So, it’s about time to wrap this one up, and here it is…all chapters combined, including the first rendering of the last chapter. There’ve been several changes to these disparate converging plotlines along the way, a few misaligned character arcs straightened out, yet even though this little story ended up cruising through almost two hundred pages, heaven only knows how many pages I cut away.
So, sorry this took so long, but life keeps getting in the way. The Deep End of Your Dreams is in my mind now, lots of notes I’ve made while sitting around in the night, thinking about all the what-ifs and might-have-beens with Clair and Franklin and all those icebergs. I think the story I’ve plotted out is headed in a very fun direction.
Anyway, here we go with Jim’s story…so get yourself a cup of joe and plop-down in a comfortable old chair. Let me know how it goes. – A
corcovado | quiet nights of quiet stars
She was gone now. Gone just now, and he was alone in their house, their home, and memories seemed to push in on him from every corner. They all seemed so dark now, too. Had it always been so?
Twenty three years together. Gone now, shot down in flames, a once assumed destiny reduced to the lowest common denominator by depositions and endlessly faultless absolutions. The more contrived recriminations, he reminded himself, came later. False memories, misplaced motives and desperate loneliness. His lawyer said it was all in a day’s work, nothing new. Don’t sweat it; just roll with the punches.
“Don’t sweat it?” he remembered saying to the lawyer. “How do you do that?”
He’d heard it first through a grapevine he’d never known existed, that she was having another ‘new’ affair. Young guy this time. Some kid with too much time on his hands…time enough to take care of her liquid dreams, her unmet needs. There had been the quiet confrontation, then an equally quiet agreement that, once arrived at, meant it was all over – that there was nothing left to say, little left to do but pick up the pieces and carry on.
“Like…what does come next?”
And he caught himself saying this to the mirror one morning. Steam from running water fogged the mirror and he wiped the silvered glass with his hand, looked at the distorted image through the rising mist. He realized he didn’t recognize the face in there…that man was a stranger now. Someone he’d known once. Maybe.
He moved his belongings down to the marina on Lake Union, moved onto the boat they had sailed on weekends – together. It was big enough, he told himself, to hold the remnants of that life, the things worth holding onto, anyway. He’d spent a few hours carrying things to the marina, another unpacking all his broken dreams – then he’d looked at the galley, the teak-lined main saloon, and he’d laughed just then. He laughed until he cried, like an over-wound Jack-in-the-box burst free – left to wobble, disused and alone until the next time someone wound him up again.
He went back to work two days after he moved aboard.
He drove down to SeaTac, walked to the dispatch office, picked up and scanned through the preflight briefing for the first leg of the morning, to KSLC. He read the Met synopsis, checked off the squawks and signed the fuel load-out, then walked through the quiet terminal to the security line. He checked his watch – 4:20 in the morning – while he shuffled through the crew line, then, when he was through, he walked out to the gate and onto the old 757.
All the lights were off – save a few in the galley that cast oblique little pools of blue and amber where the Jetway met the open door, and he grinned at other memories – of other airplanes. How long had it been, he wondered, since he had been the first to board? How long ago had he worn three stripes on his sleeves? How many years since the Grand Canyon?
He went to the cockpit and reached into the darkness, feeling for the switch on the overhead panel that would turn on the dome light, but it was second nature now – and had been…for fifteen years. He had to admit…this confined little space was home now, his real home – the only home that really mattered now. Barbara had never understood that, not really, and had never been willing to share him with this other world. Even if she was proud, in a way, of his calling, she hated him for this one chaste passion. Who knows, he thought, maybe she was right all along.
He sat adjusted the seat, started flipping switches on the overhead panel, activating electrical buses and checking ground power status, then he started entering data in the old girl’s nav system. He heard a couple of flight attendants come aboard, listened to their careless banter – because they assumed they were the first aboard this morning – and he smiled when he heard one of them notice there were lights on in the cockpit.
A knock on the door.
“Captain? You already here?”
He turned, looked at Marcy Stewart and smiled. “Yup. That does indeed seem to be the case.”
“Can I get you some coffee, Jim?”
“No thanks, darlin’,” he said. He liked Marcy, had been to her wedding two summers ago and, because her father had recently passed he had walked her down the aisle, given her away – as best he could. Barbara had told him later she was proud of him.
Proud? Of what, he’d wondered. That he stood for something, or someone, other than himself?
“We heard about Barbara,” she said, walking into the cockpit just a little. “I’m sorry, Jim. Is there anything I can do?”
He nodded, turned back to the panel and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment – then he felt her standing right behind his seat, her hand on his shoulder.
“You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m copacetic,” he said, forcing back the tears.
“Got the load-out?” she asked. “How many we got this morning?”
“Looks full. Sorry. No rest for the wicked.”
“Oh…yeah, sure. A little one, maybe?”
“Comin’ right up.”
He watched the fuel boss down on the tarmac supervising the fueling, then heard his FO walk through the galley on his way to the cockpit…
“So, it’s true,” Will Eberling said as he came in and hung up his coat. “How long you been here?”
“Half hour, maybe.”
“Leave anything for me to do?”
He almost laughed. “Maybe. I hear the aft head port-side is clogged. Why don’t you go do some of that plumber shit…”
Eberling ignored him, contorted his way into the right seat and ran through his procedures, and even managed to set up his FMS in less than ten minutes. “Ready to hit the bricks?” Eberling said, when it was time to do their walk-around down on the ramps.
“Starting to rain a little,” he said as he made his way to the galley. It was cold out, too, like not quite 40 degrees, and it was still snowing like crazy in Salt Lake. He made it down to the concrete and walked to the number one engine, confirmed oil and hydraulic levels were good, then he walked around the gears and tires, giving them a practiced look over. When he was finished he walked over to the fuel boss and took the chit, looked it over once and signed the paper.
Eberling was waiting for him at the metal stairway, looking southeast. Mount Rainier was barely visible in the blue light – just a dark gray hulk, really – and, looking through the dim, early morning drizzle, he stopped and looked into the shades of gray for a while, before they walked up to the vestibule that connected the old 757 to this earth.
Marcy was waiting for him, glass of orange juice in hand, when he came back to her amber pools of light.
“You sure you don’t want something hot?” she asked, looking at the water running off his rain-coat, and his nose.
He took the juice and downed it, shook his head. “Maybe before we shut the door?” he said, shivering.
“Got it,” she said.
He noticed the way she looked at Eberling just then. Kind of a “keep an eye on him this morning” look.
“There are no secrets between crew members,” he remembered one of his training captains telling him once – almost twenty years before. Just the opposite of life in the Navy, he’d had to remind himself. Everything was always different – again, and again.
Yet there’d been one constant all through his life so far: Barbara. And Ted, he had to remind himself.
She’d been by his side since their second year together, at school. She’d stuck with him when he’d decided to go into the Navy after graduation, and she’d visited while he struggled through OCS, and he couldn’t have finished without her, he’d admitted to her more than once. She was his future even then, and they knew it. They got married after he finished up at Pensacola, and when they moved to Pearl she seemed to love him all the more for his calling.
But…things change, don’t they? People change, too. Again, and again.
Eberling was calling out the pre-start checklist now, and together they woke up the old girl with her old, familiar routines, getting her ready for another day in the air. He was on automatic pilot too, and he knew it…going through all his easy motions. He didn’t have to think about what he was doing now; all these things were in deepest muscle-memory. His fingers found switches without any need to look, because every little thing in this cockpit had it’s own sound and feel. And he loved this place, of all places on earth, most of all.
“Yaw dampers – ”
“One and two, check…”
“IRS – ALIGN to NAV…”
“One, check…two…and three…to stand-by…”
He watched the pushback truck line-up, felt the slightest jolt as metal mated with metal – then he was talking to the ground boss down there in the rain…
“Clear to start one, Captain…”
Eberling made the switch from ground power to internal buses while he kept his hand on the tiller, and the old girl seemed to groan as she pushed free from her umbilicus. The slow, steady motion, the moving away, then the push-back truck was away…and the old girl was free again.
“Delta 217, clear bravo to one-six left. You’re number two behind a Scandinavian 340, contact tower one-nineteen-nine, and good day.”
“217 to left and nineteen-nine,” he said – and suddenly, in that moment, he knew he’d be okay. All the weight from the past couple of weeks slipped from his shoulders and he took a deep breath, shook his head.
“You okay, Jim?” Eberling said – a little too quietly.
“Yup. Five by five.” He watched the taxiway lights slip by – in an established order he understood all too well – and he braked when they were still about a hundred yards behind the A340 – while Eberling called out the last items on the pre-takeoff checklist.
He watched the -340 turn onto the active, it’s drooping wings heavy with fuel – then it’s engines ran up and she lumbered down the runway.
“217, taxi to position and hold.”
He turned onto the runway, lined up on the centerline, flipped off the taxi-lights, turned on the wing-lights…
“217, clear for take off, contact departure one twenty decimal four for a Summa One departure.”
“217, 120.4, Summa One, roger.”
He advanced the throttles to 40%N1 then cut them back to idle for a moment, turned on the auto-throttle and the flight director, then engaged the auto-pilot…and the old girl eased down the runway for a few seconds – until she transitioned to full take-off power – then she screamed down the runway and leapt into the sky.
“Positive rate,” he called out, and Eberling raised the gears, then: “One-sixty, slats two. One seven five…clean the wing…”
He watched the autopilot track in on the Summa intersection, then as it made the transition to the Baker City VOR…
He didn’t remember much about that day, only the feeling of normalcy that seemed to come for him gently, almost quietly. He remembered having dinner with Marcy that night at some raucous place in Malibu. How she’d held his hand after, telling him that everything would be alright – soon.
“It already is, Marcy.”
She’d nodded once, then looked at him long and hard. “Divorce is like death, Jim. You’ll grieve…”
“No, I won’t. She was cheating on me, Marcy. I won’t grieve over that. I can’t…”
Then she had just nodded her head again. Slowly. Knowingly. Just like Barbara might have…once upon a time.
He’d squeezed her hand, too. What else were friends for?
Though, of course, it hadn’t been quite that simple…because at points along the arc both lawyers were trying to run up the hours…but the thing about it was – he didn’t want a fight, and in the end neither did Barbara. She was willing to give him the house and the boat, but then he’d asked “Where the devil will you live? That guy’s apartment?”
And so…he’d let her have the house, because, he told her, he knew she loved it. When all was said and done he didn’t want to hurt her. He knew it, and she did too. And when she broke into tears and ran into his arms he’d held onto her, instinctively, protectively – just as he had for the past thirty years – then he’d kissed her on top of her head and slipped free one last time. He signed some papers a few weeks later and it was a done deal, everything over and done with.
And somehow, it was like the last thirty years had never really happened. Maybe…because they never really had.
Altair was inscribed on the boat’s navy blue stern…which was how his son found his home that morning. He’d moved the boat from Shilshole Bay Marina to Lake Union a few weeks before, and only remembered to let Ted know the night before, before he’d boarded his overnight flight in Boston for the trip home. His own flight got in a half hour after Ted’s, so by the time he made it to the dock Ted was already lounging in the cockpit.
“Ah…the prodigal son returns, but – my God…you look just like Jesus! When’s the last time you went to a barbershop…?”
“Hey, Dad. How’s it hangin’?”
“Still down to my knees.”
“Yeah…but does it still work?” Ted quipped as he hopped down to the dock and hugged his father. “Well, at least you still look like you could…”
“You might, too, someday, if we could only get you out of diapers.”
“Get your stuff stowed?”
“Yup. You sure you want me to take the aft cabin?”
“Yeah, I like it up forward. Where I put my stuff when…”
“You really got three weeks off?”
“Almost four. I don’t have to report back until June 28th, and man-o-man, am I looking forward to some downtime.”
“So? Where we headed?”
“Feel like hitting Desolation Sound?” He watched his son’s eyes light up like a little kid’s and they both smiled, then he looked around the deck. “Got everything you need?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Did you call your mom? Let her know you’re in…?”
The change that came over his son looked just like a fat summer’s cloud racing over a hot August prairie – bright sunshine to cool, lingering shadow in a heartbeat, then back to heat again. Ted was still sorting through his anger, trying to understand her sudden, final betrayal, and he had yet to reconcile with her – and he’d said matter-of-factly he never wanted to. He had been content to let it go at that while Ted was so far away, but now that he was “home” he was going to have to do something about it. Barbara was still fragile where Ted was concerned.
“No,” was Ted’s final stony, sullen reply.
“Okay.” Which seemed to take the wind out of his son’s sails. “You wanna grab the bow lines while I warm up the motor?”
A few minutes later he backed out of his slip into Lake Union, and he let Ted take the helm while he tidied up the deck, making Altair ready for sea –
– but first – they’d have to transit Ballard Locks, and Ted had never tackled them before.
So he ran the lines needed while Ted steered down-channel, then he took the wheel when the lock’s entry signal turned green –
“When we get lined-up in there, toss your lines up to the lock-keeper up there, on the dock. He’ll tie us off – our job is to let out line as the water drops and Altair falls, but we’ve got to hold her off the wall – and keep other boats off, too. It gets pretty dicey, so brace yourself – and move fast.”
A half hour later they were running through Shilshole Bay – leaving Seattle in their wake – when the sun broke through early morning, low-scudding cumulus.
“You bring any beer?” his son asked.
“Diet Dr Pepper and chicken salad sammies today.”
“But…I thought it was like against the Law of the Sea to leave port without a case of Budweiser.”
“Yup, that’s probably true.”
“Sorry, Dude. I’m just not into that Law of the Sea stuff.”
“Got any new books, at least?”
“Jeez, Dad…a month without beer…and no books? You going for the priesthood or something?”
“No. One in the family ought to be enough.”
Ted looked away. “What makes you say that?” he said a while later.
“Jesuit school, Jesuit college, all those theology classes. Or maybe, after twenty years I really don’t know you all that well.”
“You’re the only person who ever got me, Dad.”
“So…seminary school is next on your horizon?”
“I think so, yeah. But…”
“What about med school?”
“Yeah, that too.”
“Still no girlfriend?”
And again, Ted turned away, lost, trying to find the right words. “Maybe, but I was kinda hoping to try that this summer.”
“Try – what?”
“The whole sex thing. Girls, that kinda thing.”
“Oh,” he said, grinning at the irony. “No girls in Bean Town?”
“Just hasn’t been right.”
“I see. Would you grab me a DDP?”
“Sure. Want a sandwich?”
“Nope, not yet.”
He watched his boy amble down the companionway and come back up with four Diet Dr Peppers, and they both downed one in a fast gulp, then opened their second and sipped those slowly.
“What about that gal from Rhode Island? Didn’t work out?”
Ted shook his head. “She’s weird, like she’s looking for someone to be her daddy. There’ve been a couple others, though…”
He laughed. “I know the type.”
“No…a couple of stews I’ve known…”
“No, it’s not like that. It’s more like I’m a, well, a Father Confessor to a lot of the girls. When they get in trouble it seems they always come to me.”
“Abusive boyfriends, husbands. Unwanted pregnancies. That kind of thing. I guess I have that kind of face.”
“You always have.”
“As long as I can remember. You remember Pete Baker?”
“The kid with eyes like a smallmouth bass? Used to sleep-over weekends?”
“Yup. He thought you were God Almighty Himself. You’d come in from a flight in your uniform and all he wanted to do was stay up all night talking airplanes…”
“So? What are you getting at?”
“Remember when he broke his leg? Playing football?”
“Yeah…I remember we went to see him in the hospital.”
“Yeah. All he wanted was to hear you tell him everything would be alright. Didn’t matter what his mom said. To him, well, you were his dad.”
“You didn’t know that, did you? You have no idea how you affect people, none at all. I think that’s what’s so hard to take about you.”
“Hard to take?”
“Yeah. It’s like you’re this high priest, the High Priest of Boeing.”
He laughed at that – for quite a while. “Of Boeing. I like that.”
“Yeah? Well, it’s true. You’ve always had that effect on people. Half the kids from school who came over hoped they’d get a chance to talk to you…”
“I think we need to stop off for some beer.”
“See? There’s a method to my madness.”
They docked in Friday Harbor that first night out, and though the sun was still up when Altair entered the tiny harbor, once the boat was tied-off in the marina they decided to head below and grab some sleep. It was just past two in the morning when he woke up – at his customary time – and headed topside to look things over.
Altair, an Island Packet 485, was a chunky fifty-one feet long, broad-beamed with a semi-enclosed center cockpit that provided better-than-decent shelter from the often drizzly weather on Puget Sound. The trade off with this design was simple enough, however, because while this covered cockpit kept the sun and the wind and the rain out, he had also lost the stars, and his most beloved star of all – Altair.
Old habits die hardest, he grumbled as he stumbled around the deck in the dark. He usually woke up at least once every night, even in Seattle, and to check the dock-lines – more often when the weather was wild – and now he held onto stanchions and lifelines as he made his way forward, stubbing a toe once on a cleat and trying not to curse.
“You up already?” he heard Ted ask from somewhere in the darkness, and as his eyes adapted to the dark he spied his son sitting on the bow pulpit.
“Every morning at two, come rain or shine.”
“You know…that’s not normal.”
“It is…if you have to be in the cockpit by four.”
“Maybe that’s why Mom always slept ‘til noon. Or…maybe it was the bourbon.”
“It wasn’t easy for her, I guess.”
“She knew what she signed up for, Pops. You were her meal ticket, her free ride.”
“She’s your mother, Ted, and I’m not sure she deserves that.”
“You always were too easy on her.”
“The booze. The fucking around.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“Jeez, Dad…she’s been cheating on you since I was in middle school.”
“And your point is?”
“My point? Well, when you were gone she was either stone cold drunk and passed out by the time I got home from school, or…”
“You know, Ted, that’s all water under the bridge. I don’t want to hear it anymore and you don’t need to live there. It’s over, and it seems to me a little forgiveness is in order – eh, Padre?”
He stood in the silence that followed, looking down at the stars reflecting off the water, searching for Altair.
“What about you, Pops? Did you fuck around?”
“Nope, not once.”
“Figures. You’re the most saintly soul I’ve ever known. Too bad you’re an atheist.”
“I am not an atheist.”
“Oh, come on, Pops. The only time you’ve gone to church is for a wedding, or a funeral…”
“So? What does church have to do with God?”
They both laughed at that one, if only because that line had always one of his favorite, yet he knew in his heart he might be wrong about all that stuff.
“I spend a lot of time in church now,” Ted added. “With the Fathers.”
“That sense of community is a powerful thing, son.”
“I know. I think that’s what attracted me to the church in the first place.”
“Is that what attracts you to medicine?”
“Maybe a little, but not like the whole church thing. It’s the idea that there’s some purpose to all this, that maybe things happen for reasons we can never really fully understand.”
“I think my grandfather was the same way. Said the only religious experience he’d ever had in his life was when he was flying airplanes.”
“Sound like hypoxia to me.”
“Yup, and I have the SAT scores to prove it, too.”
“You got your brains from your mother. Man, she was a real rocket scientist.”
“Until Jack Daniels came calling, anyway.”
“I guess we all have our crosses to bear.”
“You know what her’s is?”
“No, not really. A hunch, but she would never open up about it.”
“What’s your hunch?”
He sighed, shook his head. “You know what? Maybe you should ask her someday.”
“You’re just not going to speak ill of her, are you?”
“You still love her?”
“Jesus, Dad. Why…?”
“Why? Oh, I guess it has something to do with standing before God and making a promise to that effect. Something like that, anyway.”
“There are no buts, kiddo. A promise is a promise, even if the other person on the other end can’t keep up their end of the bargain. You’re only as good as your word, and don’t you ever forget that.”
“I don’t imagine you’ll let me.”
“I won’t always be around, Ted. That’s something you’d do well to remember, too.”
“You and your mother need to clear the air, come to terms.”
“Is you sick?”
“Not that I know of, but…”
“I’m not ready for this conversation, Dad.”
They heard it then…a disturbance in the water…a rippling in the air, and they turned and looked down into the inky starscape and saw a sea otter swimming on it’s back, looking up at them as it circled lazily under the bow pulpit.
“I’ll be…” he said.
“I thought these little guys were extinct,” Ted whispered.
“Not quite. I see ‘em every now and then, even in the lake.”
“Damn…he seems almost tame.”
“Not likely. More like brazen confidence. They don’t fear us anymore, I guess.”
“Didn’t they hunt them for their pelts?”
“Yup. They’re kinda cute.”
“Kind of? I don’t know about you, but I’d like one as a pet.”
“Yeah? Well, aside from being aquatic mammals, they’re also wild. I don’t think that’s a such a great combination, even for a dorm room, but go ahead – you ask her.”
“Hey, Paco, she’s laying on her back…see any of the relevant hardware down there?”
“When did you start calling me Paco? I was still a spud, right?”
“Oh, when we went down to Mazatlán that Christmas. You were, let’s see, four? You couldn’t eat too many tacos, and, well, Paco rhymes with…”
“Gee, that sounds original, Dad.”
He looked up into the night sky, found Altair in an instant and felt suddenly reassured that it was still there, and that struck him as odd. Had his life changed so much, been so thoroughly disrupted that now he felt unsure of these same New Mexican stars? Then images of Ted eating tacos in a Mexican village filled his mind’s eye…
“You had to be there, I guess. As a parent, I mean. You stuffed those things in so fast…your cheeks were so puffed-out…you were a sight. You had your first beer then, too.”
“I – what?”
“Well, you don’t drink the water down there…”
“I remember…the Aztec two-step…”
“Well, you bit into a huge jalapeño. Your face turned beet red and you started to tear up, and I had a bottle of Carta Blanca in hand. You reached up and grabbed it, downed about three quarters of that bottle in one go…”
“And I’ve been madly in love with beer ever since.”
“I guess you thought it saved your life.”
“It probably did. Hallelujah, and praise the Lord! Beer, breakfast of champions!”
“Milk does a better job, so does Coke.”
“Thank God you drank beer those days.”
“Well, too late. There she goes,” he said as the otter rolled over and disappeared beneath the black waters.
“Damn. And I was really hoping…”
“So, you wanna get moving?”
“Now? It’s still kinda dark out, Pops.”
“Track’s laid in on the GPS…no problemo.”
“Well, sure; I’m still on east-coast time, so I’m up for the day.”
“Okay…I’ll fire up the diesel. You better go below and stow your gear…”
“I know the drill, Dad.”
Ten minutes later they were motoring out of the little harbor, then he turned north towards Little Flattop Island – and Canadian waters – and still there was no sign the sun was ready to put in an appearance. He sat behind the wheel, looking at chart symbology as Altair motored through the various channels between all the big and little islands that formed their route north, and then he heard Ted down below fixing coffee and warming croissants.
“You still do the Nutella and orange marmalade thing?” his boy, his fat-cheeked “Paco,” called out over the rumbling diesel, and he shot a thumbs-up back to the galley. A few minutes later they were eating in rumbling silence, the only sound the diesel working below the cockpit, but soon enough an apricot-salmon-colored sky appeared over Mount Baker, and he wondered what this new day would bring.
“So, we putting into Vancouver tonight?” Ted asked.
“Yeah. Nanaimo is still kind of dead this early in the summer. I’m not even sure the marina is open there.”
“Suits me. Is Nancy’s still around?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Some traditions are too strong for even time to kill.” Nancy’s was THE place to meet and eat on the Sound, literally. It wasn’t called Desolation Sound without reason, but it helped the food there was good. “You wanna steer for a while? Time to drain the main vein…”
“What? No autopilot? No flight director with auto-land capability?”
He shook his head while he flipped on the autopilot, then walked to the aft rail and pulled down his shorts enough to fire a stream into their wake, his knees braced against the rail as he looked up at the fading stars. Altair was gone now, gone beneath the southern horizon for another day, and he felt that old familiar tinge of sadness – then he heard Ted walking aft, by his side, and soon he was draining his vein into the sea, too.
He took the cut between Deer Harbor and Jones Island, adjusting his course on the chartplotter and executing the change, then he cycled the radar, saw there was still no traffic on the water…but then he saw Sucia Island ahead, and Echo Bay.
Probably the worst weekend of their lives came back to him in those returns…
“Echo Bay?” Ted asked, pointing at the screen.
“Yup,” and he saw his son shrink from his own memories of that sundered place. Barbara, drinking more than usual that weekend, decided it was time to shred her son to pieces, and with her razor sharp tongue had belittled and berated him – while he’d been out on the water in one of their kayaks. He’d looked on from afar as Ted dove off the bow and swam ashore, so he had paddled to shore, tallied the damage.
Ted was sitting on the rocky beach, knees pulled up to his chest, tears falling from reddened eyes – trembling like a leaf – again.
They’d sat and talked until the sun went down, then he’d gone back to get another kayak to bring back to the beach – and he noticed Barbara wasn’t in the cockpit. When they both got back to the boat she still wasn’t there so he’d gone below to check on her – only to find Barbara passed out, only this time with an empty bottle of Valium in hand.
She’d been carried out by the Coast Guard that night, airlifted to Bellingham. Stomach pumped, three long days and nights in the hospital while they waited, then back home – another vacation ruined. Ted was a total wreck by that point, but nothing compared to Barbara…
And here it was again. All those feelings in radar returns – as if beamed from this place for all time.
“I know it still hurts,” he said, “and I guess it always will…”
“I don’t know why you think I could ever forgive her.”
“Because of human frailty, son. Nobody’s perfect…”
“That’s a laugh, Pops. She’s the meanest human being that ever lived.”
“She wasn’t always that way, Ted.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“Lots of things, I think, but first among them was, well, me.”
“Yeah. When we started to drift apart maybe I could’ve…”
“Dad…stop. You can’t take the blame for who she is, all the things she did. She’s a crazy, fucked-up narcissist, maybe even a goddamn psychopath, but all you did was fall for her routine, once upon a time, but you don’t have to carry that around for the rest of your life. YOU need to move on, YOU need to find someone else – while you’re still young enough.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Fuck yeah, you old goat.”
“So…you really wanna get laid this summer?”
“You said you wanted to try the whole girl thing this summer. What’d you have in mind? Falling in love, the whole nine yards, or just getting your rocks off?”
“I’d like to, well, both, maybe.”
“Has this got something to do with the whole priesthood thing?”
Ted looked off, studied the mountains for a while, then turned back to him. “I don’t know…maybe. There’s this girl, Susan, but I just don’t have any confidence in myself…”
“So, you’re not really serious about this seminary thing?”
“I don’t know, Dad. Sometimes, but it doesn’t really feel like a calling to me anymore.”
“Okay…suppose you meet a girl this summer, and you fall in love? Then what?”
“Then that whole thing wasn’t for me.”
“Okay. Then – where does that leave you?”
“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe…like…just take one thing at a time?”
“Maybe, but what if being a priest is what you really want to do? You’re confused right now, and adding a girl to the mix might only make things more confusing. So, maybe you should just turn away from all those things for a while. Getting in a relationship might just fill you with all kinds of regret later down the road.”
“Father Murphy talked to me about it, ya know?”
“Oh, how is that old goat?”
“Fine. He sends his regards, by the way.”
“Hard to believe we both had him as a prof.”
“Yeah…those Jesuits…they seem to hang on the longest. He turned eighty last year.”
“And still looks like he’s fifty, I bet.”
“All that clean living.”
“Yeah, right. Those guys love their vino, that much I’ll say.”
“So…a girlfriend? You want to try a one night stand first? Vancouver is probably a target-rich environment.”
“Isn’t that line out of Top Gun?”
“Top Gun was out of real life, Paco. Art imitates life, remember?”
“You mean, you guys really talked like that…?”
“Sorry? Why are you always apologizing?”
“I don’t know…kinda feels like the thing to do. So. Vancouver? We goin’ on a pussy-hunt?”
“Jeez, Dad, you sound just like Trump…”
“You mean, I take it, that Trump sounds like ninety percent of the other white-Anglo-Saxon-males in this country? Man, what a double standard that guy has to live up to… Ya know, I heard that W was at a birthday party down in Texas, like before he was governor, and he was drunk as hell and walked up to the honoree, a woman who had just turned fifty. He says something like, “Gee, does it feel the same to fuck after fifty as it did before?”
“Yeah, I heard that one. Did you know he was arrested in Maine, for driving while intoxicated…?”
“Yup, and did you hear he assaulted the trooper who arrested him?”
“Yup. Kinda makes me think there’s a double standard at play, don’t you think?” Ted asked.
“Oh? How so?”
“Well, Clinton gets a BJ in the oval office and gets impeached, while W skated on all that stuff.”
“W had smarter people around him. Politics is the art of not getting caught.”
“Man, have we sunk so low?”
“We? What do you mean? There’ve been politicians for thousands of years, of one stripe or another. All this crap is nothing new, and all of which seems like a good way of you avoiding the question. Do you want to get laid? Is that the idea?”
“So, just like that…you can get me laid tonight?”
“No, but I can get you in the right environment. The rest is up to you.”
“Hey, Paco, you need to remember this: girls like sex too. Got it? You act like a Neanderthal and you’ll never get anything, but take it easy, be yourself and just let nature take it’s course.”
“I’m scared around girls.”
“Yeah? That’s been programed into you by millions of years of evolution. You SHOULD be scared of ‘em, Paco, because once they sink their fangs into you you’re doomed.”
Ted laughed, a nervous laugh full of expectation and insecurity, then: “Is that what Mom did to you?”
“Exactly. Didn’t I ever show you the fang marks?”
“I’d say the trick, given the biology of the situation, Ted, is not to fall in love. At your age you’re programmed to fall in love, it’s almost a biological imperative. The drive impairs your thinking, too, makes you say silly shit and do even sillier shit. Like marry a gal you hardly know, promise to spend your life with her…”
“You mean, life is reduced to testosterone – and insecurity?”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
“And that’s what happened to you?”
“I don’t think I’m any different than anyone else, Paco. I say stupid shit under the influence of testosterone or tequila. Or, as the case may be, both testosterone and tequila. Your mother got me at a Cinco de Mayo thing over by the commons.”
“Got a couple shots of tequila into me, showed me some high thigh. I was a goner after that.”
“You make it sound so simple…”
“Falling in love IS simple, Ted. You just gotta let it happen. You’ll know when it does, too. Take my word for it. The problem is to hold onto your brains when your pecker wants to take over.”
“And, what if, after, I decided on the priesthood…?”
“That’s a calling, Ted. In it’s purest sense of the word, and yet you’ve always been interested in those kinds of questions, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
“You’re wouldn’t? It sure surprised me…”
He looked at the chartplotter again, noted they were abeam the island now and he checked the depth under the keel, then watched as the autopilot changed course to 315 degrees – about thirty miles to their next charted waypoint – and already he could see jets angling in for their approach to CYVR. How many times had he shot the same approach, he wondered? How different everything looked from up there.
Had his life up their skewed all perception…?
“Want a DDP?” Ted asked, and he nodded.
He swept the horizon while his boy was below, saw something odd on radar – then visually picked up a Coast Guard 44 just as Ted came up from below.
“I think we’re going to have company,” he said, pointing at the display, then at the white hull arcing into a turn – in their direction.
“You got any dead bodies stowed below?”
“Two or three, why?”
“Just wonderin’? I brought along a couple, too.”
They watched in silence as the cutter drew near, near enough to see a couple of men looking at them through binoculars from the bridge.
“I thought you have one of those stickers?”
“Yeah, still do, but that just allows me to clear-in without having to go to the Customs Dock in Seattle.”
“What are they looking for?”
“Drugs. Terrorists. Horny college students. You know…the usual.”
One of the men on the bridge-deck waved at them and the cutter changed course towards Bellingham, and he waved back. “Well, we’re in Canadian waters now, or will be in a few minutes. Guess it wasn’t worth the hassle.”
“When will we get to Vancouver?”
“Oh, about ten hours,” he said as he popped the top to the Dr Pepper. “I think the wind will pick up in about two hours, so if you want anything hot to eat, now’s the time to do it.”
“You got bacon and eggs down there?”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Stove still work the same way?”
“Yup, still does.”
“How many eggs? Still do three, over easy?”
“Okay, comin’ right up, Masta.”
After ‘growing up’ together on Altair, there’s was an easy routine. Ted knew where everything was, how everything worked, even how to break a few non-essential items, too, but he knew his way around the boat almost as well as his father did. And soon enough, the smells coming out of the galley hit all the right buttons. As they skirted along the Saturna Islands he saw a pod of Orcas and called them out; Ted watched from the galley while trying not to burn their eggs.
He watched the water closely after that, as the sun rose over Mt Baker, and he thought he could see Garibaldi’s crown beyond Vancouver – as the morning’s first puffs of breeze filled in; they’d be able to make sail within a hour or so, he thought. Then he wondered where he could take his son to get laid in Vancouver.
‘And how long has it been,’ he wondered, ‘since you’ve had any?’
Hell, he couldn’t even remember the last time…and funnier still, he didn’t even give a damn.
They tied-up at the Coal Harbour Marina an hour before the sun slipped behind Vancouver Island, and after he showered he walked up to the Harbor Master’s office and talked to a few guys hanging around there while he waited for Ted. The locals recommended a few places overlooking the marina and once Ted arrived – off they went.
Loud music and watered down drinks seemed to be the order of the day, and though there were a few womenfolk around nothing seemed to call out to either of them so they left after a few minutes. They walked to another place that happened to have a deck overlooking Altair, and they took a table on the deck overlooking the marina – about fifty yards from the boat – and a waitress came to take their drink order.
“Dark rum collins for me,” he said. “Ted? Name your poison.”
“The same,” Ted said – cooly.
“I’ll need to see some ID,” the waitress said.
“He’s my son.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the girl said.
“How about a ginger ale,” Ted sighed. “Maybe with the cherry on the side?”
The girl grinned. “What do you want?”
“A beer. I’d kill for a cold beer.”
“Been out on the water?” she asked.
“Two days,” Ted said. “Coming up from Seattle.”
“Oh? Where are you headed?”
“Desolation Sound,” Ted added. “Been there?”
She smiled then walked off to grab their drinks.
“She’s kinda cute,” he said.
“Kinda?” Ted added. “Man, she’s hot.”
“Sounds like an Aussie accent.”
“Is that it?”
She came back a minute later with his drinks, a ginger ale – and an ice-cold Moosehead , complete with cherry on the opening. She put the beer down – away from Ted – and put the soda down in front of him.
“You from Australia?” Ted asked.
“Melbourne. Been there?”
“Not yet. You been there, Dad?”
“Yup. Once or twice.”
“My dad’s a pilot,” Ted sighed. “He’s been everywhere.”
The girl turned on him then, curious. “Yeah? You fly for an airline?”
“Delta,” he said.
“You fly to Australia?”
“I’ve been down there. Sydney once, Melbourne a few times, but not on duty. When we had a run to Hawaii from Seattle, I did that for a while. These days it’s mainly LA and San Francisco, sometimes Salt Lake or Cincinnati. What are you doing here?”
“Spending the summer here, then headed to McGill in August.”
“I’m at Boston College,” Ted added.
“Oh? What year?”
“I’ll graduate next spring.”
“What are you studying?”
“Really? Me too.”
He smiled when he saw Ted’s reaction. “So,” he added, “you didn’t answer. Been to Desolation Sound?”
“No, I haven’t, but then again I’ve only been here a few weeks.”
“Done much sailing?” Ted asked.
“No,” the girl said, then she just walked off.
“Too fast, kiddo. Ignore her when she comes around next time.”
“Right. We gonna do dinner here?”
“You want to stay-put, or move on?”
“Stay. There’s something about her, Dad.”
“Oh, she’s an interesting type, alright, but be careful.”
“For me, Dad. Not you…”
And he had to laugh at that. “Don’t worry, Paco. I’m not looking.”
“You could’ve fooled me.”
“Just trying to back your play.”
“Okay…well, the menu looks good.”
When she came back to take their order Ted didn’t even look up at her.
“Maybe you could find some sort of middle ground,” he said after she left that time.
“What?” Ted said, confused. “You said to ignore her.”
“Give her a smile next time. Make eye contact.”
“Jeez, Dad. Maybe you should be the priest in the family…?”
“You’re right, Paco. Just be yourself…”
“Right. Nervous and unsure of myself. That’s a winning combination, every time.”
“Probably better than you think.”
“Now he tells me…”
She came back with their salads a few minutes later.
“So, what’s in Desolation Sound?” she asked.
“Killer whales, sea otters – and Nancy’s.”
“Bakery. Best cinnamon rolls ever.”
“You wanna come with us?” Ted asked – with a straight face.
“What?” – and he saw the girl seemed genuinely surprised at the question.
“Would you like to come with us?”
“For how long?”
“How long you got?”
“Let me see,” the girl said before she disappeared back into the restaurant.
“Hey, you said to just be me.”
“You are direct, I will say that.”
“You think she’ll come?”
“Well, she just got here, but she’s cute as hell so the manager is probably hitting on her. She says she’s away from home for the first time, maybe trying to earn a few buck before school starts – but figuring out just now that, with the cost of living here, she’s barely going to be treading water. Then there are the visa problems…”
“Jeez, Dad. What are you – like some kind of clairvoyant?”
“Nope, but I have been around the block a few times.”
“So, what do you think?”
“Don’t be too surprised if she says yes.”
She was different the next time she came out, when she dropped off their dinners. Not so distant, her smile full of curiosity, like her eyes were ready for the next adventure.
“She’s coming,” he said. “Mark my words.”
“You think so?”
The next time she came by Ted pointed out the blue-hulled boat across the way: “See that one? Altair on the stern?”
“On her bum?” Ted added, helpfully.
“We’re here tonight, leaving in the morning, before sunrise. If you feel like coming along, you know where we’ll be.”
He watched the girl looking at his boat, wondering what was going through her mind, wondering what sort of calculus a girl made at a time like this. Unknown versus all the known-unknowns, an adventure versus a slow motion train wreck.
If what he supposed was indeed going on.
But then the girl nodded her head and moved off again.
“Well?” Ted asked.
And he shrugged, but maybe he smiled just a little, though he thought he already knew the score. “Just have to wait and see,” he added – a little too knowingly.
“I knew it. She’s coming…”
And again, he only smiled, yet he wondered why he thought he knew the answer. Jaded, perhaps? Getting a little too cynical about such things? Or…simply judging other people through the prism of his life with Barbara…?
“You know,” he sighed, “it wouldn’t surprise me either way.”
“That’s kind of a…”
“A cop-out? Yeah, I guess it is.”
“What’s wrong, Pops?”
“I think I need a change of pace, Paco. A real change of pace. I’m getting close to sixty years old, and I could retire then…in fact, I think they want to push some of us old-timers into early retirement. We’re getting expensive, and a lot of us still have pension obligations the company will owe us. All these new guys? Mainly 410Ks, matching contributions, that stuff…”
“How long could you fly, Dad?”
“Well, a few more years, like four if I push it, but I could matriculate over to the training academy, teach there, do check-rides…”
“What did you used to call those guys? The Silver Eagles?”
“Could you do that?”
“I could, but I’d have to move to the east coast.”
“Yikes. You wouldn’t…?”
“I used to think I could. Now, I’m not so sure…”
“Dad! Leave Seattle? You’ve lived here, what…more than twenty years?”
“Yup. Year you were born. It would be hard, have to give up the boat, that whole thing.”
Ted shook his head. “That’s not you, and you know it.”
“What do you think you’re gonna do, Paco. I mean, really…getting laid is one thing, but…”
“Dad, I’m not sure I’m cut out to be a priest…”
“What? That’s a big change…when did you start feeling this way?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s like the more science I take the more incongruent religion and science become. Two competing world views, I guess, but one feels more and more like a children’s fairytale to me.”
“You think medicine’s the answer?”
Ted nodded his head. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“Why now? Just exposure to new ideas?”
“Maybe that. But sometimes,” his son added, pausing to take a deep breath, “it just feels like growing up.”
“Ah. So, religion is childish?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Oh? What did you say?”
“I’m not sure I want to spend my entire life cloaked in a mystery that, well, there’s nothing about religion grounded in fact, is there?”
He shook his head. “You can’t confuse fact and faith, son. You have faith, then that becomes bedrock; if you don’t, well, it’s easy to turn and walk away.”
“But it’s not always so easy, is it? I mean…”
“I know what you mean. That’s why I’ll never deny the existence of God, and why I can’t go to church. I have my doubts about the whole thing, but I don’t have the courage of my convictions so here I sit, still sitting on the fence, looking at life go by and wondering what the noise is all about.”
“What about Mom?”
“I think, in a way, the question drove her to drink.”
He laughed a little, inside, at his son’s sincere expression of cluelessness. “I don’t know, Ted. Look at the Irish…they brought Christianity to the British isles, and then they turned around and invented whiskey. Talk about cause and effect…”
“Is that true?”
“Hell, I don’t know. One of the Fathers told us that in a history class…but then again, he was Irish…”
Ted shook his head. “Why do you think she drinks, Dad?”
“Because she hurts, son. She drinks to make it all go away, and maybe because she doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions.”
“What? How so?”
“Because she never had faith, either in God, or herself. She always found it easy to turn to anyone who’d offer to ease her pain…without thinking through the consequences.”
“You mean, like, buy her a drink?”
He nodded, but in his mind’s eye he remembered coming home early more than once and finding her and another man in the throes.
“What is it, Dad? What are you thinking?”
“About her – what?”
He shook his head. “I don’t want to go there, son. Like I said, there’s no need now.”
Ted shook his head too. “I know. I came home from school more than once…”
“Ted, please. Just stop. I don’t want…we neither one need to spend any more time there than we already have?”
“I guess. Question?”
“What do you think, really? Would I be a better priest, or a physician?”
“Wow, now there’s a thought.” He looked out at the night, looked up at the stars. “Maybe they’re not as far apart as you think?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, they’re both grounded in a kind of rigorous curiosity, and at the same time they’re both concerned with helping people find answers about themselves, maybe even a path to their truest natures.”
The boy nodded his head slowly, but for the first time he saw something odd in his son’s eyes. A man’s eyes. Thoughtful, full of questing, and not a starry-eyed child.
“Anyway, I doubt you’ll ever be able to turn away from the Church, not completely. Maybe you’ll just turn out like a lot of the rest of us…you’ll go once a week and leave those mysteries to someone else.”
“But, me? What do you see me doing?”
He shrugged. “What I think really doesn’t matter, does it? You know, in your heart, what the answer to that is, and you don’t need all my baggage cluttering up your thinking…”
“Maybe, but I’d like to know what you think.”
“Well, of course, I’d like to see you find happiness. I think medicine would…well, I think you’ve got the right temperament for medicine. You’ve always been a kind of scientist, even when you were in Sunday school. You’ve always asked the hard questions, the kind of questions your teachers couldn’t answer effectively. Their easy answers always seemed to…”
“They pissed me off. They still do.”
“The answers never change, Dad. Someone is senselessly killed and there’s only one answer. It’s all a part of God’s mysterious plan, or we can never really know why…”
“Which presupposes there’s a why out there.”
“Exactly. Which means an order, a purpose to all this, which is comforting, but…”
“So, what do you tell an old man when you find out he has something like pancreatic cancer? That he’s going to die? Do you tell him the facts, turn him loose to find comfort in senseless emptiness?”
“I’m not sure I believe in the whole heaven and hell thing anymore, Dad.”
“Then you just answered your question, Ted. Case closed. Do you want dessert?”
They laughed at that, and were still chuckling when the girl came by again and asked if they wanted something sweet to finish off their meal. She looked puzzled when they started laughing again…
No one noticed a woman, sitting several tables away, looking at them as they laughed.
He slept late that morning, didn’t get up ‘til almost three-thirty. He showered and put on his running shoes, then went topsides and filled the water tanks before he went for his run. There was a huge, forested park across the little inlet and he stretched first, then took off, as always sure running was the most stupid form of exercise ever invented. After fifteen minutes he was sure running was the greatest thing ever, and after forty minutes he was wrapped in the familiar warmth of his runner’s high. He slowed his pace as he returned to the little marina, then walked out the kinks for a few minutes – looking at his watch only once as he drew in a few really deep breaths.
He saw her on the dock just then, sitting on a dock-box by Altair’s stern, a large duffel on the planks by her feet – and he smiled.
When he walked up, she looked up and smiled.
“Sorry about the hour,” she said.
“You brought everything, I see. Burned all your bridges?”
She nodded – but then she turned away, too. “Yup, feels that way, anyway.”
“You sure about this?”
She looked him in the eye then. “Yes. You’re a good man. I can tell that much by looking in your eyes.”
She laughed at that, and he did too. “It’s your son I’m not so sure of…?”
“Ted? Oh, he’s harmless enough. Confused as hell, but harmless.”
“No spoilers, young lady. Oh, by the way, my name is Jim. And yours is…?”
“Tracy. Tracy Singleton.”
“Well, Tracy, I hate to ask, but do you have your passport handy?”
That seemed to take her aback a little…
“We may be boarded by the Coast Guard…in fact, odds are we will be more than once. They’ll check, and as it’s my boat it’s my responsibility.”
“So, you’re a pilot? I mean, really?” she said as she pulled out her passport and handed it to him, hardly taking her eyes off him as he looked over her passport.
He looked up at her then, sizing up her choice of words as a record of her experience with people like himself. “Yup. Really.”
“Can I see your pilot’s license, then?”
He laughed at that. “Sure. You wanna come up, or wait here?”
“I think I’ll wait her.”
He nodded then hopped aboard, went below for his wallet – and he found Ted stumbling out of the aft head, rubbing his eyes. “Oh. You’re up,” he groaned, knowing what that meant.
“So is Tracy.”
“Tracy. You know…the gal you’re going to marry.”
“Not likely, but you’d better put some clothes on, just in case,” he added, as he made his way forward to find his wallet. He was out on deck a moment later, and he stepped down to the swim platform on the stern, then handed his license over to the girl – who in turn looked duly impressed.
“So, you weren’t foolin’?” she sighed. “You’re not a pretender, I mean.”
“I take it you’ve seen your fair share?”
“That’s all there seems to be lurking about these days…if you know what I mean?”
As if the words ‘lurking about’ weren’t enough, there was the look in her eyes: distrustful yet alert, lonely – yet wary. Distant, like her special truth was hidden somewhere far away. The literal opposite of Barbara, in other words. Where Barbara had always been reaching out, looking for trouble, this girl had turned inward at some point – but she was too young to realize how inviting that was to certain kinds of predators. Her extreme good looks had probably invited too much unwanted attention along the way…and possibly obscured the fact she was running from life – if only from herself.
“I suppose it’s always been that way, Tracy. You ready to come on up, or having second thoughts?”
She handed him her duffel, then looked at his outstretched hand before she took it.
He saw it took an effort on her part, then he watched her looking at all the stuff that made Altair work.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You can just sit back and watch…”
“Could you teach me?”
“Teach you – what, exactly?”
“Sure…but Ted’s a better teacher than I’ll ever be…”
“I doubt that,” the girl said, looking him in the eye.
“Well, let me show you around down below.”
“Do I have my own room?”
“Yes. It’s small, but…”
“Oh, that okay.”
He led her down the companionway, showed her the galley and the head, then led her to the tiny cabin up by the mast. “Well, here it is…”
“You weren’t kidding,” she sighed.
“It’s more an office – that happens to have a bunk,” Ted said, now standing behind his father. “If it bothers you, we could switch places.”
“No. I’ll be fine here,” the girl said.
Yes, he thought – as he looked at his son, you will be.
His eyes were red, his mouth tasted like old fish and bug-juice, and now this. Someone in the Navy, somewhere back in D.C., had gotten a bug up his ass and wanted a bunch of Iraqi Migs taken out before they could, conceivably, get airborne – and thereby instantly shot down by the U.S. Air Force. There remained an outside chance, however small, that these Migs could break out and go after one of the carriers in the Gulf, and that just would not do. Like the guys on the flat-tops didn’t need gunnery practice, too.
The problem, as he saw it, was that his squadron had just bombed the living daylights out of just that airfield, including bombs that had cratered the runway beyond recognition. The other problem? Someone at the NRO had just gone over the latest satellite imagery and one runway was, somehow and against all odds, operational again. And then more Migs arrived, screaming in low over the desert – and a half dozen AWACs platforms had missed them, too!
Ali Air Base was the closest Iraqi airfield to Kuwait, and, therefore, the Gulf, and so had been, literally, plastered two days before, just as Operation Desert Shield rolled over into Desert Storm – and he had flown six sorties in two days. His Intruder had taken several hits from small arms fire this morning, driving home the point that, as hapless as the Iraqis seemed to be, a ‘Gomer’ with a flintlock could always get off a lucky shot off – and thereby ruin your day.
The squad XO had rousted him from a nice, warm dream a half hour ago, given him enough time to grab a shower and drop by the air wing’s dining room for a tuna sandwich and some bug-juice, also known as Kool-Aid. As he walked into the briefing room he began to regret the sandwich, and wished he’d tossed down two more Dixie-cups of the red stuff – on top of the four he’d already tossed down.
The Wing’s intel weenies had set up an overhead projector in the little compartment, but as only three Intruders were being detailed to this sortie the room had kind of an intimate, less formal vibe going just then, until the CO walked-in – and all that changed – in an instant. Commander Dan Green walked up the lectern and looked at his small team.
“No use going over the hows and whys,” Green began, “but Gomer has some new assets on the ground at Ali that weren’t there four hours ago, and that can only mean one thing. Somehow, someway, we didn’t get the runways as good as we thought. So, there are now eight Mig-23s on the ground, and ten Frogfoots. They’re on a hot-pad alert, loaded with ordnance, or so I’m told, and we got Marines headed for the beach, if you get my drift…and Jim, you’re taking 5-0-9 on this strike.”
“We’ve apparently got two of those new AGM-84E onboard, and 5-0-9 is the only bird we’ve got with the right mod. You’re also the only man in the squad with any training on the dash-84, and someone on the E-ring wants it used tonight. Here’s your profile,” Green added, handing over a hastily mimeographed series of altitudes and coordinates. “You’re going to head out and arc around from the west. The missiles’ tracks are programmed to hit the SAM emplacements, again, and the OPS building too, which we somehow missed last night. Latest satellite imagery has their pilots still in barracks, but they’re fueling the a/c as we speak; odds are, they’ll try to takeoff just before sunrise. With that many aircraft already on the line, the thinking is one or two might get through, and we’re not going to let that happen.”
“So, I launch and just boogie straight back?”
“Not quite. Your load-out includes two cluster bombs. Look at page three. You launch, impact should be within thirty seconds. The XO and I will come in from the south and east right behind your impact, then you’ll come in from the west less than a minute after we drop; you’ll drop on anything that’s still moving.”
“One other thing. See the note on page five…you’ll meet up with a Raven at those coordinates. He’ll lead the strike, jamming for the most part, but he’ll be carrying anti-radiation heads, too.”
He looked over the attack profile and shook his head. “Why so low over the border?” he asked. “I thought their radar’s down across the board?”
“A Saudi E-3 is picking up emissions in the area.”
“Yeah. Good news all over. Word is someone picked up Buk transmissions late last night, and some Air Force A-10s picked up some SA-7 fire when they tried to hit a road about ten clicks north of there…”
“You’re just full of good news, aren’t you, Skip?”
“Yeah, well, if it was easy…”
“Yeah, yeah…I hear you, Skipper.”
“5-0-9 is scheduled to shoot from cat one, and she’s ready to go. Cartwright ought to have the coordinates loaded now, all but the rendezvous with the Raven. Try not to bust 300 AGL inbound, alright?”
“Yup. Good hunting, skip.”
“You too. Better get a move on.”
He picked up the rest of his gear and made it to the flight deck as the Roosevelt turned into the wind, and he made his quick walk-around the Intruder just as an S-3 applied full power next to his catapult. After checking his ordnance was racked correctly, and all pins removed, he climbed up into the Intruder’s cockpit – just as the Viking launched.
His BN, Ben Cartwright, was still entering waypoints into DIANe when he clambered into his seat; his crew chief helped hook up the O2 line to his face-mask and straighten out his harness before the Chief pulled the safeties on his ejection seat, showing him the pins before he disappeared into the maelstrom down on deck.
He applied power and watched the deck come alive, then closed the canopy, waiting for the wand in the darkness. A minor swarm walked away from the Intruder a moment later, all last-minute checks complete, and he looked at the sea beyond the end of the deck as ‘Pri-fly’ came over the radio – right on cue.
“Tiger 5-0-9, you clear?”
“You spun up?Ready to roll?” he asked Cartwright as he applied full power and rechecked the wing.
“I’m nominal – I guess. But I was sure having a nice fuckin’ dream…”
“Yeah, okay. Let’s do this shit.” He turned to the wands down in the dark and adjusted his head a little, pushing his body back in the seat a little more, then he turned his head a little and saluted into the night…
A lime green want arced and pointed into the wind, then touched the deck…
…And the old A6-E roared down the deck…
The transition to flight was subtle…just the slightest dip as 5-0-9’s wings bit into the thick air…and, as was his habit, he shook his head and worked his jaw as he raised the gear and cleaned the wing, keeping one eye on the altimeter, the other on his airspeed, scanning the engine tapes until he was at 500AGL.
“Come left to three one zero,” Cartwright said. “You got the Raven’s coordinates?”
“Entered,” he added, trimming the Intruder into a shallow descent.
“Okay…why don’t you do some of that pilot shit and wake me when we get back.”
“Yup, you take a nap. Just remember to wake me up somewhere over Kansas, okay?”
“Tiger 5-0-9, Big Stick.”
“Five by five, Stick.”
“Tiger Lead is airborne. Start your hack in five, four, three, two, one – mark.”
“Contact Turnout on 244.3, and good luck.”
“Forty-four three, and thanks.”
With his eyes on the altimeter, he trimmed the Intruder again and slipped the HUD into terrain mode, looked at the sea’s surface one more time before he turned all his concentration to his cockpit instruments. He would for the rest of this first segment, anyway.
“Come to 3-2-0, get down in the weeds now.”
“Uh, 5-0-9, we’re picking up emissions inside Al-Wafrah, profile looks like an SA-11.”
“Magpie 3-0-9, expedite.”
“Uh, 5-0-9, make that 3-3-0. Someone just went active.”
“I’m looking…” his BN said as the Intruder’s threat receivers started warbling…then…“I got one launch!” Cartwright said, almost too quietly. “One airborne – uh, make that two…high-PRM, turning south by southwest!”
He sighed, felt his sphincters relax a little as he pulled up on the stick. Five twenty knots and one ten over the waves meant one wrong twitch and Tiger 5-0-9 would become a smeary patch of oil in the waters off Kuwait…then he saw the beach a mile ahead, and a few campfires down on the sand as they roared over seconds later.
“5-0-9, feet dry.”
“5-0-9, come left to 3-1-0 and climb to at least 200 AGL, buddy, or I can’t see you.”
“Three ten and two.”
“How long?” Cartwright asked.
“Call it ten minutes.”
“Wish there was some moon.”
“Not me. Too many b-b-guns down there.”
“Hear anything from Barbara?”
“Nope. She went back home, I think. To her parents for a while.”
“5-0-9, got an outbound strike headed to the Stick, two miles north, 300AGL.”
“5-0-9, come to 295 NOW!”
He hit the stick hard, reefed the Intruder into a steep left turn, his eyes focused on the altimeter as he came off the power a little, then the threat receiver came on again.
“What the fuck!”
“Looks like heat-seekers. SA-7s, my guess,” Cartwright croaked, the G-forces making it hard to talk now.
“Every Gomer with a flintlock,” he groaned – as he straightened out on 2-9-0.
“5-0-9, you guys still with me?”
“Roger that. Looked like SA-7s.”
“5-0-9, concur, your traffic is now two zero miles out, come right to 3-4-0.”
“Okay, come up to 700AGL for the meet, then resume attack profile after you hook up.”
A few minutes later the EF-111 appeared high and to their left, coming out of Saudi Arabia, and he reefed the Intruder into a gently arcing turn and slipped into the Raven’s four o’clock.
“Magpie, 5-0-9. Where are you guys?”
“I can count your hemorrhoids, Magpie.”
“Got it. You ready?”
He looked around once, finally realized the night was clear and it looked like there were a billion stars out, then he focused on the -111 and followed this Magpie character into a sharp dive, letting his speed build up to almost four hundred and fifty hundred knots – as fast as the Intruder dared go at this density altitude, and with this payload.
“Magpie, 5-0-9, I’ve got two transmitters targeted, launching in three-two-one…”
He had his visor down in an instant, and he squinted ahead just enough to see his instruments – yet even the intense bloom flared, almost blinding him.
“Fuck!” Cartwright screamed.
“Magpie, 5-0-9, launching in three-two-one…”
He clinched his eyes tightly this time, and still he saw the bloom – only it was deep red this second time, leaving the jangled impression of blood vessels on his retinas. He shook his head, looked at the attack cue on his HUD and armed both missiles.
“Launch in fifteen seconds,” Cartwright sighed, flipping the final safeties to OFF. “Ten seconds. Magpie, launching ONE in five, four, three, two and one…launching TWO in five, four, three, two, one…”
His eyes almost wilted under the sustained fire that leapt from his wings.
“Magpie, Turnout, two impacts, high order probability detonations on target. Come left to zero-two-zero, start jamming off axis.”
“509, SLAM ONE has detonated. I’ve lost your second…no…wait one. SLAM TWO detonation, both appear to be on target. Tiger 500 and 5-0-2 are starting their runs. Come to zero-eight-two degrees and 500AGL, 300 K-T-S now.”
“509, 500 and three.”
“509, start your run pilot’s discretion.”
He looked at the chronometer on the panel…call it fifteen seconds…as he trimmed out of his dive and went to full power. “Going in now,” he said to the controller in the E-2C, then, to Cartwright: “Pickle’s hot?”
“My bombs,” his BN added, unnecessarily.
Even from ten miles out the mass of spreading fire was visible, and he couldn’t even begin to imagine what it was like down there. At least ten thousand pounds of high explosives had just hit the Iraqi air field – everything from fuel storage bladders to the control tower had taken direct hits, and now he was coming in to literally drop bombs on anything, or anyone, left standing.
Then…the threat receiver screamed into the night…
…As five SAMs lit off and arced into the sky – chasing the skipper and the XO…
“Turnout? Got a vector to the launcher?”
“500, 509, negative. Hit the airfield again, got that! Repeat, stay on target!”
“509, Turnout, radar contact, we got three aircraft taxiing for the runway, looks like the Sukhois.”
“Call it zero-eight-one.”
“Show me four-zero seconds out. Gotta drop from at least eight hundred.”
“509, no active emissions…they shut down…probably putting more on the rails.”
“Yup. Runway in sight…confirm…looks like three Frogfoots and a Flogger…”
The threat receiver began howling again…just as he pickled his bombs on the Sukhois…and seconds later he saw at least one SAM arcing-in. He pickled flares and chaff, pushed the stick down easy and turned into the missiles, trying to confuse their radars. Fire more chaff, stick up, jink right then push down…
One missile exploded harmlessly in his wake…
The second missed, but only by a few meters, and it exploded less than a hundred meters behind his Intruder…
Then…fire alarms blared, hydraulic pressures began falling, then electric buses tripped. He looked over, saw Cartwright’s head was – gone – geysers of raw arterial blood pumping from the stump…and he felt sharp pain in his right leg, shooting up from his ankle all the way to his thigh…
“Uh, 509, I’m going down – fast.”
“509, say again?”
“509, I’m hit, my BN is gone, engines out, losing pressures…uh…okay, fire spreading to the wing…punching out now…”
He didn’t hang around for a reply, and the next thing he knew he was hanging from his harness, drifting down towards a black hole in the desert…and he was sure his right leg was shattered.
He was sitting on the swim platform, Altair still visible in the early morning sky – now low on the southwest horizon. He could hear Ted describing Altair’s systems to Tracy, trying his best to impress the girl, and no doubt failing miserably despite his reassuringly authoritative choice of words. In his experience girls just didn’t give a damn about electronics and all that ‘stuff,’ though they often tried to appear interested. If they were, well, interested in the boy talking, that is. Only he wasn’t sure who or what this girl was interested in – yet – and that bothered him.
The whole license thing bothered him, too.
Like she didn’t appreciate the gravity of his passport explanation and so had decided to play him. To call him on it, in other words…and in his world eighteen-year-old girls just didn’t do that. No, he wondered who she really was, and what her angle was. Most of all, he wanted to know who she was running from.
And just then he wished Ted had checked his testosterone back in Boston.
He could still see Vancouver’s lights in their wake, and while the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky it was still quite dark out.
“Just like me,” he said softly. “Groping around in the dark again.”
He looked at his star, watched it fade.
“You’re too quiet,” he whispered to Altair, his one and only star. “Talk to me…”
He looked at her fading light and nodded, then a shiver ran across his soul…like careless children running across a grave.
He could see Tiger 509 cartwheeling after it slammed into the mud, spraying jet fuel in wide arcs as it tumbled – and suddenly vast swathes of marshy grass lit off. Marching with the prevailing wind, the flames ran north, but then the thought struck him…
The flames were bright, and he looked up, saw his olive colored parachute as plain as day – which meant any Gomer within ten miles could see him silhouetted against the flames, too.
And now, hanging up here in the sky, his leg felt like it was on fire, too.
At least, he said to no one in particular, he felt somewhat intact. Not like…
No, I’m not going there, he thought. I’m alive – I’ll worry Ben later. He reached for his SART radio and turned it on, but left it attached to his harness…
“509, how do you read, over?”
He fumbled for the transmit button and pressed it. “509, still in my chute.”
“Confirm, you are down?”
“Yeah, 509 is down. The aircraft is about a half mile east of my position.”
“Are you intact?”
“Negative. Some metal sticking out of my leg, it feels broken, but that’s about all I can see from here.”
“Call when you get set.”
“Yup,” he said, but the ground was rushing up now, and he knew what was coming next…
He tumbled for what felt like forever, his chute full of the southerly breeze and dragging his body through what had to be acres of marshy reed and prickly grass…then the silk got tangled in some sort of stunted tree and he slid to a stop in thick mud. He lay still for a moment, listening to his heart beat in his temples, then he tried to slow his breathing down but he was just too disoriented for that, so he pulled out his K-Bar and cut parachute cords, cutting himself free of the fluttering silk.
He rolled over, tried to see the wound but it was still too dark and he didn’t dare use his flashlight out there in the open. He leaned up and took a look around, saw he had landed in coastal marsh, he could hear the sea beyond – and a small city perhaps ten miles away…probably Abādān…and he knew troops were there…because that’s where the SAMs had come from…
He turned again and he hurt all over, felt light-headed for a moment and he steadied himself against a rock…until he heard movement in the marshy grass a few meters away…
Then he remembered…there were supposedly crocodiles in these marshlands and he pushed himself up, gathered the remains of the parachute and walked directly away from the marsh as quickly as he could…
He came upon a low escarpment of rocky scree and he strung up the remains of the parachute between a few stumpy trees, making a shelter of sorts – as he knew the sun would be brutal in just a few hours, and only then did he unclip the light from his harness and look at his leg…
He saw one piece of metal jutting from the top of his thigh, and it looked thin – and sharp – then he shined the light on his right shin and saw a much more ragged piece – of something – that had gone all the way through his leg, and this wound was bleeding. He felt for the little first aid kit in his right breast pocket and pulled it out, looked for the powder he was supposed to pour on wounds to control bleeding and found it. He gently opened the pack and poured a little on both, then leaned back and took a deep breath…
‘The radio!’ he thought… ‘Got to get on the radio, turn on the beacon…’
He found the beacon and flipped it on, then turned on the radio and called in: “509, on the ground.”
He paused, heard nothing, then called again.
“509, checking in, how do you read?”
“509, we have your beacon, some bad guys in the area looking for you right now, so keep your head down. Call in at 0500 hours, earlier if compromised.”
“Got it.” He turned the radio to standby – to conserve power – then he bunched up some extra parachute material in a pillow and leaned back – and then the light-headedness returned…this time with a vengeance. He reached out to steady himself but he was falling again, falling through cool clouds, falling to the earth, and into the night…
They dropped anchor that afternoon, a mile off the main channel in a protected harbor on the south side of Musket Island. He inflated the Zodiac and put the little Honda outboard on it’s thin wooden stern, then held her off with one hand as he pulled the little inflatable to the bow with the other. Ted was getting the second anchor ready on the foredeck as he pulled up, and he took the anchor, put it on the hard floor, then turned to the motor and pulled the crank…
“Ready to pay out the chain?” he asked as the little outboard sputtered to life.
“I’ve got 200 feet ready. Is that enough?”
“I think we should tie the stern off to those trees,” Ted added, pointing to shore. “Maybe keep us from swinging too much…”
“Not with these tides, unless you want to stay up all night paying out line,” he said as he puttered slowly away from Altair. When he was fifty yards away from their first anchor he let this second one, a 44 pound Rocna, go; when it hit bottom he moved off a few yards then dropped the remaining chain overboard.
“Okay, back it down a little, rudder to port.”
“Okay!” Ted called out, but by that time he was paying attention to Tracy again. Arms crossed over her chest, a petulant expression on her face. ‘Not quite bored yet,’ he sighed inwardly. ‘But give it a few more hours…then the hurting will begin.’
The first thing he’d noticed as the day warmed – and sweatshirts came off – were the tell-tale tracks on her arm, and that set off all his internal alarms. This was his ship, and he was responsible for any drugs found on board, and that meant if they were boarded and drugs were found – anywhere – he could conceivably lose the boat. His home. And that meant he had to proceed carefully, and quickly, to get to the bottom of this.
“So,” he said to himself, “tell Ted and let him handle it, or do it myself?”
Do it yourself, the little voice in the back of his head said. Don’t put this one off on Ted.
He nodded as he set a trip-line for the anchor, then he motored off to the rocky shore, to the crumbling remnants of an old granite quarry. He waved at an older couple anchored as he passed, noting their little sailboat had come all the way from Southhampton, England, and he shook his head, wondering what it must be like to be cooped up on a thirty foot boat in the middle of the Atlantic…for weeks?
The water was clear near the rocky shore as he slowed – then beached – the Zodiac, and he hopped out, walked the rocks for a few minutes, looking at Altair as he picked his way around the worst of them, looking at Ted and Tracy talking on the foredeck. He was not looking forward to this…not at all…
He looked-over the old quarry for a while, climbed among the rusted detritus, wondering where these slabs of time had ended up. Some courthouse in Vancouver, probably, maybe Seattle or Portland. He turned, looked at the sun…maybe an hour to go to twilight, so it was time to head back and get to it.
By the time he was motoring back he saw Ted and Tracy had gone below, and he groaned. ‘God, not already,’ he said inwardly…dreading the idea of his son screwing this girl, of all girls.
He circled Altair once before he approached the swim-platform and tied off, and by the time he reached for the rail Ted was standing there, waiting for him.
With a couple of baggies in hand.
And with what looked like a handful of insulin syringes.
“What’s all this?” he asked.
“Heroin,” Ted said.
“Did you get all of it?”
“Unless it’s stashed up her ass, yeah.”
“I’ve checked already,” his son added. “We can drop her at Powell River on the way up, in the morning.”
“Is that what she wants?”
“No. She wants to stay.”
“Nowhere to go?”
“A few bucks.”
“What’s with the McGill story?”
“Bullshit, for the most part. She came over a few years ago, dropped out after her second year. Been drifting ever since.”
He nodded as he looked at his son. No, no longer a boy, that much was certain…but what kind of man was he going to be?”
“And what do you want to do?” he asked his son.
“Get rid of this shit.”
“Take the Zodiac, get some rocks from the beach and put them in the baggies, take them off a ways and dump ‘em. Next, what do you want to do about her?”
His son looked down, shook his head… “I don’t know, Dad. I just don’t know.”
“Well, whatever you decide to do is fine by me. I’m proud of you, by the way.”
Ted looked up, smiled. “Yeah?”
“Never thought I’d hear you say something like that, Dad.”
“You’re not the most demonstrative father in the world, ya know.”
The words hit him, hard, and he felt brittle, almost hollow inside for a moment, then he looked at his son again and nodded his head. “I am my father’s son, Ted. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize, Pops. I guess it just makes what you said all the more meaningful, ya know?”
He nodded again. “I’m going to put on some water for spaghetti. Is she in her bunk?”
“Is she hurting yet?”
“Goddamn it all to Hell,” he muttered. “This isn’t exactly what we had in mind, was it?”
“This is the world we live in, Dad.”
“I must’ve missed something along the way.”
“I doubt that.”
He smiled again, and nodded, then smiled as he said: “Maybe you should be a cop, Ted.”
“Why not a pilot?”
“Because if you have a family you’ll miss all the fun.”
“And a cop wouldn’t?”
“You got a point there, Bucko. Well, you’d better got to it.”
“Should I just ignore her?”
“No, I think she’s expecting you. She saw you looking at her arms; that’s when she came to me.”
Ted pushed off and motored away, then he turned and stepped into the canvas enclosure on his way below. He paused, then went down to the galley, pulled out a large pot and filled it with water, added some salt and olive oil then set it to boil while he pulled out a skillet and chopped onions and peppers. He set these on a burner in some more olive oil, added a little garlic and basil, then a few cans of diced tomatoes and some cayenne to kick things off.
“That smells good,” he heard Tracy say, and when he turned he saw she was sitting in the saloon, her feet tucked-in under her legs – and his heart went out to her sitting there. She looked like a used up waif, her life already not turning out how she’d hoped, already in tatters.
“Next, my secret ingredient, a good shot of Merlot…”
“In spaghetti sauce?”
“It’s classy spaghetti sauce, kiddo.”
“Like you, huh?”
“Me? I kind of doubt that…”
He turned and looked at her again. “How you feeling?”
“Strung out, burned out.”
“Lost, and maybe a little alone?”
She turned away, started to cry…
“Knock it off, will you?” he sighed. “We’re supposed to grown-ups around here…”
“Sorry…I’m not feeling very grown-up right now.”
“So? Besides strung out, what’s bothering you?”
“Like I’ve been found out…by my parents, my father.”
“And what would your father do right now?”
“Beat me half to death, I guess.”
“Him? He’d have gone down to the pub, I reckon. Had a few pints…”
“And your mother?”
“She wasn’t around much, if you know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t.”
“She worked nights, mostly.”
“On the street.”
“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight…? Dad was a drunk and mom was a hooker?”
She nodded her head, looked away. “We were poor, lived in…”
“Pardon me, but I really don’t believe a word you’re saying?”
“I don’t believe you.”
She stared at him now, unsure of herself – and suddenly angry.
“You told Ted you spent two years at McGill, and somehow I don’t see a heroin addict raised in that kind of home ending up at a school like that. It just doesn’t, you know, add up,” he said as he turned back to his sauce.
“You think you know me…?”
“Who – me? No, not at all. Point of fact, I don’t know you at all. Second point? I don’t think you know yourself very well, either.”
“Oh, and what do you think I am?”
“In my limited experience, people lie like you do when they’re trying to conceal something.”
“Oh, and just what am I trying to conceal?”
“Beats me, kid. And even if you knew, which I kind of doubt, I don’t think you’d tell me anything that even remotely resembles the truth. You want some wine?”
He poured her a glass of Merlot and walked over to her, looking her in the eye as he handed the glass to her. “The thing is, if you want to talk, I’ll listen, but I think I’ve got the outlines in my mind.”
He walked back to the stove and stirred his sauce a little, sighing… “Yeah. Daddy’s rich, and Mommy didn’t get involved much, did she?”
“Involved? What do you mean?”
“He abused you, didn’t he?”
“Abused? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. You tell me…?”
She looked away, took a big pull from her glass then looked at him again. “It wasn’t like that, not really. I think he wanted to, but I don’t think he had the courage.”
“Now that’s an odd choice of word, don’t you think, Tracy? Courage?”
“Well, he always told me I was cute…too cute…”
“Ah, so it all comes down to restraint on his part? That’s what you mean by courage?”
“I suppose so, yes.”
“Because you’re so, what, so irresistible?”
He looked at her again, careful not to say a word.
“God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it?” she added.
He stirred the tomatoes and nodded his head. “Kind of, yes. What does your father do?”
“Imports. Foodstuffs from South America, for the most part.”
“And he’s wealthy?”
“She plays cards.”
“And drinks a fair bit, eh?”
She nodded her head again. “Yup.”
“You want a salad?”
“Can I help?”
“Sure…I can always use a fresh galley slave…”
She laughed at that, and was still smiling when Ted came down – and saw them both smiling and chattering away.
‘God…I’ll bet she never knew what hit her,’ Ted thought, smiling a little at thoughts of other nights, and other interrogations.
‘Yes…there it is again,’ he thought. ‘Something in the grass, moving this way…”
The pain in his right leg was overwhelming now, but the blood flowing from the wound had slowed a little after he put the coagulant around the penetrating metal shard, and though he’d wanted to shoot an ampule of morphine he knew he could’t. Not yet.
Then he’d heard that something in the grass and curled up behind a large rock.
But nothing. Like as soon as he moved, the movement in the grass stopped…
He pulled some of the parachute over his body, trying to hide as best he could without disturbing the little structure he’d built, and then he’d had lain still for minutes, trying not to move anything. Then he’d looked at his watch…
And cursed. Almost five now, almost time to check in with the E2 orbiting somewhere out there in the night, somewhere out over the Gulf.
He flipped the switch to active and pushed the transmit button: “509, 509, 509,” he whispered, as per protocol. “509, in the clear on 243.”
“Something moving in on my position, being very quiet about it, too.”
“Okay. Seal Team airborne at this time, be at your position less than two zero minutes. Jolly Green will be coming in behind them.”
“509, got it.”
“Hang tight, fella. The cavalry’s comin’…”
He flipped the power to standby, turned his attention back to the marsh, looking for a shift in the shadows…when a new, sharper spasm of pain broke over him. He looked down at his leg, saw a snake of some kind coiled up beside his right foot and he knew, just knew, he was going to die soon.
He heard more noise in the grass then and looked up, saw a small leopard walk out of the waist high reeds – looking right into his eyes.
He was reaching down for his 45ACP – slowly – when the snake struck again.
He looked at the chartplotter again, checked their depth carefully as he motored slowly into Squirrel Cove, on the northeast side of Cortes Island – and deep within Desolation Sound. It was almost seven thirty, and while the sun was still up, somewhere behind the clouds, they’d been at it all day – setting sail at four in the morning and pushing-on through one heavy rainstorm after another. Now, with the end of their journey at hand, visibility was down to fifty feet and at ferocious wind, right out of the west at sixty knots, was pushing Altair towards the rocks on the right side of the narrow inlet. Tracy looked terrified; Ted looked bored. He knew his father, knew he was enjoying the hell out of this…the extra little challenge at the end of the day…
A violent gust rocked the boat and he turned her into the wind a little, though she rolled more than thirty degrees right for a moment – and Tracy shrieked, now beyond terrified. Altair stood up and he added power, his eyes now fixed on the chartplotter…
“Another hundred yards or so and we’ll be out of the wind,” he said for Tracy’s benefit – just as another gust slammed into Altair, sending her almost on her beam-ends.
“Jesus, Dad, the wind gauge hit ninety…!” Ted called out, but he was focused on the rocky ledge about fifteen ahead – because these gusts were pushing him right for it…
He waited for the wind to settle a little, then slipped the transmission in reverse and backed down, to starboard a little, and as Altair’s bow pointed away from the ledge he put the transmission in forward and gunned the engine, kicking the old girl with his spurs on one more time. A minute later they were inside the sheltering cove, and the wind, just as he said it would, fell off to the gentlest breeze imaginable.
“Get the eighty pounder ready first,” he said to his son, and Ted ran off to the bow to get the anchors ready to drop. “How you doin’, kiddo?” he added, looking at the disbelief in the girl’s eyes.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“Get us in here…?”
“Badly, I’m afraid. I should have anticipated those last two gusts.”
“Yeah. Sorry about that…that really could’ve gone smoother,” he sighed, but his eyes were on the plotter again. He overlaid radar on the display and he could see the contours of the cove now, and every boat anchored there, too, even though visibility in the heavy rain was still under fifty meters. He changed range scales and fiddled with the gain setting, knocking back the rain-clutter, then he saw a likely place near the far north east of the cove.
Ted had the eighty pounder on the roller now, ready to go, and he waved him back to the cockpit. “No reason for you to stand out there,” he said as his cold, wet son clambered back into the cockpit.
“‘Bout a half mile, and this rain ain’t gonna let up anytime soon.”
“What’s the forecast look like?”
“More of the same, like maybe two, three more days.”
“Swell,” Ted grumbled. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
“It’s pretty here,” Tracy sighed, peering into the murk. “Nothing but trees…”
“Oh,” he said, grinning, “there’s more here than meets the eye.”
“You’ll see,” Ted added, though he was grinning now, too.
“What’s the big mystery,” she grinned.
He looked at the plotter, confirmed there was no current pushing him around in the cove, then he looked up, checked the radar against the boats he saw looming out of the mist and rain just ahead. “About three hundred yards, Ted.”
“I’m gonna get another fleece, my gloves, too.”
He powered back a little, turned away from a group of boats anchored along the south side of the cove, then noted several were rafted-up together, forming a sort of floating community out here in the middle of nowhere…then Ted was bounding out into the rain again. He picked his spot and throttled down, let Altair drift to a long, arcing stop, then he toggled the windlass and let the anchor down…slowly…and then, when Ted gave him the signal, he backed down until he felt the anchor set.
He shut down the engine, marveled at this place once again – even as he listened to the wind through the pines and rain pelting the cockpit enclosure…then he noticed Tracy staring at him.
“Does anything bother you?” she asked.
“That storm…the rocks…you could’ve lost your boat, maybe our lives, but it was like you were, well, on heroin. Nothing seems to upset you…”
“People get in trouble when they panic. When they stop thinking, when they act without thinking, that’s when trouble starts. That’s probably the first thing a student pilot learns, too, by the way.”
“So, that’s it? You run into things like this all the time, so it’s like…just no big deal? Is that what you’re saying?”
“What happens if you screw up?”
“A lot of people die.”
He opened his eyes, looked around. Navy gray everywhere, and ductwork…the thrum of air conditioning and heavy machinery buried deep within the bowels of the ship. A medic of some sort fiddling with bandages around his swaddled leg, adjusting an IV hanging from a tree over his head.
“If this isn’t a dream,” he replied.
“No, sir, Lieutenant, no dream.”
“Where am I?”
“Back on the Roosevelt, sir. Docs operated on both legs, and turned out that snakes venom was pretty mild, like maybe he didn’t get a good strike or something, but I’ll go get the doc…”
He nodded, then looked down at his legs and shook his head. “Fuck,” was about all he could think to say, and he just stared until a man in green scrubs came up to his gurney.
“Seems you had one helluva night, Lieutenant.”
“Beats me. By the time the medic got to you, well, you were out cold and seriously fucked up. Good thing you powdered that wound on your right leg…that shard got close to, well, let’s just say you had a close call and we’ll leave it at that.”
“We still don’t know what kind of snake got you. One of the Seals got it, brought back some pieces so we could ID the thing. I think what saved you was, well, your vascular network down there was already pretty compromised, so the venom just couldn’t spread. It’s responding to anti-histamines so it’s probably a hemotoxin, so it wasn’t a cobra or something like that.”
“Prognosis? When can I get back to flight status?”
“Well, that’s the good part. No fractures and no major muscle damage, so assuming no infection I’d give it about two months…”
“Believe me, Lieutenant, when you get on your feet again you’ll realize how close a call you really had…”
“Can I go back to my quarters now…” he asked, clearly perturbed.
“You’re leaving for Germany on the next COD,” the physician added, “then stateside.”
The squad CO, Dan Green, came in a few minutes after the doc left, and Green looked at his leg for a while, then came closer. “Close one, Jim. You remember what happened?”
“First SAM – went wide right, the second went off just aft. What about the Sukhois? Did we get ‘em?”
“Yup, sure did. Nothing got off the ground, and that base is history. We got some Seals in there to secure the place this morning. It’s a done deal now, anyway. Saddam’s people are bugging out, disappearing into the hills, and their air force is, well, they split too, flew to Iran.”
“Iran? I thought…”
“Everyone thought they’d go to Jordan. They didn’t.”
“So, what? They’re just going to sit this one out?”
“Guess none of them felt like being martyred this week, if you know what I mean.”
“I guess,” he said, disappointment mixed with guilt washing over him.
“So, they tell me you’re headed to Wiesbaden?”
“Can you talk to someone, Dan? No broken bones…shit…I ought to be ready to fly in a few days.”
Green laughed at that. “Hell, Jim, this thing is going to be over in a few days, for us, anyway. They’re already talking about moving a couple of the boats back out to the Indian Ocean, maybe over to the Med. Seems like Saddam is getting ready to shoot off some Scuds, and the thinking is he might try to hit Israel.”
“Too bad for him if he does.”
“Yeah, anyway, by the time they get that leg fit for duty we’ll be back at Pearl. I wouldn’t sweat it, but if it heats up again you’ll be ready to go. You’re a short-timer, aren’t you? You weren’t thinking of extending?”
“I wasn’t, until this thing. My hitch is up in June.”
“Call it four months, then? Well, who knows. If we’re still here in a few weeks I’ll put in a request. About all I can do, shipmate.”
“Yeah. Well, some of the ground-pounders wanted to talk to you…”
“The Seals? Great…!”
And with that, five men came into the compartment.
“Hey, L-T!” their CO said as he lead his team in. “That was some mean shootin’ you did out there…”
“That cat. You nailed it, right in the throat. Dropped him like a sack of potatoes. Pretty good for a 1911 – at that range, anyway.”
“Yeah, that spotted thing. Looked like a leopard, only it’s not. Some kind of swamp-cat…you got him though, right in the chest…”
“All I remember is a snake…coiled up by my feet…”
“Yeah, he was still there when we got to you. Hernandez got him, emptied a whole fuckin’ magazine in his fat ass, too.”
He looked around at the Seal team and nodded. “Thanks, men. Appreciate your laying it out there for me.”
He heard their chorus of “You bets…” and “No problemos,” then they were gone, Green too, and he felt himself coming down hard and fast now.
“Germany…?” he sighed. “Well, at least I can call the folks from there, and Babs, let ‘em know I’m okay…”
Then the throbbing started.
By the time he arrived in Germany his right leg was splotchy blue and the docs told him some kind of bug had gotten into the tissues of his lower leg…
“Yeah, got in through the wound. They find there way into the space between the muscle and your skin. They multiply like crazy in there.”
“We try antibiotics, three or four of ‘em, over the next 24 hours.”
“We try? And what happens if they don’t work?”
And the doc shook his head. “Let’s not go there right now…okay?”
Tracy was shivering and Ted was almost as white as a sheet of paper when he came in from setting the anchors, so, as much as he didn’t want to do, he fired up the generator, then turned on the cabin heaters. He set about making dinner then, though he kept his eyes on the weather raging outside every few minutes. And now, to top it off, the forecast was for freezing temps overnight, in the mid-30s, anyway – but that was for Vancouver! – yet three days from now – sunny and back in the 70s…!
“What a roller coaster…” he sighed as he turned the chicken breasts in the skillet.
“What’s for chow?” Ted asked as he came out of the aft cabin.
“Lettuce wraps and that coconut soup you like.”
“Ah…nothing like Thai on a rainy night.”
“You’re cooking Thai food?” Tracy asked. “On a boat?”
“Why not?” he replied. “It’s not all that difficult, and it doesn’t take long.”
“Lettuce wraps?” she added. “Really?”
“Sure. I washed the lettuce and made the soup this afternoon. All I have to do is grind the chicken and put the soup in the microwave.”
“A microwave? You have one of those, too?”
He shook his head – again – then turned to the stove – again. He added the lemongrass and basil, and finally one crushed cardamom pod, then he turned down the heat and let it simmer for a while. “Tea’s ready, if anyone wants some.”
“Don’t tell me,” Tracy sneered. “Fresh chai?”
“This is ridiculous,” she sighed. “This is like a floating restaurant…”
“You’d rather I opened a can of dog food for you?” he asked, trying to keep calm.
“I just don’t get it,” the girl said. “Getting away from it all…”
“Doesn’t mean I have to deprive myself of the things I like, Tracy. You forget, this is my home, and the idea of living like a backpacker doesn’t appeal to me all that much.”
She nodded. “Yeah…I get that…”
Ted was rummaging through a pantry about then, and he stood up, beaming, holding forth a can: “Dad! Look! Pork and beans, with weenies, even! Trace? Want some?”
She sneered again. “No thanks.”
Ted looked at his old man – and winked.
She helped with the dishes, and he let her know he appreciated the help, then he went to the chart table and looked over the batteries.
“Gonna have to run the generator all night?” Ted asked.
“With this water temp the fridge and freezer won’t draw too much; but the heater’s another matter. Fans and pumps won’t run off batteries for long.”
“So? We’ve got good blankets…”
“Yeah? And at 38 degrees, and with three bodies in here – there’ll be enough condensation on the ceiling to take a shower…”
“Dad? We’re like, ya know, laying down a smoke-screen out there. The fumes are overwhelming.”
“Well, do the words ‘pristine’ and ‘wilderness’ mean anything to you?”
“Does freezing your ass off all night mean anything to you? Then dealing with an unholy mess in the morning?”
“I vote for warm,” Tracy said, tossing her two cents into the cup. “I kind of like warm.”
“Me too,” he said. “Don’t you just love democratic systems of governance, Paco?”
Ted sighed, shook his head. “I like warm, too. I also hate turning this harbor into a cesspool. Like, we came here to get away from all that crap?”
“Right, Paco. Who’s up for a movie?”
“Movies?” Tracy said…and he sighed – then turned the generator to AUTO and flipped the heater to STAND-BY – and complete silence enveloped Altair…and the entire cove, for that matter.
And moments later he heard cheers and applause coming from all the boats anchored around Altair, and he shook his head as he retreated to his cabin.
He slept late – ‘til three a.m., anyway – when he got up – shivering – and turned on the generator, then the heater. He put on coffee and took his shower, then fired up the chartplotter and looked over the weather. “Wind still out of the west, at forty, forty-five, and rain all day. A high of fifty-five? Well, well, well…sounds like a good day to read.”
He decided to check on Ted and poked his head into the aft cabin – and saw Tracy curled up by his son’s side.
He closed the door gently and tip-toed to the galley, trying not to grin, then he put on some hot water to make that tea-like crud Tracy was using to help back off the heroin. He got out “her” cup and added the recommended amount and let it steep for a while, then he went back to her room and woke her.
“Is it time already?” she asked, and he nodded.
He went back to the galley and a few minutes later she came out, looked at him getting ready to cook breakfast and she walked up behind him, put her arms around him.
“Good morning,” she said, then she disengaged and walked to the main table in the saloon and sat – as usual – tucking her bare feet under her thighs.
“Sleep well?” he asked, handing her the mug.
She looked at him and grinned. “I wish I’d known he was a virgin,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “I’d have baked him a cake or something…”
He shrugged. “All things being equal, I’m kind of glad it was you.”
She teared up at that, then turned away. “Me?” she said a minute later. “The lying heroin addict?”
“Sorry. That’s not the girl I know. I know this girl named Tracy, the one who meets problems head-on, and doesn’t quit.”
“That’s not the girl I know. I’m the girl who runs. Always has.”
He shrugged again, then smiled at her. “Looks like we’re in for a long, rainy day. You like to read?”
“Well, I’ve got a few books stowed for days like this…”
“You said you have movies?”
“Yup. On my laptop. Play ‘em through that iMac over there,” he said, pointing.
“Do you have any oldies?”
“Oldies? How old does a movie have to be before it’s an oldie? The first Star Wars, maybe?”
She grinned at that. “No, I mean old-old…like Elvis kind of old.”
“Ah. Well, I do have Paradise, Hawaii Style, if that counts?”
“Which one’s that?”
“He plays the fired airline pilot who comes home…”
“That figures,” she said, grinning. “I bet you have The High and The Mighty, too.” And he started whistling John Wayne’s iconic theme at that, and she broke out laughing. “My God, you do have a one track mind, don’t you?”
“You could say that.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask…what happened to your leg? The right one, there?” she said, pointing.
He turned away from her question, went back to the galley. “Just a bad night,” he said as he pulled out a skillet. “A bad night, a long time ago.”
“Was it serious?”
“No, not really.”
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
“No, not really.”
“Okay. Can I help?”
“I’m just gonna whip up some breakfast. You hungry?”
“Actually, yes. Want me to wake up Ted?”
“Just see if he wants to get up yet…”
She walked past, brushed up against his back as she passed and a chill went up his spine, and he leaned forward, put his outstretched hands on the counter and closed his eyes, trying to remember the last time he’d been so attracted to another human being…
“Hey, Pumpkin,” he said as he came into their apartment. He was carrying his flight bag in one hand, his car keys in the other, and he could hear Barbara working away in the tiny kitchen, so he put his bag down and walked that way. He smelled bourbon then and the realization unsettled him – if only because it wasn’t quite lunch time.
“Hey,” he said quietly, “I’m home.”
“How was your night?” she asked.
“That Ben Chambers called this morning. He wants you to check-in as soon as you get settled.”
“Oh? Did he say anything?”
“Nope. You want to grab a shower? Lunch will be ready in about ten minutes…”
“Yeah. I’d better,” he said, thinking he might have to run back out to the training center after lunch. He walked into the bedroom and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Something didn’t feel right, he thought. Something was – really off.
He shook it off and hopped in the shower, washing away the night – and the sudden panicky-feeling that had just gripped him, then he dried and got dressed…in a hurry. She had huevos rancheros and fresh guacamole on the table and he dug in. “Jeez, darlin’ – you’re getting better and better at these…”
“Thanks,” she said. “Glad you like ‘em.”
“Well, I love you, Pumpkin. It’s sweet of you to do this for me. When do you go in?”
“Three to midnight again. You off tomorrow?”
“Three days off, then I start Atlanta to CDG – for three months, anyway.”
“Paris…? Think we could spend a long weekend there?”
“You know it, babe. When you get the time, let me know.”
She sat beside him, leaned over and kissed him on side of the neck, then she smiled. “That could be fun,” she added…a little too suggestively.
“Where would you like to stay?”
“I don’t care…somewhere old, away from…no, you know what? Maybe by Notre Dame. Are there any little hotels over that way?”
He shrugged. “A couple…”
“Could you see?”
“Sure. You need help with the dishes?”
“No…you’d better make that call,” she said, and he nodded, went to their bedroom again, and again, the hair on the back of his neck shot up in electric warning.
He shook it off, called Chambers’ office at the training center and held while someone went to find him…then his voice was on the line…
“Jim? You haven’t put on your pajamas yet, have you?”
“No, sir. What’s up?”
“An opportunity, I think, if you’re up to it?”
“Listen up. Word is headquarters is dead set on unloading most of our wide-bodies, including the L-1011s. I don’t know what the timeline is yet, but even if we keep the TriStars around you’re way back on the seniority list. I could be ten years before you get to the left seat, and then what? You make it just as we dump the type? Then what?”
“Jeez, Ben. When’d you hear this?”
“Couple hours ago. Look, I know you’re getting ready to start next week, but here goes. We’re getting our first 752s this year, and from what I hear, management is really going to get behind this hull. I’m thinking, with your experience, you could make captain in two, maybe three years, and the -57 is Delta’s future. You hearin’ me?”
“I am. And, what’s the punchline?”
“Our first school starts in three weeks. You can start the Paris run as scheduled, but put in your app right now – and wait. I think they’ll take you in the first class.”
“What do I need to do?”
“I’d get down here pronto, and get the paperwork in.”
“Like, this afternoon?”
“Like yesterday, Jim. The word’s gonna be out soon. Tomorrow will be too late for the first group of FOs.”
“I’ll be there in an hour,” he said as he hung up the phone, and when he turned around Barbara was standing in the doorway, glowering at him.
And that’s when he noticed the used condom on the floor by her shoes. He looked at it for the longest time, then he picked it up and carried it right past her on his way to the bathroom. He flushed it down the toilet, washed his hands then left – without saying a word to her.
He missed the smile on her face as she closed the door behind him.
“Two days of this rain is enough for me, Paco. I’ve had it. You ready to run down to Nancy’s, grab some chow?”
“Oh, man, I thought you’d never ask!”
“Is Nancy’s that place you two keep talking about?” Tracy asked.
“Nancy’s is only the best place for breakfast on earth,” Ted sighed, suddenly almost salivating.
“And what that really means,” he added, “is that he’s tired of my cooking.”
“I’m not,” Tracy said, smiling.
“Well, I am,” he said. “I could use a break. Ted, you ready to pull up the hook?”
“You wanna leave now?” Ted asked.
“Yup. Maybe we can get there before the early morning rush.”
“The early morning rush?” Ted croaked. “In Lund, B.C.?”
“You see all the boats anchored around this cove, Paco? Well, there are probably two hundred more over in Gorge Harbor, and in about an hour they’re all gonna wake up and have the exact some thought – at about the exact same time. ‘My-oh-my, but a fresh cinnamon roll over at Nancy’s sure sounds good right now!’”
“Alright, alright…let me grab my gloves, Captain Bligh.”
“Good. I’ll warm up the diesel.” He preheated the water lines and flipped on the spreader lights, then went into the cockpit and started the engine, watching the gauges as it warmed. When Ted pulled up on the trip-line, and gave him the thumbs-up, he ran the windlass from the wheel, pulling the anchor, and it’s chain, up onto deck, then he verified their position on the plotter as he turned the wheel to leave the cove.
Light rain and a wind-driven, four foot chop greeted them outside the narrow inlet, and he set his course to 1-5-6 and engaged the auto-pilot, then went topsides to roll out the headsails. When both were pulling he and Ted raised the main, then he ducked below and fell off a little, letting the sails fill, then he fiddled with the heading on the AP for a while, until a gust hit and Altair heeled over dramatically.
“Whoa!” Tracy screamed, grabbing the cockpit coaming and holding on for dear life. “Where’d that come from?”
He chuckled. “Where did what come from?”
She scowled as she looked at him, then she smiled too. “It is kind of fun, isn’t it?”
“Kind of.” With her port-side rail over far enough to ship water in the troughs, Altair bit into the wind and began racing southwest towards Lund, and still the sun was nowhere to be seen. The sky was simply sifting through shades of gray as night turned to day, and the water looked impossibly black out here…like India ink. He saw the lights of a fishing boat ahead, and a few channel markers were flashing in the darkness, but there was almost nothing else…
He saw them then – almost invisible in the rolling waves – a half dozen timbers had broken free from their raft and were now adrift in mid-channel, so he fell off the wind and they picked their way through what turned out to be several hundred fifty-to-seventy-foot-long timbers, knocked free from their rafts in the storm, so he did what he thought best and called the hazard in to the Canadian Coast Guard…
It took two hours to make the run down to Lund after that, and he was more than ready for a cinnamon roll, too, by the time they tied off at the fuel dock. He was stressed now, afraid of hitting an errant log and holing the hull, maybe losing his home.
“Stayin’ long?” the owner, a very old man asked, and when he pointed to Nancy’s the old guy just smiled and nodded. “Take your time. No crowds ‘til nine or so. See many logs out?”
“I heard some guy called ‘em in to the Coast Guard. That’s a laugh…”
“They’re too busy running down the druggies to do much about shit like that. Besides, happens every summer up here…”
“Oh? I’ve been here a few times, never seen it so bad.”
“They’ve been cuttin’ trees like nothin’ I’ve seen before, and all winter, too. China, I guess. They’re building like crazy over there – and usin’ our lumber to do it, I reckon.”
“Lot of drug running up here?”
“Non-stop. Word is most of it’s comin’ from North Korea, too. Chinese heroin, I’ve heard, for the most part. That’s kind of funny, don’t you think?”
“China has made an art out of playing both sides of the street – for a long time.”
“Playin’ us for fools, you mean, and laughing all the way to the bank.”
He shook his head then started topping off both tanks, but he turned to Ted first, and told them to go on up and get a table.
“Coffee and a roll?” Ted asked.
“Need water?” the old guy asked. “The hose is right here…I can watch the pump if you want to top off your tanks…”
He was chilled – and soaked to the bone – by the time he made it inside Nancy’s, and he made it to the table just as his cinnamon roll hit, too.
“Coffee, sir?” their waitress asked.
“Yup. A big one, French roast if you’ve got it.” Then: “You know what? Make mine a latte, if you can.”
She nodded, smiled at him and walked off to the counter.
“Man,” Ted sighed, “that was some snotty weather, Dad…I don’t know about this…”
“Not the weather that bugs me, Paco. It’s all the lumber out there…”
“Wouldn’t they just bounce off?” Tracy asked. “It’s just wood…?”
“Maybe, if you hit one just right, but that’s wood soaked with seawater, almost as hard as iron. Odds are, a strike would knock a hole in the hull. A big one, too.” Her eyes went wide as she realized what they’d just been through, how close they’d come to a real emergency, then she looked back over her shoulder – and back out to sea. “Talking to the guy at the dock,” he continued, “he says this is the worst summer for rafts breaking up, ever. Been a lot of incidents in the main channel, too.”
“What do we do?” Ted asked, his mouth scrunched up into a lop-sided frown.
“Well, for one, I think we’ll head south slowly, and only on days when the visibility is good, and only in daylight. Next…we’ll have to set a bow watch.”
“Oh…joygasm…” Ted sighed, knowing what that meant.
“We won’t head back until this weather clears, and it’s warmed up a bit…man, these cinnamon rolls haven’t changed one bit, have they?”
“I just saw a yummy looking bagels and lox,” Tracy said. “I’m gonna get that.”
He looked at her, wondered just how much she could put away. She’d been eating non-stop for the last two days, said she got nauseated, in fact, if she didn’t eat, and he felt for her. Again…
“Yeah, it looked pretty bad,” Ted added.
“Bad?” he asked.
“Bad…sick…that means they really kick ass these days, Dad.”
“Ah. Well, good to know I have a translator.”
The door opened and a girl came in – a woman, really, he noted. Short, squat, almost muscular, and she peeled off her rain gear – then turned and shook them off just outside the door. She came back inside and hung them on a hook, then took a microfiber cloth and cleaned her glasses as she walked to the counter – and he found he couldn’t take his eyes off her – because there was something very familiar about her profile.
The place was still empty – but for the four of them and the staff, and he wondered what had gotten this gal out so early. He watched her order coffee at the counter then she turned and looked right at him – right in the eye – and he found he couldn’t turn away.
Red hair, white skin set in a nebula of freckles, and even across the room he could see her eyes were deep blue – then the woman walked right up the their table…!
“You came in on the blue boat, right?” she asked – and her accent was pure Georgia, thick as molasses.
He was watching her lips, almost entranced by the shape of them as she spoke, then her words registered. “That’s right. What brings you out this early in the morning?” he asked.
She looked puzzled hearing that, then shook her head. “I was trying to get over to Cortes Island,” she said, the question she wanted to ask hanging in the air, waiting for an opening.
“Oh? What’s over there?”
And again she shook her head, the tone of his question unsettling. “Seals, for the most part. I wanted to take pictures of seals over there, because I’ve heard it’s lovely at dusk.”
“It might be,” Ted interjected, “if the sun came out once in a while.”
She laughed, a little, at that. “Yes. Nice weather so far.”
“How long have you got?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” she replied.
“To spend on the island?”
“I was hoping to make it a day trip, but it seems that’s impossible from here.”
“Yup,” he added. “About a two hour trip. From here.”
“Yup. We’ve been anchored at Squirrel Cove…”
“Really! That’s right where I wanted to go. The pictures I’ve seen of the area are really just amazing.”
“We had fifty foot visibility, once,” Ted added, a little sarcastically. “Great for looking at, what, Dad? What could we see?”
“And a whole lot of fog,” Ted mumbled.
Her coffee came and she took it, still standing by their table.
“Would you care to join us?” he asked.
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Not at all.”
“So, you see, I wanted to get to the island, walk around, take pictures, then get back here, to the hotel…”
“I thought there was a boat to Whaletown…?”
“There is, but not for two days.”
Not too many places to stay over there, by the cove,” he added. A few guest cottages by the general store, but they…”
“But it’s too early in the season. Not open yet. I checked.”
“Well,” he said, then he paused, thought over the question in his mind, “you could hop on with us. We’re headed back after breakfast, we’ll probably stay a few more days, so you could look for a place to bunk-out over there, then hitch a ride back, with us – or anyone, really.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“No, of course not.”
“When are you leaving?”
“As soon as we have some chow.”
“I ask as I’ll need to go pack my things, and check-out…”
“Why don’t you sit down and have some breakfast. We’ll help with your bags…”
And when she looked at him this time the still, unsettled look in her eyes rattled him. “I don’t mean to be forward,” he added. “Probably just be easier that way.”
She nodded her head then looked at the dock where Altair was tied-off. “Is that an Island Packet?” she asked.
“That’s right. How’d you know?”
“I’ve had a couple. Last was a 325 I kept down at Destin.”
“I hate that harbor entrance,” he said, lost in a fleeting memory. “When the wind picks up it’s real snarky.”
Now it was her turn to look – at him. “You’ve been there a few times, I take it?”
“My folks. They kept a Tashiba 40 down there by, the pass.”
“Oh? Nice boats, beautiful interiors.”
He nodded. “Yup. Termite city.”
“That’s what got you into sailing? Your father?”
“I guess, yes, but I was always interested, even as a kid…”
He looked at Ted just then, looked at Ted looking at this stranger, then back at him. And Ted was grinning, or trying not to grin…and that got to him…as in – just what kind of signals am I putting out?
“So,” the woman asked. “This is your first boat?”
“Yup. Probably my last, too.”
“Really? Why do you…”
“Well, it’s home now. I’m not big on moving.”
“You’re full time? A liveaboard? Kewl!”
“Seems to be the general consensus,” he said, grinning.
“What do you do?”
“I fly, for Delta.”
That seemed to take her back a notch, too. “No kidding?”
“My husband flew for them…I mean, my ex-husband used to fly for them?”
“Oh? What’s his name?”
And though he laughed at that, a little light went off in his head. “Small world,” he sighed. “He flew together a lot one year. What’s he up to these days.”
“I don’t know, besides hanging out with his brand new, nineteen year old wife. She’s number three, I think, but I lose count.”
And he laughed again. “You’re kiddin’ – right?” But he could tell by the expression on her face that no, she wasn’t kidding. Not in the slightest. “I’m sorry,” he stumbled, “but I don’t recall your name.”
“Jim,” he said, reaching out with his right hand.
She took it, but at the same time added: “And let me guess. Your wife got the house, and you got stuck with the boat…?”
Ted bristled. “Not quite,” his son snarled, his voice dripping with sudden malice. “Dad gave her the house, and he took the boat.”
“Oh, really?” Melissa said, her disbelief a little too obvious.
“Really!” Ted said – as he pushed his chair back and walked outside.
“Wow, sorry…” the woman said. “He’s…uh…”
“Pretty sensitive about things right now. All this happened not long ago.”
“And, well, still waters run deep, I guess. What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She’s had issues. We decided it was a good time to go our separate ways.”
And she looked at him again, this time as if she was changing her mind, then she looked at Tracy.
“And you are?”
“Staying out of this,” Tracy said, matter-of-factly.
“No, dear. Do you have a name?”
“No, not right now I don’t.”
“Ah, well,” Melissa said, looking at him, “perhaps I’d better let you and your happy brood go your merry way.”
He stood as she stood, then held out his hand again. “Nice to meet you. Hope you get to your island.”
“Thanks,” she said, then she went back out into the early morning drizzle.
He watched her go, saw Ted walk up to her and he watched them talk for a few minutes, then they shook hands and Ted came back inside.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
“Nothing. I just needed to clear the air.”
The rest of their breakfast passed in silence, and when it was time to pay-up he went to the counter and had more cinnamon rolls boxed to-go, some bread, too, then they walked down to the fueling dock together.
She was there, of course, a large blue duffel at her feet, waiting for them.
He was waiting outside the operating room, pacing back and forth in quick, anxious strides. She was eight months pregnant – but had gained almost a hundred and ten pounds – and now her blood pressure was off the charts. 223 over 130 earlier that afternoon – when someone at her office had insisted she go to the hospital, and when her obstetrician arrived she’d insisted they try to induce labor, or, failing that, take the baby before he was compromised.
He’d been somewhere over Florida when the SELCAL chimed, someone on the company frequency calling. He’d taken the news calmly, outwardly at least, but he was hurt, almost angry as he listened to the chief pilot telling him what was happening. He’d done everything he could to get her to stop eating, had cooked the healthiest meals he knew how – only to find out she was eating several candy bars – an hour – all day at work. She was, he understood now, content to not merely kill herself. She was going to take as many people down with her as she could, and he wondered what he might try next.
At least he’d gotten her off the sauce. He’d begged her to do at least that much, at least until the baby came, and she’d relented, promised him she wouldn’t – until he came. Now he wasn’t sure about anything she said.
Pacing the floor he had wondered…had she scarfed down the most damaging crap in the world simply to put on as many pounds as possible – so she could resume drinking that much sooner? Had his faith in her fallen so low? Had his faith in himself fallen so far…?
Her doc came out a while later, told him that both she and their son were alright now, that the boy was a little premature but nothing serious, and he had fallen away inside the moment, tried to hang on to that one bit of good news for as long as he could.
She let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she had no intention of staying home with Ted, not even for breastfeeding, and he’d simply nodded.
“You’re going back to work, I take it?”
“That’s right,” she said – bitterly. “And don’t you dare try to stop me!” she’d screamed.
“Oh, I wouldn’t think of it, Barbara,” he’d whispered, then he’d gone to change the boy’s diaper. Later that morning he called his mother, told her what was happening. She’d flown up that night, moved into the guest room and taken over – and had never once uttered an unkind word about anything, or anyone. In time he realized that Barbara loved his mother more than she loved her own, this his was the mother she’d never known. Babs began watching his mother, learning from her, and in time she learned to love honestly, without condition, perhaps for the first time in her life. On Ted’s second birthday she had promised she’d never drink again, that she’d try to be a better mother…
But within a few weeks she was drinking again.
And his mother came back, resumed her duties while he flew and Barbara worked, then got drunk. Night after night. He tried to get her to seek help, any kind of help, but she would curse him and flee into the night.
In time they, he and Ted, started spending time down in Destin, spending time with his parents on Altair. His father’s Altair. When the weather was nice they’d go out the cut and sail offshore, and Ted had always loved the bouncy rides best of all, and other times they motored down the intra-coastal waterway, all the way to Panama City, then they’d come back by way of the sea.
One day they’d been offshore a few hours when Ted spotted a weird, drooping fin of some sort and they’d altered course, gone over to see what it was…
“Oh,” Ted’s grandfather had said, “that’s a Thresher shark. Not real dangerous, but he’s pretty weird looking, isn’t he?”
Other days they went out and ran across pods of dolphin and Ted would lean over and reach out for them as they swam alongside; he’d learned early on that his son had fantastic balance, and was fearless, too, though he’d held on protectively until he was seven or eight.
His father had been a pilot, too, in the war. The Big One, as it was called. Flown P-51s, escorting bombing raids over Germany, and he’d lived to tell the tale – or so James Patterson liked to say – when he’d had a few too many. Then, with the end of the war he’d come home and gone back to work at his father’s place…at the family’s main hardware store in St Johnsbury, in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. He’d married his high school sweetheart and they’d had one girl – and then him, though that was a few years later. His sister Becky died when he was in kindergarten, so he’d learned a little about love and loss and life and death – at an impossibly early age. Lessons, he knew now, that never slipped away…lessons that stayed with you through a lifetime.
By the time he went away to college, to Boston College, his father had already let go of of the business in Vermont and moved to Florida, but by then other things had changed, too.
Because there had been the family business lined up against all Jim’s hopes and dreams, Jim taking over the family business chief among them, James holding on to an unwanted tradition. But, in the end, it had been easier to sell out than to hold on any longer. Dreams don’t die easily, but when the go, they pass quickly, so James did what he had always wanted to do: move to Florida, buy a boat, and leave mankind far, far behind.
And yet, somehow this new boat, Jame’s Altair, had become the start of a new life down there – for all of them. Not golf, not tennis…no, it was sailing that moved in and pushed Vermont away – something Jim had never imagined his father falling for…and yet his old man had taken to sailing with a vengeance – like a duck to water, his mother once said. His old man bought an old Greek fisherman’s cap and had been known to hang out around the docks, talking the talk between his frequent bouts with Jack Daniels.
Elizabeth dropped in and out of there lives again and again, leaving her boys on their own again. James shouldered the burden as best he could, helped his son as best he could, when he could, but that first Altair became the means to an end. Father and son, tied together – forever – by a boat. Everything unexpected, and nothing what it appeared to be – because of his mother.
And yet, in a way Jim’s father had not been the only connective tissue holding his family together, because his mother was there, sometimes…
But his mother’s world confused Jim. He never understood where the secrets came from.
By the time Ted went to kindergarten, once he’d learned how other families were, he’d begun to wonder why his had been different, and, naturally, Jim’s confusion about the past spilled over into the present. And soon enough Ted had begun to wonder if it was something he’d done.
And, of course, as a new father, Jim never saw that coming.
But Elizabeth had. And she’d done her best to answer Ted’s lingering questions – but, Jim knew now, it had never been enough. Too many questions remained buried in their past.
In time Jim watched his son grow up in the shadow of benign neglect – on Barbara’s part – and this countered by an almost smothering love – on Elizabeth’s part – until one Sunday, against his wishes, his mother had taken Ted to Sunday School – trying to absolve all their sins.
Then dissolution, fragments falling in the aftermath, and the circle was now complete. Barbara fell away and he was left to pick up the pieces, and while he tried his best to raise his son, he was away too much to keep Barbara from tearing Ted to pieces. In time, the only comfort he found was in the cockpit – and like a womb with a view – he spent more and more time there.
His mother, Elizabeth, had grown up in the Episcopal Church, and with her parents she had worshipped at St Andrew’s – over on the west side of town, the ‘money’ side of town, every Sunday. And though James was her ‘sweetheart’ even then, he’d never been drawn to the church – any church – yet that didn’t seem to matter to her. She talked James into going with her a time or two, but nothing stuck, yet she was true enough to him to let the matter rest in the Lord’s hands. When the war in Europe started, actually during the Battle of Britain, James went down to the Post Office and signed up for pilot training; he ended up in California learning to fly the earliest fighters in the AAC, and it turned out he was a very good pilot.
They corresponded, by mail, after he left Vermont, and by now she understood that he had no interest in religion; she, at home on the other side of the country, had started going to St Andrew’s several times a week – and her interest in religion only deepened. By the time December Seventh rolled around he was on his way to war and she was teaching Sunday School; when James shipped off to Britain in ‘42 she went to study religion at Boston College.
And so it went. They were polar opposites on a collision course from the very beginning. And at the end of James’ war, when he returned from Britain, he a very different man. As different as Elizabeth had become over the intervening years.
Yet somehow they picked up where they’d left off – in each other’s arms, still madly in love with one another. Weeks after his return they walked the aisle hand in hand, as husband and wife, yet, if anything, his understanding of God and His Church had only diminished over time. James had, he told his wife, been on many of the so-called ‘thousand plane raids’ over Dresden, he had seen whole cities disappear in flames, helped kill thousands upon thousands of human beings; so there was, he told her once in a drunken rage, “no room in God’s House for the likes of me.”
She had talked about salvation and confession and he told her those words meant nothing, and she thought she could see the flames of burning cities aglow in his eyes. After that, she told her husband she understood, and she never again pressed him. Not once. She was, she told him, content to let God come to him when He was ready.
They wanted to wait a few years to have kids, or so they said, so he could earn some money and build up his bank account, but she told him, late in 1949, that she thought it was time. Why he did not know, but he agreed and soon she was with child.
Yet he was too good a pilot for the Army Air Corp to let go of him completely, and because he’d signed on to the participate in the newly formed U. S. Air Force Reserves, when asked, he was soon flying fighters over Canada and the Arctic. When war broke out in Korea, off he went, and two months after he arrived in Japan his daughter Rebecca was born, though he very nearly never got to hold her in his arms.
On a mission over the North his formation was attacked by Mig15s and his aircraft was damaged badly in the brief skirmish. He nursed his F-86 back to the sea and had almost made it back to South Korea when fire broke out in the right wing; he parachuted to safety, landing in the Yellow Sea. He managed to crawl into a life raft, but both his legs were badly mangled.
His war officially ended on a hospital ship in Japan; he was back in the States a few weeks later, though he spent months at a succession of military hospitals in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and, finally, in White River Junction, Vermont, and that’s where he finally met his daughter.
And though in many ways James was the same sweet man Elizabeth had always known, he came back from Korea a changed man – for the second time. Whereas he had exuded an infinite invulnerability when he came home from Europe, he now cast a wary eye almost everywhere he looked…like he was suddenly unsure of the ground beneath his feet. Still, he persevered, met his demons head-on. He walked, then he ran back to his life in St Johnsbury, and Elizabeth thought then that God answered all prayers.
When Rebecca fell ill – some sort of meningitis, the physicians told them – she prayed and prayed, and yet Rebecca passed in days. In the aftermath Elizabeth fell away from the Church, and in the fullness of time she completely lost all faith in God. She finished her graduate degree – in social work – and helped coordinate social services throughout northern Vermont…everything from helping the recently disabled to the newly homeless. She came to be regarded as something of a saint among the ‘down and out’ – and even to the pastors and bishops that worked the pews around the region, hers was a well regarded soul – for a woman’s, anyway.
And then something horribly unexpected happened. A girl, an eight year old Chinese girl, was found – raped – one summer’s evening near the old highway that went from St Johnsbury south towards the Connecticut River, and all leads pointed to a trucker who had been be passing through on his way from Montreal to New York City. When the police came to her about the little girl, this mysterious truck driver – who was, apparently, from Hong Kong – was still being pursued through the woods south of town. It was only a matter of time, she heard on the radio, until the monster was caught.
The rain had let up a little, and he could see faint patches of blue through thinning clouds from time to time. Melissa was sitting with him in the enclosed cockpit, rain and wind-driven spray still spattering on the canvas overhead, while Ted and Tracy were standing at the mast pulpit, looking for timbers on the Sound’s roiled surface.
But they had said little to one another since she boarded in Lund. He didn’t know what to say, and she too many secrets to keep.
Up on the bow, Ted pointed to the left and he looked that way too, saw a massive timber just awash and corrected his course to miss it – and as suddenly Ted was pointing frantically to the right – and he saw more timbers roped in a tight clump. He stood to get a better view of the way through the knotted seas, then he cut back on power, slowed to bare steerage-way and worked his way around and through the flotsam – and he found he was holding his breath more than once…until they were through the maze, anyway.
“This is really bad…” Melissa said moments after he sat behind the wheel again. “I’ve dealt with crab-pots in Maine, but never anything like this.”
And he knew he was beginning to tremble a little – only for another reason. He’d had three cups of French roast and his bladder felt like it was about to rip apart, right down the middle.
“You okay?” she said when she saw the expression on his face, the perspiration on his forehead.
He shook his head. “Nope. Bladder’s about to…”
And she stood, took the wheel – and he looked at her like she was out of her mind – until the need to let loose – from both ends – grew into a three alarm blaze. He nodded and ran down the companionway steps to the forward head – and didn’t return for ten minutes.
And when he did she was still behind the wheel, steering deftly between timbers, taking the hand signals Ted gave her without the slightest hesitation.
“You tired?” he asked.
“Not in the slightest…this is, well, it’s exhilarating!”
“Well,” he mumbled, “that’s one way to look at it.”
And she laughed at that, then leaned over to look forward through the rain-sprayed windshield again. “I’m making for that buoy up there,” she said, pointing to a can about a mile ahead. “That marks the entrance to the inlet, right?”
“Damn, this is a fine handling little ship, Jim. World of difference between my 325 and this thing…”
“Nothing beats displacement in seas like this.”
“I’ll say. Man, if you ever want to trade, give me a call…”
He laughed at that. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” He watched her watching the sea, watched the way she shifted her weight with her knees to roll with the swells and he nodded his approval. “Yours have a pedestal, or that rig under the seat?”
“Pedestal. That other rig always felt dead to me.”
“So I’ve heard.” He turned and looked forward then, content to let her steer for a while longer, and he noticed more and bigger patches of blue sky. “You may get lucky. Looks like some sun is trying to break through.”
“Yup,” she groaned, working Altair down the backside of a large roller.
Yet she kept her course, he saw. She bore-down on the rise, fell off the crest, never missed a lick. “You do much racing?” he asked.
“A little. Why?”
“Because you’re damn good on the helm, that’s why.”
He wasn’t looking at her just then so he didn’t see the look in her eyes. Confusion, and pure love. She didn’t know where that impulse came from either.
“Can you come up a bit?” he said. “I want to head straight for the inlet, not from an upwind angle.”
“Got it,” she said, and he watched the bow swing to starboard a little…twenty minutes later they passed the buoy and he turned and looked at her.
“You wanna take it now?” she asked.
“No. You’re doing fine,” he said as he came to the pedestal and changed the displays on the plotter.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the display.
“Chart with a radar overlay here, and forward looking sonar here, on the right.”
“Sonar? You mean…those are the walls of the inlet – underwater?”
“Holy moly, this is like cheating…”
He grinned. “Kinda, yup, but it sure beats driving your boat up onto the rocks.”
“Slow her down to 1600 RPM,” he said in his typical flight instructors voice, then: “Come to 3-3-0 and lets see how the current plays with us.”
“Okay…see how it’s pushing us to starboard? Let’s make 3-2-5 and bring the revs up to 1800.”
He watched as she adjusted the throttle and made the course change, then he looked at the sonar readout and the plotter for a moment. “You’re doing great…okay, fall off a little more…okay, you got it…”
And then, just that easily, they were through.
“Moorings in here?” she asked.
“Anywhere in particular you want to drop the hook?”
“Depends. If there’s room there’s kind of a waterfall all the way in. Nice sound to sleep to.”
She nodded her head; smiled a little, too. “Did I see a store back there?”
“Yeah. If you run out of food it’s okay in a pinch.”
“Man, you got no idea.”
“How far back does this thing go?”
“Not quite three quarters of a mile,” he said, signaling Ted to get the anchors ready. “Keep an eye out for anchor lines…don’t cut too close to other boats…I’m gonna get the Zodiac ready.”
Once the anchors were set he came back to the swim platform and tied off the Zodiac, then he watched her as she looked around the boat, wondering why he’d been so taken by her earlier that morning.
Was it just because he was lonely? Because he’d been living what was, essentially, a life barren and devoid of real love for almost all his adult life? Yet that life had been, after all, his choice. Did duty-honor-country really explain that stubborness? His father had taught him as much, but, then again, as a kid he had lived a kind of idyllic life – at least compared to what Ted had endured…
“Endured…?” he said aloud.
“What’s that?” Melissa asked, now standing on the aft deck – looking down at him in the inflatable.
“Oh, sorry, I was just thinking out loud.”
“What did you endure? My turn behind the wheel?”
He chuckled at that. “No, not at all. I was impressed, really. You’re quite the helmsman.”
“Well, okay. Now what?”
“Excuse me?” he replied.
“You gonna run me over to the beach, or you want me to swim for it?”
“Water’s kind of cool for that, I think.” He looked at her for the longest time, then he sighed.
“You look…perplexed,” she said, grinning.
“I’m not sure I know how to say this, but the odds of you finding a place to stay around here are somewhere between slim and none, and I don’t suppose you’re carrying a tent and sleeping bag in that duffel. So, what are your plans?”
“Get ashore, find a road and start walking. Something always comes along.”
He shook his head. “Not here. The only roads are back by the village, and there aren’t many places to sleep on the island…unless you’ve got a home lined up.”
“Okay…so what do you suggest?”
“Stay here,” he said, his voice lost somewhere on the quiet side of hope.
“Here?” she replied. “With you?”
“Okay,” she said, looking at him again – like he had fallen for the plan.
And yet, he felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and that puzzled him.
She came down to the swim platform just then, and held out her hand. “Can I give you a lift?” she asked.
He turned and looked at her, then around the deserted cove…it had emptied out earlier that morning, probably after they’d departed for Nancy’s. He assumed people had seen this break in the weather and fled the rain – and now Altair’s crew had the entire cove to themselves.
When he turned back to her he saw she’d taken off her shoes and was sitting on the platform, her feet dangling in the water.
“Yikes…this IS cold,” she said, surprised. “Like a Maine kind of cold.”
“This ain’t the Gulf of Mexico…that’s for sure.”
“What happened to Ted?”
“Ted? What do you mean?”
“He seems fragile. Maybe confused?”
“Long story. Mainly my fault, I think. I wasn’t there enough, and he grew up in a world of moral absolutes.”
“Absolutes? How so?”
“Good and evil, I guess. He chose good. Too many these days don’t.”
“Like…that’s a choice?”
“Every day, in every way.”
“I never thought about it like that. What happened,” she continued, her voice suddenly trembling, “to your parents?”
“Hmm? Oh, they passed about, oh, well, Mom went first, I think it was six years ago. Dad passed a few months later. Broken-hearted, I guess, couldn’t live without her, so I think he chose not to.”
“He wasn’t sick?”
“Nope. He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. That’s the way to go, I reckon.”
“They were that close?”
“Closer than forever, as it turned out, but I’d have never guessed that.”
“What? Why’s that?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know how else to put it. She had drifted away from us at one point, then, towards the end, she came back.” He looked at the sea, wiped a bead of perspiration from his forehead, then looked down and shook his head. “There are a lot of questions I never got to ask her. Too many things left unsaid.”
“You think about them a lot? Your mother?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I think so. I miss them. I – miss – I think…what they stood for.”
“You mean, like…politics?”
“Good Lord, no…just the opposite. They were diametrically opposed politically, from the very beginning. Funny, but that never seemed to matter to them. Not to them, anyway. They both, well, like the priesthood is a calling, they had there’s, too.”
“They did? Like what?”
“Like wings. Dad loved anything with wings. Airplanes, sailboats, even birds…”
“And your mother?”
He turned and looked at her. “That’s one of those questions I never got to ask her.”
And for some reason, she knew then that he knew…
“Dad?” Ted said, coming back to the aft rail. “You through with the Zodiac?”
“For now. You two want to go exploring?”
“Yeah. Is there enough fuel?”
“Yup. Two gallons, at least,” he said, knocking the little tank with his foot and watching the gas slosh around inside. “That ought to be enough for a couple of hours – at low speed, anyway. Grab a hand unit and some water, maybe some sunscreen too.”
Ted nodded and left to get stuff from down below, and Melissa pulled her feet out of the water and shivered a little. He found himself staring at them, at how white they’d become.
“You better get some socks on,” he said.
“Oh, they’ll warm up.”
“You say so, but don’t be surprised if you catch a chill. It’s cold and damp, not what your body’s used to…”
He changed places with Ted a few minutes later, then he watched as Ted and Tracy took off across the cove, headed for the little waterfall, and as he watched them go he felt kind of odd. Like happy and sad at the same time, then he wiped his brow again.
“How long have those two known each other,” she asked.
“I think this is the fourth day.”
“We had dinner at a restaurant in Vancouver, by the marina where we were tied up for a night. She was our waitress, and Ted kind of fell for her.”
“What does that mean…‘kind of’?”
“Like I said, Ted’s kind of confused right now. He’s been like a heat-seeking missile, dead-set on becoming a priest for as long as he’s been able to recite the Lord’s prayer…”
“Yeah. Oh. Only now I’m picking up signals that something happened this year at school, but I’m not prying. Not yet, anyway. That said, he’s of a mind right now to meet a girl and do the deed.”
“Indeed he is. By design, I think, not chance. The priest thing,” he added, with a shrug. “But, like I said, something changed this year. Something changed inside him, maybe biology, or maybe its just curiosity…”
“And she’s the first girl he met since he got here…”
“Yup,” he sighed. “I think you’ve got the picture.”
“I don’t like it. There’s something really off about her.”
“How about heroin and a pathological liar. Is that a good combination?”
She stared at him, then shook her head. “Why? Why are you letting this go down?”
“He’s going to be 21 in August. He’ll do the right thing.”
“He might, then again…if it’s biology I’m not so sure.” She looked at the little Zodiack puttering away just then, and shook her head. “I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with her in the picture. Did you get her junk off the boat?”
“You say she’s from Australia?”
“That’s what’s on her passport, yes.”
She nodded. “Think her passport is here, on board?”
“I don’t know, I guess so. Why?”
“Mind if I take a look?”
He shook his head. “I’d rather not break those boundaries, if you don’t mind. What are you? A cop?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I work in the prosecutors office,” she lied, “with the DAs office, in Atlanta; for the most part I work sex crimes.”
“What…like rape…stuff like that?”
“Yeah, stuff like that,” she said, looking him in the eye.
“Interesting? Why do say that?”
“My mom was very religious when she was younger, but she became interested in social work, worked with victims of sexual assault.”
“When was that?”
“Back in the 50s, I think. At least, that’s when she started. She kept at it ‘til Dad retired and he moved to Florida.”
“She was a little ahead of her time, don’t you think? Weren’t too many women back in the 50s working with those kinds of people. Do you know why she developed an interest in that work?”
He shook his head. “No, not really. It was was of those things she never talked about.”
Melissa nodded understanding. “Another one of those unasked questions? Well, people get into that line for personal reasons.”
“Oh? You too?”
She kept nodding, looking down uneasily – and she spoke softly now. “Yeah, you could say that.”
He looked at her, then turned away for a minute – his eyes closed…remembering.
And she looked at him closely just then, not sure what she was seeing, then she leaned over, put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you some sort of an empath?” she asked.
“I don’t know…I’m not even sure I believe such a thing is possible…”
“Oh, it’s possible, alright.”
“I can see it all over your face. You read people, don’t you. I mean, you read ‘em like a book.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes things are clear to me.”
“What about Tracy? What could you see about her?”
“Trouble. All kinds of trouble.”
“The things she told me about her life seem out of place, but it’s her…”
“Exactly,” he sighed. “Something in her eyes.”
“Dishonest?” she said wonderingly. “How about…dangerous?” she added.
“I thought so at first, when I first listened to her talk about her family, her parents. Now I’m not so sure.”
“First impressions are usually the right impressions, you know?”
He nodded, looked at her anew and changed the subject. “You brought cameras, lenses?”
“Got a good telephoto.”
“I do. But I don’t think we have a way to get to shore right now.”
He scrunched-up his lips, then shrugged.
“Maybe you just wanted to get me alone out here on your boat?” she asked – quietly, maybe menacingly.
“You know…? I think I’m too tired to do much this afternoon, not without taking a nap first. I hate to leave you, but I really am tired.”
“Can you show me where to put my bag? I’ll need to unpack a few things.”
He hesitated, then shook his head a little. “Follow me,” he said, and just aft of his stateroom was a little office – that also had the small bunk against the hull, “Be it ever so humble,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”
“Kind of small,” she sighed. “Where do you bunk out?”
“Forward,” he said, feeling very tired now.
“You look beat. What time did you get up?”
“Two, two thirty. That’s my usual, though,” he said as he stumbled to his berth. “You mind if I take a rest for a while?”
“Be my guest.”
He lay down – and was asleep before his head hit the pillow…yet he was aware something was wrong.
His dreams were fevered, and the pain started then, penetrating even his dreams.
The police called Elizabeth, asked her to come to the hospital. They told her to hurry and James drove her.
A detective from the state police met her when she arrived, told her the victim, a young Chinese girl, had been found – dead – south of town, her throat cut, evidence of anal penetration – semen, the policeman said, unsure of himself around a lady – and that the girl had never talked.
“Why do you need me here?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “I’m not connected with the police.”
“Well, the problem is a little unusual, Ma’am. We found a truck nearby, a box truck, nineteen-footer…and it’s full of these Chinese gals. None of ‘em speakin’ much, but one of ‘em said they were on the way to New York. They got jobs there, I guess. And they just come from China, on a boat.”
“How many, officer?”
“As best I can tell, something like ninety.”
“Ninety? In a nineteen foot truck?”
“A-yup. Packed like sardines in a tin-can. They smell about the same, too, I reckon.”
“Isn’t this a problem for the immigration people?”
“Probably so, a-yup, but you see…I think there’s something else goin’ on, and I heard you was good at talkin’ to folks. So, I was wonderin if, maybe, you could talk to these gals some, help us get a handle on what these folks is up to. Think you could?”
The detective helped her to the conference room where the girls were being held, and when he opened the door the sight she beheld rattled her. Two hours later she was as angry as she’d ever been in her life – and she knew then that her life would never be the same.
He heard voices again, voices far away – as if on the far side of a dream. Scratchy voices lost in time, voices full of concern – and then he knew where he was.
The low tree-line in the distance, that same low, rocky escarpment – and the village beyond. Spreading fires lighting up the marsh after he fell from the sky, the Intruder tumbling through the swamp like a paper cup tossed from a passing car, gouts of fire erupting on the surface of the black swamp, then the pain in his leg. And that pain was excruciating now, like something inside him was on fire. He knew if he looked right now, looked at the dark red earth flickering inside all these mottled red shadows, that he’d see jagged shards of metal jutting from his leg…and there would be blood.
Then, he felt something on his forehead, something like a washcloth, cool and damp, and the muffled sounds of people talking again – far away – like voices in another room – and he wondered how this could possibly be – because he felt like he was being pushed away from this life and, suddenly, it felt like those voices didn’t matter anymore.
“When did this happen? The first time, I mean?” the physician asked Ted.
“It was in the early nineties, I think, after he came back from Iraq,” Ted said, looking back at the discarded memories of his childhood – like looking through the pages of a book that contained nothing but painful images. “His leg was pretty messed up, some kind of bacteria got in the wound, like in the space between the skin and the muscle, and it spread. My mom told me he nearly lost his right leg after they got him to Germany. But whatever it is, it’s come back several times since…two or three times that I can remember.”
“When was the last time?”
“Oh, I guess…maybe…five years ago. He went to the VA hospital in Seattle that time, I think, for some kind of special injections.”
“And it keeps coming back?” Melissa asked, clearly now concerned.
“It’s probably triggering some sort of autoimmune disorder at this point,” the physician said, shrugging as she looked around the boat. “You say he lives aboard? How long?”
“Not that long. Maybe nine months…not quite a year, anyway.”
“Humid down here, but I don’t see any signs of mold or mildew,” she sighed, as if talking to herself. “Well, whatever it is, with a temperature of 104 we’re going to have to get him to a real hospital. I’ll call it in, have an air ambulance land outside the entrance. They can taxi right up to the boat, load him up right here. I think he should be taken straight to Vancouver, by the way. Be less paperwork than going to the US that way.”
“What about the boat?” Ted asked.
“Well, you’ll need to stay with him on the trip down; is there anyone who can remain onboard and keep an eye on things?”
“I can,” Melissa said, her voice steady and calm – then, as she looked at Tracy there was an implied command in her voice.
“I guess I can, too,” Tracy added – though her voice was brimming with reluctance.
Ted turned, looked at Melissa, yet he could now see Tracy had been shaken by this unexpected turn of events – and that Melissa seemed steady as a rock. “I’ll go,” he said, “and get him checked-in, then I’ll turn around as fast as I can and come right back. Unless he’s released by then. I think we should try to take the boat back to Seattle…”
“The, what…the three of us?” Melissa asked, her voice full of concern. “Do you think that’s…that he’d want you to do that?”
“What are the options?” Ted asked.
The physician chimed-in then: “There’s the town-dock, over in Whaletown. I know the Harbor Master, I could talk him into keeping an eye on her for a few weeks.”
Ted looked at the doctor, then at Melissa. “I don’t think so. This is my father’s home – and I’m not about to leave it sitting out here unattended…”
“Well, think it over,” the doctor said as she injected something into his arm. “If you could run me over to the store now I’ll call for transport, then I can help you load him on the airplane. Someone will fly in with you to the hospital.”
Ted nodded and looked at his unconscious father again, then went topsides and helped the physician into the Zodiac. They motored off across the little cove to the store by the inlet, and they were back inside an hour – and Melissa was waiting for him on the swim platform, her arms crossed protectively across her breast, and he thought she was glowering at the world.
“Not quite what you signed up for, is it?” Ted said to her stony, fiercely expressionless eyes.
“Oh, it’s not that. I feel afraid, and yet I don’t know why…not really.”
“Afraid? Why? Of what?”
“I don’t know, Ted. It’s hard to put my finger on it, ya know? But I feel a connection. It was, I don’t know why – or even how to say this – ” she said, suddenly almost gulping for air. “But I’ve felt a connection with your father since I saw him this morning…yet…”
“Yet? Just what are you trying to say?”
“I’ve felt drawn to this place for days…felt as if something, or someone, was pushing me to go to that bakery this morning, and when I saw your boat pull up to the dock, saw your father walking around down there I just knew I’d been summoned here, for a reason.”
“Summoned?” he said – warily.
“Yes. Like God wanted me to be here for some reason. Does that make any sense at all to you?”
He nodded his head as his stomach turned, then he looked at the companionway hatch. “The plane should be here within an hour.”
“You should go pack some things,” the physician said, “for both of you – and in case he has to stay a while.”
He nodded, then turned and went below…but he stopped first – and stared at the sky for a moment, lost in the feeling that something had gone terribly wrong a long, long time ago.
It was soon apparent to Elizabeth that the girls, all of them save one, had been imported – to serve as slaves. It was, she knew after talking to a few of them, as simple as that.
And Elizabeth, being a rather quiet, even a staid product of upstate Vermont, found herself ill-prepared for what came next…to handle the information she learned about these forgotten human beings. She found that, when asked, one or two offered to translate, though there was another, one girl in particular, who seemed to be quite fluent – but viciously uncooperative. This girl was not simply well-dressed, she was haughty and consciously indifferent, and Elizabeth assumed this girl was on the inside of the operation, maybe part of the “family,” and she had this girl sequestered from the others. Then, once she talked with one of the girls willing to interpret, she began her interviews with the all of these girls, these children – one by one…
They were bound for New York City, they said, and most of them already had “owners” lined up, though a few of the younger, more attractive children, she soon learned, were here more as speculative ventures. Young virgins, for the most part, these girls would show up “to work at restaurants on the East Side” one day, but they would be snatched up within hours by their new owners, destined to work as “housekeepers” – though, Elizabeth soon learned, these as yet unattached waifs rarely did housework. No, these girls were part of a steady stream of children being imported into the US, allegedly to work as domestics, but the truth of their existence, Elizabeth soon understood, was to be part of a far darker world. All would work in the sex trade, either as domestic sex slaves or as “actresses” in brutally sadistic S&M films. One of the girls she talked with had a friend who had reportedly been killed – for the film, such as it was, was all about killing very young virgins. Or so this girl said…
But the truth, Elizabeth soon learned, was darker still.
Ted heard an aircraft overhead and went topsides to look for it; he saw an ungainly looking beast through the trees that lined the cove, and he watched as it flared and settled on the water on the far side of the inlet. Then, with a wary eye, he watched as it taxied through the inlet and he found himself wondering, and not for the first time in his life, what it was like to fly something like that. To be a pilot landing on water. To do the other things his father had done, and he wondered if he hadn’t missed his first best destiny.
‘That’s odd,’ he thought as he watched the beast approach. ‘I’ve been surrounded by pilots and aircraft my whole life, yet never once have I thought that…’
“Is that the plane?” he heard Tracy ask, and so, biting his tongue, he turned to her and nodded. “What took it so long?” she asked, and again, he fought back the urge to lash out at her inane question and simply shrugged.
He watched the aircraft pass an anchored boat, their owners now very curious indeed and pointing at the floats as it passed. Then, as beast drew near, he saw the pilot and a nurse onboard and, oddly enough, they waved at him, and smiled – which seemed odder still. He waved away his fear and tried to bravely meet their smiles, then he thought about Melissa – and about the things she’d told him down below.
Drawn to his father. By God. Never had an interest in Canada, nor even heard of Desolation Sound, but for weeks she had felt a need to be here – today. Her description of seeing his father on the fuel dock had rattled him, too. He looked god-like, she said, wreathed in an aura of golden flame, and she said she knew right then that her destiny had been altered, and that God was waiting for a decision. She had been waiting for him all her life.
He’d tried to measure her words against his own experience of God – and he’d come up short. God didn’t do things like this, did He?
Or did He?
Or…was her being here really nothing more or less than chance, a mere coincidence? A simple statistical anomaly, a chain of unrelated events leading to a new outcome, like intricate lines of dominoes set to fall along predictable paths, only – interrupted, perhaps, by an earthquake. Destin and his grandfather – in Destin. Sailboats a common denominator. Her ex-husband, a pilot with Delta who had known his father. How many coincidences must there be, he sighed as these varied images came to mind, before things just didn’t add up any longer?
“Why Destin?” he asked himself again.
The pilot maneuvered his aircraft through the water in a tight arc, swinging the loading doors right up to Altair’s swim platform, and he grabbed hold and held the plane’s elevators off the backstay while the pilot hopped out onto a float and secured the floats to Altair. After his father was lifted aboard the aircraft he grabbed their duffels and hopped aboard, but then, before he went further inside he turned and looked at Melissa.
Her eyes were full of tears, yet he felt a reserve of strength lurking, too.
‘So many contradictory impulses,’ he said, if only to himself, then he smiled at her – as the pilot let slip the lines and pushed his airplane away from Altair’s navy blue hull.
“You’ll need to sit up front with me,” the pilot said. “No room aft, I’m afraid.”
“Right.” He looked at Melissa after he clambered up into the right seat, looked at her – standing on his father’s home – as the airplane taxied out the inlet and into open water. He looked down at Altair after they took off and circled the cove, lost inside all the implications of her last words to him.
“He’s in God’s hands now, Ted. Have faith in Him.”
Then, quite suddenly, he knew just what it was she was doing – and in his mind’s eye he saw darkness – like sudden dark clouds building ahead of a dangerous storm, blotting out the sun.
She’d never imagined worlds like this existed. That one’s life could be so utterly, so wantonly castrated of meaning, of purpose, of even the simplest joy. It was as if these girls, these children, she reminded herself, had been wiped clean from the book of life. Erased, in silence, and no one would bear witness to their suffering save the warped souls who would torment them on their way to an early death. These girls, all of them unwanted in their homeland and considered by some lucky to even be alive, had been cast adrift soon after birth, only to be raised almost as domestic animals, kept alive for their potential worth once they reached a certain age. Kept alive for men in America and Europe – so they could be consumed again and again, out of sight, out of mind.
After Elizabeth finished her first dozen interviews she went to talk with the haughtily indifferent girl she suspected of being on the inside. She had no name, she said, and her resilient silence implied she had no existence in this little room.
“Where are you from?” asked Elizabeth.
No answer, only an insipid, almost vapid shrug.
“You should answer me, you know? If you don’t, well, you’ll simply go to jail until you do.”
Again, the quiet, defiant shrug.
“You think your people in New York will come for you?”
A slight smirk, a quick, sidelong glance of the eye.
“That maybe they’ll get you out so you won’t have to talk to me?”
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with,” the girl said, her English clear, utterly perfect.
“Oh? Enlighten me?”
“Let me go now and we may let you live. Keep me and you’ll be dead by nightfall.”
“Oh? And who do you think will pull that off?”
The insolence on the girl’s face was almost too much for Elizabeth, but she looked into the girl’s eyes, tried to feel her way inside this lost soul, yet she found nothing there – only a darkening void.
“So, you take these girls down to the Village? They already have masters, is that it?”
“And your life is at an end.”
“No, Mai Ling, I am very much alive and, actually, I have your Passport. The FBI is en route, as is a representative of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And, as you are in a world of trouble I thought I’d give you one last opportunity to tell me what you know before the, uh, well, the professionals start in on you…”
A rattled veneer now, a sudden, tectonic shift deep within the girl’s magmatic core.
“The truck driver? Your brother? You do know he’s dead, don’t you? Are you sure you don’t want to talk to me before the FBI gets here? You do realize the danger you are in, don’t you? Your family? What they’ll do to you now that we have these girls?”
Deeper cracks in her veneer, sudden tremors passing across her face like shadows of clouds.
“Your family in Queens? And in Kowloon? All that is in jeopardy now. Unless you talk. I can help, you know?”
“You?” the girl cried, the word full of mocking scorn. “You have no idea what you’ve stumbled on, do you? This is just the tip of the iceberg…”
Then the girl spit in her face. Elizabeth didn’t flinch, didn’t let up, did not even wipe the spittle from her clothes.
“Really? And what if you’re just a frightened little girl, a girl afraid of the dark. Afraid, because you know what comes next.”
They talked for hours after that – while two detectives from the Vermont State Police took notes.
Melissa sat in Altair’s cockpit after Ted left, looking past the bow into the trees that lined the cove, but she appeared at ease now. No longer lost and vulnerable – yet all she could see in her mind’s eye was the spreading disease within Jim’s leg. Black streaks, like lightning gone terribly wrong, and hot to the touch. She’d never seen anything like it but she knew it was evil, that something was coiled up inside of him waiting to strike, and she was afraid because she knew he was going to die. So much was riding on him now – and he was going to die. And just then, and quite suddenly, she felt helpless to stop this runaway train. To come so far, to get this close…only for him to get sick…
Then she heard Tracy coming up the companionway ladder and she tensed.
“Think you could run me across to the store?” Tracy asked.
“Sure, but there’s no bus service over there. Only seaplanes. Kind of expensive, if you know what I mean.”
“Oh,” the girl said, lost now, and not a little confused that this woman had read her mind.
“So. Who are you running from?”
“Running? Who from? Daddy? A boyfriend? Who?”
The girl turned away, shrugged.
“It’s worse than that, isn’t it? These people are mean, right?”
And Tracy looked at Melissa now, very unsure of her ground.
“And? What happens when they find you?” Melissa added. “You know they’re close, don’t you?”
Tracy shrugged again, then sighed – as really, there was no point in lying now. “I guess they kill me.”
“You know their distribution network, I assume?”
Again the girl nodded, only now she turned and looked at Melissa. “How’d you know?”
“Oh, I’ve been on your ass for months. Following you. From New Orleans, as a matter of fact. You’re caught in a trap, aren’t you? With no place to turn, no one to run to.”
“Dime a dozen, huh?”
“Something like that. Do you want to go home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did he abuse you?”
She nodded her head a little, a barely perceived, mouselike little motion, almost a denial, yet not quite.
“What about your mum?”
“She was always too afraid to say anything.”
“I know, but there’s no need to blame her, you know?” Melissa shrugged just then. “Caught in the same trap, I guess. But I can help.”
“You too?” Tracy asked.
And now Melissa shrugged. “Not really, but yeah, I know where you’re coming from.”
“I’ve helped a few girls in your shoes.”
“Oh, have you?” Tracy said, but there was a layer of scorn in her voice that hung over them both.
“I’d like to think so, yes.”
“Yes, I rather imagine you might like that. Who are you running from, by the way? Boyfriend, or husband?”
“Not that simple, Tracy.”
“It never is, luv. Until it is.”
“When was the last time you thought you were made? Before this week, I mean.”
“About a year ago, in San Francisco. The people running me are tied to the cartels now.”
“No way out in California, was there?”
“No. I always thought I could hide there, but…”
“There’s always someone coming around the next corner, isn’t there?”
“That’s right. Always.”
“Did you tell Ted this part?”
“No, course not. I knew someone was on to me last week, and it was like, ya know, it was time to move again…”
“And along comes Ted.”
“And Jim,” Tracy added.
“Ah, so it’s him that interested you?”
“Until you fuckin’ came along, yeah.”
“Funny how things turn out, isn’t it?”
“Do you know how to sail this thing?”
“Sort of, but not really,” Melissa lied, suddenly realizing she was in imminent mortal danger. “The systems on this boat are…well, I have no idea how to run a boat this complex.”
The girl looked towards the seaplane base across the way. “I wonder where they fly to?”
“Up and down the coast, small fishing towns for the most part. Think you could hide out someplace like that?”
“Maybe. Got any cash?”
“A few hundred. I could buy your ticket, though. Give you what I’ve got on hand. It might be enough to get you a start.”
That seemed to make up the girl’s mind. “Let me get my kit, then. I want to be out of here before dark.”
“Did you see someone this morning?”
She nodded her head. “Maybe. At that bakery. Someone I remember from Vancouver.”
Melissa thought about that now. Someone looking for Tracy here – if that was really her name – out here on the sound? And now – if they knew she was on this boat?
Would she be safe out here by herself, she wondered? And, when would Ted be back?
She was in the Zodiac, waiting, when Tracy came up with her duffel, and they rode across the cove in silence. She tied up at the store and they walked up to the store together and bought her a ticket to Campbell River, then gave Tracy a few hundred dollars before she hurried back to the inflatable – before the girl changed her mind and tried something stupid.
She motored away in the evening, tied-off on a cleat and climbed up to the aft deck, then went below to her duffel and pulled out an Inmarsat phone and flipped it on. She entered the encryption key and waited for the green light, then dialed a one-time number and waited for the connection.
“Go,” she heard the man’s voice on the other end.
“She’s on the evening flight, from Squirrel Cove to Campbell River. She says someone’s on her tail, but I didn’t see anyone.”
“Your next move?”
“Stay here on the boat, for a few days, at least,” then she explained why.
She pulled a Beretta from her duffel and screwed on the silencer, then put on a sweater and started cooking dinner – wishing she’d stayed in Vancouver.
He heard voices again, voices far away – as if on the far side of a scream.
The snake was there – by his ankle – coiling up to strike, again. Then – out of the corner of his eye – a big fucking cat…a leopard? – and he was groping for his sidearm in the dark with his right hand when the snake struck. He felt searing pain on the top of his hand but he held onto the Colt and pulled it free, squeezed off one round at the cat, striking it in the gut…
Then that new pain again, this time throughout his right leg. Unreal thirst burned his throat, too, and in his mind’s eye he thought he saw a helicopter, heard rotors beating the night, then there were men all around, lifting him, carrying him…
And he opened his eyes, saw he was in a hospital room.
He looked out a window across the room and saw the Vancouver skyline on the far side of the glass – and he wondered what’d happened, how he’d gotten here.
‘My leg,’ he thought. ‘It came back for me. Again…’
But…where was Ted? And that woman? Melissa? Where were they?
The lights were off but there was a bank of instrument beating away beside his bed, the various screens taking stock of the ebbs and flows of his life…and he saw a call button on a table by his bed. He reached for it, winced in pain as something flared deep inside his leg, but he reached for the button and pushed – as he gasped for breath. Nothing…so he pushed the button again.
Then…he heard running, people running towards his room, and voices. Like voices from a dream.
Two women burst in and looked at him, then one turned and ran back out the door.
Running. Fast. What does that mean?
“You’re awake,” the remaining girl said as she came to the side of the bed.
“So it would appear. Mind telling me where I am, perhaps what I’m doing here?”
“We’ve just gone to get Doctor Sutton. We’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
“Oh, we have? So, where ‘we’ are is a state secret, I take it?”
“Oh, heavens,” the girl said, thrusting a probe of some kind in his mouth. “Under the tongue, now. And no, you’re at Vancouver General, and you’ve been here a while.”
“Define for me, if you please, ‘a while?’”
“We’ll let Doctor Sutton do that…but as soon as she gets here I must go and call your son.”
“Ted? Is he here?”
“Heavens no. He hasn’t been here in weeks.”
“Weeks?” But he saw she was ignoring him now, busily writing away on an inch-thick clipboard, one of those fat aluminum jobs, then the door opened again and a harried-looking middle-aged woman slouched into the room – though her eyes brightened a bit when she saw him.
“Ah, so you are awake! Wonderful!”
“That seems to be the consensus opinion, yes.”
“That I am, in fact, awake. And that seems to be all anyone will tell me, too.”
“Ah. Well, yes. I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Are you always so sarcastic?”
“Only when the situation seems to warrant it.”
“Ah. Well, yes, well, you see…”
“Doc? Straight talk would be much appreciated right about now.”
“Ah. Yes, I see. Well, that bug you carried home from Iraq has turned into a super-antibiotic resistant little critter, and, well, gangrene set in before the antibiotic cocktail we devised could take hold. The good news is that the cocktail worked; the bad news is that you’ve lost your right leg, just above the knee.”
“And how long have I been here?”
“Not quite six weeks,” Sutton said.
“Your son has been here night and day almost all that time,” the nurse added, “and he’s only just gone back to Seattle. He’s on his way up, as we speak, and you’ve had people from work here too.”
“Some pilots from Delta, a few corporate types, too. Insurance, benefits, those kinds of people.”
He looked at the foot of the bed, saw his left foot sticking up – then the vague contours of a shadow where his life used to be, and he swallowed hard as implications swept through the room on this sudden ill-borne wind.
“We’ll want to get you started on physical therapy now that you’re up and about…”
“Up and about?”
“Ah, yes. Well…”
“The whole bedside manner thing, Doc? You need to work on that.”
“Ah, yes, well, you see, I’ve never been much of a people person.”
“No, not ever, as a matter of fact.”
“Pity. You’re more the white lab coat kind of doc?”
“Ah, look, might I have someone from psychiatry drop by…”
“Why? Do I sound mentally ill?”
“No, I just thought that, well, uh, you know, you might like someone to talk to.”
“At five hundred an hour? Gee, no thanks Doc. I think I’ll take a pass on that.”
“You forget, we have nationalized medicine here.”
“For American-nationals? Really? How nice.”
“Oh yes, I forgot.”
“Well, doc. Thanks for hacking my leg off. I appreciate it, really, I do. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to get out of here.”
When Ted arrived, perhaps five hours later, he seemed relieved to see his father again…and tried to set him straight about what had happened.
“Was it that bad?” Jim asked.
“You have no idea, Dad. Docs from everywhere, and I mean as far away as London, were called to consult on this. For about three days they told me you weren’t going to make it, then your leg turned black. I mean black, like coal. Started at the foot and streaks started shooting up your leg…”
“What about the VA? Did they call Schultz, in Seattle?”
“Oh, yeah. He came up, too. Stayed two days, and Delta sent some guy out from Columbia Presbyterian.”
He shook his head, felt a little ashamed of his outbursts at Sutton.
“I think she understands, Dad.”
“Dr Sutton. Everyone here knows all about you. Everyone busted their ass, Dad. You got to believe that.”
He had nodded, said he understood – but he didn’t, not really. “When do you go back to school?”
“I’m taking the semester off, Dad. You’re gong to need a hand for the next few months…”
“Back in her slip…on the lake. A bunch of us, some of the guys from work, Melissa, we all brought her down. Not a scratch, Dad. You’d’ve been proud.”
“The woman from the bakery?”
“Oh, yes. How is she?” he added, barely remembering her.
“Back in Atlanta, but I called her. She told me to tell you she’ll try to come up this weekend.”
He shook his head, tried to make sense of this new world – his new life. “Ted? What am I going to do?”
And his son sat there in the silence, thunderstruck. His father had never once asked him a question like this before, asked him something so – consequential.
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“What am I going to do now?”
“I don’t know, Dad? What are the options?” – and then he had watched in dismay as his father looked down at the foot of the bed, at the emptiness waiting there, staring back like an accusation.
“Someone told me that people from corporate came by. Any idea what that was about?”
“Some friends, I think, but a few people from Atlanta, too. They talked with your docs, and that’s about all I know on that front.”
He shook his head – as if trying to clear away the cobwebs – then looked up at his boy. “You said the boat’s back in Seattle? How’d that go?”
“Some guys from, well, pilots, and Melissa and I – and that doc from Whaletown – we brought it down. Took three days, but it was a breeze. No problems at all.”
“Oh, yeah. When you passed out…”
“I passed out?”
“Fever. Yup. We got on the radio and called it in; the Canadian Coast Guard called a doc in Whaletown, and she came out to the General Store. I picked her up at the store and carried her out. She’s the one who called for the medevac…”
“A medevac? What? A helicopter?”
“No, some kind of float-plane. Single engine, turbine.”
“Jeez, my insurance company is going to go nuts.”
“Apparently that’s all been taken care of. Your corporate people got on to the VA and they’re all coordinating with the insurance companies.”
“That’ll be the day.” And they both laughed, then he realized it still felt good to laugh. “Wait a minute…you said Melissa and that doc? What happened to Tracy?”
“Long story, Dad, and I think Melissa might be the one to explain all that.”
And Ted looked away. “Things weren’t what we thought, Dad.”
“What does ‘what we thought?’ mean, Paco?”
“She…Melissa…didn’t just show up. She’d been following Tracy, for weeks.”
“Following?” he said, his thoughts reeling.
“Tracy had been, I don’t know…how to say this. Trafficked? Is that the right word?”
“Trafficked? What do you mean, trafficked?”
“She’d been abducted, Dad, years ago, moved around a lot by whoever ‘owned’ her. Singapore, Hong Kong, then – finally – New Orleans, a few years ago. Melissa works on some kind of task force, law enforcement. FBI, Interpol, those kinds of people. Anyway, she couldn’t tell me much more than the basics. Someone identified Tracy a year ago and law enforcement moved in, began tailing her. I think they’re trying to home in on the people chasing her…”
“Yeah, well, when she came with us she was making her break, I guess you could say.”
“Jesus, Ted. Is anyone tailing US now?”
And Ted laughed again. “I think we’re covered on that end, Dad. I’m a cooperating witness, under protection.”
“Sweet Jesus,” he sighed, not at all happy now. “This Melissa…is that even her name?”
Ted shrugged. “As far as I know…”
“Right,” he said, looking at his son and for the first time realizing how clueless the boy was. How clueless they both were. “And she’s, what…coming back up here soon?”
“Maybe this weekend.”
“I can’t wait. Man, she was laying it on pretty thick…”
“Dad…she likes you. I mean…I think she really likes you.”
“She, like, cried for an hour after you came out of surgery,” Ted said, looking at his leg, “and she didn’t leave your side, like, for a week. ‘Til Mom came up, anyway.”
“Your mother came up? Oh…that’s just fucking great.”
“She still cares, Dad.”
“What turnip truck did you fall off of, son…?”
“Never mind,” he sighed, again, only this time it seemed to last a little longer than forever. “So, your mother shows up and Melissa beats feet?”
“Yup. That was about the size of it.”
“By any chance, did you remember my phone?”
“Oh, yeah,” Ted said, digging around in his coat pocket. “All charged-up, too,” he added, putting the phone and its charging cords on the little rolling table over his father’s lap.
He turned it on, looked at his phone’s message queue and groaned. Over fifty voicemails. More than five hundred unanswered emails. Dozens of text strings. “Dear God…” he whispered, suddenly feeling the task of sorting through all this noise was, at best, a Sisyphean effort.
“Bad?” Ted asked.
“I can handle it,” he said, his voice now strong, full of command, and he looked up at Ted again. “What about you. School. When does it start?”
“Next week, but I…”
“No, you should make plans to head back to Boston, today. You need to finish up, and you’ve got big decisions to make.”
“I’ve made them, Father.”
His left eyebrow arched on hearing ‘Father’ in that challenging tone of voice. “Indeed. Anything you’d like to share with me?”
“I’m going to seminary.”
“I see. What pushed you back? The Tracy thing?”
“Everything happens for a reason, Dad. Tracy, you – all this was just a reminder…I need to get back on the path that’s been laid out for me.”
“I see. Well then, you’re happy with the decision?”
“Yessir – content would be the word I’d choose.”
“Good…well then, best get on the phone, get your classes lined up, then make plans to head back.”
“But Dad…how will you…”
“I’ll manage, son. You’ve got to tend to your own life…not look after me.”
“No, sir. I’ve already made plans to stay here, help you get settled, and that’s what I intend to do.”
He looked at his boy, at his chest all puffed up, and he tried not to laugh. “All right, boy. We’ll take it one step at a time…how about that?”
There came a knock on the door and a woman’s face appeared.
“Safe to come in, Ted?”
“Yeah, sure Doc…Dad? This is Doc Sullivan, from Whaletown. She’s the doc who came out to the boat…”
The woman came in the room, and while he looked her over he tried his best not to smile. She was short, red-haired and milk-complected, with a broad mask of deep freckles under her green eyes – and she was wearing Birkenstocks – his least favorite footwear in the world. She was cute, and he liked the look of her. All but the unshaved legs, that is.
“I was in town and heard you were up and around…” she said, walking to his bedside. “How are you doing?”
“Me? Swell. How ‘bout you?”
She seemed taken aback by his nonchalance, and felt a little on-guard. “Anyone talked to you about what comes next?”
“Next? No, not really.”
“Oh? Well, I guess…”
“I guess I should thank you,” he said, trying to put her at ease. “I was apparently out when we met?”
She laughed a little. “Yes, I sorry. My name is Brigit Sullivan.”
He looked at her left hand…‘No rings,’ he said to himself as he held out his right hand.
“Jim. Nice to meet you, Brigit,” then he added: “So, I hear you’re a sailor?”
“Not much of one, really, but I didn’t think two people could handle that boat alone, all the way back to Seattle. So I volunteered,” Sullivan said, grinning. “Then the cavalry arrived.”
“How’d you like her?”
“Her? Oh, you mean Altair? Oh, I loved her, very much indeed.”
“Yes. I came here to go to school. I decided to stay for a while.”
“Yes, well, its been twenty years…so I guess the best laid plans…”
“I see. Yes, funny how fast the landscape can change.”
She smiled, looked into his eyes. Yes, full of doubt right now, but that was only natural. His entire life upended, all his plans… “So, what are you thinking you’ll do when you get out of here?”
“I don’t know yet, Brigit. Any ideas?”
“Get a peg-leg and head for the Caribbean?”
“Ah. I never saw myself as the Johnny Depp type, ya know?”
She smiled at him and he melted inside – just a little – then he realized he was staring at her – and she wasn’t turning away. No, she was meeting his gaze head-on.
“I talked a bit with your people from Delta, and the VA. Rehab will be no problem, and it seems they want you to think seriously about the training slot in Atlanta.”
“Yes, I hope you don’t mind, but one of them gave me a card and I’ve called. Someone is supposed to be up tomorrow to talk with you about all that.”
“Who? The VA?”
He looked away, out the window…but all he could see was his right leg…and his lips scrunched-up into a loose frown. “Training,” he whispered as he recoiled from the thought. Hours and hours in a simulator, teaching kids – with all their lives ahead of them.
And his was all behind him now, receding fast.
Then he felt her hand on his, rubbing away his fear. “It’s not, you know,” he heard her say.
“Your life. It’s not over.”
“What makes you say that?”
“It’s all over your face, in your eyes. But you’re wrong, Jim. It’s going to be a fight, but you’re just opening the book to a new chapter.”
“Ah, I see. That’s how it is, eh?”
“I suppose it can be, yes. The other option, I assume, is to simply fall away, fall into a black hole…what you might call the pits of despair.”
“Never been my thing.”
“I think I knew that, but it’s nice to hear you say so, nonetheless. Oh yes, your VA people classify this as the direct result of your original injuries, by the way. As far as coverage…” but she saw he’d tuned her out, and was in fact falling over in the bed. Then – he was gone again…back into that landscape called very bad trouble.
He woke in in the middle of yet another strange night, woke to the steady hum of machines pumping medicine into his veins, of other machines listening to the fading electric currents arcing through his body. He listened to the beep-beep-beep of one and turned to look at it, and he saw what he assumed was something like his beating heart – only something wasn’t right. Another registered O-SATS, another PULS, and yet another RESP – and as all of them registered something in the positive range he assumed that he was still alive…yet even so the thought that he might be dead rolled around in his mind for a while. Then he was aware of people dancing all around this place, chanting strange things into the night…
“Gimme 5cc epinephrine,” one voice sang.
Then another cried – “Get that goddamn central line going!”
Then he saw his mother standing by his bedside, and she was looking down at him, smiling gently.
“Hi, Mom,” he said, as gently.
“Hello, Jimmy,” she said, and while he took comfort in her presence, something about her being in the room troubled him. “Oh yes,” another voice, this one as familiar, said, “your mother’s been here for…oh, how many years? Is it five now?”
He turned to this second voice, his mind reeling: “Dad? Is that you?”
And they were both by his bed now, looking down at him, and they were smiling now, an odd, gentle smile – a smile he’d never seen.
“Hello, Jimmy,” his father said.
“Why are you here?”
“You asked,” his mother said, “so we came.”
“You’re dying now, Jimmie,” his father said. “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid.”
“Dying? Me? Now?”
“But…I’m not ready.”
And his father looked at him again, and smiled. “Okay. So, go back to them.”
“Yes, of course. Go back.”
“You have more to do, Jimmie,” his mother said, still holding his hand.
“I smell…gingerbread,” he said. “Are you baking?”
And she smiled again. “Yes. For you.”
“You’re not making this any easier, are you?”
“We’ll be here when you’re ready, son,” his father said.
“Be careful,” his mother added – then she was gone.
“What’s happening to me?”
“It’s not you, Jimmie. It’s your boy.”
But then his father was gone, too.
“Ted?” he cried. “Ted!”
“I’m here, Dad! I’m here, we’re all here!”
He felt his parents in the darkness, felt their smiles, then he reached up, reaching for the warmth of their light.
The shades had been drawn the night before, but he’d asked the night nurse to open them; now he watched the dawn slatting through thick, late-summer foliage. The walls of his room were a riot of criss-crossed shadows, no direction clear, no way to tell where the sun was.
He heard the door open, saw Ted sticking his head in the room. “You up?” his son asked.
“Yeah. A few hours now.”
“Still can’t sleep?”
He bunched his lips, shook his head.
“You know, Dad, it’s not the strangest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Yes it is. And it’s different when you hear it coming from someone else.”
“I can only imagine. What did Sullivan call it? A near death experience?”
“Oxygen deprivation, by any other name.”
“That’s one world view,” Ted added, grinning. “You want to hear something even weirder?”
“When the air ambulance thing showed up…”
“I think they’re called airplanes, Ted.”
“Yeah. It was called a Kodiak.”
“Oh? Nice. Sorry I missed it.”
Ted shook his head, then plowed on ahead. “Anyway, I sat up front. We talked, the pilot and I, and I told him about you.”
“It was the first time I’ve ever been interested in it.”
“Oh? What was interesting to you?”
“The methodical certainty of everything. Do this, do that – and if you do everything just right you make it. If you don’t…”
“You screw the pooch.”
“Yeah, that’s it. I’ve heard you say that a million times before yet I don’t think I ever really understood until just then. Anyway, I found it kind of interesting.”
“What does ‘interesting’ mean?”
“I’ve been looking at flight schools.”
He looked at his son, nodded his head slowly. “I see.”
“What do you think?”
“I think you being in the room while I tried to die really fucked with your head.”
And they both laughed.
“Feels good to laugh, doesn’t it?” his son said.
“You have no idea. What time does that flight from Atlanta get in?”
Ted looked at his phone. “She’s due in at ten.”
“You picking her up?”
“Where’s she staying?”
“The Four Seasons.”
He nodded his head, looked out the window.
“So? What do you think?”
“If that’s what you want to do.”
“Well, Dad, actually…I’m asking for some advice.”
“And you know how I feel about that.”
“Yeah, I know. ‘You’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ I hear you, Dad, but right now it kind of feels a little like a cop-out.”
“Yeah, it does.”
And he heard the same teen-aged insolence, the same wall of sarcasm he’d always heard whenever he’d tried to give his son any kind of advice. “Well,” he said, taking a deep breath, “let’s see if I’ve got this straight. You’ve wanted to be a priest since you were knee high to a grasshopper, then you get to BC and all of a sudden it’s medicine. You bounce around back and forth between those two for three years then you take a ride in an airplane and all of sudden you want to be a pilot? Have I about nailed the contours of the basic premise here?”
Ted looked down at the floor.
“So, you tell me,” he continued. “This whole God thing seems to be a driving force in your life, and, if that’s so, just what do you think that Old Fart wants you to do?”
“That’s not how it works, Dad.”
“Oh? There’s a checklist for that too, is there?”
“No, I think He leads us to choices, then he sits back and watches, waits to see what we’ll do.”
“And then what? He doesn’t interfere? He just grades on a pass/fail basis?”
“Yeah, Dad. Just like you.”
“Just like you, Dad. Don’t you get it?”
“No, obviously not.”
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted, Dad. To be just like you.”
“But, you wanted to be a priest? I’m confused…”
“I was too, until I talked with Melissa about it.”
“Melissa? What did she have to say?”
“Nope, and you know what, Dad? I’m not going to interfere.”
“Interfere? With what?”
“Jesus, you are one thick-headed son-of-a-bitch.”
“What the devil are you talking about, Ted?”
“Melissa and Brigit, you idiot.”
“What about them?”
Ted shook his head – then looked at his phone. “I think I’m going to head out to the airport now.”
“It’s seven o’clock.”
“Yeah, how ‘bout that.”
“Bring me what you have on flight schools. I’ll look ‘em over.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks, Dad.”
“And a cheeseburger. I’d kill for a goddamn cheeseburger!”
But the door had closed – before he could say another word.
He wasn’t quite sure why, but he barely remembered Melissa those first few minutes after she walked into his room – and that made this reunion all the more unsettling.
She had, apparently, made some kind of connection to him that day. That much was clear, yet even so something seemed off. She was good at concealing things, wasn’t she?
As the morning passed he remembered more of their time talking in the cockpit, the blustery winds, dodging timbers that had broken free of their rafts, even fragments of her shooting the inlet…then everything was gone – like the rest of the day had been wiped clean. And the most disconcerting thing of all? He hadn’t recognized her – not at all. And yet, here she was…
And when she had first come in the room…? She had dashed to his bed and wrapped herself around him, and all he had felt was a vast chasm of annoyance opening between them. Her hair, dry and scratchy, crushed against his face and he’d felt a wave of panicky suffocation settle over the room. She had grabbed his face and kissed his forehead – and then she must have seen the confusion in his eyes. She pulled back, looked into his eyes and a veil of tears crossed between them.
“Do you know who I am?”
He had turned away a little; a fraction of a gaze passed between them and he knew he had answered her question. She regrouped a little, took the seat Ted had pulled up for her, then Ted simply left the room.
“Ted tells me you helped moved Altair back to Seattle.”
“Yes, that’s right. Brigit – Doctor Sullivan – was with us too.”
“I should thank you for all that. I’m not sure Ted would’ve been up to that.”
“Really? I got the impression after an hour or so he hardly needed us at all. He couldn’t sleep, you see, so he stood behind the wheel, steering hour after hour. We stopped in Friday Harbor and he told us about the trips you used to take out there, to the islands, before he slept.”
“I guess we never really know what our kids will remember, do we?”
She looked away. “We never had kids.”
“I’m sorry. I never knew that much about…”
“Let’s not go there, okay, Jim?”
“Anyway, you’ve set up Altair to handle anything, haven’t you? She handles like a dream.”
He turned to her, his little ship, in his mind’s eye, and he saw her then. For the first time…since…resplendent under a full set of canvas, biting into the wind – like a wild thing set free.
“I have no idea what I’ll do with her now.”
She was looking at him as he spoke, looking at banked embers of uncertainty eating away at his soul, and she nodded her head just so.
“Yes, I don’t suppose you have much choice now.”
His eyes lost focus for a moment – and Altair faded from sight.
“What do you mean?”
“Only that you’ll need to get fitted for a peg-leg, and soon.”
“Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve talked with a few friends at Delta about moving down there, moving to the DATC. Whenever you’re ready – that’s the word.
“Who’d you talk to?”
“Ben Chambers.” He had looked at her then, his eyes full of molten fury – and she’d looked away lest she go up in flames with him. “I’m sorry,” she said a moment later. “I shouldn’t have.”
“Why would anyone want me now. I can’t get out of bed, I can’t even take a shit without calling a fucking nurse…”
“This is the hard part, Jim, the worst of it. We can all pull together, Ted and I – and you. We can help you get there.”
“Look…I don’t even know you,” he said through gritted teeth, his voice a venomous hiss, “but you’re talking to me like you’re my wife. You’re going to have to forgive me, but what the Hell is going on here?”
She sat up, looked him in the eye. “It’s funny, yes, but Jim, I feel like God brought us together. I’m here now, for you, and I think this is all a part of His plan.”
She nodded – and he found the certainty in her eyes revolting. Revolting, and yet almost fascinating, at the same time.
“I don’t believe in coincidence, Jim.”
“And all that crap about being at the inn, being compelled to join us for breakfast? That you’d been…”
“I know, I know,” this strange woman said, “but the truth of it is even stranger.”
“Oh? There’s some truth in this story? Oh my goodness, I can hardly wait.”
She smiled, her eyes wide now, wide and clear. “We lost Tracy in Vancouver. We’d no trace of her for almost a week…”
“Time-out. Who’s ‘we’?”
“I’m with a joint Federal/Interpol task force on human trafficking.”
“So…you’re a cop?”
She shook her head. “No, not really. I’m with the FBI, but I’d been working with local jurisdictions in and around New Orleans…”
“On human trafficking,” he said, his voice now full of urgent anger. “With the FBI.”
She saw the look in his eye, the change that came over him. “Yes…”
“My mom was a social worker, in Vermont, after the war. She was pulled into working on human trafficking cases when she was young.”
“And she couldn’t shake it, could she?”
He turned away.
“It’s a calling, Jim. There are so many girls, and so few of us give a damn.”
“Yes, I imagine you do. Did she stay in social work?” Melissa asked, innocently.
“No, not really. She started working for the state AGs office sometime in the late fifties, then was offered a job in Washington. All I know is she turned it down, and she quit a little after that. She never talked about it much after that.”
Melissa nodded. “I know, part of the pattern.”
“She was in Vermont, you said?”
“Yup, where we – I grew up.”
“Chinese, through Montreal and Quebec. An almost constant stream of girls come in through Vermont. Taken to New York City first, to the restaurants around the city, worked as indentured servants – unless they’re pretty. Then they’re sold off as domestics – until they’re no longer pretty, that is.”
“Free pussy, Jim. At parties and other – events. Then they’re disposed of.”
“What does that mean? Killed?”
“Most of the time, yes. Unless a new buyer can be found, but often it depends on how much the girl knows, and that often depends on what her ‘master’ was into. It’s usually drugs, and usually heroin.”
“Where does Tracy fit into all this?”
“We got onto her while we were trailing some cartel people, down in New Orleans. She made a break for it, made it to Colorado but she, well, her addiction was too powerful. She fell in with a lawyer in Aspen, and to make a long story short she ran into someone who knew somebody who knew people in that cartel, and then the lawyer ratted her. Turned out he was doing work for one of the cartels, but by that point we knew if we could get our hands on her we could get her to talk, but she was off, gone before we could get to her. We lost her until she crossed into Canada, only by that time Interpol got involved. She kept slipping in and out of our radar but we had her – or at least we thought we had her. And that’s when you showed up.”
“And you got her to leave?”
“We got her, period.”
“She’s in –”
“Protective custody…yes. Witness Protection.”
“What does Ted know about all this?”
“Next to nothing.”
“So, I assume you think the cartels will take no interest in me? Or my son?”
“Doubtful. But then again, I won’t be far away.”
He looked at her then, feeling a little like a tethered goat. “I see,” he added.
“I doubt that, Jim.”
“So, what’s all this hooey about God bringing us together, no coincidences – and all that. Is that part of your ruse, too?”
“No, not at all. That’s how I found Tracy. Through this feeling I had.” She looked at him hard for a moment, then she cleared her throat. “Could I tell you something, something sort of private.”
“Oh, I can’t wait.”
She nodded her head. “Alright, Jim. Three days ago – when you threw that clot and went into arrest – I saw something.”
“Something? Like what kind of something?”
“I saw your parents – talking to you.”
Icy claws grabbed his throat and he struggled to take another breath…
“I heard what your father said to you.”
“Oh?” he said, his eyes watering now.
“It’s not you, Jim. It’s your boy.”
He was crying openly now, his lips quivering, his eyes twitching as he tried to come to terms with her words…
“I know why I’m here now, Jim. I’m here to open the gate between you and your son.” She was lost just then, like she had faded into another plane of existence, then she shook herself back to the present. “I’m think I’m here to make sure that happens. After that, my purpose here is over.”
“Over?” he said, trying to breathe. “What do you – mean – by that…?”
And the woman shrugged. “I have no idea, Jim. But I think that’s what your mother was trying to tell me.”
He struggled under the weight of her words, fought to come to terms with the implications of the timing. “Could you see her? My mother, I mean?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, Jim. All I have left is the impression of someone’s eyes, but I never saw her, not in the usual sense of seeing.”
“You’re not, like, a schizophrenic, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, laughing just a little, “but, does menopause count?”
And he laughed too, then his eyes turned cold and hard. “Open the gate? Did she say that?”
“I think so.” Melissa said. “Why?”
“I was thinking just then, right when you said that, about the gate in our back yard. We had a little dog when I was growing up, and that gate was the only thing that kept him in the yard. I left it open once and he got out, ran into the street and a car hit him. Keeping the gate closed became kind of a metaphor in our family, something about the necessity of protecting the things we love.”
“Yes, but what about being overprotective?”
“Is there such a thing as being too protective where our kids are concerned?”
“Sure there is,” she sighed. “Nobody can grow when they’re being smothered…”
“I don’t smother Ted,” he countered, perhaps a little too defensively. “If anything, I think I’m too distant…”
“But don’t you see, that’s a kind of control too, Jim. When a child needs guidance, wants advice, and you stand back – well, in a way you’re reinforcing a child’s needfulness. Parents need to give advice freely, I think, and kids need to know they can come to you with anything, at anytime, for help…”
“What else did you two talk about on the trip back.”
“That being true to yourself is the best way to be true to God…”
She read through the letter one more time, then called the head of her department in Burlington, Vermont.
“Mike, I got another one.”
“What’s this one say, Liz?” said Mike Bennett, a retired federal judge who had recently been assigned to coordinate state and federal law enforcement activities along the Canadian border.
“Sounds kind of like ‘back-off or else’ to me.”
“Did this one come to your house?”
“Well, goddamn. What does Jerry think?”
“He’s not sure what our response ought to be, wanted me to run this by you first.”
“Well, if it’s Hip-Sing or one of the other Triads we have to take it seriously…”
“Jerry says there’s no way we can be sure. There’s that new group in the Village, the Ghost Dragons…”
“Bad people…bad news if it’s them.”
“Yessir. Well, we’re stepping on a lot of toes, disrupting a lot of ongoing operations up here. Even so, it’s out of character for them to target us like this…”
“Yeah…going after families…that’s something new alright. Is that what Jerry thinks.”
“Well, I’m the only one to receive something like this at home. Everyone else has gotten them at the office in Burlington.”
“What does your husband have to say about this?”
“He’s more worried about Jimmie than anything else.”
“What about the Florida thing. Will that work?”
“I doubt it, sir. It would be just a matter of days, maybe a week, before they track us down.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“Change tactics again. Lure them in, take a few of them out, then watch them, see how they regroup.”
“I don’t think I can keep this up much longer, Mike. Not with them potentially targeting my family.”
“Sorry about the dog. What did you tell your boy?”
“That someone left the gate open.”
“Damn. Well, the reality is simple enough, Elizabeth. We don’t have even one of these new groups penetrated, so we have no idea what their strength is. If they’re targeting you, or your family, we have no option other than to move you, get you out of there.”
“There’s another option, sir. I publicly resign.”
“And give in to their threats? But even so…we could never be sure, could we? They could decide to make an example of you. That’s what…”
“Yessir, I know. That’s what they do to cop families over there.”
“Do you have any reason to think they wouldn’t do that to you, or to your family?”
“It would be a first, sir.”
“There’s always a first, Liz. You want to try that one on for size?”
“What about surveillance?”
“Keep you under surveillance, as in 24/7?” her boss asked.
“It might do the job, sir. What bothers me now is giving in so easily.”
“Listen…you know the drill, how it is now. No one in the White House cares about these Chinese gangs, not Eisenhower, not Nixon…not even that Kennedy character…”
“I know…because they’re just ‘running girls.’ Yessir, I know the score, but there’s tons of heroin moving in with these girls. That’s how they’ve done it, sir, for centuries. First they start with girls, then add opium and heroin. Drug use grows exponentially and when the real gangs move-in, the operations to begin compromising politicians begins.”
“Preaching to the converted, Liz.”
“I know, sir. Sorry. It’s just frustrating – like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and you know the outcome.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I hate to do this, sir, but I think I’m leaving this one on you.”
She heard him sigh, then a moment later: “I’d like your resignation on my desk tomorrow. I’ll have the office prepare a statement, get it out to the newspapers.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“You’ll start with the next class at the academy. That’ll be next August. Take some time off, get some rest, and be ready to get back to work next year.”
“Next?” an old man asked, opening a file folder.
“Melissa Goodway,” one of the other men in the office said. “Divorced, two years ago. Finished her J.D. before the divorce.” His name was Jesse James – a name that had given him nothing but trouble ever since his own days at the Academy, and he was briefing the FBI director this morning.
“Where? I don’t see it here…”
“Okay. DAs office, I take it?”
“Fulton, or DeKalb.”
“Fulton, sir. One year, then she was snatched up by a joint task force, locals working with the DEA and FBI. SAC Atlanta recommended she try the Academy, sir.”
“How’d she do?”
“First academically, middle of the road on PT, but she’s a helluva marksman.”
“What’s her profile?”
“Raped, sophomore year, Georgia Tech.”
“Shit, that’s a lot of baggage, Ken. Are you sure about this?”
“Her interview went well, sir, and other than that, her psych profile is rock solid.”
“What does Liz Patterson think of her?”
“Recommended, no reservations. Page six, sir.”
The old man flipped through the pages in the folder, then looked up at the other men in the room. “Anyone have any objections?” He looked around the room, made eye contact with all nine of them. “Come on, speak up now – or forever hold your peace.”
“Does she have enough experience for this,” one of the others asked. “She’ll be on her own for weeks at a time.”
“She knows what she’s signed up for,” James said. “And she’s been undercover before.”
“No one knows what they’ve signed up ‘til they’re up to their neck in alligators,” the old man said.
“Especially in New Orleans,” one of the others said, to murmurs of assent around the room.
“Who interviewed her?” the old man asked, flipping through the file again.
“Pat did the prelims, I did the follow-up. His write-up is on the next to last page, sir.”
The old man read the notes for a while, flipped to a few cross-referenced pages then tossed the file on the desk. “When can she be ready to go?”
“It’ll take a few days to get their documentation in order, another week to get the team placed in Macao.”
“So, we need a week?”
“That’s cutting it pretty damn close, Jesse.”
“Yes, sir, it is. And the longer we sit here debating the risks, the worse it gets, sir.”
“Alright. Fuller and this Norton from Treasury go to Hong Kong, Patterson takes Goodway to Macao. Any objections?”
No one spoke as the Old Man assayed the room one more time. He shook his head, then signed the documents approving the largest hit on foreign soil the Bureau had ever attempted. No one had to remind him the last time the Bureau tried something like this, two agents came home in body bags.
“What did you say?”
“That being true to yourself is the best way to be true to God…” Melissa Goodway said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do what you think is best, and let God take care of the rest.”
He looked at her while he let out a long, drawn-out breath, then shook his head. “Doesn’t mean a whole lot to an old agnostic like me.”
She smiled. “And I don’t think God minds, one way or another.”
“You sound like my mother. She would’ve liked you.”
She looked at him – didn’t say a word.
“And now Ted tells me you talked him into the priesthood.”
“Did he? Interesting.”
“I told him pretty much the same thing. To thine own self be true, if you get into all that New Testament stuff.”
“I never got into any of it. I’m content with that choice, by the way.”
“Okay. Then I am too.”
“Simple as that, huh?”
“Simple as that.”
“So, besides that, what else did you two talk about?”
“He’s terrified you’ll die, for one. He feels like you never talk with him, that you’re always holding back, and that he’s never really known you.”
He nodded. “I feel that way, too. Like we never connected.”
“Why? I mean, he’s your son. Is there something about him you don’t trust?”
“He always seemed to hate his mother, the drinking, I think, but there’s always been something else behind all his anger. I’ve always thought that, deep down, he hates me more than he hates his mother.”
She looked away, wondered how much she could tell him without breaking Ted’s confidence. “I think, Jim, more than anything else he’s been afraid of you. Afraid, because the things you do felt to him like something he’d never be able to do. Afraid, like some people are afraid of God.”
“But…I’m just a pilot…”
“You know…every day a surgeon may hold two, maybe three or four lives in his hands. You? Several hundred people a day, maybe more. Hundreds of years ago sailing masters and ship’s pilots were held in highest regard…almost like gods.”
“It’s not like that these days.”
“Oh, maybe not to you…”
“I’ve always just liked flying. That head-shrinker crap always left me cold.”
“Yeah. I liked the idea of flying free up there,” he said, pointing at the window, “always have. And once you start liking it up there, well, it’s like nothing else matters. Flying becomes a state of mind. Not the aesthetic enjoyment of “being up there,” but the precision of it, of making the next landing the smoothest you’ve ever done.”
“And you’ve no interest in the hundreds of people on your airplane?”
“Oh, quite the opposite, really. Everything I do up there is to make it the best possible experience for everyone onboard; safe and comfortable are the two words that come to mind.”
“And you never think about holding the lives of all those people in your hands?”
“Not in the way you’re implying. It’s not a control-freak thing, about being perceived as some sort of God-like creature. That’s Hollywood bullshit, but the truth of it is they’re always on my mind.”
“What about the way people stare at you when you walk through a terminal building?”
“What about it?”
“You think, just maybe, that it’s the same way people look at a surgeon when he walks out of the operating room, or even when a priest walks up to the altar?”
“No, Ma’am, I don’t. And what’s all this got to do with Ted?”
“I told you. He’s been – let’s just call it ‘respectful’ – of you his entire life. You’ve been someone he looked up to, maybe even someone he wanted to be like.”
“The priesthood?” he said, thinking aloud.
“He told me a while ago he wants to try flight school…”
“Bingo, times two.”
He looked at her, tried not to smile.
“You know,” she continued, “when he was behind the wheel on Altair, he looked almost just like you. The same look in his eyes, the way he holds the wheel…”
“You think that’s what he wants to do? Did he mention it to you?”
“That’s all he wanted to talk about.”
“I’ll be damned.”
She grinned at his choice of words. “I doubt that, but, I take it you never took him flying?”
“Once or twice, maybe ten years ago.”
“And? Did he like it?”
“I don’t – think so.”
“Did you ask?”
He looked away, tried to remember what Ted said, the way he said it. The words left an impression – ‘Dad, I don’t like flying.’ He looked at her then: “Something to do with fear, of being afraid, maybe…?”
“Exactly. Afraid of you. That he wouldn’t be as good as you are.”
He shook away the implications, rubbed his eyes. “So, why now?”
“Because now he’s really afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Of the worst possible thing in his universe. Loosing you. So he wants to step up now, be the man you’ve always been to him.”
“That’s not a reason to want to fly…”
“No, it’s not. Flying is a passion. He’s never once let on he was even interested in flying.”
“You should ask him what he does with all your old flying magazines.”
“No kidding, Jim. And it was going down right under your nose. As a matter of fact, the last thing that kid wants to be is a priest.”
“Why…why do you say that?”
“Because then he’d have to absolve his mother of her sins. And I don’t think he’ll ever be able to do that.”
“So, I never got the story, the whole story. What got you into sailing? You said something about your father’s boat?”
“Yup, but I went to a YMCA camp up on Lake Champlain a few summers, before we left Vermont. Sailed Sunfish, things like that…and I guess I caught the bug then.”
“I sailed some with Dad. We went down to Isla Mujeres once, and that did it.”
“What was your first boat?”
“Altair. I went to the Seattle Boat Show about ten years ago, and when I saw her I just knew. She was a dealer’s demo, they made me a really good deal and I jumped on it.”
“She was your first boat? Really?”
“I was, I’d been thinking about something like that for retirement, maybe, I guess, like the two of us would sail away, do the South Pacific thing, something like that.”
“It was a good deal.”
“Must’ve been. So, what now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what’s next for the two of you?”
“You and Altair? What’s the next chapter look like?”
“I don’t know.”
“Gonna sell her?”
“I don’t know, Melissa.”
“‘Cause if you are, mind if I make an offer?”
He smiled. “I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
“What did you think of Sullivan?”
“Brigit? You know, the doc who, like, saved your life?”
“What about her?”
“She liked the boat. Liked being out there.”
“I just wondered.”
“I think I’ve seen her twice. Maybe a half hour total.”
“My guess is you’ll see more of her.”
“Oh? And what about you…will we see more of you, too?”
“You can count on that, Jim.”
“Why does that sound more ominous than…”
“I don’t have any romantic interests, Jim, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Ah. So, this is just all business?”
Goodway shrugged…but she nodded too.
“Good,” he said. “Because when Ted told me you cried after I came out of surgery, well, let’s say I was a little confused.”
“Just empathy, Jim. Nothing more.”
“Okay. So, is this more like professional interest?”
“That’s a little more complicated, I think.”
“Uh-huh. So, tell me. When did you first meet my mother?”
“What’s this?” Elizabeth said, taking the rifle from the range instructor.
“It’s a modified Model 70.”
“What’s it for…?”
“It’s a sniper rifle, Cadet. And since you had the best overall score on the range, the chief wants to see how well you handle this.”
“Yes,” the instructor said, and not a little sarcastically, “now. Maybe while the sun’s still out, ya know?”
“Yessir,” she said, taking the rifle. It was at least twice the weight of the M16 she’d used on the rifle portion of her three weeks at the FBI Academy’s famed range, where she had “aced” all three parts of the program: pistol, rifle and shotgun. When she’d taken a first on Hogan’s Alley the range superintendent took note and asked to see her overall scores, then he’d called Washington. Shooters like her, he knew from decades of experience, only came along once in a blue moon.
She took the weapon, opened the bolt and checked the chamber, saw it was clear. “What’s it chambered for, sir?”
“.308; you’ll be using a hot load this morning, and…it kicks like a mule,” he added, grinning.
“Need a coat? It’s cool out this morning.”
“I’m good, sir.”
He liked her. Hell, he thought, everyone liked her. PMA, Positive Mental Attitude – and she had it, in spades. Never complained, always calm, even out in the swamps when a water moccasin swam by; she was a real team player – and an empath, to boot. He was hoping she’d do good out here, he’d told himself as they walked along, if only because he might get to spend more time with her down in Georgia. ‘Yeah,’ he sighed inwardly, ‘I like her a little too much…’
They walked from the armourers shack over to the main range, and she noted the Academy Director was already out there – standing with three men she’d never seen before – and one man was dressed in black BDUs, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. They all had binoculars – either in hand or around their necks, and they were all staring at her.
“Here,” the instructor said as he held out a plain white box. She counted twenty hand-loads inside, and they were pristine, the tips some sort of deep red-colored plastic-like material. “Take five,” her instructor added.
“Prone. Use the sandbags or the bi-pod. Your choice.”
“Yessir.” She looked downrange, saw just one target set-up at the 500 yard mark, then she turned and felt the wind on her face. She made a few adjustments on the rifle’s scope then loaded the weapon, still looking around, still checking her surroundings – just like her grandfather had shown her all those years ago. She finished loading the cartridges, looked around one more time, then gently laid the weapon down before she knelt behind the sandbags.
Her first shot missed dead-center by a quarter-inch, and the man in the black BDUs nodded as he grinned. Her next two rounds were centered, her shots so well-placed after that she was only making one hole a little larger.
“Okay, I’ve seen enough,” the man in the BDUs said to the Assistant Director of Operations. “When can I have her.”
“She graduates on the third.”
“What’s her class rank so far?”
“First. By a wide margin.”
“What did she want to do?”
“Anyone talk to her about this yet?”
“No, she’s all yours.”
“Thanks. I think,” ‘Zeke’ Cromwell said. “Now?”
“Might as well get it over with. One way or another, she goes with you – but try to let her think it was her choice.”
Cromwell looked at the woman as she stood. No self-satisfied grin…no, and she was looking right at him. Like she understood he was the only person out there who recognized what she had just done.
Because he was.
He’d only seen shooting like hers a few times in almost ten years. As head of the Bureau’s Tactical Rifle Squad, he was in charge of training all the Bureau’s so-called snipers, only now they were down to the bare minimum. They needed fresh talent, and her kind didn’t show up very often.
He walked over to her, took the weapon from her hand and looked through the scope.
“Fair shooting,” Cromwell said. “Ever use this weapon before?”
“Uh-huh. Let’s take a walk,” he said, slinging the rifle. “We need to talk.”
He was sweating – profusely – holding himself up on the bars under each hand, letting the prosthetic take all his weight – again. He felt his knee give out and caught himself before he fell – again – then he cursed – again.
“Your nerves are raw, Jim. It’ll be a few more weeks, so you’re just going to have to tough it out.”
The first time he’d said “Easy for you to say,” his therapist, a second Gulf War vet and a double amputee, had lifted up his pant legs and shown him exactly what he was up against. He’d nodded his resolve that day and had been pushing hard ever since. Every time he rolled from his room at the VA down to the PT facility he got another lesson in resolve, in the brute determination needed to beat this kind of self-pity, this type of mind-raping depression.
After a week of this, Ted showed up, back from Boston for a long weekend, and this time he had a girl with him when he walked in his room.
“Dad?” Ted said, knocking on the door. “You up?”
He was still sweating, still trying to not cry from the pain. “Paco! You made it! And who’s this with you?”
“Dad, this is Susan. Susan, Dad…I mean, Jim.”
She was a little shy, he could tell that much, but she was a looker. Bright brown hair, deep brown eyes – kind eyes, he saw. Empathic. He held out his hand and he watched her come and take it. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
She nodded. “You to. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Nothing good, I hope,” he said, smiling. “Take a seat, both of you.”
“Dad, you need some water?”
He nodded his head. “This ain’t the Ritz, that’s for sure,” he sighed, still smiling, as Ted poured him a glass of tepid water.
“How’s it going so far?” Susan asked.
“I don’t know. No frame of reference, I guess.”
“Mind if I take a look?” she asked, and he looked at her, then at Ted – who only shrugged.
“And why would you want to do that?” he asked.
“I did my undergrad in PT, I’m a first year.”
“A first year?”
“Med school, at Tufts.”
“I’m curious,” he said. “Are you two friends, or is this a business call?”
“I love your son, and I think he loves me. I hope that answers your question.”
“We met last year, Dad, before all this went down. Things have kind of taken off since I got back.”
“I see. Well, what do you want to look at?”
“The incision, sir,” she said as she rolled up his pajama leg. She looked it over, palpated the area then nodded. “Some adhesions, and I think I feel a staple.”
“A staple?” he said, feeling a deep well of anger erupting.
“Mind of I go talk to the floor nurse?” Susan said.
“No, not at all.” He watched the girl walk out of the room then turned and looked at his son. “What’s this all about, Ted?”
“She was kind of the resident genius with a lot of the pre-meds last year. She was helping me with the M-CATs.”
“How’d you do?”
“530s. I think I have a shot, anyway. If I don’t get in first try I think I’ll try that flight school out in Phoenix.”
“Good. If you place well Ben will get you an interview.”
Ted nodded. “What do you think of her?”
“Hell, Paco, I just met her…?”
“You always told me first impressions are the most important.”
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?”
“Compassion and empathy. That’s what I see.”
Ted smiled. “That’s Susan, to a ‘T’.”
“Is this serious?”
“I wanted to talk to you about that…” but he stopped when Susan and an intern walked into the room.
“Okay, show me what you felt,” the intern said.
He held up his stump and Susan palpated the area again. “Here,” she said. “There’s already some tissue encapsulation, and it feels warm to me.”
The intern felt his stump and nodded his head. “It’s a wonder no one’s caught this…” he sighed. “Okay, I’m off to X-ray,” he said as he walked from the room.
His temperature was 101, and climbing.
She stepped off the train in White River Junction, saw James and Jim standing by the old Victorian-style terminal building – then her boy rushed up, wrapped his arms around her legs before she bent over, picked him up and held him close.
“Oh, my Jimmy-boy,” she whispered. “Oh, how I’ve missed my little Jimmie-boy…”
Her husband hung back and watched for a bit, then he walked across the platform – not sure how he felt just then.
She held Jimmie as she watched James walk their way, looking at her as she’d expected he might…a little bemused, yet more than a little wary. She’d written him, told him the Bureau had whisked her off to Fort Benning, Georgia, for two months of what amounted to the full Special Forces sniper school. This was, she added, an unexpected new direction, and she didn’t yet know what to think about it, but, her letter concluded, she promised it wouldn’t effect their lives together.
Now she had a week off, one whole week with her family, before she had to report for duty in D.C., so she had one week to make good on that pledge. As they drove up to St Johnsbury in an early winter’s snow, she held on to her son, held him close, missing the happy innocence in his eyes more than anything else…yet she knew something had changed. Something inside herself, she thought. She was being trained to be, she was reluctant to admit, an assassin, and she felt her basic humanity being stripped away with every round fired on the range. That she hated these crime lords was never in question…but had her hatred taken her to a place where violence was the only answer?
When she played with Jimmie in the snow that week, all those doubts played-out in her mind’s eye. Could she, when it really counted, “reach out and touch someone” with a .308 round to the head? If she could, what would keep an ever-escalating series of hits and counter hits from developing? Wouldn’t she be endangering her family, putting all of them in the crosshairs?
James had insisted, when told of her assignment, that they never tell their son about all this. It would warp his view of who and what his mother was, he told her, and she had reluctantly agreed – and in the process finally admitting to herself the real ambivalence she felt about this new direction. She had originally been recruited with one purpose in mind: to help infiltrate Chinese gangs on the Lower East Side, in order to disrupt the flow of drugs and slaves, usually children, into the country. After years on the state task force, after years of threats and intimidation, she’d known she had to either quit or take it to the next level. When she thought of all the girls in the pipeless, the thousands of half-starved, terrified children she’d interviewed over the years, she knew she couldn’t turn back. So, she’d gone to Quantico.
And now, this unexpected new direction.
After dinner her first night home she stayed up with Jimmy, telling him about Washington, D.C. and all the sights she’d take him to see when it got warmer, and she’d seen echoes of her own innocence in his eyes. She’d seen firsthand how lucky they were, her family in Vermont – and all the other innocent, wide-eyed families in the United States. How lucky they were not to have children swept up in the same dragnets as these Chinese girls – only then be hauled off to some foreign country and auctioned off as slaves. When she’d learned what these women were forced to do…
No, hatred was not too strong a word, yet at one point she realized she was beginning to hate humanity. Cartels in Asia and Eastern Europe rounded up these girls, shipped them to willing parties all over the world, wherever there was enough money to sustain trade in human flesh –
Only now, Hoover and Dulles had agreed…the US was going on the offensive. A concerted effort was being made to identify the ringleaders of these cartels – globally – and when they couldn’t be compromised or taken into custody, they would be eliminated.
And when, after her recruitment, she’d learned about the program, she’d had no problem signing on. Enough was enough, she told herself, and James, too. All this misery had to end, one way or another, because if drugs kept coming into the country…well, everyone from Eisenhower down knew all would be lost. The girls, she knew, were just the means to an end. Opium and heroin were the end, and in every way possible. And when she looked at her boy it all made sense.
He came out of his latest surgery feeling more defeated than ever before, yet he resumed his battles on the physical therapy floor with a vengeance. He had lost more than seventy pounds since the summer before, and his face was now a gaunt, faded mask, a gray caricature of his former self. And now, after a month of more hellish agony, to cap it all off it was Thanksgiving week, that All-American orgy of gluttonous over-consumption, and Ted was bringing Susan to Altair, again.
And he was going home today, too. To Altair, for the first time since he’d left Desolation Sound.
His bags packed, his prosthetic on, his canes at the ready – just in case – he was still not ready when Ted and Susan knocked on the door. But Ted looked worried when he came into the little room, though she looked a little too resplendent in a rosy-cheeked way – like she was pregnant, he thought, as he looked into her guileless eyes. That would explain the look of baffled misery in his son’s eyes, wouldn’t it?
And then a third face slipped into the room…that red-headed doctor from Canada, the family doc that had come out to the boat…
‘Why is she here?’ he wondered, as his eyes went from the physician’s to his boy, and back. ‘Ah…collusion…’
“Dad? Do you remember…”
“Doctor Sullivan. Of course I do.”
“Brigit,” the physician replied quickly. “And this is not a professional call.”
“Ah, well, to what, then, do I owe the pleasure of your company?”
“I asked her to come, Dad,” Ted said. “Didn’t want you to feel left out.”
“Left out?” he asked, his face a blank.
“You know…the odd man out…three’s a crowd…that kind of thing?”
“You ready to go?”
“As I’ll ever be,” he said as he forced himself up, taking almost all his weight on with his right arm – with his left on the bed-rail. He put his wait forward and winced, then grabbed his son’s shoulder. “Lead on…” he panted, “just not too fast.”
“You got it, Pops,” Ted whispered. “Susan, could you grab his duffel?”
He didn’t hear a reply, only the searing wave of lava running up his right thigh into his back – then he saw a nurse out in the hall, with a wheelchair – and he sighed as another wave, this time relief, rolled over him. He put his hands out and almost fell into the chair, and he felt his hands shaking, perspiration running down his forehead as helping hands gripped him, helped him settle in the chair.
There was an old Toyota Land Cruiser waiting out front and more helping hands lifted him in, and he saw Sullivan take the wheel and drive through the U-W campus on the way to the lake. She knew, he saw, the way – and when she turned into the marina parking lot he knew she’d been here before. ‘How odd,’ he thought.
There were friends waiting by the gate, friends from Delta, and he felt a surge of gratitude as he looked at the wall of familiar faces. More hands took hold, familiar hands, and he fell back and let them carry him to another wheel chair, and he tried to hide his embarrassment but knew it wasn’t really necessary. Not with this bunch. Not now – not ever, he told himself. Down the ramp, through the gate, then there she was: Altair. Her hull still gleaming, a freshly polished navy blue. More people were already on deck, too.
Then, the moment of truth, the thing he’d practiced a week for. The steps – from the dock to the deck. He looked at them like he might a coiled mass of rattlers, then he looked down at his leg.
Okay. Let’s do it.
Someone held out a cane and he took it, pushed himself upright – then he reached out and took hold of a lifeline in one hand, the cane in the other – and he walked to the steps, never taking the first tread out of his sight. He lifted his thigh and pulled on the lifeline as he pushed off with the cane, then his left foot followed and he steadied himself.
Two more, he whispered someplace deep inside. He pulled again, lifted his stump again as he pushed off with the left – and he was up one more.
One more, he sighed. One more pull, one more push, then he was over the bulwarks, spinning to sit on the coachroof – aghast at the searing pain.
And once…he thought he saw Melissa out there too, maybe wiping away a tear…but when he looked again the image was gone.
Her last night at home, a little after midnight, she went into Jimmy’s room…to check on him. Something had woken her, something out of the ordinary. A noise, something out of place – and then she saw flashlights on the snow outside his window. Using what cover she could, she made her way to the window…
And saw half a dozen state troopers outside, looking at foot-prints in the snow.
She went to her son’s bed and checked his forehead, and when he sighed she backed out of his room, put her shoes on and slipped downstairs to the front door. Two troopers were there, waiting for her.
She looked at one of them.
“Two men, a neighbor saw them and called it in.”
“All white. Winter camo. Over their faces, too.”
The trooper nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. Both of them.”
Her stomach knotted. Blown already, but how was that even possible…? Unless…
“Any tire tracks?”
“Possible set, about two blocks over. And the local PD had a suspicious vehicle call on a tan Impala with New York plates earlier this evening.”
“That fits,” she said, nodding. “Did they call you guys?”
“Yes, Ma’am. We let D.C. know, too. There’s a lead on the vehicle. Possibly seen west of Woodstock, maybe headed for Rutland.”
“On Route 4? Jesus, could we be that lucky?”
“We’ve got both exits covered.”
“We need witnesses,” she said. “Try and take ‘em alive.”
The trooper nodded, but his face was a mask.
“Okay, what else happened? What are you not telling me?”
“An assistant AG was up in Burlington, run down by a car about three hours ago. A tan Ford, maybe a Fairlane.”
“Find the car?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Abandoned up by the Canadian border, near Richford, I think.”
The trooper shook his head. “Torched. A second body in the trunk.”
“Yes, Ma’am, working for NYPD, wearing a wire. That Assistant AG was running her case, had come up for a meet.”
“Pickering? Stephanie Pickering?”
“Yes, Ma’am. You know her?”
“For a few years, yes…”
She heard James at the door and turned, saw him standing in the doorway. “I’ll be up in a minute,” she said.
“Want me to put on coffee?”
She heard the door close, gently, then turned back to the trooper.
“Word is, Ma’am, that Mr Hoover is involved now. We’re supposed to keep this house under surveillance. Sorry, Ma’am.”
She nodded. “Tell your men coffee will be ready in a couple minutes. Back door.”
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
Altair was quiet now, all his friends gone. Ted had gone below a half hour ago, though Susan had waited for him a few minutes more. He sat in the darkness, sitting on the cockpit seat behind the wheel – wondering if he would ever have any control over his life again, though he was not at all tired. He felt movement and looked up, saw Brigit Sullivan up on the bow looking down into the black water, and he wondered what she’d seen. An otter, perhaps? A harbor seal?
Then she looked aft, saw him sitting in the cockpit – alone.
And she came to him.
“Busy night,” she said as she climbed over the tall coaming and settled-in next to him. “Did you ever think you had so many friends?”
A lot of people love you, Jim. You’re a lucky man.”
He looked at the remains of his leg and smiled at life’s little ironies. “Ah, is that what I am?”
She leaned into him, put her head on his shoulder – daring him to push her away – but he put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close.
“What are you going to do now?” she asked, her voice quivering a little.
“I’ve called about having Altair moved to Florida. I could commute to Atlanta from there, I suppose.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
She felt him shrug.
“What about you?” he asked.
“What about me?”
“What do you want?”
“To be with you.”
And there it was. Three words – out of the night and into his heard. The three words he’d been hoping to hear for weeks.
“Have you found out anything on the immigration front?”
“I’m a physician. It won’t be a problem.”
“What about Florida?”
“I’m more concerned about you working again.”
“What about loading up Altair, just slipping free of all this.”
“You mean, like, just sail away?”
He sighed – and he felt her snuggle closer still. “Would that interest you?”
“Me? Maybe so. I’ve done the medicine thing for twenty years. I could use a break, I think. What about you?”
“I don’t think I’m ready to call it quits. I guess I love what I do too much to just walk away now.”
“It feels right. Teaching, I mean. Maybe for a few years, then I can take full retirement.”
“I know. One of your chums explained it all to me. It would make a big difference, wouldn’t it?”
He nodded. “I’d be comfortable that way. Not have to worry about keeping Altair. If I cut loose now, it could be an issue in ten years. And I’m not sure this is the best time to leave Ted on his own, too.”
“Oh, Susan has him wrapped around her little finger.”
“I know. That’s what bothers me.”
“He’s got too many unanswered questions to take this path – so suddenly.”
“That other girl…Tracy, was it? What was that all about.”
“Just a stray we picked up by the side of the road,” he said, his voice barely a sigh.
“She was a mistake,” he said, thinking about her asking to see his pilot’s license, about a poor, frantic girl running away in the night, looking to take charge, somehow, while she still could.
“Do you know what happened to her?”
He nodded. “Yup. She’d been picked up, a teenager on the street in Sydney. Sold off to someone in New Orleans, I think.”
“Sold off? You mean…?”
“Trafficked. A slave. She broke free, was running from them…”
“Apparently Chinese traffickers. They run drugs through the girls for a while, then sell them off to the dealers, as human playthings. At least that’s the story I’ve heard. Anyway, most of ‘em end up dead after a few years.”
“So I’ve heard. Is that what Melissa does?”
“I don’t know what that woman does, Brigit. She’s a mystery.”
“Do you like her?”
“Like her?” he sighed. “I’m terrified of her.”
“Because I don’t know what her back game is. Because nothing’s what it appears to be where she’s concerned.”
The Bureau shut down the Hong Kong operation before it ever started. Somehow the operation had been penetrated, maybe a weak link in the New York office, and now a federal prosecutor was dead, several informants too. And the thinking was that professionals had been called in to take out her family.
It was time, her supervisors told her, to move her family.
“Where?” she asked her supervisors.
“What about your husband’s father? Didn’t he have a farm out West? Somewhere in New Mexico?
She thought of the old man, thought of him and that ranch of his, that ranch – and all those goddamn airplanes…
When they arrived at his grandfather’s ranch in New Mexico, Jimmie climbed out of the back of the overstuffed Ford station wagon and stretched, then his mouth fell open. There wasn’t a tree – a real tree, anyway – in sight. There were a few scraggly looking things that resembled trees on a distant hillside, but everywhere he looked he saw brown grass on rolling brown hills. His grandfather’s house looked like it was made of the same stuff, too – some kind of brown mud, he thought…
And even his grandfather looked kind of brown – like he’d become a living, breathing part of this arid landscape.
He remembered his father talking about him all the way across the country. How Ellis, his grandfather, had flown “in the first war…” then come home and built the hardware store into a real, going concern. Not content with being a storekeeper, Ellis had started building houses, a few here and there, then dozens at a time. In the early 1920s, long before the Crash, he’d built one of the first public aerodromes in Vermont, and pretty soon Ellis Patterson was giving flying lessons to anyone who dropped by on Saturday mornings, including nearly all the pretty young “gals” in the Northern Kingdom. He married one of those girls, Sarah was her name, and they started a family. And times were good.
Until 1929, anyway.
Because Ellis Patterson very nearly lost everything he’d built in the Crash.
But the hardware store kept the family afloat, and after Roosevelt’s election in ‘32 he got busy again, securing contracts to built airports up and down the Connecticut River Valley. He taught his son, James, to fly before the boy went off to college…but by then another war looked more and more likely. Ellis worried about his son going off to fight over there, but he also knew enough about the world to not worry about things he could neither foresee or control..
Then Ellis’ wife Sarah died of influenza, and he fell away from the world after that – for a while, anyway. James was in his second year when he bid on several airports the government wanted built in a hurry – out in the middle of New Mexico. He had people he trusted to run the chain of hardware stores he’d built up in Vermont and New Hampshire, so when he won the bid he took his best crews out west…to a sleepy little city called Santa Fe.
His company literally built a dozen airports in a little more than a year, from Santa Fe north to Los Alamos and Taos in the northern part of the state, and as far south as Socorro in the south. As most were being used as training facilities for the Army Air Corp, his business expanded to include building-out these airports as military facilities. And along the way he picked up a parcel of land near a little town west of Santa Fe called White Rock.
So, of course, the first thing he built on his little place was a runway, then he added a few hangers. Then a few more. When he went to “the Ranch,” as he started to call it, he usually slept in a tent and made do with bottled water, but one morning he woke up and stepped outside his tent and ran into a rattlesnake – and that put an end to sleeping on the ground. So he built a stable and bought a couple of horses, then started roaming the ranch, looking for just the right spot to build a little house.
One Saturday afternoon he was riding through some piñon and he came upon a break in a rocky escarpment that split his property into two zones. Below the escarpment the land was flat and almost bleak, while beyond the break mountains, real mountains loomed.
He looked at the rocks and studied them for a while, feeling something odd…something he’d not felt since flying in the skies over France. He felt like he was being watched, by a predator.
He rode into the break, the horse he was on taking short, tentative steps. The opening in the rocks was perhaps fifty yards wide, the walls a good sixty feet tall, and there were pines inside the opening, lining the way ahead. He rode quietly, then stopped when he saw at the horse’s ears lay back; he pulled the Winchester 30-30 from the scabbard and laid it across his thighs, just as the hair on the back of his neck stood on end…
He felt something new, a stirring in the wind perhaps, and he turned, saw a cat making it’s sprint, felt the cat’s eyes boring in on his, and he raised the Winchester and fired once.
He fired short, deliberately, willing the cat to stop – and the animal did.
And they each stood their ground – watching one another for the longest time – then the cat turned and walked away, up into the trees above the little canyon.
He watched the cat until it disappeared, then he let the horse walk ahead at it’s own pace.
The little canyon followed a stream, bending first to the left, then bending back on itself in a hard oxbow to the right…and after perhaps a quarter mile the canyon gave way to a bowl-shaped valley…
He climbed down from the horse and looked around, stunned by what he’d just stumbled upon. There was good water in the huge bowl, and green grass everywhere he looked. A small pond…no, several ponds, falling down the hill at the far end of the valley in a series of small waterfalls. He saw a perfect spot for the house he had in mind, but the next thing he thought about was desecrating this spot.
It was perfect. Too perfect. If he built here he’d spoil this land forever…and just then he saw the cat up in the trees – watching him. Like the cat was weighing his decision too.
He turned and got back on the horse, then returned to the escarpment and walked along the scattered scree for another hour. He stopped once and looked down valley, could see his runway and the half-dozen hangers he’d built nestled in the piñon scrub. He dismounted again and walked out on a small promontory; he scratched at the rocky soil with his boot and looked at the hard-scrabble, then he turned and looked at the opening in the escarpment. There’s be water here too, he knew, though he’d have to drill for it, but from where he stood he could see Santa Fe in the distance, and even Albuquerque far off to the south.
“This’ll do,” Ellis Patterson said, to a passing breeze. A few days later his crews were hard at work on the new house.
Jim watched tension build in the air – like wires between two towers. High tension, like an uneasy awakening, when his father and grandfather shook hands.
“Long drive, isn’t it?” Ellis Patterson said, almost defiantly – like he’d had his doubts his son was up to such a journey.
“I wouldn’t want to do it in summer,” James Patterson added.
“Get’s bad once you leave St. Louis,” Ellis nodded. “Unless you turn on the air.” Jim had never heard the city pronounced like Saint Lew-ee before, and now he stared at this stranger – wondering what was wrong with the old fart.
“Don’t have air–conditioning,” his father added. “Never needed it back home.”
“Well, you’ll need it here, so you might as well think about getting rid of that heap before summer comes.”
Jim watched this exchange, wondering why these two seemed almost at odds with one another…then he turned and saw his mother – staring at some buildings down the hill. He turned and looked at them, too; he saw one was an airplane hanger – and there was a silver airplane inside, protected from the sun. It was, he could just see now, a red-nosed P-51 Mustang – and his heart started racing. His father had flown one in the war and now, right here in the middle of the desert, there one sat. Even sitting still, almost lost in shadow, the airplane looked like a living thing. Lethal, full of menace – full of all the stories his father had told him about combat in the skies over Europe.
But…what was this thing doing out here, lost under New Mexican skies.
When he turned back to his father he saw both men staring at his mother, looking at her looking at him, and trying to read her reaction.
When he looked at his mother he thought she looked a little like a volcano.
Maybe right before an eruption.
His first impulse was to flee.
“I thought I saw her out there tonight,” he said, pointing to the parking lot above the marina. She was there, and then she was gone.”
“I didn’t see her,” Brigit said. “I haven’t seen her in weeks.”
“Funny, but sometimes it feels like she’s watching me. Us, maybe.”
“Us? You mean you and…?”
“Ted. Ted called me a few weeks ago, said he’d run into her at a Starbucks near campus. He goes there after this one class, usually with a bunch from his study group. And there she was, waiting.”
“Did they talk?”
“Yup. Just pleasantries, a little about me, then she left. He called me that afternoon, wondered what it meant.”
“Do you know?”
“What it means? I’m not sure. I can’t get her to open up, but ever since she showed up at Nancy’s…”
“Yeah. She was there, I’m pretty sure she was after that girl, Tracy. She hasn’t said why, not directly anyway, but maybe she thinks I’m tied up with stuff. And that’s what bothers me.”
“Trafficking. Human trafficking.”
She laughed. “I doubt that. I think she likes you.”
“Likes me? Hell, I think she hates me.”
Sullivan looked at him, sitting in the cockpit – in the middle of his night – and she thought he really might remain in the dark. Clueless. Anyone could tell Melissa loved him, even Ted. Why else would she be keeping an eye on them both. Obviously that wayward girl – Tracy – had exposed them both to unknown dangers, so Melissa was keeping an eye on them.
She wanted to change the subject just then. Wanted to keep his mind off Melissa. She looked at the stainless steel of his prothesis gleaming in the moonlight, and she wanted to ask how it felt, but no. She realized how little she knew about his life, about his one true love.
So, she asked.
He was on one of his grandfather’s horses, following the old man along a winding trail that led away from the main house. A tall, rocky ledge was off to the right, and they were slowly converging on an opening in the formation.
“You need to be quiet now, boy,” his grandfather whispered. “And keep your eyes on those rocks,” he added, pointing at the escarpment.
He, of course, had heard stories of the cat. How his grandfather had stared the beast down. The first time his father visited, right after the war, he too had made this trip out to the rocks, and he too had seen the cat. It was, his father told him the night before, a rite of passage.
“What’s that?” Jimmy asked.
“Well, it’s like something you have to do before you can become a man.”
And he’d thought about that for a while.
“So, seeing this cat is going to make me a man?”
And he’d seen his grandfather looking at his father – with a strange grin on his face.
“Well, not exactly. But it’ll help.”
Now, as he looked at the rocky cliff, and the scree along the base, he had his eyes peeled – looking for any sign of movement…
And then his grandfather’s horse stopped.
The old mare pawed at the ground – twice – and his grandfather pulled the old, weatherbeaten 30-30 from it’s scabbard one more time.
“Come here, boy,” his grandfather whispered.
“Do you see him?” Jim asked.
“Top of the ridge,” his grandfather said, pointing a little to their left, “under that big rock, in the shadows.”
He looked and looked – but didn’t see a thing…then…movement caught his eye. His eyes locked on, went right to the cat then – and he gasped out loud. “It’s huge,” he whispered, his voice straining to conceal the fear he felt welling up.
“Big cat, alright. Mean son of a bitch, too.”
Then the cat was working it’s way down the rocky face, hardly ever taking it’s eyes off them, and he watched as his grandfather cocked the rifle, then planted the butt on top of his thigh, the barrel pointing at the sun. The cat leapt over several boulders – then disappeared in the scrub and piñon.
“Get behind me, boy,” his grandfather said, and while he maneuvered behind his grandfather’s mare he heard the old man talking to himself. “She’s acting strange, boy. She hasn’t acted like this in a long time.”
Then he saw the cat off to their right. She had circled around and was streaking in now; his grandfather saw the cat and fired once – into the sky – but this time the cat wasn’t falling for it. He watched as his grandfather worked the lever, chambering another round, and then as he sighted-in on the cat – now less than a hundred yards away and closing fast…
And the mare saw the cat then, too, and began bucking…
And he watched his grandfather falling to the ground, the Winchester arcing through the air…
He reacted now. No thought at all, just pure adrenaline fueled reaction…
He jumped off his old nag and picked up the carbine, fired one round – striking the cat’s shoulder; it stumbled once then it’s legs gave out and she slid to a stop not ten feet away.
Wounded now, very angry, and growling.
He did what his grandfather had done. He worked the lever, chambered a round and held the cat in his sights.
“She’s wounded, Jimmy. Bad. You can’t leave her like this.”
He nodded, looked the cat in the eye – then pulled the trigger.
They rode back and got to the house just before sunset, walked up to the barn under reddening clouds; his mother looked at the cat tied-off behind her son’s saddle and shook her head. She wondered, for a moment, who had killed the cat – but then she saw the look in her son’s eyes. She had, after all, been teaching him to shoot for years, and she’d had to admit more than once he was at least as good a shot as she. His father walked up and helped get the cat off the saddle, then they walked the horses, let them cool off, then they watered them and stabled them for the night. By they time he walked to the house the cat was gone.
His grandfather told the tale that night. About Jimmy’s presence of mind, and how he’d saved them both out there. His father listened quietly but inside he seethed; his mother was lost between waves and anger and pride.
After dinner, after Jim went to bed, they tried, gently, to remind Ellis that they’d come out west to avoid being killed by Chinese gangsters. Being killed by a mountain lion wasn’t any less appealing.
Three months later he turned fourteen.
That afternoon his grandfather took him up in the Mustang…
“What’s a Mustang?” Brigit Sullivan asked.
“Hmm? Oh, back in the Second World War there was this fighter. Some say it was the airplane that turned the tide in the air war. It was designed to escort the bombers that flew missions over Germany. My dad flew one in the war.”
“And your grandfather had one?”
“Not just one. He had the exact plane my dad flew over there.”
“Honestly, I have no idea. My dad used to say that Pops knew people.”
He laughed a little at the memory. “Yeah, when we really wanted to get under his skin, we’d call him Pops, but deep down I think he loved being called that.”
“So, he took you up in the airplane your father flew in the war? Why didn’t your father take you up?”
“Dad, well, stopped flying after the war. He loved it, I guess, but he just quit. Flying, I mean, because, I think, the war killed that love. He wouldn’t even fly on an airliner. Always drove, or took the train.”
“Did he talk about it?”
He nodded. Something about Dresden, the bombings. He came home after that, back to Vermont. Mom said he could hardly talk about the war, what he’d seen, and didn’t for years. Some kind of shut-down, I guess, but when he got back to the hardware store she said it was like he’d never been gone. He just got to work and kept at it – like twenty hours a day.”
“So, your grandfather took you up in this Mustang? What was that like?”
“Weird. I knew some of the details about the war by then, the things my father did, and it was really strange touching this machine my father had flown. In a way, it made some of his stories, maybe even his grief, seem more real.”
“I can’t imagine what your father felt…”
“He wouldn’t go anywhere near the hangers, wanted nothing to do with those feelings.”
“Feelings? You mean flyings?”
“Yup. My grandfather taught me to fly out there. The basics, all the way through instrument training.”
“In a World War II fighter?”
“Oh, no, he had a bunch of planes. A few military aircraft, like a B-25, but he also had a few civilian aircraft too. A Cessna 210 and a Beech Baron, those kinds of planes. He taught me in a small Cessna, then, when it was time to do my cross-countries, he’d follow me while I flew this old Waco…”
“Yup, a YMF, not that that means anything. It’s a bi-plane, a real screamer, and one of the first long flights we took together was in that old thing. Took off, flew up to Farmington then west, out to the Grand Canyon. We gassed up at the airport there then flew down into the canyon, followed the river almost all the way to Vegas. Then he landed the thing and grabbed a cab, and we went to the Sand’s Hotel and saw Frank Sinatra that night. I’ll never forget that…” he said, looking up at the stars.
“Sinatra? Really? What a neat memory to have…”
“Pops was alright. He was in his seventies then, I think, but no one really seemed to know how old he was. He looked like my dad’s older brother…like almost the same age. I guess the hard thing about it…my father died before Pops did, by about six months.”
“When was that?”
“Oh…I seems like just a few years ago.”
“Did you ever fly that…what did you call it? That Mustang?”
“Oh, yeah, all the time, actually. I did two summers ago, anyway.”
“What? But you said he died…?”
“Yeah, well, he left the ranch to me.”
“The ranch. You know, yeah, it’s mine now?”
“You mean you could move there? Not stay on the boat?”
“I suppose so, but not really. I’ve been leasing out the land to a grazing company, and one of their foremen lives in one of houses with his family.”
“How many houses are there?”
“I don’t know. Five or six, anyway, mainly for ranch-hands that come up during round-ups. It gets kind of busy out there.”
“I don’t understand…?”
“Well, grazing companies move whole herds around the country to the best grass. Usually from South Texas, down around Corpus, in the winter, up to New Mexico in the Spring, then alpine pasture in Colorado. It’s expensive, but herds that are pre-sold to the big steak-houses demand the best beef, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. The part of New Mexico, where Pops bought all that land, has consistently good grass, and we make a pretty penny this way.”
“I’m just trying to think of one good reason why you don’t move there right this instant. Or, really, why you didn’t twenty years ago.”
“Because I love what I do. Well, loved. I guess that’s all over now, really.”
“What about Atlanta…?”
He felt the air beside his ear rippling before he heard the first gunshot, and in that instant he grabbed Brigit by the waist and pushed her down the companionway steps – just as several bullets slammed into his right arm. Lights were coming on all over the marina moments later, and he remembered hearing a car peeling out of the parking garage, then the pulsing wail of sirens. He saw Ted and Susan for a moment, but they disappeared in a hot, blinding white haze. He felt himself swallow once, and thought he tasted blood.
“That can’t be good,” he said – to no one in particular.
Ellis Patterson was sitting behind his grandson – feeling the boy’s movements as he followed-through with him on the controls.
They were flying lazy arcs over the ranch, about 1500 feet over the grass and piñon, and he could hear Jimmy’s breath over the intercom. He smiled when he remembered teaching James the very same maneuvers – nearly thirty years before – while flying over the Connecticut River towards White River Junction. If anything, he thought, this boy was even better than his father was. Fearless, less tentative. Dangerous.
He’d have to temper that, and soon, before the boy got himself in real trouble.
Jimmy broke off and flew towards the escarpment, flew towards the break in the wall. Flew back to the encounter with the cat, and it was as if he could read the boy’s mind…
“What’s on your mind, Jim?” he asked.
“Just thinking, Pops. Maybe there are more of ‘em. Maybe she had cubs.”
“Yup. Cats have kittens, bears have cubs.”
“And dogs? Puppies, right?”
“Mostly diarrhea, if I recall correctly.”
They both laughed.
“Antelope!” Jimmy cried, and he pushed the nose over and settled into a shallow dive. Ellis poked his head out into the slipstream and saw about a dozen on the prairie perhaps a mile ahead, and he marveled at the boy’s eyesight.
“Watch your airspeed, Jim. Throttle back some. They’re not going anywhere.”
Obedient. No question, no doubt, and no hurt pride, just willingness to listen, and learn. And the boy’s mind didn’t wander off, didn’t fall into daydreaming.
He felt small corrections through the rudder pedals, then a little right stick to correct for the crosswind, then he looked off the right wingtip and saw they were – at most – twenty feet off the ground…and doing at least 140. And still the boy’s concentration was rock solid.
He barely caught a glimpse of the startled antelope as they roared past, then Jim had the Waco in an easy climbing turn to the west.
“Think you can find your way back to the strip?”
“Yessir, no problem.”
Dead certain, pure self-confidence. The kid was a natural born pilot.
Now, he knew, came the hard part. He’d have to talk to Elizabeth about all this, because she’d have to sign off on his teaching the boy. Because, after all that nonsense back in Vermont, James was still withdrawn. Still fighting his demons. Only now, he was drinking again – and Elizabeth had her hands full – again. So he’d have to tread carefully, wouldn’t he…?
“Pops? You with me back there?”
“Yup. So, what do you think? Want me to talk to your mother?”
“I can do it, Pops. I think she’ll just shoot you down, but she’ll listen to me.”
“Let me know. You ready to try landing this thing?”
And he did.
She drove him into town most days, drove him to school and dropped him off, then she went to “the office…” – wherever that was. He still had no idea what she did for a living, and most mornings his father could be found sitting on the porch, staring at the mountains across the valley.
No, life had changed in drastic, important ways, and James Patterson had come undone.
Jim would wake up at six, head out to the barn with his grandfather and hay the horses, muck the stalls, then he’d shower and get ready for school while Pops cooked breakfast. After school their rituals were as rigid, too: Mom picked him up at 3:15 and some days they stopped off for groceries but usually straight back to the ranch. Pops would be waiting by the Waco, and within minutes he’d have pre-flighted the old bi-plane and started her up. Most days they flew out west, but some afternoons they flew south, to Albuquerque, and they’d land and sneak in a burger and fries, then head back to the ranch in time for supper.
His father would still be on the porch, still staring at the mountains, as he and Pops walked up to the house, and he’d look at his father, then his grandfather, wondering how two people could possibly be so different.
One evening, as they walked up the little hill to the house, he could see a tall glass in his father’s hand, and he could see Pop’s jaw clenching overtime as they walked up walk to the porch. Then they both saw a pitcher on the table by his father’s side, lemon wedges gathered along the rim.
“Want some tea?” his father asked.
“Sure would,” Pops replied. “How ‘bout you, boy?”
He’d nodded, wondering what the punch line was.
And his father had poured two glasses.
“I’m headed back to Vermont in the morning,” his father stated – and rather defiantly too, Jim thought.
“Oh?” Pops said, looking over his son in the amber twilight. “Something happen back there?”
“Got a letter from Rebecca. Business is falling apart; that Roscoe fella is robbing the till. I’ve got to get back and set things right or we’ll lose it.”
“Maybe it’s time to sell?” Pops sighed, and the change that came over his father was instantaneous, and withering.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You and Elizabeth. You’d like nothing more than to take away the one thing I have left in this world.”
And Pops had looked at his son for a moment, then just shook his head and walked into the house…
And again, the change that came over his father was instant, and complete. “So, how was flying today?”
And Jim was a little taken aback – because his father never asked about his flying.
“Pretty good. We flew up to Los Alamos, worked on crosswind landings.”
“Oh? Good breeze today…bet that was some kind of fun.”
“Your grandfather is a good teacher. Maybe the best I ever saw. Listen to him and you’ll do good.”
“How long will you be gone, Dad?”
“I won’t be coming back, son. Too many bad memories for me here. I need to get away from him, and I think your mother and I need some time apart…to think about…things.”
“Things?” he said, and for the first time in his life he felt cold, hollow fear in his gut. “What kind of things, Dad?”
And his father had turned and looked him in the eye: “Sit down, Jim. We need to have a talk.”
He heard a voice, far away, like someone on the shore of a lake, in fog…
Then pressure. Someone pressing on his forehead, almost right between his eyes.
“You can stop that now,” he said.
“Can you open your eyes, Mr Patterson?”
“Jim,” he said, trying to open his eyes – but they only opened in narrow, slit-like slashes, and they were full of, what? Vaseline. “My name’s Jim. What’s yours?”
“I’m Jill, one of the nurses here in the ICU.”
“Where’s here, and why am I not on my boat?”
“You’re at Virginia Mason, and you were shot.”
“Yes, but we can talk about all that later. Let me get those eyes,” the nurse said, then he felt cool terry-cloth swabbing his eyelids, then his forehead.
“Shot? Where?” he mumbled.
“Once in the leg, three rounds in your right arm. The left femoral artery was nicked, so it was kind of touch and go there for a while.”
“What time is it? How long have I been out?” he asked, as awareness came back in a flood.
“It’s eight in the morning. They brought you in a little after midnight.”
“There’s a small mob in the waiting room. They claim to be friends of yours, so I assume your son might be out there too.”
“His name is Ted. Has anyone talked to him? And Brigit…Doctor Sullivan. I need to talk to them both.”
“It’ll be a few more minutes. The surgeon will need to okay that.”
He closed his eyes, shook his head. “Yeah…sure.”
“We’ve got Vancomycin running in case that bug in your leg makes a comeback, so if you feel nauseous, let me know.”
“I feel nauseous.”
“Would you like something for it?”
“Coca-Cola works best for me.”
“Seriously. And I know: you’ll have to ask the surgeon first. I know the drill.”
There was a commotion outside the room and a moment later an impossibly young kid in green scrubs walked into the room, followed by – Ted and Brigit.
“Good, you’re awake,” the kid in the green scrubs said. “I’m Doc Stuart, your surgeon…”
“That’s not possible,” Jim said.
“Pardon?” the kid said.
“You couldn’t possibly be older than twelve. How could you even remotely be qualified to be a surgeon.”
The kid laughed.
“You even laugh like a twelve year old.”
“Thanks, I think. Anyway, we’ve repaired your left femoral artery and the other wounds, and we have infectious diseases working on that fungal issue…but right now it looks like you’re out of the woods. It was touch and go there, for a while. The paramedics did a great job stabilizing you…”
He listened to the infant, because the more he looked at the kid the more like an infant, maybe a very young Dennis the Menace, he seemed. Then again, Ted looked like he remembered him – ten years ago…
“Something’s wrong,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Perception. The right side of my face feels…”
And he fell into the light – again –.
Adrift on blinding currents, like a moth to the flame.
He was in the barn, raking out the stalls again when he heard something almost like thunder – but this was close. Real close.
He ran out into the little corral off the side of the barn – just in time to see his mother, down on the ground, adjusting the sights on a hideous looking rifle. He watched, curious now, as she chambered a round, and his eyes followed the line of the barrel across the dry creek-bed on the far side of the runway…and he saw several pumpkins set up there…and he put his fingers in his ears just in time…
He felt the concussion in his chest, saw the gout of blossoming flame erupt from the end of the barrel – then one of the pumpkins downrange simply exploded, leaving nothing but a cloud of settling vapor…
“Holy fucking shit!” he cried…
And his mother rolled over, stood up in a hurried rush. “What are you doing here? I thought you were up flying?”
“No, Pops had to go into town, says he has a doctors appointment. Mom? What are you doing with that thing?”
“Oh? This? It’s a new deer rifle. I’m giving it to your father, for Christmas.”
“Mom? Dad doesn’t like hunting, remember?”
“Well, I thought if maybe he had a nice rifle maybe he’d like to take it up again.”
“Oh. How far away…”
“You know, I’ve done enough today. You ready for dinner?”
“Yeah…soon as I finish up in the barn.”
She looked at her wristwatch, seemed to come to a decision. “What say you and I head into town, go to Bert’s for a cherry-lime-aid.”
Yup, she thought, that always works. She watched as he went back to the barn – while she cursed herself for not checking the barn first, then she put the new H&K sniper rifle back inside it’s hard case and carried it to the back of the Ford. Then Pops drove up to the house, just as Jim walked from the barn up the hill to the house.
“You ready to go up for a quick flight,” Pops asked.
“Mom’s taking me in to Bert’s. Wanna come?”
“You’re welcome to join us, Ellis,” Liz added…but Ellis looked at the expression on her face – kind of a ‘Please, no, don’t come…’ look in her eyes.
“No, you two go on. I’ve got a few things to tend to…”
They drove into city, turned on Guadalupe and pulled into Bert’s a half hour later. Several green-chili cheeseburgers and lime-aids later, she came to the point of the exercise. “Your father isn’t doing well,” she said, in what was an unsettling, out of the blue comment. “I need to go back to Vermont for a while,” she lied, “and check-up on him. Will it be okay if I leave you here with Pops for a few weeks?”
“What’s wrong with Dad?”
“I’m not sure, but I can’t handle it over the telephone.”
“Do you need me to come with you? Maybe I could help?”
“Not this time, Jim,” she said, now almost in a panic. “I’ve got to stop off and do a few things for work, too. I need you to stay here with Pops, but if I change my mind, if I think you can help, I’ll call. Okay? Is that a deal?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, clearly hurt.
“What are you and Pops working on now?”
“Oh? Is it hard?”
He shrugged. “Not really.”
“Don’t be mad at me, Jim. Okay?”
“I’m not mad at you, Mom. I just think you’re not telling me everything, and I don’t understand.”
She nodded, looked away. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to, Jim. Just not now.”
“Who do you work for, Mom?”
She shook her head. “Someday, Jim. I promise.”
He looked at her, looked at this latest deception and knew she’d never talk about this stuff. Neither would his father. “When are you leaving,” he asked, giving up – again.
“In the morning, early. I’ll be gone before you get up.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded, then looked out at a low-rider that had just pulled into the parking lot. Some of the locals, he saw; Native Americans – or “the Natives” – as Pops called them. His mother called them Trouble, and she was doing her best to ignore them right now. Two more Chevies pulled into the lot, then a dozen Harley-Davidsons – Choppers, she called them – filed into the lot, parking next to a turquoise and red chopped Impala.
The group talked in the lot for a while, then turned and walked for the entry.
“Be quiet now, Jim,” she said quietly, almost under her breath. “Don’t look anyone in the eye, and don’t say a word.”
He saw the riders were wearing identical leather jackets, big “Hell’s Angels” emblems embroidered on their backs, and he had heard of them and suddenly understood the tone in his mother’s voice. Not fear. Not even curiosity. No, her voice was full of malice, like she wanted to pick a fight. He did too, but he didn’t know why.
Other patrons were getting up and walking out to their cars as the bikers walked up to the counter, and soon he and his mom were the only people left inside. He turned, saw another dozen or so motorcycles pulling into the parking lot, then he felt someone walking up to their booth.
He turned and looked up and saw a burly man standing there, then the man sat down next to his mother.
“How’s it going, Liz?” the biker asked.
“Not bad. You?”
He reached inside his jacket and handed her a piece of paper.
She took an envelope from her purse and handed it to the biker.
“So. We’re cool?” the biker asked, his voice full of respect.
“Yeah, we’re good. Tell Hank to stay low for a while, and for God’s sake, to keep out of Texas.”
The biker nodded as he digested that information, then he looked at Jim. “How’s the grub here,” he asked Jim.
“Have you ever had the green-chili burger?”
“No. Any good?”
“Yeah, pretty good.”
The biker nodded and stood, then looked at Elizabeth. “Take care,” he said, then, after a pause: “Watch your six.” Then the biker walked off to join his compadres and his mother stood, took Jim in hand and they walked from the diner – leaving a million unanswered questions in their trail.
He watched as she walked through the gangs waiting to order at the counter, how they parted and let her pass – almost like they were afraid of her.
He never asked her about the meeting, or why she’d brought him along, and she never mentioned that afternoon – ever again – but he never forgot how those bikers moved out of her way.
And his mother was as good as her word, too. She was gone before we woke to tackle his chores the next morning.
A few days later he saw something on the evening news, something about a murder in San Antonio, Texas, where a meeting between members of a motorcycle gang – the Banditos – and a suspected Chinese underworld crime boss had been disrupted by an assassin’s bullet. The old Chinaman had been killed as the group walked across a street outside a restaurant called Joe Ts. A rival motorcycle gang was suspected…but for some reason he knew – he just knew – his mother had killed the man. He knew, and it didn’t bother him. Not in the least.
His mother returned to the ranch a few days later.
She seemed preoccupied.
With what…she would not say.
He opened his eyes, looked around the room. A nurse was working on a tablet, entering figures on the pad, and he tried to speak – but his mouth didn’t work – no sounds came from his mouth – at all. He tried to lift his hand but it did not move, and now real panic broke over him like a hot wave. He tried to clear his throat and he heard a sound this time; the nurse turned to him, saw he was awake and put the tablet down on a cart.
“Mr Patterson? I’m Dr Jeffries, from neurology. You’ve had a slight stroke, but we got it fast and I think you’ll be okay in a few hours. Try not to panic right now, okay? That will only make things worse…”
He tried to digest the woman’s words and came up short. A stroke? And now I can’t talk, or move? I don’t want to go out like this…
She was watching a bank of monitors, then she injected something into an IV port and he felt himself falling away…
He opened his eyes again, saw Ted and Susan talking with Brigit across the room, and he tried to speak again. “Ted?” he croaked.
“Yup. At least I think so,” he said, looking around the room. “Where am I? This looks different.”
“It is. Some kind of neuro-ICU unit. You threw a blood clot, went out like a light.”
“All told, three weeks…but it was deliberate this time. They kept you out so you wouldn’t panic, until the vessels in your brain could heal.”
“Yup,” Brigit said, by his side now.
He saw she had a cast on her wrist. “What happened to you?” he asked.
“I fell,” she said, smiling, her voice and eyes full of understanding.
“When you were shot, but I’m okay now.”
He didn’t understand those words, not at all. “I was shot?”
Then, for some reason, he thought of his mother…and all her secrets.
He walked around the Waco, checking her struts and aileron straps, tire pressures and fuel tanks for water, then he climbed into the cockpit and settled into the leather seat. He felt Pops climb up behind him and stand beside the open cockpit. He was looking down at him, and he had a weird expression on his face…and in his eyes…
“Here’s some money, in case you want to get a burger somewhere along the way.”
He looked down, saw a wad of hundred dollar bills and his eyes went wide. “Pops…?”
“Just bring me the change.”
“You got that sectional folded, like I showed you?”
“VORs penciled in?”
Then his grandfather put his right hand out and he took it.
“I’m proud of you, boy. And…don’t forget to have some fun along the way.”
And then he was gone, walking back to the house.
He wiped away a tear then set about waking the old girl, and a minute later he taxied down to the end of the runway…watching temperatures and pressures as he worked through his run-up.
He looked at the house, saw Pops standing on the porch – another cup of coffee in hand – then he pulled his mind back into the cockpit and concentrated on the job at hand.
Magnetos checked, lights on, power to 40% and let it settle…work the controls, watch the rudder in the mirrors, look at the ailerons. Throttle back, watch oil pressure then ease the throttle forward…hold her against the torque…feel the tail lift at 35 knots…eyes on the runway now, feel the airspeed build…check the airspeed indicator…65 knots…70 now, and…a little back-pressure on the stick…feel the wheels leave the ground…eyes on the horizon for a moment, then check instruments…all registering…climb at 400 feet per minute, 90 knots now – keep an eye on the VOR…then the needle swung into position and he turned to follow the inbound radial. He turned his head, saw the ranch fading, Pops still on the porch, and smiled.
“It’s wonderful to be alive,” he said to the sky – and as the earth fell away he reveled in the moment.
Then he heard the Morse identifier in his headset: 115.3 – Rattlesnake VOR – and he wished the old Waco had DME then realized he didn’t need it. 110 miles away, doing 120 knots? He’d be there in less than an hour. The Grand Canyon? Less than 300 miles, and he’d land, get a burger and fill the tanks, then turn around and fly back to the ranch. Then, with these final six hours under his belt he could get his license…
He pulled his mind back, stopped daydreaming. The Jemez Mountains off to his right peaked out at over 11,000 feet, and thunderstorms were building behind them…still well off to the north…but that bothered him…
He saw Farmington ahead a little later, re-centered the needle and chased the radial to the edge of town; when the needle swung he turned to 243 degrees and re-centered the needle, flying away from Rattlesnake now. He set the Tuba City VOR on 2 and kept an eye on his altitude for a minute, trimming pitch and fiddling with the throttle until the Waco settled-in after the turn.
He thought of the past few weeks. About his mother, stating she had retired from whatever it was she did, but he could tell she was lying. His father had moved to Florida, was apparently buying a boat of some kind and, in effect, telling the world to fuck off. And Pops…he was just trucking along, doing his thing, ignoring the world as best he could. Flying, riding his horse all over the ranch, running the fences, as he called it. He had a couple hundred head of his own now, and he was running them with the transient herds. He’d picked up an adjoining parcel of land and now had 4000 acres.
The temperature dropped suddenly and he looked around, saw a couple of big, new thunderstorms brewing over the Jemez, then the temperature really dropped – like 10, maybe 15 degrees and he checked his drift. Yeah…out of the north. A big frontal passage…and that meant big rain, maybe some snow on the mountains…and he scrunched up his mouth as he worked over the possibilities in his mind – then the Tuba City needle swung and he set that to VOR 1.
He nodded his head, turned and looked at the blossoming anvil-headed storms building over Farmington and he guessed the cloud-tops were already at 40,000 feet…the sky beyond the white anvil a deep slate blue. “Well, at least I won’t need air conditioning…” he sighed.
He passed Tuba City a half hour later, tuned in on the Grand Canyon VOR as he watched a line of clouds building off to the north. He figured that line was still in Utah – but it was closing, fast, on the North Rim – and now he could see lightning under the advancing wall. He turned, saw the anvil-headed monster behind – now covering the four-corners regions – and he shook his head. That one was pushing in from the northeast, and this new wall was squeezing from the north-northwest – and he had maybe a half hour to go to make the Grand Canyon.
“If I can’t make the canyon, I’ll try for Flagstaff,” he told the threatening sky, looking at his remaining fuel. He figured he could make Phoenix if he had to, but right now he wanted to get on the ground, get the Waco tied down.
Altitude nine thousand, airspeed 120. Ground elevation increasing, around 7300 before dropping to 6600 at GCN. He flexed his shoulders, eased around in the seat to work out a hotspot on his butt, then shook his head. Now what? He felt sleepy?
He forced himself to sit up straight, took several deep breaths and shook his head again, this time roughly. He cleared the ridge, saw the airport in the distance and sighed.
Yeah, I’ll just make it.
“You’re drifting. What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, my third cross-country. I flew from the ranch out to the Grand Canyon and back. Huge storms building, too, so after I got on the ground I called my grandfather. He’d been watching the weather too, and was frantic. Anyway, he told me to stay put, stay the night. Hell, I’d just turned sixteen, had never stayed alone anywhere, not once, and there I was…out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thunderstorms…”
“What did you do?” Susan asked.
“I got a room down on the south rim; a place called the Bright Angel Lodge. Nice name, nice view, too. After I got there I went out and stood out on the edge of the rim, looking at all those converging storms…lightning everywhere…and it’s funny, because what I remember most is the color.”
“The color?” Brigit said, puzzled.
“Yeah, the canyon, the walls were red, under walls of blue rain – then sun peeking through, shooting streams of amber light on the north wall while lightning danced…”
His eyes drifted…and he was there again…
Standing close to the edge, cold air coming across the canyon, meeting warm air rising out of the depths just beyond his feet, slamming into the sky. The thunder was deafening, lightning flickered everywhere – yet he stood, transfixed – looking up at the sky. Not at the sky, he thought, but – into the eyes of a living beast – as if there was some kind of secret life lost inside all that boiling energy…and if only he could get close enough…maybe he could see…
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
The voice startled him, and he turned, saw a woman standing a few feet away – and yet, she seemed to be in a trance.
“It is, yes.”
“Are you here with your parents?”
“No. By myself.”
That seemed to break the spell.
“By yourself? How…”
And he told her. About the flight, the weather, all of it, and she looked at him while he spoke, obviously not sure she believed one word coming out of his mouth.
“Are you hungry,” she asked.
He frowned, looked at her words hanging in the air, as if he was considering the idea of eating, of hunger in general. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
And as she looked at him she tried not to laugh. “You don’t know if you’re hungry?”
“I, well, I just haven’t had time to think about it.”
“Come on. You need food. I can tell just be looking at you.”
There was a dining room just a few steps away, and he could tell she had just come from there – perhaps to come look at the advancing storm…
“Oh, I don’t want to interrupt…”
“You aren’t. I was just about to order,” she said, motioning to a waitress. “Could we have another menu?” she said to the girl.
She sat, motioned for him to sit and he did.
She was, he guessed, thirty, maybe thirty-five years old, and she had bright, inviting eyes – though, he saw, she had a commanding presence. Her clothing was immaculate, her jewelry almost outlandish, and her face was heavily made up. He saw wrinkles under her eyes, a fringe of gray in her hair, and somehow she seemed the exact opposite of his mother – and the thought struck him as odd. His mother was, after all, about the only woman he had ever really known. Teachers had come and gone, classmates too, but his mother had been an imperfect constant in his life.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Jim? I’m Sara, with no H.”
He stuck out his right hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, grinning.
“Now tell me. All that stuff about the airplane…did you make that up?”
He frowned. “You think I’m lying?”
She shrugged. “You look a little too young to be out here by yourself in an airplane.”
“I’m working on my private pilot’s license. You have to make a couple of long, cross country flights to qualify. This is my last one.”
“Oh? Where was your first?”
“Next? What do you mean?”
“In order to get your license.”
“Oh. I take a written exam, then a check-ride with an FAA examiner.”
“Then I work on my instrument rating.”
He thought for a moment, then said: “It’s when you fly in the clouds for a long time, and can’t see the ground.”
“I see. And…can you see the ground right now?”
She laughed at that. “Well, Jim, I’ve been in Reno. Spending some time there on my lawyers advice.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
“I’m getting a divorce, Jim.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
She looked away, rolled his words around for a minute while her thoughts advanced like a storm all their own…and he watched the turmoil behind her eyes, fascinated with lightning he saw inside.
“My husband is a famous man, a singer, a movie star. You know him, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, you do. Everyone knows him. He has his own TV show, he makes movies – all that crap,” the woman said, her voice full of venom. “And now he has a younger girl, a new version of me, like me – years ago. So…I was suddenly, I think you could say, disposable, and it was more convenient for him to ship me off to a place like Reno.”
He shrugged. “I’m sorry.”
She looked at him and sighed. “Oh, how I’d love to be your age again.” She looked at the storm raging on the other side of the glass and shook her head. “It’s nice to be inside, where it’s warm, isn’t it?”
She wasn’t paying attention to him now so he looked at her, looked at the anger playing out on her face, in the movements of her fingers…then she turned back to her menu. “They have huckleberry iced-tea here. Can you imagine such a thing?”
“Aren’t those like blueberries?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, but I feel trying something fresh and new. How about you?”
“Sure,” he said, suddenly wary of the changes playing out in her eyes…full of anger one moment, placid, almost serene the next – then, her eyes were full of tears.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I need to go powder my nose.”
He stood, got her chair and watched her walk off. She had a good figure and dynamite legs, and he was conscious now of her devastating femininity. He sat as the waitress came up to the table.
“Do you know her,” the girl asked.
“No, we just met.”
“Well, be careful. She’s been here a few days, staring and crying, talking to herself a lot.”
He nodded. “She looks like a bird with a broken wing,” he said, and the girl looked at him, puzzled, then she nodded too – before she walked off.
The woman, Sara, came back to the table a few minutes later – and she noticed the menus were gone.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but the kitchen was about to close. I hope you don’t mind, but I ordered for you.”
She nodded. “Thanks. That was sweet of you.”
“It looks like the storm is going to blow through fast,” he said as he held out her chair.
She looked at him, at his seeming innocence, then she looked out at rain pooling on the flagstone terrace…and her thoughts seemed to coalesce out there, pooling in the moment, then she sat and watched him while he took his seat again, wondering where he came from, what his parents did…then she pulled back from the precipice. ‘No,’ the voice inside said, ‘don’t go there. Don’t do this…not again…’
They ate French onion soup and Crab Louie, and for some reason she wanted pineapple sherbet. “I love Hawaii,” she said as she took a bite.
“Why don’t you move there?”
She seemed to roll the thought over in her mind for a moment, staring at the little silver bowl as she drifted. “That’s something for the living,” she said at last.
“The living?” he asked, then a sudden chill gripped him – as he turned and looked at the rim, and the canyon beyond. “Have you given up? Is that it? Is that why you’re here?”
She seemed defiant then, before she turned in on herself.
“What did he do to you?”
“I couldn’t even begin to…”
“I’d like you to tell me. All of it, everything you can remember.”
“Why? Why do you want to hear all that garbage?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I need to. Maybe I can help.”
“Here? Or do you want to go to my room?”
“Does your room have a nice view?”
“No, not really.”
“Well,” he said, “mine does. Let’s go there.” He paid the bill and they walked off, the waitress looking after him as they left, shaking her head.
“So,” Ted said, “those storms chased you all the way to the Grand Canyon?”
“Yup. There’s nothing like that place when big storms roll in from the north. I was sitting by a fireplace later that afternoon and could see snow falling across the canyon, on the north rim, and it was June. Sitting by a fireplace…in June. I love it out there, you know…? Nothing like it, anywhere…”
“I think that’s the second time I’ve caught you staring at my legs,” she said, smiling.
He shook himself from the sight, smiled, then looked at her again. “I’m sorry, but I keep falling off.”
“Yup. I started yawning right after I passed Shiprock. I guess I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Start a fire, would you?”
There was a little adobe kiva in the corner and he set some piñon on the grate and lighted some kindling; soon he had a little fire blazing away.
“Take off your clothes and get on the bed, face down.”
But she was already taking off her clothes, folding them neatly and putting them on a little dresser by the patio door. He stood by the fireplace, transfixed, not sure what was happening just now…then she walked over to him, ran her fingers through his hair.
“Just relax, Jim.”
He lips trembling, his eyelids twitched uncontrollably – then she started to unbutton his shirt…
When he was naked she led him to the bed and laid him out, face down, then she put a light blanket over him before she straddled the backs of his thighs. She leaned forward, began massaging his neck and shoulders and a long, low moan passed his lips. He felt himself adrift in a foreign place, this someplace new, a new place that, somehow, felt more than right.
He felt her move up some, felt coarse hair against his skin, and he felt something new, new and unsettling.
“Turn over, Jim,” she sighed.
And then she took him someplace very unexpected…
“It snowed? In June?” Susan said, not believing him for a moment.
He nodded his head. “New Mexico. Arizona. Utah. And Colorado, of course…it can snow there any time. That afternoon? Well, they call it thunder-snow. A cold front running into all that warm desert air…and man-o-man, did it snow that afternoon.”
“You mentioned a fireplace?” Brigit asked…
She lay beside him – after – looking at his labored breathing, the sweat running off his brow, and she ran her fingers through his hair – still loving every minute of this boy, suddenly in love with the idea of living again…then she saw he was looking into her eyes.
“Feel better now?” he asked.
She nodded once, smiled – then kissed the tip of his nose.
“You see into people, don’t you?”
“I don’t know, but I think I see into you.”
“And what do you see?”
“Someone full of love. Someone who needs to love, and to be loved.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there are some people who don’t know how to love, or anyone but themselves. Other people are just means to ends, people to be used up and discarded.”
Her eyes narrowed a little. “You do know, don’t you, that you’re not supposed to be this wise? Not at your age…?”
“If you’d lived around my parents you’d understand.”
“Your parents don’t love you?”
“Oh, no…quite the opposite. They’re just not what I’d call your normal mom and dad, that’s all. And my grandfather has been holding things together recently. My parents are having issues.”
“Does he get mean?”
“No, just the opposite…he pulls away from life. I think he pulls away from Mom most of all.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to know, but she works for the FBI, is assigned to some sort of special team.”
“And what does your dad do?”
“He owns a chain of hardware stores in Vermont.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“So, would you say he feels threatened by your mom?”
“Maybe, but I think it’s more like he doesn’t like what she’s become. She’s not soft anymore, if you know what I mean. Or… maybe she’s not like what he thought a woman ought to be, and I think that caused him to, well…it’s like his expectations caved-in on everything. I don’t think this is the life he wanted to live.”
“So he drinks – because of that?”
“I think so, yes, but I don’t really know where that comes from.”
“And what do you want to do? Fly?”
“And your grandfather is teaching you to fly?”
“Yup. He was some kind of Ace in the first war, and he has a bunch of airplanes.”
“A bunch? You mean, more than one?”
“Yeah, he has seven, including the airplane my father flew in the second world war.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And your father still flies?”
“Nope. He refuses to get near an airplane. Any airplane. He won’t even look at…anything to do with the war.”
“You have the most incredible eyes,” she said, out of the blue. “They’re like an eagle’s.”
He felt himself turning red, then shook his head and shrugged – all at the same time – which made her laugh.
“You don’t handle compliments very well, do you, Jim…?”
“Well, you have the best legs I’ve ever seen.”
She held her right leg up and pointed her toes toward the ceiling. “You think so? Really?”
“I never thought I’d hear another man say something like that to me again.”
“Well, I’m not exactly a man, Sara.”
“Oh, yes you are. More than you know, Jim.” She looked at him again, this time with something akin to real love in her eyes, then she got up and walked over to the window. “Oh my God!” she cried. “Come here!”
He ran to her side and she pulled him to her side, then she pointed out the window.
The sky was almost deep purple, the far rim of the canyon a striated canvas of oranges and reds and apricots, and the sight was so over the top it left him speechless – then he saw the rainbows. He put his arm around her then – and pulled her close – and they stood there for several minutes, locked inside their moment, mesmerized by the dance.
And as day turned to night she turned to him – and she kissed him.
“Would you show me your airplane in the morning?” she asked, and he nodded his head. “And…could I stay with you tonight…?”
“Oh, God yes. I didn’t know how to ask…”
“…What is it, Dad? Why are you smiling like that?”
“I was just thinking of the sunset that night. Matter of fact, I don’t ever think I’ll never forget that day, or that night.”
“So…you flew back the next morning? To the ranch…?”
They woke at five and she dressed them both, then hand in hand they walked down to the rim trail, and on out to Plateau Point. The sky was still full of blazing stars, and just the faintest line of deep purple lined the eastern horizon as they picked there way through the piñon. A few hearty photographers were already setting up out there, he saw, with huge cameras poised on massive wooden tripods – so he knew the view must be something else.
“I’ve come out here every morning,” she said. “I wanted to share this with you.”
They came to a low rock wall and she sat, then she pulled him close and leaned over his shoulder, her chin resting there, and when he felt her breath on his neck he was enthralled that another human being could make him feel so wonderful.
He turned to face her then, and he looked her in the eye.
“This has been the best night of my life,” he said, resting his forehead on hers. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this has meant to me. How much you mean to me.”
He felt her nodding head and she pulled him close, kissed him again, then she broke free and began running – for the rim.
He caught her within a few feet of the abyss, and he pulled her back as gently as he could.
“You’re going to drive me to the airport, remember?”
“No, I’ve got to go now. Let me…”
“Alright, but if you go, you have to take me with you…”
Her eyes were unfocused now, drifting past the precipice… “Take you?”
“Yes, if you’re going there,” he said, pointing to the yawning chasm beyond the rim, “you have to take me with you.”
The words cut through the pain and she came back to him, then she was in his arms, crying almost uncontrollably.
“I can’t…” she sighed. “I love you too much.”
“Then hang on to me. As tight as you can…and don’t let go. Because I won’t. Not ever…”
“No, not ever.”
He wrapped his arms around her again and they walked back to their rock. Those moments with her were the most powerfully unsettling of his life, if only because there is no love like a first love. She drove him to the airport after breakfast, and she was duly impressed when he walked her out on the ramp and gave her the nickel tour of the old yellow Waco.
“So, you really weren’t fooling, were you?”
“Oh, Captain, my Captain,” she sighed. “I’m not sure how I’ll survive without you.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, wrapping her in his arms again.
“Yes I do, Jim. I came here to kill myself. I can’t do that now. I just can’t.”
“Come to Santa Fe. Please,” he said, pointing to the open cockpit ahead of his.
She shook her head. “You don’t understand, Jim. I’m almost fifty years old, and you have your entire life ahead of you. I can’t take that from you. I’d be no better than my husband if I did, and I hate him for what he did to me. To us, really.”
“Sometimes living well is the best revenge, Sara.”
“How on earth could you possibly know that?”
He shrugged again, then grinned at her. “I wish I could take you with me today. That I could show you what it is I love about flying.”
She pulled him close again, held his face in her capped hands, then she kissed him hard. “You already have, Jim. You already have.” She kissed him again, then held him in her eyes for a the longest time, then turned and walked back to the fence.
He did his walk around, fired up the old girl’s systems and tuned in the Tuba City VOR, then taxied out to the end of runway three. He looked at the fence by the terminal as he took off, and he saw her standing there, waving, and he waved with his wings before he turned to the east, heading into the sunrise.
She walked back to her car, found the envelope he’d left on the dash and opened it. She saw his name and address on the hotel stationary and, at the bottom of the piece of paper, the only three words in the universe that could have possibly kept her from returning to the rim.
I Love You, he’d written, and yes, she had to admit, she loved him too.
And, she realized, she loved him too much to do this to him.
She folded the letter slowly and put it back in the envelope, started her Lincoln and drove back to the Lodge. Going to the restaurant overlooking the south rim, the same waitress came up to her table when she sat.
“What could I get you this morning?” the girl asked.
“Iced-tea. Blueberry iced-tea, I think.”
The girl thought the smile in the woman’s eyes looked different, and she wondered…
An hour later Sara walked to her room, and she called her lawyer in Los Angeles.
“Fred? It’s Sara. Call Frank’s lawyer, tell him I’ll not contest this any further if he’ll let me have the house on Maui, and ten million.”
“You’re sure? I think I can get you twenty, maybe more.”
“The house and ten. I’m packing as we speak, heading to L.A. in a few minutes. I’ll sign as soon as you’ve got everything ready to go.”
He landed three hours later, taxied up to the Waco’s hanger and found Pops standing there, waiting – and smiling.
Ellis Patterson watched his grandson walk down the dusty road to the mailbox every afternoon when he got in from school; watched, from afar, the boy’s demeanor as he stood by the mailbox, sifting through letters – obviously looking for something deemed beyond important.
And then, one day it happened.
Almost two months after Jim’s Grand Canyon adventure a letter came, but Ellis did not see the reaction he’d been expecting. No, Jim read the letter, folded it neatly and slipped it back inside the envelope, then he turned and walked back to the house.
“Find what you’ve been looking for?” Ellis asked.
“Pops, I need to go to Hawaii.”
“A friend of mine is in trouble. I need to see her.”
“I’ve never been to Hawaii,” the old man said, grinning.
His mother was in Virginia, or so she said, doing – something, and Ellis hadn’t heard a word from either her or his son for weeks now. It felt rather like Jim had been abandoned, left out here in the desert with him, but rather than resenting the intrusion he and the boy had only grown closer.
He’d taught the boy to drive, taken him down to the driver’s license bureau and beamed with a father’s pride when Jim passed all the tests on the first try – a perfect score on the written, of course – and now the boy was driving himself into school every morning…in a beat-up and battered war surplus Willy’s Jeep…and they’d established a new routine all their own.
Jim did his chores in the morning while Ellis cooked, then, after the boy drove off to school he took care of business in the morning. He rode the fences almost every afternoon, watching the road for the Jeep’s dust trail, then he’d make for the barn and cool down the horse while Jim did his homework. Usually around five they’d take a plane up, fly somewhere for an hour or so – and some nights they’d stop and have dinner, but most nights they got back to the ranch as the sun set, then they’d both head into the kitchen and whip up something to eat.
But not tonight.
They drove down to Albuquerque before sunrise the next morning, hopped on a United jet to Los Angeles, then, after a frantic dash through the huge terminal, on to a gleaming new 747 for the leg to Honolulu. Four hours later, they found the shuttle to Lahaina – a beat up Twin Otter – and another hour in the air found them disgorged and disoriented on the black tarmac of a tiny airport, literally in the middle of nowhere. Jim found a taxi and gave the driver an address, and a minute later they were on the last leg of their journey, driving around the southern rim of the island…to a sleepy hillside perched over the Pacific near a village called Wailea.
When Ellis saw the estate it was all he could not to whistle.
The main house looked like something ripped right out of Beverly Hills and planted here on this vast hillside, but there were several smaller houses surrounding the main, and at least two separate garages – that he could see, anyway – and almost everything was white. The main house was white, with green shutters and a gray slate roof – and with his builder’s eye he wondered what that roof had cost. A half million? Probably more, because that roof had come from Vermont.
And there was a white Bentley parked up by the house just now, and the woman getting out of the car looked at the taxi as it drove up. When the woman saw Jim she smiled, then burst out in tears.
And when Ellis saw Sara Whiteman standing out there in the sun he very nearly passed out.
She had been, right after the war, one of the biggest Hollywood Stars ever – until she made those two movies with that singer – then she had married the bastard and disappeared. Now the divorce was in all the papers, for a while, anyway, then all that disappeared, too.
And now, here she was. And it was obvious his grandson meant something to this goddess.
When the taxi stopped she stood waiting for Jim, and, as his grandson opened the door… Ellis watched, stunned, as the boy went to the woman and took her in his arms.
He was standing by them both a minute later, when the two of them finally let go.
“Pops, this is…”
“Miss Whiteman,” Ellis Patterson said, holding out his hand, “I’m Pops.”
And the woman laughed at that, then took his hand and pulled him into a brief embrace, too.
Ellis swooned. Perhaps in disbelief.
How had his grandson fallen into this? And…how had this woman, this devastatingly attractive woman, fallen in love with his grandson?
A uniformed maid led the two of them to a little house behind one of the smaller swimming pools, and they unpacked after the maid left.
“You’d better shower, boy. You smell like too much road and not enough soap.”
Then Jim had sniffed his pits and scrunched up his nose, tossing off his clothes and dashing to the shower without saying a word. He followed once Jim was under the water, then he asked the only question on his mind.
“You want to tell me about this?”
“What you’re doing with one of the hottest movie stars around?”
Jim slid the shower door open and looked at his grandfather. “She’s a movie star?”
“I’ll be dipped in goddamn hog-shit,” Ellis sighed, and that put an end to all his questions on the subject. He walked back into the little living room just as someone knocked on the door.
It was Sara, and her smile melted him on the spot.
“He’s in the shower,” he stammered. “I thought he smelled kind of like roadkill.”
She laughed. “He did. So do you, as a matter of fact.”
“There was no air conditioning…”
“I know, I know. That Twin Otter is beastly. Everyone arrives here smelling yeasty and dank, so I’ve got iced tea on the veranda. Would you care to join me now?”
And she led him past the pool – “This one’s yours,” she said, breezily, with the flip of a bejeweled wrist, “in case you feel like a swim.”
The veranda overlooked the Pacific, and the arcing bay just below her property was simply stunning. Glasses were poured, ice already condensing on the tall glasses, and he saw crushed blueberries – and mint – were crushed on the bottom of each glass.
“I suppose you have a million questions for me,” she began – without preamble.
“No, not really.”
And that seemed to take her aback. “Oh?”
“Jim is kind of different, maybe a little special, but I’m biased so maybe not the best person to ask…”
“Special? How so?”
“He’s decisive. Knows what he wants and goes after it. I think he wants you, so if you’ve got something along those lines in mind, be careful.”
“I’m engaged. To an old friend in Los Angeles.”
“Yes, I was afraid of that. That’s why he wanted to come, I suppose.”
She nodded her head, looked out at the sea.
“Mind of I ask what happened between you two?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you want to talk with him – alone?”
“At some point, yes.” She paused, looked down into her tea and smiled for a moment. “It’s not so simple as you think, Pops…”
“Please, call me Ellis.”
“No, Ellis, I can’t do that. I’ll always think of you as Pops. He loves you, you know?”
“We’re close. I guess you know he’s in love with you?”
“Oh, yes. And I love him more than life itself.”
“That’s an odd thing to say, Miss Whiteman.”
She turned away again, sighed. “I’d be dead if not for that boy.”
“Distraught over the divorce, your career. Yes, I think I can.”
“Are you married?”
“My wife passed before Jim was born.”
“No one since.”
He shook his head. “I’m kind of a one woman kind of guy. I married for life, and besides, other things interest me now.”
“And women don’t fit into that life now?”
“Nope. Like I said, I’m a one woman kind of guy. Always have been.”
“I guess that’s where Jim’s maniacal love of flying comes from.”
“Maniacal? That’s an interesting way of putting it.”
“And – you disagree?”
“No, not really, but I’d use ‘single-minded’ instead of maniacal. I just don’t think of a love for aviation as psychopathology.”
“He has your eyes. Did you know that?”
“No, but then again, I never really gave it much thought. What makes you say that?”
“You don’t miss much, do you?”
“I miss the movies you made, if that means anything at all.”
“Do you? Why?”
“I thought you were the most gorgeous creature that ever walked the earth.”
“Yes, age is cruel…”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Oh? And just what did you mean, Pops?”
“That you should have never stopped making movies.”
“Indeed. You think I still have what it takes?”
“I think you’re still the most drop-dead gorgeous creature that ever walked the earth.”
She smiled when she heard that. “Can I tell you a secret,” she whispered.
He nodded. “Sure.”
“This is all a ruse. I’m not engaged. I just can’t, well, you know…?”
He looked at her features, at the smile in her eyes. “Well then, I don’t suppose you’d care to marry me?”
And they both started laughing, but for the first time in years Ellis had surprised himself.
They were still laughing when Jim found them, on the veranda, holding glasses of blueberry iced-tea in their hands – while they looked out at a sun-dappled sea.
Of course, it had to be. It just had to be – because life is a circle, and if you run around in circles you always come back to the same place, time and time again.
Pops and Sara Whiteman married a few months later, and he continued to pull her out of her depression. Soon she was making movies again, and soon they had a house in Bel-Air and the whole Hollywood thing descended on their lives. And yes, soon a younger man came into her life, an actor, of course, and yes, soon she was on her way back to Reno. Pops moved back to ranch after that, but by that time Elizabeth and Jim had moved to Florida and he tried to find all his old routines but everything was different now. He’d lost focus, had fallen into the tender trap he’d been afraid of for years, and now the most important things lay disused and barren – and some, like Jim, were simply lost now, beyond his grasp – forever.
His son had some boat now, and the three of them were living on the thing! Elizabeth only worked on occasion now, James not at all, and word was Jim was still flying.
“That’s good,” Ellis said as he put the letter aside. He was sitting on the porch, looking at the entrance to the little box canyon where he’d first met that cat, a glass of blueberry iced tea on the little table by his rocking chair. The sun was high in the sky and he thought about Jim, and Sara, and a smile crossed his face…kind of like a cloud over the hot prairie – the sun with it’s arms all around him…
He felt a shooting pain in his left arm, then sudden, overwhelming pressure in his chest.
“So, that’s the way it’s gonna be?”
He though he saw the cat just then, running from the rocks – for him – so he closed his eyes, and smiled at the night.
And of course the three of them, Jim and his parents, came for the funeral. They came by train, of course, and after their goodbyes were made, after Pop’s body was taken away, they drove back to the ranch.
James drove down to the hangers and parked his father’s old pickup in the shade, then he climbed down and walked over to the hanger where his old Mustang waited. He pulled the door open and walked around the beast, his hands caressing the bright, gleaming metal. Then, in sudden fury, he walked around her with purpose in his eyes. He checked tire pressures and fuel levels, then he pulled the chocks from her wheels and climbed into the cockpit.
He switched on the batteries and their gauges swung towards life, then, with butterflies tearing apart his gut he hit the starter…
The old Merlin coughed once then roared to life, and he saw his son standing down there on the asphalt outside the hanger, looking up at all the unknowns that had suddenly roared, roared at life. He motioned, roughly, for Jim to stand aside, then he pulled the canopy forward and applied a little throttle…
He watched his father taxi the old Mustang down to the end of the runway, heard the Merlin run-up once, then cut back to idle for a moment…then the Merlin howled again, this time leaving angry menace in the air around the valley, and his father’s P-51 roared as it passed, arcing into the sky…
He felt alive…alive…for the first time in decades…as he reefed the Mustang into a hard left turn. He gasped as gravity pushed him back in the seat, then he pulled the old girl into an even tighter turn until he felt the white haze clawing for him. He rolled until he was inverted – his world upside down – the he pulled the reins, pulled the Mustang into another tight turn. He forced his head and looked down…down at the ranch and all those nights without his father…
“Gawd-almighty, Mom, I never knew he could fly like that…”
“He shot down twelve Germans over there, Jimmy. He was considered one of the best.”
“Dresden, I think.”
“The fire bombings? I read about that some…was he there?”
“I don’t know…he’s never talked about it, Jim…but I think that night changed him.”
“Jesus, look at that! A Split-S…he must be pulling three-Gs, too…”
He was too angry to feel the exhilaration in the air around him, to angry to feel the aileron buffeting as he pushed the throttles to the firewall…
He was aiming at the ranch house, now in a full-power dive, and he wanted nothing more than to have a full load-out for the 50 calibers. He wanted nothing more than to obliterate that house, to erase it from memory…from existence…
Then he saw them standing down there, still by the hanger, as he roared past thirty feet over the roof. He pulled the old girl into a steep, spiraling climb…aiming for a group of puffy cumulus high over the prairie. Inverted, he flew into the cloud, felt the all-enveloping coolness and he realized he was sweating now, and shaking – with rage…
He took a deep breath, rolled the old girl back to level as he cut the throttle…then he made a series of linked turns, bleeding speed as he looked at the scorched earth of his past, the shattered cities and screaming, burning souls one last time, then he looked into the infinite blue of time and shook his fist at God…
“Am I good enough now, you fucking bastard!” he screamed, then – “Will I ever be good enough, Dad?” he whispered. Then he turned and looked at Jim and Elizabeth standing in the shade by the hanger – in the light of a billion dying suns – and he knew what he had to do.
He saw the sun in the distance, down there on the desert floor, and he could almost feel the rumble when it was still five miles away. He stood apart from his father and his mother now, leaving them to say the things they needed to say while they still could, and he looked at them once before he turned to look at that impossibly bright light again…
How could anything be so bright, he wondered. It was, after all, just the headlight of a locomotive.
And Altair is just a star. A dying star.
He looked at that headlight and he saw Pops out there in his old yellow Waco, doing wing-overs and flying over his little canyon – looking for his cat – one more time.
And a minute later the Super Chief pulled into the little station at Lamy; Jim and his mother climbed aboard, but he turned and looked at his father standing out there on the platform, his hands still in pockets, that loose, lanky love still in his eyes. Then father looked at son for the longest time – before the train jerked and pulled away – and then the moment was gone. He leaned out the door of the vestibule, willing the moment to linger – even as the moment began to fade. Like almost everything between fathers and sons, there was something in that moment that might have been, but never was.
“You never told me about that, Dad. Why not?”
“Oh, they’re just memories now, Ted. Things that happened along the way, I guess.”
“But…they’re who you are. In a way, they’re who I am, too.”
Brigit was standing away from his bed, lost in a far corner, looking at him just then with an odd little smile in her eyes.
Then he was aware Susan was looking at Brigit, too, and he figured maybe she understood. Only Ted was too wrapped up in anger to see the obvious.
Then Susan turned back to him.
“What did that actress do after Pops died?”
“Oh, she tried to take the ranch. My mom took care of that.”
“Took care? How so?”
He shrugged. “She was smart, knew the law. I guess she made things clear.”
Ted was looking at him again. “And you never told me about the ranch, any of that stuff with your grandfather. Why, Dad? Why’d you keep all that from me.”
“He needed a clean break, Ted,” Brigit said, still looking into his eyes. “Some things have to end. They have to end for things to begin again.”
And some things never end, he knew now. Like a snake coiled on the desert floor, like an errant fungus in the tidal flows of his past, some things – against all and reason – held fast…
She looked down at the Potomac, then up at the tidewater region ahead, beyond the JetRanger’s windows, and she saw Quantico – standing there in the morning haze, now dead ahead. She was with the new AD, called in to take a look at a new recruit, a girl still in the academy.
“She reminds me of you,” the Assistant Director had said on the phone two days ago. “I need your input.”
Now…here she was…back in that world, that life – one more time. The life she’d turned away from years ago – when she quit and moved to the boat in Destin.
But they’d never really quit her, had they? When they had a problem they thought only she could solve, they called. They offered money…insane amounts of money…for her “expertise.” Quick trips to Iraq, to Nicaragua, and to Macao followed, and she made more money in a day – in a split-second – than she had working a year in that other life – and they’d needed it, too. Jim’s tuition had been more than expected, and James. He was sick all the time now.
She and James talked about sailing away, maybe to the Caribbean, but he fell inside that funk every time, that secret place of his, and one time he went there, and stayed.
Then Zeke Cromwell called. Zeke, her first real teacher, and now the Assistant Director for Operations.
“I need your input,” he said, but this time it was more like an order – and she always obeyed orders. No…she thought, she always obeyed his orders.
She looked over the file again. Young girl just out of law school, Georgetown. DAs office in Atlanta, raped in college. Melissa Kerrigan was the name on the dossier, the girl’s photograph didn’t reveal much, however. On again off again engagement to a kid flying with Delta, she read, and she wondered what that was all about. Top marks on the range…almost as good as hers.
“She’s a cool one, Liz,” Zeke told her that morning, after her flight up from Atlanta arrived.
‘Was she as cold as I was?’ she wondered.
“Oh?” she said.
“The Director thinks she should go to Romania, with you.”
“You aren’t serious…?” But she looked at Zeke, saw that he was.
“Yes, I am. And you’re going to take her with you.”
“What? Why me…? I’ve been…”
“That’s exactly why, Liz, and you know it. They think you’re out, they have ever since Cairo. That’s why they’ve left you alone.”
She knew he was right, too. Only now Jimmy was out of the house, James was slipping in and out of psychotic states, and, she had to admit – if only to herself – getting back into the game might be fun.
The JetRanger was circling the Academy now, bleeding speed, and she watched as the pilot de-powered the collective, gently settling the helicopter on the pad beside the range.
As she stepped out of the helicopter a wave of memory broke over her. The same grounds, the same armorers shack. Men in black BDUs standing in the shade, a girl in blue sweats standing at attention in the sun, waiting. She walked over, shook hands with her instructors, men she hadn’t seen in years, then she turned and looked at the cadet. Not yet thirty, red hair, kind of stumpy – almost like a weight-lifter.
And an H&K PSG-9 on a bi-pod at the line.
She walked over, picked up the weapon and sighted downrange, then she pickled a switch on the trigger-guard. The distance to the target appeared under the reticle, and a moment later the wind-speed and direction registered…they she felt Goodway by her side, looking at the rifle, then at her.
She looked at Goodway, then handed the H&K to her.
“Ready?” the range-master said, handing ear protection to Liz. She backed away, watched the girl insert a magazine then sit at the bench.
“What round?” Liz asked.
“225 grain,” the range-master said. “Serrated cavity point.”
She nodded. “Mercury?”
She stood behind Goodway, looked at the first target – a cantaloupe at the fifty yard mark – and almost jumped when the first concussive wave hit her. The cantaloupe exploded a millisecond later.
The second target – set out at the 500 yard mark – looked like a ping-pong ball taped to a standard issue paper silhouette. She watched Goodway for a moment, then looked downrange – just as the H&K barked again.
The ball had been filled with blue paint, and it simply disappeared in a bluish haze.
There was a new addition to the range, she saw now, a single thousand yard lane carved out of the forest. And now she saw the single target down there, lost among the trees. She turned and the range-master handed over a pair of green Steiner’s, and she looked at the target and shook her head. A single face, generic, was printed on the paper, and she grimaced at the hard reality of that.
One more concussive jolt, and she watched the round hit the target a little left of center, in the face’s right eye.
She turned and looked at the H&K. “Mind if I give it a try?” she said.
But the range-master walked over to the bench and opened another hard case, took out another H&K, and he carried it over to her. “It’s sighted-in,” he said. Just touch this area and the sight comes on, does it’s thing. Give it about five seconds to come up with the solution.”
Exasperated with the old man’s inexhaustible supply of condescension, she looked at him then took the weapon. She looked it over, then walked to the bench and sat next to Goodway, slipped a magazine in and sighted in. When the reticle flashed from green to red, she pulled the trigger and watched the target’s left eye disappear. Less than a second later she fired again and removed the nose, then put two rounds in the target’s “mouth.” Satisfied, she stood and carried the rifle back to the range-master. “The trigger’s a little rough,” she said, handing it back to the old man, then she walked over to Goodway.
“We need to talk,” she said.
When they returned from Bucharest three weeks later, they were more than close friends, a simple observation that was lost on no one who saw the two of them together.
Ted and Susan left after he grew tired, but Brigit remained. Just as she had for weeks.
“You’re pale again,” she said, putting the back of her hand on his forehead.
“I feel like I’m on fire.”
She nodded. “It’s the Vanco. At least you’re not nauseated this time.”
He nodded. “Ted looked angry when he left.”
She shrugged. “He’ll get over it. Susan knows the score.”
“I was surprised she came out this time. It’s gotta be tough, ya know. She’s in Boston, he’s in Palo Alto.”
“They’re in love. Nothing’s impossible when you’re in love.”
“You should know, huh?”
She grinned. “Yes, I do – now.”
“You really think I’m getting out of this place alive?”
“Another week and the Vancomycin will have it back under control.”
“Okay, let’s assume that’s true. Then what?”
She looked at him, wondered if he was ready for that conversation. The nerves in his right hand would never be the same, he’d never have the same control he used to. He’d never fly again, not even in a simulator.
“What would you like to do?” she asked – as always, looking him right in the eye.
“I think I’m done, Brigit. Done with all my yesterdays. I think it’s time to move on.”
“Where to?” she said, for the first time afraid of what he might say next.
He looked away, looked out the window. Lake Union was just visible from this room, and there were times he thought he could just see Altair’s mast jutting up above the marina.
“Japan,” he said, out of the blue.
“Yeah. Maybe take off and head to Hawaii, then go to Japan.”
“In Altair, you mean?”
“Hell yes. What did you think I meant?”
She ignored that, looked at the expression on his face. “Why Japan?”
“Okay, then what?
“Who the hell knows. I’ll face that question after I get there.”
She looked at the grin in his eyes, wondered if he was being even halfway serious.
“I’m not going alone, if that’s what you were thinking of asking next.”
“Oh? Have someone in mind?”
“No, not really,” he said – as he reached out for her hand.
She took his hand and kissed the top of it, then looked at the implications dancing in his eyes. “You sure you don’t want to go alone…?”
“Not even for a minute.”
She nodded her head, then wiped away a tear or two. He was asleep a few minutes later, and she slipped from his room for the first time in days.
He woke sometime in the night.
And there wasn’t a light on in the room. Not one light, and that bothered him.
Had they found him again? Would they ever stop trying?
He felt a shadow ripple and turned an eye that way, careful not to move. Yes. There, in the corner, by the window.
Was she dressed in black?
Then, the woman turned and walked to the side of his bed, and once there she looked down at him.
It was, he saw, Melissa Goodway.
“What are you doing here,” he asked.
“Hello, nice to see you, too.”
“Well? Did you come to finish the job this time?”
She looked at him for a long time, then she turned away, walked back to the window. “I’m sorry,” she said a few minutes later.
“Sorry? What for? Not getting me the first time?”
“We had them,” Goodway said. “We’d had them since we locked onto Tracy, and we pulled them in.”
“Who is ‘we’?”
“The FBI. We had them, Jim. The same group your mother was after.”
“My mother? What do you know about my mother?”
She walked back to his bed, took his hand. “Jim, I promised your mother that I’d look after you. We had them, and I blew it. And you paid the price.”
He was too confused now to understand what she was trying to tell him. “You promised my mother?”
“You knew my mother?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your mother and I…Jim, we were in love, once upon a time.”
“If I tell you a story…will you listen?”
“Not if it’s about that, I won’t.”
“When your mother got sick, I promised. That’s all you need to know.”
“You worked with her?”
“Several times, yes.”
“And you were…?”
“Yes, we were. After your father’s last break.”
“After he was hospitalized?”
“I guess she’d been alone…”
“For too long, Jim. Too long.”
“Who are these people? The ones trying to get me?”
“Chinese gangs, New York and Macao, mostly. We’ve been at war with them for a long time.”
“Your mother, well, she had dealings with them. Let’s just say revenge is their main motivation.”
“I remember once, she had a rifle. Then something about New Orleans, I think.”
“New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami. Even Hong Kong. It’s a long list, Jim.”
“Do you mean…”
“That’s not important now, Jim. What is important is…”
“Yes. But I should have never made contact with you. That gave you away.”
“What about Ted?”
“He’s covered. He has been since he moved to Palo Alto.”
“But…they got to me. What makes you think they won’t…?”
She turned away again, paced the room for a minute, thinking of the best way to say what she had to say.
“Because, Jim, we let them get to you, or at least we let them think they could get to you.”
“Apparently they did, right? Someone fucked up?”
“They lured us away that night, yes. And they used a drone.”
“An armed drone? On me?”
“Yes. We got them at SeaTac.”
“They won’t bother you again.”
“Not this group, anyway. Is that what you mean to say?”
“I talked to Brigit today…”
“And, what? You know what we said?”
“Oh, that’s just swell. Thank you so very, very much.”
“Obviously we can’t keep an eye on you if we don’t know what’s going on.”
“And, what…this is a lifetime proposition?”
“This is what my mother wanted? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“And…you loved my mother? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Yes, very much.”
She laughed at that.
“What’s so funny?” he asked. “Why did you laugh like that?”
“Because that’s exactly what your mother thought you’d say…”
He thought of his father standing right here, on this same little platform in Lamy, as the Super Chief pulled away into the evening, and he thought of his father in that Mustang so many years ago…beating up the sky…coming to terms with his demons.
He’d called for a taxi from the train, and here it was, apparently, waiting for him in the parking lot.
A porter helped him with his grip, helped him to the taxi, and he tipped the guy after he was in the back. He gave the driver the address and leaned back.
“Need some more air conditioning back there?” the driver, an old man, asked.
“No, maybe roll down the window some.”
“Sure enough. Not many people go out this far these days. Isn’t this the address of Ellis Patterson’s old place?”
“Did you know him?”
He looked out the window, looked at the passing piñons and the same familiar rolling waves of scrub-grass. “I did, once. At least I think I did.”
He saw the old man’s eyes in the rear view mirror; he seemed clearly puzzled.
“He was my grandfather.”
“Oh…you don’t say. So, you own the place now?”
“Word is developers are looking to buy it, build a bunch of houses out there.”
“So I hear.”
The old man laughed at that, as he turned onto the interstate. Santa Fe looked the same, at least from out here, but he hadn’t been here in years. Ted had just gone to Boston and he’d needed to settle some questions about water rights, and developers had tried to corner him that time, too. They did every time he came out and, he thought, this taxi driver was probably working for them right now, trying to feel him out.
But he’d never sell, and they knew it.
The driver wound through town, turned southwest on Guadalupe and things looked more developed out here. Rows of new adobe houses, built to look a hundred years old. He knew they were so poorly built they’d not last fifty, and that made him laugh.
A half hour later the driver pulled through the main gate; tires rumbled over the cattle-guard then slid on the sandy track. Around a curve, skirting one of the bigger hills, and the hangers came into view, then the main house. Ben Stillwell, the new ranch foreman, and his wife were on the front porch, waiting for him, and as the taxi braked they came down to help him from the back. He paid the driver and began walking for the house, but he stopped, then turned and looked around. All the hanger doors were shut tight…
“The Waco?” How is she?”
“Fine, Captain. Mechanics were out last week, got her ready, just in case.”
He nodded, saw the exploratory wells off to the south. First reports said there was at least thirty million barrels under the sand around here, maybe more.
No…he’d never sell. But he’d not tell Ted about any of this, either. At least, not until he was through with school. Nothing ruined people faster than easy money.
He turned for the porch and made his way slowly up the steps, then sat in Pop’s old chair.
“Could I get you something to drink?” Margaret Stillwell said. “I made blueberry iced tea, just for you.”
He looked at the woman and smiled. “Yes, that’d be nice. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” the woman said, and she seemed puzzled by the look on his face. It almost, she thought, looked like a smile.
Log of the Sailing Vessel Altair
7 July 1230 hrs
Position: N43.14 E149.52
SOG: 6.1 knots COG 310º
Tried to shoot a noon site a few minutes ago, but still too much fog. Water temp 46ºF and the current is setting Altair to the north, and much more than expected. Some blue whales greeted me this morning and though I tried to steer clear they seemed to want to check me out. Seemed gentle enough, though I’ve heard all the stories about them attacking small boats. That typhoon is still building in the Philippine Sea, and as the track is turning more to the north Hokkaido is looking like the better choice now. Maybe Otaru. Supposed to be a good hurricane hole. Not quite 300 miles to landfall.
He finished writing in the logbook and put it on the little cockpit table, then picked up his old Steiner’s and swept the horizon once, and something caught his eye so he flipped the radar to standby, then tried to pick out the object with the glasses again. Just a little gray notch that shouldn’t be there, he sighed, then he switched on the radar.
“There you are, little buddy. Now…just who the hell are you?”
Then…the target simply disappeared.
“Odd,” he said.
“What’s odd?” Brigit said from the galley.
“Something on the horizon, picked it up on radar about ten miles out, then it just disappeared.”
She came up the companionway steps, two cups of chicken soup in hand, and she handed one to him and sat beside him.
He pointed ahead and to starboard. “About 340 degrees.”
“Any buoys out here?”
“Nothing on the chart.”
“How big was it?”
“Not very. It looked weird, too. Like almost black, and small.”
“No. No rigging, no antennae, either.” He swept the horizon with his glasses, then took a sip from the mug. “Damn, that’s still hot…”
“Sorry. Cold soup just doesn’t cut it out here.”
He shook his head, cleared his throat. “What did you put in this batch? Jalapeños, or some plutonium?”
She laughed. “Last of the freeze-dried scallions. If we don’t find a grocery store, and soon, we’ll be into those ramen noodles.”
“I never imagined this would take fifty-five days.”
“Neither did I,” she said, grinning.
“Sorry you came?”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
It was the way he stopped speaking, in mid-sentence, that made her look up. She saw the expression on his face, in his eyes, and so she turned – and looked where he was looking.
A tall metal cylinder had just appeared beside Altair, not twenty yards away, and it was just standing there, inert. Gray, with splotches of gray, it was sticking up out of the sea like an old tree…
“Jim? What is that…?” Brigit asked.
“Ours, or theirs?”
And, as if to answer the question, a vast bubbling surrounded Altair, then a huge, black sail broke the surface, the number 741 in palest gray on its side. Moments later, crewmen in orange parkas appeared on the conning tower.
A man came to the edge and peered down at them, then pulled out a loud-hailer and spoke: “You Captain Patterson?”
He cupped his hands and called back: “Yessir.”
“Y’all need anything?”
He looked at Brigit, who whispered in his ear…
“Uh, you wouldn’t happen to have any spare caviar on board, or some Champagne, would you?”
“Well then, I think we’re good.”
“Uh, listen, some folks back in D.C. are worried about you guys…”
“We’re fine. Really. I have at least three more boxes of Trojans, so fear not…”
“Well, someone said y’all are trying for Yokosuka? You keeping track of the typhoon?”
“Yessir. We’re going to try for Otaru. Where are you headed?”
“That way,” the submariner said, pointing vaguely towards the sky, and they all laughed at that. “You have a watermaker on board?”
“Well, I’m sending over some spare fruit and fresh baked bread.”
“Okay. Won’t turn it down.”
Crewmen inflated a small dink and rowed over, handed up a couple of canvas bags then rowed back, and Brigit took the bags below while Jim stood at the helm.
“Look,” the skipper of the Maine said, “we have orders to see you get into port. We have other orders, too, but we’ll be in the neighborhood.”
“Okay. Understood.” And with that, he saluted and the thirty or so men on the Maine’s deck saluted back, then the diving klaxon sounded and everyone scurried below – and seconds later she was gone, just a black hole in the water.
Something in her voice caught him off-guard. “Yeah,” he said, turning to her.
She was holding a piece of paper in one hand, hanging on to a rail with the other as she stepped into the cockpit, then she handed him the paper.
It looked like an old dot-matrix Telex, printed on fan-fold paper, and the ink had, apparently, been running low on this particular unit.”
‘Susan pregnant. Word is they’re doing the deed first August. If you think you can manage it, all would love to see you. MG. Oh, Your boy soloed two weeks ago, in the old Waco. Thought you should know.’
“Soloed, in a Waco? What does that mean?”
He stood there, hanging on to Altair’s wheel, trying to hold onto life, and he tried to explain – but he knew he was making little sense now. He stumped his way below, opened the Iridium sat-phone and downloaded five weeks of messages and he read through all the ignored correspondence. A few minutes later he typed out his replies and sent his words on their way, and he wondered why he’d tried to cut himself off from that world so completely.
It didn’t matter, he knew. It was a done deed now.
He looked at the chartplotter and made another entry in the log, then he went topsides and looked at the halo around the sun. Rain soon, he thought. Maybe the first outer bands of this monster typhoon. Well, they’d make port in two more days, so with plenty of time to spare.
Brigit was at the wheel, rolling with the swell, checking the sails as he looked at her.
‘How did I get so lucky?’ he said, if only to himself.
He went to the aft rail and looked down into his wake, into his passage through time and all the places he’d been, and for a moment he thought he heard someone laughing. It sounded like Pops, laughing at the stars again, then all was quiet and he was alone with his memories, bubbling along the surface of a black sea, running from the storm.
(C) 2018 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com
(c) 2018 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com