Not trying to be obscure here, but for the most part The Eighty-eighth Key is complete. And yet it seemed that before I could post the conclusion I needed to lay a little more groundwork – in order to set up the conclusion of that story will take us straight into TimeShadow. Enough said, for now.
[Buffalo Springfield \\ For What It’s Worth]
Sherman woke earlier than usual; Roscoe hopped off the berth and made for the companionway, wagging his tail while he waited for him. Sherman strapped on his leg and put the coffee on then hooked up the leash before he set off up the companionway and into the dawn.
Roscoe was a Sussex Spaniel, a low-slung long brown haired fluff ball, and he was also a born show off and kind of a clown. He hopped off the boat’s bulwarks and pulled Sherman towards the nearest patch of grass, still almost fifty yards away, and for his size Sherman thought the pup was incredibly strong.
“Not so fast,” Gene Sherman growled, and Roscoe let up…a little, but he’d held it long enough and time was now of the essence. They made with just moments to spare and Roscoe watered the grass before he circled twice and got down to the real business at hand. With those chores out of the way, Sherman took the pup for a long walk before heading back to the boat.
Debra was up and futzing around in the galley by the time they got back to the boat, and she had Roscoe’s kibble ready to go by the time he trundled down the steep steps. He dove in and wolfed down his chow, and Deb handed Gene a mug of coffee as he sat down beside at the cockpit table.
“I’m glad you could stay last night,” she said, smiling. It hadn’t taken a whole lot to convince him to stay, but the hot shower had probably sealed the deal. Sherman insisted on sleeping in the tent most nights, though it was unnecessary at this point. Her father had completely disappeared from LA years ago, and in a matter of months Ted Sorensen’s malign influence had evaporated. Sherman, however, still wasn’t sure what was going on, so he still kept to the shadows.
After the night of the signal — when the fate of the planet had been revealed — Deb and Sherman had slowly grown close. First in the underground research facility and then after Daisy Jane passed. Debra had started to lean on him as soon as it became crystal clear that Henry Taggart was gone, that he’d never come back to her.
When Sherman became aware of her abilities he was curious for a while then he just took it for granted, and when Debra finally realized that Gene Sherman never lied, and that he didn’t even try to keep secrets, she understood that he didn’t have anything to hide — from her, or from anyone else, for that matter. His aura was always cool blue and the only time she’d sensed anger in him was once right after he’d smashed his thumb with a hammer.
Was that, she kept asking herself, why Henry left her? Too many secrets he could no longer keep?
If so, she couldn’t imagine how difficult it must have become for him. And she’d never once intuited how impossible their situation had become. ‘Why not?’ she kept asking herself. Had she become so blind to their reality? But when he left she’d begun to feel deep changes within, like something changed when he left, like his departure triggered a release of some sort…
…and yet Gene Sherman had proven to be the exact opposite of Henry Taggart. He fit, he understood, and her only regret was that he was so much older than she was — because he’d have made a perfect husband. And yet when she mentioned that once he’d not rebuffed her.
“Why would you want to hang around with an old fart like me?” he’d replied with a chuckle.
“Because…you didn’t run away.”
And then he’d turned and looked into her eyes, a somewhat and reserved love manifest in the gentle, soft light of his aura. He’d reached out and cupped the side of her face in his hand, stroked her hair as he looked into her soul.
“If that’s what you want,” he’d said, “let’s do it.”
So they’d run to Vegas and done the deed, yet it wasn’t long before he told her he wanted to return to Venice Beach, and then he’d told her what he had in mind. So she’d picked up a new boat and moved back to the marina, and he’d helped her find a new pup along the way. Soon enough her new life looked a whole lot like the one she’d hoped to share with Henry, and soon enough she’d even begun to feel a little of the happiness she’d always longed for.
Every now and then Ralph Richardson dropped by — “Just to say hi!” — but he wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all her. He’d made a Faustian bargain somewhere along the way and was creating clone-like beings, but for what purpose? She’d met one the night of the signal, the red cat-suited blond in Gene’s Ferrari, yet even Sherman had no idea what she really was. The strangest thing about her was she seemed to “belong” to Sherman, and though he’d plainly rejected the relationship she was never really far away from him. When he had dozens of patients lined up at the tent she’d simply show up and start taking care of the next one in line, and from the first Gene had just shrugged and let her do her thing — whatever that was. Soon enough they’d both grudgingly accepted her unwanted appearances as almost inevitable.
She pulled bagels from the toaster and spread a thin layer of cream cheese, then slivered tomatoes and red onions and freshly sliced Scottish gravlox were carefully layered before she sprinkled a few capers on top, and she had to admit once again that she loved doting on Sherman. Because unlike her father, and yes, Henry Taggart, he really seemed to appreciate her efforts, yet his ongoing appreciation continued to surprise her. Though of course he always put aside a few choice pieces of salmon and slipped them under the table to an equally appreciative little spaniel, she never experienced his type of appreciation.
“After you drop me off,” he said that morning, “could you take Darius and run over to the lab?”
“You think they’ll have results this early?”
“They might have Ellie’s…”
“You’re really worried about her, aren’t you?”
And he’d nodded his head carefully — and slowly. “Yes. Too many vectors. If her grandmother is the source, I’ll have to get the public health department involved…”
“And people will start losing their jobs,” Debra replied. “Again.”
“That’s what it’s going to look like from now on. Culling the sick and the weak from the main herd…”
“Stop with the Darwin, would you? It’s too early in the morning for that crap.”
“It’s inevitable now,” he said before he took a bite of his bagel. “Oh, what’s the weather look like? Any word on the high today?” She turned on the television and flipped over to The Weather Channel, and soon enough the local forecast popped up and Sherman whistled: “Geesh, 115 in the valley and 98 at the beach,” he said as he shook his head. “The water will start warming again.”
“I can bring an extra cooler and ice water,” Debra said helpfully.
“Yeah. Maybe the blue cooler with bottled water and the big white one with Gatorade. It’ll hit a hundred on the pavement. Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask…how’s Darius doing?”
She shrugged. “Still moody but he’s cleaned up his act. No hangovers and he’s not as angry.”
Sherman shrugged. “That’s the bupropion kicking in.”
“So, you think that group on the beach has TB?”
He nodded. “My guess is we’re going to have a major outbreak down there…what’s that on the TV…something about Russia…?”
She flipped the channel over to CNN and breathless reporters were describing a sudden Russian ground advance into Poland, and one reporter came on and advised that air raid sirens were going off in Berlin and Hamburg…
“What the hell?” Sherman sighed as he leaned over and turned up the volume. “Did I miss something? When did this start up?”
Deb looked away, suddenly very afraid. Henry was over there right now, and he’d emailed last week, told her he was already very ill and making for Paris as quickly as he could.
“Oh man, this is so Crazy Eddie,” Sherman grumbled.
She nodded. “Why now? I mean, aren’t things bad enough as it is?”
He shook his head and sighed. “Well, it is what it is, and whatever happens it won’t stop people from getting sick. I’m going to change into my scrubs. Can you be ready to go in five?”
“Yes, of course.”
He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “Don’t worry. He’ll be alright.”
“What?” Deb said, startled now. “Who…who will be alright?”
He smiled at her – but then he slowly turned and walked aft to the head. She watched him, watched his aura, but it never changed.
The old man slowly made his way to the Zebra but he wasn’t too surprised when he found that Ellie had already called in sick. He nodded and asked for his coffee ‘to-go’ – then he made his way to the tent, only to find Bud Kurzweil and his rookie already there — waiting anxiously. Which meant that all his homeless patients had scattered and disappeared into the woodwork.
“You’d better pack up, Doc,” Kurzweil said as Sherman walked up.
He nodded. A large TB vector in the area would certainly drive a massive Public Health Department response in the area, and that had to mean that the lab results from last night’s exams at the north jetty had already been received downtown. “How long?” he asked Bud.
“The dump trucks are on the way. Call it twenty minutes.”
Sherman fished his iPhone from his coat pocket and sent the emergency pickup signal to Deb. “Thanks for the head’s up, Bud.”
“Can we give you a hand?”
Sherman shook his head. “No. You two can’t be seen here.”
“Where are you going to set up?”
Sherman sighed. “The garage, I reckon. Give us a couple hours.”
“Okay,” Bud said. “Did you hear about the crap going on in Europe?”
Sherman nodded. “I guess someone figured we needed another world war. Odd timing, though.”
“Yeah. I mean, it seems kind of pointless right now, ya know? Floods and droughts and crop failures everywhere, and now on top of all that it seems like people from equatorial regions are heading for cooler climates. So, yeah…why now?”
Kurzweil nodded. “Well, we’ll drop by later this morning. We gotta go check on that camp by the jetty.”
Sherman sighed. “Hopefully they won’t be scattered. If they are, a major new outbreak is just about guaranteed.”
“I hear you,” Kurzweil said. Deb pulled up in the Rover just then and she smiled at the cops then she and Darius started breaking down the tent and loading it in the back, and ten minutes later the ‘clinic’ was gone — and it looked as if it had never been there. They drove over to Deb’s old house on the boardwalk and Sherman helped them set up the clinic in the garage, then he sat and read through Ellie’s lab results. “Positive on both blood and sputum,” he grumbled, and he knew what that meant. Chest and abdominal imaging to confirm involvement in the lungs and to see if the kidneys were involved, then patient education on proper adherence to protocols during the long term antibiotic therapy she’d start. But first he had to get labs working on Ellie’s grandmother and brother.
And just then Didi Goodman drove up to the garage — in a small mobile CT scan rig. She slipped out of the truck’s cab and walked over, and Sherman was glad to see she’d finally given up on the red leather catsuit and was now wearing green scrubs and gray felt clogs. Even so dressed she was still sexy as hell, and he found that amusing.
“Well,” Sherman said, smiling, “long time no see.”
Goodman appeared to ignore the comment. “I assumed you’d need this today.”
“Where’d you dig it up? At the mobile cat-scan store?”
“I borrowed it.”
“Did you borrow a technician to run the thing, too?”
“I read all the relevant materials. That should suffice.”
He shook his head and grinned. “No doubt.”
“Where is your patient? Ellie, isn’t it?”
“A no show, so far at least.”
“Would you like me to find her?”
Sherman shrugged. “Sure. Why not…? And bring her family, would you?”
It would have been so much easier to simply keep the clinic operating out of Deb’s old house, but the city, and her neighbors, would have nothing to do with such a venture in a ‘high rent’ neighborhood like this one. Even operating here for a day or two at a time was fraught with risk, because anything that encouraged the homeless to remain in the area was tantamount to treason – at least as far as the local homeowners were concerned – yet Sherman could understand their point of view. When swarms of the homeless settled in an area all types of problems exploded almost exponentially. There was the usual problem of urine soaked sidewalks, but soon human feces would appear on sidewalks and in roadways. Far from a trivial concern, outbreaks of cholera and dysentery would follow as these encampments grew in size, and without aggressive management of these diseases they could, if left unchecked, spread rapidly to the general population. Of course property crimes increased too, with petty theft and home invasions soon spiking rapidly. Trash accumulated in public spaces, rendering them useless or even dangerous. Homeowners and shopkeepers soon demanded enforcement action and the unhoused would be pushed on to the next neighborhood, and the cycle would begin again.
Yet being homeless was itself a risky proposition. Aside from being broke all the time, most homeless were elderly and disabled – either mentally or physically, and many were disabled veterans. A surprising number of these elderly people had recently lost homes after compounding medical debt led to confiscation of their homes, and suddenly cast out into the wilderness and now without a physical address, they lost what little retirement income they had as they fell through the cracks in the system. Every morning the police were called to the tents of these elderly men and women to deal with the aftermath of yet another suicide, and public crematories discarded the remnants of dozens of these sundered lives every weekday morning.
Yet for some reason Sherman felt drawn to these people, and he had since his time in seminary, yet he found their situation uncomfortably close to home. ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ came to mind, of course, but there was also something about the way so-called organized religion had turned on these people, and that overreaction had unnerved and revolted him. As the evangelical movement had grown increasingly political, and as this movement became more closely aligned with the ‘prosperity gospel’ that had sprung up in Texas in the 1980s, it seemed that more and more the teachings of Christ had been removed from Christianity.
And yet Sherman was also an astronomer, and he was one of the few people around that understood what the signal had revealed. In a very real sense, he knew the truth of human existence in a way that few others could, or ever would. Life on this planet would perish in roughly fifty years, and there was literally nothing anyone in the world could do to stop that from happening.
So it seemed now to Sherman that the best use of his life would come from alleviating human suffering, and right here in Los Angeles, the City of the Angels, was as good a place as any to start down that path. He had soon turned his back on the the Church and married Debra Sorensen, and he had set about tending his new flock in the only way he knew — by tending to their infirmities. With Ted Sorensen gone he had no enemies left in the city, and there was no time for anything other than his mission.
As he was setting up for the morning a sleek black Lexus SUV rolled to a stop and a woman opened the driver’s door and quietly fell to the pavement; Sherman ran to her side and began to assess her situation. She was weak and trembling but otherwise appeared healthy; a few questions revealed that her long term memory was intact but short term was affected. She convulsed and he observed fresh diarrhea running onto the pavement, then she started coughing and she produced large amounts of phlegm.
“Short term memory loss,” he muttered, his mind sifting through possibilities as he took her temperature. There had been numerous sick sea lions washing up onto the beach recently…and that meant an algae bloom and a red tide. That meant shellfish, near the bottom of the food chain, had ingested the psuedo-nitzschia diatom, which led to domoic acid poisoning in mammals that ate these impacted shellfish, and which could in extreme cases produce a rare reaction known as Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning. There were no treatment options beyond fluid support, allowing the body to flush out the toxins as quickly as possible.
Darius and Debra helped Sherman get the woman on a cot, then he started an IV and set an aggressive flow rate. “Better call for an ambulance,” he said to Debra, but she was staring at the woman, and Sherman noted the look of concern in her eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Her aura. It’s solid black, Gene. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Do you think…you can see her thoughts?”
“I’m not sure I want to,” Debra said as she stepped closer to the woman. She closed her eyes and drifted inside the currents of the woman’s aura – until she was in – and then she felt her father, and now he was probing her thoughts.
© 2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse…and note this story is fiction, pure and simple.
[Something Happening Here \\ Duncan Sheik]