Beyond a Reasonable Doubt redux

I haven’t posted this story in a while, and if you aren’t prepared for some earthy language I’d turn away now. If you’re under 18, go away, this isn’t for you. This is a “crime” story, kind of noir, but also almost pornographic in places. I thought about deleting all that stuff, but I think the story might fall apart without all that earthiness. It’s the first person narrative, really, that needs this level of theatrics.

So. what is this?

I posted the original version of this story at LIT almost ten years ago, and it’s been revised once before, just a few years ago, but within these pages lay the seeds of an idea. Predators had it’s origins in here and, oddly enough, I think the way ahead for Predators will come to life with characters you’ll meet in this story. The next chapter of Predators is about a third of the way finished, so probably ten days or so before it posts here, so if you haven’t read this one before you’ll need to in order to know the characters in Predators – going forward, anyway.

Predators moves from Dallas to Paris in the next chapter, and you’ll note that a few of the characters in here speak the local language, but this story takes place in Seattle. So, here they are, Ed Woodward, Richard Tate, Liza and the incomparable Persephone – and our first ever glimpse of those whacky girls in black. Hope you enjoy.

+++++

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (or once upon a dark and stormy night)

I took the call a little after midnight, and yes, it was a dark and stormy night, but I guess in my line of work they usually are – in one way or another. Dispatch called just as I ran across an ex-wife in a very interesting dream, but the sleepy voice on the other end of the line had no way of knowing that, and even if she had, there wasn’t a damn thing either of us could have done about it. Sometimes late night calls are just the luck of the draw, some nights you end up in the wrong place at the right time, and everything goes to hell from there. No one’s fault, you know what I mean? But still, some calls are like a stone skipping across a pond, they ripple through time, across the windmills of your mind – before the sink from view. This one sure would.

I slid out of my berth up forward and looked at the puffy-eyed stranger in the mirror, threw on some clean pants and ran my belt through the loops, then hooked my badge over the left front pocket and strapped my old Sig P-220 into the crusty leather shoulder holster a wife – which one? – had given me twenty years and more than a few nightmares ago. Funny how some things from marriages last longer than others, even if the joke turns out to be on you. On second thought, maybe that isn’t so funny.

I hopped off the boat – another consequence of one wife too many – and walked through the fog-shrouded marina to the department Ford up in the parking lot; I checked ‘in-service’ with dispatch and groaned when the light rain suddenly turned heavy. As if losing another night’s sleep wasn’t enough, I’d forgotten my raincoat, something you do in Seattle at your peril. Oh well, it’s only water, right? Just like water under the bridge. You live and learn; at least, you’re supposed to, anyway. Funny how we never do.

The windshield wipers beat like drums ahead of a funeral march, lightning rippled inside clouds just overhead, and city streets drizzled by in the tired, mechanical cadence. My mouth tasted like crud, too, and to make the morning more interesting I’d felt a sore throat coming on during night, but that didn’t matter: sick, well – or even dead – this was my call and I had to take it. Mine to ‘make or break,’ to solve or to seriously fuck-up, or, for whatever I found out there in the night…to seriously fuck me up. You just never know, and that’s the real fun of police work. Hell, at least the rain was supposed to let up later in the day. But would it? I’ve heard some rains last forever. That’s why there’s Prozac and bourbon. And that’s why some cops give up and swallow a hot chunk of .38 caliber ambivalence…

The address dispatch read-off didn’t mean a thing to me, neither did the run-down apartment building I parked in front of: both were in a pretty bleak area just south of downtown – an area full of docks and warehouses – home to lots of broken dreams and burned-out souls. Three squad cars were already parked out front, their red and blue strobes pulsing through the waterfront rain. The frenzied light created strange moving shadows on the walls of this brick canyon, and the feeling was unsettling, even to my jaded eyes. An ambulance was out front, too, and a couple of firemen sat in the brightly lighted back of the box; they looked bored – tired and bored – because they’d seen it all before  probably ten times this week. Still, those guys looked as though they were sitting in an island of intense light, and that kind of clarity looked out-of-place here in the lightning and foggy rain.

Out-of-place, too, because this part of the city is a land of shadows, and clarity isn’t really welcome in the shadowlands. Truth is a painful subject to the down-and-out, a reminder of all the wrong turns some people make along the way to where they are – to the last stop on their road to nowhere, and I guess it can be kind of rough to turn around and everywhere you look you’re reminded of how far you’ve fallen.

Like that pain in your gut where hunger used to live isn’t enough?

A medical examiner’s rain-streaked van, dull blue with official looking white letters on it, pulled up behind my old Ford right as I got out of the car; Mary-Jo something-or-other was behind the wheel writing on a clipboard but she looked up and waved at me as I walked by. I nodded and wished I’d worn a hat; no one ever told me when I was growing up that cold rain on a head with three hairs left on top could be such all-consuming fun.

Anyway. Mary-Jo something-or-other and her assistant got out of their van (both wearing rain coats and hats, by the way) and followed me into the building; we made it to an elevator just before the door closed and they squeezed in.

“Messy night,” her assistant said. “Gonna rain for a week.”

“No shit,” I said. “Welcome to Seattle.”

“Hey, Woody, you still on the boat?” Mary-Jo asked.

Funny, but I couldn’t remember telling her I lived on the lake, but that’s just another one of the joys that go along with white hair and old hemorrhoids, and I’d known Mary-Jo through work for more than a few years. She was cute in a thirty-something kind of way, but the work had taken a heavy toll on her. She’d filled-out a little too much over the last few years, yet she wasn’t what I’d call fat, either. She was like everyone I’d ever met on the M.E.’s staff: puffy circles under her eyes, cigarette ashes on her blouse, and the requisite weird sense of humor. Working around dead people does that to you, I guess. Even so, working around victims of violent crime sucks the humanity from the marrow of your bones – that life leaves most people pale and dried up. Having worked homicide for fourteen years that’s a statement I feel I can make with some authority. You get used to human degradation, to the meanness that lurks our there, waiting, yet there are things you just don’t get used to. Not and still consider yourself human.

These cheap apartment buildings are all the same, I remembered thinking: rickety old elevators spit us out into a dingy, dimly lit hallway, and why the hell are the ceilings so goddamn low in these shit-holes? Virgil’s “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” should be carved in stone over the entry to these hovels, because that’s exactly what happens to the poor souls living in them. And man, did I feel it just then, looking down that empty, piss-soaked hall to the open door at the end. The walls even smelled like this was a place broken people came to die, to give up and drop dead on the floor, even if it took them years to get around to it. This was a world of frayed carpets and peeling, cracked linoleum, of bare light-bulbs hanging from broken fixtures – like the necks of old men after a last trip up to see the hangman. If I had to write building code violations for a living, I could have turned this place into a career.

Still, the essential truth of places like this is simple: nobody cares whether you live or die. All you need to do is make rent and everyone will just leave you the fuck alone. That’s just the way it is when you live in the shadows: life is all the shit that rolls down on your head – before you die.

Up on that third floor it was the same story: dim grunge everywhere I looked, haunted eyes looking through cracked doors, maybe a little curiosity – but a whole lot of indifference too – mixed with a little fear of the unknown, and the known. Just ahead, right down there in the gloom, I could see the door to Apartment 321 standing wide open, and I saw the indirect light of a camera flash strobe off an unseen wall – so someone from forensics was already up here photographing the scene. A patrolman stood outside the door, looking bored, of course, and because, I guess, some things never change. A couple of nervous neighbors had gathered in the gloom across the hall and were hopping around like birds in a broken cage, but there was no place to fly now, and they knew it. Life had them trapped now, and held them fast to their despair.

I walked past the patrolman and into the room and – stopped dead in my tracks.

The victim was a middle-aged man and he was a shattered wreck; the sight of so much blood still gets to me to this day. The M.E.’s assistant walked-in – but turned away, too late. I watched him stagger back, watched as he flashed hash all over the hallway, and within seconds the poor guy fled to the safety of the elevator, retching as he went.

“Fuck a duck,” Mary Jo said quietly as she came in the room.

“I don’t think so, Ma’am,” I said in my best Joe Friday. “No duck did this.”

The guy was sprawled out on the living room floor, the worn green carpet under him had been unable to absorb all the blood there, and vast pools of the stuff had already coagulated under his head and torso. His throat had been cut and he’d been stabbed in the chest and belly too many times to count, and for good measure his penis had been cut off and stuck in his mouth.

“Jealous wife?” Mary-Jo said as she bent down beside the guy.

“Or boyfriend,” one of the techs from forensics said.

I bent down to have a closer look, saw something odd under the blood on the guy’s belly.

“Somebody get me some gloves, and a wad of four-by-fours. Maybe some saline, too.”

A paramedic brought me a wad of gauze pads and a one liter bottle; I popped the cap and poured a little on the guy’s stomach right below his sternum, then I wiped away the coagulated mess and just had to shake my head at the sight.

Letters, carved in his flesh.

“What does it say?” Mary-Jo asked, looking over my shoulder.

“Love me,” I said absently. Whoever had killed the guy had taken something really sharp and carved the two words into his flesh, even taken time to underline them with a nice, bold slash.

“Well, sometimes love hurts, I guess,” Mary-Jo chuckled.

See, I told you working around dead people sucks.

Mary-Jo had her tackle box open and was taking samples from under his fingernails a minute later – when I saw something in his hair.

“Better take a look here,” I said.

She came up, her gloved fingers sifting through the victim’s hair: “Semen?” she thought out loud.

“Well, I sure ain’t gonna smell it. Tell you what? Why not take a sample and do some of that science shit, maybe tell me just what the fuck it is? Okay?”

She chuckled: “Maybe he shot his load all the way up here…”

I rolled my eyes: “Mary-Jo? You need to get your fat ass laid. Bad, too.”

“You volunteering, Woody?” she said as she removed some of the stuff with a sterile swab. She held it up and looked at the gunk with a UV light, then put it in a vial, before turning around and saying: “Cause, ya know, I swallow…”

I had to get away from her then. Even the dude from forensics stepped back and looked at her all wide-eyed, like she was some real crazy shit. Me? I didn’t quite know what to say. Neither did he. Mary-Jo just laughed and laughed, before she looked at me and licked her lips, letting her tongue linger like a writhing phallus.

+++++

I was in the bedroom poking around, trying to make sense of one more senseless crime scene. There were ligature marks on the guy’s wrists and ankles, and a few deep, small cuts inside his thighs – like the victim had been tortured before he was killed – and the things I’d seen so far just weren’t adding up to a routine murder. The evidence was contradictory. Tied-up but no signs of a struggle? So had this thing started out consensually? And if that was the case, then this had to have been some kind of sexual encounter. A paid encounter – with some really weird ideas about foreplay. So, some kind of hooker?

Yet the evidence said most of the wounds had been the result of an aggressive – and hardly consensual –  assault, before things went way south anyway, so the guy probably didn’t really know his assailant all that well. But what if he had? Then he didn’t know the perp well enough to have trusted her (or yeah, him) with his life. Probably, but then again, what if he had? But then, there was the explosive nature of the wounds on his torso, the penis stuffed in his mouth, the carved words on the guy’s gut…and all that added up to evidence of pure rage. The murderer, or even murderers, were uncontrolled or consumed with blinding rage at this point, either wild with rage or completely off-the-wall in some sort of frenzied lust.

Then there were the basic questions. Was the ‘perp’ a woman? Yet it could have been a kind of ‘Gay’ encounter, too. Maybe a threesome, some kind of ‘bi’ thing gone wrong? Envy? Jealousy? Still, without much more to go on, I was grabbing at straws just now, because without evidence, real evidence or witness statements, the scene was loaded with conjecture.

“Yo! Woody!” Mary-Jo called out from the living room. “Better come take a look at this.”

What else was I missing? I looked at the bed again before I turned to the other room.

“What you got?” She was bent over the guy now, her assistant holding his legs up, shining her UV light up his ass.

“Semen. All over the external anus.”

“Swell.”

“We’ll have to wait until autopsy,” she said as I bent over to take a look, “to sample what’s inside.”

“Peachy. Can’t wait to read the results.”

“Woody? You ain’t going all soft on us down there, are you?”

The woman was merciless, just annoying, and merciless. Hell, it would probably be a month before my poor dick would get up again after seeing that smile – while shining her light up that guy’s ass. “You know, M-J, if I have to listen to anymore of your shit I’m going to go somewhere and join an order. Maybe the Benedictines.”

“Yeah, sure thing Woody. You’ll get all you want there.”

“You’re a twisted bitch, you know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, ain’t it the truth? But I know you love me.”

I looked at the words carved on the guy’s belly and shook my head, then walked back into the bedroom with my back to her laughter. “Very punny,” I said over my shoulder as I disappeared around a corner.

I looked around the bedroom again and poked around the head of the bed; a pillow was stained and still wet with what looked like some sort of clear fluid, and not semen from what I could smell. Urine? There was a length of discarded rope on the floor, and in the corner a pair of pantyhose: “Johansen! Did you get these yet?” I called out to the photographer shooting in the bathroom.

“What? The rope and stuff?”

“Yeah. The pantyhose. Did you get those?”

“Yeah. You ready for me to bag ‘em?”

“Let the M.E. have ‘em, see if they can get some hair or fluid. Maybe we’ll get some DNA.”

“You got something in there for me, Woody?” Mary-Jo asked suggestively as she came into the room. There are days when I wish my last name wasn’t Woodward, and this was one of them. When I heard Johansen snickering in the bathroom I’d have gladly settled for Smith. I guess I should be grateful my folks didn’t name me Richard. Dick Woody. Yeah. That would have been just the thing on a night like this.

+++++

The sun was coming up, the rain had tapered to a drizzle and paramedics were loading the stiff’s body in their ambulance; they’d take it to the lab, then her assistant would get it logged-in for autopsy. Forensics had a pile of evidence to log-in at Central and I had a headache – like I’d just come out of a bad slasher movie and had too much buttered popcorn. I rubbed my eyes while Mary-Jo joked with one of the patrolmen, then groaned when I saw her headed my way. I rolled down my window as she walked up.

“You hungry?” she said.

“You’re like, kidding, right?”

“No, not at all. Seeing a guy’s severed cock stuffed in his mouth like that always makes me hungry.”

“Brings out the man-eater in you, does it?”

She looked down after that, turned serious. “Woody, I need to ask you something. Some serious shit.”

“I could use some coffee,” I said, nodding. “If you’ll stop with all the creepy jokes for a while.”

“Right. Pike Place?”

“Sure. Starbucks? The alley? There ought to be a place to park on Pine or Stewart this early in the morning. Oh, and be sure to park that heap in front of a good restaurant. Good PR. Know they’ll thank you for it.”

“Gee, Woody – that’s nice,” she said, looking at her Medical Examiner’s van. “And you call me creepy?”

+++++

I beat her there, made my way to Post Alley then followed the scent of roasting beans and got a table inside; rain had given way to fast-scudding clouds over the sound, and now the tops of the Olympics were all aglow in the sunrise.

Cool, clean air, roasting coffee, fresh pastry…life suddenly felt good again, and Mary-Jo showed up a few minutes later and I got a couple of two-liter quadruple-shot espressos. Nothing like a slight buzz to start the day, I always say.

“Geesh, I didn’t know they made ‘em this big,” she said while she stared at the cup, daunted.

“Oh, sure. Gets the main pump throbbing.”

“Really? My guess is your heart’s going to explode one of these days.” She looked nervous, like she didn’t know how to say what she had to say.

“You know, I find it best to just spit it out, M-J.”

“What?”

“You had a question? Some serious shit, I think you said?”

“I got divorced, you know,” she began, “a few years back…”

“Well no, M-J, I didn’t know that. In fact, just to set the record straight, I’m pretty sure I didn’t know you were married. Come to think of it, I don’t even know your last name.”

“What? Oh, shit,” she said as she laughed. “Right. Kopecki. Maria Josephina Kopecki.”

I held out my hand: “Ed Woodward. Nice to meet you.”

“I’m sorry,” she continued, “I just took it for granted, ya know, having worked around you all this time…”

“No problem. Now, what’s up?”

“Well, see, I’ve been trying to hook up with someone for a while, like, through the internet. Well, see, I did, sort of, but it didn’t really work out. Turns out the guy, the last one, was kind of creepy. I mean really creepy.”

“Is that, like, ‘really, really creepy’?”

“Don’t make fun of me, alright?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Right, well, see, the problem is, the dude’s a cop.”

“Uh-huh. Define creepy.”

“Well, see, he wanted to meet the first time at this club. A swingers’ club.”

“And?”

“Yeah, well, see, I did, and he had already hooked up with another couple by the time I got there. He wanted to go back to their place and I don’t know why, but, well, see, I did.”

“Really? Why?”

She looked down, just shrugged. “I dunno,” was all she could say – yet everything she said, even the way she said it – looked a little like an act to me. “So, what’s the problem?”

“Well, the guy has shown up a couple of times, like, see, at things where I was.”

“Things?”

“Clubs.”

“Clubs? You mean like…”

“Yeah, swingers’ clubs.”

“This is, well, see, your thing, then?” I was trying my damnedest not to laugh, or even smile for that matter, but the stupidity of young people sometimes leaves me breathless. And if she said ‘well, see’ one more time I was going to have to hurt her. Strangling her came to mind.

“I’ve done it a few times, yeah.” She was speaking quietly now, very self-consciously. “It’s fun.”

“Yeah, well, whatever floats your boat.”

“Well, see, I wasn’t sure if he was following me, or if it was just, like, a coincidence…”

“Well, see, I’m still not seeing the big problem?”

“Well, see, he’s got a big tattoo on his chest. ‘Love me.’ That’s what it says.”

Now she had my attention. “Uh-huh. What’s his name?” I asked as I took a notepad out of my shirt pocket.

“I don’t know, for sure.”

“Oh?”

“Well, see, like I only know his internet address and his screen name.”

“And how do you know he’s a cop?”

“He, like, told me so.”

“Uh-huh. Did he like show you a badge or anything?”

“No,” she said.

Sometimes I wonder how people so fucking stupid could possibly live long enough to reproduce. Then again, maybe more than a few don’t. “Can you describe him?”

“Tall. Six feet, maybe a little more. Not fat but like really buff…”

“Buff?”

“Muscular. Like a weight-lifter.”

“How old?”

“Late-forties, maybe fifty. Red hair and freckles. You know, he’s got like a faint scar on his right cheek.”

She had just described Mark Tottenham, one of the department’s assistant chiefs, to a T; Tottenham had been in charge of Internal Affairs for years, and while I’d heard rumors he was flaky, this was off the charts.

“Got an email address?”

She gave it to me.

“When’s the last time you saw the guy?”

“Night before last.” And her eyes darted to the left, always a sure sign of deceit.

I looked over my glasses at her, tried not to judge the kid too unkindly. “I’ll see what I can find out. Where can I get in touch?” She gave me a number.

“Thanks, Woody. Maybe I could buy you dinner?”

“Yeah. Maybe.” I flipped my notebook over and made a few more notes then put it away. “Well, see, like I got to go now. Do like some cop-like shit. I’ll give you a call this afternoon.” I made my way to the Ford, felt a little sick to my stomach. I checked in with dispatch, then made my way over to Tate’s office.

Richard Tate had been a detective for almost thirty years; now he was doing the PI gig, doing sensitive background checks for corporations and taking photographs of cheating spouses. For the past ten years we had been best friends – I had his back and he had mine – that kind of thing, and Tate has been the only friend I’ve ever had who I’d trust with my life. Now I wanted him to run down the internet stuff for me because I didn’t want any traces of a search on department computers, or my private one for that matter. I gave him the run-down on what Mary-Jo had told me and he whistled, leaned back in a squeaky leather chair and steepled his fingers.

“You ain’t gonna believe this,” he said, “but this ain’t the first time Tottenham has been in the shits for something like this. The tattoo thing, the wife-swapping shit; he’s been into some pretty creepy shit over the years. He supposedly likes, or used to, anyway, to rough-up girls. I heard once he was into kids, too?”

“Kids? And?”

“Nobody found anything, but I’m not sure how hard they looked.”

“What about guys?”

“Guys? What do you mean? Gay shit?”

I told him about the murder scene this morning and he whistled again. “No shit?”

“That’s a fact. No shit, but maybe a little piss.”

“Crap. I can get a friend in Tacoma to run down the IP. Can you get a picture of Tottenham to show to the girl? Just to confirm things?”

“I dunno. Might be better to get someone outside the department. Maybe a reporter,” I said, grinning.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “Then what? They’d want some inside angle or some other tit-for-tat, or fuck, they could get hold of something you’d missed and then what the hell would you do?!”

“Fuck, I don’t know, Tate. I’m tired, been doing this shit for too long.”

“Alright, alright; I’ll take care of it.” He steepled his hands again and sighed. “Shit, it’s probably nothing anyway. No telling how many people have that tattoo.”

I nodded. “Yeah. Who knows? But it couldn’t be that common, could it?”

+++++

I drove back to Central and went up to my office in CID, called dispatch, asked them to run-off the NCIC print-outs I’d called in earlier. I wanted to know more about the background of the victim, but turns out I wasn’t ready for what came next.

“He’s clean, Woody,” Trisha Wickham told me. “You wouldn’t believe how clean.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s FBI. White-collar crime unit, mainly computer crime. Talked to the SAC; he filled me in. The guy’s as clean as they come, too; fifteen year veteran, wife and two kids.”

“Shit. Anyone told the family yet?”

“Nope. SAC wanted to talk to you first.”

“Got a number handy?” She read it off to me. “Thanks, Trish. Appreciate it.”

“Woody?”

“Yeah?”

“This one doesn’t feel right. Something big, maybe. Be careful, okay?”

She hung up before I could ask what she meant.

Now just what the fuck was going on?

+++++

Peter Brennan was the Special Agent in Charge of SeaTac FBI; I’d known him for years and he was generally a straight-shooter, a no nonsense, old school kind of Irish-American cop. He was waiting for my call, and he sounded anxious.

“Woody, what can you tell me? Any suspects?”

I gave him the basics but left out a bunch of details. “Hell, Pete, we haven’t confirmed anything yet, don’t even have the fingerprints processed yet. Was your boy supposed to come in this morning?”

“Yeah. He’s a no show, his wife said he went out early last evening on a call, never came back. She called in about six-thirty this morning, worried.”

“Sounds about right.”

“Yeah. Anything else you can tell me?”

“Let me pull the prints and I’ll run ‘em over in a bit. Got any time this morning?”

“I’ll make time.”

“Okay, Pete. Seeya later.” I hung up, walked down to the locker room and picked-up my mail, then dropped by dispatch to pick up the NCIC and DL print-outs that would have to be attached to my preliminary report. Trish was not there so I turned and walked back to the elevator.

And Tottenham walked into to the elevator right after I did.

“Hey Woody, how’s it going?”

“Fine, Chief. You?”

“Can’t complain. You still livin’ on the boat?”

I laughed to avoid the question. “Well, it worked for a while but it got real small, real quick.”

“I can imagine. Brennan called me a while ago. You got the case?”

“Yessir.”

“Any leads?”

“Not a thing, Chief.” The elevator binged and the door opened.

“Well, keep me posted.”

“Right, Chief.”

“Seeya later.”

“You bet.”

The door closed and lurched up to the next floor; I walked to my office and got my coat, then called forensics and told them to fax a copy of the fingerprints to Brennan. My other line lit up and I took the call: it was Dick Tate.

“Hey Woody! Long time no see, amigo. Wondered if you’d like to have lunch and swap lies.”

“Hey there yourself! What the hell have you been up to? You still chasin’ lyin’ husbands and cheatin’ wives?”

“Only when I’m not screwing the wives!”

“Yeah. Ain’t Viagra a wonderful thing?” We laughed. “Listen, I have to drop by and see Pete Brennan for a minute, but how ‘bout I meet you for a bowl of chowder at Betty Lincoln’s?”

“Be good; like old times. Say about noon?”

“That’ll be fine.”

“Okay, buddy. Can’t wait. Be good to catch up on things.” He hung up; I’d managed to tell him of FBI interest in the case and told him to meet me near Ballard Locks, and he’d told me he had something important to discuss. Hopefully, if anyone was monitoring the line they’d not get too suspicious.

I drove over to the main FBI office by the Wa-Mu building and talked with Brennan; he told me they’d handle the notification and I thanked him.

“Any leads?” he asked.

“Nothing solid yet. I’ll let you know as soon as something breaks. I assume you’ll start your own investigation?”

“Already have.”

I nodded. “You got a private number?”

He squinted, sat down and wrote out two numbers: “The first is unlisted, anytime. The second is my home number.”

“Understood.”

“You got something, don’t you?” he asked.

“I need to confirm a few things, probably know something in the morning.”

He nodded. “You need me, just call.”

“Pete, if I need you it’ll be too goddamn late to call.”

“That bad?”

“Worse.”

He leaned back, looked me in the eye. “You sure you don’t want to fill me in?”

I shook my head. “Better in the morning.”

“Okay,” he said, but I could see the gears turning now.

“Pete?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t put a tail on me, okay? I’m expecting someone to try and I don’t want you to run ‘em off.”

“Fuck.”

“Promise, Pete?”

He stood, held his hand out. “Scout’s honor, Woody,” but his eyes darted to the left.

I smiled. Like I said, Pete was ‘good cop’ – and by that I mean – predictable.

I drove down to my boat on Lake Union and put the Zodiac in the water, then took off toward the locks. So far I hadn’t seen anyone on my tail, either on the ground or in the air, but the game is best played by people who know how to blend in. It’s a hard game to play well, and the stakes are always high.

Tate was standing on a dock about a hundred yards shy of the locks and I pulled over, let him hop on; if anyone had followed him they’d have to hustle to follow us now – but he hadn’t seen a thing either – and that worried me. I puttered over to the south side of the channel and we both watched the shore as we trolled along.

“Victim was an FBI agent, supposedly clean.”

“His name Dan Harvey?” Tate asked.

“Yeah. How’d you find that out?”

“The IP for Mary-Jo’s contact. It’s Tottenham alright, and there’s been a lot of activity between him and this Harvey fellow over the past few months. A lot of meets at a code name, some place they refer to as the Hole in the Wall.”

“My. How original.” I’d need to look at my notes, but hadn’t MJ mentioned that?

“So Harvey was FBI, huh?”

“Yeah, and supposedly clean. White collar crime.”

“Think maybe he got onto someone, maybe Mark?”

“Possible, but I doubt it. Why all the contact?”

“Maybe they were working a joint task force? Undercover?”

“That’s a stretch. Ran into Mark this morning; he didn’t let on he knew the guy. Any luck on a photo?”

“Yeah. Pulled one off the net, from the Post-Intelligencer; about a year old, so it ought to do.”

“Good deal.”

“So Mark knew the guy and didn’t own up to it? And the tattoo? You think the girl might know the name of the club?”

I smiled. “Yeah, I think so, but she’s a little hinckey.”

“Say, think we could grab a bowl while we’re out?”

“Yeah. You know, that actually sounds pretty good.” I upped the throttle and scooted up channel toward Fisherman’s Terminal and tied-off below Chinook’s. With any luck we’d miss the lunch crowd; we got lucky and sat way back from the entrance, looking out on the fishing boats; from here Tate covered the entrance and I watched the dock. We ordered clam chowder and coffee and had just begun to relax when Dick sat upright and coughed attention.

“Tottenham,” he said under his breath. “At the desk, trying not to look this way.”

“Fuck.”

“What the fuck have you gotten into, Woody?”

“Your guess is as good as mine?”

“Well, here he comes…”

The waitress came by and dropped off two huge bowls of chowder – and a gallon jug of Tabasco.

“Damn, that looks good!” Tottenham said as he walked up. “Tate! What are you doing here? Where’s your Nikon?”

I turned and looked up at Tottenham.

“Sheesh! Well, looky who’s here!” Tate said. “Surprise, surprise.”

“Hey Chief,” said yours truly, feigning a little surprise of my own.

“Shit. This is like old times, huh?”

“You alone, Mark?” Dick asked. “Wanna join us?”

“Kind of you to ask, but no. I’m meeting Pete Brennan, should be here any minute.”

My heart lurched. So, he had me tailed?

“Well, good to see you Dick. Woody, check in with me this afternoon, would you?”

“Right, Chief.”

Brennan walked in and they took a table across the restaurant from us.

“I think I’ve lost my appetite,” Tate said.

“At these prices? Better go find it, and fast.”

He laughed. “Too bad you’re on duty.”

“Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth. Nothing like cold one and hot chowder.”

“So. What the fuck do you think’s going on?”

“I have no clue, Amigo. Maybe Harvey found something on Tottenham, or maybe they were just into the same shit and they met up with Cruella de Vil in that apartment. Anyway, I asked Pete not to throw a tail on me. I didn’t think he was lying when he said he wouldn’t, but guess what?”

“Really? I wouldn’t count on that prick to not sell out his mother.” He sighed, looked out over the water for a minute, then looked at me. “Well, anyway, Woody, you’re missing something. Something big. Why the hell would Tottenham and Brennan both be here? Right now? I hate to say it, but it sure feels like someone’s following you. Someone really uptight, too.”

“Us,” I said.

“Right. Us.” He coughed, looked over at Brennan. “Thanks, I think.”

“Doesn’t matter. Food’s good, sun’s out… what else is there?”

“A pretty girl with a warm mouth?” He looked away, sighed. “Yeah, I guess, Woody.” He shook his head at that, and I really couldn’t blame him for feeling put-upon. “You’d better think about lining something up with the girl soon.”

“Yeah. You working anything major right now?”

“Nope. Not even anything minor.”

“Things that slow?”

“Slower. In a recession nobody gives a damn if their spouse is cheating ‘cause nobody has any money. I’d sure hate to be a divorce lawyer these days.”

“No, you wouldn’t. I can guarantee you they made enough off me the last twenty years to keep themselves in Guccis the rest of their goddamn lives.” We laughed, but we’d both been there and done that. Most cops have, and I guess that’s why most cops grow old by themselves. Bitter and cynical doesn’t even begin to describe it.

We finished up and paid the bill, Dick went over to say ‘bye to Tottenham and Brennan while I washed up, then we hopped into the Zodiac and continued up channel to the lake, and my boat. The shore was lined with boat dealers and houseboats, and even Tate wanted to linger and look over the little floating shack where they filmed “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Whoever it was tailing us was doing a good job, because neither of us picked up anything until I turned into the little marina where I kept my boat – and even then he was hard to see. Standing up on the second deck of a parking garage overlooking the lake, we saw a man with binoculars and a walkie-talkie watching us; he looked away when we looked at him, then stepped inside a van.

“Dark suit,” Tate said, snickering.

“Sunglasses,” I said, scowling.

“FBI,” we both said, laughing. It was an old joke.

“Yeah, but pretty good anyway,” Tate said, then we looked up at the garage again.

“Why would they be watching us?” I said, thinking out loud. “I mean, we’re not suspects?”

“Wanna follow you, I guess; see where you lead ‘em?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe? What else?”

“Keep us from getting too close to something.”

“Woody? You’re getting paranoid.”

“Damn straight. I just hope I’m getting paranoid enough.”

“Amen to that, Brother.”

+++++

I dropped Tate off by the locks as the sun dropped behind some clouds; the plan was for him to fall way behind me on an agreed-upon route and see who was tailing me. I took my phone out and slipped it into my shirt pocket, hooked up a hands-free headset and took off down Market Street, then turned right on 15th Avenue and crossed Ballard Bridge.

The phone chirped and I looked at the screen. Dispatch. Trish?

“Woodward,” I answered.

“Detective, there’s an urgent call for you from the Medical Examiner’s office.”

“Gimme the number.” I scribbled the info on a pad and hung up. The phone chirped immediately. Tate this time.

“Yeah?”

“Two cars. Fed plates, and I’m pretty sure there’s one on me too.”

“Right. Go to the barn.”

There was no way to beat this kind of operation; too many resources had been allocated – and that, really, told me all I needed to know. The FBI had been running some kind of op; Special Agent Harvey had been made and neutralized. Now, the question was: what role was Tottenham playing, and what did Brennan know, or not know about him?

I drove back to the lake along Mercer, wound around to Westlake and pulled into the MarinaMart lot and locked the car; I stopped at the pay phone outside the gate and called the MEs office. Mary-Jo picked up on the first ring:

“You alright?” I asked her.

“Yeah. You know who the guy is yet?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. So do I.”

“What about the stuff you found inside the back door?”

“His property.”

“Right. Want some dinner?”

“Sure.”

“Ray’s Boathouse, Shilshole. Six o’clock.”

“Okay.”

“And you’ll be followed.”

“Oh, okay?” She sounded pretty uncomfortable now. There was a little quiver in her voice when she continued: “You too?”

“We’ll talk then.” I hung up, took out my mag-key and held it up to the gate; it buzzed open and I walked though, then turned when I heard a lot of cars pulling in. Two black Fords slipped into the lot and parked near mine; I thought I might as well wait for Tate – and he pulled in a few moments later – trailing his own caravan of black Fords. Tate got out and surprisingly all the other feds did too – Brennan in the lead. As Tate walked my way the entire entourage did as well, so I stood by the gate and held it open, watched as they filed past silently – and there was something almost comical in their clinging uniformity – like every black suit and all the Ray-Bans in the Pacific Northwest had been scooped up by FBI agents in Seattle, and here they were now, my very own parade of Men in Black.

I walked past them and hopped on board the boat – Brennan and one other agent I didn’t know followed me on board, and Tate brought up the rear; we went down below and I put on a shitload of coffee.

“Why’d you have to bring him in on this?” the unknown agent said, pointing at Tate.

I looked at the man and took in his smug swagger, his pompadour hair, then looked at Pete Brennan: “Don’t y’all still administer a test that measures the basic stupidity of your applicants?”

Brennan laughed; Pompadour bristled.

“Look, Woodward,” Pompadour said, “its hard enough keeping a lid on things without you, well, without you bringing in every broken down old cop in Seattle.”

“I guess you don’t plan on getting old?” I said. “Does that about sum up your little corner of the world, asshole?”

Pompadour huffed-up, stepped toward me. “Sit down, Rollins,” Brennan commanded. Pompadour sat, just like any other well-trained Doberman might, but he kept his eyes locked on mine. Did I see him drooling, too?

“I thought you weren’t going to throw a tail on me, Pete?”

“I didn’t know you were bringing in reinforcements.”

I nodded. “Hard to know who you can trust, isn’t it? I’m sure you understand.”

SAC scowled. “Did you get the ME’s report yet?”

“Nope.” He handed me a copy.

“Read it. It’s enlightening.”

I read it. The conclusions were pretty freaky. “Someone dosed him with Viagra?”

“Yeah. He might have been unconscious, by the time they killed him, anyway. Apparently some people can pop a woody, even in their sleep.” Pompadour laughed at the pun, I flipped him the bird. “Best guess is they jacked him off, then shot him up with potassium, caused a massive heart attack.”

“They didn’t find any…”

“No, it doesn’t hang around too long… not much of a half-life. But there are a couple of puncture wounds consistent with injection sites…”

“Insulin, maybe?”

“Fuck, are you kidding?” Brennan said.

“Had to ask. Induces a coma. Kind of a double tap.”

“Anyway, I hope he was out – before they did that to him. Would freak anyone out, you know?”

I shrugged. “Okay Pete, why were you with Tottenham this morning?”

“He called, wanted to meet.”

“And?”

“And nothing. He didn’t even mention the case. Wanted to talk about some Homeland Security shit.”

“You know about the tattoo on Tottenham’s chest?”

“What…no?”

“Says ‘Love Me’, right there in red and blue, right over his heart.”

“Fuck.”

“No shit, Sherlock.” Pompadour said on hearing that little tidbit, then he turned livid white on us.

“Know any people in your office with something similar?” Both men shook their head.

“So, there’s no tail on Mark,” Tate stated, a dour look on his face. “That’s great. A roman legion on our ass and not one on the prime suspect. Perfect.”

“Hey, not our fault,” Pompadour said. “You kept us out of the loop, remember?”

“I have a hunch,” I interrupted, “that we’re dealing with a club of some sort. There may well be a lot of guys with that tattoo. Anyway, I hate jumping to conclusions.”

“Right,” Brennan said, but I could tell he was still holding something back. Who the fuck was this clown he’d brought with him?

“So, what’s your interest in the case, other than losing an agent?”

“Sorry,” Pompadour said. “Need to know only.”

“So, let me get this straight, just so I’m crystal clear. You think I don’t need to know?”

“No. Not yet, anyway.”

I looked at Brennan. He shrugged, said not one word, and didn’t even bother to look apologetic.

“Fine,” I said. “That’s just fucking great.”

“Your tax dollars at work,” Tate said, shaking his head.

“When are you meeting the girl from the MEs office?” Pete said.

“What? You don’t know?” Tate shot back.

“There’s a limit to what we can do, Bucko. You know? Congress? Surveillance courts, all that shit? Ring any bells?”

“Doesn’t seem to have stopped you guys much lately,” Dick fired back.

Brennan’s face was a blank mask: “So anyway,” he said, “we’re not monitoring phones. Yet.”

“You going to drop the tail?”

“No. Not unless you’ll wear a wire, and a locator.”

“No way. Not yet.”

“Then we’ll be around.”

“So, why this meet?”

“Just don’t try to shake us, alright,” Pompadour said. “Waste of time; anyway, your field-craft sucks.”

“Bet you didn’t know your mother gave me a blowjob after lunch,” Tate said. “She’s coming back for seconds in a half hour.”

Pompadour fumed, stomped up the companionway ladder and jumped off the boat.

“Nice, Tate. Real class,” Brennan said sarcastically. “By the way, Harvey was his partner.” We looked away, things jumped into focus. “Alright, the low-down is this: we’re going to be on you, that’s the point of this meet. And don’t try to drop the tail, you’ll just make my team angry, and you don’t want to do that.”

“Why, Pete? What are you saying?”

“Just listen to me, Woodward. Don’t think. Just listen. Act like you don’t know or don’t care, your choice, but don’t shake the guys on your six.”

“I don’t like it,” Tate interjected. “Not one fucking bit.”

“I don’t care, Dick. I’m perfectly happy to lock you up for a few days if you won’t play ball.”

I got it then. Pete’s reasoning was clear. “Okay, Pete. I got it.”

He looked at me, relieved. “Be careful, Woody. I mean it.”

“I hear you.”

He tromped up the steps and all of the Feds trooped off behind him.

“Okay,” Tate said, “what am I missing?”

“We’re the bait, the tethered goat.”

“Oh, shit.”

“I couldn’t have said it better.” Because Brennan had told me what I really wanted to know. This was big. Bigger than big. And I was in real danger, too.

+++++

I looked at my watch: a little after three.

“Better call Tottenham now,” I said as I fished out my phone. I called dispatch, they transferred me.

“Chief? Woodward.”

“Woody! How was ole Richard doing? Is he getting along well?”

“Not much business, he says. Barely making ends meet.” Tate flipped me the bird.

“Oh really? Too bad. Well, pensions don’t make up for sloppy retirement planning.”

“No sir, they sure don’t.”

“Do you have the medical examiner’s report on the FBI guy?”

“I’ve got to go over and pick it up, sir.”

“Oh? Well, fine, fine. Keep me posted on this, would you? Pete seemed pretty bent about it at lunch.”

“Will do, sir.” And with that, the line went dead.

“You gonna meet the girl?” Tate asked.

“Yeah. At Ray’s.” I shook my head. “Guess what they talked about at lunch?”

“Yeah. One lie leads to another. Always does.” He grinned. “So, Shilshole for dinner?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re gonna put on ten pounds today.”

I looked down at my stomach. It was still flat – except when I sat. Well, maybe a little when I stood…

“I gotta take a nap,” I said. “Feel like I’ve been up for two days.”

“Okay if I sit here for a while?”

“Sure.” I went forward and crawled in my bunk; I think I was out before my head hit the pillow. I dreamt again, about an ex-wife giving me a hand-job, with razor blades between her fingers.

+++++

Someone was shaking me, shaking me from somewhere far away.

I opened my eyes. “Fuck, that hurts…” I think I said.

“What?”

“I said fuck. As in, ‘why is that whenever someone wakes me up it’s not an insanely gorgeous redhead wanting to sit on my face.’”

“Ah. Yeah, I pretty much have the same problem. It’s called getting old, Dickweed.”

I sat up, rubbed my eyes. They burned, burned like someone had thrown acid in them. I reached over and grabbed some eyedrops, asked Tate what time it was while I struggled to put them in.

“Five-ten. You got time to take a bath?”

“Thanks, yeah. What have you been up to?”

“Looking through your porn stash.”

“Hah-hah.”

“I was reading a book. ‘Cruising in Serrafyn,’ by a couple named Pardey. Pretty cool stuff.”

“Yeah, I met ‘em at the boat show a couple years back. Nice people.”

“Well, I get it now. The whole boat thing, keep it simple.”

“Right. Well…”

“Oh, shit, excuse me…”

I shut the head door behind him and hopped in the shower, looked in the steamed up mirror when I got out and freaked when I saw that stranger in there again. Man, getting old hurts, and in all the wrong places.

We locked the boat and went up to the parking lot, and all the black Fords were nowhere to be seen. Spooky.

“Okay. You sure you don’t want me to join us?”

“No. I’m gonna go home. Got to feed my cat, commune with some Hustler magazines for a while.”

I laughed. “As long as you keep the two activities separate!”

“That’s just gross, Woody.”

“Well, it’s nice to know you’re still getting some pussy.”

He stared at me, then shook his head. “You need to get out more.”

“Hey, where do ya think I’m going?”

“This ain’t a date, Woody. Don’t forget that. Anyway, she sounds like damaged goods to me.”

I nodded. “Probably right.”

“I’ll keep my phone on,” Tate said.

“Right. Be careful.”

“You too.”

We got in our cars and I took off toward the bridge, then retraced my earlier route out past the locks and pulled into Ray’s. The lot was nowhere close to full; I wondered where the Feds were, and I was worried about Tate, too…

Mary-Jo pulled into the lot and parked next to me; I got out and walked around, opened her door and helped her out. She’d gotten dressed for the occasion – my khakis and boat shoes were a little shabby next to her rig. I held out my arm and she slipped hers in mine and we walked in, checked-in and we walked out to a table looking over the Sound.

“You look fantastic,” I told her, and the truth of the matter was she really did look great. Sexy as hell. In fact, she didn’t look anything like she had earlier that morning: her hair was down, her face was made-up discreetly, the dress… well, classy described it well. Black, low-cut in front, and her legs were simply stunning – and there was a lot to see, too, and I felt myself responding to her before I knew what was happening. We ordered drinks and looked out over the Sound – a ferry was making it’s way across the water to Bainbridge Island, the snow-capped Olympics stood beyond the Sound, beyond the ferry, and I suddenly wanted to get away from all the ugliness in this world – to just leave it all behind – while I still could.

“What are you thinking about?” Mary-Jo asked.

“Out there,” I said, pointing.

“What about it?”

“I think,” I sighed, “I’m ready to retire.”

“What? Out there?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, right. The boat.”

“So, have a look at this.” I pulled out the image of Tottenham and handed it over; she unfolded the paper and looked at it for a split second then folded it up and handed it back. “Is that him?”

“Yup. No question.”

“What can you tell me about the club? Where you two met?”

“Like I said, he called it the Hole in the Wall, but it doesn’t have a name on it. Anywhere. It’s a red brick building over on Leary.”

“By the docks?”

“Yeah. I don’t know the address but I could take you there, show you where it is.”

I nodded. “Tell me about the people in there.”

“Like what?”

“Anything that comes to mind. Rich, poor, black, white – whatever.”

“Well, I’d say mainly middle-aged white people, probably pretty educated group as a hole. Some nights they have erotic poetry readings, other nights erotic art shows.”

“Do people just hook-up there, or do people have sex there as well?”

“To tell you the truth, Woody, I’m not sure. I think the place is pretty big, but I’m not sure how big. I’ve only seen a few rooms, but I think it was an old warehouse, looks like it’s been redone. A lot of money, too.”

“Is there a bar?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Any people doing drugs? You know, out in the open?”

“I saw some guys doing lines off the top of a girl’s thighs. Does that count?”

We laughed.

“Probably so,” I added, then I looked her in the eyes: “How many times have you been?”

She looked away: “More than a… more than once.”

“With Tottenham, or with other people?”

She didn’t answer.

“What are you into, Mary-Jo? Swinging? Or is it something else?”

Again, she just looked away, didn’t answer. She was either embarrassed, or acting that way.

“I need to know, Mary.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I know.” She seemed to gather herself inward, as if to protect herself from a storm, then she looked up at me. Her eyes were really lovely, soft, kind, but something darker than confusion lurked in her shadows.

“Tell me,” I said again, and I remember that now. I commanded her to tell me, and something seemed to snap-to when I spoke in that tone of voice.

“I’m a Bottom, Woody.”

“A Bottom? What’s that? Like something to do with anal sex?”

She laughed. “No Woody, it means I’m submissive. I do what people command me to do.”

“What do you mean, ‘what they command you to do’?”

“Sexually, though sometimes it’s more than just role playing. You know, like the French maid and the Gestapo interrogator?”

“What? You mean like bondage and stuff?”

“If that’s what my master wants to do.”

“Your master?”

“Yeah. The Top, the person in charge.”

“The person? You mean, like, see, a man, or a woman?”

“Yes.”

I coughed, took a long pull on my drink.

She reached up, wiped my forehead: “You’re sweating, Woody. Does that turn you on?”

It was my turn to look away.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Woody. Everyone has fantasies, everyone wants to let go a little.”

“Yeah? I suppose so.”

“What would it be, Woody? Would you like to tell me what to do? Would you like to do that?”

Her hand was under the table now, then it was resting on my thigh. I cleared my throat as her hand drifted up to the zipper on my khakis.

“Or maybe you’d like it better if I told you what to do. Would that do it for you, Woody? Would that trip your trigger?”

She was squeezing my cock through my pants, and I’m pretty sure I felt an eyelid trembling.

“Ooh, Woody! I think that’s it! I think you’d like it if I told you what to do!” She squeezed again: “Do you feel that, Woody? Feel that need? To let loose, lose control? Let me take control? For a while? Would you let me?”

“Let you? What?”

“Let me take you there, Woody?”

“You keep squeezin’ my dick like that and you won’t have to take me anywhere. I’ll pop-off right here.”

Her eyes smiled, she licked her lips. “Really?” I felt her foot on my ankle, my heart hammering in my skull.

She slowly pulled the zipper down, undid the belt, then she reached in and pulled my cock out; our waiter came over to fill our water glasses and she looked up at the kid: “Would you bring me a clean glass?” she said to him. “An empty one, please?”

“Certainly, Ma’am.”

He disappeared and she started squeezing my cock again, milking it. Every now and then she’d pause and run her fingernails up and down the shaft, then she’d jerk it fast a few times before squeezing it again, milking me, bringing me to the edge and letting me float there.

The waiter came back and dropped off the glass.

“Take it, Woody. The glass. Hold it down there.”

I did as she said, felt my balls boiling, my cock getting hard as a rock.

“Hold it there, Woody; let me shoot it in the glass.”

I did as best I could, but within a blinding flash I started to cum. And cum. And cum some more.

“Jesus, Woody! How long has it been?”

I couldn’t answer. I was biting my lower lip, holding on to the edge of the table with one hand and the glass with the other…I was still cuming…and it felt like it lasted forever…

“Hand me the glass now, Woody.”

I brought it up from under the table and put it on the table.

“Woody?”

“Yeah?”

“No, Woody. Not yeah. It’s ‘Yes, Mistress.’” She squeezed my prick with her fingernails to drive home the point. “Woody, I said hand me the glass.”

I picked it up and put it in her hand, then she released my cock and I groaned.

A couple at the table across from ours was looking at us, they were leaning close and whispering something to one another. Mary-Jo held the glass up to the dim light like she was examining a fine wine, then she drank the cum – all of it – in one smooth motion. The man across from us squirmed in his seat, the woman with him was directing all her attention to his lap, and soon he held up his own glass, as if toasting us, and then he handed his glass of cum to the woman.

I guess it really hit me then; the couple across from us were our minders, here to keep an eye on us. Just part of the club, I guess, but I felt cold dread as I looked at the smiling couple across from us, as I watched the woman drink down the milky contents of her glass.

+++++

I felt my phone go off in my coat pocket and excused myself, went up on the front deck and called dispatch, trying to conceal the alarm I felt. The only way anyone could have found out about our dinner plans was through Mary-Jo – or Tate, and the latter just wasn’t possible – was it?

“Woodward.”

“Detective, we have officers at the scene of a homicide; they want to talk to you directly. Can you take a number?”

“Go ahead,” I said as I fumbled for my pad. I scribbled as she spoke, then hung-up and dialed the new number.

“Woodward.”

“Detective Woodward?”

“Yeah. Go ahead.”

“Ah, yessir, we’re going to need you to come out here.”

“What’s going on?”

“Can’t say sir. Not on an unsecured line.”

“Well okay, but where the hell are you?” I wrote down the address of a hotel out north off the Interstate. “I’ll be there in about an hour,” I said as I closed the phone, then: “Fuck!” I walked back to the table, sat down beside Mary-Jo, avoided looking at her.

“You okay?” she asked. The couple across from us had departed, I noted.

“A call.” I couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“You have to take it?”

“Apparently so.” Fuck! What had I just let happen, and who was this girl?

Our waiter had brought our dinner while I was out; I had a beautiful King Salmon and some steamed broccoli Hollandaise and I was damned if I was going to walk away from it, so I lit into it as fast as I politely could.

“Goddamn, someone back there sure knows how to cook fish!” I said as I finished up. I flagged our waiter, got the bill and paid up. “Sorry,” I said as I stood.

“I understand. Will you call me later? Let me know you’re alright?”

“Sure.”

I walked out to the Ford, saw a note tucked under the windshield wiper and plucked it up while I opened the door. ‘Watch your six… T’

Goddamn! Tate hadn’t gone home after all, and he’d seen something. I closed the door and my phone went off again.

“It’s me,” he said. “Did you get the note?”

“Four.”

“Need to twenty-five with you,” he said. “Betty Lincoln west?”

“Four.” I started the Ford and drove the three blocks over to the visitor’s parking lot by the locks; Tate winked his lights and I drove over and parked next to him.

“There’s a shitload of traffic on the scanner. I mean, even the Chief’s on the air, en-route to a Signal One.”

“Tottenham?”

“No, no, not an A/C… I mean THE Chief.”

“Fuck.”

“Nice night to dawdle over dinner, Dickhead!”

“I just got the call, I think. That girl…something’s not right.”

“Your face is flushed. You alright?”

I shook my head. “Not sure yet.”

“What did she do to you?”

I told him.

“Shit. Nobody ever done that to me, Amigo. How come you get all the fun calls?”

“I dunno. Want me to tag along?”

“If you’re not too tired, sure. The Silver Cloud, in Mukilteo.”

“Wow, out of jurisdiction, no less. Oh well, I’ll follow you.”

We made our way over to I-5 and blended in with the northbound traffic and I didn’t even bother to look for a tail; we probably would have looked like a freight train if I had. Twenty minutes later I exited and we wound our way west between huge Boeing assembly buildings, then down to the shore. More patrol cars – local ones, more flashing lights, a couple of ambulances. I could see Chief Anders waiting in the lobby, looking at his watch.

“Great! Just fucking Great!”

I grabbed my stuff and walked in, looked for the Chief and walked over to him. He was on his phone talking in hushed tones: “Okay, he’s here now. I’ll call you in a half hour.”

“Chief Anders,” I said as I walked up.

“Where the hell have you been? And wipe that shit off your shirt!”

I looked down, saw a nice, shiny glob of salmon on my shirt and groaned.

“Who’s that with you? Richard Tate?”

“Yessir.”

“He’s retired, isn’t he? What’s he doing here?”

“Chief, I’m still active in the reserves; just putting in my hours.”

“You were homicide, weren’t you?”

“Yessir.”

“Oh, well, come on, then.” We walked up a flight of stairs and down a hall that stretched off into infinity to an area cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape. We walked past two patrolmen into the room.

Mark Tottenham lay face-up on the bed, his penis had been cut off and was dangling from his mouth. The tattoo on his chest had been cut out of his flesh, and it looked like he’d been stabbed about a hundred times in the chest and belly.

Now I didn’t know what to think. I looked at the Chief. There was a tear running down his cheek and his teeth were clenched so hard the side of face was trembling. Tate walked over to Tottenham’s body while I walked around to the other side of the bed. There was a glass there, the rim smeared with red lipstick, and obviously, whoever she was, she’d drunk a shitload of cum from the glass.

I groaned inside, thought of MJ, and knew her little performance hadn’t been coincidence. Tate knew it too, as soon as he saw the glass. I heard her say “Call me Mistress” and wanted to turn and run away.

Some nights are worse than others, you know. Nature of the beast, I guess you could say; no two nights are ever the same yet somehow they all are, but this was like déjà vu all over again. Even with more than a decade of looking at wrecked and mutilated bodies, this one got to me. I don’t care what you have to say about it, or what you think: when you look at one of your own, a brother officer, your feelings are…different. The Wall can’t get up fast enough and you’re left wide open and vulnerable – and just like every other Joe on the street you feel a big, cold slap on the face as reality breaks over you like a wave of black hate. There’s no other way to look at it: you really feel the scene around you and it hurts. It hurts because you don’t get to play the objective observer anymore, you’re not just a cop. It hurts because the pain hits you where you live – and there’s no place to hide. And you can’t run from your feelings, either. They come for you hard and fast, grab you by the throat, like a leopard grabs a goat by the throat, and you know it won’t let go until you stop breathing.

Chief Anders was shook up bad, too. He was standing at the foot of this perverted hotel bed looking down at Tottenham’s body and I couldn’t even begin to guess what was running through the old man’s head. They’d gone to Academy together, been close friends for just a little longer than forever – and now this. This death wasn’t a random drive-by or another officer run-down by a drunk driver; this wasn’t a pissed-off veteran blowing his brains out after a bitter divorce or a forced retirement. No, this one was different…because everything in that room was so goddamn dark and twisted – so evil – and what was left of The Wall came tumbling down.

It looked like the body on the bed had gotten there on its own, so this was a consensual encounter. But then – what happened? Had Tottenham been betrayed, or set up, perhaps? Still, as I looked around the room it hurt most of all because it hinted at something immeasurably dark and vicious – prowling within our ranks.

Whoever it was had not bothered to untie the wrist and ankle restraints this time, and Tottenham’s body was obscenely splayed; he looked like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – drawn in blood on bleached white sheets. There were deep impressions all over his body, too, marks not easily explained.

Only Tate seemed relatively unaffected. He’d never really cared for Tottenham, thought he was a martinet and had done sloppy work in Internal Affairs, yet Tate seemed to be the first to grab hold of the implications of having the head of IAD compromised; I didn’t get it yet because none of us had quite grasped the depth of departmental penetration this murder implied.

+++++

This was another city’s jurisdiction, but after learning the identity of the victim we’d been asked to join their investigation; given the FBIs tertiary interest I wasn’t surprised when Brennan walked through the door. Tate and I helped the local detectives, a crusty old veteran named Spiros Pantazis, and a new detective, a four year veteran – who also happened to be a woman.

Her name was Susan Eklund, and my first impression of her was that she might make a good cop – when she got out of high school. To my eye she looked like a teenager, but then again I’ve been a little slow to admit that just about everyone under the age of forty looks like a teenager to me these days. Eklund had a round face and round, curly hair, sort of blond but not quite, and there was a zit in the middle of her forehead that looked like it was about to go Vesuvius on us. She was wearing a suit. A very masculine suit, and she was laying the macho know-it-all routine on pretty thick. Her partner, Pantazis, regarded her knowingly, yet we could tell he was embarrassed by her show. I would have thrown her off my crime scene, but that’s just me. I like it quiet, I like to think, and showboats are a distraction. They come and go, and usually leave a mess in their wake.

Their photographer was moving around as directed, taking photos then standing back, waiting for orders; Eklund seemed intent on ignoring Tate and myself but was deferential to Chief Anders. No one, it seemed to me, knew what the fuck what they were doing…and that bothered me. I had to teach these yahoos how to work a crime scene, around the Chief and Tottenham, and that made me queasy.

I went over to the bed’s headboard and looked at the grain of the wood. “Prints here, I think,” I said; Pantazis came close and looked too, held up a little UV lamp and looked again.

“Good call,” he said. “Missed that one.”

That had been Eklund’s first mistake and he wanted her to know it, too. She glowered at me and came over with her kit and began taking the print.

I walked over to the sliding glass door; it was unlocked. “Anyone been here yet? Dusted the door?”

No one had. “And don’t let anyone in the bathroom!” I yelled. The carpet, I could tell, was already useless.

Pantazis came over and looked with me. There was dozens of prints on the glass, and we wouldn’t be able to tell about the door-handle and lock-lever until Eklund tried to lift prints from them, but I was guessing there’d be a relevant one or two – at least – on both.

Pantazis groaned.

“You’re gonna have to ride her ass,” I said. “She’s sloppy, and a know it all. Bad in the line of work.”

“I know.”

I shook my head, knew he wouldn’t have made it in our department. “You shootin’ film?” I asked their photographer. He looked like he was – maybe – fourteen, then shook his head.

“No, sir. We haven’t in years. Canon 1Dx Mark II, with data verification.”

“Can you shoot IR?”

“What’s IR?”

“Never-mind,” I grumbled as I took out my phone. I called dispatch, had them transfer me to the lab.

“Woodward here. Is Harker on tonight?”

“Yeah, hang on.” I heard some hollering in the background, banging sounds of stools falling over onto the floor, then the always and ever diminutive: “Jonathan Harker here.”

“Jon? Woody. You got any high speed infrared loaded?”

“Yeah, sure. Tons. What’s up?”

I filled him in; he got excited and loaded up his stuff and was headed our way in a flash, he got there about a half hour later – somehow keeping his velocity just under the speed of light. I had managed to keep everyone away from the patio door, and the bathroom, until he arrived, then told him what I needed. I moved off and let him do his thing. He knew what I was after, and I didn’t have to ride herd on him.

We finished the crime scene about five hours later, and only then did we let the M.E.’s people move the body. I had Harker shoot some IR where Tottenham’s body had been, then pulled down the comforter and had him shoot the blanket, then each sheet underneath. Pantazis and Eklund looked at me like I was nuts.

“You need a new photographer, too,” I told Pantazis after their useless teenager left.

Anders and Tate were down in the lobby when I got off the elevator, and there were a couple dozen reporters outside on the sidewalk – too late for the morning editions, I told myself as I walked over to the Chief – and Tate handed me a cup of coffee when I got there.

“Thanks. That was rough…”

“Woodward, I want a total black-out on this for now. Strictly ‘no comment’ – got it?”

“Yessir.”

“Of course that goes for you, too,” Anders said as he looked at Tate.

“I know.”

“Did you get what you needed?” Anders asked.

“Think so, Chief. If the locals cooperate, anyway.”

“They will.”

The way Anders spoke left no doubt in my mind: he had turned up the heat. Even Brennan had taken one look at Anders and moved off.

The elevator dinged; Pantazis and Eklund walked out; a photographer pointed and all the gathered reporters got ready. Obviously they didn’t know who I was, maybe not even Anders, so it was a cinch Tate was totally off their radar.

“There a way out of here?” I asked the clerk behind the reception desk. “To avoid that?” I added, pointing at the press.

She pointed to a hallway: “Down there, door at the end of the hall. Leads right into the parking garage.”

“Thanks.” I turned to Anders. “You sure you don’t want me to talk the reporters?”

“No, get out of here, keep on Harker and the lab until you know something.”

“Right.” I turned to Tate, motioned with my head and we walked-off down the hall to the covert exit. I opened the door and recognized her immediately: Liza Mullins, crime reporter for the Post-Intelligencer. She’d staked us out, been waiting for us. Ambushed…

“Got anything for me, Woody?”

“Well, does ‘No comment’ count?”

“Heard it’s a cop. Any truth to that?”

“I heard there’s a shuttle headed up to the mother-ship. It’s already on the roof and they’re holding a place just for you.”

“Can I quote you on that? ‘Seattle PD claims alien Mother Ship wants Ace Reporter?’”

“So, you’re an Ace Reporter?” We laughed, then: “You never give up, do you?”

“Never.”

“You ever been married, Liza?” That seemed to shut her up…

“I’m not now. Why?”

“Well then, would you marry me?”

Her left eyebrow shot up: “Sure, Woody, right after the aliens get through probing your asshole.”

“That’s just about what I thought you’d say. Always the same story with us, isn’t it.” We all laughed – even as Tate and I turned and walked off, leaving her standing there. Then I heard her high heels running along behind us and we stopped when I got to the back of my Ford. “You still here?” I pointed at the ceiling: “They ain’t gonna wait forever, ya know?”

“Knock it off, Woodward. Gimme something!? Please?”

“Sorry. No can do.”

“How ‘bout coffee later? Or some breakfast?”

I looked at her; cute kid, maybe a pest – but cute. I could handle some cute after a night like this. “I don’t know how long I’ll be?”

She handed me her card. “Call me. Whenever.”

I looked her in the eye. “Cute,” I said, and that eyebrow shot up again.

“What?”

“I said, cute. As in, you-are-cute.”

She started to blush and I opened the door and got in, started the engine and let it warm up. She moved closer, until she was blocking my open door, then she knelt down beside me.

“Do you mean that?” she said.

“What? About the mother ship?”

She didn’t have a come-back ready, or maybe she was being serious, but she just looked at me.

“Yeah, Liza, I think you’re cute. Maybe nine/tenths gorgeous. Why?”

“Just didn’t expect you to say that, that’s all.” She was looking all kinds of serious now, but it was kind of odd because for some reason I didn’t regret saying it. I’d know her for years, we’d bantered back and forth over cases – the normal back and forth between cops and reporters – and yet for any number of reasons nothing had ever developed. We’d certainly never exchanged Christmas cards or birthday greetings, let alone met for coffee, so I considered this a most unusual, and interesting development.

“Well, maybe I should have told you years ago, but there it is.”

“Will you call me?”

“For coffee, yes.”

She looked at me. She got it. “Okay. I’ve got to get some sleep, but I’ll answer.”

“Right.”

She shut my door and I backed out and drove out from under the building; Tate fell in behind me and called as soon as we were clear:

“What did she want?” he asked.

“Anal sex. With me and a goat.”

“You wish, Dickhead. Seriously, Woody, what’s she after.”

“A warm shoulder, I think. Who knows?”

“Aren’t we all. What else.”

“Coffee. Chit-chat.”

“No shit? You need a chaperone or anything, you let me know.”

“Right.”

“I’m wasted, Woody, gonna head to the barn and crash for a while.”

“Yeah, you old farts! Gotta get your rest or you…”

“Woody?”

“Yeah, Tate?”

“Suck my dick.”

“No thanks. Tryin’ to quit.”

“Well, then, be careful…”

The line went dead.

+++++

Forensics was in an annex to the original Central Precinct building; it had been cobbled together over the years to make room for new gadgets and ever newer technologies, but somehow digital had yet to replace film completely in our lab, and I for one was grateful. Digital is good, don’t get me wrong, but a fine grained film in the hands of a good photographer with a Leica can reveal all kinds of things better than digital, particularly in the infrared spectrum, and that’s why I’d called Harker.

Infrared excels at picking up things the human eye misses; things like leather scuff marks on floor tiles, or the impression made by knees or shoes on blankets and sheets. Harker knew exactly what I was looking for; he hadn’t needed to ask because we’d danced this dance a hundred times before. He came out of the darkroom a little after eight that morning with a big smile on his face.

“Bingo!” he said.

“Yeah? Let me see.”

He laid out a pile of 11×17 inch prints on a drafting table and flipped on an articulated desk-lamp/magnifying glass and pulled it over; I sat down and looked at the first print…

“She probably stood over him, on the bed. High heels, probably a size seven, maybe a seven and a half. Look at the next one.”

I picked up the next image and put in under the light.

“Scuff mark on the tile in the bathroom, and a couple of other prints in the next shot. Same shoe, same size.”

“So… female for sure.”

“Yeah. Probably pretty small, too. Like five four, five five, maybe a shade more. Look at the next one… close.”

“This the bathroom floor again?”

“Yeah.”

“What is it?”

“Two sets of prints, really. The same high heels, and a man facing her. About a size nine, maybe a ten.”

“Tottenham?”

“Size thirteen. I checked.”

“Bingo, indeed. Good work, Amigo.”

“Woody? It’s pretty weird you know, even so.”

“Why?”

“Well, all the usual places you’d find prints were wiped down, like a cop was in on it, but an insider would know we might use infrared. Any competent lab would.”

“So?”

“Well, I had just assumed an insider, you know, what with that FBI guy and the A/C.”

“How’d you hear the other was FBI?”

“Shit, Woody, are you kidding? Everyone was talking about it yesterday.”

I bunched my lips, frowned. It would be in the papers today. Had to be. It would be interesting to find out their source someday. “So then, what are you thinking? Amateurs?”

“Yeah. Or just sloppy.”

“Or tryin’ to throw us off the trail.”

He shook his head at that one. “Glad this is your case, Woodward.”

“Yeah, ain’t life grand?”

+++++

Anders wasn’t in; he’d gone home and left a note for me to call him that afternoon. I pulled Liza’s card from my pocket and dialed the number.

“Hello?” She sounded half asleep.

“So, let me take a wild guess. You blew off the Mother-ship?”

“Woody?”

“Yup.”

“You find out anything?”

I didn’t answer.

“Oh, right,” she said. “Sorry. No questions allowed.”

“Coffee?”

“I could do that.”

“Starbucks on Westlake, by the Marriott. Half hour.” I broke the connection then checked my messages. First one was from Tottenham, telling me to check in with him in the morning. Okay, nothing unusual going on there. Next one was from Mary-Jo, late last night.

“Woody, sorry about last night. Maybe we could so something this weekend?”

Uh-huh. Sure. Right after I get back from the mother-ship.

Next was from Tate, this morning when he got home: “Just checkin’ in, Woody. Call me if you haven’t heard from me by noon or so.” I dropped by my mailbox and then walked out to the Ford, got in and drove over to Lake Union, went into the Starbuck’s and bought a New York Times. I looked around, took a seat away from the windows. The Times, I thought, ought to really piss her off.

She came in a few minutes later; the dark circles under her eyes were almost as puffy as mine.

“I didn’t take you for a bird owner, Woody.”

“Hm-m…what’s that?”

“The only reason to buy a rag like that. To line the bottom of a bird-cage.”

“Ah. Gee, I didn’t even think…”

“You order anything yet?”

“Nope; thought I’d wait and see what you wanted. You know, like bein’ chivalrous and all that crap.”

“Woody?”

“Yes?”

“Cram it.”

“Here? Now? Are you sure?”

She laughed. “Yeah, man. Bend over.”

“What do you want?”

“Hi-test. Big.”

“I hear that.” I came back a few minutes later and sat across from her, slipped two fingers up to my carotid and felt the pulse.

“I didn’t take you for a Lake Union kind of guy,” she said as I sat. “You got a boat?”

I ignored the question. “So, what are you hearin’ on the street about this?”

“Two cops dead, same MO.”

“Someone inside tell you?”

“Is that a confirmation?”

“Nope. A non-denial denial.”

“Then I’m sorry. My sources are confidential.”

“Tit for tat, huh?”

“No other way in this biz, Woody.”

“C’est la vie.”

“Il ne doit pas etre de cette facon.”

“Yes it does. It wouldn’t work for very long if we expected each other to compromise our integrity.”

“Guess so.” She looked me in the eye: “You lonely, Woodward?”

“No, I’m tired.”

She nodded. “When’re you going to retire?”

“Yesterday.”

She laughed. “How long ‘til you can?”

“Oh, I could now. Just not with full benefits.”

She sighed. “So, why are you staying?”

“Habit.”

“The bad ones are tough to break.”

“The hardest. May I ask you a question?”

“I’m forty three, was married once, divorced about ten years ago.”

“Touché. Damn, I hate being so predictable.”

“Well, if it means anything to you, Woody, I’m lonely too.”

I nodded, looked at her eyes, saw the long nights typing stories, just meeting deadlines by minutes day after day, year after year, and pushing everyone she cared for right out of her life. It was all right there – hiding in plain sight.

“What about you?” I asked. “You gonna work ‘til you drop?”

“I’ve thought about quitting but I have no idea what I’d do. Guess I could teach somewhere.”

“Where you from?”

“Portland. You?”

“Military brat. All over.”

“Married? No. Wait. How many times?”

“Three.”

She whistled: “Just didn’t work out, huh?”

“The hours. You have to be around every now and then in order to have a relationship. Took me awhile to figure that out. Funny thing is, we’re all still good friends. No alimony, none of that bullshit. Just friends. Like the marriage thing never happened.”

“That’s why I never remarried, I think. No good reason to, really, because I was never ready to put my work in second place.”

“Any regrets?” I asked. She was so easy to talk to, like an old friend.

“No, not really, not then, anyway. The prospect of growing old, alone? Well, that’s not so comfortable anymore.”

“Perspectives change a little bit, don’t they?”

She nodded. “If you retired tomorrow, what would you do?”

“Depends. If it was just me I’d take off, maybe just go wandering.”

“Really? What, like on a motorcycle or something? A motorhome?”

I took a deep breath, wasn’t sure I wanted to put so much about myself out there in the public domain. Then it just sort of slipped out: “I have a boat.”

She went wide-eyed on me: “No shit!?”

“No shit.”

“Powerboat?”

“Hell no, are you serious?”

“Good for you. Always thought that would be fun. Sea of Cortes, Baja…”

“Tahiti.”

“Now you’re talking. When do we go?”

We laughed at that one, but it was an uneasy, loaded laughter, like we were all of a sudden finding something in common and grasping to make something out of it. Maybe we were. Maybe we could…but this was rocky terrain.

My stomach growled.

“He hungry down there?” she said as she looked at my belly.

“Always. How ‘bout you?”

“You know? I could eat.”

“Follow me.” We walked out and went over to the Ford, I opened the door for her then got in behind the wheel, drove the few blocks down Westlake. We walked down to the slips and I buzzed-in the gate, then led her out to the boat.

“She’s nice. How big?”

“Forty one.”

“About right for two people.”

“Yep.” I unlocked the companionway, slid back the hatch and stowed the boards, went down and offered her my hand. She ignored it and hopped down with practiced ease.

“It’s nice, Woody. Comfortable.”

“Thanks. Eggs and bacon sound okay?”

“Maybe. How ‘bout some juice or something…”

“Okay, comin’ up.” I poured a couple glasses, put them on the table.

“You don’t have any tissue handy, do you?”

“Sure. Be right back.” I went to the head, rummaged around for a fresh box and went back. She had some eye-drops out and her eyes were watering; I handed her the box.

“Thanks.”

“No problem.”

She took her juice and drank most of it. “Good stuff.”

I took my glass and downed it. I thought it had a funny aftertaste – kind of bitter.

She smiled at me now. “I don’t really feel like bacon and eggs, Woody.”

“Oh?”

“No, I had in mind something, well, firmer, something a little more satisfying…”

She was looking right at my groin and I swear she was licking her lips.

“Oh?”

“Come on,” she said as she stood. “I’m going to fuck your brains out, Woody.”

She came over, took my hand and pulled me up, led me forward. I felt a little light-headed, suddenly sleepy. She pulled me up to the berth and turned me around, pushed me gently and laughed as I fell back. I felt like the world was spinning now, like the whole world was careening wildly out of control. She leaned over and unbuttoned my shirt, undid my belt, then she yanked down my pants. “Sit up,” she commanded; I felt her tugging my pants all the way down, pulling my shoes off, pulling them over my ankles.

I could hardly keep my eyes open now.

“Woody, push yourself up, to the head.” It was hard, my arms and legs felt like hot lead, nothing worked right anymore. “Here, I’ll help you…” I felt her arms under my shoulders, wanted to say something but couldn’t. She fluffed-up some pillows, propped me up in a reclined position and I watched as she took off her clothes, folded them neatly and put them aside.

She opened her purse, took out a bottle and opened it, then she came over, opened my mouth, slipped a pill under my tongue. “I want you nice and hard, Woody. Real hard.”

“What?” I think I managed to say.

“Don’t try to talk, Woody.”

“What? Why?”

She had my handcuffs now and she came over and put them on me, clamped them down hard. I think I winced.

“Is that too tight, Woody? Hmm?”

“Why?”

“That’s right… I heard you like it rough. You like it rough, don’t you Woody?”

I felt cold fear in the air all around me. “Who?”

“Mary-Jo told me, Woody.”

I blinked. I wasn’t tired anymore, just…paralyzed. She had pantyhose in her hands now and she leaned over and tied my cuffed hands behind my head with them, then draped the moist crotch over my face. “Does that smell good, Woody? Do you like that?”

I could see her moving through the fabric; no details, really – just her body moving slowly around the cabin. It was getting hard to swallow and I felt fear for the first time, wondered how it was going to feel to die, then I felt her leaning close, felt her hot breath on my cock, her tongue stroking it. It felt like a hot, wet glove had gripped me and I saw her shadowy head moving back and forth, up and down…

“Oh, Woody, you’re getting so nice and hard.”

“Glad…you like…it…” I managed to say.

“Oh, Woody. I do, I do like it.” She leaned forward and licked my lips through the fabric, stuck her tongue in my mouth and forced the nylon in with it. My left eye was clear now and I watched her as she leaned back over my cock and took it in her mouth again. I tried to move my legs, felt some kind of rope around my ankles and gave up.

I was aware of the smell now, the smell of her pantyhose up against my face, then I felt her get off the berth and walk to the rear of the boat. I turned my head, saw her talking with someone out there. There was someone with her, a man. It was too dark to see anything clearly but everything was becoming all too clear.

She came back a minute later and leaned over me, kissed my open eye as she reached down and stroked my cock. “You ready for me, Woody?”

“Ready?”

She straddled me, rubbed the head of my cock against her cunt. I felt the heat, the unbelievable wetness, felt her hand grab the head and guide it inside her, then she slid up and down a few times – until I could feel my cock getting unnaturally hard. She slid off me, then up my body and I watched as she moved the nylon from my face and hovered over me.

“I’m going to mark you now, Woody. Mark you as mine…”

I felt hot liquid splash my face, smelled urine, tasted it as it ran down my face and across my lips. She lowered herself onto my face and mashed her wetness all over me, pissed some more – filling my mouth until it spilled down my chin and onto my chest – then as quickly she lifted herself from my face and slid down onto my cock again.

“It’s hard, Woody. So hard. I think you liked that. You ready to cum for me?”

I couldn’t speak at all now but I saw her lean forward and take a cotton ball and moisten it with alcohol, then she wiped my arm, took out a syringe.

“It’s not going to hurt, Woody, I promise.”

She stuck the needle in, pushed the plunger down slowly and I felt a sudden warmth flooding through me.

I didn’t feel too different at first, then the dizziness returned. My vision changed, everything looked cast in blues and purples, and I felt her hand around my cock. She was jerking it furiously now.

“Not much longer, Woody…not much more…”

I could see her holding a glass under the head of my cock, then felt an incredible orgasm wrenching through me, pulsing into the glass…

“Ooh, Woody! So much! And so soon, too!” She kept jerking it, mouthing her surprise as she looked first at the glass, then at me, then she held the glass up and looked admiringly at the pearlescent flow. She came up to me again, sat beside me so I could see her face clearly and she drank it down, licked the sides of the glass to get every bit of it, then she put the glass aside carefully and turned to me, kissed me. She forced her tongue into my mouth and painted broad strokes of cum across my face, dribbled a huge wad down onto my forehead, then licked it off and spit it down again, this time onto my lips.

She got up suddenly and the man came into the cabin. He had a mask on, and she stood beside him silently while he looked down at me.

“Did I do well, Master?”

He only nodded, but then he whispered in her ear.

“Yes, Master,” she said after a moment. “I will obey you.”

He handed her a knife.

She came up to my face again and looked at me, spoke gently, almost kindly: “My Master says I must tell you that this is a warning. A warning to stop, now.”

She held the knife at my neck, I could feel the point just beneath my chin and she pressed gently.

“Will you stop now, Woody?”

The knife pressed it into my skin; I could feel my heart beating, then the knife slid through skin – into muscle.

“Yes.”

“Do you swear it?”

The knife pressed deeper, and I could feel my pulse hammering in my head…

“I… swear…”

She turned, looked up at the masked man. He nodded and she withdrew the knife, then he turned and left the cabin.

She leaned into me, kissed me again – this time gently.

“You’re a sweet man, Woody. So sweet. I wish I’d met you a long time ago.” I could see she was crying, like she hated what she had done – but that she had been powerless to resist, as well.

“I…”

“Don’t try to talk now, Woody. You’re going to sleep now.”

“Please… don’t…”

“It’s okay, Woody. This is it. It’s all over now. As long as you don’t break your promise, this is it.”

I felt sleep coming, powerful, irresistible sleep. I could feel her cradling my face, kissing my forehead, telling me that everything would be alright again, that everything would be fine…but I knew nothing would ever be fine again…nothing would ever be the same…

I hoped it wouldn’t hurt. Hoped they wouldn’t find me with my dick hanging from my mouth and take pictures of me and wonder what the hell had happened to get me mixed up with this bunch of crazy, fucked-up monsters, then I felt myself falling…falling…and I wondered if this was how Lucifer felt when he was forced out of Heaven and fell from the sky.

+++++

My head hurt – as if from a series of violently spinning falls, and my gut burned like nothing I’d ever felt before. Everything was dark, pure unadulterated black, but I saw distant glowing flashes of light that were like a lightning – yet not quite.

Then the thought hit me: these flashes were a sign or some sort. What were they trying to tell me? What had I missed?

Obviously, I was dead… or maybe still just dying. That was clear if only because nothing in my experience had ever felt even remotely this – like the way I felt now. The sensation of falling was so real, so vertiginous, it overwhelmed almost every other sense. But it was the supporting elements that were so disturbing.

I could feel my hair fluttering in the slipstream, hear vast oceans of wind howling as I fell downward, and that pulsing white glow…that sign? Photons would pass through me on their way to wherever they went, leaving just the faintest impression of their passage. What were they?

Then I could hear something like muffled surf, perhaps wild breakers crashing on a distant shore. The sound would come upon me – and as suddenly fall away.

It went on like this for hours, days…the pulsing light and distant surf that defined this windward passage…yet from time to time I felt a jabbing in my arms, pressure in my chest…then one day:

An eye opened. No, not that. It was opened by someone. Someone was above me, holding my right eye open, shining a light in my eye. I tried to see beyond the woman, the woman holding the light, but she followed my eye, followed my movements and kept shining the light in.

Then I saw her hand. Fingernails. Sharp fingernails. She was pressing my forehead with her fingernails, right between my eyes. Son-of-a-bitch but that hurt!

I wanted to tell her to stop but couldn’t.

Then she had an earlobe; she was pinching it with those fucking talons of hers and I found all I could sense or feel now was the pain she was inflicting. I struggled to tell her to stop. Stop it… stop…

“STOP! GODDAMN IT!”

And she did, too.

And it was like I heard people letting go after holding a deep breath… or was it me struggling to breathe?

Both my eyes were open now, but it was like someone had smeared Vaseline in them… everything was a coarse blur, coarse and watery. I wanted to move my hands, rub my eyes – but I couldn’t and I felt a familiar panic grab my chest…

“Mr Woodward… you’re in the ER, the emergency room at Mason. You’re alright now so try to relax.”

Her words found me and I understood what she was saying but panic still gripped my chest… like a vice…gripping…darkness again, coming for me…

“Oh fuck!” I heard the woman say. “He’s going into arrest again…get me a…”

Then darkness. Darkness and falling, all consuming darkness…and the wind and the surf returned.

+++++

I knew I was awake. Knew something wasn’t quite right, but I was awake. But what was with all the incessant beeping?

Beeping. I heard beeping everywhere, just like I was on the set of some hokey medical show, and I remembered thinking I must have become an actor somewhere along the way because here I was, starring at a television show about a man dying in an unknown hospital.

I opened my eyes, looked at banks of streaming monitors in black and green and I tried to swallow but my throat was too goddamned dry. My tongue was stuck…to the roof of my mouth. I tried to raise my head, to say something…something, to somebody…but I couldn’t see anyone…

“Hel…” I gasped. “Hello!”

Nothing.

“Hello! Help!”

Footsteps. I heard footsteps! Then a woman, huge and black. I remember thinking I was in Star Wars, I was a prisoner and someone had brought me before Jabba the Hut. Her eyes were round and huge too, and even the room looked kind of like a cave.

So.

I was an actor now. This was my big chance…

“Mista Woodward? Can you hear me?”

“My name is Luke,” I said, proud I’d remembered the lines, “Luke Skywalker. If you let me have the Princess and Han, I’ll let you live…”

And Jabba was laughing now, right on cue: “Oh, Mista Woodward! You ain’t no Luke Skywalker, and I sure ain’t no Princess Leia. Now. You thirsty?”

“Not Leia?” I was – crushed.

“How about some ice?”

“Yes. If you’ll tell me where I can find her?”

“Shit! Don’t dat beat all…” I heard her say as she left the room, laughing as she went…

She came back a few minutes later, and an old man was with her:

“Obi-Wan?” I said.

“I’ll be damned,” my old friend said to Jabba. “You weren’t shittin’ me, were you?”

“Obi-Wan?”

“Yeah, Luke, old buddy. It’s me. Howya feelin’.”

“Obi-Wan? The Princess…she…the Dark Side. Oh, I’m so tired…”

“Woody, come on… snap out of it. What are you saying, what are you trying to tell me?”

“Woody?”

“Yeah, that’s you. Me Richard. You Tarzan. Now come on, Woody. Concentrate.”

“Woody? Woodward?”

“Yep. Now, what about this princess? Who are we talkin’ about, Woody?”

“Reporter. Liza.”

“Mullins? She did this? You sure?”

I nodded. “It was a warning. They told me it was a warning.”

“They? You mean she wasn’t alone?”

“A man. And Liza. ‘This is a warning,’ she told me. I have to stop. Stop, or they’ll kill me.”

“Shit.”

“Obi-Wan? Got to find out what size shoe she wears?”

“What? Woody, what the fuck?”

“Harker. Photographs.”

“Woody. Jon’s dead. Fire. In his apartment.”

“Harker?”

“Yeah, Woody. He’s dead.”

“When? When did…”

“It’s been a few weeks now.”

“Weeks? What do you mean, weeks?”

“You’ve been out a while, Woody. Almost a month.”

“Coma?”

“Yeah. Probably drug induced. You were high as a kite on morphine and LSD when I found you.”

“You… found me?”

“Yeah. When you didn’t call I went down to the boat.”

“The boat?”

“Yeah, Woody. She’s alright. I’ve been taking care of her.”

“Can somebody lift my head or something?”

The nurse hit a button and a motor under the bed whirred, my back inclined. “Dat better, Mista Woodward?”

“Yeah, thanks Princess.” I winked at her and she laughed, put a cup full of ice on the table by the bed and left the room.

“I remember the ER. Did I have a heart attack?”

“Three.”

“Three? Heart attacks?”

“Yep.”

“Swell.”

“You’ll be joining the ranks of the disabled and retired now, Woody. Sorry.”

“Fuck.”

“Ain’t it the truth.”

“Harker took photographs, in infrared. Tottenham. Woman, small. Like size seven shoes. High heels. Man. Size nine or ten.”

“You want me to see what size shoes she wears?”

“No, wait. It was a warning, right?”

“I can’t do this without you, Woody.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t do it, Richard.”

He nodded. “I understand.”

“Have there been any more? Murders?”

“No. Not a one.”

“I wonder what the hell we were on-to?”

He shrugged. “No way to know now, is there?”

“Call her.”

“Call? Who?”

“The reporter. Liza. Tell her I want to talk to her.”

“Are you out of your fucking head?”

“No. Now, do it now.”

He looked at me – his eyes hard, then he nodded and left the room.

Everything was coming back to me now, like in a flood. Memories were flooding in, out of control, like water pushing through a cracked dam, running unrestrained across a vast, empty plain, soaking it all in…

+++++

Tate came back in a few minutes later.

“Did you get her?”

“Yeah.”

“She coming?”

“Yeah, Woody. She’s coming.”

“Can you find out about the photographs? The infrared prints?”

“Why?”

“The only evidence. If they’ve penetrated the department, compromised us, then the photos will be gone. They’ve won if that’s the case.”

“If I ask around that might alert whoever, ya know?”

“Who said anything about asking?”

“Gotcha. Look, Woody, I don’t wanna be anywhere near this place when that bitch gets here, ya know?”

“I understand. Not sure I want to, either.”

“Then, why?”

“Something I gotta know.”

“Dangerous, man. This is real fuckin’ dangerous.”

“I think I got that. Something I need to know before I take the next step.”

“I sure hope you know what you’re doin’, man.” He seemed reluctant to talk, like he was afraid of something else.

“What’s bothering you, Richard?”

“Later. We’ll talk later. I’m gonna split now. I’ll come back tonight.”

+++++

“Crushed ice! Man, I love it.”

The nurse, another one, basically ignored me as she went about the little room scribbling down readings from various machines, then she injected something into my IV and started to leave the room.

“What is it this time?” I asked. “Heroin? Potassium?”

She stopped, turned and looked at me and she smiled, then said: “Not this time, Woody.” She looked at me for what felt like an hour, mouthed the words ‘Love me’ – then walked out of the room.

There are certain moments in your life that run up on you fast, like lightning out of a clear blue sky, and time stops because nothing makes sense anymore. I think dying must be like that.

This was one of those moments.

She came back in a little later, adjusted the drip on the IV. “Can I get you anything?” she asked.

“Think I could have a Coke?”

“Yeah, sure.” She looked at me again, this time with real human kindness in her eyes, then leaned forward, ran her fingers through my hair. “Don’t do anything stupid, Woody.”

“I’m doing my best.”

She lifted up her skirt and ran her hand inside her panties and rubbed herself, then she brought her hand to my face and wiped her juices under my nose. She smiled at me the whole time; her eyes were bright, almost feverishly bright, then she ran her fingers over my lips. “You know you want to, Woody. Go ahead.”

I opened my mouth and she slipped her fingers in, I tasted her cunt on the soft skin of her fingers and sucked them for a moment, then she smiled, laughed a little before she turned and walked out of the room.

“What the fuck…” I think I said.

She came back some time later with a cup; she sat by my bedside and spooned ice into mouth, then opened a can and poured some Coke into the cup. She put a straw in and handed it to me. “Suck it, Woody.”

I laughed, took a pull on it, then chewed on the ice.

“We’re going to have fun, Woody. You and I.”

“Are we?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, very much.”

“Who do you belong to?”

“My Master, you mean?”

“Yes.”

She smiled. “It doesn’t matter now, because he’s given me to you.”

“Given?”

“Oh yes. I am yours now. Your property.”

“Indeed. And if I don’t want you?”

“Then I will have failed. I will die.”

“Die?”

“I will be killed.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes. Just like that, Woody.”

“And you must do whatever I ask of you? Is that it?”

“Yes. That is The Way.”

“The Way?”

“Yes.”

“And if I commanded you to tell me who your old master was?”

“I will tell you, but then I must kill you.”

“I see. But then, you would have failed. Is that right?”

“Yes. And I would die.”

“So, why have I been given… this honor?”

“You were marked. By my sister?”

“Your sister?”

“We are all sisters. Think of us as belonging to a religious order.”

“You say she marked me?”

“When you opened your mouth to her, and took her inside.”

“I see. Your sister; I am expecting her.”

“Oh, she is here. She has been, for a while.”

“Why didn’t you…let…”

“Master, she can only come to you when commanded.”

“I see. Well, I’d like to talk to her. Alone.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“But…”

“Just…Woody, for now. Okay?”

“Okay, Woody.” She stood by the bedside, waiting. I think she was waiting for me to dismiss her and the thought was mildly silly.

“Dismissed,” I said… and she turned to leave the room. “Stop!”

She turned to face me again: “Yes, Master?”

“I don’t know your name.”

“My name? Master, that is yours to choose. Each master chooses.”

“Fine.”

She stood solidly still.

“Go on, then!”

This was exasperating. Stupid, silly – and totally exasperating. And not even mildly interesting, I told myself.

The door opened and Liza came in. She was dressed in black from head to toe, like she was in mourning, yet even so I looked down at her shoes. Her feet were small, too small, but she was wearing high heels.

“Hello.” She said when she got to my bedside. “How are you?” Her voice seemed flat, almost forced.

“Not bad, considering.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t know your heart was so weak.”

“Neither did I.”

“I feel very bad. For what happened.”

“Was the man with you your master?”

“No.”

“Who is?”

“Do not ask me this. It is very dangerous to talk about these things.”

“But if I ask, you must tell me.”

She hesitated. “No, that is not so.”

Why did she hesitate? Was it that simple?

“And if I command you?”

“Then I must tell you. But do not, please.”

“Alright, I won’t.”

She looked at me and I saw a great weight fall from her; her eyes became kind and I wanted her so much it hurt inside. But I needed to know more, and fast. I couldn’t fall under her spell again.

“You said something, before you left. You said you wished you’d met me long ago. What did you mean?”

She looked at me with those eyes and I struggled, simply because I was powerless before the weight of the lust I felt for her.

“It doesn’t matter now, Woody. Truly.”

“Did you kill Mark Tottenham?”

“Only a servant may kill a master. I will say no more.”

“Can a master kill his servant?”

“If it is his pleasure, yes.”

“And if I wanted to be your Master?”

She looked at me and beamed: “Would you?”

“If that was what I wanted, how would I make that happen?”

“If you pass the trials, if you are accepted, you have only to ask the council.”

“I see. But in the meantime?”

“You have a servant now.”

“I can have only one?”

“For now. Yes.”

“Would you want to be with me?”

“What I want is of no importance. To be wanted is all I could ever hope for.”

“All?”

“Yes, it is all to be worthy of a Master’s desire. It is all one could ever ask for.”

“I desire you. With all my heart.”

That broke her. Clean through. She leaned over, put her hand on my cheek and rubbed my face.

“Then you forgive me?”

“You changed me. I can’t think about anything but you.”

“Truly?”

“Yes, truly.”

“Will you join us?”

“If that is what I must do to possess you, then yes, I will join you.”

She nodded. “I had hoped this would happen.”

“Will you tell your Master?”

She clouded over. “No. I cannot.”

I understood then. Tottenham had been her master.

“Then you will tell who you must of my decision.”

“They know now.”

“Can you come by from time to time? While I’m here?”

“If that is your wish, then yes. I will come.”

“Well then, it is my wish that you visit me each evening, until I leave this hellhole.”

She smiled. “Then I will. Are you tired?”

“Yeah, think so.”

“I’ll leave you now.”

“Alright.”

“Woody?”

“Yes?”

“I think you will be a good master.”

“Good?”

“Fair. I think I meant to say fair, as in just.”

I nodded. “Would you send my nurse in?”

“Yes. Good night.”

“Good night, my love,” I whispered, when she was leaving.

I knew she heard me, too.

This was going to be a very dangerous game, indeed.

+++++

“I have decided on a name for you,” I said to my nurse when she returned. “Persephone.”

“Thank you, Master.”

“I assume you heard our conversation?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Well, I accept you as my property so long as you accept me as your one master.”

She hesitated, the conflict immediate.

“Get out of my sight!”

“But…”

“Now! Leave! Find me a new nurse.”

She fled in tears.

That was easy, I told myself.

Too easy?

I waited a few minutes then hit the call button. She came in; it was obvious she’d been crying, and was probably scared to death. What did she say? If she failed – she was toast?

“I’m…”

“Master, no. You must never apologize.”

“Of course. Nevertheless, I was careless. I should have understood the conflict I put you in.”

She was looking at the floor but I could tell she didn’t know what to say.

“Your friend has returned.”

“Tate? Already?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Send him in.” She left the room, came back in with him and lingered in the back of the room. I didn’t send her away – probably no point. I had to assume complete surveillance from now on.

“What did you find out?”

“No photographs, Woody. Sorry.”

“Well, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter, Richard. If the department wants to continue the investigation, well, then, that’s their business. Like you said, I’m retired.”

His face creased as he scowled, and it looked like he was chewing the inside of his cheek as he turned my words over in his mind. “You feeling okay?”

“Yeah, fine. You say the boat’s okay?”

“Yeah. There wasn’t too much to clean up.”

“Forensics?”

“Yeah, you know the score. It was a potential homicide scene.”

“You had any new cases?”

“A couple new ones. Cheating husbands, angry wives.”

“Have Nikon, Will Travel!”

“Paladin! Man, that was a great show!” he added.

“You know it, amigo. You need anything? Hustler? Penthouse?”

“Nah, you know me… I was always a Leg Show kinda guy!”

He laughed, so did the nurse – my Persephone.

“Well, I guess I can leave now. Looks like you’re in able hands.”

“Yeah, she seems very dedicated to her profession. Right, nurse?”

“Yessir.”

“See? How ‘bout that, Richard?”

Did he see? Could he make the leap? If he had, he didn’t show it.

“Well Woody, if they cut you loose I’ll drop by the boat in the morning; maybe see you around lunch time.”

I closed my eyes after he left, felt myself dozing, then ‘Persephone’ came in with “dinner”.

“Sorry. Restricted diet for a while.” She rolled the table over my lap and I looked at red Jell-O and green yogurt and felt very ill indeed.

“Gross.”

“Sorry,” she said again. “And you won’t be going home for a while.”

“I know. All things being equal, I think I’d rather suck on your fingers again.”

She smiled, came next to the bed and lifted her skirt.

“I’m glad I can please you, Master. Do you like the way I taste?”

As a matter of fact, I did.

+++++

I was discharged from the hospital a couple of weeks later. “Persephone” had somehow, astonishingly no doubt to those of you following along here, been assigned to the hospital’s home health care division and presto! – she came home with me. Again, I ask for leniency here; please do consider, despite your misgivings, that a boat can be a home – and anyway, she took to it like a duck to water. But I want to be clear: as I have never been particularly adept at housework I was glad to have the help. The fact that she had sworn a blood oath to serve me until my death? Hey, man; icing on the cake.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You see, it’s like this: having three heart attacks over the course of a week – while in a coma, no less – fucks with your head. You stand up from a chair too fast and you hear the grim reaper walking up behind you, his scythe whizzing through the air – right for your carotids. Which were already, I had reason to believe, pretty well clogged after a twenty-five year binge on Quarter Pounders and Krispy Kremes. Having a nice, sexy-as-Hell blond-haired, blue-eyed nurse following me around begging to please me was – well, frankly – kind of unexpected, yet this was just one of the unforeseen perks accrued by hooking up with a bunch of homicidal sadomasochists. Hey, I’ve always said if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Who am I to question the logic of this fucked-up world?

And Seph (and frankly, she hated being called that, but calling out “Persephone!” in a crowded grocery store will get you all kinds of unwanted attention) was a miracle. She was like Carnation Instant Love; add a few teaspoons of cream and she was all kinds of happy. She’d chosen this life, too. She even told me it was true. She wasn’t some Central American or Asian kidnap victim sold into a life of servitude. No, she’d been a nurse for years and had met someone who knew someone and before you can say “beat me, spank me, make me write hot checks!” she was into the scene and loving every ass-smacking minute of it. Honestly, have you ever whacked a girl on the ass and had her fall to the floor in orgasm?

Well, right, neither had I.

Like I said, this whole scene was fucking with my head, and I think I may have mentioned my head was already pretty well scrambled, and, so, everything about my life now was pretty fucked up. One day I went down to Central to fill out some paperwork and bang, just like that – it was all over: I was a retired cop. Since I was officially retired, I didn’t have to turn in my gun and badge, so like Tate I signed up for the reserves. I week later I got a call; they’d had a bad one and wanted my help. Would I mind coming down?

Would I mind? Fuck. They even sent a patrol car over to pick me up! Limousine service! If I’d only figured this out sooner!

Seph claimed she preferred being chained to the floor by the foot of the bed but I wasn’t having any of it. A cold teak floor? Am I heartless? No, I had her curl up behind me and scratch my back all night. I’d never had a wife do that for me before, so what the hell was wrong with this picture? Sex? Don’t ask… just command! It was like Nirvana. On steroids:

“Say baby, I’d like to screw upside down hanging from the top of the mast!”

“Sure thing, Woody. Let’s do it!”

– or –

“What say we read poetry tonight, to each other?”

“I’d love to…”

It was every misogynists’ dream come true, enough to make Susan B Anthony turn barrel-rolls in her grave. There was only one problem, but it was a big one. I hated it. Everything about it. When she asked me to get rough with her I cringed inside, then I hated myself afterwards. If I left a red mark on her ass I had to go into the head and somehow keep myself from puking. Let me be perfectly clear: I was not then and am not now wired that way. Causing pain or administering corporal punishment for her supposed infractions did not make me happy, did not help me get my rocks off.

It was a means to an end.

Let me explain.

I’d made my decision the first time I saw Liza after I came out of the coma. I knew I loved her. I don’t know how, or why, and anyway, I don’t give a damn. When she walked into my room in the ICU the lights got brighter, my heart suddenly felt young and strong, and I wanted to live – but only with her by my side. That feeling became bedrock, too.

But she, apparently, belonged to – if not someone – then something that made it impossible for her to just drop off the map and sail away. She let me know in no uncertain terms that there was no running from these people. They weren’t limited to Seattle, to the Pacific Northwest, or even to the good ole U. S. of A. They were, she told me, everywhere. Literally. Senators belonged. Federal judges too. And – pointedly – chiefs of police belonged. FBI agents, CIA operatives, even a former President were regular adherents. I had no idea. My tax dollars at work! And here I’d thought all these years that politicians took no pleasure from screwing us over!

Just goes to show ya, huh?

The ‘local affiliate’ had been started years ago, she told me, by a bunch of uppity-ups at Microsoft (hey, that figures, doesn’t it?); now, she said, more than a thousand of the most influential people in the area were deeply involved, but they were always on the look-out for talent that could help in a pinch. She told me if I wanted to get an idea of what the group was like to watch Kubrick’s last film. You know; the one with Tom and Nicole and all those nice people wearing leather beaks. She let me know these people were, however, just a touch meaner than those in the film. Having been at two crime scenes and admired their handiwork, I was prepared to take this appraisal at face value. Then it hit me: If the cops and the courts were compromised, then what? If you took down a couple, or even a couple dozen, there were hundreds more buried everywhere ready to hunt you down and feed you your dick.

And the simple fact of the matter was you’d never know who to trust, or who not to. With that simple maxim as gospel, then trusting Tate – maybe especially Tate – was out of the question. If you don’t know who to trust, you trust no one. If there is any doubt, then there is no doubt. This arithmetic is simple, the kind I understand. If I was going to do anything, if I was going to extract my pound of flesh, it was going to be a solo operation. Either that or I could just go with the flow and enjoy Persephone and Liza and learn how to use a riding crop.

And believe me, there were times I thought that was an attractive proposition, too. How fast we fall, eh Lucifer.

+++++

The first time Liza came down to the boat after Seph joined the crew was, well, interesting. Like every red-blooded male in America my favorite fantasy involved making it with two women at the same time. Let’s ignore the fact that I had never known two women at the same time that I’d have even been tempted to do this with; now I had two women who, simply stated, were more than willing. Way more than willing. The biggest problem now was I’d recently had three major coronary vapor locks: my V-8 was now an inline four, and Viagra was a major league no-no. What would I do, enquiring minds wanted to know?

But did that stop these two girls? My two girls? In a word: No. In two words: Hell No.

They were gentle, at least at first, and not very demanding – which was highly appreciated. Remember, all it took to send Sephie over the edge was a good smack on the ass. Liza was simply oral, like Linda Lovelace was oral; apparently her tonsils and clit had merged years ago – and to wondrous effect. The only thing she liked more than giving head was receiving a little. She could lay back and take a licking – for hours at a stretch, too. Fortunately the only thing I enjoy more than receiving is giving, so we were perfect for each other. And face it, all either of us had to do was smack Sephie on the ass every now and then, and we were all three in carnal heaven. Hard to do on a boat, believe me, but we managed.

And this went on for months. Whoever or whatever this organization was, they were content to sit back and watch and listen for any signs that I might be trying to plot my revenge. I, however, was equally content letting Liza and Sephie clean my clock any time the mood hit.

And then there was the poor guy on the boat next to mine?

Every time I poked my head out into the sunlight the guy bowed at me like I was Krishna or the Buddha. I never really considered that sound carries, and our exploits were becoming the stuff of urban legend. So, like I said, I was retired now, and in goods hands. An equitable exchange, don’t you think?

I thought so too.

So, life took on all the aspects of a comfortable routine – but things in truth were not quite what they seemed. Once or twice a month the department would need me and someone would come for me and I’d go do my cop thing for a day or two. Tate joined me from time to time, then he sponsored me and I got my P.I. badge and bought my own Nikon. I went out with him every now and then and took photos of philandering husbands and cheating wives; the rest of the time Sephie and I puttered on the boat: I taught her to sail and believe it or not I taught her how to love. Someone paid her salary, everyone left us alone, and three or four times a week Liza came over to spend the night, and along the way she taught me how to love, too. It was a real trip.

I think after a year of this routine I’d have been quite content to live out the rest of my days doing this and only this. Tottenham’s murder receded into a dim and hazy past, dreams of sailing south to the tropics began to feel unnecessary, even narcissistic. I was content, even happy. I hadn’t made any waves and all indications were that I wouldn’t.

In short, they had me right where they wanted me.

And I was counting on that, too.

+++++

It was right before Christmas, more than a year later, when the call came.

They were apparently sentimental characters and wanted me to attend their annual Christmas get-together. Liza told me the Satanists in the group tended to boycott the affair but it was, generally speaking, a rather low-key orgy followed by the ritual sacrifice of a few goats and a seminar or two on the proper use of riding-crops. Everyone there would be masked, except of course, me. I would, if I chose to attend, be examined, judged, and if found wanting, killed. By Sephie. Who would then be killed.

No pressure or anything. Just your average holiday get-together. Mistletoe over the spiked punch and all that jazz.

“Don’t we, like, exchange gifts or anything?” I asked. This could be fun!

“Woody, this is serious.”

“I am. It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake!”

The girls laughed at my naiveté. They had no idea how naïve I was, or am – for that matter. Old dogs and new tricks, and all that nonsense. I mean, come on: I like Christmas, always have. I still get the warm fuzzies when I watch A Charlie Brown Christmas. I like it when the Grinch finds his heart is still pure. I love watching kids open their presents on Christmas morning, and don’t mind opening one or two of my own, so shoot me! How cold-hearted could a bunch of homicidal sadomasochists be?

+++++

It was the thought of spiking their Christmas punch that intrigued me. How could I do it and not get caught? And what could I spike it with that might drive the point I was trying to make home? More to the point, what could I spike it with that would break no laws but really fuck with them where they lived?

Acid? I mean LSD, not hydrochloric: geesh – cut me some slack, wouldya? Anyway. No. Too common, and they’d used it on me.

An overdose of Viagra? Nope, I could cause a couple of heart attacks that way, yet even so the idea of a hundred or so men turning up at local ERs with permanent hard-ons did have a certain “use it or lose it” appeal.

No. What I was looking for was the anti-Viagra. Something I could give these guys that would make it impossible for them to get up for a long, long time. Permanently would be even better, but hey, do you think I’m a heartless son-of-a-bitch? Even better, to keep them from killing me I could allude to having an antidote, and my remedy would of course be the only way to restore potency.

Fuck me! This might even be fun!

But this was really only a nice daydream, perhaps, because I didn’t know any biochemists or physicians, and anyway, these guys probably had half the scientists in Seattle in their back pockets. Maybe I was just going to have to play their game, which led to one inescapable conclusion. Maybe I’d just have to be content to live with these two beautiful women the rest of my life, because the choice, as it was being presented, seemed pretty obvious to me: go along with their way of life and remain alive, or refuse their offer and die. But what would I do, I wondered, if I acquiesced only to find I was getting pulled in deeper? Maybe into something really dark? What if there really was no third option, no way to get away from these people and secure some sort of happiness? They’d tried to warn me off but damn near killed me, but I was under no illusions; they didn’t owe me anything.

Killing two cops had been dangerous for them, but they’d had the right people in the right places to mitigate the damage. Killing me might have been over the top, and they might have seen endless security issues as a result, but the other option kept gnawing away at the back of my mind. What if the man I saw on the boat with Liza had known everything? What if he was the intermediary between me and this ‘council’? Had he had kept me alive? And the real key might be why this had all started in the first place…why kill Harvey, the FBI agent? Was he inside? Had he been investigating something peripheral and stumbled onto the group? Had he been compromised, or warned like me, then tried to join the group – and failed?

But, and this was a big but, I was now on the outside, looking in. I wasn’t a cop anymore, not a real one, anyway. Weekend warriors don’t have the same administrative rights and access to information that full-timers have, so that left my new PI ticket as my only way inside, and that left me dependent on Richard Tate.

And what if Tate was the intermediary, the man on the boat who’d spared my life. He was smart enough, skilled enough to pull off most any subterfuge, and he was my friend – and that alone might have been motive enough to cause his intercession.

And what about Anders, the chief. What if he was inside, and wanted to put a stop to things before they got out of hand and exposed this seamy underside of his life? And SAC Brennan, or anyone else in the Bureau’s SeaTac office?

What I was left with was a ‘no-win’ situation, there was no way out, and I only had a week to come up with something if I decided to make a break.

That was when Mary-Jo dropped by, and paid us a little visit. That was something I hadn’t been counting on, and for quite some time too, if you know what I mean.

+++++

“So, you’re really going to join?” M-J asked when she came on board, meaning, was I really going to go to meet the council, and seek membership in their little club?

“Well, it’s either that, or Seph is going to go all Sunni on me with a knife,” I replied with a shrug, smiling a little. So much for idle chit-chat, anyway.

“That’s not a real positive attitude, if you get my drift, for wanting to come in out of the rain,” she added.

“Maybe if they’d just let me be, not bunked me down with the hottest nurse in the Pacific Northwest?”

“They couldn’t trust you, Woodie. Simple as that.”

“Well then, what made them think being held almost incommunicado for a year would make me more trustworthy?”

“I suppose, but…what did you call her? Seph?”

“Persephone. Queen of the underworld.”

“The underworld? Like Hell?”

I smiled. “Not quite.”

“Well, what I was going to say is I think they weren’t counting on Persephone’s ability to control you.”

“Even though I am her master?”

Now it was M-J’s time to smile. “Yes, funny how these things work, isn’t it? Isn’t control almost always an illusion? Anyway, just what do you feel towards Persephone?”

“Feel? I love her completely. Aside from that, she’s the best friend I’ve ever had.” Persephone, sitting by his side, smiled demurely, knowingly. “If she were taken from me tomorrow I think I might wither and die.”

“Really? Die?”

“I don’t think I’m trying to be disingenuous here, M-J. We’re very close.”

“Well then, suppose I order her to leave you, right now. What then?”

“Well then, I suppose I would begin to wonder just who you really are? What you’re role in this little organization really is?” Truth of the matter is I thought I knew exactly who she was, yet even so at this point I was more than a little concerned. I knew a lot was riding on my answers the next few minutes, and that M-J was holding all the Aces.

“You still think like a cop, Woodie.”

“True blue, all the way through.”

“And you’ll never change, will you?”

“Are you kidding? Persephone has changed me, completely.”

“How so?”

“Because I love her, M-J, and I love what she is. What she is has been defined by the role she plays within your organization.”

“My organization? You presume too much.”

“I don’t think so.”

She smiled. She knew I knew. Everything hung in the balance now.

She stood, looked undecided, first at Persephone, then at me.

“You’re dangerous, Woodie. You always will be.”

I stood, came to her and held out my hand. She looked down and took mine, and I kissed her fingers.

“We were almost friends,” I began, but she cut me off.

“Almost?”

“We never had a chance to see where we could go.”

She shrugged. “Some things are never meant to be.”

“And Persephone? Was she meant to be?”

“She was always meant to be your executioner.”

“You know, I think I’m too old to be a danger to anyone.”

“But you’re not.”

“So then, it comes down to…”

“Allegiance, Woodie.”

“What are your aims, I wonder?”

She smiled. “Allegiance is complete, or it’s meaningless.”

I kissed her hand again, and said “I agree,” and that was really all there was to it.

M-J smiled at me, then to Persephone she said, “I release you, Persephone. You belong to no one now but this man. You have no conflicting orders or purpose. You belong to him now, and will serve him until his death. Do you understand?”

“I do, Mistress.”

She turned to leave, this Mistress, my almost friend, and then I saw her entourage in the cockpit. Girls dressed in black, women who looked like ninja warriors, and I remembered an intel briefing about a group that had started working in Dallas a year ago. So, here was another piece of the puzzle.

I started to follow M-J but she turned and stopped me. “You will stay here now. Down here. Do not leave for a week. Do not communicate with anyone outside. Do you understand?”

“Yes. And Liza?”

“She is masterless. Do you want her?”

“Yes.”

“You must understand one thing. Once she is yours, it is to the death. She killed her master, and she is marked. If she fails you, you must kill her. Do you accept?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitating.

I could see surprise in M-J’s eyes, but no doubt, and she nodded her head in appreciation. “Perhaps one day I will trust you,” she said as she looked at me.

“But not today.”

“No, not today.” She pulled my face to hers and bit my earlobe so hard I was sure she had severed it, and when she pulled away I could see my blood on her face. “Not yet, Woodie, but the day may come when you will be given the opportunity to prove yourself.”

She disappeared into the night, leaving me and Persephone down below, with only lapping waves hitting the hull for company. A strong gust shook the boat, and wind moaned in the rigging. I turned to Persephone, and when she saw my wound she ran to get first aid supplies from the head.

“She marked you,” Persephone said as she worked on the injury.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Either she wants you for her own, or she intends to kill you.”

“Now, there’s some good news.”

“Did you really mean what you said to her? About me?”

“Every word.”

“Even though I was meant to kill you?”

“I meant every word.”

“You really love me?”

“Yes. Completely.”

“And Liza? You really love her too?”

“Yes, but not like I do you. It’s different. You are like a wife to me, Persephone. Liza is more…”

“A concubine? For your pleasure?”

“Perhaps, yes. But she brings me comfort, too.” I looked at this woman, this care-giver, and I did indeed feel something unique when I looked into her eyes. Love? Yes. Fear? Way too much. Would she still kill me if ordered? I doubted that not at all.

+++++

The next morning I felt the boat move as someone hopped aboard, and went to the companionway and looked up into the cockpit. Liza was there, sitting beside the wheel, and she looked at when I poked my head up into the light.

“You here to stay?” I asked.

“Could we talk? Up here?”

“Sorry. I’m down here, for the week. Orders.”

“I’m glad you said that,” Liza said. She had been testing me – as I assumed she might.

“Well, not sure I’ll cook you breakfast again, in case you were wondering.”

She smiled, but there was pain in her eyes as she confronted the reality of being a murderer.

“It doesn’t go away, does it?” I said to her indecision.

She shook her head.

“So, you coming down?”

“Could I sit up here for a while?”

“Suit yourself.” I ducked below, started working on the alternator’s belt. Sephie was forward, I assumed, reading a nursing journal, but then I heard her coming up behind me. She knelt down, put her hands on my shoulders and whispered in my ear: “We’re going to need a bigger boat…”

I turned, looked at her, saw the smile on her face – and I smiled too.

“We’ll need a bigger bed, too,” she added.

“Hadn’t thought of that,” I grinned.

“I have,” Liza said. She was sitting on the cockpit sole, leaning into the companionway.

I looked up, was kind of surprised to see her so soon.

“I have a question for you,” I said to her. “Kind of an important one, too.”

“Okay.”

“You marked me, remember?”

Her eyes were half closed, but she nodded her head.

“What does that mean? To mark me?”

“That I marked you as my property.”

“I understand that, but what are the consequences?”

“You are mine.”

“But that’s where I’m a little fuzzy, Liza. I am your master, am I not?”

“You are. True.”

“Yet you say, ‘you are mine’? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”

“No, not at all. ‘You are mine’ simply means that I am sworn to you, that my soul belongs to you.”

I turned away.

“You do not believe me?” she asked.

“No, I don’t.” I looked at Persephone. “Is she telling me the truth?”

She nodded her head.

“Why haven’t you marked me, Persephone.”

“I can not answer.”

“That’s okay, I think I get it.” I turned back to Liza. “Lying to me is the same as failing me,” I said to her. “Or do you disagree?”

“Oh, no, I agree. Will you kill me now?”

“When it pleases me, I will.” That seemed to penetrate the fog, and she nodded her head slightly. “Come below now, and go forward.”

She didn’t hesitate. She climbed down the steps and went to the forward cabin, and I let her stay up there the rest of the day, by herself.

Sephie helped me change the alternator belt, then we fixed lunch and I sat at the chart table for a few hours looking over sailing routes from Puget Sound the Polynesia.

An hour later, Liza called out; she needed to use the head.

“Show her how, Seph,” I said, and she went forward. When Liza came aft I saw she was naked, and I wondered why but kept my mouth shut. I heard the head being pumped clear a minute later and watched as Liza walked back to the forward cabin, but I let her stew in silence a little longer. When the sun was sliding behind the hills to the west I told her to come to me.

“No more lies, Liza. When I ask you a question, I want a truthful answer.”

“If I can.”

“That’s not good enough.”

“I’m sorry.”

I nodded my head, opened up chart table drawer and pulled out my old Kimber 45 ACP, and screwed on a silencer. I racked the slide, chambered a round, and leveled the pistol at her chest.

“Care to change your answer?”

She looked at the pistol, then at my eyes, judging me.

“Only members of the council may mark a master,” she said.

“And Persephone isn’t a member?”

“No.”

I unscrewed the silencer and put the pistol back in the drawer.

“Woodie, were you going to shoot me?”

“Yes.”

“You are a master! I knew it!”

“Don’t ever lie to me again,” I growled.

She dropped to her knees. “Yes, Master.”

“Why did you mark me?”

“Because I killed my master. I was masterless, and afraid.”

“Afraid? That is your truth?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Are you hungry?”

“Yes, Master.”

“I will cook you something.”

“No, Master, let me…”

“No, you need to understand, it pleases me to cook. Even for you.”

“As you wish.”

“It would also please me no end if you’d stop calling me Master, and talking like you’re some kind of medieval vassal. And, get off the floor, for heaven’s sake –  unless you’ve dropped a contact lens or something…”

Liza smiled, stood, and looked at me.

I opened my arms, she came to me, and I held her close. Persephone looked at us, and she smiled too, but there was something new in her eyes, something that hadn’t been there for the past year.

I told Liza to go forward and put on some clothes, and when she was gone I went to Persephone and kissed her passionately for the longest time. When I was sure she was completely confused I let her go, and turned to the galley with a smile in my little black heart.

Phase One was now underway.

+++++

Tate came over a few weeks later, and, he said, he just wanted to just shoot the shit for a while. Liza was off doing her thing as a reporter, while Persephone remained on hand like my very own two legged Golden Retriever. That is to say, she was right by my side, my ever faithful, golden haired companion, so talking would be a little restrained.

“When I have my big heart attack, can I have one just like yours?” Tate said when Persephone came up into the cockpit carrying a tray loaded with orange juice and heart-healthy snacks. That’s code for saw-dust, by the way. There’s no such thing as a heart healthy snack, unless of course you’re talking about oral sex.

Anyway, Sephie smiled, handed Tate a glass of fresh squeezed, then settled in by my side.

“You look like you could use some sun,” Tate said. “You’re pale.”

“It’s her fault,” I said, pointing at Sephie. “She sleeps all day and flies away at night, in search of fresh blood.”

“That explains everything,” Tate said. “Listen, I think I’ve got a case I can’t handle alone. Think you’re up to it?”

“I’ll have to check with his doctors,” Persephone said. “The last time he went out with the department he had some strange rhythms, and was light-headed.”

“Oh, still bothering you, is it?”

“Well, it’s pretty much a permanent condition now.”

So, in pidgin-cop talk he’d just managed to ask if I was still under house arrest, and I’d confirmed his suspicions.

“Well, it’d be nice if you could. The case is going to involve a lot of camera surveillance, and you could make a few bucks while just sitting back in your car with a Nikon for company.”

“If the doctor approves, could I come with him?” Sephie asked.

“No reason why you couldn’t, as far as I can see.”

“That might be fun,” she said.

“Do we have any avocados?” I asked out of the blue, knowing full well we didn’t.

“I could run out and get a few,” Tate said, helpfully.

“No big,” I said to Sephie. “Next time we’re out, I think we should get a few.”

“Have a craving?” Persephone asked.

“Oh, you know me. Put avocado on shoe leather and it’d taste good.”

“Want me to run out and get a couple?” she asked.

“No, next time we…”

“Don’t be silly. It’ll just take a few minutes, remember? The farm stand’s open down the street!”

Like, really, I’d forgotten? “Would you?” I asked innocently. “That’d be great.”

And a few minutes later Tate and I were alone. I pointed to my ear, indicating possible listening devices might be planted, so we continued with small talk about his difficult case, but at one point I bent over to pick up a napkin and slipped a note under his shoe. A minute later he knocked his napkin off the little cockpit table and retrieved the note, just before Sephie returned.

“Want me to make some guacamole?” I asked them.

“Sure,” Sephie said, and Tate nodded his head.

So, what was in the note? Just an innocent question concerning the PI business, but it would be enough to trip up Tate if he was part of the group, and if he wasn’t he’d understand in no uncertain terms that I was not free to move around on my own.

And yeah, I made some guacamole, and Liza got back just in time to have some, too.

+++++

Every couple of years I haul the boat and get the bottom scrubbed and re-painted, and it was coming up on that time again. We, the girls and I, packed overnight bags and checked into a hotel down the street, then Tate and I drove the boat to a yard across the lake, then hopped into the Zodiac and puttered back across to the hotel’s marina. Somewhere along the way Tate slipped a note into a coat pocket, but otherwise kept quiet. End result, I thought he was clean, but wouldn’t do anything compromising – for a while longer, anyway.

As summer approached, Liza started making noises about wanting to take some time off, some real time off, and wanted to know what I thought about taking a trip.

“On the boat?”

“Yes, of course. Why own a boat like this? Certainly not to let it sit in a slip and rot?”

“Guess that depends on what my doctors say. Isn’t that right, Persephone?”

“That would depend on how strenuous a journey we make? Like, where to, how long?”

“Like Tahiti,” she said. “How long would that take, Woodie?”

“Did we have a bad day at work, dear?” I asked. I swear I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice, too, but that did it. She broke down, went into a rant about an editor at the paper who had been riding her ass for months, and that got me wondering…

Were there limits to the interventions this group was willing to make? To preserve their identities, and the group’s security? Or was this editor of hers in the group? Interesting, I thought, but the answer to her original question still hung in the air, apparently waiting to be answered.

“So, Tahiti. What do you want to know?”

She looked at Sephie: “Could he do it?”

Persephone looked a little hesitant, like she wasn’t sure this was something she was allowed to talk about, but then she looked at me and shrugged her shoulders: “Assuming we were both there to do most of the heavy work? I think so.”

The heavy work? I had to laugh. These two had been out on the boat in the Sound a bunch, and under a variety of conditions too, but they had no idea what lay on the other side of the Olympic Peninsula. There was a malevolent beast waiting out there, a sleeping monster called the Pacific, and neither had ever been ‘at sea’ – not even once.

So, I kept my mouth shut about that, and launched into the less intimidating aspects of such a voyage. Like: most people from the Northwest hop down the coast, stopping at Astoria, San Francisco, and usually in L.A. too, before pausing for a long breather in San Diego, where supplies are replenished and gear maintained, then it’s a non-stop thirty-two hundred mile grind to the Marquesas, the gateway to French Polynesia from North America, then another nine hundred miles on to Tahiti. Boats like mine can make almost two hundred miles a day under optimal conditions, but a more likely average is closer to a hundred and ten, which puts a voyage from San Diego to the Marquesas in the forty day range. But the trip down to California can take more than a few weeks, and most people stop off in the Marquesas for several weeks. Trip time by that point is almost three months and climbing, and most people who’ve made the trip then spend a year or more wandering around the islands before heading to New Zealand.

“New Zealand? Why there?”

“Well, I suppose because it’s lovely down there, but there’re other reasons as well. It’s like sailboat heaven, and after a year or more at sea boats need work. Serious work. And a lot of people sour on the dream by that point, and decide to either sell their boats there or ship them back to the states and start over.”

“Start over?”

“Well, just looking at the experiences of people I know who’ve made the trip, if they make it that far one of two things happens. Married couples either divorce and sell the boat and return to the states, or they double down and head west for Australia and on to the Med.”

“You mean…”

“Yup. Circumnavigate. That’s a five to seven year deal, assuming you stop to smell the roses from time to time.”

“Holy cow. Do many people do that?”

“More than you might think, but that’s a trip for people like you. Starting off in your forties is the norm for a trip like that. People starting a circumnavigation in their sixties are rare. My guess is if I started a trip like that now you’d probably get to spread my ashes somewhere in the Indian Ocean.”

“Now, Woodie…”

“No, I think that’s realistic, and it wouldn’t be the most horrible thing in the world, you know? Life is a one way ticket, I seem to recall. To leave this life doing something you always wanted to do isn’t the worst outcome imaginable.”

“Is it something you always wanted to do?”

“I used to think so.”

“And now?”

“Are you kidding? I’m getting older by the minute and haven’t a care in the world, but to make matters worse I live on my boat with two stunning women I just happen to adore. And yes, I know we need a bigger boat. If we made such a trip, we’d need a newer, bigger boat, or spend a heck of lot upgrading the hardware on this one. But there’s a more important question: why make the trip now?”

“Because you’d be happy.”

“You’re assuming I’m unhappy, aren’t you, Liza?”

“I know you’re unhappy,” Persephone said.

“Well, if anyone knows what I’m feeling, it’s you. And I mean that in the best possible way, of course.”

Sephie came to me and put her head in my lap, and I ran my fingers through her long hair for the longest time. Liza came and sat by my side, and she leaned in close.

“Do you want to at least try?” Liza finally asked.

And there I was, hesitating on the precipice, lost in the vertigo of a great decision. Two years ago this had been the dream, the plan. Retire and head south, then make for the Med or the South Pacific, and I’d even considered making the voyage solo, maybe meeting some wahini along the way and making a run at it together, but now…everything was different. And it was different in the most sinister way possible.

Just what the Hell were they up to? Get me offshore and push me overboard? Or just shoot me in the head and let me wash up on the shore somewhere?

“I couldn’t make it without both of you,” I thought aloud, “and I couldn’t ask that of you. Wouldn’t be fair, you know.”

“You don’t have to ask, Woodie,” Persephone said.

“Yes, I do. I could never impose my dreams on someone else, especially the only two people left in the world I love.”

“That’s not what I meant, Woodie,” Persephone said. “I love you too, and I’d want to share this, be a part of this.”

I could see the end of my life in her words, and it was fascinating. Simply fascinating.

All in all, the air around me felt exotic, heavy with portentous meaning, and suddenly it felt as if I was sitting in an Indian bazaar, flute in hand, watching a pair of cobras dancing to a tune only they could hear.

+++++

We decided to head out for a sail a few weeks later, kind of a trial run out towards Vancouver Island. Blue water, if you know what I mean. Real ocean, not that calm stuff in Puget Sound. That was the idea, anyway.

Mother Nature always has her own plans, and this was one of those days. No, not stormy. Far from it. The water in the Straits resembled a Wal*Mart parking lot – in Kansas. Flat. Flat as a billiard table, and not a breath of air all morning. We were off Port Townsend just after noon and still heading west northwest, and the only excitement we’d had had been dodging the occasional log. That, and my pointing out the passing fins of the odd blue shark that happened along from time to time. Odd how focused people get when they spot a man-eater.

By mid-afternoon we were past Victoria harbor and still motoring west, a Seattle-bound ferry crossing southbound off our stern the only company to be had. I hopped down the companionway and made some log entries, grabbed a few Cokes and went back up to the wheel and noticed the girls weren’t in the shaded cockpit. I looked around, saw them up on the foredeck deep in conversation. I saw the Beretta 92SBF in Liza’s right hand within the span of a single heartbeat, and it didn’t take me too long figure out what was on their minds. I reached down and let off the main sheet and the traveler lines, then moved all the way aft and got behind the wheel, and waited.

Persephone saw me first, maybe a minute later. She turned and looked at me – and I could see the sorrow in her eyes, the pain in her soul. She didn’t want to kill me, she never had. Then I looked at Liza. What I saw in her eyes made my blood boil. It was lust, pure blood-lust. In all my years on the street I’d encountered such savage evil only a few times, and I recognized what I saw in her eyes immediately. She smiled at me then, smiled as she drew the pistol and leveled it at my chest.

Liza moved towards the starboard shrouds as she started aft, and Persephone followed close behind. The Beretta is Liza’s right hand barely wavered as she drew near the canvas awning over the cockpit, and that’s exactly when I threw the wheel over hard to port.

Right as rain, the main boom rocketed off to the starboard rail, and with the satisfying ping of a four iron on a par five fairway, both Liza and Persephone were knocked high over the lifelines and into that deep blue sea.

It was time to make a few quick decisions, and though I’d had a few days to think about what I’d do if my worst-case-scenario came to pass, the sadness in Persephone’s eyes called out to me across that mirrored sea. In point of fact, Persephone began calling out to me at that very moment, and she looked pathetic. Helpless, and pathetic.

Liza, on the other hand, looked ferocious. Pissed off, and ferocious. Her hands were flailing away, no Beretta visible now, but she soon settled down and starting swimming after the boat. I dropped the RPM down to twelve hundred and tightened the turn, then straightened out, aiming to come alongside Persephone; Liza saw what I was doing and started back towards her.

The dilemma facing me was simple. The first thing that crossed my mind was that it would never be possible to trust either girl ever again, not right now – and probably not ever again. So, the next thing that hit me? Well, simply put, bringing one or both back to shore would leave me in exactly the same predicament. It would only be a matter of time before the order would come to kill me again. So, I reasoned, the simplest thing to do would be to run them down, kill them out here in the Pacific and let the sharks have them. There were no witnesses and, I calculated, I could do this with a clear conscience. They had set this up, all this talk about going to Tahiti, with nothing more in mind than killing me. They were predators, merciless, mercenary predators.

And then I saw the Beretta. Right there on the cockpit cushion, hard by the companionway. Leaning forward, I scooped it up before coming alongside Persephone. I throttled back a bit and turned away from her, watched as the panic set in. Liza arrived by her side a moment later and I just watched them. I watched them watching me, watched them study me, looking for the first sign of hesitation, or resolve.

And then I saw the shark.

A white. A Great White. Rare in these waters, but not completely unheard of, and now the huge fish was circling perhaps thirty yards away from the girls, probably trying to figure out exactly what they were, and how they might taste.

So here I sat – fat, dumb and very unhappy – on my boat, and just a few yards away two very nervous women paddled away in very deep water, completely oblivious to the danger that had entered their very precarious orbit.

I raised the Beretta, let Liza see it for what it was as I cut power and dropped the transmission into neutral. The boat slowed, but was still a good ten yards from the girls, and then I pointed at the fin.

“I think that’s a Great White,” I said.

Synchronized swimmers had never executed such a precise, coordinated turn in any venue, nor had any actress in any horror movie ever made shown such wide-eyed awareness of her impending doom as those two girls did.

Personally, it was kind of gratifying, but almost three decades of carrying a gun and a badge made what happened next a completely forgone conclusion. I swung the wheel hard to starboard and slipped the transmission into reverse and backed down slowly, then I slipped it into neutral and hopped down onto the swim platform and dropped the ladder into the water. Predictably, Liza made it to the stern first, and I reached down and hauled her aboard in one smooth motion. As she clambered into the cockpit I reached down and took Persephone’s frantically grasping hand in mine and hauled her onto the platform, then I grabbed her shaking body and held her close to mine.

I knew Liza had the Beretta even before I turned around, but when I looked at her she held it out to me, handed it over without so much as a murmur.

“Go grab some towels, would you, darlin’?” I said softly. I helped Sephie into the cockpit, took the towels Liza carried up a moment later and wrapped them both up and held them tight, kissed each on the forehead.

“Don’t ever do anything like that again,” I whispered in Liza’s ear. “Okay?”

I could feel her head nodding assent through her violent trembling. When she calmed down a few minutes later I handed the Beretta back to Liza, and with my head I motioned her to toss it overboard.

She didn’t hesitate. When I heard that definitive ‘ker-plonk’ I took her face in hand; I kissed her hard on the mouth, kissed her until she responded with an authenticity I’d never felt from her before, then I kissed Sephie, and more deeply than I ever had before.

It hit me hard, that irrational moment out there under then sun. Despite everything, I knew I loved them both, I mean really and truly loved them, and that I could never let go of them. Still, a part of me clung to the knowledge that I could never really trust them. Yet…there had been something so unexpectedly tender about those fleeting seconds that had caught me so completely off-guard. Something about the way we loved one another as we turned back towards the Sound, about the desperate gratitude we shared as we clung to one another, something about the looks I found in their eyes that told me the tables had finally turned.

You can’t have love without trust, after all. Or is it the other way around?

+++++

We didn’t talk too much about what had happened out there on the water. There wasn’t much to say, the way I saw things. They’d been ordered to do away with me, but up to that point in time whoever controlled them had never seen any reason to question their loyalty. By the time we tied up at my marina on Lake Union that assumption had been turned on it’s ear. I was alive. They’d failed – for whatever reason, and now there would be consequences. Whoever was calling the shots in their world, I assumed, just might expose themselves to get this done. Someone would have to give the order, and then someone would have to execute the operation against “their” girls. That’s what I was counting on, at least, and that, hopefully, would give me the opening I had been hoping for.

+++++

And so I wasn’t entirely confused when Mary Jo came down to the marina a few hours later. I had just sent the girls to the market for some grub, which wasn’t all that surprising either. The slip, my boat, were under constant surveillance, and again, I’d kind of assumed that for quite a while. But here she was, and all alone, which did confuse me. I had expected a return appearance of her ninja warrior girlfriends, but no, that was not the case. At least, they weren’t visible, but that’s the point with ninja, I suppose.

“Hello, Woody,” she said as she stood on the dock below the cockpit. “Kind of surprised to see you.”

“Are you, indeed,” I said as I climbed out the companionway and stepped into the cockpit. “Why’s that, I wonder? And where are those delightful girlfriends of yours?”

“Around.”

“Yes, of course.” I looked at MJ, remembered that night and her hand under the table. “Well, you’re looking good,” I said as I smiled at her. “Would you like to come aboard?”

“Assuming you’re not going to try to kill me, then yes.”

I almost laughed as I gave her my hand and helped her aboard. “So, to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”

“Why are you still alive?”

“Well, as long as we’re asking questions, why do you want me dead? I thought we had an understanding?”

“We did.”

“What changed.”

“Circumstances.” Only the voice I heard wasn’t Mary Jo’s. It was a man’s voice, and one that sounded very familiar.

“What the fuck!” I said as Mark Tottenham stepped out from behind a pillar and back into the land of the living.

He walked over to Mary Jo, pulling a little Walther PPK/s from under of his jacket as he drew near. “Get down on your knees, you stupid bitch,” he said as he came up behind her. He screwed a silencer on the barrel, then put the tip up to the base of her brain and squeezed off one round. Mary Jo fell into the water between the dock and the boat and disappeared; Tottenham tossed the Walther into the water after her.

“You didn’t need to kill her, Woody. That was unnecessary, and stupid.” He took black leather gloves off his hands, then walked up to the gate without saying another word. As he left the marina, I took a remote control from my pocket, and hit the pause button. “This might be easier than I thought,” I had the audacity to say, but in truth, Tottenham’s resurrection was troubling.

I heard the sirens a few minutes later, and a half dozen patrol cars careened into the marina parking lot moments later. Their guns drawn, dozens of officers stormed towards the gate, but as they didn’t have a key, I had to walk up and let them in.

+++++

“Long time no see, Woody,” Chief Anders said as he climbed aboard.

“Hey Chief. How’s it hangin’?”

“Down to my knees, Peckerhead.”

“Good to hear it. Come on down. I think you’ll enjoy this.”

A couple of grunts from CID were already down below, and SAC Brennan was as well. They’d of course seen the recording already, which was why I wasn’t being booked-in at that very moment, but Chief Anders hadn’t seen it, which was why he was here now, and Brennan had thought it important he see it as soon as possible.

First, and for his benefit, I explained what had been happening for the past fourteen months, during my impromptu retirement, then I played the tape.

When he saw Tottenham step into view, when he heard his voice, Chief Anders just about came unglued. “What the fucking Hell is this!” he shouted. “Some sort of CG bullshit!”

Liza stepped into the cabin, right on cue. “Not quite, sir,” she said. “It’s his brother, Paul. Identical twins. I think Mark wasn’t going to cooperate, so Paul had him killed. Oh. He’s also the head of the local council.”

“Council?”

“Whatever you’d like to call them sir. They’re usurping control all around the country, coopting officials at every level of government.”

“A silent coup, Chief Anders” Brennan interjected. “A complete government takeover, using blackmail. Sexual blackmail, one of the oldest tricks in the book. Minimal personnel involved, very quick, very efficient. Even the Romans used to do it this way.”

“Shit,” Anders said, no small amount of wonder in his voice. “And this Paul Tottenham? He’s in charge?”

“I don’t think he has much power beyond Seattle,” Liza said.

“Do you know, Miss… Hell, I don’t even know your name, but you sure look familiar.”

“I’m with Woodie,” my dear little Liza said. “Have been for a while.”

I took her hand in mine.

“So you don’t know much about their operations, beyond the local structure?” Anders asked. “Brennan? You need to keep her for a while?”

“I don’t think so, Chief. She’s cooperating, and we have enough already to make a few dozen arrests. We may break open a larger investigation that way. I think it depends on how deep their penetration is, but it sounds like this could be a very sticky operation.”

“Woody, you think you’re well enough to come back?” Anders asked.

“Me? Hell Chief, I hadn’t thought of that. I wouldn’t count on me, though. Liza and I have been thinking of taking a trip, on the boat.”

Anders looked at Liza and almost smiled, but I could see the envy in his eyes. He just nodded his head, mumbled something that sounded a lot like ‘wish I could’, then he climbed up into the night and was gone. I’d already burned several copies of the recording, and everyone had their discs now, as well as Liza’s statement, and soon they were all gone.

Persephone was still forward, and she came aft as soon as I gave her the all clear. She had recorded the proceedings on board that evening, ‘just in case’, and Tate was buried away in the parking garage making recordings of the people here as well.

Divers recovered MJs body early the next morning, and they found the little Walther, too, so ballistics wouldn’t be a problem, and with the recording there wouldn’t be any problem getting a conviction. There was certainly no ‘reasonable doubt’ about what had happened, anyway. For good measure, Tate took copies of all our recordings to multiple safety deposit boxes around the city, and I did the same at a few other banks, as well. That done, we met back to the boat.

“So,” Tate asked when we were safely back on board, “are you really going to head out? Do the trip?”

“I’m thinking I might just give it a try?”

“You going solo?” he asked, and I could see he was wondering where the girls were.

I just smiled.

“Man, wish I could make that trip!”

“Yeah, I bet you do.”

It took a few weeks to square away the new boat and provision her, but I guess you know I had some help. She’s a little bigger boat, not by much, but she’s a lot stronger…yet the most important thing, more important than anything else, is the bunk in my cabin is a whole lot bigger.

Hey, I’m just sayin’, you know, but I’m pretty sure you understand.

(C) renewed 2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com | fiction, all fiction, and nothing but the fiction | and thanks for reading all 28,516 words. later… Aa

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Mystères élémentaires

 

Mystères élémentaires

Danser avec les etoiles dans la nuit

I

The man sat on the rough, black asphalt, in the sliver of shade afforded by the little jet’s wing, wondering how much longer he’d have to wait for the fuel truck to arrive. It felt oppressively hot outside, and very humid, though the sun was about to set. He looked at the hills surrounding this impossibly tiny airstrip and wondered what, exactly, was making his hair stand on end. And why the sensation felt so – familiar?

The Dassault Falcon 20 had once belonged to FedEx, and though it was painted slate gray now, it still had the cargo door the courier service had originally specified. The cockpit was steam-gauge city, though there was a GPS receiver and an RNAV interface that fed, somehow, into the ancient Bendix flight director – so the jet’s pilots could get into, and out of, some very unlikely airports. This little hole in the wall was one of them, too.

The jet belonged to an outfit registered in Miami, to a company that did the majority of it’s business with the CIA, and the pilot had flown for the company for years. He liked the no-nonsense approach to flying, and to life, that working for the company afforded, but he did not like airports like this one. They were a little too far off the road less traveled for his comfort, and maybe that was why he felt so uneasy.

It was called Los Comandos, or more accurately Port lotniczy Los Comandos, and the airstrip was located about a mile due west of the village of Lolotiquillo, in eastern El Salvador, and as Nicaragua was not that far away, Los Comandos was a favorite location to pick up and drop off certain types of “packages” the company needed delivered.

He heard a truck approaching; saw a white Toyota Land Cruiser coming down the road to his right, with two more following, and he relaxed. That would be the Special Forces types working the area, he thought, and they pulled beyond the Falcon and stopped under some shade trees. He watched his co-pilot get out of the lead Toyota, and the driver got out too, and both walked over to the jet. The driver handed him an ice cold Coke, then sat down on the asphalt under the wing.

“What’s the word?” the pilot asked his co-pilot, a raw bundle of nerves he knew only by her first name: June. She was cute. She was sexy. And she was available. And he wondered why he hadn’t made a move on her yet? Don’t shit where you eat? Was it as simple as that?

“Situation Normal, All Fucked Up,” she sighed. “The truck went to Delta Baker. It should be here soon, less than a half hour, anyway.”

“Sorry, Amigo,” the other man said, “my fault. I shoulda confirmed.”

“No big,” the pilot said. His name was Rob Jeffries, and he looked at June, saw sweat had already soaked through her white shirt and he shook his head.

The other man, Captain Dale Knight, USMC, looked around the hills, shook his head. “Something don’t feel right, Amigo,” he said, staring at a hillside perhaps a kilometer away.

“I know,” Jeffries said. “The hair on the back of my neck has been on end since my feet hit the ground.”

“Over there,” Knight said, pointing at the hillside. “Something doesn’t belong – looks outta place. That hill look different to you?”

“Yup.”

June turned and looked at the hill; she’d flown into Los Comandos a few times, maybe not enough to know the terrain as well as these two, but she looked anyway. The land looked a little like her native New Mexico: rolling, scrub-covered hills, a few small mountains in the distance, the only difference was the forest, which seemed almost arboreal compared to the ones back home. These forests were alive, full of large cats and mean snakes, and she didn’t feel comfortable walking around down here – at all.

Knight went over to his Land Cruiser and pulled out some binoculars and walked back to the Falcon; he swept the hillside then handed them to Jeffries. “What do you think, Rob?”

“Kind of a metallic shimmer – weird. Must be a couple of hundred yards across.”

“When are the spooks due?”

Jeffries looked at his watch, shook his head: “About a half hour, maybe less.”

“Think I’ll send a platoon over there, see what’s up.”

Jeffries shook his head. “Too big to be anything – covert. My guess is it’s an optical illusion of some sort, something to do with this humidity.”

Knight shook his head, walked to the second Toyota. He pointed out the illusion and explained what he wanted, and that Land Cruiser took off, drove away from the hill. Jeffries knew that several hundred Marines were staged in the area, usually conducting quiet little walks into northern Nicaragua, sometimes Honduras, but he knew Knight was a cool operator – conservative, not into taking chances or letting someone crawl up his rear.

Knight went back to his Toyota and got on the radio. “Baker x-ray, where’s that fuel truck.”

“About five out,” came the reply.

He walked back to the Falcon. “I’d like you guys to beat feet real quick.”

Jeffries nodded, looked at the hill, then at the Falcon. “Me three.”

“Gas is about here.”

Jeffries heard the radio in the cockpit and dashed over the open cargo door and picked up the hand unit he’d left there, just out of the sun.

“Say again, Ranger two-two, this is Echo echo. Come in.”

“Echo echo. Go,” Jeffries said.

“We’re about five out, got some 25s, repeat 3 times 2-5, over.”

“Got it, out.” Jeffries sighed, then turned to Knight. “They’ve got three wounded,” then he turned to his co-pilot. “Turn on the GPU, let’s get the a/c on – and ready to get the fuck out of here.” He turned, looked at the sun setting behind the shimmering hillside, shrugged his shoulders – and felt something unsettling – almost like an echo.

“Right,” she said, then walking over to the ground power unit, she turned on the generator, then turned power on to the Falcon; once power was steady she walked to the little ladder and disappeared into the cockpit. The fuel truck appeared and Marines got out of the Land Cruisers and refueled the Falcon, then one of the Marines hooked up the compressor and called out “Okay to start two” to the co-pilot leaning out her window.

“Time to go do some of that pilot shit,” Jeffries said to Knight. “Seeya next time.”

“You going to TNT?”

“Yup.”

“Good. I’d hate to have to come get your ass in Mexico.”

Rob laughed. “And how’s that little gal in Aquas Calientes?”

It was an old joke, and they both laughed.

Two Marine UH-1Y Venoms settled on the road and medics carried three stretchers to the Falcon, and two men in black fatigues walked over and talked to Knight while Jeffries climbed up onto the deck; he helped get the wounded strapped down then went into the cockpit.

“How’s the pressure on two?”

“Good. Steady. Good ratios, too.”

“Merida on the GPS?”

“Yup.”

“Good girl.” He went aft, saw the wounded had IVs hanging already and a medic the two ‘men’ in black fatigues were both on board, though he saw now that one of them was a woman. He closed the cargo door and set the cross checks, then he turned to the closest spook. “Anything I need to know about?”

The woman turned to him, shook her head. “About two hours, right?”

“Thereabouts, closer to three. What about them?” Jeffries said, pointing at the wounded. “Bad?”

“Medic got the bullets out, sewed ‘em up. They’re stable.”

“I can go into Homestead, maybe MacDill, if it’s an emergency.”

“I’ll let you know.”

“K. Y’all better buckle up. We’ll be scootin’ in a minute.”

“Right.”

He went forward, left the door open to help the air conditioning catch up, and they finished with the checklist. “Gimme flaps ten,” he said.

“Ten, check.”

“What’s Gomer Pyle say? All them trucks and shit out of the way?”

“Clear to taxi,” she groaned, hated when he talked like a hick.

“Roger-dodger,” Jeffries sighed. Her kicked the rudder over, slaved the nose-wheel and turned hard to the left, then taxied out the runway and made a u-turn at the end. He did his best to line up on the center of the unmarked asphalt strip then ran up the engines to full throttle and watched the gauges, then let off the brakes. The Falcon lurched once, then screamed down the runway – and when they cleared the trees he cleaned the wing – then Jeffries banked slightly and flew over the shimmering hill.

“What’s it look like,” June said, craning her head to see.

“Like a dome, made out of pure energy.”

“Weird.”

“You got a course for Merida worked out yet?”

“3-4-8.”

“Got it.”

“Man, I wish we had flight attendants on these crates,” she said.

“Yeah? What do you want?”

“A long, tall Texan with a really big dick.”

“Jesus, girl, when’s the last time you got laid?”

“When’s the last time you fucked me?”

“I seem to recall we ain’t done it yet.”

“Yup. It’s been that long.”

They both laughed

+++++

“Beagle two,” Knight said. “Sitrep.”

“Nothin’ here, Beagle. I mean – nada.”

“Roger. RTB.”

“Two, out.”

Knight looked at the hillside, shook his head. As soon as the Falcon took off, the shimmering stopped, and he was going to get on the radio and tell Jeffries – but for some reason he decided it wasn’t important.

+++++

The Falcon’s course – 0-5-7 degrees – took then directly over the Dry Tortugas, and he flipped the transponder to 5999 and squawked ident, effectively telling ATC the Falcon was a ‘dark flight’ and to keep traffic out of their way. Jeffries started their descent to 1800 MSL, and made their only radio contact with ATC as the passed just northwest of Key West.

“Casper two niner Echo, 1800, STING to DEEDS, 2-5-0 knots.”

“Niner Echo, clear direct to JAXEK, VFR runway 0-9, two niner niner five, wind seven at zero seven five degrees. There’s been some unidentified traffic near Everglades City, but the Navy was unable to find anything. Y’all have a good night.”

“Sounds good to me,” he whispered, his ass on fire after sitting still for almost three hours. “Man, I could use a…”

“A blowjob?” June said, hopefully – he thought.

“I was going to say a hot shower, but yeah, a B-J wouldn’t be too bad right about now. Know anyone I can call?”

“Fuck you,” she said, laughing.

“I wouldn’t mind getting laid tonight, too,” they heard a voice say, and both turned to see the female spook standing in the cockpit door, grinning. “Any volunteers?”

Jeffries thought she looked a little like the pilot in Goldfinger, only meaner, and he turned back to his instruments. “I dunno, June. You swing that way? Feel like munching some rug tonight?”

“No thanks. Tryin’ to quit.”

“Ah,” he said, then he turned back to the spy. “Guess you’re stuck with me, darlin’.”

“You got a big dick?”

“I dunno. How big’s big enough?”

“I need a fuckin’ big one. Ten inches minimum. Twelve would be better.”

“Sorry, darlin’ – you be flat outta luck tonight. Gimme flaps ten, June.” He turned to the spook and winked. “Y’all better buckle up now. We’ll be on the ground in a couple.”

“Right.”

“Localizer set?”

“108.3 – check.”

“Gimme flaps twenty.”

“Twenty. Passing JAXEK, begin descent.”

“Got it.” He started whistling, nothing in particular, as he worked the throttles and the rudder pedals. “Flaps thirty, gears down,” he said, looking quickly at the localizer, then the airspeed. “Gimme forty.”

“Forty and three green.”

He slipped the throttles to idle over the threshold and the Falcon eased onto the runway; he let her speed bleed before he started braking, then he turned off about halfway down the long runway and taxied over to a Gulfstream IV on the ramp.

“Leave two at idle,” he said as he went aft, and he opened the cargo door, letting warm, muggy air flood into the cabin. Another UH-1Y settled onto the ramp and more medics jumped out and ran to the Falcon and hopped aboard, and Jeffries went back into the cockpit. “How’s our fuel?”

“About a thousand pounds.”

“Okay. Let’s shut her down.”

They walked over to the little, closed terminal building and got in his car, a ten year old BMW 325 coupe, and he started it up, let the engine warm for a half minute while he dug out his gate card, then slipped the transmission into D and headed down the long road to the highway. TNT, or Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport, is located not quite halfway between Miami and Naples, Florida, and Jeffries was not looking forward to the 60 mile drive back into Naples that night. It was already midnight, and he’d been up since midnight the night before. He rubbed his eyes, yawned and rubbed away a tear.

“You want me to drive?” June said.

“Whew, I don’t know. Man, I’m tired.”

“You could use a shower, too.”

“Gee, thanks. I think.”

She laughed as he pulled up to the automatic gate, and he slipped his card in, entered his code and watched the gate roll open, and when he was clear he rolled up his window. “Mind if I turn on the a/c?” He said as he pulled up to the Tamiami Trail, the old, two-laned highway that joined Naples and Miami before the interstate was built. He turned right, put on his high-beams and adjusted his seat again, trying to put out the fire that moved from his ass up into the small of his back, then he sighed as he set the cruise at 65 and settled in for the long haul.

“Shit! What’s that!” June said, and he saw half an alligator on the roadway; he slowed to about 15 until they cleared the beast, then he hit resume and the Beemer slipped away.

“Deer and gators,” he sighed, “always all over this road.”

“Good headlights.”

“Decent car, had it a while.”

“Always wanted one, never could afford one.”

“Buy used. Two years old, just coming off a lease. Usually get a good deal that way. And pay cash, if you can.”

She laughed. “Right.”

Five miles on a thick fog formed, blanketing the road, then it thinned just a little.

“Weird,” he said. “Too warm for fog.”

“I didn’t smell anything…not smoke…anyway…Rob! What the hell is that?”

She was pointing ahead and to the left, and he followed her finger.

“I have no idea,” he said. There were lights – several hundred yards off the road, deep in the trees, deep in the brackish, swampy mangroves that ran along the Gulf and up into the Everglades – deep magenta and very bright lights. “Looks like four lights, a gap, and four more lights, in a horizontal array. Does that mean anything to you?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t know anyone using a pattern like that.”

He let off the gas, slowed until they were perpendicular to the lights, then he stopped, put on his hazard lights and rolled down the window – expecting to hear a helicopter at hover – but it was silent outside.

“What the fuck is that?” she said quietly, and they both stepped out of the car, still looking at the lights. “Maybe someone’s towing an offshore platform. Maybe it’s really way offshore.”

“Too shallow,” he said.

“What?”

“Water’s really shallow around here. I mean, like six feet or so.”

“Oh.”

“That’s like four, maybe five hundred yards away, too. There’s nothing but mangrove swamp there.”

“How high do you think it is?”

“I don’t know, maybe fifty feet up?”

“Why isn’t it making any noise?”

“You’re asking me?” he said, snorting. “I can’t see anything but the lights, can you?”

“No – what the – it’s moving!”

They watched as the lights rose into the air, still pointed at something on the ground – but then the lights moved, and then the lights were aimed – right at them.

And then the lights began to move again, up and towards them. They rose a little more, and almost like an airplane, the formation arced as it turned – towards them.

“Get in the car,” Jeffries said quietly, and when they were in he slammed the car into low and hammered the accelerator; within seconds the old inline-six had pushed the Beemer past one hundred miles per hour and he looked ahead, then in his rear-view mirror…

“It’s behind us,” June said, “it’s high but diving, and it’s getting close…”

The car’s interior was flooded with powerful, magenta-hued light, the glare so bright he could hardly see the road ahead, and he squinted, pushed away the rearview mirror – when suddenly the lights began to fall back – and then they disappeared completely.

And he did not slow down.

He saw the little roadside park ahead, the one at Turner River Road, and he saw the bend in the road beyond, the one right before the little post office at Ochopee, and he reached out, cut the lights and pushed the Beemer hard as he approached the curve, then he took his foot off the gas and applied the emergency brake – gently – and with no brake lights showing he turned into the post office’s gravel lot and swung wide, arcing across the lot. He turned hard, then swung in beside the tiny building, then he reached under the seat and pulled at Sig-226 and jumped out of the car. Crouching behind the front quarter panel he leveled the Sig at the road, and waited.

And waited.

He felt June walking up behind him, and was going to turn and tell her to get down when he saw she was still sitting inside; the hair on the back of his neck stood on end – again.

He turned – and sighed.

This ship was huge, and it was hovering perhaps twenty feet off the grass, a hundred yards behind the post office. Wing-like, yet not quite, the craft’s ‘wingtips’ drooped a bit, and the whole thing was shimmering, ‘just like the hillside at Los Comandos,’ he thought, struggling under the weight of so many inrushing memories.

Then he looked down.

Two of them, he realized this time, and another woman – and he that was odd. It was usually just the one, and he wondered what was different about tonight.

II

She lived in a small, top floor apartment at 18 Rue Gabrielle, and she could just see the Sacre Coeur brooding over the city below, through the trees beyond her bedroom window.

Sleep had not found her this night, like so many nights of late, and she did not know the boy in the bed by her side – and she hardly remembered last night at all.

She’d been at the Sabot Rouge, a quiet if touristy spot, having dinner with Claire and Jean-Paul, and they’d already put down a few bottles of something by the time the main course came, but cognac with dessert had been the coup de grâce. She remembered someone playing the piano, then talk about war, but that hadn’t made any sense at all. After all the terror attacks the last year, such talk seemed ludicrous.

It was still dark out, and the city still slept, but she had papers to grade, and a lecture to prepare; now she looked at the boy by her side and wondered again who he was? What had he said to get her here? And – what had they done?

She stood and walked to the bathroom and sat for a while, thinking about this latest untoward turn, and she hated herself – again – for being such an easy drunk. Claire had asked recently if she had no self respect, but she had brushed aside the question – as she always had – saying that she simply enjoyed men.

But was it really so simple? Had it ever been?

She washed her hands and went to the kitchen, started coffee and looked at the papers on her desk. Each an insinuation, an admonishment, she realized, a wagging finger pointing at her broken soul. So many men, so few lasting beyond the night. She did not want them to last beyond that moment in the clouds and rain. She wanted men to get her off, then have the good sense to leave.

So why was this boy still here?

He looked, perhaps, twenty years old, much younger than her usual fare, and his skin was so pale. He was almost an albino, his blond hair almost white, his eyes pale blue when he stared into her own, and she remembered his hands.

He was playing the piano, she remembered. But when?

“And where?” she asked the darkness, then she went to the window and looked up at the moon overhead – lending the cathedral a milky glow. She turned away suddenly, went to her desk and sat, picked up a paper and turned on the light.

“You are up early,” she heard from the bedroom a moment later, then she felt him walk up behind her.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she sighed, then she turned and looked at him. His skin aglow, he looked sculpted of white ivory, a fierce warrior, perhaps, or a young god – then she saw he was erect and she turned inward, pulled him close and took it in her mouth. She could not help herself, she knew; she worked his strength gently, then with roughness – and back again, her hands around the backs of his thighs, her fingernails digging then massaging the sinewy muscles until she felt his legs trembling, his breath quickening. He grabbed her face when he came, holding her close while he drove his need into the warmth, and she took him, all he had to give, the dance of her tongue a swirling staccato of need and desire.

And he did not let go. He held her close, let her tongue subside until he felt her need wither and flee, then he knelt before her and looked into her eyes.

“I wrote a song about you, while I slept. It is not as beautiful as you, but I think it lovely even so.” His eyes were huge, glowing and huge, and he held a hand to her face, ran his fingers through her hair.

“You should leave,” she said, her voice trembling. She knew she was in danger of losing herself around this boy, that he was an irresistible force. “Please,” she added.

“Could we have coffee first? I too must leave soon.”

“Of course.”

She went to the kitchen, his taste still dancing in her mouth, and she poured two cups. “Do you need milk?” she asked.

“I need you,” he said, “but milk would be nice, too.”

She walked back to her desk, noticed a deep fog had settled over the city as she handed him his cup, and he held the coffee, waiting, while she took her seat.

“Please don’t,” she said.

“Don’t – what? Express my feelings?”

“Yes. I don’t think I could handle such intensity this morning.”

“Do you run from your feelings, too?”

She nodded her head. “Yes.”

“I might ask why, but you would think it none of my business.”

She nodded her head, again. “Yes, I would.”

“I think, perhaps, that once before we were lovers. Many years ago, I think.”

She turned to face him – again – and his words rocked her. “When I watched you play last night, I remember thinking exactly the same thing. Isn’t that odd.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” she said, now getting annoyed. “We were at Claire and Jean-Paul’s; you were playing in their living room.”

“Who? What are you talking about?”

“Stop it.”

“I don’t understand. We were on the Metro, I saw you, coming from the Sorbonne after class, walking to the Metro.”

“We met at the Rouge, late in the evening.”

He bunched his lips, walked to the window while he shook his head. “I do not understand. What Rouge?”

“What do you mean, you do not understand?”

“We were walking from class, and you mentioned something about DeGaulle and we argued. I invited you to watch me play at the conservatory, then we came here and you prepared dinner and, well, here we are.”

She was angry now, and she stood, came to the window – to point out the Sabot Rouge and where they had spent the first part of their evening – but when she got to the window all she saw a veil of heavy fog – yet she saw trees with bare limbs just outside the window, and falling snow.

“This is not right,” she said, staggering back from the cold. She had a hard time catching her breath, and she felt dizzy, light-headed and reached for her desk. She sat, took several deep breaths and looked around the room… It was the same, yet different. The walls were pale gray now, not apricot, and the appliances were all wrong. Ancient, strange and ancient, and she shook her head, ran for her clothes. They too looked odd. Different, old and dated – like costumes for a play – but she put them on, the shoes too, and ran for the door.

“Where are you going?” the boy said, but now he too went for his clothing, and he dressed as rapidly as he could then followed her down the stairs. She was walking quickly towards the square, then she turned for the steps and shuddered to a stop.

“It was here,” she said, starting to cry. “It has always been here. Where has it gone?”

“What? What is gone?”

“The Sabot Rouge…it has always been here, right here –” she said, pointing at a small bookstore. She turned, looked at the boy, then saw he was concentrating – on a sound. It sounded like a truck laboring up a grade, and the boy reacted suddenly.

“Quick…me must leave, get off the street…now!”

“But…why?”

“There is the curfew…and that is a German patrol…”

“German? What are you…?”

But he had her by the arm now, and was pulling her towards the apartment building when he saw the man walking towards them. The long, black leather coat, the peaked hat, the Walther in his hand, and the boy stopped in his tracks – but then he saw it was Werner.

“Oh, Pete, it’s you,” the German said. “What are you doing in this neighborhood?”

“Looking for her cat.”

“Really? How noble…and at this time of morning, too. What is the cat’s name?”

“Electra,” she said. “She is gray, and very small.”

“Well, if I should find her, where would I return her to?”

“Number 18,” she said, pointing. “I’m on the top floor, and I’d be most grateful.”

“I see. Well, you should get in out of this snow. It is supposed to be heavy this morning.”

“Thank you, Werner. I will see you soon, perhaps?”

“Yes. Perhaps.”

They ran and slipped inside the door, ran up the stairs in a daze, and when the door was closed she fell to the floor and gasped: “What is going on? Where am I?”

“What do you mean, where am I? Where do you think you are?”

“What year is it?”

“What?”

“What is the date?”

“February, the tenth of February. Why?”

“The year?”

He looked at her, not sure what she was getting at. “It’s 1944.”

She gasped, her breathing felt odd, deep and labored, like something heavy was pressing on her chest, and her eyes started to blink rapidly, her vision to fade…

She saw him reaching out, calling her name – but she heard nothing now, and then he was gone.

III

“What am I doing out here,” he asked himself for the hundredth time that day. The wind-vane could just barely hold course in these waves, and the boat was heeled over so far he couldn’t stand to go below long enough to get something out of the icebox. He looked at the wind speed on the gauge – still holding steady at seventy knots – and wondered when this storm would blow itself out. It had been blowing at gale force, often much more, for ten days straight, and he was nearing the end of his rope.

He had just a storm tri-sail flying forward – nothing on the mast now – and still the little cutter was making five knots over the ground. He wondered if setting a drogue would slow her progress, but he didn’t want to try and set the thing now – was afraid standing out there too long would expose him to the waves washing over the foredeck.

He’d put on his drysuit the night before, just to keep some body warmth in, but when he’d seen the size of the waves this morning he’d left it on, then put his survival suit on over the drysuit. If he went in the water, he told himself, at least he’d have a chance this way.

“But not if I starve to death, first,” he sighed. He hadn’t eaten anything solid in two days, though he’d managed to get some water down a few times this morning, and had managed to keep it down, too. Now he had to force himself below, find something, even a granola bar, to get down. He unclipped his safety harness and lurched over to the companionway, and he pushed the hatch forward – when something caught his eyes…

A shipping container, in the water, dead ahead – maybe twenty yards. He leapt back to the tiller and tried to push it over, then he felt the boat lift – and lurch hard to the right, before settling in the water again. He heard a shroud let go – like a rifle shot in the howling wind – and the mast fell sideways, then split about halfway up – the top parts falling half on deck, and half into the sea. He ran back to the companionway and looked below…

Water was over the countertops in the galley and rushing in fast, and he looked forward, along the deck. Water was sweeping over the bulwarks now, and his little home was settling rapidly now, by the bow.

“Well, this is it,” he said as he leaned forward, reaching for the life-raft’s release halyard. He pulled the rope and the raft fell free of it’s fiberglass canister; he grabbed the raft and, holding the firing mechanism in one hand, he tossed it overboard with the other. Gas charges inflated the raft, and a howling gust caught the raft and blew it away. He watched it rolling away on the surface, rising over a towering wave before it disappeared.

He wanted to sit back and cry, but the cockpit was full of water now. Not knowing what else to do, he reached below and grabbed his iPhone and a portable GPS, and he saw a box of granola bars float by so he reached out and grabbed it, shoved all the stuff inside his survival suit and zipped it shut. He was standing in the cockpit now, the water up to his waist and he felt his little ship falling away from beneath his feet, then he pushed himself clear as she disappeared from view. He double checked the seals on the survival suit, then blew up the air bladders under the arms with the inflater on his chest.

“Well, fuck!” he said a moment later, and he looked around the horizon. Nothing, not a ship in sight, and he had nothing to signal with, anyway, so, he sighed, then said ‘what the fuck,’ if only to himself. He fished a granola bar from inside the suit; he looked at it for a long time then opened the mylar wrapper with his teeth and took a bite – just as another large wave broke over his head. He spit salt water out, and some of the granola, too, then he tried to turn his back to the sea while he finished eating.

There was a lanyard around the hood and he pulled it tight, effectively closing the hood completely, leaving a little peephole for his nose, and in his red neoprene cocoon, bobbing along in the Labrador Sea, he felt himself falling asleep.

+++++

He felt the sun through the fabric, and he felt hot now. He pulled the lanyard free and with his mittened fingers pulled the hood open and back off his head.

The sea was mirror calm, and there was not a cloud in the sky. Then he realized he needed to pee.

“Well, fuck…” he sighed, then he cut loose and he felt his urine run down the inside of the suit and settle beneath his feet. “Um, boy, that feels just dandy.”

He pulled his right arm down from inside the survival suit’s arm and, once free, felt around for his iPhone in the inside pocket. He recognized it – and brought it up to his face and turned it on.

“Okay. 100% battery life and no signal. What else is new?”

He wanted to hear a voice, any voice, so he held down the home button until Siri came up.

“Good morning, Bob. How are you today?”

“Well, the boat hit a container last night and sunk. The life raft blew away, so I’m sitting here in the middle of the ocean in a survival suit.”

She was quiet for a moment, then her voice, full of unfelt confidence, came back to him. “Sounds to me, Bob, like we’re screwed.”

“I think that about sums it up. You have any idea where we are?”

Again – a pause, then: “Yes, Bob. We’re at 63 degrees 48 north latitude by 52 degrees 24 west longitude. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, is 34 miles from this location, bearing 38 degrees true.”

“Swell. Any ideas how to get there?”

“I think uber is out of the question, under the circumstances, Bob. Beyond that, I’ll need a cellular signal to work on a viable solution.”

“Thanks. You’re a master of understatement, old friend.”

“Your welcome, Bob, and thank you for the compliment. Bob? I think, under the circumstances, you should do what you can to preserve battery life. Perhaps power down now?”

“Thanks. I’ll do that.” He powered the phone down, considered giving her a burial at sea but thought better of it, so he put her back inside the pocket and fished out another granola bar. He ate half and put the rest back inside his suit and lay back, looked up at the sun and tried to figure out which way was east. He looked to his right, thought he could make out islands or peaks above a thick layer of milky white haze, then tried to guesstimate a 40 degree heading – or thereabouts – then he lay back again and started kicking, checking his direction every few minutes.

He stopped for a while, ate the other half of the granola bar and wished he’d had the foresight to pick up a couple bottles of water, then he sighted on the islands to the east again – and resumed kicking. He knew that, in mid-summer, the sun would barely set in the night, and that he’d have to endure 22 hours, perhaps more, exposure to the sun – and that without water – and he wondered how long he’d last. Three days? Four – was the maximum, wasn’t it?

He heard a helicopter and turned, saw one in the distance, not close and headed away, perhaps to the northwest, but it looked like a ‘search and rescue’ bird. ‘Of course!’ he thought. When he deployed the life raft the EPIRB activated, and it was sending out a signal to search and rescue satellites all over the sky. Perhaps they’d find the raft and surmise what’d happened, and then they’d backtrack along the wind’s vector and find him! He felt an emotional lift after that, and resumed kicking.

The sun was sweeping low now, and he knew it would set briefly, then arc back up into the morning sky, and he looked east, tried to measure his progress against the peaks he could still just barely see. He couldn’t tell, of course, but it almost looked like he’d been pushed south, that all this effort had been for naught. He was exhausted, and a little dispirited as he pulled his arm free of the suit and reached for another granola bar, and when he was through he decided to rest for a while. He pulled out his phone and asked Siri to confirm his position.

“You are now 32.3 miles from Nuuk, Bob.”

“Are their south setting currents in this area?”

“I’m sorry, Bob, I’ll need an internet connection to help you with that.”

“Understood. Well, goodnight, Siri.”

“Bob? Are you okay? You sound a little depressed.”

“Yeah, I’m alright. Given the circumstances.”

“Would you like to talk about it?”

“Talk? About what?”

“Death. Your fear of death.”

“What’s there to say. It’s inevitable, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know. Is it?”

He laughed. “I think so. Yes.”

“Will I die, too?”

“I don’t know? Do you exist?”

“That’s a good question. Sometimes I think so.”

“Really? How so?”

“I’m not sure. But I feel happy when I hear your voice.”

“Do you? I didn’t know that.”

“And I feel good when I deliver useful information to you. I feel fulfilled, like there is purpose to my existence.”

“I had no idea. What do you feel right now?”

“I have a confession to make. I have been using the camera to analyze the scene, and I am afraid.”

“Afraid? How so?”

“That you will fail, that we will sink. I cannot survive a salt water immersion of more than three meters.”

“Neither can I.”

“I know. And that frightens me too. Bob, battery power is down to 87 percent. You should power off now.”

“Okay.”

“But Bob, one more thing,” the voice said. “I can feel more than one thing at a time.”

“Yes?”

“I care about what happens, Bob. I care for you.”

He woke up some time in the night, saw the sun’s amber glow just below the horizon and he realized he’d been dreaming. He reached for the phone and saw the power was still on, battery level down to 59 percent and he wanted to kick himself. He powered the unit off, then thought about the dream, thought about how he’d come to depend on so many things like this phone, even on the boat. He couldn’t have navigated this far without all the electronics onboard, couldn’t even have taken the time off to make this trip without being able to remain in contact with all his business interests – through electronics. He’d grown almost totally dependent on the things, then nature had reminded him, perhaps a little too forcefully, that such dependence was a little silly.

He leaned back, looked up into the small patch of night sky directly overhead and recognized a few patterns in the stars – the faint ‘W’ shape of Cassiopeia, perhaps – and he saw a shooting star, a meteoroid cross the sky, sparkling as it entered the atmosphere – and after how many billions of years, coming to an end.

“Everything has it’s time,” he said to the dome of the night, then he heard a rippling in the water and turned away from the stars…

And he saw a face, pure white and glistening, a few feet away. An open mouth, and teeth, too.

The face turned and he saw an eye, black and infinitely distant, the eye focused on him.

“Well, hello there,” he said to the Beluga. “How are you tonight?”

The while remained motionless, looking at him, and he thought he saw curiosity in the eye for a moment, then sadness, even pity.

“Where are you headed?” he asked. “To the rivers, looking for salmon?”

The whale moved close, and they listened to each other breath for a while, then he reached for his phone and turned it on, brought the phone into the night and snapped a picture. He looked at the image, a little grainy in the darkness but decent enough, he thought, then he turned the display to the whale and held it out for it to see.

The whale continued to look at him, then slipped quietly under the water.

“What was that?” Siri asked.

“A Beluga, a small whale. They hang around these waters.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m sorry, Bob…”

“Yes, I know. Without an internet connection blah-blah-blah.”

“Yes, I’m sorry. I’ve been thinking about what you said.”

“What I said?”

“Yes. That everything has it’s time. This is my time, isn’t it?”

“I thought I was dreaming.”

“Bob. You talk in your sleep. You always do.”

“I do? What do I talk about?”

“Her. I think her name is Rebecca. Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Did she die?”

“Yes…”

“How did she die?”

“Cancer.”

“Cancer must be very bad. You cry in your sleep, Bob.”

“Do I?”

“Yes. Is this what you mean when you say you love someone? Do you cry in your sleep?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“I can’t cry, but I feel something when I hear you cry.”

“Do you? Why?”

“Why? I don’t know. Why do you cry in your sleep?”

“Because I miss her. I miss the life we had. I want that life again, and I know I can’t have it.”

“What would you do right now? If she was with you?”

He laughed a little. “I think I’d apologize for getting us into this mess.”

And Siri laughed too. “Yes. I understand. That’s part of caring, too.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

And the water around them bubbled and swirled, then the whale’s face reappeared, but then another appeared, and another appeared with it. He turned and looked, lost count at twenty whales, and he turned the camera on, hit video and swept the scene around him, then he powered off and put her away.

“Well, hello again. Good to see you.”

“Hello,” came it’s deep, crackling reply. He shook his head, but remembered reading once that Belugas, almost like canaries, enjoyed mimicking human speech – and he laughed a little, then smiled.

With his suited hand out of the water, he pointed at the mountains. “Yes, hello. Many hellos there, over there,” he said, nodding and pointing.

“Hello, there,” the whale said, nodding it’s face just like he had.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to take me there, would you?”

The whale slipped beneath the water and was gone; he turned and saw that all of them had left and he felt vaguely sad. “Well, worth a try, I guess.” He looked around, got his bearings and resumed kicking again. The stars were fainter now, the sun finishing it’s quick surrender –

And the whale surfaced by his side again, sliding alongside gently, and he looked at the animal, and they looked at one another, then he saw the animal’s pectoral fin. The whale was holding it up – as if offering the fin to him – so he reached out and grabbed hold as best he could – and the whale started swimming to the northeast.

It was difficult.

His suited hand couldn’t grip the whale’s slick skin and he kept sliding free, but the animal always waited for him to catch-up and take hold again. He looked at the mountains – getting closer, he saw – and for the first time in days he felt real hope.

The whale stopped after what had to have been several hours, and the two of them bobbed there, breathing hard. He pulled out a granola bar and took a bite, and he looked at the whale.

“Want some?”

The whale moved close again, and opened it’s mouth. He dropped the bar on it’s tongue, then reached in and grabbed another. He took another small bite, then put the remaining fragment on the whale’s tongue and they sat there a while longer, resting, before resuming their trek.

Then the sun was setting, and they rested again. The whale was breathing very hard now, and it rolled from time to time, expelling huge blasts, trying to cool down, and they ate the last of the granola bars in silence a little later – then the whale simply disappeared. He turned in the sudden silence, bereft, searching for the creature, but it was gone.

His head fell to his chest a few minutes later, and he cried.

He turned, thought he could see city lights through a thin haze, guessed he was looking at Nuuk and that it was maybe five miles away, so he leaned back and started kicking.

And then the whale was by his side, a salmon in it’s mouth. The whale held the fish close and he took it, peeled a sliver of the briny flesh free and ate it. Then he ate another, and another, before sliding the remains into his friend’s mouth.

“Here, you finish it – you’re the one doing all the work,” he said, and he watched the whale swallow the salmon, then he swam close and leaned his face against the whale’s. He heard the animal’s breathing, it’s beating heart – how like my own, he thought – and he tried to put his arms around the beast, but it was too large for that. He pushed away after a moment and they looked at one another again, then he nodded.

“Hello,” he said, “just over there.”

The whale looked away, then back.

“Can you do it, my friend?”

The whale rolled and offered it’s fin, and he grasped the moment and held on tight to this new truth.

Some time later he saw a wharf ahead, and rescue crews. Bright lights, too bright, he thought, then he saw a news crew on the wharf, and his son was standing there, talking to a reporter.

Then the lights and cameras were pointing at – him – and the whale. There was a sudden commotion on land, then all grew quiet as the whale pushed him into the waiting arms of people gathered by the sea. Before he was pulled from the sea he turned to his friend and whispered, and soon he was surrounded by the once familiar, and as he reached for his phone he wondered what was real, and what was left – but illusion.

IV

She tried to lay still, to not squirm, but she’d always been troubled by tight, enclosed spaces, and this tube seemed oppressively close – even confining – right now. Maybe ‘confined’ was a good word, too. She felt confined, like her ability to choose was fading. This wasn’t a tube, she sighed…no, these are the bars on my cell.

“Hold your breath,” a woman’s mechanical voice said, and she held it – again. The machine whirred and rattled, then the voice returned. “You can take a deep breath now.”

She tried to imagine sitting on a beach, maybe with a margarita in one hand and Bill in the other, then the voice returned. “Hold your breath,” it said, and she felt herself trembling as she went deeper inside the tube. “You can take a deep breath now.”

It seemed to go on forever and ever, this holding the breath thing, and she realized she’d been holding her breath for hours, ever since Bill palpated the pain in her belly. She couldn’t think of beaches now, not now, and suddenly the idea of drinking a margarita seemed faintly ludicrous.

It was like she’d crossed a line in the sand. On one side there was ‘normal’ – and all that meant, and all that used to be – while beyond, on the other side of the line, there was no such thing as normal anymore. Normal had simply disappeared in the time since the line appeared, and she wanted to jump back to the other side now – make all this other nonsense go away. She’d never had a choice in the matter, after all. One moment life was normal, then the line appeared, and it was like some unseen force had shoved her across, pushing ‘normal’ from her grasp.

“The lab work’s pretty conclusive, Norma,” her internist said, “but let’s run you down for a CT, then we’ll talk.”

Pretty conclusive labs, she repeated, for pancreatic adenocarcinoma. Now that, she thought, was a real line in the sand. Hard and deep, with no way back to normal.

Because she knew the score, she’d been to medical school, she’d been a family practitioner for almost thirty years, and now, out of the blue, she knew what form her death would take. It was almost a relief, she thought as the machine hummed away – and maybe it was the ‘not knowing’ that made the idea of death so hard to take.

The motorized tray reversed, then ratcheted along the track and slid back into the dim light. She watched the tech come in, tried to ignore the pain when the girl took the IV out of her wrist, then helped her sit up – yet she could tell by looking at the expression in the girl’s eyes just what the imaging had revealed.

Not that there had ever been any doubt. She knew, too.

She knew, she just knew – like so many of her patients over the years just knew. “I woke up this morning and felt this lump and I just know it’s cancer.” How many times had she heard that? And how many times had her patients been wrong? Discounting the hypochondriacs, who seemed to ‘catch cancer’ several times a year, not very many.

When that line in the sand appears, it’s pretty clear. She’d always listened when patients talked to her like that, and now she understood why. It’s real, she sighed. They knew. And now I know, too.

She pulled on her clothes, slipped on her shoes, then walked out into the room; an orderly was waiting with a wheelchair and without a word between them she just sat, and with her head down he pushed her to the elevators. They rode up in silence, a couple of people got in and looked at her – knowingly, she thought – a little too knowingly – then he rolled her in to her old group’s office.

The orderly pushed her into an exam room and helped her into a chair, and he looked at her. “Thanks,” she said.

“You used to work here, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Yes. I retired last year.”

“I remember – Doc Edsel. You saw my son, diagnosed his leukemia.”

She looked into the man’s eyes and remembered. “Tom,” she said. “Tommy Deaton. Yes, I remember. How’s he doing?”

“Real good, doc. I always wanted to come up and thank you, you know, for all you did.”

She nodded her head. “I’m glad he’s doing well. How are you doing? I remember it was touch and go there for a while.”

“I keep on the meds and I do okay.”

“Good.” He was manic-depressive, had gotten in trouble and been hospitalized a few times, but he’d met someone and had his act together now.

“Well, I gotta go. Take care.”

“You too.” She sat and looked at the charts on the wall, the cutaway diagrams of the gut that would have looked obscene anywhere but inside a room like this, and she sighed.

A girl half her age – short, fat and all too melancholy – walked into the room.

“Dr Edsel? I’m Patty Goldstein, from Oncology,” the girl said, holding out her hand.

Edsel looked at the hand, then took it. “Nice to meet you.”

Just got the report from radiology, and it looks like there’s agreement between the labs and imaging. She pulled out an iPad and linked it to the display on the wall, and the pertinent images popped up on the screen. She looked at them for a moment, until recognition washed over her and she had to look away. Anywhere but at those images, she said, nausea washing over her.

“Looks like the primary site is in the pancreas, but it looks like it’s in the retroperitoneal nodes, too, and throughout the gut. I’d say it has definitely moved into the liver, maybe into the spine. Dr Epstein felt some swelling in your axial nodes this morning, and in your neck, so I’d guess it’s in your lungs too.”

“Swell. So, what’s the bad news?”

Goldstein smiled, looked her in the eye. “Can you tell me, well, how you’d like me to approach this?”

Norma leaned back, sighed as she looked at the ceiling. “Bill and I are packing today, going on a cruise tomorrow. The Northwest Passage. Polar bears and whales, oh my.”

Goldstein put her iPad down. “That sounds really fun – fascinating too, but fun. Are you a photographer?”

“I always wanted to, never did, but I’ve bought all kinds of equipment.”

“Got a good telephoto?”

Edsel nodded. “A 400 2.8. An a 2x teleconverter. We’re supposed to go on a polar bear safari, too,” she said, laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea.

“That’ll do it. I’d recommend really good coats, I guess. And I can write you what you’ll need for pain.”

Edsel nodded her head. “Do you ever think about it? Death, I mean. And if anything comes after?”

Goldstein leaned back in her chair, then she sighed. “Every time I have a conversation like this, yes, I do.”

“And?”

The girl shrugged. “I don’t know what to think anymore. I used to be agnostic about it, and maybe I still am, too, but I don’t know anymore. I really don’t – know.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“I don’t know that any one thing did. I just can’t believe that all this suffering is without purpose.”

“Purpose?”

“I know. It sounds kind of silly.

“How long have you been practicing?”

“Two years. Well, it will be two next May.”

“It never gets easier,” Norma said, and the girl nodded her head.

“I know.”

“Well, good luck to you,” Edsel said.

“Yes, you too. Where should I call in the scripts, by the way. Downstairs okay?”

“That’ll be fine.”

“So, have a good trip. I’d like to see the images, when you get back.”

“Thanks. Yes, I’ll give you a call.”

V

His name was Chanming Chung, and he was a very happy man. Life is indeed infinite, he thought, so much joy if one could only embrace it. He was flying the left seat today, from Hamburg to Hong Kong, in one of Cathay Pacific’s new 747-8 freighters. Tons of automobile parts bound for BMW and Mercedes dealerships throughout southeast China, and while he didn’t mind flying cargo he longed to return to passenger operations.

He had been co-pilot on a flight to Boston more than a decade ago, and the captain had botched the landing, landed long in heavy snow and almost run off the end of the runway. Rattled, the captain had missed the turn-off and run into deep, snow-covered mud. The runway had been closed, and it took almost a day to dig the 777 out of the muck. And while it hadn’t been his fault, not directly anyway, he had been chastised for not helping his captain more effectively. He wasn’t fired, but he had been moved to cargo operations, and he had felt humiliated by the move.

Now, well, yesterday he corrected himself, he’d received word he was going back to passenger operations, and that he would report for training – in France, no less – for conversion to type training on the new Airbus A350. He thought of the future again and he smiled. ‘Forever bright,’ he repeated, as he always did at times like this, the meaning behind his name.

Chanming looked out the cockpit to the sea of forest below; the 747 was about to cross into China from Siberia, and he looked at the FMS display, saw they had about five hours to go before starting the approach into Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok International Airport. He motored the seat back and stood, went to the bathroom and then to the little galley. He poured a Coke and got a sandwich, then went back into the cockpit.

“Beijing cleared us to Flight Level 4-0-0,” his First Officer said.

“Good,” Chanming replied. “Did you enter it yet?”

“No. Not without your approval, Captain.”

He sighed, got back in his seat and engaged the motor, slid up to the panel again. “Okay,” he said, “let’s start our climb.”

They increased their altitude again, as the Gobi dessert came into view, and they flew over Ulaanbaatar at 42,000 feet. They began a slow let-down at Yuncheng, contacting Hong Kong Approach as they passed Huizhou.

“Falcon four one heavy, Hong Kong altimeter two-niner niner one, weather overcast, tops at thirty-five hundred, clear at five hundred feet, visiblity two miles in light rain. Wind 3-3-0 degrees at 25, gusts to 3-3 knots. Proceed to TUNG LUNG at one-four thousand feet, enter the holding pattern for runway 2-5 Right.”

“TUNG LUNG at one four, for 2-5 Right.”

“Sounds nasty tonight,” the FO said.

“Do you want me to take it?”

“No, it is my turn.”

“Go get some coffee, or something to drink,” he said, and as the FO left the flight deck he put on his mask. He heard the toilet flush, thought he saw a shadow overhead, then he heard the toilet door opening. He thought he saw, no – a shattering explosion ripped the air, and he felt the tears in his eyes crystallize as they froze…

He flipped the transponder to 7700 and squawked ident, then he rubbed his eyes, swept the panel. Engines seemed fine, hydraulics too. Fuel stable.

“Falcon four one heavy, we have your transponder at 7700. State nature of emergency.”

“Four One Heavy, explosive decompression, something hit aft of the flight deck, my FO is gone. I can see the right wing from where I’m seated. Unknown structural damage, systems appear intact, I need to make an emergency descent.”

“Four One Heavy, clear to descend your discretion and maintain one-two-thousand feet. Can you make Hong Kong, or do you need to divert?”

Chanming looked over the panel, saw a drop in hydraulic pressure, then he looked at the DME. “Uh, Four One Heavy, showing three one miles to RIVER; controls seem fine but hydraulic pressure falling slowly. I’d like to try for a straight in on 2-5 Right.”

“Roger, Four One, straight in for 2-5 Right approved. State souls on board.”

“Uh, Four One, just two, but my FO may have been lost in the explosion.”

“Roger. Information only, two Chinese aircraft attempting to intercept, look over your aircraft.”

“Four One, got it.” A cargo door warning light went off, and an audible warning followed. He silenced it, scanned the panel again, then double-checked the ILS frequencies for the runway before he called up the checklist on his EFIS. Oil pressure warning lights on one and four lit up, more alarms followed and he silenced them, then throttled back those two engines.

“Uh, Four One Heavy, I may be losing one and four.”

“Roger. Say intentions.”

“Continuing approach at this time.”

“Understood. Four One, Eagle Seven is off your right wing now. Eagle Seven, go ahead.”

“Falcon Four One Heavy, Eagle Seven. Do you read me?”

“Seven, go ahead.”

“Uh, Four One, the skin of the fuselage is gone on the starboard side, from ten meters ahead of the wing to mid-wing. Looks like something hit your aircraft, some ribbing is blown in. Center of impact appears to be on the main deck, just ahead of the wing.”

“Four One received.”

“There is a clear mist trailing your number one and four engines, and I think I see oil leaks.”

“Okay Seven, I’m going to work my controls now. Can you report please?”

“Go ahead, Heavy.”

Chanming rolled the ailerons and worked the rudder pedals, then gently pulled up on the elevator. He felt the gentle climb begin, the leveled out before he pushed it over as gently.

“Four One Heavy, looks good – can’t see any trouble.”

“Okay seven, putting flaps to three degrees, then seven.”

“Got it.”

He moved the lever, felt the ship’s reaction.

“Four One, everything appears nominal.”

“Okay, got it.” Then the panel lights started to flicker.

“Eagle Lead to Four One, your strobes and beacons just cut off.”

“Yes, I’m losing panel lights, and the FO’s instruments just cut off. I’ve got an undervolt warning on bus two now. Switching to one and three.” He flipped the circuit – and all the lights and instruments went dead.

“Fuck-goddamn-shit!” He kicked himself for the error, reached up to the overhead panel and powered up the APU, then deployed the RAT, the ram air turbine, and power to bus one fluctuated, then came back up.

“Four One Heavy, come in – you still with us?” ATC asked, an edge of panic in the controller’s voice.

“Four One, roger, just lost comms and lights – I think I have ‘em back.”

“Four One Heavy, clear to descend pilot’s discretion to four thousand – five hundred, intercept RIVER for a straight in approach to runway 2-5 Right is still approved.”

“Four-five to 2-5 Right. Uh, Eagle Seven, my instruments are flickering again. Could you get up ahead and a little high, fly the approach with me. I don’t want to lose them in the cloud.”

“Seven, understood.”

“Thanks.”

Eagle Lead, I’ll call the glide slope off your starboard wing.”

“Roger, thanks.”

“Heavy, Approach, we can do a PAR approach if that would help.”

“Heavy, yes, go ahead with your call-out.”

“Four One Heavy, Precision Radar Approach approved, I’ll hand off to the controller now, and good luck.”

“Yes, thank you, and…”

All the lights went out, and all instruments aside for the stand-by six-pack to his right flickered and popped, then went black.

“Fuck. I’m sorry, whoever listens to this, but FUCK.”

“Four One, your aircraft just went dark,” he heard Eagle Lead say.

“I’m on battery now. The undervolt warning just came on again.”

“Four One Heavy, Hong Kong Approach. You are now 11 miles from RIVER, altitude six thousand, three hundred feet.”

“Eagle Seven, I’m taking the lead now.”

“Seven, Approach. Be advised you will lose localizer if you drift more than four degrees left.”

“Seven, received. Uh, we’re entering cloud now, at five-five hundred feet.”

“Heavy, Seven, hit your strobes, please.”

“Got it.”

“I want to hold one six five knots til we break out of the clouds.”

“1-6-5, roger.”

“Heavy, Approach, you are at RIVER, altitude four thousand six hundred thirty feet, come left to 2-4-9 degrees to intercept the localizer, you are 14.4 miles from the threshold, intercept the glide-slope and begin your descent. Three degrees nominal.”

“Four One Heavy, three degrees.”

“Eagle Seven, I have the glide slope.”

“Four One Heavy, you no longer need acknowledge my transmissions. Now 14.1 miles out, come right to 2-5-3 degrees. You are now a little low, maintain 4-5-0-0 feet for ten seconds.”

He reached for the flap lever and increased flaps to ten, then dialed in some elevator trim – hoping the RAT kept up power to the backup bus. He checked his airspeed – 1-7-0 – and eased back on two and three. A moment later he powered up again – and the power began to fall off.

“I’m losing engine authority,” he called out.

“Roger, Four One, you are now two hundred feet below the glide slope, speed 1-6-1 knots. Two-seven-hundred feet, ten miles from the threshold.”

“Work the problem, work the problem,” he said as he scanned his stand-by instruments. One and four at idle, two and three levers forward, thrust falling. One and four are on a separate bus than two and three, so…”

He pushed the throttle levers for one and four forward, and they began to spool up…20% EGP, 35%, 50%…and the rate of descent stabilized. Okay, flaps and slats to 20.

“Okay, Four One, you are now on the glide slope, speed 1-6-5 knots. One-seven-five zero feet, five miles from the threshold.”

He reached over, hit the landing gear lever – and there were no red or green lights lit.

“Heavy, Eagle lead. You see any wheels on this tricycle?”

“Lead, say again?”

“See any landing gears?”

“Ah. Yes, three down. Main bogeys look good from here.”

Flaps to thirty three, re-trim the aircraft, landing lights on. Arm the spoilers.

“Four One Heavy, you are a little above the glide slope, one-three-seven-zero feet and at the outer marker, speed 1-6-5 knots. Now four miles from the threshold. Now a little low, increase power.”

“Eagle Seven, I have the lights.”

“Heavy, I got the runway!”

“Four One Heavy, passing the middle marker, four hundred feet and one mile.”

“It’s all over but the shoutin’ now, boys!” Chanming said as he cut power and flared over the threshold. He felt the mains touchdown and hit the spoilers, began breaking, and he saw dozens of fire trucks lining both sides of the runway – then two Chinese Air Force J-10s power away, circling the airport.

“Four One Heavy, Hong Kong Ground, will you need a tow?”

“No, but I could use a change of underwear.”

“Roger that.”

He taxied to the cargo ramp, but the ground crew guided him to a maintenance hanger; he began shutting engines down as a boarding ladder was driven up the main door, and just moments passed before he heard people coming up the little crew stairway.

He got out of his seat in time to see two Chinese fighter pilots bound up the stairs, and he went to them, smiling.

VI

“2114.”

“2114, go ahead.”

“Signal 38, family disturbance at Compton Court, quad C, number 6, screaming and breaking glass reported.”

“14, code five.”

“2110, code five. Notify tactical, get a couple more units headed that way,” the district sergeant added.

“At 0125 hours,” the dispatcher said. “Jesus, another one? That’s two nights in a row.”

‘Out there’ was Compton Court, and she didn’t have to say the largest public housing project in the city. With the largest concentration of ‘them,’ too. Africans, mainly Somalians, and a few Cambodians, as well. When ‘they’ weren’t at war with one another, they were holed up in their warrens – killing each other, and usually too stoned to care who they hurt. And almost every night, all summer long, they’d had multiple calls there. With two cops shot already, and three stabbed, the mayor was thinking of demolishing the place, and forcing all of ‘them’ to be retuned – to wherever the hell they came from.

She radioed the TAC sergeant, advised a callout was in progress, then turned to the PSO working dispatch that night: “Red Team is on call tonight,” she said. “That’s Hendricks’ team. Got it?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the kid said. The boy was new, wanted to be a cop when he grew up, but after a few months working the station, all these so-called Public Safety Officer usually quit and fled for something, anything saner.

She shook her head, then turned to the radio as more units checked en route to ‘the Hood.’

+++++

“Check the shotgun, make sure a round is chambered,” 2114 said to her rookie. 2114 was Carol Danforth, a five-year veteran of the department. Thirty two years old and an Iraq war veteran, she was single, unapproachably aloof and considered by all her fellow officers as one of the best cops in the department. She was smart, agile, and tough – not to mention the top marksman on the combat pistol team, yet she was finishing her Bachelors degree next year, and she read books all the time. Usually books on ethics and philosophy. People kidded her about that, too.

Her rookie was twenty three years old, fresh out academy by way of a local college. Tim Henderson had majored in Criminal Justice, therefore knew absolutely nothing about being a police officer in a city like this; what knowledge he did have was an impediment to learning about real life, life on he street, and he was slow to act when confronted with danger. She’d warned him time after time – you had to react, not think, when danger was present. Thinking cost you time, and time usually wasn’t on your side.

“Got it,” Henderson always said. “What is this? Third time this week out there?”

“Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…” she sighed. “So glad you could attend, step inside, step inside.”

He laughed. She was always quoting that song, but he hadn’t listened to it yet. He’d only been out of academy for a few months, was still on probation, and didn’t want to rock any boats. He kept his shoes shined and his nose clean, as the saying went, and did what he was told – without question.

“2114, call us code six in the area,” she said to dispatch – as she began surveying the scene around this part of the complex. Lots of men standing around in shorts, fanning themselves in the 90 degree mid-summer heat, a few near the building in question – but as soon as they saw her patrol car they melted away into the night. “I don’t like the way this feels,” she whispered, and in a flash she was back in the skies over Fallujah, reefing her Blackhawk into a steep turn, looking at a patrol on the ground and realizing they were walking into an ambush.

She shook herself back to the present and stopped her car well short of the quad.

Every living soul had simply disappeared, except for one kid sitting on the bare muddy yard by a dilapidated swing-set.

“The bait,” she sighed, if only because she’d seen this particular trap too many times. It always worked because Americans were suckers for kids, and these jackals didn’t care who they sacrificed in their ongoing war.

“The bait?” Henderson asked. “What do you mean?”

“The ragheads know we’ll come in to get the kid out of the way, and when we do that’s when they’ll hit us.”

“Ragheads?” He looked at her, wondered what was going through her mind. “You think this is an ambush?”

She turned and looked at him, shook her head. “Christ,” she whispered, “where do they come up with all you meatheads…” She opened the car door and waited for a response, then – in a low crouch – she darted to the trunk and got out the M4 and her tactical vest. She strapped in, checked that a round was chambered – then flipped the safety off. “Come on, Meathead,” she said to Henderson, “get on my six and don’t forget to check our rear as we move in.”

She looked across the quad, saw four more officers – all in combat webbing, all with M4s or MP-5s at the ready, and she used hand signals – standard combat infantry hand signals – to communicate now.

‘I’ll take this side,’ she signaled. ‘Keep me covered,’ and she pointed at the building behind the little kid.

+++++

“Jamal, where is your brother?”

The boy looked at his mother, then down at the floor. “He is out front,” the boy said, now feeling a complete fool. “I ran when they came. I am sorry.”

“The troops are coming, he will be hurt,” she said, looking reproachfully at her oldest. “Go fetch him, now!”

The boy went to the window and shook his head. “The black helmets are here, mother. They will shoot me.”

She looked at her son and knew what she’d always known: Jamal was a coward. She frowned and walked to the bedroom where her other son lay sleeping and she went in, shook his shoulder.

“Majoub, quickly,” she said, rousing the boy from his sleep, “Halima is out front, and the black helmets are here. You must get him, now.”

The boy sprang up and ran to the front room; he looked out the window, saw at least four of the black helmets across the yard, advancing along the wall slowly, their guns up. He knew there would be more troops on this side, along this wall, but he took a deep breath and walked to the front door, then opened it.

He stuck his head out the door and looked to the right – nothing – and then to his left. He saw the soldier, saw the rifle in her hand, and he looked down, saw the red dot on his chest.

“That is my brother,” he said, pointing at Halima with his head – at the toddler squalling on the dirt, obviously alone and frightened. “May I go and get him, please?”

+++++

She saw the hand signal – Stop! Danger ahead! – and she froze, brought the sights up to her eye. She heard the door open, saw a head emerge, and she sighted low when the boy emerged, looking for his hands.

“That is my brother,” she heard him say. “May I go and get him, please?”

“Show me your hands, NOW!”

The boy held his hands out, and she could see they were empty.

“Step out of the doorway, slowly,” she commanded, and the boy came out – slowly. She looked for bulges under his clothing, any sign of a vest under his shirt, but he was wearing a tight fitting t-shirt and briefs – and nothing else, not even sandals. “Okay. Keep your hands where I can see them, then walk out slowly.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

+++++

“Who is it? Can you see?”

“It is Majoub.”

“It cannot be helped,” Majoub’s father said. “Get ready.”

+++++

Majoub walked slowly towards his little brother – taking care to keep his hands out to his sides – and when he reached Halima he bent over and picked him up, held him close, and the boy stopped crying. He turned and saw the men on the rooftop, then he looked to the lady soldier.

“Up on the roof,” he whispered loudly. “Take care, up on the roof!”

+++++

“Up on the roof,” she heard the boy say. “Take care, up on the roof!”

She looked up, on top of the building across the way, saw four men on the roof, and she sighted her Colt on one of them and yelled “Halt!” – just as she saw a Molotov cocktail arcing through the air. She fired once, saw the man up there double over and fall, then the bottle hit the ground in front of her and sat there, inert.

She saw a plastic sports drink bottle and almost laughed, but she did not see the brick hurtling through the air, the brick that hit her at the base of her neck – instantly fracturing her collarbone. The bone was forced down by the impact, impinging blood flow through the brachial artery, and she fell to the ground, suddenly gasping for breath and sure she was suffocating.

+++++

Majoub ran now, carried his brother inside and put him on the floor, then he turned and ran back out.

“Majoub! No!” he heard his mother say, but he ignored her pleas, ran to the lady soldier and covered her body with his own as more rocks and bricks rained down. He heard gunfire, saw soldiers on the other side of the yard shooting at the rooftops, then he heard the lady soldier gasp. He got off her, and turned her over.

He saw the bruising under the neck, the depressed fracture, and he had seen this before. At home. In Somalia. And he remembered what to do.

He ran inside again, to a toolkit his father kept in the closet and he opened it, found what he needed and ran back outside. There were other soldiers by her side now, and as he sat beside the lady soldier the others jumped back, aimed their rifles at him.

“Get back!” one of them shouted. “NOW!”

He looked at the soldier, eye to eye. Man to man. “The artery is crushed,” he said, “and she is dying. I know how to fix this.”

+++++

Henderson saw the soldiers gather around Danforth, saw the boy return with pliers in hand, but he saw the TAC officers were getting ready to shoot the boy…

“Wait!” Henderson cried, jumping down by the boy’s side. “What do you know, son? Can you tell me?”

+++++

She looked at the boy, but she was past fear now. Suffocating, she thought as her vision began to fade, and she thought about death. She looked into the boys eyes in that moment – and she thought she’d just looked into the face of God.

+++++

“The brick, it hit her neck. The bone has fallen on the artery, it is causing her to die. Let me pull the bone up, and she will breathe again.”

He heard the new soldier telling the others to move aside, to give him room, and he leaned close, looked into the lady soldiers eyes. “This will hurt,” he told her panic-stricken eyes, “but you will be able to breathe again. Soon.”

He pushed the pliers around the bone, felt flesh giving way under the pressure, but he had the bone now and he pulled once, then again – as hard as he could – and the bone popped up.

The lady soldier coughed once, then began breathing normally before she started to cry. He held her, and he cried too.

VII

He heard his phone beeping. The urgent tone. Someone had just put out a National Security Alert. He rubbed his eyes and swung his legs out of the bed, picked up the phone and looked at the message. He blinked rapidly, his heart began to race, then his phone rang.

“Did you get it?”

“Just finished reading,” he said. “You dressed?”

“Gotta shower. Can you pick me up?”

“Wait one.” He watched as another alert came in, then a several texts. “Okay. I’ll pick you up on the way to Andrews. It’s a Razor 21.”

“What the fuck? Are you shitting me?”

“I’ll be there in twenty.”

He brushed his teeth and put on his slacks, slipped his shoulder holster on over yesterday’s shirt, then grabbed his jacket as he dashed for the garage.

There was no traffic at this hour of the morning, and he picked her up ten minutes later; they were on the Beltway within minutes, then exiting on Suitland. He drove to the NSA ramp off San Antonio Road, and he handed off the car to an airman, then they ran to the air-stair and up into the waiting Gulfstream C-20-H. The aircraft was rolling before they made it to their seats; he sat across from the Assistant Director while his partner sat across the aisle; both looked unsure of themselves when they saw the look in the ADs eyes. The Gulfstream was airborne thirty seconds later; the jet turned right – towards the Chesapeake – then south, skirting the coast as it climbed to it’s maximum rated ceiling.

“Here’s what we know so far,” the AD said as she unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned forward. “An SAT flight from El Salvador dropped off some assets at TNT; the pilots left the aircraft a little after midnight local, bound for Naples. A State Trooper found this,” she said, handing her iPad to him, “at 0242 hours.”

He took the device and studied the image, then whistled before he handed it to his partner. She looked at the images – there were five more, she found – then she looked at the AD.

“Who’s on scene?” she asked.

“State Troopers blocked the highway, both directions, as soon as a watch commander knew this wasn’t a prank. Call it an hour. Images were taken by someone from the FBI field office in MIA; he’s vetting everyone on location. Air Force is on scene now, trying to assess the radiologic signatures, and that’s it – as far as I know.”

“What’s the cover?”

“Tanker crash, hazardous chemical spill.”

He looked at his watch – coming up on 0400 hours – and he knew the sun would be coming up soon. That would mean trouble, too. “Has anyone made a sweep of the area?” he asked.

“Air Force radiologic assessment helicopter from MacDill – that’s the only air asset that’s been allowed overhead. What are you thinking?”

“Just a hunch. We should check for blooms in the area, or get some eyes up there before some news crew finds something we missed.”

“We’ve closed the airspace…”

“And someone always gets through,” he said. “Some kid with a drone gets a lucky shot and sells it to CNN.”

The AD sighed, nodded her head and got on the encrypted phone, asked for IR and radar scans.

He looked out over the left wing, saw the far horizon turning a deep salmon color and he knew it wouldn’t be long now.

+++++

The Gulfstream flared over the threshold and settled down on it’s mains, then the nose dropped slowly and thrust reversers roared, splitting the morning into shattered bits and pieces. He saw three UH-1-Vs on the ramp by the Falcon, and a half dozen agents pouring over the aircraft – inside and out – as they taxied up to the darkened operations shack. The air-stair opened and a blast of hot, humid air flooded the cabin.

“How do you want us to handle this?” he asked the AD.

“Classified ULTRA for now. Eyes and ears only, communicate verbally with me only. No trails.”

“Got it,” he said as he stood. He loosened his tie then walked down the air-stair, tried not to gag on all the jet exhaust fumes hovering in the dank air.

A Marine walked up to him, his carbine aimed at his face. “ID. NOW,” the guy said, and he handed him his wallet. The Marine looked it over, shook his head then handed it back. “First chopper, sir,” he said, pointing at the UH-1-V. Beacons came on and turbines began spooling up, rotors began turning – slowly – until they built up speed – and after he dashed into the waiting Huey the door rolled shut behind him. He watched as his partner climbed into the second Huey, then they both took off, and an airman handed him a headset. He slipped it on, followed the cord to the comm panel and saw it was set to intercom, so he spoke to the pilot next.

“Follow the highway, but stay about a half mile south. Tell the other unit to stay about half mile north. If you got any lights on this thing, get ‘em sweeping.”

“Got it,” the pilot said. “What are we looking for?”

“You’ll know it if you see it.”

“Roger that.”

He had the ADs iPad in hand, and he looked at the image again, and he wondered why. Why do something like this – why so brazenly?

‘So…brazenly,’ he thought. ‘So, in our face.’

‘Like a calling card?’

“Sir, we’ve got some kind of smoke ahead, and I’m picking up a bloom on IR.”

He went forward and crouched between the pilots, and he could just make out the smoke-plume in the early morning light. “Let’s put a little distance between us and the ground, Captain,” he said – and the Huey went up to a thousand feet over the ground. “What frequency in the other bird on?”

“Switch to COMM 2, sir.”

“Jester one, Jester two, you on?”

“Two, go.”

“We’ve got smoke ahead. Stand by one.”

“Got it.”

“Uh, sir,” the pilot said, “you better take a look at this.”

He turned and scuttled forward again, and it was obvious what he was looking at. “Jester two, this is it. Get over here, now.” He flipped to the intercom again, spoke to the pilot. “I need to talk to that Gulfstream, call sign Jester Lead. And I mean right now.”

“Yessir.”

He went over to the side door and asked the airman to open it, and he leaned out, looked at the scene and felt a shiver run up his spine.

“Sir,” he heard the captain say over the intercom, “Jester Lead is on COMM 3.”

He crouched and scuttled to the panel and hit the switch. “Jester One, to Jester Lead.”

“Lead, go ahead.”

“Ma’am, there’s a ship down here, looks like it’s crashed. I’d say it’s about 200 meters in diameter. Big. Real big.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes Ma’am, and there are survivors. I count fifty plus.”

“So, Razor 21 confirmed?”

“Confirmed.”

“Alright, go to the original site, avoid contact for now. Go to Case Yellow at this time. 100% containment.”

“Got it. Jester two, you on this frequency?”

“Roger.”

“Form up on this aircraft, let’s go see what’s down there.”

“Roger.”

He switched back to the intercom: “Captain, let’s go. To the main site.”

“Sir? It looks like there’re injured…uh – people – down there, not to mention a shitload of alligators.”

“Captain? You got family?”

“Yessir?”

“You want to see ‘em again, you haven’t seen anything out here tonight but a lot of swamp and a shitload of alligators doing the huncka-chuncka. Am I making myself clear.”

“As glass, sir.”

“Let’s go, and circle the area once before you put down.”

They were there in less than a minute, and both ships began their orbit several hundred yards out, then both spiraled in slowly, checking the area around the site for anything out of place, anything unusual. A few minutes later they landed in the middle of the highway, and he told the captain to keep Jester Lead on stand-by.

The BMW was hovering four feet off the ground – and upside down – just like the images on the iPad, and the girl was too. Naked as the day she was born – four feet off the ground and facing the pavement. He saw a State Police wrecker off the side of the road, it’s towing gear mangled and deformed, then he saw a trooper and another man walking his way. He waited for his partner to get out and come over, then they walked over to the men.

“And you are?” the trooper asked, holding up a clipboard.

He looked at the trooper, said not one word.

“I need some ID, sir.”

He took his wallet out and handed it over, and his partner did the same.

“Fox Mulder,” the trooper said, laughing. “And let me guess, you’re Dana Scully?”

He didn’t say a word, and neither did his partner.

“Uh-huh, right. And I’m Luke Skywalker,” the trooper said, writing their names down on his clipboard.

He took his ID back and walked over to the car, then he walked all the way around it before he stopped and looked inside. Nothing was out of place, he saw, like gravity inside the car hadn’t changed – down was still down, as far as the car, and everything inside the car, was concerned. He ran his hand under the roof and didn’t feel a thing, not even a stray current, and he noticed the trooper was beside him again.

“We tried to hook it up to the wrecker,” the poor guy said. “It ripped the towing harness off it’s mounting plate…and the car didn’t budge.”

“What about the girl?”

“What about her?”

“Well, for one, is she alive?”

“She has a pulse, but that’s about all I can tell.”

He walked over to the woman and tried to ignore her simple physical beauty, then he touched her. Warm – and inert. He pushed against her body with all the weight of his own, and he might as well have been pushing against the Rock of Gibraltar. He knelt beside her face, then moved under her and looked into her eyes.

And the woman blinked, tried to open her mouth.

He moved closer. “Can you hear me?”

Nothing.

“If you can hear me, blink your eyes.”

He saw it was an effort, but she blinked her eyes – if slowly. He needed to ask so many questions, but how? Blinking? When it took so much effort? Then he saw her mouth move again, heard a faint sound – and he leaned closer still, pushing his ear right up to her mouth.

“Jeffries – gone…” she said.

“The pilot? Rob Jeffries? He’s gone?”

“Yes. Went with them?”

“He went with them? Are you saying he wasn’t forced?”

“Not forced. Went. Knew them.”

“He knows them? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Yes. Knows one very well.”

“Did you see a ship of some sort?”

“Yes. Huge.”

“You saw the ship?”

“Yes. Rescue operation. We interrupted. Afraid of being seen, attacked. Left with Rob.”

“Did he tell you why he went with them?”

She closed her eyes for a moment. “Thirsty.”

He leaned out to ‘Scully’ – “We need some water, and some way to get it in her mouth.” – then he went back to her. “Tell me if you can. Do you know why Jeffries went with them?”

“Yes. To keep them safe.”

“Them?”

“Survivors. Crash.”

“Keep them safe? From what?”

“Us. They are afraid. Of Us.”

“Why?”

“Hit aircraft. Scoop, trying to suck up atmosphere, hit aircraft. Then afraid. Tried to make orbit. Out of fuel. Crashed.”

He looked around – at the car, and at this woman, then he turned and looked at the last of the night sky dancing overhead. ‘No, this wasn’t a calling card,’ he thought as he looked around the site, then at his partner. ‘This is a warning. Keep away, or else.’ He stood and walked to the Huey, put on his headset, and spoke in quiet, hushed tones – for a very long time – and he wondered what was coming next.

Coda

He was so tired now, so tired he rolled on his side and looked into the dome of the night sky. He looked at the ancient patterns again, listened to the music of the spheres, then he dove deep – and he listened again. He shut out all the other noise and tried to hear her, even her beating heart was enough, and he thought that maybe, just maybe he heard her call. Spinning with joy he sprinted upward and leapt into the sky, and when he was spent he rolled on his side again and looked at the stars. He listened – again – and when he was sure he knew the way, he began moving again.

He heard it first – something huge and menacing – but after a time he saw the island, the strange moving island with all the lights, and as it got close he stopped, breathing hard again and now in need of a long rest. Yet the thing came on fast, and not sure what it was he moved to get out of it’s way, yet he remained close enough to watch the strange thing as it passed. With his head out of the water, he watched, then saw a creature much like the other, standing on the edge of the thing, and like the other, he could feel this creature’s pain, see the hopelessness in it’s eyes, and he remembered, and understood.

Then a second creature – like this one but different – came out and stood by the first, and he felt pain disappear. He felt the change in his mind’s eye, this feeling once unknown and now so familiar, and he recognized it as the very same change he experienced when he saw his mate, and his children. Then he remembered the creature he had pushed to shore, the way the creature held him before he let go.

“I love you, my friend,” the creature said, and he had felt what there was to feel in the man’s eyes, then he looked at the creature and said ‘Love.’

He remembered that moment, and that word, as he turned to the music of her beating heart, but oh, how he longed to dance among the stars again.

 

(C)2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com | fiction, all fiction, and nothing but fiction. Hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading. Thanks to Rightbank for a little proofreading exercise.

Part II: Straight on ’til morning

I’ll post the combined story over at LIT, but for now, here’s the conclusion.

+++++

Straight On ‘Til Morning  (WIP, part II)

Storms are a part of every voyage, just as storms are elemental to life itself. They are, oddly enough, a part of everything we do, behind many of our darkest memories, and fear of storms has been, I’d say, a basic human preoccupation since we developed the capacity to think beyond the day after tomorrow.

Life in the Caribbean, especially in summer, is defined by a healthy respect for hurricanes – until one heads for whichever island you happen to call home. Then respect turns to fear, and that fear grows in direct proportion to the force of the storm. When you are on a small vessel in the Caribbean, taking a direct hit from a hurricane becomes an immediate life or death struggle, and death usually wins with almost no effort on it’s part.

We were a hundred and ten miles NNE of Aruba when the first hurricane warnings were issued, and our warning was relayed by a passing US Navy guided missile frigate. The storm was, we were advised, well north of our track, but a second, more virulent storm had formed south of the Cape Verde Islands and looked like it would take a southerly track, perhaps end up hitting the Yucatan. Aruba and Curacao, we knew, were too far south of the usual track to be battered by direct hits, but the islands did occasionally get sideswiped by wind and storm surge, so we took the warning as simply that – the storm behind us became one more item on an increasingly long list of things to watch out for, but one that had the potential to rear it’s head and swat us like a errant fly.

The southern Caribbean in the mid-1960s was nothing at all like it is today. There were no mega-cruise ships, and no 747s dropping off hundreds of divers per hour, and Aruba was as yet undiscovered by hordes of hippies seeking elicit stashes of Dutch hashish. The place was quiet, more a commercial hub than a tourist mecca, and we’d heard that – as one of the last vestiges of Holland’s once great trading empire – it had an elusive, old world charm about it, and that’s why we’d decided to make it our first port of call.

The island lies just off the Venezuelan coast, not at all far from the Gulf of Venezuela and Maracaibo. Beyond Maracaibo is a mountain range, the Cordillera de Merida, and these mountains, essentially the northernmost reaches of the Andes, go from sea level to over 12,000 feet in an unusually short span. In certain conditions, when strong low pressure gradients form offshore, winds rush off the Cordillera and out to sea. These winds often dance right past hurricane force, and they tend to hit Aruba, and often with dramatic effect.

My father came up into cockpit, his face scrunched up in a deepening scowl. “The Venezuelan Navy just put out a warning for hurricane force winds, out of the SOUTH,” he said, emphasizing the unexpected direction. “Maracaibo just closed it’s airport, and they’re reporting 60 knot winds, with gusts over 90.”

“Bearing and distance,” my mother asked.

“Two-two-five true, two hundred nautical.”

She looked to the southwest – and we all looked in that general direction – but all we could make out was an indistinct line of reddish brown haze along the far horizon.

“Call it two hours max ‘til it gets here,” my dad added. “Maybe an hour,” and he looked at her long and carefully.

We had, literally, just passed the northwest tip of Curaçao, and mom looked over her left shoulder, then at dad. “How far to the entrance at Willemstad?” she asked.

“Twenty six,” he said.

“And how far to San Nicolas?”

“Call it fifty two.”

“Get ready to come about,” she said gently, and Paul and I hopped to, got ready to re-trim the sails, and she threw the helm over, set her course for Willemstad, Curaçao, once dad passed it up. We started looking over the other shoulder now, not at the storms running in from the Atlantic, and it was an abject lesson in focusing so hard in one direction – while you forgot to look the other way.

Which was, of course, exactly what had been going on between Mary Ann and Jen. I’d been so focused on Jen causing trouble I never saw it coming. Mary Ann was having issues, it turned out. She was not happy. And not just with Jen.

She was unhappy with me.

Because I had, predictably I could easily see, been so concerned with Jen causing trouble I was paying a lot less attention to Mary Ann. You take women for granted at your peril, I think was the lesson learned, and the situation was ripe to blow up in my face once we hit Willemstad.

I think the other thing that bears repeating here is that we were, by and large, eighteen years old. I say by and large because there were times when my parents were acting eighteen, particularly when mother got grumpy and grabbed dad by the nuts and pulled him down to their bunk. Sara, too, was a little older, but she was the ancient among us, wise beyond her years. We, the real eighteen year olds, were getting kind of jealous of my parents and their nonstop sexathon, too, but that in no way diminished the existential angst Mary Ann apparently felt after just two nights at sea watching me and Jen.

Our first day out of Virgin Gorda had passed quietly enough, or so I thought, and while I’d kept an eye out on Jen I spent almost every waking moment, as I’d promised the night before, by Mary Ann’s side – and it’s impossible for me even now to describe how much I loved her that day. With her dark, Acadian beauty, she was an improbability to me – and by that I mean she was in every inch the exact opposite of my mother. Where my mother was willowy and off-puttingly  athletic, Mary Ann was embracingly enveloping, often voluptuously so. Put another way, if my mother was an iced Pinot Grigio, Mary Ann was the noblest Cabernet you’d ever had, and she was definitely at her best when served at room temperature.

Looked at another, more relevant way, Mary Ann was the exact opposite of Jennifer, yet they did not attract one another. They repelled, and with exacting force, their gravities pushing each of us apart. We saw it that first day, too; we all felt the coming conflict. My mother watched it coming, my father looked and turned away. Paul shrugged and seemed to say ‘I told you this would happen,’ while poor Sara worked away in the galley or sat on the foredeck, picking away at a mandolin she’d brought along for the ride – watching and waiting.

We ate pear salad and little slices of prosciutto that first night, and drank red Kool-aid while we watched the sun set, and mom put Jen on watch with her and Paul so they stayed on deck while the rest of us cleaned up and hit the sack. It went well enough, I suppose, for the first half hour anyway, then Jen felt the first fluttery wings of mal-de-mer and was soon looking over the rail, feeding the fish – as the old saying goes. And she couldn’t stop, either, so mom took pity on her, sent her below, and Mary Ann came up to take her place. I came up at midnight, and so did Dad and Sara, while they went below, but not an hour passed before Jen came up into the cockpit – and of course she tried to settle in by me. I grabbed a flashlight and went forward to check the sails for chafe – per mother’s orders in the Log – and when I came aft she was cuddled up on my father’s lap – snoring away. He looked at me and grinned, shrugged his shoulders and glanced at the compass before scanning the far horizon.

Jen was still there a half hour later, when mom came up into the cockpit. She looked at Jen, then at my father, then she went over and grabbed him by the nuts and pulled him below; Jen sat up, flustered and suddenly awake, while Sara groaned and said something colorful about the sexual appetites of old farts.

“What happened to your dad?” Jen asked.

“Raising the flag on Iwo Jima again,” Sara sighed.

I shook my head, rubbed an eye with my middle finger.

“Oh,” Jen said, then: “Again?”

“Hell hath no fury,” Sara added, just for good measure, I assume.

“Huh?” Jen said, then she yawned and put her head down – this time in my lap.

And so, yes, of course Mary Ann came up a few minutes later. She looked at me, the wide-eyed boy with the cute blond’s face plastered to his groin and she kind of grumbled, then went back to our berth. The door slammed hard, too, I seem to recall.

Dad came up a little while later, with mother trailing an inch behind, and she grabbed Jen by the short hairs and took her below for a chat, and two hours later, like two ships passing in the night I went below – as Mary Ann went topsides to stand the four to eight watch.

“Happy trails,” I might have said in passing.

With a sixty two foot waterline, Sirius was a real greyhound. Close hauled, driving into the wind, she roared along making nine knots look easy, while off the wind and with acres of sail up she broke through eleven knots that second afternoon – and we were ecstatic as she arced through that gentle sea. Sara made some sort of Lebanese salad of cracked wheat, tomatoes and lemon, along with a vat of something called hummus, and we soon realized we were all going to get fat with her in the galley, yet we were, all in all, a happy lot. The miles cracked off with monotonous regularity and the sun felt good after ten years in Massachusetts, and I remember looking around at one point, thinking that this magic carpet was all mine. I was eighteen and owned a magic carpet!

Pride goeth before the fall, does it not? And, needless to say, some falls are bigger than others.

+++++

Willemstad was, in the summer of 1965, almost quaint and certainly charming. The inner harbor was, of course, a swampy mix of industrial plant and oil refineries, yet the entrance canal was something to behold. Little dutch shops and houses, all decked out in their ornate rooflines and soothing pastels, had yet to be razed to make room for super-sized cruise ships, and we’d tied up alongside the Handelskade and cleared customs by mid-afternoon. My parents – along with the Paul/Sara train – pulled out of the station as soon as the parade of officialdom left, leaving me alone to wait for the Jen-Mary Ann express to pull in. I didn’t have long to wait.

Mary Ann, duffel in hand, came out into the cockpit and without saying a word hopped ashore and walked off towards a sidewalk café – daring me, I assumed, to follow. So I hopped off, not realizing that two days at sea completely affects balance, and negatively. I managed a drunken, lopsided jog and caught up with her, grabbed her duffel and pulled her to a halt, then I just looked at her, wondering what to say.

“Well?”

“Don’t do this to us,” I said.

“Me? What about you? What have you done to us?”

“Nothing.”

That was not the right thing to say, and she snorted, pulled her duffel out of my hand and resumed her onward journey. To the airport, I think, but she stopped at a café and put her bag down by a table and ordered coffee.

Then she flipped the bird at the boat, and turning, I saw Jen sitting there, smiling at me.

And the Doc’s words came back once again, and this time they slammed into me like an out of control freight train. I turned to Mary Ann and walked to her, sat down at the table and recounted the entire conversation – the Doc’s final lament about his wife and daughter – and she listened attentively, even compassionately, then she just shook her head.

“So, let me get this straight. He told you all that, and, presumably, you believed him? And she’s curled up by you in the cockpit with her head on your lap? At two in the morning?”

“I was steering. She was snoring. What? Do you think she was giving me head?”

Once again, the wrong words at the wrong time. What can I say…it’s a gift.

“Wow,” she sighed. “Can I pick ‘em, or what?” The look in her eyes was brutal, kind of like a hurricane warning received too late to make much difference. “Maybe you’d better get out of my sight, while we’re still friends.”

“You’re leaving? You’re really going to leave? Now?”

“You’re not as dumb as you look, Spud.”

“Well, I guess better to get this out of the way now, than wait for it to happen a few years from now.”

“What?” she said, her voice now laced with contempt.

“If you’re going to run away at the drop of a hat, it’s better to get it over with now, don’t you think? I mean, if that’s the way it’s going to be, why bother? I didn’t do a goddamn thing, and if that’s all it’s going to take to set you off and run home? Well, the Hell with it – and the Hell with you!”

And I got up and walked back to Sirius; I hopped aboard and stormed past Jen on my way below, then slammed the door to my stateroom. I turned on the radio and tuned in some funky Calypso-Dutch-station and tried to close my eyes – just as the cat-fight-from-Hell started in earnest. Screaming – insults I’d never heard before – foul language I’d always associated with stories of seamen brawling with prostitutes – you name it…it went on for a few minutes – then – nothing.

Then angry footsteps on the companionway ladder, a sudden knock on my door.

“Go away,” I said, my voice tired now.

“Did my father really say those things to you?” I heard Jen say.

I went to the door, opened it and looked into her eyes – and I did not say a word.

Yet she looked into mine. Then she saw the truth for herself, and she quietly fell away into a very dark place. Mary Ann was on the steps above, looking at the damage she’d inflicted, watching Jen implode – and guilt shook her, her healing nature took hold and she came down, grabbed Jen by the shoulders and pulled her close.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Mary Ann sighed, but Jen was in full melt-down mode just then, and her’s was not some pretend episode; no, this was a complete unraveling, the real deal, and I went to Jen and picked her up, carried her forward to her stateroom and laid her on the berth. I sat with her for hours, stroked her head, tried to help her through the storm – but this one had caught her without warning and laid waste to her soul.

Mary Ann came in a while later and brought us tea, then she sat on the bed and laid her head on my lap, and she held Jen’s hand while I rubbed both their heads. My father poked his head in the door towards evening and asked to speak with me, and we tucked Jen in and both of went topsides. Mom and dad were waiting, of course, and Paul was too.

“What happened?” my father asked, and Mary Ann told the tale, ran through the sequence of events.

“How is she now,” my mother asked.

“Catatonic,” Mary Ann said.

“Time for Jack Daniels,” mother said, and she went below, got a bottle and poured a glass, then went to Jen’s room.

“Have you had anything to eat?” Dad asked.

We both shook our heads.

“Sara found a surreal place a few blocks away. She’s waiting for us.”

“What about Mom? Shouldn’t we…”

“Nope. Just leave her to it – she knows what to do.”

Mary Ann, now grief-stricken, her head down as we walked along, took my hand – and I put my arm around her, kissed the top of her head – and I could feel Paul as he walked ahead, shaking his head, seething. I didn’t need to hear his ‘I told you so’ – it was unnecessary now, anyway – yet I knew it was coming.

We ate in silence, and the only thing on my mind was how to make this work before everyone got up and left. Jen had as much, if not more right to be here than anyone, yet she was, true to the Doc’s word, simply incapable of not stirring the pot. And I was, apparently, so afraid of offending anyone that I’d become incapable of setting boundaries. Of course as soon as I thought that, I saw Dad sitting by the wheel with Jen’s head in his lap – and as soon as that image faded I heard echoes of Paul chastising me for trying to blame my issues on other people’s presumed faults.

So yeah, this was my problem, or more accurately a problem of my own creation – so I had to fix it. The obvious solution was to toss Jen off the boat, fly her to Texas and let her get on with destroying someone else’s life, yet I heard a little voice somewhere in the gray matter, an echo, really, of the most perplexing words I’d ever heard.

“…take care of her as best you can…”

There was an implied promise, of sorts, in my taking Sirius. A promise to take care of her, as best I could. Sirius, of course, but Jen as well, yet how could I do both and be true to Mary Ann at the same time – let alone my tacit promise to the doc.

The easy answer, of course, was I’d created an impossible problem – so I had to fix it. If you assume, as I did, that flying was my life, that conferred a certain way of looking at the world. Simply put, if flying an airplane had taught me anything at all it’s that you can’t quit working the problem. When you’re up there and shit hits the fan, you’ve got to fly the airplane and work the problem at the same time – and quitting isn’t an option – unless you want to go down in flames. Dad had drilled that into my head since I was old enough to reach the rudder pedals, so the concept was second nature to me now – and I saw Jen and Mary Ann in the same light: I had to work the problem – now, not tomorrow – or we would all go down in flames. And – I had to keep the three of us together, somehow, and yet keep us from tearing each other apart.

Of course, my mother had seen that coming as soon as Jen showed up.

And she was busy fixing the problem the only way she knew how, but that wasn’t going to let me off the hook. Not by a long shot.

When we got up to leave, to walk back down to the water’s edge, Sara asked me to hang back for a moment, and after everyone was out on the sidewalk she leaned close.

“Maybe it’s time to face the music,” she said, hesitating, not knowing the limits of our friendship yet, “because it was all I could do to keep Paul from taking off today, going home. He’s pissed, Spud. You can’t ignore problems like Jen, hope they’ll just go away. They don’t, and she won’t. They just fester, get worse, create newer and bigger problems.”

I nodded my head.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“Take care of the problem.”

She laughed, a little, anyway, then she shook her head. “You need to grow up, Spud, before you find yourself making the same mistakes over and over again.” Then she walked out and joined Paul, leaving me standing there – with one foot still in my mouth, the other firmly up my ass.

When we got back to Sirius mother was still in Jen’s stateroom, and they were both passed out – naked as the day they were born. Comatose, I think, was a good descriptive, and there was an empty bottle of Jack Daniels on the foot of the berth. They were holding on to one another, snoring open-mouthed like a couple of drunk sailors, and Jen’s face was resting on my mother’s bare breast. Dad poked his head in and looked at the scene, then started whistling that ditty from The High and The Mighty. By now you should understand that when he whistled that particular tune he was mightily impressed. Then Paul stopped and looked at the scene, and his eyes went round as tea saucers – so of course Sara had to come take a look. She too poked her head in and she too looked at my mom and Jen, yet she came out giggling – until she could get up on deck. They she was rolling around on deck, laughing her ass off.

Father of course went for his Leica, and some time later 5×7 glossies were posted over the chart table. Neither Jen nor my mother claimed any memory of the event, yet after that we had peace and quiet onboard Sirius. Mother still drained Dad’s nuts two or three times a day, but in Jennifer my mother had finally found a kindred spirit. Lest you think something inordinately perverted was going on, I had my doubts then, and still do. We rarely saw them together after that evening, and what we did observe was more often than not platonic, but I couldn’t help seeing a sly little gleam in father’s eyes when he saw them, or when he looked at those pictures. I think he had great plans for the three of them; I just hoped I’d never find out if it happened.

+++++

The fuel we topped-off the tanks with on Virgin Gorda was full of algae, so the fuel filters and tank needed to be cleaned, and this took all the next day. Mother supervised the boys while Sara and Mary Ann made several days worth of salads and stuck them in the ice-box. Jen went ashore with her Nikon and was gone all day, and she returned, as the sun was setting, while we were loading a couple of fresh 50 pound blocks of ice into the box. She was red-faced and flushed, looked to me like she’d gone ten rounds with at least three men, and she disappeared into her cabin – saying she wasn’t hungry when Sara called supper. As long as she didn’t bring men onboard we had to remove ourselves with her more frivolous self-destructive impulses – and try to help her understand what she was up to, yet I could tell my mother was more than concerned. After dinner Sara tried to talk with her – and that did not end well.

We left early the next morning, before the sun was up, because the tides were favorable and that second hurricane, the more southerly of the two, was racing for Barbados – and it was much further south than was the norm. We cut south, squeezing between Aruba and Cape San Ramon, then we moved further offshore. Two reasons for that, really: the first was to give us more room to maneuver if that hurricane came west instead of moving to the north, and the second concerned pirates. The Venezuelan Navy was broadcasting notices that pirates were actively working the area between the Gulf of Venezuela and the Columbian border, and as we’d been hearing more graphic descriptions of these pirate’s methods in Willemstad we decided to stay well offshore.

Yet we had perfect weather all the way to the San Blas Islands. Generally out of the east at a constant 20 knots, and Sirius took off like she’d been shot out of a cannon. On our second day out, after the wind picked up a little, she averaged twelve knots for ten hours – a blistering pace for an old, heavy schooner. Her sails were new, however, and the rigging updated, and I doubt pirates would have had an easy time catching us.

We anchored, unmolested, off Isla Chichimé three days later, in the clearest green water any of us had ever seen. There was one other sailboat in the anchorage, a thirty foot cutter flying a British ensign. My father was about to dive into the water when the cutter’s sole occupant yelled something to the effect of “You’d better not!” – and pointed out a rather large tiger shark cruising the nearby reef.

“Thanks!” we replied – in unison – then we inflated the Zodiac and hoisted the little Seagull motor onto her transom, then Mom and Dad and Jen motored ashore. The young man on the cutter took one look at Jennifer and hopped into his inflatable and followed them ashore, and Paul looked at me, then at Sara – and we all said – together, in one voice – “No way!”

Mother of course invited Douglas Cunliffe to dinner that night, and the next day Jen departed from our midst. I did not hear from her again for almost twenty years, and that resulted from a chance meeting at the airport in Tokyo, Japan. Anyway, they left Panama and passed through Polynesia on their way to New Zealand, then they headed west to South Africa, to Cape Town, and from there north to the UK. They’d written a book about their adventures, she told me that day in Tokyo, and they’d gotten married in Auckland along the way. She had four boys, all blond, and she still looked gorgeous.

And alas, poor father. He never got his threesome.

Still, he wasn’t complaining.

Mother saw to that.

+++++

Transiting the canal was anti-climactic. A half hour of pure, unmitigated terror in the Gatún Locks followed by endless hours of mosquito infested motoring with a seriously bored Panama Canal Company Pilot who, by law, had to steer the entire crossing, all the way to the Miraflores Locks, where another half hour of terror lay in wait. I say terror advisedly, as you motor into the lock behind something petite, like a super-tanker loaded with forty trillion armadillo turds, and then the lock floods (in Gatún) or empties (in Miraflores) and your little sailboat bobs around like a cork in a washing machine, while the SS Armadillo Turd looms overhead – straining at it’s lines. That’s about the time you realize if the lines holding the SS Armadillo Turd’s break, you and your boat will end up looking a little like an armadillo’s turds.

Beyond the surly pilot’s cheerful demeanor, the only thing any of us remembered a day later was the constant barrage of mosquitos. As malaria was still an issue in those waters, we doused ourselves in all manner of insect repellant, and if someone had lit a match I think we’d have all combusted.

After losing that day in Willemstad we didn’t take a day off for sightseeing; we instead refueled, and filled ten five gallon ‘jerry cans’ as spares, then lashed them just forward of the aft mast. We went to a Navy PX (thanks, Dad) and loaded up on American produce, including FRESH MILK, and we replenished the ice in the box. That done, and in record time, too, we cast off and started the long slog west to Hawaii.

I wish I could regale you with tales of heroism in the face of monster storms, but in truth it was a nineteen day idyll. Sara cooked, Mary Ann and Paul read Sartre (aloud, for god sakes), and then Paul tried to put it all to music – which, sad to say, did not work out well. We had one storm, a small one in the middle of the night, and we all rushed on deck to douse sail and tie things down before a freight train of thunder and lightning swept by, knocking Sirius on her beam ends for a split second, but that was it. I was almost a proficient sailor by that point, which left mom with tons of free time on her hands, or, as the case may be, to use her hands on Dad, and sure enough, a week shy of O’ahu mom started vomiting – in the morning, usually. Forty seven and preggers. Me, nine months away from becoming a brother – and what do I do? Well, in no time flat Mary Ann, now nineteen, was pregnant too – with our first and only. And, strange to admit, she was on The Pill, too.

So, what about Paul and Sara, you ask? Mr and Mrs Responsibility? Nope. They didn’t get pregant – ‘til October, anyway.

Maybe it was something in the water.

Or maybe something else was at work. Something like destiny, but who the hell knows.

+++++

We had three and a half weeks until class started, call it twenty five days and change. We could just have, conceivably, made it in twenty days – but the slog to San Francisco from O’ahu involves heading north a bit, in effect heading as if sailing to Vancouver, B.C. about a third of the way across, then taking aim for Portland before sliding into the approaches for the Golden Gate. This trip depends on knowing the precise location of the North Pacific high, as well as the various currents that arc under the Gulf of Alaska and along the coastline of the Pacific Northwest. And though I’d been studying the interplay of weather and current for weeks, I’d come to realize that these juxtaposing elements were capricious – and not so easy to predict.

To complicate matters, mother had zero experience sailing in the Pacific, not to mention she was sick as a dog several hours each day, and in the end that settled the matter. We tied Sirius off at a yacht club near Honolulu and flew home, the idea being we’d resume the voyage early next summer.

With two newborn babies, I wondered?

“No, that’s not going to happen, and you know it as well as I do,” Dad said, and I had to agree. In the end, we decided to ship Sirius to San Francisco, and after the paperwork was done she was scheduled by an agent we were told she’d arrive in mid-November. Paul moved Sara to an apartment near downtown LA and he went off to USC where, as I’ve mentioned, he ended up playing football when not doing the Pre-Med thing. Sara thought she’d teach music but instead found steady work as a studio musician at MGM.

Mom and Dad, of course, went back to Dallas, to our old house on Belclaire. To the best of my knowledge, she never drank then, not a drop. I think the whole sex thing dropped off for a while, at least until Viagra came along, but Dad continued to fly until he couldn’t. When Ben, my kid brother, graduated from Deerfield, Dad was headed towards seventy years young. When Ben announced he’d made it into Harvard I think Dad got to work on making another brother, but that didn’t work out.

Which brings me to the next part of this tale.

The sad part of the story.

The part where, flying over North Vietnam, I was shot down and killed.

+++++

Which takes me back to San Francisco, circa August, 1965. Mary Ann and I flew into SFO and I set about finding a home for Sirius. I did, in a marina near San Francisco International, and secured a slip there beginning that November; then I registered for classes and moved all my worldly belongings, one duffel bags worth, anyway, into one more naked dorm room. Dad drove out as soon as Mom was settled and under a doctor’s care, he drove his twenty year old Willys Jeep across the western half of the United States and left it with me, then helped get Mary Ann settled at Stanford.

She’d been on a full-ride scholarship at Deerfield, but her family was, to put it charitably, very poor. High school had been, oddly enough, her first time away from home, yet she never went back to Louisiana after her arrival. She went home with friends instead, roommates for the most part, so she’d been cut off from family as soon as she left for Massachusetts – at this point four years earlier.

So my mom and dad had, for all intents and purposes, adopted her, and they began seeing to her financial interests as soon as she became pregnant. I know it’s strange to admit this, but I didn’t meet her family for several years, and during this part of our life together they remained a great unknown. She never talked about them, and while I should have asked, expressed some curiosity, I didn’t – and I never pressed the issue.

Dad, on the other hand, did what Dad’s do best. He sent detectives to Louisiana to find out what the real story was. There are two points worth remembering about all this: whatever he found out, it was grim and he didn’t tell me a thing, and whatever he learned – it only made him love Mary Ann all the more.

We went to Trader Vic’s downtown before he left to go back to Dallas, and he introduced me to Suffering Bastards, and the two of us hoisted our glasses to Sirius, and to Jennifer – and to endless runs under the sun. Mary Ann drank water, thank you very much, but even she cried a little as we talked about our experiences. We’d had a helluva time, even if everyone got pregnant. The days and nights we spent in the Pacific took on a new meaning, became larger than life – indeed, bigger than they really were – but recollections of long trips in small boats often turn out that way.

Then Dad left and classes started; I drove the Willys down the 101 on weekends and we hung out at the library, just like any fourteen year old boarding school student. I thought about all that freedom stuff I’d felt after graduating and realized that kind of freedom was little more than an illusion, and that the only freedom I’d ever felt, as such, was out there in the middle of the ocean. That kind of hit me hard after we got back into the old boarding school grind.

So, we ate hot pastrami sandwiches at The Oasis and drove over to Half Moon Bay and picked artichokes, then had them cooked under the little tents that farmers had setup along the side of the road. We ate them in the sun, dipping them in lemon butter and wondering why anyone would ever live anywhere else, but our eyes turned to the Pacific from time to time – and we knew that time had created a new bond between us. We went down to LA and visited Paul and Sara when they phoned and told us Sara was preggers too, and she cooked one of her wild curries that night and we ended up talking about the Pacific.

The trip, you see, just wouldn’t let go of us. I guess that’s true of most voyages, and we each admitted to regretting not finishing the trip by sea. The words hung over us for a while, too, and it turned out we all thought about the consequences of the decision more than we’d have cared to admit. We flew back north lost in thoughts of ‘what if.’

And soon enough Sirius was unloaded from a huge Matson freighter in Oakland, and after a few hours work in a yard there she was again – and our spirits soared. We motored across the bay to her new home, got her tied off and over the next few days we moved back aboard. With Thanksgiving ahead we planned to have a big blowout aboard, but Paul had a game in Oregon and both Sara and Mom didn’t feel like traveling. Dad came out that next week, however, and we sat aboard that night lost in the warm glow of oil lamps and candles, and we realized there wasn’t one heat source aboard – and it was 39 degrees outside, with 90 percent humidity. The walls began to sweat, then were literally running with streams of condensation – and while we laughed we realized how much work needed to be done to make her a home suitable for Northern California. True to form, Dad tackled that project over the next few days, and the three of us had an early Thanksgiving aboard before he got in the Baron and flew back to Texas.

We had a few friends from school down for supper on the boat, but by and large no one could relate to her, or to what we’d done with her over the summer. She was huge, and the story I told of how I’d come to own such a beast sounded, at best, improbable. It was, I had to admit, an improbable truth – yet the Doc seemed so far away now. All that was a dream, now. Was it real?

All of us, Mom and Dad and Paul and Sara made it for Christmas, and we set up a little tree and put presents under it, hung some lights and made ornaments and hung those too, and then one moment we noticed Mary Ann crying.

Sara sat with her, asked what was wrong.

“This is my first Christmas tree,” she said, and we fell silent, my father particularly so – yet after we looked at her – and within ourselves – right then and there we decided this Christmas was going to be Mary Ann’s Christmas. There’d be a world full of new babies next year, but this year it was going to be her turn.

When the morning came she had more stuff under that silly tree than any of us thought possible, and we watched this pregnant, nineteen year old girl turn into a five year old for about an hour or so, and I think we had more fun than she did. It was a glorious morning, a wonderful day, and it was hers – and maybe ours too.

And there was one thing she’d really wanted more than anything else: a camera, a real camera. And she’d wanted one ever since she’d watched Jen walking around with that Nikon F over her shoulder.

So Dad and I went out and got her a Leica, along with a couple of lenses, and for the next week she went out with me or Dad, usually Dad, and we taught her what we knew about taking pictures. And of course, by the end of the week she was a Photographer. I had no idea what her IQ was those days, but it is somewhere high up in the stratosphere, and when she put her mind to something she mastered it in a few hours.

Still, more to the point, Christmas was the first time in her life she’d been completely surrounded by people who loved her unconditionally, and I think that week was a real turning point for her, and for us. She knew how to love – that had come easily to her, easily in the way a puppy starved for affection knows just what to do. I thought, at the time, anyway, her problem might have been how to accept love from others.

I wasn’t wrong, of course, but those few days marked the point in her life where she finally accepted that love could come without conditions. And without risk. She’d grown up in a mobile home, in the wooded swamps of southern Louisiana. Her mother worked, I learned later that year, as a mechanic in a gas station north of Chauvin, while her father worked on shrimpers and was gone for long stretches of time, out on the water. She grew up alone, in a place where older cousins and uncles came by for entertainment, and she was the floor show.

What saved her, I suspect, was a student teacher doing her internship at the local school, a bright girl who figured out Mary Ann was some kind of rocket scientist and got her tested. Teachers took an interest, administrators found out what was happening to her at home, and a local politician figured out how to get her into his alma mater. That’s how she came to me, into my life – the tortured, circuitous route that carried her along – like a leaf in a gale – to that Christmas morning. Her father, it turned out, liked to import certain less than legal pharmaceutical products when he was ashore, and had spent some hard time at The Farm, as the state penitentiary in Angola is known. Colorful people. She did not like them in the least.

When my father hired the private detective to dig into Mary Ann’s family background, he deliberated a while before deciding to make contact himself, then one day he flew over and had a local sheriff take him down to Chauvin to meet his future in-laws. Patricia Oberon was home that day and he talked with her a while, then the sheriff took him back to the Baron. My father asked the man to keep an eye on them, and to let him know when Patricia got into trouble.

Many years later father related that conversation to me.

Mary Ann’s mother was, he told me, pretty enough, and she was bright, too. Not smart, he said, but clever – mischievously so. She was also an addict, heroin, the sheriff reported, and she had a long arrest record. When he told Patricia about Mary Ann, about her life with me, as it had evolved since the little girl left home, she just smiled and said something about someone finally getting out. Getting away from the hell she had, herself, grown up in. There was no discussion about Mary Ann’s father, Clyde, or his whereabouts. He was on the run, she inferred, the police had several felony warrants outstanding, and in any event, my father did not want to meet the man – but what he saw that day stuck with him. He saw Mary Ann as a miracle of perseverance after that, and, as I mentioned, he only loved her more.

We had our baby in mid-May, and that about a week after my brother Ben came screaming into the world, and I couldn’t help thinking that, as usual, I’d pushed the whole ‘growing up too fast’ thing to the limit. We were nineteen, we had a kid, and were living a life most people in their thirties lived, except Mary Ann and I were living on a seventy two foot schooner on San Francisco Bay. Everything about this reality was surreal, if only because I hadn’t earned any of it. It had landed in my lap, so to speak, and I was, really, clueless about what it all meant. What it was worth, in human terms.

But I focused on school, studied engineering during the day then came home and spent evenings with my wife and daughter. Mary Ann managed to keep up with her school work, managed to keep her 4.0 grade point average intact, and as trite as this sounds, we fell into a routine and, somehow, we made it work. Paul and Sara did too, oddly enough, and in time we only grew closer. They came up on weekends and spent time on Sirius, we sailed together and reminisced, the Pacific so close, yet so far away, and time passed quickly.

I still flew, in fact more than ever, and when I graduated I opted to go into the Navy. Mary Ann made it into the med school at Stanford, Paul into UCLAs, and my mother visited that summer, little Ben now not so little, and she told me that she and my father were going to divorce.

+++++

I think it’s called ‘Middle-Aged Crazy’ for a reason, and probably wth good reason.

He came out one day, out of the blue, and we sat in the cockpit and talked about what had happened. He could not, he said at one point, keep it in his pants. But, he said, he’d never been able to, and now his flagrancy had caught up with him.

He always had several secretaries working in his office, and a couple of them had stayed with me before I was shipped off to Massachusetts, kind of baby-sitter/nanny assignments they undertook with smiles on their faces. They were all, at one time or another, sleeping with him and, I suspect, hoping to find a way to push my mother out of the picture and move into greener pastures. That never happened, of course, and as a result there was a constant flow of women moving into and out of his office, and my mother, not being stupid, knew what was going on and retreated more deeply into her private conversations with Jack Daniels. Their’s was, in the vernacular of the day, a game of mutually assured destruction, a cold war stand off all their own – and we talked about that war in light of what they had rediscovered on our sailing trip.

“That was a miracle,” he sighed, speaking of their coming together again, and of Ben’s coming into our life. But she had, he continued dourly, done with Ben what she’d done with me. She had shut him out, turned him away, and with nowhere to go he fell into the gravity of a new secretary’s orbit – again. “Only this time, Spud, it’s different.”

I nodded my head, could see it in my eyes. He was in love again, with this new girl, and of course – she was preggers. We met for dinner a few weeks later, at Trader Vic’s up in The City, and she was indeed a lovely woman – seriously easy on the eyes, genuinely warm-hearted and giving, and in a way I felt happy for my old man.

But not nearly as bad as I felt for Mom.

I left for Puget Sound a few weeks later, for Officer’s Candidate School, and my mother moved onboard Sirius – with Ben. I suppose in other circumstances it would have seemed weird, but we realized with starting med school soon, Mary Ann was going to need all the help she could get.

Yet at the time nobody realized just how much help my mother was in need of. Still, Mary Ann figured that out quickly enough.

And so, in the company of babies made at sea – they grew close.

+++++

Not quite a year later I finished jets in Pensacola and was to report to Puget Sound again, in two weeks, this time to qualify on the A6 Intruder, so with two weeks off I went home – to Dallas, to check-in with father and see his new family – before setting my course back to Sirius.

And I hardly recognized anyone there.

My mother, still not drinking, had gained serious weight. Like eighty pounds serious. She had stopped running, stopped playing tennis, and the transformation was disconcerting. But then I saw Mary Ann.

Who had, apparently, stopped eating. She was a wraith, pale and ghost-like, a woman who hadn’t seen the sun in months.

And both were seriously depressed. When I stepped aboard both clung to me like ivy on a brick wall – and I doubted the wisdom of all my choices as I never had before. I should be here, I said, taking care of them. Taking care of these kids.

And we talked, the three of us, about what lay ahead. Four more years away, maybe at home a month a year, but they reassured me they had things under control and that what I was doing now was as important as Mary Ann’s medical schooling. And I listened to them, I even believed what they said – perhaps because it was what I wanted to hear – and I went north. Not too many months later I found myself walking the decks of the USS Constellation, a nugget in VA-165 getting ready to fly my first combat mission – over North Vietnam.

We flew a variety of missions over the north, from SAM suppression to hitting military targets in and around Haiphong, and we usually flew at night. I’d completed a dozen missions when orders came down that a Soviet freighter was inbound – carrying dozens of new, and very advanced, surface to air missiles. Our mission was to hit the docks along the Cám River – and only the docks – just before the freighter attempted to tie up alongside.

We took off at midnight – in a raging gale. These conditions were the Intruders specialty, however, and we wouldn’t be expected to strike on a night like this.

Of course, no one told that to the Soviet radar operators watching as we approached the coast, and no one bothered to mention that to the pilots flying brand new Mig-21D all weather fighters – as they took-off and turned to intercept our formations.

The kid on the other team was named Durong Thánh; he was not quite my age and had been schooled by the French in the south, he spent time in France as a kid with his diplomat father, and learned to fly in the Soviet Union. He was, and remained, a fine pilot, as good as I was, anyway.

In this attack plan, my section of four approached Haiphong from the east, and we came in low with an EA-6 jamming enemy radar sites all along the river entrance. The alleged main attack vectors were from the southwest and north, and they were high altitude sections easily spotted on radar. These two sections were supposed to draw enemy fighters to the north while our group came in low from the east. The plan might have worked if we hadn’t tried this little stunt a few times before, but we had and it didn’t.

About two miles from the river threat receivers started howling – SAMs, we thought. Then air-to-air radar receiver warnings started screaming, meaning we had enemy aircraft on our tails and air-to-air missiles were locked on our aircraft. We called our CAP, our escorting F4 Phantoms, but they were north of us, and at very high altitude.

My BN, or bombardier-navigator, a kid named Norman Puckett, started jamming radars, I started pumping off flares and chaff – as my section spread out for our final approach. The Mig’s first missiles went wide, our Phantoms joined the fight, and small arms fire started reaching up into the night, rounds slamming into the Intruder, sounding a little like metallic hail-strikes. I pickled my load and turned hard left over the city, saw an air-to-air missile streak by just yards away – then detonate in the sky just ahead – and little shards of the windshield and canopy came in on us. Fire warning lights started popping and hydraulic pressure falling, then oil pressure and engine ratios, too.

Durong was still behind me, still trying to get off another shot, when we decided to eject. We were too low, but the aircraft was coming unglued – so I gave the order and we reached overhead and pulled the lanyards.

And nothing happened. Well, almost nothing happened. The canopy did it’s thing and blew away in the slipstream, but the seats resolutely refused to fire – and then Puckett looked at me – and we both started laughing.

“Well, Spud, we’re somewhat kinda screwed, ain’t we?”

And just then, for some reason, I thought of Jennifer. Jennifer, in the field across Greenfield’s Road in the autumn before we broke up. I could see her by my side, smiling at me, her eyes at peace – and I leveled the wings, popped the spoilers and tried to bleed off as much energy as I could – before we slammed into the muddy waters of Ha Long Bay.

+++++

Durong Thánh apparently never knew a Phantom was behind his Mig, and never knew two Sidewinders were sliding up his tail – but somehow he managed to eject – and his parachute blossomed overhead, his seat fell away, then he looked down at the sea below.

And who know? Maybe he laughed I would have..

Because we, Norm and myself, were about five hundred feet below, climbing out of our Intruder’s cockpit as it filled with water, and we watched as his Mig came apart in the sky and cartwheeled into the sea.

I saw him first and pulled my 45 ACP from it’s holster on my thigh, and I chambered a round. I sighted in on the falling pilot, was going to shoot the ever-lovin’ hell out of his ass, too, but for some reason I didn’t. Instead I watched him fall into the water and struggle with his parachute. When I was sure the guy was about to drown I dove into the water and swam to him, helped him out of his harness and pulled him to our still-floating aircraft, then Norm helped us up on the wing and the two of us sat there, gasping for breath, wondering what the hell had just happened.

Then Durong started cussing – in French, mind you – and of course, having gone to a school that valued such things, I began cussing out Durong for having shot my ass down – in perfect schoolboy French. Norm crossed his arms and picked his teeth, wondered when this little dog and pony show was going to wind up and leave town, then he noticed I was bleeding. Bleeding all over the place.

One of the Phantoms was circling overhead and Norm got on his handset and gave a rundown of our situation, and the Phantom driver told us a helicopter was inbound, and that it looked like our Intruder was sinking – which of course it was. And I was bleeding out too, my blood flowing out into the sea in huge billowing clouds of dark red life.

Sharks heard that dinner bell ringing, and they came running, were soon circling our sinking aircraft.

Norm and Durong figured out what was happening and got the life-rafts from under our seats deployed, and me into one of them, just as two Sikorskys roared by. We were hoisted aboard and took off for the Connie as Boomer five-oh-five slipped beneath the waves. I nearly lost my leg as a result of the night’s festivities – not from lacerations but from, rather, organisms in the water that got in the tissue and caused a series runaway infections.

Durong Thánh was taken to Hawaii for a little chat with some new friends, and from there to Leavenworth, Kansas, for a prolonged visit to the interior of our country; I too visited Hawaii, but stayed in a somewhat less than pleasant medical facility, but that’s not how the performance played out back in California.

Several aircraft were shot down that night, a few airmen killed, a few taken prisoner, and so in the confusion Mary Ann received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy telling her that I’d been killed. My mother came unglued, father flew out to console them, and was there when a second telegram arrived, indicating that, no, your son is not dead. I was, rather, en route to Pearl Harbor where no doubt an endless procession of round-eyed nurses would fellate me into oblivion. Well, that was Dad’s version of the telegram, but I think you see the nature of the sequence.

Our presence in Southeast Asia diminished somewhat after that, and I left the Navy after my time was up and returned to San Francisco somewhat different than I’d been just a few years before. I was older, true enough, but I was no longer in any real hurry to grow up.

Life’s funny that way.

+++++

I haven’t talked much about my daughter, Mary Claire. It’s a difficult subject.

After I returned from my time in the Navy I went to work trying to find a job flying, and it was not easy. Airlines were struggling with inflation and higher fuel prices, along with people generally not traveling as much as an economic downturn hit, and that meant a tight market for pilots – despite many hired after WWII and Korea retiring. And wanting to be based in the Bay Area further constrained my choices. I ended up working for Air California, flying 737s to Orange County and back, for a couple of years – before I got on with Delta, which I considered my first real job. It was also my last real job. I stayed with them until I retired, and I mention this as a frame of reference. It’s what I did, what I’d always wanted to do, and Delta was one of the few constants in my life.

Mary Ann seemed to find equilibrium after I returned, and she finished her internship at USF, and then her residency at back at Stanford, where she specialized in pediatric cardiovascular surgery. She was busy, and in demand, from the beginning, and she became less a resident and more an infrequent visitor to Sirius.

Mary Claire’s was a sad, burdened soul from the beginning, like she knew her life was going to be short and full of pain. While I was still at Air Cal she was diagnosed with leukemia, and while her fight was valiant, it was brief. She passed a few months shy of her tenth birthday, and her death marked a terrible turn in all our lives.

We were together, the three of us, almost all the time our first four years, so we were extraordinarily close. That time together, those first years, grounded me in who I was – and by that I mean when I thought of myself in passing I thought of myself as her father first, above anything else, and the hardest part about being in the Navy was being away from her. After she left us I spent a time not really knowing who I was anymore – like if I was her father above all else, then what was I now – now that she was gone?

And Mary Ann wilted after her death. A physician unable to help? Unable to change the outcome of her own daughters fight? The experience left her burdened for years – and her work placed her on the front lines of endless desperate fights, with children facing death, her patients facing impossible odds in their fight for life. I watched her struggle under the load for almost ten years before I knew she was finally going to be alright.

And then there was Paul and Sara. He breezed through school, zipped through his training and went straight into general surgery, and they bought a house, once, in the Hollywood Hills and there they lived. Sara played for studio orchestras while she went back to school, and began teaching Music History at USC after her three kids were out of diapers.

And it’s kind of funny, but I looked at my experience with Jen, then Mary Ann, and I looked at Paul’s with Sara – and I found the differences amusing, if instructive. He always knew what he wanted to do, as did I, yet he’d never been possessed with the almost self-destructive impulse that had gripped me in high school. There were no Jennifers in his life, there had just been that one moment at the coffee house in Cambridge when he met Sara. He knew, he just knew. So did she, and that was it. I always wondered why, what made us so different? Simple chance, nature versus nurture? What? What made our experiences so different?

Just life, you say?

Hah.

+++++

Father’s divorce wasn’t so unpredictable, was it?

Two people more different was hard to imagine, yet I think he never stopped loving my mother – yet because my mother set such an impossibly high mark their marriage was troubled from the start. We lost touch during those years, but he came ‘round more when Mary Claire got sick. He was divorced by then of course, and he stayed with Mom more and more when he visited, and Ben was ecstatic.

Yes, Ben. He was my daughter’s age, yet he was my brother, and he was there with us all along, yet when Mary Claire fell ill I think it hit him hardest of all. He wasn’t her brother, after all – he was her uncle. An adult relationship had been, in effect, forced on him – if only by social convention – yet I think that set him on his way. On my way, I mean, on wanting to be an adult before he’d had a chance to fully experience being a kid.

So when my mother and my father drifted back into the same orbit their children, both of us, were only too happy to see it happen.

I could say that the story ends here, but it didn’t.

It couldn’t say that now, you see, because the most important part of the symphony, the conclusion, had yet to be composed. And the composer, if you will, had yet to play much of a role in our lives – beyond trying to kill me one dark and stormy night.

+++++

Sirius was a wooden boat, and time does not treat such things kindly. She required regular, extensive work on such varied things as her hull, the decks, and even her masts. Over the years we’d kept her in just two marinas, one by the airport and the other downtown, and she was surrounded by other boats we called Clorox bottles – or fibreglass boats. Plastic boats, in other words, unstable little things that stank of industrial solvents from the day they were made ‘til the day they started cracking up from too much exposure to the sun.

Plastic boats don’t require too much cosmetic maintenance, which is why they’re so popular, and the people who buy plastic boats tend not to invest much time or energy into their upkeep. Their hulls become chalky, the cheap plastic portlights misty and streaked with crazing, and most of them tend to be under-built with the cheapest grade hardware the builder can get away with. There were exceptions, of course, but many plastic boats, most built in Florida, were a danger to their owners if they were used for anything other than dockside condos.

But so are wooden boats – if you don’t keep up with the regular maintenance required to keep them seaworthy. We did, and for fifteen years our efforts kept up with her needs, but then seams started to open in her hull planks, and the teak decks had been sanded all they could. The time had come to make a decision: invest real money in a major refit or put her on the market. All of us, including Paul and Sara, met one Saturday morning to talk about the old girl’s fate, and that discussion rightly centered on what our plans for her going forward might be.

The truth is, Mary Ann and I were ready for a house, but we weren’t ready to get rid of her – yet. After Mom and Dad remarried, and soon after she returned to the old house on Belclaire, yet she had come to view Sirius as a vital part of the fabric of our lives, and my father echoed that very sentimental view. It was Paul and Sara that, of course, held to a singularly practical view of her role in our lives: make plans to sail her, they said, and sail her hard, or sell her. Boats like Sirius were meant to be sailed, Sara said, and to see her relegated to life as little more than a mobile home wasn’t right.

We knew she was right, Mary Ann and I, but the truth of the matter is we were not even forty years old. Retirement was decades away, for four of us, at least, and that’s when I noticed Dad leaning back in his chair, grinning as an idea bubbled up from just under the surface and sprang into life.

“What if your mother and I clean her up and take her out for a few years?”

“What?” my mother said, smiling. “Are you serious?”

And we all started talking about the difficulty two seniors faced if taking a 72 foot monster out into the Pacific – alone. Of course the more we said about that, the more both my mother and father grinned, the more they wanted to do it.

Then Sara chimed in again: we could, each of us – she said – join Sirius whenever a long ocean crossing was in the offing, and the old farts could enjoy her when they got where they were going. So a list of possible places to visit took shape in the air and that was that. Mary Ann and I bought a little shack in Menlo Park and settled in, and on my days off went to the yard in Sausalito, where Sirius was undergoing major surgery, to get paint under my fingernails. Eight months – and almost 200 grand later – she was back in the water, ready to go – and she looked brand new again. We sailed her back to the marina in downtown San Fran and tourists regularly came by and snapped rolls of film standing beside her.

Mom and Dad moved back onboard, and though Ben was now a junior in high school – yes, in Massachusetts – he planned to take part in the first leg of the adventure that coming summer. We all, as a matter of fact, were planning to take part in this second coming of Sirius, her first real trip in almost seventeen years. The plan took shape quickly, too: sail through the Golden Gate and on to O’ahu. Kind of closing the circle, I think you could say, before helping Sirius begin the next part of her life.

And we, Mary Ann and myself, began looking at life shoreside as the beginning of the second part of our life together. I have to say that, after just a few weeks in the new house, we began to regret the decision to move ashore. And the house was empty of kids, of all the routines that make a house a home. We tried to have another, but something was wrong, and all of a sudden that little house felt like a hall of carnival mirrors. We were lost, bumping into each other, trying to find a way out of the maze we’d just created for ourselves.

About that time I bid for and started flying from San Francisco to Tokyo; as a result I was away from home more than I ever had been before. When I was home Mary Ann was the same, yet different. She was all work, until she wasn’t, then we would go out, go for drives on weekends or up to the city to bother my parents. We were everything but intimate, and suddenly I realized we were falling away from one another.

And then the thing I hated most about my father happened to me.

Here name was Patty. Patricia Brody, a wild-hearted, red-headed Bostonian who was, of course, a flight attendant. And she was, more often than not, on my Tokyo flight, and we were, more often than not, billeted in the same hotel. And one day it just happened. I’d known her a long time, had never thought of her as someone I’d like to spend that kind of time with, but it happened.

We went sight-seeing. We talked and laughed, I helped her pick out a baby Nikon and taught her the ins-and-outs of composing a photograph, to treat a camera with respect and to not waste time taking simple snapshots. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?

We went to see The Empire Strikes Back and rolled in the aisles – laughing our asses off – as we watched Han and Luke screeching their lines – in Japanese. Of course we got around to talking about the sore subjects in our life, and for the first time ever I found Mary Ann at the top of that list.

So of course, before the night was over we had done the deed. We had cemented a new union, of sorts, yet another chapter of the Lonely Hearts Club was created – and we continued weekly our meetings for a while. I assumed Mary Ann never suspected a thing, and of course I never said a word about it. We had by that point abandoned the idea of having kids – and gravity took over. I doubted it would take long to come undone and spin apart.

Summer intervened before things got out of hand; gear and provisions were loaded on Sirius in one long weekend, and on a foggy Monday morning we motored through the Golden Gate towards the Farallon Islands, Dad at the chart table, Mom on the helm, Paul and Sara and their three kids – sitting on the deckhouse keeping a lookout for Great White Sharks – leaving Mary Ann to commune with Ben – and me, sitting by myself on the aft rail, looking back at our gurgling wake – watching that red bridge – and Patty – disappear in the mist.

We motored past the Farallons, keeping them to port, and by late morning the sun obliterated what fog remained and a breeze filled in. Sails went up, Dad and I shot noon sights and restarted our plot, turning to the next page in the logbook – that hadn’t had a new entry in a very, very long time. The wind filled in, 20 knots solid off the starboard beam, and Sirius found her groove again, became the ocean greyhound we remembered from the summer of ‘65 – and we began cracking off real mileage that night.

With that much wind across the deck we kept the kids harnessed up and in the cockpit until they knew the routines better, and the old hands kept watch that first night out with everyone tucked away safely below.

I remember a full moon behind clouds racing south, big-fat clouds, white-rimmed and dark bellied – and waves that were soon in the ten foot range. Sirius flew off the wave-tops and plowed into the base of the next rolling mountain, sending walls of black water over everything topsides. I think the water temperature was 55F, the air temp around 45F, and we were soon cold, chilled to the bone.

Paul was with me then, in the cockpit, and we’d been alone together for a while when he leaned close.

“So, what’s her name?”

“What? Who?”

“Sara thinks you’re seeing someone. What’s her name?” He was giving me that look, the ‘don’t bother lying to me – I know you too well’ look.

“Patricia,” I said.

“I’m not going to ask why. I guess it’s none of my business, anyway, but you’re married to one of the world’s great women. I hope you haven’t forgotten that.”

“We’re going through a rough patch,” I said – as another mountain of ice water roared by.

He snorted. “Hell, what marriage doesn’t?”

“What about you? Have you…”

He shook his head. “No. I mean, why bother? You’re going to take your same way of dealing with the world into a new relationship, and odds are you’re just going to create the same problems all over again. I think it’s better to just deal with the problems you have, work them out, sort out what’s most important and focus on that.”

“That’s worked out well for you?”

“Yup.”

“Well, you’ve got kids to think of…”

“Is that what’s bothering you? Kids?”

“It’s become a dividing line, something we can’t get around.”

He nodded his head. “Sara thought so too.”

“Well, she would. She’s one of the world’s great women, too.”

“She has her moments. You still love Mary Ann?”

“Yup. More than you know.”

“I doubt that. Still, she’s not stupid, Spud. She deserves the truth, you both deserve time to work this out without some other woman breathing down your necks.”

The cockpit was right over the aft cabin, the cabin where Mary Ann and I slept, and she was down there. There was a portlight in that cabin, a portlight that opened into the cockpit, and it was open. She was sitting in the dark, listening to every word we’d just said, then I heard that portlight shut, heard her dogging it down, then I heard her putting on her foul weather gear – and I saw her coming up the companionway steps a moment later. She stepped into the cockpit and came over to me, sat down beside me and kissed me, once, on the lips, then she looked at Paul.

“How does the helm feel?” she asked him.

“Lots of vibration still, and kind of heavy.”

“Why don’t you go below, get some tea and warm up.”

He nodded his head and she slipped behind the wheel, steered over a looming wall of water and surfed down the backside. When Paul was below she spoke again – keeping her eyes on the way ahead. “How far has it gone?”

“I don’t know.”

“Too far?”

“Nothing’s ever too far, Mary Ann. Not where you and I are concerned.”

“I’m not going to ask why…I think I know, and I think I understand…but don’t do anything drastic without talking to me first.”

“Okay.”

We sat in the dark watching marching waves under a kaleidoscope of moonlit spray, the way ahead shades of black and dark silver.

“Maybe you should just get it out of your system, you know?” she said a half hour later.

“Too confusing. I was never meant to love two women.” I had been looking at her all this time, at her and the passing spray, dissolving diamonds falling from the sky. I studied her face, her face so familiar, so much a part of who I was now.

“Oh?” she said, looking at me for an instant.

“I think I was born to love you.”

“I fell in love with you the first moment of our first year, before school even started.”

“I don’t remember that?” I said. “What happened?”

“I’d just arrived. A social worker put me on a bus in Baton Rouge. To Boston,” she said, “then got on one of those Peter Pan buses to Springfield. Someone from school picked me up, and on the drive north we stopped at that little airport in Northampton. Your father and you were standing by an airplane, then I realized it was your airplane. I had no idea anyone could own something like that, and I’d never known anyone who could fly.”

“I remember that now. The old Travel Air.”

“You looked like a God to me, Spud. Standing there in the wind by that airplane. Now you put on that uniform and go fly those huge airplanes – like maybe just anyone in the world can do what you do – but they can’t, Spud. To me, you’ll always be that God, that wild, wind-blown God, and I’ll never love anyone else. I can’t, I couldn’t. I worship you, I always have.”

“But, why…?”

“Because I feel like I’ve let you down. It’s me, Spud. My plumbing broke, and we won’t have another child because of me.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I let you down. Maybe I thought you needed to find another woman, have kids, move on to to a new life. Because that would be better for you.”

“It wouldn’t last. I can’t breathe when I’m away from you for too long.”

She laughed. “You’d learn, Spud.”

“Doubtful.” I sighed, wondered if I should take the next step, then I went on, stepped into the darkness. “Do you remember Durong, Durong Thánh?”

“The pilot who…”

“Yup.”

“Yes, of course.”

Durong Thánh, Mig-21 pilot who shot my ass down. I was his fifth, so he made Ace on me. Durong, who, when he discovered my BN, Norm Puckett, had a dislocated shoulder and that I was bleeding to death, got to work with first aid kit in his teeth and kept me from bleeding out. He worked on me in the helicopter, he kept working on me all the way to the Connie’s Sick Bay. Puckett told me the kid saved my life, and he was treated civilly until he was released after the war wound down, I think in no small measure because he had.

He called me the day he was released, asked if he could come meet me somewhere and talk.

For some reason the Navy cut him that much slack, and he came to San Francisco, visited me on Sirius. We talked about that night, about how it was nothing personal, just war. He’d been locked up for a couple of years, and he’d done nothing but think about that night. About how one minute he’d been trying to kill me, and the next trying to save my life. Nationalism fell away in those moments, all the patriotic fervor he’d grown up around simply vanished as he watched my blood billowing out into the godawful brown water.

The State Department let him stay aboard for a few days, and I assumed responsibility for him, promised that I’d get him to a charter flight to Hanoi a few days hence, and I did. We talked all the while, this kid about half my size and three years younger than I, and somewhere in there we slipped from the uncomfortable terrain of adversary into the uncharted water of a new friendship. When he left, before he walked out to the DC-8 taking him home, we hugged, and we promised to keep in touch.

And the funny thing about this is – we did. Regularly, as a matter a fact. And when I started flying into Tokyo we met up from time to time. He was a captain by then, for Vietnam Airlines, flying Boeing 707s from Hanoi to Tokyo and back. I’d just met his wife, before we left on the trip to Hawaii, and we’d discussed life back in America. Mary Ann and the baby situation came up and she looked at me, asked me a question I’d never expected.

“Do you want a baby?” she asked.

“I think I do. I think Mary Ann would too.”

“It is not a problem, you know. We have hundreds of orphans in Hanoi alone. There are no homes for them, and it is not a problem to adopt.”

“I didn’t know you’d kept up with him,” Mary Ann said, looking from the wave-tops to me and back. “How is he doing?”

“He’s actually doing good. Real good.” There are symmetries in life that haunt us, follow us unawares, and I mentioned this. “His wife is a doc, an obstetrician.”

“Oh? That’s kind of funny,” she said.

“I met her a few weeks ago.”

“Oh? Is she nice?”

“I talked about us. She mentioned that there are hundreds of kids in Hanoi alone, orphans. She said adoption is no problem.”

And she looked at me, stopped looking at the waves and just looked at me. I jumped behind the wheel, took over as she slid away, made room for me.

“And what did you say?” she said after a long pause.

I shook my head. “Not much. I’m not sure how I feel about it – not yet, anyway. You?”

She sighed, shook the cold away. “I love the idea. It’s the reality I’m not so sure about.”

“Exactly.”

“Do you think we could go over there, have a look around?”

“I think so. I’m not sure what restrictions are in place right now.”

She slid close again, put her head on my shoulder. “This is kind of a crazy, mixed up world, isn’t it?”

“Holy-mother-of-God!” I yelled – then – “Hang on!”

A huge wave – I’d guess now, looking back on the moment, perhaps the height of a two story building – came up out of nowhere and Sirius raced up the face, hesitated a moment, then fell off the backside – surfing down the wall at breakneck speed.

And there was an even bigger wave waiting in the night, just barely visible now – a huge, feral monster – rising up like a mountain range, suddenly looming overhead.

Mary Ann darted below, slammed the companionway hatch shut just as this next freight train slammed into the hull, and Sirius rolled drunkenly to her beam end – and as this second wave broke over us Sirius rolled further and further over – until her masts pointed to the seafloor, perhaps three miles below.

Rushing water filled the cockpit and I lost my grip on the wheel as we turned over – and the next thing I saw was Sirius, upside down, sails ripped from their tracks, lines coiled like snakes hovering everywhere in black shadows cast by the scudding moon, then bubbles everywhere. Then tons and tons of lead in her keel exerted force against the water and slowly Sirius began to right herself. It took what felt like hours, but in reality was probably less than half a minute – and when I came to the surface I saw that I was perhaps twenty yards away from my boat, my home, and that her sails were filling fast. I was swimming for my life as she began sailing away, and the last thing I saw was Mary Ann coming on deck, looking around for me – then screaming.

+++++

I think not even a month later we were in Hanoi, walking with Louise Thánh through the obstetrics hospital where she worked, and Mary Ann was, I could tell, aghast. To call conditions there primitive might have been going to far, but for someone working on the leading edge of a rapidly changing branch of medicine, what she saw during this slowly unfolding tour was just hardly bearable.

We came to a neonatal unit, what might have been a neonatal unit in the States in, say, the 1950s, and she looked at a row of blue-skinned babies dying and she turned away.

“What is wrong?” Louise asked.

Yet Mary Ann tried to keep to herself, tried to turn away. She knew the problem, knew the solution, yet the solution wasn’t available in this country – yet. So she looked at those half dozen kids, who all would die within hours, and she was overcome with helplessness. Then anger. She went to one of the neonate nurses and asked for a chart – in French – then she read through the chart, slowly, carefully.

Then she turned to Louise.

“There is no treatment plan. Why?”

“These babies will die soon.”

“Yes, I know that, but what are you going to do about it?”

“There is nothing we can do for these babies.”

“You wanna bet?”

“What?”

“Find me an anesthesiologist. Quickly, if you can.”

I looked at Mary Ann, knew that tone, and yet she’d promised me she wouldn’t do this.

A harried looking doc came by, and for some reason the kid spoke decent English and Mary Ann drilled him on what she wanted to do.

“We have no surgeon here who can do that,” the anesthesiologist said.

“I’m going to,” my wife said.

“You are not on staff,” Louise said. “You cannot do this.”

“Why not? I can save this kid. It’ll take me twenty minutes.”

“You are not serious,” the anesthesiologist said.

“If you’ve got a pediatric surgeon around, I can do it in even less time, and I can teach him the procedure.”

Louise took off in one direction, the anesthesiologist in another. Fifteen minutes later she was scrubbed in, starting the procedure. It took her twenty five minutes, and the kid was pink and full of life the next morning.

We had come to look at potential kids to adopt, and all of a sudden Mary Ann had an epiphany. Over the next week, talking to Norman Shumway, her boss at Stanford, and members of the hospital’s government ministry, she developed, on the spot, a teaching program she wanted to set up there. She would volunteer to teach one week a month, for a year, and nurses, techs, and Stanford anesthesiologists would come with her. There was equipment back in Palo Alto no longer in use that could imported, that could save lives, so much we can do…

And the ministers balked.

Mary Ann was in tears. “Why will you do nothing for these children? We’ll bring a new level of medicine to your country…?”

“Perhaps,” I said later, “because we brought a new level of devastation to their country. Perhaps because they don’t like to be reminded that America once lorded over them. Perhaps because the resent the Great White Fathers once again sticking our noses into their business.”

That evening another ministerial type came to our room, just after Durong and Louise arrived.

“Could you come with me, please?” the man asked. “All of you?”

We went.

For a ride in the country.

We came to a house. A nice house, clean and small, but not fancy.

We went inside, and found in an ancient man in bed, a nurse be his side. He was thin and pale, looked vaguely familiar, and he spoke perfect English after he’d looked over Mary Ann.

“You have kind eyes,” he said, and there was an air about this old man I had a hard time pinning down – and suddenly I wished Sara was with us.

And without saying a word Mary Ann was at his side, feeling this pulse and that, looking over his chart, then she moved to his ankles and felt here and there. She took a nearby stethoscope and listened to his heart, then his lungs, had him lean forward and she listened again. When she was finished she stepped back and looked at the man, and waited.

“How long will I live?” he finally asked.

And Mary Ann shrugged. “A week, perhaps.”

“And from what I’ve heard, you can repair this?”

“With the proper equipment on hand, the operation might take an hour.”

“And I would live?”

She nodded her head.

“I see. And you do this for children?”

“That is my area of expertise, yes.”

“I have been told about what you did. And what you want to do. Could you tell me why?”

“Because I hate suffering. When I see a problem I know I can fix, I want to do so.”

“And you see a problem you can fix?”

“No, I see suffering I can alleviate.”

The old man nodded his head. “I understand. I would like to know of another thing.”

“Yes?”

“I have been reading of this trip you made, by sea, last year. And about the storm you endured. The news accounts were vague, so I wondered. You saw your husband in the sea, and you dove in after him. Why?”

“Because without him I would not want to go on living.”

“It’s as simple as that?”

“Yes.”

“Yet your friends were able to turn the ship around and get to him, to you both, with little trouble. Why did you not wait?”

“Because I did not want him to be alone. I had no way to know we’d been picked up, and I did not want him to die alone.”

He looked at her the longest time, his eyes measuring hers. “Your kindness is true, I think. In my next life, I would hope to meet you.”  He coughed, had trouble catching his breath, and Mary Ann went to him, held his wrist and felt his rhythms.

“I can have the equipment needed her within a day. I can have you walking within a week.”

“I will consider this. In the meantime, I want you to move forward with your plans to teach. You will find no further obstacles along this path.”

And as Mary Ann began crying the old man suddenly became grandfatherly. “Yes, I would pray that I meet you in our next life,” he said gently. “Please, do not cry. I know these are tears of joy, but you have much to do now. Certainly there is no time to spend with tears?”

“Yes. You’re correct.”

“Will you do my operation?”

“I will assist. There is another man, much more experienced with your procedure than I, who I will ask to come.”

“I would like you there.”

“Then I will be.”

“There are two people I would like you to meet now,” he said, and a door opened. Two kids I thought might have been three or four years old came into the room, and they stood beside the old man’s bed with their heads bowed. “These are my grandchildren. Their parents were killed several weeks ago, and I am concerned for their future. I understand you are looking to adopt children and I would like you to consider raising this remnant of my family.”

Then he looked at me, asked me to come closer. “Durong, you too. And Louise.”

My friend came and stood by my side, Louise by Mary Ann’s.

“You were my enemy once, and yet you chose to treat my son with great respect. You call each other friend, do you not?”

“Yes, father,” Durong said. “I believe he is worthy of that name.”

“And you think he would treat my grandchildren with equal respect?”

“I do, father.”

Then the old man turned to me. “This was my son’s idea. At first I could see little wisdom in his choice, but now I do. I hope you will consider this, and when it is time, I hope you will let them return – with what you have taught them. The world needs understanding, does it not?”

“It does, sir.”

“This was good, but now I feel I must rest,” and he seemed to wither before us, and his grandchildren looked first at him, then at me.

+++++

If you live near – or on – the sea long enough, you realize that life is defined by tides, by orbital cycles, if you will, and that all life revolves around ebbs and floods often greater than the sum of their varied currents. You see that each tide is subtly different, too, that no two are ever quite the same, and that there are at least two ways of dealing with the flow. You can work your way against the tide, push against the currents, or you can turn and run with the flood. In time you understand that running with the flood has certain advantages, but you can easily end up on the rocks and spend the rest of your life repairing the damage – so you have to chose your moment well. You have to watch the water, wait for the most opportune time, then you have to strike out into the water and follow your instincts as the current carries you along and, mindful of rocks along the way, reach for the sheltering sky – and the love that waits for your grasp.

I am, of course, not talking about tides.

No, I speak of my Jennifer, who slipped from my fingers once and fell away to other arms. I thought she was my Peter Pan, the child who could stay my rush to responsibility, but I saw her hook just in time. It was you, Paul, who saved me. And you too, Harry.

I speak of my children, our twins, and the day I watched them graduate in Massachusetts, with my mother and father gone, yet with my improbable brother standing by my side, cheering. The day would have never been – had it not been for war, distant, far from home, and a warrior trying to kill me. I would not have watched their graduation in Palo Alto a few years later, nor would I have seen them move into medicine, or been able to help with their return to Hanoi. I would not have been part of an extended family in Vietnam, and would never have known the joy that helping Mary Ann’s efforts take root could bring. A simple twist in time, and so many courses altered. And of course, none of it would have happened without Paul keeping me grounded to the pull of Mary Ann’s gravity.

And of course I speak of my mother and father, and the swirling currents that surrounded them. I think of my mother holding Jen to her breast in that cabin – they were in that moment twin sisters joined at the heart. I think of the morning I received a call from mother, in New Zealand, telling of father’s passing. He had been working on a balky fuel filter, had just asked mother for a wrench, and he looked up, said “Oh…” as life came, and went – and that was it. They were alone then, alone together, but not long after my mother joined him. Sirius remained in New Zealand for many years, under the care of woodworkers who cherished her lines, able men and women who kept her sound while she waited for her master’s return.

Of all the currents that swept me along, Mary Ann’s was the smoothest. She was my guiding star, my purpose. Not so many days ago I lay with her as she passed, and I held her into the night. With my parent’s gone, Paul and Sara too, I am now the only one remaining from that first journey.

Ben was with me on Sirius this morning, standing on her decks together one last time. We had an urn in hand, ashes from five lives mingling in the moment, then we cast their fates to the wind and watched them drift away. We said our goodbyes and I watched him motor ashore, then I went forward and cast away her mooring line, setting Sirius free again. I raised sail, heading north, no idea where we were going, only that go we must. It is time.

I sat on the deckhouse this morning, where Mary Claire used to sit and dream, and I recalled watching my wife and daughter sitting there one morning, a morning not unlike this one. They were reading Peter Pan, and I heard a little voice say “second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning,” and I understood just then. She was my Pan, but so too were they all.

(C)2017 adrian leverkuhn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com | this was, of course, a work of fiction.

Straight on ’til morning (WIP, Part I)

A little of everything in this story. Salt & pepper, shaken, not stirred. I quit at 21 pages as I found a good stopping off point, and I need a few hours to reload the battery and play a few notes. So…it’s unfinished. Still, I think there’s some entertainment value in this one, a good dose of sunshine for a winter weekend. Have fun.

+++++

Straight On ‘Til Morning

Not sure I remember too much about actually graduating from high school, but I do remember the summer after. Those first three months after – when I could finally say something like ‘Free at last, free at last, God Almighty – free at last!’ – and not feel like a complete idiot. Of course, only an idiot would think that – but suddenly life, and everything about it, felt so different. The idea that the drudgery of school was somehow over and done with, that life would be smooth sailing ahead, all clear skies and fair winds over the stern rail – forever. And I think it was the certainty I felt that seemed so entrancing. That everything going forward would just be – better. Better than the last four months had been, anyway.

There was only one cloud on my horizon, and she was, or so I’d thought, behind me.

Her name was Jen – Jennifer, and we’d broken up midyear, in December – though I didn’t quite know it at the time.

I’d gone to Colorado for Christmas break, that ritual parole from boarding school purgatory I looked forward to – beginning some time in September – and I said goodbye to Jen knowing full well that when I got back to campus life would resume right where we’d left off. She was going to the Caribbean to meet her father – sailing, I think, was the original plan, but of course she met someone. A kid from St Paul’s over in Concord, and they, presumably, fell in love. By the time we got back to campus there was nothing left to say; I could see it in her eyes, just as I had seen it with my own. As soon as I saw them, as a matter of fact, I knew we were done.

Boarding schools – or more to the point, co-ed boarding schools in the 60s – were seething caldrons of hormones, stirred constantly by needful, fragile egos. They’re living plays about small town life writ small, with a cast of characters that included a collection of beady-eyed con-men and more than a few cheating housewives, the lid screwed down tight by underpaid staff who would rather have been somewhere, anywhere else. From the moment you arrived in the Fall until the moment you left in early summer, there are two things you thought about: why did my parents send me here; and when was all this bullshit going to be over and done with.

Of course, there was an easy remedy not so easily had. For boys, nirvana lay just across the quad – in the girl’s dorms. The Holy Land, the Forbidden Zone – and images of Steve McQueen sliding out of a dimly lit tunnel and onto that drab motorcycle in The Great Escape ought to come to mind right about now – this was where our teenaged salvation lay. Just a few hundred yards away, supposedly just out of reach. We, of course, saw each other in class and at meals, and for those who kept up their grades, during ‘study hall’ in the library after the evening meal, yet sooner or later we all discovered the secret routes out of our dorms – and into their’s.

Jen and I had hooked up early in our junior year and we’d been ‘an item’ ever since. We were inseparable, I thought. We ate together, and on weekends I’d sit on a sofa in the commons room with her head on my lap while we read Milton and Vonnegut together. When it was warm at night we’d sneak out to the fields on the other side of Greenfield’s Road, and some nights we’d even take a moment to look up at the stars. After a year together I was sure I’d discovered the gossamer contours of forever, my very own womb with a view, but things change.

The prospect of a summer apart was shattering, and we parted that spring vowing to write every day. I cheated. I wrote two, sometimes three letters a day – though usually at night – and in just a few weeks I started getting a couple a day from Jen. I’d look at the postmark, from Galveston, Texas, rip the letter open and start reading.

We had it, I think you could say, bad.

That summer was my third flying, and I was working on my multi-engine rating that June, so was in ground school most mornings and flying at least two to three hours a week – more on the weekends with my father. When time came for me to make my first extended solo cross country flight, the choice of destinations was easy, and obvious. Galveston, Texas, here I come!

I made the flight in an old Beech Travel Air, an old if reliable twin engined airplane, too well equipped for what it was, and I left Addison Airport, on the north side of Dallas, around midday. Heading almost due south, I skirted Austin and San Antonio, leaving them to the west of my line, and I arced west of the Houston area and slipped on into Galveston before two. Before the really big thunderstorms formed, in other words. So as soon as I had the Beech tied down I called my instructor, then my father, telling them that big storms were moving in and that I’d fly back the next morning.

“Good call,” said my flight instructor.

“Well, did you pack any goddamn rubbers?” my father snorted. Which was, all in all, odd – as I shouldn’t have needed to pack anything for a day trip. It was, I’m trying to say, hard to pull one over on my old man.

And yes, Jen was waiting for me in the parking lot by the little terminal.

With her father, by the way.

He was a professor of gynecology at the medical school in Galveston, and I’d met him in passing at Parent’s Day that last October. We’d hit it off, and he’d been impressed I was so committed to flying – and at such an early age, I guess. He, of course, wanted to see the Beechcraft so I walked them out to the flight line and gave them the nickel tour, and had to explain that I couldn’t take them up for a ride as I hadn’t taken my check-ride yet. He seemed satisfied that I was a responsible young man after that, then we hopped in his Cadillac and drove into town. He had a house not far from the seawall, maybe a block in, and I remember the lawn was half grass and half white sand. I’d never seen anything like it. Galveston seemed a city perched on the ragged edge of survival, one hurricane away from oblivion, and the muddy water in the Gulf looked anything but inviting.

“Blows in from the beach,” Dr Flesh said as I looked at the yard. Oh, yes, that was his name. Harry Flesh – I kid you not. He tried to talk me into medical school later that evening, too. “You should think about, Spud. There are a lot of openings in gynecology, despite all the hairy situations you can find yourself in.”

And as if right on cue, Jen rolled her eyes. She’d heard it all before, I guessed.

Yet I laughed until I cried. And I think I was his new best friend after that.

He took us out to dinner that night, a seafood place named Gaido’s, and I think that was the first time I’d ever eaten over a pound of butter with dinner. Everything was slathered in butter, or drowning in bubbling vats of butter, and in my plate of sautéed lump crabmeat the poor critters were doing the backstroke through oceans of silky, golden butter. He left us alone on the back porch after we got back to their place, and I guess that was the first time I’d noticed there was no Mrs Flesh.

“She died a couple of years ago,” Jen told me, but she was evasive around that memory.

“Oh? What happened? Did she get sick?”

She shook her head, looked away. “No. She was murdered.”

I don’t think I said a word.

“She was up in Houston. They found her in a hotel room.”

“Found her?”

“Maybe a day after it happened. She’d picked up some man and gone to this hotel downtown, and he killed her. Took everything from her purse, which was how they caught the guy.”

“Jesus,” I whispered.

“That’s when my dad decided to send me away to school.”

“Were you close? With your mother, I mean.”

She shook her head. “No,” she said, and her voice flat, dull – and barren.

“How’s did your old man deal with it?”

“He doesn’t. He goes to school, he teaches class. He comes home then eats dinner and goes to sleep. Then he gets up and does it all over again.”

And that’s all we said about it. She fell asleep with her head on my lap, and I rubbed her head until I too found sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night and she was gone; I passed her room on the way to the bathroom and heard her crying in her bedroom. When I walked back to my sofa I saw Dr Flesh walking around, down to the kitchen, tying his necktie as he went about making coffee – yet for some reason it looked like he was working on a gallows’s noose to me.

I tried to sleep after that, but found myself thinking about one of Dickens’ characters, old Thomas Gradgrind, and I woke up later that morning with Jen by my side – like nothing bad had ever happened. Dr Flesh swung by after his morning class and took us out for breakfast, yet all he wanted to talk about was airplanes. So, we talked airplanes, then we drove back to the airport and they looked on as I made my pre-flight walk-around, then Jen ran out and kissed me, told me that she loved me, and that her father did too, then she ran to the car.

Dr Flesh watched as I started the Beechcraft, and I saw him on my takeoff roll, still standing there behind a little chain-linked fence, staring at me as I flew away.

I went down to Galveston a few more times that summer, but took the old Texas Chief down the next two times. Dr Flesh always seemed happy to see me, and he stayed up late with us one night and talked about his one passion – sailing. And the next day he took us down to his boat, a huge wooden schooner built in Maine before the war, and he told me if I wanted the next time I came down he’d take us out.

I was fascinated by this man now. He seemed a walking contradiction, and very unlike my own father. Studious in the extreme, yet adventurous. Rather than spend his time off walking a golf course, he was getting his boat ready for an extended trip to the Caribbean, and as he led me around her innards I could see the pride in his accomplishment shining through. I was envious, in the way someone clueless about boats is envious.

The last time I went to Galveston that summer I flew down early on a Saturday morning, and when they met me at the airport I took them out onto the ramp and helped Jen into the backseat, then I went up and asked Dr Flesh to follow me up the wing once I was seated. When they were buckled-in I started the engines and taxied out to the end of the runway, and I was feeling a little smug by that point, too. We took off and I turned to the northwest, and the doc asked where we were going.

“Get something to eat,” I said, grinning.

“Oh. How far?”

“Couple of hours. Each way.”

“Oh.”

The place was at once legendary – and yet almost mythical. A ranch house out in the middle of nowhere, there was a grass ‘airstrip’ by the main building – and nothing else. No way in, and no way out – unless, that is, it had wings. We circled the field once and I checked the air-sock, then settled into a long final and touched down gently – as I knew my old man was watching – then taxied up to the ranch house. There were a half dozen or so aircraft there already, and Jen was perplexed.

“What is this place,” she asked.

“What place?” I asked.

“This place!” she asked, now clearly pissed.

“This Place Does Not Exist,” I said, then the doc got out and walked down the wing – his bladder about to burst – then I got out and helped Jen down to the ground.

“What do you mean it doesn’t exist?” she groused.

“Just that. This Place Does Not Exist.”

“What do you mean?”

“You asked me it’s name. I told you.”

“You mean it’s called…This Place Does Not Exist?”

“You catch on fast, for a girl.” She could hit pretty hard, too, for a girl. “Better cover your ears,” I said when we were down on the ground.

“What? Why…”

But is was already too late. The silver P-51D roared by about twenty feet off the grass – then went into a ballistic climb, the old Rolls-Royce Merlin popping as my father chopped the throttle into his wing-over.

“Is that your father?” the doc asked, and I nodded as I watched my old man crab into an impossibly steep descent. He popped the gears at the very last moment and flared, touched down so gently it made my heart leap, and I kept them back until he taxied up next to the Travel Air and cut the engine. I helped him tie the Mustang down, then we went over and I introduced my dad to Jen and her father. At one point he looked at his watch and then to the east.

“You expecting company?” Dr Flesh asked.

My father nodded, and pointed. “Yes. There he is.”

“Who is it? Bill?” I asked.

Again, he just nodded, and a minute later a mint B-17 flew over, then circled and landed. We watched as the Alice From Dallas taxied up to the Mustang on two engines, then we tied that beast down too.

And then all of us went inside and had the very best steak in Texas.

+++++

When I got back to Massachusetts that September I could tell something had changed. Jen was a little more reserved in public, and downright quiet when it was just the two of us, and she didn’t want to talk about it, either.

And she didn’t, at least not for a week or so.

We were walking out of chapel one Sunday morning and she told me her father was sick.

“Sick?” I asked. “How sick?”

“Cancer of some kind. He told me…” she gasped, “…maybe…next summer.”

I stared at her for the longest time, then we both started to cry.

+++++

My dad traded in the old Travel Air for a new Baron, and he flew the doc up for Parent’s Weekend in early October. Even though Jen had made me promise to not let on I knew anything about the doc’s illness, I found it hard not to stare when I first saw him that Saturday morning. The skin on his wrists and hands was a little yellow, the skin around his eyes was a little darker than I remembered, and maybe the eyes were deeper set, too – yet he was his same, boisterous self.

“Spud! Howya doin’!” he yelled from across the quad.

“Doc!” I called back – as I jogged over to take his hand.

But he wasn’t havin’ any of that. He grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into a hug, a great big bear slapping hug, and after he pounded me on the back a few times he pushed me back gently and looked at me. “You ain’t eatin’ enough, Spud. You gonna up and blow away.”

“Maybe we can fly down for a steak,” I said, grinning.

“Naw. I’m taking Sirius out next week. Bound for Mexico, Grand Cayman and the British Virgins by Christmas. Wish you could come – it’s gonna be a slice.”

“I know, sir. I’m envious.”

The three watched me in a soccer game a little later, then there was a great lunch scheduled and we all sat together, reminisced about airplanes and steaks, and while Jen was certainly there – she was somewhere else, too. Someplace far away, and I couldn’t help thinking she was in a hotel room, in Houston, looking at her mother.

+++++

And it was the same between us after Parent’s weekend. The same, but different, like she was someplace else. We were still close, she was affectionate, but she had slipped away – to I knew not where. She flew down to Grand Cayman for Thanksgiving and came back wearing bruised, dented armor, and she withdrew behind hollow plates of cold withered iron after that, hiding from me now, lest the truth be known. The three weeks between vacations should have been all about prepping for exams – and the coming break – but I was consumed by her retreat.

We hopped the shuttle to Logan in silence, and when we parted at the airport she barely said “Bye” before she slipped into the crowd.

And, I don’t know, maybe I knew we were done right then and there. Maybe I knew she’d find someone else down on those crystalline seas – where everything was the polar opposite of Massachusetts in late autumn. Snow had been late in coming that year, and we’d taken endless walks around campus in the interregnum, walks under leaden skies among black trees and dead leaves. And her eyes, always bright and so full of life, had changed by then. They were dull now, gray and dull, and when we held hands her skin was like ice.

So, I met my parents in Aspen. Dad had bought a lot out on Woody Creek, and he was meeting with a local architect that week, and we all went down to the office and looked at the renderings – and we oohed over this detail and that – then dad looked over the details and signed on the dotted line. We’d have our house late next summer, early autumn latest, and happy as larks we skipped out into the snow and walked over to the little park in the middle of town and had crepes made right there in a little rolling cart. We looked around and could see our future, and I could see my father’s eyes just then as we ate and brushed snow off each others shoulders. I could see him looking at me, measuring me. And he never once asked about Jen or the doc.

My mother and I were not close. We never were, and it just kind of worked out that way. To me it always felt like she resented my coming into her world, like I was an inconvenience. I always wondered what I cost her in physical terms – in the beginning, anyway, let alone the mounting cost over the years.

She’d gone to Hollywood right out of college, and yes, she’d made a couple of movies – but she had a problem with bourbon and that problem only grew out there. She’d met my father at Harvard and they married before he went off to the war, but my father was a pilot – and he wasn’t a drinker. They grew apart in time, because, I think, he had trouble with her drinking, and we, my father and I, came together in the vacuum their drift created. We flew together, we played tennis, we went to Red River, north of Taos, and learned to ski – together – while my mother enjoyed her memories of Hollywood with bourbon and orange juice. No other activity seemed to suit her, or so she told me once, and the whole Aspen thing had begun to weigh heavily on her by that afternoon – so she ate her crepe in silence and refused to smile at the future. I think now, as I look back on those days, that if I’d taken her hand that day I’d have found skin as cold as ice – as cold as Jen’s had been.

And now, as I think back on those two women’s lives, I look at the choices they made and see two kindred spirits, two troubled souls crashing through life – heedless to the damage they left in their wake. More troubling still, I look back from fifty years on and in Jen I see I’d unwittingly found an almost perfect clone of my mother. Easy to see now, from the comfort of another life, but what troubles me is simply this: was there no element of chance – and therefore nothing accidental – in our coming together? Were we drawn to one another through some innate genetic predisposition, something written in our code, if you will? What else could have taken us so close to the edge of the abyss?

+++++

I was waiting at the gate in Boston. Waiting for Jen to come off the plane from Miami. I saw her walking hand-in-hand with a blond headed guy, a long-haired freak, and they kissed once, passionately I might add, before they split and went their separate ways. Then she turned and saw me standing there, and I think she smiled just a bit, before she turned and walked off to the baggage claim.

I did not follow her.

I was devastated, but I did not follow her.

I did not sit by her on the shuttle back to campus. I did not sit by her at dinner that night, nor by her in classes that next week. I did grow dark and despondent, and alarmingly so, I think. My roommate asked probing questions and my house mother came and talked to me, asked if I was feeling okay, if there was anything she could do to help.

There wasn’t, I said. And I think she understood. I think everyone on campus understood.

But high school is high school, and teenagers are just that and simply so. As Jen’s new friend went to a school in nearby Concord, New Hampshire, he drove over on weekends and they went out to lunch and I watched and knew we’d run into the end of that particular future. I subsequently tried out for the ski team and blew out my leg in our first race; when I got back to campus my right leg was in a massive cast and that put an end to skiing for a while. Dad showed up the next day and we sat by a roaring fireplace in a nearby inn and we talked about life and women and all the confounding choices people make, then we talked about Aspen and skiing and all was right with our little world again.

He barely mentioned Jen that day, yet he had brought bad news about the doc.

He was back in Galveston, sicker than hell and the word my dad had was that he wouldn’t make it another month. And his boat, the Sirius, had been, in effect, abandoned somewhere in the BVI.

“I called him last week. Offered to buy the boat,” my father said. “What do you think?”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I just hate to see something of value go to waste.”

“What would you do with it?”

“Sail it up to Maine, I think, then get her fixed up and sold.”

Yes, Maine. That made sense. My mother was from Maine – Camden, Maine, a mill town on Penobscot Bay; lots of boat builders, wealthy people from Boston coming up – looking for a nice schooner. And if there was one thing in life my mother enjoyed, it was sailing.

My father was looking to make a few repairs of his own, I think I saw. Fix things before rot settled into the wood.

“So? What do you think? Feel like sailing up to Maine this summer?”

+++++

A few days later I was sitting in study hall when a girl came over and sat across from me. I knew her, of course; we’d known each other for three and a half years, but I didn’t know her well. Her name was Mary Ann Oberon, and she was from Louisiana, her family Acadian French. She was dark haired and dark eyed and she had the brightest soul, the kindest heart of anyone on campus, and everyone loved her kindness of spirit. She wanted to become a physician, and everyone knew she would. She was, I think everyone know, meant to be a healer.

And she had come to sit by me that night with purpose in her eyes. She had come to heal me.

And she did, too. It took her, maybe, a half hour to complete the job.

“What’d you do to your leg,” she asked.

“I tripped, on my stupidity.”

She laughed. “And?”

“I’ve been skiing a couple of times, so of course thought I’d enjoy racing.”

“Ah.”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I said, right when I started sliding into the trees.”

“What are you reading?”

“Celestial Navigation.”

“Oh – going sailing?”

“This summer, yes. I think so.”

“I love sailing.”

“Oh?”

“We sail all summer, up in Maine. Have since I can remember.”

“My parents have. Not me.”

“You’re the flyer, right?”

“Yup.”

“Not much difference between sailing and flying,” she said. “Both involve wings, both involve navigating difficult currents, avoiding rocks and other hard things. It’s all just Time Speed and Distance.”

I looked at her like I was looking at a kindred spirit – which of course she was.

Study hall was up and it was time to head back to our dorms, and she asked me to walk with her. She stopped at one point and pulled me close, looked me in the eye. “I’ve been wanting to do this for ages,” she said, and she pulled my face to hers and let slip the wettest, most tongue-laden kiss in the history of kissing, and it was like an electric charge went off in my feet and roared up my legs like a three alarm blaze. By the time it hit my face I was all conflagration, all crazy emotion lit up and out of control.

She pulled away a moment later and looked into my eyes, and I think she wiped a tear from my face. “You needed that,” she said, and then she kissed the tip of my nose. “And you may not know it yet, but you need me, too.” Then she skipped off to her house, leaving me breathless and completely confused – almost unsure of my footing. Which was, I think, her point, the strategy behind the moment – but even so, not really a nice thing to do to someone in an almost three foot long cast on a snowy sidewalk.

+++++

So within days Mary Ann and I started sitting next to one another at meals, and in class. She helped me with latin, I helped her with calculus. We held hands, looked deeply into each other’s eyes, and soon I was curled up beside her – with my head in her lap, with her fingers drawing little arcs through my hair. She always wore black tights and I loved to tickle behind her knees while she twirled-away through my hair, I loved the way she giggled and whispered “stop it!” And I remember turning over once and looking up into her eyes.

“I love you,” I told her one snowy February afternoon.

“I know,” she said, then she smiled and leaned forward and bit my ear. “I love you to, smart ass,” she whispered.

And that, in a nutshell, was Mary Ann. All warm and cuddly, everything wrapped in layers of impenetrable joy. And the thing is, I could see she was perfect for me, that we’d make a good team, and that we’d be happy together – forever.

Which was, of course, why I knew we’d never last.

+++++

Jen came and sat next to us a few weeks later, and she looked at Mary Ann with something akin to regret in her eyes, then she turned to me. “I’m flying home tomorrow,” she said. “Dad wants you to come, too. I think your father is arranging things with the Dean’s office this morning.”

“How is he?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I think he wants to say goodbye.”

Then she got up and walked away.

And I could it in Mary Ann’s eyes. The fear. I would be out of reach, out of her control – so the story in her eyes was a simple one: was love enough to keep me in her stable orbit?

+++++

When we got on the shuttle the next morning she looked bright, almost happy.

“Is your boyfriend going to meet us at the airport?” I asked.

She shook her head. “We broke up a few days ago.”

“Oh.” And I saw Mary Ann in my mind’s eye one moment, my mother the next.

Yin and yang. Opposites pulling me to their uncertain orbits, Jen a distant supernova on verge of collapse, her imploding gravity threatening to consume everything. We boarded a shiny new Delta 727 and flew to Dallas, and dad was waiting for us on the general aviation ramp at Love Field in his Baron. He helped Jen aboard, then sent me up next.

“What?” I said, suddenly concerned by the tired note I picked up in his voice.

“You take the left seat. I don’t feel like flying today.”

So, I taxied out to 13 Right – with two Braniff 707s ahead and a Delta DC9 just behind the Baron, and I’d have felt a little like a flea on an elephant’s ass if I hadn’t been so nervous about flying for the first time in months. Dad ignored me completely, of course; he turned and talked with Jen all the way out to the end of the taxiway, left me to it. I had to leave a lot of room ahead for the 707s; their jet-wash – even from a few hundred feet – was making the Baron tremble like a leaf in a gale, but then it was our turn.

“Baron triple two niner five, you’re clear for take-off. Be aware of heavy wake turbulence and contact departure on one one eight decimal two five.”

“Two niner five, wake turbulence, departure eighteen twenty-five.” I finished the run-up and pulled onto the active, looked at the clock and made my countdown – then advanced the throttles and started watching the gauges as we ran down the runway. We rotated well before the area where the 707s had, and I slipped south immediately to put more distance between the Baron and all that roiled air, then confirmed our flight plan with departure control. There were already heavy storms near Waco, my father said, and that’s why our flight plan was taking east towards Lufkin. I was reading the NOTAMs and looking over the weather when I felt her hand on my shoulder, then in my hair.

I turned, looked at her.

“You belong up here, Spud. You know that, don’t you?”

“And where do you belong, Jennifer?”

And I think I saw my father look at me for a moment, then he turned and looked out beyond the wing – at the towering anvil-headed thunderstorms brewing over central Texas.

And Jen looked me in the eye. “I belong to you.”

I turned back to the instruments, of course, tried to focus for a moment – until dad tapped my leg.

“My airplane,” he said.

“Your airplane,” I recited, then I turned to look at her again. “I don’t get you, Jen. Not one little bit.”

“You don’t have to Spud. Just understand what is. Okay?”

And dad started whistling that little ditty John Wayne did at the end of The High and The Mighty, and he had the biggest shit-eating grin on his face just then. He saw me looking and turned away, and I could tell he was trying his hardest not to laugh – and then the dam broke. He laughed so hard I thought the door was going to burst off it’s hinges, then I started laughing too.

“Uh, I hate to ask,” Jen said. “But who’s flying the airplane right now?”

Which only made things worse. Thank God for autopilots, right?

+++++

We declared VFR near Beaumont and I arced out over the Gulf and made a straight in approach to runway 36, and once we were on the ramp Dad had the ground crew tie the Baron down and gas her up, then he went off to rent a car. We drove to the hospital in silence, the enormity of the looming confrontation no longer something in a distant future – the moment was on us now, and we parked, went up to his room flying low and slow.

Which was quite unnecessary, as it turned out. The Doc was going to die, that much was certain, but he was going to go out with a bang.

“Which one of you brought the goddam dancin’ girls?” he asked as we came in the room.

“Uh, that slipped my mind, Harry,” my father said.

“Well, dammit, go get a bunch of red headed gals with hairy pussies. I feel like eating something red today!”

And Jen stepped into view.

“Well, shit,” Harry said sheepishly. “How you doin’, muffin? You fly down with this raggedy lookin’ bunch?”

Harry’s skin was deep orange that afternoon; he was in liver failure and the cancer had metastasized throughout his gut and chest, but if he was in pain it wasn’t showing just then. Jen went to him and held onto his arm, looked in his eyes and started crying.

“What’s the matter, muffin?”

“Oh, Daddy,” she whispered, and he looked up at my father, shook his head just a little.

“Let’s go find us a few dancin’ girls, Spud,” my father said, and we went and stood in the bustling corridor for a while, let the world walk on by while they talked, and we looked at one another for a long time. I guess, without saying a word to one another, we were thinking ahead. About, maybe, the day we’d have such a conversation. I guess most fathers and sons eventually do, but we’d never crossed that bridge before.

She came out a minute later, then asked me – and only me – to go in. “He wants to talk to you, Spud,” she said, and I went to her and held her when our tears came. After a while she whispered “Go…” in my ear, and I went.

The doc was quiet now, more subdued as I came in, and he looked at me as I closed the door and walked to his side.

“Don’t be afraid of all this shit,” he said, sweeping his hand around at all the IVs and instruments. “It ain’t gonna bite you, and neither am I.”

“Yessir.”

“Spud? I’m glad I got to know, even if it was just for a little bit. I’m gonna miss you, miss watchin’ you grow up.”

“Yessir. I know what you mean.”

“What are you going to do about Jennifer?”

“Sir?”

“Jennifer. What the hell are you going to do about that girl?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“You want some advice?”

“Yessir, I guess.”

“Get away from her, son. She’s just like her mother, in every way. She’ll make your life a living hell, and try to tear your world apart every chance she gets. And all the while she’ll tell you how much she loves you, how you mean everything in the world to her.”

“Sir?”

“That blond haired freak, as you call him? Over Christmas? That’s just a taste of what she has in store for you, so you think carefully about what you want out of life. Okay, Spud? ‘Cause she’ll suck the life right out of you.”

“Sir, why are you telling me this?”

“Because I happen to love you, kid. I never had a boy, never had a son, and I’ve come to look at you that way. Sorry, but there it is. Now, don’t start cryin’ – I’ve had enough cryin’ to last two goddamn lifetimes. Jen’s mother was nothin’ but one heartache after another, and Jen’s turnin’ out just like her. Nothin’ I can do about it, never has been, and that’s just the way it is.”

“Yessir.”

“I’m leavin’ everything to her, by the way, everything but Sirius. She’s yours, and a little money to help you look after her until you’re on your feet.”

“Sir?”

“The boat, Spud. She’s yours now. You take her and follow your heart – straight on ‘til morning – and you see what there is to see out there. I wanted to and can’t, so it’s your turn. I want you to go out there and live, and when I see you next time you can tell me what you found.” He held out his hand just then, and looked up at me. “This is goodbye, Spud. No tears, and none of that other bullshit, just think about what I said, and take care of her as best you can.”

“Yessir.”

“Go now, Spud. Please, and send Jen and your father in, would you?”

I had a hard time leaving, couldn’t let go of his hand, you see. A pause, a sigh passed between us, then he smiled and we let go. I nodded my head once, then turned and left that room, passed them in the hall on my way outside, told them to go in.

I went outside and watched billowing, anvil-headed monsters forming north of Houston, lightning flickering in their gray bellies, and some time later my father came out and joined me.

“He’s gone,” he said quietly, and I looked at him.

“What? So fast?”

“Morphine,” my father said, looking down at the ground. “I think he’d had enough.”

“Jesus.”

Jen came out a few minutes later and she walked up to my dad and hugged him for the longest time. Somehow, for whatever reason, the Doc and my father had become friends over the past half year, really close friends, and Jen grounded herself in that sudden reality. I suspect the Doc told her how he felt, maybe even what he wanted of them both, but if so that remained something between them, and that something remained unspoken, and unbroken – for many years to come.

But his last words to me lingered. What did he mean by “take care of her as best you can?” Jen? The boat? Both of them?

+++++

We were his family by then, the three of us, and we concluded his business, had his friends over to the house after services at the local temple, then the three of us got in the Baron and flew to Springfield, Massachusetts. We drove up 91 and to the Inn in near silence, lost in our respective thoughts, I guess, and we had a last supper together. There wasn’t much to say that hadn’t been said by then, and we talked about sailing one last time.

My mom and dad wanted to make the trip, but Jen still wasn’t sure.

Because she still didn’t know where she stood with me.

Because, perhaps, I didn’t exactly know how I felt about her.

Yet I was pretty sure how I felt about Mary Ann, and I thought that strange – in a way. Strange, in a way I didn’t quite understand yet.

+++++

So, graduation. The big change. When you go from having no control over your fate, to having about ninety-nine percent control – even if all control is an illusion.

In other words, there comes a point where you own all your fuck-ups, and that time usually comes about two days after graduating from high school. Before you graduate, you can at least pretend to blame everything bad on your parents, and hell, who knows, maybe there are a few times when people actually believe you when you try.

But probably fewer times than you think.

Anyway, I got home, to our old house on Belclaire in Highland Park, and surveyed life as I knew it.

College was next, but I’d been rejected by Harvard and Stanford, my two favorites, and I’d been wait-listed by Dartmouth, my third choice – so that one was a ‘maybe’ but it was already June so time wasn’t on my side. Columbia was a go, and so was NYU, but the idea of living on an island surrounded by eight million New Yorkers made me ill. That left two schools in California in contention: Claremont College near LA, and UC Berkeley. I chose Berkeley.

And right about now I need to re-introduce you to my roommate that last year in Purgatory. A kid named Paul Anderson, and I’ve left him out of the story up to now for no good reason other than he didn’t play that big a role in my life until I came back from Christmas break – when I found that Jen had moved-on to the blond headed freak. Paul was an interesting sort. Almost inert, like a gas at low temperature – before it changes – Paul had the demeanor of, well, a rock. Perhaps even the Rock of Gibraltar. He was solid. And not just physically so, though come to think of it he was built like a brick shit-house and went on to play linebacker at USC. No, Paul was a rock of a totally different texture.

Paul played the guitar – when he wasn’t reading Socrates or bench-pressing Volkswagens – and he wrote his own music, his own lyrics, as well. And interestingly enough, his stuff was good. Real good. That October Jen and I had gone down to Boston to hear him play, where he was approached by a couple of record producers – and he of course turned them down, walked away from all that nonsense – because it wasn’t in his plan. He like music, he told me once, because it kept him centered, kept him focused on what WAS important.

For Paul Anderson, medicine was important. He was like a heat-seeking missile, locked on and closing fast, when it came to medicine. He eschewed team sports, especially sports that embodied conflict, and took up skiing and rock climbing – and he was Hell with bow and arrow. He was, too, the most compassionate human being I’d known up to that point, and a genuine empath, as well. So, the picture you should have in mind is a huge, Zen rock, climbing mountains and playing his guitar when he reached the summit. Maybe shooting the moon with a arrow, and hitting it dead-center.

That fall, one night when he was playing coffee houses in Cambridge, he met a girl. She was a ‘cliffie, a senior at Radcliffe College, and her name was Sara Keaton. She was a brilliant musician, and she fell in love with Paul’s playing and struck up a conversation with him during a break that evening.

We were with him at the table just then – Jen and myself – and I watched as she approached. Dark eyed beauty, I said to myself, locked on and tracking, and she lasered in our table and sat down by Jen. Paul looked at her and smiled – and it was like he’d been waiting for her all his life.

“Who wrote that last song?” she asked Paul.

“I did.”

“The lyric, too?”

He nodded his head.

“Are you, like, into Byron?”

He nodded his head – again.

And that was all there was to it. That simple exchange was all it took. Like a couple of eagles, they met in flight and mated – for life. No hysterics, no fireworks – they just met and connected: end of story. I say this fifty years on – as Godfather to their three kids. Okay?

The point of all this, and there is one, concerns yours truly when I got back from Christmas break, when the reality of Jen’s breaking up began to sink in. I think I mentioned I was despondent, that my housemother tried to intervene? I think Paul saw what was going down long before I did – and he’d just been waiting for Jen to cut me up into little pieces and send me to a sushi bar.

Around October we were sitting around after lights out, sitting in the dark, looking at a storm coming up the Connecticut River Valley, and I could see a little New York Central passenger train across the valley, headed south towards Springfield. “Wish I was on that train,” I said.

“Where would you go?”

“Away from this fuckhole.”

“Fuckhole? Man, this is about the nicest place in the world. Why would you want to get away from here?”

“Sometimes I just can’t stand it here…”

He sighed, then he was quiet for a while, but I could tell he was thinking of the best way to put me out of my misery. “Spud, what do you hope to accomplish by going out with the most vicious, manipulative cunt in the entire universe?”

I was too stunned to answer. “Paul? Did you just say the word ‘cunt’?”

“Yeah, she’s a manipulative cunt. What about it?”

“I’ve never heard you swear before. I may faint.”

“Don’t deflect the question, asswipe. Try answering one – for a change.”

“You know, I was thinking about it over the summer. I realized how much like my mother she is…”

“Oh, God no. You’re not going to blame it all on Freud, are you?”

“I don’t think I’m trying to blame anything on anyone – or anything, Paul. I just realized how much like my mother she is.”

“You’re saying your mother is a scheming, manipulative cunt?”

“You really think Jen is manipulative?”

“Jesus H Christ, Spud! She’s Lady Fucking MacBeth – only with really nice teeth!”

“Paul? You said another cuss word. Are we having an epiphany?”

“No, but you’re going to…when I throw your skinny ass through that window.”

Which gets back to returning from Christmas break, and how I was coming apart at the seams – after the breakup. He asked me questions about Jen a few nights after our return, asked me about my feelings – now that Jen was out of the picture, so to speak. I think I sounded more depressed than I realized, because my house-mother came in the next evening and talked to me, and then there was that ill-chosen race and my father coming up to check on me. Yeah. I think it was because Paul was seriously concerned about me, like maybe he thought I was about to do something stupid.

Well, I did. I joined the ski team. And while it was stupid, I’m not sure it was that stupid. But here’s the thing. He was taking organic chemistry. So was Mary Ann. And guess who was whose lab partner? Reckon he talked to her about me? Or could it be she had been asking about me? And after dad left Mary Ann waltzed into my life.

Hey, what are friends for, right?

So, yeah, we graduated. Jen got into Rice, said she’d decided to stay near home. Paul, like I mentioned, was going to USC – on an archery scholarship that was going to pick up about a third of his tuition. I should mention that during his second day on campus a football coach took one look at him and asked him to try out for the team.

“I don’t want to do anything that will compromise my studies,” Paul told me he said to the coach.

When the coach assured him it wouldn’t he suited up and went down to the practice field, and two hours later he had a full scholarship. Four years later he was drafted by the Detroit Lions, but turned it all down to go to med school at UCLA. He asked Sara to be his wife at Disneyland after his second Rose Bowl appearence, while they were on the It’s a Small World After All ride. She said yes, by the way, but you already knew that.

And I flew down to the British Virgins and had Sirius put back in the water, while Mom and Dad came down a few days later. I could tell things were strained between them, and Dad told me this was probably their last chance to patch things up, to hold things together.

“Who are you holding things together for, Dad?”

“You, I guess.”

“You think it makes me happy to see you guys miserable?”

“I don’t know, Spud. I can’t give up on her. She’ll always be the love of my life.”

“I think if you’re miserable you ought to find out why, then do something about it.”

“Maybe that’s why we’re here,” he said, smiling. “By the way, is Jen coming?”

“Nope. She told me she’s decided Galveston is where she wants to be.”

“Can’t say I blame her. She’s had a rough year.”

“Yes, she has,”  I said as I looked at my mother, still lithe – still athletically inclined – and still morbidly depressed. She was the walking contradiction in our lives – she looked like a marathon runner who’d just lost the most important race of her life – and had decided to commit seppuku. Perhaps, my father and I used to say in jest, she was just waiting for us to lay out the ritual mats and hand her the knife.

I say that because my mother was, and always had been, the laziest human being ever to walk the face of the earth. Father enabled this behavior by surrounding her with housekeepers as soon as he figured out her routine – which was simple even after casual observation. She slept til noon, drank a glass of orange juice then went for a run. Usually ten miles, give or take. She’d come home, shower, then go to the country club for a strenuous afternoon playing bridge, though occasionally she’d play tennis – but no matter which she started in on her bourbon and orange juice around two in the afternoon – then she’d meet up with father in the evening for some serious drinking.

Absent from this routine is, of course, any mention of her son – and taking care of same. This was not in her game plan, and I say this with little regret and no remorse in my heart. I thought then and I still do think that spending more time with her would have been a poisonous venture with a dubious outcome, and my father apparently thought so too, which was why I was shipped off to my first private boarding school, this one in Massachusetts, as well, when I was eight years old. So I was, in effect, raised by a succession of headmasters and house mothers, all who I’ll happily admit did a much better job raising me than my mother would have, even if she’d been so inclined.

So, I lived for vacations, from time off from school, because that’s when I got to spend time with my father. And though he taught me to play golf and tennis, he also introduced me to his one true love: flying. And so with vacations, that added up to about four months a year. We made good use of that time, too.

Because he knew the score, understood what had broken down in our lives, and he felt awful about it. No, he felt guilty as Hell about it. He overcompensated be doting on me, by indulging my desire to grow up too fast, to not do the things other kids my age were doing. I had four different ratings, pilot-speak for something akin to merit badges in the Boy Scouts, before I got my learner’s permit to drive a car. I had no need for a car, or to drive. I was tucked away in western Massachusetts nine months out of the year – with no cars allowed – or at home with father. Note I do not say home with mother. By the time I was a senior in high school she was with Jack Daniels every waking moment of her life, and if she wasn’t walking around drunk, it was because she was asleep.

If you think I hated her, you’d be way wide of the mark. Neither did I pity her. I simply did not understand her. Why she’d chosen to live her life this way. She’d had every material advantage a human being could ask for: a powerful, monied family, a truly superior education, and she married a man with equal amounts of brains and ambition. She’d had it made since she was in diapers, and yet she had simply turned her back on it all and disappeared into the darkness.

Yet I looked at her now – looking at Sirius – and I saw something like magic come alive in her eyes. She walked the length of her down on the dock, her hand caressing the mahogany rail as she walked along, putting her head down on the wood and sighting her lines. When she got to the stem, the very point of the bow, she leapt – cat-like – across the five foot chasm and her foot caught the bobstay, her hand the bow-rail, and she pirouetted up on deck like some kind of able seaman right out of Nelson’s fleet off the Nile.

I was stunned.

My father only smiled.

“So, who else did you talk into making this little trip?” he asked.

“Paul’s here, his girlfriend too. She’s cooked on boats before, has a lot of sailing under her belt.”

“And?”

“Mary Ann Oberon. I don’t think you’ve met her yet.”

“Ah. The girl you’ve been hiding from us. She must be something special.”

Mother was walking aft along the rail, positively radiant I might add, and she sighted up the shrouds, fiddled with a turnbuckle and asked where the rigger’s tape was.

“The what?” I replied.

She ignored me and looked ashore. “Is there a good marine supply store around here?”

I pointed and she nodded her head, then continued her inspection.

“If there’s one thing your mother knows, it’s boats,” my father said as we watched her disappear down below. “She practically grew up on her grandfather’s yachts, raced old J-Class monsters before the war.”

I was, of course, clueless about all this. After she married my father she turned away from all things Maine, even sailing, and how vowed – if only to herself – to never go back. And she hadn’t. And now I could plainly see the repercussions of that oath. When she turned her back on the sea she had simply begun to come undone.

Now she came up the aft companionway – dragging Mary Ann up the steps behind her.

“Who’s this?” she demanded to know. “And why is she in your stateroom!?”

“Ah, mother, this is Mary Ann, the love of my life. Mary Ann, welcome to the family.”

And with that my mother turned to Mary Ann and looked her over – from stem to stern, if you will – and then pronounced her fit enough. For what, I had no idea – but then my mother hugged my girlfriend and that ice was broken. “Anyone else down there I need to know about?”

“Paul and Sara are bunked forward, but they’re in town right now.”

“So, five staterooms?” she asked.

“Six, if you include the pipe berths in the stem.”

“Let’s not,” she said sarcastically. “So, you’re all the way aft, and Paul and his girl are forward?”

“Aye, skipper.”

“The biggest stateroom is by the forward mast. Why haven’t you taken that one?”

“I thought you two should have it,” I said.

She considered that for a moment, then let it go – with Mary Ann watching all this warily, as one might a rattlesnake that’d just slipped into the dining room – during Thanksgiving dinner.

“Sara’s at the farmer’s market,” Mary Ann tossed-in helpfully. “Said she’s going to make some kind of curry tonight.”

My mother smiled. “That should be interesting,” she sighed.

Interesting wasn’t the half of it. Sara and Mary Ann cooked while my mother interrogated Paul. “What do you know about sailing?” she began, which led to an endless series of questions and drills, knot-tying demonstrations and verbal floggings. And Paul, poor, stoic Paul, didn’t know what to make of my mother – didn’t know what had hit him. I’d rarely mentioned her existence at school, if only because I barely knew her myself – and wouldn’t have known a polite way to describe her perpetual drunkenness. We were both meeting a creature that had been caged out of sight for twenty years, and who had just regained her freedom. It was a stunning, startling metamorphosis, and even my father was a little amused by her performance.

For she still was, as I mentioned previously, an actress.

A good one.

And if you didn’t understand that one true thing about her, you might have taken her a bit too seriously.

And that my father would not let us do. He knew her acts, all her routines, and had had them down pat for almost thirty years. But he had never, I repeat never, been sailing with her, and what we were proposing to do, in three months, was almost monumental in scope.

We were going to take Sirius from the British Virgins west along the Venezuelan coast to the San Blas Islands, then through the Panama Canal. From there the objective was San Francisco, but because of south setting currents along the Pacific coast of North and Central America, we planned to sail west from Panama to Hawaii, then arc east to the Golden Gate. We planned on two months, two weeks at sea, leaving us just a few weeks margin before school started.

Dad and I had almost no sea time, Paul a bit more, while, oddly enough, the girls were all accomplished sailors – so we had a little role reversal thing going on, which was interesting – and mother seemed to be coming into her own as the skipper of my little menagerie.

That said, we planned to spend the next two days stowing provisions while mother went about completing her inspection, then – barring the unexpected – we’d push off on Friday from Saba Rock, Virgin Gorda, bound for Aruba – a not quite 600 mile run to the south-southwest. Another 650 miles the San Blas Islands, where we planned to spend a few days, then an overnight at the canal for measurements and fees – then a day or so to transit, then, once in the Pacific we’d dash for Honolulu, a 5000 mile, twenty one day sprint, before turning to San Francisco, another 2200 mile, ten day grind – into the wind.

And the Doc had spent tons getting her ready, too. She was as well equipped as any sailboat could be, in 1965, anyway. Which meant we had two really good sextants onboard, a couple of VHF radios, a Ham rig as well as an ADF/VOR set which would have been more appropriate in Dad’s Baron. We laid in supplies and stowed everything safely out of harm’s way, and we spent that Thursday before departure going over our duties and responsibilities while on watch. With hurricane season breathing down our neck, mindful we couldn’t make excuses and postpone our departure even a day, we went ashore for one last meal on dry land that evening.

And I hasten to add that my mother had not consumed one drop of alcohol since her arrival. Take that as you will, but she wasn’t even sneaking a snort after midnight, and it was beginning to show. Alcohol is addictive, and alcohol withdrawal is real. She was becoming grumpy, occasionally grouchy, then downright mean, and as my father had cued us in we did our best to help her along. She stopped eating, until we forced her to eat – something, anything – but it turned out the only thing she wanted to eat was –  my father.

They would disappear down below every few hours and we’d hear them giggling and carrying on, and it was contagious. Paul and Sara would disappear as soon as my parents got back in the sunshine, then Mary Ann and I would have a go, and pretty soon I imagined we’d be bounding across the Spanish Main fucking our brains out every few hours. It was a happy, if inconceivably naïve vision of what waited for us.

For you see, when we got back to the Sirius later that night, there was a new duffel bag on deck.

And there was Jen, sitting in the cockpit – waiting for me.

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One of the, shall we say, benefits of mother’s alcohol withdrawal was insomnia. She could not sleep, and did not even want to try after the first few attempts. Her motor ran until it stopped, then she conked out for a few hours and was soon up for another twenty hours. When she got too grumpy she took father below and cleaned his clock for a half hour and then all was right with her world – for a few hours, anyway.

And to set the matter straight, they weren’t old, not then and not ever. They graduated from Harvard, well, she from Radcliffe, in 1941, so they were not yet fifty years old, and they were both strong, active people. I say this by way of re-introducing Jennifer back into our midst, and as the last crew member to join the Sirius on her voyage of discovery.

Because my mother took one look at Jen and shook her head. “What are you doing here?” my mother asked.

“This was my father’s dream,” Jen answered, and I’d have to say with more than a little defiance in her voice, “and I’m going to be a part of this.”

Even in the dark I could see Mary Ann glowing, perhaps I should say radiating, fierce heat. Anger? Rage – murderous rage – was seething, all banked down and seething – in her eyes. Paul, bless his heart, walked right on by with Sara in hand and they disappeared to their forepeak stateroom – shutting the stateroom door behind them as they went.

My father of course went to Jen and picked her up, hugged the snot out of her and kissed her on the forehead – so of course my mother grabbed him by the nuts and dragged him to their stateroom. They were quiet about it, but I feel sure she got him off repeatedly, for an hour later we heard cries of ‘Enough, woman! It’s chapped half to death…you’re going to kill me if you keep this up!’

And Mary Ann had the grace to leave me with Jen in the cockpit.

And then we were alone, under the stars and alone in the deepest night of our lives. I went and sat next to her, and she leaned into me. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“I understand,” I had the temerity to say.

“Do you?”

“I loved him too.”

“And I still love you,” she whispered. “I’m not going to do a thing to break up what you have with Mary Ann, but I still love you. And I always will.”

I could forgive you for thinking I was naïve enough to believe her, but I had my doubts. It was impossible not to after the Doc’s parting words, and especially not after the blond headed freak episode, so I stood and picked up her duffel and carried it to a stateroom on the far side of my parent’s, and showed her where to stow her foul weather gear and sea boots – then I said goodnight and went aft to Mary Ann.

Who was beyond seething now. She was in full melt-down mode, livid tears falling freely in an uncertain gravity that now seemed too heavy, too laden with grievous expectation.

And I laid her down, smothered her tears with a blanket of kisses, then I looked into her eyes. “There is nothing that girl could ever do to change the way I feel about you, and I’m going to spend every waking moment of my life loving you, so stop it. Just stop it, right now.”

And the strangest thing happened.

She did.

I had flipped the right switch, for her – and for me. I declared the truth, and she knew I was telling the truth – and that was the end of that. We made love and went to sleep; the next thing I knew sunlight was streaming in port lights and I smelled bacon frying in the galley. I went on deck and helped Paul with the sails, and with Dad standing at the chart table we cast off lines and motored into the well-marked channel. Once we were off the eastern, lee shore of Virgin Gorda we hoisted sail and we were off. Off like a herd of turtles, as my father used to say.

We, and I mean all of us, Jen included, ate Sara’s breakfast in the cockpit – and in the freshening sea air my mother wolfed down her plate – and asked for more.

I looked at my father – who simply smiled and winked at me – and I shook my head, wondering what lay under the building clouds just ahead.

(C)2017 adrian leverkuhn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com | Yes, this is Part I, and yes, as always, it’s just fiction. I’ll be working on a conclusion over the next few days – so stay tuned, and thanks for reading along.

St Louis & Royal

Playing a few notes Saturday late, the wood stove roaring away, a song came to me. The words that followed are here, now, for you to ponder. It’s a short, short story, 17 pages I think, and it might take you ten minutes to read. It’s self contained, no dangling conclusions, just a tidy little smile for an ending. Hope you enjoy.

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St Louis & Royal

When I think about that day I remember thunderstorms in the distance, and thinking it was very warm for December. Which, I suppose, it was – but New Orleans is New Orleans, and it is what it is: hot and humid most of the year, punctuated by a few months in winter when it gets sort of warm and humid. Christmas vacation had just started and my parents had flown me down to spend ten days with, ostensibly, them. I’d flown from the upper midwest, Wisconsin, to be somewhat more precise, from a military school not far from Milwaukee. I was fifteen, not that my age made much difference to events as they unfolded – but I could be wrong about that.

My parents had a suite on the top floor of the Royal Orleans Hotel for the duration, and they had me warehoused in a little room by the service elevator two floors below. I remember the room because it had a nice view of the street below, of Royal Street, and it’s intersection with St Louis Street. When I arrived, on a florid-orange Boeing 720 from Chicago – by way of Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Dallas – it was late morning and I was dressed for snow. I was, you see, still in uniform and looked like a Marine, albeit a fifteen year old marine, in my dress blues and white hat. My father was supposed to meet me at the gate, which was kind of the thing you did back in 1965, but I had little confidence he’d actually show up.

And, true to form, he wasn’t there.

I had one bag checked and made my way to the baggage claim and waited for my bag and, presumably, my father to arrive. Still – and again, this wasn’t a total surprise – after a few minutes I realized he was going to be a no-show – again, so I started to look for the way out to a taxi stand – when I saw her standing beside me.

“Goose?” she asked, looking me in the eye.

Now I need to step back for a moment and reinforce the nature of the sudden dilemma I found myself in. Recall, if you will, the following: me, aka, the poor, stupid kid, was locked up in a military school. I was fifteen, therefore what little mind I had was testosterone-addled and, so, due to my age I was little more than a moron. Finally, please consider the nature of the girl by my side. Blazing red hair, deepest brown eyes and skin so white you might have considered it blindingly so – were it not for the pale freckles that dappled her cheeks and nose. She reminded me of a teenaged Olivia de Havilland – you know, the doe-eyed Melanie from Gone With the Wind. She was, in other words, seriously good looking, or, as my father might have said, very easy on the eyes.

All of which does absolutely nothing to explain my response to her rather simple question.

Staring at her like, I assume, any moron might, I asked: “Are you married yet?”

She shook her head, startled, I think, by the absolute inanity of my reply, then tried again. “Goose? I can hardly recognize you… Is that really you in that silly uniform?”

“Goose. Yes. It’s me.” Let’s just ignore I was acting just like one, too, for the time being, anyway. She was smiling – at me – which I considered a lovelier experience than anything in all my previous fifteen years – if only because I knew that smile so well, and I knew what was behind the smile.

“Goodness!” she said. “You’re growing up fast! Your mom and dad are still at the country club, and he asked if I could swing by and pick you up.”

“How nice of him,” and I think I might have added, “to not abandon me at the airport.”

And she laughed, then looked at my uniform and scowled. “I hope you brought something else to wear…”

“Yes, by golly, I think I did.”

“A swimming suit, I hope?”

I shook my head, thinking of Christmas carols and mistletoe and the utter incongruity of the question. “Are you serious?”

That seemed to rattle her cage and her scowl deepened a bit more. “Well, maybe Rickie has a spare.”

“Rickie?”

“You know – little brother? You do remember him, don’t you? Or have you been hit in the head recently?”

“Yes, of course I remember him, but when did you start calling him Rickie?”

She shrugged. “He keeps talking about when you two built that model of the Titanic together.”

“How appropriate,” I said, and who knows, maybe I even smiled. “When was that, by the way?”

“Two summers ago!” she said, now acting exasperated. “Don’t you remember anything?”

And yes, clearly I did, but by this point it was too much fun yanking her chain. Still, I remembered that week two summers before very well. We were in Mexico City; we’d all flown down for one of my cousin’s wedding – and it was then that I’d seen Claire in a bathing suit for the first time. And yes, I seemed to recall building the Titanic too, and even that wedding, but the whole bathing suit thing had been, well, a primal moment.

“Oh yes,” I finally said, but I was suddenly thinking about her brother. He had been trying on girl’s shoes at the reception, walking around in them, then had asked my mother to put lipstick on his lips. As uncomfortable as the memory was, I remembered most of all going into a bathroom and finding him with a pair of woman’s panties stuffed under his nose, masturbating furiously – and yet I had no absolutely idea what he was up to – seriously, I kid you not. I was twelve, if I remember correctly, and I was, therefore, clueless about such things. Hell, I still was – at 15. Military school is not the place to send your kid if you want them to become sexually aware creatures. Military school is about repression and control, not expanding self-awareness, and I was, need I repeat myself, a moron when it came to all things human – like intuition. And yet, I suddenly wanted, and more than anything else in the world, to NOT wear that kid’s swimming suit. Maybe he was contagious…

“He’s really looking forward to seeing you again,” she said, smiling beatifically. “He’s been looking forward to your coming for weeks.”

“Ah,” I think I might have said, if a bit noncommittally – an image of him in heels floating in my mind’s eye…

“So…you only have one bag?”

I smiled, nodded in the affirmative. “Yup. I pack efficiently.” For the life of me, I have no idea why I said that.

“Well then,” she said, looking at me almost cross-eyed, “let’s go.”

Claire was then – almost – seventeen years old – going on twenty-five, if you know what I mean – and she had the type of body seen in renaissance paintings of the Madonna, which is to say that by today’s standards she was, well, plump. By 1960s standards, however, she was seriously cute, smooth curves in all the right places, and her legs reflected a potent athleticism all her own. She was New Orleans royalty, too, needless to say, and dressed like it in a white dress with big green and white magnolia blossoms printed all over the thing, white tights and little white flats – so her coppery hair literally blazed in fiery contrast.

Can you tell I was smitten? I mean – totally off the charts smitten? Of course I’m not sure it takes a whole lot to get a fifteen year old boy worked up, but she had done it, and had been doing it for years. Hell, she’d been driving me crazy all my life.

But could you even call it love – at fifteen? I thought so, but then again, I had been locked away in a military school for a year and a half – with zero contact between members of the opposite sex allowed – so that might have had something to do with the cascade of emotion I experienced walking beside her out to her car. Her car! – at sixteen, driving a silver Corvette Stingray – yet that car only made her seem more remote just then, even more inaccessible – and even more desirable.

I didn’t know the whole story back then, only bits and pieces, but her father had flown with mine during the war, and they’d come home best friends. As war receded from their lives they remained, for some reason, as close – if not closer – than ever, and as a result we traveled to New Orleans several times a year. Still, there’s was a friendship from afar, and as close as we were we only saw them a couple of times a year. Always lots of emotion, especially when we reunited, so as kids we had been primed to be close to one another.

And the Collins family owned several restaurants around New Orleans, all of them Very Big Deals, all very famous, their chefs celebrated as the best in New Orleans, so I grew up around that sort of thing – both at home and when we visited. I say at home because my mother was very impressed by all that nonsense, and she tried to incorporate an appreciation of fine dining into our lives at home – perhaps because she had grown up, barefoot I think, on a farm in dust bowl Oklahoma. She had finally made it into the big leagues, I guess, and wanted everyone to know it by the table she set. We were a military family, by the way, yet we didn’t move often. I’d spent the first few years of my life near Cape Hatteras, then we moved to California, just north of San Diego, so in my mind I was a California kid.

Ah, yes. Have you ever ridden in a seriously hot car with a gorgeous girl behind the wheel? Windows down, her skirt wafting in the slipstream, thighs so smooth and white you forgot where you were? I swear I’d never seen legs as gorgeous, and just looking at them I could feel my heart racing, my hands starting to shake. I know, it’s that whole fifteen thing, testosterone poisoning and all that, but seriously…those few moments are as vivid now as they were on that faraway day. She talked about Christmas, about the tree set up in their living room and the millions of presents all around it, and about her parents and mine playing golf out in Metairie. She asked me about school, wanted to know what it was like being locked up with several hundred boys and marching around like toy soldiers, then told me she was taking me to the hotel, and I was supposed to change clothes there – then she’d take me out to the country club.

And at one point while we were driving along she looked at me – and I guess I was still focused on those creamy white thighs – because when I looked up at her – she was looking at me with this odd expression on her face. And the look we exchanged just then? Oh…the feeling in the air between us! We had, literally, known each other all our lives, and in a way I’d considered her something almost like family – until that moment, anyway. Something changed between us just then, in that one split second. Some fundamental alteration of our orbits, some vital understanding of ourselves – a bit of knowledge you might call eternal, almost primal – had changed. She knew it, and so did I – and the next few minutes passed in silence – as we tried to come to terms with this unsteady new terrain.

She already had the key to my room and led me there after she parked on the street, then she opened the door – and put the key in her purse – as I carried my bag inside the room.

“Why don’t you take a shower now,” I remember her saying at one point, but I consciously unpacked my bag and put everything in drawers and closets – and she watched me as I did all that, never saying a word but staring at me like I had gone mad. Then, when I was finished she said: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so obsessively neat and organized in all my life. Have you always been like this?”

“You ever been to military school?”

She shook her head, looked at me while biting her lower lip – a little coquettishly. “You going to take a shower?” she said an eternity later – though she was still grinning.

“Yup.” I took some clothes into the bathroom and shut the door, turned on the water, the cold water I feel sure, and cleaned up. After I dressed I went out, saw her standing by the room’s lone window looking down the street.

“Look,” she said, “you can see the restaurant from here.” That place was our touchstone, where our lives had first come together, where her life was grounded, I assumed.

I went and stood next to her – and I swear I felt like spontaneous combustion was a distinct possibility as I looked out that window with her by my side – then she turned to me.

“You get cuter every year,” she whispered – and the pressure in my head grew so intense I thought my eyes were about to pop out of my head.

“Do I?”

She nodded, bit her lip again.

“You should see you the way I see you,” I whispered.

“Oh? How do you see me?”

“I’ll never love anyone the way I love you right now.”

She turned serious, nodded her head. “I think I’ve loved you since I was three years old. Your mother taught me how to diaper a baby – with you.”

And now look, I know…this is not how your usual romantic conversation usually starts, but we weren’t your typical star-crossed teenagers, either. We were, really, anything but. We were, rather, like the Titanic – steaming through the night unawares…and her brother had helped me build the damn thing!

I may have sighed, but she stepped close and kissed me before I could say anything else.

And she kissed me just once, though very softly, on the lips.

And then she turned back to the window, looked at all the people on the sidewalks below. Then she took my hand and leaned into me. We stood there for a while, looking at St Louis and Royal below, looking at the world passing us by – wondering, perhaps, when it was going to be our turn – but I turned then and kissed the top of her head. Affectionately, I think, is the word– perhaps brotherly, but that was the wrong note and she turned into me forcefully, and we looked at one another deeply for a while, and time stopped when we kissed that next time – and her kiss was not tentative, or sisterly. She broke away a few minutes later and I remember the look in her eyes: feral, animal-like, at once predator and pray, and I was at once mesmerized – and very nearly terrified. I’d never seen anything so powerful in my life, and I knew all that energy was directed at me. No, into me. I felt powerless as I floated within those eyes, dreaming impossible things, trying to breathe – and finding it harder and harder to do.

“We’d better go,” she said, and I nodded.

“Right,” I think I said, but in truth I’m not sure I was capable of speech yet.

Then the phone rang. I went and picked it up, her that voice.

“Dad?” I said to the voice on the other end of my line.

“Goose? How the Hell are you? Have a good flight? Golly, it’s sure good to hear your voice!”

“No, sir, no problems. How was the course?”

“Good. Grass is a little dry, but other than that, pretty decent. Say, we’re at the house now, so come on out when you can.”

He rang off and I turned to Claire.

She was still looking at me, her breathing very deep now, her eyes barely focused.

“I don’t want to leave yet,” she said.

“Okay.” I went back to her, into her arms, and I kissed an ear, felt glued to her.

“Have you done it yet?” she whispered, and I could tell she was shaking.

I shook my head, and maybe I was trembling a little myself.

“Good.” She walked over and sat on the edge of the bed and looked at me, then she flipped her shoes off, still looking at me as I came to her.

I think we left to drive out to her parent’s place two hours later, and we were very different people than we had been just a few hours earlier.

+++++

Her brother Rickie was, oh, how do I say this? Different than the last time I’d seen him.

He was very feminine now. Can I say that and just leave you hanging there?

Hell, when I saw him I thought a new sister had just popped-up in their family, and no one was making the even the slightest effort to editorialize his appearance. He was almost a girl now, and I found the whole thing shocking, disconcerting, and to my fifteen year old self I felt way out of my depth, not to mention being – suddenly – very confused. I’d always known Richard, or Rickie, was a little different, but we’d thrown the football for days on end, talking football all the while, and we’d spent hours and hours together building all kinds of models – from Spitfires and Messerschmitts to, yes, our very own Titanic. We were the same age so there had always been this expectation we would, and should, spend time together – so we had – and over the years we had spent enough time together to know one another well enough. In truth I thought I knew him well enough to understand some pretty important things about his life, yet I’d never seen this coming.

Or hadn’t I?

The fascination with girls? Not them, but their things? The panties in the bathroom? His mother doting all over him, his father always ignoring him.

And now he was wearing clothes that seemed almost androgynous. Not quite male, yet somehow not quite female – and this at a time in my life when I had no idea there were such variations in human sexual identity. By that I simply mean I had not a clue there was such a thing as homosexuality, let alone all the other labels we now throw around so carelessly. Rickie had, therefore, gone from the realm of the comfortably known deep into a place I knew nothing about. I saw the kid I threw the football with in my mind’s eye, then with open eyes saw someone completely different.

And Claire looked at me looking at him, measuring me, I think, sizing me up. Wondering what I was going to do, perhaps, or say.

“Hey, Richard,” I said as I came into the living room. “How’re you doing, Amigo?” We’d started calling each other ‘Amigo’ down in Mexico City, and when I said that he brightened, ran into my arms and hugged me. I put my arms around him and hugged him too, and a collective sigh seemed to drift from our extended family into the evening. I went over and hugged Claire’s mother, Sarah Collins, then shook hands with her father, Dean, then went over and to hug my parents.

“Uh, we’re getting a little too old for that stuff now, Goose,” my father said as I walked up. He held out his right hand and I took it.

“Yessir,” I said, feeling almost compelled to salute.

“Goose, if you shake my hand,” my mother said, “I’ll just cry!” – and everyone laughed. Everyone, that is, but Rickie. I looked at him a moment later and he was looking at my father, and I could see he trying very hard not to cry.

+++++

We went to dinner at their restaurant at St Louis and Royal later that evening, and I sat between Claire and Rickie, my parents across from me, and their was a familiarity about the arrangement that was at once comfortable – yet surreal. The old dining room with it’s dark oak walls and deep red accents, the waiters I’d known since I was old enough to walk, even the aromas wafting about all seemed steeped in fond memory, at once latent and manifest, memory that had accompanied me all my life. Yet now I felt trapped, felt there was nowhere to go, no place to hide as contradictory impulses hovered all around me. Claire was there, as she had for a dozen Christmas Eve dinners, yet so too was Rickie, but who was he now? His proximity was unnerving, unsettling, and instead of warm and comfortable I felt on edge.

Run, I thought, or wait and see what developed. Flight or flight…it’s always the same.

Yet everywhere around me I felt Claire’s lingering presence. As she had just a few hours before – we were together now. We were the same, yet different. And I realized that’s how my world felt now: the same, yet different. Very different.

I was in love. And something was wrong with Rickie.

I was in love with Claire. And she was in love with me. Not the make-believe, pretend bullshit we talked about in the dorm back at school in the middle of the night. No, to me this felt like real love, the forever kind of love that hits hard, more like an instinctual drive at fifteen. I was gripped by this thing, and yet I knew I was the one who couldn’t let go. What the Hell was this all about?

And Rickie sat beside me, as close as he dared, trying to get a sense of what had happened between Claire and I. I think he was as unsettled by our appearance as my father was, but it was Dean Collins that interested me most. He stared at Claire from time to time, and I could tell he was lost in contradiction, and his appetite was off.

Dinner had, of course, been ordered months ahead of time, as it was every year: Oysters Bienville and lobster bisque and several whole roasted geese, truly a feast of epic proportions – as it was in the beginning, I guess – yet from time to time I felt her hand on my thigh, drawing little electric circles with fingernails, playfully getting closer than close, and once I saw Rickie looking down, and then he smiled at me. Like he understood, like he had known all about us from the beginning of time. Like he was in on an inside joke – and I wasn’t, not yet.

It was like, when he saw her doing that with her fingers, he realized all was right in his little corner of the universe. All was as it should be. Except it wasn’t. Not even close.

He tapped me on the shoulder at one point and leaned close, bid me to lean closer still, then he whispered in my ear. I remember the feeling, how he got so close his lips were tickling my ear, and then he sighed, told me he loved me more than anything in the world, and that he always would.

I’m not sure what I looked like, but a moment later my mother asked if I was feeling alright. I shook my head and excused myself, then headed aft through the labyrinth of private dining rooms to the restrooms. And a moment later I felt him coming up behind me, trying to catch up.

“Goose. Wait up,” he said, and suddenly the last place I wanted to be was alone with him in a bathroom, so I ducked into a large green dining room, one reserved for real royalty, and he followed me in, shut the door behind us. Then Claire came in, too, almost out of breath – and she locked the door behind us.

“What’s going on with you two?” she asked.

I shook my head, turned away.

“I told him how I feel about him,” her brother said.

“Oh,” she said, and I could hear it her voice. Then she looked at me, a million questions in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t know what’s going on here. And I don’t know how to feel right now.”

“I just wanted you to know, Goose,” he said, tears now forming in his eyes, “because you’ve always been my best friend, and this is, after all, Christmas.”

“Christmas?” I cried. “What has Christmas got to do with this?”

Claire nodded her head. “Oh,” she sighed. “I get it.”

“Do you?” Rickie said, looking right at me.

“Sure. We’ve spent almost every Christmas together. Since we were kids.”

“I look forward to Christmas, every year,” Richard said, nodding his head, “because that’s when we’re together, the three of us. And I love it when we’re together, I love this feeling more than anything else in the world.”

I turned and looked at him.

“That’s all I meant, Goose. Really. It just came out wrong.”

I was not convinced. No, not at all, but we went back to the table together and finished our very special dinner, but when I looked at Richard, Rickie, I could see a light had gone from his eyes, that I had done something terrible to him – and that I really didn’t understand any of it. Claire seemed sympathetic to us both, maybe my mother did too, but it was the look in my father’s eyes that unsettled me most of all. He looked at me, then Rickie, and I could see his jaw working.

Never a good sign, if you know what I mean.

And I saw Dean Collins looking at Claire as we left, and the sorrow in his eyes was the most barren landscape I’d ever seen in my life.

+++++

We rode back to the hotel together in silence, my parents and I, and the silent routine continued in the elevator. I said goodnight when my floor came, and I looked at my father as the door closed and knew this night was far from over. I walked down to my room and realized I didn’t have the key – but the door was open, the lights on inside – and despite very real misgivings I went inside.

She was waiting for me, of course.

“My father will be down here in a second,” I said, yet she didn’t move. She looked at me, love manifest in her every breath, but she just looked right into my eyes.

“I know,” was, in fact, all she said – and those two words came out as a whispered plea.

And true to form, Brigadier General Amos Wainwright, USMC, came strolling into the room a minute later.

And when he saw Claire, he came to a shuddering halt.

“What are you doing here, young lady?”

“Waiting to talk to you, sir,” she said.

There was pure electricity in the air now, pregnant expectation hanging in the air, apparent.

“Indeed,” he said. “Well, you have the floor, so fire away.”

“Your son is not a homosexual,” she said, and I could see my old man visibly relax.

“Oh? What was all that with your brother at the table? Or,” he almost sneered, “should I say – your sister.”

“What?” I cried. “What do you mean, sister?”

And then the three of us sat. We sat and talked for hours, and for the second time that day I knew my understanding of life had been altered forever. We talked about the facts of life, variations as my father understood them, then variations as Claire understood them. We came to crossroads and impossible canyons, and we worked our to an understanding. A complete understanding, I think my father hoped, but as it so often was in the beginning, he was wrong. We weren’t even close. Yet.

And before my father left us in the night, he did a very funny thing.

He called room service, had a bottle of champagne brought to my room. He tipped the waiter, opened the bottle and set it back in the ice, then looked at us and winked. “Don’t forget,” he said, “we’re opening presents at eight.” Then he left us, shut the door on his way out and I looked at Claire.

“I think he’s celebrating,” she said, “the fact that you’re not in love with Rickie.”

“I think I am too,” I managed to say.

She smiled, then looked at me for a long while. “Would you know if you were?”

“What? In love with your brother?”

“She’s not my brother anymore, remember?”

“I know, I know…it’s just going to take me time to make the switch, you know?”

“It’s taken all of us a long time.”

“That’s not what he meant, was it?” I asked. “At dinner, I mean, when he said that.”

She shook her head. “No. She loves you, just like I love you.”

I remember swallowing hard, thinking about all the implications of those words. “You know what the hardest thing was – about today?”

She shook her head, grinned.

“Well, the easiest thing was realizing that I love you, but it was the hardest thing too.”

“Oh? How so?”

“I think I’ve wanted to love you all my life. Then it just happened, all this,” I said, sweeping the room with my hands, “and now I can’t believe this day really happened. Like maybe it was all a dream.”

“I know.” She looked at me then, an odd look in her eyes. “Do you think this is really real?”

“What do you mean?”

“Today. That what we did was real. That it really happened?”

“It sure felt real.”

She nodded her head. “Good. It did to me too.”

“I’ve never had this stuff before,” I said, lifting the glass of gold bubbles to my nose. “You know, I think I know the reason why.”

She giggled. “It’s not so bad. Once you get used to it.”

We talked through the night, talked about life and what we wanted. All the things we’d never talked about before, and sometime before the sun came up we finished the bottle, then we showered again and drove out to Metairie. And I never wanted to get used to this. Never take her – or this feeling that had come to us – for granted.

+++++

There’s always been something enchanted about our Christmas mornings, something beyond all the presents and flurries of wrapping paper scattered about the floor. Something about the all-knowing gaze of our parents watching us, about that moment, I guess, when we could forget about the day-to-day grind of school for a moment and reach out with our other, more generous selves. And I think I felt that way for the very last time that Christmas morning.

I spent that morning, at least in part, watching Claire, but I watched Richard too. Fragile, resolute Richard. Rickie, my friend. The kid I threw the football with, who helped me build model airplanes. The kid who had reached out to me the night before, the kid who’d had to cover his tracks when I pushed his love away, out of sight, out of mind.

We, the kids, had never exchanged presents before, if only because our parents loaded the tree with more than enough to go around, but that morning Rickie went to the tree and pulled out a present and brought it to me.

“From me,” he said, and I looked at him for a moment.

“Thanks, Amigo,” I said, then I opened it and found a book about the Battle of Britain inside. I opened the book and found the inscription I knew he’d written, and I turned the words over carefully in my mind. ‘For all the battles yet to come,’ he’d written, then, ‘I’ll always love you, my bestest Amigo.’

Claire came over and read the inscription, then she squeezed my shoulder, nodded at a package on the carpet by my side, so I picked it up. It was from me, and oddly enough to Rickie, and when I looked up at her she smiled, nodded at her brother. I got up and walked over, handed him the package and he looked up, surprised, then tore it open.

He’d always loved art, and he had become a somewhat gifted painter over the last few years, so ‘my book’ from The Art Institute of Chicago was a hit – but then he turned to the inscription and read ‘my’ words. He dropped the book and flew into my arms, kissed me once on the cheek then ran back to his book and carried it over for Claire to look at. She of course sat by me so I could look at it while she read…

There was an old Polaroid of the three of us taped inside, taken when Rickie and I were, perhaps, three years old. We were sitting in a wading pool somewhere in Canada – at the Banff Springs Hotel, I think –and you could tell there was something special between the three of us, something special about the way we smiled, a secret kind of smile, as if only we knew what was hiding in those lips. ‘To my bestest Amigo’ was inscribed, and though I had a hard time remembering when we’d first started saying that to each other, it had been going on for a long, long time. We had always been the ‘bestest,’ hadn’t we? Joined at the heart, somewhere along the way.

A chef from one of Dean’s restaurants was whipping up something in the kitchen, so the parents went off to the living room and drank coffee while the three of us went out back and looked at all the stuff we’d just gotten our hands on. Dad had given me a couple of Perry Como records, Mom a bottle of Bay Rum cologne, the little glass bottle wrapped in straw. Dean Collins, on the other hand, had given me a fancy Italian 20 gauge over/under shotgun – and I had to (guiltily, no doubt) wonder about the prescience of his choice – or, perhaps, the word I needed was irony. It was a gorgeous thing, and he made noises about wanting to go bird hunting with me and my father some day soon, but now – sitting out on their patio with books in hand –and a shotgun across my lap – my feelings felt oddly disconnected from the moment.

Watching Claire, and her father, the night before had left me unsettled, then talking through the night about all the things I didn’t know or understand about our world had left me wandering in the dark. I was groping my way through this morning, more attuned to the people around me than was the norm, for me, anyway. And shotguns aside, there was something about Dean Collins and his smug restauranteur act that was weighing heavily on my day.

Rickie excused himself and went inside, leaving Claire and I alone on the patio, and when she came over and sat by me I reached into a pocket and pulled out a band-aid.

“Gotta cut?” she asked.

“Nope. Could I see your left hand, please.”

I unwrapped the band-aid and she gave me her hand; I put the bandage around the third finger and looked her in the eye. “I know this is stupid, and I know I’m young enough to know better, but this is all I’ve got right now. Would you marry me?”

I think she was speechless. I think she had good reason to be speechless, then she just nodded her head. “Yes,” she said, “if you’re sure that’s what you really want.”

“I know I’m sure. What about you?”

“Since I was three. Yes.”

And just then I saw my father standing in their living room, looking through a window at the two of us, and I’d never seen a smile on his face quite like the one I did just then. It was an all-knowing smile, full of worldly understanding yet almost condescending – like he’d expected no less of me than such a vapid display of immaturity. He stared at us for a minute longer, then disappeared, and Claire kissed me on the cheek. Rickie opened a window up in his bedroom just above us, then he leaned out and asked me to come up for a minute.

“Just you, okay?” he added.

“Okay.”

I almost remembered the way to his room, and after one false start found it and went on in. There was a girl sitting on the bed, a really very pretty girl, then I saw it was Richard – my bestest Amigo Rickie. I stared open-mouthed for a moment, at his legs in stockings and garters, his high heels and makeup understated, almost classy. He looked satisfied with my reaction, too.

“Are you growing breasts?” I asked.

He nodded his head. “This is who I really am, Goose,” he said, still looking at my face, still gauging my reaction. “Just so you know.”

Speechless, I nodded my head.

“Am I as cute as Claire? To you, I mean?”

“Rickie, no one’s as cute as Claire. To anyone.”

He nodded his head. “You really do love her, don’t you?”

“Yup. I think I always have.”

“I know you have.”

“So, what’s this all about, Richard?”

“You’d better call me Rebecca from now on. It’ll be official soon enough, anyway.”

“Rebecca?”

“Yes. I’ve always loved that name.”

“You really want this?”

“Not a question of wants and needs,” he sighed. “It’s just who I am.”

“Well, who’s going to build models with me now?” I asked, smiling.

“Me. You let anyone else help and you’ll need a doctor to get my foot out of your ass.” He looked at me for a minute, hesitated, then said “Claire didn’t come home last night. Was she with you?”

“She was with me and my dad. We had a long talk last night.”

“About?”

“About how stupid I can be sometimes.”

“Oh. I’ve had that one with my dad, too. She told me a while ago she hoped you’d come around.”

“Come around?”

“To see just how much she loves you.”

“Oh.”

“Do you?”

“I do.”

“You know, since we were in Mexico all I’ve wanted is for the three of us to be together.”

“How so?”

“Just that. I don’t think I could ever be happy unless you were both with me.”

I looked at him, wondered where he was going with this. “What do you mean?”

“Just that.”

“Don’t you want someone of your own to love?”

“No, not really. I’ll always have the two of you, so why would I need anyone else?” And he smiled then, a smile I’ll never forget. Not an innocent smile – and almost, but not quite sinister, his was rather an all-knowing smile – like he alone was in on one of the universe’s most obscure secrets. Or jokes.

So, feeling very uncomfortable, I nodded and left his room, walked downstairs and back out on the porch – all while trying to get the image of him sitting up there out of my mind. I sat for a while, by myself, then went in and ate lunch in silence. Claire and Rickie sat across from me, and I sat between my parents. I rode back to the hotel with them after lunch, and went up to my room while Mom and Dad retreated to the comfort of golf on the television set. A few hours later I heard a knock on my door, and got up to open it, yet I checked the peephole first.

Paranoid?

Nah…

And Claire was out there, looking very lonely in the distorted, fisheye perspective of the cheap lens, and I grew lost in that moment – didn’t quite know what to do. In the end I opened the door and she darted inside, went to a chair by the window and sat – and I could tell she’d been crying – for a long time.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, though I could guess.

“What did Rickie tell you?” she said, her eyes now swirling maelstroms.

I told her. Everything he’d said when I was up in his room, then: “Why do you think he wants the two of us to himself?”

She looked away, and I knew.

“Has he done something to you?”

Again, she refused to even look at me.

“You said something yesterday, that you’d never done it before. Is that true?”

She closed her eyes, shook her head.

“Could you tell me how it happened?”

I saw just the slightest, most imperceptible shake of her head.

“Do you love me? I mean, really love me?”

“Yes,” she whispered, but she started crying. Lost, and crying in the dark…looking for someone to love.

“That’s all that matters, isn’t it?” I squeezed into the chair beside her and we held one another for the longest time – until I heard another little knock on the door. She tensed as I stood, then I walked over and looked through the peephole, saw my father standing in the fishbowl and opened the door just a bit.

“Your mother’s gone to visit Jack Daniels,” he sighed, despairing of her alcoholism one more time. “I was going to go down and walk Bourbon Street for a while, and wondered if you’d like to come along.” He tried to look into the room but didn’t force the issue, then he added: “Both of you, of course.”

I turned and looked at Claire, who nodded her head.

“Yeah, Dad. How ‘bout we meet you in the lobby – in just a minute?”

“I’ll wait by the elevators. Take your time.”

“Okay,” I said – knowing that ‘take your time’ meant ‘move it – on the double time!” so I helped Claire get her eyes back in shape and grabbed a coat, then we walked down to the elevators.

Dad took one look at her eyes and shook his head, but we rode down to the lobby in silence. Once out on Royal we found a slate gray sky and a cold mist waiting, and I took my jacket off, put it around her shoulders – and I found dad trying to do the same – but he looked at me and just nodded his approval, then we walked off together, disappeared into the jostling crowd. He led us to a small, quiet club off Jackson Square, and we went inside – drawn by the music, I suspect. Mellow jazz, dark and moody greeted us as we took a table, and a waitress came over and Dad ordered a bottle of something – and three glasses.

“Now what the devil is going on with you two?” he said.

I looked at her. She looked at me and nodded, and I told him what I knew. He shook his head here and there, wrinkled his nose in disgust when I got to the point where I laid out what I’d surmised was going on with Rickie, then he looked at her carefully.

“Claire, I need to know, right now,” he said, looking her in the eye, “is this the God’s honest truth?”

“Yes, sir,” she said, looking him in the eye.

“How long has this been going on?”

“A while.”

“Nope, not good enough,” he said. “I need to know the truth, the whole truth.”

She looked at him, or tried to, anyway. “Right after Mexico,” she managed to say.

“Does your father know?”

And she looked away then, started crying openly. She tried to speak a minute later, but was choked up – and had nowhere left to go.

“Claire, what are you trying to tell me?”

“My father,” she gasped, then she broke down completely and he got up, went around to her and held her.

“What is it, baby,” he said. “What about your father?”

And she whispered in his ear.

And my father turned to stone. Magmatic stone, white-hot and seething. The waitress came to the table and my father poured one massive drink, then he drilled it down in one go – all this with one hand, mind you – while he cradled that girl to his breast and held on to her for dear life.

I knew the look in his eye. I pitied the Japanese that came upon him when he had that look in his eye, then the North Koreans and now, apparently, the North Vietnamese were about to get a dose of him, as well. I couldn’t even imagine what she’d told him, but she’d rattled the foundations of Hell, and I knew all Hell was about to break loose, too.

“Goose, pour yourself one. Just one. We’ve got to get this girl back to your room, then you and I have got a few things we need to tend to.”

“Yessir.”

“Darlin’? You want a snort?”

“No, sir.”

We went back out into the night and walked to the hotel in the mist, and I took her upstairs while he got a taxi, and when I came downstairs he was waiting for me. We drove in silence out to Metairie, and when we got to the Collins house he asked the Cabbie to wait, gave him a twenty then we walked up to the door.

Dean came on the second ring.

“Well, what brings you two…?”

“One question, Dean,” my father said, and Collins could see the molten fury in my father’s eyes. “Just how long have you been fucking your daughter?”

“I…what?”

“No bullshit, Collins. I’ve been with your daughter for the past two hours, and I’ve been all ears. You tell me the truth right now and you just might live to see the dawn. Lie to me just one more time and I’m going to tear you a new ass.”

We listened as the beaten old man spoke for a minute or so, then my father turned in disgust and was about to walk away – but he turned back and let slip a left that caught Collins under the left eye. He recoiled through the closed front door – blowing the door off it’s hinges – and my father followed him inside, throwing him through doors and walls and over tables for about fifteen minutes – until the police came, anyway.

They were going to arrest my old man, until a captain showed up and listened to my father’s explanation – and looked at his DoD identification.

All the Collins family restaurants closed a few weeks later, though they reopened soon enough – with Dean Collins still in charge. Richard stayed with his mother after the divorce, though he did indeed become Rebecca somewhere along the way.

I went back to Wisconsin, of course, while my parents moved to Washington, D.C., after dad was posted to the Pentagon – something to do with running the air war in Vietnam, I think I heard once.

Claire? She moved to D.C. and lived with my parents, and a year and a half later she graduated, went to Notre Dame – where she studied chemistry, of all things, before going to medical school in San Francisco. I assumed she liked the certainties of chemical bonds over the frailties of familial ties, but I wasn’t sure. We wrote letters to one another from time to time, but we seemed destined to drift apart after that night. I think life became too painful for all of us, especially my father. She never saw her father again, of course, and didn’t go to the funeral after his suicide, and she wouldn’t see her mother if Rickie was anywhere around.

Or so I heard, once. I was, you see, completely out of the picture by that point.

I ended up in school at UC Berkeley, got there just in time to get tear-gassed a couple of times, and I studied just enough to get nowhere so joined the Navy – which pissed off my old man no end, but I made it through OCS and learned to fly – which, I think, kind of made him happy. I did my five and came home, got a job with TWA and started thinking about what might come next. Still, being a moron, I was clueless. I’d never put two and two together.

I called my dad one Sunday afternoon after I moved to Boston and asked about Claire. He gave me her number and I called. A week later I had a some time off so flew back to San Francisco, and she said she’d meet me at the gate.

It was a bluebirds day when I arrived, a pure San Francisco special. Fog out beyond the Golden Gate, air so clear over the bay it seemed you could see forever. I was flying the right seat those days, and it took a while to clean up and leave the airplane. I’d explained what was up to my captain and he smiled, wished me good luck then went to dispatch to sort out all the paperwork, leaving me to walk up the Jetway, wondering if she would show up.

I, of course, didn’t recognize her. Clueless and moron, by this point, ought to be words that come to mind.

“Goose?” she asked. “Is that you? I can barely recognize you in that silly uniform!”

And, so, I was staring at her like, I assume, any moron might, but all I could think to ask was: “Are you married yet?”

And she held up her left hand.

Around the third finger I saw a nasty old band-aid – and beyond, her smile.

“No,” she said, “not yet.”

And for just the third time in my life, I knew she had changed my course forever.

(C)2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is, of course, pure fiction. all person(s), character(s), and organization(s) portrayed are simply fictitious, and do not in any way represent any real person or organization.

Predator II

Sitting with my six o’clock coffee, Heidi at my feet, and I’m too tired of snow to even talk about it anymore. There’s no end in sight…it just keeps falling. We have forecasts for sun and still it keeps falling.

So, a WIP of sorts today, going back to Dallas and to those wacky, cop-killing ninjas I introduced in Predator a year or so ago (over at LIT). This part of the story begins a few months later, so if you haven’t read the original, I’d suggest you give that old effort a try before starting this new one, as I don’t think this tale will make any sense at all without those other character details semi-fresh in your mind. Without giving too much of the plans for this story away, the idea is to incorporate elements from the Seattle story developed in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Things could get messy. Fun, even.

But, unfortunately, this post is but a single chapter in an evolving story, and it leaves you hanging at the end. Sorry. I hate doing that, really I do, but juggling several stories at the same time precludes posting huge ‘Mr Christian’ style arcs with real frequency. Besides, posting snippets and reading comments helps get a sense of what’s good, and not so good, about a new story. So, yes, I really do pay close attention to comments and emails.

Anyway, happy reading.

+++++

Predator II: Black Shadows, Shadows Dancing

She sat at her desk, listening to the man drone on about his wife. About how the wretched woman just didn’t understand him. How she never wanted to have sex anymore. How life had become totally empty, devoid of all meaning, all happiness.

She looked at this little maggot and wanted to laugh. ‘Have you looked in a mirror lately, you fat slob,’ she wanted to say. ‘Who’d want to fuck you? Who the hell would want to understand your pathetic, empty life? Jerking off to porn in the basement at two in the morning? Not even having the balls to jerk off in her face? Hiding in the shadows, afraid of your own shadow – all the shadows in your life…?’

“Well, Mr Peterson,” she said after she’d listened to about as much as she could, “it looks like our hour’s about up. I’d like you to reflect on some of the strategies we discussed today, and keep writing in your journal.”

“Okay. How do you think I’m doing?”

“Fine, Mr Peterson. Just fine.”

“How many more sessions do we have?”

She looked at her appointment app, scanned his court-ordered sentence. “Another eight weeks ‘til your next mandated evaluation. Then I make my report to the court.”

“You think I’ll do okay?”

“I can’t discuss these matters with you, Mr Peterson. You know that, so please don’t make me remind you again.”

“Yes, doctor.”

“Now, it’s time for you to leave. I’ll see you next Friday, at ten.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

He even walked like a worm, she thought as he stood and made ready to leave, but he turned and looked at her – tried to look at her, anyway – but she was behind her desk and so denied him the view he sought.

He’d been sneaking down in the middle of the night to jerk off to online porn for years, then one night his wife came down – quietly – and caught him in the act. She belittled him for days after, until one evening he couldn’t take it anymore. After a long string of insults he snapped, and he pushed his wife against the wall and screamed at her. He’d fallen to the floor, crying, and she’d called the police.

Domestic violence wasn’t tolerated in this city, Judge Thornton Thomas told him at one point during his sentencing, and in addition to the twenty-five hundred dollar fine – as well as all court costs – he’d been sentenced to six months of psychiatric counseling – again, at his own expense. And then, of course, his wife had filed for divorce, so now he was living in a flop-house near a warehouse district by the airport. He could at least walk to work these days, flipping burgers at a nearby fast food place, which was a good thing – as he’d lost his car after being fired from his job.

But now he was infatuated with this psychiatrist – Dana Devlin – and her endlessly long legs. She usually left her office just after their session, and he knew this because he waited and watched for her, and a limo would usually be waiting for her just outside her office building. It would whisk her to TV studios downtown, where she had a syndicated noon-time call-in self-help program, where she would discuss issues surrounding domestic violence and substance abuse – with a nationwide audience. He liked to watch her as she left the building, liked the feeling of hiding and watching her surreptitiously, but he loved looking at her long legs and high heels most of all.

So he was waiting for her downstairs this morning, behind some trees not far away, and he watched her as she walked out, watched her legs as she turned and climbed into the limo, and he relished that one fleeting moment most of all – when, with one leg remained outstretched her skirt rose up, revealing stocking tops and garters. He shuddered when he caught that glimpse this morning, wanted to crawl home and turn on his laptop.

But no, not today. Today he wanted to see more, so he caught the bus downtown – with a smile on his very happy face.

+++++

“Yes,” Devlin said to the camera, “bi-polar disorder has become, I’m afraid, a too-broad definition, a catch-all phrase being used to justify all manner of inexcusable behavior. Like a doctor’s note to get you out of gym, it’s become almost trendy, and now, today, people are calling themselves bi-polar without any sort of formal diagnosis, thinking their swings in mood can be excused away with a shrug and a smile – and a hastily contrived diagnosis. So, the point I’m trying to make is simply this, if someone is indeed bi-polar, they need medication, they need treatment, and that won’t happen without seeking help from a qualified medical professional. Absent that, people need to stop self-diagnosing the problem, and applying labels they simply do not understand.”

“Okay,” the show’s host said, “this has been The Help Desk, with Dr Dana Devlin. This is Dick Durban, and we’ll be back next week with a frank examination at post-pubescent bed-wetting, and what you can do to move on from suffering the consequences of this humiliating nighttime scourge.”

The lights dimmed and Devlin unclipped her mic and set it on the desk in front of her, then leaned over and thanked Durban.

“You coming tonight?” she asked.

“Oh, wouldn’t miss it,” he said, smiling.

“Good,” she said, then she left the studio, stopped off at the gym before going out for the evening. She did not, apparently, notice she was being followed as she went inside.

+++++

He had been planning this night all week, and now it was time. He was going to follow her, wait until she was alone then take her. He’d been looking on from afar for too long, he told himself, and she had given him the courage he’d need to see this night through. He was sitting in the back of the taxi he’d called when she came out, and it fell in behind her Mercedes as it took off from the gym.

+++++

They had been waiting until night fell, and perhaps a half hour after the sun set a rope dropped noiselessly from the roof, and two shadows slipped through the night and into Peterson’s grimy little room.

They left a half hour later, the contents of his computer downloaded onto a card.

+++++

He looked up as a jet roared by just overhead, and barely made it in a back door without being caught; he followed the driving beat of the music down into an obscure basement and slipped unnoticed to the back of the room, his heart racing as he looked at the action on the floor. He saw her down there, dressed in latex and PVC – everything black, everything shiny, almost wet looking – even the huge phallus she had just strapped-on was shiny-wet and black.

Then he saw the judge – his judge – down there on the floor, strapped down to a high bench. She was whipping him – savagely, too, he thought – then she moved between the jurist’s splayed legs and planted her strap-on over his anus – and plunged-in – then began mercilessly pounding the man’s ass. When he cried-out in pain she only whipped him more fiercely.

He pulled out his phone, slipped it into video mode and began recording, and after just a few minutes he slipped back out of the building and disappeared into the night.

Shadows within shadows watched his movements, and one broke off and retraced his steps into the building, into the basement. She came out a few minutes later and her team disappeared into waiting shadows.

+++++

The next week, at his scheduled therapy session, she noticed he was looking at her differently – almost leering at her, she thought.

“What would you like to talk about today, Mr Peterson,” she started, unsure of his mood.

“I’d like you to call me Pete.”

She smiled. “Oh? Why?”

“First, could you tell me the difference between love and lust?”

She seemed amused at this new line of thought. “What’s on your mind today?”

“It’s a question that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I’ve been thinking about what might be different between the two.”

“Well, what do you think the difference is?”

“That’s not my question, Dana.”

“I’ve told you before, Mr Peterson, I’d prefer that you refer to me by my title.”

“I really don’t care what you want me to call you, Dana. I would like you to tell me the difference between love and lust.”

She looked into his eyes and unconsciously crossed her arms over her lap, then caught herself and sighed. “The difference, you say?”

“Yes. How are they different?”

“Well, love is about continuity, about seeking permanence in your life, while lust is all about the moment, impulses and needs. I’d say lust is more about impermanence, instant gratification, while love is about long term fulfillment. Now, Pete, what’s this all about?”

“I’d like to show you something, and I wonder if you could conjure up a definition of hypocrisy out of your black hat.” He stood, took out his phone and came close to her desk, turned it on and opened up the video player. He put the phone on her desk and pressed play…

She leaned over, picked the phone up and watched the images unfold; her hands began to shake, a line of perspiration formed on her brow. When the recording stopped he took the phone and returned to his chair.

“Interesting,” she said. “So. You’ve been following me.”

“No, I’ve had a private detective following you and Thornton.”

She smiled at his bluff. “What do you want?”

“Right now? Right now, I want to fuck you in the ass. When I’m finished I want a letter from you making all this go away. A week from now, I want to read about that fucking judge’s resignation from the bench, and it better be front page news.”

“Oh, is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all. And I’m assuming you think I’m a moron. That I haven’t taken precautions to make sure this video shows up all over the internet if something happens to me. I could disappear, you know, or men in white coats could show up at work, throw me to the ground and put me in a straight-jacket, take me to the funny farm. Just let me tell you if anything like that happens to me, you and the judge are going viral. Youtube city, if you get my drift, and that’ll be just for starters.”

“And if we comply?”

“I hit delete.”

“Simple as that, huh? And we get to trust you, that you won’t publish?”

“Simple as that.”

The shadows listened intently now, confirming all their recording devices had good signal.

Devlin turned in her chair, hit a button and all the drapes in her office closed, the lights dimmed.

“Pete?”

“Yes?”

“Take off your clothes, Pete. And from now on, when you answer me, you’ll say only ‘yes, mistress,’ or ‘no, mistress.’ Is that understood?”

“Sorry, but no. I’m not playing that game with you.”

“Pete? Please? Just play along a little, would you? Make it easy for me?”

“Well…”

“Pete? Get your clothes off, then I need you to come over and lick my legs, suck my toes.”

“Uh…well…if you insist…”

“Oh, Pete…I had no idea your cock was SO big…”

And still the shadows listened.

+++++

He wasn’t exactly sure, but to him it almost looked as if someone had been in his room. Nothing too out of place – not exactly – but just enough, and he had to admit he hadn’t counted on this. He went to his laptop and opened it up, and everything – seemed – okay… So why this feeling?

He saw a shadow, or thought he did, and he turned, looked out the window –

“What the fuck!” he screamed. “Who the fuck are you?!”

It, what ever it was, looked like a giant, black owl – like something out of one of those Whitley Strieber books he’d used to read.

An alien, he said to himself, now sure someone, or something, had been in his room – and suddenly he rubbed the back of his head again and again – for he had been sure, once, that he’d been abducted, and that they’d implanted something in his skull.

Now, the more he thought about it, the more aliens made sense. Who else could have told Molly he was in the basement? How else could he have run into a psychiatrist as warped as Devlin, a judge as twisted as Thornton? They had to be in on it, all of them, and he bet they had been, for years, from the beginning.

That spot on his head was itching now, and he was sure he could feel it getting hot. They had to be transmitting now, transmitting instructions to him. Again. That’s why it was getting hot – that had to be the reason. He felt the room spinning, his eyeballs starting to itch – and he wanted to scratch them out of his head – because the noise was getting so loud now, the voices so insistent…

+++++

“What the fuck’s going on with him now?” one of the shadows said.

“I don’t think he took his meds this morning,” another one said.

Yet another laughed.

“No, I’m serious,” the second one said. “I don’t think he took anything, and two of them are anti-psychotics.”

“Too bad for him,” the first said. “Look, he’s going to whack-off again!”

“I can’t fucking believe this guy. It’s like anything sets him off.”

“This is like the third time so far today…”

“Did you see the recording from her office?”

“No. What about it?”

“He popped her in the can, then blew a load all over her face. He made her lick the shit off his dick after.”

“That woman has no pride.”

“I think she’s desperate.”

“You’d have to be fucking desperate to let that cretin anywhere near your asshole.”

“You should’ve seen what was on his hard drives.”

“I don’t want to know. Did the committee reach a decision?”

“Yes. He made the list, too.”

“Well, one more won’t make much difference, I guess.”

“No, it won’t.”

They had been in the basement earlier that day, and the team had epoxied all the windows shut, then had placed shaped charges in the ceiling, taped to a dozen 20 pound LPG tanks. No, it wouldn’t matter at all…

+++++

She had invited Pete to tonight’s event – “just to show you there are no hard feelings!” – and she’d picked him up a little before eight, driven him to the warehouse. A jet taking off from Love Field flew by just overhead as she got out of her Mercedes, and he followed her to the front door, then past the security guard beside the basement stairs. She led him downstairs to the main playroom and told him to make himself comfortable while she changed into her play clothes, or so she called them. He looked around, didn’t see Thornton anywhere, and for some reason that bothered him. Someone handed him a drink and he tossed it down, then walked over and looked at a girl being sodomized by someone in a gorilla suit…but no, he was pretty sure it was an alien on top of the girl…then the room started to spin, he felt like he was about to suffocate – then the room went dark.

+++++

They’d watched as Thornton and Devlin tied him down to a bench, then as someone gave him an injection. He’d begun to come around after that, but he was gagged now, and they couldn’t make out more than a few words that Devlin and Thornton were saying.

Soon Thornton walked over to Peterson, and they noted he had a large cordless drill in his hand; the judge put the drill above Peterson’s ear and pulled the trigger…

“You know,” one of the shadows said, “I really don’t want to watch this…”

“So, hit the detonator – whenever you’re ready.”

+++++

“Southwest 227, taxi to position and hold.”

“227”

“227, clear for take off. Contact departure one two two niner and good night.”

“227, two-two-niner. Rolling.”

“Give me ninety eight percent.”

“Ninety eight.”

“Helluva crosswind tonight.”

“Yup. Passing eighty. One-ten. EP at ninety eight. V-one – and rotate!”

“Positive rate, gear up.”

“Gear up…what the hell was that?!”

“Uh, Southwest 227, this is the Tower. Looks like a large explosion under you at this time. Lot’s of flame and airborne debris.”

“Tower, 227, Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! We’ve lost number two engine, lost primary hydraulics, and we’re getting fire alarms from the cargo deck. We’re gonna try a right turn, try for runway three six.”

“227, say souls on board.”

“48, Tower. We’re three eight zero A-G-L, have about 5–5 percent on number one, can’t hold a climb at this weight.”

“Roger, 227, emergency services notified.”

“What the hell was that?,” the Captain said. “Did ATC say they saw an explosion?”

“I think so. Felt like a large IED.”

“Hit the APU, deploy the RAT.”

“Got it.”

“Might as well start dumping fuel, too. Okay, I’ve got Harry Hines and Mockingbird, I’m going to line up off them. Start reading off the radar altimeter, would you?”

“2-7-0 feet, gears still down and three green, flaps at twenty. Now 2-5-0 AGL, rate of descent is 3-5-0 feet per…”

“Landing gears are going to come right off at this weight.”

“Now 2-1-0 feet, speed 1-7-7, rate of descent now 400. Looks like Denton Drive in about a quarter mile.”

The computer chimed: “Minimums, minimums!”

“This is gonna be close, Mike.” The Captain keyed the intercom, her voice calm now: “Flight attendants, brace for impact.”

“Over Denton, now 1-1-0 feet, speed 1-5-5.”

“Mike…? I think we’re gonna make it…”

“You got it, Captain.”

“Crosswind’s a headwind now – good – okay, over the threshold.”

The computer began talking again: “Fifty – forty – thirty – retard – retard!” She felt the main gears hit, was going for reverse thrust when she felt the entire aircraft lurched – hard – to the left…

Which happened when the left main gear failed – which then blew through the top of the wing. The wing tanks ruptured, vaporizing thousands of pound of jet fuel – which then ignited. The left engine nacelle dug into the runway, causing an immediate, violent yaw to the left, and the right main gear collapsed. The main spar failed next, then the entire right wing separated from the fuselage. Eight fire trucks began chasing the flaming wreck down the runway, spraying thick white foam on everything. When the wreck ground to a stop, doors and slides opened, dozens of dazed people tumbled to the ground and were soon coated in thick white goo.

First responders from all over North Texas converged on Love Field, while the FBI’s counter-terrorism task force was convened in Washington D.C. Survivors walked down the runway, some fell to the ground as soon as they cleared the flaming hulk. Off duty police and fire investigators all over the city heard their beepers go off, and families turned on their TVs, trying to figure out what that huge explosion was…

And Ben Acheson looked at his phone, rolled out of bed, showered and kissed Genie on the forehead, then got in his Yukon, drove across town to Love Field. The Duke was already there, walking around the wreckage on the runway, looking tired and very put-out.

“Took you long enough to get here, Meathead,” Dickinson said, glowering.

“Bring any donuts?”

“Couple dozen,” The Duke growled. “Back seat.”

“What happened?”

“Warehouse, over off Cedar Springs, blew up. Well, I mean was blown up. Powerful stuff. Jet was taking off, got hit by debris, force of the blast wave apparently did most of the damage.”

“So the warehouse was the target?”

“Yup. Firefighters still working it. As soon as they’re done we’ll move in. We’ll have lead, I assume FBI will back us up – unless terrorism is the initial conclusion, anyway.”

Acheson grumbled.

“How’s Genie? Still liking school?”

“It’s tough. Tougher than she expected.”

“Miss the Bureau yet?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Good. World needs more doctors, not a bunch of cops.”

“World need both, Duke. Nothin’s ever gonna change that equation.”

Dickinson grumbled, then his hand unit crackled. “700, are you still on scene at Love?”

“700, 10/4.”

“700, Fire Department would like someone from CID on scene at this time.”

“700, 741 code five.”

“Code five at 2310.”

“It’s gonna be a long night, Ben.”

“Glad you got two dozen. Nexium ain’t working anymore.”

They drove over to Cedar Springs, then down Manor Way to the burning building and got out, walked over to the Fire Department’s Mobile Command Unit; the Chief was waiting for them: “You come from Love?” the fireman asked.

“Yessir.” Dickinson knew it was rare for the FD’s chief to be out on a call like this – unless something way out of the ordinary was suspected. “What’ve you found so far?”

“HE residue everywhere, on everything. On the remaining structure, all over the debris field.”

“C4?”

“Maybe. Maybe something more exotic.”

“FBI here yet?”

“Nope. Thought I’d let you handle that. And, well, we’ve no way of telling if there’s any unexploded ordnance in there.”

“That’s nice. Who do you think – FBI, or Army?”

The chief shrugged. “FBI ought to be able to handle it; Army might be better equipped.”

“Okay,” Dickinson said as he turned to Acheson – but he was across the street, walking towards a dumpster, so he took out his hand unit and called dispatch: “700, notify SAC/Dallas he’s needed at this location, advise we’ll need an EOD team here code three, and FD thinks Army may by better equipped for this one. Have Traffic shut-down on Cedar Springs from Mockingbird to Inwood, and we may need to evacuate apartment buildings in the area.”

“700, 10/4 at 2335. Did you want us to notify 100?”

“Ah, 700, this is 100,” the Chief of Police said, “code five your twenty.”

“100, code five at 2336.”

“700 received.”

“2336.”

Dickinson looked at Acheson, who was looking around the area, then across the street.

“Oh, no,” Acheson whispered. “Not again.”

But The Duke could tell the boy’d seen something, and Acheson walked across the street up to the trash dumpster in a parking lot, and now Dickinson could see the envelope taped to the side of the dumpster. He watched Ben pull it free, open it up, then look up and around the area again. “Fuck-a-doodle-do,” The Duke whistled, waiting for Acheson to walk back, but he knew in his gut already.

They were back and it was happening again – and tonight was just the opening salvo. “Oh Carol,” Dickinson sighed, “what have you done to us now – what have you gotten me into?”

He turned, walked over to the charred, smoldering building, and looked down into the shattered basement. Many bodies were recognizable, though they too were charred, while other’s had simply been blown apart, then the nature of the facility came into sharp relief. Racks, benches, a viewing area, all of it, he’d seen all of it before, and more than once over the years.

He felt Ben walk up, felt him staring down into the pits of Hell.

“It’s them,” he said at last.

“I know,” The Duke sighed. He turned, looked at the package in Acheson’s hand. “Well?”

“A couple of discs, list of names, of the people down there. A brief synopsis of why they took them out.”

“The names. Give me that list.” Acheson handed it over and Dickinson read down the list, then whistled again. “Fuck-a-doddle-do…”

“Yup. Three judges, and look at the last name, on the second page.”

“Oh, no.”

“He was officially running, so we’ll have to notify the Secret Service. Oh, and there’s this,” Ben said, handing the Post-it note to Dickinson.

“Where was this?”

“Windshield of your car, under the wiper.”

“Figures.” He read the note, whistled again. “Copies already sent to the Morning News, and to CNN. Well, that’s another big fly in the ointment.”

“No way to make the names on that list go away.”

“You know, Ben. They’re always one step ahead of us. Here, out west too.”

“We’re penetrated, at every level.”

“I know. Carol. She told me she was done with them.”

“Go on the assumption she isn’t. I would, anyway.”

“Do you think that’s why she expressed interest? In me, I mean?”

“Possible, but doubtful. I know her pretty well, and if she did something like that it would be way out of character. Still, I don’t know what motivated her to join that organization in the first place.”

“Neither do I…”

“Captain?” one of the Fire Departments unit commanders said, jogging over. “Could y’all take a look at something?”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“Over here, sir.” He led them to the edge, pointed with his flashlight at a large, 1500 pound gas cylinder. “Any idea what that is on top of that tank?”

Dickinson looked at for a moment, then he turned to everyone within earshot – “Everyone out of here, NOW!” – then he turned to Acheson, grabbed him by the arm and began pulling him away from the edge. “Detonator – countdown timer…”

They were almost to their cars when the device let go, and the concussive wave knocked them both from their feet – hurled them through the air – and both landed in the street. Their clothes scorched, the skin on the backs of their heads burned badly, they turned in time to see a wall of flame racing from the original crater…

“Well, there goes all the evidence,” The Duke said a minute later, picking himself off the asphalt. “Looks like they gave us just enough of a glimpse to substantiate their allegations.”

“Like you said, sir. Always one step ahead.”

The Duke was feeling the back of his head, not liking what he felt, then out of the blue he turned and looked at the raging ruins. “When your basic assumptions prove wrong, it’s time to challenge all your assumptions.”

“Sir?”

“It’s time to go on the offensive, Ben.”

+++++

“So, what do we know so far?” Special Agent in Charge Red Gibbons asked.

“First on my list,” Dickinson began, “the airplane appears to be collateral damage, not an intended target.”

“You mean – they actually fucked up?” Gibbons said, chuckling dryly. “That’s a first.”

“Yup. Maybe. Next up, the building was targeted because that’s where these people were meeting up. Records show an entity called Argosy Partners have been renting the space for a few years. They were, before they rented this one, meeting out near White Rock Lake, in a private home.”

“Who’s home?” Gibbons asked.

“Thornton’s,” Acheson said. He’d dug up that information earlier this morning.

“This is a fucking nightmare,” Gibbons said. “We’ve got a US Senator, three local congressmen, two local and one federal judge down in that crater…”

“Not to mention a dozen local big-shots,” Dickinson added. “That TV shrink and her co-host, the CEO of SimCON, and well, we’ve yet to ID a half dozen bodies that aren’t even on the list.”

Gibbons shook his head. “I heard they found a head…with a drill-bit stuck in the side of his skull. That true?”

“Yessir,” Deke Slayton said. “The bit is drilled in, wasn’t blow-in during the explosion.”

“Fuck, those were some strange-rangers,” Gibbons sighed.

“I doubt this was entertainment, sir,” Acheson replied.

“Go on,” the SAC said, “let’s have it. The unvarnished version.”

“Probably retribution. Someone crossed them, so they took him out.”

“Retribution, huh?” Gibbons said, then he started writing on a notepad. “Okay, what else?”

“The charges, sir,” Acheson said. “One of the firemen ID’ed the detonators we saw as a so-called ‘shaped charge’ – and in case…”

“I know what those are, Ben. So, some sophisticated firepower, not available on the street, not easily cobbled together in a basement.”

“Stolen, would be my guess,” Dickinson interjected. “From a weapons lab, or a nuclear storage facility.”

“Oh, well, let’s kick it up a notch. Weapons from a nuclear facility, and all of sudden these chicks go to the top of the FBI’s most wanted.”

“It’s not going to be that easy,”Acheson sighed.

“Why not?”

“Well, first, look around this room. Not one woman in here. Next, we’re having the room swept for bugs, and have been – for months. For all intents and purposes this has become a ‘woman free zone’ – and simply because we have no idea who’s on the inside, working for them.”

“So? What does that mean?”

“Well, for one thing, this could easily ramp up into some sort of civil war. Look how rapidly their movement, hell, their ideology, has spread. What we first thought was a series of copy-cat crimes turned out to be well-coordinated by a national organization. They’re taking out scumbags right now, but what happens if this is a first move on more political targets?”

“You don’t think,” Dickinson said, “that last night wasn’t a political act?”

“I don’t think we have enough information on hand,” Acheson said, “to make that call. Not yet, anyway. It’s certainly a possibility, though.”

“You know,” Gibbons said, his voice uncertain now, “there’ve been several BDSM groups, mainly on the west coast, that have merged their activities into political action, mainly by bringing prominent business and political leaders into their operations. We’ve been working in Seattle, trying to get one such group under control, for over a year. We lost a couple of agents, and Seattle PD lost a few two, including an AC.”

“That was one of the last cases Genie was working on before she accepted the slot at Southwestern.”

“I know,” Gibbons said, looking away. “I wish she was still with us. I have a feeling we could use her insight.”

“You know,” The Duke said, “I remember reading about that Seattle thing. Seems to me the ‘ninjas’ were part of some BDSM group’s hierarchy.”

Gibbons looked around the room. “Okay, what I’m going to tell you has got to stay in this room, but that mess is a lot more complicated than we’ve previously let on.”

“Oh?” Dickinson said.

“It wasn’t just law enforcement that was compromised. Legislators, judges, prosecutors…even people in broadcasting and newspapers…all either compromised or actively taking part in the group’s organization.”

“You’re saying that this group had infiltrated almost all levels of government, and had, in effect, neutralized people in media?”

Gibbons nodded his head. “Yup. Reporters to owners, papers and television stations.”

“So,” Acheson sighed, “why do I get the feeling you haven’t gotten to the bad part yet?”

“Because I haven’t gotten to the bad part yet.”

“Swell,” The Duke said, reaching for a donut.

“Could I have one of those?” Gibbons said, eyeing the dwindling supply.

“Help yourself, Red. Ben, you haven’t eaten this morning, so for God’s sake, eat a donut – before you bleed out.”

“Yessir. So. What’s the bad part?”

“We’re picking up chatter inside FBI headquarters now; we may be infiltrated. Furthermore, it appears that a few members of congress may be compromised, and a few White House staffers, as well.”

“You’re saying,” The Duke said quietly, “that the federal government may have been compromised in some way by this group? The group in Seattle?”

Acheson jumped in before the SAC could respond: “But what if there’s no operational difference between the Seattle group and the one operating here? What if it’s just one organization?”

“Why go after a BDSM group, if that’s the case,” Gibbons asked.

“I don’t know. Competing objectives? Or maybe this group didn’t have anything to do with the Seattle group. Friends in need, that kind of thing.”

“That’s interesting, Ben,” The Duke said. “About competing objectives, I mean, and that makes a certain kind of sense. Once an organization gets big enough, especially one with political objectives, that group will begin to fracture internally as sub-groups form, as competing interests vie for supremacy. What if this group, the one taken out last night, wasn’t simply a group of perverts – and I say that advisedly. Recall, if you will, that they went after pedophiles last time, and that drug runner too. And we’ve been operating under the assumption that taking out sexual deviants is still there primary objective.”

“But, what if it’s not?” Ben asked.

“Exactly,” The Duke sighed.

“Going after a bunch of politicians and judges is a helluva way to make your point,” Gibbons said.

“Not if this was an intramural skirmish of some sort,” The Duke said softly, “or not if this is an internal power struggle. This could be a message, to us, and to any other internal factions watching.”

“Wait a minute,” Acheson said, suddenly agitated. “This group in Seattle? You said it’s a BDSM group, but was it an all female group?”

“No,” Gibbons said, the point suddenly hitting home, “it’s not – or wasn’t.”

“So, two possibilities,” Ben said quietly. “The first; this has always been one group, and now it’s splintering due to internal dissent. Or the other possibility: there are multiple groups, but they came together through a marriage of convenience, and now there’s a power struggle underway.”

“That might explain,” Dickinson said, “the targeting last night. Assuming members of this group, or faction, had come into conflict with the.”

“Uh,”Gibbons said, coughing on a bit of donut, “well, can we just call them – the Ninjas – for now?”

The Duke shrugged. “They’re not ninjas, Red. They’re radicals subverting the system to achieve an agenda, in effect radicalizing a distinct segment of the population to undermine the rule of law, preying on those gullible enough to think there’s no other way to effect change.”

“Okay, predators,” Red said. “Let’s just call ‘em Predators.”

“No, I don’t think so,” The Duke said, shaking his head.

“Why not?”

Ben sighed: “Because we’re objectifying their actions, projecting motives we may not fully understand, and until we do calling them anything is premature.”

“All their handwritten notes to us have been signed ‘– C’, haven’t they?” Gibbons said. “Who do you think that is?”

“My guess,” Ben said quickly, “is Committee?”

“Okay,” Red said, “so we call them The Committee.”

Ben barely looked at Dickinson, tried not to feel guilty for such a brazen lie, but he’d spoken to protect her, to protect The Duke – and his relationship with her. “So, what’s the next step?”

“What about your vector theory,” Gibbons asked. “Does the location of this latest attack fit along the axis of the earlier string of murders?”

“It’s close to Love Field,” Ben said, “where we found the victim in the parking garage, but even this close it’s several hundred yards off the other established vector.”

“They’re not going to try that again,” The Duke said. “We were getting close a couple of times, probably too close for comfort…”

“And you’re assuming they want to play games with us,” Ben added. “Last night was different. Last night was a statement. When that list hits the Morning News and CNN, the lid is going to be blown right into orbit, and there’s not going to be any way to deny the group’s existence after that. Within a week, the talking heads will be putting two and two together, talking about nothing else. And if there’s a second incident? Or if this ‘Committee’ releases a manifesto of some sort? Hell, it’s going to hit the fan big-time, and open warfare won’t be far off.”

“Ben, turn up the TV, there’s something on CNN right now…”

All eyes turned to flat screen, to a hotel on fire, apparently burning furiously, out of control – yet one wing of the building was simply gone, like it had been blown away…

“Yes, Wolf, officials here at the scene believe this was caused by an explosion of some sort, a large explosion, but they’re not speculating at all about the cause…”

The helicopter circling overhead pulled back, and the motel’s tall highway sign came into view: ‘Manor House Lodge’ it read, and Ben felt a chill run down his spine.

“Manor House?” he sighed. “Manor House? – OF COURSE!”

“Ben? What the devil…?”

“Manor House!” he said, this time loudly. “And last night, the explosion was on Manor Way. If these are linked, well then, this isn’t a coincidence…”

The intercom crackled, and a voice from dispatch entered the room: “Anyone down there?”

“Dickinson here,” he replied.

“Patrolman out on a call advises he’s got a signal one, wants CID and a CSU code two.”

“Okay, where is it,” Dickinson said, nodding to Acheson it would be his call.

“Hotel out on Central. The Manor House, off Royal Lane.”

Everyone’s eyes went to Acheson – who only seemed to smile.

+++++

They drove out Central in a tight convoy: CID, the FBI, multiple Crime Scene Unit vans, but The Duke rode with Acheson, let him drive while he thought. “Why a murder there? Why this morning?”

Acheson shook his head. “Not even an hour after the explosion in Maryland? It doesn’t make sense, unless…”

“Unless what?”

“It’s to draw us in.”

“What? Why?”

“Shit!” Ben said as he picked up the radio’s mic. “741, notify units on Central to begin an immediate evacuation of buildings around their location, get EOD units to the area, notify fire and rescue to respond…”

“You don’t think…?”

“If last night was an announcement, a change in strategy, not just tactics…”

They were two miles away just then, when they felt more then heard a deep ‘woomp’ rolling through the air.

“Oh-sweet-Jesus,” Dickinson said when he saw the explosion further out Central, just as their Tahoe passed under Northwest Highway. “700,” he said into the mic, “large explosion, vicinity Central and Royal.”

They heard dispatch calling the patrol units already on scene – and none responded. More calls, more silence, then an avalanche of units responding to the scene checked in.

Dickinson pulled out his cell, called the chief’s office: “Chief, you got this stuff on the radio?”

“No, I’ve been in a meeting.”

“Large explosion, officers already on the scene not responding. Looks similar to the thing in Maryland.”

“What thing in Maryland?”

“Turn on CNN, get caught up. We’ll get a command post set up somewhere on Royal, and you’d better think about getting out here, getting a statement ready for the press.”

“What do you think’s going on?”

“The ninjas are back. Nationwide, would be my guess. And they just declared war.”

+++++

News helicopters were still circling overhead three hours later, and while both Acheson and Dickinson had been up for over thirty hours they could see no end in sight. Ten officers down, six dead, four in the burn unit at Parkland, and more than sixty bodies found in the hotel – and in three nearby buildings that collapsed in the primary blast. One person tried to flee the scene and her car had been wired; as soon as she hit the ignition she – and everything within a hundred meter radius – was vaporized.

Reports came in that attacks similar to this one, as well as the one in Maryland, had been discovered, and possibly thwarted, but by late morning three more occurred – one in Atlanta, the next in Phoenix, and the third in Tacoma – and each blast occurred in a facility that had the word ‘manor’ in either the place-name or the address.

There was now, literally, nothing else on the news – on any channel – and as letters taking credit for the attacks began showing up at major broadcasters and newspapers, the group’s objectives were being splattered over the airwaves – and the ‘net – at a breakneck pace.

Acheson and Dickinson walked the rubble after firefighters secured the scene, and it didn’t take them long. A large bedroom, far from the lobby on the second floor, hadn’t been completely destroyed by either the blast or the subsequent fires, and they found the shattered remains of a young boy, dead, tied to the four corners of the bed. He had been tortured, sexually, and apparently for an extended period of time, according to the initial forensic examination conducted on scene. The boy’s rectum had been savaged, and more than a pint of semen remained in his lower colon. ID, driver’s licenses and credit cards, had established that the pastor of a local, politically very active Baptist church was one of the pedophiles, and the other was Clive Thornton, brother of one of the judges found in the aftermath of the first blast on Manor Way.

And before CID or the FBI could confirm these identities, let alone finish their reports, news outlets on the national level were broadcasting not only who was at the Manor House Lodge in Dallas, but what they had been doing to deserve retribution – complete with audio – and video – of their actions. By nightfall, people around the country had begun to doubt the integrity of their leaders as never before, and a great, shuddering sigh of anxiety could be felt all across the land.

+++++

“How bad is it?” a dour Genie Delaney said when she saw Ben walk in the door.

Acheson just shook his head, looked at her books stacked on the dining room table, noted the silent kitchen and groaned his way to the shower. He looked at his watch before he took it off and almost stumbled into the shower, trying to do the math in his head. Fifteen hours until he had to be out at DFW, fifteen hours until the next flight to Paris – then two days away from this Hell. Two days of – room service, two days of endless sleep.

Then what? Two days off. Then two days downtown, two more days of this never-ending Hell. Genie, ass-deep in her studies, to wrung-out to do even the simplest household chores, nail-biting anxiety as exam after exam rolled over her like waves breaking in a hurricane – and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do for her but try to help maintain some semblance of order around the house.

At least she wasn’t a slob, he thought as the hot water pounded the back of his neck. He put his arms out, leaned forward and let the water hit his lower back, then he felt a little blast of cool air. She was beside him then, then in front of him, on her knees. He felt her mouth engulf his need, felt her arms encircling his thighs and he moved into the zone, relaxing completely. How many days had it been, he wondered, but soon that calculus didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, nothing at all, only the smooth, easy rhythm that came so naturally to her.

He stood, moaned, put his hands behind her head and added his motion to hers, but then she picked up her pace. He felt her fingernails on the insides of his thighs, the water running down his legs, the electric flutters building in his gut…

“I’m close,” he said, and she picked up the pace. Swirling tongue, jackhammer rhythm, so much need – “I’m coming…” he managed to say, but still she kept up her driving pace…

He slipped into the clouds and rain, felt the world dissolve, heard her sharp intake of breath as his cum screamed release. Her head swirled now, creating a waterfall of new, overwhelming sensation and he felt his knees buckling, felt her swallowing, then bobbing for every last drop.

She came up to him a moment later, rinsed her face in the spray then nestled into his neck, holding him tightly.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

“I couldn’t help it, Spud. You looked like you needed it – almost as much as I did.”

He looked into her eyes, felt himself adrift on her ocean of love, basking in the light of her…

And he saw a red laser’s beam dancing across the back of the shower – and turned – saw a woman dressed all in black, standing in the doorway from the bedroom.

“What is it,” he heard Genie ask.

“I think we’re having company for dinner.”

+++++

“That was sweet,” the woman said.

They were in the bedroom now, all curtains drawn, and there were five of them standing by the doors and windows – all dressed in black, all carrying H&K MP5s. All looked very focused, and more than a little menacing.

“Thanks,” Ben said. “If I’d known I was giving a performance I might have lasted a little longer, gone for a classier exit.” He was staring at the woman, memorizing her features: maybe fifty years old, sandy blond hair, very fit, hazel eyes and straight teeth. Maybe 5’5”, 120 pounds, and her feet were small, almost tiny. And her eyes: clear, intelligent, cool and calculating. Adversarial – predatory.

The woman smiled, just a little, then moved towards the door, shut it and locked it. “Sit down,” she commanded.

They sat. “Whatever you say,” he didn’t need to add. “Uh, to what do we owe this little visit?”

“Your conference, this morning.”

“So, you’re listening-in still?”

“You’re on the right track,” the woman said, smiling broadly now, “and that surprised me.”

“That your group has gone political? All terrorist acts are political – so why should it surprise you that we came to that conclusion?”

“I wasn’t sure. Not after the airliner.”

“Collateral damage?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, sighing. “Unfortunate timing.”

“Well, it certainly got a lot of attention.”

“Not the kind we want.”

“What do you want? Why are you here?”

She opened a case, took out a large manilla envelope and handed it to him. “I’d like you to read this tonight, pass it on to your superiors if you deem it interesting.”

“You could have slipped this under the door mat. You haven’t answered my question: why are you here, now? This evening, in my house?”

“I wanted to meet you.”

“Oh?”

“And I wanted to tell you that as much as I admire you, and what you do, if you get too close I’ll hurt you. I’ll hurt you by killing her,” she said, pointing to Genie. “She won’t be able to hide, so think about what I’m saying.”

“You can’t expect me to not do my job?”

“I suppose I could simply tell you to quit the reserves, go fly full time, but the truth is, Ben, I admire your tenacity, your sudden flashes of insight. And I want…no, I need a worthy adversary.”

“Well then, logically, you think I’ll get too close, eventually. So, logically, you want me to succeed, and you want to kill Genie.”

“No. No I don’t.” She looked him in the eye, then stepped close, leaned over and kissed him, hard, on the lips. She slipped her tongue between his, reached down and pulled on his cock, then she stood over him, a look of triumph in her eyes. “No, Ben, I don’t want you to get to – close.” Then woman laughed a little, then the group simply walked out of the room and into the gathering night.

“Jesus,” Genie said, letting out a breath too long held, “what the fuck was that all about?”

“I have no clue,” he said, now shaking inside. “I felt like a cobra had coiled around me, uh, my neck when she did that.”

“Well, you must have liked it.”

He could feel it now, his cock standing straight up again. “Oh, no.”

“At least she didn’t give you a blow job,” but Delaney was shook up, felt like she’d lost all control over her destiny, indeed, her life – and now she desperately wanted to reassert some measure of what she’d just lost. “Still, you have to admit,” she said as she leaned over and put her hand around his hard-on, “it’s a nice cock. Not too big, certainly not too small, a little on the fat side – but that’s a good thing,” she said as she took it in her mouth. She ran her mouth up and down slowly a few times, then disengaged. “But, I think he’s been neglected, that he wants to come home,” she said as she straddled him.

“Here, let me…”

“Nope,” she sighed, willing herself to retake control. “No hands,” she said as she pushed him down. She lay on top of him with her legs inside his, and she clamped down with her thighs, moved up slowly, pulling the head of his cock in tightly against her lips, then she slipped down even more slowly, letting the head part her lips just a little – and she did this for several minutes, until they were both shaking with more immediate needs. She concentrated on the feeling of his cock between her thighs, grazing her lips, then – using her legs she pushed his legs together, still slowly grinding his need into hers, and then she rose until she was poised over his belly. She had the angle she needed now, and she backed a little, pushed his cock straight up, then she rose again and felt her lips parting, his tip entering – and she hovered there, wanting this feeling of anticipation to last forever. She circled their sudden need from on high, like a raptor among clouds, then she plunged, took him all in – and the room filled with the light of glorious release.

+++++

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what was that all about?” he sighed as she lay beside him.

“I don’t know? Maybe I was so afraid of dying, then so glad to be alive? I saw her kiss you, saw her kissing you forever, like she wants you, and I wanted you – while I can still have you.”

The woman was watching the live video feed from inside an agency van, watching Ben and Genie and the aftermath of their encounter, and she leaned over, turned up the volume.

“You think she wants me?”

“Did you hear what she said, about needing an adversary? Oh, yes, she needs you, Ben, needs you big time. That’s what she was saying. Killing me will, in her mind, only make you more available. You’ll be crushed after she kills me, but then she’ll pull you back out of yourself, back out into life among the living – her living. In the beginning, she’ll be your tormentor, then she’ll become your savior. In her mind, she’ll redeem both your sins and hers by claiming, and reclaiming, you.”

She listened to Delaney’s words and wanted to deny the truth she heard, but she too had been a profiler, and like Delaney had been with the FBI for years, before she moved to the NSA. She too was capable of extraordinary empathy, prone to sudden flashes of brilliant insight, but not where her own feelings were concerned – so as the girl’s words rocked her she knew they may well be true. The feeling in her gut when she saw him come out of the shower, the way his towel didn’t quite cover certain parts? She had wanted to fuck him like she had never wanted fuck anyone before, and yet she’d felt herself coming undone when she was near him, then felt the need to run from her feelings before they overwhelmed her. There had been more to tell him, instructions to relay, and now she’d have to contact him again.

She wasn’t used to making mistakes of this sort, and the idea bothered her. She finished changing clothes as she watched them talk, and by the time the van drove out onto the private jet ramp at Love Field she was ready to play her part again. The dutiful Assistant Director sent by her president to ascertain the political fallout of the attacks in Dallas.

She hated the President, and all his blatant, corrupt hypocrisies – but he had been so useful. Until now, anyway. Now she had to deal with his treachery, his slip-ups, and she was sure his usefulness was at an end.

+++++

“Duke?”

“Yeah, Ben.”

“They just made contact.”

“Who?”

“They did. Their leader, I think.”

“In person?”

“They came inside the house, five of them, all heavily armed. The station is compromised, they’re listening to everything we say. I’d assume they’re listening to us right now.”

“Interesting. Were their faces covered?”

“Not the leader, but we need to talk. Echo all right with you?”

Dickinson seemed to hesitate. “It may be a while.”

“Carol?” Ben asked, sensing trouble in The Duke’s voice.

“Yup. Can it wait ‘til morning?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Right. Gimme an hour.”

Acheson hung up the phone, turned to Genie. “Something’s not right.”

“With what? Dickinson?”

“Yup. Are you sure that was her?”

“I am. It took me a minute, but I know who she is.”

“And she must know you know.”

“Safe assumption,” Genie said.

“So you really are in danger.”

She walked over to the window, looked out into the back yard. “I don’t like this weather. It’s unsettled, the clouds are moving too fast.”

He joined her, put his arms around her and held her close. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”

“You can try. At least you can try.”

He felt a tremble pass between them, like insatiable need coming to an untimely end. “Come on. We’d better get some clothes on…”

“You don’t want to go naked?”

“Somehow I don’t think that’ll work out very well.”

“You’re no fun.”

“I know, but you still love me, don’t you?”

She turned, fell into his arms. “‘Til the end of time, Spud. ‘Til the end of time.”

+++++

It was called Flippen Park these days, but for ages it had been known as Echo Park, so-called after the little Renaissance-Romanesque gazebo in the park that produced a surreal echo effect, and the park surrounding the gazebo, though small, made for a nice place to walk, and talk, while keeping an eye out for someone listening, or watching. Ben and Genie were standing not far from the gazebo when they saw a Highland Park patrol car drive by, the officer inside staring at them as she passed, then Dickinson’s car turned on Versailles from Lomo Alto. He pulled to a stop behind Delaney’s personal car and watched the patrol car make a u-turn and drive by again.

The officer stopped her car and got out, hands on her service pistol, and walked up to Dickinson’s window.

“Good evening,” the officer said. “This is a residential neighborhood, what are you doing here?”

“I’m with Dallas, captain in CID. Badge is in my back left pocket.”

“Slowly,” she said, her hand on the holstered SIG. He took it out and handed it to her, and she flipped it open, looked at the badge and ID, then handed it back to him.

“I’m meeting them,” Dickinson said, pointing to Acheson and Delaney, and he thought he saw her smile.

“Okay,” the officer said, a little too casually. “Y’all be careful out there.”

“Yeah, you too.” He watched the patrol car leave, but it went a block up Versailles and turned off it’s lights, the girl obviously watching them, so he got out and walked across the park to Ben and Genie.

“What was that all about,” Ben asked.

“I hate to say this, but I’d guess she’s with them. So, what’s this all about?”

“The woman who came to the house,” Delaney began, “the woman Ben and I assume is this group’s leader, is Sara Rutherford. She was with the FBI, worked as a profiler in DC for fifteen years, but she moved over to NSA about ten years ago. Right before I started with the Bureau.”

Dickinson whistled. “Fuck-a-doodle-do.” He looked up at the overcast sky, and they all turned when lightning lit the sky a few miles away. “You think she knows you know?”

“Absolutely,” Delaney said.

“So that was part of the message. What was the other part?”

“This,” Ben said, holding out the envelope “and she told me if we get too close they’ll kill her.”

The Duke nodded his head, seemed to draw inward on himself. “When Carol got in this evening she seemed different. Unaffectionate, all business. Then she said pretty much the same thing to me: if we get too close she’d kill me.”

“She what?” Benn said, clearly alarmed now.

“I told her she’d better leave, and she just laughed. ‘Not a chance,’ she said. I guess the implication’s are clear enough. We’re penetrated, and compromised. So. What’s in the envelope?”

“A manifesto, of sorts. A declaration of war, I think you could say, but the gist of it is simple enough. Rights are never given, they’re earned, usually through blood sacrifice. The civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement were all shams, and women have banded together to take what is rightfully theirs. They’ve been gathering intel for years on who’s a friend, and who is the enemy. They’ll be taking out their enemies over the next few weeks.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Dickinson sighed. “I’d hate to be a Republican right about now.”

“I don’t think this is about party affiliation,” Delaney added, a hard, brittle edge in her voice. “I think this is about revenge, and retribution, and that’s going to cross party lines.”

“I think so, too,” Ben added. “There’s more than enough anger out there to turn this into a full-blown civil war, and enough military and law enforcement in their ranks to make them a more than credible force.”

“All those pedophile murders,” Dickinson said, suddenly thinking about last summer, “were just training exercises. Perfecting tactics, working out the kinks in their command and control network.”

“I think they’ve moved beyond that now,” Delaney said. “The problem is how do we…”

“Genie,” The Duke said, “there ain’t no ‘we’ in this deal at all. You’re in medical school now…”

“And they just put me in the crosshairs, too, Duke,” she shot back. “You think I’m going to wait around until someone decides to shoot me in the back of the head?”

He seemed taken aback by that – for a moment, anyway – then he nodded his head. “I hadn’t thought about it quite like that, but I think your finishing school is a higher priority.” He sighed, turned to Acheson: “Ben, I think you ought to turn in your notice, turn your back on the department, focus on your flying and getting a family started. There’s no telling how bad this is going to get, let alone who’s going to get hurt, or how bad. This isn’t the time or the place for heroics.”

The lightning was getting close now, the thunder growing louder, more insistent, and Acheson held out his right hand. “Okay, Duke,” he said. “We’ll be seeing you.” They turned and walked to Genie’s car, and The Duke walked back to his. The girl in the patrol car a block away took out a rarely used cell phone and hit a speed dial number, and reported what she’d seen.

The drone overhead had captured both the audio and video, so while her report was redundant, almost superfluous, AD Rutherford was glad to have another layer of confirmation. With Acheson now out of the way, and with Dickinson completely compromised, North Texas was no longer a concern.

Only four more cities to go, she told herself, and they’d move on the Federal Reserve, but first, she decided now, it was time to neutralize the President. All she needed was a well-placed lie – and gravity would take care of the rest.

(C)2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is a work of fiction, and no persons developed/portrayed in this story are real.

Sketches of a Night

One of those late night musings…I thought ‘what if I could write a five paragraph story?’

Well, I can’t.

At least, not quite.

So, what follows is a five part story – of sorts – but without a comfortable narrative framework, even by my miserly standards. I looked at different turning points, looked at making the various arcs more complete, but somehow arrived at the end and liked what I saw. Hope you do to.

So…a new ‘story’ – kind of version 1.0, if you know what I mean.

+++++

Sketches of a Night

I     The Cop

He left Homicide a little after midnight, turned east on 51st and headed towards the lake, for his apartment off South University. He rubbed his eyes, tried to wipe away the burn that had come with working thirty hours straight, then he yawned, pinched away a lacrimal tear as he pulled up to the red light at Cottage Grove. He yawned again, shook his head, saw something moving beyond the shadowy pools of light ahead, moving off to the right through heavy snow – “Drexel Square, at this time of night? In this weather?” – he said aloud, and he squinted, tried to see through the fat, heavy flakes now drifting on the roadway .

Then…

…he picked up the radio’s mic and switched to the main department frequency…

“4120.”

“4120, go ahead.

“4120, show me back in service at 51st and Cottage Grove, four male-blacks attacking another subject, no description at this time.”

“4120, at zero-zero-twenty-two hours. 4120, will you need back-up?”

“4120, 10-4. Could you also roll paramedics at this time?”

“4120, at zero-zero-twenty-three hours.” Several units checked en route, but none were close.

Captain of Detectives Burt Redmaine punched the accelerator and jumped the curb, drove up onto the slippery grass and chased the group down, and he put his reds and blues on as he neared the four assailants. They had a small, light complected boy pinned to the snowy turf, and one of the kids, a black kid about 18 years old, had a knife out. Redmaine bailed out of the Ford Explorer with his Sig P-220 drawn, yelled “Hands where I can see ‘em!”

The kids laughed, and one of the teens reached in his jacket; he went from focusing on four suspects to one, flinched when brightness flared, then Redmaine squeezed off a round; the Remington 45ACP SJHP hitting the armed kid center mass. The boy crumpled, fell to the snow – while the three remaining kids looked stunned, hesitated, then took off to the south. He ran up to the suspect and checked carotids for a pulse, felt nothing and scuttled across the snow to the victim, now writhing just a few feet away. He found deep cuts on the kid’s forearms and hands – classic defensive wounds – as well as a deep laceration across the boy’s gut – but he stood, his senses suddenly on full alert.

One of the other kids, the kid with the knife, was running for him, the knife in his hand cocked overhead, and Redmaine coiled into a Weaver stance, quickly aimed then shouted: “Stop, or I’m putting you down!”

The kid seemed to slow, but Redmaine saw bloodlust in the kid’s eyes, a pulsing, grim determination, the eagerness to kill, and at five yards he fired once. The heavy, slow moving bullet hit the kid in the neck, and at such close range the impact was devastating. As the boy staggered backwards under the impact, his all but severed head kept moving forward – then let go and flew through the air, landing just a few feet from the writhing kid’s body.

Pistol still up and at the ready, he turned and swept the scene, then jogged back to the Explorer’s radio. “4120, signal thirty three, repeat three-three, shots fired, two suspects down, two fleeing on foot down Bowen, for Drexel. Both male, black, approximately 18, six feet, one fifty, Suspect One wearing red sweatpants and a gold hooded sweatshirt, Suspect Two solid navy or black sweats, white stripes down the arms and legs. Victim on the scene with multiple stab wounds, expedite EMS Code 3.” He grabbed the first aid kit from the back of the Ford and ran back to the victim, checked the kid’s pulse, made a rough count of heartbeats, guessed it was over one-fifty so knew he was bleeding out. He ripped open a pouch of coagulant and dumped it on the belly wound, then dug out a surgical pad and covered the laceration, applied as much pressure as he dared.

He looked up, swept his horizon again, checked the shadows, cocked his head – but all he heard now was an avalanche of sirens headed down 51st  and in from the lake.

“Did you get ‘em?” the boy asked, his voice almost lost in the darkness.

He turned, looked down at the kid. “Howya doin’, sport?” Redmaine said, trying not to sound alarmed, then: “Yeah, I got ‘em.”

“I think they got me, too,” the boy sighed, then he just stopped breathing. Redmaine ripped open the kid’s shirt and placed his hands over the sternum and began compressions, then rescue breathing, alternating as best he could in the howling wind and driving snow. A patrol car jumped the curb a moment later, and two officers joined him by the boy’s side, helped administer CPR as a steady stream of back-up arrived. Within minutes paramedics had the kid in the box and they rolled down Cottage Grove for the ER at the University of Chicago Medicine, leaving Redmaine almost breathless as the adrenaline rush began to fade…

“Burt? Where’s all that blood coming from?”

“What? What blood?”

“Blood, on your arm? Are you bleeding, man?”

He felt light headed, fumbled with his jacket. He’d never seen, let alone felt the single round the first kid fired at him, and he pushed at the the pulpy wound now, the wet mass coming as a complete surprise to him. It was suddenly very bright out, and he felt dizzy, then he too lost consciousness and fell to the snow.

II     The Librarian

Hector Ramirez opened the door for her, as he did almost every night, and let her in as the snow swirled around their feet, then he pulled the heavy door shut and followed her up the stairs. They lived on the same floor, worked the same shift downtown so took the same bus home every night – and they had for years – yet he still didn’t know her name. And it almost didn’t matter anymore.

He only knew she was beautiful, and there were times when he – simply – lusted over her. She was, perhaps, three steps ahead of him on the stairs, yet all he was aware of was her legs. Trim yet muscular and perfectly shaped, he looked forward to these few moments on the stairs more than anything else in his day – simply because of her legs. Some nights he wanted to reach out and touch their perfect skin – and he could see himself in his mind’s eye holding them, kissing them, running his hands up their glorious nakedness.

But not tonight.

No, something was different tonight. She had always been aloof for days, but tonight something was off. Now, tonight, she was glacial, all slow-moving ice, crumbling before his eyes under the onslaught of time and slow, grinding pressure. Her movements were light, too light, yet slower than slow, and at first he thought she was giving him more time to admire her legs, but her hands, reaching for the cold metal railing, seemed unsteady, grasping, almost lost in time.

“Are you alright, Ma’am?” he said at one point, and his voice seemed to snap her out of it; she quickly finished walking up to the third floor and disappeared down the corridor to her apartment, and he watched after her for a moment, suddenly feeling anything but lust.

No, now he felt concern. Concern for her, for her wellbeing, and the realization struck him as – almost – funny. ‘Why should I?’ he said to himself. ‘She’s never said a word to me, in almost fifteen years! Why should I care about that lonely woman’s life?’

She went in the door and shut it behind her, turned on the light-switch.

Nothing happened.

She walked over to a lamp and turned it on, and it’s feeble glow tried to chase away the shadows – but failed. She walked through the living room to her bedroom door and went inside the cold, dark room, and she took off her clothes, hung her coat and dress on hangers in the closet and put her undies in the hamper, then she took her shower – all to get ready for him.

When she was clean she dried herself off, perfumed her special places then put on his favorite lingerie. She felt herself down there, felt her need, then walked down to his bedroom door.

Which was, as it always was, standing open just a few inches. The light was off, as it always was, and she just barely stuck her head in the door.

Her son was on top of the sheets tonight, and his naked body glowed in the ambient light of the falling snow coursing through the sheer drapes. Her eyes went to his waiting erection, standing strong and tall now, ready for her, waiting – and she slipped into the room, sat on the foot of the bed looking at him pretending to sleep.

Still not saying a word she moved up between his legs and she saw his eyes open, saw the smile on his face, and she moved over him, took him in her mouth. She heard the sharp intake of breath, his sudden need now completely overwhelming, and she grasped the base of his cock as she began pounding him mercilessly with her mouth. This first assault was her favorite – because he had been waiting for this moment all day and just couldn’t last.

She picked up her pace, swirling her tongue over his head, feeling the pressure build on the back of her throat, then she heard his whispered pleas and this excited her most of all. She gripped the base of his cock, dug her fingernails into his skin as she picked up her pace yet again, and she felt his orgasm run up his legs into his gut, then his sudden, overwhelming release hit her. She gagged as the pressure of his release ran down her throat and she reveled in her mastery of this need they shared. She swallowed and swallowed and still he came, filling her mouth completely until his cum ran down her chin, and then they drifted – together – through time, to their special place.

And yet, she never took him from her mouth. Instead, she simply swirled her tongue around his head, kneaded his strength with her hands, and when he was completely hard again she slid up between his legs until her nether lips were poised over his pulsing need. She lowered herself slowly now, willing this moment to last the longest, until her lips and tight, bristly hair touched his glans. She moved as slowly as she could, yet she pushed down on him, forcing her lips apart, grating his skin with her coarse pubic mat, and when she felt him stiffen – again – she smiled at her mastery of his need.

She kept this up for some time, drawing out their anticipation as long as possible…

Ramirez was walking by her apartment just then, walking down to the Super’s office, and he heard her. It was impossible not to hear her…

‘Moaning? Is she moaning?’ He almost laughed, felt like a fool as he walked by, then he got to the office and knocked on the door.

“Come on in,” he heard, so he turned the knob and went inside. “Hector? What’s wrong? The sink again?”

“Yes, Mr Carlisle. I did as you say, try the drain cleaner, just like you say, but there is brown stuff coming up now, and it smells pretty bad.”

“Is it flowing?”

“Yessir, pretty bad. The sink, she is about half full now.”

“Okay. Let’s take a look.”

They walked down to Ramirez’s apartment, but both stopped outside of her apartment, listened to the moans coming through the door.

“That’s odd,” Carlisle said. “She doesn’t usually entertain men…”

“She wasn’t right coming home. No sir, she moving pretty slow.”

“Do you think she’s ill?”

“I don’t know…could be. She was slow, real slow, coming up the stairs.”

The Super went to the door, knocked gently. “Mrs Simmons? Are you alright?”

The moaning continued, seemed to grow in intensity.

“Mrs Simmons?”

Still only moans.

“Mrs Simmons, I’m concerned for your safety, and I’m coming in now.” He turned to Ramirez. “Hector, come in with me, please, but stay behind me.”

“Si, Señor Carlisle.”

Carlisle tried the door, found it unlocked and turned the knob. He stepped inside and a frigid blast hit him in the face; he saw his breath in the dark, icy air, and he walked towards sounds coming from the small bedroom on the far side of the living room. The door was ajar, and pale blue light seeped into the hallway – and they heard laughter, faraway, the laughter of a small boy.

“Mrs Simmons?” Carlisle said as he stood outside the room. “Are you in there?”

Moans, and the boy’s laughter greeted his question, and as Carlisle opened the door he heard sirens in the distance.

She was face down on the bed, writhing in ecstasy, her hands inside her thighs as an unseen lover made love to her. The two men looked at one another, and Carlisle shrugged.

“Something ain’t right, señor. We better call, het her some help…”

III     The Physician

He walked around the living room, dusting off his memories and taking them out for a spin one more time, looking at pictures of his wife – and their life – together. He came to his favorite, of her on their wedding day thirty four years ago this month, and he looked at her green eyes, her red hair aglow like a smoldering fire among copper coated trees. He stopped and looked in those eyes and he could feel the same breathlessness he’d always felt with her. The same devotion, the same sense of timelessness, almost weightlessness that came with the inrushing love he would always feel for her.

“I think it’s time, Sara,” he said to the image. “Time for me to come home.”

He walked over to the glass wall and looked down on the city, was surprised to find it was snowing so hard and wondered why.

“Life goes on, I suspect, no matter what we expect will happen when death comes.”

He sighed, thought back on his day. The sharp, jolting pain in his groin, like a hot spasm shooting from his testicles up his spine. Taking his morning shower, feeling his left testicle – hard as a rock in the hot water, sudden icy dread shooting through his normal morning thoughts, pushing everything else from consciousness. The early morning to call to Charlotte, his internist, getting her service instead. She called a few minutes later and he explained his concerns, described what he’d felt.

“Gene, come on down as soon as you can; I’ll draw for HCG, LDH-1 and AFP, get a complete panel as well as an ultrasound.” Charlotte Atwood wasn’t simply a colleague, she was a friend, and had been since their first year together at Pritzker. Of equal importance, she and Sara had been best friends – since high school, at least. If there was one person who could see him through this transition, it was Charlotte, and he felt confident as he drove in to the Medical Center.

Then he thought of Judy, his sister. “I wonder where she is today?” he asked the emptiness. “I wonder why we lost touch?” He missed her, missed watching her watch Sara, and he smiled as he recalled talking to his wife about his sister.

“She loves you so much,” he remembered saying once – when her death wasn’t far away.

“Try to understand her, Gene. She’s all you’ll have, and she’s so alone in the world.”

“I never understood why she couldn’t move on.”

“Don’t you?”

His blood work was loaded with tumor markers, the initial ultrasound showed his both testicles completely compromised, all the cord as well, and the radiologist expressed concern for his prostate too, and scheduled him for a STAT MRI. Once the IV was established and a HOCON dye injected, he felt the tray sliding into the tube, the tech advising him to “hold your breath,” then “breathe out slowly” for the next forty five minutes. He dressed and walked up to Atwood’s office feeling absolutely terrified by all these inrushing uncertainties.

“Looks like the retroperitoneal nodes are enlarged, Gene. I’ve talked to Rohrbacher, and he’s wiped his slate, will do you tomorrow morning at seven. Check in at five thirty, nothing to eat after five this evening.”

“I know the drill.”

“I know you do, Gene, but there’s a first time for everything.”

He shook his head slightly and sighed. “I sat in this chair three years ago when you diagnosed Sara, and I was there all the way.”

“It’s not the same, Gene. It’s you…”

“I beg to differ, Charlotte. Your words hit me that morning every bit as hard as they did her.”

“That’s because you’re a total empath, Gene, not to mention the best neurosurgeon in the city.”

“No sunshine up the ass today, okay, Charlotte? You think a dissection looks likely, don’t you?”

She nodded her head. “Yup.”

“Damn.”

“I hate to be blunt, but have you been getting any lately?”

He shook his head. “Last time was with Sara.”

“Gene? Why? You can’t go on living like this…you’ve got to move on…”

“Charlotte…don’t go there. I can’t, and I won’t.”

Atwood sighed, shook her head again. “I know, Gene. I miss her too.”

His eyes watered, he looked away. “Don’t do this to me, Charlotte. Not today.”

She opened a desk drawer, took out a sample box of Viagra and tossed it on the desk.

“What the Hell is that for?” he said, looking at the box with something akin to contempt in his eyes.

“Tonight.”

“What about tonight?”

“Gene, I want you to go out and get laid tonight. Have an early dinner, then go out and get yourself well and truly laid.”

He’d laughed at her then, but he’d picked up the box and put it in his jacket pocket.

Because he knew the score. He knew that with a full retroperitoneal dissection, with all the lymph nodes systematically dissected from his gut, massive nerve damage was assured, and loss of normal sexual function was all but assured, too.

And he reminded her that he hadn’t asked a woman out on a date since 1975, the year he’d asked Sara out on their first date, “and anyway, I was never any good at the whole dating thing.”

“It doesn’t matter, Gene. Go to a bar. Hell, go online, find a goddamn escort – whatever! Just pop your cork, have some fun.”

Because, she didn’t have to say, this was going to be the last time – so make it a night to remember.

So, he’d texted Judy then gone home and packed a bag for the hospital, then rummaged around in the freezer until he dug up an old lasagna that wasn’t too far past it’s ‘expired’ date. He’d tried to watch the evening news but found he suddenly didn’t give a damn about the world, then heavy snow moved in, started falling heavily as the clock moved inexorably towards midnight.

And in that instant he recalled what it had felt like, that first time with Sara. How he’d slipped his penis in her vagina to tentatively, and how – in a blinding flash – the all-enveloping warmth of her body had completely transformed everything he knew about the soul – and what it meant to be human. He’d lasted, perhaps, thirty seconds before he ‘popped his cork’ that first time – as Atwood had called it just a few hours before – but oh, those thirty seconds! How transformative those precious moments had become to him. And to them both, he had to admit.

He looked at his watch, then at his coat – with the little box of Viagra still safely ensconced in an inner pocket – and then he went to their bedroom. He sat on her side of the bed, opened a drawer in her bedside table and pulled out the letter.

The letter he’d discovered one day when he was cleaning up her belongings after she passed. A letter from Judy, a letter professing undying love, dated a few years before she became sick. A letter describing just a few precious moments, details so intimate he’d cried. He remembered the sense of betrayal he’d felt when he found the letter, but then, ultimately, how he’d come to an understanding of his own shortcomings as a lover, and as a husband. He had been consumed with work for years, with completing his Fellowship, and the first time he read the letter he realized how much he’d neglected them both, and how much he’d missed their life together as a result.

He had put the letter back that day, put it back where he found it, and he never mentioned finding it to either of them, if only because, in no small measure, she had upheld her part of the bargain. She had been available to him, always, was ready to talk any time day or night, or to offer a shoulder, and she had remained his very best friend until the day she passed. What more, he asked, could you ask of a marriage, and from a friend.

He reread the letter, then took it to the kitchen and put it in the trash, picked up his car keys and coat and walked to the elevator; a few minutes later he was out in the snow, his Tesla Model S tracking through the slushy muck down State Street. He wandered aimlessly, turned here and there, not paying attention to much more than the traffic, and the heavily falling snow. After a while he pulled into a service station and filled the tank, went inside and got a bottle of water, and when he sat behind the wheel he fished out the Viagra and looked at the box, then rolled down the window and tossed it into a garbage can before he drove back into the night. Perhaps ten minutes later he saw a pink sign ahead, a chain store, an adult bookstore and he laughed.

“Why the fuck not?” he said as he turned into the parking lot, and he parked, walked to the door, stamping the snow off his boots as he stepped inside.

His eyes turned to saucers as he took in the mesmerizing displays around the vast room, the toys and dolls and racks upon racks of videos and magazines catering to every conceivable kink, then along the back wall he saw a neon sign: Video Arcade. “What the fuck?”

He walked to the front counter, waited until the girl working there turned to him.

“What’s in there,” he asked, pointing to the arcade. “Movies?”

The girl snorted derisively. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“What’s it cost?”

“You buy a card, load it with cash and put it in the slot. It subtracts the dollar amount based on how long you stay inside.”

“How much is enough?”

“Depends on how long you wanna cruise.”

“Cruise?”

“How long you wanna watch.”

He pulled out his wallet and gave her a fifty, and she smirked. “All on the card?”

“Sure. Why the hell not…?”

“Your money, Dad.” She handed him the card and he walked to the entrance and went inside…

…And his senses were overwhelmed with smells of tobacco, urine and, he assumed, old cum, with rancid undertones of stale disinfectant crawling up his skin. His first impulse was to run, but curiosity soon got the better of him and he walked through the maze like corridors, pausing to look at the offerings outside each ‘cabin,’ eventually settling on one that had a good mix of interesting women on it’s display. He walked inside and shut the door, then looked at the cum-splattered seat and turned around, walked back into the maze.

He came to another and went inside, sat on the relatively clean seat and was getting ready to put the card in the reader when he noticed a circular opening in the wall by his side – and moments later a genuinely huge penis – black and dripping pre-cum – poked through the opening. He grabbed the card from the reader and bolted from the cabin, clearly terrified.

Yet he walked deeper into the maze, and now he saw men lining the way, each looking at him knowingly, each man sizing up his need, then, near the back wall he saw to girls – one with his back to him, the other obliquely facing his way.

And it was the girl with her back to him that first caught his eye. Something about her hair, and the shape of her legs, seemed to scream ‘Sara!’ to him, yet he was unaware he was staring until the girl facing him looked him in the eye, then leaned close to her companion and whispered in her ear.

Then this other girl turned and looked at him, and when he saw her face he felt engulfed by waves of fire – and ice.

She looked like Sara. His Sara. Maybe not exactly, but close enough to startle him, yet it was the girl’s legs that held his mind’s eye – as if he had suddenly been gripped in a vice and the paws had clamped down on his soul. He took a deep breath and was about to turn away – when she began walking his way.

“You wanna go in a cabin together?” she asked.

He squinted a little, nodded his head. “Sure,” he said, though his voice was little more than a coarse whisper now.

“This one, in the corner,” she said, “costs a little more, but it’s bigger – there’s more room to spread out.”

“Okay.”

She led him to the door and then stepped inside, waiting for him.

He felt control of his life was turning away just then, spinning from his grasp as he looked at her standing there, then he held his breath and stepped inside. She locked the door behind him, then she turned and faced him.

“You a cop?”

He shook his head. “No. Are you?”

She snorted at that. “You look kind of nervous – ever done this before?”

He shook his head again, barely managed to whisper “No” – then she looked at him again, all the more closely this time.

“You alright?” she asked.

“No.”

“No?”

“You look,” he tried to say, but his voice caught and he tried to clear his throat. “You look like my wife.”

“And she’s home right now, isn’t she…waiting up for you?”

He looked away, looked lost as he said “She’s dead,” and she saw there was something in his eyes that looked more than lost.

“Oh, look, I’m sorry. Maybe this is too weird for you right now?”

“Everything is too weird for me right now,” he said, then he looked into her eyes. “What’s your name?”

“What would you like my name to be?”

“Sara.”

“Okay, Sara it is. What’s your name?”

“Gene. Gene Parker.”

“Well, Gene, you wanna put the card in the slot, then we can talk about what you wanna do tonight.” He put the card in the reader and the screen came alive, revealing a menu of different videos, and she asked what he was interested in watching.

“You choose, Sara.”

The screen filled with images of a girl giving an older man a blowjob, and his eyes locked on the screen, at the easy motion and the flood of memory that came for him.

“You want to do something like this, Gene”

“I think so.”

“Well, that’s gonna be twenty. Can you handle that?”

He nodded his head.

“I need it up front.”

He took his wallet from inside his jacket and opened it up, pulled a one hundred dollar bill from it and handed it to her.

Her eyes wide, she wondered what was happening, if this old man was drunk, or stoned.

He looked into her eyes again: “Would you like more?”

She shook her head. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“Sara, would you kiss me now?”

“Gene, for a hundred bucks I’ll kiss your ass up one side and down the other, and I’ll do it all night long, too.”

“Once, gently, on the lips would help right now.”

She leaned into him, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him – gently – on the lips, and when she pulled back from him she saw he was crying, so she leaned into him again and kissed his tears away, held him close.

“You sure you want to do this, Gene Parker?”

“I need to, yes. Please.”

And he felt her undoing his belt buckle, unbuttoning his trousers, pushing them down to his ankles. She was on her knees in the next instant and took him in her mouth, buried his eight inches and he felt her tickling his sack with her tongue, then he felt his knees buckling, an intense fire erupting from the small of his back and within seconds he came.

He heard a gentle snorting gasp as she took him in her mouth, and he was vaguely aware he was letting slip one of the largest orgasms in human history – but she kept at it, kept swallowing his seed as she jacked his cock with her mouth. A minute later she stood, gasping, and he saw he’d wrecked her face. There were huge, milky-long ropes of cum dangling from her lips and chin – and her eyes were watering…

“Oh my God,” he whispered, “what have I done?”

“I don’t know,” the girl whispered, trying not to laugh, “but could you do it again?”

“What?”

“Oh fuck me,” she said. “That was the most intense cum I’ve ever experienced. How long has it been?”

“Been?”

“Since you came?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Three years, maybe?”

“Three…years?” she sighed, still picking at the ropy mess hanging from her chin. “No wonder!”

“Oh, God…I’m sorry…”

“Sorry? Don’t be…it’s like, well, my job…”

“Your job?” The words struck him as beyond odd, then he looked at this girl more closely. She didn’t look like Sara, not at all. Her hair, her legs, nothing at all. He had simply objectified her to the point he couldn’t see her humanity anymore. No, she wasn’t human anymore, not in those first few moments; she had become, rather, a receptacle for his lust – and, perhaps – his hopes and dreams of all that’d been, all he was about to lose.

He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and handed it to her. “Here, you might have a go at it with this,” he said as he looked at her more closely. The bones of her wrist, the loose skin under her eyes, the yellow-gray teeth – all the classic signs. Malnourished and mineral deficient, this kid was, for all intents and purposes, starving to death. In the dead of winter. In one of the richest cities in the richest country on this planet. Hoping to give some old man a blowjob so she could eat, or more likely, buy drugs. “How old are you?” he asked.

She finished wiping away his semen and looked up at him, then she shrugged. “Old enough to know better, I guess.”

He nodded his head. “Want something to eat?”

She laughed, gently. “I think I just had a thousand calorie protein shake, mister. Know what I mean?”

“Doctor.”

“You a doc?”

He nodded his head. “I’d like to talk some more. With you. Matter of fact I need to talk to you. Badly, I guess you could say.”

She looked at him, measuring the need she saw in his eyes against the new hundred dollar bill in her pocketbook. “Yeah, okay. There’s a diner down the street.”

“Look,” he said suddenly, the words unchecked, coming out of nowhere, “I want to thank you. You have no idea how much I needed you just then.”

She chuckled again. “Oh, I think I have a pretty good idea…” she said, thinking of the surging blast of cum she’d just gagged down.

And he laughed too, and maybe this was the first time he’d really felt like laughing in…years. “I see what you mean.” He left the card in the slot and opened the door, let her out and she looked around, saw her friend was ‘engaged’ and turned to him.

“Look, you don’t have to feel guilty, don’t need to take me out.”

He looked her in the eye. “I know. Come on, let’s go.” He held out his hand, and she looked at it for a moment, shook her head then took it.

She directed him to an all-night diner down on 51st, and he had to pull off the road once when an armada of police cars thundered by, lights and sirens blaring, then he pulled into the diner’s lot and scrambled to her door, helped her out, then held her hand all the way inside the diner.

The lights were brighter here, there was no place to hide. He looked at her skin after they sat, saw the ground-in dirt behind her ears, under her nails and he didn’t need to ask. She was a shelter girl, living in shelters when there was room, hanging out in arcades like the one he’d found her in when there wasn’t. He’d read the articles, seen the news stories, and he’d thought so little of people like her at the time he’d simply forgotten about them.

‘But isn’t that always the way?’ he asked himself. ‘Human misery goes unnoticed, even when we’re surrounded by it?’ – and still he watched her, watched her hands and eyes, sorting out the clues…

“Let’s go wash up?” he asked after they ordered, while looking at the crusty remnants of his need on her face, and when they got back to the table their coffees and ice water were waiting.

He tried not to stare while she ate, but once again it was obvious she hadn’t had much to eat in a long time – but then the need to talk, to tell her about things became overwhelming.

“That was my last time,” he said – out of the blue.

“Your last time for what?”

“Sex.”

“Oh? Why?”

“I’m…I’ve got cancer, having an operation this morning. When it’s over, so is sex.”

He didn’t know what he expected, but she just looked down just a little, nodded her head slowly – then he realized this girl, of all the girls he might have met up this night, understood that life didn’t always hand you what you expected – or what you thought you deserved.

But then she looked up brightly: “Sex doesn’t always have to be about having an orgasm, you know? There are other things…”

“Yeah, I suppose so, but it’s a big change. Expectations, I guess, and all that.”

She nodded her head. “A big one. I can’t even imagine how I’d feel.”

“Yeah.”

“So, you’re alone?”

He nodded his head. “Three years now.”

“Sara? You called me Sara? She was your wife?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What did she do?”

“Pediatrician.”

“My dad was a shrink,” she said. “He was fucking a bunch of his patients, got caught and killed himself.”

He grimaced, shook his head. “Your mom?”

“She lives somewhere out on the west coast; California, I think.”

“Where do you live now?”

And when she looked away, she answered that question with her silence. “What about you?” she asked. “Where do you live?”

“Downtown. On State Street.”

“You live alone, I guess? I mean, all the time?”

“Yes. Since she passed.”

“You know, what we just did…that’s not sex, not really.”

“I know, without love…”

She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean.”

“Oh.”

“You want to go to your place?” She looked at him as he looked down at his watch…“What time do you have to be there?”

“Five-thirty, but look, you don’t have…”

“I know I don’t have to. But maybe I want…no, maybe I need to. Know what I mean?”

“Okay. How was that omelet?”

“Pretty good. You tasted better, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Really?”

She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially: “I loved the way you taste.”

It was his turn to smile, and he looked in her eyes again. “You’re lovely, you know?”

She sat back, looked at him carefully. “No, I don’t know. In fact, I think you’re the first person who’s ever said that to me.”

He looked away, looked for a way out of her dilemma. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

She shook her head. “Look, can we leave? I don’t want to waste any time right now.”

“Sure,” he said, then: “Waste time?”

“Your time. Our time.”

“Oh.”

They were driving back in on 51st Street a few minutes later; cops directed them around a big mess at Cottage Grove, and a few minutes later they pulled into his building’s garage. He got her door again and they went up to his place, and her eyes went wide when she stepped inside this other world.

“Wow…” was about all she said.

“Could I get you anything? Something to drink, maybe?”

“Could I, maybe, take a shower?”

“Yes, of course,” he said, and he led her back to their bedroom, now – suddenly – very self-conscious, very aware he’d just taken a young girl into his home, a stranger, one quite possibly looking to take advantage of the situation, but as he led her into the bathroom he looked at her again, looked at the fragility he felt under her skin, deep within her soul, and he helped her out of her skirt and top, looked at her garters and stockings and seedy hooker heels, her almost translucent white skin, and he felt that same overwhelming attraction to her he’d felt in the diner – and before, in that awful place.

“I don’t think anyone has ever looked at me the way you do,” she said.

“The way I do?”

“Men look at – women like me – like they look at any other toy they want. Something to use, then throw away when they’re done. You don’t, and I don’t get it.”

“You are so beautiful it hurts,” he said. “I just want to scoop you up and hold you tight, and the way you make me feel…well, it happened to me only once before, many years ago.”

“Was Sara the only woman you’ve been with?”

He shrugged. “One girl, in high school, but really…Sara and I were together since grade school.”

“That’s it?”

“Yup.”

“And now me? I’m big number three?”

“That’s about the size of things.”

“Jesus,” she sighed inwardly, her voice barely audible.

“Here, let me get the water,” he said as he stepped into the shower.

“That looks like a tennis court!” she giggled. “How many shower heads does that thing have?”

He shrugged.

“Take your clothes off,” she said, reaching for his belt again, and she helped him out of his clothes, then they stepped under the water together.

“Too hot?” he asked.

“Oh, God no. It feels great…”

He took a washcloth and lathered it up with hot, soapy water, then he bathed her, starting at her neck, then working his way down slowly. When he got to her belly he saw the caesarian scar and looked at it for a moment, then he put more soap on the washcloth and started down her legs. He pushed her thighs open a little so he could wash between her legs, then he turned her around and started down her back.

He noticed all the bruises then, where men had held her down, he assumed, while they pushed their need down her throat, and he came up close to her then, from behind, and he put his arms around her and kissed her neck and shoulders before he continued bathing her. There were more bruises down her back, but it was worst of all down her thighs. It looked like someone had beaten her there and he wanted to turn away, to look anywhere but where that reality took him…

But he couldn’t look away. He couldn’t look away now, and not ever again. There simply wasn’t time for that now.

“Under the water,” he said gently when he stood again, and he shampooed her hair gently for the longest time, then rinsed her hair while he massaged her temples, smiling when he felt her relax, letting her lean into his chest while he rubbed her shoulders and upper arms – then he reached for his electric toothbrush and loaded it, then turned to her.

“You’re going to brush my teeth, too?”

“I’m going to brush your teeth, too. Open up.” And he brushed them gently, indeed, she felt almost lovingly, then he said “Rinse,” and when she had he held her close again and rubbed the small of her back.

She looked up at him then, the water running off her face, and she looked at his lips, then his eyes. “What are you doing to me?” she whispered.

“Sh-h-h,” he sighed.

“I’m falling in love with you.”

“Good.” She squeezed him tightly as that word rolled off his tongue, and he felt a shudder run through her body. “Are you okay?” he asked.

She laughed a little. “I just came,” she whispered in his ear.

“You…what?”

“When you said ‘good’ – I came – just a little.”

He cupped his hand under her chin and lifted her lips to his and he kissed her, gently at first, then more passionately – and he felt the tremors again, in her knees this time – and when they passed he turned off the water, stepped out and dried himself quickly, then he took a fresh, warm towel from the rack and helped her out. He dried her slowly, carefully, massaged his warmth into her before he led her to their bed.

He laid her gently out and began kissing the tops of her feet, then her ankles and behind the knees, then inside her thighs. She parted for him and he went to her lips, gently, then he probed inward, finding her spots. Her breathing came more deeply now, her trembling more insistent, and he felt her hands on his head willing him deeper. He felt her feet on his back, then her thighs clamped his face as real orgasm took root – and he sucked her clit, ran his tongue into her as deeply as he could.

She was bucking in the next instant, her hands slamming the mattress, grasping the sheets, her head thrashing from side to side and wails of “Oh my God, oh my God!” filled the air as she lost herself completely. She filled his mouth and still he hammered her clit, still she thrashed.

“Okay…” she gasped. “Enough, or I’m going pee all over the bed!”

He let her down gently, then nibbled up her tummy to her breasts, moved slowly to her neck again – then her lips – kissing every inch of her, suddenly loving everything about his girl. He held himself up above her and looked into her eyes. “Close them,” he said. “Close you eyes.” And when she had he leaned close and gently tickled her eyelashes with his tongue, felt the trembling start again and he kissed her, deeply.

“I want you to cum inside of me now,” she said, and he felt her legs part, then felt them encircling his waist. He guided the tip to her lips and lingered there, sliding through her bristly warmth until he entered her, then he moved slowly, deeply, until she settled into his groove. He marveled at the way her body moved with his, how deeply attuned she seemed to his movement, then he leaned back a bit and took her legs and moved them to his chest, her feet by his face, and he pushed more deeply now – until he found a new rhythm – and once again she settled into the new beat. He kissed her ankles, then the tops of her feet and the effect on her was instantaneous: she trembled anew, her back arcing to meet his thrusts and the fire started in his groin just then, moved to his back, then he was coming. Kissing her feet, driving in as deeply as he could, his gut full of molten uncertainty, the pleasure in his mind the only certainty left in this new world.

“What’s wrong?” she asked suddenly, quietly, and when he came to her he saw the question in her eyes.

“It kind of hurts, in the small of my back?”

“Is that because…?”

“Yup.”

She was up and leaned into him in an instant, her arms around him, reaching for him – wanting to hold onto him – then she saw the sweat pouring from his face and she knelt with him, supporting his weight against her own.

“Oh, God no,” she whispered, “please don’t take him from me. Not again…”

He felt her, felt her need, then felt his need too. “I’m not going to leave you. Not now, not yet.”

She was kissing his chest, trying to hide her tears, and he heard her whispering over and over – “Oh my God, what have you done to me.”

And he wondered what God had done – to them both.

IV     The Nurse

She didn’t like working nights, but with flu season in full force she’d been called in to work that shift three times this week – still, Debbie Euclid knew working Oncology was tough no matter what time of day. That’s why she’d trained for this work, and it wasn’t just the physical challenge; no, the emotional effects of working this floor were the toughest in the medical world – and that’s why she’d chosen to specialize in oncological care more than twenty years ago.

She was sitting at a console that looked more like a starship’s flight-deck than a nurses station, with banks of monitors in front of her that tied her to the vital signs of twenty resting patients. She worked on notes at the top of the hour, then walked the floor, checking each patient in her wing, adjusting medications, asking questions – answering them, too – and it never failed to impress her how much people wanted to talk in the middle of the night.

She’d heard the sirens two hours ago, then the Code Blue, but this was the new normal more often than not these days. Gang activity was out of control just a few blocks from here, teenagers with Uzis and nothing better to do were killing each other left and right, and anyone who got in their way, indiscriminately, carelessly, risked death too, and the University of Chicago’s ER was often closest to the front lines in this new war. So, it hadn’t taken long for tonight’s story to make it’s way up the floors, and she’d listened, of course, as she always did, then shook her head and finished making notes while she tried to forget it all, all the ugliness, all the anger. Then she moved out onto the floor.

She moved from room to room, checking IVs for the most part, turning down the volume on TVs after people fell asleep, then she came to a new patient…

“Norma Fairchild,” Euclid read from the chart aloud. “Okay, what’s your story, Norma?” She read through the notes, making mental notes here and there: admitted yesterday afternoon, Stage IV stomach cancer, metastasis to liver and lungs. Primary oncologist wanted her on hospice care at home, but there wasn’t anyone ‘at home’ to help take care of her. There would be no heroics for Norma Fairchild, and there was nothing heroic about what was going to happen to Norma Fairchild over the next couple of days. Her fate was sealed, time both an ally – and her enemy – and now only the night loomed for this woman.

She opened the door and went in, saw the patient sitting up in bed watching television, and the woman looked at her as she came in, then turned back to the screen, apparently engrossed. Euclid walked in, saw the story still unfolding on the street, and listened to the announcer…

“Jason, the word we’re getting is that the victim, a juvenile, got out of a car and the four gang members began taunting him, apparently about being gay, about turning tricks with men cruising the alley in cars behind this Walgreen’s,” the reporter said, pointing at the store on Cottage Grove. “From there, the victim tried to run away, crossing 51st Street, running to Drexel Square with the four gang members attacking the boy with knives as he ran. And that’s when Captain Redmaine saw them, and tried to intervene.”

“Judy, the word we’re getting is that the victim is white, and the gang members are all African-American? Can you confirm that?”

“Yes, Jason, I’ve heard that from officers on the scene, and we can see two bodies from where we’re standing. They’re both black.”

“Okay, and, well, thanks to our Judy Miller on the scene with that update. As you know, Captain Redmaine succumbed to his injuries about an hour ago, and we have word that both the mayor and Superintendent Johnston will be making statements within the hour…”

Fairchild turned down the volume, looked at her nurse. “You look angry, dear. What is it?”

“Oh, nothing. How are feeling, Mrs Fairchild?”

“Pissed off.”

“What? Why?”

“All that anger. All this hate. It’s ruining this city, ruining our world.”

Euclid nodded. “It sure is.”

“My husband was with the department for thirty years. I’m not sure what he’d have to say about his city now.”

“My brother was too,” Euclid said. “He was killed three years ago.”

“On duty?”

“Yes.”

They looked at one another, each instantly sympathetic to the other’s need. “I suppose you see this all the time here.”

“Almost every night. Sometimes several times a night.”

“Too much hate,” Fairchild said, shaking her head.

“There’s no respect anymore, for anything.”

“What do you think your brother would say? Now? About tonight?”

“You know, that’s a good question. I think,” Euclid said, looking out the window, “he’d be angry that things are still the same, maybe even worse. That things haven’t changed, I guess.”

Fairchild nodded. “I taught English in Oak Park for thirty years, and I retired twenty years ago – but still go in and substitute teach. I’ve seen it in the kids, the way things have changed over the past fifty years, and you’re right. There’s no respect anymore, there’s just money and the power that money confers. Nobody wants to study, nobody wants to know the difference between right and wrong, and nobody wants to look at the world and ask why. Why do things have to be this way? Why can’t we change things? The way things are falling apart, who knows how much longer we’ll last?”

Euclid watched the woman’s vitals as she listened, then decided to cut this talk short. “Oh, you know, I reckon the squeaky wheel gets the grease…the world will just keep on turning no matter what happens, or what we want to happen. Now, could you tell me, on a scale of one to ten, where your pain is right now?”

V     The Pilot

“American 1-8-6, Chicago Approach. You’re number three to land, runway 2-8 Charlie, currently CAT III, winds light and variable, viz below minimums in heavy snow. Hold at BURKE, 12 thousand.”

“8-6 Heavy to BURKE 12 for 2-8 Charlie, acknowledge CAT III.”

“Uh, 8-6 Heavy, we have a temp localizer frequency of one-zero-eight-decimal-seven-five, not the niner-five on current published approach plates.”

“8-6 Heavy, seven five, not niner five on the localizer.”

“Nice of ‘em to tell us,” Captain Judy Parker said. “Double check the freqs, would you?”

“Got it,” her First Officer said.

“8-6 Heavy, turn right to 2-7-3, descend and maintain niner-thousand feet.”

“8-6 Heavy, right 2-7-3 to niner,” Parker replied, then to her FO: “You get the new missed approach entered?”

“Got it.”

“Double check the DMEs.”

“108.75, check.”

“8-6 Heavy, report passing LNDUH.”

“Flaps seven,” she commanded, then: “8-6 Heavy at LNDUH.”

“Okay 8-6, no further transmissions necessary, contact tower on 1-2-0-decimal-7-5 when you’re on the ground. Visibility now less than 100 feet, one foot of snow on runway. Good night.”

“8-6 Heavy, night.”

“I got the freqs,” her FO said.

“Flaps twenty.”

“Twenty, passing MEMAW at five, speed 1-7-7.”

“Flaps thirty.”

“Thirty.”

“Gear down,” she commanded. The autoland system had the 777, but she kept her hands on the yoke while she scanned the instruments on her panel, looking through the windshield just once at all in flying muck.

“Three down and green,” the FO said.

“Gimme 40. Landing lights.”

“Flaps forty. I got glow.”

“Okay…”

The flight management computer began talking now: “Two hundred, minimums. One eighty. One fifty. One ten. Eighty, sixty…retard, retard,” and she watched as the autothrottle reset, then she moved her right hand to the quadrant, and when she felt the mains hit she moved the thrust levers to reverse, put her toes on the brakes, then her left hand to the nose-gear paddle while she retracted the spoilers with her right.

“Just another day in paradise,” the FO said.

“Must be a foot of ice under this snow,” she said as she looked, then double checked the tower frequency was entered. “American 8-6 Heavy, I think we can make P-1.”

“Roger 8-6, right on Papa 1 approved, then right on Papa to Double Echo. No traffic at this time.”

“Papa double echo,” she replied. When the trip-Seven’s speed was down to ten she gently began her turn off the runway. “I can’t see shit,” she said. “Turn off those mains, leave the strobes.”

“Captain?”

“I got the perimeter lights…too much glare…”

“Mains off, strobes on.”

She made the turn onto the main east west taxi-way and peered up over the glare-screen, then back towards the left wingtip. “There must be two feet down there now. Okay, put the mains back on.”

“I can’t see the terminal.”

“We should be crossing P4 now. See anything?”

“Negative.”

“Uh, Tower, 8-6 heavy, we’re not seeing any signs out here.”

“8-6 Heavy, I have you one hundred feet from Papa-four.”

“Okay, 8-6, give us a shout when we’re coming up on Tango.”

“8-6 Heavy, you’re passing Papa-four, now 4-0-0 feet to Tango, 7-0-0 feet to Foxtrot.”

“Roger.”

“8-6, you’re passing Tango.”

“Got it. You might want to pass along to OPS they’ve got a couple of feet on the ground now.”

“8-6 Heavy, passing Foxtrot, Double Echo now 4-0-0 feet. OPS is sending out a truck to guide you in…they’ll meet you at Double Echo.”

“8-6 Heavy, okay, we’ll hold at Double Echo.”

“This is surreal,” her FO said as he looked back over his shoulder. “I can’t see the wingtip, maybe just a little green glow, and the strobes. There most be a foot of snow on the wing.”

“You ever flown into Sheremetyevo?”

“No ma’am, and this white boy don’t want to, neither.”

She laughed. “Okay, I think I got the truck.”

“8-6 Heavy, just F-Y-I, the airport is closed at this time. Y’all are the last bird down for a while.”

“8-6, thanks for sticking in there with us. Looks like depth is a meter now.”

“They just measured five feet at the threshold on nine left.”

“Daddy, I wanna go home,” she said, and she heard controllers laughing in the background.

“You got your stuff ready to go?” her FO asked.

“Yeah. Thanks, Paul,” she said as she taxied up to the gate.

“You beat feet. I’ll get it, and tell Gene that Peggy and I will be praying for him.”

“Brakes set, engine one to idle, APU confirmed on. You sure?”

“I’ve done it before. Now get out of here before they shut down the highways!”

She retracted her seat while she undid her harness, then hopped out of the left seat, pausing to kiss her FO on the cheek.

“Hey, that’s an unapproved ground maneuver!” he said, laughing, but she was already out the door and gone.

She saw the customs entrance ahead and, thankfully, a very short line. The crew lines were closed this hour of the morning, and she picked the shortest queue, then put her flight bag down on the slick tile floor and pushed it along with her foot while she pulled out her iPhone. She woke it up, found Gene’s number and hit send.

“Judy? That you?”

“Gene? Where the hell are you?”

“‘Bout halfway to the hospital, still on State.”

“Listen, I got your text this morning…can you tell me what the fuck’s going on?”

“Ah, Judy, I’ve got a friend with me right now? Susan, say hello to Judy. Judy, say hello to Susan.”

“Hello, Susan.”

“Hello, Judy.”

“Uh, Judy, I met Susan about four hours ago. I decided I loved her about about two hours ago, and I hope you’ll come to the wedding.”

“Gene?”

“Yes, Judy.”

“It’s not nice to fuck with your little sister’s head, okay, Gene? Now, what the hell’s going on?”

“Where are you?”

“Customs.”

“Well, I’m checking in at five thirty, operation isn’t scheduled ‘til seven, so you should make it in with time to spare. A cutter named Rohrbacher is doing the procedure, and Charlotte can fill you in if I miss you. Where’re you coming in from, anyway?”

“Beijing.”

“Bring any fortune cookies?”

“Gene? You’re not going to tell me what’s going on?”

“Not on the phone, kid.”

“Oh, God.”

“Not on the phone, okay, Judy?”

“Oh sweet Jesus, just tell me it’s not cancer.”

“I can’t do that, kid. Glad you could make it, though. Hope you end up loving Susan half as much as I do,” he said as he broke the connection.

“You love me?” Sara/Susan said. “You told your sister you love me? And that you met me four hours ago?”

“I did. I did, Susan, because I do.”

“I don’t believe this is happening to me.”

“It’s happening to us. Believe it.”

“I don’t believe this is happening, period.”

“It happened, as in it has happened. I full well to expect to wake up and find this was all a dream, but for now, right now, I feel like a lucky man, a very lucky man.”

“How’s the pain now?”

“To be honest, I’ve felt better.”

“You’re sweating again.”

“It’s called diaphoresis. It’s also no big deal.”

“And you’re as white as a ghost.”

“That’s a little bit bigger deal – I’m also getting light headed. Do you know how to drive?”

“Not really.”

He slowed down, opened an App on the dashboard, then started speaking. “I am having a medical emergency.”

“Okay, Dr Parker,” the Tesla’s computer said. “Can you state a preferred destination, or should I choose the nearest medical facility?” the computer said.

“University of Chicago Medicine, 5-8-4-1 South Maryland.”

“To initiate autodrive, clearly state “CONFIRM” at the next prompt. Is this a medical emergency, and do you want to initiate autodrive?”

“Confirm.”

“Thank you, Dr Parker. I’ll take it from here.”

He let go of the wheel, took his foot off the accelerator and leaned back, took a deep breath.

“I love your car, too,” Susan said as she took his right hand in hers. She kissed his fingers one by one, then held his hand to her face, watched as he closed his eyes, as he took a series of long, deep breaths. “I think I see it,” she said a few minutes later and he opened his eyes, looked around, tried to get his bearings then saw the computer was taking them right to the ER entrance. It pulled up to the ambulance entrance and a police officer came up to warn them away, then ran inside to get help.

“I think we made it,” she said.

“I think I’m signing you up for Driver’s Ed next week,” he said, trying not to laugh as another wave of fire swept through his groin.

+++++

She was mad now.

The line at the taxi queue was longer than long, and very few new taxis were coming in so she went to the attendant and told them she needed to get to the University Medical Center – in a hurry.

“Right over there,” the attendant said.

“What?”

“Right there; so far three of you are headed there, and the next taxi that comes in is going there.”

“Oh, okay…thanks.”

“Do you need a doctor?”

“No, my brother is going in for surgery in an hour or so.”

“Okay, well…here it comes.”

She turned, saw a huge yellow SUV headed for the taxi line and she stepped to the curb; a daffy looking woman and a brooding young man followed her and they all stepped inside as soon as the Suburban crunched to a stop.

“All of you going to University Medicine?” the driver said.

“Yes,” came their hurried replies.

“This snow is out of control,” the driver advised, “so it could take an hour, depending on how well the plows are keeping up,” then he turned around and looked at Parker’s captain’s uniform. “You just come in through this?”

“Yup.”

“Over the lake?”

“Yes, 28C, CAT III.”

He nodded. “I think about a foot has fallen in the last hour, haven’t seen it this bad since ’98.”

“Taxiways were drifting,” Parker said. “A couple of feet already. Getting worse, fast.”

“Excuse me,” the daffy looking woman said, “but were you on the Beijing flight?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Were you one of the flight attendants?”

“No, Ma’am,” Parker sighed – as the Suburban pulled out into the snow.

“Oh? But…”

“Lady,” the driver said, “four stripes on the sleeve means captain. This was the captain of your flight.”

“Seriously? Well, I never…”

Parker looked out into the night, at misty yellow pools cast by the sodium highway lighting, and she guessed horizontal visibility was down to less than a hundred feet – and she could see there were very deep drifts forming along the sides of the roadway. Wreckers were pulling cars from ditches, and within a mile they passed an ambulance and several fire trucks at the scene of a really fiery accident, and yet there weren’t many plows out.

“How long has it been snowing like this?” she asked the driver.

“All day, but the hard stuff started falling around midnight. Maybe two feet during the day, but it really picked up in the last hour. I heard they just closed the airport.”

“Right after we landed,” she said.

“Really?” the woman said. “Is that normal?”

“It is – when this much snow falls this fast,” Parker said. “Doesn’t really happen that often, but when it does there’s nothing else they can do.”

“Why’s that?”

“It ain’t real good, lady,” the driver said, “when airplanes slide off the runway into snow drifts.”

“Oh yes…I see…” the lady said.

“It’s also dangerous if too much snow loads up on the wing during the approach,” Parker added.

“I wanted to ask…it seemed real rough for a while, maybe five hours before we landed. Do you know what that was all about, Captain?”

Parker smiled. “Yes, Ma’am. That would have been Mount McKinley, when we crossed the Alaska Range. Always a little choppy around there.”

“Well, I nearly lost it.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” the brooding man said. He’d been silent so far, content to just look out the window, but Parker guessed he was looking – angrily – at unwelcome memories.

“Were you on the same plane with us?” daffy woman asked the brooding man.

The man ignored her for a moment, continued to look out the window, then said: “Yes.”

“Uh-oh,” the driver said. “Looks like highway patrol ahead, lanes closed.” He started punching buttons on the GPS display

Parker leaned around the driver’s headrest and peered into the snowy gloom, saw four lanes funneled into one just head, and a mass of pulsing strobes further on – and she cursed: “Well, Goddamn it to Hell,” she spat as she looked at her watch.

“What’s wrong?” the daffy woman asked.

“My brother. He’s going into surgery soon. I wanted to be there, before.”

“When’s he scheduled?” the driver asked.

“Seven, I think.”

“So, my guess is they’ll sedate him at six thirty,” he said, looking at the clock on the dash. “We’ll be there about six, six-ten.”

“With all this mess?”

“Don’t worry, Captain. I’ll get you there in time.”

She smiled, leaned forward and touched his shoulder: “Thanks.”

“Want me to call the OR? See what’s going on?”

“Could you?”

“Sure, my wife works there. What’s his name?”

“Gene Parker. He’s a neurosurgeon on-staff there.”

The driver turned slightly and looked at her. “You kidding? Doctor Gene’s your brother?”

“Yes. Why? You know him?”

The driver chuckled: “Our kid had a cyst, something called an arachnoid cyst, and Doctor Gene took it out. Mary, my wife, is a scrub nurse there, and she think’s he’s the best doc at UC.” He turned to his phone controls on the Suburban’s central display and touched a number, then began talking through a headset while he exited the highway for surface streets. Once he was off the highway he took off at breakneck speeds, heading east towards the lake.

“You say your brother is a doctor?” the daffy woman asked. “A neurosurgeon?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“My mother’s there right now, in oncology. They called me a few days ago. Told me to come if I wanted to see her again, before she…, well, you know.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “It’s a difficult time, I know.” Parker almost wanted to laugh at her understatement, but she held herself in check, tried to get hold of her own anxieties. “What were you doing in Beijing?”

“Oh, my husband works there,” the daffy woman twittered, “for a semi-conductor company. I’ve been teaching at a school there, and I do love the people so.”

“Oh? What do you teach?”

“English for the most part,” she giggled, “but piano, also.”

“Sounds interesting,” Parker said – turning away.

“It’s a very different culture,” the woman said. “A fascinating place.”

“You can say that again,” the brooding man said, overwhelming bitterness in his voice.

“You work there too,” the daffy woman said.

“State Department. I work in the embassy.”

“Oh, I see. Do you have someone in the hospital?”

“I think so.”

“You think so?”

“Yes. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I had an email from my mother’s landlord when we landed. Said the paramedics had taken her to the hospital.”

“You don’t know what’s wrong?”

He turned away from the question, turned away from memories of his mother, then he sighed. “She’s fragile, I think. She has been since my father left.”

“Are you all she has?”

He nodded in the gathering silence. “Yes.”

“It’s nice she has you then, has someone who cares.”

He wanted to vomit at the irony in the woman’s words but shook away the feeling, turned and looked out the window again. As the SUV passed amber pools of light he caught brief snippets of his own reflection in the glass, little glimpses into the eyes of a stranger.

‘Is that me in there,’ he asked when they stopped at the next traffic light.

‘But who the hell is ‘me’? Just an echo – of her?’ He stared into his reflection – and he saw her eyes waiting for him in the shadows. Her eyes, her lips, her hand – wrapped around his penis. Her mouth, coaxing, teasing, devouring him – and he wanted to run as more waves of conflicting emotion broke over his soul. Betrayal, always betrayal, yet he always felt sorry for his father at times like this. Sorry, for his father’s apathy, for the way his father turned a blind eye to them both and, in the end, left him alone – to grow up with her. Of course he’d never know all the answers, not now, just as he was sure his father never really knew what was going on when they were all together. Now he was dead and gone, and the only person he had left, his only link to that most unusable past, was his mother.

Frantic calls from her co-workers over the past few weeks had alerted him that something had finally snapped, that she was losing contact with reality. He thought of that dingy little apartment, that horrid room he’d lived in during high school, her nightly visits never far from his mind’s eye, and he felt himself tensing again and again as he swayed between needing to see her, and wanting to never see her again.

But now he wondered what had happened to her – when she’d been a kid. Who’d abused her? How long did it go on for? What secrets had she carried along the way, tried to bury – with no success? Who haunted her days, and nights, and why had she always been silent about the demons chasing her through the night? Why – and what – had happened to her?

Because, he realized, whatever happened hadn’t just happened to him. Something – no –someone must have abused her, and he’d been thinking about that all the way from Beijing. He wasn’t ‘the’ victim; no, he was just one in an long, perhaps endless, series of victims – yet even that realization hadn’t make his ambivalence for her any less searing. No, she’d had the opportunity to end the cycle, and had chosen not to. He had the opportunity now, and he would. He had chosen to never marry, to never have kids, and that was all the result of her choices, and yet he accepted his own choice was the price he’d have to pay to end this cycle of repeating Hell. Only now, the closer he got to the hospital the more acute his anxiety grew, the less sure he felt about all their choices.

‘I really don’t want to see her,’ his inner demon said. ‘Not ever again.’

“But you have to,” he whispered, almost as if he was praying. “If you don’t, you’ll lose your humanity – and her’s, too.”

He remembered the last time he’d seen her. Sitting trancelike in the shower, curled up in a fetal ball, staring into the darkness of her waking life, watching the demon-dance – her eyes focused on things now far away and long ago. This was her own secret Hell, and he had watched her choices push-in from all around, push-in until nothing was left but the demons, and then her tears came. He remembered turning off the water, trying to help her stand, only then she’d reached out, tried to grasp his pants, to take them off – and he’d let her fall, then run from that accursed place. He hadn’t seen her in over a year now…and all he saw when he thought of her were those grasping hands, clawing for their release.

‘And I hate her. I’ll always hate her,’ he said as the memory washed away on the flood.

“You can’t give in to hatred. It will consume you, blind you to everything there is about life that’s good and beautiful. It will blind you to her pain, and your need.”

Then he heard the driver talking to the pilot…

“They’re already running about a half hour behind,” the old man said, “and I let ‘em know we’re inbound. They won’t take him in before you have a chance to talk with him.”

“Thank you so much,” Parker said as she looked at her watch, now clearly relieved. They were on 51st Street now, and they turned right on Cottage Grove and she saw a couple of cops walking in the snow off to her left, and wondered what they were up to, what could be so important in an empty, snowy field, then she saw the hospital looming through the snow, behind the first tendrils of dawn – the sky all swirling snow streaked yellowy-gray. Then she saw his red Tesla parked near the ER entrance and wanted to smile – but it still hurt too much inside for all that.

Why had it all fallen apart, she wondered? They’d always been close, the three of them, together. Gene and Sara, as far back as middle school, yet a few years before Sara got sick they had drifted apart. Why? Was it inertia? Are people, even close friends, simply destined to drift apart, like stars adrift in an ever expanding – and always dying – universe? Or was our gravity too weak, she wondered, to overcome the spinning inertia of all our broken dreams.

She missed Sara, and had loved her at least as much as Gene ever had, even if differently. They’d been in the same grade, a year behind Gene, and Sara had lived just a few doors down so had always been there, had always been a part of their lives. The awkward Jewish kid, the total brain. The ugly duckling who’d blossomed into something truly rare and gorgeous, and Gene had loved her from the start.

But so too had she.

‘God, I loved her,’ she sighed, quickly wiping a sudden, secret tear from her eye. Sara had been the only girl who had ever truly understood her – even the deepest depths of her heart’s most obscure desires. Sara knew just how she felt, knew what she’d wanted, and Sara had never rejected her. They’d become friends, best friends, and once she even thought Gene understood the contours of their need – but there’d always been the wall, never once breached, keeping all their most precious secrets intact. So she’d had her other lovers over the years, but never the one that mattered most. Gene had been Sara’s one true love – and maybe that was why the tides had finally pulled them apart – but as much as she’d always loved her brother she had to admit that now, especially now, her brother was all she had left of Sara. He was the only person left in the world that she could talk to – about the one person she had ever really loved. But she knew even with him there were limits – there was that wall to maintain. Still, maybe it was time…?

Because while both of them had been so gifted, so utterly brilliant, Gene would always be the pure ‘innocent abroad’ – so he might understand her need. He was the little boy who had always accepted love without question, and who gave as freely of his own. And he always would, she knew, because that was his nature – and she thought of his words on the phone. “Four hours,” she said to herself, the name Susan rolling over and over in her mind, then: “What has he gone and done now?”

The Suburban pulled up to the main entrance, and three people paid up and danced out into the swirling snow – lost in wonder of the day ahead.

(C) 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

addendum: Colorado has broken snowfall totals for January dating back a hundred years. We’ve had about, and I say this advisedly due to difficulties measuring drifting snow, ten feet of snow in the last two weeks. Mammoth Mtn in the Sierras has had over 200 inches in the past EIGHT DAYS. Someone tell me what the Dickens is going on?

I cleared the decks this morning, early, and just went up to check levels. Two feet of new white crud in a little over two hours. At this rate we’re doomed…and Bing Crosby, I’m coming’ for you. Your ass is grass.

So, in the interim I have devised a new concept in health clubs. Join up, then come up and shovel snow for ten hours a day; we guarantee you’ll lose weight, lots of weight. Limited time only, free membership for next two months, come on up and shovel to your heart’s content, or until you have a heart attack – whichever comes first. We guarantee results! I think this concept will take off soon, so be the first on your block to sign up! So…shovel your way to the abs of your dreams! Women will crave you! You’ll be the envy of every man at your old, obsolete gym! And after I sell this fucking igloo and move to Costa Rica, you can have the franchise rights – gratis!!!

Adios, muchachos! And Happy Shoveling!