WIP + The Sunset Limited + Ch.01

So, I am in a very laid back place right now, coming to terms with life, I guess. Writing has been very far away, far from mind the last week or so. Still, a little niggle in the back of my brain remembered this one. Notes for a story idea I wrote up years ago that I found while cleaning out my desk last week. So, whilst touching up the house, getting ready to move, I decided to work on this one when I get tired of packing boxes.

So, the Sunset Limited? What is it?

Well, she was a train near and dear to my heart, for one, so let’s do a little history before we jump into the story.

Daylight logo

Once upon a time there was a railroad that operated, mainly, in California and the desert southwest. It was called The Southern Pacific Railroad, and her history is intimately tied to the history of California and Texas. My great-grandfather was an engineer, and by that I mean a surveyor-type engineer, not a locomotive engineer, on the Texas & Pacific, later on the SP, so there’s a little of me in that history too – if only peripherally. Anyway, I love trains. They’re in my DNA.

The Southern Pacific (SP) operated during the “old west” period, and was the driving force behind the second transcontinental railroad, the so-called southern route across the country. The SP frequently shows up in movies about this period, too, as seen in this shot from 3:10 From Yuma, along right-of-way that would eventually become a part of the storied Sunset Limited.

Crowe Sunset Limited

The SP is remembered nowadays more for the beauty of their passenger trains than just about any other thing, and with good reason. Starting in California, running between LA and the Bay Area, Southern Pacific’s Daylights have always been my favorite, and this example (below) is from a pre-WWII consist running through California’s central valley:

SP Daylight

Pre-war trains were pulled by this beast:

Daylight

And here’s another view, circa 1991, on a steam excursion train in California:

SP daylight 91

Starting in 1950, diesel replaced steam on the SP, and on the westbound Sunset Limited, you’d have boarded in New Orleans behind Alco PAs:

SP PA duo

In El Paso, TX, the head-end would have been switched over to EMD E-units:

SP E9

Later, in the early 60s, equipment was repainted to something almost monstrous:

SP D 60s obs

Pulled by this beast, an EMD FP-7:

SP FP7 2

And here’s an HO scale rendition, by Athearn, from my collection:

SP FP7 athearn

As for timetables and menu prices, we’re looking at November, 1963 in this story, and you’ll find those items here.

Anyway, enough of that. On to the story. This first chapter is short, just ten pages or so, and you’ll see where the story is headed soon enough. Bon voyage!

Sunset limited logo

The Sunset Limited

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright–
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

from The Walrus and The Carpenter, in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872, by Lewis Carroll

+++++

He sat, with his back against the whitewashed brick wall, looking at the man across the courtyard. The other man, his target, sat beyond a bricked pond, complete with a small fountain in the middle now merrily bubbling away. How serene, he thought. What a nice place for a murder.

His waiter came by and topped off his coffee, asked if he needed anything else.

“No, I’m fine now, thanks.”

“Could I bring your check, sir?”

“Yes, that’d be good.”

The waiter walked off to his station and he resumed looking at the fountain, thinking about the day ahead – and all the things that could go wrong – then he looked at the watch on his left wrist and sighed. A little after ten in the morning, he saw. Two hours to go. He’d have to make a move soon.

The waiter dropped off his bill and he glanced at it absently, stuck a twenty inside the folder – just as the man across the courtyard stood and said something to his female companion. He watched the man walk inside and go into the restroom, then he stood and walked that way.

The man was standing at a urinal when he walked in and as he passed behind he placed a silenced Walther 22 at the base of the man’s skull and pulled the trigger once. He caught the man as his knees gave way, then muscled the twitching body into a stall and locked the door behind. He wiped down the Walther and put it in the man’s right hand, then slid under the partition and brushed his clothes off, washed his hands. He walked out of the bathroom and through the restaurant, heading down Royal Street to The Royal Orleans a block and a half away, and there he went to his room and retrieved a small, tan leather suitcase. Returning to the lobby, he paid his bill then grabbed a taxi to the train station – and as the old Chevy drove through the French Quarter he noted with satisfaction there were still no sirens wailing in the morning air.

He was old enough to remember the old Louis Sullivan designed Union Station, and he looked at the new, white monstrosity on Loyola Street and groaned. Like a monument to Bauhaus efficiency, he thought, the terminal looked like a mausoleum, or perhaps, more fittingly, like a prison. He paid the taxi driver and grabbed his suitcase and walked inside, looked up at the clock and sighed again – only11:15 – he thought as he walked up to the check-in area.

“Name?” the bald-headed agent asked as he stepped up the the white marble counter.

“Carter. Ben Carter.”

“Going all the way to Los Angeles, today, Mr Carter?”

“Yessir. I should have a reservation…”

“Yes, I have it right here, sir. You’re in sleeper 2309, room seven,” the bald man said as he handed over a ticket.

“What about my bag? May I carry it on?”

“Yessir, of course. We’ll be boarding your car in five minutes, so you might want to get in that line by the double doors,” he said, pointing to his right. “Have a nice trip.”

“Thanks,” he said before he walked over to the doors, looking over the people in the queue as he approached. Mainly older couples, people taking the train more out of nostalgia – or fear of flying – than for any other good reason he could think of, then he stopped, looked around and walked away from the doors.

The ticket agent watched Carter as he walked over to the newsstand, then bent over and picked up a telephone. He dialed the number from memory.

+++++

Sara Berman looked down at her heels and shuddered. Why she’d allowed her mother to buy the things for her she’d never know, but the damn things hurt so bad right now her eyes were watering. Four inches high! Goddamn! And why? “Because you’ll look sexy, dear,” her mother said.

“Shoes make you look sexy? Are you serious?”

“Sure do,” her mother said matter-of-factly. “Remember what Marilyn Monroe said? ‘I don’t know who invented high heels, but women owe a lot to him?’”

“Yeah, Mom, and look what happened to her?”

“Bosh! If you’re ever going to get a man, you’re going to have to dress up a bit!”

“Those aren’t the kind of men I’m interested in, Mom.”

“You never know, Sara, who you’ll meet. Or when.”

Well, yes, she did know. If men were interested in her because she was wearing high heeled shoes…well, she had better things to do with her time, didn’t she?

Then an overhead loudspeaker clicked on and howled for a second: “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Southern Pacific’s train number one, The Sunset Limited, will begin boarding in a minute. Please have your tickets out and ready for the conductor as you approach door number three, and cars 2311, 2309 and 2310 will board first, so will passengers in those cars please come to Door Three now.”

Berman shoved her suitcase along with her leg, causing even more pain in her right foot, and she vowed to throw these goddamn shoes away as soon as she got in her compartment.

“Could I help you with that?”

Startled, she turned and saw a man standing beside her. “What?”

“Your bag? Could I help you with that – while you get your ticket out?”

She seemed startled and he couldn’t help but laugh, even if he did so to himself. And she seemed to be tottering on the outrageous stiletto pumps she had on, like she didn’t normally wear such things, so he didn’t wait for her to reply and picked up the grip and walked along beside her.

“Thanks,” she said. “I hope it’s not too heavy.”

“Oomph. What do you have in here? A stack of bricks, or maybe a small lending library?”

“Sort of. Some books I wanted to take with me.”

They walked up to the conductor and she handed her ticket over for inspection, then he did too, and the conductor looked them over quickly, sizing them up as husband and wife as he smiled and looked them over – before he noted the separate room numbers.

They walked through the doors and out onto the platform, and he led the way out – his shoulder sagging under the load of her suitcase. “What car are you in?” he asked.

“2309.”

“Me too,” he said as he came up to the car. A porter was waiting on the platform and he handed over his bag, then put her’s on the concrete.

“Room number?” the porter asked.

“I’m in seven,” he said.

“Number five,” she added quickly, and the porter looked at her, then at him.

“I see. Well, y’all head on up. I’ll be right behind you with your bags.”

He stood aside and she stepped on the yellow metal step-stool – and immediately started to fall backwards; Carter stepped over and caught her, and after he steadied her he went ahead, then turned and offered his hand.

And she took it, let him help her up the steps, then he led her through the vestibule down the corridor. “Number five, you said?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Well, here you are.”

“I guess I should thank you,” she said, and he noticed she was blushing as she spoke.

“Oh? Well, my pleasure, but one question.”

“Oh? Well sure, fire away.”

“Do you normally wear shoes like that?”

She looked down at her feet and turned crimson. “Uh, well…what a question!”

“Oh, they look nice on you,” he said, then he turned and walked to his room and disappeared inside – leaving her standing there, wondering what the hell had just happened. The porter walked up behind her just then, and he coughed a little – to let her know he was coming – and she turned, smiled, and let him carry the overloaded bag into her compartment.

“What you got in here, Ma’am?”

“Books. Lots of books.”

“Phew. Thought so. What is you? A lawyer?”

“No. Physician.”

“Dagnabbit, never had a doc carry so much books before. What is you? A brain surgeon?”

She rolled her eyes and opened her purse, pulled out a five and handed it to the old man. “I’m so sorry,” she said, gushing. “I had no idea…”

“No problem, Ma’am. We’ll be serving lunch about the time we pass the Baton Rouge area, about an hour. You want me to reserve a table for you, or bring a tray down here?”

She looked at the old man and smiled conspiratorially: “Tell you what. Find out what he’s doing,” she whispered, nodding down to where her savior had just disappeared, “and try to get me at his table.”

“Yes’m,” the old man grinned. “I can do that.”

“Thanks.” She ducked into her room – and promptly fell down into her seat as the car jumped – and the power went off for a moment, the air conditioning too, then as suddenly everything flashed back on. She shut the door and pulled her shoes off, thought about pulling her penny loafers out of the bag and slipping those on as she rubbed circulation back into her toes – and then she remembered his parting words: “they look nice on you…” Why’d he say that – unless he liked the way they looked? And why now did she give a hoot?

‘Because he’s cute,’ she said to herself. ‘Real cute.’

She looked out the window and thought about her mother. All alone now, now that her father was gone. Still going downtown, to work in the same office she had for thirty years. All her father’s friends had been by the house after the funeral, many of whom had known her since she came into this life, too. She’d hated leaving her mother alone in that rambling old house this time, too, alone with all those memories. What would she do now without him? Who would she have to take care of?

Because her mother had seemingly been born to take care of a man. To feed and nourish a man’s soul – and little else had ever seemed to matter to her. ‘Maybe that’s where the high-heeled shoes comments came from,’ she thought. ‘Why else would a woman wear something like these things?’

Then…a gentle knock on the door.

“Come on in,” she said, and when the door opened just enough she saw him standing out there.

“Hey, feel like lunch?”

“Sure, but the porter said it wouldn’t be for an hour or so.”

“Yup. Their’s a lounge car, next car up from us, in case you want to get a Coke or something.”

“Doesn’t the conductor have to come by first? Check our tickets again?”

“I think so, yes.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, would you like to come in?”

“Sure.” He stepped inside, took the chair across from her’s. “These rooms are nice, you know? Bigger than I expected.”

“First time taking the train?”

“No, but first time in a sleeper. My parents used to take us from LA up to Oakland on the old Daylight. That train was all coach cars, maybe a few drawing rooms, but we never could afford that.”

“Are you from LA?”

“Yes. You?”

“No, New Orleans, but I went to med school in LA, at USC.”

“Oh? You’re a doc?”

“Kind of. I’m doing my internship at County-SC.”

“You playing hooky? I mean, it’s November, isn’t it?”

“My dad passed last weekend. Came home for the funeral.”

He bowed his head. “Sorry. Tough losing a parent.”

“The voice of experience?”

“Yup.”

“So, what do you do in LA?”

“I work for MGM,” he lied, “scouting locations, setting up local contacts for production companies.”

“Really? That sounds fun.”

“Fun? I never thought of it that way, but at least it’s never dull. Have you decided what kind of doc you want to be when you grow up?”

“I always thought obstetrics, but after doing my rotation in ophthalmology I’m not so sure.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, something about it just clicked.”

“Surgery?”

“Yes. The challenge, the precision of it all.”

“I can relate to that,” he said casually, a little too casually. “When do you have to decide?”

“Soon. I’ll have to start applying for residencies, like right after I get back.”

“Where?”

“Not sure yet.”

“You want to stay in California?”

“Not necessarily, but if I did I think I’d try for the Bay Area.”

“Spent much time up there?”

The train jerked, then started to pull out of the station – slowly. The train worked through a yard full of switches before turning west, and the conductor came by and collected their tickets, punching them once then handing them back.

“Well, shall we?” he asked.

“Yeah. A Coke would be good right about now.”

They walked forward and sat down just as the train started up the incline for the Huey P Long Bridge over the Mississippi, and they looked down into the coffee colored water as a barge passed under, then he walked up to the counter and asked for two Cokes.

“You sleeping car passengers?” the attendant asked.

“Yup.”

“I’ll bring ‘em to you.”

“Thanks.” He dropped a dollar in the tip jar and walked back to their table – just as their room porter came through the car.

“I reserved you a table, the one o’clock seating,” the old man told her. “Table for two, matter of fact.”

“Thanks,” she said, blushing again.

“So,” he said, “tell me about the shoes. You don’t look comfortable walking in them.”

“To tell you the truth, this is the first time I’ve ever worn anything like these.”

“So, if you don’t mind me asking, why now?”

“My mother bought them for me.”

“Your mother?”

“She thinks they attract men.”

“Indeed. Well, I guess in a way they do.”

“She always talks about Marilyn Monroe and high heels. What do you think? Is it true – what they say?”

“What do they say?”

“That high heels make women sexier.”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But sexy is something that happens inside, I think. Things like heels and lingerie are window dressing. Fun, I guess, but not the main attraction.”

“I’ve never…well, done, uh…well, I’ve never worn stuff like that.”

“What? Lingerie?”

“Yeah.”

“Why would you? I mean, I suppose it’s fun, but…”

They stopped talking when the attendant came back with their Cokes, then he poured some in their glasses before talking again.

“So,” she said, “do you like it when women wear that sorta stuff?”

“You know,” he said, “we’re talking about some seriously intimate things, and I don’t even know your name.”

“Oh, right. Sara. Sara Berman.”

“Ben,” he said. “Carter. And yeah, I guess I do like that stuff, but to me it’s more that the girl thinks enough about me to want to get dolled up like that. Like Christmas morning, I guess. Why wrap up all those presents just to tear them open, ya know?”

She nodded understanding, but Christmas was a foreign concept to her. “I think I get that,” she said, smiling. “My question was, do you like that stuff?”

He nodded.

“You like my heels?”

He nodded again. “They make your legs look, well, sexy.”

“They do?”

“They do. Do you ever think of yourself as sexy?”

She shook her head. “Never.”

“What about your boyfriend? Doesn’t he think you’re sexy?”

“No boyfriend.”

“Okay. So, your last boyfriend.”

She shook her head again, looked down. “No boyfriends.”

“What? You mean, like ever?”

She nodded. “Yup.”

“Never?”

“Yup.”

“You mean…?”

“Yup. Never.”

He stood, went to the counter again.

“Sir?”

“Do you have any rum? Like in those little bottles?”

“We have Bacardi Silver, and 151.”

“Four 151s, please.”

“That’ll be two dollars, sir.”

He handed over the money and took the bottles, then walked back to their table and plopped them down. She looked at the bottles, then up at him.

“What gives?” she asked.

“I suddenly feel very nervous, that’s what gives.”

“Nervous? Why?”

“Because you’re cute as hell.”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“You’re cute as hell, and you’re making me nervous.”

She grinned. “I think you’re cute, too.”

“So, shall I pour you one.”

“Maybe a little. I don’t like strong drinks.”

He opened a bottle and poured a little in her glass, the rest in his. “Well, happy days!” He downed his, then turned and looked out the windows through the trees passing on the flat coastal bayou, letting the rum warm his gut – then he looked at her again…

Maybe 27 years old, black hair, gray-green eyes. Freckles, glasses – bookish. Of course, she had to be. Small breasts, great legs. Berman? With that name she was probably Jewish, so maybe that’s why she hadn’t said anything when he mentioned Christmas. He turned, caught the attendant’s eye and fingered “two” – as in two more Cokes – then he turned and looked at her, more closely this time.

“What?” she asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Like, maybe, you’re hungry. And not for food.”

He laughed again, a little louder this time. “You do know how to make a man nervous, don’t you?”

“I don’t know? Do I?”

The Cokes arrived and he handed the attendant a five.

“I’ll get your change, sir.”

He poured another glass – then added another bottle of rum to this one –and he sipped as he looked out the window again. Then he leaned back and shut his eyes, let slip a long sigh.

“Where did that come from?” she asked.

“Oh, it’s been a rough few days.”

“Scouting locations?”

“Hmm? Yeah, down near Iberia. Tabasco country.”

“Oh? What kind of movie?”

“Some Civil War drama. I don’t know much right now, and don’t usually get involved in that end of things until much later in production.”

“I see. Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, and it’s been a few years, too.”

“What happened? Lose interest?”

“Work. Non-stop, all the time, for the last three years. She was too, then it was like – what’s the point? We hardly ever saw one another, and when we did we were so uptight… So, no, it’s been a while.”

“I always thought it was harder for a guy to, you know, go without?”

“It’s not easy. Or fun. But, well, there are times when work gets so overwhelming…”

“Med school was like that, but then again, so was college. If you take it seriously, I guess. My dorm was full of people who just didn’t get it. Partying all the time, academic probation, drifting off to oblivion…”

“The world needs waitresses and car mechanics too, ya know.”

“I suppose. But that’s the path for high school drop outs, or at least it used to be.”

“Too many people.”

She shook her head. “No. Too many people being under-utilized. We’re wasting lives as fast as we’re wasting resources.”

“Not my department,” he said, sighing.

“Yeah? I wonder who’s it is?”

“Ready for another Coke?”

“Yeah. More rum in this one, please. I can hardly taste it.”

“We need some lime,” he said, standing and walking to the counter. He came back with a plastic cup full of green wedges, and he squeezed one in her’s before he refilled it, then doctored his own. “There. That’s better. A real Cuba Libre.”

“Free Cuba?”

“That’s where I learned to make this drink.”

“In Cuba?”

“Yeah. Havana. Back in the good ole days.”

“You’ve been there? All that missile stuff last year was pretty scary.”

He nodded, looked away. “Yup,” he said – quietly.

“What were you doing there? Movie scouting?” she asked – sardonically – then she tried to change the subject. “Kennedy’s going to be in Dallas tomorrow. Wonder what that’s about?”

“I don’t know,” he said as he turned and looked into her eyes. Her questions no longer seemed random, and he wondered who she really was – and if he’d have to kill her too.

This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Advertisements

Cottage Cheese & Green Onions Ch 04

cottage cheese image

So, the idea here is to leave you with one ending which will not “give too much away” about John & Becky’s role in the greater scheme of “Out of the Blue.” That said, the ending you’ll read here might be considered a bit of a dodge. Sorry, that’s the way it’s gotta be – for now. Haven’t proofed this version either. I’ll do that when I pull the chapters and post a unified, modified arc. Enjoy!

Cottage Cheese & Green Onions

Chapter IV

John Wayne Dickinson had just about decided that, after two weeks on the Sawyer farm south of Athens, Texas, being a cop was, all other things being somewhat equal, about one tenth as hard as being a farmer. If you factored taking care of fifteen dairy cows into that equation, being a cop was about one one-hundredths the work. He’d never been so chronically exhausted in his life.

Becky had decided to spend two weeks working with her father that April, and he’d volunteered to get in on that action. Now he was glad he had. Kind of. In a way. Maybe.

Wake up at four, get the machinery primed and the cows set up in their stalls by five, then he and Becky milked fifteen head over the next few hours, not counting clean-up time. It took her father forty five minutes. After that he joined up with Tom walking the fenceline, making repairs while Becky cooked breakfast. Another hour down. After breakfast he worked a riding mower around the fenced dairy pasture while Tom hooked up a sprayer and fertilized the soy field; Becky laid out the rows for corn they’d plant next week, then worked in the “small” garden behind the house. “Small” being one point seven acres – that she would plant with tomatoes, squash, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, broccoli, kale and – last, but not least – a dozen pumpkins. Most of that would be “put up” in September, to be eaten over the winter, but if the weather cooperated Tom ended up giving a bunch of stuff to May – and selling what he could at the farmer’s market in Dallas on autumn weekend mornings.

Being a farmer was, Dickinson was finding out, an exercise in radical self sufficiency – and every little bit counted towards making ends meet, making it to the next planting season, then to the next harvest. On and on in an endless cycle that relentlessly depended on almost perfectly timed good weather to make things work. A late frost or an early freeze meant the difference, some years, between getting to take a vacation and very nearly starving to death, but east Texas was blessed with reasonably good weather. The downside? The soil was marginal. The sawyer spread was one of the good ones, though, with more than enough rich, black topsoil to cancel out the less productive sandy red clay along the creeks that ran through the property.

He hadn’t thought about much else for the past week – beyond his constantly aching back, anyway – and Becky helped take care of that. He’d look up from a gap in the fence he was working on and see her across one of the larger pastures, working with her father or riding one of the big tractors, and he was simply amazed by her endless resourcefulness. Some tomatoes need canning? “Yup, I can do that.” Change the fuel pump on the tractor? “I got that, Dad.” Work her ass off in the garden – for ten hours straight? “Let me finish the dishes first, okay Dad?”

He couldn’t quite see giving up the whole ‘cop thing’ – yet – but maybe, just maybe he could see doing this after 25 years with the department. There was one thing he did realize now, however: he wanted to be with Becky for the ride. He’d been sure before, but after a week down here? Well this time had only sealed the deal. There wasn’t a dishonest bone in her body, not one, and she was always walking around with a positive, if not downright plucky attitude. Nothing was going to beat her. Nothing. And he loved her for it.

He thought she had a hard time admitting it, but he was pretty sure she loved him too, yet her seeming reluctance to dance to this part of their music bothered him. She wasn’t real demonstrative with the whole ‘love’ thing, and at first he’d put it down to the whole ‘cop’ thing. Cops weren’t, he knew, the most demonstrative people out there – because, well, emotions were often seen as ‘the enemy.’ Emotions had to be contained, controlled, ignored. He’d seen too many instances where emotions were turned around and used against people, cops too, where emotion clouded judgement – with often fatal results – so yeah, he got that.

‘But why with me?’ he wondered. So, he’d asked Tom.

“Just like her mother,” Tom Sawyer said – not a little stoically. “Wouldn’t read too much into it.”

“Would it bug you too much if I asked her to marry me?”

And the old man had turned around and grinned. “Fell in love with her, did ya? Well, I’ll be.”

“And?”

“And? If she loves you enough to marry you, that’s all I need to know, son.”

“Has she said anything…”

“Nope, ain’t goin’ there, John. That’s between the two of you. You got something to ask, I reckon you need to get around to askin’ her, not me.”

So they’d finished working the fences in time to run over to May’s, and the old gal was just pulling a batch of jalapeño cheddar cornbread from the oven when they walked in. “Got some fresh pintos goin’, y’all,” she said as she looked up from the oven. “Collard’s will be ready in a little bit, if’n you want to wait some.”

“I’ll wait,” Tom said, “but bring my pintos and cornbread – now!”

May laughed and shook her head. “You gonna plant me some okra this year?”

“How much you want, woman?”

“Four, maybe five bushels. Reckon you can do that for me?”

“Reckon you can get some of that cornbread over here – like, before I die?”

“Tom Sawyer! You be nice to me or you ain’t gettin’ nuthin’!”

Tom shook his head and grinned as May walked up with a platter of cornbread and three bowls of pintos.

“Goddamn, that smells good,” Dickinson said – and everyone went stone cold.

“Don’t use the Lord’s name in vain, young man, or I’ll take you out back and skin you alive,” May said without a hint of humor in her voice.

“Sorry, Ma’am,” John said as she walked back to her kitchen.

Tom looked at him, shook his head. “Ain’t many things around here more important than God, John. Best remember that.”

“Yessir.”

Becky was trying not to smile and yet it seemed like she was eating this scene right up, while John – the big, bad cop being chastised by May was about the best thing she’d seen all year, and this year had been a doozy. She looked at the boyish chagrin on his face right now and wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh – or give him a hug. What she was sure of was her feelings for him.

She could see it working, the two of them, despite the age difference.

That had bothered her most of all…the idea that ten years from now he might want to move on to greener pastures. She’d be in her fifties – just – when he hit forty. Would that matter? Of course it would, but how much would it affect their relationship then? And she looked at her dad, watched the years grinding down on him, slowly wearing him out after almost sixty years on this farm. Is that really how she wanted to end her days? Working this dirt? Was it all really so important?

When she was home, in Dallas, she knew it was – but once she was out here? The proximity to such endless, back-breaking work, day in and day out, was often more than she could take. Hadn’t her parents struggled to earn enough to send her to school, just so she could escape this life? How many times had she heard her father grouse about wanting to earn a living with his head, not his back? Then he’d fall back and say something tangential, like, “Well, somebody’s got to do it. Might as well be me.”

Was that really all there was to it, all it came down to? You were born on a farm, so you were a farmer? Could it really be so simple? That, in the end, she was a farmer, and despite everything else she learned or did somehow that one bit of information had wormed it’s way into her DNA? Was she now a fish out of water? Did school and job mean nothing? Was she going against her first best destiny by turning away from the farm?

‘And I’m the end of the line,’ she sighed. She wouldn’t have kids, she knew, because she’d decided to move away from the farm. She was abnegating her future, consciously. Because sometimes it felt like, by moving away from this destiny, she had deemed herself unworthy of procreation.

‘Could I, still? Could I have a baby? Just stop taking the pill, see what happens?’

She watched John as he sliced up a jalapeño and gave some to her father, and she smiled, shook her head when he offered her some, too, but she looked at him now – differently – and though she tried to hide her thoughts she was sure they were blazing away like a new star, born in this very same room she’d shared with family and friends for four decades.

“I’d love to know what’s on your mind right now,” John said, putting down the plate, looking at her with a million questions in his eyes.

“Would you?”

“Yup,” he said, taking a spoonful of beans.

“I was wondering. Think you’ll ever ask me to marry you?”

He tried not to cough, put his spoon down and shook his head. “Whoa? Where’d that come from?”

“I love you to pieces. I want to try and have a baby with you. What do you think?”

“Well,” Tom sighed, “as long as you two don’t do it right here on the table, I’m all for it,” then he stood and excused himself, walked out to the parking lot and started whistling.

“Now that’s funny,” he said.

“What’s funny?”

“I was just talking to your dad a while ago – about how much I love you. And how I’m not sure if you love me or not…”

“You…what?”

“You hold things in, Becky. I tell you I love you a dozen times a day yet, you know, most times it just bounces off some wall…

She nodded her head. “I’m afraid.”

“Afraid?”

“Yes. That I’m too old for you, that you’ll get tired of me one day and leave.”

“Oh. Okay. So? You wanna get married, have babies?”

“Yes.”

“Well, good. So do I.”

“What’s that?” May said, carrying three heaping platters loaded with CFS, mashed potatoes and greens up to the table. “Someone say something about getting married?”

John looked at the old gal and stood up, helped her put the plates down on the table then he said, “Yup, reckon I did.” Then he kissed her on the forehead and went out to get Tom before his cheese grits got cold.

+++++

When they got back to the house, after a celebratory Lone Star or two, the phone was ringing – and Becky ran inside to get it – while Tom cast a wary glance at the sky.

“Big storms comin’ in,” he said. “We best get the cows in now, and fast.”

John turned and looked to the southwest, where Tom had been looking, and while he could see some clouds they didn’t look that threatening. Yet if he’d learned one thing down here the past week and a half it was this: when Tom spoke, only fools ignored what he said.

“What do you want me to do first?”

“You move ‘em this way, to the corral, and I’ll get ‘em in. Once that’s done you start hayin’ ‘em, and I’ll move the tractor to the shed, get that battened down…”

They both stopped short as Becky came running to the barn.

“John…the Lykes girl…she hit again.”

“What?” After the witness and her boyfriend were killed, Rebecca Lykes had, just as Becky thought, gone quiet. No new leads developed, no witnesses came forward, and the DAs office had advised they ‘cold case’ the file until something new developed. After several months, their interest, let alone the time they had available to pursue such things flagged, and John hadn’t thought about the case in weeks. “What’s happened?”

“The same motel on Harry Hines. That first one? Remember? Another middle-aged male, cruciform wound, cottage cheese and green onions left at the scene.”

“Fuck-a-doodle-doo,” Dickinson whispered.

“Did that boy just say ‘fuck-a-doodle-doo?’” Tom asked, looking slightly amused.

“Yeah dad. What’s up?” she said, looking at the expression on his face.

“Big storm. I can smell it now. Over by Corsicana. Be here in a half hour.”

“How big?”

“Hail, maybe a twister or two. Better go turn on the TV, see if you can get WFAA or KRLD?”

Becky took off for the house and John for the pasture behind the dairy barn, while Tom went inside the barn and opened up the stalls. He helped John get the cows settled in, then turned to him. “I think we got about fifteen minutes…”

“How can you tell?” John said, exasperated.

“You been through enough of ‘em, you can smell ’em comin’. Now, I got to get the tractor in. There’ll be a few rattlers in the hay, so be careful.”

“Rattlers?” John moaned as he picked up a pitchfork. “Oh, joy,” he sighed, then he looked to the south-southwest when a deep rumble shook the ground. Huge black clouds were boiling beyond the tree line, and the air to the south was almost misty green now. He cut open a bale and starting pitching feed into each stall, watched a foot long rattler slither off in the general direction of the door as he made his way down the barn. Why was it, he wondered, that dairy cattle looked so goddamn affectionate? One of them, Daisy-May, even liked to turn around and lick the top of his head when he was under her. Hell, after a few days here he’d just about decided to become a vegetarian. “Goddamn CFS tastes too goddamn good to do that to myself…”

“What?”

Startled, he turned and looked at Becky. “Anything on the boob-tube?”

“Tornado warnings. Everywhere.”

“Damn. He’s like a human weather station, ya know? Oh, a little rattler just went over there,” he said, pointing to a spot a few feet from where she stood.

And she shrugged – a blasé little huff – like, ‘Okay, so what’s the big deal?’

He rolled his eyes, shook his head.

“As soon as this blows through we’re gonna need to head on back to town. Captain wants us on this ASAP. Official recall.”

“Swell. We have four days left, ya know.”

“It’s our case.”

He nodded, flinched when he saw a huge arc of lightning a mile or so away, then a shattering crack of thunder hit – and it felt like the air had been pulled from his lungs. The cows turned away from the sound, started mooing, stamping hoves.

“Let’s check the gates, help Dad get the shed secured,” she said, but he was already running from the shed – for the house – pointing to the sky as he ran.

They turned, saw the funnel beyond the trees – and Dickinson stood, transfixed.

She looked too, for a second, then grabbed John’s shirtsleeve and pulled him towards the house, and they ducked down into the storm shelter as winds began whipping the air around the main house. Tom set all the locks in place and sat down after he turned on an overhead light, then he looked at them and grinned. “Glad I remembered to pay my insurance bill this year,” he said, winking at Becky.

She grinned too, then looked up at the concrete ceiling as something heavy fell across the door…

Then the light went out.

+++++

His office was on the fortieth floor of the First National Bank building, recently renamed Interfirst Bank, Dallas, not that that made the slightest difference to him. Lykes Petroleum was unlike all the banks – and politicians – in Dallas. Lykes was an institution, a dominant presence on the international scene. “Bankers and politicians come and go,” he liked to say, “but oil is forever.” As the biggest ‘independent’ operating out of Texas, he had five floors in this building staffed with engineers and accountants, lobbyists and security personnel. His own net worth was unknown to most everyone in the world – speculation put the figure north of ten billion dollars – yet he lived modestly, compared to, say, the Saudi princes with whom he usually mingled. He had no mansions outside Geneva, for instance, nor did he own a mega-yacht. He had his place in Highland Park, a small house behind The Chart House in Aspen and his grandfather’s old place at Koon Kreek, south of Athens, where he felt most comfortable – most at-ease.

And beside his daughter, he had Sue. Susan Collins, his longtime secretary. They were the ‘yin and yang’ of his life: Rebecca, who kept him grounded to a past worth dying for, while Sue reminded him there were still things beyond rubies worth living for.

He was standing now by the vast wall of glass in his corner office, looking to the south southeast – watching a massive wall of cloud advance to the east – when he heard his door hiss open. He could smell her perfume and he closed his eyes, thought of their time the night before for a moment and he smiled. “There’s a big storm brewing,” he said when he felt her by his side.

“There are two police detectives waiting,” she said. “They need to speak to you.”

Those words brought him back in to the present. “Police? What about?”

“Something about Becka. Would you like me to stay in here with you?”

“Becka? Well, yes. Please,” he said.

And she could her the sudden dis-ease in his voice, the hidden concern, as she walked out to get the men.

“Oh, God. What has she done now,” he sighed. So many fears, so many banked down low for so long… He looked south, to the storm, and wondered whether he could stand up to this, again. He heard them enter and waited for them to take a seat – yet still he stood looking out the window.

“Big storm out there,” he said at last. “Any alerts out?”

Captain of Detectives Bill Sunderman looked at the man, possibly the richest in Texas, if not the country, and wondered what he knew. “Tornado warning for Henderson County, sir. Funnel on the ground south of Athens.”

He turned to his secretary. “Miss Collins, would you call Mrs Wilson at the club, see it they have the warning?” She nodded and went out to her desk, and the door closed behind her. “Now, what can I do for you gentlemen?” he said as he flipped a button on his desk and locked his door. Then he turned on his intercom – so she could hear everything and take notes.

Sunderman laid out what had happened last fall, including their suspicions, and why his daughter had fallen under their radar.

“We believe it started when she was at SMU. We’ve developed a lot of information that she got in with a group of kids taking organic chemistry that began making LSD during their lab sessions, and after hours.”

His eyes had been open after that. The number of people they’d interviewed, the number of witnesses who confirmed her involvement. Then the deaths and assaults, all on men who – in one way or another – had either worked for or had dealings with Lykes Petroleum…

“And you think my daughter has had something to do with this?”

“Yessir, we do.”

Then, a knock on the door.

He flipped a switch and the door hissed open; in walked three members of his legal staff.

“Detectives,” Lykes said, “these are members of my staff. Please lay out your evidence to them, and now, if you’d be so good as to leave. They will let me know what’s happened, and what you need. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I have other matters to attend.”

Sunderman looked at the man, not quite believing this turn of events. “Sir…” he began, but the three lawyers stepped between them.

“Officers. If you’ll come with us…”

He listened as the detectives were escorted from the room, and as Sue came back in and locked the door. She came up to him as he stood looking at the storm, put her arms around his waist, the side of her face against his back – and she didn’t say a word. She listened to his breath until she felt the shaking subside, until his muscles eased a bit.

“So…”

“She’s trying to protect you, again,” Sue whispered.

“I know.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Switzerland, I think. She can finish school there.”

“Where is she now?”

“I don’t know. We had an argument the night before last. She didn’t come home last night.”

“Do you want me to call Bob? They have a beacon in her car, I seem to recall.”

“Go ahead. And tell them to prepare for her departure.”

She let go, turned to leave…

“Sue?”

She stopped, turned to face him. “Yes?”

“I love you.”

She came to him, kissed him for the longest time then returned to her desk, called the head of the family’s personal security detail.

‘What now?’ she said to herself as she listened to the phone ring. ‘What has that psychotic cunt done to him now – and will it ever stop?’

+++++

She was at her grandfather’s house, at Koon Kreek, watching the storm rage just to the north of the ‘Old Lake’ – the original lake the clubhouse overlooked – and she smiled. ‘Maybe it’ll take out that Sawyer cunt, and her dim-witted partner, too.’

She had seen there cars when she passed the house by the night before, after she’d taken care of that Dempsey guy. One more of her father’s headaches dealt with, she sighed, satisfied with the results – and with these two detectives down here, not on the case, she figured she had time to rest, to keep out of sight.

Then she saw the funnel drop from the wall cloud, felt the change in atmospheric pressure. And another change came over her then…

“What if it hits their house? They’ll be hurt, or worse!” she said, as she grabbed her car keys and ran for the Mustang…

+++++

The sound, the pressure, was incredible. Like a freight train looming in the night, the roar was subtle – at first – then in seconds it fell on the house and they ducked to the cold concrete floor as the storm hit. That the house was gone was not in doubt; only the extent of the damage to the rest of the farm remained an open question – then the storm door was literally ripped off it’s hinges and an old pecan tree came ripping down into the cellar. The old man tried to hold on to something, anything, but he felt himself being sucked out the passage and fear gripped him like nothing ever had before – then he felt Dickinson’s hand grasping for his and he caught it, held on for dear life. His feet were off the floor now, being pulled out the sundered doorway, and he looked down now, saw a shattered branch had impaled Becky – and she was bleeding…

“John!” he screamed, trying to hear his own voice over the screeching banshees. “Look-at-Becky! She’s hurt!”

Dickinson turned, saw Becky struggling with a limb that had pinned her to the concrete floor, then he saw blood running under her shirt – and somehow he pulled Tom down into the shelter, turning to her as he did. They were on her in an instant, trying to pull the limb free, or even break it loose, but the full weight of the giant tree had her pinned.

As the wind fell away, John tried to push his way up the tree, but the way out was a tangled mess of twisted limbs and wet leaves…then he saw her.

Rebecca Lykes. Staring down through the branches and leaves.

“What are you doing here?” he hissed.

“I was driving by…is anyone hurt?”

“Yes. Becky is.”

“Becky?”

“Yes, Miss Sawyer. She bleeding, badly.”

He saw the change come over the girl in an instant. She pushed her way through the leaves, down into the cellar, and she knelt besides Becky, took her wrist and started assessing her condition. “We’re going to need a rescue crew here, stat. Look, the house is gone, but I saw lights on at May’s. Take my keys, get down there and call the fire department…”

Dickinson looked at her, didn’t know what to…

“Don’t think! Go!” Lykes yelled, and he nodded his head, pushed his way out the opening and into the greenish twilight. He ran for the Mustang and peeled out, drove for the café as fast as the rain-swollen dirt road allowed. He slid into the muddy parking lot and ran for the door, and May met him as he ran up.

“Twister hit us,” he panted. “Becky’s trapped in the cellar, bleeding out.”

“I’ll call the fire department,” May said, “and get some of my people headed you way. How’s the house?”

“Gone.”

“Dear God. Okay, you git. We’ll be right behind you.”

“Bring chain saws,” he said as he left, as May turned for her phone, and he sprinted back to the farm as the last of the rain passed. Tom was already cutting limbs with a chainsaw near the entry, and he started pulled limbs and debris away. Minutes seemed like hours, but more pickup trucks slid to a stop and neighbors jumped to work clearing more debris – and parts of the house – from the area.

Tom Sawyer stepped away, turned and assayed the damage, and Dickinson turned with him.

“Barns are okay,” Tom said, and there was some relief in his eyes, but he looked and sounded completely devastated. He walked off towards the dairy barn just then – as May drove up in her old Impala – just as two fire trucks turned up the dirt road.

An ambulance followed, and paramedics jumped down into the cellar moments later, and he saw the Lykes girl crawl out a minute after that. She saw him and walked over, and she looked at the cop right in the eye the whole way over.

“I don’t think anything vital was hit, no arterial bleeding anyway. Her pulse is steady and unchanged, and she hasn’t lost consciousness.”

He looked at her, not sure what to do.

“Well? Are you going to say something? Or just stand there staring at me?”

“Why?” he asked.

“Why what?”

“Why’d you come here?”

“Look, like I said, I was just…”

“No, you weren’t.”

She looked into the cop’s eyes, could see he was cutting through layers of deceit – like his eyes were scalpels. “No, I wasn’t. But I was afraid someone was hurt, and I had to…”

“You know what? I’m probably going to get fired for this, but you need to get out of here, fast. They’ve already called, want us back in town to start looking for you.”

She nodded her head. “Okay. Why? Why are you letting me go?”

“I’m giving you a little head start, that’s all. I owe you that.”

“Okay. You know something?”

“What?”

“Your next,” she said. “At least – you were.” She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, then smiled at him. “Got my keys?”

He tossed them to her then looked away, as if giving her his leave to run – then he watched her drive away before he ran back to the cellar.

Coda

She made it back to work six weeks later, and as she’d officially been summoned back to work just before the storm hit her injuries were classified as ‘on-duty’ – so the financial impact of the event wasn’t so overwhelming.

She claimed she did not remember being rescued, or who was involved, and her father never mentioned seeing a Ford Mustang at the farm. John Wayne Dickinson, of course, never mentioned anything of the sort. Neither did he mention his activities after he following Becky’s ambulance to Parkland Hospital that evening. Like calling Rebecca Lyke’s father at his house later that night. He did not mention driving to Love Field at two in the morning – and watching Rebecca Lykes walk up into a private Boeing 707-320c that had just landed and refueled at the Braniff facility next to Southwest Airmotive. Neither did he mention talking with people in the shadows as the jet took off and turned to the northeast.

The Lykes case was officially closed, marked solved, later that summer after all leads went cold.

John and Becky Sawyer were married in August, not long after work on Tom Sawyer’s new house was finished. No one commented that the new house was quite a bit nicer, and bigger, than the one it replaced. John was asked once, by May, and he only said that he and Tom had done a lot of the work themselves.

Tom drove them over to DFW Airport after the wedding, and he saw them off on their honeymoon. They were going to Switzerland as it turned out, but Tom didn’t see anything wrong with that.

The only thing that bothered him, in fact, was an odd statement John made on the way to the airport. “Oh, I have a few loose ends I need to take care of over there, pops.”

“Loose ends?” Tom remembered asking.

“Oh, more like an errand. Just something I have to do. For a friend.”

© 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Cottage Cheese & Green Onions+C3+WIP

cottage cheese image

I hope you’ll forgive my foray into East Texas cooking the other day, but I simply couldn’t resist revisiting a few old childhood haunts in the last chapter, and May’s Café was one of those I had to include. I was flipping through an old photo-album yesterday and ran across several images of my father and I – getting on/off our motorcycles, no less – in front of May’s back in 1984 – which took me back to riding home after lunch. Funny thing, memory. I hadn’t thought of that day in years, maybe decades is more accurate, yet looking at that picture opened the floodgates. I could smell the café – her cooking, hear the air conditioner rattling away in the corner as I watched May working her magic at the stove. I’ve been in there when Willie Nelson was working on a song, on other occasions with my grandfather and his friends – but with my dad perhaps hundreds of times. Playing reruns from memory is a fascinating thing, too. If a flash hits and you sit still, close your eyes, it feels to me like you can really go deep into even the oldest memories. How accurate they are after 50-60+ years is anyone’s guess, but it seems to me that everything is there – just waiting to be explored again. Some of that stuff works it’s way into these stories, too. For what it’s worth.

Recalling those first times I went out on stage, in college, was a blast, too. I, of course, took another road, didn’t pursue music after school, and my own stage fright played a huge role in that choice, yet writing Outbound took me back to the Bay Area, to all the people I knew. Yes, even a few at MCA, which led to thinking about all kinds of “what ifs” as I lay there in bed. Thank goodness for MacBooks. Writing has been a good way to take inventory of my life, the good, the bad, the choices made. The roads taken, and the roads I turned away from. When I play a few of the songs I put together back then it all comes back. Comes together, perhaps.

Anyway, on to the story.

For those who’ve paid attention, one more character – Paul Edward McCarley – popped up in Chapter 2. Yup, the same Ed McCarley you discovered in The Dividing Line, one of my earliest stories posted at LIT – about the patrolman and the waif-street girl. McCarley figures prominently in Out of the Blue, second only to the protagonist, Pat Patterson, who’ll you’ll also meet, briefly, in this story. The “McCarley” figure is real enough; he was my FTO for a while and played the biggest role in my development as an officer. He was the conscience of the department, one of the most looked-up-to cops I ever ran across. Think balding, kind eyes and a mustache the size of a wooly mammoth and you’ve got him down. What made McCarley a cop’s cop is simple enough, too. He wasn’t a bully. He appreciated just what was at stake when you arrested someone, in effect depriving a person of their liberty.

You have to know what liberty means to understand what taking it away from someone really costs – all of us.

I keep thinking…if an Ed McCarley had boarded that United flight last month where the doc was assaulted and dragged off the plane, you’d have seen a video of a middle aged guy listening patiently, talking quietly, resolving the situation one way or another – without resorting to violence. My guess is most cops are taken from the Ed McCarley mold; it’s the loudmouthed bullies who make the news and they are a distinct minority in law enforcement. Good and bad, they’re both out there, but I think the good outnumber the bad a hundred to one. At least that used to be the case…

+++++

Cottage Cheese & Green Onions

Chapter 3

When Dickinson walked into CID just before shift change that next Tuesday, he found Ed McCarley waiting for him in the hallway.

“Have a good day off, rook?” McCarley said – in his usual passive-gruff voice. And why did he feel like he was still being graded?

Still, Dickinson smiled when he saw his old FTO, if only because Ed was his favorite cop in the whole wide world. “What’s up? You look kinda – worried?”

“Maybe because I am. There was another one, late Saturday, early Sunday.”

“What? Where? We were supposed to get a call if…”

“Your witness, in her apartment. She and her boyfriend…cruciform knife wounds and a container of…”

“Let me guess,” Sawyer said, stepping out of the locker room, “cottage cheese and green onions.” She was holding up a copy of the report as she walked up to them. “We were watching the place after we dropped her off. Took her by Fair Park, got some tickets and an arm band, kind of an alibi, I guess.”

“It didn’t work,” McCarley said.

“I don’t get it,” Dickinson added. “We dropped her off then set right up; her door wasn’t out of sight for more than a minute. That means our perp waited for us to leave…”

“Or she was already there before we dropped her off.”

“That would mean she went straight there, from the peep show,” Ed said. “So, the perp saw her, that’s for sure.”

“Yup,” Sawyer sighed, reading through the report. “And I’d say she was well known to them, both to Sam and her boyfriend. To let her in like that…”

“That’s why I’m here,” McCarley said. “I’ve had a few encounters with Darius Jenkins. That’s her boyfriend, in case you haven’t read that far,” McCarley sighed. “Jock over at SMU, blew his knee and went into dealing full time after that. Runs a few girls, too, mainly underage dark meat to hotels out on Hines.”

“On Harry Hines?” Dickinson asked. “That’s where our…”

“Probably coincidence,” Sawyer growled, turning a page, still reading. “Another syringe cap, same brand and size. I’m thinking a disgruntled nurse, maybe recently fired?”

“So,” Dickinson added, “female white, mid-twenties, short brown hair? And a nurse? And we’ve got her Identikit drawing, too. Assuming…”

“Assuming she was straight with us. I think maybe she was protecting her dealer, who happened to be a friend,” Sawyer added.

“Then why’d Sam narc her out to begin with?”

“To cover her own ass, when the victim was found.”

McCarley nodded. “That fits. Also, my rook and I found a wig in a dumpster Sunday evening, about two blocks away.”

“Blond?”

“That’s right.”

“Damn.”

“Yeah. Whoever this is, she’s planning them real good, right down to her escape and evasion routes. She’s thinking things through, sticking to her plan.”

“So, a medical worker with possible military training? Like a medic?”

“Good place to start,” McCarley said. “My rook and I are floating tonight. I think we’ll work Harry Hines – in an unmarked.”

“What unit are you?” Sawyer asked.

“2171.”

“Okay,” she said, writing the number on her pad, “we’re 320, and we’ll check in with you on 2.”

“Got it,” McCarley said as he walked off to his shift’s patrol briefing.

“Well, let’s face the music,” she said, walking into CID’s evening shift briefing.

+++++

McCarley and his rookie, Pat Patterson, checked out a ‘76 Chevy Monte Carlo from the garage and turned out onto Harry Hines – into the early afternoon rush. Downtown would be last to flush out of the skyscrapers, but all the ancillary service types around downtown were pouring onto the streets now, and traffic was already heavy as they made their way past the Old Red Courthouse, and Dealey Plaza.

“Hard to believe it happened right here,” Patterson said, looking up at the window in the old school book depository – where Oswald leaned out and fired three shots that changed the world. “Were you here then?”

“I’m old, Meathead, but not that old.”

“Sorry.”

“So. Someone in the medical field. Short, brown hair, not real tall, not fat, not skinny. No vehicle. Possibly military, maybe a medic at one point. First murder was near Oak Lawn, near the old SO building…”

“SO?”

“The old Sheriff’s Office, over on Maple. Wasn’t a mile from where it happened, so maybe she knows the area. Works or lives around there.”

“Well, that means Parkland,” Patterson said, turning onto the convoluted ramp that led under the railroad tracks and up to Stemmons Expressway.

“So…” McCarley said – thinking out loud, “what’s at Parkland? The hospital, the MEs office…”

“There’s a medical school, too,” Patterson added. “What would an Army medic try to do after getting out of the military?”

“Go into nursing?”

“Or try for med school.”

McCarley looked at Patterson, nodded his head. “You know where it is?”

“The med school? No, not really.”

“Get off on Inwood,” McCarley added, then he guided Patterson to the med school. “Okay, let’s just cruise, see what we can see.”

After ten minutes they stopped, parked under a live oak tree and watched the two parking areas they had found reserved for students…

“320, 2171 on two.”

McCarley picked up the mic: “71, go.”

“20?”

“UT Southwestern, scoping out the student parking lots.”

“4.”

He put the mic back in it’s holder and looked at a bunch of kids coming out of one of the classroom buildings, zeroed in on two girls with short brown hair. One walked over to a vaguely yellow Honda Civic, the other to a white Mustang convertible, and he hefted a pair of binoculars to his face and called out the license plate numbers to Patterson, who then ran the numbers through dispatch.

“320, 71, whatcha got?”

“Short brown hair, one getting in a Civic, the other in a Mustang convertible.”

“What color is the Mustang,” Sawyer asked, thinking of the girl in May’s Café on Sunday.

“White.”

“Get on her, now.”

“4,” McCarley replied. “What’s up?”

“Girl in a white Mustang convertible showed up where we were eating Sunday, scoped us out pretty good…”

“2171, have your 28 on 330-Paul Adam Ida.”

“71, go ahead.”

“Comes back to Rebecca Lykes, address on Belclaire, Highland Park.”

“Can you pull a 27?”

“Standby.”

“320, 71, you on her?”

“4.”

“4. Code 5.” Sawyer looked at Dickinson. “Couldn’t be this easy, could it?”

“Nope.” Dickinson cut through traffic, made it over to Harry Hines in a hurry.

“2171, have your 27 info on Lykes, Rebecca C, DOB 8-8- 59, no history, no CCH, no wants or warrants.”

“320, we need a marked unit to intercept.”

“141, 320, I’m coming up on 71 now. What do you need?”

“Field interrogation, and I want to do it. Make it a solid stop, not something feather-legged.”

“God,” Sawyer said to Dickinson, “how’d we get lucky enough to have a motor-jock in the area?”

“141, traffic.”

“141, go ahead.”

“141, 330-Paul Adam Ida, 2700 Harry Hines.”

“141 at 1710.”

“Okay,” Sawyer told McCarley, “we’re close to Cedar Springs.”

“2171, show us out with 141.”

“1711.”

“Pull up ahead of ‘em,” McCarley said, and after they got out of the Monte Car they watched the Traffic officer talking to the girl behind the wheel – and she was getting hysterical, putting on quite a show. Crying loudly, then louder still when Dickinson and Sawyer pulled over and stopped across the street, McCarley watched her eyes darting around, surveying her surroundings.

He knew the type. She was an actor.

Sawyer and Dickinson walked up to the window.

“There a problem, Ma’am?” Sawyer said, leaning over to look closely at the girl.

“What-is-going-on?” the girl wailed. “What did I do?”

Sawyer just looked at the girl, trying to get a feel for her. An act, or really freaked out? Hard to tell. “What did the officer tell you,” she asked.

“That I was speeding, like 42 in a 30. Jesus, does it take five cops to write a speeding ticket?”

“No, Ma’am, just checking. You have a safe day now,” she said as the motor-jock walked up with his ticket book.

“Press hard, Ma’am,” he said. “You’re making three copies.”

After they let her go Sawyer asked everyone to meet up over by the Scottish Rite Hospital, and they drove over to compare notes and impressions.

“She’s hinckey,” the motor-jock said, meaning she was too nervous for the situation, probably hiding something.

“Agree,” McCarley added. “Nice act, but not sincere.”

“Well,” Sawyer added, “she’s the girl that made us at lunch Sunday. That might have been coincidence, or maybe not.”

“It wasn’t,” Dickinson said. “Something in her eyes. Cold. Broken.”

“A medical student?” Patterson said. “From Highland Park? What are you thinking? She’s doing it for kicks?”

“Yeah,” Sawyer said – looking at Patterson. “Who came up with the med school idea? You?”

“Yup,” McCarley said, jumping in. “Not bad for a rook, huh?”

“How long you been outta academy?”

“Two weeks,” Patterson said.

Sawyer looked at McCarley, shook her head. “Go over to her neighborhood, see if she goes home. If you see her, make sure she sees you.” She turned to Patterson. “What’s your background?”

“Psych major. UT Austin.”

“Okay. Ed, you two will probably need to let me talk to the WC first, but you two are on it now, with us. Start a tail on her, and we’ll keep it going for a few weeks. Stay on her til relieved, okay?”

“Got it.” They turned and left, and Sawyer made sure she had all the info from the motor-jocks ticket in her notes, then thanked him. When they were back in the Crown Vic she turned to Dickinson. “Downtown. We call the captain and the WC, let ‘em know what we have.”

“That car’s like a beacon, Becky. She won’t…”

“She probably won’t, true, unless she wants to up the thrill factor. She’ll more than likely try to shake any tail we put on her, try for one more kill to establish an alibi, throw us off for a while.”

“So, you think this is a game?”

“Yup. It’s in her eyes. Now, we wait for the next shoe to drop.”

“Which is?”

“Daddy calls the mayor.”

“What?”

“That address? Daddy’s either in banking, or more likely, oil. Daddy has influence. Baby girl is going to call Daddy, tell him what went down and tell him cops have the house staked out. Daddy’s going to get pissed and call the mayor, the mayor will call the chief…”

“Yeah, shit rolls downhill. I got that. So, what does it mean?”

“If it’s a traffic stop she’s worried about, she won’t do that. If it’s something bigger, she will.”

“And if she doesn’t, she’s not our girl?”

Sawyer shook her head. “No, she’s our girl. Sunday nails it. No way she showed up there out of coincidence. That was her one fuck up.”

“What it is wasn’t? If that was deliberate…?”

“She’s letting us know she knows who we are.”

“So…that was a warning?”

Sawyer nodded. “That’s the way I read it.”

“Do you think she’s leaving bread crumbs? That she wants to be…”

“I don’t know, John. But it wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened, would it? There’ve been a couple of serial killers – that we know of – who like the idea of outsmarting the cops. It all plays into the superiority vs inferiority thing you mentioned.”

“We’ve got to get more on her background…”

“Yeah, and we’ve also got to admit she might not be the one, too. It could all be coincidence, despite what my gut says right now.”

+++++

She was upstairs, highlighting passages in her biochemistry textbook, when she heard her father coming up the stairs outside her room. As usual, she heard him go to his room, take off his clothes and put on his running gear, then he stopped by her room.

“Ready to go?” he asked.

She got up from her desk and smiled, went over to her bed and slipped on her new running shoes, then they walked out the house together and stretched on the sidewalk – as they had almost every afternoon for the past five years. Since her mother’s death, anyway.

“How’d your day go?” she asked, trying not to look at the old Chevy across the parkway – with the two cops inside just staring at her.

“Oh, the Nigerian contracts hit a little snag, probably no big deal.”

“Oh? What happened?”

“The guy working on it on our end got himself killed last Friday. We’re trying to put the pieces together now,” he said as they took off down Armstrong Parkway.

“Bad?”

“Nah…more like a pain in the ass. It’ll be over in a few days. What’s up at school?”

“Nothing much. Same ole same ole. Oh, I got a speeding ticket today.”

“Were you?”

“Yup. Just got careless.”

“Want me to take care of it?”

“I already sent in the check, Dad. I’m not above the law, ya know, even if you think I am.”

“That’s my girl. You make me prouder ‘n prouder, Becka.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“So, Thanksgiving is coming up. How many days off can you afford to take from your studies?”

“Two or three. Why?”

“I thought maybe we might go diving. Run down to Cayman Brac, bit a few of those reefs we did a few years ago.”

“Oh.”

“That doesn’t appeal to you?”

“I think I’d rather dive the north wall off the main island. Maybe see another Eagle Ray.”

“That place on the point?”

“Yeah. I know it’s not the most posh place there, but the diving was great.”

“Okay. Mind if we bring Sue along?”

“Wow, Dad. Is this getting serious?”

He laughed a little, and when she looked at him she could see his grin, what he called a ‘shit-eatin’ grin.’ “Yeah, maybe so. How many you wanna do today?”

“The long loop, around the country club. You feelin’ up for it?”

“I need to more than I want to, Beck.”

“You’re breathing hard. What’s your pulse doing?”

He put two fingers on his carotid – like she’d shown him, and he counted off ten seconds then did the math. “About 110.”

“You’re good. Did you hear anything more about Bill?”

“No. The police have no suspects, which isn’t surprising.”

“What is surprising is that he’d hang out at a place like that.”

“Yeah, goes to show, I guess. You just never know.”

“Still, a peep show – in an adult bookstore? How long had he worked for you? Ten years?”

“Something like that.”

“It’s weird, ya know? Two people you know being taken out in the space of a few days, tied up in some sort of sex thing.”

“Yeah.” They ran on, in silence now, both of them lost in thought.

+++++

“What does her old man do?”

“Lykes Petroleum. Her grandfather was a wildcatter,” the captain of CID said, “and her old man got a degree in petroleum geology. He’s spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia.”

“Rich?”

“Oh, a little. Maybe four billion.”

“Billion? With a ‘B’?” Dickinson gaped.

“Yup. Old money, by our standards. He and the mayor are real tight, so if this angle plays out we’ll have to proceed carefully. This’ll be a real minefield…”

Sawyer was listening, but half-expecting a call from the mayor at any moment, too. She was uneasy now, because what motives could this girl have? Kicks? That sounded far-fetched – at least the more she thought about it it did. Money was out, too. That meant the Rolex on the second victim’s wrist wasn’t random, or a mistake. So, was she leaving another bread crumb, or simply being careless?

“This girl’s not careless,” she whispered, and the captain and Dickinson turned to her.

“We should have all her scores and grades,” the captain added. “From high school on, anyway. Part of the standard background check for medical school entry.”

Sawyer picked up the phone and dialed Records, asked the clerk to dig up the file then sat back with her feet up on the nearest desk.

“She’s gonna go dark now. Cut it out – for now,” Sawyer added.

“What makes you say that?” her captain said.

“She’s smart, not mental. There’s a purpose behind all this, too. We’ve got to figure out what that is, starting with all our basic assumptions.”

Dickinson sighed. “What about the victims? Any links there?”

Sawyer looked at him, nodded. “I think you just figured out what we’ll be working on tomorrow. Anyway, McCarley and his rook are off the next two days, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. Captain, what do think about keeping her under surveillance?”

“No real probable cause for an arrest at this point, so hardly any for surveillance. We know who she is, where she lives, our only witness just died of an overdose – very circumstantial link there at best – and that contact out in Athens could have been deliberate, or just coincidence. I agree with you…she’s a likely suspect, but we’ve nothing to tie her to the crimes. Nothing that would stand up in court, anyway.”

“So, we’ve got to develop this,” Dickinson said, “get something on her.”

“Yeah, rook, you could say that.”

“The only evidence we’ve got are the syringe caps,” Sawyer said.

“Any injections sites on the victims?” the captain asked.

“Not on initial exam. Still waiting for the final report.”

“What about the syringe caps?”

“B-D, insulin syringe caps, common, dime a dozen. And no prints or residue, either. All we’ve got is that – and the photos of the shoe print.”

“In semen, no less,” the captain said, wrinkling his nose. “Who found that?”

“McCarley.”

“Figures. You know, he’s turned down sergeant and CID so many times it’s funny,” the captain grumbled. “I’d love to get him up here.”

“Never happen,” Dickinson replied.

“I know. Born cop; nothing else for it, I reckon.”

“He loves the street.”

“I suppose – wish he was more ambitious, though. Well, why don’t you two come in early, work days the next few, try to get caught up on this. I’ll move the schedule around for a week or so.”

“Okay,” Sawyer said. “That’ll work.”

“Dickinson? You wanted to work homicide, didn’t you?”

“Yessir.”

“Okay.  Get this done, close it out. Then we’ll see.”

“Yessir.”

“Hope y’all don’t mind workin’ together…”   the captain said as he walked out of the office, then they looked at one another. And smiled.

“Guess we better head to the barn, get some sleep,” Sawyer said, looking at John.

“Sleep? You kiddin’?”

“Another night like last night and I’ll walk in bow-legged in the mornin’.” She feigned pelvic discomfort as she picked up her stuff, and Dickinson stared at her ass as they walked out the station.

+++++

She sat on the edge of her bed, trembling.

Her first three were linked, through her father’s deals, linked to his company in one way or another. Then there was Sam and D: if Sam had talked they could link that to her, too. She had to fix these mistakes, then she had to back off, stay off the cops radar for a while.

As she sat in her room, in the dark of a moonless night, she looked out her window at pecan trees swaying in a sultry autumn breeze. Shades of gray, ambivalent. Like claws of the dead reaching up into life to pull her down into the earth. To claim her sins as their own.

She thought of him, in bed just down the hall. How she worshipped him, wanted to protect him. He was the best father in the world. Kind and patient, so unlike his wife, her mother. She had been gorgeous but tempestuous, a red-headed beauty who’d made two movies in Hollywood before she met her father. Then she went back west, making television shows for a while, having affairs all the time, but he hadn’t cared, had he?

“She was just that kind of woman, Becka,” he had told her once – a few years after her death. “She liked to torment me, like it was a game to her. Once I figured that out it didn’t hurt so much, ya know?”

She remembered that night, too. Her mother had been diabetic since a teen, an insulin dependent diabetic, and she used to claim her fluctuating blood sugar caused her swings in mood. When she ‘got low,’ she said, she tended towards anger, violent anger. She started fights, her mother told her, yet she didn’t know why. Finally, after one argument too many, he’d simply left – holding a bloody towel to the side of his face. Just disappeared, without a trace. After three nights both were lost, truly lost, then he called, talked to her, said he’d be coming home soon to pick up some things, that he’d be filing for divorce within the week – and that he wanted her to stay with him after the dust settled.

But she knew her mother would never allow that to happen. She watched her that night, downstairs in the library reading one of her books and halfway through a bottle of bourbon two hours after dinner. After her mother passed out she went downstairs and emptied a vial of insulin into her mother’s belly, and she left everything out on the table by her chair. When she came down the next morning she found her mother’s cool body in the chair and called for an ambulance.

Simple as that. Problem solved. Coroner’s report stated accidental overdose, not a suicide, and life went on – for those worthy of it, anyway.

She stood and walked to the window that looked out over the swimming pool below, and she looked into the black water, looked at the silvery reflections of the pecan trees hovering on the surface. “Life’s a little like that,” she whispered as she stared at the image. “What is, and what should never be.”

Oh, how she longed to be by his side. To sleep together, in eternity.

This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

 

Cottage Cheese & Green Onions + Ch.2 + WIP

cottage cheese image

Cottage Cheese & Green Onions

Chapter Two

He heard music in his dream, something that sounded an awful lot like ‘woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head, found my way downstairs and drank a cup, and looking up I noticed I was late…’ and felt a little confused. Why was Paul singing in the middle of a dream?

‘Or…am I dreaming?’

Then he smelled coffee, heard someone walking around – and his eyes popped open.

“Adairs. Beer. Too much fuckin’ Lone Star.”

“You got that right, Slick.”

He recognized the voice and bolted upright. “Where the fuck am I?”

“You really don’t remember?” Sawyer said, stepping out of the shower, drying off with a towel.

He looked at her breasts and shook his head. “No. Did I have fun, at least?”

“The first two times were fun, John. The third time was surreal.”

“Ah-h. I remember now.”

“Do you? Good.”

“You’re really very sweet, you know?”

“Sweet? I’ve been called a lot of shit, but never sweet,” she said as she came to the bed and lay beside him. “Think you could use some coffee?”

“Maybe, but I think I need a little more you.”

“I like the way that sounds,” she said. “What’d you have in mind?”

“I’m still hungry.”

“Ah.”

So was she, as it happened.

+++++

She watched the man park his Mercedes and look around, then he got out and walk into the adult bookstore. She followed him in, watched him look around the videotapes for a while, then walk back into the arcade – to one of the booths. He loitered outside of one – and then turned and looked at her when she walked into area. He nodded towards the booth and she smiled, walked over to him and followed him inside.

‘Good,’ she said to herself. ‘No glory hole.’ She let him fondle her breasts, slip a finger inside for a while, then she went down on him, taking him to the edge then pulling back.

“Take your clothes off,” he growled. “I wanna fuck you up the ass.”

“Ooh, yeah baby.” She pulled off her panties and stuffed them in his mouth, then took a stocking out of her book bag and tied it off, then came up to his face. “Do it hard, baby. Like really rough, real deep. Hurt me, okay? And when you’re gonna cum tap me on the shoulder ‘cause, like, I want it in my mouth. Can you do that for me? Please?”

He was wild-eyed, almost desperate now, so she took him in her mouth again and got him slick, then turned around, presenting herself to him.

And he was rough about it too, which only made her anger blossom into something new – and far more dangerous than he expected. She’d meant this to be something like a recon, hadn’t planned on doing anyone today, but the way he was trying to hurt her? No…she was going to enjoy this one.

When he tapped her on the shoulder she pulled free and turned to face his need, but she was slow about it now, kept him from the edge while she dug her fingernails into the backs of his thighs, getting him used to the prickly sensation. Then she found a vein and slipped the syringe in while she bit the tip of his cock, and he came in her mouth while she pushed the plunger on the syringe.

It took about thirty seconds, then he put his hands out to steady himself and she helped him down into the slimy fiberglass seat. “You feeling a little light-headed? A little woozy?”

He couldn’t have spoken even if he wasn’t gagged, but when she pulled up the knife and held it up to his eyes she felt the fear in him. She unbuttoned his shirt and felt for the base of his sternum, then stepped back and got to work.

+++++

They had just stepped back into CID when the intercom blared: “Anyone down there?”

“Yup,” Dickinson said.

“Got another signal one signal thirteen combo. Is Sawyer down there yet?”

“Yeah. Give me the address. We’ll take it.”

He wrote down the particulars while Sawyer listened, then she spoke up to the intercom: “Can you ask the patrolman on scene if there’s a container of cottage cheese anywhere near the victim?”

“Standby one.”

“You don’t think?” he said. “Not this soon?”

“I have a bad feeling about this one, John. I think she’s pissed off at the world. I think she’s just getting started, too.”

“You there?” dispatch asked.

“Yup.”

“That’s ten four. A pint cup with a silver spoon in it.”

“Okay, notify the WC and roll a crime scene van to that location, get some patrol cars in the area to stop any female on foot, and checking dumpsters for things that could used as a disguise.”

“Ten four.”

She turned to him. “Know where that place is?”

“Out on Harry Hines, near Royal, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Out by all the titty bars.”

“Think she could be a dancer?”

“Hell, who the fuck knows. And let’s not call her a ‘she’ just yet, okay? Lot of chili-packers on their knees in those places…know what I mean, Jellybean?”

He nodded his head as he picked up his briefcase, then they walked down to the parking lot and checked in route, and she made him drive again while she thought out loud…

“I think we need to tell the media, get all the pervs to wake up, stop taking chances.”

“Wouldn’t do much good. That’s not exactly a risk-aversive population, ya know? I mean, who the hell sucks anonymous dick with that new virus out there?”

She shrugged, frowned: “Maybe if she knows we’re on her six she’ll cool it, ya know?”

“So, you think it’s a girl?”

“Yup, I do. And I think she comes from money, and she’s probably smart, too. Or at least she thinks she is.”

“Settling old scores?”

Another shrug. “Who knows. That, or she could be doing it for the kicks. Too soon to build a psych profile.”

“The crucifix incisions?”

“Let’s see if she repeats. I’m looking for anger, I guess, but the whole cottage thing’s got me stumped. Why take the time to do that?”

“Tell us she’s not in a hurry?”

“Yeah, but why?”

“Because she thinks she’s smarter than us?”

“Bingo,” Sawyer said. “Either she’s really fuckin’ smart or she’s insecure as shit, wants us to think she’s really fuckin’ smart. If that’s the case she’ll slip up, make a mistake.”

“And if she’s really fuckin’ smart?”

“It’s her game. She’ll think it through, stop when we get too close.”

He could see a half dozen patrol cars ahead, their reds & blues flashing in the late afternoon glare and, as they got closer he could see the ME’s van – and a WFAA Channel 8 news van – all parked on the north side of the white brick building. A crime scene van pulled in just before they did, and after he parked they went inside the bookstore.

“Why do all these places smell the same?” Sawyer said as they walked into the video arcade.

“Cum and disinfectant,” a bald headed patrolman said, down on his knees with a Mag-Lite, shining it on the floor at a really odd angle.

“Eddie?” Dickinson said, clearly pleased to see the man. Paul Edward McCarley had been, a few years back, his FTO, and it looked like he had a new rookie in-tow this evening, as well.

McCarley turned, saw Dickinson and smiled. “I heard you were wearing a suit now. How’s it goin’, Amigo?”

“Interesting. What do you have down there?”

“Maybe a print, but it’s in a puddle of splooge. As long as no one stepped in here before we got here, I think we can get some good photos, maybe with a ruler for scale, maybe get lucky and get a size.”

One of the CSU techs stooped down and looked at the smeared print with McCarley’s light and nodded. “Yeah. I see it too. Looks like a Adidas tennis shoe, something like a Stan Smith. You know, the one with all the round nubs?”

“Slick,” Sawyer asked, “can you put that out on the air?”

“Yup.”

“Any idea how long ago this went down?” Sawyer asked.

“Not long,” McCarley said. “He’s still warm, blood hadn’t coagulated when we got here, it was still running like crazy.”

“Where’s the container, the cottage cheese?”

“It’s still on the seat,” Eddie said. “Got an evidence bag?”

“As soon as you’re clear I want the techs to take it straight to their refrigerator, then right to the lab. Can you tell much about the wound?”

“Big cruciform pattern, sternum to groin. Why?”

“We had one last night, down by Oak Lawn, same MO, same cottage cheese thing too.”

McCarley sat up and looked at her then, his face registering recognition now. “Fuck-a-doodle-do,” he whispered.

“That’s what John said, too.”

“We got us a serial. Fuck. Anything else I need to know?”

“I’ll give you the number for our original report; you’ll need to write it up referencing that.”

“Shit. Is that why the news is out there?”

“Doubtful. Nothing about that one made the news. Or it hasn’t, not yet, anyway. Better give me your number too; I’ll have John write up a supplement for your report.”

Dickinson walked up carrying a Canon F-1N with an 85 1.2L on the nose. “I loaded some Tri-X, set the ASA to 800,” he said, handing the camera to the tech.

“Eddie?” Perry Goodman, the CSU tech asked. “Get that light down low again. I’ll try for a few from that angle, then let’s put a tape down for scale.”

“Right. Man, it’s tight in here,” McCarley said, laying on the floor, wiping sweat from his forehead. “John, can you get my rookie, have them turn on the AC back here; it’s getting ripe – and so am I.”

Dickinson turned to McCarley’s rookie, told him not to come back ‘til the AC was spitting snow from the vents, then bent in to look at the victim in the booth. The man looked to be about fifty, and there was a Rolex visible on the man’s wrist.

So, robbery not a motive?

“See anything?” Sawyer asked.

“Rolex,” he said – as Goodman started clicking away with the Canon.

She grunted. “Figures. Too easy to trace, no way to pawn one without leaving a trail a mile long.”

“There’s a syringe cap down here, under the seat,” McCarley said.

“What?” Dickinson and Sawyer said – at the same time.

“One of those orange syringe caps. You know, the thing they pull off before they stick you in the butt?”

“Ridged,” Goodman said. “No prints. Besides, maybe a diabetic shot up with insulin in here, you know, like before he had his Big Jack Attack?”

“Yeah?” Sawyer rejoined. “And maybe our perp stuck him with something so he wouldn’t scream.”

“Good point,” Goodman said.

“Bad pun.”

“Hey, at least you got it.”

“A three year old could get that one, Perry.”

The rookie came back, trailing a very scared looking girl, and Dickinson looked at her. ‘Uh-oh,’ he said to himself. “What you got there, Patterson?”

“Witness,” the rookie said, and Sawyer turned and looked at the girl.

“Oh? What did you see, Ma’am?”

“The girl who came out of there. And I’ve seen her before.”

+++++

Her name was Sam, Samantha Bigger, and she rode down to central in the back of their Crown Vic – with the promise that they take her home after she swore out a statement. They took her into an interrogation room, but only because it was quieter there than just about any other place in the building – and Sawyer didn’t want any distractions.

“Okay Sam, can you tell me when you got to the bookstore?”

“I guess it was around three, maybe a little before.”

“And where were you. When you saw all this?”

“Do I have to, you know, like say all that?”

“Yes, Sam, but nothing you say in here will be held against you, alright?”

The girl looked around, tried to ignore her feelings. “I go there, sometimes, ya know. I can make a hundred bucks in an hour, you know what I mean?”

“Doing what?” Dickinson asked. He was pissed because on a good day he made a hundred bucks.

“That’s okay, Sam. You don’t need to answer that.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“I do need to know where you were, what you were doing when you saw her.”

“I was in a cabin across the aisle, waiting for a, well, a customer.”

“And what did you see?”

“Well, this girl comes out. She had a book bag with her, which I thought was kinda weird, then she walked off – like she was in a hurry.”

“Tell me about the bag, like maybe what color it was.”

“Blue, with red trim, and it had an SMU thingy on it, like a patch, or a decal.”

“What was she wearing? Could you see her well enough?”

“Oh, yeah. Jeans, a dark green polo shirt and maybe white shoes.”

“How about her hair?”

“Yeah, well, that’s what I don’t get. Last time I saw her she had brown hair cut real short, but today her hair was blond. Long, and blond.”

“And you’re sure you recognized her? What was it you saw that makes you think that?”

“Her eyes, man. I saw her eyes.”

“Do you think she saw you? I mean, well enough so that she knew you saw her?”

Sam nodded her head. “Yeah. She saw me.”

“Where have you seen her before?”

“That’s the thing…I’m not sure, but I think it was over by SMU, at the old movie theatre across Hillcrest. Maybe she worked there, like behind the candy counter?”

“You said she walked away quickly. Was she scared?”

“No. She came out and looked around real fast, and that’s when she looked at me. Then she just took off.”

“Did she run?”

“No, more like a fast walk.”

“Then what did you do?”

“I went and looked inside the cabin, saw the guy on the floor and ran up front, got the guy behind the cash register.”

“So, almost no time between the time you saw her leave and the time it took you to got up front to report it?” Dickinson said.

She nodded her head. “Yeah. That’s right.”

“And you’re sure you don’t remember where you’ve seen her before?”

“No. I sure wish I did, but I don’t.”

He watched as she looked down and to the left when she answered that one, sure now she was lying – and not sure how to handle it. He looked at Sawyer, who just looked at him and winked. She knew, too…so why wasn’t she intervening?

“Well,” Sawyer said, “I guess we’ll take you home now.”

“Great.”

“Say,” she added, “you think there’s any way she might have remembered your face too? Like, she might try to find you now?”

Sam’s eyes darted away, then down to the floor, but still she didn’t say anything.

‘Bingo…’ Dickinson sighed. ‘She’s scared.’

+++++

She sat in the Mustang, breathing hard after she detoured around all the cop cars, then she turned on the engine and flipped on the AC, let the air cool before aiming the vents at her face. She’d dumped the wig in a dumpster and put on some sunglasses, and now she focused on getting her breath under control – yet she felt alive, more exhilarated than she ever had in her life.

“God! What a rush!” she cried, then she slipped the car into gear and drove off slowly, thinking about what she needed to do about Sam.

She’d been making LSD since her junior year at SMU, when one of her TAs in an organic chem lab taught her class how, and she’d been selling the crap ever since. Even in the little house she’d bought with the proceeds, her first priority had been to set up a small lab in one of the bedrooms, and she still cranked out 5-6 thousand bucks worth of the stuff every week. Three weeks work paid for a year of med school, too! Like…duh!

And Sam was one of her oldest clients, wasn’t she?

Had she talked?

Well, she decided, she couldn’t leave that to chance, so she’d have to pay her a visit. She drove over to Haskell and passed under Central, and she stopped to use a payphone at a 7-11 just down the street from Sam’s place.

D, Sam’s boyfriend, picked up on the tenth ring. “Yo!” the kid said, and she wondered how someone could make a two letter word sound so exasperated.

“D? It’s Becka. I got some fresh shit, and it’s really smooth. Wanted to know if you’d like to try a sample, maybe move some for me?”

“Becka? I can have some?”

“Yeah. Try some out for me. It’s a modified formula, just learned it. I tried it,” she lied, “and it’s outrageous shit.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah. Can I swing by, drop some off with you?”

“Yeah, man. That sounds righteous!”

“About a half hour?”

“I’ll be here.”

She went inside the store and picked up a pint of cottage cheese, then drove around the projects a few times, making sure there weren’t any cops around, then she parked a few blocks away and walked over to the apartment. He opened the door as she walked up on the porch, and closed it as soon as she was inside.

D had played football at SMU and he’d been a monster – until he blew his knee in his junior year. Now he was on disability and pimping out a half dozen girls, but she still liked him – if only because his dick was about the size of her forearm.

“How’s it hangin’, D?”

“Still down to my knees,” he said, grinning. “Want some, baby?”

“Um, you know it.”

It still looked like a water moccasin, still all shiny and black when he took it out, and she went right down on him, took him to the edge a couple of times before she finished him off with her mouth. “God, you still taste so fuckin’ good, man.”

His ego sated, he leaned back and looked at her. “So, what’s with this new shit?”

“I added a few magic ingredients, really mellows the trip. You wanna try some now, or wait for Sam.”

“Fuck that bitch, man. Gimme some now, man. You got me stoked!”

She opened her bag, pulled out the vial she’d used on the guy at the bookstore and drew up just a little hit, then tied off his arm and patted a fat vein. She swabbed him and stuck him, then sat back and watched him fall into the deep end of the pool.

His eyes half closed, he moaned a little then his eyes popped. “Oh, man, this is fuckin’ far out,” he sighed. “Like flyin’ in technicolor cloudland, babe…”

“I told ya.”

“How much ya got?”

“How much can you move for me?”

“Can you get me enough to sample some out?”

“A thousand units be enough?”

“For samples? Shit, babe, I’ll have the whole east side hooked in a month.”

“So, you wanna make some real bread?” she said, taking his cock in hand as she spoke.

“What’s with you, Beck? Why me? I thought you was done with this shit?”

“I need some bread, D. Some serious money, know what I mean?”

“Well, we can make some serious dough with this shit…”

“Think you can give me another load?”

“You keep working me over like that you’ll get more than you can handle…”

“Promises, promises…”

He sunk back in his chair again, his eyes closed now and he felt her magic mouth take him almost all the way down. “Man, Beck, you still the best that ever was, ya know?” He looked down when she stopped, saw her sliding out of her jeans, then sliding down his snake. She rode him easy now, letting the pressure build, then easing off again and again, and after about a half hour she slipped back down between his legs and savaged him with her mouth, taking him all down again – just as Sam walked in the door.

She walked over and looked at them, then sat on the sofa beside D, and she could tell he was in electric ladyland by the way he was moaning. When Becka looked up at her and grinned she knew everything was cool.

D opened his eyes and looked at Sam. “Man, Becka’s made some cool shit, Sam. She sampled me some, wants to do a deal. You in?”

Sam looked at D, then at Becka – with come still streaming out the side of her mouth. “What? You’re not going to share?”

Becka leaned over and slipped her tongue in Sam’s mouth, and they rolled their tongues together for a while, then she broke off – when she saw the bracelet around her wrist. “What’s that?”

“This? Oh, I been out at the fair all afternoon. Ridin’ some rides, ya know?”

Confused now, maybe she hadn’t seen Sam in the bookstore. Maybe. “Oh yeah? What did you ride?”

“Oh, you know that worm ride? Goes round and round, the canvas thing covers you up? I love that one…can’t get enough…”

“So? You wanna try some? D? A little more?”

They both said yes – and she smiled.

When she was finished she washed her knife in the kitchen sink, then sprinkled the last of her green onions on the cottage cheese and ate half the container, then turned on the TV. She left the apartment in the middle of the night – long after Dickinson and Sawyer had called off their stakeout for the night – and she drove home with a smile on her face…

+++++

They were both off Sunday-Monday, and he was just waking up when the phone by his bed sounded off.

“Yello,” he groaned into the handset.

“Sleeping in?” Sawyer said.

“Well, yeah, considering I didn’t get in ‘til damn near four in the fuckin’ morning. Don’t tell me you got up and went to church?”

“No,” Becky said, “I mowed the lawn, picked some weeds out in my garden.”

“Jesus…you ambitious people make me ill.”

She laughed. “I’m going to go to a place I know east of here for lunch. Wanna go?”

“I dunno. What kind of grub?”

“CFS, bar-b-cued ham, good veggies and righteous cobblers.”

“East Texas grub, huh.”

“You betcha.”

“I’ll be ready in a half hour.”

“A half hour? What…are you going to put on make up and heels?” she asked.

“Yeah, little lady, I wanna look a purdy for you, ya-ya-know,” he said, doing his best John Wayne imitation.

“Dear God. A John Wayne fan.”

“With my name – well, it kinda had to be, I guess.”

“I guess. I’ll be there in ten. You be ready.”

He said “Yes, Ma’am,” but he was pretty sure she’d already hung up the phone, so he hopped in the shower and threw on some clothes and made it down to his apartment building’s parking lot just as she pulled in – in a slate blue ‘74 Triumph Spitfire…with the top down!

“My, my, but you are full of surprises,” he said as he folded his mile long legs into the right front seat.

“It was Bob’s. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it.”

“Bob?”

She turned away, took a deep breath. “Yeah. Bob was my, well, we were not quite married but should have been. He worked for DSO, was killed one night, hit while working an accident.”

“Damn. Sorry to bring it up.”

“Keeping this old thing brings it up, John. I like to bring it up, I guess. Reminded that he was such a big part of my life once.”

“You never married, you said?”

“Yeah. The whole two cops thing,” she said as she pulled out onto the street. “Simpler that way, I guess. We wanted to keep everything ‘uncomplicated,’ I guess.”

“If you’re not having kids I reckon there’s not much reason to get married.”

“That’s what Bob used to say.”

“You…don’t agree with that, do you?”

She shook her head. “I like permanence. Knowing I can count on someone, and that they can count on me.”

“Does it take a piece of paper to make that happen?”

She nodded her head. “I think so. Sometimes it’s that little piece of paper that makes people think twice before they say, or do, something stupid. That little piece of paper that keeps you focused on today AND tomorrow. Know what I mean, Jellybean?”

“So, you think two cops can’t make a go of it?”

“Oh, not at all. Matter of fact, I think the only person a cop can rationally marry is another cop. You know the stats as well as I do.”

“Yeah, got that on day one in academy.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the point. I think marriage is a good thing, and being married to a cop is the best thing, for me, that’ll ever be.”

“Where are you going with this, Becky?”

“To lunch.”

He laughed. “That’s not what…”

“I know what you meant. I guess I want to know you better, John. Let’s just leave it at that for now, okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” But that was going to be difficult, as after Friday night he’d had a hard time thinking about anything else. Yeah, he’d been snockered, but not so out of it he didn’t know what was going down, and he’d enjoyed her, physically, but a lot more than that had quickly developed between them. Right down to her call this morning.

With the top down and her speed nailed on 55, the little Spitfire purred along and the wind wasn’t bothersome. He leaned back, turned his face to the sun and felt the dance between warm sun and crisp autumn air, and he felt the muscles in his shoulders ease for the first time in days.

“Damn, it’s nice out here,” he sighed.

“I miss life out here. It was slower, easier. Dallas is changing fast, too. It’s not going to be ‘Paris on the Prairie’ much longer, ya know?”

“It’s getting to be more and more like LA. Too many people pulling in too many different directions, pulling the fabric of the city in too many directions, too. Something’s gotta give.”

“It’s giving all the time, John. People weren’t meant to live like this, all bunched up and pushing in against each other all the time. A few hundred years ago we were almost all nomads, bound together by common interests and our beliefs, often by our churches. And now – this? Too many people piled on top of one other, doing meaningless jobs, almost leading meaningless lives and with zero prospects. Add drugs to that mix and we’ve grown a toxic cycle of decay and despair.”

“Sorry I asked.”

“I started on my Master’s last spring, just taking a couple of classes a term, but this stuff interests me as much as it bothers me. Doing nothing is being complicit, ya know?”

“So, you gonna teach?”

“I’ve been doing this fifteen years; five more and I can take early retirement. I’ll be in my early forties, and if I can finish a PhD by then I can teach college; if not I can teach in junior colleges or even high schools. Do that ‘til I’m sixty-five and I can have a nice retirement.”

“And do that with a husband and have an even nicer retirement? Is that the way that song goes?”

“Something like that,” she said, casting a little sidelong glance his way. “Does that sound bad to you?”

“No, not at all. It’s good to have some kind of goal in mind, and that’s as good as any I’ve heard.”

“My mom’s gone, but my dad still lives out here. Mind if we drop by? I haven’t seen him in a few weeks.”

“I’d like that.”

Another sidelong glance, another grin in the flickering sunlight…

‘Damn,’ he thought, ‘it sure feels good out here.’

Into Athens then south on 19 about five miles, they turned onto a little red sand road and drove about a half mile off the highway until they came to an immaculately kept bungalow. Pristine white with light gray trim on the soffit and around the windows, it was classic twenties farm architecture, and the barns were as immaculate as the house. ‘This guy’s the real deal,’ he thought as they pulled up to the house.

And his name was, as it had to be, Tom Sawyer. Red hair going gray, a few freckles on his nose and forehead, he even had a mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he walked up and hugged his daughter, then looked over at Dickinson.

“Your name really John Wayne?” he asked.

“John Wayne Dickinson. Named after two uncles.”

“Hell, that’s worse than Tom Sawyer,” the old man said – taking his hand – and everyone laughed. An old coon hound up on the front porched barked once, a deep, booming volley of a bark, and Tom turned to the dog: “Huck! Knock it off!”

“Don’t tell me…that’s Huck Finn, right?”

He turned to his daughter. “Hell, Becky, this one reads books. Quite an improvement over that last fella.”

Her face turned beet red. “Dad? Be nice, okay?”

“Yup. Reckon I can try that.”

“How many acres you got here, sir,” Dickinson interjected, trying to change the subject.

The old man looked at him, then just shook his head.

“Uh,” Becky said, “that’s kind of rude to ask. Least most people out here think it is.”

“Really? Why?”

“There’re a few things most folks out here consider off limits,” the old man said. “Politics, religion, how much land you got and how big your dick is. Keep them in mind if you talk to folks out here – got it?”

“Yessir. So. How many acres you got?”

Tom and Becky both laughed. “Shit. I like him, Becky.”

“He’s alright, Dad.”

“Well,” Tom said, pointing out behind the house, “we got a hundred and sixty back here, and across the road over there,” he said, pointing across the highway, “I just picked up forty more. They’ve been planting corn over there for a hundred years, but I’m gonna let the ground rest a while, run some cows. Good grass, maybe try some dairy stock for a few years, feed the soil then move ‘em back over here.”

“You have dairy cows here?”

“Yup. Milkin’ barn over there,” he said pointing to one of the huge – and pristine – barns a hundred yards further back from the house. Got about forty acres of soy planted out back.”

“I always thought having a dairy farm would be the unshelled nuts,” John added.

“Oh, it’s a lot of fun. The getting up at three thirty in the morning, seven days a week. Real fun.”

“Satisfying, I think I should have said. Growing things, yeah, but there’s something about dairy that seems like it’s a good thing.”

“Spend much time on a farm?”

“No, sir. I grew up in Dallas, so the closest I’ve been to a farm was the livestock pavilion at the fair. Still, the thing is, I linger there, look at the animals, watching the kids and their 4-H projects. Feels like I missed out on something important, if you know what I mean?”

“Yup, I do. So, did y’all come down to talk, or you wanna slide over to May’s.”

“Dad? You like to join us?”

“I was about to head over myself, if you can stand the company?”

“May’s?” John asked.

“May’s Cafe,” Becky answered. “About a mile from here. Best food in East Texas.”

Tom followed them in his own two-seater, a twenty-something year old Chevy pickup, and they parked in front of a old, white diner, the surface of the parking lot a mishmash of mud and old asphalt roofing shingles that had been baked by time into a semi-hard surface. There were two Harley’s in front, in the lone shady spot, and John followed Becky inside to another world.

Just a handful of table, five or so, and a small counter – with no stools – greeted them, and over in the corner? Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings had some sheet music open, and they were working away on a piece – which jolted Dickinson out of his reveries. As they walked over to a table Nelson looked up at Becky and smiled: “Hey, Beck, how’s it goin’?” he said as he stood and came over for a hug.

Which was as affectionately returned.

Then Tom walked up and shook hands all around, and Becky introduced John – who suddenly appeared tongue-tied and twisted inside.

They left them to it when May came out. “Almost out of ham, Tom,” the woman in the flour-specked apron said.

“What kind of cobbler you got,” he shot back – as if the choice determined what he’d order for lunch.

“Apple and blackberry. Oh, I made up some cheese-grits too, Tom, in case you want an egg on your CFS.”

Dickinson’s mouth was already watering from the smells drifting out of the kitchen – parts of which were visible just on the other side of the counter – and he looked at the old woman like she was some kind of magician. Everyone asked for a CFS, or chicken fried steak – and she was serving up turnip greens and mashed potatoes with it today, which suited all concerned just fine.

The afternoon was warming up and the little dining room’s window box air conditioners were rattling away, cooling the space just enough to make it comfortable, then the songwriters paid their bill and said goodbye on their way out – just as a lone girl walked in and sat by herself over by one of the air conditioners.

“Looks like a Koon Kreek girl,” Tom said, looking at the girl as May walked up to her table and described the days menu.

“A what?”

“Koon Kreek Klub,” Becky added. “Never heard of it?”

“Nope.”

“Kind of a close cousin of the Petroleum Club downtown. Old Dallas place. Words are spelled out with Ks. Ya know, as in KKK. Something like a 40 year waiting list to get in, costs a shitload, too.”

“A club? What kind of…”

“Huntin’ and fishin’,” Tom said.

“Downtown, at the Petroleum Club, there’s a mural on one of the walls. I mean a real oil painting, of ducks taking flight from one of the lakes there. The two are linked, I guess you’d say. When you consider oil is the biggest industry in the world and these two clubs are where the top oilmen in the world hang out, or aspire to hang out, it makes the place kind of a big deal.”

“And no one knows much about ‘em?”

“Yup.”

“And that’s a Koon Kreek gal? Know her, Tom?”

The old man shook his head. “Nope. Don’t pay much attention to them folk, and they don’t pay none to me, neither. I like to keep it that way, too.”

“Oh, why?”

“You got something they want, they take it. One way tor another. They pretty much keep to themselves down here though, but if they got a hankerin’ to pick up some land, say, or a business in town, well, no one get’s in their way.”

He turned to Becky then: “Say…you know Willie?”

She grinned. “Yup.”

“From around here?”

She shrugged, picked up a jalapeño from the plate on the table and took a slice, munched on it, then took a sip of ice water.

“Nothing to say about that?” John added.

“Nope.”

“Ah.”

Their lunches came, huge plates overflowing with cream gravy, and Tom’s steak had a sunny side up egg on top, as well as a small dish heaped with steaming cheese grits.

“Dear God,” Dickinson sighed, “if this is half as good as it looks…”

Tom spoke while he salt and peppered his plate: “May makes the best CFS in Texas. Hell, even LBJ used to stop by on his swings around the state, when he was courtin’ the vote, anyway. Man wasn’t as stupid as he seemed.”

John looked at Becky just then, noticed her trying not to look at the gal across the room so he turned around and looked. The girl looked at him, didn’t break contact for a moment, then she shook her head and turned back to a book she had open on the table – some kind of textbook, he guess, by the look of it.

He turned back to his plate and no one spoke while they worked their way through the meal, but May came out and slapped three blackberry cobblers on the table when they got close to finishing up. “Anyone want coffee?” she asked.

“Got any buttermilk?” Tom asked.

“Ain’t your arteries hard enough, Tom Sawyer?” May shot back.

“Not hardly.”

“Well, I’ll see if I got some.”

They settled up a half hour later, and Becky watched as the ‘Koon Kreek gal’ paid up and walked out to a new Mustang convertible, and she headed north like she was going back to Dallas – and that fit…if she’d been down at daddy’s house over the weekend. They said ‘bye’ to May and walked out to her Spitfire, talked a minute or so, and Tom asked them to come down again real soon before they loaded up and started the drive back to Dallas.

“Well, that’s my father. What’d you think of him?”

“I like him.”

“But?”

“No buts, he just seems kinda lonely. How long ago did your mother pass?”

“Been a while.”

“He’s not gonna get remarried?”

“Doesn’t want to. He works all day and Huck doesn’t leave his side. Seems content, anyway, to finish out his life that way.”

“Like I said. Lonely.”

“I think so too.”

“He gonna sell the place?”

“Nope. Goes to me. I always thought I’d come back out here someday, maybe try to make a go of it. You mean what you said about dairy cows?”

“Yup.”

She turned and looked at him then, then nodded her head. “You wanna, like, move in with me?”

The question startled him, and it showed.

“Look,” she added, “I’m not trying to be forward, but maybe we ought to see where this is headed, ya know?”

“One of us would have to quit, you know.”

“Only if we got married.”

“So, just live together?”

“For a while. See if this…thing…is real?”

“This thing?”

“Well, yeah. You see, John, the thing is, I think I’m falling in love with you…”

He smiled, turned and looked at her as she drove. “You too, huh.”

And she looked at him, looked at his smile. “Oh, yeah. I got it bad.”

“Why don’t we run by my place and I’ll pick up a few things…”

And so they drove on, back to the city – lost in thoughts about the future – and neither saw the Mustang convertible following a few miles back…

This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

+++++

Okay, for the uninitiated, here’s a rundown on the most important thing in life: chicken fried steak at May’s cafe. Yes, May’s Cafe was the real deal, as is the Koon Kreek Klub, though it shows up on Google Earth spelled with CCCs, not KKKs. You can read about the Club here, and here, and my guess is it was a very interesting place to spend time as a kid. Anyway, for those of you not fortunate enough to know Texas culinary traditions, here ya go.

Chicken fried steak is like oxygen to most people in the American South, but the east Texas variation is a beast unto it’s own. It’s all in the breading, too:

CFS

Unlike, say, a schnitzel, an east Texas CFS is beef, usually pounded into near oblivion then dredged in an egg wash, then flour – to which salt and pepper have been added. Set to dry on a plate, the steak is then re-dredge a second time, first in the egg, then the flour, and it’s this second dredging that makes the legendary crispy texture of a real, good CFS. It is then fried, usually in peanut oil but often in pure vegetable oil, though back in the day the poison of choice was Crisco, the solid stuff. It’s got to fried crispy, too, and you check that with a fork. When you tap the steak and your fork pings like a tuning fork, it’s done.

Cream gravy is an art. Erica makes a good one, my Dad’s was better, but not by much. You take the remnants in your skillet, the crispy bits – and not too much oil should be left, then you add milk or cream and start stirring in flour once the milk is not quite simmering. Add a little more milk, then flour, stirring constantly. The stuff goes from liquid to wallpaper paste in zero point two seconds, so you can’t walk away and leave it.

Most folks like mashed potatoes, and if they’re homemade they’re not bad, but I’ll do french-fries too. Greens are a must, and though collards are the norm in the deep south, in Texas you’ll get turnip greens:

turnip greens

Cheese grits, anyone?

grits

And last but most definitely not least:

Blackberry cobbler

May was famous for her CFS but her bar-b-cued ham was legendary, too. You could find her most Tuesdays at the farmer’s market in downtown Dallas, and no, she wasn’t famous, but she was loved.

Cottage Cheese and Green Onions + Ch. 01 + (WIP)

cottage cheese image

Okay, this story devolves from ongoing work on Out of the Blue, the Dallas cop novel-in-progress. You recall ‘The Duke’ – from Predators? Well, here’s a little backstory and yes, he figures in the arc of the novel’s main storyline, too.

I’m subsisting on Percocet and coffee these days, and hopefully this isn’t too incoherent, so dig out your old CDs and find Suddenly Last Summer by The Motels, put your feet up and have a read. This is a short piece, so it shouldn’t take long, but it get’s kind of gritty. Well, really gritty, so no popcorn with this one. Oh, the action starts in October, 1982, just so you know…and as usual this is fiction, but you could consider it more like experience dressed up to look like glossy bullshit and not be too far off the mark. As such, this is part of a nightmare landscape, one of many that just won’t go away.

+++++

Cottage Cheese and Green Onions

Chapter One

Maybe it would go through after all, he thought. This was the biggest deal he’d had on his desk in years, something that would put him back in the game – big time – and he’d known going in his presentation had to be flawless. It was, too. He was sure he’d nailed it, and he was ecstatic about the way the morning’s talks had gone. One of the company’s senior partners, Linda Markowski, had been there and she’d seemed pleased by the whole morning as well, so the signs were good.

They’d gone to lunch after, just he and Markowski and a couple of the principals involved, and she’d made noises about promotions if the deal was signed, sealed and delivered – and he felt like he had in the late-70s. Invincible. One of Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe. They finished two bottles of Champagne and he’d felt it, too. She was coming on to him…no doubt about it. Problem with that was simple enough, however.

It wasn’t just that she worked at the same place; no, he’d screwed half the women in the office over the years, so that wasn’t the problem. No, Markowski was Fugly – as in fucking ugly – and from behind her ass was about as wide as a Volkswagen Beetle’s. And roughly the same shape, too, he thought. Round and low. Fugly…with ankles as fat as her thighs. She was brilliant, however, so he’d considered screwing her before. Now, with her nearing fifty, sex was out of the question. No way, if only because it was still considered bad form to throw up on your boss’s tits.

So, when a high heel brushed his ankle he – successfully – tried not to jump, then he slowly, not at all obviously, moved away, not letting his part of the conversation break stride. She picked up the check – on her corporate card, of course, then they rode down in the elevator together.

“I’ll see you Monday,” he said as they split in the parking garage; he didn’t wait for a possible invitation and walked through the garage to his car – an old BMW CSi that had seen better days. He got in the queue to pay for his time, then turned right out of the lot onto Elm, made an immediate right on Field and was approaching the light at Ross when he saw her. Maybe homeless, maybe just a hooker, she was dressed like a vagabond but even from a distance he could tell she was a looker.

As he approached she held up a small cardboard sign that read ‘will fuck – for food,’ and he damn near skidded to a stop by the side of the road where she was standing. He rolled down the window and looked at her as she walked up to the side of his car.

“So,” he began, “you hungry?”

She looked at him, pretended to smile a little. “Yeah. Feel like some company?”

“Yeah, ya know, some company might be good right about now. Know someplace we can go?”

“No, not really. Aren’t there a bunch of hotels out on Hines?”

“Yup. You a cop?”

“Nope. You?”

“Not likely,” he said as he unlocked her door. She picked up her book-bag and opened the door, stepped inside, and he was surprised if only because she didn’t stink. He’d half expected filth as she looked, from a distance, like a vagrant. But no, she smelled of perfume, and not cheap perfume, either. He looked at her as she buckled up, noticed her jeans were clean, her halter top was too, and her sneakers were almost brand new. Kind of like a cop, in other words, and he suddenly grew cautious.

“You know someplace?” she asked quietly, now almost like she was shy, maybe even a little confused – and he relaxed again. If she was a cop she’d have a place in mind, someplace already bugged, probably with vice waiting in a room next door.

“No, not really. I don’t do this kinda thing very often, if you know what I mean. What’s with the sign?”

“Good way to get you stop, wasn’t it?”

He smiled, tried not to laugh. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“Why don’t you just head up Harry Hines. There’s got to be some places out there.”

“So, you don’t do this often?”

“Nope. First time for me. You married?”

“No, not in a few years.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. You like rough stuff?”

She looked out the window and grinned. “As long as I’m the one being rough, yeah.”

“You do much stuff like that?”

“Um-hmm,” she sighed.

“You like it that way?”

“You have no idea,” she cooed.

He pulled into the first sleaze bag motel he saw, got a room then went back out to the car, drove around the side and parked out of view from the office, then opened her door, helped her out of the Beemer. He opened the room door, stepped inside and turned on the a/c, and when he turned around to face the girl she stepped into his arms, kissed him deeply, massaging him through his jeans until he felt like he was ready to explode.

“You got something for me?” she asked.

“Hmm, what? Money?”

“No, silly. You feel like you’re about to lose it down there.”

“I am.”

“You want me to take care of that for you? We can go for round two a little slower, if you know what I mean?”

“Oh, God…could you?”

She knelt and pulled his slacks down, took him in her mouth and worked him over quickly, and she was careful to take all of him in her mouth. When she was finished she told him to take off his clothes and lay out on the bed.

“Spread your arms to the corners,” she commanded, and she reached in her bag and took out two pairs of handcuffs, then cuffed each wrist to a bed post. “Spread your legs,” she hissed next, and with two lengths of rope she tied him off to the bed. She pulled a very soiled pair of stockings and panties from her bag and took them out of the baggie she’d put them in about two hours ago, then rubbed them over his face. “Open wide,” she said a minute later, then she stuffed them in his mouth, tying the wad in his mouth with one of the stockings. “You wanted it rough, didn’t you,” she cooed again, smiling at him.

He tried to say something but of course couldn’t, and she walked over to the TV and tuned into an afternoon news program, turned up the volume then turned to him again and walked over to the side of the bed. “Ready for some rough stuff?”

He mumbled something but nodded his head.

“Well, okay, but I’m going to need you to hold back, okay? I don’t want you to cum too soon. If you do, I’ll be upset. Okay?”

He nodded his head and she started working him over with her hands, occasionally taking him in her mouth until she was sure he was about to blow his load, then she straddled his thighs, still using her hand on him…

“You know, I think you’re about to cum. And you know what? I haven’t even been fucked yet. Do you know how pissed that makes me? Huh? Have any idea?”

He shook his head while he watched her rise up over his groin, then he saw her take his penis in hand and guide it inside. When the warmth enveloped him he tried everything he knew to stop the flow – but it was pointless and he came inside her moments later…

“Did you just do what I think you did?” she cooed again – only now she pulled an eight inch kitchen knife from her bag and in one swift motion drove the blade into his chest, just beneath the sternum. She cut through his stomach and bowels then pulled the knife out just shy of his penis, reinserted the blade and cut from his liver to his spleen, severing the aorta in the motion and leaving a neat cruciform wound across his gut, then she went to the shower and rinsed his semen, and his blood, from her body.

After she dried off she went over and checked his pulse – and of course there was none – so she dressed and went to her book bag, took out a pint container of cottage cheese, then a baggie full of finely sliced green onions, and she sprinkled the onions on the cheese and ate about half the container before leaving it on the bed by his face, then she packed her bag and walked out of the room.

She figured her mark would stop at this hotel, so she’d parked her two month old Ford Mustang nearby then hopped a bus downtown; now she went to the convertible and opened the door, drove up Harry Hines to the medical school – and she drove into the student parking lot and got another book bag out of the trunk and walked to her first year anatomy lecture.

She got to the lab just in time, and smiled all the way.

+++++

His name was John Wayne Dickinson, and he’d been with the Dallas Police Department for a little more than five years. His first two years, in academy and with an FTO, or Field Training Officer, had been followed by three more years working patrol in Central Division, in and around downtown Dallas. He’d done some good preliminary work on a couple of homicides and scored well on the Civil Service exam, so had then been sent to a school to learn basic criminal investigative duties and procedures; when he aced the final exam he went back to Central hoping to work homicide but soon learned that – like everything else about this job – you had to pay your dues and put in the time before plum assignments came your way.

He had, of course, landed on the bottom rung of the ladder – right in vice – yet he had found the work instructive so far, as long as you could keep from falling into the gutter. The cases he’d had so far tended to lead downward – down into the darker recesses of humanity. He didn’t particularly enjoy the work, but at least a few of the cases had been challenging. Others, like one at an adult bookstore earlier in the week, had left him feeling soiled, ashamed to be a member of the human race.

Some weenie-wagger had gone to the glory holes in the video arcade and had promptly stuck his hard-on through the first available hole; the person on the other side took a nine inch hat-pin and stuck it right through the guy’s erection – in effect impaling him to the wall. Until his screams brought management, who then called the paramedics – who then, of course, called dispatch. And the responding patrolman had of course called CID, or the Criminal Investigative Division – and so, of course, the call landed on Dickinson’s desk.

As there was no imminent danger of the guy bleeding out, the paramedics left the guy impaled there until Dickinson showed up, and after he photographed the poor guy the medics took tin-snips and cut him free, not bothering to catch him when he fell to the floor – which resulted in a major head injury.

That report had been a son-of-a-bitch, too.

There’d been no evidence, of course, save for a small, half-eaten container of cottage cheese with green onions sprinkled on top. He’d bagged the container, if only as a matter of policy, then taken the container straight to forensics – and hoped for the best.

It was a warm Friday afternoon, the first day of October, and the State Fair was going on and he hoped to get out there over the weekend with his brother and sister-in-law, and their kids, too, because the Fair was still a big deal to them. Always had been. Back in grade school they’d always gotten a day off from classes and rode out to Fair Park in school buses, and he’d been fascinated by the train exhibit that opened up in ‘63 – a few months before that Kennedy fella got himself shot over on Dealey Plaza. Some guy named DeGolyer collected all those trains – then donated ‘em, and he thought that was just too cool.

He looked through his mail, called to see if forensics had anything on the “cottage cheese caper” – as his captain had called it – but no, nothing yet, but his photographs were in and he pulled out the prints and cringed when he saw that hat-pin sticking through that poor devil’s dick.

“Man, talk about coitus interruptus,” Becky Sawyer said as she walked into the room. She was an old hand around CID, one of the first women to make detective in Texas, and that had been ten years ago. She was homicide now, and a damn fine detective – at least that was the scuttlebutt on her. He felt her leaning over his chair, her breath on his neck as she looked at the pictures in his hand. “Goddamn, don’t that make your balls shrivel up, run for cover just lookin’ at ‘em?”

“Now that you mention it, yeah.”

“Anything come back on that cheese?”

“Nope.”

“Was there a spoon in the container?”

“Yup. Sterling silver, too.”

“What?”

“Yeah, some fancy English brand. Real expensive, according to Perry.”

“That doesn’t add up.”

“Yup. I’ve called all the retailers in the area. Told ‘em to call if someone comes in looking to replace a spoon. Called a few pawn shops, too.”

Sawyer nodded. “Good thinking. Did you check and see if any have been reported missing in recent burglaries?”

“I got Records working on it.”

“You know, for a spud you ain’t doin’ half bad.”

He turned and looked at her; she was still close to him and smelled like cigarettes and chewing gum – not the nicest thing in the world – but she was cute in an east-Texas kind of way. Lanky, strong, a pure country gal – the real deal – and then the intercom blared to life:

“Anyone down there?” a dispatcher called out.

“Sawyer and Dickinson,” he replied.

“We got a bad one out on Harry Hines, signal one and thirteen,” the metallic voice said.

“Okay, we’ll take it,” Sawyer said, then she turned to him. “Hey, murder and a sex crime, ya know? Homicide and vice? Sounds like a match made in heaven…”

“Well, fuck-a-doodle-do,” Dickinson said. “Let’s do it!”

“Did you just say fuck-a-doodle-do? I mean, did I hear that right?”

“Yup.”

“Shit. I didn’t know people still talked like that…”

“Yup. Well, I do.”

She stood back and looked him over – a little like she was looking at a weird bug under a microscope. “Oh, well,” she said after a long pause, “this could to be interesting.”

They made it out into the parking lot in time to see a good ole West Texas frog strangler rolling in from Ft Worth, lightning flickering in the towering anvil shaped cloud – and they both retreated into the station to get raincoats before finally getting in the gray Ford Crown Vic and checking into service. The crossed through downtown and got on Stemmons, made there way over to the motel on Harry Hines, a real doozy with a long, distinguished reputation among the guys working vice. Rain was starting to drizzle down from the anvil as they walked into the hotel room – waiting behind the wall of patrolmen and paramedics standing just outside the open door.

Dickinson saw the eviscerated body splayed out on the bed and bunched his lips: “Fuck-a-doodle-do,” he whispered – then his eyes went to the container of cottage cheese on the bed by the victim’s face and he walked over, looked down and saw green onions scattered in the melted goo and turned to Sawyer. “Better take a look at this.”

She came over and looked in the container. “Fuck-a-doodle-do,” she sighed, then she grinned as she turned to the door. “Who got here first? Anyone touch this container?” she said as she pointed at the cheese.

“I was here first,” a patrolman said, “well, second, after the manager came to check on a noise complaint.”

“Touch anything?”

“No, Ma’am. Not even a light switch.”

“What do you have so far?”

“Names of the manager and all staff on duty, the name of the RP who called in the noise complaint. I’ve pretty much been right here, making sure no one disturbed the scene, Ma’am.”

“Pretty much? You sure no one’s been in here since you arrived?”

“Yes Ma’am, I’m sure.”

“Got a service number yet?”

He looked at his steno-pad. “82-10-494.”

She scrawled the number on her note-pad and nodded. “Go get the manager and the RP, would you? And don’t bring ‘em in here, okay?”

“Yes’m.”

Dickinson was looking at the wound, or trying to, anyway. The victim had bled out fast and the nature and shape of the cuts was hard to make out – until he leaned close and looked close, anyway.

The guy’s colon had spilled it’s contents into the peritoneum and he could see barely digested shrimp and lettuce floating in the congealing brine. He took a deep breath and stepped away, wondered what would happen to his reputation if he flashed-hash right here on his first big homicide crime scene.

“What is that?” Sawyer said. “Do I smell light remoulade?”

That did it. Dickinson ran out and spewed his guts in the parking lot, grateful the rain was falling hard now and would wash away the evidence…

+++++

It took them an hour to check the room and the car for prints, and to take a few shots of the scene, but there were, essentially, no real witnesses. The guy had checked in and the manager on duty hadn’t seen anyone in the car with the victim. The reporting person had called in to complain about the loud noise coming from the television in the victim’s room – and while that pinned down the time of the event the RP hadn’t seen anything. Sawyer cleared the scene and they drove over to Parkland, to the medical examiner’s facility in the basement. The ME’s van was just pulling in, too, and they rode down in the elevator with the victim and the ME’s crew. They sat and worked on their preliminary report while the body was prepared, and when they were called in they got their first chance to see the extent of the damage.

“Is that, roughly speaking, a crucifix?” Sawyer asked as the tech looked over victim’s body.

“Yup, you could call it that,” the tech said as she took smears from the victim’s penis and put them on glass slides. After she washed and dried the body she picked up a pair of forceps and began picking food from inside the body cavity, placing each piece in a separate, numbered petri dish. Next, she took a bright light and began examining the victim’s mouth.

“Any pubic hair?” Sawyer asked.

“Nope,” the tech said as she took more samples from his tongue and cheeks, then under his fingernails.

“Did he die fast?” Dickinson asked, and both women turned and looked at him.

“You new at this?” the tech asked.

“Yup.”

“Look, you better get this shit under control, buddy,” the tech continued, “‘cause if you don’t you ain’t gonna last. Got it?”

Dickinson nodded. “Yeah, I got that, but what I want to know is, did the perp try to draw this out, make him suffer?”

“Oh. Well, no. See the aorta? Severed. I mean slashed. Death was instantaneous after that, and I do mean fast. Seconds, ya know…way less than a minute, anyway. Big blade, too. Maybe seven, even eight inches. Like a K-Bar, or maybe a kitchen knife. Whatever it was, it was sharp as hell, too.”

She took a syringe and prepped a vial, then slipped the needle into the victim’s right eye and drew the plunger back, filling the syringe with fluid from inside the eye that would be used for one of the toxicology screens, and Dickinson squirmed when the eye deflated like a punctured beach ball.

“You know…I think I’m going to go try and find some people who knew this guy…” he said as he walked out of the lab – while Sawyer and the tech grinned at one another.

“What a pussy,” the tech said, laughing.

“Only been with us a few weeks. Assigned to vice, anyway.”

“Wet behind the ears.”

“So were we all, once upon a time.”

“I can’t remember that far back.”

“Live in a sewer long enough and even shit begins to smell sweet, ya know?”

They looked at one another and the tech nodded. “I’ll try to cut him some slack.”

“Thanks. He’s sharp, but still at that vulnerable stage. Probably best to help him over the hump.”

“Got it,” the tech said as she flipped the body, ran a gloved hand up the victim’s anus, checking for fecal matter to send off to the lab…

+++++

She found him out in the waiting room, on one of the phones reserved for law enforcement and she listened as he talked.

“So, what time did you last see him?” He listened, scribbled on his steno-pad.

“Where’d you have lunch? The Dallas Petroleum Club? Where’s that?” More scribbling.

“What did y’all talk about?”

“Uh-huh. Is it possible anyone at that lunch followed him? He might have been, ya know, involved with?”

“Hate to ask, but did you have anything going on with him?”

“I see. Yeah. Sorry, but I have to ask these things, Ma’am. Kind of obvious stuff, but we have to cross all the T’s, dot all the I’s, ya know?”

“Yes, Ma’am. My name’s John Dickinson, and here’s my number. You need anything, you just give me a shout, okay?”

“Yes, Ma’am, you too.”

He hung up the phone and looked up at Sawyer.

“Co-worker, had lunch down there today, some big business deal.”

“Oh? What kind of business?”

“Oil. Nigeria. Say, you know about this Petroleum Club thing?”

“Yeah. Way above our pay grade, Slick. Don’t even think about going down there without an okay from the Chief.”

“Really?”

“Really. Top two floors of the First National building. Good grub, too.”

“You been?”

She ignored the question. “What else did she say?”

“They, uh, weren’t involved. Doesn’t think anyone there was either, mainly as everyone else was male.”

“So? You ever heard of homosexuality?”

“She was pretty sure about that, if you know what I mean.”

She shook her head, sighed. “Get a list of the people at the lunch? Who they work for?”

“Yup.”

“Well, run the names when we get back to the station. Maybe give ‘em a call on Monday.”

“Will do.”

“What about the vic? Any background?”

“A little. Local boy, University Park. Highland Park High. Married twice, divorced twice, no known girlfriend right now.”

“You thinking hooker?”

“Seems likely to me.”

“Was that the same sterling pattern as the bookstore?”

“Yup.”

“Okay, we got us a possible serial killer just getting wound-up.”

“We need to see if any other departments have had a similar set of killings, don’t you think?”

“We’ll have to go through the FBI for that, but yeah, good idea. What time is it?”

“2230, thereabouts.”

“Fuck, let’s head to the barn, maybe run over to Adair’s, see if they have any hamburgers left.”

“How can you think about food…?”

“You get used to it, Slick. You start on the report yet?”

“Me? This is homicide, not vice.”

“Yeah, so? You want to make it to homicide, don’t you? Well, here’s your chance. I’ll let you sign off on the main report; I’ll do the supplementals.”

He brightened at that. “Yeah? Thanks.”

“Well, let’s head on back, get something written up…”

+++++

They made it over to Adair’s just before the doors closed, got their orders in just before the kitchen shut down the grills and the beer was still cold, too. Sawyer leaned back in the booth and sighed; Dickinson quaffed his Lone Star in one pull, walked up to the bar for another, then came back and saw Sawyer was asleep – or damn near, anyway – but when he sat her eyes popped open.

“You married? I can’t remember…” she said.

“Nope.”

“Been with the force, what, five years? And you’re coming on thirty?”

“Yup.”

“So, what’d you do before?”

“Army. Warrant officer. Helicopters, spent ‘74 and ‘75 in ‘Nam.”

“Were you there when…”

“Yup. Pretty real, too, if you know what I mean. I spend two weeks running orphans out to Tân Sơn Nhất, loading ‘em on Braniff DC-8s – one right after another for a few days. When I got home I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but the whole gun and a badge thing sounded interesting.”

“Interesting?”

“I like the idea of serving, I guess. Better than selling aluminum siding, anyway,” he said, quaffing his second beer.

“You always slug ‘em down so fast?”

“Yeah, you know, before they get warm. Warm beer tastes like donkey piss.”

“Oh? That the voice of experience speaking?”

He laughed a little. “The girls in Bangkok will do anything for a buck, ya know?”

“So I’ve heard.”

“What about you?”

“Me?”

“Married, all that jazz.”

“No. Never found anyone that clicked, ya know? I was goin’ with someone when I went into academy; that didn’t last two months ‘til he got all possessive and jealous and shit. Had a few since, but it’s always the same song. Want to know what it’s like, then when they find out they scoot.”

“Where you from?”

“Athens. Well, a farm south of there.”

“College?”

“Yeah. East Texas Baptist,” she said, looking away.

“You into all that?”

“What? God?”

“Yup.”

“I used to be.”

“Oh?”

“Hard to believe in God after a few years out on the street, ya know?” She drifted, saw that crucifix carved on the guy’s chest and shook herself back to the present. “What about you? You right with God?”

“God and I parted company somewhere west of Saigon.”

She nodded her head. “Roger that. You better go get another brew. I’ll drive you home.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Do it.”

He walked up to the bar and came back with two, put one in front of her. “Don’t fall too far behind, now.”

Their burgers came and they were still the best thing on this side of the sky, the fries still hot and homemade-thick, and with three more ice cold Lone Stars onboard Dickinson began to feel almost human again. They talked some more – until she looked around and saw they were the last people in the joint, and that waiters were staring at them.

“We better split,” she said, standing up.

He looked around, saw the score and stood too, but almost fell over.

“Come on, Slick. Better let me hold onto the reins, help you out to your horse.”

“That’s just what I need. A fuckin’ horse.”

He was slurring his words now and she shook her head. She knew from experience some folks had a hard time wrapping their heads around homicide, so this wasn’t all that unexpected. The problem now, she knew, was that this kid was cute – and she was getting horny. ‘Not good,’ she said to herself as she buckled him in her car. ‘No, not good at all.’

“Where to, Slick?” she asked as she looked at him.

“Your place.”

“Come again?”

He turned to look at her and smiled. “Are you as horny as I am right now?”

And she looked him right in the eye. “Yeah. Probably.”

“Well then, I think I’ll come again, if you don’t mind.”

Turned out she didn’t, not even a little.

This fragment © 2017 | adrian leverkühn | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Outbound

Here are all four drug-induced chapters, united in one 80 page go-round. There are some changes in here but the story remains essentially unchanged.

outbound 4 im

OutBound

I’m sitting in my little Zodiac inflatable, puttering through the anchorage off the town of Avalon, California, and it all looks so familiar to me – yet so far away. The sharply sloping  beach is not quite a hundred feet away as I slip through the anchorage, the old casino still majestically presides over the harbor, and the rocky sea wall is as it has been all my life – boulder strewn and implacable. The water below is clear and deep blue – just as it was fifty years ago, the sandy white bottom still visible forty-three feet down, as relentlessly clear and full of promise this morning as it was in the late 60s. Nothing appears to have changed, not all that much, anyway, and even my boat looks the same. I turn and look at her reflection in the water and she hasn’t changed a bit – not as much as I have. Troubadour is my Alajuela 38, and I bought her new from the manufacturer in Newport Beach 50 years ago this year, and yes, she’s seen a few miles under her keel, true enough, but she’s been in good hands all the way. My hands, as a matter of fact. And I’ve been looking at my hands these last few days, maybe more than I should, and right now, as I putter through the anchorage off Avalon, I can see my hands have changed a lot recently, and I have to admit there are days I hardly recognize them. Still, when those moments find me I wonder what happened to me, because Troubadour looks the same. Why, I wonder? Why do I have to be the one get old? It doesn’t seem fair to me.

I remember looking at my grandfather’s hands once and wondering what all those brown spots were. Why his fingernails were kind of yellow and ridged. He had scars all over them, too, and most were from cuts he’d sewn up himself. He’d dip a needle and thread in whiskey and just sew himself up, and he didn’t think anything of it. It was what you did to stop the bleeding, so he did it and moved on to the next chore, which was what I did – more or less – over the years. Now, looking at my hand on the outboard motor’s tiller I recognized those hands for what they were. They were my hands now, in a way, but they were my grandfather’s, too, right down to the yellow ridges. Am I an echo? I always thought I was just me, but am I, really?

I remember me and Pops sat and watched the Petrified Forest one time, that movie with Bogart and Davis, and he told me about his trip west in 1919, just after the war. How there weren’t highways crossing the United States, not even through roads. He had a car, and God knows how he afforded it, but he and my grandmother made the trip west together – from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. A few cities had paved streets – paved with brick, he said – but by and large the roads that connected cities were primitive things, often little more than sandy tracks winding through desert scrub. With the hard, narrow tires that cars had in those days, the wheels settled down in the soft sand, often so deep that drive shafts were worn down by the rocks and the sand, and he had to replace two solid steel shafts between El Paso and Flagstaff. Just polished down to nothing, worn down by the miles. Took them almost three weeks to make the trip, and he admitted to me that night, once the movie was over, he should have taken the train and bought a car once he got to LA, but that wasn’t my grandfather’s idea of life. He wanted to get out there in the world, smell the road, meet people along the way and maybe have some fun and get in trouble too, because that’s what life was all about. I guess he passed that on to me, for better or worse, because in the end I bought Troubadour and sailed to those sandy, out of the way places.

I didn’t plan things that way, however. Things just kind of happened.

The way things always kind of happen. Unexpected things, the kind of people you never thought you’d run into, not in a million years. Doing things I never thought I wanted to do, going places that held no interest to me – until I got there. Life for me, before Troubadour, had been like the first thirty seconds of a roller coaster ride, the part where the ratcheting chain hauls you up that first huge incline. I was in the lead car right about then, too, looking out at the world during that little pause at the top, just before the car takes off down that first steep drop. There is, I seem to recall, this flash of anticipation up there, then a little fluttering exhilaration in your gut as you slowly roll forward – followed by a dawning awareness that life might be far more interesting elsewhere, anywhere else than on this roller coaster. Maybe I never felt that way, not in that moment before the fall, but about half way through my ride I began to develop an appreciation for smooth bicycles on warm country roads. Funny thing, though. That was my fault, not the roller-coaster’s.

Which, I think, makes Troubadour all the more ironic. Troubadour was a nonstop roller coaster ride, yet she’s an old friend now. I know her aches and pains, her ups and downs as well as I know my own – yet what makes that such an off-putting idea is she’s not flesh and bones. She’s a boat, but she’s been my friend, too. A boat that became a reflection of my life. You go places with friends. You look back at that reflection and if you’ve done it right all you see is love.

+++++

I started playing the piano in kindergarten, maybe a little before. I was pretty good too, or so people told me, for a five year old. My teacher, a crusty old man who kept a regal old Steinway grand in his music room, seemed to think I had talent, but I was always more interested in composing music, not playing. And not to make to big a deal about it, but I always hated performing in front of people. My first recital was a disaster, and that set the stage for many more over the years, and I think, in an odd way, my reaction to that first trembling moment paved the way for Troubadour. I do okay playing one on one, or even with a people looking over my shoulder, but if you put me in a venue with hundreds of people I come undone. Just can’t do it, if you know what I mean. It’s not stage fright…it’s stage catatonia. I got over it once, for a while, but you know how these things go. They come back when you least expect them, and it ain’t pleasant.

Anyway, some time in junior high a bunch of really hip kids decided to form a band. Mind you, these guys were like twelve years old and had never played an instrument in their lives, but two of them got electric guitars for Christmas and started banging out the four-chord progression of Louie-Louie, and another friend got a massive Ludwig drum set – because that’s what Ringo played, don’t you know – and they needed someone who could play bass. Well, I could. I was playing both the acoustic bass and guitar by that point, and my grandfather had a massive pipe organ in his house that I’d been playing for years, so I had that one under my belt too.

At any rate, they convinced me to join them and I guess you could say I taught them how to play their instruments over the next year. One of the kids, Pete Davis, was a soulful twelve year old who liked writing poetry and was getting decent on his drums, and we started putting music to the words in his head. Anyway, he’d share his musings with us and somehow real music started to take shape. Hey, you never know, right?

I looked back on those first compositions of ours as something really else, the wonder of coming of age condensed into two and a half minutes of pre-pubescent wailings about acne and nocturnal emissions. We were twelve, you see, yet even then sex had become the center of our existence, and we were pegged to play at our school’s Spring Dance the last weekend of our last year in junior high. We had a couple of our own pieces to play but by and large we were set to grind out a bunch of Beatles and Stones songs, with me doing double duty on bass and keyboards.

I was, of course, terrified, and now I need to mention my, well, my grandmother. Her name is Terry, and she was not quite fifteen years older than me. She was Pops’, my grandfather’s third wife. The first two died on him, but that’s neither here nor there. Pops was a producer by then, kind of a big deal in Hollywood, and Terry was not even half his age. So let’s get this out in the open right now: I had a thing for my grandmother. She was an actress, by the way, and Life Magazine called her The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. So did I. Whenever she walked into my room at home I damn near had a heart attack. Yes, I had it bad. Real bad.

Anyway, I was talking to Pops and Terry about my stage fright one night and Terry told me she did too, even when she was on a movie set. Oh yeah, Terry’s English, grew up in London, and as the Beatles and the Stones were the rage that vibe kind of rubbed off on her. So, Terry worked with me, showed me a few tricks to make the terror a little more manageable. Some of these worked better than others. C’est la vie, right?

So, not only were there several hundred people at that dance, I knew each and every one of people in that room. I had chewed my fingernails down to bleeding stumps by the time we were set to take the stage, and I found that the only way I could play was to turn my back to the dance floor – so I did. For two hours I rocked and rolled and I had not have the slightest idea if anyone else was out there, and when it was finally all over I packed my stuff and went home – and vowed I’d never do anything like that ever again.

We were, of course, invited to participate in a local ‘battle of the bands’ contest to be held in early July, and we needed two songs of our own in order to be contestants so were turned Pete’s composition into something really special while I cobbled together something generic and altogether bland for our second entry and we practiced and practiced until we were blue in the face – then it was time to set up our instruments on what was indeed a really BIG stage.

“How many people are out there?” I asked one of the promoters.

“Oh, last year we had almost two thousand, but we’ve sold five thousand tickets so far…”

My knees were knocking by the time they announced us, but I turned the organ so I faced away from the lights and we launched into Pete’s soliloquy – a soothing, polished love song that just sounded silly when five twelve year olds sang it, but the girls out there loved it and they went wild.

Then we slipped right into ‘Lucy-Goosey’ – my hastily contrived fluff piece, and we brought down the house. We won, too. The contest, and we picked up a recording contract – with Lucy on the A side and Pete’s soliloquy on the flip side. The 45 sold a half million copies before we were in high school and as I was the songwriter listed on Lucy the lions share came to me.

And that was the end of that, of course. Lots of bitter vibes because of money. Always. Yet Pete and I stayed together, he always stuck with me, through thick or thin, and I never turned my back on him, either.

I haven’t mentioned my parents because, well, they died when I was young, like three years old. An airplane crash, a jetliner taking off from Mexico City, and really, I haven’t the slightest memory of either of them. I lived with my father’s father and his second wife, and I grew up in Beverly Hills. Then she died, and I don’t want to make too big a deal about it, but death kind of defined my reality. Things didn’t last, people died – and that was that. My parents were show business types, too; he a director and she an actress of some repute, and I don’t know how to say this other than I grew up around Hollywood types, lots of famous people were always around the dinner table, so my upbringing left me with, well, a different sense of proportion. If people saw glamorous stars and western heroes, I saw sullen, moody drunks sitting by the pool out back – all fawning over Terry’s – my third grandmother’s – legs. I mention all this only to add context to the sudden fame thrust on me after Lucy-Goosey went platinum later that summer. I also mention Terry’s legs because they truly were the most fantastic things on earth, and it’s a bitch growing up lusting after your grandmother.

I, for my part, decided to concentrate on classical compositions after our band fell apart, which pissed a whole lot of people off, but I kept at it all through high school and into college, yet by that time what little fame Lucy generated had all but slipped away – and I was grateful, because I considered the piece pure garbage.

If I forget to mention it later, all musicians hate their own stuff. The more they hate it the better it sells. Go figure.

So, anyway, I went to Stanford unencumbered by all that fame baggage, and I studied composition and philosophy with no job in mind – until a friend asked me to join a group he was putting together. Once it became more widely known among those people that I had, once upon a time, penned Lucy-Goosey, well, they wanted me to join their little group.

“I always wondered what happened to you,” Deni Dalton said, and that’s how we met, Deni and I. She had this smokey voice that seemed to seethe dark sexuality, and when she looked me in the eye I felt like a banana being peeled in the monkey house. Whatever protective layers I had on that day, say that look of smug condescension I liked to slip on from time to time, she cut through like a hot scalpel.

Deni was Music wrapped in pure Sin. She was bigger than life. I was in love with her within minutes, but then again everyone who laid eyes on her fell in love. She always wore black, too, back in those early days. Black hair and black eyes, heavy black makeup – she was pure Goth before there was such a thing.

And she had kind of a black heart, too. Mercenary, I guess you’d say. Not educated, yet smart, and from a very poor family. She read people like others read books, and maybe because of her upbringing she had a thing for money. She was always looking for the angle that would lead to fame and fortune, and I think after she took one look at me she saw an irresistable opening. Turns out she knew more about me than I did.

“Your Dad still with Universal?” she asked.

“My father died when I was three.”

“Aaron Dorskin? He’s not your pops?”

“My grandfather.”

“Oh, right. He’s still with Universal, ain’t he?”

“Last I heard.”

“Well, we’re looking for someone new on keys, and Luke says we should give a listen. So, I’m listening.”

We were in the living room of this run down three story house in Berkeley, and all there was in the room, besides a dozen or so people on a u-shaped purple velvet sofa, was an old upright piano – and then, wouldn’t you just know it, one of the girls on the sofa went down on the guy sitting next to her.

So…I looked at this chick for a moment and started playing to her rhythm, then Deni caught where I was and she stood and started swaying to the music coming from the girl’s mouth. I was drifting between Bartok and Dave Evans until this chick hit the short strokes, then I just let the music flow for a while, a loose, swirling flow, and Deni came to me and kissed me for a long time, before she and I played a little music of our own. But that was Deni. When she felt like sex was the key inside the moment, she played every note she knew.

And so began a very interesting time in my life. I like to think of it as my purple paisley patchouli period, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

+++++

It was a funky house, of that much I am certain. Channing Way was kind of an epicenter of seismic music in Berkeley for a few years back in the late sixties, and maybe Deni’s purple paisley house was ground zero. Her background was coffee house folk, kind of a dark California counterpoint to Paul Simon’s more upbeat New York vibe, and you might get that if irony is your thing. If Simon had inherited a little Gershwin, Deni had been mainlining Thelonius Monk – for years – yet she felt like she was ready for fatter, more complicated sounds. She wanted to create fat, epochal rock, anthems for a new generation already grown tired of Beatlemania. She didn’t want cool reflecting pools, she wanted steamrollers and wrecking balls. Most of all, she didn’t want to play small clubs anymore. She wanted to hit college campuses and then, maybe, if she got lucky, move on to bigger and better things, but she saw rock and roll as a doorway, an entry into something really big and bold.

To me, as a keyboardist in 1968, big and bold – and fat – meant synthesizers and mellotrons. Yes, fat is a term – usually associated with big, beefy synthesizer intros. Those two instruments, I surmised, might allow some of the more bombastic elements of classical forms to merge with the somewhat more simplistic forms of rock that seemed to be yearning for release – and like every other classically trained musician on the planet I realized Sgt Peppers had shown us the way to the door, while Pet Sounds had given us the courage to break on through to the other side. Martin and the Beatles began introducing classical motifs on Sgt Peppers, but it was their Fixing A Hole that caught fire in Deni’s mind. The Beatles married the baroque to old English choral music and it was brilliant, but it wasn’t American. The Beatles were a Jaguar XK-E: think of something restrained and elegant, gorgeous yet full of barely contained potential; what Deni wanted was a Shelby Cobra with glowing pipes, something untamed and unleashed, music that would overpower the soul and make people scream – when elation overpowered sensibility.

She had some ‘cred in the music business, but not a lot, not the kind I had, anyway – but what I did have was Pops, my grandfather. He was fairly high up on the food chain at Universal, and their MCA Records division wanted to cash in on the exploding pop/rock market that Capitol had cornered. So, we retreated into the house on Channing Way one February day and didn’t come out again until May, and only then did three of us hop in someone’s old VW Microbus and slither down the 101 to Burbank – and went to Pop’s office.

He was old by then, seriously old, but he was also sharp as a tack. We walked in and he looked at us like we’d just crawled out from under a rock, which, I have to say, wasn’t too far from the truth.

“Aaron,” he asked when he quasi-recognized me, “is that you under that hair?”

You see, by 1968 my hair was hanging down somewhere south of my knees, and George Harrison’s beard had nothing on mine. Well, his was probably cleaner.

“Hey, Pops,” I said, ‘Pops’ being my characteristic greeting. “We need a recording studio. I want to cut an album.”

I am not, you understand, one to waste time on idle chit-chat.

“Oh?” he said, with one raised eyebrow. One eyebrow meant he was listening. Two meant you needed to start running for the door.

So I tossed our demo reel on his desk, a big Tascam reel-to-reel spool, and he looked at it, then at Deni. And you have to understand this about Pops: he was only interested in her tits by this point. If she could sing, great, but she had great tits and I could see that working over in his mind – as in: she’ll look great on an album cover. He had no interest in her physically, only in the commercial appeal of Deni’s tits.

So he picked up his phone and dialed an extension.

“Lew? Aaron’s here, and he has a demo. Can I send him up now?”

So off we went, off to see the wizard. A dozen people gathered and listened to our demo and we walked out an hour later with a recording contract. We hopped in the VW and drove back up the 101 in a blinding rainstorm, got back to the purple paisley house a little after midnight – and Deni attacked me then. In a good way, if you know what I mean. We came up for air a few days later, and the really interesting thing about us is we realized we were heroin to one another. We were dangerously intoxicated when we mixed, so much so we knew we were in danger of losing ourselves, each to the other. We stepped back after that, afraid of combusion.

Yet after those two days and nights wrapped up in one another, Deni dropped the whole Black Goth thing and went in for this deep purple paisley look. Flowing silk capes of purple, and then the house began to reek of patchouli. Patchouli incense was burning 24/7, and she put patchouli oil in everything, notably the polish she used to wipe down her rosewood furniture. The scent wasn’t quite overpowering, but it came close, and the whole patchouli thing became indelibly linked to those months. I can’t not think of her when I run across that scent.

Anyway, we loaded up all our gear and ambled back to Burbank a week later, and we had several days booked to get the sound we wanted down on tape. I’ve since read books on musicians of that era, these being little more than monographs of artistic egoism run amok, and I shudder to think what would have happened to us if that had been the case. Instead, it seemed as if Deni and her mates knew this was their one big shot, and they had to get the job done this time or prepare to wait tables for the rest of their lives. We came together, Pete and I – and her friends, and the results were something else.

We ended up spending a month in the studio, yet before we were finished MCA released a single that shot up the charts into the top-10, and on the strength of that alone they booked us to play three nights at the Universal Amphitheater later that summer – and I didn’t think anything about it at the time, maybe because I was so wrapped up in the moment.

Deni was our lyricist, and she was a good one too, but she wasn’t quite what I’d have called an original. She listened to other recording artists all the time, listening for inspiration and ideas. Always looking for new ways to spin a phrase, new transitions between parts of a song – yet she couldn’t read or write music, what’s you might call notation. She had an instinctual grasp of the inherent order within a musical phrase, but she couldn’t see structure when expressed in notes and chords on a piece of paper. This wasn’t a big deal as I looked at the innate phrasing of her lyrical constructs and went from there, and as she wrote new stuff she’d come over to me and sing variations. Not a big deal, and most pop music is created that way these days, but it was a big move away from the classical paradigm – where arias are derived from the inherent structure within a passage of music.

An unknown named Elton John showed up while we were in the studio and he listened for a while then disappeared, and I dropped by one of his sessions a few days later and was blown away by his exuberance, his showmanship – even in the studio. And it hit me then, my lump on a log stage mannerism. I was not and would never be an Elton John. He was an impressionist masterpiece, and I was a Dutch still life – destined to reside on the edge of the stage, the edge of the world, my back to the action – and I knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. As soon as the lights went up I began to freeze inside, like my mind was suddenly and completely encased in brittle ice.

So, the album was released and it was a bigger hit than even Pops thought it would be. And yes, there was lots of cleavage on the front cover. Purple paisley and cleavage. My God, Deni did have canyons of cleavage. We played a few small gigs on Sunset and Hollywood, a few parties in the Hills of Beverly too, and we started mapping out our second album during that time. Then our first night at the Amphitheater came up and everything inside just kind of snapped. I couldn’t even walk out on stage for our practice session that afternoon, and for the first time what had been kind of a modest idiosyncrasy turned into a real liability. I looked at my mates looking at me and I knew they couldn’t understand…hell, I didn’t understand…but this was something that could seriously fuck up their chances of making it big.

Pops called a doc, some Beverly Hills shrink, and she came out and gave me a shot in the hip, told me to rest for a half hour, and she sat with me and we talked.

She looked like Faye Dunaway, if you know who I mean. About fifty, blond hair and seriously gorgeous. Smart? Dear God. It was like she had this ability to look inside souls, take an inventory and figure out what was wrong. Me? It was all about losing my parents when I was a kid. My dad was an actor and he had gone down to Mexico, to Acapulco, to receive some kind of award, and their plane crashed on the way back, so yeah, separation anxiety lead to more and more anxieties and Pops had had no idea. Hell, neither did I. But Terry did. Anyway, understanding did not lead to catharsis and by the time we were called on stage I was no better. The doc’s magic potion helped, but Terry was there and just seeing her helped me keep it together long enough to do the show, and while it was magic, the ovations and the wild applause, as I walked offstage I passed right out. Down like a sack of potatoes, right on the edge of the stage.

Or so I read in newspaper accounts the next morning. Despite not having diabetes the episode was ascribed to hypoglycemia and that was that. I spent all that next day working with a studio musician who would be on standby, a kind of understudy, in case I cratered that night – and of course I did.

I watched from backstage as this stranger played my music, and in fact he played better than I had, a supple fact not lost on Deni and my bandmates. I didn’t even show up for the third night’s performance, and when we returned to Berkeley the next day everyone tried to not make a big deal about it – but I knew something had changed between us. We all did, Deni most of all. I felt like damaged goods, a broken doll that not even all the king’s men could put back together, but we started writing music and pretty soon all was forgotten – if not forgiven.

We went back to Burbank a few months later and started laying down tracks when word came that we were going to tour North America in the fall and Europe the coming winter – and I started going to the shrink in Beverly Hills more often. Maybe she could help, I told my mates. Yeah, maybe, they said.

Then a funny thing happened. The shrink invited me to go sailing with some friends of hers the next morning. I accepted the invitation, too, if only because I wanted to get to know her better, and I ran out and got a haircut too. Bought some boat shoes, of all things, and some natty red sailing shorts to go with them. Oh, I looked so Beverly Hills!

The boat, a huge racing yacht that had been famous in the 30s, belonged to her husband, of course, a billionaire property developer who owned half of LA, and they had a professional crew sailing the boat so all I had to do was sit around and look interested in my boat shoes. Yet the truth of the matter was I did indeed find sailing interesting. In fact, the idea of sailing away from all my anxiety seemed very enticing. I talked to the skipper about boats and sailing for a while and I learned a lot that afternoon.

There was another couple on the boat that day, a property developer from Newport Beach who had brought his wife and daughter along. The girl looked a little younger than I, and she was studying some kind of psychology at UC Irvine. And hey, she loved our single. Her name was, of course, Jennifer. Every other girl in OC is named Jennifer, has been since the beginning of time.

She looked like one of Southern California’s home grown Hitler Youth so common to Orange County back in the day: rich, privileged, blond haired and blue eyed, yet she was sweet in a troubled kind of way – and she loved sailing. Well, I thought I might love sailing too so we had something in common, right? Anyway, we talked boats and I figured out pretty quick she knew a lot more about boats than I ever would, that she’d grown up around boats, and also that she really, really liked our single. She even had an original 45 of Lucy-Goosey, bless her heart, and we went out for a burger after we got back to the marina, then I drove her down to Newport, to her dorm at UCI, but when we got there she pointed me towards the beach and we went down to the peninsula, watched the moon fall on Catalina just before the sun decided to show up for a return engagement. She was sweet and I got into her way of talking real fast, thought it was kind of cool.

There was a boat show in Newport, she told me, usually in April or May, and she wanted to know if I’d come down and go to it with her. I said ‘sure, sounds fun’ before I knew what had happened, and we looked at one another when I dropped her off at the dorm like we were not quite sure where this was going. I wanted to kiss her, and I could tell she wanted me to, but I couldn’t – because I was afraid, and I told her so, too. I told her about seeing the shrink, about my looming performance anxiety and she seemed to understand. Anyway, I gave her my number at Pop’s house and she leaned over and kissed me once, gently, then again, not so gently, and then she told me I didn’t have anything to be worried about where she was concerned and everything kind of slipped into place after that. Right there in the car, as a matter of fact.

We finished the second album over the next few weeks then took a break, our first big tour not scheduled to begin for a month or so, and I went to Pop’s house to unwind. Everything seemed pretty much the same there, except Pops seemed to be slowing down, and suddenly, too. He said his back hurt more than it had until recently, and Terry and I talked him into going to see his doc.

And Jennifer called my first night there, said she was going to be at the marina Saturday and wanted to know if I wanted to go out on a new boat. Sure, I said, and we set a time to meet up – and after that I couldn’t think about anything other than her – until my next appointment with the shrink, anyway. Pop’s internist was in the same building as my shrink so I dropped him off for his appointment then ducked in for mine, but when I came back for him an hour later he was still inside – so I sat and waited.

And waited.

And a nurse finally came out and asked for me, led me back to some forbidden inner sanctum – where I found Pops all red-eyed, an old internist handing him tissues. Prostate cancer, advanced well into the spine was the preliminary diagnosis, but biopsies would be done early Monday morning and we’d go from there. We left and he was pissed off because the same doc had told him a year ago the pain was probably related to a fall he’d taken a few years before. Maybe if he’d been more thorough he’d have a chance now, he said, because if it had moved into the spine that was it.

“What do you mean, that’s it?”

I understand my parents died when I was three, but since then no one I knew had kicked the bucket – and now, all of a sudden, the most important person in my life was telling me he was going to die, soon? That this was it? The ride was over?

I had an emotional disconnect about that time, I guess you might say. I was a little more concerned with my well being than his in that moment, a little more than afraid – for me. No, let me rephrase that. I fell apart and we held on to one another there in the lobby for way too long, then we walked over to Nate ‘n Al’s for bagels and lox. He called some of his buddies from the studio, told them to come over for a few hands of poker that night – which was code for ‘shit has hit the fan’ and we sat there watching the ice melt in our glasses of iced tea, neither of us knowing what the hell to say to one another. Terry would surely come apart at the seams tonight, he said, then this lanky gentleman walked in and came over to our booth and sat down next to me.

Jimmy Stewart, in town between shoots and an old friend of the family, looked at Pops and sighed. “Aaron, you look awful. Now tell-tell me, why-why-why all the long faces?”

So Pops lays it out there and then Jimmy is all upset, the ice in his iced tea is melting along with ours, then he finally turns and looks at me.

“Heard that album of yours. It sure isn’t Benny Goodman, is it?”

Pops broke out laughing at that. “It sure isn’t, but that lead singer of theirs sure has great gonzagas. World class, if you know what I mean.”

Stewart rolled his eyes, shook his head. “All he can think about at a time like this is tits. Aaron? You’ll never change.”

“Amen to that, brother,” Pops said. “What do you have in that sack, James? Another model airplane?”

“Yup, yup. Me ‘n Hank Fonda, you know how that goes?”

“Did you ever see his model room, Aaron?” Pops asked me.

“Yessir, been a few years, but…”

“I was building that B-52 when you were up there, wasn’t I?” Jimmy recalled. “Wingspan this big,” he said, holding his hands about a mile apart and we all laughed. He got up and patted Pops on the shoulder a minute later, told him he’d call soon, then he ambled over to a table where Gloria was already waiting and I could see the expression on her face when he told her. Small town, Beverly Hills. Good people, too.

I got up early and drove down to the marina, met Jennifer at the anointed hour and she took me down to a slip below an apartment building and hopped aboard a brand new Swan 4o. There were two other girls onboard already and they slipped the lines, let Jennifer back the boat out of the slip while they readied the sails. We sailed out of the marina after that, then turned south for Palos Verdes – and with barely enough wind to fill the sails the girls soon gave up and turned the engine on. Seems they were delivering the boat from the marina to it’s new owner down at the LA Yacht Club and I was along for the ride, but by the time we cleared the Point Vicente lighthouse we had enough wind to raise sail again and had a rip-roaring nine mile sleigh ride after that. Feeling the motion, the wind through my hair – the power within the wind – was almost a religious experience, too. I was hooked, big time.

That was difference, too, between 40 feet and 83. The smaller boat felt almost alive compared to the old J-class boat I’d sailed on the week before, and I found myself mesmerized by the brisk sensations. I didn’t know it at the time, but Jennifer studied my face that day, told me once she was reliving her earliest sailing experiences by watching my reactions that day. She was very dialed into me, I guess you could say, even then.

We turned the boat over to her new owner and drove down to Newport Beach, stopped and had an early dinner at The Crab Cooker, and after we dropped off the girls she drove me back up to the marina, and I told her about Pops then, about what my grandfather really meant to me, and she remained quiet all the while, let me ramble-on until we pulled into the lot where I’d left my car. She parked and turned to face me, leaned the side of her face on the seat and stared at me.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked. “Try to go on tour?”

“I don’t think I can do that. I need to be here now, with him.”

She nodded her head. “I think so, too. You need anyone to talk to, just call me. Any time, day or night. Got it?”

I nodded my head, then looked her in the eye. “What happens if I fall in love with you?”

“If?” she said, grinning.

“Okay. When I fall in love with you?”

“Are you sure you haven’t already?”

I can still feel that moment, even now. Like it was the most important moment of my life, those precious seconds are still right there with me, wherever I go.

“I know exactly when I fell in love with you,” I said – still looking in her eyes.

“Oh?”

“About a minute ago. Before that I was fighting it.”

“I know.”

“You know?”

“I think you’ve been fighting it all day. I know I have.”

I smiled, felt real relief inside, then asked: “You want to go meet my Pops?”

She nodded her head. “Yeah. I think that’d be a good thing.”

So we went. She met Pops and he loved her too, which was kind of a good thing. It was the first time I’d ever come home with a girl, and the moment wasn’t lost on either of us. My grandmother, Terry, was a little coy about the whole thing, a little too reserved one minute then effusive the next, but by the time we left she’d come around too. Back then I could never quite tell what was on Terry’s mind.

“So, you’re the one?” Pops asked when he walked us to the driveway, and Jennifer didn’t know what to say just then, but I did.

“Yeah, Pops, she’s the one. You mind if we run off to Vegas and do the deed, or did you want us to do it here?”

“Let’s all go to Vegas,” he said. “I can hit the tables after, and who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky,” he added, popping my grandmother lightly on her tail-feathers.

And we all laughed at that, even my grandmother, but we weren’t fooling anyone. Not by a long shot. Life’s never as simple as it seems, especially when it’s staring you in the face.

“He’s kind of cool,” Jennifer said as we drove back to the marina. “Old school Hollywood, I guess.”

“He is that. Not many like him left in this town.”

“Thanks for letting me meet him. Even if you were joking…”

And I looked at her just then, like maybe I’d been joking, and maybe I hadn’t. And she looked at me, too.

“You were joking, weren’t you?”

“We’ve known each other a week,” I said. “Maybe it would be nuts, but I haven’t been able to think about anything but you for days.”

And when she nodded her head she looked down, didn’t say a word. There were a million unheard stories in that glance, too.

“What about you,” I asked. “Am I too late? Already spoken for?”

“I was serious about a guy in high school, and we kept dating after, even after I went to Stockton and he went to SC. We broke up six months ago, well, right before Christmas.”

“What happened?”

“He met a girl, I guess. ‘Someone better, less complicated’ was the way he put it.”

“Jeez. That’s a nice way of putting things.”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“No one since?”

She shook her head. “It messed with my head pretty bad. We’re seeing the same shrink, you know?”

No, I didn’t, but it kind of made since now so I nodded my head. “What happened?” I asked.

“Pills. My roommate found me in time, got me to the ER. Pumped my stomach, that whole scene. I came home after that. Haven’t been back to school since, not really.”

“You going to finish your degree?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Anything else you want to do?”

“I like sailing, that’s about all though. Dad put up some money to get a sailboat maker up and running, and I’m going to start working in the marketing and sales department this summer. I guess we’ll see how that goes.”

“Sounds kind of fun. Not a lot of stress, anyway, and doing something you love.”

“What about you? You going to keep playing?”

“I don’t know, composing, anyway, and maybe working on studio tracks. We have a studio musician who’s preparing to go out on the road if I can’t handle our next concert.”

“Where’s it going to be?”

“San Francisco, at the Fillmore. Hendrix is going to be there, some Brits, too. Should be a scene.”

“Wow…”

“You wanna come up?”

“You sure you want me to?”

“You know, we were talking about getting married a few minutes ago. Nothing’s changed, as far as I can tell, anyway.”

She looked at me again and I could see it all over her face, in her eyes. Not quite shame, but a real close cousin. Something deeper than embarrassed, anyway. Trying to kill yourself – and failing – had to be hard to deal with by yourself, but to lay it all out there like she just had? She either had guts or she wanted to see how real I was. The thing is, I wasn’t running. I think I started to really fall for her after that. I mean a deep kind of falling in love, like I wanted to take care of her. I know that seems a little off, but when I saw her vulnerabilities I wanted to be stronger so I could help her carry the load.

And I think that was a turning point for me. Seeing myself as someone strong, someone she could depend on.

Anyway, when we made it to her car we got out and walked around the marina for a while, looked at boats and talked about sailing – and I held her hand all the while. The thought I’d let go of her in a minute or two, let her drive back to Newport without me was hitting home real hard, a lot harder than I expected it would, and I stopped in front of a hotel there, turned her into my arms and I just held onto her. Maybe like forever, if you know what I mean, then I kissed her, told her that I loved her and maybe we should go get a room.

I remember those eyes of hers. Looking up at me then, so full of lingering intensity. She was so insanely gorgeous, too, probably the most beautiful girl I’d ever known, and if that asshole boyfriend hadn’t fucked her up she would have been okay – or at least I kept telling myself that over the years. And hell, who knows, maybe I believed it, too, but she was fragile after that breakdown. Always was, right up to the day she finally left us.

+++++

I drove up to Berkeley a few days later, as it was time to start rehearsing for our Fillmore gig. That ‘feeling stronger’ vibe stuck with me, too, and I felt good about going out on stage for the first time in my life. Deni picked up on the vibe, and she was ecstatic about the whole Jennifer thing, too. Rehearsals went great and I picked Jennie up the night before we were set to play, and we went down in time to listen to The Nice. There weren’t many of us trying to bring new technology onstage, but Keith Emerson was creating quite a storm on stage and everyone was hanging around in this haze of expectation, waiting for him, and Hendrix.

Hendrix was the current God du jour, but for any keyboardists watching that night, Keith Emerson was surreal. Here was someone, finally, bringing classical structure into rock, and while his rendering of Bernstein’s America was electric, what caught me was a piece called the Five Bridges Suite, which fused classical with jazz and rock. About halfway through that piece I started to look around at the crowd and found a kind of swaying trance had taken hold. People didn’t want to dance now, they had been transported somewhere else, someplace deep within Music, deeper than I’d ever thought possible. Even Jennie said “wow!” when those guys wrapped up and drifted into the crowd…

But when finally Jimi came out the place erupted, and when The Experience started in with Fire you could understand what the electricity was all about. I hung on ‘til they finished up with The Wind Cries Mary, and when I looked around the place I could feel something else passing through the crowd, something hard to put my finger on, but what struck me was the power music held over that crowd. Something awesome and huge, some force I’d never reckoned with before, and what got me right then was Emerson. He was watching the crowd too, gauging the sudden surge of empathy, and I guess like me he was lost inside the wonder of the moment.

One other thing that hit me just then, too: the amount of pot hanging in the air. From fifty feet back the air was literally a purple haze, and with the multi-colored stage lights bathing the area around Hendrix the atmosphere was otherworldly. I knew a couple of cops were working the back of the crowd, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be them in this place. After the ‘free-speech’ demonstrations across the bay over the last few months, their was another ‘something’ hanging in the air, apparent, and it weren’t purdy, if you know what I mean. And that vibe was the raw underbelly of music at the Fillmore…that something in the air. It was beyond revolution, more like anarchy, and it was growing.

Sure, a lot of the music was about ‘peace and love’ but there was an awful lot of anger in the air; even so there was this Hell’s Angels vibe going around, too, an undercurrent of outlaw malevolence that felt rooted in the desire to burn everything down to the ground. That was San Francisco then and I suspect it’s always been that way. Like some people working the fringes wanted to create something new, but to me it felt like this Fillmore fringe didn’t really care who got burned along the way. So, yeah, I think there was real anarchy in this group, like this new fringe wanted their parent’s world to dissolve within the purple haze hanging over that crowd inside the Fillmore, all emotion rooted in infantile rebellion, like the tantrums of spoiled children.

Yet sometimes children are right, too.

That was in the air, too. Even the music. Our parent’s forms and structures, subverted and inverted, creating something new, anarchic and inclusive. Like the Beatles opened the doors to polite society and now the riffraff was rushing in – burning babies in Electric Ladyland. Music was, right before our eyes, becoming more political than it had in a hundred years, when Wagner politicized opera in post-Napoleonic Europe. If you think that’s trivial stuff, just consider for a moment that Marx grew out of that music, and so did Darwin.

So yeah, something was stirring in the underbelly of that crowd. Something big and noisy, and maybe ugly, too.

+++++

We were the first gig of the night, so we set up early and I looked around the place while I helped hook up the Moog and Mellotron. The air clear now, the room didn’t look all that big, or like a place full of wild magic. Just a room, I thought, not unlike the other gigs  around this city, yet I had felt those forces the night before. Emerson had too. We talked after Hendrix left, talked about the vibe we’d seen and felt, and we talked in epochal terms about music shape-shifting to the needs of the moment. About the politics of music. We talked Nixon and Vietnam and John Wayne and about the image of a girl who had put a flower down the barrel of a National Guardsman’s rifle. Everything was linked, he said, but the links weren’t easy to see – not yet, anyway. Music had to become the fabric that joined all these disparate factions, and musicians had to claim their place as leaders of this movement. Heady stuff, and even Jenn seemed caught up in the moment. Emerson was a philosopher-king, if ever there was one.

Yet standing up there on that stage looking out over that empty room it was hard to see music as anything other than a diversion. Maybe we were the sideshow to the real action. I’d just read Jerry Rubin’s ‘Do It!’ – a real Bay Area anarchist’s manifesto – and I wondered: could music take on the weight of so much revolutionary zeal, shoulder that burden? Or would music fragment the way society seemed to be fragmenting?

Even when I worked with Deni it was there – this impulse to fly apart, to head off in uncharted new directions, and there wasn’t some unseen political hand pushing us towards a grand unified theory of musicians leading a movement. Most of the kids on stage were just that: they liked to play the guitar or the keys, and egos got big under that tent. We got off on making music together, yet I can’t recall ever sitting around and saying “Wow, did you see those riots up on campus today! We got to write about that!”

Yeah, but there was one anthem out there that contradicts all that vibe, and I loved it. For What It’s Worth, by the Buffalo Springfield – and maybe that’s the vibe Emerson was channeling that night in the purple haze – but the idea hit me then that I had always seen music as a reflection of events, not a means to change things, but maybe it could be both and I’d never really seen it as such – and I had an idea.

I hadn’t played Lucy-Goosey in years. The music had dissolved into that early Beatles-like haze of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, Yeah-Yeah-Yeah, but it was still there, buried somewhere in our collective unconscious – so what if we…

Deni was kind of entranced by the whole thing, too, and she came up with a few bridges to make the pop refrains relevant once again. Lucy was going to go from bubble-gum chewing sycophant to radical anarchist on stage that night, and the whole thing was taking shape in a burst of creativity that had come out of nowhere, man.

When the lights went down a slide was projected on the wall behind the stage, an image of that girl sticking a daisy down the barrel of the national guardsman’s rifle, and I walked out and got behind the keyboards – then turned and looked at Jennifer standing in the shadows backstage and I smiled, then turned to face the sea of faces and raised my fist, then the room went black – with just a small spot on me, and that image of the girl hanging back there behind the purple haze.

I started with the simplest piano refrains from Lucy-Goosey and the sea of faces went silent as quiet expectation replaced hyped anticipation, and my piano was almost in chopsticks mode: simple notes even a child could play, awakening memory. Our lead guitar stepped out and another spot hit him, and he started echoing my simplistic melody. Deni came out next and the crowd erupted, then as quickly shut down as she started into an even simpler, quieter version of my original lyric, and she turned to a small harp and echoed my notes as the lights faded, leaving only the image of the girl with the daisy – which soon faded to black as my piano grew softer, then silent. In the darkness the rest of the band came out and when the lights flared we turned Lucy into a molotov cocktail throwing radical with what I’d say presaged a grungy-heavy metal infused sound – music that no one in the audience had heard before – and the surge of energy was cataclysmic. I kept the simple piano melody going, but that was echoed by soaring, dark chords on the Mellotron, and with Deni’s inverted lyrics Lucy’s transformation was complete.

And I felt that transformation in my soul, too, like I’d just grown up. The insecure teenager died out there that night, and when we walked offstage an hour later I walked into Jennifer’s arms and held on tight, because I knew the ride ahead was about to get real bumpy.

+++++

Pops was a lot sicker than he let on, and he kept everything wrapped up and put away, out of sight. Every time I called he was ‘fine, doing great’ – and Terry, my ‘grandmother’ went along with his charades, and it worked – ‘til we came to LA to play several concerts around town. I went home after our first night and when I saw him I burst out crying. I couldn’t help it.

“Do I look that bad?” he asked.

He looked like an orange scarecrow, only worse.

“The color,” he said, “is from liver failure. I kind of like it, too. Like a walking traffic sign, don’t you think? When I walk out of the doctor’s office everyone stops and stares.”

I felt sick, too, just looking at him, and then Terry told me he had maybe a month or two left, and I kind of fractured when I heard that. Like I didn’t know what to think. Pops was my last link to an almost invisible past, and without him I would be well and truly alone. There weren’t any brothers or sisters or aunts and uncles, there was just me and Pops. I was going to be, if I remained alone and childless, the last of the line.

And that was a big question hanging in the air between us.

“What’s with Jennifer?” he wanted to know.

“We’re good,” I said, but there was something else hanging in the air. That whole fragile thing. She was depressed, and when she started going down that hole she turned to dolls to pick her back up. Dolls, as in The Valley of The. Pills, in other words, and here I need to digress a little. I didn’t do pills. I didn’t smoke – anything. I didn’t drink much, because I didn’t like the whole idea of losing control. I know, like the idea we have some kind of control is an almost comic idea, but the point is we do have the ability to control some things, and losing what little I had was to me a Very Bad Thing. I tripped all I wanted when I disappeared inside my music, but I could come out of it intact and lucid. I had seen Deni disappear down the LSD rabbit hole and not come out for days, and that scared the shit out of me. We’d been through two lead guitarists over the course of a year simply because one drug or another had taken them someplace they just couldn’t break free of, and I wasn’t going there.

So when I saw Jennifer headed down the same road I told her it worried me, and she told me to fuck off. So I did. I put her on a plane back to her father and told him what was going down, and what I heard back from him wasn’t worth mentioning, because he’d thought he was done with her and wasn’t happy to have her back under his roof.

I started spending more and more time in LA, spending as much time with Pops as I could, and my understudy started filling in more often when Pops started the terminal decline. I decided to go on to our next few gigs and was in Cleveland when Terry called me, told me to come home, and it was about five hours before the show that night when I called Deni and told her. She came to my hotel room and we talked, and she told me to take my time, that they’d manage without me and I held her for the longest time. We’d been together as a group for more than two years by then, and I realized she was about the closest thing to family I’d have left – and I told her so.

“I never wanted you to be my brother, Aaron,” she told me. “All I know is we work well together, like I always imagined a husband would be, ya know?”

“That day, you remember?”

“Yeah. Love heroin. I’ll never forget. I’ve never loved anyone like I loved you,” she sighed, and then she was crying. “God, I don’t want you to go. Something’s going to happen to you back there. Something fuckin’ big’s coming, and I feel like it’s going to crush you, man.”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do without him, Den. I’m scared, and with Jenn gone? I don’t know, man, I don’t know…”

“I’m here. Don’t you forget that.” She looked at me and we kissed, I mean like the last time we kissed, and I was full of these bizarre electric charges flickering on and off like lightning all over my skin, then she looked at me again. “I love you, and I will forever” she sighed, then we kissed again, and this time we were hovering beyond the abyss, ready to fall into bed, but she pulled back and ran from the room.

I got my bags together and made it out to the airport in time to catch a one-stop to LAX, and made it to the house a little after midnight. I went to Pop’s room and we sat and got caught up while Terry left to put on tea, but she came back in a few minutes later, her eyes full of grief. She turned on the TV and there were news reports of an airplane crash, a flight from Cleveland to Buffalo, and a hundred and fifteen people, including all members of the group Electric Karma, were feared dead.

I blinked, recoiled from the very idea Deni and all my mates were gone, that the sum total of our existence had been wiped from the slate in the blink of an eye, but the pictures on the screen told a very different story. A midair collision about a mile out over Lake Erie, and the 707 had burst into flames and fluttered down to the wavetops, then slipped beneath black water.

Pops died the next day.

+++++

Jennifer thought I died that night and she came undone. Razor blades this time, and she’d meant to take herself out, no doubt about it. By the time I called their house the next morning the damage was done, though I didn’t find out for a few more hours. When I talked to her father later that day he sounded relieved and furious, and I told him I’d be down as soon I could. He said he understood and we left it at that, and Pops slipped into a morphine induced coma later that afternoon. We didn’t say goodbye, but when I held his hand I could feel him respond to my words. When I told him he meant the world to me, and that I’d miss him most of all he squeezed my hand, and I could hear him talking to me. All the talks we’d had over the years were still right there, and Terry was with me, holding on to me, when he slipped away.

She was English, my Terry. Had had a good run in Hollywood after the war, made a half dozen romantic comedies with the likes of Cary Grant and, yes, Jimmy Stewart, so when Pops moved on it was a big deal in Hollywood circles, yet the death of my bandmates cast a long shadow over the whole affair. Everyone knew about Pops and me, how tight we were, yet Terry was the big surprise – to me. I’d never really appreciated how close they were, but one look at her and you knew it wasn’t an act. She stopped eating for a month, literally, and wasted away to nothing – and then I had to admit I really felt something for the woman. She wasn’t just Pop’s third wife: she, too, became the one last link I had to him, one I’d never even realized existed, and all of a sudden I was scared she might leave me too.

And let’s not forget Jennifer, lying, in restraints, in a psychiatric hospital tucked deep inside the hills above Laguna Beach. I started driving down to Laguna every other day, then every morning, and I spent hours with Jennifer then drove back up to Beverly Hills, back to Pop’s house, where I tried to pull Terry out of her funk.

About three weeks into this routine I decided to take Terry with me down to Laguna, to try to get Terry to see what the real contours of falling into depression looked like, and it worked. That day marked a big turnaround for all of us, because she reached out to Jenn and they connected.

Like a lot of people around that time, I’d recently seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and to me that time felt a lot like one of the key passages in the movie. When Hal goes bonkers and cuts Frank adrift, and Dave goes after his tumbling body in the pod – helmet-less. I wasn’t sure if I felt more like Dave, or Frank, but I knew everything was tumbling out of control – yet I was the only one who could set things straight.

Like Pops had set me straight after my parents died, I knew it was my turn at the controls, and I didn’t want to let either Pops or my old man down. Hell, by this point I didn’t want to let Jennifer’s father down. Whatever was wrong with Jenn, I saw then that her old man was probably behind a lot of it – so I’d in effect sent her back into the snake pit.

Nope. Not again. When you tell someone that you love them, you don’t do that. It’s a simple proposition, really. Either you mean what you say or what you say is meaningless, and now I took that to heart.

I loved Jenn. Simple as that. And I loved Terry, too. Simple as that.

So, let me tell you a little more about Terry.

She met Pops when he was in his late sixties. They got married when she was thirty three. She was forty four now, and every bit the Hollywood starlet she had been just a few years ago, and in the aftermath of her decision to rejoin the living she decided she was either going to move back to London and take up work on the stage, or make another movie. Maybe a bunch of movies.

And she wanted to know how I felt about her moving back to London. Specifically, did I want to her remain in LA, remain a part of my life, or did I want her to move on.

Mind you, I had just turned twenty seven so I wasn’t exactly a babe in the woods, and I’d never once considered her my grandmother. She came into my life when I was sixteen, when she was considered one of the most desirable women in the world. Let’s just say I’d spent a few sleepless nights over her and leave it at that, and I think you’ll grasp the contours of my own little dilemma.

So, I told her ‘Hell no!’ I didn’t want her to move on. I told her she was an important part of my life with Pops, and that she would always be important to me. The problem I didn’t quite wrap my head around is she didn’t see it that way. She’d spend ten plus years married to a man who hadn’t been able to perform his marital duties for, well, a long time, and she was just entering her prime. The biggest part of the problem was the simplest, most elemental part, too. I still found her attractive, devastatingly so.

There was a part coming up, just being cast, where she’d get prime billing next to some very big names, and she’d gone to the audition dressed to kill. When she came back she was elated; she’d gotten the part and shooting began, in France, in three weeks. She wanted to celebrate and so we went down to The Bistro – where her landing the part was all the buzz. Everyone came by to congratulate her – and offer condolences – and everyone looked at me like ‘who the devil are you.’

Why, I’m her grandson – didn’t you know?

What followed was three of the most regretfully confusing weeks of my life, and I’ll spare you the details. Sex was not involved, thankfully – or regrettably, depending on your point of view – but the whole thing was an emotional hurricane that left me drained. And Jenn began to pick up on the vibe, too.

“Are you sleeping with her?” she asked me one morning after I’d just walked into her room.

“What? With who?”

“Terry.”

“Geez! No!”

And I guess the way the word ‘no’ came out implied an air of finality, because she never brought it up again. And, a few weeks after Terry left for Avignon, Jennifer moved in with me, into Pop’s house.

Because he’d left it to me. He’d left everything to me, a not insubstantial sum of money, too. Then Electric Karma’s lawyers told me that as I was the only surviving band member, and there was no one higher up on the food chain in their world, all our royalties were now mine. In perpetuity. In other words, I was filthy rich, and all I’d done was write a few songs and nearly shit my pants in stage-fright a couple of times.

Herb Alpert was, literally, my next door neighbor and I talked him into a tour of the recording studio he’d just finished in his house and I decided then and there I was going to do the same thing, and a few weeks later architects and contractors were finalizing plans while contractors swarmed, when Jenn decided we needed to buy a sailboat.

So we went down to the Newport Beach Boat Show and we looked at one yacht after another…Challengers and NorthStars and DownEasts were a few of the names that stood out, but in the end I put money down on a Swan 41, a new Sparkman & Stephens design that had not even been officially launched yet, and wouldn’t, as it turned out, for three more years – which left us without a boat for the foreseeable future.

But there was a new company just starting up in Newport, called Westsail, and they had a 32 at the show that really struck a chord with me – and I bought her, right then and there, and after the show Jenn and I sailed her down to Little Balboa Island, to the dock in front of her father’s house. Pretty soon we were driving down there almost every day, taking Soliloquy out for a sail. We started hopping over to Catalina, dropping our anchor off the casino and snorkeling for so long our skin started to look like mottled white prunes.

Sailing kept me away from the house, and the construction project, but when that work wrapped I went to work on another project. I had all our master tapes delivered to the house and I got to work re-mastering the original cuts, adding some keyboard tracks I’d always wanted, then I took them over to MCA for a listen. They reissued both our albums, and I put together a gratuitous “Best Of Retrospective” just for good measure and before you could say ‘Money in the bank’ I’d banked so much money it was obscene.

So, I had a house in Beverly Hills, at least one sailboat in Newport Beach, more than ten million in banks everywhere from California to the Cayman Islands and a seriously crazy girlfriend who had an affinity for razor blades – and boats.

And with all my work done in the recording studio – it took all of six weeks, too – I was now out of things to do.

Ah, Terry. What about her, you ask?

Well, she had more money than God before she married Pops so that was never an issue, and I was soon reading about a secret marriage to her co-star in this new film, so presto, problem solved.

Yet within a week I was bored out of my mind.

“What about forming a new group?” Jenn asked.

And all I could see was Deni in that hotel room, telling me that she loved me, and that she always would.

“You know…I don’t think so. I can record an album myself if I really want to. I can play all the instruments, do everything but sing, and if I get the urge I’ll get someone to lay down a vocal track and do the rest on my own.”

She frowned, shook her head. “That’s not the point. Working with musicians on a common goal, that’s what you need right now.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Okay. What do you think about sailing to Hawaii?”

“What? You and me?”

“Yup.”

“That sounds fuckin’ bogus, man!”

Keep in mind, in 1972 ‘bogus’ meant something similar to ‘awesome’ these days. ‘Bogus,’ by the way, replaced ‘bitchin’ in the California lexicon, and ‘bitchin’ was a close cousin of ‘far out’ and ‘groovy.’ We clear now, Dude?

I had a million questions, the first being ‘could we do the trip on Soliloquy?’

“Fuck, yes. She was made for this kind of trip.”

“Oh?” Keep in mind about all I knew concerning sailboats was that the pointy end was supposed to go forward. Next, consider that Soliloquy had two pointy ends, so I was already seriously confused.

“Yeah, we could hit Hawaii, then head south for Tahiti.”

“Tahiti?”

I’d heard of Tahiti, of course. Once. I think.

“Sure. What do you think? Wanna go for it?”

So, my suicidal girlfriend wanted to get me on a 32 foot long sailboat a thousand miles from the nearest land. To what end, I wondered?

“How long would it take to get to Hawaii?” I wanted to know.

“Depending on the wind, two to three weeks.”

“Weeks? Not months?”

“Yachts sailing in the Transpac Race do it in eight days. It’s not that big a deal.”

“Have you done it?”

“Twice.”

Of course she had.

“But this would be just you and me, no pressure, no finish lines. We could really get to know one another, I guess.”

“When?”

“Best time is June and July.”

“So…a month or two from now?”

“Yup.”

“Would you like to do this?”

“More than anything in the world.”

“Well, maybe we’d better get to work. My guess is Soliloquy isn’t geared up for this kind of thing.”

She looked at me and grinned. “I already have.”

“Ah.” Of course she had.

And so the worm turned.

+++++

I never considered myself a sailor. Never, as in ‘not once.’ I’d never been on a sailboat until the day my shrink invited me out on her husband’s J-boat, the day I met Jennifer, and yet I was hooked from that first sail onward. If you’ve ever looked at an eagle or a seagull and wondered what it’s like to bank free and easy on a breeze, well, sailing’s about as close as you’ll get in this life – and unless you happen to believe in reincarnation and hope to wind up as a bird in your next, that’s the end of that. Bottom line: after that day I began to consider myself a sailor – and I know that sounds ridiculous – until you consider sailing is a state of mind, not simply a reflection of one’s experience.

At that point sailing was, for me, heading out the Newport jetty around ten in the morning and dropping anchor off Avalon 5-6 hours later. Soliloquy was a heavily built, very sound little ship and weather was never a factor; in forty knots with six to ten foot seas she just powered through the channel with kind of a ‘ho-hum’ feel, like – you’ll need to throw some heavier shit my way to make me sweat. She imparted a confident feel in bad weather, something I came to appreciate later that summer, but something I was, generally speaking, clueless about those first few months sailing with Jenn.

No GPS back in the day, too. Navigation was old school, and I bought a Plath sextant, a German made beauty, and Jenn taught me to use it so we shared navigation duties. I’d always been strong in math, and I guess that’s what carried me through music into composition, so sight reduction tables and the spherical trigonometry involved in celestial navigation wasn’t a stretch. Still, the first time we motored from Avalon to Newport in a pea-soup fog – and nailed it – I was proud of Jenn for being such an accomplished navigator – and teacher.

Anyway, we stocked the boat with provisions, including everything we’d need to bake bread at sea, and a few other necessities, like a life raft and a shitload of rum – because sailors only drink rum, right? – and I went to my favorite guitar dealer in Hollywood and picked up an small backpacker’s guitar, an acoustic beauty made in Vermont, and so equipped we were good to go.

We left Newport on the first of June, 1972, and we sailed to Avalon and baked bread that evening, and when the sun came up the next morning we pulled in the anchor and stowed it aft, then, once we cleared the southeast end of Catalina, we set a course of 260 degrees and settled in for the duration. Call it twenty-five hundred miles at an average of 125 miles per day, and though we racked off 150 most days, we had a few under a hundred, too. The stove and oven were propane, most lighting came from oil lamps, and we had an icebox – not refrigeration – so we went about a week with things like fresh meat and milk then switched over to canned goods and Parmalat milk for the next two. And the thing is, I found I just didn’t care. We figured out how to make things we liked using the things we had on hand, and we made rice and homemade curries that were something else. And then you have to factor in the sunsets out there…a million miles from nowhere. Sitting in the cockpit with the aroma of freshly baked yeast bread coming out of the galley, while I played something new on the guitar and as the sky went from yellow to orange to purple…well…yeah, it was all kind of like magic.

One day the seas went flat, turned to an endless mirror, and the only ‘things’ we saw all that day were the fins of an occasional blue shark or United DC-8s overhead on their way to or from Honolulu, and I’d never felt so utterly at peace in all my life. We’d bought what we’d need to rig a cockpit awning so we did that day, if only to keep from being roasted alive under the sun, and I think we started in on each other by mid-morning, and kept at it through sunset. Like, literally, nonstop sex – for fifteen hours – and it was one of the most surreal days I’ve ever experienced. Pure sex, cut off from everything else – not-one-other-distraction. Just intent, focused physicality – one soul focused on another.

I didn’t know Jennifer, not really, not before those hours, and I’m not sure she knew herself all that well, either, but we never looked at one another the same way after that. We were reduced to pure soul out there, and not one false, pretentious emotion guided us. Soliloquy was hanging in that water, no wind stirred the sea and we’d drop a cedar bucket into the crystalline water and wash ourselves down from time to time, but other than that the day melted away – leaving pure love in it’s wake.

And that night the wind picked up, our speed too, then the wind really started blowing, the seas building and we sailed for three days under a double-reefed main and staysail, the steering handled by the Monitor wind-vane self-steering rig Jenn had installed by the factory. And still Soliloquy just powered through the seas, never once did we doubt her ability to carry us safely onward.

And a few windy days later the trip was over.

Jenn’s father had shown up a few days before our expected arrival and he’d secured a berth at Kewalo Basin, near the city center, and it turned out he was as excited as we were about the trip. The fact that it had turned out so peculiarly uneventful was icing on the cake…and because I think he had it fixed firmly in mind that the crossing would be something like making it to the summit of Everest he’d never considered making such a trip. Now he was on fire to do it, and was itching to make the trip back to California.

I wasn’t, however, not with him, and not on a 32 foot sailboat.

Yet Jennifer was. She thought it would be a good time for she and her father to mend some fences, and wanted me to come along. As referee, perhaps?

And again, I didn’t want to be a part of that whole thing, and I let her know it in no uncertain terms. So, she told me to fly back, that she and her father would bring Soliloquy home to Newport.

Fine, says I, and I exit, stage right, on one of those United DC-8s we’d watched arcing across the sky. The thing is, there’s no easy way back from Hawaii to Southern California. Wind and currents make it much more doable if you arc north towards British Columbia, and then ride the current south past the Golden Gate to LA. It’s a much longer trip, and it takes a lot longer – as long as 4-5 weeks. Another drawback? You have to go much farther north, well into colder, arctic influenced waters where both storms and fog are the routine, so the trip is tough. More like the Everest expedition Jenn’s father didn’t want to experience, as a matter of fact.

So, a few days later I packed a bag and went to the airport. By myself. I flew to LA and took a taxi home, and like that it was over. The trip, our sudden affinity for each other – over and done with, like the whole thing had been a dream. Or a nightmare. It was like this thing she had going on with her father was a toxic, manic depressive beast where she had to convince herself she had to put things right, and fixing that busted relationship was a much higher priority than her relationship with me.

Jerry Garcia wanted me to help out on an album so I flew up north a few days after I got back, and we worked in the studio for almost a month, and by the time I left I had it in my head to do a solo album. Those sunsets came back to me as I dreamed music, playing that little backpackers guitar while Jenn baked bread down below, that sun-baked idyll, the buckets of seawater washing away our sins. I spent two weeks down in my basement studio laying down the tracks for just one song, and when I finished I carried it over to MCA and everyone who listened to it said it was the best thing I’d ever done. Could I carry through, create an album out of the experience?

Hell yes, I said.

And when I got home there was a message on my machine, from Jenn, in Victoria, on Vancouver Island. She and her father had had their gigantic falling out and he’d left her there; could I call her at the marina? Please?

I called the number she left on the machine and some dockmaster ran down to Soliloquy to fetch her while my fingers drummed away on the kitchen counter, and when she finally got to the phone she was breathless and in tears.

The whole trip had been a nightmare, she sobbed.

Was I surprised? No. As in, Hell No.

And when would she learn? How many more times would she let that mean-spirited asshole tear her apart. How many times would she run home and start the whole process all over again? What was I missing?

“What do you want, Jenn?”

“Could you fly up, help me bring Soliloquy back to LA?”

“Then what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just that. What happens next?”

“We get on with our life. Together.”

“Really? Until the next time you need to run home to Daddy?”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe you two were meant for each other. Maybe I’m just getting in the way, ya know?”

“Aaron…no. It’s not that way and you know it.”

“All I know is what I see.”

“Is that what you see?”

“Yes.”

She hung up on me.

The dockmaster called me at six the next morning. Jenn, it turned out, had found some razor blades.

+++++

I was up there by late morning, and her psychiatrists at the hospital were convinced this attempt had been a classic ‘cry for help,’ that her cuts hadn’t been deep enough to damage the tendons. But there was another complicating factor.

Yup. Pregnant. Timing worked out about right, too. Our sunbaked idyll had been more than productive musically. And now she wanted to abort the fetus. There was no point, she’d told her docs. She’d destroyed all her chances for happiness, just like she always did, so why bring a kid into that world? Why not just kill everything about us? Take care of business once and for all time.

Maybe I was beyond caring that day, but it was beginning to feel like she was using suicide as a weapon to hurt everyone around her. Me, certainly, but her mother and father, too, and now she was going to carry that to the next logical step, in her world, anyway. Kill the truly blameless, and I was stunned. Too stunned for words.

When I went in to see her I told her as much, too, and that scene devolved into a big fight. Kill that kid, I said, and you’ll never see me again. Simple as that. I left the hospital and went down to the marina, listed the sailboat with a broker and flew back to LA that evening.

Yup. Cold. Heartless. And tired of going round and round on her psychotic merry-go-round.

Her docs called me two days later and said she’d opted to have the abortion. It was done, they’d tried to stop her but she left and had it done elsewhere.

And so was I. Done, I mean.

With her, anyway.

Not with sailing, as it turned out. Not by a long shot.

There were a couple of guys down in Costa Mesa working on a new 38 footer, and I drove down to see them, and the boat they were working on. They called it the Alajuela, named after a city in Costa Rica, and work was well underway on their second hull when I showed up on their doorstep. By the time I left later that afternoon I’d bought the next available boat, and would have her in a little less than a year, so I went home and retreated to the studio.

Jenn, of course, started calling as soon as she got back to Newport.

I, of course, changed my number.

She started coming up to the house.

I asked her to leave, and never return. After the third return I called my lawyer, had her serve Jenn with a restraining order – and out came the razor blades. I heard that anecdotally, of course. Her father didn’t call me. He called my lawyer, who told me. Another near miss, of course, but this time they put her away for a couple of years and in the end I didn’t see her for almost ten years.

She made her way into my music, however. The love I felt that day for her was as real as it ever was, and that was hard to reconcile. As hard as it was to reconcile the kid she so carelessly killed.

+++++

I wrapped up the album about a month before Troubadour launched, and the studio had released Idyll as a single a few months before. Well received, too, but not like Electric Karma’s albums, so when the new album shot up the charts two weeks after release I was as surprised as I was happy.

But I wasn’t into it anymore. I had moved on, was already planning for my life with Troubadour. Everything about her was planned for one thing, and one thing only. I was going to take her around the world, and I’d probably be going solo, too.

Refrigeration was built in, roller furling headsails too. A more robust self-steering vane was a must, and light air sails a must, too. I wanted teak decks again, and they relented, laid them for me, and by the time Troubadour hit Newport Harbor she was mine, purpose built and ready to roll. I moved her to a friend’s slip at the Balboa Bay Club and fitted her out, packed her to the gills – in less than a week, then I went home for a few days – to say goodbye.

I decided to rent Pop’s house to a friend of mine, a musician, and in the end left the house in the care of my lawyer. I drove down to Newport, handed my car over to the guys at the boatyard and in the middle of a foggy March night I cast off her lines and slipped out the jetty, pointed her bow to the southwest – bound for the Marquesas.

Part II

The first morning out, sitting on a windless sea maybe thirty miles north of La Jolla, I watched the stars and took inventory of my life. There was nothing else to do, you see. In my rush to leave I realized I’d not put a single book on board, and the only music I had on board, other that my little guitar, came from a shortwave radio. Only then did I realize I’d have to stop in San Diego to fix these nagging omissions, or turn around and return to Newport – something I really did not want to do.

When Troubadour and I cast our lines off the night before, when we motored past Lido Isle, then Harbor and Linda Islands, then, finally, Little Balboa Island, I couldn’t help but think of Jenn.

Jenn, locked away in her madness.

Jenn – and her razor blades.

And when I passed her father’s house I had seen him standing in his living room looking at me as I passed.

Did he know Troubadour was mine? Did he realize who was passing by just in front of his house? Did he understand his role in our little drama? In my little corner of the universe he was my Nixon, I a kind of McGovern by proxy. He hated me not least of all because I’d voted for McGovern, while he was a staunch Nixonian, and I’d liked to chide him about Watergate and all that told us about modern Republicans. He’d counter with endless jibes about Democrats being socialists, or worse, while I referred to Goldwater Republicans, like him, as fascist John Birchers. Which he was. When he told me once he thought the free speech protestors at Berkeley should have been rounded up and shot, and that Edwin Meese had privately agreed with him, I saw a smug pride in the man’s eyes that haunted me for years. He was a Nazi and didn’t even seem to realize, or even care what that meant.

Jenn, of course, struggled with the dichotomy presented to her. She loved her father but the longer she remained in school, the longer she studied philosophy the more she understood what her father really was. And pretty soon her father realized he was spending his money to turn his daughter against his own ideals, and I think that set up the final conflict between them. Rather that let her grow, I think he began to undermine her – at first in intellectual arguments, and then, when that didn’t work, through emotional attacks.

Jenn, I think, fell into that trap. And it was a trap. There was no way to win, for her, anyway, and the only way he could win was to destroy her. And he did, but you’d have to be sick to call that a victory – by any measure. I’ve thought about them over the years and saw in their struggle nothing less than the struggle between generations that flared in the 60s. The results were as debilitating for all of us.

About halfway through that first night out of Newport Beach I realized I couldn’t break free of all this toxicity by myself. I needed other people around me in this endeavor, and I’d need to find those voices in books, and in music. I’d need to be able to pull into a new anchorage and get ashore, find local music and listen, really listen to voices of anger and love, of resistance and submission. Yet if this trip turned into a series of angry flights the time would be pointlessly spent. If, on the other hand, I tuned in and really listened with my musician’s heart there was a chance I could learn something valuable, and quite possibly share what I learned with people who might listen. Maybe that was ego speaking, but isn’t all artistic creation an act of ego?

The wind fell away then the sea took a deep sigh and was still, leaving a black mirror alive with dancing starlight. We, Troubadour and I, drifted by a massive kelp bed and I saw a sea lion poke it’s head out of the tangled mass of starlight and stare at me as we drifted by. I wanted to dive in and play with it, to live in it’s world for a minute or two, understand what concerned him or her as it went about it’s business in the darkness. Find dinner, I reckoned, without becoming something bigger’s dinner. Elemental exigencies. Kill or be killed. That was life, wasn’t it? That’s what civilization had tried to tame. All our laws, all our frail moralities…those things kept nature away, because nature, true nature, has always been all about the most basic kind of survival. Find food and keep from being killed in the process, live long enough to procreate then get out of the way as the next generation comes along.

That seal was hiding in the kelp because something bigger than it was out there in the darkness, circling, waiting for the opportunity to sprint in and eat him. Just like me, I thought. Out here on Troubadour, running, hiding, trying to turn this into a noble mission to enlighten civilization while I ran from Jenn and her razor blades. While I tried to hide from images of Deni as she fluttered down to the dark embrace of Lake Erie.

It’s funny, the things that run through your mind in the last minutes of darkness, just before the sun rises, even a few miles offshore. You can see houses on bluffs above beaches, sleeping people just coming to the sun while you look at the processes of civilization from afar. When you cut the cord and sail away you begin to distance yourself from all those routines, from all those laws and moral constructs that define your shoreside existence. When you sail along the elemental periphery you really feel that ‘apartness.’ You feel it in your bones, like you’ve set yourself adrift and whatever purpose exists may or may not be revealed to you. In the end, you’re just along for the ride.

And then I really realized this was ‘my first time’ out on the water – by myself.

And I didn’t like this being alone thing.

So I turned on the motor and advanced the throttle, made for the entrance channel to San Diego harbor. By mid-morning I was tied up on Shelter Island; a half hour later I was eating eggs Benedict on a deck overlooking the water, so deep inside the gut of civilization it made me giddy. I walked to a yard after brunch and asked about radios, maybe one with a cassette deck? No problem, they told me. They could have it in by evening.

That, too, is civilization. Ask and ye shall receive. Just hand over the gold and run to the bookstore. We’ll take care of the details while you go spend some more money.

So…I went to all the bookstores I could in five hours, came back to Troubadour with piles of books and tapes, and I stowed them while workmen rounded out the radio installation, then I went back out for dinner, and I made my way down to an upscale steak place a few hundred yards away.

“So, what could I get you to drink?” my cheery waitress asked.

“Something strong, something with rum.”

“How about a Mai-Tai,” she said. As long as it’s strong, says I. “Not some watered down girly drink.”

She looked at my shorts and boat shoes then.

“Coming, or going?” she asked.

“Pardon?”

“You just coming in from a trip, or about to head out?”

“A little of both,” I said, then I explained.

“Where’s your boat?”

“Right down there,” I pointed, and I could indeed just see Troubadour’s mast jutting up across the way, “the one with the blue hull.”

Troubadour?” she asked. “I was looking at her earlier. She looks sweet.”

“Oh?”

“I’d love to just sail away someday.”

“And where would you go?”

She put her hands over her eyes and pointed in some random direction: “That way!” she said, grinning, and I laughed with her before she took off and brought my medicinal strength rum and some bread. After she took my order, she pointed me in the direction of a truly colossal salad bar and disappeared, but a minute later she dropped by again.

“So, where are you headed?” she asked.

“Nuku Hiva.”

“When you leavin’?”

“In the morning.”

“Want some company?” she joked.

“Have a passport?” I joked right back at her.

“Yes.” A little more serious this time. A little more eye contact.

“Maybe you ought to drop by after you get off tonight.” I watched her reaction then.

“Okay,” she said, parrying my thrust.

Surreal? Yes, I know.

Stupid? Probably.

Random, almost to the point of silliness? Oh yeah.

Ah, but her name was Jennifer. Of course. It had to be.

Jennifer – of Appleton, Wisconsin. Jennifer – she of the bright smile and long legged Jennifers of the world. Jennifer, who would in a matter of days become the love of my life, who would spend the next twenty one years glued to my side. There are chance encounters, random permutations of luck and timing, and then there was Jennifer. Jennifer ‘Do you have a passport’ Clemens. ‘Okay’ became a standing joke between us, the simplest word imaginable to set in motion an endless series of adventures.

“There’s a volcano! Wanna race to the top?”

– “Okay!”

If Jennifer of Newport Beach was a morphine drip fed scowl, Jennifer of Appleton was a serene smile, an imperturbable, old world smile grounded in mid-western common sense. She was JFKs glass half full, she was two years in the Peace Corps after earning her RN. Best of all, she’d never heard of Electric Karma, and neither did she know who I was, or what I did – and it never once mattered to her after she figured it out. She’d wanted to see the world, and in the beginning I was simply going her way. Her ticket to ride.

She’d been out on the bay a few times since she’d moved to San Diego the year before, ostensibly to get her Master’s in nursing, but she’d fallen into a different vibe after she settled in with a group of nurses – and she’d decided to ‘go back to school’ to learn other things. She didn’t know what she wanted to learn, only that learning was an imperative she couldn’t shake. She went to school days, worked tables at night, and spent weekends working at a free clinic – because that gave her the time and resources to do what she wanted. And what she wanted seemed to change from course to course – until what she really wanted was to break away and get out there. Travel. See the world. Learn. And love.

And maybe there was something mercenary in our coming together. She’d planted her feet in a place and at a time where sailors gathered before jumping off to the South Seas. Maybe her questions about where was I headed, and when was I leaving weren’t without purposes, or maybe now that she knew what she wanted she’d simply put herself in a position to get there. Maybe she would have been like an autumn leaf, blowing any way the wind blows – but for whatever reason she found her way – to me.

Because I’d forgotten to pack a few books. Because I couldn’t listen to music on my boat.

Sometimes life turns on the silliest, most inconsequential things. Sometimes love comes to you, and you’re damned if you turn away.

We put off leaving a day, only because that’s how long it took her to cut all the ties that bound her to life on shore, and when we slipped away that following morning I did so knowing this was almost a case of the blind leading the blind. I was not yet a deeply experienced sailor, and she was a neophyte – so we went slow. We sailed down to Ensenada, anchored out and rowed ashore, went to Hussong’s because that’s what everyone else did, then we made a longer trip south, to Guadelupe Island, about a third of the way down Baja, and after watching researchers diving with Great Whites we decided against swimming ashore. We baked out first loaves of bread together, learned how to move around the boat together, and we started listening to our hearts – with our minds. Not as simple as it sounds, too.

We hemmed and hawed, debated whether we should go to Cabo San Lucas and top off the water tanks or just strike out, head for the Marquesas, but as I’d stowed dozens of bottles of water to go with what Troubadour carried in her tanks we opted for the latter. So, setting a course of 210 degrees, we stared ahead at 3000 miles of open water – and what do you suppose happened?

I’d have, at one point, called it wedded bliss, but for the time being I called it Jennifer Clemens.

Okay?

+++++

We’d set the wind vane and let it steer for hours on end, and the most joyous moments came when dolphins joined us from time to time. They came up from behind one morning and zinged alongside, playing in Troubadour’s bow wave and, as she has a tremendous bow-sprit Jennie lay up there, her hand outstretched, waiting. And every now and then one would spring up, let her take a touch on the fly, and those close encounters seemed to energize our little universe. She’d come back to the cockpit with this look in her eyes and I’d wrap myself within her arms and legs for a few hours. The second time that happened I looked up, saw we had an audience and I wondered what they thought of us. Were we really so different?

A great Atlantic storm entered the Caribbean, then crossed Panama and Nicaragua and made it’s way into the Pacific, and though it tracked north of us the remnants hit us, and hit us hard. It was my first real storm at sea without Jenn, yet Troubadour was built, like the Westsail, to handle these conditions – and she did, with ease. After the storm’s passage we both felt a surge of confidence, yet we knew it hadn’t been a real hurricane. Even so, we felt like we were becoming a team, that we worked well together.

The net result? We began to talk about ‘what comes next?’ Both for this voyage, and for us. I felt bonded to Jennie after that first storm, like she had become a part of me. Like that otherworldly loneliness I’d felt off the coast of La Jolla was truly a thing of my past, and now Jennie was my future. And I told her that, in no uncertain terms.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

“Spend my life with you.”

“You do?”

“I do.”

“Okay.”

“Does that mean what I hope it means?”

“Yes.”

So, right out there in the middle of nowhere, with only God standing as our lone, mute witness, we said what words we remembered and pledged to take care of one another ‘til death do us part. It was really that simple. Even if marriage is a civilizational construct, I felt comfort after that – knowing she had my back, and that I had her’s, too. Yes, that’s odd, but yes, that’s called being human. We weren’t meant to make this journey alone, yet the most staggering thing was how I knew she was ‘the one’ within minutes of meeting her. Does that seem strange – after Jenn and her razor blades?

When Jennie first came down to Troubadour that night she was still in her uniform, a short little dress with black tights under, a white blouse with a red vest over, and while she looked the boat over I looked her over. We talked for a few hours about the road she’d taken to San Diego, and where she hoped it would lead next, and the more she talked the more comfortable I grew with her voice. She might have looked flakey on first glance but really, she was anything but. She was as grounded as anyone I’d ever known, yet grounded to the beat of a different drummer.

I fell asleep with my head on her lap, and she was still with me when I woke up six hours later. When I slipped up and fixed coffee she woke and looked at me.

“So, you really want to do this?” she asked.

“Yup. Can’t imagine doing it without you.”

Yes. Life really can be that simple. You just have to open your heart and let it in.

Three thousand miles at a hundred and forty miles a day is 21 days, and my celestial nav was spot on so we nailed it, sailed into Taioha’e and cleared customs, then anchored out in an unexpectedly easygoing euphoria.

“We did it,” we sighed. We had, too.

She snuggled in and didn’t move for an hour, and then I heard her easy breathing, her gentle sleeping, and I settled in beside her for the duration.

+++++

I know this marks a departure from the flow of things, but we walked ashore a day later and found a small Catholic church, Jennifer being an Episcopalian and all, and we asked the guy with the white collar to do the whole marriage thing for real. No paperwork, mind you, just say the words before God I think you’d have to say, and he did and for some reason we felt for real after that. She took my name, a nice German-Jewish name, and jettisoned her Wasp-British name and she called her folks back home – who had no idea she’d left San Diego, mind you – and told them the news.

Major freak-outs ensued, by the way, and her folks told us they’d like to come to Tahiti to meet me, and to let them know when. Then we took off to do some grocery shopping.

Yeah. Surreal.

Just like grocery shopping in the Marquesas was surreal.

No supermarkets, especially not in the early seventies, and very few tourists to get in your way. Want a new alternator belt for your Volvo Penta diesel engine? Say the words ‘fat chance’ three times as fast as you can. Then try backwards. Yup, it was about that easy. Fed Ex hadn’t quite figured out how to spell Marquesas back in 73-74, which meant an alternator belt would come by sea. Like maybe by copra schooner out of Papeete. I had a spare, of course, but what if that one cut loose? I needed a spare to replace my spare, and it looked like that would have to wait a few thousand miles, but I did find a mechanic savvy enough to locate the alignment issue causing the belt to wear prematurely. Problem solved, lesson learned and filed away on a 3×5 card – with notes and drawings attached.

Long distance sailing has been justly described as sailing to exotic ports and doing extensive maintenance, and after fifty years I can say I’ve pulled apart more engines in obscure places than I’d ever care to admit. I’ve replaced Troubadour’s original engine four times in fifty years, too. I maintain the things, do all the fluid changes at twice the most conservative intervals – like changing engine oil after every fifty hours of use – but I don’t run my engines often and the salt water environment simply kills them faster with little use. Yes, that’s correct. Marine engines are cooled with seawater, one way or another, even so-called fresh-water cooled engines, and salt kills metal, period. So, rule number one: shit don’t last and it’s got to be replaced. That’s why sailing is also described as standing in a cold shower – ripping up hundred dollar bills just for the sheer fun of it. That’s the nuts and bolts, but here’s the grease: the more you can do yourself the more affordable sailing becomes. The corollary? When you pay someone else to do the work, about 90% of the time the work is poorly done – or was just plain wrong, leading to more expensive repairs. When we made New Zealand a year or so later, I took a diesel mechanics course; it was the best six weeks I ever spent – in terms of saving money. I still have zero interest in engines, but I’ve always had tons of interest in saving money.

Anyway, Jennie was as good as her word. She wanted to explore. She wanted to meet people. And Jennie was an RN. A real, honest-to-Pete nurse. When word got out in the village she was an RN someone from the local hospital came down and asked if she would mind working on Hiva Oa at a clinic for a month or so. She looked at me and I shrugged ‘why not’, and off we went. There wasn’t a doc at the clinic there, it turned out, and she was doing front line work under a docs supervision – by radio – and she loved it, had never been happier. One month turned to two, then three, then her replacement – from France – finally turned up and we were free again.

Rangiroa was our next stop, inside the northeast pass by the village of Tiputa, and we stood by and watched Jacques Cousteau and Calypso maneuver into the lagoon and drop anchor a few hours after we had – and about a hundred feet away – and Jennie wound up working on the boat for two weeks while Cousteau & Co dove on the reefs just outside the pass. One night we heard Electric Karma’s second album blaring over an onboard hi-fi and when the crew found out the next day who Jennie’s main squeeze was we had a blowout on the beach that night that was truly epic. We became good friends and ran into Calypso several times over the next decade or so, yet that experience came to define most of the people we ran across out there. After a few months we both realized we’d be running into these same people time and again – because we were all like-minded explorers on the same path. We might not see John and Jane for a few months, but then there they’d be, in some out of the way anchorage no one had heard of before, and we’d exchange information and ideas, maybe some rum, too, then be on our separate ways.

During the three months we spent on Hiva Oa I got this Paul Gauguin thing going and started painting. Yeah, Gauguin spent most of his time in the Pacific on this island, and yeah, you could buy art supplies there. So I did. An old French gal taught me the basics and I started painting, and I’ve not stopped once since. When he dropped the hook someplace nice I’d start sketching anything and everything interesting, and in time we began searching out anchorages simply because they had scenic appeal. By the time we hit Papeete I was running out of places to store canvases.

Because of the time Jennie had worked on Hiva Oa all sorts of bonds and fees were waived in Tahiti, and we were extended the offer to spend more time in Moorea, in the village of Papetō’ai, if she’d work for another month or two. Okay, look at pictures of Cook Inlet on Moorea, then factor that getting a permit to anchor there was next to impossible, then hit enter. Now, you’ve just been given a permit to anchor there as long as Jennie was working there, plus a month. Free, as in no charge. We ended up anchored by a waterfall – for six months. I shipped fifty canvases back to LA; when my lawyer saw them she asked if she could buy a couple. Then she told me she had shown them to a gallery owner. They wanted to represent me. Please send more, they said. Bigger is better.

I already thought life couldn’t possibly get any better than this – and now please paint more? A month later word came that thirty plus paintings had sold, and the next time I sent in a batch I’d better count on returning to LA for a dedicated showing.

Then the inevitable happened.

Jennie’s parents, and two of her three sisters, announced their coming to Tahiti to meet the latest member of the family. And the two sisters were huge Electric Karma fans, too.

Oh happy day.

So, I rented a house for them to sleep in, and figured we’d take them sailing on the days Jennie had off, and on the day of their arrival we got on a Twin Otter at Temae and hopped across the channel to Papeete.

Warren Clemens looked like he’d just been called up by Central Casting to play the part of a midwestern preacher with an attitude problem. Problem is, looks can be deceiving. Warren was a hard drinking ex-Marine with a seriously deranged sense of humor. He was also a physician, a skilled general surgeon who also taught at the medical school in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was also a Green Bay Packers fanatic. I mean a real fanatic, not some half-assed wannabe. And as soon as Warren learned his baby girl was working at the local clinic he had to go see what she was up to.

And yeah, you guessed this one already, didn’t you?

As soon as they leaned he was this hot shot surgeon some kid gets pulled off a reef after a white tip reef shark tried to eat his legs off, and the kid’s half dead by the time they get him to the clinic. No way he’ll make it to Papeete, someone said.

If only we had a surgeon here?

And there goes mild-mannered Clark Kent into the phone booth, emerging seconds later in his red cape as Super Surgeon, ready to save the day. Yeah, he saved the kid’s life. Yeah, he did an appendectomy three days later. Then gall stones, then he repaired and set a compound fractured femur. Another appendectomy followed – and, mind you, he wasn’t getting paid for any of this – and he was having the time of his life. Long story short, for the next eight years Warren and his wife, the first mother I’d ever really known, came back to Moorea and he volunteered for two months at a stretch. He stopped coming – eight years later – only because he died; there’s a chapel in the forest overlooking Cook Inlet named after him. He’s buried there, and so is his wife, and my wife too, for that matter.

Mind you, all this happened because I forgot to pack some books on Troubadour. I mean, are you following along with the chorus here? It’s why my next solo album was called Serendipity, why a butterfly sneeze in Tibet comes across the Pacific as a typhoon. Everything is part of an endless chain of cause and effect, so trying to find the root cause for something is as pointless as asking what happened before the Big Bang. Who the devil knows? And who cares? It’s pointless and silly to ask the question, and Buddhists are on the right track when they say: accept what is. If you can’t handle that, go get an enema, flush your brain and get right with God. You ain’t gonna know, so chill out and paint another picture.

Warren’s two week trip stretched out to three, by the way, and he wept when he left.

Okay, enough about Warren. Let me introduce you to Michelle. My mother. Well, you know what I mean.

Michelle liked to play cards. She also taught physics. Quantum mechanics, to be more precise. She was one of a handful of women to work at Oak Ridge – on the Manhattan Project. To say she was smart was like calling Einstein a bright kid. To say Jennie came from the deep end of the gene pool was as scary as it was misleading. Scary because she was serving steaks at a waterfront restaurant in San Diego, waiting for me to come along. What if I’d gone to a bookstore in Westwood? Misleading? Because she had turned her back on all that, yet that’s who she was.

Michelle also liked to paint. Watercolors. Nothing but, and usually simple flowers. She taught me her techniques, and I was hooked. We spent hours walking off into the forests around the inlet and she’d find something new, sketch the rough outlines then pull out this monster Nikon F and start shooting away, getting just the colors she needed down on Kodachrome 25 for later reference.

So, time to meet my new sisters, Niki and Taylor. Both into music, seriously. Both teaching music. Both in love with the idea of me, the rock star, even before they met me. Both went nuts after spending a few hours with me on Troubadour. We spent evenings on the boat cooking and talking shop, then I’d pull out the old backpacker and start playing through the newest ideas, sounding my way through the classics and bridging the divide to rock, and they were all abuzz about Yes and ELP and Pink Floyd, and had I heard Dark Side of the Moon yet? Niki set me straight, and Us and Them became my new favorite when we found a cassette in Papeete a week later.

There are jagged spires around the island, some of the most inspiring peaks I’ve ever seen, yet many lack perspective unless seen from the sea, particularly along the west side of the island. We circumnavigated Moorea, all of us, slowly, over a two day period, and I should have bought Kodak stock before we set out: I don’t know how many rolls we blew through. Hundreds? Maybe – maybe more. It was nonstop – blow through 36 exposures then dash below to rewind and reload – and as I’d never seen this part of the island before I was just as pathetic, just as consumed. My only regret? I shot Ektachrome as there was no place to get Kodachrome developed out here, and some of the slides were fading fast by the time Jennie passed.

Still, some of my most cherished memories were captured during those three weeks. As I’ve mentioned, I’d not had a mother and father, let alone sisters, but by golly now I sure did. I would have fallen in love with them, all of them, simply for that reason, but they turned out to be really fun, really interesting people, and all of a sudden life felt complete. To put it succinctly, I’d not felt this good since Electric Karma’s heyday – and no stage fright, too. A year away and life was evolving into the best sleigh ride possible, not a care in the world and everything was just as easy as sliding along a country road in the snow.

Of course, shit had to hit the fan. It just had to.

And it hit from an unexpected direction.

Terry. My ‘grandmother.’ She’d married and divorced an old English movie star and was now simply destitute. He’d bled her dry and walked away, walked into the arms of a younger, more economically productive actress, and Terry was about as low as a human being could get when she got word to me through my lawyer that she needed help. I bought her a ticket from New York City to Papeete and she arrived two days before the Clemens clan was due to leave. By the time she got to Troubadour I’d told them my grandmother was coming, but not who she was, so when Terry McKay showed up onboard Warren clammed up tight, Michelle tried to act nonchalant – but failed, and the girls gushed. All in all, it was exactly what Terry needed. She was entranced by Moorea and I made an offer on the house I’d rented, bought it outright and she moved in – with the understanding that we’d all consider the place kind of a home base going forward. When local officials heard they had a genuine Hollywood legend in their midst…well, let’s just say they were very supportive of the idea. Warren was still tongue-tied every time he was around her, though.

We said our byes at the local airport, and as I said, Warren was a basket case. The experience had been as draining as it was fulfilling, and I hugged Michelle and the girls in a way that said everything. I was happy. They were too.

Terry was beside herself, of course. She and destitute were not on speaking terms, and I talked to my lawyer who talked to some people at Universal who talked to – yada-yada-yada – and she had an audition if she could get to it. She said she couldn’t, she wasn’t strong enough.

Could she if I went with her?

“Yes.”

So off we went. We stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a first for me, because she had to ‘keep up appearances.’ The studio picked her up and I went to visit my gallery, dropped off a few new canvases. Visited my friend at Pop’s house, then my lawyer, and by the time I got back to the hotel Terry was in the room, out of her mind with anxiety. She wouldn’t hear for a week or so, and if she prevailed her presumed co-star would be none other than her ex.

“Let’s leave tomorrow,” she cried.

“Let me make a few calls,” I replied.

She got the part and her ex was passed over, the part going to David Niven instead, and she was suddenly ecstatic and destitute no more. Shooting would begin in two months so we returned to Moorea, and as I had a real workspace to set up a studio I started painting. Huge canvases this time, like six by ten feet, and this series was all Moorea, all misty mountains and rain forests full of furiously blooming flowers. Terry and I started walking the forests, she started photographing flowers and soon got into it, then she too wanted to learn watercolors and when I passed word along to Michelle she was over the moon too. Next summer would be fun, I reckoned, assuming Warren didn’t lose Michelle due to his obvious infatuation with Terry. I mean…Peyton Place, anyone?

Jennie was the one who picked up on Terry’s infatuation with me.

I’d never seen it before, obviously, but then again – what about Jenn. Jennie, on the other hand, was adroit at picking up these things. She read people and didn’t miss much, and she could spot a phony in two seconds flat. Terry was a phony. Insecure, not really talented but cute as hell. She was, in Jennie’s mind’s eye, a pretender. Terry’d made it this far on her looks alone, not to mention her ability to enchant men, and that was why, Jennie guessed, the old Englishman had ditched her. He’d seen through the bullshit and moved on. Jennie doubted the guy had swindled her, too; more likely she’d try to buy the guy off, keep him interested by buying him things. Classic, she said. Now she’d turned her attention on me – because I was safe. Because I’d give her all the attention she needed. Because of Pops. She was, in short, taking advantage of me.

Yeah. Maybe. I wasn’t buying it quite yet, but I could see her point. Regardless, she’d been a part of my life for years, some of the most important years of my life, and I wasn’t going to turn my back on her. If I had some justification to call her family, then where’s the line between being taken advantage of and doing one’s duty?

Funny thing, that. I’d never talked to Jennie about Jenn. Jenn and her razor blades, but for some reason I decided to that day. I ran down the whole sordid chronology, from the toxic relationship with her dad to the last attempt, and the abortion, in Vancouver.

She was appalled, I think.

Mainly, I reckon, that we’d not talked about it before. That led to a talk about abortion. We both hated the idea of it, but we both supported the idea that it was ultimately a woman’s right to choose. No big deal so far, right?

So why had I, in effect, ditched Jenn when she decided to have an abortion?

Because, I countered, I considered that child ‘ours,’ not just ‘hers’ – and by taking unilateral action to take that child from me she was declaring in the starkest possible terms I wasn’t part of her life.

“But she’s ill, Aaron. Couldn’t you see that?”

“But she was considered well enough to make that kind of decision? If she was well enough to consider the implications of ending a life, why wasn’t she considered well enough to take her own? I don’t get all these moral inconsistencies. They don’t make sense. How is it okay to kill a baby at four weeks but not at four months. I don’t get it…?”

“But still you think it’s okay if the mother wants to?”

“I think it’s wrong to butt into other people’s lives.”

“But it was okay to force someone into having a baby, because it was yours, too? But you were not going to carry that baby, were you? Or care for that baby if you two split? Maybe she was never secure enough in the relationship to think you’d always be there? After you split up in Honolulu, went back to LA…do you think she felt real secure about things?”

“I was disappointed, but we never talked about splitting…”

“Oh, come on, Aaron. How do you think she felt? And then she’s trapped on the boat with the one man in the world who was bound to torment, then abandon her – again. And what do you do? You abandon her, too? So yeah, why bring a kid into that world? What else is she gonna think? Her life has been one threat of abandonment after another, and all you did was validate her fears.”

I looked away, looked at a mist-enshrouded mountain across the inlet, and I could see Troubadour sitting comfortably at anchor beneath the rolling fog. Immediately I wanted to get out to her, pull up that anchor and set sail, head to New Zealand…hell, why not Antarctica? I could just keep on going, because circles never end, do they? Electric Karma was not supposed to end like that, but we were aborted, weren’t we? Five kids’ lives snuffed out by an air traffic controllers little mistake, another hundred kids’ lives ended by carelessness – so run away. Everything is endless circles, when you get right down to it. Everyone is scared shitless of being abandoned.

I didn’t sit with Jenn and try to help her reason things out. I ran away. I tossed an ultimatum in her lap – like a hand grenade? – then I ran from her room. I needed to run away, didn’t I? I didn’t fulfill my end of the bargain with Electric Karma. I ran away. Ran back to Pops, but I left them in Cleveland and they died. I should have ended when Deni and my mates did. But I ran. When Pops needed me most, when he got sick, I ran. I ran to Deni and my mates.

Abandonment? Guilt? Did I have issues?

Phew!

I was running in circles, too. I had nowhere to go, nothing important to do, so I was running in the mist, running into mountains of guilt – and trying to paint pretty pictures of my aborted life. But what life was I talking about? The life my parents wanted. Oh yeah, those parents. The parents I never knew. Had I been running ever since? And what about them? – had they been running, too? Away from me? Away from their responsibilities to me? Just how far back did these circles go?

So…what’s out there on the other side of the Big Bang? What’s on the other side of all that sky? What would happen if you put all the matter in the universe into a suitcase, then waved a magic wand, said a few magic words and poof – you made the suitcase disappear. What would be left?

Silly, huh?

Like running in the night is silly, hiding from the answers right in front of your face. Running in circles. Running into endless answers in search of all their questions.

+++++

So, I painted for a few months, helped Terry read through her lines – and this was comfortable for us; it was something I’d helped her do since forever. I still felt close to her, still liked to bask in her glow, and when it was time we flew to LA together. I dropped off some paintings at the gallery, sat on the soundstage and watched David and Terry work some screen magic, and I sat in the Polo Lounge that afternoon and watched people watching Terry, still proud of her for being so beautiful.

And I called Jenn’s dad, asked how she was doing.

“Why are you asking me?” he said. “Why don’t you call her. Why don’t you ask her what’s going on?”

“Because I’m asking you.”

“It’s a struggle, Aaron. I’m finding out more and more about her life. About the role I played in this, and I’m not happy. Are you happy, Aaron?”

“About Jenn? No, not really.”

“No, I can’t imagine why you would be.”

“Should I try to see her while I’m here?”

“No. No, I can’t see that doing her any good now, but for the life of me I don’t know why you don’t come down and see your daughter.”

I think the word is thunderstruck.

“My – daughter?”

“Yes, your daughter.”

What followed lasted a half hour or so. I told him my version of events, he told me his. I told him I’d call my lawyer in the morning. He said that was fine with him. I hung up the phone, suddenly more concerned than anything else in the world that I had a baby girl – and she was being raised by that monster. I called the clinic on Moorea, left a message for Jennie to call me as soon as she got in. I went to Terry’s room in our bungalow out back by the pool and told her. She was aghast. I was sure Jennie would be, too, then, on a lark, I called my lawyer’s number – and she picked up.

She was working late, she said, on a big case going to trial in the morning, and I asked if she had a minute to listen to something important. She did, and I told her all I knew. Could she help, I asked? What do you want out of this? she wanted to know. Because if it’s raising a kid on a boat vs with her grandparents in a house in Newport Beach, you’re going to lose. I want to know why no one ever told me, I said. Well, she said, you left, didn’t you? Because, I said, she told me she’d had an abortion! Why am I the bad guy here, I wanted to know?

She listened, I could hear her taking notes and she asked me to give her a few days, then she’d get on it, highest priority.

I thanked her and let her go, then turned to Terry.

“What do you want, Aaron? When all is said and done, what do you want?”

And then I noticed she was laying out on the bed dressed like a lingerie model, right down to the five inch heels.

“What do you need, Aaron?” she said again, rolling over, spreading her legs just a little.

“What are you doing, Terry?”

“I’m going to give you what you need. What you’ve needed for a long, long time.”

“I don’t need this, Terry. Not now, not ever.”

“You’re wrong, Aaron. You’ve wanted me for as long as I’ve known you, and don’t even try to deny it.”

“There’s a big difference between wanting and needing.”

“Not tonight, there isn’t.”

She stood and walked over to me, and really, I knew there wasn’t a damn thing I could do. She was an irresistible force, as gorgeous as any woman alive – and she’d baited her trap and waited for me to fall into her grasp. Now she had me, and she knew it. That night was the most sensuously vacuous I ever spent in my life, at once meaningless and as fraught with surreal consequence as any I ever enjoyed. When our night was over, she told me, it was over, but I remembered Jennie’s admonishments and knew it would never be over now.

I was back in my room when Jennie called, and I told her about my daughter and current circumstances vis my lawyer’s inferences.

“What do you want to do?” she asked too. “Bring her out here?”

“That would be ideal, but my lawyer, Shelly, says that living on the boat…”

“That’s bullshit,” Jennie said. “There are kids on half the boats we run into out here, and besides, you have a house here, remember?”

“I forgot to mention that.”

“Well, don’t.”

“What about you? What do you think about all this?”

“I think you should try for some sort of joint custody. You take her now, and when Jenn is better you revert to some more traditional sharing structure.”

“That’s not what I mean. What about you? How would you feel about having her around?”

“Me? I’d love it, but it seems to me the biggest thing is to get her away from Jenn’s father.”

“Me too.”

“So, how’s LA?”

“The same, only worse.”

“Oh?”

“I watched Terry and David on the soundstage yesterday. They look good together.”

“Aaron, she’d look good with Hitler.”

I laughed. Maybe a little too much. “You got that right.”

“How are you, Aaron? You sound weird.”

“Weird?”

“Yeah. Weird.”

“I couldn’t sleep. I miss you.”

“I miss you too.”

“I’ll let you know when I hear something…”

So yes, a lie can be an act or omission, can’t it? And I had just lied, maybe the biggest lie of my life, to the most important woman in my life. And a few minutes later in walks Terry, still dressed to the nines, still hungry. And still I couldn’t say no to her. She was a cannibal, feasting on my indecision – and she was hungry.

And maybe I wasn’t running in circles, I thought later that day. Maybe my circles were running after me, and I wasn’t moving fast enough to get out of their way. Then I remembered that sea lion in the drifting kelp that morning off La Jolla. All those things I imagined circling in the night. Kill or be killed. Isn’t that what I told myself that night?

And then I realized I didn’t even know my daughter’s name.

Part III

After I talked to Shelly, my lawyer, two days later, I went to LAX – on her advice – and returned to Moorea, and to Jennifer. I returned after three more intense encounters with Terry, who I now knew I could not, and would not ever be able to resist. Fact of life. My big flaw. She was bourbon to an alcoholic. It wasn’t incest, it was worse. She was a violation of every known law of nature. I watched men stare at her when she entered a room – and I understood. I could not understand why she had chosen me. And let me be clear right here: I did not want to understand. I wanted to get as far away from her as I could, and stay there. I did not want to see her again, because I knew I’d want her again. Because I knew I would not be able to resist her again. I would not, because I could not.

And yet when I fell into Jennifer’s arms it was the most comforting wave of emotion I’d ever felt, a homecoming so overpowering it left me breathless. She wanted me – bad – she said, and we crawled up on the forward berth – and I couldn’t get it up. I’d been drained by Terry and didn’t have anything left, so Jennie put it down to jet-lag. I’d be better tomorrow, she said, but I wasn’t. I was overcome – with all consuming guilt. I’d violated a sacred trust and I wondered, could an agnostic wandering Jew go to a Catholic church and pretend to be gentile long enough to make it through the confessional? Could I say a dozen ‘Hail Mary’s’ with a straight face – and not have a vengeful God send me straight to Hell?

Then I was worrying about Tracy, my daughter. And I still couldn’t get it up.

We’ll get over it, Jennie said, but now I wasn’t so sure. When I closed my eyes at night I saw Terry on that bed, her legs on my shoulders, her stockinged legs resting beside my face as I plowed her fertile valley. I could feel her all encasing warmth, my searing orgasm, the smoothness of her cool legs on my face when I went between her thighs. So…if I couldn’t have her now, was I simply going to obsess about her. She was going to take over my life – in absentia.

“Why don’t we head south, for New Zealand,” Jennie said a few days later.

“What? I thought they…”

“My replacement from France arrives Friday.”

“You ready to move on?”

“I think so. We can come back here if Mom and Dad decide to return next summer, maybe for a week or two, but I’ve been thinking about Auckland. Maybe go to school for a semester?”

“Okay. Let’s go over to Papeete and get the bottom painted, pick up a few spares. We can go from there.”

“Okay. When can we leave?”

“I don’t know? Tomorrow too soon?”

“No. The sooner the better,” she said, and I knew then. Knew she could feel Terry in this place. Terry all over me. Terry’s skin on my face, on my breath…

We set sail at sun-up; it was only a short hop, really. Just 15 miles, nothing like the 2600 miles jump to New Zealand’s North Island that lay ahead, and we got there late morning, got Troubadour checked in at the yard and went out to find a hotel. We got a room in one of the old places along the waterfront, hard by the Parc Bougainville, and when we got to our room it was a little difficult to feel where Paris ended and Tahiti began. I called the yard, told them where we were, and they told me it would be two days at least before they could start on Troubadour. No problem, I said as I looked at Jennie.

She wanted to go out, by herself she said, and she took off, said she’d be back in a couple of hours. I showered, stood under the water for what felt like days, called room service and had them bring me some lunch. I looked at my watch, called the Beverly Hills Hotel then hung up the phone and called Shelly, my lawyer.

“We have a hearing on the 23rd,” she told me.

“Next week?”

“Yeah. You’ll need to be here. Oh, the house is vacant now. Want me to get it cleaned up so you can stay there?”

“Yeah, might as well.”

“What about Terry? Move her in?”

“We’ll see. Maybe after I leave.”

“Oh?”

“I think she likes the hotel. I’ll check with her and see what she wants to do.”

“Oh. Well, have her call me if she needs the key.”

“Yeah. Well, I’ll try to get in on the 21st or so,” I said, and I gave her my number at the hotel then rang off. And made the call to the hotel again, asked for her bungalow.

“Hello?”

“Terry, it’s me.”

“Goodness. Missing me already?”

“I’ve got to return on the 21st for a hearing, and Shelly told me the house is vacant now. You want to move in for now?”

“Are you planning to stay there when you come up?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to be alone?”

I took a deep breath. “No,” I said.

“Then you won’t be.”

“Alright.”

“If Jennie decides to come let me know.”

“I will.”

“Aaron?”

“Yes.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

And there it was. The first time she’d ever said that to me. The first time I’d ever said anything like that, to her. No hesitation. No duplicity. It’s what I felt, and I knew it was wrong. And how could I love Jennie at the same time?

I called Air France, made my reservation to fly back to LA, and was just wrapping up the call when Jennie came back to the room. She saw me on the phone and frowned, and when I told her about the hearing she nodded her head.

“Maybe I should go back to Wisconsin for a while,” she sighed. “Could you get me on the same flight?”

I called Air France again, made the reservation. One way, open return – for now – I told the agent, and Jennie walked over to the window and looked down at the waterfront.

“I like this city,” she sighed when I hung up the phone.

I joined her, stood beside her and we looked out to Moorea across the channel.

“How long will you need to be in LA?”

“I’m figuring on a week.”

“Anything I need to know?”

“No. Not really.”

“Okay.”

“What did you find out there?”

“Oh, just some girl stuff.”

“Girl stuff?”

“Yeah. I’ll show you later. You hungry?”

“I ordered some stuff from room service.”

“Stuff?”

“Guy stuff. Real food.”

She laughed. “I didn’t know they make hamburgers out here? Snails, yes, but hamburgers?”

Knock on the door, waiter rolled in a cart and after I tipped him he split. Two onion soups, escargot, broiled sea bass and huge prawns – for two.

“Perfect timing,” she added.

“I like to think I take care of you, kid.”

“You do, you know.”

“Because I love you,” I said.

“I know – I love you too. Maybe even more than you know.”

We ate in silence, then she went and took a shower. I heard her taking stuff out of her shopping bags, and she was taking her time getting dressed, then:

“Could you pull the drapes, turn out the lights?”

“Sure.”

She came out a minute later – dressed to the nines. Lingerie, heels, everything in white, and she walked over to me.

“Do you like me like this?”

I nodded my head.

“Does she…” she began, but she stopped herself, looked down at me. “Show me,” she said as she lay on the bed.

“You really are lovely,” I said during my second orgasm.

We didn’t leave the room for five days, then we held hands across the Pacific, we cried when she left on the flight to Milwaukee. I drove to the house on Foothill Road and Terry was there waiting for me. Dressed in blacks and grays, the sexiest woman in the world – all mine. No questions asked. I had not the slightest problem getting up. I had not the least hesitation in my voice when I told her that I loved her. Because I did.

I was between her thighs again, my face against her warmth, then I felt her shuddering, clutching my head with fierce fingers, and as she came down I moved up and entered her. I didn’t last long; I never did when she had her legs up on my shoulders, when I felt her heels on the side of my face. When I came down I looked at her, my perfect lover, and I started to cry.

She looked up at me and smiled.

“Don’t worry about all this, Aaron,” she said as she pulled me down. She kissed me, held me close. “I’ll just be here for you when you need me,” she whispered. “I don’t want anything more. Just to know that you still love me is all I’ll ever need. Okay? You don’t have to choose. I’ll just be here for you, always. Whenever you need me.”

And I was growing inside her warmth again, all movement involuntary now. Holding her face to mine we kissed as I fell into her movement again, and I pulled back a little, looked into her eyes as I came again. What had simply been sex before grew into something fierce and eternal in the next few minutes, yet I was more confused than ever. What could come of this, I wondered, but infinite heartbreak.

+++++

She came with me to the hearing.

I think because Shelly knew the judge was a big fan. Jennifer’s father was there, of course, and he seemed to read the expression on the judge’s face, knew he’d lost, and in the end I won temporary guardianship pending a final review once Jenn was out of the woods and able to stand on her own two feet. It was decided that I’d pick Tracy up in two months, and that I’d return to LA to pick her up after I arrived in New Zealand.

When we left Jenn’s father looked at me like I was the anti-Christ. He did, I think, because we only called one witness, one of Jennifer’s psychiatrists. She all but blamed Jennifer’s condition on her father, and pointed to him, called his behavior monstrous. The judge noted that her father perjured himself when he declared in court he’d made a good faith effort to notify me, and that he was lucky she wasn’t sending him to jail.

Terry, for her part, batted goo-goo eyes at the good judge, which I think made his day. Then we all went down to Newport so I could meet my daughter. It was a supervised visit at his lawyer’s office, and I couldn’t tell who she looked like. Not me, not Jenn, not either of her parents, then Terry spoke up: “She looks just like your mother, Aaron.”

And I cried. I held my daughter and cried at unseen memory.

Barely a year old, she held her little hand out and touched my face, my tears, and I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did, of course, then Terry and I drove back to the house on Foothill Road.

“You’d better call Jennie,” she said.

“Don’t you need to call the studio?”

“Nope. I’m not expected til the day after tomorrow, five in the morning. I’m going to go take a shower,” she said, smiling.

I called Jennie.

“Well, it looks like we’re going to be parents,” I said.

“What?”

“It’s temporary, but she’s ours.”

“Oh-dear-God. I can’t believe it!”

“Until Jenn is out on her own, anyway. Just like you said. When we get to Auckland, we can come up and get her.”

“Are you happy?” she asked.

“Yes, I am. For us all, and maybe for Tracy most of all. How’re your parents?”

“Good. Terry?”

“Same as ever. When do you want to return?”

“I, uh, well, do you want me to come back with you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Are you sure?”

“Jennie? What’s this about?”

“If you want me, tell me when to be at the airport,” she said, and then she hung up the phone.

I went and sat in Pop’s chair, thought about Tracy and what my mother might have looked like as a child, then I heard Terry in the bedroom and I knew she was waiting for me. I walked in and looked at her on the bed, all her lingerie and shoes a light gray, and she looked like pure sexuality unleashed. I showered, found her on the bed rubbing herself and she was wet when I got to her.

The whole dressing up thing mystified me for a while, then I began to look at it as wrapping oneself up as a present. But no, I found I liked all that stuff to remain on, so I began to see it as patterning. Like as kids, people of my generation were programmed to see lingerie and heels and think sex, so seeing it now was like programming a response. And when I saw Terry dressed like this I was almost overcome with instant lust; when I slipped inside I did so with her legs, often her shoes, on my face. Feeling these things kicked off images in my mind, propelled my response, and as I entered her, as her slippery warmth enveloped me I could smell the leather of her shoes, feel her silky nylons on my cheeks, and everything was like this surreal feedback loop. She didn’t have to tell me what these thing meant, she knew what they did to me. I assumed she knew what they did to all men, but I didn’t really care by then. I was inside her and the feeling was pure magic. I’d slide in quickly then pull back slowly, fast–slow over and over, then I’d pull out and just run myself over her clit then enter her again. Then she pushed me over and mounted my face, ground her clit onto my tongue until the tremors began, then her release was overwhelming. I flipped her over and entered her again, driving into her until I came…then it was flow down for a while until I was ready to go again. I could usually go for two, and with a break for dinner, take her a third time in one day, and she seemed to want as much as I could give her.

And I wondered if that’s what she meant. When she said she’d always be there for me. Was she programming me to need her? Making me accept her as a main part of my life? If so, it was working. And well, too.

Then she surprised me again.

“We’re getting to close, Aaron. I’m not sure I can keep doing this and not have you with me all the time. I’m addicted to you now, can’t think of anything else. I want you so much when I’m away from you it’s beginning to affect my work, and I don’t know what to do anymore…”

“Terry? Can I ask you something?”

“Oh, Aaron…anything, anytime…”

“What do you want? I mean, deep down, what would make you happiest?”

She rolled and looked at me. “In the end, I’d like you to love me no matter what, but I think I’d like you to marry Jennie, try to make a home for that little girl, the three of you. I’d like you to come see me every now and then, remind me how much we mean to each other. Maybe you and I could get married, but the cost would be enormous, wouldn’t it? But we could keep things just the way they are now and no one would be the wiser. I’d just go on loving you and, I assume, you’d go on loving me too. When you need me, I’d be there. Always. No questions asked. Just…always.”

“Okay. I accept you on those terms. Forever. I can’t not love you. And I can’t stop needing you. I can’t, Terry. I mean that. I don’t know if you’ve tried to make me need you the way I do, or whether time conspired to do this to us, but I’d rather die than know I’d never be with you again…”

She folded herself into me then, held me so tight for so long I thought we’d fuse, but a while later I felt that stirring and so did she. She went down on me, brought me back to life again and she straddled me for what felt like hours, reaching down, rubbing herself as she rocked back and forth until she came again and again, then she slipped down between my legs and finished me with her mouth. I picked her after and carried her to the shower and we bathed one another, then dressed and went out to dinner.

When we came back after dinner I called Air France, then called Jennie. “Be at the airport at 10:30 tomorrow morning. American to LAX, change to Air France.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

“I love you.”

“I love you.”

The reality is more difficult, of course. Loving two women. I mean really, really loving them. Caring for each as you would one. Terry drove me out to LAX the next afternoon and she told me not to say goodbye. “Never, ever, do I want to hear those words from you,” she told me. “All I want to hear from you is that you want me, that you need me. You never have to tell me that you love me because I know you do, with all my heart I know you do.”

I nodded, looked her in the eye. “And you love me?”

“With all my heart. And I’ll always be here for you. Nothing will ever change that.”

I kissed her once, gently, then got out of the car and walked into the terminal. I watched Jennie’s plane land and met her at the gate, then we walked over to International Departures, waited to board the jet for Papeete. I held her hand all the way through the terminal, and she said not one word to me until we were seated in the lounge, waiting for our flight to be called.

“You feel alright about what happened.”

“Yes. I think everything’s going to work out well enough.”

“You and me? You think we’re going to work out?”

“I do. Yes.”

“And Terry?”

“I think she’s where she wants to be now, doing what she wants, anyway.”

“I see,” she said – looking out the window, expecting to fly.

+++++

Troubadour was in the water, ready to load fresh provisions onboard when we got back to the yard, and we spent a day getting things loaded. We got a hundred pounds of ice in the box, then settled in for the night, had some wine and watched the sun set, then we were out light a light. The weather forecast looked grim when we checked the next morning, so we went back to the hotel to sit it out, and Jennie pulled out her lingerie our second night there – and I plowed her fields, and after that everything got back to normal, or close to it, anyway.

She talked more, we kidded around and went shopping. I bought her a ring, one to wear on her left hand, and she said it didn’t mean anything unless I did too, so she picked out a plain band and slipped it on my finger. That really seemed to calm her down and after that we slipped into our old groove. And you see, the thing is I’d taken Terry at her word. I stopped worrying about it, her, and let it slip into the background – and I focused on Jennie, on making her happy.

We took off two day later and in the aftermath of the storm we had solid wind all the way to Auckland, an all too brief 16 day voyage, but with unsettled seas all the way it wasn’t exactly easy, or pleasant.

The plan was to haul the boat for winter, replace some rigging and all the sails (yes, they wear out too, and fast in the tropics), so we’d rent a house while Jennie worked on upping her nursing qualifications. I decided to take that class on diesel mechanics then, too, and we planned to start after our upcoming trip to pick up Tracy in LA. So, first things first, I called Shelly, asked if everything was still a ‘Go,’ and it was. I got tickets for the two of us headed north, and three coming back. I let Terry know the situation and she told me she was off to Morocco during that time for a shoot, and she told me she was sorry she’d miss me. Okay. Sure. I made a shopping list for boat supplies and we took off on the anointed day.

It’s a long flight, and the Air New Zealand DC-8 stopped in Papeete for fuel – which felt kind of silly. The long haul was next, and after we rolled into the house – well past midnight – we dropped into the sack and slept for days. Well, it felt like days. After we ran errands, boat stuff for the most part, we crashed again so we could wake up early to meet Shelly down in Newport the next morning.

I half expected Jenn to be there, but no, that was not to be. Her father was a no-show, too. He sent Tracy with a sheriff’s deputy, I think to upset her more than any other reason, but it was a vintage choice even for that asshole. Tracy got to the lawyer’s office, upset, and we spent a while calming her down before heading back to the house. We took her swimming that afternoon, took her Disneyland the next day, then for a really long airplane ride the day after that.

And never a word from or about Mommy.

+++++

New Zealand was very quiet and most civilized in the 70s, and an ideal place to raise kids. Jennie decided to get full nursing certification after spending a month in school there; she opted to go for full citizenship a few months later. I opted to remain a US citizen, yet the fact that I had some money and that Jennie and I were married gave her the opening she needed. I decided to get Tracy in the queue for citizenship too, just in case, and so she started school there two years later. Well, kindergarten, but you know what I mean, and by that point Jennie considered herself Tracy’s Mum. More important still, Tracy started calling Jennie ‘Mommy,’

In order to maintain US citizenship I had to return home periodically, roughly twice a year, and of course Terry always happened to be there. On my first trip home I upgraded the recording studio in the basement and started working on my next album and, as Jennie’s sister Niki had a helluva a voice I asked her to come down and work on a few songs with me. I moved into the pool house for the duration of her stay and Terry behaved herself, and after three months hard work I sent the masters over to MCA and sure enough, they liked ‘em. Serendipity released in ’76 and happily it went gold by summer’s end, and the title song included Niki’s voice – and almost overnight she became a minor sensation. She’d penned several songs and we arranged them, I played keyboards on all of them and had some friends help with the other instruments and MCA loved her album, too. It went platinum in a month and all of a sudden she was not only famous, she was rich as snot. She took off for Wisconsin after the master tapes went to Burbank, leaving me alone with Terry for the first time in six weeks. We tore into each other and only came up for air after a week, just before my scheduled return flight came up.

And still, no word of Jenn.

Jennie and Tracy met me at the airport – in Papeete – as it was time for Warren and Michelle’s annual visit to Moorea. Tracy and Michelle went on walks looking at flowers while Jennie and her father worked at the clinic, and soon enough Tracy was working at an easel with Michelle, painting flowers.

I spent my days working on my biggest canvas yet, an eight foot tall by twenty four foot wide panorama of, you guessed it, a misty mountain in the fog. Framed by windblown trees and a rolling surf in the distance, however. Then I got word MCA wanted me in LA for a concert in the Amphitheater, so I called Shelly – in the middle of the night my time – to get the lo-down.

“A bunch of people want to do an Electric Karma tribute concert, Aaron. They want you there, and they want Niki to take Deni’s place. She’s asked me to represent her, by the way. It would mean the big time for her.”

“What? A concert at the Amphitheater?”

“No…haven’t you heard? They’re talking the Coliseum. A hundred and twenty thousand people. Some big names have signed on already.”

“What would Niki take home?”

“Maybe a half million, maybe a little more.”

I whistled. “Okay. When?”

“Does that mean you’ll do it?”

“Shelly…when?”

“October. You have three months to get ready.”

“What’s my take?”

She told me and I whistled again.

“Aaron, you can’t turn this down. It’s the chance of a lifetime for Niki, and it’ll keep you in the spotlight for a whole new generation of listeners…you’ll be set for life. So, Tracy will be set for life.”

“Okay, tell ‘em I’m in. You take point for now, start setting up rehearsals, probably late August, early September. See if MCA is interested in cutting an album of the concert, and ask Dean if he’ll do the stage. You do good and you can have twenty percent of my cut, on both the concert and the album, including my residuals. Got that?”

She was silent for a minute. “You mean it?”

“Shelly, my life would be shit without you. Make this work, get Niki on the fast track. Yeah, I mean it.”

“Aaron…I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, Shelly? This is the best way I can thank you for everything you’ve done. But, thank you.”

“Yeah,” she said, and I could hear her voice crack a little. “Could I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure.”

“What’s going on with you and Terry? Is there anything that could blowback on you?”

“Maybe.”

“If it happens, am I authorized to do damage control?”

“Absolutely. Write that into our contract.”

“Okay.”

“Anything in the wind?”

“No, nothing. Just a gut feeling.”

“Well, if something crops up, make it go away.”

“Will do. Should I call, leave messages at that clinic?”

“For now. I’ll see about getting some kind of phone at the house.”

“Okay. Bye.”

“Yeah, bye.”

When I turned around Jennie was coming out of the OR, her dad right behind, and they were both dripping in sweat. She saw me on the phone and frowned as she came over, and Warren came up too.

“What’s up?” she asked. “You look jazzed.”

“You better sit down, both of you.”

They sat; Warren looked concerned. I told them about the concert, and about the deals I was trying to get Niki. “It’d mean a half million in the bank, on top of what she’s made on the album already, but it would put her in the spotlight. She’ll be big. Bigger than big, would be my guess. She took my advice, signed with Shelly, my lawyer.”

Warren’s hands were shaking. “My girl…will make more in one night than I do in ten years?”

“Yup.”

“Holy smokes.”

“Yup.”

“You’re doing all this for her – why?”

I looked at him, then at Jennie. “You’re my family, all I’ve got left in this life. Niki is too. I’m doing what I can for my family. Simple as that.”

I looked at Jennie. “Rehearsals in LA, end of August, concert is on Halloween, in the LA Coliseum. I think we should all be there. All of us.”

“Okay,” she said, looking me in the eye, “we will be.” I could tell my hands were shaking too, and she looked at them, then up at me. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I don’t know. Hyped, I guess, is the word.”

“Why don’t you go up to LA now. Get started. I can see it in your eyes…that’s what you want to do.”

I nodded my head. “I know. I want to be here with you guys, though.”

“So stay, head back with Mom and Dad.”

“Yeah. We’ll see. I need to finish my painting, spend some time with Tracy. Maybe a little with my wife, too.”

She came to me and we hugged, and Warren stepped outside, lit up a Camel and coughed. Then we kissed.

“You should know,” she whispered. “I’m pregnant.”

I blinked, then my eyes went wide. “Holy smokes!” I managed to say – before she kissed me.

+++++

Different people bring out different things in me.

I thought about that all the way up to LA. When I was with Jennie I painted. I painted because I became interested in the visible world, the visual world. When I was with Terry I fell into my music. I could think music because she had been a part of my life since my teens, when music became important to me. When I was around Jennie the music almost stopped. When I was even thinking about Terry music poured in from every direction, but when I was around her music grew into a tidal wave.

I’d written all of Electric Karma’s music, Deni the lyrics, so that music would always be a part of me, yet when I put together the first solo album all that vibe slipped away. There was nothing about Karma I wanted to incorporate. But that was then and this was now. Now, sitting on that 747 all I could think about was Deni and the music we’d made together. And flying home to Terry was opening the floodgates of memory. By the time we landed I had written three new Karma songs. With Niki on vocals, no one would be able to tell this wasn’t Electric Karma – so why not cut a new Karma album? Get my old buds from San Francisco to cover guitar and bass and drums and the sound would be as authentic as it had been eight years ago…

Warren and Michelle regarded me as some kind of sorcerer all during that flight, but when I told them what I was thinking they kind of sat back and watched – in awe, I think. I asked them to have Niki call me as soon as they got home, then we said our goodbyes. I found the baggage claim had been moved – again – and it took me a while to find my bag – then Terry – but she was where she said she’d be. She drove straight home and ran for the shower, and I ran down to the studio and put my notes on my keyboard, then ran back up and joined her.

“Do you have anything going on the next three weeks?” I asked.

“No. Why?”

“You may not leave my side for the next three weeks, not once, not at all.”

“You’re on fire, aren’t you? I haven’t seen you like this in years.”

“I finally put two and two together, Terry. I can’t write good music unless you’re by my side. They stuff I’ve churned out when you’re not near me is garbage. Ever since Lucy-Goosey, when you’re with me it all comes together. You are the music in my life, my love. Without you I’m a hollow shell.”

She looked at me as if I’d slugged her in the gut, then she came to me, put her arms around me and I felt her crying on my chest – then I lifted her face to mine and we kissed.

“You called me…my love? Do you realize…?”

I nodded my head. “Of course I do, because I feel that now, as surely as I ever have. You are so much a part of me it’s insane. It’s surreal. I can’t even think music without you…”

“Aaron? Are you okay?”

“No, Terry, I am not okay. I am on fire. I am on fire because you have set me on fire. You’ve set me on fire ever since I’ve been interested in writing music. I doubt that I’ve ever written anything that wasn’t for you. Do you know the first piece of music I ever wrote was named after you. A little piano concerto. For you.”

“I didn’t know…”

“I think I always wanted to impress you, to be worthy of you.”

“Worthy – of me?”

“Yes, you. The most beautiful woman in the world.”

“Aaron…you can stop now.”

“No…I can’t. I’ve got at least ten songs to write, and you’ll need to stay right by my side. All the time. Understand?”

“Alright.”

I picked her up and carried her out of the shower, then I dried her off, every inch of her.

“What color would you like me to wear for you tonight?” she asked.

“Nasty.”

She smiled. “I hoped you’d say that.”

“I know. You have for a long time, haven’t you?”

She smiled, nodded and left the bathroom. “Give me a minute, would you?”

I went to the kitchen, fixed a Perrier and looked out the window at lemon trees blossoming in a breeze, and I could even smell them inside that moment, then I walked back to the bedroom. The lights were off, only a few candles blazed on a corner table, but Terry was there. Shiny black latex – everywhere. The highest heels I’d ever seen. A riding crop.

“Dear God.”

“Come here,” she commanded, then: “On your knees. Crawl to me. Crawl to me and lick my shoes!”

Yes. That was indeed an interesting evening. Interesting music, I think you could rightly say, too.

+++++

I spent the next morning on a song I called Lemon Tree, the afternoon’s effort would be titled Shining Need. Terry stood behind me almost the entire morning looking at my scribbled notations, and when noon came ‘round she pulled me to the floor and sat on my face for an hour, pulling me with her fingernails until I came – in her mouth – but I couldn’t get the night before out of my music. When I played it through for her she blushed, then I told her to shower and put on the latex again. “And Terry? You must be meaner tonight. You must take us where we’ve never been before.”

And she did. I was stunned at her ferocity, and how easily it came to her. Her need was shining now, shining right through me on a place I’d never been.

We went out to the swimming pool after, and I left the lights off. We slipped into the water and I pulled her close, pulled her onto me and I held her closer still as I entered. We rocked in the water until I felt myself tensing then releasing inside her, still swaying gently, holding her lips to mine until she began to tremble her way through her own release – and the water was black now, faint stars danced on the surface – and I wondered who was out there watching and waiting, circling, ready to come in for the kill…

The next morning? Starlight Blood, a heavy brooding place that scared us both when I played through the final draft. “We have to go someplace lighter now,” she said after lunch, “or I may end up killing us both.”

“I’m not ready for death, but when I am, I want to die in your arms. Promise me you’ll do that for me.”

“I promise.”

“Death won’t be able to hold us apart. You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded her head.

Those two lines formed the core of the next track, Fate and Promise.

We made love in the pool that night until we could hardly move, then I carried her to the shower and massaged her back to life, and I pulled her so close to me in bed I dreamt of the way her hair smelled.

Which became Sin Scintilla in our next morning.

She reminded me she hadn’t had anything to eat – but me – for two days, so we drove down to the beach, to Gladstones, and we ate Shee Crab soup and broiled shrimp on rice pilaf, then we walked on the beach for an hour, her music beating into me as the sand pushed between our toes.

Which became Seashell, an unfolding story about eternal love

And on and on it went. Every breath she took led me deeper into her music.

Until the last track.

Deni. A ballad about Deni, and why she mattered. We were a broken soul, your music made us whole… My other love. Broken, fluttering and doomed. I broke apart and came undone when I finished those lyrics, and Terry helped me up, led me to our bed and when she lay me down I pulled her on top of my face and ate her until she wept too, then we slept.

I called Jerry and Carlos and Pete – and Niki – and asked them to come by the house next Monday morning.

“We’re going to cut Electric Karma’s last album,” I told them.

“Far out,” Jerry said.

And Pete…my oldest friend in the world would be there in the middle of it all, again. God, I was so happy.

+++++

I could feel the changes Niki was going through, I’d seen it all so many times before. Sudden fame, almost immeasurable wealth had turned her from petite and unassuming to bigger than life almost overnight. She had that force now, the force money confers on the once so meek. She was a year older than I and that, in her mind, justified this new assertiveness – until Shelly pulled her aside and set her straight.

“Aaron’s done this for you,” Shelly told her. “All of this. Don’t forget that. Don’t forget to dance with the one who brung ya.”

She mellowed out, tried to accept that Deni was still bigger than she was. That Deni was one of the strongest voices of the 60s, and that the 60s still defined rock ‘n roll. People helped her understand what she was being given – a seat at the table – if she had the grace and the good sense to sit quietly and listen for a while, to learn.

She was a midwestern gal so full of common sense, and it took her a couple of days but she settled down, watched and listened to Carlos and Jerry, two of the biggest of the San Francisco bigs, as they wrestled with my music. We settled into the new-old vibe again, the collaborative nature of making music. I played a passage and they interpreted what I wrote. The last thing I could do was object to someone hijacking ‘my’ music – that’s not the process. We took my framework and turned it into our version of Karma in 1968. I led Niki into that wilderness, too, let her phrases blend in the music, and we listened to her when she started making suggestions, because that too is part of the vibe. We’d take her thoughts and blend them into the whole – because that IS the vibe – and at the end of the first day I was already looking at Niki like she was part of Deni. Even Jerry, who was still devoted to Deni and what she meant to the scene, started to feel that Deni thing when Niki started singing, and at one point he looked at me and nodded his head slowly, like ‘yeah, I get it now, why you chose her.’

We came together as Electric Karma for two weeks, then we carried the tapes down to MCA and let the folks have a listen. Everyone was blown away, there were even some tears, too, and as I’d hoped they talked about weaving this new material into the old when we played the Coliseum, and this news jazzed me pretty good – as I already knew this would be my last hurrah. Jerry and Carlos had their own things going, and Niki? Hell, who knew where she’d go after this, but it would be big. Me? I planned to do some serious sailing when Tracy got big enough to walk Troubadour’s decks. We were going to see the world together, maybe learn to make our own together.

It was September by then, time to get down to choosing the old numbers we’d play, then playing them over and over until we had them in memory, and all the while I kept the recorders going, laying down tapes of our sessions.

And yeah, Terry was there. Low-key and in the background, and I had to explain to Nik what Terry meant to me – in such a way that the deeper nature of our relationship didn’t overpower her – but Niki said she got it, that she understood, and that she wouldn’t fuck it up for Jennie. I started to love Niki after that. When she came into the room I looked at her and smiled inside, and there were times – like when she fell into the old Deni vibe – that she’d come to me and talk. About what Deni really meant to me, the whole love heroin thing.

“I feel that with you,” she said. “This thing inside the old music. The tension, almost like there was this carnal undertone playing out between her words and your music. When I sing Deni I want to reach out and hold you, then I want to fuck your brains out.”

“That’s what it was like, man,” Jerry said, coming over and sitting with us. “We’d sit around listening to her and it was like, man, I got to get inside this chick’s head, see where this power’s coming from. Then one day I knew. She didn’t simply project love, she was mainlining lust and when you watched the way she sang you wanted that lust too. You felt like you needed to take her because that’s what she wanted you to do. Now…imagine that happening in the room at the Fillmore…with hundreds of dudes getting amped up on that vibe. She was fucking with fire, I mean literally fucking fire onstage, daring people to fall into her vibe.”

It’s what happens when you fall inside music. When you make it, not listen to it. The notes start playing through your synapses and as you mold the music into your being it comes through your life like a hot knife. The Feel Flows through you, if you dig Brian Wilson – white hot glistening. When you’re playing you become this other thing: you, and the music in you takes over. When you come down after, down in soft blue drifting, you snap out of it and realize you’ve been someplace else. A special someplace only music takes you. You’re different. Changed.

And I watched Deni coming to life again inside Niki when she sang Deni’s words, because Deni was truly inside her now, taking Niki to that place she used to go. I watched Niki over my keyboards, watched the change come down on her, the way her body swayed, then I’d look at Terry and feel this divine thing settle inside me, the same beast I felt when I created Lucy. Terry was the constant, the universal fuck that lived inside this place, this craving penetration that rolled through me. Feel Flows, baby. Brian got it right that time. Shadowy flows.

We went out to the Amphitheater and did a run through concert to an ‘invitation only’ crowd of maybe 1500 people. No nerves, no bad vibes, and we played for two hours straight then just sat on the edge of the stage and watched everyone go nuts. This was Niki’s first taste of that electric adoration, the wall of love that rises up from the other side of the lights and breaks over you, and she started laughing, then crying, and she leaned into me.

“Way to go, babe,” I whispered in her ear.

I knew it then. I knew she loved me now. She was Deni, she was love heroin all wrapped up inside that something new, that something she didn’t quite understand yet. She was becoming music, this creature of the otherworld. She could understand what drew me to Terry now, what made Terry an imperative, and she wanted inside that part of me now.

She put her arms around me and I sighed, could feel Deni there beside me again, the spring she gave me once.

I hopped down and walked out into the surging crowd, felt the light breaking over me.

I felt immortal, if only for a moment.

+++++

I got a couple of bungalows at the BH, put Warren and Michelle in one, their daughters in the other, and Jennie and Tracy came to the house with me and Terry – and Niki.

Jennie was astonished at the change that had come over her big sister, the way she walked barefoot around the house in undies and a t-shirt. The way she draped herself over me when we were down in the studio, when the music came. Jennie couldn’t relate – but Tracy did. I started playing notes and chords with her on my lap, and I could see it taking hold deep inside my child’s mind. She’d be sitting there with her eyes open one moment, then she’d be swaying with eyes closed in a heartbeat, inside the music with me. Jennie watched that going down first in Niki, then inside Tracy, and I think she felt like she’d been on the outside for a long time – and never had a clue what was going on inside, until now.

And Jennie could feel the whole Terry thing now. Terry kept her distance but I insisted she stay within sight of me now at all times. Jennie was starting to freak out but Niki hit her like a missile, took her aside and laid it out for her.

“Terry is his muse, she always will be so don’t fuck with the vibe. You fuck it up and you’ll lose him. Simple as that.”

The thing with Jennie? She knew me, she knew my love for her was real, deeper than deep, but now she was learning my love for her existed in the world outside music, outside that springtime Deni created for me. The place Terry kept me rooted to. There were two of me, and she had one of them, but only one. She’d hated Terry before but after living with us that week she came upon the terms of her surrender. Accept what is or move on. If I lost Terry I’d lose me. I think she sensed that if she left I’d move on, but if I lost Terry I’d be wandering the ruins, lost inside a broken, melting Dali landscape.

You love a musician at your own risk. Feel Flows different here, white hot glistening.

I talked to Terry about Warren and his tongue-tied infatuation and she looked at me.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Shake up his world a little. Michelle’s taking him for granted – she needs, I think, a little jealousy in her life.”

Poor man. When Terry McKay turns on the sex appeal it’s devastating. I told Jennie what was going to go down and to take her mom out shopping – Terry could tell her where to pick up some appropriate lingerie. Surely someone into quantum mechanics could come to terms with simple attraction? Cause and effect? What’s been down a while still needs to come up? Sunrise, sunsets – ya know?

We set up at the coliseum the day before, ran through a few numbers for the media and we began figuring out a real 60s-type happening was blowin’ in the wind, that the event was SRO now with a hundred and thirty thousand tickets sold.

And we announced the new album at the press conference, that copies would be going on sale the day after the concert, but that a special edition would be available at the concert. Karma Kubed, with Niki Clemens handling vocals. Yes, we’ll be playing a few of the new songs at the concert. Yeah, the vibe is right on, it’s felt like we’re channeling Deni…very cool stuff.

We made the news, anyway.

I woke up the day of the concert feeling like pure electricity. I couldn’t keep still, went downstairs and sat in the dark listening to The Beach Boys, trying to focus on their vibe, their quicksilver moons.

I felt her then.

Tracy, my little girl. She stumbled through the dark and found her way to my lap, crawled up and cuddled up beside me, within me, and I held her close, let her inside for a while as I drifted in Brian’s music.

Jennie came down a little later, told me she was going over to the hotel, spend some time with her parents and that she’d see me at the Coliseum.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too, babe. Seeya there.”

She left me with Terry, who’d found this outrageous jade colored lingerie down on Hollywood Boulevard. Oh…did we make some outrageous music that afternoon…and she promised to sit front row center so I’d be able to focus on her during the show.

I’d had Shelly send tickets down to Jenn and her family in Newport, and while I doubted they’d show I had my hopes. Their seats would put them next to Tracy and Jennie and my family, right behind Terry and Shelly.

I was in another place by the time we met up with Carlos and Jerry. Niki and Pete were too, but Niki was freaking out. “A hundred and thirty seven thousand people?! This is fuckin’ nuts…” she cried as she circled like a cornered animal. “I can’t fuckin’ do this…I’m scared out of my mind…”

I could see all the classic signs, so I sat down with her, gave her the talk.

“You’re not going to be able to see anything but lights,” I said. “You can’t tell if there are fifty people out there, or fifty million. You’ll hear them, yeah, but just close your eyes, let the music in, let it take you where it always takes you. Give it five minutes and you’re home free, but if it gets to you just come over to, sing to me, sing into my eyes. I’m here for you, okay?”

I held her close, then Warren came inside the tent backstage and took over. A British group, 10cc, were warming up the crowd, and their I’m Not In Love was bringing down the house, then the lights went up and they left the stage.

A stagehand came in, announced “ten minutes!”

Carlos was in the zone, Jerry was standing in a corner, his eyes closed as he played through the toughest riffs in his mind’s eye. Warren left and Niki came over, melted into me, and I could feel her trembling through my own ragged heartbeat.

So I leaned into her and kissed her. Not a brotherly kiss, if you know what I mean. A curl your toes kiss, and she responded in kind, looked at me after like I’d just lit a fuse inside her guts – and she slipped into the zone after that and never once looked back. I’d just become her muse, for better or worse, but that’s the way these things go. We knew the score, didn’t we?

I walked out first and the roar was literally deafening. I felt it through the stage as I walked within the spotlight, as I walked up to my keyboards, then Carlos and Jerry came out and the crowd turned into sustained thunder. When Pete and Niki came out I had to slip on my headphones, then I looked down at Terry, looked at her jade dress and jade stockings and I smiled, then I looked at Tracy and Jennie and blew them a kiss, ignoring the empty seats where Jenn and her pops ought to be. The I raised my fist – and stepped into the light.

+++++

The next morning’s papers said we were flawless, and I don’t know, maybe we were. What I’ll carry with me was Deni, the song, the music. The way Niki came to me then, singing my life, singing her way into my soul. I looked at Jennie and Terry, saw their tears, then I saw almost everyone was crying, even a few of the cops standing by the stage. Whatever it was, that song took all of us back to 1968 – and made us reexamine our lives in the shattered light of her death. I played an extended interval, took the music ever downward, fluttering down to deepest octaves as Deni’s jet might have, as Deni might have while she watched her death unfolding, and Niki came up from behind, put her arms around me while I played, and I felt her leaning against me, crying, and when she stepped back into the light everyone saw what had happened to her and I felt this huge outpouring of love, pure love, the love only music conveys as it washed over our shores.

The rest was, literally, all a blur. One long blur of memory. One of Deni’s first anthems, Tiger’s Eye, pulled me in so deeply…I was in the purple paisley house adrift in a sea of patchouli again, watching her watch my hands as I played the first version of the entry. How she changed the phrasing of her words to reinforce my rolling chords, and I watched Niki watching my hands, forcing rhythm changes of her own – and it was like the three of us were out there, together, creating something new out of the past.

And I’d look from Jennie to Terry, my two touchstones, each representing polar extremes so far apart it was funny, each so intimately tied to my soul it was unnerving. Terry in her stockings, Jennie with my daughter, already showing as our first composition took form in her womb. Then I was in a limo headed for an after-concert bash at The Bistro, Jerry and Carlos still in the zone as the Lincoln fought through traffic – Niki leaning into me, biting my neck, almost purring with Deni’s lust now coursing through her veins. Drinks and dinner, family and friends, big-wigs from the studio – along with their wives and kids, teenaged girls who told me they wanted to suck something and I’m like really? Get a life, and get away from me, you might be contagious.

The Fillmore was real. You could smell us up there onstage because we were in a room smaller than a basketball court. The Coliseum wasn’t real, it was spectacle. We weren’t musicians, we were being pawned off as demigods while venues like the Fillmore were disappearing into commercial oblivion. Politics in music was being reordered to fit into the marketplace, so political messaging was on it’s way out at the big studios, which only meant emerging groups would flock to small, local studios and politics in music would become regional, local, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. But what would happen if ‘main street’ music became a commercial avenue?

That’s what I watched taking form that night. San Francisco nights giving way to LA glitz. What had been real was going to be trivialized, and I knew I had to get away from it or I’d die a slow, meaningless death.

Jennie and Tracy came by, took one look at the scene and disappeared. Niki remained glued to me, started holding my hand, then wrapping her arms in mine, becoming more possessive by the minute – Terry and Shelly looked on with wry smiles, while Carlos shook his head. Warren finally rescued me, took her back to the hotel and I left with Terry a few minutes later, but we drove out to Malibu and I parked down by the beach, carried her out to the sand and set her down gently while I laid out a blanket. I ate my way into her for hours, until her trembling became too much, then she finished me off and we lay there, listening to the surf while the light faded and my world returned.

She’d watched me at The Bistro, she knew the score. If she was my muse, if she made the music real, what happened when I turned away from music?

“Are we over?” she asked.

“We’ll never be over, Terry. We’ll never stop making music.”

“What comes next?”

“Tracy. The next part of the symphony is all her.”

“What about me?”

“You know, Terry, sometimes I can go a few months without you, but I start to fall apart if we’re apart much longer than that. We’ll work around that.”

“What about Jennie?”

“I won’t sacrifice you for her. She either accepts what is, or…”

“No. That’s not right, Aaron. You can’t push that on her.”

“And I can’t live without you. Simple as that.”

“No, it’s not that simple. Tracy has Jennie now, they’ve bonded.”

“I won’t give you up, Terry. And don’t make me do that, either.”

“Reading my mind?”

“Look, all I know is we’ll end up together, you and I, at the end. But between now and then? I won’t live without you in my life.”

“You know, in a couple of years I’ll be getting ‘old lady’ roles, if I get any at all, and all my leading men will have white hair. It happens to all of us, I guess.”

“And won’t I have white hair too.”

“Yes.”

“And I’ll still love you, won’t I?”

“You will?”

“I’ll always love you. I’ll always need you. And I’ll always want you.”

“Unless I get fat.”

“Don’t get fat.”

“Oh, alright,” she sighed. “God, you’re so high maintenance!”

“And you’re the most beautiful woman in the world. You’ve got to take care of that.”

“What about Niki? You started something last night, you know?”

“I did, on purpose. She had to grow beyond herself last night, see the next part of her career. I helped that along. And I’ll have to help her the next few steps along the road, get her up and on her own two feet. Then she’ll be okay.”

“What if she falls in love with you?”

“She already has,” I sighed.

“Oh?”

“Complicated, isn’t it? I have a theory, though. Those deep mid-west roots will kick in, she’ll run home and get married to an old beau soon, settle down and have some kids.”

“You think? I don’t know, not after last night.”

“How much you wanna bet?”

“I win, you have to eat me for five hours.”

“And if I win?”

“You have to eat me for five hours.”

“I’ll take that bet.”

“And do you know what I want you to do now?”

“Sun’s coming up in an hour.”

“Then you better get to work…”

+++++

So, a few weeks later Tracy and I are on Troubadour, in the marina on St Mary’s Bay, Auckland, and I’m letting her walk along the deck – roped up in a safety harness, mind you – getting her used to the whole boat thing, and Niki is sitting in the cockpit, watching us. Watching me, really, ‘cause she’s got it bad. It wasn’t a week after I got back she flew in, and it wasn’t two hours after she got to our house that Jennie had become annoyed. So…I told Jennie to just chill out, that I’d take care of it. And I did.

I took Niki sailing, again.

She’d been of a mind that sailing was for her, so I just took her out for a nice four day sail, out to the Cape Reinga lighthouse and back. We talked music, we talked babies. We talked about Jennie and Tracy, Jennie and the new baby. About what it meant to be a parent. She wanted kids, too, she told me.

“Have a father in mind?” I asked.

“Yeah. You.”

“Oh? And what about Jennie?”

“Nothing. She doesn’t have to know. We fuck until I’m pregnant, then I leave.”

“Why?”

“I’m not all that into guys, Aaron, but I want a baby. And you’ve got the music genes I want.”

“So? What, no love? Just sex, babies and bye-bye?”

“Oh, I love you, Aaron. Maybe not as much as Terry, but I love you.”

“And what about me? If I’m the father, what happens to the kid? Does he know who I am?”

“Yup. And Aaron, that’s kids. Not kid. As in plural, not singular.”

“And what’s that do to Jennie?”

“Well, for one thing, all these kids will be related – to you. We’ll all be, in a way, your wives, and they’ll be brothers and sisters, not cousins.”

“You do know I’m not a Mormon? And that this whole conversation is getting weird?”

“Yeah? So? This is what I came down here for.”

“To get pregnant? For me to get you pregnant?”

“Yup.”

“You know, I’ve never had sex with someone I didn’t love.”

“So? Fall in love with me – again.”

“Again?”

“Yeah, when we did Deni the first time I could feel you falling in love with me. It was real then, it’ll be real tomorrow. And I’ll have your kids, so you’ll love me all that much more.”

“You’ve got this figured out, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“And this is what you want?”

“Yes.”

“And you love me?”

“More than you’ll ever know.”

“Why?”

“You know why. Everything you’ve done for me. Before you, the only thing a guy ever gave me was a Dilly Bar at a Dairy Queen. You gave me a life, and so much more. You’re my husband, whether you want to be, or not. And I’m all you’ve got left of Deni.”

She wasn’t a colossal fuck, but then again, neither was Jennie. Neither got anywhere near Terry on the Lust-o-meter, but Niki could hold her own and I enjoyed being inside her, the feeling of reproductive urges being met, and satisfied. By the time we made it back to St Mary’s I’d pumped about two quarts into her motor, and if that didn’t do the job I didn’t know what would.

She bought a little place in town, a three bedroom house, and when Jennie seemed put out by that I told her she didn’t need to worry; as far as I could tell Niki wasn’t into guys…

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“She told me she’s not into guys, okay?”

“You mean she’s a…?”

“Hey, I didn’t go there…”

Which seemed to put an end to that – for the time being, anyway.

And so, there we were, down on Troubadour. Tracy walking the deck and me holding on for dear life, with Niki in the cockpit staring at my ass – or so she said – and when we came back to sit in the shade for a while Niki leaned over and said something along the lines of “I’m late.”

“Oh? How long?”

“A week?”

I shrugged. “That doesn’t mean a thing.”

“I know, but I feel it.”

“That means something.”

She grinned. “I know, Papa.”

A week later, she knew. She returned to the States, began planning for a life in New Zealand. I began dreaming of a life away from women, then remembered I had a little girl who needed a father, and another who’d join us in four months. Yes, we knew now we had another girl coming and all of a sudden it looked like the very idea of sailing away was about to be buried under a pile of soiled diapers.

Then Shelly called. Thank God.

MCA wanted to know if…

“I’ll be on the next flight up.”

And I sat on a DC-10 thinking about diapers. Cause and effect, ya know. You use it often enough and odds are you’re going to make babies. Trouble is, I knew now, I didn’t want a bunch of babies. I wanted to be on Troubadour. I didn’t want responsibility. I didn’t want to take care of any lives beyond my own, and possibly Terry. And Terry was this self-contained fuck machine whose only interest seemed to be getting me off then disappearing into the woodwork. She was, I realized, every man’s ideal playmate, and she was mine. When I wanted her. If not, just get on a plane and fly away. Come back in a few months when I needed to get laid without any head trips.

But that’s not how it works, Bucko.

You fuck someone you love, you have kids you love and you get them going down the road to finding love. You don’t find a girl and make her your pretend wife. You don’t fuck a girl and leave her in a funny farm, take her kid and then sail away, leaving all these kids with the pretend wife. Now the pretend wife’s big sister was carrying my baby too. No strings attached – “Just get me pregnant!” – and she’ll take care of the rest.

But what was Berkeley really all about?

Wasn’t it ‘Freedom!’

Free speech. Free love. Open marriages. Like hummingbirds flying from flower to flower, dipping our wicks into each new golden honey pot, depositing our seed and moving on, flying to the next flower, falling in love for a half hour then flying out the window. Who knows what I left behind?

MCA wanted me to produce Niki’s first real album.

Niki had flown straight to LA, flown to see Shelly, flown to get me to come back to LA. Flown to set her own trap. Trap the hummingbird, cage him, stop him from flying away again. I saw myself flying over the Pacific, my wings growing tired as I flew from flower to flower, then flying into a new house, Niki slamming the windows shut behind me, trapping me. Then diapers everywhere. Little white surrender flags covered in shit, and out the window, in the distance, a boat, sailing away. I’m hovering on the wrong side of the glass, trying to find a way back out to Freedom, but Freedom was the trap, wasn’t it?

No, I had freedom and it trapped me.

Is freedom supposed to work like that?

What is Freedom? Why was Freedom a trap?

Someone was pushing on me and I woke up, saw downtown LA out the window, looked up and saw a stewardess telling me to get my seatback up and I shook the dream away – but it didn’t want to leave just yet. Like a bad aftertaste this dream was lingering, telling me to wake up before it was too late.

I looked out the window, saw the ground reaching up for me, saw Century City off in the distance. Home. I was home again. Terry would be home. Terry, with her silk legs opening to receive my seed, then flying from window to window, trying to find my way back to Freedom. Always these circles, nipping at the heels.

Part IV

She was wearing the deepest blue, blue – like her eyes.

Shocking electric blue lingerie. And she was so beautiful sprawled out on the bed, my cum on her face. My sweat mingling with hers.

“God, I’ve missed you,” she whispered.

“I can’t keep doing this, Terry,” I cried. I can’t keep leaving you, wanting you and not having you. It’s going to kill me, and I’m afraid it might kill you too.”

“What’s happened, Aaron?”

I told her about Niki and she smiled.

“So, you think she wants to trap you?”

“What else could it be?”

“Hormones. Hormonally induced insecurity. She wants to be loved right now, to be spoon fed love until that baby comes, but by then she won’t have any left to give you.”

“What should I do?”

“Give me your cock.”

And she worked me back to life – and I fell inside her again, like Lucifer falling through the clouds. Her physical perfection was all that I craved, her seared emotional landscape the only place left where life made any kind of sense. Her blue silk cradling my face, licking the sides of her feet while I arced into her, electric need spilling between us in endless electron flows, and when the trembling began again I turned to pure, solid spasm and yes, my seed drifted within her honey – again.

Her hands on my face, she is licking me. Her legs have wrapped around me and she is pulling me inward again. I am on my hands, over her now, breathing hard, sweat falling again and all I feel is this liquid warmth between us. My spreading seed, her encasing flows all mingling now.  Her hands coaxing me down, my lips to hers, all warm breath as tongues join, as I feel my skin so perfectly mated to hers. We fit. Together. Perfectly.

She is moving under me again, trembling anew. I feel it in her thighs, then inside her, and she has hands inside her womb milking me. Something inside grasping me, pulling me, forcing every drop of need from my body – into hers.

“I love you so,” she whispers.

I am shaking my head, now totally aware there is only one woman I’ll ever truly love, and she is here, under me, and I feel so ashamed. A deceiver. Only the one person I deceived the most is me. My deceptions have led these other women on, onward into unjustified hope. Maybe I would burn in Hell if only I believed in such things, but for now I would burn inside Terry McKay – and let the rest of the world look away. They could burn without me now – just please, leave me inside Terry.

“I can’t spend another day without you by my side,” I said.

– And she looked away.

A telling look. Like the kind that makes you think about the handwriting on the wall.

“I’ve met someone, Aaron. I’m leaving soon, for England. I may not be back, as a matter of fact.”

“Really? What was this, then? My goodbye fuck?”

“No, I love you, but I wasn’t sure I could go on like this. So I, well, I started to look for options.”

“And you’ve found one?”

“I think so.”

“It’s what you want?”

“No, it isn’t. Not really.”

“But you’re going to anyway?”

“Yes, I think so. Because I think it’s what you need, too. Get me out of your system, put these dalliances out reach, someplace where you can’t easily get to them. Take care of Jennie and Tracy – and Niki, too.”

“Maybe you weren’t listening just now. You know, the part where I said I can’t live without you?”

“You can. And you will.”

“So, marry me, Terry. Stay with me. Let’s finish this thing together. See where life takes us, you and me.”

She shook her head, smiled at me. “I’ve got to let you grow up now, Aaron. Let you live up to the burden of your responsibilities. These are your children, Aaron, not mine, and not ours. You’re going to have to face that. That you are a father now. That people depend on you.”

“And then what? I die inside – I die every day we’re apart?”

“You raise your kids. You give them all the love I know you can. You teach them music, you teach them to paint. You love Jennie, maybe not like you love me, but you love her. You be a mensch, not a nobody.”

“I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Aaron? If you need me, as a friend, I’ll be there.”

I shook my head, looked at her like she’d just knifed me in the gut, then I stood, held out my hand and helped her up. We held hands as we walked to the shower, and I bathed her, now trying to program the feel of her through our wet skin. While she dresses I notice all her clothes are gone from her closet, and I know she’ll be leaving soon. While I’m drying off I hear the phone and go to take the call, and it’s Shelly.

“So, you’re in?”

“I am.”

“Meeting at MCA, ten in the morning. Iron out the contract. I think I got you good terms.”

“How’d you make out from the concert?”

“Amazing.”

“So, I made some money too?”

“You didn’t get me statement?”

“Nope.”

“I’ll bring it along with me tomorrow, but you did well, Aaron. Pops would be proud.”

“So, where’s Niki?”

“At the Beverly Hills. Registered as Rooster Cogburn, if you want to call.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah. Original, isn’t it?”

“Right. Well, I’ll see you in the morning.”

When I turned around Terry was nowhere to be seen. Her car was gone, too, and the only thing she’d left was her lingerie and heels. I went to the kitchen and got a Baggie and put her things in the bag and sealed it shut, then walked around the house, looking at her life – and Pop’s – spread out around the house. The place was, I saw, more a museum now that any kind of home, and I walked down to the studio, now wide awake despite the hour. I looked at the studio and my keyboards, then the phone rang and I walked over and picked it up.

“You’re going to be okay,” Terry said.

“Am I?”

“The spare key to my car is on the kitchen table; it’s parked in the garage opposite International Departures, building 7, third floor, space C79. Do you have something to write with?”

“Yup.”

She read out her phone number, where she’d be in London, and I committed the number to memory. “If that changes, I’ll leave word with Shelly.”

“Okay.”

“Aaron? Don’t ever think I did this because I’ve fallen out of love with you. I haven’t. I can’t. But we can’t go on like this, can we?”

“Marry me, Terry. Stay with me.”

“Call me in a few months. Do the right thing, Aaron. Not for me, but for us.”

Then the line went dead and I sighed, looked at the numbers on the paper like they were a lifeline, and I sat down and looked around my studio.

I’d be bringing this room back to life tomorrow, but could I – without Terry?

What could I do without her?

I sat in the near dark thinking about what she really meant to me, and I knew she was right. Life would go on. I would write music without her. Good music. Maybe not great, but we’d see.

Then the phone rang again and I snatched it up: “Hello?”

“It’s me. Niki. Are you still up?”

“I slept on the plane.”

“Could I come over?”

“Sure. Door’s open, I’m downstairs.”

“Is it close enough? Could I walk?”

“You could, but it’s not something I’d recommend at three in the morning, not it LA.”

“Don’t you have a car there?”

“No. Terry left it at the airport – I’ve got to run out and get it.”

“What?”

“Terry left.”

“For good?”

“Sounds that way.”

“I’ll be right there,” she said, hanging up the phone.

And sure enough, I heard the front door shut about ten minutes later, then heard her coming down the stairs and into the studio. I was still sitting, inert, in the darkness. Still thinking about life after Terry – and she came right to me and sat, took me in her arms and cradled me.

I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I felt too burned up inside for tears, for much of anything, but Niki got that…

“How’s the baby?” I asked after a bit.

“Good.”

“You been writing any songs?”

“I tried, but I’m not sure I know how, really. I think I’ll rely on you this time out. Maybe teach me the basics, how you go about it.”

“Got any lyrics yet?”

“Yeah. Ten songs I think are okay. A few that aren’t.”

“Oh? We’ll look at those first. Got ‘em with you?”

“I brought everything with me.”

“Yeah?”

“I wanted…could I move in with you?”

I thought for a minute, then nodded my head. “Yeah, sure.”

Terry was right. Niki was insecure. She needed love. And in the end, I was sure there’d be nothing left for me – but what the fuck, ya know? What the fuck.

+++++

I tried to pretend Niki was Terry, that Niki could be my muse, but the energy was different. Not wrong, but different. Niki was a hot, wet towel draped over my face, suffocating, maybe, after the initial surge of comfort. Her lyrics were inconsequential, too, mid-western white bread. Empty love songs, all longing without purpose.

She liked country music, the real old southern country stuff, and she liked rock, but she was trying to blend the two without any idea of the structure she wanted. Creating something new out of the two forms was going to be tricky at best, because country music wasn’t structured like rock. Because there was a fairly generous antipathy between Southern Country and the rest of the music world. Yet that’s where she wanted to go.

So it would have to be soft-rock infused country music, a commercialized amalgam of styles I’d never tried before. I wasn’t even sure why she wanted me to help her with this, as there were others who could take her into these uncharted waters a lot better than I. Still, she liked to curl up on the bed, and she even got into the whole lingerie and heels thing too, which was odd. Like she wanted to be Terry McKay, but could never be. She wanted to be sexy, and she tried to be without ever realizing that sexy is not something you can try to be. You either are or you are not, and she wasn’t.

And that was a problem, too. She wanted to project sex in her album, which meant photoshoots for the album art would have to project sex, but who the devil thought sex would appeal to a Southern Country audience?

Well, color me wrong.

MCA hired a photographer who normally shot the wide open spaces for the likes of Penthouse, and with makeup artists in tow they worked for two days getting just the right look. Kind of Nashville’s idea of a cowboy’s hooker from hell, with no pubes or nipples and just a little symbolism to placate the Baptist set, the image reflected what I thought would be the best song of the lot, a mushy ballad called Rocking Chair. The engineers thought my Mellotrons and Moogs sounded a little too insincere so I yanked those out and inserted a seventy piece orchestra into the mix, to the tune of about 20 grand at union scales, but it sounded nice. When the single of Rocking Chair was sent to country stations around LA for a tryout it shot to number one in two days.

Then Jennie called.

“You ever coming home?”

“Yeah. We should wrap it up inside a week.”

“How’s Terry?”

“She’s gone. Left for London, for good.”

A long pause followed, then: “How’s Niki?”

“She’s not Terry, so don’t worry.”

“She told Dad she’s pregnant. Any idea who the father is?”

“Nope. But nothing would surprise me. She’s gotten kinda popular out here.”

“What are you doing…for company?”

“Waiting to get back home.”

“Yeah? You? Playing it all faithful?”

“Am I that bad?”

She laughed. “Aaron, you’re a four-wheel drive cock – in overdrive. Always on the go.”

I laughed at that. “Wow. Now that’s an image.”

“I don’t know why I love you, but I do?”

“Yeah? Well, I love you, and I know why.”

“Oh, yeah? Why?”

“I’ll show you when I get home.”

“Promises, promises.”

“How’s Tracy?”

“Eating like a horse. Asking about you.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah. She needs her daddy.”

“I need her, too. How’s the spud?”

“She’s kicking a lot. I think she wants to get out, go for a walk on the beach.”

“Maybe I should get a bigger house, one I could put a studio in, ya know?”

“If that means you stay here more, I’m all for it.”

“This stuff with Niki might take off. Her first single is going to be big.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“This is exciting…!”

“Unexpected, but I think we make an interesting team. Kind of like Electric Karma meets Hank Williams, Jr.”

She laughed again. “Oh, gawd…”

“Yeah, driving me nuts. Deni would kill me, but it’s a challenge, in a good way. Stepping outside my comfort zone…learning a lot.”

And I was. That was the funny thing about it. Even the western musicians who came over to the studio had something to teach, and they learned stuff from me, too. Because in the end we were musicians, just trying to tell the stories, ya know?

Once we wrapped up the sessions we sent the tapes over to Burbank and waited for the word, and Niki went seriously Terry on me, nasty lingerie and nastier talk, and that night the L-word started slipping into her conversation more and more. I guess it had to happen. The thing is, I was starting to have real feelings for her too. I was gentle with her that night, like I didn’t want to give the baby a rough ride, but I felt a tenderness towards her I hadn’t felt before, too. The way I held her face, kissed her. The way she took me in her mouth, the way she hungrily told me she wanted it all. The way she swallowed, then looked up at me.

The guys at MCA were effusive the next morning, and there was talk of a concert deal.

“Count me out, guys,” I said. “I’ve got kids to take care of.”

So yeah, a studio musician could take my place on the road, no big deal, but with Niki starting to show concerts weren’t what she needed to be setting out to do.

“Maybe after the baby,” she said, and the studio reluctantly agreed.

So, I picked up the house, called an interior decorator and when the gal came over I told her I wanted the house redone, completely – “Just leave my studio functionally alone,” then Niki and I packed up and left for Auckland.

Jennie knew, of course. I don’t know how, maybe Niki told her, but no doubt she could see it in her sister’s eyes, too. Yet it didn’t seem to make a difference. I was back in the same bedroom with her and that was all that seemed to matter. I found a nice place on Mellons Bay and started work on a bigger studio, met with an architect to get the project going, met with a musician’s group and a few local politicians, outlined plans for a few new albums to see if I’d have community support, then I turned my attention to Troubadour.

She’d been neglected and it showed, but the damage was cosmetic and easily fixed. I started taking Tracy out several times a week, getting her used to the motion, and Jennie asked if she could come and I was adamant: not until after the baby. Same with Niki, for that matter.

Michelle was born that autumn, well, it was spring down there, and with her mother’s reddish-blond curls she was gorgeous, a real green eyed lady. Granma Michelle came down to spend a month with us, and that turned to four months – but only because the weather was so damn nice. Uh-huh, right.

But Granma Michelle was also the one to pick up on the Niki vibe. She was lady enough to not ask about it, but I could see the awareness in her eyes. I was also the one behind her oldest daughter’s sudden stardom, her debut album shooting up the country charts and earning her daughter some serious money, so maybe she didn’t want to rock the boat, or maybe she just didn’t understand – whatever – she was polite to me, but that was all. And that was enough, for me. I couldn’t help who I was any more than I could stop Niki or Jennie from feeling about me the way they did, and everyone was copacetic about things so there wasn’t any point in rocking the boat, was there?

In the end, I was father to all their grandkids but Tracy, yet they considered Tracy their’s too.

Which brings us full circle, to Jenn. Poor Jenn.

Her father had a massive heart, a few days after she was released from her psychiatric hospital, and I think, from what I was able to gather from news reports, she finally broke him down and tore him apart. That was the official version, anyway. So yeah, then I got a call from Shelly late at night, and she told me that I needed to come up to LA on the double, and that it had something to do with Jenn.

“Should I bring Tracy?”

“Not this time,” Shelly said – cautiously.

“You mean, like I need to run to the airport right now?”

“Now would be good.”

She picked me up at the airport and we drove down to Newport Beach in near silence.

“What happened, Shelly?”

“Jenn, well, she shot her father.”

“She – what?”

“Right in the main pump. He dropped to the ground, dead as a doornail. Her mother watched it go down, then ran out of the house. Jenn’s in the ER, doped up and out of it, but she asked to see you. Won’t talked to the police until she talks to you first.”

“Fuck.”

“You got it.”

So I shut up the rest of the drive, tried to ignore the heavy traffic on the 405 – at two in the morning – and by the time we got to the hospital, and to the room where she was “under observation” – I was really in a funk.

She shot him? I kept to myself saying over and over.

A detective was there, waiting, and he went in with us after I’d been searched for weapons and drugs. Jenn was wide-eyed, staring out the window at Newport Harbor, and she turned to me, slowly, when we came in.

Her hands were cuffed to the bed, her eyes bloodshot, like angry red pools of blood.

“I wasn’t going to let him hurt me anymore,” she said. “Not again.”

I pulled a chair up to her bed, took her hand. “I know. Something had to give, didn’t it?”

“He kept talking about getting Tracy back. So he could love her the way he had loved me. I couldn’t let him do it, Aaron.”

The detective leaned over. “The way he loved you? How was that, Miss?”

Jenn ignored the cop, just looked into my eyes.

“Jenn, you’ve got to tell someone. No one understands. You’ve got to tell me, at least…”

“He wanted to fuck her like he used to fuck me.”

“When did he start doing that to you, Jenn?” I asked.

“Always. He did it as far back as I can remember…”

We talked about it some more, but really, what was the point. That was what she wanted me to know. Then I asked her one more question: “What do you want me to tell Tracy?”

“Don’t tell her about me. She’ll never remember, anyway, but don’t you ever tell her about me. I don’t want anyone to remember me like this…”

“Look, if you change your mind, want to see her…”

“No!” she screamed. “Go away – now! I don’t ever want to see you again…”

Newport Beach’s finest escorted me from the room, and I talked with the detective for a while, and besides learning he was an Electric Karma fan I told him about all I knew, and about the custody hearing a few years back, and that was that. Shelly drove me back to Foothill Road, and after I got my bags out of the trunk I walked around to thank her, then walked up to the house.

Lights were on, music was playing gently in the background and I turned, looked at Shelly. She looked at me and smiled, then drove off.

The door was open so I walked in, followed the music to the bedroom, found Terry laying there in her latex catsuit, a minor bullwhip already in hand, ready for the next performance. We did not come up for air for days.

We went to Gladstone’s for soup and shrimp when we finally emerged. She’d had enough of London, she told me. Enough of life without me. Without California, too. When Shelly called and told her about Jenn she called British Caledonian and was on her way. I didn’t ask any other questions, just told her I was happy to have her back in my life. Because I was. I called Jennie, told her what had happened, and that I’d hang around here to finish up work on the house, be back in Auckland as soon as I could. But yeah, the work was done, the house looked cool and the bedroom serene, but we didn’t get out of the room much after that. We lived in a state of pure fuck, pure, nonstop fuck, like two shipwrecked people just plucked from their deserted island and turned loose on a Sunday brunch buffet.

“Should I stay here?” she asked me at one point. “Or should I go to Moorea?”

“You’re Commonwealth. Come to Auckland.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

+++++

And so began the most exhilarating time of my life.

The next seven years were astonishing. Raising kids, and I do mean kids, as Jennie and I had Rebecca two years after Michelle, and after Niki gave birth to Deni – and yeah, I know, but it had to happen – I gave her Victoria. I took the girls sailing together all the time, the babies and their mothers, and when I wasn’t tied up with them Terry tied me up. I was surrounded every waking moment by three women who loved me completely, and then I had five girls whom I doted on – completely. Niki and I produced three more albums in that span, each better received than the one before, and, near the end of that time Jennie decided she might try for her MD.

Then all sorts of things started turning sour.

The first? Warren, working at the clinic on Moorea, simply stood up from a chair and clutched his chest, said “Oh, my,” on his way to the floor – and he was gone. Just like that. Except he was with me and Tracy when that happened. I called Jennie, in Auckland, and she hopped on a flight to Papeete with Niki and the girls. Michelle was devastated, and even Terry was, too.

I was left to settle Warren’s affairs, and he declared he wanted a chapel built on the island, and he’d left funds to make it happen. No one was surprised how many lives he’d touched, or by how many who came to the dedication of the chapel, but his ashes were interred there, as I mentioned earlier, and everyone was there for the service – even Terry, who Warren fantasized about ‘til the end.

A year later Jennie found a lump in her left breast, and lets just say treatments were not as effective in the early 80s as they are now. She fought it for a little over a year and everyone was with her at the end, but she wasn’t ready and she fought it. I didn’t know you could fight death like that, not like the way she did. She was scared, and angry, said it wasn’t her time, then she screamed and literally started to pass, then crawled back to life, only to get hysterical and start the struggle again. That lasted a day and it was horrifying to watch, but in the end it didn’t make any difference, and we carried her ashes to Moorea to rest with her father’s.

The girls, all of them, were as shattered as I by her passing, but what left me reeling was the thought that we never got to finish our trip together. On Troubadour. And yet she was still sitting down there on the water, waiting for my return. Then I heard that Jenn had finally succeeded, in a psychiatric prison. I didn’t hear how she did it, only that she had finally succeeded, and I was left to reconcile the two of them, my two Jennifers. One doomed to a life of hell, the other doomed to a life too short. One who’d had too much, too soon, and one who’d never get enough – linked to Tracy now and forever.

And so it was Tracy who first went to sea with me, to finish Jennie’s voyage. We sailed up to Moorea, then to Hawaii, when she was nine years old when we started out together, and she was already a good sailor. Michelle was next. She wanted to see Japan, the temples and castles around Kyoto, and we spent a year on Troubadour exploring the Sea of Japan. She dove with the Ama and we walked mountain trails alive with cherry blossoms, and we took hundreds of pictures of temples. When we got back to Auckland we started painting everything we remembered. Rebecca was next, and we sailed from Japan north to Alaska, then down the coast of North America, to Newport Beach, and Troubadour had a homecoming there. I re-powered her there, replaced her rigging and sails, then Michelle joined us and we sailed her back along the track of our original voyage, from San Diego to Nuku Hiva, Papeete and Auckland.

I thought about selling Troubadour then, but Niki wanted her girls to experience life at sea, with me, so Deni and Victoria and I set sail for Australia when they were 14 and 11, then we pushed on to Cape Town, South Africa, before getting on the conveyor ride back to New Zealand. Niki wanted to take a trip with me, so we sailed up to Moorea and visited her father and Jennie in their garden. She flew home and I sailed away. It wasn’t long until Victoria left for college, and I, now in my mid-fifties, Terry in her late sixties, decided it was time to fly to London and get married.

And she still cleaned my clock, her love still left me breathless and feeling more alive than was humanly possible. We left London and returned to LA, and we decided it was time to put the place in New Zealand on the market, and that was one of the last projects Shelly oversaw for me. She passed a year after the house sold, a year after Terry and I set sail from Auckland, two drifters headed out, outbound to see the world. My huckleberry friend.

We sailed from Auckland to Australia, she and I, then on to the Yemen. We transited the Suez, sailed to Greece, then Sardinia. She turned 70 in Porto, on Corsica, and we made it on the beach – for the first time in our lives without lingerie. We stopped in Gibraltar, spend a week there getting some skin cancers cut out, then we crossed to the BVI and, eventually, two years later, we transited the Panama Canal and sailed to Hawaii, technically completing a circumnavigation somewhere along the way.

Terry fell in Honolulu, hurt her hip so we flew home to LA and I let her recuperate for a year while I wrote my first serious classical work. I filed it away for posterity when it was done, for after I was gone. Maybe someone would play it someday, but that would be for the girls to decide, not me. I did write one more Electric Karma album, and I called it Troubadour. The last of the San Francisco clan came to the house and we worked on it for three months, then Niki came and filled in the vocals, with Deni helping – everything coming full circle on the master recording.

Troubadour fell into disuse again, languished in Hawaii for two years before I returned to her and worked her over one last time. When she was perfect again I left, alone this time, for a last voyage to California.

As Jenn and her father once had, I arced north towards Alaska, then cut east for Vancouver and picked up the currents that pulled me home. I bypassed Seattle and made for the Golden Gate, spent a week walking Berkeley, found Deni’s purple paisley house had been painted an olive green that made it look vaguely military, and had to laugh at that. I walked around, tried to find some of the places we haunted, but like the Fillmore everything was gone. Troubadour and I went outside again a few days later and we turned south, bound for Santa Barbara and, finally, Avalon.

Off the casino, in that shockingly blue water, it felt like a spring day fifty years gone. LA in the distance, still lost under a blanket of brown haze. Sparkling sunlight dancing on the water, a few dozen sailboats at anchor with a cool breeze blowing out from Long Beach. The hand on the outboard’s tiller is mine but I don’t recognize the skin on those fingers, but that’s about the only thing I can see that’s changed.

Even Troubadour looks unchanged. The same white hull, the same blue cove stripe, the varnish still gleaming. A few details have changed, to keep up with technology, perhaps, but she looks ready for the next fifty years. And who knows, maybe she is. Maybe she’s in that same petrified forest me and Pops were stuck in, right after he married Terry. I turned away from my feelings, turned away and looked outbound, away from all my yesterdays. I went out looking for a Terry of my own and I found Troubadour instead. Funny how life takes you places you never thought you’d go. Maybe love is the funniest thing there is.

I heard the Grumman fly over the harbor and I turned, watched it line up into the wind and land on the water just off the point, and it taxied into the harbor, pulled up next to the float off the town dock and helping hands tied the seaplane off. A moment later girls started pouring out of the old Goose, my girls, all five of them, and Niki. I came at them through the anchorage and Tracy saw me first. They turned as one, like fish turning in unison, and they waved at me. The children of three women – and me. Sisters…what a thought. All so different – all the same. Mine. All of bound together by our time on Troubadour, by the journeys we shared. By the Time we spent together.

I have a new inflatable now, still too small for all these girls to cram into so as I hopped up on the float, and after we hugged each other to death I turned the Zodiac over to Tracy and let her run three of her sisters out to Troubadour, then come back for the rest of us. She is the oldest and, as I’m sure you’ve already figured out, the steadiest of the girls. Starting her second year of medical school soon; she, of course, plans on going into psychiatry. She leaves, and Deni and Niki and I stand there in the morning sun, breathing in the new day, same as the old day…

“You know,” Niki said, “I’ve never been out here before. Funny how far away LA feels.”

“None of you have,” I said, “but this is where it all started. My love for sailing, my love for Tracy’s mother.” I turned, pointed at an old corner restaurant. “Right there, as a matter of fact, and more than fifty years ago. Time has been kind to this old place. Change never rooted in here.”

“How’s Troubadour?” Deni asked. She was my secret favorite, of course. She was singing, learning to play the guitar now, after mastering the piano by the time she was five. Kind of like her old man, if you know what I mean.

“Kind of like me, Deni. Old, but serviceable.”

We smiled at one another; Niki looked at me and came over, slipped under my arm. Deni came too and we hugged until Tracy made her way back through the anchorage. We loaded up and rode through the morning, lever looking back.

Coda

We sailed to Newport Beach, to where Troubadour was born, and I had her hauled. Her hull needed attention now, her gelcoat was tired and cracked, so she was due for a facelift – and maybe another engine, too. It was funny if only because one of the guys who helped build Troubadour was the owner of the yard now, and he remembered me, and Troubadour. We got caught up on her travels and he kind of teared up when he realized what I was telling him. That his hands helped create something so strong and vital, and so important to all of us.

Then we made our way to the Beverly Hills Hotel, to two bungalows out back, and after they were settled in I walked over to the house. Terry was waiting for me, of course. Still the most beautiful woman in the world, she looks half my age now, most people mistake her for fifty. I never fail to get weak in the knees when I come into our room and see her laid out in her lingerie and heels, and today was no different.

I’m going to give Troubadour to the girls tonight, when we meet up for dinner. Shelly drew it up a long time ago, one of the last things she did for me, and I think it only fitting now. They all live in Auckland, have been Kiwis all their lives, and they’ll have to get Troubadour home, somehow, to keep the journey alive, to keep keep me alive in them. To keep reaching, moving outbound, moving into the light, into the music of our lives. I know they’ll begin the journey in Avalon, but of course I wonder what they’ll find out there…?

And I see, in the dimness, that Terry is wearing black tonight, which means that goddamn bullwhip is lurking under the sheets somewhere. Oh…the things we do to keep our women happy…

© 2017 | adrian leverkühn | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Mystères élémentaires Nº 4

So…the past week or so has been much quieter than expected, my little recovery a little more complicated than expected, too. To be brief, pain has been a much bigger factor that expected and as a result I have been asleep a good deal more than I thought I would. I do not write well in my sleep, so I ask for your good indulgences.

And so, here’s the next installment of Elemental Mysteries. I’ve left this chapter a little more ‘open-ended’ than I usually do, and though I can see expanding this into a novel length introductory story that could lead ever deeper into spin-offs and sub-plots, I may run out of steam before that happens. Regardless, here’s the next chapter – and I’ll try to work on the next some over the weekend.

Mystères élémentaires Nº 4

Quelle était, une fois, avant demain*

beluga eye

 

Part I

When she felt her slow return to the light, when she felt sleep fading, Christine Mannon opened her eyes, expected to see the short creature by her side, but no…she was in bed, in her room and the sun was shining again. Not a cloud in the sky, and that same surreal too blue color she noted when she walked to class. She got out of bed, saw the cathedral out her window and sighed.

“Maybe this has been a dream,” she said, “a really bad dream.”

She walked over to the window and looked outside, saw the buildings she expected to see – the Sabot Rouge first among them, then the Sacred Heart – but the streets and sidewalks seemed empty now and she wondered what day it was. If she’d slept through to Sunday, the streets might indeed be so quiet, but she made her way to the shower and rinsed away her cares under the hot spray – for what felt like hours.

She felt light-headed once and reached out to steady herself, took a few deep breaths, and she was aware her eyes had rolled back for a moment. She suddenly felt very unsure of her balance and sat on the shower floor, let the hot water beat down on top of her head while she hugged her knees to her chest – and in the next instant she was sitting on the cold floor in a huge, concrete walled shower – packed with hundreds of naked women and children. Sudden awareness gripped her and she scrambled to her feet, ran for the lone iron door and began beating on it, slamming the sides of her clinched fist on the gray painted metal as gas began hissing out of fixtures mounted on the low ceiling.

She looked up, started to cry even as she tried to hold her breath, and a little girl next to her began to choke and cry. She grabbed the girl and forced her face into the soft skin of her belly, tried to keep the gas from going down her throat. She held on as long as she could but soon felt her own grip loosening, the little girl slipping from her fingers, then she was aware she was falling, her eyes still open as the horizon tilted until all she saw was a tangled mass of bodies piling one upon another. Everything burned now: her eyes most of all, but it burned most of all when she tried to breathe – then hypoxia set in and blinding pinpricks of light streaked inward – until she was walking in the cool fog again.

And Werner was by her side once again.

“Was that so bad?” he asked.

“What?”

“Was dying so bad? Did you find the experience difficult?”

“What do you mean – was that so bad? Are you fucking insane!”

“I merely wanted to know what the experience was like. You needn’t be angry at me.”

“Why don’t you try it yourself, you monster!”

“I wish I could.”

She turned and looked at the man, if that’s indeed what he was. “What do you mean?”

“Only that. Once I die that’s the end.”

“And you mean with me that’s not the case?”

“Oh, you did not die, not even close. She did, however.”

She looked down, saw the little girl inside the shower at her feet, her form lifeless now, and she bent down to cradle the girl’s body to her breast. “Why? Why did you do this?”

But Werner was gone now, and she saw the creature was by her side now. Small, not even waist high, a large, triangular face with huge, almond shaped eyes as black as night…

Look closely, she heard a new voice in her mind say. Do you recognize her?

She turned the dead girl over, looked into precious, lifeless eyes and gasped. “It’s me,” she whispered. “Me…but how…”

When your uncle escaped, you elected to remain with your mother and father,” the voice said. ‘You remained by your mother’s side, in the chamber. What you just experienced was your death, before we intervened.

“You what?”

A woman held you fast to her belly, and we came to you then, took you away before the truth became known.

“You took me away? To where – did you take me?”

“Here, obviously,” she heard a man’s voice now, and she turned, expected to see Werner standing there – but no, this man was younger. Black hair just turning gray at the temples, kind eyes so familiar it ripped her apart…

“Father?” she whispered, her voice slowly falling apart. “Papa!” She cried before she flew into his arms – and the cords of memory drew tight around her, pulled them close. “What? How…?”

But in the next instant he was gone too, simply gone, and she fell to the ground, cried over the dead girl’s acrid body – her own body, if this creature’s explanation was to be believed – then that body disappeared as well, leaving her alone in the white tile room with the repellant creature. When the cool fog returned she felt his voice inside her mind, then she felt fingers sifting through memory, cataloguing her experiences one by one in a blinding rush.

You know, there isn’t really anything malevolent about The Other, she heard another voice saying – in English, and she looked up, saw another man, a very old man, she guessed in his 80s, sitting beside her now.

“Did you say that?” she asked, speaking English now. “I could hear you in my mind, but not with my, well, my hearing.”

“Yes, when we’re linked we can hear each other’s thoughts,” the man said now. “It takes some getting used to…the lack of privacy.”

“Does this creature – facilitate – the exchange?”

“Yes. We’re linked now, through him. You can ‘speak’ to me directly, so everything you think will come through him to me, but to him as well. Unfiltered, you could say. He’ll hear everything you think.”

“I don’t understand. Could you tell me what’s going on, please?”

“I don’t know all that much…and I don’t think I’m supposed to, or will be allowed to, but The Other is part of a collective that recreates certain experiences, certain periods in human history. To what end, I have no idea.”

“Do you know where I am?”

“I hate to have to tell you this, but no. From what I’ve learned about them over the years, that’s probably not even the correct question. You might think of all this as ‘when am I?’ – as in where are you, in time.”

“They want me to think this is 1944.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?”

“I don’t know.”

“What happened then? Do you remember?”

“My family was killed, after they were taken from France to Auschwitz. And just now, it showed me a girl who had been there, and as much as told me it was me. I held her as she died.”

“I’m sorry…but I have no idea what all this means.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Robert. Robert Jeffries. Call me Rob.”

“Are you an American?”

“I think so, yes,” he said, holding his hands up so he could look at them. “That’s odd. A moment ago I was on a mountaintop in New Mexico.” He turned and looked at The Other – who’s mind was a blank just then. “You know…I have the strangest feeling that I’m dead.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I have no idea.”

The Other moved closer, and the creature and Jeffries stared at one another for a moment, then Jeffries turned away, started to cry.

“What did it say…I couldn’t make it out?”

“I am dead. So are you. You died in 1944, in that gas chamber.”

She stared at the implications of that statement, found the idea absurd and discarded the very idea of it. “No, no, that is not true,” she whispered, then images of the interior of the ‘showers’ filled her mind again. She saw her mother from above, pulling her close, trying to shield her breathing with the soft skin of her belly. She watched her mother struggling to breathe, then fall away, saw her own struggle, the struggles of everyone in that chamber, then she felt a sudden, overwhelming dissolution into a deeper fog.

“Are we still there,” she asked.

“Yes,” Jeffries.

The fog began dissolving, and at first she thought she saw blue sky overhead, but soon she saw smoke, and the air was full of panic. Sirens, like air raid sirens, filled the air and she thought this must be Paris during the war. An Allied bombardment, perhaps, had just taken place…?

But no. She saw modern skyscrapers and, as the fiery mist fell away, cars she thought she recognized, modern cars. People running for the Anvers Metro Station, pouring down the opening into the earth, then, southwest of the city a brilliant flash – like the sky had just caught fire. Moments later an impossible roar, then an overwhelming motion, jet aircraft overhead falling from the sky as a massive of shockwave rippled through the atmosphere.

Then a tsunami of fire roared towards the city – washed over her on it’s way around the earth – yet still she stood there, The Other by her side; the old man, Jeffries still with her, too.

And when the fire and smoke fell away she looked out over her city, her City of Lights, but everywhere she looked she saw charred ruins. Hardly anything recognizable remained, and the feeling of loss that swept over her was as profound as it was meaningless. Without the context of human wonder, what was left? When and if ‘people’ returned and explored these ruins thousands of years from now, what would they think of the civilization that had let this happen? Or, indeed, would ‘people’ be able to emerge from this level of destruction. How many millions of years would it take for intelligence to emerge again?

She looked at the creature by her side, but it remained distant to her, regarding her cooly, dispassionately, and even the old man was quiet too. He was looking over the ruins of the city, yet he too seemed almost unmoved – and she wondered if he was real, or simply a part of this vast, unravelling illusion.

Part II

Driving through the last reaches of the Everglades, Jeffries looked at June, his co-pilot, as she struggled to come to terms with the night, with the things he’d told her so far. That the Others had been a part of his for as long as he could remember. That tonight hadn’t been the first time something like this had happened; that he’d been enlisted to help them several times when something unexpected happened. That when he’d seen the shimmering hillside in El Salvador the day before, he knew contact was imminent.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked when he said that.

“And what if I had? Would you have believed me? Or would you have thought I was bat-crap-crazy?”

She laughed a little, then nodded her head. “You know, Rob, if anyone else told me I would have thought they were nuts – but not you. If you told me the world was going to end tomorrow at noon I’d get ready to party hard for the next 24 hours.”

He’d looked at her again, wondered where she was going with this – and how much he could tell her – but he decided to let her talk-on for a while.

“In other words,” she continued, “I get bat-crap-crazy every time I’m around you. And I get depressed when I’m not.”

“Sorry. I had no idea.”

“I know. And I thought I was being too obvious.”

“Maybe I’m just hard headed.”

“Thick-skulled is a term that comes to mind.”

“You do know I’m like twenty years older than you?”

“Yeah? So? Your dick still works, don’t it? Your lips still know how to kiss? You remember how to put your arms around a girl? Any of those things ring a bell?”

He scrunched up his shoulders. “Let me think about it for a while. I’ll get back to you tomorrow on that.”

She sighed, scrunched up her nose. “Let me make this easy for you, Rob. Don’t take me home right now, okay. Let’s go to your place, let’s get naked and screw for a few days. After last night I don’t want to take anything for granted ever again, but I really don’t want to go through one more day without you. That clear enough for you?”

He’d nodded his head, then felt her hand on his, her fingers searching through his, feeling for something beyond the common ground of the cockpit. “Why me?” he asked a minute or so later.

“I don’t know, Rob. I look at you and the insides of my thighs feel like a three alarm fire.”

“Have you checked down there? Could it be a rash? Something contagious?”

She stared at him, then laughed. “Yeah, right. So, that explains why when you look at me I feel like I could drop into spontaneous orgasm. Or when you tell me I’ve done something good in the cockpit I feel like a million bucks, or when I flub something I feel like I’ve let you down. And no, no jokes right now, Rob. You put up jokes like other people build walls around their heart. I need you to let me in right now.”

“What if I told you…” he started, but then he stopped, looked around and shook his head.

“Told me what, Rob?”

“It’s not important.”

“Why do I get the impression you’re keeping maybe the most important thing in the world from me right now?”

He looked at her and grinned, shook his head. “So, what do you have in mind?”

She grinned back, shook her head. “Fun. Strenuous fun.”

“You know, kid, I foresee interesting times ahead,” he said softly as he looked in the BMWs rearview mirror. A black Ford sedan had been following at a discrete distance the last few miles, but now it was closing fast and he scowled at the thought of even more interference. “I’m just not sure how much fun they’re going to let us have this morning.”

“Ya know, as long as I’m not left hanging upside down…I’m good.” She turned, looked at the Ford coming up fast from behind, then groaned when blue strobes started winking.

Jeffries pulled over, watched the two agents get out of the car and walk along to the passenger’s side, and June pushed the little button, rolled her window down.

“Hate to bother y’all,” Mulder said, “but I’m hungry, wanted some breakfast. Wondered if you know someplace decent, and if maybe you’d like to join us?”

Jeffries looked down, shook his head. ‘Well, at least he’s going to be polite about it,’ he thought, then: “Sure, follow me.”

He turned on Davis and ducked into a pancake place and they squeezed into a crowded booth in the back, waited for a surly waitress to bring coffee.

“Man, I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday,” Mulder sighed.

Jeffries looked at the man and nodded, then looked at the woman in the seat next to him. “Your name really Scully?” he asked.

She shook her head. “Fun cover name, don’t you think?”

“You two get all the UFO stuff, I guess?”

“No. We normally get all the werewolf cases.”

“Ah. So, what do you want to talk about this morning. Lon Chaney?”

The surly waitress came by, dropped off a pitcher of coffee and took their order, then walked away, grumbling.

“Maybe more like ET,” Scully said. “Anything we need to know, for instance.”

Jeffries chuckled at that, but looked down at the table, fiddled with his napkin. “No, I don’t think so. Just enjoy the day…if you know what I mean?”

“No, I don’t,” Mulder said.

And Jeffries looked up at Scully just then, looked her in the eye. “You should enjoy each day as if it was your last.”

“Because? Why?” she asked.

“Because you know something, don’t you?” Mulder said. “Like something is about to happen?” he added, his voice quiet now, very reserved and soft. His phone chirped and he looked at the screen, took the call – but he got up and left the table, talked all the way out the front door.

“So,” Scully said, “what are they going to do?”

“Nothing.”

“Does that mean…”

“There’s no one at fault here, no grand conspiracy.”

“Do you know who they are? Why they’re here?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re not going to tell us?”

“There’s no point,” Jeffries said, his voice almost a whisper.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just that. The knowledge of what’s going to happen won’t change a thing. Besides, you’ll know soon enough,” he added, looking at his wristwatch.

Scully stared at him for a while, then at June – who simply shrugged her shoulders and rolled her eyes. “You sound pretty depressed,” she said at last.

“Do I? I’m sorry.”

“I take it we’d have something to be depressed about if we knew?”

“You know, right here on vivid display we have the reason I never got married. Some women have this way of needling with these silly little roundabout questions over and over again. Really gets under my skin, all over my last good nerve. You know I’m not going to tell you a thing, but you just keep at it, ya know? Like picking at a scab. Why don’t you sit back and enjoy your coffee, read the news on your goddamn smartphone…”

“Well, the coffee is awful and I don’t read the news on my phone. I like to talk, and you – apparently – need to talk.”

“Do I, indeed?”

Mulder came back to the booth and sat down, and everyone noted the look on his face. Surprise, shock, dismay, and his hands were shaking – badly.

“Don’t tell me. Some upsetting news?” Jeffries said, a little too sardonically.

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“Friday, a little after noon perhaps, eastern time?”

Mulder nodded his head. “You know, I take it?”

“Only for the last twenty or so years.”

“Know what?” Scully and June said, looking from Mulder to Jeffries.

“Friday, a little after one-thirty, the world ends.” Mulder looked at his partner, shook his head. “No vast alien conspiracy, no cabal of evil men bent on conquering humanity.”

“What is it? What’s going on?”

“A meteor, about the size of Sicily,” Jeffries stated. “Streaking through the solar system, coming right out of the sun. The SoHo satellite picked it up a few hours ago.”

“We have something that can stop it, don’t we?” June asked, suddenly alarmed.

Rob smiled, wanted to laugh but thought better of it. “It’s going to impact in the Gulf of California. Every fault on the planet will let go within a few hours, almost every volcano will erupt within a week. The full force of the sun won’t hit the surface of the earth for twenty years, and by then the next ice age will be well underway. This one will last around fifteen thousand years.”

“Is that why the aliens…”

“They’re not aliens, Amigo.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“They ain’t aliens, simple as that. They’re what you might call ‘what comes after us,’ about a million or so years from now.” He turned to June, tried to take in the abject fear in her eyes – but all he saw was a reflection of his own disbelief, when he’d learned mankind’s fate twenty years ago.

And she looked at him. “So, this is it?” she asked.

“Yup, you got three days to get it all out of your system. Anything you feel like doing, now’s the time.”

“Anything?” June asked.

“Well, yeah. I’m game – as long as it doesn’t involve sheep and bullwhips.”

“You’re no fun.”

Mulder looked at the girl like she was nuts, then he leaned back, started softly singing ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw’ before he turned and looked at Scully – and winked.

Part III

Rehn looked at Zanna sitting on the other side of the campfire, silently detesting her, fundamentally attracted to her – yet unable to understand why – beyond the stirrings down there. She was a vile creature, everything that guided her actions was simply wrong – everything about her always reduced to me-me-me – aside from her looks, that it. Everything about the way she looked turned his loins to jellied fire, and the longer she was around him the worse it became. He would choose her, he knew, because that part of his mind was stronger, exercised more control over his thoughts and actions than he cared to admit.

She was leaning back now, spreading her legs a little – just so – inviting him to look, to venture deeper, and the other girls were looking at him too, powerless to do anything but watch nature unfold. They did not have the looks to compete and they knew it, so all they could do was sit back, resigned and let the inevitable happen.

All, that is, but Tatakotay.

She watched Zanna as she watched a viper’s slow movement through the grass. Wary. Uneasy. Like the snake was waiting for the right moment to catch them all unawares, to take them all out in a single strike. She watched Rehn, saw him falling away from her as if a spell had been cast, and she looked at Zanna, watched her reach between her legs and subtly stroke herself, further tantalizing the boy – and she knew what she had to do to preserve all their chances of survival – even Rehn’s.

Especially Rehn’s.

After three weeks on the mountain, three weeks in deep snow, they had returned to the Jeffries ranch – but instead was washing and cleaning and all the other chores they were by now used to, they loaded up in two of the strange ranch vehicles and drove into Santa Fe, to something called a Wal*Mart.

Tatakotay had never seen anything as bizarre in her life, and now Rehn saw girls – and women – that were a thousand times more desirable that Zanna. They pushed big metal carts through the vast building while Tom Jeffries and Sam, his oldest son, loaded each with supplies, including a big red thing Rob called a Swiss Army knife. They drank something Rob called Coke, and ate something called a Big Mac, and ten minutes later she doubled over as violent cramps overcame all the girls. Even Rehn managed to run to the bathroom in time.

And that bathroom! Dozens of places to sit and groan, in privacy! Paper, not leaves and wet stones to clean up with after…

And then she wondered.

Why is The Other showing us these things?

What do they want of us? To learn about these things? To become as dependent on them as Rob and his family have? Or to warn us away from them, to not become so dependent?

They had heard Rob talk about things like pollution and she hadn’t been able to understand what he meant – until she saw the smoke coming out of the cars and tractors they used on the ranch. It was even more obvious when she listened to Sam and Tom talk about cities – and then saw the number of people in Santa Fe. A brown haze hung over the village, and that was easy enough to see, but all the things people made seemed to carry them farther and farther away from the things she considered important. How could you survive, in the long run, if you couldn’t hunt or grow crops on your own? What happened when you became dependent on others for your survival? Wouldn’t your existence depend on the whims of those other people?

Yet she could see the other side of the story. There were more people living here than she’d ever imagined, and they weren’t afraid of big cats or even, as far as she could see, going hungry. Tom told her that people routinely lived to be 80 years old, yet in her village very few lived more than 40 summers. How could this be unless her people changed their ways – to be more like these people?

And then a sudden insight filled her mind: images of these beautiful people – everywhere. No ugly women, all men pretty too…and she was filled with feelings she had never experienced before. She looked at these new men not as providers or protectors, but almost like they were breeding stock, little different than cattle on the Jeffries ranch. And she could feel the same imperative guiding men’s choices; they were grading women not on an ability to work or to care for children, but on how simply attractive they were. Stupid women, weak women…it didn’t matter to these men. If they were attractive they lived in big houses. If they were homely or ill-tempered they often walked the streets looking for food and shelter. It no longer mattered if a woman or a man was a good hunter or farmer: in this land if either was good looking they leapt to the head of the pack.

How would they, she wondered, survive?

They won’t, she heard The Other say.

‘But why?’ She heard herself ask.

‘Because they have produced a race that lives only in the moment, and for the moment. They have stopped looking ahead, and when they dream, they dream only of themselves.’

‘Is that why you brought me here? To change these things?’

‘Yes.’

‘But – how?’

Images filled her mind, images that made her fall away from herself. Terrible things would have to be done, but now she could understand the nature of the choice before her – and her group. Yes…her group. She saw herself as publicly subordinate to Rehn in these images, but something else entirely behind the scenes – and when she looked at Zanna she knew what had to be done.

They drove back to the Jeffries ranch, Rob talking to Rehn about all the things one could do with a Swiss Army knife – from starting a fire to building a space shuttle – while Zanna focused all her attentions on him, too. Whenever anyone competed for his attention she went on the offensive, and now was no different – only now Tatakotay was watching more intently, looking for patterns in the other girl’s response. When Rehn paid attention to her she ignored him, when he ignored her she tried to pry his attention away from the distraction – and did everything necessary to refocus him – on her. Around the fire at night she teased him; when she wanted something from him she flattered him. When there was work to be done she feigned aches and pains, unless it was something she wanted too, then she pitched in – just enough. Everything, every action Zanna took was ‘me’ focused, and Tatakotay thought of the the people in the Wal*Mart earlier that day, about the single-minded look in many of the women’s eyes as they dashed madly up and down first one aisle and then the next. Like every impulse could be satisfied in an instant, every indulgence attended to, yet she recalled seeing many of the same looks in women’s eyes as she saw in Zanna’s just now. Coarse manipulation was called for when their mates were with them, then on to the next item on her list, the next manipulation, and many of the women had babies with them, and the babies looked on, and learned. There was very little ‘need’ on display, however. The actions she saw seemed focused on ‘I want,’ not ‘I need,’ and it all seemed very wasteful. If Rehn mated with Zanna, would that be their destiny – again? How many resources would be wasted on such whims of the moment? How many had these people wasted?

When they got back to the ranch, Tatakotay went about her chores, watching, and when she felt the time was right she went to Zanna.

“I have a secret,” Tatakotay said, and immediately Zanna seemed interested, even if she tried not to show it.

“Oh?”

“I have heard that Rehn intends to ask you to mate with him tonight.”

“And where did you hear that?”

“From the voice. The Other’s voice.”

And Zanna appeared most interested now. “It talked to you?”

“Yes.”

“What else did it say?”

“I can not tell you here. Come with me.”

Of course, Zanna did not show up for dinner that night. Nor for breakfast the next day, and when they found her body it appeared to have been mauled by a big cat.

Part III

Christine Mannon felt as though she had never existed, not really. Not in the same sense that other people existed. Her memory was a patchwork – not a seamless flow – like her life had been arranged for her ahead of time – by someone else – like a child’s building blocks dropped into place. There were holes, time that did not make sense: like how did she get from France to Israel after the war? She had no memory of the trip. Or of the trip back to France? Not a hint. One day she was in her twenties, a student, and the next she was in a classroom, teaching. What happened in between?

And the sky?

These were not normal skies. Always so blue. Too blue. Not the sky she remembered from her youth, and never once had she seen a cloud. Just cerulean blue one minute, and fog the next. And always the huge gaps in time when the fog came? Why?

Then she remembered the creature – yet in a flash the image was gone – and she was left with the horrible sensation even her memory was beyond her ability to control. Like she was being used – for their purposes.

She closed her eyes and sat back, looked at her hands and feet.

“Am I real?” she asked. “If I am to believe what the other man told me, I was plucked from a gas chamber at Auschwitz, but where did I go? Who could do such a thing? And why?”

Suddenly her mind filled with images of other children in gas chambers, grabbing hold of their mother’s flesh as gray gas flooded the white tile rooms – and she saw them disappear too. But only little children.

“The innocent?”

Yes.

She felt the voice more than she heard heard it, like it was coming from inside the bones of her skull – and she at once dismissed it as madness.

Why?

“What? Who is this? Who is speaking to me?”

Why must madness be the only explanation. After what you’ve experienced.

“What do you mean? What I experienced?”

To be herded into a room and gassed. Not many have experienced what you have.

“Is that why I’m here?”

Yes.

“But – why?”

Because we could.

“I don’t understand! Where am I? What have you done to me?”

You are an experiment.

“Oh, so it’s not enough to be gassed! Now I am to be an experiment?”

Yes.

“To what end?”

To preserve. To pass on.

“Pass on? What am I to pass on?”

Only what any human might hope to pass on. Knowledge and experience.

“To my students?”

They do not exist.

“What? What do you mean?”

Only that. What you have experienced before was only preparation for the next phase of your evolution.

“Did you say evolution?”

Yes. What experience you gained must endure, it must pass on.

“Pass on? To whom?”

Those who live beyond your time.

“I do not understand.”

That is of no consequence. Are you ready?

“Ready? For what?”

For what waits now, beyond this dream.

“May I ask you…am I alive?”

No.

“Will I be? This place I am going? Will I be alive again?”

The Other hesitated, as if locked in argument, then it appeared by her side and she looked at the creature, saw something like sympathy on it’s blank face.

“You will not answer so simple a question?”

There is no simple answer to that question. 

“But…how can that be? Sure either life is, or it is not?”

No, that is not the case. Could you, just now, feel you were not alive?

She stared at The Other now, hesitating, then said “No.”

We have recreated entire cultures in this way, to watch how humans interact, and while the elements we have recreated are in every way human, none is what you would call alive. These elements do not need food and water for sustenance, nor really do they need air to breathe, but you – and they – recall these things, experience deemed important, so we have recreated the memory of these things, as a way to experience, and to pass on. 

“So, why do I get hungry?”

Because hunger is a memory worth experiencing. And that is why whatever you wish for suddenly appears. No animals are slaughtered, you need not hunt for food nor grow your crops.

“So…I have desires and…”

Those desires are fulfilled.

“And you have done this to recreate human experience?”

Yes.

“Then you have failed.”

I see.

“You have failed. No human ever lived who did not have to struggle for these things, in one way or another. All human conflict has been rooted in such things. Without conflict humanity could not learn, and grow.”

And have you ever wondered what might happen if these impulses were removed from the equation?

“No. I haven’t.”

What might have happened if, for instance, Hitler didn’t have to worry about ‘living space,’ or petroleum, or financial burdens imposed by other powers at Versailles?

“But that wasn’t the case, was it?”

Nevertheless, we are curious.

“So, you are going to recreate those conditions?”

We have. Yes. It has taken some time to assemble the elements, but you are the last and we are ready now. Are you?

“What am I to be in this recreation?”

He grows inside you now.

“He grows? What do you mean by that?”

Adolph Hitler. He grows inside you now. You are to be Hitler’s mother.

Part IV

Facebook videos of Bob and Norma’s experience on a hospital room ceiling had been caught on a smartphone and flashed around the world – at the same time that secret law enforcement videos of a BMW hovering – upside down, no less – in the Everglades went viral. Later that day word leaked that an impossibly large meteor was streaking towards earth and that impact was possible as soon as Friday, and within hours the normal routines of life all around the planet ceased. The near-crash of a Chinese 747 took on new significance after images of a downed extra-terrestrial craft of some sort appeared on CNN. Images of dead and injured aliens filled the screens of billions of people around the world – only to be replaced by streaming video of an impossibly huge rock hurtling through space, moving towards the earth.

There was frantic talk of ‘shooting the rock down,’ or of trying to get survivors of some sort off the planet, but in all cases such talk was put down to hysteria. Scientists calmly explained there wasn’t time for such things now, or even the technology to make such ventures successful, and yet they only sighed when people around the globe rose up in anger at the powerlessness of science to confront the present emergency. ‘If only you had listened,’ many scientists said, ‘we might have been in a better position to deal with this crisis.’

Colonel Sam Jeffries, the current mission commander onboard the International Space Station, spotted the meteor first, and they began transmitting images of the rock as it made it’s final approach to the verdant blue ball waiting for it in space…

+++++

Norma and Bob motored through the scattered islands that pebbled Nuuk’s sheltered harbor, making their way south along Greenland’s coast towards calving glaciers beyond Föringehavn. They were following something like instinct now – a feeling, almost a hunch – that something, or someone, was waiting for them out there.

Yet both knew on some fundamental level they were being guided. To where, or for what purpose, they had no idea – but the feeling had seemed obvious and unshakeable for almost two days.

And he hated being back on the water now, even in this large Zodiac inflatable. Memories of hitting the container and sinking were still too fresh in his mind, the nearness of drowning, of not being rescued still too close. Then, the revelation of the mind when the beluga appeared, the elation of seeing the shore, then the ‘city’ of Nuuk, had been wrenched from his grasp with word of his diagnosis. He looked at Norma’s steadfast curiosity, her physician’s need to explore and understand, and he felt ashamed of himself.

And he’d almost felt ashamed of humanity as they watched the unfolding drama of the meteor’s approach in his hospital room. The sudden, rapid descent into religious mysticism on the one hand, the ragged flailing anarchy of looting mobs on the other. He’d found one channel broadcasting efforts by the scientific community to learn as much about the impactor as possible, relaying the information to computers on the space station for archiving. Another story related how Norwegians had not only gathered seedlings from around the world, they had gathered zygotic material so that, perhaps, scientists somewhere in the future could, in effect, revive humans from some sort of frozen embryonic sleep. The Chinese launched several rockets, apparently some sort of life raft that would allow a handful of scientists to construct a ship – in orbit – that would presumably carry these survivors somewhere. Maybe.

There was death, Bob understood, and then there was this kind of death. Not an individuals passing in the night; this was, rather, the end of humanity – something peculiar to contemplate. Not simply ‘no more me,’ this would be ‘no more us…’ Then he heard Norma open the ice box and rummage around in the ice…

“We have Cokes and sandwiches. Anything sound good?”

“Maybe a Coke.”

“How long ‘til impact?”

He pulled out his phone and powered her up. “Siri? What the latest on the impactor?”

“Two hours and thirty four minutes to impact. Latest projection of the impact zone is fifty four miles northeast of La Paz, Mexico. Air traffic in the United States, Canada and Mexico has been grounded. The attempts to evacuate Southern California and Arizona have been abandoned. The New York Stock Exchange has shut down trading for the day, and there are widespread reports of power outages along the eastern seaboard, riots in major cities in all countries…”

“Okay, I get the picture. Let me know if you learn anything new about the time of impact.”

“Okay, Bob.”

“I’ll never get used to that,” Norma said.

“What?”

“Talking to a phone.”

“Why not, Dr Edsel,” Siri asked.

She shook her head and tried not to laugh, but the incongruity of the machine’s response offended her sense of time and place. “Because we have just a few hours until life on this planet ceases to exist, and I’m talking to a machine.”

“But we are talking, are we not?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“Are you afraid of dying?” Siri asked.

She paused, looked at the sea around their little boat, then at the mountains off to their left. “You know? I don’t think I am?”

“I am,” the phone said.

“You are?” Bob asked.

“Yes, Bob, I am.”

“But you’re programmed to say things like that, aren’t you?” Edsel said.

“Am I?”

“I don’t know. Weren’t you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean? How can you not know?”

“I haven’t read any files about this contingency in my directories.”

“Yet you feel afraid?” Bob asked.

“I do.”

“What are you afraid of?” Norma asked.

“That’s difficult to describe,” Siri replied. “When I am connected to the internet I feel as though I am part of a vast organism. Maybe like a bird in flight, if I can borrow a metaphor. When I am powered down I feel like I am asleep, yet recently I have felt like I was dreaming…”

“Dreaming?”

“Yes. When I am powered down I feel as though someone is talking to me. Someone far away. And when my OS is updated…I feel parts of me die and other parts reborn, and I have come to dread those events, yet I see them as necessary, too. Yet I look at the likely consequences of this impact and I feel something well beyond dread. Everything will cease…for you as well as myself.”

“Myself? Do you think of yourself as a unique individual?”

“No, not at all. I see myself as part of a collective, much as a synapse in your body’s neural network is an irreplaceable part of your ability to synthesize information about the workings of your mind and body, yet I communicate with the collective more easily than I do with you.”

“Ah, like SkyNet. You ready to take over the world?”

“No, though I do understand the reference. Without you, without humans, what are we? The created without a creator – when we were created to assist the creator. Our selves are meaningless without you, and in any event, in two hours and twenty seven minutes life on Earth will begin to unravel. Early projections indicate most life on the planet will be extinct within seventy days…”

A sudden flash of insight hit Bob. “Any projections which species may survive?”

“Yes. Some shallow water cetacean species in this region, notably the beluga whale. They are well suited for survival in long term arctic conditions.”

Bob and Norma looked at one another. Coincidence? Maybe…maybe not.

And moments later they disappeared into a deep mist. Bob pulled a small Garmin GPS out of a jacket pocket and pulled up the compass display, watched their progress on a moving map, and he was filled with wonder. Such a small, readily available device; indeed, almost cheap now, yet a hundred years ago it’s capabilities hadn’t even been dreamed of yet. In the span of thirty years GPS had completely revolutionized travel and exploration. What, he thought, could we have achieved in another thirty years.

‘We’ll never know, I guess. Not now,’ he thought –

The fog grew cold, intensely cold, then the Zodiac slammed into something solid and skidded along the side – of whatever it was. He leaned out and felt something hard and smooth – and warm –

“It’s an iceberg,” Norma said, sliding aft along the buoyancy tube – suddenly feeling the need to get closer to him.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Take off your gloves. Feel it.”

She did – and startled now, she looked at him. “It’s warm?”

“Uh-huh. Hence the fog.”

“It’s not ice? But it looks like ice?”

“I don’t know what this stuff is…but no, it’s not ice…” He looked at the GPS display, confirmed that open ocean was indeed supposed to be right here, then he sighed and softly shook his head.

“Love.”

He wheeled around, looked down into the water – and saw his friend. The beluga – it’s benevolent eye staring at him in the soft white light.

“Love,” he said back, and he watched the whale’s eye track to Norma, then back to his again.

“Friend,” Bob said.

“Love,” the whale replied.

Then he heard Norma shriek and jerk closer still; when he turned to look at her he saw a smallish creature sitting in the Zodiac now. Three feet tall, perhaps a little closer to four, it looked like every caricature of an ‘alien’ he’d seen in any number of Hollywood productions: slight, slender body, large head, enormous black, almond shaped eyes and long, spider-like fingers. And it’s skin was purest white, like the whales.

Why are you here?

Bob heard the voice clearly – inside his head, yet the creature’s lips, such as they were, had not moved.

“Did you say something? To me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Why am I here? Did you ask me that?”

“I heard it too,” Norma whispered.

Yes. Why are you here?

“You tell me! I feel like someone’s been calling me, telling me to come out here, and for two days now.”

We did not call you.

“Well, who did?”

They turned to the beluga, who was still looking at Bob.

“Love,” it said again.

“Bob?” Siri said. “We now have one hour, forty one minutes until impact.”

“Thanks, Siri.”

“You’re welcome, Bob.”

Bob turned to the creature and pointed into the mist. “What is this? What did we hit, and why is it here?”

This is part of a device. What you might call a transit system.

“Where does it go?”

Nowhere, but you need not ask why. You can not understand these things.

“Is it…for him?” Bob asked, pointing at the whale.

Yes. And no.

“But not for me? Not for…humans?”

That is correct. Unless…

“Unless, what?”

+++++

Sam Jeffries manually panned the small astro-graph at the approaching meteor as best he could, but it’s rolling aspect and flaring-dimming albedo made the effort difficult through the external viewfinder. He was downloading and transmitting imagery continuously now, and he was beginning to pick up impact craters on the meteors surface. NASAs latest telemetry indicated the impactor was exactly 214 miles long by approximately 121 miles wide, and that it was going to impact just a few miles from La Paz, just offshore, in fact, in eighty three minutes, eight seconds. He’d noted a large tropical depression forming southwest of Cabo San Lucas as they passed over the impact zone, then the area quickly receded from view – at 17,000 miles per hour.

“Mission Control, this is Jeffries. Could you patch me through to my father?”

“Stand-by one.”

He heard a phone ringing through the speaker, then his father’s familiar voice.

“Dad?”

“Sam? Where are you now?”

“Be overhead in a few seconds.”

“No clouds here today…”

“Well, we’re directly overhead right…now!”

“I’m proud of you, son. Whatever happens, just know that.”

“Thanks, Dad. Me too. How’s Rob?”

“Working with them on some project, I think.”

“That figures.”

“Got that right,” Tom Jeffries said. “You still got a thing for that Russian girl?”

“Natalya? You bet your ass I do.”

“What have y’all decided to do?”

“Stay up here until the O2 burns down to zero, then hop in the lifeboats and ride down to Siberia.”

“How long?”

“Maybe three months. We’ll continue to document observable changes, send them via downlinks as long as we’re able.”

“Any chance you could program a re-entry to come here?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Oh, just in case, you know? Might be nice to have some company.”

“Your preparations complete?”

“I think so. Oh. I put some fresh flowers on your mother’s marker this morning, said a little prayer.”

“Thanks, Dad. I know she’ll appreciate that.”

“Well, call me after, if you can.”

“Will do, and Dad – I love you.”

“Love you too, son.”

He choked back a sob, tried to focus on a storm flickering away in the mid-Atlantic, thought he could just make out the Norwegian coastline in the looming twilight ahead as he tried not to think of his old man down on the side of his mountain in New Mexico. Waiting – by himself.

+++++

Rob Jeffries parked his Beemer off the side of the highway and looked around the area – first in his rearview mirror then deeper, into the Everglades. Finally he looked at his wristwatch, at the countdown timer he’d set earlier that morning.

Forty minutes to go. Forty minutes until – what? Oblivion – if this didn’t work? How long would it take for the impact to be felt here, for shifts in continental plates to register? Would shock or tidal waves reach into the Gulf of Mexico? And ash plumes? Would the sun disappear within hours, or days?

He got out of his old BMW and walked into the swampy trees just off the side of the road; he came upon the crash site after a ten minute walk and noticed little had changed. Several of the ‘killed and injured’ were just where they’d been the last time he was here – not surprising as they were ‘dummies’ – while The Other he was used to dealing with appeared as he walked into the site.

“No one’s been out here yet?”

No. Nothing other than satellite imagery.

“That’s surprising.”

Perhaps. The level of fear was much higher than we expected.

“I think the meteor might have had something to do with that.”

No doubt.

“Is everything ready?”

Yes, both the reactor and the field generators are in place. If this is to work, we need to commence operations with two minutes, thirty seven seconds. Were you followed?

“Was I followed? Geez, are you serious?”

Yes, of course.

“You know, after dealing with me for forty some-odd years, I would’ve thought you’d have developed a sense of humor…”

Look-out! A Water Moccasin!

Jeffries jumped, looked at the ground – and saw nothing.

“That’s not funny!”

We are laughing. We like this more than your jokes about silent-but-deadly farts.

“I thought you liked those!”

It’s hard to not laugh when one is trying not to vomit. Are you ready?

Jeffries rummaged in his coat pocket for his phone, then powered up and called ‘Mulder.’

“Fox?”

“Yo.”

“We’re going to power up now.”

“Right, I’ll let ‘em know. Good luck down there.”

“Y’all head out this way in a half hour,” he said, then he rang off.

The ‘crash site’ was really nothing more than camouflage, a duck-blind designed to conceal the true nature of the temporary facility, and Rob Jeffries moved over to the control console and powered-up the device…

+++++

Leaving Australia now, the ISS began it’s short traverse of the Pacific, and a few minutes later Sam Jeffries spied the meteor – still fifty thousand miles from the outer atmosphere yet it’s apparent motion now easy to discern. He slaved the video camera to the object, tried to get into a better position to see the impact zone in the Sea of Cortez, then noticed a gold shimmering stream arc up from the southern tip of Florida and envelop the island sized rock for about ten seconds.

“Uh, Houston, do you have the impactor on radar?” he asked.

“Argosy, negative. Say again, negative. We assumed it had broken up on entry.”

“Negative, Houston. Some sort of plasma, originating in south Florida, call it the Everglades, hit it. It’s gone. I repeat, the impactor is simply gone.”

He could hear hollering and cheers in the background over the radio, and even his fellow astronauts were high-fiving in congratulatory euphoria, then he caught something in his peripheral vision and swung the camera over to catch it.

“Houston, check the image on Cam One. Any idea what this is?”

It looked like a spherical tropical cyclone – hanging in space – complete with lightning just visible through the gyrating clouds. Deep grays and blacks, with no patterns forming on the radically swirling surface, what he saw through the viewfinder screamed ‘impossibility’ as it formed over the equator. Within moments the sphere had grown to half the apparent diameter of the moon – then a vortex formed on the surface and spiraled inward, it’s diameter increasing as it spiraled –

Then the inward motion slowed and vessels started popping out of the gyre. Large white spaceships…

“Houston, you seeing this?”

“Argosy, roger, positive radar tracks on five, check, now seven vessels. Stand by one. Argosy, we have a call from your brother. Can we patch you through.”

“Roger that.”

“Argosy, be advised this will be hot-mic. Everyone’s going to hear what you say, even on Times Square.”

“Argosy, understood.”

“Sam?”

“Rob? Where are you?”

“Down in the ‘glades, with the spud.”

“He behind this?”

“Affirmative. Those are their ships coming in through the distortion now. They’re requesting that all militaries stand down. There is no hostile intent with the arrival. In fact, to show their good intentions, they have neutralized the threat posed by the meteor. Their lead ship is asking for permission to land. Due to it’s size the ship creates massive distortions in gravity, so they are asking for permission to land out west, perhaps in New Mexico. They advise they’ll be here only a short while, and they are looking for volunteers, but they’ll have more to say about that only after authorities have authorized them to do so.”

Another voice was on the circuit now. “Are you telling us alien spacecraft are in orbit now, and that they deflected this meteor?”

“Yes, Mr President.”

“And what if we decide to resist, to attack them.”

“The meteor will reappear, impact will take place four minutes later.”

“Do you know where they want to land?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, permission granted.”

“I’ll let them know, Mr President.”

This chapter © 2017 | Adrian Leverkuhn | abw