the eighty-eighth key, ch 06

88th key cover image

the eighty-eighth key

part one

chapter six

Life was like riding his bike home from school, even in high school. Or running home, because running always felt good. Getting home felt good, most of the time, anyway. At least after all the chores were done there was an hour on the piano, because that always felt best.

Beyond that, even.

There was color in music, explosions in new chords that felt like silvery shivers when he found them. Like shining a flashlight in a dark corner and finding a shiny new puppy, something alive and bright with sudden possibilities. His mother had shown him Chopin and Debussy, but then he had found Gershwin on his own. 

So many explosions, so much color!

And ever since fourth grade, when the Eversons moved in next door, there was June. The other constant in his life.

She was an odd flower, too; from those first moments steeped in light and color. Not music. No, the first time he saw her she was on the front porch of her father’s house, standing behind an easel, lost in the moment with a paint brush in her hand. She was looking at a hummingbird, fascinated by the bird’s motionless grace as it supped from flowers growing up one of the columns supporting the front of the house, her huge blue eyes visible from across the yard.

It was the middle of summer, deep within all those other middle-moments before school started, when the sun was high in the sky, the breeze coming in from the bay fresh and cool, the memories still so sharp now that they hurt.

He stood inside that moment lost in her eyes, lost in time even then, watching her. That first moment together never went away.

Sun-glints in her red hair, a wave of freckles on her nose and just under her eyes; but those eyes! He stepped into the light, stepped closer to the moment and he saw her look his way…

“What are you looking at?” she always asked, even now.

“The hummingbird,” he lied.

“It’s amazing,” she said, suddenly her voice a faint whisper. “I’ve never seen green like this…it shimmers in the light…”

He walked ever so slowly to the porch and came up to her, and even then the movement felt so natural. He was drawn to her like a tidal surge, and it was as simple as that; what was so strange was her tacit acceptance of him even then, but how can you deny the tides?

They belonged together, and everyone could see that, even from the beginning. Even her father knew that, despite his misgivings.

Soon enough she heard his playing in the afternoon and came to the door, peeked inside – looking for the source of all this new color, color she couldn’t quite see yet. Within days she was on the inside looking out for the first time in her life, standing behind him lost in an otherworldly trance as she watched his fingers dance in all these strange new colors.

From the first she was fascinated by his hands, by his fingers, and soon enough she would stand there, sketchbook in hand as she studied his every sinew. When school started that autumn they walked there and back home together, even had the same teacher so they were hardly ever apart, and even there she would watch his hands as he doodled on paper; there were even times when she drew those errant currents, too, recording those moves for some hidden future purpose.

But she loved birds and flowers most of all, then Harry’s hands, and in time she loved to sit and listen as he played – then she would disappear for hours, usually for the rest of the day, and what she did in those hidden moments was a mystery.

Harry’s feelings for June went through diurnal phases that seemed keyed to the way his mother reacted to June’s presence; on some days his mother doted over June and so Harry almost detested the sight of her, while on others his mother seemed loath at the sight of June. Of course, on those days Harry doted over June.

Still, over the years these diurnal swings took a toll, on Harry certainly, but also on both June and his mother, yet no one seemed to understand where and when these deeper fault lines within the triptych emerged. Perhaps it was in Harry’s music or something within June’s painting, but no one, absolutely no one seemed to understand the true nature of the music Imogen Callahan created when storms approached, when lightning danced overhead and as thunder rolled across the bay. When the music that filled the Callahan house danced and rolled into the deeper registers, as memory and experience carried them all towards the eighty-eighth key…

+++++

Callahan was bunked-out in the bowels of the ship, waiting for the Huey to be rearmed and refueled so they could make the flight back to – somewhere? Phu Bai was still closed, though Danang was reportedly open now, though word had filtered-down overnight that C-Med had been overrun at one point and the facility retaken at great cost after an intense firefight that had lasted hours. Parish was beside himself too, seemingly desperate to get back to his work, and Callahan was surprised by this obtuse transformation.

But by early morning it was time to round up anyone headed back to the beach, so Callahan made his way to the hanger deck and did his walk-around in very strange company indeed. Down below the flight deck now, his Huey was surrounded by Phantoms and Corsairs, and crews were loading huge bombs on ordnance racks on a line of A-6 Intruders. Then his Huey was hauled to one of the massive elevators for the ride up to the flight deck, then to a spot just aft of the island – the tail rotor hanging out over the churning sea maybe forty feet below.

Parish was up there already, so were the medics and Don McCall – though he wouldn’t be flying today – as well as a bunch of Army types that needed to be repatriated to their units ashore. Everyone clambered in and a crew chief came out and gave Callahan the hand signals he’d need to get off the ship, then signaled engine start as he walked off. A few minutes later Kilo Bravo -6 was headed for the beach and deep into the heart of the Tet Offensive…

+++++

The Jetstar taxied to a secure spot on a ramp dedicated to small jet parking and after the engines spooled-down Avi led Harry down to a waiting staff car; they left the airport and drove into the sleeping city, the streets now almost devoid of traffic. A few minutes later they came to a small cluster of new houses located behind a formidable stone wall, and a soldier opened the iron gate guarding a vast interior courtyard. Callahan looked at the security detail surrounding the homes and shook his head, then remembered this was Israel, not Miami Beach – though the climate was similar enough.

Avi led him to a house deep within the cluster and up to a brightly lighted entry courtyard almost overgrown with miniature palm trees, and another sentry opened the door – from the inside! – greeting Avi deferentially before eyeing Callahan with frank suspicion.

“Is she up,” Avi whispered to the sentry.

“Yessir, and she seems quite agitated.” 

Avi nodded then turned to Callahan: “Follow me.”

And Avi turned, led him back out to the main courtyard and across a walkway to another, smaller bungalow. Again, a sentry opened the door from inside and Avi led the way into the living room. And Frank Bullitt and his girlfriend Cathy were sitting there, looking more than a little put out…so Avi and the guard quietly retreated.

Bullitt stood when Harry walked into the room, then walked over to him: “You okay?”

“Yeah. Have a nice flight?”

“You mean aside from worrying about you? Were you on that little jet?”

Callahan nodded. “Saw yours being pushed back as we took off. How long have you been here?”

“‘Bout an hour. Called Bennett when we got here and he’s frantic, already lodged some kind of complaint with the Israeli embassy in D.C. Someone from our embassy is on the way out here right now, but as far as anyone knows you were abducted by persons unknown.”

Callahan shook his head. “Swell,” he said, settling into one of the comfortable room’s overstuffed aqua-colored leather chairs.

“Someone told us Nixon stayed in this place when he visited last year,” Cathy said from the sofa. “Harry, what did you get mixed-up in?”

“My mom,” Callahan sighed. “My mom leads another life, or something like that.”

“Like what?” Bullitt asked.

“Well, she’s married to something like the minister for scientific security, and I guess when she’s not busy having psychotic breaks she designs hydrogen bombs.”

Bullitt looked at him now, his lips bunched-up in a deep scowl and his brow deeply furrowed, then his face split into that wide grin of his. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Yup.”

“Minister of Scientific Security?”

“He thinks Egypt and Syria are planning an attack. He’s trying to convince their government to get ready.”

“And what about you? Why do they want you here right now?”

“Well, that’s the fun part, Frank. Seems they lost a bomb, and they want me to find it.”

“A bomb?” Cathy asked, her eyes wide. “You mean…”

“Yeah,” Bullitt smirked, “our Harry is full of all kinds of interesting surprises these days.”

Callahan shook his head then stood and walked over to a vast wall of sliding glass doors; he looked to the southwest, to Orion settling over the western horizon, then to the east – where rosy fingered Dawn was just beginning to show-off her handiwork.

The morning calm was shattered as a flight of Phantoms took off from a nearby air base, and he watched them climb almost vertically before all four turned to the northeast, their dual afterburners trailing in the night sky like the eyes of angry dragons. He felt Bullitt by his side a moment later, then Cathy joined them as they all looked up into the fading night.

“When’s this war of theirs supposed to start?” she asked.

“Soon,” Harry said with a sigh.

“Swell,” Frank Bullitt growled. “That’s just fucking swell.”

+++++

“Kilo Bravo -6, Phu Bai reports now open. Expedite return and pick up supplies for C-Med.”

“-6 received.”

“What’s up?” Parish asked.

“Gotta pick up supplies before we head up-valley. Doubt we’ll be on the ground five minutes.” Parish nodded his head but he seemed agitated. Real agitated. “What’s wrong?” Callahan asked.

Parish turned away, the looked back. “I gotta girl up there. Lives in a village maybe a mile away. She came round, asked if she could do little things, ya know? Like our laundry, shit like that. Would’ve been fine but she’s a looker and, ya know, I was horny and one thing led to another.”

“Don’t tell me. You asked her to marry you.”

Parish looked way, shook his head.

“You’re a fuckin’ hypocrite, you fucking asshole.”

“Yup.”

“But, why?”

“Misery loves company, I guess.”

“Misery?”

“Yeah, man. I love the hell out of her but that’s just it. Can’t take her stateside, ya know? So this can only end one way, and I don’t like the way it’s gonna play out, ya know? I just don’t dig unhappy endings, ya know?”

“What do you mean you can’t take her home? Why not?”

“Against the rules, man. No fuckin’ way the Man would let something good come out of this fucked up war, ya know?”

“There’s gotta be a way. You’ll find it, so don’t sweat it. Besides…”

“Besides what, man?”

“If it’s meant to be, it will be.”

“Ya know, Callahan, I didn’t take you for a religious nut-job.”

And years later it hit Callahan exactly what he’d said, and he’d wondered at the time and ever since if he’d really meant it. He’d dreamt of his Looney-Junes the night before, and it had felt in his sleep as if she’d never passed on, that they’d had the baby and settled down in their own house overlooking the bay and life had played out the way he’d always hoped it would…the way he’d thought it was meant to…

And so, the logical conclusion was that had never really been meant to be, right? That she’d gone to that fucking butcher over in Oakland and he’d simply killed her out of neglect, so that was meant to be, too. Meant to be? How could something so right be so swiftly snuffed out, erased from life’s ledger so completely? That just didn’t make sense, and the whole notion that her death was a part of somebody’s plan left him cold, left him not wanting to know a god like that.

But now he understood what was eating Parish.

They were on the ground at Phu Bai for maybe a half hour, on a hold while the Air Force pounded the area between C-Med and Hué City, mainly because Callahan didn’t feel like flying around the area looking for a safe route. Better to wait it out and fly there direct and, besides, the longer wait gave them more time to load supplies.

When they did get off the ground they did so in a flight of six Hueys, and they flew direct in line-formation, and with a dozen Cobra gunships escorting. Callahan’s was the last Huey to land and unload on the little pad and Parish said his goodbyes this time, shaking Harry’s hand before he jumped out and ran towards surgery.

“Kilo Bravo -6, RTB and expedite.”

“-6, RTB.”

Most Return To Base calls were rare, and in the middle of a resupply even more so, and so inwardly Callahan just knew he’d done something wrong.

Though of course he couldn’t have been more wrong.

+++++

By the time junior high rolled around everyone knew Callahan and that weird red-haired girl had done it. They had to have, right? Because they were together all the time, sometimes night and day. Her old man was a freak, too, playing with doves all the time, or pigeons, or whatever…! And all she did was paint stuff. Too weird…

But everyone couldn’t have been more wrong.

By the time Callahan was fourteen the whole contrapuntal thing with June and his mom had gotten a little out of hand. When Mrs C said she liked June Harry hated suddenly still the girl next door and he stopped seeing her after school, and when Mrs C told Harry the girl was trouble all of sudden he couldn’t get enough of her. The really odd thing was his music, because it seemed to ebb and flow on these tides, with Harry boldly experimenting when his mother castigated him for associating with the girl and his expressing complete disinterest in music when his mother seemed to adore her. Perhaps the greater point lost here is the net effect this evolving tug-of-war had on the little red-haired girl next door, because she never knew from one day to the next what Harry’s feeling for her really were.

But sometime in high school her father gave her a Nikon, a real honest to god Nikon F, the real pro model with the brick-like Photomic finder, and June’s artistic interests turned on a dime as she flew off on this new tangent with unbelievable passion. JFK had barely been in office a year but all of a sudden photography was the new thing, and magazines like Life and National Geographic became the new focus of her artistic interests. Even so, she still loved to watch Harry’s hands on the keyboard, and she would fire off a roll then disappear, dash to her basement and develop her latest studies. Harry grew fascinated with this stuff too and asked his dad to check on Nikon prices during his next trip to Japan; he came back a few months later with an identical Nikon, and several new lenses as well.

And these new pieces of glass fascinated June, expanded her view of the world like nothing Harry could imagine. They walked the waterfront taking pictures of mollusks when the tides were out, and on Saturday nights they took the streetcar into the city and went to coffeeshops, photographing folk singers into the wee hours. She wanted to go to an airshow over in Oakland once, and Harry saw a helicopter in action for the first time, even talked to an Army recruiter about it, then they stood in open-mouthed wonder when the Blue Angels performed overhead. They walked past the train station and up to Jack London Square, and they’d called her dad that day because the finally realized how far away from home they’d roamed.

And they learned about life that way, through the lens, one picture at a time. They’d walk up to strangers and ask to take their picture. They went to art galleries and museums, taking pictures of everything then rushing home to develop what they’d found – and then they’d relive the day while they reviewed each other’s work. 

And this idyllic bliss would go on until Harry’s mom experienced another psychotic break and Harry ricocheted off her emotional walls again.

After a really bad one June sat on her front porch crying like a broken angel, and when Harry saw her sitting there, all of a sudden he figured everything out and he ran over to her, held her and promised he’d never let her go and that nothing like this would ever happen again.

But the damage was by then real and lasting; June knew the only way she could break free of the cycle was to break free of Harry, and she tried more than once to follow through with her decision and make a break for it. Yet somehow she never could.

She thought about her dad mostly, during those times when she questioned her resolve, thought about him sitting in the backyard with his doves all alone.

Ever since her mother passed, since his wife died, she couldn’t help thinking that the worst thing you could do was walk away from your destiny, and if she knew one thing at all in this world it was that Harry Callahan was her’s.

+++++

“You Callahan?” the three-star general stated more than asked.

“Yessir.”

“Assigned to a RAM team out of Bamburg in ’65?” using the common abbreviation for the Radiation Assessment and Monitoring squadron he’d been assigned to when he was stationed in Germany.

“Yessir.”

“Well Callahan, we’ve got a Broken Arrow over in Laos or Cambodia and we’ve got to get it out. There are only two Wizard-equipped Hueys over here, and only one qualified pilot. You. When can you be ready to go?”

“As soon as you show me the bird, sir, and any reconnaissance there is.”

“It’s on the ramp at Danang,” a full-bird colonel said as he handed over an envelope full of the latest recon imagery. “An EH-1H prototype, we were using it for a project we’re working on and it happens to be Wizard-equipped. You ever flown the -H?”

“No sir, but if it’s a Huey I can fly it.”

“We know you can, son,” the general said. “I know you’re reserves, so I tell you what. If you do this for us how’d you like to go home early?”

“Not very much, sir. The fight’s here. I’m needed here.”

The officers in the room looked at one another, then nodded. He had passed their last test, the most important test of all.

The general stood and held out his right hand and Callahan took it. “Good luck, son.”

“Yessir.” Callahan saluted and executed a crisp ‘about-face,’ then stepped out of the room and waited in the ante-room at ‘parade-rest,’ as he’d been forewarned. The colonel came out a moment later, said “Follow me” to Callahan as he strode from the room. They rode out to the flight line and the colonel passed Callahan off to a  Air Force captain in a light gray flight-suit; the captain looked at Callahan’s blood-splattered helmet and gear and shook his head before walking over to an OV-10, pointing to the back seat. “Been in one of these before?” the captain asked.

“No sir.”

“Ever trained in an ejection seat before?”

“No sir.”

“See that yellow thing over your head? If I say ‘eject-eject’ you pull that fucker hard and keep your arms and legs in tight. Got it?”

“Yessir.” Callahan said as he topped the little ladder and climbed into the aft cockpit; a chief helped him strap in and got his intercom plugged into the system, then pointed out the ejection seat strap again.

After the side-opening canopy slammed shut the turbines started spooling-up, then he heard the captain through the intercom: “If it gets busy I’d appreciate a little help on the radios.”

“Got it.”

The OV-10 felt like sitting in a fish bowl, the tips of the propellors a spinning blur about a foot away on the other side of the canopy. The whole thing felt exposed and unsafe, and Callahan felt himself tensing up as the captain taxied out to the active. He’d seen these aircraft before, the huge flaps providing incredible lift and an absurdly short take-off roll, but he’d never expected to fly in one…

“Ya know,” the captain began, “the prototype for this thing was put together in a guy’s garage. Homebuilt. Kinda weird, ya know?” the captain added as he turned onto the runway.

“Weird?”

“Yeah, get a load of this…” The captain held the brakes and ran up the engines to full take off power, then…

…Callahan felt the brakes release and about a second later they were nose up, climbing at 80 knots…

“Holy shit!” screamed Callahan, laughing in spite of himself. “I got to get me one of these!”

The captain grinned. “You shoulda joined the air farce, man. Most people I do that to puke their guts out.”

“Damn, that’s better than sex…”

“Now, you wanna see what this thing can really do…?”

“Fuck yeah!”

+++++

The -H model looked like any other Huey, only this one was painted black – flat black, and all the glass looked pinkish-amber; some kind of material to keep radiation or EMP from getting to the electronics onboard, or so another Air Force captain said. This captain would be pilot in command, while Callahan would fly left seat and work the Wizard. “We’re going to head over to Phu Bai and refuel there, pick up the insertion team. When we find the thing we’ll drop them off and wait for the Jolly Greens, and we’ll have OV-10s overhead to call in air-support. Any questions?”

“No sir.”

“You trained on this in Germany?”

“Yessir.”

“Okay man, enough with the yessir no sir crap. Let’s go.”

While they were at Phu Bai, Parish walked by just as all the team gathered for pictures, and with another general and his colonels front and center he slipped into the photograph, stood next to Callahan – flashing a ‘peace sign’ with two upraised fingers just for good measure – before he skipped off to the flight line. Callahan saw Don McCall walk by and flashed him a thumbs-up; McCall grinned and walked out to a Huey and flew off towards C-Med.

‘Life goes on…’ he thought, with or without you…and all of a sudden he was in the back of his dad’s station wagon, holding his Looney-Junes as they sped across the Bay Bridge on their way to the hospital.

+++++

He couldn’t sleep with the sun coming up so he sat and watched the day unfold, listened as more Israeli jets took off and flew to the north, but there was nothing out of the ordinary on the television or radio so he relaxed. Bullitt and Cathy had trudged off to their bedroom in a deep funk, leaving Harry to deal with the flaks from the State Department and to figure out what they were supposed to do today.

Then the front door opened and Avi walked in. He looked exasperated.

“She has not slept in days so I had a doctor come, and he’s given her something to help her sleep. If you wouldn’t mind, we’d like you to take a look at one of our helicopters today.”

Harry nodded, and he now had a clear understanding of why he’d really been brought here. As he got out of the chair and slipped on his jacket, he glared at Avi as he walked to the entry. There were a couple of official looking Chevrolets out front, engines running and with soldiers behind the wheels, and Avi led them to one and motioned Harry to get in.

“You coming with me?” Harry asked.

“Of course.”

The base was, strangely enough, only a few miles away, and he saw a long line of ten Hueys baking under the fierce morning sun – yet they drove past these and on towards a small hanger attached to the base security facility. The cars pulled up there and police-types opened Harry’s door and escorted him into the security building. He was finger-printed and given an ID badge, then escorted into the hanger.

And there it was, a pristine -H model sitting under blazing overhead lights, the very same pinkish-amber glass – and the specialized antenna farm just above the cockpit. This one was painted a dark slate gray, though Israeli Air Force markings were conspicuously absent from her. Harry was introduced to the ship’s crew and got up to speed on what they did – and did not – know about the Wizard and it’s operation, then they gathered round and asked questions for an hour or so…and that was it for the day.

“Keep the badge for next time,” Avi said as they walked out to the cars.

“Whose helicopter is that?” he asked.

Avi shrugged. “We got it used. I’m not sure from who.”

“Looks brand new,” Callahan added. “Did the Air Force give it to you?”

Avi shrugged, grinning from ear to ear.

“Swell.”

“Your mother is up. We should go have dinner now.”

Callahan looked at his wrist, saw the day had slipped away as their little convoy pulled into the compound and stopped in front of Avi’s house. They walked to the door but Avi stopped short. “Are you ready for this, Harald?”

“I wish I knew.”

Avi nodded. Well Daniel, into the lion’s den we go.”

“Right.” Harry took a deep breath and followed Avi into the house and there she was, sitting on a sofa, watching and waiting. She too seemed nervous, uncomfortably so, then Harry noticed a piano located off the main room and he froze. It was a Bösendorfer Grand, deepest ebony and lit from above, and he felt her eyes on him and knew she was watching his reaction. He looked at her and she pointed to the piano.

“Go to her, Harald.”

And so he did. 

For as long as he could remember he had wanted to see one of these legendary instruments, yet he had always understood playing one, let alone owning one, would be forever out of reach.

And now?

He went to the bench and pulled it out just so, then gently moved to the keys. He looked at the shine, felt the cool smoothness and shook his head, then he felt her coming up from behind, then putting her hands on his shoulders.

“She has been silent too long, you must bring her back to life for us.” Avi said as he walked up to them, and for a moment Harry didn’t know if Avi was talking about the piano or his mother. “I found her after the war, in the basement of our old home. I bought her and had her taken to Vienna where they resurrected her, and now she is home again.”

He felt her fingers running through his hair and closed his eyes, thought of the times she had done just this very thing when his legs were not yet long enough for his feet to reach the pedals. She had sat beside him all those years ago and played with him as she passed on all that she knew, and now she sat beside him – again – and looked expectantly at him.

“What would you like to hear, Mom?”

She leaned her head on his shoulder and whispered “Gershwin, The Second Prelude. Slowly, please.”

He closed his eyes and tried to remember all the times he’d played this for June, and for his mother, then he nodded and resumed this ever so personal journey through time and memory.

When he was finished, and when he had come back to them, he looked up and saw Bullitt and Cathy were there now and he seemed surprised…

“When did you get here?” he asked them.

“About an hour ago,” Bullitt said. “That was incredible, Harry. I had no idea.”

“How long have I been playing?”

Bullitt looked at his watch. “We came in when you were starting Rhapsody in Blue…”

“Then you ran through West Side Story,” Cathy added, “nonstop. I’ve never heard anything so beautiful in my life, Harry.” Her eyes were glistening….

“My Harald always had the gift, more than I ever hoped.”

Avi beamed, glad the reunion he’d orchestrated was going so well. “Should we have some dinner? Harald, you must be exhausted now?”

He ran his fingers over the keys gently and shook his head. “I felt like I was a million miles away, Mom, like I was in another time, another place…”

“I know, my son, my love. I know.”

And indeed he did know, because when Cathy mentioned West Side Story it all came back to him. The suite, Bernstein’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet, had been June’s favorite and she’d begged him – begged him! – to play it on her birthdays and now all he could think about was the road that had taken him to their music tonight, of all nights. 

He looked at his mother and knew she understood, knew that was why she had wiped away tears when he finished the piece.

He stood and helped her up, then they walked together and she led him to the dining room.

+++++

The OV-10s took off first and criss-crossed the way ahead; unbeknownst to Callahan several B-52s loitered near the Cambodia/Laos border – waiting for the call to pulverize anyone attempting to interfere with the operation, yet because almost all hostile forces were supposedly engaged in the south the odds were considered good they wouldn’t be needed. Leaving the Hué area on a heading of 300 degrees, the estimated area they were looking for was between 190 and 210 miles distant.

Assuming the warhead’s casing had been breeched Callahan figured particulate signatures would begin to register in about an hour; if the warhead was intact they might fly right over the thing and not get a significant reading, so someone’s very bad luck was going to play a big role in this outcome.

“Flight, CAP, we’re picking up fire control radars and some airborne signatures now.”

Callahan groaned. “Migs?” he asked the captain. Everyone was chewing gum by that point, and the rate of lip-smacking suddenly picking up speed.

“Yup. It would be too good to be true if Charlie was clueless about this, but if they do know anything, and I do mean anything about this it could get real hot, real fast. How long until that thing picks up something?”

“Best case…twenty minutes.”

“We havin’ fun yet, Harry?”

Callahan turned, saw Parish sitting behind the captain’s seat and just about swallowed his gum. “What are you doing here, meathead?”

“Heard y’all was goin’ to a dance and, well, ya know, I don’t want to miss out on the fun.”

“Who the hell are you?” the captain said, clearly pissed off now.

“General Eisenhower asked me to tag along,” Parish said, now grinning like a madman. “He thought you could use a proctologist along for the ride today.”

“He’s a doc,” Callahan interjected. “Works out at C-Med, and there’s a rumor he actually knows what he’s doing.”

“Well doc,” the captain hissed, “guess what? You ain’t supposed to be here and odds are when we get back you’ll be headed to straight to Leavenworth Kansas for a little proctological exam of your own, so sit down, keep your eyes closed and your fuckin’ mouth shut. Got it?”

One of the Phantoms overhead chimed-in: “Flight, looks like four Mig-17s inbound at low level, maybe two more groups forming up north of here.”

“We’re blown,” the captain said as he pushed the Huey down to the treetops.

“Trace reading,” Callahan whispered.

“What?”

“Okay, good trace, come left to 2-9-4 degrees then swing your heading plus or minus ten degrees.”

“Got it.”

“Good trace, more to the right. Make your course 290. Wind carries the particles and they cling to the trees. I think we’re getting a better ratio down here in the weeds.”

“You say so.”

“Bingo, detection levels now! We should be within five miles.”

The captain got on the radio: “All units, this is Achilles. We are a go, standby insertion. Keep the Migs out of here and Baker element, go ahead and put the Jolly Greens on alert status.”

“Strong signal now,” Callahan stated. “Go into a hover and swing plus or minus twenty degrees.”

“Got it.”

“Again.”

“Okay.”

“Migs!” one of the door gunners screamed before he let loose an extended volley. Callahan turned and saw Parish with an M-16 firing at something out the door – down in the trees? – just before their Huey took fire from the ground.

“Flight, Achilles, we got Charlie on the ground, in-force. Call in the BUFFs.” He turned to Callahan. “Got anything?”

“Straight ahead. Go!” He looked up from the Wizard and saw two Migs and a Phantom in a wide turn, the Migs turning back to line up on the Huey. Something leapt from the Phantom’s wings and one of the Migs disappeared in a fireball, but the second one was lining up to make its run on them. He turned to see what was going on in back and saw Parish tending to a wounded door gunner, then their Huey leapt up abruptly, then nosed down to the weeds – building speed and darting through the treetops – and the Mig disappeared.

“Charlie’s fucking everywhere,” the captain said.

“We’re almost on top of the signal,” Callahan said, then: “There it is!” he said, pointing through the windshield. He saw a semi-intact B-57, the fuselage recognizable but the wings a tangled mess, and the whole area was crawling with troops.

The captain reefed the Huey into a tight climbing turn and made the call: “Flight, Achilles, we’re blown. Case Red, I repeat, Case Red. RTB expedite, repeat RTB expedite.”

Callahan watched as the OV-10s circling overhead lined up and began firing white phosphorous marker rounds on the downed aircraft, and moments later the jungle erupted in flames, an area of several square miles literally covered in napalm as 24 B-52s dropped their loads on the wrecked B-57.

“Well, that’s that,” the captain sighed.

“What, we’re just going to leave it there?”

The captain shook his head. “No, but our part of the OP is over now. An assessment team will go in and check it out, but that’s not your job. Let’s get you back to work.”

Callahan saw Parish in back sewing up a gunner’s leg – tough work in a helicopter – and he motioned to the captain, had him take a look. “Get him out of here as soon as we land, and tell him to keep his mouth shut…” 

+++++

Callahan shook his head, pushed his Ray-Bans up then pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbed his eyes then looked out at the desert as the gray Israeli -H model swept to the northeast until it had reached the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee; they were now hugging the eastern shoreline about fifty feet above the water. He was flying the Huey and scanning the Wizard while the Israeli captain watched and asked questions; a radio operator in back was in contact with their base…

“So, what kind aircraft was involved,” Callahan asked.

“An A-4H, fairly new airframe, no combat so no major repairs.”

“The pilot?”

The captain took a deep breath. “Experienced,” was all he said.

“Any chance he’d defect?”

“None.”

“So, we’re on his last track now? Where’d you lose contact?”

“About two more miles.”

“Altitude?”

“Low. Very low. What you may not realize is how close we are to both Jordan and to Syria. We are also flying alongside the Golan Heights. Operations in this area are severely restricted, essentially to wartime.”

“So, your pilot was getting very close to that area?”

The captain nodded. “Too close.”

The Wizard chirped and Callahan looked at the trace, then he throttled back and put the nose up, let the collective slip a little and the Huey softened into a hover. He leveled off then yawed left and right a few times, watching the Wizard react, then he put the nose down and added power, followed the trace again – this time a little more to the north. “How far to the border?” he asked.

“Which one?”

Callahan shook his head again. “On this heading.”

“Syria is ahead, about 31 miles. Lebanon that way,” he added, pointing to their ten o’clock, “maybe 20 miles. If you fail to stay out over the water here we will be violating the DMZ.”

Callahan looked at the shoreline now perhaps 200 yards away and he sighed. “Complicated,” was all he said.

“Even more so at 500 knots. No room to fuck-up.”

The Wizard chirped twice then an amber light flickered and Callahan dropped into another Hover, swung the compass and watched the array of flickering lights, then he lowered the nose and turned hard to the left.

“What are you doing!?” the captain cried, clearly alarmed.

“Following the trace.”

The captain pulled out his aeronautical chart and studied it a moment, then spoke: “We’ll be okay as long as you keep south of 320 degrees.”

“320,” Harry repeated, then the Wizard lit up like a Christmas tree and he pulled back hard and climbed into a steep banking turn, then he slowly leveled off, settling into a hover just above the water’s surface. “How deep is it here?”

“Here? I don’t know, why?”

Callahan flew along at a sedate walking speed while he fiddled with his Ray-Bans, then he looked at the captain. “Because, there’s your missing Skyhawk,” Harry said, pointing to an area of lighter color in the lake. “Take some bearings, then let’s get out of here before we stir up trouble.”

+++++

Avi was waiting for them as Harry brought the Huey into the pattern at the air base, and he followed the captains directions and settled down near the security-hanger and shut the engine down. Ground crews rushed up and security personnel weren’t far behind, and everyone seemed to hover around Harry like he was a long lost friend, shaking his hand and slapping him on the back as he climbed down from the right seat and onto the tarmac. Avi was in that group and he came up to Harry and hugged him…

“I knew you could do it! I just knew it!” the old man said, beaming from ear to ear, and Harry felt the warmth of the moment, the genuine emotional acceptance of these people gathered all around, and he smiled and shrugged his shoulders in a modest kind of “Aw, shucks” gesture before the old man led him off to a waiting sedan.

“Really remarkable, Harry. I’m speechless. We’ve been looking for five weeks, and it took you, what? An hour? Maybe two? Just remarkable.”

“I don’t get it, Avi. You had the Wizard…?”

“Well, no, we didn’t. We had to, well, we had to borrow this aircraft, and we could only do that under the strictest conditions. One was that we could only use an America trained pilot, and the other is that we return the aircraft as soon as we are done with it. Well, we are…”

“Ah, and now you are done with me too, is that about right?”

“Yes and no, Harald. Militarily your work is done here, but you are free to stay as long as you like.”

“What do you mean, free to stay?”

“Your mother needs you, and obviously Israel needs you too. You have a home here, waiting. Always.”

“I see.”

Avi sat in silence the rest of the drive, and they all went out to dinner that night, down to a waterfront restaurant in Tel Aviv, but nothing was said about the days operation, nothing at all. After the group returned to the compound Harry sat up with his mother and they talked through the night, about music in the main, but about his father and life in California and his work for the department…

“You love it, then? This work?”

“I do, yes, but I miss… Well, I miss flying too. After Vietnam I never thought I’d say that, but Mom, I’m a cop. I know that must sound strange to you…”

“No, not at all, Harald. I can see it in your eyes. You seem very comfortable in your skin, like you are doing what you should be doing with your life. I only wish…”

Then her voice trailed off, her eyes glazed and her body tensed…

“Mom? What is it?”

“I keep thinking about our little June and what might have been. I would like to know that you are not the last of me, Harald. I would like to know that we will carry on. I would like to know that one day you will fall in love with your music again. You create such magic when you play. You must know that?”

“That piano in there,” he said, pointing to the Bösendorfer, “is magic, Mom.”

“Then take it!”

“What? No way, Mom. That’s yours…”

“I can no longer play, Harald. When I left, well, everything left me. I cannot even remember the notes now, and even the simplest chords are beyond me…”

Harry laughed a little, then shook his head. “I can’t begin to imagine that that is even remotely true. Come on, let’s go…”

“No, Harald, I can’t.”

“Mom, when you sat with me the night before I could feel it in you. The music is still all there, just waiting to come out again, right where you left it…”

“No…”

But Harry stood and held out his hand, and she took it, and in that moment one of the greatest transformations in the history of music took place…

…but let’s not get ahead of our little story, okay?

 

(c) 2020 | adrian leverkühn | abw

 

[oh, just an aside, but sprinkled through this story you might run across little traces of song lyrics here and there; for instance a sentence a few chapters ago about Armstrong and Aldrin walking on the moon mentioned a bright spot in the nighttime, a line from Three Dog Night’s Out in the Country. This piece was from 1970, so contemporaneous to the story, though not all are. Good luck finding them…!]

p.s. check out this video of Bernstein’s West Side Story, and check out the shoes! What a riot!

3 thoughts on “the eighty-eighth key, ch 06

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