He found her staring at the ancient ‘Egyptian’ obelisk in the center of the Place de la Concorde, and he came up from behind and gently placed his hands on her shoulders – yet he said not a word, if only because he knew he had to wait for her this time.
“I suppose you had a reason?” she said a few minutes later.
He pulled her a bit closer and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m not sure anything has happened that they haven’t orchestrated to the Nth degree – except perhaps you. You were the random variable, Tracy, the fly in their ointment, the thing they just couldn’t see coming…”
She turned and faced him, her eyes like the stars – full of a million unquestioned answers.
“The thing is,” he continued, “I didn’t expect you, either. In fact, I think I there was a point when I almost welcomed death – until you came, that is. Death was the only thing that made any sense to me, because death seemed like the only way out of the trap they’d set for me.”
“You’re the only thing that makes sense now.”
“Because I’m the fly in their ointment?”
He shook his head. “No. Because without you there’s no love, and without love everything else is meaningless.”
“But…you’re going to have children, Henry…”
He laughed a little as other images came and went, even as he shook his head. “They were born fifteen years ago, Tracy. And they were raised by others I’ll never know.”
“What are you talking about? I thought you said you met these girls six months ago?”
“I did, yes. That’s true enough.”
“Then you’ve lost me, Hank.”
“They are in a place where time is…different. At least, that’s the way it was explained to me. Eva and Britt are very old now.”
“What does that mean? Are you talking about a parallel universe, or some kind of multiverse?”
“I couldn’t say, Tracy. Not with any certainty. Yet they were alive when I saw them just a few days ago, the children and their mothers, living in a sort of village. Maybe a village of the damned, yet…they were alive.”
“You said they, the children, were raised by others. Do you know who raised them?”
He nodded. “Crito. He was their father.”
“Crito. He held Socrates as he passed from this life to the next.”
“The Buddha is there, Tracy. Jesus too.”
“You’ve met them, I take it?”
He nodded, but he looked away from the memory, still afraid of the things he’d seen there.
“You do know how absolutely stark raving mad this sounds, right?” she said gently.
“And all this is a part of some plan?” she added.
“We should get a room. It’ll be getting cold out soon.”
She smiled. “I love the way you change subjects. So – easily, I think. It’s exhilarating, really.”
“Would you like to go see it for yourself?”
“What? There?” she said, pointing at the sky.
She shook her head. “No, I think all-in-all I’d rather like to stay on this side of crazy-town for a little bit longer.”
“I hope you have a say in the matter, Tracy. I really do.”
“Okay, me too. Now. Hotel? You know anything close?”
He pointed to the colonnaded place behind them and grinned. “The Crillon. I hear it’s decent.”
“Isn’t that supposed to be like the best place in the world?”
He nodded. “That’s the rumor.”
“Me,” he grinned.
“Then Hell yes, I’m in.”
The train pulled into the station in Rouen on time, and Milos, the taxi driver from their first snowy night, met them trackside and helped Henry back into the old Mercedes.
“How are you doing today?” Henry asked his new friend. “The children are well?”
“Well enough. Their mother is due to arrive late tonight, so all we be good soon enough.”
“You are looking better, Henry. Like a care has been lifted from your heart.”
“It feels that way, Milos, and thank you for saying so.”
“To the boat? Or do you need to make any stops on the way?”
“Did you take the boys out grocery shopping yesterday?”
“Yes, and that crazy Russian brought his girlfriend along. She’s mad as a hatter, like something right out of the looking glass. You have been warned, Henry.”
“Oh?” Tracy said, interested now. “How so?”
“I think all pilots are crazy,” Milos said, grinning, “but you will see for yourself. This one is beyond nuts, yet I think the whipped cream in the hair was the real giveaway…”
Henry was at the chart-plotter studying the weather overlay with Anton and Sophie, his friend; they were in the cockpit sitting on either side of him staring intently at the display while he flipped through various forecast models. “It looks like the storm has stalled-out up north,” Henry sighed.
“The Baron can’t fly into such heavy icing conditions,” Sophie said. “I am sorry, but it is too dangerous, and as it is not my airplane I can not take a chance like this.”
“I understand,” Henry said wistfully. “And anyway, I wouldn’t ask you to.”
“Need Antonov,” Anton said. “Could do in a -32. Easy.”
“If the storm has moved out by next weekend I think can arrange to get the Baron again,” Sophie added.
“I probably won’t be able to go with you next weekend,” Henry said, scowling a bit.
“I go with Sophie. Boy know me. Dina know me. She let him come with me.”
“I’m not so sure, Anton, and I don’t want you to make the trip for nothing.”
“Can I talk Dina?” Anton added. “Might change mind.”
Henry smiled, but in his heart he already knew the answer to that question. Dina wasn’t going to let go of the boy…not now…not after losing her daughter. And he couldn’t blame her, not really, yet he needed time with Rolf – in case things turned pear-shaped before he could write things down. “No. This is a problem that I will have to solve…”
‘And I know just how to do it, too.’
Mike cast off the lines early the next morning and Time Bandits backed out into the river, the current grabbing hold quickly, pushing the stern downriver; Henry engaged the throttle and nosed into the current, simply making way until Karma made it out into the main body of the Seine, then they both began the long slog up-current towards Paris…yet today was the day, the big day. Tracy’s first lock. Anton’s second, for that matter. They had eight miles to go to the Amfreville locks, and there was, as yet, still almost no barge traffic on the river so the passage looked to be an easy one.
Yet Mike seemed troubled. “What’s bugging you?” Henry asked when the intelligence officer appeared content to simply mope around as the little convoy passed charming little castles and imposing churches.
“You. You’re bugging me, Taggart.”
“A lot of actions have been taken, or not taken – if you get my drift – based on the apparent assumption that you’d be out of the picture later this month. Now I’m a little worried what the seat-polishers in D.C. will do once they figure out that ain’t the operant condition any longer.”
Henry smiled. “Oh. That. Well, let’s just consider that me making it to the new year is still a long shot – at best…”
“You still think so? Really?”
Henry nodded. “Look, Tracy needed something to hang onto, a sense of hope, and it won’t cost me that much in the way of discomfort. To put it another way, I simply wasn’t willing to take that sense of a future away from her.”
“You two have grown really close, haven’t you? I mean, I know there’s a history, but even so this feels different.”
“It is, Mike, yet I’m not really sure I could point to the exact reason why. Still, the whole ‘future’ thing is seductive as Hell. What I wouldn’t do for a few more years.”
“Careful, Henry. Mephistopheles will hear you and he just might come calling. Feel like making a bargain for your soul?”
“Now there’s a thought. But no, Mike, I don’t think I’d do that, not even now. When I think back on my life and on the things I’ve done I have a few regrets, but certainly no regrets I’d bargain away with evil intent.”
“So, if you went into remission what would you do?”
“I want to get Rolf settled and on his way. Next, I’d like to start a new life – with Tracy.”
“What about Dina? Eva and Britt? All that wasn’t enough?”
“Nothing is ever enough, Mike.”
“So…Tracy isn’t enough…is that what you’re saying?”
“I don’t know how else to say it, Mike. Nothing will ever satisfy you when the only thing waiting for you out there is a pine box six feet under. It’s like we learn to walk on solid ground – yet the older we get we find we’re walking on quicksand.” He pointed to a little chapel on a hillside and nodded: “They’ve been selling an elegant solution to the problem for eons, and it works, too…as long as you don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain pulling all the levers…”
“Okay…suppose all this doesn’t work. Suppose you die. What happens to Dina and the boy? And what happens to Tracy? For that matter, what happens to Anton?”
“That’s what lawyers are for, Mike.”
“So, you’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“I’ll tell everyone, Mike.”
“So, tell me…when this is all over and done with what are you going to do? Back to D.C., get back into intelligence work?”
Lacy shook his head. “I know you don’t believe me, but I really did submit my papers. When this assignment is over I’m officially retired, out of the Navy and on my pension at that point.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t answer the question, does it? What are you going to do then.”
“If I had my druthers I’d stay with the boy.”
“With Rolf? Seriously? Now that I did not see coming.”
“Yeah. Funny, huh?”
“Interesting. Tell me more…”
There were no other boats waiting outside the locks; indeed, there wasn’t even a lock keeper waiting there, either. Henry called the various numbers posted on the office door – yet no one answered, and he felt a little miffed at that point.
Then he heard a toilet flush in a nearby WC and the grizzled old lock keeper came out into the sun – wiping his hands on his trousers and almost startled to find two boats waiting to transit.
“Merde! You are the first boats I’ve seen in days!” the old man said as he ambled over. “There are two of you?”
“You’ve paid your transit fees and have your license?”
“Yes, both skippers. Would you like to see them?”
“Not really, but I think I am supposed to so what the Hell…”
Henry smiled and led the old man over to Time Bandits, and he waited up on the quay while Henry and Tracy ducked below and got their papers. They went with the old man to his office and watched as he stamped various papers and returned them, and after all that was out of the way he guided Karma into the lock. When Anton had the lines sorted out and ready the old man signaled Henry, who motored in – slowly – until he was just astern of Karma. Mike was an old hand at all this by now, so he went forward and double checked Anton’s work. Henry signaled the lock keeper when they were ready and the lock chamber began flooding, the boats rising to the next level inside a rushing maelstrom of water – then it was over. Just like that.
Tracy motored out of the lock chamber and waited for Time Bandits; Henry waved at the lock keeper as he motored out then quickly caught up with Tracy.
“That was easy!” she shouted. “Why do people make such a big deal about that?”
“Wait til you’re in a small chamber that has a really big rise. You’ll know then.”
“So…this was an easy one? Is that what you’re tellin’ me?”
“You both did well, so don’t sweat it.”
“How far to the next one?” she added.
“Tomorrow morning, first thing.”
“How far lunch!” Anton snarled.
“About noon,” Henry smiled. “Hope you like oysters, Amigo.”
“Good. Very much.”
“I can hear your stomach from here, Anton,” Henry called across the gap between the two boats.
“No eat breakfast, Genry. Big mistake.”
“Maybe you had too much whipped cream?”
“I eat too much,” Anton groaned. “Need sleep now.”
“That’s what happens when you eat two dozen raw oysters, buddy,” Mike sighed.
“Don’t sit upwind of him,” Henry added. “It could get gruesome in a hurry.”
Anton stepped up on Karma’s deck and the first one sounded a little like ripping paper; Tracy pinched off her nose and pointed to the bow-sprit. “You. Go. Sit up there,” she said as she cast off her lines and fell into the main channel.
Anton stood on one leg and raised the other a few inches off the deck and shook it a little; that one was a sneaky bastard and started out as a high-pitched squealer before working its way down to a fluttering crescendo.
“Goddam!” Mike screeched – as the breeze had carried this one right over to Time Bandits. “What the Hell is that smell?”
“Man,” Henry sighed, “we all ate the same thing. This is going to be an afternoon to remember.”
“Assuming, that is, we all don’t die of food poisoning.”
“How many crayfish did you eat, Mike?”
“I lost count.”
“I didn’t,” Henry said. “This should be epic.”
Mike cast off the lines and Henry goosed the throttle, quickly catching up to Karma, and they both watched as Tracy began fanning in front of her face – with Anton grinning like a madman as he raised his leg again and again, firing off one right after another.
“Get upwind of him, would you?” Mike begged. “The air behind his ass is turning green.”
Then Tracy stood and began fanning the space behind her trousers.
“Come on, Taggart! We’re gonna get it in stereo if you don’t pass ‘em soon!”
Then Mike’s eyes went wide as the first spasm hit…
“Thar she blows!” Henry shouted, pinching off his nose as Anton fired off another…followed by Mike’s first…
He turned to Clyde and shook his head. “Hurts to finally have some real competition, don’t it, boy?”
Clyde turned away and fired one off in disgust.
They tied-off for the evening at an impressive old chateau that was now a hotel and restaurant, and as it was only a mile or so downstream from the locks at Saint-Pierre-la-Garenne they would be well positioned to transit early the next morning. And there was some traffic out on the water now, too. Commercial traffic, barges laden with grain headed to the port at LeHavre, so life was coming back – slowly but surely.
And tomorrow they would make it into Paris.
‘So, this is it,’ Henry sighed as he shut down the engine and helped Mike with the lines. ‘The end of the day. And Rolf didn’t make the trip.’
More than anything, he blamed Dina for that – and it struck him then that he’d never really known what motivated her. Protect Britt? Sure, that was understandable, but why, when Rolf had so much to gain, had she stepped in to interfere? And…why had Pinky allowed her to?
Now…would she resist when he did what he knew he had to do? Would she contest a divorce? Still, he’d known he’d need to see to her financial needs, if not as a husband then as a friend. A friend, of sorts.
Then Anton came aboard and crawled down the companionway.
“Not having dinner tonight, old top?” Henry grinned.
Anton answered by firing off one more good one on his way to the head.
But Mike simply hoisted a one finger salute as he followed Anton below, so Henry hopped down to the dock and walked over to Karma. “Dinner?” he asked Tracy.
“You know, yes, but only because this place is supposed to be something special.”
“Do we need to change first?”
“I called. No need tonight. I think we’re the only guests on the docket.”
“Good. Not sure I have the strength for that BS tonight.”
“I’ve never eaten so many snails,” she said, groaning.
“Quite a day, I’ll give you that,” Henry said, smiling at the memory of their noxious green passage.
“You know, I grew up on simple food. The Crab Cooker, maybe Five Crowns every now and then…”
“Remember that Del Taco up by the airport? Talk about fart-food…”
“Oh God, yes, I do. We used to run up there when pulling all-nighters during exams.”
“Some things never change, I guess,” he sighed.
“Chocolate covered frozen bananas on Balboa Island,” she added. “Remember those?”
“Yup. Those were the best. Get two and walk around the island…” he remembered.
“In January, when the bay is fogged-in.”
He tried to push back the memory but it was just too much. “Claire and I,” he said gently. “We did that every weekend, usually Saturday nights…”
“We walked the island. Some nights we’d take the little ferry over to the peninsula and walk over to the beach.”
“Mom and I…we did too. We’d walk all the way down to the breakwater on the beach.”
“I know. Your mom used to follow us,” he said, smiling. “Claire thought she was spying on us, but I think I knew the score even then.”
“She had it bad, Henry. She always did where you were concerned.”
“I guess that’s why it just couldn’t work. Too many unrealistic expectations.”
“She called me this afternoon.”
“I see,” he sighed, rolling his eyes just a little. “When does her flight get in?”
He shook his head even as he tried to deny this was really going to happen. “She’s remorseless, you know? Have you told her anything about what’s going on between us?”
“So, she’s coming here expecting the big, grand reunion, the final coming together, and…?”
“I don’t think so, Henry, not really. I think maybe what she wants is closure.”
He shook his head again. “You know you are way off base, don’t you?”
“Maybe I’m just hoping…?”
“And my first round of chemo is Monday. This is going to be fun. Real fun.”
“Do you want me to call her? Postpone this to later?”
“What? And miss all the mirth and merriment that only your mother can bring to Christmas? Just think, Tracy! She’ll nail a Christmas tree to the foredeck and deck the halls with balls of sugar-coated guilt! Who wouldn’t want all that for their Christmas in gay Par-ee!”
“You make her sound like some kind of psychopath, Henry.”
He looked down at his hands, and he could see those same fingers running through Edith’s hair once upon a time. “I know she’s not, Tracy. I know I’m projecting a lot of anxiety onto her, on the idea of meeting up with her one more time…”
“One more time? What’s this? Have you lost your optimism already?”
“I’m just trying not to get my hopes up, you know? Especially where something so new is involved.”
“I’m just curious, but why don’t your alien buddies take care of this?”
He looked at her, trying to see if she was pulling his leg, but no… “Well, for one, they haven’t offered. And I have to assume that’s because medicine is not something they’re especially good at.”
“But…you haven’t asked?”
“No, and I won’t. And no, Tracy, I don’t want someone else to ask for me. I’m not put together that way.”
“Alright. I’m not going to fight you, Hank, no matter what you decide. But promise me one thing, okay?”
“If I can, sure.”
“When you decide to do something, makes sure it’s what you want to do and not what you think I want you to do.”
He looked away for a moment, then he nodded understanding. “Yeah. I can do that.”
“Good. Now…you got room for dessert?”
They took Clyde for a long walk on a bicycle path along the river’s edge, and he managed to stink up the countryside here and there. The sun had long since slipped away and the night had grown cold; after two days with temps in the 70s now all of a sudden a humid 40 degrees F seemed almost arctic, and even Clyde seemed put out by the cold grass on his paws.
His phone chirped once and he ignored it, but when it chirped again he found it in a coat pocket and looked at the text. It was from Dina, but not in CAPS this time.
“Just got divorce papers from lawyers. I’ve signed them, not contesting. Thanks for your generosity; I do not deserve it.”
“You’re welcome. If possible, I’d like Rolf to come for Christmas.”
“I’ll see what the options are.”
“Would you mind if I came along with him?”
“No, not at all.”
“I’ll see what the airlines are offering now and let you know.”
He put the phone away and shook his head. “Well, it seems I’m a free man once again. Or at least I will be as soon as the ink is dry.”
She looked at him for a moment, almost like she was waiting for him to say something, but he had stopped and now he was looking at Clyde…
Who was hunched over trying to make poop…
Only a steady stream of blood was dribbling out onto the grass…
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next element will drop as soon as the muse cooperates.