up the final pitch using our axes. It is not so steep, but we will be approaching the summit ridge so do not get ahead of me, or my rope.”

“Why didn’t they run a rope up this stretch, Hans? It looks like the worst part of the whole climb.”

“Leaving rope exposed in the snow and ice does not work. Chain has been tried but it rusts quickly and is hard on the hands. Just keep your eyes on where I place my feet and stabilize yourself with both of your axes before you take the next step. I will not rush here, and neither should you, and let me get my anchors set before you begin. I will call out ‘On Belay!’ – and you reply with?”

“Belay on. Climbing.”

“Correct. Now watch me closely, and be very careful before you begin.”

“That’s the understatement of the year,” Sherman sighed, staring up the sheer wall of ice overhead – and knowing that there was a sheer drop-off just a few feet away, off his right side, really didn’t help.

“Are you okay, Professor?” Peter said, now coming next to him, Beth and Betty still a few meters below.

“Oh, I was just wondering what the fuck I’m doing up here. No big deal.”

Peter laughed a little. “I think the Icefield as also called the What the Fuck Am I Doing Up Here part of the climb. Everyone reacts this way, so don’t feel despair. It is actually easier than it looks, and you have already finished the worst parts of the climb.”

“Ah. So, this is called the Bullshit Pep Talk, right?”

“Exactly. Just so,” Peter said, chuckling again. “You are too well informed, Professor.”

“When are you going to start calling me Gene?”

“When we become friends, Professor.”

“And when will that be?”

“When we get back down to the hut, of course. I think Hans is ready now.”

“That’s just fucking swell, Pete. I was so enjoying out little talk…”

“You’ll do fine. Get your right axe up and set, then your left.”

“On Belay!” Hans called out from sixty feet above.

“Belay on, climbing,” Sherman called up the mountain, then he muttered: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it. Right foot up and get the crampon set, then pull the left leg up and get it set.”

“See, you are already the expert!” Pete said, maybe a little too jovially.

“Pete? Any idea how hard it might be to get one of these ice axes out of your ass?”

“We will discuss these difficulties over dinner this evening. Now, get your left leg set before you transfer weight.”

Beth climbed up to Pete, easily handling the mix of ice and snow and now feeling very happily confident. “Looking good, Gene!” she said as she watched Sherman’s hesitant ascent with a growing sense of alarm. She watched him take a minute to move up to the next foothold, and it should have taken him just a few seconds. “I wonder if his leg is bothering him,” she whispered to Pete.

“I have seen a spot of blood on his pants,” Peter replied.

“Shit.”

“He is determined, but his spirit is flagging. The next hundred feet will be critical.”

“Should we start up now, get behind him?”

“No, no. If he falls we might cause a new problem. We will set our own belay, you see.”  

“You guys do know I can hear every fucking thing you’re saying, right?” Sherman growled. “And I am not going to fucking fall, okay?”

“Oops,” Beth said, chuckling with Pete.

“What’s up?” Betty said as she finished climbing up to Beth and Pete.

“Oh, nothing,” Pete said.

“Actually,” Sherman added, “I was warning Pete not to come up too close behind me. Must have eaten something real bad last night, ya know? Fartin’ up a storm.”

Betty shook her head. “And here I thought it was just me,” she added.

“We are turning the entire mountain green this morning,” Pete sighed, not taking his eyes off Sherman for a second. “Okay Professor, ten more feet and the worst is behind you. Slow and easy now, do not feel tempted to rush!”

They watched Sherman reach Hans and everyone cheered.

Then, of course, he farted.

“Damn. I thought he was kidding,” Peter sighed. “Oh well, this is one morning I wish the wind was blowing even a little bit.”

+++++

There is a little bronze statue of Saint Bernard near the summit of the Matterhorn, and in order to insure a safe trip back to the base it is said climbers must pat Bernard’s head a couple of times before starting back down the mountain. The area around the statue is about the only place on the summit where an exhausted climber can sit, and Sherman had planted himself firmly on top of a snow covered rock right beside the statue – ostensibly to pull out his Leica and blow through a couple of rolls of Kodachrome – and so he was able to photograph Peter and Beth and Betty as they made their way up the last snowy pitch. And, he hoped, these few images would define a completely undefinable moment for them all, because he was coming to realize that words alone could not begin to express what he was seeing, and feeling. 

Beyond his feet, just a few feet away, was a sheer thousand meter drop. Behind him, again just a few feet away, was another thousand meter drop. To his right…the Icefield he had just climbed. And to his left, the last real part of the climb – because about ten meters to his left was the official summit. And between the statue of Saint Bernard and the official summit there was a short ridge-line, perhaps twenty feet in length. 

Yet this ridge is narrow, and the way across the ridge is composed of ice and snow that has settled into a razor thin knife-edge of finely crenellated rock. There is a path in the snow and ice that crosses the ridge but it is barely a foot wide, and on either side of this ridge are the very same thousand meter drops that end on boulder-strewn fields of fractured glacial moraine. Experienced mountaineers approach this little ridge was extreme caution.

“Herr Professor, do you want to cross to the summit?”

Sherman stood and looked at the knife-edge and grinned. “You’re like a crazy person, right?” he said to Hans.

Who shrugged. “You paid me to bring you to the summit,” he said, pointing at the ridge. “So? What is it to be?”

“You know, I think this works for me right where I am.”

Peter, Beth, and Betty walked up to Sherman and then they looked at the knife-edge.

“Holy shit,” Beth muttered. “Is that for real?”

“That’s about as real as it gets, Beth,” Sherman said. “And I ain’t about to go out on that fucker. No way.”

Betty came up and put her arm around her daughter. “Well, we gonna do it?”

“Seems a shame to come all this way and not to at least try.”

“Hey,” Sherman snarked, “don’t blame me when you shit your pants…”

“Oh, Gene…!” Betty sighed. “Come on, give it a shot!”

“No thanks, Ma’am, I already gave at the office,” Sherman said, grinning. “But you go right ahead…knock yourself out!”

“You’ll take our picture, right?”

“You bet. I got at least two more rolls just ready to go.”

Hans set up their ropes while the girls took off their packs, then he held belay for Pete while he walked slowly across the ridge. When Pete rigged their lines he called “On Belay” to Beth as she walked up to the edge. “Just go slow, and do not look down. Focus a few feet ahead – where you want to place your feet, and remember, if you feel unsteady I’ve got you.”

Yet Beth scuttled across like a mountain goat, like this ridge was just another part of her world, and yet after she crossed she hugged Pete and grinned for the camera, and Sherman obligingly shot off a dozen or so images, even managing to catch a few of her trip across the ridge.

Then Betty inched across the ridge, literally almost one inch at a time, but she made it across and then beamed for Gene’s camera. They walked over to the actual summit – and it might have been a foot higher over there, but if it was Sherman could hardly see the difference…beyond a small cairn that had been placed there. He took several more shots until he reached the end of the roll, then he took off the base-plate and began reloading his camera, leaving only Hans with him now.

“You have plenty of film?”

“Yeah, two more rolls, 36 exposures.”

“Slide or print?”

“Slides. Kodachrome 64.”

“Is that a polarizer?”

“Yup. Pretty bright up here. Thought it might come in handy.”

Peter grabbed the line he’d used to cross and started back across, and Beth came out on the ridge right behind him – just as a colossal burst of wind came up the south face – picking both of them up then in effect knocking them off their feet, and by the time Hans could react both Peter and Beth had disappeared off the ridge, falling down the north face while Betty, still roped-up to Beth, was violently pulled from the summit and over the edge. By the time Sherman looked up from his camera she just falling out of his field of view, and he dashed for the edge, reaching out –

But Hans pulled him back, pushed him down to the snow. “Be still. Stay right here,” Hans said as he grabbed a rope and his ice axes. He made his way to the ridgeline and looked down into the abyss, and then he turned to Sherman and shook his head. “They are gone,” Hans said, his voice suddenly cracked and dry. 

Hans came back to his backpack and pulled out a radio and called some sort of dispatcher, and he advised the people down in the village what had just happened. 

Sherman was balled up on the snow, his eyes wide and unseeing, and he was completely unaware of what was going on around him. He did not hear the approaching helicopter, nor did he react when helping hands lifted him into the passenger cabin. Hans buckled him into the helicopter’s middle seat and still his eyes remained fixed on some unseen terror off in the mist, yet on the flight down to the village they heard another pilot say that they had found one body so far.

And Sherman came out of it when he heard that.

“We need to go and help find them,” he said to Hans.

“There is nothing we can do now, Gene. Let the experts handle this. This is what they do.”

“Experts,” Sherman mumbled. “There are experts in this?”

“Oh, yes.”

Sherman leaned back, closed his eyes. “Pete was a good friend, was he not?” he asked.

“Yes. The best.”

“I’m so sorry, Hans. So sorry.”

“This has been a bad result, Gene. A day we will never forget.”

“No. Never.” Sherman turned and looked at the village – so close now, buildings coming into sharp relief, then he saw the Air Zermatt base and curiously he realized there was no one down there waiting for him. ‘And now I am alone again,’ he sighed, unaware that he was crying for the first time in decades.

+++++

Hans walked with him to the hotel and Sherman went up to his room, made two telephone calls then got his belongings and the relevant paperwork from the safe. He looked around the room and shook his head, then he carried his things and the papers down to the lobby. “These are our evacuation and repatriation policies,” he said as he handed over copies of the documents. “The helicopter company will need these, and the hospital I assume.”

“We do not need to talk about these things now.”

“I’m leaving, Hans. Now. Right now. We retained a lawyer in Bern a couple of months ago. His card is in the envelope,” he said as he extended his right hand.

Hans took it. “Are you sure you are alright?”

“I am not alright, Hans. I will never be alright. Not ever again.”

“Herr Doctor Sherman,” the concierge asked as he walked up. “I have a communication for you, from your mother, I believe.”

He took the note and quickly read it, then he turned to the concierge. “Would you change my flight for me, please. I’m currently on the nine thirty flight in the morning, Swiss I think it is now. Geneva to Boston. I’ll need to change that to San Francisco. and could you book me a room in Geneva for tonight, please?”

“Of course, sir.”

“Thanks.”

“Trouble at home?”

“My father has passed.”

“Today?”

Sherman nodded and looked away for a moment, then he walked over to a huge picture window that looked out over the village, and the Matterhorn stood there in silent majesty, the setting sun bathing her in a golden glory all her own.

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

One last thought:

Beware of Darkness, IV

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

Not too long, not so short to be a pain in the ass, but we gain in altitude this time out, so be careful…

Music? Right…off we go!

Part IV

Refracted Light

“More light, more light! Open the window so that more light may come in!” 

Goethe            Last words spoken before his death

The sun was out, the air on the mountain remarkably warm. Snow and ice were melting off the Matterhorn’s north face, something that was happening with more frequency. Two climbers the day before had gained the summit without employing a guide, and both had fallen to their deaths just after they started their descent – and these were the fifteenth and sixteenth deaths so far this summer. Two weeks before Sherman arrived in Zermatt so many people reached the summit at almost the same time that guides had had to act like traffic cops, keeping several groups from making the summit so that those ready to start their descent could safely do so. Things were getting out of hand.

But, Gene said to Betty after they’d checked-in at the Zermatterhof, the same thing was happening on Everest, and even on the Savage Mountain – K2. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed when the weather cooperated on these mountains, and huge groups made mad dashes for the summits of these dangerous mountains. So many people with almost no climbing background had summited Everest that the allure was beginning to fade, causing the real extreme climbers to look for even more extreme challenges far off the now well beaten path.

“It’s almost like the adrenaline junkies are taking over the world,” Beth Cohen said – as she took another bite from her kale salad at lunch.

“Some people need challenges like this to simply feel like they are still alive,” Betty said.

“Do you feel that way, Mom?”

“Sometimes I think I do,” Betty said, sighing as she looked up at the Matterhorn from her seat on the patio outside the hotel. “I kind of hate to admit it, but I deal with death so often, you know, on a day-in day-out basis, that in a way I almost feel – sometimes, I guess – like I’m just shuffling in slow motion towards my own shallow grave.”

Sherman looked up from his salad, not quite sure he’d heard her correctly. “What do you mean by that, Bett?”

“I’m not sure, Gene, not really, but I think it all goes back to what you’ve been saying all along, about facing new challenges and feeling alive. You know, I move from one case to the next and one day blends into the next and it feels like my life has turned into an endless parade of death.” Betty looked down at her plate of untouched food and shook her head. “Yet I remember seeing pictures of this crazy mountain when I was a kid and it’s funny but even then I wanted to know what it would feel like to stand up there with the wind in my face and look out over the world…”

When she looked up again there were tears running down her face, and Gene reached across and wiped them away. “You don’t have to do this, you know? Just because I…”

“You have nothing to do with it, Gene. I decided to come to Zermatt last Christmas because I wanted to see this mountain for myself. I wanted to hear her call, see if her call was true. I did, and it is. She’s calling me, Gene.”

“She?”

“I’ve been seeing her in my dreams, and before you look at me like that you need to hear me out.”

Beth looked at Gene then at her mother, but Gene simply nodded, in effect telling  her to go ahead…

“The dream starts the same way every time. I’m falling through darkening clouds and then into a forest. It’s dark out. Dark trees, like trees in winter. Bare limbs. Cold air. Black leaves, moldy black leaves,” she said, yet she decided to leave out the skulls waiting for her under all that decay, “then I see an old lamp, like a streetlight really, glowing in the distance. I go there and she’s waiting for me.”

“She?” Gene asked. “As in…the mountain?”

“No. A woman. A woman in a deep red cape, and she leads me to a stairway. The stairway leads me, every time, to that mountain. And I climb into the mountain, Gene, I mean into the mountain. To a beating heart within the stone, Gene, and that stone, that’s what calls out to me…”

“What does it say, Mom?”

Betty looked at her daughter and smiled. “I think that’s between me and the mountain,” she sighed.

“I know this is gonna sound weird,” Beth said, “but I’ve had pretty much the same dream. Only in mine there are moldy black skulls under the leaves, like an ocean of skulls under there, waiting, and calling…”

Betty felt an icy grip fall on her chest, tightening with every new breath she made. “Skulls?” she said

“Uh-huh. Skulls.”

“Me too,” Betty added. “Gene? What about you? Have you had dreams like this?”

He shook his head. “No, but this is getting pretty goddamn weird. Mind if we talk about something else?”

“I thought Hans and Peter were meeting us for lunch today?” Beth said.

“They’re going to come by at four, and we’ll have tea with them here while we go over the training climb.”

“Is all this really necessary?” Betty asked.

“They do it with all their clients, and they seem to think it’s vital. First we’ll do the Breithorn, then we do some ice climbing on a glacier, then, if the weather cooperates, we head up to the lodge on the mountain.”

“So, two days of training before we make the climb?” Beth asked. “Don’t we need more time to get acclimated to the altitude?”

“If we have trouble up on the Breithorn then yes, we’ll spend a few more days walking around up there, around the Klein Matterhorn area, and work some more on our rope skills.”

“I’m ready,” Betty said, her voice a cold, matter-of-fact remnant – that Beth suspected came from within an uncertain dreamscape.

+++++

“You know,” Hans said to Betty at tea later that afternoon, “I was surprised to learn that you and Beth had decided to join the Professor. May I ask why?”

“It has been a dream of mine for some time,” Betty said.

“Well, I am most surprised at the change I see in your daughter. Beth? You almost look like a different person. How much weight have you lost?”

Beth cringed inside, still tired of being judged because of her weight, only now from the opposite vantage. “My weight didn’t change all that much,” Beth said. “I think because muscle weighs more than fat.”

“What did you do to accomplish this?” Peter asked.

“Running, weight training, climbing walls…you know, the usual. So, Peter, you will be guiding my mother and me?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“And you’ve been doing this a while?” Beth asked.

“This will be my sixtieth ascent.”

“You will be in most capable hands,” Hans added. “Peter has been a member of the mountain rescue team for more than ten years, so he has lots of experience dealing with complex situations as well as simple guiding up the mountain.”

“Well, I was curious,” Beth said, “because I had thought the instructor who was with us last December was going to make the trip with us.”

Hans and Peter exchanged looks, but it was Hans who spoke now. “He was involved in an accident two weeks ago.”

“Is he alright?” Betty asked.

But when Hans simply shook his head, in effect opting to leave the rest unsaid, Betty blanched and voiced her most immediate concern: “And you didn’t think we’d need to know this?” she cried. “What else have you kept from us?”

“It was not his fault, this accident, and so there is nothing else you needed to concern yourself with. Dwelling on these events only upsets a climber needlessly, prevents the focus necessary for a successful climb, and this I must not allow. We stay focused on our climb, okay?!”

“What about tomorrow?” Sherman said, trying to break free from Betty’s sudden hysterics. “What do we need to bring?”

“You will need your crampons and ice axe, only you will need a walking length axe, as opposed to the shorter length you will use on your ascent.”

Betty was still visibly perturbed but allowed herself to move on. “So, we will need to bring two axes on the Matterhorn?”

“If possible, yes. The shorter length is preferred on the ascent, but it becomes useless on your descent. Some experienced climbers can make do with a long shaft, but then again they will usually bring two, because this is optimal. Gene? What will you do about crampons?”

“Ah, Hans, this is the really cool part. I had a couple of engineering students design a leg with multiple spring pre-loads, but, no, well, here’s the cool part. The foot detaches and I can, in effect, attach a dedicated crampon foot, one that is optimally suited to ascents on rock, and I have a third optimized for descents on rock or scree. While you guys are putting on crampons I’ll just need to change foots!”

“Really!” Han and Peter both said. “But this is amazing!”

“Yeah, part of my conditioning routine was to load up a pack with sixty pounds of rock and step up and down on an eighteen inch step. The spring pre-load on the ascent foot actually helps stabilize the motion, and the descent module has a shock absorber!”

“Cool!” Hans shouted. “When can I see these?”

“I’ll bring all of them with me tomorrow?”

“Excellent, but what about the weight of so much gear?”

“Oh, that’s the best part, Hans. They’re titanium and they weigh almost nothing! MIT patented the design and a company in California is going to put them into production, because it turns out they’re really good for all kinds of activities, even skiing.”

Hans and Peter both shook their heads, and both were grinning knowingly, because they understood how this could impact the disabled climbing community – which was a lot larger than most people knew.

“Did you design an axe, too?” Peter asked.

“We did, and I brought one with me, but I’m not sure how practical it is. I’ll bring it along tomorrow and you can look it over.”

“Excellent!” Hans said.

Betty and Beth had quietly watched this exchange, and though somewhat mollified Betty had crossed her arms sullenly over her chest. “Hans, perhaps you could come with Beth and I and help us get the best axes for the Matterhorn.”

“What about our crampons, Mom? You wanted to have him check out the ones we got in New York, didn’t you?”

“Bring what you have tomorrow morning,” Hans said. “We will have plenty of time to make changes after we return from the mountain.”

“I wanted to pick up a camera,” Sherman said, out of the blue. “Is there a good shop here in town?”

“Yes, there is a old, established shop next to the Mont Cervin. Tell Max I sent you and he will be accommodating.”

“Perfect. Betty? Beth? I’ll leave you to it and see you back at the hotel in a couple of hours. Hans? See you at tea time?”

“Yes, we will meet you in the lobby of the hotel at 1600. And I have made arrangements for breakfast in the hotel at 0500, and then we go up the mountain and begin our walk after the sun has been up for a while.”

“Sounds good to me,” Sherman said. “See you then.”

He turned and left Betty and Beth standing there with their mouths hanging open, but he was a little angry now and wanted to get away from Betty before she recognized his feelings. Even Beth had watched her mother’s outburst and turned away, and Sherman could see the humiliation on her face, and a part of him imagined this was just what her father had done from time to time, and suddenly he wasn’t too sure this was a good dynamic to have on a climb like this.

‘But why now?’ he asked as he walked down the main street to the huge old Mont Cervin Hotel. They’d seemed perfectly attuned to each other on their three practice climbs over spring break, and there’d been no friction at all. At least none that he’d seen.

“Hi!” he heard Beth say as she jogged up to him. “Mind of I tag along?”

“No, not at all. What’s your mother up to?”

“She said she was going shopping. Climbing pants, I think she said.”

“Climbing pants?” Sherman sighed. “Shit. I was gonna wear an old pair of Levis.”

“Mom’ll kill you if you do.”

“Really? Why?”

“Won’t look good in photographs.”

“Blue jeans? No shit?”

“No shit.”

“Well, pardon my french,” Sherman growled, “but what the fuck are you going to wear?”

“Levis. I mean…I will if you will,” she grinned.

“Well fuck-a-doodle-do…I guess we better go look for some climbing pants.”

“Add that to the list, you mean?”

“Yeah.”

“So, what kind of camera are you looking for?”

“Simple and light, but super high quality.”

“Well,” she said as they walked up to the camera store, “this place ought to have what you need.”

Sherman looked at the red Leica sign and sighed. ‘Well, you can’t take it with you, so I might as well spend it now.’

+++++

“I hope you slept well,” Hans said to Betty as he walked into the lobby early the next morning. “Any signs of altitude sickness?”

“No, no, we slept well,” Betty said cheerfully, “all of us.”

“Excellent! Now, I have taken the liberty of ordering breakfast ahead, so let us be seated and go over the next two days.”

They walked into the dining room and Beth noticed their usual table was ready for them, their places already set with plates of poached eggs and smoked salmon, as well as a huge salad of carrots, beets, and…pineapple?

“These are all optimal foods for the day ahead, so load up now as we will only have a small midday meal, and our supper at the hut this evening will be very spartan indeed.” Hans looked at the spread he’d ordered, satisfied that all was as it should be. “And before I forget, no caffeine from now until after we return from the Matterhorn. If you need a hot beverage we will drink herbal teas only!”

“I stopped a month ago,” Betty said. “I tried to get these two off of the stuff…” she added.

“But I had finals, Mom.”

“And I had to grade finals, Mom,” Sherman added, grinning.

Han shrugged. “So, this morning we ride up to the Klein Matterhorn. From there we will rope up, with Peter, Betty, and Beth leading the way, while Professor Sherman and I follow. We will be making what is called the Breithorn Traverse, from west to east, and we will summit all three peaks and then retire to the Breithorn hut, which is located under the eastern summit. Tomorrow we will return to the central peak and make a lengthy trek across the rock face to an ice climb, then we will return by gondola, to the village, and hopefully in time for supper. We will rest at least two days and closely examine the weather forecast before we decide on making an ascent of Matterhorn, but I must warn you. Rain down here in the valley often means heavy snow up on the mountain, and by heavy I mean that a meter or more is not at all unusual, even in July. After such an event it usually takes at least four days of sunshine until the route is clear enough to make an attempt.”

“Oh, swell,” Betty said.

“Yes,” Hans sighed, “as you say, swell. You see, there is a big storm coming up from Genoa, and a cold front from the north is possible. If that happens this will be the end of the season. No climbing until next summer.”

Sherman looked up. “Why not come back tomorrow and make our attempt the next day?”

“Even if everyone does well on the rocks today and tomorrow, we will have equipment issues and even health issues to deal with, and believe me, you will want all the rest possible before we make our climb.”

“Yeah, I know. And me most of all,” Sherman added.

“The mountain is not going anywhere,” Peter said. “Many an effort has come undone because of the weather. Flexibility is key to not only success, Herr Professor, as even your survival is at stake, as well.”

“What an optimist!” Betty sighed.

“Mom…take it easy, okay?”

“Well,” Han concluded, “let’s finish eating and get our gear. The tram opens in twenty minutes and we want to get to the top as soon as possible.”

+++++

“Shit! It’s almost impossible to tell how far away things are up here!” Betty growled. “I’ve got no depth perception at all!”

“Keep probing with your axe as you walk,” Peter advised. “If you stumble upon a crevasse you will only fall as far as the amount of rope between us.”

Gene Sherman, standing ten meters behind Betty’s group, had been listening to her nonstop griping for at least a half hour, as almost as soon as she exited the tram her complaining started. Even Beth had moved off, asking Peter to take-up the position between Beth and her mother, and now even Sherman was beginning to feel a little embarrassed for Betty. Peter, on the other hand, appeared to have the patience of a saint and he was handling her outbursts perfectly. Instructing, calming her, helping with new ideas, keeping her focused on the plan, not allowing her rants to gather momentum…

As the sun rose and cleared the range to the east, right on cue the Breithorn’s long shadows appeared – shadows like dark claws spanning the vast white plain they were crossing to reach the first summit.

But even this innocuous looking plain was littered with hidden dangers. Crevasses barely covered with loose snow were everywhere, their presence betrayed by only the slightest depressions in the otherwise flat white snow. One step into a crevasse meant a sudden fall, with sudden injury or even death being averted only by being roped-up to the people behind you.

So one of the first drills they practiced was how to use their ice axe to stop a sliding fall. Left hand on the bottom of the axe, right covering the crossing of the T, and they practiced falling on moderate slopes then digging the long, sharp part of the T into the snow – while keeping the bottom anchored to their hips. If, as Hans intimated, one of them fell into a crevasse it would be up to the others roped onto that chain to get down and anchored to the snow – in order to keep everyone from disappearing into the maw.

The first summit appeared, from some distance, to be little more than a brooding shoulder of snow, but as they closed on this first summit the trail narrowed until they were making their way up along a knife edge, with a thousand meter sheer drop to their left, and a long, sloping fall to the right. And the further the two groups progressed the narrower the trail became – and the more vocal Betty Cohen’s complaints grew. First her feet hurt, then her hands were too cold. She was tired of leading. Her eyes were watering. Her gripes became a constant refrain, the music they marched too, and as the morning wore on Gene Sherman began to have his doubts. His first doubts, as it happened, about her. 

He’d run into Pretenders everywhere, of course. When he learned to ski, when he and his father first started climbing and SCUBA diving. They were there, always there. When they barely knew how to ski they showed up with ‘pro’ racing skis. When he went to star parties with his simple four inch refractor the Pretenders came with enough equipment to stock a professional observatory. They were everywhere, yet they were nowhere. They did little but get in the way – but, by golly, they were good for business, and yet more and more it seemed like the Pretenders were extending their reach into matters that they simply had no business getting into. Like going into politics or becoming celebrities, and now it seemed that their poisoned reach was beginning to pollute everything they touched.

And that morning Sherman watched Betty Cohen as she griped her way up the Breithorn and he wondered if she too was a Pretender. By mid-morning he was sure that she was…until they’d made their way across to the rock-faces of the central peak…and all of a sudden, when the going became incredibly tough and then outright dangerous, Betty seemed to fall into an unsuspected groove. She climbed with the dexterity of an animal raised on sheer mountain faces and her complaints simply fell away as the danger increased – and his eyes met Hans’ at one point and the guide merely shrugged, as if to say “Hey, you never know…”

The key to deciphering this performance, he decided, must lay with Beth…so he started to watch as she reacted to her mother’s rants. Yet if anything Beth had become a master of concealment, and in a way Sherman realized she’d probably learned to conceal her emotions simply in order to survive around two toxic parents. When he caught fleeting glimpses of the expression on her face he realized he might as well have been looking at rock.

Yet he soon realized that Beth was not at home on the sheer rock face. She was struggling with fear, and the realization hit him hard. She was, he thought, the last person he’d ever considered being a Pretender – so why was she pretending now?

He came up right behind her at one point and stood on the face by her side.

“How’re you feeling?” he asked.

“I’m okay,” she answered, “but I sure wasn’t expecting the gut punch I feel up here.”

“What? The sheer face? The drop-off?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s one thing to look at drops like this in a book or on TV, but when there’s nothing under your feet but a thousand feet of air…”

“Butterflies in the stomach, right?”

“Big time.”

“Do you feel anything, well, like vertigo?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like there’s an invisible hand pulling you, pulling you down, something you can’t control.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head and not avoiding eye contact, “nothing like that. It’s more like I really don’t like looking down right now,” she said, laughing a little.

“Want to stop? Ready to go home?”

She turned and faced him. “You gotta be kidding, right? Man, I’ve never had as much fun in my life, and we just got to the good part!”

“Okay. I had to ask. But if you do, don’t let me be the last to find out, okay?”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Gene.”

+++++

Sherman was sitting on a boulder near the mountain hut’s stone patio, his good knee pulled up close to his chest, maintaining his balance on the rock with an outstretched left hand. The sun was still about a fist above the horizon, and the last of the day’s warmth felt good on his face – even if Hans’ observations about the day’s lack of progress had unsettled him. Now he was nursing a precious bottle of Evian, and at this altitude he thought he could feel his cells soaking up the water. After he finished the bottle he put it down then rubbed the bridge of his nose, even his eyes – just a little – because they were still tearing up in the dry air.

“I am surprised to see you out here, Professor,” Peter said as he walked up, sitting on another boulder just a few feet away. “I had thought you would go right to bed after our meal.”

“Sunset looked too pretty to pass up,” Sherman said, holding up his Leica.

“Ah. The golden light. One never knows when it will come…”

“I think about ten minutes more and it will put on a good show. The clouds look about right.”

“So tell me, what did you think of our day on the rocks?”

Sherman shrugged. “You saw the same thing I did.”

“Indeed. They are both technically competent, but I worry about the emotions we observed. I am curious, but why do you think Beth is here? To compete with her mother?”

“Compete? For what?”

“For you, Herr professor. For your attention, and your affections.”

Sherman shook his head. “That’s never been a question, Peter.”

“Ah, well, then perhaps my observation lacks clarity.”

“Did you grow up in the village too?”

“Too? Oh, you mean Hans. In a way. I grew up in a smaller village down the valley. I went to seminary, became a priest and returned to our parish.”

“You? A priest? Now that I didn’t see coming…”

“Thank you. I will take that as a compliment.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, you see I have never experienced God in a church, or inside a cathedral, yet every time I climb a difficult mountain He and I usually have extended conversations.”

“And you’re sure this isn’t hypoxia?”

“Reasonably so, yes, but of course, one never really truly knows, right?”

“So,” Sherman remarked – pointedly, “you were a priest – with doubts. That sounds somewhat reasonable to me.”

“Perhaps so, yet my superiors failed to understand such a position.”

“Only true believers need apply?”

“Something like that, yes.”

“Well, understandable when you consider the Church is just another money making enterprise.”

Peter shrugged. “You have not seen the good the Church can accomplish, Professor…”

“And yet, here you are.”

“Yes, here I am. May I tell you a story, a kind of parable, really?”

Sherman held up his camera and metered the horizon. “Sure, fire away.”

“Two thieves, perhaps they were bank robbers, got away after a – oh, what is the word…?”

“A heist?”

“Yes, just so. Well, the two had been friends since childhood, best friends, yet one of them was apprehended and eventually he was taken to prison, and for a very long time. The other thief was actually an decent enough fellow, and he had hidden the money well, and had even promised to never spend any of the money they had stolen.”

“Ah, so we’re talking real fiction here.”

Peter chuckled. “Perhaps. Anyway, after forty years the friend was released from prison and he returned to his village and of course he went to his friend’s house and he wanted to know about the money. ‘I have not spend a single franc, my friend,’ the other man said to his friend, to which he replied ‘That is good.’”

“And, I assume, this story has a point?” Sherman asked, framing a shot through the Leica’s viewfinder.

“Indeed. So the friend took the released prisoner to see the money, and all was as the man said it was. The money was all there, undisturbed, so the released prisoner asked his friend how he had managed to avoid the temptation of so much easy money so close at hand, and the friend replied that only his faith in God had prevented him from taking all the money and running away. ‘Faith in God?” the other friend replied. ‘How is this so?’ Well, the other friend replied, because you were in prison and it must have felt as though God had forsaken you, but then one day God came to me and told me that if I kept the money safe I would restore your faith in Him, and that after that happened we could take the money and go live the life we had always dreamed of living.”

“Indeed,” Sherman said, as he composed an image and tripped the shutter.

“Yes. Indeed. But then the man just released from prison walked over and stabbed his friend, very nearly killing the man, but it turned out the police had followed both men and they swooped down and arrested the man just released from prison, and they took the other man to the hospital.”

“There, you see,” Sherman sighed as he advanced the frame and took another picture, “justice after all.”

“Truly? I think not, for once the man was well enough he too was sent to prison, only now all the money was gone, taken by the police and returned to the rightful owners. But now the two men were together again, sharing a cell in the very same prison, and the man who stabbed his friend asked his friend one day, ‘Now, what do you think of your God?’ to which the other man replied, ‘God? What has this to do with God?’ ‘So, you haven’t lost your faith?’ the first friend asked. ‘I haven’t lost a thing,’ the other man replied– just before he turned and stabbed his friend in the back, killing him. ‘You stole my life, just as you stole the life of my friend,’ the murderer said to his dying friend, ‘and now I will spend the rest of my life in this living hell.’ And his dying friend spoke his last words just then, saying to his friend: ‘And you will spend those days alone,’ the friend said as he died. And after his friend was taken away he sat in his cell and he smiled, because he was not alone. He never had been, and he never would be.”

“So, he was with God all along? Is that the point of your story?”

“Perhaps that is the point of religion, Herr Professor.”

Sherman shook his head. “It all sounds rather pointless to me, Peter.”

“And perhaps that is why I am no longer a priest, Professor. You have found the perfect picture here on the side of this mountain. I hope you are able to capture the essence of the moment.”

And spread out before the two men was an orange sky fading to deepest purple overhead, the summer stars overhead just coming out to play, and yet deep within an ancient globular cluster a faint pulsing light arrived, after having crossed the gulf of space and time for thousands upon thousands of years, and astronomers around the world watched, fascinated, knowing that only one astronomer alive might truly understand what was happening.

“Do you see that?” Peter asked, pointing up into the night sky – as the pulsing light had suddenly caught his eye. “What on earth could that be?”

Sherman followed the man’s hand to his old friend, yet when he saw the pulsing light he was at a loss for words. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he whispered. 

“God seldom does, Professor,” the man who talked to God on mountaintops said – as he saw two men in a prison cell face off again and again.

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

Adios, and seeya next time.

Beware of Darkness, III

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

A fairly long romp here, so consider yourself warned. Coffee on the boil?

Music? Of course:

Part III

Ambient Light

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore RoethkeIn A Dark Time

October 2001                  Palo Alto, California

Eugene Sherman was sitting in a hard plastic chair in the waiting room outside of the Radiology North imaging suite at Stanford University Medical Center. He was slumped over in an uncomfortable hard plastic chair with his face in his hands, and he hadn’t slept in 30 hours. He’d driven his mother home to get some rest and had returned just in time to learn that his father had possibly thrown another clot and that he’d been rushed to imaging for a possible diagnosis. He’d been sitting in the same prickly chair for almost an hour when his dad’s neurologist came out with some news…

“I’m sorry, but he’s definitely had another CVA,” the neurologist said in answer to the question he found waiting in Sherman’s eyes. “I don’t think, well, hopefully this one wasn’t as bad as the other two, but we’ll know more later this afternoon.”

“So, he’s going back to the ICU?”

The neurologist nodded. “Yup.”

“Did you make the initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis?”

Again the neurologist nodded. “I did, yes. We’re still in the early stages, so with any luck at all he will have a few, well, he may still get to make a few more good memories before everything slips away.”

Sherman shook his head and then looked away, out a nearby window. “I never saw this coming, Doc. I never saw my old man going out this way…”

“Would you like to talk to someone about it? Maybe an end of life counselor?”

Sherman shook his head again, still looking out the window. “No, I’m not ready to go there just yet.”

“Understand. I’ll see you up in ICU in an hour or so. They should be moving him back up in just a few minutes, and I’ll have a better idea of what comes next by then.”

“Okay. See you there,” Sherman said, then he walked over to the window and looked out over the campus and at all the old oaks leaning as a hot, dry wind came in off the bay – before he saw the old football stadium in the distance. Gauzy memories of Saturdays with his father came rushing in and he felt light-headed for a moment, so he made his way over to the hard plastic chair and sat, face in hand once again as honey colored memories of throwing the football with his old man found their way back to his hands. Then memories of his last Army Navy game his senior year at Annapolis, after he’d driven the Midshipmen down the field for a desperate last minute score to win the game, and his dad had been there on the sideline, cheering him on – just like he always had. When he graduated at Pensacola and got his wings, his dad was there once again, and when he came home from Germany – minus one leg – his father had stayed by his side all the while…getting answers and finding solutions to each new problem that arose.

Always there. He’d always been there for me, hadn’t he?

But…what now? What can I do for him now?

What can I do for mom?

He felt more than saw a girl walk up and stop in front of him. “Are you Mr. Sherman?” the candy-striper said.

He looked up and tried to smile. “Yes, that’s right.”

“I have a message for you,” the girl said as she handed him a note scrawled out on a post-it note.

“Thanks,” he said – but the girl was already walking away so he looked down and read the note – from Betty Cohen: “Please call ASAP,” he read, noting the New York number.

“Well, isn’t this just a kick in the pants?” he sighed, and as there was a phone in the waiting room he walked over and dialed the number, entering his own phone number when prompted for payment information.

“Hello?” Sherman heard Betty Cohen say.

 “Hi there. Gene Sherman here. I just got your message.”

“Oh, Gene! Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”

“No problem. What’s up?”

“Listen, I’m on my way to Kennedy now, but I just wanted to let you know I’m going to be in San Francisco through the weekend, and I wanted to know if you think you might have time to get together for dinner sometime?”

He shrugged, even if the gesture was only to himself, because just then he saw his father in his mind’s eye. “Things are kind of fluid here right now, Betty. Do you have my number at the house?” She read off what she had and he confirmed that was the best number to reach him. “When were you thinking of meeting up?” he added.

“Oh, I thought I’d leave that up to you,” she replied.

“Okay. Well, where are you staying?”

“I’m downtown, at the Stanford Court. I’m slated to speak at a conference on Friday morning, so I’m kind of free until then, and after, for that matter.”

“When does your flight get in?”

He heard her fumbling through papers, then: “Scheduled arrival is eight-ten this evening, on American.”

“Okay…well, how ‘bout I pick you up at the baggage claim and I’ll take you into the city. We can grab a bite and talk over things then?”

“You know, I hate to put you out like that…”

“You’re not. Matter of fact, I kind of need to get out of the house right about now, if you know what I mean.”

“How’s your dad?”

“Getting another MRI right now; he threw another clot.”

“I’m sorry, Gene. I know this is a tough patch, so if…”

“Betty, I friendly face would be great right now, so don’t…”

“You’re sure?”

“I am. I’ll see you at the airport. Now – go, catch your airplane!”

She rang off and then he smiled – though as he thought about the incongruity of her timing he shook his head and chuckled a little. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he whispered, rubbing the top of his left thigh to get the circulation going again, before he made his way back to the ICU.

+++++

Betty Cohen’s flight was ten minutes late, which worked out well enough as traffic had been heavier than expected, but even so he made it to the baggage claim before she arrived – and he was more than a little surprised – once again – by how overtly elegant she appeared as she walked up to him. Most of the men gathered around the carousel cast little covert, sidelong glances her way, their eyes lingering on her legs a little longer than what might be considered polite, and the first thing that popped into his mind was that Markus Cohen was a pure-bred idiot.

“How’s the leg?” she asked as she walked up and kissed him on the cheek.

“A little stiff today. I’ve been walking on it more than I have in a while.”

“Maybe we can get some exercise,” she said, grinning. “You know, maybe work out the kinks?”

He cleared his throat as he met her grin: “Well, I have to say I’m up for anything.”

“Good,” she said as she turned to the carousel, suddenly darting over to the slowly spinning ramp and grabbing a medium sized tan leather suitcase.

“Can I get that for you?”

“Nope. You just work that cane,” she said, her accent now like something out of the Deep South. “I can handle this thing just fine.”

“Okay, I’ll bite. You originally from Georgia, or South Carolina?”

“Oh? What gave me away?”

“Seriously?” he chuckled.

“Savannah,” she answered, though she was laying it on thick now. “Pure low country, I think they call it. Shrimp and grits for breakfast, don’t you know.”

“Never been,” Sherman said, “but I hear the food’s decent.”

Decent? Decent? Those are fightin’ words, Sherman!” she said, laughing gayly.

“Well, I’d think with a name like Sherman…”

“Ooh, that’s right. Say, you ain’t related, are you?”

“He was my great, great grandfather.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Well, yes, I am…but it was worth it to see the look on your face.”

She slapped his arm playfully, then she fell in beside him as he began walking for the day lot, and they made idle chit-chat all the way out to his mother’s car.

“Your mother drives a Porsche?” Betty exclaimed when she saw the old dark green ’78 911 Targa.

“Yup. She’s the original ‘Little Old Lady from Pasadena,’ if you get my drift.”

“Pardon my asking, but how do you manage?”

“Oh, a bit of luck, really. Porsche had the Sportomatic transmission back then, a forerunner of the current Tiptronic version, and Mom just had to have it. It’s kind of complicated, but once you get used to modulating the throttle it’s a decent system.”

“So…no clutch?”

“That’s right, and that means it was just made for people modified just like me!”

“Oh, Gene, I didn’t mean to make fun…”

“You didn’t, Betty. I did. Maybe that’s just the way I deal with it these days, but let’s not tip-toe around my leg, okay? Just say what you’re thinking, because I can handle it.”

“Got it.”

“So, heard from your girl?” he asked as he opened the front boot.

“You do know she has a little crush on you, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I kind of figured something like that was going on, maybe a kind of ‘daddy-transference’ thing…in a Freudian manner of speaking.”

“Ooh, I’m impressed. You speak Freud?”

“Sure. Doesn’t everybody?” he sighed.

“Not really. In fact, you’d be surprised how far he’s fallen out of favor.”

“Doesn’t mean he was wrong, Betty.”

“You’re probably right. Say, can we pop the top, ride into the city with the top off?”

He reached in and popped the levers, then collapsed the top and put the top into it’s bag and then into the boot. “Ready when you are,” he said as he opened her door for her.

“I’ll let you do this just once, okay?” she said.

“Yes Ma’am. Anything you say Ma’am.”

Again she slapped his arm, again playfully, but then she turned and faced him and kissed him full on the lips, and she wasn’t being particularly shy about the way she kissed him, either. 

And so, when they came up for air a few minutes later, Gene Sherman kind of settled back against the car and grinned. “Wow. Where’d that come from?” he asked as he looked into her eyes.

“I didn’t want all our baggage hanging around waiting for us, Gene. I wanted to get this out there in the open so we can see if there’s something there…”

“Well Hell, darlin’…I felt that one in my toes, so if that means something…”

“You think we could head on over to the hotel right now? I kind of feel something going on down there, too.”

“Let’s do that,” he said as he helped her into the low-slung seat, then, ignoring an uncertain stiffness in his groin, he went around and hopped behind the wheel. “So,” he continued, “what did Beth have to say?”

“Well, she did say she thought that you and I would make a cute couple…”

“Cute, huh? Well, I’ve heard worse…”

“I can’t tell you how much you impressed her at dinner last weekend. Her father knocked her for a loop, she was really off balance, but there you were. You know what to say, what to do, and instead of a horrible night she said it turned out to be almost hopeful.”

“Hopeful?” he said. “Now that I did not expect.”

“You have no idea how you make people feel, Gene. I mean, not really.”

He accelerated onto the 101, heading north into the city, and with the top off the buffeting grew too loud for casual conversation, but he was conscious that Betty was looking at him as he drove, and at one point she leaned over and slipped her hand around his arm…and he felt that same electric messaging between them.

A half hour later he pulled up to the valet stand in front of the hotel and, as she went up to the lobby, he put the top back on and instructed the attendant on the intricacies of the transmission before he joined her in the reception. A few minutes later they were in her room, and he was suddenly so nervous, so unsure of his appearance and his self, that he began pulling away from her.

Yet she seemed to have anticipated this reaction and took over from there. She guided him to the precipice and then let him decide whether he wanted to make the leap with her.

It was, he decided, not so far to fall.

+++++

“Hi, Mom. How is he?”

“We had a good night. He managed to say a couple of words, so maybe there’s hope.”

“Oh, that’s so good to hear. How are you this morning?”

“Okay. Are you home now?”

“No, still up in the city.”

“Well, when you come I’ll just go home and get cleaned up a little then come on back. Maybe he’ll recognize you this morning.”

“Maybe so. I’ll be there in an hour.”

“Okay. Just come on up when you get here.”

He rang off and turned to Betty. “You sure you want to come down?”

“Yes, Id like to meet your mother, and I’d like to have a picture of your father in my mind, so, if you don’t mind?”

“No, not at all. You ready?”

When they were back in the Porsche he turned to her once and looked at her, still not sure how to think about last night. Was she on the rebound? Had that bastard really been having one affair after another for the past ten or so years, and had she truly been – essentially – leading a celibate life…? If all that was so…perhaps that explained the explosion of sexual energy he’d experienced. Yet the truth of the matter was simple enough: he’d never experienced anything like last night ever before, and he suddenly felt more unsure of himself than ever before. Sex had never been all that important to him – yet it obviously was to her. She’d been simply insatiable and had only grown more so as the night wore on, yet now, sitting beside him, she was acting in the most demure way imaginable, almost pensive and bordering on the contrite – like last night had been a pleasurable thing, but a guilty pleasure nevertheless.

“So, did you call Beth?” he asked.

“I did. She sends you her love.”

“Her love?”

“Hey…her words, not mine,” she said, grinning sheepishly.

“She is a sweetheart.”

“She always has been, but that’s been her achilles heel, too. Her father was merciless, always taking advantage of her eagerness to please. Kind of like Charlie Brown and Lucy holding that football.”

“Really. I’d imagine she’s got trust issues after going through all that…?”

“You have no idea.”

“Geez, I’m sorry she had to grow up with someone like that.”

“I feel like a lot of it was my fault, but like most physicians I was never around to mitigate.”

“I know. My mom was the same. Dedicated, in love with what she chosen to do with her life.”

“Did you feel that way? Like she loved her work more than you or your father?”

“No, not really. I think I found her passion more inspiring than anything else, and I know my dad certainly did. It’s a calling, Betty. I understand that, and what’s more, I respect the nature of the passion, too.”

“Do you?”

“Yeah, I think so. When you get out there on the floor time just disappears. You can help people, they need you, and you really make a difference. Maybe some people can’t see that, maybe they even get jealous, but that doesn’t take away from the nature of the calling…what you’ve chosen as your life’s work.”

“Mark hated me for it.”

“And yet he married you. Why do you think that happened? Was it love?”

“Mark has never loved anybody, or anything for that matter, other than money.”

“And did you know that going in?”

She looked away. “I saw it in him, but I thought I could…”

“What? Change him?”

She nodded her head. “Yeah.”

“We can’t change what people are, Betty. I’m not really sure such elemental change is even possible. You set yourself up for infinite struggle if you do that, as a spouse, I mean. Yet sometimes we fall in love, or think we do, when all we’re really feeling is a little less lonely.”

“Is that what you’re feeling right now? A little less lonely?”

“Me? Hell, Betty, I feel like a teenager right now. I feel like I’m in love for the very first time.”

She took his hand in hers as she nodded and smiled. “Me, too,” she cried. “And the sun is out and shining on my face and I’m in love with life for the first time in my life, too! Oh, God, I feel like a slave who’s just been cut loose and set free! Oh, Gene, you’ve made me feel this way and I love it. I love you, and I love the way I feel right now.”

“Gee,” he added – a little sheepishly, “why don’t you tell me how you really feel?”

“Say, Beth reminded me. She had an idea and I want you to hear me out, think it over before you answer. Okay?”

“Sure. Fire away.”

“We planned a trip for Christmas vacation this year, the three of us, to go skiing in Switzerland. Beth still wants to go, too, only she wanted me to ask and see if you might like to come with us?”

“What? Skiing…in Switzerland? Are you serious?”

“You know how to ski, don’t you?”

“I did, yes, but that was…”

“And Beth has already checked. There are ski schools there set up to teach people with all kinds of challenges – even blind people, for heaven’s sake – and besides, we booked two rooms so you would have your own space and everything…”

He shook his head while he grinned, then he took a deep breath and stepped right up to the edge. “Well, who am I to argue with the two most headstrong women I know? So sure, I’ll go. Let’s do it!”

“You will!? Really?”

He squeezed her hand and marveled at the return pressure, and the way that made his heart sing. “You know, the way I’m feeling right now, Betty, I’d do just about anything to see you smile like that…”

+++++

Looking out the 757s window on final to Logan, dark splotches of Massachusetts appearing between variegated openings in the low hanging layer of slate blues clouds just below – then this changing world defined by pulsing blue-white strobes inside the softness. Five hours since he’d left her at the airport in San Francisco, five hours since he’d cried when the reality of leaving her slammed home. What an impossible week. What a soft cascade of emotion. 

Finally breaking through to his mother, finally talking to her about all the things they’d never talked about before. His father in and out, little lucid flashes of recognition between variegated splotches of the dark landscape that waited for him just ahead, in a darkness all his own. And when Gene wasn’t lost inside all those mesmerizing cloudscapes, he was finding his way through the lofty softness of Betty Cohen’s entrancing eyes, more often than not his lips grazing the infinite softness of her enveloping smile.

Then lining up for 4-Right, flaring just after clearing the ship channel and then the soft runout after touchdown, and he suddenly realized just how much he missed flying…because this whole Swiss vacation had snapped him out of the silken reveries of all his silent denials. ‘Goddamn! If I can ski…what else can I do? Could I pass the physical, get my license and start flying again? And if I can do that, what would keep me from…”

All these renewed possibilities were suddenly intoxicating in the extreme, and in a very real sense he had Beth Cohen to thank for this expansive new view. As the jet turned off the runway he looked at the terminal building and he was struck by the thought – about the how and the why of this girl asking him out to dinner with her parents. Life turned on a dime, didn’t it?

“You never know when,” he muttered, just under his breath – as the airliner pulled up to the gate and stopped. Doors opened, his wheelchair produced, a RedCap called. After everyone else deplaned he was pushed up the Jetway and down to the baggage claim area, and yes, there she was – and with the same blissfully aware eyes her mother had bestowed on him. Even the same smile graced her face.

And he was surprised how glad he was to see those echoes.

So as she walked up he stood and held out his arms. She fell into his embrace, buried her face in his chest and wrapped her arms around him, and perhaps everyone in the area – if anyone even bothered to notice such things – might have thought this just another heartfelt reunion between father and daughter, because that’s exactly what this looked to be.

And in truth, maybe in their innocence that’s exactly what had sprung up between these two, yet there were other things floating in the air between them, tiny little things in new orbits around halos rarely seen and never heard, but felt most deeply in the heart.

+++++

Two months later, Sherman and Beth Cohen checked their bags at the Swissair counter in Logan’s Terminal 5, then they went upstairs to wait for the boarding call. Sherman had grown increasingly worried about the choice to fly Swissair as they’d declared some sort of bankruptcy earlier, in October, but then again almost every carrier was struggling in the wake of events on September 11th.  He walked up to the huge expanse of glass that looked out over the busy ramp and saw that their jet, a wide body MD-11, was already at the gate, then he recalled this was the same aircraft type that Swissair had lost back in ’98 due to an unconfined electrical system fire…

“You okay?” Beth asked. “You look kind of worried…?”

“Oh, not really worried, but I’ve found that more and more often I feel edgy when I fly commercially, like I’m not the one flying and I can’t see what’s happening on the flight deck and that just bugs the shit out of me.”

“Is that called being a control freak?”

“Probably,” he said, grinning madly from ear to ear.

“Maybe you need something to drink…like a stiff belt of bourbon or something…?”

He looked at his wrist and shook his head. “Nah…I want to keep close to the gate.”

She nodded. “How’s your leg feel?”

“You know, not too bad. Those exercises have really helped. So did the new padding.”

“Good. Do you remember what time Mom’s flight left?”

“Twenty minutes ago…that is, if they left on time. I’m going to go pick up a couple of magazines or something. Want anything?” he asked.

“Maybe a bottle of water?”

He nodded and started to walk off, but the announcement for pre-boarding their flight came over the PA and he stopped and turned to Beth, shrugging as she came up and took his arm in hers. 

“Goodness, but you are as antsy as a cat on a hot tin roof!” she sighed.

“I guess its been a while since I took an honest-to-Pete vacation…”

“Maybe you should take more, you know?”

The gate agents checked their boarding passes and waved them on, and Sherman held on to Beth with one arm while they walked out the Jetway, and they made their way to seats 4A&B and he stood aside in the aisle and waited for her to get her small carry-on stowed. “You want the window or the aisle?” he asked. 

“I took a water pill,” she whispered. “You take the window…not that it matters much.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. It’ll be dark all the way, so what’s to see?”

Sherman grinned. “Stars, for one thing, but there’s a good chance we’ll have a strong aurora tonight, and we’re on the left side of the aircraft so we might catch a sight of it.”

“Don’t wake me, okay?”

He chuckled at her lack of enthusiasm. “Got it,” he said as he got himself buckled into his seat.

“Did you finish grading our exams?”

“I did.”

“So? I’ve been dying to ask. Are you going to keep me in suspense until we get back?”

“Yup.”

She shook her head and groaned. “No preferential treatment, huh?”

“Nope.”

“Good for you, Professor Sherman,” she said – with a straight face.

Yet about all he could do was shrug – though maybe he grinned just a little. “How did that ethics paper come out?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I felt kind of lost trying to defend my final position, like I was grasping at straws, ya know?”

He nodded. “Ethical dilemmas are often like that. No clear cut solution, so what matters most is the justification you construct to support your decision. But hey, life is kind of like that too, I guess.”

“So you think ethics is good preparation for life?”

“Hardly. It might be a good framework to employ when you’re confronted with an unusually complex ethical dilemma, but common sense and a decent moral compass are really all you need to get by in life. Spending hours to work out the moral underpinnings of a questionable situation is a luxury most people just don’t have.”

“I’m surprised to hear you say that.”

“Oh really? Why’s that?”

“Well, you strike me as very ethical…”

“Common sense, remember? And a strong moral compass?”

“So, you’re saying, in effect, that some people are born better able to handle difficult moral problems?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Sure you did. Because it seems to me that lots of people lack both those things and who knows, maybe they’re born that way. You know about Piaget and Kohlberg?”

“Of course.”

“So, people aren’t born with those things, they develop over time, and that implies that a person’s environment…”

“Beth?”

“Yes?”

“Are you sure you really want to talk about this for the next ten hours?”

She smiled and shook her head. “Oh, crap! I’m sorry…I’ve been arguing about all this stuff for the past two weeks and…”

“And it’s hard to shift gears. Yeah, I get that, but it’s time to decompress now. Just shake your hands and muss up your hair, do whatever it takes to leave school behind for the next two weeks…”

“But I’m going to stress about my grade the whole time, so how do you expect me to…”

He leaned over and whispered in her ear, and she smiled.

“Really?” she asked.

“Yup,” he said as a flight attendant walked up with hot towels and champagne. “And this is exactly what you need to cut the cord, Beth.”

“A hot towel?”

“Yup.”

+++++

They were early and met Betty when she deplaned in Geneva, and they grabbed a shuttle to the main train station in the city center. They caught an express that rounded the north shore of Lake Geneva on its way to Lausanne and Montreux. The train turned south and east there and proceeded up the narrow Rhone Valley to Visp, where they transferred to the much smaller line that led directly to Zermatt, and Sherman seemed to spend the entire trip from Geneva on with his face turned to watch the passing landscape…

“My, my, my,” Betty Cohen said after about a half hour of this, “you sure are quiet this morning. Did you get up on there wrong side of the bed or something?”

He turned and looked at Betty, then at Beth. “No sleep last night,” he said as he yawned. “Someone decided she really wanted to stay up and talk.”

“I slept like the dead,” Betty said, grinning guiltily. “At least I did after they served dinner.”

“Did they roll a cart down the aisle?” Beth asked.

“Yes,” Betty replied, “and it was loaded with roast beef and Beef Wellington, carved right there in the aisle.”

“We had creamed spinach,” Beth added, “and Yorkshire pudding! It was almost surreal!”

“Same on our flight,” Betty sighed. “Then it was lights out for yours truly…”

“Not on our airplane,” Sherman growled. “We talked…ethics…all the way to Ireland, then we switched over to what it must be like near the center of a super massive globular cluster.”

“Oh?” Betty said, casting a quizzically sidelong glance Beth’s way while she wondered what was going on. “Now that must have been…interesting.”

“Interesting?” Sherman said as he turned back to the passing landscape. “You should play more chess.”

Betty caught the sinking inflection in Gene’s voice and immediately understood. After Betty had told Beth that she and Gene would share a room once they arrived in Zermatt, her daughter’s whole demeanor about the trip had changed. Beth had, in fact, gone from open and excited to walled off and almost combative, and things had only grown worse in the weeks since. And now that she knew Gene understood the state of play she decided it was time to act.

But just then Gene turned to Beth and patted her on the knee. “You know, I’m so tired I think I’ll be a real drag on you two for a day or so. Why don’t the two of you take the big room so I can catch up on some shut-eye?”

Beth watched her daughter brighten up instantly, yet she wasn’t exactly sure what had flipped her switch…the import of his words…or was it the familiar pat on the knee – but then Betty had looked at Sherman, sure she was reading him well enough but not at all sure why he’d caved so easily. She was sure he’d never get involved with a girl Beth’s age, but then again they’d just spent almost four months ‘together’ – albeit in a classroom setting. What was going on now?

“These cities look like Bauhaus run amok,” he said to no one in particular, “but as soon as you get out in the country everywhere you look you see another mountain chalet, even on flat farmland. I wasn’t expecting that.”

They passed through smaller mountain towns, stopping just once at Sierre before the express departed on the last stretch to Visp. Once there, Gene followed Betty and Beth across to the narrow gauge Visp-Zermatt Line, and they boarded the small First Class carriage and settled in for the final 80 minute ride – and almost as soon as Sherman sat he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When he opened his eyes he realized the train had stopped, and Beth was shaking his shoulder.

“Come on, Sleepy-head. Time to get up…we’re here!”

He sat up, wondering how – or why – his mouth felt like a horse had slept in there, but he stood and as suddenly recoiled as a piercing, knife-like pain arced from his stump up his spine.

“You alright?” Beth asked, automatically getting under his right arm and holding him up, maternal concern clear in her eyes, and in her voice.

And this complex set of reactions was not lost on Betty Cohen who, nevertheless, pretended to be oblivious to the exchange as she walked out of the carriage and then into the thin mountain air. She waited for them out there, watching as her daughter helped Sherman get settled with his cane once he was on firm pavement, then she noticed he was sweating and in real pain and she too went to him.

“Do you need anything?” she whispered in his ear. 

“May be an early night for me,” he groaned. “I gotta get this contraption off my leg ASAP. How long a walk do we have?”

“You stay right here,” Betty said to Sherman, then she turned to Beth: “Come with me, and I mean right now,” she snarled, more than a little cross now.

She found the horse-drawn carriage from the hotel and instructed the driver to get their luggage loaded then to help get Herr Professor Sherman into the carriage. When they arrived at the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, Betty checked them in and made sure that Beth was put in the single, second floor room and that she and Gene Sherman shared the large top floor suite, then she had the hotel staff get his wheelchair and bring it up to their suite. After their luggage was delivered she helped Sherman out of his clothes and into the jacuzzi-tub, and she took her time rubbing his shoulders, then his left thigh. She examined his stump as she dried and helped him into bed, then she stormed off to her daughter’s room, by now seething with barely contained fury.

Beth was unpacking in her room, her lower lip protruding in full pout mode when her mother knocked on the door. By the time Betty left her daughter, and that was almost a half hour later, Beth was in tears and one more time Betty regretted the day she’d met Markus Cohen. She asked the concierge where a certain private ski school was located and took off in that direction, because she had work to do if this vacation was going to go according to plan.

Because Betty Cohen planned literally everything – and with the precision of General George Patton’s final North African campaigns – and she’d be damned if she was going to let her daughter interfere. This vacation WAS going to come off as planned, but as was always the case, it was going to be up to her to make it come together!

She arranged for time early tomorrow morning so this specialized ski school could get equipment fitted to Gene’s special needs, and with that done she walked over to a ski shop close to the hotel to pick out her’s and Beth’s ski’s for the morning. She looked at her watch and noted their dinner reservation was an hour off so she walked back to the hotel and went back to Beth’s room.

“Are you ready for dinner?” Betty asked.

“I’m not hungry,” came her daughter’s sullen reply. And she was already under the duvet, another bad sign…

“It’s not like you to pull this kind of nonsense, Beth. Do you want to tell me what’s going on between you and Dr. Sherman?”

“What’s going on? Are you kidding, Mom? Nothing’s going on! Can’t you see that?”

“And that’s the problem, isn’t it? You want something from him, right? Something more?”

Beth nodded, then she sat up on the side of her bed, clearly scrapping for a fight. “You’re goddamn right I do. I’m nineteen years old, Mom, and I’ve never had a father…not a real father…and I want one who isn’t going to treat me like a punching bag, ya know? Someone who’ll actually love me for who I am…you know, the fat kid who always gets the highest grades in the class…because that’s me, Mom! The fat girl with the zits on her forehead. The fat kid who eats too much. The fat kid who’ll never do anything good enough. That’s me, Mom. That’s the way my father treated me, and you know what, Mom? I’m glad he’s gone! I’m glad I don’t have to watch him verbally beat you up whenever he doesn’t get his way, and I’m glad I don’t have to go to sleep at night hoping he won’t come to my room and humiliate me before he runs off somewhere, probably to his fucking mistress’s place… So yeah, Mom, I want something more!”

Betty Cohen stood there in shock, her arms crossed protectively over her chest, then she pursed her lips and shrugged. “Okay. Get dressed now. We’ll meet you in the dining room in a half hour.”

“Right. Sure thing, Mom. Whatever you want, ya know, ‘cause I sure don’t want to disappoint you, ya know?”

She went to the elevator in a dizzy huff and hit the call button, not really wanting to wake Gene up but needing him tonight, of all nights, to be there for Beth. She rode up in silence, barely looking at a spry French couple who seemed to be studiously ignoring her, then she walked down to their suite and slipped into their room…

…only to find Gene up and ready for dinner, dressed in black  –  and with his leg on!

And she ran into her arms and burst into tears. “I just had a run-in with Beth…”

“I can only imagine…” Sherman sighed as he ran his fingers through her hair.

“It seems she wants a father, Gene. She said things she must have been holding in for years.”

“I know.”

“Has she talked to you about Markus?”

“Yup. Every Wednesday night for the last two months.”

“Every…what do you mean?”

We go out to dinner on Wednesdays, usually to the Chart House, and she vents.”

“She…vents?”

“Yeah, about her dad, about her anger, about you?”

“Me? What on earth do you two talk about concerning me?”

“Anger, for the  most part. How alone she felt, how – in her words – you didn’t stand up for her.”

“That’s not exactly true, Gene.”

“And believe me, Betty, I get that. A lot goes on behind closed doors that kids don’t see, that they aren’t supposed to see or hear, but Betty, she needed someone to listen to her and she chose me. I wasn’t then and I’m not going to turn away from her now.”

She kissed him just then, hard, on the lips. “Oh, God, how I love you,” she whispered.

“Ditto, Kid. Now, think they serve up decent grub in this place, or is there a McDonald’s around here we can hit?”

+++++

“You were a good skier once, no?” his instructor remarked.

“I could usually get down the mountain in one piece,” Sherman sighed, adjusting to the unusual pressure of the ski on his prosthetic leg.

“I still think we are rushing things just now, Herr Professor. Outriggers and one ski would be…”

“Would make me look like a gimp, Hans. And I’m not into the whole gimp thing, ya know?”

His instructor shook his head but knew stronger skiers often had the most trouble adjusting to getting out onto the snow again. They pushed and pushed until they finally broke down and settled on lowered expectations, but after two hours on the mountain with this navy pilot he wasn’t so sure this was going to happen. Stubborn and hard-headed weren’t adequate words to describe this man, and he was much stronger than he first appeared.

But after two runs without a fall on the very short, very easy run under the Sunnegga chairlift, his instructor decided to take Sherman up to the midway station on the Blauherd lift, and try the longer though still easy run down to the Finoeln chair; if he could handle that run a few times today the crusty old pilot might be ready to tackle the Gornergrat in another day or so.

“Are you ready to try a longer run, Herr Professor?”

“Please, call me Gene. The whole professor thing was never my bag, if you know what I mean.”

“I do, yes. I taught engineering, then quit to come home and make specialized skis for special needs skiers.”

“You’re from Zermatt?”

“Yes.”

“Have you climbed that?” Sherman said, pointing up the valley to the hulking Matterhorn.”

“Seventy five times. I am a guide when the weather turns warm.”

“Any people like me ever make the summit?”

“A few, yes, but Gene, this is not recommended. It is a very difficult achievement for even dedicated climbers.”

“My dad and I climbed a lot when I was a kid. Yosemite, mainly, but we did Shasta, Hood, and Rainier one summer.”

“So you have experience on ice?”

“Yup.”

“If you are serious about this, Gene, I will get you to the top, but you will need to be in the best shape of your life. You understand this?”

“Define this, please?”

“You must be able to run at least ten kilometers at sea level, and be able to complete fifty chin-ups. You know these?”

“I do a hundred, three times a week.”

Hans looked at Sherman anew. “Your leg still gives you trouble?”

Sherman nodded. “Yeah, sometimes a lot, but Betty thinks I need a better prosthetic, and she’s found a lab in New York that makes legs for people who do marathons.”

“Then start work at a climbing wall when you get home, and work on your rope skills too. If this is something you really want to do, please let me know by the end of March. The best times fill up rapidly after that.”

“When is that? July?”

“Usually the last two weeks, yes, but the crowds can be daunting if the weather is good. Guides are not required, so tourists come up and try…”

“How many die?”

“Usually ten or so. Sometimes a few more, but much depends on the weather.”

“When I was a kid I looked at pictures of this mountain and wondered…”

“It starts that way for most. With me, the mountain was outside my window and my father was a guide, so…”

“You’re a lucky man, Hans.”

“You know, after hearing all the things you have accomplished I would say that you are the lucky one, but isn’t it always that way?”

Sherman nodded. “Yeah, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”

“Exactly. Just so. It is a human thing to never feel contentedness, even when contentment is all around.”

Sherman looked up at the mountain and sighed. “Ain’t that the truth, Hans. Ain’t that the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

+++++

Though breakfast and dinner were included with their rooms, after a full day skiing their second day Betty announced they were headed out to a hut near the bottom of the Sunnegga area that served a very special fondue in the evening, and at five-thirty a horse drawn carriage came for them.

How’s your leg?” Beth asked after she watched Sherman almost hop up into the carriage.

“Good. You know, I think I’ve been taking it a little too easy on the thing. What a wake up call, ya know? Time to really start pushing. Time to get in shape again, ya know?”

“Hans tells me you’re doing well enough to come up the Gornergrat tomorrow,” Betty remarked. “Would you mind if we joined you?”

“Would I mind?” Sherman cried, “would I mind! Hell, darlin’…I’m countin’ on it!” He took a deep breath and turned to Beth, smiling now. “Damn, but this place sure must agree with you. You’re as pretty as a peach,” he said, taking her hand and giving it a little squeeze. 

She smiled too, even if she was a little unsure of his unusually upbeat performance. “I hear you’re doing pretty good up there. What did you do today?”

“Well, Hans wasn’t sure, but I talked him into going up the Rothorn and we skied up there all day, then we came down all the way to the village. Man, I was whupped. Never felt so tired, but then the endorphins hit. What a rush!”

“You skied all the down the Rothorn?” Beth said, incredulous. “To the base?”

“I did, and I feel great!”

“We were going to try,” Betty added, “to ski all the way down past Riffelalp but there’s just not enough snow yet. Maybe this next storm will drop enough.”

“What do you think about doing Cervinia?” Beth asked. “I hear it’s a pretty long run?”

“I’d love to do that one at least once,” Betty added.

“I’ll ask Hans, see what he thinks.”

“See if he can come along with us?” Betty said. “He sounds really dialed in.”

“He is. You know, he takes people up the Matterhorn in the summer,” he said, watching their reaction.

“You mean, people climb that thing,” Beth said, turning around and looking up at the mountain. “Why?”

“Good question,” Sherman sighed. “When I think of a reason I’ll let you know.”

Betty watched this exchange with interest, because she could see it in Gene’s eyes. He wanted to do it. He wanted to make the climb.

But then again, for that matter so did she. In fact, she’d wanted to all her life. That’s why she’d decided to come to Zermatt in the first place, and that’s why she’d hooked Gene up with an instructor who was also a guide. And it really didn’t matter to her if Beth came or not. She turned and looked up at the mountain and smiled. It seemed to speak to her just then, to call out her name, and yet she never wondered why…

+++++

The next morning they took the Gornergratbahn up to the old weather station and observatory and they skied the gentle slopes up there in the sun all through the morning, then once again the group – Beth, Betty, and Gene, as well as both of their instructors – skied all the way back down to the village, an exhausting slog that sent everyone straight to bed after a brief attempt at dinner…with the proviso that everyone rise early so they could start the very long day needed to make it down to Cervinia and back.

They woke at six and had a lite breakfast of fruit and poached eggs, and met their instructors at the entrance to the Trockner Steg lift, and they began the almost hour-long journey up to the Theodulpass, and Hans liked to boast this was the only ski run in the world with a passport control checkpoint at the summit – though it was often unmanned. After the group arrived at the pass everyone stretched and cried out as an icy torrent of wind-driven air bit into all their soft, tired muscles, but then Hans led them all in a series of exercises to loosen up the knots and kinks. Yet the sun had just barely cleared the mountains to the east when the took off, and so they were soon skiing in deep, cold shade. The terrain around the pass was wide open, too, with no trees in sight, and depth perception was limited in the dim light, so when Beth fell she tumbled to a flailing stop covered from head to toe with powdered-sugary snow, and she sat there in a ragged heap, suddenly and completely disoriented, and almost in tears.

But when Gene slid to a stop just under her position and helped her stand, she grabbed onto him and held him close – and tight, and he seemed to feel more than hear she was crying…

“Hey, kiddo, you alright?” he asked…gently.

“No, not really. I’m cold and I can’t tell which hurts more, my thighs or my feet.”

“My head,” he sighed, “feels like an elephant is sitting on it.”

She laughed and held on to him tighter still, and right then and there, deep down she had to admit she loved him so much that that hurt most of all, because she could never have him, and never even tell him…

She let go and stood up straight and he helped brush the snow off her back and legs, then they skied down to the others.

“Bad fall?” Betty asked.

“No, not really,” Beth said, and probably more cheerfully than she felt. “I think I just got disoriented and lost my balance.”

“Try to look further down the mountain,” her instructor said helpfully, “and look where you want to start your next turn.”

Beth nodded and blew out a deep breath. “Ready when you guys are,” she said.

They took the long way down the valley, the entire run devoid of trees but the sun finally cresting the ridge behind them and dramatically warming them up, and they made a few more runs before they skied down to Cervinia for lunch. 

And there was no fondue over here on the Italian side, no raclette or other Swiss mainstays. The menus in this village were heavy, four course pasta and veal feasts that took hours to complete, and they simply didn’t have enough time for all that. Hans took them to a small basement bistro that served hearty mountain fare to instructors and guides, and when she saw a huge stone fireplace roaring away in a corner, Beth went right to it and sat on the stone hearth, unbuckling her ski boots while her back soaked up the heat.

Her mother came over and sat next to her, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders and pulling her close. “You did really well this morning,” Betty said encouragingly.

“Mom, I’m really beat. Could we take a day off tomorrow, maybe just hang around the village and check things out?”

“That’s why we came for two weeks,” Betty said. “I think we could all use a day off!”

“Oh thank God,” Beth sighed. “I really didn’t want to let you guys down.”

“That would be impossible,” Gene said as he sat in a chair he’d just pulled over. “I can’t believe how good you’re doing up on that steep stuff, Kiddo! For an intermediate skier, you’re doing great!”

“Me?”Beth cried. “I’ve got two legs, Professor Sherman…and I look at you and know I can’t let you down. I’ve got to keep up, ya know?”

Gene nodded as another tumbler fell into place. “Listen, Beth, I raced in high school so you need to realize that once upon a time I was actually a pretty good skier, and though it’s been a while it’s all coming back to me. Sure, I’ve got to relearn things because of the leg thing, but sports have always come easily to me. Anyway, in my book, Kiddo, you’re doing fantastic.”

Beth nodded but she looked up into his eyes just then. “You think you could do me a favor?” she asked.

“Sure,” he nodded. “Name it.”

“Stop calling me ‘Kiddo,’ okay?”

He looked into her eyes, saw the hurt inside and he nodded. “Done,” he said. “Now…Hans tells me they make a mean lasagna here. Wanna go for it?”

By the time lunch settled and they’d made it all the way back up to the Theodulpass, the group had just enough time to ski back down to the village before darkness settled over the valley, but as they reached the lower slopes – which turned out to be little more than trails cattle had worn through the trees over the ages – they ran into icy patches and even a few rocks, so before they reached the hotel they’d each fallen at least once. Hans and Gene more than once.

When they reached the hotel, Gene told Hans they were going to take the day off tomorrow…

“Oh, thank goodness!” Hans said. “My knees could use a complete day in the hot-tub! What about the day after? Do you want to continue with the lessons?”

“Yes, I do. At least for another three or four days, but I was wondering. Could you meet me in the climbing center sometime tomorrow? I want to study up on the mountain, get some reading material…?”

“Absolutely! Why don’t we meet there just before noon, and we can get some lunch after and talk.”

They shook hands and Gene joined Beth and Betty in the ski room, telling the technician they were taking the day off tomorrow so they’d not need their skis in the morning, then they took the elevator up to their rooms, agreeing to meet for dinner in an hour or so. After they made it to their room, Beth threw off her parka and muttered “You know, Gene, I think I’m too tired to screw tonight. What about you?”

But Gene Sherman was already curled up on the bed, gently snoring away, his ski boots still on.

Betty went over and helped him sit up and undress, but by then he was ready for dinner. “Geez, I’m sorry, Betty. I must’ve just passed out or something…”

“You’re exhausted, Gene. And so am I. The last mile, in those trees, I thought I was going to just quit. My legs were burning, they were shaking, and I was sure if I fell I wouldn’t be able to get up…”

“I need to check my stump. I think it may be bleeding.”

She helped him out of his bibs and he undid the harness that held the prosthesis to his “residual leg,” and when she pulled the sock off his stump she shook her head. “You’re blistered, alright,” she said. “Let me get some gauze, and I’m calling for the wheelchair.”

He shook his head. “Goddamnit,” he snarled. “How bad does it look?”

“It’s been worse,” she sighed. “Maybe we should take a couple of days off?”

He looked at her and nodded. “You know, I don’t think Beth will put up much of a fight about that.”

“She seemed pretty upset up there – for a little bit, anyway. What did she say to you?”

“She really didn’t say much, Betty. It was more like a physical thing, the way she was hanging on to me. I felt need, real need on her part, like she needed me to hold her just then… I don’t know…does that make any sense?”

She nodded. “It does, because I need you to hold me, too. Sometimes it hits me real hard, Gene. And yes, it’s a physical reaction. Sometimes I feel that if I can’t grab hold of you and hold you tight there’s some kind of invisible hand out there that’s going to yank you away from me, and keep you away…”

He looked at Betty, not really knowing what to say or how to meet this immediate need, but instinctively he held out his arms and she came to him. “Nothing’s going to take me away from you, Betty. I love you, and there’s no force in the universe that’s going to change that.”

She buried her face in his neck and held on tight, yet in that instant he was hit by echoes of Beth’s clinging needs and the thought hit him…were these two women really so very different? He loved Betty and by now that was an unquestioned fact, yet at the same time he had feelings, even strong feelings for Beth. Were these the feelings a father usually had for his daughter? He didn’t know, yet he could barely grasp the implications of so many conflicted, and conflicting emotions. What made the whole thing particularly confusing was the sensation of touch, because when he held either there was almost no way to distinguish Beth from Betty. Their skin was identical, even the so-called galvanic response of their skin on his own. Their eyes were identical, so too their mouths. Betty was a little taller, Beth was indeed a little fuller-bodied, yet the differences were trivial, and he imagined that in ten years Beth would be indistinguishable from her mother. So, he wondered – while he clung to Betty – would he ever really be able to think of Beth as some kind of daughter?

The phone rang and Betty picked it up.

It was Beth, down in the lobby: “Mom? Are you guys coming down?”

“I’m putting some gauze on Gene’s leg, and as soon as his wheelchair gets here we’ll be down.”

“You want to eat here or go out for fondue?”

“I take it fondue sounds good to you?”

“Uh-huh, if you guys don’t mind?”

“Okay. Ask someone at the front desk which restaurant we should try, will you? Someone’s at the door now, so we should be down in a minute.”

“Help me with my leg, would you? I don’t want to use the chair tonight…”

“It looks pretty angry, Gene. You sure?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I’ll just pop some naproxen, see if that gets me through the night.”

“Everyone else I know would be mainlining opiates by this point. Gene, I don’t think you ought to push so hard…”

“I’ve been wimping out the last ten years, getting soft. Time to change that.”

“Is that what this whole Matterhorn thing is all about?”

He looked at her and shook his head. “You sure you’re not a shrink?”

She smiled. “Sorry, but I really enjoyed my psychiatry rotation. I gave it a thought…”

With his leg now securely attached, he grabbed his cane and stood, gradually shifting weight onto his raw left stump. “Yeow! Now that smarts!”

“Want the chair?”

“Hell no!” he growled as he walked to the door. “So, we doing fondue tonight?”

“I think that’s what Beth wants.”

“Good, good. Nothing better than a bunch of bread and a trough full of oily cheese. Yum!”

+++++

He met Hans at the Climbing Center late the next morning and they went over the basics: conditioning, equipment, and of course, the direct costs of securing his services as a guide and all the ancillary costs like lodging on the mountain and expendables like rope and such.

“It won’t be inexpensive, Professor, but most people who undertake such a climb are rarely concerned about the cost.”

“What do most of your clients say is their main reason?”

“The challenge of climbing one of the most difficult mountains in the world, and certainly one of the top five in Europe. It is not the Eiger North face, you understand, yet nevertheless the Matterhorn presents unique challenges, of which the most difficult is the mental challenge associated with making the entire ascent on a razor sharp ridge line. As such, the summit is one of the most terrifying places on earth.”

“From what I’ve read so far that route isn’t all that technically demanding…”

Hans laughed. “That is true enough…for the ascent. Yet what most people fail to adequately consider is that you come down the mountain by exactly the same route, but here is the thing, the real problem. When you are climbing up you are looking up, and you are slowly pulling yourself up one step at a time. Yet when you are coming down you are looking down, but recall you are coming down a knife edge and gravity is now working against a slow descent. Gene, the simple truth is that the descent is much more difficult, and most people find this part of the affair much more challenging psychologically.”

“Yeah, I can see that. There isn’t exactly an elevator to take you back down to the bottom, is there?”

“Yes, our mountain is very unlike the Eiger in that regard. There are many easy routes down after you gain the Eiger’s summit, including by train. Not so with Matterhorn. In fact, it is an odd truth that here almost all accidents happen on the descent. The saying is, when you are on the summit, anyway, that if you feel yourself falling you must yell out “I am falling – to the right!” so that your guide may have time to jump to the left and keep you from taking the Matterhorn elevator, which is a thousand meter nonstop free-fall down to the rocks in the valley. And Gene, here there are almost always accidents, and every summer, too. And so we usually see many serious injuries, and also many fatalities. You must consider this when you make your plans.”

“Cheerful thought, Hans. Thanks.”

The guide shrugged. “This is a part of the allure, Gene. There are no great challenges without equally great risks.”

“Are you familiar with the concept of Death Wish?”

“I am indeed, Gene. The greater question you might consider here and now is how familiar are you with the concept? Now, I see two women waiting for you out on the street. Shall we take them to lunch?”

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

Oh, maybe this is a little more appropriate:

Beware of Darkness, II

Here’s the second section of Eugene Sherman’s part of our evolving story. This is a little longer than the first section, so maybe a cup of tea is in order before you settle in?

And yes, music matters, just as it always does, so give this one a try. If that one doesn’t work you’d better try this one. Sorry, but if neither one gets you there, well, there just ain’t a whole lot I can do for you. So there…or, well, maybe just read for a bit and see if the spirit hits you?

Part II

Incident Light

Boston, Massachusetts       October, 2001

That place among the rocks–is it a cave, 

Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.

Theodore RoethkeIn A Dark Time

Most days he walked to class, though he still found the experience painful – some days more than others. And when those ‘special’ days came he used a wheelchair, and his students knew better than to cross swords with him on the days he rolled into his classroom – usually a few minutes late. Maybe because they knew his reputation – because almost everyone on the MIT campus did: The stricken warrior, the aura of the Annapolis grad and the Naval Aviator was never far from anyone’s mind when Professor Sherman came into a room. No, everyone turned and looked and judged the man by the shadow he cast, and not just because this spry, fifty-something year old man still looked like an actor called up from central casting to play the part of the fallen warrior. He was lean, and muscularly so, only now with close-cropped steel gray hair, and Sherman still had both a pilot’s peregrine eyes and the withering, almost caustic professorial wit that almost always kept everyone at a respectful, if somewhat fearful distance. When students got him talking “about things” they learned about his years at Stanford and of his three years quarterbacking the Cardinals, and afterwards these “bull sessions” the hushed, whispered awe surrounding his mystique only grew more intense, and as is usually the case, the aura surrounding the man grew a little more exaggerated with each new retelling.

He was late today, and yes, because he was in his chair. Students in the first few rows – the bright ones –  could see the pain in his eyes, the thin bead of sweat on his brow, and they knew he’d had a rough night. And that could only mean one thing…

Pop quiz.

Unless one of them could refocus his energy and somehow get him talking. Get him to tell one of his legendary “war stories,” because he lost track of time when he fell into that trap – and, if they were clever enough, they might get him to forget about a last minute quiz. Hey, it was always worth a try, right?

But he wasn’t even wearing his leg today, which meant he wouldn’t even try to stand and address the class…and that was something his students dreaded most of all. Instead, and as usual, he switched on the overhead projector and laid a new transparency on the panel…and there it was. A huge, daunting problem in celestial mechanics, almost – but not quite –  like the one from the textbook, and to arrive at the solution everything from radial velocities to doppler shifts would be needed for the solution.

“I’m assuming everyone finished chapter three over the weekend? Let’s take a moment to go over any questions you have before you break off into your groups. And, oh, by the by, your answers will need to be on my desk by the end of office hours on Friday…”

Their questions were more involved than expected and this part of class lasted longer than he’d wanted, though he smiled when a couple of kids tried to get him talking about g-forces in jet aircraft for the umpteenth time. Five minutes before class ended he reminded them that their TAs would be on hand to help with any questions during tomorrow’s lab sessions, and as he sent the class on their way he looked down and closed his eyes – the pain now overwhelming.

His hands were shaking by then, too, because the shattered remnants of his left femur felt just like shards of glass tearing into his thigh muscles once again – but that was ‘just the nature of the injury’ – or so his doctors said, implying there was nothing more they could do to help. But just where did that leave him, he asked his physicians? Vicodin?  Percocet? Get strung out on pain meds until he blew his liver out – or worse, before the inevitable overdose took him out. Then what? He knew one thing: there was no way he’d be able to keep teaching if he was strung out on pain meds, yet with so much lingering pain for how much longer could he keep real focus in the classroom. How much longer could he be worthy of teaching at this level…?

“Professor Sherman? Are you okay?”

He looked up, saw one of those bright faces from the front row looking down at him, her eyes full of concern. “I’m fine, Beth,” he sighed.

“You don’t look so fine, Doc,” she said, her voice laden with a mother’s concern, and a fair amount of maternal sarcasm, too.

He shrugged. “It is what it is, Beth. Now, is there something I can help you with?”

“Are you going to your office?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll push you over, if that’s okay…”

“I don’t suppose my asking you not to would make the slightest difference, would it?”

“No, not in the least.”

He shook his head and looked away. “Well then, please, lead on…oh, great ship of state!”

She shouldered her book-bag and got behind his wheelchair and started for the hallway, then she pushed him down to the elevators. Once inside she hit the L button and they rode down to the ground floor in silence; once out of the building a crisp autumn sun hit them and she stopped for a moment and turned his chair to face the sun.

“Better take advantage of this sunshine now,” Beth Cohen sighed, “because a month from now it’ll be long gone.”

“And is that your answer to our little problem in radial velocity?” 

But Sherman closed his eyes and leaned back, letting the warmth wash over his face for a few minutes – and the funny thing about it was how good the heat felt, and how he felt a little better for spending this little hidden moment out there on the quad – but then she started to push him over to Maclaurin Hall, and from there on up to the Physics Department offices on the fourth floor.

She pushed him into his office, clearly a little winded. “Maybe you should think about getting one of those motorized chairs!” she said, grinning a little.

“Are you saying I weigh too much?” he snickered.

“Who? Me?” she replied, laughing along with him a little as she maneuvered his chair behind the old oak desk in his book-lined office. “No, but I did have a few questions for you…”

“Well, then, take a seat and tell me all about the universe,” he sighed, though he smiled at the girl because – honestly – he liked her.

“Actually, I wanted to see if you were going to be around this weekend?”

“It’s Homecoming Weekend. I have to attend the game, so of course I’ll be around.”

“Well, you see, the thing is…my parents wanted to meet you, and my mom wanted me to ask and see if maybe you’d like to join us for dinner after the game on Saturday…?”

“I don’t have any other plans, so I can’t see any reason why not. Unless something unexpected comes up, let your parents know I’d love to join them – and you, of course.”

“Really? That’d be swell! I’ll call dad and let him know.”

“You’re from New York, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes. How’d you know that?”

I actually read up on all my students, strange as that may seem. I like to know backgrounds and expectations, if nothing else.”

“How do you…”

“Oh, I read your admissions packets. Grades, scores, activities and that horrible essay…”

“Oh dear God…” Beth sighed. “You didn’t…?”

“Interested in observational astronomy since you were seven years old. Math Club, Physics Club, Chess Club, Debate Team, and you even played lacrosse. And the piano, I seem to recall…”

“You remember all that?”

“My dear, it does no good to read a thing and not remember what you’ve learned.”

“It’s just that…”

“Bosh! You train your mind! You read, you recall. You test yourself constantly.”

“You do that with…”

“Yes, with all my students. I owe them, and you, no less. Now, you didn’t push me all the way over here because of my charm and good looks, so what’s on your mind?”

She looked away, lost – for a moment, anyway. “I’m not sure, really. I saw you and something looked wrong…”

“Wrong?”

“Pain? Are you in pain?”

He smiled. “I think you could call it that, yes.”

“From your accident?”

He nodded, still wondering where this was going.

“How long ago did it happen?”

“Something like twenty five years ago. Beth? What are you getting at?”

“Like I said, Professor Sherman, I’m not sure. Just a feeling…”

“A feeling like…?”

But the girl shook her head again. “I better go now. I’ve got class next period,” she said as she stood and made for the door…but she stopped and looked at him for the longest time, clearly conflicted. “Don’t forget about Saturday, after the game, okay?”

He nodded. “Just let me know when and where.”

And then she was gone.

‘Now, just what the devil was that all about?’ he sighed, even as an owl’s blinking eyes popped into view…

+++++

“I am Dr. Deborah Eisenstadt,” the owl said, her amber-gray eyes blinking rapidly now. “And please, do not stand on my account.”

Sherman knew of her, of course. Everyone in the department did. The youngest Nobel laureate in physics ever, and a woman at that, her field was quantum theory and by reputation her personality was colder than absolute zero.

“Yes, please,” Sherman said, standing, “do come in.”

She watched as he winced and scowled. “Please! Sit! I cannot bear to see you suffer so…”

Sherman plopped back down into his wheelchair and let slip a long sigh.

“Men are so stupid!” Eisenstadt added. “Or perhaps I should say vainglorious!”

“I really wish you wouldn’t,” Sherman smiled. “What would the neighbors think?”

“Ah, and so the fighter pilot has a sense of humor, too?”

He coughed at that and shook his head. “We don’t know each other well enough to trade insults like this…”

“Insult? How was that an insult?”

“I wasn’t a fighter pilot, Ma’am. I flew attack aircraft, not fighters.”

She smiled. “I see. Perhaps you will forgive me, but the distinction is lost on me.”

Sherman leaned back and steepled his hands on his chest. “Well, let’s see here. How can I best describe the difference…? Well, see, a fighter pilot shoots down other fighter aircraft, while an attack pilot drops bombs on people, occasionally on troops and tanks but usually on women and little children. My own personal favorite was to drop bombs on orphanages and whore-houses, all things being equal.”

Her lip quivered a little, then she broke out into a deep laughter, laughing so hard she started to cry a little. “Oh, dear, and here I heard you were an angry, embittered stick in the mud!” the owl said as she slapped her leg between gales. “And now it turns out you are just a garden variety, run of the mill asshole!”

Which made Sherman laugh. Harder than he had in weeks. As he stopped he had to clear his eyes, then he leaned forward in his wheelchair and grinned. “So, one asshole to another, what can I do for you this morning, Dr. Eisenstadt.”

“Well, I was recently presented with a rather interesting dilemma, and my moral compass may need a little bit of recalibration before I proceed any further. Do you think you could lend me an hour or so of your time, because I’d like to, well, we may need to proceed beyond the limits of common imagination? But first, do you, by chance, happen to play the piano?”

“I do, yes. Why?”

“Well, there is a young woman I’d like you to meet. This evening, perhaps? At your home, if you please?”

+++++

As happened almost every football season, the Columbia Lions waxed the floors with the MIT Engineers for yet another Homecoming Weekend humiliation, but that usually tends to be the case when one team shows up to play football and the other team shows up with slide-rules. Sherman sat in the faculty section of the stands with Deborah Eisenstadt and Elizabeth Bullitt, a Harvard undergrad, glad that at least the temperate fall weather had held and the game had been played under ideal conditions. More than ideal, really.

Leaves that, in years past, would already have been orange or gold were, on this October afternoon, still an unnaturally deep, verdant green, and there was a hurricane tracking northwest near the Azores that the National Hurricane Center was watching; word was that this storm might make landfall between New York City and Boston, and the climate scientists on campus were nervous. Both were unheard of events, or at least they would have been twenty years earlier, yet even now only a few scientists bothered to think about the implications of such changes.

Then there was Elizabeth Bullitt – and her startling presentation.

For…while what she had demonstrated wasn’t exactly time travel, the implications of being able to go back in time and view events from a bystanders perspective had left him speechless.

But perhaps that was because he had chosen to go back and examine, in detail, the night he had been shot down over the Strait of Hormuz. How odd it had been to see the Phoenix missile arcing in from below, then detonating just off his left wingtip. He’d watched himself at work in the cockpit completely oblivious to what was coming – but just as the missile detonated he broke contact with Miss Bullitt and pulled away from the piano, and Deborah had helped him into his wheelchair as he wept.

But that wasn’t the end of it. That wasn’t the crux of the moral dilemma Dr. Eisenstadt faced.

Because she had changed the paradigm.

“What if I told you, Dr. Sherman, that I could send you back to that aircraft of yours again. Not as an observer, but as a participant? Would you know what to do? Would you know how to avoid the missile that changed the direction of your life?”

And though Sherman had tried to wrap his head around what she was suggesting, in the end he rejected the proposition.

“I’m not a particularly religious person, but I do often feel that things happen for a reason…”

“Really?” Eisenstadt said. “I would have never taken you as a determinist. Or that someone with your pedigree would be a mystic…well, this is most unexpected…and a little unsettling.”

“So,” Liz Bullitt said, interrupting Eisenstadt, “if you could go back and kill Hitler when he was a baby, you wouldn’t do that?”

“Because if you maintain such a position,” Eisenstadt added, “aren’t you saying that six million Jews died for some inscrutable reason? In other words, because God deemed their deaths necessary?” 

Sherman’s mind had almost blacked-out as he contemplated the implications. “Take it a step further,” he added. “Wouldn’t you be undoing God’s designs?”

But Eisenstadt simply smiled, the smile of someone who had watched an unwary traveler fall into an easily set trap. “But Dr. Sherman,” she sighed, “once you follow that path, who’s to say it isn’t God’s will that you undo the past? Perhaps this is a test. God is testing you, right now. Do you not see the central fallacy of this position?”

“Everyone who’s taken Ethics 101 sees this fallacy, Dr. Eisenstadt, but that doesn’t make the contours of the argument any less perplexing, or, for that matter, real.”

“But you are a scientist!” Eisenstadt cried. “You of all people, you who has embraced a unique worldview!”

“And I am a human being, Deborah. A being acutely attuned to the wonders of the universe, yet not so sure of my place in it that I am willing to turn my back on any of the possibilities I might stumble upon.”

“So…you are willing to consider the possibility of such travel?”

“Of course I am, but I am also more than willing to tell you that you are crossing a line that perhaps you shouldn’t. And I am telling you that right now because I think you should consider your next move very carefully, certainly before you go any further with this. If your hypothesis proves workable, if such travel is indeed possible, you should consider doing so only if you do not disturb an established order.”

“Well then,” Liz said, “tell me this. From our perspective, has the future already been written?”

“I tend to think that it has,” Sherman said, even as he considered the impossibilities of his answer, “but let me explain. Time is, as I understand it, a continuum. Time’s arrow, I think, is the most common descriptor, so if you put two people along that line, say two people separated by a thousand years, and you have an event at the midpoint between these two people, the event is viewed relativistically, or from each viewer’s perspective. To one such person the event is in the future, yet to the other the event is in the past – okay? But, and this is the tricky part, all three are on that line, they are all elements along an established continuum. The person in my future is there because of me, because of us, but also because of that event happening along the continuum, just as the same event is in the other’s past.”

“I had never considered such a thing,” Eisenstadt sighed.

“You need to spend more cold nights at the eyepiece looking at stars,” Sherman told them both, grinning. “Your imagination tends to roam among only the most esoteric thoughts.”

“What are those?” Liz asked, pointing at three huge square framed prints on Sherman’s living room wall.

“Globular clusters. The one on the left is M13, the so-called great cluster in Hercules. The center image is of 47 Tucanae, in Tucana…”

“Tucana? What’s that?”

“The toucan bird. That’s a constellation in the southern sky so most people up north are unfamiliar with it. The image on the right is the grand-daddy of all the globulars, Omega Centauri, in Centaurus, and it’s the biggest globular in our Milky Way galaxy.” 

Liz stood and walked over to the image of Omega Centauri and instinctively she peered into the center of the cluster. “Geez, how many stars are in this thing?”

Sherman chuckled. “The best current estimate is ten million.”

“What the fuck!” Liz cried, astonished. “You can’t be serious!”

“Well, yes, I can be. There are only ten thousand in 47 Tucanae, while M13 has a few hundred thousand stars.”

“And these things are just floating around out there in space? Did we just discover them or something?”

“Not really, but our understanding of them is growing. We don’t know why just yet, but these structures are all located in our galactic halo…”

“Our…what?”

“Well, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a big spiral galaxy, and the galaxy’s spiral arms come together in a huge central region, anad it’s a region like the nucleus of a cell, and there’s a big halo around this nucleus. All of these globular clusters are located in and around this halo, but the strange thing is we find that these same halo structures around other nearby galaxies are also populated by globular clusters, so it turns out they are actually kind of common.”

“Maybe I should take an class or two in Astronomy,” Liz sighed.

“You know,” Eisenstadt said, “it occurs to me that molecules have a nucleus and that electrons orbit these structures, and some of us have begun to call these orbital clouds halos. Could these globular clusters be some sort of analog?”

“I’ve tried to think of them in that way,” Sherman said – a little reluctantly, “but I’m just not sure the analogy holds. The assumption is that there is a huge black hole in the galactic nucleus, and there is contradictory evidence that there might be smaller black holes in the central regions of globular clusters. But…and this is a curious thing, Omega Centauri shows up on an HR diagram as 13 billion years old, but that would make it one of the oldest structures in the universe, which is kind of odd.”

“Unless the small black holes in these clusters are somehow mediating the central black hole,” Eisenstadt replied.

“The thought has crossed my mind,” Sherman sighed, “that the clusters could be mediating the the central black hole…”

“And you two have totally lost me…” Liz Bullitt said, though she was still staring at the image of Omega Centauri – and wondering why all of a sudden she knew this thing was going to be very important to them all. 

+++++

Beth Cohen had left a message on Sherman’s home telephone that dinner reservations had been made for six-thirty that evening. They didn’t want to presume but had made reservations at the Chart House out on the old pier past the Marriott Long Wharf Hotel, and for an instant he thought about calling and cancelling, but then he reconsidered. He needed a night out with non-academics every now and then and tonight would fit that bill perfectly. He recalled her father was some sort of stock-broker in New York City and that her mother was a physician of some sort, so they’d be interesting, articulate people and certainly worth getting to know, certainly worth spending a Saturday evening with. So…he left the stadium – and Deborah and Liz – and returned home to change clothes – and his leg – then he called for a taxi and waited down on the street for the cab to arrive.

He’d not been to this Chart House but had always enjoyed the one in Annapolis, and this one was similar – yet quite different. Dark woods and vibrant prints defined the interior, and this restaurant appeared to be scattered up multiple floors, while it seemed every window looked out on Boston Harbor. He was early and waited in the bar off the entry, but Beth showed up moments later – looking pale and quite upset.

“Is something wrong?” he asked when she took a seat across from his.

She nodded. “Something’s up between my parents, lots of shouting in the hotel room so I told them I’d come on over without them.”

“I see. Is this a new development?”

She shook her head, though tentatively. “Not really. It usually just simmers along, but occasionally they boils over.”

“Should I leave, or am I needed for moral support?”

She smiled, but even so he could tell she had been close to tears, and recently, if those reddened eyes were a reliable indicator, anyway. “If you don’t mind, moral support sounds kind of good right about now.”

“Then here I am, m’Lady, the wounded warrior in all his faded glory! I stand ready to support you! Now…are you 21 – or did you bring fake ID?”

“Neither. I don’t drink.”

“Now that is indeed curious, Beth Cohen. An undergrad, and in Boston no less, who doesn’t drink. Surely you know you are a statistical impossibility?”

She laughed and he enjoyed the change that came over her. “I hate to admit it, but I’m a Diet Coke fiend.”

He scrunched up and contorted his face before he let slip a long “E-e-e-w-w-w-w, no, not that crap!”

“Sorry, but there you have it.”

“Why don’t you take a walk on the wild side and have a plain old Coke?”

She took out a small vial from her purse and handed it him, and when he turned it over in his hand he saw it was some sort of insulin – and he handed it back a little sheepishly. “Sorry ‘bout that,” he whispered.

“No apologies, please. I just wish I’d had a camera! Those faces you made would make excellent blackmail material!”

“I doubt you’ll need any. Your answers were perfect.”

“Really? You graded ours already?”

“Every group, yes. Last night, as a matter of fact. And your group did very well.”

“When are we going out to the observatory?”

“If the weather cooperates, next week – as planned.”

He watched as Beth’s parents walked into the bar just then; her father appeared to be an imperious, overbearing oaf used to pushing people around, while her mother seemed to be, predictably enough, an easy-going, gracious woman who was also rather easy on the eyes. Tall, almost willowy, Betty Cohen looked – on this first glance, anyway – like a pure-bred Manhattan socialite. Austere, almost Japanese infused couture that seemed lifted right out of a film from the 40s, and though she had deployed make-up for the evening, nothing about her face appeared garish or over-done.

Marcus Cohen, on the other hand, was bordering on the fat side of the equation, and his Brooks Brothers tie looked a little like a hangman’s noose. As it was still warm out, Marcus had donned khaki slacks and a light blue shirt under an old navy blazer – complete with some kind of bogus crest sewn on the left pocket – and Sherman did his best not to laugh out loud when he saw that.

“Our table’s ready,” Mr. Cohen snarled, letting everyone in the bar know that he really didn’t want to be there, and that he’d much rather have been somewhere, indeed, anywhere else. Beth cringed under the weight of too many years of such oafishness, and even Betty seemed to turn inward – for a moment, at least – until a hostess appeared by her side, waiting to take them to their table.

Which turned out to be on the second floor.

And there was no elevator.

And Sherman’s chafed leg was already screaming “No! Please, no more stairs!”

He made it to the stairs, big, wide open wood things designed by an architect well-steeped in 70s excess, and as he grabbed the rail he sucked in a little breath and started up, one painful tread at a time. And Beth, bless her heart, came and took his free arm in hers and walked with him the entire way. Which, as it happened, lasted what felt like a solid half hour, maybe longer, and Markus had already ordered a scotch and soda by then, though Betty had graciously decided to wait.

And the oafish paternalism continued unabated through their drinks, then their salads came and Beth reached under the table and delicately took Sherman’s hand in her’s when her father, who had been droning on and on about some new big deal he was working on, decided to change tacks.

“So tell me, Sherman, what’s with the leg? Born that way, or did you get clipped in an accident?”

He looked at Beth as her father spoke, at her innocent shrug and casual smile, and he knew she’d not told them all that much about him, so he turned to face Markus Cohen.

“I’m not sure I’d call it an accident, Mr. Cohen, but no, I wasn’t born this way.”

“So? What happened?”

“An Iranian tried to kill me. He almost succeeded, too.”

“What?” Cohen said, startled into silence.

“An Iranian F-14, Mr. Cohen. The pilot tried to kill me.”

“Are you saying you were shot down? By an Iranian F-14?”

“I am, yes, because I was.”

“And what were you in? I assume an airliner or something?”

“No, sir. I was flying an A-6 Intruder.”

“You a naval aviator?”

“I was indeed, sir.”

“I don’t seem to remember anything in the news about a shoot-down. When did this happen?”

“In ’79, a few months after the embassy takeover.”

Cohen nodded. “Yeah, I bet Carter swept that one under the rug as fast as he could.”

Sherman did not dignify that comment with a reply, he simply stared of Cohen.

“Where’d you go to school?” Markus asked, sitting back in his chair, the noose around his neck tightening just a little.

“Annapolis.”

“Oh? Good sailing program down there.”

“I played football.”

“Really? You don’t much look like football material…”

“Quarterback. Three years.”

The noose tightened a bit more as Cohen’s face darkened, and a line of sweat appeared along his upper lip. “And now you’re teaching astronomy? What’s with that?”

Sherman simply shrugged, though his eyes were tightly focused on Cohen’s.

“I see,” Cohen said as he patted his face with his napkin. “Well, here come the steaks. Hope everyone’s hungry!”

Beth Cohen squeezed Sherman’s hand once before she let him go, and for some reason he immediately missed the reassuring touch of her skin on his. But Markus Cohen wasn’t through just yet, not by a long shot. Unable to bully Sherman, the stockbroker then decided to turn on his wife – at least when he wasn’t stuffing massive slabs of steak into his mouth – and Sherman watched the unremitting assault not really understanding why the woman was taking it. Perhaps because she was used to it? Too gracious to make a scene, perhaps? Or was she just a slave to this boorish stockbroker’s sweat-soaked money?

They skipped dessert, though Markus insisted on glasses of port all around.

Sherman didn’t argue, but neither did he drink – and he passed on the obligatory cigar, too. And then, suddenly and suspiciously far too soon, Cohen announced that he needed to head back to New York and that he had a limo waiting downstairs. This came as a surprise to both Beth and Betty Cohen, yet just as she was about to stand and protest another woman approached their table.

“Are you Mrs. Markus Cohen?” the stranger asked…and everything seemed to slip into slow motion after that innocent question settled – like the dust of broken dreams – over the room.

Sherman couldn’t believe what he was watching, and he looked at Beth, then at her mother while divorce papers were served right there in the middle of this packed restaurant. People at surrounding tables stopped what they were doing and stared, the room growing infinitely silent within the span of a single heartbeat, and when Beth started to cry he stood, glowering at Markus Sherman, remembering that at all cost he would remain an officer and a gentleman but wanting more than anything in the world to get his hands around Cohen’s fat neck and get to work.

But then he was gone.

Betty Cohen sat in shell-shocked silence, staring straight ahead in wide-eyed despair, all the questions she must have had about the choices she’d made in her life beating in the air overhead like some kind of pitiless vulture circling up there just out of sight.

Sherman went to Beth and put his arms protectively around her, held her close while the tears came…

Then their waiter came up tp him with the bill. “Who gets the bad news?” the blond-headed surfer dude in white polo shirt and madras shorts said, and for the first time that evening Sherman felt like laughing.

+++++

When she came into class that next Monday morning, Sherman saw her eyes were still puffy and red-rimmed, so he had to assume the rest of Beth’s weekend had been a total bust. Still, it was hard to imagine how it could have been worse that what he’d seen – and experienced. He passed out the next assignment and gave a short lecture before he handed out their graded lab assignments from last week, then he dismissed class.

And he waited.

And when she just sat there, still in shocked silence, he rolled over and waited next to her.

And still she sat, lost in the silence of her grief.

“Does it ever go away?” she finally whispered.

“In time, if you meet things head-on, the pain won’t be so overwhelming.”

“I’m not sure even I know what that means.”

He sighed. “May I ask you something?”

She looked up at him, her face now a streaky mess, but she nodded.

“Were they happy together? Your mom and dad?”

She shrugged, hesitated as she sifted through fields of memories, then she picked one and looked it over. “No. Probably not.”

“For how long?”

“For as long as I can remember.”

“You don’t have any happy memories with them?”

“Not together,” she sighed. “Only when I was with…” she thought as her voice trailed off into the field.

“When you were with your mom, right?”

She nodded, and then she really began to cry.

“And never with your father?” Sherman added, almost regretting the question but knowing it had to be asked.

“When I was little…”

“What changed, Beth?”

“I did,” she said, her head falling with her tears. “I got fat…needed glasses…and all of a sudden I wasn’t his little baby girl anymore…because then I was frumpy old Beth…”

“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight, okay? Your mom and dad weren’t happy together and your father is, just to make matters a little more more clear, a bit of an asshole?”

She sat up abruptly, trying to decide whether to laugh or to be offended, but in the end she just looked at Sherman – not quite sure how she felt.

“And that, Beth,” Sherman added, “is what you’ve got to come to terms with.”

“What?”

“Your feelings, Beth. For your father – as a human being, and for this thing we like to call ‘family’ – because right now you’re grieving for the loss of something vitally important, and the important questions aren’t going to be easy to see for a while.”

“Do you have a family?”

“My parents.”

“You never got married?”

He shook his head. “After I lost my leg I never really felt whole, and I’ve always kind of assumed it would be kind of a turn off for people…”

“Man…are you serious? Mom thinks you’re hot!”

“Beth, your mother probably needs to go see someone for a serious vision problem.”

“So…how’d you get to be so smart about people? You like some kind of wise man or something?”

“I am old, therefore I am wise.”

“Bullshit.”

“True.”

“She wanted me to thank you again for Saturday night…”

The three of them had walked – slowly – back to her hotel over at Rowe’s Wharf and he’d stayed with them when they’d opted to go to the bar for Irish coffees and Crème Brûlée. They sat by a fireplace full of glowing embers and he’d listened, wondering once again how someone could do what Markus had done to his family, but deciding to ask about happier times. So they’d sat, for several hours as it happened, talking about life and families and just about anything other than what was coming next.

And then they’d talked about skiing.

How all of them – all but Markus, actually – had enjoyed skiing when they were young. Or younger, in Beth’s case. And then Betty had talked about learning to ski when she was in high school, on a trip out to Colorado over spring break her junior year. How scared she’d been, then how exhilarated. Beth recalled learning to ski up at Stowe on a middle school trip, which led Sherman to talk about a place near Tahoe called Sugar Bowl and how he and his father had gone skiing almost every weekend together.

“What about your mother?” Betty asked. “She never joined you?”

“Rarely. She was almost always in the lab out, or out on the floor seeing patients.”

“What’s her specialty?”

“Infectious diseases, but when HIV hit San Francisco she was on the front lines of a new kind of war.”

“I remember. San Francisco was ground zero – in the beginning, anyway.”

“That’s right…you’re a physician, too. Mind if I ask what your specialty is?”

“Oncology,” Betty replied, and that was usually the end of that line of questioning, but not so with Gene Sherman. No, he’d asked pointed, informed questions and she’d been impressed with the depth of his knowledge. so much so that she’d soon forgotten all about Markus Cohen…

‘So that’s what he’s up to,’ she said to herself. ‘Getting us to think about anything other than…’

“Why’d you go into astronomy, Professor Sherman?” Beth asked, changing the flow of the conversation.

“She was my first true love,” he replied, shrugging sheepishly as he turned and grinned at her. “Looking up at the stars, in a way, set my course for the rest of my life. That, and watching Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. I wanted to be an astronaut after that, and so I went to Annapolis, got my wings, and I was on my way…”

“And then you got shot down,” Beth whispered, so many things coming into focus as she looked at the mechanical remnants of his left leg.

“Yes, and then I got shot down, but that’s the point of all this, Beth – the point I’m trying to make, anyway. Life is change, and it always has been, and as smart as we like to think we are we just can’t prepare for every eventuality. If we tried we’d never get anywhere so we have to become resilient, we have to learn to roll with the punches. To get up when we get knocked down, to smile and learn from the experience and then move on…”

Then, a knock on the classroom door brought him back to the present, and one of his teaching assistants came in and handed a note over to Sherman. ‘Urgent you call home ASAP’ said the note from his faculty secretary, and he sighed as he sifted through the words on the yellow post-it note, dreading what he realized had to be coming next.

“Beth, I need to head up to the office and make a few calls now…”

“Okay. Mind if I push you over?”

“Oh, that’s not really necessary…”

“I’d like to, if you don’t mind,” Beth said. “I find it kind of relaxing.”

Sherman shrugged and they followed the TA back to the Physics building, and when they got to his office Sherman asked his TA to hang around for a few minutes – “Just in case…”

So Beth and the TA waited in the anteroom while Eugene Sherman called his mother back in Menlo Park. His father had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and while he’d tried to read up on the disease, nothing he’d found had proven at all encouraging…

Now he dialed the same number they’d had for more than fifty years, a telephone number almost ingrained in the cells of his brain.

“Hi, Mom,” he said when his mother answered. “What’s up?”

“It’s your father, Gene. He’s had a stroke, and I think you’d better come home now.”

He held back the tears he’d always known would come when his father got close, but even so, as he processed her words he almost instantly felt like he was suffocating. “Today?” he managed to ask, just as constrictions grabbed his neck.

“Yes, as soon as you can.”

“I’m on my way. I’ll see you in a little bit, Mom.”

He put down the phone and punched the button for his secretary.

“Liz, I’m gonna need…”

“Professor, I have you booked on Delta, on the twelve-thirty to San Francisco. You just have enough time to get home and packed. I’ll have TAs assigned to cover your classes, so you’d better get going…”

Beth pushed him downstairs and onto the shuttle that took him over to EastGate, and she went up to his flat with him and helped him pack, and all of this simply happened – kind of out of the blue. He didn’t ask, and neither did she. Then she went with him over to Logan and helped him get his bag checked, and she pushed him over to the security checkpoint after that, too.

“I’m afraid I’m beginning to depend on you a little too much, Beth,” he told her while they sneaked along to the metal screening stands.

“Glad I could be here for you, Professor.”

He held his left hand out and she took it, and once again he felt a little electric jolt when her skin touched his. “I don’t suppose there’s anything wrong about all this, but I have to admit I enjoy your company.”

She squeezed his hand then, then leaned over and gently kissed him on the forehead – then she handed him a little note, just before she turned and walked off through the meandering crowd queuing up behind him.

He pushed himself up to the screening agent, who was nice enough to call a RedCap to take him on out to the gate, and he looked at the Delta L-1011 waiting out there on the ramp, waiting to take him home.

Then he looked at Beth’s note.

“Professor Sherman,” she wrote, “here’s my number at the dorm. Please call and let me know when you’re returning and I’ll pick you up when you get to the baggage claim area. Also, my mom wanted to talk to you, and here’s her number. I’ll be thinking about you. L, Beth.”

“Extraordinary,” he said – just under his breath – and then they called for those needing assistance to come and board the aircraft so he pushed himself over to the door and another RedCap helped him down the Jetway to the waiting jet. They took his wheelchair at the main door and he hopped to seat 1A, breaking out in a sweat as a result, but then a flight attendant brought him a glass of champagne and a hot towel to freshen up with. He sat there breathlessly, with his pulse pounding in his forehead when, a few minutes later, the doors closed…and then the jet began pushing back from the terminal.

And then he saw Beth standing up there on an observation platform – and as he realized who it was it looked to him as if she was staring right at him. Then he saw her smile and blow him a kiss, just before she turned and disappeared – again.

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.

Oh, you’re still here, I see. Well then, assuming nothing else worked for you, you’d better try this one:

Nightside (2021 version)

Nightside Image-1

Okay. So, a little backtracking here just might be in order. This story has been around a while. First posted in 2014, I took it down, worked on it and put it away. Then I wrote Asynchronous Mud as a follow-on to this story (NightSide), and now I’ve reworked both and combined them so at last they just might begin to make sense. Even so, you’ll need to have read all recent works to fully grasp where this is coming from. As to where this is headed? Sorry, but let’s not go there, at least not yet.

Music matters? Always. First up, NightSide, a Henry Mancini piece from the score for the film Hatari! Light, seductive, pure early sixties vibe. Next up, something dark…very dark, but something a little classical, perhaps more fitting the moment. You’ve about a hundred pages ahead of you before you start this one, BTW, so grab a big mug of Joe (er, coffee) and put your feet up before you settle in.

NightSide

Part I: Background Noise

Zermatt // December, 1978

She walked out of the hotel, looked up at the canopy of gray mist overhead and squinted into the snow, turning her head and looking around the hotel’s grounds – slowly, but very carefully. The Matterhorn was just fleetingly visible beyond and within the thin veils of wind-driven cloud, the peak a bitter claw tearing into the gray underbelly of the sky. She turned, looked at the copper spire of the parish church just a few meters away, at the gold numerals on the clock’s faces; it was 0900 hours – and just then the muted bell began tolling. She smiled, looked at the watch on her wrist, a new Rolex she’d bought the day before, and she smiled at the unerring inaccuracy of this impulsive bit of vanity. A day old and already a minute slow. She shook her wrist, in effect winding the watch, then undid the diver’s clasp and took it off; she pulled out the stem and adjusted the time, checking it against the clock on the church while she also looked at the watch face.

She admired Precision – in all things – and took great pride in the precision of her craft, but she had recently discovered she most admired those things with their reputations deeply rooted in the word. Equally, she detested things that masked shoddy craftsmanship behind a veneer of precision, and she was vaguely concerned about this new watch, because in her line of work timing was critical. She slipped the watch over her wrist and clasped it, then walked around to the hotel’s ski room and picked up her skis, a pair of shiny new Volkl Tigers. She slung them up on her right shoulder and began walking through town to the Trockener Steg. She stood in the shuffling line and then boarded the tram and, luckily, found herself by a window; she looked across the Theodulgletscher at the Matterhorn as the lift carried her up into the clouds, but soon the view disappeared within swirling curtains of snow. Forty minutes and a transfer later, she stood atop the Testa Grigia and looked south into Italy. No clouds, just sunshine…and a glisteningly broad expanse of fresh powder leading down the sun-dappled valley to a village…and the scene felt to her a little like she was looking at specks of dirt on fields of white velvet.

She wiped off her goggles and slipped pole-straps over her wrists, then she pushed-off down the trail for the alpine village of Cervinia, and those specks she’d seen were many miles away. She stopped every few minutes and looked around as she caught her breath, and more than once she pulled out her Leica M and took a few pictures. She took her time, in other words, acting the bored tourist all the while as skied through the open expanse of pristine snow into the village. She skated along the almost empty streets to a decent looking restaurant in the middle of town and took off her skis, put them in the rack out front and locked them up. Taking off her gloves she unbuckled the topmost buckles on her boots before she walked along aimlessly, and eventually she made her way to a cozily timbered restaurant and she walked in, waited to be seated. A minute later she was led to a table along a far wall, and yet she dropped a glove as she sat. The man seated at the table next to hers reached down and picked it up, handed it to her.

“Excuse me,” he said in Italian, “but you dropped this.” He had just paid his bill and stood to leave.

“Thank you,” the woman said in English, but she didn’t look at him as he left. She took the glove and put it in her little backpack, then looked at the menu. She drank water, ordered veal and left an hour later. On her way out to the street she cleaned off her gloves and put them on, carefully taking the small piece of paper the man had placed inside and slipping it inside a jacket pocket, then she put her skis over her shoulder and walked through town to the lift. She read the note and smiled once in her chairlift, and an hour later she was atop the Testa Grigia once again, her legs cold from the long chair-ride up the mountain, but she stopped, took a few more pictures of the Matterhorn, before she skied back down through the trees into Zermatt. She walked back to the hotel and dropped her skis at the basement ski room, then walked on into town, tossing pieces of the paper into several rubbish bins along the way.

She walked to a patisserie near the Gornergratbahnof, went inside and looked around the room. She glanced briefly at an older man across the room, saw an empty table near his and walked there. She leaned over, released the top two buckles on her ski boots and put her gloves on the table. A waitress came by and she ordered coffee and a few cookies, then let out a long sigh.

The man had a dog by his side, not at all unusual here in the village, but this dog was a little larger than those usually found in a bakery like this. As she leaned over, she reached out and rubbed the dog’s ears, ignoring the man as he looked down at her, perhaps a little annoyed.

She looked up at the man. “I’m sorry, but he’s adorable.”

“Ah. No harm done,” the man said, his accent vaguely middle eastern.

“Is he a setter,” she asked.

“Well, he’s a she, but yes, she’s a Gordon.”

The dog seemed to know they were talking about her, and basked in the sudden attention while the woman rubbed her ears. “Do you hunt with her?” she asked.

“No, I’m afraid not, though I think she would be good doing so. She has a keen nose.”

“My father hunted with setters, English, black and whites. Two girls.”

“And where was this?” the man asked. “In America?”

“Yes, in Minnesota.”

“Ah, yes. Very cold there, is it not? You don’t look like you’re from America.”

“I’m not. I was born in Argentina. My father worked for 3M, and my parents immigrated when I was very little.”

“Ah, and what do you do?” he asked.

“Me? Textile design. Mainly commercial fabrics, airline seat upholstery, things like that.”

“Ah. So, this is a working vacation?”

“Sort of, we have a plant near Zurich, and one in North Carolina. I thought I’d get in a few days skiing before heading back home.”

“How was the snow today?”

“Not bad for this time of year. Still crusty, some ice, but that’s December snow for you.”

“Indeed.”

“Do you ski,” she asked.

“Oh, not so very much these days,” he said, smiling absently.

Her coffee came and she drank the strong local brew, ate just one of the cookies and paid the bill. She stood to leave, smiled at the man and left quietly.

He watched her as she left, then looked at man standing outside and nodded. The woman stepped outside while she put her gloves on, then she walked back to the Zermatterhof, barely smiling when she caught a passing reflection of the man following her in a closing door.

He probably thought he was being very clever, the woman thought – smiling to herself – and not the blundering fool he so obviously was.

+++++

He barely lifted his hand, signaled the waitress to bring his bill; sufficiently nervous now, he quickly paid-up and left the bakery before he’d finished his coffee. Once outside he looked down the street, saw the woman and her tail, then he looked back down the street towards his house, saw his other bodyguards watching and he turned, walked to the safety of his house.

“Do you know who she is?” the man said when he reached this second bodyguard.

This guard shook his head, and he spoke in Persian. “We’ll get the roll into the diplomatic pouch tonight. We should know by tomorrow morning.”

“It should be easy enough to check out her story,” the man said.

“Yes, General.” This man was a captain in the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret intelligence service, and he’d recently completed a years refresher at the CIA’s counter-terrorism center near Yorktown, Virginia. He was, in a word, efficient. Ruthless, but very efficient.

The general was of the old school, however, one of the original men recruited by Norman Schwarzkopf in 1953 to create a secret security apparatus concurrent with the Pahlavi restoration. As such, the general’s CIA inspired methods were discreet, but direct. Brutally direct, according to the general’s friends and associates, and he was one of the most feared, and reviled, men in the Shah’s Iran.

While revolutionary impulses had flared in Iran since ’53, this time things felt different, at least to many of the Shah’s long-time supporters. Religious fervor had attached to student organizations, and even previously secular labor movements, beginning in October 1977, and now many of the Shah’s more accurately informed associates were retreating to their estates in Switzerland and South America, waiting for the inevitable. Still, the general wasn’t taking any chances. He had long known he was a target of the opposition, knew there was a price on his head, so when anyone, absolutely anyone approached or even looked at him too long, they were tailed, their identity ascertained, and if that wasn’t possible, their non-hostility confirmed by more direct means. People with even remotely hostile backgrounds simply disappeared, even in Switzerland. Many already had, the captain knew. That was his job, and he enjoyed considerable status in the state for doing it well.

The general turned and looked down the snowy street once again. The woman looked to be heading to the Zermatterhof, an upscale place for well-heeled American tourists, not spoiled Iranian-student-malcontents or their agents. He sighed, shrugged his shoulders slightly and looked at the captain, then started back up the hill that led through stands of quiet trees, and to his chalet hidden there.

+++++

So, security is as tight as expected, she thought as she walked up the steps to the hotel, resisting the urge to turn and look at the idiot tailing her. He’d followed so close, and on the same side of the street! She understood the general’s men were well trained, so this guy must have been new, fresh out of school, or… What else could it mean? Was the man in charge of the general’s security simply sloppy? She was an unknown, therefore she had to be a high priority target until proven otherwise, and if that was so why was this low-level stooge on her tail? Was the general’s detail not as well trained as she’d been briefed to expect, or were there time sensitive gaps in his coverage? More interesting still, was the security detail too small for effective coverage?

She walked the stairs to her room, put away her ski clothes and went to the bathroom. She looked at her reflection in the mirror while the tub filled with hot water, and she soaked for a good half hour before finishing off with the shower wand. She made it down to the dining room before seven and took her usual table, and from the corner of her eye she saw the stooge who’d tailed her earlier; he was across the room at small table – alone, of course. He studiously ignored her, another sign of his poor training.

She ate her smoked trout and salad quietly, bending over more than once to rub her right leg, pretending her muscles were painfully sore. The main course came, then dessert, and still she sat quietly, not rushing, not giving off any signs she was aware that this festering turd was following her.

Her waiter, an attentive young Yugoslavian named Miliden, asked if she wanted coffee, and she said she preferred espresso, with a twist. He smiled and walked off to the kitchen; she pulled out a trail map and looked at the runs off the Gornergrat, decided to try those in the morning. Miliden returned with her coffee and she continued to look over the map, finally leaving a little before nine.

The stooge left a few minutes later. He left a small tip.

+++++

The captain entered the living room, saw the general sitting by the fireplace, deep in thought. He hesitated, not wanting to disturb the old man, so almost decided against disrupting their usual routine. He coughed as he closed the door behind him, then walked to the fireplace. “General?”

“Yes, Hassan, what is it?”

“There is nothing new to report, but there is more evidence that Khomeini is more involved than we previously suspected…”

“Can we not get to him?”

“Two operations have so far failed, as you know. We are trying to position assets now, for another attempt.”

“Next?”

“The woman returned to her room, had dinner alone and no one other than her waiter approached her during the meal. The waiter is well known, not an agent. As a precaution, a locator had been affixed to her skis, but apparently a leg was bothering her so she may not go out tomorrow.” the captain told his general, wrapping up this brief update.

Now that he was closer, he could see the general had that faraway look in his eyes. He was interested in this woman; indeed, it had been several months since the general had been with a woman, but the captain knew the general had ‘a thing’ for American women, especially if they were young. Especially if they looked like this one. Well, they were going back to Tehran in a few days, and the ‘old man’ could stand having his ‘clock cleaned’ – as his trainers in Virginia used to say – before heading back into the storm.

“What do you think? Could she be…”

“We will know more in the morning, sir. Does she…interest you?” The captain had never seen such confusion in the old man’s eyes before, and he was unsettled by the sight.

“When I looked into her eyes, Hassan, I saw the face of an angel,” the old man said. In fact, I think I saw God.”

The captain looked nervously around the room, hoping there was no one else around to hear him speak like this.

“Anyway,” the general said, breaking the spell, “it’s time to sleep. As you say, we will know more in the morning…” He rose and walked up the stone stairway to his room, slipped out of his robe and slippers and into bed.

Almost instantly, he felt himself falling in the darkness.

He saw the earth just in shadow far below, and darkness reaching up for him. Then he was falling, falling and gathering speed, his robe slapping in the slipstream, the roar soon almost deafening. He knew he was falling to his death, wondered if a bomb had been placed on his jet…

He looked down, saw nothing but the bare limbs of dark winter trees standing in deep gloom – like arms reaching up for him out of the snow – and in a heartbeat he was falling through the outstretched arms of the forest, until…

…he was among stands of whispering trees, staring at them, lost in the wonder that he was still, somehow, alive. He looked around this strange place while he collected his thoughts. There was no sky, only a deep gray fog that was only vaguely lighter overhead, and everything he looked at seemed to radiate an aura of blackness. Veils of bare-limbed trees disappeared within layers of darkening mist, and suddenly he knew there was nothing beyond the darkness. There was only here. There was only now. And this was eternity.

“This isn’t a dream,” he sighed as he bent down and picked up a handful of wet, mold covered leaves. He turned them in his hand, studied them, then brought the decaying mass to his nose, smelling darkest earth on his hands and just then thoughts like the stones of years came to him, crushing his soul, the weight of all his life’s burdens pushing him down into the earth. Leaves came to his face and he kissed them, then in a flash he was by them and he watched as they drifted away in the darkness.

Then he heard a rustling in the air and turned to face the sound.

He saw an old, cast-iron post, very tall, perhaps ten feet tall, with an ornate cast-iron lamp on top, and the lamp was aglow, it’s feeble amber light just barely penetrating the gloom. She was there, her face turned towards the sky, her back to him, then she started to fade away. She was, he saw, caped in deepest maroon, her flowing auburn hair adrift in the dark mist’s silky stillness, yet even so she too was veiled in the black aura of this place.

There was nothing he could do.

He walked towards the amber lamplight, he began to follow her – like a memory he couldn’t shake…

He reached the lamppost, saw it had been formed of copper, yet now it was a weathered, blackened verdigris, and he reached out, felt the cold metal on his skin and slowly shook his head. Where had she gone? Into the light?

No, she was far ahead now, standing under another lamppost, waiting for him. He saw the same feeble glow lighting her way… then he looked at her feet. She was on a path of some sort – and he looked down, saw only leaves so he brushed them aside with his foot. He saw oddly shaped bricks under the leaves, but she was walking again so he followed her – again – on the same path.

She walked ahead, he followed her to the next lamp post, then the next, and the pathway became uneven, almost rough, and he tripped once, falling to an path full of rotting corpses.

His hand recoiled from the sight as his mind raced to react. What did this mean?

This path was formed from decomposing bodies, leaves mingling with flesh, shards of bones poking through the forest floor here and there. The he saw rolling waves of skulls, dark pockets of  hollow eyes looking up at him through the leaves, vacant eyes following him as he stood and resumed walking. The skulls were everywhere he looked now, and within every memory that came to him, their disjointed stares defining his Walpurgisnacht, then he heard music. A piano playing in the distance, playing a nocturne, and he knew this was their music. ‘Is this the music of the skulls? Is that what I hear?’ 

…but then he stopped, and he stared at the woman – because now he could see that it was she who was playing the piano…

…and then he found he was standing at the base of a large stairway…

…and the stair’s appearance was oddly Greek, he thought. An arced stairway of polished white marble waited just ahead, flanked at the base by two more verdigris lamp posts, while at the top there appeared to be a landing of sorts, and beyond, a stone archway. A doorway, he guessed, but leading to where?

But then she was walking up the stairs, her pace stately, her maroon cape trailing down the stairway as she ascended, her hair drifting on errant breezes. And as before, he could do nothing but follow her. He felt impelled, yet when she reached the landing she stopped and turned to face him, and the sight of her imperious beauty simply took his breath away. She was regal, yet he could also see that she too was damned. She stood in whorish splendor, maroon corset showing beneath her cape, garters attached to charcoal lace stockings and fantastically high heels. He walked closer and stopped when he saw her face: the flesh looked like smoothest ice, her lips a mottled maroon – just like the makeup around her eyes, he thought. But no, this wasn’t makeup. No, what he saw was decay. Withered flesh, decaying before his eyes – turning into another skull, turning into death, death like skulls within the forest floor – and the sight of her suddenly filled him with dread, then slowly, impossibly, an impenetrable gray lust came to him, spreading like the fires of Hell through his loins.

As he reached her she turned and walked to the far side of the landing – but now  he could see there was nothing beyond the arched entry. Only the trees, and that same infinite gray, waited…

And when walked through the arch she stepped off the landing and into the mist and he wanted to scream, but he was too late. He wanted to hide his face in his hands as the faces of all the people he’d killed over the past three decades came flooding through memory, drowning his soul like the weight of raw earth falling on a coffin. He wanted to cry, to release his humanity from the prison he’d created in his mind, but nothing came from his lips but the silence of the dead. He was dry inside, as withered and decayed as all of the rest.

He opened his eyes, lifted his face to the archway now overhead, and as he watched a raven flew by, and it settled directly atop the ornate opening. He walked to the edge of the passageway, looked out over the trees, and there he saw a vast wall of curved stone, and he stepped back, looked up at the raven.

Only now he saw the decaying woman, but now she was made of cold, black stone and ten meters tall, yet every detail was there…the cape, the corset, the stockings and heels, all of her garish details, and at the apex of her legs, within the womb of her cold, dead flesh, came the same soft amber glow he’d seen atop the ornate lamps.

He walked to the edge of the passage and looked up into the amber glow. He saw indents and handholds where an unknown sculptor had fashioned the lacy edge of her stockings, and the straps of her garters, and he reached across the abyss and found a place for his hand. He brought the opposite foot across to another handhold and pushed his body across to the cold stone flesh of her legs. Committed now, he looked up and began climbing. After several minutes climbing he paused and looked around.

He shook his head, confused. The amber glow was still up there, but was it further away now?

Then he looked down and wanted to scream. The landing and the arched doorway was hundreds of meters away now, as if the statue of the woman had grown, and now there were huge snakes winding up the statue’s legs – chasing him – and the closest was a huge cobra. 

This snake looked up at him and opened it’s mouth, revealing impossibly evil looking fangs dripping with venom. Now terrified, he looked up and started climbing again, but soon he was growing tired, feeling winded, but then he reached the top of the statue’s legs. He scissored his way up the remaining few meters, and when he came to the cold stone labia he reached out, found not cold stone but warm flesh, and he could tell that the source of the amber glow came from within the stone.

He reached out with his hands, pushed the labia apart and climbed inside, pulling himself into the warmth of her womb. He came upon a darkness so complete, a warmth so comfortable, he let himself go. He closed his eyes, felt himself drifting away, then he looked down, saw that the cobra was still coming for him.

He climbed deeper into the womb of the night until he came upon a ledge, a smooth platform of some kind, and he pulled himself up, and there he stood…waiting for the coiled strike that had to be coming.

But in the next instant he found himself adrift in space, and everywhere he looked he saw stars and nebulae and great swirling galaxies…yet he felt little now…only filled by a sense of wonder at the beauty he had suddenly found. He reached out and cupped a galaxy in his hand and an impossible warmth came to him.

And for a moment he saw himself as he had been – once: innocent, curious, his idealism shining pure and clean.

Then he remembered what he really was, what he had become, and the cry that came from his stone cold lips split the atom of the night.

+++++

She woke at seven the next morning, rinsed her night’s troubled sleep off in the shower before she dressed to ski, then walked down to breakfast in the dining room. Last night’s minder was absent, she soon saw, but another likely tail was already seated across the room, an American drinking coffee and reading the International Herald Tribune. So, she thought, this one was trying to pass himself off as an American. Then she saw a Persian woman sitting by herself on the far side of the room; was she looking her way a little too covertly? Yes, of course she was, and that made sense, didn’t it?

Yet she found herself looking at the ‘American’ once again. Strong – yet not overtly muscular; he had the lean, hard-edged look of ulterior motives, and she was about to look away when he looked up from his paper – and then he looked at her. He smiled, then looked at his coffee and began reading again, and in an instant she was on guard. She didn’t know who he was or who he worked for, but this one was dangerous. She looked at his shoes, at the soles of his shoes, wanted to see what kind of print they’d leave in the snow, then she finished her breakfast and walked down to the ski room in the basement.

Ten minutes later she was on the Gornergratbahn riding up the mountain railway, wondering why anyone would turn a train into a ski lift. It took forever to get to the summit, and she followed the herd out onto the snow and looked across the expansive valley at the Matterhorn. She admired the view, the mountain standing over the mist-enshrouded village like a sentinel, then she walked over and grabbed her skis, put them on. When she had her gloves and poles on she poled over to another overlook and pulled out her Leica, took a few shots of the Matterhorn across the valley, but then she felt someone skid to a stop beside her…

“Something else, isn’t it?” the man from the dining room said.

“Yes, it’s wondrous!” she said, trying to keep the surprise out of her voice. “I wonder, could you take one with me in it?”

“Of course,” the young man said graciously. He took the camera from her and stepped back.

She watched him closely. Leica M’s like her’s were difficult for most people to understand, yet he focused and set the aperture with practiced ease – then he paused. “What are you shooting?”

“Kodachrome.”

“64, or 25?”

“64,” she said. He nodded his head, re-set the shutter speed and and closed the lens all the way down. He shot a few verticals, then four more horizontals from different angles. “You shoot like a pro,” she said, admiring the way he moved.

He smiled. “Maybe that’s because I am,” he laughed. “I’m scouting some locations for an apparel company shoot next week. This place is magic when all the Christmas lights are up.”

“I can just imagine.”

“So, will you be up here long?”

“Just two more days,” she said as she took the camera from him. “Ski down a few yards, would you? I’ll get one of you!”

“Sure,” he said, much to her surprise. A ‘spook’ wouldn’t let her do that, would he…?

“Are you going down to Riffelalp?” he asked as she took his picture.

“I was thinking about it,” she said. “Closer to lunchtime, maybe.”

He nodded. “There’re a couple of chalets in the woods just off the main trail, under the Riffelboden. Family run, I think, like dairy farms during summer. They make their own cheese, and they have mulled wines, fondue, raclette, that sort of thing. I stopped at one a few days ago,” he said as he put his goggles back on, “and I’ve been hoping to go back ever since, if you’d like to join me.”

“Sure, sounds fun,” she said, putting her camera away while she side-slipped down to him.

“What are you doing up here?”

“Fabric design,” she said. “My firm has a plant near Zurich; thought I’d come up here for a few days. You know your way around here?”

“Sure, but stay away from the black runs over there,” he said, pointing. “Snow’s too unstable right now, avalanche danger.”

“I’d like to take it easy for the first couple of runs. I don’t want to hold you back.”

“Not a problem, I’m stiff this morning too. I’ll probably be too slow for you.” He pushed off, started down the broad expanse of snow.

She pushed off and fell in behind him, watched his legs as he turned. ‘He’s good,’ she thought, yet she had no trouble keeping up with him, and less than ten minutes later they were standing in line at the Riffelberg chairlift, waiting to ride back up to the top.

“Good snow today,” he said when they were on the lift, obviously enjoying the morning.

“Very good,” she said, “for December, I think.”

“Where do you ski back home?”

“Anywhere I can, really, but I haven’t had much time the past few years. You?”

“Same thing, I guess. I don’t usually have too many winter sports clients.”

“What’s your usual clientele?”

“Corporate. Lots of portraiture, for annual reports usually. Physical plant, oil refineries and the like, again, for annual reports. That’s the meat and potatoes of it, anyway.”

“And when you shoot on your own?”

“Oh, I like to play with light – natural, I mean. Landscapes. Mountains and sunsets, that kind of thing.”

“Been doing much around here?”

“Some,” he said.

“Could I see some?”

“Sure, I’ve got a few rolls coming in, hopefully by tomorrow.”

“Well, maybe tomorrow evening?” she asked.

“You know, maybe I should know your name?”

“Oh! Well, yes, why not? Dana Goodman.”

“Dana? Paul Ruddesheim. From Boston, by the way.”

“Minneapolis,” she said as the chair came to the top of the lift. They hopped off and slid down the ramp. Paul looked at his watch, then he took off down the same run, picking up the speed a little, but still she kept up with him and they were back at the chairlift just a few minutes later. They were in the chair again when she broke out some lip balm and put some on.

“Good idea,” he said, fumbling in a jacket pocket.

“Here, use mine.”

“Thanks.”

When they slid off the ramp at the top, he stopped and looked at his watch again. “If you’re up for an early lunch, we could head down now…”

“Sounds good,” she said, and she watched him push off then skate down the hill, rapidly building up serious speed. She followed him again, but this time he was pushing it hard, pushing her to the limits of her abilities. The snow was soft, ruts were forming in the loose crud kicked up by all the other skiers on the hill; she was still behind him, still only a few meters off his pace when he arced off to the far right side of the run and ran almost straight down the hill, his speed easily pushing through 70 kph, then he slowed, making a series of quick slalom-like turns just before he came to a rocky ledge. She was tucked in behind him when she realized he was airborne, that he had jumped a cornice; she pre-jumped, brought her knees up to her chest as she judged their height and how far they’d fly. She saw rocks on both sides of the run-out ahead, but no trees or people, and she guessed she was thirty feet above the snow when she left the cornice, and the vertical fall looked like fifty feet, maybe more. He was either showing off – or being a real jack-ass, she thought.

Still, he made a perfect landing and fell into a tight, slalom-like rhythm, burning off speed until he came to a stop near some trees. He looked uphill but was surprised to see her skidding to a stop on his downhill side.

“I’m impressed!” he said, shaking snow off his goggles.

“That was fun,” she said, grinning.

“Did you race? In college?” he asked.

“A little.”

“Uh-huh. I know what that means.”

She laughed. “And you?”

“GS and downhill. Wasn’t good enough to make the US team, though.”

“Is that one of the chalets there,” she asked, using her pole to point out a hut a few hundred meters away.

“That’s one of ’em,” he said. “The second one down the run, off to the left, is the one I want to go to. Ready?”

“Well, I’m hungry now. Hope you are too?”

He smiled, pushed off and headed through the trees at breakneck speeds, and a few minutes later skidded to a stop beside an almost ancient looking “chalet” – but to her it looked more like an old barn that had been converted into a rather rustic looking trailside diner.

Which, it turned out, was exactly what it was.

There was room inside for a few people to sit, more on a rock lined terrace out front, but it was too cold for that. They took a seat at a small, timbered table inside by a very old stone fireplace, and a rather buxom bodied, blond haired, blue eyed woman brought them a local cheese fondue and hot, mulled wine without even asking what they wanted…

“This is all they serve,” Paul said, relishing her surprise. “I guess they figure if you don’t like it you’ll just get up and leave.”

“Well, it’s damn good,” Dana said, spearing a second piece of bread and dunking it in the bubbling cheese.

“Same family’s been making this cheese since the beginning of time, I think,” he said as he speared two pieces of bread and set them in the pot. “Try the wine. It’s decent.”

“Suppose they have any water up here?”

He turned and asked for a bottle, and the woman brought it moments later. “Sorry about the cornice,” he said. “I was just feeling so good, and it’s my favorite jump on this side of the mountain…”

She laughed again. “Good way to get rid of an unwanted girlfriend,” she said.

“Might be at that,” he grinned.

They ate in silence after that, and though she took a few sips of wine she finished the water, then motioned for another bottle.

“Chocolate fondue’s not bad if you want some desert, and they have what tastes to me like Turkish coffee.”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He shrugged. “I’m going to head over to Sunnegga if you feel like tackling some of the steeper trails.”

“No thanks. I’ve got to make a few calls back to the states this afternoon,” she said. “But thanks for pointing this place out…it’s great!”

He smiled as he laid out some francs for the bill, and Dana paid her share. She finished the water and they walked back out to the terrace – only to find more people arriving. Dana threaded her way through the people over to her skis and put them on, waved to Paul and pushed off down the trail. Every now and then she caught brief glimpses of the village below, and she stopped once, when she had the feeling she was being followed. She turned and looked up the hill – through the trees – and…did she see someone duck behind a tree?

She skied down the trail a few hundred meters, then quickly darted into a cluster of trees – and there she waited a moment, then looked up the trail…but she saw nothing, no one…no skiers at all. She shook her head, pushed back onto the trail and skied down through the village to the hotel, where she dropped her skis and boots off in the ski room before going up to her room. She showered, put on more formally attractive clothes before she walked back to the main shopping street.

She found her new Rolex was now three minutes slow and walked to the jeweler, expressed her disappointment and asked him to check it out. She wanted to drop off her rolls of Kodachrome and saw a small camera shop across the way and went in, filled out the processing envelope and dropped the rolls in, then she saw a used 85 f1.5 in the display case and looked it over for a while, then as if on a lark she decided to purchase the lens. She looked around once outside again and, as if the thought had just come to her, she walked back to the patisserie and went to the counter, picked out a few interesting items and asked for an espresso. She looked at more items in the case, then she went and sat at the same table she had the day before.

The General came inside a few minutes later, his magnificent Gordon setter tucked in close by his side, and he saw her. He seemed to smile – if faintly – before he too went to the counter and ordered. He turned, looked at her when he was through, then came to the table next to hers.

“What a happy – coincidence,” he said, smiling, then he sat in a chair just a few inches from her own.

She looked at the setter and scratched her ears again, and the dog licked her hand.

“She likes you,” he said. “That is most unusual.”

“That’s because she has very good taste,” she cooed, doting on the girl.

“How was the snow today,” the General said, going over the security report again in his mind.

“Very good,” she replied. “There was enough sun to soften up the icy spots.”

“Ah, well, I must go up tomorrow and see. I think there will be sun a few more days.”

She smiled, picked up her coffee.

“I see you have a Leica,” he said, looking at the silver box on her table. “For an M?”

“Yes, it’s my secret fetish. I tried a Nikon once, but it lacks something.”

“Yes, the clarity of the rangefinder. That makes all the difference.”

She nodded. “Yes, but the quality of the lenses…that’s what brought me back.”

“You have an adapter for it,” he said as pointed at the lens.

“No, not with me, but the shop had this and I just couldn’t resist.”

“Franz is a good man,” he said, pointing at the camera store she’d just come from. “He does well for such a small village. So, you have an M4?”

“Yes. Well, the M4-2.”

“Ah, the Canadian Leica. I understand a new M4 is coming soon, perhaps next year.”

“Oh, really,” she said, appearing genuinely interested. “Any idea when?”

He smiled – gently, then held up his hands while he pursed his lips and shook his head. “You never know with Leica.”

“I would love a fast 75,” she said lustfully.

“I have heard rumors one is coming soon,” he added somewhat boastfully, speaking as someone with inside information usually does.

“Faster than 1.5?” she asked, looking at her purchase.

He steepled his fingers before his face, and his eyes smiled. “1.4,” he crooned, his spoken numbers lilting, almost gleeful.

“Damn,” she said. “So I get to buy a new body AND another lens. Well, I won’t be skiing much next year!”

“I have quite a collection,” he said, hovering next to the edge of her precipice, “why don’t you come up and have a look?”

She looked at him, curiosity in her eyes. “Really? You wouldn’t mind?”

He pursed his lips, made the same little self-deprecating shrug once again, as if to say ‘It’s nothing…’

“Well,” she added, “I’d be delighted. Perhaps you’d join me for dinner, and we could walk up after?”

“Say about seven?” he asked, smiling.

“That sounds good. I’m at The Zermatterhof.”

“Ah. Of course.”

She finished her coffee and was getting ready to leave when she saw him looking at her – an odd, almost perplexed look in his eyes. “I may have a spare adapter,” he said after a moment, pointing at the silver box. “Why don’t you bring your M4 and that new lens. You really should test it before you leave, make sure it works.”

She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, thanks. That’s a good idea,” she said as she gathered her gloves and hat. “See you at seven, then,” she said as she waved, before she slipped out the door on a breeze.

He thought about her grandfather as he watched her walk away. He remembered the man well, in fact. A physician and a close advisor of Mossadegh’s; the man had barely managed to flee Tehran in ’53, and while the CIA had followed him as far as Argentina they’d lost track of him near the Andes, though once the general’d heard the man had been spotted in Bariloche. They sent a team, but too late; he was neither seen nor heard from again.

The old man looked at the captain waiting across the street and thought about all the varied streams of history. No way would the captain understand this obsession, no way would he remember the passions of those first days back in power – except what he may have heard about through the stories of others. No way would the captain understand how difficult it had been to get rid of all the deeply embedded nationalists left behind in the bureaucracies and the military. So while one more part of the score would be settled tonight, this last remaining vendetta had a bittersweet feel to the old spy. This last, long-standing enmity was something almost ancient now, but as the woman’s grandfather remained one of the Shah’s most bitter memories, her fate had been all but sealed the moment they met.

Yes, because while her grandfather was dead and gone and her father out of reach, she was here, and the order had come from the Shah himself: Kill her, but first make her understand why, then make her suffer –

+++++

She knew she was blown – but then again they had been counting on that happening.

The general had almost single-handedly killed everyone in the Shah’s Iran, anyone allied in any way with the Mossadegh regime, but the word was the General had gone after the few Jews in Mossadegh’s inner circle with unusual ferocity. As such, the General had become a high priority target for the Israelis, yet they could not take him out within Iran without creating unnecessary blowback, so his case had lingered for years. But then the General had recently been spotted moving around outside Iran, and when the opportunity arose he had been tailed, members of his support team identified, and then the late night conferences began working on the best way to approach and take out such a high-profile target – despite the American umbrella of protection he enjoyed through the Shah.

Then it was learned the General had a house in Switzerland, and an interesting – if complicated – new wrinkle developed: what about an operation in neutral Switzerland? Was that off limits? But then word had come down to Captain Benni Goodman: the situation with the General needed to be resolved – in case the Shah retrenched and consolidated power once again. Because, it was hoped, the message would be clear: to those enemies of Israel who might think the Mossad wasn’t watching – and waiting – you had better think again.

So, first the team had planted a vast net of very attractive crumbs – revealing faint bits of Dana’s Goodman’s background – that even the flat-footed Iranians would be sure to find. Next, they pulled her from the design house in Zurich she’d been tasked to and sent her to a safe house Geneva. She might then have returned to Tel Aviv, but her handlers decided against the risk; instead, Captain Goodman had briefed his niece, Dana, on the mission and her target, leaving out the rather personal backstory behind this sanction on a walk beside the lake. Captain Goodman conveyed the hope that once Dana’s identity was ‘discovered’ – she would become an irresistible target, perhaps one the General would think worth blowing his diplomatic cover for. Their superiors in Israel were counting on that, Captain Goodman told her…

Once she’d arrived in Zermatt – where she’d first located his house and observed his routine – she’d signaled ‘contact made’ to her handler in Geneva. She had checked in a small hotel for a few days, until word came to make her move to the Zermatterhof, then she waited for the formal authorization that had been hand delivered two days ago, in Cervinia. Then, once the OP had been irrevocably green-lighted, she’d initiated contact at the bakery.

But every operation of this complexity, she knew from even her brief experience, develops at least one serious complication along the way, and that fly in the ointment had arrived at breakfast that morning, and then later, on the trail beneath the Gornergrat. She didn’t know who this Paul Ruddesheim was, or who he might really be working for, but her instincts screamed CIA, and if he indeed was working for Langley then she had to assume he was here to protect the old man. Or worse…to take her out before she could make her approach.

The ties between the United States and the Shah of Iran ran deep; those between the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, and the CIA ran deeper still. The only question bothering her now was what to do if this Ruddesheim interfered with her mission, if he tried to protect the general. More worrisome, if he knew she was Mossad – in effect, who she really was – and if he tried to take her out, oh well, she’d have to go hunting off the reservation – as the training officers in Virginia liked to say. That was one complication she really didn’t want to deal with, and now there wasn’t time to report this new wrinkle without the possibility of compromising her mission. ‘Abort – or proceed?’ she asked herself as she walked through the village.

But she already knew the answer. The stakes were too high, weren’t they?

She got to the hotel and went down to the ski room, then once she’d checked to see if she was being followed she went beyond, deeper into the mechanical bowels of the old hotel. She’d been briefed on this last detail in the little note passed to her the day before, and in a dusty corner behind a jumbled mountain of cardboard boxes, under a pile of turpentine soaked tarps, she found a small, black plastic box. She picked it up and carried it back to her room.

She unlocked the box with the key given to her by her handler the week before, took out the Walther TPK and screwed the suppressor onto the end of the barrel. She slipped the clip of .22LRs out of the box, checked the load, then slammed it home and racked the receiver, chambering a round. She put a phone book under the mattress and fired a round through two pillows: the serrated hollow point splintered into four equal shards, and she dug two from the box springs, two from the phone book. She wrapped these in toilet paper and flushed them, then showered and changed again. After she dressed and was ready to leave, she tossed things about the room, leaving the appearance of a state of casual disrepair, wanting the room to look like she’d been planning on returning after dinner.

‘The Leica!’ she thought in a panic. She’d almost forgotten the most important element to the entire operation! She went and got the camera body out it’s case and cleaned it up a little, then she pulled open the false bottom of the hard case. She slipped the Walther inside the case, as well as the two extra clips, and then she held her right hand up to the bottom of the case and pushed hard, locking the false bottom in place. She cleaned her new lens and kept the 50mm already on the body, then closed the case and locked the top latch. Then she looked at her wrist out of habit, remembered her new Rolex was gone and was sorry she’d not been able to pick it up, then she grabbed the camera case and headed for the elevator.

He was of course already downstairs, waiting in the lobby, and curiously enough, he was alone. She assumed his minders were already in the dining room as she walked over to him.

“So nice to see you,” she said as she held out her hand, and she smiled when she saw his eyes fixed on her legs.

“My, but you do look lovely tonight.” He was almost leering at her when their eyes met, then he looked at her case. “The Leica?” he asked.

“Yes. I thought I’d bring it along. Shall we go to the dining room?”

“We could, but I was hoping you’d let me take you to my favorite place.”

“That sounds lovely,” she said gayly, though inwardly she groaned as she followed him to the door. She stood aside and let him open it for her, then they walked out into the night – together – as she had taken his arm in hers. She had to admire his basic street-craft, too: keep your opponent guessing, keep changing agreed upon plans to mess up strategic orientation. She was counting on his not quite knowing her real identity, but if that had been compromised he might be assuming she had tactical support on the ground, so the General’s men would be following them now, looking for her support team.

But, of course, she was solo, and that just might help ease their suspicions – for a while.

They came to the restaurant, and as it was near the main train station she considered trying to make the last train down the valley to Visp. She might just have time, she knew, if things went according to plan.

“Here we are,” the general said as he opened the door for her, and she recognized his men from the street, already inside and waiting. “These are my associates,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind if they join us tonight.”

“Not at all,” she said brightly, then the group was led to a large table by a freestanding copper fireplace. “So, what line of work are you in,” she asked the old man.

“Political trouble shooting,” the old man said, smiling.

“Government work, I take it?” she replied. “So, fondue?”

The more senior looking of the old man’s associates was looking at her case, then he spoke to the general in farsi.

“May I see your camera now?” the old man asked.

“Certainly,” she said, handing over the case and the key.

“Hassan heads my security detail, so I defer to him in these matters.”

“I understand.”

Hassan opened the case and took out the camera. He looked it over and handed it to the general, then he pulled out the other lens; she took a sip from her glass of ice water while she looked around the restaurant. A moment later Hassan handed her the case and she put it under the table, while the general held the camera in his hand.

“I’ve never understood why some people consider the Canadian body inferior,” he said. “I’m given to understand that the tooling is identical in both facilities.”

“Oh, I think there’s the intangible belief in the superiority of German manufacturing techniques,” she replied, smiling.

“Not to mention Germans,” the old man added, his grin a jab at her history.

She laughed. “True.”

“Where is your family from?”

“Minnesota,” she said.

“Ah. So you are used to the cold.”

“And skiing,” she smiled.

Several pots of bubbling cheese and oil arrived, baskets of bread and plates of meat and shrimp appeared, and the old man’s team dug in, apparently used to eating here – frequently, she guessed by the way they attacked the food.

“Here, may I fix you a plate,” the old man asked.

“Please.”

He moved formally, slowly, put sauces on her plate, then bread and a few long fondue forks. “Help yourself to whatever appeals to you.”

“Thank you.”

They ate in silence for a while, then suddenly his men excused themselves one by one, eventually leaving just the two of them at the table. Alone.

“Not a very talkative bunch,” she said.

“They take their duties seriously,” he said, looking directly in her eyes.

“You must have an important job,” she said – as naively as she could, under the circumstances.

“Would you like to head up to my chalet?”

“Whenever you’re ready.”

“Well, let’s go then.” He dropped a wad of francs on the table and stood, then helped her as well. They walked out into the night and back through town, then to a street that led up the west side of the village. Ten minutes later they came to a modest chalet and he led her to the front door, but she noticed his hands were shaking.

“Are you alright?” she asked while she looked at his hands, then his face.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not so sure.”

“What’s wrong?” she said, her voice sincere, full of concern.

“I had a dream last night,” he said. “A very unsettling dream. I have not been the same since.”

“A dream?” she asked, in a daze. “What was it about?”

“You,” he said.

+++++

‘Paul Ruddesheim’ kept to the shadows a few hundred yards back, Hassan by his side – looking up the hill as the general walked slowly across an icy patch in the road. He knew Goodman’s Mossad cover, MI6 had for at least a year, the CIA a few months more, and both agencies knew it was only a matter of time before Mossad made a play for the general. Still, his orders were not to blow her cover, not interfere with her mission, but not to help her, either. He was almost ashamed of taking her off that cornice run, but he’d wanted to know how tight she was, how resourceful, how physically adept.

And he’d been impressed. Cute, in an athletic way, her long auburn hair and dark eyes wild and elegant at the same time, but he was sure she was an amateur, not used to playing in his league. He wondered if he’d have to pull her out, save her ass when she encountered the general’s full team…

Hassan’s objective was to let the old man get her into the house, then move in and take her down. He’d said something about ‘hurting her’ before they eliminated her, and Ruddesheim was under no illusions what that meant. Group rape before a bullet to the head more than likely, then dropping her body outside the Israeli consulate in Zurich tomorrow afternoon, probably with a pig’s head with her in the body bag. Well, non-interference meant just that, but he didn’t want to watch that go down. He thought about lunch, her calm inquisitiveness. No, he wouldn’t let them kill her…

“What’s he doing?” Ruddesheim asked, watching the general and ‘Dana’ standing on the walk that led to the house, apparently just talking. Two more members of the team joined them then.

“She’s not being tailed,” one of the men said.

“You’re certain?” Hassan said. “No one?”

“Unless she has a locator, no one knows where she is.”

“To bad for her if a locator is her only backup,” Hassan said, knowing all such signals were jammed in the valley.

“Are they talking? Still?” Ruddesheim asked.

“Yes,” Hassan said, handing his binoculars to the American.

Ruddesheim took them and swept the area, especially the rooftops. “I see something over there, by that house,” he lied, and the two new men looked that way. “Did you check that area?”

No, they hadn’t, they said. He looked at Hassan, who scowled at his men. They looked down, chastened, then took off up the hill.

“You should get rid of those two,” Ruddesheim said. “Their skills are pathetic, and what I saw yesterday was embarrassing.”

“I’ll see to it myself, sir. I think the general is moving again…”

+++++

“So, what do you think the dream means?” she asked. “I think the stairway is an interesting symbol, but the statue, climbing into the womb?”

“I do not know. I struggled with that question all morning. Seeing you now only makes me more curious. Here, let’s get inside, before you catch a chill.”

He unlocked the door and led her inside. Like most chalets in the canton of Valais – where simple exteriors more often than not gave way to sumptuous interiors – the General’s was, if not quite opulent, much more opulent than a modest government pensioners hideaway. There were several small impressionist works hanging on the living room walls, and against one wall she saw a glass case full of Leica cameras and lenses. She couldn’t help herself…she walked right to the case and stared in awe. He came to her side and smiled at her reaction, then she turned to him and he could see it in her eyes.

“You should be so proud,” she said. “This is truly magnificent!” 

And for some reason the old man started to cry, gently at first, but then…

…and quite unexpectedly she came to him, held him to her breast. “Sh-h, sh-h,” she whispered as an electric wave passed from her body to his, “Is it your dream again? Tell me, really, what do you think these visions mean?” 

“That I turned my back to God and Heaven, that I turned away from living a righteous life, and now it is time for me to pay the price of my arrogance.” 

“The skulls? The bones?”

“Exactly.” 

“I think I understand,” Dana Goodman said.

“Where is your weapon?” the old man said, his voice now a coarse whisper.

“In my case,” she replied, finally understanding the true nature of the dream she too had experienced last night.

She felt his head nodding as if it was her own. “Get it now, would you, please.” 

She opened the latch and removed the camera, then she pressed the lock on the bottom of the case; the lock tripped, revealing the little Walther – and she pulled it out.

He knelt, placed the side of his face on her womb while he held her thighs in his hands. He wanted to climb up her legs towards her warmth, enter the womb of her night and crawl up into the expanding universe he’d discovered in his dream, yet when he felt the silenced barrel of her pistol against the back of his skull he felt confused and alone…

“I am ready,” he said at last, pulling her close…

He heard the front door opening, heard Hassan moving into the room, then she fired once, twice, but the old man didn’t move, indeed, he couldn’t move…

“What are you doing here,” he heard her ask someone…

“Me? Just observing,” he heard the American say – before he heart two more shots…

And then she was running her fingers through his hair once again, and he felt the pistol against his skull again, only now the tip of the silencer was very, very hot.

“God will forgive you,” the General said just before she pulled the trigger, and then again.

She walked to the entryway, saw the captain, Hassan, trying to staunch the flow of blood from his neck wound. She ejected the clip and slammed in her second, put the Walther to his temple and fired again – and the man grew still.

She walked over to Ruddesheim and looked him in the eye. 

“Observing, huh? Well, what did you observe tonight?”

He helped her pull Hasan’s body into the living room, and then he went around the room unscrewing light bulbs. When he finished she took a seat and waited, her eyes closed tightly, while Ruddesheim melted away into the shadows. A few minutes later she heard the other members of the General’s team coming into the house, and she waited until they were inside to room before she opened fire. In their confusion she cut them down one by one. Then she turned to Paul Ruddesheim.

“So? What do I do with you?” she asked.

“Nothing. We know who you are, your cover, and we have for over a year. Killing me will just lead to needless reprisals, and nobody needs that right now.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

She nodded. “So? I just…”

“You just have time to make your train,” he said, smiling just a little – and then he tossed her a green and gold box.

“My Rolex?”

“Yup.”

“You’ve been on me the whole time, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “Since Geneva. Now…go! You’ve got ten minutes!”

She didn’t wait, did not hesitate. She grabbed her camera case and walked back through town to the railway station. With just minutes to spare she purchased a through ticket to Geneva and waited on the platform for the train. With standard Swiss efficiency she knew she’d make the early morning Swissair to Athens, and as per the plan she’d disappear there.

She boarded the little train and it rumbled down the valley, and she spied a few errant splatters of blood on her coat. She went to the WC and took it off, put it in a trash bag, then she went to the overhead rack and tidied up her camera case. When it was clean again she relaxed a little, and an hour later she transferred to the main line at Visp, catching the overnight to Geneva.

She closed her eyes, felt herself falling and woke in a landscape of burnt gray mist, an infinity of black trees – until she saw a lamppost looming in the bleak dawn just ahead. She turned when she heard a sudden cry for help and she saw the old man sinking into the leaves and skulls, his outstretched hand reaching out to her, and then an icy hand gripped her heart.

Part II: Synchronicities 

New York City     December, 2008

She lay in bed, lost in the sweaty aftermath of the recurring dream. Lost in the residue of her crumbling marriage.

She lay in bed, looking at him as he slept.

So broken, she thought. So brilliant, and so irretrievably broken.

No, she knew now beyond any reasonable doubt he was a shattered, lost soul.

So much of his understanding of himself was lost in delusions of his own self-importance, perhaps even of an immortality only he knew about – a real Master of the Universe from Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Twenty years on Wall Street had done nothing to dispel that notion, but then in a matter of days all that had come crumbling down. The last fifteen years of his at Lehman Brothers had defined him, then the bubble burst and the end of the game came on like a freewill into darkness – first as disbelief, then as a creeping inner dissolution took hold of the man. Until now, months later and he still stayed at home, drinking in the darkness of his life. Drinking, if he even bothered to get out of bed. She took their daughter to school most mornings these days, at least when she was home, but she was back on the west coast run this month and going to be in LA the next two days; now she wondered if he’d even bother to wake up in time to get their daughter to school.

No, she needed to talk to her sister as soon as possible. Tonight, if all went according to plan. If anyone could help her through this, her sister could.

Her stomach already sour, she looked at her watch and got out of bed, walked quietly to the shower and washed away the night’s sweat. She packed in silence, went to the kitchen and put on coffee, then went to her daughter’s room and kissed her on the forehead, looking longingly at the girl’s blissfully carefree sleep.

But then she stood inside the shadow of dark panic once again, the dream intruding even into her waking mind. What was happening to her? Was she, too, losing her mind?

How long had she been having the dream? A matter of weeks? A month, already?

And every night, without fail? She shook herself free of the darkness, walked away from the shadow and back into the kitchen.

Why? What was it about the dream that had so focused her mind?

She walked to the garage with her coffee and put her bag on the passenger seat. She started the car and backed out the drive, then made her way through heavy snow to the crew lot at Logan. Once on the crew shuttle she relaxed, sat back and drifted back to the dream…

…dark gray mist. Everywhere, walls of silent, bare trees her only company…

…a vast carpet of brittle leaves – leaves haunted by something unseen…

…always the one lamppost, it’s feeble glow so lost, and she was also very much alone…

The shuttle stopped at Terminal 3 and she hopped off, went to the dispatch office. There were new RNAV approach plates for LAX and she put them in her binder, then she looked over the  METARs along this morning’s route, and she put that weather information sheet on her clipboard too. Weights and balances, checked and signed, and then the passenger manifest: checked and signed. Fuel load-out: signed. Mechanical issues, looked over and signed. She wondered where Doug Ross, her First Officer this morning, was; he was usually early and always prepared, but not today.

She looked at the dispatcher, caught his eye: “Where’s my F.O.?” she said.

“Oh, right. Sorry. Called in, has the flu. Your F.O. has checked-in already,” he said, looking at the clock on the wall, “maybe fifteen minutes ago. Reckon she went out to the gate.”

She looked at the bug list, pointed at it: “What’s with the hydraulic pressure on two?”

“Already got it. A pinhole leak, new fitting. Issue’s supposed to be resolved.”

“Okay,” she said, “thanks Dale.”

“You bet, Captain. Have a nice flight.”

She left the office and walked out into the terminal, through the bleary-eyed, early-morning crowds shuffling on their way to the security line. She went through the crew line then walked out to the gate, dropped her bag in the cockpit then walked down the stairs off the Jetway down to the ramp. She saw her F.O. on the far side of the aircraft, on a ladder with her head inside the number two engine nacelle, so she walked over to the ladder.

“What’s it look like, Katie?” she said to her First Officer up there on the ladder.

Katie Douglas popped her head out of the engine and almost dropped the flashlight in her hand. “Looks dry, Captain. I powered up Bus Two, actuated some systems. If there’s a leak I can’t find it.”

She nodded. “Okay. I’ll finish the walk-around. See you upstairs.”

“Right, Captain.”

Laura Richardson walked aft, towards the rear of the Boeing 777, checking wheels and tires and brakes, then cargo doors and the RAT hatch, the Ram Air Turbine that powered limited electrical systems in an emergency, then she walked over to the number one engine, where the Fuel Boss was finishing-up their load-out. Satisfied things were ship-shape, she walked back up to the Jetway, then into the aircraft.

Jake Steinway was in the first class galley, opening a bottle of champagne. She always got a chuckle out of him, always had something fun to say about a female captain and a “boy-toy stewardess” being in charge of the flight, and today was no different…

“Had your sex change operation yet, Captain?”

“Yeah, well,” she said, “Mine’s all set – right after yours!” 

He high-fived her, came close and hugged her. “I can’t wait!” he lisped in his staggeringly effeminate way. “You’ll do me first then, won’t you?”

The other flight attendants were left giggling as she groaned, then she walked forward into the cockpit. She found the flight-plan in her case and began waking up the ship’s systems…

+++++

He woke slowly, rubbed his throbbing temples and wiped away drool from the corners of his lips. He sprinted to the toilet, stood for hours until he’d drained his bladder, then went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup from the brew Laura had left on the coffeemaker. He looked at his wristwatch, saw he was up earlier than expected and went to Dana’s room and woke her with a kiss on the forehead…

“Time to get up, sweetheart,” he said softly. He watched her grumble and groan, stretch out under the covers, her arms hitting the headboard – and he wondered once again how they grew up so fast.

“Hi, daddy,” Dana said warily. “Has mom left already?”

He smiled. “There’s lipstick on your forehead, and it sure isn’t mine!”

They laughed.

“You taking me to school today?”

“You betcha.”

“Cool.”

“Cool. We’ll leave ‘bout a quarter ’til, okay?”

“Okay…”

He went to the kitchen and made french toast and bacon, poured juice and had it all ready by the time Dana came out. They ate in silence, then he slipped the dishes into the dishwasher before they walked out to the car. He was buckling in when the phone rang.

“It’s your mom,” he said, handing the phone over to Dana.

“Mom?”

“Are you up yet?”

“Yeah, we’re in the car. Dad made french toast and bacon!”

“Did he?”

“Better than yours, too,” she said, laughing with an insider’s quiet glee.

“That wouldn’t be too hard to do,” Laura said. “Could I speak with your father?”

“Sure. Will you call when you get in tonight?”

“Don’t I always?” She heard Dana passing the phone to her father. “Ralph? You there?”

“Yup. Missed you this morning,” he said quietly, knowingly.

“I missed you last night,” she said.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“So, what are you doing today?” she asked, changing the subject quickly lest the black hole return.

“I don’t know. Laundry, I guess. I need to shovel out around the basement windows, do the sidewalks before they ice over. You coming back Friday?”

“Yup. I’ll be home around four.”

“Okay. Dana’s recital is at seven. I’ll have dinner ready by five,” he said.

“Thanks Ralph, but why don’t we eat out for a change.”

“Fine with me.”

“Okay. Guess I’ll talk to you tonight. Bye-d-bye.” 

He said goodbye and switched off the phone. “What say we do pizza tonight?”

“Sure, Dad…sounds fun.”

+++++

“Two-two heavy, taxi to position and hold.”

“Two-two heavy.” Richardson advanced the throttles ten percent and let off the toe-brakes and the fully loaded 777 eased forward onto the runway. She steered with the nose-wheel paddle until they were on the centerline.

“Two-two heavy, clear for take-off.”

“Two-two heavy, rolling.” She advanced the throttles to forty percent and watched the readouts stabilize, then she ran up the throttles to take-off power and kept the aircraft on the centerline while Douglas called out their power and speeds –

“V-one…and…rotate!”

The “Trip-seven” lifted and at seven degrees nose-up began climbing, Richardson scanning the instruments. “Positive rate, gear up,” she called out, and Douglas lifted the lever by her left knee, raising the landing gears.

“Two-two heavy, turn left two three five degrees to KIRAA, clear to BLZZR at four thousand, contact departure on one three three point zero.”

“Two-three-five at four. Departure on three three zero,” Douglas said as she switched to COMMs 2 and checked in with air traffic control.

Richardson keyed in rates and headings and cut in the autopilot, then she scanned the instruments while they climbed out towards Hartford. “Hydraulic pressure still looks good on two,” she said, and Douglas grunted a quick “Okay, got it.”

“Two-two heavy, traffic at your ten o’clock, four miles, three thousand and descending.”

“Two-two heavy, got him,” Richardson replied to ATC. They entered a layer of solid cloud, hit a little mild turbulence as they flew through the seemingly impenetrable gray layer, then the 777 broke out into sunshine and a ‘bluebirds’ sky – clear, and not a cloud in the sky ahead. With high pressure moving in from Baja through the southwest, they’d have a strong jet stream to contend after they crossed the Mississippi, but other than that they’d enjoy a non-eventful flight… 

+++++

It had been a bad night, Lakwan thought as he looked over the bedroom.

First, they’d tried to hit a liquor store but the old Korean dude behind the counter had been armed, and so was his kid – and the kid had been working in the walk-in refrigerator when they came in, and what followed had turned into a slow motion blood-bath. Five of his brothers had walked in the store with guns drawn, and the old man stood back from the counter, hitting the silent alarm before he put his hands up. But then the kid had come out of the walk-in with a Remington 870 pump and got three rounds of double-00 buckshot off, hitting Soultrain in the chest and legs before he’d turned and shot the kid. By then, the old man had some kind of hand-cannon up and started shooting, hitting Soultrain in the face, then his little brother Markus got it in the main pump. Both had fallen to the tile floor in a bloody heap – just as he heard sirens coming from only a few blocks away.

They’d ‘jacked a car and took off down Sepulveda, slipped into the ‘hood and dumped the car a few blocks from his crib, then the three remaining brothers walked to their house and crashed for a while. Still, Lakwan couldn’t sleep and he was still all buzzed-up from killing the Korean kid – when he remembered the shocked-sad look of disbelief in the kid’s eyes when he knew he’d been hit and that he was going to die. 

Then he heard Laqeesha knocking around in the other bedroom and went to see what she was up to, and he looked at her in the early morning light as he walked in the room. She was wiping her neck with an alcohol pad, then she slipped the H into a vein in her neck and soon fell back on the bed in a shuddering sigh, the syringe still dangling from her neck. Lakwan shook his head, went over and pulled the needle out and wiped her skin with the pad, but she had spread her legs wide now and was rubbing her clit. He was hard in a flash and put his face between her legs, and they spent the next few hours fucking and sucking, and he finally shot his load up her ass – her favorite way to end this particular game – and his, too.

He looked around the room now that the sun was coming up, and he could barely remember the Korean kid now, but he knew they were going to need some flash in a hurry, ’cause the girls were already running low on H.

Still…he’d been watching a bank over in Culver City for a few days now, and now he had a plan… 

+++++

Ralph Richardson got back to the house after dropping Dana off at school, and he walked into the kitchen, finished the dishes then walked to their bedroom and cleaned-up before he went to Dana’s and picked up her dirty clothes. He went to the living room and turned on the television, found an old movie on cable and sat quietly, watching John Wayne and Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson outsmart the bad guys one more time. He picked at his fingers from time to time, leaned forward and put his face in his hands, then walked to the kitchen, looked in the cabinet over the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Chivas.

He held it in his hand, looked at the cinnamon colored liquid in the bottle as he rolled it round and round, then he took it to the garage and threw it in the trash. He went back to the kitchen cabinet and grabbed every bottle he could find, then he carried them all to the trash. He went round the house, found every bottle he’d stashed over the last few months and dumped those too, and by the time he’d finished his hands were shaking, his heart pounding in his chest, burning little ripples of fear coursing through his forehead. He sat and rubbed his forehead again, his wringing hands miming the poetry of despair, and he could see the whole charade playing out in his mind again… the walking back to the garage, pulling bottle after bottle of booze out of the trash and fixing a strong one…then up there on the screen he saw Dean Martin’s ‘Dude’ confronting his own demons in the bottle and everything was suddenly very clear again. He had to – just stop. Bring this part of his life to an end. Move on from self-pity, move back into the light of his love for Laura and Dana, because if he didn’t he was going to lose it all.

He heard the phone ringing and muted the TV as he walked into the kitchen.

“Hello?”

“Ralph Richardson? My name is…”

And it turned out that Goldman Sachs had received his resume and wanted to talk with him. “Will today work for you? Say in about two hours?”

He was dressed and out the door fifteen minutes later…

+++++

“What do we have for grub?” Richardson asked as she looked at the outside air temp, then the cabin temp. She checked the auto-temp panel once again, after one of the flight attendants called to report the last ten rows in coach seemed colder than usual.

“Sandwiches, and, uh, well, it looks like sushi,” Douglas said.

“Sushi? You gotta be kidding me… Like what?”

“Looks like California rolls, maybe salmon and tuna sashimi.”

“Jesus, is nothing sacred?” she said, almost laughing but still shocked. “Where’s my moldy tuna sandwich when I really need it?”

Douglas pulled the sandwich out, looked it over and frowned. “I think you’re in luck. It’s not green yet, though.”

“Ah, sweet. Let me have it.”

“You don’t like sushi?”

“Me? Are you kidding? I love sushi, just not sushi made at Logan, and probably a week ago, at that.” She unwrapped the sandwich and gave it a sniff. “This sandwich, on the other hand, was probably made last August. It’s had time to sit for weeks, if not months, time to reach it’s full potential.”

“It smells potent, alright,” Douglas said as she took a piece of sashimi and held it up to her nose. She threw it back in the sack then took the other tuna sandwich. “I think they prepared that fish back in August, too.” She shook her head, bit into the sandwich. “Not too bad,” she said, shaking her head. “Kind of like a panty-liner, ya know?”

“It’s the mercury,” Richardson said. “No self-respecting bug would hang out in a sandwich this old.”

“I hope you’re right…oh, St Louis coming up on the left.”

Richardson looked down at the city, could see downtown and the river gleaming in the sunrise. She switched on the intercom. “Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Richardson up on the flight-deck, and those of you on the left side of the cabin can look down right about now and see downtown St Louis, Missouri. There’s some sun on the river, but if you look close you’ll just be able to make out the Gateway Arch. By the way, we’re currently at thirty four thousand feet and we’re looking good to make our scheduled arrival time of 12:45. The air’s still pretty smooth up here but we ask that you keep your seat belts fastened as we’re expecting some rough air over the Rockies in Colorado and again as we pass over southern Utah. We’ll pass just north of the Grand Canyon in about two hours, and if it looks like we’ll be able to see it, we’ll let you know.”

She switched from intercom back to COMMs as she finished her sandwich. “I wish they’d pack Tums with these goddamn things.”

Douglas belched, handed her a can of raspberry flavored seltzer water. “This might help.”

“No Dr Pepper?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

“Fuck.”

“Yup. What’s going on with Ralph? Anything new?”

She shook her head. “Nope. SSDD.”

“Oh? Well, how’s Dana doing?”

“Really good. Piano recital this Friday evening, and she’s doing really well. You ought to come.”

“Yeah? Sounds good. What’s she playing?”

“I’m not really sure. Some piece by a Danish composer…Imogen Schwarzwald, I think.”

“She have a boyfriend yet?”

“Oh hell yes. Non-stop calls, and of course now she wants her own phone.”

Douglas sighed. “And so it begins. The Wonder Years…”

“Oh…shut the fuck up!” They both laughed.

“Two-two heavy, St Louis center.”

“Center, go ahead,” Douglas said.

“Two-two heavy, traffic at your eleven o’clock is an Delta MD80, he’ll pass under you at flight level three three.”

Richardson looked down, nodded her head. “Yup.”

“Two-two heavy, okay, we got him. Thanks.”

“Two-two heavy, good day, contact Kansas City on one two one one.”

“Two-two heavy, twenty one one,” Douglas repeated. “Looks like some weather up there.”

Richardson changed the range scale on the weather radar. “Big stuff for this time of year. We ought to pass south of it, though.”

“Okay.”

She drifted off for a moment, drifted back to the dream…

…to the lamppost, glowing in the mist, lighting her way through the gloom…

…then she appeared, just as she did every night in every dream, right here, right now…

…the woman in the maroon cape turned and looked at her, beckoned her to follow…

…and following the woman through more lamps in the mist, until soon they came to the stairway…

“Captain?!”

“Hm-m, what?”

“I said, should we ask to divert south a little, away from that cell?”

Richardson looked at the display, wondered how long she’d been out, then she called Kansas City…

+++++

Ralph walked out of the interview feeling almost ecstatic, better than he had in months, anyway. One of his friends from Lehman was already onboard and had put in a good word for him; they’d check his references and give him a call next week. If there were no problems, could he start next Friday?

Could he start next Friday? Hell, he’d wanted to kiss that prickly-assed son of a bitch, and now he just couldn’t believe it. Could it happen – so fast? In the middle of this wicked downturn? Shit! He was the luckiest man alive!

He took the T from the Prudential Center back through downtown, then switched to the Red Line and rode out past Cambridge. He found his car now had about four inches of snow on top and started the motor, set the defrost to MAX and went around the outside brushing off snow off the hood and glass, chipping ice off the passenger door handle just in case. His hands freezing, he got in and drove through the slush and ice to Dana’s school, but he was early, so he reclined the seat and snoozed…until he heard her tapping on the glass.

He jerked awake, flipped the switch to unlock the doors and she hopped in…

And she looked at him, the question in her eyes plain to see.

“Why’re you so dressed up?”

He looked at her, grinning. “Job interview today. It went well, I think.”

She smiled, even though she wasn’t quite old enough to know what all this really meant, but she seemed happy to see him happy and that was all that mattered. “Way to go, Dad!” She held up her hand and they ‘high-fived’, then they both laughed the laugh that had held them together through all the good times – and the bad.

“Home first, then pizza?” he asked, grinning that grin she’d missed for so many months.

“You know, I’m really hungry,” she replied. “Think they’re open yet?”

“They will be by the time we get there. It’s home-made root beer night, remember?”

“Ooh, right-on!”

They laughed and talked about her day as he pulled out into traffic, and they made it to Gino’s in time to be the first ones seated. A house special pie and two pitchers of root beer later they were deep in the zone, as happy as they’d been in months… 

+++++

Dana Goodman sat at her desk, looking at the list of names on her screen. Dozens of names, many of them friends, friends she’d hired. And all of them would be laid off in the next few days, by Friday at the latest. And it was her job to get the job done “in a timely and expeditious manner.” 

She stood and walked to her office’s wall of tinted glass and looked out over Beverly Hills, and the Hollywood Hills beyond, lost in thought. Lost in life’s choices, the choices that had carried her from Minnesota to Israel, only to be chased by death back to America. Home first, to Minnesota but then on to California, to Los Angeles. Where her life, she laughed, had finally begun.

The chase. Oh, the chase. It had all started that night in Zermatt. Killing those six Iranians. She’d thought she was so strong, so tough, yet all that death had burned a hole in her soul, but it had taken months for the searing pain to slip past denial and reach consciousness. She was working in Tel Aviv when a telephone call in the middle of the night shattered all her illusions and her life changed course once again.

Her mother called that night, told her that her father had just suffered his second heart attack, and that this one had been very bad. Could she come home? There might not be much time left…

She asked for a leave from her superiors in Mossad and had flown home, and echoes of the dream chased her through all the passing time zones. She spent the last few days of her father’s life in his hospital room at the Mayo Clinic, and she was with him – and held him – as he passed. She’d looked in his eyes, watched the humanity in his soul flicker as he took his last breath, and she’d wiped the tears first from his eyes – then her own – as he left her, and as his eyes grew calm and still.

She’d spent the next week at his house in Westwood Hills, an affluent suburb out on the west side of Minneapolis, and she’d looked out over the golf course and walked the trails around the lake while trying to come to terms with his passing, but in the end very little about her life made sense anymore. She thrashed around in the memories of that night in Zermatt, trying to understand just what she’d been rebelling against all those many dreadful years ago when she’d left home for Israel. He didn’t like the Beatles? Let’s have a fight about that. Jim Taylor wasn’t Jewish, so let’s go out with him, see if we can rub that in the old man’s face too. It always came back in a rush, but when her mother asked her to help clean out the closet where he’d keep his clothes, and the little boxes where he’d kept his memories, she’d finally come undone.

Then her kid sister arrived, a few days too late for the passing but just in time for the services. Laura was the late arrival in so many other ways, too. Dana was finishing middle school when Laura was born, and she’d gone off to college before the kid had gotten out of kindergarten. By the time Laura had moved on to the very same middle school over in St Louis Park, she’d moved to Israel.

So the funny thing was, they simply didn’t know one another. Two sisters, her flesh and blood, and they’d never once had a chance to sit around and laugh about boyfriends or argue about chores not done; no, they were strangers, complete strangers. And when she drove Laura home from the airport that fact more than any other hit her hardest. Her father gone now, her mother lost in a haze of grief, and here was this girl home from college, her sister, this total stranger. She’d pulled off the highway and cried when all the heartbreak came rushing through the distance between the two of them.

And yet someway, somehow, and against all odds her sister became her best friend over the next two weeks, and suddenly nothing in the world was as important to Dana Goodman as what was left of her family.

Now here she was, lost in LA, still a million miles away from family – just like always. Still, Laura flew out twice a week when she had the LA run, and now she looked at her watch, checked her appointments. Laura’s flight was due to arrive in a little less than an hour, and she was planning to meet her later that afternoon for an early dinner. Laura wanted to talk about Ralph, what to do about her marriage now that it seemed to be in a terminal decline – at least, that’s how she’d put it yesterday, when they’d talked for almost an hour. Dana hated to hear it, hated what a split would surely do to her niece, what it would mean for Laura to lose faith in her husband after nearly twenty years together…

This was an evening she wasn’t looking forward to, then she turned back to the list of friends whose lives she was about to destroy.

+++++

Lakwan looked at the foot-traffic heading in and out of the bank, then at the clock on the dash. The armored car should be here in about five minutes, he told his boys, then he looked around the streets once again.

Good, he said to himself, still no cops…

+++++

“Two-two heavy, Los Angeles Approach, maintain two four niner degrees, descend and maintain three-seven hundred, report passing SHELL. Winds light and variable, visibility two miles in haze, altimeter two niner niner two. Contact tower one three three point niner.”

“Two-two heavy, maintain two four niner degrees, descend and maintain three-seven hundred, report passing SHELL,” Richardson said. Douglas was handling the landing while she called out the checklists and handled the radios. She could see the tops of a few of the taller buildings in downtown  LA poking up through the smog – still maybe fifteen miles away – and she scowled at the bronze colored air blanketing the city. Her eyes were already beginning to burn, and she knew within an hour she’d be on eyedrops, and her throat would be burning…

She scanned the panel, looked as ILS flags popped on the HSI and as the autopilot locked onto the glide-slope and localizer…

“Flaps ten,” Douglas said, and Richardson hit the lever under her right hand and watched the panel indicator.

“Ten, and speed one seven five,” she said as the 777 drifted down into the smog…

+++++

“Okay man, there it is,” Lakwan said as the armored car turned into the shopping center’s parking lot. He started his car and watched as the truck drove up to the bank, looked on as the two men in the back of the truck walked inside the bank. He looked at the clock again. “Usually in there less than two minutes,” he said. “When they come out we roll, hit ’em just as they get to the back of the truck…”

“Well, you better start rollin’, mother fucker,” BigTop said, “‘cause they be comin’ right now!”

“Fuck…” Lakwan sped through the lot and screeched to a stop just in time; the brothers raced out of the car with their guns drawn and they started shooting at the guards before they had time to react. Lakwan threw a Molotov cocktail under the engine and the pavement under the truck burst into flames. He dashed to the fallen guards and grabbed the bags they’d been carrying out to the truck; one went for his gun and Lakwan shot him in the face then he ran back to the car. They were just getting in the car when a gunshot shattered the rear window, and he heard sirens as pulled out into traffic on Manchester. Traffic was heavy as he slipped through the heavy midday traffic; when he looked in his rearview mirror he saw red and blue strobes a couple of blocks behind and cursed.

He couldn’t see the LAPD helicopter overhead, or the KLAX News JetRanger just a few hundred yards behind the police chopper, but just then BigTop leaned out the window and took a shot at the cops.

“Man, they’s a helicopter up there, ‘Kwan. Better find some trees or some shit, and fast…”

Lakwan saw the Salvation Army store just ahead and turned south on Vermont, just before he saw the cop car heading north. He passed it southbound, and BigTop fired two shots at the cops as they passed…

+++++

“Two-two heavy, LA center, be advised there are police helicopters at your eleven o’clock, report a robbery suspect in a pursuit, bank robbery, shots fired. They’re about a mile north of your position heading east, about two hundred feet AGL right now.”

“Two-two heavy,” Douglas said, concern in her voice as she looked down and to the right, “too much haze, can’t see any traffic.” She looked at Richardson… “You’d better take it…”

“My aircraft,” Laura said immediately. She understood, didn’t need to be told why. She had zero view out that side of the cockpit, while Katie had an unobstructed view, and so she’d started scanning her instruments, watching the autopilot’s moves. She dialed 157 knots on the auto-throttle and dropped the flaps to twenty degrees…

Lakwan passed through the red light at East 92nd street doing well over 80 miles per hour, and he drifted to the right lane as he approached West Century… He shot across traffic and made a left on Century, but he saw there were now three cop cars behind him now, and they were getting closer. Central Avenue was just ahead now, that little power station on their left, Will Rogers Park on his right…so maybe he could duck into the park, hide in the parking lot somehow, but he saw a cop car was waiting there already. As he sped past the waiting patrol car he was thinking he had nowhere to go now…

+++++

Douglas was peering into the smog when…

“Okay, got ’em. About two o’clock now, maybe a half mile…”

Richardson looked at her altitude readout: 1600 AGL, rate of descent 300FPM. “I don’t like this,” she said, if only to herself…

+++++

BigTop was leaning out the window again, and he fired at the closest cop car; PeeWee was leaning out the other window in back, now shooting up at the helicopters…

+++++

Will Butner was piloting the KLAX News chopper, and he had the JetRanger crabbed to the right so the camera operator could get an unobstructed angle on the unfolding chase below when bullets slammed into his right leg and hand, and then into the cockpit glass. As instinct kicked in he pulled up on the collective and added power.

He didn’t see the looming jetliner overhead…or the right engine nacelle that swallowed the helicopter milliseconds later…

+++++

“What the…” Richardson heard Douglas say, then lights were going off all over the panel. It felt like something had reached up from below and grabbed the right wing…then the aircraft was banking right so she instinctively turned the wheel, trying to counter the roll she should have corrected with left rudder…

“What happened,” she said calmly – even as the right wing dropped further. Now she got onto the rudder and concentrated on stabilizing their speed.

“Helicopter, I think,” Douglas said. “It got the wing.” She was flipping breakers, switching electrical buses, deploying the RAT. “LA Approach, Two-two heavy, one of those helicopter got our right wing, unknown structural damage, hydraulics failing.”

“Two-two heavy, state your intentions.”

“We’ve lost two,” Richardson said, but just now the roll to the right was really accelerating. “Help me on the rudder.”

“On it.”

Richardson was looking ahead, out the windshield, and she saw grass ahead, maybe a playing field? If she could just get the right wing up…

“See the field?” Douglas said.

“Yup, she’s not responding…”

“You’re losing it,” Douglas added.

“Kids all over that field. No way are we going down there.”

“Right a little, a little right rudder, vacant field there…”

“Got it,” Richardson said…

“Well, damn,” she heard Douglas say, but just then she was following the caped lady…into the lamplight at the top of the stairway…

+++++

Ralph and Dana were home watching TV when the news broke, when images of the disaster flashed around the world. Laura’s sister called a half hour later, devastated, barely able to breathe. She asked them to fly out as soon as they could, and he called her back a half hour later, told her they would get in a little before noon the next morning.

When the first investigators at the scene of the crash interviewed people from the playground, they all said pretty much the same thing. The 777 was almost inverted as it passed just overhead, yet it appeared to change course at the last moment. The right wingtip just missed the soccer field before it ripped through traffic on Century, before the massive airliner cartwheeled into the power substation on Central.

The data recorders were located within a few hours, but fires burned through the night. The manhunt for the three bank-robbers was still underway as night fell, or so the breathless news crews reported, but their stolen car had been found, abandoned…behind a church.

+++++

Deputy Sumner Bacon sat looking at his pancakes, completely bored and wishing he was back in his apartment working on his thesis. Instead, he was sitting in a Denny’s at two in the morning, listening to an academy trainee drone on and on about all he’d learned about the penal code the past two weeks. He’d been on the streets for twenty three years, however, and trainee enthusiasm had gotten tiresome and stale – like maybe fifteen years ago. Not it was all he could do not to tell the kid to shut the fuck up and leave him be.

The biggest thing on days had been the 777 crash up near South Central, the airliner on approach into LAX, and even though that was somewhat more interesting than the inner workings of the California penal code, he’d not even wanted to talk about that incident with this irritating rookie. He’d been to several such crashes in and around LA over the years, and the smell of kerosene-soaked flesh got to him, now probably more than ever before. And as much as this new kid wanted to talk about the crash, and all the carnage he’d seen on TV, Bacon had simply begged off the topic, asked to talk about something, anything else.

But now, after he’d finished only a few bites of the diner’s rancid, grease-soaked pancakes, he pushed the plate aside. “You finished,” he asked the ur-rookie, hoping the indigestion would go away before they got their next call…

“Sure, ready when you are.”

He nodded, took the bill and went up to the counter where the night manager waited, smiling. Bacon handed the girl the bill and she tore it up, tossed it in the trash. “Thanks for coming in tonight, Sum.”

“You bet, darlin’.”

“Looks like you got a wet one,” she said, and he assumed she was referring to the state of moisture behind the rookie’s ears…

“Oh, you know, the song remains the same, darlin’. But hey, the night is young, so there’s just no tellin’ how much fun the night holds…”

She smiled, even though her feet ached. “I’m off at eight if you want to drop by.”

He smiled, nodded his head. “Might just do that, Baba. Have to see how the night goes.”

“Okay. Seeya later.”

He led the rookie out into the night, the docks and refineries down the hill in San Pedro casting an eerie glow over the harbor, and now, to make the air even more fetid, a nice, thick fog was drifting in, casting a strange, deep amber-gray glow over the harbor area…

“Did you call her Baba?” the ur-rookie asked. “What gives?”

“Baba O’Riley,” Bacon said with a tired grin. “You know, ‘it’s only teenage wasteland’?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Not a goddamn thing, Rook.”

“Oh. Okay.”

He got behind the wheel, checked into service, then he drove to the 110 and made for the southbound onramp. When the light turned green he turned and went to the shoulder of the onramp and turned off the engine, then he rolled down his window.

“What gives?” the trainee said.

“Listening for drunks.”

“What?”

“Shut the fuck up and listen, Rook. Who knows, you might even learn something.”

He leaned back, shut his eyes, but it wasn’t even a minute later when he opened them again, turned on the engine and waited…until a white Lexus coupe drove by, straddling the lane dividers, causing a whining rumble as the tires pounded against the raised ‘bots-dots’ – he watched the Lexus for a moment then slipped the car into gear and took off down the onramp. He hung back a moment, watched the Lexus as it swung from lane to lane, then, as it took the ramp onto the Vincent Thomas Bridge he knew this just had to be a DUI…

Yet he decided against stopping the Lexus on the bridge, so he pulled in behind it, keeping about a hundred yards back, but then, as they approached the apex of the bridge the Lexus slowed, then stopped.

“Not good,” he said, almost to himself. “Nope, not good at all…” He turned on the strobes as his patrol car rolled to a stop, and he called in to dispatch, checked out on a welfare concern atop the bridge, possible DUI, possible suicide. He knew without having to ask that back-up would already be starting his way…

He was getting ready to get out of his Dodge when the Lexus’ front door opened and a woman stepped out. She walked around to the front of her car and scrambled over to the anti-suicide fencing, then she started climbing the fence…

“What the fuck!” the rookie yelled, but Sumner Bacon was already out of his squad car, sprinting past the woman’s car. She must be stronger than hell, he thought as he jumped up onto the fence and began climbing after her.

She was already at the top, struggling to get a leg over the… “Fuck!” he yelled. “Lady, that’s razor wire, stop where you are or you’re gonna get shredded!”

Blood started raining down on his face just seconds later, just before he got to her, and he felt the rookie climbing up the fence behind him. Moments later Bacon was on her, with her leg in one hand, his other holding on tightly to the fence.

“Come on, lady, give me a break, would you?”

She was struggling, still trying to get over the wire, only now she was really bleeding. He heard another car approaching, turned to see it was another patrol car coming to back him up, and he relaxed, knew paramedics and firemen would get here soon and help get her free of this wire…so all he needed to do was keep her on this side of the wire.

But then she relaxed, started back down the fence, and he kept pace beside her…until she was back down on the road beside her Lexus…

Maybe he expected her to fight, or to run, but instead she came to him, her eyes awash in tears – and she put her arms around him and held on tight as, apparently, shock set in.

Two other officers were on him within moments and he held up his hand, told them to back off.

“My sister,” she gasped, “my sister…”

“Your sister? What about your sister?”

“Pilot,” she whispered, “she…captain of the jet, the crash…”

“Oh my God,” he heard himself whispering. “It’s okay now, you can let go. I’ve got you. Just let it go…”

And she did.

She was beyond help after that, lost in grief only a cop with years under his belt could understand. He could relate. Oh God, how he could relate…

She slipped down to the ground, her arms around his thighs, her face turned to rest on the side of his legs, and then he felt infinite sorrow in her wailing words…

“Oh God, they’re here!” she screamed. “Please forgive me. Take me, I’m ready, take me now!”

He knelt beside her, held her close, tried to get her to look at him, to get her to come back to the living, but when he looked at her face he almost recoiled from the horror he saw reflected in her eyes. Still he held her, still he looked into the abyss, until he saw a faint amber-tinged cobalt glow within her eyes…and then… 

…he felt gray mist encircle them as they knelt out there in the cold, as he fell into the depths of her soul, until he too felt himself adrift. She fell deeper into his grasp, but suddenly he felt like he was falling, falling off a stairway, falling into dark wet leaves…

…then he closed his eyes, afraid of the things he’d seen in her eyes, afraid of the truth he’d seen inside that cool, amber-blue terror, and as his own fear began to push everything else aside he closed his eyes as vertigo clawed the air around them, and he began to sense they were surrounded by hundreds of birds screaming for release… 

…and then, infinite warmth. The sound of surf breaking on a distant shore, a warm breeze carrying sweet scents of gardenias and hibiscus. He was afraid now, but he felt her arms around his, and he opened his eyes to confront – whatever this was… 

…then he cried out at the sight, as impossible implications washed over and through him…

…for everywhere he looked, in every conceivable direction, he and this strange woman were floating, adrift within a vast fields of stars… 

Part III: Asynchronous Mud

San Francisco       December, 2023

He walked through Portsmouth Square, up staggered steps into the warm evening, feeling very anxious; indeed, he was really feeling almost excited. Better than he had felt in ages, as a matter of fact. The decision made, now all he wanted was to experience all this evening had to offer. He was tired of the loneliness, the suffocating sense of ‘alone’ that had defined his life for the past dozen or so years. He’d wanted his life to change somehow, and radically, but he’d always found such outcomes to be an almost impossible dream. Reality, he’d learned, has a way of fucking with your head, sometimes so much that even your dreams can’t keep reality from nipping at your heels.

Mark Stuart was by any measure one of the most gifted computer scientists of his generation, and he’d started three companies that, in quick succession, had redefined how so-called autonomous, self-driving cars navigated and operated in heavily congested, chaotic urban environments. His patents alone would have made him a billionaire many times over, but then he had put his ideas into action, and his actions drew investors. And when his first company, PraXionGroup, released it’s first hardware plug-in for Apple’s first-generation car in late 2022, the world changed. Their car could now drive in zero visibility on snow or icy surfaces as well as any driver could on a clear, dry street, and it’s sensor array applied predictive analysis routines to monitor pedestrians on crowded city streets – and all the early, and disastrous, fatality incidents soon became a thing of the past.

And that mattered to Mark Stuart because he’d been one of the earliest victims of the technology. He’d been run over by one of the first driverless vehicles on a test track, his pelvis crushed, his face and arms hideously disfigured. It had taken three years of painful reconstructive surgery to resurrect his ability to walk unaided, but plastic surgeons had simply been unable to salvage his appearance. As a result, he remained reclusive, worked out of sight from all but his closest friends and associates.

And as such he’d been alone, completely and utterly alone, ever since. He saw the looks in people’s eyes, the revulsion, the urge to flee, and he’d vowed to never again inflict such feelings on others again.

Then an old friend of his, a friend named Toby Tyler, a friend he’d made while in the hospital when recovering from his injuries, told him about a place he’d heard about recently, a new place over in China Town that had the most outrageously gorgeous women Toby’d ever seen in his life, and while it was apparently open to one and all, the women seemed to cater to men like Mark; indeed, they seemed to exist to take care of men like Mark.

“What kind of women are we talking about here, Toby?” he asked.

“You know, bro, the kind that take care of business.”

“Oh, you mean…”

Stuart had laughed away the idea. At first, anyway. Then the thought of being with someone, anyone – even a hooker – took on a momentum all it’s own. The idea, repulsive at first, soon became so attractive he could hardly think of anything else…so he’d called Toby, gotten the particulars and made the call, and now he found himself walking up Washington Street, looking for an address…and a way out of the pain and suffering of his strictly enforced loneliness.

He came to an alleyway and looked down at what looked like very old brick pavement, then up at the festive lighting dangling from the trees and attached to the backs of buildings that lined the passage. He saw neon lighting down the way, an open courtyard with a large group of people partying on a patio of some kind. He walked down the alley, looked up at little red jalapeño pepper lights splashed throughout the trees overhead, at neon reflections in the windows on either side of the passage, the pinks and purples creating an almost otherworldly sensation as he walked slowly towards a door at the end of the alley.

The door was a dark, matte teal-grey color, and there was a huge, weathered bronze X on the door right at eye level, and in smaller letters just below – the words ‘Marks the Spot’. He smiled at the double irony as he reached for the door, but he jumped back when he looked at the door knob. The handle and knob were formed by a small, tightly coiled rattlesnake, made of bronze as it turned out, but excruciatingly well detailed, so even knowing that he hesitated again as he reached for the snake’s body and gave it a turn.

Yet as soon as his hands touched the snake the door opened, slowly moving out of his way.

The walls inside were the same deep, matte teal-gray color, the heavy trim on the floors and ceiling a darker grey green. The black slate floors and the deep gray ceiling seemed unnecessarily elegant to him, the bronze framed Klimt ahead a bit over the top, yet now his eyes were drawn to a single Chippendale chair at the far end of the narrow room, it’s ornate wood stained a deep bronze, it’s rich fabric a flame stitched pattern of deep French blues and somber ochers.

And there was a glass window across from the chair, recessed in the wall and almost invisible, a mottled black glass window much like he would have expected to find inside a sadistic doctor’s office. He walked to the window and looked around…he couldn’t see a buzzer or any means of…

But then the window slid open, quietly and very  slowly, revealing a touchscreen.

A woman’s voice began speaking, soothingly, almost seductively…

“How may we help you this evening, Mark?”

“Excuse me?” He seemed taken aback, shocked that they knew who he was.

“I’m sorry for the informality, Mr Stuart. What can we do for you this evening?”

“I, uh, well, assumed you’d know…?”

“Ah, just so. Perhaps you wanted to visit with one of our associates tonight?”

“Yes. Perhaps.”

“Could you tell me what sort of associate is of interest to you?”

“Excuse me…I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking?”

“Yes. Of course. Shall we start with gender?”

“Female, Goddamnit!”

“Alright. Take a look at these six images, would you please, Mark? Which one of these women interests you most?” The screen showed six faces, each impossibly attractive, each one taking his breath away. “It’s a touchscreen, Mr Stuart. Just indicate your preference by…”

He touched the face of a women with deep reddish gold hair and deep green eyes.

“Thank you, Mr Stuart…”

“Mark, please. Call me Mark.”

“Certainly, Mark. Now, which of these images do you find most stimulating?” Six more images filled the screen, the red-headed woman dressed – or in various states of undress, he saw – in six different types of exotic lingerie. He chose one with the woman in bustier, corset and stockings in deep gray with emerald inserts, and the woman wearing deep maroon pumps. “Thank you, Mark. Now, could you tell me, in very general terms, how you’d like to spend your evening with Eve?” 

“Is that her name? Eve?”

“Yes, Mark. And as this is your first evening with us, she’ll need to know a little about your expectations for the evening.”

He looked around for a moment, unsure of himself, unsure how honest he should be…

“Mark?”

“Yes?”

“Are you lonely, Mark?”

He looked down at the slate floor and shrugged his shoulders. “I think you could say so, yes.”

“How long has it been, Mark? Since you spent an enjoyable evening with a woman?”

“A long time. I think it may be close to maybe sixteen years now.”

“Perhaps you’d just like a relaxing evening? Dinner and some dancing? An evening with no pressure, no expectations?”

“Yes, that’s it exactly!” he cried. “That sounds absolutely perfect!”

“And just one more question, Mark?”

“Yes?”

“How long would you like to stay with Eve?”

“I don’t know. How long would you recommend?”

“Perhaps you should stay with her all evening. What time would you like her to wake you in the morning?”

“I don’t have any appointments tomorrow so anytime will do. Perhaps noon?”

“Certainly, Mark. If you’d take a seat, Eve will be with you in just a few minutes.” The screen went dark and the window closed as quietly as it’d opened, and he sat, crossed his arms on his lap and closed his eyes – wondering about his sanity for the umpteenth time today.

Yet he saw her in his mind’s eye as he drifted along the far shores of sleep, carried along by the soft currents of desires too long unquenched. Alabaster skin, perhaps soft freckles over her nose, and those hauntingly green eyes of hers lovingly fixed on his…

…and he felt her fingers running through his hair, her lips almost touching the side of his face, her breath in his ear as she whispered his name…

He opened his eyes, saw her standing there by the side of the chair, leaning by his side. A deep maroon cape was hanging open, revealing an impossibly perfect body underneath, and as he leaned back in the chair he looked up into her eyes…

…and if her image had taken his breath away, the reality of this woman was beyond overwhelming. His heart began to race a little, and he could feel his pulse hammering away behind his eyes.

She looked into his eyes and smiled when she saw his reaction, then she leaned closer and kissed him on the forehead, the soft warmth of the simple gesture overwhelming him completely. He wanted to take her and hold her, and almost as if she anticipated him she stepped back, took his hand and helped him stand. Then the back wall simply slid open, revealing another ornate passageway beyond this entry foyer; now he followed her to a another door down this hall and walked into the room beyond just behind her. The door closed on it’s own, the lighting in the room brightened some, revealing what looked like a small living room in an English cottage. Beyond the windows he saw an impossibly verdant forest – hi-res monitors, he guessed – but the illusion fit the décor, and even the air was scented in fragrant undertones of piney forests, yet there was something slightly erotic in the air, as well…

“Could I fix you a drink?” Eve asked. “Or perhaps I could get you something to eat?”

“Perhaps,” he said as he hovered over the edge of her vast precipice. “I don’t know.”

“Are you uncertain, or perhaps afraid?” she asked, genuine concern in her voice.

“Yes, a little of both, I think.”

She held out her hand again and led him to a bedroom off the small living room, the same countryside out the two large windows that framed the bed. She was looking in his eyes when she started unbuttoning his shirt, and all the time she held his eyes in hers. She bent and unbuckled his belt, helped him out of his shoes and socks, then she asked him to lay on the bed, on his stomach, she asked. He did what she asked, but when he heard the cape slip from her shoulders he turned and looked at her.

“My God in heaven,” he whispered, “but you are the most gorgeous woman I think I’ve ever seen in my life.”

He watched her as she smiled, and as she helped him down to the bed he marveled at the soft warmth of her touch, and of how much he missed that little electric feeling of another person’s skin on his own. Whatever it was about this woman, he knew against all odds he was beginning to care for her. He couldn’t help it, even if it was just loneliness, even if this was some kind of financial transaction. The feeling was suddenly overwhelming, and the feeling was simply impossible to ignore.

Then he was face down on the bed, and he felt her fingers lightly running up and and down his back, then down, to the backs of his thighs. He began to relax again, to drift along her gentle currents…

He felt her on the bed then, as she crawled over him and sat on the backs of his thighs. Then he felt the palms of her hands on his skin, once again her skin so soft and warm, rubbing his lower back, up the spine to his shoulders, massaging the cares of this life out and away, into the night and far, far away. Oh, he was drifting again, drifting on the currents of this woman’s exuberant willingness to give of herself, to forge a reality beyond his so-called deformities and weaknesses, beyond all his understanding of women…

He felt her leaning forward, leaning close, her breath on the back of his neck, her fingers in his hair, then, massaging his temples. He felt her breasts flattening on his back, felt her lingerie against his skin, her high heels rubbing against the sides of his knees – and he felt himself growing under her. For the first time in many years, so many years since he had felt any kind of awakening…since he’d felt any kind of desire lurking behind all the fear and denial of his daily existence… 

“Turn over, Mark…” he heard her whisper, then he felt her body rising over his, over the heat of his desire as he turned under her…

…and her fingers wrapped around the head of his desire… 

…then she was rubbing him against her petals, a deep, moist warmth pulling him inward… 

…and then he was inside the moment, the sheer heavenly warmth of the sensation overwhelming his every sense of himself, and soon he was lost inside the dizzying motions of union…

…then drifting again as he felt the tightness of her response to his first, tentative countermoves. She moved with him, her responses so intuitively perfect, her timing so gently in sync with every move of this new dance…

…his hands on her perfection, her breathing unhurried – yet somehow in perfect rhythm with his own…

…meeting his need, taking the momentum of his fear, her fingers raking his soul, then her fingers curling through his need, her needs as pure as his own, his furious need building in union with hers, and then he was holding her close, guiding them both to the moment…to the light…

…then there was light, unexpected, powerful, relentless, and she was bearing down on his need, pouring all the energy of their coming together into a sort of back-arcing fusion, wild need overcoming all inhibition… 

They came down together, her face pressed against his neck, her easy breath a silent breeze sifting past his ear, then he was holding her, his fingers feeling the expansion of her chest, her ribcage fusing with the moment, then she was over him again, looking into his eyes, smiling.

She saw the question in his eyes and pulled back a bit, her face full of curiosity, even joy.

“What is it,” she said playfully. “Your eyes are smiling, but I think…”

“I think I love you,” he laughed, “whoever you are…”

“Love me?” she whispered slowly, almost wondrously as she turned the words over in her smile. “Why would you love me? You don’t even know me?”

“Because it’s been so long since anyone let me feel this way. Because you’re so enchantingly perfect. Because when I look into your eyes I feel so perfectly at peace, yet so alive with the lust I see in your eyes.”

“Ah,” she grinned, then she let slip a little laugh. “Then Mark, you’ve got it very bad indeed.”

“I do. True.”

“And then what, Mark? Love, marriage, babies and a house by the lake?”

“Would that be so bad?”

She pulled off him, rolled away and hopped off the bed. “It’s too early to get so serious, my love. What will I cook you for supper? A steak perhaps? I also have a nice Dover sole ready, if you’d like that instead. Almandine, perhaps? With an artichoke soufflé and braised new potatoes?”

“What? And you’ll just whip that out in a ‘jiff, will you?”

“Ooh, Mark, don’t start talking about whips or I’ll never get you to eat…” She breathed a little laugh as she walked off to the kitchen, and he put on his briefs and shirt before he walked out to the living room, to a chair where he could watch her as she went about her work in the kitchen…

‘There’s something almost surreal about watching a woman in lingerie cooking,’ he said to himself, but there was precision in the way she cooked, an economy of motion he found almost soothing, and she talked to him all the while, asking about what he was doing at work, about his friends and what he hoped to do with the rest of his weekend. And what hit him hardest, he thought as she set their dinner out on the simple Stickley table off the little kitchen, was how completely out of sync her behavior was with how the world he knew really worked.

She seemed completely dedicated to his happiness, but it wasn’t as simple as that. No, the level of empathy in her conversation wasn’t forced or in any other way a false pretense. On the contrary, she seemed engaged, interested, and even willing to offer suggestions that reflected an almost complete empathic understanding of his concerns and hopes, and even what he was working on. Let alone how the hell did she know sautéed Dover sole almandine was his favorite dish in the world? And artichoke soufflé? There were only two places in town that prepared one, and yet she’d just made it to perfection? Even better than Gaston’s!

She watched him as he ate, enjoyed his reactions to each and every bite, then she saw seriousness in his eyes, a subtle shift in the way he held his arms…

“So, Eve’s not your real name, I take it?”

She shrugged, yet he saw no evasion.

“No, of course not. I wonder? Would you tell me your real name?”

“Is it so important, Mark? Really?”

“Well, how long have you been working here?”

“Me? This is my first day. You are my first…client.”

“And you were trained to be so, I don’t know, so perfect?”

“You think I’m perfect, Mark?”

“You know I do, Eve. Don’t you?”

She shook her head, and he thought he saw tears come to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, suddenly very unsure of himself, very unsure why he felt it necessary to question her so. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Well,” she said as she stood, “I’d better clear the table.”

“Please, let me,” he said as he stood.

“If you’d like,” she said as she walked to the sink in the kitchen. He walked up behind her, put his hands on her waist and kissed her neck, and she leaned her head to one side, revealing her flawless white skin once again. He kissed her again, massaged her flat stomach as he nibbled his way up to her ear, his hands moving to her breasts, her breath deeper with each caress.

She turned and faced him, kissed him hard on the mouth, their tongues intertwined in the heat of the moment. She was more forceful this time, no pretense remained as she pushed him back and pulled down his briefs, as she took him in her mouth, her hands on the backs of his thighs. No, there was no doubt, nothing subtle between them now. He felt her tongue, her head moving rapidly now, her hands grasping his, jacking him as her head swirled around his need. His hands moved to her shoulders, then he was holding her face as the fury grew from the middle of his back and spread throughout his body, and she picked up the pace, hammered him furiously as the moment approached, then she was taking him over the edge, holding him inside her mouth, swallowing as he released and released…

He felt almost weightless in that moment…weightless and tumbling backwards…then he felt her holding him, steadying him. She stood, pulled him close and held him as he came down for the stars, her fingers running through his hair again, then he was kissing her neck…again and again…

“And we didn’t even need whips,” he said, smiling.

“Maybe next time, my love.”

+++++

He woke up the next morning as hopelessly confused as he had ever felt – in his life. She was by his side, lightly stroking his hair, looking into his eyes with such love in her own. He rolled over and faced her, brushed her cheek lightly with his fingers as they stared at one another…

“Did you ever fall asleep?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “Maybe a little, but I’m still not sleepy,” she added, still smiling gently at him, barely biting her lower lip. “I liked watching you sleep.”

“You did?”

She nodded her head – almost precociously: “Um-hmm, yes. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he sleeps.”

“Can you, now? Like what?”

“Men don’t lie when you ask them questions,” she grinned, “when they’re just falling asleep, anyway.”

“And what did you ask me?”

She rolled over and looked at the ceiling, smiling broadly at his question, then she turned back to him, looked him in the eye. “Do you really want me to tell you?”

“Yes, I really do.”

“I asked you if you really, really loved me.”

“And I said yes, didn’t I?”

She bit her lip again, nodded her head. “Yes,” she said, almost afraid to say the word.

“And what did you think of that?”

“I felt very happy inside, like little girl kind of happy. Like it was Christmas morning and I got everything I’d ever wanted kind of happy.”

He leaned up and rested on his elbow, looked her in the eye again. “Would you like to come home with me, to stay with me?”

“Forever and ever?” she said – with that sly grin twinkling in her eyes again. “Is that kind of like  a ‘come home and stay with me forever’ kind of question?”

“Please don’t make fun of…”

“Sh-h,” she said, bringing a finger to his lips. “I’m not making fun of you Mark,” she whispered. “There isn’t anything in the world that would make me happier.” She leaned in and kissed him again, stroked the side of his face. “Oh, my love,” she whispered. “I wonder if we could make it work…”

“If we loved one another as much as I love you right now, we could make anything happen.”

She nodded her head. “Well, I’ve got to go now. I hope you’ll think about me while we’re apart.”

“What? You…”

“I really must go now, Mark. Please, no questions. I have to leave.” She was up and off the bed in a flash, and he watched her as she walked to a door across the room and went inside. He heard the door lock behind her and that was that…

He felt a sudden overwhelming emptiness, a pervasive loneliness more devastating than any he’d felt over the last sixteen years; he sat up in bed, rolled his legs out from under the sheets, his feet finding the floor in a rush, grounding him to the physical reality of the room while he fought off the dysphoria of her leaving.

“My God,” he said, fighting for breath, “what just happened?”

+++++

She walked into the exam room, now undressed and so tired she felt ill.

“Have a seat,” the ‘doctor’ said, “and put your feet on the metal plate. You’ll feel better in a few minutes.”

She sat, vaguely remembered instructions concerning foot placement on the charging plates, and sat watching the physician-engineer, waiting for his questions…

“So, how do you feel this morning?”

“Fine,” she said. “Tired, but very good, overall.”

“And emotionally? How do you feel?”

“Happy,” she said, without a moments hesitation.

“And can you tell me how you feel about Mark Stuart?”

“I…I love him…” 

The physician-engineer looked at his screen, watched her responses then typed in his own observations. He watched the screen again, adjusted settings and smiled, hopeful. He hit send and waited a moment, then he asked her the same question: “Tell me how you feel about Mark Stuart?”

Her features brightened, she smiled at him and said “I’ve never felt so alive in my life, doctor. I do love him so…”

The physician-engineer looked at his screen, satisfied with the results. He looked at her, reached out and grabbed her face, turned it side to side. “Open your mouth, please.” She opened wide and he took out a penlight and looked inside her mouth, between her cheeks and gums. “Did you notice any reaction to his semen? Could you taste anything?”

“Yes, I think so, but I’m still not sure.”

“Well, Dana,” he said as he looked her in the eye. “Do you think you’re ready for this? I mean, really ready?”

“I think so, Doctor Evans.”

“Well, I’ll call Ralph and let him know. I want you to just sit here for now, and keep your feet on the plate, okay? You’ll feel better once the charge level is back up to thirty percent.”

“Thank you, doctor.”

+++++

He walked down the same hallway he had the evening before, only now he couldn’t see a door of any sort – anywhere. As he reached the end a different wall slid open, this opening revealing another, much larger room beyond, a conference room of sorts he saw, complete with a large table with a half dozen chairs around it. A large flat panel came to life as he entered the room, a logo for Richardson Autonomics floating in and out of clouds, like a bluebird flitting through fields of cotton on a summer afternoon… 

Another panel on the opposite side of the room slid open, and a woman came into the room and took a seat, followed by a younger woman who looked similar to Eve, yet with slightly different features. She came to Stuart, asked him if he wanted coffee, or perhaps something else to drink?

“No, thanks,” he said, yet there was something about her voice? Similar diction, yet quite a distinctively different accent…almost like she was from the south, perhaps the Carolinas?

Two more people came into the room, two older men, one quite old, and this man was in a wheelchair. Moments later another man dashed in, this one in a white lab coat, and he was busily flipping through pages on a tablet.

“I don’t suppose anyone would care to tell me what the fuck is going on?” Stuart said, and the middle aged woman simply turned to the screen. The cloudscape dissolved, replaced by the room he’d shared with Eve last night.

“Would you like to come home with me, stay with me?” he heard himself say, and he squirmed in his chair.

“Listen, I don’t know what it is you people want, but blackmail sure isn’t going to get…”

The woman turned to him and smiled. “Mr Stuart? This is not what you think. Please relax, as we have a lot to go over this morning, and we need your help.” She turned back to the screen, and playback resumed…

“Forever and ever? Is that kind of like ‘come home and stay with me forever’ kind of question?”

“Please don’t make fun of…”

“Sh-h, I’m not making fun of you Mark. There isn’t anything in the world that would make me happier.” He watched as she leaned-in and kissed him again. “Oh, my love, I wonder if we could make it work.”

The woman turned and looked at him again. “Mr Stuart, could you tell me what was going through your mind right then, what you were feeling, more specifically?”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. Now…and I mean right now!”

“Mr Stuart,” he turned to the old man in the wheelchair as he started speaking, and everyone turned to face this man as he spoke, “your confusion is duly noted, as is your anger. Now, please let me rephrase Ms Anderson’s question. Do you love Eve?”

“And who the hell are you?”

“Ralph Richardson, Mr Stuart.”

Stuart’s eyes narrowed. If there was anyone in the Bay Area more a recluse than himself it was Richardson, and even his company was among the great unknowns of Silicon Valley. No one knew much about the company, what they were making – or even what they intended to make, for that matter – and about the only thing he’d heard, other than some big guns were involved in the company’s creation, was that Richardson was involved in some sort of biomedical research.

“Okay, sir. What’s this about?”

“Please answer the question, Mr Stuart.”

“As much as I’d like to tell you, sir, why are my feelings any of your business?”

Richardson smiled, turned to the woman. “Would you ask Dana to come in now, please?”

“Yes, Mr Richardson.” The woman didn’t make a move, didn’t push any buttons or speak a word, yet seconds later yet another doorway slid open and Eve walked in, still completely undressed. All eyes were focused on Stuart, on his reaction to Eve’s presence in the room, as he watched her walk around the table and then, as she stood beside him.

“Eve?” Richardson said, looking directly at her. “Do you remember Mr Stuart?”

She ran her fingers through his hair. “Of course I do, Ralph. Why?”

“Mr Stuart, could you please tell Eve how you feel about her?”

Stuart looked at Richardson, then at Eve. He stood, took both her hands in his, then brought one to his lips and kissed it. “I love her, Mr Richardson. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“Thank you, Mark. Eve, could we have a few more minutes alone with Mr Stuart?”

“Of course.” She turned and left the room, but she stopped and smiled at Stuart before she slipped through the doorway.

“Dana?” Stuart said. “You called her Dana? Then Eve. What’s going on here, Mr Richardson?”

“I suppose an explanation of sorts is in order. Perhaps you have time to sit and listen to a story?”

“I can do that.”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like something to drink first?”

+++++

She walked back to the exam room and sat in her chair, her feet on the plate, yet she couldn’t remember why she needed to do that, or what she was doing in this room in the first place. Still, she sat, looking at her hands on her lap.

“Those aren’t my hands,” she said after a minute, and she wondered what the rest of her body looked like…

+++++

“So, how did I get here?” Stuart asked.

“You mean Toby? Yes, we met years ago, and as he thought you might be a good resource we asked him to mention our, well, this place to you.”

“A good resource?”

Richardson shook his head. “I’m sorry. We’re getting ahead of ourselves now.”

“Listen, I’ve got to know. Is she, Dana, Eve, whatever her name is…is she, well, is she human?”

“That’s a very good question, Mark, and one I’m reluctant to answer even now, but again, we need to go back a few years, twenty years ago, to be more precise.

“Do you recall, well, I’m sure you must…” Richardson sighed, adjusted his eyeglasses while he paused. “When an American 777 was hit by a helicopter, during that police chase in Los Angeles?”

“Yes, of course. That was a truly…”

“Yes, it was. What you probably don’t know is that my wife was the pilot of that aircraft.”

“No, I didn’t know. I’m terribly…”

Richardson waved his hand. “Not important, Mark, but thanks… Anyway, let’s move on. What is most relevant concerns my sister-in-law, my wife Laura’s sister. She was working in Los Angeles at the time, and she had been for several years. She was working for a start-up, a company with breakthrough solar technologies. The Air Force was involved to a degree – because they were utilizing a new technology to measure solar output via angles of incidence, and they were making precise, long term measurements of the sun. Anyway, that wasn’t Dana’s real background, her real background, anyway. We found out later that she had worked for the Mossad…”

“What’s that?”

“The Israeli equivalent of the CIA, but they tended to be a little more proactive in the world than other western intel agencies in those days. Assassinations, infiltrating western companies, even our armed services were routinely compromised by the Mossad. Then, of course, the Iran-Israeli Cold War put an end to that dilemma.”

“I imagine so.”

“Her name, by the way, was Dana. Dana Goodman. Her family was, as it happens they were Jews, originally from Iran but they fled to Argentina in 1953, after a CIA-MI6 coup deposed the Mossadegh government. But that is, as they say, water under the bridge. I guess that’s when problems in the Middle East began in earnest, not that that matters so much now, but she was a part of all that.

“Anyway, for what it’s worth, Goodman wasn’t their family name, and Dana was just a kid when her father moved to Minnesota, and he worked for 3M until he died, which was back in the 80s, I seem to recall. Dana went back to Israel for a while…”

“Excuse me. So Dana, her family, were from Iran, but are you implying they were Jewish?”

“Oh, yes. There were in the mid-20th century, and I suppose there might still have been – until the war, anyway – more than a few Jews in Iran. Merchants, physicians – who knows? Anyway, her grandfather was a physician, and closely allied with the Mossadegh government, but when the Shah returned to power they had to get out in a hurry. The Shah remained in power until January, 1979, as I’m sure you know, but by that time Dana had been living in Israel for some time. She became very actively religious while an undergrad at UCLA, but she quit school and moved to Tel Aviv during her junior year. I don’t think the details are relevant, but she finished school over there and went to work for Mossad right out of college. She was working in Zurich about the time the Shah’s government was collapsing, and the most important thing that happened during that period was, well, something quite interesting happened.” He looked away, lost in the memory. “Anyway, to make a long story even longer, it seems she was in on an assassination project of some sort, where several members of the SAVAK, the Shah’s internal security apparatus, were killed. Her targets had been instrumental in eliminating the Shah’s political opposition, and I guess many Jews were among those liquidated, or taken out. That’s was Israel’s stated interest in the action, anyway.”

“Wait a minute… You said her name IS Dana, not was. Is she still…”

Richardson shrugged. “Again, I’ll leave that for you to decide, Mark.”

“Wait a minute…now, just what does that mean?”

Richardson looked down at his hands again, then he looked at the young woman by his side. “Dana, why don’t you go sit with Eve for a while.”

“Okay, Dad.”

Stuart watched the exchange feeling more and more confused, very much on the outside looking in, and simply unsure whether or not he should just get up and leave – before this went much further, or got much stranger.

“Mark, I’m curious. Have you been with many women over the years, or have you just had a couple of serious relationships?”

“Didn’t Toby tell you?” Stuart replied, not a little sarcastically.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“I haven’t been active much, as you can imagine, since my accident. Does that answer your question?”

“I’m sorry, it’s just that I wanted to know about last night. How was, well, how did you feel, physically, when you were with Eve?”

“What do you mean, how did I feel? How was I supposed to feel?”

“Satisfied, perhaps, might be the word I’m looking for. Was Eve a physically satisfying lover?”

“Well, I’m sure you have recordings of everything we did. What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

“A lot,” he said, chuckling. “It seems, if I’m not reading to much into the matter, the intensity of the experience was enough for you to fall in love with her? Is that about the size of it?”

“Yup. You could say that, but now you’re telling me, well, if I can read between your lines a little right now, is that Eve isn’t really quite what she appears to be, is she?”

“Not in the way you mean. No, she’s not.”

“Excuse the fuck out of me, but how many ways can there be? I mean, either she is, or she isn’t human, correct?”

Richardson shook his head, turned to the older man beside him. Sumner, I think we’ll need the Balvenie ’68. Why don’t you bring the cart.”

“Yessir.”

“You have a ’68?” Stuart said, somewhat in awe. “I didn’t know there were any left.”

“I managed to lay my hands on a few cases, before all the recent unpleasantness.”

“Cases? Okay, sir, now I’m impressed.”

The old man returned, pushing an ornate whiskey cart into the room. Stuart saw several Balvenies, a few so rare they were regarded as almost mythical, then he saw a Glenfarclas 60 that had to be a hundred years old. He saw that the bottle was unopened and shook his head. Of course, he thought to himself, a man like Richardson would know that these casks were a particular weakness of his, but Stuart knew he’d gladly sell his soul to the devil himself for just one sip of that Glenfarclas.

“Mark? See something that catches your eye?”

“Whatever you’d like will be fine.”

“Some Famous Grouse, perhaps? Or could I can send someone out for a few cans of Colt 45?”

Stuart laughed. “I’m sorry, sir. The Balvenies would be very nice.”

“As you wish,” the man behind the cart said. He poured two fingers in a cut crystal cocktail glass and carried it over, then returned to the cart. “Ralph?”

“I think I’d like to try the Glenfarclas today, Sumner. This seems a fitting occasion.”

“I agree, sir.”

“Well, by golly then, you’d better pour one for yourself!”

Stuart’s eyes crossed; he was fuming inside as he watched the two men settle down with their glasses, and now he was sure Richardson was trying to hide a goading smile…

“Now, Mark,” Richardson said, looking up at the ceiling, “the story gets a little strange from here on, and I have to ask that what you learn in here today remains in this room. Can we agree to that much right now?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll agree. I’m all ears, as a matter of fact.”

“Well, good. So, Dana eventually moved to California in the months after her father passed, and she began working, as I mentioned, for a solar firm in West LA. She was, as I mentioned, still working for Mossad. Actively, we think. She was still a spy, in other words, and the FBI knew about her activities, too. Anyway, she’d made a lot of friends in LA, a few very close friends during her undergraduate days at UCLA, and things were going well. So, the company was failing, running out of money after the crash in ’08. She was stressed out, was going to have to fire a lot of those very same friends of hers, and then Flight 22 crashed. Not good timing, I guess, from that one simplistic perspective.

“She drove to the crash site that afternoon, and it turns out she saw the wreckage, the fires and all that. Bodies being carried from the scene, that kind of thing. My guess is her mind snapped. Just snapped like a dry twig. The things she’d done over her life. Killing people, being a spy at a difficult time, then having to lay off friends at her company, while she was still a goddamn spy, spying on her friends. Who knows? Maybe she was already brittle, about to break, but I doubt Laura ever thought so?”

“Laura?”

“My wife.”

“Oh, yessir.”

“She snapped, I think, and she was driving around in a fog, through south central LA for God’s sake – and it was after midnight. She ended up at the harbor, on the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and then she tried to jump. That’s when things changed, and, well, I hate to say it Mark, but all our lives changed that night…only you just don’t know how much things changed…”

+++++

“The stars – they were everywhere – they seemed to coalesce around us. I don’t know how to describe it, what it was like out there, but all of a sudden I remembered thinking they were fireflies. Like we were inside one of those glass balls, you know? You shake the thing and then it looks like it’s snowing inside? Only we were surrounded by fireflies, and then they were all over us, swarming all over us. And then I see one of them in front of my face, hovering right in front of my eyes. I don’t know what it was, who it was, but it was talking to me, telling me to relax, telling us that we weren’t in any danger…”

The screen paused and Mark looked at the man sitting next to Richardson. “Is that you?” Stuart asked. “You were a cop?”

The man nodded his head. “Yessir, I was ‘the cop on the bridge’ that night. And yes, I stopped her from jumping.”

“And this,” Richardson said, interrupting, “is what people on the bridge saw.” He resumed playback, and the screen came to life again. Stuart watched as the cop climbed the anti-suicide fence on the bridge, winced when he saw the woman up there getting tangled in razor-wire, then the cop was talking to her, extricating her and then helping her down. He couldn’t quite make out her words when they reached the bottom, but then she was holding him, crying into his chest, then she slipped to her knees…

…and then Stuart’s world turned in on itself…

…as he watched the two of them, the cop and the grieving woman, as they grew vaguely transparent, their forms dissolving within a gauzy, glowing amber-gray mist. Whoever was filming the event moved in close at that point, their camera movements rapid yet somehow tentative, as if whoever it was couldn’t quite reconcile what they were watching unfold with any sort of reality they understood. The camera circled about the two kneeling forms, tried to get close and then Stuart saw the ‘fireflies’ – thousands of pale forms hovering and circling those two people. He watched, not sure himself if he understood what he was seeing anymore, as the flies coalesced into a pulsing sphere around them, and then Stuart gasped as the sphere began pulsing, glowing a deep, radiant bronze with each successive pulse – until there was a shift and the sphere began spinning, the pulsing movement growing faster and faster as the spinning increased, then colors – moving through a molten kaleidoscope – and when the sphere was a deep cobalt it collapsed in on itself…

…and then – he saw a blinding flash… 

And at that point the recording stopped, the screen…went black.

“That video was made by a television news crew. They’d picked up the call on a police scanner and gone to the bridge, got there just in time to get this footage. When the video stops, at the bright flash, power in the LA basin was disrupted. From LAX to Huntington Beach, and as far inland as Anaheim. Aircraft on approach at LAX, Long Beach and down in Irvine reported a large blast in the harbor area…”

“I remember that,” Stuart said, confused again. “Something about an incident at a refinery, wasn’t it?”

“I guess that was the best story they could come up with in the time they had,” Richardson said.

“They?” Stuart asked.

Richardson shrugged. “I don’t know. Feds, I think, would be my guess.”

“What happened?”

“Mark, no one knows what happened out there on that bridge,” the other man said, “but Dana and I were unharmed.”

“Unharmed? You mean the other people out there – were hurt?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Killed?”

“Some. Yeah.”

“Shit…” Stuart sighed. “What happened to you. And…Dana?”

“Again, no one’s real clear about all that, Mark,” Richardson said. “What is important, what’s most relevant, is that Sumner and Dana for all intents and purposed simply disappeared. For several minutes – almost an hour.”

“Disappeared?”

Bacon squirmed in his chair. “When I was aware I was on the bridge again there were hundreds of emergency personnel everywhere. My patrol car, the news van, an ambulance…everything had been tossed around by that – blast.” 

“Of more importance, Mark, of the hundreds of people out there that night, no one that had seen anything of the sphere and the departure remembers a goddamn thing. Not one thing that happened out there. But there was a crime scene unit out there, as well as an environmental containment unit, and both were recording the scene when, well, you’ll see for yourself.”

The flat panel on the wall showed the scene on the bridge as Bacon had described it: his patrol car was now on it’s side; the ambulance had been blown across the center divider; the news crew’s van – it’s antenna deployed, pointed at the sky – was half on the road, the other half through the fence, it’s front hanging out over LA harbor.

Then a cobalt blue sphere was hanging in the air above the crowd, the surface of the sphere alive with hairy blue lightning. The sphere expanded for a moment, then contracted sharply, settling on the pavement – and as the fireflies returned people scattered. The videographer had the presence of mind to take cover but kept recording events as they unfolded, as the spinning sphere began dissipating, and as a human form took shape in the spinning bronze mist. The spinning slowed, the mist turned gray and disappeared on a harbor breeze; the jerky video zoomed in on a man, apparently a sheriff’s deputy, but his uniform was scorched and tattered, his back to the camera. He appeared to be shaking, and he was looking up into the night sky. Then the videographer was among the surging crowd moving towards the man, and when the man came face to face with the camera Stuart began shaking.

“Oh, God no,” he whispered as he looked at Sumner Bacon standing out there under the night sky, an infant girl cradled in his arms.

+++++

“Is that…Dana?”

“Yes, and no. To the extent we even know what she is.”

“There are no easy answers with you, are there?”

Richardson chuckled. “Well, the infant in the recording and the girl you were with last night…they are a mechanism, of sorts, but I can’t tell you any more than that, and simply because after almost twenty years of study we just don’t know what she is, or who made her, or where, because all those things are still open to conjecture. As far as human? Her emotional component, her memory, are in large part Dana’s. Even so, some things are absent.”

“Are you saying that after twenty years of study you don’t know “what” she is?”

“Uh-huh. There’s a skeletal structure, but it’s not bone in the usual sense. There’s a neural network, a circulatory system, even a rudimentary digestive system. She drinks water. Period. Yet after intense periods of emotional activity, she ‘drinks’ electricity. And she reproduces, well, essentially, she exhibits asexual reproduction. She’s reproduced annually for many years, and her offspring are almost perfect reproductions, right down to her emotive and cognitive capacities.”

“They’re all Dana-copies, you mean?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Has anyone had sex with her before?”

“Nope. You’re the first.”

“That’s astonishing. She feels completely human, and in every way I can think of. The way she responds, even lubrication, all felt human. She even tastes like a girl, maybe a girl right out of the shower, but human. Her labia and clitoris were, well, very responsive to stimuli.”

“Interesting.”

“So, after all these years she didn’t, I mean, you didn’t try any experiments of this nature?”

Richardson shook his head. “She wasn’t ready. Wouldn’t let us. A few of her offspring have ventured out, but so far you’re the first. As far as we know, anyway.”

“Wouldn’t…well, what about DNA?”

He nodded his head. “Yes. She has DNA, and it’s similar to ours. Like 99.7% similar, but there are radical exceptions, notable deviations.”

“So, what’s next? With her, I mean.”

“Well, at this point that depends somewhat on you, Mark.”

“Me? Look, I’m going on the assumption now that I’ve been part of your experiments…”

“To a degree, but I think you should know that Eve, or Dana, well – she chose you.”

“She – what?”

“She chose you, Mark. It’s our understanding she wants to move in with you. That’s been her trajectory for months.”

“Trajectory?” What’s that supposed to…”

“She’s very goal oriented, Mark. And as you’ve seen, she’s very affectionate – when she wants to be.”

“And when she doesn’t want to be affectionate? What’s she like then? A gorilla, maybe?”

“Thoughtful. She becomes very reclusive, retreats into her thoughts.”

“Is she self-aware? I mean, concerning her earlier self? The old Dana, I guess I’m trying to say.”

“Limited, would be my guess. There’s a layer of consciousness, I think we could say at this point, that seems to be the old Dana. I don’t know how intact that structure is, or if there’s a safety mechanism of sorts that keeps her from accessing those thoughts and feelings.”

“And you’d like me to help get answers to these questions, wouldn’t you?”

Richardson leaned back and sighed – then he steepled his fingers over his chest. “Wouldn’t you?” he almost whispered after some time had passed.

“This is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever run across in my life,” Stuart said. “I mean…”

“Tell me one thing,” Sumner Bacon said, watching Stuart’s eyes attentively, “you’ve been alone in the worst possible way for the last fifteen or so years, and yet you experienced a dramatic reawakening last night. The best possible resurrection, I’d like to think. Would you like to return to your isolation? Or would you like to explore this opportunity, for your sake, and for ours?”

+++++

Part IV: Asynchronous Mud II

Tokyo               September 2024

Kenji Watanabe sat in the taxi next to Mary, trying his best not to stare at the girl’s legs – and soon finding this next to impossible he turned and looked at San Francisco Bay and SFO, the international airport now just off the 101. He watched as a JAL 797-200ER flared over the water and settled gently onto the runway, reverse thrust kicking up a small cyclone of dust and tire smoke – before all that sound carried across the water and washed over their orange Tesla. He shook his head, did his best to hide his revulsion of any and everything to do with aviation, and so of course found himself looking at Mary’s crossed legs – again.

He had picked her up just the day before, at Richardson Autonetics’ Palo Alto facility, and he was, he thought, almost proud of her. She was, according to Richardson, “our first unit certified for export;” she would be the very first of her kind in Japan – and she was his, all his and his alone. He would not disassemble her, would never reverse engineer her…no, after last night he was simply going to hold her close – cherish her and never let go. He had never experienced a night such as that before; he had never felt so in love, or loved.

She was more human than human, Ralph Richardson told him in that meeting. Incredibly sensitive – both physically and emotionally – Richardson said, yet unlike human females not prone to variations in mood, or desire – if that’s truly what Watanabe felt most comfortable with. This flexibility, Richardson patiently explained, was but one of the many behavioral parameters that could be customized – even after delivery – should the need arise. Watanabe had been skeptical then – but not now.

And after last night, Watanabe was one hundred percent certain that nothing about this remarkable being needed any sort of customization, at all – if only because she was utterly perfect in every way, and in every sense of the word. No…she was beyond perfect. She was as docile and empathically understanding one moment as the most accomplished courtesan of old, and yet the next she was a hellion – and least when the lights were out and her clothes off. Though it had been years since he had been with a woman, she had coaxed whatever lingering shyness remained from his bruised psyche and carried him over the ultimate threshold, back to the headiest days of his youth.

Now he turned and looked her in the eye – and as she turned and looked into his waves of unbelievable peace washed over his soul. ‘This can’t be happening to me,’ he told himself once again – for perhaps the tenth time in as many minutes. ‘She’s simply not possible…’

And yet she was. Here was the proof of that assertion – right by his side.

Her hair was purest black, her skin so white she almost looked ready to perform a kabuki set, yet it was her eyes that most enthralled him. Black one moment, then in the next a cobalt so deep it was almost possible to feel the mystery of existence – like an azure sea, he thought, at twilight. When she walked or stretched in just a certain way, even the shapes of her arms and legs varied – as individual bundles of ‘muscle’ reacted to new directions of movement. He had danced with her at dinner and not noticed even the slightest imbalance or hesitation; in fact he found her lightness of movement beyond graceful. And then at one point he had felt light-headed and had begun to lose his balance, and she had felt his unsteadiness and reached out to him, helped him to their table. Once there she had taken his wrist in her fingers while she watched his face, then reached into her clutch and produced the correct medication for the moment! He had looked at the competence in her eyes and smiled at a sudden passing thought… 

“What is it, Kenji?” he remembered her asking. “Why are you laughing?”

“I was just thinking. If perhaps I suddenly needed open heart surgery, no doubt you would pull all the necessary equipment from that magic bag of yours and – presto! You’d be there, wouldn’t you?”

Her smile changed just the slightest, and he’d felt oddly reassured by the expression she wore in that moment.

“I will always be there for you, Kenji-sama. If it is in my power, I will do whatever is necessary to protect you. Even from yourself.”

And in that moment, inside the first time that particular feeling swept over him, he knew there was something utterly different about this being. She was sentient, yet she wasn’t exactly human, but neither was she some heartless artificial construct – as he had first been led to believe by his most vocal opponents at home. Sex robots had been on the scene at home for almost two decades, though none had ever caused an uproar. That might change now, Watanabe told himself, and perhaps that was because of that one little phrase Richardson had uttered at their introduction – that “more human than human” quip. And yet oddly enough, it was women’s groups who seemed most militantly opposed to the very idea of such a creation.

‘Yes, how very strange,’ Watanabe said to himself. Human, yet not human. Biological in a way, yet not. A robot? Perhaps, in the strictest definition of the word, but his company had been making robots for fifty years and this ‘Mary’ was anything but. His robots helped manufacture cars and produce medical equipment to impossibly fine tolerances, yet his designers had never once considered something so radical as this. True enough, yet this ‘machine’ was about to sit beside him on a flight across the Pacific…something none of his products would – or could ever do.

But no…he had her export documentation in his briefcase, and members of the consulate’s commercial section would be at the airport, along with representatives from US Customs – and Richardson Autonetics – to see that his departure was trouble free. She would travel in his suite, not in the cargo hold, but that was more for his comfort than hers. He simply disliked flying alone, almost as much as he hated flying with a companion, and as he looked at the airport an involuntary shudder passed through his body once again.

+++++

He marveled at her touch once again, the feel of her hand in his. Warm, the warmth of flesh on flesh, the pressure her hand exerted on his reassuring. He sat looking out the curved window ahead, looking through the leading edge of the vast wing at the main hull of the new Boeing StratoCruiser – the first of a new generation of hyper-efficient flying wing designs – and he only hoped this design was safer than the last aircraft he had flown on.

That had been 15 years ago, on a huge Airbus A380 flying nonstop from London to Tokyo. Descending over South Korea, the number one engine had simply exploded when, apparently, corroded fan blades in the inner compressor failed. The wing a perforated mess, the pilot had tried an emergency descent for Incheon International, but less than a half-mile from the threshold of runway 15 Right, a vast fire broke out inside the left wing and the Airbus cartwheeled into the sea. There had been fewer than fifty survivors from the almost four hundred onboard, and family and friends told him how lucky he had been. How lucky, the told him, to have even survived.

Indeed…how very lucky.

The first time he’d seen the results of this luck his soul had filled with such despair he’d very nearly killed himself. The left side of his face looked like rolling fields of molten lava – an angry red flow of indignant malice that begged no further explanation – most especially when he saw ‘those looks’ in women’s eyes, but, in the end, those noxious sidelong glances had hardly been the worst of it. His left shoulder was now a titanium structure, the femurs of both legs a series of titanium and carbon fibre struts. Then there were the two metal plates in his skull that provided a nonstop ache, but those, mercifully, had been replaced with ceramic moldings a year after the accident and the pain had subsided…a little. He’d had fewer severe headaches over the next few years – since that operation, anyway. And how funny, he’d thought, that he was measuring the progress of his life by incremental lessening of devastating pain. Was all he had to look forward to now? Diminishing pain accompanied by increasing loneliness?

In the beginning he resorted to escorts and call girls, and the best of them ignored his looks – for a few minutes, anyway – but in the end he couldn’t meet the revulsion in their eyes with anything approaching dignity. So, he’d grown reluctant, even unwilling, to meet even that minor disappointment head-on, and time after time, so within a few years he’d turned away from human companionship. He disappeared into his work, turning a once modestly successful microchip manufacturing company into a wildly successful multinational electronics venture, yet in the process turning further and further from his own humanity. He worked with a small group of known associates and for the first few years after the accident rarely left his office. After five years he never left at all, and had in fact constructed living quarters on the same floor as his office. People on the factory floor had renamed him ‘the Monk’ – after his so-called self-enforced celibacy – yet his closest associates knew even this almost reverential term of endearment cut him to the core.

Celibacy was, at least as he understand it, a choice that came from within, not something forced on the soul by external events. He felt no overwhelming need to lead a chaste life, only overwhelming sorrow. And word of Kenji Watanabe’s unyielding sorrow soon became – almost  –public knowledge.

Then – almost by accident – he’d been introduced to a man from Palo Alto, California, a resourceful polyglot named Toby Tyler, and as Tyler worked with electronics companies all over the Orient, the Californian had, apparently, learned all about of Kenji Watanabe’s predicament, about his ongoing reclusiveness and isolation, and who after meeting Watanabe for dinner in his latter’s office, had mentioned a radical solution to the problem Kenji Watanabe faced. Toby told Kenji that what he really needed was a new type of assistant, an assistant who’d never judge him, who would never turn away in dismay or disgust. And it turned out that friend of this man, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur in similar straits, had been the first to employ one of these assistants and was extremely enthusiastic about her. 

“Perhaps I could find out more for you?” Toby Tyler had asked Kenji Watanabe.

And although Watanabe had almost desperately wanted to know more, he was reluctant to say so. At least, not enthusiastically – but before he left, Tyler had given Kenji the contact information for a man named Mark Stuart – and not fully understanding why – he’d called the man, not knowing what to expect but curious even so. Yet it seemed that this Stuart had been expecting Kenji’s call, and had been more than willing to talk about his recent experience with a new ‘assistant…’

“Look, there’s really no way to describe this rationally,” Stuart said near the end of their first conversation. “You need to meet Eve, so why don’t you fly over this weekend? As it happens, my jet will be passing through on Friday, refueling at Haneda. You’re welcome to come anytime, of course, but you’d have the aircraft to yourself…”

With such an irresistible invitation, Watanabe had yielded and agreed to come – despite his overwhelming fear of aircraft. And he found he enjoyed the little jet’s luxurious accommodations, the splendid isolation of a cabin designed to hold twenty all to himself, and Stuart’s driver met him at SFO and took him directly to a large house in the hills above of Palo Alto, a rambling affair set out amongst the evergreen hillsides along Skyline Drive. He’d been shown to a small cottage below the main house, a Mission Style bungalow of cedar and stone nestled deep inside a clinging grove of eucalyptus, pine, and oak. His only bag had been carried down to the cottage for him, and the driver told him to expect dinner in a few hours, and that someone from the main house would come down for him – soon.

And despite his looming anxiety he had napped for an hour, then showered and changed clothes, one moment wondering why he’d agreed to this and the next shaking as irrational waves of curiosity pushed at his knees. 

Then, a knock on the door.

He saw a man much like himself when he opened the door. The stranger’s face had been savagely scarred once, and wounded in other ways, too, but Watanabe saw something he hadn’t expected in the man’s eyes. Was that hope he saw…perhaps? Or was that simple contentedness he saw on the man’s face, and in his eyes? 

The man held out his left hand, and Watanabe saw the man’s entire right arm had been seriously mangled, and was now barely useable. Without words he held out his own battered left hand and bowed slightly. 

“Mark Stuart,” the other man said, returning the bow.

“Kenji Watanabe. I am so pleased to meet you.”

“What say we head on up to the house. Sorry, but there are going to be a few people here tonight, politicians and other like-minded whores, if you know what I mean, and a few Hollywood types to liven things up a bit.”

“Ah, well perhaps I should excuse myself then. I am tired, and do not feel much like a party tonight?”

“As you wish, but I have to tell you, I think you’ll regret that decision.”

There was something in the way Stuart said those last few words…some infinitesimally small warning in the man’s tone that let Watanabe know he was being judged, even if from afar. He decided, despite knowing he was being manipulated, to put aside his own discomfort and agreed to join the man on this walk up to the main house.

Which was, as far as he could tell, an almost faithful replica of Greene & Greene’s Gamble House, right down to the arboreal front entry. He walked inside with Stuart and his eyes lit up as he took in forests of honeyed oak, all glowing in verdigris-accented amber mica lamplight. And then to his utter amazement he saw several Hollywood types, including more than a few unimaginably beautiful woman dressed in all the most fashionable shades of preening vanity, these men and women so astonishingly gorgeous he found the scene grotesquely amusing. And when he spotted least two senators talking to one of the women, two men whose corrupt nature would normally be a given, he had smiled inside – because now he knew the danger here was great. Even if he hadn’t known them personally, known them to be noble men dedicated to government service, he would have felt as such – because mixing politics and lust always led to dubious outcomes. Then one of the politicians, the Junior Senator from State of California, saw him and waved before he came over to greet him – and Mark Stuart… 

“Kenji! What the devil are you doing over here?”

“He’s come,” Stuart interrupted, “to spend some time here with me this weekend. We were going to take a ride in the morning, if you have the time…?”

“Hell, Mark, of course I’ll make time. I had no idea you two knew each other…”

But just then an older starlet of fading repute walked over to join their conversation; she’d just been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the upcoming Academy Awards, for her performance in a cop movie set in South Central LA, and Watanabe regarded her warily, afraid of her reaction to his disfigurement.

“Mark? I didn’t know you ran with Republicans,” she said in a chiding tone as she walked up and took his arm in her own. “Say it isn’t so!”

“Oh, Samantha, you know me…I’ll let anyone come to these little parties…” Stuart said with a self-deprecating shrug. “Let me introduce you to a friend of mine, just in from Tokyo. Kenji, this is Sam Sinfield. I don’t think you two have met…”

“A sincere honor,” Watanabe said, bowing deeply as he held out his hand. ‘She took it! And with not the slightest look of revulsion in her eyes…!’ 

“Kenji! Isn’t that the cutest name!” she gushed in a deepest Carolina accent, keeping his hand firmly wrapped in hers. “Kenji? Why don’t you come with me – buy me a drink or two?” She pulled him away from Stuart and they walked over to a bar set-up just off the main kitchen. “What’ll it be, Kenji?” she asked as she ordered some kind of Mojito.

“The same, please,” he said, bowing his head indifferently.

After the bartender finished two huckleberry mojitos, the two of them walked out onto a vast brick and stone patio located just off the living room, and Watanabe almost hissed as, startled, he took in the view of the bay spread out below. The sun was setting and he saw city lights just winking on, yet he felt the autumn air was still warm. “What a nice evening this is,” Ms Sinfield said as a soft breeze drifted from the forests surrounding the vast house – filling the air with scents of pine and eucalyptus and lending the whole scene a little golden tint of ‘Hollywood’. He took a sip of his drink, noted fresh mint and berries of some sort mashed in the bottom of the glass, and he nodded his head in approval.

“It’s just yummy out here, don’t you think, Kenj…” the woman sighed intimately. “Like the night is full of magic, alive with infinite possibilities…ya know?”

He heard the woman but was too wrapped up in the even-glow to consider her words carefully, at least at first, but then he recognized the trap and stopped himself from falling further under her spell. ‘I am being grossly manipulated,’ he told himself. ‘Why else would this woman be here with me? Speaking to me in such familiar terms?’ 

“Yes,” he replied, “just so. But I have always considered that the infinite resides in the night.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“How else could the way ahead be lit?”

She sighed, nodded her head. “Do you really think we can ever know such things, Kenji?”

“All things are possible, Miss Sinfield, in the soft glow of an evening like this.”

“So, why’d Mark invite you tonight? Bad karma?”

He looked at her when he heard that. “I’m not sure what you mean, Miss Sinfield?”

“Oh, Mark has been kind of a recluse for a few years. You know…the Howard Hughes thing, but recently all that changed.”

“I see. Well…We talked earlier in the week about a business proposal of sorts, and he invited me to meet someone he thought I might find interesting.”

“Interesting?”

“An assistant of his. Eve is, I think, her name.”

“Oh. Her,” she said, a falling note of despair in her voice.

“You do not sound very happy about the idea. May I ask why?”

“Sure, but it’s no secret. Ever since she came into his life he’s been different. I would have said it was love at one point but it’s much deeper than that now, I think. She’s become like an extension of his soul, and he rarely goes anywhere without her. You know, Mark used to be very shy, almost introverted, but now I’d say he’s almost the exact opposite. Very secure in his skin, very sure of himself, if you know what I mean…?”

“But – is that such a bad thing?” Kenji asked, yet almost immediately he regretted asking the question, for he could see the answer in the woman’s eyes. She had loved this Mark Stuart once-upon-a-time, though he suspected in the superficial way an actress might love a wealthy man, and perhaps she had been unable to elicit such a response from Stuart. “I mean,” he said quickly, trying to seize the direction he wanted this conversation to go, “have you talked to her? Do you think she feels the same way towards Mr Stuart?”

“You know, I have. Once, at lunch on Mark’s boat, we talked a bit – about men, I think – and she professed to know little about them, only what she knew about men through her understanding of Mark. It’s funny, I think, but to me right then it felt like she can’t see the past, any past, beyond what the time they’ve had together.” She paused, took a sip from her mojito and then shook her head. “All I can say is that she seems completely devoted to him. And I mean completely.”

“Devoted, you say. What about love? Do you think she loves him?”

“Kenji…what is this? Are you pumping me for information?”

Watanabe felt red-faced and flushed, as if he was suddenly sweating hellfire when she asked him that, and though he stammered an apology he felt angry with himself for such an obtuse show of emotion. “No, I am sorry if it seems that way. It’s just that I’ve heard so much – yet at the same time very little of substance – about her, so a thousand pardons as I was merely curious. Even so, I am compelled to ask: did you love him before she came?”

The ball in the other court now, he watched her reaction to this parry – yet he was disappointed again.

“You know, Kenji, at one time or another everyone falls in love with Mark. Everyone. First you fall for his generosity, then you see something under it all…something deep inside like a force of nature. A more powerful intellect you’ll never meet, but then you dig a little deeper and you find out he’s really, at heart, a gentle soul. And the funny thing is, Kenji, he really wants to accomplish something good in this lifetime, yet he’s not so sure of himself that he really knows what ‘good’ is. Does that make any sense at all?”

Watanabe nodded his head. “Yes, very much. History has been a long parade of men who were certain of their knowledge, and the tides of time are littered with dubious results.”

“Exactly. Mark questions everything, but most of all he questions his own preconceptions. Anyway, I think everyone who gets to know him well begins to understand that about him. And Kenji, in the end I think that’s why everyone falls in love with him.”

“Everyone?”

“Oh, you know what I mean. It’s that thing that draws people – almost like moths to the flame. They used to call it charisma, but I never thought of that kind of attraction as something so banal. People loved JFK, half the country cried their eyes out for a week after his murder…and while I’m just as sorry as I can be – but that ain’t charisma. That’s love.”

“Ah, I see what you mean. You are saying that people almost, well, they almost venerate Mr Stuart?”

“Oh, not quite that…Oh, look! There she is…” Sinfield said, trying not to point.

“Who?” Kenji asked, following her gaze, but he didn’t need any further cues. No, he could tell, just by looking at Stuart’s eyes.

He was looking at a fairly good looking woman, taller than himself but about the same height as Stuart. Reddish brown hair, flawless skin, much whiter than Stuart’s, and she was dressed simply, yet quite elegantly – like she had consciously dressed so as not to upstage any of his guests that evening. And yes, there was something almost serene about the man’s eyes now that she was with him – like he was suddenly complete, whole again, despite his obvious injuries.

‘So much like me,’ Watanabe thought, and suddenly he wondered if that was important.

“Come on, Kenji, it’s time you met her, don’t you think?”

“Yes, perhaps so,” he said, taking the actress’ hand, yet now, suddenly, he felt quite nervous again about this whole evening. About the idea of a meeting with Stuart – and about acquiring an ‘assistant’ – whatever that might mean, but soon they were back in the living room, standing by the man…and this assistant of his.

“Mark?” Samantha said innocently, “has Eve met Kenji yet?”

“No, I don’t think he has,” Stuart said, turning to the woman by his side. “Eve, this is the man I was talking to Sumner about yesterday.”

“Ah, yes, Watanabe-sama,” the woman began, speaking now in flawless Japanese. “I am so honored to meet you.”

“The honor is mine, Lady,” he replied in English, not wanting to make his host ill-at-ease. “Is this not a most gorgeous evening?”

She looked at him for a moment, accepting his gift of a traditional greeting. “Yes, with cool wind in her tree, just in silence, she sings to the moon’s tears.”

Watanabe staggered under the weight of the woman’s haiku, at her perfect choice of words. He hissed sharply and bowed his head. ‘You already know me so well?’ he sighed inwardly, wondering how she saw his disfigurement: as the wind, or the trees. Would he break and fall, or could he stand up to her song?

Yet all he could see now was the quiet smile on her face, and in her eyes. A serenity…borne of what, he wondered? Was her victory complete, or had this just been her opening move?

+++++

“It is an honor to meet you, Mr Richardson,” Kenji said. He looked at the man, at this man’s infirmities, and he thought he understood more about why he was here.  Richardson’s wheelchair was a vast, complicated thing, almost a portable life-support unit, for the man now had to be almost ninety years old. “And I must say, I admire this building very much. I have read much about it in the architectural press.”

“Have you now, indeed? Well, perhaps we can arrange a little tour, later this afternoon if you’d like. I love Wright’s architecture so I spent quite a while searching for a disciple.”

“Yes, well, I’d say you have succeeded beyond one’s wildest imaginings. And I’d enjoy such a tour very much.”

“Fine, fine…Mark? Did Eve come with you today?”

Stuart whirled around, looked from Watanabe to Richardson. “She’s with Sumner right now, I believe. I think they’ll be along in a few minutes.”

“And have you told Watanabe-san about our project?”

“Yessir, I think he’s up to speed. At least through the episode on the bridge.”

Richardson looked at Watanabe all through this exchange, trying to gauge the man’s reaction – but his face had remained a mask – all emotion impossible to discern. “So? Any questions, Kenji?”

Watanabe turned and faced the old man. “A few. This technology Mr. Stuart speaks of? Is it yours?”

Richardson shrugged. “Is that so important, Kenji?”

“The sphere Mr Stuart describes…he mentioned seeing a being of some sort before the transformation?”

“A being, yes. That does sort of complicates matters, doesn’t it? Who or what they are, well, we have no idea, and neither do we have any idea what their objectives are. They’ve not been, well, we’ve had little contact with them since that night on the bridge…”

“And the more I think about them,” Sumner Bacon said, coming into the room with Eve, “the more unsure I am about what they are. Or what their motives are.”

“Ah, good morning Sumner, Miss Goodman. What have you two been up to?”

“Talking with MJ, seeing how she’s doing today.”

Watanabe turned and looked at the old police officer, the startling story of that night on the bridge still fresh in his mind. “You were saying, Sumner? Excuse my persistence, but what exactly do you think that presence was?”

Bacon shook his head, sighed as he looked from Richardson to Watanabe. “Sometimes I feel like the thing that communicated with me was a being, other times I think it was a construct of some sort.”

“A machine?” Watanabe seemed incredulous. 

Bacon nodded his head. “I’m sorry, but that night remains a jumbled series of impressions, and even so most of my memory is from before and after the event. We’ve tried hypnosis, all manner of off-the-wall methods to get at the time I was gone, after we disappeared inside that sphere, but I guess in a way all that time simply vanished, and I have no memory of it at all.”

“Memory forms in time,” Watanabe mused openly. “With time dilation, perhaps all that you experienced inside that sphere happened inside one instant, at least as far as you were concerned. People on the bridge might have experienced the passage of time as minutes, perhaps even hours, yet during that instant…”

Richardson looked at Bacon; they both nodded their heads. “Yes,” Richardson said, “that’s what our theoretical physicists say.”

“Very interesting,” Watanabe sighed. “So the question remains, which…”

“And we have no way to test either hypothesis,” Richardson said, his hands open, expressing the hopelessness all involved in the project felt.

“How many of these ‘assistants’ are there now?”

“Seven. So far.”

“And this new assistant of mine? She chose me, as well?”

Richardson nodded his head.

“I see. Am I…?”

“Only the second one,” Richard’s sighed. “Eve was first to make a choice.”

Watanabe turned to Eve just then, and looked into her eyes. “And your purpose? You know nothing of why you are here?”

She looked him in the eye as well, while she gently shook her head. “No.”

“I find this all very troubling,” Watanabe said. “Like we are pawns in a game we know nothing about…”

“Yes, that’s quite true,” Richardson interrupted, “but then again Kenji, whoever’s playing this game did in fact choose you. Doesn’t that make you just a little…?”

“Curious? No, not really. I would say fear is the word that comes first to my mind. Yes. I am afraid.”

“Of what,” a woman said, walking into the room, and Watanabe turned and looked at this new presence… 

…and his world cartwheeled out of control.

He looked at his idea of human perfection, a woman so gorgeous his heart jumped breathlessly in his chest and his vision clouded.

“Kenji, I’d like you to meet Mary,” Richardson said. 

But the woman was staring at Watanabe now, like there was no one else in the room. “Watanabe-sama? Tell me please, what are you afraid of?”

“You, dear lady. I am most afraid – of you –”

+++++

Now, sitting in this huge airliner high above the Pacific, he could think of little else. Fear and acceptance. Fear and curiosity. Fear, and the choices he’d made over the last two days.

To let this woman, if that was indeed what she was, so deeply into his life. This was insane! 

He turned, saw she was resting on the bed in their suite, and he looked around the room again – bewildered.

All the first class suites were located here, inside the innermost portion of the Boeing’s huge wing, with the leading edge of the wing made of some carved translucent material. One entire ‘wall’ of this compartment was, in effect, a huge, curved window – and now he was staring at a great wall of dark clouds just ahead, ahead as this monstrously large jet arced through the sky with limitless views of the way ahead. And yet, as intoxicating as this view was, it was also intensely disorienting to Kenji. He tried to wall-off memories of that day, but when his guard was down he slipped through time again and he saw that other airliner cartwheeling into Incheon Bay. 

And just then, in the deepest part of the unfolding memory, in the wildest moments of his confusion, she came to him, comforting him without asking where the roots of his distress lay.

“You express empathy so naturally,” he said to her after the first time this happened. “Are you so attuned to human emotion?”

She ignored his rationalizations with a gentle shrug. “I can’t imagine the pain you must have endured,” she whispered in his ear, “with all you experienced.”

“You know about – the incident at Incheon?”

“Of course,” she said, rubbing the mottled skin on the side of his face. “You have such strength of nerve,  Kenji-sama, so much that it leaves me breathless.”

He had turned then and looked into her eyes, yet he felt nothing duplicitous in her words, no insincerity whatsoever. “I wonder, would it be impossible for someone like me to fall in love with someone like you?”

Yet she had smiled upon hearing those words. But “Yes. I wonder,” was her only reply, yet just then she had leaned into him, kissed his forehead.

“This is all so impossible,” he said again, so quietly she might not have heard him. “Why are you here?”

But she had simply smiled at this question. “The day ahead will be very difficult, the next few days as well, but then you’ll see. The best years of your life lay just ahead, and I will be there with you, always, to keep you safe.”

He’d looked into her eyes then, saw something important there. “What do you mean? How could you possibly know what tomorrow will bring?”

And she had laughed away such questions. “What a wondrous machine,” she’d said, gayly. “It’s almost like a time machine, don’t you think?”

“A – what? A time machine? How so?”

“Oh, I was simply thinking what it must have been like to sail these seas a hundred years ago. From, say, San Francisco to Tokyo; such a trip as we make now would have taken months, would it not? And yet we will make the journey in just a few hours, so in a way, this machine has compressed time – from months to hours. A time machine. And think of email. Time further compressed, just like another time machine.”

He smiled. “I see. You are most wise, Mary. And what other time machines might you tell me about?”

And she had simply smiled again…the same beguiling, inscrutable smile she called her own. “We are drawing near,” she said, pointing at the island of Honshu looming out of the mists ahead of the giant wing, then she leaned over and tightened his seatbelt, her face tightening into an equally grim set.

“What is it? Is something wrong?”

“No, Kenji-san. All is happening as it must, time must reveal herself as she will.”

“What does that mean?”

She pointed at Tokyo Bay ahead. “The rest of the day will be very difficult…”

“You said that before. What do you mean?”

And as they approached the airport, runway 34 Right he remembered, he saw she was pointing at a boat perhaps a half mile from the end of the runway… 

He saw a flash emerge from this boat, and a finger of flame as the flash leapt into the sky… 

“Oh no,” he said. “Not again.”

“Yes, Kenji-sama. And the first time? Over Korea? That too was no accident.”

“What? How do you…”

But she leaned in and kissed him, this time roughly, on the lips. And he felt her tightening his seat belt once again…until the nylon belt bit into his lap…  

…just before he felt the missile’s impact, somewhere off to this left… 

Startled, his mind reeling again, he looked ahead as the left wingtip lurched and dipped violently, and he started to cry as memory fused with reality…as once again real fear came for him. 

“Kenji-sama, look at me,” he heard her say, then she took his face in her hands and forced him to look. “You are not going to die, do you understand? I will not allow it.”

“What? What are you saying?”

“Kenji, do you love me?”

“What?”

He looked at the water reaching up for him once again, reaching up for him, waiting to hold him in cold embrace, then he looked back into her eyes…

“Yes, I do. God forgive me, but I do,” he said to the water’s reflection he saw in her eyes.

Then he felt the wing slicing through water, then an explosion – and then he felt cold water everywhere. The air smashed from his chest by the impact, he thrashed wildly as he tried to move – but he realized his legs were set in deep mud. He struggled and thrashed with all his might but he was stuck fast – and then he saw her by his side. Smiling.

She came to him and kissed his lips again, then pulled him free and helped him swim for the surface, and to daylight. They burst free of the darkness a moment later and he wanted to cry for this latest rebirth, but all he could think to do was to turn and look at this precious Mary… 

And she was looking at him with such love in her eyes it left him feeling weightless and without a care in the world, feeling almost immortal as death raged all around them. He held her close and kissed her anew, with no reservation now. 

“I am so proud of you, Kenji-san. You are most brave, and very wise.”

“And I love you,” he said, suddenly very happy to still be among the living – then he felt a growing disturbance in the water. Something below, he wondered, but no. The water around him was spinning, gently at first, then faster.

She came to his side again, held him fast. “Don’t be afraid, my love,” he heard her say as he looked into her eyes once again…

“What’s happening?” he almost cried, then he saw tiny particles in the air – swirling like a small tornado around them, then he understood. Just like the bridge…and with Sumner Bacon…

There was a flash just after the sphere formed, an inward collapse of some sort, then he was free of the motion, adrift in a sea of stars… But no, it was dark out now, and suddenly he knew he was still in the water. She was beside him still, holding onto him, helping him stay afloat, and then he heard a helicopter overhead, and rescue boats all around them.

Then he felt another presence and he looked out – at his hands.

He was carrying an infant, a baby girl in his outstretched arms, and he cried out when he saw the baby looking up at him, up into his eyes – and with this impossible woman still by his side…

“Are you ready, my love?” he heard her ask.

He heard her, of course, but his eyes remained focused on the child – because he could tell the child was his. ‘But…how could this be?’ he asked himself.

Then helicopters beat the air overhead and rescue divers jumped down to help the survivors swimming frantically towards the rescue boats just coming out into the bay, and for the first time in fifteen years Kenji Watanabe felt no fear.

© 2016-2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com all rights reserved | and as always this is just a little bit of fiction.

Beware of Darkness, Part 1

BEWARE OF DARKNESS TITLE IMAGE 1 SM

So…here starts a new story. Probably need four chapters to wrap it up, and this is a short one  today so a Coke will probably do the job. I guess if you need some music George Harrison will be the obvious choice, or you can try this for a change of pace.

Right…off we go.

Part I: Photons

Leaves of poplars pick Japanese prints against the west.

Moon sand on the canal doubles the changing pictures.

The moon’s good-bye ends pictures.

The west is empty. All else is empty. No moon-talk at all now.

Only dark listening to dark.

                                            Carl Sandburg                         Moonset

It had been, oddly enough, the moon that first captured the little boy’s imagination. Hanging up there in the sky as he waited for sleep, waiting in the shadows of dreams waiting to be.

“A man in the moon? Oh, really? Where?” he remembered crying, once upon a time.

“It’s right there! Can’t you see him?”

“No! What are you talking about?!”

Even then the myths so casually passed along made no sense to the boy. Because, he realized, the people who pretended to know everything really didn’t seem to know very much at all.

But…there had to be more.

There just had to be more to it than their lies and evasions.

An odd encounter. With, of all things, a telescope. On a camping trip with friends in Cub Scouts.

A kindly old man with a pristine four inch refractor set-up on the simplest alt-az mount imaginable, yet when he first set his eyes on the moon through that telescope he felt his entire world shift underfoot. He’d stared at the crescent orb for so long his eyes almost hurt, trying to memorize everything he saw. He realized sometime during the night that he never wanted this journey to end.

Books followed, leading to his first steps on the way he’d chosen. Simple books with big pictures because, after all, he was only a second-grader. An Atlas of the Moon waited for him under the tree the very next Christmas, and just five months later he watched as Alan Shepard and Freedom 7 kicked off a mad decade of exploration and experimentation – everything coming into sharp relief when Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took a stroll on his beloved moon. 

His father was a physicist; his mother a physician; both taught at Stanford. He grew up on a tree-lined street in Menlo Park, California, and in schools teeming with bright students he was considered the brightest star of them all. He’d developed a profound intuition for mathematics, especially for the calculus, by the time he left grade school. He learned to play the piano simply in order to explore the mathematical possibilities within music notation and was considered something of a prodigy – until he grew bored with music’s limited range of expression.

And still he turned his eyes to the sky, but almost always to the moon. 

Until one night, on a field trip to the Mount Lick Observatory just east of San Jose.

The boy had, of course, seen pictures of globular clusters, and he’d even looked at M13 through a small telescope once before, but the experience had been underwhelming – and so he’d thought little of them since. Until that first night up at Lick.

One of the twenty-inch astrographs was being collimated that night, so no cameras were attached as technicians and astronomers aligned and realigned set screws on the delicate front objective, and actual eyepieces were being used to fine tune the scopes final alignment. At one point, when the boy happened to be standing nearby, this team of astronomers pointed the ‘scope at Eta Herculis, then at M13 – the  primary globular cluster in the Hercules asterism – and then one of the astronomers looked down and asked the boy if he might want to look at something interesting.

“Of course I would,” the boy said as he made his way up to the viewing platform.

“Well then, try this out for size.”

Eugene Sherman made his way to the eyepiece and after just a few seconds observing the cluster he knew his world had shifted once again, then he turned to the other astronomers up there with him and he smiled.

“Do you have a bigger telescope?” Eugene Sherman asked.

The boy was only a little surprised when his question caused all the other astronomers to break out in gales of knowing laughter.

+++++

Yet Saturday mornings in autumn were the best days of all.

Because from the time he first sat sit on his father’s knee, when the Stanford Cardinals were playing at home he and his Old Man made their way over to the stadium to catch the game. When “Gene” Sherman was just starting out in elementary school they started throwing the football, and by the time he went to middle school he was good enough to play quarterback, and he only improved with time. By his junior year, by the time he was ready to think about college, schools like Harvard and MIT wanted him. So did Stanford and even Princeton.

Only…Gene Sherman had decided he wanted to go to Annapolis, because by then he’d decided he wanted to be an astronaut. He wanted to walk on the moon. He wanted to build an observatory up there, too, and he figured he was probably the best person for the job. But getting into Annapolis wasn’t as straight forward a thing as getting into Harvard or MIT. Getting into a service academy meant getting appointed by a member of congress, so this he set out to do…in the same patient, methodical way he’d turned to whenever he really wanted to get something done right the first time.

And so he made it in, and he reported for duty in August, 1972. 

He played football. He studied astronomy and physics, and because this was the Naval Academy, he studied aeronautical engineering, too. When it became more than apparent there was no way into the astronaut corp without first completing test pilot school, which of course meant becoming a Naval Aviator, he set out to do this, too – though there were some in the great scheme of things who were disappointed by his choice. They’d seen him working in more theoretical realms, more than likely working to develop a new sort of satellite based navigation system, but they had decided to let him pursue his dreams – for now. He’d earned that much respect and consideration, or so they said.

So…off the boy went, to Pensacola – because, by his best calculation, that was still the best way to the stars.

+++++

April, 1979. Strait of Hormuz. Sitting in the cockpit of an A-6E on Cat 1 aboard the Coral Sea. Three in the morning and the temperature was almost ninety degrees; with the canopy retracted air dripping with humidity was pouring onto his face, and sweat was rolling down his neck and from there down into his flight suit.

Gene “Tank” Sherman was flying Texaco this morning, waiting for the word to launch and get airborne so his Intruder could refuel the ready flight that had launched fifty minutes ago. Iranians had been holding the US Embassy in Tehran for almost three months, and tensions were high, the mood on the streets ugly. And his squadron – VA-165 – had been tasked to bomb airfields in and around Tehran…should the need arise…and everyone on board hoped the need was there. Because they were ready. And because everyone wanted revenge, blood was in the air – all the time now.

‘Even I do, too,’ Sherman said to himself. ‘But why? Why another war when there’s so much else we need to be working on…?’

He leaned back and found Hercules up there in the early morning sky, and out here hundreds of miles from land he could see M13 with his eyes…a faint little smudge hanging up there – almost right where his heart should be…but that didn’t make sense. Did it?

Nothing made sense. Not now.

Apollo…canceled. No more moon shots. Just more war. And something new was in the works, something they were starting to call a space shuttle, but this latest thing looked like just another black hole, another government boondoggle designed to spread pork all over the aerospace industry. Damn! Even Stanley Kubrick could see the future better than the morons at NASA! We need infrastructure…up there – in space…in orbit – so we can built things up there…and not a taxi to nowhere! And no more ‘meet ’n greets’ with the goddamn commies!

‘Two years of my life…spent out here,’ he thought, sighing as he watched M13 slide behind another wall of cloud.

“Well, ain’t life grand?” his navigator said – just as the carrier sailed into a wall of cool, deep fog. “I didn’t think fog made it this far north?”

“An eddy in the current,” Sherman said, “but it won’t last.”

Then the CAG up in Pri-Fli came on over the radio. “Our Phantoms just reported two, possibly four Bogeys just went airborne, lighting them up. Launch the tanker, standby to launch Alert Three and Four.”

“They be playing our song, Tank,” Pete “Putter” Masters, his navigator, said.

Sherman secured the canopy and checked lock on the wings once again, and when he got the all clear from the deck-apes he started engine one, watching the tape come up to 40% and hold steady. He looked right and got the all clear and rolled two, watching power come up and stabilize. After the JBD, or the Jet Blast Deflector came up he added power slowly to FMP, or Full Military Power, before dropping back down to 60% for the hold. The F-4N on Cat 2 ran up to FMP and as suddenly cut back, and that was that. Now it was his turn.

Power to FMP again and watch the tapes for ten seconds, then he looked at the ape crouching out there almost on the edge of the flight deck, the wands in his hands beating out the rhythm of the fight. He saluted as he flipped the nose gear light on and off, then pushed back in his seat, waiting for the…

…slam in the back…that kick in the ass…and he fixed his eyes on his panel because out here on the other side of the glass there was nothing but black. Pure, solid black fog.

‘Positive rate,’ he said to himself, ‘gear up, trim up, flaps and slats up. Check vertical rate, start a gradual turn ten to the left and climb to Angels Five.’

“Outta the fog,” Masters said a moment later.

“Got it,” he said, still not taking his eyes off the panel, not yet. Heading 340, angle of attack five degrees up, climb at 215 KIAS. “Man, this pig is wallowing tonight,” he said a minute later, when he could finally breathe easily again.

“Feeling heavy?”

“Yeah-man. We there yet?”

“Call it thirty seconds, then start your track.”

“Got it,” Sherman said as he zeroed out his clocks, keeping one eye on the altimeter and the other scanning the sky…then he started his hack and began a slow, standard rate 180 to the left.

Then the E-2B from VAW-117 came on the net. “Boomer 5-0-2, Banger-3, come right to 0-3-0, signal Buster, repeat Buster, inbound flight Bingo.”

“5-0-2 to 0-3-0 Buster,” Sherman replied, turning hard and adding power.

“502, 3, Reaper 2-0-2 reports three Bandits now up and heading for the merge. Ready Three and Four have the intercept. 2-0-2 took a hit, needs a visual for BD.”

“5-0-2 roger.”

“5-0-2, make it Angels 10.”

“5-0-2 to 10.”

“5-0-2, call it fifty miles now.”

“5-0-2, got it.” Sherman replied as he started his climb from five to ten thousand feet.

“Picking up four airborne sets,” Putter said, “and they look like that new AWG-9 set in the -14,” – indicating there were at least two hostile aircraft up right now with advanced search radars operating, because Iran now had four operational squadrons of F-14As – all of them fully armed with the latest American air-to-air weaponry…and all of that vastly superior hardware courtesy of the now-deposed Shah. Coral Sea’s Phantoms in VF-21 were F-4N models, with 60s vintage avionics and radar, and they were no match for a Tomcat’s Phoenix long range fire control system.

“5-0-2, come right to 1-7-5, speed 220, set pos now.”

“5-0-2 right to 175, 220 and we’re lighting up now.”

“Reaper 2-0-2, got your lights, gimme 1500.”

“Reaper 2-0-2, 1500 set, drogue one out, advise…”

“Banger-3…Break-break! Two launches, I think they’re…check that…two confirmed AIM-54s in the air, track while scan mode is active…”

“Reaper 2-0-2 breaking right!”

“Boomer 5-0-2 going left,” Sherman added, launching chaff and flares as his Intruder broke formation. He climbed left and rolled inverted, starting a dive to the hard deck and sending out packets of chaff along the way when he felt heat all along the left side of his body, then Putter shouting “Eject…eject…eject!”

Then…darkness. Everywhere.

And then – salt. Salt water. Sea water. 

He opened his eyes, tried to turn his head but everything hurt.

“You okay?” he saw Putter asking as he swam up to him.

“I can’t hear,” he managed to say – just before the light came for him.

+++++

He recognized the lights overhead. He was in an operating room, and people were moving him from a gurney to an operating table.

‘This can’t be good,’ he thought, then he saw people talking before he realized he couldn’t hear a damn thing they were saying. Then he realized his left leg really hurt and he tried to lift his head to take a look…

…then explosions of hot light filled his mind’s eye, and as suddenly he started vomiting.

‘Sea water? I’m barfing up sea water?’

Helping hands held his face while others turned him on his right side, and then waves of pain crushed him and held him down under an impossible weight. Then people were helping him onto his back again, and a mask went over his mouth and nose as an IV was inserted in his left forearm. He was awash in enveloping warmth after that, so he was never aware that his left leg was being amputated just above the knee.

© 2021 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this was a work of fiction, pure and simple. All rights reserved.