An Evening at the Carnival With Mister Christian, Part I

So, WordPress is having difficulty digesting a post so (!!!) big. Multiple attempts have failed, so I’m breaking this up into multiple posts – and hopefully this works.

Ikiru, Debussy, Sergeant Pepper’s and Strawberry fields – they’re all here. What’s not? Tom Goodwin, and the backstory from Passegiatta. If you’ve not read this story, you should first. Goodwin appears in key portions of the evening…

I know there are errors galore in here. It’s a complicated story, further obscured by the need to introduce layers of ambiguity. You’ll understand, I hope, that statement after you’ve finished.

First up, Driftwood and the Sumner Collins’ part of the story…then Ted Sherman and the Owl in Part II, and last, the evening begins.

An Evening At The Carnival With Mister Christian

A Somewhat Less Than Divine Comedy

© 31 October 2016 by Adrian Leverkühn | abw

 

Driftwood: A Prelude to the Evening

Part I: Rogues Bay, Tortola, BVI

Today

There were a few low clouds scudding over the far horizon, yet all-in-all the day’s weather was looking good – better than good, really, especially for the time of year. The air was cool enough to feel – vaguely – like Christmas, at least to folks her in the eastern Caribbean, yet the air was warm enough for shorts – and clinging sand between toes. The late-morning trades had yet to fill-in, so motion inside the narrow, finger shaped bay was still calm, and a single, blue-hulled ketch rode gently at anchor a hundred meters off the small, kidney shaped beach. For a Christmas morning in the British Virgins, the bay and the boat presented a serene, if marginally holiday-like picture, to the man and the Springer emerging from a shrubby, overgrown trail at the south end of the bay.

The dog, an ancient Spaniel named Charley, walked dutifully by the man’s side. Her’s was a possessive, indeed, a protective soul, and she had been with this human all her life, almost from the moment of her birth. Though they hadn’t always been so close, for the past several months the two had become all but inseparable: she slept on his bed – usually nestled under his chin – and rode with him in all his various contraptions – with her ears flapping in the airstream…and a deep grin peeking out from fluttering jowls. She, generally speaking, went everywhere he went, and tended to look after him as best she could, and it was a rare day when they were apart for more than a few hours. And she hated those small snippets of time most of all, so she lived, on the other hand, for the long walks they took, especially walks on long sandy beaches or up in the high mountains, near timberline, where she could fly from rock to rock in pursuit of small, fury tundra dwellers. Still, more than anything else in her world, she loved it when he rubbed her ears. That feeling, she’d heard him say more than once, was the unshelled nuts…the very best thing there was. She stared into his eyes when he did that, and she wanted her soul to join with his.

So, she loved him in her way, cared for him at least much as he cared for her, and she slowed her step to keep pace with his as he trudged through the sand, and she looked up at him from time to time, checked the way he breathed, because something in the air was troubling her.

There was, she noted, something on his face, a cloud in his eyes, perhaps, that concerned her, and he was breathing a little too hard as they walked. She slowed her pace a bit more and pretended to take more than a passing interest in the few clumps of grass they passed, and she looked up at him as he stopped, as he took a few deep breaths through his mouth, then her eyes followed his as he looked down the beach.

“Charley? I think there’s a good piece down there,” he said as he pointed down the beach. She looked where he was pointing, and yes, there it was – she could see it now too. A huge piece of ragged, gray wood. Driftwood, he called it. She took off at an ambling, curious pace, but then heard something that stopped her where she stood.

She turned, looked at the boat in the bay – then cocked her head to one side.

“Get out of here, you goddamned, fucked-up bitch!”

She recognized the tone, and even a few of the words. Angry words. Mean, hurtful words. An angry human’s words. The hair on Charley’s neck stood on-end as she looked at the boat, then she heard contact – rough, physical contact, a wounded scream, pots falling on hard surfaces, more shocked cries of anguish – and retribution.

She stared at the boat, her concern now evident to the man walking well behind her on the beach. She looked back at him and barked once, a low, guttural sound full of suppressed anger, then she turned her attention back to the boat. She knew his attention would be focused there too; she knew because she felt that certain connection had settled between them – again.

A woman, half naked and screaming, ran up onto deck and dove overboard; more angry words followed in her wake as another person, one who almost appeared to be a man, came on deck just after the woman hit the water. This man yelled and threw a bag overboard; it almost hit the woman in the water, then floated a moment before it began to sink out of view.

Instinct set in and without thinking Charley sprinted down the beach and leapt into the water, she swam past the startled woman and dove under a small wave just as the bag disappeared from view. The water stung her eyes but she saw it and swam for it, took the bag’s strap in her mouth then clawed her way back to the surface. Unaccustomed to such an awkward, heavy load, she struggled to make her way back to the beach, only now, to make matters worse, the grainy water stung her eyes. Soon she felt the first screams of panic welling up, and suddenly wondered why she was out in such deep water, yet even so as her head popped out from under a wave she knew her anxiety was misplaced.

There he was, just a few strokes away now, coming for her. She climbed into his outstretched arms and put her hands around his neck, licked his chin. He took the strap from her mouth and lifted her well clear of the water, then she licked his scruffy beard more than a few times, enjoying, as she always did, the way his fur felt on her tongue.

He carried her along until the water was shallow enough, then he set her down and they trudged out of the water, turned and waited for the woman, who was not yet out of the water. The man picked up his backpack on the way to her and slung it back over his shoulder, and Charley ran up to the woman and sniffed her ankles, circling round and round while he walked. The woman sat down on the white sand and looked at the pup once; the woman’s eyes were full of tears and she was breathing in deep, ragged gulps, and Charley could see the woman had a kind, if troubled soul. She came to the woman, sat and leaned into her body – as if to help hold her grief in check.

The woman leaned into Charley too, and put an arm around her, then began crying deeply, indeed, almost uncontrollably. Charley understood, but looked at her own human as he walked up to them. His skin was very pale now, and clearly concerned, she focused on his eyes once again.

Something still wasn’t right; she could see his distress within the shimmering air all around his body, feel it in the way the colors around him changed.

When the man got to them, he sat down heavily on the sand.

“Are you alright?” she heard him ask the woman.

Startled, the woman shook her head, then looked up and let go of Charley.

Charley slipped free of the woman and went to his side; she leaned into him as if re-establishing a physical connection and concentrated on his beating heart while she listened to him breathe. She looked up at him and licked his neck while she sniffed his breath, trying to make sense of all she was taking in.

“It’s okay, girl,” Charley heard him say, but she wasn’t sure yet so she leaned in closer still, pressing into him, in effect propping up his body while she continued to listen to him. Then all of a sudden he was rubbing her ears and she slipped into bliss, so down she flopped – down on her back – in tail-wagging ecstasy. “Yes, it’s okay now, good girl…just take it easy…”

“Did your dog go for my bag, or did you tell her to?” Charley heard the woman ask.

“That was all her. She’s kind of acts like a retriever, when she wants to, anyway. I guess she saw your bag being thrown and instinct kicked in.”

The woman laughed through her tears. “What’s her name?”

“Charley.”

“Charley?”

“Yup. She’s a Steinbeck fan, I guess you’d have to say.”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Do you live here?”

“Nope. Boston, but, well – it’s a long story. So, are you alright? That sounded like like some kind of fight out there.”

Charley watched closely as the woman spoke now, clearly interested in what was going on, but the woman looked away and she couldn’t see her eyes any longer.

“Just one more – the latest in a long series…”

“Well, it’s none of my business, but I’ve got a jeep up on the road if you need a lift into town.”

“Is there an airport here?”

“Yup, if you’re headed to the States there’s a puddle jumper to San Juan, connections to Miami or DFW, I think.”

“New York City. Think I’ll head back to my sister’s place.”

“You sure don’t have a New York accent,” and he looked at her closely for the first time. She wasn’t unattractive, yet there was something off-putting about her…even dangerous, perhaps.

“I was born in Stockholm. My sister and I went to college – in New York – and we decided to stay.”

“I see. Well, anyway, the airport’s a long walk from here. Charley and I are going to putter around for a while, but like I said, we’d be happy to drop you off.”

When he stood Charley rolled upright and shook the salt and sand off, all while she looked at the woman; when she was sure they were both alright she took off down the beach toward the driftwood they’d spotted – before the ruckus on the boat broke out.

“We’ll be back in a little bit,” the man said as he followed Charley. “Just yell if you need anything.”

The woman was rummaging around in her drenched bag as he spoke, then she looked up: “Do you have a phone I could use for a moment?” She was holding a dripping cell phone up, and they could both tell the phone would now make, perhaps, a useful paperweight.

He smiled, dug his Iridium sat-phone from his knapsack, unlocked it and handed it to her. “Decent signal out here, so you can call direct to the States; just enter the area code first, then the number, then send.” He turned and walked off after Charley.

“Thanks.”

“You bet,” he said quietly. He almost smiled, trying not to remember how tough life was at that age, and how quiet his life had always been – compared to what he’d just witnessed, anyway.

The trades were picking up now; he guessed the winds were up to about fifteen knots or so, and as expected, right out of the east, and he did the math while he walked. The boat was fueled and ready to go, and he only needed to pick up a few things at the farmer’s market before returning the rental car, but that was it. He looked at Charley as he walked along, deep in thought about the girl back there talking on his phone. “What a mess,” he said to her, shaking his head.

She was blond-haired and blue-eyed – of course, and decent enough looking in a wide-eyed, bohemian sort of way, but there was something about her that screamed ‘rode hard and put away wet’ – again, something dangerous. Probably in her mid-twenties, he guessed; thirty, tops – she was cute but wore trouble in her eyes. Clearly, she’d had a bad morning and wasn’t at her best, but she struck him as someone who made trouble everywhere she went.

His instinct was to get away from here as fast as he could…away from her.

Charley was maybe thirty yards ahead when she heard trouble – again. The man on the boat was yelling at the woman, then the woman was firing a barrage of evil sounding words back at the man. After this exchange, and without any more fanfare, the man on the boat weighed anchor, raised the main and Charley watched as the boat began sailing out the little bay, and into the Caribbean beyond.

The woman sat down on the beach again, head down and shoulders slumped.

Charley saw the air around the woman was black with evil, and could tell the woman was crying again, but the gray driftwood was close now, it’s siren’s song now unmistakeable and as suddenly irresistible. She nosed closer to the drying wood, sniffed tentatively as she walked around it, measuring the wood and the air around it for anything out of the ordinary.

The man walked up to the wood and looked down at it. “Pretty big piece,” he said. “Weird shape though, hey girl?”

And it was. The wood, half buried in sand and sparkling with dried salt particles, at first glance looked anything but unusual, but it was the shape of the piece that seemed somehow “off” to them both. Maybe four feet long, the wood was radically curved, unnaturally so.

He bent over, began to lift it up when Charley barked.

“What is it, girl?” the man said as he dropped the wood and stepped back.

Charley circled the wood, sniffed and barked again, then looked up him, her eyes full of concern. She saw the woman from the boat walking their way now, and her anxiety only grew more acute.

‘Something’s not right,’ Charley thought. ‘What is it? Why does this feel like…?’

“What is it, Charley?”

“What’s wrong with your dog?” the woman said as she walked up to them.

“I don’t know. This isn’t like her.”

Her arms and paws were outstretched and flat on the sand; her hip was arched up, her stubby tail pointing straight up to the sky – and now very still.

“Is there something under it?” the woman asked, as she too circled the wood.

“I don’t know.” The man bent down to the wood again and ran his hand over it, feeling it, gauging his own galvanic reactions through his skin.

“Familiar,” he whispered in the shimmering air. “What…is that?”

He grabbed the wood and pulled at it sharply. And then again.

With a wet, sucking sound the wood broke free of the wet sand and the man slipped and tumbled backwards; Charley howled and jumped away as the wood rolled over.

“Oh my goodness!” the woman exclaimed. “It’s – magnificent!”

The man stood, brushed sand off his shorts – then he hovered over the wood…

The underside of the piece revealed a carved dolphin, but the carving looked as if it had been sanded, no, polished to a high sheen, because at first glance it seemed as if the body of the animal had been varnished. The man lifted the wood and carried it down to the water, and there he washed away the sand. He looked at the dolphin closely, then dropped the carving on the beach and stumbled away.

“Oh, no! It can’t be…” he whispered as he looked at the two scars carved into the dolphin’s face, just under the eyes. “No, God no, this can’t be happening.”

Charley felt it first. The pulse seemed to come from deep within the wood, but then she looked toward the water and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. There was something out there…she could feel it clearly now. Whatever it was, there was energy joining this piece of wood to something very powerful, out there, in the water.

And whatever IT was, it was getting closer.

“What is it? Is there something wrong?” the woman asked as she watched the man stagger back from the water.

He stopped, turned and looked at the woman, then at Charley.

He followed her eyes out to sea and squinted, tried to see what she felt, then it all came back in a rush. Jennifer. The day his world started to come undone.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said as he looked at the woman. “Now.”

“What? Why?”

“No time to explain. Charley! Come!” He grabbed the woman’s hand and pulled her along, walked rapidly to the trail the led to the jeep. He turned once and saw Charley still focused on something, something apparently still far out to sea, so he whistled once again; Charley turned, saw him calling her. As if breaking free of a trance, she shook herself and ran after the man and the woman, looking back once over her shoulder as she did.

She saw the dolphin’s head break free of the water not far from the beach, and she stopped dead in her tracks. She was confused, and while she didn’t understand the feelings washing through her now, she knew she’d seen those eyes before.

She heard the man calling her name again as she turned and walked back to the water’s edge. Feelings unknown and powerful washed over as she looked into the dolphin’s eyes, feelings of sadness and despair, and hope. Instinct in total command now, she walked into the water – trying to find her way home.

+++++

Salzburg, Austria

Tomorrow

The man regarded his lunch quietly, as others might a fine painting; he smiled, felt an uneasy truce settle over the room, drifted on currents of time to other days – far away and long ago. To the life that had been his – once upon a time, to the life that had so recently slipped from his grasp. He felt adrift now, cut off from the past, yet the future seemed a land out of time – like there was a wall ahead, the way forward blocked. He felt trapped, boxed-in, that there was nowhere left to go – with all this talk about Hyperion.

The plate, pristine white with green trim, was a masterpiece – to his somewhat practiced eye, anyway – but of more importance than the other “things” calling out to him, the plate held memories of that other life – because the food on his plate connected him to memories of her in ways little else could. Jägerschnitzel, spätzel, red cabbage, and of course a Stiegl bier, their famous dunkelmalz, so hard to come by anywhere but Salzburg. This was the formula that opened the chalice of memory, yet of singular importance this day – of all days – this lunch could only come to life inside the walls of the old ground floor dining room, in the Hotel Goldener Hirsch.

The storied old hotel on the Getreidegasse – just doors from where Mozart came to into this life – was for him a world unto itself, a world of full of memories both good and bad – his father’s world, the life he shared with his wife. Whitewashed stone walls, heavy timbered ceilings, and an Old World ambience that only hinted at the building’s medieval origins, he and his wife had stumbled across the hotel when they’d taken their first real vacation together, not long after they married – not long before his father’s murder. Almost without knowing it, they had been following paths well worn by their parents and grandparents, the standard, almost preordained American tourist’s rote pilgrimage to the Old World.

His parents had made this trip many times over the years, before his mother died – in the White House. But by then, they had little time for him, for time together, and then his father – murdered. The first presidential assassination of the 21st century. Such a distinction. But when he thought of his old man there wasn’t a lot to be proud of, not really. He’d stoked fires of hate and resentment until the walls came tumbling down, and only Smithfield had been able to pick up the pieces. Then all this fusion reactor bullshit hit the fan, and now even that world looked ready to fall.

He remembered his wife, their trip, anything to drift away from that other world. Paris, Brugge and even Lübeck filled the first few weeks of their first trip abroad together, but then the Alps beckoned, and they’d turned south, following instinct’s call to memories yet to be. From Geneva they headed east, caught the narrow-gauge railway at Visp and wound their way up to Zermatt, to the narrow-walled valley brooded over by a mist enshrouded Matterhorn. There was still snow in the shadow of that mountain – in winter, anyway – as there were still snowy remnants in a few other very high regions of the Swiss and French Alps. The man and his wife played among the few traces that remained of the ancient glaciers that had once dominated the Gornergrat massif, but skiing was no longer a commonplace activity here – or anywhere else, for that matter. The weather was now too warm – everywhere – yet they wondered what it must have been like to ski on endless plains of white. The world was so different now, so much had changed so quickly, yet traces remained of those other times, especially here, high in the Alps.

After a week in Zermatt, they left that enchanted valley and wandered north and east through the Bernese Oberland and the Engadin, and finally they went further east, on to Innsbruck and Zell am See, before finding themselves, quite by accident, in Salzburg.

Drawn by memories of his parent’s ramblings, they made their way to a cluster of huge domed churches under an ancient, imposing wall of dark rock, and soon found themselves walking down a rough, cobbled lane. They walked hand-in-hand along this narrow path, taking in shops full of loden capes and rustic leather goods, and as it was midday the air smelled of heavenly creation and they came upon a menu posted outside an old hotel restaurant – and as such, a tradition was born.

For the next few years they returned to the hotel, at first in summer but then one year they came at Christmas, and over time their story melded within those stone and timber walls, became something fine, worth remembering. They grew to appreciate that traditions like their’s were unique, something to cherish, and the man was certain that their firstborn was conceived within these timbered walls, and the memory brought a smile to his face.

But even as change is inevitable some patterns can never be broken, and his wife’s sudden passing left a dark chasm within his soul, a cold place no memory could warm, so it had been years since he’d come back to the hotel. Now his mother-in-law had the kids and he was alone in the dining room early on this Christmas Eve, and he regarded his surroundings as one might a very close friend…as someone or something that could be counted on…as that one constant in an ever-changing universe. So he held the room up to the light of day and peered deep into the well of the past. He looked around the room at tables and chairs and pictures on walls and regarded each as a bulwark, a wall that kept an overwhelming tide of pain from rushing in. He smiled at himself, at his weakness, for there was no sense of irony or self-contradiction in his understanding of the moment.

After picking at his food he signed the bill to his room, then walked up narrow stone steps to the reception desk and got his key to – their room – the same room they had first taken not so many years ago –  and every year thereafter – and with that very much in mind he went to take a nap, and to wrestle with memories that rarely left him alone for long.

His was, of course, not a restful sleep, and the dreams that came to him were troublesome, and in the end most unwelcome. He watched great gouts of flame streaking through the air, walls of molten lava swallowing cities – the very end of time unfolding all around him, or so it seemed, and when he woke he felt a chill spreading over his soul.

He showered as the sun set, and he dressed, looked at his hair in the mirror before grabbing a sport coat and heading out into the night. The air on the street was still warm, too warm for Christmas, and there wasn’t a trace of snow to be seen anywhere. He took off down the Getreidegasse, intent on window shopping if he had to do anything at all, but he soon turned to the massive cathedral under the cliff and looked at it for the longest time. Without really knowing why he made his way slowly to the plaza that surrounded the huge building, then walked completely around the structure once. When he’d made his way around he stopped outside the entry, regarding the implications of passage as he looked at the massive doors. He felt he had come upon a sudden choice, that an unwelcome decision had come for him, and he shook his head, made his way up the broad steps – hesitating only once – before he stepped inside.

Churches, indeed, anything to do with religion had always made him palpably nervous, and now walking into this overwhelming space he felt no different. Thinking back, he reckoned it had been ten years since he’d been in any kind of church, and he – almost – wondered why. While he’d never considered himself an atheist, organized religion had always made him uncomfortable…just as his father had, behind closed doors, expressed dismay at the religious impulse – and that, he knew, made his decision to come here all the more unusual. Yet it was, perhaps, a feeling of community he sought this night – of all nights – the spirit of continuity and certainty he found lacking in an increasingly uncertain world. Yet even with this vague feeling lurking in the shadows, he knew these needs would most certainly remain unmet.

The place was almost empty, though it was Christmas Eve, and while it was a weeknight the nave was starkly barren, and he thought about the spirit of community – and how that fabric had been ripped asunder over the past ten years. And now, with events in Israel spiraling out of control, had faith finally given way to despair?

Still, there were a few people under the transept, perhaps tourists like himself, though there was an organist practicing somewhere, and the air inside the vast space rumbled and pealed as disjointed chords burst forth in thunderous waves – like breaking waves of chromatic dissonance – flooding the ancient space with soul-jarring contradiction.

But walking down the central aisle amidst these concussive refrains, he was suddenly overcome by a sense of the familiar, a feeling that was at once as comforting as it was confusing. He stopped at a pause in the music, looked at the massive columns and timeworn pews, then he felt a dizzying shimmer, an electric pulse rippling through the air, and he watched as lights inside the cathedral flickered – then went out. He ducked – instinctively, perhaps – then noticed the temperature inside the cathedral had plummeted and that it was now very cold – in an instant so cold vapor slipped past his clinched teeth – when the breath he’d been holding finally slipped past his lips.

Light, pale light returned, and he noticed people – the people he’d just seen gathered under the transept – were gone. Indeed, all that remained now was a bitter cold that felt – completely unfamiliar.

And yet – the music remained, only now the sharp, penetrating notes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number Three danced in the air – and it was soon apparent the organist was a master. Suddenly drawn to the music, he walked through the choir to the organ, and he stood watching in awe as the organist, an overweight, middle-aged man, flew through the piece without a single sheet of music in view. The organist and his instrument were as one, and the man suddenly felt the organist was none other than Bach himself. Looking at the man he smiled, felt he was observing some sort of play from backstage, for whatever else might be happening – the organist was certainly dressed for the part!

And it was then, too, that he noticed the organist was playing by candlelight. Indeed, looking around the inside of the cathedral he observed that the only light came from hundreds of flickering candles, and that the air had grown brutally cold.

He turned, suddenly quite afraid, and hurried back through the choir and down the central aisle to the entry, and he pushed the massive doors open as far as he could – but he was pushing against heavy snow now, and as he pushed his way outside he saw deep snow everywhere he looked, a vast expanse of pristine, knee deep snow – and huge, fat white flakes falling at an impossible rate. He looked across the plaza toward the Getreidegasse and saw not one street light burning, not one open shop, and feeling an edge of inrushing panic he trudged off through the snow, hoping to make his way back to the hotel while he still could.

He’d never, ever in his life felt air this cold, and after only a few yards he struggled against the weight of the snow, and the sudden force of unexpected wind – a roaring gale that seemed to suck the air from his lungs. He paused to catch his breath and could just hear the last refrains of Bach’s concerto dying in the wind, and he turned, looked back toward the cathedral hovering over the snow-covered plaza. The same shimmering air he’d seen inside the cathedral filled the plaza, a vast blue aurora pulsing with unseen life, then a vertiginous sensation fell over him. The aurora enveloped him and he felt something grab him by the throat and push him to the ground;  he tried to fight the feeling, to lift his face from the howling snow, but then his face was pushed down again, down into suffocating stillness, and howling darkness came for him.

The shimmering halo seemed to wrap itself around him, and he felt for a moment that he was falling – up! Something had him and was pulling him – where?

And in the next instant he was standing before a shop window – it looked to be an art gallery because the only thing in view was a single, ornately framed painting behind a huge window. The only light in the universe seemed to come from an intense light shining on the painting, and he turned, looked around this universe but all he could see was inky blackness, a deep still that enveloped everything beyond the confined gallery window. The vertiginous effect was complete now, and nausea wracked his body as he fought to make sense of this place.

Yet worst of all he realized his hands were bitterly cold, painfully so, and he looked at his clinched fists with sudden concern. His fingers were white, almost frostbitten, and there was snow and ice coating the tops of his hands, yet in that instant, inexplicably he realized the air was impossibly hot now. He looked at his hands again and saw ice melting from them, yet he noticed there was still thick snow tucked into the cuffs of his trousers. Still, he couldn’t see the street, or anything at all beneath his feet for that matter, only the same inky blackness that surrounded the gallery window, and he reached out to steady himself.

He wanted to turn and run, but then the thought struck him – there was nowhere to run “to” – for it was almost as if his body was adrift in deep space. The feeling of vertigo grew overwhelming again, enveloping him completely, and bile-tinged panic gripped his heart as he felt his stomach tumble away in the dark.

He turned, looked at the painting in the window, regained some semblance of place and forced himself to calm down, to breathe slowly, deeply. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them next he saw a star reflected in the window, or what he took for a star, but when he turned to look at it there was something wrong. It, whatever “it” was, was moving, and quickly, too.

It was, he saw, moving towards him.

He instinctively shut his eyes, if for no other reason than to shut out this impossible world, then sudden understanding came for him. He was asleep. He had never left his hotel room, and this was all a dream – a hideous dream – a world inverted – on itself.

He opened his eyes, willed himself to wake, only now the star was very close, yet the air around him was still preternaturally quiet and inky black.

He blinked, tried to shut this world out, to center his eyes and mind. “Wake up, Goddamnit” he shouted at the sight – his hands clasped – unconsciously, perhaps –  under his face.

As if in prayer, he realized.

The star, a pulsing blue-white sphere, settled in his hands, and he watched sunspots on it’s face and coronal loops erupting from it’s surface and, totally confused now, he turned to the painting in the window and looked at the image as it blazed away in the intense light, then – with a start – he saw the organist from the cathedral – standing beside him now – and he too was looking intently at the painting in the window.

“Interesting, don’t you think?” the organist said – out of the blue.

“What?” The man turned and looked at the organist; the musician, for that was what he must be, was dressed in knickers and still had on the long top-coat he’d worn in the cathedral. And his hair was, what? A wig? A powdered wig?

“It’s an interesting painting, don’t you think? But – do you remember that day?”

“What?” the man stammered.

“Do you remember,” the man said, pointing at the painting, “that morning? The old woman with the easel?”

“Remember? Remember what?”

“Look at it, would you? Tell me what you see?”

He looked. Again, and for the first time. A boat, a sailboat, lay at anchor in a picturesque harbor. A small harbor, one along the Mediterranean, perhaps in Italy. The boat’s name was just barely legible in the light: Springer. There was a man standing on the back of the boat – with a dog by his side, looking down into the water. Looking down at – what? A dolphin?

“So? Do you remember that day?”

The man stared at the scene yet he felt nothing, no memory came to mind. “No. Why should I?”

“Ah. Well…it was a thought.”

The man turned and looked at the organist, saw two scars under the man’s right eye, but then the organist’s form shimmered in the air, began to fade…

“Who are you – and why am I here?”

The organist laughed, kindly in his way, yet there was a hint of sadness in his eyes. “You may call me – Johann, if that suits you, and perhaps, when next we meet…” the wavering shape sighed as it faded away, back into the shimmering sphere.

Yet the man saw the faint outlines of an odd smile afloat in the pulsing air, and then all was black, even the painting in the gallery window faded from view, and he felt himself falling, falling…down through clouds to an earth far below. For a moment he thought he saw an airplane, an old airplane, soaring inverted over an amusement park, a park shimmering in vibrant light, full of life – then he saw the same gouts of flame, the molten walls of lava he’d dreamed of earlier…

He was conscious of laying in bed, that he was in the hotel, aware of sweat forming on his neck and running down his back, then he saw his jacket, draped over a chair by the window, while his shoes and trousers lay in a discarded heap on the floor just outside the bathroom.

“Damn, that was the worst nightmare I’ve ever had in my life,” he said as he pulled himself up from the bed. He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and saw the last remnants of snow melting inside the cuffs of his trousers. He staggered under the weight of his many illusions and fell to his knees, and in the next instant he saw men crawling in the window, assault rifles in hand, laser beams zeroing in on his chest…

Then there was thunder and lightning, and he felt the world spinning.

Like he had been pulled inside a tornado, spinning violently as walls of light came for him, then he was adrift on a sunless sea – crying – praying – wondering what had happened to the earth.

+++++

The Massachusetts Bay Colony, New England

Yesterday

The girl walked along the seashore collecting driftwood to use for their evening fire, though she stopped to pick up seashells from time to time, or the odd, brightly colored stone she happened upon. While not quite bored, this was a chore she took upon herself several times a week, and the routine wore on her. Her’s was an important task, however, for her brothers rarely had time to spend gathering wood after a long day working the fields, or worse still, hunting in the woods west of the colony. There were bears about – now that autumn was at hand – and there had been reports of wolves taking livestock south of the colony, near William Bradford’s plantation.

Of even greater concern? The local “natives” – for what had once been a strained, if somewhat cordial coexistence had after only a few years fractured as colonists – like her brothers – encroached on the native’s territory and had openly, if not brazenly taken game from their land. Though open hostilities were rare, colonists spent most of the summer reinforcing the colony’s outer fortifications, and a few of the “Indians” she had run across on her beachside gatherings had treated her with cool reserve. Still, despite the language barrier she had made more than a few friends in several nearby villages, and she liked, for the most part, the native women she had met.

Yet even so, she counted “Indians” – along with the dangerous indigenous wildlife one could happen upon at any time – among the things she cast a wary eye for. Her brothers had taught her to trust little in this dangerous New World, and it was a lesson she had grown to appreciate after listening to other colonist’s stories.

From time to time whales visited the inner bay, and on hearing the unmistakable sound of a whale broaching, then clearing water from it’s blow-hole, she looked up from her chores and turned to see what she guessed was a mother and calf swimming along just off the rocky beach. The girl stood, transfixed, for she had never seen a pair so close to shore; indeed, she felt a mad, impulsive desire to rush out into the water and swim with them.

As if reading her mind, the mother turned away from the beach and disappeared beneath the surface; her calf dutifully turned and followed, and the girl looked after them wistfully for a time, before turning her attention back to gathering bits of wood.

And it was just then that she heard a rustling in the tall grass that lined the beach, and she froze, looked intently for the source of the sound. Turning her head just so, she picked up the noise again, only she realized the sound was a lot closer than she’d previously supposed. Now she wondered how long it would be before this thing revealed itself.

She did not have long to wait.

Not so very far away, perhaps ten feet, maybe a little more, a smooth, bronze haired catamount slipped quietly from the grass and onto the beach, turning it’s head away from the girl, and then – after a moment – directly at her.

The cat seemed to stop breathing, then lowered it’s head a bit as it stared at the girl.

The girl knew the outermost ramparts of the colony’s protective wall were almost a mile away, certainly too far to offer any protection now, and as suddenly she knew her life was over. It was as if all decisions concerning the time and place of her death had just been resolved, and now there was nothing left to do but calmly wait for life to unfold as it was meant.

The cat turned – and began walking her way.

And it was then that she noticed an arrow sticking out of the cat’s right flank, and that the animal appeared quite ill. The cat walked almost as if it was taken with too much drink: it wobbled, she saw, unsteadily her way, and as the cat drew near she sensed that the animal was in a deeply fevered pain.

She knelt on the beach and held out her hands – as if to show the animal she posed no threat – but as the cat drew near it simply collapsed onto the sand by her feet. She moved slowly to it’s side, leaned over and stroked the cat’s head, felt it’s nose. Hot and dry, so hot in fact the flesh seemed to be afire.

Then she looked at the arrow.

It had penetrated the cat’s rear leg on the right side and gone all the way through, leaving the arrowhead to repeatedly slash against the flesh inside the cat’s left leg. Both wounds were maggot-ridden and filthy and, she assumed from the look of them, very badly poxed. The only thing she could think to do was wash the cat’s wounds, try to get the arrow out. She stood and turned to the sea, then stumbled backwards in shock.

The whale – the mother, she assumed – had returned and was now impossibly close to the beach, but it was the whale’s small, brown eyes that gripped her heart. Their was a penetrating directness in the animal’s gaze that disoriented the girl, and for a moment she feared she was, in some obscure way, being judged. She could make out deep scars on the whale’s side – two of them just beneath one of it’s eyes – and wondered for a moment if she, too, had been hurt.

Without really thinking, she walked slowly to the water’s edge and cupped water in her hands, then walked back to the cat and rinsed it’s weeping wounds. She returned to the water again and again, until she was satisfied all the dirt and pus were gone and that the wounds were running clear, then she turned to the arrow’s shaft.

When she touched the shaft the cat flinched, opened it’s eyes and looked at her, yet the animal seemed too weak to do more than lift it’s head. Without hesitating, she broke the shaft above the wound and pulled it through the leg, and a fresh torrent of molten black blood ran from the freshly opened wound, spreading out onto the sand. The girl dashed back to the sea and ferried more water to rinse the wounds, then she removed a kerchief from her neck and tied it around the cat’s leg, staunching the renewed flow.

Only then did she turn to look back at the whale, but it was…gone. There was no sign of it at all, either close to the beach or further away, out to sea, and she found herself wondering if she had ever really seen it. Perhaps, she thought, this had all been a dream.

Then as suddenly she heard music, and turning back to the cat she found herself almost face to face with the beast. It was standing now, and eyeing her curiously, but then it’s head turned and she sniffed the kerchief around it’s leg, then she came closer still and sniffed the girl’s hair. The cat circled her once, then again, rubbing up against the girl roughly as it paced, and just as suddenly the animal walked off slowly into the grass, stopping only once to look back at the girl.

Again, she felt as though she was being judged, asked to follow, and the feeling unnerved her…but then there was that music. It was strange, whatever this music was, totally unfamiliar in form, but whatever else it may have been, what she heard was certainly music…but out here? Who could be out here, so far from the colony? Walking along the shore – following her, perhaps? But now, coming from the grass? Was someone hiding from her? What kind of danger was this?

All she was certain of now was that the music was coming from deep within the grassy field next to the rocky beach, the field where wild strawberries grew in summer, yet now it appeared the cat was walking directly towards whoever was out there.

Without thinking she knew she had to warn whoever it was, so she took off through the grass, then realized she was following the big cat’s trail.

The cat’s prints came to an abrupt end, and there she found a man sitting on a blanket. He was sitting with his knees crossed, leaning over a stringed instrument of some sort, and she realized he appeared gaunt, almost emaciated. As she looked at him he played and sang, yet the most conspicuous thing about him was the small, round spectacles he was wearing, for they were tinted a very deep blue, and she had never in her life seen anything even remotely like them. And his hair – so straight and long, and she couldn’t recall ever seeing a man with hair so long.

The man was playing the stringed instrument he cradled gently in his lap, singing about pools of sorrow and waves of joy and images of broken light and none of it made any sense to her…but suddenly – like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky – everything the man sang made perfect sense – and with this realization came the feeling, startlingly clear in sudden intensity, that she had seen and heard it all before…the whale…the cat…and this man singing about something called the universe. She watched him and felt her life dissolving as unseen layers of time drifted by – then everything was spinning in shimmering air.

Thoroughly disoriented, she sat down not far from the man and listened to his music, yet he never once looked up as he played. He seemed, in fact, oblivious to his surroundings, almost as if he wasn’t really there beside her. Then he stopped playing and looked up at the sky, then down again until he was looking directly at the cat.

“Is that your cat?” he asked.

“What?”

“The cat, there. Is that your bloomin’ cat?”

She turned, saw the lion sitting on the ground behind her, contentedly licking a paw while it looked at the man.

“Uh, no, I thought he must be yours…”

“That’s a fookin’ big cat.”

“It’s hurt.”

“It doesn’t look fookin’ hurt, Eleanor Rigby. It looks bleedin’ hungry…”

“Eleanor? My name’s not…”

“Oh, I know, girlie. Just an expression.” He looked around the grass, looked perplexed as if these were not his expected surroundings. “Where am…where is this?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t ask if I knew, ya know?”

“Did you walk up from Plymouth?”

“Plymouth?” he sighed – as if not sure what she was talking about. “No, I don’t think so…”

“Oh? Where did you come from?”

The man looked around these strawberry fields again, then at the huge cat, then down at his hands and the instrument in his lap. “I’m not…I can’t remember…”

“Well, this is the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Plymouth is down that way,” she said, pointing roughly to the southeast. “Didn’t you come from there? Or are you lost?”

“Lost?” Again, the dead tone in his voice defined the moment, then he looked down at the instrument in his lap and began playing again.

“Nothin’s gonna change my world, girlie,” he sang, but now he sang in that same flat affect, and with that he abruptly stopped. “You been to the carnival yet?”

“The what?”

“The carnival. You must be from the carnival.”

“I’m not sure what that is,” she said. “Where is it?”

He looked around the field again, only now he looked very confused – confused, she saw, almost to the point of tears.

“What the fook!” he screamed suddenly – and he recoiled as if from a massive, unseen blow. It was as if he’d seen something fearful, that something quite painful and unexpected had just happened.

“What is it?” she cried out, but the man’s form began to shimmer in the afternoon air, turning first bright silver, then brighter and brighter blue. She saw blood erupting on the man’s shirt, a very confused look on his face, then stark fear in his eyes as his form turned to pure light.

She turned away from the sight, shielded her eyes as she tried to look at him, but then she realized he was gone.

Still shielding her eyes, she turned and saw the cat was still there, yawning now – as if bored – though the animal was still looking at her. It rolled over on the grass and presented it’s belly to her, and without thinking she began rubbing the cat’s belly – and noticed all the wounds she had cleansed were healed. She looked into the animal’s eyes, searching, trying to remember something vital.

Yet she felt kindness reaching for her, something compassionate in the animal’s eyes, and once again that feeling of familiarity, and judgement. Shaking her head she stood – and the cat stood too – then the cat leaned into her as it sniffed her clothing, then her hair.

She heard someone calling her name. A familiar voice – distant, growing close. She turned toward the ramparts and saw her brother, and several more colonists following him, coming for her.

She looked at the cat, saw it looking at the people, then she saw the cat look into her eyes again, before it settled into a slow trot and ambled off through the grass.

Her brother arrived seconds later.

“Was that a lion?” he cried, pointing to the grass as he gasped for air, as he struggled to catch his breath.

“A lion? Are you serious? Good Lord, no!”

He leaned over, struggling to breathe. “What the devil is that!” he gasped out, pointing at the grass behind her.

She turned, looked at the ground, saw a spreading stain of blood there – then she jumped backwards, slamming into her brother, almost knocking him down. “I don’t know,” she said, her voice now dripping with uncertainty. “I – don’t – know.”

Her brother stood upright and looked around the field. “I know I saw a catamount,” he said, still breathing hard. “It must have killed a deer – right here. Maybe you came along – scared it. Dragged it away – into the woods. We’d better – get out of here.”

The other colonists were gathering ‘round now, and they saw the blood, heard her brother talking about having seen a big cat – and that was enough for them. “Let’s get out of here,” one of them said, and there was a general assent to that proposition.

She turned to look after the cat again, but there was no sign of it at all so she turned and looked out to sea. Nothing. Nothing – anywhere.

“I’ve got to fetch my wood,” she said.

“Alright then. Let’s go.”

It was a long walk back to the colony, and a very cold wind fell in from the north woods, yet she heard the man’s music as she walked along, saw him in her mind’s eye.

What had changed his world, she wondered, and why was he bleeding so?

+++++

Part II By Lifting Winds Forgot 

Where all that we see, or seem, is but a dream within a dream…

[Log entry from the SailingVessel Gemini: 4 October, 1230 hrs GMT, Tuesday afternoon. 

COG:67degreesMag <.1varE;

SOG:5.4kts; 

Temp: 49F;

Winds:NNW at 12kts; 

Barometer 29.55 falling; 

GPS: N50.34.37 W1.04.57.

Passing Ventnor, Isle of Wight, 4.3nmi/330magnetic; now approx 43 nmi to Brighton breakwater, 124 nmi from Exmouth departure. Winds steady@10-12 past three hours, storms building SSW, radar track shows moving in at 20+knots, expect to get hit mid afternoon. Staying close to shore to keep out of channel shipping lanes, traffic into/out of Southhampton/Portsmouth heavy, lots of radar buoys too, good as viz is down to about 5nmi in mod. haze.]

He looked at the sky, at the building storm, at all the telltale signs along the western horizon, and he decided to shorten sail as he closed the coast. He was tired now, tired after so many days at sea, and he was worried about the staysail, about the loose stitching he had found earlier that morning. Too much wind and it might fail – just when he needed it most – so he reeled it in, the genoa too. He looked at the clouds and decided to reef the main, then he walked around the deck and tidied up the little ships lines.

He stood once and looked into the sea – wondered if she was still there.

Oh, how he missed them.

+++++

Hers had been a busy morning, gray and damp, busier still as there was a hint of autumn in the air. Her feet hurt with the passing of summer’s warmth, the arthritis in her left wrist bothered her even more than usual for this time of year. And she was tired, too. Tired of it all. She liked to say everything about her life was tired – on those rare occasions when she was in any kind of mood to talk at all, but today felt like one of those mornings when the best thing to do would have been to pull the covers up over her head and go back to sleep. She could hide from the world in her dreams, and sometimes she could even hide from her life – inside those gay little snippets of what might have been. Hide – for a little while, anyway.

She was still an enigma to the few who knew her well enough to see through her moods. Outwardly at least, she was regarded as a warm, caring and indeed, a compassionate soul; as a result her customers were a devoted lot. Never was she seen in the café without her famous, broad and caring smile; never was she without an encouraging word to anyone who came her way with a careworn brow. Men and women young and old stopped by her shop for their morning tea, her freshly baked scones and Devonshire cream, and though they had for decades most would have been hard pressed to think of a reason why – beyond dropping by for their morning dose of that comfortable, all-knowing smile.

Her little shop was off the King’s Road in Brighton, not far from the pier, and she lived in a little white flat just up the hill, not far from the Tay Memorial. Her name was Deborah, Deborah Hill, and she was fast approaching fifty – which was why there was more white in her pale red hair than she cared for. Her eyes were a blue much deeper than the sky; no, her’s were the color of the sea in twilight, just before day surrenders to the night. She was a tall woman, too, and in her youth she had been considered strikingly beautiful, and most men of a certain age still considered her gorgeous.

And once upon a time that beauty had given her a certain freedom, the license to run with fast crowds in London, back in the punk 80s. Backstage at concerts or on the front rows of ‘the scene’ – wherever her charms carried her, really – she was always just along for the ride, yet somehow the life of the party. And she’d met ‘him’ at one of those concerts, and at the concerts that followed. Steve was his name, a guitar player for one of those ‘super-groups’ that popped up regularly back in the day. He was a god, or so ‘they’ said, but he fell for her too – for a while, anyway, because he was one of the first to realize that her beauty was not simply skin-deep. She traveled with the group for a few months, he bought a flat for her in Brighton and she settled into what passed for domestic bliss, in those days, anyway.

And she was pregnant. A little girl, born with a serious neural tube defect, a little girl who lived seven days. Steve was gone a lot after that, then she heard he was with someone else and had moved on. She liked Brighton, the splashy aura of a sunny seaside resort, then her mum died, left her a small inheritance and she bought the tea shop – and inertia took over after that. Her life ran it’s course, ran away from her, and she did her best to hide from the despair – but the pain always came back to her – even if he never did.

She’d taken stock of her life one day – one day after they released her – and she’d found her time hollow – useless and empty. But oh, how the inertia of her life kept playing games with her, pulling her along in all it’s uncertain gravity. She took on help at the shop from time to time, and one girl, a sweet, confused little thing had fallen in love with her. The affair was ultimately more confusing than anything else, but it had been so sweet while it lasted. There was for a time someone who cared for her, someone who listened when she talked – and then, after? Only the silence of broken dreams called her name these days, and one day she’d realized that’s all there was, all there’d ever be.

These days she took her evening walk around Lewes Circle and Sussex Square, and she walked alone, always alone. As night fell she liked to look in windows of the houses she passed, at the warm lamplight and people inside gathered ‘round sharing their day, and she wondered about the lives playing out inside those warm, honeyed rooms. About all the smiling men and happy women and their contented children – and she could ignore the contours of her life, the cherished glowing smiles she never shared.

One evening she watched a little girl playing the piano, and something about the scene touched her. “That should have been me,” she told the gathering darkness, and that was indeed how she saw herself in that moment. That something had come undone, a contract, perhaps.

“This is all wrong,” she said to a passing shadow. “I shouldn’t be here, not like this…”

So she was tired now, her feet hurt so badly she decided to close up shop early that afternoon. The pain, the burning in her feet, just wouldn’t let up, and then she’d bumped her wrist in the pantry and that pain had joined the other and all had grown intrusive. She walked home and soaked her feet in salts, then she dropped off in a chair and dozed a bit, wanting this day to be over, to just be done. Finally and utterly alone at last, she thought. The night couldn’t be so bad, could it?

She opened her eyes, looked around the flat, at the images of broken dreams on the wall, the emptiness she felt there a simple repudiation of everything she’d ever hoped for, and she sighed – nothing had turned out as she’d once dreamed, nothing was going to change her world.

“Yes,” she said then, to the four walls, “I am tired of all this. Of everything.” Such a simple realization, she sighed – wonderingly. Because no, she really didn’t need to carry-on any longer. The choice was hers, after all was said and done, wasn’t it?

And so she chose.

She bathed, changed clothes and got ready for her evening walk, though because it was much earlier than usual it was still light out. In fact, the sun was still high in the afternoon sky, her sky a cotton candy parade of low, fluffy white clouds scudding in from the sea. A good day to walk out to the cliffs, she thought. Yes, she really didn’t have a care in the world anymore, did she? And the view was so lovely out there…the sea and the promise of night.

So, she left the flat and walked east, past the marina, then up to the trail that flanked the cliff’s edge just past all the little boats. She enjoyed, as she always did, the feel of the wind in her hair, the sun on the back of her neck, and even the sound of gravel beneath her feet played along to the music of her growing resolve. She hadn’t felt so free in ages, and as she came to a pair of benches she’d always liked she felt an overwhelming peace. She walked close to the edge, looked down at people walking on the Undercliff Walk and she hesitated. She didn’t want to ruin their day, not this way.

She turned and walked back to the closest bench and sat, looked to the sun still a few hands above the horizon. She hadn’t thought it would be this hard, this letting go, this setting free…then she looked out to sea…at the wind and the waves…the gulls wheeling in the air behind a fishing boat. To be free as a bird, she thought.

“Whatever happened to the life we knew…no, no…that’s not it…”

She heard his voice, at once so familiar – yet so distant. Music in the air now, faraway, looming like a train in the night, like a steam calliope playing the notes of a dream.

“…that we once knew. That’s it, that’s – better.”

She turned, saw him sitting on a broad tuft of grass, clear as the light of day, as free as a bird. He was leaning over his guitar, writing words in a book, then playing another string of notes. He looked up at the sun and the clouds and the birds, then he turned and…looked at her.

“Hello,” John Lennon said. “Do I know you?”

She stared at him, then shook her head. “No. We never met.”

“Are you going to jump?”

“But…what…are you doing here. You’re…”

“Dead? Yeah, well, nobody’s perfect. So, why do you want to jump?”

She shrugged, looked away. “I’m tired.”

“Tired? Really?”

“Tired of being alone. Tired of cooking for myself, of going to the cinema by myself, of sitting in a restaurant at a table for two, women looking at me, laughing when they look at me – by myself, while they gloat.”

“So? Don’t be alone.”

“Easier said than done…John…”

“What’d you call me?”

“John. What do you mean…you don’t know who you are?”

He shook his head. “No, not really.”

“That song you’re working on? I liked it.”

“Did you?”

“Yeah, ‘where did we lose the touch…’ I really related to that when it came out, sad as it was to realize we…”

He looked away, pointing out to sea. “That’s a hell of a metaphor, don’t you think?”

“What? The channel? I don’t know. I suppose it is.”

“It’s like that, you know?”

“What? Death…?”

“You never know who’s coming along. Who’s going to come whistling through your life. But it’s not the crap-shoot you think it is, ya know?” He bent over his guitar, fingered a G-major chord and found his way through a new passage. “Doesn’t sound quite right – does it now?”

She shook her head again. “No. Why are you here?”

He laughed as he looked up at her. “Wish I knew.” He cocked his head to one side. “Do you hear that?”

She listened, felt the faintest traces of carnival music in the air. “I think so?”

“Was at a carnival…last night maybe. Jennifer. She was there for a while.”

“Jennifer?”

“Sumner. I think there’s someone named Sumner – looking for you.”

“What? I don’t know anyone…”

“Oh yeah, luv. He’s coming,” but he had bent over his guitar again, his head rocking slowly from side to side. “I was lost once, you know. Me and the mates, out in Hollywood. For years, I think, but I found my way back. Then it all disappeared, like in a flash…”

“I know. We cried, we all cried.”

“Then there was this cat, this monstrous, fookin’ huge cat. And Jennifer was there.”

“I’m sorry…I don’t understand…”

He lifted his head once again, looked down the trail to the east. “Well, luv, tomorrow never knows…but the choice is yours. You can be free as a bird, if that’s what you really want, but it’s all coming together for you right now. I’d think twice about it, ya know.”

She felt a breeze pick up from seaward, turned and saw a sailboat making for the curved breakwater, then she turned back to him again. She saw the tuft of grass, she saw the grass had been pressed down where he sat – and there was a guitar pick laying on the grass – but Lennon was gone.

She stood, shook her head, looked east down the trail – but she saw…nothing. She stared ahead, looked at the abyss, at the edge – at the dividing line between the living and the dead – and she wondered what had just happened. She wondered what had happened to her life, to the joy she had once called her own.

“It’s all gone now,” she heard the voice inside her head say, and suddenly she was subsumed within images of loneliness – drifting among the most painful moments of her life. Always “alone, alone, alone…” No, her life was over now, gone, like images of better days in her mind had all been a mirage. Memory taunted her now, daring her to go on…

She turned and walked to the edge again, looked down at the paved walk below, then she looked up, out to sea, ready to take the next step…when she saw a massive wall of cloud rushing in towards the shore. The sailboat, she saw, was about to get pummeled, beaten in it’s race to make the breakwater, still a half mile away.

She watched as the wall of rain and wind hit the boat, and as the boat leaned sharply away, as the man behind the wheel struggled to stand and fight his way to shore – and then, the wind hit her.

She was blown off her feet, felt herself rolling backwards – away from the abyss. She tumbled past the benches, over the trail and into the tall grass beyond, gasping at the sudden ferocity of the raging storm. She fought her way up, struggled into the face of the wind and turned away from the rocks below, then made her way to the bench and – there he was again. He’d come back!

Leaning into the wind, his long hair whipping away in the gale, he turned and smiled at her. She smiled too, tried to wave but he let go then, turned his back and ran before the wind. He seemed to dissolve as the storm gathered around her, then she heard the calliope and his voice over the wind, only now he was singing as rain joined their little symphony.

So the last thing she heard was his laughter, only she wasn’t really sure whose laughter was carried away on those galloping calliope winds.

All that remained now was that smile, a smile at once so vague, yet so familiar. She wrapped herself in the feeling, and with his words for company she turned and walked through the storm – for home.

+++++

It was busy the next morning, the morning after the storm. It was busy, and her feet hurt, her wrist too, but she was tired of worrying about all that now. She didn’t quite feel light on her feet, not yet, but she felt a change even so – like when he blew away on the wind he took her cares away. To her loyal customers, she seemed adrift, floating along the currents of a dream that hadn’t ended. To the American who walked in a little before ten that morning, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, the most drop-dead gorgeous, breathtakingly sexy woman in the history of the universe. He sat and waited for her to come to his little table, yet when she made her way there he grew tongue-tied and felt like he was twisted in a ball of tight little knots.

“And what can I get you this morning,” she asked as she watched him stammering his way through the menu above the counter…

“I don’t know? Coffee, perhaps?”

She laughed. “This is a tea shop. Bakery goods and teas, sir. No coffee, that I’m aware of anyway.”

“Oh. Well, what do you recommend?”

She looked him over as if taking his measure: “I’d say English breakfast, perhaps two walnut orange scones, with clotted cream?”

“Clotted cream?”

“Like butter, only better.”

“Well, sounds good to me.” He had a local paper in hand and turned to it while she retreated to her little kitchen. He opened the ‘Classifieds’ and began reading through, circling an item of interest, noting telephone number…

…then she was there again, by the table, a tray in her hands.

“By any chance, do you know where Ovingdean is?” he asked, still focused on his paper.

“I do. Perhaps you’d like some tea first.”

He looked up, jerked with a start. “Oh, excuse me…” he said as he folded the paper and shuffled it aside. “I’m still trying to get my bearings today…”

She smiled, put the little teapot on the table, then a cup and saucer. “I’ll be back with your scones in a moment,” and this time he watched her go, admiring her form as she walked. He noticed the way people looked at him then, the very proprietary way they seemed to regard her, and he filed that away as he watched her coming back with another plate.

“So, Ovingdean?” she said. “How familiar are you with the area?”

“Not at all. Just got in yesterday.”

“Like to walk? Or will you need a taxi?”

“How far away is it – from the marina?”

“You’re…at the marina? When did you say you arrived?”

“Yesterday afternoon,” he said warily, uneasily. “Why?”

“Did you get caught out in the storm?”

“Yup, just about made it in, but it nailed me about a half mile out. I thought I had enough speed to beat it, but life’s like that, I guess.”

“What? What do you mean…”

“Oh, you know. You can’t outrun some things, it’s like you’re one or two steps behind…that kind of thing, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” she said, frowning.

“So?” he asked, as he watched the moods on her face drift by.

“Pardon?”

“How far? From the marina?”

“Ah. Not much more than a mile, depending on the address.”

“Excuse me for asking, but are you alright? You look a bit, I don’t know – kind of airy?”

“Airy?” she chuckled. “What on earth does that mean?”

“Like you’re up there,” he said, pointing skyward, “up there in the clouds. You know? Free as a bird?”

“What’s your name?” she stammered, his words out of the blue, striking a vital chord.

“Sumner, Sumner Collins…”

She staggered under the weight of his words, stumbled away from the stream of echoes that came for her, but he was out of his seat in a flash and caught her before she fell. Her anointed guardians rushed to her side in that moment, pushing him aside and gathering her up, helping her to a chair by the entry – all cooing tunes of solicitous concern – all standing around her like sentinels warding off evil spirits.

Collins looked at the scene like the interloper he suddenly felt he was; he pulled out a few pound notes and tossed them on the table then slipped out the side door, grateful for the fresh autumn air that cooled his suddenly sweating brow.

He walked east along the Marine Parade, past the Brighton Wheel until he came to a bus stop, and there he looked at the schedule. He sat on a bench in the covered shelter and wondered what the devil had just happened, why she seemed to know him. A bus came along and he rode out to the marina in silence; he hopped off at his stop and walked down the drive, through the massive car park out to the office, then further on, out to his slip in the marina. He went below and changed into shorts and sneakers, then went on deck and hooked up a hose dockside and began re-washing layers of accumulated salt and spray off the hull and deck. He rinsed and dried the deck hardware, then pulled the sails off their furlers and sprayed them down, looked over the troublesome stitching on the staysail and reef points on his mainsail, them laid them all out to dry.

He noticed his stomach rumbling, remembered he’d walked out on breakfast, looked over at a restaurant on the west side of the marina and shrugged.

“Well, it’s either that or another granola bar,” he sighed while he reeled in the nylon hose. The granola bar won, and he quaffed two bottles of water while he looked for his Tilley Hat, then with newspaper in hand he walked up to the marina office, looking for directions. He walked back up to what he hoped was the correct bus stop, and he caught what he hoped was the correct bus and rode out to Ovingdean. It was only a short walk after that, and he came to a farm house with a sign out front…

“Puppies for sale” – he read, and he smiled.

He walked down the drive and came to the house, and a young woman was waiting there as he walked up to the front door.

“Mr Collins, is it?”

“Gosh, I sure hope so. Mrs Lethbridge? If not, I’ve made a long walk for nothing…”

She laughed. “Well, we have three girls left. You wanted a girl, I think you said?”

“Yup. I’ve had better luck with ‘em over the years. High strung, but loyal.”

“Oh, so you’ve had Springers before?”

“My mom and dad were nuts about them, and I think they must’ve passed the gene on to me. I’ve only had one of my own so far, though.”

“I understand. Well, would you like to go see them?”

“Lead on…can’t wait!”

He followed the woman out to a small barn, and a very possessive female Springer met him and started sniffing his legs, then his hands and, having passed that test, was allowed into the barn.

“Litters always smell the same,” he said as he looked down into the whelping stall. The pups looked like little brown and white balls of fluff, half of them asleep, the other half, the alpha half, trying to annihilate anyone challenging their ascendency to the top of the pecking order. “They even growl the same…”

“You’ve had litters before?”

“My parent, several times. My wife and I wanted to, but…”

“She passed?”

“A few years ago.”

She nodded, looked at him anew. “So, you’ll be taking her back to America?”

“In time. I sailed over, arrived in Cork about three weeks ago, then crossed to Exeter. I’m going to stay here a few weeks, rest and get some work done on the boat, then I think I’ll winter over in Paris, before heading south to the Med.”

“Really? That sounds a bit like heaven. I wish Rod was about; he’d die to talk boats. I think if he could he’d sell the farm and buy a boat tomorrow, do just what you’re doing…”

“Well, please tell him he’s welcome to come down to the marina, anytime at all. I’ll show him around…”

She turned away from him abruptly. “So, the three females still available are over in this pen,” she said as she guided him over, then she opened the gate, let him in and watched what happened.

His eye had fixed on one immediately, the little girl who hung back a bit; that one watched him closely while the other two stumbled all over themselves to get to his shoes and tear into his laces. The loner just looked him in the eye for a minute, then, when the other two had exhausted their attention span she walked over and sat down in front of him.

He squatted and picked her up, brought her gently to his face while he was still close to the ground, keeping her calm, keeping her eyes in his. She continued to stare at him for a few more minutes, then she licked his chin. He kissed her on the nose, felt her ear canals a bit as he stood, keeping her eyes focused, earning her trust, then he turned to Lethbridge.

“She’s the one.”

“I can tell. It’s always love at first sight, isn’t it?”

“Always. Her eyes are clear and her ear canals are big enough, and her hips and knees look sound. Besides, she’s smart.”

“You’re quick. Yes, she was my pick too, but Rod wouldn’t let me keep another.”

“How many do you have?”

“Four, I think, but that’s a flexible number. One of the boys is a bit too alpha, always off exploring somewhere.”

“Been there, done that. Never again. Got to get trust that first day or they turn into runners.”

“That’s the problem when you keep one from your own litter. Those first few days they learn your weaknesses. What will you name her?”

“Charley.”

She stared at him.

“Sorry. It’s a Steinbeck thing?”

“The writer? Oh yes…Travels with Charley. I recall now.”

“Yup.”

“Well, we have a little paperwork to get through, and all the veterinary documentation you’ll need for export.”

“Going to France, so EU paperwork is all I need for now.”

They went inside and took care of the necessaries, and she gave him a small bag of the pups food. He gave her his phone and dock information and told them to come down in the next few days.

“Might I call you a taxi?”

“Nope, I came out on the bus, but I think I could walk back faster than that.”

“Well, if you walk down Greenway to the highway, there’s a stair down to the beach from there. But I like walking along the bluff. The view, the breezes…it’s much nicer from there.”

He had a little puppy papoose in his daypack, and it clipped to the shoulder straps. He slipped Charley inside, her inquisitive little face poking out, then they walked, the three of them, out the house and down the driveway.

“Well, a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “And please, do feel free to come down to the marina.”

“I’ll tell Rod, but I’m sure he’ll be down this evening!”

“Okay,” he said with a grin. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He took off down Greenway until he came to the roundabout; there he looked around until he found the pedestrian tunnel she’d mantioned – and he crossed under the highway, with Charley looking around at her new world all the time now. And to him it just felt so good, this being out in the grassy air on foot! He felt so good he wanted to sing out loud – even when he saw the sea…again.

He and Charley had left the British Virgins in June, and battled unseasonably warm weather all the way to Hamilton, Bermuda. Hurricanes were already lining up off Africa – a big one veering dangerously north – so he cast off after taking on fuel and water and a few fresh items from the nearest grocery, and sailed almost due north – until he was in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Any further north and he knew he’d be in the region of drifting icebergs, and sailing alone now he had no desire to test those limits.

Sailing alone…had been tough after Charley passed…and that’s why he’d hit the ‘net and started looking for a pup as soon as he landed in Exeter. This ‘new’ Charley had the same spirit in her eyes, and he was hopeful after just a few minutes that she would measure up, and at least he’d have a few weeks to get her acclimated to life onboard before crossing the channel to Honfleur.

Walking along the cliff trail was all the Lethbridge woman said it would be. Great view, calming breezes – so he decided to walk along past the marina, then backtrack from town. There were, naturally, teens on skateboards and kids on bicycles to contend with, then, as he topped a rise he heard an old Beatles song – Norwegian Wood, wasn’t it? – with someone doing a pretty fair imitation of Lennon’s voice.

“Perfect!” he said to the wind. “What a perfect song for a perfect day!”

He walked along in love with life, looking down at Charley from time to time, looking at her looking up at him, smelling her puppy breath, letting her lick his chin as he wondered about the chance encounters between two such disparate souls as theirs. And he knew he was already in love with her…

…when he saw her…

The woman from the restaurant, her red hair streaming away in the breeze. She was standing near the edge of the cliff, the music getting closer too as he drew near, and yet she seemed oblivious to the world as she looked out to sea. She put her hands out to the side like a bird about to take wing, and he felt her tension gather in the air – like a decision made, then fear came to him…

“Hello!” he called out as he started moving quickly her way.

She seemed to hesitate along the knife edge of her decision, then she stepped forward, her right foot drifting out over the void – and he closed the remaining few yards in time to grab her by the collar of her blouse. He pulled her back and they tumbled to the ground, coming to a rest on their backs; he scrambled up and knelt by her side, helped her sit up and come back to the world, yet the woman seemed to have embraced her own death so completely she remained afloat over the abyss, wondering, perhaps, when the pain would start.

Staring blankly ahead now, her eyes detached from the present, her breathing otherworldly and calm, he watched as her hands started shaking, then as tears came for her she turned her ashen eyes to his and came apart.

He did the only thing he could, the first thing that came to mind: he sat beside her and pulled Charley out of the papoose, then thrust the two souls together.

Charley looked at the woman, recognized soul rendering despair and began licking the woman’s face. Tears turned to laughter, laughter into an affirmation of life, and she held the pup to her face, fought her way back to the living.

“And what’s your name, little girl,” he heard her whispering.

“Charley,” he whispered.

“She’s such a love.”

He nodded his understanding. “Yup.”

“How old is she?”

“Eight weeks and a few days. I’ve had her about an hour.”

She looked up at him. “Sumner?” she managed to say when she saw his face.

“That’s right.”

“He told me you were coming.”

“I’m sorry?”

“John. He told me you were coming. Last night, and again, just a few minutes ago.”

He looked around. “John?”

“Didn’t you hear him singing?”

“I heard singing. A friend of yours, is he?”

She shrugged. “He was here last night, and again, just now.”

“Where’d he go?”

She pointed. “He’s right there.”

He turned, looked at Lennon sitting on the grass – he was bent over his guitar, writing words in a little book, and Collins was wondering why he hadn’t helped when he looked up from his book.

Sumner Collins felt like the earth shifted off it’s axis in that wrenching moment.

The long hair, the round glasses…he was looking at John Lennon…dead now almost forty years – yet somehow he hadn’t changed; indeed, he was as alive now as he had been the last time he’s seen him, the last time they’d been together…

Yet as they looked at one another Lennon seemed satisfied and faded from view. Charley hopped down and waddled over to where he’d been sitting, then she sniffed and sniffed, whimpering a bit as she circled the crushed blades of grass.

“He was here yesterday?” Collins asked. Charley came back to his side, clearly confused now, and he picked her up, held her close.

“And today. Why do you ask?”

“Oh, I saw him – not so long ago. Right after my wife passed. It was a weird few days, like a series of hallucinations…”

“He told me you were…that you would be coming soon. From that way,” she said, pointing to Ovingdean. “He told me your name last night, that you were coming.”

He nodded, looked out to sea, wondered where she was now, if she was watching even now.

And when she would come back, he wondered.

“I’m not going to leave you out here,” he said. “Can I take you home? Or could I take you down to the boat, fix you a coffee?”

“That’s right…you mentioned something about that this morning, didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“I was up here yesterday,” she said. “Watching you as you came, when the storm hit.”

“Were you going to jump?”

“I was, yes. Until he came.”

“And today? Why did you come back?”

She looked at him, confusion the only thing clear in her eyes. “I’m not sure. Something to do with him, I guess.”

He slipped Charley into the papoose and stood, then held out his hand. “Come on,” he said softly. “I think we need to walk a bit.”

“Okay.” She took his hand and he helped her up, then without really thinking about it put his arms around her shoulder, the way he used to, so many years ago. They walked quietly along the path, Charley looking over at her from time to time, but for the most part up at him, and she understood. From time to time the pup looked out to sea and sighed.

+++++

He helped her up onto deck, held her hand along the rail and steadied her as she stepped over the tall coaming, then down into the cockpit. “Have a seat,” he said as he set up one of the leaves on the cockpit table. “Coffee or tea?”

“Do you have any soda?”

“Coke and diet Dr Pepper. Perrier too, I think.”

“A Coke, please.”

He put Charley down on the cockpit sole, slid open the companionway hatch and hopped below. Charley came to the little bridge deck and tried to hop up, contented herself with looking at him as he went to work in the galley. A moment later he placed a bowl of water and some puppy chow out for her, then he carried up a couple of cokes and some Irish soda bread.

Charley lapped up the water, took a bite of chow – then squatted and pooped, so Collins ducked below for some wipes and paper towels, groaning as he went.

“And so it begins,” he said quietly as he popped back up. “Potty-training.”

“I’ve never had a dog,” Deborah said, barely concealing her disgust as the pup circled and pee’ed next to her feet. “And I feel certain this is the reason why.”

“Yeah. It’s two to three weeks of serious fun.” He bent down and cleaned up her mess, then went below to wash his hands – when his iPhone started chirping.

“Yello!” he answered.

“Mr Collins? Rod Lethbridge here…”

“Rod! Come on down. Just feeding Charley.”

“You’re sure it’s alright?”

“Yup, just cleaning up some poop.”

“Ah.”

“Yup, feel free to help.” He chuckled, so did the voice on the other end. “You’ve got the slip number, right?”

“Yes, and thanks for the invite. We’ll see you in a few.”

He dried his hands, went back up to the cockpit – only to find Charley curled up on Deborah’s lap, both now sound asleep, Deborah’s head was nodding forward and jerking back uncomfortably, so he went below for a pillow, got more ice for her drink then went back up and sat beside them.

“You want me to take you below,” he whispered in her ear, “get you under a blanket?”

She opened her eyes and jerked awake. “How long was I…”

“Not even five minutes, but it seems you’ve been through a lot the past few days. Maybe you need a rest.”

“I understand dogs better now,” she said, rubbing Charley’s ears.

“Springer love,” he nodded. “Accept no substitutes.”

She stifled a laugh – “Just Springer’s, you say?”

“Absolutely. Look, the folks I got her from are headed down; one of them wants to see the boat and I told them to come on down…”

“Would you like me to leave?”

“No, absolutely not! Just thought it would be better if you were awake…”

‘So,’ she thought, ‘it’s absolutely not, is it?!’ She reached for the Coke but he handed it to her and she smiled, told him “Thanks” as she looked at him anew.

“Could I get you a blanket? I’m afraid it’s going to get chilly soon.”

She looked around the cockpit, at all the displays and instruments… “What? No heater out here?” she smiled as she looked at him.

“Don’t laugh,” he said, grinning. “I can get it steaming in here – and fast.”

“Oh, of that I have no doubt…”

He turned beet red then Charley sat up and sniffed the air, so he looked down the dock. “Yup, here they come!”

“How did she know?”

“She’s got a good nose…” He climbed out of the cockpit and walked over to the boarding gate just as Rod and his wife arrived.

“Shite!” was the first word out of his mouth. “This is bloody huge!” His wife laughed, but she was looking up and down the length of the boat, shaking her head. “What is she? An Island Packet?”

“Yup, a 485.”

“Bloody hell. How long?”

“Fifty one feet. Well, we don’t stand on formalities around here. Come on up…”

Rod hopped up and immediately went forward; his wife just stood there – still shaking her head.

“Boys and their toys,” she whispered.

“I take it he asked you to come?” Collins whispered.

“Begged would be a better choice of words,” she said loudly.

“Pleaded, dearest. Don’t exaggerate; it’s most unbecoming.”

“Better take my hand,” Collins said, leaning over the rail.

“No rats on board, are there? Other than that big, fat one,” she asked, pointing at her husband.

“Not to my knowledge, but watch your step.”

“Okay.” She reached up, took his hand and he lifted her up.

“Shite!” Rod almost shouted. “She doesn’t even move when she stepped aboard!”

“Well, with all the gear onboard, she displaces fifty thousand pounds.”

“Bugger.”

“Deborah!” Collins heard Mrs Lethbridge state, “what are you doing here!?”

Rod looked at the cockpit, squinted, saw Deborah and made a beeline amidships.

She’s like honey to the men around here, Collins thought. Amazing. He made his way aft to the ‘pit and went to the companionway. “Better hand the little girl to me,” he said, his arms outstretched, and Deborah passed her over – reluctantly.

“Mind of I come down,” she asked.

“No, not at all.” He held out one hand and helped her down, then went forward to his office. He’d put Charley in the little nesting area he’d made for her, but as soon as he put her there she started whimpering, then crying.

He sighed, picked her up and held her close. “Okay, kiddo,” he began, “let’s get this straight right now. No crying…no whining. It’s time for a nap, okay?” He cuddled her to his neck, then put her back in the nest and wrapped a blanket around her, then turned on the sound system and shut the door. He had settled on a Brandenburg concerto and smiled when the music began, then he turned – and found Deborah standing there, staring at him.

“Thank you,” she said as she stepped into his arms.

“For?” He sighed at the wonder of it all…

“For being there.” She wrapped her arms around him, placed her head on his chest.

He didn’t know what to do, so he put his arms around her, kissed the top of her head, a gesture that would have been comfortably familiar just a year ago – but a gesture that felt new and unsettling in the here and now. “You’re gonna be okay now,” he whispered. “I know it.”

“Am I?” She leaned back and looked up into his eyes, then down, at his lips.

‘So there it is,’ he said to himself. So sudden, so unexpected. He leaned in and kissed her gently, then leaned away. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said as he smiled at her.

She shook her head, looked into his eyes again. “I feel like I know you,” she sighed. “Somewhere, a long time ago, we must’ve run into one another.”

“Honestly, Deborah, I think I’d remember you…” He grinned, kissed her on the forehead. “Can’t ignore our guests now, can we?”

“Right, my Lord and Master.”

He laughed, walked aft, leaned up into the cockpit. “Drinks, guided tours?” he said to Rod, then to Mrs Lethbridge, “you know, I don’t even know your first name.”

“Elizabeth,” she said, smiling. “How’s the little girl?”

“Tired, confused, ready for a nap. Could I get either of you a Coke?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have any rum onboard, would you?” Rod asked.

“White, amber, dark. Jamaican, Barbados and Puerto Rican.”

“Mount Gay?”

“Lime?”

“You do know you are now Rod’s best friend for life, don’t you?” Elizabeth said, grinning, and Collins went to the galley and fixed two drinks, handed them up to Rod.

“Elizabeth? What about you?”

“Do you have any white wine?”

“Pinot Grigio and Riesling. Riesling works well with cheese, but I’m out of apples.”

“Pinot works for me.”

He opened a fresh bottle and poured a glass, then headed up. Rod was looking over all the instruments while sitting behind the wheel, shaking his head, almost drooling as decades of wanderlust kicked in.

He handed Elizabeth her glass, looked at Deborah sipping her Coke and decided a sail just might be interesting enough to be fun: “If the weather’s nice this weekend, why don’t we take her out for a sail?”

Rod’s eyes lit up, Deborah’s too, while Elizabeth threw silent death-bombs his way – causing all to laugh. After they’d been sitting for an hour or so, talking boats and farms and all the dreams fueling their lives, Rod asked the one question Collins had been dreading.

“So, what brought this on, the desire to sail away from it all?”

“It was something my wife and I planned doing at some point. We’d just bought the boat when she fell ill, and after she passed I decided it was time to move on, see if it was going to be something worth doing by myself.”

“Kind of a big boat for going it alone, isn’t it?”

“It is,” he nodded. “There are automated systems for sail handling and anchoring, and they help, but she can be a handful when the wind pipes up.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Oh, I read a book once that summed it up best. As long as it’s fun. Charley was my last Springer and she passed a while ago, on the trip here, and I just about gave up on the whole thing then. She got me through a lot of the hard times…”

“Could I get a refill?” Elizabeth asked, watching him speak and changing the subject.

“Y’all better come on down,” he added, grateful for Elizabeth’s quick thinking, “and take the nickel tour – so you can find your way around down here,” he said as he went down the ladder. Deborah followed him, and then he heard Elizabeth telling Rod it was time to leave, Rod objecting, then heading down the ladder – followed by a seriously perturbed Elizabeth spitting flames and smoke out her ears.

Yet it was Elizabeth’s eyes that went round down below, and she walked up to the head and the forward cabin. “This is nice,” she said. “Really quite nice. Is this where you sleep?”

“No, mine’s back here,” he said, pointing down the narrow passage in the galley.

“There’s another?” she asked, incredulous.

“Yup. My office is right by you. Charley’s in there, though.”

“An office? May I?”

“Sure. Be my guest.”

She opened the door and disappeared, came out a minute later and whispered in Rod’s ear.

“Bollocks!” he said.

“Look for yourself, then!”

Rod went in, came out a moment later shaking his head. “A washer-dryer?”

“Comes in handy,” Collins replied.

“Do you carry that much water?”

“Water-maker. 25 gallons per hour while running the diesel.”

“Bollocks!”

“Self-sufficiency, but it comes at a price. Complex systems in a marine environment are always breaking down. You either fix it yourself or pay through the nose to get the work done. I’ve always found that about half the workers engaged have no idea what they’re doing, however, so it’s better to do the work yourself. Saves time, money and a lot of aggravation.”

They walked aft. “And this is the galley?” Elizabeth asked.

“Yup. Fridge with a separate freezer, microwave, stove and oven, and over here,” he added, pointing, “an ice maker.”

“Bloody hell!” she said. “I was expecting a paraffin stove and an ice cooler.”

“Good for a weekend,” Collins said, “but life is consumed with running ashore for ice once a week. More in the tropics.”

“Or you could just keep fresh stuff that doesn’t need refrigeration,” Elizabeth added.

“Oh yes, I have a fair amount of that, too.”

“What’s in here?” Rod asked, pointed to a short door low in the passageway.

“Open her up,” Collins said, and when the door opened he heard Lethbridge whistle.

“Yanmar? How big?

“110 HP, 300 gallons fuel.”

“Generator?”

“Yup, and both solar and wind generators.”

“Shite. Well, you did it right, that’s for sure.”

“I’ll say,” Elizabeth added, now sitting on one of the “couches” in the main cabin. “I can see how this could be fun.”

Rod looked at her, then at Collins, a huge grin plastered all over his face. “So,” he asked again, “where to from here?”

“Honfluer. Ship the mast to Marseilles then motor up the Seine to Paris. I’ll stay there through winter, then work my way down to the Med in April. I want to spend the summer between Marseilles and Corsica, do some diving. I’m not making plans beyond that just yet. We’ll just see how it goes. So, what about you, Rod? Done much sailing?”

“A bit of racing. Crewed a few Admiral’s Cup runs, back in the day, including two Fastnets, but ever since I’ve just wanted to cruise.”

“What would we do about the farm,” Elizabeth asked.

“Rent it out, I suppose. At least until we know if it’s something we could do long term.”

“Charter a few times down south,” Collins said. “Or hitch a ride with someone heading out.”

“You perhaps looking for crew,” Rod smiled hopefully.

“You never know?” Collins smiled back. “Like I said, if the weather holds let’s go out this weekend.”

“Deb?” Elizabeth asked, looking at her, “can we give you a ride back to town?”

“You know,” she said, “I think I’ll walk in.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Well, I think we ought to head home now,” she added, standing. “We’ll call Friday about this weekend, then?”

“That sounds about right.”

“Well, thanks for the libations,” Rod said as he started up the companionway steps, then Elizabeth followed him up. Deborah remained seated, smiled as they left – but to Collins something seemed amiss.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” he said as he followed the Lethbridges up into the night. He helped Elizabeth down then walked with them up to the car park.

“Where’d you run into Deborah?” she asked when they were well away from the boat.

“On the walk from your place.”

“You should be easy with her,” Rod said. “Still waters and all.”

“She’s sweet, Sumner, but she’s had a rough time.”

“Could you elaborate?”

“I don’t know how to say this,” Elizabeth replied. “Possessive, I guess, and fragile. She doesn’t handle rejection at all. Half the men in town are madly in love with her, if you know what I mean.”

“No, I don’t. Do you mean she sleeps around?”

“No,” Rod said, “quite the opposite, in fact. She’s sweet as can be, but the more impressionable types are misled by that. I’d say a lot of unrequited love surrounds her in that shop of hers.”

“I don’t think she does it deliberately,” Elizabeth added. “She just gives off this vibe, if you know what I mean?”

“Do you think she’s crazy? Off her rocker? Anything like that?”

Rod and Elizabeth exchanged looks up by their car. “No, I wouldn’t say that, Sumner,” she said. “It’s more that she’s a fragile soul. Easily confused by life. Like I said, take care with her. Be easy. Gentle.”

“She’s sweet,” Rod said – almost wistfully – and Elizabeth looked at him.

“She has the same effect on everyone,” she added. “People fall in love with her. Easily.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll see you this weekend.” They soon drove off and he looked around, saw the restaurant on the west side of the marina was still open, just about the time he realized he’d yet to eat so far that day. He walked back to the boat and climbed aboard.

“You hungry?” he asked as he stuck his head below, but she was nowhere to be seen. He climbed below, went forward and found the two of them curled up on the forward berth, both lost to sleep. He shook his head, put a blanket over them and went aft to the galley, nuked a can of chicken noodle soup, then climbed up to the cockpit and ate in silence. A few people were walking out to their boats after dinners out, and he exchanged waves and ‘hellos’ as the parade drifted by, then he pulled out his phone and checked his email accounts.

He found what he was looking for in his home account, a half dozen notes from his sister-in-law Tracy.

Her divorce was final – he read in one, she wanted to know what he was up to in another. ‘Did he want some company,’ seemed to be the thrust of her notes – and he had to think about that for a while. She was an impossible opportunist, always had been as far as he could tell, but she was also easy to be with and had been a big help after her sister passed. Somewhere along the way she’d begun professing feelings he’d been startled by, even rejected at first, but over time she’d simply worn him down, a shallow victory by attrition.

When he let her know Charley had passed she’d grown almost insistent that he return and see his nephews and nieces, spend time in Seattle with them while she weathered her divorce, and he’d promptly departed Cork for Exeter. Still, he needed to fill her in on his location from time to time, as she was his emergency contact if his SART beacon was ever activated. He drew up a reply that hinted he was en route to France and would be there around Thanksgiving, and to think about bringing her kids over for Christmas. He sent it and was turning to go below when he saw Deborah coming up, holding Charley to her breast.

“I think she needs to go to the bathroom. She was licking my ear, wouldn’t stop.”

“That’s the signal,” he said as he leaned over and picked her up. He had set out a piece of astro-turf Charley used to use and he carried her back to the aft deck, set her down. She looked up at him and let fly, panting and grinning at the same time, and when she was finished she ran over to him and hopped up into his hands.

“Good girl! Outside!” he repeated a few times, praising her until he thought she understood, then he carried her back to the cockpit, to Deborah’s outstretched hands.

“No one ever praised me like that when I went to the bathroom. I’m jealous.”

“Well, let me know next time you need to go. I’ll stand outside and cheer…”

“Bosh!”

“That’s one I haven’t heard in a while.”

“What? Bosh?”

“Yup. Sorry, but I was getting hungry and had some soup. Could I fix you something now?”

“I’m not really hungry,” she said.

“Ready to head home? I’ll be happy to walk with you.”

“I was hoping I could stay here tonight.”

He looked at her, but she wasn’t avoiding his eyes now. Far from it.

“Okay,” he said. “I just put fresh sheets on that bunk, so…”

“I wondered if I might stay with you.”

“Did you now? Afraid of the dark?”

“Something like that,” she grinned.

“Well, I’ve got to shower, get on some fresh clothes…”

“May I join you?”

“Uh…”

“Look, I’m sorry if this is going too fast, but I…

“You’ve had a rough few days.”

“It’s more than that. More like a rough few years.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve been alone. For a very long time. And, well, I think I reached the end of the line yesterday. I either change my life, or I might as well not go on any longer.”

He looked at her, then stepped onto the companionway ladder and walked below. She had moved away, back into the main cabin, but now he took her hand and led her aft into his cabin. “You’d better sit down, take a load off.”

“A load off?” she said as she sat on the berth.

He sat in the settee across from her, looked at her – not quite knowing how to proceed. “You need to tell me what’s going on. The whole story…because I don’t know the why or really even what happened today up there on that cliff. I’ve been ignoring whatever it was, hoping the whole thing would just go away…”

“But he doesn’t go away, does he? He never did, I guess. He tried to becomes the conscience of a generation, and he was killed by the insanity of those times, but you can’t kill an idea, can you?”

“Do you think what we saw is real?”

“I didn’t. No, not at all. I thought I was going mad. And then you saw him. And you know what? – how can two people who’ve never met share a single, contemporaneous hallucination?”

“I don’t think it can happen – but I’m no professional when it comes to those kinds of things.” He sighed. “Deborah, that’s not what I’m talking about. What led you to the edge in the first place? I mean, not every lonely person…”

“Oh, are you so sure? I’m not anymore, Sumner. Loneliness is a silent killer. It chews away at the edges of your soul every waking moment of your life. Whether you choose to live alone or life came at you head on and somehow crushed you, loneliness is only tolerable for just so long. Sooner or later it forces subtle changes throughout every aspect your life, it serves up crushed expectations that wear you out, beat you down. The grayness of a winter’s afternoon comes to define your life and you can’t see beyond the curtain to Spring anymore.”

“Did you ever try anti-depressants, anything like that?”

“Sure, why not try them? Still, those things can’t take away the silence that stalks you, the coming home at night to an empty flat, to an empty life. Oh, the hobbies I’ve read about, my heavens, they’re a panacea, aren’t they, each and every one of them. I tried knitting for a time, then quilting, but then I’d look up and see my living room walls looking at me, accusing me…”

“Of what?”

“Of being alone.”

“You say that as if it was a choice.”

“It is, in a way. You go out and your expectations are dashed time and time again, and then you go home and tell yourself that you’re different somehow. That people look at you differently for a reason. That you’re marked…”

“Marked?”

“I don’t know how else to explain it, Sumner…Sumner? Didn’t that name come from summoner? The person who summoned people to church?”

“I think so. Why?”

“Well, that made me think about John, about when I was up there yesterday, when he told me Sumner was coming. You see? That I was up there, being summoned?”

“Oh. And now?”

“He was telling me you were coming. It can’t mean anything else.”

“So, what if he was. What does that mean?”

“He stopped me. The wind stopped me, blew me from the edge. The same wind that knocked your boat on it’s side – it hit me when I was looking over the edge, knocked me down and blew me away from the edge, and he was laughing then, a happy laugh, but he was laughing.”

He shook his head, lost within the inward confines of her vision, not sure if she was mad – or if he was now going completely off his rocker. “So, let me get this straight – in MY head. You went up to the cliffs yesterday because you’ve been lonely, for a long time…”

“Yes. I’d say almost twenty years, anyway.”

“Well, I was in your shop this morning and it seems to me you’re surrounded by people – men and women, by the way – who simply adore you…”

“That’s the role I play in their lives, Sumner. The role they’re comfortable with, by the way. And yes, men flirt with me all the time, but I tried that once – and in the end I simply lost a customer. People buy into all kinds of fantasies, and the doting waitress is one of the oldest, but that’s a fantasy that simply doesn’t work out over time. It didn’t for me, anyway, and in the end I was left lonelier than ever.”

“Yes, I suppose there’s fantasy and reality…”

“Yes, and when you paste your fantasy over the reality of someone else’s life, what you end up with is dashed expectations, a bitter lot of pain.”

“So, then wind that knocked me and the boat over…knocked you off your feet and away from the drop-off? That means something in this alternate universe we’ve stumbled upon…”

“This what?”

“Just a manner of speaking, I think. But I can’t account for what I saw up there today. That man’s been gone forty years, so either we’re interacting with death – or with an artifact of Time itself. Or both.”

“Are you retired?”

“Yes, why?”

“What did you do?”

“I worked in government, the State Department. Embassy security, but I was in D.C. most of the time, then I worked in the private sector for about ten years. In Boston, by and large, where my wife was from.”

“What kind of work is that? I mean…”

“Counter-terrorism. Especially after 9/11, but I was on the ground in Tanzania, in 1998.”

“What awful work.”

“Yes, it was. My wife was in the Navy, then continued to work for them after she retired, so in a way we both lived and breathed that stuff all our lives.”

“Poison. For the soul, I mean.”

“I think so, yes. I think the stress poisoned her, made her ill.”

“That kind of hate poisons everyone and everything,” she said. “Tell me. Do you think you’re running away from all that now. Is that what this boat’s all about?”

“Oh, yes, definitely. I think we both wanted to run away from it all, while we could. But…”

“…time caught up with her?” she added.

“With us both, yes.”

“So, have you been alone since…”

He nodded his head. “Yup.”

“So you know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”

He looked into her eyes. “Yes.”

“Have you ever thought about…”

“In a way. After Charley passed.”

“How long ago was that? Less than a year?”

“Yup, just a few months, really.”

“So, maybe I’m here, now, to keep you from…”

“Perhaps, but when I saw you in the café I thought there was something special about you.”

“Did you? Why did you walk out?”

“I don’t know. I felt superfluous, but…”

“Maybe because, what did you say, you thought there was something special about me? Do you think that put you off?”

“Maybe.”

“That’s what I was trying to get at,” she said. “Loneliness becomes self-reinforcing. I think we get to a point where we take unconscious actions to reinforce our loneliness – and we’re not even aware, on a conscious level, anyway – that’s what we’re doing.”

He nodded his head. “I can see that, but that doesn’t even begin to get at why a dead guy was up on the cliff, grinning at me.”

And certainly not what he was most afraid of.

“No, it doesn’t. Wanna take a shower with me?”

“You know? Yes, I do…”

“But?”

“No buts, Deborah.”

“Really?”

He kicked off his Top-siders and went into the head and turned on the priming pump, then the water and the sump pump, and she walked in beside him – naked as the day she was born. He had to force himself not to stare…her breasts were perfect, her legs gorgeous…then she stepped into the shower and let the water run through her hair – watching him while he undressed. When he stepped into the shower she leaned in and held him for a moment, then put her hands on his shoulders, pushed him down to his knees. She put one foot up on the rim of the enclosure, then took his head in her hands and pulled him to her need.

Her eyes closed as her head tilted back, and she felt his hands on the backs of her thighs pulling her closer still. The hot water running down her back, his powerful hands almost electric and oh! – he hadn’t forgotten a thing, had he?

+++++

He heard something bump against the hull in his sleep and his instincts kicked in: his eyes opened and he slipped out of the berth, saw the sun just coming up through a forest of masts as he got into his shorts and shoes, then he went forward and checked the panel breakers. Nothing amiss – so he went topsides and checked all the dock-lines – and found nothing unusual there, either. He looked forward and…

He was sitting on the pulpit, his legs crossed and that guitar resting on his lap.

Collins walked forward quietly and Lennon looked down, played a few notes slowly, tentatively, then started into a gentle acoustic rendering of Fixing A Hole, changing ‘where I belong I’m right’ to ‘where you belong you’re right’ just once, and when he finished he looked up at Collins and grinned.

“Any questions, mate?” he said, looking over his glasses.

“Yeah,” Collins said, stepping forward almost defiantly, “a few dozen come to mind.” Lennon smiled, bent to his guitar and began a slow, dirge-like Yesterday, and Collins fell to the deck, choking off a cry. “No, please, don’t do this to me,” he managed to whisper between gasps for breath, but Lennon played on through to the last few notes, then he looked up at Collins and saw him crumpled on the deck.

“You can’t keep runnin’. One of these days you’ve got to see the meaning within our moment together. Remember?”

Collins looked up – but Lennon was fading from view again, bent over his guitar, feeling his way through the music of the spheres.

“Wait! Don’t leave, not yet…”

But he was gone.

“…not again!”

+++++

The twins, Phoebe and Sumner, had grown up in a house full of music, music everywhere, all the time. His mother, a truly sensational pianist, had assiduously passed on her gifts, but the boy’s twin sister had always been the intended recipient – and he grew to more fully understand that attachment as he watched mother and daughter play and study together. He grew technically competent over the years – while his sister played music from the heart. Even so, figuring out exactly where the line between those two heart’s lay was a mystery he never penetrated. There was a force joining mother and daughter he simply couldn’t fathom. And he never did.

One evening, while walking home with their parents after a late dinner, they heard four or five ‘pop-pop-pops’ as they approached and as he looked at his sister he wondered what it was. His father was anxious, protective, and when they came to their building he saw a lot of people running around, everyone shouting and lots of people crying. He remembered a man sitting on the sidewalk saying he’d just killed John Lennon, then he saw the man laying on the stairway into their building, foamy blood bubbling from his mouth, and he’d reached out, tried to comfort the man – but his father had reached down and scooped him away. But what he’d remembered most was looking at the man as he reached up…for his hand…and the lingering warmth in the man’s eyes as he struggled against the night.

From the time they grew into this life within their mother’s womb, the twins had been tentatively, yet securely joined in the most oblique ways. They looked eerily alike but couldn’t have been more different in their approach to life – and the world, and as they grew older, the wider this apparent gulf became. His sister became passionate about music in general, then opera, and began playing the cello then singing professionally, while he became interested in flying, then in his father’s various business dealings. She walked to Juilliard when he went away to Princeton, and though he came home for her recitals and debuts, his parents and even his sister ignored his growing academic achievements. He went into the Navy and flew S-3 Vikings for a few years, then returned and went to law school at Georgetown, and he was disappointed when he came to see his stint in the Navy had completely alienated his family. After a few strained dinners he understood the ‘what’ of things, but never the ‘why’, and after school and going to work for the Department of State he found that five more years passed before he saw any of them again.

His father was getting on and tired all the time, yet his mother remained as vigorously youthful as he remembered, but she was in love again, only with another man. His father never recovered and faded fast after their divorce, yet even his death wasn’t the end of their story. A few months after her second marriage, his mother found a lump in her breast, and passed a year and a half later. Only then did the boy become a man in that most final sense; he suddenly found himself adrift in a world without his parents, and he drifted in silence, alone, rudderless, until he found his way again.

Yet for a time he and his sister came together, but he found her frivolous eccentricities and bitter disparagements hard to take, even if she was, in the most fragile way imaginable, a decent soul. But without their mother to anchor her to the here and now, he looked on from afar as she drifted into loneliness, then despair, and he felt powerless to help. She called one night, and he heard in her voice the failings of their mother’s clinging obsessiveness; she simply wasn’t capable of standing up to life on her own. Instinctively, protectively, he moved her to his apartment in Georgetown, helped her get a teaching job at a local day school and she just managed to keep her head above water – but one night she disappeared, leaving him the silliest note, telling him she was moving to California to find herself, to explore life until she could find her place in it.

He had remained in the Navy, though only tenuously as a reservist, and that’s how he met Jennifer. She was a nurse at the time, but with his encouragement she went to medical school at Georgetown. In time they tried to start a family, but nothing worked and they moved on. There were no recriminations, no sidelong glances, just a heartfelt love each never took for granted. When he was honest with himself, he admitted to her years later he was happy with the way things turned out. He was selfish enough, he said, to know he couldn’t have shared her with a child, that he would only love her. And only her. She told him she understood while she held his hand, and their love only grew stronger.

A few years later his sister showed up on his doorstep, destitute, her trust fund exhausted. He took her in again, then discovered she had lost herself within heroin’s warm embrace. He fought through his anger, battled her self-pity, but by then he was rotating between Washington, the Middle East and East Africa. Jennifer was left to carry the burden, and he rightly thought his sister’s return to his life would destroy their marriage, yet in time just the opposite occurred. His sister and his wife struggled together through the contours of Phoebe’s addiction, and in time they came to know each well enough to become easy friends, comfortable enough in each others company to see beyond all the rough edges – and both fell in love with Phoebe’s gift for piano. And this time it took hold, for Phoebe grew under Jennifer’s maternal instincts, and while Sumner thought the attraction odd, he enjoyed watching the results unfold. All his sister needed, he saw, was a mother, and as it turned out, all Jennifer needed was a daughter…

His sister met a man a year later, a good man as it turned out, and she moved with him to a boarding school in the Midwest. He taught Shakespeare and she piano and theory, and her existence took on the comfortable contours he’d always hoped she’d find. And yet, after all they’d been through together over the years, he finally realized how little they really knew of one another. So similar – yet so utterly different.

They drove through New Hampshire one autumn weekend, down twisting, canopied lanes shaded by vast preening limbs shimmering with golds and reds, and they passed a little farm with a sign out front – “Puppies For Sale” caught their eye – and they stopped and looked at the little fur-balls wrestling on the grass. One of the pups held back, studied Jennifer quietly for a while then turned her gaze on him. He was unsettled by the pups inquisitiveness, by the seemingly direct connection it established in those first few moments, but when it – she – walked up to him and sat, looked up at him expectantly he’d been powerless to do anything but pick her up, look her in the eye.

Jennifer too thought the pup’s behavior almost strange, but she held onto the little girl while he wrote the check, and the breeder gave them puppy chow and saw them on their way. He’d been reading Steinbeck those days, and he recounted Travels With Charley to Jennifer and she loved the name, the incongruity of it all, and by the time they got back to Boston Charley had become a part of their lives.

A few years later they talked about retirement, about moving out into the world together, exploring, seeing new places are far-flung travels. They settled on the idea of a boat, one big enough to cross oceans in, to live aboard for long stretches of time, and they settled on Gemini when they saw her at a boat show in Newport. They moved her to a slip in the inner harbor, not far from the Navy Yard, and weekends soon took on the ritual airs of preparation, anticipation of what Gemini offered always on their minds.

Phoebe came home one Thanksgiving, for a visit she said, but he saw she was troubled again, drifting along the edges of vast hallucinations one minute, talking to her ghosts, and the next minute fine, grounded in the here and now. One night before she left, they talked about the Dakota and their feelings that night, about watching John Lennon die, and what that death meant to them.

“I didn’t understand what death meant before that night,” she said at one point, “but I’ve been terrified of it ever since. The finality of the moment, of never waking up again, never seeing or hearing or touching anything or anyone ever again. Not to mention, I can’t imagine being without music. And his eyes – they have haunted me ever since.”

“Do you talk to him?” he asked. “Do you see him?”

And she had looked away, unsure what she could safely tell her brother, but when she looked at him she saw he knew already. The bond between them was as tight as ever, and she nodded her head. “Both,” she said.

“What does he do…what does he say?”

“We talk about music, mostly. What it means, really.”

“Means?”

“You remember how mother used to talk about music as a language, the one true universal language? How the structure of music underscores all emotion?”

“Yeah?”

“And we talk about death. About that night.”

“Oh?” he remembered saying – even as an icy fear gripped his chest. “I wonder what it’s like,” he told her then, “to take those last few breaths, not knowing what’s on the other side…” But he didn’t, not really, and he was ashamed of the lie, because what he truly felt was that once the light left your eyes – that would be it, the end. You couldn’t, he told himself, experience ‘life’ before you were born any more than you’d been able to perceive any aspect of life – or even an afterlife – after death. “You’re born, you live, then you die – just like the t-shirt says” – or so he liked to say, yet he too admitted that the sight of Lennon’s final, pleading eyes had seared his soul, that something important had passed between the three of them.

And it was during this period, just after Phoebe returned to Wisconsin, that Jennifer’s sister Tracy fell out of the sky and into their lives. He took an instant dislike to her, the lilting pretentiousness of her Junior League Country Club mannerisms, the way she worshipped money, the way she constantly judged people over the most mundane things. Her family spent a Christmas with them one year, and the rapacious way her teenaged kids ripped into their Christmas presents nauseated him. There was something so pathologically narcissistic about all of them, something antithetical to his understanding of life and Jennifer’s approach to happiness, yet even so he could see bits of Jennifer in Tracy, and in the end, hints of Tracy in Jennifer. He knew the bonds between he and his own sister were strong, so he naturally wondered what Jennifer thought of the two of them. Yet that was a question he never thought to ask.

Because not long after that morbid holiday Jennifer was diagnosed with breast cancer, and he was left to wander in the numbness again; despite himself, his heart filled with dread when Tracy showed up days later “to help out,” as she put it, because a lingering finality came with her. She staked out her old room in the Clemens family house in Boston, and sat with Jennifer through rounds of chemotherapy – on those few days when he was away.

He stood in the shower with Jennifer and held her while she vomited; she cried in his arms while he brushed clumps of wet hair from her head, and then he and Jennifer – and Tracy, too – passed into the dull, gray mists of end stage cancer together, that place where all talk of survival is a muted transgression, a violation of the pact of silence that descends on husband and wife when they walk this final path together.

And Tracy was there, through it all. When they stepped out of the shower, it was Tracy who dried Jennifer’s wracked, shaking flesh. When Jennifer went shopping for wigs, it was Tracy who sang the chorus of optimism, Tracy who helped with all the feminine accoutrements he was so clueless about. And then, when darkness consumed his soul, it was Tracy who lifted him free and carried him back into the light. When Jennifer’s white counts tanked near the end, when her body just couldn’t fight anymore and she asked him to let her go, it was Tracy there by his side who kept him from shattering into a million pieces, Tracy by his side, holding his hand as he watched the doctor filling out her Death Certificate. Tracy who tried to piece him back together in the days after…

…and Phoebe had his other hand, holding on just as she had when their mother passed. Only on that funereal afternoon the roles had been reversed, and she sensed something fragile in her brother, something dangerously loose and frayed was coming undone. She stayed with him for weeks, watched helplessly as he began forgetting things; simple things at first, but then even greater dissolutions. Abstract ideas and vast legal frameworks became fleeting constructs his mind could no longer grasp, yet uncharacteristically, rather than fight this new world she looked on as he chose to turn away. As he ran from what he called “the crushing reality of death” – to the cold embrace of the sea.

He rented the house and moved aboard Gemini with Charley, and as she looked on Phoebe couldn’t stand to think he might actually sail away. She couldn’t admit how much she’d come to depend on his steady hand, yet she realized how much life – and death – had taken from him. Because she understood him in ways no one ever could – and no one ever had, not even Jennifer – she knew she had to let him go. There was a unique connection between them, something beyond mere physicalism, perhaps something only twins can understand or relate to. A set of shared expectations borne in the womb, perhaps, or deeper still, in a place beyond understanding. She felt his pain, true enough, but because of her mother’s intuition she understood the solitary landscape he walked, the music that played in his soul. Even so, she accepted his decision to leave without question, because she knew in the end he’d be okay. He was her unshakeable faith, he was the one who could do no wrong, who could shoulder any burden – and always come out on top.

He always had, so he always would, and she trusted that.

That’s just the way he is, she told herself. The order of her universe had always been expressed in the enduring terms of his self-imposed isolation, his innate indestructibility. She was the heart while he was the mind, she told herself over and over again, but as she watched him loading the boat before departure, for some reason she thought about John Lennon bleeding to death on those cold steps.

And then he was gone, and as she watched Gemini sail out into Massachusetts Bay, she wondered when, perhaps even if, she would ever see him again.

+++++

He sat up, looked around the deck – everywhere he could in the morning’s pale amber light – but all he saw was a gull on a mooring pier…staring down into the water. He stood, felt his way through his light-headedness and nausea to the rail and looked down into the water.

And he saw the dolphin through the murky water  – perhaps a meter beneath the surface – staring up at him, laying on her side – then she too was gone…

“You’re never going to leave me, are you?” he whispered hopefully. He reached out, grabbed a shroud and worked his way aft, sat on the edge of the cockpit coaming and rubbed the water from his eyes, then realized he was shivering. He looked down, saw he had on only shorts and Dock-siders and dashed below, flipping on the breakers for the heater as he passed into the galley. He got coffee going and made some toast, poured a huge splash of rum in his mug and pulled a jar of cherry preserves from the ‘fridge. Yanking a sweater from his cabinet and sweatpants from a drawer, he bundled-up while the Espar heater primed, then kicked-in.

And by that time Deborah was up, wondering where the devil she was and why she smelled diesel fumes…“Are you up?” he heard her ask a moment later.

“Yup. Making coffee and toast. Want something?”

“Anything! I can’t remember when I last ate!”

He looked down, felt Charley circling then squatting on the sole, and he groaned when the yellow puddle spread around his shoes. “Swell,” he managed to say as he got a few paper towels and wiped the floor, then her nether regions, then he carried her to the “poop deck” and let her circle on the astro-turf. They both sighed when she dropped a curly log on the green carpet, and he carried her down below and finished coffees and toast, then set the stuff out on the table in the main cabin while the pup roamed the floor.

“How do you flush the toilet!?” he heard Deb ask, clearly perplexed.

He sighed again and just managed to laugh, then walked aft and flipped a switch, pushed a button. The macerator leapt into action and away it went, down into a holding tank.

“Nothing’s easy on a boat,” he grinned as he walked forward to get Charley’s chow, then he sat and waited for Deborah.

She came out wearing one of his old VS-32 t-shirts – and nothing else – and he marveled at her legs once again. “You know, I hate to say this, but you’re really gorgeous.”

“You hate to say it? Why?”

“I’d feel, well, a little foolish if you got the impression I was simply a shallow misanthrope – only interested in your ass.”

“Are you?”

“Yes,” he said, grinning, and they laughed.

“Good, I’m glad. I could use a little shallow, misanthropic attention this morning.”

“Last night was delightful,” he saighed, “and I wanted you to know that. But I had a visitor this morning, and I need to tell you a little story about him.”

“John? He was here?”

“Ah-yup. Sunrise, on deck.” He looked at her, watched as the words sunk in, wondering how to proceed.

“A story,” she said, “about him?”

“Yes. I was a kid when he was killed, but I was there. I mean right there. I held his hand, when he was down on the stairs in our building, bleeding to death. He smiled at me, or tried to, I think. That’s what I remember most about the whole thing, and the look in his eyes as he passed.”

She felt light-headed, almost dizzy as his words slammed into her, and he saw the expression on her face and stopped.

“You okay?”

She shook her head, looked down at his hands. “That means this isn’t random,” she whispered. “He wants something from you, or us, perhaps.”

“Look, I’m not sure I believe in all this stuff…”

“That really doesn’t matter, Sumner. Something obviously believes in you.”

“What? What makes you say…”

“You’re a link, maybe the link, to something important. Something in that moment, perhaps. He tried to tell you something, did he?”

“I don’t know, don’t think so?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know either, Sumner…Sumner – summoner? What’s your full name?”

“Sumner Holden Collins, Jr. Why?”

“I don’t know. Are there any other connections between you that might exist?”

“Music. My mom was a…she taught the piano to me and my sister…”

“You have a sister? How old is she?”

“I think I’m twenty minutes older, something like that.”

“You’re twins?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What’s her name? Tell me it’s not Phoebe, please.”

“What? Why?”

“Is it Phoebe?”

“Yes?”

“Oh,” she said slowly, turning pale as she sat there looking at him. “Holden and Phoebe, brother and sister. The Catcher in the Rye. His dream, the children on the cliff. That’s what Chapman sat reading, right after he shot Lennon. He sat down on the sidewalk and started reading, and he kept saying…”

“‘I just shot John Lennon.’ I know. I heard him.”

“There are no coincidences, Sumner. I believe that, and now I think I know why he came to me out there.”

“Oh?”

“Somehow I’m linked to him, through you…”

He chuckled. “Or to me, through him.”

She looked up, looked into his eyes. “True.” She reached over and took his hand. “I’m not sure I’m capable of leaving you. I started to feel that way last night, and the feeling has only grown stronger since. It’s like I know you, I knew you somewhere before.”

“I think I’d remember those legs…”

“Bosh! So, you’re a bit pervie, are you? Got a thing for legs?”

“Only good ones.”

She shook her head. “Incorrigible, aren’t you?”

He nodded his head and grinned. “Well, do you need a ride into work?”

“What time is it? Seven yet?”

“Ten ‘til.”

“I’m okay, but I’ll need to take a taxi. I can change there.”

“Need another shower?” he said, just as Charley jumped and tried to climb up his legs. He picked her up and let her settle on his lap.

“Not if you’re going to get me worked up again!”

He smiled at the thought. “I seem to recall you enjoyed yourself.”

“I’d forgotten just how much I love those feelings.”

“Me too. Good exercise, as well.”

“I keep forgetting…you’re an American. Sex is exercise, food is sex!”

“Damn right. Come on, I’ll turn on the shower…”

+++++

He was with her in the taxi, along with an unruly wad of canvas stuffed in the ‘boot’ – the staysail that needed to be repaired at the North loft in Gosport – and he dropped her off, kissed her on the forehead before she left. The cabbie looked at him in the rearview mirror after that…

“Know Miss Debbie, you do?”

“Old friends,” Collins replied.

“Is that right…? So, Gosport, is it? That’s a quite a fare, you know?”

“Yup. Got to drop this sail off, but I’ll only be in there a few minutes if you’d like to get the fare back.”

“Sounds good to me. The address?”

“21 Wingate.”

Once the address was in his GPS they were off, and an hour later he carried the sail into the loft, an order to repair three areas of blown stitching confirmed. He rode back to Brighton in silence, and the cabbie dropped him back at Deborah’s café.

“I’m going back in a week if you’d like the fare,” Collins said, and the man gave him his card, thanked him and drove off. He went to the café and took a seat, and more eyes fell on him, more than a few full of suspicion – until Deborah came over and kissed him on the lips.

“Try some tea again? A scone?”

“Yes, please,” he said, then “When are you off?” he added in whispered awe, looking at her legs again.

“Mid-afternoon by the time I get my baking done.”

“I’ve got to do some grocery shopping. Anything you’d like me to get?”

“Just you.”

“I can handle that.” She walked to the kitchen and he pulled out his phone and checked emails. A confirmation from the sail loft, two more from Tracy, and what? One from Phoebe? It had been months…another coincidence?

He opened hers first and read through it in silence, wincing a few times as her words washed over him. Her husband had passed in late August, just before the new term began, and though she was staying on through this semester…she had no further plans, no home to return to. The questions in her words were plain to see.

He replied: ‘Will be in Paris for Christmas. Expect to see you there. Let me know if you need a ticket. We can get caught up then.’ He sent it, and her reply came just a few minutes later…

‘I miss you so much,’ she began, ‘and can’t wait to see you. Too much to talk about now, so set aside a few days!’

‘Tracy is making noises about coming over with her kids,’ he sent back. ‘Ambivalent about that, at best.’

‘I know you don’t care for her much,’ came the reply, ‘but she’s not the worst person on earth!’

‘A ringing endorsement! I think she’d have been Caligula’s soulmate.’

‘Too much! Can I bring anything with me when I come?’

‘You’ll be staying forward, so no steamer trunks.’

‘Got it, lil brother.’

Deborah slipped by with tea and scones sometime during the exchange and looked at him once, the curiosity on her face plain to see, but she saw he was busy and left him to it. He sipped the tea, a vile herbal concoction, but her berry scones were light and warm, and he munched his way through one before while he worked through Tracy’s notes.

‘Delighted to come to Paris,’ the first said. ‘Tell me when.’

The second was more problematic. ‘Assume we’ll stay aboard with you?’ was the main thrust of that one, and he replied that Phoebe would be staying onboard, but he’d be happy to see to her accommodations once he arrived in early December.  He didn’t expect to hear from her after that, but if she did, and if he and Deborah became an item, well, then he’d have to put an end to all these meandering obfuscations.

“Looks like you enjoyed the scone and hated the tea,” he heard Deborah say, leaning over from behind. He felt a breast astride his neck and sighed at the implied invitation.

“Another scone would be just fine, and maybe something I can put cream in?”

“Okay, so English Breakfast it is. You like the berry? I have some cherry coming out in a few minutes.”

“Is that what I’m smelling? It’s a bit like heaven.”

“You have an oven onboard, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, I can take care of that. Oh, there’re two markets nearby, I wrote the addresses here.”

“Butcher and a place for fresh fish?”

She leaned over and pointed out the window. “Tell Marco I sent you.” She kissed him on the cheek and skipped off to the kitchen, and as he watched her he was lost in the simplicity of the gesture, and the timelessness of her growing hold on him. She brought the pastry and tea out a minute later and sat opposite him…

“I can’t begin to describe how badly my feet hurt…” she whispered.

“Rumor has it once upon a time I gave a pretty good foot massage.”

“I should’ve known,” she giggled.

“Do you have a copy of Catcher?” he asked, and she grew thoughtful.

“You know, I just might. Want me to bring it by?”

“No hurry. You know, these are about the best scones I’ve ever had. Light, but with substance. Like you, I suspect.”

She smiled. “Another loyal patron,” she swooned. “How’s the tea?”

“Oddly enough, the best I’ve ever had, as well.”

“They never get the water to a boil in America. No body, no depth.”

“And I’m now a serious fan of clotted cream.”

She raised her eyebrows. “About fifty percent fat, so best keep that in mind.”

“Sheesh, no wonder I like it!”

She grinned. “I’ll see you later?”

He nodded, looked her in the eye then at the glowering people in the café, left some money on the table and left. He walked down the street to the fishmongers, introduced himself to ‘Marco’ – a rotund man at least ten years older than he – and asked him to pack up some salmon on ice for pick-up in a half hour, and when he finished shopping at the market he picked up the fish and took a taxi out to the marina.

He was up on deck finishing work on a balky halyard winch when he saw Deborah walking out the pier with a couple of sacks in hand; he hopped down and walked out to meet her, took the bags from her and walked beside her out to the Gemini. He noticed the way she was walking – gingerly – and remembered she’d said her feet hurt.

“You need better shoes,” he said. “Those heels are going to kill your feet.”

“Hmm? Oh, well, I’m not going to wear sneakers to work!”

He shrugged his disapproval. “What’s in the bags?”

“Just some stuff to bake with, and a few things for me, just in case…”

“In case?”

“I stay over again.”

“Oh.”

“Is that a problem?”

“No. It just doesn’t look like you brought a lot of stuff, if that’s what you had in mind.”

“Well, I thought it a bit presumptuous to move all my belongings onboard.”

He chuckled, looked at her as she walked. “The shower actually makes a decent bath – if you’d like me to fix one up for you – then I can work on those feet for a while.”

“You’re not, like, a foot freak, are you?”

He laughed at that. “The only thing about feet that freaks me out is foot-odor. I can’t handle that at all. Beyond that, I doubt anything turns me on as much as your eyes.”

“Not my legs, then?”

“Close second, but no, the eyes have it.” He put her bags on deck then climbed up, took her hand and helped her up. They got stuff unpacked and he turned on the bath and filled it, let her get situated in the small tub then put out some towels and some lotion. He went forward and grabbed Charley, let her do her thing aft, then put on some music and went into the head, leaving the pup to play on the berth. He sat with Deb while she soaked, looking at her eyes all the while, liking very much what he saw.

“Hard day at the office, dear?” he grinned, trying to keep humor out of his voice.

“Oh, shut up!” she smiled back, then she grew serious. “Did you do this for you wife?”

He shrugged. “Not often. She was a hard core independent, not real touchy-feely, yet she was affectionate in her way. She didn’t age well – her words, not mine, by the way – and I think she was self-conscious of those changes. Once the lights were out though, she was a hellion.”

“And you? How did you feel about her, being somewhat aloof?”

He looked away. “You know, for years we were consumed with our jobs…”

“For years?”

“For most of our married life together, yeah.”

“Were you more friends than lovers?”

“Maybe as time passed, but still, in a good way.”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good way for a married couple to be,” she said. “I mean, to me these days the cornerstone of any relationship would have to be intimacy. I never thought about it much when I was younger, beyond simply loving sex, but I’ve been without for so long now I don’t think I want to live that way, ever again. I look back and realize that emptiness was, for me, well, it’s a wasteland. Self esteem perhaps, or a broken relationship lead some people there, but I was always very sensitive to rejection, physical rejection…”

“What do you mean by rejection?”

“Just that. Sarcasm can seem funny to some people, but when it’s directed at me it hurts, I feel rejected, I get depressed. Then I guess I close down, pull away. I’ve always been that way, even at work. Someone jokes about my baking and I walk away, take it all very personally and I just shut down. Who is this playing, by the way?”

“Pat Metheny Group. The First Circle.”

“I like it.”

He nodded. “I couldn’t handle The Beatles today.”

She sighed. “I’ve been thinking about him off and on all day. Or, trying not to think about him, I should say.”

“I don’t think he’s dead,” he said. “Not really. I think he’s alive in every one who knew him, even if it’s only through his music, and somehow we bring him back to life when we need him.”

She smiled. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

“I don’t know how else to explain it.”

“Some things can’t be, you know. Can you explain love? Or the way you feel when you watch a nice sunrise? We can toss words out there, and who knows, maybe words come close sometimes.”

“They’re all we have, Deborah.”

“Really? When we first kissed, when I looked into your eyes I felt a million things I don’t have a word for. And what if I stopped and tried to think of words? Pointless, that. Isn’t it just better to open up to your feelings and accept them? Let them wash over your soul and hold them close. My heavens…what’s the name of this song?”

“Más Allá. I think it means ‘beyond’.”

“This is exactly what I’m talking about…how can you explain feelings in this music? But…why would you even want to? Just let it wash over you…” She leaned back, closed her eyes and drifted in the rhythm – and he looked at her, not knowing if he should be amused or amazed. She was so attuned to other parts of life, so much the exact opposite of Jennifer it took his breath away…

Then the music stopped and he felt a hand on his shoulder – and his eyes went wide. He looked up and Lennon was there – looking down at Deborah. Sumner stood as Lennon turned away, then he started strumming and singing…‘Here I stand, head in hand, turned my face to the wall’…all the way through You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. Collins looked at Deborah, her eyes now wide open, her head canted to one side. She pointed to the cabin…

“He’s here?” she whispered.

“Yup.”

She pulled herself out of the water and took the towel he handed her, then stepped out into the cabin and watched Lennon as he finished the song, then he too stood up.

“Why are you here, John?” she asked, stepping closer.

He looked at her, then took his hand and placed it on her heart, and his head tilted back a bit as is he was basking in the warmth of her flesh, then he reached over and put his other hand on Collins’ head.

“Come together-right now-over me…” he said, and in a heartbeat he was gone again…

…and she collapsed to the floor…

+++++

She heard his voice, far, far away.

“Come back to me, Deborah…wake up, come back to me…”

She felt his arms all around her, like she was naked and a warm breeze held her fast to the sun. She felt sand between her toes, a gentle surf lapping at her feet, something calling out to her. No, a voice…calling out to her. She tried to make out the words but they were lost, carried away on the wind and she reached out for the words, crying out for them to stop and she felt herself falling and falling and she was afraid now afraid and afraid she would never stop falling…

She opened her eyes, saw Sumner holding her, saw the concern in his eyes and she reached out for him, put her arms around him. She felt him lean in and kiss her cheeks, felt his tears on her face and she pulled him closer still. He fell with her down to the bed and they kissed again and again, falling into the lush warmth of their sudden life together, falling back into the passing echoes of Lennon’s music, falling beyond the meaning of words into the chance dancing embrace of intertwining souls. She basked in his warmth and drifted off to sleep in the afterglow of his kiss, adrift on balmy currents full of salty promise…

And she felt her feet, pain melting away, strong fingers working tendon and bone, flesh yielding tension through the currents, dissolution in growing warmth. “Oh, yes,” she whispered through her smile, and she felt his hands working through the pain, finding their way to yet another release as she drifted along. Then his fingers pushing through the tension in her ankles, breaking crystalline walls up her calves and on in to her thighs. She felt his hands move past the towels up the soft skin of her belly, molding her breasts to his will as she spread her thighs again. The sudden hardness, the sharp intake of breath and in her mind’s eye she saw his penis inside her, the skin of it yielding to her warmth as it slipped slowly through the currents of her womb.

“Slower…” she whispered. “All the way in…but slower…as slow as you can…”

She saw the waves and eddies of his thrusts as she placed her hands gently on his back, and as she felt each passing wave she rose to meet him, her mind alive with the image of him deep inside. Onward she drifted, rising on the crests of his waves, falling into the wake of his slow glancing dives. She felt the tension in his back, the quivering hover as release came for him and she watched his semen flow in translucent swirling pulses through her womb, still in the slowness of the gentle breeze she had found. She kept to her own rhythm, to her own slow rolling motion until her release joined his, until her need balanced his. She wrapped her legs around him and pulled him close then, held him still inside her own growing release.

“I love you, Sumner,” she barely whispered. “God only knows, but I do.”

Through closed eyes she felt him looking at her through her own spreading smile, then she felt him close again, his lips brushing her ear, then the airy music of “I love you too” washed over her soul. Their dance finished for now, and she opened her eyes and looked for him.

He was looking into her eyes now. “There was never a chance we weren’t going to meet, was there?”

She shook her head. “I don’t think there is anyway anything anywhere could have kept us apart.”

“No coincidences, huh?”

“None.”

“I think you should sell your shop and move your stuff aboard. I think we should spend the rest of our lives together.”

“Do you, now?”

“I do. I think I should buy you a ring and get down on my knees before we wake up and find out this has all been nothing but a fantastic dream…”

“And what if it was? What then?”

“Then I’m never going to wake up.” He heard Charley whimpering and groaned inwardly at his selfishness, then he hopped off the berth – his feet landing squarely in a spreading yellow puddle.

‘Nothing like reality to fuck up a really good dream,’ he said to himself as he went for the paper towels…

+++++

He finished hooking the propane hose up to the little gas grill he’d just hung off the transom, then he lit the stove and went back to the galley and finished prepping the salmon. “Can you make a Hollandaise?” he asked.

“Got lemon, butter and eggs?”

“Yup.”

“Then yes, I can.” He pulled out a small skillet and found the lemons, showed her where the other stuff was and adjusted the flame on the steaming broccoli, then went back on deck to grill the fish.

“Nice dolphin you’ve got there,” he heard a man say, and he turned to the voice.

“What’s that?” he said to the man on the motorsailer in the next slip.

He pointed to the water behind Gemini. “That dolphin. He’s been hanging around your boat all day. Is he a pet or something?”

“He’s a she. And she’s been following me for months.”

The man looked at him, shook his head. “Right. How do you know it’s the same one?”

“See the two marks under the eye?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s her.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.” He walked over to the swim ladder and dropped it into the water, then he slipped off his shoes and climbed down into water, bracing against the chill. The dolphin surfaced next to him; he put his hands out and rubbed the side of her face for a minute.

“I’ll be damned,” he heard the guy say.

Collins looked into her eye, watched her watching him, then he heard Deborah come up on deck.

“Oh, this just gets weirder and weirder,” she said.

The dolphin canted it’s head and looked at her, then back at him before she slipped under the water. He sighed and pulled himself back up the ladder, stood and adjusted the flame on the grill while the man stared at him.

“Months, you say? She’s followed you for months?”

“Since Christmas Day.”

“What’s that?” Deborah said.

“She’s been following me, since last Christmas. Maybe longer than that.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, frowning. “Could you turn the stove on for me, please?”

“Yup, if you’ll grab me a towel.”

“Right.” She took off, he turned the flame on the grill down a bit then turned, saw the dolphin had left – for now – and he walked down the companionway and took the towel from Deborah as he went below. He explained the safety solenoid system and showed her how to ‘light’ the stove, then he adjusted the flame and grabbed a platter, went back on deck.

And Rod Lethbridge was standing on the pier, holding a book in his hand.

“Sorry, just wanted to drop by and let you have a look at this. It’s the latest channel crossing guide, radio frequencies and traffic separation schemes and all that.”

“Thanks, come aboard. Where’s Elizabeth?”

“Up in the car, waiting.”

“Had dinner?”

“No, we were just heading into town for a bite.”

“Plenty of grub here. Go grab her and come on down.”

“You sure?”

“Wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t sure.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Collins went below, told Deborah to expect more company and filled her in. “You’re popular, aren’t you?” she said.

“You get used to it when you live aboard. You discover just how many friends you never knew you had…”

“Should I put some scones on? I’ve made the batter and all that…”

“Sure,” he said as he moved to the oven. “Preheat to what? 350?”

“That’ll do. Did you put on enough broccoli?”

“Always. I always cook for four when in a marina, because nine times out of ten at least that many show up.”

“Bollocks!”

“I’m not kidding. You get used to it, though.”

“So, if you want privacy…?”

“You anchor out. Away from shore, but even then, if you’re in a harbor with a bunch of other boats, a little cocktail circuit gets going as the sun sets and the same thing can happen.” He dashed up in time to help Elizabeth aboard…

“You’re sure we’re not a bother?” she asked as she stepped aboard.

“Yup. Don’t stand on formality…go grab a drink. Deb’s working on a Hollandaise…”

“Deb’s still here?” Elizabeth asked wryly, smiling as she passed him.

“I think she became a permanent part of the crew today,” he replied as he walked back to the grill.

“Indeed. Good for you. Can I help back there?”

“Sure, come on.” He lifted the lid and brushed on more ginger-butter and lime, ground a little pepper over the filets, then sprinkled a little soy for good measure. He pressed the flesh, moved a small filet off the fire while the larger piece caught up.

“Holy mackerel! That’s quite a production you’ve got going there,” she said.

“Good looking fish,” he said. “Fresh from Norway this morning, or so I was told.”

“Get it at Marco’s?”

“Yup. Quite a place.”

“Go on Friday if you like crab.”

“Really?”

“Best place around. Pricey, but quite good.”

“Can you hold the platter, please, while I get these off the fire?”

“Sure…uh, do you know there’s a dolphin back here…?”

“Ignore her.”

“Ignore…her? How do you ignore a dolphin two feet away?”

He put the fish on the platter then turned off the gas, turned and looked down into the water. He knelt, rubbed her face again. “Are you okay? Need me to come in again?”

She was still now, quietly looking at him.

“Okay, maybe in a little bit.”

She slipped beneath the surface again and was gone.

“Is she another friend of yours,” Liz asked.

“I don’t know who she is,” Collins said matter-of-factly.

“What?”

“Come on, we better take these below before they cool off.”

“You say so,” she said, clearly confused now.

And it smelled like a bakery down below, while Rod had fixed a bunch of drinks. Collins put the fish down and got the broccoli on another platter, then drizzled Deborah’s Hollandaise over the fish and veggies. Rice went into another bowl and they carried it to the table and sat.

“So,” Elizabeth said, “tell me about your dolphin.”

“What dolphin?” Rod asked.

“Oh? Did she come back?” Deborah asked.

“What dolphin?” Rod asked – again.

“We met last Christmas. She’s been following me ever since.”

“Where was that?” he asked.

“Virgin Islands.”

“What?!”

“Better eat up before it gets cold,” Collins said, taking a piece of the smaller filet, then some rice and broccoli. He took a bite, ignoring their incredulous looks, then looked at Deborah. “Great sauce, darlin’,” he said. “Just perfect.”

The rest began eating, but Elizabeth couldn’t stand it after a minute. “So, you swim with her?”

“Again?!” Deborah said. “Can I come?”

“No one else has ever been in the water with me when I go to her. Besides, it’s really cold; you’d probably need a wetsuit. Where’s Charley, by the way?”

“In her nest. Sleeping, last time I looked.”

He nodded, resumed eating. “Scones smell like heaven, Deb,” he said as he stood, then he went to check on Charley. He came out a moment later carrying her on his chest, then he sat back at the table and watched as everyone finished up.

“Okay,” he said as everyone looked up at him. “Time for a swim.” He grabbed his towel and walked up on deck, then back to the aft swim platform. He checked the ladder and hung his feet over and let them dangle beneath the surface, and a moment later her head appeared, her blowhole just clear of the surface.

“Damn,” Rod whispered.

Still holding Charley, Collins slipped into the water – then the dolphin slipped silently beside him and regarded the pup. She spun in the water slowly, revealing her dorsal fin, then her right pectoral, and Collins slipped over and took her pectoral – and the dolphin took off slowly towards open water.

“Excuse the ahem out of me,” Rod whispered, “but what the devil’s going on?”

“I-don’t-know,” Elizabeth moaned.

‘And this isn’t even the half of it,’ Deborah wanted to say.

They watched as he came back into view a moment later, only Charley was riding up by the dorsal fin, quite oblivious to it all, and the dolphin slowed to a stop, let him drift free. Charley looked at him, then jumped into his hands. He held onto the ladder with one hand and handed her up to Deborah, then turned to the dolphin again and drifted back to her. He caressed her face with his hand, then leaned closer still and placed his face on her’s. They lay in the water like that for minutes, then he broke free and came to the platform and climbed into Deborah’s arms.

He was shivering now, and the man on the motorsailer in the next slip was standing on his aft deck – open-mouthed – apparently too stunned by the whole thing to say a word. Collins wrapped himself in the towel and went below, straight to the shower. He stood and let the hot water run down his back, then Deborah slipped Charley in past the shower curtain.

“She’s pretty cold, Sumner. I’ll get another towel.”

“Right.” He held the pup to his chest, let the water warm her shivering body and after a while she looked up into his eyes and licked his chin. Deborah had laid fresh clothes out and he wrapped Charley in the fresh towel until she was snug and warm, then he dried-off with another.

And they were waiting for him when he walked out with the pup under his chin – all of them, even the guy from the boat next door.

“Sumner,” Elizabeth began, “I’m sorry, but this is all just a little too weird. What’s going on?”

“Anyone want coffee?” he asked.

“If you’re going to put more rum in, I’ll have some,” Rod said.

“I think I might too,” the stranger said.

Elizabeth and Deborah nodded.

He put on a large pot and rummaged around for a bottle of dark, then his hidden stash of Bailey’s. He poured equal parts rum, Irish cream and coffee into five cups and passed them around, then sat on the companionway steps while everyone settled in and looked at him.

“Charley and I, excuse me, the Charley I lost recently…”

“Is that the dog, you mean?” the stranger said.

“Yup. Charley was fourteen, hanging in there but running out of gas. We, uh, saw the dolphin last Christmas. It was strange, because I’d seen her once before. Not quite a year before, when my wife Jennifer and I were out walking on a beach out on the Cape. Uh, that’s Cape Cod, south of Boston. Jennifer had learned the day before she was, well, that she had Stage 4 invasive ductile carcinoma.”

“Shit,” the stranger said.

“Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you?”

“Paul Whittington, and I’m a physician. Work for the NHS over in Portsmouth.”

“Do you live aboard,” Collins asked.

“I do,” Paul said, looking at his mug. “This is damn good, by the way. Thanks.”

“Sure. So, the dolphin showed up on the beach that day, and I don’t know why but Jennifer and Charley walked into the water. They held on like that for quite a while, face to face. It was really quite magical, but when Jennifer got cold and came out of the water the dolphin grew very agitated, sounded like it was crying, very odd in a way but I’ll never be able to get that sound out of my mind. Or that day, really. Charley was beside herself, but I didn’t understand why just yet.

“Anyway, Charley and I were down in the Virgins last Christmas…”

“Your wife had passed, I take it?” Whittington asked.

“Yes, a few months before.”

“So sorry. Do go on.”

“We ran into a girl there, a Swedish girl in some distress, and we helped her get back to civilization, then Charley and I took off for Bermuda.”

“On Gemini?” Deborah asked.

“Yes. We were running from a line of hurricanes just forming up north of the Canary Islands. I’d thought about heading to the Azores but decided to keep west of them and headed north, for the Gulf Stream. We ducked into Hamilton and took on supplies, but left when reports showed the newest storm heading towards Bermuda.

“Anyway, I went out on deck one morning and Charley – was trying to pee. I mean trying hard, then blood came out. A lot of blood. She passed away later that day. I knew she had tumors, knew this might happen, but I was selfish and couldn’t put her down. I wanted her with me as long as possible, you see.”

“Why’s that?” Elizabeth asked.

“She was the last bit of Jennifer I had. We picked her out together, we raised her together. Jennifer held on to Charley at the end, and, I don’t know, Charley was the glue that held us together through that moment. Before she passed, when Jennifer passed, I mean, she asked Charley to take care of me. I don’t know how else to say this, but I think Charley understood all that. It’s hard for me to describe, but I grew as close to that dog after that as I ever had to anyone or anything ever before. She became my friend, and I loved her like a friend. And then she left me too.”

He took a long pull on his coffee, held this new Charley close to his chest – letting his warmth soak into her little body. He felt her licking his chin and smiled at her, at the echoes he felt in her eyes.

“So she was gone. I was going to wrap her in sail cloth – when she came. The dolphin, I mean. I had lowered sail at that point, and we were was just sitting out there, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. About going on, I mean. And that’s when I saw her, when she came to me.”

“You mean, out there? When your dog died?” Whittington said, incredulous.

“Yup. And I carried Charley down to her, got into the water with her. I held on to them both out there, like I did earlier. The same way Jennifer held on to her. After a while she took Charley from me, carried her away.

“I wanted to die then, in that moment.” He looked at the pup in his arms, feeling echoes of that moment drifting through his mind’s eye. “Then she was back. I have no idea how long I’d been in the water, but we were in the Gulf Stream then or I’d have passed from hypothermia. She pushed me back to the boat, forced me aboard. And here she is. She won’t leave me, so from time to time I go in with her. I think she understands more than I’d care to admit, but now she’s my link to Charley, who was my link to Jennifer. And I don’t want her to leave me now.”

“Holy Mother of God,” Elizabeth sighed. “Now, that’s one I’ve never heard before.”

“You’re not, like, a schizophrenic or anything like that, are you?” Whittington said.

Collins laughed. “I wish. That would be a tidy explanation, wouldn’t it?”

“Indeed it would, and I wouldn’t believe you for one minute if I hadn’t seen this for myself.”

Collins looked at the man again. “It’s been a very odd period of my life.”

“So, why get another dog, and why name her Charley?” Elizabeth asked.

“Why not? Parents pass on names to their kids, people have more than one dog,” he said, adding, “I can’t imagine not having a Springer with me now. Too much a part of my life, I guess. In a way I can’t quite explain.”

Whittington looked at him again. “I heard someone playing the guitar out there this morning. Was that you?”

“Nope.”

Deborah looked away, smiling, then stood up. “Anyone want more coffee?”

“Maybe more rum for me,” Rod said.

Whittington too held out his cup. “Coffee, if you please, Deborah.”

“Fresh scones if anyone’s interested,” she added.

Everyone wanted those too, it turned out, and Deb smiled. Elizabeth went with her, and they started on the dishes.

“Sumner,” Whittington asked, “just how long are you here for?”

“Oh, I’m working my way through a list of repairs,” he said. “Dropped off the staysail this morning near Portsmouth, want to change the belts on the engine and generator, all the fluids too, then I’m going to cross over to Honfleur, run up the Seine and bunk over ‘til April or thereabouts.”

“Oh really? I’m leaving in two weeks. Going to Paris.”

“The marina by the Bastille?”

“Yes. You too?”

Collins nodded. “Then we’ll be leaving about the same time.”

“Want to caravan across. Better for the traffic separation scheme that way.”

“Sure, sounds good. Going on holiday?”

“Retiring. Going to the Med, in fact, where I intend to kill myself slowly, with whiskey and loose women.”

Rod nodded. “Probably the best way to go out, all things considered.”

“So, is that a Nauticat you’ve got?” Collins asked. “What’s the draft?”

“Shoal draft option. Draws less than five.”

“You’ll ship the masts at Honfleur?”

“Cheaper across the river, but yes, probably.”

“I wanted to stay in the inner harbor there.”

“It’s charming, not so overrun with tourists this time of year, but still kind of busy. How long will you stay there?”

“I don’t know. A week or so.”

“‘Bout right. You going to hunt with that dog?”

“Nope.”

“‘Shame. They’re good here in our brush. Done much hunting?”

“Only submarines.”

“What?”

“Navy. I flew ASW aircraft.”

“What? A helo?”

“S-3 Viking.”

“Oh, the real McCoy. Ever get to chase Ivan?”

Collins shrugged.

“Ah, just so,” Whittington smiled. “Miss it? The flying, I mean?”

“Every day.”

“Yes, it’s hard to get it out of the system, isn’t it?”

“Did you…”

“Yes, RAF. Jaguars.”

“Bet that was fun.”

“Never saw combat, went on to school and that was that.”

“And you miss it…?”

“Every day. Yes.”

Elizabeth returned with scones and put them on the table, and a bottle of rum mysteriously appeared and was as quickly emptied. ‘The boys’ went up to the cockpit and looked over charts for Honfleur and the Seine estuary, Rod getting more worked up by the minute, while ‘the girls’ repaired to the aft cabin and began talking about how the devil were they going to adapt to life on boats – after all they’d been through together.

“Rod hasn’t stopped talking about it since we got in last night. One look at this boat and he went out of his mind.”

“At one point you looked pretty interested yourself.”

“Well, look around, would you? This is insanely nice, so who wouldn’t want to travel around like this?”

“Would you?”

“After the way Rod talked last night I may not have any choice in the matter, but truthfully, I like the idea.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. I mean, the bad weather, always having to adapt to strange new ways of making do…sure, that’s a stretch, but so too is living on that farm for the rest of my life. Constant change versus the same thing day after day. We’ve been out there ten years and I feel like the walls are closing in all around me again, so yes, maybe this is the thing to do.”

“I know,” Deborah said. “But things fall apart, don’t they?”

“You two have grown close, haven’t you? So quickly?”

“You have no idea.”

“Quite sudden, don’t you think?”

“Sudden, unexpected, but he’s such a breath of fresh air. And I’m mad about him. Out of the blue, yes, but just completely bonkers.”

“You think you’ll go with him then, when he leaves?”

“If he’ll have me.”

“You are kidding, aren’t you? That man is so completely smitten…I’m surprised he hasn’t asked you to marry him yet.”

Deborah smiled. “Do you really think so?”

“Oh Lord…did you say yes?”

“I told him I love him, Liz. And I do, too.”

“Have you told him about Steve, about all the other stuff?”

“That was so long ago, Lizzie. What would he want to know about all that? Ancient history, water under the bridge.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Okay. How have you been doing otherwise?”

“I don’t know. Too lonely for words, still depressed, then Sumner was there. That’s it. End of story.”

“Vulnerable. We’ll always be vulnerable.”

“Yes, but I feel strong right now. I guess that’s all that matters.”

“Sometimes that’s all we have, Deb. How’s the shop? Business still good?”

“Yes, very. Almost too good now, so I’ve been very tired.”

“That’s good too, though, isn’t it?”

“Too a point,” Deborah added.

“So, if you leave with Sumner, then what?”

“I don’t know. Sell the shop, I suppose.”

“Do you think that wise?” Liz said.

“No. But if the choice is wisdom or following my heart? Wisdom has been very lonely, Liz. Like living on that farm for the next twenty years, maybe, would be very difficult for you.”

“We’re in the same place again, aren’t we?”

“No, not quite the same,” Deb said. “We were young. Impressionable. We took too many chances, stupid ones at that?”

“And we fell apart.”

“We did,” Deb sighed.

“What if we…?”

“Fall apart again? Well, then, we’ll have a much longer way to fall this time, won’t we?”

“I can’t go back there, you know. Not again.”

“I know.”

“It’s not fair of you to not tell him. You know that, don’t you?”

Deborah looked away, winced as Liz’s words hit home. “Maybe.”

“There’s no ‘maybe’ about this, Deb. None at all. He’ll find out someday, and what if he finds out from someone else? You know what happens then, don’t you?”

They looked at one another, and they both knew what would happen.

Because it had happened before…on the same Merry-Go-Round that brought them together. It all started on a summer’s evening, now almost thirty years ago…

+++++

Life seemed like a magic carpet ride that night.

Walking through Soho, streets hot and thick, people moving like molten lava. Packed clubs and bouncers on sidewalks, hookers and pickpockets slipping through the steaming mass like hissing vapor, heavy metals playing through the night.

The word was out: George Harrison was going to play one of the clubs that night, and everyone was there. Limousines cruised the streets like sharks prowling a reef, and when word spread Harrison was in one of them speculation grew more heated: something big was in the air tonight, something big was going to happen. Magic was in the air, the wild magic of rising expectations drifting over fetid, bitter-sweet memories of London in the 60s.

Deb and a friend were on the prowl, too, looking for fun in what they hoped were all the wrong places. Up from the country, looking for some magic of their own, looking to have the time of their lives. They slipped into one of the clubs, went down the twisted stairs into a basement crawling with punks and goths, and in their fishnets and leather and PVC they fit right in. But she realized this wasn’t THE place, it was too boho, too frantic, no connections to be had – so they split, went back into the molten flow of the night. Deb followed the clothes this time, the tailored suits and women in heels, and she latched onto a well-tuned group, followed them into another club. A more laid back, upscale place, with roadies setting up on a stage, evening jackets and furs on the dance floor, and while she felt out of place Deb knew this was it. Drinks in hand they slipped into the shadows and watched, waiting for the action. A drummer was at his set and started a raucous solo and the frenzy set in, bass and rhythm guitars joined and then Harrison was on stage; Beware of Darkness set an ominous opening tempo, but then Wah-Wah hit and everyone was suddenly delirious. Harrison’s set lasted a half hour or so, then he was gone and another vocalist appeared, a keyboardist too, and an hour of Prog followed…and by that time Deb and her friend were hooked up and dancing.

Her partner held her close at one point, asked if she wanted to go to another gig. He was playing, he told her, and it would be cool if she came.

He was, as it happened, lead guitar in one of those ‘super groups’ that popped up in the 80s, and while famous was an understatement she’d hardly recognized him at first. After his concert they went to his place, a farm out in the country south of the city, and things soon went from cool to far-out. She became a part of the group’s inner circle, traveled with them to concerts in Asia and Australia, was swept along inside their whirlwind existence and started to lose herself inside the glitterati of the moment. Drugs and booze and private jets, sex anytime and anywhere, time passed in a purple haze until one of the boys overdosed. The group ran home to England after that, and though there was talk about returning to the studio everyone was too bummed to think straight.

Steve wanted to get away from it all, went with her to Brighton. He hid behind sunglasses and they stayed in a hotel for a while, then he bought a flat with a view of the sea and they moved in together. They tried to get off the drugs but were hooked, and one day she was arrested in a sting and he got her out, his lawyers got her a deal in rehab and she was home soon enough. He fell even deeper into the scene, was strung-out on heroin all the time, hashish for a nightcap any time of day.

Then she knew she was pregnant and he seemed to come back to her after that, for a time, anyway. The group went into the studio, and their next album was even more successful than the first, with a couple of number ones to kick off their U.S. tour. He was there when Brie was born, when they found out she was not going to live, and then she felt him pulling away – and it wasn’t long after that he left.

Her father died and she saw her ‘mum’ for the first time years, and knew she needed help to get through his passing. She stayed in the flat now, alone, and her mother came down almost every day, just for a visit, she said. In spite of their differences they grew close, closer than they ever had before, and they talked about all the things they’d never done together, talked about maybe opening a tea shop and baking things together.

Then out of the blue her mum passed, a stroke that hit without warning – and Deb spiraled away from the world after that. She went out for a walk one afternoon and woke up days later in a sanitarium. Weeks passed, then months, the only sunny ray of hope – a new friend. Another Brighton girl, another girl fighting drugs and depression. That girl had tried to find the night – and failed.

Her name, Elizabeth. Liz. Lizzie.

They became the best of friends, the kind of friend you make when you’re fighting the same demons, and their months passed in close combat. When Deb got out her mum’s solicitors settled the estate, she bought a little place and started the tea shop. Steve came ‘round and signed over the flat to her then was gone again. For good, this time, as it turned out, and life began to take on new contours. She drifted along listening to Scheherazade and Prokofiev, baking scones and arranging flowers and living her life as far away from ‘the scene’ as she could – and that other life obliged and stayed away from her. Her loneliness grew into a wall and she kept everyone out and away, on the far, far side of her wall. As life took on quieter hues, no one was allowed close – if only because she felt safer that way. She thought of her parents and her daughter if she thought of anyone at all, and so she danced in the dark, always alone, when she bothered to dance at all.

Liz got out months later and moved in with her, helped get the shop off the ground – then she met Rod. He liked dogs, had inherited his family’s farm and worked at an engineering shop in Southhampton. Stuff for the navy, big ships, not interesting but Liz didn’t need interesting anymore. He was smart and steady and had a quiet wild streak and dreamed big, but Liz loved him all the same and that was that. They got married though she still worked in the café from time to time, but in time and as with most things, Liz and Deb drifted apart.

Years passed as such between the two, with their time together in hospital a kind of dark secret, their very own scarlet letters to tuck away out of sight – but never far out of mind, because both seemed sure if word ever got out they too would be doomed to burn at the stake.

+++++

And life aboard Gemini settled into new rhythms of it’s own. Collins rented a car, Deb drove to work or drove him on errands. She baked at the shop and often took Charley with her; he stripped down to shorts and – belly deep in the engine compartment – changed fluids and belts and packing glands. She’d come back to the boat for a late lunch and Charley would bounce all over the deck, whizzing on her astro-turf, always getting underfoot, then, after a last trip to Portsmouth to pick up the staysail, all that remained was to top off the tanks and do the bureaucratic shuffle at Customs.

Whittington came by and told Collins he was ready to go, and his old Nauticat did at least look seaworthy and shipshape, then Rod and Liz came down with their duffel bags – and new boat shoes – both ready to go, they said. Deb had dozens of breads and cakes ready and packed, and Sumner had to laugh at the sight of so much food for so short a trip.

They all hiked into town and had dinner, talked about the looming adventure, about more mundane things – like when the tide was going to turn in the morning. After two drinks Whittington was talking about women and whiskey and how much fun he was going to have in Paris…

“Were you ever married, Whit?” Deb asked.

“Yes, but there are many other forms of self-abuse I have yet to enjoy, Miss Hill, and Paris is the best place, hell, maybe the last place left on earth to enjoy them all. I have ten cases of Scotch on board and a pristine liver. Really, what more do I need?”

“I don’t know,” Deb said, smirking. “Rubbers?”

“You have hidden depths, Miss Hill. I think I shall like you after all.”

“Glad to hear it,” she said. “Liz? You ready for this?”

“What? For our great sea voyage!?”

Collins laughed, shook his head. “You know, the weather in the forecast tomorrow is sunny and warm, with zero wind. The channel is a lake right now. We’re going to motor across a ninety mile wide mill pond…so don’t think of this as Shackleton’s last journey!”

“Famous last words!” Whit roared. “Right now there’s a giant wave forming out there with your name on it, Collins, and halfway across it’s going to come barreling right up the channel and we’re all going to surf our way to Amsterdam!”

“That’ll be fun,” Rod said. “Can’t wait!”

“So, think your fish will go with us?”

“Fish?” Sumner asked.

“That dolphin!”

“I hope so, but she hasn’t been around lately. I think she saw the pup, and Deb, and saw I’m okay. My guess is she left for the open sea, but, well, I kind of hope she’s still around.”

“Me too,” Deb said, and Liz nodded her head too.

“Funny how we’ve attached ourselves to this story,” Whittington said. “And that dolphin’s, too, I suppose.”

“What do you mean,” Deb said suspiciously.

“Oh, not trying to be offensive, Miss Hill. It’s just that Sumner’s story about his wife and dog is now a part of our story too, isn’t it? So now that dolphin has become a part of our story, she has personal significance to all of us; she’s not just another fish out there in the sea. We hold her close, she means something to us. That’s all I meant.”

“I guess that’s part of the bigger picture, isn’t it,” Liz said. “We don’t empathize with other people or animals unless or until they become personal to us in some way.”

“Oh, sure, but now that she is,” Whittington added, “I’m hoping she’s out there with us tomorrow, as well.”

After dinner they walked back to the marina, stopping to wait for the green flash, but it was a no-show and they walked on as the evening closed in around them. The air was a bit cooler than it had been the past week, and Collins saw a bit of mackerel sky overhead…

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we woke up to fog in the morning,” he said, and Whittington looked up at the sky then.

“Yes indeed. By midnight. That’s my guess.”

“Your radar? What’s the range?”

“Sixteen miles. Yours?”

“Thirty-six.”

“Shipping lanes start about five miles offshore, the heavier stuff is mid-channel, however.”

“Nothing like fog to spice up your life,” Collins sighed.

“Is fog a problem?” Liz asked.

“Only if there’s a problem,” Collins said, grinning at her.

“Which means what?” Deb said.

“It’s no big deal with radar,” Whittington said confidently as they resumed walking, but he moved in close to Collins then. “I haven’t noticed. Do you have reflectors in the masts.”

“Yup, on the shrouds, port and starboard. You?”

“Yes, of course. I think we should be out the breakwater just at slack water. 0440, I think it is, and get an early start on it. Sun should break it up by ten or so, and we can beat a lot of shipping out of the Solent that way.”

“Sounds good to me. We’d better get some rest,” Sumner said, looking at his watch.

“You decide when we’re going to leave yet?” Rod asked as he came alongside.

“Pull out of the slip around 0430 or so,” Whittington said. “Say about ten minutes to get all the lines aboard, so up on deck around 0415.”

“Six hours of sleep if you’re lucky,” Collins added.

They walked down the long sloping drive to the marina, then out to the boats. Collins helped Liz and Deb aboard, then turned on the spreader lights and walked around the deck, checking dock lines and genoa sheet leads, then the safety lines on the anchors. He went below and checked the bilges and float-switches, made sure the gear Rod and Liz had carried aboard was safely stowed, then he bid them a good night. Sitting at the chart table by the companionway, he pulled out the Ship’s Log and got it ready to update, the charts too, then went over breakers on the panel. He heard Deb in the shower and made a mental note to top off the water tanks first thing in the morning, then went forward and told Rod and Liz to keep any showering to a minimum – at least until they were safely back ashore.

“What about now?” Liz asked.

“Deb’s showering now, but as soon as she’s through. Rod, let me show you how to get it going…” ‘Five hours now,’ Collins sighed as he thought about the short night ahead, but he was getting the same butterflies he had before every trip and wasn’t sleepy, so he went in when Deb finished showering and brushed his teeth, then took his evening meds and waited for her on the bed.

“I’m beginning to know that look in your eyes,” she said when she came in and lay beside him.

“Oh?”

“Horny?”

He grinned. “Every time I look at your legs.”

“Sleepy?”

“Not at all. You?”

“Wide awake. Nervous – and wide awake.”

“Not much to be nervous about, not really.”

“I’ve never been sailing, I seem to recall telling you. Matter of fact, only boat I’ve ever been on was a dinner cruise somewhere when I was a kid.”

He smiled. “First time for everything, I reckon. Can you swim?”

“Why? Think I’ll need to?”

He chuckled at that one. “You never know. Can you?”

“A little.”

“Well, as long as you’re comfortable out there, but maybe it’s something you’ll want to consider later, at least if you feel like diving or snorkeling.”

“Okay. You’re not mad at me, are you?”

“For what? Not swimming?”

“Yes.”

“Of course not.”

“I just, you know, never had the opportunity, never even wanted to.”

“Okay. It’s no big deal.”

“Come here,” she cooed, and she pulled him close, started rubbing his head. “You need to relax a little, try to rest some.”

He settled his head on her lap, tried to close his eyes but to-do lists flashed through his mind’s eye, yet her fingers continued probing, pushing through his cares. Her thighs were below and he leaned forward and kissed one, he even nibbled a bit – until she laughed at his probing.

“Don’t stop there,” he heard her whisper – and he didn’t…

+++++

Something chirping, a bilge alarm, perhaps…

He opened his eyes, looked at his watch…

0330…? Already?

He curses the soul who’d invented alarm clocks and fumbled about trying to shut off the racket.

“Make it stop,” he heard a groan from under the sheets, a hollow voice cracking as she pulled a pillow over her head.

He laughed and climbed out from under the covers, slipped into the shower and rinsed her juices off his face and groin, got dressed and went to the breaker panel and turned off the shower sumps and pumps, then he put on coffee. He turned on the heaters, forcing hot water to run through the engine, in-effect, preheating the engine block. He went topsides and ran the water hose to the tank fill and turned on the water, then below to shut down the electric buses, then back up to disconnect the shore power cord, and Rod was up now, waiting for him.

“Would you coil this up? That and the water hose go in the aft lazarette, along with the fenders.”

“I’ll take care of ‘em.”

He went below and powered up the engine start circuit, then started the engine at the pedestal – setting RPMs to 1200, then jumped back below to light off all the 12volt systems, putting the radar and sonar on stand-by, initializing the GPS and powering up the bow thruster. Back to the cockpit, run sheets to winches and cleats, power to the electric primaries switched to on. Spreader lights, on. Running lights, on. Throttle – RPM to idle – steady at 800. Check safety harnesses attached to jack-lines, check bow thruster operation on the joystick.

Deb and Liz came up then – in shorts and t-shirts.

“You’d better get some fleece on, and a wind breaker,” he told them. “Once we get moving this fog will turn to solid water on your clothes.” They disappeared below.

“How close are you?” he heard Whit call from the slip beside his own.

“Slip the dock-lines and go. You?”

“‘Bout there. What about VHF?”

“Keep on 16, go ship to ship on 72, and if you want me, let’s try 73.”

“Got it. You take the lead?”

“Okay, but keep your radar on standby until we’ve got a few hundred yards between us. I don’t want to fry any nuts or boobs off.”

“Roger that!”

“Rod? Let’s cut the springs first, then the bow. I’ll hold her off with the thruster, then you pull the stern in and hop on the platform.”

“Got it.” He caught the mid-ships spring-lines and coiled them off, then the bow line. Once that line was secure Sumner got to the wheel and slipped the transmission to forward, but held off on the power. The bow started drifting right and he countered with the thruster, and when Rod jumped aboard he moved the throttle to 900 RPM and Gemini moved forward gently, then she was free of the slip and out into the marina’s causeway. Rod was securing lines and pulling fenders aboard when the girls came up again…

“We’re moving!” Deb squealed.

“We are, indeed,” Collins replied. “Stay in here for the time being. If you go over on this fog it might be hard to find you.”

“How can you tell where you’re going?” Liz asked when she got up into the cockpit.

“Take a look,” Sumner said, pointing at the ‘chartplotter’. “See this little red symbol? That’s us.”

“Looks like a map…” she said.

“That’s right, a nautical chart. We move on the chart, just like a GPS in your car, only I’m overlaying radar information onto the chart so I can see all the ships around us. We’re at the end of the pier here, and we’ll start our turn to the right…about…now!…and there’s the breakwater right ahead. The buoys show up on the chart and the radar, and we’ll follow the channel through this S-turn, then out to the main channel…”

“This is so cool!” Liz said. “Think I could try sometime?”

“Come on,” he said, moving out from behind the wheel.

Her eyes went wide… “I didn’t mean…right now?!”

“That’s okay. Take it.” She stood behind the wheel and held it tentatively. “It’s okay, make easy movements. Turn the wheel left and you go left…it’ll just feel heavier than what you’re used to in a car…”

“You can feel the water through the wheel…this is so weird!”

“That’s the flow of water over the rudder.” He looked at the chart, cross-checked his position against sonar and the depth sounder. “Rod? Check the lights up front, would you?”

Rod shot him a thumbs-up from the pulpit, and Collins was surprised how thick the fog was – he could barely see him up there and he turned around, saw Whittington had tucked in just a few meters off their port quarter.

“Okay Liz, I’ll take it ‘til we’re free of the fog, then you can steer all you want.”

“Cool…thanks.”

“He’s pretty close, don’t you think?” Rod asked when he got back to the cockpit.

“Yup. With this fog…”

“Okay. We clear of the breakwater yet?”

“Almost. You better get some coffee.”

“Right. You want something?”

He nodded… “Yup, coffee and a scone.”

“I’ll get it,” Deb said, and she and Liz slipped below.

“This stuff is thick,” Rod said. “Even for here.”

“Thickest I’ve ever seen…take it, would you? One four three degrees.”

“Got it.”

Collins went to the main and unfurled it about half way, then cleated it off as Deb handed him his cup. “Just in the knick of time…Wow…getting chilly, isn’t it?”

Deb just shook her head. “Glad you kept the heat on. Mind if we stay down here for a while?”

“Nope.” He took Rod’s cup from her and passed it on. “You still got it?”

“Yup. This display is awesome!”

“Yeah, everything right there. Good situational awareness.”

“Damn! I love it!”

“Yeah, slicker than eel snot…” Deb passed him a scone and he went aft – ate the thing in about three bites. Whittington waved at him, shot him a thumbs up and he returned it, then he jumped down into the lazarette and checked that everything was secure. When he got back on deck he walked the rail, checked that all lines were secure before heading aft again.

“Okay, I got it,” he said as he hopped back into the cockpit, and he sipped coffee until they passed the last channel buoy, then he steadied up on 183 magnetic and engaged the autopilot. “All over but the shouting,” he said to Rod.

“You make it look pretty easy.”

“Done it a few times. It might be easy, but it’s never routine.”

“Expect the unexpected,” Rod said.

“That, yeah, and the critical widget that breaks at just the wrong time, or the bearded-hairy that roars by in his surrogate penis at forty knots. There’s always another Crazy Eddy right around the next bend in the road,” he said as he pulled out his logbook and began his first entry of the day…

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 18 October, 0439 hrs GMT, Tuesday morning.

COG:183degreesMag <.1varE on AP;

SOG:5.9kts;

Temp: 44F;

Winds: light and variable in fog, viz 15meters;

Barometer 29.35 steady since 0330 hrs;

GPS: N50.48.23 W0.06.87.

Departing Brighton Marina Village on the slack, Isle of Wight, 41nmi/257magnetic; now approx 94 nmi to Seine estuary. Forecast: winds light and variable through midday, fog through 0930hrs, no storms in forecast. English Channel shipping lane traffic separation scheme in effect, zero traffic into/out of Southhampton/Portsmouth/Solent at this time, two radar contacts in the channel east of us, moving west.]

+++++

“You keep a log?”

“Have to; it’s a legal requirement. If you’re in a collision or accident of some sort and don’t have one? I’d hate to think of the consequences. Besides, what if you lose all your electronics? I’ll start running a plot on paper down below in just a minute.”

“I saw the chart down there. You mark right on it, huh?”

“Yup. Try to update it every hour, more often when close to shore.”

“It’s a shame no one does celestial anymore…”

“Oh? Well, I still do. At least a noon site every now and then, just for practice, and to double check the GPS.”

“You have a sextant onboard?”

“Can’t do celestial without one, Rod.”

“Shit…sorry. Could you teach me?”

“I’ve got a couple of books you should read first, but sure. It’s not as hard as you think.”

“You know, I just wanted to thank you for bringing us along. This is kind of a dream come true thing for me.”

“My pleasure. It is for a lot of people, but I hope more people would get out here. It’s a helluva way to live, to see the world, to understand people better.” He turned around, made sure Whittington was still tucked in close. “Okay, you take it. Autopilot engaged, just make sure it doesn’t disengage or go haywire. I’m going to start the plot.”

“Got it. 183 magnetic?”

“Yup.” He dashed below, found the girls in the galley making sandwiches of some sort and he penciled in the data he wanted on the chart, then went back and sat beside the wheel.

“Something on radar, popping in and out,” Rod said.

Collins went to the chartplotter and flipped into radar mode and moved the onscreen cursor to the target. “Okay, just under a mile, closing on an intercept course at nineteen knots.” He picked up the radio, confirmed he was on 16 then transmitted in the blind: “Sailing vessel Gemini departing Brighton marina heading 1-8-3, calling vessel approaching on heading 2-8-5…”

“Gemini, Gemini, Her Majesty’s Coast Guard, we’ll be alongside in a moment, hold present course and speed.”

Gemini received, holding 1-8-3, speed 6 knots.” He switched to 73. “Gemini to Aphrodite, did you copy Coast Guard intentions?”

“Roger, Gemini. What do you want me to do?”

“Maintain visual contact, let the coasties see us together when they come alongside.”

“Roger that, switching to 16. Out.”

Gemini, out.”

“What’s this about, I wonder,” Rod said. “Kind of dangerous, don’t you think?”

“Not really. With all the migrant smuggling going on, I’d imagine their patrols try to take account that smugglers like to work in the fog. Not to mention anti-terrorism patrols. I was boarded approaching Cork, rough seas too. Okay, they’re about here…”

He looked into the fog at about their ten o’clock and saw a little shift in the fog, and a large, rigid-hulled inflatable appeared when only about 10 meters off. The craft maneuvered into position and two men jumped aboard, one carrying a machine gun of some sort.

“Skipper?” The lead man said.

“Here,” Collins said.

“Sorry about this, but we’ve recent reports several small craft are coming from Calais, carrying refuges and such. We’re conducting routine safety inspections.”

“Understood, sir. Two women below, in the galley. Just the skipper on Aphrodite,” he said, pointing at Whittington’s boat. “Need coffee?”

“No thank you, Captain. Destination today?”

“France, Honfleur.”

“Papers?”

“Let’s go below.” He led the coastie below while the other stood at the rail, his gun at the ready. At the chart table he pulled out a binder with all ships papers at the ready, along with the boarding report the Irish Coast Guard had given him.

The coastie looked it over, flipping through the pages quickly, professionally. “Passport, Captain?”

“Yup, here you go.”

“Thanks, skipper. Mind if I have a look around?”

“Feel free. Sure you don’t want some coffee?”

He grinned. “Maybe just a small cup?”

Deb got it going, handed the cup to the seaman.

“Thanks,” he said. “Nasty out this morning.”

“Think your mate needs a cup?”

“Duncan? Coffee?” The machine gunner came to the companionway.

“Please! It’s foul out, right cold now.”

“Is a lot of smuggling going on?” Deb asked.

“Yes m’am…nonstop the last few months. Guns too, troublingly.”

His radio came to life. “Green two, sitrep.”

“Two here, clear in about a minute, Gold-one.”

“Gold-one received.”

“That means you’re clean,” he said, smiling. “We’ll, thanks for the warm-up. Back to it.”

Collins followed them out to the rail, and when their inflatable came close again they jumped across.

“Be safe, skipper!” the coastie called out. “Good day!”

“You too!” Collins saluted and they were off, disappearing within the mist in seconds.

“What did he look at below?” Rod asked.

“Well, the log, for starters,” Collins smiled, “then ship’s papers and such.” He looked at the coasties’ boat as it zipped across the radar screen, then cut back to chart/radar overlay mode. Whittington was still at the wheel, and he called him on 16, asked him to switch to 73.

Aphrodite, go ahead.”

“How you doing? Need to take a break?”

“I do, but how do you want to go about this?”

“Pull alongside, I’ll hop over. Need coffee?”

“Yes, I’m freezing.”

“Okay.”

Collins rolled back the throttle and Whittington pulled alongside; he grabbed a portable VHF  then went to the rail and hopped over, went to Whittington. His teeth were chattering and he looked grim. “Can you make the jump over to Gemini? Got the heat on below and coffee in the pot.”

“Jesus, I hope so,” he stuttered. “It’s 41 degrees out now, seems to be getting fucking colder by the minute!”

“Hop over, take your time.”

“Thanks, mate.”

Collins got close abeam and Whit made the jump with no trouble, both glad the seas were mirror smooth. He concentrated keeping just off Gemini’s quarter, found it more challenging than he’d imagined, and time passed slowly. A half hour later Whittington waved and Collins came back alongside, this second transfer equally uneventful.

“We’re clear of shore,” Collins said. “You want to break apart a bit?”

“No, I’d as soon stay in close, in case Deb’s scones come out as good as they smell!”

“She baking again?”

“It’s heaven down there, Sumner. God, she makes me rethink the whole marriage thing. You’re a lucky bloke, I hope you know!”

Collins smiled. “We’ll send you over some fresh ones.”

“Bless you!”

Collins made the leap and went below. “Dear God! What are you cooking now?!”

“Just a quiche. Want some?”

“Just a quiche?! You’re destroying my routine…tuna salad on crackers for breakfast!”

“Ugh!”

“Whit says you’re making him rethink marriage.”

“Did he now?”

“I can see why, darlin’. You’re amazing!” She came over and kissed him…

“Another radar contact, Sumner!”

“Playing my tune. Sorry.” He went up to the wheel, flipped screens and ran out the EBL. “Okay, two miles, course 0-5-0, speed 12. Huge return, looks like a tanker or freighter.” He bracketed the target and flipped on ARPA, got their CPA, or closet point of approach and saw they’d pass astern of the vessel – but only by a few hundred yards – so he altered course to starboard 15 degrees. “Why don’t you go below, warm up a bit.”

“Gladly!”

Collins checked the time…0600 now…he flipped back to chart overlay mode and did a quick calculation of their ETA in France…well after dark, so they’d have to tie up to the outer mole, wait to lock into the inner harbor tomorrow morning.

There was a channel marker coming up and he altered course more to the west to pass close enough for a visual confirmation, then started looking for it…and that’s when he saw her…

He went to the companionway and whispered down to Deb. “She’s back,” he said. “Come up quietly.”

Everyone tip-toed into the cockpit and looked off the starboard rail.

The markings under her eye, the easy, calm motion.

He went to the rail and sat looking at her, their communion absolute now. He wanted to dive in, swim with her and hold her, to welcome her the only way he knew how, but maybe this was the way she knew, maybe he just had to be content to enjoy her from afar. Still, he found himself wanting to know her better, somehow…he just didn’t know how to bridge the gap. No one did, he guessed.

She came closer for a moment, swimming on her side at bit, extending her left pectoral, and he leaned down, reached for her hand…

‘Are you reading my mind?’ he thought. Or did she know what he was feeling? Is it in our eyes? Do our souls connect there?

She broke contact and dove deep, out of sight – and suddenly he felt bereft again…knew she was gone, that she had been saying goodbye. He got up on his knees, looked for her…but no…there was little point now and he knew it. Climbing into the cockpit hit checked the plot of that target on the screen, but he moved with sullen stillness gripping his heart.

“Take it, would you?” he asked Rod, and everyone moved out of his way as he went below; he found Charley curled-up in her little nest and sighed. He didn’t want to disturb her but gently cupped her in his hand and carried her up to his face. He looked into her eyes, lost in the mystery he thought he understood, not in the least aware of how close to the truth he really was, and she licked his chin while she looked at him.

“Do you understand me yet,” he asked her. “Will you ever.”

He felt Deborah at his side and turned to her, keeping Charley close all the while.

“That felt strangely like a goodbye,” she said.

“It was.”

She put her head on his chest, her face next to Charley’s, and she was suddenly aware how intently the pup was staring at Sumner, and for a moment she thought she understood. It was like there was an opening in the clouds and in that sudden, blinding moment she could see the future.

There were dark clouds ahead, storms she could scarcely imagine, but he was there too.

And the quiet piping of a calliope, playing the music of an evening’s walk through the carnival. She listened to the music, and wondered where it was taking them.

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 18 October, 1700 hrs GMT, Tuesday afternoon.

COG:182degreesMag <.1varE, on AP;

SOG: 4.2 kts;

Temp: 59F;

Winds: light and variable, viz unlimited +15nmi;

Barometer 29.92 steady since 1300 hrs;

GPS: N49.58.06 W0.15.55.

Approaching Seine Estuary, seas still glassy calm. Aphrodite/Whittington now trailing 2nmi, engine trouble continues, he can make 1500 RPM without overheating, and his autopilot ram failed. Helped Paul change impeller but I think the heat exchanger is internally corroded – 15 year old engine. Volvo and SimRad parts in Le Havre so will dock there, check on pulling the mast. Still barely enough wind to fill the main. Can see smog over the city of Le Havre but little else, still 36 miles off the entrance channel. Liz steering last two hours.]

+++++

Collins looked aft, at Aphrodite struggling to keep up, thinking it about time to set up their approach to Le Havre. At four knots they were still nine hours out; dropping down to three knots would put their arrival closer to sunrise, around 0500, an all-around much safer course of action with a balky motor. He got on the VHF, asked Whittington to go to 73.

“Aphrodite, go ahead.”

“Paul, let’s drop it back to three knots, take some strain off that pump. That’ll get us in closer to daybreak. We need to tuck in to the right side of the entry lane, too.”

“Bless you! Just thinking the same thing.”

“We’re going to circle around, come alongside. Come on over and get some lunch.”

“Roger that. Thanks again.”

Gemini out.”

“Liz, let’s make an easy right turn, head back towards Whit.”

“Aye-aye, Captain my Captain!”

Collins shook his head. “Wanna walk the plank, Liz?”

“Not after seeing those sharks.”

“You get used to them. Rod? Feel like taking over for Whit? Maybe for a few hours?”

“Sure. Sounds fun.” He looked at Liz and grinned.

“I want to get him fed and rested. It’s going to be a long night, even longer if that engine fails completely.”

“Think I should stay over there tonight?”

Collins nodded. “That’s worth considering. I know the wind’s going to pipe up sometime this evening. It just has too. If it’s on the nose we’ll have to fight our way in under sail.”

“But the forecast…?”

“No, Rod, I can feel it. It’s out there, building. Liz, better let me take it for the transfer.”

“Okay,” she said as she moved out from behind the wheel.

“Rod, take your foul weather gear with you, and some gloves. Just in case. Maybe a couple bottles of water…”

“Got it.” He darted below and was back up in a flash…

Collins wheeled hard around and came up on Aphrodite’s starboard rail and Rod jumped across; once Rod had the wheel Paul came to the rail and jumped across to Gemini, then staggered into the cockpit and sighed.

“I’m beat, Sumner. Just so tired…I just don’t get it.”

“It’s been a while since you’ve done this, right? The cold this morning, then the sun, not to mention a little stress thrown in for good measure. You’re not drinking enough water too, so you’re dehydrated. Come on, doc, you know this stuff; you’re not immune to the laws of nature.”

“Damn…there’s book knowledge, then there’s the ‘in your face’ reality of it all.” Deb handed him a bottle of Gatorade and he thanked her, then popped the top and guzzled it down. “Very disappointed in that boat.”

“Don’t be. Like I said, a lot of people working on boats these days are opportunists who don’t know what they’re doing. They charge twice what they should, take three times as long to do the work, and usually screw things up. You’re best bet is to take a class or two, then get your hands dirty and do it yourself. Volvo engines are tough to work on though, lot’s of proprietary tools.”

“Fifteen years on, never thought she’d fail.”

“Really? Whit, it was time to consider a re-power five years ago. There’s corrosion all over the block, so imagine what the inside looks like. Probably much worse, and that Simrad AP? That thing’s ancient. Consider a new chartplotter and AP at the same time you re-power and you’ll save yourself some heartache down the road. You won’t need them on the Seine, not for a while, but the technology today is magic.”

“I know. I’ve been looking at your kit. Envy, you know, is a bad thing.”

“This was all standard on the boat, well, most of it, anyway.”

Deb handed up sandwiches and a bottle of water, then came up and sat by Sumner. He thought she looked distracted, almost confused.

“You should think of getting a first mate, too,” he added. “Ocean passages are tough by yourself.”

“Not sure how many I’ll do, Sumner. I plan on…”

“I know what you’re planning, Paul. But you need to consider the unexpected choices waiting for you out there. You may get to Marseilles and decide to head to Greece, or Tahiti. Then what?”

“I see your point. Maybe I should just get a new boat, you know?”

“Not a bad idea, but what you’ve got is good enough. A few potent upgrades, maybe check the integrity of those chainplates…”

“Why? What’s wrong with them?”

“Rust on the tangs, Paul. If they’re in trouble, I’d consider dumping the boat. You could be in for a big yard bill to fix those.”

“What about an Island Packet, like yours.”

“Go to Florida, look at boats about one to two years old. Save some bucks, even with the VAT.”

“Now there’s a thought.”

“Take Rod and Liz with you, head down to the Caribbean, then in April head to the Azores, then into the Med. We can meet up in Marseilles next summer.”

“What would it take to get you to make that trip with me?”

Collins chuckled. “I might go to Florida with you, help with the boat, spend a week or so with you while you work out the kinks, but first things first. Let’s see how Aphrodite shakes out, get her surveyed, see what’s really up with her before you decide to do anything. She’s really a decent boat, when you get right down to it. Some days I’d kill for an inside steering station like you have.”

“When everything’s working, you mean.”

“Yup. Fifteen years is fifteen years, especially out here.” He checked his course, and Rod’s too, then kicked on the AP and let it steer for a while. “But now’s not the time to stress over all this BS. Go below, take a nap.”

Whittington grumbled his way below and crashed in the forward cabin.

“Geez, Sumner, why’d you tell him to take Rod and me?”

“Could be an interesting way for you two to get some experience. You’re taking to this like a duck to water, you know?”

“Do you think he knows what he’s doing?”

“Whit? Yup, he just needs a few extra hands, that’s all. Especially while he’s making the transition to full time liveaboard.” He turned off the autopilot then, and looked at Liz. “Okay, you take it now. Keep the compass on 1-8-5 for the time being,” he said, looking at the chartplotter. “Until we get to this buoy.”

“How far is it?”

“Ten miles or so. Three hours, maybe.” He went below, got Charley and brought her up on deck. He strapped her in a little life-jacket and hooked her up to the jack-lines, then carried her aft – to her Astro-turf mat. When she finished he tossed a few buckets of sea-water on it, then sat with her in the sun, looking aft at Aphrodite, hoping the engine would hold and that she could make it into port…

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 18 October, 2000 hrs GMT, Tuesday night.

COG:178degreesMag <.1varE on AP;

SOG: 5.7 kts under full sail;

Temp: 43F;

Winds: WSW 25-30 kts, viz 3 nmi + dropping;

Barometer 29.82 falling;

GPS: N49.32.11 W0.14.1.

Approaching Seine Estuary, seas 3-5 feet, spray blowing from crests. Aphrodite struggling with the waves under reefed main and staysail, still keeping station on our port quarter, about a hundred yards aft, and Rod is steering topsides while Paul works below on the AP ram. Now less than 15 miles from port/marina breakwater entrance, lots of heavy traffic in the shipping lane in/out Le Havre. Taking autopilot off now.]

+++++

Collins looked at Liz – leaning over the aft rail – puking her guts out – and tried to steer a smoother course through the waves – in order to keep the motion gentler. Deb had given up working down below when the nausea hit, but coming up into the dark hadn’t helped much. Still, she hadn’t barfed yet, which was more then he could say.

“Feeling better yet?” he asked her.

She shook her head in curt, sharp jerks. “Nope. I could curl up and die right now.” She looked aft at Liz – then quickly looked away.

“It gets me every time,” he said, watching her. “First night out in rough weather. I feel better after I let fly, most people do, so don’t fight it.”

She didn’t – and she just made it to the aft rail before she started feeding the fish.

He stifled a chuckle, if only because he commiserated with the feeling, then struggled a little when he felt another rising tide of bile. He started to sweat, felt that urgent sense of panic, then flipped on the autopilot and hopped onto the aft deck and crawled to the rail.

He hoped fish liked scones.

When he got back to the wheel he saw Rod in the glow of the Nauticat’s steaming light, leaning over and garping off Aphrodite’s stern, Paul apparently at the wheel now. Then…nope! Paul dashed beside aft – flashing hash as he went, and with no one at the helm Aphrodite peeled off in a hard left turn, suddenly running downwind. Rod managed to crawl back to the wheel and steady the course, and Collins looked at the wind speed creep up over 32 knots and groaned.

Liz was beside him a moment later. “Are we having fun yet?” she shuddered, wiping her mouth.

“Bad one for your first night. Sorry, but a big front formed off Biscay a couple of days ago.” He burped, groaned. “It’s coming through now, wasn’t supposed to, though. My guess is the wind will die off in about an hour or so.”

“Fuck. I’m never getting on another boat as long as I live.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I know that feeling. First night blues. Gets a lot of sailors, if they’re willing to admit it, that is.”

“Seriously? You keep coming out here knowing this is going to happen?”

“Sure. Take another Prilosec, drink some ginger beer, you’ll be right as rain in a little bit.”

“You want one?” Deb said, crawling back into the cockpit.

“Sure, can’t hurt now. How many have you had?”

“Two.”

“Wait a while before you have another, maybe chew another Tums. Anyway, I doubt you’ll need it in another hour or so.” He had the weather overlay on screen now, looked at wind vectors and direction forecasts, then he called Aphrodite.

“Paul, how are you guys doing over there?”

“Oh gawd. This is a helluva way to lose weight…”

“Roger that. Look, hang on a bit longer, forecast plots look like this’ll blow through in another hour.”

“Heaven to my ears.”

“Last of the wind will be out of the southwest, so the estuary won’t be too rough.”

“Okay. When it settles, would you stay in the lead so we can follow you in?”

“Yup, will do. Oh, I was able to get an email through to the marina. We have two slips reserved. E for echo 2-3 and 2-5. I’ve got them plotted.”

“Bless you, Sumner!”

“Hang in there, you two. We’ve all lost some weight tonight.”

“Ready for some escargot?”

“Oh…hell, don’t say that, okay?” He heard laughter through their open mic. “Gemini out!”

“Out.”

“Escargot?” Liz said. “He can’t be serious.”

“Misery loves company, darlin’.” He groaned, then he looked at Liz looking at him and wondered if that had been an inappropriate thing to say. She had a look in her eye now, one that he recognized. He flipped on the autopilot and stretched his feet out, flexed his calves, changed the radar range to 3 miles and filtered out the sea clutter. AIS info on Aphrodite popped up, then he saw another return about a mile away, ten o’clock relative and almost on the same course into Le Havre – but converging, yet barely making way against the wind. They’d intercept soon, maybe a half hour, so he altered course and eased off the wind and picked up speed, trying to place Gemini between the target and Aphrodite. Maybe the coast guard, perhaps a fishing boat – or smugglers returning from the UK?

He reached for the VHF and called Paul.

“You see that target? About our ten o’clock, a mile out?”

“No, nothing.”

“Check your gain and sea clutter.”

“Ah, okay, got it now, looks like it’s turning towards us. Is that why you changed course?”

“Yeah, think I’m going to run interference, see what we’ve got. Stay a few hundred yards west of us, prepare to call the coast guard if something goes down, and let’s stay on 16 for now.”

“Got it. Out.”

Gemini out.” He sighed as he studied the screen, considered the evolving vectors. “Deb, Liz? We’ve got a small target a mile out, I’m going to check it out, get a visual. Y’all prepare to go below on my say-so.”

“Okay, Sumner,” Liz said, but Deb sat still, looked at him with a blank, empty face.

“What are you thinking?” she said as she watched him look forward.

“Don’t know. Worst case, smugglers.”

He started the engine and went to the companionway and furled the sails, just in case…then he powered up the mast-mounted FLIR night vision camera and pointed it in the general direction of the target, though the range was still a half mile out. He opened up the cockpit locker and got a hand-held spotlight out and rigged it up, put it in it’s holder…

…500 yards to the target…

…250 yards now…it really should be visible…

The boat appeared in the FLIR screen…a low, open dory, sitting very low in the water…no one visible…

‘Uh-oh,’ he said to himself. ‘Not good…’

…100 yards…

He powered up the spotlight and shone it on the metal hulled boat.

Nothing, no one visible.

…50 yards, then 25…

The light was hitting the inside of the boat now, and he saw bodies there. The light hit someone in the face and he saw eyes opening. Throttling back, he moved closer, saw a little kid holding the tiller, a little outboard motor thrashing vainly against the bobbing seas. He couldn’t have been more than ten or twelve, but the kid was looking at him now, shielding his eyes from the light. A woman sat up, started waving at them, and he got on the VHF, making sure the channel was on 16.

“Paul, call the coast guard. Looks like refuges from what I can see – and it looks like they’re in bad shape.”

“Roger that.”

“‘Coast Guard to unidentified vessel reporting refugees, come in.’”

“‘Sailing vessel Gemini, Coast Guard, go ahead.”

“Be advised, do not approach. It has occurred that these people lure in yachts and ambush. What is your position, please.”

Collins read out the position from the GPS and advised receiving their caution.

Gemini, if you can, please back off and wait for our vessel. We should be on station in twenty minutes, try to keep refugee vessel in sight.”

Gemini received…uh, wait one…Gemini here, pan–pan–pan…woman in the water, no, wait, two more just jumped out of the boat, trying to swim our way…”

“Coast Guard received, be advised we’re sending a helicopter.”

“Aphrodite received. On station, wind gusting out of the southwest to three three knots.”

He watched as the kid manning the outboard got up and jumped in the water…just as the little boat slammed into a huge wave, and now the boat turned into a tight circle…

“Fuck this!” he said, gunning the engine and altering course for the little boat. “Liz, get that light on the people in the water…Deb, remember how to set the swim ladder?”

“On it,” she said, jumping aft.

“Make sure your safety harness is on!”

He was losing them in the swell, a head would bounce up on a wave-top then disappear in the trough, and he saw the water temp was now in the low-50s. “They won’t last long in this shit,” he said to no one in particular, then he saw one of the women less then 20 feet off. He swung the stern her way and put the prop in neutral, then hopped aft and deployed the LifeSling. He hurled it at the woman and she reached for it, got a hold of it and he pulled her to the swim platform. When she was aft he reached for her, pulled her aboard, and Liz soon had the light on another woman. He coiled the rope quickly and tossed the sling again; this woman reached up and caught it in the air, and he pulled her in, hauled her aboard.

He heard Paul giving updates on the radio, then heard a helicopter overhead, it’s powerful searchlights flooding the area – then he saw a rescue diver falling like a knife into the water next to the flailing boat.

Liz had another woman in the light, but she was struggling to stay afloat and he turned to Deb. “Get ready to pull us in,” he said as he handed one end of the line to her. He jumped into the water, swam over to the woman and got an arm around her chest, then yelled at Deb to haul them in. He pushed the woman aboard, then hauled himself aboard,

“Liz! You got that kid in the light?”

“Over there!” she yelled, pointing.

He saw the kid thrashing in the water, terrified, unable to swim in these waves…and he took the sling and dove in again…the beam of light leading the way. He got to the kid just in time to pull him up as he sank out of sight…

“Got him!” he called out to Deb. “Haul us in!”

He handed the boy up to Deb, guessing the kid weighed less than thirty pounds. When he was back on deck he looked for the rescue diver, saw him struggling in the water with two more women and motored to their position, swung the stern and cut the prop again, then ran aft to pull them aboard. The diver came up the ladder, obviously out of breath and shaken.

“Merci…thank you,” he said. “It is very cold out tonight.”

Collins nodded. “I’m going to swing in close to their boat now.”

“Oui, yes, good idea. I will help get these people below.”

“Keep that light on the boat, Liz…” He powered over and got next to the dory, and looked down…

…into the maws of Hell…

Bodies, some dismembered, most dead, a few souls still stirring…

“Mon dieu,” the diver said, crossing himself. “Cannibalism…”

Liz dropped the light and vomited, the diver got on his portable radio and checked-in, speaking in staccato bursts he could hardly understand. Collins got a line from the dory with his boat-hook, cleated that line aft and paid out some scope, then ran another line forward and tied that one off. The diver helped him place fenders to hold the little boat off Gemini’s hull, and they waited for the CG’s boat to arrive. Paul swung-by in Aphrodite and looked at the carnage, then motored away – shaking his head…

“Aphrodite here, Sumner, am I needed over there?”

“He’s a physician,” Collins told the diver, who then radioed that information to the crew above.

“Oui, I can get IVs lowered, we can start those.”

“Okay Paul, come on. They’re going to drop IV sets.”

“Right. Off we go!”

“There are reporters aboard the helicopter,” the diver said. “They were working on a story about these refugees. I’m afraid they are videoing everything.”

“Swell.”

The guy laughed. “We will all be either heroes or villains by tonight. My name is Louis, by the way.”

Collins took his hand. “Sumner. Good to meet you.”

“I think you have saved many lives tonight, Sumner, but this is an awful story. It repeats many times now.”

“I know. Liz? You alright?”

“No, Sumner, I’m not fucking alright. Not at all.”

“Can you help Deb get some fluid in these people. Paul will be here in a moment, maybe help him if you can.”

“Sure,” she said sarcastically, “I can do that too.”

Aphrodite pulled alongside and Paul timed his jump with the swells – and just made it aboard. He had a nylon bag in hand and jumped below, and a huge orange duffel came down on a hoist from the helicopter moments later. Louis grabbed it and dove below, and Deb came up a minute later, shaking her head.

Then he saw her looking at the people in the dory below. “What about them?” she said.

“One thing at a time, I guess. These people will have to be helicoptered out of here, but I think that’s a job for the coasties.

“Were they…oh! Sweet Jesus…”

“Don’t look at them, Deb.”

She turned away, and he saw her shut down emotionally, then looked off – into the night of human despair.

Louis came up a moment later, checked in on his radio. “Our boat is almost here. I think Paul will go in on our boat, and I will stay on his boat, get it into harbor.”

Collins nodded. “Makes sense. Mon Dieu! What a night.”

“Another day out there and all of them would be dead, your friend says. They are lucky, I think. Many are not these days, but who knows. We find a few, but many more we never do? It is a catastrophe, no? Is that the word?”

“It is. No doubt about it, in every sense of the word.” He looked down, saw two fast moving targets on radar – AIS on them blacked out, a sure sign they were either coast guard or military.

The two boats were on station minutes later and Collins looked on while men and women got to work in the dory, lifting up the living, putting the dead in body bags, then rigging the dory for the tow in to port. A second boat came alongside and Louis helped transfer the refugees from below, then he back came to Collins. “I will be on your friend’s boat, please stay on 16. He tells me the engine is troubled?”

“Yup. 1200 RPM, 3 knots. I’ll stay behind you in case the engine fails. Can you sail?”

“Yes. Okay, not great. See you in Le Havre. E25, correct?”

He nodded, held out his hand again and Louis took it, and then Collins saluted.

“Are you military?” Louis  asked. “Retired, perhaps?”

“US Navy, still listed in the reserves.”

“Rank?”

“Commander.”

The kid went rigid and fired off a salute.

“Easy Louis, no uniform, no need to salute, okay.”

“I must inform base. They will need to contact the attaché at your embassy.”

“No, they don’t…”

“I will see you at the slip, Commander.” He was already on the radio and Collins groaned as the kid jumped to the Coast Guard boat for the transfer to Aphrodite.

“What was that all about?” Deb asked.

“Nothing. Just paperwork. Layers and layers of paperwork.” He released the cleats and the   coastguardsmen took the dory in tow, then he re-engaged the autopilot and resumed course for Le Havre, struggling to regain situational awareness in the dark. “What’s it like down below?”

“A rather large mess, kind of like a bomb went off down there. Can it wait?”

“Absolutely it can wait. Stay with me, will you. I’m a little on edge.” He pulled out and set the main again, then the staysail – and decided that was enough for now.

“On edge? Really? You look like a bottle of valium to me, ice come to life.”

“What? What is that supposed to mean?”

“Calm. I think you look calm,” but there was an unfamiliar edge in her voice. Almost like sarcasm, and he wondered what that was about, as she seemed to be pulling away from him by the minute.

“Wish I felt that way,” he said, suddenly unsure what she was feeling, or why.

“I’m sure you can deal with it,” she added.

“Hell, I don’t know. Would you sit with me, please?”

“Can I sit with you too?” Liz said. “I feel like I’ve just been through a nightmare.”

“Come on, sit you down. We all have, you know?”

Liz came and sat by Deb, and they held each other for a moment, then Deb leaned into him. “Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”

“Nope. I’m just…I don’t know. I don’t have the words right now…”

“That boat,” Liz said softly, “I’ve never seen anything like that before, in my life. I’m going to have nightmares about those poor people for the rest of my life…and, oh God, I’m so tired of barfing…”

“Rough initiation,” he said. “Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Liz said. “But you know what? When you called me darlin’ a while ago? I knew everything was going to be okay after that.”

“What?” Deb said. “He called you…”

“Force of habit,” Sumner said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, Sumner,” Liz added. “It was nice. I loved that you said it, really. I felt better after that, like all my fear disappeared,” she said as she snapped her fingers – “just like that.”

“Those poor women,” Deb said. “Such despair. To jump like that…to let go…”

“All of them,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Running from home, nowhere to go, piled into camps in countries that don’t want them, that can hardly afford to keep them. All they can do at this point is keep running, hope they end up someplace they can make a new start.”

“We have such different expectations, don’t we?” Deb said.

“We have countries that still work. Cultures that have stood the test of time. When we intervened over there we upset the balance of things, an order that had existed, well, for decades. Equilibrium was lost, and I guess it’s trying to reassert itself now – only in ways we don’t like. But there are just so many people everywhere you go these days, so there’s not a lot of room left for those who run from failed states.”

“And you want to sail over there?” Deb said, shaking her head. “Why?”

“It’s our world, for better or worse, and the only one we’ll ever have. I realized a long time ago I’m an explorer, that I want to see this world, certainly not all of it but as much as I can – as safely as I can.”

“You’re not planning on going over there, are you?” Deb sighed.

“What? The Middle East? I doubt it. But Greece, Turkey, maybe even Tunisia. Yes, I’d like to go to those places. While we still can, I guess.”

“It’s not always this shitty out here, is it?” Liz asked.

“The weather? Well, all I know is it’s a lot less stable than it used to be. You need the tools onboard to decipher all the trends, and you need knowledge. That front developed fast today, but this happens more often these days than it used to. As our climate changes, we’ll have to relearn how to interpret fast-changing data, be prepared to act quickly when unexpected things develop.”

“There you go again,” Liz grinned. “Mr Calm and Rational.”

“Well, why get angry about stuff like this? Nothing constructive comes out of anger. Anger doesn’t resolve anything, it usually just leads you from one dead end to the next.”

Liz shook her head. “I don’t know. I’m getting more and more pissed off thinking about those people out there. Why do they have to run in the first place? And then why is it that no one will take them in?”

“Yup, all tough questions. I think it’s a failure of empathy, when people in government can hide between layers of bureaucracy our humanity is suffocated. An inability to put yourself in the other fellas shoes, that kind of thing. For me, it’s ‘how would I feel in their situation?’ Problem is, most of us have no frame of reference, we can’t relate to having our homes bombed out from under us. And then, we’re afraid what these people will do, not might do, but will do to our own homes and towns, and to our way of life. Damn good question too, because there’s real potential for trouble. Like I said, there are just too many people in the world, and it’s leading to some very hard choices. We’re learning another ‘new world order’ – how to balance our basic humanity and our desire to do the right thing with all these uncomfortable new realities. I think we’re going to make some bad mistakes along the way, but as long as we keep our humanity in sight, in the end we’ll try to do the right thing.”

Liz shook her head. “It makes me want to go home and curl up in a ball.”

“But what if most people did just that?” he said. “Wouldn’t that be the end of the us? I think the people who embrace change usually come out on top. People who resent change seem to become bitter and withdraw from the world, they stop looking for humane solutions, they lose sight of their basic humanity and hate takes over – and that’s all they see after that. It’s what’s been happening in my country for the last fifty years, and you can see where that’s taken us. But maybe that’s because a lot of influential people have found they can make a living peddling hate and ignorance. Or maybe I’m just a cynic.”

“I don’t think you’re a cynic,” Deb said. “I think you’re out of your mind!”

He laughed. “I do too.”

“Really, who but a lunatic would be out in the channel in a howling gale in the middle of the night, diving into the sea and pulling people out? By the way, I love you so much it hurts right  now.”

“I love you too.”

“Well, what the fuck, let’s make it unanimous,” Liz cooed. “I might as well say I love you too.”

“Yippee, let’s go have a threesome,” he chuckled, but they laughed too as they looked at him. “I see a light ahead, that channel buoy, I think,” he said, pointing at the chartplotter. “And look at that…wind’s already under 20. Another couple of miles and we’ll be in the wind-shadow; I bet the seas will be flat again in a half hour.”

“And not a moment too soon,” Liz added. She looked aft, looked at her husband steering Aphrodite – and scowled. “I bet he’s having the time of his life right now, you know?”

He nodded. “He sounds very confident. By the way, I like him a lot. He’s good people.”

“I’ll tell him,” Liz said.

“Not necessary. But he’s really going to want a boat after tonight. Keep that in mind when you talk with him later this morning.”

“I hate to say it, but I want to do it, too.”

“You do?” Deb asked, incredulous. Collins looked at Deb again, wondering what had changed…

“I feel more alive right now than I ever have in my life. I love you, Sumner, for showing me your world, and I know Rod does to. God, to think this has all come about because of a puppy…”

“Speaking of…” Deb said, flying down the companionway steps and forward, to Charley’s nest in his office.

“Gad, did you see the way she moves now,” Liz said. “It’s like she’s been doing this all her life.”

“She’s amazing,” he said.

“You do love her, don’t you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good. I think she’s been waiting for you all her life, you know.”

“I just feel lucky…” He saw her moving around below, putting paper and other garbage in a trash bag…

“How’s the pup?” he asked when she came up.

“Thirsty. A little TLC didn’t hurt.”

“Never does,” Liz said wistfully, looking aft to Aphrodite.

He moved forward and rolled out the genoa and Gemini’s speed picked up, her angle of heel, too.

“This feels so outrageous,” Deb said. “Like a horse, galloping through the night…”

“Tell me how this feels…” He began sheeting in the winches then pinched in closer to the wind, and he buried the port rail as Gemini heeled hard over. The apparent wind began to roar again, and the girls were holding on for dear life now…”

“I thought you said the wind was going to die down!” Liz yelled.

“Wind speed hasn’t changed!” he said, then he fell off the wind again and eased the sheets, and Gemini settled down again, almost level and the apparent wind speed fell off, too. “That all happened simply by turning into the wind more, hardening up the sails. We weren’t going faster, not that much if at all. Kind of cool, isn’t it?”

“Damn!” Deb said, letting go of her hand hold.

“About half the trip from Bermuda to Ireland was just like that. Rail hard over, wind and spray all the time, and working down below when the boat’s heeled like that is tough work.”

“Sleeping must be rough, too.”

“I slept up here most of the time. Cat nap, maybe an hour or two every now and then. Too many boats out there. Fishing boats, freighters, all the time. And containers fall off container ships all the time too, thousands a year, and they’re just floating around out there. Have to keep an eye out for all kinds of stuff out there.”

“But, is being alone…?”

“It’s stupid,” he said. “Dangerous. I never planned it that way, I guess. But life changed, I adapted as best I could.”

“You’re not alone now.” Deb said.

He shook his head, looked at her. “Nope. And I like the way it feels, too.”

“How much further to the marina?” Liz asked.

“Less than twenty miles, six knots, call it three hours and a little bit.” He looked at the radar, Aphrodite was falling behind again, but not as badly. The loom of city lights ahead was a welcome sight now, and the falling wind a mental comfort, but they were coming on twenty four hours out – with just a few naps. “Why don’t you two grab some sleep while you can. You’ll be more help when we dock if you’re rested.”

Suddenly the motion grew almost calm, then even more so.

“Okay, that’s the wind-shadow. Easy going now. Y’all go now, get some sleep. I’ve got it.”

They both went to the forward cabin and he reset all the display screens for their approach, cycled through the radar ranges, noted heavy traffic in the harbor getting ready to head out to sea, so he started moving to the right part of the approach lane. Once he was where he needed to be, sails were adjusted, the autopilot reset, then he started setting up dock lines and rigging fenders on deck.

He kept busy now, focusing on the approach, following the routines he was most comfortable with, not really needing any help at this point. The city’s lights popped into view seven miles out, freighter traffic mushroomed as dawn approached, then he rolled in the foresails, started the motor, ran it at idle speed. A mile out he rolled in the mainsail, set out the docking fenders and ran his dock-lines, got them ready for a solo landing.

With so much traffic, he had to perfectly time cutting across the departure lanes, and he had to take account of Aphrodite, as well. He let them catch up, then they slipped across the lane and in past the marina breakwater. Making the s-turn through the jetties, he followed the track on his chartplotter towards their assigned slips, then he powered up the bow-thruster, checked function as he let all Gemini’s speed bleed off to zero.

She slowed to a dead stop just off the slip and then nudged the bow over with the thruster, countered the stern with reverse thrust, then cut power as the hull lined up with the slip. Dropping into forward, he added a hundred RPM for a moment then went to neutral and centered the wheel. Ship’s speed was a dead crawl at this point and he worked her into the slip inch by inch, coming to a stop with her in the center of the slip. He hopped off and set the dock lines, repositioned all the fenders, then went through his shutdown checklists, cleaning up lines and gear on deck, then heading below to finish paperwork. He made his call to customs for inspection, to get entry formalities out of the way.

A few minutes later he felt footsteps on deck and went up into the cockpit. Customs, Coast Guard, immigration, they were all there, waiting, but then he saw a few dozen reporters on the dock, several news crews setting up video cameras, including one from CNN. He presented ship’s papers and passports, an inspector asked him a few questions about importing fruits and vegetables, then the local Coast Guard captain thanked him for the operation last night, asked if he’d mind a brief press interview about the incident. They went out onto the concrete pier, the sun just coming up, Aphrodite just now lining up, ready to dock. Lines were thrown, lots of shouting ensued, then she too was tied-off, the news crews videoing every bit of it.

Then they turned on Collins, with Louis and the local captain standing beside him.

The usual questions came in a barrage: ‘what was it like out there?’ And, ‘what was going through your mind when you dove into the sea?’ Then, the dreaded ‘what do you think of the current political situation?’ And finally, ‘what do you think we should do with these refugees?’

“First of all, I was just a mariner rendering aide to people in need…”

“Captain Collins,” a drop-dead gorgeous reporter nearest him asked, “we were above, in the helicopter, and we recorded the scene. You dove into the water to rescue several women and children. Surely this is not simply a case of a mariner rendering aide…”

“I’m sorry. What’s your question?”

“Many people are saying your actions are heroic. What do you have to say?”

Collins looked confused. “I’m sorry, but surely it’s not heroic to save another’s life. I was surrounded by extremely capable Coast Guardsmen, so I was just lending a hand. And I would hope what I did isn’t so unusual, that anyone in the same circumstances would do the same.”

“Captain? These refugees, have you seen many while at sea?”

“No, these were the first.”

“Where did you sail from?”

“Originally?”

“Yes, please.”

“Boston to the Virgin Islands, then Bermuda, Ireland and the UK. We left Brighton yesterday morning.” He saw Deb and Liz yawning in the cockpit, the commotion apparently having woken them. Deb came to the rail and handed Charley over to him, and the cameras zoomed in on the pup.

For a moment, anyway.

“Captain, what do you think needs to be done to these refugees?”

“TO them?”

“Oui, yes. They are disregarding our laws. What should happen to them?”

“I should think the people of France will know what to do better than I.”

“Yes, but Captain, what do YOU think should happen?”

“I think they should treated in exactly the same manner you’d like to be treated if you were found in a similar circumstances.”

“Captain, where are you headed next.”

“To take a shower.”

Everyone laughed at that.

Then, “but where will you go next, on your boat.”

“I haven’t decided. Do you have any recommendations? Someplace with nice showers, perhaps?”

More laughter.

The gorgeous reporter, a blue AFP logo on her badge, hung around while all the others packed their gear and walked back to shore, then she came over to the boat and approached him.

“Mr Collins, may I ask a few more questions, perhaps onboard?”

“Right now?”

“Would later be better?”

“Depends. How long do you think you’ll need?”

“Perhaps I could come over this evening?”

“That will be fine.”

“Say around six?”

“Sure.”

Deb took Charley and he pulled out the water hose, hooked it up and began rinsing down the deck and all the gear, the sun just shining through on the marina. He pulled out Charley’s poop-pad and Deb let her roam for a while, then he walked up to the marina office and settled up, asked them to call the Volvo and electronics shops and have them drop by later that day.

He noticed one of ‘the reporters’ in the parking lot, camera in hand, taking pictures of him. He stopped and stared at the man, then went back to the slip, helped Rod get Aphrodite squared away, then they walked back to Gemini.

“So, have you decided when you’re flying back?” he asked Rod. Liz sat close, her ears attuned to her husbands every word.

“Tomorrow morning, I’d think. Depends if Whit needs us around, I guess.”

“Well,” Deb said, “here he comes.”

Whittington came aboard, looking worn out and emotionally drained, but he looked over at Aphrodite and smiled. “Thanks, Rod. She looks ship-shape!”

“I’ve asked the marina to get some folks down to look at things. Hope you don’t mind, but time may be an issue.”

“Nope, sounds good, but I’m about to pass out. You must be too.”

“Circadian rhythm kicking in. I’m up now,” Collins added. “Got a mess to clean up below.”

“You wouldn’t believe how ill those people were. What they had to do to survive.”

Liz spoke-up then. “I really don’t want to hear about it, please.”

Whit nodded. “And I don’t really want to talk about. The reporters got to me up in the car park .” He sighed, then looked at blood and tissue all over his clothing. “Oops, I’ve got to go,” he said, dashing off his boat.

Collins went below, got out the half filled trash bag and went to work…

+++++

The AFP reporter came a few minutes early, and by that time Collins was feeling tired. Deb and Liz had set out snacks and wine, and now they sat with Charley on the aft deck, enjoying the last of the day’s sun. Rod came up and sat with Sumner in the cockpit, while the reporter set out her voice recorder.

Looking at Rod, she began: “You were on the other boat, Mr Lethbridge, were you not?”

“That’s correct. I wasn’t really a part of the action.”

“Very well. Captain, reports have surfaced you are in the US Navy. Are these correct?”

“I was, once upon a time, yes. A pilot.”

“Ah, so you are not active duty then? Yet you worked for your State Department, in the intelligence division?”

“Embassy security.”

“Is that not a part of the intelligence directorate?”

He shrugged. “What’s your question, Corrine?” he said, remembering her AFP badge from the morning.

“You are not still employed by the State Department?”

“No, certainly not.”

“I ask only as one of the ‘reporters’ this morning can not seriously be considered so. He works for the LePen people, and I was concerned when I saw him there.”

“I see.”

“You understand what this means? LePen?”

“Of course.”

“You seemed evasive this morning, concerning the dilemma these refugees pose to the security of Europe, especially with so many people without documentation continue to pour into Greece.”

“Evasive?”

“Your ‘do unto others’ comment. Curious.”

“That’s how I feel.”

“I see,” she said, writing on a notepad. “Are you traveling on to Paris?”

“That’s one of the options.”

“Well, I ask only as you seem to have reserved a slip at the Arsenal.”

“Then why did you ask?”

“You are used to dealing with the press, I see.”

“I am.”

“So, may I have some wine?”

“Only have a Riesling. My cellar’s a little low.”

She laughed. “That’s fine.” He poured a glass and she took some cheese and a slice of pear. “Very good,” she said. “Thanks.”

“Of course.”

“I was above, as you may recall my saying this morning, and I saw your actions. Have you seen today’s papers?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

She pulled a few front pages from her case, handed them over. “You should be prepared, you are not an unknown here now.”

“Swell.”

She laughed again. “A master of understatement, I see.”

“You’ve got that right,” Liz said.

“Ah, Mrs Lethbridge. You were there, along with Miss Hill? What was your reaction to these events?”

“Horrified, I think, best sums it up. When I looked into that boat…”

“Yes, I could see, from above. What do you think our policy should be towards these people?”

Liz looked at Sumner, then at Corrine. “I’ve been thinking about what Sumner said this morning, about the importance of trying to empathize with what these people are up against. I’m sorry, but I can’t see much beyond that. It is a human tragedy, so these people deserve a humane response.”

“What do you mean?”

Collins poured a glass of wine, took a slice of pear and looked away, detesting this reporter’s tactics.

“Only that,” Liz said. “I’m sure the EU will come up with a humane response.”

“Ah, humane. Yes. Miss Hill, you too were close to the action. Anything to add?”

“Me? I just pulled on the rope. Hardly heroic.”

“And about the refugees? Do you have anything to say about the current situation?”

“I suspect ending the conflict in Syria is the place to start. Beyond that? I bake pastry, and not for the Foreign Ministry, so I would say my opinions would only have a certain uninformed quality about them.”

The reporter looked at her, wondered who she was. “I see. Well, will you be here if I have anymore questions?”

“A few days, then we’re going across the river for a week or so.”

“Honfleur?”

“Yes.”

“Lovely. Well, I will wish a pleasant journey, wherever that may be.”

“Thanks,” Collins said as he stood to help her get off the boat.

“How long have you known Miss Hill,” she asked when they were on the pier.

“A few weeks.”

“Ah. Well, thanks for the wine.” She handed him her card, then smiled at him and walked down the pier, Collins now so tired he was feeling light-headed.

“You look like hell,” Rod said as he climbed back in the cockpit.

“About how I feel.”

“Let’s get you to bed,” Deb said, and he followed her below, fell onto the blanket and promptly started snoring.

“My God,” Liz said, watching from the galley, “I think he was asleep on his feet.”

“Thirty six hours, non-stop. He’ll kill himself at this rate.”

“What are you going to do now?” Liz asked when they got back up to the cockpit.

“Go home, think about things. What I want to do.”

“What? Like what?”

“Sell the shop, or the flat. Or even stay there, let him go on without.”

Liz seemed shocked, almost betrayed. “Deb? What’s changed?”

“Absolutely nothing. I don’t know how to say this, but he really seems to me to be so much bigger than life right now, and I’m just simply not. So I wonder, really, if I’m what he needs?”

“Deborah,” Rod said gently, “you’re tired and you’re confused, as you have every right to be. We’ve all been through a lot. Think about this before you act, would you? I know he loves you very much, and I think you love him too. That’s precious, and rare.”

“You’re correct, Rod. So, when are you leaving? Gatwick, is it?”

“Yes. Tomorrow morning.”

“Would you make another reservation, for me to go with you?”

“Yes, I can do that.”

“Thanks very much. I should pack my things.”

Liz looked from her friend to her husband and back again, not understanding what had just happened, but she knew something wasn’t right. Something important had happened, something vital had changed, had been snuffed out. She watched as Deb carried the wine and cheese below, marveled at how well she’d fit into this life, and wondered what had come over her friend.

And she wondered how Sumner would take it.

+++++

He found her note in the galley when he finally woke late the next morning, and as disoriented as he already felt her words hit him like a hammer blow. He’d stumbled around the boat, saw she’d taken all her belongings – just like she intended never to return – and a darkness settled over him in the hours after that became hard to shake.

Whittington was topsides on Aphrodite when he went topside, his worried scowl following a surveyor poking around the boat’s chainplates, shaking his head and mumbling little off-putting grunting noises as he crawled around the deck.

“Ah, there you are,” Whit managed to say. “Was beginning to worry about you. How are you feeling, by the by?”

“Foul.”

“Well, you missed a tearful farewell, that I can tell you.”

“Did the Volvo people make it down?”

“Yes indeed. They suggest a complete re-power, as you mentioned. The autopilot is a goner, too. My friend on his knees here has found a lot of rust, rot in the wood around the chainplates, in the deck and a few floor beams, and the mast step looks questionable.”

“And?”

“I’m thinking of a trip to Florida.”

Collins laughed. “Well, come on over when your chum leaves, and we’ll open a fresh bottle of rum.”

“That sounds splendid.”

“I’m going to put on some coffee. Want some?”

The surveyor looked up. “I do,” he said, “if you don’t mind.”

“No, I don’t. Whit? You?”

“Yes, I’m coming. Marcel? When you finish?”

“Oui, oui. Another ten minutes and I will be complete.”

Collins went below, started the coffee, found Deb had left a dozen freshly baked scones in the microwave and shook his head. He found Charley in her little nest, an old turd on the towel by her side and he shook his head, cleaned up her mess and took her topsides.

He left her in the cockpit and let her ramble about while he fixed coffees and rum, and he carried two cups topside, along with a plate of scones and some puppy treats. He put them on the cockpit table and Deb’s pastries sat there, staring at him like an accusation. He picked up the pup and gave her a treat, ignoring the scones, ignoring the cold hard fact that Deb wasn’t there with him…

…when he felt Whit hop aboard…

“Ah, rum first thing in the morning. Now this is what I had in mind when the word retirement was uttered in my presence.” He took a sip… “Ah, splendid.”

Collins took a scone and bit into it.

“She was a bit daft this morning, Sumner. Very, I don’t know, ‘off’ in some way. If I knew her better I might be able to shed some light, but I’d have said, if I saw her in clinic, that she was profoundly depressed, morbidly so.”

Collins nodded. “C’est la vie, Whit.”

“So, you’re going to let her go?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I may just go back to sleep.”

“Don’t do that, mate. Depression isn’t the way forward. Decide what you want, then act.”

“Right. So, how much does Volvo want?”

“Immaterial at this point. I’d guess with the structural issues found so far I’d have to invest a hundred thousand euros to bring her back.”

“Be tough to sell with so many issues.”

“Oh, it’s just an equation. Lose it now, or later. There are two Island Packets in the region for sale, same size as Aphrodite, even less draft so better for exploring the canals. I’m going to take a look in the morning if you want to tag along.”

“We’ll see. I want to move over to Honfleur soon. This is a little too busy for my taste.”

The surveyor hopped aboard, handed Whittington his notes and he scanned them. “So, about a hundred and twenty?”

“Around here, oui. Less on the southern coast, even less in Spain.”

“Have a seat,” Collins said as he went below for the man’s coffee. “Would you like anything in your coffee?”

“I smell rum. A little, please.”

Collins chuckled down the stairs, made another cup and handed it up. He sat down and held Charley close, then he heard his phone chirping and went back below.

It was Liz calling. He picked the phone up and took the call…

“Yello? Liz?”

“Sumner? Are you alright?”

“No, not really. What’s going on?”

“I’ve haven’t seen her like this in years, she’s very unstable right now. I don’t know what happened. Do you? Did you have a fight, anything like that?”

“No, nothing.”

“Can I do anything for you on this end?”

“Keep me posted, I guess. She asked that I not call, that she’d get in touch when she felt she knew what was best for both of us.”

“I see. Is that what you’re going to do?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do, Liz. What about you and Rod? What are you two going to do?”

“About the farm, and sailing? I don’t know. We have a lot to talk about, don’t we?”

He chuckled. “That you do.”

“Sumner, I meant what I said, you know. We both appreciate so much what you’ve shown us.”

“It was my pleasure. Well, keep in touch, would you?”

“I will, but…no…” He sensed her hesitation, words as yet unspoken. “You too.”

He broke the connection, went into the cockpit and looked around the marina. “The light is different here,” he said. “Warmer.”

“Oui,” Marcel said. “All the way to Lyon, there is a pinkish cast to this land. South of Lyon the light is mellower, almost lavender.”

“Here, what’s this about?” Whittington said looking around. “Bosh…looks the same to me…”

“You are not a romantic, are you, doctor,” the Frenchman said.

“I’m as romantic as the next fellow, I suppose,” Whittington said.

“Ah, just so,” Marcel smiled ruefully. “Excellent coffee. What is the rum?”

“Oh, just some stuff I picked up in the Virgins.”

“And what about you, Captain. Are you settled after your adventures yesterday?”

“My adventures?”

“You were on television, on the front pages of the newspapers again this morning. How was it? Your fifteen minutes?”

“Oh, that. How are the people? The boy…?”

The man shrugged. “No one cares about them, monsieur. There are now thousands in Calais, all trying to make it through the tunnel to England. A steady stream from Greece, heading north. A disaster, a tide of human disaster.”

“Yes, it is that,” Whittington said. “Was that Deb on the phone?”

“Liz. They’re home, it seems.”

“Ah. I suppose I should call Rod, talk with him about the boat situation.”

“Oh?”

“Well, he’d asked if he might buy her if I decide to sell.”

“I see. That would be a handful to take on.”

“Couldn’t do that, not in good conscience.”

“So, what IPs are for sale here?”

“A 370, and an older 320.”

“The 320 is very small,” Collins said, “but the 370 is an ideal boat for one person, even two.”

“Yes, about what I thought. A few in Florida, as well. Much better price.”

“I can go with you tomorrow,” Marcel added, “help you look it over.”

“Splendid. Sumner, you must come with us.”

“Okay. What time?”

“I will pick you up,” Marcel said, standing, “at 0800. It is an hour’s drive.”

“Excellent,” Whittington said, following the Frenchman off the boat.

Collins got his papoose rigged and put Charley in, then grabbed a leash and they hiked off to the beach north of the marina and walked for hours. She ranged ahead when he put her down, quartering from side to side and stopping to sniff everything she came upon, and with autumn’s winds now blowing they had miles and miles to themselves. He looked up from time to time, watched as freighters and tankers left the Seine and plowed out into steep-walled seas, looked at gulls wheeling overhead – their lonesome calls the perfect soundtrack to this bitter day. He took off his shoes and walked into the water and Charley following him in – getting soaked to the bone – then she shook herself off and jumped up on his legs. He pulled a towel from his pack and swaddled her, put her back in the papoose, then turned back for the marina. She was sound asleep within moments, curled up in a tight little ball.

He looked down at her. “I love you, little friend,” he whispered, a tear in his eye.

+++++

She looked at the four walls of her living room, the bare shelves in the refrigerator, the terrifying emptiness in her heart where Sumner had lived the last two weeks, an overwhelming grief washing over her when she thought of him.

She could no more control the black hole that called out to her now than she could control the setting of the moon, and when the darkness called out to her during the storm she began the inward collapse she knew would consume her – and him too, if she let it. She fled, for fleeing was the last best thing she could do to protect him. Now she fell into her bed and pulled the sheets over her face and hoped to sleep, hoping in the end she’d never wake up again.

But her mind played tricks on her. She brought her hands to her face and smelled Charley – and she reached out for the pup, wanted to hold her close – but found only air.

She smelled coffee and thought of him at the wheel, fighting the storm, looking after them all – and she thought how she had abandoned him.

She thought of scones and in her mind’s eye she was walking around Gemini’s galley, lighting off the stove and mixing batter, the entire boat filled with the scents of her creations – only now she felt the cold emptiness of the air in her flat, and she turned inward – on herself.

Most of all she felt his hands on her skin, the consuming passions of their encounters still fresh in her mind…in the shower, sleeping with Charley on his chest, everywhere she turned she saw him – and after another sharp, stabbing pain behind her eyes –  sleep simply would not come for her.

She dressed and went to the shop, immersed herself in the rituals of preparing to open the next day…but he was there too. Everywhere she looked she felt him, every time she felt him in the air she missed him, and every time she missed him she felt the choking claw of loneliness tearing into her flesh, ripping her apart, the darkness growing more complete with her every waking breath.

Finally, she thought of the cliffs, and how they called out to her, and she wondered what lay on the other side of darkness.

+++++

He turned on the shower and let the water warm for a moment, then stood under the warm spray with Charley nuzzled under his chin, holding her close-to while they looked into each others eyes. He rinsed the salt from her hair, cleaned little balls of tar and dirt from between her toes then rinsed himself off. He dried her, wrapped her in another towel then dressed, thought about eating but really wasn’t in the least bit hungry for anything but Deborah’s hands in his own.

He looked at the phone – no calls, no messages – and stepped into the galley, looked around for something to do and failed.

He saw her copy of The Catcher in the Rye on his bookcase and ignored it for a moment, then picked it up and started reading. He looked up from time to time, watched the sun set out beyond the estuary and took another of her scones and picked at it for a while, then made some tea. He picked up the phone, thought of calling her but stopped himself.

I have to honor her wishes, he told himself, not push her into a corner.

+++++

She walked out to the edge of the cliff again, her hands and arms outstretched, the sea breeze strong and sure, and she turned her face to the stars. Everything looked so different out here under the moonlight, her skin all silvery blue, the greens and blues of the land and the sea now bluish shades of gray, the sea a sparkling plain of glittering, moon-swept waves.

She closed her eyes and stepped forward…

…and felt his hand on her shoulder…

She turned, faced him, cried out in surprise…

“I was thinking about Eleanor Rigby,” Lennon said, “but really, irony was never my thing.”

She fell into his arms, marveled at the warmth of him, the purity of his being, then she felt his arms around her. He turned her around, looked with her at the sea.

“Is this what you really want?” he asked, pointing at the darkness.

She shook her head. “No. It isn’t, not at all.”

“Then go home.” He pointed towards town.

“Why are you here?”

But then he was singing ‘someone is speaking, but she doesn’t know he’s there’ – and he began to fade, playing-on as he dissolved on calling breezes. She bundled herself up against the night air and began running back into town, stopping only once to look down at the marina, and the darkness she felt growing in her heart.

Calliopes came for her then, and chased her into the night.

+++++

Collins followed Whittington up the ladder onto the deck of the boat, the broker already on board, eager to show the boat one more time before winter set in.

“Do you have her maintenance records,” he asked the broker as Whit headed below.

“Oui, of course,” the woman said, and she handed over a manila folder; Collins rummaged through the forms and receipts for a moment, then looked up. “Only four hundred hours on the engine,” she said.

He looked up and smiled absently.

“Tell me, Mr Collins, what were you thinking?”

“Excuse me? What?”

“At sea, with all those refugees jumping in the water?”

‘Dear God,’ he thought, ‘Not again.’ He shrugged, sat down in the cockpit and thumbed through a copy of the log. The previous owner had motored around for two summers then put her up for sale, an all too typical fate for a cruising sailboat, he knew. Broken dreams, like broken promises, were hard to reconcile with the reality that sailing was really hard work, and an unforgiving endeavor emotionally – as well as financially. You either have the emotional and financial resources or you don’t, he knew from experience. This owner had lacked both, apparently, but that was a sad refrain in the boating business, and again, all too common. This woman made her living trading in broken dreams, but c’est la vie, right?

He walked the decks, looked at the chainplates and mast fittings, then the anchoring gear forward before heading below. Whittington was examining the upholstery on the settees and Collins shook his head. Marcel came below and the two of them gathered around the engine and checked fluids and engine mounts, then Collins looked over the mast step.

“It’s virtually new,” he said to Whit while they drove back into Le Havre. “Owner’s asking 250, so come at him hard at 180, see if he flinches, or if he’s desperate.”

Whittington pulled out his cell phone and hit the broker’s number, talked to her a minute then hung up. “She’ll email the offer for me to look over.”

“Don’t jump on it, Whit. You ought to think about things for a day or two. I doubt there are many people looking right now.”

“Quite right. Are you still going to move across the river this afternoon?”

“Yes. I’m not at all happy with the noise in the marina.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, I’m tired of answering questions, too. ‘What was it like?’ ‘Would you do it again?’ My God in heaven, I didn’t do anything, so what’s all the fuss about?”

“You are our ‘hero du jour,’ mon Capitan!” Marcel said. “You should enjoy it, for by next week all will be forgotten!”

“Not a moment too soon.”

“So, you think the 370 is a good boat…?”

He settled up at the marina office after he called and was assured his spot in Honfleur’s inner harbor was secure, then he put Charley below and went through his departure checklists. Whit cast off his lines and he backed out the slip and turned for the breakwater.

“I’ll call you tonight!” he said to Whit, who waved and shot him a ‘thumb’s up’ – and then he motored through the marina and out into the shipping lanes. It was about eight miles across and up-river, not quite two hours, and he picked his way through the roadstead, dodging clumps of floating trash and little boats and tugs pushing barges. It was ‘busy work’ – mindless concentration good for keeping his mind off Deborah, and all her impossible contradictions, and even after he’d locked into the inner harbor and warped off the headwall he still found himself flummoxed by her decision to leave.

He set all his lines and washed down the boat, then took Charley for a long walk, heading up a hill north of town where there were vast fields for her to run through, then they walked back into town and he stopped, looked at a café that had snails and duck on the menu, deciding to check it out later. They walked around the inner harbor after that, and as he approached the boat he saw someone sitting in the cockpit. The silhouette of woman…

…and his heart leapt!

But no, as he got closer to the slip he saw her more her clearly. Not Deb; this girl had long hair and a different nose. Ah, it was that young reporter, the girl named Corrine. She was sitting in the dark behind the wheel, and he could see the glow of her phone on her face now, and when he stepped onboard she looked up, smiled at him.

“Hello-o-o,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind, but the wind was cool and I was getting uncomfortable…”

He stepped into the cockpit and she saw Charley’s face pop out of the papoose and made what he assumed was one of those predictable “Oh-h, isn’t that cute” things – only in French. “Could I get you some coffee, some long pants, perhaps?”

She looked at him looking at her legs and laughed. “It was warm in Paris today. But no, have you been to Le Chat?”

“No, what’s that? A pet store?”

“A restaurant,” she said, smiling, “just there, up the street. Dinner perhaps?”

“Uh, well, I have some fresh groceries and was planning to cook here tonight…”

Her lower lip drooped into a full pout, and he smiled.

“What is it? Why do you smile at me?”

“That lower lip of yours. The famous Parisian Pout. You do it well.”

“Ooh, so this is famous around the world now? So…I can no longer get away doing this?”

“Perhaps if I were twenty years younger. But I suspect you get away with most anything you want,” he said, smiling at her thrusts.

She nodded, smiled. “I have been reading about you. Navy, State Department, your were in Tanzania in ‘98. And Iraq in ’04. What were you doing there?”

“My job.”

“Well,” she pouted, “I did not want to talk to you about these things.”

“So, what do you want to talk about?”

“I told you. Dinner. And she is well behaved,” she said, looking at Charley, “so she can come too.”

“You won’t take no for an answer, will you?”

She shook her head. “Definitely no.”

“Okay, give me a minute.” Once below he fed Charley and changed clothes, then hopped into the cockpit. The girl was shivering now, and he placed his coat over her shoulders. “You should have come below.”

“I wasn’t invited.”

“That didn’t seem to stop you earlier.”

“This is fun. You are not so easy to put into the corner.”

“I’m glad you find me so entertaining.”

“No, you are confused, wondering why I am here. Really why.”

“Golly gee, I love this. We’re having a conversation and I don’t even have to participate.”

“You are a lawyer, are you not? So you are good at twisting words into knots?”

“Not that kind of lawyer. Never been in a courtroom in my life.”

“So, government, politics? That sort of thing?”

He helped her down and once on the quay he let her lead the way, looking down more than once to admire her legs and sky-high heels. Very…chic…he thought, and very impractical. “Government, yes.”

The place was just a few meters off the square and there was no line, but she had a reservation and they were taken to an intimate corner table.

“You’re very confident, aren’t you?”

She smiled. “I love this place, thought you might too.”

“And if I hadn’t returned?”

“I’ve been watching you. And having you watched.”

“Have you, now? Why?” He was on guard now, wary.

She shrugged.

“So, you’re covered as a reporter. Not your real gig, I take it? Well, what can I do for you?”

“Nothing, as a matter of fact. We’re just concerned either LePen’s people will bother you, or perhaps some of your old friends will try to hurt you.”

“Seems far-fetched. What’s the real reason?”

“I like your dog.”

“Try again.”

“I like you.”

“Nope, sorry. I’m twice your age.”

“And twice as smart too, I think.”

“I doubt that. You look good in the candlelight, by the way.”

“So do you.”

“Okay, if you’re not going to tell me why…”

“But I did. Where is Miss Hill, by the way?”

He looked away. “She left. But I suppose you know what flight she was on, don’t you?”

“An argument?”

“No. She just left.”

“I could not find much on her, just this little bit.” She handed him her phone and he read about her marriage to the rock star, the baby’s death and her emotional collapse, but that was all there was.

“Interesting,” he said. “That’s more than I knew, however.”

“We have nothing more in our files.”

“AFPs? Or DGSI?”

“Both,” she admitted with a sly smile, and right then he knew he’d have to check in with the embassy later tonight. This was not as casual as he had first assumed.

“What do you recommend here?”

“Everything.”

“You come here often?”

“I grew up a few – miles? – from here.”

“I’ve always wanted to come to this harbor.”

“So, you will take the canals? Where to?”

“Paris, then down south come Spring.”

“A dream come true for you?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“And what then of Miss Hill, on top of all your recent grief.”

“Your dossier on me must be rather complete.”

She shrugged. “I’m sorry. For the pain you must feel now.”

“Okay. What about you? Married? Boyfriends?”

“Married, divorced, but I have given up on all that for now. I do not want children, so what is the point?”

“Love, happiness, someone to share the journey with…stupid stuff like that.”

She looked away, then laughed a little. “Stupid. Yes. I too love irony, Captain Collins.”

“Commander, not captain.”

“Ah, yes, I see. Was Jennifer such good company on your journey?”

“She was. As good as it gets.”

“And Miss Hill?”

“I was hopeful.”

“She is lovely. Why did you not go after her?”

“She asked me not to follow her.”

“And you are a gentleman, I suppose?”

He shrugged. “More likely a cynic, or perhaps just a pragmatist.”

“A pragmatist, maybe. Not a cynic.”

A waiter came to the table and they ordered seafood and duck breasts; she wanted wine, he mineral water, and when they were alone she began again.

“So, will you proceed alone?”

“Yes. My sister is coming for Christmas.”

“And this Tracy, your former sister-in-law? She is coming too?”

“You’re reading my email? Why?”

“Again, we are concerned for your safety. You made many enemies in Iraq.”

“Any evidence you’d care to share?”

“Not at this time.”

“So, what’s the plan?”

“We will keep you under surveillance. While you are in France.”

“Anything I can do to help, I assume you’ll let me know?”

The seafood was excellent but he picked at it, his appetite – what little he had left – now completely gone. She looked at him from time to time, feeling compassion for him – but at the same time she held a certain anger for him. He had, after all, been responsible for helping authorize the torture of thousands of Iraqi citizens. He was in a trap of his own making, just as, she suspected, was the case with her own life. The world was no longer a simple place, no longer the simple black and white realm of good and evil. No, she knew everything was gray now. Infinite shades of gray. We were trying to find our way through impenetrable mists of gray, where one action caused thousands of unforeseen counter-actions, where one moment’s truth collapsed into sharp fragments of betrayal in the next.

She looked at him, so tall and angular, the chiseled mariner, hardened by years flying then more years playing chess with deadly adversaries on a global board, now alone, fleeing his past, chasing dreams in a world gone mad.

Well, she wondered, what else could he do? Sit somewhere and watch the world he knew fall apart? Or go out into the world one more time, see what he could see. Learn what he could, and perhaps, forget the past .

And then there was this Deborah woman, an emotional wreck. Of course he had to rescue her. Of course, he had after all his penance to pay. Or was she his absolution? If he carried her back into the world, would he be released from his servitude to the damned?

And yet watching him, listening to him, looking at his actions – as contradictory as they had been – she was possessed by an idea.

Maybe she didn’t know who this man really was? Maybe words on the screen, the words in his file, had missed an essential truth? Maybe he was one of the few worth knowing. She looked at him as he ate, sharp, spare movements, an appreciation of quality, not an effete connoisseur but in a sense a well-traveled man of the world. His career essentially over, he hadn’t run from the world. No, he had re-engaged with life, but on his own terms. What would she do in a similar circumstance?

“Do you like the duck?” she asked.

“Amazing,” he said. “When we used to come, Jennifer and myself, this was always our homecoming meal. Escargot and duck.”

“You still grieve.”

“I do.”

“And for Miss Hill?”

“Yes, I suppose so, though now I think I understand better. I should call Liz.”

“Personally, I think Miss Hill will return soon. She will see her mistake. You said you came to France with your wife? Why? Is there some special reason?”

“Both our mother’s families came from France.”

“Really? Where did your mother’s family live?”

“St Gervais, near Chamonix.”

“Really? How interesting.”

“Interesting? How so?”

“Oh, the mountain people there. So adventurous, so many explorers, I think. So perhaps that fits you after all.”

“We went back only once, but never found family there.”

“You want to return, perhaps?”

“Perhaps.”

“Would you mind if I ordered a soufflé? For dessert? It takes time.”

“No, of course not.”

“I am enjoying myself more than I thought I would.”

“Oh?”

“The other night, when you jumped in the water. You know, when I was above and I had no idea who you were, then the Coast Guard is radioing all this information about you so I got involved, then I am assigned to you. It is this big mess for me. I must take a vacation from AFP, take on these duties concerning you because of these things you did in Iraq…”

“Excuse me. What things?”

“With the prison, the scandal. At Abu Ghraib, all those things.”

“What things?”

“That you authored the legal opinions authorizing torture?”

He grew red faced when he heard that… “Me? Your files say I authorized that?”

“Oui, yes.”

“Well, let me tell you one little piece of the truth tonight, and make sure you get this down exactly, and that your superiors understand this completely. I fought against the use of torture at Guantanamo AND at Abu Ghraib, AND I lost both times. I quit State after all that bullshit came down, and I damn near quit the human race as well, so don’t you dare blame me in any way, shape or manner for it.”

He opened his wallet and threw some euros on the table, then got up and left the table. He was furious, shaking with pure, unrestrained rage, because he knew what had happened. His record of accomplishment had been altered to fit someone else’s narrative, he’d been made a patsy, or worse, he was being used to hide someone else’s misdeeds. And now, if Miss DGSI was to be believed, he might be a potential target. How convenient – for someone.

There was a fog settling over the harbor as he walked back to Gemini, and when he got back to the boat he found everything coated with cold water. “Swell,” he said as he went below, then carried Charley up on deck.

And of course Corrine was up there, waiting. Very upset. Her arms crossed, shivering.

“What do you want?”

“To talk.”

“No point.”

“Then not to talk. To just be with you.”

“Again. No point.”

“I disagree. May I come aboard?”

Charley finished her business and he went forward, helped her on deck. He turned abruptly and went below, trying to ignore the sound of her heels on the deck.

She thought about leaving him to his anger, but she just couldn’t. She followed him below, marveled at the space and found him aft, tucking the pup into a little nest on his bed. “She looks so comfortable, so loved,” she said. “I wonder? Who will love you tonight?”

He spun on her, his eyes full of molten fury. “Again, there is no point to your being here.”

“Whatever. You should not be alone. Not just now.”

“No one should be alone. But I am. So are you. So what?”

“Yes. Again. It is wrong for you. You do not wear it well.”

“What?”

“Some people wear loneliness like a cloak, a barrier. Not you. On you, loneliness is an obscenity.”

“What do you want, Corrine?”

“Right now? To lay with you, to make love perhaps, to hold you and to wake up beside you in the morning. Then I would leave and never think of you ever again.” She smiled, laughed at the impossibility.

“Irony, huh?”

“Always, exceedingly very much so, yes. I love irony.”

“I wish I could again. Nothing would be more interesting. But no. I can’t now, not yet.”

“Then can we not talk? About other things. Places you’ve been, places you want to go?”

“I’m very tired, Corrine. Suddenly more tired than you can imagine.”

“Lay down. Face down, please.”

“What?”

“Face down, on the bed. Now, please.”

He lay down and felt her get on the bed, then she was sitting astride his thighs, rubbing his back in deep probing motions, then his shoulders and neck, and finally, she felt him relaxing. She slid forward, massaged his temples, then the sides of his neck…

“Turn over,” she whispered, and she felt him turning and lifted a little until he was facing her, and then she leaned close, her arms crossed on his chest, her face just inches above his. “Is this so bad, Sumner? This being together?” She leaned closer still and kissed his eyelashes, then very lightly, his lips.

She could feel his response, this new tension rising between them.

She kissed him while she began rubbing his head again, and she began moving over him, pushing herself along his need. He grew under the soft parade of her assault and they hovered in the indecision of the moment, then she stood and looked down at him for a moment.

“You were correct, Sumner. There is no point to this yet. But we will have our day in the sun.” She turned and walked off the boat, and he went to the cockpit and watched her disappear into the fog, almost laughing as he pulled out his phone.

+++++

She woke the next morning in clouds of indecision, the bare walls of her bedroom mocking her as she dressed and walked to the shop. She baked scones and set out her wares on the tables and opened the doors to another day. Customers came as they always did; the polite, discrete longing among the men who visited a given, the camaraderie of working women a nourishing comfort. Her morning passed in the bosom of routines at once damningly pleasant and frustratingly empty. She tried to think of anything but Lennon, of his floating Here, There and Everywhere drifting like an echo through her mind’s eye, so of course that’s all she thought about.

When she wasn’t thinking about him, Sumner came to her. Sumner and her anxiety closet full of freshly laundered insecurities, and then the stab behind the eyes would hit…

When she finished for the day, when she’d cleaned the kitchen and the dining room and made her batters for the next morning’s pastries, she reached for her phone and decided to call him…then her fingers fell away and she placed the phone in her apron and began her walk home.

There was grayness over the city and she thought of last weeks many fogs, and the beginning of her journey across the channel – with him. How full of hope she had been when Brighton fell away behind her, in just such a fog, how she’d felt for a moment that new beginnings were indeed really possible for people like her. Now as she looked around at the gray sky and the gray buildings and all the gray people walking home – she felt the suffocating reality that nothing ever really changes. She was afraid of life, had been since she’d held it in her hands and then, when she felt life slip through her fingers and disappear into walls of grayness – just like this – only fear remained.

When she got to her flat she found Liz waiting for her, sitting on the steps looking down at her phone.

“Hello,” she said as she walked up and unlocked the door. “Come on in.”

“How’re you doing?”

“Fine,” she said as she rubbed her temples. “You?”

“Rod’s in France with Whit, looking at boats.”

“Such a breath of fresh air, our Sumner. Look what he did to our lives.”

“Oh? What did he do to your life, Deb?”

“Revealed the ultimate futility of it all.”

“Did he, now? My, that’s quite a feat, considering.”

“Considering what?”

“Well, for a mere mortal…”

“There’s nothing ‘merely’ or ‘mortal’ about Mr Sumner Collins, Liz. His larger than life dreams serve only to make the likes of you and me drown in our despair. We look at our little lives and wonder what the fuck happened to us? He makes us ask why we gave up on our dreams. He makes me sick.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Do you? When are you going to admit you’ve lost Rod? Eh, to that little tramp? When will it soak through that thick little skull of yours?”

Liz laughed a little. “Lost him, you say? I had no idea, but thanks for letting me know. Any tea about?”

“Sure. Sorry.”

“Have you called him?”

“Who?”

“Sumner.”

“No, and I’m not going to.”

“Because you love him so much it hurts?”

“Precisely.”

“Because you want to go on hurting?”

“Just so. My pain is the only thing I’ve got left that reminds me I’m alive.”

“Other than Sumner, I take it.”

“Do you want tea?”

“No, not really. Just thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.”

“Well, you’ve seen, haven’t you? Now what?”

“He called me this morning, you know. Wanted to know how you’re about?”

“Did he? How sweet. Did you tell him to sod off?”

Liz walked to the door. “Take care, Deb. Call if you need anything.”

“Right. Will do. Have a nice life.”

Liz shook her head as she left, and as she walked down the hill to the strand to wait for her bus she wondered whether she should call Sumner again, or even their doctor at the hospital. In the end – no, she said – she decided against either course of action. Deb was an adult, and should be treated accordingly, she told herself as her bus pulled up. She looked up the lane at Deb’s flat before it disappeared from view, then she shook her head again.

+++++

Whit and Rod dropped by for lunch, and found Sumner with his feet up reading a piloting guide to the Seine.

“So, look what the cat dragged in?” he said when he saw Rod hopping aboard. “How goes shopping?”

“Do you know, Sumner,” Whit said, “I think that fellow is going to take my offer?”

“Wow, must be in a hurry to get out from under. Rod? Didn’t know you were coming again so soon?”

“I wanted to look at that 320. I like it, but she’s more than ten years old.”

“Oh, what did you think of her generally? Too small, or just big enough?”

“Well, of course I’d love a boat this size, but that’s not the reality…”

“I know,” Collins said. “Truth be told, I liked the 370, and would have been happy with one. I hardly use the space on board this beast as it is. I found the 320 a bit tight though, at my height, anyway.”

“Well, like you, I think the 370 is ideal.”

“Whit? Didn’t you say several were on the market in Florida?”

“Yes, five I think.”

“Did you go aboard the one Whit’s looking at?”

“Indeed, I’m green with envy.”

“When are you going to sail her?”

“Sunday,” Whittington said. “I assume you’re coming?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

A phone started chirping and Rod pulled his out, looked at the number and took the call. He listened for a minute, then cupped his hand over it and looked at Sumner. “Could you talk to Liz for a minute? Something seems amiss.”

“Sure.” He took the phone and listened to her for a few minutes, then handed the phone back to Rod.

“So. Lunch? You want to eat here, or over there?” he said, pointing at a sidewalk café ten meters away.

“Over there, if you don’t mind,” Whittington said. “The scent is overwhelming.”

Rod looked at him, not sure what to say, but Collins ignored him as they walked over to the café and took a seat.

“When are you flying back, Rod,” Sumner finally asked.

“Sunday evening,” Rod shot back. “Have you heard from Deborah?”

“No. She told me not to contact her. Liz has kept me up to date, but what would you have me do?”

“Do you know about her marriage, and the baby?”

“I found out last night.”

“Oh? And her hospitalization?”

“Not the details.”

“Suicidally depressed after the child passed, after that fucking ‘Rock God’ left her. She was in hospital, for well over a year I think. She met Liz there, by the by.”

“I see. Seems odd she wouldn’t tell me about all that.”

“Not at all, when you know the score. I know Liz is awfully ashamed about the whole thing, so I assume Deborah might be as well. It’s a powerful stigma, at least it is in their eyes, from the little I’ve seen.”

Collins nodded his head. “So, what are you going to do?”

“Me?” Rod said. “What am I going to do about what?”

“The boat thing.”

Rod seemed to deflate after that, and ate in silence, leaving Whit and Collins to talk about surveys and boats, and they left a half hour later. Collins seemed calm, outwardly at least, when he walked down to the boat. He went below and called Corrine, and they talked for quite a while.

+++++

The fog cleared by mid-afternoon, leaving a sun-mottled sky fresh with hints of November, and she finished cleaning up the flat, tidying her things in the closet, then she took out the trash, set her mail out on the little table by the entry. When she was sure her life’s debris was tidy she put on her coat and a little cap, then set off towards the marina. She stopped every now and then, turned and watched the sun fall to the far horizon, enjoying the sky and the sea breezes, then, as she climbed along the cliffside trail she looked out to sea, wondered about all the life unseen just beneath the surface, and the life all around her unseen in the flats and houses up here, all waiting and hiding just beneath the surface, all these lives invisible – until they weren’t anymore.

She looked down at the marina as she walked past, thinking how wonderful it had all been, the respite of his coming into her life, his willingness to share her unknowns with his knowns. Perhaps if she’d told him about all the slippery contours of her life, if he’d been able to penetrate all the layers of denial and self-recrimination? But no, she’d never really given him a chance, had she? She was through with it all, with life, before he found her. She’d had a chance to see his possibilities, but that was all they were and it wasn’t enough.

“I wonder why I couldn’t embrace such possibility?” she said aloud at one point, and she half expected Lennon to show up at any moment and toss another pithy comment her way, but no, she was beyond even that now, and she was sure he’d know that too.

“Perhaps he’ll be waiting on the other side…” she whispered, but despite it all she didn’t really believe in that, either.

Yet she knew she was afraid right now, hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much, or for too long, and she looked at the trail ahead disappearing into the grays and blues of twilight. She wondered when the moon would rise, then laughed.

“He’d know, wouldn’t he?” He’d tell her everything any fool had ever wanted to know about the moon – and more.

Her benches were another few hundred yards ahead, and the sun was gone now, leaving only a tight, narrow band on amber-salmon along the western edge of the sky. She looked up, saw a few stars, or planets, as he’d pointed out, and sighed. Of course he had.

And the air was cooler now, though the breeze was dying – and she could barely see the way ahead without the moon to light the way – so she felt her way along with her feet.

At last she found her bench and sat, collected herself as she thought about what lay ahead, and she wrapped her arms around her chest to hold the last of her warmth close.

Something caught her eye…at last, the moon! At long last, the full moon was sneaking up over the eastern horizon, willing to light her way one more time…

She stood and walked to the cliff’s edge, stood still, looking out to sea, looking at the moon as it’s slender crescent rose clear of the sea and stood in silent witness…

…her hands came out like the wings of a gull, catching the wind that passed over her arms, and she close her eyes, summoning the courage to walk forward, into that good night…

She felt a hand on her shoulder, firm but steady, not a care and as free as a bird.

“Did I ever tell you about Yesterday?” he said, and she turned to face him.

“Sumner?”

“Yes.”

Yesterday?”

“Yes. You know, all my troubles were so far away?”

“Yes? What about it?”

“That was Jennie’s favorite, you know, especially near the end. When he came to me down there,” he said, pointing to the marina, “he sang that and I nearly died inside.”

“Did you? Why?”

“Because I was so sure I’d never be able to go on – without you. That I couldn’t lose this life that had suddenly opened up – like the petals of a flower when the sun shines. And because I was so unbelievably lucky to have loved once in my life, I had been absolutely sure I’d never have another love like that. And then I met you.”

“You did?”

“I did.”

“I’m ready to leave now, Sumner. Can’t you let me go?”

“Where?”

“Out there,” she said, pointing. “It’s my time.”

“Are you sure that’s what you really want?”

“Yes.”

He took her hand. “Okay. Let’s go.”

“What?”

“Let’s go,” he said as he stepped to the edge of the abyss, his foot out over the edge.

She pulled him back violently. “What are you doing?!” she screamed.

“If that’s where you’re going, I’m going too.”

“What?”

“I’m not leaving you until the last breath has left my body. If that’s tonight, then so be it.”

“You can’t be…”

“What? Serious?”

“Do you love me so much?”

“I do.”

“Why?”

“Why not?”

They heard him then, though he was far away now. Lennon, playing Yesterday, just one more time. He looked at her, her hair lifting in the breeze, her face framed between the sea and moon.

“You’re so lovely,” he said. “And I do love you so.”

She held him – and then all her fear and grief and shame broke loose, an infant’s lost cry piercing the night. She was gripping his jacket so fiercely he feared the fabric would part, but he held her close while she cried, while she came to terms with life again, until fear dissipated and the will to live returned.

“Where’s Charley,” he finally heard her ask.

“She’s with Rod, on Gemini.”

“We’ve got to get back to her. She’ll be terrified without you.”

He listened to the last of the music as it faded on the breeze, nodding his head as held her close. “I know.”

‘Oh God,’ he thought, ‘how I love your little ironies.”

+++++

She came back to him slowly, when she came at all.

Gently, like the flows within the tidal estuary they were surrounded by.

She came to him, she drifted away, her moods always in fragile succession, a delicate stream of contrapuntal thought. Fear and exile, reaching and joining, back and again with no end in sight, and suddenly only one constant in this life holding her to him.

Always this being, this coming to love.

The little girl, Charley, resolute and unyielding, like a firmly set anchor. Charley keeping Deborah mired in the present, in the here and now, and while almost against her will – still – here she remained, somedays dead but for the air that passed her lips, other days a bouquet of freshly arranged flowers. Bittersweet beauty, because Collins knew the flowers would wilt and die soon enough. There were no patterns to the flow, no lunar pull, yet like the tides around Gemini the rising and sudden falls were as inevitable.

After a week aboard in Honfleur he carried her to a physician near Caen, a noted psychiatrist who usually worked in Paris, but who came north for the sea air and kept a small office in his house, and he agreed to see her. After three visits Dr Mann grew intrigued with the depths of her despair, but was concerned that she needed intensive care, perhaps in a specialist hospital, and yet Deborah refused to even consider the idea. In private conversation, Dr Mann told Collins outright that her prognosis was terrible, that she was locked in a downward spiral of an intensifying morbid, and poly-cyclic depression. In his experience, at some point Deborah would simply stop eating and drinking, and the end would come soon after that. He wanted to perform a full exam, and as soon as possible.

And while Collins found such a prognosis hard to fathom, let alone reconcile with the Deborah he had known only a few weeks, Mann’s credentials were impeccable. Still, she had embraced life for a while, shared herself with him, and while he had noted little signs from time to time that concerned him, he found it hard to accept such a bizarre, final outcome.

He asked the physician if there were any other options, and Mann sat cleaning his eyeglasses with his necktie, as if hesitating to go where this was leading. Then finally, he spoke:

“ECT. Electro-convulsive therapies, the so called ‘shock therapy’ of such ill-repute. I have never been in favor of this process, and I regard it as many later came to regard ‘ICT’, or insulin induced coma therapy. No one fully understands the mechanism through which ECT works, and even after seventy years it is considered an experimental treatment option, but for some with severe depressive disorder it can be a miraculous option.”

“What do you think? Is Deborah a good candidate for this treatment?”

He shook his head. “I still do not know, I’m not certain, anyway. She would need to be evaluated first, then we would need to locate a clinic that still uses this technique.”

“Do you know who…”

“Yes, of course, but I caution you, this is a last resort only. There is an NHS clinic in Scotland, but one of the biggest practitioners is at a hospital in Spokane, Washington, in America, where much research is still being done. There are others of course, in Belgium and Germany, but I mention these two first.”

“Nothing here in France?”

He grew distant then, not quite hostile but less accessible. “I will check. There has been more political opposition than medical, you see, and those who study this area do so most quietly.”

“And Deborah…what if she refuses treatment?”

“By the time depressive patients meet the criteria for ECT they are no longer resistant. You must understand…this is, again, a treatment of last resort. I will do some research but you must be prepared to act when the time comes.”

“What do you mean? When the time comes? What exactly should I look for?”

“I’m sorry. I thought I was being clear. In most cases, people like Miss Hill will simply stop eating and drinking. Death comes in four days, possibly sooner, without immediate intervention.”

“Dear God.”

“I know very little about God, Mr Collins, only that for some people life presents an intolerable series of burdens, and at some point these people simply give up.” He looked away, out his window over an impossibly beautiful garden, and on to the sea beyond his garden walls. “I think the will to live simply – I don’t know the word – ah, yes, vanishes. These so-called morbid-depressive episodes rapidly become ‘end stage,’ Mr Collins, as even with ECT you may only see improvement for a year or so. We are in many such cases only putting off the inevitable.”

Collins left the man’s office in a state of shock, got in his rental car and drove back to Honfleur, and he boarded Gemini in silence. He found Deb having one of her good days, on the aft deck laying in the sun with Charley, and she was affectionate that evening, almost happy to be alive and with him on the boat. Charley was beside herself with joy as they played, and he was too.

Yet by next morning the darkness had returned, and he called Liz, filled her in. She agreed to a hastily arranged visit with Mann and flew into deGaulle, and he picked her up, drove her to Mann’s clinic in Paris. She filled the psychiatrist in on the details of both their earlier hospitalizations, and while the picture came into sharper relief to both Collins and Mann, easy solutions remained elusive, and Sumner began to despair when he finally realized the mossy contours of her life prevented easy examination. She was on a slippery slope now, and he soon felt he was simply along for the ride, holding her hand as darkness reached out for her – and pulled her away.

Liz left with one parting word of wisdom.

“There’s really little you can do at this point, except one thing. Don’t let her drag you down with her. Please, Sumner. She’s my friend, I care about you too. More than I care to admit.”

To Liz, Deborah had grown rooted to life – after the death of her daughter – within the confines of her little shop, within the creamy routines of tea and scones and a dedicated clientele that doted on her efforts, even on her moods. He had arrived and pulled her away from this world, from all those easy routines that held her close to the bosom of unfulfilled need, yet he now realized he’d been unable to pull her completely free from the uncertain, oppressive gravity of that life.

And now it seemed the more he pulled the more intense this gravity became, what had begun as depression moved closer and closer to a viral collapse into total withdrawal. And she seemed to embrace this darkness…

Until one afternoon he saw her fingering the air…as if she was playing a piano in midair. The sight stunned him completely, for her movements were precise, and once she even stopped and appeared to correct herself, replaying notes only she saw in the air. He called Liz immediately, asked if she’d ever seen anything like this before. No, she hadn’t. More confused than ever, he watched this new routine develop with a growing sense of alarm. Was she hallucinating? Growing psychotic? What the hell was happening?

And still there was Charley, whose gentle tugs were as insistent as the tidal flow surrounding Gemini. Deborah could not deny the little pup a way into her heart, and so Deb held the little pup through her bouts of darkness, and within the sunshine of her fleeting moments of happiness, leaving Sumner to wonder just how long this precarious hold on life could possibly last.

+++++

After telling Mann about Deb’s piano playing one morning, Sumner took Charley and Deborah on a long walk west of town, to the immense strand of beach that stretched all along the Norman coast. They walked as tides ebbed, revealing immense fields of rocks dotted with marine organisms stranded under the autumn sun, but Charley gave up after an hour and retreated to the warm cocoon of Sumner’s papoose. From time to time he looked at Deb, at her fingers, lost within invisible sheets of music, playing the score to an endless dream.

And still they walked, walked until the sun had arced to the embrace of fields of trees, until the air grew cool and close. He looked at her then and knew she would have walked on forever, and that she had no idea where she was. He took her hand and they turned back towards the village and she held on as if he was her last contact with the world, as if without his guiding the way she would have simply ceased to be. After four hours she had not said a word, and by the time they were back on Gemini she was cold to the touch, yet not shivering or in any way complaining.

She had simply let go, and did not eat or drink that night.

Nor the next morning, when he saw only her fingers shaping chords in the air.

It wasn’t a catatonia, he saw. More a willful turning away, and when she was the same at midday, he called Dr Mann.

“So soon?”

“I think so.”

“Where are you?”

“Honfleur, in the inner harbor by the carousel. A green hulled sailboat, the Gemini…”

“I am at the Gare du Havre, so will be there soon…”

Not quite an hour later he appeared on the quay above Gemini, and he was staring down into the water off her stern when Collins made it up into the cockpit.

“You have a friend, it seems,” the old physician said.

And against all odds, there she was, her head out of the water, waiting. Collins dashed below and led an almost somnambulant Deborah to the aft deck, then he took off his shoes and shirt and slipped into the water, and he bid Deborah to follow him.

She walked to the ladder and looked down into the dolphin’s eyes, then turned away and walked below. Collins held onto her, his head against hers, his hand holding hers, and he stayed with her several minutes, then she slipped under the water and was gone.

People had gathered and were looking at him, some recognized him from the refugee incident and then even more people arrived; a minor sensation developed as he climbed aboard and helped the physician make the leap from the quay to the rail, then he went below and jumped in the shower.

Deborah had lain on their berth and not stirred, not while he showered and not while he walked forward and brought the physician to her; now she looked straight through him, seeing no form now – perhaps only spirit. Mann was gentle, fear of what lay ahead made him so, then more concerned after he felt her pulse and looked into her eyes.

“Deborah? Do you know me? Remember me from my office?”

Her eyes flickered, made the slightest effort of recognition – then she slipped away again.

“What do you want to do now, Deborah?”

“Let me go, please,” came her whispered reply – through gritted teeth. “I can’t take this pain much longer.”

The old man nodded his head, then got up from the bed and walked forward, Collins followed – his being now filled with dread.

“She has let go now, monsieur. She has no family, I take it?”

“No, none that I’m aware of.”

“And you two are not married? This is so?”

“That us correct. We are not.”

“Then you can not speak for her, or know her wishes. We can compel state intervention on an emergency basis, if that is what you wish, and you might delay events for three, perhaps four days, but after that?” He shrugged. “You could take her back to England, to the NHS, and perhaps they would intervene. Or perhaps not, as I just do not know what their policy is regarding this form of severe depression. You had not, I take it, been together long enough to know her wishes?”

“No, just a few weeks.”

“You are in an impossible situation, my friend. The danger now is to yourself. She should not stay here, in any event. It will only lead to impossible complications.”

“I see.”

“If I may ask, what concerns you with this dolphin?”

“She’s a friend.”

“I see,” he smiled. “And have you known her long?”

“A few years.”

“Indeed.” Mann stepped back, looked at him seriously. “This is true? You are not playing a joke?”

“Oh yes. She seems to be the central reality of my life these days. I’ll tell you about her someday, doc. Just not tonight. I’d like to be with Deborah for a while, if I may.”

“Certainly. Shall I have the medical services come by? Perhaps in the morning?”

He nodded his head. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“If you were her husband, or her guardian, perhaps, you could intervene, but with all the citizenship issues? I just don’t know, in any event, that we’ll change the outcome in any meaningful way now. This condition is not uncommon, yet it is tragic in every case. I will see you in the morning.”

When the old man was gone he called Rod and Liz, then Whit, and told them what was happening. Liz packed for the airport while he was still talking with Rod, and Whit said he would be right over. By midnight they were all sitting together in the aft cabin, gathered around Deb and talking about their lives, and through all their talk her eyes grew even more distant and unfocused, and finally Sumner recognized the same look from Jennifer’s last days – as cancer closed in in her. But not now! Not again! He still couldn’t believe this was happening, how someone fundamentally healthy could just let go and fall away like this.

“I can’t understand the depth of despair that would bring someone to this point,” he said as they watched the sunrise.

“Few can,” Whittington added. “Like we’ve seen so often recently, we don’t have the necessary frame of reference. I’ve encountered schizophrenic patients who live almost every waking moment of their lives inside a delusion. One women I treated for pulmonary issues was alive inside a room where little babies were being hacked apart and thrown into roaring pits of fire; some days the knives came for her and she writhed in physical agony. That was her day-to-day reality, by the way, a paranoid delusion, yes, but that was all she saw and heard – and often felt. She was in a hospital bed watching that, and her only relief came from powerful anti-psychotic medications that put her into a very deep sleep. How can we relate to that woman, to people like her? It turned out her step-father tortured her for fun when she was a toddler, and I suppose those burning babies represented some sort of lost innocence, but in the end what did it matter what the cause is was? The damage was done, and all that was left was an irretrievably broken human being. What do we do with the sundered shell that’s left? Force them to live inside that Hell? Medicate them into oblivion and warehouse them until their organs fail?”

“It was her father, I think,” Liz said.

“What?” Sumner said, griefstricken.

“I think her father used to beat her mum. I think she had a sister too, maybe he killed her. I only heard her speak of it once, just fragments, really.”

“Well,” Whittington sighed, “that’s the point I’m trying to make. We may never know, and even if we could find out the facts, could understand the causes of her pain, at this point there’s only just so much we can do.”

“This psychiatrist?” Liz asked. “Did he mention shock therapy?”

“Yes.”

“She underwent a course of it, eight times I think over a month. She was better for a while, a few months anyway, then she slipped back down.”

“That’s what he said, yes. It’s a temporary fix, a bandaid.” He looked at Deborah, her eyes wide open and staring at music in the air. “The dolphin came this evening, you know. Deb saw her and turned away, wouldn’t even reach out for her.”

“Did you go in with her?” Whittington asked.

“Yup.”

“She comes for you now, I think, and you alone, but I wonder what she thought when she saw Deborah?”

“I feel like I interrupted something out there on the cliff,” Collins said, “something I shouldn’t have.”

“Perhaps,” Whit said, “but again, you’ll never know. Deborah is on her own journey now, wherever that may take her.”

“I don’t know,” Liz said. “I think we should throw her overboard, let the cold water shake her out of this…”

“I think they used to do that,” Whittington said, trying to hide his discomfort, “back in the nineteenth century. I don’t think the procedure was effective then, and I doubt it would be now.”

They heard Dr Mann knock on the hull a little before eight and Collins helped the old man below. He looked at Deborah and shook his head. “No change, I see.” He leaned over and put some drops in her eyes and listened to her lungs, then looked at Collins. “I am going to take her to my clinic outside Paris. There we will evaluate her as a candidate for further therapy.”

“ECT?” Whittington asked.

“Yes. I’m sorry, and you are?”

“Paul Whittington, recently retired, pulmonologist and general surgeon with the NHS.”

“Ah. Not so many facilities doing ECT now, I suppose. Have you any experience?”

“No, only peripherally, managing chronic care for a few psychiatric patients.”

The old man looked down at Deborah again. “She is a difficult case. And you, Elizabeth? How are you?”

“Okay, I think.”

“Your depression?”

“I’m good.” She looked away, still unable to deal with her shame.

“Do you know if ECT was tried?”

“Yes. I was telling Paul earlier, I think eight treatments over a month.”

“Any success?”

“I think so, but only for a short time.”

“I see. Do you think she would object to our trying again?”

Liz shook her head. “I don’t think so, but she turned so suddenly this time…”

“Suddenly? How so?”

“She wasn’t herself the last time I saw her. She was more, I don’t know, angry. And she had a headache.”

“A headache? Interesting.” He handed Collins a business card. “This is where we’re taking her, it’s out beyond the south part of the city, beyond Orly and all that new construction on the highway. You should come and see her in a few days, perhaps early next week.”

“So, you are going to intervene?”

“Yes, nutritional support for the time being, until I know exactly what’s happening, biochemically I mean. She will undergo tests, then we shall see. Will you remain here?”

“No, I’m starting for Paris in the morning, getting the mast pulled this afternoon.”

“Ah, well, I’ve never been out on the water. The great unknown…but it is not for me, I’m afraid. Will you help me get her up to the pier, please?”

Paul and Collins lifted her to the cockpit, and then Collins carried her to the quay; men were waiting to take her and a few minutes later they were gone. Collins stood quayside watching the ambulance drive out of view, storms raging in his soul.

“Rather a nightmare, Sumner,” Whit said, putting his arms around Sumner’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry this had to happen.”

Collins nodded his head, shrugged. “C’est la vie, I guess. Liz? What are your plans?”

“I was going to stay here with her, so if I may I’d like to stay with you until we’ve had a chance to visit her in Paris.”

“Okay. Well, I’m leaving to cross over to the marina in Le Havre, get the mast pulled and ready for transport to Marseilles. Paul, what are you doing?”

“I’ll drive back across and meet you at the marina; I’d like to see how this is done. And…I’d like to make the trip to Paris with you as well, if that’s alright.”

“Sure.” He pointed across to the entry: “The lock opens in an hour, so I’ve got to get ready.” Paul left and Liz took Charley out for a quick walk, and he was ready to go by the time she returned. He moved Gemini into the turning basin and watched the lock-keeper start the process, then the gates opened and he moved the boat in and held the lines as water poured out into the estuary, lowering the boat to sea level. They motored across the Seine and back to the marina, meeting Whittington just as a crane moved alongside to pull the mast. Antenna leads and radar secured first, shrouds eased and released from their chainplates, then finally, head and back stays released and the crane lifted the mast and lowered it to a flatbed trailer, and a swarm of men wrapped and secured it for the journey to the Med. Collins placed an aluminum plate over the opening where the mast penetrated the deck and secured that, then raised a small radar transmitter on a short tower aft, and this he connected to the chartplotter. When he had secured the FLIR camera, he motored back to the slip next to Aphrodite and they broke for lunch, walked up to town to a little place Paul had found.

“What’s the word on Aphrodite?” Collins asked after they ordered.

“I’ll close on the 370 in two weeks, then bring her here and transfer my stuff over. Same broker is taking Aphrodite, so no real rush.”

“Liz? You and Rod?”

“This all happened so fast,” Liz said, looking away. “Not sure what we’ll do yet, or what he’s up to, really.”

“Rod’s still young, no real rush, is there?”

“I suppose so,” she said as she looked at him, “but all this with Deb has got me worried.”

“About?”

“Me, I think.”

“You?” Collins said. “Good grief…but why?”

“It’s just something in the back of my mind, Sumner. Nothing logical or rational, but if it can happen to Deb, I suppose it can happen to me.”

“So,” Whittington said, “have you felt so depressed recently?”

“When I was in hospital, yes, but that was so long ago. Recently? No. Not even once since I got out. I just feel so bad about the whole thing, so helpless.”

“You sure haven’t acted helpless, not as far as I can see, Elizabeth.” Collins took her hand. “You’ve been a good friend to her, and to me, helped me get to her and steady her up. Not sure there was much more anyone could have done to help.”

“Liz, just keep talking about your feelings, don’t bottle them up,” Whittington said. “We English are too good at that, I think. More efficient at bottling up our emotions than even the Germans.”

They laughed at that, but Liz kept a firm grip on Collins’ hand, didn’t really want to let go – and she held firm until their lunch came. Some sort of local fish soup, full of garlic with hints of tarragon and anise appeared, along with bread and wine, and they ate in relative silence, Whittington dipping little slices of bread in the soup and waxing ecstatic over the ‘symphony of flavors’ he found in his bowl.

Back on the boat after lunch, he loaded Charley in her papoose and was getting ready to head back to the beach when Liz came to him and out of the blue she kissed him…then with her arms around him she hugged him for the longest time.

“May I walk with you,” she said at last.

“Sure,” he said as he went topside, not really understanding what had just happened.

When they were away from the marina, almost to the sand, he cleared his throat a little. “Care to tell me what that was all about?”

“You don’t know?”

“Of course not. I’m a man, therefore completely ignorant about what goes on in a woman’s mind.”

She laughed. “Well, first of all, I love my husband.”

“Okay. That’s always a good thing.”

“Second, I’m completely mad about you. I told you, when you called me ‘darling’ that day, something tripped inside of me, like someone turned on a light. I felt something I never expected to feel again…”

“Revulsion? A need to slap my face?”

“Oh, you!” She playfully slapped his arm, then stopped and turned to face him. “No, quite the opposite. I’ve wanted to be with you ever since.”

“Do you have any idea how confusing this all is?”

“Yes, I do, but there’s nothing to it, Sumner. Just a feeling I wanted you to be aware of. I’d rather not cheat on Rod, though heaven knows he deserves it, and I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Deborah. Still, I wanted you to know how I feel. I want you to know when I look at you there are much more than innocent little girl feelings involved.”

“Why tell me?”

“Because I think you deserve to know how I feel, and I don’t want to walk around with these feelings bottled up inside, like Paul said. I want you to know because when I look at you I want you to realize what’s in my eyes.”

“Is your marriage to Rod…?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine, when he’s not off boffing his secretary, anyway. We get on super, most days. We always will, because I think we were friends first, before we were lovers, before we were married. We’ll always be friends.”

“He’s had affairs?”

“There was a secretary at work a few years ago, he had an affair but he couldn’t keep it a secret. We, well, we talked as friends might about  it. About his feelings for her, about getting a divorce. And in the end he realized he didn’t want to lose me as a friend. That’s ‘Rod ’n me’, in a nutshell, but I think he still sees her.”

“Jennie and I were like that – minus the affair, I think. There wasn’t a thing we couldn’t talk about, that we couldn’t share…”

“I want you to make love to me.”

Collins didn’t quite know what to say, but he looked at her now, aware of the eggshell fragility he saw in her eyes. “Why? That would seem to be the most confusing thing we could possibly do.”

“Oh, I know, but there it is.”

“Do you mind if I think about the idea for a while?”

She smiled, laughed. “Oh, Sumner, just because I want something doesn’t mean I’ll get it. I’m not a child, you know?”

“I am,” he said, chuckling. “I have been ever since Jennie passed.”

“Hmm? Why do you say that?”

“I think the day she left I lost almost all sense of myself. I had begun to see myself as her shadow, only now she was gone – so what was I? The weird part is…I wanted to move on the boat and sail away, because that’s what we had planned to do together. I didn’t have a life after death, you see, not one of my own. I had the life we planned to live together, yet nothing left of me, not even my shadow.”

“So why is that like a child?”

“Because, I think, I left all my responsibility to myself behind, inside that shadow. I didn’t have a life anymore, and I had lost her’s too. I think that’s childish, at least it is now when I look back on it.”

“Uh-huh. Can I ask you a question. A bad one?”

“Bad? What do you mean – by ‘bad’?”

“I don’t want this to seem mean, but, well, why Deborah? Why do you feel such responsibility for her? You’ve known her – what? A month? Why, after all you’ve been through?”

“A day or a year, what does it matter? When you love someone, is there some sort of timeframe that makes love more or less legitimate? Some sort of statute of limitations that applies? And beyond that, I think a real part of love is something quite a bit more involved than just caring. A sense of responsibility, perhaps, is what I’m getting at, but that’s not quite it, either. Perhaps it’s an appreciation of the vulnerabilities we face when we open ourselves up to love. Our guards are down, we open up in ways we rarely do – other than when we’re falling in love. We take-on a responsibility when we accept that gift, that burden – if you will. That’s a part of our humanity, and not acknowledging that part of ourselves, well, I think we’d be little more than the worst sort of animal.”

“And do you know what, Sumner?”

“Hmm…what?”

“That’s exactly why I love you.”

“You really have to stop saying that…”

She stopped walking again when he said that, physically turned him to face her and jumped into his arms, began kissing him, running her fingers through his hair, then with her face on his chest she squeezed him long and hard.

“I’m not asking that you understand, you idiot! Only that you accept my feelings.”

“Okay, okay…I get it!”

“And you don’t have to act on my feelings. Only yours. And you can’t hurt me, not in the way you think. You can only hurt me by turning away from me now, so please don’t.”

“Okay.” But right at that moment all he could think about was Corrine looking over photos of this encounter on the beach – and laughing at what she could only imagine were his intolerable infidelities.

+++++

They departed the marina on the turning tide, running upriver at four in the morning, feeling their way through a gentle fog until they passed under the Pont de Tancarville. Running against the Seine’s current, they were averaging perhaps three knots over the ground, and by the time the sun rose over the bluffs above Caudebec-en-Caux the air was warm enough to shed their jackets. Collins had the wheel until the fog lifted, then Liz took over while Whittington took notes and shot endless images with a huge Canon.

Charley sat on his lap when she was topsides, but Collins could tell she was looking for Deborah. She sniffed and pawed the deck where they used to sit together, then would turn and look up at him – wondering what had happened to the world she understood. He would hold her in those moments, afraid of the trust he might lose if he interfered with her explorations, but she always ended up grabbing his hand between her two front paws and licking his fingers, then his chin. And he always kissed her on top of her nose and looked into her eyes after these moments.

They stopped at a little park-side marina that first night and Collins started a pot of soup after the lines were set. They sliced fresh bread and drank wine while the stars slipped from their velvet cloak, and he was concerned the weather was still so warm in late October. Still, they ate his soup under a serenade of crickets and frogs, and that wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. Now well away from the sea the air was still, flies buzzed outside the cockpit enclosure, and it grew warm and stuffy below. When all the dishes were done he shut down the companionway hatch and turned on the air conditioner, shaking his head as he did. He showered, went to his berth and found Liz there, under the covers and waiting.

“Surely you don’t expect me to sleep with Paul,” she grinned.

“Sorry, I just hadn’t thought…”

She took his hand, pulled him down to the bed. “It’s okay, Sumner. I’m not going to bite.”

She started scratching his back, rubbing his shoulders – then she kissed his neck. Lightly at first, then she bit him once, gently, and she turned him over and began playing with him, first with her hands, then with her tongue. When he was hard she mounted him, held him inside with her hands flat on his chest, moving so slowly he was almost unaware of any motion at all. Time passed so slowly like this, her motions – like her words – contradictory impulses she simply could not control.

And neither could he, it seemed.

She reached down at one point and rubbed her clit for a moment and he felt the walls of her womb contracting, milking him, and in that moment he came inside her. She remained on him for a few minutes then slipped down beside him and held on with stunning ferocity.

“Thank you,” was all she said, and those words were the faintest whisper he had ever heard. She kissed him a few minutes later then he heard the change in her breathing as she fell asleep, and he fell into that gentle darkness, fell into a space somewhere between guilt and sorrow, lost in a landscape of impenetrable need, oblivious to the universe overhead, troubled not at all as the by the stars in their courses…

He walked Charley the next morning, early – just before the sun came up. They were tied-up beside a park, and he was stunned at the number of people he saw sleeping in the rough, little piles of drug paraphernalia scattered everywhere he looked. He made sure Charley kept clear of all the detritus then hurried back to Gemini. He cast off and was in mid-channel by the time Liz came up, Whittington a few minutes behind her.

“What’s up?” Whit asked as he looked at Sumner, seeing the expression on his face.

Collins just shook his head. “Lots of druggies passed out in the park, needles everywhere.”

“Ah, yes, heroin is a much bigger problem now than it was just a few years ago. Everywhere you go, it seems.”

“Well, it sure is right there.” He saw a huge barge ahead cutting across their path and he steered towards the right bank, checking the sonar and depth sounder as he cut in as close as he dared, then the skipper of the pushing boat steered the barge right at the Gemini.

“I say, what’s that fellow doing?”

“Playing chicken,” Collins said as he throttled back, and then, when the barge was committed to a course he gunned the throttle and shot across the channel. The skipper of the other boat laughed and shot him the finger. “Ah, that legendary French hospitality.”

“Indeed.”

Late that afternoon they locked up at Notre Dame de la Garenne, then found a restaurant with a little pier and tied off for dinner. After a huge meal and two bottles of wine, the proprietor let them stay tied up for the night, and after Gemini cleared the locks, they set off the next morning hoping to make the final push into Paris by late afternoon.

The landscape moved from rural to suburban, then they watched all the air heavy traffic in to and out of deGaulle as they entered the city proper. Barge traffic grew heavier still, noise from freeway traffic an odd counterpoint to the bucolic soundscapes of just a few hours earlier, then the Eiffel Tower hove into view, and the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde. Once they passed Notre Dame he cut under the freeway and into the marina just a few hundred meters from the old bastille.

Paul was anxious to get back to Aphrodite and left within an hour; Liz seemed most anxious to get back into Collins as soon as Whittington left and they went below as soon as he’d completed all formalities at the marina office. She was a wildcat, he soon learned, horny almost all the time and seemingly more interested in pleasing him than in having her own needs met. She was Collins’ first experience with a woman so perfectly attuned to her sexuality, and as guilty as he felt at times he simply couldn’t help himself. After almost twelve hours straight that night he finally cried ‘uncle’ – begged her to let him rest, and she lay her chin on his chest and looked into his eyes.

“You’ve never been loved like this, have you?” she asked after that. “Sometimes it seems as if you’re shocked.”

“I guess I haven’t. Jennie was a once a month kind of gal. Deb and I, well, that was different.”

“And me?”

“You’re fantastic. Unbelievable. I envy Rod.”

“You shouldn’t. You’re so good to be with, not so reserved. I swear, after twenty years he stills asks permission before he comes.”

“I see.”

“And I hate to say it, but it’s been almost a year.”

“A year? Since you made love? Why?”

“Sadly, I think he’s at a point in life where he’s lost interest in me. You, on the other hand, have not.”

“No, I have not. But I simply have to take Charley outside now…”

It was past midnight when he got topsides and the grounds were empty, and he let the pup fire away on the grass while he looked up at the full moon coming up over the rooftops – yet he had the feeling he was being watched. There was a little dew on deck when he stepped back aboard, and he almost slipped but found the lifelines and grabbed hold; when he went below he found Liz talking on her phone – to Rod by the sound of things. She was pleasant and wondered when he’d be over and she rang off a moment after he came below, and then she followed him aft and curled up beside him, leaving room for Charley to rumble around before nesting down.

“How’s Rod?”

“Seemed fine. I asked when he’d be over but he seemed evasive.”

“Did he call you?”

“Yes.”

“Did he ask about Deb?”

“No, he didn’t. Strange, isn’t it?”

“Let’s move you forward, right now.”

“You don’t think…”

They got her forward and he shut off all the lights, then wished he had rigged a FLIR screen at the chart table. He felt someone step aboard and slipped into shadow, then held his breath when the companionway hatch slid open. Hatch-boards moved slowly out of the way, one by one, and he saw a woman’s leg on the top step, in five inch heels no less – and he flipped on all the cabin lights as her foot was almost on the second step.

“Merde!”

“Ah, well, if it isn’t the lovely Corrine! To what do I owe this intrusion?”

She smiled. “I must work on my tradecraft.”

“I think, depending on your objective, I’d forego the Louboutin pumps, as well.”

Now she laughed, and Liz came out of the forward cabin to see what the commotion was all about.

“Ah, Mrs Lethbridge. Good that you moved to the forward cabin, as I think your husband’s plane lands at DeGaulle in twenty minutes.” She handed Sumner an overnight bag and came below. “Now, I think you should go to sleep. Sumner and I will be engaged when your husband arrives, and that should erase all doubt.”

“How did he know?” Liz asked.

“I think when Dr Whittington spoke with him yesterday a suspicion was aroused. Nothing definitive was said, however.”

“You’re listening to his calls too?” Collins asked.

“Since I saw you two on the beach, yes. I don’t want to see any trouble for our new hero, you understand?” Her phone chirped and she took the call, listened intently then rang off. “So, his plane is early. We have about a half hour. Can I help you move anything forward?”

Liz went for her toothbrush and a few loose ends were straightened along the way, then she sat down for a minute and collected her thoughts.

“If you’ll pardon me saying so, Mrs Lethbridge. You need a shower. Badly. And wash down there, please.”

“Oh my God,” she said as she dashed to the forward head.

“And you, Sumner. Wash your face, at least.”

“Crap.”

“You two should never do this again. I have never seen two less discrete souls in my life.”

They heard Liz get in bed and the lights switch off forward, so Corrine and Collins went aft. He showered and shaved, and when he came out found she was already under the covers, grinning at his nakedness. “I can’t wait to see that in action,” she said, “but not tonight, perhaps. I think he must be very, very tired.”

“You’re awful.”

“I am. I know this, but I have plans for you.”

“Do you indeed?”

“And please do not call your attaché again. Those are not the plans I have in mind for your.”

“Oh?”

“No, I am going to retire soon, and you and I are going to sail to Polynesia and make love all day everyday on this boat, tied off in a little lagoon.”

“I think you and Mrs Lethbridge should count on doing that trip together. I think you’d get along famously.”

“Yes, she’s insatiable, isn’t she?”

“You’ve been listening, I take it?”

She bit her lip. “So sorry, but yes. You are vigorous for a man your age. Very much so, yes, I think.”

“Ouch!”

“You should not be too offended. Actually, I think this is a complement.”

“Oh, no doubt.”

Her phone chirped again and she answered.

“Okay, his taxi just dropped him out front. We’ve informed the security man, so he’ll be admitted.”

“You think of everything, don’t you?”

“Lay down,” she commanded. “Now.”

She crawled on top of him, began thrusting and moaning, and a moment later he felt someone board the Gemini, then heard – Rod? – as he came down the companionway, then aft.

“A-hah!” Rod said as flipped on the cabin lights.

“Bloody Hell!” Collins bellowed – and as Corrine screamed and dashed into the head. “Rod! What the devil are you doing here!”

“Oh, shite! Sorry…is Liz about?”

“Forward cabin, mate. Now sod off!”

“Yes, sorry, excuse me…”

After the cabin door closed Corrine came out and slipped back under the covers.

“I feel awful,” Collins whispered.

“So, don’t become involved with this woman. She’s is pretty, certainly, but uncertain difficulties attach to married women, and you really don’t need such complications now.”

“I’ve been stupid.”

She nodded her head. “Yes, that, and lonely, and confused, and your life has moved from one tragedy to another. It is perhaps time to change your course once again, my Captain.”

“Funny. I’d thought that’s what I’ve been doing.”

“When she is gone I am going to eat you alive,” she said as she began dressing. “So, you like these heels?”

He laughed. “You are in-COR-rigible.”

When she was dressed she came back to him. “Incorrigible? Yes. You have no idea, and I too have been repressing my desires for a long time, so am quite hopeful you will be able to help me with my little problem.” She kissed him once, lightly on the cheek. “Now, I am going to make a commotion, and I want you to follow me out to the street.”

True to her word, she began shouting and carrying on and stormed through the galley and up into the cockpit, then she hopped off the boat with him in quick pursuit. Still in view of the boat, she slapped him across the face and stormed off; Collins came back and crawled below rubbing his face, with poor Rod waiting for him in the main cabin.

“Goddamn, Sumner, I am so sorry for this…”

“For what?”

“Barging in on you like that…”

“Yeah, what was that ‘Ahah!’ all about?”

“I thought you and Liz might…”

“Oh. Well, she slept back here with me on the trip. Seems Whittington snores like a freight train. I suppose he told you.”

“Yes, well, who was that woman?”

“Remember that AFP reporter? She’s tenacious, that’s all I can say.”

“I dare say. How’s Deborah?”

“They’re running tests at the clinic. I’ll go see her day after tomorrow. Are you two staying?”

“Through the weekend. Mind if we stay aboard?”

“No, not at all.”

“Well then, goodnight.”

“‘Night, Rod.” He went to the chart table and did some paperwork, put receipts in his file, poured himself a stiff rum and went aft. “Never again,” he whispered as he picked up Charley and put her on his chest.

She circled twice on his chest – then a long fart drifted across his face.

+++++

He spent the next day tidying up Gemini, taking care of all those loose ends removing the mast had left. The sun was out and for early November the air was still unusually warm, local kids playing on the grass in the marina creating an almost pleasant contrast to the waterway and freeway traffic almost out of earshot. By late morning he was ready to tackle the worst of it: he donned his wetsuit and hung his dive gear off the aft platform and jumped in the water. He wondered about Ted then, his old squadron mate, and he wondered why as he slipped on his tank…

With scrub-brush in hand, he ranged up one side of the hull and down the other, cleaning all the water intakes and transducer plates, then replacing all the sacrificial zinc anodes. After an hour below he came out cold and covered in green slime, but he washed his gear down, then himself – thanking his lucky stars Island Packet had included a hot shower on the aft swim platform. Once his gear was stowed, he went below for a real shower.

Rod and Liz were off exploring, and he was glad to be alone now. He dressed, intending to walk to an old restaurant he and Jenn used to enjoy, but just outside the marina a black BMW pulled up alongside and a door opened. He bent down, saw Corrine and hopped in.

“How did the rest of your evening go?” she began.

“What? You don’t know?”

She grinned. “Should I? Where are you headed?”

“Carr’s Irish Pub.”

“Indeed.”

“One of my favorite places in town. Ever been?”

“I can’t say that I have.”

“Let’s go. I’ll buy the first round.”

When they were seated he looked around at the old timbered interior and felt the warm flush of remembrance. “I wonder how many times Jennifer and I had lunch here over the years?”

“Your wife?”

“Yes. Our first meal in Paris was always here. Escargot and duck, and the house red, whatever that happened to be. Then a walk through the Tuileries and back to the Crillon.”

“The city has changed, you know, since Charlie Hebdo.”

“I can only imagine. History has a way of catching up with us, as I guess you know.”

She looked at him, gave him a little gallic shrug. “History has a way of killing off the weak, and the unprepared.”

“Too true.”

A waiter came and she asked about the special, then followed Sumner’s lead and ordered snails and duck. “So, we start a little tradition of our own today,” she said through a coy little smile, “do we not?”

“I suppose that’s a possibility.”

“You will see Miss Hill tomorrow, no?”

“That is the plan.”

“And the Lethbridges? Will they go with you?”

“I think so.”

“They are scheduled to leave Friday. What will you do then?”

“Relax, I suppose. I’ve been out sailing for over a year now. I want to walk, sit in a sidewalk café and have coffee and watch fat women chase their husbands with rolling pins.”

She smiled. “Yes, life does go on, even at it’s most absurd.”

“So, meanwhile, I am your assignment?”

“For now. Through Christmas, I think, perhaps until you are out of France.”

“Seems a waste. What’s going on?”

“A lot, I think. With all the refugees, we are at a disadvantage.”

“Not my business anymore. I wish you the best of luck, but the world will just have to go on hating without me.”

“So, tell me about Liz, Mrs Lethbridge?”

“What would you like to know?”

“She seemed to attach herself to you. Is that the best way to describe what happened?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, you did not pursue her, I think.”

“No, I did not. Quite a surprise, in the end.”

“Strange,” she sighed.

“Oh? How so?”

“Men, I think, find it so much harder to say no, do they not?”

He laughed. “That’s the way it is, I suppose.”

“Yet you seemed to find it very easy to say no to me?”

“Yes, odd, isn’t it?”

“You find me unattractive, perhaps?”

“I doubt there’s a man alive who find’s you unattractive.”

“Except you?”

“I find you attractive.”

“Good. That makes my life easier.”

“Easier?”

“Oh, I was worried.”

“Ah.” He looked at her again. “So, now that we have the formalities out of the way, why are we having lunch?”

“Abdul Hassani.”

She saw his jaw clench and his eyes narrow. “He’s been in the neighborhood?”

“Yes. Twice in the last week.”

“You’re going to have trouble. Where, what cities has he been spotted in.”

“Frankfurt, Brussels, Liege – and of course, here.”

“So, the assumption is they’re moving through Europe, with the refugees. That’s why you were out there that night, right?”

“Of course.”

“What about weapons? Anything?”

“Not yet. But if Hassani saw you on television, as I suspect he did, he may make an attempt.”

“Yup.”

“We want to move your boat out of such a public space, for a time anyway.”

“Where?”

“A government facility, south of the city.”

“When?”

“Today would be good.”

“Seriously? Do we have time for lunch?”

“This isn’t an order, Sumner. It’s a suggestion, and an offer of help, but we think you should be aware of the possibility. We know your team was after Hassani’s cell, and we know you were his target in Dar-es-Salaam, and many times in Iraq. When you retired, it might have passed your mind that the danger was over, but we’re not so sure. What did you say? History has a way of catching up to us?”

Their lunch came and he picked his way through the discomforting ideas she presented one by one. Refugees, television exposure, the marina – those all made sense. But would Hassani consider him a target worth pursuing? That he doubted, and his contact at the embassy hadn’t raised any flags, either.

He paid the bill and they drove back to the marina in silence.

“So? What do you think? Will you move the boat?”

“I really don’t think it’s necessary.”

She nodded her head, reached behind her seat and handed him a parcel. There is a weapon in here, and a few permits. Keep one of them on the boat, and one on you, with your passport.”

“What is it?”

“A P88, suppressed. You should keep it with you, on your person, always. I won’t be far away, but, who knows? I’ll need to call in, advise my office that you don’t want to move.”

“If more develops, I’ll move, but it seems a little thin right now. Look, do you know what a copperhead is?”

“Copperhead? No?”

“It’s a venomous snake, kind of a mean one, too. When I was a kid I ran across one in the basement of my grandparent’s house. I was sweeping up a mess down there when it attacked me, and it just kept striking at the broom in my hand over and over. At first I was scared, then I realized how single-minded it was, how stupid. I moved the broom and it attacked the broom, and eventually it became kind of fun. I kept moving the broom until I led it into a corner, and then I called my grandfather, who came down and killed it.”

“You think Hassani is like this copperhead?”

“Exactly. He’s single-minded, and that’s his weakness. If I’m his target, which I kind of doubt, moving me around won’t matter. He’ll follow me and strike when he thinks it’s time. On the other hand, if I’m a target, knowing where I am isn’t all that bad for us. Secondly, he may be here with another objective in mind, but he may only try to scope me out while he’s here. You could get eyes on him that way, start a tail. No telling where that might lead you.”

She nodded. “Yes, but we would need more surveillance in the area.”

“And a broom, Corrine. You’ll need a wide broom, something to lure him in.”

“You, perhaps?”

He smiled as he took the package. “The thought never entered my mind.”

+++++

“So, this Hassani,” Rod began, “they think he’ll try to bomb you or something.”

“Rod, there are so many ‘ifs’ right now it’s not worth speculating, but the security services think there’s a risk, and I think you should know about that risk as you’re here on the boat. I don’t think there’s a reasonable…”

“So that’s why they gave you that fucking gun?” Liz said, clearly upset. “Because there’s no risk?”

“No, Liz, not exactly. But I directed an operation where his brother was killed, and his wife. Maybe his child, too. Revenge is a big driver of events in the Middle East, and it sparks an endless cycle of murder and counter murder, but the French had eyes on him before we rescued those refugees. Even so, they think he might have seen coverage of that, and that he might try to exact his pound of flesh.”

“Oh, this is fucking great,” she said, crying, and Rod looked at her, then back to Collins.

“Could I ask you something, Liz?” Rod asked, quietly.

“What?” she said.

“Are you in love with him, with Sumner?”

Her lips began to tremble, and she broke out crying even more loudly.

“I see,” Rod said, looking down at his hands.

“I doubt that you do, Rod,” Collins said. “She’s lonely, insecure, and she loves you very much. That’s about the size of it.”

“So, you don’t love my Elizabeth?”

“I consider you both my friends. That’s all I can or will tell you.”

“That’s not what Whittington said. He thinks you two are in love.”

“I’m sorry he thinks that.”

“And you’re some kind of CIA James Bond assassin type, is that about right?”

Collins laughed. “Not hardly. I worked for our State Department, embassy security. I worked with intel agencies all around the world, even the KGB back in the day, but I was more like a well-connected security guard than some sort of spy.”

“But you’ve, like, killed people, right?”

“I have.”

“Oh, that’s just fuckin’ great. I want to ring your fuckin’ neck and here I am, sitting across from James Fuckin’ Bond with his Walther PPK.”

“It’s a P88, Rod. Much more powerful, you know.”

“Oh, now that’s just fuckin’ great – times two! You really know how to make a bloke feel right as rain, ya know?”

“How ‘bout a fuckin’ rum and fuckin’ Coke?” Collins said, smiling. “Liz? You fuckin’ want one too?”

They both nodded, and he poured three strong ones, and Rod looked at Liz again.

“Well, it’s cards on the table time, Lizzie.”

“What?”

“Me and Sarah. We’ve been seein’ one another again. For quite a while.”

“I figured that was it,” she said. “Why?”

“I dunno, Lizzie, I really don’t. I think in the beginning it was because I was taking you for granted like, and then all the excitement was gone for good and all that was left was them fuckin’ dogs. Then Sumner comes along with his boat and his dreams and I’m like, yeah, we could still make this work, but…”

“But you’re in love with Sarah.”

“And yeah, I’m in love with Sarah, and yeah, I wanted to find you two in love so I could get a divorce and keep all the property.”

Sumner took Rod’s drink and refilled it with tequila, and he made this one a little stronger.

“You know what, Rod? You need to think about what you’re doing. I’ve been with women all around the world, hundreds of ‘em, and Liz is right at the top of my A-list.”

“So you two did fuck?”

“Did we fuck? Rod? In one twelve hour period she cleaned my clock so many times I was out of my mind. You’d be fuckin’ insane to let this girl go.”

He was staring at Collins now in open-mouthed astonishment. “She what?”

“Listen, Amigo, if she was a fat slob? If she was coyote ugly? If she was a sexual zero? Well then, maybe, just maybe I could see your problem? But let’s face it…she’s cute as hell and she’s the Rolls Royce of pussy…here, let me top off your drink…” He poured three ounces of tequila this time.

“The Rolls Royce of pussy?” he slurred.

“Best goddamn piece of ass I’ve ever had, from here to Bangkok, Ace, and back again. If you don’t want her, just say the word and I’ll take her right off your hands.”

“The Hell you will, you goddamn mother fucker! That’s my goddamn wife you’re talkin’ about!”

Collins looked at Liz and nodded.

“What if I want to stay with Sumner,” she said, looking at Rod.

“You’re comin’ home with me, Miss Rolls Royce Pussy, and that’s all there is fuckin’ to it!”

“Okay.”

“No, no, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to stay here and I’m going home. You get this out of your system, then you let me know if you really want to come home again or not.”

“And you’ll go home to Sarah?”

“Fuckin’ right I will, you slut,” he said as he stood and went forward. He got his carry-on bag and made for the companionway. “Sumner?” he said as he held out his hand, “you’re a man’s man. Thanks for telling it to me like it is.”

Collins took his hand. “Okay. You sure you don’t want to take Liz home with you?”

“Like I says, when she gots you out of ‘er system.”

“You don’t think she should go home with you right now? Because I do.”

“You do?”

“I do.”

“Nah. We’ll see. I wanna talk to Sarah ‘bout all this shite first.”

“Fair enough. Can I help you up?”

“Help me? That’ll be the day…”

Collins sat down and waited, and when he heard Rod fall overboard into the Seine he went out to the aft deck and helped Rod back aboard.

“I think I’m going to puke,” Rod said as he heaved his guts into the black water. Collins let the tequila work it’s magic, then when Rod was through hurling he carried him below and Liz tucked him in.

“Unpack his bag, would you? I’ll run it through the wash,” he said.

“The Rolls Royce of pussy?” she asked, her voice full of wonder.

“Hey, it sounded good at the time.”

She came and whispered in his ear… “You have no idea how much I love you right now.”

“And I love you. And that stupid, silly lout in there, too.”

“Hundreds of women, eh?”

“Well, five, actually, if you count my babysitter and a girl I new in college.”

“Your babysitter? Now there’s a first.”

“Every twelve year old boy’s fantasy. Hardly a first.” He started the washer and they took Charley topsides and out to the trees, and while he was holding her there he thought about the Walther and how little good it would do him if he kept it down below in the chart table.

+++++

Rod was a shambles the next morning, and Collins poured orange juice and two acetaminophens down his gullet right off the bat. Liz was contrite and sweet, solving that problem, and Rod said he wanted to see Deb. That settled, they walked Charley and then went up to the street.

Collins decided to rent a car for a few days, and once that was accomplished they followed Dr Mann’s hand scrawled directions out to the psychiatric hospital in a forest beyond Orly airport. Once they arrived he asked a receptionist to call Mann and tell him they’d arrived. Mann arrived a half hour later –  dressed in full surgical garb – and he asked them to come along to a conference room.

“When you told me about the recent changes in her behavior, well, that was a big clue. Headaches, too. We performed an MRI yesterday, and the news is not so good.”

Mann had an iPad in hand and pulled up the imagery, and Collins looked at the golfball sized lump in the middle of the first image.

“A tumor?” he said, his eyes filling with tears.

“Glioblastoma, very advanced, I’m afraid. We did a biopsy earlier this morning. It’s confirmed.”

“What’s a glioblastoma?” Liz asked.

“A tumor,” Mann said. “Very aggressive, and treatments can slow growth somewhat, but only that.”

“You mean…?” she said, stuttering into tears of her own.

“Yes, precisely that. Four months, if that, but her personality will begin to dissolve long before death occurs. Her memory is not impaired as it is right now, but because of where the tumor is located, this facility she will lose soonest. Motor skills soon after, and then the pain will become unendurable.”

“May we see her,” Collins asked.

“Oh yes, in an hour. In fact, I would like you to take her with you tomorrow. Are you in Paris now?”

“Yes, at the Arsenal Marina.”

She will need constant help, day and night. Can you provide that on your boat?”

“Of course.”

“Then spend some time with her today, and come again tomorrow, around midday. She can go with you then, but she will know nothing of what we’ve found so far. I think you can count on her staying there until the New Year, but we will see.”

“When will you tell her, doctor?” Rod asked.

“I will let the three of you, her friends decide. If you’d like my help at that time, I will be there. Or the three of you may. That is entirely up to you. I thought we might give her a month or so without worry, but again, that is up to you.”

Collins nodded, so did Rod, but Liz seemed unsure of her footing. “I’d want to know,” she whispered. “I’d really want to know.”

“These things have a way of working themselves out,” Mann said. “I would not be concerned now about this just yet. Get to your boat, enjoy the holiday season, let her enjoy this time together with you all. She longs to see you, this I know. Now, if you’ll excuse me? I will send for you in a few moments.”

Silence dropped on them suddenly, maliciously, followed by curtains of disbelief, even Elizabeth’s tears seemed to hide just out of sight, afraid to be seen, or touched.

Collins sat still, his eyes locked in a fixed stare – straight ahead, his mind in battle yet unsure what to think, or now, even what to say. Rod’s arms were folded protectively across his chest, and he was chewing nervously on his lower lip, picking at a fingernail. Liz seemed almost a ruin of the person she had been just a few hours earlier, her face in her hands now, her breath coming in ragged little gasps, then she looked from Rod to Sumner and back again.

“You called me a slut last night. Do you remember that?”

“I do.”

“What are you thinking now?”

“I want to go home now. I want to, to be with Sarah.”

“Divorce, then?”

“Yes, I think so. The two of you can take care of Deborah well enough without me getting in the way, and then the two of you can be together. You’ll be happy that way.”

“And you?” she asked. “Will you be happy with that?”

He shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“I don’t suppose it matters what I want, does it?” Collins said.

“Not really,” Rod said.

“So, your hypocrisy know no bounds.”

“No, not at the moment.”

“Well, as long as we’re all clear about that. Liz? What about you? Stay here?”

“You’re goddamn fucking right I’m staying here. Do you want me to stay with you on Gemini?”

“Please, you’d be a great help now.”

“That figures,” a petulant Rod said.

Collins shook his head, looked up when Mann came back into the room.

“One at a time, please,” Mann said.

“Liz, go ahead.”

She nodded and followed the doctor, came back ten minutes later ashen-faced and red-eyed, and she sat by Sumner and took his hand. Rod left the room then, but returned a minute later and walked to a window, stared off into oblivion.

Sumner followed Mann to a post op recovery room; Deb’s head was heavily bandaged and she was groggy, but conscious, her eyes red-rimmed, her skin pure white.

“This looks oddly like a funeral procession,” she said, smiling. “How bad’s the news? They won’t tell me anything, Sumner.”

“Doctors. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”

“That bad, huh? I asked Liz and she started crying. Guess that’s all I need to know for now.”

He took her hand, kissed it. “We’re going to come spring you from this joint tomorrow. Anything I can get aboard you’d like?”

“Just some stuff to cook with, some cherries I guess, any kind of berries.”

He nodded his head. “I’d have brought Charley, but wasn’t sure how they’d handle her here.”

“I can’t wait to see her. We can take her to the shop tomorrow, when I open up.”

“We can do that.”

A nurse came in, told him they needed time with her now, so he leaned forward and kissed her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, darlin’.”

She squeezed his hand. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you too.” He felt dizzy as he walked out of the post-op ward, trying to assimilate the overwhelming load of facts and emotions washing over him – while trying to ignore the whole Liz and Rod melt-down…

But that just wasn’t going to happen.

They were in the conference room snarling at one another…

– I’ve been tired of you for ages, you’re just not sexy any more…

– And I seduced Sumner to get back at you! So take that!

Sumner walked in the room and looked at them – until they stopped and looked at him.

“You know?” he said. “I can’t imagine a more appropriate setting for this discussion than a psychiatric hospital. I could hear you two yelling half way across the lobby, and I feel sure they have at least two more padded cells available – just for you!” He walked out the building and to the little rental car and climbed in, waited for them to come out.

And they did, fifteen minutes later – and with Dr Mann now in their face, pointing at them and delivering a blistering dressing down outside the building. Liz was crying, Rod was pouting, and Collins started the motor, glaring at them both as the crawled out to the car.

She got in the front seat, let Rod have the rear and they sat in silence all the way back to the marina.

“Rod? What’s the plan?” he asked after he shut off the motor.

“I think I’ll get my bag and head on to the airport.”

“Well, hop on down and get it; I’ll drive you out.”

“There’s no need. I can…”

“Yes, there is. Liz, would you go on down and take care of Charley? It’ll only take an hour or so.”

“Sure.”

They left together, and Rod came back alone with his bag a few minutes later. Collins started the car and slipped back into heavy late afternoon traffic. “Well, this isn’t exactly how I’d hoped this would turn out between you two,” he said.

“Do you think you’ll stay with Liz? I mean, after?”

“After what?”

“Oh, you know. Deb and all.”

“Frankly, I don’t know, but I doubt it.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I doubt she loves me, Rod. You heard what she said…she wanted to do this as a way of getting back at you. That’s not love; that’s war. Besides you two will be tangled up in a messy divorce for years, and with all the court appearances you two will be having to deal with, she won’t have time for me.”

Rod looked out at the passing city. “Years, you say?”

“Years, years of hell, yes. At least two, anyway, and you’ll be fighting over property distribution, all the other bullshit that goes along with divorce… ”

“Yeah.”

“So, tell me about this girl Sarah? She must be some hot shit, right?”

“Oh yeah, a real knockout, huge fucking tits, sweet as can be; she really loves me, too.”

“She’s worth it, huh?”

“Worth what?”

“Losing the farm, saying goodbye to the sailing thing, two years in court, all that other bullshit?”

He looked out the window again and Collins smiled, and within a half hour made it out to DeGaulle.

“Well, Sumner, no hard feelings, eh? I think I know what happened, and why, and I don’t blame you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t let me off so easily, Rod. Liz is your wife, and I nailed her, pure and simple. I shouldn’t have. It was inappropriate, but like I said, she’s a damn cute gal and she knows how to be sexy in a way I’ve never known before. I was quite taken with her.”

“Yeah, well, it’s too late now for all that.”

“For all what?”

“Apologies, kiss and make up, that kind of thing.”

“Seems to me you haven’t tried that yet. Do you want to? I mean, really want to?”

“You know, Sumner, right now all I want to do is get back and see Sarah. I don’t really ever want to see Liz ever again.”

“Because of me, of us, what we did?”

“No, mate, it’s been happening that way between us now for a few years, since the first time Sarah and me got together. I should have divorced her then. I wanted to. It’s only gotten worse since.”

“Okay, Rod. Do me a favor, would you? Send me a list of what you’d like to see happen in a divorce. The property and all that, the way you’d like to divide things up. Let me go over it and see if I can handle this in such a way that you both come out ahead.”

“Why? Why would do that, Sumner?”

“Because you’re both friends of mine, and I don’t want to see either of you hurt. The only thing I know about divorce…well, the only folks that come out ahead are the lawyers. If there’s an amicable split, well, you two have a chance of coming out of this alive.”

“You know, if we do divorce, I’d be happiest if I knew she was going to end up with you.”

Collins looked at him and smiled. “I understand. You still love her, don’t you?”

“Oh God, yes.” He started crying and with bag in hand walked inside the terminal.

Collins got in and drove back into the city, wondering if he’d put Humpty-Dumpty back on his wall.

He found a space even closer to the marina and worked his way into the tiny parking place, but he saw a man staring at his car as he shut down the motor. He patted the Walther in his coat pocket as he undid the seatbelt, and as he stepped out of the little Renault he made a show of dropping his car keys and looking at the man’s reaction – but he was walking away now – as Collins pulled a shoelace free. Jeans and sneakers, maroon jacket, olive skin, black hair…he did his best to make his observations as quickly and covertly as he could, then slipped into the marina. At a park bench he stopped and bent over to tie his shoe, and he saw the man looking his way again so he walked to the marina office. Once inside he called Corrine…

“Yes, we are following him now.”

“Let me know what you find. I need to talk to you anyway, so come by after dark.”

“Okay.”

He left and walked around the entire marina, sitting on benches twice to ‘tie his shoes’ before he boarded Gemini, then he quickly went below and found Liz up front playing with Charley.

“It may not be safe for you here much longer,” Collins said.

“Did you see something?”

He nodded his head.

“I probably shouldn’t ask you this, but do you have another weapon on board?”

“Have you been through a firearms training program?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then let’s not go there. You’d be better served going for a butcher knife.”

She nodded, then grimaced…“How was Rod.”

“A basket case.”

“I know you heard what I said, about using you to get back at him.”

“I did.”

“That’s not true, I hope you know. I was trying to hurt him, only now I hope I haven’t hurt you.”

He smiled at her, thought about the Liar’s Paradox and tried not to laugh. “So, it seems this Sarah thing is pretty far along. How do you feel about all that?”

“Oh, I hold no illusions, Sumner. She’s young, she’s cute, and she dotes on him. We’ve been married ages now and the bloom is off that rose, I guess you’d have to say. I’m going to be fifty soon and I’ve not been a real career person, so I haven’t a pot to piss in.”

“Well, you’re also cute as hell – for fifty or by any other measure. You’re sweet as can be and a blast to be with, so don’t sell yourself short.”

“Sweet enough to end up with you?”

He looked her in the eye. “Liz, I’m simply tied up in knots right now. I was expecting one set of outcomes with Deborah and now I’m facing an entirely new set. I’ve people in Boston I want to call about her diagnosis, and then I need to see how to go about keeping her here comfortably. And now I’ve got some sort of wild-eyed Iraqi terrorist to keep track of…so I don’t want to tell you things right now that may fall apart in the days ahead. All I can tell you right now is this: I very much enjoy your company, and I’d hate to lose that. After that marathon sex thing the other night I was, well, I was out of my mind in Lust with you. No one has ever made me feel the way you did. No one. I wouldn’t turn my back on a woman like you, because you do indeed make me very happy.”

“I’m glad…but?”

“Well, that said, your husband still loves you…now, no, don’t interrupt. We talked on the way to the airport, and all I can definitively state right now is he’s one very confused man. I’d say he’s smack-dab in the middle of manopause…”

“Mano…what?”

“Manopause,” he chuckled. “A middle-aged couple’s worst nightmare. Hormonal changes that hit men in middle age can be as emotionally damaging to us as they can be with many women when menopause hits.”

“That might explain some of it, but…”

“You’re exactly right. There’s something missing in your marriage, maybe it was never there, but whatever it is, we’ve got to deal with that first.”

“We?”

“Yes, we. If there’s going to be a divorce, it’s going to effect the three of us, in one way or another. I could, I suppose, just toss you out on the dock and tell you to have a nice life…”

“Sumner…”

“Well, I do care about you, Liz, enough to never do that to you, but I care for Rod, too. Divorce is a last resort, at least as far as I’m concerned, but I do NOT want that to become the focus of our lives while taking care of Deborah, and frankly, later, so if there’s to be a split…”

“I understand, Sumner. I do. All I want from you now is your friendship. If there’s to be something more, well, that can wait, can’t it?”

“If that’s the way our relationship evolves, yes.”

“Would you mind too much if we play around in the meantime? I hate to say this, but I feel like, well, I’ve been living in this emotionally barren moonscape for years. What we did the other night was like a dream come true for me…you were the perfect partner, and I fell in love with life all over again…”

“Wouldn’t that become confusing to you, Liz? I mean, even more than we’ve already confused things?”

“I don’t know? Maybe? But even if it’s just every now and then…”

He held his hands up… “You’re asking a drowning man if he’d mind having a life jacket, if I’d mind having wild, uninhibited sex every now and then, and with no strings attached, and with a woman as seriously cute as you. Really, Liz, do you expect me to say no?”

She smiled. “No, I guess not, but you’re wrong about one thing.”

“Oh?”

“I’m not confused in the least about things, and I know exactly how I feel about you.”

“Okay. I can accept that.”

“Just so you’re clear, it’s you I love.”

“Okay, I understand that too, but for now – do you understand how I feel about things? Not just about Deborah? One step at a time?”

“I do,” she said, sighing. “Well…I’ve already put the sheets on, and cleaned the bathroom. Is there anything else I can do?”

“You ‘can do?’ Geesh…I don’t know what to say. Thanks? I mean it, yeah, thanks. Uh. I was going to walk up to the market, but I want to wait a while on that.”

“Were you followed?”

“Someone was watching me as I walked in.”

“Did you try to see who it is?”

“That’s not how this game is played, Liz. If it’s who we think it is…”

“We?”

“If it’s who I think it is…well then, think of it as more like a game of Chess. Two or three moves ahead, but always taking into account where all the pieces on the board are.”

“So? Where are they?”

He shrugged. “If this was anything at all, I’m going on the assumption it was an opening move, so I don’t want to make any stupid moves of my own just yet. That means I’m not making any unnecessary moves, and I may be relying on friends to watch my back. That also means you have to play by a different set of rules from now on.”

“Such as?”

“First, be watchful. Be careful, don’t do anything spontaneous. Check with me before you move around topsides or off the boat…”

“Jesus…are you serious?”

“Liz, the safest place for you would be back in Brighton. I know you’d be a big help here, but it’s a risk. One you might want to consider carefully.”

“Okay. Done. I’m staying with you. For you, and because Deb has been a good friend to me. She needs me, and I’m going to be here for her.”

“I knew you would, and that’s why I’m letting you decide. But this is one of life’s bigger decisions, and I’m concerned right now about so much. Almost scared…”

“Scared?”

“About Deborah, what she’s facing, what I’m…what we’re taking on. Both physically and emotionally. Yes, it scares me.”

“You’ve been through it before. I haven’t. We can help each other, can’t we?”

He looked at her long and hard, wondering what was sincere and what was an act. “Yeah. We can. Just so you go into this with both eyes wide open. I’ll do my best to keep the bad guys away, but if I can’t, if it starts to go bad and I tell you to move, I don’t want any bullshit. You get to the airport and out of here. Agree?”

“I’ll do whatever you tell me to do, Sumner. I trust you.”

They got back to work, cleaning the interior and disinfecting the head and galley, getting the interior ready to serve as a hospital – or hospice.

Just after the sun set he saw Corrine walking through the marina from the street entrance, and she stopped once to ‘tie her shoes’, then came to the stern and waited for him to come up to the cockpit and help her across.

“Whoever he was, he knew how to evade a tail.”

“I figured as much.”

“So, you’re going to have company. That’s my assumption, anyway. What did you learn at the hospital?”

Collins filled her in, not leaving anything out about Liz and Rod in his telling, and she took it all in like a professional.

“You are to care for her down here, then?” she asked incredulously.

“You know the situation. What would you do?”

“Care for her down here. Yes. But I don’t have to tell you, if this is Hassani, a lot of people could get hurt unnecessarily. You know this.”

He shrugged. “Not if I get him first.”

“No. This you must not do. Do not even think this.”

He looked at her, saw the faintest hint of a smile in her eyes. “Alright.”

“Is Mrs Lethbridge down below?”

“Oui.”

“As-tu besoin de quelque chose?”

“J’allais le marché, mais je voulais vérifier avec vous avant que je suis allé.”

“Do you have a list for the market?”

“Yes.”

“Je vais y aller maintenant. And I will arrange for someone to stay on the boat tomorrow while you are away.”

“Okay. Tell ‘quiconque’ I appreciate all the help.”

“You should know, some of your people are involved now too.”

“Anyone I know? Perhaps?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she smiled. “Got your list?” He handed her a piece of paper and she read through it then looked up at him – and caught his smile. “I hate being so predictable,” she said as she pocketed the paper.

“Those last few items on the list? Check with our company liaison, I think he’ll get it for you.”

“No doubt. I’ll return around…” she looked down at her watch, “oh, two hours or so. Don’t let your meat loaf, Captain.”

“I’ll save some for you.”

She rolled her eyes. “The story of my life.”

They both laughed, then she turned and walked off into the night. He followed her at a discrete interval and stood among the trees, watched as she went to a BMW sedan and drove off. He waited, watching, and finally saw a shadow within a shadow, then a man stepping out and walking towards the marina.

The man in the maroon jacket, his hands in his pockets, his head down, walking across the street towards the entrance. Collins stepped back deeper into the trees, watched the man as he walked by not twenty feet away, and as he walked over to Gemini – and beyond. At the end of the marina the man stopped and looked at a boat, then began walking back – slowly, looking at boats one by one, most Seine River tourist scows and only a few pleasure craft like his own. Then the man stopped behind the Gemini and pulled out his phone and snapped a few images, innocuous enough for a tourist, but to Collins this character was now anything but…

The man started walking back to the entrance, and Collins screwed the suppressor onto the end of the Walther and waited, and when the man drew near he stepped out of the trees – and directly into man’s path.

The man stopped in his tracks and began to pull his hands out of his pocket.

“I wouldn’t do it,” Collins said.

“What?”

“I’d keep my hands in my pocket if I were you.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Turn around and walk slowly.”

“Who do you think…”

“I’m the sonofabitch who’s about to put three bullets in your face,” Collins said, just showing the Walther.

“Okay.”

“Turn around and walk back to the boat.”

“What boat…?”

“Four.”

“What?”

“Four bullets.”

“Okay.”

When they got to the stern he pushed the man across onto the swim platform, then followed him and pushed him into the cockpit – then down below.

Liz saw the man first, then the Walther, then Sumner, and she stepped into the forward cabin and waited out of view.

When the man was in the main cabin Collins told him to stand still, then he went to the chart table and took out several cable ties – metal reinforced arrest ties – and restrained the man to the overhead hand holds.

“Hassani? Where is he?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Collins took the Walther and placed it up against the mans testicles.

“One more chance, Paco, then you get to meet your 72 virgins without nuts. Probably won’t be as much fun, ya know?”

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”

“Well, okay, I’ll shoot the left one first.”

“What? Wait…don’t…”

“Hassani? Where?”

“I don’t know…” the man almost screamed, “he’s moving around a lot, not one place for very long.”

Collins took out his phone and dialed Corrine.

“I’ve got him.”

“Who?”

“Maroon jacket.”

“Okay.” She broke the connection.

“You’re not very good, you know?”

The man smiled. “Neither are you.”

Collins felt someone getting on the boat aft and went behind the man, waited for this one to come out of the shadows, then heard him jumping off the stern and running, men shouting, two silenced rounds from nearby.

“You were saying?”

The man seemed to visibly deflate after that, and when Corrine and one other agent appeared his eyes dropped.

“Did you get him,” Collins asked.

She nodded. “On his way to Allah, unfortunately.”

“Too bad, so sad,” he asked. “Me and my new friend here were just about to talk about Hassani’s whereabouts when his friend dropped by.”

“Were you? How nice.”

“He seems rather fond of his testicles. He decided he wanted to keep them.”

“Bertrand, take him in. I’ll be there in a half hour.”

“I’m glad you got here in time. I really don’t know how to patch bullet holes in teak.”

She shook her head. “You are a real humanitarian, you know, Collins.”

“I’m tired of dealing with these assholes.”

They cut the man loose from the ceiling and handcuffed him properly, then ‘Bertrand’ and three other men took him away. A dozen Gendarmes were in the marina now, sealing off the crime scene and a few dozen people on boats in the marina were looking on, wondering what the commotion was all about, and Corrine watched more men arrive and take over from the police.

“What happened?” Corrine asked when they were alone, but then Liz stepped into the cabin. “She was here? She saw all this?”

“I told her what was going on.”

“Did you now. How pleasant.” Corrine shook her head, rubbed her eyes. “So, what happened.”

“I followed you out to the street. He was waiting for you, and came into the marina after you left.”

“My men didn’t…?”

“No, they didn’t.”

“Merde.”

“I agree. They’re not taking their work seriously.”

She nodded. “After Hebdo, I thought this was over.”

“Everyone lets their guard down after a few months. They count on that. Anyway, he has a phone, he took pictures of the boat, and I took it from there. You’d better get your team on high alert…there are a lot of Gomers loose running around around here…”

“He has a phone?”

“Yup,” he said, handing it over to her. “Sorry, got my prints on it.”

She nodded her head, smiled. This was the real intelligence coup, right here in her hand. “We are moving two police boats in here tonight. One will, unfortunately, be right next to you. Unmarked, of course. A marked patrol boat will be across from you. Both will be manned, 24/7.”

“Okay. No naked orgies in the cockpit. Got it.”

“That would be helpful. Yes. I am leaving now, we’ll see you in the morning, I hope.”

“Thanks.”

“Oh, the stuff from the market is on the back here. Not that company stuff yet, however.”

“Thanks. I’ll come get it.”

When they were topsides she pulled him aside. “Thanks. You were a big help tonight.”

“Yeah, well, thanks for all you’ve done.”

“I will be here at daybreak, will follow you out to the hospital…”

“That’s not really necessary…”

“After tonight, I’m afraid so.”

He picked up three bags from the market. “Thanks. What do I owe you?”

She laughed. “Dinner.”

“You’re on.” She kissed him on the cheek and was gone, and he carried the bags down below.

“What’s that?” Liz asked as he carried the bags down.

“Baking stuff, fresh berries, a few odds and ends.”

“Well, let’s get it stowed.”

“Aye-aye, Captain!” he said, grinning. “How’re you holding up?”

“Were you really going to shoot that man in the balls?”

“No way. I hate cleaning up blood.”

She shook her head. “And you did this kind of thing for a living?”

“Me? No, I was just a lawyer.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You, like, wouldn’t be getting horny, would you?”

She looked at him like he’d just sprouted another head. “Are you serious?”

“Very.”

“Uh, okay. Sure. Let’s get naked and fuck all night long. Why the fuck not?”

“That’s my girl.”

“Am I your girl?”

“You are right now, that’s for goddamn sure.”

“Does this kind of thing, like, make you horny?”

“You have no idea.”

“Oh.”

“Why don’t you go jump in the shower. I’ll get this stuff put away. Oh, by the way, I took a Viagra this afternoon.”

“Dear God.”

He joined her in the shower a few minutes later, starting to come down off the adrenalin rush but still sporting a raging woodie.

“Do you take Viagra often?” she asked.

“When we were talking earlier.”

“What?”

“I don’t know, Elizabeth. Just watching you, for some reason I was aroused. Your lips when you talk, your face, the way you move, it got to me. The more you talked the more I wanted you.”

She put her arms around his neck, looked up into his eyes. “Really?”

“Really.” He folded her in his arms. “I guess it’s wrong as hell, but thinking about you since the other night has become a full time preoccupation.”

She was soaping him up, massaging the tip, pinching it ever so lightly, watching him watching her, then she rinsed him off and climbed up into his arms. She lowered herself on him, the water running between them, her legs clasping him, pulling him deeper inside, her back arching against the wall, grinding thrusting gyrating through a cloudburst of emotion, then he had her pinned to the wall, driving into her, their mouths a fusing union, her fingernails spreading talons pulling him closer, then he was on his toes, driving up and in, leaning back, looking into her eyes as her release started, his following her clasping climax within a heartbeat.

Their mouths still fused, her fingers running through his hair, his massaging her back, then she put her feet down – and she knelt and took him in her mouth, cleaning him, reviving him, but he pulled her up, took her face in his hands and kissed her…

“Alright, Liz. You win.”

“I win?”

“Just hold me, would you? You have no idea how much I need you – right now. This very minute,” he was whispering into her hair, into the very fabric of her being, more confused now than he could remember – yet so glad this woman was with him.

He turned off the water and dried her completely, then himself, then they were under the covers and he was shaking, still coming down and she held him…just held him, rubbing his head, holding his face to her breasts, whispering into the air how much she loved and needed him – until she felt the release in him, the easing, the finally letting go, and she kept rubbing and caressing him until his breathing slowed and the first little snores began.

And then she cried. Her release came and she let it go…

…gently, from a warm place she had forgotten existed…

“Oh, God,” she whispered through her sigh, “please don’t take him from me. Let me live within this moment of my life forever.” She smelled his hair, the skin around his neck, wanting to memorize every little thing about him because she was sure, really sure, that something had to happen to make this end. Something or someone would come and take him from her, because nothing really good ever happened to her. Roderick had come close, once upon a time, but not like this. Especially something like this feeling, this place in her heart that had suddenly – and so completely come to life.

+++++

He heard his phone chirping a little after five in the morning and he went to the galley and took it off the charging cable and answered it.

“Yello!”

“Sumner?”

“Yo.”

“It’s Paul.”

“Paul, are you…what’s up? Are you okay?”

“Uh, look, sorry about the hour but I just heard something about Rod…”

“Yes, Paul, what is it?”

“Well, he and another woman were involved in an accident. I’m afraid I have bad news for Liz. Is she around?”

“Paul, what’s happened?”

“I’m afraid he’s, well, he’s gone, Sumner. The woman has a spinal cord injury, and is not expected to recover.”

“Where is he now?”

“London, actually. They were up near there, I think.”

“Okay, have any contact information?” He listened, wrote down all Whittington had. “Okay, got it.”

“Thanks for handling this, Sumner. I wasn’t looking forward…”

“Don’t mention it.”

“I just…it’s all so surreal…”

“What’s going on with your deal?”

“Pick it up sometime next week. I don’t suppose you’d be able to help?”

“Do you know what’s going on with Deb?”

“Yes, Rod filled me in. Beastly diagnosis. I suppose Elizabeth will stay with you there?”

“We’ll see. Why don’t you call when you have a move date.”

“Will do, and thanks, mate.”

“Por nada, Amigo.”

He sighed, then rang off – leaving Collins to tell Liz. He put on coffee and took Charley aft for a wizz, then walked below and put Charley back on the bed. He went into the head and brushed his teeth, then sat down on the bed and ran his fingers through her hair. Charley looked at him for the longest time, then at Liz.

Then she went to Liz and licked her chin…

…and she opened her eyes, those cool green eyes, and he looked at her.

“How do you feel?” she asked.

He was stunned, and marveled at the question…her first thought was for him. That’s Liz, he said to himself. She gives, she pitches in – above all, she tries, she doesn’t run.

“Paul just called. There’s been some trouble, an accident, at home.”

“I know. Rod’s gone, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“An accident, with Sarah.”

“I don’t know the details, but how do you know?”

“I was dreaming about it, just now. That dolphin of yours was telling us, me and Deb. Sarah is still alive, but only just…and they were in a big city.”

“She came to you both? In a dream?”

She nodded her head, then came and lay on his lap. “I suppose I should go back Brighton now, but I don’t want to leave you.”

“Then don’t. We can deal with things from here.”

“Okay. Is there someone I need to call?”

“I have the information,” he said, then he kissed the top of her head, held her hand – and she ran her fingers through his.

“I love you so much, Sumner. What I felt last night? I don’t have the words to describe my feelings.”

He thought about her for a moment, then about his own feelings, and as confused as he felt the words came easily to him, and to her as well. “I love you too,” he said, squeezing her hand. She rolled over slowly and looked up at him, but there was nothing else to say and they both knew it.

Her hand on the side of his face now, she wiped a tear from his cheek.

+++++

Deb was in a wheelchair, out front in the lobby and ready to go when they arrived, but she seemed troubled and immediately he knew she had experienced Liz’s dream too. He didn’t question these things anymore, there was simply no need. The how and the why would never make sense, couldn’t, not really. He had no frame of reference, but maybe he’d talk to Mann about it…

When he saw her there he felt an elation that he’d not expected; he went to her and knelt beside the chair. “Are you ready to try this?” he asked.

“Please, get me out of here,” she said in a dead, wooden voice.

He wheeled her to the passenger side and helped her slide across, then he put the chair in the rear and helped Liz in, then turned to see Doctor Mann waiting for him.

“How are you this morning, doctor?”

“Good. You?”

Collins shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“This dolphin of your. She has told me all she knows. Your wife, your voyage, your other dog, this other Charley. It is all true?”

“Yes.”

“And John Lennon? He comes to you?”

“Yes. I was with him when he passed.”

“With him? How so?”

“We lived in the same building. We were coming home, almost home, when he was shot. I touched him, held his hand as he passed.”

The old man seemed to take it all in stride, bunching his lips and nodding his head gently. “So, these are not hallucinations. Very troubling, even so.”

“I understand. Did you hear about the trouble at the marina last night?”

“The pick-pocket? Shot when he threatened the police?”

“He was anything but… ” Collins spend a few minutes briefing the old man, who nodded his head a lot and bunching his lips, making an odd smacking sound as he did.

“You have lead a complicated life, Mr Collins. What would you like to do?”

“I have excellent support nearby, so I think we’ll be safe, but if the situation deteriorates, where should I bring Deborah?”

“Here. Immediately. And do not trouble her mind with these things. The less she knows, the better.”

“Alright. I was thinking you and I should have a conversation about my dolphin. What do you think?”

He shrugged, smacked his lips. “I have no idea what to think, but with your permission I know of a Jungian therapist, an animist, if you know the term.”

“Not really, but of course. Anything I can do to understand this would be a blessing.”

“A blessing? Interesting. Not the word that comes to mind. Well, please call me at home in the evening, with progress reports or ideas, and I will let you know what I find out here.”

“I have a friend in Boston I want to call. An oncologist. I’d like to talk to him.”

Mann shrugged and smacked away. “Please, let me know if he has any ideas,” then he held out his hand. “Good day,” he said.

“You too.”

When he left the covered loading area he saw two cars fall in behind, both black BMW 5 series sedans, and he smiled at the escort as he pulled into traffic. When he pulled up to the marina, another BMW pulled out, vacating a parking space by the entrance, and he smiled again. He got Deb’s chair out and looked at the sky…lead gray and as heavy, almost like it might snow soon…but it was still far too warm out for anything but rain. He helped her into the chair and locked the doors when Liz came around, and he pushed her through the marina to Gemini’s stern and locked the wheels.

“I can make it on my own,” Deb said, pushing herself up…but she swayed and he held her, then took several deep breaths. He stayed by her side, hed her up, helped her get her bearings. “Okay,” she said after a minute. “Better now.”

Liz went across first, Deb followed and took her hand, then he followed her across, guarding against a fall…but all his concerns about this movement now seemed almost anti-climatic. Once she was below he went back and carried her chair back to the car and stowed it away, watching the men in the black BMWs watching him, then he looked at Gemini, and around the marina.

‘Yup,’ he said to himself, ‘now surrounded by police boats…’

He found Deb sitting in the main cabin, Liz putting on tea in the galley, and he went and sat next to her. And she kept her hands crossed in her lap, looking down at them.

“No one will tell me anything,” she said at last. “I ask them what’s wrong and everyone avoids even looking at me. If I ask you, will you tell me?”

“I’d rather not.”

“My God,” she burst out laughing, “it must really be a doozy, whatever it is!” She crossed her arms over her stomach and her lower lip popped out.

“Are you sure you want to know right now?”

“I think I have a right to know.”

He went to the chart table and got his laptop and opened it, then went to a page describing all there was to know about glioblastoma. He set the computer on the table and turned the screen to her; she pulled it close and began reading, her eyes clear and steady, pure strength radiating from her being. Liz came and sat by her side, and he turned away after a moment and stared out the windows, up into the sky.

“Well,” she said when she’d finished, “that’s really something. And here I thought I was just depressed.”

“You were,” Liz said. “Only this time the ‘why’ of it all was a little different.”

“Have they told you how long I’ve got?”

“Yes,” Sumner said. “And we’ll not talk about that now as I have a few doubts.”

“Such as?” Deb said.

He shrugged. “I’ll let you know. A few things to consider first. My sister will be coming over for Christmas, and my former sister-in-law is making threatening noises about coming as well. She’s made it clear the past few years she’d like nothing more than to sink her claws into me, just so you know.”

“And how do you feel about her?” Liz asked.

“I’d rather spend the night in a room full of cobras than be with her for an hour.”

Deb laughed. “Now that’s an image. So, are you two in love now?”

“What?” Collins said, looking at Liz.

“Liz! It’s plain as day all over your face.”

He looked at her. “Deb, we’ve been through a lot the past week, and it’s been confusing.”

“You have to understand something, Sumner,” Deb said, holding her hand up. “I don’t object, in fact I think I understand. Have since that day we crossed the channel. Could see it in her eyes, knew it was only a matter of time.”

“Deb, I…”

“It’s alright, Liz. Don’t try to explain yourself, because I above all people know you, and understand what you’ve been through. Have you called about Rod yet?”

“About Rod?” Liz said.

“The dream, Liz. You were there, and we talked about him, didn’t we?”

Collins sat down, felt light-headed. “You told Mann about the dream, and my history with the dolphin? Why?”

“I was upset when I woke up.”

“His body is in London, Sarah is at Queen’s,” Liz added.

“I didn’t know her well,” Deb said wistfully. “But they came into the shop twice, together. Said she was a chum from work, just passing by and wanted to say hello. Can you believe that? What must have been going on in his mind to do that?”

“Well, just so I’m clear,” Collins said, his voice faraway, almost distant. “That dolphin, who is still in the English Channel I have to assume, knew two people in London were in an accident, and she told you both. In a dream, last night, in roughly the same relative time-frame.”

Deb raised her hands in a pantomimed shrug; Liz just shook her head and looked out the window, letting slip a long sigh.

“What’s the connection? Between us? Between the three of us?”

“You,” Deborah said. “Your wife, as well. That’s clear.”

“And the pups…the two Charleys,” Liz added. “My Charley, the one from my litter? She has to fit in this puzzle too. She’s a link to the old one, somehow, someway. You said the old Charley got into the water with your wife, when she fell ill. And then it found you in the islands, and again at sea, when the old Charley passed. So, she links you…to…to…”

“Yeah, when the answer comes to you, be sure to let me know, will you?”

“Do you have things to bake with here?” Deb said.

“Yup,” he said. “Fresh cherries, and blackberries too.”

“Excellent,” she stood and reached for the overhead rail, yet her hand recoiled violently when she grabbed the metal. “God, what happened in here?” she said, wiping her hands against her slacks.

“What?” Collins said, now concerned. “What do you mean?”

Deb was looking at the handrail, then she looked at him: “What did you do to that man?” she said accusingly.

“What man?”

“The man who was here,” she said, pointing at the rail. “The man…”

He looked at her as her voice trailed off, as she stared at the metal rail. “Deb? What is it?”

“He was going to kill you, wasn’t he?”

“Deb?” Liz said, interested in what Deb was sensing. “What do you see?”

“Fire. I see fire.”

Collins looked at his watch, made the conversion for Boston in his head, then went up on deck and pulled out his phone. He talked for a half hour, then broke the connection and called his sister in Wisconsin.

“Phoebe?”

“Hey, long lost brother of mine. Where are you?”

“Paris. How soon can you come over?”

“Last exams are the week after Thanksgiving. Mark my papers and turn in the grades. Why? What’s up?”

“Not now.”

“Okay. Do I need to come sooner?”

“No, that’ll be fine. Have you heard from Tracy?”

“She’s made reservations on Air France for the 22nd, staying on the Ilse St Louis at a little B&B. That’s all I know so far. Do I hear wedding bells in your future?”

“I’m involved with two women now, one with an inoperable brain tumor.”

Silence.

“They’ll both be here for Christmas,” he added.

“Uh-huh.”

“There are a lot of strange things going on right now. I’d like you to come as soon as you can.”

“Okay. You sure?”

“Yes. Did you get a ticket yet?”

“No. I might need some help with that.”

“Chicago? Has your passport number changed?”

“No.”

“Okay. I’ll have them send confirmation to your email.”

“You haven’t forgotten my date of birth, have you?”

“Oh, Phoebe, don’t get me started right now.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Yes. Bad. Confusing.”

“Okay, Sumner. I understand. I’ll be…”

“Bye.” He broke the connection, struggled to hold on to himself. Now Deb…and it was all coming back to him…Jennie…his Jennifer…when she first fell into cancer. All the hope, all the false assumptions, then all the denial and fear, then that last goodbye. It was time to live through it all again, but was he ready? Could he carry on with the smiling faces and all the ‘don’t be so glum’ admonishments? Could Liz? Could Phoebe?

Could Charley really be the key to it all?

He opened the messaging app on his phone and sent a brief text to Tracy. “Illness looming with a dear friend, not a good time to come this year. Sorry. S” He looked it over and sent it, then looked around the boat. “Can I do this again?” he said, looking down into the water.

He saw only the reflections of buildings and a few bare trees down there in the darkness, and he felt utter loneliness in that moment, and more that a little afraid of the dark once again – then he turned and went below, just as a few raindrops fell on his bare head.

And it smelled as good as he remembered…all her baking instincts coming alive in the here and now. Warm cherries filled the space, filled his heart as he found Deb teaching Liz all her little secrets and shortcuts. He went to the chart table and checked water levels and the state of charge on the batteries, forcing himself back into the solace of all his own routines and shortcuts, then Liz was standing beside him, kissing his head, and he looked up, saw Deb standing in the galley – watching – and he wanted to turn inward…

“No secrets here, Sum,” Deb said, a wry little grin showing. “I told you I understand.”

“I’m afraid that’s not going to make this any easier,” he said.

“Bosh. Think about it from my perspective, would you? If I’m not going to be here, at least you’ll be with my best friend. That’s not an exactly a bad thing, you know?”

“That’s not ‘exactly’ what I meant.”

“Yes, first Jennifer, then Charley, and now me. But look on the bright side, will you? You’ve only known me for what? A month? How bad will it be, really?”

He looked at her, wondered if she was serious or simply pathologically insensitive. “Okay, sure Deb. Whatever you say.” He went and picked up Charley and got her leash, then they went out into a heavy downpour. He grabbed a foul weather jacket and hopped off the stern and went for the trees, Charley bounding along oblivious to everything in the world but the happiness of green grass and a new scent to chase.

“So, girl, how do we play this? Just let the world roll on by and see what happens, or do we make a scene?” Or, he asked himself, is she going to undergo unexpected behavior changes? And if that’s so, what can I expect as this thing progresses? I’d better get on to Dr Mann…

+++++

Two days of rain followed, but the next morning, the 13th, dawned overcast and windy – but dry – and the grass surrounding the marina was verdant – almost too green. Charley wandered on her lead, quartering across the micro-meadow like she was hot on the scent, and Deb came up and sat on the aft deck when the sun threatened to come out. While her swaddled head stood out like a beacon, she just didn’t seem to care about any aspect of those vanities now. Jennifer had confronted her cancer head on, had for a few months entertained the possibility that she could beat it, and her own eccentricities and vanities had played along with her for a while…had become a part of the emotional routines that, in effect, sustained, even buoyed her willingness to fight.

So Deb wakes up one day and learns she has an inoperable – and totally lethal cancer, and knows it will take her within a few months. Her reaction? Get on with the important stuff and throw away the rest. If sun on her face was important, a robe and slippers will do. Time to bake scones? Robe and slippers will do there too. A friend of Mann’s had recommended a fun place for dinner just a few blocks away – and she felt like going out tonight…so her robe and slippers would not do. Some sun on her face would be nice, however, maybe a scarf for her head, too.

She watched Charley running and rolling around, but when Sumner pulled a small rubber ball and rolled it in front of her, she just stood still and looked at it, not quite sure what to do – yet. He picked it up and held it in front of her nose and she sniffed at it this time, then he rolled it away from her…and again, her reaction was stubborn obliviousness. He walked over to the ball and she did too, then she sniffed it, walked around it a few times, then picked it up and handed it to him. Effusive praise followed, then he picked her up and scratched behind her ears, letting her lick his chin as he walked back to the stern.

“How’s the ‘almost sun’ feel today?”

“Almost warm. She’s going to do pretty good with you, I think.”

“Given enough grass, maybe. Growing up on a boat? I’m not so sure.”

“What time do you want to leave?”

“Early, I think. Around six or so, a little before, maybe.”

“Can we shower together again?”

“Sure,” he smiled.

“Good. I wanted to go someplace…do you remember where?”

“Yup. Up to the market, first thing in the morning. Berries. Remember?”

“Uh, no, I’m not sure I’ll be here.”

“It’s okay. We’ll get up early and go. Just you and me.”

She smiled. “That sounds good.”

“You sure you feel like walking tonight?”

“I think so.”

“Okay. We can always drive if you’d rather…”

“I’d like to walk.”

He came over and felt her skin…dry and cold. “Let’s go down and warm up. You can play with Charley for a while…”

He took her below, turned on the heat and covered her with a blanket, unnerved by how fast autonomic function had deteriorated. Her skin was freezing – but she hadn’t been able to recognize the change, let alone express discomfort – and he wondered if he should take her out tonight. Still, it was the first time she’d expressed an interest in going out…

He showered with her, examining the stitches on her scalp, spraying the area with hydrogen peroxide then rinsing it again before patting it dry with a sterile 4×4. He dressed the wound and helped her wrap the area in gauze, then he sat with her on the bed, holding her close while she dozed. Charley snuggled in tight when she was like this, cuddling in close to her chest so she could lick Deb’s chin, and a few minutes later Liz came in and sat on the foot of the bed, smiling and crying at the same time.

He smiled at her too. Closing his eyes to keep them from burning, he couldn’t imagine anything more surreal than where he was emotionally in that moment…

One woman, her head on his chest, asleep with a dog whose lineage stretched back god only knows how far back in time, and her best friend at their feet – all together on this cloudy Parisian afternoon, bound together in time and space to the here and now. And he loved all three of these souls so much that it hurt – physically hurt – when he stopped to think about it…

And this was one of those moments, because Jennifer was there with him, too. Everywhere he looked he felt her. Deborah leaning against his chest – felt like Jennifer. Liz now at his feet – and just how many times had Jennifer laid across the bed, just like this, over the years? These were not merely echoes, he thought. No, these moments were more like eternal recurrences, bound by destiny to to hit each iteration of him as his line drifted through time…he felt them as his father had, perhaps as his father’s father…but what hit him in that moment was how connected he felt to the past – through these feelings in the present.

But…how could that be?

Yet it was, and with Deborah tucked under his right arm he bid Liz to come under his left, and he held these two women as they held him: out of a tender, misshapen fear that the moment could not last…or that this moment had echoed through time in infinite recurrence.

With Liz so safely ensconced he sighed, yet not simply out of a feeling of contentment. No, he wanted to hold on to this feeling as long as he could, this being loved, and loving so much. Yet, was all this immoral? Was this loving so many women in one lifetime simply wrong? Once upon a time he would have thought so; now, he wasn’t so sure. No, now time itself felt like driving in fog…but was he to be the lead car in a chain-reaction accident? All his many pasts were slamming into him – now – with layer upon layer of love crumbling in the mist.

And then Charley came over and curled up on his chest, her head up, looking into his eyes. “I love you too, Charley-girl,” he said as she grinned at him, and she panted gently before she licked him once on the lips, then she too put her head down and drifted off to wherever such souls go when they dream…

He napped as well, though lightly, drifting in and out of random thoughts as each fought for attention. The man in the maroon jacket, Rod’s passing, Paul’s boats…Liz – and Deb. He sensed she was growing more than confused now, couldn’t remember things she’d started working on after five minutes, only now she was breaking down in frustration, beginning to realize what lay ahead. Liz, trying to help as best she could but after not even a week already withering under the weight of seeing someone she knew so well beginning to dissolve before her eyes. Phoebe, poor lost Phoebe, drifting away from life again after her husband passed, needing him now more than she knew…and Tracy, saying she just HAD to come for Christmas, no matter the illness of a friend. She would be there to help. He could count on her, always.

“Right,” he said, and Charley looked up at him, her head canted to one side. “Sorry, girl…”

+++++

They took a taxi to La Belle Équipe a little before six, and sat down in the half empty restaurant. The evening rush was still well underway, the Rue de Charrone a bustling hive both on and off the street. He ordered a bottle of water, and on Corrine’s recommendation, a shrimp and beet risotto to go along with their steaks and fries. More people drifted in as the evening’s tempo picked up, the ebb and flow on the sidewalk becoming less frenetic as lovers and other strangers passed by slowly, window shopping with the cares of their world glossed over in splashes of bright light.

He watched Deb as she ate, or tried to eat. At one point she tried to pick up her steak with her fingers, and when he intervened she fell into darkness.

“What’s happening to me, Steven?” she asked in a strange, flat affect. “I can’t seem to remember where we are.” He cut her steak and helped her eat, a few people looked on but their eyes went to her scarf – and the gauze under – and it seemed then that everyone understood. They ate little sorbets and cookies and sipped espressos for the longest time and then, just a little before nine, they left and crossed the street to catch a taxi back to the marina.

He heard sirens, a huge response underway somewhere nearby, then a small Renault pulled up in front of the restaurant and he watched as men emerged with Kalashnikovs. They began shooting people on the sidewalk and inside the restaurant, and he heard the screams of the innocent and pleas of the damned, saw people falling down on the sidewalk clutching wounds and he felt for the Walther, realized he’d left it onboard. He scooped up Deb and carried her to the shadows, then he saw Hassani…across the street on the sidewalk, talking on a small radio.

Had they followed him to the restaurant? Had their surveillance broken down, had they not seen him leave with Deb? He stayed by Deb in the darkness, put his jacket over her shoulders then ran out into the street, took down the registration on Hassani’s vehicle and dashed back to the shadows and pulled out his phone. He called Corrine, and he could hear she was in a car with it’s siren blaring.

“Hellow!”

“It’s Collins, Hassani is on Charrone in a gray Renault, they are shooting up the Équippe, three men. I have the registration of the Renault…can you copy?”

“Go ahead!”

He read it out and she told him to get under cover, that there were several attacks underway throughout the city, then she was gone.

He looked at Deb’s scarf…now it was a beacon in the worst sort of way and he pulled his jacket up over her head. Looking around, he saw a taxi coming and hailed it, then he got Deb inside. They pulled up outside the marina a few minutes later and he literally carried her down to the boat and got her below.

“What’s going on out there?” a clearly agitated Liz asked when they came down the steps, and Collins told her what he knew as quickly as he could. She nodded… “There are police all over the place…they were here, asked me where you were…then they ran off towards the river…I think they were chasing someone…”

He opened the chart table and grabbed the Walther, then took the girls forward. “Stay here,” he said, then he turned and shut down all the breakers on the main panel.

With everything in darkness he looked outside, then thought better of it and turned on the spreader lights, flooding the deck in bright light. He took a blanket and settled on the galley floor, draping the blanket over his body…concealing his form…

A few minutes later he felt the boat move, and though he could barely hear anything over the cacophony of sirens beyond the marina he was sure someone was onboard now. And then he saw a shoe, a sneaker of some sort, on the top companionway step, then it was coming down, slowly, quietly.

He saw Hassani silhouetted on the steps, an H&K MP5 in his hand, and Collins lined up the sights and squeezed off one round, hitting the Iraqi in the neck. He fell to the cabin sole and Collins fired one more round into his skull, then he remained perfectly still.

A few minutes later he heard police in the marina, then a herd of people jumping onboard. Corrine dashed below, a flashlight in hand and Collins stood.

“Hassani?” she asked.

“Yup.”

“Good, we are still searching for three of them. Is everyone safe here?”

“I, uh-yeah, I think so.”

She was gone after that, and he didn’t see her again for days. A crime scene unit came and photographed the scene, a woman took his statement while another crew came below and removed Hassani’s body, and about three in the morning he got out a bucket and paper towels and went about scrubbing the main cabin. Coagulated blood and hair had set on the walls, and he scrubbed for what felt like hours before he was satisfied, then he went forward and got Charley from Liz’s sleeping grasp and took her out onto the grass. He found errant splatters of blood here and there and wiped them up, then put Charley on his berth and took a shower, letting the hot water work it’s way down into his deepest fears.

Liz came in a few minutes after he finished, looking very unsettled. “Something’s not right with Deb,” she said, and he dressed, went to the forward cabin.

And indeed, there was something different about her now. Her eyes were fixed dead ahead and she didn’t respond when he spoke her name. He checked her pulse – fine, strong and steady – then he sat her up on the berth and put a pillow behind her head.

“Deb?” he said as he gently pinched an earlobe. “You with me, Deb?”

She blinked her eyes a few times then looked at him. “Where am I?” she said at last, then her fingers formed chords and she began playing in the air.

“On the boat, with me.”

“Claude? ”

“No, it’s me, Sumner. Where are you now?”

“I was walking, in a village I think. By a sea of flowers.”

“Was it nice?”

“Oh yes, ever so…but I’m not there now? Where am I, did you say?”

“It’s alright, Deborah. Just close your eyes and rest now.” He sat beside her and Liz looked at him, shook her head, then hid her face and turned away. After Deb fell asleep again he got his phone and texted the old physician, told him about the last few days. An hour later he called back.

“You are still at the Arsenal, at the marina?”

“Yessir.”

“I am at the hospital this week so I will drop by on the way in.”

He arrived just as two people from the police arrived.

“What happened here?” the old man asked as he stepped below.

“An old friend dropped by. He tried to kill me.”

“Oui, bien sûr, c’est la façon don’t il est avev vous. Now, about Miss Hill?”

“She’s drifting now, and I’m afraid her memory is going, maybe contact with reality as well.”

“Reality? How so? I wonder, may I speak with her?”

“Of course.”

“What did you mean by that? Reality? How so?

“She’s playing the piano again, with her fingers.”

They went forward and the old man asked to speak with her alone, so Collins shut the door behind him and sat with Liz in the main cabin. Without asking she got up and made coffee, warmed a few scones then cleaned up after herself.

They were sitting together when the old man came back out.

“So much faster than I expected. The tumor must be growing exponentially now. Did anything come of your call to Boston?”

“No sir, nothing.”

“This is a terrible cancer, it tricks all our best therapies. Still, the speed of this deterioration makes me wonder if we missed something.”

“Anything else you can do? That we can do here?”

He sighed. “No, not at this time. Just expect this to become much more difficult, and when you cannot carry on any longer, we will move her to an end of life facility.”

“So,” Collins said. “That’s it? How much longer, do you think?”

Mann shrugged. “We would need new imagery, more labs, to answer that question, but it’s not really so important now. It may be days now, not weeks. She may be able to stay here a month, but I doubt even that now.”

“She seemed to take a serious turn for the worse yesterday,” Collins said.

“Odd, isn’t it. Our world seemed to take a turn last night, as well,” Mann sighed. “And not for the better.”

“We were just a few meters away, up on Charrone.”

“Oh? Did you observe these events?”

“Yes.”

“And how was she, after?”

“She had a quite vivid dream, I think. She called me Claude, said she had been on a walk, by a sea of flowers, and she talked about the moonlight later, in her sleep.”

“She may be traveling now.”

“Traveling? What do you mean?”

“It is a hope of mine, not really even a theory, but I’ve always wondered even so. Do we, as death grows near, do we travel through time? Are our souls no longer prisoners of time? Can we go back to another time where we lived with greater happiness? Or to the future, to a place we have yet to recall, as of yet?”

“I see. Have you…”

“No, not in many patients, Mr Collins. Only a few, those who have had an altered brain, often through cancer, occasionally through injury. These patients recount vivid experiences we cannot account for. Recollections of facts they could not have possibly known. I do not like to say this, but I was hoping to see such recollections with Miss Hill.”

“Hoping?”

“I know…I know. That must sound vulgar. Yet whatever the reason, we are where we are now, and she presents us with an opportunity to learn. When she becomes the teacher, Mr Collins, we must listen. When she has these recollections, please question her. Try to tease out the smallest detail, everything is important, nothing is irrelevant…not where she is, or even what she smells. She may know names. People’s names, or a street, or the name of a building. She will come out of these dreams in an altered state, and for a few minutes she will inhabit both these worlds. It is then when you must be there, when you must concentrate on everything she says.”

“I understand.”

“This playing music, in the air? Was this as before?”

“Yes, though this seems different somehow.”

“Has she mentioned someone named Claude to you before?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Okay, please, write down everything you remember she says. Next time, be more methodical. You remember, the ‘who what where why when’ axiom? Try to get to the bottom of these things.”

“You think it’s important enough to do this?”

“I do. But please, if you do not, let me know. I will stay with her, or have someone here to stay and record these events.”

“No, we can do that,” he said, looking at Liz.

She nodded her understanding. “Okay. But what does it mean, doctor? These recollections?”

“I can not say yet, not really. But if these recollected events, inside a dream and as death nears, are indeed the manifestation of another time, I will leave it to you to consider the deeper implications of such an event. What we know about what is beyond death is very limited, Madam, but perhaps what we are witness to in these rare cases is like a window. Into time, perhaps, a new way of understanding time, or what it means to pass into death. And to reconsider…in a new way, I hope…what resides beyond the moment of our death.”

“Claude!”

“That’s Deb,” Liz said, and they all rushed into the forward cabin.

“What is it, Deborah,” Sumner said.

“Sumner? She’s here, outside, now.”

“Who is, Deb?”

“That fish, the one with the scar…”

Collins rushed topsides, looked all around the boat but found nothing, not a trace anywhere he looked. He went below, back to the cabin and found Mann talking to her about the dolphin, and what she’d seen…something about another boat, another boat named Springer, and a man on that boat. He listened, stunned, as she described a village by the sea, the music she’d heard and other long walks by the sea.

He turned and went aft to his cabin, and he sat there in silence, lost as the implications of her words crashed down around him.

+++++

A few weeks later he made the drive out to DeGaulle again. Phoebe was arriving, and he was by now more than a little relieved. Relieved to see his sister again, relieved to have more help, relieved to see beyond the bewildering world of Deborah’s inrushing dreams.

When Liz left, to go back and settle Rod’s affairs – or so she said – he was filled with a terrifying sense that everything was unwinding now. All the love that had bound together four souls on Gemini evaporated in the heat of Liz’s farewell, and he was left with Charley to confront Deborah’s dreams, with Dr Mann always hovering just out of view, waiting for the latest report.

Her eyes were hollow pools now, her skin sinking in on itself, turning pale gray two weeks ago, but now he saw that yellowish tinge that could only mean death was closing in. The physician said it was time to move her, but Collins said no, not yet. He couldn’t let go, not now. He wouldn’t let her pass alone in a hospital room. This was home now, her home as much as his.

She hadn’t left the bed in a week, and a nurse placed a catheter, started IVs. When she spoke now, she spoke through the morphine-tinged world of pain, and when heard her pleas he would hit the pump and dose her again, then turn away in fear. He learned to change her IV bottles, and Charley slept on her chest almost all the time now, yet the little pup was growing now, filling out more, and he wondered how much longer Deb would be able to tolerate the weight.

He saw Phoebe standing curbside and pulled up alongside and dashed out into her arms, crying into her shoulder, holding her tight.

“Oh, God, I’ve missed you, little sister…”

When he was spent, she leaned back and looked into his eyes. “Can you drive?”

“Yeah, sure. Sorry, but it’s been a rough couple of months.”

“Why wouldn’t you tell me what was going on? Your email was a bombshell, what you’ve been through? I can’t even imagine…”

“I’m sorry, Sis… I didn’t want you to leave school until your term was over.” He took her bag and put it in the rear and they drove into the city – in desperate little silences. He parked and got her bag and led her to Gemini’s stern, then he helped her across. Dr Mann met them in the cockpit, subdued, thoughtful, then he saw Phoebe…and Collins had to smile.

“This is your sister?” the old man said playfully. “Mon dieu, if I was ten years younger!”

Phoebe blushed and held out her hand. “And you are?”

“Oh,” Collins said, “sorry, how thoughtless of me. Phoebes, this is Deborah’s physician, Dr Mann.”

“Henrí,” the old man said, taking her hand and kissing it. “Enchanted. Now Sumner, we have a few things to discuss, then I must leave.”

“Please,” Collins said, indicating they should sit in the cockpit. “Fire away.”

“You are still adamant about her staying here, I assume?”

“I am.”

“Well, I want a nurse here in the evenings, for now, perhaps full time within the week. Is there a place for her to sleep, if needs be?”

“Yes, I can rig a berth in my office.”

“Ah? Well, perfect. I am concerned that soon the morphine may not be enough, but at that point we will be out of options. You are familiar with what will happen then?”

“I am.”

“Good, that is a discussion we can dispense with.”

“Did she wake up while I was gone?”

“Yes. We had a most interesting discussion.”

“The house again?”

He nodded his head. “Oui. I think I now have a good picture of the social structures, enough to call in a historian and get an opinion concerning the authenticity of her observations.”

“What’s this?” Phoebe said.

“I’ll tell you later, Phoebe. Dr Mann? When will the nurse come?”

“Tonight would be best.”

“Okay. I’ll have the room ready.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to come down on my way home this evening,” he said, looking at Phoebe, “to see how the new arrangements are working out.”

“Of course,” Collins said, grinning.

“He’s an interesting old coot,” Phoebe said as she watched the old man walk out the marina. “Is he a pervert, as well?”

Collins shook his head. “I’ll leave that to you to find out, if you don’t mind. He’s a psychiatrist, so watch yourself.”

“Well, shall we go below, let me meet this gal of yours?”

“Apres vous, cheri.”

He dropped her bags forward, then led her aft to his berth, to Deb.

“Dear God,” Phoebe said when she looked down on Deb’s emaciated form, “she’s changed so much from the photos you sent.”

“I think it’s the morphine,” Collins said. “As soon as we started Jenn on that stuff, she went downhill, fast.”

“I remember. I honestly don’t know how you’re doing this again, and so soon.”

“Not any other options, kiddo. I hope you’d do the same for…”

“You?”

“No, well, I was going to say whoever you’re with at the time. Assuming you love them, that is.”

“Sumner, I think we’re both a little too old to be playing The Dating Game.”

“Speak for yourself. I’d as soon die tomorrow than live without that kind of intimacy again.”

“Really? Don’t you get bored with all the tediousness of it all? The clinging needfulness, the constant manipulations?”

He looked at the ceiling. “You know, Phoebes, I can’t say those things stand out to me as anything I’ve endured. Jenn? Needful? Piffle – she was the essence of self sufficiency.”

“That, or you’re simply an armor-plated nomad.”

“Oh, he’s not that,” Deb said, looking at Phoebe.

“You’re awake!” Sumner cried.

“Your powers of observation never fail to astound,” Deb smiled. “So, this is the famous Phoebe. Turn around, dear. I want to see if you’re as big an asshole as your brother.”

“Well, I see someone is feeling better today,” Sumner said, sitting on the bed beside her – then taking her hand in his.

“The magic morphine the good doctor gave me this morning was unusually refreshing, but I need a shower. Sumner? Would you do the honors?”

“Well,” Phoebe said, “I think I’ll unpack?”

“Thanks,” he said. “I see you in a bit.”

“Bye!” Deb said to Phoebe. “Nous allons commencer dès que je suis prêt…”

“Oh, vous parlez français?”

“What?”

Phoebe shook her head and left, leaving Sumner to look on, confused.

“Nice to see you feeling so good this morning…I didn’t know you speak French?”

“I don’t feel good, Sumner. I don’t feel anything at all right now. It’s like I’m numb from the nose down, and the top of my head feels like it’s going to explode. Oh, my foot’s tangled in the sheets…”

He helped her out of bed and into the shower, and he washed her with a lemon scented wash she said she used to like. He dried her and dressed her as best he could, then redid the bandage on her head before he led her to the main cabin, rolling her IV stand along by her side.

“Where’s Liz?” she asked.

“I suppose she went out.”

“Oh. Would you like me to bake today?”

“If you’d like. Could I help you?”

“Oh, I can help out,” Phoebe said, coming out of the forward cabin.

“Who’s this?” Deb asked, perplexed.

“I’m Sumner’s sister, Phoebe. I just got in.”

“Oh, aidez-moi à faire quoi?”

Phoebe looked at Sumner, who now seemed stunned. “Do you feel like baking today, Deb?”

“No. I’d like to just sit here for a while. Perhaps we could talk.”

Phoebe came and sat by her. “Why don’t you sit back and rest? That shower took a lot out of you, didn’t it?”

“Why does my head hurt?”

He watched as his sister put her arms around Deb, and how they wilted into each other. Death had become the leading man in both their dramas, and he saw in that moment these two women seemed to recognize a common need, and each fell into the moment, into each other’s need.

They sat and talked through the rest of that first day, talking about how to bake scones and how tiresome teaching the piano had become, and the words hit him like a lightning bolt; Sumner bolted out to a store and came back with a small Yamaha piano, one so small Phoebe could sit at the fold down table and play.

The transformation was instantaneous. Deb grew increasingly enraptured with the keys, attentively so, then Deb wanted Phoebe to teach her a few chords, then a few more.

What was more startling was the speed with which Deb picked up the intricacies Phoebe demonstrated. When Dr Mann arrived the two women were working their way through a simplified Clare De Lune, and the old man smacked lips as he stared at Sumner, then he shrugged his shoulders as he came close.

“What is going on?” he whispered.

“My sister, she’s a piano teacher. There has been a connection, I think.”

“You think? This is staggering. Miss Hill has no prior experience?”

“I don’t think so.”

They sat and watched, Mann mesmerized by the speed Deb grasped the phrasing, and even complicated movements of the hand posed no challenge to her. At one point Deb took over and began playing the opening from memory, and after perhaps a minute she stopped.

“What comes next?”

Phoebe began playing from memory, going perhaps three minutes into the piece before Deb interrupted.

“I’ve got it.” She started over, played from the beginning again, playing up to the point Phoebe had just reached, then she stopped and looked up. “This is fun,” she said. “Notes are colors; I can see them, and they play back to me.”

By this point Mann was studying her movements, first her hands, then her eyes.

“Tell me, Deborah. Describe the colors you see when you play that opening phrase.”

She played them again, her eyes closed now. “Silvery blue,” she said.

“Deborah, keep your eyes closed. Yes, now play red…”

She moved down two octaves and struck a chord.

“Can you play something that says happiness?”

She struck another chord, and another, and to Sumner she had hit the epitome of happiness.

“Now, sadness…”

More chords…and she had found pure melancholy.

“Anger, Deborah. Show me anger…”

Pounding, furious anger…

“Now, Deborah, play what you feel inside – just now…”

What emerged was a distillation of longing and utter despair, linked expressions of a walk by the sea in moonlight, with perhaps a storm passing along the far horizons of her mind. She played for several minutes – then grew still, the memory of her music lingering in the air like the most subtle scents of spring.

When Collins looked at Mann he was wiping tears from his eyes, while Phoebe seemed to be adrift on a sunless sea, suddenly bereft of knowledge as she tried to understand what had just happened.

Deborah’s features seemed to change in the aftermath, but to Collins it seemed as though she had discovered something new and vital, a new way to talk to the world, perhaps, and another way to see into her passing inner landscapes. He went to her and hugged her, and she looked up at him, a muted kind of half smile on her face.

“What is it?” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing at all.”

“I feel very tired. Could I go back to bed now?”

The old physician came to her and helped her stand. “I’ve forgotten,” he said. “Could you tell me your name, please?”

Deborah looked at him, confused. “Do I know you?”

“We met earlier. My name is Henrí. And yours?”

“Marian. Marian Orgeron.”

“Nice to meet you, Marian. Let me help you to bed now.”

“Alright.”

Mann led her aft and shut the door, leaving Collins and his sister to follow the crumbs to some sort of meaningful answer to the questions flooding their minds.

“Orgeron…Orgeron…why does that name sound so familiar…” Phoebe said. She pulled up her phone and Googled the name, but nothing popped up and she shook her head. She opened up her email and searched contacts, then emailed a professor at Princeton. A few minutes later her inbox chirped and she opened the file, then stood and looked aft. “Of course, the bi-tonal chords. Well, I’ll be damned…I should have known.”

“What?”

“Orgeron was one of Claude Debussy’s teachers, a friend of Wagner’s and a great influence on both their later music. She was truly gifted, a woman ahead of her time. She passed in obscurity. What Deborah just played…well, my guess is the piece is at least a hundred years old. There were no recordings of it ever made, and the only sheet music that exists is in the rare music collection, in the private collections library at Princeton. A serious music historian, perhaps a doctoral student of the French Impressionists and Symbolists…they might, just might have heard this piece before, but they would have studied at Princeton. No where else. Van Cliburn was rumored to have played it once, but that would be the only public performance of it, ever.”

“So, it’s impossible she would have heard it before?”

“Well, not impossible, but I would say highly unlikely. Assuming Cliburn played the piece – and she was present, not to mention she was capable enough to memorize the piece…”

“But you know of the music? How?”

“My husband, Tom, was such a student. He photocopied it for his research, I played it several times while he was writing.”

“Did you play any of it today, when you were teaching Deborah?”

“No…the Clair de Lune fragments were the closest we came to those structures, but Sumner, her fingering was perfect. The first time through. That’s just not possible, and for someone who’s never played before? Totally impossible.”

“No, it’s not,” Mann said as he came back into the main cabin. “Pardon me, but I overheard some of what you said, and I am now a little nervous.”

“You’re nervous?”

“Oui. If what you are saying is true, Miss Hill may no longer being experiencing displacements in Time within her dreams alone. She may be manifesting personalities from these visits, here in the present.”

“What are you talking about?” Phoebe asked. “What could you possibly…”

“In her dreams recently,” Mann said, “she has been recounting visits to other places in distant time. The phenomenon is rare, but not without precedent in people with advanced brain lesions, or tumors. We have been documenting her explorations, if that is indeed what we have been witnessing, for weeks.”

“You mean…?”

“In her dreams, she is moving through time.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes, just so. Well put.”

“So today, she was conscious, awake, but she not only played a piece of music that has been played – maybe – just once in the past one hundred years, she seems to think she is the composer,  someone who passed away ninety years ago.”

“That seems to be the case.”

Phoebe sat down, took a deep breath, shook her head violently. “No way,” she said. “Sorry, but there’s just no way this can be happening.”

“Too true,” Mann said. “So, we must look for an explanation. Find out what you can about this Orgeron, and then we will ask Miss Hill.”

“No… You know what? I left Chicago last night, this morning…sometime…and I thought I was  in Paris…but you know what? I’ve entered some weird-ass parallel universe where nothing makes sense anymore…and my brother is the keeper of this lunatic asylum…”

Mann laughed. “Again. Well put. Sumner? Is the nurse not here yet?”

He shook his head. “Nope.”

The old man smacked his lips and pulled out his phone, just as they heard a forlorn “Hall-o” coming from the quay.

“Well, speak of the devil,” Mann said as he walked up to the cockpit.

“I’d better go help…”

Sumner led a twenty-something nurse by the hand down the companionway steps, and even Phoebe took in a sharp breath when she saw the girl. Tall, willowy tall with pure white skin and deep red lips, waist-length brunette hair parted in the middle, deep brown eyes, sharp, inquisitive eyes. Sumner was beside himself, she saw, tongue-tied and speechless.

“This is my sister, Phoebe. She’ll be staying up front, so let me show you to your room.”

Phoebe stood. “And what is your name?” she said, holding out her hand.

“Sophie. Sophie Orgeron,” the nurse said as she held out her own.

Phoebe looked gut-punched as she fell back into her seat, and Sumner felt light-headed again. Only Dr Mann seemed relatively unaffected by this latest coincidence, and he stepped down into the cabin and looked at the young woman anew.

“Perhaps related to the composer Marian Orgeron?”

“Oui, yes, she was my great-grandmother…but, why do you ask?”

“Oh, nothing…nothing at all,” Mann said, rolling his eyes. “Sumner? Show her to the room, please, then she should meet Miss Hill…”

“Of course,” he said. “Follow me.”

The desk in his office was now a bed, and Charley’s nest was now in the knee-space. He picked her up and held her… “This is Charley. You two will be sharing the room from time to time.”

Sophie looked at Charley. “May I?” she said, holding out her hands. He held her out and Charley almost leapt into the girl’s arms – and went about licking her face until she was giggling uncontrollably. “Mon dieu…she is so affectionate!”

“We run a happy ship here, M’am. Here, I’ll take her. You’d better go wash up.”

“Oui, yes, please.” He led her to the head and gave her a quick lesson on procedures for flushing and showering, then left her and closed the door.

When she emerged Mann led her aft, but Collins walked up into the cockpit, and Phoebe followed. “You know, ever since Charley passed, things have been getting stranger and stranger. Did I tell you about the dolphin?”

“No?”

“John Lennon?”

“What? No. Sumner, really? What’s going on? This is getting looney?”

“You’re telling me…”

Mann came up into the cockpit… “I want to take you both to dinner, and Sophie will stay with Deborah now. Let’s go, please.” He walked past them and off the stern, then stood waiting for them.

Collins shook his head. “I’ll go get our coats,” he said. “Something’s getting lost in the translation…”

They – walked – over to the Isle St Louis and to a unmarked cellar door – and then down a flight of stairs into another world. There were a handful of tables, a jazz quartet in a dimly lit corner, and Mann was greeted by the owner and half the people down there like he was some sort of demigod. Menus appeared, a bottle of wine too – Mann’s favorite, or so he told them. Collins studied the menu, but nothing was familiar.

“Sorry,” the old man smacked, “this is a vegan restaurant. If I can help you make a choice,” he said, looking at Phoebe, “please let me know”

“Well, this is greek to me,” Sumner said. “I’ll let you order for me.”

“Do you like mushrooms?” Mann asked.

“As long as I don’t take a trip, sure.”

“Ah, yes. Don Juan, Castañeda. Those kinds of mushrooms. No, I cannot offer you those tonight, but my favorite dish here is loaded with mushrooms.”

“Sounds good to me,” Phoebe said.

“Excellent!” He called a favorite waitress over and ordered, just as a plate of vegetable fritters arrived. “Help yourself,” he smacked, “and bon appetite!”

“Very good,” Phoebe said after taking a bite.

“You know of course that with Miss Hill we are moving rapidly into the realm of the unknown,” Mann said. “I would say yet that I do not understand the focus of all these manifestations.”

“What do you mean?” Collins said.

“I would have said that Miss Hill is the locus of these things, but then I remember the story of your dog and that dolphin. These features developed as a result of your wife?”

“I would say so.”

“Dolphin?” Phoebe added. “What dolphin?”

“In a minute,” Collins said. “Doctor, what’s my wife got to do with this?”

The old man smacked and shrugged, looked up at the ceiling. “So, what do we know? Your wife gets ill, she and your dog have an encounter with this dolphin. Your wife passes away and you flee. You run into this same animal in the Caribbean, then again in the middle of the Atlantic, right after the dog passes away. Then you meet Miss Hill, in Brighton. What happened there? She was suicidal when you met; this I understand. But what else happened?”

“John Lennon.”

“Pardon?”

“John Lennon happened.”

“Sumner?” Phoebe said, now sounding violated. “Don’t.”

He looked at her. “I’m sorry, Phoebes. He’s become a part of this story, too.”

She shook her head. “Please?”

“Now is the time to talk about these things,” Mann said, “when we may be able to make sense of their meaning.”

She shrugged, seemed to acquiesce to the moment.

“When I saw Miss Hill, Deborah, the first time up on the bluff, she was getting ready to jump…”

Phoebe brought her hands to her face, and he heard a sharp intake of breath.

“Lennon was there,” Collins said. “He’s visited several times since.”

Phoebe was shaking her head, crying now. “No, no, no…” she whispered.

“Why is this a cause for such pain, Phoebe?” Mann asked, concerned.

“Because we were with him when he died,” she said.

Mann looked from Phoebe to Sumner, then back again. “How is this so?”

Sumner spoke now: “We grew up in The Dakota, my mother was a musician and she knew Lennon. We were coming home when it happened, we saw him and he reached out to us as he passed.”

“Excuse me,” Mann said. “Did either of you touch him?”

“I did,” Sumner said.

“I did too. And he coughed on me,” Phoebe whispered. “His blood went in my mouth, and my eyes.”

“Has he appeared to you before, Phoebe?” Mann asked.

She looked down, then gently nodded her head. “Yes,” she whispered.

Sumner sat back and closed his burning eyes. “This is too much,” he sighed.

“I told you I think this is crazy.”

“So, before I say anymore, when this nurse, Sophie? When we go back to see Miss Hill just now, we hear music. It sounds real…live, I think, is the word. We go in and the music is gone, but the air smells like patchouli, but I see there is no incense burning. This, I think, is significant at the time, but it makes no sense. Until now.”

“The song?” Collins asked. “What was he playing?”

Yesterday,” the old man said.

Phoebe buried her face in her hands. “No-no-no-no-no-no-this-isn’t-happening…can’t be, not again…”

Collins stood and left the table, went up the stairs and out into the night air. He walked down to a circular row of benches outside the chapels of Notre Dame and sat, looked out on the Seine as it flowed ceaselessly to the sea. It was cold now, and a damp mist hung over the city, amber streetlights lining the river receded in clinging fog.

And he felt him there beside the benches.

“I’m sorry your life is so painful now,” Lennon said, “but it won’t always be this way.”

“What about you, John? How is it for you now?”

“I wish there was some way I could describe what this is like. I don’t have the words, ya know?”

Collins nodded. “Yeah, I think I do.”

“I could see the love in your eyes,” Lennon said.

“You looked so afraid, and I felt so helpless…”

“Like you do now.”

“Like I do, yes, now. I don’t know what else I can do for her.”

“You’ve already done it, you know. Don’t worry now. Just accept what comes.”

“I’ll try.”

“I won’t see you for a while. A lot you won’t understand is going to happen, and all we knew is at an end now. But I’ll see you on the other side.”

“Okay, my friend…”

He turned to look at him, but…he was gone.

“Just accept what comes,” he repeated, then he closed his eyes, thought of all he’d seen and done the past few months, Deb and Liz and Rod and Paul. Charley, always Charley, her deep brown eyes the only constant in his life but for…

“What a roller coaster ride this has been…”

He stood and walked back to the cellar; dinner was already on the table and he sat, looked at Phoebe, then at Mann. “Sorry. The air was getting a little close, if you know what I mean.”

“I smell patchouli,” Mann said, “again.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“Was he…?” Phoebe tried asking, but her voice cracked, and she stopped when she saw his face.

“So, how’re the mushrooms?”

“Really good,” she said. “Very…I don’t know. Depth, I think, is the word I’m searching for.”

“Depth. Yes,” Mann said, “that’s it, precisely. You know, Sumner, your sister is very wise.”

“Oh, you have no idea, Henrí, but maybe – in time – you will.”

She looked away again, her future shrouded by their past. She picked at her dinner after that, though Sumner managed to finish, and they walked back to Gemini as deeper shrouds of fog fell over the city. Gemini’s hull and deck were slippery now, coated with rivulets of beading water, and Sumner hopped across first, almost slipping and falling, then Phoebe made her usual light-footed hop and scampered up into the cockpit.

Mann looked at the slippery hull and hesitated. “You know, I think I will go home now.”

“Ah, well then, thanks for dinner. What an interesting place.”

Mann smiled. “Once you give up eating animals, well, you know, the choice narrows.”

“In this city, I can’t imagine the frustration.”

“And you? You seem to have such an affinity for animals. Curious dichotomy, don’t you think?”

“Probably because I don’t think about it, I guess?”

“Perhaps, but we’re all so conflicted these days, between the desires imposed on us by our past, and the needs of a very uncertain future. With so much tension in the air, I’m afraid we must all risk being more tolerant of each others gentle eccentricities. If we fail to act so, I fear we will find the future less hospitable than might agree with us.”

“Change is inevitable,” Collins sighed.

“Yes, but even so, change must be managed with intelligence, or chaos becomes the winner. And who knows, perhaps, civilization falls. Well, good night. I will check in with you tomorrow.”

“Good night, doctor.” He went below and found Sophie talking with Phoebe, and when he looked at the girl he found himself wishing he was thirty years old again. ‘My goodness, but she’s so lovely…’ he said to himself as he went aft to check on Deb. She was asleep, laboring under the weighty spell of fleet footed dreams…so he closed the door and went out to talk with Phoebe. And Sophie.

He stretched out on one of the settees and closed his eyes.

“Are you tired, little brother?”

“Exhausted, but more emotionally than physically.”

“I had no idea I was walking into such an interesting…set of circumstances.”

“Oh? Well, perhaps I was afraid you’d change your mind and not come.”

“Not likely. I’m now homeless again, and not quite dead broke, but getting there.”

Sophie laughed at that. “With your talent? Surely not.”

“Talent?” Phoebe mused. “What talent?”

“Miss Hill tells me you are a wonderful pianist. You could earn a good living here as a teacher.”

“Not at home, not anymore. You know, there was a golden age of the piano in America, back in the 50s and 60s. Those were my mother’s years, I suppose, but that’s gone now. I think it has succumbed to our era of instant gratification, leaving poor little wretches like me to drift away on the forgotten currents of a dying age.”

“Then you should move here. Things are not so commercialized yet.”

“Yes. I saw how civilized Paris has become last month,” Phoebe said.

“That’s not fair,” Sumner said.

“Maybe not fair, but I would assume true, nevertheless.”

His phone chirped, and he fished it out of his coat pocket. “Yello.”

“Sumner?”

“Yup. Liz?”

“I’ll be at DeGaulle in an hour.”

“EasyJet?”

“Yes, see you curbside?”

“Okay.”

She broke the connection. Well, we’re about to get crowded here.”

“Tracy?” Liz asked.

“No, my other friend. Liz.”

“Really? Where will she sleep?”

He smiled. “I guess up forward, with you.”

“I guess, for tonight, why don’t I go find a hotel room or something?”

“Because. Besides, I’m not sure how long she’ll be here. She could be gone by morning. Anyway, I’ve got to go now.”

“That’s my brother…up in the air, Junior Birdman.”

“You want to come with me?”

“No, my eyeballs are burning and I passed ‘Jetlag’ two exits ago. Time for me to hit the percales, little brother. Bon voyage and all that. Ask your friend not to wake me when she gets here.”

Sophie shrugged. “You have many difficulties, do you not?”

“C’est la vie.”

“Perhaps, but you seem very tired too. When do you rest?”

He shrugged. “I’ll sleep when I die.”

“Oui, and that may come sooner than you’d care to know.”

“Thanks. Well, I’m off – like a herd of turtles.”

She smiled at that, then returned to her notebook, filling out forms as he left, as confused as she had ever been in her life.

He found his way to the car and slipped through the city easily now; between the fog and the late hour there was almost no traffic at all, and he made it out to the airport in record time. He’d been sitting there perhaps five minutes when she came out, a huge suitcase rolling along behind her.

He got out and she ran into his arms, crying uncontrollably as she wrapped her arms around him.

He cupped his hands around her face, let her go ‘til she was spent.

“I suppose you’ll tell me someday what this was all about?”

“Guilt, insecurity, sheer stupidity.”

“Ah, the usual suspects.”

She laughed. “Not for me. Just hold me, will you?”

“I think I’m about to get a parking ticket…” he said, pointing at a police car pulling up behind his rental. He waved at the gendarme and picked up her suitcase – which had an ‘OVERWEIGHT’ sticker affixed to the grip – and he gasped as he manhandled the thing to the rear of the car. “My god…what’s in here? An artillery brigade?”

He helped her in then pulled away from the terminal, and he was still the only car on the road.

“So, why did I leave?”

“That’s a good place to start, I guess.”

“More about Rod, I think. I felt guilty about the way we ended, about not going to the services. His family understood, but one of his uncles was bonkers.”

“The girl? Sharon? How’s she?”

“Sarah. No, well, she’s paralyzed. Has some, well, partial use of one arm, but she’s incontinent, the works. Poor thing. Bad wreck…a lory hit them broadside, right in the driver’s door. Poor Rod.”

“You settled the estate, I take it? Are you happy with the way that worked out?”

“I guess. Didn’t much care one way the other. How’s Deb doing?”

He shook his head. “Going downhill, fast. We have a nurse staying nights now, and my sister arrived this morning.”

“Crowded, I take it?”

“Getting that way.”

“And here I pop up out of nowhere. Sorry. Should I not have come?”

“She’s your friend,” he said defensively.

“Oh dear. Have I lost you, too?”

“I’m very tired, been awake for almost two days.”

“I didn’t hear a ‘Gee Liz, sure is good to see you.’”

“You left, Liz. You wrote an obscure note and you left. How do you expect me to feel?”

She crossed her arms and looked out at the fog. “I’m sorry. Perhaps you should just take me back to the airport.”

He pulled up the menu on the GPS and hit the airport, and direction prompts began.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he prepared to exit the highway.

“You want to go to the airport. I’m taking you.”

“Sumner, I…that’s not what I want!”

“Then stop playing games.”

She resumed looking out the window. “I’d like to go see Deb now,” she said.

“You’ll be sharing the forward cabin with Phoebe.”

“I see. This is not quite how I expected our meeting to go.”

“I see. Well, I was not quite expecting you to leave me. I guess we’re even.”

They finished the ride in silence, and once he’d parked he opened the boot and looked at her bag. “I’m not sure there’s enough room below for this.”

“Here, let me have it.”

He pulled it out and set it on the pavement, and she took off across the street, heading for a hotel on the corner. He looked at her as she walked off and shook his head, then walked back to the boat. Sophie was in the aft cabin, checking vital signs and writing in her little green notebook, so he went forward and took Charley out for another walk. When she finished, he picked her up and carried her below to his cabin. The nurse was still sitting there, watching Deb sleep.

“How is she?”

“Still sleeping, but with morphine only, I’m afraid.” she said. “But there’s congestion in the lungs now, and much pain.”

“Pneumonia?”

“Too soon to tell, but I’ve left a call with one of our internists.” She looked at him, concern in her eyes. “You look so exhausted. Shouldn’t you lay down?”

“Uh-huh.” He slipped off his shoes and fell onto the bed, and didn’t feel the blanket the girl slipped over his shoulders, or Charley, as she curled up on the pillow beside his head.

+++++

He heard people moving around topsides and did his best to ignore their voices, hoping sleep would come back and carry him away again, then he heard Charley’s little claws scampering across overhead and he sat up, looked around the room. The sun was directly overhead, streaming through the overhead hatch and warming the room. His mouth felt stale, like he’d been out for far too long, and his bladder ached.

He went and stood in the shower, brushed his teeth as hot water ran down his neck, then he went to get dressed – and then noticed Deb wasn’t in bed. He found her in the main cabin, playing the piano with Phoebe again.

“Where’s Charley?” he asked.

“Your friend Liz has him,” Phoebe said, ignoring him but pointing up the companionway.

He went up into the cockpit, looked around the marina and saw them at the far end – by the river and the office. He jumped across to the grass and walked that way, stopping once when a leg cramp bit into him. Liz and Charley were walking his way by then, and Charley ran to him a moment later and jumped up on his shins. He picked her up and she was licking his face when Liz walked up.

“Feeling better, I hope.”

He shook his head. “Too soon to tell, but I still feel like roadkill. How’s the hotel?”

“Cheap, clean, not bad for the price.”

“I’ll go over with you and help move that bag over…”

“I think I’ll stay there. It’s awfully crowded onboard.”

“It is,” he said as he started walking back to the boat, yet looking at her carefully. “How was Deb this morning?”

“The piano? I didn’t know she played.”

“She didn’t, not before yesterday, anyway.”

“Seriously?”

“Mann said there’ve been a few other incidents like this, a middle aged woman in New York being the most famous to date. Seems this woman had never played anything before, wasn’t even particularly interested in music. She was struck by lightning and a week later was playing at an impossible level, concert skills, and yet two months later she couldn’t even remember a note. The gift left almost as quickly as it came.”

“Phoebe plays?”

“Phoebe is a concert level pianist, and a teacher. But there’s one other feature of this: Deb doesn’t think she’s Deb any more.”

“What?” she said, grinding to a halt.

“Oh, seems her name is Marian Orgeron, a friend of Debussy’s, as it turns out.”

“Excuse me?”

“It seems our Deb is time traveling, in her sleep anyway. Yesterday she came to us as this Orgeron, but with the extra-added benefit of being a composer, and pianist. Did Phoebe not mention this?”

“No, they’ve been preoccupied on that piano ever since I got here.”

“Ain’t that nice. Has Mann been by?”

“No, not that I know of.”

“Gee, are we having fun yet?” He picked up Charley and carried her across, then took Liz’s hand as she hopped onboard. They went to the companionway, found Deb ripping through a fantastically complex piece, Phoebe recording the performance on her phone; they sat and watched for almost twenty minutes, until Deb collapsed. He rushed below and scooped her up, asked Liz to get the IV stand and then carried her to the aft cabin. He laid her out, covered her with a blanket and sat next to her.

“My head hurts,” she moaned, and Collins hit the morphine button, sending another pulse of the stuff coursing into her bloodstream. Thirty seconds later her eyes rolled back and she fell into a deep sleep; he got on the bed and pulled her close as Charley came up and curled up on her chest. He looked up, saw Phoebe standing at the foot of the bed looking down at them, shaking her head.

“Whatever else may be going on here, she is for all intents and purposes Marian Orgeron. She just played the entire piece…from memory. I’m going to upload this and have my friend at Princeton look it over, but my guess is this simply wouldn’t be possible any other way. It’s just staggering, Sumner, to think what this might mean.”

“It doesn’t mean a goddamn thing, Phoebe. It’s all just a dream within a dream.”

“When she woke up this morning, she said something about a carnival. That’s she’d been at a carnival during the night. Do you know what she means? Has she mentioned it before?”

“No. Did she say anything else?” – but he thought about the music out there beyond the cliffs, the calliope playing in the wind.

Phoebe looked away, trying to remember. “No, just a carnival of some sort. She mentioned torchlight, and an ancient looking man, a wizard perhaps. Sounded like she was talking about Merlin and King Arthur and all that nonsense, but then she kept talking about someone named Claude, and there was a Timothy, too.”

“Timothy? That’s new too. Liz? The blue notebook on the chart table? Could you get that for me, please?”

“Sure…”

He opened it up and wrote the date and time, and all Phoebe’s recollections. “Torchlight? And an old wizard? Anything else?”

“Timothy. Did you get that down?”

He kept writing, adding the information about Orgeron and the composition Deb had played, then he closed the book and looked at Phoebe. “What about the nurse? Sophie?”

“Deb was asleep when she left,” Phoebe said. “She also said you need rest. What happened, Sumner?”

“I’ve been tired, and I guess it really hit me last night.”

“How do you feel now?”

“Tired. Tired…like I’ve never felt before. You know, when Deb and I were out on the bluff above Brighton, I know I heard a calliope, one of those steam-powered organ type things.”

“Yes, so?” Phoebe said. “What about it?”

“Well, aren’t those things associated with carnivals?”

“Yes, that’s right, maybe there was one nearby?” Phoebe mused. “So, that might account for the carnival in her dream.”

“But what accounts for the calliope?” Liz asked.

“I don’t know, but I do know what I heard. I know it wasn’t the wind, but…” he chuckled, “that’s about all I remember – then Lennon appeared.”

And Mann appeared in the companionway. “So? What has happened now? More piano?”

“Yes. She was exhausted, collapsed when she finished a 20 minute performance.”

“Phoebe? Were you able to record it?”

“Yes, from start to finish.”

The old man smacked his lips as he came down the steps, then went aft to check on Deborah, and Sumner went with him. “She said her head hurt, so I gave her one click on the IV.”

Mann looked over her chart, his head swaying from side to side, his lips smacking as he read. “I have lab results now. Markers are increasing rapidly, Sumner. Just so you know, I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to keep her comfortable…I’d guess the tumor is now fifty percent larger than it was on diagnosis.”

“Geez.”

“Have you thought about how you want to handle the situation when morphine no longer works?”

“No, not really.”

“Well, my concern is Miss Hill won’t be able to make a rational decision when that happens. If you are not prepared to act, let me know so I can assemble the necessary paperwork.”

“I’ll be prepared to act, doctor.”

“My guess would be very soon, perhaps later this week, or even tonight. Okay?” He turned to leave and Collins pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed his eyes, then went over and kissed Deborah on the forehead.

“Don’t worry about it, Sumner,” he heard her say. “Just accept what comes.”

She had repeated Lennon’s last words to him almost exactly, and he was stunned – again. “John? Did you see him?”

She smiled. “I was with you then, by the river.”

“What? When?”

“That night. When you sat by the river. I was with you.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“It’s hard to describe. But don’t be afraid, Sumner. Not about what’s going to happen next.”

“Do you want to play the piano some more?”

“What? I don’t play the piano…”

“Oh. Well, can you tell me about the carnival?”

“No, I have no idea what it is. I haven’t been there yet. Have you?”

“No, my love. How’s the pain?”

“Not too bad right now. I was thinking of baking something. Do we have cherries?”

“Of course.”

She smiled. “I should have known. Help me up, would you?”

He hooked her catheter to the IV stand, then helped her stand. Once in the galley, Liz came over and together they started baking. The boat filled once again with the smells of Deb’s favorite recipes, leaving Sumner and Phoebe to drift along with new memories in the making.

“You know what this dump needs?” she finally said to her brother.

“A Christmas tree.”

“You got it, Chuck.”

“I’ll go get Snoopy,” he said with a smile, and they took off into the afternoon, finally finding a small tree a few blocks away. A nearby shop had lights and ornaments, and they carried the tree back to the boat and set it up on the chart table. He rigged the lights and each of them hung one ornament, leaving any more to be placed by guests, then he dimmed the cabin lights. Deborah sat in the glow of the little tree until Sophie arrived, then she went aft with the nurse, leaving the three of them in the eye of the hurricane.

“She doesn’t remember playing the piano,” he said, suddenly remembering their conversation earlier that afternoon.

“A minor miracle I recorded it, I suppose.”

“No recall? None at all?” Liz asked. “It’s like one person’s memory superimposed over another’s, like the layers of an onion.”

“You know,” Collins mused, “to us these personalities must seem randomly imposed, but I wonder? I wonder what the relationship is, if any?”

“You’re assuming there is a relationship,” Phoebe said. And, you’re also assuming the other personality is a real manifestation”

“Well, how do you account for this Orgeron thing?”

“I can’t,” Phoebe said, “but that doesn’t mean I have to buy into some supernatural force manipulating these events, or that there’s some purpose to all this.”

Liz shook her head. “I don’t know, Phoebe. How else can you explain…”

“I can’t, but that doesn’t mean there’s not an explanation.”

“Liz?” Sumner asked. “Are those scones cool enough to try yet?”

“I’ll check. Coffee? With rum, perhaps?”

“That sounds good.”

“Phoebe?”

“Please.”

She came back a minute later with a plate of scones, and Phoebe went to help with the rum. They sat for a while and then watched Phoebe’s recording of Deb playing, then they thought about the more mundane implications of the event.

“I posted the recording to YouTube, sent a link to my buddy at Princeton. He knows some of the story; can’t wait to hear what he has to say after he watches it.”

“Other than to refer you to a good shrink, you mean?”

“Precisely.”

“And suppose it goes viral? You know, proof of life after death, all that nonsense?”

“Or it might simply be regarded as a prank. That’s usually the case with things of this nature.”

Sophie came back and sat with them then, and Phoebe asked if she was familiar with her great-grandmother’s work.

“Some, yes. My mother played the piano, but not good enough to play works of that force.”

“How about you? Do you play?”

“A little, yes.”

“Well, watch this.” Phoebe cued up the video and played it again; Sophia watched and grew increasingly agitated.

“Where did you get this music?”

“Deb played it from memory, with one little wrinkle. She claimed at the time she was Marian Orgeron.”

“What!?”

“She played this today, yet a few hours ago she had no memory of the event.”

“This is not possible!”

“Shall I play it for you again?”

“No! This is some sort of obscene forgery!”

“Well,” Sumner said, “there’s the answer to that question.”

“What question?!” Sophie asked, now quite angry.

“We all witnessed this, Sophie,” Phoebe said. “There’s no trick, no forgery. Even Dr Mann watched some of this yesterday.”

The girl sat down and shook her head. “This can’t be? It’s insane…”

“Oh, I agree completely,” Sumner said, “yet here we are, confronted with evidence of insanity all around this boat…”

“That woman,” she said, pointing, “claims to be my great-grandmother? That’s just not right!”

“Well, no one knew you were coming yesterday, Sophie, when she claimed to be Ms Orgeron.”

Liz looked excited then. “But she knew, didn’t she. Deb must have known, on some level. She had to, right?”

“Why?” Phoebe asked. “There’s no logical train of cause and effect…”

“Well, why else would Sophie show up?”

“I don’t follow,” Sumner said.

“You lost me…” Phoebe said.

“Well, somehow, someway, Deb must be connected to Orgeron, this Marian Orgeron, and as a result something manipulated Sophie into coming here.”

“I was assigned this case when I arrived at work yesterday, late in the afternoon.”

“And Deborah was…it all started when I brought that piano onboard. That was around two, wasn’t it?”

“Close to it, yeah,” Phoebe said.

Sophie cleared her throat. “You think this is possible, do you? This cause and effect between the piano and my great-grandmother emerging?”

“We’re only telling you what we’ve seen and heard, Sophie. There’s no proof, no logic…”

“Unbelievable is the word,” Phoebe added, “but, Sophie, maybe you could help us understand what’s going on.”

“Me?”

“It’s too late now,” Sumner said. “She’s…Marian…is gone now…”

“That doesn’t mean she won’t be back,” Liz said, hopefully.

“Sophie? Just be aware unusual things like this are happening. When you’re with her, take note of anything unusual.”

“Yes, the doctor has already asked me to record our conversations. You propose I ask who she is, where she has been?”

Sumner and Phoebe both nodded their heads, and he added: “Exactly. And let us know, so we can follow up.”

“Simple enough,” the nurse said, then she sat and began writing up her notes.

“Dinner?” Phoebe asked. “Anyone besides me hungry?”

“I am,” Liz added, and Sumner nodded his head.

“I saw an interesting place up the street, beyond the hotel…”

Sophie looked up and shook her head. “Dreadful. Go to this place,” she said, handing her a piece of paper with a name and address on it. “The atmosphere is impressive, and the food is interesting, too.”

“Okay,” Phoebe said. “Can we bring you something back?”

“Anything with, uh, yes, avocados. I can’t get enough of them!”

“We can do that,” Sumner said. “Better grab a coat…it’s getting cold outside now.” He ran Charley up for a quick piddle then back below, then they took off into the night.

“These blocks are really short,” Liz said. “How many did she say to go?”

“Ah, there it is,” Sumner said, just as a snowflake landed on his forehead.

The restaurant looked somewhat like a Mayan ruin in the middle of a rain forest and he shook his head when he looked over the menu. “Mexican food. That figures. Come to Paris, have a taco.”

They were led to a table by a small waterfall, and canned jungle sounds filled the air.

“Well, this is surreal,” Phoebe said, her eyes looking around the place.

“It sure ain’t Taco Bell…” he said as he opened the menu. “I wonder what ‘enchilada’ is in French?”

Liz laughed. “Well, at least guacamole is the same in any language.”

They ordered, laughed at the typically Parisian micro-portions that arrived and enjoyed too many potent margaritas while they talked. “You know,” Phoebe said, “I was thinking, about this place. How would someone from Mexico City, or even a little Tarahumara village react if transported here overnight. Would they see this as a joke, as some sort of parody of their lives?”

“What would Marian Orgeron think of this Paris? Today’s Paris?” Liz asked.

“My guess is she’d want to go back,” Sumner said, then he fell away, almost into a whisper…“Go back…go back…”

“What is it, Sumner?” Phoebe asked.

“I don’t know. Something…something about going back.”

“Back where?” Liz said. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know…” he sighed. “It was like I caught a fragment of a thought, just out of reach…passing by on the air…”

“What? Sumner? What are you seeing?”

He shook his head gently, slowly. “An idea.”

“An idea? Such as?” Phoebe asked.

“I don’t know. It’s time to go, I think.”

Phoebe looked at Liz and they shrugged at one another. “Okay. Let’s go.”

He seemed increasingly distracted, almost lost when they got out to the street, and he looked away from the river, from the Gemini; he walked up to a cross street and then down an alley. He stopped and looked around, like he was looking for something, or someone…then he took off further into the alley.

It was dark here, and snow was beginning to drift in corners, build on trash cans, but he stopped at a shadow between two industrial-sized waste dumpsters, then knelt down.

There was an old man sitting there, covered in trash bags, sitting on a pile a newspapers. When Phoebe got there she stopped and stepped back, not sure if the old man was alive or dead.

“Phoebe? Your French is better than mine. Ask him if he has someplace to stay?”

“What? Sumner, what are you doing?”

“Ask him, Phoebe.”

“Avez-vous un endroit pour dormir?

The man stared off into space, almost as if he hadn’t heard what she said.

“What’s his name, Phoebe?”

“Vieil homme, quel est votre nom?”

He shook his head. “Je ne sais pas, jeune fille.”

“He doesn’t know his own name?”

“That’s what he said.”

“Ask him if he knows where he is.”

“Savez-vous ou sont?”

“Ooh…je marchais, par ma maison, alors je suis venu ici. Cela est inexact, quelque chose ne va pas…quelque chose est tres mal…”

“What did he say?” Liz asked.

“He says he was walking near his home, but now something is wrong, very wrong.”

“Ask him what’s wrong? What’s different?”

“Qu’est-ce qui ne va pas? Qu’est ce qui a changé?”

“La vile a changé. Rien de tel qu’il était. Je ne comprends pas…”

“He says he doesn’t understand, the city’s different, that everything has changed.”

Sumner leaned in close. “Ask him if he knows Marian Orgeron?” The old man canted his head when he heard that name…

“Sumner? What? What are you…?”

“Ask him, Phoebe.”

“Monsieur, savez-vous une femme nommée Marian Orgeron?”

“Quelle! Qui est-tu? Comment savez-vous son nom?”

“He wants to know who we are, how we know her?”

“Tell him we can take him to her. Tonight. Right now. All he has to do is tell us his name.”

“Monsieur, nous pouvons vous prendre pour elle en ce moment, mais d’abord, vous devez nous dire votre nom.”

“Je ne vous crois pas.”

“He doesn’t believe you.”

“Show him the video.”

“Sumner?”

“Just play it.”

She took out her phone and found the file and began playing it. She held the phone out so the old man could see it…

“Ce n’est pas possible!” “This is not possible!”

He continued watching, his eyes now round, full of fear…

“Comment cela peut-il etre vrai?” “How can this be true?”

After a few minutes Phoebe stopped playback. “Monsieur, voulez-vous la voir? Ce soir?”

“Oui,” he moaned.

“Monsieur, dites-moi votre nom, s’il vous plait.

“Claude. Claude Debussy.”

“Si vous, voulez voir Mlle Orgeron, s’il vous plaît venir avec nous. Maintenant, s’il vous plaît, Monsieur Debussy.”

The old man stood and brushed the snow off his topcoat. “Je ne me sens pas bien…pourrais-tu m’aider s’il vous plait?”

“What’s going on,” Liz asked.

Phoebe seemed a bit unsteady on her feet now, and she looked at Sumner, then Liz. “He says he’s not feeling well,” she said, taking the old man’s arm in her own. “He says his name is Debussy. Claude Debussy.”

“And we’re sure he’s not a mad schizophrenic rapist, aren’t we?” Lis added.

“Sumner? How did you know he was here?”

He shrugged. “I have no idea. It felt like something was pushing me here, literally like something was pushing me on the back, forcing me to walk this way.”

“The unmoved mover,” Phoebe sighed. “Why is this happening to you? To us?”

They were out on the street soon enough, but Debussy recoiled from the cars and by the people he saw walking by. “Quel est cet endroit? Que s’est-il passé?”

“I don’t think he understands what he’s seeing, he’s confused.”

“How long was he sitting there, in the alley?”

“Monsieur, combien de temps aviez-vous étéassis dans l’allée?”

“Je ne suis pas certain. Peut-être minutes, peut-être des années. Rien ne semble faire sens dans le présent…”

“He says he’s unsure, maybe minutes, maybe years, only that the present doesn’t seem to make sense.”

“Depuis combien de temps Marian ici?”

“Elle est arrivée hier. He wanted to know when Marian arrived, and I told him yesterday.”

Collins saw a market just ahead and went in, bought a half dozen avocados, tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and a lime, then he rejoined Liz on the street; he could see Phoebe and Debussy ahead, the old man still holding onto her arm. He smiled, wondered just what the old man could possibly be thinking about the things he was seeing right now. How shocked would he be if he suddenly found himself in Paris a hundred years from now…

Liz was silent now, but she moved close and brushed snow off his coat, then took his arm in hers. “Will you ever by able to forgive me for leaving?”

“I still don’t understand why you did.”

“Because I was afraid.”

“Afraid? Of what?”

“Losing you, I think.”

“So you left?”

“Before you could leave me.”

He shook his head. “You’re afraid I would leave you, so you left me first? You know, in the world I grew up in, when a girl leaves like that she either wants to end things or she wants you to follow and sign your life away.”

“Cynical.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“No, I suppose not.” She pulled away from him, fell a little behind. “I guess that’s it, then. Easy come, easy go.”

“Liz, the world I deal with is all shades of gray, not simple blacks and whites. You’ve told me why you left, but it feels hollow to me, and I guess we have a trust issue now. And I think we will until we don’t. If you can’t handle that, if the easy way out is to shut down and walk away, well, you’re only proving my point. That’s what you’ll do whenever we hit a rough patch. You want the situation to change? Well then, you got some work to do.”

She walked along in silence for a while, but took his hand when he came to the boat. “Fair enough,” she said.

He helped her across, then Phoebe and Debussy hopped aboard. He led them below and found Sophie at the piano, playing a few tentative chords. She looked up when she saw them, but her eyes went wide when she saw Debussy.

“Non, non, cela ne peut pas être! Qu’est-ce que cela, ce qui se passe ici? Ceci est absurde!”

Phoebe came below, rushed to the girl’s side. “Sophie, relax, we found him on the street…”

Debussy began yelling – “Cela ne veut pas Marian! Ce n’est pas ce que vous avez promis! Ou est Mlle Orgeron?!”

Collins took the old man by the arm and led him aft, leaving Phoebe to calm down the girl, but when he opened the door and led Debussy into the aft cabin the old man looked at Deb sleeping  – and burst into tears.

“Oh mon Dieu!” He hissed between clinched lips. “Ce qui est arrivé a mon Marian? Qu’avez-vous fait pour elle?”

“We haven’t done anything. She’s very ill…”

“Je ne comprends pas l’anglais? S’il vous plait, ou est la femme qui parle français?”

“Phoebe? Need a hand here!”

“Sumner?”

He turned, saw Deb looking at him from the bed, then she looked at Debussy…

“Claude? Mon dieu! Qu’est ce qui t’es arrivé? Vous avez grandi si grand? Est-ce que vous mangez tellement maintenant?”

“Uh-oh,” Phoebe said, now standing right behind her brother. “She just told him he looks fat.”

“Time to get the fuck out of Dodge…” He turned on the overhead light and shut the door behind them, then returned to the main cabin.

“Well?” Liz said.

“He recognized her, as Marian,” Sumner said.

“You mean,” Sophie said, “Claude Debussy just recognized that woman as my great-grandmother?”

“It would appear so.”

The girl stood and ran back to the cabin and listened at the door, just as Collins saw Dr Mann at the head of the companionway steps.

“Ooh, wonderful!” Mann said. “It looks like I got here just in time…”

“Indeed,” Phoebe said.

“What has happened?”

“We went out to dinner. And ran into Debussy.”

“Who?”

“Claude Debussy.”

“Merde.”

“Well said. Just so,” Collins sighed, then he walked to the cabinet and poured himself two fingers of rum.

“One for me, if you please,” Mann said. “You know, I never drank rum until I met you. Now I can’t seem to get enough. You are a shameful influence, Captain.”

“Thank you. We aim to please.”

The doctor shook his head. “I like you, Collins. In spite of your blusterings I think you must be a good man. Now, where is this imposter?”

Collins handed the doctor a tall glass of dark rum and pointed to the aft cabin, to Sophie, who was still standing, transfixed, at the door.

The doctor walked back to the door. “Have you heard anything interesting?”

“Cela est impossible, Docteur? C’est de la folie! Que se passe-t-il?”

“Nous sommes a l’intérieur d’un rêve dans un rêve, ma fille. Nous devons marcher avec précaution, can nous marchons a l’intérieur des rêves de Dieu maintenant…”

Mann opened the door and went in, found Debussy by Deborah’s side – the composer openly weeping now. Deborah lay very still and he went to her, took her wrist in his hand, then set it down gently.

“Would you find Mr Collins, please, and bring him to me,” Mann said gently, looking up at Sophie. She nodded and left; Sumner returned a moment later, looked at Deborah for a heartbeat – then his eyes filled with tears.

“Is she…” he managed to say.

“Oui,” the physician said – just as Debussy held out his hands and cried “Dieu, pas encore!” – and his form began to shimmer in the air. Within the space of a long sigh his body disappeared, leaving Deborah’s stillness once again the center of the universe. Sophie came in and sat on the bed, looking at this stranger who once might have been the center of her universe, once upon a time. She took her hand and kissed it. “Adieu, vielle mere. Adieu.”

Collins went forward just then, and he found Charley sitting on Elizabeth’s lap; he picked her up and carried her aft, let her walk and circle around the bed, come to terms with Deborah’s stillness, then the little pup walked up, and curled up, on Deborah’s chest – and then she began to lick her chin.

In this new silence she too lay in a great stillness, trying to understand the calm in the cooling body where she liked to rest her head.

+++++

“I am left,” Mann said, “trying to understand what has happened, but what I have seen is like a puzzle with too many of it’s vital pieces missing. A well so deep,” he said, think of Thomas Mann’s Joseph, “that we may never see the end of it.” He looked around at the bare trees and the graceful arc of the Trocadero that lay beyond, then down, at Debussy’s grave. “Pieces of a puzzle larger and more complex than any I have ever known, the passing of Miss Hill leaves us only clues, yet we remain in the here and now, left to carry on. Her passing gives us reason to pause and examine the very meaning of time, just as her life was a clue to this meaning. We may be tempted to view her life as a series of despairs, and we may be tempted to say her despairs were without meaning, but I do not believe that. With her passing I am left to struggle with the idea that our lives, our souls, perhaps, echo through time. That her despairs were echoes of earlier struggles, and that she will carry on fighting into the future until she finally can overcome the pain of her existence, and then perhaps we may all reach out to her at last, for understanding.”

He bent over and took a small scoop of ashes and spread them around Debussy’s grave, then he handed the scoop to Collins, who smiled for a moment, then did the same. When everyone who came had looked down and thought about her life in her presence one last time, the small group walked out to the street and scattered on the wind.

Collins went to the car and picked up Charley, then walked back to the grave. She circled a few times, then lay down for a bit, and he sat there beside her on the brown grass, stroking the top of her head while he thought about all that had happened the last few months.

Paul Whittington came by then and lay some roses on Debussy’s grave, then sat on the grass beside Collins and pulled out a pint of rum and handed it to him. Collins took a long pull from the little bottle, then handed it back to Whittington.

“It’s been a strange slice of life,” Whittington said. “Any plans yet?”

“No, not really. I think I have to get used to the way the world is right now before I think much about what might be. Does that make any sense?”

“Really? It does, but that doesn’t sound at all like you. Dwelling on the past and all.”

“Well, I planned to stay here through winter, ‘til March at least.”

“I could use a hand, you know. Getting Aphrodite up to Paris.”

“Okay.”

“What’s with you and Liz? Did that fall apart?”

Collins shrugged, looked down at Charley. “Not sure what’s going on there. Have you met anyone yet?”

“Yes, oddly enough, I have.”

“Well, good for you. Is she a sailor?”

“Well, Sumner. No, he’s not.”

“Ah. So, life goes on then, eh?”

“I suppose it will, one way or another. I’d like to grab hold of my little bit of happiness before shuffling off the coil.”

“That’s the thing, I guess,” Collins sighed. “It’s just that every bit of happiness I’ve ever held seems to lead back to suffering.”

“You’re beginning to sound like a Buddhist, Sumner. Be careful or you’ll soon be ridding yourself of all worldly possessions and walking up some bloody mountain in Nepal.”

“The Razor’s Edge?”

“Precisely. If I were you, I’d keep to the path you’re on, see where that leads. But I think you should get back to the sea as soon as you can.”

“Oh?”

“That dolphin. She holds the key to your existence, you know?”

“You think so?”

“I do.”

“So, when do you want to move Aphrodite?”

“Oh, any time.”

“Christmas is next week; do you want to be here before that?”

“I suppose so, if at all possible.”

“Well then, I reckon we ought to get with it. Tomorrow, don’t you think?”

“Would you like to drive down with me today?”

“No. I have a few things to tie up today. Pick me up at the train station, I guess the ten o’clock arrival.”

“Okay. See you then.” Whittington stood and held out his hand – and Collins took it.

“Adios, Amigo.”

Collins picked up Charley a few minutes later and walked back to the car; Liz and Phoebe were sitting in the back, arms crossed across their chests, eyes staring vacantly ahead. He put Charley in the seat beside his and slipped into the heavy, late morning traffic, struggling to find the riverside route back to the Arsenal. Once back on the boat, Liz pulled out Deb’s things and began baking a fresh batch of scones, while Phoebe went forward and began cleaning up the boat. Collins sat in the cockpit, his legs stretched out, Charley sitting there, looking up at him, waiting, always waiting, for the music to begin again.

(c) 31 october 2016 adrian leverkühn | abw

 

 

 

An Evening at the Carnival with Mister Christian, Part II

Part 2 or 3

+++++

Part III: The Ceremony of Innocence – Curse what deceives us in our dreaming… 

He stood on the bow of the rumbling dive boat, holding onto the painted galvanized rail as it pounded through heaving, wind driven swell, trying to make out the lights off Catalina’s Isthmus Cove. The man had just decided he was going to be seasick – and wanted to get as far away from his students as he could – and suddenly he leaned over the rail and retched, but nothing came up and he cursed his dehydrated gut, pulled out a roll of antacids from his jacket pocket and chewed a few, hoping to knock back the acid fueling this recurring storm.

He sensed one of his students nearby and tried to get his act together, but the combination of rolling swells and diesel fumes was a toxic mix, at least as far as his stomach was concerned, and he leaned over again as another wave hit…

“You feeling okay,” he heard a woman’s voice ask, and he shook his head, tried to remember her name.

“Not really. I think the water between Long Beach and Catalina is the best in the world for making me seasick. Every night I come out here…it gets me when the fumes hit.”

“Half the class is hurling over the rail out back,” she said, “so you’re not alone. Are you taking Maalox?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Here, take one of these?”

“These being?” he said as he held out his hand.

“Prilosec, a PPI.”

“That’s right. You’re a doc, aren’t you?” He popped the pill in his mouth and swallowed it dry, wishing he’d brought a bottle of water with him.

“Yup, but only in the minor leagues. Here, take that with some water,” she said, handing him an unopened bottle of ice cold water.

“Minor leagues? What’s that mean?” he sighed as he downed the bottle in one long pull.

“I work in Santa Monica, at one of those big HMOs. Doc in the Box, I think we’re called.”

“Twelve years of school to serve fast food medicine? Must be fun.”

“Not the words I’d choose, but it pays the rent. So. You don’t teach SCUBA full time?”

“Nope. LAPD.”

“Yikes. Bet that’s a fun job.”

“Not the words I’d choose, but it pays the rent.” He smiled at her, tried to stifle a toxic fuming burp but it hissed out between his tightly clinched lips. He shook his head and squinted as another wave of bile tickled his glottis, making his eyes water. “Sorry,” he groaned.

She looked at him for the millionth time, totally in lust with the guy. Really tall and almost too skinny, he looked like one hard muscle – coiled and ready to strike. His arms and legs were wicked hairy too, and, like the hair on his head, it was all dark blond heading fast for grayish-white. She guessed he was in his mid-fifties, but whatever he was, every time she looked at him she got weak in the knees and wet where it counted.

“You married?” she asked, looking out towards Catalina.

He chuckled. “Depends on who you ask.”

“Oh?”

“I was in the process of getting a divorce, but my wife was in an accident a few months ago, before the papers were final.”

“Hurt?”

“Killed. She and her boyfriend, out riding his Ducati on the Angeles Crest Highway at two in the morning. Hit a rock and lost it, into the guardrail. I think the tequila in their systems had something to do with it, but my guess is she died happy.”

“I seem to remember reading about that one…”

“A inglorious end to a somewhat glorious marriage.”

“Bitter?”

“You know? About the second week of academy one of our instructors told us that if our marriages weren’t rock solid we’d be divorced within two years. Ours just about got to twenty, so I wonder if that’d be considered semi-rock solid?”

“Twenty years? That’s pretty good these days…for anyone.”

The boat launched off a high swell and dove down into a deep trough, sending a wall of water all over the foredeck, drenching them both.

“We’d better move aft,” he said.

“I’m going to stay up here if you don’t mind,” she grinned. “It’s kind of exhilarating, I guess.”

He didn’t move, but he did turn around and look at her. Maybe forty, short as could be and stocky, built kind of like a fire hydrant, but with super cute, inquisitive eyes. He remembered thinking she wasn’t fat the first night at the pool; neither was she what most people would consider trim – these days, anyway. She looked fit and strong when they did their pool training, however, and she definitely wasn’t a wimp.

“Why’d you decide to take up SCUBA diving?” he asked her.

“I moved out here last year, and it seemed like the thing to do. I love the ocean, everything about it. I grew up north of Boston, and my parents were big sailors. We went sailing every weekend all summer, every summer, and sailed up to Maine around the Fourth every year, but it was too cold to do much diving. I tried snorkeling a few years ago and loved it, wanted to see more, but with school and all, then work, well, there just wasn’t time.”

“The water here isn’t particularly warm, you know?”

“What is out here this time of year?”

“Fifty, maybe fifty-two degrees. I hate to say it, but most of the old pros keep warm by peeing in their wetsuit right after they hit the water. The pee will keep you warm for a while, a few minutes anyway, and by that time your body heat will warm up the water inside your suit. The pee gets flushed within a couple minutes…after five minutes it’s all gone. Still, it’s kind of gross.”

“Someone else told me about that. Do you do that?”

“I don’t like being cold, so, uh, yes, I sure do.”

“Well, when in Rome…”

“It sounds bad, but you do it a few times and you’ll get over it. Really, unless you get right out of the water it’s all gone in a few minutes.”

“You said in class this first dive will be to around sixty feet or so?”

“We’ll drop anchor near some rocks, then go down to the bottom. Yeah, about sixty feet, and then we’ll visit Waldo.”

“Waldo?”

He smiled. “Yeah, I’ll introduce him to you.”

“Okay, sure. You say so…”

“So, what kind of doc are you?”

“Psychiatry,” she said, and he thought he heard a little defensiveness in her voice.

“Married?”

“You got to be kidding, right?”

“Why’s that?” he said, trying not to sound too ironic.

“I’m short, fat, Jewish, and a shrink. What a catch, right? Besides, I thought I might meet some nice west-side boys out here, taking this class…”

“You’re not fat.”

“Right. Thanks.”

“So…any luck?”

“You’ve got a lousy since of humor, you know?”

“Ah, you never know who you’ll meet out here. I’ve watched some pretty interesting hook-ups on these trips over the years…”

“Yeah? How long have you been doing this?”

“Oh, let’s see. I went into traffic almost fifteen years ago, so…two years after that I finished the instructors course. I’ve been at it ever since.”

“You like diving that much?”

“I like the ocean in general, but I like being under a lot more. You know…all those Cousteau shows on TV growing up…”

“Me too. Seen many sharks over here?”

He chuckled again. “This is their home. We’re just visitors, if you know what I mean.”

“Is that a yes?”

“That’s a big yes, but as long as no one’s spear-fishing nearby it’s not that big a deal.”

“Great Whites?”

“Geesh, are you sure you wanna be out here?”

“No, no…I mean I want to see one.”

“A White?”

“Yeah, hell yeah.”

“Well, next time we take a trip out to San Miguel or Santa Cruz, you might want to tag along. If you want to see Blues, or some of the more ‘off the wall’ pelagic types, we’re running out to a site near San Nicolas in a few weeks. Assuming you pass this class, sign up for the next advanced class. We make our third and fourth dives out there.”

“What about the first two dives?”

“Santa Barbara. The small island. Really desolate, unspoiled. Amazing number of deep water species in both places, a lot of kelp diving too. Ah, there’s the Isthmus light, that flashing one, right over there,” he said, pointing. “We’ll drop anchor in about thirty minutes,” he said, looking at his watch. “Sun will be up by then, so call it an hour or so before we hit the water.”

A handful of his other students had been drifting forward, and he smiled. For some this was their first trip out to Catalina – and he could tell by looking at their faces how excited, and how nervous they were. They’d all been through two weekends of classroom study, as well as several pool dives, but there was always something about making your first ocean dive that caught first-timers off-guard. This was the real deal, and he’d had more than a few freeze up and call it quits before they ever hit the water.

“How deep is it here?” one of the younger kids said.

“Like I said in the class last week, out first dive this morning will be between sixty and seventy feet. Our second will be in much shallower water, around thirty, after our surface interval. And remember, we’ll do all our calculations manually today.”

“So, no dive computers?”

“Nope. Computers can break, remember? You always need to record your depths and times on a slate, just in case. ALWAYS. You’re going to be excited enough as is, so keep with your buddy and both of you make sure you remind each other to keep writing your times down, all the time. We’ll check your slates when we get down there, so if you haven’t written this stuff down, please don’t ask why you failed the class. Okay?”

He made eye contact with each of them…and everyone nodded understanding.

“We’ll have three Divemasters with us today; two are students and they’ll be getting their ‘student dives’ graded today – just like you. They’re in the orange wetsuits, so if you have any questions while getting suited up, ask them. Again, just like you they’re being graded on their understanding and the way they interact with you, so there are no stupid questions out here today. Again, please ask them, so if you don’t know XYZ? Just ask. If you’re not sure how to hook something up? Again, please ask. There are no stupid questions out here this morning, okay?”

Lots of stern expressions on the faces he looked at, and he nodded. “Good. Remember, this is serious stuff, the real deal, but it’s also a lot of fun. Learn the right way today and it’ll be something you can do the rest of your life; start developing bad habits today and you WILL get in trouble. As soon as the anchor’s down we’ll start suiting up, so please get some water on board now, two bottles at least. You don’t want to dehydrate down there, and remember, the compressed air in these tanks dries you out in a hurry. And remember what we said about peeing in the wetsuit? If you feel cold, just let it go.”

The group broke up and drifted aft, yet the psychiatrist stayed up front with him, enjoying the wind and the spray…and she looked back at the mainland, at the warm glow of the sun chasing the night away.

“It’s kind of cool out here…” she observed. “I wonder what it would be like to sail across the Pacific. You know, just leave one day and keep on going?”

He looked away. “I don’t know. My sister was into that, though.”

“Oh?”

“She was the family genius. Harvard, Georgetown, that kind of thing. Never knew what she did to make a living, but then about a year ago I learned she was in a mental hospital. Schizophrenia, they said. That’s what my mom told me, but I don’t know much about it.”

“She has a boat?”

“Yeah. Somewhere up in Seattle, big fat thing. I was appointed guardian a few months ago, and I really need to go up there and get things sorted out.”

“That sounds painful. Are you two close?”

“It is a long story, but there was this gap in time between when she and my other sister were born, and when I came along. Like seven years. I hardly knew her when she left for college, and I’ve rarely seen her over the years.”

“You’ve never seen the boat, then?”

He shook his head, looked away.

“Wow, sounds like a handful to take on. Have you visited her?”

“According to my mom, no visitors allowed.”

“After a year? That’s kind of odd.”

He nodded his head, still looking away from her. “Every thing about her life is weird. Always has been.”

“How so?”

He looked at the horizon and the navigation buoy, guessed they’d drop anchor in five minutes. “Well, I hate to break this up, but the crew will need to start doing there thing up here now. We’d better head back, get suited up.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

He looked at the skipper in the wheelhouse and waved, then went aft himself, stepping over the two dozen dive bags strewn out all over the aft deck on the way to his own. He peeled off his jeans and fleece, revealing a black and silver lycra body-suit; he pulled his Instructor’s wetsuit from the bag and pulled it on, then his booties. He circulated among his students, reminding them how to place their regulator valves and why to keep the octopus on the left side of their buoyancy compensation vests, and with the sun now up the air warmed quickly as he walked around the rolling deck.

“Wind’s picking up,” the skipper said as he came to the gate on the aft deck, “so it might get rough out here later this afternoon?”

“Another Santa Ana blowing in? You want to head over to the far side?”

“Might want to think about it. Could be hard getting beginners back onboard if it really picks up.”

“We okay for the first dive?”

“Should be.”

“Okay. We’ll get ’em in fast. First dive will be for thirty five minutes or so.”

“Right.”

He went to his dive masters and talked the plan over one more time, then stood in the middle of the deck and addressed his students. “Okay! Listen up! I want your tanks front and center, and I want to see your slates attached to your BCs. We’ll have twelve students, three dive masters and one instructor in the water. Sixteen people. Your two jobs are to keep track of your buddy, and to make sure you record your time of descent and time at maximum depth. We are going to head down to some rocks about fifty-five, sixty feet down,” then he held out a can of pressurized cheese-whiz spread. “When we’re down there, I want you to gather ‘round behind me, and I’ll introduce you to Waldo, then you’ll break off with your dive master for our exercises.”

Everyone looked at him, confusion clear as they tried to remember their pool dives.

“We’ll descend as a group, with two dive masters taking the lead, then you’ll follow immediately, with your buddy, one pair at a time. I’ll follow up with another dive master. It’s a sandy bottom with a few rocky outcroppings, so gather around ABOVE the dive masters down there, then let’s get ready to have some fun. Just a reminder…do NOT land on the bottom; adjust your BCs to hover at least five feet above the sea-floor. Any questions?”

He walked over to the trainee dive masters and talked over the plan one last time; one to stay with him, the other with their trainer, then he turned his eyes on them and addressed them sternly. “If you see panic in anyone’s eyes, pull them out and get them on the line and bring ‘em up.” He looked at them, made sure that point hit home. “Okay, let’s get ‘em in the water, and remember, keep them in a hover once we’re down there – we won’t be able to see a damn thing if they kick up a bunch of sand.”

The sun now well up in the morning sky, once all the students were in the water he signaled the first two dive masters to begin their descent. They grabbed a line running down to the bottom and deflated their buoyancy compensators and began a slow drop to the seafloor – even sixty feet down still clearly visible below. A few parrotfish drifted by as the first students took off, then he cleared the air from his BC and began his descent, writing on his slate he drifted down. He looked up and saw another group hit the water and swim off towards some kelp…

‘So far so good,’ he said to himself as he settled above the group. He porpoised over to the largest rocky outcropping and pulled the can of cheese-whiz from his BC, then tapped it on the rocks a few times. He turned, saw the group assembling behind and just above him, then tapped the can on the rocks again.

He peeked out then, first a shadow, then his head…

Waldo, an ancient moray eel poked his head out of the rocks and he squirted an inch long string of cheese onto his finger, then held it out. The old moray was shy at first, but came about a foot out of the rocks and gently took the cheese off his fingers. Moving slowly, he turned to a student and motioned her forward.

It was the shrink, he saw, and she held out her hand and he shot another inch of the goop onto her finger – and then Waldo drifted over and gently took it off. He could see the expression in her eyes, the wonder, the restrained excitement, and the moment reminded him why he still did this after so many years.

The other dive masters arranged themselves around the rock and pulled out cans of cheese-whiz – and then a half-dozen morays appeared. One by one, students got the opportunity to feed an eel, and as many times as he’d done this the magic of this moment, this interaction between species, never failed to amaze him. He hovered above the scene as his students ran through their exercises, keeping an eye on his watch until it was time to ascend, then he tapped on the rock with his dive-knife, signaled everyone to get ready, then pointed at the first dive masters to lead-off. He watched as everyone started their ascent, and when he confirmed the count he too started up.

He saw the shark then, a medium sized Blue, a predator, and he tagged his trainee and pointed, and they moved off to place themselves between the ascending group and the shark. It circled almost at the limits of their vision, looking for a weakness, then it turned and disappeared towards the kelp. He looked at his buddy and nodded, and they kept up an ultra-slow ascent until they were a few feet below the boat. He pointed at his buddy and indicated he should go up the ladder, and after she cleared the ladder, he went up too.

“There was a shark down there?” someone asked as he came up.

“Yup,” he said. “A little blue. Maybe seven, eight feet long. He kept his distance, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” the shrink said – and he laughed.

“I was a little preoccupied. Next time he comes around though, I’ll be sure to tap you on the shoulder.”

She laughed. “Guess the moral of that story is to keep your eyes open, huh?”

“I’d say so, but they’re predators, and they don’t like to advertise their presence.”

“Damn!”

“I wouldn’t sweat it too much. You dive around here regularly you’ll see plenty of ‘em.” He looked around the group, confirmed the head-count again. “Okay. Get your slates out and start calculating your intervals. Our next dive will be to thirty five feet, so tell me how long we can stay at that depth, and what our surface interval should be.”

He left them to it and walked up to the wheelhouse. “How’s it looking?”

“Small craft warning just popped on the VHF. Backside looks okay, but the wind is picking up fast. As soon as that other group gets back we’ll weigh anchor and head…”

“Shark!” someone yelled, and he ran back to the aft deck, saw one of the guys from that other group swimming for the aft platform, then…fifty yards out he saw another guy fighting off the blue, swinging away at it with a speargun.

“They’re spearfishing!?” he yelled, suddenly very angry. There was supposed to be no hunting when students were in the water, but that didn’t matter now. He ducked back into the wheelhouse and grabbed the SharkDart and ran aft, grabbed his mask and slipped his fins on as fast as he could after he dove in. Dart in hand, he slipped his snorkel in his mouth and porpoised out towards the stricken diver…

The shark was now circling warily about ten yards out; the guy had dropped his speargun – with a dead parrotfish still attached to the spear – and he was holding his arm, puffy-cloudy swirls of purplish blood drifting all around the guy. He took the cork off the dart and primed the cylinder, then dove down about twenty feet, keeping an eye on the shark now as it turned and sprinted in towards the cloud of blood.

He powered up, the dart ahead of him and he thrust it into the sharks belly when it was about five feet shy of the diver; when the dart compressed it discharged several pounds of carbon-dioxide into the shark’s abdomen, instantly causing all of the animals entrails to explode out it’s mouth…

He pulled the diver to the surface, inflating the guy’s BC as he pulled him to the swim platform; the dive masters pulled him aboard, cut off his gear and started assessing his wounds. He climbed up the ladder, doing his best to hide the dart, then he went to the wheelhouse and handed it to the captain.

“Did you get it?” the man asked.

“Unfortunately, yes. Stupid son-of-a-goddamned-bitch…” he thundered as the full fury of the adrenaline rush hit him, then he stomped out of the wheelhouse and made his way to the aft deck.

“Is his group all accounted for?” he asked as he looked at the guy’s wounds.

“No arterial bleeds, mainly superficial, but my guess is he’s lost a lot of blood.”

He walked back to the wheelhouse and told the skipper to call the Coast Guard. “Where’d they hide their spearguns?” he asked.

“Tossed ‘em over in a dive-bag while it was still dark, probably while we were anchoring.”

He shook his head. “I suppose they signed the acknowledgement form?”

“Yup.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll take the paperwork.”

“Thanks, Spud,” the skipper said as he called the Coast Guard. He relayed the situation and their position, then signed off.

“You know, you’re the only human being left in the world who still calls me Spud?”

“It’s the only name that fits, Amigo. I sure ain’t going to call you Ted…”

He walked aft again; the stricken diver was trying to sit up, light-headed and in deep shock as he knelt next to him. “Let’s get him on the board, legs up until the coasties get here, spread some coagulant on that arm. Any family here with him?”

“Me…he’s my brother-in-law.”

“Okay, you need to get ready to go in with him. Coast Guard will fly him into Harbor Emergency, and they might ask for a relative to come along.”

“Okay.”

He pulled the kid aside. “Y’all signed a ‘no spearfishing agreement.’ You do know there’s going to be trouble?”

The kid nodded his head.

“That’s good.” He turned, saw the CG Blackhawk roaring across the water from Long Beach, and a minute later the flutterbug was hovering over the aft deck, a basket coming down. They loaded the guy into the basket and the pilot hauled him up, then the Blackhawk promptly turned back towards the mainland and roared off.

“Your lucky day, kid. No ride in the chopper for you.” He turned and walked forward to the wheelhouse. “I’ve had enough fun for now. Let’s head towards Avalon and see if we can meet ‘em halfway.”

“Will do; I’ll let ‘em know.”

He walked aft, saw his dive masters and the boat’s crew washing blood off the deck and shook his head. “Okay, y’all gather ‘round. We’re heading for Avalon, have some paperwork we need to do with the Coast Guard, then we’ll need to decide if we want to finish up our second dive or not. Anyone here too spooked to continue?”

Everyone’s hand went up and he laughed.

“Well, that takes care of that. We’ll schedule a make-up dive, probably a beach dive at Palos Verdes for next weekend. Any questions you have, let me know.”

A half hour later a Coast Guard 44 could be seen steaming their way, and fifteen minutes later they were alongside. Two uniformed men hopped over and he led them forward to the wheelhouse; he went over the incident, excluding use of the SharkDart, as the coasties filled out their forms.

“How’d you get rid of the shark?” one of them asked…

“Well-timed blow to the snout,” he said. “Works every time.”

“Yeah, sure. Okay, skipper. Sign here. Spud? You too.”

“Gotcha. You know what this Santa Ana is up to?”

“I’d get back across ASAP if this was my boat. 55-60 knots in the new forecast.”

“Okay,” the skipper said. “Thanks Chief.”

“Later.” They were gone in a flash and the dive boat turned to 30 degrees and began the long pounding ride back to Long Beach. He went forward and sat on a deck-box, sitting “Indian-style” as he leaned back and sighed, closing his eyes for the first time in a day.

“You wear a red cape on your days-off, I see.”

He opened his eyes, saw the shrink sitting beside him and he wanted to tell her to go away, but that just wasn’t in the job description. “Well, you got to see your shark, didn’t you?”

She burst out laughing and he looked at her. He liked her eyes, he reminded himself, and the way she carried herself, but her skin was pale…like too many years in the library, he guessed, but he liked her deep brown hair, especially when he saw red highlights shimmering in the sun. But her deep brown eyes, he thought, were really something special. He guessed she had been an athlete at one time; her legs looked powerful, her arms too, and he remembered she’d moved with confidence underwater.

“Yeah, guess so. Suppose I have to leave you a big tip, huh?”

“Sorry. Not allowed.”

“Well then, how about dinner?”

“What? Tonight?”

“Yeah. You booked already?”

“Kind of. I have an appointment with my bed starting as soon as I get home, and I was hoping for about twenty hours straight.”

“Too much. Not healthy for you.”

“Well, I’m on call at midnight, so I take what I can get.”

“Cops are on call? Wow…and I thought I was the only one to be blessed with that curse.”

“I work traffic, I think I mentioned. I’m the on-call accident reconstructionist tomorrow. Well, starting at midnight, that is.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“Only the biggest, best fatalities, Ma’am.”

“Sheesh. Now I know that sounds like fun. How long have you been doing that?”

“Ten years?”

“How many fatalities does that work out to?”

“About a hundred a year, plus the other assorted major accidents, and accidents involving city personnel.”

“And you hold all that shit inside? For ten years now?”

He looked at her and smiled. “You get used to it.”

“No, you don’t. You might think you do, but Ted, you’re burning the candle at both ends.”

“I eat lots of Indian and Thai. The spices keep all those evil spirits away.”

“Do they, now? Well, I know a great place over by the Farmer’s Market…”

“Electric Karma?”

“How’d you know?”

He smiled. “I live a block away. Walk there for dinner at least eight days a week.”

“I live on Harper. You?”

“La Jolla,” he said, grinning. “Hey, neighbor!”

“Well, that settles it.”

“What?”

“Dinner, and I’m buyin’!”

“Yeah, okay, but I’ve forgotten your name…”

She scrunched up her face. “Class act, Tom.”

“Ted.”

They laughed. “And I’m Carol. Pleased to meet you – again,” she said, holding out her hand.

He took it. “So, I’m going out on a date with a shrink. Don’t that beat all?”

She held out her iPhone and swung it around. “No signal out here, huh?”

“About another hour, then you’ll get two bars.”

“Hope we can get a reservation?” she said.

“Unnecessary. I have one at eight.”

“No kidding…you ARE a regular!”

“Listen, if I don’t catch some shut-eye, I’m not going to make it.”

“There are a few bunks down below. Why don’t you go hit the rack?” she said.

“I might just do that,” he said, standing. He walked aft and ducked down below, then hopped on one of the pipe-berths and closed his eyes…

…and a few moments later he heard the boat’s engines backing down. He looked at his watch: he’d been down almost three hours – and now his head hurt.

“Too much carbon monoxide down here,” he grumbled as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He swayed as the boat bumped into the dock, then he crawled topsides.

The air was hot and dry, sure sign that an intense Santa Ana was howling, and someone had rinsed and packed all his dive gear. He saw Carol and she smiled at him, a big, bright warm smile. ‘Cute, too,’ he said to himself again as he walked over to his pile of gear.

“Sleep well?” she asked when he walked to the rail, looking on as dockhands secured the boat.

“Diesel fumes and sleep are natural partners,” he groaned. “Another hour down there and I doubt I’d ever see daylight again.”

“Not much better up here,” she said. “Headaches and seasickness for the last hour.”

He nodded, turned to face the group. “Okay people!” Ted said. “Gather round.” He waited until everyone was attentive, then continued. “Dive masters should have signed off on your dive this morning, but we have to get one more dive in before we can send your paperwork for certification. As I mentioned earlier, we usually do these over at PV, at Malaga Cove, up on the north side. Check the website tomorrow morning for the exact time, and this same crew of folks will be on hand, so memorize faces. Any questions or comments about the dive, direct them to my email. Any complaints about the day, same thing. Let ‘em rip. I know we had an unexpected incident, but truth be told it’s not all that unusual to have something like this crop up on these trips. Even so, this is the first shark attack I’ve ever seen out at Catalina, but we all know why that happened. Diving accidents happen because people make mistakes, and I hope you all learned something from this.”

He looked around, made eye-contact with all of his students, then nodded his head. “I’m glad y’all got to meet Waldo and his buddies, and I’ll see you at PV next weekend. Grab your gear now, and be careful making the jump to the dock. If you end up in the water, stay away from the piers and come to the swim platform back here and we’ll haul you up.”

He went forward and signed off on the trip, then walked aft to grab his gear. She was still there, waiting, when he got to his bag.

“What time was the reservation?” she asked.

“Eight, every Saturday night.”

“Wow. You’re not, like, in a rut or anything, are you?”

“I like predictability.”

“Safer that way?”

He shrugged. “My life is anything but predictable, or safe, but I like to anchor key days of the week in routines. Keeps me stable, I guess.”

She nodded her head, looked at his legs as he leapt across, and as he turned to look at her he held out his hand. There was a three foot gap between the hull and dock, and her bag weighed at least forty pounds. ‘Well, here goes…’ she said to herself as she leapt, but she came down awkwardly and began to tumble backwards…

…then she felt his hands on her shoulders as he pulled her back onto the dock, and she looked at him for a moment as he did. She felt something in his hands, a strength she was simply unfamiliar with, the kind of strength that comes from carrying impossible burdens all day, every day.

“Thanks,” she said.

“I know…you did that on purpose…”

“Nope. That was good ole Carol the Klutz. When I was a kid, my father threatened to trademark the name in my honor.” And I haven’t felt like that klutz in thirty years, she told herself. Why now?

He took her bag and carried it out to the parking lot. “Which one’s yours?”

“The silver Subaru,” she said, pointing to a newish Crosstrek. She used the remote to unlock the doors and start the engine, and he put her gear in the back and closed the hatch, then turned to her.

“So, you’re all set?”

“Yeah, thanks. I guess I’ll see you there?”

“Sure. I’m going to shower and rinse the gear…”

“You don’t need to. I did it, and put some silicone on your mask. It looked like it needed some.”

“Well, thanks. You sure you’re okay? You look a little light-headed?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll see you there. Bye…”

She rushed behind the wheel and turned the air conditioner to Max Cold and aimed all the vents at her torso. She knew her face was flushed without even looking in the mirror, and she felt the heat in her groin, too. She’d wanted to rape him right there in the parking lot, and the feeling had hit her hard, like a fast moving freight train coming out of nowhere in the night. His eyes were driving her mad, but so was feeling thirteen all over again!

She watched as he walked over to a huge white pickup truck and opened the back door. He tossed his gear inside and turned on the engine, then all the lights started flashing and he walked around the truck, checking each light for operation. He poked at a tire and got out a pressure gauge and checked them all, then he got behind the wheel and she followed him out of the lot.

‘What kind of person does that…’ she asked herself as she fell in behind him, and she soon figured out that following him was like following a Driver’s Ed car – speed nailed, and right on the limit – and not one turn signal missed. Following him was like an abject lesson on ‘How To Drive A Car Safely In Heavy Urban Traffic,’ and by the time he got on the 405 she was too amused to not follow him. Middle lane, speed pegged on the posted limit; he was rigidly following ALL the rules. “Well, he did say he was an accident investigator…” He turned east on the 10 then north on La Cienega, and finally a right on 3rd – and she was tempted to follow and see if he used his turn signal to turn into his driveway – but in the she end resisted the impulse.

Still, she didn’t know if he’d driven like that simply for her benefit – she assumed he knew she was following him, taking the same way home – or if he compulsively driving like a control freak. It had come as a surprise to learn he lived just a few blocks away, and she had been tempted to follow him just to see where he lived, yet she was half-ashamed of herself for even thinking that. She wasn’t some hormone addled thirteen year old, or so she told herself, yet when she thought about it, the last time she’d felt such an intense rush of lust had been in middle school.

So…she pulled into her apartment building’s little lot and parked in her assigned space, then went to the rear of the car and hauled the dive bag upstairs to her little flat and unpacked everything, rinsing her mask and snorkel again in her kitchen sink, then she showered, trying not to touch herself down there.

But that was becoming almost impossible, she thought as she dried herself off. She couldn’t get him out of her mind as she looked at the time on her iPhone again and again. More than an hour to go! She went to the closet, looked at her clothes. “Not too casual? Should I try for sexy?”

No, that’s not who I am, she told herself one more time. Stay true to who you are. Jeans, a white polo shirt and some white Adidas tennis shoes. Her ritual Saturday afternoon running around town attire…that’s it…stay true and have fun, but be yourself. She opened up her laptop and checked email, replied to a few from work about adjusting patient medications, then she turned on the TV and flipped through a few channels, settling on Real Time With Bill Maher. She laughed and shook her head at all the jokes about Trump and Sanders and the craziness of this never-ending campaign season, then looked at the time again and turned off the TV. She grabbed her wallet and a windbreaker and went downstairs, then walked the block and a half to the restaurant.

And of course, he was already there.

In jeans, a white polo shirt and white Adidas tennis shoes.

They laughed as he stood and pulled out her chair, and she cringed when she tried to remember the last time a guy had tried to do that for her. Still, she bit her tongue and held off commenting, smiled as she sat down. “What are you drinking?” she asked as she looked at his drink.

“Mineral water, slice of lime. Remember? I go on call at midnight.”

“Ah, well, I’ll have the same,” she said to the waiter. “Have you already ordered?”

“No, but I usually have the same thing. What about you?”

“Chicken Tikka Masala and Saag Paneer. Garlic Naan and then hot tea with dessert”

“Yup, it’s official,” he said. “This is weird.”

“You too?”

“Yup.” He laughed, watched her smile, then looked at her eyes again.

“So, let’s get this out of the way,” she sighed. “I’m a flaming liberal, a partisan feminist. I got a BA from Brown in Philosophy, then went to med school in Philadelphia. I work at an HMO because I get to see a lot of working people close to the edge, and I do time at a free clinic downtown every Thursday evening, working with the homeless. I haven’t been on a date in over, well, a few years, and have never been married. Now, you. You drive a pickup truck, like a little old lady I might add, so you’re a Republican, you graduated from high school and you have peculiar taste in clothes.”

He looked at her, his head cocked to one side a little, then he took a sip of water.

“I met my wife at Stanford. She was still an undergrad, I was finishing my Master’s, in History. I’m a democrat and plan on voting for Sanders. I like my pickup truck, I can’t help it. I’ve been cross-trained as a paramedic and work when I can at a couple of Catholic churches in South Central, mainly refugees from Latin America. I teach SCUBA diving and MSF courses on weekends, and I’ve slept with one woman over the last twenty years, and none since.”

“Fuck.”

“You make your living pasting labels on stereotypical behavior? Or is this just a hobby of yours?”

“I’m sorry…but what’s MSF?”

“Motorcycle Safety Foundation. I teach ‘newbs’ how to ride bikes.”

“That figures. You and your red cape.”

“Actually, we were having tons of motorcycle fatalities, and read that in a lot of cities like LA, when their city’s motorjocks got involved teaching these classes, the number of fatalities, even injuries, drops by over fifty percent. We’ve had a seventy percent drop in West LA. That’s hundreds of people a year not killed or injured. It adds to the workload in one way, but most of our motorcycle officers are teaching the classes now. It’s made a difference, and I’d rather teach than scrape kids off the pavement.”

“Do you want that cape to hang below the knee, or just above?”

He laughed. “You decide.”

“I already tried, and look where that got me.”

“In my business, stereotypes and labels get you in deep shit – in a hurry. Everyone’s a threat until proven otherwise.”

“What about me?” she said, looking him in the eye. “Am I a threat?”

He looked at her for a long minute. “Your eyes are honest. So are your hands. You don’t trust men easily, and haven’t figured out yet if you can trust me or not. You’re lonely, and wondering if you’ll always be alone, but you don’t take people for granted, either.”

“Okay, you can read me like a book. So, why can’t I read you?”

“Because you’re trying to read me the same way you read your patients. You’re trying to, well, stick labels on me. It’s not working because you work day in and day out with broken people, and you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be around people who’ve got life dialed-in, people who are happy with themselves and not looking for other answers – ‘out there.’”

She nodded her head, looked down at her hands. “Okay,” she said softly. “I give.”

“None of which means a thing to me, Carol. You’re cute, you’re sweet, and I enjoyed talking with you last night. A lot, as a matter of fact.”

She looked up at him, nodded her head. “I did too. More than you know.”

“Okay, so where do you want to go from here?”

“Do you want to ‘go’ somewhere, Ted? With me?”

“I wouldn’t mind getting to know you, Carol, but maybe take it one step at a time. Who knows where? Okay?”

“I think I’d like that.”

Dinner came and they ate in silence, yet she kept trying to come to terms with him, and what she’d just learned about herself. She’d stuck her foot in her mouth but he’d let her off the hook, gently, then helped her recover and given her a way – not a way out – but a path forward. He was the real deal, she thought, the kind of guy she’d been looking for, and for a long time, too. She wondered how old he was…

He asked for tea, asked if she wanted some and when she said “sure” – he smiled then they sat and talked for another hour. About school, about life with his wife, about her death – the small stuff and the big things that had led them to the here and now, to dinner at this table, then he paid for the meal and stood, helped her up. Once out on the sidewalk he looked at his wristwatch, then up at the moon. He shook his head as he looked up at the milky, light polluted sky.

“What’s up?”

“Full moon. It’s going to be a busy night.”

“Could we walk for a while?” she asked.

“Sure. Where to?”

“Your place, maybe?”

He took her hand and they walked up to the light and crossed 3rd, then up La Jolla to his house. She looked at it and almost gasped; you didn’t buy a house like this in West LA without some real money, and cops didn’t make real money. Now she was beyond curious, yet she held her tongue again, until she got inside, anyway.

“Holy Fuck!” she cried. “This is nuts!” She walked around the living room, looking at the art on the walls, the furniture. All Mission style, not cheap knock-offs, either, just like this bungalow. It was the real deal; not simply well preserved, it was immaculate, a work of art.

“What?”

“This place, it’s just gorgeous.”

“When Sandy and I bought it…well, you should have seen it then. It was falling apart at the seams. I had this old pickup with a camper on it, and we slept out in the driveway for two years while we rebuilt it. Restored the garage first, turned that into a workshop, then I started in on the house.” He pointed to a stack of magazines. “Those became my bible. American Bungalow magazine, my idea storehouse; I built what I liked straight out of those.”

“God…the wood…what is it? Cherry?”

“Most of it, yeah. Some oak around the fireplace, and here,” he paused and led her in deeper into the house, “in the kitchen.”

“You built all this?” she said as she stifled another gasp.

“Yup. Follow me.” He led her from the kitchen down a long hall, but the hallway was a library, both side lined with cabinets under and continuous bookshelves above, and from there he led her into his bedroom.

She did gasp this time. The room was pure Japanese, austere, almost monastic in it’s purity, and it looked out on a small Japanese garden. “This is too much, Ted. It’s not simply perfect, it’s…I don’t know…it’s like you took the idea of “home” and crafted it into a reality few people can understand, let alone appreciate.”

“We could never find anything we liked. The only way forward was to dream it to life, then get to work and make it happen.”

“Now I understand the pickup truck…”

“Just another tool, Carol. Not some macho bullshit.”

She nodded her head, walked around the house while he pointed out things he’d made, pieces of furniture they found here and vases they’d found there, every thing told a story, a story about his life with Sandy. Yet even that story was odd, too. She’d abandoned him, this house, all these memories – and for what? Did his story add up, or what had she missed? And what was he leaving out…

“It’s almost midnight,” he said. “Just so you know, that phone is going to ring a minute before, and I’m going to have to leave.”

“I hate to ask, but is that what came between you and Sandy?”

“Maybe ten years ago that would have been true,” he sighed. “But the real truth is a whole lot more complicated. And she was as attached to her work as I am to mine. It was always that way, but more so the last, well, for several years.”

“What did she do?”

“She was a producer over a CBS, in the news bureau. It was 24/7/365, always working on stories, getting them on air, fighting budget cuts and managing egos. She loved it, by the way.” He went to his closet and pulled out his uniform, then his boots…tall riding boots that went up to the knee. He slapped some black polish on them and buffed them out, then pulled a pistol out a locked drawer and slid the thing into it’s holster.

“Geez, it’s hard to reconcile all the facets of your life,” she said, looking at this house, thinking about him out on the boat earlier that morning, and now this…the blue uniform, the boots and the gun.

“All those labels get in the way, don’t they?”

“They sure do, with you, anyway.”

His land-line phone rang and he picked it up, started writing on a notepad. “Okay, I’ll check into service here and head on out in about five minutes,” he said, hanging up the phone. “Well, that’s that.”

“The story of your life, huh?”

He grinned as he pulled on his boots, then he put on what he called his Sam Brown belt and secured it to another belt under. “Come on,” he said as he walked out the house to his garage. He opened the door and she saw the truck, and a police motorcycle beside it. He started the motor and pulled the bike into the driveway, turned on the radio and checked into service.

“I’d prefer you don’t walk home just now,” he said, looking down at his watch. “Just crash here. I ought to be back around seven or so. We can grab some breakfast then, if you like.”

“It’s only a couple of blocks…” she said, but she watched him shake his head.

“Look, even I don’t go out for a walk around here this time of night. I’d feel better, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Hit the alarm button just inside the door, on your right, then enter your name. If you have to leave for some reason, same thing. Hit the Leave button, then your name, and you’ll have thirty seconds to get out.” He pulled a key out of his pocket. “This is for you,” he said, then he pointed at the side door. “For that door only, okay?”

“You do think ahead, don’t you?”

“I find habits that keep me alive and stick to them. Not a bad thing, all in all. Now go inside, would you. I want to make sure you’re safe.”

She looked at him then, not quite knowing what to make of this suddenly overbearing cop. “Yeah, okay. I’ll see you in a few…”

When she closed the door behind him, she heard him take off – into the night – and then she shook her head, starting walking around the house again.

+++++

He rode up the 405 and got off on Mulholland, then turned west and found the wreck just a few hundred yards up the road. Firetrucks, ambulances, dozens of people still on the scene, waiting for him. Right in the middle of the intersection, Mulholland at Walt Disney, a teacher coming out of the little gated school, waiting at the light. The light turned, according to witnesses, and she pulled out into the intersection, then they saw this yellow car coming down hill “really fast” and it just plowed right into the teacher’s car. He walked around the scene with the first patrolman on the scene, a young girl with a snarky attitude. Probably her second year on the street, he thought, just when the first signs of burnout hit, and hit hard. Her marriage probably on the rocks as life on the street began to crush the life out of it, already bitter, all her idealism spent dealing with the garbage she had to handle night after night out here.

“What was the first thing you saw out here, when you first pulled up.”

“Sir?”

“What was your first impression?”

“Fucking waste of a Ferrari, sir.”

He laughed. “Okay, granted. What about the scene?”

“The skid marks, I guess.”

“Yeah? But this car has ABS and traction control. How do you explain that?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Driver overpowered the system, it couldn’t compensate. See the weird scuffing pattern of those tire marks?”

“Yessir?”

“He jerked for some reason, right there, launched the car into a four wheel drift. He didn’t have the stones to get it back under control, best guess. Or he was drunk.” He walked over to the Ferrari, according to the printout the girl handed him it was a 2016 Ferrari 488 GTB, probably one of the first to be registered in the country, then he looked at the name on the registration. “Fuck…is it him?”

“Can’t tell, sir, bodies are burned beyond recognition.”

“Anyone been up to the house?”

“No sir. Sergeant said…”

“I know, leave notifications to the Accident Investigator.”

“Yessir.”

He walked over to the driver’s door; firemen had pried it open enough to ascertain the driver was dead, his passenger too, then they had stopped what they were doing and waited for the AI to show up. He pushed the door open and bent close to the driver’s body. The girl had been thrown around by the impact but the driver’s pants were askew, the zipper down. He pulled out his SureFire and lit the scene with it’s powerful beam, and using a pencil he pulled the fly open. The man’s penis was gone, a slight trickle of blood still oozing from the stump.

“Anyone else been in here?” he asked. “Anyone else seen these bodies?”

“The firemen and paramedics.”

“Get ‘em over here. Now.”

“Yessir.”

He walked around to the girl; her face was badly burned, a few teeth missing too, then he shined the light into her mouth, saw the stump end the driver’s penis lodged in her throat and he stood up and turned away. There were a bunch of Fire Department jocks standing around looking at him by that time.

“Anyone see the driver? Up close?”

He heard a chorus of “Nope” “No, sir” and “Uh-uh” from them.

“How ‘bout the girl? Anything unusual? I don’t want to read any bullshit in the papers tomorrow. Am I clear? Spill it now if you have?”

Same thing. No one had seen a thing. “Okay, name and number to the patrolman here, including what you saw and what you did, and who was working with you here when you did it. Are we missing anyone?”

“No, sir. Everyone’s here.”

He turned and walked back to the bike; got an evidence bag and a hemostat, then his camera, an old EOS 1Ds with a data verification kit installed, and with a 50mm/f1.2L mounted on it. He slid the flash on and powered it up, then walked back to the scene.

“What’s your name?”

“Me, sir?” the patrolman said.

He looked skyward, shook his head. “Yes. You.”

“Simpson, sir. Luanda Simpson.”

“Been out here long?”

“No sir, ‘bout a year.” She was looking at the service stripes and commendations on his uniform, wondering if everything she’d heard about this guy was true. Ted Sherman was a legend, one of the most decorated veterans in the department, and she remembered his class in academy – the one on basic accident investigations – was one of her favorites.

“I think I remember you from academy. A couple of years ago, right?”

“Yessir. I thought your week was the best. I’d like to get into traffic someday.”

“Yeah?” He bent over the driver’s crouch with the camera and fired off a few shots. “Okay, I need you to lean over from that side and hold his zipper open.”

“Sir?”

“His dick’s gone, Lu. It’s lodged in her throat.”

“Oh, fuck,” she whispered.

“Lu, this one’s not just a wreck. Got it? This one’s politics. Might be the son of a former president involved, and that might not be his wife. Understand? We’ll be caught under a steamroller if either you or I make a mistake out here. Am I making myself crystal clear?”

“Yes, sir.” She leaned across the passenger seat and held the fly open, then he shot off a few more of the area around the wound.

He walked around to the passenger seat and tried to get a few shots inside her mouth, but he needed a macro lens for that and instead had her take the stump in the hemostat and pull it free of the mouth about an inch, then he took more images. “Okay, push it back down,” he said.

“Sir?”

“I think I want the ME’s office to take possession that.”

“If you don’t mind, officer, I think I should take possession of that.”

He turned around, looked at the black suit and the earpiece. “Need to see your ID, sir, if you don’t mind.”

“I do mind,” the man said.

“Fine. Get out of my crime scene, right now.”

“This is my…”

“What? This guy was yours, and you blew it? Last chance, Paco. Get out of my crime scene or you’re going downtown.”

“Try it…”

Sherman pulled his Sig and stuck it in the guys face. “Hands on the side of the car, now. Feet back and spread ‘em.”

“You are so going down.”

“And you’re a stupid mother fucker,” Sherman hissed. “Simpson, cuff him and get a unit to transport this man to County. Charge, interfering with a crime scene, attempting to coerce and official obstruction.”

“Yes, sir!”

Simpson cuffed the man, and then he began to change his tune. “Look, man, I’m sorry, maybe we could try this again…”

“Tell it to the sergeant at book-in. I’m sure he’ll be real attentive to your needs.” A patrol car pulled up and Simpson stuffed the guy in the rear seat and shut the door while he went around and told the transporting officer what was up.

“Get his supervisor’s name and number, get it to me out here before you book him.”

“Geez, is he Secret Service?”

“I have no fucking idea. I asked for ID and he told me to take a hike. He could be Jack the fuckin’ ripper, for all I know. Take an officer with you ‘til he’s booked-in, and give him a Miranda right now, then tell him to keep his fucking mouth shut ‘til he gets his phone call.”

They took off and he walked to his bike, picked up the radio’s mic and called in. “841.”

“841, go ahead.”

“841, I’ll need a watch commander this location, tell ‘em code two. I need a major crime scene unit here, and the senior medical examiner on duty, and I need ‘em right right here, right now.”

“841, at 0114 hrs.”

He walked back to the Ferrari, and over to Simpson. “No one touches this car or the people inside without my permission. If they try, warn ‘em once. Second warning they’re heading to the ME with your bullet in their face. Got it?”

“Yes, sir!”

He walked over to the other car and looked at the woman inside. Her body had literally been pulverized, her death instantaneous. He took more images, then back-tracked up the road shooting angles and skid marks, then he watched the traffic signals cycle through, timing the sequence before he walked back down to the Ferrari. Then he saw a van with a satellite dish on top pull around the traffic barricades and drive up to the scene; he walked right at it, the driver honking at him, yelling at him to get out of the way, just stopping in time to avoid running him over, but the front bumper knocking him in the knees.

Sherman walked up to the driver’s door and opened it, grabbed the driver by the shoulders and pulled him out, threw him face down on the pavement. He grabbed the guy’s right hand and cuffed it, then his left.

The reporter with him was screaming, telling him to stop…

“Did you tell this man to cross the barricades down there?”

“I did, but…”

“On the ground, Ma’am. Hands behind your back…”

“What? Listen…”

He pushed her down and zip-tied her hands and called for a transport unit, then checked the van for other people. He found a cameraman in the back and told him to get out and and lay down by his co-workers, then he zip-tied this one’s hands too.

“Who’s manning that barricade?” he called out, and an old veteran walked over. “Why did this happen? Why are these people up here, and who the fuck are you?”

“What?”

“This is a major incident scene. Did you let these people through?”

The man looked at Sherman’s name tag. “Uh, no sir.”

“How’d they get through?”

“I was helping a paramedic unit back out into traffic.”

“Okay.” He seethed, shook his head. “Move their van down to the parking lot,” he said, pointing, “and make sure both ends of this scene are secure. I mean SECURE. Call for more units if you need ‘em.”

“Yes, sir.”

He watched as the news crew was loaded into squad cars; he read off the charges to the transporting officers then walked back up the hill to the Ferrari. A parade of police units exited from the 405 and he watched as they made their way up the hill, and as they were challenged by the old veteran down at the barricades. The first car up was a Watch Commander’s Suburban, and he watched as Ellie Kingman got out and walked over.

“Situation?” she said.

“MVA, driver was, I think, President Smithfield’s eldest son, younger woman his passenger. His penis is in her mouth. Someone acting like Secret Service tried to interfere, didn’t produce ID when asked. He’s on his way downtown now, as is a news crew that busted through our barricade.”

“Okay. What do you need?”

“Crime scene and ME are on the way, but I need an airtight seal here, zero press while we get the job done. I need CID to get prints on all three people, and I want to know who that girl in the Ferrari is before I go up to the Smithfield house.”

“Who’s in charge here?” Kingman asked.

“I think I’m senior on the scene right now. You wanna take it? It’s gonna be heavy, could be a lot of fallout.”

She looked at him. “No problem. Yeah, I’ll take it.”

“Oh, Simpson over there?”

“Yeah, what about her?”

“A nice ‘attaboy’ in her in-box. She one of yours?”

She nodded, looked at him. “Wants to be in traffic.”

“She told me.”

“What do you think?”

“Another year she might be ready. Seemed a little burned out when I got here.”

“She needs to put in the time.”

He looked at the girl. Very few African-American females lasted out here, the institutional racism on the force was hard to ignore, but he also knew what these kids were up against. Kingman did too, on a more personal level. She was one of the first black Watch Commander’s in the department, and Sherman liked her. More importantly, she liked him, too, and knew she’d have his back on this one.

“Tell you what…why don’t you detach her from patrol for a few weeks. We’ll work traffic from a Suburban, I’ll watch her, give you a report, let you know if she’s ready.”

She smiled at him. “Thanks, Ted. I’ll take over now, you get to work.”

“Thanks, Captain.”

She smiled again, then turned and started chewing on the nearest patrolman she could sink her teeth into…while he walked up the hill, knowing none of it would ever happen.

+++++

The sun was coming up when he drove out Mulholland, this time with a Secret Service escort, and they led him to the Smithfield residence. Smithfield had served one term as governor of the state, and half a term as President before resigning, ostensibly for medical reasons, and he lived up here now, on a mountaintop looking out over the Pacific.

The old man was standing in front of his house as they drove up, still in a bathrobe and slippers, with a much younger Mrs Smithfield by his side. The President walked over and shook Sherman’s hand after he got off his bike.

“Let’s go inside, officer. Lot’s of drones fly over these days…no such thing as privacy anymore, I hear.”

“Yes sir.”

They walked to a huge study, the book-lined room wall to wall glass looking out over the Pacific. It was a room designed to impress, to awe, but Sherman wasn’t in the least impressed by this man. He was as corrupt a politician as any this country had ever produced, and he wanted to get this over with as soon as possible – keeping in mind the loss this man had to face now. It was his job to inform, to soften the blow if he could, and he was the one with the responsibility.

“I hear you had a few problems with one of my detail.”

“Yessir.”

“He’s being sent back to Washington for reassignment. Now, what do you know?”

“Sir, my investigation isn’t complete, but I am here to inform you that your son…”

“Is dead. Yes, I know that. Who was with him.”

“Sir…”

“Officer, please note, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you to tell me. I can make a world of shit roll down on you, so don’t waste my time, or yours.”

“I don’t have confirmation of her identity, but, well…” – he leaned over and put a copy of the woman license on his desk.

The old man picked it up and looked it over, then whistled. “Damn. She used to be one hell of an actress. So, what do you think happened?”

“You want it straight, or sugar-coated, sir?”

The old man looked up at him, his eyes now sharp as laser beams. “The report I read on you doesn’t do you justice, son. Give it to me straight and on the level, both barrels.”

“Her mouth, sir. His penis was lodged in her mouth. Best guess is he was doing about a hundred and forty when he popped his cork and lost control.”

The old man leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling, then he started laughing. “By God, when I go out I hope I have as much luck! A hundred and forty, you say?”

“Thereabouts, sir. That’s a rough calculation at the scene. I’ll refine that in my final report.”

”Any papers, documents or drives in the car?”

”No sir.”

“Anyone else hurt?”

“A woman, sir, also dead when officers arrived. A teacher at the Curtis School.”

“Damn. Any press?”

“A KTLA news crew blew our barricade. They were booked into County around 0300.”

“No shit? Well, damn it all, son, good for you. Someone with balls.” He sighed then, turned and looked out to sea. “Well, there’ll be hell to pay for fucking with the press. I’ll see what I can do to run some interference for you.”

“Thank you, sir. Anything else you need, here’s my card.”

The old man turned and took it. “Thanks, son. I appreciate your concern, and the job you did out there. Must be tough.” He sighed, wiped his eyes then walked to the glass, looked out at the sunrise. “Think you can find your way out?”

“Yessir.” He turned and left, his wife and a Secret Service agent met him by the entryway and walked him back out to his bike, the hostility in the agent’s eyes lingering, and fierce.

“It was his son then?” the woman asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. Justin.”

“How’d he take it?”

“I don’t know, Ma’am.”

She shook her head. “He’s not always good at showing his feelings, you know?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Here’s my card. If there’s anything I can do to help, just give me a call.”

She took his hand. “Bless you,” she said, and he looked away, closed his eyes to shut off the burning.

When she was well-away from the bike he started the motor and checked into service, then rode back down the private drive to Mulholland, a black Suburban a few hundred yards behind. Once he hit the pavement he accelerated away from them, seeing what they would do, but he didn’t see them again and rolled off the throttle. By the time he passed the accident scene a few minutes later all the glass and metal had been swept away – and it was as if nothing had happened there just a few hours earlier. Life had passed from three people’s brief existence, and the world had hardly blinked in their passing. Now an endless stream of cars passed over the spot on earth where time stopped, for them at least.

He took the 405 down to Sunset and went east to La Cienega and eventually pulled into his garage. He picked up his notes and the camera and went inside, put all the information in a locked drawer and walked quietly into the bedroom. Carol was on her side, eyes closed and mouth open, still dead to the world. He dumped his under clothes in the laundry basket and hung his uniform up to air out, then sniffed his bullet-proof vest. His nose wrinkled and he pulled the kevlar panels out of the liner and threw that in the hamper too, then carried the load to his washer and dumped it in. Once the load was running he went to the shower and stepped in, letting the warmth penetrate his neck and shoulders while he decompressed.

After he dried off he went to the bed and lay down beside Carol, and she woke with a start when she felt him beside her. She turned and faced him, saw his bare chest and lifted the sheets, took in his nakedness and smiled. Without saying a word she went under the sheets and took him in her mouth, and when he was ready she mounted him, began moving over him while he looked up into her eyes.

It didn’t last long, this first union, and she collapsed onto him, her breath ragged and spent.

“Good morning,” she said at last. “That was some breakfast. What time is it, by the way?”

“A little after seven, I think.”

“Rough night?”

He nodded his head. “Yup. Beyond bad.”

“And you can’t talk about it, right?”

“Right.”

“I can’t tell you how good this feels,” she said as she moved on him – with him still just inside.

“It is nice. I saw you laying there and smiled inside. You feel very comfortable to me.”

She looked at him long and hard then. “You’re not a ‘one night stand’ kind of guy, are you?”

“Never thought much of that. Seems more about power and conquest than sharing. Or about love.”

“You are different,” she sighed. “Not sure I’ve ever run across anyone quite like you before.”

“God, I hope not. Coming from a shrink, that wouldn’t exactly be a ringing endorsement.”

“Shrink, huh. Well, shall I call you a cop?”

“Better than ‘pig,’ I guess.”

“I never liked that one. A little too much disrespect for me.”

“More than a few of us have earned the name recently, from what I’ve seen on TV, anyway. But this ain’t Alabama, I guess. So, breakfast?”

“Have anything here?” she asked.

“Bagels, lox, cream cheese, that sort of thing.”

“You’re not Jewish, are you?”

“Non-Practicing agnostic, formerly of the Lutheran persuasion.”

“And you keep bagels and lox around? What gives?”

“Sandy’s mom was Jewish, her father was English, C of E. Devout, hard core Christian.”

“You two didn’t get along, I take it?”

“Oh, no, I liked the guy. Very literate. Enjoyed our conversations – very much, as a matter of fact.”

“What was her mother like?”

“Brilliant musician. Sexy as hell, but a troubled soul.”

“Troubled?”

“Alcohol, sedatives. Very high strung, insecure about her looks.”

“What did she play?”

“Piano, for the most part, but viola – for the Philharmonic.”

“Wow…here in LA?”

“Yup. She also played clubs, jazz mainly. She had one hell of a voice. There’re a few pictures of her in the living room.”

“Sexy, you said?”

“She was a knockout.”

“And?”

“She came on to everyone, drove Ben out of his mind.”

“Everyone? You too, I take it?”

“Once, in front of the whole family. Drunk, trying to get Ben riled up.”

“Did it work?”

He shook his head. “Not a night I’d like to remember.”

“Have they passed?”

“Ben did, years ago. Sydney lives out near Pasadena, in a home there.”

“Did you see her, after Sandy passed?”

“Nope, she couldn’t, well…”

“Couldn’t?”

“Dementia. I’m not sure she knows what planet she’s on these days.”

“What about your parents?”

“My mom and sisters are up in Seattle.”

“That’s where you’re from? All of you?”

“Yup. Dad was a pilot in the war, then worked for Boeing after, on the 707 and 747 programs. An engineer, but he smoked a lot.”

“Cancer?”

“Yeah, a squamous cell carcinoma, in the gums. It spread to his tongue and the bone in his jaw, then went into the spine and it was off to the races after that. Painful, hard to watch.”

“I’ve never been up to Seattle. Is it as pretty as everyone says?”

“I’m supposed to say no, but that would be a lie. It’s gorgeous, not nearly as rainy as you think it is, and the Cascades are as pretty is any mountain range in Europe.”

“So, why LA? Sandy?”

“Yup. This was where she wanted to raise her kids.”

“That didn’t happen?”

“Ovarian cancer when we were still, well, when we were starting out.”

“Did you want kids?”

“I think it would have been fun, but I’d have rather lived on a farm up north than try that down here.”

“A farm?”

“Yup…I always wanted to raise dairy cows. I think in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what I would have done.”

“So? Why don’t you do that now?”

“Because I’m a cop. Through and through – it’s what I am now.”

“And that’s it? That’s all there is?”

“It’s who I am, Carol. That life shaped me into what you see.”

“Crime shaped you?”

He chuckled. “In a way, I guess. Helping people, helping them through the consequences of crime, maybe, that’s how I’d put that. But it’s more than that.”

“You almost make it sound like a noble endeavor.”

“When you understand the job, what it really takes to do it well, you begin to understand human dignity through that lens, and human depravity too, in all it’s disguises. And ugliness. But yes, I guess there is a bit of ‘noble’ in the things we do.”

“There seems to be so much racism out there these days…”

“I got shot once,” he said as he rolled over, pointing to a puckered scar just below his left kidney, “and I almost bled out before they got me to County-SC. I think they transfused four pints into me. Most of the blood they get down there comes from the homeless on skid-row, mainly blacks. Their blood is the same as mine. The nurses that took care of me down there were all black, and the care and knowledge they gave me, that they shared with me, was as good as any I’ve had anywhere else. I know racism exists, but I think that’s the least noble thing there is about the human race. I wish we could move beyond it all.”

“Did you ever see the movie Bulworth?”

“Hell yes. One of the best ever made, but that’s Beatty. He’s a class act.”

“You know him?”

“In passing, once or twice.”

“You meet a lot of interesting people out there?”

He laughed, thought about Smithfield this morning, and that Simpson kid. “Well, look, I’ve got to finish my report today, and do some chores too. So, breakfast?”

“Could we go over to the Farmer’s Market? There’s a place where I like to get breakfast on Sundays.”

“Yeah, sure. Sounds good.”

“And I’d like to stay with you today. I won’t be a bother, and I can help with the…”

“That would be nice.”

+++++

They sat at the counter in a little diner and drank fresh squeezed orange juice with their Eggs Benedict, and the more she talked the easier it became for him to listen, the more he enjoyed her company. She was effervescent, like champagne tickling his nose, while she talked about growing up back east, her narcissist sisters, then about the radical fringes at Brown and all the racial tension in Philly. She avoided almost all talk of work – aside from the barbarity imposed on people by insurance companies – and their endless bureaucracies.

It turned out she was fourteen years younger than he, and that she’d recently had it in mind to maybe try and have a kid, “but all this stuff about climate change and resource depletion has me thinking that’s a selfish course of action…”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, who wants to bring a kid into that kind of world?” she said.

“I think people were saying that in the 60s, about the bomb. And in the 30s, about the depression, and Hitler. The world’s always been a fucked up place, but somehow life goes on. Having kids is a part of the process.”

“Yeah, but these days they’re talking about life not going on, about the climate changing so fast it won’t sustain life. Not as we know it now, anyway…”

He shrugged. “Yeah, maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t, but if all the thinking people simply stop procreating? Then what? Who’s going to think our way out of all these problems?”

“I was watching a report last week, some real cheery stuff about depleted water resources and ocean acidification, and sometime in this century, for life to go on, the population is going to have to drop to like a billion or so. If there are ten billion people by then, that means each and every one of us is going to have to bury nine people… Can you imagine such a world?”

“No, but who can? I doubt we’ll need to, anyway.”

“I’m beginning to see more and more patients who are being consumed with these thoughts. I’m not talking about bus drivers and waitresses, Ted, I’m talking researchers at UCLA and NASA. If it was once a week I’d shrug it off, but sometimes I hear this a couple of times a day, from otherwise pretty well-adjusted people who are getting scared…”

“Thank god for Zoloft, huh?”

“Nope. Drugs work for biochemical imbalances within the brain…maybe…sometimes. They can’t do much for situational depression, unless an imbalance underlies the depression. That’s simply not the case with most of these folks. They’re scared, and they’re worried. The one common denominator is they think it’s happening a lot faster than anyone ever expected.”

“Okay. So?”

“Do you worry about it?”

“What? Climate change?”

“Yes!”

“I hate to fall back on clichés, but try this one on for size. Worry about the things you can change, and forget about the stuff you can’t.”

“Isn’t that just simple-minded denial. I mean…”

“I know what you mean. If society falls down around our ears, well, that’s that. The strong will pick up the pieces and carry on, the weak will be swept aside. It’s always been that way, and I guess that’s the way it will be when, or IF that happens.”

“So many of the people I talk to simply can’t face that prospect. If civilization falls, they’ll fall too.”

“Okay. Are you going to be able to change that? Can you make a difference?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if I buy into all of this stuff…”

“Well, my guess is simply this. By the time we know one way or the other, if collapse seems likely it will be too late to do anything about it. People with the emotional wherewithal will get it together and do what they can do to survive. The rest won’t. Personally, I’d rather to get on with living, whatever the circumstance.”

“Goddamn, I’ve heard there are people out here like you, but you’re the first one I’ve met.”

“People like me?”

“Builders. Doers. Optimists. Just not with your kind of eternal optimism.”

“Carol, you listen to people day in and day out with overwhelming emotional problems, and you help them figure out a way through the maze they’ve created for themselves. I deal with people day in and day out who are struggling through horrible, even savage emotional crises, only they don’t have someone like you with them in their corner, helping them fight their way back to the light. Personally, I’m glad you’re out there. In the end, you’re going to do a lot more good than harm.”

She was staring at him as he spoke, looking at his lips as they moved, and she felt herself struggling, fighting to hold back the tears. “Well, goddamn,” she said at last. “Bang, just like that…I’m sorry, but I just totally fell in love with you.”

He laughed a little, then looked at the look in her eyes. “Oh?”

“Yup. Totally. And I’m not kidding, either.”

“Why would you be kidding?”

She shook her head slowly, bit her lower lip. “I think it hit me out there on that boat Friday night. I mean, in the classroom I was simply drooling when I looked at you…”

He grinned, chuckled at that…

“But the ethic, the real life ethic I see in your house, the work you do out there on the street, then, well, that you get me. You really get life, don’t you?”

He shrugged…

“AND…you think I’m cute. I’m just as sorry as I can be, Ted, but you just turned my world upside down.”

He reached across the table and took her hand. “Nothing to be sorry about,” he sighed. “I’m having the best time with you…the best I’ve felt in years, really.”

“And you’ve got to get home and get to work, don’t you?”

“I need about four hours of desk time, finish up my laundry, do a little housework.”

“And I’ll start on that red cape.”

“Please do. Make mine extra long. You need anything from your place?”

She shook her head. “I’ll go home in the morning, if that’s alright with you.”

“Okay.” He looked at the bill and pulled out some money.

“We’re going dutch, okay?”

“Nope. I got this one, you get the next one. Works out in the end that way, and besides, I don’t like all that ‘accountant at the table’ routine.”

“Damn. Where have you been all my life…?”

“Out on the 405, waiting to write your ass a speeding ticket.”

She burst out laughing as he stood and she took his hand. “I’ve gotten a few, too.”

His work phone chirped and he sat back down, opened the connection: “Sherman.”

“Ted? Grover Smithfield, got a minute?”

“Yes Mr President.” He saw Carol’s eyes go wide at that. “What can I do for you?”

“Are you working on the report yet?”

“Breakfast right now, sir. But I’ll be on it all afternoon.”

“Mind if I come over and look it over this afternoon? Say around five?”

“Can’t really do that, sir. Not our protocol.”

“Understood. You talk to Kingman, have her call me when she’s done with you. I’ll see you at five, your place.”

The connection broke, and he looked down at his phone and scrunched up his nose.

“The President?” Carol asked.

“Smithfield.”

“Ugh. What a creep.”

He nodded while he hit Kingman’s number, and listened to it ring until she picked up.

“Sherman?”

“Captain?”

“Cooperate. That comes direct, from the chief.”

“He wants you to call him.”

“Will do. You send the file to the main server, and a copy to me before he gets there. Got it?”

“Yes Captain.”

“Ted, watch your six, just don’t let him bully you. That’s his MO, according to the chief.”

“I’ve seen him on TV.”

“Yeah… Bye.”

He put the phone away. “Playtime’s over. I’ve got to get to work.”

She saw the expression on his face and decided against saying anything until they got to his truck. “Man, I hate to say this, but I love this thing,” she said as she climbed up into the seat. “It’s like a Cadillac that ate a bucket of testosterone for breakfast.”

He laughed at that one. “Yup. That about sizes her up,” he said as he slipped behind the wheel.

“And that moonroof! It’s like stadium sized!”

“Want me to try the ejector seat now?”

When they got to the house he check tire pressures on the bike and plugged the battery charger into the socket, then went inside and straight to his desk. After his computer opened he plugged the EOS into it and pulled the images, then placed them into the report template. He went through the forms one by one, filled each out carefully, wrote out the narratives and supplemental reports, then he opened up a specialized spreadsheet program and began entering vehicle and environmental data, then skid-marks and all the displacement vectors he’d noted on his field diagram.

He whistled. 147 miles per hour, in a 35 zone. He formatted the information and put it into the primary report, then filed it on the main department server. No transmission errors, so he sent a copy to Kingman’s departmental email account. Again, no errors, and a minute later she called.

“Okay. Got it. I’m printing a copy and putting it in my safe.”

“Understood.”

She was gone, and he knew she didn’t have a safe, so it was going to an agreed upon file in records. Too many people were buying access to the department these days, and there was no telling what files might be scrubbed, or by whom. He burned copies to multiple flash drives and sealed them, then put them in his special places.

4:30 chimed on his phone; he shut the alarm, went to the kitchen and got a Diet Dr Pepper, then went to the bedroom.

“Smithfield will be here at five. You want to hang around back here, go to dinner after?”

“I feel like sushi.”

He leaned close, took a sniff: “Funny…you don’t smell like sushi?”

She snorted a laugh while shaking her head. “Goddamn, Sherman. You are quick.”

“Gotta place in mind?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Is that my shirt?” he said as he looked at her gray polo shirt.

“It’s not too big, is it?”

“Not really. It’ll sure cut down on clothing costs,” he chuckled.

“Don’t worry, I’ll more than make up for it with shoes. I must have fifty pair in my closet.”

“I suppose they’re all nice and practical?”

“Nope. Sky high heels. When you’re five foot one, every little bit helps.”

“Until your feet are ruined, anyway.”

“There is that.”

The doorbell rang. “Okay, shut the door. I’ll see you in a few.”

Smithfield came in with his Secret Service detail and another man, a lawyer, Sherman guessed.

“Finished up, son?”

“Yessir,” Sherman said, handing the old man a complete copy of his report.

“You got pictures of the, uh, the wound, and the missing…?”

“Not in the primary report, sir. Those are in a supplement that can not be released without a FOIA request. I’ve included a copy there for your team to go over.”

Smithfield and his lawyer exchanged looks, then the old man turned back to Sherman. “What about nature of the act itself. Is that in the report?”

“I didn’t witness the act sir. Such speculative information is always in the supplemental report. That could, however, still come out in a civil trial.”

“Oh, it will, it will. Well, I was most concerned about those two things, but I see you’ve handled the matter with discretion.”

“Standard operating procedure, Mr President. We’re not in the humiliation business…I just try to get to the truth of the matter.”

“Well, I appreciate the way you’ve handled this whole thing. From this, to the way you dealt with the press out there at the scene. I’ve let your chief know, as well. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, you just let me know. Okay?” The old man held out his hand and Sherman took it.

“Thank you, Mr President.”

His team walked him out to the motorcade, yet his lawyer remained behind.

“Chief said you’re the best they’ve got. I’m inclined to agree.” The man handed him a card. “This is your ‘get out of jail for free’ card, Sherman. The old man wasn’t just greasing the skids. You need help, you call me at this number, day or night, doesn’t matter. The cavalry will come. Got it?”

“Yessir. Thank you, sir.”

The man turned and left the house, and Sherman let out a long sigh as he turned and went back to the bedroom.

“Jesus H Christ,” Carol said as he came into the room. “I heard every word…that was some heavy attitude coming down in there.”

“How far away is this sushi place?”

“Close. Century City.”

“Let’s go. I want to be in bed by eight.”

“Right. Can you drive? Your hands are shaking…”

“I’m tired. I mean a wasted kind of tired.”

“I’ll drive, then.”

He handed her the keys. “No argument from me.”

She smiled, accepting his trust, wanting to live up to it as they walked out to the Ford, and she drove easily up to Santa Monica and on to Century City. They were early enough to get a parking place, but not early enough to avoid a wait, but it was a short one and they were seated after only a few minutes…

A harried waitress came by, took their orders for mineral water and sliced lime and left on the run, leaving them to look at glossy pictures of raw fish.

“Feeling adventurous?” she asked.

“Sort of. Nothing with tentacles, or liver, and I try to keep an eye on the mercury level.”

She laughed. “Got it. Mind if I order for both of us?”

He pushed his menu over to her. “It’s all you, kiddo. I’m a salmon fanatic, though. Just so you know.”

“Me too.”

“I hear wedding bells in our future,” he grinned.

“Do you?”

“I’m tired, and I know I’m going to regret saying this, but I feel so comfortable right now it’s driving me silly.”

“Hey, Vegas is only a five hour drive away!” she said, grinning.

“Now there’s something to think about.”

“You know, this is entirely too easy. Falling in love isn’t supposed to be like this, especially for a Jewish chick…we need lots more guilt and drama. Know what I mean?”

“I could have a nervous breakdown, roll around on the floor and pull out my weenie? Would that help?”

She shook her head. “No, that’s my job. You’re supposed to sit there like Billy Crystal. You know, When Harry Met Sally, when she gets off in the deli?”

“If you do that to me tonight I’ll will have a nervous breakdown, and I will roll around on the floor.”

“Okay…okay…let me put my vibrator back in my purse.”

“Did you bring a purse? I missed that.”

“I don’t own one.”

“What? Fifty pairs of shoes and not even one purse? What gives.”

“They’re nasty. Every female patient I have brings one in. They’re loaded with used tissues and full of filthy, rancid crap. You could start a plague with what’s in your typical purse. The idea of sticking my hand in one gives me the creeps.”

“Now I know I love you.”

She ordered and he didn’t pay attention; he leaned back and closed his eyes, tried to get the image of Smithfield’s penis out of his mind’s eye, the way it came out in the hemostat, the flesh a mottled purple, her mouth…

“Gah…!” He said, sitting bolt upright.

“What is it…? I thought you were falling asleep…”

“Oh, just something from last night, an image I can’t get out of my mind.”

She nodded. “If you ever want to talk about these things…?”

“No. I never want to. I’d like to push them out of my mind…forever…”

“So, Stanford? History? Tell me about that?”

“I did my undergrad there, then went into the Navy…”

“Oh? I don’t remember you mentioning that…?”

“Yup. Aviation, went into an anti-submarine squadron, flew for a few years – hated it, though. Carrier landings at night…really disliked that, can hardly get in an airplane anymore. So, thought I’d go back to school, thought I wanted to teach. Well, I met Sandy and we moved here. I was going to finish my PhD at UCLA, but by then I’d lost the spark. I think, really, a career in academia struck me as a waste of time. At the university level, it’s not always about teaching, so for me it was a ‘why bother’ thing. A friend from the Navy was with the department, he flies helicopters by the way, and he took me up, then got me out on some ride-alongs in squad cars. That was it for me. I loved it then, and I still do. The work, I mean. Every day is unique, no two are ever alike.”

“Lots of excitement, too?”

“The old saying is 99 percent boredom, and one percent terror. That’s about right, I’d say.”

“You’ve been shot? Once?”

“Twice.”

“Ever shot anyone?”

“Yup.”

“Killed?”

“As the proverbial door nail. I’ve also killed a Pit Bull. I felt bad about that one, though.”

“How many of your friends on the force have been killed?”

He looked away. “I stopped counting a long time ago.”

“Did that part of it get to Sandy?”

“Every part of it got to her. It gets to most wives…like I said, very few marriages survive more than a few years, and with female cops married to non-cops, it’s an almost hundred percent divorce rate – all across the country.”

“I know.”

“So, you sure you want to take up with someone like me?”

“I’m one hundred percent sure, Ted. I know the score.”

“Let me set you straight, then. You may think you do, but you won’t until you’ve lived with me a while. It’ll take almost as much out of your life as it’s taken from mine.”

“So, why keep doing it? You love it that much?”

“Like I said…it’s who I am now. But…”

Three platters came and he looked them over. “Geesh…hundreds of fish gave their lives for this feast…”

“Gad…I had no idea I ordered so much…”

“That’s the deal with this stuff,” he said as he piled a few pieces on his plate. “I can never get enough.”

“Well, let’s get to it.”

He mixed his wasabi with soy, then picked up a thin slice of ginger in his chopsticks and dipped it into the soy. He painted the mix onto a piece of salmon and picked it up, then noticed Carol looking at him.

“I’ve never seen anyone do it that way,” she said.

“Oh, this Japanese family I know. They taught me, told me it’s almost heretical to dip your piece directly into the soy.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Too much soy hides the flavor of the fish, something like that.”

She bunched her lips and shrugged. “Learn something new everyday I guess, but I really like the way the soy and wasabi tastes.” She tried it his way, then made a face. “Nope. Too much fish that way.”

He laughed a little, then dipped along with her.

“You’re doing that…why?” she asked.

“I like it too, but don’t like offending the sushi-chefs. Most of them cringe when they see us gaijin dipping away like this.”

She looked around, noticed the Japanese patrons were painting, not dipping, and she shook her head again. “Nope. I’m a Boston Jew, not a geisha. I can only bend so far.”

“Attagirl.”

She gasped, then her head canted to one side. “My dad used to say that to me, all the time, too. Weird flashback thing going on there, for a moment anyway.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah…like I was somewhere else…on our boat, maybe…” She shook her head. “Weird.”

“Flashbacks are like that. Sort of a déjà vu thing. Something activates that circuit and it’s like we’re back in that moment.”

“Yes, exactly. Did you take many life sciences classes?”

“A bunch, yeah. I thought about med school for a while, but couldn’t see myself doing the work. I always wanted to be outdoors, not in an office.”

“Well, I’d say you found your place in life.”

“I’d say that life found me. I just happened to be ready for it when it came along.”

“I can’t believe we ate all that fish,” she said a while later.

“No dessert for me, kiddo.”

She laughed. “Do you have tea at home?”

“Sure. Wanna wait, have some there?”

“It’s early. Why not?”

It seemed like a moment later he was in the kitchen, and he found the brewer and put on green tea while she went to the living room.

“Is this her? Sidney, your mother-in-law?”

He walked in, looked at the picture. “Yup, she was about my age then.”

“She seems familiar to me. Was she ever in the movies?”

“Two, I think. One with Gregory Peck, the jilted wife of a friend. Here’s the studio publicity still,” he said, opening up a photo album.

“Damn…she was gorgeous.”

“Too many demons, I guess. She might have made the big time, but back in those days she was drunk by noon.”

She shook her head. “You think she can’t recognize you now?”

“Last time Sandy and I went out there…well, it was a bad scene. Sandy cried all the way home.”

“Do you miss her?”

“Sandy? I don’t know how to answer that one, Carol. If there wasn’t that wall of betrayal, sure. But she gave up on us, she left for parts unknown, and I had to climb through that rubble before I could get back to the good stuff. I miss the memories, though.”

“You miss memories? How so?”

“Well, it’s that rubble, I guess.”

“Are you still mad at her about it?”

“More sad, I think. Sad that she gave up on us. Well, tea’s ready.” He poured two and they sat in the kitchen, contemplating the amber glow in their cups.

“Where are these from?”

“Hmm, what? The cups?” He watched her nod at him, then scrunched his face a little, trying to recall that day. “They came from a little Shinto shrine we found in the mountains outside Sapporo. The monks there operated a kiln, have for centuries, I think, making the same shape and pattern. We purchased several.”

“So…every picture tells a story?”

He nodded his head. “Maybe so. When you can find the right picture, I guess.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Hmm? Oh, I guess sometimes things are never what they seem, even in a photograph.”

“Okay. Tell me about the one thing you’d like to do before you die.”

“I wish I could, Carol, but I don’t know what that’d be. Everything I’ve ever wanted to do, well, maybe I didn’t set my sights high enough, but I feel like I’ve done most everything I ever really wanted to do.”

“Nothing?”

“Well, one night maybe ten years ago Hopie and I…”

“Hopie?”

“My sister, Hope. She’s the one in the…”

“Hospital?”

“Yup. She talked about sailing. Sandy and I listened to her, to the way she talked about that, then a few years later she bought that boat of hers…and I always wondered what that would be like.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I don’t know. This guy I used to fly with…he helped her pick out the boat. Last time we talked he and his wife were planning to take off – sail away and see the world. Haven’t talked to him in years, I don’t know if they ever got around to it, but we all talked one night about that kind of thing. Made an impression on me, I’d say that much.”

“It’s what I want to do. Have since I was a kid.”

“What? Sail away?”

“Uh-huh,” she sighed.

“That’s interesting. I remember you mentioning that…”

“Yes, it is. It’s beginning to feel like…”

“Something’s bringing us together, maybe?”

“When you said ‘attagirl’?” She paused, sighed. “Yes, that’s what hit me.” She was lost for a moment, drifting…

“What is it? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?” she said, startled.

“It’s like you were lost for a moment, looking right through me.”

“I think maybe I was – I’m trying to understand something. You know, that first night in class I was drawn to you. Physically, I mean. I felt like I wanted to be near you, physically, so when we were at the pool, even in the pool, I tried to get as close to you as I could. Then the other night on the boat. Same thing. I put it off to you’re being the sexiest man alive…”

He turned red. “Don’t say things like that…”

“Oh really? You don’t get it, do you? There were four women in our class, and after that first classroom session we went out together and that’s all they wanted to talk about…”

“What? Me…”

“About how much they wanted to fuck you, Ted. Is that plain enough for you?”

He looked down, shook his head. “Bullshit…”

“No, not really. But when we got off the boat yesterday it was all I could do not to tear you apart right there in the parking lot. I’ve never wanted anyone so much in my life.”

“Look, this is making me a little, I don’t know, uncomfortable. That’s just not how I see myself…I never have.”

“Yeah, I know, Mr Modest. But I didn’t want you not understanding where I’m coming from.”

“Physically attracted, you mean?”

“Yes, but I think I’d also like you to appreciate how totally uncharacteristic of me this feeling is. Until I saw you, that first night in class, and it hit me out of the blue. I’ve actually been a little concerned about the reaction.”

“Concerned?” His phone rang and he looked at the CallerID display. “Sorry, I should take this.”

“Sure…”

“Hello…Mindy? What’s up? Yeah? What’d the docs say? Anything they want me to do? They do, huh. When? All of us, Tuesday morning? Okay, I’ll call in, see if I can get the time. Yeah. I’ll call you as soon as I know. Yeah. See you then.”

He rang off, put the phone away and then looked down – at his hands. “Well, shit,” he whispered. ‘So, we’re really going to do this…?’ he said to himself as he looked around the house.

“What is it?”

“Hopie. She stopped eating last week, started fading after three days so my sister got a court order, starting a feeding tube. Family conference called for Tuesday, up in Seattle. So that’ll mean Mindy and me, duking it out with the shrinks up there.”

“Would you like me to come with you?”

He looked at her, then down at his hands again before he shrugged, shaking his head slowly. “That’d be a helluva thing to ask of you, this early in the game.”

“And you really don’t know the rules of this game, do you?”

“Not really.”

“Well, I may be able to help with this better than most, you know?”

“Yeah, like you said. Things are kind of coming together in an odd way. Let me call in on this.” He picked up the phone and speed dialed the division office, and the sergeant on duty picked up.

“Jim? Ted. Uh, my sister has taken a turn and the docs want me up there Tuesday for a conference. Yeah, it’s finished, on the server. Okay, appreciate it. Yeah. You too.”

“And?”

“Taking the week off.”

“I just made reservations on Alaska tomorrow afternoon, return Friday evening. Shall I confirm?”

“Yup. Here’s my credit card…”

“I’ve got it.”

He started to protest but she held up her hand. “I have eight weeks of vacation accrued, and they’ve been begging me to take it. Guess that settles that.”

“You know what? Life can turn on a dime, in the blink of an eye. I get the feeling our lives just changed a hundred and eighty degrees.”

“I hope you don’t think I pushing in someplace where I don’t belong.”

“You know, I don’t. I really don’t. I feel like we’re on some kind of weird-ass magic carpet ride, and we’re together now. And that’s the way it’s going to be from now on, too.”

“About five minutes ago I looked at you and all of a sudden it felt like we’d been together forever. I know that sounds off the wall…”

He nodded his head. “This morning, when I got in and saw you there in bed, still asleep? Same feeling. Like your being there was the most natural thing in the world, like you’d been there forever.”

“Ted. Don’t take this wrong, but I know I love you. Whatever that word means, when I look at you right now that’s how I feel.”

He took her hand again, only this time he looked at it…the skin, the structure of it, even the fingernails he looked at seemed at once foreign – and familiar.

“Mon amour…”

“Il se sent si bon d’être à nouveau ensemble…”

“What?” he said. “Did you say something?”

“No…I don’t think so…? But…?”

He shook his head, saw they were back in the restaurant, not in the kitchen drinking tea, then he looked across at her. She looked confused, out of place, looking around the restaurant, unsure of herself.

“We were in the kitchen, weren’t we?” she said. “But I heard…music?”

“I thought so too…but…then I heard…French. Someone speaking French.”

They sat staring at one another for a moment, unsure of the world, and their place in it…

“Well yeah, okay. We’d better get home. I’m sure you have a few things you need to do at your place.”

“I can do them in the morning. You want me to drive again?” Words were echoes now, unsettling echoes…

“Uh, ya know…yes, if you don’t mind…”

“That just blows me away…”

“What?”

“In my experience, I’ve never known one guy who’d even consider letting me drive his car…”

“What? Why not…?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a trust thing, or maybe everyone I’ve ever dated had mondo-macho-control freak issues…”

“Is that, like, one of your technical psychiatric terms?”

She laughed. “I can’t believe I just said that…”

“Why? Hell, I could understand that one…but some of those other fifteen syllable words you were tossing around had me scratching my head.”

“Geesh, I hate jargon…I’m so sorry…” She looked around again, feeling like she was in a race, falling behind and trying to catch up…

He grinned. “Don’t be. It’ll take me a while, but I’ll catch up.” He stood and pulled out her chair, the feeling of déjà vu now overwhelming.

“A week ago I’d have chewed your head off for doing this…”

“What?” he said, looking around uncertainly at the room again.

“The chair thing. Now I want you to do it. In fact, I think I’d hate it if you didn’t?”

He helped her stand and they walked out to the parking lot, and he opened her door, helped her up then handed the keys to her – and again she smiled – but he felt like the tumblers to the universe had slipped, that something very wrong had just happened. Like an old vinyl record skipping over a bad scratch, they skipped sideways through time for a moment…

Traffic was heavy and she drove slowly, yet by the time she pulled into his drive he was snoring, his head leaning against the glass. She saw a button on the overhead and guessed, hit ‘1’ – and the garage door opened. After she pulled inside she turned off the motor and looked at him, really studied his features, and inside that moment the feeling of familiarity became almost overwhelming – like she had known him before, somewhere…sometime.

She got out and went around to his door and opened it slowly, and when the running boards moved into place she stepped up and kissed him gently on the lips.

His eyes opened, slowly, then he looked around, saw they were in the garage and sat up, startled. “Gah…what happened?”

“You need some sleep, kiddo.”

“Damn. Another first.” He undid his seatbelt and turned to face her. “Nice kiss, by the way. I liked that.” She stepped down and he slid into her arms. “Damn nice,” he said, taking her into a deep embrace.

“God, you feel so good…”

“Yeah? Well, give me few minutes, and I’ll make you feel a whole lot gooder…” He grinned and took her hand, led her to the bedroom, looking around as he walked, wondering if he was still asleep, and had this whole day simply been just a dream within a dream.

+++++

He remembered the approach to SeaTac, remembered the stormy nights landing at Whidbey Island in his S-3, his first night traps on the carrier off Astoria. The Alaskan MD80 was on an extended downwind now, and he could see the naval air station down there through the clouds, and those memories came back to him in a rush. Unwelcome memories, he thought, and he looked out over the wing wishing aircraft had never been invented. He hated them now, hated everything about the Navy, and their aircraft, and above everything else, he hated the goddamned Soviet Union.

“What is it?” he heard Carol ask – so he turned and looked at her.

“Lot of memories down there.”

“A few good ones, I hope.”

He smiled, saw an image of Sumner Collins floating in his life raft while he struggled to get back into his own raft, the shark’s gnashing teeth just inches from his face. He shook his head, oblivious to his own gnashing teeth – and Carol’s questioning glances – as the MD80 began a steep right turn onto base. He looked off into the twilight, could just make out Vancouver far away in the gloom…and the shape of Hopie’s plan hit him again. Then the flaps whirred and the leading edge flared, the aircraft slowing quickly now. Another sharp right onto final, and he looked down on Anacortes as it slid by under broken clouds – the other vital link in their chain, he thought. They passed over the big Boeing facility where his father used to work, and then their old house was down there in the trees – and he turned away quickly from those memories. Away from memories that never left, all born in that one goddamn house.

More flaps, then the gears came down, the MD80s nose dropping off sharply, then power coming up – and he could tell the FO up front was a rookie by the way the engines spooled up and chopped off. The nose went up, then down, too much rudder, slipping too far into a crab as a crosswind bit into the wings. Downtown looked busier than ever, more traffic on the 5 than he remembered, then sharp, rapid corrections as the rookie tried to calm down over the threshold. Hard landing, down real hard on the left main, a sharp bounce to the right, then the reversers cut in and the nose went down too hard as well – and he shook his head in disgust.

“Fuckin’ rookie,” he grumbled.

“What?” Carol asked.

“Goddamn terrible landing.”

“Seemed a little rough to me too.”

“Inexcusable.”

She put her hand on his arm. “Maybe they’re hiring,” she chided. “Want me to check?”

“Just get me off this goddamn thing. Never again, please? Maybe there’s a train…?”

“We’ll miss the class at PV if we walk back.”

“Fuck, goddamn shitty motherfuckin’ greenhorn pilots…” He growled as the pilot braked too hard at an intersection, the crossed his arms and looked up at the Seat Belts ON light. “Of course,” he groaned when it turned out there wasn’t an available gate, and the pilot announced they’d have to wait on the ramp for one to open up. Fifty minutes later he growled his way off the aircraft and walked up the Jetway, muttering ‘never again’ one more time. They walked down to the car rental kiosks by the baggage claim carousels, and they took the shuttle out to the rental lot a minute later.

“I thought you’d appreciate this,” Carol said when he saw a silver F150 waiting for them.

“Damn!” he said as he kissed her. “Must mean we’re going to build a treehouse or something.”

“What? Oh, a tool. Right, I remember now.”

He laughed. “Thanks. Well, let’s get this road on the show.”

She laughed again. “You know where we’re going?”

“Unfortunately, yes, I do.” He pulled into traffic and made his way to I-5, then turned north into the city. He got off on the north side of downtown and made his way to the Silver Cloud on the south side of Lake Union, and they checked-in and went up to their room. He opened the curtains and looked at the marina across the street.

“It’s over there, somewhere,” he said.

“What? The boat?”

“Yup.”

“Do we need to do anything there tonight?”

He shrugged. “Not if everyone does their job.”

“Okay. What about your sister? Need to call her?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Your mother?”

“That’s a definite no.”

“Know the name of the boat? We could go down and take a look now. Before tomorrow, you know? Wouldn’t hurt, would it?”

He looked at his watch. “You hungry?”

“A little. No rush.”

“Sure,” he said as he turned to his carry-on. He opened a flap and took out an envelope and put it in his coat. “Let’s go.”

They walked downstairs and crossed the street to the marina, then over to an entrance gate – where he pulled out the envelope. He squinted, entered a code on the keypad and the gate clicked open; he held it open for her and slipped through behind her.

“Slip G7,” he said. “Name is Hyperion.” They walked out a pier and found her, a huge, chunky beige colored thing, her name splashed across the stern in black and gold.

“Damn, pretty big boat for a single girl to handle. What is it, forty five feet or so?”

He shrugged. “Think so. Friend of mine recommended it to her, based on what she wanted to do with it.”

“That Sumner guy? What did she tell him?”

“She wanted to circumnavigate, go all the way around.”

“No kidding? Alone?”

“I don’t know. We haven’t talked much about it in a while.”

“But she talked to your friend about it? Did he ask you what you thought about her doing it?”

“No, not really. There was a boat show up here on the lake…”

“This is a lake?”

“Lake Union. You have to lock out of here. Ocean’s a couple of miles,” he said, pointing west, “that way.”

“Got the keys?”

He pulled out the envelope again, fished them out – just as a man walked over from a nearby boat.”

“Can I help you,” the stranger asked.

“You know Hopie?”

The stranger looked at him again. “You’re her brother? Tim?”

“Ted, and yes, I am.”

“How’s she doing?”

“I’m going out in the morning. And you are?”

“Nathan. Nate Strickland. I’ve been taking care of the boat. Keeping the batteries charged, washing her down, that kind of thing.”

“Ah, you are a friend of hers?”

“Yes, but only after she moved in down here. Look, there’ve been some characters looking around down here, poking around the boat…”

“Characters?”

“Well, black suits, those things in the ears, like the Secret Service guys wear?”

“Really? When did that start?”

“Yesterday, and again, this morning.”

“If you see ‘em around, would you snap an image?”

Strickland pulled out his phone and opened the Photos app and pulled up an image of the men he’d seen this morning, and one of their car, a black Suburban with federal plates on it. “Want ‘em?”

“Here’s my number.” The pictures arrived a second later and he saved them. “Thanks.”

Strickland smiled. “You staying down here?”

“Over at the Silver Cloud. I don’t know the first thing about boats.”

“Well, if you’ve got some time, I can show you around.”

“Sure, lead on.”

“You have the keys handy? Mine are back onboard?”

“Yup. Here-go”

“Well, first things first. This is an IP 445, uh, an Island Packet. It’s not quite fifty feet, draws around five feet. Two sleeping cabins, two heads, big galley and main saloon. This one’s got power everything, winches, windlass, even the halyard winch is electric,” he said as he climbed up into the cockpit.

“I vaguely remember. A friend of mine was here when she bought it…”

“That Collins fellow. I remember him. Real straight razor, that guy.”

“He is that.”

“You know him?”

“We flew together.”

“Navy? I think he mentioned he flew once. I did too.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, A6Es, in VA-165.”

“A Boomer, huh?”

“Got that right, Amigo.”

“On the Connie?”

“Yup. You were an S-3 driver?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Wait…you’re riding motors, aren’t you? LAPD?”

“Yup.”

“I’m CID, Seattle PD.”

Sherman shook his head. “Small world, ain’t it?”

“Damn,” Carol said, “isn’t anyone going to introduce me to anyone out here?”

“Shit…Nate? This is Carol.” They shook hands and Nate looked at her, lingering on her legs.

“Well, let’s go below…” he said as he opened the companionway and lifted the boards out. “Watch your step,” Nate said as he led them below, and he flipped on lights at the chart table. “I have a girl come in once a month to dust, oil the teak, that kind of thing, but your sister’s been gone over six months now. Do you know what’s going to do with this thing? You know anything yet?”

“I think the broker is coming by later tonight, they’re going to move it someplace up north.”

“Oh, hell. Really? Well, sheets are clean. Hell, everything’s clean, but, well, you know Hopie.”

“Yeah. I’m sure you could eat supper off the bathroom floors.”

“The head. Just like flat-tops, Amigo. Heads, galleys, forepeak…all that nonsense, the whole nine yards.”

“Gee, great.”

They laughed.

“Anyway, everything’s controlled by these switches,” he said as he pointed at two panels full of breakers, “and the main battery selector is here…”

“I’m familiar with all this stuff,” Carol said. “What’s this?”

“I’ll leave you to it,” Sherman said as he walked aft, to Hopie’s cabin. There were a few books on the shelves, the drawers were still full of her clothing, the hanging locker too, but the head was spartan, and the galley bare aside from a few dry goods. He walked forward, looked around the cabin up there, all the cabinets and drawers bare, the huge head looked to have never been used. He shook his head as he looked around, wondered how well she sailed.

‘Indeed…’ he thought…‘So long ago, so far.’

He walked back to the chart table, watched Carol as she soaked up all the details of the ship’s systems. He sat down and pulled out his phone, was scrolling through his messages and emails when a news alert came through about some nonsense in Paris. He opened the story and read through it with growing horror…

“Have you two heard about this stuff going down in Paris?”

“Yeah, started a few hours ago…” Nate said.

“What happened?” Carol asked.

“Multiple terrorist attacks in Paris, some sort of hostage thing going down at a concert, maybe hundreds killed.”

“Oh, no,” she moaned. “What does that mean for you guys?”

“Oh, we’ll notch up security a bit, ports and airports, that kind of thing…” Nate said, and Ted nodded his head in agreement. “All in all, we act on hard intel more than we do to what happens over there.”

“She have a TV onboard?”

Nate shook his head. “Nothing. She even has the boat swept for bugs once a month.”

“What?” Carol asked, incredulous. “Why?”

Strickland shook his head. “Yo no se?”

“Paranoid?” she asked as she looked at Ted.

“You know, the thing about Hopie is that you think she’s paranoid, but after a while you begin to wonder if she’s being paranoid enough.”

Strickland looked at him when he said that, his eyes narrowing imperceptibly. “Do you know what she did? Who she worked for?”

“Nope. You?”

“No, she never said a word about it.”

“We all tried. No one ever succeeded.”

“How many languages does she speak?”

“Not sure. Stopped counting when she started spouting Mandarin one night.”

“She had people down here speaking Russian, all the European languages I know of, and a whole bunch of Middle Eastern shit. All kinds of ragheads came here last year, right before she, well, before she got sick.”

“Any Israelis?”

“Not sure. Why?”

Sherman shrugged and Strickland wondered again what this guy wasn’t saying.

“What do you want me to do if those ‘federales’ come back?”

“Leave ‘em alone. You’ll just stir up trouble if you fuck with them.”

“Okay. What about you two? You say you have a broker lined up?”

“Yup, if I remember his name I’ll text you. Fair enough?”

“Sure.”

“We’re going to walk up to dinner. What’s good around here?”

“What do you like, and how far do you wanna walk?”

“What’s close?” Carol asked.

“Crab place down a few blocks is okay. A coupe of other places by the museum, touristy though, and not all that good. Good Indian up the hill, but too far to walk.”

“Damn,” Sherman said. “I could…”

“What about tomorrow night? I’ll meet you at the Cloud and I can drive us up to a great place I know.”

“Sounds good,” Sherman said. “What time?”

“Seven be too early?”

“Perfect,” Carol said. “We should get going, Ted. I’m starving.”

“Y’all go ahead. I can lock up and shut things down.”

“Thanks Nate,” Ted said. “See you tomorrow…”

They walked topsides and hopped off the boat, and neither looked back as they walked out of the marina, so neither saw Strickland watching them, or saw him pull out his phone. He dialed a number just outside Washington D.C., a number in Langley, Virginia, and he only said two words before breaking off.

“Contact made.”

+++++

They made the drive out past Redmond the next morning, and found the hospital without too much trouble, but finding a parking space was another matter entirely.

“Geesh, are there really so many psychiatric patients?” Ted said as he circled through the lot again, finally diving into a just vacated spot.

“You have no idea,” Carol sighed. “After all the cutbacks to state facilities in the 80s, a lot of older institutions never really recovered, and the few that have are overrun on a daily basis. What time is the appointment?”

He looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes to spare. Okay. Any questions? Know what to do?”

“I’m good.”

“You sure you want to do this?”

“I love you,” she said.

He looked at her then, and nodded his head. “Well, to boldly go, as the man said.”

They walked around the hospital, looking around at the exits, then made it to the assigned conference room and walked-in a minute early, and Sherman did his level best to ignore the two women in the room glowering at him. “Cobra number one there,” he whispered as he sat across the table from them, “is my mother. Cobra number two is Mindy.”

A lab-coated physician and two nurses walked in right on time and took their seats; the physician had an iPad in hand and was apparently going through notes and lab-work, getting up to speed at the last possible moment. Carol looked at him closely, hardly believing what she was seeing, then the man looked up, his red-rimmed eyes the tell-tale sign she was looking for. Overworked and understaffed, this psychiatrist was in over his head. This would be easy, she thought.

“Well, let’s get this out of the way,” the physician said as he picked up a legal pad full of scribbled notes. “We’re here to talk about…uh…one Hope Sherman. She’s stopped eating, refusing liquids as well now for two days and we’ll begin to see signs of organ failure soon. We’d like to move her to hospice care if that’s all right with her family. Is her guardian here today?”

“I am.” Ted replied, looking the man directly in the eye. “Am I to understand she was being fed through a gastric tube?”

The man sifted through his notes, read for a minute…

“Oh, for heavens…” Mindy said. “Can’t we just pull the goddamn plug and get this over with? How long are you going to make her suffer!”

The psychiatrist looked up at that, looked at Mindy then shook his head, then he looked at Ted. “Yes, since late last week.”

“So,” Carol said, “what’s her status?”

“Ted? Who the fuck is this?”

“Well Mindy, this is Carol. She’s a psychiatrist I brought up here to help me make sense of your, well, of this nice situation we find ourselves in.”

“Fuck you, Ted. At least I was here.”

“We’re not going to let this conference devolve into a family slugfest,” the psychiatrist said. “Mr Sherman, as her guardian you have final say in these matters. Would you, and well, your psychiatrist like to join me? We’ll go see your sister now.”

“Alright.”

They stood and left the room, Sherman glad to be away from Mindy and their somnambulant mother. They walked in silence, Carol behind them now, watching, listening.

“That sister of yours,” the psychiatrist said at last, “if she says ‘pull the plug’ one more time…I just may kill her with my bare hands.”

“Get in line,” one of the nurses said.

“She’s got to wash the guilt off her hands one way or another,” Sherman said. “Killing Hopie would be the most efficient way she could do that now.”

“I know,” the psychiatrist said. “What a nightmare of a life she had. You know, I’ve never been able to get her to talk about what she did…you know, to make a living. I suppose you know?”

“No, sir. I have no idea.”

“Well,” the guy stammered, “that’s just extraordinary…I’ve never heard of such a thing!”

“Well, you don’t know Hopie very well then, I guess.”

“She never really trusted me.”

He looked at this sniveling turd of a human being and smiled. “She was like that, I guess.”

“Well, here’s her room. I’d like to go in with you, if that’s alright.”

“Sure,” Ted said, “but could we…” He began talking, and Carol slipped into the room to see how bad off his sister really was.

They talked for a few minutes out in the corridor, then they walked in and Sherman tried to hide his feelings when he saw his sister. Carol came and took his arm as he walked closer, and he saw her nod once.

She was on her side, curled up in a fetal ball, a white sheet over her – yet even so he could tell she was emaciated. “How much does she weigh now?” Carol asked.

“Last time we weighed her…” a nurse began, “she was at eighty eight pounds. That was two weeks ago.”

“Height?”

“Five-ten.”

“Jesus…” Carol whispered as Ted knelt down beside his sister’s face.

Her eyes were wide open, unblinking as far as she could tell, and Carol watched as he oriented his face with hers, and he remained very still, letting her eyes seek out his own.

“Can we turn a few lights on?” Carol said, and she watched Hope’s face for any signs of recognition – or any reaction at all – but her wraith-like form seemed completely inert. Like an explosive gas, she thought, trapped in a bottle.

Then her eyes blinked.

“When’s the last time she spoke,” Carol whispered.

“About two weeks,” the nurse whispered back.

“Sumner?”

“No babe, it’s me, Ted.”

“Ted? You’re here?”

“I’m with you, babe.”

“Closer. Come closer.”

He leaned in, his ear almost on her lips.

“Got to get the stuff in the box,” she whispered. “Some stuff for you. A small box inside for him. Got to get it to him. He’ll know what to do.”

“Okay. What about you? Are you ready for this?”

“I’m done. I need to leave now.”

“You’re sure?” He leaned back and looked at her now, and she was smiling.

“Yes, I’m ready.”

“Okay. I just want to thank you for always being there for me,” he said loudly, so everyone could hear.

She barely nodded her head. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you. I love you, kiddo, and tell Sumner I’ll see him again one day soon.”

“I know, babe. I know.”

“There’s so much light here…it’s beautiful.”

He took her hand, watched her take her last breath, and he held her as she fell away.

Carol seemed startled at the suddenness of this death, and she moved in with her stethoscope.

“Do you want me to resuscitate her,” he asked – and Ted shook his head.

“There’s no need now,” Carol said. “She was ready, and she left.”

“What?” the psychiatrist cried out. “What do you mean? That she chose the moment of her passing?”

Ted nodded his head. “You haven’t been around death much, have you?”

The psychiatrist shook his head slowly. “And you have?”

Ted stood and walked out of the room, back to the conference room, with Hopie’s team running after him, though Carol remained behind. He went into the room and walked right up to his remaining sister.

“She’s gone now. And just so you’re aware, I have all her documents. She’s left each of you exactly one penny. I’ll see that her lawyers get that mailed to you straight away.”

“Fuck you, Ted! I’ll sue, I’ll fuckin’ sue you for everything you have.”

He smiled at her before he turned and left the room. “She goes to the Neptune Society, for cremation. I’ll have her lawyer get all the paperwork from you, and I assume the funeral people will be here soon,” he said to her psychiatrist.

“I understand.”

“Watch out for cobras,” he said, pointing to the conference room as he walked out the building. Carol walked by the bewildered psychiatrist and shrugged, then ran after Ted, catching up to him as he got to the truck. He opened her door and got behind the wheel, and without uttering another word backed out and left the lot.

He watched a gray sedan pull out behind them and begin following him as he drove back into the city, and another gray sedan took over the tail as he exited the 5 and made his way down to the lake, and on to Westlake Drive. He pulled into a bank parking lot and backed into a parking place; he asked Carol to stay in the truck, that he’d be gone a few minutes.

Strickland watched from across the street, using a 300mm lens to photograph Sherman as he went into the bank, and again, as he came out 20 minutes later – with nothing in hand.

He followed them to a lawyers office out on Seaview Avenue, and they both went in that office, and didn’t come out for an hour, then two, and Strickland began to wonder what was going on in there when…

…a woman came out and got in the truck; she drove out to the airport and turned the vehicle in at the rental company lot, then left in a taxi – and he followed her all the way.

Strickland knew Sherman had shaken him then, and he wondered where they’d gone. He called Virginia again. “Lost them,” was all he had the nerve to say before he hung up.

+++++

Perhaps a mile away, two people slipped into an executive lounge at SeaTac and waited for their flight to be called, their IDs bogus, their names too. They flew to Los Angeles and were met by agents of the United States Secret Service and the FBI, but as soon as these agents discovered the two people were not who they were supposed to be, they were questioned and released.

Smithfield was informed. Sherman’s superiors in the LAPD were as well.

+++++

The Hyperion slipped quietly into Canadian waters a little after four in the morning, after motoring furiously north from Anacortes for almost eight hours.

“How’s she doing,” Ted asked.

“Still sleeping. I’ve got a heavy load of nutrients in her IV. She should be strong enough to fly in two or three days.”

“Well, we’ll know if we’ve pulled this off before then.”

His set waypoints in the chartplotter were reeling off one by one now, but making it into Canada was just the first phase in this evolution. Carol watched his expert seamanship and sail handling, amazed he was an even better sailor than her father, but then again, everything about him was that way. Just when she thought she knew him, he morphed again – into something new and magnificent – and terrifying.

She looked at the moon rising over the Cascades, and wondered about all that had happened the past few days. She was embarking on a strange new course in life, a course well away from everything she had ever known, heading off into a strange new world with this monumentally complex man – and his equally improbable sister.

+++++

Hyperion sailed under full main and genoa now, her sails pulling hard as Carol steered for the Lion’s Gate – and beyond, into the waterfront area along the north side of the City of Vancouver. She checked the chartplotter, adjusted the screen’s brightness as sunlight coursed into the cockpit, then she altered her course a little – to starboard – as a monstrously huge cruise ship appeared dead ahead, making for the bridge and presumably heading out to sea. Sherman was below with his sister; he had been talking with her for almost an hour, and Carol was enjoying this brief intermezzo at sea. Now that the sun was up – and the air growing warmer, she laughed with joy as the sun and spray filled the air with glittering diamonds. To simply be sailing again felt wondrous to her, but British Columbia looked even more insanely gorgeous than Maine. Steep-walled mountains, pine-covered and snow-capped, lined the looming shore, yet she looked up as a constant parade of wide-bodied airliners lifted from the nearby runway and climbed into the sky.

She could hardly believe what they were doing, let alone why, but none of that mattered to her now. Her life had grown tired and stale, her expectations had fallen so low – and now, this! She had no idea what his sister was or who she worked for, but she had friends. A vast network of friends – everywhere. Friends that could make things happen, but to Carol this little operation of hers seemed jubilantly, impossibly crazy, yet from the little she’d learned, it was apparent to her that it had been meticulously planned. And so complex it made her head spin.

Friends, indeed.

Timing meant everything right now, and she knew it. The series of deceptions Hopie and her team had engineered were stupefying in their complexity – but so far everything had gone off perfectly.

Just how many ‘friends’ did this woman have? What was so important about her? Still more intriguing? There was Ted, who’d carried on like he didn’t know anything, just like he had convinced her he didn’t know a thing about sailboats. Then, like everything else about him, he proved to be a master seaman…yet she had to admit he’d never deliberately tried to deceive her. He wore veils of silence so obscure she had simply filled in the blanks he left for her.

Deliberately?

She didn’t know, couldn’t tell.

She looked at the chartplotter, at all the depth contours growing crazy-shallow just yards to starboard, then she looked up at the sails and pulled the main in a little, hardening up on the wind. The cruise ship cleared the bridge and…altered course to port a little more and she looked at the radar, saw the new CPA and further adjusted Hyperion’s course a little, then, a few minutes later she hardened up to port and brought in the sails. The boat heeled a little more and their speed picked-up, just as Ted came up from below.

“How’s she doing?”

He nodded his head. “Okay, I think. Her mind’s still as sharp as a tack, but she’s weak. Weaker than I expected.”

“It’ll take all those anti-psychotics a week or so to half-life out of her system. I don’t know how she did it. Incredible mental discipline.”

“Well, going crazy was the only way she could get out of the mess she found herself in. I’m assuming they thought she’d never talk once she was out of the way like that, and even if she did no one would believe anything she said, but something’s changed. People started coming around a month ago, checking on her, asking questions, and she decided to put this plan into motion.”

“This Collins guy? She thinks he’ll help?”

“Oh…he will. If they get to her…well, he knows his life is as good as over if that happens. The Israelis are the only one’s who’ll help at this point, but only because they’ve got so much riding on the outcome.”

“I still can’t believe the stuff she was working on. It’s surreal.”

“You don’t know the half of it, Carol. And you don’t want to know.”

“I hear you.”

“Damn, that cruise ship is sure crowding us…”

“I can’t get much further out of the channel…water’s getting real thin over here – to the right.”

“Uh, go ahead and pinch in a little closer to port. Running aground is something we can’t afford to do right now.”

She adjusted her course more to the left, cutting closer to the cruise-ship’s stern. “It’s going to get rough when we cross that wake…”

“Everything’s secure down there. Go for a gap…”

“How far to the terminal?”

“About three miles, give or take. Marina first, though. Mosquito Creek, I think.”

She looked at the waves coming off the cruise ship and saw a smooth gap and slipped between the them, then she turned into the third, and last, wave – and crossed on a perpendicular course. The sails slatted and filled as Hyperion crossed into the turbulent air behind the passing ship, then Carol turned back on her original course and made her way under the massive bridge in mid-channel.

He ducked below and checked on his sister, grabbed a couple of Cokes and bounded back into the cockpit. “No problem,” he said. “Sound asleep now.” He picked up a cheap phone and turned it on, then punched a pre-programmed number. “We’ll be there at midnight,” he said into the phone, and then leaving it on he tossed the phone into the water; he looked at his watch and nodded his head.

Hyperion pulled into the little marina a few minutes before noon and two men came down and helped him get Hopie to a waiting car; Carol went with her to this car, and a third man went back to Hyperion with Sherman. While their car pulled out onto the street and drove away, he backed Hyperion out of the marina and headed across the channel to a crowded shipping terminal across the harbor. The man went below, walked around the interior, double checking for bugs or tracking devices and came up a few minutes later.

“She’s clean,” he said, shooting a thumb’s up.

Sherman nodded, noted his thick Israeli accent. He’d had the first transfer team check for bugs in Seattle – before they moved Hyperion to Anacortes, and the one they did find had been put on a random sailboat in the marina up there. Now he picked up another disposable phone and turned it on. He punched the pre-programmed number, then spoke one sentence: “We’ll be there tomorrow.” He tossed that one overboard and pulled up alongside a Liberian flagged freighter, a pair of aramid and kevlar lifting straps lowered from an onboard crane. He and the other man positioned the straps under the boat’s keel, then Hyperion lifted clear of the water and was raised onto deck, and from there onto a steel shipping cradle. The two dashed below and shut down all the ship’s systems as black tarps were draped across the boat; he and the Israeli walked down a ladder to the deck, then over to a boarding platform. They shook hands and Sherman walked down to street level and into a waiting car; from there he was taken to a hotel near the airport – and he walked directly to a room on the third floor. He was met by one of Hopie’s team there, and after a half hour of small-talk, she took him to another car, and on to another hotel. They sat in the hotel bar for a half hour, looking at the foot traffic in and out of the lobby, then she took a call and they left again. They drove around the airport to an FBO and then directly onto the ramp, right up to a waiting Gulfstream G650. He walked up the airstairs, noting the aircraft’s Swiss registration before he ducked and went into cabin; he smiled at Carol as he walked back and looked at Hopie; she was asleep on a portable medevac bed and he looked at the physician attending her and nodded his head, then he went forward and sat down, buckled in as the jet taxied out to the active runway.

The jet took off and turned northeast for a trans-polar departure, it’s flight plan showing Geneva, Switzerland as it’s destination. The two IDF pilots would change that destination as they approached the EU, and after fourteen hours in-flight the jet landed at an airbase near Tel Aviv. Hopie disappeared, while he and Carol were rushed to Ben-Gurion International, and once there they were hustled on to a direct flight back to Los Angeles, traveling under Israeli passports, he saw.

Carol showed up for their Saturday morning make-up dive at Malaga Cove a half hour before he did, and he launched into his pre-dive briefing without missing a beat. He yawned a few times, then led his students down to the beach and into the water. He swam out into the sea on his back, looking up at the sky, smiling at the ludicrousness of it all, then he felt Carol beside him in the water.

“You feeling okay?” she asked.

“Glad you slept on the flight?” he whispered coarsely.

“I’m still exhausted.”

He smiled. “You were wonderful.”

“What now?”

“The boat arrives in six weeks, right after Christmas.”

“So? Carry on like nothing happened ‘til then?”

“That’s the way this game’s gonna be played. Assuming no one wants to talk to us about – things.” He took his bearings and stopped. “Okay, y’all gather round,” he began, but he looked at Carol and smiled. “Alright…this dive will be down to thirty five feet. Once we get down there, we’re going to go through all our exercises. First thing, we’ll take off our vests, completely off, then we’ll put them back on – just like in the pool. Next, we’ll take our masks off, then put them back on and clear them…”

He led the class out of the water not quite an hour later, and he stood in knee deep water while he told them about the certification process, and upcoming classes, then the dive masters walked off with the group. to sign off on this dive and finish their paperwork. Carol walked ahead with the rest of the class, and he turned and looked out to sea, to the mountains beyond Santa Monica, above Beverly Hills. Beverly Glen, Benedict Canyon. He looked at the mountains, and felt something cold and vulnerable gripping his soul…‘what is that?’ he asked the passing sky. Something was gnawing at him now, something dark and unanswerable.

Then he felt something in the sand underfoot, something hard and unyielding, and he bent to see what is was. His hands brushed the sand away…

“Ah,” he said. “Driftwood.”

He was going to walk away, leave the wood where it lay, but he pulled at it and the piece slipped free of the sea and he picked it up.

“That’s a big piece…” he heard Carol say as he swished it around in the gently ebbing surf.

He stood, turned it over in his hands. “What do you make of this?” he said as he turned the wood over. “Looks like a fish?”

She walked back into the water, stood by his side. “Looks like a dolphin to me.”

“So worn down…wonder how long it’s been out here? It looks almost ancient…”

“You going to keep it?”

“Seems a shame to let it rot. Much more time out there and it’ll be gone, washed away forever.” He rinsed the last of the sand off the piece and tucked it under his free arm, then began the long slog back up to the truck, his dive gear in one hand and the unwieldy piece of driftwood in the other.

An hour later he was driving back through the westside, back to his house, and he put the driftwood over the fireplace. He showered and finished his laundry, changed the sheets and went out front to mow the lawn. A gray sedan drove by once and two men inside looked at him, scowling; Sherman looked up at them and waved.

“Ludicrous,” he said as he poured gas into the mower.

+++++

He walked up to Electric Karma just before eight, took his place at the usual dark corner table and ordered a mineral water and lime, then sat and looked out the window as Carol walked up to the door and came in. She waved at him, made a show of running into him and came to his table and sat across from him.

“Well, fancy seeing you here,” she said, meeting his grin with one of her own.

“Something to drink?” the waiter asked.

“The same, I reckon,” she said, pointing at Ted’s glass, and she waited for the boy to leave before speaking. “Did you get a nap in?”

He shook his head. “Grass was about a foot tall, and man, is it brown. Hope it rains around here soon.”

“It’s awful. Even the air smells bad. Dry and burned.”

“All the wildfires. Doesn’t look like the LA I knew twenty years ago…looks more like something out of Soylent Green.”

“Or Blade Runner.”

He laughed, looked towards the door. “Any trouble at your place?”

She shook her head. “No, and I go back to work Monday morning…just like nothing happened.”

“That’s because nothing happened.”

Two men in suits and dark glasses came in and looked at them, then took a seat near their table.

“So,” she said, “how do you think the dive went?”

“Good. You going to sign up for the advanced class?”

“You know, I think I will. Do I need any new equipment?”

“Oh, a couple of dildos, maybe an inflatable sex doll.”

She looked at him and grinned. “You’re kidding, right?”

He shook his head. “Nope, not at all.”

“I’ve never tried anal.”

“Uh, well, I uh…“

“Wanna give it a try tonight?”

He blinked his eyes rapidly, then scrunched up his face as he tried to ignore the two men in dark glasses. “Gee, let me think about that for a while, and I’ll get back to you in the morning.”

She laughed, then they ordered appetizers and some lamb.

She kept up with the salacious innuendo while they ate, putting on a good performance for their watchers. He finally leaned across and whispered in her ear…

She laughed loudly, then leaned back in her chair…

“Come on,” she said, “let’s go before I change my mind…”

He smiled at the two of them as they walked out the restaurant, and the two men just grinned and shook their heads, but he recognized the car parked out front. It was the same sedan that had driven by his house earlier that afternoon; he remembered the plates weren’t Federal issue, but from Nevada, and he wondered who was going to try to make contact first.

And how.

+++++

He drove into the Westside precinct house and got out of his truck, looked on at the morning shift streaming into the station – and he followed them in. Kingman was waiting for him there with Lu Simpson, standing outside her office, so he followed the Watch Commander into her office and sat, while Simpson remained out in the corridor, waiting, though the door was still open.

“Heard your sister passed away, Ted. Sorry.”

He nodded his head, looked away.

“Anyway, while you were gone I had a chance to talk with Officer Simpson about your plan. She seems amenable, and I’d like to detach her from patrol for a month, let her ride shotgun with you.”

“Okay.”

“You think she’s big enough for motors?”

“Captain?”

“Think she could make motorcycles?”

He shrugged. “I’ll know in two weeks. Any experience?”

“Nope.”

“Why? Why do it?”

“Pushing the envelope, Ted. Brave new world, and I need fresh faces to be a part of it.”

“Okay. Where’d she go to school?”

Cal State…Fullerton, I think. Criminal Justice with a minor in history.” Kingman smiled when she saw the look in his eyes. “Thought you’d appreciate that.”

“She seems like a good kid. How do you want me to handle the paperwork?”

“Reports come to me, I’ll pass ‘em along to division if she…well, if she does okay.”

“Got it.”

“When’s your next MSF class?”

“This weekend. I’ll see if I can squeeze her in.”

“Thanks. I’ve got you slated for days this week, evenings the next two, and you’ll finish up on nights just before Christmas, Monday through Friday, no on call. Won’t interfere with your vacation at all.”

“Got a Suburban for us?”

“Yeah, 2109. Has a full reconstruction kit in back, and an advanced life support bag.”

“She got any training?”

“Started EMT-1 but dropped; her husband got pissed.”

“Understood.” He knew that score.

“She’s all yours; try to bring her back in one piece.”

He smiled, stood to leave.

“Again, Ted. Sorry about your sister. If you need any time off, let me know.”

“Will do.” He walked out and found Simpson had been cornered by a sergeant and he paused, looked at her as she tried to handle the guy.

“Hey, Ted! You back from vacation? So, are you the poor prick taking LUANDA out this week?”

“That’s a fact, Jerry,” he said, trying to stifle the urge to kill the bastard. “We’d better go, Officer Simpson.”

“Y’all have fun out there,” the sergeant said. “Don’t eat anything I wouldn’t, Shermie.”

He felt her catch up to him and did his best to avoid looking at her, in effect putting her more on the spot than she must’ve already felt. Jerry Cantwell was one of the meanest pricks working the westside and his condescending racism was legendary. The fact that he’d made sergeant was a blemish on the department’s history, but right now his first concern was to get Simpson away from him, and he kept up a fast pace until they were out of the building.

“Okay, checking out an AI unit is a little different from a patrol car,” he began. “Aside from the the usual stuff, we’ve got a Reconstruction kit and an Advanced Life Support bag…”

“I thought you needed to be a paramedic to carry one of those with you…”

“Yup.”

“You mean…?”

“Paramedic III, fourteen years ago.”

“You were one of the first reconstructionists too, weren’t you?”

“Yup, I’ve also been to HRT and TAC schools. Best thing you can do at this stage of your career is to start hitting schools, meaningful schools, not bullshit stuff.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I take it your husband doesn’t approve?”

“Not exactly.”

He opened the back of the Suburban and pulled out the Reconstruction kit. “Okay. Basic surveying tools, spray paint, chalk and a shitload of cones and flares here,” he said as he pointed out all the stuff on one side of the huge case, “and spare forms here,” he added. “Camera and lenses here, and a portable drafting kit with tools in that black case,” he said, opening it up and checking it’s contents. He put everything back, then opened the ALS bag and checked contents. “Every shift, you check the black bag, and I’ve got the orange medical gear. Now, you check pressures and lights, then the fluids. I want all four tire pressures on the activity report too. Don’t fudge on me, cause I’ll check your work.”

“Yessir.”

He opened the door and started the engine, then turned on all the lights. A/C off and windows down, he got out and looked at her figures and double checked them, then initialed them and handed the form back to her. “You been to radar school yet?” he asked – and she shook her head. “Alright. You’re riding right seat today. Let’s hit the road, Jack.”

“Yessir.”

“We’re 841. Check us into service.”

“841, 10-8,” she said into the radio.

“841 at 0810 hours. 841, 10B at St Elmo and Vineyard, officers not yet on the scene.”

He took the mic. “841, code 3,” he said as he hit the overheads and siren. “You’ve got the times and service numbers on our sheet this week, but keep your eyes on me when we get there.”

“Yessir.”

“Oh…When we’re in here, it’s Ted.”

“Yessir.”

They heard units check out on the scene a minute before they arrived, and he saw paramedics running around in the street as he pulled to a stop in the middle of the intersection. A patrolman was walking their way, shaking his head – and Sherman sighed, got out and walked over to the scene.

Elementary school, crosswalk, seven year old Vietnamese kid cut between two parked cars away from the crosswalk. Teenaged girl driving an old VW Rabbit doesn’t see the kid and nails him as he darts out from between the two parked cars, loses control after impact and sideswipes three parked cars.

He walks over to the broken kid. Tiny, four feet, maybe sixty pounds. Jeans and blue plaid shirt, black sneakers, no socks, blood everywhere. Book bag, red, contents sprayed down the street. Kid knocked airborne from point of impact, into and through the windshield of a plumber’s van parked across the street. Paramedics placed him on the ground to assess. Good skid marks, glass fragments, witnesses.

Witnesses. Get ‘em with a patrolman and start getting names and contact info, basic statements.

He walks over to the Volkswagen; the girl behind the wheel is chewing gum and texting, both doors open. Short skirt, halter top, fishnets and black patent heels. Hispanic. She’s speaking Spanish slowly to someone on the phone, then looks up at him as he approaches.

“Gotta go now. Bye,” she says in Spanish.

“Morning,” he says as he kneels down beside her open door, sniffing the air. “My name’s Sherman, and I’m going to need your driver’s license, registration and proof of financial responsibility.”

She starts digging in the car’s glove box. “Oh, damn…” she says. “I can’t find ‘em.”

“Gotta purse?” he says, looking at a purse in the back seat. It’s too far away for her to get to easily, and he reaches for in for it and puts it up on the roof of the car. It’s too heavy, and he steps back to keep an eye on it while he looks at her.

She seems confused, evasive. “I’m not sure I brought it.”

“Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

“I’m not sure.”

He turns to Simpson, nods his head and she walks over to get a paramedic.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

“Kid…ran out in front of me. That’s all I remember…”

“Any idea how fast you were going?”

“I don’t know. Thirty, thirty five.” Uh-huh, in a 20MPH school zone? Zero situational awareness.

He bends down again, smells something…alcohol? Medical alcohol? He sees a half dozen used alcohol swabs on the floorboard.

“Diabetico?”

“No way, man.”

“Was anyone in the car with you?”

“No. I was just on my way to school.” He looked around the interior again, couldn’t see any books or a book bag, but he saw what looked like a fresh bloody scab forming on her neck, over her carotid.

The paramedic arrived and he turned to stop her. “A little woozy,” he whispered. “My guess is heroin, maybe some other shit,” he said as he walked over to the witnesses, two teachers and a bunch of kids, as well as the school’s crossing guard. He interrupted the patrolman writing down names.

“Any of you see anyone else in the car with the driver? Maybe leave right after this happened?”

One of the teachers came forward, so did the crossing guard. “Two boys got out, wearing colors,” the teacher said. “They took off that way,” the guard said, pointing towards Saturn.

“How fast do you think she was going?”

“I don’t know,” the guard said. “Fast, like fifty or so, and she was talking on her phone.”

“That’s right,” the teacher said, crying now as she looked at the little boy’s motionless body. “I saw that too.”

“Okay, if you can remember what those boys looked like, what they were wearing, give that information to the officer. I’ll need to talk to each of you in more detail in a few minutes, but thanks for now.” He turned, asked the patrolman to put out an APB if there was enough to go on, then he walked over to the boy, now face up on a gurney in the middle of the street. Looking at the impact injuries on his left side, the lacerations from the windshield on his back…but he had a good idea now what had happened.

He just had to prove it.

The paramedic walked over to him. “I’d say she shot up with H about fifteen minutes ago. Nystagmus is all over the place, she seems in the zone, getting worse.”

He nodded his head. “Yup.” He jotted down the medic’s name and badge number, then walked over to the driver.

“So, who was with you? In the car?”

“I told you, man, weren’t no one with me.”

He knelt down beside her again. “Look at me.”

She turned her head a little and looked at him while he watched her eyes.

“That boy over there is dead. See him? Can you see him?”

She looked away, straight down the street.

“He shoulda watch more where he was goin’.”

“What’s your name?”

She shook her head, looked away.

“I’ll need you to step out of the car now, Ma’am.”

The girl shook her head again, moved her right hand quickly towards the ignition – and he literally jerked her out of the car and leaned her over the front of the car while he cuffed her.

Everyone was staring at the scene now, but Simpson was behind him now.

“Good call, sir,” she said. “We just got an APB out, too.”

He pulled out his voice recorder and placed it on the hood in front of her face and turned it on, then ran through the Miranda warning, asked the girl if she understood her rights.

Silence, blank stare.

“Okay, so who was in the car with you? You don’t, like, want to change your story now, do you?”

“Fuck you, Pig.”

“Music to my ears,” Sherman thought. “Now, would you tell me your name?”

“Eat shit, mother-fucker.”

He looked at Simpson and grinned while he shook his head.

“How much horse you shoot this morning?”

“Keep it up, Pig. My boys will find you and stick your fuckin’ ass.”

“Those the boys with you in the car?”

“Fuckin’ right, Pig.”

“Who’s gonna hit me? Mario? Jose?”

“No way, pig-fucker. Julio and Benito gonna find you and stick yo ass. Tonight, too, fucker…get your wife and kids and your fuckin’ dog, too.”

He picked up the recorder and walked away, spoke his name and badge number into the mic, then the date, time and location – then he shut it down. “Take her to county,” he said to a nearby officer, “after you finish the inventory. Oh, that purse was in the back seat, let me know if you find a DL – or anything interesting, like a gun.” He went to the back of the Suburban and opened the Recon bag and dug out the camera, then walked around the scene shooting everything he needed, explaining what he was doing as Simpson walked along beside him.

The officer who was going to transport the girl walked over and handed him her license, then showed him the purse. Several dime bags of heroin, two bundles of new insulin syringes in their packaging, rubber banded together – and a .32 caliber Saturday night special. He photographed these and wrote down the officer’s name and badge number.

“Surprised they left that,” he said to Simpson. “Got a service number yet?”

She read it off to him, then said “Got it?” to the transporting officer.

They cleared the scene almost two hours later and drove over to a burger shack by the freeway, then they walked up and ordered from the window before sitting at a shaded picnic table.

“So, first impressions?”

She shook her head. “Pretty cut and dried, skids were all after the impact.”

“How fast do you think she was going?”

“Forties, my guess.”

He nodded his head. “Mine too. So. What’s with your husband? ”

“We’re splitting up, says he just can’t take it. The hours. What he calls my ‘attitude’ – all of that shit.”

“Your attitude? What do you think he means be that?”

“I don’t know, Ted. He gets all up tight on me, all the time.”

“My wife had the same issue. Turns out I was having a hard time turning off my street personality when I got home at night.”

She looked away. “Yeah,” she said. “He said that to me once.”

“Think he might have a point?”

“Yeah, maybe, but he’s been disrespectin’ me, and the department, like all the time.”

“What’s he do?”

“Mechanic, at a Ford dealer in he valley. He was in the Navy for a while, a machinist.”

“Ever have trouble with the law?”

“When he was a kid, yeah.”

He sighed. “And you come home one day wearing a gun and a badge. Probably freaked him out a little, huh?”

“Yup.”

“So, is he filing, or are you going to?”

“He is.”

“Gotta place to stay?”

“My grand-mom’s.”

He went over and got their burgers, and they sat and talked about the accident scene for a while. This girl was depressed, he saw. She’d been picking her fingernails all morning, yet even so, she was attentive and focused when she needed to be. If she could keep it together during the divorce she might make it in the department, but so far she lacked the initiative to do traffic. ‘Maybe first day jitters…’ he told himself.

They sat in the Suburban under a shady tree and she wrote out their report, and when she finished the last narrative he filed it on the department server and forwarded a copy to Kingman, then sent her a quick email. “So far so good,” he wrote, and he got a quick “Thnx” in reply.

They worked radar out on Venice Boulevard the last hour of their shift, then drove back to the station. When everything was turned in and they’d changed, he said he’d see her in the morning and started to leave, but she followed him out to his truck.

“You doin’ anything now?” she asked when she caught up with him.

“Grocery store, cook dinner, wait for my girlfriend to come over.”

“I don’t have a car now.”

“Taking the bus?”

She nodded her head.

“Where you hangin’? Your grandmother’s, you said?”

“Pico and Normandie.”

“Maybe you should hang around, have some grub with us?”

She smiled, but looked down at the ground.

“Yup, you’re coming with me. You look like you need a beer or three.”

She put her gym bag in the back and hopped in, then they drove over to a grocery store near his house and picked-up some grub for dinner – three nice looking steaks and a pile of tiger prawns, then they drove over to his place and went inside. He fired off a quick heads-up to Carol then showed her around the house.

“Cool place,” she said. “I always liked bungalows. Cozy, like a home ought to be.” She looked wistfully at pictures on the wall in his study, stopped at several from his navy days. “You were a pilot?”

“Yup.”

“So, how come you’re a cop? I mean…”

“Beats working for a living.”

She laughed at that one. “Man…you’re nuts.”

“You want a brew?”

“Sure.”

They walked into the kitchen and he heard Carol’s Subaru pull into the drive, watched her read his text before she got out of the car – still wearing her lab coat, too, he saw, and those sky-high heels of hers.

“Hi!” Carol said as she came in. “And you must be Officer Simpson?”

“Lu, please.”

“Carol. So, how was your first day together?”

Simpson looked from Ted to Carol and back again.

“No secrets in this house, kiddo,” he said. “Get used to it.”

Simpson smiled. “You’re a doc?”

“Yup.”

“What kind?”

“Psychiatry.”

“Oh, shit,” she whispered.

He laughed, then Carol did too. Simpson looked betrayed – until he handed her an Oly and a pat on the back. “Let’s go light a fire,” he said as he led her to the patio. He poured charcoal into his funnel and lit it, then he watched and made sure the flame settled in while she looked around the narrow yard.

“Man…you’re living with a shrink?” she finally said. “What’s that like?”

“Yeah, keeps me on my toes. If she finds my snuff-porn stash, I’m toast.”

She laughed, but still looked unsure of herself.

“Kingman told me you’re interested in motors.”

She looked at him. “Not too many female motorjocks around, are there?”

“Nope. Ever ridden bikes before?”

“Nope. Horses, but no motorcycles.”

“Oh? You like horses?”

“No…I love horses.”

“Not many places to ride around here…where’d you…?”

“A teacher. Middle school. She got me into it, and I worked as a wrangler over at the park in college.”

“Good trails up there. Too many snakes for me, though.”

“There are a few…”

Carol came out and sat down with a glass of wine, and he excused himself to get the steaks and shrimp ready, leaving them to talk. He whipped up a homemade caesar salad and seasoned the steaks, then carried the steaks out and set them near the flames, looking at his watch as he sat back down. He took a slug from his bottle of Perrier and looked at Carol…still decked out in her five inch heels…and he shook his head. They were talking about horses and riding in Sequoia National Park and Lu was already opening up, cutting loose. He went in and got her another beer and turned the steaks, then put on the shrimp and seasoned everything with ginger, lime-butter and soy.

“‘Bout five more minutes,” he said to Carol, and they all went in and got plates and utensils – while Lu carried out the salad, and he dropped steaks and shrimp on plates and sat down, sighing to be off his feet for a while.

“This is unreal,” Simpson said. “The shrimp are so good…”

“Gotta keep your strength up,” he said. “Steak, twice a week. Salmon at least once a week, then just veggies and salad. Yogurt til your eyeballs turn green and pop out your head.”

“We eat a lot of Big Macs,” Simpson said, grinning.

“You’ll stroke out at fifty,” he said, and she nodded. “So, you want to try the motorcycle class? Next two weekends. I’ve got room for you.”

She nodded her head. “Yessir, I think I’d like to give it a try.”

“Okay. Beer holding up?”

“Yessir.”

He shook his head. “Look, Lu. No uniform, no sir. Makes me nervous, okay?”

She grinned. “Sorry, sir – uh – Ted.” She helped them clean up and he poured her three fingers of rum in a small glass of Coke, then left her with Carol while he went through his email. She was loopy when he walked her out to the truck, and he drove her to her grandmother’s house.

“I’ll pick you up at 6:45,” he said as she oozed out the truck, and she shot him a thumb’s up as she stumbled into the house. “Well, Mission Accomplished…” he said as he drove home.

“That kid’s wound tighter than a drum,” Carol told him when he walked in the door. “You trust her?”

“Lu? Yeah, she had a rough day. She’s had a rough life, too.”

“So I gathered. I’d put her on anti-depressants if she was mine. She’s flat. Flat as a pancake.”

“Ninety percent of the force ought to be on those goddamn things, but then no one would be able to shoot worth a damn.”

“That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, would it?”

“Only if you wouldn’t mind burying a few thousand cops a year,” he smiled.

She was beginning to understand that particular smile. “My feet hurt,” she said.

“You know, those shoes probably make a lot of guys horny, but you’re going to ruin your feet. Here,” he said as he sat down on the bed, “give ‘em to me.”

She sat down and lay them across his lap, and after he peeled her stockings off he put lotion on them and started working her tendons and facia.

“Oh my gawd…” she moaned. “Don’t stop…please don’t stop…”

He laughed. “You know you’re getting old when the woman you’re with says stuff like that to a foot rub, instead of a…”

“Oh, that’s next on my list,” she said, almost purring. “Want me to put those shoes back on?”

He sighed, shook his head. “Do you really think men are so predictable?”

“Yup. I do.”

+++++

By Friday morning she had their routine was down. He picked her up, they talked all the way to the station and almost as soon as they checked in-service they were dispatched to a major accident – usually in or near a school zone, and more often than not with some kid hit in a crosswalk.

They walked out to the Suburban after briefing and checked their bags, and as soon as they checked-in dispatch called.

“841, go ahead.”

“841, 10 unknown, possible signal 1, vicinity of Cielo and Benedict Canyon. This is a patrol request for an AI and additional backup. They request code 1, possible suspects still in the area.”

“841, show us code 1.”

“What the fuck?” Lu said. “An unknown accident with a possible murder? And is this in-progress?”

“That’s the way I read it,” he said as he raced for Olympic. The morning traffic was still heavy – and he busted a few packed intersections under lights and siren, but he continued silent all the way to Santa Monica, picking up speed after they crossed Sunset Boulevard.

“841, be advised air units on the way, tactical callout requested by units on scene.”

“41.”

“Well, there goes the element of surprise…” she said.

“This smells like trouble,” he said as he took a left on Cielo. “Oh, fuck,” he said as he looked at the houses in the neighborhood. “This is same area where the Manson/Tate murders went down.”

“The what?”

He looked at her as he stopped behind three parked squad cars. “You ever heard of Charles Manson?”

“Fuck!”

“Get the AR out of the back, and the extra clips.”

“Yessir.”

“Keep your eyes open…” he said as he stepped out of the Suburban, just as a barrage of heavy automatic weapons fire cut loose up the hill. “Fuck!” he said as he ran to the back to the truck. He opened the doors and hauled out the AR-15, then pulled three clips out of the bag; he handed these to Lu and she took off into the trees. He pulled an ancient Remington 870 pump out and double-checked the tube, and racked the slide enough to see a chambered round. He counted ten rounds total – just as another round of heavy weapons fire erupted.

But…nothing on the radio…

What the fuck…

This was an ambush…

He dove into the front seat and got on the radio.

“841!”

“841, go ahead.”

“841, I think this is an ambush. Two bursts of heavy automatic weapons fire, and I’m not picking up anything on the radio…”

Another burst of fire, this time close by, and this time the windshield overhead exploded, raining shards down all over the seats, and all over his back.

“841, signal 33 shots fired, heavy weapons, air unit caution, need immediate backup!” He scrambled across the floorboard and out the passenger door and into the bushes; he saw Simpson laying face down in the dirt and grabbed the AR by her side –  and checked the safety. He heard running, two to three people running down the street, and he pulled himself through the dense brush over to a steep, rock-walled ravine – and he tried to get a view of the other patrol cars ahead of their Suburban.

He heard an impossible number of sirens coming up Benedict Canyon, then another burst of fire – and he looked up to see a helicopter taking fire, smoke pouring out the rear. He saw the shooter across the street, waiting in the bushes, and he brought the Colt’s sights up to his eyes and let off a three round burst. He jumped and scrambled through the brush as bullets slammed into the trees where he just had shot from, and he heard people speaking, but not in English. He saw a van racing down Cielo, heard it braking hard, saw three men running for the van – as he sighted in on them – he fired a three round burst – then another. Two down, the third looking for him – he fired into the driver’s door then felt something hit his shoulder. He was on fire, but now he saw the third guy running his way, his gun coming up…

Then the man stopped, began ejecting the clip from his weapon and Sherman stood up with the 870 pump and fired four rounds of double-00 buckshot at the man, at least two hitting the man in the face. The man staggered backwards and fell to the ground, just as the first of several dozen patrol cars screamed into view. He staggered down out of the bushes, pointed at the hillside across the street and officers began fanning out. He stumbled over to the Suburban and got on the radio.

“841, multiple officers down, get EMS and medevac aircraft up here code 3. Notify 100, CID and call the FBI.”

He slumped over the seat, then fell backwards onto the street. He put a hand out, tried to steady himself, but he felt light-headed, almost weightless as the sky started spinning.

“This isn’t so bad,” he said as he suddenly felt himself floating on a sea of warm light. “Nope, not too bad at all…I thought it would hurt a lot more than this…” He was looking up at the sky again, at a cloud passing on a warm breeze, and he was aware – for a moment – that it was getting hard to breathe, and he smiled for a moment, then closed his eyes.

+++++

She was sitting at a desk, re-reading an email, looking at the satellite imagery attached when a colonel in the Mossad came into the room.

He didn’t speak, didn’t dare interrupt her, but she looked up at him. “Yes?” she said, and the colonel had the impression a very old owl had just spoken to him.

“There has been trouble. In Los Angeles.”

“My brother?”

“He has been shot, there are reports he has been killed.”

She turned away, put her face in her hands and rubbed her eyes. “Find out what you can,” she whispered, then she turned to him and the fury he saw in her eyes was a fascinating, if dreadful thing to behold. “Minimal involvement,” she seethed. “See to it yourself. Find out who was behind it.”

When the man was gone she looked around the room, this little monastic cell of her own creation, and she cursed her body once again, cursed it for turning against her now. She turned the chair and motored out to the patio, looked out over the little village of Tarum to the vineyards beyond, then she cursed the day she’d been born – again.

The email burned in her mind. The imagery provided implications beyond merely staggering. “The power…” she whispered, “power to reshape entire worlds…and now this? What happened? Why did he…?”

She turned and looked skyward as an echelon of F-15s circled above, breaking off one by one to line up for their approach to Tel Nof. “And how many more people will die because of what I’ve done.” Operations lined up on the chessboard of her mind; her pawns sacrificed in the opening moves two years ago, her opponent taking them, falling for each one of her obscure feints – until someone inside betrayed her. Still, in this game family was supposed to be off limits, and with Ted down that could only mean one thing.

A new player had entered the game, and revenge was the oldest motive in the world, wasn’t it?

+++++

Carol sat in the surgical waiting room with the family members of the other wounded – and killed – officers, and with hundreds of uniformed officers all milling about the scene was subdued bedlam. A tall black officer, an older woman came over and sat by her.

“I hear you know Ted Sherman?” the woman asked.

Carol looked up and nodded. “We’ve been together a while. I went up with him to Seattle last week, to see his sister.”

“Oh, I didn’t know. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Do you know anything about Lu…about Officer Simpson?”

“She didn’t make it,” the woman said, looking away and swallowing hard. “How did you know her?”

“She’s been over to the house several times. I like her. A lot.”

The woman looked at her again. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

“I’m scared,” Carol said, looking down, putting her face in her hands, trying to choke off tears fighting for release, that wanted to spring free and carry her away to oblivion.

Then the room grew still as a surgeon walked into the room.

“Walker family?”

A woman and two children stood and he came over to them. “Let’s go to a conference room,” the surgeon said, and they walked away, heads down, shock settling over them…and the room grew quieter still.

Then an older black woman was standing in front of her…

“Are you Doctor Carol?” the woman asked.

“I guess so.”

“Lu was my granddaughter,” the old woman said. “She told me so much about you this week, and about Officer Sherman. She enjoyed talking to you both, and was as happy as I’d seen her in years.”

“I, uh, well, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Carol said.

“How is he?” The woman asked. “Any word yet?”

“No.”

Another wave of stillness, another surgeon standing by the door.

“Sherman family?”

Carol stood, and the officer by her side did as well.

“Here,” the woman said, and she led Carol to the conference room. They sat, Carol expecting to hear the worst…

“I’m Dr Curry,” the surgeon began. “Jeanie. Who’s who?”

“Ellie Kingman, Sherman’s watch commander. This is Carol, his girlfriend.”

“I’m a physician,” Carol said, out of the blue.

“Oh?” The surgeon said, and Kingman turned and looked at her anew.

“Psychiatry, at the West Pavilion.”

“Ah. Well,” Curry continued, “we resected Officer Sherman’s left brachial artery. Sorry, that’s what took so long. A solid-steel .223 round hit his left clavicle, bone fragments nicked the artery. Paramedics got expanders into him on the scene, or he’d have been in real trouble. An ortho is wrapping-up repairs to the clavicle right now, then I’ll go in and close. My guess is he’ll be in ICU for a couple of days, but you’ll be able to talk to him later tonight, or tomorrow morning.”

“He’s going to make it, then?” Kingman said, starting to cry.

“Yes, but as long as we’re here, my guess is he ought to retire after this. His left arm and shoulder will be very weak. Looks like he’s been shot twice before, too? Is that right?”

“Yes,” Kingman said.

“Well, maybe it’s time for him to take a break, try something new.”

“Any oxygenation issues, brain damage?” Carol asked.

“No, I talked with him a little before anesthesia, and he seemed intact, and there’ve been no issues during surgery, so I’d say he’s good. Well, I’ve got to get back. Stay here as long as you need to, and I’ll see you when he’s been moved to the recovery room.”

“Thanks, doctor,” Kingman said, then she turned to Carol. “You’re a doc? A psychiatrist? Where’d you meet?”

“One of his dive classes, couple of weeks ago.”

“Hmm. I’m surprised, really.”

“Surprised?”

“I thought, after Sandy and all that stuff…”

“I didn’t get the impression he was looking for anyone,” Carol said, laughing a little. “But when I met him? Gawd-almighty! I fell for him in about three minutes flat…”

Kingman laughed. “That’s Ted. So, you didn’t know Sandy?”

“No. Why?”

“Oh, she was something else. A real journalist, super smart, last of a breed. Sweet, too. I wouldn’t say this, but it’s only that you remind me of her in so many ways.”

“Oh?”

“Not physically. No…oh, there was something in her eyes, in yours too, and, oh, I don’t know. You just seem so familiar to me.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Carol blurted out, now feeling light-headed, almost spaced out as waves of relief finally broke over her.

“Let’s go get some coffee, maybe a breath of fresh air…”

They walked to the elevators and rode down to the main floor inside a gaggle of interns, then walked off in search of a coffee shop. They found a Starbuck’s off the lobby then walked outside, sat on a bench in the sun.

“So, what happened in Seattle?” Kingman asked.

Carol shrugged, bit her lower lip. “She seemed pretty far gone by the time we got there.”

“How was he – after, I mean?”

Carol looked away, hated these kinds of subterfuges. “He’s strong, more resourceful than I imagined.”

“Sounds like Ted. I wonder if he’ll want to retire after this one?”

“This one?”

“Third time for him, but nothing like this before.”

“What happened out there? Does anyone know anything yet?”

“Looks like our guys got there before they could hit the target.”

“I heard someone say it was an ambush?”

Kingman shrugged. “Way too soon to speculate. They’re still working on the scene up there.”

“Has anything like this ever happened before?”

“No. Not on this scale. Eight down in one incident? They were heavily armed, too.”

“What if it was an ambush?”

“Motive. I can’t think of a motive,” Kingman almost whispered. “Police are a hard target, not something terrorists would go after…”

“Revenge? Isn’t that the oldest motive?”

“Not like this. Revenge is very personal, usually directed at someone specific. Going after the department…just to make a statement…that just doesn’t make sense.”

“What if they were trying to get just one of the officers, one who responded?”

“Far-fetched. No one knows ahead of time who’ll be dispatched to a call like that. Still, Ted called it in as an ambush, and he called for the FBI to respond. My guess is he thought it was a terrorist incident.”

“Any idea who they were?”

“No.”

“I don’t know how you do it. All of you. I think about Lu and I just want to go away and crawl in a hole…god, she was such a sweet, screwed up kid.”

“Screwed up?” Kingman said – a little defensively, Carol thought. “How so.”

“Depressed. I mean, a bad kind of depression. I told Ted if she was a patient of mine I’d have had her on an anti-depressant.”

“Really? What did Ted have to say about that?”

Carol thought back, thought about his smile. “Something about half the department would need to be on them if I applied my usual criteria. I said something stupid then, something about that maybe not being such a bad thing.”

“And let me guess,” Kingman added. “He said if that happened a lot of cops would get killed.”

“Exactly. That’s just about exactly what he said.”

“It’s a thin line, Carol. After a few years on the street, lots of us walk a razor thin line between sanity and losing it completely. Being cynical, almost paranoid is part of the way you stay alive out on the street. Everyone you look at, everyone we deal with is a potential threat. Every call we respond to…well, it could be the last thing we ever do, and if you can’t hold that edge, if you let down your guard for just one minute you become a danger – not just to yourself, but to everyone you work with.”

“Such an impossible way to work, to live.”

“Yet if you’re on the street, it’s the only way you can stay alive. A conundrum, isn’t it? It’s why so many of our marriages come unglued. And why so many cops come unglued after they retire.”

“This is awful coffee, you know?”

Kingman laughed. “We better head back upstairs. I need to check in and see what’s going on.” They walked back through the lobby and took the elevator back to the waiting room…

“Oh, there they are,” Carol heard someone saying, and she turned to the commotion.

President Smithfield was coming her way, his wife too, and a phalanx of Secret Service agents surrounded them as they pushed their way across the crowded room, parting a path for the couple like an icebreaker.

“Which one of you is Sherman’s girlfriend?” the old man said, and Carol hesitated, then raised her hand.

“That would be me, sir.”

“Soon as we heard we came over. He’s okay, I hear?”

“Yes, Mr President,” Kingman said. “We have three confirmed dead, five wounded.”

“Suspects?”

“Four dead, sir. I understand Sherman got all four of them.”

The old man nodded his head. “Why am I not surprised?” He turned to Carol. “How long have you two been together?”

“Not that long, Mr President.”

“Well, the important thing is you’ll have a chance for more time together. You’ll be in our prayers, young lady.”

“Thank you, Mr President.”

He turned to Kingman again. “Ellie, I’d like a word with you, please…”

Carol turned and saw the surgeon, Dr Curry, coming from the OR, and he came over to her. “Come with me,” she said – looking at Smithfield and his entourage – and Carol followed her to the Post-OP ICU and into a cordoned off suite.

“He’s not quite out from under yet,” Curry said, “but I thought you’d like to see him for a second.”

“Yes, thanks.” She went to the side of his gurney, looked at him, trying her hardest not to cry. His eyes were still taped closed, a ventilator was still pumping air into his lungs, and she looked at the bank of monitor over his bed. Rhythm and sats all looked good, BP rock solid, and she held his hand, pressed a nail-bed and watched the blood rebound. There were pressure dressings on his left chest, and his left arm was bound tightly to his torso.

She remembered that morning, how they’d held each other after. How she loved him more and more with each passing day, and now, like lightning out of a clear blue sky – this. This was the reality of his work, his calling…and then she felt Curry’s hand on her shoulder.

“He’s going to be fine,” the surgeon said. “You ought to go home now, get some rest. Come back early later. He’ll be in the ICU soon, up on seven.”

“I…”

“You want me to call you? If anything changes?”

Carol got out her wallet, handed her a card, her shaking hands an embarrassment.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here.”

She found Kingman waiting for her in the waiting room, and Carol thought she looked anxious now, maybe preoccupied was a better word, but she smiled when she saw Curry. “How is he?” Kingman asked, and Carol smiled, Curry too.

“He’ll be fine,” Curry said. “Was that Smithfield?”

Kingman nodded. “He came to check on us.”

Curry wondered just what the hell that meant, but let it drop. “Well, I’ll let you know if anything changes.”

“I need your personal cell,” Kingman said, and she said it to the surgeon in a way that left no doubt this was an explicit order. Curry wrote her number down and handed it to her, looking more than a little put out now. Kingman looked at her watch, then back to Curry. “Answer the call you get at seven this evening. It’s important.”

“Thanks again.” Carol said, and she watched as the surgeon abruptly turned and left. She turned back to Kingman, the question plain to see in her eyes. “Any news?”

“Not here. You ready to leave?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

“Parked in the garage?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, let’s get out of here. Now.”

+++++

Carol drove to the Westside station, following Kingman’s Suburban all the way, and once there Kingman parked and came to Carol’s Subaru.

“Drive,” Kingman said as soon as she was in the seat.

“Where?”

“Doesn’t matter.” She put her attaché case on the floorboard and opened it, pulled out an Iridium Sat Phone and extended the antenna, then plugged in a small box to the auxiliary port. She speed-dialed a pre-programmed number, then enabled the encryptor, waiting for it to connect with the unit on the other end of the call.

“Pull in, over there,” she said as the light on the unit went from red to green, then red again. “Go, one, go, go,” she said.

“Go two,” came the reply, over the phone’s speaker.

The light switched to green again.

“Hello? Ellie?”

“We’re here, both of us.”

“Carol?”

“Yes? Who’s this?” The voice sounded odd, metallic, and completely unrecognizable.

“Ellie will explain everything; just do what she says. Oh yes, I forgot to thank you last week, for your time on Hyperion. Goodbye for now.”

The connection cut, Kingman put the phone away. “We’re going to have to get you and Ted out of here, tonight.”

“Was that…?” She stopped when Kingman held out her hand.

“Don’t even say the name. Find a place for dinner. We have about an hour ’til I have to call Curry.”

Carol pulled out into traffic and drove to a place near her clinic; she parked and they went in, ordered and waited for the hour to pass, Carol growing more confused by the minute. Still, Kingman was a link to Ted, wasn’t she?

“I don’t suppose you want to tell me what’s going on?”

Kingman shook her head. “Can’t. Not now, not yet.” They ate in silence, and at seven she picked a disposable cell from her case and called Curry’s number.

“Curry.”

“Doctor, meet me at the Gayley entrance at eight.”

“Who is this?”

“Eight o’clock, doctor. Sharp.” Kingman broke the connection, then shook her head. “This isn’t going to work,” she sighed, then: “Okay, back to the medical center.”

Carol paid the bill and they walked out to her car, and they made it back to the Westwood area, and the UCLA Medical Center, with ten minutes to spare. She turned onto Gayley and drove north, until Kingman told her to stop. She looked at her watch, then the clock on the center console: “Be right there at five after,” Kingman said, pointing across the street as she got out of the car. “Now move, and keep an eye on your mirror.”

Carol drove off, wondering just what the hell she’d gotten herself into now.

+++++

Jeanie Curry knew better than to follow the police captain’s cryptic commands, but she’d seen the six o’clock news, heard the reports that the assailants had no records at all, nothing – not even fingerprints – anywhere. A commentator exclaimed it was like those four men had never existed. And then, what about Smithfield? What had he been doing up there?

‘No, something’s not right,’ she told herself, and that Kingman woman looked like she needed a helping hand…and like she meant business.

She walked out the Gayley entrance at 8:02, and Kingman walked up to her seconds after she appeared.

“Let’s cross the street.”

“Listen, I don’t know who the devil…?”

“You want to save Sherman’s life?”

“What’s going on?”

“Just answer the question.”

“Of course I do…”

“Then come with me.”

+++++

The Chief of Police held a press conference at ten the next morning, reading the names of the dead aloud before a sea of reporters, and into the record of the Department’s Fallen.

When he came to Theodore Sherman’s name Ellie Kingman broke out in tears, hiding her face from the world. Reporters and photographers gathered ‘round her after the ceremony, shoving microphones in her face, a barrage of flashes strobing the scene, and she tried her best to describe her feelings about yesterday’s events, and the loss of her very dear friend Ted Sherman, and so soon after his wife passed.

Three Presidents were on hand, in a show of solidarity some considered uncommon among the political class, yet many remarked that former President Grover Smithfield seemed overtly preoccupied, almost distracted, during the proceedings. Indeed, some said he appeared almost angry, yet no seemed to know of a good reason why.

Radar tracked a Swiss registered Gulfstream G650 from KBUR until it departed US airspace at 0937 hrs Mountain Time, crossing Montana on it’s way to Alberta, on a filed flight plan stating Zurich the primary destination, Geneva it’s alternate.

+++++

“Gulfstream 43 Golf, Ben Gurion approach, clear for a straight-in approach, land runway one-two, winds northeast at ten, altimeter two-niner niner-five. You’ll have company at your four o’clock through the ADIZ to the TDZ.”

“43 Golf.” The pilot switched off the autopilot; her co-pilot added ten degrees flaps, then dropped the landing gear.

“43 Golf, clear to land, and clear the active at Echo 2 Right.”

“Golf clear at Echo 2 Right.”

Carol and Dr Jeanie Curry buckled their seat-belts, looked out the large oval windows at the sleeping city just ahead – and as the sprawling beachfront seemed to reach out for them Carol felt another surge of apprehension. The Gulfstream was lined up now, yet still out over the Mediterranean for it’s final approach, and to her she felt this was the final approach to whatever life lay ahead. She leaned forward a little and looked out the window, was shocked to see two jets tucked in close to their jet’s right wingtip, and two more just a few hundred yards away. Military? Fighters?

Their sudden appearance only served to drive home the enormity of her departure from the United States. The stakes had been raised, and she turned back to look at Ted, and the medic tending him.

Had President Smithfield been responsible for the attack? The Israeli colonel sitting forward had seemed to imply as much, but then he had also explicitly stated that at least two of the men had been positively identified as Bulgarians, known agents of the Russian FSB. What exactly did that mean? That a former American President had collaborated with the current Russian government to take out a bunch of cops to get at Ted?

They idea was preposterous, and she knew it…so…why the escort? Why all the suspicion? What was happening? Why were all these Israeli warriors so on-edge? What did they know – that she didn’t?

And what was at stake?

She looked out the window again, looked down as a jagged edge of beachfront high-rises streak-by just below the wing, then a sea of city neighborhoods not so very different from those she had seen in Los Angeles – at least from the air – at least, she thought, in the middle of the night.

So many varieties of us, yet we’re all the same. Where did we come from?

Aren’t we all the same?

This last flight was beginning to feel more than a little surreal, too. Smooth, incredibly quiet compared to an airliner, but then there were those fighters hanging off their wingtip. What was the threat, because somebody must think we’re were still in danger? But from whom? And why?

The ground was reaching up quickly now, flashing strobes and glowing blue taxiways – and an El Al 767 holding short of the runway, it’s lights blinding her as they passed. Seconds later she felt the Gulfstream flare and land, and she looked out the window as the fighters peeled away and disappeared into the night, then as spoilers sprouted from the top of the wing. The engines dropped into reverse-thrust and roared into the night, and the seatbelt grew tight across her waist. Then sudden silence and gentle deceleration, a very smooth turn at the end of the runway – and then the jet slowed to a gentle stop beside a darkened hangar. She saw Land Rovers out there, and troops. Lots of troops – and all of them carrying machine guns, looking nervously into the night.

Curry was up the moment the jet stopped, checking Sherman’s vital signs, adjusting the drip on his IV and the flow of oxygen to his nasal cannula. She reached into a pocket, shined a penlight into his eyes.

“Shit,” she said, shaking her head as she reached for a syringe.

“What’s wrong?” The medic asked, and Carol looked on wide-eyed.

“His O2 sats are all wrong, his BP is too high. I must have missed a fragment, or the resection is failing.”

“Or pressurization rebound,” the Israeli medic added. “Not uncommon after a long flight like this, with someone in his condition, but I agree, he should go straight to the ER.”

“Is it close?”

The medic nodded his head, went forward and spoke to the pilot, and a moment later the air-stairs opened, flooding the cabin with very warm, very dry air. Escort vehicles and a military ambulance pulled up to the jet, and soldiers came thundering aboard; they rolled Sherman’s gurney to the door – and straight across into the waiting ambulance, that had somehow elevated and positioned itself by the open stairs. Curry and the medic hopped across and into the beast – then it drove off quietly into the night, leaving Carol and her Israeli escort alone in the cabin.

“We must leave, while it is still dark,” the man said, and she followed him down the stairs and into something that looked a little like an old-style Land Rover – except this thing was almost brand new and painted flat tan. Two – what, paratroopers? – sat in front, and three other vehicles, each identical to this one, formed up ahead and behind as they made ready to leave. The little convoy slipped through a heavily guarded gate and onto a narrow roadway, and she saw mountains ahead, their jutting profile highlighted by the pinkish-amber glow of the sun – still just below the horizon.

“Do you need air conditioning?” one of the paratroopers asked.

“I’m fine,” she said, but she felt anything but just then. She felt disoriented, alone and unsure of herself as she looked out yet another window – passing through farmland one moment, through  a small settlement the next, and then she saw blacked out buildings that looked oddly military in function – before rolling through more farmland.

‘I’m in a war zone,’ she said to herself. ‘In a war zone, a spectator looking at the world pass by through a parade of windows…’

Farm-village-farm-factory…this oddly variegated landscape was as disorienting as her mood, and nothing she saw made much sense to her American eyes – yet closing them didn’t help. After a half hour of this, her little convoy turned off the main road – and she saw a small sign indicating they had just entered the Tarum archeological settlement – ‘Whatever the Hell that is’ – she said to herself. They followed the lead Rover as it pulled onto an arcing, narrow street, then into a driveway. She saw a house: dark, austere, immensely plain looking and very small, and the colonel with her looked at his watch, then got out of the truck and opened her door, looking up at the last stars fading from the night.

Hills, low and rocky-tan, their flanks covered with wind-burned trees, and just up the nearest trail – a tank. Low and menacing, it’s barrel camouflaged with brush, She saw troops everywhere, under trees. Waiting. Watching her, and waiting, and she wondered why they were under trees when the sun was barely up…

“This way, please,” her escort said, and she followed him up to the house and waited while he fumbled with keys in the near darkness. He finally unlocked the door and walked inside, turning on lights as he entered, holding the door open for her, then quickly, too quickly, shutting it behind her.

The interior looked like something haphardly thrown together, a scrambled mess straight out of an Ikea catalogue – all bright primary colors and spare Danish lines – and even the air smelled like freshly molded plastic; the overall effect was simply devastating with it’s soul-crushing ability to render her soul speechless.

“This will be your new home,” the colonel said, beaming, his arms held expansively wide.

She looked at him, suddenly feeling an intense desire to drop dead on the spot, but she nodded her head. “Okay. Where’s the bedroom, and how do I find out how Ted is?”

“Bedroom, right this way,” he said, leading her into a ten foot by ten foot room decorated by someone who had obviously spent way too much time in an underground missile silo, and then she looked in the closet, saw clothes hanging on the rack that were – “Oh, what a surprise…” – just her size. Shoes too, nice, sensible flats and running shoes, also her size. Ted’s selection was beside her’s, right down to the same style of white Adidas tennis shoes he kept in his own closet back home. The sight filled her with dread, and a certain encroaching nausea. She felt a line of sweat bead on her forehead as a profound anomie settled over her, like a snowflake in August.

“The bathroom?”

He pointed and she walked in. All their usual toiletries, laid out in neat, orderly rows – ‘Ready for inspection, Sergeant!’

“This is a fucking nightmare,” she whispered.

“You’ve found everything in order?”

“Yes. Fine. What about Ted?”

“One of us will be out front at all times, and as soon as we know anything I’ll call you,” he said, pointing at a telephone on her bedside table. “We’ll bring Dr Curry out here as soon as we can.”

“Dr Curry? Why isn’t she returning to…?”

The man smiled, looking at her as if she was an extraordinarily slow child: “I doubt she will be returning anytime soon. It could be very dangerous for her.” He turned and left the house, and she turned and looked at the bed, at the barren concrete walls that suddenly felt more like a prison cell than a home. She walked over and looked out the front window, saw four men gathered beside their vehicles, smoking cigarettes – obviously talking about things inconsequential, each armed with heavy machine guns and with bulky night vision goggles perched on their khaki helmets.

‘I wonder…are they here to protect me?’ she whispered to herself. “Or to keep me here?” She looked around the surreal living room once again, the slick Scandinavian designs at odds with the painted cinder-block walls, and right then she decided sleep was the easiest course of action.

“As long as I don’t dream…” she said as she crawled off the find the nearest rock.

+++++

Jeanie Curry was beyond livid.

She had a full schedule of procedures on the books for the morning, and where was she? In Tel Aviv? Israel? What the hell was going on?!

Kingman had asked her to help with Sherman – just as she saw four men wheeling him into a waiting ambulance. Then the cop had asked her to get in the ambulance too – “To make sure he makes it to the airport” – and then? A twelve hour flight to Oslo, where they stayed on the ground just long enough to refuel, then another six hours crammed inside that hideous metal tube watching the cop’s condition deteriorate?

And then, on asking that someone tell her what was happening to her, she was – what? Escorted to a hospital, then shuffled off to a military convoy, and she was now being driven “up into the mountains”? Mountains? These people called the little anthills ahead ‘mountains’? Looking out the truck’s windows, she saw curiously arthropodal looking helicopters ranging ahead of their convoy – criss-crossing the roadway like they were protecting her, or trying to draw fire.

“Why all the helicopters?” she asked one of the soldiers, and he shrugged, then pointed at the skies overhead.

“F-15s up there too. I have no idea why.” He turned away from her, resumed scanning the road ahead.

Then she noticed the machine gun in his lap – and turned away, craned her head, looked out the window and up into the midday sky, shielding her eyes from the blistering sun. Yes, she saw little pinpoints circling high overhead…but, what could that mean?

Those cops up on Benedict Canyon? Someone had tried to kill Sherman.

An enemy of the State of Israel had tried to kill Sherman.

So Sherman was somehow of vital interest to the State of Israel. Or to someone who was.

Smithfield? Why was he at the hospital?

And she had been sucked into a goddamned subterfuge. Unwittingly, stupidly, carelessly.

“When can I leave?” she asked the soldier, but he just shook his head. “Couldn’t you just take me to the airport? Let me get on a plane?”

The same shrug again, but this time he spoke on his radio.

“Look, am I a prisoner? Why can’t you tell me what’s going on?”

“We’re almost there.”

“There? What are you talking about? Where are we?”

He turned, and this time he looked right at her. “Home,” he said with a smile as he pointed at this tiny wisp of a village.

They were driving through what looked like a small settlement now, all the houses looked ten, maybe fifteen years old, yet they all looked alike – like hybrids of some sort, a union of house and bomb shelter, and each and every one of them was tiny. “You’ve got to be kidding me…” she whispered.

They pulled up to a house on a circle – ‘or was it a dead-end road?’ – and she saw troops everywhere – yet they appeared to be hiding, under trees, under awnings – always out of sight. And she’d seen at least three tanks hidden in the low, stunted trees around the settlement…

“Sorry,” the soldier said, looking at his watch. “Satellite overhead now.”

“A satellite? What’s…?”

“Russians. They take photograph now.”

“Russians?”

“Five more minutes, we get out. Need air conditioning?”

“Uh-huh, yeah, I sure do.” She was steaming now, and tried to hit a few pressure points on her wrist when she felt the first wave of a blinding migraine coming on.

The soldier got out a few minutes later and opened her door, and he led her up the gravel walk to the little house – then she saw Carol inside looking out a window at her, heading for the front door as soon as she recognized her.

The door opened, revealing another, much older soldier standing just inside the barely open door. The soldier escorting her handed this man a piece of paper and she was ‘allowed’ in – and once inside she stopped in her tracks and burst out laughing…

“This just gets better and better!” she bellowed – then she saw Carol – and right then she knew whatever else this might be, it was no joke.

+++++

Grover Smithfield sat at his desk, turned and looked over the Pacific spread out below, then he looked at the phone on his desk. He was worried now, and even though the wilting sorrow he still felt about his son’s death was never far away, his thoughts kept drifting back to Ted Sherman. ‘We should’ve kept tighter surveillance on him, never let this happen.’ Now things were getting complicated, and he wasn’t sure if she knew about these developments. Still, he had to trust her.

The encrypted phone on his desk beeped once, and he inserted his key – then, when the prompt came, he inserted his flash drive. When the light flashed green twice, he picked up the handset.

“Eagle,” he said.

“Roost Two.”

The line went dead and the shock of instant recognition hit him. He and Linda had either been, or were about to be exposed, again, but this time there’d be no hurried resignation, no helicopter waiting on the White House lawn to take him home.

No, this time there’d be a state funeral at Arlington, and he’d be the guest of honor. A silent, dead, guest of honor. And probably Linda, too. No wonder she’d been acting so strange lately.

‘I wonder how much she knows?’

He opened his laptop and then an encrypted partition, and he looked over the details of Roost Two and shook his head. He read through them again, committing each detail to memory, then he activated the worm, and bit by bit the entire contents of the Mac’s drives were obliterated.

He picked up the encrypted phone and put it in a nylon bag and went upstairs to talk with Linda, wondering all the way who was coming, and who’d get to them first.

+++++

Curry sat in the little living room on a bright red, yellow and blue sofa, her face in her hands now as the full force of her migraine hit. Carol looked on sympathetically, but she couldn’t relate: she’d never, ever had a headache, not even in med school. Still, when Curry got up and ran into the bathroom, she just looked at the colonel and shrugged.

“Can I fix you lunch?” the man asked, but Carol just shook her head.

“What are we waiting for?” she asked.

He pointed up at the sky. “Satellites.”

“Oh, that explains a lot,” she said, shaking her head again as her fingers fidgeted away restlessly.

“Russian reconnaissance birds, maybe American, too. We don’t exactly want them to know where you are. Yet.”

“Yet?”

“Uh-huh. We’re just moving a few pieces on the board right now. Shaking things up a bit.”

“You mean they can see us?”

“If I held a golf ball out with the number facing up, ten minutes later some troll in Moscow would look at it, be able to clearly make out that number…”

“Sweet. Sorry I asked.” She shook her head, tried to remember everything Ted had told her, but this was nuts. “You’ll pardon my asking, but you don’t exactly sound like you grew up around here…”

The colonel laughed. “Beverly Hills High, class of ‘87. USC, too, then the bug hit.”

“The bug?”

“I’m a Jew. This is my homeland.”

“You don’t miss it? California?”

He grinned, a handsome, becoming smile, just as Jeanie came back into the room. “I’d kill for a Tommy burger right now,” he said.

“The one on Beverly?” Curry said.

“That’s the only one there is, Ma’am, if you know what I mean.”

“A guy took me there once,” Jeanie said. “I puked for a week.”

“Not an LA girl, are you?” the colonel grinned.

“You got a name,” Jeanie asked, “or is that classified, too?”

“Ben. Ben Katz, but it used to be Kaye.”

“So, you went to SC?” Jeanie asked.

“Yeah, film school, if you can believe it.”

Curry shrugged. “Why not? Good place for that, good as any, I suppose. I did my undergrad there, but went to med school in San Francisco.”

“I know,” Katz said. “USF. My sister was two years behind you. Mimi Kaye. Remember her?”

“No kidding! Man, small world, isn’t it?”

He smiled again. “And you worked two summers at Disneyland, during your undergrad years, at It’s A Small World.”

Curry stared at him, not quite sure how mad she was yet, but she knew she was getting madder by the second. “So, who’ve I slept with the past year? Got that information handy?”

“As far as we could tell, no one.”

“You goddamn mother fuckers!” Curry screamed. “Tell me what the fuck’s going on, and I mean right now, or get me down to the fucking airport! Now!”

Katz laughed, then looked at his watch. “Okay.”

“What?”

“I said Okay. Let’s go take a peek behind the curtain first, Dorothy. Maybe you’ll find an answer that agrees with you.” He stood and led both of them to the door, then out to one of the ur-Land Rovers.

‘Funny,’ Curry thought, ‘how everyone keeps looking at the sky…’

They drove a few minutes from the house, then turned up a narrow dirt trail, past a sign declaring the area a restricted archeological site, then the truck turned into thick brush, into what looked like a cave. Twenty meters in they came to a reinforced concrete and steel gate and stopped. A soldier came out of the shadows and looked at the colonel’s ID, then waved them on. Another fifty meters down a steep ramp they came to a parking area, and Katz got out, opened Carol’s door, then walked around to get Jeanie’s, and then he led them to a simple steel access door across from the Rover.

He punched in a code and the door opened – revealing a long corridor beyond. A couple of turns – to confuse an intruder? – and he stopped outside just another door – and knocked.

The door hummed and unlocked, and Carol looked at cameras in the ceiling – and waved – then followed Katz and Jeanie inside.

Jeanie Curry’s first impression was that she’d somehow stumbled into an concrete aviary, and that there was a very big owl sitting behind the desk across the room. The woman was enigmatically ageless – yet somehow ancient, and she looked emaciated, almost terminally ill. And her eyeglasses. They seemed at least half an inch thick, making her eyes appear gigantic – yet eerily intelligent. There was a laptop on the owl’s desktop, and a large display on the wall behind her – that was now showing an image of earth – apparently from orbit.

“Hope?” Carol said as she peered at the owl. “Is that you?”

An owl named Hope, Curry said to herself. ‘This isn’t Oz…I’m Alice, we’ve just gone down the rabbit hole – and now I’ve found the Red Queen.’

“Carol? How are you?” the owl spoke in a clear, precise voice.

Curry pointed at the screen on the wall. “What’s this?”

The owl’s head pivoted and looked at the screen, the turned again; she looked down at the laptop and sighed, entered a command and the image zoomed to an image somewhere in a desert, and to what looked like a smooth tan crater in the middle of a graded plain. “The Negev,” the owl said, “south of here.” More commands, a deeper zoom. Curry thought she was looking at a radio telescope – only more massive, and made of concrete – then the owl entered more commands and the image flickered once, changed to show a white space station – apparently in orbit.

“This is the ISS, isn’t it?” Jeanie asked.

“No,” the owl said. “This is Hyperion.”

“Are those shuttles? I thought they were…?”

“Those? No. The Boeing X-37C. They were used to build Hyperion.”

“Is that what this is all about?” Curry said. “You’re building a secret satellite?”

The owl studied her for a moment. “How is my brother?”

“Your brother? Who…?”

“Ted Sherman, my brother, How is he?”

Carol moved to sit down; she’d heard the barest outline of the project before, but had never seen any images. She found the reality somewhat frightening, yet now Ted’s name was floating in the air, and she grew cold and still inside – while she waited for the answer to take shape…

“He’s, uh, I missed a bone fragment. He had a bleed on the flight, a bad one. We’ve made a repair, but we’re in a kind of ‘wait and see’ period right now. Bigger issue now will be if he throws a clot.”

“I see. Well, Dr Curry, what you’re looking at isn’t a satellite, not in the usual sense. It was originally conceived as a power station. It’s a fusion reactor, but there have been unanticipated consequences to it’s operation.”

“Fusion? You mean…?”

“It’s an Israeli project I’ve been involved with for a while, and it was deemed more appropriate to place the reactor in a geosynchronous, low-earth orbit, over the Negev. When operational, it was thought an intensely concentrated plasma beam would power the Negev facility, a conventional steam-turbine generator, and eventually dozens of reactors would be orbited above the earth, beaming limitless, clean power to harvesting stations like this one in the desert. We powered up the first reactor more than two years ago, then the plasma was released. This is what happened…”

She opened a file on the laptop, and moments later a new image appeared on the large screen, showing a Hyperion reactor in orbit, then – for a millisecond Curry could see a beam of intense power leave the satellite, arcing down like a fat laser into the desert. Then the entire facility simply disappeared, leaving a trail of distorted plasma on the screen.

“What happened? An explosion?”

The owl laughed. “I wish.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose, her eyes narrowed. “No, Dr Curry, it seems we opened Pandora’s Box with our first Hyperion.”

“Excuse me?”

“A lesson first. Jupiter, the planet Jupiter, orbits the sun not quite a half billion miles out, say an average 450 million miles away from the sun. Saturn’s orbit is not quite a billion miles, around 900 million miles, give or take. Uranus, by comparison, is a mere 1.7 billion miles away, while Neptune is a cool 2.7 billion miles away. Mars, by way of another comparison, is approximately 140 million miles away, the moon, a couple hundred thousand. Are we clear so far?”

“I suppose?”

“The speed of light is, approximately, 671 million miles per hour, so it takes light from the sun not quite an hour to reach Jupiter, a little over an hour to reach Saturn, and so on. When Hyperion went operational the reactor was designed to SCRAM, or to shutdown, automatically if our ground based signal was somehow lost. This system worked, the reactor shut down automatically, and the plasma beam shut down almost instantaneously, within 3.7 seconds. Are you following me so far?”

“Yes.”

“It took a while to locate Hyperion, and to reestablish a radio link again, but when we did we discovered something a little unusual.” She turned to the laptop and opened another image, a slide depicting the solar system ‘from above’ the plane of the ecliptic. “Hyperion came to a rest beyond Neptune’s orbit, and it traveled that distance in less than thirty seconds. Of some importance, despite the huge magnitude of both acceleration and deceleration, Hyperion was intact. Completely intact.”

“Was anyone onboard?”

The owl looked away, pinched her nose again. “Yes. Five astronauts. Two American, two Israeli, one from France.”

“Were they…?”

“Not right away. They had consumables, enough to last 180 days.”

“Dear God.”

“This was not God’s doing, Dr Curry. It was mine.”

+++++

“Jerry? Mrs Smithfield and I are going down to Santa Monica, to Abe’s house. I think we’ll have an early dinner with Abe and Morty, then maybe play some bridge.”

“You going to drive,” the head of the former President’s Secret Service detail asked, “or would you like one of us to take you down?”

“No, Jerry, why don’t you drive us? We’ll be down there a few hours, but I know you don’t want to miss the game, so come on back up here. I’ll call, have one of the guys come get us when we’re through.”

“Yes, Mr President.”

The Smithfields seemed a little overdressed for cards, but his head of detail dropped them off at his friend’s house just before five that afternoon, and the agent swept the massive house’s living room with his eyes, then he walked over to the broad windows looking down on the Riviera Country Club, saw a card table set-up just off the kitchen, outside on the poolside patio. He walked the perimeter of the house, satisfied the place was still secure, then got in his Suburban and drove back up Mulholland.

A gray sedan with Nevada plates drove by the house ten minutes later, and the two men inside smiled as they passed.

+++++

Carol looked at Hope, now thinking about Ted and the ambush. “Smithfield came to the hospital,” she said, “and downtown too, to the ceremony. Ellie thinks he had something to do with the shooting. What do you think? Is that possible?”

“Did she, now? Interesting. Funny, but interesting.”

“Funny? How so?”

The owl shrugged.

“Wait a minute,” Curry said. “The first Hyperion. You said the first…there’ve been more?”

The owl turned to her laptop and the exterior of the current satellite loomed on the screen once again, two X-37Cs docked to a toroidal platform attached to the main assembly. “This is the fourth, our most ambitious Hyperion yet. Larger, more advanced life support capabilities, better shielding. It will have a crew of twelve, in addition to it’s cargo.”

“Let me guess. Fertilized eggs. Like in Interstellar.”

“Interstellar?”

“The movie?” Curry said sarcastically.

“Really? Oh, I missed that one. But yes, eggs, for humans, livestock, even seed-stocks. The idea first appeared, incidentally, in 1960s science fiction.”

“You said this was the fourth…?”

“Yes. The second was a proof of concept flight. To Titan, and then, a return.”

“Unmanned?”

“No. A crew of three. All Americans on that one.”

“Unharmed.”

“From the flight, yes, but we were not fully prepared for the effects of cosmic radiation at these velocities.” She shook her head. “We do not expect to hear from the third flight, not until their return. Two astronauts, a husband wife team. This voyage is primarily to test shielding concepts and reproductive impacts.”

“Where’d they go? How far?”

“Oh, a candidate exoplanet approximately 26.5 light years away. The ship departed a little over a year ago.”

Carol looked up then. “And you removed yourself a year ago. Why?”

The owl laughed at that. “The Russians think Hyperion is was a weapon,” she looked out the window carved from the hillside, down to the vineyards across the valley. “In a way, they’re correct. If Hyperion succeeds, humanity moves beyond earth and out to the stars, but in one view only those people or races deemed acceptable to colonization will make the journey. A minor war broke out in our Congress as a result, in a senatorial committee anyway. Smithfield was responsible for securing funding for Hyperion, compartmentalizing knowledge within NASA and the ESA to prevent awareness of Hyperion’s real purpose from becoming known. He wanted to convene a panel of ethicists and geneticists to develop criteria for selecting potential colonists; the committee threatened impeachment proceedings. He’d kept so much US involvement hidden in black budgets, he knew they had grounds. But that’s not really why. He’s a good man, Carol. A good man trapped by dark forces operating within governments in both America and the EU. He’s also in danger. Whoever tried to take out Ted was trying to get to me, to get back at me. We don’t know who is involved yet, but I would assume it’s either Russia, or a faction within the US government.”

“So, that faction was trying to get at you a year ago?”

“They tried to kill me, yes. Elements within the CIA. That much is known, the confirmation came from Smithfield, before his resignation.”

“It’s so weird, he worked that accident a few weeks ago, with Smithfield’s son…?”

“What?” the owl said, sitting bolt upright in her chair. “What accident?”

+++++

The team had gathered on the fairway below the house; a small drone had just flown by the living room, imagery confirmed Smithfield’s presence on the patio. The man’s security detail was derelict, but that was no matter now, and speaking in his native Bulgarian he told his team to begin moving slowly up the hillside.

Ten minutes later they crawled into the back yard, slipped quietly through the landscaping around the swimming pool – then spreading out as they closed on the group playing cards on the patio. When they were ten or so meters away he signaled, and his team lifted their guns…

…and died. The Israeli team took them out in an instant, perhaps ten minutes after Smithfield’s Gulfstream lifted off from Burbank, it’s flight plan showing a destination of Hamburg, Germany. An hour before entering EU airspace the Gulfstream diverted to Paris.

+++++

Jeanie Curry sat on the back porch with Carol; Katz was inside cooking, doing his best to take care of these two physicians – but he knew he was failing – miserably. After they left Hyperion – that’s what everyone called Miss Sherman these days – he took them down to one of the vineyards and let them roam through the vines for a half hour, taste a few of the better reds, then he took them to a nearby food market…and now he was poaching salmon and roasting eggplant, drizzling olive oil and lemon on his cooling couscous. He fixed plates, carried them to the little dining room then went out to the porch.

“Dinner’s ready,” he said. “Come on in before the bugs have you for dinner.”

The women went inside; they sat and ate in silence, he remained in the kitchen, eating alone, until one of them, the Curry woman perhaps, called for him…

“You’re not joining us?” Jeanie asked.

“I didn’t want to presume…”

“Geesh, Ben, grab your plate and sit your skinny ass down.”

He laughed, came back a moment later and joined them. “We just received word that Smithfield got out just in time.”

Carol nodded. “Any word from the hospital?”

“Stable. Critical, but stable.”

Curry nodded her head. “Thought I had ‘em all. That last fragment was like a sliver from a fingernail clipping, and the bleed just didn’t show on anything.”

“Pressurization in the aircraft; that’d be my guess.” Katz said. “Bad luck.”

“Bad surgeon,” Curry said, getting down on herself.

“Great eggplant,” Carol said, wishing someone, anyone would talk about anything else.

“Ah, you know what?” Katz said. “We had a housekeeper, an old Italian woman when we were growing up. She cooked for us, five nights a week, and every Sunday night she made this eggplant. First thing she taught me to make, too.”

“It’s tender, yet so crisp. How’d she do it?”

“Slice it first, thin, then steam it with white wine and lemon juice. And only use fresh bread crumbs for your dredge.”

“So, she was your first love?”

“In a way, yes. She was the most incredible woman, though very old. Catholic, of course, and actually she was quite wealthy. She just loved taking care of kids, and cooking, of course. I don’t know how my parents found her, but she took care of me until she passed. I was a junior in high school by then,” he said as he looked over the memory. “There’s not a day goes by I don’t miss that woman.”

“You cook like this for your family?” Jeanie asked.

“No family. I stay with my sister and her kids sometimes, but I’m usually, well, like this – on a deployment of some sort.” He sighed, looked away for a moment. “Her husband was killed in the Gaza a few years ago, but I like helping with them when I can.”

“I know I asked, but do you miss America?” Carol asked.

“Sometimes, but after the Rams left LA? Who cared after that?”

“Yup, you’re an American,” Jeanie said. “Get rid of the NFL and NASCAR, and what would we have left?”

“Oh, that’s the thing with TV these days. We have the NFL channel over here, but football, er, soccer is more popular. Most of the guys I work with don’t know anything about it…all you see, they say, are the uniforms. Very dull. They are, of course, all morons.”

Carol looked up then. “The fourth trip. Who’s going?”

He looked away, shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“And that’s a lie,” she said. “Don’t do that to me again, Ben.”

“The list was decided long ago.”

“But Ted was on it, wasn’t he?”

Ben shook his head. “Too old. His piloting skills were considered, but no.”

“Zygotes,” Jeanie said. “Fertilized ovum. Can you imagine what those might go for?”

“What do you mean?” Carol asked.

“Hell, think about it? Want to raise money? Sell space on one of these Arks; you’re offering a shot not only at immortality, but immortality on another world. Or worlds. If the human biological imperative is simply reduced to procreation, about spreading your genes, spreading your seed throughout the stars has got to be the ultimate power trip.”

“Interesting,” Ben said, “but what if you ended up with planets loaded to the max with a bunch of hyper-competitive egoists. You’d be seeding a doomed series of societies, wouldn’t you?”

“Sounds like Smithfield was thinking along those same lines, maybe the owl was too.”

“The owl?” Ben shrugged. “What owl?”

“That woman in there, what’d you call her? Hopie? She looks like an owl.”

Carol and Ben laughed at that one.

“You know?” Carol said, “Maybe she kind of does right now, but ten days ago? No. She was just about dead.”

“Really?” Jeanie said, and Carol told her the tale she knew most about, about the trip from the mental facility to Vancouver.

“You mean, you were on that boat?” Ben asked. “You helped her get to Canada?”

“I did.”

“And you’d met Ted just a few days before…”

“He was the instructor in my dive class, we first met like three weeks earlier, but yeah, really just a few days together.”

“Interesting. Hit you hard, I take it.”

“What?”

“Oh, you fell for him pretty fast,” Curry observed. “So, I guess, then all this happened.”

“Yeah,” Carol said, looking around the little house, “this…happened…”

Ben cleared his throat and started clearing dishes, then he cleaned the kitchen while the physicians went back out on the patio. They saw more jets roaring north just then, several of them…

“It’s hot out here,” Carol said. “And the sun’s down but it’s still hot.”

“So, did you like sailing?”

“Yeah, ever since I was a kid. Parents took me out all the time; summers anyway.”

“I always wanted to learn. Sounds fun to me.”

“About the zygotes and ovums, and selling places on an Ark…were you serious?”

Curry shrugged. “Just seems like human nature to me. Everyone has an angle. Everyone’s in it for a buck.”

“But don’t you think that’s what got us where we are now?”

“I’m not a philosopher. Wow, look at all the jets up there…”

“I think Hopie’s a philosopher. I know Ted is. I wonder what they’d think of all that? Selling places, I mean.”

“Looking at that owl? I’d say she already has thought of that.”

Carol laughed. “An owl. I like that.”

“Something about that woman’s eyes. Almost inhumanly smart.”

“That’s what Ted told me once. She views the world like a chessboard. She was…”

Something instinctive hit, and both women ducked – just as three fighters roared by – just overhead, not a hundred feet above the treetops. “Fuck!” Curry screamed, watching as they disappeared, through the trees, their afterburners searing the night, the concussive shock-wave almost knocking them out of their chairs.

Ben ran out onto the porch, listened, then he dove for their chairs, pulled them to the ground and covered their bodies with his own…

The night sky lit up, then the ground lurched. Carol felt it then, a wave – like her skin was on fire, and then she had a hard time breathing. “It’s so hot…!” she screamed over the roaring wave…

Ben sat up, his back smoking now, the hair on the top of his head singed away, then he looked at the hill above the village and ran from the patio.

Curry sat up, shook her head, and Carol saw blood coming out of her left ear. Jeanie said something, but Carol didn’t hear a thing and shook her head. Carol rolled over and tried to stand up, but her legs weren’t working, and she consciously tried to think why.

“Shock,” she said, and she heard her own voice inside her head, but it was muffled, and now there was a warbling, high-pitched tone drilling a hole between her ears. She took a deep breath and pulled herself up, then helped Jeanie stand, and she turned for the house – but all she saw was fire.

“The house is on fire,” she heard her own voice say, and she pulled Curry away, away from the house and out into the little yard. Ben came running around the side of the house and he grabbed them, led them to one of the Rovers and stuffed them in the back seat. He started the engine and raced away from the village.

The air smelled like kerosene, and everywhere Carol looked trees and houses were on fire; when she looked into the night sky she saw a steady stream of fighters racing north and east, lines of blue-white flame tearing the night apart. She held on as he took a corner too fast, then they were in a tunnel…no, a shelter of some sort…and she saw dozens of women and children had already gathered there. Some people were badly burned…

Yet she saw no men.

Ben helped them out of the Rover then backed out slowly, leaving them to wonder just what the hell had happened.

“Whatever that was, it hit the hill above the village,” Jeanie said.

Carol struggled to understand, to think what that meant. “The owl. Hopie. She was under there, inside that mountain.”

A nurse was beside them a moment later, cleaning their skin and putting burn dressings on their scalps and shoulders, then Carol was aware she was laying on a cot, someone was putting a blanket over her as waves of chills shuddered through her body, and she recalled thinking how good it would be to sleep in peace – while the world outside burned.

+++++

The Owl…Hyperion…a very tired, very weak woman sat in the Bell 212 – looking down at Tarum and her hill, all of it on fire. The fuel-air bomb in the Russian Kh-55SM had been detected over Syrian airspace, and had initially been thought to be targeted on IS positions near Palmyra. Three IL-76 Mainstays had suddenly appeared over the Mediterranean and flooded all radar bands with powerful jamming, but a German-crewed NATO EC-135 AWACs bird burned through the jamming and spotted the Russian cruise missile as it crossed into Lebanese airspace. Warnings went out, fighters scrambled, then the Russians called the Israeli PM, declaring one of their missiles, targeting IS positions in Syria, had malfunctioned and was headed for the Golan. They were trying to abort the missile ‘even now’, they reported – right up until it detonated.

“Thank God,” a Russian foreign ministry spokesman would say later that morning on CNN, “it appears to have detonated near an unpopulated area.”

The Owl looked at the Israeli PM sitting by her side, looked at the expression of pure anger in his eyes, and she put her hand on his. “Patience,” she said. “Two more days. Three at the most.”

He nodded his head as the helicopter turned and skimmed low, just over rocks and trees on it’s way south, deep into the Negev.

+++++

The Israeli brigadier general looked over the latest Flash Traffic, read through it again to be sure he understood the directive, then walked back to President Smithfield and handed him the paper. He watched the old man rub his eyes, then read through the message.

“She’s okay?” he asked.

“Of course. She anticipated when they tried for you they’d go for her as well. Once they re-tasked that second recon bird yesterday, once her brother disappeared, she knew they’d make this kind of move.”

“What about the facility in the Negev?”

“Untouched. Two cruise missiles downed more than a hundred miles short.”

Hyperion?”

“An ASAT satellite is altering orbit for intercept. The Japanese will launch an interceptor within the hour to take that one out, we’ll follow through with an ASAT of our own in ninety minutes.”

“So, we’re at war. With Russia.”

The general shrugged. “Who’s at war with whom? No one knows what’s playing out up there. There will be no change in status.”

“I wonder what she’s going to do?”

Again, the general shrugged. “We’ll be in Paris within the hour. Le Bourget, I believe.”

“Very well. When will we make Tel Aviv?”

“It’s just a few hours more. We’ll top off our tanks and leave as soon as he’s on board. Mrs Smithfield? Do you need anything?”

The woman shook her head, looked out the window.

Attractive woman, the general thought. Too bad. But she was a spy, the insider who’d betrayed the president’s son, and ultimately, the president himself – and the project. She would be dead before the day was done, and he looked at her silk clad legs and ample cleavage – and he sighed again.

“Such a waste,” he said as he turned and went back to the cockpit.

+++++

She felt an alcohol swab on her arm and she tried to open her eyes, but all she felt was a wall of impenetrable darkness, then a pinch and sudden flowing warmth.

“Who…?”

“Dr Curry? Can you hear me?”

“Ben? Colonel Katz? Is that you?”

She felt his hand take hers. “Yes. Listen, you’ve got a few glass fragments, in your left eye. From the patio door, I think. We’re almost to the hospital, and we’ve got the best ophthalmic surgeon in the whole world standing by.”

“Oh?”

“Mimi, my sister. She’s really very good, by the way.”

“I bet she is. Would you stay with me, Ben?”

“Yes, of course, if you’d like me to.”

“I was going to ask you to stay with me. Last night, I mean.”

“Really? I was hoping you might.”

“Well, hope no more…” She squeezed his hand, and she felt his kiss, first on her hand, then on her forehead. “It’s so strange, this being blind. I think I don’t much care for the sensation.”

“You’ll be fine, Jeanie. I know you will.”

“What happened? Do you know what happened?”

“Someone tried to kill an owl.”

“Did they…?”

“No,” he whispered, “this owl is too smart, and her enemies too predictable.”

“What about Carol? Is she…”

“Mainly burns, not so bad as mine, however. We will all be in the hospital for a few days, I think.”

“The town? What about the people in that little town…?”

“I don’t know,” he lied, the memory too much to hold up to the light in that sundered moment. “We are almost there. The injection was, well, pre-anesthesia I think, but I don’t know those things. You will fall asleep soon. But I will be with you on the other side. Okay?”

“Okay. On the other side…” He felt her drifting away, then her hand squeezed his one last time – and he leaned over and kissed her again. Her skin felt cool and dry now, almost lifeless, and he turned and looked at the city, and all the impossible hate that surrounded it, wondering when it would all just simply stop.

+++++

The Gulfstream touched down, spoilers flared and reverse thrust roared, then the jet taxied between a row of hangers and executed a tight 180 degree turn. Two sedans approached and the jet’s air-stairs deployed; the general walked down the steps as the first car, a black BMW 5 series stopped by his side. The driver’s door opened and a woman got out from behind the wheel, and she walked over to the general.

“Corrine Duruflé, DGSE,” the woman said.

“Is that him?” the general asked.

“Oui. Are you certain she is involved? That we must do this?”

“Fingerprints are confirmed, and we’ve now traced her first steps into the United States almost thirty years ago. We need to know more, who her controllers are, and where this will lead us,” he said with a shrug, “Who knew about, uh, this attempt. And we are running out of time.”

“So, she was a Soviet plant?”

“It would appear so. Her so-called parents ran her. A young lieutenant in the KGB was their controller. A bright youngster named Putin, by the by, as things would have it.”

“Merde.”

“Yes, and so the worm turns.” He turned and looked at the man still sitting in the sedan. “Does he know why he’s here?”

“I’ve told him nothing. The past few weeks…well, they’ve been very uncomfortable for him. I’m not sure about his state of mind.”

“Well, Smithfield insisted we make contact with him. Bring him up, then we’ll be on our way.”

Corrine went back to the BMW and got behind the wheel. “Sumner, President Smithfield is onboard. He needs you now. There have been attacks.”

“I can’t leave now!” Collins said. “Leave Charley, alone? With Phoebe and Liz? You’ve got to be kidding me…”

“It’s very important, I think, or he wouldn’t ask.”

“He signed my goddamn retirement papers!”

“Sumner, please.” She looked at him, took his hand. “I’ll take care of Charley, if you’d like.”

He looked at her again. “There’s no way out, is there? There never was. This is the way it’ll always be.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. And she meant it, because she almost felt sorry for him. Almost…

He looked over at the Gulfstream, the Swiss registration number on the engine, watched the men from the refueling truck topping off the wing tanks, then he looked back at her. “You can’t run away from the past,” he said as he looked into her eyes, “because there ain’t no place that far away.” He sighed, he turned and smiled at her, and then began laughing hysterically. “You know who said that?” he asked as he wiped his eyes.

“No, Sumner. Who?”

“Uncle Remus. Look him up someday, would you? And remember him when you think of me.” He opened the door and slammed it shut, then sprinted over to the waiting Gulfstream and bounded up the stairs. As soon as he was aboard the air-stairs retracted and the engines spooled up.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Corrine said as she pulled away from the jet, and she watched as it taxied back to the runway – then roared back into the morning sky.

+++++

The Bell 212 hovered over the landing pad and touched down gently; the rear doors slid open, filling the cabin with air that was almost too hot to breathe. Men carried a wheelchair to the right side, instinctively ducking their heads while the main rotor spooled down. They helped the frail looking woman down into the chair and she rolled off towards a weathered and windblown shack a few meters from the pad. Two man ran after her, helped her inside, then the helicopter powered up and lifted off, circling the site once before turning and heading north.

Once inside –and out of the scorching heat – she waited for the elevator door to open, then rolled inside with her escort. After the doors hissed shut, she held her nose and cleared her ears as the car began it’s quarter-mile descent into the earth. The facility had originally been constructed as a command and control bunker, and indeed parts of it still functioned in that capacity. Israel’s 120 ICBMs lay buried in the desert, controlled from this facility, but now it was home to the most ambitious manned spaceflight program ever conceived.

She rolled into the Command Room, a kind of Mission Control suite, and she looked at four huge screens on the wall.

“Have you observed displacement yet?”

“Yes, as expected, but the effect is much larger than anticipated.”

“Show me.”

An overhead, down-polar view of the earth popped up on-screen, the earth’s Van Allen radiation belts clearly displayed, but instead of the expected equal distribution she expected to see there was an unusual pucker in the formation, and it was large. Larger than any before…

“We’re going to have a visitor,” she said gleefully, and the men and women in the room looked at her for a long time. They had never once seen a smile on her face, and they thought she looked odd…like a bird, perhaps an owl.

+++++

Collins stood in the galley, just aft of the cockpit, and read the dossier. He looked up, looked at the general, then back at Smithfield. “This reads like an old Cold War spy novel,” he said as he looked at the woman. “Fuck…great legs, too.”

The general leaned forward and whispered in his ear.

“Yeah?” Collins said, grinning. “Well, that may not be possible when I’m done. You have the bag?”

“Yes, here it is.”

Collins opened it, inventoried the techniques these implements would allow, then turned and read through the dossier one more time. “Well, let’s see how long she holds out.”

He walked down the aisle to President Smithfield and sat across from him. “Good to see you, sir,” Collins said, and the old man turned to face him, looked almost startled when he recognized who it was…

“Dear God, son, you didn’t have time to change?” Smithfield looked at Collins in his khaki cargo shorts and oil-splattered t-shirt, and then at his ratty boat shoes – and the old man almost shook his head with disgust.

“Sorry sir. It was warm out, and I was just getting to work on a bad fan belt when Corrine dropped by.”

“You still on that goddamn boat?”

“Yessir. Mr President, I’d like to have some time alone with your wife, if I may.”

The old man looked at her and shook his head, the sadness in his eyes plain to see. “Of course,” he said as he stood and went forward. Collins saw the old man’s hands were shaking now, and seeing this looming mortality filled him with dread. Smithfield had been a good president simply because he was a decent human being, but events always overtook decent men – and crushed them.

He turned and sat across from the old man’s ‘wife’ – if that’s really what she was, and he stared at her for several minutes, doing his best to unnerve her. “Mrs Smithfield? Linda? May I call you Linda?” he said at last.

“Yes, if you wish.” Her eyes were evasive, like a corned animal looking for an easy escape.

“Linda,” he began, holding up a file folder, “I’m looking over your history and I have a few questions.”

“I’m sure Grover can take care of those, young man.”

“Actually, Linda, I think I’m about fifteen years your senior.”

The woman turned and looked at him. “So you are,” she smiled.

“Let’s see, Linda Belinski, father Leonard, mother Laura, born Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania December 25, 1979. Oh, Merry Christmas, by the way.”

The woman stared at him. “I’m sure this is going somewhere?” the woman said. “But I’m tiring of this game, whatever it is you’re playing.”

“I don’t suppose the name Amalia Karlovna means anything to you?”

“No, of course not.” He saw her left eyelid twitch, then the left corner of her mouth.

“Josef, and perhaps Lara Karlovna? Ring any bells?”

She turned and faced him, looked him in the eye. “No.”

He pulled a syringe out of the bag, then a packet of alcohol swabs, and looked her in the eye. “The choice is yours, of course, but it will hurt much less this way.” He turned, saw the general standing in the aisle behind him, and he saw that she saw him too.

Without a word she held out her arm, and Collins found a vein and injected a small amount of amobarbital, then sat back and waited. Her eyes fluttered a moment later, then he hooked electrodes to her forehead and ankles and took a little metal box from the bag and hooked it to the leads. He turned it on and sent a small pulse of current to the leads; the effect was instantaneous, and horrifying. The woman’s body went rigid as a board, then her bowels and bladder emptied. He cut off the current and her body relaxed, then the woman turned her head and looked at him.

“Please…don’t…”

“Josef and Lara Karlovna. Tell me about them,” Collins said, only now he was speaking Russian.

“I don’t know such names,” the woman said, now also speaking in Russian.

He reached for the dial and the woman looked away; flying out the window would be such an easy escape, she thought, then the general lay her seat back, and extended the leg rest. Collins sent current to the leads and the woman’s back arched, and as he let off the current she screamed – filling the cabin with total despair.

When she came around she looked at him again. “Please do not do this to me,” she said in English.

He replied in Russian: “I’ll stop as soon as you answer my questions truthfully.” He moved and stood over her now, and with his mastery complete he spoke with pure malice as he looked down into her eyes. He held up a a piece of glass, in form and shape it looked exactly like a pencil, and he held this up to her eyes. “Do you see this?”

“Da.”

“I am going to place this up your urethra. Do you know what that is?”

“Nyet.”

“It’s where urine leaves the body. I am going to place this up your urethra, then turn on the current. Do you know what will happen then?”

Her eyes were saucers now, the terror he saw manifest in the writhing conflict she was experiencing…fight or flight…withhold or tell all I know…

He moved lower, took out a penknife and began cutting away her pantyhose.

“Alright…I will talk now. Please, no more…”

The woman talked all the way to Tel Aviv, and by the time they landed he was through with her, she had nothing left to tell. The President looked at the poor, wasted wretch he had once promised to love and cherish and obey one last time, then he left the Gulfstream, stopping only once to speak to Collins and the general at the bottom of the air-stairs. He shook Collins’ hand one last time, then whispered into the general’s ears, then the old man left, driving away in a convoy of Land Rovers.

“So,” the general said gayly, “you want to eat some Russian tonight?”

“No thanks, sir, I’m trying to quit.”

+++++

Colonel Katz – Ben – stood beside Carol in her room, the morphine finally tapering off now, but pain still obvious on her face. He reached out and felt the skin on her forehead: cold and clammy, and her BP was still very high.

She felt someone touching her face and opened her eyes, looked up and saw the Israeli colonel – and it all came back in a rush. The explosion, the wild ride to the shelter, the searing pain finally reaching her in the darkness, then the nurse by her side, an injection, and now here she was.

“You’re awake!” she heard him say.

“You’re very perceptive.”

“You’re also in Tel Aviv, at the Sourasky Medical Center. You have a few burns, and your left humerus was broken.”

She looked down, saw her plastered arm was taped to her torso. “Damn, and I use my left hand to pick my nose.”

“A pity. Need mine?”

She tried to laugh, but thought better of it. “So, what else is going on? World War Three, perhaps?”

He grinned. “No. Not yet.”

“Jeanie?”

“In the OR, glass fragments in both eyes. Burns, a few small fractures.”

Hyperion…what about Hope – Sherman?”

“Safe.”

“Where’s Ted?”

“Two floors below, still in ICU.”

“What about radiation?”

“Radiation?”

“Wasn’t that an atomic weapon of some sort?”

He shook his head. “Fuel air bomb. Like napalm, on steroids.”

“So, no radiation. What about the people in that town.”

“The town’s gone; I don’t know about casualties.”

“Was it the Russians?”

He shrugged. “Not my department.”

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” she said – still in a daze. “I mean, really…what are we doing here? Why am I here?”

“I’m going to go check on Jeanie, and Ted. I’ll be back soon and we’ll talk more.”

“Jeanie, huh?” Carol said, grinning, but he was gone. When the door opened she saw troops stationed outside her door, and she remembered why she’d never be able to go home again.

He walked down to the ICU, found a high level security team in the corridor outside Sherman’s suite and groaned. “What now?” he said as he approached the room. A woman from the security detail stopped him; he presented his Hyperion ID and she let him pass.

Smithfield was in the room, yet Katz saw the man was alone and wondered where his wife was; Sherman was still out, his eyes still taped and a respirator breathing for him, and he walked over to the physician and nurse tending him.

“How’s he doing?”

The physician looked up at him, at the rank on his collar, then shrugged. “He’s thrown two clots, we’re treating with tPA.”

“Is he going to make it?”

The physician shrugged. “I doubt it, but you never know.”

Katz left the room and walked up to the OR floor and checked the status board; Jeanie was in recovery and he went to the information desk and asked to speak to Dr Kaye, then went and stood by a window, looked out over the city, and the beach beyond.

He saw her reflection in the window a few minutes later and turned.

“Little sister,” he said. “How did it go?”

“Good. No damage to the retinas, so she’ll be okay. Might need glasses, however, but too soon to tell.”

He bunched his lips, tried to hide his relief. “Okay,” he said.

She looked at him again, longer this time, looking at the fear in his eyes. “So, she means something to you, this one?”

He smiled, looked away, then back at her. “I could never hide things from you, could I?”

“Well, mother always wanted you to marry a doctor…but a gentile? She’ll be spinning in her grave.” She stood by his side and they looked out the window, and he put his arm around her. “Oh, little brother, when she’s better we’ll have you two over for supper.”

“I’d like that. When can I speak to her?”

“An hour, better if you wait two.”

“Okay. I’ve got to go…see you in a bit.”

He went back to the ICU, hoping to find Smithfield again, and he saw the old man talking to Sherman’s physician outside the suite. He walked up and looked at the old man, and then at the Mossad colonel by his side.

Smithfield looked at him as he walked up, looked at the expression in his eyes. “And you are?” the former president said.

“Sherman’s girlfriend is here, upstairs in the burn unit. I thought you’d want to know.”

“The burn unit?” he said, exasperated. “Was she…?”

“Yessir. Would you like to come with me?”

“I’ll be back in a moment,” Smithfield said to the physician, then he turned and followed Katz to the burn unit.

Carol turned to them when they walked in the room, and she seemed shocked to see the former president, almost as sad as he seemed to be when he saw her. “Hello,” she said when he got to her bedside.

“I’ve been to see Officer Sherman,” he began…

“Ted, sir. I’m sure he’d want you to call him Ted.”

He nodded. “Yes. He’s still not out of the woods, I’m afraid.”

She nodded, looked away.

“I feel responsible,” the old man said. “On his report, the report on my son’s accident…” Smithfield stopped, pinched the bridge of his nose. “He found the electronics had been tampered with, the so-called ‘drive by wire’ system. Uncontrolled throttle response, he called it in the report, but he dug through all that wreckage and found the module. How many investigators do you know would have done something like that?”

Carol looked at him, looked at the tears in his eyes and wondered where this was coming from.

“He found her fingerprints, you know,” the old man said, his voice cracking now as he choked back memories of Linda.

“Sir?” Carol said, now clearly concerned.

“My wife. She was Russian, a spy, as it turns out, trying to get to Hyperion, through me. When my first wife died, she moved in so fast… But she’d worked for me, for so many years. It felt so natural, her joining me.” He sighed, then took a deep breath and looked out the window at the sea, and the setting sun. “I wonder how many of us they’ve compromised like this, how deep their penetrations really go?”

“Mr President,” Katz began, “what are you thinking?”

“Hmm? Well…think of the implications, Colonel,” the old man said. “How many agents like her have been planted over the years? These operations go back to the Brezhnev era, perhaps even earlier, but almost all of the senior operations directorate of the old KGB is now in the Kremlin. Do you know, Lenin once said that when the revolution of the proletariat stalled, and by the way, he predicted it would, the party would need to appear to implode, and that would foster a false sense of security within the world’s remaining capitalist oligarchies? His words, by the way, not mine; his mind was pure, unrestrained Russian paranoia. Anyway, without the kind of political competition that communism provided, he told his pals that capitalist countries would then expand uncontrollably, and then be consumed when an even greater revolution of the proletariat occurred. That’s just pure Marx, Das Kapital, German rationalism given a healthy transplant of Russian fatalism. Yet, even so you can see it happening today. Hell, you can breathe it in the air, from Boston to Barcelona.”

“The end of history, indeed,” Katz said.

“Fukuyama? Decent analysis for his time, but no one beats History. She often has designs of her own, I’m afraid. Young lady, sorry, but a lot’s happened the last few hours, and I’m afraid things are only going to get more interesting tonight.” He took her hand, looked in her eyes. “I hope Officer…I hope Ted…pulls through.” He turned to Katz then: “Colonel? I need a secure COMMs facility. I need to talk to Hyperion actual.”

“Yessir. If you’ll follow me.”

Carol watched them leave, then turned to look out the window at the setting sun, burning so bright far beyond the edge of this world, then she wondered how many of them were out there – on the far side of the sky.

+++++

The X-37C launched from the Negev atop an Atlas Centaur rocket; fourteen hours later it autonomously mated to Hyperion’s docking platform, and twelve people disembarked. Sherman led them into the small base’s toroidal living quarters; the new crew held on while it spun up to .7g. An Autonomous Transfer Vehicle launched from the X-37s cargo bay and matched spin, then docked with the toroidal base while Sherman monitored magnetic fields around the earth – and the moon.

“They’re here,” she said. “Far side of the moon, stationary.”

“You don’t have the range for that kind of transfer.”

“Something tells me I won’t need it,” Sherman said as she looked at the hi-band radar.

“What is it? What do you see?”

Hyperion 3, if I’m reading the returns correctly, but the magnetic fields are changing again.” She smiled as she looked at the screen. “I love it when I’m right,” she whispered…

Hyperion Platform, this is Hyperion Base.”

Sherman looked at the rest of the crew. “Transfer now,” she said.

“But we’re not scheduled…”

“Transfer now, while we have time, before they have time to react. Prepare to launch as soon as you’re on board.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

She smiled at the mission commander, a decent woman with an iron Will. She’ll need it, she said to herself, then she turned to the radio. “Actual to Base,” she said, “go ahead.”

“NORAD reports two ASAT launch vehicles leaving earth atmosphere, both from Baikonur II. You should have two hours fifty minutes before the first is in intercept range. KH-11 and KH-14s have preliminary indication multiple ICBMs are being readied for launch. The Americans have ordered their Ohios to MFD, and the Chinese have just filed a protest, noting American missiles are being fueled in their silos, the Malmstrom wing is mentioned.”

So predictable, she sighed. So childishly predictable.

“Notify me when they launch,” she said, smiling, then she switched to another frequency, and began transmitting in the blind – while at the same time she began the remote fueling sequence in the ATV.

+++++

Her eyes were bandaged, the nurse told her, and would be for a few days.

She asked about the retinas, and any vascular involvement, and the nurse told her to relax, the operation had gone well and no complications were foreseen.

“You have a visitor, not family. Would you like to see him?”

“Please…”

She cocked her head, listened to this new, unseen world, she was even conscious of sniffing the air and her mind’s ability to compensate became a sudden wonder…and she felt the change rush through her body.

‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘it’s him. He’s come to see me…’

‘See me…’

‘See me…what else do I see now? Something…someone…’

“Ben, I can’t see you…where are you?”

She heard his laugh, knew where he was now, and could even see the smile on his face, but there was something else, and someone else too.

“This is amazing,” he whispered, “this watching you watching me with your other senses. What do you see? Inside?”

She reached out, touched his face – ‘he’s so close! But so are they…’ – feeling small changes in air density as his words washed across her face. “I saw your lips, forming a smile out of nothingness, feelings leaping across space and time, like seeking like in the cold and the dark, life seeking life across the stars…”

“What?”

“I see life now. Out there…life…in the stars. But, it’s here now.”

“Who do you see, Jeanie? What is it…?”

“They’re here, Ben. They’re here, and they understand.”

“Understand? Jeanie? What are you talking about?”

“The owl…the owl knows, Ben. She’s talking to me now. To us, and for us. All of us. She’s talking to them now…”

Smithfield was beside her now, too, looking down at this woman, this blind woman. “How does she know?” he asked. “How did Sherman know you would tell us what’s happening – up there, and what’s going to happen – here?”

“They see. They understand. She wants me to tell you not to worry. It’s all a part of her plan.”

“Her plan?” Ben asked, looking at Smithfield, both men lost now.

“The first missiles have launched…targeted here, in the desert, and at America…”

Ben started to leave the room – but Smithfield held him back…

“Wait,” the old man said. “Just wait…it’s too late to do anything now.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Jeanie said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”

“But…”

“The ASATs have located the base…200 kilometers and closing now…impact in 17 seconds…”

“My God, Sherman is still up there,” the old man said, looking at Ben.

“10 seconds…”

“Call the Prime Minister!”

“Five seconds…”

“What could he…”

“Impact. Hyperion platform is destroyed.”

“What about all the missiles? Where are they?”

“Jeanie?”

“Dr Curry?” Smithfield said quietly, anxiously. “Can you hear me?”

“Jeanie…? Oh, Jeanie, where are you…?”

“…Ben…?”

“Jeanie, can you hear me?

“Yes, of course. Did you go away? I heard you, but then you were gone. Where are you?”

“Here…I’m right here.”

“Who’s with you…I sense someone’s with you now…?”

“A friend, Jeanie. Just a friend…”

“I was dreaming…having a dream. I could see so many things, so clearly…”

Smithfield walked over to the little window and looked out into the night sky. He looked up, expecting to see – any moment now – the arcing tracery of incoming ICBMs, then fierce glowing suns lighting up the night. He looked higher into the night sky, thought about Hope Sherman up there, dying alone in the womb of the infinite, in the cradle of all her dreams.

He wondered what it would be like to live in a world without Hope.

What would happen to our dreams now? Would we ever really be able to walk among the stars – without Hope?

What did she say when he talked to her, before she broke off the link?

“The stars are waiting, Grover. They’re waiting for us, but they won’t wait forever.”

Six Months Later

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 17 June, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning.

COG: at anchor;

SOG: 0.0 kts;

Temp: 71f;

Winds: light and variable, viz unlimited +10nmi;

Barometer 29.95 steady since 2300 hrs last night;

GPS: N43.12.02 W05.30.02.

Still anchored in the Calanque d’ en Veau. I took the tanks to a dive shop in Cassis yesterday, planning to make a few more dives later this afternoon. Weather holding, no rain in the forecast. Expecting to hear from Phoebe and Dr Mann today, if they’re going to come down for a visit. Kind of hope he does. There’s someone I want him to meet.]

Collins took Charley aft and she thought he was about to let her piddle on her astroturf pad, but he left it draped over the stern-rail – and she looked up at him like he had lost his mind. But then he looked at the sandy beach a hundred yards away and her heart leapt; then he ran – and dove off the stern, sliding noiselessly into the crystal clear water.

He surfaced and shook the water from his ears, wiped the stinging salt from his eyes then looked up at Charley. She was on point – her rear legs spread wide, her right front paw tucked up close to her breast, her nose aimed at him like a laser beam. He cupped his hands together and squeezed, launched a jet of water at her – and she lowered a bit more, the hair on the back of her neck rising too…and he turned around in the water…

And there she was, waiting for him.

Lovely to see you again, my friend,” he sang as he looked at the little markings under her eye.

She came and leaned into him, and he leaned forward too, resting his face on the side of her’s, the familiarity of her skin like a kiss now. He rubbed his hands against her face, then he turned back to Charley.

“Come on, girl. You can do it.”

Charley looked at him, then circled furiously, standing up once – conflict clear in her eyes.

He lowered the tone of his voice then, and she felt the way she never liked to feel, because she could never resist him then. “Charley. Come!”

This was imperative command, not a request…and she understood at once and launched herself off the aft deck – splashing down a few feet from him. He started swimming for the beach and she thrashed at the water, then settled down and swam along just behind him.

She sensed the other just beneath the water, then she saw the blowhole surface in front of her face, and when her feet and hands found new footing she relaxed. Clutching the fin, she scooted past him, riding the most wonderfully surreal surfboard in existence, and she turned and grinned at him – felt like singing, too…

He caught up with them in the shallows and played with them both along the water’s edge, then he pulled an old tennis ball out of his pocket and threw it far up the hill. Charley dashed up a steep, narrow path until she found the ball, then she turned and looked at him. He was staring now, far out to sea, then up, looking up to the sky, and she looked up too.

What is it? What does he see? What does he know?

She heard the other’s noises then, and turned to watch. She was on her side, looking up into the sky as well, then she slipped under the surface and was gone. Charley watched, wondered what it all meant, and wished she could understand the others – but their music was so strange.

“Come here, Charley girl,” she heard him say, so she grabbed the ball and took off down the trail, ran up to him and sat beside him. He gently took the ball from her mouth and tossed it back into the water, and they played for the longest time…until he heard Liz up on deck, calling her.

They swam out together, he doing a slow side-stroke, keeping his eye on her as she paddled alongside, then he lifted her up and put her on the aft platform. Once on deck he dried her off, and she turned on her back and let him rub her belly – the very best thing of all – then she hopped on deck and walked into the cockpit, feeling very proud of herself.

“I see your friend was back this morning,” Liz said.

“And I think you’ve been baking? Cherry?”

She shook her head. “Blackberry. That farmer’s market in Cassis is incredible. I don’t ever want to leave this place.”

“Nothing says we have to.”

“Are they up yet?” she whispered, nodding her head to the boat next door.

“I don’t think so. Haven’t seen anyone moving around just yet.”

“I’ve never heard anything like that in my life. All night long; in-out-in-out – my God, it sounded like the shower scene in Psycho. Please, tell me I don’t scream like that.”

“I frankly had no idea one woman could come so many times in one night. Hell, I lost count at fifteen.”

“Well hell,” she said, “he popped off at least three times.”

“I know. I was getting envious.”

She threw a hand towel at him. “You’re the same age! There’s no reason you can’t…”

The companionway hatch on the boat anchored next to their’s slip open, and the woman came up and shook her hair in the morning sun, then saw them and waved.

Liz waved back. “What’s her name again? I just can’t get it down…”

“Carol.”

“Seems nice, but why do I keep getting the impression they’re keeping secrets…?”

Collins shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe because they are.”

“Well, I’ve got some fruit cut up. Want some?”

“Coffee, scones – and fruit? Wow. Breakfast of Champions! Sure, why not?”

“Sumner? What’s Hyperion?”

“What?” His mood turned serious, dark eyes glanced to her, and he looked her in the eye. “What do you mean?”

Hyperion? The name of their boat?”

“Oh. Some poem, I think, German, romantic. I really don’t remember.”

“Don’t you think it’s funny they just showed up here, and you used to fly with him and all?”

“It’s a small world, darlin’. Keeps getting smaller and smaller.”

She leaned close, then whispered. “Did you get any Viagra?”

He leaned back and smiled. “I’ll never tell.”

“Maybe after breakfast?”

“Now, there’s a thought.”

“I’ll go fix breakkie. Wanna eat up here?”

“Sounds good, darlin’.”

He watched her go below, then stood and stretched. He heard movement on Hyperion and saw Ted come up and stand in the light, that pink raspberry wound still livid on his shoulder. They looked at one another for a moment, then Collins pointed at the shore and Sherman nodded, walked aft and dove in; Collins shrugged and dove in, then Charley ran to the rail and watched them swim ashore, wondering if she should follow.

“How you feeling, Spud?”

“Man, I don’t know about this shoulder. Hurts like the devil when I move it just so.”

“Well then, don’t move it like that!”

“Shit, Sumner. You shoulda been a doctor.”

“Liz wants to know. Did you pop off two times last night, or three?”

“Shit, you could hear us?”

“Spud? I’m pretty sure people in Spain heard everything you two did last night. Now, what I want to know is this? What the fuck are you doing to her? I’ve never heard anything like it in my life!”

Sherman told him, omitting nothing.

“That’s it? That’s all you do?”

“Works every time. It’s never failed me once.”

“Well, I’ll be. Whodathunkit. Oh, well, I got the tanks refilled. Think Carol’ll want to come down with us?”

“Maybe. I’m expecting company in a few hours.”

“Oh?”

“A mutual friend.”

“Fuck. You don’t mean…?”

“Yeah. The old man. He called last night.”

“No shit? What’s he doing here?”

Sherman shook his head. “Dunno. Said he had something important to give me, then he hung up.”

“Oh, he always loved a mystery. So…how do you like the boat?”

Sherman turned and looked at it. “It’s nice. Bigger than I would’ve chosen, but it’s very comfortable when the wind kicks up. How long are you going to stay here?”

“I don’t know. A week, a month, maybe the rest of my life. What about you?”

“I don’t know,” Ted said as he looked skyward. “For some reason, Greece sounds right.”

“Lot of refugees around, so what ever you do, be careful.”

“You ever think about maybe some place like Tahiti?”

“That’s what Liz wants to do.”

“Yeah? Carol too.”

“It’s a long way, Spud.”

“Yeah? So? You gotta be somewhere next week?”

“Good point. Well said.”

They laughed. “Long way from the Navy, ain’t it? Do you miss it all?”

Collins looked back through time, at all the thing he’d done – and at all the things he wished he’d never done. “No, not really. Only thing I’m interested in now is breakfast. All those yesterdays, Spud, they seem so far away, so long ago.”

“Jenny?”

“Yeah. That’s the one hole in my life I can’t fix…the one memory that won’t let go, I guess.”

“Where’d you meet the girl?” Sherman asked, pointing at Gemini. “Sorry, can’t quite wrap my head around her name yet?”

“Liz? A friend of a friend; it just kind of happened.”

“Carol…just kind of happened, too. Life’s like that, I guess. When you think the shit can’t get any deeper, along comes a wind to lift you away from it all.”

“Sometimes it just pushes you deeper, Spud.” He looked up at the sky again, shook his head. “I was sorry to hear about your sister, by the way. Wish we knew what happened up there.”

“It’s probably better that we don’t.”

Collins looked at his old friend, nodded. “Maybe so, but I miss her.”

“She loved you two, you know. I think she cried for a week when she heard about Jenny.”

“Yeah?” He looked at Charley, standing now on the aft rail, looking at him. He could feel the need in those brown eyes…the need to connect, to love…to trust enough to love. He brought his fingers to his mouth and let slip a whistle, a real atomic bomb of a whistle, and Charley leapt back into the water. He saw sunlight explode like flying diamonds when she hit the water – and then she was gone.

Collins looked at the water where she’d gone in…it was smooth now… and he saw no trace of her. He pushed off – began swimming furiously towards the boat – and he could hear Sherman by his side, both of them now swimming out as fast as they could…

Then she was beside them. On the dolphin’s back again, grinning, her stumpy little tail beating the air so fast he could hardly see it…

They both stopped swimming then, and Sumner looked at Charley as she circled around them, in effect standing on the water. Sherman was treading water now too, looking at a dog riding on the back of a dolphin, his face scrunched-up like a wadded newspaper.

“Uh, is it just me, or did I just see your dog, uh…”

“What? Your dog doesn’t do that?”

“Uh, yeah. Well, I don’t have a dog…”

“Well hell, Spud…that was your second mistake…”

+++++

In the middle of the afternoon Sherman heard a helicopter flying beyond the entry to the cove, and he stood on Hyperion’s aft deck, looking past the narrow entry to the sea…and there, the sleek gray lines of a ship appeared.

“56,” he said as he looked at the numbers on her bow. “The old San Jacinto…I’ll be damned.” He watched as it’s helicopter swung over the cove, and he could see the men inside looking down at his boat, and Collins’ – before it dove and raced back out to sea. Further out to sea he could just make out the faint gray contours of several more ships, and at least one aircraft carrier, as they slipped eastward…

…then two gray rigid-hulled inflatables roared into the cove, and the helicopter reappeared, now hovering just beyond the steep white limestone walls of the entry. Helmeted men, manning large caliber machine guns, stood on the bows of the inflatables, their guns trained on Hyperion

Ted turned, looked at Collins standing in Gemini’s cockpit – apparently talking on a SatPhone – then watched as he went below…

He turned again, looked at the boats racing in, then he saw Smithfield and walked over to the boarding gate and waited. When it pulled alongside the old man waved. “Hop on,” the President called out over the engine noise, and when he was aboard the launch idled over to Gemini and Collins jumped aboard too, then the boat made it’s way to shallow water and beached on the sandy shore.

“Come on, you two.”

Smithfield was helped ashore by two Navy ratings, and as soon as both Collins and Sherman were ashore the boats withdrew back to the entry, blocking access – for the time being.

“How’re you doing, Ted? That arm any better?”

“Yes, Mr President. Thank you for asking.”

The old man nodded his head, then looked at Collins, dour respect in his eyes. “You look well.”

“I am, sir,” but he saw visions of the man’s wife pass between them and wondered if their relationship would ever be the same.

The old man looked around, saw a large rock and walked over to it; he sat and waited for them. “Goddamn hip’s going out. Some jack-ass surgeon wants to put a new one in. What would you do, Sumner?”

“Me? Hell, Mr President, that sounds about as fun as fucking a porcupine up the ass. I’d pass, tell ‘em to take hike.”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Good for you, sir. Has it cut into your golf game?”

“Not yet. Guess when it does I’ll have to go see him again.”

“Yessir.”

“Sherman? I wanted to have a word with you, and I thought it best to do this one on one, but then I know you two have never kept stuff from one another. And, well…” He stopped, unzipped his windbreaker and pulled out a small iPad. He started it, then opened a file and handed it to him. “You two go find someplace in the shade and watch that, then bring it back to me.”

“Yessir,” Sherman said, and they walked over to the shade of a stunted tree and sat in the coolness.

“You ready for this?” Collins asked.

“You know what it is?”

“Nope. Do you play much chess?”

“Never got into it.”

Collins shrugged. “Too bad.”

Sherman looked at the black screen, then pushed the playback button.

Hopie. Sitting in a tight, dimly lit cabin, surrounded by a million lights and switches.

“Grover, assuming little brother survives those Israeli doctors, I want you to get this to him, but wait a few months, maybe next summer. I want you both to know the full extent of what’s happening up here…”

Sherman paused playback and looked at Sumner – who was looking at Smithfield. The old man was on a SatPhone, talking to God only knew who, but the old man was still dialed into the world, and always would be. Then Collins turned and looked at his friend.

“Better let me hold that,” he said, taking the screen from Ted. He resumed play…

Hyperion 1, our first launch, didn’t stop out here past Neptune. Those folks didn’t die out here, stranded. We deliberately launched for KIC 8462852. I’ll let that sink in for a moment, let you think about the implications of that. As you may recall, there was some controversy a few years ago about that system, about it’s irregular dimming, some discussion about Dyson Spheres and a massive array around the system’s primary. Anyway, Hubble imaged the system more than a decade ago, and Project Hyperion was born a few months after that.

“So, let’s cut to the chase. Hyperion 1 made first contact. Two and Three advanced our timeline, and their first emissary returned on Three. She, for want of a better word, returned to KIC a few weeks later, but we’ve been in discussions with them ever since. Once it became apparent both the Russians and the Chinese were growing suspicious of our activities, we discussed the possibility of an alliance. That’s when the shit hit the fan, little brother.

“So much has happened, so much I never expected.” She looked at something and flipped a few switches, her eyes darting about like an owl’s, then she turned back to the camera.

“The Russians just launched two ASATs, two Anti-Satellite weapons, so we know a full scale attack is likely, and, well, we’ve convinced our friends to intervene; I hate to say that was the plan all along, but it was an act of faith on our new friends’ part too. Simple as that, really. They took sides. Maybe they learned that from me, but I’m not going to be taking credit any time soon.

“So, Hyperion was never about fusion reactors and clean power. Hyperion has always been about exploration, and it inadvertently became about first contact. Now Hyperion is about colonization. We’re going there, and they’re coming here. They’re adept at terraforming, and they’re going to establish a colony on Mars, a research facility. We’ve been given a system under their control, and they’ll engineer three planets to suit our needs. It seems they want to study us, and they want us to study them. Frankly, I think it’s a little one-sided, maybe like when we traded beads and trinkets for Manhattan Island. I know, I know. Look how well that turned out for the local population…

“I suppose you think this is a gamble, that we’re gambling with the future of the human race, but when you understand the issues better I think you’ll agree with our present course of action.

“Those Russian ASATs will impact the platform in about ten minutes, so little bother, I’ve got to go. Looking at my current state of health, I probably won’t be coming back, but I’d like to see you again. I can’t say it any plainer than that.

“And, Sumner, I’m assuming your there. The one with two scars? Be nice to her. She’s been my friend for more than twenty years now, and she’s still very fragile. Maybe one day she’ll tell you what happened.

“Ted? I like Carol. I’d hang on to her if I were you.

“Bye for now. I love you all.”

The screen went dark, and Collins blinked his eyes rapidly for several seconds – then handed the iPad to Sherman.

“Did you ever meet Dr Curry?” Sherman asked, looking at Collins. “The doc who operated on me after that stuff in LA?”

Collins shook his head, now feeling light-headed – and very small.

“She called Hopie The Owl.”

Collins tried to laugh, but found he was crying. “Kind of appropriate, don’t you think?” He looked out at the cove, wondered where she was…

And Collins saw one of the boats beaching, the old man walking to it as two men hopped out and held the boat fast to the shore. “We’d better go,” he said, and they started walking back to the beach…

The old man held his hands out, and a young girl, a toddler by the looks of her, reached out and slipped into his arms. He put the girl down on the sand and she turned and looked at Collins, then she ran to him, and Collins staggered to a stop and fell to his knees when he saw her.

She stopped a few yards away from him, and even kneeling down she was not quite half his height – but what he saw was Jennifer. His Jennifer, only different now. Not a child, and not fully human. Sumner looked at the creature as the shock settled over him, as he felt this world spinning out of control, and the last thing he saw before the light consumed him was her right eye, and two small marks he saw in the shadows…

Part IV: Time, Like A River – They called for the harp – but our blood they shall spill

The Air Force C37A turned on base over Maryland’s ‘eastern shore’ – flying towards it’s next waypoint and now 4500 feet over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and Grover Smithfield looked down at Annapolis as the pilot configured flaps for the extended approach.

So many decades had passed, Smithfield thought as he looked down at the campus by the bay, since his class had first formed up on drill fields by the waterfront. JFK was in the inadvertent autumn of his presidency, and only a few of his teachers glimpsed the great dissolution that would follow Kennedy’s murder. One of his favorite instructors, a Navy captain who just happened to be a well regarded historian, remarked casually on the Monday after Kennedy’s assassination that Lee Harvey Oswald had just accomplished what all the navies and armies of Germany and Japan had failed to do in the second world war: in the span of a few brief seconds he had completely shattered America’s sense of itself. No matter who was ultimately held responsible, he saw Americans from that day forward drifting apart from one another, flying off to their polar extremes. “Belief is a fragile thing,” he said, “a shared set of ideas that can disappear in an instant – even in three seconds.” Smithfield remembered the captain’s office, and a little sign the man had hung on the wall above his desk. “History is the graveyard of tyrannies,” the little placard stated, and even now Smithfield recalled the captain had gone to work for first Nixon, then Ford, eventually ending his non-partisan career in the Carter White House. As Smithfield watch the campus slide away, he realized he had tried to emulate the man all his life.

But what had happened to that perspective over the years?

He sat in silence as the little harbor slipped away, then Washington’s eastern suburbs appeared through the trees, and he was looking at the captain’s rigid prediction that was even now coming true. Politics had devolved from the soft art of compromise to cold obstructionism. Compromise was considered evil, and thugs on the right and idiots on the left all sounded more and more – like what? Ignorant, or simply arrogant? Unwilling to even consider a thought that didn’t conform to a fixed set of ideas? Up here he could see better than ever how communities had grown into ossified extensions of ideology, yet even so, looking down on the Beltway in that moment, for some reason he remembered sitting in Sergey Gorshkov’s office one rainy May day in Moscow, listening to the old admiral expound on the role of Soviet seapower.

“The Soviet Union will collapse soon,” he’d said as their meeting drew to a close, and Smithfield had thought the man insane to speak those words aloud in that office – even if he was the architect of modern Soviet naval doctrine. “But I do not worry so much about that. Your Kennan predicted our collapse, in 1947, and he had it down almost down to the year. And he was correct, his working hypothesis was accurate, the whole Buddenbrooks analogy, how political cultures decay like families decay over time. But, Captain Smithfield, what troubles me most is what happens when your country grows ill. It will, you know, perhaps in your lifetime. That is the working assumption in the Kremlin, anyway.”

Smithfield’s Gulfstream made it’s last hard left onto final – and a half mile off their left wingtip he saw two F-16s, and he thought again of Israel. That beleaguered nation had been at war since 1947, since it’s modern inception – and keeping a strong military presence in the public eye was a vital fact of public life.

But here? In our skies? My, how times had changed. Was this what Gorshkov had been talking about?

Now it was routine for airliners approaching New England from Europe, or Alaska from the Orient, to find squadrons of interceptors waiting to ‘escort’ them through the relevant ADIZ. Terror alerts were taken seriously now – by the military, at least – because that was the reality of our post-modern ‘neoliberal’ existence. Newton’s Laws, Smithfield sighed, just couldn’t be ignored –  though the political world had tried often enough – only now actions and reactions were coming so fast there was no time to adjust, no time to plan. He’d found himself reacting to events all during his presidency, rarely catching up with events before the next calamity.

And now the extreme reaction to the Hyperion Contacts – as the current president called them – with ever more liberties curtailed, and the general population clueless about the facts. Still, almost seven months after Hope Sherman’s ‘disappearance,’ information about the project within the intel community had been rigidly compartmentalized. Of more importance, information had been stopped before reaching the greater political hierarchies within the American congress, let alone the European Union and Russia. As a result, only a handful of people around the world had any idea what had happened last Christmas – in space, between the earth and her moon. So focused had those governments been on the threat of expanding Islamist terror, the idea that the Hyperion Fusion Project had been a ruse, and that so-called ‘First Contact’ had already occurred, remained a great unknown.

The fact that Russia’s intercontinental missile force had been neutralized in an instant completely altered the role of the military, and an early Cold War hysteria gripped planners in the Pentagon and the Kremlin – “Flying Saucers and Death Rays, oh my!” – yet countering this new threat became the next mission. Planners and designers from Boeing and Grumman and Sukhoi hypothesized and groused – because no one knew what the threat was – not what the threat looked like, or even what “their” capabilities were. These planners and designers just shrugged and shook their heads and wondered how best to spend the billions of dollars suddenly knocking on their doors.

So the race was on: how to assess the threat became the next great game, and the President called Smithfield, or, rather, he had called the Prime Minister of Israel…

…and now, here he was…walking down air-stairs on a torrid July afternoon to a convoy of waiting Suburbans. Turning out of Joint Base Andrews onto Pennsylvania Avenue, four black Suburbans and eight motorcycles in line, making the half hour drive through the city to the Big House; once past the Beltway the traffic grew oppressively heavy, the edifice of empire everywhere he looked, while legions of homeless and the infirm lay in every shadow. The city was, Smithfield thought, still the living embodiment of extreme contradictions, and then, the white Capitol Dome looming just ahead out of a thick, brown haze. Perfect, he thought. So few with so much.

The House was unchanged, he saw, but security was oppressive now; not even one tourist on the sidewalk waiting for a tour; those had been suspended for the time being. Snipers not visible either, but he knew they were up there, watching this arrival. Through the White House gates and out of the Suburban, then he heard a formation of jets overhead and didn’t even bother looking at them; he saluted the pair of Marines by the entry and saw Paul Kirkland, the President’s National Security Advisor, waiting, and they walked together to the West Wing, and to The Office.

The President looked much older now, and uncharacteristically tired, his face lined with cares he’d never imagined seven years ago, and Smithfield smiled. He paused, looked at a sword on the president’s desktop, a simple Samurai’s sword, and Smithfield thought it looked ancient, indeed, it’s silvered steel now almost elegant with it’s patina of age – and use, perhaps – yet the President pointedly didn’t stand, and barely acknowledged his predecessor’s presence in the room.

Smithfield listened as FDR’s old clock beat away on the bookshelf across the room, and still the President simply continued looking at the sword, his eyes fixed on the cold steel, while Smithfield remained standing. The old man wasn’t aggravated by this breach of protocol – no, he was simply more interested in the mood he felt in the room. Oppressive curiosity, perhaps? With a lingering sense of despair?

“Japanese Ambassador just left,” the President finally said, slowly looking up at the previous occupant of this office. “Symbolic, don’t you think?”

Smithfield glanced at Kirkland, then back at the President; Kirkland shrugged, rolled his eyes, so Smithfield sat down across from the President. “Why symbolic? Think he wants you to commit seppuku?”

The President shook his head then, and chuckled. “Wouldn’t be surprised, Grover. Not a bit surprised.”

“What can I do for you, sir?”

“Have you been out there yet?”

“Sir?”

“KIC 8462852, the system. Have you been out there yet?”

“No, sir.”

“Really? I’m surprised.” The President was staring at him, as if taking the measure of his predecessor once again.

“Oh? Why’s that, sir.”

The President turned in his chair and looked out the window. “Don’t you want to?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President steepled his hands in front of his face, took a deep breath. “That ship of there’s. The one on the far side. Have you seen it, know it’s capabilities?”

Smithfield shook his head. “No, I haven’t, and I don’t.”

“Well then, that’s going to be a problem.”

“Yessir. I understand.”

“Oh? Do you really? We’re confronting a hostile species that has demonstrated the capability to neutralize all our offensive and defensive weaponry. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“No sir, not really.”

The President turned to face his desk again, yet once again he looked at the sword as he spoke. “Interesting. I never took you for a fool.”

“Was there anything else you wanted to talk about while I’m here?”

The President looked up at that. “Such as?”

Smithfield shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. Who goes next, on what ships? How we go about setting up colonies on new worlds? Things like that.”

“You mean, of course, that we tell the people? Let the people know who’s up there, what they’re capable of doing to us?”

Smithfield looked at the man, at the lack of imagination he saw in his eyes. “Why not tell them the truth? What they have to offer us.”

“What’s wrong with you, Grover? Have you gone soft in the head?”

Smithfield smiled, looked him in the eye. “Maybe so.”

“You’re dead, I guess you know?”

“Sir?”

“After all that nonsense out in Santa Monica, the funeral at Arlington. The country thinks you’re dead. Maybe a handful of people in the world know you’re still alive. Have you considered your position?”

“Ah.”

“I have reports you’ve been with them.”

“Sir?”

“Well? Have you met them? The aliens?”

“Yessir. Several of them, as a matter of fact. About all I can add is that, in my opinion, you have no reason to fear them.”

The President snorted derisively. “Do we need to send you down to Cuba? Maybe for a little R&R at a little naval base we still have down there?”

“That’s your prerogative, Mr President. But I’d recommend against that course of action.”

“Would you, now? So you do know a few of their tricks. Well, it occurred to a few of our people across the river you might say something like that; in fact, I think more than a few were kind of hoping you’d imply a threat of one kind or another.”

“Yessir, I imagine they have. That’s understandable.”

“So? No hard feelings?”

Smithfield smiled, and stood…

…And the national security advisor shouted into his handset, screamed for the president’s secret service detail to get to the room – ASAP –

The team entered the room, found Kirkland open-mouthed down on the floor, pointing at the president’s desk, but both men were gone, nowhere to be found – they had simply vanished – but why was Kirkland down there on the floor? When the head of detail ran closer, he saw Kirkland was kneeling, his hand out, talking to what he at first thought was a toddler – a blue-skinned girl, perhaps two feet tall, and then she too was gone – leaving a thousand questions hanging in the air – apparent.

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 July, 0700 hrs GMT, Friday morning.

COG: at anchor, Ile du riou , calanque des contrebandiers

SOG: 0.0 kts;

Temp: 83f;

Winds: NW at 15, viz unlimited +10nmi;

Barometer 29.98 and rising;

GPS:  43°10’26.16″N | 5°23’11.17″E

We are still anchored inside the Calanque des Contrebandiers, aka smuggler’s cove, effectively in another world yet only six miles from Marseilles. Liz is turning out to be a decent diver, both she and Carol are spending lots of time down there – two hours yesterday – while Ted remains preoccupied and sullen for the second day running. We’re warped to limestone walls, some of the pitons we found are still secure, and we’ve been checking the ones we set a couple times a day. A late-season ‘mistral’ blew through yesterday yet we were snug in here, unaffected by wind or waves, while a few hundred yards away the sea looked like a washing machine. I remain wary as we’re roped off in here with zero maneuvering room, but we’re practically invisible, and the mood is magic, esp. at sunset, when the limestone cliffs glow an incredible orange.]

Gemini lay ‘at anchor’ within a narrow finger of water, a hidden treasure Collins had learned about from a local at the marina in Cassis. They’d taken Hyperion over for a haul-out, to get her bottom painted and anodes checked, and to refill the SCUBA tanks once again, so the four of them decided to spend a few days over on the island until Hyperion was ‘ready to go’ again. He’d just managed to get Ted out into the sun, and now they were taking the Zodiac over to les Empereurs with masks, fins and snorkels, yet their conversation so far had been brief – though telling.

“You seem down, almost out of it…” Collins asked, setting a little anchor on the sandy bottom near the rocks.

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about Hope. I worry about her, you know?”

“I know, Spud. I think we all do. What does Carol think about all this?”

“She misses LA, her work. Hell, I do too.”

“No shit? You’d rather be back on the streets – than here?”

Sherman nodded his head, looked away. “I wasn’t really ready to retire, whatever the hell that means. Sitting around doing nothing, drinking fruit punch and watching sunsets.”

“Well hell, why don’t you go back?”

“I’m dead, remember? Buried, at Forest Lawn. My name’s been chiseled on a wall, too.”

“You have a house there, don’t you?”

“I did, yes. A friend is renting it, from – ‘my estate.’” He spit out those last two words angrily, looked back at the island.

Collin’s snorted. “It’s hell being dead, ain’t it, Spud.”

Sherman looked down into the water. “So, what’s down here?”

“Fuck if I know. Looks like it falls off fast. What does it show on the chart?”

“Sharp drop to 110 feet, a shelf on this side, then another steep drop-off. Real deep after that.”

“Well, I can see the bottom. Thirty feet, anyway…looks like some coral, too…”

They both heard it then. The wump-wump-wump of a helicopter, turbine driven and making for the island at high speed.

“There he is,” Collins said, pointing at the MH-60S Knighthawk as it skimmed the surface, heading straight for the cove where Gemini lay tethered to the rock. He turned the outboard’s tiller and rolled the throttle open and the Zodiac began bouncing across the lite chop, back to the cove.

+++++

“There they are, over there,” the gunner onboard the Knighthawk said, pointing at the inflatable that had just pulled away from a rocky, crown-shaped islet. “Both of them.”

The helicopter wheeled around and bore in on the Zodiac, then arced alongside as they skimmed along just above the water, it’s two gunners leaning out the door, taking aim at the men in the Zodiac.

+++++

“They don’t exactly look happy to see us, Spud.”

“I do believe that one in back is going to shoot us, Sumner…”

“Oh well…that’s too bad.”

The rear gunner disappeared, then the man by his side vanished as well.

“Ain’t life a bitch, Spud?”

“I think that Rotorhead just shit his britches.”

Collins could see Gemini’s mast jutting above the rocks now, and he slowed down to make the sharp turn into the narrow-walled cove. “Wonder what that was all about,” he said, watching the helicopter turn and head back out to sea.

“Someone’s not happy.”

“Uh-huh. Well, Spud, this ain’t gonna make ‘em any happier.”

Sherman looked at the girls standing on the aft deck; Liz and Carol waiting with arms crossed, Charley sitting beside Liz with a grin on her face, and then he saw the one they called Jenny. She was standing there too, her face impassively still, which, he knew, meant absolutely nothing. And he could just see someone sitting in the cockpit…a man…no, two men.

“Uh-oh. Trouble.”

Collins perked up when he heard that, looked at the cockpit. “Damn. It’s Smithfield. And who’s that with him? Oh not…no…”

“Shit…that explains the helicopter.”

“Yup.” Collins tied-off the Zodiac and they both climbed aboard.

The Presidents, both of them, were sprawled-out in the cockpit, both deep in shade and both locked in twitching silence.

And Collins saw she was beside them now, the little blue one he called Jennie, and the sight of her still unnerved him, left him feeling more than a little dazed and confused. She was sitting on a hatch, looking at Sumner as he crawled over the coaming, and as he sat she ‘spoke’ to him – in her halting, fine-pitched voice.

“The effect of transfer is still hard for me to watch – like sitting on a rattlesnake, Smithfield told me,” she said. “We are sorry.”

“I know just how they feel,” Collins said, looking from her to President Smithfield. Perfectly human – aside from the pale, almost translucent blue of her skin. No hair – yet, she said – though maybe in time. She’d let him measure her once: 26 inches tall, 17 pounds, eyes the most piercing green he’d ever seen in his life. Fingers, toes: perfectly human – yet no breasts, absolutely no outward signs of function or gender – no anus, no vagina or penis. Completely asexual, yet even so Jennie was decidedly female –  and ‘she’ self-identified as such, too.

And the ‘we are sorry’ was still discomforting, as well. They had no word for ‘I’, never identified as just one self – always as part of a collective. Linked, from creation onwards to their local community. No birth referred to, and no parents – simply to creation…

“This man’s group was going to imprison Smithfield, forcibly. We decided intervention was necessary. Sorry,” the urJennifer said, “but life’s a bitch.”

“I see. This might cause a few problems.”

“We have anticipated. The word Hope used is ‘clusterfuck.’ Does this mean something to you?”

“Yup, that’s the word. Can you send this one back?” Collins asked, pointing at the current President.

“Many vessels approach now, by both air and sea. Would it not be better to keep him here? Or should we place these vessels into a low earth orbit?”

“Let’s not do that, okay? Ted, would you help me with him; let’s get him into the Zodiac and run him out there.”

Sherman was chewing a fingernail, looking at four Hornets circling the island at about 15,000 feet. “Sounds like a plan,” he said as he and Collins helped the (current) President stand…

“Where am I?” the President mumbled as he looked down at his pants. “I think I had an accident.”

Sherman ignored him, helped him into the inflatable, then steadied the boat as Collins hopped aboard. They puttered out of the cove and into the open sea, and immediately saw an aircraft carrier and five frigates steaming their way.

“Put him up front, so they can see him,” Collins suggested as he steered back towards the crown-shaped rocks. Seconds later the F-18s broke off and headed out to sea, while just a few yards away Collins noticed a periscope off to his right – then he looked on as the sub’s sail broke surface, it’s huge black hull surfacing alongside his 12 foot long inflatable boat.

“Come alongside,” Collins heard over the sub’s hailing speaker, and he watched as sailors swarmed on deck, dropping a boarding net over the side. Marines followed, their M-16s still slung, and two of them came down the net to secure the Zodiac alongside. Collins looked up the wet black hull, saw the ship’s C.O. heading down the net and groaned.

The Marines secured a line to the President and helped him aboard as the sub’s skipper hopped into the Zodiac.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Where, sir?”

The man pointed at the little cove. “Smithfield,” was all he said.

Collins turned back to Gemini and they pounded through wind-driven waves to the island, arriving soaking wet and cold…only now he saw Smithfield was waiting for them, standing on the aft deck.

“No weapons, Captain,” a still-dazed Smithfield said plainly, and the captain just held out his hands.

“You’re welcome aboard, then.”

The captain hopped across to the aft platform, waited for Collins and Sherman to come up, then they all crawled into the cockpit. Liz popped up through the companionway, passed up a tray of fresh fruit, then carried up a pitcher of margaritas and put them onto the cockpit table.

“Alright, Captain,” Smithfield said slowly, “you called the meeting, so fire away.”

“Yes, Mr President…uh, is that one of them, sir?”

“That’s Jennifer. I’m not sure who she represents, but whatever you need to say, it probably needs to be said in front of her.”

“Was she responsible for this?”

“What? Removing me from the west wing after that son of a bitch threatened to throw my ass in Guantanamo? Yeah, I guess she is.”

“He what, sir?”

“You hard of hearing, skipper?” Collins asked.

The captain turned red. “You’re Collins, aren’t you?”

“That’s a fact.”

The captain looked him over, tried to reconcile the man’s dossier with what he saw now. “Well, the Joint-Chiefs wanted me to pass along a request: don’t do this again, okay?” He turned and looked at Jennifer. “It would be helpful if…”

“Captain,” Jennifer spoke now, and her voice dripped with power, “we are allied with Hyperion. That is all. If your group moves against Hyperion, we move against your group.”

“Our group? You mean…?”

“The United States, captain,” Smithfield said. “As her group has already demonstrated their capabilities in this regard, I think it sound advice.”

“If you seek a change in status, captain,” Jennifer said now, “please relay the request through this group.”

“What?”

Smithfield sighed. “If the President, or the Joint Chiefs – or whoever happens to be running the country right now – wants to negotiate with this group, you’ll need to get in touch with me. We’ll arrange a meeting.”

“So, you’re with them, Mr President?”

“Nope. We just happen to have a mutual set of interests, captain, that’s all.”

“Mr President, are you free to leave here and come with me?”

“Of course, but why the hell would I want to do that. I’m not particularly fond of Cuba, or for that matter, the climate in DC these days.”

The captain reached in his pocket and placed a transmitter on the table, then he switched it off. “I’ll probably be shot for this, but sir, can you tell me what the hell’s going on?”

Smithfield looked at the transmitter, then at the captain – and as he looked up he shook his head, turned to ‘Jennie.’ “I think it’s time we left,” he said, and in the blink of an eye both he and Jennie disappeared.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” the captain said. “Do they keep an eye on you all the time?”

Collins shrugged. “I have no idea,” he replied, not wanting to fall into that trap. “Can I run you back out?”

“No, that’s alright,” he said, smiling now as he pointed to several Navy inflatables roaring towards the cove. “I reckon we’ll just take you four into custody.”

Collins shook his head again. “Y’all better get it together real soon, ‘cause this is getting old, and our friends are going to start thinking you’re just stupid.” He leaned over, looked into the sky above the island, then motioned the sub captain to come out from under the awning and take a look.

The skipper of the USS Montpelier stared open-mouthed at his ship, all 362 feet of her, now hovering hundreds of feet above the island, then – his eyes round as saucers – he nodded at Collins: “Okay. I’ll relay the message.”

“They seem to have a pretty good handle on things, captain. Shooting the messenger isn’t going to solve anything.”

“What about my ship?”

“What about it?”

The skipper looked up again – and she was gone. He turned, saw his ship a mile offshore and felt sick to his stomach.

“You know,” Collins said as he looked at the man, “they usually want to park things like that in orbit. They have no idea how or even why we’d spend so much money on something dedicated to defense, and they seem almost annoyed a machine so big does so little, that our ships can’t leap from the sea to space. Frankly, I don’t think they’ve realized yet just how stupid we are, technologically speaking. You might pass that thought along, too.”

“Okay.”

“Oh. Here’s your transmitter. Don’t forget,” Collins said as he tossed it back to the man, “to mention this was not appreciated, too.”

The skipper looked at Collins one last time. “Whose side are you on, Collins? Really?”

“Mine. Humanity’s, even yours, when you get right down to it.”

“So, you’d take sides against us, your country, over the Russians or the Chinese?”

“The Russians and the Chinese aren’t acting in the best interest of humanity, and our allies know that.”

“They do? So, why did they come here?”

“I think they’re curious, but really, beyond that I have no idea.”

“Curious?”

“When I figure that one out, skipper, I’ll let you know.”

“If they let you,” the captain said under his breath, as he stepped onto one of the Navy inflatables. He looked up at Collins one more time, shook his head then left.

+++++

Hyperion Five was tumbling now, just barely under control, and Hope Sherman wished her brother – or Sumner, really – was here now to help fly this thing. She wasn’t a pilot, had never been a pilot; she counted on the ship’s computers to take control during maneuvers like this…only the computers seemed to get more freaked out by trans-light speed dilation effects than even she did. She re-booted systems one by one, and they chirped back to life one by one, only very slowly now, and she put them through simple routines to check accuracy before turning even basic operations over to them.

She saw poor, doomed Phobos ahead through the single ovoid viewport, then their colony ship – in geosynchronous orbit above the Martian poles – with four space elevators already running huge quantities of material down to the planet’s surface.

Finally, computer links were established and Sherman’s Hyperion began slowing, the ship’s tumbling ceased, and she could just make out a docking platform on the colony ship – almost identical to the platform destroyed last year – with three Hyperion vessels already mated there. Five began it’s autonomous approach now; she heard thrusters popping, watched minor attitude corrections on her primary display, then a docking monitor superimposed over the platform. She watched as ILS vectors appeared, felt rapid course corrections as docking hatches began to line up, and then, with one last gentle bump, ‘positive contact’ and ‘hard seal established’ annunciator lights appeared on the primary display.

She watched pressures equalize, then the computer cycled the airlock, and she saw Sara Green on the monitor, no helmet, no spacesuit, and she flipped the safeties to clear the airlock. Green entered the primary airlock, started the equalization process anew, then entered Five’s cabin.

Sherman could tell something was wrong; the expression on her face, in her eyes was all wrong.

“What’s happened?” Sherman asked as soon as the other woman was inside her pod.

“The Phage. We have more reports ready, but they’re headed for this system, still sub-light but speed is picking up.”

“The timeline? Have the Vulcans advanced it yet?”

“Moe is convinced we need to advance the schedule, and he wants another colony ship here, like yesterday. Larry and Curly remain unconvinced, they don’t see any need to worry at this point.”

“I wish we’d named them something else,” Sherman sighed.

Green smiled. “I never saw those programs, so the names meant nothing to me. Then Hayden showed me a couple of episodes. Singularly appropriate, I think. Are you sure you want to call them Vulcans?”

“People will be able to relate to them better that way, at least before they see them. Once that happens, shit’s going to hit the fan no matter what we call them.”

“Klaatu barada nikto.”

“Exactly. Unreasoning panic, all human paranoia manifest and come to life.”

Green sighed too. “Nothing compared to the Phage. Damn, where’d we be without their help?”

“Extinct,” said The Owl.

+++++

‘Jennie’ was back on Gemini, sitting on the chart table waiting for Collins, her legs crossed ‘Indian-style’ with her elbows resting on her knees, and Sumner laughed when he came below and found her sitting there…

“Well hello there, Tink!”

“Tink? I thought you wished to call me Jennie, or Jennifer?”

“Right you are, but you remind me of a character in a story. Remind me to tell you about Peter Pan someday.”

“I will. I never get over watching you laugh.”

“Oh?”

“I am simply a communicator, yet even so I have no analogue of laughter when I relay our conversations. Laughter, humor,” she said, shrugging her shoulders with her palms now up, facing the sky, “they’re all Greek to me?”

Collins laughed again. “You’re developing a sense of humor too, I see.”

“If you spent all your time around Smithfield, I suspect yours might develop as well.”

“Stop it,” Collins laughed as he shook his head.

“You see? Here’s another example of the inherent conflict of expression in your language. You tell me to stop it, yet you laugh, an expression of pleasure. The complexity of neuronal responses is staggering, and at times the interplay of ideas and language is most upsetting to me.”

“Well, you’re understanding seems to be improving.”

“In English, yes. French is not too bad, but Hebrew? You can not swear in Hebrew, apparently, without using your hands. This causes headaches, nausea, death-wish.”

“Probably has for three thousand years.”

“Collins? May we mate?”

“Excuse me?”

“Not physically, you idiot. May I have some of your genetic material?”

Collins’ laughter was loud enough to cause Liz to poke her head out of the aft cabin. “What are you two talking about now?”

“Sex, mating, procreation, genetic co-mingling,” Jennie said. “I asked Sumner if I could have some of his genetic material.”

“Oh, did you now? And Sumner? How are we going to go about doing that?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea, but maybe you could give us a hand?” He looked at Liz, at the expression of withering contempt in her eyes – then he turned to Jennie and whispered: “Uh, now would be a good time for some humor.”

“Ah yes. I see. Perhaps, Liz, I could get some of your genetic material too?” Jennie looked at Sumner – who was now frowning, his face scrunched up like he’d just eaten a lemon – then at Liz – who was now staring at ‘Jennie’ with an odd smile on her own face.

“Oh no. Far be it for me to come between you two.”

“Liz,” the urJennie said, “they’re going to send you to a punitentiary, for punishment.”

Liz groaned, shook her head and walked back into the cabin.

“So, what’s this all about,” Collins asked.

“As I have explained, we are highly differentiated, genetically manipulated to fulfill specific tasks. Language skills for communicators, size and strength for those who work with heavy industrial machines, intellectual capacity for academic theorists and educators…”

“Attractiveness for the procreation class?”

“We do not conceive, or procreate in the manner you do. I think you call it asexual reproduction, but there is no absolute analogue. And Smithfield implies that at his age all his activities are asexual, and this has caused some concern among our scientists.”

“It does me too. Frequently.”

“Ah.”

“Are you serious? About wanting genetic material?”

“It has been done many times,” she said, “on this planet.” She looked at him now, studying his reaction carefully.

“Oh? When?”

“A long time ago. An hour, perhaps more.”

He looked at her now, wondered where this was going.

“We have manipulated genomes on this planet.”

He felt pressure closing-in when he heard those words, then he pointed at the two marks under her left eye – and she nodded her head.

“These are not what they appear to be,” she said, touching her face. “These are sensory organs, and the spots under the right eye…”

“Sensory…? You have eyes, a nose, and ears…?”

“These are…geospatial might be the most appropriate term. But we can see past time, as well.”

“Past time? I don’t understand.”

Jennie looked at him and sighed. “Some of us, communicators mostly, can see time, almost like you see a river. Some can see up the river, and down.”

“You mean the past? And the future? You can see the future?”

“Me? Yes, but this is a recent genetic variation. Very few communicators have this ability. It is dangerous, the word is…”

“Paradox.”

“Yes, just so. Exactly.”

“Jenn? Do you know what is going to happen, here, on Earth?”

She looked away, then looked to the southern sky. “We are too far north to see the danger, but it comes from what your astronomers have termed C99, the Coalsack Nebula.”

“The danger?”

“It, or perhaps they, have been named the Phage, by Ted’s sister – the Owl. They absorb planets. Planets with sentient species. They remove life, advanced lifeforms. We have observed these activities many times.”

“Many times? Why have they not bothered your civilization?”

“The reason should be obvious. We do not attract their attention.”

“So, they have left you alone? Not attacked your system?”

“Many inhabited worlds are benign. We have observed that those attacked are deemed irrational.”

“Irrational – worlds?”

“The beings. They become irrational, they attempt to spread their irrationality between stars. The Phage react to this threat – and stop it.”

“What do you mean by – irrational?”

“The Will to conflict, to spread conflict. You might call conquest. Also, theological constructs have been considered irrational.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, I know. Sherman had difficulty with the idea too, but ultimately she found the notion amusing.”

“She would.”

“Ah, there’s another interesting construct. Sarcasm.”

“You don’t lie, do you? Or evade the truth?”

“No. What is the point?” Collins’ scrunched face was all she needed to see to understand the point was lost on him. “Lies are deception, and yet all deceptions fail in the end. Suspicions deepen, even political subterfuge crumbles. From what I have assimilated so far, I’ve seen that your history is filled with lies, deceptions. Some accidental, many willful.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Collins said, and he watched her watching him. Communicators would almost certainly be adept at reading all kinds of language, wouldn’t they? Even body language? And if they could “see” the future, was there anything anyone could do they hadn’t already seen? “So? How long have you been manipulating genomes?”

She made the jump without batting an eye. “Human? After your last Ice Age. We manipulated the atmosphere, and the waters of the oceans, using several intermediate sized meteoroid impactors. To preserve…”

“The experiment?”

“No. Our destiny is inextricably linked to another species, so our manipulations with humans have been limited to a few.”

“My dolphin,” Collins said, sitting bolt upright. “She has the same markings. On her face.”

“Yes.”

“What does that mean? Is she…has she been genetically manipulated?”

“Of course. She is not the only one.”

“What has she been manipulated into?”

“A hybrid, a cross between her species and my own. She is a communicator.”

“What?”

“Her kind can maintain an active link to any communicator, anywhere. And it is from her species that we found the ability to see through time.”

“WHAT?”

“Her’s is a unique species, Sumner. When we came to this world, when we first came to study life here, we had little interest in any other species. We came first to catalogue lifeforms, yet we continued to study – her kind. When the true significance of their ability became apparent, after we developed the first hybrids, we came to preserve habitat. When the Phage became aware of the inherent irrationality of this ability, we were able to see, through their mind’s eye, that the Phage are coming – right here. We have come now, to this system one last time – in an effort to save them.”

+++++

Corrine Duruflé sat in the back of a yellow and black utility company van, an old, beat-up Mercedes ‘Sprinter’ class model – watching an apartment building on the left side of the Rue Albert Einstein, in the town of St Denis. The Parisian suburb had developed a reputation over the last few years as a haven for Islamist terror cells and perhaps, she thought, it was the proximity to the old cathedral, the first true gothic cathedral in Christendom, that made them feel safe and at ease while they drew up plans for their assaults on Christian infidels. That might have worked in the beginning, but as pressure from law enforcement grew these groups moved – first to the south, to Lyon, and then north, to Brussels, after the attacks of last December. And her Directorate had watched quietly as a new group returned to St Denis, and that her quiet streets were growing ‘popular’ again. More attacks would surely follow…

A direct metro line to the heart of Paris might have been one reason, but the working hypothesis was that there must still be a network of some sort still in place – and that was obviously of most importance to the Directorate – and two days before drones had sniffed the tell-tale signature of radioactive material in the air near the cathedral. Not medical material, that much was immediately obvious, and no known transits of waste through the area were on the books, so the obvious supposition was that this group had gathered enough material for a dirty bomb – and they were assembling the device now.

CCTV cameras throughout the area were now being monitored day and night, more sniffer drones criss-crossed the area through the night, triangulating patterns in the air, narrowing the search perimeter, and now Duruflé was parked outside a pale gray apartment building monitoring live CCTV feeds, while two specialists from ASN, the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire, watched readouts spike and fade…

“Best guess,” one of the techs said, “is this top floor unit – right here – ” pointing at an image on her screen. “The one with the telescope on the balcony. Concentrations are heaviest in the air just above this unit.”

Corrine looked at another screen. The apartment was leased to a physics professor, a woman from Grenoble married to a Saudi national. She ran a search, read the dossier then looked at her watch, called the university where the woman was employed and asked to speak to her department chair. She introduced herself as a reporter for Agence France-Presse working on a story, and understood the professor was well regarded in the field, and she wondered if the Chairman could facilitate an interview.

“I would be happy to, madame, but the professor has not been in class for the last week, and has not called in…”

She left her name and number, then rang off. She called headquarters, relayed all she knew.

“Approaching the residence will be next to impossible,” she advised. “Too many known elements are in the area, warning would be instantaneous. Even something as ridiculous as an airstrike would be counter-productive, radiation would be released on an even more massive scale.”

“The decision has been made. A NATO Predator will fire a modified Dart. A biologic agent, a neural-disruptor will be released, death will result in less than two seconds. To soon for anyone to react.”

“The area we can expect to see fatalities?”

“The approximate kill radius could be up to a kilometer, depending on winds, perhaps two on one lobe.”

“Laser designator?”

“Yes, the team is on the way.”

“I see.”

“Clean up your site and leave the area, and do so immediately.”

“Yes, director.”

+++++

Jennie’s head snapped away from their conversation, a sudden, jarring discontinuity – like she was receiving a message of some importance. He was getting used to these interludes – when she was receiving information from…somewhere.

“A nuclear device will detonate. In five minutes, thirty eight seconds.”

“Where?”

“Paris. Just north of Paris.”

“Can you stop it?”

“Of course.”

“Would you do so now, please?”

Jennie jerked away for a moment, then looked back at him. “There is an incoming projectile. Shall I stop this as well.”

“Here’s what I’d like you to do,” Collins said, grinning.

She smiled her understanding when he finished, and for a moment she simply looked away.

◊◊◊◊◊

When the Dart failed to detonate, Duruflé and two assault teams ran up to the fifth floor apartment – and crashed through the door. Tools scattered everywhere, take-out food containers piled on a small table just off the kitchen, the professor’s duct-taped and shackled body hustled quickly from the building, but no terrorists – and no terrorist’s bomb – were anywhere in the vicinity. The 20 kiloton warhead – recently acquired from Russian agents in Belarus – had simply disappeared too.

Duruflé had no way of knowing the warhead had appeared moments before – inside the Kremlin – in the old Armoury Museum, resting gently inside a large, trough-shaped urinal in the men’s room near the museum’s main exit. Four of the five terrorists appeared at the First Southern Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas, in the middle of a Gay Conversion Therapy workshop, while the fifth terrorist, and the leader of the group, appeared – naked – on stage at a Klan rally in Tupelo, Mississippi – his mutilated body found later that afternoon in a dumpster behind a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken take-out restaurant.

+++++

‘What about the future?’ Hope Sherman wondered. ‘If the past casts a shadow so deep it reaches the future,’ she thought as she looked at Moe and Larry, grasping for context, ‘what then of the future? Can the future cast a shadow on the present? To the past, in effect? Can the past really become so fluid?’

Moe’s ‘body’ shifted slightly as he/she/it pondered her thoughts – and Hopie once again ‘felt’ the impression he/she/it was looking at her, trying to come to terms with her thought processes. Ten meters tall, his body roughly pyramidal in shape and perhaps fifteen meters circumference at the ‘base’ – his scaly ‘body’ did not move, not at all. This ship had, in effect, been built around him, so that he was physically connected to the ship in almost every conceivable way. And the scales on his body? Those had been hardest for her to get used to.

Translucent blue near the top, then reds and browns in progression the lower she looked, the scales detached frequently and zoomed away on some errand or task. The blues were of course communicators, the browns negotiators of some sort, while the reds were somewhat analogous to a security team. All genetic hybrids, all hyper-specialized entities with essentially no free-will of their own, the ‘scales’ resided on Moe’s ‘flesh’, drawing energy, taking sustenance from ‘him.’ A part of him, in other words, yet somehow not quite.

She still found the idea disturbing, just as she had the first time she saw one detach and zoom away, when she first encountered one of the Masters.

A blue scale detached from Moe and drifted down to her lap – and she tried not to recoil at the sight of this new one. Two feet tall, he was a miniature of her brother Ted, only hairless and translucent blue. His voice even sounded somewhat Ted-like, though diminished by stature, and now he sat cross-legged on her thighs.

“Hey kiddo,” this ur-Ted said, his familiar mannerisms completely unnerving her. “We need to talk.”

“Do we?”

“About the Phage. Wanna go grab something to eat?”

She turned in her chair, rolled from the chamber – trying to hide her face from him. She knew they were getting better at reading emotions through body language and understood the implications of that mastery, but her mission here was a tenuous one, her grip on Moe’s loyalty conditional. She had to keep this alliance together at all cost, yet the communicator’s presence was jarring – and Moe would know that, instantly.

‘Deliberately so?’ she wondered. Keeping your adversary off-balance was a key tactic in any negotiation. ‘Well, that answers that question…’ But of course, now he knew her thinking too.

She rolled to the living module off the docking platform and cycled the airlock, went inside her private cubicle.

“What would you like?” ur-Ted asked. “Burger and fries again, a chocolate malt?”

“How about eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, from the Place Pigalle at the Pike Place Market?”

“You’re homesick today, aren’t you?”

The plate appeared on her table a second later.

“I need a fork and knife, please.”

And there they were. She picked them up, started on her breakfast.

“The Phage are now at light-speed times ten to the fourth. At that velocity that will reach this system in twenty years, but they are still under heavy acceleration. We will revise their arrival time when we have more accurate data.”

“Okay. So what’s bothering Moe?”

“There is no work underway on colony ships for your people. What you call political gridlock has stalemated all your governments. There are threats. Much posturing, that which you attribute to too much testossterone. Attempts have been made on Smithfield’s life, also on both Collins and your brother. There appears to be no awareness among vast numbers of your population of our existence, while various political factions are uniting against our alliance. We think this is pointless, we think a renegotiation of terms is warranted.”

“I do too.”

“Excuse me? Did I hear you correctly? You do too?”

“Yes. And I have an idea…”

+++++

Perhaps controllers under Cheyenne Mountain were first to spot the object, or those at Baikonur II were first, but within moments NORAD increased it’s defense posture from DEFCON 4 to 2 – and Secretary of Defense Donald Burke notified a still-shaken president that the Hyperion Contact was emerging from behind the moon. Twenty minutes later, NORAD radar sites along the Labrador Sea picked up seven new targets in formation – and all had simply appeared ‘out of nowhere’ – and all were now closing on earth.

“How big are they?” the president asked Paul Kirkland, his National Security Advisor.

“The Dark Side object appears to have a diameter of roughly twenty miles; the seven new targets appear identical in size, but their field displacement is different – heavier mass I’m told.” Kirkland’s encrypted line to NORAD chimed again, and he answered, listened to the general in command as he updated information, then Kirkland cut the connection. “Mr President, a ninth object has appeared. About 5800 miles above Antarctica. Uh, sir, the apparent diameter of this ship exceeds 1500 miles.”

The president turned and looked over the White House lawn. “Did you say 1500 miles?”

“Yessir.”

“Antarctica?”

“Yessir.”

“Stationary?”

“No, sir. Descending, moving north northwest, projected to skirt the Chilean and Peruvian coasts, then continue offshore until it moves up our Pacific coast.”

“Interesting.”

“Mr President?”

“No way we’ll be able to keep a lid on this any longer. My guess is they’ll pull an Independence Day. Position over our major cities, try to scare the shit out of the general population.”

“That’s a possibility, sir.”

“Okay. Let’s prepare to shut down the stock exchanges, close the banks. Three hundred dollar ATM withdrawals only, initiate full DEFCON ONE guidelines.”

“Air traffic, Mr President?”

“I said full DEFCON guidelines, Paul. Air and rail traffic, shut down the interstates, activate the emergency broadcast network. Full emergency food distribution using the National Guard, the whole nine yards.”

“Martial Law, Mr President?”

He leaned back in his chair, looked at the ceiling. “Let’s see if we can get the media to contain the story before we go with this, but if a panic starts, we’ll give ‘em a half hour then pre-empt, cut ’em all off and announce. Just replay the policies on air,” the president said, “give people a few days to habituate, get used to the threat…”

“If we have that long, sir.”

“Oh, we have time. Remember what Smithfield said? What he said we should do? ‘Tell ‘em about building ships. Let the people know’ – remember? This is a pretty good opening move; cut off our policy options, incite hysteria, breakdown public confidence in national institutions. Yes…an interesting first move.”

“And? How do you want to counter it?”

“Counter it? Are you kidding me? That’s the goddamn Death Star up there, Paul. I’m not sure there’s anything we can do – that wouldn’t simply piss them off.”

“So? How do we defend against them?”

“We listen. Listen and learn, because that’s about all we can do. If we make a stupid move they’ll shut us down. They’ll begin a disinformation campaign. We’ll lose that, too.”

“How do you know that, Mr President?”

“Because that’s what I’d do,” he said, pointing at the sky, “if that was me up there – with five Aces tucked up my sleeve.”

+++++

Amanda and her friends were in a funky-festive mood – but finally, it was time to celebrate! After being grounded the first month of summer vacation, this was her first night out, and her mom had just dropped her off for a sleepover at Kiley’s mom’s house. Amanda and Kiley had been best friends all through elementary and middle school – but next year? The really big adventure started: High School! Still, she was pissed – her mom had nearly ruined everything, caught Kiley and all her friends in the pool out back the afternoon school let out – with a bunch of beer – and Justin Landry, with his hands where they weren’t supposed to be. Now, after spending a month at the Westside Pentecostal ‘Vacation Bible School’ – she was…free at last–Gawd-almighty–free at last!

“So, what’d they make you do there?” Kiley asked.

“If I ever see another Charlton Heston movie again, I’ll die…”

“Who?”

“Doesn’t matter…I hear the fifth Independence Day sequel is pretty good…think we can get your mom to take us? I think it’s playing at the Westside Galleria?”

“Uh-huh…and Justin’s going to be there too, I suppose?”

Kiley’s mom was so-o-o kewl! Dropped them off with plenty of money to see the movie – even some leftover for snacks, but Look At That Line! Sheesh! The four thirty showing was sold out, so now they’d have to wait a whole fifteen minutes to get into the four forty-five! And…where was Justin?

Then people were gasping, looking at the sky and pointing, so of course Amanda and Kiley turned and looked too. No boiling, flaming clouds this time, just a really big – spaceship – looking thing. She yawned, looked around – hoping Justin was going to make it in time for the show, then turned back to look at the advertising thingy up there floating by.

“Man,” she heard someone say, “I wonder how much the studio had to pay for that thing?”

“Gets your attention though…” someone else said.

“Wow!” Justin said, and Amanda wheeled around to see him and did her best to appear bored. “That thing’s really big.”

“Just one of those blimp things. No big deal…”

But the mass of the ship was huge, and as no measurement protocol was available to quickly calculate a mass this large, let alone distortions to the earth’s ‘gravity well’ it’s passing caused, what happened next came as a surprise. As the ship closed on the southern California coast, people, cars, cats and dogs – even garbage – anything and everything not firmly affixed to the earth – began to float free – weightless as the ship passed.

And as the ship faded from view, still heading north along the coastline, the temporary distortions in the earth’s ‘gravity well’ dissipated, and everything and everyone simply settled back to the surface…

“Wow, that was SO kewl…” Amanda said. “I hear they’re going to – like – have a ride like that at Magic Mountain this summer! Oh! This is going to be such a – kewl – summer!”

And so she and Kiley – and Justin – walked into the theater, all jazzed about seeing a bunch of aliens coming back to earth on the silver screen – “I bet they’re really going to kick ass this time!” she said – all while Justin wondered if he’d be able to slip a finger inside…

+++++

News outlets were curiously silent about these brief sightings, and what imagery and commentary that did “come out” did so through less conventional ‘online’ channels. Most of this smartphone based imagery was grainy enough to allow experts to debunk the entire affair, and reports of distorted gravity were put down to h-h-hysteria – and nothing more.

The President had called in a lot of favors to get this done, and he was happy with the results. “Money well spent,” he told his staff.

+++++

Hope Sherman conferred with her translator, her urTed, or as Sumner liked to call her brother – Spud. The eight remaining transports – Moe’s colony ships – had been given coordinates and times, and Sherman smiled at the allegorical significance of her choices. Moe apparently had a sense of humor too…either that, or he was a real gambler.

+++++

Heavy thunderstorms appeared over the Eurasian landmass, torrential rains began that afternoon, and the largest displays of undulatus asperatus clouds ever recorded followed during the evening. The eerie formations unsettled people from the Russian steppes to the desert regions south of Tehran. The fearful faithful gathered and pointed at the sky, sure that God was about to visit a mighty wrath on all mankind.

The first ships, completely invisible to radar, appeared over Tehran and Moscow in the deep of night, and not a half hour later over Mecca and Jerusalem. St Peter’s in Rome and All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg followed. One more appeared before sunrise over a forest glade in the foothills of the Himalayas, and later that morning, at noon local time, the last ship drifted into place over a small Shinto shrine not far from Osaka.

The significance of these locations was not lost on the world’s religious leaders, and within hours almost the entire population of the earth was on their knees, praying to objects in the sky, asking for forgiveness – all wondering what they had done to anger their God – and what might happen next.

And yet the objects remained motionless – and silent – for days, then weeks.

And during this period, all the earth’s mammalian marine life swam to seven points in the seven seas, and they waited in quiet depths, perhaps not knowing what was coming, but completely unconcerned about their future.

+++++

“The Phage. They approach at velocities we have never seen. It is a matter of weeks now, before they arrive.”

Hope Sherman looked at Spud as he paced back and forth on her bed, looking for all the world just like Ted now. There was hair on his head now, his genetically derived illusion almost complete.

“So, is there still time?” Sherman said.

“Your leadership is paralyzed. Industries have collapsed, even agricultural productivity has ceased. Your people continue to pray – even as they starve to death. This is the most irrational display we have ever seen, and it may account for the increase in velocity we have noted. The Phage will not let this force spread among the stars.”

“The colony ships?”

“Perhaps, but you know how the Master’s feel about this.”

“I do, but…”

“But you feel responsible. You think that if you’d never built Hyperion, none of this would have happened.”

“Yes.”

“Perhaps. Yet the Phage would have noticed such an intense and irrational discontinuity sooner or later. Perhaps we could have completed our mission without your assistance, yet time distortions from your seas completely altered our plans. Your arrival made our intervention necessary. We are grateful.”

“But not enough to…?”

“We will try. That is all we can say now. We will try.”

Hope Sherman looked at ‘her Spud,’ her translator, and wondered what he felt about humanity, yet at times like this she asked herself if he felt anything at all. As just one small part of a larger, rapidly evolving organism, one with the constant input of hundreds of translators and negotiators passing every waking moment, Sherman was amazed Spud could sort through the incoming data fast enough to form even one coherent sentence – let alone help formulate long term strategies. Yet she had to consider when she was talking to Spud she was also in direct contact with Moe – who was himself linked to Masters across the galaxy. The concept was almost impossible to wrap her head around, and even after months among them it still troubled her, yet she found the process oddly comforting. When she spoke with Spud she wasn’t getting one point of view – she was getting hundreds – simultaneously. ‘Spud’ essentially collated data and presented a consensus point of view, with his Master, the one she called Moe, though he/she/it was, in effect, commanding what was relayed, what she heard.

And what she’d heard still troubled her.

Humanity was irrelevant to the ‘Vulcans,’ a sideshow before the main event. There was one ‘extra’ colony ship available to transport humans, as well as space on the large command ship that had off-loaded cargo on Mars. Perhaps two million people could be resettled.

But who? Who would go?

And who would choose?

+++++

ur-Jenn sat on Sumner’s lap, in her way trying to console him. Liz and Carol looked at one another, then Ted stood and walked to the rail, hopped over to Hyperion and disappeared below.

“So? That’s it? These hell raisers, the Phage? They get here in a few weeks, find the remains of the human race and lay waste to the planet? Is that what you’re telling me is going to happen? The human race ends in a few weeks, maybe a month from now?”

“As I said, there may be room for more of you. Perhaps two million humans in total, more if we have less mass to move. A world is being prepared even now, but there is no guarantee the Phage won’t respond to your movement. We must keep the others on a different world, an ocean world well away from your new world. We must protect them at all cost, but you will be on your own – once we’ve helped you re-establish industry and agriculture. What you do with this new world will be your species future, or perhaps it’s legacy.”

Carol stood and walked over to Hyperion, leaving Liz and Sumner to look away into the night sky. Sumner felt her leave then too, his Jennifer, and he wondered where she went, and why – but it didn’t matter now. Nothing at all really mattered.

He, his people, even this world – had just been sentenced to death – and now they humanity came to rest in this, their collective twilight, watching the last of the sun fade against the purple mountains majesty of their homes.

And their last trip to Cassis had been spooky, almost terrifying, with only a few farmers present selling produce and roving bands pillaging everything unguarded. For the past several days they had diving for fish – and finding nothing – yet now he understood why…

“Perhaps? Is that what she said?” Liz asked.

“Yup – if things work out, maybe two million.”

“Seems kind of small, when you think about it.”

“Hmm? What’s that,” Sumner said, lost in a passing thought.

“Two million people, out of almost nine billion? That’s not a lot, is it?”

“It’s better than nothing, I suppose.”

“Who will they choose?”

“I have no idea,” but he knew the ideal candidate would be young enough to propagate the species, and intelligent enough to be valuable to a re-emergent technological society. ‘That leaves me out, too,’ he told himself.

Liz stood and walked forward to the bow pulpit. She held onto the rail as she looked up into the sky, while Charley came and settled on Sumner’s lap. The pup looked up into his eyes and licked his chin, then the tears that rolled down his face.

He heard Carol running through Hyperion, heard her running up the companionway steps up and into the cockpit…

“He’s gone!” she screamed.

Sumner stood after Charley barked and jumped from his lap. “Who? Ted?”

“Smithfield was down there, and his sister too, and when I came in they all just disappeared!”

“Well, hell,” Sumner Collins said as he walked aft, grinning. “Hopie was here? Ain’t that grand?!”

Then he too turned to the stars – and he laughed at them – while he shook his fist at the night sky.

Then he felt her there, down there in the sea – and he turned and looked at those two scars glowing in the night. He dove off the stern, dove deep – so deep he felt his lungs about to burst – and when he saw her there beside him he knew she would never leave him.

+++++

Ted Sherman and his sister, Hope, as well as a startled Grover Smithfield, blinked into existence on the new Hyperion loading platform, the one attached to ‘Moe’s’ command ship, still in Mar’s orbit. They made their way to the hastily constructed conference room off Hope’s sleeping cabin and sat around an oxygen polisher – that now performed double duty as a table.

“This is your meeting, Grover. What’s on your mind?” Hopie said as she looked at him.

“The final figure is 1.2 million people. That’s it. That’s all they’re able to transport. That means nine billion people are at risk.”

“The terraformed world they’ve chosen for our people,” Hope sighed, “the one that’s immediately habitable, is a quarter the size of our moon. Within decades we’ll reach it’s peak ability to sustain life. Within one hundred years we’ll have to be prepared to send out colonists, or our population growth will cause another implosion.”

“I understand that,” Smithfield sighed. “But do you understand – seven billion people? That many people are going to die if we can’t…?”

“I do,” Hope said. “What would you have me say?”

“We have to find another world. Another Earth, someplace else for us to go.”

She looked at Smithfield, knew what he wanted, but she’d exhausted those possibilities weeks ago. Humanity had exhausted this planet, and even without the Phage it’s time here was limited. Population explosion, resource depletion, climate change…earth really had become a paradise lost.

Yet Ted was looking at his sister just then, just as Hope’s ‘urTed’ translator blinked into the room. Ted had never seen his doppelgänger before, though he had almost gotten used to the ur-Jennifer that always seemed to be somewhere close to Sumner; now, seeing his near self in such close proximity was unsettling – and he instinctively pulled away from ‘it’.

Hope, of course, smiled at his discomfort, at least until the ur-Ted began speaking.

“The human population on the surface has reduced by 3.4 billion. A religious reaction, but starvation, panic, sudden military interventions have been observed. By the end of this week we project more than 5 billion will have perished. We are authorized to tell you that three new colony ships will arrive, room for twenty million people has been developed on a system of synthetic moons. These moons orbit in a system where three planets are being terraformed. It is possible these worlds will be ready for human habitation within ten standard years.”

“By Golly,” Smithfield said, “that’s wonderful news. How can we express our gratitude?”

The urTed looked at Smithfield, his eyes sad, full of pain. “There will be a price, a set of conditions,” he said, his voice now dull and flat. “We are sorry, but this must be. We cannot risk attracting the Phage.”

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 7 August, 1430 hrs GMT. 

COG: moored, Marseilles, old port;

SOG: na; 

Temp: 107F;

Winds: SSW at 22kts; 

Barometer 29.95 rising; 

GPS:  43°17’38.04″N   5°22’0.21″E.

Still unseasonably hot. Very dry wind coming off North Africa, last night the low temperature was 97F. Almost no food available in the city, but there is power, and we have been able to fill the diesel tanks.]

Sumner Collins had just finished moving Gemini back to the relative safety of the marina in Marseilles’ old port, a deeply sheltered harbor almost completely surrounded by the oldest part of the city, yet now he was uneasy, felt like he was being watched all the time. Ted had been gone for weeks now; he had disappeared that night with Hopie and Smithfield, leaving Carol alone on Hyperion for several days – and then she too had simply vanished. Last week he’d heard what he thought was a thunderclap and gone on deck to check the sky – only to find Hyperion gone. One minute the boat was there, then clap-boom – she was gone. The event had seriously unsettled him, enough to consider moving back to ‘civilization.’

Liz had grown increasingly despondent after the ur-Jenn’s revelation the Phage were coming, and much sooner than expected, yet she rallied for a time – with Carol’s help. She assumed if there was room for older people she might find a way off-world, she might survive the coming of the Phage – and then Carol vanished. Liz fell into a downward spiral after that, and was sleeping into mid-afternoon most days now, and rarely eating. She helped when she could but the sense of onrushing doom left her paralyzed more often than not, and for days at a stretch.

Then Liz watched as Sumner grew increasingly disenchanted with the idea leaving, of ever living anywhere but Earth. He said there was no room ‘for people like me’ – out among the stars, and when she’d asked what he meant by this, about what exactly he he thought he’d done to exclude a future together, he’d grown sullen and withdrawn – and she shut down further. She’d noticed he’d fallen into spells like this, ever since he’d come back from Israel, and while she didn’t understand – she couldn’t get him to talk about what happened, either.

And by this point, only Charley seemed to exercise any sort of hold on Sumner, and their unique bond only seemed to grow stronger with time – even as Liz’s hold on Sumner seemed to diminish – especially after Hyperion vanished. She didn’t truly understand Charley or what the pup meant to Sumner, or how he would – in effect – choose a dog to confide in over her, yet that’s what it felt like. She grew more distant and depressed – causing Sumner’s further withdrawal – and the cycle spiraled beyond their ability to control.

Food had became harder to find after the arrival, farmer’s markets were overrun as fuel dependent transportation and distribution networks broke down. Pelagic sea life had all but disappeared, but Sumner soon found shellfish and after that they were feasting on crab and oysters almost every meal – and an occasional lobster could be had with patience – but even that diet grew stale after a week.  On top of it all, he had to run the engine to make water, and as that bit into their fuel reserves it meant they had to find fuel. And fuel was running out, getting harder to find.

So, the zero-sum end game that the ur-Jenn laid out for them was slowing coming to pass, only quicker than expected. Collins listened to the world’s death throes on his single side band radio night after night; stories of heroism filled the airwaves – but he saw little evidence of that on the streets. Tens of millions of people on their knees, overwhelming helplessness the order of the day, and yet, of all the nations of the earth, only one seemed to soldier-on almost completely unaffected by the peculiar fatalism sweeping through the remaining people of the Earth. America, and to a lesser extent Canada, had proven more resilient to the religious fatalism sweeping the eurasian landmass, but only just.

One day Collins walked along the waterfront until he came to the Cathédral de Major, Marseilles’s largest cathedral, and he looked at it’s odd mishmash of styles, then at the hundreds of uncollected bodies on the plaza surrounding the building. He heard singing inside and walked past the dead and the dying until he gained the entry, and at the entry he pulled a woman’s bloated body from the door and walked inside.

There were no people inside, no one sitting in the pews – not one soul listening to the music, but he walked inward between rows of pews to the transept – where he paused and looked up – then he walked deeper into the building, to the choir. He watched an immaculately dressed choir of men and women singing, watched a string ensemble nearby accompanying the organ, and found a place in the shadows to sit and listen.

He drifted within the music, sat and fell into the arms of that spirit which is ultimately most human, and he found he almost felt like crying as the music washed over his parched soul. He knew the music, music somewhere from his past, a piece the Jennifer had loved, perhaps. It was Duruflé’s Requiem, and the choir was moving into the Paradisum, those final few moments of the piece – long regarded as the most intimate ever scored, the composer’s intent to unleash the music of heaven on those clinging fast to life.

As Sumner Collins drifted he wondered when he’d lost his faith – indeed – if he’d ever possessed anything resembling faith. He’d spent his entire life hurting people – killing so many, torturing more than a few – and now, listening to this music he wanted to know why he’d done those things. Why he’d turned away from beauty, from love. Why he’d embraced such infinite darkness – in the name of – ? What? A Father? His country? He didn’t feel like a murderer, yet he was, and in the worst possible way. He’d found no enjoyment in his actions, only a sort of grim satisfaction when the ends proved the means justified, and he’d marched right along to the anthems of this chosen life – like any good soldier.

But that hadn’t always been the case, had it? He thought back to Smithfield’s wife, to her easy capitulation over the Atlantic, and he contrasted that experience with hundreds of others in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each human disintegration had been burned into his soul, each broken body was superimposed over his own, and there were times now when he lost track of himself, when he felt his own decomposing soul atop the piles of his victims. Was this, he wondered, what it felt like to take another’s life – in the name of some greater good?

The last chords of the requiem washed through the cathedral and broke over his soul, cast him adrift as voices drifted off into evening aires. He felt all his tears just then, the tears he’d held in check for so many years. First Jennifer, then Charley and Deborah, and now he could feel Liz falling away, falling into her own peculiar darkness – only now he felt completely powerless to do anything but watch his life unfolding in the last warmth of twilight. He’d done everything he could to help Jennifer, everything to save her life, then when that was not enough he’d been content to ease her suffering. Because nothing, nothing he did mattered, and in the end death came for her. And Deborah’s hallucinogenic passing, with something akin to Debussy at her side, with Lennon beckoning from the shadows? What did it all mean?

He stood after a while, saw the choir had already left and he wondered how long he’d been sitting in the darkness. He thought of Phoebe, lost up there on the Norman coast with that lip smacking psychiatrist…and he wanted to see her again, hold her when the time came…but no, she’d finally found someone to hold, as her own night came. He’d talked to them last week, heard her playing the Orgeron piece once again while he talked to Mann, and Collins knew he couldn’t ever say goodbye. They were too close for such expressions, so thoroughly conjoined words would never suffice.

Why, he wondered as he looked up at the vaulted ceiling, was it irrational to believe in something greater than ourselves? Why had the visitor’s ships descended upon and hovered over humanity’s symbols of mystery, the home of all her irrational imaginings? Had those alien minds known that earth’s people had already reached a tipping point of dissolution, that humanity had arrived at that point where faith unquestioned so long simply snapped under the weight of it’s inherent contradictions? Had those distant minds known that the human spirit was, in the end, doomed to fade away when fantasy overwhelmed reality?

+++++

And why was it was that not one of their huge ships had settled over an American city?

Was it that the people of the Americas were isolated in other ways – by their oceans, perhaps, or the relative newness of their civilizations. The people of North America, in particular, had seemed to grow ever more resilient when they looked at the ships over Rome and Jerusalem, Mecca and the Himalayan foothills. Their faith, the ‘Vulcans’ sensed, seemed rooted more in themselves, more in the material world than in something so nebulous as God, and the ‘Vulcans’ realized they were looking at perhaps the most utterly human of all the varied races they’d observed on this planet.

And yet they looked down on these Americans with understanding. They’d been like that too, once, and they knew from their own troubled experience all the outcomes that might have been – had these Americans been allowed to move off into the stars. But they were too much a threat, their unique fusion of the rational and the mystical – their fatalism far too dangerous to cast loose among the stars. In the end, the Masters decided only a relative few would be taken aboard the colony ships.

Because most of all, the ‘Vulcans’ remembered a time when the Phage had very nearly found them. When they’d first achieved a level of technological expertise that permitted spaceflight, before the time when population pressure and resource depletion had very nearly caused a complete collapse of their homeworld.

And yet, these ‘Vulcans’ thought, the people of this planet had absolutely no idea what was coming their way. Or why. Now the ‘Vulcans’ wondered what they might have done, once upon a time, if they had been so ignorant of the reality closing in around them. If they’d looked with wonder and awe upon the vast fields of stars around their homeworld – until it was too late to act on the realities they were so blissfully unaware of.

And then, after weeks of silence, after endless days and nights while millions of people stared unknowingly at huge, silent starships, each of the eight ships moved away silently – in the light of day – and hours later settled over spots seemingly in the middle of nowhere, far, far away from land. In the middle of the seven seas, or so it was reported. The ships settled into the waters of the earth’s oceans – and disappeared. Lost in frantic despair, the remaining people of the earth looked at broadcasts of the ships moving out to sea – and those still living wondered what it all meant. When the ships did not reappear there was a sudden, final collapse of the human spirit.

And in the emptiness that followed, the remaining few wondered if there had indeed ever been any meaning to human suffering. Had all mankind’s wars been in vain? Was music, all painting and sculpture simply meaningless? Would there be nothing left of humankind to say to the universe – We were here?!

And that night, while many of the earth’s people slept, something happened. The broadcast simply crushed all other programming, pushed it aside, moved it away, and for the very first time the people of earth listened to a voice from the stars.

The President of the United States of America was sitting in his office, in the West Wing of the White House, when the broadcast started playing. He was not amused, and appeared to be in no mood to listen.

+++++

An owl – and a fairy.

That’s what many people thought they were watching when the broadcast commenced. They were looking at an owl, and someone – or something – that looked, perhaps, a little like the Tinker Bell they pulled free of childhood memories.

And the owl was staring at them. Benevolently, perhaps, but people saw sadness, even a little wisdom in her eyes.

But then the owl spoke.

“Good evening, my name is Hope,” the owl began incongruously, “and I am speaking with you tonight from a ship in orbit above the earth, 4,000 miles above Antarctica. Tonight I have a story to tell you, a most unhappy story, a story with a sad ending – for most of us – ”

And the owl told them of the people in the starships, people from another world. She told them of a race of people she’d come to call the Vulcans, because, she said, these beings seemed to be guided more by principles of logic than emotion, and that this race had millennia ago turned away from irrationalism and mysticism. They had become explorers, as once the people of earth had been, and, perhaps, how we might be once again.

So, they were explorers, she told humanity. Seekers. A People willing to reach beyond themselves – into the unknown. As we had been not so long ago, before that spirit was consumed by fantasy and illusion.

She told the people of earth a little of what she knew about the people who built these ships, the ships that had settled over the earth’s religious centers. They were a race that had moved out into the stars tens of millions of years ago, a people who took worlds and remade them when they expanded outward, into the systems beyond their Homeworld. This race, she told the people of the earth, now counted thousands of planetary systems as their own, and she spoke of the literally millions of planets they now traveled between. She spoke of having visited several of these worlds, and she tried to convey the majesty of the places she beheld, and the people who had made them.

And then she told them of the Phage:

“There is a force in our galaxy,” she began, “that appears to exist for no other purpose than to eliminate irrationalism, in whatever form it takes.” She paused, let the words sink in. “Religion is one such force,” she said, “but the Vulcan’s seem to have accepted that this form of thought is self-limiting, that religious cultures always collapse as various inherently contradictory and self-destructive impulses overwhelm other cultural institutions, and the Vulcans have accepted for some time our species now approaches such a fate. The Vulcans do not think we will escape our destiny, but they are prepared to offer a refuge – of sorts – for some of us. That said, the Vulcans did not come to our earth to rescue humankind. There is another species on our planet, one even more irrational than humans, but one which possesses – a power – that the Vulcans want to preserve. They are now taking steps to insure the continuity this species.

“One week from today the Vulcan mission on earth will be at an end. One week and one hour from now those humans whom the Vulcans have chosen will be taken from this planet. The final number chosen is not known yet, as even now the Vulcans are gathering resources to save as many humans as they can. Some of you will be resettled on planets the Vulcans have already established, some will be housed in temporary facilities around worlds that are still being terraformed, but the vast majority of people still alive now will – not – be – transported. Those people not chosen next week will remain here on earth, and you will be here – on earth – when the Phage arrive.

“And the Phage will arrive soon after the Vulcan’s depart. The exact time of their arrival is not known, but it could be as soon as a ten days, perhaps as long as two weeks – so, three weeks from today. The Vulcans have observed, from afar, what the Phage do to the worlds they target – and they have taken steps to observe what happens to earth. They have advised me there is no chance of survival, that there is no weaponry powerful enough to defeat this force.

“Yet there remains an outside chance the Vulcans will be able to relocate more of us before the Phage arrive. If this appears likely, there will be one more broadcast after The Departure.”

The owl named Hope looked out at the people she addressed, then stoically added “Goodbye to you all,” before the broadcast faded away. Normal broadcasts around the world resumed, and while a curious sense of Hope prevailed, people began to look up into the night sky with more than just curiosity and wonder.

Those people who paused to stare into space now did so with hearts full of darkness – their minds full of something unfettered and wild – something now well beyond fear.

+++++

Sumner felt the sense of finality everywhere he walked now, and the few people he did run across seemed to waver somewhere along this newly discovered – and indifferent – razor’s edge.  Faces, he saw, hovered between dread and nothingness, though the few people he knew passed on reports they’d heard from the handful of observatories still operating: the Coalsack Nebula had roughly tripled in size, while Doppler and angular velocity measurements indicated that whatever was coming to earth was coming – ‘from right there, in the middle of Caldwell 99’ – and it was coming fast.

Most people on earth had been too far north to observe the looming cloud, but when simulations revealed the Coalsack’s change in apparent magnitude fear turned to panic, panic to hysteria and, finally, hysteria into a sort of resignation that bordered on listlessness.

Then people in the northern hemisphere began to make out the pure blackness of the Coalsack. One night the southern horizon went dark; the next night the blackness filled the half the night sky, well into mid-northern latitudes…

…and three nights later more than two thirds of the northern sky was obscured by the vast, expanding Coalsack, yet the shattered remnants of humanity who stared into the night sky were no longer afraid.

These people had endured too much over the past several weeks to experience fear as anything other than a pale, washed-out emotion, an emotion no longer able to command their attention for very long. Simple fear, Collins knew all too well, is what people experienced when they still had some hope for the future, and that when hope is at long last gone, so too is fear. Nothing remains, nothing but the last grudging acceptance of an imponderable fate, and as earth’s remaining people stood out under the night sky, watching vast fields of stars simply smudged out of existence before the advancing cloud, they could at last see the form death would take in it’s final confrontation with life on earth.

+++++

Exactly one week after the owl spoke people began ‘winking’ out of existence, and within hours a pattern to these disappearances began to emerge. Younger women disappeared at twice the rate men did, yet the physically infirm? None at all disappeared. Scientists, physicians, engineers and builders of all sorts vanished immediately, while prisons and shelters for the indigent remained untouched. A literal handful of people over forty vanished, yet even those older people who disappeared were notable for their intellectual ability, while almost a half million academically undistinguished men, most involved in the construction trades, vanished immediately as well. Philosophers by the thousands vanished, yet not one lawyer was unaccounted for after that long day’s journey into night.

And then the owl announced herself again. American and Canadian farmers and ranchers, she said, those few still alive, had 24 hours to tend to their affairs and get ready for transfer, and these men and women were to gather their herds and seed-stocks immediately. After a final farewell, she was gone again.

Librarians went to their libraries the next morning, only to find shelves had been picked over. Laboratories were similarly ransacked, and factories too. The means to pick up where humanity had left off were already aboard the ‘Vulcan’s’ ships, and a half day later the last ‘essential’ people were gone.

And those remaining on earth woke to yet another new reality.

There was no escape now. Whatever the Phage were, they were close – their arrival imminent. Food had all but disappeared, and now there were no means to produce more. Cities grew dark when power plants failed, all means of transportation ground to a halt within a few hours and people seemed to retreat further into themselves.

Families and communities gathered in the night. They built fires and told stories, and listened to one another as they never had before. That thing called love was on full display now, and at long last people reached out to one another…they reached out while they looked up at the night sky, a remembering long overdue.

And soon the vast black cape of the Coalsack had swung ‘round and blotted out the entire night sky; only the Sun and her planets remained visible now, and most people felt the looming darkness had become a metaphor of the future. Still, they took some comfort from Jupiter and Saturn and all earth’s celestial neighbors…

…and then – Neptune disappeared…

+++++

[Log entry SailingVessel Gemini: 21 August, 0730 hrs GMT – 1. 

COG: 200M, 200 yards off l’île de la Tortue, departing Marseilles;

SOG: 5.3kts; 

Temp: 97F;

Winds: NNW at 12kts; 

Barometer 29.95 rising; 

GPS:   43°12’55.54″N   5°19’17.12″E.

Cooling out now as much of the sun’s light is obscured, though it’s still warm enough out. Cool, dry wind coming off the Alps, last night the low temperature was 93F – the lowest it’s been in months. No food available anywhere now, anywhere; I would have expected riots under other circumstances, but most people have simply retreated indoors to wait for the inevitable. A neighbor on the boat next to Gemini stood outside and watched with us two nights ago, and we watched the Coalsack for a half hour or so. He’s was from the UK and planning to return, to be at home when it happens, but frankly, I don’t think he has time and told him just that. At any rate, he left yesterday morning, and Liz went with him. She said she wanted to be home too, and I felt ambivalent as I watched her leave. C’est la vie, I suppose. Charley and I sat up last night and we’d been watching the sky for a while when my old friend turned up, my dolphin. I jumped in the water with her, and I don’t know, but I had the damnedest feeling she was talking to me. It’s never felt that way before…not like the way it was last night.]

Collins felt Liz’s departure acutely today, and he drifted back to that time north of Bermuda after Charley passed – and the dolphin took her from him – carried his friend into the night. He recalled falling into absolute loneliness when he watched her body fall away into the depths, crushing all hope from his life. Yet when the dolphin returned she had sensed his despair, and she’d stayed with him, swimming lazily alongside Gemini day after day. He recalled how he’d dropped sail from time to time, how she’d consoled him when he joined her in the water.

And then, she appeared the night Liz left –

He’d been sitting on the aft deck looking at the moon rising over the old city, surprised at how utterly quiet the night was. No cars or buses, no trains leaving the station, and only a very few people out – and those few he saw stopped to stare at the black veil of the night – when he heard a commotion in the water and saw her dorsal fin slicing through the inky blackness.

She was there, only agitated, so he jumped into the water beside her and held her for what felt like hours, and when she leaned against him he heard little moaning sighs coming from deep within – and he could see fear reflected in her eyes. When at last she calmed down he felt her communicating – with him. Definitely a link of some sort, then he felt visions – before he saw them in his mind’s eye. Swimming one moment – underwater amidst vast schools of fish – and then adrift among stellar nurseries. Tumbling endlessly among vast fiery nebulae, the Coalsack turning to follow as she ran.

And then, in a voice as clear as any he’d ever heard: “We must leave. You must follow.”

He pulled back from her, looked her in the eye.

“We must leave, now?” he repeated back to her.

She became very agitated as he spoke, swam away at an impossible speed – then turned and rocketed back to his side.

“Now? We must leave now?”

And she nodded her head, almost hysterical now – then her body rose almost completely out of the water and grew quite still.

Collins turned and followed her eye, and he saw a woman on the dock behind Gemini.

At first he didn’t recognize her, but he could see the woman was terrified – shivering and terrified. She was standing knock-kneed, her arms crossed protectively over her breast, her hands crossed on her shoulders…

He felt the dolphin pushing him, pushing him to the dock, so he swam to the aft platform and pulled himself up into the night and jumped across to the dock…

And he found himself face to face – with Corrine Duruflé.

She was aghast, trembling uncontrollably, her face awash with tears.

“Corrine?”

Nothing. No response – yet he saw her eyes were almost crossed, focused somewhere above, perhaps on the enveloping Coalsack.

He turned and looked up into the night again, and saw ragged orbs of red streaking towards earth.

+++++

A few minutes later he was steering Gemini through the outer harbor, motoring to the southeast under autopilot while he wrapped Corrine in a blanket – but he’d yet no see a change in her. He’d helped her into the cockpit and cast off lines, getting underway as quickly as he could. Once they were clear of the l’île de la Tortue the dolphin turned almost directly east, and Gemini followed.

At one point he saw missiles arcing up into the blackness – but whatever they were, whoever had launched them – they simply disappeared. He saw no detonations, heard no explosions. The red orbs remained, only now there were more of them.

They motored out of Marseilles, sailed towards the calanque where he and Liz – and Ted and Carol – had been anchored just a few months back, and still Corrine seemed lost to this world. By mid-morning, though the sun’s light was almost gone the wind picked up and Gemini was broad-reaching under a full main and 120% genoa, barreling along at an honest eight knots. He went below and fixed sandwiches, poured two Dr Peppers and carried them back up into the cockpit.

He held the sandwich under Corrine’s nose and she sniffed at it, shook her head for a moment then stared at Sumner…

“Who – what are you doing here?” she said at last

“Who, me? What am I doing here?”

“Yes, you.”

“Well, take a look around.”

Corrine looked at him, then around the boat. She turned and looked at the shoreline about five miles off – and seemed completely disoriented.

“Where am I? Am I dead?”

“Not as far as I can tell, but I’ve had my doubts. We’re about a third of the way from Marseilles to Toulon, sailing east, following my friend there,” he said, pointing at his dolphin.

Corrine stood and looked at the dolphin. “Your friend?”

“Yes. She’s my friend. You remember? From Honfleur?”

“So. I am dead. Or I am having a, what is the word, a…?”

“A nightmare? No, I don’t think so. And no, you’re not dead, and as far as I can tell you’re wide awake now. What’s the last thing you remember?”

She looked around again, as if taking her bearings one more time – just to be sure. “I was home. Things are very bad there. Fire…fires everywhere, unimaginable riots. The police and fire brigades finally gave up. I was near the Bastille, near the marina. I went down to see if you might have returned…”

“You know, you’re the only woman I know who’d dress for the end of the world in five inch heels.”

She looked down at her shoes and laughed. “Old habits, Sumner.”

“I remember you saying once you’d like to get away from it all, maybe sail with me to Polynesia.”

“Ah. Is that why I’m here? I think I said we’d end up together, didn’t I?”

He shook his head, looked up at the sky: the red streaks clear now in the fading light of the sun, only now the sky had taken on an oddly variegated violet hue, the sea an even more peculiar, purple-gold color that was now oddly streaked.

“Oh, over there,” she said suddenly, pointing off the port quarter. “Another dolphin!”

Collins turned and saw this new one, then turned and looked aft…

Yes, there she was. Hyperion – under full sail, about two hundred yards astern – with Carol at the wheel and Ted cleaning-up lines on the foredeck…

And was that Hopie sitting on the aft rail – looking at him?

+++++

Hyperion and Gemini followed the dolphin past the rocks, around the little lighthouse and beyond, into the tiny, protected harbor that revealed itself beyond cliffs of granite and pine. The village of Portofino looked empty, almost deserted, yet Collins could see one sailboat tied bow-to the seawall just ahead. It was an old Hinckley, blue-hulled and elegant, one of the Southwester’ 42s he’d admired along the Maine coast decades ago, and now he looked through his binoculars at the boat. The name on the stern: Springer, and he saw the companionway hatch lay open – and a very small brown and white pup sitting under the dodger. When the pup saw him, or rather Gemini and Hyperion, sailing into the harbor it stood and started barking. Even through his field glasses, Collins could see the hair on the back of the pup’s neck standing on end, and he smiled – until Charley saw the pup and ran up to the bow.

And now it was a contest of wills…

Then he saw a man come up from below, binoculars in hand and moving to the aft rail of his boat. Soon they were looking at one another – through their binoculars – sizing up whatever threat might exist – but among Springer owners? There was a kind of universal bond between such people, wasn’t there? No, the man put his glasses down and moved off to the seawall, presumably to help him secure dock-lines, but well before Gemini pulled into the harbor he saw more dolphins circling in the water behind the other man’s boat. Five, no – six of them – and when ‘his’ dolphin saw the new pod it rocketed off into the harbor for a reunion of infinite joy.

And the man on the stone quay stared at this new dolphin, then back at him – and Collins could see things beginning to fall into place – for them both – and when he saw the man visibly relax he did too. Collins swung the bow around and coasted to a stop in the middle of the harbor, then used the thruster to line up with the quay as he backed-down, dropping an anchor on the way in. He brought Gemini to a stop about a meter off the stone wall, then hopped back to toss his lines over to the man on the quay. After checking the lines and setting the anchor he cut the engine, then looked around the harbor for other people, but apparently the man standing quayside was the only soul remaining.

“Sumner Collins,” he said when he hopped over to the quay and he held out his hand.

“Tom Goodwin,” the man said, taking his hand.

“Is this place as empty as it looks? We haven’t seen another vessel since we left Marseilles.”

“Not many people left,” Goodwin said, shaking his head slowly. “About half the people in town passed within a week of the arrival, like someone flipped a switch. People stopped eating and drinking, and it didn’t take long after that.”

“Same thing in southern France. Folks just stopped caring.”

“Not up north; not last night,” Goodwin said.

“Oh,” Collins said, “what’s happened?”

“The Russians and Chinese started lobbing nukes last night night, at America and Germany for the most part. Nobody up there stopped them this time. The US counterstrike is still underway.”

“What?!”

“Shortwave broadcasts this morning said most of the world’s major cities are toast, missile silos too. Bombers should be reaching their targets over the next few hours; that’s the word on the nets, anyway.”

“Damn. It’s not enough we have some sort of galactic plague bearing down on us. We had to go and do their work for them?”

Goodwin shrugged. “That dolphin with you?” he asked as he turned to the commotion behind their boats.

“Yup. She’s been with me for a few years.”

Goodwin nodded his head. “These guys have been with me a while, my father before me. I think they’ve been waiting for your’s to get here.” Collins looked at Goodwin as his eyes followed Hyperion into the turning basin, and as he recognized Hope Sherman in her wheelchair by the aft rail he seemed to stand a little straighter, grow a little more self-conscious. “Is that who I think it is?”

“Probably.”

Goodwin looked from Sherman to the dolphins in the water: they were all silent now, staring at the old woman on the aft swim platform as she talked to them. Sumner watched as she talked to one of the dolphins – like it was an old friend – and he grew cool inside, and light-headed, as he considered the implications…then he looked up at the sky.

Though it was not quite noon the sky was rapidly turning dark, a misty shade of purple-gray, and everywhere he turned he saw a world turned inward on itself, a ruined landscape bathed in splotchy shadows by the unsettled, purple light. The inrushing red streaks were more prominent now too, and while they’d not yet reached earth, for the first time he thought he could hear something of their coming in the air. Almost like static, like someone up in the sky was ripping apart an infinitely long cardboard box – and this sound was something new – like it had just started. Hope Sherman sat and looked at the sky, the dolphins off Hyperion’s stern leaned back too, and they looked up into the unknown, then at one another.

Collins looked at the dolphins now too, at his companion and her – what? – friend? floating in these odd, otherworldly colors, and he wondered why they hadn’t left with the others. He looked at them anew, and wondered what role they’d come to play in this looming death, then he helped Ted tie Hyperion to the quay.

Soon everyone was on the stone dock, and Goodwin looked at Hope Sherman like he knew her, like maybe they’d met somewhere before.

“I think we’re running out of time,” Hope said from her wheelchair – as she looked at Tom Goodwin. “Are you ready?”

He nodded his head, now feeling – almost – a sense of déjà vu. “Follow me,” he said, but he heard music just then…random words sailing through his mind’s eye…cellophane flowers and newspaper taxis…and he felt the sun on his face. Not the sun now, not that purple, washed out orb… No, memory far away was calling him. A memory not his own…

Collins felt lost when he heard that last exchange, when he realized Goodwin and Hopie knew one another, and he hung back and watched as their little group took off to the east, walking along tree-lined paths away from the harbor. He looked at Goodwin as he pushed Hopie’s wheelchair along the hilly, cobbled lane, and he only grew more confused. Soon they were walking along the spine of the ridge that led out to the point, and to the open sea.

Collins saw rocks down below, small tidal pools nestled crater-lakes among them, then he saw the gathering – the dolphins, all of them – as they rounded the point and came to one of the rock-lined pools. They looked up expectantly as Goodwin lifted Hopie from her chair, and Collins helped steady them as the group inched through the rocky outcroppings down to the closest pool. Gathered by the water after a few minutes, their audience watched as, one by one, the humans took off their clothes…

…then Collins saw two other people were already in the water, waiting for them…

…seven humans, and seven dolphins…

The sky was black now, though it was just mid-afternoon, and vivid red clots began to take shape in the milky sky, drifting slowly through clouds, coming for the waiting remnants of humanity. The tearing sound grew louder now, and was growing more so by the moment; when Collins looked up the red-streaks seems somehow alive, and clouds seemed to run from the heat. Soon everywhere Collins looked he saw a world on fire…mountains, forests, towns across the bay…all lost under torrents of lava-like flame, and for a moment he had the impression the earth was being purified, like a cosmic reset button had just been punched…

And then they were together, in the sea, and the dolphins began moving among them.

Circling. Very. Fast.

Sumner Collins was aware of a sudden growing light, and with his passing the earth grew very still.

An Evening at the Carnival with Mister Christian, Part III

mrchristian-fly-by

AN EVENING AT THE CARNIVAL WITH MISTER CHRISTIAN

the last part of the tale

Jennifer Clemens was walking from the seashore to her family’s farm on a gorgeous autumn afternoon, and the cool-minded girl could not have been happier. The October sky was as clear and crisp as an icy stream, like a glass of cold water from the deepest well, and there was not a cloud in the sky. The air was so different here, the very breeze she took in her lungs seemed free of the discord she’d known in England. The very air seemed alive with promise, and she felt limitless opportunity beckoning down each new path she came upon. Everything she happened upon was so different from the land she had known before, so much so that on some days she felt as if she’d been reborn.

Fresh breezes sailed through blazing leaves on the trees that lined the path she walked, and to her mind this day, it seemed as if all the myriad leaves were turning into the wind to meet the tides of another season, leaving a flurry of red and gold in their passage to winter. On her way home now, walking along the carefree path she knew so well, Jennifer walked past farms and houses that had taken hold with shallow roots in this new land – yet despite their presence a sense of newness remained.

Most of the farms here along Massachusetts Bay and the Charles River were well kept in the manicured form of a God fearing, hardworking people, yet so new was the colony that the presence of these farms still felt tentative, transient. This was indeed a new world – in every way conceivable way, and yet, while she felt promise deep within the rolling, tree-lined hills and soft, undulating meadows, there was as yet little certainty in this life, in her sense of the future. Famine, disease, the truly foul winter weather that was just weeks away, all served to underscore just how fragile was the colony’s existence. And she could never get it out of her mind that day, that afternoon just a few weeks ago it was, when gathering firewood along the beach she had come upon the catamount, the whale, and that strange singer who passed away on the grass – and how he had simply disappeared. And she had felt judged that afternoon, like she’d been judged and found wanting in some inscrutable way, and she’d been on verge of a great despair ever since.

Yet Jennifer Clemens was smiling at Time, parsing through her memory of place, reconciling this impossible new landscape with her former home, the rolling valleys near Exeter; she was tallying the improbable and the immutable, what possible futures might unfold for her along this so-called Massachusetts Bay. Red barns and freshly timbered homes trimmed in blues and grays; she walked across her landscapes in silence, her sun-streaked hair lifting on currents of wind – fresh from their dance across fields of oats and corn – everything around her bursting with the promise of another autumn’s harvest. The stalks and blades seemed to whirl about with careless abandon on gentle breezes born to nourish the people of this fertile land, and it was an easy leap to conclude that all this land had come into being solely as the private garden for the people of the colony. Still, while Jennifer Clemens was aware she was regarded as a trespasser on this shore, she nevertheless regarded all she beheld as Her World. Boston was Her city on a hill, and she knew she’d never leave.

So you see, Jennifer Clemens had not a care in the world, really, as she made her way towards home, towards the Clemens’ farmstead, on this breezy October afternoon. She was as free as a bird, as carefree as sun-drenched leaves on strawberry fields, forever free to dance in the wind with the sun warming her face, and her dreams.

There was a sun-borne, amber hued life within the long brown hair that bloomed in the air as she walked, and with long, slender arms behind her back, she skipped and danced as a lark taking wing, singing the simple song she’d heard not so long ago, in that grassy field by the seashore. His had been a song of pure enchantment, and as her spirit was unfettered, and her gay heart skipped to the beat of the infinite happiness born his music, she sang his song to the sky – his words so fresh and sweet they tasted of tomorrow.

Still, though the path she walked upon this afternoon was well traveled, she remained wary of the shadows. Dangers lurked unseen and unheard, but they were – by and large – as absent from her thoughts as this world allowed.

As she skipped along in the crisp air, feeling the infinite promise of tomorrow, she saw a shimmering broadsheet tacked to a solitary tree beside the path just ahead, and she wondered what magic portents waited for her there – waiting to be discovered. Was it a traveling fair, a late summer carnival? She’d not been to one since leaving Exeter, and the memory thrilled her. What mysteries life held! Who could it be?

She ran up to the broadsheet and her eyes looked at the words floating there, for she saw moving forms within the paper, words she at first thought were recognizable, but the spelling she saw was all wrong in strange, though weirdly compelling ways. She studied the paper, worked to decipher the words as each revealed itself in it’s own way, in it’s own time. It was a puzzle, she saw, and she wished she had a quill and ink and a sheet of parchment to work out the fantastic mysteries she found inside the broadsheet.

This was too fun!

Clues seemed to be hidden within traceries of vines that coiled on the sheet, and bound up within the intricate contours were subtle forms that quietly resolved into a message and as soon faded away into something new. She saw fantastic structures that might have been castles on cloud tops, but that might just as easily been the tortured fragments of some very unhappy dream, yet each new vista seemed to spiral out of mists within the broadsheet and then pause for just a fractured moment – before dissolving back into swirling clouds. She thought once she saw impossible flying machines floating on strangely colored airs, and men made of metal fighting wars on impossible new worlds, but none of these images made sense to her. She stepped back from the broadsheet in shock when these disturbing images dissolved in the fragile mist and resolved into new images, images of ladies and gentlemen dancing within a world lit by wondrous candlelight, and, could it be? Did she hear music? Strange music, to be sure, but music nevertheless?

Then new words resolved and appeared from within the mists:

‘One night only’

Jennifer Clemens could just barely make out these hidden letters among the spiraling textures of leaves that wound up a tree – or was it a building? – that was even now turning into something that looked like a man?

‘You are invited to come with me and visit the future.’

Jennifer looked at the script and felt great hope embedded within the words, and yet there was as well an infinite sorrow floating within the shifting imagery. She was curious, but she grew more hesitant and worried as each new word began to seamlessly reveal itself, almost hurriedly, as if each word was in a desperate race to capture her interest before she changed her mind and stole away into the light of day.

She came to the bottom of the broadsheet and leaned forward to rub away a preternatural haziness that seemed to have settled outside the paper, then she saw the mist was not simply on the paper – it was inside the very essence of the paper. The mist was like a moving, living cloud deep within the broadsheet; it danced inside a light of it’s own creation, teasing her, tempting her, willing her to come closer still, to move deeper, and deeper  –

‘You Are Invited to An Evening at The Carnival With Mr Christian’

And again she felt these new words were dancing above the paper, because the words could not possibly have been printed on any material she knew of. Yet even so, how could these words move within mist and fog, on a printed sheet tacked to a tree? How could such unnatural forms reside within such an ordinary material, each moment waiting to reveal fantastic new shapes and words? And the music! The fantastic harmonies that came from within the paper? How…how could this be? What was this she beheld if not the carnival of some impossibly deranged and complicated mind?

She watched more traceries evolve in vine-like, serpentine scrolls – and now she understood that somehow the morphing structures kept time to the music! Whatever she saw, these images were not simply in the paper, they too were somehow of the paper. She understood – without quite knowing how or why – that this Carnival was an idea beyond mortal description, and that it was much more powerful and compelling than the simple carnivals she had been to in Devonshire and the Nether-lands. Impossible, yes, yet at the same time she felt that this Carnival posed mysteries not without risk; indeed, unimaginable hazards seemed to lurk within each lingering shadow she beheld. She stood under the tree in silence, watching each new image come alive, seeing in each shattering new dreamscapes a promise, within each new mystery not only risk, but an uneasy promise of revelation, of a destiny – to be revealed.

Before her eyes an old man’s face resolved within the fantastic mists, and Jennifer leaned closer still, moved close to visit the warmth she felt inside the man’s eyes, and immediately felt comfort roaming throughout her body, almost a sense of resolution, as if the miracle of life held purpose beyond suffering, and that purpose resided within the humanity contained within the misty eyes she beheld.

Jennifer Clemens trembled like a storm-tossed leaf, then jumped back in shock as an autumn gust whipped through the forest. The wind tore the broadsheet from the tree, and before her eyes the paper was carried away on the wind – and yet it seemed to dissolve into grains of sand as it drifted away, on it’s way to memory, perhaps, and before her eyes the dreamlike images contained within were scattered on the wind, and then everything she had seen – was simply…gone. She stood and watched in utter dismay, yet even in the unbearable silence that followed she could still hear the quiet refrains of music that had only moments before come from within the broadsheet. The music was all around her now; the scattered notes enticed her, carried her along within the frenzied promise of so much joy to be had if only she…if only she could see…

“What?” she said aloud. “See what?”

She shook herself from the dream, and from the discordant notes, looked around her world as if waking from a dream, then continued on her way home – if a little more slowly now. Still, she walked with curious purpose in her heart, purpose born of the evolving imagery she’d seen within the broadsheet. Lost within these impossible images, purpose bound to the strange new worlds she had seen inside, images that swirled out of the mist, that swayed to the impossible music playing inside her mind, the discordant sonata that made impossible promises about the future. A sudden melody built in her mind’s eye and sought release – but each new note seemed to lose it’s way, each new chord faded on the wind, only to begin again – anew – in a new key.

Then she saw someone, a man perhaps, though he was still quite far away – a man walking on the path, walking towards her. She couldn’t see him very well from this distance, but she couldn’t recognize his clothing. A stranger? Here? She’d not heard of a new ship arriving…?

As he drew near she saw something that made her stop – out of fear – and she fought to control her breathing. She stood transfixed in time as she looked at the man – because he was the old man from within the broadsheet! Impossible! He lived! So, she hadn’t imagined this man! He was real, and now – he was here!

She looked into the man’s eyes as he approached, and though she knew it was rude to stare she could not help herself, indeed, she felt compelled to look at his eyes. Yet she felt the same comfort in his eyes once again, and though he looked old – ancient, as a matter of fact – she saw something in the man’s eyes possessed by a timeless serenity. His was not a simple calm etched on silent features; no, this was something else entirely. Something at once mighty, trembling with latent knowledge, and yet more at peace with this power than mere serenity might otherwise reveal.

As he approached, Jennifer Clemens watched his face, his eyes, and he smiled at her, said ‘Hello’ as he tipped his brimmed hat when he passed. She stood ever so still in his growing presence – she remembered being careful not to even breathe as he walked by – for the music had grown more insistent as the man approached, and now, with his passing the music drew away, passed on the wind again, drifting away with his passing. She turned and watched him disappear in the forest, listened until the music was gone, then turned to look at her world.

And for a moment she felt like she was being watched – again, and once she thought she saw a fairy darting among the trees, like a mischievous sprite trying to hide. But from what? The wind? Her? Or was there something else hiding in the shadows?

But had the old man scattered on the wind? Had he ever been real? Or could it be that the man was only as real as images within the broadsheet? All of it a preposterous fantasy, her mind lost in a mischievous daydream?

The wind grew insistent and cold in that moment, and Jennifer felt a warning in the sudden chill, for just as the wind now held her in place, just as the mysterious man’s music had swirled through fields and trees, all feeling now gave way to this sudden cold. In that sundered air, in the split second between warmth and coldness, she relived the moment of the old man’s passing and felt the strength in his eyes once again – only now she seemed to turn to ice as memory bit into her, and she looked homeward, started to run. She started to run not because she felt alone, and not simply because she’d suddenly felt cold, or even afraid. She started to run down the path, away from the forest glade, where the old man and the fairy must have gone to hide, because she knew of only one place on earth where real safety could be found.

She ran towards home, to the safety of her oldest brother’s arms.

+++++

Jeremiah Clemens was cooking dinner for his family, for his two younger brothers and his little sister, a dinner of venison and freshly picked vegetables. He stood beside the gaping fireplace inside their low-ceilinged cabin, in the very heart of his house, the fireplace being the focal point of their lives. This bare room was itself not much larger than fifteen feet on each of it’s four timber framed sides, but there was a stone cellar beneath the thick – planked floor where the family stored vegetables and supplies for the winter. There were no windows – yet, and there was but a single, heavy door. Overhead was a tiny sleeping loft he had finished the summer before, and this was where little Jennifer slept.

She was the light of Jeremiah’s life – and everyone in the colony knew it. In her room were the last remnants of the family possessions that had crossed the sea with their parents, and that was only right. She reminded him of their mother, strong-willed and inquisitive, always a smile on her face – and in her heart. He paused as he always did when his thoughts turned to their parents – both had passed on the voyage to the colony from some sort of pox, and his missed his father’s steady hand most of all.

He’d lost track of the passage of time, but he was sure his little family had been in Massachusetts seven years now, yet even so he did not yet consider their life here secure, and he wondered what the future held for his family. He missed his father terribly on days like this, however he worked hard to conceal these uncertainties, because more than anything else he didn’t want to let his father down, not ever. That, and seeing to Jennifer’s safety. That had been the last promise he’d given his father.

Jeremiah turned the spit to turn the haunch of venison roasting over glowing embers; from time to time he shuffled the coals atop a thin layer of stony earth that covered freshly picked corn, baking slowly in their dampened husks – just as the natives had shown them. In moments like these, while he cooked in this, the bosom of their home, Jeremiah’s thoughts usually turned to his mother and her gentle strength. But not today.

No, on this day he thought about the broadsheet he had found tacked to a tree in the woods on his walk back from the wharves. He had trouble thinking of anything else, really, even as he shot the deer that would feed his family for the next few weeks, even as he had gutted the animal and washed the meat in a cool stream not far from the house. As he salted some of the meat, as he cut thin strips of the meat to make pemican, his mind drifted to the impossible forms that had swirled within the vexatious paper, to images that revealed themselves in haunting detail, images that taunted him, called out to him, soon filled his every thought with visions of a world filled with opportunity beyond measure, of a faraway time that called out to him. He could see the future so clearly now, but he wanted to know more. He always wanted – more.

He was brought back to the present by his sister; he heard her footsteps, running toward the cabin, and something about what he heard made him think she was running from danger. Jeremiah Clemens grabbed his musket and made for the door, but Jennifer burst into the room before he could get there.

His sister stood in the doorway, gasping for breath…

“What is it! Jennifer? What has done you wrong?”

His sister was wild-eyed, bent over at the waist, breathing hard, but even so he could tell she was growing less frightened as his voice washed over her. There, inside the calm of the cabin, she knew whatever danger had passed, and after a moment she stood and looked out the door to see if anyone had followed her. All she saw was the forest on the far side of their fields, the fields that lay just beyond their cabin door, and the path down which she had just come running. The music too had come and gone, and then come again, and she heard it still – as though it hovered in the air just outside the cabin. It taunted her now, teased her with it’s insistent call to revelry, implored her to come out into the night and share in the hypnotic dance that would unfold.

But in that moment she became aware of an insistent pain in her brother’s voice, a growing sense of alarm hiding within the walls of their home, and she turned to face the danger. When she saw his eyes she understood, she knew that he too had witnessed the summons, for his eyes were filled with the same frenetic apprehension that had filled her own. There was no denying the mist in the air now, for she could see now that the experience clung to them both. The very air they breathed was full of shimmering expectation, excitement that could only have come from the music that hovered just outside their door. There was no denying the truth of this moment, and she saw that Jeremiah had seen the truth in her eyes – and that he, too, understood.

“Did you see him?” she asked her brother. “Did you see the old man on the path?”

He looked at her, not knowing of what she spoke – yet understanding the import of her words.

“The old man within the broadsheet? You saw him, you say?”

“Oh, yes!” Jennifer said. “And I should think he must be a sorcerer. At the very least, a magician, but oh! Jeremiah! I was possessed of a thought as I ran home that I had just been visited by that old wizard, Merlin. You remember, the story that Father used to tell us. What was it, the story about the young King? Ooh, what was his name? Something about Knights and a Round Table?”

“And I am not convinced that it wasn’t Lucifer himself that I saw!” her brother Timothy said as he walked into the room. “Damn him, and damn the vexatious visions he has planted in my mind! Lascivious images of idolatry and debauchery, of demons dancing on our father’s grave, and oh! of our sainted mother now the Devil’s concubine! NO! The man I saw was no ordinary demon! He was the Fallen One, Himself!”

“Oh piffle, Timothy!” she said. “The man I saw was the very essence of peace! He had something important to tell me, and though I was afraid to open my mouth, I could not understand a word he said!”

“And too good for you that you were afraid, Sister! That demon would fill your mind with every kind of perverted image – all to lead you astray. I know, for I have seen the people in the village in the time it took me to walk home. The colony as a whole is alive with talk of this man, this demon, and of this carnival he brings – that comes to ‘entertain’ us. There is talk of little else around the harbor just now, for it seems that everyone has seen this apparition! A carnival it is, indeed! It is Satan come to visit, for he sees opportunity here! He comes for a harvest of souls!”

Langston Clemens stood behind his brother Timothy, and when he was sure that both Jennifer and Jeremiah had seen him he shook his head and made the face he always did when Timothy had taken a bit too much God with his afternoon tea.

“I must say, Timothy, what I saw in the wood would not lead me to think this man and his carnival are evil,” Jeremiah said. “Langston, perhaps you have seen this same broadsheet that your sister and myself chanced upon, and perhaps you have an opinion? It is obvious Timothy has seen something much different from that which the two of us happened upon.”

“Aye, brother, the notice was tacked outside Gallagher’s wharf on the road by the commons; at least the one I had chance to see. I heard from many others who’ve been about that the notices are posted almost everywhere people may easily come upon them. It is odd, no doubts be about the matter, but what I laid eyes on…well, what I saw did not lead me to believe the affair to be of malign purpose. Far from it, I think. It seemed to point the way to riches beyond the dreams of avarice. At first I thought the matter some hoax of humorous intent, but the more I studied the images revealed, the more logic I could see underlying the plan. I believe there are wonders to be found at this carnival, and I intend to go!”

“Not I,” thundered Timothy. “I’ll have no part in Satan’s cravings! No, not with you weaker natured fools. And now, see here! I forbid it! I forbid you all to go!”

Jeremiah looked at his little brother and saw the fear inscribed in the lines of his brother’s face for what it had always been. Too much scripture, too little reason – and absolutely no common sense. The boy never thought of anything save the ‘Good Book,’ and looked to no other voice to help see his way through this life. The sooner the next boat for Britain came, the better. It pained him to speak of his brother this way, but Timothy’s bleak world view was debilitating, and there was no room in this new land for his brand of clinging intolerance.

“Oh Timothy, go blow your nose,” Langston chided. “I think something is blocking the air from reaching your head. Daft you are sometimes, and for no good reason.”

“And see here, Timothy,” Jeremiah said, “I think it best we all go. Father always said it is good to know what your friends are about, but even better to understand your adversaries’ plans. Does it not seem to you that most everyone from the Colony will be at this carnival?”

“Aye, Jeremiah,” Langston said. “It is as I said, and Timothy too. There is talk of little else now. I should be surprised if any failed to come. We must go, for it is as Father said. We should not walk through this life in ignorance, for ignorance will grow strong in us and block our way to understanding.”

“But it is not ignorance, brothers!” cried Timothy. “What we have seen is Satan’s handiwork. The hand of Satan guides us now, and Satan can only guide us to our doom!”

“Oh, brother, how can you speak thus?” Langston said calmly. “You repudiate all you believe with your every word! Every tale in the Book stands clearly to tell us that it is our Free Will and the exercise of choosing good over evil that marks our path to either salvation or damnation. And here you stand, plainly the heretic and afraid to make any choice but to hide, and in so doing you would deny every man the right to chose!”

“I am NOT afraid!” Timothy cried.

“Of course you aren’t!” Langston boomed. “Why else would you try to deny others the right to make their way through this life unfettered by dogma – without first dictating to them how they should live it. You fear for your own choice, Brother, and you seek to strengthen your resolve, and indeed your very choice, by imposing your will on any child foolish enough to stop and listen to you. Yours is the worst kind of hypocrite, for your strength is cowardice!” Jeremiah could see that Langston was getting worked up about this, as he almost always did, and he walked between his brothers before Timothy could summon the courage to strike out at his older brother.

“I do not . . .” Timothy yelled, but he seemed glad for Jeremiah’s intercession.

“Stop it! Both of you now, stop this foolishness!”

But this time it was Jennifer who shouted at her constantly bickering brothers; Jennifer who pushed Jeremiah aside and stood between Timothy and Langston. Now they stood open-mouthed when they felt her presence that – like a wall – forced them to reconsider the consequences of their actions. Would one pull back from the abyss?

Jeremiah looked at his sister, at the change that had come over her. She held everyone’s attention now, but she turned and looked at Timothy and put her hand gently to his cheek.

“Dear brother,” she said. “You must learn to control your passions, and soon.”

Yet it was Langston who broke the current stalemate; he shrugged off the impasse and turned to the stone hearth, then Timothy stormed from the cabin without saying another word.

Status quo ante, as always, Jeremiah thought.

As Langston warmed himself by the fire he stepped back from the brink and smiled at his sister, and while he wanted to laugh at life, he looked at her and thought better of it. The seriousness in her eye only served to make him want to laugh all the more – but he too was taken aback by the sudden purpose he saw in her eyes.

“It’s not funny, Langston,” Jeremiah admonished, but try as he might, Jeremiah began to laugh and it was as if the sudden pressure had run from the cabin like smoke up the chimney. Only Jennifer remained still and unconvinced.

She was lost in thought. Not at Langston’s bravado nor Timothy’s somewhat less than innocent attempt to assert control over the family once again; no, now she was lost within thoughts of the old man and the benign expression on his face. And those eyes! Still she heard his music, still she watched as the old man walked past her and disappeared within the forest. Though it had all happened not so long ago, in this moment his presence felt ephemeral, smoke-like, lingering wraithlike – in this very room.

“Ever-present,” she whispered, “and nowhere.” What had Timothy once called God? “The Unmoved Mover?”

Jeremiah stepped back to the fireplace to tend to their meal; Langston walked over to a wooden chest and opened it. He took out a red shirt and sniffed at it, then took off the faded blue shirt he wore most days when he worked at the shipwright’s workshop by the town wharf. He wanted, after all, to be clean for supper tonight.

+++++

Being on the water’s edge, the colony’s leaders understood from the beginning that small boats would be needed to conduct commerce, both with other colonies along the New England coast and with the people native to this land, and the first manufacturing enterprise that flourished was ship building. A Shipwright’s Guild had formed along the same lines as organizations in southwest England, and when young Langston Clemens demonstrated an aptitude to work with both wood and iron he had been taken on as an apprentice. He was now a senior apprentice, and a very good one at that, as many remarked when they examined the young man’s handiwork, and he had been regarded as a very valuable member of the colony’s work force for some time.

But the Guild Master saw a faraway look in young Langston’s eyes, and he knew – in his experience, anyway – what that look meant. It was as if the vessels the young man worked on were but a means to an end, never merely an end in and of themselves. The young boy was, the Master saw, and adventurer, a wanderer, and it was with both sadness and envy that he realized the boy would never be content to simply make boats. He would, in the fullness of time, need to sail them, to take to the sea in search of far horizons, in search of profit and adventure perhaps, but always in search of the future.

There was the sea in the boy’s eyes, and in his blood, a visiting pilot told the Guild Master one summer day, and there was nothing else to do for it. So now there was talk of handing Langston over to one of the colony’s pilots, a rogue that had only recently settled in the colony, so that he could learn navigation and map-making. His training as a shipwright would never come to waste, for the best pilots inevitably learned both numbers and drawing as young shipwrights. There’s was a natural progression, and young Langston might become more valuable still to the colony as a pilot. Destiny was odd in that way, yet how different than his older brother he was!

Jeremiah Clemens, the Guild Master thought wryly, seemed rooted to the very earth he had settled on. The young man had taken to the soil when the colony settled by the bay, and the elder Clemens had been clawing at the earth ever since, planting and building and dreaming as his roots set and spread. And few doubted Jeremiah’s integrity, just as none doubted the boy’s father’s. Samuel Clemens had begun as the son of a freeholder in Devonshire, and a born dairy farmer and cheesemaker he was, too, but after studying law at Oxford he had tended the family farm only when not advising his Lord on delicate legal maneuvers that went along with guarding such a large estate from an ever encroaching monarchy.

Young Jeremiah had grown up on land he knew would one day be under his stewardship, so he was devastated when his father announced the family was moving to the New World, and the boy had wrestled with the idea for weeks. But one day, just a few days before sailing, his father pulled him aside and told him that while he had sold all their holdings, there would be vast monies left after buying shares in the Colony to build on the oceans of land available in Massachusetts, land available for the taking. When Jeremiah had seen the logic in his father’s plan he dedicated himself to its success, and when his father lay dying during their passage to the New World, the son had promised his father that he would honor his name and build a worthy enterprise in the colony, and that the son’s work would be in his father’s honor.

Once Jeremiah Clemens set foot on this new land, he had quickly, and purposefully, set out to find the very best land to farm, and the family – his family now – had followed without question or complaint. They now worked several hundred acres of fine meadowland, had good supplies of clear, running water under their control, but most important of all, Jeremiah had the will to work the land, not to mention his family, for all it was worth. They had a house built within weeks of their arrival, and by the their second summer the first of several barns was complete. Supplies ordered and loaded on the next ship from Exeter included dairy cattle and the tools to build a bigger mill on the waterfalls they controlled, and Jennifer had spoken of putting the water to use to make cloth, too. The Clemens family would be one to reckon with for generations to come, because of his – and their father’s – vision.

And it was in this way, the Guild Master knew, that Jennifer and Jeremiah had cemented their relationship forever. They held a durable love for this new land, land they now called their own, and of more importance, they held a vision of it’s future.  Oddly enough, that same vision compelled all the other colonists to never waste one moment of time, to never put off for tomorrow what could be done today. This land presented opportunities that their old British holdings would have never allowed – for those with the Will and stamina to pursue such vast opportunity, and yet both Jeremiah and Jennifer could feel that the future of their family was bound up inextricably within the seemingly infinite horizon that fell beyond the setting sun. Even the apprentice in Langston seemed possessed by this need to succeed, to prove himself, and to push westward.

And, perhaps, this is where the roots of the colony’s destiny lay, the Guild Master thought. Westward – over land and by way of the sea.

Yet the younger brothers were, he saw, each in their way very unlike their older brother. But in their desire to take root in the land, to prosper within the world they knew, Jeremiah, Jennifer and Langston shared a love for and belief in the idea that life itself was an adventure, that it was meant to be embraced, and above all, to be lived to the fullest. Their love of life was pure, and they held in common with their father a passion for learning all they could, for they embraced the future without fear. So, Langston was the explorer where Jeremiah was root-bound, but what about Jennifer? Well, he said to himself, she is the glue that holds her family together, and she understands the strengths and the weaknesses of both points of view. Indeed, the Guild Master found himself wishing he was a few years younger, for he considered Jennifer the most substantial woman in the colony, someone worthy to build a dynasty by his side.

But Timothy Clemens was of another world, the Master knew. Timothy had been borne to the spirit world, and made no attempt to hide his disdain for worldly pleasures and human needs. Money seemed, apparently, to make no difference to him at all; and after two hard years working the fields neither did his family’s farmstead. It seemed his only desire to return to Exeter now, to resume his theologian’s studies and enter the priesthood. He saw no worldly purpose beyond the confines of this need, and as time passed the Guild Master saw the boy wanted less and less to do with either the farm, or the work such an enterprise demanded. Though he had yet to reach his seventeenth birthday, the Master saw the boy was already growing fat, and he had seen Jennifer react in horror as Timothy went through the colony harvesting souls, busily pontificating and proselytizing his way through other people’s lives like a scythe. To the Guild Master, the tragedy of Timothy’s life was that he would never experience life among the living; he was simply too worried about the next life to ever care about something so mundane. He wanted to save souls, but he would never come to know his own, save what his superiors trained him to experience.

Like many people in Europe and the British Isles, the Clemens family had been rendered into one of two camps by the great schism of the Reformation; the Guild Master’s family was no exception. Timothy and his mother had sided with the conservatism of the Catholic strain that tentatively remained within the remnants Henry’s Church: strict piety defined their puritanical worldview. The other Clemens children had followed their father down a less rigid path, toward reason and enlightenment; in time, Samuel Clemens told his children, this worldview would become the foundation of great new enterprises, perhaps even revolutionary change.

But equally revolutionary was the idea that great wealth could be amassed by people who held no claim to royalty or nobility, or to the church. It was this impulse that guided Samuel Clemens, and this was the guiding strength that held sway over Jeremiah and Jennifer Clemens, and to a lesser degree, over Langston. The old Church and it’s constraining life had become an impediment to progress, and the religious freedoms afforded the new colonies would, Samuel Clemens grasped, become the foundation upon which a new mercantile order might be built. All that was necessary was to break free of the existing order, to break free and set loose the Imagination, and the Will, to create a new world.

+++++

And so it came to pass that on an autumn day in 1637 a carnival was borne on delicate threads of hope and imagination. A feast of the mind waiting to feed a hungrily prosperous New England colony, and on the oaken shores of the Charles River the hopes and dreams of all the disparate colonists swirled in mists most surreal. Lives tempered by the warning winds of history, questing lives, reaching for the prize, stood to gain an understanding of the worlds of possibility that lay ahead.

If history is but a prelude to the present, the past held little warning for the children of the colony, if only because curiosity about the future too often came at the expense of a more useable understanding of the past. The pages Samuel Clemens read and understood in the years before his passing were all about to be rewritten, and the past would give no comfort on these distant shores, for alongside the salt marshes and tidal flats that defined the borders of this new colony, forces beyond comprehension were gathering to render anew all that was possible. Whether or not Samuel Clemens’ children knew the future was as yet unwritten, therefore unpredictable and, indeed, incomprehensible, the destiny of this new world would be forged within fires of a bargain that not even time itself would dare challenge. There were forces waiting in the night, watching the fires humanity set to light the way ahead. Forces that, had young Timothy Langston known existed, would have driven his soul mad with despair.

+++++

The Guild Master sat on a barrel just outside the lofting shed, lost in thought. Perhaps of all the colonists in Charles Town, he alone possessed a somewhat complete understanding of men and their desires to see the danger when it at last presented itself, but he was, after all, still just a man. A man with his own hopes and dreams, his own driving ambition. And as he sat looking over plans for the guild’s next ship, he was lost in thought about this Mr Christian, wondering who this man was, and who – or what – was bringing such a mysterious carnival to the colony? He gave a passing thought to Marlowe’s Chapbook, the brief fable about poor besotted Faustus, for he had seen images of what he thought was Faust in the swirling mist, but that image had soon slipped from his grasp, superseded by even more potent images of dire consequence – and lustful profits. Yet when he walked away from the mist, right after he saw the old man walking on the trail, the specter of Faust returned – and now he could not rid himself of the image.

For while there were no ‘names’ or other recognizable persons inside the broadsheet, at least none that he could see, for some reason this one fact, that Faust was alive in those swirling mists, disturbed him. But why? Was there a bargain to be struck? Had God and Mephistopheles made a wager – over the people here? Would that bargain be consummated – at this carnival of Mr Christian’s?

He was troubled by these thought if only because he, like Jennifer Clemens and her brothers, and indeed, most of the other colonists, could hardly wait for Saturday, the day the carnival was set to open, and he had thought of little else since he had seen those tantalizing forms in the ether. Now, as he sat in his workshop, he reflected on what he thought he had seen, and the more he thought about those vexatious forms the greater his unease grew, and with evening coming on, with the dancing shadows of torchlight filling his soul with cold dread, he decided to act. He would go and confront those images, for he had to Understand.

 

+++++

Rumors were running wild and rampant throughout the colony.

The carnival must certainly arrive before the weekend, or so the thinking went, for Saturday was the date of the opening glanced by one and all in the swirling mists, and Claus Esterhaus just couldn’t stand the uncertainty of it’s arrival much longer.

Esterhaus found the broadsheet nailed to the side of his lumber mill, fluttering in the breeze like a talisman, before he began his walk home from the mill. He and his men had finished work on the mill just a few weeks before, and though he was a tired and hungry man, when he had seen the notice for the carnival, when he peered inside the mysterious, labyrinthine structures he beheld, he had been taken by evanescent visions of great things to be built in the future, of things he might be fortunate enough to build – in the future. And while he tried to hold those grand designs he saw in his mind, they ran from his memory with an all too capricious fleetness that had, in the end and like a tempestuous dream, simply left him bereft and undone. With each vision’s passing from memory he felt abandoned, isolated, and utterly lost, and as he walked away from the encounter, he thought the visions had come in a dream. Within hours he wasn’t sure what, exactly, he had seen, or even if the encounter had ever really happened.

‘Ah, perhaps what I saw was little more than the remains of a nightmare, intruding on the day!’ he thought as he walked. “What an impossible world! Impossible!” he shouted to the evening’s dying breeze.

Esterhaus had journeyed to the New World with his wife Maria, but she had not survived their first winter here, and now he lived alone, and lived in doubt about ever having desired a life in this wretched place. The winters were too cold, the summers too hot and there was an evil dampness about the place, but he thought the insects were the worst of all – until he had been bitten by one of the many ill-tempered vipers that lurked under every rotting stump or rock. He had been sick for weeks after, and would have died, he felt certain, had it not been for the efforts of Jennifer Clemens.

The Clemens family had come to the colony on the same boat with Claus and Maria Esterhaus, and he had watched with the rest onboard the Emily Rose as Samuel and Rebecca Clemens came down with the pleurisy. Death was inevitable and not long after those two fell ill, the fever came and spirited more away in the night. Esterhaus had been charged with building coffins, for he was a skilled woodworker, and he had earned the trust of the Clemens family when he charged a more than fair price for his work. Even then, Claus Esterhaus remembered, he had liked the looks of Jennifer Clemens, and after she nursed him back from the serpent’s bite he positively doted on the girl, but of more importance to his soul, he was sure the girl loved him equally. Why else would she have helped him so?

And today, playing inside the broadsheet, Esterhaus had seen a woman’s visage in the swirling mists, and he saw, as he had long suspected, this woman was destined to become the very center of his universe. With no doubt in his mind as he walked away from the wuthering broadsheet, he took this creatures presence in the mist as a sign of better days ahead, and now, quite suddenly, he felt in his heart Jennifer was meant to be his wife. That belief had become as bedrock to the man in the hours after his encounter with the mist, yet he had no courage to do anything about these feelings. He was not a man to react to life without regard to future consequence, but there were times, he knew, that an awareness of what one might reasonably call destiny did little more than obscure the way ahead.

But just who had he seen in the mist? Jennifer? Or someone else?

But then the music started playing, and soon it was driving him mad…

+++++

Langston Clemens made his way to the harbor the same night the colony learned of the carnival,  and he took the small boat he had constructed for the Guild and sailed upriver. The native folk first seen by colonists when they arrived on the bay – now seven long years ago – had been seen traveling just off the shore and along the rivers in slim bark lined skiffs, and Langston Clemens had been charged with designing and building a working replica of these craft as part of his apprenticeship. One of the native men who visited the colony from time to time – an older man who came to trade pelts for metal implements the blacksmiths made – traveled by such a craft, and Langston had befriended the man, taken trips upriver to his village, and he had been able to learn much about these craft on his trips. Soon, however, he began visiting the village for other reasons.

He had first seen the girl in the village on one of those trips, and so smitten was he with her that he made it a point to go upriver as often as he could. Soon introductions were made, and over time Langston and the girl became friends, and despite differences in language and custom, within a year the two became more than fond of one another. Yet as happy as he was with the relationship, the affair soon presented thorny problems to the young colonist and his family.

Langston’s predicament wasn’t all that unusual in this or any other colony in the New World, for single young men in these colonies often outnumbered available women by – on average – a ten-to-one ratio. And more troublesome still, most of the newly arrived colonists were families – so single women were few and far between. And there were other obstacles – some subtle and some most overt – that worked against these relationships, chief among them a festering hostility between natives and colonists that had only grown more heated over time. This lingering hostility had, Langston long ago surmised, been aggravated by poor lines of communication between the two groups, as well as an overt prejudice on the part of both group’s leaders. These elements conspired to prevent a meaningful dialogue between the colonists and the native folk, and of more lasting consequence, limited exchanges between each group to simple, and infrequent, mercantile transactions.

There had been little meaningful exchange of customs and traditions since the earliest years of the relationship, and absent such knowledge suspicions of each group’s motives only deepened over time. Such mutually reinforcing ignorance, Langston feared, could foster only trouble, and he had worked hard ever since to learn the language and customs of these indigenous people. In due time, as a result of this understanding, Langston’s relationship with the native girl took on stronger, more urgent tones.

For, as both Langston and Claus Esterhaus knew, and only too well, the simple biological pressures of enduring isolation was contributing to these hostilities. Simple misunderstandings about one man’s intentions soon grew to full-blown territorial disputes. Violent sexual encounters led to armed reprisals. Hostilities increased with each new misunderstanding and each group’s ignorance of the other’s customs and laws simply aggravated each new wound. Over time, contact between the groups became very limited, and so what contact remained was often of a very violent nature. Yet even so, with so few single women available inside the colony, most single men were more than happy – even if they were reluctant to discuss these activities – to engage in this particular form of human intercourse. Despite risks to the uneasy equilibrium that existed between the increasingly hostile camps, nature had a way of taking its course.

And it was under such simmering circumstance that Langston and Na-taka-ri had come to know one another, come to regard the other first as friend, and in time, as lover. It soon came to pass that on most any day young Langston had spare time on his hands, he made for the woods beyond the town and waited for her, and he was rarely disappointed. He found a happiness in her cool eyes, a loving calmness that had escaped his few previous sexual encounters, and he craved her lean body more than any food or drink he had ever tasted. They made love under summer skies, learned each others most intimate languages, and as each began to care for the other all the cultural barriers between them dissolved, and this did not go unnoticed among their peoples.

The two also shared long walks in forests he regarded as almost primeval, and she showed him how to fish the nearby streams when the salmon were running. In time she helped him construct a small smokehouse by the river, and he began taking smoked fish home to his brothers and sister. Though they had their suspicions, Jeremiah and Jennifer asked few questions, while Timothy smoldered along his righteous course without comment.

Then one day he made the journey to their smokehouse and found that Na-taka-ri had built a small lean-to in a small clearing by the river, and soon he stole away most nights too, for now she was always at hand. But Langston came to understand that she was living in this lean-to out of necessity, for she had been ostracized by her people, and now but for him she was alone in this world. He moved their lean-to closer to his family’s cabin a few days later, then quietly began building her a small cabin of her own, on their land. And as it happened, one day Jeremiah came along and helped.

It hadn’t taken long for Langston to realize that he had very strong feelings for Na-taka-ri.  After moving her to his family’s land he formally introduced her to his brothers and sister, and though Jeremiah had his doubts about her in the beginning, the eldest Clemens soon regarded her as part of his family. Soon all but Timothy talked with her, they taught each other the language and customs of their respective people, and after a time all but Timothy grew to trust Na-taka-ri. Jennifer enjoyed the company of the other girl, too, despite their apparent differences, and as the cultural barriers dissolved they soon became fast friends. Timothy remained, predictably, another matter, for when he saw her developing relationships with his brothers, he immediately wanted to teach her to read, and he had the perfect book in mind. Vox clamantis in deserto, in word, if not in deed, became his driving motive.

As time passed, Na-taka-ri walked in the forest with Jeremiah and Langston and she taught them about the land and the water and the people who had been there since the earth had been born. She showed them legends in the night sky, and explained the passages of the seasons. The brothers were soon the colony’s authority on the local people, and while none of the colonists said anything about Langston’s supposed liaisons in the forest, there were many who objected to this woman ‘waiting for him out there in the woods’; even so, none really knew the extent of the Clemens’ deeper involvement with Na-taka-ri and her culture, and this one simple truth hung over Jeremiah’s head like an executioner’s blade, for he felt it oddly treasonous and was sure others might think that way too.

When Langston left the cabin that Wednesday afternoon, the same day the broadsheet appeared, he walked into the forest lost within the visions he’d seen, only to find Na-taka-ri shaking and feverish with illness; she was in fact desperately ill, he saw, and then he soon thought she was ill enough to die. He fetched cool water from the stream then ran home to find Jennifer; they returned to Langston’s little cabin in the forest but she had no idea what was wrong – even so Jennifer feared it was a pox – for Na-taka-ri was burning with fever and small sores had appeared on her belly. Jeremiah came, but he didn’t trust anyone in the colony enough to risk asking for help, so the two brothers left and paddled upriver to the native folk’s village as fast as they could. Na-taka-ri was sick, Langston explained, burning to the touch, but they learned that many in the village had already fallen ill, and some had already died  – most agonizingly, he learned, for like what they’d found on Na-taka-ri’s body, a virulent pox had taken hold and was now spreading like wildfire through the village. The elders had never seen anything like it, and he looked on helplessly as an old woman called out the names of her people in violent delirium, called out for help from spirit-names Langston had never heard before, and he had left feeling so helpless as he walked back to the river, and they returned to the colony, to Jennifer and Na-taka-ri. And there they waited for the fever to break – or for darkness to come.

+++++

The Clemens’ house was a simple affair, yet not without modest comforts. The one place Jennifer liked to sit and think was on the west-facing porch that Jeremiah and Langston had finished only a months before. She loved her view of the valley beyond the Charles, and the mountains rising in the distance, and while she doubted the colony would ever spread that far, she could hope! Now, with Na-taka-ri’s sickness weighing heavily on her mind, she felt an unnatural sense of gloom in the autumn air. ‘What is this pox?’ she wondered. ‘And why do WE not fall ill?’ She leaned back in her chair lost in such thoughts, until her eyes fell to a perfect joining in the woodwork – and she smiled.

Langston had designed the porch without his brother’s help, yet even so the three brothers had crafted a nice retreat from the sooty confines of their cabin. And even though Jennifer thought the porch felt a little like a boat, she wanted Langston to design more additions to the house.

But best of all, Langston had – out of love for his sister – fashioned a sturdy and elegant rocking chair from local cherry trees. Everything he fashioned, she observed, was executed with the greatest care, crafted with tremendous pride. The chair, this porch, his work for the Guild… all of it so precise, and she thought that with such talent as she had on hand there was little her family couldn’t accomplish! They already had so much to be thankful for…

There were trees for the taking in abundance on the hills that lined the river; how unlike Devonshire this was! No permission was needed to fell a tree, no sheriff patrolled the woods on the lookout for poachers! All was unbridled freedom and she loved the feeling, yet now there was Na-taka-ri and her illness, and that one simple problem threatened to undo all her hard work. She was aware of their tentative standing in the colony; without their father they were still considered a great unknown, and even all his money could not buy power – that kind of lasting power needed to create a dynasty. And without power there was little she could do to counter the fear that would surely sweep the colony if it became known she was hiding a poxed native girl in the colony’s midst.

And so, lost in thought on that gentle Friday afternoon before the Carnival, Jennifer watched the last autumn leaves fly from the trees around their house, she watched them fall and settle on the ground. She rocked silently with an ancient calico cat on her lap; the sturdy creature purred contentedly while watching the leaves as they tumbled along. Jennifer thought of Na-taka-ri and Langston and little else while she ran her fingers through the cat’s fur, and she struck that certain spot behind the cat’s ears and he began to rumble with an infinite – if casual – acceptance of his place in her life. She smiled when she felt the cat roll onto it’s back and hold her hand in his front paws, for she knew he wanted his belly rubbed.

And she longed to feel such ease in this life. To center her life with a man by her side. An equal – not a master. A man who would confront life head on, with her. A man who could, at times, roll over on his back and purr contentedly – for her.

‘Are men really so simple?’ she thought. She could see little difference between men and cats, after all, and she wondered if men were truly so simple-minded. First, there was Claus Esterhaus making noises about wanting to marry her, and now Jebediah Moore letting it be known that he wanted to take her to the carnival. And while these distractions were almost fun, Langston had visited great trouble on their house, and try as she might Jennifer knew of no way to help the girl. How would the colonists react if they were discovered? And how would the native folk react if the girl’s death occurred under her care? Would the troubles begin again? And then on top of everything else that might happen, would the colonists blame the Clemens family for any renewed conflict with the natives?

So her thoughts tumbled like dry leaves across windblown blades of grass, and Jennifer could not help but feel that life was not as simple as the reds and golds of autumn’s journey through time. Had she missed her springtime, she wondered, or was it the music of winter she’d heard in the swirling mist – music slipping from her grasp once and forever?

Yet even now as she sat in Langston’s chair on her porch, she had the unmistakable feeling that this Mr Christian knew the answers to all her questions, and she longed to ask him what to do.

+++++

“I am not going! And to you, if you should go – well! I say unto you now that you will be damned for all time!” Jeremiah saw Timothy was on a sore rant this Friday afternoon, and even Jennifer was a little taken aback by his fear-stoked warnings. “Any who go to this heathen celebration will squander what good will the Lord holds in thy name! No! I say again, and hear thee well! Do not go, for He will forsake thee!”

“Heathen celebration? Timothy! What has gotten into you?” Jeremiah asked as he tended another haunch of venison roasting on the iron spit.

“Fool! Haven’t you been listening? Saturday is All Hallow’s Eve! No good can come of this wretched carnival . . . this Carn – Evil,” he sputtered these last words even as he threw heavy emphasis on the last two syllables, drawing out words like a blood-soaked knife from it’s rusty scabbard.

Yet when Jeremiah laughed, Timothy recoiled as if he’d been slapped on the face.

“Oh-in-deed!” Jeremiah stuttered. “I wouldn’t have thought that important enough to warrant mention. Hallow’s Eve, you say?” Jeremiah said as his laughter came again, though he cast a sidelong glance at Jennifer, seeking her support. “I shouldn’t think that would matter in the least. What has the Good Rector to say about all this?”

“The Rector?! Ah, but that is the most hideous thing of all, brother, for he has been seduced by these visions too! He is going! And I tell you both, with God here now as my witness, a great peril awaits. God’s wrath will be visited upon us if we fail to heed His warning!”

“Warning? What warning?!” Jennifer asked, now interested enough to wonder where Timothy was going with this.

“The warnings in the notice! Have I not already told you of this?! Or were you blinded by the Master of Darkness himself?!”

“As I said, I saw no warning. Tell me again, brother,” Jennifer asked, now perplexed, “just what did you see?”

Wide-eyed with troubled fear, Timothy quailed before his memory of the vision: “Great red serpents coiled ‘round buildings, great buildings – higher than the sky. No, they were coiled around the very house of God, choking the life out of God himself! Striking out at those who walk the righteous path, delivering poison to all who heed this evil calling, the Dark Master’s voice! Oh heaven help us, don’t go, Sister! Please don’t go!”

Jennifer looked at Jeremiah and shook her head, for she was genuinely confused and took no comfort when she saw Jeremiah shrug his shoulders. Though they all had talked about the experience of seeing visions inside the notice itself, so consumed with the excitement each felt none had as yet pieced together the differences each saw within. Now, as she listened to Timothy and looked at Jeremiah, a dark hollowness came over her, yet an unknowable fire began to burn in her chest.

“Timothy, you say you saw serpents inside the broadsheet? Jeremiah, what did you see inside the mist?”

“Nothing of the sort, Sister. Again, I saw only a dimly perceived future filled with opportunities and riches beyond measure. Great machines at work, armies of men laboring in this New World, turning it into a land of prosperity without limit! But I saw no serpents, no people devoured in Satan’s flames! If anything at all, I saw the very opposite!”

“Nonsense!” cried Timothy. “Such perverted vision can only result from labors of the Deceiver!”

Jennifer thought back to her own encounter with the notice, and to the haunting images she had seen within. She saw men and women dancing and in that instant she heard the music that had bedeviled her ever since. Something had taken her measure, she was sure of it. But why? And who would do such a thing? But – what else had she forgotten in the hours since?

Because one other feeling about the encounter still troubled her, but what was it – what had she forgotten?

“This is too queer,” she finally said – to no one but herself – her voice trailing off into the smoke. Then it hit her: “Timothy!? Did you hear music? From within the image?”

“Music? No, Sister, not one note! Did you?”

“Jeremiah? What of your vision? Did you hear music, or see couples at dance?”

“Dancing? No, indeed not, and neither did I perchance to hear music. But…what is this?”

“Yes. What could this mean, brothers? This omission is too odd to be mere coincidence!”

“Nothing is too odd for Satan, Sister! No vision is innocent that comes from the Great Tempter!”

“Timothy, you may be right in your thinking in one regard. If by chance this summons is as deceitful as you imply, then all who go to the carnival may yet be deceived again, so I would ask you this: would it not be better for us to go and see these temptations for ourselves, so that we may better understand what may befall us? If the people of the colony have been chosen by the Master of Temptation himself, should we not go to see what forms these temptations might take? How can we resist evil on such a scale if we can not even muster the strength to know what form our enemy takes?”

Timothy looked at her first with suspicion, then he grew thoughtful as the import of her words penetrated.

“I know of not one good reason, Sister, other than that the danger would be most great. Few men can resist Lucifer, or his agents, just as His strength is mightiest in proportion to His audience. With such strength as the deceiver might have at a gathering of this size, I would fear for us all!”

“But not if we stand together, Brother. Not if we go together, and resist that who would befoul our new home.”

“Yes, Sister,” Jeremiah said. “Together we could resist anything. What say you, Timothy? We are a family, are we not? Can we not do this thing, if we stand together?”

Timothy was intimidated by the fear he felt, and looked at his brother and sister feeling now as if he stood at the crumbling edge of a vast precipice. Had they already been deceived? Were they already lost?

Could he yet save them?

Jennifer and Jeremiah were both struck by the look of stark terror they saw in Timothy’s eyes; both could see that he had been drawn to the edge of an abyss; indeed, to Jennifer it seemed as if the very edge of the earth was pulling their brother’s body closer and closer to an unfathomable darkness. A vast power was, she saw, hovering around the edges of his world – waiting to consume him.

And what if Timothy is correct? Was this a power summoned to consume them all? Suddenly she felt his unreasoning fear take hold, and though she knew not why, she was willing to concede there may be some greater truth behind the veiled terror she felt in Timothy’s eyes.

But what could this evil be?

“What have I forgotten?” she half said, half whispered to herself.

Why did music bedevil her so, whenever she tried to think this through? First the man in the field, the field with the cat: Strawberry Fields Forever?…Across the Universe?…what could it possibly mean? As she thought of the man in the grass by the bay, the day she cleansed the lion’s wounds, in a blinding instant she saw the world aflame, huge gouts of smoking evil streaking through the air – and then – walls of molten earth, scouring the land until nothing was left. She fell back from the visions, adrift, cut away from all she’d ever known, and then the music, that other music began again.

She swallowed hard and fell to the floor…

+++++

Langston returned from a second hurried journey upriver Friday evening, just as Jennifer was cleaning up after supper. He was exhausted and filthy, covered with mud and insect bites, and there were wads of reeds and twigs embedded in muck that hung from his hair and his beard. This had been a hard trip, he reported, but the few native folk remaining had not appeared angry. Jennifer sighed in relief, and she wanted details of what he had seen and done.

The native folk had not been unsympathetic, Langston reported, but refused to come to Na-taka-ri’s aid. She was an outcast now, beyond their understanding, and the elders implied their medicine would not work on her. The white men would have to care of her, the chief said, make her pure for either this life – or for her journey to the next. Langston said he understood and was walking from the village when a woman came up to him and gave him a small deerskin pouch with dried flowers and leaves in it; she told him to boil the mixture and make sure Na-taka-ri drank it all. So, he thought, word of Na-taka-ri’s illness had spread through the village, and if this had happened how long would it take before everyone in the colony knew?

Jennifer thought about actions and consequences as she walked with Langston through the woods, walked to the cabin he’d built for Na-taka-ri, and she felt the inescapable pallor of death as they made their way along the forest trail. Jennifer set about making the old woman’s “tea” when they arrived, then brother and sister huddled over the deathly ill girl while they helped her drink the liquid. Na-taka-ri seemed to rally a bit later, but became deliriously feverish in the middle of the night – and death did not appear far off when rosy fingered dawn came next.

+++++

Roger Foster had been the colony’s Rector for six years. He was, outwardly at least, a pious and impractical man, given to finding persecutory conspiracies in every dark corner he happened upon. Tall and thin, his gaunt face and fierce eyes exuded a peculiar moral authority; regardless, most colonists trusted him – almost as much as they feared him. Foster was, too, always meddling in the political affairs of the colony, always trying to assert divine authority over the their dealings with the natives, yet over the past few years his bold assertions had more often than not been proven to render peculiar insights, and were now regarded as having questionable value. He had, in other words, been proven downright wrong time and time again – yet as he and his faithful flock were not easily swayed by facts Foster’s fallibility mattered not at all – to him, anyway, or to his chosen few. He was a man of faith, a man of conviction in an age when belief was increasingly at odds with perceived fact, and he hated these shifting moral sands… perhaps because he saw his loss of moral authority as civilization’s failing – at least in God’s eyes – failing a series of divine tests.

Yet when Foster came upon the broadsheet he had been mesmerized by images of men and women in sexual congress, and for days – and nights – since, he had been haunted by the pulsing music that accompanied these images of deeply aroused couplings. Far from outraged, the Rector was looking forward to the Carnival’s opening later that day, for he was convinced some great sexual experience was in the offing and so great was his need he could at times hardly contain himself – and echoes of that pulsing beat only served to stir his cravings to a fever pitch. He grew hungry as bacchanalian thoughts washed over and through his body, and he trembled not in shame, but in pure, unadulterated lust.

But he faced sudden conflict now, what with that youngest Clemens boy spewing assertions that the Carnival was the work of Satan, and in church this morning Foster had found himself on the defensive. His worried brow creased the day, for earlier that very morning he had been informed there were rumors floating amongst the colonists to the effect that Satan had already lured the Rector into some sort of unholy union. A cloud had passed over his church, casting deep shadows of doubt, and in the dim light the Rector was certain Timothy Clemens was the source of these accusations – and he was livid now, plotting his revenge.

Would might he do to counter these claims, to reclaim the high ground?

But what about the persistent rumor that one of the Clemens boys had taken a native woman to bed? He couldn’t allow that! He would not allow the purity of his church to be sullied by this heathen carpenter. Oh no, not in his new world – not again! And the eldest Clemens boy – what was his name? – was clearly getting too powerful amongst the colonists, for with his free thinking ways the boy was emerging as a threat to the power of the church. No, most certainly the boy wasn’t of pure heart, but now the loquacious Timothy had earned the Rector’s wrath – and he warranted repudiation, as well.

He smiled again as he thought of the evening ahead, he smiled because he relished the thought of putting these upstarts back in their rightful place. But most of all, he smiled because he was certain his carnal cravings might at long last be indulged.

+++++

Claus Esterhaus’ thatched-roof cottage was nestled protectively in the shadow of the colony’s innermost wall. He had chosen the site with due care, once he had determined the natives were not too big a threat, because of its proximity to the wharves and markets that were only now beginning to thrive. He was, after all, a respected Hanseatic timber merchant, honor bound to his company in Lübeck to help establish a trading presence in the New World. He stepped out of his house as evening shadows began to lengthen, and began walking inland along the river.

Word was the carnival had set up in a meadow not quite two miles inland, on the north bank of the river – by the college John Harvard proposed to build. There was a path of sorts along the river, but it turned north to avoid a boggy area and really went nowhere near the carnival’s supposed site. Claus wondered why the man in the broadsheet was staging the affair in such a remote and inaccessible part of the colony, so now he grew concerned with how he might get there – and not show up covered in mud and wattle – because he wanted to make a grand impression…

He decided to leave his house, therefore, late in the afternoon, because he wanted to allow plenty of time to skirt the boggy area – yet he soon found he needn’t have bothered. Already there were large groups walking west, beating a new path along the water’s edge, and he could even see an ox-drawn cart far ahead. He turned, looked back to the gates that protected Charles Town and saw dozens more colonists streaming out, and despite the odds he craned his head, hoping to see Jennifer Clemens on her brown and white horse.

Yet he wasn’t surprised when he didn’t see her. The Clemens’ place was, after all, on the peninsula across the river, near the road to Plymouth, but oh, how he hoped she’d be there! Tonight, of all nights! There was magic in the air…

And then he spied a skiff on the far side of the river, just putting in across the water and his heart skipped a beat. All of the Clemens boys were aboard; two of them were rowing while the third – Langston, was it? – stood to the tiller – but where was Jennifer? Had she decided not to come? A sudden blackness fell over his heart when he thought of life without Jennifer, and his longing only grew more sharp with each beat of his heart. This couldn’t be! Hadn’t he seen her in the images! She had to come, for what would become of the future without her…

He followed the line their boat was taking and saw it would land near the proposed college, and he admired the boys’ forethought: they would arrive fresh and clean – while he would present himself as a muddy mess – along with all the rest. He followed the boat’s progress, watched it land then – astounding! – Langston stepped a slender mast, hoisted a lateen and sailed back across the river! Claus stood in open mouthed awe as he watched the skiff dart back across the green water, then he noticed that dozens of people along the bank were similarly amazed and he shook his head at the boy’s audacity. He’d never seen such a rig before, not even in Lübeck, and certainly never in Britain. Where had the boy learned such things?

He watched as the boat landed again on the south shore and his heart leapt when he saw Jennifer step aboard. He could hear her laughter on the wind as boat skimmed across the river once again, and Claus renewed his pace. He had wanted to get to the carnival ahead of her and find her as soon as possible; that would be impossible now and he was vexed! Now, as he slogged along the muddy path his mind worked out the possibilities…

Who would she be with? Her brothers, no doubt, but what of the others who saw her as a prize to be won? He would have to separate her from these potential suitors as soon as possible. Would her brothers object? Would he seem too obvious?

“Guten abend, Herr Esterhaus,” he heard a spectral voice say, and he turned toward the source half expecting to see…? What? Mr Christian?

But no, it was the Right Reverend Roger Foster – and what a sight he made!

His normally pallid features were suffused in deepest crimson, but it was the man’s lips that stood out most vividly. They were puffed up and blue, and Esterhaus wondered if the reverend had perhaps been having a rather unholy dalliance recently…?

He smiled at the man, doffed his cap: “Grus Got, Father. I had not expected to see you this evening.”

“Ahem, well, I must forever be the shepherd to my flock.”

“Ah, yes. Just so. There seems to be some, well, some mystery about this carnival, father, don’t you think?”

“Aye. And many tales of disrepute already. Or so I’ve heard.”

They continued walking along the river and, mercifully, as the air grew cooler the flies and other insects settled down. They skirted the large boggy area and made their way through barren oaks and maples until at last they came upon the meadow; they looked across the field at the same time and the two men stopped dead in their tracks.

Neither man knew what to say. In fact, most of the hundred or so people who had so far gained the meadow were gaping open-mouthed at the spectacle before them.

A golden sun hung above the violet horizon, the blistering orb now barely visible through the tree-lined hills that defined the ends of their world, but the barren meadow was alive now, dancing in amber torchlight. In the evening’s dying breeze, hundreds of torches cast flickering, oblong shadows in the deepening gloom, and a sudden fog was settling on the banks of the river.

“Dear God in Heaven,” Foster said as he made the sign of the cross over his chest.

“Ja, Father, but what could this mean?”

“What?”

“How could such a creation spring up – overnight?”

The Rector shook his head and now, for the first time since he’d seen those stirring images in the broadsheet, he grew fearful. Then he heard more people emerge from the trees behind them, heard the sharp intakes of breath and astonished cries of each new arrival, and he understood their astonishment. He turned and looked at these new arrivals, looked at faces frozen in place, and he noticed few dared to venture into the meadow. As if shadows could protect them…

But what could this mean, indeed?

Esterhaus too stood still, for he had some knowledge of great buildings. He had, after all, been to Aachen and Brugge and Canterbury. He had seen the vast spire of the cathedral rising above the Salisbury plain, as well as the brooding mass of the cathedral in Exeter. He wasn’t a stonemason but nevertheless understood wood, and above all else knew what could be fashioned from it – and he knew that what his eye beheld now was simply an impossibility.

Across the meadow a vast wall of billowing orange tapestry stretched hundreds of feet on either side of a massive stone entryway; torches behind the tapestry revealed shadowy figures already nearing the entrance. But what struck Esterhaus was the sheer scale of the massive stone buildings within the carnival, and that they had seemingly been wrought overnight!

Esterhaus could see a castle’s stone ramparts and a vast colosseum just visible above the silken wall; indeed, there seemed to have sprung-up overnight a small city as ancient as any in Europe!

Impossible!

He stood fast beside Foster in stunned awe – until his eyes found Jennifer Clemens; when he saw the girl with her three brothers he made his way decisively past the somnambulant horde until he stood beside her in front of the gated entrance. The gate, solid oak and at least thirty feet tall, was still closed tight, but as the last light from the amber orb fell behind the western horizon a deep gong was heard – and the gate parted just enough to allow one man through.

Jennifer Clemens looked at the magician – for she was sure now that this was what he was – as he walked clear of the entry. He looked exactly what she had imagined Merlin the Magician looked like when her father recounted the tales of Arthur and Lancelot. And she recognized the man’s eyes, the eyes she had seen last Wednesday after she’d come upon the broadsheet on the forest trail. Yes, the eyes were the same, but – the man? The man was somehow different!

This man was much taller than she remembered, and very thin. Willowy. Yes. Like a weeping willow in a freshening breeze – his orange robes drifted on the evening air in concert with the billowing tapestries that surrounded the entire carnival, yet even so she could make out the bony structure of the man beneath. This man’s skin was as white as snow, too, yet almost translucent blue, as was his long, flowing hair. Still, her eyes went back to his: they were huge, silver-gray orbs that spoke a language she was sure she had never heard before…if only she could remember why! And why had the music suddenly grown loud again, that familiar, haunting music? Music so soft she thought of moonlight, and while this music surrounded the colonists, she saw no musicians. Despite this new serenade, she kept hearing strawberry fields in her mind’s eye, and images of the man with the strange instrument played in her mind again and again…

Then the magician stepped away from the gate, lifting his arms high in greeting as he approached:

“Welcome,” his wizened voice proclaimed. “Welcome, all of you. Welcome back!”

Welcome back? – and she thought that an odd greeting…

Then he called to those transfixed, lost in the darkness, those who remained in fields beyond the shadows:

“Come, all of you! Step forward, step into the light. You are welcome here, and no harm will come for you.”

Jennifer turned, watched a handful of people come forward. Still, many seemed fearful and remained in the shadows, but now she found Claus Esterhaus standing just behind her, and the Reverend Foster a few steps away, but that was all. Of the hundreds she had seen on the sail across the river – had only a few stepped forward? So, would only a handful of people venture inside the carnival?

How could this be? There was magic in the air, and great mystery, so why should that cause people to grow fearful? Weren’t these the experiences people went to carnivals to revel in?

Then she saw the Guild Master trudging through the meadow, a knowing smile on his face, but the magician steepled his fingers before his gaunt frame as he looked at Jennifer – and those standing near her. The old man looked at each in their turn – as if he was taking stock of the seven people who had gathered by the gate. He paused when he came to the reverend and his eyes were suddenly possessed by a fierceness that took Jennifer’s breath away. She watched the man, this wizard, as he paused, then stepped forward, closer to the Rector, and she felt a chill run down her spine when he spoke next, in a gentle, almost mocking voice:

“Oh, True Believer, Man of God! Why have you come to me this night?”

Unable to restrain himself, the quivering man looked away before he spoke: “I have seen a vision, and I must find the truth of it. Can you help me?”

“Ah,” the magician said quietly. “But you are Lust, and of course I can help you. You are welcome among us, and no harm will come to you.”

Foster took a tentative step forward, then hesitated. “Lust?” Foster asked. “Did you call me by that name?”

“Come now, True Believer,” Mr Christian said. “We know you well. Step inside, step inside with me. Vast pleasure awaits – and more.”

Still, Foster hesitated.

Then the Magician held out his hand: “Take my hand, Man of God. You must have Faith in yourself too, if you entertain to understand this need of yours.”

Jennifer could not quite tell if the wizard’s last words were a statement or a question, but they seemed to penetrate the Reverend’s fog.

Foster reached for the Magician’s hand and took it, then followed meekly as the old man turned and led him to the doorway – and into the carnival beyond.

Once inside, the rector stumbled before the vast city within, then they walked for some time, until they came to a black door set in a blood red wall. They stopped under a flickering lantern, and the magician watched the rector, waiting for Lust’s choice.

“Everything you’ve ever dreamed of, waited for all your life, stands behind this door, Man of God. All you need do now is take the door in hand. No harm will come to you, and tomorrow you will only know thyself better.”

Foster reached for the door, hesitated, but now the magician remained quiet – though he appeared to be waiting, patiently, for the inevitable.

Foster reached for the door, touched the grimy metal knob and was in an instant inside a small room. There was but a single chair in the space, and a small opening in the wall opposite.

He walked to the opening and looked through…

…and very nearly fell back onto the floor…

For he looked on an ocean of men and women, all naked, or very nearly so, a single writhing mass on a sea suffused in deep purple light, then the forms shifted, the light changed to a deep amber, and Foster saw a man being whipped by a woman who had a monstrous phallus attached to her waist. He stared at the scene, his blood pounding in his temples, then the scene shifted again, to a room with honey colored light, and he saw an old man standing in a room very much like this one, with a young boy on his knees doing something to the old man. Time stopped and the rector looked at the old man, saw the contours of his own need in the other man’s face, and in his own tortured soul knew within this heart of darkness he was looking at himself. He cried out in anguish, shame coursing through his veins – before lust overcame inhibition.

“Isn’t this what you wished for, Man of God?”

“Oh, yes! Oh, God forgive me, but yes, it is!”

“Then go, for you have passed Lust’s Gate, and this is your choice,” the magician said as a doorway into the room appeared. “Go, know thyself truly – and what waits beyond.”

There was no hesitation in the Rector’s eyes now, and he hurried into the room.

+++++

And as suddenly as the Rector disappeared behind the door, another old man stepped into the torchlight – and Jennifer gasped, for this was the very man she had seen that first day! The very one!

Those eyes! She’d never forget those eyes. They held her inside a precious warmth that soothed and calmed her soul, and she felt a contentment that had eluded her for years, ever since her parents passed on the voyage. But now, here in this night was the way to soul’s ease. She was not yet sure what form this release would take, but here was the gate and the path – she had only to step forward and make the journey. She was not surprised when the wizard walked up to her and stopped, or when he looked at her and spoke:

“Ah, Greed. Will you ever be sated? Have you come now for more?”

The words rocked her and she wilted before the malevolence she felt beating the air over her head, beating like a vulture’s wings, yet she reached out to the proffered hand, felt almost powerless to resist.

“No! Stop!” It was Timothy’s voice she heard, and as if in a daze she turned and looked for this voice in the darkness. “Sister! We promised to go together, do you remember?”

She saw him, recognized him, but found she could not speak. She turned back to the old man and took his hand.

“Sister, please! Stay with us! Do not go!”

But she felt her body move now, of it’s own volition, and felt detached from her earthly form and she drifted behind the old man through the gate. Then there was a stone passageway ahead, and the way was lit by a lantern in the old man’s trembling hand. As they walked into the darkness she looked at the ancient stones in the flickering light, then  –

“How… can this be?” she said to the darkness. “These stones? Wait!”

The old man stopped and turned. “Yes?” His eyes were fixed on hers, all warmth gone from them, and now only a vast, insinuating emptiness remained.

“The carnival, was put up – when? Yesterday? Last night?”

The old man smiled and turned back to the passageway and began walking again. Jennifer felt herself flowing behind him as questions pressed inward from every direction…

“When, tell me when!”

“Time has no meaning here, Greed. Do not ponder those things from which you will find little gain…”

“Greed? Why do you call me that?”

“That is who you are.”

“What? No! My name is Jennifer, Jennifer Clemens!”

“Oh. As you wish.”

“And who are you? Do you have a name?”

“I was Diogenes. Diogenes, of Sinope.”

“Diogenes? That’s a preposterous name!”

“Yes, I suppose it is. But come, we must not wait here. The first gate beckons, Greed, and you have so far to travel.”

“Far? What do you mean far? How long will I be gone?”

There was a wall ahead, this time of solid stone, yet another oaken door was set inside this living stone. Diogenes ignored her questions as walked up to the door and stopped, and then he let go of her hand.

“I can not open this door. Only Greed can move forward through this gate.”

She looked at the old man, truly wounded. “Greed? I don’t understand! Why do you call me by such a hateful name?”

His eyes empty now, the wizard looked for her as a blind man might – groping about the passageway with searching hands – until he found her. “No other shall pass this way, for this is Greed’s Gate. Go back now, while you may, or enter, enter and see the meaning of your time.”

There was no choice to make, not really, so she reached for the iron latch and pulled on it. The door opened, stiffly at first – like  it hadn’t been opened in ages. Iron grating on stone, the stones of years, tears without end, yet it was as if the door had been waiting for her – and she knew it. Hot air blasted her face as the way ahead appeared, but blinding light washed through the opening before she could shield her eyes. She cried as heat enveloped her, as she stepped through the gate and staggered under the weight of all that she saw.

Everywhere around her vast metal machines rumbled and coughed, and a roaring silver bird leapt into the sky across the bay. Wide-eyed, she followed the bird as it banked and turned over a sprawling city, yet against all odds the place seemed familiar to her. Those hills, the river! The bay itself! – it all seemed so familiar!

Of course…

She was looking at Charles Town from the site of John Harvard’s college! She was home! But where was this place, really?” She turned to ask Diogenes but found nothing: no gate, no doorway, and as suddenly she was in a dim canyon, surrounded by hordes of these hideous belching beasts. One of the filthy machines pulled up alongside and she saw a man inside; she leaned over, looked inside, gasped when she saw the old man, for it was – Diogenes.

“Where ya goin’, lady?” the old man asked impatiently, impertinently.

“I beg your pardon?” she replied.

“Oh. You gotta be Beacon Hill. Figures, dressed like that and all. Well, come on. Get in, get in!”

“Get in?” Jennifer asked “In what? That?”

The old man looked at her, shook his head then got out and came around to her side of the machine, then opened a door that led inside the strange yellow beast. “Right, then. I’ll play the gentleman this time, if that’s what it takes. Now come on, get in!”

She moved inside, recoiled as her hand touched the slimy surface of the bench, and then she pinched off her nose from the vile stench that assailed her every sense.

“Alright, lady,” the man said as he returned to the belly of the beast, “where to?”

“What? What language is this you speak?”

“Come on, lady; give me a break, would ya? Where you wanna go?”

“Go?”

“You wanna ride back into town, or what?”

She thought about that for a moment, then said: “Can you take me to the Commons?”

“Sure thing,” Diogenes said as he flipped a lever, then the beast leapt like a wild horse and began charging through the narrow canyons of this vast, hellish landscape, the old man dodging other beasts and yelling strange curses at each one he passed. Then sunlight, huge buildings everywhere, more of the beasts but now in every color imaginable, all lined up to cross a bridge of some sort. Another burst of speed, then they were careening down little narrow lanes, and now she noted a strange yellow pall in the air. They turned into more colossal canyons of glass and stone, people – millions of people – everywhere walking with grim, determined faces – past buildings of unimaginable size – huge, tall palaces standing, soaring to the clouds – and beyond.

Then, in the midst of all this chaos a rolling green lawn, hundreds of people laying about on blankets, some couples locked in passionate embrace – and she wanted to turn away from these obscenities and hide her eyes, but she couldn’t.

‘This has to be a dream. It has to be a dream. I’m sure of it now.’

The beast slid to a halt. “Twenty two fifty, lady,” this Diogenes said.

“What?”

“Da fare, lady,” he said, pointing a strange, numbered device. “Twenty two bucks and some change. Thirty would be nice.”

“Do you mean money?”

“Do I mean money? Watda fuck does ya think I mean?”

She fumbled in her little coin purse and pulled out a gold florint and gave it to the man.

“Wat da fuck is dis?” he asked, outraged now and preparing to get out of the beast.

“That’s a gold florint, sir. From Rotterdam.”

“Gold? Geez, ya shittin’ me, lady?”

“Shittin’ you?”

“Geez, Ma’am. I didn’t mean no offense. Tanks. I mean it. Tanks – a lot.”

The beast screeched away, leaving her in the shadow of – what? More vast buildings? Some smaller, made of red brick but in the main huge monoliths of black glass disgorging thousands of people by the minute – and everywhere she looked she saw more and more of the same.

“So, if this is the commons then the house must be up this road. This looks to lead up my little hill…”

She started up a broad roadway lined with silent beasts – and promptly lost her way. She turned, looked downhill, saw the commons and adjusted her course, turned right and made her way up the hill into a quiet neighborhood. She walked along this street until she came to a house and stopped, looked at the porch off the right side of a much newer part of the house.

“Langston’s porch!” she cried. “My God!”

“Yeah, they don’t build ‘em like that anymore, that’s for sure.”

She turned, saw Jeremiah standing just a few feet away and flew into his arms, her anguished tears staining his impossibly white shirt.

+++++

Langston had furled sail and squared-away the boat, then dashed through the grassy meadow towards the the torchlight just in time to see the Rector, the right honorable Roger Foster, being led into the carnival, and when Jennifer was summoned he wanted to object – until little Timothy made their anxiety known. Now he stood in mute silence, powerless to move as Jennifer disappeared behind another door – but even then a third man appeared, and when Langston felt the man’s eyes on him he feared this was to be his own summons.

This third wizard was almost identical to the first two – at least the few people gathered by the meadow’s edge thought that the case. His eyes possessed the same budding warmth, his gaunt, willowy frame was as translucent – and yet those gathered noticed each had been different, too, and in not so very subtle ways. This third one was neat in a way the first and second had not been, and somehow Langston felt that this third wizard was not as kind.

“Here, what’s your name?” someone called from the shadows.

“My name is of no concern to you,” this third Mr Christian said.

“And who have you come for?” Langston asked as quickly.

“Sloth.”

“Sloth?”

“Yes, boy, I have come for you.”

“Me?” Langston said, now truly wounded. “Sloth?”

“Take my hand, for we have a long way to go before this sun rises once again.”

“Don’t do it, brother, I beg you – in Christ’s name!” he heard Timothy’s pleading cry through the creeping fog that was enveloping this shore.

Langston turned to Timothy and met his fierce eyes with the hushed tones of his own quiet voice: “Quiet, brother,” he whispered through the encroaching mist. “I’ve got to go, go and find Jennifer.” He looked at Jeremiah, bade them both to come close. “We’ll meet up inside the gate,” he continued in alarmed, whispered tones, “and if somehow that doesn’t happen, if we can’t find one another, then we make our way out and back to the house as fast as we can.”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Jeremiah interrupted.

“It is as I feared,” Timothy whispered fiercely. “We are in company with the Great Deceiver Himself.” He made the sign of the cross over his breast as he looked heavenward. “We are surely doomed!”

“Not if we keep our wits about us, we’re not. Now see here, Tim, when it’s your turn just step inside the gate, or door, or whatever that is, and wait for me. I’ll be with you in no time.”

“But if something happens,” Jeremiah interrupted, again, “then we make for the farm, is that correct?”

“Yes. From here, just follow Orion’s belt down to the horizon. You can’t miss!”

“Sloth! I have come for you! We cannot wait long.” the third talisman boomed.

“Right – o, mate. Hold on to your knickers!”

The old man glowered and took a step forward.

“Alright, alright… let’s have at it, mate! Lead on.”

“Take my hand.”

“Oh, come on now. We’re a bit old for hand holdin’, ain’t we?”

“Take my hand, Idiot!”

“Right, well, see you soon Tim. Be strong, brothers!” When Langston touched the man’s hand he grew still inside and drifted as if sailing on the lightest of breezes towards the door – then he was through and drifting on the gentle currents of an unseen river. He heard water and could smell sea air all around – even waves breaking on an unseen shore – yet it was so dark inside the carnival he could not make out any features within. None. He drifted for some time, hours he guessed – but it might have minutes, before he realized the man was still with him. He felt uneasy thereafter, unsure of the man’s motives.

“Aye, mate, where are we?” Langston finally asked.

“We have not left the place we were.”

“Right. Well, pardon me, but let’s try that again. Where are we?”

“We are almost there.”

“Right. My thanks to ye. You’ve cleared everything up.”

“Think nothing of it.”

The raft bumped up against something hard, and in the gloom Langston could just make out the finite contours of a rocky shore receding into an ever deepening darkness. A gently flooding tide pushed the raft insistently onto the rocks, then it recoiled and drifted back within the sloshing stillness – until the next wavelet pushed them onto the rocks again.

“I hate to bring this up, but are we there yet?”

Silence.

“See ‘ere, mate, where are we?” Langston stood in the rocking skiff, peered into the gloom trying to see anything…but all he could feel was his own beating heart – indeed, he could hear his heart above all things now, but then he felt a freshening breeze coursing through his hair…

And he saw the old man was – gone! He had simply vanished, if he’d ever really been here at all…but where was here? Here, there and everywhere?

On the next wave he timed his jump as best he could and hopped ashore. He was normally sure-footed but landed badly on the rocky beach, and after brushing himself off he carefully made his way around rocks and boulders before he felt the reassuring comfort of tall grass. But the air! It was cold! Bitterly cold, and the wind was more insistent now!

He felt the coming of dawn and turned, looked at the eastern horizon and saw the sun just rising, but there was something off-putting about the bronze color of this sun, and the oddly iridescent haze of purple-gold mist that lined the far horizon. Still, looking closely now, the sun seemed almost alive, pulsing to the rhythm of a strange, beating heart. Then he looked towards the heavens and almost fell over.

“Mother of God!”

The sky was alive with pulsing light, the aurorae he had so often heard about from sea captains who ventured into far northern seas from time to time – yet what he saw now was simply overwhelming. The vast dome of the sky was all pulsing greens and pinks and purples, each color static for a time – before yielding fluidly to another, more outlandish display. And – the sky was not silent, either!

He could hear a crackling in the air, a sparkling tension that defied words – and he could feel the hair on the back of his neck standing on end – just like the chill warning that started down his spine. Something wasn’t right…no…something was…dangerously wrong.

Was it the trees?

‘They’re all wrong,’ he said to himself. He looked at the low, stunted trees around this beach…and nothing was recognizable. No maples, no hickory or oak. Not one tree looked like anything he had ever seen before, and then it hit him. It was simply too cold here. Nothing he knew could grow in this climate, and then he heard another crackling in the air, but this noise was not of the sky.

He looked to the north and in the low light he could just make out a wall of solid white ice, and he shook his head as he tried to make out how far away it was. He gave up after a minute; there was simply no way to judge such distance without walking towards the wall, as the ice might have been a hundred feet high and a few miles distant, or a thousand feet tall and dozens of miles away.

Then, another sound, something infinitely more dangerous. Something in the grass…

He instinctively crouched down, as low as he could, because suddenly he felt like he was being watched  –

There!

A cracking twig, slow, deep breaths low in the grass – a rumbling, menacing, growl – drawing near.

Without thinking he dashed back to the water’s edge and looked for the skiff – but it was gone – so he jumped into the icy blackness and waded away from shore; when he was as far out as he dared he stopped and turned, looked back at the beach – and gasped yet again.

The cat was huge, and out of it’s mouth drooped two fierce looking saber-like teeth. The animal was looking directly at him, following him now as he waded parallel to the shoreline. Still, the water was icy cold and Langston began to shiver; he knew if he remained in the water he would die soon – he’d heard stories of what happened when sailors fall overboard in a cold sea – so he decided to move closer to shore, perhaps get more of his body out of the water. Then he felt the cold breeze on his face and groaned.

Even as he watched the cat, he knew he had no other choice now, really, but to get out of the water.

As he trudged back towards shore the huge cat watched attentively, and Langston could tell the animal was getting ready to attack as soon as he was close enough. His foot touched rock and he edged in a bit more – until his head and chest were well clear of the water. The cat stood tall and roared, and Langston had never heard anything so soul-crushingly fearsome in his life. He felt warmth around his groin and cursed when he realized he’d just pissed into his pants.

He sensed more than saw something hissing through the air, and when the arrow struck the cat in a rear leg it spun around violently and lashed out – at – nothing. It roared again, almost howled in anguish and tried to walk back to the safety of tall grass but something was seriously wrong with the animal. Both it’s rear legs were dragging on the rocky beach, and it looked confused, began licking at it’s wounds frantically, trying to understand what was happening – and failing.

Then two men walked out of the tall grass with bows drawn, and they both let slip arrows that flew straight and hit the cat in the neck and chest. The cat wheeled around again and roared, tried to flee, but two more arrows bore in and hit the cat in the chest. Dying now, the cat fell on it’s side, began panting heavily, and a moment later it was over.

Langston walked from the water, sure he wanted to thank these two men – when they heard him, and they turned to face this new threat coming from the water. Then they strung their bows with fresh arrows and took aim at Langston’s chest…

 

+++++

“Aunt Jennie? Is something wrong?”

Aunt Jennie? “What? What did you call me?”

“Aunt Jennie. It’s awfully hot out, for you to be out here. Let’s get you out of this sun.”

“What?” Jennifer stepped back and looked at Jeremiah – only this boy wasn’t quite Jeremiah, was he? In some ways he looked younger – but his skin was unnaturally clear and his teeth blazing white – and there were traces of gray in this boy’s hair, wrinkles around his eyes.

“It’s Hot. We need to get you inside.”

“Yes. By the fire, I think.”

This strange man, for she was sure now he was not Jeremiah, took her hand and led her up the walk to Langston’s porch, then into the house. She almost fell over from the force of her own dismay when she saw the inside of their house, for it was – gone. Something new and hideously vulgar had replaced it, a huge home with pale, salmon colored walls and cream colored carpets and fantastic works of art on all the walls. And the furniture! She had never seen nor heard of such things as she saw now. And on the wall, a black panel full of moving images, almost like those she had seen within the broadsheet.

“What is this place?” Jennifer Clemens asked. “Where are we?”

“Come on, Aunt Jennie, we’d better get you upstairs. What were you doing out there today? Did you have a doctor’s appointment?”

“What?” she asked the stranger, now clearly afraid.

“Upstairs Jennie, let me help you upstairs.”

“Alright.”

“I’ll call Sumner.”

“Sumner? Who?”

He helped her up stairs and down a long hall to an impossibly large room, and when she had settled on the bed, when the man had covered her legs with an old quilt, she seemed to let go and drift within the moment, lost in time. She looked down at her hands, wanted to scream when she saw the stranger’s skin that had suddenly become her own, because the skin she saw was vast with illness, splotchy and yellow with unnatural age. There was a patch of cloth stuck to the top of her hand, covering a large bruise, and she wondered what it all meant.

“What is this?” she asked the man.

“A BandAid. Were you at the doctor’s today?”

“Who?”

“Oh, crap,” the man said as he pulled a strange looking box from his jacket pocket. He did things to it, then starting talking into it. “Sumner, it’s Pete. Yeah, hi. Look, I was walking by and saw Jennie out front… Yes, I know. Anyway, I think she’s been to the docs today, but something’s not right. She doesn’t know who I am, or who you are, and seems really confused…”

This man, this ‘Pete’ or whoever he was, listened to the box for a moment, clearly as upset as she was…

“Okay, I’ll make the call, and I’ll let you know when they get here.”

He did something to the box again, then began talking.

“Yes, I’m at 21 Louisburg Square, and I think my Aunt is having a stroke. She’s an oncology patient at Mass Gen, a Dr Charles German, I think, and she saw him today. She’s very confused. Yes, I’ll be out front. About five minutes? Okay.”

He put the box away, came to her and sat on the bed.

“Aunt Jennie, I’m going downstairs to wait for the ambulance, and I’ll be right back. Sumner will meet us at the hospital.”

Jennifer Clemens didn’t understand half of what the man said, and she stared at him mutely as he ran from the room. She stood, felt unsteady on her feet and braced herself against a piece of furniture by the bed. She looked up, saw a huge mirror on the wall and screamed when she saw the reflection waiting in the glass, looking back at her.

The woman in there was impossibly frail, and most of the hair on her head was gone. There were a few patches of wretched looking gray hair scattered about, but that wasn’t the worst of it. She looked at the skin, and the eyes, and instinctively knew that this poor soul wasn’t long for this world. She reached out, tried to comfort the poor thing, and when her hand touched the mirror’s smooth surface she brought it back to her own face, felt her skin as she watched in the glass and cold dread filled her to the depths of her soul.

“Who is this thing?” she asked the reflection. “Who am I? What has become of me?”

+++++

Jeremiah Clemens watched Langston disappear within the carnival’s stone walls and wanted to scream. Now his sister and his favorite brother were gone from this night, disappeared within the strange stone citadel – which by any reasoning he possessed simply could not exist. He turned, looked at his brother Timothy and the abject fear in his eyes was all he needed to see.

Behind Timothy stood the Guild Master, and the concern Jeremiah saw on the Master’s face was evident, as well. When their eyes met the older man came and stood beside Timothy, and he put his arms protectively around the younger boy’s shoulders.

“This is perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” the Guild Master said. “I was on horseback riding through these fields not two days ago, and there was nothing here, beyond a few men from the college clearing brush. Yet here we are, in front of a city that appears most ancient.”

“This is Satan’s work,” Timothy whispered.

The Guild Master nodded his head. “I’m inclined to think as you do, young Master Clemens.”

Both Jeremiah and Timothy turned to look at the Guild Master, for he was considered the most learned, indeed, the most worldly member of the colony.

“You do?” Timothy said in hoarse surprise.

“Yes, but my concern now is a simple, more immediate one,” the Guild Master said. “We must get our people out of there, from inside, if we must, but we must act now, while we may.”

“Yes,” the brothers said – voices in clear agreement.

“Well, I’ve got twenty men moving ‘round to the back of this castle, or whatever this may be. They’re going to scale the walls, start searching once they get inside, then bring our people out –  while we prohibit further inquiry from here.”

“So,” Jeremiah interrupted, “we should wait here? Distract this Mr Christian, from where we stand?”

“Distract? No, I fear that is not a wise choice, boy. Should my men be discovered, more people would be in even greater danger. I feel we must enter together, try to find our people and get them back to the entrance…”

“Ah, Moderation, you speak wisely.”

The three turned in shocked silence to face this new voice, apparently coming from deep inside the castle – yet now they came face to face with a fourth magician. He was standing just inches behind Jeremiah, and the beaming smile they took-in was the least disconcerting thing about this wizard. Because he easily stood half again as tall as the Guild Master, who was himself a very tall man, yet it was his other features that the three fell upon. Hard and gray, he seemed chiseled from living granite, and the man’s bunched muscles were impossibly large.

But he was looking at the Guild Master just now – and the giant seemed to be enjoying this moment immensely, and apparently wanted to draw it out. “How many men, did you say? Twenty?” Then the giant laughed, an impossible, booming laugh that echoed across the valley – and Timothy was half sure he’d let go and wet himself. “Oh well,” he said as he wiped tears of mirth from his gleaming, amethyst colored eyes, “this will be a fun evening, Moderation. There’s no telling what you’ll find in these shadows. Are you ready to go?”

“Me?” the Guild Master said. “Are you speaking to me?”

“Oh, you poor, simple-minded wretch!” the giant said between gales of laughter. “You might as well come along, while we yet have some life left in our bodies.”

“Me?”

“Yes, of course you. Now come, for time is not our friend!”

“Do you want me to take your hand, as well?”

“It will make no difference, Envy.”

“Envy? But you called me Moderation?”

“Each virtue has it’s opposite, just as night has it’s day. I thought this self-evident, as all living things seek balance?”

“No, it’s not, not at all evident.”

“Ah, well, perhaps this night holds many lessons for you. Best keep your eyes open, Envy.”

“I’ll do my best.”

The giant laughed his booming laugh again. “Ah, Envy, you will never see anything with eyes closed so tightly.”

The Guild Master followed the giant inside the carnival, and they made their way under torchlight through a labyrinth of polished stone. The giant was quiet now but seemed to know his way through the maze, and though the way ahead seemed to go on forever, the giant stopped by a sudden outcropping in the rock and pulled aside a tattered curtain.

The giant held the curtain aside and motioned to the Guild Master. “Come, Envy, and see with open eyes,” and he stepped forward, saw battered light beyond the curtain and heard a loud buzzing as he peered inside…

…and the Guild Master jumped back from the flickering shadows. His men, the twenty he had sent to penetrate the carnival, were naked and grouped in a far corner of the room, held in check by hundreds of angry serpents coiled on the floor, writhing, waiting to strike.

He turned to the giant, began to speak but was cut off.

“No harm will come to them, Envy, with but one word from you. Tell me this nonsense will be at an end, and I will free them. Do you agree?”

“Yes, of course.”

The giant let go the curtain and began walking back towards the middle of the castle, then turned in admonishment on the Guild Master. “That was foolish. Not at all what was expected of you.”

“They’ll be alright?”

“When the new day comes, yes, but you will see them soon enough.” He turned, started walking again…

“I see,” said the Guild Master, still concerned for his men

“I doubt that, but who knows what this night holds.”

“Who are you? Do you have a name?”

That question seemed to confuse the giant – and he stopped, looked at the Guild Master, his eyes puzzled, full of wonder. “A name? Why yes, I had a name – once.”

“And?”

“I can’t remember,” the giant laughed – apparently thinking all this uproariously funny – as he resumed walking into the bowels of the castle.

“And you are a liar,” the Guild Master said after he considered that evasion.

“And you are correct.”

“So, why won’t you tell me?”

“My name would mean nothing to you.”

“Oh? So, who are you besides one who presumes to know so much about me? You, you who dares call me Envy, or by any other name? What manner of fool are you?”

“Evagrius Ponticus. That was my name.”

“Truly? Well then, so Vanity presumes to lead Envy on his way? Or do you forget your own sordid dreams?”

“I do not forget,” the giant said softly. “Why do you think I am here in this form? Do you think this form a prank, a matter on which you might jest?”

“No, I would say the creature I see before me is a just creation.”

The giant paused, as if the Guild Master’s words had hit with some grave effect, but then the chiseled form of the giant wavered, grew indistinct in the torchlight, and just as the broadsheet had vanished in the air by his lofting shed those few days ago, so too now did the giant. The shimmering form of the creature swirled in amber mists, broke down into leafy particles that hung in the passage, slowly drifting on errant currents. While the dust of this creature’s absolution hovered in the air, the Guild Master walked forward, tried to reach into the swirling mist, but soon another form took shape in the dim stone passage, and within moments the form resolved into yet another permutation of Mr Christian.

“Come,” the magician said, as he resumed his walk back to the front of the castle.

The Guild Master tucked in behind the magician and followed him, and soon they reached the heavy gate that led out of the castle.

“Have you seen enough, Hilarion? Need we tempt you further?”

The Guild Master staggered under the weight of that name, under the weight of unknown memory.

“By what did you call me?”

“By any other name. One you used, many years ago.”

“I know of that name, but why would you think…”

“And why would I not?”

“You speak in riddles, like the Deceiver.”

“I speak the truth, like a friend.”

“Oh? You are my friend?”

“You are curious, but full of doubt even now. As you have always been.”

“Always? You know me from where, my erstwhile friend?”

“Not from where, Hilarion. It is of the ‘when’ that I