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

22 thoughts on “The Coffee Cantata

  1. The Des Moines Register reported today State Senator Mark Chelgren has introduced a Bill to require university faculty to state party affiliation. It would also institute hiring guidelines in order to shift the liberal bias among current professors and faculty.
    “We have an awful lot of taxpayer dollars that go to support these fine universities,” he said. “(Students) should be able to go to their professors, ask opinions, and they should know publicly whether that professor is a Republican or Democrat or no-party affiliation, and therefore they can expect their answers to be given in as honest a way possible. But they should have the ability to ask questions of professors of different political ideologies.”

    http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/20/iowa-senator-wants-political-balance-among-university-professors/98167182/

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  2. Well, that’s a relief. Perhaps there will be more facility/staff social dinners with meat dishes on the menu then, and not just my father in law’s “Texas” chili (he gave me the recipe, claims he got it when he was stationed at Fort Hood, and that real chili doesn’t have beans, tomatoes or hamburger in it.)

    Sorry I haven’t finished the story yet – I’m just to only gotten to the jungle escape and the meeting of the drug grower. A sick kid, finishing up of kitchen renovations, finding a replacement car for diesel Passat that VW is buying back next weekend (I guess clean, diesel and performance is too good to be true) and work have all been stealing away from reading time.

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    • Dear God…no beans, and only venison, please! I use tomatillos and roast my own Anaheim’s, and in the autumn used to include quail and duck, taking care to pick the B-Bs out. You can never use too much garlic. Keeps the fundamentalists away.
      Don’t like Accords, eh? Can’t beat an F-150, I suppose.

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  3. The complete Cantata was worth the wait….lots of food for thought. I appreciated a number of points made throughout the tale, sadly the premise that hate sells being one of them. It’s unfortunate that we as a society can’t think beyond the 30 second sound bite du jour. We seem to be stuck in the laziness of the moment, living and decisioning by slogan rather than by thought, civil debate and compromise.
    You’ve captured this so well in the undercurrent of “us vs. them”, whoever us and them are. Is it the homeless person interrupting our walk to the office, the sycophant parroting the half truths, or should I say alternative facts? Maybe the immigrant looking for a better life or perhaps the business owner trying to navigate the maze of regulation while trying to run a business.
    Are we on a path to complete entropy? Will we fly apart into competing factions where nobody “wins”? Let’s hope that, like Bao and Asher, we can find a common ground through rational discussion and compromise before we completely lose ourselves, our country and our planet.

    BTW, the snow in our yard in Evergreen melted out in the first week of February (earliest I can recall in the last 30 years). As well, third year in a row with drastically shortened skating at Evergreen Lake. But nothing to see here, it’s just a Chinese hoax…….where’s my head-sized hole in the sand?

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    • The Bao/Asher/Martin – desert fathers Impulse and Jung’s Shadow inform the action more than politics in this story…which I think exists to serve as an echo, a 2400 year old echo, of events that led those people to cut away from society, look for a separate truth. Of course, this is Lindsey’s story, an echo of my Annie’s story, of her discontent. If human history is any guide at all, there will be little common ground. The Cantata assumes people can’t learn from the past, the story asks that you consider finding your own path out of the conundrum, one that leads away from, not into the struggle. Not running away, necessarily, but living apart, not being buried by the inevitable but taking steps to preserve the light.
      We’ve had little but rain up here the last two weeks. Mid-February, and rain, at 8500 feet, in the middle of the Rockies. Our local “newspaper” is full of climate change denial articles, and I have to wonder about the disconnect that allows such a frame of reference to flourish. But then again, the Cantata is just as much about that mindset as it is about John Asher’s desire to burn it all down.

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  4. I have an F150, the Passat was the wife’s car. She won’t drive Japanese, claims they all look alike and are soulless. So she picked herself out a red A4. Here come the speeding tickets.

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  5. When I was at Hanover High, we had a foreign exchange student from Germany by the name of Reinhardt Betz. Reinhardt’s family was very, very wealthy, so they shipped his Porsche over for him. I’m not sure what the model was (don’t think it was available in the US, but it was a beautiful looking car), but even after installing the emissions modifications necessary, he was stopped on 89 South by the Methodist Hill road exit going in excess of 150 mph.

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    • I think it’s a crime against humanity to drive a Porsche slower than 120. It just don’t feel right, ya know? Like walking through molasses. Did you look at the Q3? That’s real popular in Steamboat. Cute as hell, too (but the TT is still my favorite Audi).

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