The Eighty-eighth Key, Ch. 31

88th key cover image

(quick note: still in hospital though sitting up to write less burdensome, hopefully home later this week…)

Part IV

Chapter 31

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Callahan came-to in a field of flowers, and he lay easily on a bed of tufted grass – watching bright puffy clouds drift by overhead on the cool breezes gently caressing his brow.

He heard music, familiar music, adrift on one passing current; he sat up at once, rubbing his eyes, looking for the music’s source…but he only grew more confused. Across one of the fields beyond the softest breeze he saw a house, and while he knew the music had to be coming from there, this place he now found himself in felt utterly unreal…like music didn’t belong here.

He stood, still confused, and he continued to feel that nothing about this place was real. First of all, the clouds overhead were white, true enough, but the color of the sky itself was pale yellow, and though the view was in a way calming, so too was it unsettling. And the clouds? He felt as if he could almost reach up and touch them. He looked down, saw the grass in the fields was pure white, the leafy trees surrounding the house the color of fresh cream…almost like an infrared photograph, he thought.

“What is this place?” Callahan whispered. “It’s not real, whatever it is.”

Yet even as he expressed skepticism the music on the breeze grew even more insistent.

Chords he’d never heard before took root inside the house across the field and blossomed into the sky, leaving traceries of gossamer cloud well beyond the moment their creation, weaving crystalline kaleidoscopes across the sky that seemed to coalesce around a certain feeling.

He stood and took a deep breath, feeling most-of-all that the air in this place was of shattering purity, and that sounds traveled with equal precision. He looked at these new, swirling clouds and felt the music, really felt emotive expressions within each new shimmer…

“How can this be?” he said to this surreal landscape.

“How could it possibly be otherwise?”

Callahan jumped at the sound of this new voice, yet in an instant he knew exactly who was speaking. 

He turned and saw the Old Man in the Cape standing by his side.

“What are you doing here?” Callahan whispered.

“I thought that, perhaps, you could use a hand this evening.”

“What do you mean? Why would I need your help?”

“First June, then An-Linh. Your mother, so suddenly? And now Sara? So much loss, so much pain. I really don’t know how you’ve endured all of it. Or…have you?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Have you endured? Any of it?”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m not so sure,” the old man began, “that you’ve ever felt anything at all, not really. Maybe pain is just an abstract something you simply brush aside, like lint off your sleeve.”

“Maybe you should get the fuck away from me while you still can.”

And that made the old man laugh for a moment, yet then he produced his ornate cane and pointed to an emerging cloud. “Listen to it, Harry. I mean, really listen.”

Callahan looked at the old man for a moment, then did as he asked. 

And yes, there was something strange about the swirling chord. Standing here next to the old man the impression it left was fleeting – but hardly unambiguous.

“Loss,” Callahan whispered. “Like a dirge.”

The old man simply nodded as he flicked his cane, shifting to a minor key. “And now?”

Callahan’s head tilted and his eyes closed. “Something deeper than loss. Something beyond.”

The old man flicked his cane and a new stream of consciousness emerged within the music coming from the house.

“And now?”

Callahan tried in vain to feel the music within but the struggle left him desperate, winded. “I’m not sure,” was all he managed to say.

“Try not to think of a specific feeling, Harald. Think more of a time you felt this structure.”

“A time? What do you mean?”

“You do know that other senses evoke memory? Scent, for example, can revive a childhood memory?”

“Yes.”

“Well…that’s what I mean. Reach into the chord, Harald. Let the music carry you to the memory, to the moment of the memory’s creation in your mind.”

“The pines outside my window. The way they brushed the glass when a storm approached…”

“What else?”

“Mother. Downstairs, playing the piano.”

“And what was she playing? Can you feel it?”

“It was almost always the same thing. She seemed to be playing to the approaching storm, like she was…”

“What, Harald? What was she trying to do?”

“It was like she was waiting for the storm to tell her something.”

“What else?”

“Well, it was like she was summoning something from within…”

“From within…what, Harald? The storm?”

“I’m not sure.”

The old man bent low over his cane and with sudden fury he flung another chord into the sky, and this time, when the full impact of the music hit, Callahan doubled over in crushing pain.

“Stand up, Harald.”

“I can’t,” Callahan whispered. “What is that?” he added, grasping at the stars that filled his sight.

“What is – what?”

“So many stars…”

“Yes. Find the one calling to you now…”

“What?”

“Reach out, Harald. Reach out…”

He felt hands reaching up, reaching for something far, far away, then he felt other hands on his own, clasping and pulling, pulling him back into the light…

And when he opened his eyes he saw Colonel Goodman standing overhead, then Frank and Al by his side, helping him stand.

“Sara?” he asked. “Where is she?”

But all he could hear now was that last shattering chord, fading away slowly on a dying breeze, and beyond those last fleeting tendrils only the Old Man’s voice remained…

“Find the star calling to you, Harald. Find her voice, now…while there is still time.”

____________________________________

Didi Goodman was the first to reach Sara Callahan. She had seen the helicopter flying up the valley, flying far too low for a commercial transport, and training and instincts had kicked-in at that point. By the time she reached the clinic the helicopter was already departing the area, and when she ran inside only a few sleepy nurses were looking around, trying to figure out what had just happened…

But by then word was spreading fast: the big American girl had been seen running through the wards with a pistol raised by her face, and she hadn’t been acting unbalanced – not at all.

Yet not one nurse thought to look-in or check-on Sara, even as Stacy Bennett made her way to the rooftop heliport…

…so it was Didi Goodman who found Sara. She found the body contorted on a blood-soaked hospital bed, the explosive head wound a massive wreck of shattered bone and brain; the immediate conclusion Didi reached was presumptive, but accurate, in its finality. Though Didi found a thready pulse, she took Sara’s hand in her own, held her while she slipped away, held her until nurses and doctors arrived, then she called her contact in Tel Aviv and passed along all she knew.

___________________________________

In the aftermath, Callahan and the rest of the team had to admit that all their efforts had been compromised, and the conclusion reached was obvious: Stacy Bennett had been on the inside all along. Who had turned her, they wondered. Escobar? Someone in the Bureau? Even personnel within the San Francisco Police Department were considered, but in the end none of that mattered.

Captain Sam Bennett receded from view after this last betrayal, the verdict more than he could stand. Frank Bullitt returned to Israel to join Cathy, who seemed particularly wrung-out by the news of Sara’s murder, and when she demanded that Frank quit the department he didn’t argue. Al Bressler stuck close to Harry after the funeral in Davos, and rarely left his friend’s side afterwards. Captain Jerome McKay disappeared soon after word of Stacy Bennett’s betrayal reached the group, and though Goodman wouldn’t say exactly where to, everyone assumed McKay made the trip east on the Israeli Jetstar – to a professional interrogation facility.

And this last effort turned the tide. Dozens of Escobar’s deepest assets were uncovered and arrested, the Chalmers’ dealer network was similarly laid bare and dismantled. Escobar reportedly gave up his ambitions on the west coast, concentrating on his operations in Florida, Louisiana, and New York, and though it was now assumed Stacy Bennett had been Escobar’s asset from the beginning, she had completely disappeared from view. Neither the Mossad nor Interpol had the slightest bit of luck finding here, and within weeks all leads dried up.

_________________________________________

The team gathered at Avi’s house in the compound after the funeral, but Goodman didn’t bother with his usual debrief this time. The group was simply too disoriented now, too incapable of further introspection, too upset by Stacy Bennett’s betrayal. And most of all, too rattled by the changes they had noted in Harry’s behavior in Davos. 

On their way to Davos the team had gathered protectively around Callahan – not simply to console him but to keep the outside world away – yet despite all that by the time they reached Davos, Callahan was little more than a trembling wreck.

When he slept, which he did too frequently now, he talked incessantly to someone on the far side of his dreams. Violent spasms followed, like he was wrestling demons in the night. 

When he met Sara’s parents at the funeral home he was tearfully guilt-ridden and unnervingly apologetic. When Callahan saw Sara’s closed casket he fell to the floor, completely undone.

Didi Goodman, not surprisingly, moved in and assumed the role of protective Mother Superior at that point, taking Callahan to the house and virtually isolating him there. Only Al Bressler penetrated her sudden impenetrable veil, though Frank and Cathy tried to break-through – and more than once. Still, Didi asserted an unusually deep hold on Harry now, and Frank began to grow concerned.

After the funeral, the team, and Didi, returned to the compound, waiting for the premiere performance of Schwarzwald’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Harry Callahan left the compound only once during those two weeks, to visit the Rosenthal Crypt – to talk with his mother, he said.

_______________________________________________

And the premiere turned out to be quite an event.

Because Imogen was still regarded as a native daughter, it seemed half of Denmark turned out for her last piece. Because of Saul and Avi Rosenthal’s deep roots in Copenhagen, their memory, too, played a modest role in the huge Danish presence. Avi’s stature in the Labor Party assured a huge Israeli contingent, and the simple fact that Herbert von Karajan was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Tel Aviv implied a sort of German apologia, which demanded an international presence of politicians and diplomats from Europe and the Americas.

The performance was startling.

The music seemed to carry the performers into deep emotional states, to possess the audience inside an almost otherworldly, trancelike state, and in the end all who came to the premiere agreed the concerto was one of the most significant works of the twentieth century. Deutsche Grammophon and TelArc had both recorded the performance and post-premiere sales were colossal; the Rosenthal Music Company of course had the publishing rights and sales were brisk. Symphony orchestras in San Francisco, New York, and Paris soon advertised their own performances.

And so, in the end, one Harry Francis Lloyd Callahan went from being a modestly wealthy young man to being positively filthy rich. 

So, of course, he disappeared completely from view.

___________________________________________________

For the first few months of this second act in the Life and Times of Harry Callahan, he turned up in New Orleans. He played piano in a bar that catered to people who had chosen to live on the other side of  life. He played Cole Porter songs for the most part, but Gershwin too from time to time. Men dressed like little girls nursed fruity five-o’clocktails while they watched Callahan play, while butched-up girls dressed like Bogart or Grant cruised the perimeters, looking for fresh meat hiding in the shadows.

There was a special kind of Hate for sale in the little bar just off Bourbon Street, too. Self-loathing cloaked behind veils of inward leaning pity, hiding in plain sight all the while, yet just beneath all those juxtaposed veneers a new currency emerged: patrons willing to sell their souls to whatever devil happened to be on hand. Anything to debase the moment, anyplace to explore the hidden depths of despair, yet no time for the moment.

Callahan watched new symphonies take shape around his piano night after night, and at one point he began to conjure new chords to paint the scenes around him. He began setting the scenes to music in the early morning, just after the bar closed, after he walked down to the Morning Call for thick chicory coffee and plates of powdered-sugar-covered beignets, where he put notes to paper for the first time in his life.

He’d rented a room off a splashy courtyard in Jackson Square, and most mornings, while he scribbled on his score, hookers came down for coffee before knocking off for the night. He was soon a part of their landscape and, without knowing the how or the why of such things, he wasn’t too surprised when a couple of girls started sitting next to him. One of the girls stopped by one night and started their first conversation:

“What are you writing? A book?” she asked that morning.

“Music,” Callahan sighed.

“What kind?”

He shrugged: “A symphony, I guess.”

“You mean, like with strings and all that stuff?”

“Yup, all that stuff.”

“You sure are writing a lot.”

Callahan nodded before he picked up another beignet, the slightest breath from his nostrils causing a blizzard of powdery-sugared chaos to drift across the pages on the table.

“You got to be careful with those things,” she said, grinning.

“Want one?” he asked as he picked up his cup of coffee.

“Sure.”

“Help yourself.” And he watched her as she ate. A farm girl, he guessed, mean father, rebellious spirit, run off from her home by a vindictive mother…he could see it all as he watched the girl. She wasn’t ugly – far from it – but she was damaged goods. Broken. A broken girl living a broken life.

“You live around here?” she asked.

“Renting a room,” Callahan said, pointing to the square, “over there.”

“Got anyone?”

“Anyone?”

“You married, someone like that?”

He looked away. “Not anymore.”

“Oh? Divorced?”

He looked up, looked at the ceiling fans turning lazily overhead. “No, not divorced.”

“Oh,” the girl said, “I’m sorry. Ya know, I was tellin’ my friend you look kinda sad. Like somethin’ real bad just happened to ya.”

He looked at her, but didn’t say a word.”

“Look, I didn’t mean to bother you…”

“You’re not bothering me.”

“Well,” she said, standing up abruptly, “thanks for the donut. Maybe, uh, I’ll see you around.”

Callahan nodded. “Yeah. Maybe.” He watched her go, not at all sure what he felt, not at all sure what Sara’s passing had done to him. Or…what it was doing to him…

He walked across the square to his room, passing a little fountain just outside his door, and he stopped now and looked down into the black water, watching his reflection as it morphed and rejoined over and over again.

He swallowed hard and blinked back a tear, walked to his door and opened it.

It was a glorified hotel room, nothing more, nothing less, but the quality of the decor was, maybe, just a little upscale for a hotel. He went to a cupboard and found a bottle of bourbon and poured two fingers, then loosened his tie and slipped out of his shoes. He sat on the sofa and looked through the thick plantation shutters as light came back to the city, and a few minutes later he was asleep…

…and back on the mountain in Davos, waiting for the Old Man in the Cape…

_______________________________________

The same girl was walking with her friends when she saw him walking on Bourbon Street the next night, and she followed him until he disappeared into one of those seedy underground places the real weirdos hung out in. She couldn’t decide what to do, either. Follow him, or just blow it off…this feeling she’d had all day.

The bar was in an obscure little alley off St Anne Street, between Bourbon and Royal, and the peeling front looked like it had been painted with old mustard. The entry was cleverly disguised as a ‘front porch’, the door suffused with the putrid glow of black lights mounted somewhere within the warped ceiling. There was only a small sign denoting the place, a large, rusted piece of flat iron that had had the word Dungeon cut into it with a welding torch.

“I don’t think this place is safe,” the girl’s friend said. 

“How do you know?”

“My parents told me. This place has a bad reputation.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know.”

Yes, the Dungeon had an unearned reputation, but mainly because all the local “pervs” came to the place. The social outcasts and the druggies with the ‘golden arms’ hung out in the shadows here, the latter dealing horse and hash in equal measure, while trannies and burnt-out socialites huddled by the bar and, as soon as Callahan arrived, the little tables clustered around the piano. The air seemed purple to the girl as she made her way in, and her nose wrinkled as scents ranging from patchouli and sandalwood, and the less noticeable shades of heroin melted in spoons, wafted by.

She went to the bar and ordered a Coke, then she settled-in and watched this bizarre parade of humanity roll by. The first thing she noticed was that life inside this haven had split into the times before and after this strange musician started playing, because as he approached the piano a gentle hush fell over the room; after he began playing she felt a sigh of relief roll around the room like a purple haze.

And she knew that first song, too. He played Cole Porter’s, surely the patron saint of decadent parties, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ which must’ve made the heroin dealers smile. But now she watched him, watched the way he played, and she felt mesmerized as she watched the interplay of his music within the room. His eyes closed some of the time and never on the keyboard, he was a virtuoso, some kind of savant, the music drifting seamlessly between jazz classics for one set, then hitting such Beatles standards as Lady Madonna and Yellow Submarine. If a regular asked him to play something he did so with a nod and a smile, and the huge brandy snifter on top of the piano filled with dollar bills as the night went on.

Every now and then he took a break, went up to the bar and picked up a club soda with a slice of lime, and she hid from him the first time he did so, watched how people came up and thanked him. Then she picked up an errant thread of conversation; this guy had just showed up one night and started playing. No one paid him, no one knew his name. Business picked up, regulars started coming by almost every night instead of once a week or so, and the owners even asked the stranger if they could pay him. The rumor was, or so she heard, was that he’d declined. More interesting still, she heard his tips on the piano were split between the cocktail waitresses.

Which, for some reason, she didn’t find all that strange. Not for this guy, anyway.

Some time after midnight a glamorously attired platinum blond materialized, a semi-retired movie star now living in the quarter, accompanied by a few too-masculine hangers-on in her large retinue, and she moved through the bar like an ice-breaker, pushing aside the riff-raff on her way to a table by the stranger on the piano.

He looked up once and finished what he was playing, then got up and walked out of the bar.

She dashed out of the confusion and followed him, keeping to the shadows as he made his way to the Morning Call. He was early and the place was crowded with late-night revelers and that seemed to put him off, and she watched as he got his order ‘to-go’ before he walked across the street to the square, pushing aside a few seagulls and sitting on a vacant bench.

And she walked right up and sat beside him.

“That was quite a show,” she said as she smiled at the surprise in his eyes.

“What was?”

“The way you walked out on that Hollywood bitch.”

He grunted, then held up the paper-plate loaded with warm beignets.

She took one. 

“Thanks,” she said, not in the least surprised by his easy-going generosity.

“What are you doing tonight?” he asked.

“Watching you.”

“I see.”

“I heard someone say that you just showed up and started playing. No pay.”

“Yup.”

“So, why’d you walk out on her…?”

Callahan seemed startled by the question. “What? Walk out on who?”

“On Miss Hollywood.”

“Oh. I don’t know. Just the whole ‘look at me’ thing. They way she pushed her way in.”

“Okay. What are you running from?”

Callahan grimaced, then shrugged…but still he didn’t answer the question.

“It’s not fair if you get to choose which questions you’ll answer.”

“What makes you think I want to answer your questions.”

She bunched up her fist and gently placed it on his chest. “Because there’s a great big hole right there, and all I can see is pain inside.”

Callahan put his coffee down on the bench and started to leave…

“Please don’t go,” the girl said.

Callahan took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose, then he looked down and slowly shook his head. “What do you want?” he asked. “Money? If I give you some money will you go away?”

“I’m not after anything.”

“What about money? Can I pay you to…”

“No, sorry. That won’t work, either.”

He sat up and looked across the square to the Morning Call, saw that the late night crowd had thinned out a bit. “Well, I’m gonna go get my table. If you’re coming, come on.” He got up and walked across the street to the café, found his usual table and sat.

“You must be hungry,” she said as she sat beside him.

He spotted his waiter and held up two fingers, then turned to face her. “What’s your name?”

“Deni.”

“Let’s see. The other night I had you pegged for a farmer’s kid, mean daddy, and you ran away from home.”

She grinned as she shook her head. “Nope, not even close.”

“Okay. Tell me your story.”

“I will, if you’ll tell me yours.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty something. You?”

“Thirty something.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’ve been trying to figure that one out,” he said.

“Okay, where were you born?”

“San Francisco.”

“No way! I’ve always wanted to go there…”

“City of Broken Dreams, kid. Not for the faint of heart.”

“What’s your name?”

Callahan took a deep breath, let it slip out slowly. “Harry.”

“So, Harry the piano player. From San Francisco, no less.”

“No less.” His waiter arrived with two coffees and two plates of fresh beignets; he took one and his fingers reveled in the warmth.

“They sure are good when they’re hot,” Deni said, taking one and popping it into her mouth.

“What do you do around here, Deni?”

“I go to Tulane,” she began, but she stopped when she saw the look of disappointment on his face. “What’s the matter?”

“I don’t handle liars very well.”

She deflated as his words bit. “Sorry. Can I try again?”

“No lies this time.”

“No lies.”

He nodded, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair.

“I’m from Houston, and…”

“And how old are you? Really?”

“Eighteen.”

“And you ran away from home?”

“My dad kicked me out.”

“Why? Drugs?”

She shook her head. “My step-mother. We didn’t get along.”

“So he kicked you out for that? Come on, tell me the truth?”

“You know what? You sound just like a cop.”

“That’s because I’m a cop.”

“What? For real?”

“For real.”

“So, I asked you before…what are you running from? Did you kill someone?”

“No – not yet, anyway.”

“You’re gonna kill someone? Who? A friend?”

“I used to think so, once upon a time.”

“What happened?”

But Callahan simply shook his head.

“Okay, why are you here, playing the piano night after night, and for free?”

“Why not?”

“That’s not an answer.”

“So, why are you here?”

“My best friend from school lives here. It was the only place I could think of to come to. I got accepted to Tulane, and I’m trying to find a way to get a scholarship or something.”

“You’re not a hooker…?”

ME? GOD no!” she cried. “Jesus…do I look like a – a fucking prostitute?”

“I don’t know what you look like.” But no, he thought, that wasn’t quite true. You remind me of my Looney Junes…the same legs, a little too much hair on the forearms, and almost the same eyes behind those thick glasses. But he could see now that she was genuinely upset. “So, tell me about Tulane,” he continued. “I heard its a tough school to get into.”

“It is.”

“What about scholarships? Hard to get?”

She nodded, looked away.”

“What do you want to study?”

“Pre-med. But I want to get into English literature, too.”

“What, like Milton and all that jazz?”

“Yup.”

“So, you wanna be a doc?”

“Yes. I think it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. Pediatrician.”

“And your dad just dumped you?”

“Yup.”

“What about your mother?”

And the girl turned away from the idea. “She’s engaged to Prince Valium, not really part of life anymore, ya know?”

“You said you’re staying with a friend? I don’t get it…you’re from Houston, but she’s…”

“I went to a boarding school, in San Antonio. My Grandmother paid for it.”

“But she can’t pay for…?”

“She died. Two years ago.”

“How long have you been staying with your friend?”

“Too long, I think. Her parents are getting a little wigged-out about it…”

Callahan nodded, and seeing the depth of her predicament he knew what he had to do now. He finished his coffee and stood, yet she just sat at the table, not knowing what to do. As he looked down at her he could sense her anxiety, but above all else he could plainly see her need.

“You’re coming with me,” he said, and he watched as she stood.

“Where?”

“Off the street, for now. You got any clothes or stuff?”

“Not really.”

He nodded. “Okay.”

They walked over to the Royal Orleans and he got her a room, and he made sure she had access to room service before he took her up to the room.

“I’ll be by at nine o’clock sharp. Take a shower and be ready.”

“Ready for what?”

“Ready to get to work.” He turned to leave…

“You’re not staying?”

“What?”

She looked at the bed. “You don’t want anything?”

His growl startled her, and she stepped back from the horror in his eyes.

“Nine o’clock,” he repeated. “Be ready.”

_____________________________________________

He took her to breakfast at Brennan’s, then on a long walk down Royal Street for new clothes. Back to the hotel, and he waited downstairs while she showered and put on clean clothes, then they took a taxi out to Tulane, to the admissions office. She stood there by his side in mute awe as he whipped out a checkbook and paid for her tuition, room and board – for four years – and secured rooming for her at the school for the rest of the summer by enrolling her in summer classes.

The sun was setting by the time they finished getting her set-up in the dormitory, and they rode back to the Royal Orleans in another taxi. He fed her and sent her up to her room, told her to be ready to go at nine the next morning and left.

He walked down to the Dungeon and slipped behind the piano. It was as if nothing had happened the night before, and the usual lonely hearts gathered around and listened as their stranger played the music of the dying and the damned.

The next morning he took Deni to a bank by the campus and set up accounts for her, then took her to lunch at the Court of the Two Sisters.

“I think you’re good to go now, kid.”

She just stared at him, not knowing what to say.

A waitress came by and dropped off menus, and Callahan ordered minted iced tea for two.

“Are you gonna talk to me?” Callahan asked as he tried to ignore her stare.

“I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Okay.”

“I love you. I know that much.”

“You’re confusing love with gratitude, Deni.”

“I don’t think so, Harry. I think you’re afraid of love. Maybe even running from love. But what you just did for me was an expression of pure love. Love like I’ve never experienced before. And I really don’t know what to say.”

“How about ‘Thanks?’”

“Okay. Thanks, Harry-whatever-your-name-is. Thanks for making my life complete. Thanks for being there for me. Thanks for letting me love you.”

He nodded as he took out an envelope and handed it to her. “This is my contact information, Deni. If you need anything call the number in there. I’ll drop by from time to time, see how you’re doing. Let me know if you make it into medical school, and if you need help paying for it let me know.”

“One question, Harry. Just one, okay?”

“Sure. Fire away.”

“Why? Why me? Why are you doing this for me?”

“I’m paying off a debt, Deni. To a little girl I used to know, a girl just like you.”

“You loved her, didn’t you?”

“Very much. More than I thought possible.”

She nodded, took his hand in her’s and kissed it.

“Now, about your father. I’d like to pay him a visit.”

She shook her head. “No, Harry. Not necessary. You’re my father now.”

The words startled Callahan, set him back in his chair. “I am not…”

“Well, you won’t let me in like a girlfriend…”

“Because I’m old enough to be…”

“My father. Right, I get that, and I love you for the respect you’ve shown me. You just need to accept what I’ve given you.”

“I’ll have to think about it, Deni.”

________________________________________________

He turned up next in Alpine, Texas.

He rented a small room in an old boarding house, one that had seen better days when cattle drives were still a big part of local life.

There was a saloon of sorts down on Main Street, but these days about the only things you could find behind the bar were Lone Star longnecks and a couple of decks of worn-out cards. An old gal named Millie held court behind the bar, and locals liked to say that Millie had been “rode hard and put away wet” more than once, but the truth was far simpler than that. Millie’s one true love had blown through town one weekend something short of thirty years ago, and when this tumbleweed decided to keep on rolling her roots held fast. She had turned into something inert after that, like a gas in the bottom of a beaker, and she had been changing dollar bills for cold bottles of beer ever since. 

Callahan walked into the bar in the middle of the afternoon and looked around. The old pine paneling the covered the walls had turned orange decades ago; now the wood look depleted, completely worn out. He saw an old upright piano against a far wall and walked over to it. Standing there, he reached for a memory and played it, found the tones the old girl made kind of pleasing, until he heard from Millie:

“Get the fuck away from my goddam piano!” the woman screamed. “And get the fuck outta here!”

Callahan turned to face the voice, then he walked up to the bar, put his hands out and caressed the old wood. “How old is this place,” he asked as he looked at the old wood.

“Older than you, asshole.”

He looked around, took in the posters for rodeos stapled to the wall by the door, flyers for bands that had played here years ago, but everything he saw was in the past. A dead space, he thought. Waiting for something, anything to happen.

“Do I need to call the sheriff on you? I told you to git!”

He turned and looked at the woman – instant ferocity clear in his eyes: “I’m looking for Don McCall. Know where I can find him?”

He watched the change come over her, a softening inside her glaring eyes.

“You know Donnie?”

“We flew together in ‘Nam. He saved my life.”

She nodded. “That’s our Donnie. Sooner or later he saves everyone, but no-one is ever there for him.” 

He heard the bitterness in her voice and the grating sound bothered him. “Why do you say that?”

She shrugged. “That’s just the way it is, mister.”

“Harry Callahan,” he said, holding out his hand.

She took it. “Millie. You really a friend, or you from the bank?”

“Friend. What’s with the bank?”

“His dad. Took out a big loan when the drought hit. Drought didn’t end, lost their herd. You do the math.”

Callahan nodded. “Got any cold beer?”

“Do bears shit in the woods?”

“Better give me one.”

“I ain’t givin’ you shit, Callahan…”

He pulled out his wallet and passed her a hundred. “Open up a tab for me, wouldya?”

“Sure thing,” she said as she passed over a Lone Star longneck.

“And call Donnie for me, please. Tell him I’m here and that I’d like to buy him a beer.”

“Okay.” Millie disappeared into her office and Callahan turned around and leaned against the bar. He could just about imagine Judge Roy Bean walking in the door, calling out for Lillie Langtry or brandishing a hangman’s noose…

Alpine, Texas, he thought as he walked over to one of the large windows that looked out on Main Street. Hot as hell out, and dry too, but at 4500 feet above sea level the nights were supposed to be cool. The town was surrounded by low, wind-sculpted mountains – more like hills, really – rising from a flat prairie that seemed, to Callahan, like a good place to raise rattlesnakes.

His thoughts drifted back to Hue City and those mad-flights out to C-Med to pick up the dead and the dying, and McCall sitting beside him in their Huey night after night. Quiet and even tempered, Callahan looked at this landscape and nodded.

This land looked like Don McCall – quiet, purpose built, solid and steady. 

“He’ll be here in about twenty minutes,” Millie said. “And he said I should treat you right, so you go ahead and play that piano if you want.”

“You serve dinner here?”

“Yessir, come about four-thirty or so. Tonight we’re servin’ t-bones and enchiladas, side salad if you want it.”

Callahan looked at his watch. “Better get a couple ready. I’ll be hungry as hell by then.”

“Alrighty.”

He moved over to the piano and sat, began a ragtime that sounded a little like The Yellow Rose of Texas, and Millie came over and sat behind Callahan, watched him play and felt the change that came over her old saloon.

“That was wonderful,” she whispered when Harry finished. “Reminds me of the times we used to have here.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. I think most of us forgot what it’s like to live as a group of people, to look after one another, especially when times are tough. It feels like it’s everyone is out for his or her self these days, like…”

She stopped when a battered Chevy pickup pulled into a space out front, and she smiled when she saw Don McCall bounding into the saloon…

And Callahan met McCall as he crashed into the saloon.

“Dear God in Heaven!” Don cried. “It is you! Well, Harry Callahan, as I live and breathe, what the hell are you doing out here?”

Callahan turned to Millie. “Waitin’ for this lady to make me an honest-to-Pete West Texas t-bone steak, for one. She needs to get you one of these Lone Stars, too. Pretty good beer, I reckon, even if it is from Texas…”

McCall made to roll up his sleeves. “Them’s is fightin’ words, mister,” he said, grinning. “No one, and I mean no one makes fun of the National Beer of Texas…”

Callahan sidled up to the bar, McCall in tow, while Millie popped the tops on two more Lone Stars; McCall downed his in one long pull so Callahan followed suit.

“Millie,” Don barked, “keep ‘em comin’ ’til our toes are point’n at the ceilin’!”

“Better get those steaks going,” Harry whispered. “Maybe some bread, too?”

“Well Harry, sit you down and tell me a story…”

They moved to a table in back by the kitchen, Callahan beginning to think that this might be the best beer he’d ever had – at about the same time enchiladas baking in the kitchen began to fill the air with a magic all their own.

“Damn, Donnie, it’s good to see you. You’re looking good, life must agree with you…”

“It sure is good to see you too, hooch-mate. It’s a long way from Hue, ain’t it?”

Harry shook his head. “Man, that feels like a million lifetimes ago, ya know?”

“Don’t it? And every day over there felt like a lifetime.”

“Because it was.”

Millie brought out a basket of peanuts and plopped them down, with two more beers coming a moment later.

“So, what are you doing out here, Harry? Really…?”

“Just followin’ the wind, Amigo. Keepin’ my nose clean as best I can.”

“Give up on the cop thing?”

“Leave of absence. Taking some time off.” He slammed down half of the latest bottle and tried to stifle a burp, but it slid out through his nose and he grinned. “This stuff is really good.”

“Yeah, it is,” McCall said, his voice sliding down an octave.

“Millie mentioned problems with a bank?”

“Millie talks to much.”

“Maybe she just cares.”

“Maybe. So, yeah, bad drought out here the past few years, we lost the herd and dad decided to put up half the ranch as collateral so we could buy more cattle. Then the drought got worse.”

“How much is he in for, Don?”

“More than we’ve got. Damn, those steaks smell good. You know, Millie’s a damn fine cook.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

McCall looked down and grinned. “Sure Harry. You got an extra sixty large lyin’ around you could spare?”

“Sixty? Is that what you need? Anything else?”

“Harry, I got a list about as long as my arm. Things we got to repair or replace, including about ten miles of fence that needs some real work, and real soon, too.”

“How hard is that?”

“What?”

“Working fences.”

“Why? You volunteering?”

“Sure, why not…?”

“Yeah, right.”

“Would two hundred get your head out from under the water?”

“Two hundred what, Harry?”

“Thousand.”

“You got two hundred grand lyin’ around you just want to give me? Is that what you’re sayin’ Callahan?”

“Just tell me what you need, Don. I want to get this done before Millie gets back out here.”

“Are you fuckin’ serious, Callahan?”

Harry took out his checkbook and took a pen out of his coat pocket. The pen hovered over a check. “What do you need, Don?”

McCall shook his head. “Man, you’ve always been fuckin’ nuts, Callahan, but okay, let’s see. Dad needs a hundred to wipe out the loan. We need about fifty to get deferred maintenance out of the way, another fifty, maybe seventy to get the fence line, and we could use another hundred to get an up to date house on the property.”

“So, three, three-twenty gets you going, but what about cattle?”

“Call it another hundred.”

Callahan started writing. “No, let’s call it an even five hundred,” he said as he filled in the numbers, then he signed the check and peeled it out of his checkbook. “You wanna deposit it now, or wait til morning?”

“Are you shittin’ me, Callahan?”

“Nope.”

“I’ll be right back,” McCall said as he took the check and ran for his pickup; a few seconds later the Chevy was fishtailing out Main Street, headed for the bank.

“That was pretty cool,” Millie said from behind the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. “Is that why you came?”

“No, I just wanted to see an old friend.”

“The world needs more friends like you, Callahan,” she said as she disappeared back into her kitchen.

“Maybe so,” he muttered, taking a peanut and breaking the shell on the table then eating the nuts. Millie brought out a salad and promptly disappeared again, so Callahan went back to the piano, began playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, only very slowly.

McCall returned a while later, and as soon as he took his seat Millie brought out her steaks and enchiladas, and she joined them, taking her own dinner at the table.

“So,” Callahan said as he finished, “how hard is it to set fence posts?”

“You wanna set some?”

“Yeah, as long as you’re out there with me, I’ll give you a couple of days.”

“And the steaks are on me, gentlemen,” Millie added, “when you knock off for the day.”

“It don’t get much better than that, Harry.”

“I reckon I’m in.”

“What are you going to do, Harry? What’s next?”

“I miss the street. The work. I think I’m going home. I’ve got a few things I need to finish up there…”

© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse…[and a last word or two on sources: I typically don’t post all a story’s acknowledgments until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until work is finalized. Yet with current circumstances (a little virus, not to mention a certain situation in Washington, D.C. springing first to mind…) so waiting to mention sources might not be the best way to proceed. To begin, the primary source material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two seminal Hollywood ‘cop’ films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of the screenplay for The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s brilliant screenplay. Steve McQueen’s grin was never trade-marked, though perhaps it should have been. John Milius (Red Dawn) penned Magnum Force, and the ‘Briggs’/vigilante storyline derives from characters and plot elements originally found in that rich screenplay, as does the Captain McKay character. The Threlkis crime family storyline was first introduced in Sudden Impact, screenplay by Joseph Stinson. The Samantha Walker character derives from the Patricia Clarkson portrayal of the television reporter found in The Dead Pool, screenplay by Steve Sharon, story by Steve Sharon, Durk Pearson, and Sandy Shaw.  I have to credit the Jim Parish, M.D., character first seen in the Vietnam segments to John A. Parrish, M.D., author of the most fascinating account of an American physician’s tour of duty in Vietnam – and as found in his autobiographical 12, 20, and 5: A Doctor’s Year in Vietnam, a book worth noting as one of the most stirring accounts of modern warfare I’ve ever read (think Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, only featuring a blazing sense of irony conjoined within a searing non-fiction narrative). Denton Cooley, M.D. founded the Texas Heart Institute, as mentioned. Many of the other figures in this story derive from characters developed within the works cited above, but keep in mind that, as always, this story is in all other respects a work of fiction woven into a pre-existing historical fabric. Using the established characters referenced above, as well as a few new characters I’ve managed to come up with here and there, I hoped to create something new – perhaps a running commentary on the times we’ve shared? And the standard disclaimer also here applies: no one mentioned in this tale should be mistaken for persons living or dead. This was just a little walk down a road more or less imagined, and nothing more than that should be inferred, though I’d be remiss not to mention Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, and Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt. Talk about the roles of a lifetime…]

4 thoughts on “The Eighty-eighth Key, Ch. 31

  1. Wishing you continued speedy recovery!

    On Sun, Aug 16, 2020 at 5:33 PM Adrian Leverkühn Writes wrote:

    > > > > > > adrianleverkuhnwrites posted: ” > > (quick note: still in hospital though sitting up to write less burdensome, > hopefully home later this week…) > > Part IV > > Chapter 31 > > ____________________________________ > > Callahan came-to in a field of flowers, and he lay easily on a bed of > tufted grass ” > > >

    Like

  2. Better get your butt home while there’s still an open road… the plume from the Williams Fork fire was unreal on Saturday. Not to mention the DC-10 doing a bunch of laps up there.

    It’s a real treat to come home, crank up the computer and see a new chapter. Glad you’re feeling better.

    Like

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