Predator VI

predator-vi

Predator VI

He winced when the truck went over bumps and around curves, he pulled the blanket up to his chin when rain started dripping through rips in the canvas covering, and as sleep was impossible he tried to peek under the canvas and look at the passing countryside. They drove north, he thought, for about an hour, then they passed an air base and he saw troops removing EU and NATO signage, and as they slowed to turn into an newly erected prison compound he saw men lined up along a wall, a firing squad taking aim – then a burst of fire and falling bodies. He looked away, saw the tails of several Antonov 124s poking up above hangers a few hundred yards away, and two charred F-16s being bulldozed out of the way, presumably to make room for more transports.

The truck stopped outside a quonset hut and men came, pulled his stretcher from the back of the truck and carried him inside the building. The first thing he noticed was the smell inside. Disinfectant, and lots of it, overwhelmed his senses, and he saw several men on beds, bags of IVs dripping into arms as he was carried to a bed. Nurses helped transfer him to a bed, and the troops left, leaving him with even more unanswered questions.

A women, dressed in khakis and with insignia on her collars, came over to his bed and picked up the clipboard the soldiers had left laying on his belly, and she read through the pages, making notes from time to time, then she leaned close and spoke.

“Your name is Acheson?” she said, her accent southern. Georgia, maybe, or the Carolinas.

“Yup.”

“They got you in Lajes?”

“Yes’m.”

She chuckled. “Let me guess. Texas?”

“Borned and raised.”

“Jenny Cullwell, late of the Savannah Cullwells,” she said, curtsying. “And a reluctant Navy doc.”

“Navy, here?”

She shook her head. “We were en route from Italy, being evacuated. Seems we waited too long. What about you?”

“Flying an American 777 from Paris to DFW when we got the order to land.”

“Wait…you’re not military?”

“Major, Air Force reserves.”

“Oh.”

“Do you know what’s happening out there?”

“Yes, I do. You sure you want to hear about it?”

He nodded his head.

“The main attack on the US was preceded by large scale cyber attacks, came right after all that bullshit, after Air Force One went down, like it had been coordinated. Nukes hit San Diego and Puget sound, Norfolk and sub bases in Maine and New London. Missile fields too, and major air force and naval bases right after, sub-launched ICBMs, we heard. From what I’ve heard, major Russian cities took a pounding, city-buster hydrogen warheads, maybe a hundred and fifty million dead in Russia and Eastern Europe. We knocked out most of their second wave of ICBMs, targeted on cities, knocked ‘em right out of the sky, so loss of life at home was less, until their bombers hit. Cities in the south, Dallas and Atlanta, weren’t hit, but cities on both coasts are gone now, and up north.”

“What about fallout?”

“It’s bad. Getting worse. There’s a lot of rain, too. Something about dust thrown up into the upper atmosphere.”

“Nuclear winter.”

“Sure, I guess that sounds right. Now, what about you?”

“They said my knee needs surgery, I think they operated on my head, but I have no idea why.”

“Penetrating blunt force trauma,” she said, pointing at his chart. “At least that’s what the doc wrote, assuming I can read this scribbling. An Air Force doc at Lajes did the surgery, so relax, you might live. If one of Ivan’s docs did it you’d be a drooling cauliflower right about now.” She turned his head, examined the wound behind his right ear, then shined a light on it. “Think we’ll start some antibiotics, margins are looking a little iffy.”

“You have antibiotics?”

“Yup, but that’s about it. No x-ray, no imaging equipment at all, and no orthos, so we’ll cut off that cast and check it out, then recast you. So, you’re a pilot?”

“Yup.”

“Fighters?”

“C-17s”

“Really? Well, ain’t that interesting.”

“Oh, why?”

“There are two of ‘em here. MATS birds, from Charleston.”

“Pilots?”

“Shot. Not sure why, but you might keep that in mind.”

“Thanks. What about my leg? Just cast it, let it heal?”

“Probably, unless it’s a tibial plateau fracture. If that’s the case you’ll have to have surgery, or you could lose that leg if you walk on it.”

“Swell.”

“Look,  I’ll just give it to you straight. You might want to skip the antibiotics, all the heroics, and just try to check out. A Russian doc told me their estimate is three months before fallout levels become totally lethal.”

“What about the southern hemisphere? Like South Africa, or the Falklands?”

“The song remains the same, Paco. You might eke out a few months more.”

“So that’s it? Do not go gently into that good night? End of the line?”

“Yup. This is actually a damn good spot, which is why Ivan moved in here so fast. They’re digging caves in the mountains, trying to get a few hundred thousand into them, some kind of Strangelove thing, but a lot of fallout coming from the Americas falls into the Atlantic so levels right here aren’t that bad – until it rains, anyway. Then we get a spike.”

“Any TV? Any news coming from home?”

She shook her head. “Not a thing. I’m guessing it’s like medieval there now.”

“I wonder what went wrong, with our air defenses, I mean.”

The guy in the bed next to his looked up and laughed. “You’re kidding, right?”

“No, not really. You a pilot?”

“Yeah, F-22s. Look, it’s simple. Our defense contractors sold us a bill of goods. Couple of hundred million bucks for an F-22 or F-35, and they were built on a simple premise. One of our fighters had to be good enough to take out ten of there’s. Right? Got that? So anyway, Ivan decides the way to take care of that is to built twenty aircraft for every one of ours. Overwhelm by sheer numbers. And it worked. Lajes and Iceland are like giant aircraft carriers, they make it possible to resupply NATO with an air bridge from the states, so Ivan knew if he took them, that was the end of any resupply effort. So he made a maximum effort, sent about 800 aircraft from here alone, and the Stennis and Teddy Roosevelt could keep about 30 in the air at any one time. They didn’t last an hour.”

Acheson looked at the man. One leg gone, his hands wrapped in gauze. Very bitter.

“It was a good plan…for fighting maybe Saddam’s air force. But stupid for a Cold War style engagement, especially when the Russians started building really good aircraft, and cheap, too. Never learned to make good subs, though. That’s what got ‘em.”

“Oh?”

“Our missiles in Montana never got off. Every silo hit in the first wave, taken right out of action. The boomers launched, of course, and that’s like 3000 warheads right on target. War was over by then, but nobody bothered to tell Ivan. He just kept on comin’ – their bombers came in and met with zero opposition. Dropped their bombs and flew to Cuba, I guess.”

“What did you do?”

“Me? I was escorting B-2s. From Italy to Germany and Poland, dropping tactical nukes on positions northeast of Berlin.”

Acheson shook his head and Cullwell put the back of her hand on his forehead. “So, what’s it gonna be? Antibiotics, or morphine?”

He laughed. “Fuck you, ma’am. I’m getting’ better and goin’ home, and if you want to join me, you better get this leg working. And pronto, if you know what I mean.”

And she laughed too. “Right, Paco. I’ll get right on it.”

“You do that.”

And she looked at him again. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Goddamn right I am. Me and Stumpy over there,” he said, pointing at the F-22 pilot with his thumb, “are going to go out and hijack us a C-17. Fly it right down Main Street, USA on our way to Alpine, Texas. Ain’t that right, Stumpy?”

“You bet, Tex. You steer that trash-hauler and I’ll work the radios. We’ll be pole dancin’ in Big Springs with the best of ‘em.”

+++++

The last time I saw Acheson, on the ramp at Lajes, he looked like a broken man. His aircraft was, for all intents and purposes, dead, and that Rutherford woman a broken vessel. She walked off into the night, leaving me and Persephone sitting there with Liz while she passed.

And what had it been?

Maybe three weeks since we’d left Puget Sound on the boat? Just a few days from San Francisco?

I looked at my best friend, Tate, lying there under the nose of the airplane, and was trying to get up and go to him when the bombs started hitting, and that’s when I saw Acheson. Flying through the air. Persephone pulled me to a ditch, and we crawled into a culvert as waves of bombs hit all around us. We crawled out an hour later and the first thing I saw was that airplane. It looked like two or three bombs had hit it dead center – the wings were askew, the cockpit pointing straight up at the moon, and I thought it looked like a moon launch, gone bad. I saw firemen loading Acheson’s body in an ambulance, and then he was gone.

And it hit me then, and hard.

How fast things can change.

How quickly things can come undone. All the things you take for granted – and bam, gone, in an instant. No time to think about it, just blink your eyes and your old life is gone. Here one minute, gone the next. Get on a plane in Paris, and presto! Five hours later we were supposed to be in Dallas. But five hours later that life was gone.

I heard that Rutherford woman say something about unintended consequences, and when I heard that I wondered what she meant. Personally, I mean. If she’d been making plans for something like this, then she’d been anticipating something like this could happen, and that got me to wondering. What kind of person does that? What kind of person sets out to destroy a world, a way of life, without thinking through the consequences for the people around them.

I’d been sitting on the plane, thinking about all that. About ideologies, and how they warp perspectives. I was talking to Liz at the time, about all those Republicans trying to kill health insurance for the poor. They knew their legislative actions would lead to tens of thousands of lives being lost, yet there they were, screaming about the rights of unborn fetuses. Or all the gays on the left, getting so ‘in your face’ about gay marriage and public displays of affection, and Trannies in bathrooms, for God’s sake. Did they really think their actions weren’t going to cause a reaction, even a violent reaction? Was that what they really wanted? ‘Cause that’s sure what they got.

And that Rutherford dame? I mean, seriously? The patriarchy had to go, a new order had to take it’s place. To me, sitting up there in that airplane, I thought she was insane, like she was trying to put a picture puzzle together – with half the pieces missing. It’s like our founding fathers got lucky once, all the right circumstances came together to make a clean break from the past, and then all these people come along – wanting to tear it all down. People on the right wanted to tear it down and build a theocracy, people on the left wanted to build a socialist utopia, and in the end it seems nobody understood just how precious and rare the United States was. It just wasn’t what They wanted, so it had to be torn down. No room for a plurality of vision, no room for compromise, just ‘Me-Me-Me.’ No room left for reason and forethought, so light that match, baby, and let’s watch it burn while we sing around the bonfire of our vanities.

The bomb’s stopped falling after dark, and Sephie and I started walking up into the hills as fast as we could. The roads weren’t bad, not steep, anyway, but they were narrow and lined with shrubs – and that was a good thing. We saw paratroopers coming down through the clouds and ducked into the undergrowth as hundreds of men landed around us, and after they’d gathered their equipment and started down the hill, running for the air base, we started walking away as quickly as we could. A few hours later we came to a town on the coast, I think on the south side of the island, and the streets were deserted, fires burning out of control everywhere we looked.

But we made it down to the harbor – and what did we see?

A marina. Full of sailboats.

Need I say more?

+++++

Acheson was laying in bed, watching a bag of vancomycin disappearing into his arm when a guard came in the hut. Cullwell was summoned, told that a high ranking member of the military was coming by for an inspection and to get the place cleaned up, ready for inspection. She nodded her head and turned back to changing the bandages on a badly burned Russian airman, and Acheson smiled at her grim determination, her stoicism.

A few minutes later there was a commotion at the door, then several Russian officers came in – and Rutherford was in their midst, hanging back from the main group. They walked through the makeshift ward to the office in the back, and she ignored Ben as she passed.

He heard shouting in the office, some asshole berating Cullwell for a perceived slight, and a few minutes later the group walked by, Rutherford still in the rear, but just before she got to the door she begged off, asked to remain for a few minutes, “to talk with a few of my countrymen,” she added.

The Russians left, and she started walking among the patients, trying to cheer the men up – but she passed Acheson’s bed once again, then walked back to Cullwell’s office and talked for a while. Acheson, however, never took his eyes off her, and he wondered what her game was now.

She came out a few minutes later, and walked straight to his bedside.

“How are you doing, Ben?”

“Fine, I think. I see you landed on your feet.”

“I may only have a couple lives left.”

“Oh, I doubt that.”

She took his hand, held it tightly. “Don’t hate me,” she whispered. “Not quite yet, anyway.”

“I don’t,” he said. “Not quite yet, anyway.”

She smiled. “Do you need anything? A new leg, perhaps?”

“That’s what the doc thinks. I guess that will have to wait until they can see me at the Mayo Clinic.”

“Oh. Well, anything else?”

“How about the code to unlock the FMC on one of those C-17s. Think you can dig that up for me?”

“Oh? Gonna make a break for it?”

“Something like that.”

“Now that sounds like an adventure.”

“Yeah, might be.”

She leaned close, her lips brushing his ear. “I want you so much it hurts,” she breathed, then, “God, how I love you.”

She pushed away from him and almost ran from the tiny building.

“What the hell was that about?” Cullwell said, standing by the foot of his bed.

Acheson shrugged his shoulders. “Not sure. Something to do with chocolate malts and cheeseburgers.”

“Is she a friend of yours?”

“I have no idea, doc. None at all.”

She looked at Acheson for a long time, wondering who the hell she was, let alone who he was, then she walked back to her office. She had a lot to do to get him ready.

+++++

Men came in at three the next morning, loaded Acheson in another truck, but he was barely aware of the world around him by that point. He was heavily sedated, finishing his last bag of vancomycin as they loaded his stretcher into a Antonov 32, and three hours later he was riding in an ambulance through Geneva to an orthopedics clinic. An hour later he was on an operating table, the surgeons regarding him fearfully. He stayed in an isolated ward post-operatively, Russian troops stationed outside his door, and a week later he returned to the Russian air base in Portugal – in the exact same An-32 – and he learned that the crew, as well as the guards, had been on detached duty all the while, free to roam Geneva while he convalesced, so they had been more than disappointed to learn he wasn’t staying a month.

His knee was stiff, but he had started light physical therapy in Geneva, and had graduated to walking with crutches by the time he flew back, and now he walked all over the air base, gaining strength every day. A Russian captain, Leo Piskov, his hands burned, and with his left leg in a cast, started walking with him, and as Piskov’s English was passable they found they enjoyed each others company. Then, after two weeks, their conversations took on an interesting new tone.

“My wife outside Vladivostok,” he mentioned that day. “Work in Navy hospital. You have married woman?”

“Not married, but yes, in Texas. I have no idea if she’s alive or not.”

“So? Call her.”

Acheson laughed. “I might, if I had a phone.”

“That is problem. So, I hear you fly 777, and C-17.”

“I was flying for American Airlines when the trouble started.”

“You go Lajes?”

“That’s right.”

“Bad luck. We makes big effort get Lajes.”

“Believe me, I know.”

“Sorry. Bad night for many people. You still fly C-17?”

“Every now and then. About once a month.”

“Ah, you reserves?”

“Yes.”

“Ever fly Afghanistan?”

“Many times.”

“My father killed Afghanistan.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Was he a pilot?”

Leo nodded. “Helicopter. Mi-24, you call HIND.”

“Ah, the gunship. Powerful aircraft.”

“Not enough. Mujahideen took him with shoulder fire weapon. Maybe Stinger is name? I don’t know, too young remember.”

They walked towards the ramp, towards one of the C-17s, and as they got close men began watching them from the control tower.

There was a keypad by the lower door, and it was locked and armed, Acheson saw. Two attempts to unlock it had been made; one more and a large explosive charge would go off in the cockpit, effectively destroying the aircraft.

“You know code?” Leo asked, and now Acheson knew why these walks had been allowed, and why he had been allowed so close to the flight line.

“No, every aircraft has a unique code, and the code is changed every month.”

“Any way get code?”

“Sure, at the operations office in Charleston. The duty officer will have it.”

“Can you call? Get code?”

“Why? So you can use the aircraft?”

“We have no need. No, I was thinking, maybe you get all Americans here, from hospital, we load and you fly them to this Charleston. Maybe you go Texas, find girl.”

Acheson turned to the Russian, looked him in the eye. Then he saw the men in the tower, looking at them with binoculars.

“We have an audience.”

“Da. Big problem. Base commander wants to kill all Americans. I think another solution. Get you home. War over. No need kill now.”

“I see.”

“No, Ben. You do not see. Big struggle over prisoners. Many want to kill, even yesterday. If I bring you phone, can you get code? You can call Texas. If you can get code, and if I can get people to airplane, can you fly to America?”

“I can try.”

“What about woman?”

“Woman?”

“Woman who love you. Rutherford?”

“What about her?”

“She need leave this place before GRU kill her. She dangerous.”

“How many people?”

“Please?”

“How many people need to leave on C-17?”

“Twenty five on stretcher. Fifteen in seat.”

“I would need to refuel. At Lajes. Is possible?”

“Difficult, but possible.”

“Are there any other pilots here? For C-17?”

“C-17 engineer, loadmaster. No C-17 pilot, but two other pilots. F-22, F/A18.”

“What about you? You want to go too?”

He looked away, then very quietly said “Da. Maybe get to wife from Alaska. No way from here now.”

“I see.”

“I hope you do. I may need your help.”

“You can get me a phone? A satellite phone?”

“I think, yes.”

“And when do you want to leave?”

“Early. Tomorrow.”

“I think I want to walk back now.”

“Okay. You think possible?”

“Yes. It is possible, but must find engineer and ground power. Airplane has been sitting too long.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Alright. Listen Leo, I feel like shit. You understand shit? I need to lie down, now.”

Leo turned to the tower and waved his hands, and men started running when Acheson fell to the ground.

+++++

Cullwell was starting an IV when he came to, and he felt feverish, but something else bothered him about the way he felt. A little nauseated, maybe?

“Any way to figure out how much radiation we’re soaking up?” he croaked.

“Nope.”

“I feel like shit.”

“No hard feelings, Ben, but you look like shit. No, make that diarrhea.”

“Gee, thanks. I think. You really know how to make a guy…”

“I know. I feel it too, so I’m assuming we’ve passed 200 rem now. Well past lethal dose.”

“So, in pilot-speak, we’re past the point of no return?”

“Yup.”

“Oh, swell.”

“Look, there were troops in here, while you were gone, and some of them looked sicker than shit. We’re a month and a little bit out from radiation release, so people close to the blasts are already gone. I’d say that we, as a whole, were not real close but close enough. We have a month, at most. People well away from detonations, say in South Africa, or at bases in Antarctica, will be reaching 100 rem now, so they may have lifetimes expressed in months, but that’s it.”

“What’s your point?”

“You want to die at home, now’s the time to go. Some air force type came with the troops, told me to get my patients ready to go on a long flight. I’m assuming that had something to do with you and your walk with that Russian?”

“Yup.”

“Will they let us leave?”

“I doubt it. The question is, even if they do, am I well enough to make an eight hour flight?”

“I doubt it, but once we’re airborne I can keep fluids running through the line…”

“What about a catheter. I don’t feel strong enough to get up every half hour to take a leak.”

“Yeah. I can do that.” She turned away, shook her head. “Ben, I’m sorry about all this. Not having the stuff on hand to take care of people better than I have…”

“What the devil are you talking about, Jennifer? You’ve been like an angel sent directly from God…everyone in this room would be dead if not for all you’ve done.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“And that’s not any fault of yours.”

“I just feel so…”

“Nope. Don’t go there, doc. Let’s get on with the business of living, okay? The rest can wait for another day.”

She nodded her head, tried to brighten up. “Yeah. Got it.”

Piskov walked in, an Iridium Sat-Phone in hand, and he came to Acheson’s bed and sat, beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead. “I think I feel as bad as you now,” he said as he handed over the phone. “The phone is about half charged, I think, but we have no charger for it, so talk quickly.” He turned to Cullwell, grinned. “Do you still have Coca-Cola here?”

She smiled. “For medicinal purposes only, but yes, we do. Ben, you want one too?”

“Sounds good. Don’t suppose you have any crushed ice?”

She laughed again, then walked back to her office. Piskov looked at Ben expectantly, then frowned. “You want privacy, I think?”

“I think, yes.”

“I go sit with doctor.”

Ben watched him walk away, then powered up the unit and dialed the duty officer’s desk at the 628th Air Wing, and someone answered on the second ring. “Duty Officer, Captain Nichols.”

“Major Acheson, calling from a Russian POW camp in Portugal.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m calling from a Russian POW camp in Portugal. I’ve been told they’re going to allow us to take a C-17 and try to get a planeload of injured back to the states tomorrow morning.”

“Name, rank and full DOD service number, please.”

Acheson recited the information.

“Stand-by one, Major.”

He looked up, saw several men on the ward staring at him.

“Acheson?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“How do you expect to fly across?”

“Refuel at Lajes, direct to Charleston after that.”

“What bird?”

“60002.”

“You won’t have the range, Major.”

“What about Bermuda?”

“Unknown.”

“No refueling assets?”

“I’m not sure. Doubtful.”

“Captain, it looks like I’m going to be able to get about 50 people out of here and home. Is there anything you guys can do to help?”

“Look, buddy, things aren’t running real smooth right now. Let me see what I can do, alright?”

“Yeah, understood. This phone has about a half charge, call it an hour or so of talk time.”

“Got it, and I have your number. I’ll call you in 12 hours.”

“Signing off.”

“Roger.”

He looked at the phone, then called his grandfather’s house in Alpine, Texas. No one picked up, and he left a brief message, about where he was and how he was trying to make it home, and maybe being there in a couple of days, then he signed off and powered down the phone.

“What’s the C-17s range?” the pilot in the bed next to his asked.

“Call it 2400.”

“It’s 3000 to from Lajes to the mid-Atlantic coast, but what about Maine? Or St Johns?”

“Around 2000, assuming there are facilities up there. A nuke hit mid-coast Maine, so…”

“Well, that would get us home.”

“Yeah. Guess so.”

“What about navigation? Without GPS, I mean?”

“Some older aircraft have inertial. I think that one out on the ramp does. Or did.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“I hear paper and pencil still works…” Acheson said, grinning.

Cullwell came out with a coke in a red plastic cup, and when she handed it to him he saw three ice cubes floating in the cup and he grinned. “Thanks, Ma’am.”

She nodded, smiled. “My secret stash.”

And he saw Piskov walk up behind Cullwell, and the Russian was smiling. “You are to leave at 0500, for Lajes. We will start moving out to the aircraft an hour before. I assume you have the code?”

Acheson smiled. “I’ll be ready.”

“I see. Well, I hope so.”

+++++

He sat up in bed when the phone chirped, a little before three, and he listened to the duty officer in South Carolina. He listened to what he had to say, how the Russians had already tried to send Medevac aircraft to Kentucky, where the latest interim government was located, but those efforts had been intercepted, the aircraft shot down. They wouldn’t be allowed into US airspace, and the man warned him to look out for anything suspicious being loaded on the aircraft, then he was gone. He shook his head, then dressed carefully, taking care not to disturb the IV shunt dangling from his arm, and then he went went outside. Piskov was out there, still grinning, waiting for him in some sort of Russian jeep; two soldiers saluted when he came out, and he saluted them as he climbed in the front seat.

“You feeling okay?” the Russian asked. “You looking kind of green.”

“I feel green.”

“Good.”

“Good?”

“That means my eyes still working.”

“Ah.”

“You have the code?”

“Of course.”

“Good. Shall we go?”

Piskov drove across to the ramp, and Acheson saw Russian ground crews huddled under the C-17’s wings – and three American airmen, hand-cuffed, under armed-guard, by the aft cargo door. There was also a large metal box sitting on the ramp by the door, with two men standing beside it.

‘So, that’s the bomb?’ Acheson said to himself as he looked at the C-17. ‘And this is the Trojan Horse.’

And then he saw Rutherford standing by a car in the shadows, watching him as they approached.

‘And I’m supposed to lead the horse inside the gate?’

© 2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com

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Predator V

predator-v

Predator V

Genie Delaney left the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School campus, driving on Harry Hines towards downtown, then north on Oak Lawn to Maple before turning onto Turtle Creek. She drove along the creek, looking at the dry winter grass along the waterway, the bare oak and pecan trees, their bare limbs hanging over the street, and she decided to drive up Preston, to look at the big pecan tree – still strung with Christmas lights – and she saw they were on now, and smiled.

Her phone chimed as she stopped at the light, and she saw a new email from Ben in her in-box, but it was a huge file so she decided to wait until she got home to open it. The light turned and she passed mansions on her right, then the country club, and she turned there, on Mockingbird Lane, and drove down to the SMU campus and turned left on Hillcrest. A few minutes later she turned onto Milton and, a block later, into the driveway at Ben’s old bungalow.

She looked at the file and decided to open it on the desktop machine in his study, so gathered her book bags and lab coat and walked to the front door, fumbling with her keys as she walked across the crunchy grass. She went through the house to his bedroom, hung her lab coat in the closet, then went to the study, fired up his Mac Pro and sat, waiting for it to load and the WiFi connection to open. She went to Mail and opened her account, then opened the email.

It was a huge video file, and she double clicked it, then waited for it to open.

She saw a darkened hotel room, with Ben sitting in a chair – and she leaned forward, looking closely at the image – then she saw a woman walk out of the bathroom, dressed provocatively in garters and stockings and heels – and little else.

She paused the file, saw this was a fifteen minute long recording and could guess what was on the rest, so the closed the file and put it in the trash – then deleted it.

They’d been expecting this, at least she had – for months. They had to compromise him, as they thought they had The Duke, and despite both their misgivings she had counseled him to let them do it. It would be safer, she reasoned, if they knew they had something on him – especially something as innocuous as this was. She looked at the time – yes, guaranteed to make her call him late at night – over there – the better to get him off-balance, and keep him that way.

She picked up her phone and opened the Cryptor app, dialed Ben’s line and waited for him to pick up.

“Hello.”

“It’s me. I got an interesting email, on your account.”

“The video?”

“Yup. Was she good, at least?”

“Not bad, but not good, either. Generic.”

She laughed. “God, how many women have you laid?”

“Laid? I don’t know. I’ve only loved a couple, though.”

“What about Rutherford? She’s dropped off the radar here, reports are she may be in Brussels.”

“That figures. The President spoke at NATO headquarters today, and he’s going to Iceland tomorrow. Something feels weird to me, Genie. Like there’s some kind of storm brewing. A big one. Different, too.”

“Like we haven’t been down this road before. Yeah. I’ve been picking up on that all day long.”

“Remember, it’s a game, a chess game, Genie. We have to try to guess their next three moves.”

“Then she’s going to try and get to you.”

“And she has to know we’re thinking that, too. So she’s already thinking of counter-moves.”

“Doesn’t matter, Ben. Just the fact she’s so compromised by her desire is enough. It’s her Achilles heel.”

“Yeah.”

“Ben? Just don’t let her be yours.”

“I hear you.”

“So, if things head south, you still want me to go…?”

“To Alpine, yes.”

“Okay. Be careful, Ben. I love you.”

“I love you, too. More than you’ll ever know.”

+++++

Acheson looked at the elapsed time on the FMC, then at their fuel state. They’d land at Lajes, in the Azores, with less than half their fuel gone, so they’d be close to the aircraft’s maximum allowable landing weight. He ran his rough mental computations through the computer once again and nodded his head, then looked at the F/A-18s off his wingtip. The pilots out there seemed focused, and he wondered what was going on “out there” – in the real world beyond this floating cocoon.

Then the closest pilot held up his hand and signaled – 1-2-1.5.

“3-8, go.”

“Back-4 here. About 160 N-M-I. When do want to start your descent?”

“‘Bout now would be good. Keep it about .83 Mach down to flight level 1-8-0, then 270 knots to 12,000. Once we have the field in sight…”

“Diamondback Lead to 3-8 Heavy.”

“Lead, 3-8, go.”

“Lajes reporting almost Cat 2 ops at this time, in heavy thunderstorms, visibility down to a half mile, wind out of the east at forty knots. You got the freqs?”

“As long as they haven’t changed them in the past month.”

“Roger. Be advised we intercepted four CONDORs east of the islands, there are some Russians trying out for an Olympic swim team down there right now, but my guess is there will be more, and soon. We have AWACs coverage now, and they’re picking up FULLBACKs over the Portuguese coast at this time. Westbound at 900.”

“Okay, so call it an hour.”

“Yeah. The Stennis and Teddy Roosevelt are now on station with a CAP over the island, so two battle groups are now mid-Atlantic. They won’t take Lajes without going nuclear.”

Acheson sighed, considered their options, then decided. “Okay, if you can stay with us to the localizer, stick around in case Ivan shows up, we’d appreciate it.”

“Back-4, out.”

Acheson flipped the radar to maximum range, saw a line of thunderstorms ahead and to the east, then he set up the descent in the computer. “Localizer set to 109.9,” he said, then he called on the radio: “Lajes approach, American 3-8 Heavy, 150 out, request permission to land, I-L-S runway 15.”

“3-8 Heavy, clear runway 15, ceiling 800, visibility 1 mile, wind 1-4-0 degrees at 38, altimeter 28.90. Be advised we are under an air raid warning at this time. Seventy, repeat 7-0 Sukhoi 34 inbound, potentially 20, 2-0 heavy transports behind this wave.”

“3-8 Heavy, got it.”

“Localizer to 109.9,” Beach confirmed.

“Beacon to 341.”

“341.”

“TAC-DME to 109X.”

“109X, got it.”

“Enter 12.5 DME and 3-5-hundred, 6.5 DME and 2000.”

“Okay, 12.5 DME to 3500, and 6.5 DME to 2000.”

“D-Back four, 3-8 Heavy, cutting power now,” he told the lead Hornet, and he eased off power, popped the speed brakes as he looked at the VOR/TAC needle and DME readout go active. “Okay, starting a gradual turn – now,” he told the Hornet as the needle started to center in the HSI. He cut power to 80 percent EGP and watched speed bleed as he increased spoilers. “Flaps 7, now,” he said as he cut power a little more.

“Flaps 7.”

He switched to NAV2 and watched the LOC flag pop in the Flight Director, then GS ARM popped in the window and he turned the Glide Slope button on the AP panel to ACTIVE and watched as the autopilot locked onto the airport’s ILS. He cut power again, dropped flaps to 15 degrees, then engaged auto-throttle. He looked up then, saw the wall of cloud ahead, then back down at the instruments.

“3-8 Heavy, if lead elements of Russian strike force break through, they’ll be here in 2-9 minutes. You are clear to land, and you’ll need to clear the runway as quickly as possible.”

“Any place in particular?”

“Air Force facilities are still at the northwest part of the field. You might want to keep as far away from there as you can.”

“Any other commercial aircraft at the terminal?”

“One KLM, one Air France. We have a BA Speedbird en route, about two hours out. There is no room at the ramp, but we’ll have stairs and buses meet you on shut down.”

“3-8 Heavy, out.”

He flew the beam, listened to the F/A 18s call out “Enemy in sight!”

“Okay. 3-8 Heavy at 12.5”

“3-8, gusts to 4-3 knots now.”

“Say heading?”

“Sorry, still about 1-4-0 degrees.”

“Okay.” He turned to Sandy. “Flaps 25, arm spoilers.”

“Got it.”

“3-8 Heavy, 6.5 out.”

“3-8, clear to land.”

“Okay. D-Back four, thanks for sticking around.”

“Got it. Seeya.” The Hornet went to burners and disappeared into the cloud.

“Flaps 33, gears down.”

“Thirty three, three down and green.”

“Okay, I got the lights.” He saw the strobes leading to the threshold and put his hands on the wheel and throttles, his feet on the pedals. “Wipers to MAX.”

“MAX.”

He followed the autopilot’s movements with his hands and feet, and as soon as the mains hit he switched off the AP, then went to reverse thrust and started to brake. He saw all the buildings were dark, the KLM A340 and Air France A330 on the ramp were as well.

“I don’t like this,” he whispered. He switched COMM 1 to 121.9, to ground control, and he called. “Ah, Lajes Ground, can you get fuel trucks and a cart out to me? I’m going to shut down over by the fire department buildings. I’d like to gas up and get the hell out of here, if you don’t mind.”

Beach and Rutherford looked at one another, then at Acheson.

“Where are you thinking of going?” Rutherford asked, her hands shaking nervously.

“Ah, 3-8 Heavy, negative, base commander advises you need to get your passengers to shelters. Buses should be there momentarily. There are two more waves of Russian strike fighters inbound, up to 120 new aircraft.”

“Yeah, tower, that’s why we want to get out of here!”

“Sorry, 3-8, commander advises we don’t have the fuel to spare right now, not for civilian OPS.”

Acheson shook his head, muttered under his breath: “Goddamn two hundred million dollar airplane is gonna get shredded, you dickwick…” then he turned to Beach. “Let’s shut her down, get everyone out of here and on the buses.”

He flipped on the intercom, switched to CABIN and spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Acheson here. We’re going to get you off this airplane now, into buses, and these will take you to air raid shelters. There is a large Russian strike force headed this way, fighter aircraft and troop transports, and the facilities here are low on fuel. So are we, for that matter, so this is the end of the line – for now. Effective a few hours ago, civil aviation in the United States was grounded, and this aircraft was ordered by headquarters to divert to the nearest open facility and land – until hostilities are over or it’s safe to resume our flight. What we do know right now is that Russian forces are in the process of moving into Europe, but that’s all we know. Assuming this aircraft survives, and that fuel is allocated, we’ll try to get you on to your destination when that becomes possible. There are four buses pulling up on the left side of the aircraft right now, and you need to get in them as quickly as possible. Again, there are Russian attack aircraft inbound, so let’s move quickly and in an orderly manner, and we may just get out of this in one piece.”

“Shut-down checklist complete,” Sandy said.

“Okay, get the door, then head down there and help people moving to the buses.”

“I’m staying with you,” Rutherford said quietly, then she turned to her two guards. “You go, just blend in as best you can. If we survive the night, then you…” But Rutherford broke down then, her dreams at an end, and she sat in the jump-seat and waved them on. “Go now,” she whispered.

Her two ninja left, followed Sandy Beach out the cockpit door, and Woodward came in, with Tate and the two girls standing just outside the door, looking in.

“Ben?” the old cop said, his voice full of concern.

“Yeah?”

++++++

But I could see it in the kid’s eyes. He was lost now, full of concern for the aircraft, for his passengers, and even that Rutherford dame. She was stuck on him, hard, like white on rice. And the thing is, he was too. Kind of odd, too, now that I think about it.

He was a good looking kid. Kind of like Clark Kent, if you know what I mean. A real straight arrow. Think Jimmy Stewart and you’re on the right track. Tall, skinny, kind of a self-deprecating “Aw, shucks, Ma’am” kind of guy. Quiet, radiating strength sitting up there in the cockpit, a man fully the sum of his parts. Cop and pilot, you know what I mean?

Then there was this Rutherford dame. Maybe five feet tall, maybe forty five, fifty years old. Serious, a hard edge in her eyes, but a soft one, too. Like a falcon. Like a falconer had just pulled the hood off her head. Her eyes were blinking, her head swiveling, and when I looked at her the only word that ran through my mind was “machine.” A human machine, calculating, using her senses to figure out what was happening around her – and then she’d look at Acheson and melt. To my eyes, it was like she had just discovered the order of the universe – and it wasn’t what she thought it was.

And Ben? He was lost in thought, a different kind of machine..

“Ben?” I remember saying, and he looked up at me, and I saw “LOST” in his eyes.

“Yeah?”

“What’s our play, man?”

“There’s enough fuel to get us to Brazil, or west Africa somewhere, but not to the US.”

“Probably better to stay here,” Rutherford said.

“Nowhere else TO go, right now, anyway” he said, his voice almost a whisper.

“Not until this is over,” Rutherford added.

And there it was. In the blink of an eye, the world had gone from normal, what was, to upside-down-insane. What it always came down to, I guess. War.

When is war going to be at an end? But when is it ever really over? Isn’t that what we are, in the end?

I remember Ben shutting down the aircraft after that, turning off batteries and the cabin going dark. He used a flashlight to get us to the stairs, and then down to the last bus, and he was just standing there, looking up at the huge Boeing – his aircraft, I remember thinking to myself just then. He alone commanded that thing, and now he was surrendering her, walking away.

And I could tell it was eating him up.

We were standing down on the ground in heavy rain when the first missile streaked by, just over our heads, and before anyone could react it detonated a few hundred yards away, just over the runway.

+++++

Acheson heard the roar and pulled Rutherford down to the ground, then covered her body with his own. Woodward, pulled down by Liz and Persephone, watched Tate as he remained standing, looking after the missile’s passage. The bus stood between them and that first detonation, and first the concussive wave lifted it up into the air and spun it around like a children’s toy – and Tate flew through the air, skidded under the Boeing’s nose gear just as waves of shrapnel cut into the aircraft. Fuel began leaking from the wing tanks, and Acheson kneeled, surveyed the scene as two more incoming missiles hit the air force complex at the opposite end of the airfield.

“Three missiles,” he said. “Three got through…” he said as he turned and looked at the Boeing, then at fuel spilling from the wing tanks…

“We’ve got to get away from here,” he said, then he saw ‘Sandy Beach,’ her torso and legs under the bus and he ran to her, Rutherford by his side, looking at the girl.

“Is she dead?”

“Yes,” he said, feeling her carotid.

“Oh my God,” he heard Rutherford whisper, and he turned his attention to the people trying to get out of the bus.

He saw people with lacerations, burned flesh, people trying to move on broken legs, cradling broken arms, or a dying loved one, then he looked at Rutherford.

“The law of unintended consequences?” he said, his voice dripping with malicious sarcasm.

She nodded, saw pools of fire reflected in his eyes, then turned and walked away.

He ran over to Woodward, helped him sit up, saw shrapnel in the dark haired girls chest and legs, foaming blood oozing from her mouth and a gaping chest wound, and then Woodward was leaning over the girl, crying. “Liz?” the old cop sighed, “Liz, talk to me,” and Acheson watched as the girl sighed once, then slipped away.

Acheson turned, looked at the man on the ground by the nose gear and ran over, saw Woodward’s friend from Seattle, but he stopped as he got close. The lifeless body was scorched black, rippled with shrapnel, then he saw damage to the aircraft up-close: the shredded tires, engine cowlings punctured, oil and hydraulic fluid running onto the tarmac – and he knew the Boeing was mortally wounded, would never fly without serious reconstruction.

He turned and was walking back to Woodward and the other girl – when he flinched, then felt the super-sonic boom of aircraft passing through the clouds overhead, then bombs started falling like rain, slamming into the hillside on the far side of the airfield. He watched as more fell – landing closer – then he was aware of flying through the air – just before everything grew dark and quiet.

+++++

He woke up.

Tried to sit up, but couldn’t.

He tried to lift his hands to his face, but couldn’t.

He closed his eyes and felt himself drifting off.

+++++

He opened his eyes. Turned his head.

Gray. Nothing but gray. And steel? Steel walls?

A woman walked by. A nurse, and he tried to speak but everything he said was muffled, garbled, his words like hollow echoes coming from the middle of his skull. The nurse turned and spoke to him, and he saw her lips move, saw her eyes on him, but he couldn’t hear a thing she said.

“I can’t hear you,” he tried to say, but he felt the words more than heard them, and incompletely, at that – like every sound was coming from behind walls of hissing static, with an occasional high-pitched whine thrown in for good measure – then he saw her smile, then turn away.

He tried to think, imagine where he was, then he gave up and put his head down on the pillow. He felt himself drifting…then…

Someone lifted an eyelid, shined a light in his eye and he tried to turn away but strong hands held him fast. He blinked when whoever it was finished, then he felt a sting in his upper arm. He was rolling down a narrow corridor a moment later, then in a small room with bright lights overhead. A busy, worn out man leaned over and peered in his eyes, then he felt himself drifting away again.

+++++

He heard someone calling his name, pinching an earlobe and calling his name.

He opened his eyes, saw a woman eyes peering over a surgical mask. Brown eyes, warm and soothing…

“Captain Acheson? You can hear me?”

Not American, but not quite Russian, either.

“Yup.”

“Good. You know where you is, are?”

“No.”

“You know what day it is?”

“No, I don’t.”

“How about time? Know what time it are…uh, is?”

“No, no, nothing. Look, can you tell me where I am, what day it is? I’d kind of like to know, you know?”

She nodded her head, wrote on her clipboard. “You on NATO ship, hospital ship. Uh, you found three weeks ago, after attack on Lajes. Surgery one week ago, you out since.”

“Where are we, I mean…like at sea, or anchored somewhere?”

“Oh, yes, to Lisbon maybe, or Gibraltar.”

“War? Still war?”

“Oh, no, war over. Seven cities destroyed, then stop.”

“Cities? Which ones?”

She looked away, shook her head. “New York and Washington in America. Boston too, I think, someplace like that. Moscow and St Petersburg in Russia, some submarine base, too. Maybe Hamburg, in Germany, and a navy base in southern France. There are stories about Korea and China in the news, nobody knows much yet. So, you are pilot captain?”

“Yes. American Airlines, and a major in the US Air Force.”

“Oh? This I did not know. You feel pain now?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Where? Can you point where?”

He tried to move his right arm, but it felt stiff, weak, and he said “The side of my head, behind my right ear.”

“You have ringing in ears?”

“A little, yes.”

“No other pain?”

“My leg is, it feels strange. It hurts, then it goes away.”

“Break near knee. Bad fracture. Will need surgery. In cast now.”

“There were people with me. Last names Woodward, Rutherford. Any way to check on these people?”

“I try. You rest now,” she said, slipping a syringe into his IV. “We be in land tomorrow, then maybe you knows more.”

+++++

He felt himself moving and opened his eyes, saw men ahead and behind him, and he realized he was on a stretcher, moving through the corridors of a ship. He saw warnings – in Cyrillic –painted on the walls, then he looked at the uniforms the men wore, but he didn’t recognize them. They came to the main deck and he was in sunlight, being carried down a long, sloping ramp, and he looked up at the ship, saw a Russian ensign flying and he lay back, looked up at the sky and realized he’d told that nurse he was in the Air Force.

There were men at the bottom of the ramp, men in suits, and when his stretcher reached the men they looked at his chart, and one of them came over to him.

“Major Acheson?” the man said.

“Captain. American Airlines.”

“Yes, Major Benjamin Acheson, United States Air Force Reserves. C-17 pilot. We have your file now.”

“So. I’m a prisoner of war, I take it?”

“If there was a war, yes, you would be. But now you are just an enemy of the people, of the Soviet Union. You will be dealt with accordingly.”

“I see.” He heard a voice, a familiar voice, and he turned, saw Rutherford with a Russian colonel, laughing gayly now, her arm slipped inside his, and as he watched her disappear inside a black Mercedes sedan, he looked up at the sky – at a passing cloud. “The law of unanticipated consequences,” he said, laughing a little.

“What was that, Major?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking. How funny life is, sometimes.”

“Da. Funny. My family lived in St Petersburg. I am sure you think that funny, too.”

And he did, in a way. He thought of Genie and The Duke, and of a butterfly sneezing somewhere on the far side of the world, and he smiled as they put his stretcher into the back of a dark green lorry.

And he smiled when he thought of all the butterflies out there, just waiting to sneeze.

© 2017 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is part 5 of 7, by the by.

Predator IV

The continuing saga of Woodie, Ben, and The Duke. A short, short story, maybe 12 pages. Chapter V is almost finished, too. No proofreading this time out, so buckle up and prepare to laugh.

predator-iv

Predator IV

She was looking into his eyes – and he could see fear lurking in the shadows of her mind, then he watched as the medic came up from behind and slipped the syringe into her deltoid muscle. Her eyes fluttered moments later and she fell into his lap; by then Tate and Woodward were back in the room, looking at her, then at the ninja’s on the floor – their remains splattered all over the room.

Woodward came over to Acheson, put a finger on Rutherford’s carotid as he bent over her. “We got that co-pilot at the airport; her name isn’t Beecham, by the way. Her ID is in the FAA database, but the image doesn’t match what’s on file. First run of fingerprints comes up dry too.”

“She’s polished on 777 procedures,” Ben said, “so work through foreign pilot registries, look for women with the appropriate type ratings.” Acheson ran his hands through Rutherford’s hair, and he wondered why he felt such a strong attraction to this woman…then, “where did you pick her up?”

“International departures,” Tate said, walking into the room.

“Surprise, surprise,” Acheson added, then he looked at this new man: “Do I know you?”

“He’s my partner,” Woodward said. “Richard Tate, retired from CID, Seattle PD; he’s working under a private ticket now. Dick, this is Ben Acheson.”

“Anders told me about you,” he said, shaking Acheson’s hand. “Good work on that stuff last summer.” Tate looked at the woman on Ben’s lap and grinned. “Is it just me, or does it look like that dame’s giving you a blowjob?”

Acheson looked at Tate, then Rutherford. He shook his head, tried to hide from his feelings again. “Can we get her off now?” Ben said.

“Poor choice of words, Amigo,” Woodward said, and everyone laughed. Everyone, that is, but Acheson.

+++++

Acheson rode in a caravan to de Gaulle with Tate and Woodward and several FBI agents; they walked into Terminal 2E and were instantly overwhelmed by a sudden, massive increase in security. The group passed a bank of television monitors tuned to news outlets from around the world, and images of a wide debris field, floating in the sea off Iceland’s west coast, filled the screens one minute, then switched to images of the US Capitol Building the next. Flames and black smoke were pouring out of shattered windows, then the camera shook, the cameraman trying his best to keep his footing as he wheeled around, trying to frame the source of the explosion in his viewfinder. A huge fireball was rising from the White House, and another, across the Potomac – over the Pentagon…

And Acheson stopped, stared as an image of the new President of France filled the screen. The woman was giving a fiery speech, had just declared a new order was beginning when she turned and screamed as troops stormed the studio. She turned, tried to run and was gunned down, several cameras capturing her horrendous death on live feeds.

“What the hell is going on?” Acheson said as the screen switched to surveillance feeds coming from a subway platform. A large explosion could be seen lighting up a distant subway tunnel, then flames filled the platform. Another feed flickered to life, smoke pouring out of subway entries all around the Kremlin filled the screens, then as quickly changed to images from Beijing and Tokyo, then Aukland and Sydney – the images always the same. Political landmarks, and politicians, exploding or being gunned down. Globally. In real time.

“There’s no way any one network could have these feeds,” Acheson said. “Someone’s taken control of television networks, globally. They know where the next strike is, and are tying into the feeds…”

One of the FBI agent’s phones started chirping, and several of the men took out phones and began reading out the text message. “The Vice-President is dead,” one said. “Major blasts at the Capital Building, the Pentagon, FBI Headquarters, the Supreme Court Building…”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Acheson said, pointing at the live feeds. Airport control towers around the world were next on the list. Video feeds from Los Angeles to Lagos began showing the exact same thing: large detonations toppling control towers, streaming live on-screen…then the fact registered…

“Oh, fuck!” Acheson said. “Everybody! Get down…!”

A concussive series of explosions rippled through the terminal; he heard glass breaking and then screams filled the air, walls falling in every direction – then Acheson felt himself flying through the air, thudding off a far wall, coming to rest on a pile of steel beams and shattered glass.

“Got to out of here…” Acheson said as he climbed to his feet. He ran to the dispatch office, tried to open the door – but there was no power – and the electric security lock had tripped – then gone offline. He banged on the door with his fist, heard someone trying to open the door from inside. It opened and a dispatcher stood there, her scalp bleeding, blood coming from her ears, then she fell back and landed on the floor, gasping for breath.

Acheson went to her, helped her into a chair, then went to the dispatch board and looked at gate assignments and fueling status; he grabbed the crew’s clipboard and memory cards for the flight to DFW, then made his way through the terminal to his gate. The ramp chief was talking to gate agents, and they turned to Acheson as he walked up.

“What’s the status of the aircraft?” he said to the ramp chief.

“Fueled, ready to go, but no bags yet.”

“Fuck the baggage. Get everyone onboard, now.”

He pushed through the crowded departure lounge, walked down the Jetway, heard people running up from behind and turned, saw Woodward and Tate, and two girls running beside Woodward, holding him up.

“Get on, now,” he yelled, then he ran past the flight attendants gathered by the main door, ran straight for the cockpit. He slammed the door shut, engaged the locks then turned around.

He saw Sandy Beecham, or whoever the hell she was, sitting in the FOs seat – turning to look at him, and two ninjas standing behind her seat, little Sig pistols pointed at his gut. He heard moaning, looked down and saw Rutherford on the floor behind his seat, blood coming from a scalp wound, debris all over her clothes.

“Did you just get here?” he asked Beecham.

“Yes.”

“Anyone done a walk-around?”

She shook her head.

“Go!” he commanded. “We’ve got a full fuel load out, and no squawks on the cheat sheet, but check the holds are locked and crossed.”

She looked at him, not sure what to do.

“Look, either you do it, or I do. This way one of  your girls can keep an eye on me. Got it?”

“Yes, Captain,” ‘Beecham’ said. As she left the flight deck he turned to the ninja: “There’s a First Aid kit in there. Get it, please.” One of the girls holstered her weapon and opened the closet, handed the kit to him and he opened it, took out some gauze pads and a little bottle of saline. “Give me a hand, would you? Pour the saline in her hair,” he said as he picked little bits of glass from her scalp with tweezers. “Good, now take a fresh gauze pad and tamp it dry.” He taped a fresh gauze over the wound, then took out a penlight and shined it in her eyes, saw little pinpoint pupils, but they were equally reactive.

“Help me sit her up, then go out and get some water, a couple of bottles at least.”

One of the girls bent to help him lift her, then left for the galley – just as Beecham came back in.

“I think she’s okay,” he said to her. “Are they ready for us to start two?”

“Da…I mean, yes.”

“Okay, Comrade. Let’s get to work on the checklist, shall we?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“So, tell me…how’d you get roped into this little caper?”

“Excuse me?”

“They chose you, how?”

“I am captain rated on this model. Apparently they could not recruit any US pilots.”

“Oh. So not simply because you’re a world class fuck?”

“I did not know this would be asked of me.”

“Odd.”

“Why odd?”

“Seemed like you enjoyed yourself, I guess.”

She looked at the ninja, then looked ahead. “I did,” she whispered, “very much, yes.”

“Well, just so you know where we stand, I enjoyed you, too. Very much, yes.”

She looked at him and smiled. “Ready for push-back?” she said as she climbed in her seat.

He put on his headset as he climbed in, then he called for the ramp chief.

“Oui?”

“We’re about ready to go up here.”

“Oui, capitain, but we have no authority from ground control.”

“I really don’t care, chief. Push us back and get us away from this building, and I mean right now. There are fires in there, and they’re spreading!”

There were, he knew, multiple ground control towers at de Gaulle, and the first two he called were offline, but he heard one after he dialed in 121.675.

“de Gaulle ground, Swiss 332, we are VFR OPS only at this time, and all airway routing is down.”

“Ah, 332, roger. You advise a straight in approach for runway 27 left is approved?”

“de Gaulle ground, Swiss 332, that’s affirmative.”

Acheson keyed the mic. “de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy at 2E-1-0, ready for push-back.”

“de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy, standby one.”

“3-8, standing by.”

“de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy, clear to push back.”

Acheson switched to the ramp intercom. “Chief? We’ve got the go from ground.”

“Roger. I picked it up too. We’re ready down here.”

“Thanks, chief. Ready when you are.”

Acheson watched the terminal fall away, then looked at Beecham when the 777 stopped. “Start two.”

“Starting two.”

“American 3-8 Heavy, de Gaulle ground, we’re ready for read back.”

“de Gaulle ground, American 3-8 Heavy, taxi R-Robert to Whiskey-one-one. You will be number two for departure on runway 2-6-right. Wind is calm, altimeter 2-9-9-2. This will be a VFR only departure, and departure control is offline. London is offline, but Shannon is currently on the air. New York and Dulles are off the air, but La Guardia is still on the air. Denver and Dallas Fort Worth are on the air, but Houston Intercontinental and Hobby are off the air. ATL, FLL and MIA are reporting limited VFR OPS. KDFW reporting thunderstorms, ceiling 2500, winds out of the southwest at 2-0 knots. ILS OPS currently restricted.”

Ground, 3-8 Heavy, Robert to Whiskey 1-1, number 2 for 26 right, two niner niner two. VFR to DFW.”

“3-8 Heavy, be advised we have no radar, no ATC at this time. Rennes, Brest and Plymouth are attempting to coordinate. Contact Rennes approach on 122.25, and you are clear to taxi.”

“So,” Acheson said as they began rolling, “where are we going? I mean, really going?”

“To DFW?” Beecham said, shrugging.

“Flaps seven,” he said. “So no grand plan now?”

“Seven, check. No, Captain.”

An Emirates A380 was ahead of them, just turning onto the active runway, and Acheson could see landing lights in the distance, yet “the tower” – such as it was – hadn’t mentioned any incoming traffic.

“Uh, 3-8 Heavy, de Gaulle, we see several aircraft lining up for all runways. Do you know who they are?”

“3-8, you are cleared for immediate take off. We are getting word these could be Russian troop transports. Berlin just reported dozens of Russian transports landing, then went off the air. Air Force units now report Russian incursions, air combat near Liege.”

“Okay, 3-8 Heavy, we’re rolling.”

‘Good luck! Bon chance!”

Not quite at the end of the taxiway, Acheson guessed the first transport was two miles out, then he started his turn. “Damn…wish we were in a C-17 today…”

“Captain, you are going a little fast for this turn, are you not?”

“Fuck it.”

“What about the 380s wake turbulence?”

“Fuck it.”

“This could be interesting, Da?”

“Da, Comrade,” he said as he pulled out on the runway and applied full take off power – and he watched as four Sukhoi-35s streaked low over the airfield – on their way to the city. “Oh, this just isn’t funny. Not one little fucking bit…” he whispered.

“80 knots,” Beecham called out. “V-one – and rotate!”

He barely pulled back on the stick, and when the radar altimeter read 150 feet he called for “Gear up!”

“What are you doing?” Beecham cried.

“Staying down in the trees until we’re away from those goddamn fighters.” He looked at the city off the left wingtip, saw explosions in the distance, then dark smoke trails rising into the sky. “This can’t be happening…”

“Da, it can be. Russian leadership is opportunistic. They seek weakness, they exploit weakness. US politically neutralized, Germans and French now too. Russian Army will move into Eastern Europe and Baltics in one move, into Iraq and Saudi Arabia in other.”

“So, you’re Russian? Aren’t you happy now?”

“No, not Russian. Ukraine.”

“Ah, so not happy.”

“No, now we have new Soviet monster.”

“The bear slips out of his cage again, I guess?”

“Da – Power lines!”

Acheson pulled up sharply on the yoke, and the 777 vaulted into a steep climb – just clearing a set of high-tension power lines hanging over the Seine. “Okay, enough of this. Clean the wing, configure for a maximum speed climb, then look up the numbers for Shannon.”

“Shannon? Why?”

“Because,” they heard Rutherford say, “he’s the captain, and he knows what he’s doing.”

He turned around and saw the woman looking at him, then he reached around and took her hand, felt her kiss his fingers. “You feeling groggy?”

“A little, but what’s going on down there?”

“It looks like our Russians friends are getting adventurous again. They’re taking European capitols right now.”

“Damn,” Rutherford said.

“You were not expecting this, I take it?”

“It is not completely unexpected, but it means the entire North American command and control network remains compromised.”

“Well, you did infiltrate it? You did try to compromise it? What were you expecting?”

“A quicker transfer of power. Consolidation of our assets in Washington and Omaha.”

“Do you honestly expect members of the military to fall in line with you?”

“Yes, when they see the current order collapse, and sudden threats emerge to our control of the larger world order.”

A light on the overhead panel started blinking, then chiming.

“What’s that?” Rutherford said, looking at the light.

“SELCAL. Company broadcast.” He flipped the light, selected the main cabin speaker.

“Repeat. EWO-EWO-EWO. Emergency War Order case Baker. Repeat. EWO-EWO-EWO. Emergency War Order case Baker…” He flipped off the channel, shook his head. “Goddamnit all to hell…” he sighed.

“Ben?” Rutherford said, her voice now unsettled. “What is it?”

“Oh, in plain English it means the Civil Defense network has been activated, that nuclear hostilities are considered imminent, and all airborne aircraft are free-agents now. We’re to get our aircraft and passengers out of harm’s way, any way and any where we can.”

“That means the…”

“This order, Baker, is supposed to go out when missiles are being fueled in their silos, when launch is imminent.” He looked at Beecham, then shook his head. “What’s your name, anyway?”

She turned, startled, and looked at him. “I – don’t…”

“You don’t remember your name?”

“No, of course I do, but I think I like this Sandy Beach name.”

“Sandy Beach. Yeah, I get it. Well, okay Miss Sandy Beach, get the numbers for Bermuda into the FMC, and a heading as soon as you can.” He settled on 270 degrees, looked over the panel, saw the Scilly Isles ahead and to the right, then checked their current altitude. He changed frequencies, listened to eastbound commercial traffic trying to check in with London…

“Delta 003, is anyone on this frequency?”

“American 3-8 Heavy, go ahead Delta.”

“Geez, all our COMMS are dark. What’s going on?”

“Russian transports moving into European capitols right now. We have an EWO broadcast. Did you get that yet?”

“Negative.”

“I’d get down on the ground as fast as you can. There are Russian fighters over Paris.”

“What about London?”

“Been off the air for an hour or so. Shannon is supposed to be on the air.”

“Uh, Speedbird-2 here, did you advise London is off the air?”

“Affirmative 2, advised by controllers on the ground at LFPG.”

“Well, Delta, Dublin is a better facility for heavies. Ah, 3-8 Heavy, where are you off too?”

“Over the channel now, heading for Bermuda.”

“I say, I wish we had enough fuel for that.”

Acheson heard knocking on the cockpit door and flipped on the closed circuit camera, saw Woodward standing out there, with two of the flight attendants. He unlocked the door, then turned to one of the ninja. “Let them in,” he commanded.

The girl looked at him, then at Rutherford.

“He’s the captain. Follow his orders.”

Woodward walked in, saw the ninja, then Rutherford, and he sighed. “Ah. Things have changed again, I see.”

“Captain?” one of the flight attendants said. “What should we do back there? People are getting restless, getting phone calls from home. There’s a lot of confusion…”

“What’s the food situation?”

“We have enough.”

“How many passengers did we end up with? The manifest says 220…”

“We’re full up front and in Business Class, but coach is almost empty. Maybe 150.”

“That figures. Well, get meals out fast, free booze for everyone. Tell them I’ll have an update in a half hour.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Woodward? We’re headed for Bermuda, that’s about all I can tell you right now. We’ll get on the ground as fast as we can, then…”

“Why? Why aren’t we going to the States?”

“Again, I’ll tell you more in a half hour. Things aren’t real clear right now.”

“Speedbird-2, 3-8 Heavy, are you still on the air?”

“3-8, go ahead.”

“Reports coming into Dublin advise Russian forces have moved into Norway and Finland, and that an American carrier battle group has been attacked in the GIUK gap. There is apparently a large air engagement taking place off the Yorkshire coast, NATO forces trying to stop a Russian air strike on petroleum facilities near Rotterdam.”

“So, you’re saying it’s World War Three? Right?”

“It rather looks that way. We’re tucking into Shannon, try to refuel, then head your way.”

“Okay. We’ll stay on this frequency, our ETA is about four hours.”

“Right-o. See you there.”

“Did he mean – war has broken out?” Woodward asked.

“It’s the law of unintended consequence,” Rutherford said. “Do one thing, expect one set of consequences, then another materializes, upsetting all prior calculations. Our movement critically weakened the West, to the Russian mind, anyway, and this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for, patiently, since 1945.”

“So,” Woodward asked, “what happens next?”

“The war either remains conventional, and protracted, or it ends quickly, via nuclear exchange.” Rutherford added. “Our military will be assuming command absent civilian leadership. They’ll be least likely to resort to nuclear war, until they see a direct threat to the homeland or NATO, then they’ll strike out, fast and hard. If a carrier group has been attacked while rushing to reinforce Norway, submarines will be getting their firing orders soon.”

“Fallout patterns,” Acheson whispered.

“Da,” ‘Sandy Beach’ added. “We must go south.”

“South?” Woodward asked.

Rutherford stood. “Could someone get me some water, please?” One of the ninja left for the galley, and Rutherford came up behind Acheson, put her hands on his shoulders. “Bermuda can house thousands, but it hasn’t the agricultural base to support such a massive influx of permanent residents. Nor do any of the Caribbean islands, except perhaps Puerto Rico, or the Dominican…”

“Too close to fallout,” Sandy said. “If war breaks out, we must get as far south as possible.”

“I can’t handle this,” Woodward said, leaving the flight deck, mumbling as he went.

“Many people will react like this,” Rutherford said as she watched Woodward leave. “Many will want to go home, regardless, others may simply lose the will to live. You need to be mindful of this, Captain.”

Acheson was more mindful of something else he heard in her voice. She had just surrendered to him, in effect submitted to his authority. She had told her girls to obey not her commands, but his. She was depressed, perhaps from the tranquilizer, but she was compromised emotionally, and he needed her strength right now.

“Your airplane,” he said to Sandy, then he motored back in his seat while he undid his harness. “Come with me,” he said to Rutherford, and he took her by the hand, led her aft to the toilets by the forward galley. He pushed her inside, felt her flaccid response, then turned her face to his –

And he slapped her, hard.

He saw the sudden fury in her eyes, the trembling lips of uncertainty, then he bent to her and kissed her with all the passion he could muster. She responded instantly, and as passionately, digging her fingernails into his back.

“You know me so well,” she whispered in his ear. “It’s like we were born to love one another. I feel it in my bones.”

He held her close, then he felt her fumbling with his belt, pushing his trousers down. He knew where this was going, felt himself falling over the edge of the abyss, then he was entering her, helping her legs encircle his waist. Her mouth open beside his, he heard her breath mingle with his own, felt all his fear turn to inverted lust, then he put his mouth on hers, driving into her, fear to lust, lust to need, then an infinite release.

“I need you,” he heard himself say, a coarse whisper at first, and he felt her shuddering orgasm as he added “I want you.”

“I am yours, forever,” she sighed, her legs pushing him deeper as they came down.

“And I need your strength, so don’t leave me again,” he said as he kissed her a few minutes later.

“You need to call Genie,” she said. “Warn her, get her headed south,” then she went to her knees and began cleaning him with her mouth, taking him in, swirling his need with hers, and a minute later his knees began to buckle, his back arched – and he felt himself coming undone in her mouth, and he held her head while she cleaned him again, then his hands went out to the walls, holding himself up against all the contradictions he felt flowing through his veins on the way – into her.

+++++

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out some things, and when I looked at that Acheson kid I could see it all over his face. Mid-30s, in command of an airliner, re-captured by the very same women we thought we’d captured just a few hours before. That Russian girl up there? How did they do it? I told Tate as soon as I got back to my seat, then Liz and Persephone were leaning close, listening to every word that came out of my mouth – like it was the last thing they were ever going to hear.

Then Acheson comes out of the cockpit with that Rutherford woman, his face set in stone, like anger, only worse, then that bitch. Like she’s in heat. Lips puffed up, breathing deep, then he’s in that bathroom and then the walls start shaking. Like the fucking starting gate at the Kentucky Derby. Then he walks out of there a minute later and the front of his slacks look like Monica Lewinsky’s little blue dress. Then she crawls out of there, cum running down her legs and looking like she’d gone ten rounds with Ali. I swear, I’d do anything to be thirty years old again.

Then Tate’s looking at me – like ‘what the fuck?’ – as in: what’s going on up there?

Then Liz leans over, tells us to be cool, some kind of dominance game was going down, that Acheson was taking control of Rutherford, and it hit me then. We’re like dogs and cats, the birds and the bees. We’re nothing but hormonal drives and dominance dances, not a helluva lot different than Frigate Birds on Midway Island, or gorillas in an African mist.

Anyway, Liz starts looking at me all goo-goo eyed and hands me a Viagra, and I’m like, ‘Really? World War Three is breaking out, and you want to get laid?’

Then I’m thinking about it. Yeah, you know, if the human race wants to go out with a bang, well then, what the fuck. Why not get a woody and duck into the head, join the Mile High Club? Then Sephie is looking at me, her lips all puffed up and I’m wondering, like, if there’s room for three in there…and will my heart be able to take it?

But really? Why the fuck not?

Know what I mean, Jelly-Bean?

+++++

Acheson climbed back in his seat, noticed the SELCAL light chirping away and slipped on his harness, then put on his headset. He scanned the panel, then he flipped the circuit and listened to the message – through the headset this time. Headquarters had activated Case Epsilon. War, probably nuclear war, was considered imminent, and all pilots were now ordered to land at the nearest open airport. He listened to The Lord’s Prayer coming over the circuit, then shut it down and took off his headset.

“What was it?” Rutherford asked.

Acheson shook his head, bent over the keypad on the Flight Management Computer and entered ‘LPLA’ – then watched data stream onto his PFD, the Primary Flight Display. A prompt came up: “Execute?”

He sighed, hit the button on the keypad, and the aircraft banked hard to the left, then settled onto the new course.

“Lajes?” Beach asked. “Why?”

“We’re two thousand miles from Bermuda, six hundred from the Azores. We’ll lose GPS signal any time now, they’ll be encrypted. There’s a storm off the east coast, it’ll sock in Bermuda by the time we get there, and without GPS I’m not sure we can shoot an approach there.”

“Why will we lose GPS?” one of the ninja said.

“It’s SOP when launch of ICBMs is considered imminent.”

“Oh sweet Jesus,” he heard the girl whisper.

“Yeah, if you’re the praying sort, now’s the time to get on your knees and pull out your rosary. Sandy, write down our coordinates, the coordinates for Lajes and start a DR plot, the faster the better.”

“Okay,” she said, her hands shaking now.

He scanned the horizon, saw something far off to the left. “You see that?”

“What?” Sandy said.

“Ten o’clock, a little high.”

She peered around the center-post, squinting just a little and he smiled, then turned back to the panel.

“You know, I see three aircraft, maybe four…”

An alarm sounded, then another.

“Alert! Collision imminent, turn right!”

Acheson toggled the autopilot and pushed the yoke down and to the right.

“Something’s not right,” he said as he re-engaged the autopilot, then the alarm sounded again. “Alert! Collision imminent, turn right!”

He looked out the windshield again, looked aft as far as he could, then he smiled, relaxed – as four F/A-18F Super Hornets pulled up alongside the port side of the 777. He signaled 121.5 to the lead pilot and switched COMM 1 to the emergency frequency.

“American 3-8 Heavy to Diamondback Lead.”

“Lead here. What’s with all the evasive maneuvers, Captain?”

“Collision alert sounded. Sorry about that.”

“You headed to Terciera?”

“Yeah. How many of you are there out here?”

“Whatever’s left of the air wing from the Papa Bush. We had about half my squad up when she was hit. Low yield nuc, torpedo we think. Subs in the Atlantic were ordered to MFD about twenty minutes ago.”

“What’s MFD?” Rutherford asked.

“Missile Firing Depth.”

Another alarm hooted, and Acheson looked as the GPS SIGNAL LOSS banner flagged on his PFD. “Fuck,” he whispered, then he toggled his mic, “Okay, D-Back lead, we just lost GPS. You have encrypted sets in those birds?”

“Yup. I suppose you want to follow us?”

“You got enough gas?”

“Yeah, we just tanked. Another section is tanking east of here. You military?”

“Air Force, reserves now. C-17s.”

“Rank?”

“Major.”

“Well hell, look who just assumed tactical command?”

“Swell. Okay lead, why don’t you scoot up ahead, leave a couple back here with me.”

“Alright, 3-8 Heavy. Out.”

He turned to the ninja, looked them over and shook his head. “You know, where we’re going, if you get off this airplane dressed like that you’re likely to be run out to the nearest wall and shot.”

The girls looked at each other and nodded, then peeled off their suits.

“What about me?” Rutherford said.”

“What do you mean?”

“What are you going to do about me?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea. What do you think I should do with you?”

She frowned. “I think you should try to get in touch with Miss Delaney.”

And he smiled…which, he could tell, seemed to bother her – a lot.

© 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | this is fiction, all fiction, and nothing but the fiction…so help me Bill. Bill the Cat, that is.

bill-the-cat

The Coffee Cantata

So, here it is. Let’s call this version 1.0 of the completed piece. It’s about 135 single-spaced pages, so put on some Bach, or the Stone Temple Pilots, and put your Doc Martens up and have a read.

coffee-cantata-cover

The Coffee Cantata

“The separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, though a convincing one…”
Albert Einstein.

Feet tucked in close, she sighed, picked up the newspaper and looked over the front page, settled on a story and started reading. From time to time she picked up her coffee, took a sip, a little grin crossing her face here, the shadow of a frown there. She found herself in the employment pages at one point, and her hands shook a little as contrary images flew through her mind, but she ventured inside, started scanning – and daydreaming.

She was a bright girl – too smart, some said – and she was something of an empath, which, she thought, had at times doomed her to a life of unwanted insight. Born and raised in West L.A., she had gone to UCLA, then to graduate school at USC, her life ahead always centered on journalism, and then writing. She went to work for the Times a few years after Bill Clinton took office, and the first waves of cynicism broke over her shores as she watched the President lie about Lewinsky and that whole blue-stained affair. She threw away her blinders after that and became a real reporter, or so her friends said, after she won a Pulitzer for her coverage of events at a prison in Iraq a few years later.

She had become, over the intervening years, an outspoken critic of the rich and powerful, and by the time she wrote her first book – a scathing, fact-based look at what it meant to be poor in America – she had, of course, made more than a few enemies. Back at the Times after a year off for research, she continued to report on human issues raised by the contradictory impulses she found within America, and she made more enemies. So many her friends weren’t too surprised when they heard she’d been summarily fired by the Times one Friday morning. She had packed her Pulitzer in a little cardboard box and walked out into the world with a smile on her face, but then she sold her house and bought a one-way ticket to China – and she started walking. Walking to the west, always. Her friends didn’t quite know what to think about her after that.

She walked most of the time, though sometimes passing trucks stopped and she hopped aboard, but she always did so with her reporters eyes and ears open. She took notes, wrote little penciled sketches of the people she ran across – and descriptions of her empathic response to other’s misery soon filled the pages of her little red notebook. Sketches of pain, but as she walked away from the huge cities of southeastern China, more often of happy contentment, portraits of farmers in Tibet’s Racaka Pass, of riverboat operators ferrying passengers, and eventually, about the serene smiles she encountered when she talked to herdsmen in Bhutan. She fought a cobra one morning in the eastern reaches of Bhutan, and lived to write about the encounter, but a few days later she slipped and tumbled down a rocky slope, knocking the wind out of her and hurting her left leg. Badly, she discovered. She was afraid it was broken, and though she knew she was close to her destination, she had never felt more alone, or more vulnerable.

A red-robed monk happened along and introduced himself, and Lindsey told him her name, where she was from, and the ancient man just smiled, nodded his head as he helped her stand. Her left leg buckled as he helped her up, so he helped her up again and shouldered her weight this time, and they climbed back to the path and began walking along the trail again. It took them two days, but they finally arrived at the base of a cliff, and she looked up, saw a monastery in the clouds. They struggled up a steep trail through deep woods, scaled rock walls that led even higher, then he helped her along the last stretch, out along a vast ledge that ended at a cluster of white buildings perched on the edge of forever – and she lived within that mountainside community for weeks. She lived in a wholly improbable world, an ancient place carved into the side of a sheer face of rock, the waters of a wild river roaring hundreds of feet below – and she thought about that river for days without end. Where it went, the people who’s lives depended on it, and what would happen if the water stopped flowing. In time she saw the river as a metaphor, as a mirror held up to life, human life, her life.

As all things must, she considered, have a beginning, and come to an end.

And one day she realized she had fallen in love with the mountains and the trees, and even the men who lived in solitude with the clouds. She wished she was different – so she could stay – but she wasn’t. One day the same monk, the same man who helped her that broken day, walked with her down to the river and helped her board a little boat. She watched him recede into the passing landscape with despair, then hope, before she started walking again, still to the west.

She came to a village a day later and fell ill, seriously ill, and deep delirium came for her. In a fevered dream she saw herself being loaded in the back of a truck, then in a hospital of some sort – at one point she saw brown men in white coats doing things to her she didn’t understand – then one day she woke up and saw the world as it was, perhaps.

A little man, no taller than she, stood by the side of her bed looking at a chart, and she looked at him.

“You are most very ill,” he said to her.

“And?”

“I think you must go someplace else. We do not have the resources to care for you.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“You have a disease I can not understand,” he said, struggling to find the correct words. “I am not sure I may care to you.”

“You can’t care for me?”

“Adequately, I think is the word I seek.”

“Ah. So what must I do?”

“You must take us to Paro. When you are strong enough. When we have a truck.”

She drifted away again, and when next she woke she felt a rough road underneath an ancient truck, and through flapping canvas sides she watched a dusty road pass by, just out of reach, and she wanted to be down there, walking. Walking and listening. Sketching portraits of lives she didn’t understand.

“Do I understand my own life?’ she thought once. ‘The purpose of my life?’

She saw the outskirts of a city pass beyond the tattered canvas, and she recognized the hospital for what it was. Careful men came for her and carried her inside, and she felt IVs being started, then doctors or nurses at the foot of her bed talking in hushed, excited tones. She could feel her sweat-soaked gown when chills came, then as suddenly she could feel she was being baked alive – and she would call out for help, for water.

And one morning an American was standing beside her, looking at her almost ruefully.

“Hello.”

“Yes, hello there. My name is Carter Freeman, and I’m from the consulate. How are you feeling?”

She shook her head. “Not good.”

“I’m not surprised,” Freeman said. “You’ve picked up a bad bug, and apparently you broke your leg recently. It wasn’t set properly and there’s some sort of infection in the bone, and that’s when they called us.”

“What do they need you for?”

“They think you should try to get home, to a more well equipped facility than this, anyway. They’re afraid you’ll lose your leg otherwise.”

“Ah.”

“So, you’re Lindsey Hollister. The writer?”

“I’ve heard that rumor too.”

He smiled, tried not to laugh. “Well, I’ve come to get you, to take you home.”

“What if I want to stay here?”

“That’s your call, Miss Hollister, but frankly, I’d want to know why?”

“Because these mountain, and these people feel like home now.”

He nodded his head. “Understandable. There’s magic in the air up here.”

She remembered turning and looking out the window just then, looking to the mountains as if looking for an answer to the most important question of her life.

The question. What was it? She had seen it, but now it was gone…

“You feel it too?”

And he had nodded his head. “Impossible not to, I guess. You came through China, walking all the way?”

“Yup.”

“You landed in Shanghai, eighteen months ago. That’s the last recorded entry on your passport. Have you been walking since.”

“Yes, aside from the two months I rested after I hurt my leg.”

“Where was that?”

“A monastery, I think it was in Bhutan but I’m not sure.”

“I came by yesterday,” he said, suddenly a little nervous. “I went through your things, read through one of your journals, trying to figure out where you’d been.”

She looked at him like he was a thief who’d stumbled into her room.

“I found myself weeping at one point,” he continued, “weeping at the beauty you found. I wanted to read more, but I couldn’t. I felt like I was walking where I shouldn’t. Not without your permission, anyway. Do you plan to write about all this?”

She looked away. “I don’t know.”

“You should…I mean, I hope you do. I was lost in your words, in the things I saw through your eyes. I wanted to know more, too. About those things, and – you.”

“Me?”

“I fell in love with you, I think – or with your ability to perceive the human, I suppose.”

“Nothing so personal as a word, I assume.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“So? What have you planned for me?”

“Lufthansa, tomorrow morning. To Frankfurt, then Los Angeles.”

“I see. No choice, eh?”

“It’s the recommendation of your government. Mine, too. Unless, of course, you want to die here.”

And so early the next morning they moved her to the airport, and Freeman was there, waiting, and he went to the airplane with her, saw her settled in her seat then he asked her to write, to share, and then he was gone. She seemed to sleep and sleep, and never saw Frankfurt come or go. She woke up on a gurney, another IV flowing, and she realized she was in another aircraft – and she thought that strange – then sleep came again.

She woke up one morning and felt wonderful, completely refreshed, and she looked out the window in the room she was in and saw palm trees in the distance, swaying in a Santa Anna, and in an instant she knew she was home. The brown air seemed familiar, even the color of the sky seemed to scream ‘Home’ – and she felt an unexpected surge of happiness.

A mountain of a man came to her a little later – he looked like a football player, or a wrestler, but he said he was an infectious disease specialist and that he had been treating her for ten days…

“I’ve been here ten days?”

“You have.”

“And just where is here?”

“UCLA.”

“I thought the air smelled familiar. Is that a Santa Anna blowing?”

“Yup. For a few days now.”

“So, what’s blowing through my veins right now.”

“Oh, a cocktail of Vancomycin, prednisone, fluconazole, and acyclovir. Maybe a little Red Bull, too,” he said, grinning.

“Is that why I feel so ‘up’?”

“Your white counts were in the basement yesterday, so you got another transfusion last night. That accounts for the feeling of energy. What did you do to your leg, by the way?”

“I fell down a mountain.”

“Oh? Where?”

“Bhutan.”

“Bhutan? What on earth were you doing there?”

“Taking a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes.”

“Uh, yes, admissions wanted me to ask. We can’t find a home address for you?”

“I don’t have one?”

“But you have insurance. How’d you work that out?”

“I have friends in low places.”

“Well, they’re going to need an address. Some place to send correspondence.”

“Bills, you mean.”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Probably a few of those, too.”

“Well, as soon as I find a place to live I’ll let you know.”

“Are you looking? For a place, I mean?”

“I suppose I might as well.”

“Well, my parents have an apartment building over on Gayley. It’s surrounded by frat houses, but it has a pool. Kind of nice, and it’s close to the hospital.”

“Sounds nice. Tell ‘em I’ll take it.”

He looked taken aback. “You don’t want to look at it first?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you have any furniture, any thing at all?”

“No, I burned all those bridges a while ago.”

“So, you really want me to call them?”

“Yes. How long will I need to stay in here?”

“As soon your counts stabilize and the fever abates,” he said. “Maybe a few days.”

“What’s your name, by the way,” she asked.

“Oh, sorry. Doug Peterson.”

“You grow up around here?”

“Yup. You?”

“Beverly Hills High,” she said.

“Small world, isn’t it?”

She looked at him and laughed. “Never smaller than now.”

And he helped her move over to her new place that weekend, and when she went inside the little apartment she found the place furnished. Clean-lined Scandinavian furniture, bright fabrics on the sofa and teak chairs, very modern, almost cheery.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but I didn’t think walking into an empty place would be all that fun. I had this stuff in storage,” he added, wistfully, “and it needs a good home.”

“Oh?”

“When my wife and I got married I, well, Madeleine didn’t like the way this stuff looked so I put it all in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.”

“You couldn’t part with it?”

“No, I guess not.”

She walked around the little place, found plates and silverware and pots and pans all set up in the cupboards, and the ‘fridge was stocked with a few necessities too. She walked into the bedroom, found the bed made and toiletries on the bathroom counter; her eyes welled with tears and she turned to him.

“Why, Doug? Why did you do all this?”

“I don’t know, really. I think I want you to be happy.”

“Happy?” she asked, as she looked at the need in his eyes.

“I have an old Mac set up in here,” he said, leading her back into the living room. “All the software has been upgraded, my old stuff’s been cleaned off so there’s nothing on it. A blank slate, I guess you could say. In case you want to write or get caught up on email.” She went over to the little sofa and sat, a line of perspiration beading on her forehead, and he came to her, felt her with the back of his hand.

“Do you know where my stuff is?” she asked as he went into the kitchen. He came back with his little black bag and sat in the chair next to the sofa.

“Yeah. I put it in the closet, over there,” he said, pointing to the entry closet, but he had a thermometer out and he rubbed it across her forehead.

He looked at the readout, shook his head. “Time for bed, Lindsey,” he said as he helped her stand. They walked to the little bedroom and he helped her go into the bathroom, then helped her into the bed. He pulled the sheets up around her neck and tucked her in, and he ran his fingers through her hair once before he left.

She had a difficult time falling asleep.

+++++

She scanned the ads, looking at jobs in the Westwood area, preferably something mindless and uninvolved, and she saw one at a coffee place just a few blocks away. She looked at the time and went to the bathroom to shower, then she dressed and walked down the hill into the old village. She found the place and went inside, ordered an iced coffee and sat, looked out the broad windows at people walking past on the sidewalk.

The place had, she thought, kind of a cool vibe, a mellow hipster thing going as she watched people come and go, and at one point a girl came out to clean tables and she asked her a question.

“Do you like working here?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. “It’s never the same day twice, ya know. Something different every morning.”

“It seems laid back.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. Uh, are you here for the job?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Oh. Okay,” she said, then the girl disappeared into the office behind the counter. A few minutes later an older woman came out, and Lindsey watched her approach through a reflection in the window, trying not to smile…

“Excuse me,” the woman said, “but Melody told me you might be here about the job?”

“Hello, Sara.”

“Oh my God!” Whiteman almost screamed. “Lindsey?! Is that you?”

And she stood, hugged her old friend from high school.

“What in God’s name are you doing here?” Sara whispered. “I read about you in the paper a few weeks ago…about that walk you took, and getting sick. What on earth were you thinking?”

“So, does this mean I get the job?”

“What? Lindsey? What’s going on?”

“I need to get out of the house, be around people. I haven’t been in a while, and it’s eating away at me.”

Sara sat down by her old friend. “Really? You want to work here? Why? I mean, why don’t you go downtown, get a real job? Do what you do best?”

“I want to do what I do best, Sara. I want to talk, and listen, to people.”

Whiteman sighed, shook her head. “It’s counter work, minimum wage, no benefits for three months. Is that what you want?”

“Sounds good.”

“When can you start?”

“Tomorrow soon enough?”

“You sure? Sure you want to do this?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Next question. Are you up to it? It’s not hard manual labor, but it does entail some physical work. Clearing tables, preparing orders. Are you ready for that kind of thing?”

“Yup. My doc thinks it would be a good thing.”

“Nothing infectious, right? You’re safe?”

Lindsey nodded her head. “Yup. Clean as a whistle.”

“God, I can’t believe this, Lindsey. It’s so good to see you, but this too? Wow…I’m just blown away.”

“Me too. Look, do I need anything weird in the clothing department, anything like that?”

“No, not really. Comfortable shoes, only arms and hands visible, per health codes, as you’ll handle food. That means slacks and shirts, but shoes are the big thing.”

“Would these be okay?” she asked, pointing to her jeans and scuffed hiking boots.

“As long as they’re clean, sure.”

“Cool. What time should I be here?”

“Only time the shop is open is five to one, so it’s an early morning shift. Are you a morning person?”

“Not a problem.”

“Well, how ‘bout I see you tomorrow morning?”

“Front door?”

“Yup. Bright and early.”

“Okay, I’ll be here.”

They hugged, then Lindsey walked out into the flow of people on the sidewalk, and Sara Whiteman watched as she disappeared. Melody, her assistant, came and stood by her side then, and they watched her leave.

“She’s so skinny, like she’s been sick or something,” the girl said.

“She has been,” Sara Whiteman sighed. “Since the day I met her.”

+++++

And a week later there’s was a new, if an almost familiar routine. Not quite like school decades ago, but close enough. Friends are just that, after all, and it felt like they started up again where they’d left off, as good friends often do.

Unlock at five, tidy the place up and get coffee going, set out baked good in the counter and get specials marked-up on the chalk board. Open the doors at six and get to work. Within a few days she’d learned how to use the most complicated brewing machines, and the techniques to satisfy even the most hardened caffeine junkies, and she worked the counter efficiently, even gracefully, and soon people came in and said their ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’ on their way through her day, and new patterns developed in her morning.

In the very early morning, when commutes began and sometimes ended, the shop filled with harried executives dashing off to work, and coveys of nurses unwinding after long nights on the floor. Professors from the university across the street constituted the next onrushing wave, often before lectures – yet usually after, and students came on this riptide, lingering long after their coffee grew cold, lost in lecture notes or lining textbooks with bright yellow highlighters.

Lunchtime in the shop was a mad rush. Iced coffees and cold, house-made sandwiches flying over the counter at a breakneck pace, then she was helping to clean up as the shop closed for the day. Her day done, she walked up the hill to her apartment, and soon she was grateful for the swimming pool. On sunny days she sat under the sun for hours and hours, often watching her legs dangling beneath the water’s surface – lost in thought. There was a table by the gate and she liked to sit by a eucalyptus tree there, notebook in hand, eyes focused on distant memories – and one day she was sitting by the cool blue water, adrift in a conversation she’d had with a boatman almost a year ago, when like a passing cloud a welcome break came by.

“Doug?”

“Hey, it’s my favorite patient! How’s the sun treating you?” he asked as he sat across from her.

“It feels a little like heaven today. The air is just crisp enough, you know, yet the sun bakes the cool away. I could sit here forever.”

“Nothin’ like LA on a day like this. It’s the cream in my coffee.”

“So, what brings you to the neighborhood?”

“My dad. He’s got COPD, he’s in CHF, uh, emphysema and heart failure. He’s not doing too well, I guess you’d say.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. How’s your mom taking it?”

“Oh, she’s strong. Old world, know what I mean?”

“No, not really.”

“She was a kid when they came over, refugees, during the war. They had relatives in LA, made it here in ‘43. I think the journey was something else, Greece to North Africa, then Brazil and over the Andes, finally up to California on a freighter.”

“How old was she?”

“I think around ten, when she got here, anyway. Took them years, I think.”

“She met your dad here?”

“Yeah, in college,” he said, pointing at the campus across the street. “He went into business, she went into medicine?”

“Oh?”

“Yup, she taught general medicine for years, supervised residency for internists, had a practice in the village. She was the bright one, and they’re still devoted to each other, always have been.”

“She came from Greece?”

“Yup, her family left when the Italians and Germans moved in. You want to talk to her about all this, I’m sure she’d love to.”

“Yes, maybe, if she feels like it?”

“She misses working, so any excuse to get out and shoot the breeze is a welcome distraction. So, what are you doing these days?”

“Oh, I’m working at that little coffee shop down on Weyburn.”

“No kidding? How long have you been doing that?”

“A couple of weeks? Not quite, but…”

He turned professional, his eyes serious. “Any fever, any night sweats?”

“Some night sweats, yes. But not often.”

“Okay, you’re coming with me. Time for some lab-work.”

“Oh, do I have to,” she said, purposefully pouting – just like any other five year old girl.

“You can tuck that lower lip back in. Now come on,” he said, looking at his watch, “let’s get you dressed.”

He helped her up and walked with her to the little apartment, and he waited for her while she dressed, looking out the window of her apartment – watching his mother across the way, looking down at the pool, then at him. She was standing by the window in their living room, and he could see the scowl on her face from here, that scowl etched in oldest memory – her lips always curved just so – when she knew he was about to do something really stupid.

+++++

She felt much better the next morning, and one of her regulars stopped by the register on his way out – and he smiled at her. “You look really good this morning, Lindsey,” he said.

She looked at the man; he was really fat but she thought she recognized him, something about his eyes, then she remembered she’d never mentioned her name to him. She went to clear off his table, saw he’d left a little note and a fifty dollar tip, and she went to the window, watched him disappear down the sidewalk.She noticed he was wearing shorts, and she saw a scar on his leg. Pale and waxy-pink, like a long snake standing up the side of his leg, and she thought it looked angry, like a bad memory that just wouldn’t go away.

She finished cleaning his table and went back to the counter, the fifty dollar bill he’d left in her hand. She walked over to Sara, gave her the fifty, and she listened while Lindsey told her about the exchange.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Sara sighed. “About half the men who come in here every morning come here to see you.”

“What?”

Sara shook her head. “You know, since second grade every boy around seems to look at you just once and decide life would be a whole lot better if you were a part of it.”

“Sara? What are you talking about?”

“God, you are so clueless. Go put on some French roast, would you?”

So she got back to work, getting ready for the mid-morning, professorial rush, but at one point she saw a student come in and sit by the window – and something caught her eye. He pulled a book out of his weatherbeaten rucksack, it’s red slipcover instantly recognizable. Her book, her book about the economic realities of life in working class America, and she turned away from the memory of the time she’d spend ‘undercover’ doing research. He was reading the book, she saw, her photo on the back sleeve standing out like a light house on a dark night, and she tried to ignore the boy. Perhaps an hour later he left, yet he never stopped to say anything to her. She wondered if her appearance had changed all that much and decided she really didn’t care.

And a little after noon, Doug came in.

He came up to the counter and looked around, studiously trying to ignore her.

“I didn’t know you make sandwiches here. What’s good?”

“I like the chicken salad. It’s got undertones of curry, and pecan.”

“Okay. What should I have with it?”

“Iced coffee and tabouli.”

“Done.”

“I’ll bring it out to you.”

“Gracias.”

“Por nada.”

He took a seat at a table by the windows and pulled out a phone, scanned his email and she made his coffee, fixed his sandwich, then took it out to his table.

“How you feeling today?”

“Good.”

“You look good. Your color’s better, too. You kind of had me spooked yesterday.”

“Did I?”

“Could you sit for a minute? While I eat, anyway?”

She looked at Sara – who motioned “SIT!” – and she laughed, sat in the chair by his side.

“Damn, this ain’t half bad,” he said after he took a bite.

“I hope not. I made it.”

He looked at her, thought for a moment, then turned away.

“Doug? What’s on your mind?”

“You, actually.”

“Me?”

“I finally finished your book a couple nights ago. Wasn’t quite what I expected, either.”

“Oh?”

“Mississippi? You moved to Mississippi for six months, then West Virginia? Lived in flop-houses and worked all that time, in laundromats?”

“That’s the epicenter, Doug. Where things are bad. Real bad. You don’t learn by standing on the outside, looking in. You have to live the life to really understand it.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“Have you ever practiced medicine out in the boondocks? Or overseas?”

He shook his head. “I’ve only been outside of LA on vacation, and only a couple of times, at that.”

“Ever thought of going to the front lines? West Africa maybe, or Southeast Asia?”

“No.”

“Do you want to? Did you ever want to?”

“Once,” he sighed. “Yeah, once upon a time I really wanted to do all that.”

“What happened?”

He snorted, turned away. “I got married, then applied for a mortgage and found I had three kids under the Christmas tree one morning. Should I go on?”

“No,” she smiled, “not unless you want to.”

“Everything changed, I guess, after all that. All my hopes and dreams.”

“Everything changed? I wonder…did you change, too?”

“You’re not, like, a shrink or something, are you?”

She laughed a little. “No, but I could probably use one.”

“Oh?”

“I could never stand to see injustice, social injustice, and just turn away. I’ve always wanted to understand it. Not just how people endure living in an oppressed state, but how other, more fortunate people can look at that reality – then turn away.”

“And, what have you learned?”

“That I’ll never understand humanity.”

He laughed again, then looked at her. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“No. I’m not.”

“So, what’s next? Are you going to write some more?”

“I am.”

“About your walk?”

“Yes, in part.”

“And after that?”

“I don’t know. Learn something useful. Go back to Bhutan.”

“And do what?”

“Build a hospital, maybe.”

“Something really touched your soul out there, didn’t it?”

“Life finally reached into me and took a look around. I think it found me wanting.”

“And how would you fix that?”

“I think I’ll learn to listen better.”

“You’re going to hate me for saying this, but I have to. I’m madly in love with you.”

“You’d have to be a little mad to say that, I guess.”

He nodded his head. “I know.”

“Why?”

“I wish I knew. Something to do with moths and flames, I suspect.”

“Or, perhaps, Icarus?

“Or Icarus.”

“Tell me about your wife. Madeleine, is that her name?”

“Yes. She’s, well, she likes to play cards. She likes to shop on Rodeo Drive. She likes her Jaguar.”

“And she’s sexy as hell, too. Isn’t she?”

He nodded his head. “Of course she is.”

“Oh, how have the mighty fallen. Is that it?”

“No.”

“Of course. She’s what you always wanted.”

“Until I didn’t. Yes.”

“That’s a helluva place to find yourself in.”

She watched him finish his sandwich, and she liked watching him. There was something innocent, almost boyish in his movements, and she smiled when he finished. “Can I get you some more coffee?”

“No, I’ve got appointments in an hour, then rounds. Will you be home around four?”

She nodded her head.

“How much to get square with the house?”

“I’ll get it – this time,” she said, smiling.

“And I’ll get the next one?”

“Sure. If you like.”

“Well. Gotta go.”

“Yup. Seeya.”

She cleaned the table after he left, then walked back to the counter – only to find Sara and Melody waiting for her. Impatiently, it seemed to her.

“Well?” Sara said, leaning on the counter.

“Well what?”

“How’d it go?”

“He’s my doctor, Sara.”

“He couldn’t take his eyes off you,” Melody said.

“Yup,” Sara added, “he’s got it bad.”

“Jeez,” Linsey sighed, “he’s married, you guys.”

“And did I hear him say,” Melody said, almost giggling, “that he’s madly in love with you?”

“He said that about my book.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” Sara grinned, “like I believe that, too.”

“Can I help with the dishes?”

Sara turned, looked at the clock. “Nah, I got it. Why don’t you head home, get some rest.”

“I need to go to the grocery store,” Lindsey said, “if you have time to run me over.”

“Why don’t you buy a car?” Melody asked.

“I don’t need the hassle, or the headache,” she said.

“But you need a ride to the grocery store?”

“Never mind.”

“Oh, come on,” Sara said. “I need a few things too. Melody? Can you hold down the fort ‘til I get back?”

“Sure.”

They went out back, to Sara’s Audi, and they rode over to Century City in silence. She got a few necessities and a couple bottles of wine – and a bunch of flowers – then they got in the car to drive back to her apartment.

“I know Doug,” Sara said a few minutes into the drive.

“Oh?”

“I know his wife, too.”

Lindsey looked at her friend, wondered where this was going.

“She’s pretty, but real mercenary. She was a cheerleader, of all things, and sweet as could be. He never knew what hit him.”

“And she just doesn’t understand him, I guess.”

“Oh, no, she understands him alright. My guess is she’d like nothing more than to catch him having an affair, too. But then again, I think she fucks every twenty year old pool man, every tennis instructor, and every plumber she can get her mouth on.”

“What? How do you know all this?”

“Same country club, sweetie. The jungle telegraph doesn’t lie. And I’ve known them both for years.”

“What about Doug? I don’t really know him.”

“He played linebacker here, was an All American, played in two Rose Bowls. Went straight on to med school, again, here, finished his training downtown, at County SC. He’s been on the front lines of the AIDs epidemic, made his name there. Liz Taylor loved him, thought he walked on water. He fights for his patients, and if he doesn’t know something, he finds the answer, fast. He’s kind of famous around here too, in some circles, anyway.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, he’s not a social animal. He’ll help raise money for charities, but he doesn’t go to the balls, if you know what I mean.”

“Madeleine doesn’t like that, I guess.”

“Like I said, she’s mercenary. She’s in it for the money, and whatever prestige she can wrangle off him. I’m pretty sure he’s miserable, from the little I’ve heard, anyway. My advice? Be careful, be careful of her.”

Lindsey laughed a little. “No need. I can’t imagine getting involved with anyone at this stage of life?”

“Yeah? Tell me, when was the last time you were involved with anyone?”

Lindsey looked out the window, shrugged her shoulders.

“Yeah,” Sara said. “That’s just about what I thought.”

+++++

She heard the knock on the door a little before five, and she went to let him in.

“Are you cooking,” he asked.

“A little something, in case. I have some wine, if you’d like.”

“I didn’t want you to go out of your way.”

“I was going to fix something for dinner anyway. I made a little extra.”

He went to the sofa and sat, then leaned back and sighed.

“Tough day at the office, dear?”

He laughed. “Kind of. It’s like the hard cases never end, never stop coming. Like yours. The bugs you had running around in your system were exotic, stuff we never see over here. I was online talking with docs in London ten hours a day, for a week, too, trying to get to the bottom of it. Trouble is, it seems like that’s happening with more frequency now, and with new antibiotic-resistant bugs popping up almost daily, it’s just getting worse.”

“Sara told me you’re like that. Tenacious, I think, was the word.”

“Sara?”

“She owns the coffee shop.”

“Oh. Whiteman. Yeah, I’ve seen her at the country club. And what else did Little Miss Sara have to say?”

“She gave me the rundown. Your wife, what she knows, anyway. And a little about you.”

“Well, hell, you opened the door so it can’t be all that bad.”

She laughed.

“You want the unvarnished version?”

“Sure.”

“She fucked around, a lot. Then she tested positive.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

“You’re treating her?”

“Nope. Ethically not possible. We live on opposite sides of the house, her treatment is supervised by a colleague in my department.”

“Your kids?”

“Two in college, one,” he said, looking away, “is still in high school.”

“I mean, do they know – about the HIV?”

He nodded his head. “Yup. We told ‘em a few years ago.”

“What they must have gone through,” she whispered.

“They’re good kids. Better than good, really.”

She looked him in the eye, and she could see his honest love for them, feel his concern. “Well, I’ve made a Caesar salad, sliced some apples and cheese, and broiled a little steak. You want to open the wine?”

“You know, that sounds really good…”

When they finished the dishes and put away the leftovers, he went to the sofa again and stretched out, and before she knew what had happened he was out for the count – on his side and breathing heavily. She went to the closet and covered him with a blanket, then sat in the chair by the sofa and watched him sleep – until she too fell away.

+++++

He came in early the next morning…the man in shorts with the long, waxy scar on his leg…and she watched him as he came to the counter…

“Good morning, Lindsey,” he said when it was his turn. “Howya doin’ this fine day?”

“Good,” she said, “and I’ll be a whole lot better as soon as you tell me your name!”

Yet he seemed hurt by that, and almost looked away. “John Asher? Ring any bells?”

“John!” she said, then she ran out from behind the counter and into his arms. “My God, that beard! I can hardly tell it’s you!” She hugged him for all he was worth, her joy genuine, her surprise complete. “Now…what on earth are you doing here?”

Asher had been in the Overseas Bureau at the Times, and might have been considered a world class journalist if not for his comically ironic anti-intellectualism. His book, unmasking the origins of right wing death squads in El Salvador – and America’s hidden role in the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero – had garnered his first Pulitzer – yet the paper let him go a year later, claiming that his choice of subject matter was dangerously disingenuous, his investigative methods frequently incendiary, and not altogether ethical.

Yet while they were at the Times together they had renewed a personal relationship that had been killed a long time ago – and they remained friends until she went ‘undercover’ – doing research for her own book. By the time she came back he’d been discharged, and then disappeared – to the Middle East, some said, while others claimed he’d gone to ground in Middle Earth – and was tripping out on magic mushrooms. Still, she remembered him now for what he had always been.

A friend. And more than a friend – from the earliest moments of her life. She remembered Asher – Asher the class clown – yet he had also been the agent-provocateur, the saboteur who taped condoms all over blackboards in the religious studies classroom – just before a local evangelical group was due to arrive for a lecture. Who covered all the toilets with clear plastic wrap – in the faculty restroom – causing a mess of near biblical proportions to spread out across the floors. Who flushed waterproof blasting caps down toilets, blowing up pipes and sending tidal flows of raw sewage into first floor classrooms. He’d been an anarchist, and to school administrators, the anti-Christ – yet he was brilliant, and had – at times –an endearing, compassionate soul.

And like Lindsey, he had possessed a passion for exposing injustice, for shining bright lights on the dark underbelly of power. When he taped condoms over chalk-borne words, it was because he wanted to the world to know the preacher giving a talk that day was a pedophile. When he covered toilets with clear plastic wrap, he wanted teachers to know he could see the shit they were trying to peddle as truth. And when he filled the school with sewage? Well, perhaps, Lindsey thought, Asher was simply telling it like it was.

He’d gone on to Columbia, to it’s famed Journalism School, then had come home. He covered the downtown beat for the Times, everything from politics to the struggles faced by the homeless, but he stirred up so much trouble the publisher had him promoted to the national desk. That lasted a year, lasted long enough for the White House to send a note to the publisher asking that Asher be sent to the North Pole, or perhaps Antarctica. So he had ended up in El Salvador, ostensibly to cover the simmering conflict in Nicaragua, then he discovered the conflict between the Salvadoran government and Óscar Romero. He photographed bodies of murdered nuns, and the savaged bodies of teenaged protesters when they were discovered in landfills.

Then one night he discovered links between the Salvadoran military and US Special Forces, rivers of dark money siphoned from obscure political organizations in Florida and Delaware being used to pay squads of mercenaries operating in Salvadoran villages. Mercenaries who rounded up protesters in the middle of the night, who drove them into fields and gunned them down. When he photographed a series of massacres, and got them published in the United States, assassins tried, and failed, to take him out. The bureau’s office in San Salvador was firebombed, and reporters from all news organizations fled the region until the government issued assurances they wouldn’t be targeted. And assurances were issued, with one notable exception: Asher was now persona non grata, unwelcome in the region.

By the time his chronicle of Romero’s assassination came out, the Times had had enough. He was trouble, a born troublemaker, and his antics had apparently compromised the paper’s integrity, not to mention reporters’ lives. When governments applied pressure, and that was that.

He had languished as a freelancer after that, but the 90s were not, in general, a good time for investigative journalists of any ilk. Corporate takeovers reduced the moral integrity of editorial offices, and reportorial skills began to slip away as papers began to focus on delivering content suitable to advertisers, and not to the needs of an informed populace.

And yet, the early 2000s were something else entirely.

The internet happened – and as suddenly came of age at the end of the Clinton era, and then W, or George W Bush, was selected as President – by judicial coup d’état in Asher’s opinion – and with that moral imperative in mind he launched one of the first independent news journals on the web. Called Veritas, Asher and several like-minded journalistic firebombers now had the venue of their dreams, and in Bush, a subject worthy of their impressive, and impulsive, investigative talents.

And Lindsey watched these developments from the sidelines, often content to look on passively when Asher’s exposés tilted to anarchic narcissism, yet a couple of times she reached out to him, wondered what his motives really were.

“At heart,” he told her once, “I’m a Leninist. I want to weaken the foundations of the state, make truth a subjective commodity, weaken the current reality in the minds of the people – until I can replace it with what’s needed to bring the state down.”

“But…why?”

“Because the state is corrupt. Life in this country is corrupt, it’s been corrupted by greed, by an overwhelming lust for money and power. I’m going to use that greed, use that lust and turn it against the establishment. I’m going to get inside, then I’m going to light the match, start the fire and burn the whole fucking thing to the ground. I’m going to do it because that’s the only way we’ll ever change the course we’re on.”

“Fight evil with evil, then?”

“What’s evil?” he said. “I mean, really, what is it? It’s a word, Lindsey, that’s all. And the only thing that’s ever worked against evil is either pure force or subversion from the inside. War is pointless now, so you have to get inside, subvert from within…and that’s all that’s left now. The state is too powerful, the truth is what the state says it is.”

And he had done just that, too. He was no longer an outsider.

And now, here he was, looking into her eyes – and she looked in his, saw fires raging in his soul, and she wondered what he wanted from her now.

+++++

She was sitting on the monastery wall, her legs dangling over the abyss, and she was watching the sun come to the day through amber clouds below and around the stones and trees. She took a deep breath, looked at her leg and wanted the pain to stop – but the pain reminded her of a lesson she had been slow to grasp. Go slow, take care where you put your feet, and understand the next step you take might be your last. She had found peace in the lesson, too. Move slowly through life, the monk said, understand the world around you, understand the consequences of your actions – and act only when you must.

She heard a tiger’s roar that morning, and she thought it sounded forlorn, lonely. Like it was looking for it’s mate, and she felt that loneliness as her own.

She thought of loneliness when she looked at the men living in isolation on this cliff, and she thought such enforced isolation was something of an oddity – at first. Then she realized men had developed systems of religious interpretation around the world, independently of each other, and each had arrived at a similar conclusion: the best way to understand the nature of life – and the infinite – was to isolate oneself, and the more extreme the isolation the better. Work – and think – in silence, consider the nature of the self, and even the nature of reality, in extreme solitude. Existence, in this monastic framework, became the conceptual basis for introspective self analysis – and the interesting thing is all this started happening around two thousand of years ago, it happened in several places around the world, and it happened almost concurrently in wildly different belief systems.

Why? She wanted to know – why had this happened? What caused them to flee? What had caused her to flee?

She had known that one group of desert fathers had wandered off into the Sinai, another into the scorched lands west of the pyramids, a few even before the time of Christ, and in the monastery she learned that the same impulse had enveloped the peoples of Southeast Asia – and at very nearly the same time.

Why?

Why had a few people separated by impossible distance experienced the same desire for cultural dissolution? Why did John Asher yearn for dissolution? Was it just in the nature of some men to question these things, or had something happened, something fundamental to man’s understanding of the world? The first large cities developed during that era, the first systems of laws were implemented, and nomadic man increasingly became domesticated man.

And she thought of John Asher that morning as she watched the sun rise from the monastery wall, about the rage burning in his eyes, and his burning desire to tear everything down.

Had he become a desert nomad too, forced into a life of wandering solitude – compelled to turn away from teeming hordes of greedy merchants, forced to endure injustice in the name of an all-consuming lust. Was the choice Asher confronted now just as it had been two thousand years ago – and would that choice endure, as man searched for ways out of the mazes human fallibility imposed? If man is condemned to endure endless failures of the human imagination, would the choice always be to endure – or flee? Submit, or flee into the desert? Run – from the world of the possible into the world of – what? – An anarchist’s oblivion?

From a world of man-made cages into endless halls of mirrors?

The monk who found her, who helped her climb the mountain and who had tried to set her leg, sat beside her in the sunrise, and she thought of the moment as the most sublimely perfect of her life.

+++++

“So, what have you been up to?” Asher asked.

She shook her head. “Not much.”

“I read about your trip, in the Times. About how ill you were when you got home.”

“Touch and go for a while, or so they told me. How do you like D.C.?”

“It’s getting warm, isn’t it?”

“I suppose you’re happy now?”

“Not quite, but we’re getting there.”

“I thought about you once, in a monastery – of all places.”

“You thought about me?”

“Yes, you. And Lenin, and Ayn Rand.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I thought of a passage in Atlas Shrugged, where Reardon and Taggart are looking out over a ruined industrial landscape, and they look down on destitute workers as vermin to be swept aside, when their utility was gone.”

“And that made you think of me?”

“Yes. And isn’t that odd? But then again, I’ve always wondered why you gave in to such an easy hate.”

He grinned. “I told you once before. Hate works. Hate is powerful. Hate is readily molded into an easily exploitable energy. And more than anything else, hate is the truth of human existence.”

“Ah. Well, I’ve seen you in here several times the last week or so. Anything I need to know about?”

“Oh, I just wanted to ask you out. To dinner.”

“When?”

“Tonight?”

“Alright. I get home around two.”

“Could you be ready by four?”

“Of course. I would imagine…”

“Yes, of course, and I’ll pick you up then.”

“I assume you know where I live?”

He grinned.

“I see. Well…”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” he said as he picked up his coffee, then he stopped and put sugar in his cup then walked out the door.

“My God,” Sara whispered. “Is that who I think it is?”

She watched Asher walk out to the now-ancient Land Rover, yet she turned away before he drove off.

“Why did you agree to go out with him?”

She turned to her friend and saw the shock in her eyes. “Because,” Lindsey said, “I have to.”

“You have to? I wonder…could you, like, tell me why?”

“No. I don’t think there’s any way I could ever explain.”

Sara shook her head, and wondered why Lindsey always seemed to choose the road to ruin. It was so easy for her, and always had been.

+++++

He knocked on her door a few minutes ‘til four, and she went out rapidly, closed the door behind her. “You still have the Rover, I see.”

“I can’t stand the idea of parting with her, for some reason.”

“So, where’d you want to go.”

“I know a guy with a food truck, makes outrageous tacos. He’s supposed to be down in Venice this evening.”

“That sounds right.”

And because the terrain they inhabited was a scorched land of hard, barren secrets, she knew the choice was anything but random. For once upon a time, in a land just down the road a few miles, they had come into this world together – in a most unusual, and slightly troublesome way.

+++++

And this troublesome world came to be some forty years before they were born.

At a high school, in Hollywood, California.

When a boy and a girl, not yet fifteen years old, fell in love. They had, for all intents and purposes, been in love since second grade – when they were seven years old, but love wasn’t what they called it.

Ben Asher ran into Sophie Marsalis, literally, one morning during recess, when the entire second grade was out on the playground. Ben was being chased by two neighborhood bullies, running in blind panic; Sophie and a handful of friends were blowing bubbles, looking up at their creations as they drifted away on a mid-morning breeze. The collision was accidental, unanticipated, and both of them claimed to see stars after. Parents were called, trips to doctors hastily arranged, yet both were fine. The next day life resumed where it had left off, only Ben began spending more and more time with Sophie.

No one could explain it, but from that moment on their lives seemed intertwined, like shoots of ivy on an old stone wall, and over time the structure of their lives began to revolve around one simple fact. They were together, and as far as either was concerned, they always would be. The feeling was mutual, and it became bedrock.

And this feeling changed not at all over the years. Not through grade school, not through junior high school, and not even in high school. What did change did so in their fifteenth year, when Ben openly declared his love, in Mrs Graham’s Social Studies class, that he loved Sophie and that he always would. And to the astonishment of his classmates, and we’ll not even mention Mrs Graham’s reaction, Ben produced a ring and asked his Sophie to be his wife.

And not to put too simple a spin on things, Sophie said yes.

And then they kissed one another – which earned them both a quick trip to Mr Spradlin’s office. Mr Spradlin was the vice-principal, and though he was in charge of disciplinary matters, he was a kind-hearted old man; when Mrs Graham frog-marched the star-crossed young lovers into his office he listened to the teacher’s explanation and smiled, then asked if he could speak to the two of them – “and alone, Mrs Graham, if you please?”

When they were alone in the old man’s office, he looked at them and sighed.

“Ben, do you understand the solemn nature of what you’ve just asked of Sophie?”

“Yessir, I do.”

“Sophie? Anything to say?”

“No, not really. I’ve loved Ben all my life, and I’ll love him ‘til the day I die. And there’s not a whole lot more I think needs to be said.”

And old man Spradlin had looked at the girl’s earnest integrity and nodded his head. “Okay,” he said. “Why don’t you two wait around in here, ‘til the bell rings anyway, then head on to your next class.”

Yet by that point word had spread far and wide – even the librarians were all abuzz with the news – and everywhere they went people whispered behind little sidelong glances. Until one day, a few weeks later, a handful of the school’s bullies tried to taunt Ben Asher about his peculiar brand of lunatic audacity.

And then Ben Asher went ballistic on the bullies.

And bullies being bullies, they fled in terror after two of Ben’s right jabs connected, breaking one boy’s nose and splitting another’s lip.

And, oddly enough, no one ever taunted Ben or Sophie again.

They went to dances together, and to the Senior Prom together, yet by that point they were considered by one and all a married couple – even if they were just seventeen years old. Classmates, particularly girls in their class, looked at them and sighed, seemed to recognize something ‘Serious’ about them both, something in their eyes that just seemed settled, and committed – and they grew envious of her. Boys just assumed Ben was ‘gettin’ some’ on a regular basis, so they were simply jealous as hell – and that was that.

They stayed in West LA, and started UCLA in 1962; Sophie went pre-Med, while Ben majored in aeronautical engineering, and they planned to marry as soon as they graduated.

Then JFK was murdered, and Ben began to take his studies more seriously, enrolled in ROTC. On graduation day he told Sophie he was reporting to a Naval Aviation Induction Center in Beeville, Texas, to begin flight training, and she was as proud of him as she had ever been. She started her first year of medical school, in Palo Alto, soon after he left.

And she was still proud of him when, four years later, Ben’s parents received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy informing them that their son had been killed over North Vietnam.

And even though this was the swinging sixties, Sophie had changed not at all. She took an internship in Washington DC, at Georgetown, and she met a man, an editor at the Washington Post, a man a few years older than herself. A man named Prentice Hollister. He seemed in a hurry from the first, indeed, almost anxious to marry Sophie, and after a brief courtship they did indeed tie the knot.

And then one day, several months later, her parents called. It was a bleak December day, Sophie told Lindsey once, a day full of gathering snow and silent remorse, and her father told her that Ben had come home. His jet had been shot down but he had made it to Laos, had spent weeks evading capture on a wild trek that saw him chased through the western mountains of North Vietnam by NVA regulars, and they kept up their pursuit of him into Laos – and he had, somehow, ended up in a country she had never heard of before. A place called Bhutan.

+++++

Lindsey remembered Venice. A destitute, ramshackle little village forty years ago, barren, polluted and sickly, yet now the vibe was trendy, almost punch-drunk. Mature trees adorned tight little streets, the canals no longer gave off a fetid, oil-soaked stench, and hipsters walked her streets now, usually to marijuana dispensaries but occasionally to one of the endless upscale eateries that popped up or passed away with comical regularity. Bikini-clad roller-skaters were as common a sight as transsexuals sunbathing on the beach – because in Venice the current vibe was ‘anything goes’ – and so it was.

John found a parking place for the Land Rover and they took off on foot – down well-established and long forgotten streets and sidewalks – and they found a covey of food trucks and ordered tacos and giros and bottles of ginger beer before they walked over to the sidewalk along the beach. They went to a bench they been to a hundred times before and they sat in time to see the sun slip behind clouds far out to sea.

They tipped their bottles, said an ancient toast – ancient to them, anyway – then ate in silence, savoring memories they’d made here, together, along the way, then he gathered up their wrappers and bottles and took it down to a rubbish bin. She waited for him, waited for this meeting to begin, while the last of the sun’s heat washed over her, and when he got back to her he draped his windbreaker over her shoulders before he sat.

Then he sighed. A long, labored sigh.

“I’d like you to come work for me. In D.C.,” he began.

And she looked at him, shook her head. “No, thanks.”

“I’m not going to take no for an answer.”

“You’ll have to, I’m afraid.”

He snorted. “Let’s see. Your book netted a million…”

“I wish.”

“You put that into the house, and you held on to the house for years. You sold it for two point five, put the proceeds into secure, conservative investment portfolios, and your net worth right now is a little south of five mill. Not bad, considering. Now, will you come to work for me in D.C.?”

She looked at him, a blank expression in her eyes, on her face.

“Well, I’ll take that as a no. So, tomorrow morning the IRS will place holds on all your accounts…”

“And I’ll be on an airplane by then.”

“But Lindsey, your Passport has been revoked.”

She laughed. “Then I’ll start up the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve always wanted to walk it.”

“Ah, well then, I’ll have the US Marshals concentrate their search for you in that area.”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

“I know, but I had to ask.”

“So…why?”

“Why? Because I still need you – I’ll always need you. You’ve always been my conscience, the bedrock my life was built around.”

“Funny how things turn out sometimes.”

“No. It’s not. And it never was, not in the slightest. That was the darkest day of my life, and to me it always will be.”

+++++

They were in school together, from the beginning. Beverly Vista, off Rexford in Beverly Hills. They’d walk home together in autumn, their feet kicking through swirls of golden leaves as they danced along perfect sidewalks – and her mother, Sophie, baked oatmeal cookies with walnuts and raisins in them every Saturday morning. By that time, John’s parents lived just blocks away, on Foothill Road – and the Ashers and the Hollisters spent a fair amount of time together.

One of John’s enduring memories of those years was of Lindsey’s mother, Sophie, who seemed to become unusually sad anytime she was near his father, and he never understood why, though in a way he saw that he and Lindsey were echoes of other children, and other days. They seemed unusually close for kids so young, like there was a link as yet undiscovered between the two, yet by the time high school came around, and when they first voiced an interest in dating, they were suddenly cut off from one another. There was talk of sending him away to a boarding school, or moving to another school district.

And so perhaps it was John who first thought things through. Sophie Hollister, always sad around his father. Then there were the persistent rumors that Prentice Hollister liked men – a lot. He watched the way his father ignored Sophie when they were together, and the tender resentment he saw in his own mother’s eye whenever Sophie was around.

He was with his father one Saturday morning, driving to the hardware store, when the question came, out of the blue.

“Dad? Is Lindsey my sister?” he asked.

And his father just looked at him, no evasions necessary now, then said, simply, “Yes.”

And that was almost all that was ever said about the matter. Lives fluttered and drifted on currents of innuendo and embarrassment, but in truth all that remained between the families over time was silent and dark, like a rough little beast that lurked outside his room, just out of sight.

And despite his misgivings, he told Lindsey a few nights later, when they snuck out of their rooms and met up at the little park north of Santa Monica Boulevard.

“Yes, of course,” Lindsey said after he told her, “I think I knew that.”

“I feel terrible,” he said. “I’ve loved you all my life, and now…”

“John, you’ll love me all your life, because that’s what you were born to do.”

And then they laughed. They laughed because for the very first time in their lives they felt uncomfortable around one another, like the cogs and gears turning the universe had slipped and fallen away, and were now forever out of reach. But then they drifted apart, too. Gently, at first, but in time more insistently.

No one suspected anything, of course. Just two teenagers who came to a crossroads in the night, and made the only choice they could.

+++++

But uncertain gravities pulled at them from time to time over the years. They called each other when confronted by inconsolable problems, and more than once one leaned on the other’s shoulder when grief beckoned.

Yet when Ben Asher died, for instance, their’s was a common grief, and they came together not as friends-in-need but as brother and sister, and their grief was real, overwhelming – and all too real. And when her mother held onto them both at the service, with a fierce possessiveness that surprised many of those gathered, John’s mother Becky seemed the least surprised.

And yet this bench, this bench of all the places in the world, had become their touchstone, the one place that the universe allowed them to be what they truly wanted to be. Intimate, in a place beyond brother and sister. They talked about life and their world, dashed hopes and broken dreams, and their darkest fears – still waiting in the shadows.

A month before graduation from high school John announced he was taking Lindsey to their senior prom, and when parents squirmed under the weight of so much confusion he asked his father to come with him, for a drive.

And John drove that evening, a subtle change of orientation, perhaps. Drove his father down to Venice Beach, and they walked out to the promenade, the sidewalk along the beach. Sophie and Lindsey were there, waiting for them on the bench, and for the only time in their lives all four acknowledged the truth. In fact, they reveled in their truth of their existence. They talked for hours, they got up and walked along in the evening as a family, as, perhaps, the family they should have been.

“I remember the night,” John said a few minutes into this passing sigh, “when we walked here. How they held onto each other. How the truth of the universe came to them in those few hours.”

“That was the only time I ever saw them together – when my mother wasn’t terrified, and lonely.”

“I never liked Prentice,” John said. “There was something…”

“Dishonest, John, is the word. He was a pretender, a chameleon. I never knew where I stood with him…”

“No one did. Do you miss him?”

“Not really. I miss watching our parents right here, together. He never fit into that world.”

Asher nodded. “I miss you. I miss us.”

“I know.”

“We could live nearby, at least. See each more more often.”

“No, we couldn’t. That’s the truth, John, and you know it.”

“It’s not a physical thing, you know. I just feel like half my soul has been cut away…”

“It was, John. That’s always been our truth.”

“Is that why you left, the reason why you went on that little walk?”

“Part of it, yes. But I don’t understand the world we live in, this life – not like I think I should, anyway.”

“And you’re still searching, aren’t you?”

She nodded her head. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “For saying those things…”

And she took his hand, kissed his fingers then looked into his eyes with a ferocity that shook him to his core: “John, you never need to apologize to me for a thing – not now, not ever.”

“Life is a cruel joke, isn’t it?” he said.

“No, it’s not. It’s anything but. It’s a gift, John. The most precious gift in the universe.”

He nodded his head slowly. “Can you tell me about him?”

“Who?”

“The doc. Peterson? Has anything happened yet?”

“No.”

“Do you think it will?”

“Yes. Someday.” She laughed a little, then looked away. “Not yet, though.”

“Do you love him?”

She nodded her head, “Maybe.” But she squeezed his hand and he smiled.

“I thought so. What are you going to do now?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Bhutan?” he said, his voice lost among his fears. “You’re going back, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Soon?”

“I don’t know. There are a few things I need to finish here, but yes, soon enough.”

“Will you ever come back?”

“No.”

A tremble passed between them, a shaking in the universe, and he squeezed her hand. “I’m not sure I can deal with that.”

“I know I can’t, but that’s…”

“Why you have to go.”

“Yes.”

They walked back to the Rover a few minutes later, and as they approached the old beast he stopped and looked at the truck’s weathered lines. He drifted back to that day, in those days after he was let go from the Times. He was almost broke, needed a car, and she’d picked him up and driven him around, looking at cars. Then she saw this one and smiled. “It suits you,” she said, then she bought it for him.

‘That day, this car, sums up our life, doesn’t it,’ he thought. ‘And it always will.’

He drove her up to Westwood, the little Rover an echo all the way, and when he stopped in front of her apartment on Gayley he looked up at the smoggy dome of the night and shook his head.

“Will you at least call me? Before you leave?”

“I can’t do that to you.”

“Why do I think this is our goodbye?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it?”

She shrugged. “Who knows what’s waiting out there? Behind all the shadows?”

He turned cold, his voice full of menace. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to tear it all down, start all over again.”

She saw him walking down Rexford after school, kicking at swirling piles of leaves – lost in time – and she smiled, tried not to laugh at the little boy by her side in the dark.

+++++

She tried not to smile when, in the usual professorial rush early the next morning, she saw the boy with the rucksack come in and sit by the window again. He pulled out her book and put it on the table, then came up and ordered coffee from her, then he went back to his table and sat. Then he picked up the book, looked at the back cover – then at her. He shook his head, but when she called his name and he came up to get his coffee, he looked at her again, slowly this time, carefully now.

“Excuse me,” he said – holding the book up, “but is this you?”

She nodded. “I’m sorry, but yes, it is.”

“Holy crap,” he muttered under his breath.

She sputtered through a happy laugh. “Wow,” she said, shaking with repressed laughter, “I’ve never had such a glowing review.”

“This is one of our textbooks,” he said, “but it’s much more than that.”

“Oh, what’s it like…to you?”

“It’s been, I don’t know, more like a call to arms.”

“Ah.”

“Is that you meant it to be? A manifesto?”

“No,” she sighed, still smiling. “Just a little slice of truth, a voice in the wilderness, perhaps.”

“We have to write a research paper…and I was just wondering, could I interview you?”

“Me? Good heavens…why?”

“Why? Are you kidding? You’re called like, I don’t know, the conscience of a generation…”

“Really?” she said, suddenly feeling like she was back in high school – and the principal had caught her reading Lolita behind the gymnasium. “Good God, that’s silly.”

“So? Could I?”

She shrugged. “Well, I get off at one. Could you come by then?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I sure can.”

“Okay. Now go drink your coffee, before it gets cold.”

Sara had ignored her all morning but she came up now. “Seems a little young for you,” she said. “Maybe you should throw this one back.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“So how’d last night go?”

“Gently, quietly into that good night, my dear Sara.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You know, I never understood you. Not back in high school, and certainly not now.”

“Really? You didn’t?”

“You two were so close, then – poof – nothing. Then you show up at the prom together, now he’s in the White House, he’s mister know it all, then he shows up here all goo-goo eyes – and anyone can tell he’s…”

“No, he’s not, Sara.”

“Yeah, sure – whatever you say. So what happened?”

“We said goodbye.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well, I guess I’m sorry then.”

+++++

He was waiting outside when she got off at one, and he walked beside up the hill to her apartment, but she walked over to the swimming pool and sat.

“You live here?” he asked nervously.

“Yup.”

“Oh.”

“I’m going to go get some lemonade. Want one?”

“Sure.”

She went inside, changed out of her work clothes and poured two glasses, then went back to the pool. “Here you go,” she said as she put his drink down, then she sat in the shade of a dusty umbrella. “So, fire away?”

“You know, I just want to know about you right now. Where you’re from, that kind of thing?”

“Me? I grew up a few miles from here, went to school and worked here.”

“Were your parents poor?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?”

“Why would it be?”

“You were writing about poverty, about inequality. But aren’t those foreign to your upbringing?”

“So? I’m a reporter. A researcher. I look for facts to reveal an as yet undefined truth, not the other way around.”

“How so?”

“I wasn’t looking to write something to help define a pre-existing agenda. I was hoping to find a few undiscovered truths out there, maybe employ them to help make sense of what I found. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Pete, but my dad calls me Bud. Could you, too?”

“Call you Bud? Sure.”

“Oh, God. Here he comes.”

“Who? Your father?”

She turned, saw Doug coming through the gate, and she watched him coming up the stairs, then saw recognition in his eyes – when he saw her, and his son.

“Bud? What are you doing here?”

“Hey, Dad. Working on a research paper, I guess. Do you know…”

“Yes, I’m her physician. How are you doing today, Lindsey?”

“Not bad,”she said, trying not to smile at his obvious discomfort. “And you?”

“Mom called. Wants me to look-in on Dad, and I was running up now. You going to be long?” he said to his son.

“I don’t know? Maybe.”

“Well, I’ll be down in a minute. Why don’t we go out to dinner. The three of us.”

Bud looked after his father when he walked away. “Am I missing something?” he said to her.

“Such as?”

“I don’t know. I felt some kind of weird energy between you two.”

“Really? Well, he saved my life. We’ve talked a few times.”

“Has he told you about my mother?”

“Very little. Why?”

“I don’t know. It just seems like our lives have been defined by the wars between them?”

“Wars?”

“Yeah. It’s like she decided, somewhere back in time, that the purpose of her existence was to tear him down. I don’t know why he stuck it out with her.”

“Perhaps love had something to do with it?”

“You know, I kinda doubt it.”

“Maybe he needed someone to tear him down.”

“What? Why? Why would you say that?”

“Maybe she kept him focused on what was most important to him. Medicine. Healing.”

Bud seemed to have trouble absorbing that; he sat back and looked up into the sky, shook his head. “You, like, see into people, don’t you? Like empathy, only deeper.”

“Do I?”

“It comes through in here,” he said, holding up her book, “like in every page.”

“Maybe you’re confusing empathy with insight.”

“No, I don’t think so. Do you like my dad. I mean, like him – that way?”

“I think I could.”

“I see. Are you working on a book now? I mean, working at that coffee shop can’t be your idea of…”

“Fun? Work isn’t about fun, Bud. It’s about self-respect.”

“So, it’s not, like, research?”

She shook her head. “Groceries and rent come to mind as good reasons to work.”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Guess so.”

“You’ll know so, soon enough.”

“But, are you working on a book right now?”

She sighed, looked at her hands sitting on her lap, then into his eyes. “I’m not sure yet. Maybe.”

“I kind of hope you do.”

“Interesting times, aren’t they? Why don’t you work on a book?”

“Me?”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know squat. I haven’t had any experiences of my own yet.”

“Ah. Well, maybe that ought to be your first priority right about now.”

“It doesn’t feel like the right time…”

“It never feels like the right time.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. I see, said the blind man.”

He nodded, then pinched his brow. “How’d you get sick?”

“I went on a walk.”

“A walk? Where?”

“Started in Shanghai, walked north, to Tibet, then south, to the Himalaya, and I crossed into Bhutan last summer.”

His eyes went round as saucers. “You did? Why?”

“Oh, in a way I was following in my father’s footsteps. I was trying to escape.”

“Escape? From what?”

“Inevitability.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. Not yet, anyway.”

“So. You’re going back out there? To keep walking?”

“I don’t know. Maybe – someday.”

They turned and looked at Doug when he came out of the main building, and they both watched his eyes as he sat down in the sun.

“I think Mother needed a little pat on the shoulder,” he said. “How are things going here?”

“Good,” his son said.

“You reading that for Portman’s class?” Doug said, pointing at her book.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What did you think of it?”

“It’s an anthem generator, a call to arms,” the boy said, looking into his father’s eyes.

“And?”

“And, it’s an eye-opener, but confusing, Dad. It’s the why of things I don’t understand yet.”

“Oh? Are we still talking about the book?”

“Maybe, but sometimes there’s no clarity – until you see things with your own eyes.”

“And what do you see, Bud.”

“You two are in love.”

Lindsey put her lemonade on the table – fearing she she might cough it out. “Jumping to conclusions, Bud?”

“I don’t think so. Not from where I’m sitting, anyway.”

“Bud, that’s not appropriate. We haven’t even…”

“Dad, you know, I don’t want to hear it. Because, well, if you haven’t, well then, shame on you. You’ve denied love all your life, and now, here it is, right in front of you, waiting. And still you’re waiting? For what, I wonder? Maybe so mother can come and tear her apart, right in front of your eyes?”

Father looked at son, friend looked at them both, each lost in the moment.

“So, just when did you get so smart?” Doug asked quietly, looking down at his hands.

“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe you just thought we’re blind, but you know something? We’re not.”

“Doug?” Lindsey said, blissfully ironic now. “Need something to drink? Lemonade perhaps. A little hemlock on the side?”

And the three of them just looked at one another, then laughed.

+++++

She fell into their new routine.

She worked in the morning, then Doug came by in the middle of the afternoon and they talked for a while, before he went up to check on his father, and then, with her little red journals open on the desk she would fire up the Mac and start writing. She wrote about herdsmen and farmers, monks and monasteries, and when she wrote about her father’s desperate journey from North Vietnam to Bhutan she tried to remember his words, his recollections – his feelings – and she felt them come to her again as eternal echoes.

But it all came down to mountains and valleys, the sun rising – and setting. Running from your fellow man, then falling into the arms of good people who were willing to help. Highs and lows, good and evil. She had focused on inequality in her first book, and while she didn’t want to revisit those themes in her writing, she found it an inescapable burden to not do so. To turn away now would, she knew, be her greatest defeat.

Some days Bud knocked on the door, wanted to talk – about this or that – his research paper one day, what she found so mesmerizing about Bhutan the next.

“Mesmerizing?” she said when he asked her that. “Do I appear hypnotized?”

“Sometimes,” he said – almost evasively. “You never appear anxious, but when you talk about that monastery it’s like someone has opened the floodgates, and you’re dancing with Prince Valium.”

“Holy cow…Prince Valium?”

“Oh, sorry. That’s my mom’s weapon of choice.”

“Weapon?”

“How she beats back the world.”

“Ah.”

“I’m curious, how do you beat back the world?”

She looked at him, curious now, about what he was trying to get at. “I’m not sure you can. Why?”

“Can you stop with the Zen riddles for a moment?”

Riddles, she thought. Am I a riddle? “I can try,” she replied. He always seemed despondent one moment, curious the next, but she thought something was different today, some little spark was in his eyes that hadn’t been there the last time she saw him. “What is it you want to say?”

He looked away, lost in his thoughts. “You know, you’re like a statue, maybe a lonely goddess in a cool garden, chiseled of pure white marble. You’re this gorgeous thing, like God started in on you and decided to make you his idea of perfection. When I talk to you I feel myself falling in love with you, and I can’t help it,” he said, his lips trembling. “I can’t help looking at you and feeling the way I do.”

“Then why are you hiding?”

“Hiding?”

“Yes. Your feelings.”

“Because I think it’s wrong.”

“To love someone?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” she said, “are you’re confusing love with sex?”

“I – what?”

“You feel love, but you feel in conflict with the idea, but is that because the idea of sex is bound to your idea of love?”

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, I see you as one set of things – a writer, say, but I look at you and I pretty much want to crawl in the sack and get it on with you, too.”

“Really? Well, good luck with that.”

“I know, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at, so don’t worry.”

“What are you trying to get at, Bud?” She watched his fingers now, fidgeting a little, his eyes not making contact.

“I’m afraid. Afraid of Bhutan. Afraid you’re going to leave one day, and Dad will go with you.”

“That’s an awful lot of fear, don’t you think?”

“No, it’s not hardly enough. My mother’s sicker than hell, and I wonder what will happen to us – if Dad leaves after she dies.”

“I don’t know, but what makes you think he’d leave? For that matter, why do you think I’m leaving?”

“You’ve as much as told me that before, Lindsey. And Dad sure thinks you are.”

“Really? How strange. I’m not sure what I’m having for dinner, let alone if I’m moving half way around the world. But it’s curious.”

“Curious?”

“Yes. So much fear over something that isn’t? But, it’s more than just odd, to me, anyway. Like it’s kind of odd that you’d tell me you’d like to take me to bed. Kind of like there are no boundaries any more. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah. I know I shouldn’t have said that…”

“But you did. Why, I wonder?”

“Sometimes I think there just isn’t time for all that anymore.”

“All that? What do you mean?”

“Civility, maybe, the remnants of decaying social conventions.”

She looked away from his words, yet she had to consider a potential truth in his idea – consider them a partial truth, anyway, perhaps a universal truth, waiting to be explored. And, she thought, maybe, just maybe, such collapses in norms had precipitated the flight of the desert fathers, perhaps been a force that informed that earlier monastic impulse, and she wanted to turn and write – and then it hit her.

Writing wasn’t the same thing as living, just as living in fear isn’t the same thing as being afraid. One is contemplation, the other – experience – so why was he afraid of something so nebulous? Or was he, really?

“I wonder, Bud, has time become so precious? Civility exists to smooth out the rough edges, to help create a little harmony. Is that such a bad thing? Or have we come to that point again?”

“Again?”

“Oh, nothing. Just a thought.”

“Do you know how beautiful you are? I mean, do you ever think about it?”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, but it’s a simple question? Do you?”

“I’m not sure I can answer that, Bud. Physical beauty is not something I’ve ever given a great deal of thought to, in anyone, and especially not when it concerns me.”

“I think that’s what I’m trying to get at, in a round about way. Yet you seem to write about ugliness all the time. Not physical ugliness, but, well, maybe moral ugliness. Do you ever wonder what the results would be if people were bombarded with tales of ugliness day-in and day-out, so much so that they forgot what beauty was? Real beauty, I mean?”

“That’s a good question, Bud. But what is real beauty?”

“I’m not sure I know. I know it’s not necessarily manufactured beauty, the Hollywood formula of beauty, anyway. That kind of beauty is packaged and sold, but then again, maybe the most beautiful sunset in the world isn’t really beautiful after all. It’s here one minute, gone the next.”

“So, beauty must be permanent?”

He shook his head. “Maybe ethereal is a better word? Or otherworldly?”

She heard a knock on the door, saw Doug come in and she wanted to turn away, sigh in relief.

“So, have you two solved all the world’s problems?”

“We were talking about beauty,” Bud said.

“Oh? What about it?”

“I think,” she interjected, “I’m getting hungry. Anyone ready for dinner?”

And Doug looked at his son, then at her, and he saw the relief in her eyes. “Yeah. You know, I am. Bud? You too? Or do you need to get to work on something for school?”

“I need to go to the library, see if something’s back on the shelf, then do some calculus homework. We have an exam on Friday.”

“Okay, Lindsey, I guess you’re stuck with me.

She felt so uneasy she could hardly eat, and he picked up on it almost immediately. “You know,” he said, “Borderline Personality is a spectrum disorder, from mild to severe. I think he’s in the middle somewhere, but I’m not sure. He doesn’t understand boundaries, that much I do know.”

“No kidding.”

“He crossed a few today, did he?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Jesus. That bad?”

She shook her head. “No, but thanks for telling me. I wasn’t sure what to think.”

“He’s fragile, Lindsey. Always has been. I found out a few years ago there were no boundaries between Bud and his mother.”

She nodded her head. “I suspected as much. He seems very confused. He also seems afraid you’ll abandon him.”

“Oh? Well, I’m not surprised.”

“Yes. Running off to Bhutan with someone seems high on his list. I would say if you did so after his mother passed, well, he might be in real trouble.”

“I know. But the real trouble, Lindsey, isn’t with Bud.”

“Oh?”

“It’s his sister.”

“She’s the one still in high school?”

He nodded his head. “Yes. Except she’s not. She’s in an in-patient psychiatric hospital, up in Ojai. Paranoid schizophrenic, and in very bad shape.” He was looking away, trying to keep it together. “Some mistakes we never stop paying for, I guess.”

“Where’s your oldest? Did you say in Boston?”

“Yes, Andrew. Boston College. He escaped the worst of it, I think. Madeleine had perfected her technique by the time Lacy came along. Her psychiatrist refers to Madeleine as ‘that monster’ – if that’s a good indicator of disposition.”

“I saw a good deal of it in Mississippi. Except there are no mental health facilities when you’re broke.”

“I know.”

“They’re lucky to have you, Doug. Someone to help pick up the pieces.”

“There are no pieces to pick up where Lacy is concerned, Lindsey. She’ll never get better than she is right now. They tell me as she ages things will only get worse.”

“Is it that bad?”

“It’s worse.”

“Could I go up with you sometime, when you visit?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure. I’d have to ask first. Fragile doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on with her right now.”

“How about you, Doug? How are you coping?”

He snorted a little, tried to keep his irony in-check. “Me? I write the checks, try to keep the fires from spreading, life from spiraling out of control.”

“And your mother calls you about your dad how many times a day?”

He shrugged.

“And now I’m just throwing fuel on the fire, aren’t I? With Bud?”

“I knew it was coming. I should have prepared you.”

“You can’t do everything, Doug. If you try all the time, you might just makes things worse.”

“I probably already have.”

“Knock it off. The self-pity thing doesn’t suit you. Keeping it together, keeping focused helps. Keeping me in the loop might help, too. Letting me pick up some of the load when you don’t feel you can.”

“I can’t ask that of you.”

“Okay, so don’t ask. I’m telling you this right now: I’m here, and I’m willing to help.”

He nodded, turned to look at her eyes. “I wish I wasn’t so in love with you?”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because you have no idea how impossible this all is.”

And she laughed. “Oh, is that right? Listen, one day I’ll tell you all about impossible, but for now, please, stop with all the goddamn self-pity, would you? Really, you’re embarrassing me, so stop acting like a two year old.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Good.”

+++++

She began to listen to the people in the coffee shop after that night, to the miseries of affluence, as she began to call it, for she soon understood that the people of West LA were often as miserable as the people in poorest Mississippi or Appalachia, and frequently more so.

But why, she wondered?

She had gone on the assumption, twenty years earlier, that money was the root of inequality, that a certain lack of material affluence was the primary cause of human misery in poorer regions of the country. And clearly it was, in a material sense anyway, but what she was seeing now was a poverty of the soul, a depreciation of the spirit that had nothing at all to do with material prosperity. So, what she was witnessing was an entirely new, to her, anyway, kind of inequality – and it troubled her.

Clearly, having money helps, she knew. Doug could get high quality mental health care for his daughter, while most people in rural Mississippi didn’t even know what a psychiatrist was. Yet by almost any measure she could think of, Doug, and Doug’s family, were miserable in ways very similar to the desperately poor.

So, she watched and listened, as she had twenty years before. To the customers who came in and out of a coffee shop in West LA, one of the most prosperous enclaves in one of the most prosperous cities in the world. People came into the place and thought nothing of spending five dollars on a cup of coffee – an amount of money that could feed a family in West Africa for a month, or a family in Mississippi for, perhaps, a few days. She began to pay attention to facial expressions and the tones of voice she heard. To expressions of happiness, or anxiety – and even to how people paid for their coffee, and how much they tipped when they left the shop. She took notes in a new journal, and she parsed her observations when she got home, tried to make sense of her day…

She remembered the studies John Calhoun conducted in the late 40s with rats, looking at population pressure and how increasing population affected species survival, and she wondered: could it be as simple as that? Did packing millions of people into cities like LA and New York, or London, Shanghai or Rio de Janeiro cause immense breakdowns in the ability to experience happiness?

And could this be the same, or similar to the dissolution of trust that spurred disparate monastic impulses two thousand years earlier? Was this, instead of being an aberration, more an inevitable component of the human condition? If Hobbesian capitalism lead inexorably to Malthusian population pressures, which seemed to be a common criticism from Descartes to Marx, where was the payoff to civilization? Where was the ultimate good? If being poor was bad for the human psyche, where was the payoff if being rich made you equally as miserable, if only in a different way? If the common denominator was money, what was it about modern society that allowed a medium of exchange to exert so much influence over emotional well-being?

Simple inequality?

She began to read more about experiments in guaranteed minimum incomes being tried in the Netherlands and Sweden, but there just wasn’t enough data yet. She moved on to anthropological studies of almost prehistoric tribes discovered early in the twentieth century, in places like New Guinea and deep within the Amazonian basin, places where mediums of exchange were more primitive than had existed in China and Europe three thousand years ago, but all the data she found was inconclusive at best, more likely too speculative to be of any use.

She began to reread the works of C Wright Mills, particularly his work on the emasculation of the middle class found in his book White Collar. That work had formed the basis of her early research on inequality, so she turned to it once again, thinking she might find a new way to look at the problem – but no, she was onto something subtly different now.

Maybe the problem was too obvious, she thought, to even be considered a ‘problem’ – maybe the issue she had latched onto was more basic still, more like simple human nature.

But human nature is far from simple, she chided herself, then she spilled coffee on her hand, dropped a cup to the floor. “Damn!” she muttered as she bent to clean up her mess, and when she stood she saw Bud walking in the door, and an older man who stood by his side across the counter seemed to be with him.

“Hey, Bud,” she said, wiping coffee from her wrist, “haven’t seen you in a while. What can I get you?”

“Oh, the usual,” meaning a two liter 100 octane jolt. “Lindsey, this is my sociology prof, Dr Portman, and after reading my research paper he wanted to meet you.”

She looked at this man, this friend for so many years, and she tried to gauge his mood – yet she thought of shadows, always shadows, when she saw him. Still, in his bow-tied way, in his round, tortoise shell glasses and chalk-dust-covered jacket, he was even now every bit the harried, ironic academic. “Good to see you,” she smiled slyly – if duplicitously, while holding out her damp hand. “Oh, piffle!” she added, wiping her hand completely before taking his.

“Yes, indeed. So, Peter tells me he interviewed you several times while writing his paper. I wondered if you’d have a moment to talk about some of the issues raised?”

Sara came and took over the counter, told her to go sit and talk for a while, so she took off her apron after she made their coffee, then went out and sat with them at Bud’s favorite table.

And it was funny, because she really wasn’t sure what the thesis of his paper was, only that he’d asked questions and she’d talked with him for hours and hours about her experiences in Mississippi and Bhutan. Beyond that, she was in the dark, and she told Portman just that.

He smiled, told her he understood. “Still, you see, I’ve used your book in class for several years now, and many of my students have, over the years, chosen to focus on that work, but none has ever taken the approach Peter has. He has found his way into the thicket, I think, into an intellectual conundrum, perhaps.”

“Oh? Well, good for him.”

“Yes, precisely. He seems to have stumbled onto something quite unusual, namely that a diffuse cultural dissatisfaction permeates modern life, but this anomie has left breadcrumbs through history, back to the desert fathers in Egypt and the Sinai.”

“Oh, how interesting?” she said, trying to force calm into her voice, yet she noted how intently Portman peered into her eyes just then.

“Yes, just so, but no need to bother with all that just now. I simply wanted to meet you, and to thank you for your book. It has been a godsend, in it’s way, over the years, and I wanted to talk with you, later, perhaps, about a few lingering questions I have. So…I wondered if you might have some time?”

“Of course. I get off at one, so if you want drop by then, and if you’d like we can walk up to my place and have tea.”

“Excellent! Would this afternoon work out, by any chance?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Fine,” he said, turning to Bud. “Well, let’s not keep this young lady from her appointed rounds.”

“I’ll see you later,” she said, looking at Portman, then she walked off – livid – and she was still simmering when he came by at the end of her shift. He slipped in and waited for her while she cleaned up and took off her apron again, then they stepped out into the sun and began walking.

“I assume I should have a talk with young Mister Peterson about plagiarism?” he said straight away.

“Perhaps I should first,” she replied.

“No, from the look in your eye I fear you might strangle him, at the very least, or beat him over the head, perhaps, with a baseball bat. Best let me, I suppose, as anyway, it’s my purview.”

“Alright.”

“A pity, still. I can see he’s been quite engaged by this whole thing. I hate to throw cold water on him now.”

“Perhaps he could rewrite his paper,” she suggested.

“Perhaps. Yes, and perhaps you could review his work before he resubmits it? Just a quick run-through, I think.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“You’ve done well, Lindsey. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

“So many come through my door, yet so few rise to the challenge. And fewer still meet expectations. You’ve exceeded mine, by the way.”

“You always exceeded mine too, Professor.”

“Franklin, my dear. After all these years, perhaps you should call me by my given name.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, what’s all this angst about,” he said, as they came to the gate that led to the swimming pool. “Young Peterson has done nothing but show me the way to some deeper concern of yours. What’s troubling you? Is it John again?”

She sighed, looked at her friend and mentor closely, then shook her head. “Shall I fix tea?” she asked. “And sit out here, in the shade?”

“You know, I feel a chill. Perhaps we could sit inside today.”

“Okay.”

They went to her apartment and he sat on the sofa, looked at her desk, then out the window – and she asked him what he’d have.

“Have you any Port about?” he asked.

“You know, I think I do. One finger?”

“Two, I think.”

She poured two glasses and went to the chair by his side, and he took a sip. “Ah, thank you. It’s been a long time.”

“How are you doing?”

“Tired. And I think this will be my last term.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I do wish you had taken my advice, gone for your PhD. I’d like to turn the department over to someone I trust, someone who cares about things as you do.”

“Other roads beckoned.”

“They still do, I see,” he said, looking at her desk. “Are you writing again, at least?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, finally! Hope springs eternal!”

They laughed.

“So, this impulse young Peterson refers to, this monastic impulse of the desert fathers? Where are you going with this?”

“Actually, I’m not sure. I thought I was going down the same path as Mills and Weber, but in the end, I think that will lead to a…”

“A paradox. Yes, it will. What is your basic assumption?”

“That societies experience a kind of collective anomie when certain thresholds are crossed. The dictates of Law, the imposition of endless bureaucracies on the routines of life, and the results are the same across time. That much is obvious to anyone, but these times feel different.”

“Yes. They do indeed.”

“But humanity has been here before.”

“Yes. It has. Do you forget Joseph, and the well?”

“We’re turning inward again.”

“Yes. We are.”

“Mysticism. Irrationalism.”

“The pendulum swings, Lindsey. There’s nothing we can do to stop that, as you well know.” He sighed, took a sip of his port, then leaned back. “There’s nothing finer, you know, than a smooth port on a cool afternoon.”

“A fireplace would be nice.”

“Ah, well, let’s make it a stone fireplace at my old home in the Cotswolds. That would be something to experience again. My father and his dogs, by the fireplace. Listening to Winston on the radio, telling us how the Germans had been turned back over Dover.”

“God, what a life you had. The things you experienced, the things you shared with us. You opened so many doors, so many minds.”

He pinched away a tear, rubbed his eye. “Did I, indeed?”

“I wish Mary was still with us.”

“I do as well. Not a day passes when I don’t think of her.”

“What about the Cotswolds? Will you return now?”

“I’ve thought about it, but in a way this is home now. Even now. The fight is here, waiting to be joined, yet I feel that night calling even now.” He sighed, shook his head. “This all started in Bhutan, did it not? This angst of yours? It is your father’s, I suppose?”

“Yes. In a way I think it’s continuation. The past is prologue.”

“Your assumptions. When you find yourself at a dead end, so you must challenge all your assumptions. And yet, why is it that I fear you have been looking for answers in all the wrong places, my friend. You so often have, I think.”

“Oh? Have I?” The look she saw in his eyes troubled her deeply, yet she did not turn away.

“The answers you seek will not be found in the musing of dead academics. The way ahead is over there,” he said, pointing at the campus just across the street, “in Bunche Hall.”

“The Buddhists?” she said – incredulously.

“You have been on that path a long time, Lindsey. Even if you walked unawares. And I think it time you come to terms with that, and with your father.”

“My father? But he’s…”

“No, he isn’t. Not in here, Lindsey,” he said, pointing to his heart. “In fact, you’ve been following in his footsteps all your life. Your brother has, too, though he’d be the last to admit such a thing.”

She looked at him, wondered where he was going with this.

“It’s such a pity, too. He’s courted ignorance and fear all his life, exploited weakness in others all his life – even yours – and yet I fear he’ll never rest until he’s burned the pillars of our world to the ground. And the sad thing, Lindsey, is that he’ll never understand why he did – yet I feel almost certain that when he walks over the rubble the only thing he’ll have left in his heart is a profound sorrow for all the things he killed.”

“Deep is the well of the past,” she sighed.

“Yes, my dear. Exactly so.”

+++++

She walked between rough juniper and smooth-skinned eucalyptus, the planters along her way full of ivies and discarded political leaflets, and from time to time she looked at wide-eyed students darting between classes, so serious, still so much like she had been. The campus was the same, too, yet different. Everything had seemed new when she first walked along narrow pathways between buildings twenty something years ago, but what had once been new felt old this morning. Old and almost worn out – like bread past it’s expiration date – and she wondered why such an enclosed, tempered world might feel this way.

Maybe, she thought, because school itself had been a gateway. A means to an end, yet today she felt that the place itself had become an end – in and of itself. If it had been, almost thirty years ago, a place to study the world before she moved out seeking experiences of her own, she felt that now, today, it had become a safe harbor, a place to run away from experience, to study it from afar – without getting your hands dirty.

Had life grown so preternaturally – ugly – since Clinton? Had an enlightened approach to the world only opened minds to all it’s horrors? With our ability to peer deeply into every facet of human existence, had we finally seen and learned enough? Did we not want to see any more?

She by-passed the Asian Studies building, shook her head and walked up into the sculpture garden beyond; she looked around, found a bench – yet passed that by too. She walked around, looking for just the right spot, then she sat on the grass – her legs crossed ‘indian style’ – looking up at passing clouds, then she laid back and let the sun fall on her face.

And with the sun guiding her, she felt herself drift away…

Falling into the dream…a dream of shadows and rivers.

Then a fresh shadow loomed, remained fixed overhead, cooling her brow – and she opened her eyes – saw fields of red fluttering in the breeze. A monk, she saw, standing over her, looking down. Then she saw her book in the monk’s hand, and she smiled – if only to herself.

“Lindsey?”

“Guilty.”

“Oh? Of what?”

“Original sin.”

He laughed. “And along came concupiscence…”

“No…and then came the Stone Temple Pilots,” and then her eyes brightened when she saw her old friend laugh.

“You will never change,” the monk said, laughing again. “May I sit with you?” he asked a moment later.

“Of course, Tschering,” she said, swinging around to sit up, keeping the sun on her face as she turned to face him. “Interesting choice of books,” she sighed.

“I had a question, but Dr Portman called a few minutes ago,” he said, seriously – nervously, “and he told the director you’d be coming by. So of course, he asked that I talk with you.”

“Of course. How have you been?”

“Busy, I suppose, would be the charitable way to describe my life here. And you? I heard about your illness, but nothing after.”

“I’ve been recuperating, and writing a little, too.”

“About time.”

“So, you’re going to jump all over my case, too?”

“No, I love you too much to do that.”

She looked at him for a moment, then nodded her head gently. “I –.”

“You found your way to the monastery, I take it?”

“Yes.”

“And how was my father?”

She nodded her head, acknowledged the question, but she looked away without answering.

“Ah,” he said. “I understand. How is his health?”

“Good.”

“Did you tell him…about your father?”

“I did, but I think he already knew. He disappeared after that, was gone for days.”

“There’s was an impossible song.”

“Yes. It was.”

“What about you? Do you still sing?”

She smiled, looked at the memory for a moment, then shook her head. “No, that music left too. It became impossible.”

“The recital? Bach, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, The Coffee Cantata. You remember?”

“I will never forget that night.”

“No. I suppose some moments take on a life of their own. Who knows, perhaps they live forever.”

Her father had come to watch, and to listen, that night – Ben Asher, her real father, but so had John – her real though make-believe brother – and Tschering had been there too. He remembered that night all too well. Tschering had looked on as – like atoms fusing in the night – the universe turned in on itself – pressure building around the room as the music faded – until worlds ruptured and screamed away in the night, dying in the last words of her music…

Where John was concerned, Tschering thought, death was always close by.

+++++

“Boomer 5-0-5, feet dry” Ben Asher told the controller in the E-2.

“5-0-5, come right to 3-0-2 degrees.”

“3-0-2.”

Boomer 5-0-5 was an A-6e, and Ben Asher had just flown over a line of small, jagged islands that dot the coast west of Cam Trung, North Vietnam; it was three in the morning and he was threading Boomer 5-0-5 between violent thunderstorms, looking at developing cells on his radar – feeling their currents through the stick. Looking at his instruments, feeling his way through the mountains, flying a few hundred feet over unseen mountaintops in the clouds below; Asher was threading Boomer 5-0-5 through the mountain east of Hanoi – at almost 400 knots. The aircraft was carrying four two thousand pound HE bombs, the most most powerful air-dropped, non-nuclear weapon then in the US Navy’s arsenal. His target: an airfield located southwest of the city, an air force facility where two squadrons of new, Soviet built Mig-21s had just been activated. Boomer 2, a flight of four Intruders was part of the opening move in a much larger assault on the north that would start later that morning, and his flight’s success was critical to the overall success of the operation.

An E-2B trailed 5-0-5, relaying information about enemy air movements and search radar sites, guiding the Intruders around potential threats on their way to the target, all while searching for the best way to get the aircraft back out to the sea, and to the USS Constellation.

“5-0-5, alpha search picked up, 30 miles at your eight o’clock.”

“5-0-5, we’re jamming.” Asher looked at the threat panel and toggled the pod to active, knowing that would alert operators on the ground that Intruders were in the area now. “What’s our time?” he asked his BN, his bombardier/navigator.

“Call it eight minutes.”

“5-0-5, come right to 3-1-0 degrees, increase speed to Buster, repeat Buster.”

“310, Buster.”

“Uh, 5-0-5, looks like a sector patrol of four Mike 1-5s returning to San Bay. I don’t think they have you.”

“Roger. Lead to flight, lets get down in the weeds,” Asher said, moving the four aircraft to the lowest altitude he could. Burning fuel at a prodigious rate so low, he concentrated on the terrain ahead – through the instruments on his panel…

“5-0-5, the Migs are overhead now, looks like 2500 AGL, heading 2-0-7 degrees.”

“Roger.” He resisted the impulse to look up, pulled up sharply to clear some power lines then dived back to the ground. “Talk to me, Dale. How far now?”

“Four minutes.”

“5-0-5, ground radars active ahead, get ready for SAMs.”

“Okay, got it.” He coaxed the aircraft over a small hill, and Hanoi lay ahead, enveloped by a huge thunderstorm. The Intruder entered heavy rain, then tiny hail hammered the windshield, the world inside the cockpit now a deafening roar.

“Arming now,” his BN shouted. “Sixty seconds.”

The threat panel lit up like a Christmas tree.

“5-0-5, multiple SAM launches,” the controller in the E2 said calmly, “at your 10, 2 and 4 o’clock.”

“Thirty seconds.”

“5-0-5, the Migs are turning, diving now.”

“This is getting interesting,” Asher sighed. “Uh, Archer, let me know if anyone gets on our six.”

“5-0-5, roger. SAMs have not picked you up, repeat, they are not in active. MIGs are breaking off.”

“They can’t see shit in this weather,” his BN said. “Okay, come to fifteen hundred AGL…stand-by one, right two degrees, five seconds – and – bombs away!”

Asher felt the load release, but the left wing dipped horribly and he dialed in aileron trim. “I think we’ve got a hanger,” he said, and he pulled up a little more, looked out at the wing, saw one of the huge bombs fluttering in the slipstream. “Shit,” he said, “number one pylon didn’t release. Pickle it again.”

+++++

Just as he heard the air raid sirens, Colonel Vo Nguyen Bao looked up into the storm, saw the four aircraft streak by – almost within arm’s reach, he thought – and he saw their bombs fall away, arc through the rain towards the revetments on the far side of the field. The Migs were being fueled and fresh air-to-air missiles being placed on their pylons, and he shook in fury when he saw the first bombs slam into the area – then the first concussive waves hit – knocking him to the ground. Several more, in rapid succession, hammered him to the concrete and he felt ashamed of himself – for this failure.

He heard another roar, this time SAMs fired by base defense batteries, and they streaked by – then he saw flares falling from the trailing enemy aircraft – before they disappeared in the rain. A flight of Mig 15s screamed-by overhead, after the enemy, he hoped, then he felt another concussive blast – but this one far to the west – and he wondered if one of the enemy had been hit, before he turned to assay the damage here.

He drove across the field, found four aircraft destroyed and three severely damaged, two with minor damage and the rest untouched, then he went to the fuel storage bunkers and sighed when he found these unscathed. Reports came in, over one hundred casualties on the ground, including ten pilots dead, and the main runway cratered. It would take a half day to repair, he was told, and he ordered repair teams to muster.

Then a call came in from a civil defense team.

A single bomb had fallen west of the air base, and hit the regional hospital. Initial reports claimed that over 500 were dead, but that number would increase, he was told. He summoned his car and drove through the rain until he was on scene.

The building, a sprawling, three story structure made of concrete and brick, was almost completely gone. Not simply destroyed – it was gone, like it had been erased from the earth – and the only reminder of it’s existence was a huge, flaming crater perhaps a hundred meters wide and ten deep.

Bao looked at the ruins and shook with molten rage, then an air intercept officer radioed.

“Colonel, one of their aircraft was hit, and it is not turning towards the sea.”

Looking at the ruins, he turned to the radio.

+++++

“Talk to me, Dale.”

“I can’t get power to the instruments, period. Hydraulics are about gone.”

“You know, like, where we are, maybe?”

Asher looked out the windshield, swiveling his head, saw the sky turning lead gray aft. “We’re still heading west,” he said again, and he tried to move the stick again. Nothing…no control at all – except through the trim tabs – and the instrument panel was a wreck. Even the stand-by compass had been hit by shrapnel, and now even it dangled uselessly from it’s mounting post, knocked from the center of the windshield by the blast.

At least that bomb had dropped, he sighed.

‘Let’s see,’ he said to himself, ‘about an hour and twenty minutes since we dropped the load, heading, maybe, due west at a little less than 200 knots.’ They had broken out of the clouds a half hour ago and now Boomer 5-0-5 was almost casually puttering through the mountains of North Vietnam, heading for, he assumed, Laos – and hopefully not into China. He was ‘flying’ by controlling the aircraft with throttles and trim tabs, so control was minimal, at best. But, he sighed inwardly, they were still in the air, and getting further from Hanoi by the minute – and that was a good thing. He didn’t want to spend the rest of the war in an internment camp, or worse.

He saw another road ahead, maybe headed west, and he saw a few small villages below. He advanced the right throttle, began a creeping turn to the left, then he backed off and tried to settle the wings again. He looked at the hydraulic pressure, watched it fall, knowing as soon as it was gone the game was up.

They’d have to eject.

And then what?

Then he saw a wall of mountains ahead, and his BN looked up when he said “Fuck!” – a little too loudly.

“Can we get over that?” Dale McMasters asked.

Aster advanced both throttles, dialed in as much elevator trim as he dared, then dropped flaps and slats. He guessed their climb was around 500 feet per minute, and he knew they wouldn’t make it. “See a pass? Any way around this shit?”

“Maybe right, about two o’clock,” McMasters said, and he looked, cut back the right throttle and re-trimmed the wing.

“Maybe,” Asher grimaced, now willing the aircraft to make the turn.

Then the engines sputtered and spooled down slowly.

“Outta gas, Amigo,” he said. “Time to say bye-bye.”

“500 AGL. Gonna be a hard landing,” Mc Masters said.

“Eject, eject, eject!”

The shattered canopy blew away, and their seats launched into the early morning light, blowing away the remnants of the night.

+++++

“Colonel, radar at Điện Biên Phủ has a possible contact, still heading west at very low speed”

Bao nodded his head. “He is injured, damaged, can not turn. Get a company of ground troops assembled, drive them by to pick me up, let them see what this dog has done. Get three helicopters ready to go at first light. I want to find that aircraft. The American will try to get to Laos, maybe Air America will attempt to pick him up there.”

“They can not operate that far north, Colonel.”

“Perhaps, but it does not matter. We will get to this animal first.”

“Yes, Colonel.” The captain turned his little truck and drove back to the air base, and Bao turned and looked at the smoldering ruins, shaking inside now. It would take many hours, he knew, to count the dead, yet he was sure his wife was in that crater. A physician, a surgeon trained in Moscow, she had been called in at midnight, and though she had promised to see him later that morning – he was sure that world was gone now. Vanished, in an instant. And now he was disappearing too, into a sunless sea of molten hate.

+++++

They gathered their parachutes and buried them under leaves, McMasters jumping back once when a cobra slithered through the undergrowth, then they gathered what supplies they had and took off up the hill.

“Let’s find some high ground,” McMasters said. “See if we can get a signal.”

“There’s a big air base at Điện Biên Phủ,” Asher said. “My guess is they spotted us on radar, that they’ll send troops.”

“Okay, so – what should we do?”

Asher sighed, stopped to rub out a cramp in his thigh – but his hand came up bloody and wet.

“What the hell?”

“Here,” McMasters said, “let me take a look.” He felt around, then asked Ben to pull his pants down. “Little laceration, but it’s deep. I can bandage it, but keep out of water.” He finished a few minutes later, and Asher thought about their best course of action.

“If we can make it to Laos, we might run across some Special Forces types…”

“Yeah, but Charlie is all over this area.”

“Yeah, but there are trains running, and the Mekong runs from China all the way south, past Saigon. If we can cross the border we can make our way south. Simple as that.”

“Nothing’s ever that simple, Ben.”

They crawled up a rocky crag and looked around, and McMasters darted back from another snake, this one aggressive. “Goddamn, the fuckers are everywhere,” he cried, then he took out his 45 and shot this one, in the head. “Look at the size, would you?”

Asher shook his head, looked around, suddenly seeing snakes everywhere.

“There are tigers out here, too,” McMasters added.

“Yeah, well, okay, I see a big city to the north, some air traffic too, so lets assume that’s Điện Biên Phủ. That puts the border about twenty miles,” he sighed, pointing to the west, “that-away.”

“South too, but I think you’re right. West is closer. Should we wait until it’s dark to move?”

“Fuck, are you kidding? Snakes hunt at night, Amigo. Tigers do, too. All things considered, I think I’d rather be in Bangkok tonight, chasing pussy, maybe, or just getting tanked.”

“Is there anything you’d rather do than chase tail?”

McMasters looked around, thought about that one for a minute, then shook his head. “No, not really.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“I do know, when we get out of this fucking hell-hole, I’m moving someplace with no snakes. I mean zip, nada, none…” He had stopped in mid-sentence, and his head was cocked to one side now. “Hear that?”

Asher turned his head, tried to ignore the pain in his thigh, the he heard it too. “Flutterbug,” he said. “We’re not a mile from where we came down, too.”

“Wonder where the bird came down?”

“No telling. No fuel, so no fire. They’ll have to fly right over to see it, in this jungle, anyway.”

“Which way do you think they’ll think we would run?”

“West.”

“So? Do we run west?”

“Yup. We’ll keep west, use terrain for cover. Looks like this valley runs southwest, so let’s keep just under this ridge line, through those trees. Ready?”

“Let’s do it.”

They walked all day and into the night, stopping to eat once and to sip their water rations when they felt they absolutely had to, then they rigged hammocks and slept in a tree that first night – and Asher woke with a start at one point when McMasters shot another snake – on a limb just overhead.

“I’m tellin’ ya, man, them fuckers is everywhere.”

“I wonder if they’re safe to eat?”

“Tell ya what, slick. Help yourself. Let me know how it works out for ya, ya know?”

Asher laughed, fiddled with the SAR radio, then looked up through the trees at the stars until he felt sleep coming…

He felt something kicking his leg, lifted his head and saw McMasters looking at him.

“Sh-h-h.” When his BN pointed at the ground he heard it too. Men talking, working their way along the trail.

‘Are we high enough?’ he wondered. They’d rigged the hammocks maybe thirty feet off the jungle floor, then cut some branches to break up their lines, and he listened as the patrol came closer and closer, then he heard the men’s voices receding down the hill.

Before the sun was up they climbed down the tree and kept heading west, staying high on the ridge line through the morning – until they came to an overlook.

There was a road in the valley far below, a red sandy gash through the jungle, and they saw four heavy trucks on the road, waiting. After a half hour they watched a few dozen men emerge from the trees and climb in the trucks, then all the trucks drove off.

“Well,” Asher said, “I guess that’s that.”

“No way,” McMasters said. “This is a trap. They know we’re in this valley, somewhere. Now they make us think they’re pulling out, wait for us to make our move, then catch us in a pincer.”

“Makes sense.”

“They’ll be down there,” McMasters said, pointing along the ridge, “waiting. We’re too easy to pick off there.”

“So? What next?”

“Get back up in the trees, wait ‘em out. They’ll give up and move on in a day or so.”

They found two large trees and set up their hammocks as high as they safely could, then they camouflaged the limbs before they snacked, and McMasters fell asleep before the sun set for the day. Asher took out his SAR radio and tried to make contact…

+++++

Early the next morning, Colonel Bao looked over the wreckage from the helicopter, then turned to the captain. “And they went in this direction? To the west?”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Have you notified the Pathet Lao?”

“Yes, Colonel, they have every bit of information we have.”

“How many more men do you need?”

“I have been advised we need two more companies on the ground, and perhaps a half dozen additional helicopters are needed to cover the search area.”

“What about the Americans?”

“They have noted our efforts. RA-5C have been over the area several times this morning, and an RB-57 is en route from Yakota.”

“Damn. Who is the pilot? Do we know yet?”

“No, Colonel, but this level of engagement is not unusual. They do not turn away from downed airmen until they have confirmed information regarding death or capture.”

“Perhaps we should put out such information?”

“Colonel?”

“Find some bodies, put them in the wreckage and take photographs. We can put the information out through one of the French wire services.”

“Yes, Colonel.”

“Now, fly me along this ridge, where they were spotted.”

+++++

“There it is again, Dale.”

“Okay, I hear it now.”

The heavy rotors of an Mi-8 suddenly beat the air as it appeared, then moved down the ridge slowly, crabbed heavily to one side. A lone gunner leaned out the door, scanning the trees and forest floor – shooting indiscriminately here and there as it moved along.

“Jesus,” Asher said, “look at the size of that bastard!”

“You go ahead. I’m going to take a nap now, get caught up on my sleep.”

It was a hundred yards away now, higher up the hillside, slipping along the ridge line – and it passed slowly – but it passed – and they remained motionless under their ponchos and camouflage until the helicopter flew down valley and landed on the red sandy road. Dozens of hidden troops came out of the trees, and the four trucks returned, dropping off the troops they’d just picked up.

“Whew. I think it’s gonna be a long night,” McMaster sighed.

“I’ve got to take a shit,” Asher replied.

“You ever had trouble holding it, now’s the time to learn.”

“Crap.”

“Please don’t.”

They watched as about six hundred men, many blowing whistles, began moving up the hill towards their tree.

“5-0-5, Red Dog, do you read.”

“Go ahead, Red Dog.”

“Sit rep.”

“About five hundred gomers below us, headed our way. Along the road, moving up.”

“Sounds kind of fun. We have some company coming, so keep your head down.”

Moments later eight A-6Es came over the ridge-line and dropped close to forty tons of napalm on the assembling NVA companies – before screaming out over Laos and returning to the Constellation, then a formation of Air Force B-57s carpet bombed the roadway.

“Well, fuck me in the ass!” McMasters shouted – as he watched fire sweep away the NVA regulars, then they watched the helicopter lift off through the flames and turn to the north, heading for Điện Biên Phủ.

“5-0-5, Jolly Green about five minutes out. Puff smoke when you hear him.”

“5-0-5, got it.” He turned to McMasters. “Time to get the fuck out of Dodge, Amigo,” and they had just started down the tree when they heard the huge Sikorsky beating up the valley. Asher took out a green smoke grenade and tossed it through the trees, watched the lime colored smoke rise through the trees into the twilight.

“5-0-5, he’s got you, so – uh, stand by one.”

Asher heard it first…

Jet aircraft approaching…

“Okay, 5-0-5, some Migs inbound, CAP overhead moving down to engage, this is going to be a hot extraction.”

Then they heard small arms fire, behind the ridge-line.

“Red Dog, we’ve got company coming, other side of the ridge.”

The Sikorsky CH-3E appeared overhead, it’s final approach unheard when mortar fire started landing on the hillside, and the heavy jungle penetrator landed with a grating thud a few feet from Asher.

“Get on,” he yelled, pushing his BN into the webbing. He shot a thumbs-up the airman watching above and McMasters disappeared through the trees – and Migs roared by, spraying the hillside with machine gun fire.

Asher saw troops moving through the woods a hundred yards away, then took off – running down the hill into the safety of the fires raging after napalm ignited the forest below.

+++++

Bao watched the rescue operation unfold from a hilltop five miles away, staggered that the Americans had staged an operation this far north, and furious that this pilot had now caused such a large additional loss of life. He watched one airman hoisted into the so-called Jolly Green Giant, then he saw it taking fire. He watched as it abandoned the attempt to lift the second airman aboard and turn south, then he watched as a US Navy Phantom shot down one Mig, then another, and he only grew more determined to get this pilot, whoever the hell he was, and bring him to justice.

+++++

Alone now, in the middle of the night, and suddenly cut off from his supplies, he circled back to his tree and watched the area for a while, then, just before dawn he climbed back into his hammock redoubt and promptly fell asleep. McMasters had left his food and water and, more importantly, his spare radio batteries behind, and he gathered these belongings during the afternoon and made an inventory. He figured, with real care, he had enough food and water on hand to get by for three weeks. He had three extra magazines for his Colt 1911, and an extra K-Bar knife, too, and as the sun set he considered taking off on foot – but decided to stay put one more night.

He heard trucks and men on foot all through the night, and he watched as they reloaded into the trucks again the next morning, and drove off.

Again, he considered leaving but decided to hold fast to his tree one more day, and his decision was vindicated. He saw more troops walking the hillside during the night, even using flashlights as diversions, trying to flush him out.

He packed his gear the next morning and took off down the hill, moving quietly between two converging formations, then he slipped across the road and quickly ascended the hill on the other side of the valley – and he never looked back as he crossed open land, moving west now very quickly. He stopped near a farm at midday, tried the radio but got no reply, and only static that night.

He was on his own now, he knew.

There was no fence, no border to mark when he crossed into Laos, and he kept pushing west. He came to a small river and swam across, picked leeches off his legs and chest on the far side, and still he pushed west. Days passed quickly now, and one evening he entered a dense forest, but soon he came upon a paved road. A very elegant paved road, with low bollards casting pools of light at regular intervals up the pavement.

Keeping to the shadows, he followed the road up a hill until he came upon a house in a clearing, and he saw an old Rolls Royce out front, gleaming in the night under several spotlights. Moving through brush, he approached the house, circled behind to the rear – and there he staggered to a halt.

He saw a swimming pool, large, elegant, the water lighted, and he saw two women in the water. Naked women. One a blond, the other a redhead, and they were staring at him.

Then he heard a man’s voice, the accent English.

“Well, come on, then,” the man said, “you might as well come on in, get out of those clothes. Dinner will be on in a bit, but I suppose you’ll want to shower first.”

Asher turned around, saw an older man standing in the shadows, a Walther PPK in his right hand, pointing right at his face.

“Yes, well,” the man continued, “we’ve been expecting you, after all.” He lowered the Walther and stepped forward, holding out his right hand. “The name’s Bond. James Bond,” the man said, then he started laughing.

And Asher, the wound on his leg severely infected after crossing the river, simply fell to the ground in fevered delirium.

+++++

He woke in the middle of the dream, tried to stand but found he couldn’t move, that his wrists and ankles had been tied to a bed of some sort. He felt something between his legs and lifted his head, and he saw a bright light – and a man – a surgeon, perhaps – suturing his thigh.

And the Englishman. He was still standing – in the shadows – looking on.

“Ah, you’re still with us,” the old man said, walking over to the side of the bed.

“Where the hell am I?” Asher said.

“The easy answer, old boy, is here, at my home, and let’s keep it easy for now, right?”

“Am I in Laos?”

“Oh yes. You’ve made it this far, farther than I suspected you might, in fact. The Pathet Lao are turning over every bush looking for you, too.”

“What? Why?”

“You’ve caused quite a stir, old boy. Dropping a bomb on that hospital and all, half the goons in Southeast Asia are out looking for you.”

“What? What hospital?”

“Hanoi. Apparently your group bombed an airbase there, but it seems a stray bomb landed on a hospital. A rather large hospital, as it happened. Killed about 800 people, women and children mainly. Jane Fonda is outraged, by the way, you might like to know.”

“What?”

“There’s a reward out for you, and Sheriff Bao and his posse are still looking for you, I’m afraid.”

“Look, I’m sorry, but this isn’t making any sense to me, at all.”

“Well, I’m not surprised. You’re running a fever, 1-0-2, or so the good doctor tells me. And as soon as we get this leg on the mend, you and I will have to have a little talk, but it’s frightfully late and I’m very hungry, so if you’ll excuse me now…”

Asher tried to speak but put his head down, winced as the doctor continued suturing his thigh, then thought better of it and fell asleep – again.

+++++

He felt the sun streaming through an open window, opened his eyes and saw draperies fluttering in a gentle breeze, then smelled bacon frying and coffee brewing.

He sat up, tried to understand why he wasn’t swaying in his hammock, and why he was in a room that looked like it belonged in a Doris Day movie – then realized he needed to go and wondered where the bathroom was. “It should be right there,” he said out loud, and he walked over to a door. “Voila!” he said, stumbling into the bathroom. He looked at his reflection in the mirror, saw dried mud etched into his skin and looked at the shower – blood red tile, deep red grout, what’s going on here? – then turned on the water, waited for it to warm. He stepped in and moaned, then jumped out.

“Oh, the doctor advised you not get his knitting wet for a day or so,” the old Englishman said from to doorway. “Here’s some plastic wrap. You might put some over the wound.” Asher stood halfway behind the wall, caught the box as it tumbled through the air.

“Right. Thanks.”

When he finished his shower, he went out into the room and found his clothes gone, even his flight boots and gloves, and the only thing even remotely suitable was a white terry robe – replete with logo – the robe obviously stolen from the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. He put it on and walked out of the room, and into some kind of fairyland.

Red everywhere. Blood red walls, a darker red on the floor, a tight Berber carpet, he saw, yet deep red. Black and green floral upholsteries, with deep red trim, and then, in the kitchen, red appliances and red slate countertops, and then, the old Englishman, standing at the stove working on the bacon, in khakis and a red shirt.

“Ah, there you are? Feeling clean, are we?”

“Yes. Thanks.”

And two girls bounced into the living room, the blond and the redhead. Perhaps mid-twenties, still naked – and he looked at them, found he couldn’t take his eyes off either of them.

“Stacy! Becky! Clothes on around guests! Off with you, now!”

The girls pouted and made mewing noises during their retreat, and Asher shook his head, tried to push away the stiffness he felt growing under the robe.

“I suppose I’m used to it by now,” the old man said, “but it just wouldn’t do to have you sitting around having breakfast with an erection, would it?”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me who you are, where I am? Anything like that would be appreciated.”

“Hmm, yes. Well, help me get the food on the table, wot?” He handed two plates to Asher, who carried them to an ornately set table in a dining room that overlooked the pool – and the jungle beyond – and he remembered the well-kept driveway, the manicured lawns he’d stumbled on in the night.

The old man carried three more plates to the table and the girls came back in – wearing red lingerie, complete with bright red slip-on high heels.

“Well, that’s not exactly what I had in mind,” the old man sighed, turning to Asher. “We don’t have many guests here, as you might imagine. I suppose they’re hungry.”

“Hungry?” Asher said. “You mean, like cannibals, maybe?”

“What?” the old man said, then he laughed a little. “Yes, just so. So, dig in, as your countrymen are fond of saying. It’s American bacon, too, by the by. Get it from Danang.”

Asher did in fact dig in, though he ate as slowly as he could, savoring every bite, but the tabletop had little glass inserts set in the wood, and all he could see was the redhead’s legs. He crossed his own, tried to concentrate on his toast and jam.

“So, I think you were still a bit groggy last nite, but the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao are looking for you. There’s a Colonel Bao leading the charge, so to speak; you apparently killed his wife, among others, when one of your bombs hit the hospital where his wife was working.”

“Excuse me, but how do you know all this?”

“Oh, the BBC world service. Shortwave radio, old boy.”

“I see.”

“And I, well, I have contacts in the local military, the resistance, as well. They keep me well informed. Given where your aircraft came down I assumed the possibility existed you might make it here, too.”

Asher sat up when he heard that. “If you did, I take it this Colonel Bao might too?”

“Oh, he has, he has. But not to worry, you’re quite safe.”

“Why?” Asher sighed. “Why – what do you have that’s so important?”

“Me? Oh, I run one of the largest opium distribution and processing networks in the Golden Triangle, my boy. Have for years and years. How are your eggs, by the way?”

+++++

Colonel Bao, still in his Mi-8 helicopter, circled the compound and watched the pilot line up to land, and moments later he saw an American Jeep, an old WWII model, come down from the house on the hilltop. The old man himself, Clive Martin, was behind the wheel, the American sitting by his side. Bao clinched his teeth in anger, felt for the Makerov in his holster and tried to restrain the murderous impulse threatening to overwhelm his senses – but with little success.

The helicopter settled on the ramp, and Bao sneered at the drug-runner’s vast array of aircraft. The transports and the Lear Jet, all the trappings of capitalism run amok, and he wanted to kill this round-eye, too. Right here, right now – both of them, they were symbols of everything wrong with this world, now coddled by the rebels, his supposed allies. The money this vile creature generated financed the rebels’ war with the royalists which, like his own people’s struggle, was nothing more than a larger struggle between two competing sets of ludicrous European ideologies.

‘This is madness,’ he heard an inner voice whisper. ‘You must resist this madness, in all it’s forms.’

‘Means and ends,’ another voice sighed, pulling him back to his anger. ‘People everywhere have to come together to solve problems. War is necessary to achieve that end,’ the voice said, and he believed this one, too. Pulled in so many ways, now his only link to sanity done, her body charred, laying in the bottom of a molten crater.

But he took his hand off the pistol, decided to listen to what the old Englishman had to say. For now, anyway.

The gunner opened the door and Bao hopped down to the concrete, walked over to the Jeep. The American looked like a preening cat, he thought, sitting in the sun, licking it’s wounds – yet he saw the molten rubble of the hospital in the American’s eyes, his wife entombed by the seeping flow – and he struggled to contain his fury for a while longer.

The ‘round-eyes’ got out of the Jeep and came to him; he saw the American was still armed – and he smiled as hot lust blooded his eyes. ‘Yes, I will kill this man,’ he sighed inwardly, smiling as he turned away from the Gate.

“Ah, lieutenant, may I introduce you to my good friend, Colonel Vo Nguyen Bao. Colonel, my new friend, Lieutenant Benjamin Carter Asher, of the United States Navy.”

He looked down as this barbarian held out his hand, and he scowled – then took the man’s hand in his own. “Lieutenant,” he said, bowing his head slightly.

And when the barbarian nodded his head he saw sorrow in the man’s eyes. Understanding, and sorrow. ‘How odd,’ he thought. ‘I did not expect this.’

“I think some tea would be good, Colonel. Would that be of interest?”

“Yes,” he said, wondering why anyone would drink tea in this heat. “Thank you, my friend.”

The American gave up his seat, hopped in the back of the Jeep, and Martin drove up the hill, but he passed the opulent house and parked by a wooden wall. They got out and walked through a concealed gate, and into a magnificent Japanese garden. Bao sucked in his breath, had never seen such harmony, and he stared in wonder, lost to the reality that such a place could exist in this jungle, then they walked along a raked gravel path, over a little wooden bridge to a tea house that seemed to float above a pond.

They took off their shoes and went inside, and he saw an old woman sitting on her heels, her head bowed. Japanese? he wondered, then Martin sat, bid him and the lieutenant to join him on the tatami.

Then the old woman poured tea and left.

“So, lieutenant,” Bao said after he took a sip. “Tell me about your mission?”

And Asher told him. About the Migs, about their approach through the storm, the actual bomb-run, then the hung bomb after the release, trying to trim the aircraft and losing control, the SAMs passing overhead, slamming into the building on the hillside just ahead, the bomb releasing, regaining control then passing through falling debris, his aircraft now damaged, the struggle for control…

“The air defense missiles?” Bao asked, focused now. “You say they hit a building? Can you describe it – the building, I mean?”

“Yes, large, made of brick, dark brick. The first missile hit and I couldn’t believe the size of the explosion.”

“It is a new, Soviet-made high-explosive,” Bao said, shuddering inside. “Very powerful.”

“The second hit moments later. Debris from the building fell on my aircraft; that’s when we began to lose control.”

“Karma,” the old Englishman said.

“You did well,” Bao said, his eyes filling with sudden tears, “to make it as far as you did.”

“Are you a pilot, Colonel?”

“Yes. I understand now.”

“I understand you lost your wife. I’m sorry for your loss.”

‘Are you?’ Really?’ he wondered, but yes, he could see it in the American’s eyes.

“Thank you,” he said. “Nothing good comes from misunderstanding.”

“War is the greatest misunderstanding, I think,” Martin sighed. “So much life wasted. So much time.”

“Did you fly, in the war I mean,” Asher asked Martin.

“Yes, in Burma. Light bombers. I was shot down, managed to land in a clearing, walked out and ended up in Bhutan. That was late in ‘44. Ended the war in a monastery.”

“A monastery?” Bao asked. “How do you mean – ended?”

“Oh, it’s not important, but I came to this valley, you see,” yet Bao could see it in the Englishman’s eyes. They had now stumbled upon the most important moment of Martin’s life. “I came upon a bhikkhu, a monk, and I was sick. He helped me into the mountains, to his monastery, and they cared for me. I have never in my life felt so content, so at peace with myself.”

“I would like to find this place,” Bao said, “someday. I have never been content, have not experienced contentedness. I wonder now if it even exists.”

“Oh, it does.”

“I feel content,” Asher said, “when I’m in the air.”

“Yes,” Bao said, “that is a contented moment. I used to feel that way, too.”

Martin looked at the exchange and smiled inside. Nothing like common ground, he sighed. “More tea, Colonel?”

+++++

They ate sandwiches later, in the main house, simple things of cucumber and herbs, and Bao looked at the pool and the gardens and wondered why this man had turned to evil to build his dreams. His actions tore down reality, burned it to the ground, carried relentless waves of pain and suffering to the innocent, then he considered that, perhaps, in some cases you had to accept hate before you could understand love. Then he looked inside, considered another impossibility. Why had he wanted to kill this American, without really knowing all the facts? Why did he want to fight an endless war, over the imposition of an ideology he really found childlike, almost idiotic. Wasn’t he evil, too? How many lives had he ended. How many dead sacrificed on the altar of need, how many ends from dubious means.

Then he heard the American again.

“I’d like to see this place, this monastery.”

“I would, as well,” Bao said abruptly – and the words surprised him, and Martin, as well.

“Indeed,” the old Englishman said. “Colonel, that surprises me.”

“Does it, old friend? I wonder why?”

“You come from a Buddhist tradition…”

“No. I come from a communist tradition.”

“Ah. You replaced one religion with another.”

And Bao nodded his head. “Man always seeks order, does he not? Out of chaos? When man grows blind to such things, one God is as powerful as the other.”

And Martin smiled. “But what if all such order is an illusion? What then?”

“Then all life is an illusion.”

And with his hands steepled under his chin, Martin looked at Bao. “Is it, now? How interesting.” The two looked at one another for the longest time, then Martin leaned back, looked at the ceiling for a moment. “I suppose we could go up for a little ride today. Play among the clouds for a while. What do you think, Colonel?”

“Yes. It would be good to feel the sky again.”

+++++

Asher walked around the aircraft, clearly perplexed. “You sure it will fly,” he asked Martin.

“Oh, yes. I took it up last week. Tested the new engine. It’s all good.”

‘It’ was a Pilatus PC6 Porter, it’s Air America ‘N’ registry freshly scrubbed away, the once bare metal fuselage freshly painted in mottled grays. Patched bullet holes were still evident under the paint, and welds to reinforce damaged struts on the left wing stood out like livid wounds, still trying to heal.

“So, you can fly this thing?”

“Oh, yes. The engine procedures may be a little more complicated, but she flies like an old Cub.”

“I’ve heard about these things,” Asher said, “but this is the first one I’ve seen.”

“Strange looking,” Bao said. “Short take off, correct?”

“Needs about a hundred meters,” Martin said, and Bao’s eyes bugged a little, his neck rose and his chin tucked down on his chest. “Well, you want to come along, Colonel?”

Asher could see the indecision in Bao’s eyes, then he watched as the Colonel jogged to the helicopter and said something to the pilot. Asher looked at Martin just then, saw the grin spreading on the old man’s face, then Bao returned, carrying a little flight bag over his shoulder.

“Okay,” Bao said, “we go.”

The Garrett turbine spun up smoothly, and while Martin taxied out to the end of the runway the Vietnamese Mi-8 lifted into the air and turned to the northeast, for Điện Biên Phủ – and Bao ignored it. Martin applied throttle and the aircraft jerked down the runway and vaulted into the air, climbing at a thirty degree angle.

“What’s our airspeed?” Asher said nervously.

“Oh, 48 knots, why?”

“Fuck.”

Martin laughed; Bao and Asher looked at one another, clearly not amused, then the old Englishman pushed the nose over and undid his seatbelt. “Colonel, 3-0-3 degrees. Your airplane,” Martin said as he climbed out of his seat.

Bao grabbed the controls and found the heading, started trimming for level flight, instantly consumed with the realities of flight, while Martin plopped down in a seat and produced a deck of cards. “A little rummy, perhaps?”

“Yeah, sure. Uh, how fast can this crate go?”

“Oh, about 110, or thereabouts.”

“Geez, we could walk faster.”

“Not over these mountains,” Martin said, pointing at the spires off to the right. “And not with all the snakes down there.”

“I’m familiar with those goddamn things.”

“Oh, have a run-in or two?”

“About once an hour, or so it seemed.”

“There are more venomous snakes here than anywhere else in the world, and crocs in the rivers, too.”

“I think a tiger was stalking me one night.”

“Oh? Where? I mean, how close were you to my place?”

“The night before. Call it ten miles.”

“Really? How interesting.” Martin shuffled the deck then dealt. “So, you crossed the river?”

“Yeah. Leeches all over when I got out of the water.”

“Lucky.”

“Lucky? How so.”

“More crocs in that river than any in Southeast Asia. People don’t go near it anymore.”

“Swell.”

“Maybe someone’s looking out for you, lieutenant. Ever considered that? A few hundred yards off course and you might have walked right past my place, fallen down in the night and passed from that infection. What are the odds, eh?”

“Meeting you, and Becky…well, that was something else.”

“She seems quite taken with you. Odd, too, that she’s from Los Angeles, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” Asher said, thinking about her. The way she came into his room, playfully at first, like a kid, then how she grew so serious, so quickly, when she slipped into his bed. How she played him like a fish, reeling him in, letting him go until all the months he’d spent on the Constellation seemed to drift away. How everything – before – seemed to slip from his grasp. He thought about her, and what she meant to him now, about the promises they made – meaningless, he knew – but promises nonetheless.

“Is it serious?” Martin asked.

“What?” Asher said, falling back into the present.

“This thing between you and Becky? Is it serious?”

He shook his head, frowned. “I don’t know…suppose it could be.”

“I’ll get her to Los Angeles, then. You two can work it out there.”

Bao called out just then. “Clive? Fuel getting low.”

“Oh, bother. That’s the problem with this bird…very short legs.” He crawled forward and tuned into a beacon. “Okay, I’ve got it.”

Asher watched as Martin circled a little clearing, then he saw an old C-47 and armed men come out of a line shack and realized the clearing was an airport – of sorts. Martin landed and the men refueled the Pilatus, then it was time to leave – again.

“Alright, Ben, your turn. Tune the ADF to 1490 and follow it in.”

“Okay.” Ben took off and trimmed for level flight, and he followed the ADF. Two hours later the needle started to swing and he looked down, saw another clearing, two C-47s tied up by another line shack, and he swung around, lined up for his final. Flaps down, throttle back, he settled into his approach, felt Martin over his shoulder.

“You’ve got it, I’d say. Hold about 53 over the numbers, then slip to idle.”

“You’re right. Feels like an old Cub. Docile.”

“It’s a wonderful airplane.”

“Okay, trim a little nose up now, let her resettle.”

“Yup,” Asher said, and he pulled back on the stick, flared a little and he felt her settle onto the grass runway.

“Easy on the brakes,” Martin added, “or you’ll stand her on her nose.”

“Got it.” He pulled up to the line shack and cut the engine; men came out and fueled the bird – and Martin went out and talked to his men for a moment, then he stuck his head in the main cargo door. “Mai Ling’s here today, and she’s cooking. Lunch time!”

They ambled over to the shack and went inside, had an impossibly good meal of soup and noodles, and some kind of sandwich Asher’d never heard of before, and Bao was deferential to the woman.

“She is legendary among the Pathet Lao,” he said. “Her husband was a leader of some repute…”

“Well, a king,” Martin said, “if you must know.”

“Yes. Just so. Now she travels around, rallies the troops.”

“She could rally me, with this chow,” Asher said, but he noticed the Colonel studying the woman. Maybe forty or so, like him, and Asher had to smile, but a moment later Bao turned to Martin.

“We have traveled four hundred miles? Are we in China now?”

“Close, but you’re correct. We’ll cut over China now, then Burma and Assam. We’ll get our last fuel there, and sleepover. We’ll take off early, cross over into Bhutan around sunrise tomorrow morning. I won’t be able to get you too close to the monastery, so you’ll have a little walk, Benjamin.”

“A lot of snakes there, too, I suppose?”

“A few, mainly cobra, but mainly at lower elevations, and nothing like my hills. It’s just too cold there.”

“Swell.”

“More tigers, though,” Bao said. “Many more in foothills of Himalaya.”

“Yes,” Martin added, “there are. Not sure a 45 would take one out, but it might scare the Dickens out of it.”

“I don’t suppose we could just keep on flying? Paris, maybe? I’ll buy dinner?”

“I have been to Paris,” Bao said, wistfully, “with my…” Then he stopped, turned away.

Martin looked at Asher, shook his head; Ben looked at the floor.

“It is not your fault, Lieutenant,” Bao said, putting a hand on Asher’s shoulder. “I understand, but the pain is just so,” he said, touching his heart, “difficult to understand.”

“It’s still my fault, Colonel. Those missiles wouldn’t have…”

“And those missiles wouldn’t be in my country unless the Soviet Union wanted them there, and the Soviets wouldn’t want them there unless there was a greater conflict between your two countries. We could go back infinitely, Lieutenant, and still never arrive at the real cause. It is karma, I think, but I do not understand this.”

“There’s no way, my friend,” Martin added. “There’s only acceptance.” The old man looked around and clapped his hands. “Well, time to move, I think. Mai-Ling?”

The woman appeared out of a back room, came over to their table. “Yes, Clive?” she said in a perfect Cambridge accent.

“Going to Bhutan…feeling like joining us?”

She seemed to hesitate, then nodded her head. “Yes, I need some chiles. I would appreciate the opportunity.”

“Well, we’re off, if you want to grab anything first.”

The woman walked back into her kitchen, then returned with a burlap shoulder bag and they walked out to the Porter.

“You take her,” Martin said to Asher as they climbed in. “I’ll need to look at a few charts now.”

“Anything I need to know?”

“Oh, yes, 90 percent and pull back at 60 knots, climb around 800 feet per, come to 3-0-3 again.”

Bao helped Mai Ling buckle in, then sat beside her, and Asher taxied out to the end of the runway and took off, turned to northwest.

“Take her on up to 12,000, settle in at 115 knots,” Martin said while he opened up an Indian aeronautical chart of the region. He tuned in another ADF, then started working a few VORs. “Gets a little tricky here,” he said. “The Chinese and Indians are squaring off over a border region up ahead, and everyone’s staying away from East Pakistan right now, too.”

“You say we’re in China?”

“Yes, and our last fuel stop was technically in China, too.”

“Technically?”

Martin shrugged. “I have an arrangement,” he said, grinning, “with one of the local air force types. I’ve not been so lucky in Burma. There’s an air base near Myitkyina, and we’ll need to stay under their radar umbrella.”

“You’re pretty familiar with this area, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes. I started flying Blenheims here in ‘41, but I’d been flying air cargo in the region for a few years when war broke out. I was born on a plantation near Rangoon, went to school back home, but came back after university – then the war started up in earnest. Anyway, after all that I bought a bunch of C-47s on the cheap and started an air taxi service. One thing led to another and I started carrying produce of another sort. Within a few years I had partners and by that time there was no way out, really. So I’ve made the best I could out of a sorry situation.”

“How did you get to Bhutan? Shot down – then what?”

“Oh, I chased a Jap formation northwest, managed to get shot down over India. I managed to crawl over some mountains and wound up down into a valley one morning, found myself on a trail, dozens of prayer flags flapping away in the wind. That’s what I remember most, those flags, in the wind. A boy found me, apparently, and I came to a few days later.”

“In the monastery?”

“Yes.”

“How long did you stay?”

“A few years.”

“Years?”

Martin nodded. “Biggest mistake I made in this life was walking out that door. I should have stayed.” He looked out the window, took a look around, then changed a frequency on the VOR. “Let’s drop on down now, get right down in the weeds.”

“Okay. Any kind of threat receiver?”

“No,” Martin said, shaking his head.

Asher tuned the ADF into the 3K band, and the gauge rocked once – to 340 degrees – then settled back to null. Ten seconds later it rocked to 340, then settled back. “There he is,” Asher said.

“The ADF is picking up radar?”

“Kind of, but not really. There’s a sub-carrier band broadcast when the radar pulses; it’s kind of a ‘come home to momma’ signal, and some newer ADFs can pick it up.”

“I’ve never heard that one, before.”

“You ever tried to pick apart Russian search radars, Clive?”

“Ah. Good point. So that’s Myitkyina?”

“If that base is around 340 True, it is. Signal will get stronger the closer we get.”

“Just an assumption here, but if we’re picking up that signal are we not visible on their radar??”

“Maybe, depends on how powerful it is. Is it British stuff?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”

“Probably low power setting now, two hundred fifty mile range at high power.” He looked at a mountain range ahead and began to fly like an Intruder pilot once again, looking for a way through the valleys that would help obscure their passage. “You fly through this area often?”

“Not much these days.”

“What about these mountains? Any air defenses?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

Asher got down to a few hundred feet above the treetops and inched forward in his seat, looked over the long cowling and saw a road winding through the jungle, then low gray clouds ahead. Five minutes later they were in heavy rain, and visibility dropped to a few miles – Martin grew nervous and Asher looked over at him.

“You do much instrument flying?” he asked.

“No,” Martin said. “Never.”

“Well, I have – so relax.”

“Easy for you to say,” the old man said – as lightning flashed outside his side of the aircraft.

Asher cut power a little, dropped airspeed down to about 80 knots and he added a notch of flaps, a little nose up trim. “I wanna be trimmed for a climb if we hit some wind-shear,” he explained, and Martin nodded – then he saw they were over a ridge, and sunshine lay ahead.

“You know, if you want a job I’d be most happy to…”

Asher laughed. “I have one, assuming I can get back to it.”

“What will you do when you get back? After the war, I mean?”

“I was an engineering major, took a minor in accounting. I always thought I’d join my father’s company. Make specialized high pressure pumps for hydraulic systems, mainly aircraft.”

“So, aircraft are in your blood, I take it?”

“Kind of. I’d like to go to med school, though.”

“What about Becky? Any room for her in your life back there?”

“I don’t know. I have a girl, we’re so close it’s like she’s a part of me, but there’s something about Becky…?”

“Perhaps it’s simply because you’ve been away so long.”

“Yeah, maybe, but there’s something in that girl’s eyes. Magnetic, know what I mean?”

“Yes, I’ve still got a pulse too, Ben.”

He chuckled. “How’d they land with you?”

“Long story. Something to do with smuggling and getting arrested, but my guess is they were framed, set up and framed.”

“And you just happened along?”

“Like I said, Ben, it’s a long story.”

Asher saw reluctant anger in Martin’s eyes and let it drop. “Okay, ADF now at 0-0-5 degrees, so I assume we’re past Myitkyina now.”

“Remarkable.”

“Update all your ADFs to units that pick up the 4K bands and you’ll get the capability, but if newer Soviet systems are installed this little trick won’t work anymore. So, where to now?”

Martin dialed in an Indian VOR station and listened to the Morse identifier, then another on NAV2. “Come right to 3-3-0. When NAV two centers look for a clearing.”

“Got it.” Still flying just off the treetops, he saw a highway ahead, then a bridge – then troops on the bridge, jumping out of trucks and lining up an anti-aircraft gun. He dove for the deck – the Porter’s wheels now just inches from the pavement…

“What are you doing?!” Martin asked casually.

“Guns like that can’t deflect lower than 5 degrees,” Asher said as he jinked right, then left, then up and back down – and as they passed the troops he dropped down towards the river; the troops disappeared behind a bluff and were gone in an instant.

“Remarkable,” Martin said again.

“What?”

“You. You seem to be a born warrior, yet more like an eagle. Like you were born to fly – in war.”

“Funny. That’s what my girlfriend said, before I left.”

+++++

Sophie Marsalis Hollister took the news of Ben Asher’s resurrection with grace. She flew back to Los Angeles, went to his parent’s house, went to face the music. He knew by then all about her flight to D.C., about her marriage to Prentice Hollister, and though everyone seemed to dread their coming together again, like people fear two air masses coming together, it turned into a gentle affair. She came to him and kissed him, he hugged her with all the passion his soul could muster, and they went to Venice walked along the beach, then to their bench.

She told him of her life with Prentice, that he was coming back to Los Angeles to work at  the Times. She was going back to UCLA, to teach surgery, start a practice.

“What are you going to do, Ben?”

“I don’t know yet. I always assumed I’d go to work for Dad, but now, well, I’m not so sure.”

“What’s changed?”

“Me, I guess.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I’ve applied for medical school, next fall, but with a few airlines too.”

“Oh? I think you’d be an excellent physician.”

And that was pure Sophie. Love, understanding, acceptance – ‘whatever you choose to do, you’ll be the best there is.’

“I suppose you know,” he said, “I’ll always love you.”

“Yes,” she said, “as I’ll always love you. What happened over there?”

“You mean, getting shot down?”

“Yes. We read the part about the rescue operation, getting McMasters into the helicopter. What happened after that? Why were you gone so long? Did you walk all the way to Bhutan?”

“Not hardly,” he laughed. “I ran into a drug runner about a week later. I was hurt, my leg infected, and he had a doc stitch me up, got me on penicillin. Then this North Vietnamese colonel shows up, chasing me, hot on my trail. We talked, then all of us hopped in one of the drug runners airplanes and we flew to Bhutan.”

“We?”

“Yeah, the, well, Clive Martin and the Vietnamese colonel, Vo Nguyen Bao’s his name. We picked up this woman along the way…”

“You what?”

“I know. It was like clown car lost on a road trip. Mai Ling. Widow, educated in London, studied economics, a real fire-breathing Marxist. She married a local warlord who wanted to turn Laos into a Marxist paradise, got himself killed and she was going around rallying the guerrillas. She and Martin were friends and we met up with her, by accident – I think – but I’m still not sure about that. We nearly got shot down in Burma but made it into India, then into Bhutan. We landed in a clearing in the middle of nowhere, and we tied up the airplane and started walking.”

“All of you?”

“Yeah. Wasn’t supposed to work out that way, but Bao…”

“Bao?”

“The Vietnamese colonel?”

“Oh.”

“He wanted to see this monastery…”

“Monastery?”

“Yeah. Well, see, Martin had started talking about, well, he was a pilot in the war, got shot down and ended up in this monastery, and he’s been helping them ever since…”

“A drug runner helping a bunch of Buddhist monks? This is surreal?”

“Oh, darlin’ – you got no idea.”

She laughed, and he laughed with her.

“So, what happened next?”

“Well, see, it was like this…”

+++++

The Porter’s wings tied-down securely, they gathered their stuff and followed Martin down the road. Asher fell-in behind them, watching new patterns form in the air. Martin, on the ground once again, was a natural leader, while Bao was, he saw, the patient observer – his eyes moving everywhere, taking everything in. Mai Ling was, however, a lush symphony, in love with the natural world, stopping to look at flowers, pointing out trees and berries, and as he watched her that morning he grew captivated by her lust for life.

And so too did Colonel Bao.

They walked along the dirt road for hours, until the road stopped at a river. There was, perhaps, a ferry to carry people across in the rainy season, or after the snows melted, but that morning the river was almost dry, just a few meandering streams remained, the rest a jumble of dry, white rocks. Then Martin pointed to the far side of the valley, to a cliff above the pines, and to a trail that led up from the river.

“There it is,” he said, and Asher had to look hard to see what it was Martin was pointing at.

“Where?” Mai Ling said, looking up at the cliff.

“There,” Bao said, moving close to her side.

The cliff was at least a thousand feet tall, a sheer granite wall of light gray streaked black in places where, presumably, water ran down fissures in the monsoon, and about halfway up the face he pointed out a crack that ran, roughly, from one side of the face to the other.

“See,” he said, pointing, “like a string of whitest pearls, just there. Those are the buildings…”

And she looked, she saw what he saw with his own senses, then she looked into Bao’s eyes, and she discovered a truth.

“There’s the trail,” Martin added, “through the trees on the right side, over there. It leads up through the trees to the ledge, and from there we will make it out to the monastery.”

“Will we be welcome up there?” Asher asked.

“No traveler is ever turned away from a monastery, lieutenant,” Bao said. “Though he may stay a day, or a lifetime – .”

“A lifetime?”

“To begin the journey, anew, lieutenant, or to resume one’s journey along the path.”

“Ah.”

“Well,” Martin sighed, pointing to the trail, “what’s it going to be, Ben?”

And Asher looked at the trail for a while, then at the old Englishman, unsure what to do.

“Ben, you can walk back down the valley, about forty miles. There’s a bus that will take you to a UN facility, from there you may call whomever you wish.” Then Martin held out his hand. “Good luck to you.”

“No.”

And both Asher and Martin turned to Colonel Bao, to the sound of his voice. They watched as he took off his military clothing. His jacket, festooned with military insignia, was cast aside; his belt, with the Makerov in it’s brown leather holster, dropped to the ground – and he kicked it away. Then he sighed and took off his shoes and socks, left them in a rattled heap.

Then he turned to all his things on the earth and he scowled. “No,” he repeated. “I can not go back to that life.” Bao then looked up, looked at Asher, then at Martin. “I have talked with this woman for hours, and I may be mad but I have listened to her words. It is time for me to choose another path, and I choose this one.”

They watched as Bao started across the dry riverbed, picking his way carefully through the stones, then they turned to Mai Ling. She had knelt to his things and was carefully folding Bao’s trousers now, neatly folding everything – except the pistol, which she left on the ground – then she stood and without saying a word followed Bao across the riverbed.

“Well,” Martin said, “I suppose there’s nothing for it now. Let’s go.”

And when Martin started across the white stones, Asher followed.

When they were all on the other side they walked along the banks of the river until the outlines of a trail appeared, but Bao stopped.

A cobra lay in the path, it’s head up, fanned and ready to strike. When Asher stopped, he looked at the snake, then up at monastery – but the mountain was shrouded in cloud now – and then it started to rain.

+++++

“A cobra?” Sophie said.

“Yeah. And Bao just stares at the thing. We’re standing there in this heavy rain, and Bao just stares at this snake. Like he was communing with the thing – then off it went, into the grass.”

“Snakes can’t handle the rain, cold rain, anyway.”

“Neither could I, but the whole thing was so weird. Anyway, it took about two hours to walk to the ledge, but by the time we got out on the rocks the rain had turned to snow. The rock was icy in places, but there were trees along the way and we held on to them, and Bao was shivering like mad, I mean really cold.”

“The woman didn’t give him his clothes?”

“He didn’t ask. I think it was like a ritual of some kind. Purification, maybe, because she walked right behind him, whispered what sounded like encouragement. It took about an hour more, but we came to this gate, and there was a little bell set inside the cliff, a little alcove, like a shrine set into the stone. Martin and I watched as Bao rang it, but Sophie, I was clueless. I had no idea what was behind that gate…”

+++++

Tschering looked at Lindsey’s hands, her fingers, and he remembered the way he felt when she touched him. The little waves of excitement, the sudden, overwhelming tension. The enchantment he felt when he watched her play Bach, the utter peace when she sighed through Debussy. He would sit beside her in class and watch her hands while she took notes, the precision of her movements as she crafted her words – big, egg-shaped letters, always in purple ink. He had wanted nothing more from life than to sit and watch her hands.

‘The universe is right there, in her hands,’ he thought, once. ‘Everything I love about life is right there, waiting to explode into being.’

And one day, in one of the music rooms, he had watched those fingers until he couldn’t any longer, then he had sat beside her and taken one of her hands in his, then he had closed his eyes and let the feeling of birth wash over him.

‘To begin like this,’ he sighed. ‘To hold creation in my hands.’

And she had taken him then. Right there in the music room, beside the piano, on the floor. She had kissed and coaxed him, played with him until instinct took over. He entered her and felt the universe open up to him – like the petals of a vast flower parting to reveal a deeper truth, a hidden life – and when the clouds and rain came he felt he had broken free of this life and was destined to fly away.

He remembered the way she held him, her legs wrapped around the moment, pulling him closer, taking him deeper, and how she was slow to let go, after. She wanted him too, he knew then, but something kept her apart and away from that feeling, from the truth he thought they’d found..

As he looked at her now, in the sculpture garden behind Bunche Hall, she seemed so different – yet curiously enough, still the same. He looked at her fingers, then at the curve of her neck – where it turned to the shoulder – and he felt the same insistent pull. Like a specific gravity between them – inescapable, and most enduring. Something borne of physical recognition, he assumed, yet something deeper still.

“I miss your father,” Tschering said.

She nodded, tried to smile, to hide from the pain in his words.

“How is your mother?” he asked, and he could see her recoil from images that washed over open wounds.

“We haven’t spoken. She left after…”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…”

“No, that’s alright.”

“Portman said you had some questions? That I might be able to help?”

“Do you ever wonder what might have happened? If that night had played out differently?”

He sighed. “Perhaps once a day? Maybe a couple of times a day?”

She laughed a little, then returned to her sorrow.  “Me too.”

“So, you have an academic question? About Buddhism?”

“Yes. You’ve read that, I take it?” she asked, pointing at her book in his hand.

“Many times.”

“When I was walking, in China, I was struck by an apparent paradox, between urban workers and rural farmers. By a profound anomie in the attitudes expressed by factory workers, and a more relaxed state of mind in farmers. That’s nothing new, but it got me thinking about this shift as a trajectory, of sorts, that almost all cultures have experienced as they’ve moved from hunter-gatherer to farmer/herder to urban dweller. I know we both missed it, but there was a saying in the sixties, ‘turn on, tune in, and drop out.’ It’s the dropping out thing that interests me…”

“Said the writer with no small amount of irony…”

“I know, I know. Anyway, I started thinking about the old pre-Christian desert fathers, how they fled cities and retreated to the wilderness. To think about God. An unruly god, tired of being shunned.”

“Guru Padmasambhava and the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave.”

“What?”

“The same impulse was at work, in Bhutan. When a Buddhist teacher from the south came into the mountains to escape the forces you speak of. He flew to this cave on a tiger’s back, meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. I think we are talking about the same force.”

“Yes, well, I’m thinking this is much more than coincidence.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Yeah, that’s the question. These inward treks tend to come just before an explosion of dormant evangelicalism, then a long period of religious rule follows. Existing bureaucracies are incorporated in the new religious order, long periods of repression and persecution follow, and this leads to periods of enlightenment.”

“You remember reading Mann’s Buddenbrooks?”

“Yes. Enlightenment leads to decay, decay to collapse.”

“The Hegelian dialectic. It is everywhere, in every thing. Collapse leads to renewal.”

“Maybe it’s that simple, but that’s what I’m not so sure of.”

“What, then, if not renewal?”

“Maybe there will be a final collapse someday.”

“But that is foretold in every religion, Lindsey. An apocalypse of some sort, an eventual reckoning. This is nothing new. Shiva, in the Hindu trinity, is the destroyer, yet destruction brings renewal to the universe. Harmony, the Zen concept of Wa. When an order grows imbalanced, the universe seeks to reimpose balance. Harmony, balance is the natural state of being. When an organism is in imbalance, the organism seeks to re-establish balance, or it…”

“Dies.” She looked at Tschering, at the sorrow she had carried so close, for so long, and she wondered when it, too, would kill her.

+++++

Sara was finishing a roast when she walked in the shop, and the aroma was rich and heady, heavenly so. “It’s your day off!” Sara said. “What are you doing here?”

“I wanted some coffee. Seemed like the place to go.”

“Well, you’re in luck. Jeff just delivered ten pounds of Jamaican Blue Mountain.”

“Ah, that’s what that is…”

“Want to try some?”

“I can’t afford that, Sara.”

“Bosh. Let’s just sneak a little. Time to close, anyway. Why don’t you go lock up and I’ll make two cups.”

They sat with their coffee and drifted, then Sara turned to her. “So? How much time do I have?”

“What?”

“You’re leaving soon. I can feel it.”

“You know, I haven’t thought about it recently.”

“Doug? Is that what’s getting you down?”

“He’s complicated.”

“He’s a disaster, Lindsey. He’s like this tower of strength, but his strength causes everything around him to crumble.”

“Buddenbrooks,” she sighed, thinking about her conversation with Tschering.

“What?”

“I’m not leaving anytime soon, Sara. I have too many unfinished things to take care of before I can even think about leaving.”

“How long will you stay? I only ask because you’ll be so hard to replace.”

“I doubt that.”

“Are you writing again. I mean, really writing?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so. I can see it in your eyes. You’re engaged with the world again.”

“Engaged? How do you mean?”

Sara sighed, then took a deep breath. “When you first came in, a few months ago, it was like your eyes were dead, almost lifeless. It’s been like watching you come back to life, watching you watching customers, finding your way back among the living. Rediscovering yourself. But you always seemed to be like that, Lindsey, even when we were kids.”

“Like what? Rediscovering myself?”

Sara nodded her head, took a sip of coffee. “That’s right. Like when you and John broke up, then came to the prom together…”

“Sara, John is my brother.”

“What?” she croaked, her eyes going wide.

“Ben Asher was my father.”

Sara looked away as all the tumblers suddenly fell into place, then she just slowly nodded her head. “And no one else knows?”

“John does.”

“Why did you tell me?”

“I don’t know, really. Maybe you need to know.”

“We were never really friends, you know. I used to resent you, especially after the book came out.”

Lindsey nodded her head. “Maybe I knew that. Still, I always considered you a friend. You have been, the past few months. It meant a lot to me. You mean a lot to me.”

Sara turned away, laughed a little. “It was mercenary on my part. I knew you’d bring in more customers.”

“I still don’t get that,” Lindsey said, grinning.

“Oh? Well, look at me. We’re the same age, but I’ve got a Michelin steel belted radial around my gut, while you still look like January’s Playmate of the Month. My hair is gray, and my skin looks like crocodile hide. And you? You still look just like a goddamn Playmate of the Month. Red hair, no gray – not one streak. Skin clear, not one goddamn wrinkle. You write a book then take off to walk around the world. You intimidate the hell out of me, because you’re like catnip to men – and you’re fucking clueless. It’s like you haven’t noticed a fundamental principle of the universe…”

“Noticed? Like what, for instance?”

“Hell, girl, half the men come in here just to stare at your legs. I mean it. I’ve never seen anything like it. And Melody pointed it out to me. She’s nineteen, and I thought cute as hell, but all these guys come in and ignore her…they ignore her because they’re going all goo-goo eyed over you.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“No, I don’t think so. On your days off we do half the business we do when you’re here. Melody pointed that out to me, too, then I looked at the books. We do forty percent less business when you’re not here. Because guess what? These guys know your schedule. They come here to bask in your glow, to say ‘Hi!’ to you, to see you smile at them and bring them their coffee.”

“Are you…jealous?”

“Am I jealous? Fuck yes, you moron, I’m jealous as hell. It’s been ten years since a man looked at me like they look at you – every morning. Ten years, at least, since I got banged like these guys want to nail you, but then, oh no, wait a minute. Lindsey goes out and latches on to the most depressing human being in Los Angeles.”

“Doug? Depressing?”

Sara snorted, looked away again. “You know about his daughter?”

“Only that she’s hospitalized.”

“For what? Did he tell you that much, at least?”

“Schizophrenia.”

“You ought to go look her up, on Google? Or do you want this short version?”

“Sara, you seem angry about all this. Why?”

“I don’t know. Maybe because the bastard hasn’t told you.”

“About his daughter?”

“Yeah,” she snorted derisively, “about his daughter.”

“What’d she do?”

“She tried to kill him.”

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the bastard?”

+++++

Doug picked her up early, and they drove down Sunset Boulevard to the Pacific Coast Highway, then he turned north, heading for Ventura.

“Want to put the top down?” he asked.

“If you want.”

He pushed a button and the hard-top danced and folded itself into little pieces, then stuffed itself in the trunk, and he seemed to wait for her to ooh and ah but she had leaned back and seemed to be staring at the sky.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yes. Sorry, I was up late writing. Was I zoning out?”

“You seem distant.”

“I feel distant. Far away.”

“You sure you want to do this?”

“Yes. What can you tell me about what happened to her?”

“I don’t know the whole story, and the trouble is I don’t think even she knows the whole thing. She seems to inhabit a dream world one minute, then she’s attacked by demons the next.”

“Attacked?”

“Yeah. If she has one while you’re there you’ll understand. It’s like she’s being physically attacked, by beings of some sort, using knives.”

“Beings?”

“What she’s described to her doctors is surreal. Whatever it is she sees, they’re not human.”

“They attack her, with knives?”

“Yup. They cut her up, then throw her into fires, piece by piece.”

“How long has it been going on?”

“Four years, almost five ago. One night she wakes up screaming, I mean real blood-curdling howls. A few minutes later the police were at the door, banging on it, getting ready to knock down the door.”

“Jesus. Do you know what set her off?”

He sighed, put some heat on. “Let me know if you get uncomfortable.”

“Okay.”

“So. What set her off…well, the first thing that happened…she was with her mother at the grocery store and she was putting stuff on the conveyor at the check-out counter. This woman in the line ahead objected to Lacy putting things on it before she had finished unloading her own cart, and the woman really lit into her. Well, Lacy just crumbled, fell to the floor, then just sat their, almost catatonic. She wouldn’t move, either.”

“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?”

“I don’t know. Paramedics took her to Country SC.”

“How old was she?”

“Fourteen. Anyway. Once we got her out of the ER we had an appointment with a psychiatrist, and she started seeing him regularly, but she just seemed to get worse after that. I mentioned it to a friend of mine here, a shrink at the medical school, and she wanted to know who Lacy was seeing. So, I told her and the next thing she wanted to do was examine Lacy. Then she hypnotized her. My friend had long suspected this other doc was molesting patients, very young girls, usually, and hypnosis revealed that. Not good enough to press charges, but she confronted the guy. And later that afternoon he killed himself.”

“Oh, no.”

“Lacy internalized all that, blamed herself, assumed she had seduced the guy so was, therefore, responsible for his death…”

Lindsey shook her head. “Was she ever promiscuous? Before that?”

“Yeah,” he said, shaking his head. “She used to come into our bedroom when we were asleep, get up on the bed and straddle me, in my sleep. On top of the covers. She told me once that’s what mommy did to the men who came over.”

“I think I’m going to be sick…could you pull over?”

He flipped on the turn signal and pulled over to the shoulder, then helped her out. She walked away, taking deep gulps of air, then she stood and looked up into the sky…

+++++

Asher heard the morning call to prayer and shook his head, rolled off the pallet where he slept and walked outside, down the ledge to the privy, kicking snow off his feet before he went inside. He watched monks filing into one of the prayer rooms and smelled tea when he came out into the morning, and he walked to the kitchen, saw Mai Ling working her magic and smiled.

“Good morning, Ben,” she said in her sing-song voice.

“Morning. How’d you sleep?”

She smiled, feigned pelvic discomfort and rolled her eyes, and he laughed. He had never seen two people fall so deeply in love, so quickly, and he was happy for her. For Bao, too.

She had only the simplest ingredients to play with up here, but she worked wonders with what she had and produced miraculous meals, two a day. A small breakfast and a smaller lunch. The monks eschewed anything but a simple vegetable broth after noon, so by the time morning rolled around Asher was ready to eat a yak. He said he was starving this morning, and Mai Ling handed him a plate with a little extra on it.

“Bless you, my love!” he crooned, and a moment later Martin came lumbering in.

“I think I slept on a rock last night,” he said, stretching his back.

“Well, you sure slept like one,” Ben said. “Only you were farting like a water buffalo.”

Martin rolled his eyes. “Nonsense. I did no such thing.”

“Oh? Well, you say so.” Asher sniffed the air. “Or maybe you should go change your shorts.”

“What ever are you talking about?”

“Well, you either brought a few along with you, or you’ve shit your britches.”

“Bah!”

“Humbug.”

Then Martin leaned over and whispered in Asher’s ear: “Say, did you hear those two going at it last night?”

Asher nodded his head, grinned. “Eight rounds. She won by a knock-out.”

Martin howled at that. “By God, I’m going to miss you. You’re sure I can’t talk you into staying and working for me?”

“Maybe in my next life, Clive.”

“You know, it’s funny you say that, but it’s felt to me like I know you. Like I always have. Isn’t that strange?”

“Clive? I think it’s the methane. Breathing it in all night like that…I’m tellin’ ya, it’s fucking with your head.”

Martin shook his head. “You’re a miserable sod, you know that, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“Well, even so, I’m going to miss your irreverent self around these parts.”

“You going back to Laos?”

“No choice, mate.”

“Why not fly me to India, fly home from there?”

“There’s no way out, Ben. They’d find me in a week.”

“We could get a raid…”

“Ben. If I’m not back soon, those girls will be gone. As in, forever. I let people know I’d be gone a few weeks. Any more than I have, and, well, things will become dangerous.”

“Okay.”

“Have you talked to the colonel?”

“Yup. He’s staying.”

“Mai Ling?”

“I can’t see those two splitting up. Not now.”

“She’ll have to shave her head, too.”

“I think I’m ready for that,” Mai Ling said, putting a bowl of food down for Martin.

“Had enough war, have you?”

She nodded her head. “I’ve had enough of all that,” she said, waving her hand to indicate ‘everything’ out there.

“You should shave your head, Martin, and stay. They wouldn’t come for you here.”

“Not sure I’d be very good at all this,” Martin said, “being an atheist and all.”

“Oh?” she said. “What do you think comes next? After all this is over?”

“I think I’ll just close me eyes and be done with it.”

“Yes. You are ready. You should stay.”

He laughed, then he saw the look in her eye and took a deep breath, reached into his pant’s pocket. He fished around for a moment, then pulled out a couple of keys.

“Ben? This first key is to the Porter. The second is to a safety deposit box. I’ll give you the particulars in a bit. There’s an aeronautical chart under my seat that will get you into India. Tell the authorities you found this aircraft and are repatriating it. Officially, it still belongs to those Air America chaps of yours, so you haven’t stolen anything.”

“Martin? You sure you want to do this?”

“Yes. With any luck at all, those girls are in California already. I told them to leave, and who knows, maybe they got out. Maybe you tell the authorities in India I was killed in Burma, or that I had contacts in the military?”

“That would do it.”

“At any rate, I doubt they’d try to enter Bhutan, even if they knew I was here.”

“What about Bao?”

“Tell them we all got out in Burma, that you came back and borrowed the Porter after I was killed.”

Bao came in when prayers were over, and they filled him in on the morning’s decisions. The colonel nodded his head, then turned to Martin. “I will walk with the lieutenant to the aircraft,” he said, then he left, apparently very angry.

“Now what’s that all about?” Martin said, and Mai Ling smiled, then turned away.

“I’m going to get my things,” Ben said, looking from Martin to Mai Ling and back again. He stood, went to the woman and hugged her. “Thank you,” he whispered, “for everything.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “You will not forget us, will you?”

“Never.”

“Go now, before I shave your head and make you stay.”

He kissed her and walked quickly from the room, and Martin followed a moment later, but not before he looked at Mai Ling and grinned.

+++++

The three of them walked up to the Porter and stopped, looked at one another, then Martin took the key and opened the door. “Here are the charts you’ll need. There’s some cash in this envelope, a few Sterling and some Swiss francs. You’ll have just enough fuel to carry on to Bagdogra airfield,” he said, pointing it out on the chart. “And here are the ADFs and VORs you’ll need.”

“Alright.”

“Now, about the second key. USB, main office, Zurich. You can only access it on 7 July. 7-7, got it?”

“Okay.”

“And Ben? Don’t lose the fucking key.”

He grinned. “I’ll try.”

Martin handed him another scrap of paper. “Here’s what you’ll need to sign in for the box.”

“Okay, but Martin, what the hell’s in this thing?”

“An envelope, old boy. You want to leave the bank immediately, by the way, and get to London as soon as you can. Follow the instructions inside the envelope to the letter, as lives may depend on it.”

“Alright,” Asher said, noting the serious expression he saw in the old Englishman’s eyes.

“Well, this is it, Ben. I’m so glad you dropped by…”

They laughed, then hugged – the old man slapping Asher’s back.

“Colonel? Shall we go?” Martin said.

“I must have a word with the lieutenant, please,” the colonel said, and Asher could see the emotion brimming in his eyes as he walked up. “Lieutenant,” Bao said, addressing him as a superior officer, and Asher snapped to.

“Yes, sir.”

“I came to you with nothing but evil in my heart. I came to kill you. Now I understand you. Now I see you as my friend. As my good friend. And as a friend I ask you a favor.”

“Yes, Colonel?”

“Mai Ling will have my son,” he said. “In seven years, I want you to return, to come – here. Right here. I want you to take my son to America. Fly by the monastery, rock your wings, and I will bring him.”

“Alright, Colonel. Seven years from today. I’ll be here.”

They looked one another in the eye for a long time, then Bao turned and walked away; Martin let slip the wing tie-downs then helped Ben with his walk-around. They shook hands and he climbed in the Porter and started the engine; he watched the gauges for a moment, then lined up on the clearing and took off. He circled the riverbed once, flew over the trail and rocked his wings, and he saw Bao standing on large rock, saluting, as he passed.

+++++

She felt better now, with the wind in her hair and the sun higher in the sky, but she felt unsure of herself, of her footing in this strange new landscape. She watched him handle the car, listened to him talk about his daughter, about his other son in Boston. About Madeleine and her lingering HIV, and the promiscuity that had been her downfall. Their downfall.

And she felt like a foreigner, like a stranger in a strange land, like the ground kept shifting under her feet, trying to slide out from under her. Then she thought of Portman, and his first lecture – before she lurched back to the present.

They turned of the coast highway onto old Highway 33 and climbed into the oak crusted hills that looked over the Pacific, and he set his course to the hospital where his daughter lay waiting. She listened to him talk about Lacy’s disease warily now, like she really couldn’t believe something so vile and pernicious could still exist in the 21st century, but the more she listened the more she believed. And the more she believed the more afraid she became.

“I had no idea,” she said at one point. “I thought anti-psychotics had all but wiped it out?”

“It’s an insidious disease, Lindsey. Medication can help alleviate symptoms, some symptoms, anyway, while others percolate just under the surface, just out of view. The underlying mechanism, the inability to the brain to correctly encode and retrieve memory, makes it feel as though what’s experienced is real. In other words, what the patient experiences does not feel unreal, it’s not a hallucination to them. When Lacy’s being attacked by knife-wielding demons, it’s real to her. When she tries to recall something from childhood, say a memory of Christmas, the memory may come back in the form of an attack. Think of the brain as a computer, if you can. Memory’s are stored in something like a hard drive, but instead of binary coding the brain uses chemical coding. In a schizophrenics mind, the ability to address memory, and to retrieve it intact, is corrupted. It’s confounding, too, because some regions may be intact, may offer some semblance of order, then some other mechanism distorts the ability to recall. No one can tell with much certainty why this happens, let alone how, but when you look at Lacy she appears normal. She speaks normally. You just can’t let your senses be your guide here, because you and I want to see normal. We want to see progress. We want to see hope.”

“Are you’re saying there isn’t any?”

“With the current state of the art? Doubtful. And again, it’s the nature of the beast. There isn’t just one ‘kind’ of schizophrenia, Lindsey. There are a whole bunch of them, yet they’re not all separate and distinct diseases. There’re crossovers and permutations, too, a little bit of this one and little bit of that one over there. One med may work well for this combination and be completely ineffective for one that looks the same, but maybe that’s because there’s just one subtle little difference between the two. And guess what? It’s hit or miss, trial and error.”

“But the news coverage…”

“The meds are only effective at quieting the noise, Lindsey. They turn off the hallucinations, for a while, anyway, but the side effects are not inconsequential. Sleeping twenty hours a day isn’t uncommon, and uncontrolled weight gain the norm. Then all the other components of weight gain join the parade. Hypertension, diabetes – then liver toxicity creeps in as the meds take their toll. Lacy weighed 115 when we brought her here. She weighs 250 now, she’s on insulin and beta-blockers, and she’s not even twenty.”

She saw him wipe away a tear and she put her hand atop his arm.

“Well, here we are,” he said as he turned off the highway.

“It looks like a country club, Doug. Look at that view…”

“It was. Went out of business in the crash, a group of docs in LA bought it and rebuilt the main building. A lot of the land was sold off to developers, and that allowed them to add buildings, increase space. There’s a year long waiting list to get in now.”

“But if there’s no cure?”

“The goals are simple where Lacy is concerned. Get her stable enough to move into assisted living, maybe with a roommate.”

“Not home?”

“Doubtful. I can’t see moving her back into an environment that may have been the primary cause of all this? And when I’m not around? In the office all day?”

“I see. Any other options you can think of?”

“Well, we’ll meet with her docs first, then if she’s up to it we’ll go see her. Then you tell me what you think.”

They walked inside, to the reception desk, and then were escorted to a conference room, and after a few minutes wait a lab-coated physician and two nurses came in and sat. Lindsey looked at the physician, a psychiatrist, she assumed, and thought he looked troubled; the nurses looked harried – worn out and at their wit’s end.

The physician looked up from his chart and at Lindsey: “This is your visitor?” he asked.

Doug spoke first: “Yes, Doctor Tremble, this is Lindsey Hollister, a friend…”

“The writer? You wrote A Pound of Flesh?”

“Yes, I did?”

“Are you here in a professional capacity? “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is deerely bought, ‘tis mine, and I will haue it.” Does that about sum things up? Are you here for your pound of flesh?

She thought the question paranoid, and almost wanted to laugh. “Well, no actually, Doug is a friend, and I want to know what he’s facing.”

“Ah, well then. And here I had hopes of becoming the evil villain in a taunting exposé vis-à-vis the ills of modern psychiatry?”

“Are you an evil villain?” she asked – and the man snorted.

“Yes, of course. Just ask any one of my patients.”

“I see your point.”

“Good,” Tremble said, chewing on a ball point pen. “Now, Doctor Peterson, a lot to report this week, I’m afraid. She’s refusing food and water again, which is causing all kinds of problems with her sugars. We started an IV to hydrate her and she ripped the line out last night, so she’s in hard restraints this morning. Another 24 hours and we’ll need to insert a gastric tube again. Miss Hollister, for your benefit…”

“To feed her,” Lindsey said, cutting him off. “Yes, I’m familiar with the concept.”

“Are you? Well, good. As we discussed last time this occurred, we’ve started Haloperidol IM, so we’re anticipating major GI issues if we restart her on a feeding tube…”

“Excuse me,” Lindsey said, and Tremble put down his pen, looked exasperated, “but you’re saying Lacy is tied down, refusing to eat or drink, that you’re giving her medications that will cause GI issues if you start to force feed her? Is that about it?”

“Yes, Miss Hollister, that’s about ‘it’,” he said, hanging quotation marks in the air with his fingers.

“Okay,” Doug said, “why do I get the impression you’re holding something back this morning.” Then he looked at the two nurses. “What’s going on? Talk to me.”

The nurses looked at Tremble, then at Peterson, then one of them spoke: “Doctor Peterson, Lacy exists in two states of mind now. She’s either asleep, a very restless sleep, or she’s awake and fully engaged in her hallucination. She writhes in agony, screams out as her demons assault her, cutting her with knives. She screams when they throw her into fires. She screams when the demons bring innocent babies before her and cut them up, throw them into the fires. I think the point I’m trying to make is this…”

“And let me say I disagree with this assessment, but they are a part of her treatment team so have a right to speak.”

The nurse looked intimidated, but continued. “The point, Doctor Peterson, is simply this. She’s suffering, and treatment doesn’t appear to be working. After five years, she’s symptomatically worse. She is clinically depressed on top of everything else, has given up hope of getting better, and her nurses are of the opinion we should DC life sustaining measures…”

“DC means discontinue?” Lindsey interjected.

“Yes, sorry.”

Doug looked down, nodded his head. “I was afraid of this,” he whispered.

Lindsey looked at Tremble again. “Doctor? What do you think of this position?”

“I’m against it. I simply can’t give up.”

“Why? I mean, an oncologist fights a cancer until there’s no longer any benefit to further treatment? Are you saying you think there’s a chance for improvement?”

“There’s always a chance, Miss Hollister.”

“Well then, let me rephrase. Is their a reasonable likelihood, with current medical knowledge and with the tools you have on hand now, today, of your altering the trajectory of this illness?”

“No, not really.”

“So,” she sighed, “what possible motive could you have for continuing treatment, other than, say, a financial motive?”

“Now look here, I resent the implications of that statement…”

“As do I,” Lindsey said, “but nothing else comes to mind. What you’ve described to me this morning is a portrait of unmitigated suffering, suffering without chance of remission. Could I ask you one more question, doctor, before you stab me with that pen?”

Tremble looked at the mauled pen, then put it down. “Yes, of course.”

“What would you advocate if Lacy was your best friend in all the world? Or your daughter?”

He sighed, looked down at his hands. “I don’t know. I might try a Hail Mary Pass, but at this point, I just don’t know.”

Doug looked up. “Such as?”

“ECT,” Tremble said.

“Jesus,” he sighed. “I didn’t think…”

Tremble sighed. “Like I said, Doug, this would be a Hail Mary play.”

“Doctor,” Lindsey said, “I’m not blind. I can see that you care, that you’re frustrated and feel the same hopelessness your nurses feel, but when is enough enough?”

“When I’ve tried everything, I’ll let you know.”

“Logistics?” Doug said.

“Only place worth trying is Spokane, Sacred Heart.”

“Air ambulance?”

Tremble nodded. “Probably around a hundred grand. Insurance won’t cover.”

“How about ECT? Is that covered?”

“No.”

“Any guesses?”

“Two to three hundred thousand?”

“Any idea of a success rate?” Lindsey asked, incredulous now.

“No, but not very good.”

“So,” she said, “3-4 hundred thousand for an unproven treatment with little chance of success? On top of five years and how much money?”

“Close to a million,” Doug said, “out of pocket. So far.”

“Well,” Lindsey sighed, “I just found the topic for my next book. This is incredible. Your money or your life.”

Tremble looked away.

“I’m curious,” she added. “What about the people who can’t afford this. I mean, seems to me that’s about 99 percent of the people in the country. What do they do?”

Tremble looked at her. “They cut almost all mental health funding for public treatment programs back in the mid 80s. It’s been downhill ever since.”

“The Reagan cuts, you mean?”

“That’s right. They tried to address that with the ACA, but you saw how popular that was, I suppose.”

Doug stood. “Could we see Lacy now?”

+++++

Driving down 33 again, the blue Pacific filling the way ahead, Lindsey tried to shake the sight of the girl from her mind’s eye. The lifeless eyes, the muted conversation between an infant and a Spanish speaking woman.

“So, you’re saying she was holding a conversation – between a baby girl and a Spanish demon?”

“She fragmented into Multiple Personality Disorder two years ago, and there are several demons involved now. The Spanish demon tends to be a mediator, asks the baby version of Lacy to repent for her sins, then she leads the punishment phase, calls out all the other demons, with the knives.”

“That’s when the screams started?”

“That’s right.”

“What did you think about the whole ECT thing?”

“I read the relevant journal articles months ago.”

“And?”

“Promising for unipolar depression. A waste of time for psychotic disorders, including schizophrenia.”

“So, it’s a Hail Mary?”

“No, it’s not even that. Tremble knows she’s going to fail, to die, and he wants to pass the buck to another institution. If she dies here, or goes to hospice from here, it’s a mark on his record, a possible investigation. Patients in mental facilities rarely die, so the state often looks into these types of events.”

“But it’s not his fault?”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s a statistic, an unwelcome one at that.”

“This is like Kafka. Every one in sight runs from the bureaucrats and their lawyers, and somewhere along the line doing the right thing becomes impossible.”

“It’s easy to fall into that kind of thinking, but actually a lot of good comes out of our system. It could be better, but the political will just isn’t there, let alone the money.”

“You know, the amount of money an F-15 uses in fuel, in fuel alone, to fly one bombing mission would pay for her treatment…”

“And that F-15 might fly a mission that keeps a hospital from being bombed, saving hundreds of lives.”

“It’s complicated, isn’t it?”

“If it was easy they’d have fixed it years ago.”

“I read a story recently, about a man from Boston who flew to Copenhagen…”

“Yeah, I read that, too. Every month, month after month, Americans get on airplanes and fly to Scandinavia, walk off the airplane and fall down. Free medical care. I get it.”

“Don’t you think we should feel some sort or remorse for that?”

“Remorse? Maybe, but look at it another way. Politicians take actions all the time that lead to people dying. And what’s the definition of murder? To intentionally or knowingly, by act or omission, act in such a manner that causes the death of another. So, are those politicians murderers? Are politicians who cut medical benefits to the needy nothing more than remorseless murderers?”

“Strictly speaking, yes. But it’s not so simple,” she said.

“No, it isn’t. You have to fall back on simple utilitarianism, you have to try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, and sometimes that involves making tough choices.”

“So, insurance isn’t going to get involved in cases like Lacy’s…”

“Of course not. Because their doing so doesn’t do society any good – to pump millions into treatments with poor outcomes. That just won’t work out in the long run, and everyone knows it. She’s gotten the best care money could buy, but it’s been my money, not the states, and not some insurance consortium.”

“I tend to side with the nurses. It looks like suffering to me. Suffering without end.”

“I know. It is.”

“What did you tell Tremble?”

“Offer her solid food and water for another day. If she continues to refuse, they’ll move her to hospice.”

Lindsey looked away. Away from the enormity of the decision, of the personal implications he must have had to deal with over the years. “So, enough is enough? Is that it?”

“I can’t afford it any more, Lindsey. I have to take care of Madeleine, of Bud, and somewhere in there, maybe even me, too. I have to make the same calculation everyone else does, the greatest good for the greatest number.”

“But if you lived in Denmark, or…”

“But I don’t, so let’s not turn this into a political wrestling match. I know the pros and cons of both sides, believe it or not.”

“It’s not a humane system, is it?”

“Like I said, Lindsey, our system produces some miraculous outcomes, but it’s not perfect. And it’s not, strictly speaking, humane, because it’s more often concerned with the economic realities of trying to care for 300 million people, not their pain and suffering…”

+++++

She stared at her computer, trying to think about all the things she’d experienced in Ojai. The reality of one person’s suffering, and another person’s almost Quixotic attempt to influence an all but certain outcome…to divert an onrushing wall of water before it smashed over a family and drowned them all.

“So why wouldn’t he let me help?” she wondered. She had the money sitting in her accounts, idly earning interest, and she was earning enough at the coffee shop to meet expenses – just – as she simply didn’t live extravagantly. So why had he refused? Male pride – was it that simple?

No, he had repeated “Enough is enough, Lindsey.” If, he said, there was a reasonable chance of success he’d make whatever sacrifice was necessary, but after talking with associates in the medical school they’d said the same thing. ECT won’t alter the outcome. So he asked her to help any other way she could – but to keep money out of it.

“I feel so helpless,” she’d told him as they drove down the highway.

“I know. At this point I feel almost numb; you’re still in the denial stage. Like everything I tried to do meant nothing, like it was a waste of time. That all she’s done is sit through five years of torture. The IVs and feeding tubes, the endless punctures for lab work – and all that time she’s sitting in a dungeon with demons hacking away at her, throwing her bit by bit into raging fires.”

She looked into his eyes, thought she could see the fires raging inside…

“She was my baby girl, Lindsey. The way she used to cuddle-up on my chest, when she was just a spud? She’d reach up and pull on my beard, look up at me with those little baby-blues and I just knew everything was going to be alright. That I’d always be there for her. And then the demons came for her.”

“Why do you say that?”

“What? Demons?’

“Yes. It implies something external to herself, that something or someone is punishing her. For what? This line of thinking leads to ‘what did she do to deserve this?’ Well, obviously, to me anyway, no one “deserves” this, but especially not a child.”

“No one is certain whether schizophrenia is an inherited disorder, and even if it is, to what extent other factors may act as trigger. Back to ‘nature vs nurture’ again. My guess is there’s an inherited genetic predisposition, and certain conditions my set it off. A sadistic parent or sibling, perhaps, or some life event. Or a combination of events and people. But I think using ‘demons’ is a little simpler than explaining all that.”

“I’m beginning to distrust simplifications, like using vitamins to treat…”

“What?”

“Huh?”

“Did you say vitamins?”

“Yes?”

“Google something for me, would you? Linus Pauling, and orthomolecular medicine. I think I read once he set up a medical research group when he was at Stanford, to look into…”

“Okay, got it.”

He put on the turn signal again, pulled off the highway and started reading, then he called Tremble…

+++++

Sophie looked him, then at the beach. “So, tell me about Becky, and her friend?”

“She’s from Laguna Beach, was, like, some kind of a ‘surf princess.’”

“What?”

“You remember those cheesy flicks, the beach movies?”

“Franky and Annette, those things?”

“Yup. She was in a few of those, even one with Elvis, then she dropped out, went to school. Claremont, religious studies. And she met some guys while she was there, they planned to go to Thailand to surf. She learned that had gone to score some opium. I mean, a real shitload. She claims she didn’t know anything about it.”

“You believe her?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“So, the two of them end up in the Laotian outback with the old British drug runner?”

“Yeah, and don’t ask me, ‘cause I don’t know and I didn’t ask. I come out of the jungle, an infection raging in my leg, and I see these two girls, in a really nice looking swimming pool.”

“Don’t tell me. They were naked?”

“As the day they were born.”

Sophie laughed. “This is too rich. So, you got it on with her?”

“Just before I left. Yes.”

“You know, Ben, you could have just not told me.”

“I never could lie to you, Sophie. And it’s not something I want to get in the habit of doing.”

“Okay. So, you’re seeing her?”

“Yup.”

“You think you love her, or, do you love her?”

“Not like I love you. But, yes, in a way.”

“So, what are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to a job interview tomorrow, in Denver.”

“Denver? Ben?”

“Yeah, United Air Lines. TWA next Friday, in New York. I’ve got to do something to pay the bills while I work on getting into med school.”

+++++

He got off the train from the airport and walked through the train station, the Hauptbahnhof, out into the center of Zürich, then he looked around, got his bearings and took off on foot. He’d made a few dry runs, if only because he wanted to know his way around if he had to make a run for it, and he looked at his watch, double-checked the time.

“Okay,” he said aloud, “ten minutes til they open, and an eight minute walk…”

He walked across the Bahnhofplatz to the Löwenstrasse, and he stopped from time to time, looking to see if anyone was following him, then he darted into the unmarked door off the Reitergasse, into the tiny “Privat Banking” office Clive had instructed him to visit on the seventh day of the seventh month. He handed the receptionist a number, and the girl called a manager.

A small, tidy man came to the reception area and looked at his uniform. “Guten Morgen. Wie kann ich dienen?”

“Sorry, but I don’t speak German well,” Asher said.

“Ah. What can I do for you this morning, Captain?”

“Captain? Oh, no, sorry, First Officer, and I need to access a safety deposit box.”

“Of course. I’ll need the number, please?”

Asher handed him a piece of paper with the number.

“One moment, please.” The man came back with a book and opened it. “The code, please?”

“Lucy In The Sky.”

“Just so. You’ll sign here, please.”

Ben signed the agreed upon name, which was Eleanor Rigby, the second level codeword. The banker looked at the response and nodded. “Passport, please?”

“No thanks.”

“Correct. Follow me, please.” Asher followed the banker into a small ante-room, and, once the vault was opened, into a viewing cabin. A moment later a metal lock-box appeared, and the cabin door closed behind him.

He pulled out the key and opened the box, and felt light-headed when he saw the contents.

He saw the expected envelope, and he saw ten sealed plastic containers, which were completely unexpected. He took out the manilla envelope and undid the metal clasps, shook out the letter inside – and another key fell out onto the table.

“To whom it may concern,” the letter began, “take this key to number 21 Half Moon Street and give it to the clerk at the reception, then ask to speak to Donald Duck. Take the containers for expenses, use as needed.”

He picked up a container and opened it. Ten coins, silvery Krugerrands slipped out, and he shook his head – because the color was off. ‘How the devil do I get these through customs?’ he asked himself, and he slipped five into each jacket pocket. “That won’t do,” he said when he saw his jacket sag off his shoulders, so he knocked on the door.

“Yes, sir?”

“Could you change these into francs please,” Asher said, handing five containers to the banker.

“Certainly sir. Large denominations?”

“Yes.”

“One moment, please.”

He came back several minutes later carry a silver attache case, a Zero Halliburton; he set it on the table and opened it. Asher had never seen so much cash in his life, and the man handed him a receipt. “One point two million francs,” he said. “Not quite five hundred thousand dollars.”

“Seems a lot.”

“Here’s the current spot on platinum, sir.”

“Ah. Yes, I see.”

“Will you be going through customs, sir?”

“Sooner or later, yes.”

“I’ll put these bundles in envelopes, then. Just put a newspaper on top, they’ll not look any further.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course. Will there be anything else?”

“A taxi, perhaps.”

“Of course.”

The banker walked him to the door a few minutes later; “Thank you for coming in today, sir.”

“Vielen Dank für Ihre Professionalität,” Asher replied, grinning. “Es wurde geschätzt.” He stepped into the waiting taxi and told the driver “Flughafen, bitte. TWA,” and he checked his surroundings very carefully until he boarded the 727 for Heathrow.

+++++

He walked into his apartment two days later, put the case under his bed, then jumped in the shower and changed clothes after he dried. He took the case and went downstairs, hailed a cab, went downtown to Republic National Bank and then to his own safe deposit box. He put the francs and the five remaining containers in the box and changed some currency, then left the bank, took a cab to Tiffany’s and looked at engagement rings, bought one and got in another taxi.

“166th and Broadway, please.”

“Right.”

He always picked her up when he got in from London, but today would be fun, he thought. He walked over to the little garden on the west side and had just sat down – when he saw someone look at him, then turn away quickly. ‘White, early-30s, dark hair, tall and thin, dark suit, sunglasses.’ He stood and went inside the lobby area and took a seat, watched the area more closely until he saw Becky come out of the elevator. She came to him, and in moments like this he saw her standing in Martin’s pool, naked, staring at him as he came out of the Laotian jungle.

But not this afternoon.

He stood and folded her into his arms, but he kept looking around.

“Hey, do I get a kiss, at least?” she said, biting his chin.

He kissed her, then came up for air and looked into her eyes. “Sorry,” he said, “busy day. Had to run a few errands. Feel like going to Mamma Leone’s?”

“Geez…did someone get a raise?”

“I feel like spaghetti tonight.”

She poked him in the belly… “Funny, you don’t feel like spaghetti?”

He groaned, then saw the same guy looking at him, only now there were two of them, and they were both walking towards him.

“Benjamin Asher?” the first one he’d seen said, holding out a badge.

“Yes?”

“Peter O’Malley, FBI, New York Field Office. Would you come with us, please?”

“Sorry, but am I under arrest?”

“No sir, you are not?”

“Well, we’re going to Mamma Leone’s. You’re welcome to join us, and we can talk there all you want.”

The agents looked at one another, then shrugged their shoulders. “Sure. Why not. You wanna ride with us?”

“Hell yes,” Asher said. Becky looked pale, and very unsure of herself as she followed the men out to their Ford, and she sat quietly, looking to Ben for assurance that all was well, but he seemed strange just then. Like he was keeping a secret, or a bunch of secrets – and she didn’t like the feeling. She followed him into the restaurant, which had just opened and was empty, and the four of them went to a corner table and sat.

An ancient man came by with menus and announced “No meatballs for thirty minutes. Something with the oven…” then asked what kind of wine they wanted. The agents just shrugged, begged off and asked for water – causing the old waiter to sigh – while Asher asked for the best Champagne in the house – causing the old waiter to grin. He ambled off and the agents looked knowingly at Ben, then grinned.

“So, what can I help you guys with today?”

“Eli Rosenthal? Name ring any bells?”

“Nope.”

“Marco Trontoni?”

“Nope, sorry.”

One of the agents tossed a photo of Clive Martin on the table. “What can you tell us about this gentleman?”

Asher picked up the 8×10 and looked it over, looked at those familiar eyes and wanted to smile, but he looked at the agent. “Who is he?”“

“You know him as Clive Martin, I think, but we’re more interested in this fellow right now,” he said as he put another picture down on the table.

Asher picked it up and looked at it. The image showed a door on Half Moon Street in London, yesterday morning, with him coming out of the door at Number 21. “We’re interested in why you were seen going into the headquarters of British Intelligence yesterday. Care to shed any light on the matter?”

“Nope.”

“How ‘bout you, Miss Sawyer. Would you like to talk about the two months you spent in Laos with Mr Martin?”

“Who?” she said.

The agents laughed, the waiter carried over an iced bucket and stood it on the floor by the table, then disappeared again. “Who?” one of the agents chuckled. “You sound like an owl. But I thought owls were wise, and you know what? Who is not a very wise answer.” He tossed several more images of her, coming out of a prison in Vientiane, on the table, with Stacy in two images, and with Martin in four.

“So, how much were you being paid?”

“Sorry,” she said, “paid? For what?”

“For attempting to smuggle forty pounds of uncut heroin to Los Angeles,” the agent said, tossing one more photo on the table. “Your suitcase. Martin’s heroin. And a few days after your arrest there you are, with him and, by golly, there’s your suitcase. Was the heroin still in the bag, Miss Sawyer?”

The waiter came to the table and opened the bottle, poured two glasses while he looked nervously at the photos on the table, then he scurried away – disappearing into the kitchen.

“What heroin?” Becky said.

“That heroin,” the agent said, pointing at her suitcase.

“That,” she said, pointing at the prison, “was a mistake. The government apologized for that, and the case was closed.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, my boyfriend knew Mr Martin, and when we were arrested Mr Martin worked to get us out. That’s all I know.”

“You mean Sean Keaton? Your boyfriend?”

“He was.”

“Do you know he died in that prison, a week after your release?”

“No,” she said, pursing her lips, “I didn’t.”

“Yes, what I did on my summer vacation, by Becky Sawyer, drug runner.”

“Listen guys,” Asher said, “let’s keep it friendly, okay?”

“Oh yes. Ben Asher, airline pilot, British secret agent. He flies to London three days ago, and as soon as your aircraft hits the gate he’s off to Zürich, yet seven hours later he’s waltzing up Piccadilly, then slipping into MI6. Do you have any idea how much trouble you’re in, sport? Any idea at all?”

An old man, very dark and clever looking, slipped out of the kitchen and came over to Asher’s table, and he pulled up a chair and stared at the agents. Two men joined him, and stood behind the old man’s chair. Asher assumed they were heavily armed.

“You boys are making too much noise,” the old man said to the agents, “and I don’t like the tone of disrespect I hear in your voice.” He paused, took a deep breath. “So get the fuck out of my restaurant. Now.”

The agents got up to leave, began gathering the photos on the table…

“Leave ‘em,” the old man said, with a wave of his hand.

The agents left, and the old man turned to Becky. “How’s your Champagne, young lady?”

She reached for her glass, her hands shaking, and he reached out, put his hand on hers. “It’s alright,” he said. “It’s over now, so relax.”

Asher looked at the old man, then the old man looked at him.

“And who did you see in London, young man?”

“Donald Duck.”

“And I’m Mickey Mouse,” he said, holding out his hand, “pleased to meet you. You gotta name?”

“Snow White.”

The old man nodded his head. “Well, you got balls, that’s for sure,” he said as he gathered up the photos, handing them to one of the men standing behind his chair. “You got something for me?”

Asher fished the envelope out of his jacket and handed it over. The man put the envelope into his pocket without looking at the contents, then adjusted his position in the chair.

“Would you like to join us for dinner?” Ben asked.

“Yeah. You know, I could eat. You wouldn’t mind?”

“No, please. This is an important night, and I’d enjoy the company.”

The old man stood and signaled a waiter. “Set two more places, please,” he said, then he turned to Ben. “Important? How so?”

But Ben was staring into the shadows, at a hazy memory – stepping out of memory and into the present, and his hands began to tremble.

Clive Martin stepped into the light and came to the table, and Ben stood then flew into the old Englishman’s arms.

“Goddamn!” Asher said. “What? No flowing robes? How the hell are you, Amigo?”

“Good to see you, too, Ben.”

Ben and Martin sat, Becky looked on – amused – and the old Italian man, Mickey Mouse, beamed. “So, you gonna tell me what’s so important about this night now?”

And Ben looked at the men, then at Becky while he pulled the little blue box from his jacket.

“Yeah,” he said, placing the box in the light. “Becky? This is it. The rest of my life, right here, right now. I want to spend it with you by my side. Will you marry me?”

He opened the box and took out the ring, and he held it before her hand.

She looked at the ring, then at him – and nodded her head. “Yes,” she whispered, and when she looked up she saw both Martin and Mickey Mouse were smiling, and the old Italian was crying a little, but Ben was staring into her eyes, breathing deeply. He slipped the ring on her finger and they kissed.

The party did not break up until the wee hours, and the FBIs surveillance teams did not leave until dawn.

+++++

“So, what is she on now?” Doug asked Tremble.

“3500 units of C, and an ungodly amount of Niacin. When we put the gastric tube in, we just ground up a ton of broccoli and beets and dumped it in. Two days of that, and well, she started coming out of it. She’s also flatulent, and I do mean farting up a storm, but she’s semi-lucid now.”

“How’re her kidneys and liver dealing with that much acid in her system?”

“That’s my biggest concern right now. Not sure how long we can…”

“What did they advise?”

“Keep it right at the line until the lab works screams ‘back off’ – my guess is we can keep her at this dose one, two more days, then we’ll have to back way off.”

“What about long term?”

Tremble shook his head. “Unknown, but their stats show about a 90% chance of moderate to severe symptoms returning within weeks.”

Lindsey shook her head. “This is a nightmare.”

“I think,” Tremble sighed, “we take this opportunity to see what she wants to do going forward. Anyway, she was up and talking last night. Went to the bathroom on her own, but I have to warn you – she’s fragile, and she seems almost pre-adolescent right now. Like she…”

“Lost the last five years of her life,” Lindsey said, guessing at the implications.

“What about the typical anti-psychotics?” Doug asked. “Did you DC?”

“No, tapered back to a low maintenance dose, try to cut back on the side-effects. Still, the Tardive dyskinesia has not abated, and my guess is it will not, so she’s having a difficult time expressing herself now. The orthomolecular regimen seems to have had some success knocking back these movements, but it’s just too soon to say.”

“Can we go back now?” Doug asked.

Tremble grimaced. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

Lindsey followed them back to Lacy’s room, not sure what to expect, but when she walked into the room she was overcome with despair. Lacy was, or had been, she could see, a simply gorgeous girl: blond haired and blue eyed, a kind, impish grin, long arms and fingers, but she was a bloated caricature of beauty right now, her eyes puffy and red, rolls of fat hanging under her chin. Her lips and tongue were swollen from the antipsychotic medications, and she was smacking her lips repeatedly, like her mouth was dry.

And she looked at her father when he came in the room.

“Daddy?” she said.

“Oh, baby,” he cried, and he rushed to her side. “Yes, it’s me.”

“Oh, Daddy, it’s so good to see you…”

And Tremble motioned to her with his head – ‘Let’s leave them alone…’ he seemed to say, and she nodded as she followed him out.

“I don’t know whether this is a miracle or a curse,” the psychiatrist said, and Lindsey nodded her head.

“I wonder what I would want, under the circumstances?”

“As the parent, or the child?”

“I can’t even begin to imagine what her life is like, but right now I think it would be very confusing.”

“Exactly. Her mind has had no frame of reference, little connection to external reality for months at a time. I think it must be like falling asleep and waking up a few months, or even years later. Always trying to play catch up, to grab hold of all the things she missed before she falls asleep again…”

“But knowing it will be the same next time?”

“Terrifying, isn’t it?”

“I’m not sure I’d want to live that way.”

“Perhaps because you have a frame of reference that’s a bit different from Lacy’s. This is all she’s known for years, and though I suspect this life is as precious to her as yours is to you, we judge her expectations through the prism of our own experience. We can’t imagine living as she does, but maybe she can’t imagine living as we do.”

“A different reality…”

“Precisely. Her’s is generated internally, but she describes places and experiences she can’t possibly know, like the inside of a cathedral in Spain where many of these rituals she experiences occur. I’ve taken her under hypnosis several times, examined these experiences, and her ability to recall detail is shattering.”

“Are you saying she was actually…?”

“I’m not saying anything, Miss Hollister. I have no explanation – period. You could claim she’s seen images in books or online, but again, the level of detail troubles me. If I didn’t know better I’d say she’d been there – and made a thorough examination of the building.”

“And you know the details are accurate?”

“No, not without actually going, and comparing my notes of her recollections to what’s on site.”

“Interesting. Do you plan on making such a trip?”

“I would like to, yes. Actually, I have notes from several patients I’d like to examine.”

“I’m curious. How many involve, well, sacred spaces?”

“Nicely put,” Tremble said, smiling at the irony of her choice. “I don’t suppose it would surprise you to learn that all of them do.”

“Not really. When I was in Mississippi, most of the really, well, the delusional sorts, were buried knee deep in religious symbolism. Crosses on walls…”

“Let me guess. Russian Orthodox iconography.”

“Yes. How’d you know.”

“The Russian Orthodox, probably more so than the Greek, is the most rigidly adherent of the Christian ideologies.”

“Rigidly adherent?”

“They stick closely to the original, central mythologies. Modern American Evangelicalism is much more syncretic, readily incorporating, for instance, such things as the Prosperity Gospel, overlaying these concepts on Christ’s teachings. Most Christian theologians would view this as subverting Christ’s message, and this diminution of Jesus’ teachings has not gone unnoticed to many who’ve come of age – away from the suburban evangelical impulse that informs the prosperity adherents. And as those people – who may for whatever reason be susceptible to psychotic manifestations – encounter external splits in their belief system, such fragmentation of their core beliefs may lead to…”

“Wait a minute…just wait a minute…” Lindsey sighed, her eyes almost fluttering with excitement, “are you implying that ‘culture’ can become schizophrenic. That society can, in effect, experience a collective psychotic break?”

“Isn’t that obvious?”

“What? No, it isn’t. Not at all.”

“Ah. Ever read Jung?”

“Just Man and His Symbols.”

“Ah, coffee table Jung, but good enough. You recall the concept of the collective unconscious?”

“Sort of. Kind of like Freud’s Id?”

“Not really, but that’s not the point. Jung held that some parts of the unconscious mind were informed by a collective force, and before you roll your eyes just think of something as banal as instinct. Most people would hold that when you see a coiled snake readying to strike, you simply don’t walk up to it and try to pet it, or pick it up. Even a child sees that danger – and instinctively, yes? Jung added another layer, however, when he posited that a snake, for example, takes on a deeper meaning through our instinctual understanding of such things as symbols. A woman, for instance, taking off a stocking resembles a snake, shedding it’s skin.”

“And these symbols, our understanding of these symbols, is inherited?”

“It’s been almost impossible to prove, Miss Hollister, but advances in the neurosciences are leading us closer to a real understanding of this role. One neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, believes that the brain stem, even the so-called reptilian brain, may be the locus of human consciousness, and not the forebrain. If that proves to be the case, all psychiatry, indeed, our understanding of neuropharmacology and psychobiology in general may be turned on it’s ear, but if it does we’ll be moving psychiatry right back into the Jungian realm.”

“So, these collective elements are shared…?”

“Across humanity, yes. And Jung was concerned, later in his life, that splits in a culture’s collective unconsciousness could occur as easily as they do in individuals. When looked at in this way, phenomenon as disparate as paranoia and delusion can become cultural phenomenon, and one look at events in the 1930s, as well as recent events, tends to bear this out.”

Doug came out of the room, his eyes filled with tears, and he walked quickly down the hall and into a bathroom.

“Oh, no…” Tremble said, and he ducked inside Lacy’s room, closing the door behind him as he disappeared, and Lindsey walked down the hall, waited outside the bathroom – for Doug – and all his impossible dilemmas.

+++++

He took the backroads, heading west until he wound through the streets of Santa Barbara, then he turned up the hill to the mission, then crossed over to the El Encanto. He parked and helped Lindsey out of the car, and they walked in and waited for a table.

“You ever been here,” he asked as they walked out on the terrace.

“No. Heard about it a long time ago, but I rarely come to Santa Barbara.”

“This is my favorite place in California,” he said as the hostess put menus on the table and left them.

“The view is incredible. What do you usually get?”

“The King Salmon. Every time.”

Their waiter came by and took their order, then he turned and looked at the ocean, still not talking about Lacy. Not one word, since they’d left the hospital…

“Do you love me?” he asked, out of the blue.

She looked him in the eye. “Yes.”

He nodded. “Would you like to get a room?”

She nodded her head. “I think so.”

He sighed. “It’s a lot to take in, to process. Thanks for coming with me.”

“You’re welcome.”

“She told me she’s done. That she doesn’t want to go on like this. She told me she could feel herself slipping away. Like she could hear the voices standing just outside her room, waiting for her.”

Lindsey looked away, then reached out and took his hand. She felt his flesh on hers, the warmth inside, the strength – and she wondered when he was break down, fall apart and shatter into a million pieces.

“The thing is, my love, I think I understand her now. What she’s been through, what lies ahead.”

“She’s decided?”

“Yes,” he said, his lip quivering. “You know what?” he added, brightening a little. “My birthday is this coming Friday. What say you and I run down and get a blood test, maybe get a marriage license?”

“Get married…run away from it all…” she sighed. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“Oh, I’m serious.”

“And the laws against polygamy have been suspended?”

“We’re moving Madeleine to hospice tomorrow.”

“What? When did this happen?”

He laughed, an edge of hysteria creeping in. “It’s been happening, all my life.”

The waiter came by and put salads on the table, and Doug looked at the waiter. “You know, could you bring me a dark rum collins – a big one?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks,” he said, then he turned to Lindsey again. “Either you’re driving or were staying here. I’m going to drink about ten of those things, then go find a bed and sleep for a few years.”

She smiled.

When the waiter brought the drink she took it from him and tossed it off in one long pull, then handed the glass to the waiter. “Better bring another,” she said, and after the waiter left she turned and looked at Doug. “You know, I don’t drink hard stuff. For a reason.”

“Oh?”

“I get horny as hell, Doug. I mean, the proverbial, insatiable she-bitch from hell kind of horny.”

“Do you, indeed? I wish you’d told me sooner.”

“I’m telling you now. What are you going to do about it?”

“What do you want me to do about it?”

She saw a few diners at a couple of the closer tables turn and look at her. “I want you to start on my cunt, Doug. I want you to eat me raw. Maybe for an hour or so. And I really want you to eat out my ass, get it nice and loose, then I want you to fuck me up the ass.”

A man sitting behind Doug wiped sweat from his brow, the woman by his side grinning wildly.

“Oh?” Doug said, his voice cracking.

“Yes, and I want you to shoot your load up my ass. Think you can do that for me?”

“I think I could give it a try…”

“Nope,” she said, “not good enough.” She flipped off a shoe and put her bare foot on his crotch, began massaging him. “Not good enough, at all.”

He wiped the sweat from his forehead now.

“Is it warm out, Doug? Or is it just me?”

“No, it’s getting warm.”

A woman at another table looked at Lindsey’s leg stretched out under the table and grinned, pointed it out to the man with her. He looked, then nodded his head, and the woman slipped off her shoe and moved her foot up into the shadows. The man leaned back and started laughing, then he grew focused, and he too wiped sweat from his brow.

“Things getting – hard, Doug?”

“Uh…yup.”

The waiter brought the second drink and she took it, tossed it down, then handed the empty glass to him.

“Madame would like another?” he said, trying not to smile.

“Madame would, yes.” She kept her eyes on Doug’s now. “You know, that thing sure feels awfully hard to me. You think he’s getting ready?”

“Uh-huh.”

She stroked faster now, and he held on to the edge of the table. “Would you like me to stop now, Doug?”

“No…please God, no…”

“Ooh. You know what Doug? I think he’s ready? What do you think?”

He leaned back, began to groan…

“Yup…he’s ready…” she said – and she began a frenzied, staccato burst, then watched his back arch, felt him pulse beneath her foot, then the spreading stain of warmth that soaked through his pants. “Good boy,” she said to him – as the waiter arrived with her third drink.

“Your entrees will be out in a moment,” he said, smiling now as he handed her the drink.

“Yes, I’m sure they will,” she said, biting her lower lip – trying her best not to laugh.

+++++

She went to work early the next morning, yet when she saw Sara she wanted to turn away from her friend. Why had she implied Doug had done something improper to Lacy? Had there been a rumor going around? Was there something going on between them she hadn’t picked up on? Still, the more she thought about it the more she wanted to just let it go – to move on – yet she felt a layer of anger lingering just underneath the surface of the day.

“How was your weekend,” Sara asked – with a wink and a nod – at one point.

So Lindsey told her, first about their second visit with Tremble, and then of Lacy’s decision to move on to hospice.

“Oh my God,” Sara whispered.

“But that’s only fitting,” she added. “Madeleine’s moving to hospice, as well. Later today, I think.”

And Sara blinked, then turned away without saying another word.

Lindsey got on with making coffee, setting out baked goods in the counter display, and began taking care of customers when the first early morning caffeine hounds started dragging in just after six. Not long after she heard an altercation break out between customers.

“You goddamn liberals brought it all on yourselves!”

“And what? You want to live in a theocracy…like Iran, maybe?”

She moved over to quiet them down, and as soon as she drew near the men stopped talking. “What’s going on?” she said. “Why the shouting?”

The ‘liberal’ picked up the LA Times and showed her the front page: “Theocracy!” – it shouted.

“What happened?” she asked.

“The goddamn president signed another executive order late last night – all publicly funded universities must sign an oath of allegiance to the Christian church, must center their academics on an approved Christian curriculum – or face a total withdrawal of public support…”

“What? That’s ridiculous,” she said.

“And why is that ridiculous?” the ‘conservative’ cried. “Universities don’t teach anymore, they indoctrinate! All the president is trying to do is level the playing field.”

“Well,” she said, “if you want to fight, go outside and fight on the sidewalk or, better yet, try congressman Wellburn’s office – it’s just three doors down. Go fight in there, if you have to fight, but stop shouting in here. Understood?”

She heard their grumbles as she walked away, yet all she could think about was John, her brother John, and his desire to burn down the world, and as she worked through the morning she could hardly think of anything else. She saw her first book as an attempt to shine a light into the darkness, as an attempt to help illuminate the problems people face in a society that seemed driven to succeed at any cost, even if millions of people were pushed aside in the rush – and crushed. And people, even ‘important’ people read her book, they studied her results, carried her observations into everyday conversation – yet in the end had such shared knowledge really made a difference? Well, now the people pushed to the wayside had stood up as one, and in their righteous anger they wanted to stop progress in it’s tracks – to ‘burn the fucker down’ – and John had seized the moment. And there was no quicker way to tear down the Enlightenment than to bring back the Church.

Everything wrong with John’s world, the world that started to go wrong when love was taken from him, would be sacrificed on the alter of his need to extract his own ‘pound of flesh’.

What, she wondered, would it take to sate his dark need. Could she move to Washington, be by his side, be the conscience he claimed she was. Could she stop the howling madness that threatened to seep into the fabric of American life? But she had seen the darkness in his eyes, and she knew better. Like Doug, enough was enough.

No, his madness would overwhelm even her presence. He would turn their love into something dark and perverted, burn even that to the ground. And then what? Would he do what he had always promised to do? Turn liberal against conservative in one final push – to outright war? Would he go behind the scenes, again, and motivate ‘liberals’ to march on Washington – and then orchestrate an even bigger push by ‘conservatives’ – and then set up open confrontation? Would he bring the military in, set in motion the final repudiation? Tear the very heart and soul from America?

Had America finally split in two, suffered it’s own psychotic break? Had division replaced unity?

She saw the country as a family in that moment, a family riven by disparate needs, a family unable to cope with it’s own inherent contradictions, and the image she saw in her mind’s eye just then was of burning cities and endless war, of fathers and sons at each others throats, clawing each others eyes out – until blind and unable to breathe – both laid down and died.

‘Nothing lasts forever,’ she heard herself say at one point in the morning. “Maybe John’s right. Maybe all this needs to be burned to the ground – maybe something new and stronger will grow in the ashes.’

She looked around the coffee shop and she saw this little world as a slice of life, frozen in time. A snapshot of America, and of an age. Coffees from around the world, from literally every corner of the globe, all within easy reach, and people coming together here to enjoy the fruits of their labors. What would happen when all that was gone, she wondered, when people pulled back from the world. When inward looking fathers and sons lay gasping in their final throes – would they stop even then, take one last look around before darkness fell?

Yet she knew in her heart that nothing good could come of dissolution, that darkness would come just when humanity needed all the light gasping minds could lay their hands on, if only to pull crushing hands from humanity’s throats – and daggers from their backs.

+++++

Clive Martin looked out the window, at people walking on the sidewalks far below, at an airliner clawing it’s way back into the sky over Flushing Bay, at the Empire State and Chrysler buildings uptown. All that freedom, all that movement…all that energy…

And he felt like a prisoner, locked in a gilded cage.

When he heard a knock on the door, he turned as the condemned might on his last morning. He went to the door and looked through the peephole – then relaxed and opened the door.

“I thought you were off to London today?” he asked as Ben came in the room.

“I am. Have to be out at Kennedy around three-thirty.”

“The brothers at the bureau still hounding you?”

“Nope. I went in yesterday with a friend from the embassy. They set things straight.”

“Who? Who came?”

“Thomas Eden. Know him?”

“Sir Tommy? Hell, yes.”

“He knows you’re walking a tightrope.”

“He’s a good man, Ben,” he said as he read the note Ben handed him.

“Well, I just wanted to drop by, see if you need anything before I head out.”

“No, doing fine old top. I’ll see you when you get back.”

Ben took the note back and read the scribbled numbers, then took the note and tucked it inside his hat before he walked from the room. He walked down to the elevator and dropped his hat by the elevator door, and a man picked it up, handed it to him.

“Thanks,” Asher said.

“Not at all,” the Englishman said, pocketing the note.

He got in a taxi and told the driver to go to JFK, and the driver turned to him. “Is he ready?”

“Be down in about five.”

“Righty-O! Well done, Ben,” the driver said, pulling out into traffic.

Asher got out and walked inside the terminal building, went to the newsstand and picked up an International Herald Tribune, then walked to the counter to pay for it. He left the line and met a Captain, and they walked off to the dispatch office together.

“You look pretty good in that uniform. Maybe you should apply for a job?”

“I hope this works,” Clive said.

“Me too. If it doesn’t, I’ll be applying at BOAC…”

“After we get out of prison.”

“Oh. Yes, well, there is that…”

+++++

Doug came by the coffee shop just before she got off, and he looked careworn and tired, not at all like he had after she finished cleaning his clock in Santa Barbara. She smiled when she thought of him in bed, falling into her diversion, letting her pull him back from the abyss, but today was a brand new day. Today – he had to confront all his demons – come to terms with his past, and their futures.

“I see Bud’s not here yet?” he said as he walked up to the counter.

She shook her head. “Haven’t seen him today.”

“Damn,” he said, looking at his watch, “I want him to see his mom this afternoon.”

“Is she…?”

“Yes, I got her settled in early this morning. She’s off her meds now, and all supportive fluids.”

Lindsey shook her head. “I don’t know how you’re doing this.”

“Cops and docs do pretty much the same thing, I guess. You put a wall up, between your feelings and perception. You hide behind the wall until you can’t any longer.”

“What happens when the wall comes down?”

He shook his head, shrugged his shoulders. “Hey, I’m dancin’ as fast as I can…”

And Bud walked in the door – with Professor Portman. A very agitated Professor Portman. She looked at the clock and took off her apron, then sighed as her old teacher came up to the counter.

“Do you happen to have any whiskey here?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“Barbaric. No place should serve coffee with also serving Irish Whiskey.”

“I agree,” Doug said. “Let’s boycott this place.”

Sara came out with a bottle of Dewar’s – “For medicinal purposes only,” she said – as Lindsey started brewing cups for everyone, and then Sara moved over and locked the door, put the CLOSED sign up in the window. They moved to a large table largely out of view and sat – with the bottle in the middle of the table.

“I, for one,” Portman sighed, “am not standing on ceremony today. Today, of all days.”

“Oh?” Doug said.

“You’ve heard about the cuts to university funding?”

“Yes, but just in passing,” he said. “Is it bad?”

“Well, this administration has been moving, since day one, towards turning public schools into Christian indoctrination centers, so perhaps there’s a logic to all this. From disestablishing the Department of Education, to defunding the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, there’s been a single-minded pursuit of this radical Christian agenda, yet the last lines of defense were the public university systems around the country, and we held this line as inviolable. Yet by year’s end, this line will be a thing of the past – undone with the stroke of a pen and a compliant congress. Can you imagine what the consequences will be for industry, for science in general, within just a few years?”

Doug sighed. “We came here, all of us, to escape religious persecution…”

“And can you imagine being persecuted for being a non-Christian? That’s the next step, you know? Join us, or perish.”

“That would have sounded far-fetched just a few years ago, I suppose? I just came from a hospice facility, by the way, and they told me that starting next month all hospice admissions will have to signed off by a member of the clergy. No religious grounds to object, I was told, will be the new standard for admissions. I heard earlier today that similar conditions are being considered for admission to hospital.”

“What?” Sara cried. “What do you mean?”

“A religious oath sworn before admissions. All physicians and nurses to sign an oath of what’s being called religious fealty. Perform no procedure that’s not been approved by a board of religious overseers. Pretty drastic stuff.”

“They can’t do that!” Sara spat, pounding the table.

“They can,” Portman said, “if the people don’t stop the politicians.”

“But what about the system of checks and balances?” Bud asked. “I mean, it was designed with just this situation in mind, wasn’t it?”

“No system of checks and balances,” Portman replied, “can endure when the sides collude to achieve an end.”

“But what end could be worth that?” Bud sighed.

“Eliminate your political opponents, first,” Portman said. “Insure your party’s hold on power. Systematically disenfranchise the populace until only the people who agree with you remain eligible. Mexico did that for decades, so did the National Socialists, for that matter. Once that’s accomplished there are no checks on power. The Soviet experiment proved that, and now this country has too.”

“What are you going to do now, Professor?” Lindsey asked.

“I’ve maintained my dual-nationality status for just this eventuality, and I think I’m going home now. I’ve seen enough. Leaving tonight, as a matter of fact.”

“Where’s home, Professor?” Doug asked.

“Oh, a little farm near Moreton-in-Marsh. Closer to Stow-on-the-Wold, actually. I don’t imagine that such radical evangelicalism will be far behind there, but at least there’s still a chance to put it off. This country is done now. You crossed the tipping point this morning.”

“You’re exaggerating,” Sara said, “and you know it!”

“Am I? Political opposition to this agenda has been muted, at best, for decades. Christians are ‘good’ – therefore their political aims are ‘as good.’ That’s been the salient argument, since the 80s, anyway. Cross the evangelical bloc and lose elections, so the opposition didn’t cross them, indeed, they would not – directly, anyway, because the lesson was had been learned: win evangelical support and win elections. The thing worth remembering, Madame, is that the people voted to support this impulse, even when it was clear their aims were completely antithetical to your constitution. As a result, your policy debates have become farcical. Politicians don’t debate serious policy proposals anymore, they’ve taken sides in an almost perpetual series of skirmishes in a culture war whose battle lines were drawn up by suspect theologians. Don’t debate the merits of infrastructure spending when we can have a rousing quarrel about gay marriage, or heaven forbid, abortion rights. Polarize the people, pump them full of fear – then watch them fall in line. Constitutional protections don’t mean a thing when you’re constantly being told to be afraid of these brown people over here or those yellow ones over there. Omnipresent surveillance is for your own good! Don’t you know that? No? Well then, let’s see what you think after the next terrorist attack!”

“Osama Bin Laden must be smiling in his grave,” Doug said.

“Well, at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, but yes, that’s the point, exactly. Bin Laden wanted to destroy the United States, and he knew he couldn’t do that, not in a military sense, so he attacked America’s symbolic understanding of itself. Why? So Americans would begin to undo all there vaunted civil protections, destroy themselves from within. And think of it, the sheer brilliance of it all. Bin Laden sacrificed eleven men, and look at what he’s accomplished!”

“But what else could President Bush have done?” Sara asked.

“He could have gone on television and looked Bin Laden in the eye – and forgiven him. One simple act of forgiveness and the entire radical islamist impulse would have imploded under the weight of all it’s religious inconsistencies, under the power of Christ’s imploring cry to ”Forgive!” That word would have resounded around the world, and everyone would have seen Christianity living up to it’s highest ideals. Bin Laden would have been crushed. Instead we moved into an alternate universe, we targeted memory and dissent, we tossed aside our history of appealing to common sense to solve problems, and into a world of alternative facts, where such simple things as truth are regarded with contempt. Facts are reduced to ill-conceived slogans, and so of course science is confounded by pseudo-science. Measles epidemics rage because religious ignorance runs wild – again.”

“I don’t see that. Bush would have lost his chance for re-election if he’d forgiven Bin Laden,” Doug said.

“In the world militant evangelicals have built here, yes, that’s probably true. But can you imagine a world where Christians held true to the teachings of Christ?”

“So you’re saying evangelicals aren’t really Christians?”

“I doubt the Christ would look at them and see anything familiar, anything vaguely Christian about their gospels, but who am I to say? Just a lowly academic, a heretical teacher, and sadly, that was never enough for such a sustained assault against reason. I should have built a crystal cathedral and preached sociology as any other television preacher might. Sold salvation for a monthly donation, while filling my flock’s mind with hate for the enlightenment project.”

“That’s a little pessimistic, don’t you think?” Sara said, turning away.

“Oh, I don’t know. Academics are not a combative sort. We were ill-suited to hold the line against a militant religious adversary, but then again, neither were journalists. Neither could hold illiberal, irrational mystics to account when their unholy alliance with politicians took hold. That will be democracy’s epitaph, I suppose”

“What do you think we should do?” Bud asked. “I mean now, right now?”

“Preserve knowledge over the long term, for perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way once again. You know, it’s a subtle irony of history, perhaps, that when the Christian evangelizing impulse first joined with the Roman bureaucracies there was little to keep the darkness of pure mysticism at bay. Such a light was found in the teachings of Aristotle, of course, yet that flame was kept alive, nourished through the dark ages by the earliest Muslim scholars who, oddly enough, felt it their religious duty to preserve knowledge, if only to advance their understanding of God’s world. Christian scholars of the modern world have concluded, apparently, that unfettered knowledge and Christianity can not coexist, so they have chosen to go to war with knowledge once again. The American Republic will go the way of Rome, I’m afraid, and with her military might there’s no telling how long this new night will last. Now, I need a little more coffee, and a lot of that whiskey…”

+++++

Martin and Asher crossed the park and walked down Piccadilly towards Half Moon Street, their meeting with Edward Heath over.

“So, you’re telling me Becky was a courier, getting information from London to you out there in the sticks.”

“Yes. Once we affected her arrest she was no longer considered suspect, and they allowed her access to the outside world. That I simply couldn’t achieve any longer, and she was a Godsend.”

“You know, when you said that Bond, James Bond thing, you weren’t kidding, were you?”

“James Who?”

“Right. Got it. Never heard of you.”

Martin laughed. “It’s not that bad, old boy. I’ll be around – if you need me.”

“You mean after the FBI gets through with me, then the mafia?”

“The FBI won’t bother you, and they’ll warn the mob off as best they can. In the meantime, you should consider leaving New York. I won’t be able to help you there.”

“Any suggestions?”

The west coast, I should think, LA or Seattle work best for me. I’ll be in Vancouver, and Peru, for the most part.”

“If I stay with TWA it’ll have to be LA or San Francisco.”

“LA, then. The mob’s all over San Francisco.”

“Gee, swell.”

“This’ll all die down in a few months, and besides, I might need you to help out with a few ongoing projects from time to time.”

“Do I get a license to kill, maybe?”

“A what?”

“Forget I asked.”

“I will. I thought you were going to go to medical school. What happened?”

“I don’t know. Flying, I guess. I need the money now if I’m going to start a family, not ten years from now, and it’s something I know how to do.”

“You do enjoy it, don’t you?”

“Flying? You know, yes, I do. It’s not my first choice, but I’m happy enough.”

“I often wished I’d kept at it…after the war.”

“Yeah…but Clive Martin, Secret Agent has a nice ring to it…”

They stopped outside the Fleming’s Mayfair and Martin held out his hand. “I couldn’t have pulled this off without you, Ben. I’m eternally grateful, and so is Her Majesty’s government. We’ve shut down one of the largest opium rings in the far east, and a source of income for illicit regimes all over the area.”

“Well, you did save my life, so I guess we’re even, eh?” Asher scowled, shook his head when Martin held out his hand. “So, this is it?”

“Afraid so. You’ll let me know the wedding date?”

“I will.”

“You’ll need help with an aircraft, I suppose?”

“Yup.”

“Well, best leave that to me.”

+++++

“There he is,” Doug said, pointing at a bearded, long haired freak walking up to the baggage claim carousel.

“The tall one?”

“Yup.”

“He looks like Jesus, Doug!” Lindsey whispered. “Good God, he’s even wearing socks with his Birkenstocks!”

“That’s my Andrew,” Bud said, smirking as his brother walked up, “the biggest nerd ever.”

Son walked up to father and they hugged, clapped each other on the back, then Doug leaned back and took him in: “You alone, or bring any disciples with you?”

“Dad,” Bud added, “should we get on our knees and pray?”

Andrew groaned, shook his head. “Shut up, asswipe, or I’m tellin’ Dad where you stash your porn.”

Bud turned crimson and looked away, and Andrew looked at Lindsey. “And this is?”

“Andrew? This is Lindsey, she’s become a real friend the past few months.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said – looking her over from head to toe as Lindsey took his hand.

“You too,” she said. “Nice socks. You don’t often see Snoopy on footwear these days?”

“You like ‘em? I found them online…I’m a Peanuts fanatic so I just had to have them. Want me to get you some?”

“Thanks, yes. I love them.”

Doug looked at this exchange and wondered what the hell was going on, then just shook his head. “How many bags did you bring?”

“Just one. The BIG one.”

“Swell.”

“What car did you bring?”

“The SMALL one.”

“Frak.”

“Frak?” Lindsey asked, her face scrunched up now.

“Dad? She’s not a BSG fan? What’s up with that?”

Doug shook his head, turned red.

“BSG?” Lindsey added, hopefully.

“Battlestar Galactica. Dad?”

“Hey, Dork,” Bud said, “cool it. She’s a big liberal writer, not a TV critic…”

“Dad? A liberal? Now I know something’s out of whack. That’s like totally bogus, Dad, you know?”

Doug groaned when he saw a huge blue bag slide down the carousel, then he turned to his son. “Is that it, Jesus?” he said, pointing at the elephant sized duffel.

Andrew looked, nodded. “Yup.”

“We’re gonna need a fork lift to get it out to the car,” Bud sighed, looking at the overweight stickers plastered all over the side of the thing. “I feel a muscle spasm coming on just looking at it.”

Lindsey looked at them, these three boys, trying their best to ignore the reality of this hastily arranged visit, falling back to a familiar, more comfortable place, and as she watched them she couldn’t blame them. The two women central to their lives were fading away, and now they were facing an unlikely future, together, as three – not five. Taking comfort from one another and, she assumed, from her. She was about to assume a new role in these boy’s lives, and the thought struck her as odd, out of place. Fast approaching fifty, fast leaving the the possibility of motherhood behind, she looked at Bud and Andrew in that moment and felt something like a tectonic shift underfoot.

Then she noticed Doug looking at her.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes. I just can’t imagine how much clothing is inside that bag…”

The boys turned to her and laughed. “Clothing?” Bud said. “He’s probably wearing everything he owns…”

“Then what’s in the bag?”

And everyone laughed – but her – and she knew then she would always be on the outside, looking in, and that the joke was on her.

She turned away and began walking to the car, Doug trying to catch-up as she began running.

+++++

Ben and Becky moved into a little bungalow on the corner of Maple and Charleville, courtesy of a loan his father secured, two weeks before their planned wedding, four months before Becky’s due date. The house was small and, having been built in the 20s was well past it’s prime, but the little Spanish style thing was in the Beverly Hills school district – and that was all that mattered.

They moved in on a weekend, a Saturday morning, when the moving van pulled up early in the morning, and they piled a year’s worth of New York into plastered rooms and had just begun unpacking boxes when Becky heard a knock on the door. She looked at Ben, who shook his head.

“You expecting anyone?” she asked.

“Nope.” He went to their bedroom and got his little Walther, then went to the door and opened it…

“Holy cow!” he cried. “Sophie! Becky, come here! It’s Sophie and Prentice!”

Sophie was carrying a casserole, the foil covering smooth and radiating heat. “Happy House Warming!” she cried. “We thought you could use some real food!”

Ben opened the heavy grated iron outer door and let them in, and he had his first look at Prentice Hollister in that moment – and he wanted to turn away. The first words that came to him were prissy and effeminate: pressed khakis and a pale pink, button down oxford cloth shirt, complete with prancing polo pony and a lavender plaid bow tie.

“Prentice! So nice to finally meet you!”

And Becky looked at Sophie as they walked in, then at Ben – and it was all right there, plain as day. He was still completely smitten by his old girlfriend, and she knew then he always would be. Circumstances, and grief, had intervened, pushed them off course – and now she understood that she had come between them as much as Prentice had. She followed Sophie into the kitchen – and realized she knew the way – when Sophie walked straight to the refrigerator.

“How interesting…” Becky sighed.

“What?” Sophie said, suddenly seeing her mistake.

Or was it, Becky wondered, a mistake? Maybe his past was just laying down new ground rules?

“Chicken,” Sophie said, smiling. “Chicken enchiladas on Spanish rice.”

“Ah,” Becky said. “Thanks so much.”

“One of Ben’s favorites.”

“Of course it is. Well, at least the furniture is here…come, let’s have a seat, get to know one another…”

“Oh, we don’t want to intrude,” Sophie said.

“Not at all. Please, we need to take a break, and anyway, I’ve heard so much about you…”

“Okay…”

“So,” Becky said as she cleared off the sofa, “Ben tells me you’re in medical school?”

“Yes, one journalist in the family is enough.”

“Ben was thinking of med school for a while, weren’t you?”

“I was, but the idea of not flying anymore was just too much…”

“Oh,” Prentice said, interested now, “I didn’t know you were a pilot. Are you flying commercially?”

“Yes, for TWA.”

“Really? Fascinating. Where are you flying to these days?”

“LA to Heathrow now. I’ve been flying Kennedy to London, occasionally Paris, the past couple of years.”

“What? Are you flying 747s?”

“I am.”

“Fascinating. I wonder. Do you suppose I could get a guided tour of one?”

Asher looked at Sophie, who only shrugged – as if to say this was all news to her. “I don’t know why not, but would this be for personal, or professional reasons?”

“Well, frankly, I’m putting together an article on getting from LA to Europe, and this couldn’t come at a better time.”

“Well, yeah, sure, but let me call corporate and see what kind of strings I can pull.”

“Could you?” Prentice said, clapping his hands like a little girl. “That would be just marvelous! Perhaps you’d have time for an interview?”

“Not sure why, Prentice. There are lots of people more interesting than me you could talk to.”

“Well, just a thought.”

“He’s shy,” Sophie said – for Prentice’s benefit, Becky assumed – and then the four of them spent an hour talking about the best local pre-schools and the best places to shop and flying here and there, then Prentice leaned forward and asked a most unusual question.

“I’m curious,” he began, speaking to Ben. “It seems to me that you and my wife were once very close. Am I missing something?”

“Oh,” Sophie said, looking pained – yet speaking a little too breezily to ignore – “we were friends in high school. It’s no big deal, Prentice.”

“Good friends,” Prentice added, “I assume?”

Becky, her eyes blinking rapidly, smiled and turned to the reporter. “Why Prentice? Didn’t you know – we all were best friends in high school?”

“Were you indeed. Well, this must be quite the reunion!”

His curiosity defused, Sophie looked at Becky like she had indeed become her new best friend – and wondered why she intervened…

+++++

He seemed older now, old beyond his years, and Ben watched Clive Martin walk across the tarmac to the brand new Pilatus PC-6 with a mix of admiration and rage. There was, of course, no air conditioning in the aircraft – and it was 104f outside – contributing to his seething anger. So he was dripping in sweat, his shirt soaked through now and sticking to the seat’s black vinyl covering. But Martin had kept him waiting out here for almost an hour now, and mild annoyance had soon turned to seething fury.

“I’m going to fucking kill the bastard!” he whispered as the old man walked up the Porter and kicked the wheel chocks away. Then he turned and walked back to the terminal building.

“Oh, God damn it all to Hell!”

He flung open the door and undid his seat belt, then climbed down to the ground and stomped off to the terminal building.

“And where are you off to?” he heard Martin ask.

“Get a goddamn Coke.”

“They don’t have any. I just checked.”

“What?”

“Nothing. There’s a cart out front, some chap making tea. That’s it.”

“No fucking water?”

“Nope. We’d better get going. It’ll be cooler over the mountains.”

Ben wheeled around and stomped back to the cockpit, climbed back in and fastened his seat belt, and waited until Clive was belted in beside him, then he finished the pre-start checklist and started the PT6, watched the gauges while he finished the checklist.

“This seems a nice improvement over the one I borrowed from Air America,” Clive said.

“It is. Better avionics, more range. With the external tanks, over a thousand miles.”

“We’re only going, what? Two hundred?”

“Each way. Is Bao expecting you to show up today?”

“Hardly. We left on bad terms.”

“He was expecting you to stay, wasn’t he?”

“He was.”

“Any idea who you were working for?”

“No, of course not.”

It had been, almost to the hour, seven years since he’d flown from the valley, from the monastery where he’d left Bao and Martin. Seven years since he’d promised Colonel Bao he’d return, for his presumed son. But now Asher was full of questions: was Bao even alive? Had he and Mai Ling had a child? What had possessed the colonel to make such impossible demands – with so little to go on? And why had he agreed to such impossible conditions?

He turned onto the active and ran up to take off power, then adjusted the pitch until the prop bit into the air – and the Porter began it’s less than spirited run down the runway.

“This thing has the aerodynamics of a pickup truck,” he groused as he rotated and began his climb out to the northeast.

“I rather think that’s what this is, you know? A pickup truck, with wings?”

“At least there’s radar now.”

“Really? Well, there you have it. Progress. So, where to?”

“VOR near Paro,” he said, dialing the VOR/DME to 108.4.

“Any air traffic control?”

“Yup?”

“You going to check in?”

“Nope.”

“Good lad. I do believe you’re still sweating. Would you care for a Coke?”

“WHAT?” Ben turned and saw Martin pulled two iced Cokes from a small cooler. “Why, you goddamn son of a bitch! Give me two…and I mean right now!”

“My. Crabby when we’re warm, aren’t we?” Martin took out a Swiss Army knife and popped the cap off, then handed one to Ben – who slammed to bottle down in one go. “You weren’t kidding, were you?”

Ben let slip a long, deep burp, letting the last of the gas seep out between clinched teeth. “Oh, damn, that feels good…”

Martin handed him a second bottle, then started in on his first. “Brings back memories, you know? Flying over this part of the world?”

“Yeah, me too. None of them good.”

“How’s Becky doing?”

“The miscarriage really hit her hard, Clive. It was touch and go for a while.”

“She working again?”

“Yeah, new job. At the medical school’s library, something to do with microfilm, or microfiche, I don’t know. She seems resigned, like it’s fate or something, that she won’t have kids.”

“I was hoping you two would, well, you know.”

“Me too. She’s devastated, however.”

“How’s your other wife?”

Ben turned and looked at Martin. “My…what?”

“Sophie. Your other wife.”

“Clive, what makes you even think that?”

“Becky. She and I talk, you know?”

“Do you?”

“We do.”

“And she thinks of Sophie as my second wife?”

“As do you, I’m afraid.”

Ben turned up the volume of the VOR, tried to pick up the morse identifier…

“Ah, there it is.” He turned the compass card, centered the needle and looked at the fuel transfer gauge. “You think so too?”

“I’ve seen you when you look at Sophie, and Becky isn’t blind. So tell me? Do you still love Sophie?”

“I’ll always love Sophie. I have since I was ten years old.”

“Do you think that’s fair?”

“Fair? Do I think that’s fair? Well let me see, do I think it’s fair I got shot down and the Department of Defense told her I was dead? Do I think it’s fair I crawled through the jungle and wound up in your back yard, and the first thing I saw was a, naked, mind you, redhead in a goddamn swimming pool? Do I think it’s fair Sophie married a flame-throwing journalist when she learned I was dead? Gee, Martin, let’s talk about fair for a while, okay?”

“You shouldn’t have married Becky if you still loved her, Ben.”

“Is this why you came along? To beat my ass about Sophie?”

“In part, yes.”

“Clive? Sorry, but there aren’t any parachutes in this crate.”

“Do tell.”

“Well, one thing I need to say, right now. I’ve been with Becky for almost seven years, day in, day out, and I love her more now than ever. Simple as that.”

“I don’t think she knows that, Ben. Maybe she should, but she doesn’t.”

“Okay, I read you loud and clear.”

“What about Sophie?”

“It is what it is, Clive. Not loving Sophie is a little like not breathing. Okay?”

Martin sighed, looked out the window for a while, watched a team of elephants being herded across a jungle clearing by two boys, then he nodded his head. “I fear this will end badly for you, Ben, but I think I understand.”

“Don’t think I don’t think about this, like all the time. I do. It worries the hell out of me.”

“Do you…well, I don’t quite know how to say this…but are you two intimate?”

“Who am I talking to, Clive? My friend? Or Becky’s?”

“Alright. My ears only.”

“Yes. We have since I moved back.” He shook his head, tried to wash away a memory. “You know, Prentice, her husband…”

“They chap who’s a little light in his loafers…?”

“Yup, but the point is, he’s a real asshole about it. Expresses zero interest in her, Sophie, physically, brings his boyfriends by for dinner all the time, and likes to flaunt his homosexuality – is in her face about it. Years ago he asked me to help him work on a travel article, tour a 747, take a look in the cockpit – and he came on to me. I mean, right up there in the cockpit. Kept calling it the COCK-pit, like it was some sort of gay playroom…”

Martin chuckled, shook his head…

“Then the bastard asked I wanted some head. Right there. I was stunned, but then he started in on Sophie. How she was frigid, how she was no fun to be with, and at one point he told me to have at it with her, ‘fuck her all you want,’ he said. ‘Better you than me.’”

“Sounds like a classic set-up.”

“Huh, what?”

“Lot of gay men marry, then entice a straight man to impregnate their wives. Improves their cover, or so they must think. I tend to think that if gay men could just come out of the closet there would no longer be a need for such bullshit – it’s all just an exercise in power and control.”

“You sound angry?”

“I am.”

“Are you…?”

“As a three dollar bill, as you Yanks are so fond of saying.”

“Well goddamn. My best friend is a fag. I will be dipped in shit.”

Martin turned to him, looked at him for a long time. “Am I?”

“What?”

“Your best friend?”

“Yeah, ya know? You are. I never thought of it before, that just kind of slipped out, but yes. You are. How does that strike you?”

Martin grinned. “I like the idea, Ben.”

The VORs needle swung and Ben looked off to the left, saw a small town carved out of the jungle. “There’s Paro,” he said as he picked up the chart and read off his new heading. He swung the compass card and came to 0-7-2 degrees, watched the needle center as they flew from the station, then he looked at the altimeter and shook his head. “12,500 feet above sea level, and we’re not even a thousand feet above the trees.”

“Burma wasn’t this high. I flew Spits for a while. Wonderful airplane – light as a feather at twenty thousand. How much further?”

“Call it fifty five miles to the clearing – where we landed last time.”

“Jungle reclaims land here with remarkable efficiency. Ah, the river is flowing, too. That should prove interesting.”

Ben flew lower now, following the river, every bend it took until the hills ahead took on a more familiar feel…

“There it is,” Clive said, pointing down to the right.

“Okay. Yeah, the river is bending to the left, okay, I see the cliff ahead. Yeah, there it is…”

+++++

In a place where time had little meaning, this was the day.

Bao woke early to prepare for this auspicious morning; he helped Mai Ling to the kitchen then woke his son. Always slow to rise, he chided the boy before they went out into the pre-dawn darkness to collect wood for the stove, then the two washed their hands in the running cistern. When the first call to prayer echoed across the valley, they made their way into the main building and sat on the creaky old wood floor and waited for the room to fill.

Elders came by after, asked him if the machine he had seen in his vision would come, and Bao said he had seen it again in his sleep, that a man was coming to carry his son to a new home, to a place far away.

So when, a few hours later, in a place where time has little meaning, all the people were not surprised when they heard a strange buzzing noise echoing off the canyon walls, nor were they shocked when the metal bird flew by the monastery.

They were, perhaps, a little surprised when they looked down and saw Bao and his son walking down the trail to the river. They watched him stop for the old snake, but they could not hear the words Bao spoke, they prayer he spoke to the spirit snake, but they watched the two souls disappear into the jungle, and they turned to Mai Ling.

She was very brave, they saw.

Trying not to cry.

Then the elders turned back to the river below, and wondered if he would return, or if he too would fly away to the place far away.

+++++

Ben looked at the clearing, saw that brush had recently been cleared, and stones marking a threshold piled at one end. He dropped flaps and cut pitch a little, then turned on his final approach. He double checked the flaps and looked at the fuel level – still more than a half – and he looked the stones on the threshold and adjusted his angle of attack, began his flare well back from them. Working the condition lever, he settled over the rocks at 43 knots and stopped within a hundred feet, then he circled back to the stones and chopped the power. Martin hopped out and chocked the wheels with stones, then scooted into the trees to relieve himself.

Ben climbed down and stretched, then walked over and watered some bushes, keeping an eye out for anything slithering on the ground.

“You know,” Martin sighed, “there is nothing more useless than a prostate. I have to take a leak every hour, on the hour.”

“But we were up there for almost two hours…”

“And don’t I know it…the past sixty minutes have been pure agony.”

“You ought to get that looked at.”

The air split with the sound of a mighty roar, then a deep, guttural rumble.

“Tiger…” Martin whispered.

“Oh, this is just fucking great. Take a week of vacation and get eaten by a fucking tiger…”

“When did you start cursing so much?”

“You’re too fucking much, you know it?”

“Ah, there’s Bao…”

And they saw Bao, and, they assumed, his son, walking along the trail – then Ben pointed to the trees above the trail.

“There it is?”

“What?”

“Big fucking cat,” Asher croaked, and they both looked on as the cat roared again, then ran from the trees – straight at Bao and the boy.

The boy turned, held out a hand and the tiger stopped in front of them, then lay down on it’s back. The boy went to the cat and put his arms around it’s neck, and as Asher looked at the unfolding scene he had to shake himself, make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then Bao leaned down and talked to the cat, and the boy, rubbing heads and saying, apparently, soothing words, for a moment later the boy stood, crying now, and the three of them turned to face the river.

There was a way across, hopping stones, but one misstep would prove fatal. Asher looked upstream and down, could see no better option, and neither could Martin.

Bao pointed and the cat sprang across space, landed on the first rock then hopped to the second. It turned and watched the boy jump across, and Martin spoke then.

“It’s a pet, Ben. The boy has a fucking tiger, for a goddamn pet!”

“Clive?”

“Yes, Ben?”

“You’re cursing, Clive.”

“Ah. Just so. Right you are.”

Bao followed them across, and Ben watched as they walked across the clearing, keeping a close eye on the tiger as it approached. Martin farted, and Ben turned to him.

“Not cool, Amigo.”

“I may have just shat myself.”

“Shat?”

“To shit, verb, past tense.”

“Oh. Learn something new every day.”

Bao walked up, wrinkled his nose and sniffed the air, then shook his head. “Seven years,” he said to Ben, ignoring Martin. “Promise kept.” Bao brought his hands together and nodded his head as if in prayer, then he turned to the boy. “This is my son, his name is Tschering.”

“Tschering?”

“Yes, the name means ‘Boy who talks to the stars.’”

“And the tiger?” Martin said. “Does he have a name?”

“He is a she,” Bao said, still ignoring Martin. “She has no name.”

“I take it the cat is staying here?” Ben asked – hopefully.

“Yes, lieutenant, the cat will stay here with me, and wait.”

“And wait?”

“For Tschering’s return.”

“Wait,” Ben said, exasperated now, “I’m supposed to bring him back? In seven years?”

Bao shook his head. “Tschering will know when to return, and you will too.”

“I will – what?”

“You will return.”

“Did he bring anything?” Martin asked. “Any clothes? Belongings of any sort?”

“Why are you here?” Bao said now, turning to Martin.

“I came to see Mai Ling. Is she well?”

“Yes.”

“Would you tell her I came, that I asked after her?”

Bao nodded, then turned to Ben. “Lieutenant, you must leave now, before I…”

But Ben was watching the cat – who was watching the interaction between people, then looking at the boy. Tschering turned to the cat and hugged it once again, then turned to Ben, holding out his hand.

“Come, second father, we must go.”

Ben recoiled under the weight of words, looked at the boy, then at Bao.

“He is your son now, lieutenant. He will learn your world. He cannot achieve understanding here, with me. My discontent will never leave this place, so he must.”

The cat stepped forward, nudged his leg, pushed Ben towards the airplane, and he heard Martin whisper “What the devil’s going on here?” – but Ben planted his legs, faced Bao and spoke.

“Colonel? This is what you want? This is what’s in your heart?”

But all he could see was sudden fury in Bao’s eyes. The same fury he’d seen seven years before – when the colonel first saw him – when Ben was seen as the murderer of Bao’s wife. “Do not ask me this, lieutenant,” Bao said, now imploringly. “Please go, now, before I break.”

Ben turned and picked up Tschering, opened the pilot’s door and placed him in the seat beside his, and he turned to see Martin walk up to Bao, his right hand extended.

“Go now, my friend,” Bao said, before he turned – and walked back towards the river. The cat turned and walked off, too, and Martin turned to the Porter, kicked the stones from the wheels before he too climbed inside. He buckled in, looked at Ben up front taking care of the boy’s seat belt, then their eyes met.

Ben shook his head, seemed at a loss.

‘I know,’ Clive wanted to say with his eyes, ‘I don’t understand, either.’

After he took off, Ben circled the area, then flew upriver to the monastery and back along the river, but Bao had vanished. He banked the Porter into a steep turn over the clearing once again, saw the cat sitting atop an outcropping of golden rock below – staring up at them, he saw – and then he saw Tschering, his hand on the glass as the known world passed from his grasp. Then he was wiping away a tear, and he realized it was his own.

+++++

She heard knocking on the door and looked at her words on the screen.

More knocking, and she ignored the sound, tried to finish her thoughts on the page.

Insistent knocking, infuriating.

She pushed back her chair and walked to the door, opened it, saw Bud standing there, crying.

“She’s gone,” he said, his words tumbling away on a gust of wind.

“Your mother?”

He was nodding his head, shaking like a leaf – and she opened her arms.

He fell into them, the dam breaking instantly.

She held him close, cupping his head in her hand, whispering soothing sounds until he began to relax, then she looked up, saw Doug and Andrew standing on the patio outside her door, under an umbrella, out of the rain.

“Come in, all of you,” she said, and she took Bud by the hand and led him to the little sofa. Andrew came in and looked around the room, his eyes full of latent curiosity, and Doug followed, his eyes evasive, haunted. “Who wants coffee? Tea?” she said.

“Do you have any of that Good Earth tea?” Bud asked.

“Yup. Who else?” It turned out they all did, so she went to the kitchen and put on the water, got four cups down from the cupboard, and she opened a package of Scottish shortbread cookies she kept on hand for such emergencies and put them on a plate. She finished the tea and carried a cup in to Bud, and Andrew carried the others – without being asked.

“She went easily, I think,” Doug said out of the blue, and Andrew nodded his head.

“I’ve never seen anyone die before,” he said. “I thought I’d be scared, but it was kind of peaceful.”

“She’s not suffering now,” Doug sighed, but he was looking at Bud.

Wide-eyed, staring ahead into nothingness, like standing waves of guilt were battering his shore – and the boy seemed lost, and alone.

Lindsey went to the sofa and sat by his side again, and he instinctively went to her shoulder. She saw Doug in that moment as a tower of strength, these two boys his foundation, and yet the foundation was crumbling beneath his feet.

‘But it’s not his fault!’ she sighed, feeling another wave of grief slipping from Bud’s grasp. What had he said once? ‘Some mistakes we never stop paying for?’ Well, payment had come due this morning, and all three of them were paying now.

She moved down a little, put a little pillow on her lap and Bud lay there, his head on the pillow, and she traced little circles through his hair until she fell asleep; Doug got a blanket out of the linen closet and and covered his son, then looked at her.

“I think he needed that,” he whispered.

“I do too,” Andrew said. “Got room for another?”

She laughed, silently, then shook her head. “You are a world class character,” she whispered, and Doug nodded in agreement. “Any word on Lacy?”

“We were heading up,” he said, “but Bud insisted we stop by.”

“Would you like me to go with you?”

“Could you? I mean, do you have the time?”

“Of course.”

He looked at his watch, then went to the bathroom and washed up, splashed water on his face, then Andrew went in after his father.

“I’m sorry about the other day,” she said.

“I think I understand.”

“Okay. Do you need to wash up before we go?”

“No, I’m good.”

He grinned. “I know you are. I wish I was as strong.”

“You will be, when you need to be.”

“I’m not sure I can do this, Lacy.”

She looked at him, wondered if he knew what he’d just said, but she decided not to correct him. “You were very close, weren’t you?”

“In a way.”

“There’s something strong between fathers and daughters.”

“She always wanted a peculiar intimacy, extreme physical proximity, like it was hard-wired into her system, and I couldn’t give her that.”

“You’re not supposed to, you know.”

“Oh, I don’t mean that. It’s not like she wanted to take Madeleines place someday…”

“You sure about that, Dad?”

Lindsey looked at Andrew, looked at his question hanging in the air, apparent. “What do you think, Andrew?” she asked.

“She hated mother, more than any of you will ever know.”

“What makes you say that, son?”

“That’s about all we ever talked about, Dad. She wanted to take care of you, that’s all she ever wanted out of life. I think when she realized that wasn’t possible she fractured, she lost her will to live.”

Doug swallowed hard, looked down at the floor.

“It’s nothing you did, Dad. It’s who she was, what she was born to do.”

“But that’s not right,” Doug said.

“I’m not talking about right and wrong, Dad. I’m telling you what is. Or – was.”

“But how…?”

“How or why doesn’t matter, Dad. Again, I think that was her destiny, what she saw as her destiny, and when that destiny became impossible she just checked-out.”

“Odd,” Lindsey said.

“Odd?” Doug asked. “How so?”

“In Asia, that’s a role many daughters assume, and quite naturally, too. It’s an assumed duty, true, but one that many daughters seem born to assume. Maybe it was hard-wired into Lacy, in a way.”

Doug shook his head, turned in on himself for a moment, then shook it off. “We’d better get going,” he sighed, moving to wake Bud, and a few minutes later they were headed north on the 405, then west on the Ventura Highway, heading for Santa Barbara – and to the hospice where Lacy lay dying.

+++++

He looked out the window, looked down on an endless sea, and then ice – sheets of ice stretching off to infinity.

“What is that?” Tschering said, his face turning from the little window.

Ben looked at the boy, wondered what he was referring to. “What?”

“What is that white below?”

“Ice. That’s the polar ice sheet. We should be off the coast of the Soviet Union right now.”

“What?”

Ben picked up his glass and picked an ice cube out of his little plastic cup. “This is ice. When water gets very cold, it turns from water into ice.”

The boy looked at the ice, then at him. “How can this be?”

“Here, put a piece of ice in your mouth and hold it there, on your tongue.” He helped him get a little sliver, then he took one out too and put it in his mouth. “Now, just let it sit there, and see what happens.”

“It is gone!” he said, excited now. “It has turned to water!”

“Yes, and if we took water and made it very cold, it would turn to ice.”

“You mean, if it was very cold inside my mouth, water would turn to ice?”

“Yes, and it’s very cold down there,” he said, pointing outside the aircraft, “so cold that the water turns to ice.”

“All that ice,” Tschering said, “must be very cold.”

“It is. You and I would turn into ice if we stayed out there too long.”

“Truly?”

“Yes, very much truly,” Ben said, smiling.

“When I think about so much ice I feel cold.”

“I know. Me too.”

“How much longer? To this California?”

“We’ll stop in Alaska. The airplane needs food, then we have another five or so hours, so call it eight more hours.”

“I am still not sure what an hour is.”

He held out his wristwatch. “Again, when the big hand goes all the way around, it’s an hour?”

“And the little hand…”

And on and on it went, endless questions, endless explanations. At one point Martin stepped in to take over, letting Ben escape to the sanctuary of the toilet, but the boy grew restive when he disappeared, seemed almost afraid Ben wouldn’t come back. Martin drew pictures of the earth, showed where ice was found and he described why that happened, and this lead to another round of endless questions.

As the 707 landed in Anchorage, Tschering looked out the window, at snow covered peaks in the distance. “Is that ice?” he asked.

“That’s called snow. It’s like ice, but it falls from the sky.”

“Truly?”

“Yes.”

“So the sky must get very cold, too.”

“Yes, it can.”

“I have seen snow before. Many times.”

“And it’s cold outside when that happens, isn’t it?”

“Yes, very cold.”

“Same thing here.”

“I do not see trees here, just those strange gray things.”

“Those are buildings. They are full of people, just like the ones in Hong Kong.”

“So many people. India was full of people too, was it not?”

“Yes, many people.”

The jet lined up on the runway and the engines roared; Tschering grabbed Ben’s hand again and tried to hide his eyes, but Ben leaned over…

Look out the window now. You can see the wing now. Watch it as we go faster, watch how the tip curves up…right now…feel that? In your seat, how you got heavy?”

“Ooh, yes…what is that…?”

And he heard Martin laugh again. “You’ve opened a can of worms now, haven’t you? Good luck explaining that, wot?”

“Gee, thanks.”

They pulled up to the house a little after noon and Ben helped Tschering out of the taxi and into the house, while Martin carried their suitcases in. Becky was in the kitchen when the bell rang, and she came out in her apron and high heels, looking every bit the All-American Housewife…

“So, you must be Tschering,” she said.

“Yes, and you are my new mother.”

Becky went wide-eyed, then looked at Ben – who casually looked away. She looked at Martin next, accusingly, and Martin glanced at the ceiling, began whistling the tune from The Bridge over the River Kwai. “Don’t look at me?” his eyes seemed to say.

“My son? My, very own boy – how sweet…and just think,” she said, now looking at Ben, “I didn’t even have to go through labor. That was so very thoughtful of you, Ben,” she said, adding, “of you both” as another pointed barb –her eyes now projecting fierce death-rays, hideous anger flaming out of her smoking skull, burning Asher and Martin’s flesh from the bone.

+++++

They approached Santa Barbara as dusk was coming on, and they noticed an acrid, burning scent in the air, then smoke rising from the UC Santa Barbara campus…and Doug turned on the radio.

“There must be ten thousand students out here, Leslie,” they heard the tense announcer say, “and at least two buildings are on fire, both fully involved, with dozens of firetrucks on hand, and two more alarms going out now.”

“Tucker, we’ve heard, here in our Atlanta studio, that the president has ordered a federal response, that the Marines are being called in. Are you hearing anything like that down on the ground?”

“Leslie, no. There’s a rumor the National Guard is responding, but we’ve had no official word one way or another. We have seen reporters being arrested and hauled away, and there are no video feeds anywhere, we’re told.”

“Yes, Tucker, we’re getting Face Time feeds from people on the scene, and we’re trying to process those feeds, get those to our television audience as soon as we can. We’re hearing, too, that regular radio broadcasts in the area are being interrupted, jammed in some way, but as you know we’re beamed direct via satellite.”

“This is getting out of hand,” Andrew said. “It’s going to be like Kent State, all over again.”

“Kent State was a few hundred people,” Lindsey said. “Not ten thousand.”

“And that was the National Guard, not the Marines,” Doug added.

“What was that thing, with Herbert Hoover in 1932?”Andrew asked. “Didn’t he use the military on people?”

“WWI veterans,” Lindsey said. “Against the Bonus Army. Veterans and their families marched on DC, demanding to be paid for the service in the war…”

“Wait. The war ended in 1917, didn’t it?”

“Yup, and they still hadn’t been paid by ‘32. They marched, demanded payment and the Attorney General ordered the police to intervene. Two vets were killed at that first skirmish, then President Hoover called-in the Army. Douglas MacArthur led those forces, literally bulldozing the marchers out of the city. Not a good day in American history.”

“So, there’s precedent for this kind of response?” Doug asked.

“I wouldn’t want to be down there tonight,” Andrew said.

They arrived at the hospice facility as a wave of dark, bronze colored soot settled over the city, and the air smelled burned, almost putrid. Police cars and fire trucks could be heard wailing in the distance, then Lindsey looked up, saw several military helicopters converging on the campus.

“Let’s get inside,” Doug said, looking at the sky.

The receptionist took them to the door to Lacy’s room, and the four of them looked at one another, then walked in.

The room was surprisingly home-like, like an old, Mission Style bungalow. Dark oak walls, a few lamps casting deep amber pools of light from verdigris fixtures, Stickley furniture and Prairie style drapes and bedspread. There was a guitar on a stand in the corner, and the receptionist said it belonged to a volunteer.

“Can I play it?” Andrew asked, and the girl looked at him.

“I don’t know,” she smiled. “Can you?”

Andrew went across and picked it up, flipped the strap over his shoulder and began playing The Sounds of Silence, singing beautifully as he walked to Lacy’s bed. He sat on the foot, kept playing, his voice mesmerizing, then he drifted into Paul Simon’s Something So Right, Doug crying openly as the music of his memories with Lacy slipped past his crumbling walls.

He bent close, tried to ignore his daughter’s yellowing skin, her sunken eyes, and he looked into her eyes.

“Baby? It’s Daddy. I’m here now.” Lindsey stood behind him, watched her as the music pulled them deeper into the moment. “I’m here, and I wanted to tell you how much I love you, how much I’m going to miss you. I wish you’d stay with me, I’m going to need you so much now.”

Lindsey saw a slight reaction, maybe a twinkling in the eye, and Andrew stopped playing as the flickering wraith said “Oh, Daddy,” then closed her eyes for the last time.

Bud was standing in a dark corner, and he heard those two words and slid down the wall, pulled his knees to his chest and started rocking back and forth. Andrew put the guitar down and went to his brother, sat beside him and held him close…

Lindsey felt it first, deep in her chest, then a rumbling ‘boom’ rolled across the landscape. She looked out the window, saw an immense fireball boiling into the evening sky, then isolated bursts of gunfire. Another boom, another fireball, automatic weapons fire, screams.

Then the receptionist, running into the room. “The area is being evacuated, all of you have to leave, right now!” Then she was gone.

Doug got up, went to the window and looked at the mounting conflagration, then at his kids. “We’d better leave,” he said. “Something’s not right.”

Lindsey went over and pulled Andrew from the floor. “Come on,” she said, “let’s get Bud to the car.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Andrew. Snap out of it. Get him by the arms…”

She watched as Doug bent over and kissed his little girl one last time, then he followed them to the parking lot. They were loading in the car when a military vehicle rolled up behind them and stopped.

“State your business here!” the soldier said as he got out of the Hummer, and Lindsey walked over to him.

“Our daughter just passed away,” she said, and the soldier looked at the building, saw the hospice sign and nodded his head. “Look, my husband’s a doctor, at UCLA, and he needs to get back there. Can you help us?”

The boy got on the radio, spoke hurriedly for a moment, then came out and yelled. “We’re pulling back to the freeway. I can get you that far, but after that you’re on your own. You might try the PCH. From what I hear, West LA is on fire…”

“What?”

“Riots, ma’am, everywhere. Almost every major city, a coordinated wave of violence, started on campuses about a half hour ago, and it’s spreading everywhere. Half of Chicago is on fire, Philly and Boston, too.”

Doug was by her side, listening, then he looked at the soldier’s arm. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“I’m okay, doc. Think it’s just a flesh wound.”

“Better let me take a look.”

The kid pulled off his flak jacket, then his shirt, and his white t-shirt was soaked with blood. Doug palpated the bone, nodded his head. “I can feel the bullet, bone’s intact, but we need to get you to surgery.”

“What?”

“You’ve been shot, son.”

“We won’t have trouble if we stay in my vehicle, sir.”

“Okay, let’s go,” he said to Lindsey, and they loaded the boys in the back of the Hummer, then took off for the 101. Waved past checkpoints, the Hummer made it on to the highway, and Doug drove while the soldier talked on the radio. Soon they were on the Pacific Coast Highway, headed for LA; there was a wall of traffic headed out of the city, and soon they seemed to be the only people headed into LA.

‘This can’t be good,’ Lindsey thought, then she looked at the two boys by her side, and she knew what she had to do.

+++++

Ben paced the floor, looking at the clock on the wall. She’d been in labor for nine hours now, and he was anxious.

Tschering sat beside Martin, playing chess on a waiting room table, and Ben looked at the two of them – now almost inseparable. Martin had retired from MI6 after their return from Bhutan, then rented an apartment in Westwood. When Becky and Tschering were home, he could be found reading with the boy, playing logic games and chess, or working on math problems.

One night, while the boy was asleep, Ben found Becky more amorous than usual and they had done the deed which, by that point, was a fairly rare occurrence. Two weeks later she missed her period, a month later the pregnancy was confirmed. She went into low-stress mode, ate carefully – and Martin positively doted on her, staying in the house whenever Ben was out of town. Which meant about four nights a week, at a minimum.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the timing of her pregnancy, he thought, was the math. He talked it over with her obstetrician, and he’d been out of town on the most likely date of conception. And Martin had been with Becky. More odd still, he’d never once seen Martin with another man. Not ever.

And perhaps one last complication roiled his mind. On the day in question he had been with Sophie, in London, and within a month of her return she was experiencing morning sickness. Still, when he asked Becky’s obstetrician to perform a paternity test, he had come back as the father. Blood types precluded Martin, so if it wasn’t Martin, it had to be him. Right? Right?

And while Martin had been interested in Becky’s pregnancy, he hadn’t doted on her like an expectant father might. No, he still seemed oddly attached to Tschering, like there was some karmic connection between the two of them, and Ben wasn’t one to complain, especially when the results were so plain to see.

Tschering was turning into a polymorphic genius. He was already testing off the charts in math, and was doing well on the piano. He was beating Clive in chess about one time in three, but the other two were real struggles; that was something considering Clive was a ranked master. However, it was Tschering’s destiny, Clive said, to study astronomy, and soon the four of them were off to visit observatories all over the southwest, then Hawaii. By the time most boys his age were showing a serious interest in driving cars and going out with girls, Tschering was at MIT – working on his second PhD.

He returned to UCLA, to begin work on a DARPA research project when, one sunny afternoon, he saw a man in flowing orange robes walking across campus. A chord struck in the universe, he followed the man to Bunche Hall and, by late that week, Tschering had decided to become a monk.

The other side of Tschering’s life revolved around his contentious relationship with the boy growing up in the room next to his own, his “brother” John. He never felt jealousy after John’s arrival, never once. His second father seemed to have arrived at a certain distance as far as John was concerned. They were not close. And in time Tschering realized the problem lay with his second father’s distrust of Becky, his second mother. He did not think to ask why, he only accepted what was and moved on.

He did not think of John as his brother, yet he took pains to understand why John thought of him that way. Tschering could not see that when John tried to confront his father’s emotional distance, the boy compensated by growing closer to him. Tschering was supposed to be John’s big brother, yet because he had lived such an unbalanced life he didn’t really understand what that meant. He could discuss cosmological problems all day and into the night, but the problems of a ten year old boy were beyond him.

Yet about the time he began studying Buddhism, John became friends with a girl. Lindsey Hollister. The girl his ‘second father’ always doted on, and he wondered why he found this so disturbing.

+++++

Smoke hovered over the west side of Los Angeles, isolated pockets of fire could be seen spreading in the hills above BelAir and Westwood. News crews in vans seemed to have been targeted by automatic weapons fire, and they passed several dead reporters and cameramen as they got closer to campus. The village seemed deserted as they turned off Sunset, but they saw hundreds of dead and dying people in the streets. Students, civilians, but a few soldiers too, everywhere. Doug stopped in front of her apartment, said they needed to get inside, said he would be back as soon as he could – and the boys looked at him when he told them to ‘get out and go with Lindsey.’

“But Dad?” Bud cried. “You can’t leave us now…!”

“Bud, I’ve got to get this soldier to the ER. I’ll be right back.”

Andrew grabbed his brother and pulled him from the Hummer when heavy gunfire erupted a few hundred yards away, and they stood on the sidewalk, watching as the gray-green lump disappeared into drifting waves of acrid smoke.

“Do your grandparents have a car?” she asked.

Bud nodded. “Yeah, an old crate, a Buick, I think.”

“Where?”

“There’s a garage in back, for tenants.”

“Bud? Do you know where the key is?”

“I think so.”

“Andrew? Take your brother, go check on your grandparents, then get the key and come back here.”

“Why?”

“In case your father loses that Army truck.”

“Oh, okay.” She watched them scurry off by the pool, then disappear inside the main building, then she ran to her door and went inside.

Everything seemed normal, nothing seemed touched, but the power was off. She went to the bathroom, turned on the light – cursed when it didn’t come on – then she took out her phone and turned on it’s flashlight, went to the toilet and reached around the backside for the key she’d taped there, then she went to the bedroom and stuffed some clothing in a small bag, then she went and got her new laptop.

Bud came in the apartment, crying, and she went to see what had happened.

“They’re dead,” he said.

“Dead? How? What happened?”

“Laying on the bed,” he got out between sobs. “Pills, I think.”

“Where’s your brother?”

“Right here,” Andrew said, running into the room – as gunfire rang out just down the street. “It was seconal,” he said as he ducked low. “There are troops coming up the street,” he whispered. “Looks like they’re shooting anything that moves.”

“What?” she said. “Why?”

“I don’t know…you want to go out and ask, feel free.”

More shots, closer now.

“Into the bathroom,” she whispered, “now!” Andrew pulled Bud into the little room, clamped his hand over his brother’s mouth, then he heard more gunfire, very close now, and breaking glass. He saw Lindsey’s contorted body lying on the floor by the sofa, flashlights outside on the porch – moving in, so he gently closed the bathroom door – and held his breath, waiting for this to all be over.

+++++

He started coming over in the middle of the night, tapping on her window with a penny. She would come over and look at him through the glass and smile, then crank the window open and help him in. They would whisper those nights away, talking about things they wanted to do together, talk about the gossip making it’s way through school that week, the usual stuff.

But one night her mother tapped on the door and came in without asking, and she found John trying to hide under the bed and asked him to come out.

“What are you doing here, John?” Sophie asked.

“I come over, we talk,” she remembered John saying, but he was nervous and evasive.

“You know, John, talking isn’t wrong, but coming over in the middle of the night isn’t right. Can you see the difference?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he had said, but Lindsey could tell from the wary sarcasm in his voice: he either couldn’t tell the difference, or didn’t want to.

+++++

She was sitting on a wall, her feet dangling over the edge of a vast precipice, and she was looking at a river far below, a tiger walking along the water’s edge, stopping from time to time, it’s head low – peering into the water – looking for fish, she thought.

Then it had turned and looked up into the sky.

She looked on breathlessly as, without warning, the cat took off running up the hillside and into the trees, and a few minutes later she heard a crashing wave rolling up the hillside. She looked straight down into the trees as the noise died away, and she saw the cat standing there, looking up – at her.

+++++

Andrew was driving the Buick. No traffic on the streets. Smoke everywhere. Bodies on sidewalks, no police. To Lindsey’s storage unit off Sepulveda, by the airport. No longer a possum, she goes into the little storeroom, digs out the box, opens it. The case still there, her father’s Zero Halliburton, still unopened.

She’s behind the wheel, driving into LAX, and helicopters roam – like sharks cruising a reef. She parks by the International Departures building and they run inside. There are people behind the Qantas desk, and troops stare at them as they walk up to the counter.

“Are you still taking passengers?” she asks.

“We are, but cash only, no credit cards, and no dollars,” the woman said, apologetically.

“How about Swiss francs?”

The woman brightened. “Yes, of course.”

“”Three of us, please.”

“Destination?”

“Paro.”

“Paro?”

“Bhutan.”

“Oh, well, let me see what we can do.” She flipped through pages in a book, made a call on a satellite phone, then wrote out three tickets – by hand. “That will be 24,000 francs.”

Lindsey opened the case and handed her five bundles of 100 franc notes, and the woman handed her three tickets – and some change, in Australian dollars. “These men will escort you to the gate,” she said. “Have a nice flight.”

Bud seemed catatonic, Andrew a broken shell, but they walked with the Australian SAS trooper down to the A380. Ten minutes later the airplane pushed back from the gate, and when they were airborne she looked over the city below, fires burning out of control beneath floating strata of streaky-gray soot.

She saw UCLA in the distance as they climbed away, and she thought of Doug once, but Tschering most of all, and waves of guilt rolled over her, pushing her under – again and again. She looked at the airplane – and at these two boys, so alone now, so lost, and she thought of the day – almost fifteen years ago now – when she had looked on in mute horror at another airplane.

A TWA airliner, CNN said that day, had taken off from London an hour earlier, then, after a few frantic calls were heard over radios, the 747 disappeared from radar over the Irish Sea. Debris was found, far beneath the sea, but her father’s body never was, and she had driven home from work after listening for an hour, then sat with her mother into the evening. They called Becky but she never picked up the phone.

There were services, of course, and Clive Martin came. He seemed chalky and withered that day, a tree blown over in a storm, but he held on to Tschering, looking for strength. He disappeared after that day, like blowing leaves in autumn. Scattering, waiting to be covered by the coming of snow.

It took a week, but she and the boys made it Paro. From Los Angeles to Sydney, then Hanoi. A day on the ground then a Bhutanese airliner arrived and carried them non-stop to the mountains, and as the pilot shut down the engines he announced that their flight was the last, that fuel shortages were simply clogging off the remnants of commercial aviation. He opened the door and walked down a steep ladder to the ground and walked away, into the deserted terminal building, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.

They walked into town, found the US Embassy building. There were people inside, a few Americans, a few others, and she found Carter Freeman, asked about home.

“From what we know, the military broke up into factions. Some supporting the president, several others fighting him. Russian troop transports were seen over Canada, then word came they took the missile fields in Montana. After that we lost contact with Washington.”

“Any word on California?”

Freeman shook his head. “Is that where you’re coming from?”

“Yes.”

“Well, the Bhutanese are closing their borders. Word is they may expel all foreigners soon, and we’re supposed to register all Americans in-country.”

“I see.”

“I think that means you need to get out of here as quickly as possible.”

“I understand. Good luck to you,” Lindsey said.

“Yeah. Sure. You too.”

She led the boys to the main road out of town and they started walking east, and they came to a farm as the sun fell behind a towering range of mountains. She asked the farmer if they could sleep in the barn and he nodded his head. The farmer’s wife brought them buttered tea and rice a little later, and they fell asleep as heavy rain fell on the bare slate roof.

They drank water from streams but found nothing to eat the next day, and they slept in the open that night, the temperature falling into the 40s. They huddled together, sharing warmth, and she woke the next morning when she felt something poking her arm.

She looked up, saw an old woman with a stick in her hand, poking Andrew on the shoulder.

“What are you doing?” Lindsey asked.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” the old woman replied – in a precise Oxford accent. “Are these boys with you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come along then,” the old woman said. “We have a long walk, and I wish you had remained at the airport.”

“Excuse me,” Lindsey said, “but do I know you?”

“Yes, of course. I am Mai Ling, and a monk saw your coming. He sent me to you.”

“He sent you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I remember now. You helped take care of my leg, you helped me to the aid station.”

“Yes. Was it so long ago?”

“No, not really, not quite a year ago. Bao…the monk’s name is Bao, isn’t it?”

“Yes. That is his name.”

“Is he well?”

“Yes, but his dragon is no longer fierce, the dragon’s flames not so easy to find.”

“What?”

The old woman held up a finger, pointed it to the sky – then let it droop slowly.

“Ah, yes,” Lindsey said. “I understand.”

“Yes, it is the nature of time, I suspect, that all things grow soft, but come, we have a several hours walk ahead of us. And one bad mountain trail. Oh, and keep your eyes on the grass – there are snakes everywhere in this heat.”

They boys stood, stretched away their stiffness as she spoke, then lurched and looked at the grass, instantly following the old woman advice.

Lindsey turned, looked into the trees, thought she felt someone, or something, looking at her, but all she saw was lost in shadow.

+++++

She opened her notebook, took out her pen and wrote on the top line of the page: ‘Sociology 101, Week 1 Day 1,’ then decided to add ‘Prof F Portman’ at the very top of the page. A sandy-haired man, perhaps 40 years old, strode in and placed a stack of notes on his lectern, then he turned to the class and coughed, gently, looking out at the 350 or so first year students.

“Deep is the well of the past,” he said. “So deep, should we not call it bottomless?”

He looked at the eyes that looked up from their notebooks, most on the first one or two rows, and he memorized them, took comfort in the inquisitiveness he saw reaching out to his own.

“We are going to spend the next three months learning from one another,” Portman continued. “I am going to stand up here and lecture for 90 minutes, three times a week, and every Thursday afternoon you are going to be tested, in your lab session, on how well you’ve understood my lectures. On Tuesday afternoon’s lab, you will get to ask questions and compare notes with your TA. There will be approximately 300 pages of reading per week, two short research papers and one VERY long paper due right after Thanksgiving, in addition to weekly tests, a midterm exam, and of course, the final exam in early December. Many of you – football players, perhaps – signed up for this class thinking it would be an easy A. Let me advise you, now, that if this was your thinking, I will sign your ‘Drop Class’ forms tomorrow, during office hours.”

He looked around the classroom, saw grins and shell-shocked frowns all over the room.

“So, the well of the past. A quote from Thomas Mann, from his four part story, Joseph and His Brothers. It is a story about the biblical Joseph, and the story nominally takes place 2400 years ago. In your reserve reading this week, you will read three sections from this work, relating three key symbolic events, and in your lab next Tuesday you will be examining several pieces of art relating to your reading. Finally, you’ll read several key passages from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

“So, a novel about the biblical Joseph, and a science fiction story. Your reserve reading assignments will lead you to one unifying element, but you’ll not be able to fully understand that element without first gaining a little understanding of psychiatry. We’ll start developing an understanding of what Sociology is, and is not, by looking at a few key moments in the development of psychiatry in the 20th century.

“‘Everyone carries a shadow through life,’ Carl Gustav Jung wrote almost a hundred years ago, ‘and the less that shadow is embodied in an individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’ When you begin reading Mann’s Joseph, and Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange land, you will encounter worlds full of shadows, of people living in the shadows, and Jung was a master explorer of the shadowlands. In Jung’s world, the shadow embodies everything that a person refuses to acknowledge about himself, a ‘tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well.’

“The world of shadows exists for any given society, as much as it does for any one person, and when we examine Joseph’s world, the world of the Old Testament, as well as Valentine Smith’s return to Earth, we will be looking at people on the outside, looking in. We will be looking at the hated, and the hater. We will, in the end, be examining the lives of Jews in Germany, for when Mann wrote Joseph, he was writing of the Jewish experience in the 1930s and, oddly enough, he wrote most of this work about 15 miles from here, in Palos Verdes.

“In order to understand Sociology, you must begin to understand that literature and music and chemistry and physics and-and-and are all intertwined. The sociologist can not distinguish one endeavor from another, because all are expressions of the complex interactions of people who stand in the light, and those who dwell in the shadows…”

+++++

Walking along the trail, watching Doug’s boys, watching Mai Ling as she picked her way between rocks and along ledges, pushing the grass ahead to the side – to see if a cobra lay sunning on an unseen rock, Lindsey pushed aside the horrors of the present, reached back into the well of her past, grasping Portman’s meaning for perhaps the first time in her life.

Shadows had defined her life. Her real father’s shadows had too. And she had never once stopped to examine them. How dense, how deep were they? He had loved her all his life, yet they had lived apart for most of it. ‘Then, what about me?’ she wondered. ‘Had they never renounced their love for one another? Did Ben and mother still discuss things, all that time? Make plans? Dream their dreams together? But – what about me…what about me…what about me…?’

At one point they came to the old UN Aid station, where the monk had carried her when she grew fevered and ill; they passed in silence but she looked at the progress the jungle had made reclaiming the space. She looked at the crumbling walls and imagined hives of bundled snakes lurking under piles of brick and fallen wall, and at first she wanted to turn away from the decay – and then a second impulse hit. She wanted to stop and rebuild the place, to make better, to restore it’s usefulness – and she knew that was the American in her. The builder, the believer-in-progress.

That had been the light, the beacon that guided the city on the hill, but too, she knew Americans had never believed in examining their shadows. They had never confronted their demons, and had instead let them fester and turn gangrenous – until not even amputation was enough to save her.

No, the soul of America had been in her people, a people now scattered remnants drifting around the world, people who might keep ideals alive, fan the flames, but the host was dead.

They left the clearing, the Aid Station, and walked for hours along the trail beside the roaring river, passing farms and tiny villages every now and then, herdsmen tending their flocks and artisans working under the midday sun. She had a vision of America four hundred years ago, similar people doing similar things, and she smiled at the incongruity. Bhutan wasn’t a city on the hill, a light trying to shine out and light the way ahead. No, this was a reclusive nation, a religiously reclusive people that had turned away from the ways of the world. The calamity befalling the world beyond these mountains was irrelevant to these herdsmen and farmers; nothing that happened “beyond the gate” hardly ever mattered. Time had remained immaterial here, while the rest of the world grew obsessed with time.

And she thought of harmony after that, about balance. Life had grown so out-of-balance it simply had to fly apart. There was, in the end, no stable equilibrium in America, in most of the world; too many extreme inertias took hold and began pulling the fabric of civilization apart. Polar extremes, cultivated to maintain an unsustainable political dynamic; division, packaged and sold in thirty second sound bites, leaving people cornered, striking out. Dreams turning into nightmares as elected representatives ignored duties and sold out to the highest bidder. Real wealth concentrated in the hands of only a few, while homeless starved and died in the streets, mere bodies piled in landfills – awaiting incineration.

All that hate, waiting in the shadows, unexamined, unexplored. Repressed, burning, infecting. Shadows consuming shadows, until nothing was left but darkness.

They came to a clearing and Mai Ling stopped, pulled out a canteen full of juice, as well as a few apple-like pieces of dried fruit, and she passed those around. “This is where your father came, with Clive Martin, to pick up Tschering.”

The boys shrugged their shoulders, didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but Lindsey walked around the field, looked at stones piled at one end and she knew what they were, what they had guided, and she walked to them, put her hands on them and felt a sudden connection to her father. She could see through his eyes in that moment, see him up there, lining up to land, guessing his distance to these rocks, and she wondered what he had really felt that day.

Duty most of all, she guessed. Friendship, perhaps. Curiosity, too? A perilous train of events, from bombing an airbase to a frantic chase through the jungle, then sudden, unexpected friendship, a final renunciation of hate and a retreat to the cliffs.

And she thought of The Coffee Cantata.

+++++

She loved to sing, loved the feeling of expression music afforded, and she had ever since Tschering became a part of her life. When her mother came home from the hospital, harried and lonesome, often still in her surgical scrubs, they had – the four of them – gathered around the piano to sing. Tschering on the piano, Sophie by his side, turning the pages, while she and John looked over their shoulders and sang. Those were the happiest moments of her life, she knew now, and they had never been bettered. Coming together in song, in the music of the spheres had seemed to tighten the molecular bonds between them…

Then dissolution came, and John spun off on his own, his orbit a series of blistering decays. Music left their little group, and her life, as events splintered and carried them all in new directions. Then she started singing in the high school chorus, and became very good, and when she went to UCLA her singing, like her interest in music, only increased. She loved journalism, yet at one point she considered changing her concentration to music.

And then John intervened.

He refocused her on journalism, on an exigent need for real journalists. After twelve years of Republican rule, when the rallying cry of “It can’t happen here” had taken on new life, the Clinton era promised new life for Progressivism. It would be a new Golden Age of Athenian Democracy, and reporters needed to be on the front lines to document these changes.

Then John focused on the lingering cancers in Central America and Iran. Oil companies hiring mercenary armies to wipe out indigenous peoples in Indonesia, Burma and Angola. Russian arms merchants selling Soviet tanks and machine guns to children in the Sudan. Then, eventually, on the US effort to shore up the extreme right in El Salvador, and the murder of Archbishop Romero.

He told everything to Lindsey, everything he learned about the shallow emptiness of the Left’s hypocrisy, of their mendacious ‘selling out’ to the military-industrial complex. She saw it then, of course, but the real change happened when the music finally stopped.

In the music recital hall on campus. Sophie and Prentice sitting beside Ben and Becky, John and Tschering. How she sang that night, her penultimate moment, the realization of a dream. How she looked at Tschering as she sang, his child in her womb.

She was five months pregnant that night, just beginning to show, and in the aftermath John came to her. To congratulate her. Then he saw her, saw the baby, and he looked at Tschering, then at his father.

His father, who had first crossed the line and brought Lindsey into the world, and now, once again, how he had brought this heathen to America. Now the heathen possessed what he could not, and he exploded, like a coiled snake, into the night. He attacked his father, then turned on Lindsey. His arms wailed in arcs of sudden fury, and when Lindsey fell to the ground he kicked her belly three, maybe four times, then he ran into the night, disappeared for days.

And Lindsey lived that night once again as they came to the cliff. She looked at the monastery again, adrift above a sea of timeless cloud, and she looked at Doug’s boys looking at the white stain on the side of the rocks.

“That’s a monastery?” Andrew sighed. “It looks like a fort…”

“It is,” Mai Ling said, “in a way. It is a fortress of solitude. A place to struggle with the demons of human existence. You will stay there tonight, and tomorrow we will take you to the farm.”

“The farm?” Lindsey asked.

“Yes. You have not been there yet. It is above the monastery, on a small plateau above the clouds,” Mai Ling said, pointing.

They walked to a V-shaped rope bridge that had been set up between trees on the river’s edge, and she led them across the roaring water to the other side. The boys looked at the river, and at the rope bridge they had just crossed, and Lindsey felt some elemental switch had been turned in that crossing. The boys knew there was no going back to Los Angeles now, that there was only a narrow, constricted path ahead, yet if anything Bud suddenly seemed more fragile, even more ripped apart by events.

Yet Andrew seemed more like his father now; he seemed possessed by an innate stoicism, an acceptance of the way things were that Bud simply could not accept – yet – perhaps because Andrew had walked beside Mai Ling more often during this journey. Or perhaps not. Bud lingered now, drifted away from his brother and settled closer to Lindsey as Mai Ling began walking up the trail into the woods…

And Lindsey looked into the shadows once again, felt something, or someone, watching her as she followed Mai Ling up into the pines. A light drizzle began falling, then fine snow, and she heard a limb snap in the woods behind, well away from the trail, and she turned – saw a tiger in the shadows, motionless, looking at her. When she started to move, the tiger began to move again, and when she stopped again, the cat stopped.

“Mai Ling!” she whispered, and when the old woman turned Lindsey pointed at the tiger in the shadows. “Look!”

Mai Ling looked at the tiger and sighed, shook her head and walked through the woods to it’s side, and the boys stood by Lindsey’s side, openly aghast at the sight, waiting for the inevitable.

Then Mai Ling walked back to them, saw their fear and gently laughed.

“When Tschering was a little boy, he was walking in these woods,” she began, “and he found a little cat in a cave, just there,” she said, pointing at a dark opening near the base of the cliff. “The little cat was alone, and starving to death. Tschering carried food and milk down to her, then the cat started following him home, up into the monastery. They were inseparable, and now she is inconsolable.”

“Inconsolable?” Bud asked. “What do you mean?”

“There is a rock below, by the river, a large rock that overlooks the clearing – where Tschering left. She sits there most days when the sun is out, and she searches the sky. For her love, I think, but she is very old now, and tired of waiting. I think she will leave us soon.”

Lindsey looked at the cat, at her white muzzle and cloudy eyes, and she nodded, felt the animals sorrow more clearly now, then they turned to the trail, picked their way between snow covered rocks – and when she turned the cat had begun following them again.

She turned and walked back towards the cat – heard Bud say “No!” once – but she kept on, walked through snow covered trees to the tiger, and she stopped a few feet short of it – and sat on a rock. The cat sniffed the air now, it’s pink and black nose larger than her clinched fist, and then the animal stepped close and rubbed it’s cool, dry nose along Lindsey’s jeans, then the skin on her arms. They looked at one another for several minutes, then the cat turned away and walked up through the rocks to the base of the cliff.

Lindsey’s hands shook now, and she looked at the boys on the trail as a surge of insight ripped through the air. How would she feel if Doug’s boys left her now? How would she reconcile their going without their father by her side. And how had she survived all these years without Tschering? Without their son?

Accept.

Endure.

Keep going – push on through the shadows – and she ran up against the limits of the moment, realized that when you ask memory to talk to you about distant days and forgotten nights, sometimes memory turns away, has nothing more to say to you.

She caught up with them and Mai Ling resumed picking her way through snow covered rocks, then they came to the switchback, and a really hard climb up a thirty foot face. She remembered the old monk struggling to get her up this part of the climb, how her ankle had screamed in sudden pain, and she watched Bud as fear gripped him now.

“I can’t do this,” he whispered, his upturned eyes now cataracts of doubt.

She came to his side, put her arms around his shoulders, and she felt an echo, her father’s words calling out across time, passing through her soul again. She spoke to the boy now, as he had spoken to her once, yet she couldn’t tell her voice from her father’s…

“Do you know what the two most overused words in the world are?” a father asked his daughter one morning.

“No.”

“I can’t.”

“What?”

“I can’t…those are the two most overused words in the world.”

“But…”

“But, you can,” Ben Asher said. “That’s the simple truth. The only limits on where you can go in life are the limits you place on yourself. And fear places the biggest limits on you of all. But Lindsey, here’s the honest truth. You can. You can do anything…all you have to do is turn away from your fear. Now, put your left hand here, your right foot there.”

“Are you sure?” she heard Bud ask.

“Your left hand, put it here,” she said, putting her hand on the rock first. She took Bud’s hand, felt her hands trembling in her father’s, then she helped him pull, guided his right foot to the first foothold. “Now, put your weight on the right foot, and bring your left up. Good, now look up, always look up, look where you want to go. Good. Now reach up, never stop reaching, never stop looking ahead…”

She remembered a day when he took her flying, turning like a bird in the sky – out over the ocean. How he told her to put her hands on the wheel, how he let her bank the wings, how afraid she’d been, how tentative her motions were. She remembered his hands on hers, turning the wheel, and she felt her body lean against the side of the airplane as the turn got steeper and steeper, how she’d wanted to just let go and fall, and she felt Bud against her now, leaning into her.

“You can’t let go now, Bud. Look up. Focus on where your hands go next, where you’ll need to put your feet. That’s right. Look up. I’m here. I right here, with you.”

And he was, she knew. He was right there, with her.

Coda

She went into her room, the room she knew so well, and Mai Ling sat with her, waiting. Bao came after evening prayers and smiled when he saw her, and he came to her and they hugged.

“You look well,” he said.

“I am happy to see you,” she replied.

“I have finished,” he said. “Would you like to see your son?”

“Yes. What about the snow?”

“It is no matter for concern. Come.”

They walked outside and Bao found a crack in the rocks behind the monastery, began pulling himself up the first ledge, then higher, to a second, narrower ledge. He helped Lindsey stand, then they edged along the rock until they reached an shallow alcove, and the urn rested on a man-made ledge, hollowed out of living rock.

“The sun hits this part of the rock first thing, every morning,” Bao said, looking at his grandson’s urn. Holding it to his heart.

She turned, looked down at the monastery a hundred feet below, and she saw the boys standing there, looking up at her – Mai Ling by their side – then she turned to Bao.

“You chose well. I’m sure he would have loved this place.”

“Perhaps,” the old man said. “It grows dark. We should go down now.”

She followed him and they had a simple meal of soup and rice then went to sleep.

She woke in the morning after a dreamless sleep, and after Bao left for prayers she woke the boys, showed them where the bathroom, such as it was, could be found, and then she took them to the kitchen. Mai Ling was cooking and the boys ate, and Mai Ling forced Lindsey to have something too, then Bao came and ate.

“You slept well?” he asked the boys.

“Yessir,” they said, and Bao laughed.

“They sound like soldiers,” he said, then he smiled at them. “You must call me Bao, or most honorable, wise one,” he added, laughing. “The sun is coming out now, so I will take you up to the farm when the snow loosens it’s grip.” He rubbed Andrew’s unruly hair on the way out, and Andrew turned to Lindsey.

“Who is he?”

“Colonel Bao,” Mai Ling said. He was in the North Vietnamese air force, and he wanted to kill Lindsey’s father very very much.”

“What?” Andrew said, his eyes wide now. “Why?”

“Because Bao did not know truth. His heart was barren, unable to accept truth.”

“Truth?” Bud asked. “You say that like truth is a person?”

“Yes, very much like a person,” Mai Ling said. “Bao knows truth like a person now. Yes. I like that. You will be very wise, Bud.”

They left the monastery along the ledge, walked along until rock gave way to earth again, and then they walked on a trail that led up the mountain – through patches of snow and worn trails among rocky outcroppings, and after two hours the sun came out and warmed the ground. Bao rested once, looked at the boys breathing hard and smiled, then he looked at Lindsey. She radiated something like contentment, and he wondered why.

“You smile with a brave heart,” he said to her, “but I wonder. Is it braveness you feel?”

“No, not at all. I feel my father here. Everywhere I look.”

“And do you wonder why?”

“Yes.”

“I would too,” Bao said, but he laughed and began climbing between another set of rocks. The way was harder here, steeper, and she kept by Bud’s side, worked with him as he gained confidence, and then, suddenly, they stood on a vast plateau.

“There,” Bao said, pointing to a ridge-line a few miles distant. “There is the farm.”

She looked, saw three towering wind generators, and a solar array covering perhaps five acres, and two beige brick buildings nestled in the trees behind the array.

“What on earth…?” she sighed.

She saw dozens of houses now, modern houses, almost American, and more buildings further out along the ridge line. Antennae towers and satellite dishes, then an airplane sitting in a hanger, and she turned to Bao. “What is this?”

“A dream.”

They walked across the plateau, through wild grass and blooming wildflowers, then through pasture and around cultivated fields, fenced off from grazing livestock. Bao led them to the largest building, and she shuddered to a stop, read the name off aloud as it came into focus.

“Asher and Martin Clinic” she said, and then she saw her mother walk out the door, then Clive Martin – in a wheelchair – rolled out onto the deck, and before she realized what she was doing she was running. Her mother walked over to Clive’s wheelchair and pushed him into the sun…

…then her father walked out the door…

…and she fell to the ground, crying, because just then she knew she was dreaming, that this wasn’t real, couldn’t be real. She was still in the monastery, waiting for the early morning bell to chime, calling the monks to prayer…

But then she saw him running. Down the steps, onto the grass, running to her.

And then she was in his arms, surrounded by him, a million questions crowding, pushing inward, waiting to be asked.

+++++

“Clive called,” he said over lunch, “needed me to go to Zürich, so I called dispatch, had them replace me on the flight, but it turned out we had a couple dead-heading back and Guy Saunders took my place. No idea, of course, all that stuff was going to happen, but Clive saw it as an opportunity.”

“An opportunity?”

“Yes, well,” Clive interjected hastily, “let’s not get into all that, Ben, shall we? I just thought it time for your father to disappear, and given the circumstances he agreed.”

“So, what is all this?” Lindsey said, sweeping her hands around the plateau. “This didn’t just happen overnight?”

“No, we decided to build a clinic up here, and a couple of years ago, when things started to look unsettled, we expanded the concept a little.”

“A little? It looks like you’ve spent tens of millions of dollars up here!”

“Swiss francs,” her father mumbled, “for the most part.”

“But…”

“Now, now,” Clive said hastily – again. “Let’s just say we liberated some excess funds from a few over-indulgent Italian boys who were involved in the pharmaceuticals trade, shall we? Let’s just leave it at that, wot?”

Lindsey looked at Martin, shook her head. “You’re too much…” she sighed.

“We have about five hundred scientists and teachers up here now,” Ben said, quickly changing the subject, “and a state of the art medical facility. Kind of a Noah’s arc, I guess you might call it.”

She and the boys moved into a small house near the teaching building, and soon Andrew was involved with getting ready for the school’s first class of medical students. Most were local Bhutanese children, but there were a few kids from Europe and America there as well. Bud busied himself herding animals, and Lindsey tried to get over her father essentially abandoning her, but soon she saw the logic of their plan.

And in time she moved down to the monastery, spending her time listening to monks at prayer, reading what she could on Bhutanese Buddhism, listening, really listening to Bao when he talked about life. Visitors came to the monastery from time to time, outsiders still, people from Australia at first, then a few from Europe, and she was put in charge of showing these visitors around.

One morning she was sitting in the sunrise, her legs dangling over the edge of the cliff and she saw men far below, coming up the trail, and she sighed. Bao came out a while later and sat beside her.

“You are resting in shadows this morning,” he asked. “Why?”

“I was wondering how the boys are doing.”

“When were you last at the farm?”

“It’s been a few weeks.”

“Ah. Well. Perhaps it is time for a visit. But I think we have visitors coming this morning.”

“Yes, I saw them on the trail.”

“Well,” he said, smiling, “I think they are here.”

She turned, saw Doug on the ledge, then she looked at Bao. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew he was coming…?”

“So did you, Lindsey.”

She stood, looked at Doug – and then saw Becky Asher behind him – and she wanted to laugh. “Here comes trouble,” she sighed, then she saw Tschering bringing up the rear and her heart leapt. Bao stood and looked at his son, his smile brighter than the brightest sun, then Tschering stopped and looked at his father, and the love of his life, then he walked onto the rock patio and went to his father, then his mother, before he turned to Lindsey.

They fell into an infinite moment, then he sat on the ledge and let his feet dangle, waiting for Lindsey to do the same – and when she didn’t he turned and looked at her – then saw his oldest friend in the world walking along the ledge.

She came to him and sniffed his head once, then lay down by his side. With her face on his lap, she watched the sun come to the treetops – and sighed –

The Coffee Cantata © 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

The Coffee Cantata, composed by J S Bach in the 1730s is referenced, but no other persons or places developed herein are “real.” ‘The Coffee Cantata’ was also a restaurant located in San Francisco, scenes of the interior show up in the 1968 movie Bullit (Steve McQueen, car chase, etc.), and The Coffee Cantata is also a coffee shop in San Francisco, not to be missed if you’re in The City by the Bay – but this story has no relationship to either of those entities, and should not be confused with them.

Many thanks to Rightbank for reading through drafts the past few days, helping with my atrocious grammar and non-existent spell-checking. Hopefully we caught the worst offenders.

Happy trails, and thanks for reading.

taktshangtigersnestmonasteryparovalley

The Coffee Cantata (WIP, Pt 1 v1.0)

coffee-cantata-logo

So, about 40 pages here, not quite a week’s work, and I find myself getting pulled deeper and deeper into the story, more and more ideas spring to life, want to be told… What might have been 20 pages is looking more and more like a hundred or so. So, this is a WIP, a penciled in sketch, and I hope to finish by next weekend. Emphasis on word ‘hope’?

Yet I’m at a stopping off point, though nowhere near finished – so I’ll keep working on this one for a while, I think, maybe for some time, even after it’s finished (because, hey, stories are never ever really truly finished…they just take a rest sometime, before the urge for a rewrite becomes overwhelming…). So, a word of warning, this ain’t finished, it hasn’t been proofread, some sentences are roughed-in, not quite where I want them yet, but that’s what this whole blog thing is about. If something pops out as too weird or outlandish, just give me a shout.

Playing in Photoshop this morning, created the little illustration above…splitting the night, I think, comes to mind – but you decide what is, and what might be an illusion.

The Coffee Cantata

Traveling around sure gets me down and lonely
Nothing else to do but close my mind
I sure hope the road don’t come to own me
There’s so many dreams I’ve yet to find
Carole King  So Far Away

+++++

Feet tucked in close, she sighed, picked up the newspaper and looked over the front page, settled on a story and started reading. From time to time she picked up her coffee, took a sip, a little grin crossing her face here, the shadow of a frown there. She found herself in the Employment pages at one point, and her hands shook a little as contrary images flew through her mind, but she ventured inside, started scanning – and daydreaming.

She was a bright girl – too smart, some said – and she was something of an empath, which, she thought sometimes, had doomed her to a life of unwanted insight. Born and raised in West L.A., she had gone to USC, then UCLA, her life ahead always centered on journalism. She graduated, went to work for the Times about the time Bill Clinton took office, and the first waves of cynicism broke over her shores when she watched him lie about Lewinsky and that whole blue-stained thing. She threw away her blinders after that and became a real reporter, or so her friends said, and she won a Pulitzer for her coverage of events at a prison in Iraq a few years later.

She had become an outspoken critic of the rich and powerful when she wrote her first book, and she had made enemies, so many of her friends weren’t too surprised when they heard she’d been summarily fired one Friday morning. She had packed her Pulitzer in a little cardboard box and walked out with a smile on her face, then she sold her house and bought a one-way ticket to China – and started walking. Walking to the west, always.

She walked most of the time, though sometimes passing trucks stopped and she hopped aboard, but she did so with her reporters eyes and ears open. She took notes, wrote sketches of the things she saw – and felt. Sketches of pain, of happy contentment, portraits of farmers in Tibet’s Racaka Pass and herdsmen in Bhutan. She fought a cobra one morning and lived to write about the encounter, and a few days later slipped and tumbled down a rocky slope and hurt her leg.

A passing monk picked her up and helped her along to his monastery, and she lived within that mountainside community for weeks. She lived in this improbable world, an ancient place carved into the side of a sheer face, the waters of a muddy river drifting by thousands of feet below – and she thought about that river for days without end. Where it went, the people who’s lives depended on it, and what would happen when the water stopped flowing.

As all things must, she thought, come to an end.

And one day she realized she had fallen in love with this place, and the men who lived in solitude with the clouds. She wished she was a man – so she could stay – but she wasn’t so the same monk who helped her that broken day walked with her down to the river and helped her board a little boat. She watched him recede into the passing landscape with despair, then hope, before she started walking again, still to the west.

She came to a village in Nepal and fell ill, seriously ill, and delirium came for her. In a fevered dream she saw herself being loaded in a truck, then in a hospital of some sort – brown men in white coats doing things to her she didn’t understand – then one day she woke up and saw the world as it was, again.

A little man, no taller than she, stood by the bed looking at her, and she looked at him.

“You are very ill,” he told her.

“And?”

“I think you must go someplace else. We do not have the resources to care for you here.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

“You have a disease I do not understand,” he said, struggling to find the correct words. “I am not sure I can care for you.”

“You can’t care for me?”

“Adequately, I think is the word I seek.”

“Ah. So what must I do?”

“We must take you to Kathmandu. When you are strong enough.”

She drifted away again, and when next she woke she felt a rough road underneath an ancient truck, and through the flapping canvas sides she watched a dusty road pass by, just out of reach, and she wanted to be down there, walking. Walking and listening. Sketching portraits of lives she didn’t understand.

“Do I understand my own life?’ she thought once. ‘The purpose of my life?’

She saw the outskirts of a city pass by the tattered canvas, and she recognized the hospital for what it was. Careful men came for her and carried her inside, and she felt IVs being started, then doctors at the foot of her bed talking in hushed tones. She could feel her sweat-soaked gown when chills came, then as suddenly she would feel she was being baked alive and she would call out for help.

And one morning an American was standing beside her, looking at her carefully.

“Hello.”

“Yes, hello. My name is Carter Freeman, and I’m from the embassy. How are you feeling?”

She shook her head. “Not good.”

“I’m not surprised,” Freeman said. “You’ve picked up a fever, and apparently you broke your leg some time ago. It wasn’t set properly and there’s some sort of infection in the bone, and that’s when they called the embassy.”

“What do they need you for?”

“They think you should try to get home, to a better facility than this. They’re afraid you’ll lose your leg otherwise.”

“Ah.”

“So, you’re Lindsey Hollister. The writer?”

“I’ve heard that rumor too.”

He smiled, tried not to laugh. “Well, I’ve come to get you, to take you home.”

“What if I want to stay here?”

“That’s your call, Miss Hollister, but frankly, I’d want to know why?”

“Because these mountain, and these people feel like home now.”

He nodded his head. “Understandable. There’s magic in the air up here.”

She remembered turning and looking out the window just then, looking to the mountains as if looking for an answer to the question.

The question.

“You feel it too?”

And he had nodded his head. “Impossible not to, I guess. You came through Bhutan, walking?”

“Yup.”

“You landed in Shanghai, eighteen months ago. That’s the last recorded entry on your passport. Have you been walking since.”

“Yes, aside from the two months I rested after I hurt my leg.”

“Where was that?”

“A monastery, I think it was in Bhutan but I’m not sure.”

“I came by yesterday,” he said, suddenly a little nervous. “I went through your things, read through one of your journals, trying to figure out where you’d been.”

She looked at him like she might have a burglar who’d stumbled into her bedroom.

“I found myself weeping at one point,” he continued, “weeping at the beauty you found. I wanted to read more, but I couldn’t. I felt like I was walking where I shouldn’t. Not without your permission, anyway. Do you plan to write about all this?”

She looked away. “I don’t know.”

“You should…I mean, I hope you do. I was lost in your words, in the things you saw. I wanted to know more, too. About those things, and you.”

“Me?”

“I fell in love with you – with your perception, I mean.”

“Nothing so personal as a word, I assume.”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“So? What have you planned for me?”

“Lufthansa, tomorrow morning. Frankfurt to Los Angeles.”

“I see. No choice, eh?”

“It’s the recommendation of your government. Mine, too.”

And so early the next morning they moved her to the airport, and Freeman was there, waiting, and he went to the airplane with her, saw her settled in her seat then he asked her to write, to share, and then he was gone. She seemed to sleep and sleep, and never saw Frankfurt come or go. She woke up on a gurney, another IV flowing, and she realized she was in another aircraft – and she thought that strange – then sleep came again.

She woke up one morning and felt wonderful, completely refreshed, and she looked out the window in the room she was in and saw palm trees in the distance, swaying in a Santa Anna, and in an instant she knew she was home. The brown air seemed familiar, even the color of the sky seemed to scream ‘Home’ – and she felt an unexpected surge of happiness.

A mountain of a man came in a little later – he looked like a football player, or a wrestler, but he said he was an infectious disease specialist and he had been treating her for ten days…

“I’ve been here ten days?”

“You have.”

“And just where is here?”

“UCLA.”

“I thought the air smelled familiar. Is that a Santa Anna blowing?”

“Yup. For a few days now.”

“So, what’s blowing through my veins right now.”

“Oh, a cocktail of Vancomycin, prednisone, fluconazole, and acyclovir. Maybe a little Red Bull, too,” he said, grinning.

“Is that why I feel so ‘up’?”

“Your white counts were in the basement, so you got a transfusion last night. That probably accounts for the feeling. What did you do to your leg, by the way?”

“I fell down a mountain.”

“Oh? Where?”

“Bhutan.”

“Bhutan? What on earth were you doing there?”

“Taking a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yes.”

“Uh, admissions wanted me to ask. We can’t find a home address for you?”

“I don’t have one?”

“But you have insurance. How’d you work that out?”

“I have friends in low places.”

“Well, they’re going to need an address. Some place to send correspondence.”

“Bills, you mean.”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Probably a few of those, too.”

“Well, as soon as I find a place to live I’ll let you know.”

“Are you looking? For a place, I mean?”

“I suppose I might as well.”

“Well, my parents have an apartment building, over on Gayley. It’s surrounded by frat houses, but has a pool. Kind of nice, and close to the hospital.”

“Sounds nice. Tell ‘em I’ll take it.”

He looked taken aback. “You don’t want to look at it first?”

“No, not really.”

“Do you have any furniture, any stuff?”

“No, I burned all those bridges a while ago.”

“So, you really want me to call them?”

“Yes. How long will I need to stay here?”

“As soon your counts stabilize and the fever abates,” he said. “Maybe in a few days.”

“What’s your name, by the way,” she asked.

“Oh, sorry. Doug Peterson.”

“You grow up around here?”

“Yup. You?”

“Beverly Hills High, class of ‘86.”

“Small world, isn’t it?”

She looked at him and laughed.

And he helped her get over to her new place that weekend, and when she went inside the little apartment she found the place furnished. Clean-lined Scandinavian furniture, bright fabrics on the sofa and chairs, very modern, almost cheery.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “but I didn’t think walking into an empty place would be all that fun. I had the stuff in storage,” he added, wistfully, “and it needs a good home.”

“Oh?”

“When my wife and I got married I, well, she didn’t like the way this stuff looks so I put it in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.”

“You couldn’t part with it?”

“No, I guess not.”

She walked around the little place, found plates and silverware and pots and pans all set up in the cupboards, and the ‘fridge was stocked with a few necessities too. She walked into the bedroom, found the bed made and toiletries on the bathroom counter, then her eyes will with tears and she turned to him.

“Why, Doug? Why did you do all this?”

“I don’t know, really. I think I want you to be happy.”

“Happy?” she said, as she looked from his need into his eyes.

“I have an old Mac set up in here,” he said, leading her back into the living room. “All the software has been upgraded, my old stuff’s been cleaned off so there’s nothing on it. A blank slate, I guess you could say. In case you want to write or get caught up on email.” She went over to the little sofa and sat, a line of perspiration forming on her forehead, and he came to her, felt her with the back of his hand.

“Do you know where my stuff is?” she asked as he went into the kitchen. He came back with his little black bag and sat in the chair next to the sofa.

“Yeah. I put it in the closet, over there,” he said, pointing to the entry, but he had a thermometer out and he rubbed it across her forehead, the looked at the readout.

“Time for bed, Lindsey,” he said as he helped her up. They walked to the little bedroom and he helped her go to the bathroom, then into the bed. He pulled the sheets up around her neck and tucked her in, then he ran his fingers through her hair once before he left.

+++++

She scanned the ads, looking at jobs in the Westwood area, preferably something mindless and uninvolved, and she saw one at a coffee place just a few blocks away. She looked at the time and went to the bathroom to shower, then she dressed and walked down the hill into the old village. She found the place and went inside, ordered an iced coffee and sat, looked out the broad windows at people walking past on the sidewalk.

The place had, she thought, kind of a cook vibe, a mellow hipster thing going on as she watched people come and go, and at one point a girl came out to clean tables and she asked her a question.

“Do you like working here?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. “It’s never the same day, ya know. Something different every morning.”

“It seems laid back.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. Are you here for the job?”

“I was thinking about it.”

“Oh. Okay,” she said, then she disappeared into the office behind the counter. A few minutes later an older woman came out, and Lindsey watched her approach through a reflection in the window.

“Excuse me,” the woman said, “but Melody told me you might be here about the job?”

She turned, looked at Sara Whiteman and their reactions were simultaneous, and spontaneous.

“Oh my God!” Whiteman almost screamed. “Lindsey?! Is that you?”

And she stood, hugged her old best friend from high school.

“What in God’s name are you doing here?” Sara whispered. “I read about you in the paper a few months ago…about that walk you took, and about getting sick. What on earth were you thinking?”

“So, does this mean I get the job?”

“What? Lindsay? What’s going on?”

“I need to get out of the house, be around people. I haven’t been in months, and it’s eating away at me.”

Sara sat down by her old friend. “Really? You want to work here? Why? Why don’t you go back downtown, get a real job? Doing what you do best?”

“I want to do what I do best, Sara. I want to talk, and listen, to people.”

Whiteman sighed, shook her head. “It’s counter work, minimum wage, no benefits for three months. Is that what you want?”

“It sounds fun.”

“When can you start?”

“Tomorrow too soon?”

“No. You sure? Sure you want to do this?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Next question. Are you up to this? It’s not manual labor, but it does entail some physical work. Clearing tables, preparing orders. Are you ready for that kind of thing?”

“Yup. My docs think it would be a good thing.”

“Nothing infectious, right? You’re safe?”

Lindsey nodded her head. “Yup. Clean as a whistle.”

“God, I can’t believe this, Lindsey. It’s so good to see you, but this too? Wow…I’m just speechless.”

“Me too. Look, do I need anything weird in the clothing line, anything like that?”

“Nope, not really. Comfortable shoes, only arms and hands visible, per health codes, as you’ll handle food. That means slacks and shirts, but shoes are the big thing.”

“Would these be okay?” she asked, pointing to her jeans and scuffed hiking boots.

“As long as it’s clean, sure.”

“Cool. What time should I be here?”

“Only shift I have right now is five to one, the early morning shift. Are you a morning person?”

“Not a problem.”

“Well, how ‘bout I see you tomorrow morning?”

“Front door?”

“Yup. Bright and early.”

“Okay, I’ll be here.”

They hugged, then Lindsey walked out into the flow of people on the sidewalk, and Sara Whiteman watched as she disappeared. Melody, her assistant, came and stood by her side then.

“She’s so skinny, like she’s been sick or something,” the girl said.

“She has been,” Sara Whiteman sighed. “Since the day I met her.”

+++++

And a week later there’s was a familiar routine. Not quite like school decades ago, but close enough. Friends are just that, after all, and it seemed they started up again where they left off, as best friends often do.

Unlock at five, tidy the place up and get coffees going, set out baked good in the counter and get specials marked-up on the chalk board. Open the doors at six and get to work. Within a few days she’d learned how to use the most complicated brewing machines and the techniques to satisfy even the most hardened caffeine junkies, and she worked the counters efficiently, even gracefully, and soon people came in and said their ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’ on their way through her day, and patterns developed.

In the very early morning, when commutes began and sometimes ended, the shop filled with harried executives dashing off to work, and nurses getting off the night shift. Professors from the university across the street constituted the next onrushing wave, often before lectures – yet usually after, and students came on this riptide, lingering long after their coffee grew cold, lost in lecture notes or lining textbooks in bright highlights.

Lunchtime in the shop was a mad rush. Iced coffees and cold, house-made sandwiches flying over the counter at a breakneck pace, then she was helping to clean up before time was up and it was time to walk up the hill again, and she was grateful for the swimming pool on sunny days and sat out under the sun for hours and hours, notebook in hand, her eyes focused on memories of her day, and one day she was sitting out there, writing, when he came by.

“Doug?”

“Hey, it’s my favorite patient! How’s the sun?” he asked as he came and sat by her.

“It feel like heaven today. The air is almost crisp, you know, yet the sun bakes it all away.”

“Nothin’ like LA on a day like this. It’s the cream in my coffee.”

“So, what brings you to the neighborhood?”

“My dad. He’s got COPD, in CHF, uh, emphysema and heart failure. He’s not doing too well, either.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. How’s your mom taking it?”

“Oh, she’s strong. Old world, know what I mean?”

“No, not really.”

“She was a kid when they came over, refugees, during the war. She had relatives here in LA, made it here in ‘43. I think the journey was something else, Greece to North Africa, then Brazil and finally up to California.”

“How old was she?”

“I think around ten, when she got here, anyway. Took them two years, I think.”

“She met your dad here?”

“Yeah, in college,” he said, pointing at the campus across the street. “He went into business, she went into medicine?”

“Oh?”

“Yup, she taught general medicine for year, supervised residency for internists. She was a bright one, and they’re devoted to each other, always have been.”

“She came from Greece?”

“Yup, her family left when the Italians and Germans moved in. You want to talk to her about all this, I’m sure she’d love to.”

“Yes, maybe when she feels like it?”

“She misses working, so any excuse to get out and shoot the breeze is a welcome distraction. So, what are doing these days?”

“Oh, I’m working at that little coffee shop down on Weyburn.”

“No kidding? I didn’t know that. How long have you been doing that?”

“A couple of weeks?”

He turned professional, his eyes serious. “Any fever, any night sweats?”

“Some night sweats, yes. But not often.”

“Okay, you’re coming with me. Time for some lab-work.”

“Oh, do I have to,” she said, purposefully pouting just like any other five year old.

“You can tuck that lower lip back in now. Now come on,” he said, looking at his watch, “let’s get you dressed.”

He helped her up and walked with her to the little apartment, and he waited for her while she dressed, looking out the window – watching his mother looking at the pool, then at him, standing by the window in their living room. He could see the scowl on her face, the same look she always had on her face – when she knew he about to do something really stupid.

+++++

She felt much better the next morning, and one of her regulars stopped by the register on his way out and smiled at her. “You look really good this morning, Lindsey,” he said.

“Thanks. I feel good, too,” she said – and then, as he walked out the door, she realized she didn’t even know his name – let alone telling him her’s. ‘Oh, well,’ she said to no one but herself, ‘I’ll ask next time he comes in.’ She went to clear off his table, saw he’d left a little note and a large tip, and she went to the window, watched him get into his car – and she noticed he was wearing shorts, and she saw the scar. Pale and waxy, like a long snake standing up the side of his leg, and she thought it looked angry, like a bad memory that just wouldn’t go away.

She finished cleaning his table and went back to the counter, the fifty dollar bill he’d left in her hand. She walked over to Sara, gave her the fifty, and she listened while Lindsey told her about the exchange.

“You really don’t get it, do you?” Sara sighed. “About half the men who come in here every morning come here to see you.”

“What?”

Sara shook her head. “You know, since second grade every boy around seems to look at you just once and decide life would be a whole lot better if you were a part of it.”

“Sara? What are you talking about?”

“God, you are so clueless. Go put on some French roast, would you?”

So she got back to work, getting ready for the mid-morning, professorial rush, but at one point she saw a student come in and sit by the window – and something caught her eye. He pulled a book out of his weatherbeaten rucksack, it’s red slipcover instantly recognizable. Her book, her book about the economic realities of life in working class America, and she turned away from the memory of the time she’d spend ‘undercover’ doing research. He was reading the book, she saw, her photo on the back sleeve standing out like a light house, and she tried to ignore the boy ‘til he left. Perhaps an hour later he did, and he never stopped to say anything to her. She wondered if her appearance had changed all that much and decided she really didn’t care.

And a little after noon, he came in. Doug, her physician.

He came up to the counter and looked around, studiously trying to ignore her.

“I didn’t know y’all did sandwiches. What’s good?”

“I like the chicken salad. It’s got undertones of curry, and pecan.”

“Okay. What should I have with it?”

“Iced coffee and tabouli.”

“Done.”

“I’ll bring it out to you.”

“Gracias.”

“Por nada.”

He took a seat at a table by the windows and pulled out a phone, scanned his email and she made his coffee, fixed his sandwich, then took it out to his table.

“How you feeling today?”

“Good.”

“You look good. Your color’s better, too. You kind of had me spooked yesterday.”

“Did I?”

“Could you sit for a minute? While I eat, anyway?”

She looked at Sara – who motioned “SIT!” – and she laughed, sat in the chair by his side.

“Damn, this is not half bad,” he said after he took a bite.

“I hope not. I made it.”

He looked at her, thought for a moment, then turned away.

“Doug? What on your mind?”

“You, actually.”

“Me?”

“I finally finished your book a couple weeks ago. Wasn’t quite what I expected, either.”

“Oh?”

“Mississippi? You moved to Mississippi for six months? Lived and worked all that time, in a laundromat?”

“That’s one of the epicenters, Doug. Where it’s bad. Real bad.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“Have you ever practiced medicine out in the boondocks? Or overseas?”

He shook his head. “I’ve only been outside of LA on vacation, and only a couple of times, at that.”

“Ever thought of going to the front lines? West Africa maybe, or Southeast Asia?”

“No.”

“Do you want to? Did you ever want to?”

“Once,” he sighed. “Yeah, once upon a time I really wanted to do all that.”

“What happened?”

He snorted, turned away. “I got married, then applied for a mortgage and found I had three kids under the Christmas tree one morning. Should I go on?”

“No,” she smiled, “not unless you want to.”

“Everything changed, I guess, after all that. All my hopes and dreams.”

“Everything changed? I wonder…did you change?”

“You’re not, like, a shrink or something, are you?”

She laughed a little. “No, but I could probably use one.”

“Oh?”

“I could never stand to see injustice, social injustice, and just turn away. I’ve always wanted to understand it. Not just how people endure living in an oppressed state, but how other, more fortunate people can look on – then turn away.”

“And, what have you learned?”

“That I’ll never understand humanity.”

He laughed again, then looked at her. “You’re not joking, are you?”

“No. I’m not.”

“So, what’s next? Are you going to write some more?”

“I am.”

“About your walk?”

“Yes, in part.”

“And after that?”

“I don’t know. Learn something useful. Go back to Bhutan.”

“And do what?”

“Build a hospital, maybe.”

“Something really touched your soul out there, didn’t it?”

“Life finally reached into me and took a look around. I think it found me wanting.”

“And how would you fix that?”

“I think I’d learn to listen better.”

“You’re going to hate me for saying this, but I have to. I’m madly in love with you.”

“You’d have to be a little mad to say that, I guess.”

He nodded his head. “I know.”

“Why?”

“I wish I knew. Something to do with moths and flames, I suspect.”

“Or, perhaps, Icarus?

“Or Icarus.”

“Tell me about your wife.”

“She’s, well, she likes to play cards. She likes to shop on Rodeo Drive. She likes her Jaguar.”

“And she’s sexy as hell, too. Isn’t she?”

He nodded his head. “Of course.”

“Oh, how have the mighty fallen. Is that it?”

“No.”

“Of course. She’s what you always wanted.”

“Until I didn’t. Yes.”

“That’s a helluva place to find yourself in.”

She watched him finish his sandwich, and she liked watching him. There was something innocent, almost boyish in his movements, and she smiled when he finished. “Can I get you some more coffee?”

“No, I’ve got appointments in an hour, then rounds. Will you be home around four?”

She nodded her head.

“How much to get square with the house?”

“I’ll get it – this time,” she said, smiling.

“And I’ll get the next one?”

“Sure. If you like.”

“Well. Gotta go.”

“Yup. Seeya.”

She cleaned the table after he left, then walked back to the counter – only to find Sara and Melody waiting for her. Impatiently, it seemed to her.

“Well?” Sara said, leaning on the counter.

“Well what?”

“Who is he?”

“My doctor.”

“He couldn’t take his eyes off you,” Melody said.

“Yup,” Sara added, “he’s got it bad.”

“Jeez,” Linsey sighed, “he’s married, you guys.”

“And did I hear him say,” Melody said, almost giggling, “that he’s madly in love with you?”

“He said that about my book.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” Sara grinned, “like I believe that, too.”

“Can I help with the dishes?”

Sara turned, looked at the clock. “Nah, I got it. Why don’t you head on home, get some rest.”

“I need to go to the grocery store,” Lindsey said, “if you have time to run me over.”

“Why don’t you buy a car?” Melody asked.

“I don’t need the hassle, or the headache,” she said.

“But you need a ride to the grocery store?”

“Never mind.”

“Oh, come on,” Sara said. “I need a few things too. Melody? Can you hold down the fort ‘til I get back?”

“Sure.”

They went out back, to Sara’s Audi, and rode over to Century City in silence. She got a few necessities and a couple bottles of wine – and a bunch of flowers – then they got in the car to drive back to her apartment.

“I know Doug,” Sara said a few minutes into the drive.

“Oh?”

“I know his wife, too.”

Lindsey looked at her friend, wondered where this was going.

“She’s pretty, but a real mercenary. She was a cheerleader, of all things, and sweet as could be. He never knew what hit him.”

“And she just doesn’t understand him, I guess.”

“Oh, no, she understands him alright. My guess is she’d like nothing more than to catch him having an affair, too. But then again, I think she fucks every twenty year old pool man, every tennis instructor, and every plumber she can get her mouth on.”

“What? How do you know all this?”

“Same country club, sweetie. The jungle telegraph doesn’t lie.”

“What about Doug? I don’t really know him.”

“He played linebacker here, All American, played in two Rose Bowls. Went straight to med school, again, here, then did his internship at Columbia, in New York City. Went to Georgetown for his residency, then came home. He’s been on the front lines of the AIDs epidemic, made his name there. Liz Taylor loved him, thought he walked on water. He fights for his patients, and if he doesn’t know something, he finds the answer. He’s kind of famous around here too, in some circles, anyway.”

“What does that mean?”

“Well, he’s not a social animal. He’ll help raise money for charities, but he doesn’t go to the balls, if you know what I mean.”

“His wife doesn’t like that, I guess.”

“Like I said, mercenary. She’s in it for the money, and whatever prestige she can wrangle off him. I’m pretty sure he’s miserable, from the little I’ve heard, anyway. My advice? Be careful, be careful of her.”

Lindsey laughed a little. “No need. I can’t imagine getting involved with anyone at this stage of life?”

“Yeah? Tell me, when was the last time you were involved with anyone?”

Lindsey looked out the window, shrugged her shoulders.

“Yeah,” Sara said. “That’s just about what I thought.”

+++++

She heard the knock on the door a little before five, and she went to the door, let him in.

“Are you cooking,” he asked.

“A little something, in case. I have some wine, if you’d like.”

“I didn’t want you to go out of your way.”

“I was going to fix something for dinner anyway. I made a little extra.”

He went to the sofa and sat, then leaned back and sighed.

“Tough day?”

“Kind of. It’s like the hard cases never end, never stop coming. Like yours. The bugs you had running around in your system were exotic, stuff we never see over here. I was online talking with docs in London ten hours a day, for a week, too, trying to get to the bottom of it. Trouble is, it seems like that’s happening with more frequency now, and with new antibiotic-resistant bugs popping up almost daily, it’s just getting worse.”

“Sara told me you’re like that. Tenacious, I guess.”

“Sara?”

“She owns the Cantata.”

“Oh. Whiteman. Yeah, I’ve seen her at the country club. And what else did Sara have to say?”

“She gave me the rundown. Your wife, what she knows, anyway. And a little about you.”

“Well, hell, you opened the door so it can’t be all that bad.”

She laughed.

“You want to unvarnished version?”

“Sure.”

“She fucked around, a lot. Then she tested positive.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.”

“You’re treating her?”

“Nope. Ethically impossible. We live on opposite sides of the house, her treatment is supervised by a colleague in my department.”

“Your kids?”

“Two in college, one in high school.”

“I mean, do they know?”

He nodded his head. “Yup. We told ‘em a few years ago.”

“What they must have gone through,” she whispered.

“They’re good kids. Better than good, really.”

She looked him in the eye, and she could his honest love for them, feel his concern. “Well, I’ve made a Caesar salad, sliced some apples and cheese, and broiled a little steak. You want to open the wine?”

“You know, that sounds really good…”

When they had finished the dishes and put away the leftovers, he went to the sofa again and stretched out, and before she knew what had happened he was out for the count – on his side and breathing heavily. She went to the closet and covered him with a blanket, then sat in the chair by the sofa and watched him sleep – until she too fell away.

+++++

He came in early the next morning…the man in shorts with the long, waxy scar on his leg…and she watched him as he came to the counter…

“Good morning, Lindsey,” he said when it was his turn. “Howya doin’ this fine day?”

“Good,” she said, “and I’ll be a whole lot better as soon as you tell me your name!”

Yet he seemed hurt by that, and almost looked away. “John Asher? Ring any bells?”

“John!” she said, then she ran out from behind the counter and into his arms. “My God, it looks like you’ve lost a hundred pounds! I can hardly tell it’s you!” She hugged him for all he was worth, her joy genuine, her surprise complete. “Now…what on earth are you doing here?”

Asher had been in the Overseas Bureau at the Times, and might have been considered a world class journalist if not for his comically ironic anti-intellectualism. His book, unmasking the origins of right wing death squads in El Salvador – and America’s hidden role in the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero – had garnered his first Pulitzer – yet the paper let him go, claiming that his choice of subject matter was dangerously disingenuous, his investigative methods frequently incendiary and not altogether reliable.

Yet while they were at the Times together they had renewed a relationship that had been killed – and they remained friends until she went ‘undercover’ doing research for her own book. By the time she came back he’d been discharged, and then disappeared – to the Middle East, some said, while others claimed he’d gone to ground in Middle Earth – and was tripping out on magic mushrooms. Still, she remembered him now for what he had always been.

A friend. And more than a friend – from the earliest moments of her life. She remembered Asher – Asher the class clown – yet he had also been the agent-provocateur, the saboteur who taped condoms all over blackboards in the religious studies classroom – just before a local evangelical group was due to arrive for a lecture. Who covered all the toilets with clear plastic wrap – in the faculty restroom – causing a mess of near biblical proportions to wash across the floors. Who flushed waterproof blasting caps down toilets, blowing up pipes and sending tidal flows of raw sewage into first floor classrooms. He’d been an anarchist, and to school administrators, the anti-Christ – yet he was brilliant, and had – at times –an endearing, compassionate soul.

And like Lindsey, he had possessed a passion for exposing injustice, for shining a bright light on the dark underbelly of power. When he taped condoms over chalk-borne words, it was because he wanted to the world to know the preacher was a pedophile. When he covered toilets with clear plastic wrap, he wanted teachers to know he could see the shit they were trying to peddle as truth. And when he filled the school with sewage? Well, perhaps, Lindsey thought, Asher was telling it like it was.

He’d gone on to Columbia, to it’s famed Journalism School, then had come home. He covered the downtown beat for the Times, everything from politics to the struggles faced by the homeless, but he stirred up so much trouble the publisher had him promoted to the national desk. That lasted a year, lasted long enough for the White House to send a note to the publisher asking that Asher be sent to the North Pole, or perhaps Antarctica. So he had ended up in El Salvador, ostensibly to cover the simmering conflict in Nicaragua, then he discovered the conflict between the Salvadoran government and Óscar Romero. He photographed bodies of murdered nuns, and teenaged protesters’ savaged bodies when they were discovered in landfills. Then one night he discovered links between the Salvadoran military and US Special Forces, rivers of dark money siphoned from obscure political organizations in Florida and Delaware being used to pay squads of mercenaries operating in Salvadoran villages. Mercenaries who rounded up protesters in the middle of the night, who drove them to fields and gunned them down. When he photographed a series of massacres, and got them published in the United States, assassins tried, and failed, to take him out. The bureau’s office in San Salvador was firebombed, and reporters from all news organizations fled the region until the government issued assurances they wouldn’t be targeted. And assurances were issued, with one notable exception: Asher was now persona non grata, unwelcome in the region.

By the time his chronicle of Romero’s assassination came out, the Times had had enough. He was trouble, a born troublemaker, and his antics had apparently compromised the paper’s integrity, not to mention reporters’ lives. Then the government applied pressure, and that was that.

He had languished as a freelancer after that, but the 90s were not, in general, a good time for investigative journalists of any ilk. Corporate takeovers reduced the moral integrity of editorial offices, and reportorial skills began to slip away as papers began to focus on delivering content suitable to advertisers, and not to the needs of an informed populace.

And yet, the early 2000s were something else entirely.

The internet happened – and as suddenly came of age – at the end of the Clinton era, and then W, or George W Bush, was selected as President – by judicial coup d’état in Asher’s opinion – and with that moral imperative in mind he launched one of the first independent news journals on the web. Called Veritas, Asher and several like-minded journalistic firebombers now had the venue of their dreams, and in Bush, a subject worthy of their impressive, and impulsive, investigative talents.

And Lindsey watched these developments from the sidelines, often content to look on passively when Asher’s exposés tilted to anarchic narcissism, yet a couple of times she reached out to him, wondered what his motives really were.

“At heart,” he told her once, “I’m a Leninist. I want to weaken the foundations of the state, make truth a subjective commodity, weaken the current reality in the minds of the people – until I can replace it with what’s needed to bring the state down.”

“But…why?”

“Because the state is corrupt. Life in this country is corrupt, it’s been corrupted by greed, by an overwhelming lust for money and power. I’m going to use that greed, use that lust and turn it against the establishment. I’m going to get inside, then I’m going to light the match, start the fire and burn the whole fucking thing to the ground. I’m going to do it because that’s the only way we’ll ever change the course we’re on.”

“Fight evil with evil, then?”

“What’s evil?” he said. “I mean, really, what is it? It’s a word, Lindsey, that’s all. And the only thing that’s ever worked is either pure force or subversion from the inside. War is pointless now, so you have to get inside, subvert from within…and that’s all that’s left now. The state is too powerful, the truth is what the state says it is.”

And he had done just that, too. He was no longer an outsider.

And now, here he was, looking into her eyes – and she looked in his, saw fires raging in his soul, and she wondered what he wanted from her now.

+++++

She was sitting on the monastery wall, her legs dangling over the abyss, and she was watching the sun come to the day through amber clouds below and around the stones and trees. She took a deep breath, looked at her leg and wanted the pain to stop – but the pain reminded her of a lesson she had been slow to grasp. Go slow, take care where you put your feet, and understand the next step you take might be your last. She had found peace in the lesson, too. Move slowly through life, the monk said, understand the world around you, understand the consequences of your actions – and act only when you must.

She had looked at the men living in isolation on this cliff as something of an oddity – at first. Then she realized men had developed systems of religious interpretation around the world, independently of each other, and each had arrived at a similar conclusion: the best way to understand the nature of life and the infinite was to isolate oneself, and the more extreme the isolation the better. Work – and think – in silence, consider the nature of the self, and even the nature of reality, in extreme solitude. Existence, in this framework, became the conceptual basis for introspective self analysis – and the interesting thing is all this started happening around two thousand of years ago, it happened in several places around the world, and it happened almost concurrently.

Why? She wanted to know – why?

She had known that one group of desert fathers had wandered off into the Sinai, another into the scorched lands west of the pyramids, a few even before the time of Christ, and in the monastery she learned that the same impulse had enveloped the peoples of Southeast Asia – and at very nearly the same time.

Why?

Why had a few people separated by impossible distance experienced the same desire for cultural dissolution?

Was it in the nature of some men to question these things, or had something happened, something fundamental to man’s understanding of the world?

The first large cities developed during that era, the first systems of laws were implemented, and nomadic man increasingly became domesticated man. And she thought of Asher that morning as she watched the sun rise, and about his desire to burn the system down.

Was he a desert nomad, a wanderer forced into a life of solitude – forced to turn away from teeming hordes of greedy merchants, forced to endure injustice in the name of their all-consuming lust. Was the choice Asher confronted now just as it had been two thousand years ago – and would that choice endure, as man searched for a way out of the mazes human fallibility imposed? If man is condemned to endure endless failures of the human imagination, would the choice always be to endure or flee? Submit or flee into the desert? Run – from the world of the possible into the world of – what? – oblivion? From the world of cages into a hall of mirrors?

The monk who found her, who helped her climb the mountain and who had tried to set her leg, sat beside her in the sunrise, and she remembered the moment as the most sublimely perfect of her life.

+++++

“So, what have you been up to?” Asher asked.

She shook her head. “Not much.”

“I read about your trip, in the Times. About how ill you were when you got home.”

“Touch and go for a while, or so they told me. How do you like D.C.?”

“It’s getting warm, isn’t it?”

“I suppose you’re happy now?”

“Not quite, but we’re getting there.”

“I thought about you once, in a monastery – of all places.”

“You thought about me?”

“Yes, you. And Lenin, and Ayn Rand.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I thought of a passage in Atlas Shrugged, where Reardon and Taggart are looking out over a ruined industrial landscape, and they look down on destitute workers as vermin to be swept aside when their utility is gone.”

“And that made you think of me?”

“Yes. And isn’t that odd? But then again, I’ve always wondered why you gave in to such an easy hate.”

He grinned. “I told you once before. Hate works. Hate is powerful. Hate is readily molded into an easily exploitable energy. And more than anything else, hate is the truth of human existence.”

“Ah. Well, I’ve seen you in here several times the last week or so. Anything I need to know about?”

“Oh, I just wanted to ask you out. To dinner.”

“When?”

“Tonight?”

“Alright. I get home around two.”

“Could you be ready by four?”

“Of course. I would imagine…”

“Yes, of course, and I’ll pick you up then.”

“I assume you know where I live?”

He grinned.

“I see. Well…”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then,” he said as he picked up his coffee, then he stopped and put sugar in his cup then walked out the door.

“My God,” Sara whispered. “Is that who I think it is?”

She watched Asher walk out to his now-ancient Land Rover, yet she turned away before he drove off.

“Why did you agree to go out with him?”

She turned to her friend and saw the shock in her eyes. “Because,” Lindsey said, “I have to.”

“You have to? I wonder…could you, like, tell me why?”

“No. I don’t think there’s any way I could ever explain.”

Sara shook her head, and wondered why Lindsey always seemed to choose the road to ruin. It was so easy for her, and always had been.

+++++

He knocked on her door a few minutes ‘til four, and she went out rapidly, closed the door behind her. “You still have the Rover, I see.”

“I can’t stand the idea of parting with her, for some reason.”

“So, where’d you want to go.”

“I know a guy with a food truck, makes outrageous tacos. He’s supposed to be down in Venice this evening.”

“Okay. That sounds right.”

And because the terrain they inhabited was a scorched land of hard, barren secrets, she knew the choice was anything but random. For once upon a time, in a land just down the road a few miles, they had come into this world together – in a most unusual, and slightly troublesome way.

+++++

And this troublesome world came to be some forty years before they were born.

At a high school, in Hollywood, California.

When a boy and a girl, not yet fifteen years old, fell in love. They had, for all intents and purposes, been in love since second grade – when they were seven years old, but love wasn’t what they called it.

Ben Asher ran into Sophie Marsalis, literally, one morning during recess, when the entire second grade was out on the playground. Ben was being chased by two neighborhood bullies, running in a blind panic; Sophie and a handful of friends were blowing bubbles, looking up at their creations as they drifted away on a mid-morning breeze. The collision was accidental, unanticipated, and both of them claimed to see stars after. Parents were called, trips to doctors hastily arranged, and both were fine. The next day life resumed where it had left off, only Ben began spending more and more time with Sophie.

No one could explain it, but from that moment on their lives seemed intertwined, like shoots of ivy on an old stone wall, and over time the structure of their lives began to revolve around one simple fact. They were together, and as far as either was concerned they always would be.

And this never changed. Not through grade school, not through junior high school, and not even in high school. What did change did so in their fifteenth year, when Ben openly declared, in Mrs Graham’s Social Studies class, the he loved Sophie, and that he always would. And to the astonishment of his classmates, and we’ll not even mention Mrs Graham’s reaction, Ben produced a ring and asked his Sophie to be his wife.

And not to put too simple a spin on things, Sophie said yes.

And then they kissed one another – which earned them both a quick trip to Mr Spradlin’s office. Mr Spradlin was the vice-principal, and though he was in charge of disciplinary actions, he was a kind-hearted old man; when Mrs Graham frog-marched the star-crossed young lovers into his office he listened to the teacher’s explanation and smiled, then asked if he could sleak to the two of them – “and alone, Mrs Graham, if you please?”

When they were alone in the old man’s office, he looked at them and sighed.

“Ben, do you understand the solemn nature of what you’ve just asked of Sophie?”

“Yessir, I do.”

“Sophie? Anything to say?”

“No, not really. I’ve loved Ben all my life, and I’ll love him ‘til the day I die. And there’s not a whole lot more I think needs to be said.”

And old man Spradlin had looked at the girl’s earnest integrity and nodded his head. “Okay,” he said. “Why don’t you two wait around in here, ‘til the bell rings anyway, then head on to your next class.”

Yet by that point word had spread far and wide – even the librarians were all abuzz with the news – and everywhere they went people whispered behind little sidelong glances. Until one day, a few weeks later, a handful of the school’s bullies tried to taunt Ben Asher about his audacity.

And Ben Asher went ballistic.

And bullies being bullies, they fled in terror after two of Ben’s right jabs connected, breaking one nose and splitting one lip.

And oddly enough, no one ever taunted Ben or Sophie ever again.

They went to dances together, and to the Senior Prom together, yet by that point they were considered by one and all a married couple – even if they were seventeen years old. Classmates, particularly girls in their class, looked at them and sighed, seemed to recognize something ‘Serious’ about them both, something in their eyes that just seemed settled, and committed.

They stayed in West LA, and started UCLA in 1962; Sophie studied economics, while Ben majored in aeronautical engineering, and they planned to marry as soon as they graduated.

Then the president was murdered, and Sophie changed her major to Journalism. Ben began to take his studies more seriously, then enrolled in ROTC. On graduation day he told Sophie he was reporting to a Naval Aviation Induction Center in Beeville, Texas, to begin flight training, and she was as proud of him as she had ever been.

And she was still proud of him when, three years later, Ben’s parents received a telegram from the Secretary of the Navy informing them that their son had been killed over North Vietnam.

Yet this was the swinging sixties, and Sophie had begun to change, if only a little, and when she finished graduate school she took a job with the Washington Post. And she moved away, cutting all ties to her previous life. She met a man, an editor a few years older than herself, not a half year after moving to the East Coast. A man named Prentice Hollister. He seemed in a hurry, indeed almost anxious to marry Sophie, and after a brief courtship they did indeed marry.

And a few months later her parents called. It was a bleak December day, a day full of snow and silent remorse, and then her father told her that Ben was home. His jet had been shot down but he had ejected, then had spent eighteen months evading capture on a wild trek that saw him chased through the western mountains of North Vietnam by NVA regulars, and they kept up their pursuit through Laos and Burma – and into Bhutan. The few remaining Vietnamese soldiers turned back then, but they did so reluctantly.

Desperately ill, he was found by herdsmen, then taken to a monastery, where Bhutanese monks cared for his wounds. In time, they carried him to a UN aid station, and almost two years to the day, two long years after his death, he walked off a Medevac aircraft inbound from Hawaii and fell into his mother’s arms.

+++++

Lindsey remembered Venice. A destitute, ramshackle little village forty years ago, barren, polluted and sickly, now the vibe was trendy, almost punchdrunk. Mature trees adorned her tight little streets, the canals no longer gave off a fetid, oil-soaked stench, and hipsters walked her streets now, usually to marijuana dispensaries but occasionally to one of the endless upscale eateries that popped up or passed away with comical regularity. Bikini-clad roller-skaters were as common a sight as transsexuals sunbathing on the beach – because in Venice the current vibe was ‘anything goes’ – and so it was.

John found a parking place for the Land Rover and they took off on foot – down well-established and long forgotten streets and sidewalks – and they found a covey of food trucks and ordered tacos and giros and bottles of ginger beer before they walked over to the beach. They went to a bench they been to a hundred times before and they sat in time to see the sun slip behind clouds far out to sea.

They tipped their bottles, said an ancient toast – ancient to them, anyway – then they ate in silence, savoring memories they’d made here, together, along the way, then he gathered up their wrappers and bottles and took it down to a rubbish bin. She waited for him, waited for this meeting to begin, while the last of the sun’s heat washed over her, and when he got back to her he draped his windbreaker over her shoulders before he sat.

Then he sighed. A long, labored sigh.

“I’d like you to come to work for me. In D.C.,” he began.

And she looked at him, shook her head. “No.”

“I’m not going to take no for an answer.”

“You’ll have to, I’m afraid.”

He snorted. “Let’s see. Your book netted you a million…”

“I wish.”

“You put that into the house, and you held on to the house for fifteen years. You sold it for two point five, put the proceeds into secure, conservative investment portfolios, and your net worth right now is a little south of five mill. Not bad, considering. Now, will you come to work for me in D.C.?”

She looked at him, a blank expression in her eyes, on her face.

“Well, I’ll take that as a no. So, tomorrow morning the IRS will place holds on all your accounts…”

“And I’ll be on an airplane by then.”

“But Lindsey, your Passport has been revoked.”

She laughed. “Then I’ll start up the Pacific Crest Trail. I’ve always wanted to walk it.”

“Ah, well then, I’ll have the US Marshals concentrate their search for you in that area.”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

“I know, but I had to ask.”

“So…why?”

“Why? Because I still need you – I’ll always need you. You’ve always been my conscience, the bedrock my life was built around.”

“Funny how things turn out sometimes.”

“No. It was never funny, not in the slightest. That was the darkest day of my life, and to me it always will be.”

+++++

They were in school together, from the beginning. Hawthorne Elementary, off Alpine in Beverly Hills. They’d walk home together in autumn, their feet kicking through swirls of golden leaves as they danced along the sidewalks – and her mother, Sophie, baked oatmeal cookies with raisons in them every Saturday morning. By that time, John’s parents lived three blocks away, on Foothill Road – and the Ashers and the Hollisters spent a fair amount of time together.

One of John’s enduring memories of those years was of Lindsey’s mother, Sophie, who seemed to become unusually sad anytime she was near his father, and he never understood why. In some ways they were echoes of other children, too. They seemed unusually close for kids so young, like there was a link as yet undiscovered between the two, yet by the time high school came around, and when they first voiced an interest in dating, they were cut off from one another, then there was talk of sending him away to a boarding school.

And so perhaps it was John was thought things through first. Sophie Hollister, always sad around his father. The persistent rumors that Prentice Hollister liked men. The way his father ignored Sophie, and the tender resentment he saw in his mother’s eye whenever Sophie was around.

He was with his father one Saturday morning, driving to the hardware store, when the question came, out of the blue.

“Dad? Is Lindsey my sister?” he asked.

And his father just looked at him, then said, simply, “Yes.”

And that was all that was ever said about the matter. Lives fluttered and drifted on currents of innuendo and embarrassment, but in truth all that remained between the families over time was silent and dark, like a rough beast that lurked outside, just out of sight.

Though he told Lindsey a few nights later, when they snuck out their houses and met up at a little park north of Sunset Boulevard.

“Yes, of course,” Lindsey said, “I think I knew that.”

“I feel terrible,” he said. “I’ve loved you all my life, and now…”

“John, you’ll love me all your life, because that’s what you were born to do.”

And then they laughed. They laughed because for the very first time in their lives they felt uncomfortable around one another, like the cogs and gears turning the universe had slipped and fallen away, and were now forever out of reach, and they drifted apart, too. Gently, at first, but then more insistently.

No one suspected anything, of course. Just two teenagers who came to a crossroads in the night, and made the only choice they could.

+++++

But uncertain gravities pulled at them from time to time over the years. They called each other when confronted by inconsolable problems, and more than once one leaned on the other’s shoulder when grief beckoned.

Yet when Ben Aster died, for instance, theirs was a common grief, and they came together not as friends-in-need but as brother and sister, and their grief was real, overwhelming and real. Her mother held onto them both at the service with a fierce possessiveness that surprised many of those gathered.

And yet, sitting on this bench, this bench of all the places on the world, was their touchstone, the one place that the universe allowed them to be what they truly wanted to be. Intimate, in a way. A month before their graduation from high school John announced he was taking Lindsey to their senior prom, and when parents squirmed under the weight of too much confusion he asked his father to come with him, for a drive.

And he drove that evening, a subtle change of orientation, perhaps. Drove his father down to Venice Beach, then they walked over to the promenade, the sidewalk along the beach. Sophie and Lindsey were there, waiting for them, on the bench, and for the only time in their lives they acknowledged the truth. In fact, they reveled in the truth. They talked for hours, they they got up and walked along in the evening as a family, as, perhaps, the family they should have been.

“I remember the night,” John said a few minutes into a passing sigh, “when we walked. How they held onto each other. How the truth of the universe came to them in those few hours.”

“The only time I ever saw them together when my mother wasn’t terrified, and lonely.”

“I never liked Prentice,” John said. “There was something…”

“Dishonest, John, is the word. He was a pretender, a chameleon. I never knew where I stood with him…”

“No one did. Do you ever miss him?”

“Not really. I miss watching our parents right here, together.”

Asher nodded. “I miss you. I miss us.”

“I know.”

“We could live nearby, at least. See each more more often.”

“No, we couldn’t. That’s the truth, John, and you know it.”

“It’s not a physical thing, you know. I just feel like half my soul has been cut away…”

“It was, John. That’s always been our truth.”

“Is that why you left, the reason why you went on that little walk?”

“Part of it, yes. But I don’t understand the world, this life – not like I think I should, anyway.”

“And you’re still searching, aren’t you?”

She nodded her head. “Yes.”

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “For saying those things…”

And she took his hand, kissed his fingers then looked into his eyes with a ferocity that shook him to his core: “John, you never need to apologize to me for a thing – not now, not ever.”

“Life is a cruel joke, isn’t it?” he said.

“No, it’s not. It’s anything but. It’s a gift, John. The most precious gift in the universe.”

He nodded his head slowly. “Can you tell me about him?”

“Who?”

“The doc. Has anything happened yet?”

“No.”

“Do you think it will?”

“Yes. Someday. Not yet.”

“Do you love him?”

She nodded her head, and he smiled.

“I thought so. What are you going to do now?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Bhutan,” he said, his voice lost among his fears. “You’re going back, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Soon?”

“I don’t know. There are a few things I need to finish here, but yes, soon enough.”

“Will you ever come back?”

“No.”

A tremble passed between them, a shaking in the universe, and he squeezed her hand. “I’m not sure I can deal with this.”

“I know I can’t, but that’s…”

“Why you have to go.”

“Yes.”

They walked back to the Rover a few minutes later, and as they approached the old beast he stopped and looked at her weathered lines. He drifted back to that day, in those days after he was let go from the Times. He was almost broke, needed a car, and she’d picked him up and driven him around, looking at cars. Then she saw this one and smiled. “It suits you,” she said, then she bought it for him. He drove her up to Westwood, the little Rover an echo of those days, and when he stopped in front of her apartment on Gayley he looked up at the smoggy dome of the night and shook his head.

“Will you at least call me? Before you leave?”

“No. I can’t do that to you.”

“Why do I think this is our goodbye?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it?”

She shrugged. “Who knows what’s waiting out there?”

He turned cold. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to tear it all down, start all over again.”

She saw him walking down Alpine after school, kicking at swirling leaves – forever – and she smiled, tried not to laugh at the little boy by her side in the Rover.

+++++

She tried not to smile when, in the professorial rush the next morning, she saw the boy with the rucksack come in and sit by the window again. He pulled out her book and put it on the table, then came up and ordered coffee from her, then he went back to his table and sat. Then he picked up the book, looked at the back cover – then at her. He shook his head, but when she called his name and he came up to get his coffee, he looked at her again, slowly this time, carefully now.

“Excuse me,” he said – holding the book up, “but is this you?”

She nodded. “I’m sorry, but yes, it is.”

“Holy crap,” he muttered under his breath.

She sputtered through a happy laugh. “Wow,” she said, still shaking, “I’ve never had such a glowing review.”

“This is one of our textbooks,” he said, “but it’s much more than that.”

“Oh, what’s it like…to you?”

“It’s been, I don’t know, more like a call to arms.”

“Ah.”

“Is that you meant it to be? A manifesto?”

“No,” she sighed, still smiling. “Just a little slice of truth, a voice in the wilderness, perhaps.”

“We have to write a research paper…I was just wondering, could I interview you?”

“Me? Good heavens…why?”

“Why? Are you kidding? You’re called like, I don’t know, the conscience of a generation…”

“Really?” she said, suddenly feeling like she was back in high school – and the principal had caught her reading Lolita behind the gymnasium. “Good God, but that’s silly.”

“So? Could I?”

“I get off at one. Could you come by then?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I sure can.”

“Okay. Now go drink your coffee before it gets cold.”

Sara had ignored her all morning but she came up now. “Seems a little young for you,” she said. “Maybe you should throw this one back.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“So how’d last night go?”

“Gently, quietly into that good night, my dear Sara.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You know, I never understood you. Not back in high school, and certainly not now.”

“Really? You didn’t?”

“You two were so close, then – poof – nothing. Then you show up at the prom together. Now he’s in the White House, he’s mister know it all, then he shows up here all goo-goo eyes – and anyone can tell he’s…”

“No, he’s not, Sara.”

“Yeah, sure – whatever you say. So what happened?”

“We said goodbye.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Oh. Well, I guess I’m sorry then.”

+++++

He was waiting outside when she got off at one, and he walked beside up the hill to her apartment, but she walked over to the swimming pool and sat.

“You live here?” he asked nervously.

“Yup.”

“Oh.”

“I’m going to go get some lemonade. Want one?”

“Sure.”

She went inside, changed out of her work clothes and poured two glasses, then went back to the pool. “Here you go,” she said as she put his drink down, then she sat in the shade of a dusty umbrella. “So, fire away?”

“You know, I just want to know about you right now. Where you’re from, that kind of thing?”

“Me? I grew up a few miles from here, went to school and worked here.”

“Were your parents poor?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Isn’t that an inherent contradiction?”

“Why would it be?”

“You’re writing about poverty, and inequality, yet those would seem to be foreign to your upbringing?”

“So? I’m a reporter. A researcher. I look for facts to reveal an undefined truth, not the other way around.”

“How so?” I wasn’t looking to to write something to help define a pre-existing agenda. I was hoping to find a few undiscovered truths out there, maybe employ them to help make sense of what I found. By the way, what’s your name?”

“Pete, but my dad calls me Bud. Could you, too?”

“Call you Bud? Sure.”

“Oh, God. Here he comes.”

“Who? Your father?”

She turned, saw Doug coming through the gate, and she watched him coming up the stairs, then saw recognition in his eyes – when he saw her, and his son.

“Bud? What are you doing here?”

“Hey, Dad. Working on a research paper, I guess. Do you know…”

“Yes, I’m her physician. How are you doing today, Lindsey?”

“Not bad,”she said, trying not to smile at his obvious discomfort. “And you?”

“Mom called. Wants me to look at Dad, I was running up now. You going to be long?” he said to his son.

“I don’t know? Maybe.”

“Well, I’ll be down in a minute. Why don’t we go out to dinner. The three of us.”

Bud looked after his father when he walked away. “Am I missing something?” he said to her.

“Such as?”

“I don’t know. I felt some kind of weird energy between you two.”

“Really? Well, he saved me life. We’ve talked a few times.”

“Has he told you about my mother?”

“Very little. Why?”

“I don’t know. It just seems like our lives have been defined by the wars between them?”

“Wars?”

“Yeah. It’s like she decided, somewhere back in time, that the purpose of her existence was to tear him down. I don’t know why he stuck it out with her.”

“Perhaps love had something to do with it?”

“You know, I doubt it.”

“Maybe he needed someone to tear him down.”

“What? Why? Why would you say that?”

“Maybe she kept him focused on what was most important to him. Medicine. Healing.”

Bud seemed to have trouble absorbing that; he sat back and looked up into the sky, shook his head. “You, like, see into people, don’t you? Like empathy, only deeper.”

“Do I?”

“It comes through in here,” he said, holding up her book, “like in every page.”

“Maybe you’re confusing empathy with insight.”

“No, I don’t think so. Do you like my dad. I mean, like him – that way?”

“I think I could.”

“I see. Are you working on a book now? I mean, working at that coffee shop can’t be your idea of…”

“Fun? Work isn’t about fun, Bud. It’s about self-respect.”

“So, it’s not, like, research?”

She shook her head. “Groceries and rent come to mind as good reasons to work.”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Guess so.”

“You’ll know so, soon enough.”

“Are you working on a book right now?”

She sighed, looked at her hands sitting on her lap, then into his eyes. “I’m not sure yet. Maybe.”

“I kind of hope you do.”

“Interesting times, aren’t they? Why don’t you work on a book?”

“Me?”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know squat. I haven’t had any experiences of my own yet.”

“Ah. Well, maybe that ought to be your first priority right about now.”

“It doesn’t feel like the right time…”

“It never feels like the right time.”

“Oh.”

“Yes. I see, said the blind man.”

He nodded, then pinched his brow. “How’d you get sick?”

“I went on a walk.”

“A walk? Where?”

“Started in Shanghai, walked south across China, into Tibet. Then I crossed the eastern Himalaya, walked into Bhutan.”

His eyes went round as saucers. “You did? Why?”

“Oh, in a way I was following in my father’s footsteps. I was trying to escape.”

“Escape? From what?”

“Inevitability.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. Not yet, anyway.”

“So. You’re going back out there? To keep walking?”

“I don’t know. Maybe – someday.”

They turned and looked at Doug when he came out of the building, and watched his eyes as he sat down in the sun.

“I think Mother needed a little pat on the shoulder,” he said. “How are things going here?”

“Good,” his son said.

“You reading that for Portman’s class?” Doug said, pointing at her book.

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What did you think of it?”

“It’s an anthem generator, a call to arms,” the boy said, looking into his father’s eyes.

“And?”

“And it’s confusing, Dad, the why of things?”

“Oh?”

“Yes, sometimes there’s not clarity until you see things with your own eyes.”

“And what do you see, Bud.”

“You two are in love.”

Lindsey put her lemonade on the table – fearing she she might spill it. “Jumping to conclusions, Bud?”

“I don’t think so. Not from where I’m sitting, anyway.”

“Bud, that’s not appropriate. We haven’t even…”

“Dad, I don’t want to hear it. You know, if you haven’t, well then, shame on you. You’ve denied love all your life, and now, here it is, right in front of you, waiting. And still you’re waiting? For what, I wonder? Maybe so mother can come and tear this apart, right in front of your eyes?”

Father looked at son, friend looked at them both, each lost in the moment.

“So, just when did you get so smart?” Doug asked quietly, looking down at his hands.

“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe you just thought we’re blind, but you know something? We’re not.”

“Doug?” Lindsey said, blissfully now. “Need something to drink? Lemonade perhaps. A little hemlock on the side?”

And the three of them just looked at one another, then laughed.

+++++

She fell into their new routine.

She worked in the morning, then Doug came by in the middle of the afternoon and they talked for a while, before he went up to check on his father, and then, with her little red journals open on the desk she would fire up the Mac and start writing. She wrote about herdsmen and farmers, monks and monasteries, and when she wrote about her father’s desperate walk from North Vietnam to Bhutan she compared some of his observations to her own.

But it all came down to mountains and valleys, the sun rising – and setting. Running from your fellow man, then falling into the arms of good people who were willing to help. Highs and lows, good and evil. She had focused on inequality in her first book, and while she didn’t want to revisit those themes in her writing, she found it an inescapable burden to do so, to turn away now.

Some days Bud knocked on the door, wanted to talk – about this or that – his research paper one day, what she found so mesmerizing about Bhutan the next.

“Mesmerizing?” she said when he asked her that. “Do I appear hypnotized?”

“Sometimes,” he said – almost evasively. “You never appear anxious, but when you talk about that monastery it’s like someone has opened the floodgates, and you’re dancing with Prince Valium.”

“Holy cow…Prince Valium?”

“Oh, sorry. That’s my mom’s weapon of choice.”

“Weapon?”

“How she beats back the world.”

“Ah.”

“I’m curious, how do you beat back the world?”

She looked at him, curious now, about what he was trying to get at. “I’m not sure you can. Why?”

“Can you stop with the Zen riddles for a moment?”

Riddles, she thought. Am I a riddle?

“I can try,” she replied. He seemed despondent one moment, curious the next, but she thought something was different today, some little spark was in his eyes that hadn’t been there the last time she saw him. “What is it you want to say?”

He looked away, lost in his thoughts. “You know, you’re like a statue, maybe a lonely goddess in a cool garden, chiseled of pure white marble. You’re this gorgeous thing, like God started in on you and decided to make you his idea of perfection. When I talk to you I feel myself falling in love with you, and I can’t help it,” he said, his lips trembling. “I can’t help looking at you and feeling the way I do.”

“Then why are you hiding?”

“Hiding?”

“Yes. Your feelings.”

“Because I think it’s wrong.”

“To love someone?”

“Yes.”

“Oh,” she said, “are you’re confusing love with sex?”

“I – what?”

“You feel love, but you feel conflict with the idea, and is that because the idea of sex is bound to your idea of love?”

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, I see you as one set of things – a writer, say, but I look at you and I pretty much want to crawl in the sack and get it on with you, too.”

“Really? Well, good luck with that.”

“I know, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at, so don’t worry.”

“What are you trying to get at, Bud?” She watched his fingers now, fidgeting a little, his eyes not making contact.

“I’m afraid. Afraid of Bhutan. Afraid you’re going to leave one day, and Dad will go with you.”

“That’s an awful lot of fear, don’t you think?”

“No, it’s not hardly enough. My mother’s sicker than hell, and I wonder what will happen to us – if Dad leaves after she dies.”

“I don’t know, but what makes you think he’d leave? For that matter, why do you think I’m leaving?”

“You’ve as much as told me that before, Lindsey. And Dad sure thinks you are.”

“Really? How strange. I’m not sure what I’m having for dinner, let alone moving half way around the world. But it’s curious.”

“Curious?”

“Yes. So much fear over something that isn’t? But, it’s more than just odd, to me, anyway. Like it’s kind of odd that you’d tell me you’d like to take me to bed. Kind of like there are no boundaries any more. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah. I know I shouldn’t have said that…”

“But you did. Why, I wonder?”

“Sometimes I think there just isn’t time for all that anymore.”

“All that? What do you mean?”

“Civility, maybe, or the remnants of decaying social conventions.”

She looked away from his words, yet she had to consider a potential truth in his idea – consider them a partial truth, anyway, perhaps a universal truth, waiting to be explored. And, she thought, maybe, just maybe, such collapses in norms had precipitated the flight of the desert fathers, perhaps been a force that informed the monastic impulse, and she wanted to turn and write – and then it hit her.

Writing wasn’t the same thing as living, just as living in fear isn’t the same thing as being afraid. One is contemplation, the other – experience – so why was he afraid of something so nebulous? Or was he, really?

“I wonder, Bud, has time become so precious? Civility exists to smooth out the rough edges, to help create a little harmony. Is that such a bad thing? Or have we come to that point again?”

“Again?”

“Oh, nothing. Just a thought.”

“Do you know how beautiful you are? I mean, do you ever think about it?”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, but it’s a simple question? Do you?”

“I’m not sure I can answer that, Bud. Physical beauty is not something I’ve ever given a great deal of thought to, in anyone, and especially not when it concerns me.”

“I think that’s what I’m trying to get at, in a round about way. Yet you seem to write about ugliness all the time. Not physical ugliness, but, well, maybe moral ugliness. Do you ever wonder what the results would be if people were bombarded with tales of ugliness day-in and day-out, so much so that they forgot what beauty was? Real beauty, I mean?”

“That’s a good question, Bud. But what is real beauty?”

“I’m not sure I know. I know it’s not necessarily manufactured beauty, the Hollywood formula of beauty, anyway. That kind of beauty is packaged and sold, but then again, maybe the most beautiful sunset in the world isn’t really beautiful after all. It’s here one minute, gone the next.”

“So, beauty must be permanent?”

He shook his head. “Maybe ethereal is a better word? Or otherworldly?”

She heard a knock on the door, saw Doug come in and she wanted to turn away, sigh in relief.

“So, have you two solved all the world’s problems?”

“We were talking about beauty,” Bud said.

“Oh? What about it?”

“I think,” she interjected, “I’m getting hungry. Anyone ready for dinner?”

And Doug looked at his son, then at her, and he saw the relief in her eyes. “Yeah. You know, I am. Bud? You too? Or do you need to get to work on something for school?”

“I need to go to the library, see if something’s back on the shelf, then do some calculus homework. We have an exam on Friday.”

“Okay, Lindsey, I guess you’re stuck with me.

She felt so uneasy she could hardly eat, and he picked up on it almost immediately. “You know, Borderline Personality Disorder is a spectrum disorder, from mild to severe. I think he’s in the middle somewhere, but I’m not sure. He doesn’t understand boundaries, that much I know.”

“No kidding.”

“He crossed a few, did he?”

“Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Jesus. That bad?”

She shook her head. “No, but thanks for telling me. I wasn’t sure what to think.”

“He’s fragile, Lindsey. Always has been. I found out a few years ago there were no boundaries between he and his mother.”

She nodded her head. “I suspected as much. He seems very confused. He also seems afraid you’ll abandon him.”

“Oh? Well, I’m not surprised.”

“Yes. Running off to Bhutan with someone seems high on his list. I would say if you did so after his mother passed, well, he might be in real trouble.”

“I know. But the real trouble, Lindsey, isn’t with Bud.”

“Oh?”

“It’s his sister.”

“She’s the one still in high school?”

He nodded his head. “Yes. Except she’s not. She’s in an in-patient psychiatric hospital, outside of Ojai. Paranoid schizophrenic, and in very bad shape.” He was looking away, trying to keep it together. “Some mistakes we never stop paying for, I guess.”

“Where’s your oldest? Did you say in Boston?”

“Yes. BC. He escaped the worst of it, I think. Madeleine had perfected her technique by the time Sissy came along. Her psychiatrist refers to my wife as ‘that monster’ – if that’s a good indicator of her disposition.”

“I saw a good deal of it in Mississippi. Except there are no mental health facilities when you’re broke.”

“I know.”

“They’re lucky to have you, Doug. Someone to help pick up the pieces.”

“There are no pieces to pick up where Sissy is concerned, Lindsey. She’ll never get better than she is right now, in fact, as she ages she’ll only get worse.”

“Is it that bad?”

“It’s worse.”

“Could I go up with you, when you visit?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure. I’d have to ask. Fragile doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on with her right now.”

“How about you, Doug? How are you coping?”

He snorted a little, tried to keep his irony in-check. “Me? I write the checks, try to keep the fires from spreading out of control.”

“And your mother calls you about your dad how many times a day?”

He shrugged.

“And now I’m just throwing fuel on the fire, aren’t I? With Bud?”

“I knew it was coming. I should have prepared you.”

“You can’t do everything, Doug. If you try, you might just makes things worse.”

“I probably already have.”

“Knock it off. The self-pity thing doesn’t suit you. Keeping it together, keeping focused helps. Keeping me in the loop might help, too. Letting me pick up some of the load when you don’t feel you can might too.”

“I can’t ask that of you.”

“Okay, so don’t ask. I’m telling you this right now: I’m here, and I’m helping.”

He nodded, turned to look at her eyes. “I wish I wasn’t so in love with you?”

“Oh? Why?”

“Because you have no idea how impossible this all is.”

And she laughed. “Oh, is that right? Listen, one day I’ll tell you all about impossible, but for now, please, stop with all the goddamn self-pity, would you? Really, you’re embarrassing me, so stop acting like a two year old.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Good.”

+++++

She began to listen to the people in the coffee shop after that night, to the miseries of affluence, as she began to call it, for she soon understood that the people of West LA were often as miserable as the people in poorest Mississippi, and frequently more so.

But why, she wondered?

She had gone on the assumption, twenty years earlier, that money was the root of inequality, that a certain lack of material affluence was the primary cause of human misery in poorer regions of the country. And clearly it was, in a material sense, anyway, but what she was seeing now was a poverty of the soul, a depreciation of the spirit that had nothing at all to do with material prosperity. So, what she was witnessing was an entirely new, to her, anyway, sort of inequality – and it troubled her.

Clearly, having money helps, she knew. Doug could get high quality mental health care for his daughter, while most people in rural Mississippi didn’t even know what a psychiatrist was. Yet by almost any measure she could think of, Doug, and Doug’s family, was miserable in ways very similar to the desperately poor.

So, she watched and listened, as she had twenty years before. To the customers who came in and out of a coffee shop in West LA, one of the most prosperous enclaves in one of the most prosperous cities in the world. People came into the place and thought nothing of spending five dollars on a cup of coffee – an amount of money that could feed a family in West Africa for a month, or a family in Mississippi for, perhaps, a few days. She began to pay attention to facial expressions and the tone of voice she heard. To expressions of happiness, or anxiety – and even to how people paid for their coffee, and how much they tipped when they left the shop. She took notes in a new journal, and she parsed her observations when she got home, tried to make sense of her day…

She remembered the studies John Calhoun conducted in the late 40s with rats, looking at population pressure and how increasing population affected species survival, and she wondered: could it be as simple as that? Did packing millions of people into cities like LA and New York, or London, Shanghai or Rio de Janeiro cause immense breakdowns in the ability to experience happiness?

And could this be the same as the dissolution that spurred the monastic impulse two thousand years earlier? Was this, instead of being an aberration, more an inevitable component of the human condition? If Hobbesian capitalism lead inexorably to Malthusian population pressures, which seemed to be a common criticism from Descartes to Marx, where was the payoff? Where was the ultimate good? If being poor was bad for the human psyche, where was the payoff if being rich made you equally as miserable, if only in a different way? If the common denominator was money, what was it about modern society that allowed a medium of exchange to exert so much influence over emotional well-being?

She began to read more about experiments in guaranteed minimum incomes being tried in the Netherlands and Sweden, but there just wasn’t enough data yet. She moved on to anthropological studies of almost prehistoric tribes discovered early in the twentieth century, in places like New Guinea and deep within the Amazonian basin, places where mediums of exchange were more primitive than had existed in China and Europe three thousand years ago, but all the data she found was inconclusive at best, more likely too speculative to be of any use.

She began to reread the works of C Wright Mills, particularly his work on the emasculation of the middle class found in White Collar. That book had formed the basis of her early research on inequality, so she turned to it once again, thinking she might find a new way to look at the problem – but no, she was onto something subtly different now.

Maybe the problem was too obvious, she thought, to even be considered a ‘problem’ – maybe the issue she had latched onto was more basic still, simple human nature.

But human nature is far from simple, she chided herself, then she spilled coffee on her hand, dropped a cup to the floor. “Damn!” she muttered as she bent to clean up her mess, and when she stood she saw Bud walking in the door, and an older man who stood by his side across the counter seemed to be with him.

“Hey, Bud,” she said, wiping coffee from her wrist, “haven’t seen you in a while. What can I get you?”

“Oh, the usual,” meaning a two liter high octane jolt. “Lindsey, this is my sociology prof, Dr Portman, and after reading my research paper he wanted to meet you.”

She looked at this man, her friend for so many years, and she tried to gauge his mood. Still, in his bow-tied way, in his round, tortoise shell glasses and chalk-dust-covered jacket, he was even now every bit the harried, ironic academic. “Good to see you,” she smiled slyly – if duplicitously, while holding out her damp hand. “Oh, piffle!” she added, wiping her hand completely before taking his.

“Yes, indeed. So, Peter tells me he interviewed you several times while writing this paper – of his. I wondered if you’d have a moment to talk about some of the issues raised?”

Sara came and took over the counter, told her to go sit and talk for a while, so she took off her apron after she made their coffee, then went out and sat with them at Bud’s favorite table.

And it was funny, because she really wasn’t sure what the thesis of his paper was, only that he’d asked questions and she’d talked with him for hours and hours about her experiences in Mississippi and Bhutan. Beyond that, she was in the dark, and she told Portman just that.

He smiled, told her he understood. “Still, you see, I’ve used your book in class for several years now, and many of my students have, over the years, chosen to focus on that work, but none has ever taken the approach Peter has. He has found his way into the thicket, I think, into an intellectual conundrum, perhaps.”

“Oh? Well, good for him.”

“Yes, precisely. He seems to have stumbled onto something quite unusual, namely that a diffuse cultural dissatisfaction permeates modern life, but this anomie has left breadcrumbs through history, back to the desert fathers in Egypt and the Sinai.”

“Oh, how interesting?” she said, trying to force calm into her voice, yet she noted how intently he peered into her eyes just then.

“Yes, just so, but no need to bother with all that just now. I simply wanted to meet you, and to thank you for your book. It has been like a godsend, in it’s way, over the years, and I wanted to talk with you, later, perhaps, about a few lingering questions I have. So…I wondered if you might have some time?”

“Of course. I get off at one, so if you want drop by then, and if you’d like we can walk up to my place and have tea.”

“Excellent! Would this afternoon work out, by any chance?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“Fine,” he said, turning to Bud. “Well, let’s not keep this young lady from her appointed rounds.”

“I’ll see you later,” she said, looking at Portman, then she walked off – livid – and she was still simmering when he came by at the end of her shift. He slipped in and waited for her while she cleaned up and took off her apron again, then they stepped out into the sun and began walking.

“I assume I should have a talk with young Mister Peterson about plagiarism?” he said straight away.

“Perhaps I should first,” she replied.

“No, from the look in your eye I fear you might strangle him, at the very least, or beat him over the head, perhaps, with a baseball bat. Best let me, I suppose, as anyway, it’s my purview.”

“Alright.”

“A pity, still. I can see he’s been quite engaged by this whole thing. I hate to throw cold water on him now.”

“Perhaps he could rewrite his paper,” she suggested.

“Perhaps. Yes, and perhaps you could review his work before he resubmits it? Just a quick run-through, I think.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“You’ve done well, Lindsey. I’m proud of you.”

“Thank you, Professor.”

“So many come through my door, yet so few rise to the challenge. And fewer still meet expectations. You’ve exceeded mine, by the way.”

“You always exceeded mine too, Professor.”

“Franklin, my dear. After all these years, perhaps you should call me by my given name.”

“Thank you.”

“Now, what’s all this angst about,” he said, as they came to the gate that led to the swimming pool. “Young Peterson has done nothing but show me the way to some deeper concern of yours. What’s troubling you? Is it John again?”

She sighed, looked at her friend and mentor closely, then shook her head. “Shall I fix tea?” she asked. “And sit out here, in the shade?”

“You know, I feel a chill. Perhaps we could sit inside today.”

“Okay.”

They went to her apartment and he sat on the sofa, looked at her desk, then out the window – and she asked him what he’d have.

“Have you any Port about?” he asked.

“You know? I think I do. One finger?”

“Two, I think.”

She poured two glasses and went to the chair by his side, and he took a sip. “Ah, thank you. It’s been a long day.”

“How are you doing?”

“Tired. And I think this will be my last term.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I do wish you had taken my advice, gone for your degree. I’d like to turn the department over to someone I trust, someone who cares about thought as you do.”

“Other roads beckoned.”

“They still do, I see,” he said, looking at her desk. “Are you writing again, at least?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, finally! Hope springs eternal!”

They laughed.

“So, this impulse Peterson refers to, this monastic impulse of the desert fathers? Where are you going with this?”

“Actually, I’m not sure. I thought I was going down the same path as Mills and Weber, but in the end, I think that will lead to a…”

“A paradox. Yes, it will. What is your basic assumption?”

“That societies experience a kind of collective anomie when certain thresholds are crossed. The dictates of Law, the imposition of endless bureaucracies on the routines of life, and the results are the same across time. That much is obvious to anyone, but these times feel different.”

“Yes. They do.”

“But humanity has been here before.”

“Yes. It has.”

“We’re turning inward again.”

“Yes. We are.”

“Mysticism. Irrationalism.”

“The pendulum swings, Lindsey. There’s nothing we can do to stop that, as you well know.” He sighed, took a sip of his port, then leaned back. “There’s nothing finer, you know, than a smooth port on a cool afternoon.”

“A fireplace might be nice.”

“Ah, well, let’s make it a stone fireplace at my home in the Cotswolds. That would be something to experience again. My father and his dogs, by the fireplace. Listening to Winston on the radio, telling us how the Germans had been turned back over Dover.”

“God, what a life you had. The things you experienced, and shared. You opened so many doors, so many minds.”

He pinched away a tear, rubbed his eye. “Did I, indeed?”

“I wish Mary was still with us.”

“I do to. Not a day passes I don’t think of her.”

“What about the Cotswolds? Will you return now?”

“I’ve thought about it, but this is home now. Even now. The fight is here, waiting to be joined, but I feel the night even so.” He sighed, shook his head. “This all started in Bhutan, did it not? This angst of yours?”

“Yes.”

“Your assumptions. When you find a dead end, so you must challenge all your assumptions. And yet, I fear you are looking for answers in all the wrong places, my friend. You always have, you know.”

“Oh?” The look she saw in his eyes troubled her deeply, but she could not turn away.

“The answers you seek will not be found in the musing of dead academics. The way ahead is over there,” he said, pointing at the campus just across the street, “in Bunche Hall.”

“The Buddhists?” she said – incredulously.

“You have been on that path a long time, Lindsey. Even if you walked unawares. And I think it time you come to terms with your father.”

“My father? But he’s…”

“No, he isn’t. Not in here, Lindsey,” he said, pointing to his heart. “In fact, you’ve been following in his footsteps all your life. Your brother has, too, though he’d be the last to admit such a thing.”

She looked at him, wondered where he was going with this.

“It’s such a pity, too. He’s courted ignorance and fear all his life, exploited the weakness of others all his life – even yours – and I fear he’ll never rest until he’s burned the pillars of our world to the ground. And the sad thing, Lindsey, is that he’ll never understand why he did – yet I feel almost certain that when he walks over the rubble the only thing he’ll have left in his heart is a profound sorrow for all the things he killed.

+++++

She walked between the rough juniper and smooth-skinned eucalyptus, the planters along her way full of ivies and discarded political leaflets, and from time to time she looked at wide-eyed students darting between classes, so serious, still so much like she had been. The campus was the same, too, yet different. Everything had seemed new when she first walked along narrow pathways between buildings, but what had been new felt old this morning. Old and almost worn out – like bread past it’s expiration date – and she wondered why this enclosed world felt that way.

Maybe, she thought, school had been a gateway. A means to an end, yet she felt that now the place had become an end – in and of itself. If it had been, thirty years ago, a place to study the world before she moved out seeking experience of her own, she felt that now it had become a safe harbor, a place to run from experience, to study it from afar – without getting hands dirty.

Had life grown so preternaturally – ugly – since Clinton?

She by-passed the Asian Studies building, shook her head and walked up into the sculpture garden beyond; she looked around, found a bench yet passed it by. She looked for just the right spot then sat on the grass – looking at passing clouds, then she lay back and let the sun fall on her face.

A shadow loomed, remained overhead – and she opened her eyes – saw a field of red fluttering in the breeze. A monk, she saw, standing over her, looking down. Then she saw her book in his hand, and she smiled – if only to herself.

“Lindsey?”

“Guilty.”

“Of what?”

“Original sin.”

He laughed. “And along came concupiscence…”

“No…and then came the Stone Temple Pilots,” and then her eyes brightened when she saw her old friend

The monk laughed harder now. “May I sit with you?” he asked a moment later.

“Of course, Tschering,” she said, swinging around to sit up, keeping the sun on her face as she turned to him. “Interesting choice of books,” she sighed.

“Dr Portman called earlier,” he said, seriously, “and told the director you’d be coming. So of course, he asked me to talk with you.”

“Of course. How have you been?”

“Busy, I suppose, would be the charitable way to describe my life here. And you? I heard about your illness, but nothing after.”

“I’ve been recuperating, and writing a little, too.”

“About time.”

“So, you’re going to jump all over my case too?”

“No, I love you too much to do that.”

She looked at him for a moment, then nodded her head gently. “I know.”

“You found the monastery, I take it?”

“Yes.”

“And how was my father?”

She nodded her head, acknowledged the question, but she looked away.

“Ah,” he said. “I understand. How is his health?”

“Good.”

“Did you tell him…about your father?”

“I did. He disappeared after that, was gone for weeks.”

“There’s was an impossible song.”

“Yes. It was.”

“What about you? Do you still sing?”

She smiled, looked at the memory for a moment, then shook her head. “No, the music left me.”

“The recital? Bach, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, The Coffee Cantata. You still remember that night?”

“I will never forget that night.”

“No. I suppose that night will live forever.”

Her father had come that night, her real father, but so had John – her brother, John – and Tschering had looked on as – like an atom fusing in the night – the universe had turned in on itself – pressure building around the room as the music faded – until worlds ruptured and screamed away, dying like the last words of the music…

WIP © 2017 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

The Coffee Cantata, composed by J S Bach in the 1730s is referenced, but no other persons developed herein are real. ‘The Coffee Cantata’ was also a restaurant located in San Francisco, scenes filmed there show up in the 1968 movie Bullit (Steve McQueen, car chase etc., very cool jazz intro, like a heartbeat that leads into the action), and it is also a coffee shop in SF, not to be missed if you’re in The City – but this story has no relationship to those entities.

Again, this is a work-in-progress.

Predators III (WIP)

Well, here it is…unbridled cynicism run amok. Not sure if this is The End or not. Seems to me a story like this could run on for years and years, or die mercifully here and now. Suggestions welcome, appreciated, even.

Tried to keep this short and to the point. Hope you enjoy.

+++++

Predators III

Acheson sat behind the wheel, looked at Genie sitting beside him in the dark, then he flipped on the overhead light, picked up a notepad and began writing. “I need to get packed,” he said as he wrote, “and stop by the pharmacy on the way to the airport.”

“What time’s your flight?” she said as she read his words.

“I have to be in dispatch by nine. Scheduled departure is 10:20.”

He finished writing and handed her the pad, and she read while he started the car and drove up Versailles, then turned on Lomo Alto. At Mockingbird he turned right, and they drove in silence until he stopped at the light at Hillcrest, then he motored slowly through the SMU campus, checking for a tail, before he pulled into the driveway to his little house. He took the pad from her, tore the page from the pad and wadded it up as they walked inside.

He packed his clothes, took an envelope he kept inside a small, wall mounted safe and put it in his flight bag, then he sat beside her for a long time, rubbing her head.

She shook her head after a few minutes, stood and walked over to one of the bedroom windows. “I feel horrible inside,” she said as she looked at lightning dancing across the sky. “Like nothing makes sense anymore. I just want to go away and hide somewhere.”

“Might not be such a bad idea, if you could still look yourself in the eye, anyway. Not sure I’ll be able to, but I’ve had enough for now. I’m not sure this is a war we can win.”

“Nobody ever wins, Ben. Winning is an illusion, an idea politicians sell to get people ready for the next one.”

“You’re turning into a cynic, aren’t you?”

“We had to read this book for our Medical Ethics class,” she said, handing it to him. “It really shook me up.”

He turned the book over in his hand – 12, 20 & 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam – then he read the blurb on the back cover. “Sounds, uh, interesting.”

“Interesting. Yes. It was that.”

“And?”

“I wonder…is it ever go to stop? I mean, what’s the point of all this – if we’re not going to learn?”

He shrugged. “Who knows? What I do know is there’s always going to be somebody out there who wants your stuff, and who’s willing to kill you to get it. Does it really make any difference why?”

“Maybe not.”

“You carried the badge, you know the score. Once upon a time I went on the basic assumption that all people are basically good. I mean, deep down. It took about a year on the street to figure out how stupid that is.”

“Is it? Maybe all people are born good, then maybe life changes us, slowly, little by little, until maybe it sucks the good right out of us. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with us.”

“I don’t even know how to respond to that. How do you explain a Mother Theresa, a Gandhi?”

“Did you ever read any Piaget? Or Kohlberg?”

He shrugged. “My degree was in engineering, remember?”

“You should read up on Lawrence Kohlberg. The stages of moral development.”

“They making you read that stuff, too?”

“Yup.”

“Morality and medicine, huh. Well, there’s an unexpected thought.”

“You’re a philistine!” she said, laughing a little.

He tuned the book over in his hand again. “Mind if I take it with me?”

“No, go ahead. You’ve been warned, though. Might change the way you think. What’d you need at the pharmacy?”

“Some more eyedrops.”

“I’ve got a spare. Want to take mine?”

“You don’t mind?”

“No. You still having trouble?”

“Smog and dry air. Bad combination.”

“Just use the drops, and stop rubbing your eyes. You get nodular episcleritis a few more times and you’ll need to go back to the doc for some real work.”

“Wish I’d taken a nap yesterday.”

“What is it, a seven hour flight?”

“Depends on the jet-stream, but that’s close enough. Usually closer to eight.”

“Where are you staying?”

He shrugged. “Usually out by the airport. Marriott, usually.”

“Makes sense, I guess.”

“You haven’t been yet, have you?”

She shook her head. “No, I haven’t. Can’t imagine why, either.”

“We’ll have more time now. Burning the candle at both ends…isn’t that what you said I was doing?”

“Yup. Maybe we could go – together? Still, I’m not sure…”

“Look, the cop thing is over with now. Time to move on.”

“You think you’ll miss it?”

“Being a cop? Hell yes. Every day.”

“I do, too.”

“You should’ve gone straight to med school, never done the FBI thing.”

“I know. 20-20 hindsight, huh?”

“And I never should have joined the department.”

“Well, the bottom fell out on the airlines, didn’t it. You weren’t the only one laid off.”

“It’ll happen again, you know,” he said. “If this really turns into a full blown civil war, the global economy will tank.”

“I know.”

“Then what?”

“Then we pick up the pieces. I get through school, you go work for the Sanitation Department…”

He chuckled. “I guess I deserve that.” He looked at his watch, shook his head. “I’m going to miss you this time.”

“You’ll be gone, what, three days?”

“Yup.”

She came and they hugged, then he picked up his bags and walked out to his department car, then he drove downtown and parked it in the central lot and hailed a cab for the ride out to the airport.

He got inside the taxi and ignored the man in the back seat by his side while he buckled his seat belt, then he turned and looked at The Duke, who handed him an overstuffed envelope.

“Here’s the contact information, and what little background info I could lay my hands on.”

“Seattle PD?”

“Yeah. Went out on a medical. CID for fifteen or so years. He says their department is completely compromised, the FBI field office out there may be too.”

“What’s Carol think?”

“About?”

“Rutherford.”

“Not much. They’re very compartmentalized, local cells, then regional. The national hierarchy is diffuse. She really doesn’t know the details, and is getting testy when I ask.”

“Think she can infiltrate?”

“Nope. She thinks even making the attempt would expose her. She’s walking a razor’s edge as is, one slip and they’ll know she’s playing both sides against the middle.”

“You wanna get her out?”

Dickinson sighed, then shook his head. “Not yet. I’d like to know what their objectives are locally first.”

Acheson snorted. “I’d say we know that, already. Discredit the political system, expose corrupt officials, then…”

“Yeah, it’s the ‘then’ thing that has me bothered, Ben. What comes next, you know? Yeah, I get the whole ‘discredit’ and ‘expose’ thing, but what’s their end game? And what lengths are these people prepared to go to in order to achieve their goals?”

“Well, they’ve killed over a thousand people in the last two days…”

“Exactly. So, what’s next?”

“Who’s next might be the better question.” Acheson added.

“You ever wonder why so many of people in government have such serious kinks? Why so many kids have been a part of this?”

Acheson shook his head. “I’m no expert, but the whole BDSM thing is about consensual control, isn’t it? With control the operative principle? And the pedophile angle? That’s got to be about exercising power over someone completely, well, powerless hardly describes a kid.”

“What you said, the whole ‘manor’ thing, the medieval feudalism angle? What do you make of that?”

“Well, feudal power rested within an uneasy alliance between lorded aristocrats and the church. That’s beginning to resemble our modern world again, isn’t it? A vested political elite appealing to an evangelical class – which itself wants greater access to power and money – in order to solidify their own hold on power. It’s a symbiotic relationship, Duke. They’re feeding off one another, until one gains momentary supremacy, anyway, then there’s a renewed power struggle after a new hierarchy emerges, until the other can maneuver into a position of supremacy again.”

“Dominance games?”

Acheson laughed at that. “All world history deconstructed into dominance games. With the emerging sexual undertones we’re finding each day, that may not be too far off.”

“Simple way to end that world would be to cut off all the balls. Get rid of testosterone as the fuel driving the motor of civilization.”

“Or…get rid of all men in positions of political power.” Acheson and The Duke looked at one another, then both shook their heads and laughed.

“No way,” they said in unison. “Not gonna happen.”

+++++

He had a new First Officer that morning, and she was already in the cockpit when he walked in the cockpit. He took off his jacket and hung it in the sliver-like closet by the door, then turned to stow his flight bag – but she was up, her hand out, waiting for him.

“Sandy Beecham,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve flown together before.”

“Ben Acheson,” he said, taking her hand – while thinking ‘My, that was fast.’ “No, I don’t think we have. Ready to take a walk?”

“Yup,” she said, gathering up her raincoat.

I would be at least another 45 minutes before pre-boarding began, but it was still raining out so he slipped his rain jacket on too. They walked out through the galley to the stairs off the Jetway, then out into the storm. He looked up at the clouds once he was on the wet concrete, low-scudding and whipping across the sky, driven by a north wind, then he walked to the left wing while Beecham took off for the right. He checked tread depths on tires, talked to the ground chief about the turn-around report and what had been finished – and the squawks that remained on the 777s ‘down’ list – then he signed the fuel load-out and finished his walk-around, meeting up with Beecham under the tail.

“Look good?” he asked.

She nodded her head. “Hardly anyone onboard today,” she added. “Five in First, three in Business, and fifteen in coach.”

He shook his head again, wondered how long the airlines could keep this up. So much uncertainty, and coming on so quickly, had undermined international commerce, and once again consumer confidence had fallen through the floor. With fuel prices spiking, this 777 needed 70 percent of her seats filled just to break even, and today’s load was nowhere near that. He was a captain now, but he was low on the seniority list and that familiar worrying sensation came back again.

“You ready to head up?” she asked, but she was watching him closely now.

“Hmm. Oh, yes, let’s go.”

“You alright?”

“I was just thinking, about the last time. In 2008, with the crash. How fast the lay-offs came…”

“Me too,” she said. “I was at Northwest, had just started in A320s then the boom fell.”

“Too much uncertainty out there right now. Things are getting spooky.”

They started walking back to the Jetway, both lost in thought, and they slipped into the cockpit and took their seats quietly. But the routine was the same, and they fell back into the familiar: they pulled out checklists and began waking the bird up, getting ready like today was just another day.

But of course it wasn’t.

“Someone told me you work with the Police Department, in Dallas.”

“I did,” he lied. “I quit recently. Too much on my plate.”

She nodded her head. “Got to be confusing. You look tired. Get much sleep last night?”

“You know, I had trouble falling asleep. All this stuff on the news I guess,” but he found himself thinking of Genie – and that book about the doctor in Vietnam. He wanted to go aft, find a quiet seat by a fireplace and read for a while, but he shook himself back into the present…

“You married,” she asked.

He turned and looked at her, pointed at the ceiling – the universal sign that the cockpit voice recorder was on – and he began calling out the pre-start checklist. It was all business now, and thirty minutes later the Trip-7 was pushing back from the gate.

“American 48 heavy, clear to taxi,” the tower said, “on K to 1-7 Right, DALLAS FOUR departure approved. Winds out of the south now, 1-6-6 degrees at four knots, ceiling 2500, visibility five miles, altimeter two niner niner one.”

He watched as the push-back cart disengaged, then reached up and turned on the wipers as Beecham began starting two. The ground chief standing in the rain below got on the intercom: “Okay, double checks on baggage holds complete, all doors show red-locked. You’re ready to go, Captain.”

“Thanks, Chief,” Acheson said, and when the man was clear he advanced the throttles and cleared the brakes, then began the short taxi out to the runway.

“Pre-takeoff checklist complete,” Beecham said as he slowed at EK, then a powerful gust shook the aircraft. “That’s out of the north,” he said, then he called the tower. “Uh, 48 Heavy, can you advise wind speed and direction, please.”

“Uh, 48 Heavy, winds now out of the north at 2-5 knots. Standby one.”

“48, standing by.”

“Uh, 48 Heavy, take off runway 3-5 Left, BLECO SEVEN departure now active, winds now 0-1-0 degrees at 2-7 knots, altimeter two niner niner four.”

“3-5 Left and BLECO SEVEN, 48 Heavy.”

“Look at those clouds,” Beecham said, and looked left, to the north. The clouds were almost black, and he thought he could see a wall cloud off to the left.

“Uh, 4-8 Heavy, you got anything on doppler to the north northwest?”

“4-8, heavy precip, no hooks.”

“I think I see a wall cloud from up here. Might keep an eye out.”

“Uh, tower, Delta 224, we just went through and it’s a screamer, picked up some hail and a lot of chop.”

Acheson listened as the tower advised all aircraft in the pattern of the storm, and they taxied south for the new runway; he re-entered the new departure information on his FMC, or flight management computer, and he watched as his display changed, as new waypoints and steering commands appeared on his display. An American Eagle RJ pulled onto the runway and roared by, then he stopped at the holding area and double checked power settings and climb angles entered in the computer.

“4-8 Heavy, taxi to position and hold.”

“Heavy.” He released the brakes, turned onto the runway and lined up on the centerline, applied the brakes and waited. He peered into the sky a little off to the left. “I don’t like this,” he sighed.

“What?”

“That cloud.” He keyed the mic again: “4-8 Heavy, any update on this storm?”

“Still heavy rain, no hooks. Uh, Heavy, you are clear for take off.”

“4-8 rolling,” he said as he advanced the throttles. He scanned the engines then began looking at the storm…

“80 knots,” Beecham called out, then V-one…and…rotate…”

He pulled back on the stick…

“Tower to all aircraft…tornado on the ground one mile north of 3-6 Right, repeat, tornado on the ground. The pattern is closed, the airport is closed!”

He looked to the left and saw the rope twisting in the sky and turned right. “Go to full take off power. Positive rate…”

“Gear coming up. Where is it?”

“Right fucking there,” he said – as the skies opened up. They flew into an impossibly thick hail storm, then the right wing dipped, and dipped. He didn’t fight it, turned right with the gust. “Uh, tower, 4-8, heavy hail, we’re turning right to 0-2-0 degrees.”

“0-2-0 approved, contact departure on 1-2-5-decimal-1-2. Good day.”

“48, bye.” He switched frequencies. “American 4-8 Heavy, out of 3-5 Left for BLECO, we’re deviating around this funnel cloud, on 0-2-0 right now. What’s it look like out there?”

“4-8 Heavy, resume 0-0-4 degrees as soon as possible, direct to YUNGG at 7000 approved. Storm is now at your eight o’clock, four miles. Do you have any damage?”

“Nothing showing right now.”

“Okay, 4-8, only traffic now a Delta MD80 at your ten, eight miles, he’ll be turning ahead of you, about two thousand over.”

“4-8, got it. Where are the tops right now?”

“Solid to flight level 2-4-0.”

“4-8, okay.” He shook his head, scanned the engines again – looking for any sign hail ingestion had damaged a fan blade, but everything looks good. “Let’s clean the wing,” he said as he turned to the originally programmed course.

“Flaps and slats up.”

“Well, that was fun,” he said.

“You mind if I go change my underwear now?”

He laughed, turned on the intercom: “Uh, ladies and gentlemen, for those of you on the left side of the aircraft, yes, that was a tornado. Sorry, that thing came out of nowhere and we had to make a few abrupt turns, but we’re on time and it looks like we’ll be in Gay Par-ee a little after midnight local time. No more bad weather on the radar, so as soon as we reach our cruising altitude the crew will be around to serve lunch. We’ll keep the seatbelt signs lit until we’re out of this cloud, so sit tight and enjoy the ride.” He flipped off the intercom, but the chief flight attendant called as soon as he did.

“Uh, Captain, it’s like floor to ceiling barf back here. Carpets, walls, you name it.”

“Was it that bad?”

“You have no idea. Half the overhead bins popped, one woman didn’t have her seatbelt latched properly.”

“Is she hurt?”

“Don’t think so, maybe a few bruises.”

“Okay. Keep me posted.” He looked at the FMC and watched it make the turn at YUNGG.

“4-8 Heavy, clear to flight level 2-7-0, contact Oklahoma Center 1-2-4-decimal-1 and good day.”

“4-8, bye.” He turned to Beecham as he changed COMMs. “Go back and take a look around. See if this bird needs a look see in Tulsa. Check on the folks, wave the flag.”

“Right.” She got up to leave and he put his mask on, and after she left he sealed the door again. Such a visit was now very unusual, but he felt it warranted under the circumstances. She chimed a few minutes later, and he picked up the intercom.

“Nothing bad,” she said, “but I think the ground crew at CDG ought to be warned. Maybe a few seats need to changed out, that kind of thing.”

“The injured woman?”

“There’s a doc onboard. He says it’s no biggie.”

“Okay. Codeword?”

“Pink-two.”

“Opening now.” He unsealed the door and Beecham came in, double locked the door then sat down. She handed him a sandwich and a Coke, then buckled up.

“What is it today?”

“They had pink sludge, and green. This is the pink.”

“Okay. But what is it?”

“Supposed to be roast beef on rye.”

“It’s oozing. I’ve never seen roast beef ooze before.”

She unwrapped her’s and took a tentative sniff.

“Goddamn, I can smell it from here,” he said, and they both tossed them in the trash.

“I brought a couple of granola bars,” she added.

“I think I’ll wait. There might be some good food left in Paris.”

“Not a three in the morning.”

“Good point,” he said as he took the offered granola bar from her. ‘Well,’ he thought, ‘is she one of them? Is she going to try to kill me here? Now? Can I not trust any woman, ever again?’ He sighed, tore open the mylar wrapping and started in on it. ‘Can’t live that way. Not sure I’d want to live that way…’ then, for some reason, he thought of a play he’d had to read back in high school. A Greek comedy, wasn’t it? About women in the Peloponnesian War? Who joined together, stopped having sex so men would stop making war? What the hell was the name of that?

“Lysistrata!” he shouted.

“What?”

“Oh, I was just thinking,” he said, but he saw the look she gave him just then. A little sidelong glance, a look full of suspicion. Then he settled in for the flight, centered his thinking and time passed.

“Do you think they’re serving real food in First today?” he said a while later.

“You hungry?”

“I am. Skipped breakfast, can’t even remember what we did for dinner.”

“So, you’re not married?” she said, ignoring his earlier warning about the CVR.

He sighed. “Not technically, but I might as well be. Genie. She’s in med school at Southwestern.”

Beecham laughed. “That’s too much.”

“Oh?”

“My husband was in med school; he started his internship and filed for divorce the same day. I paid the bills while he was having an affair – with a goddamn nurse, too!”

“Sorry. What do you think happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, it’s just the cop in me, I guess, but marriages rarely fail due to just one person’s issues. It’s more like a group effort.”

She leaned back, sighed…

“4-8 Heavy, Toronto Center, clear to flight level 4-1-0.”

“4-8 to 4-1,” he said as he leaned forward and made the change on the AP panel, then initiated the climb.

“I never looked at it that way,” she added.

“You know, you’ll burn up inside if you can’t put yourself in the other fellas shoes every now and then.”

“I know.”

And he chuckled.

“What’s that for?”

“Oh, every time I hear someone say ‘I know’ I think that’s the last thing on their mind. ‘I know’ is a deflection, a statement used to turn away from an uncomfortable truth.”

“You study psychology, too?”

“Engineering.”

“Okay. Now I’m confused.”

“Oh?”

“I thought engineers were anal retentive types, all numbers and slide-rules and shit like that.”

“Did you say slide-rules? How old are you?”

“Thirty-two.”

“Air Force?”

“Navy.”

“Oh, that explains it.”

“What?”

“Oh, Navy pukes still use slide-rules and have wind-up rubber bands in their engines.”

She laughed. “Don’t tell me. Air Farce.”

“Up in the air, Junior Bird Man,” he sang. “So. What was your contribution?”

Beecham looked out the windshield for a while, then she turned to him. “Mind if I turn off the CVR for a few minutes?”

“Oh. I don’t know,” he said as he nodded.

She reached to the back panel of the overhead panel and flipped the breaker, then shook her head. “He wanted sex, like all the time. I mean, like whenever we were together, and after a while it became mechanical, no love at all. He wouldn’t kiss me, or even say anything to me during. He just wanted to get his rocks off, and I began to feel like I was his plaything, his personal vagina, just someplace to shoot his load.” She looked away, and he saw she was upset.

“That sounds lonely,” he said.

“Yeah, it was.”

“So, you were upset when the divorce came?”

“Yeah,” she said, but she was crying a little now.

Time to get back on the clock, he said to himself. “We’ll finish this up later,” he said. “Turn on the recorder.”

“Yessir.”

The sun was setting now, and he saw stars popping out ahead, and an endless layer of low cloud stretched ahead.

“I never get tired of the view up here,” she sighed.

“Me too. It’s magic.”

“You know where we’re staying?”

“The Marriott.”

“At the airport?”

“Yup.” He noticed she hadn’t turned on the recorder yet, and he looked at her, wondered what was going on in her head. “The recorder?” he reminded her.

“Oh, right.” But still she didn’t move. “Is everything okay between you and – Genie?”

“Yup.”

“I haven’t been with anyone in a while.”

“A while?”

“Three years, and change.”

“Jeez.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to help me out with that, would you?”

He looked at her, looked at her looking down at her hands, trembling a little – like a little girl. “You know, if you need a shoulder, or someone to talk to, yeah. I’ll be right there.”

She nodded her head, sighed. “Okay,” she whispered, then she turned around and flipped on the CVR. “Thanks,” she said.

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully, and they landed in Paris a little before two in the morning. Ah hour later they checked into the Marriott; he went up to his room and watched Beecham walk into the room next to his, then after he dumped his bags he called Genie.

“How’d it go?”

“Rough.”

“I heard about the tornado. Were you near it?”

“We were in it, real close, as it turned out.”

“In the air?”

“Maybe a few hundred yards. Close, in other words.”

“Oh, Jesus.”

“How was school?”

“Oh, you know. The same. I saw Carol this evening.”

He was instantly on guard now. “Oh, how is she?”

“Uh, she seemed fine.” Which was Genie’s way of saying she had been anything but.

“Hear from The Duke?”

“Yep, he came over a while ago.”

“Oh?”

“Right after Carol left.”

“Oh?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Okay.”

“What time do you get in Friday?”

“Around 3:30.”

“Want me to pick you up?”

“Could you?”

“Sure.”

“That’d be great.”

“Okay, see you then.”

“Thanks, Genie. I love you…”

But she had already rung off. He put the phone down and looked at it for a while, then lay down and turned out the lights.

+++++

He slept in, woke up around noon and saw his message light flashing on the house phone. He dialed the message line and listened.

“Hey, Captain Sleepy-head. Call my room when you get this?”

He trudged to the head and showered, brushed his teeth, then went back to the desk and called her room.

“You weren’t kidding,” Beecham said.

“What?”

“That you didn’t sleep the night before. You were a zombie in the crew shuttle; Bruce thought you were going to pass out.”

“I feel like I could use another few hours.”

“I went into the city, bought a few things.”

“Oh? How were the crowds?”

“None. Even the Chinese are gone.”

“Damn.”

“I know. Say, you want a back rub?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Could you give me a few minutes. I want to try something on, and I need your opinion.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Thanks. Give me five minutes, and my door’s unlocked.”

He looked at the adjoining doors, and he went over and moved the little baggage rack out of the way, then put on some khakis and a polo shirt. He looked at himself in the mirror, looked at the redness in his eyes and shook his head, then went and opened the door.

All the lights in her room were off, the curtains drawn.

“I’m in the bathroom,” she said. “Be right out.”

He went in, sat in a chair by the window and sighed, then the bathroom light went out and she walked into the room.

She was dressed in black – black lingerie, stockings and heels, and she walked across the room, right up to him.

“What do you think?” she said. “You like the way this stuff looks?”

“You know, I think I need to go now,” he said, trying to stand. But she stepped closer still and blocked his way, pushed him down into the chair. “Look, I’m serious…”

“So am I, Ben. I need you. Oh, God, how I need to feel you right now. I need to feel you inside of me, need to feel your cum inside of me.”

“I, uh…”

“Please don’t say no, Ben. Don’t do this to me, not now.” She pulled his face forward, until the side of his face rested on her panties and garters, and she pushed and gyrated against his skin until she felt his resolve softening. When his hands went around her thighs she smiled inside…

The camera had a hard time focusing in such low light, but the operator adjusted the gain a little, then began recording.

II

It’s hard to say when we jelled as a crew. The three of us, I mean.

Leaving Puget Sound on a sunny winter morning, headed outside together for only our second time together. Past Victoria, past where we had our little epiphany – with the Beretta and the Great White. Turning south at Tatoosh, running down the coast for days, sailing past the nightmarish Columbia River bar for the easier pass at Coos Bay. Cross the bar, sail under McCullough Bridge into the back bay, tie up at the little marina back near the flats. Pump out the holding tanks, fill up with diesel and spend the night after a quick dinner ashore, then back out into the Pacific.

We kept close enough to the coast to keep cell coverage, and about half way down to San Francisco I watched news reports flood in about bombings in Dallas and Maryland while I sat behind the wheel. Persephone was with me when I started swearing.

“Woodie?” she said. “What is it?”

I handed her the phone.

“Oh, no.”

“I think it’s started,” I sighed. You know, there’s something heartbreaking about a cute girl saying ‘Oh, no.’ Like watching a little girl on her first bicycle ride falling down and scraping her knee, there’s a helplessness inside the moment. Maybe a little inevitability, too, but that’s not the point. I looked at my golden girl, the sudden pout on her lips, in her eyes – and I just wanted to hold her close.

Then the phone chirped and I looked at the screen. “Chief Anders,” I said as I took the call. “Yo. Chief.”

“Where are you?”

“Coming up on Point Arena, not quite ten miles offshore.”

“You see the stuff about Dallas?”

“Yessir.”

“This is it, isn’t it?”

“Opening move, my guess, anyway.”

“How far are you from San Francisco?”

“About a hundred and ten miles from the Golden Gate. Call it tomorrow afternoon, late.”

“Fuck. Why couldn’t you buy a goddamn motor boat. I can walk faster than that festering turd.”

“What’s up, Chief.”

“There’s a Coast Guard facility, on the east side of Treasure Island. Call them on 72, then follow their instructions.”

“Chief? You didn’t answer my question.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Roger that.”

“Let me know if you need anything.”

“We’re running low on condoms, Chief. Think you could…”

“Woody?”

“Yes, Chief?”

“Fuck you, Woody.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

The line went dead, and Sephie just looked at me, scowling.

“What is it, baby.”

“We’re not low on condoms, Woody? I didn’t even think we were using condoms anymore.”

Ah, that’s my Persephone. Did I mention…well, yes, I’m sure I did. She’s a natural blond, through and through, and I love her more than life itself.

+++++

“Sailing Vessel Black Dog calling Coast Guard on 72.”

“Black Dog, Coast Guard, what’s your location?”

“Just coming up on the west span.”

“Roger that.”

And that was, indeed, that.

Then I saw an aluminum CG 44 footer cutting through the bay, headed right for us, and the little ship turned wide and came up on us from the rear. I held a steady course while it came alongside, and I saw a lieutenant come to the rail as they slowed and matched speed.

“You Woodward,” the lieutenant said, his eyes focused like twin lasers on Sephie’s chest.

“I am. And this is Persephone,” I said, as graciously as I could, “And this is Liza.”

“Yes they are,” he stumbled, his eyes still locked on Sephie cleavage. “You need to follow me, sir, and we’ll help you get tied up.”

I had to laugh. He’d never run across two girls more adept at tying things up than these two. So, if he only knew, right?

+++++

Once we were tied up the lieutenant led me to an administrative building, and Anders was inside, laptop on desk reading something intently. Tate stood in a far corner, looking out the window. He looked at me and gave a quick nod, and I did the same.

“Sit down, Woodie,” Anders said absently, yet his eyes never left the screen. I watched him for a few minutes, then he closed the screen and turned to Richard. “Tate? Take a seat.”

“Okay.”

“You been keeping up with all this?” Anders asked, looking at me.

“There’s been more?”

He nodded his head. “About ten strikes so far. Another in Dallas, a few on the east coast, a few out here.”

“And?”

“They’re targeting politicians, compromised politicians and people in…”

“Let me guess. Corrupt judges, lawyers, cops?”

“Among others, yes. The press, broadcast reporters, and some pervs, too.”

“And what’s this got to do with me?”

“When Tottenham took out that girl…”

“MJ?”

“Yes, the Kopecki girl. Seems she was head of the local branch of, well, you remember reading that intel report on the stuff going on down in Dallas?”

“Some women, wasn’t it? Targeting pedophiles?”

“Uh, yeah. Well, they were dressed as Ninja.”

And I remembered MJs girls up in the cockpit, dressed in black, like Ninja. “So, MJs girls and Tottenham’s group weren’t together?” I asked quietly, if only to myself.

“Nope. Brennan thinks Kopecki’s Ninja group infiltrated the Tottenham’s ‘whips and chains’ crowd, seemed to integrate with them, and I emphasize the word ‘seemed,’ but now the Ninjas are taking them out – and it’s a nationwide effort, with all that implies.”

“So, these two groups are everywhere, and a war between them is breaking out?”

Tate nodded, cleared his throat. “My guess is when Tottenham took out Kopecki he started a war, and while the moves we’ve seen so far are overt, and very public attacks, a bunch of the Kinks have turned up dead, sometimes in their homes, in their cars, but not in an overt manner.” He tossed some photos on the table and I picked them up, flipped through a couple. Slit throats, bullets in the face, the usual.

So our immediate concern was this,” Anders interjected. “These two girls of yours were in deep, up to their eyeballs in that kink group, and those people are disappearing like snowballs in the Sahara right now.”

I nodded my head. “Yessir. I see where this is going.”

“Okay. Second concern. They’re either taking out cops directly, or compromising us. Blackmail, set ups and blackmail. There’s a Captain in CID down in Dallas. Dickinson’s his name, and he led the investigation last summer. He’s compromised, or so he says, but his lead on the case, a kid named Acheson, isn’t. The thing is, he’s a reserve. His day job is with American, flies for a living. He’s on his way to Paris as we speak. And you’re leaving at nine tonight.”

“Sir?”

“For Paris. I want you to compare notes, and Tate has a few toys he’d like you to try out. He’ll be with you, but I want you to get this Acheson fella up to speed on things going on out here, the structure we know about…”

“Chief, you can’t expect me to leave the girls here?”

“Safest place for them right now is at sea, next safest place is tied up right here. For now, anyway. Brennan wants to take them and put them in Witness Protection.”

“Jesus.”

“Except he thinks the Marshall’s are compromised too.”

“Oh, now that’s just fuckin’ great. Tell me, Chief. What have they got on you?”

And I could see it in his eyes, before he turned away. “Yeah, don’t ask, Woody. I’m going to go down in flames, and soon. They got me with a hooker a few months ago.”

“Marie doesn’t know?”

“Nope.”

“Why don’t you just tell her. Apologize like hell, get down on your knees and beg for her forgiveness.”

He almost laughed. “What if she’s one of them, Woodie.”

I didn’t know what to say. “You’re thinking that’s possible?”

He nodded his head. “They’ll crucify me on TV, and within days I’ll be gone.”

“You know, I think this is going to be impossible to stop. Whatever it is they’re doing, they’ve been planning it for years, quietly moving assets into place, and they’re not constrained by the norms of typical political debate. They’re going to take out their enemies, violently – publicly, then, after compromising the ethics of the standing elite, they’ll just move in to fill the vacuum.”

“Yup. The Romans did it that way a few times, and it worked for them, I guess. Quick, bloody coups work. That’s the lesson.”

“So, we’re Rome now?”

He snorted. “Hell, we’re just people, Woodie. People arrive at similar solutions to similar problems.”

“And we create the same problems, over and over again, don’t we?”

“Maybe so. Whatever, someone else made that call. We either fight them now, or we roll over and play dead.”

“I think I should get on my goddamn boat and get the fuck out of Dodge.”

“I do too. I would if I could.”

“Then why? Why ask me to do this?”

“Maybe there’s a chance you and Tate can figure something out.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. A group with thousands of people spread throughout government, with several years head start, and that’s killing with impunity? What am I supposed to figure out, Chief?”

“Look at it this way, Woodward. We’re in the beginning stages of a civil war. The president and the Joint Chiefs are looking at it this way, too. The next step is to find the snake and cut off it’s head.”

“What if there’s more than one snake?”

“Then they’re going to start killing all the snakes.”

“What?”

“You heard me. It kind of gives a whole new meaning to Gender Wars, doesn’t it? Round up suspected women, everywhere, and kill them.”

“This is seriously being considered?”

“The pieces are being moved on the board as we speak.” He looked at me, then at Tate.

“And pawns will be sacrificed,” I sighed, “won’t they?”

“Yes, Woodie, pawns will be sacrificed.”

+++++

I gave the girls the rundown and they took the news about as expected: Sephie went into full meltdown mode and Liza went aft and helped me pack, then she started packing a bag too. Tate looked at her, then at me – shaking his head.

“What are you doing?”

“We’re coming with you. And don’t even think of arguing with me, either of you.” When she was packed, she went forward and got Persephone. “Where’s your Passport?” she asked, and they went went to my safe and got them just as I felt else someone hop onboard.

“Woodie?” I heard Anders say from the cockpit.

“Yes, Chief?”

“How’s your heart?”

I shrugged.

“Would it be better if these girls went with you?”

“Probably.”

“Well, get ‘em packed up, then we’ll make a run for the airport.”

“Yes, Chief.” He threw me a wallet, and I opened it – then looked up at him.

“I know. Kind of funny, but Brennan insisted, and who knows, it may come in handy. Anyway, if anyone asks you’re the AD of their SeaTac field office, tasked with counter-terrorism operations. And you’re authorized to carry this,” he said, handing me a Sig P-220, “everywhere. Even on the goddamn airplane.”

Liza was looking at all this go down, then she came up from behind and put her arms around me. “Come on, sweet-cheeks,” she said. “It’s time to go save the world.”

+++++

We flew over on Air France, in one of those A380 double deckers, and the changes were obvious, and unsettling.

In the airport, very few women seen, not even behind the counters. On the aircraft, the same story: all the flight attendants were male, and only a few passengers were female – and those were Muslim. Not that it mattered; on an airplane designed to haul over 500 people, there were less that fifty on board, and it didn’t matter what class you were in, everyone got the same chow. Factory made sandwiches, all beverages either canned or poured from a sealed bottle. Paranoia run amok, I think, and to me it felt like the initial conclusions had been assimilated by leaders in Washington D.C. and then passed on to world leaders: a cabal of women is behind these attacks, and they are intent on taking over the country, maybe even the world. Was Anders mimicking a greater breathless hysteria, or was something really so formidably drastic taking shape all around us?

The four of us sat together on the upper deck, and there was a television show playing while we boarded, a French production, the dialogue translated as text, streaming along the bottom of the screen. Women all across Europe were not showing up at their jobs, men were reporting that wives and girlfriends had simply stopped having sex with them, then a reporter in Tokyo was onscreen, saying much the same thing. In Brazil? The same. Cape Town? Ditto. From Amsterdam to Zimbabwe, women were disengaging from civic life, and from their personal routines, too. More ominously still, local politicians’ illicit sex lives were making their way online, or on-the-air, and the same pattern noted first in Dallas, then around the United States, began appearing around the world. Weird sex clubs and rampant pedophilia were the norm in these lurid exposés, and some of these politicians resigned forthwith. Many others soon turned up in charred wreckage somewhere – a bombed out motel or warehouse frequently the scene.

And I noticed that while Sephie watched the unfolding horror with empathy in her eyes, Liza watched for a moment – then turned away.

And perhaps I hadn’t seen the faint echoes of a smile on her face. Maybe it was all just my imagination.

Then I saw a live report from Paris, something about Christmas shopping, and I saw snow falling in the cameras lights, then looked down at my shorts and boat shoes. Had I even packed one pair on long pants? Hell, I couldn’t even remember if I owned any long pants.

That’s what living on a boat with two sadomasochistic nymphomaniacs will do to you.

+++++

Paris is, I suppose, simply Paris – and it always will be, right? Another big city with a phallic monument in the center. A male phallus, of course – at least that was Liza’s version of the city as we drove in from the airport – but she seemed more than a little put out by the whole thing. Like she was anxious, even angry about men and their penises – and how we’d, figuratively speaking, of course, rammed our dicks down the world’s throats since the beginning of time.

“Excuse me,” I said to her sulking reflection in the window, “but is it that time of month?”

Which was, of course, not the right thing to say. At all.

Arms crossed over chest, steam coming out ears, she glowered the rest of the way into the city. Sephie, of course, looked out the window, oohing at the Eiffel Tower while Liza snorted derisively. Yin and Yang, Ego and Super-Ego, two sides of the same coin – falling through time. One was Conscience, the other Lust, and isn’t it a simple truth that we go through life attracted to both – and yet we can never decide which we hold most important?

Someone had booked us into a little hotel on the Ile Saint Louis; we walked up to our room and I showered while the girls unpacked, and as I dressed I heard Liza talking to Sephie.

“You stay here, keep an eye on the room.”

“I want to go with him,” my Persephone said. “You’re so mad right now you’ll get him in trouble.”

“I will not.”

“You will to.”

“Uh, girls. I’m sorry, but Daddy doesn’t like to see his baby girls acting like three year olds. Can we get it together? Or does Daddy have to go out by himself?”

Then Liza cut to the heart of the matter, holding up my bottle of Viagra: “Does Daddy want a little blue pill, make little stick big again so he can go boom-boom?”

Touché.

Why is it that girls are always right?

Maybe because it’s so easy to lead men around by the balls?

So, Sephie stayed in the room while Liza and I walked out of the hotel – and Tate was gone. Vanished. We looked around, got our bearings and walked the few blocks to Notre Dame, and we sat on a bench at the south end of the little park by the river, and we waited.

He was lanky, that’s what I remember most about Ben Acheson. Tall, and lanky, and he had a kind of Jimmie Stewart air about him that day. Kind of an “Aw, shucks, Ma’am…” thing going. Like he’d screwed the pooch big time, and didn’t mind if we knew it.

He ambled up and sat on the bench beside ours, then he sighed.

“Woodward?”

“Yup.”

“Who’s she?”

“The person I most trust with your life.”

“Okay.”

“So, why are we here?” I asked – and I noticed Liza scanning the sky overhead.

“To share notes, I think.”

“Drone,” Liza whispered. “Overhead. We’re blown.”

At least the kid had the good sense not to look up. “Okay,” he said, “what’s next?”

“Why don’t you tell me what you know?”

So he did. Everything that had happened in Dallas, all the Ninja stuff from the summer before, the attacks this week, then the stuff about Rutherford in his house – which as far as I could tell no one else knew about.

“So, she’s an AD in the NSA?”

“Yes. Kind of clever, don’t you think? Get yourself on the inside, the head of the snake…”

“That’s what Anders, my chief, said. ‘We’ve got to cut off the head of the snake.’”

“So, how’d all this get started out there?”

So I told him my story, including Persephone and Liza’s part in the drama, and of the Tottenham twins demise.

“I take it,” he sighed, “you know your department is compromised, from top to bottom. The FBI, too?”

I nodded. “From the first, when Chief Tottenham was killed.”

“So his brother killed this Mary Jo, and that precipitated the split?”

And for the first time, Liza spoke about that night. She cleared her throat, then looked at me.

“Not quite. MJ was protecting Woodie,” she said to Acheson, then she turned to me. “She was from the beginning. Tottenham and his clique wanted you out of the picture, she intervened, kept you from being killed – at least three times that I know of.”

“What?”

Then she turned to Acheson again. “What’s eating you?” she asked. “You look like you’ve swallowed a squirrel.”

“I think they got me this morning?”

Liza just looked at the kid, then I could see it all over his face too.

“What did they get you with,” I asked. “A woman?”

He nodded his head, told us about the encounter.

“You married?” I asked.

“Not yet. I guess that means no, as in it ain’t gonna happen now.”

“Man,” Liza said, shaking her head, “I am so glad I wasn’t born with a dick. Don’t you guys ever stop thinking with that fucker?”

“Alright, knock it off,” I scolded. “So, your girl either gets over it or she doesn’t. They think they’ve got you over their barrel now, that they own you, and maybe we can use that to our advantage…” But I could tell the kid was turning something over in his mind, like he was working a math problem in his head. “What is it, Ben?”

“Rutherford,” he whispered. “She kissed me, seemed vested in me somehow.”

“She wants you,” Liza said. “All these Alphas, these leaders, have to take a mate, but they have to take them from another woman, then kill the other woman too, and with their own hands. They have to break down their new mate after that, mentally, emotionally – and physically, before rebuilding him. The idea is to make the new mate totally dependent, totally demascluinize him. Like a role reversal dominance game, taken to a new extreme,” she added, looking at Acheson. “She’ll turn you into a girl, what girls were to men in the old order, anyway.”

“Right,” the kid said. “Over my dead body.”

“That’s what it’ll come down to,” she added, looking him in the eye. “These Alphas are predatory, feral, and the veneer of civility they wear is very thin. They’ve been plotting this for decades, and they know the kinds of sacrifices that are being made won’t ever be undone. In their eyes the battle of the sexes was never some kind of joke, or something they were ever prepared to lose, for that matter. They’re preparing to completely upend the old patriarchy, to end what was and replace it with something totally new. And they’re counting on you thinking with your dick, and not your head, to help them make this happen.”

+++++

So, there it was. The end game, the backgammon.

Tate dropped by, had us download an app for our phones, told me what he and Acheson had in mind – just in case – then we split again – he followed Acheson out to the Marriott while we went back to our little hovel.

Acheson was leaving for Dallas in the morning, and we would leave for San Francisco an hour after he.

Would they respond? Had we set an attractive enough trap?

Only time would tell.

+++++

Acheson sat in the back of the taxi, trying to ignore the female driver sneering at him from the driver’s seat.

‘My God,’ he thought, ‘they’re everywhere. Yet only where they need to be.’

The logistics were staggering, coordinating the movement of millions of assets around the globe, and it would all be impossible, he knew, without the ‘net. And without apps to tie-together their vast network, innocent social media apps, that literally everyone had access to.

He looked out the window, at the endless stream of little cars – tiny little Renaults and Citroens – and how unlike the scene was compared to Dallas. Pickup trucks and Cadillacs, gas-guzzlers all, versus these tiny gas-sippers, and he saw a vast train station beyond the freeway. Dozens of trains filling with people, ready to leave for the furthest reaches of the country. So very different, yet the same. People moving freely, always on the move: on business, to take care of family, to ramble on an endless vacation.

What would happen if it all just stopped?

Because what loomed on the horizon was a sudden, screeching halt. An end to one way of life, and the sudden imposition of a new, radically different way of life. What had that girl, Liza, implied? Men would be maintained as breeding stock, and dumbed down men would be utilized for heavy labor – until, presumably, men could be replaced by robots and genetic engineering. The idea was comical, like Our Man Flint meets Blofeld, only now, after watching events unfold in Dallas, and hearing about these groups working around Seattle, he was sure this wasn’t a serialized comic book caper.

No, this is just the opposite. This is real, and it’s happening now. Right now.

What had she said? Stop thinking with your dicks? How was that even possible?

“Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit?”

“Pardonnez-moi, je ne me rendais pas compte que je parlais…”

“Vous avez dit, ‘comment était-ce possible?’”

“Oh je suis désolé…”

“You are English?” she asked.

“American.”

“So, what is not possible?”

“Someone just told me something funny, that it is impossible for men to not think without using their, well, their penis.”

“Ah. Yes, this is probably true, but that is who and what you are, is it not?”

“Exactly.”

“So, why is this funny?”

“I think she was asking me to think like a woman, which is clearly not possible.”

“Perhaps. How does a woman think?”

“You tell me?”

The woman thought for a moment, then she brightened. “A woman does not live in the moment. She lives in the future, yet also in the past. She thinks not of pleasure, but how pleasure can be used to her advantage. She thinks of the moment as a stop along the way to what she desires.”

“That seems very mercenary to me, very cold and calculating.”

“Perhaps. But men’s calculations are as narrow. What gets me power, and how do I gain power with the most pleasure attached?”

He shook his head, laughed a little. “We are a doomed species.”

“Perhaps, yes,” the woman said, “or perhaps it is better to try a new way, while there is still time.”

“So, who do you work for?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He nodded his head, looked ahead. He could see aircraft landing and taking off at CDG, then his hotel on the left. “Do you know…are they going to kill me?”

She looked at him in the rearview mirror, then shrugged. “Truly, I do not know, but I would not want to be in your shoes.”

“Well said.”

She pulled up to the entrance and he pulled out his wallet, but she shook her head. “It is not necessary.” She turned and looked at him now, and she shook her head just a little. “If I were to give you one piece of advice, I would say act not inside the moment, but within the future you seek.”

“What does that mean?”

She sighed, and frowned. “It means you must be prepared to sacrifice yourself to save the ones you love.”

“Maybe you could just take me to the airport…”

She laughed, looked him in the eye. “You cannot run. There is no place that far away.”

“Okay.”

“Good luck, my friend.”

“Yes. You too.”

He got out of the little Renault and walked through the lobby. A woman looked over her newspaper and watched him pass, then sent a text.

He went upstairs and pulled open the drapes, then got out the little book Genie had read for her ethics class – 12, 20 & 5 – and he started reading. The book was about choices, he saw, about choices forced and choices randomly arrived at. It was about choosing who lived, and who died, and all under the most impossible circumstances imaginable. Ultimately, it was a story about trying to impose order when man is surrounded by chaos of his own making. Even if the only thing he’d ever surrounded himself with before was apathy.

He stood up to go to the bathroom and heard people outside his door, so he bent to his phone and sent the emails he’d composed. One to Genie, one to The Duke, and one to Woodward, then he went to the door and opened it.

Five of them came in. All in black, black Ninja, and he walked into the bathroom, left the door open while he took a leak, then he went back to his chair and picked up the book and resumed reading.

Another knock on the door.

One of the Ninja opened it, and she walked in.

Rutherford, the assistant director of operations for the NSA.

She walked in – black dress, blacks stockings and heels – and she stopped, looked out the window at the airport, then down at him. Then she put her heel on his groin – and pushed.

“I liked that book,” she began. “Read it years ago. Kind of heartbreaking, in the way Hooker’s MASH was.”

“The more things change…” he said, trying to hide the pain.

“Yes. Exactly. I want you, but I guess you know that, don’t you.”

“I’m not sure why?”

“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I do.”

“I understand.”

“The audio on our end wasn’t good. I take it Woodward’s little bitch filled you in?”

“Pretty much. You’ll have to kill Genie, with your own hands, to sanctify the marriage, that kind of thing?”

“Don’t trivialize something so sacred.”

“I’m not. I simply I don’t understand.”

She looked at him with, perhaps, a little compassion, maybe even understanding in her eyes, then she turned to one of the Ninja. “It’s time. Turn on the television.”

One of the girls found the remote and turned it on, then tuned into CNN.

“The President met in Reykjavík this morning. Secretly, of course,” she smiled. “He’s about to leave…they’re all about to leave, now that their press conference is over. Watch…”

He saw Air Force One taxi to the end of the runway, then make it’s run. It lifted into the air and was beginning to make it’s turn for the Atlantic when it simply exploded, and a huge black and orange fireball appeared – where only moments before there had been normalcy.

She nodded at the Ninja – who turned the sound down – then she turned to Acheson. “Right now, and I mean right this moment, the vice president and the entire chain of succession is being eliminated. Within the hour, a huge explosion will simply remove the Pentagon from the face of the earth. When Congress convenes in emergency session this evening, that building will fall down around their heads.”

“My. You seem to have thought of everything.”

The back-handed slap was brutal, as her leather gloves were full of lead shot, and he felt his left eye swell and close.

“I’m not fond of sarcasm,” she said.

“Apparently not.”

The next blow was more savage, then…

“Director, on the television. Look!”

Rutherford turned to CNN and she saw – Rutherford, turning to look at the television.

“What is this?” she almost screamed.

“It’s CNN, and smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” Acheson said, pointing at an air conditioning vent.

She turned, snapped her fingers and all the Ninja made for the door – only Woodward and Tate and half the FBI was waiting out there already, guns drawn and ready.

They opened fire, and cut them down. All of them but Rutherford.

The war had been joined now. He could see it in the woman’s eyes.

Then she turned and looked at Woodward. “Leave us for a moment, please. I need to tell him something.”

Acheson nodded, and the team stepped back out into the hall, closing the door – almost.

She knelt between Acheson’s legs and cupped his face in hand: “I’m sorry, Ben. Sorry I hurt you.”

And he took her hand and kissed it. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand why this happened, but I’ll try.”

“I know you will. That’s why I want you.”

“That’s a good look for you,” he sighed, trying to smile. “You look good in black. Sexy.”

“And that’s why I’ll always want you.”

“Okay.”

“This isn’t over, you know?”

He nodded his head. “I know.”

“God, I want you so much it hurts.”

He watched as one of the agents came into the room, and he looked as the man pulled out a silenced pistol and came up to her from behind. He placed blue steel against the back of her neck, and Acheson turned away.

(C)2017 adrian leverkuhn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | adrianleverkuhnwrites7@gmail.com | this is fiction, all fiction, and nothing but fiction.