corcovado 9

Corcovado canyon

corcovado

quiet nights of quiet stars

chapter 9

 

Ellis Patterson was sitting three feet behind his grandson – feeling the boy’s movements as he followed through on the controls.

They were flying lazy arcs over the ranch, about 1500 feet over the grass and piñon, and he could hear Jim’s labored breathing over the intercom. He smiled when he remembered teaching James the very same maneuvers – nearly thirty years before – while flying over the Connecticut River towards White River Junction. If anything, he thought, this boy was even better than his son. Fearless, less tentative. Dangerous.

He’d have to temper arrogance, and soon, before the boy got himself in real trouble.

Jimmy broke off and flew towards the escarpment, flew towards the break in the wall. Like he was flying back to the encounter with the cat, and now it was as if he could read his grandson’s mind…

“What’s on your mind, Jim?” he asked.

“Just thinking, Pops. Maybe there are more of ‘em. Maybe she had cubs.”

“Kittens.”

“Kittens?”

“Yup. Cats have kittens, bears have cubs.”

“And dogs? They have puppies, right?”

“No…mostly diarrhea, if I recall correctly.”

They both laughed.

“Antelope!” Jimmy cried, and he pushed the nose over and settled into a shallow dive. Ellis poked his head out into the slipstream and saw about a dozen on the prairie, grazing contentedly perhaps a mile ahead, and he marveled at the boy’s eyesight.

“Watch your airspeed, Jim. Throttle back some. They’re not going anywhere.”

“Yessir.”

Obedient. No question, no doubt, and no hurt pride, just a willingness to listen, and learn. And the boy’s mind didn’t wander off, didn’t fall into daydreaming.

He felt small corrections through the rudder pedals, then a little right stick to correct for the crosswind, then he looked off the right wingtip and saw they were – at most – twenty feet off the ground…and doing at least 120.

And still, the boy’s concentration was rock solid.

He barely caught a glimpse of the startled antelope as they roared past, then Jim had the Waco in an easy climbing turn to the west.

“Think you can find your way back to the strip?”

“Yessir, no problem.”

Dead certain, pure self-confidence. The kid was a natural born pilot.

Now, he knew, came the hard part. He’d have to talk to Elizabeth about all this shit, because she’d have to sign off on his teaching the boy. Because, after all that nonsense back in Vermont, James was still withdrawn. Still fighting his demons. Only now, James was drinking again – and Elizabeth had her hands full – again – with whatever the hell she’d gotten herself into. So he’d have to tread carefully, wouldn’t he…?

“Pops? You with me back there?”

“Yup. So, what do you think? Want me to talk to your mother?”

“I can do it, Pops. I think she’ll just shoot you down, but she’ll listen to me.”

“Let me know. You ready to try landing this thing?”

He was. And he did.

++

She drove him into town most mornings, drove him to school and dropped him off, then she went to “the office…” – whatever, or wherever, that was. He still let on he had no idea what she did for a living, and he left it at that. He’d talked her into flying; in fact, he found she had been expecting him to ask about it.

Most mornings his father could be found sitting on the porch, staring at the mountains across the valley…a mug of coffee in his cupped hands. But after that he saw something in his father’s being had changed.

Or, life had changed in drastic, important ways, and James Patterson had come undone in the aftermath.

Jim would wake up at five every morning; he would dress and head out to the barn with his grandfather and together they would hay the horses, rake out the stalls, then he’d shower and get ready for school while Pops cooked breakfast. After school, their rituals were as rigid, too: Mom picked him up at 3:15 and some days they stopped off for groceries, but usually she drove straight back to the ranch. Pops would be waiting by the Waco, and within minutes they would have pre-flighted the old girl and started her up. Most days they flew out west, but some afternoons they flew south, to Albuquerque, and they’d land there, sneak in a burger and fries, then head back to the ranch in time for supper.

His father would still be on the porch, still staring at the mountains, as he and Pops walked up to the house, and he’d look at his father, then his grandfather, wondering how two people could possibly be so dissimilar.

Or…maybe they weren’t.

One evening, as they walked up the little hill to the house, he could see a tall glass in his father’s hand, and he could see Pop’s jaw clenching overtime as they walked up the steps to the porch. Then they both saw a pitcher on the table by his father’s side, lemon wedges gathered along the rim.

“Want some tea?” his father asked.

“Sure would,” Pops replied. “How ‘bout you, boy?”

He’d nodded, wondered what the punch line was.

But his father had already poured two glasses.

“I’m headed back to Vermont in the morning,” his father stated – and rather too defiantly, Jim thought.

“Oh?” Pops said, looking over his son in the amber twilight. “Something happen back there?”

“Got a letter from Rebecca. Business is falling apart; that Roscoe fella is robbing the till again. I’ve got to get back and set things right – or we’ll lose it.”

“Maybe it’s time to sell?” Pops sighed, and the change that came over his father was instantaneous – and withering.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You and Elizabeth both. You’d like nothing more than to take away the one thing I have left in this world.”

And Pops had looked at his son for a moment, then he shook his head and walked into the house…

And again, the change that came over his father was instant, and complete. “So, how was flying today?”

And Jim was a little taken aback – because his father never asked about flying.

“Pretty good. We flew up to Los Alamos, worked on crosswind landings.”

“Oh? Good breeze today…bet that was some kind of fun.”

“Yessir.”

“Your grandfather is a good teacher. One of the best. Listen to him and you’ll do well.”

“How long will you be gone, Dad?”

“I won’t be coming back, son. Too many bad memories here. I need to get away from him, and I think your mother and I need some time apart…to think about…things.”

“Things?” he said, and for the first time in his life, he felt a cold, hollow fear in his gut. “What kind of things, Dad?”

And his father had turned and looked him in the eye: “Sit down, Jim. We need to have a talk.”

+++++

He heard a voice, far away, like someone on the shore of a lake, in a distant fog…

“Mr. Patterson?”

Then pressure. Someone pressing on his forehead, almost right between his eyes.

“You can stop that now,” he said. “It hurts.”

“Can you open your eyes, Mr Patterson?”

“Jim,” he said, trying to open his eyes – but they only opened in narrow, slit-like slashes, and his eyes were full of, what? Vaseline. “My name’s Jim. What’s yours?”

“I’m Jill, one of the nurses here in the ICU.”

“Where’s here, and why am I not on my boat?”

“You’re at Virginia Mason, and you were shot.”

“Shot?”

“Yes, but you can talk about all that later. Let me get those eyes,” the nurse said, then he felt cool terry-cloth swabbing his eyelids, then his forehead.

“Shot? Where?” he mumbled.

“Once in the arm, three rounds in your legs. The left femoral artery was nicked, so it was kind of touch and go there for a while.”

“What time is it? How long have I been out?” he asked as awareness came back in a flood.

“It’s eight in the morning. They brought you in a little after midnight.”

“My son?”

“There’s a small mob in the waiting room. They claim to be friends of yours, so I assume your son might be out there too.”

“His name is Ted. Has anyone talked to him? And Brigit…Doctor Sullivan. I need to talk to them both.”

“It’ll be a few more minutes. The surgeon will need to okay that.”

He closed his eyes, shook his head. “Yeah…sure.”

“We’ve got Vancomycin running in case that bug in your leg comes back, so if you feel nauseous, let me know.”

“I feel nauseous.”

“Would you like something for it?”

“Coke.”

“What?”

“Coca-Cola works best for me.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. And I know. You’ll have to ask the surgeon first. I know the drill.”

There was a commotion outside the room and a moment later an impossibly young kid in green scrubs walked into the room, followed by – Ted and Brigit.

“Good, you’re awake,” the kid in the green scrubs said. “I’m Doc Stuart, your surgeon…”

“That’s not possible,” Jim said.

“Pardon me?” the kid said.

“You couldn’t possibly be older than twelve. How could you even remotely be qualified to be a surgeon.”

The kid laughed.

“You even laugh like a twelve-year-old.”

“Thanks, I think. Anyway, we’ve repaired your left femoral artery and the other wounds, and we have infectious diseases working on that fungal issue…but right now it looks like you’re out of the woods. It was touch and go there for a while. The paramedics did a great job stabilizing you…”

He listened to the infant, because the more he looked at the kid the more like an infant, maybe a very young Dennis the Menace, he seemed. Then again, Ted looked like he remembered him – ten years ago…

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Perception. The right side of my face feels…”

And he fell into the light – again.

+++++

He was in the barn, raking out the stalls again when he heard something almost like thunder – but this was close. Real close.

He ran out into the little corral off the side of the barn – just in time to see his mother, down on the ground, adjusting the sights on a hideous looking rifle. He watched, curious now, as she chambered another round, and his eyes followed the line of the barrel across the dry creek-bed on the far side of the runway…and he saw several pumpkins set up there…and he put his fingers in his ears just in time…

He felt the concussion in his chest, saw the gout of blossoming flame erupt from the end of the barrel – then one of the pumpkins downrange simply exploded, leaving nothing but a cloud of settling, orange vapor…

“Holy fucking shit!” he cried…

And his mother rolled over, then stood up in a hurried rush. “What are you doing here? I thought you were up flying?”

“No, Pops had to go into town, said he had a doctors appointment. Mom? What are you doing with that thing?”

“Oh? This? It’s a new deer rifle. I’m giving it to your father, for Christmas.”

“Mom? Dad doesn’t like hunting, remember?”

“Well, I thought if maybe he had a nice rifle maybe he’d like to take it up again.”

“Oh. How far away…”

“You know, I’ve done enough today. You ready for dinner?”

“Yeah…soon as I finish up in the barn.”

She looked at her wristwatch, seemed to come to a decision. “What say you and I head into town, go to Bert’s for a cherry-lime-aid.”

Yup, she thought, that still worked. She watched as he went back to the barn – while she cursed herself for not checking the barn first, then she put the new H&K sniper rifle back in its hard case and carried it to the back of the Ford. Pops drove up a few minutes later, just as Jim walked from the barn up the hill to the house.

“You ready to go up for a quick flight,” Pops asked.

“Mom’s taking me to Bert’s. Wanna come with us?”

“You’re welcome to join us, Ellis,” Liz added…but Ellis looked at the expression on her face – kind of a ‘Please, no, don’t come…’ look in her eyes.

“No, you two go on. I’ve got a few things to tend to…”

They drove into the city, turned on Guadalupe and pulled into Bert’s a half hour later. Two huge green-chili cheeseburgers and a double lime-aids later, she came to the point of the exercise. “Your father isn’t doing well,” she said in an unsettling non-sequitur. “I need to go back to Vermont for a while,” she lied, “and check on him. Will it be okay if I leave you here with Pops for a few weeks?”

“What’s wrong with Dad?”

“I’m not sure, but I can’t handle it over the telephone.”

“Do you need me to come with you? Maybe I could help?”

“Not this time, Jim,” she said, almost panicking. “I’ve got to stop off and do a few things for work, too. I need you to stay here with Pops, but if I change my mind, if I think you can help, I’ll call. Okay? Is that a deal?”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, clearly dejected.

“What are you and Pops working on now?”

“Instrument approaches.”

“Oh? Is it hard?”

He shrugged. “Not really.”

“Don’t be mad at me, Jim. Okay?”

“I’m not mad at you, Mom. I just think you’re not telling me the whole truth, and I don’t understand why.”

She nodded, looked away. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to, Jim. Just not now.”

“Who do you work for, Mom?”

She shook her head. “Someday, Jim. I promise.”

He looked at her, looked at this latest deception and knew she’d never talk about this stuff. Neither would his father. “When are you leaving,” he asked.

“In the morning. Early; I’ll be gone before you get up.”

He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded, then looked at a low-rider that had just pulled into the parking lot. Some of the locals, he saw; Native Americans – or “the Natives” – as Pops called them. His mother called them Trouble, yet she was doing her best to ignore them right now. Two more Chevies pulled into the lot, then a dozen Harley-Davidsons – Choppers, she said – as they filed into the lot, parking next to a turquoise and red Impala.

The two groups talked in the lot for a while, then turned and walked for the entry.

“Sit still,” she said quietly, almost under her breath. “Don’t look anyone in the eye, and don’t say a word.”

He saw the riders were wearing identical leather jackets, big “Hell’s Angels” emblems embroidered on their backs, and he had heard of them and suddenly understood the tone in his mother’s voice. Not fear. Not even curiosity. No, her voice was full of malice, like she wanted to pick a fight. He did too, only he didn’t know why.

Other patrons were getting up and walking out to their cars as the bikers walked up to the counter, and soon they were the only people remaining inside. He turned, saw another dozen or so motorcycles pulling into the parking lot, then he felt someone walking up to their booth.

He turned and looked at a burly man standing there, then the man sat down next to his mother.

“How’s it going, Liz?” the biker asked.

“Not bad, Terry. You?”

He reached inside his jacket and handed her a piece of paper.

She took an envelope from her purse and handed it to the biker.

“So. We’re cool?” the biker asked, his voice full of respect.

“Yeah, we’re good. Tell Hank to stay low for a while, and keep out of Texas.”

The biker nodded as he digested that information, then he looked at Jim. “How’s the grub here,” he asked Jim.

“Have you ever had the green-chili burger?”

“No. Any good?”

“Yeah, pretty good.”

The biker nodded and stood, then looked at Elizabeth. “Take care,” he said, then, after a pause: “Watch your six, Liz.” Then the biker walked off to join his compadres and his mother stood, walked from the diner – leaving a million unanswered questions in her wake.

He watched as she as she walked through the gangs waiting to order at the counter; they parted and let her pass – almost like they were afraid of her.

He never asked her about the meeting, or why she’d brought him along, and she never mentioned that afternoon – ever again – but he never forgot how those bikers moved out of her way.

And his mother was as good as her word, too. She was gone before we woke to tackle his chores the next morning.

A few days later he saw something on the evening news, something about a murder in San Antonio, Texas, where a meeting between members of a motorcycle gang – the Banditos – and a suspected Chinese underworld crime boss had been disrupted by an assassin’s bullet. The old Chinaman had been killed as the group walked across a street outside a restaurant called Joe Ts. A rival motorcycle gang was suspected…but for some reason he knew – just knew – his mother had killed the man. He knew, and it didn’t bother him. Not in the least.

His mother returned to the ranch a few days later.

She seemed preoccupied.

With what…she would not say.

+++++

He opened his eyes, looked around the room. A nurse was working on a tablet, entering figures on the pad, and he tried to speak – but his mouth didn’t work – and no sounds came from his mouth. He tried to lift his hand but it did not move either, and now real panic broke over him like a hot wave. He tried to clear his throat and he heard a sound this time; the nurse turned to him, saw he was awake and put down the tablet.

“Mr Patterson? I’m Dr Jeffries, from neurology. You’ve had a slight stroke, but we got it fast and I think you’ll be okay in a few hours. Try not to panic right now, okay? That will only make things worse…”

He tried to digest the woman’s words and came up short. ‘

A stroke? And now I can’t talk, or move? I don’t want to go out like this…’

She was watching a bank of monitors, then she injected something into an IV port and he felt himself falling away…

++

He opened his eyes again, saw Ted and Susan talking with Brigit across the room, and he tried to speak again. “Ted?” he croaked.

“Dad!?”

“Yup. At least I think so,” he said, looking around the room. “Where am I this time? This room looks different.”

“It is. Some kind of neuro-ICU. You threw a blood clot, went out like a light.”

“How long?”

“All told, three weeks…but it was deliberate this time. They kept you out so you wouldn’t panic, until the vessels in your brain could heal.”

“Three weeks?”

“Yup,” Brigit said, by his side now.

Now he saw she had a cast on her wrist. “What happened to you?” he asked.

“I fell,” she said, smiling, her voice and eyes full of understanding.

“Fell?”

“When you were shot, but I’m okay now.”

He didn’t understand those words, not at all. “I was shot?”

Then he thought of his mother…and all her secrets…

+++++

He walked around the Waco, checking her struts and aileron straps, tire pressures and fuel tanks, then he climbed up into the cockpit and settled into the seat. He felt Pops climb up behind him and stand beside the little open cockpit; he was looking down at him, and he had a weird expression on his face…and in his eyes…

“Here’s some money, in case you want to get a burger somewhere along the way.”

He looked down, saw a wad of hundred dollar bills and his eyes went wide. “Pops…?”

“Just bring me some change.”

“Yeah. I will.”

“And don’t go to Vegas.”

“Okay.”

“You got that sectional folded – like I showed you?”

“Yessir.”

“VORs entered?”

“Yup.”

Then his grandfather put his right hand out and he took it.

“I’m proud of you, boy.”

And then he was gone, walking back up the little hill to the house.

He wiped away a tear then set about waking the old girl, and a minute later he taxied down to the end of the runway…watching temperatures and pressures as he did his run-up.

He looked at the house, saw Pops standing on the porch – another cup of coffee in hand – then he pulled his mind back into the cockpit and concentrated on the job at hand.

Magnetos checked, lights on, power up to 40% and let it settle…work the controls, watch the rudder in the mirrors, check at the ailerons. Throttle back, watch the oil pressure then ease the throttle forward again…hold rudder against the torque…feel the tail lift as speed builds…eyes on the runway now, feeling airspeed build…check the indicator…65 knots…70 now…and a little back-pressure on the stick…feel the wheels leave the ground and tap the brakes…eyes on the horizon for a moment, then check instruments…all registering…climb at 400 feet per minute, 100 knots – keep an eye on the VOR…and he watched as the needle swung and he turned to follow the inbound radial. He looked once again, saw the ranch fading and he smiled.

“It’s wonderful to be alive,” he said to the sky – as the earth fell away.

Then he heard the Morse identifier in his headset. 115.3 – Rattlesnake VOR – and he wished the old Waco had DME then realized he didn’t need it. 110 miles away, doing 120 knots? He’d be there in less than an hour – maybe 53 minutes. The Grand Canyon? Less than 300 miles, and he’d land, get a burger and fill the tanks, then turn around and fly back to the ranch. Then, with these final six hours under his belt, he could get his license…

He pulled his mind back into the cockpit, stopped daydreaming. The Jemez Mountains off to his right peaked at over 11,000 feet; thunderstorms were building behind them…off to the north…and that bothered him…

He saw Farmington ahead, re-centered the needle and chased the radial to the edge of town; when the needle swung he turned to 243 degrees and re-centered the needle, flying away from the VOR now. He set the Tuba City VOR on 2 and kept an eye on his altitude for a minute, trimming pitch and fiddling with the throttle until the Waco settled-in after the turn.

He thought about the past few weeks. About his mother, stating she was going to retire soon, from whatever it was she did. His father was moving to Florida, buying a boat of some kind and telling the world to fuck off. And Pops…just trucking along, still doing his thing. Flying, riding his horses all over the ranch, running the fences, as he called it. He had a couple hundred head of his own now, and he was running them with the transient herds. He’d picked up an adjoining parcel of land, too, and now had 4000 acres.

The temperature dropped suddenly and he looked around, saw a couple of big, new thunderstorms brewing over the Jemez, then the temperature really dropped – like 10, maybe 15 degrees and he checked his drift. Yeah…out of the north. A big frontal passage…and that meant big rain, maybe some snow on the mountains, too…and he scrunched up his mouth as he worked over these new possibilities in his mind – then the Tuba City VOR swung into life.

He nodded his head, turned and looked at the blossoming anvil-headed storm building over Farmington and he guessed the cloud-tops were already at 40,000 feet…the sky beyond the white anvil now a deep slate blue. “Well, at least I won’t need air conditioning…” he sighed.

He passed Tuba City a half hour later, tuned in the Grand Canyon VOR as he watched a line of clouds building off to the north. He figured that line was still in Utah – but closing, fast, on the North Rim – and now he could see lightning under this new advancing wall. He turned, saw the anvil-headed monster – now over the four-corners regions – and he shook his head. That one was pushing in from behind, and this new wall was squeezing from the north – and he had maybe a half hour to go.

“If I can’t make the canyon, I’ll try Flagstaff,” he told the sky, looking at his remaining fuel. He figured he could make Phoenix if he had to, but right now he wanted to get on the ground, get the Waco tied down.

Altitude nine thousand, airspeed 120. Ground elevation increasing, around 7300 before dropping to 6600 at GCN. He flexed his shoulders, eased around in the seat to work out a hotspot on his butt, then yawned, shook his head.

Now what?

He felt sleepy?

He forced himself to sit up straight, took several deep breaths and shook his head again, this time roughly. He cleared the ridge, saw the airport in the distance and sighed.

Yeah, I’ll just make it.

+

“Dad?”

“Huh?” He heard monitors beeping, saw a nurse in green scrubs…

“You were drifting again. What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, my third cross-country. The time I flew from the ranch out to the Grand Canyon and back. Huge storms building that afternoon, too, so after I got on the ground I called my grandfather. He’d been watching the weather, and man, was he frantic. Anyway, he told me to stay put, stay the night. Hell, I’d just turned sixteen, had never stayed alone anywhere, not once, and there I was…out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thunderstorms…”

“What did you do?” Susan asked.

“I got a room, down on the south rim; a place called Bright Angel Lodge. Nice view, too. After I got there I went out and stood out on the edge of the rim, looking at all those converging storms…lightning everywhere…and it’s funny, because what I remember most is the color.”

“The color?” Brigit said, puzzled.

“Yeah, the canyon, red walls in dark blue light. Sun peeking through, shooting streams of apricot colored light on the north wall while lightning…”

His eyes drifted…and he was there again…

++

Standing close to the edge, cold air coming across the canyon, meeting warm air rising out of the depths just beyond his feet, slamming into the sky overhead. The thunder was deafening, lightning flickered everywhere – yet he stood, transfixed – looking into that impossible sky. Not at the sky, but – into – as if there was some kind of secret lost inside all that boiling energy…if only he could get close enough…maybe he could see…

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

The voice startled him, and he turned, saw a woman standing a few feet away – and yet, she seemed to be in a trance, too.

“It is, yes.”

“Are you here with your parents?”

“No. By myself.”

That seemed to break the spell.

“By yourself? How…”

And he told her. About the flight, the weather, all of it, and she looked at him while he spoke, obviously not sure she believed one word coming out of his mouth.

“Are you hungry,” she asked.

He frowned, looked at the words hanging in the air, apparent, as if he was considering the idea of eating, and of hunger in general – and drawing a blank. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

And as she looked at him she tried not to laugh. “You don’t know if you’re hungry?”

“I, well, I just haven’t had time to think about it.”

“Come on. You need food. I can tell just by looking at you.”

There was an ornate dining room not a few steps away, and he could tell she had just come from there – to come out and look at the advancing storm…

“Oh, look, I don’t want to interrupt…”

“You aren’t. I was just about to order,” she said, motioning to a waitress. “Could we have another menu?” she said to the girl.

She sat, motioned for him to sit and he did.

She was, he guessed, thirty, maybe thirty-five years old, and she had bright, inviting eyes – though, he saw, there was a commanding presence there, too. Like she was used to getting her way. Her clothing was immaculate, too, her jewelry almost outlandish, yet her face wasn’t heavily made up. He saw wrinkles under her eyes now, a fringe of gray in her hair, yet somehow she seemed the exact opposite of his mother – and the thought struck him as odd at the time. His mother was, after all, the only woman he had ever known. Teachers had come and gone, classmates too, but his mother had been the one constant in his life.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked after he sat.

“Jim.”

“Jim? I’m Sara, with no H.”

He stuck out his right hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, grinning.

“Now tell me. All that stuff about airplanes…did you make that up?”

He frowned. “You think I’m lying?”

She shrugged. “You look a little too young to be out here by yourself in an airplane.”

“I’m working on my private pilot’s license. You have to make a couple of long, cross-country flights to qualify. This is my second.”

“Oh? Where was your first?”

“Lubbock, Texas.”

“What’s next?”

“Next? What do you mean?”

“In order to get your license.”

“Oh. I take a written exam, then a check-ride with an FAA examiner.”

“Then?”

“Then I work on my instrument rating.”

“What’s that?”

He thought for a moment, then said: “It’s when you fly in the clouds for a long time, and can’t see the ground.”

“I see. And…can you see the ground right now?”

“Excuse me?”

She laughed at that. “Well, Jim, I’ve been up in the clouds, in Reno. Spending some time there, on my lawyer’s advice.”

He shrugged. “Okay.”

“I’m getting a divorce, Jim.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m not.”

“What happened?”

She looked away, rolled his words around in her mind for a minute while her thoughts advanced like a storm all her own…and he watched the turmoil in her eyes, fascinated.

“My husband is a famous man, a singer, a movie star. You know him, too, if you know what I mean.”

“I do?”

“Yes, you do. Everyone knows him. He has his own TV show, he’s made a bunch of movies – all that crap,” the woman said, her voice coiled, now full of venom. “And now he has a younger girl, a new version of me, the girl I was years ago. So…I had suddenly become, I think you could say, disposable, and it was more convenient for him to ship me off to a place like Reno.”

He shrugged. “Again, I’m sorry.”

She looked at him and sighed. “Oh, how I’d love to be your age again.” She looked at the storm raging on the other side of the glass and shook her head. “It’s nice to be inside, where it’s warm, isn’t it?”

She wasn’t paying attention to him so he looked at her, looked at the anger playing out on her face, in the movements of her fingers…then she turned back to her menu. “They have huckleberry iced-tea here. Can you imagine such a thing?”

“Aren’t those like blueberries?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, but I feel trying something fresh and new. How about you?”

“Sure,” he said, “that sounds good. The sky is kind of blueberry colored right now,” he added, wary of the changes playing out in her eyes…full of anger one moment, placid, almost serene the next – then, from somewhere else – her eyes were full of tears.

“Excuse me,” she said, “I need to go powder my nose.”

He stood, got her chair and watched her walk off; she had a good figure and dynamite legs, and suddenly he was conscious of her devastating femininity. He sat as the waitress came up to him.

“Do you know her,” the girl asked.

“No, we just met.”

“Well, be careful. She’s been here a few days, staring and crying like this, talking to herself a lot.”

He nodded. “She looks like a bird with a broken wing,” he said, and the girl looked at him, puzzled, then she nodded too – before she walked off.

The woman, Sara, came back to the table a few minutes later – and she noticed the menus were gone.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but they said the kitchen’s about to close. I hope you don’t mind, but I ordered for you.”

She nodded. “Thanks. That was sweet of you.”

“It looks like the storm is going to blow through fast,” he said as he held out her chair.

She looked at him, at this seeming innocence, then she looked at rain pooling on the flagstone terrace…and she seemed to coalesce out there in the water, pooling in the moment, then she sat and watched him while he took his seat again, wondering where he came from, what his parents did…then she pulled back from that precipice. ‘No,’ the voice inside said, ‘don’t go there. Don’t do this…not now…’

They ate French onion soup and Crab Louie, and, for some reason, she wanted pineapple sherbet. “I love Hawaii,” she said as she took a bite.

“Why don’t you go there?”

She seemed to roll that thought over in her mind for a moment, staring at the little silver spoon as she drifted. “That’s something for the living,” she said at last.

“The living?” he asked, then a sudden chill gripped him – as he turned and looked at the rim, and the canyon beyond. “Have you given up? Is that it? Is that why you’re here?”

She seemed defiant then, before she turned in on herself again.

“What did he do to you?”

“I couldn’t even begin to…”

“I’d like you to tell me. All of it, everything you can remember.”

“Why? Why do you want to hear all that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I need to.”

“Here? Or do you want to go to my room?”

“Does your room have a nice view?”

“No, not really.”

“Well,” he said, “mine does. Let’s go there.” He paid the bill and they walked off, the waitress looking at him as they walked off, shaking her head.

++

“So,” Ted said, “those storms chased you all the way to the Grand Canyon?”

“Yup. There’s nothing like that place when big storms roll in from the north. I was sitting by a fireplace later that afternoon and could see snow falling across the canyon, on the north rim, and it was June. Sitting by a fireplace…in June. I love it out there, ya know…?”

++

“I think that’s the second time I’ve caught you staring at my legs,” she said, smiling.

He shook himself awake, smiled, then looked at her again. “I’m sorry, but I keep falling off.”

“Sleepy?”

“Yup. I started yawning right after I passed Shiprock. I guess I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Start a fire, would you?”

“Sure.”

There was a little adobe kiva in the corner and he set some piñon on the grate and lighted some kindling; soon he had a little fire blazing away and the burning pine filled the room with subtle textures of western sunsets.

“Take off your clothes and get on the bed, face down.”

“Excuse me?”

But she was already taking off her clothes, folding them neatly and putting them on the dresser. He stood by the fireplace, transfixed, not sure what was happening now…then she walked over to him, ran her fingers through his hair.

“Just relax, Jim.”

He lips were trembling, his eyelids twitched uncontrollably – as she started to unbutton his shirt…

When he was naked she led him to the bed and laid him out, face down, then she put a light blanket over him before she straddled the backs of his thighs. She leaned forward, began massaging his neck and shoulders and a long, low moan passed his lips. He felt himself adrift in a foreign place, someplace new,  a place that, somehow, felt right – better than right.

He felt her move up some, felt coarse hair against his skin, and he felt something new, new and unsettling.

“Turn over, Jim,” she sighed.

And then she took him someplace very unexpected…

+

“It snowed? In June?” Susan said, not believing him for a moment.

He nodded his head. “New Mexico. Arizona. Utah. And Colorado, of course…it can snow there anytime. That afternoon? Well, they call it thunder-snow. A cold front running into all that warm desert air…and man-o-man – did it snow that afternoon.”

“You mentioned a fireplace?” Brigit asked…

++

She lay beside him – after – looking at his labored breathing, the sweat running off his brow, and she ran her fingers through his hair – still loving every minute of this boy, suddenly in love with the idea of living again…then she saw he was looking into her eyes.

“Feel better now?” he asked.

She nodded once, smiled – then kissed the tip of his nose. “You see into people, don’t you?”

“I don’t know, but I think I see into you.”

“And what do you see?”

“Someone full of love. Someone who needs to love, and to be loved.”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there are some people who don’t know how to love anyone but themselves. Other people are just means to ends, people to be used up and discarded.”

Her eyes narrowed a little. “You do know, don’t you, that you’re not supposed to be this wise? Not at your age…?”

“If you’d lived around my parents, you’d understand.”

“Your parents don’t love you?”

“Oh, no…quite the opposite. They’re just not what I’d call your normal mom and dad, that’s all. And my grandfather has been holding things together for us recently. My parents are having issues.”

“Alcohol?”

“Yup.”

“Your mother?”

“No. Dad.”

“Does he get mean?”

“No, just the opposite…he pulls away from life. I think he pulls away from Mom most of all.”

“Why?”

“Well, I’m not supposed to know, but she works for the FBI, is assigned to some sort of special team.”

“And what does your dad do?”

“He owns a chain of hardware stores, in Vermont.”

“Vermont?”

“Yup.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“Yup.”

“So, would you say he feels threatened by your mom?”

“Maybe, but I think it’s more like he doesn’t understand what she’s become. She’s not soft anymore, if you know what I mean. Or… maybe she’s not like what he thought a woman ought to be, and I think that caused him to, well…it’s like his expectations caved-in on everything. I don’t think this is the life he wanted to lead.”

“So, he drinks – because of that?”

“I think so, yes, but I don’t really know where all that stuff comes from.”

“And what do you want to do? Fly?”

“Yup?”

“And your grandfather is teaching you – to fly?”

“Yup. He was some kind of Ace in the first war, and he has a bunch of airplanes.”

“A bunch? You mean, more than one?”

“Yeah, he has seven, including the airplane my father flew in the second world war.”

“What?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“And your father still flies?”

“Nope. He refuses to get near airplanes. Any airplane. He won’t even look at the one he flew…something to do with the war.”

“You have the most incredible eyes,” she said, out of the blue. “They’re like an eagle’s.”

He felt himself turning red, then shook his head and shrugged – all at the same time – which made her laugh.

“You don’t handle compliments real well, do you, Jim…?”

“Well, you have the best legs I’ve ever seen.”

She held her right leg up and pointed her toes toward the ceiling. “You think so? Really?”

“Really.”

“I never thought I’d hear another man say something like that to me.”

“Well, I’m not exactly a man, Sara.”

“Oh, yes you are. More than you know.” She looked at him again, this time with something akin to real love in her eyes, then she got up and walked over to the window. “Oh my God!” she cried. “Come here!”

He ran to her side and she pulled him to her side, then she pointed out the window.

The sky was now almost a deep purple, the far rim of the canyon a striated canvas of oranges and reds and apricots, and the sight was so over the top it left him speechless. He put his arm around her then, pulled her close – and they stood there for several minutes, locked inside the moment, mesmerized by the fading sight.

As their day turned to night she turned to him – and she kissed him.

“Would you show me your airplane in the morning?” she asked, and he nodded his head. “And…could I stay with you tonight…?”

“Oh, God yes. I didn’t know how to ask…”

++

“…what is it, Dad? Why are you smiling like that?”

“I was just thinking of the sunset that night. Matter of fact, I don’t ever think I’ll ever forget that day, or that night.”

“So…you flew back the next morning? To the ranch…?”

++

They woke at five and she dressed them both, then, hand in hand, they walked down to the rim trail, and out to Plateau Point. The sky was still full of blazing stars, and just the faintest line of deep purple lined the eastern horizon as they picked there way through the piñon. A few hearty photographers were already setting up tripods out here, he saw, with huge cameras poised on massive wooden tripods – so he knew the view must be something else.

“I’ve come out here every morning,” she said. “I wanted to share this with you.”

They came to a low rock wall and she sat, then she pulled him and leaned her face on his shoulder, her chin resting on bare skin, and when he felt her breath on his neck he was enthralled that another human being could make him feel so good inside.

He turned to face her then, and looked her in the eye.

“This has been the best night of my life,” he said, resting his forehead on hers. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this has meant to me. How much you mean to me.”

He felt her nodding head and she pulled him close, kissed him again – then she broke free and began running – towards the rim.

He caught her within inches of the abyss, and he pulled her back as gently as he could.

“You’re going to drive me to the airport, remember?”

“No, I’ve got to go now. Let me…”

“Alright, but if you go, you have to take me with you…”

Her eyes were unfocused now, drifting into the precipice…and beyond…to the other side. “Take you – with me?”

“Yes, if you’re going there,” he said, pointing to the yawning chasm beyond the rim, “you have to take me with you.”

His words cut through the pain and she came back to him, then she was in his arms, crying uncontrollably.

“I can’t…do that…” she sighed. “I love you too much.”

“Then hang on to me. As tight as you can…and don’t let go.”

“Not ever?”

“No, not ever.”

He wrapped his arms around her again and they walked back to their rock. Those moments with her the most powerfully unsettling of his life, if only because there is no love like a first love.

“See that triangle in the sky?” he said, pointing to the south.

“Where?”

“Follow my fingers,” he sighed, letting her eyes line up with his hand. “There, see it?”

“Yes.”

The bright one on top is Vega, Deneb is the one down a little, and to the left.”

“It’s not as bright?”

“Yup. Altair is the brighter one to the right. That’s my star.”

“Your star?”

“Yup. Altair…it means One Who Flies, in Arabic.”

“They seem so quiet up there, so alone.”

He shook his head. “Alone? There are billions upon billions of stars up there. Who could be alone with so much light?”

She drove him to the airport after breakfast, and she was duly impressed when he walked her out to the ramp and gave her the nickel tour of the old Waco.

“So, you really weren’t fooling, were you?”

“No. I really wasn’t.”

“Oh, Captain, my Captain,” she sighed. “I’m not sure how I’ll survive without you.”

“You don’t have to,” he said, wrapping her in his arms again.

“Yes, I do, Jim. I came here to kill myself, but I can’t do that now. I just can’t.”

“Come to Santa Fe. Please. Now. Tonight.”

She shook her head. “You don’t understand, Jim. I’m almost fifty years old, and you have your entire life ahead of you. I can’t take that from you. I’d be no better than my husband if I did, and I hate him for what he did to me. To us, really.”

“Sometimes living well is the best revenge, Sara.”

“How on earth could you possibly know that?”

He shrugged again, then grinned at her. “I wish I could take you with me today. That I could show you what it is I love about flying.”

She pulled him close, held his face in her cupped hands, then she kissed him hard. “You already have, Jim. You already have.” She kissed him again, lightly this time, then held him in her eyes for the longest time before she turned and walked back to the gate in the fence.

He did his walk around, fired up the old girl’s systems, tuned the Tuba City to VOR 1, then taxied out to the end of runway three. He looked at the fence by the terminal as he took off, and he saw her standing there, waving, and he waved with his wings before he turned to the east, heading into another morning.

She walked back to her car, found the envelope he’d left on the dash and opened it. She saw his name and address on the hotel stationary and, at the bottom of the piece of paper, the only three words left in the universe that could have possibly kept her from returning to the rim.

I Love You, he’d written, and yes, she had to admit, she loved him too.

But, she realized, she loved him too much to do this to him.

She folded the letter slowly and put it back in the envelope, started her Lincoln and drove back to the Lodge. Going to the restaurant overlooking the south rim, the same waitress came up to her table after she was seated.

“What could I get you this morning?” the girl asked.

“Iced-tea. Blueberry iced-tea, I think,” she said, smiling…

The girl thought the smile in the woman’s eyes looked different, and she wondered…

An hour later Sara walked to her room, and she called her lawyer in Los Angeles.

“Fred? It’s Sara. Call Frank’s lawyer, tell him I’ll not contest this any further if he’ll let me have the house on Maui, and ten million.”

“You’re sure? I think I can get you twenty, maybe more.”

“The house and ten. I’m packing as we speak, heading for L.A. in a few minutes. I’ll sign as soon as you’ve got everything ready to go.”

++

He landed three hours later, taxied up to the Waco’s hanger and found Pops standing there, waiting – and still smiling after all these years.

“How’d it go?” his grandfather asked.

“Not bad, Pops. I think I learned a lot.”

Of course, it was the smile that gave him away.

The old man knew a shit eatin’ grin when he saw one.

(C) 2018 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Corcovado rim shot

corcovado 8

Waco GC main CCV

corcovado

quiet nights of quiet stars

chapter eight

When they arrived at his grandfather’s ranch in New Mexico, Jimmie climbed out of the back of the overstuffed Ford station wagon and stretched, then his mouth fell open. There wasn’t a tree – a real tree, anyway – in sight. There were a few scraggly looking things on a distant hillside that almost looked like trees, but almost everywhere he looked he saw brown grass on rolling brown hills – with some reddish brown rocks thrown in for good measure. His grandfather’s house looked like it was made of the same stuff, too – some kind of brown mud, he thought… And even his grandfather looked kind of brown – like he’d sprung up from this land. The old man seemed more a part of this landscape than the world he knew.

He remembered his father talking about him all the way across the country, too. How Ellis, his grandfather, had flown “in the first war…” then come home and built the hardware store into a real, going concern. Not content with being a storekeeper, Ellis had started building houses, a few here and there, then dozens at a time. In the early 1920s, long before the Crash, he’d built one of the first public aerodromes in Vermont, and pretty soon Ellis Patterson was giving flying lessons to anyone who dropped by on Saturday mornings, including nearly all the pretty young “gals” in the Northeast Kingdom. He married one of those girls, Sarah was her name, and they started their family in St. Johnsbury. And, the way his father told it, times were good.

Until 1929, anyway.

Because Ellis Patterson nearly lost everything he’d built in the Crash.

But the hardware store kept the family afloat, and after Roosevelt’s election in ‘32 he got busy again, secured contracts to built airports up and down the Connecticut River Valley. He taught his son, James, to fly before he went off to college…but by then another war looked more and more likely. Ellis worried about his son going off to fight over there, but he also knew enough about the world not to worry about such things.

Then Sarah died. Some sort of influenza, they told him, and he fell away from the world after that – for a while. James was in his second year when he bid on several airports the government wanted to be built in a hurry – out in the middle of New Mexico. He had people he trusted to run the chain of hardware stores he’d built up in Vermont and New Hampshire, so when he won the bid he took his crews out west…to a sleepy little city called Santa Fe.

His company literally built a dozen airports in a little more than a year, from Santa Fe to Los Alamos and Taos in the northern part of the state, and as far south as Socorro in the south. As most were being used as training facilities for the Army Air Corp, his business expanded to include building-out these airports as military facilities. And along the way he picked up a parcel of land near a little town called White Rock.

So, of course, the first thing he built on his land was a runway, then he added a few hangers. Then a few more. When he went to the ranch, as he started to call it, he usually slept in a tent and made do with bottled water, but one morning he woke up and stepped outside his tent and ran into a rattlesnake – and that put an end to sleeping on the ground. So he built a stable and bought a couple of horses, and he slept in the hayloft – until he woke one morning staring at a rattlesnake coming out of a bale of hay. After that he started roaming the ranch with clear purpose in his eyes, looking for just the right spot to build a house.

One Saturday afternoon he was riding through some piñon and he came upon a break in a rocky escarpment that split his property into two zones. Below the escarpment, the land was flat and almost bleak, while beyond the break mountains, real mountains loomed.

He looked at the rocks and studied them for a while, feeling something odd…something he’d never felt before. Like he was being watched.

He rode into the break, the horse he was riding suddenly taking short, tentative steps. The opening in the rocks was perhaps fifty yards wide at the opening, the walls a good hundred feet tall, and there were pines inside the opening. He rode quietly, then stopped when he saw the horse’s ears lay back. He pulled the Winchester 30-30 from the scabbard he’d strapped under the saddle and laid it across his thighs just then, just as the hair on the back of his neck stood on end…

He felt something, a stirring in the wind, perhaps, and he turned and saw the cat making it’s sprint, felt the cat’s eyes boring in on his, and he raised the Winchester and fired once. He fired short, deliberately, willing the cat to stop – and it did.

They each stood their ground – watching one another for the longest time – then the cat turned and walked away, maybe a little defiantly, up into the trees above the canyon.

He watched the cat until it disappeared into the trees, then he let the horse walk ahead at its own pace.

The little canyon followed a stream, turning first to the left, then bending almost back on itself in a hard oxbow to the right…and after perhaps a quarter mile the canyon gave way to a tight, bowl-shaped valley…

He climbed down from the horse and looked around, stunned by what he’d just stumbled upon. There was good water in the steep-walled bowl, and green grass everywhere he looked. A small pond…no, several ponds, falling down the hill at the far end of the bowl, in what appeared to be a series of small waterfalls. He saw a perfect spot for the house he had in mind, but then the next thing he thought about was desecrating this spot.

Because it was perfect. Too perfect – for something as mundane as a house. If he built here he knew he’d spoil this spot forever…and then he saw the cat again, up in the trees – watching him.

He turned and got back on the horse then returned to the escarpment and walked along a while. He stopped and looked down-valley; he could see his runway and the half-dozen hangers nestled in the piñon, and he sighed. He dismounted again and walked out onto a small promontory; he scratched at the rocky soil with his boot and looked at the hard-scrabble under the surface, then he turned and looked at the opening in the escarpment. There’d be water here, he knew, though he’d have to drill for it; but, from where he stood he could see Santa Fe in the distance, and even Albuquerque far away to the south.

“This’ll do,” Ellis Patterson said – to a passing breeze.

+++++

He watched tension form in the air as if between two towers, tension like an uneasy awakening when his father and grandfather shook hands that first day.

“Long drive, isn’t it?” Ellis Patterson said, almost defiantly – like he’d had his doubts his son was up to such a journey.

“I wouldn’t want to do it in summer,” James Patterson added.

“Get’s bad once you leave St. Louis,” Ellis nodded. “Unless you turn on the air.”

“Don’t have air–conditioning. Never needed it back home.”

“Well, you’ll need it here, so you might as well think about getting rid of that car before summer comes.”

He watched this exchange, wondering why these two seemed almost at odds with one another…then he turned and saw his mother – staring at some buildings down the hill. He turned and looked at them, too; he saw one was an airplane hanger – and there was a silver airplane inside, protected from the sun. It was, he could just see now, a P-51 Mustang – and his heart started racing. His father had flown one in the war and now, right out here in the middle of the desert, there one sat. Even sitting still, almost lost in shadow, the airplane looked like a living, breathing thing. Lethal, full of menace – full of all the stories his father had told him about combat in the skies over Europe.

But…what was this airplane doing here, hiding out under the fierce New Mexican sun.

When he turned back to his father he saw both men staring at his mother, looking at her looking at him, and trying to read her reaction. He looked at her, too.

He thought she looked a little like a volcano.

Maybe right before an eruption.

+++++

“I thought I saw her out there tonight,” he said, pointing to the parking lot above the marina. She was there, and then she was gone.”

“I didn’t see her,” Brigit said. “I haven’t seen her in weeks.”

“Funny, but sometimes it feels like she’s watching me. Us, maybe.”

“Us? You mean you – and me?”

“Oh, no. Ted. Ted called me a few weeks ago, said he’d run into her at a Starbucks near campus. He goes there after this one class, usually with a bunch from his study group. And there she was, waiting.”

“Did they talk?”

“Yup. Just pleasantries, a little about me, then she left. He called me that afternoon, wondered what it meant.”

“Do you know?”

“What it means? I’m not sure. I can’t get her to open up, but ever since she showed up at Nancy’s…”

“The bakery?”

“Yeah. She was there, I’m pretty sure, after that girl, Tracy. She hasn’t said why, not directly, but I think she thinks I’m tied up with that stuff. And that’s what bothers me.”

“What stuff?”

“Trafficking. Human trafficking.”

She laughed. “I doubt that. I think she likes you.”

“Likes me? Hell, I think she hates me.”

Sullivan looked at him, sitting in the cockpit – in the middle of his night – and she thought he really might remain in the dark. Clueless. Anyone could tell Melissa loved him, even Ted. Why else would she be keeping an eye on them both? Obviously that wayward girl – Tracy – had exposed them both to unknown dangers, so Melissa was keeping an eye on them.

She wanted to change the subject just then. Wanted to keep his mind off Melissa. She looked at the stainless steel of his prothesis gleaming in the night, and she wanted to ask how it felt, but no. She realized how little she knew about his life, about his one true love.

So, she asked.

+++++

He was on one of his grandfather’s horses, following the old man along a winding trail that led away from the main house. A tall, rocky ledge was off to the right, and they were slowly converging on a gap in the formation.

“You need to be quiet now, boy,” his grandfather whispered. “And keep your eyes on those rocks,” he added, pointing at the escarpment.

He, of course, had heard stories of the cat for years. How his grandfather had stared the beast down. The first time his father visited, right after the war, he too had made the trip out to the rocks, and he too had seen the cat. It was, his father said, a rite of passage.

“What’s that?” Jimmy asked.

“Well, it’s like something you have to do before you can become a man.”

“Oh.”

And he’d thought about that for a while.

“So, seeing this cat is going to make me a man?”

And he’d seen his grandfather looking at his father – with a strange grin on his face.

“Well, not exactly. But it’ll help.”

“Oh.”

Now, as he looked at the rocky cliff, and at the jumbled scree along the base, he had his eyes peeled – looking for any sign of movement…

Then his grandfather’s horse stopped. The old mare pawed at the ground – twice – and his grandfather pulled the weatherbeaten old 30-30 from its scabbard one more time.

“Come here, boy,” his grandfather whispered.

“Do you see him?” Jim asked.

“Top of the ridge,” his grandfather said, pointing a little to their left, “by that big rock.”

He looked and looked – but didn’t see a thing…then…movement caught his eye. His eyes locked on, went right to the cat then – and he gasped out loud. “It’s huge,” he whispered, his voice straining to conceal the fear he felt welling up.

“Big cat, alright. Mean son of a bitch, too.”

The cat was working its way down the rocky face, hardly taking its eyes off them, and he watched as his grandfather cocked the rifle, then planted the butt on top of his thigh, the barrel pointing at the sun. The cat leapt over several boulders – then disappeared in the scrub and piñon.

“Get behind me, boy,” his grandfather said, and while he maneuvered behind his grandfather’s mare he heard the old man talking to himself. “She’s acting strange today, boy. She hasn’t acted like this in a long time.”

Then he saw the cat off to their right. She had circled around and was streaking in now; his grandfather saw the cat and fired once – into the sky – but this time the cat wasn’t falling for it. He watched as his grandfather worked the lever, chambering another round, and then as he sighted-in on the cat – now less than a hundred yards off and closing fast…

And the mare saw the cat then, too, and began bucking…

And he watched his grandfather falling to the ground, the Winchester arcing through the air…

He reacted now. No thought at all, just pure adrenaline-fueled reaction…

He jumped off his old nag and picked up the carbine, fired one round – striking the cat’s shoulder; it stumbled once then it’s legs gave out – and she slid to a stop not ten feet away.

Growling.

Wounded, very angry, and growling. And trying to stand up.

He did what his grandfather had done. He worked the lever, chambered a round and held the cat in his sights.

“She’s wounded, Jimmy. Bad. You can’t leave her like this.”

He nodded, looked the cat in the eye – then pulled the trigger.

They rode back to the house, got there just before sunset, walked up to the barn under reddening clouds; his mother looked at the cat tied-off behind her son’s saddle and shook her head. She wondered, for a moment, who had killed the cat – but she saw the look in her son’s eyes. She’d been teaching him to shoot for years, after all, and she’d had to admit more than once he was at least as good a shot as she. His father walked up and helped get the cat off the saddle, then they walked the horses, let them cool off, then watered them and stabled them for the night. Be they time he walked up to the house the cat was gone.

His grandfather told the tale that night. About Jimmy’s presence of mind, and how he’d saved them both out there. His father listened quietly but inside he seethed; his mother was lost between waves and anger and pride.

After dinner, after Jim went to bed, they tried, gently, to remind Ellis that they’d come out west to avoid being killed by Chinese gangsters. Being killed by mountain lions wasn’t any more appealing.

Three months later he turned fourteen.

And that afternoon his grandfather took him up in the Mustang…

“What’s a Mustang?” Sullivan asked.

“Hmm? Oh, back in the Second World War there was this fighter. Some say it was the airplane that turned the tide in the air war, but it escorted the bombers that flew missions over Germany. My dad flew one in the war.”

“And your grandfather had one?”

“Not just one. He got hold of the plane my dad flew over there.”

“How’d he…?”

“Honestly, I have no idea. My dad used to say that Pops knew people.”

“Pops?”

He laughed a little at the memory. “Yeah, when we really wanted to get under his skin, we’d call him Pops.”

“So, he took you up in the airplane your father flew in the war? Why didn’t your father take you up?”

“Dad never flew again. He loved it, I guess. Flying, I mean, but the war killed that love. He wouldn’t even fly commercially. Always drove, or took the train.”

“Did he talk about it?”

He nodded. Something about Dresden, the bombings. He came home after that, back to Vermont. Mom said he never talked about the war, what he’d seen, and didn’t for years. Like it never happened, I guess, but after a few months back to the hardware store she said it was like he’d never been gone. He just got to work and kept at it – like twenty hours a day.”

“So, your grandfather took you up in this Mustang? What was that like?”

“Weird. I knew some of the details about the war by then, the things my father did, and it was really strange touching this machine my father had flown. In a way, it made some of his stories, maybe even his grief, seem more real.”

“I can’t imagine what your father felt…”

“He wouldn’t go anywhere near the hangers, wanted nothing to do with it.”

“It?”

“My grandfather taught me to fly out there. The basics, all the way through instrument training.”

“In a World War II fighter?”

“Oh, no, he had a bunch of planes. A few more military aircraft, but he had a few civilian aircraft too. A Cessna 210 and a Beech Baron, those kinds of things. He taught me in a smaller Cessna, then, when it was time to do my cross-countries, he’d follow me in this old Waco he had…”

“A Waco?”

“Yup, a YMF, not that that means anything. It’s a bi-plane, a real screamer, and one of the first long flights we took together was in that old thing. Took off, flew up to Farmington then west, out to the Grand Canyon. We gassed up at the airport by the south rim, then flew down into the canyon, followed the river almost all the way to Vegas. Then he landed the thing and grabbed a cab; we went to the Sand’s Hotel and saw Frank Sinatra that night. I’ll never forget that…” he said, looking up at the stars.

“Sinatra? Really? What a neat memory to have of him…”

“Pops was alright. He was in his seventies then, I think, but no one really seemed to know how old he was. He looked like my dad’s older brother…like almost the same age. I guess the hard thing about it…my father died before Pops did, by about six months.”

“When was that?”

“Oh…I guess about twenty years ago.”

“Did you ever fly that…what did you call it? That Mustang?”

“Oh, yeah, all the time, actually. I did two summers ago, anyway.”

“What? But you said he died…?”

“Yeah, well, he left the ranch to me.”

“What?”

“The ranch. You know? In New Mexico…?”

“You mean you could move there? Not stay on the boat?”

“I suppose so, but not really. I’ve been leasing out the land to a grazing company, and one of their foremen lives in one of the houses.”

“How many houses are there?”

“I don’t know. Five or six, anyway, mainly for ranch-hands that come up during round-ups. It gets kind of busy then.”

“I don’t understand…?”

“Well, grazing companies move whole herds around the country to the best grass. Usually South Texas, down around Corpus, in the winter; New Mexico through the Spring, then alpine pasture in Colorado. It’s expensive, but herds that are pre-sold to the big steak-houses demand the best beef, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. The part of New Mexico where Pops bought land has consistently good grass, and we make a pretty penny this way.”

“I’m just trying to think of one good reason why you don’t move there right this instant. Or, really, why you didn’t twenty years ago.”

“Because I love what I do. Well, loved. I guess that’s all over now, really.”

“What about Atlanta…?”

He felt the air beside his ear rippling before he heard the first gunshot, and, in that instant, he grabbed Brigit by the waist and pushed her down the companionway steps – just as several bullets slammed into his right arm and leg. Lights were coming on all over the marina moments later, and he remembered hearing a car peeling out of the parking garage, then the pulsing wail of sirens. He saw Ted and Susan for a moment, but they disappeared in a hot, blinding white haze. He felt himself swallow once, and thought he tasted blood.

“That can’t be good,” he said – to no one in particular…then he felt cut loose, adrift, like a leaf on a stream in the sun…

(c)2018 adrian levekühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Corcovado 7

Waco GC main CCV

corcovado | quiet nights of quiet stars

chapter 7

 

“What’s this?” Elizabeth said, taking the rifle from the range instructor.

“It’s a modified Model 70.”

“But…what’s it…”

“It’s a sniper rifle. And since you had the best overall score on the range, the chief wants to see how well you handle this.”

“Now?”

“Yes,” the instructor said, and not a little sarcastically, “now. Maybe while the sun’s still out?”

“Yessir,” she said, taking the rifle. It was at least twice the weight of the M16 she’d used on the rifle portion of her three weeks at the FBI Academy’s range, where she had “aced” all three parts of the program: pistol, rifle and shotgun. When she’d taken a first on Hogan’s Alley the range superintendent took note and asked to see her overall scores, then he’d called Washington. Shooters like her, he knew from decades of experience, only came along once in a blue moon.

She took the weapon, opened the bolt and checked the chamber, saw it was clear. “What’s it chambered for, sir?”

“.308, but you’ll be using a hot load this morning, and…it kicks like a mule,” he added, grinning at her – watching her reaction.

“Yessir.” Her voice was full of confidence and that unsettled her instructor.

“Need a coat?” he asked. “It’s cool out this morning.”

“I’m good, sir.”

He liked her. Hell, he thought, everyone liked her. PMA, Positive Mental Attitude – and she had it in spades. Never complained, always calm, even out in the swamps when a water moccasin swam by; and she was a real team player – an empath, to boot. He was hoping she’d do good out here, he’d told himself as they walked along, if only because he might get to spend more time with her down in Georgia.

‘Yeah,’ he sighed inwardly, ‘I like her – a little too much…’

They walked from the armorers shack over to the main range, and she noted the Chief was already out there – standing with several men she’d never seen before – and one man was dressed in black BDUs, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses. They all had binoculars either in hand or around their necks, and they were all staring at her.

“Here,” the instructor said as he held out a plain white box. She counted twenty hand-loads inside, and they were pristine, the tips some sort of deep red-colored plastic-like material. “Take five,” her instructor added.

“Position, sir?”

“Prone. Use sandbags or the bipod. Your choice.”

“Yessir.” She looked downrange, saw one target set-up at 500-yard mark, then turned and felt the wind on her face. She made a few adjustments on the rifle’s scope then loaded the weapon, still looking around, still checking her surroundings – just like her grandfather had shown her all those years ago. She finished loading the cartridges, looked around one more time, then gently laid the weapon down before she knelt behind the sandbags.

Her first shot missed dead-center by a quarter-inch, and the man in the black BDUs nodded – as he grinned. Her next two rounds were centered, her shots so well-placed after that she was only making one hole a little larger.

“Okay, I’ve seen enough,” the man in the BDUs said to the Assistant Director of Operations. “When can I have her.”

“She graduates on the third.”

“What’s her class rank so far?”

“First. By a wide margin.”

“What does she want to do?”

“New York. She been on the trafficking program for years.”

“Anyone talk to her about this yet?”

“No, she’s all yours.”

“Gee, thanks. I think,” ‘Zeke’ Cromwell said. “Now?”

“Might as well get it over with. One way or another, she goes to Georgia with you – but try to let her think it was her choice.”

Cromwell looked at the woman as she stood. No self-satisfied grin – and she was looking right at him. Like she understood he was the only person out there who recognized what she had just done.

Maybe because he was.

He’d only seen shooting like this a few times in his career. As head of the Bureau’s Tactical Rifle Squad, he was in charge of training all the Bureau’s so-called snipers, only now they were down to a bare minimum – with very little in the pipeline. They needed fresh talent, and her kind didn’t show up all that often.

He walked over to her, took the weapon from her hand and looked downrange through the scope.

“Fair shooting,” Cromwell said. “Ever use this weapon before?”

“No, sir.”

“Uh-huh. Let’s take a walk,” he said, slinging the rifle.

+++++

He was sweating – profusely – holding himself up on the bars under each hand, letting the prosthetic take all his weight – again. He felt his knee give out and caught himself before he fell – again – then he cursed – again.

“Your nerves are raw, Jim. It’ll be a few more weeks, so you’re just going to have to tough it out.”

The first time he’d said “Easy for you to say,” his therapist, a second Gulf War vet, and a double amputee had lifted up his pant legs and shown him exactly what he was up against. He’d nodded his resolve that day and been pushing ever since. Every time he rolled from his room at the VA down to the PT facility he got another lesson in resolve, in the brute determination needed to beat this kind of self-pity, this type of mind-raping depression.

After a week of this Ted showed up, back from Boston for a long weekend, only this time he had a girl with him when he walked in his room.

“Dad?” Ted said, knocking on the door. “You up?”

He was still sweating, still trying not to cry from the pain. “Paco! You made it! And who’s this?”

“Dad, this is Susan. Susan, Dad…I mean, Jim.”

She was a little shy, he could tell that much, but she was a looker. Bright brown hair, deep brown eyes – kind eyes, he saw. An Empath. He held out his hand and he watched her come and take it. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

She nodded. “You to. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“Nothing good, I hope,” he said, smiling. “Take a seat, both of you.”

“Dad, you need some water?”

He nodded his head. “This ain’t the Ritz, Paco, that much is for sure,” he sighed, still smiling, as Ted poured the glass of ice water.

“How’s it going so far?” Susan asked.

“I don’t know. No frame of reference, I guess.”

“Mind if I take a look?” she asked, and he looked at her, then at Ted – who only shrugged.

“And why would you want to do that?” he asked.

“I did my undergrad in PT, I’m a first year.”

“A first year?”

“Med school.”

“I’m curious,” he said. “Are you two friends, or is this a business call?”

“I love your son, and I think he loves me. I hope that answers your question.”

“We met last year, Dad, before all this went down. Things have kind of taken off since I got back.”

“I see. Well, what do you want to look at?”

“The incision, sir,” she said as she rolled up his pajama leg. She looked it over, palpated the area then nodded. “Some adhesions, and I think I feel a staple.”

“A staple?” he said, feeling a deep well of anger suddenly erupting.

“Mind of I go talk to the floor nurse?” Susan said.

“No, not at all.” He watched the girl walk out of the room then turned and looked at his son. “What’s this all about, Ted?”

“She was kind of the resident genius with a lot of the pre-meds last year. She was helping me with the M-CATs.”

“Oh? How’d you do?”

“520s. I think I have a shot, anyway. If I don’t get in first try I think I’ll try that flight school out in Phoenix.”

“Good. If you do well Ben will get you an interview.”

Ted nodded. “What do you think of her?”

“Hell, Paco, I just met her…?”

“You always told me first impressions are the most important.”

“Yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

“So?”

“Compassion and empathy. That’s what I see.”

Ted smiled. “That’s Susan, to a ‘T’.”

“Is this serious?”

“I wanted to talk to you about that…” but he stopped when Susan and an intern walked into the room.

“Okay, show me what you felt,” the intern said.

He held up his stump and Susan palpated the area again. “Here,” she said. “There’s already some tissue encapsulation, and it feels warm to me.”

The intern felt his stump and nodded his head. “It’s a wonder no one’s caught this…” he sighed. “Okay, off to X-ray,” the intern said as he walked from the room.

His temperature was 101, and climbing.

+++++

She stepped off the train in White River Junction, saw James and Jimmy standing by the old red brick station – then her boy rushed up to her, wrapped his arms around her legs and she bent over, picked him up and help him close.

“Oh…Jimmy-boy,” she whispered. “Oh, how I’ve missed you…”

Her husband was soon beside them, looking at her as she’d expected he would…a little bemused, more than a little wary. She’d written him before the Bureau had whisked her off to Georgia, before two months of what amounted to an abbreviated Special Forces sniper school. This was an unexpected new direction, she’d written him. Unexpected, in so many ways.

James felt a twinge of regret as he read her letter, wondered if he’d finally lost her.

Now she had a week off, one whole week off before she had to return to D.C.

They drove up to St Johnsbury as an early winter’s snow began falling, and she held on to her son, holding him close, missing the happy innocence in his eyes more than anything else…

James had insisted, when told of her assignment, that they would never tell Jimmy about all this. It would warp his view of who and what his mother was, he’d told his wife, and she had agreed – in the moment seeing into her husband’s ambivalence about the assignment. She had been recruited with one purpose in mind: to help infiltrate Chinese gangs on the Lower East Side in order to disrupt the flow of slaves, usually women, into the country. After years on the state task force, after years of threats and intimidation, she’d known she had to either quit – or take it to the next level. When she thought of all the woman in the pipeline, like the hundreds of half-starved, completely terrified women she’d interviewed over the years, she knew she couldn’t turn back. So, she’d gone to Quantico.

And now, this unexpected new journey.

After dinner that night she’d stayed up with Jimmy, telling him about Washington, D.C. and all the sights she’d take him to see when it got warmer, and she’d seen echoes of her own innocence in his eyes. She’d seen firsthand how lucky they were, her family – and all the other innocent, wide-eyed families in the United States. How lucky they were not to have children swept up in the same dragnets as the girls she’d encountered along the way – broken lives waiting to be hauled off to some foreign country and sold off as slaves. When she’d learned what these women were forced to do…

Hatred was not too strong a word, yet at one point she realized she was beginning to hate humanity. Cartels in Asia and Eastern Europe rounded up these women, shipped them to willing parties all over the world, wherever there was enough money to sustain trade in human flesh –

And now, Hoover and Dulles had agreed…the US was going on the offensive. A concerted effort was being made to identify the ringleaders of these cartels – globally – and if they couldn’t be compromised or taken into custody, they would be eliminated.

And when, after her recruitment, she’d learned about the program, she’d had no problem signing on. Enough was enough, she told herself, and James, too. All this misery had to end, one way or another, because if drugs kept coming into the country…

Well, everyone from Eisenhower down knew everything would be lost. The girls, she knew, were just the means to an end. Opium and heroin were the end, and in every way possible the dam had broken, and product was flooding in.

+++++

He came out of his latest surgery feeling more defeated than ever before, and he resumed his battles in physical therapy ward with lingering resentment boiling over. He had lost more than seventy pounds since the summer before, and his face was a gaunt, faded mask, a gray caricature of the man he used to know. And now, after a month of more hellish agony, to cap it all off it was Thanksgiving week, that All-American orgy of gluttonous over-consumption, and Ted was bringing Susan to Altair, again.

Because he was going home today, too. To Altair, for the first time since he’d left Desolation Sound.

His bags packed, his prosthetic on, his canes at the ready – just in case – he was still not ready when Ted and Susan knocked on the door. His son looked worried when he came into the little room, so he looked at her. She looked a little too resplendent in a rosy-cheeked way – like she was pregnant, he thought – suddenly, and as he looked into her guileless eyes he wondered. That would explain the look of baffled misery in his son’s eyes, wouldn’t it?

And then a third face slipped into the room…that red-headed doctor from Canada, the family doc that had come out to the boat…who had become such a huge part of his life in the months since.

‘Why is she here?’ he wondered, as his eyes went from the physician’s to his son, and back. ‘Ah…collusion…’

“Dad?” Ted asked when he saw his father’s reaction. “You okay?”

“Hey, doc,” he said, smiling at Brigit, then nodding to his son.

“Hi there,” the physician said. “I hope you don’t mind.”

“Ah, no, but to what, then, do I owe the pleasure of all this company?”

“I asked her to come, Dad,” Ted said. “Didn’t want anyone to feel left out.”

“Left out?” he asked, his face a blank.

“You know…the odd man out…three’s a crowd…that kind of thing?”

“Ah.”

“You ready to go?” Brigit asked, moving protectively to his side.

“As I’ll ever be,” he said as he forced himself up, taking almost all his weight on his right arm – with his left on the bed-rail. He put his wait forward and winced, then grabbed his son’s shoulder. “Lead on…” he panted, “just not too fast.”

“You got it, Pops,” Ted whispered. “Susan, could you grab his duffel?”

He didn’t hear a reply, only the searing wave of lava running up his right thigh into his back – then he saw a nurse out in the hall, with a wheelchair – and he sighed as another wave, this time of relief, rolled over him. He put his hands out and almost fell into the chair, and he felt his hands shaking, perspiration running down his forehead as helping hands gripped him, helped him settle in the chair.

There was Brigit’s old Toyota Land Cruiser waiting out front and more helping hands lifted him up, and he saw Brigit take the wheel and drive through the U-W campus on the way to the lake. She knew, he saw, the way – and when she turned into the marina parking lot he knew she’d been here before. ‘How odd,’ he thought. ‘How much have I missed…?’

And then…

There were friends waiting by the gate, friends from Delta, and he felt a surge of gratitude as he looked at the wall of familiar faces. More hands took hold, familiar hands, and he fell back and let them carry him to another wheel chair, and he tried to hide his embarrassment but knew it wasn’t really necessary. Not with this bunch. Not now – not ever, he told himself. Down the ramp, through the gate, then there she was: Altair. Her hull still brightly gleaming, freshly polished navy blue. He saw more people on deck, too.

Then, the moment of truth, the thing he’d been practicing a week for. The steps – from the dock to the deck. He looked at them like he might a coiled mass of rattlers, then he looked down at his legs.

Okay. Let’s do it.

Someone held out a cane and he took it, pushed himself upright – then he reached out and took hold of a lifeline in one hand, the cane in the other – and he walked to the steps, never taking the first tread out of his sight. He lifted his thigh and pulled on the lifeline as he pushed off with the cane, then his left foot followed and he steadied himself.

Two more, he whispered from someplace deep inside. He pulled again, lifted his stump again as he pushed off with the left hand – and he was up one more.

One more to go, he sighed.

One more pull, one more push, then he was over the bulwarks, spinning to sit on the coachroof – aghast at the searing pain and almost out of breath.

And once…he thought he saw Melissa out there too, maybe wiping away a tear…but when he looked again only a memory remained.

+++++

It was a little after midnight when she went into Jimmy’s room…to check on him. Something had woken her. A noise, something out of place – and then she saw flashlights on the snow outside his window. Using what cover she could, she made her way to the window…

And saw half a dozen state troopers outside, hunched over, looking at foot-prints in the snow. Flashlights down the street, more police.

She went to her son’s bed and checked his forehead, and when he sighed she backed out quietly out of the room, put her shoes on and slipped downstairs to the front door. Two troopers were already there, waiting for her.

She looked at one of the men. Black suit, Bureau all over his face, and she nodded.

“Two men, a neighbor saw them and called it in,” the agent said.

“Dressed?”

“All white. Winter camo. Over their faces, too.”

“Armed?”

One of the troopers said, nodding. “Yes, Ma’am. Both of them.”

Her stomach knotted as the implications washed over the scene. Blown already, but how was that even possible…? Unless…

“Any tire tracks?”

“Possible set, about two blocks over. And the local PD had a suspicious vehicle call on a tan Impala with New York plates earlier this evening.”

“That fits,” she said, nodding. “So, they called you?”

“Yes, Ma’am. We let D.C. know, too. There’s a lead on the vehicle. Possibly seen west of Woodstock, maybe headed for Rutland.”

“On Route 4? Jesus, could we be that lucky?”

“We’ve got both exits covered.”

“We need witnesses,” she said. “Try and take ‘em alive.”

The trooper nodded, but the agent’s face was a mask.

“Okay, what else happened? What are you not telling me?”

“An assistant AG was up in Burlington, she was run down by a car about five hours ago. A tan Ford, maybe a Fairlane.”

“Find the car?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Abandoned,” the trooper said, “up by the Canadian border, near Richford, I think.”

“Prints?”

The trooper shook his head. “Torched. A body in the trunk.”

“Female?”

“Yes, Ma’am, working for NYPD, wearing a wire. That Assistant AG was running her case, had come up for a meet.”

“Pickering? Was it Stephanie Pickering?”

“Yes,” the agent said. “You know her?”

“For a few years, yes…”

“Liz?”

She heard James at the door and turned, saw him standing in the doorway. “I’ll be back up in a minute,” she said.

“Yeah? Want me to put on coffee?”

“Could you?” she said, smiling.

“Yup.” She heard his sigh, then the door closed, gently. She turned back to the agent.

“Word is, Ma’am, that Mr Hoover is involved now. We’re supposed to keep you under surveillance.”

She nodded. “Tell your men coffee will be ready in a couple minutes. Back door.”

“Thank you, Ma’am,” the trooper said.

+++++

Altair was all quiet now, all his friends gone. Ted had gone below a half hour ago, though Susan had waited for him a few minutes more. He sat in the darkness, sitting on the cockpit seat at the wheel – wondering if he would ever have any control over his life again, and he felt weird now, not at all tired. “I should be sleepy,” he said to the night…

Then he felt movement and looked forward, saw Brigit Sullivan up on the bow looking down into the black water, and he wondered what she’d seen. An otter, perhaps? A harbor seal?

Then she looked aft, saw him sitting in the cockpit – alone.

And she stood, came back to him.

“Busy night,” she said as she climbed over the tall coaming and settled-in next to him. “Did you ever think you had so many friends?”

“Never.”

A lot of people love you, Jim. You’re a lucky man.”

He looked at the remains of his leg and smiled at life’s little ironies. “Ah, is that what I am? Lucky?”

She leaned into him, put her head on his shoulder – daring him to push her away – but he put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. He relaxed for the first time all evening, and he smiled when the realization hit him.

“What are you going to do now?” she asked, her voice quivering a little.

“I’ve called about having Altair moved to Destin. I could commute to Atlanta from there, I suppose.”

“Is that what you want to do?” She felt him shrug and looked up at him.

“What about you?” he asked.

“What about me?”

“What do you want?”

“To be with you.”

And there it was. Three words – out of the night and into his heart. The three words he’d been hoping to hear for weeks.

“Have you found out anything on the immigration front?”

“I’m a physician. It won’t be a problem.”

“What about Florida?”

“I’m more concerned about you working again.”

“Oh?”

“What about loading up Altair, just slipping free of all this.”

“You mean, like, just sail away?”

“Yes.”

He sighed – and he felt her snuggle into his thoughts. “Would that interest you?”

“Me? Maybe so. I’ve done the medicine thing for twenty years. I could use a break, I think. What about you?”

“I don’t think I’m ready to call it quits just yet. I guess I love what I do too much to just walk away now.”

“Flying?”

“Yeah.”

“Will it be the same? Training, I mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“So…Florida? Commute to Atlanta?”

“It feels right. Teaching, I mean. Maybe for a few years, then I can take full retirement.”

“I know. One of your chums explained it all to me. It would make a big difference, wouldn’t it?”

He nodded. “I’d at least be financially comfortable that way. Not have to worry about keeping Altair. If I cut loose now, it could be an issue in ten years. I’m also not sure this is the best time to leave Ted on his own, too.”

“Oh, Susan has him wrapped around her little finger.”

“I know. That’s what bothers me.”

“How so.”

“He’s had too many unanswered questions about to do something like this, so suddenly.”

“That other girl…Tracy, was it? What was that all about.”

“Just a stray we picked up by the side of the road,” he said as he thought of Vancouver, his voice barely a sigh.

“What?”

“She was just one of those mistakes we make,” he said, thinking about her asking to see his pilot’s license, about a poor, frantic girl running away in the night, looking to take charge, somehow, while she still could.

“Do you know what happened to her?”

He nodded. “Yup. She’d been picked up, a teenager on the street in Sydney. Sold off to someone in New Orleans, I think.”

“Sold off? You mean…?”

“Trafficked. A slave. She broke free, was running from them when…”

“Them?”

“Apparently Chinese traffickers. They run drugs through girls like her for a while, then sell them off to their dealers, as human playthings – I guess. At least that’s the story I’ve been told. Anyway, most of ‘em end up dead after a few years.”

“So I’ve heard. Is that what Melissa does?”

“I don’t know what that woman does, Brigit. She’s a mystery.”

“Do you like her?”

“Like her?” he sighed. “I’m terrified of her.”

“Terrified?”

“Yup. Because I don’t know what her back game is. Because nothing’s what it appears to be where she’s concerned. And I don’t know what her relationship is to me.”

+++++

The Bureau shut down the Hong Kong operation before it ever started. Somehow the operation had been penetrated, maybe a weak link in the New York office, and now at least one federal prosecutor was dead, and now Pickering. And several informants, too. And the thinking was that professionals had been called in to take out her.

It was time, her supervisors told her, to move her family.

“Where?” she asked her supervisors.

“What about your husband’s father? Doesn’t he have a farm out West? Somewhere, like in New Mexico?

She thought of the old man, thought of him and that ranch of his, that ranch – and all those goddamn airplanes…

(c) 2018 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com || fiction, as always

Corcovado VI

Corcovado 6 im

Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

VI

He heard voices again, voices far away – as if on the far side of a scream.

The snake was there – by his ankle – coiling up to strike, again. Then – out of the corner of his eye – he saw a large cat…a leopard? – and he was groping for his sidearm in the dark with his right hand when the snake struck – again. He felt searing pain on top of his hand but managed to hold onto the Colt as he pulled it free; he shot the snake – then squeezed-off several rounds at the cat, striking it at least once in the gut…

Then he felt a new pain, something much deeper now, and this time throughout his right leg. Unreal thirst, too, and in his mind’s eye he thought he saw a helicopter, heard rotors beating the night, then there were men all around, lifting him, carrying him…into the night.

And he opened his eyes, saw he was in a hospital room.

He looked out a window across the room, saw Vancouver’s skyline on the far side of the glass and he wondered what’d happened. How had he…?

“My leg,” he said aloud. “They came back for me.”

But…where was Ted? And that woman? Where were they?

The lights were off but there was a bank of instruments lighting the little room, the various screens taking stock of the ebbs and flows of his life…and he saw a call button on a rail by his head. He reached for it, winced in pain as something flared in his leg, but he grabbed the cold plastic and pushed – as he gasped for breath. Nothing…and he pushed the button again, and again.

Then…he heard running, people running towards his room, and voices. Voices, faraway, as if from a dream.

Two women burst in and looked at him, then one turned and ran from the room.

She ran fast, he thought. Too fast.

“You’re awake,” the remaining girl said – as she came to the side of the bed.

“So it would appear. Mind telling me where I am, perhaps what I’m doing here?”

“We’ve just gone to get Doctor Sutton. She’s been wanting to talk to you.”

“Oh, she has? So, where ‘we’ are is a state secret, I take it?”

“Oh, heavens,” the girl said, thrusting a probe of some kind in his mouth. “Under the tongue, now. And no, we’re at Vancouver General. You’ve been here a while.”

“Define for me,” he mumbled, “if you please, what ‘a while?’ means.”

“We’ll let Doctor Sutton do just that…and as soon as she gets here I must go and call your son.”

“Ted? Is he here?”

“Heavens no. He hasn’t been here in weeks.”

“Weeks?” But he saw she was ignoring him now, busily writing away on an inch-thick file bound to an aluminum clipboard, one of those fat aluminum jobs, then the door opened again and a harried-looking middle-aged woman slouched into the room – though her eyes brightened a bit when she saw him.

“Ah, you’re awake! Wonderful!”

“That seems to be the consensus opinion, yes.”

“Pardon?”

“That I am, in fact, awake. And that seems to be all anyone will tell me, too.”

“Ah. Well, yes. I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“I’m glad.”

“Are you always so sarcastic?”

“Only when the situation warrants,” he added.

“Ah. Well, yes, well, you see…”

“Doc? Straight talk would be much appreciated right about now.”

“Ah. Yes, I see. Well, that bug you carried home from Iraq has turned into a super-antibiotic resistant little critter, and, well, gangrene set in before the antibiotic cocktail we devised could take hold. The good news is that the cocktail worked; the bad news is that you’ve lost your right leg, just above the knee.”

“And how long have I been here?”

“Not quite six weeks.”

“Your son has been here night and day almost all that time, and he’s only just gone back to Seattle. He’s on his way up, as we speak, and you’ve had people from your work here too.”

“Work?”

“Some pilots from Delta; a few corporate types. Insurance, benefits, those kinds of things.”

He looked at the foot of the bed, saw his left foot sticking up – then the vague contours of a shadow where his life used to be, and he swallowed hard as cold implications swept through the room on an ill wind.

“We’ll want to get you started on physical therapy, now that you’re up and about…”

“Up and about?”

“Ah, yes. Well…”

“The whole bedside manner thing, Doc? You need to work on that.”

“Ah, yes, well, you see, I’ve never been much of a people person.”

“Really?”

“No, not ever, as a matter of fact.”

“Pity.”

“Ah, look, might I have someone from psychiatry drop by…”

“Why? Do I sound mentally ill?”

“No, I just thought that, well, ah, you know, you might like someone to talk to.”

“At five hundred an hour? Gee, no thanks. I think I’ll pass on that.”

“You forget, we have nationalized medicine here.”

“For American-nationals? Really? How nice.”

“Oh quite, I forgot.”

“Well, doc, thanks for hacking my leg off. Appreciate it, really, I do. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to get out of here.”

When Ted arrived, perhaps five hours later, he seemed relieved to see his father again…and tried to set him straight.

“Was it that bad?” he asked as he looked his son in the eye.

“You have no idea. Docs from everywhere, and I mean as far away as London, were called to consult on this. For about three days they told me you weren’t going to make it, then your leg turned black. I mean black. Started at the foot and streaks started shooting up your leg…”

“What about the VA? Did you call Schultz, in Seattle?”

“Oh, yeah. He came up, too. Stayed two days, and Delta sent some guy out from Columbia Presbyterian.”

He shook his head, felt a little ashamed of his outburst at Sutton.

“I think she understands, Dad.”

“Who?”

“Dr. Sutton. Everyone here knows all about you. Everyone busted there ass, Dad. You got to believe that.”

He nodded, said he understood – but he didn’t, not really. “When do you go back to school?”

“I’m taking the semester off, Dad. You’re going to need a hand for the next few months…”

“Where’s Altair?

“Back in her slip…on the lake. A bunch of us, a girl from Whaletown, Melissa, we all brought her down. Not a scratch, Dad. You’d’ve been proud.”

“Melissa?”

“The woman, from the bakery?”

“Oh, yes. How is she?” he added, barely remembering her.

“Back in Atlanta, but I just called her. She told me to tell you she’ll try to come up this weekend.”

He shook his head, tried to make sense of this new world – his new life. “Ted? What am I going to do?”

And his son sat there in the silence, thunderstruck. His father had never once spoken to him like this, asked him something so – consequential.

“What do you mean, Dad?”

“What am I going to do now? With my life?”

“I don’t know, Dad? What are the options?” – and then he had watched in dismay as his father looked down at the foot of his bed, at the emptiness waiting there, staring back like an accusation.

“Someone told me that people from corporate came by. Any idea what that was about?”

“Some friends, I think, but a few people from Atlanta, too. They talked with your docs, and that’s about all I know on that front.”

He shook his head – as if trying to clear away the cobwebs – then looked up at his boy. “You said the boat is back in Seattle? How’d that go?”

“Melissa and I – and that doc from Whaletown – we brought it down. Took three days, but it was a breeze. No problems at all.”

“What doc?”

“Oh, yeah. When you passed out…”

“I passed out?”

“Fever. Yup. We got on the radio and called it in; the Canadian Coast Guard called a doc in Whaletown, and she came out to the General Store. I picked her up and carried her out to the boat. She’s the one who called for the medevac…”

“A medevac? What? A helicopter?”

“No, a float-plane. Single engine, turbine.”

“Jeez, my insurance company must be going nuts.”

“Apparently that’s all been taken care of. Your corporate people got on to the VA and they’re all coordinating with Blue Cross.”

“That’ll be the day,” he sighed, and they both laughed, then he realized it still felt good to laugh. “Wait a minute…you said Melissa and that doc? What happened to Tracy?”

“Long story, Dad, and I think Melissa might be the one to explain all that.”

“Melissa? Why?”

And Ted looked away. “Things weren’t what we thought, Dad.”

“What does ‘what we thought?’ mean, Paco?”

“She…Melissa…didn’t just show up. She’d been following Tracy, for weeks.”

“Following?” he said, his thoughts reeling.

“Tracy had been, I don’t know…how to say this. Trafficked? Is that the right word?”

“Trafficked? What do you mean, trafficked?”

“She’d been abducted, Dad, years ago, moved around a lot by whoever ‘owned’ her. From Sydney to Singapore, then Hong Kong, and – finally – to Vancouver, last year. Melissa works on some kind of task force, law enforcement. FBI, Interpol, those kinds of things. Anyway, she couldn’t tell me much more than the basics. Someone identified Tracy a few months ago and law enforcement moved in, began tailing her. I think they’re trying to home in on the people chasing her…”

“Chasing her?”

“Yeah, well, when she came with us she was making a break for it, I guess you could say.”

“Jesus, Ted. Is anyone tailing us now?”

And Ted laughed again. “I think we’re covered on that end, Dad. I’m a cooperating witness, under protection.”

“Sweet Jesus,” he sighed, not at all happy now. “This Melissa…is that even her name?”

Ted shrugged. “As far as I know…”

“Right,” he said, looking at his son and for the first time realizing just how clueless he was. How clueless they both were. “And she’s, what…coming back up soon?”

“Maybe this weekend.”

“I can’t wait. Man, she was laying it on pretty thick…”

“Dad…she likes you. I mean…I think she really likes you.”

“Swell.”

“She, like, cried for an hour after you came out of surgery,” Ted said, looking at his leg, “and she didn’t leave your side, like, for a week. ‘Til Mom came up, anyway.”

“Your mother came up? Oh, swell…that’s just fucking great.”

“She still cares, Dad.”

“What turnip truck did you fall out of, son…?”

“What?”

“Never mind,” he sighed, again, only this time it lasted forever. “So, your mother shows up and Melissa beats feet?”

“Yup. That’s about the size of it.”

“By any chance, did you remember my phone?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ted said, digging around in his coat pocket. “All charged-up, too,” he added, putting the phone and its charging cords on the little rolling table over his lap.

He turned it on, looked at his phone’s message queue and groaned. Over fifty voicemails. More than five hundred unanswered emails. Dozens of text strings. “Dear God…” he whispered, suddenly feeling the task of sorting through all this noise was, at best, a Sisyphean effort.

“Bad?” Ted asked.

“I can handle it,” he said, his voice now strong, full of command, and he looked up at Ted again. “What about you. School. When does it start?”

“Next week, but I…”

“No, you should make plans to head back there, today. You need to finish up; you’ve got big decisions to make.”

“I’ve made them, Father.”

His left eyebrow arched on hearing ‘Father’ – and in that challenging tone of voice. “Indeed. Anything you’d like to share with me?”

“I’m going to seminary.”

“I see. What pushed you back? The Tracy thing?”

“Everything happens for a reason, Dad. Tracy, you – all this was just a reminder…I need to get back on the path that’s been laid out for me.”

“I see. Well then, you’re happy with the decision?”

“Yessir – content would be the word I’d choose.”

“Good…well then, best get on the phone, get your classes lined up, then make plans to head back.”

“But Dad…how will you…”

“I’ll manage, son. You’ve got to tend to your own life…not look after me.”

“No, sir. I’ve already made plans to stay here, help you get settled, and that’s what I intend to do.”

He looked at his boy, at his chest all puffed up, and he tried not to laugh. “All right, Paco. We’ll take it one step at a time…how about that?”

There came a knock on the door and a woman’s face appeared.

“Safe to come in, Ted?”

“Yeah, sure Doc…Dad? This is Doc Sullivan, from Whaletown. She’s the doc who came out to the boat…”

The woman came in the room, and while he looked her over he tried his best not to smile. She was short, red-haired and milk-complected, with a broad mask of deep freckles under her green eyes – and she was wearing blue Birkenstocks, too – his least favorite footwear in the world. She was cute, though, and he liked the look of her.

“I was in town and heard you were up and around…” she said, walking bedside. “How are you doing?”

“Me? Swell. How ‘bout you?”

She seemed taken aback by his nonchalance, and felt a little on-guard. “Anyone talked to you about what comes next?”

“Next? No, not really.”

“Oh? Well, I guess…”

“I guess I should thank you,” he said, trying to put her at ease. “I was apparently out when we met?”

She laughed a little. “Yes, I sorry. My name is Brigit Sullivan.”

He looked at her left hand…‘No rings,’ he said to himself as he held out his right hand.

“Jim. Nice to meet you, Brigit,” then he added: “So, I hear you’re a sailor?”

“Not much of one, really, but I didn’t think two people could handle that boat alone, all the way back to Seattle. So I volunteered,” Sullivan said, grinning.

“How’d you like her?”

“Her? Oh, you mean Altair? Oh, I loved her, very much indeed.”

“Your accent…Irish?”

“Yes. I came here to go to school. I decided to stay for a while.”

“A while?”

“Yes, well, its been ten years…so I guess the best-laid plans…”

“I see. Yes, funny how fast the landscape can change.”

She smiled, looked into his eyes. Yes, full of doubt right now, but that was only natural. His entire life upended, all his plans… “So, what are you thinking you’ll do when you get out of here?”

“I don’t know yet, Brigit. Any ideas?”

“Get a peg-leg and head for the Caribbean?”

“Ah. I never saw myself as the pirate-type, ya know?”

She smiled at him and he melted inside – just a little – then he realized he was staring at her – and she wasn’t turning away. No, she was meeting his gaze head-on.

“I talked a bit with your people from Delta, and the VA. Rehab will be no problem, and it seems they want you to think seriously about the training slot in Atlanta.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, I hope you don’t mind, but one of them gave me a card and I’ve called. Someone is supposed to be up tomorrow to talk to you about all that.”

“Who? The VA?”

“No, Delta.”

He looked away, out the window…but all he could see was what was left of his right leg…and his lips scrunched-up into a loose frown. “Training,” he whispered as he recoiled from the thought. Hours and hours in a simulator, teaching kids – kids with all their whole lives ahead of them.

And his was behind now; with whatever might be left receding fast.

Then he felt her hand on his, rubbing away his fear. “It’s not, you know,” he heard her say.

“What?”

“Your life. It’s not over.”

“What makes you say that?”

“It’s all over your face, in your eyes. But you’re wrong, Jim. It’s going to be a fight, but you’re just opening the book to a new chapter.”

“Ah, I see. That’s how it is, eh?”

“I suppose it can be, yes. The other option, I assume, is to simply fall away, fall into a black hole…what you might call the pits of despair.”

“Never been my thing.”

“I think I knew that, but it’s nice to hear you say so, anyway. Oh yes, your VA people classify this as the direct result of your original injuries, by the way. As far as coverage…” but she saw he’d tuned her out and was, in fact, falling over in the bed. Then – he was gone…and people were running again…

+++++

He woke in in the middle of a strange night, woke to the steady hum of machines pumping medicines into his veins, of other machines listening to fading electric currents arcing through his body. He listened to the beep-beep-beep of one and turned to look at it, and saw what he assumed was something like his beating heart – only something wasn’t right. Another registered O-SATS, another PULS, and yet another RESP – and as all of them registered something in the positive range he assumed that he was still alive…yet even so the thought rolled around in his mind for a while. Then he was aware of people dancing all around him, chanting strange things into the night…

“Gimme 5cc epinephrine,” one voice sang.

Then another cried – “Get the central line ready!”

Then he saw his mother standing by his bedside, and she was looking down at him, smiling gently.

“Hi, Mom,” he said, gently.

“Hello, Jimmy,” she said, and while he took comfort in her presence, something about her being in the room troubled him. “Oh yes,” another voice, this one as familiar, said, “your mother’s been dead for…oh, how many years? Is it five now?”

He turned to this second voice, his mind reeling: “Dad? Is that you?”

And they were both by his bed now, looking down at him, and they were smiling now, odd, gentle smiles – like smiles he’d never seen on their faces before.

“Hello, James,” his father said.

“Why are you here?”

“You asked,” his mother said, “so we came.”

“I asked?”

“You’re dying now, Jimmie,” his father said. “It’s alright. Don’t be afraid.”

“Dying? Me? Now?”

“Yes.”

“But…I’m not ready.”

And his father looked at him again, only now he smiled. “Okay. So? Go back to them.”

“Go back?”

“Yes, of course. Go back.”

“You have more to do, Jimmie,” his mother said, still holding his hand.

“I smell…gingerbread,” he said. “Are you baking?”

And she smiled again. “Yes. For you.”

“You’re not making this any easier, are you?”

“We’ll be here when you’re ready, son,” his father said.

“Be careful, and don’t forget the shadows,” his mother added – then she was gone.

“Dad?”

“Yes, son?”

“What’s happening to me?”

“It’s not you, James. It’s your boy. Be careful.”

“What?”

But then his father was gone, too.

“Ted?” he cried. “Ted!”

“I’m here, Dad! I’m here, we’re all here!”

He felt for his parents in the darkness, felt their smiles, then he reached up, reached up to the warmth of their light.

+++++

The shades had been drawn the night before, before he went to sleep, but now he remembered asking the night nurse to open them; he wanted to watch the dawn, he told her, slatting through all this thick, late-summer foliage. Now, the walls of his room were a riot of crisscrossed shadows, no direction clear, no way to tell where the sun was.

He heard the door open, saw Ted sticking his head in the room. “You up?” his son asked.

“Yeah. A few hours now.”

“Still can’t sleep?”

He bunched his lips, shook his head.

“Your parents?”

He shrugged.

“You know, Dad, it’s not the strangest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Yes it is. And it’s different when you hear it coming from someone else. If it ever happens to you, you’ll know what I mean…”

“I can only imagine. What did Sullivan call it? A near death experience?”

“Oxygen deprivation, by any other name, I think.”

“That’s one worldview,” Ted added, grinning. “You want to hear something even weirder?”

“Fire away.”

“When the air ambulance thing showed up…”

“I think they’re called airplanes, Ted.”

“Yeah. It was called a Kodiak.”

“Oh? Nice plane. Sorry I missed the ride.”

Ted shook his head, then plowed on ahead. “Anyway, I sat up front. We talked, the pilot and I, and I told him about you.”

“Oh?”

“It was the first time I’ve ever been interested in it.”

“It?”

“Flying.”

“Oh? What was interesting to you?”

“The methodical certainty of it. Do this, do that – and if you do everything just right you make it. If you don’t…”

“You screw the pooch.”

“Yeah, that’s it. I’ve heard you say that a million times before yet I don’t think I ever really understood until just then. Anyway, I found it kind of interesting.”

“What does ‘interesting’ mean?”

“I’ve been looking at flight schools.”

He looked at his son, nodded his head slowly. “I see.”

“What do you think?”

“I think you being in the room while I tried to die really fucked with your head.”

And they both laughed.

“Feels good to laugh, doesn’t it?” his son said.

“You have no idea. What time does that flight from Atlanta get in?”

Ted looked at his phone. “She’s due in at ten.”

“You picking her up?”

“Yup.”

“Where’s she staying?”

“The Four Seasons.”

He nodded his head, looked out the window.

“So? What do you think?”

“About?”

“Flight school.”

“If that’s what you want to do.”

“Well, Dad, actually…I’m asking for some advice.”

“And you know how I feel about that.”

“Yeah, I know. ‘You’re smart enough to make your own decisions.’ I hear you, Dad, but right now it kind of feels a little like a cop-out.”

“Does it?”

“Yeah, it does.”

And he heard the same teen-aged insolence, the same wall of sarcasm he’d always heard whenever he’d tried to give his son any kind of advice. “Well,” he said, taking a deep breath, “let’s see if I’ve got this straight. You want to be a priest since you were knee-high to a grasshopper, then you get to BC and all of a sudden its medicine. You bounce around back and forth between those two for three years then you take a ride in an airplane and all of sudden you want to be a pilot? Have I about nailed the contours here?”

Ted looked down at the floor.

“Now, you tell me,” he continued. “This whole God thing seems to have been a driving force your whole life, so what do you think he wants you to do?”

“That’s not how it works, Dad.”

“Oh? There’s a checklist for that too, is there?”

“No, I think He leads us to choices, then he sits back and watches, waits to see what we’ll do.”

“And then what? He doesn’t interfere?”

“Yeah, Dad. Just like you.”

“What?”

“Just like you, Dad. Don’t you get it?”

“No, obviously not.”

“That’s all I’ve ever wanted, Dad. To be just like you.”

“But you wanted to be a priest? I’m confused…”

“I was too, until I talked with Melissa about it.”

“Melissa? What did she have to say?”

“Nope, and you know what, Dad? I’m not going to interfere.”

“Interfere? With what?”

“Jesus, you are one thick-headed son-of-a-bitch.”

“What the devil are you going on about, Ted?”

“Melissa and Brigit, you idiot.”

“What about them?”

Ted shook his head – then looked at his phone. “I think I’m going to head out to the airport now.”

“It’s seven o’clock.”

“Yeah, how ‘bout that.”

“Bring me what you have on flight schools. I’ll look it over.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks, Dad.”

But the door closed before he could say another word.

+++++

He wasn’t quite sure why, but he barely remembered Melissa those first few minutes after she walked into his room – and that made this ‘reunion’ all the more strange.

She had, apparently, made some kind of connection to him that day. That much was clear.

As the morning passed he remembered more of their time talking in the cockpit, the blustery winds, dodging timbers that had broken free of their rafts, even fragments of her shooting the inlet…then everything was gone – like the rest of the day – it had all been wiped clean.

But the most disconcerting thing of all? He hadn’t recognized her when she walked in the room – not at all. She was a complete stranger…

But when she first came in the room…?

She had dashed to his bed and wrapped herself around him, and all he had felt was a vast chasm of annoyance opening between them. Her hair, dry and scratchy, crushed against his face and as waves of perfume hit he’d felt waves of panicky suffocation settle over the room. She had grabbed his face and kissed his forehead – and then she must have seen the confusion in his eyes. She pulled back looked into his eyes and a veil of tears crossed between them.

“Do you know who I am?”

He had turned away a little; a fraction of a gaze passed between them and he knew he had answered her question as best he could. She regrouped a little, took the seat Ted had pulled up for her, then Ted left the room.

“Ted tells me the two of you…no, there were three of you, right? Three of you moved Altair back to Seattle.”

“Yes, that’s right. Brigit – Doctor Sullivan – was with us.”

“I should thank you for all that. I’m not sure Ted would’ve been up to it by himself.”

“Really? I got the impression after an hour or so he hardly needed us at all. He couldn’t sleep, you see, so he stood behind the wheel, steering hour after hour. We stopped in Friday Harbor and he told us about the trips you used to take out there, to the islands, and only then did he go to sleep.”

“I guess we never really know what our kids will remember, do we?”

She looked away. “We never had kids.”

“I’m sorry. I never knew that much about…”

“Let’s not go there, okay, Jim?”

“Sure.”

“Anyway, you’ve set up Altair to handle anything, haven’t you? She handles like a dream.”

He turned to her, his little ship, and in his mind’s eye he saw her then. For the first time…since…resplendent under a full set of canvas, biting into the wind – like a wild thing set free.

“I have no idea what I’ll do with her now.”

She was looking at him as he spoke, looking at banked embers of uncertainty eating away at his soul, and she nodded her head just so.

“Yes, I don’t suppose you have much choice now.”

His eyes lost focus for a moment – and Altair faded from sight.

“What do you mean?”

“Only that you’ll need to get fitted for a peg-leg, and soon.”

“Oh. That. Look, it wasn’t funny the first time I heard…”

“Listen, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve talked with a few friends at Delta and your moving down there, moving to DATC. Whenever you’re ready.

“Who’d you talk to?”

“Ben Chambers.” He had looked at her then, his eyes full of molten fury – and she’d looked away lest she go up in flames with him. “I’m sorry,” she said a moment later. “I shouldn’t have.”

“Why?”

“Why…what?”

“Why would anyone want me now. I can’t get out of bed, I can’t even take a shit without calling a fucking nurse…”

“This is the hard part, Jim, the worst of it. We can all pull together, Ted and I – and you. We can help you get there.”

“Look…I don’t even know you,” he said through gritted teeth, his voice a venomous hiss, “but you’re talking to me like you’re my wife. You’re going to have to forgive me, but what the Hell is going on here?”

She sat up, looked him in the eye. “It’s funny, yes, but Jim, I feel like God brought us together. I’m here now, for you, because I think this is all part of His plan.”

“Do you really?” he said, his voice full of sarcasm.

She nodded – and he found the certainty in her eyes revolting. Revolting, and yet almost fascinating, at the same time. “I don’t believe in coincidence, Jim.”

“And all that crap about being at the inn, being compelled to join us for breakfast? That you’d been…”

“I know, I know,” this strange woman said, “but the truth of it is even stranger.”

“Oh? There’s some truth in this story? Oh my goodness, I can hardly wait.”

She smiled, her eyes wide now, wide and clear. “We lost Tracy in Vancouver. We’d had no trace of her, for almost a week…”

“Time-out. Who’s ‘we’?”

“I’m with a joint Federal/Interpol task force on human trafficking.”

“So…you’re a cop?”

She shook her head. “You could say that. I’m with the FBI, been working with local jurisdictions in and around New Orleans for years…”

“On human trafficking,” he said, his voice now full of urgent anger.

She saw the look in his eye, the change that came over him. “Yes…why?”

“My mom was a social worker, in Vermont, after the war. She was pulled into working on human trafficking cases when she was young.”

“And she couldn’t shake it, could she?”

He turned away.

“It’s a calling, Jim. There are so many girls, and so few of us give a damn.”

“I know.”

“Yes, I imagine you do. Did she stay in social work?”

“No, not really. She started working for the state AGs office sometime in the early fifties, then was offered some kind of job in Washington. All I know is she turned it down, and she quit a little later. She never talked about what she did much after that.”

Melissa nodded. “I know, part of the pattern.”

“Pattern?”

“She was in Vermont, right?”

“Yup, where we – where I grew up.”

“Chinese, through Montreal and Quebec. An almost constant stream of girls come in through Vermont. Taken to New York City first, to the restaurants around the city, worked as indentured servants – unless they’re pretty. Then they’re sold off as domestics – until they’re no longer pretty, that is.”

“Domestics?”

“Free pussy, Jim. At parties and other – events. Then they’re disposed of.”

“What does that mean? Killed?”

“Most of the time, yes. Unless new buyers can be found, but often it depends on how much the girl knows, and that depends on what her ‘master’ was into. It’s usually drugs, and these days that usually means heroin.”

“Where does Tracy fit into all this?”

“We got onto her while we were trailing some cartel people, down in San Antonio but moving product to New Orleans. She made a break for it, made it to Colorado but she, well, her addiction was too powerful. She fell in with a lawyer, in Aspen, and to make a long story short she ran into someone who knew somebody who knew people in that cartel, and when someone told the lawyer he ratted her. By that point, we knew if we could get our hands on her we might get her to talk, but she was off again, gone before we could get to her. We lost her until she crossed into Canada, and by that time Interpol was involved. She kept slipping in and out of our radar but we had her – or at least we thought we had her. And that’s when you two showed up.”

“And you got her, told her to leave?”

“We got her, period.”

“She’s in –”

“Protective custody…yes. Witness Protection.”

“What does Ted know about all this?”

“Next to nothing.”

“So, I assume you think the cartels will take no interest in me? Or my son?”

“Doubtful. But then again, I won’t be far away.”

He looked at her then, feeling a little like a tethered goat. “I see,” he said.

“I doubt that, Jim.”

“So, what’s all this hooey about God bringing us together, and no coincidences. Is that part of your ruse, too?”

“No, not at all. That’s how I found Tracy, in Vancouver. Through this feeling I had.” She looked at him hard for a moment, then she cleared her throat. “Could I tell you something, something sort of private.”

“Oh, I can’t wait.”

She nodded her head. “Alright, Jim. Three days ago – when you threw that clot and went into arrest – I saw something.”

“Something? Like what kind of something?”

“I saw your parents – talking to you.”

Icy claws grabbed his throat and he struggled to take a breath…

“I heard what your father said to you.”

“Oh?” he said, his eyes burning now.

“It’s not you, Jim. It’s your boy.”

Then he was crying openly, his lips quivering, his eyes twitching as he tried to come to terms with her words…

“I know why I’m here now, Jim. I’m here to open the gate between you and your son.”

She was lost just then, like she had faded into another plane of existence, then she shook herself back to the present.

“I’m think I’m here to make sure that happens. After that, my purpose here is over.”

“Over?” he said, trying to breathe. “What do you – mean – by that…?”

And the woman shrugged. “I have no idea, Jim. But I think that’s what your mother was trying to tell me.”

He struggled under the weight of her words, fought to come to terms with the implications of the timing. “Could you see her? My mother, I mean?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know, Jim. All I have left is the impression of someone’s eyes, but I never saw anyone, not in the usual sense of seeing.”

“You’re not, like, a schizophrenic, are you?”

“I don’t think so,” she began, giggling, “but, does menopause count?”

And he laughed too, then his eyes turned cold and hard. “Open the gate? Did he really say that?”

“I think so. Why?”

“I was thinking, just now, right when you said that, about the gate in our backyard. We had a little dog when I was growing up, and that gate was the only thing that kept him in the yard. I think I left it open once and he got out, ran into the street and a car hit him. Keeping the gate closed became kind of a metaphor in our family, something about the necessity of protecting the things we love.”

“Yes, but what about being overprotective?”

“Is there such a thing as being too protective where our kids are concerned?”

“Sure there is,” she sighed. “Nobody can grow when they’re being smothered…”

“I don’t smother Ted,” he countered, perhaps a little too defensively. “If anything, I think I’m too distant…”

“But don’t you see, that’s a kind of control too, Jim. When a child needs guidance, wants advice, and you stand back – well, in a way you’re reinforcing a child’s needfulness. Parents need to give advice freely, I think, and kids need to know they can come to you with anything, at anytime, for help…”

“What else did you two talk about?”

“That being true to yourself is the best way to be true to God…”

+++++

She read through the letter one more time, then called the head of her department in Burlington, Vermont.

“Mike, I got another one.”

“What’s this one say, Liz?” asked Mike Bennett, a retired federal judge who had recently been assigned to coordinate state and federal law enforcement activities along the Canadian border.

“Sounds kind of like ‘back-off or else’ to me.”

“Did this one come to your house?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, goddamn. What does Jerry think?”

“He’s not sure, wanted me to run this by you first.”

“Well, if it’s Hip-Sing, or one of the other Triads, we’ll have to take it seriously…”

“Jerry says there’s no way we can be sure. There’s that new group in the Village, the Ghost Dragons…”

“Bad people…bad news if it’s them.”

“Yessir. Well, we’re stepping on a lot of toes, disrupting a lot of ongoing operations up here. Even so, it’s out of character for them to attack one of us like this…”

“Yeah…going after families…that’s something new alright. Is that what Jerry thinks.”

“Well, I’m the only one to receive something like this at home. Everyone else has gotten them at the office in Burlington.”

“What does your husband have to say about this?”

“He’s more worried about Jimmie than anything else.”

“What about the Florida thing. Will that work?”

“I doubt it, sir. It would be just a matter of days, maybe a week, before they’d track us down.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“Change tactics again. Lure them in, take a few of them out, watch them, see how they regroup.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t think I can keep at this much longer, Mike. Not with them potentially targeting my family.”

“Sorry about the dog. What did you tell your boy?”

“That someone left the gate open.”

“Damn. Well, the reality is simple enough, Elizabeth. We don’t have even one of these groups penetrated, so we have no idea what their real strength is. If they’re targeting you, or your family, we have no option other than to move you, get you out of there.”

“There’s another option, sir. I publicly resign.”

“And give in to their threats? But, even so…we could never be sure, could we? They could decide to make an example of you. That’s what…”

“Yessir, I know. That’s what they do to cop families over there.”

“Do you have any reason to think they wouldn’t do that to you, or to your family?”

“It would be a first, sir.”

“There’s always a first, Liz. You want to try that one on for size?”

“What about surveillance?”

“Keep you under surveillance, 24/7?” her boss asked.

“It might do the job, sir. What bothers me most is simply giving in so fast.”

“Listen…you know the drill, how it is now. No one in the White House cares about these Chinese gangs, not Eisenhower, not Nixon…not even Dulles…”

“Because they’re ‘running girls.’ Yessir, I know, but there’s tons of heroin moving in with these girls. That’s how they’ve done it, sir, and for centuries. First, they start with girls, then they move opium and heroin in with them. Drug use grows exponentially and when the real gangs move-in, the operations compromising politicians begin.”

“Preaching to the converted, Liz.”

“I know, sir. Sorry. It’s just frustrating – like watching a slow-motion train wreck.”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I hate to do this, sir, but I think I’m leaving this one to you.”

She heard him sigh, then a moment later: “I’d like your resignation on my desk tomorrow. I’ll have the office prepare a statement, get it out to the newspapers.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll start with the next class at the academy. That’ll be August. Take some time off, get some rest, and be ready to get back to work next year.”

“Yessir.”

+++++

“Next?” An old man asked, opening a file folder.

“Melissa Goodway,” one of the other men in the office said. “Divorced, six years ago. Finished her J.D. five years ago.” His name was Jesse James – a name that had given him nothing but trouble ever since his Academy days.

“Where? I don’t see it here…”

“Georgetown.”

“Okay. DAs office, I take it?”

“Yessir.”

“Fulton, or DeKalb.”

“Fulton, sir. One year, then she was snatched up by a joint task force, DEA, and FBI. SAC Atlanta recommended she go to the Academy, sir.”

“What got her into this?”

“Raped, sophomore year, Vanderbilt.”

“Shit. That’s a lot of baggage, Ken.”

“Her interview went well, sir, and her psych profile is rock solid.”

The old man flipped through the pages in the folder, then looked up at the other men in the room. “Anyone have any objections?” He looked around the room, made eye contact with all nine of them. “Come on, speak now – or forever hold your peace.”

“Does she have enough experience for this,” one of the others said. “She’ll be on her own for weeks at a time.”

“She knows what she signed up for,” James said.

“No one knows what they’ve signed up ‘til they’re up to the neck in alligators,” the old man said.

“Especially in New Orleans,” one of the others said, to murmurs of assent around the room.

“Who interviewed her?” the old man asked, flipping through the file again.

“Pat did the prelim, I did the follow-up. His write-up is on the next to last page, sir.”

The old man read the notes for a while, flipped to a few cross-referenced pages then tossed the file on the desk. “When can she be ready to go?”

“It’ll take a few days to get their documentation in order, another week to get them placed in Macao.”

“So, we need a week?”

“Yessir.”

“That’s cutting it pretty damn close, Jesse.”

“Yes, sir, it is. And the longer we sit here debating the merits of the operation, the worse it gets, sir.”

“Alright. Fuller and this Norton from Treasury go to Hong Kong, our Goodway goes to Macao. Any objections?”

No one spoke as the Old Man assayed the room one last time. He shook his head then signed the documents approving the largest sting on foreign soil the Bureau had attempted in fifteen years. No one had to remind him the last time the Bureau tried something like this, two agents died.

(c) 2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

Corcovado + Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars + 4

Corcovado5.1

IV

His mother, Elizabeth, had grown up in the Episcopal Church, and, with her parents, she had worshipped at St Andrew’s over on the west side of town, the ‘money’ side of town, every Sunday. And though James was her ‘sweetheart’ even then, he wasn’t drawn to the church – had never been interested in any church – yet that didn’t seem to matter to her. She talked James into going with her a time or two but nothing stuck, yet she was true enough to him to let the matter rest – “in the Lord’s hands,” she liked to say. When the war in Europe started, actually during the Battle of Britain, James went down to the Post Office and signed up for pilot training; he ended up in California learning to fly the earliest models of the B-17, and it turned out he was a very good pilot.

They corresponded, by mail, after he left Vermont, and soon she understood that he had lost all interest in religion – and why; she, at home on the other side of the country, had started going to St Andrew’s several times a week – and her interest in religion only deepened. By the time December Seventh rolled around, he was training new pilots and she was teaching Sunday School; when James shipped off to Britain in ‘42 she went to study religion at Boston College.

And so it went. They were polar opposites set on a collision course from the very beginning, and at the end of James’ war, after he returned from Britain, he was a very different man. As different as Elizabeth had become over the intervening years.

Yet they picked up where they’d left off – in each other’s arms, still madly in love with one another. Weeks after his return they walked the aisle in St Andrews hand in hand, as husband and wife, yet, if anything, his understanding of God and His Church had only diminished in his eyes. James had, he told his wife, been on many of the so-called ‘thousand plane raids’ over Dresden and Munich, he had fire-bombed whole cities, killed thousands upon thousands of human beings; there was, he told her, “no room in God’s House for the likes of me.”

They had talked about salvation and confession and he told her those were mere words to him, and she could feel the flames of burning cities aglow in his eyes. She said she understood after one bitter night, and she never pressed him further. Not once. She was, she told him, content to let God come to him when He was ready.

They wanted to wait a few years to have kids, or so they said, so he could earn some money and build up his bank account, and she told him late in 1949 that she thought it was an opportune time. Why ‘opportune’ he did not know, but he agreed and soon she was with child.

Yet he was too good a pilot for the Army Air Corp to let go of him completely, and, because he’d signed on to participate in the newly formed U. S. Air Force Reserves, when asked he was soon flying B-29s over Canada and the Arctic. When war broke out in Korea off he went, and two months after he arrived in Japan his daughter Rebecca was born, though he very nearly never got to hold her in his arms.

On a mission over the North his formation was attacked by Mig15s and his aircraft was damaged badly in the brief skirmish. He nursed the -29 back to the sea and had almost made it back to South Korea when fire broke out inside the right wing; he got his men out and rode the aircraft down, belly landing in the Yellow Sea. He managed to crawl out of the sinking wreckage and into a life raft, but both his legs were badly mangled.

His war officially ended on a hospital ship in Japan; he was back in the States a few weeks later, though he spent months at a succession of military hospitals in Maryland and Pennsylvania. And, finally, in White River Junction, Vermont, and that’s where he finally met his daughter.

And though in many ways James was the same sweet man Elizabeth had always known, he had come back a changed man – for the second time. Whereas he had exuded an infinite invulnerability when he came home from Europe, he now cast a wary eye almost everywhere he looked…like he was suddenly unsure of the very ground beneath his feet. Still, he persevered, met his doubts head-on. He walked, then he ran back to his life in St Johnsbury, and Elizabeth knew then that God answered all prayers.

When Rebecca fell ill – some sort of meningitis, the physicians told them – she prayed and prayed, and yet Rebecca passed. In the aftermath Elizabeth fell away from the Church, and in the fullness of time she completely lost her faith in God.

She finished her graduate degree – in social work – and helped coordinate social services throughout northern Vermont…everything from helping the recently disabled to the newly homeless. She came to be regarded as something of a saint among the ‘down and out’ – and even to the pastors and bishops that worked the pews around the region, hers was a well-regarded soul.

And then something horribly unexpected happened. A girl, an eight year old Chinese girl, was raped one summer’s evening near the old highway that went from St Johnsbury south, and a trucker who had been passing through on his way from Montreal to New York City was apprehended. And this mysterious truck driver – who was, apparently, from Hong Kong – was being pursued through the forests south of town. It was only a matter of time, they heard on the radio, until the monster was caught.

+++++

The rain had let up a little, and he could see faint patches of blue through thinning clouds from time to time. Melissa was sitting with him in the enclosed cockpit, rain and wind-driven spray still spattering on the canvas overhead, while Ted and Tracy were standing at the mast pulpit, looking for timbers on the Sound’s roiled surface.

And yet he and Melissa had said little to one another since she boarded. He didn’t know what to say to her, and she wasn’t sure she had anything left to say to a man like him.

Then, up on the bow, Ted pointed to the left and he looked that way too, saw a massive timber sjust awash and corrected his course to miss it – and as suddenly Ted was pointing frantically to the right – and he saw more timbers roped-up in a tight clump. He stood to get a better view of the way through the knotted seas, then he cut back on power, slowed to bare steerage-way and worked his way around and through the flotsam – and he found he was holding his breath more than once…until they were through, anyway.

“This is really bad…” Melissa said moments after he sat behind the wheel again. “I’ve dealt with crab-pots in Maine, but never anything like this.”

And he knew he was beginning to tremble a little – only for another reason. He’d had three cups of French roast and his bladder felt like it was about to rip apart, right down the middle, but he didn’t want to leave the wheel…

“You okay?” she said when she saw the expression on his face, the perspiration on his brow.

He shook his head. “Nope. Bladder’s about to…”

And she stood, took the wheel – and he looked at her like she was out of her mind – until the need to let loose from both ends grew like a three-alarm blaze. He nodded and ran down the companionway steps to the forward head – and didn’t return for ten minutes.

And when he did she was still behind the wheel, steering deftly between timbers, taking the hand signals Ted gave her without the slightest hesitation.

“You tired?” he asked.

“Not in the slightest…this is – exhilarating!”

“Well,” he mumbled, “that’s one way to look at it.”

And she laughed at that, then leaned over to look forward again. “I’m making for that buoy up there,” she said, pointing to a can about a mile ahead. “That marks the entrance to the inlet, right?”

“Yup.”

“Damn, this is a fine handling little ship, Jim. World of difference between my 325 and this thing…”

“Nothing beats displacement in seas like this.”

“I’ll say. Man, if you ever want to trade, give me a call…”

He laughed at that. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” He watched her watching the sea, watched the way she shifted her weight with her knees to roll with the swells and he nodded his approval. “Yours have a pedestal, or that rig under the seat?”

“Pedestal. That other rig always felt dead to me.”

“So I’ve heard.” He turned and looked forward then, content to let her steer for a while longer, and he noticed more and bigger patches of blue sky. “You may get lucky. Looks like some sun is trying to break through.”

“Yup,” she groaned, working Altair down the backside of a large roller.

Yet she kept her course, he saw. She bore down on the rise, fell off the crest, never missed a lick. “You do much racing?” he asked.

“A little. Why?”

“Because you’re damn good on the helm, that’s why.”

He wasn’t looking at her just then so he didn’t see the look in her eyes.

“Can you come up a bit?” he said. “I want to head straight in the inlet, not come in at an upwind angle.”

“Got it,” she said, and he watched the bow swing to starboard a little…twenty minutes later they passed the buoy and he turned and looked at her.

“You wanna take it now?” she asked.

“No. You’re doing fine,” he said as he came to the pedestal and changed the displays on the plotter.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the display.

“Chart with a radar overlay here, and forward-looking sonar here, on the right.”

“Sonar? You mean…those are the walls of the inlet – underwater?”

“Yup.”

“Holy moly, this is like cheating…”

He grinned. “Kinda, yup, but it sure beats driving your boat up onto the rocks.”

“I’ll say.”

“Slow her down to 1600 RPM,” he said in his typical flight instructor’s voice, then: “Come to 3-3-0 and let’s see how much the current plays with us.”

“Got it.”

“Okay…see how it’s pushing us to starboard? Let make 3-2-5 and bring the revs up to 1800.”

He watched as she adjusted the throttle and made the course change, then he looked at the sonar readout and the plotter for a moment. “You’re doing great…okay, fall off a little more…okay, you got it…”

And then, just like that, they were through.

“Moorings in here?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Anywhere, in particular, you want to drop the hook?”

“Depends. If there’s room there’s kind of a waterfall all the way in. Nice sound to sleep to.”

She nodded her head; smiled a little, too. “Did I see a store back there?”

“Yeah. If you run out of food it’s okay in a pinch.”

“Expensive?”

“Man.”

“How far back does this thing go?”

“Not quite three-quarters of a mile,” he said, signaling Ted to get the anchors ready. “Keep an eye out for anchor lines…so don’t cut too close to other boats…I’m gonna get the Zodiac ready.”

+

Once the anchors were set he came back to the swim platform and tied off the Zodiac, then he watched her as she looked around the boat, wondering why he’d been so taken by her earlier that morning.

Was it just because he was lonely?  Whatever, it was his choice and he was in it now. Duty-honor-country wasn’t at work here, not like with Babs? His father had taught him about those things, but then again his parents had lived kind of an idyllic life – at least compared to what he and Barbara had endured…

“Endured…?” he said, unaware he was speaking aloud.

“What’s that?” Melissa asked, now standing on the aft deck – looking down at him still sitting in the inflatable.

“Oh, sorry, I was just thinking.”

“What did you endure? My turn behind the wheel?”

He chuckled at that. “No, not at all. I was impressed, really. You’re quite the helmsman.”

“Well, okay. Now what?”

“Excuse me?” he replied.

“You gonna run me over to the beach, or you want me to swim for it?”

“Water’s kind of cool for that, I think.” He looked at her for the longest time, then he sighed.

“You look…perplexed,” she said – perplexed.

“I’m not sure I know how to say this, but the odds of you finding a place to stay around here are somewhere between slim and none, and I don’t suppose you’re carrying a tent and sleeping bag in that duffel. So, what are your plans?”

“Get ashore, find a road and start walking. Something always comes along.”

He shook his head. “Not here. The only roads are back by the village, and there aren’t many places to sleep on this part of the island…unless you’ve got a home lined up.”

“Okay…so what do you suggest?”

“Stay here,” he said, his voice lost somewhere on the quiet side of hope.

“Here?” she replied. “With you?”

“Yup.”

“Okay,” she said, looking at him again.

And he felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and that puzzled him.

She came down to the swim platform then. “Can I give you a hand?” she asked.

He turned and looked around the cove…it had emptied out earlier that morning after they’d departed for Nancy’s. He assumed people had seen the break in the weather and pulled anchor – and now Altair’s crew had almost the entire cove to themselves.

When he turned to her he saw she’d taken off her shoes and was sitting on the platform, and she was just now dangling her feet in the water.

“Yikes…this IS cold,” she said, surprised. “Like Maine kind of cold.”

“This is not the Gulf of Mexico…that’s for sure.”

“What happened to your mom and dad?”

“Hmm? Oh, they passed about, oh, Mom went first. I think six years ago. Dad passed a few months later. Broken heart, I guess. Couldn’t live without her, so I think he chose not to.”

“He wasn’t sick?”

“Nope. He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. That’s the way to go, I reckon.”

“They were that close?”

“Closer than forever.”

“What?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know how else to put it.”

“You think about them a lot?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I do. I miss them. I – miss – what they stood for.”

“You mean, like…politics?”

“Good Lord, no…just the opposite. They were diametrically opposed politically, from the very beginning, I think, but that didn’t seem to matter. Not to them, anyway.”

“Dad?” Ted said, coming back to the aft rail. “You through with the Zodiac?”

“For now. You two want to go exploring?”

“Yeah. Is there enough gas?”

“Yup. Two gallons, at least. That ought to be good for a couple of hours at low speed. Grab a hand unit and some water, maybe some sunscreen too.”

Ted nodded and left to get stuff from below, and Melissa pulled her feet out of the water and shivered a little. He found himself staring at them, at how white they’d become.

“You better get some socks on,” he said.

“Oh, they’ll warm up.”

“You say so, but don’t be surprised if you catch a chill. It’s cold and damp, not what your body is used to…”

He changed places with Ted a few minutes later, then they watched as Ted and Tracy took off across the cove, headed for the little waterfall, and as he watched them go he felt kind of odd. Like happy and sad, at the same time.

“How long have those two known each other,” she asked.

“I think this is the fourth day.”

“What? Really?”

“We had dinner at a restaurant in Vancouver, near the marina we were tied up at. She was our waitress, and Ted kind of fell for her.”

“What does that mean…‘kind of’?”

“Ted’s kind of confused right now. He’s been like a heat-seeking missile, dead-set on becoming a priest for as long as he’s been able to recite the Lord’s prayer…”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ I’ve been picking up little signals that something happened this past year, but I’m not prying. Not yet, anyway. That said, he’s of a mind right now to meet a girl and do the deed.”

“He’s a…”

“Indeed he is. By design, not chance, but, like I said, something changed this past year. Something changed inside him.”

“And she’s the first girl he’s…”

“Yup,” he sighed. “I think you’ve got the picture.”

“I don’t like it. There’s something really off about her.”

“How about heroin and a pathological liar. Is that a good combination?”

She stared at him, then shook her head. “Why?”

“He’s going to be 21 in August. He’ll do the right thing.”

“He might. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with her in the picture. Did you get her junk off the boat?”

“Yup.”

“You say she’s from Australia?”

“That’s what’s her passport says, yes.”

She nodded. “Think her passport is here, on board?”

“I don’t know. I guess so.”

“Mind if I take a look?”

He shook his head. “I’d rather not break those boundaries, if you don’t mind. What are you? A cop?”

She shook her head. “Nope. I work in the prosecutors’ office, with the DAs office, in Atlanta; for the most part, I work sex crimes.”

“What…like rape…stuff like that?”

“Yeah, stuff like that,” she said, looking him in the eye.

“Interesting.”

“Interesting? Why do say that?”

“My mom was very religious when she was younger. She became interested in social work, worked with victims of sexual assault.”

“When was that?”

“Back in the 50s, I think. At least, that’s when she started. She kept at it ‘til Dad retired and they moved to Florida.”

“She was a little ahead of her time, don’t you think? Weren’t too many women back in the 50s working with those kinds of people. Do you know why she developed an interest in that work?”

He shook his head. “No, not really. It was was of those things she never talked about.”

Melissa nodded understanding. “It’s usually for personal reasons.”

“Oh? You too?”

She kept nodding. “Yeah, you could say that.”

He looked at her, then turned away for a minute – his eyes closed.

And she looked at him closely just then, not sure what she was seeing, then she leaned over, put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you some sort of an empath?” she asked.

“I don’t know…I’m not even sure I believe such a thing is possible…”

“Oh, it’s possible, alright.”

“And?”

“I can see it all over your face. You read people, don’t you? I mean, read ‘em like a book.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes things are clear to me.”

“Things?”

“People.”

“What about Tracy? What could you see about her?”

“Trouble. All kinds of trouble.”

“Such as?”

“The things she told us about her life seem out of place, but it’s her…”

“Her eyes.”

“Exactly. Something in her eyes.”

“Something…?”

“Dishonest.”

“Dishonest?” she said wonderingly. “How about…dangerous?” she added.

“I thought so when I first listened to her talk about her family, her parents. Now I’m not so sure.”

“First impressions are usually the right impressions, you know?”

He nodded, looked at her anew. “You brought cameras, lenses?”

“Yup.”

“Got a good telephoto.”

“I do. But I don’t think we have a way to get to shore right now.”

He scrunched-up his lips, then shrugged.

“Maybe you just wanted to be alone with me out here on your boat?” she asked – quietly.

“You know…? I think I’m too tired to do much of anything this afternoon, not without taking a nap first. I hate to leave you, but I really am tired.”

“Can you show me where to put my bag? I’ll need to unpack a few things.”

He hesitated, then shook his head a little. “Follow me,” he said, and just aft of his stateroom was a little office – that also had a small bunk against the hull, “Be it ever so humble,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”

“Kind of small,” she sighed. “Where do you bunk out?”

“Forward,” he said, feeling very sleepy now.

“You look beat. What time did you get up?”

“Two, two thirty. That’s my usual, though,” he said as he stumbled to his berth. “You mind if I take a rest for a while?”

“Be my guest.”

He lay down – and was asleep before his head hit the pillow…yet he was aware something was wrong.

His dreams were fevered, and the pain started then.

+++++

The police called Elizabeth, asked her to come to the hospital. They told her to hurry and James drove her.

A detective from the state police met her when she arrived, told her the victim, a young Chinese girl, had been found – dead – south of town, her throat cut, evidence of anal penetration – semen, the policeman said, unsure of himself around this lady – and that the girl had never talked.

“Why do you need me?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “I’m not connected with the police.”

“Well, the problem is a little unusual, Ma’am. We found a truck nearby, a box truck, nineteen-footer…and it was full of Chinese gals. None of ‘em speakin’ much, but one of ‘em said they were going to New York. They got jobs there. And they just come from China, on a boat.”

“How many girls, officer?”

“As best I can tell, something like ninety.”

“Ninety? In a nineteen foot truck?”

“A-yup. Packed like oysters in a tin can. Smell about the same, too.”

“Isn’t this a problem for the immigration people?”

“Probably so, a-yup, but you see…I think there’s something else goin’ on, and I heard you was good at talkin’ to folks. So, I was wonderin’ if, maybe, you could talk to these gals some, help us get a handle on where these folks is headed. Think you could?”

The detective helped her find the conference room where the girls were being held, and when he opened the door the sight she beheld was like nothing she had ever seen. Two hours later she was as angry as she’d ever been in her life – and she knew, too, that her life would never be the same.

+++++

This chapter (c) 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | just a little bit of story-tellin’

Corcovado + Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars 2

corcovado 2 im

II

His eyes were red, his mouth tasted like old fish and bug-juice, and now this. Someone, somewhere in Washington, had gotten a bug up his ass and wanted a bunch of Iraqi Migs hit before they could, conceivably, get airborne – and thereby be instantly shot down by some U.S. Air Force pukes loitering above Ali Air Base. There remained an outside chance, however small, that these Migs could break out and go after one of the carriers in the Gulf, and that just would not do.

The problem, as he saw it, was that his squadron had just bombed the living daylights out of just that airfield, including bombs that had cratered the runway beyond any further possible use. The other problem? Someone in the NRO had just gone over the latest satellite imagery and one runway was, somehow and against all odds, operational. And then, under cover of darkness and against all odds, the Migs had arrived.

No, that would just not do…not one little bit.

Ali Air Base was the closest operational base to Kuwait City, and, therefore, to the Gulf, and had been, literally, plastered two days before, when Operation Desert Shield rolled over into Desert Storm. And, he had flown at least six sorties there over the last two days. His Intruder had taken several hits from small arms fire this morning, driving home the point that, as hapless as the Iraqis seemed to be, a ‘Gomer’ with a flintlock could always get off a lucky shot off – and thereby ruin your whole day.

The squad XO had rousted him from a nice, warm dream less than a half hour ago, given him enough time to grab a shower and drop by the air wing’s dining room for a bologna sandwich and some bug-juice, otherwise known as Kool-Aid, as he walked to the briefing room; he began to regret the sandwich as soon as he finished it – and wished he’d tossed down two more Dixie-cups of the red stuff – on top of the four he’d tossed down – but already his bladder was aching…and that just wouldn’t do…

The Wing’s intel weenies had set up an overhead projector in the little compartment, but as only three Intruders were being detailed to this strike the room had kind of an intimate, less formal feel going down just then, until the CO walked in and that vibe disappeared – in an instant. Commander Dan Green walked up the lectern and looked at his team, then shook his head.

“No use going over the how or the why,” Green began, “but Gomer has moved some assets on the ground at Ali that weren’t there four hours ago, and that can only mean one thing. Somehow, someway, we didn’t get the runways as good as we thought. Also, there are eight Mig-23s on the ground there, and ten Frogfoots just landed, maybe an hour ago. They’re loaded with ordnance, or so I’m told, and we got Marines on the beach, if you get my drift…

“Jim, you’re taking 5-0-9.”

“5-0-9, sir?”

“We’ve apparently got two of those new AGM-84E missiles onboard, and 5-0-9 is the only bird we’ve got that can handle them. You’re also the only man in the squad with any training on the dash-84, and someone on the E-ring wants it used – tonight. Here’s your attack profile,” Green added, handing over a hastily mimeographed piece of paper – full of charts and graphs. “You’ll launch and arc in from the west. The missiles’ tracks are programmed to hit the fuel bladders, again, and the OPS building, which we, somehow, missed today. Satellite imagery has their pilots in-barracks right now, but they’re fueling the Migs as we speak, so odds are they’ll try to take-off before the sun comes up. With that many aircraft up, the thinking is one or two might get through, and we’re not going to let that happen.”

“So, I launch, shoot and boogie back?” he asked.

“Not quite. Your load-out includes two cluster bombs. Look on page three. You launch, impact should be within two minutes. The XO and I will come in from the south and east a minute later, then you come in from the west about a minute after that, drop on anything that moves.”

“Okay.”

“One other thing. See the note page five…you’ll meet up with a Raven at those coordinates. He’ll lead the strike, jamming for the most part, but he’ll be carrying anti-radiation heads, too. He launches first, then you. Got it?”

He looked over the attack profile and shook his head. “Why so low over the border?” he asked. “I thought their radar were down across the board?”

“A Saudi E-3 is picking up emissions in the area.”

“Oh, swell.”

“Yeah. Good news all over. Word is someone picked up Buk transmissions late last night, and some Air Force A-10s picked up some SA-7 fire when they tried to hit a road about ten clicks north of there…”

“You’re full of good news, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, well, if it was easy…”

“Yeah, yeah…I hear you, skipper.”

“5-0-9 is gonna shoot from cat one, and she’s on the elevator right now, ready to go. Cartwright ought to have the coordinates loaded by now, all but the rendezvous with that EF-111. Try not to bust 300 AGL inbound, okay?”

“Yup.”

“Seeya.”

“Yup. Good hunting, skip.”

“You too. Better get a move on.”

He picked up the rest of his gear and made it to the flight deck as the Roosevelt turned into the wind, and he did a quick walk-around the Intruder as an S-3 applied full power next to his catapult, checking his ordnance was racked correctly and all pins removed. He climbed up into his cockpit just as the Viking launched, and the cockpit filled with JP-9 fumes.

His BN, Jerry Cartwright, was still entering waypoints into DIANe when he clambered into the left seat, then his crew chief helped hook up an O2 line to his face-mask; they both straightened out his harness before the chief pulled the safeties on the ejection seat, showing him the pins before he disappeared into the darkness below. He took a deep breath and looked around – but all he saw outside the Intruder was pure black…not even a flicker of moonlight on the sea…

He applied power and taxied from the elevator, watched the deck come alive as he lined up on the rail, then he closed the canopy and ran up power, waiting for the wand. A minor swarm walked away from the Intruder a moment later, all the last minute checks complete, and he then ‘Pri-fly’ came over the net right on cue.

“Tiger 5-0-9, clear.”

“5-0-9.”

“You got her spun up? We ready to roll?” he asked Cartwright as he checked power and rechecked the wing.

“I’m nominal.”

“Okay. Let’s go do this shit.” He turned to the wands down in the dark and adjusted his head a little, pushing his body back in the seat a little more, then he turned his head a little and saluted into the night…

…And the Intruder roared down the deck…slamming him into the seat…

In the enveloping darkness the transition to flight was subtle…just the slightest dip as 5-0-9’s wings bit into the thick air as she cleared the deck…and, as was his habit, he shook his head and worked his jaw as he raised the gear and cleaned the wing, keeping one eye on the altimeter, the other on his airspeed, scanning the engine tapes until he was at 1500AGL and everything was still working the way it was supposed to.

“Come left to three one zero,” Cartwright said. “You got the Raven’s coordinates?”

“Entered.”

“Okay…why don’t you do some of that pilot shit and wake me when we get back.”

“Yup, you take a nap. Just remember to wake me somewhere over Kansas, okay?”

“Yup.”

“Tiger 5-0-9, Big Stick.”

“Five by five, Stick.”

“Tiger Lead is airborne. Start your hack in five, four, three, two, one – mark.”

“Got it,” he said as he reset the chronometer and punched the go button.

“509, contact Turnout on 244.3, and good hunting.”

“Forty-four three, and thanks.”

He trimmed the Intruder into a shallow dive and slipped the HUD into terrain mode, looked at the sea’s surface one more time before he turned all his attention to his cockpit instruments. He would for the rest of this first segment, anyway.

“5-0-9, Turnout,” he heard a few minutes later.

“5-0-9, go.”

“Come to 3-2-0, get down in the weeds now.”

“3-2-0.”

“Uh, 5-0-9, we’re picking up emissions inside Al-Wafrah, profile looks like SA-11.”

“Got it.”

“Turnout, Weasel 3-0-9, expedite.”

“3-0-9.”

“Uh, 5-0-9, make that 3-3-0. Someone just went active.”

“Jerry?”

“I’m looking…” his BN said as the Intruder’s threat receivers started warbling…then…“I gotta launch! One airborne. Now two…! High-PRM, headed south! Get down in the weeds, man!”

He sighed, felt his sphincters relax a little as he pulled up on the stick a little. Five twenty knots and one ten over the waves meant one wrong twitch and Tiger 5-0-9 would become a smeary patch of oil in the waters off Kuwait…then he saw the beach a mile ahead, and a few campfires down on the sand as they roared over seconds later.

“5-0-9, feet dry.”

“5-0-9, come left to 3-1-0 and climb to at least 200 AGL, buddy, or I just can’t see you.”

“Three ten and two.”

“How long?” Cartwright asked.

“To?”

“The Raven.”

“Call it ten minutes. Maybe nine minutes forty seconds.”

“Wish there was some moon.”

“Not me. Too many b-b-guns down there.”

“Hear anything from Barbara?”

“Nope. She went back home, I think. To her parents for a while.”

“5-0-9, got an outbound strike headed to the Stick, two miles north, 300AGL.”

“Okay.”

“5-0-9, come left to 2-2-0 NOW!”

He hit the stick hard, reefed the Intruder into a steep left turn, his eyes focused on the altimeter as he came off the power a little, then the threat receiver came on again.

“What the fuck!”

“Looks like heat-seekers. SA-7s, my guess,” Cartwright croaked, the G-forces making it hard to talk now.

“Every Gomer with a flintlock,” he groaned – as he straightened out on 2-2-0.

“5-0-9, you guys still with me?”

“Roger that. Looked like SA-7s.”

“5-0-9, concur, your traffic is now two zero miles, come right to 3-4-0.”

“Got it.”

“Okay, come up to 7000AGL, then start your attack profile after you hook up.”

“Seven, yeah, got it.”

Moments later the EF-111 appeared high and to their left, coming out of Saudi Arabia, and he reefed the Intruder into a gently arcing turn and slipped into the Raven’s four o’clock.

“Magpie, 5-0-9. You ready?”

“Affirmative.”

“Follow me.”

He looked around once, finally realized the night was clear and it looked like there were a billion stars out, then he focused on the -111 and followed this Magpie into a steep dive, letting his speed build up to almost five hundred and ninety knots – as fast as the Intruder dared go at this density altitude, and with this payload.

“Magpie, 5-0-9, I’ve got two transmitters targeted, launching in three-two-one…”

He had his visor down in an instant, and he squinted ahead just enough to see his instruments – yet even so the intense bloom from the Raven’s anti-radiation missiles almost blinded him.

“Fuck!” Cartwright shouted. “God damn, I’m fuckin’ blind!”

“Magpie, 5-0-9, launching in three-two-one…”

He clinched his eyes tightly this time, and still he saw the bloom – only it was deep red this time – leaving the jangled impression of blood vessels on his retinae. He shook his head, looked at the attack cue on his HUD and armed both his missiles.

“Launch in fifteen seconds,” Cartwright sighed, flipping the final safeties to OFF. “Ten seconds. Magpie, launching ONE in five, four, three, two and one…launching TWO in five, four, three, two, one…”

His eyes almost wilted under the sustained fire that burst forth from his wings.

“Magpie, Turnout, two impacts, high probability detonations on target. Come left to zero-two-zero, start jamming off axis.”

“Magpie, 0-2-0.”

“509, SLAM ONE has detonated. I’ve lost your second…no…wait one. SLAM TWO detonation, both appear to be on target. Tiger 500 and 5-0-2 are starting their runs. Come to zero-eight-two degrees and 500AGL, 300 K-T-S.”

“509, 500 and three.”

“509, start your run your discretion.”

He looked at the chronometer on the panel…call it fifteen seconds…as he trimmed out of his dive and went to full power. “Going now,” he said to the controller in the E-2C, then, to Cartwright: “Pickle’s hot?”

“Your bombs,” his BN added, unnecessarily.

Even from thirty miles out the fires were visible, yet he couldn’t even begin to imagine what it was like down there. At least ten thousand pounds of high explosives had just hit the Iraqi airfield – everything from fuel storage bladders to the control tower had taken hits, and now he was coming in to literally drop bombs on anything, or anyone, left standing.

Then…the threat receiver screamed at him…

…As five SAMs lit off and arced off into the night – chasing the skipper and the XO…

“Turnout? Got a vector to the launcher?”

“500, 509, negative. Hit the airfield again, got that! Repeat, stay on target!”

“509, roger.”

“509, Turnout, radar contact, we got three aircraft taxiing for the runway, looks like the Sukhoi-25s.”

“Vector?”

“Call it zero-eight-one.”

“Show me four-zero seconds out. Gotta drop from at least eight hundred.”

“509, no active emissions from the SAMs…looks like they shut down…probably putting more on the rails.”

“Yup. Runway in sight…confirm…looks like three Frogfoots and a Flogger…”

The threat receiver began howling again…just as he pickled his bombs on the Sukhois…and seconds later he saw the SAM arcing in from the left. Flares and chaff, push the stick down, turn into the missiles flight path, try to confuse their radar seekers, more chaff, stick up, jink right and push down…

One missile exploded harmlessly in his wake…

The second missed, but only by a few meters, then it exploded a hundred meters behind his Intruder…

And fire alarms went off, then hydraulic pressure alarms. Electric buses went next, then he looked over, saw Cartwright’s head was – gone – low geysers of raw arterial blood pumping from the stump…then he felt the pain in his right leg. Shooting up from his ankle all the way to his thigh…

“Uh, 509, I’m going down – fast.”

“509, say again?”

“509, I’m hit, my BN is gone, engines out, losing pressures…uh…okay, fire on the wing…punching out now…”

He didn’t hang around for a reply, and the next thing he knew he was hanging from his parachute harness, drifting down towards a black hole in the desert…

+++++

He was sitting on the swim platform, Altair still just visible – low on the southwest horizon. He could hear Ted describing Altair’s systems to Tracy, trying his best to impress the girl, and no doubt failing miserably despite his reassuringly authoritative choice of words. In his experience girls just didn’t give a damn about electronics and all such ‘stuff,’ though they often tried to appear interested. If they were, well, interested in the boy talking, that is. Only he wasn’t sure who or what this girl was interested in – yet – and that bothered him.

The whole license thing bothered him, too.

Like she didn’t appreciate the gravity of his passport explanation and so had decided to play him. To call him on it, in other words…and in his world eighteen-year-old girls just didn’t do that. No, he wondered who she really was, and what her angle was.

And just then he wished Ted had checked his testosterone back in Boston, but that was a done deal now. He’d have to deal with it as best he could.

He sighed, took a deep breath as he rubbed the scar on his right shin, the he looked aft and saw he could still see Vancouver’s lights in their wake, and while the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky it was still quite dark out.

“Just like me,” he said softly. “Groping around in the dark again. Trying to make sense of the senseless…”

+++++

He could see Tiger 509 cartwheeling after it slammed into the earth, spraying jet fuel in wide arcs as it tumbled – and suddenly vast swathes of grass lit off. Following the prevailing wind, the flames marched to the north, but then the thought struck him…

The flames were bright, and he looked up, saw his olive colored parachute as plain as day – which meant any Gomer within ten miles could see him, too.

And now, hanging up here in the sky, he noticed his leg really hurt.

At least, he said to no one in particular, he felt somewhat intact. Not like…

No, I’m not going there, he thought. I’m alive, he isn’t and I’m sorry, but I’ll worry about all that later. He reached for his SART radio and turned it on, but left it attached to his harness…

“509, how do you read, over?”

He fumbled for the transmit button and pressed it. “509, still in my chute.”

“Confirm, you are down?”

“I will be, in about thirty seconds. The aircraft is about a half mile east of my position.”

“Are you injured?”

“Affirmative. Some metal sticking out of my legs, but that’s about all I can see from here.”

“Call when you get set.”

“Yup,” he said, but the ground was rushing up now, and he knew what was coming next…

He tumbled for what felt like forever, his chute full of the southerly breeze and dragging his body through what had to be acres of marshy reed and prickly grass…then the silk got tangled in some sort of stunted tree and he rolled to a stop. He lay still for a moment, listening to his heart beat in his temples, then he tried to slow his breathing down but realized he was just too disoriented for that. He felt pain all over now and pulled out his K-Bar, cut parachute cords, cutting himself free of the fluttering parachute.

He rolled over, tried to see the wound but it was still too dark and he didn’t dare use his flashlight out here in the open so he leaned up and took a look around. He was in the coastal marsh, he could hear the sea beyond – and a small city perhaps ten miles away…probably Abādān…and he knew troops were there…that’s where the SAMs had come from…

He turned again and he hurt all over, felt light-headed for a moment and he steadied himself on a rock…until he heard movement in the marshy grass a few meters away…

Then he remembered…there were supposedly crocodiles in these marshlands and he pushed himself up, gathered the remains of the parachute and walked directly away from the marsh as quietly as he could…

He came upon a low escarpment of rocky scree and he strung up the remains of the parachute between a few stumpy trees, making a shelter of sorts as he knew the sun would be brutal in just a few hours, and only then did he unclip the light from his harness and look at his leg…

He saw one piece of metal jutting from the top of his left thigh, and it looked thin – and sharp – then he shined the light on his right shin and saw a much more ragged piece – of something – had gone all the way through this leg, and this wound was bleeding – badly. He felt for the little first aid kit in his right breast pocket and pulled it out, felt for the powder he was supposed to pour on wounds like this to control the bleeding and found it. He gently opened the pack and poured a little on both wounds, then leaned back and took a deep breath…

‘The radio!’ he thought… ‘Got to get on the radio, turn on the beacon…’

He found the beacon and flipped it on, then turned on the radio and called in: “509, on the air.”

He paused, heard nothing, then called again.

“509, checking in, how do you read?”

“509, we have your beacon, some bad guys in the area looking for you right now, so keep your head down. Call in at 0500 hours, earlier if compromised.”

“Got it.” He turned the radio to standby – to conserve power – then he bunched up some extra parachute material into a pillow and leaned back – and the light-headedness returned…this time with a vengeance. He reached out to steady himself but he was falling again, falling through cool clouds, falling to the earth, and into the night…

+++++

They dropped anchor that afternoon, a mile off the main channel in a protected harbor on the south side of Musket Island. He inflated the Zodiac and put the little Honda outboard on the thin wooden stern, then held her off with one hand while he pulled the little inflatable to Altair’s bow. Ted was on the  foredeck, getting the second anchor ready on the foredeck as he pulled up, and he took the anchor from him, put it on the Zodiac’s hard floor, then turned to the motor and pulled the crank…

“Ready to pay out the chain?” he asked as the little outboard sputtered to life.

“I’ve got 200 feet ready. Is that enough?”

“Should be.”

“I think we should tie the stern off to those trees,” Ted added, pointing to shore. “Maybe keep us from swinging too much…”

“Not with these tides, unless you want to stay up all night paying out line,” he said as he puttered slowly away from Altair. When he was fifty yards away from their first anchor he let this second one, a 44 pound Rocna, go; when it hit bottom he moved off a few yards then dropped the remaining chain overboard.

“Okay, back it down a little, rudder to port.”

“Okay!” Ted called out, but by that time he was paying attention to Tracy again. Arms crossed over her chest, the same petulant expression on her face she’d worn all day. ‘Not quite bored yet,’ he sighed inwardly. ‘But give it a few more hours…then the hurting will begin.’

The first thing he’d noticed as the day warmed and sweatshirts came off were the tell-tale tracks on her arm, and that had set off all his internal alarms. This was his ship and he was responsible for any drugs found on board, and that meant if they were boarded and drugs were found – anywhere – he’d conceivably lose the boat. His home. And that meant he had to proceed carefully, and quickly, to get to the bottom of this.

“So,” he said aloud, “tell Ted and let him handle it, or do it myself?”

Do it yourself, the little voice in the back of his head said. Don’t put this on Ted.

He nodded as he set a trip-line for the anchor, then he motored over to the rocky shore, to the crumbling remnants of an old granite quarry. He waved at an older couple anchored as he passed, noting their little sailboat had come all the way from Southhampton, England, and he shook his head, wondering what it would be like to be cooped up on a thirty foot boat in the middle of the Atlantic…for weeks?

The water was clear near the rocky shore as he slowed – then beached the Zodiac, and he hopped out, walked the rocks for a few minutes, looking at Altair as he walked, at Ted and Tracy talking on the foredeck. He was not looking forward to this…no, not at all…

He looked-over the old quarry for a while, climbed among the rusted detritus wondering where these slabs of time had ended up. Some courthouse in Vancouver, probably, he sighed. He turned, looked at the sun…maybe an hour before twilight, so it was time to head back and get to it.

By the time he was motoring back he noted Ted and Tracy had gone below, and he groaned. ‘God, not already,’ he said inwardly…

He circled Altair once before he approached the swim-platform and tied off, and by the time he reached for the rail Ted was standing there, waiting, looking at him.

With a couple of baggies in hand.

And with what looked like a handful of insulin-type syringes in the other.

“What’s all this?” he asked.

“Heroin,” Ted said.

“Did you get all of it?”

“Unless it’s stashed up her ass, yeah.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve checked already,” his son added. “We can drop her at Powell River on the way up, in the morning.”

“Is that what she wants?”

“No. She wants to stay.”

“Nowhere to go?”

“Nope.”

“No money?”

“A few bucks.”

“What’s with the McGill story?”

“Bullshit, for the most part. She came over a few years ago, dropped out after her second year. Been drifting ever since.”

He nodded as he looked at his son. No, no longer a boy, that much was certain…but what kind of man was he going to be?”

“And what do you want to do?” he asked his son.

“Get rid of this shit.”

“Take the Zodiac, get some rocks from the beach and put them in the baggies, take them off a-ways and dump ‘em. Next, what do you want to do about her?”

His son looked down, shook his head… “I don’t know, Dad. I just don’t know.”

“Well, whatever you decide to do is fine by me. I’m proud of you, by the way.”

Ted looked up, smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Never thought I’d hear you say something like that, Dad.”

“Oh?”

“You’re not the most demonstrative dude in the world, ya know.”

The words hit him, hard, and he felt old and hollow inside for a moment, then he looked at his son again and nodded his head. “I am my father’s son, Ted. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize, Pops. I guess it just makes it all the more meaningful, ya know?”

He nodded again. “I’m going to put on some water for spaghetti. Is she in her bunk?”

“Yup.”

“Is she hurting yet?”

“Yup.”

“Goddamn it all to Hell,” he muttered. “This isn’t exactly what we had in mind, was it?”

“This is the world we live in, Dad.”

“I must’ve missed something along the way.”

“Somehow I doubt that, but it’s a not the eighties anymore.”

He smiled again, and nodded, then smiled as he said: “Maybe you should be a cop, Ted.”

“Why not a pilot?”

“Because if you have a family you’ll miss all the fun.”

“And a cop wouldn’t?”

“You got a point there, Bucko. Well, you’d better get to it.”

“Right.”

“Should I just ignore her?”

“No, I think she’s expecting you. She saw you looking at her arms; that’s when she came to me.”

“Okay.”

Ted pushed off and motored away, then he turned and stepped into the canvas enclosure on his way down below. Once in the galley he pulled-out a large pot and filled it with water, added some salt and olive oil then set it to boil while he pulled out a skillet and chopped onions and peppers, then set them on a burner in some more olive oil. Add a little garlic and cilantro, he thought, then a few cans of diced tomatoes and some basil to kick things off.

“That smells good,” he heard the girl say, and when he turned he saw she was sitting in the saloon, her feet tucked-in under her legs – and his heart went out to her sitting there. She looked like a used up waif, her life not beginning now, but in tatters.

“Next – my secret ingredient, a good shot of Merlot…”

“In spaghetti sauce?”

“It’s classy spaghetti sauce, kiddo.”

“Like you, huh?”

“Me? I kind of doubt that…”

“I don’t.”

He turned and looked at her again. “How you feeling?”

“Strung out, burned out.”

“Lost, and maybe a little alone?”

She turned away, started to cry…

“Knock it off, will you?” he sighed. “We’re supposed to grown-ups around here…okay?”

“Sorry…I’m not feeling very grown-up right now.”

“How are you feeling? Besides strung out?”

“Like I’ve been found out…by my parents, my father.”

“And what would your father have done?”

“Beat me half to death, I suppose.”

“And then…?”

“Him? He’d have gone down to the pub, I reckon. Had a few pints…”

“And your mother?”

“She wasn’t around much, if you know what I mean?”

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“She worked nights, mostly.”

“Nights?”

“On the street.”

“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight…? Dad was a drunk and mom was a hooker?”

She nodded her head, looked away. “We were poor, lived in…”

“Pardon me, but I really don’t believe a word you’re saying?”

“What?”

“I don’t believe you, Tracy.”

She stared at him now, unsure of herself – and angry.

“You told Ted you spent two years at McGill, but somehow I don’t see a heroin addict raised in that kind of home ending up at a school like that. It just doesn’t, you know, add up,” he said as he turned back to his sauce.

“You think you know me…?”

“Who – me? No, not at all. Point of fact, I don’t know you at all. Second point? I don’t think you know yourself very well.”

“Oh, and what do you think I am?”

“In my limited experience, people lie like you are when they’re trying to conceal something.”

“Oh, and just what am I trying to conceal?”

“Beats me, kid. And even if you knew, which I kind of doubt, I don’t think you’d tell me anything that even remotely resembles the truth. You want some wine?”

“Yes, please.”

He poured her a glass of Merlot and walked it over to her, looking her in the eye as he handed it to her. “The thing is, if you want to talk, I’ll listen, but I think I’ve already got the contours outlined in my mind.”

“Oh, really?”

He walked back to the stove and stirred his sauce a little, sighing… “Yeah. Daddy was a rich man, Mommy was the drunk and she didn’t get involved much, did she?”

“Involved? What do you mean?”

“He abused you, didn’t he?”

“Abused? What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. You tell me…?”

She looked away, took a big pull from her glass then looked at him again. “It wasn’t like that, not really. I think he wanted to, but I don’t think he had the courage.”

“Now that’s an odd choice of word, don’t you think, Tracy? Courage?”

“Well, he always told me I was cute…too cute…”

“Ah, so it all comes down to restraint on his part? That’s what you mean by courage?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“Because you’re so, what, so irresistible?”

“Yes. I guess.”

He looked at her again, careful not to say a word.

“God, that sounds awful, doesn’t it?” she added.

He stirred the tomatoes and nodded his head. “Kind of, yes. What does your father do?”

“Imports mainly. Foodstuffs, from South America for the most part, I think.”

“And he’s wealthy?”

“Yes. Very.”

“And mother?”

“She plays cards.”

“And drinks a fair bit, I take it?”

She nodded her head again. “Yup.”

“You want a salad?”

“Can I help?”

“Sure…I can always use a fresh galley slave…”

She laughed at that, and was still smiling when Ted came down – and saw them both smiling and chattering away.

‘God…I’ll bet she never knew what hit her,’ he thought, smiling a little at thoughts of other nights, and other interrogations.

+++++

‘Yes…there it is again,’ he thought. ‘Something in the grass, moving this way…”

The pain in his right leg was almost overwhelming now, but the blood flowing from the wound had slowed a little after he put the coagulant around the penetrating metal shard, and though he’d wanted to shoot an ampule of morphine he knew he couldn’t relax yet. Not now.

Then he’d heard something in the grass and curled up behind a large rock.

But then…nothing. Like as soon as he moved, the movement in the grass stopped…

He pulled some of the ragged parachute fabric over his body, trying to hide as best he could without disturbing the little structure he’d built, and then he’d lain still for minutes, trying not to move anything. Then he’d looked at his watch…

And cursed. Almost five now, almost time to check in with the E2 orbiting somewhere out there in the night, somewhere out over the Gulf.

He flipped the SART radio to active and pushed the transmit button: “509, 509, 509,” he whispered, as per protocol. “509, in the clear on 243.”

“509, sitrep.”

“Something moving in on my position, being very quiet about it, too.”

“Okay. Seal Team airborne at this time, be at your position less than two zero minutes. Jolly Green will be coming in behind them.”

“509, got it.”

“Hang tight, fella. The cavalry’s comin’…”

He flipped the power to standby, turned his attention back to the marsh, looking for a shift in the shadows…when a new, sharper spasm of pain broke over him. He looked down at his leg, saw a snake of some kind coiled up beside his right foot and he knew, just knew, he was going to die just then.

He heard more noise in the grass then and looked up, saw a small leopard walk out of the waist-high reeds – looking right into his eyes.

He was reaching down for his 45ACP – slowly – when the snake struck again.

this chapter (c) 2017 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

The Deep End of Your Dreams + Ch. 14

Deep END 14

Chapter 14

The road was rough, and, of course, there were thunderstorms just ahead. Albuquerque lay beyond this latest line of storms, somewhere beyond the lightning, and Claire was smoldering inside.

Stopped by Los Alamos security near the entrance to the highway to Santa Fe, she had finally been stuffed into the back seat of a gray Ford sedan – only to find Levy already in the car. Handcuffed, as it turned out.

Then she was handcuffed, and for the first time in her life she’d wanted to cry. She also didn’t want Ben to see her crying, to afford him the opportunity to see so deeply into her fear, so she turned away, looked at her reflection in the glass…

Amanda…gone. How was that even possible? How did the best train in the country derail, without apparent cause, in the middle of nowhere?

When the FBI agent had asked where she was going she’d told him, and after he apologized he told her he hadn’t heard any details about the accident yet. “If you don’t mind me askin’, Ma’am, how do you know your sister’s dead?” the agent asked as they passed through Santa Fe.

“He told me,” Claire replied without evasion, pointing at Ben.

“And, sir, how did you hear this information?”

And he couldn’t very well answer – ‘Gee, I learned of this a thousand years from now,” so he thought for a moment before answering: “On the radio.”

“I didn’t think they did that,” the agent said. “But then again, I don’t think you’re telling me the truth.”

Then Ben looked at Claire’s reflection in the glass – and their eyes met for a moment, yet she turned away. Just like Amanda turned away.

“You’ll have to ask the people at the station,” Ben added.

“I will,” the agent said, looking at Ben in the rearview mirror.

“Where are we going?” Claire asked the agent, still looking at her reflection.

“To take a ride in an airplane, I guess you might say.”

“I see,” she added, thinking about the people who would want to talk to her after the sphere had been reported over her house. That meant Oak Ridge or Washington. She thought about the sphere seen here, then the one off the coast of Spain. That one had been clearly observed – and by everyone – including the president.

Yes, she was going to be taken to Washington – to see Roosevelt. Because…she had to be under suspicion now. Well, she’d just to have to let Levy talk to them, let him figure out what to do next – because one way or another she was pretty sure Ben wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

Slate-colored clouds loomed ahead, and she saw lightning in the clouds, too, then fat drops of water hit the windshield. Heavier drops began to beat the Ford’s roof and she closed her eyes, listened to the mysterious rhythm… Why, she wondered, did humans see patterns everywhere? Why? And what pattern did Amanda’s death fit into?

Then the thought hit her: he had chosen not to protect Amanda? Why? Had she been so peripheral to the future? Or had her death – now, today, this afternoon – preserved some pre-established order?

Then yet another thought slammed into her: what if Amanda’s trip to the ship had severely altered a timeline? What if her immediate death had become the only way to realign a presumed natural order of time?

Then, another leap of insight. What if…when she’d uprooted Amanda, brought her west from Philadelphia, what if she had altered…but wait…how could she ever know anything like that was true? She couldn’t, not with any certainty. If time was a river, how many tributaries could be generated by just one person? By just one person in the course of a single day? How many ‘what ifs’ could there be?

‘For all intents and purposes, an infinite number.’

Because if just one person confronted an almost infinite number of momentous choices in the course of a lifetime, the permutations would literally be very nearly infinite. One would never know – unless they could somehow see into the future, or somehow measure the results of one choice against another.

What crushed her in that moment, what made her feel completely insignificant was the thought that Ben and Trevor – and all the people like them she assumed were already working here – had just that ability. If so, there’s was an Olympian vantage, one not so different than what the ancients thought characterized the gods.

She opened her eyes, looked out the window, saw the outskirts of Albuquerque as they emerged from the thunderstorm. The rain-soaked two-lane blacktop was nearly deserted now, and she had seen only a few trucks headed to Santa Fe so far, while up ahead Albuquerque’s lights were winking on as the sun licked the far horizon. They drove through the city in silence, Ben apparently looking at pedestrians out the Ford’s window, yet now with his arms crossed over his chest, somehow looking very bored while also projecting an image of pure vulnerability.

‘He doesn’t belong here, does he?’ she asked herself. What must that feel like? To not belong in such a profound way?

They drove out onto the tarmac at the Albuquerque Army Air Force Base, right up to a waiting DC-3, and as soon as they were aboard the aircraft the pilots throttled-up and taxied to the runway. It felt to Claire like only minutes passed before they were airborne, headed east over the Sandia Mountains – and into an infinite night.

+++++

More FBI agents met their aircraft at the airport, and the small convoy made the short drive across the Potomac in silence. Even more agents were waiting at the White House, where both she and Ben were searched before being escorted to Harry Hopkins’ office. She recognized Dean Acheson as they walked into the cramped office, and she saw smoldering malice in the diplomat’s peregrine eyes, then she saw Hopkins was in the room too. And he did not look in the least happy.

“The blue spheres,” Acheson said, pointing at Levy without preamble. “What are they?”

Ben stared at both Hopkins and Acheson for a moment, then shrugged. “In essence, while each mimics a plasma, what you’ve witnessed is but a small electromagnetic field that resides around a single sub-atomic particle. Power is applied to the field and that regulates the size of the sphere.”

“And why would you do that, Mr Levy?”

“Because the resulting sphere can be manipulated.”

“You mean Time, don’t you, sir? You can manipulate time?”

“No, sir. Not me, personally.”

“Your people, then.”

“That is a true statement, Mr. Acheson.”

“Are you human?”

“Human enough.”

“Where are you from?”

“Kent, sir.”

“Don’t lie to me, you son of a bitch.”

“I am not, sir. Of that, you may be sure.”

“Alright…one more time. Where did you come from?”

“Where did I come from? You mean…”

“You know exactly what I mean,” Acheson snarled.

“‘Where’ isn’t the correct question, sir. ‘When’ is more appropriate. Or – more to the point.”

“When? And just what do you mean by that?”

“My first iteration was created in 1866, sir. This body, the one you’re interacting with just now, was created in the year 3037. That is from when I come – this time.”

“You expect me to believe…?”

“I’ve told you the truth. Every time you’ve asked me a question, I’ve told you the absolute truth.”

“Well, the president seems to take great stock in you,” Acheson sighed, “though for the life of me I have no idea why.”

Levy only smiled, though he steepled his fingers just then, as if measuring the passage of time to a metronome only he heard.

“You’re a time traveler, is that it?” Hopkins said, speaking now for the first time, stepping tentatively into the flow.

“Not true, Mr. Hopkins. I am – we are – engineers.”

“What kind of engineers?” Acheson snarled, suddenly perturbed again.

“Time, sir,” Levy said – looking from Hopkins to Acheson. “We engineer Time. We try to do so in such a manner that we disrupt certain unwanted imbalances. That we ensure more acceptable outcomes, without disrupting our own existence.”

“And,” Acheson growled, “if I may be permitted to ask, acceptable – to whom? To you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“You know…I think I’ll have you shot.”

“That’s quite understandable,” Levy said, smiling again. “I’m sure the Russians would allow you to, though I feel quite certain Mr. Churchill may take offense.”

“What have they got to do with all this?” Acheson said, his eyes narrowing.

“Everything. Absolutely everything.”

“What did you mean when you said you were human enough?” Hopkins asked. “Human enough for what? To fool us?”

Claire looked at Ben now, her eyes full of questions. “You say you were born in 1866? The original iteration of you – whatever that means?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Ben said, grinning.

“What was your name? Back in 1866?”

Levy smiled broadly now. “Herbert.”

“Herbert?” Acheson said, his voice unbelieving. “Herbert…what?”

“Herbert George Wells.”

And it was Claire who burst out laughing this time. “You should pick your doppelgänger with more care, next time – Herbert.”

“Oh, I am not he.”

“Iteration?” Hopkins said. “What did you mean when you said that?”

“I am a copy.”

“A copy?” Acheson added. “Of H. G. Wells? Named Ben Levy?”

“Yes. Just so.”

“And you are not completely human?”

“Not the type of human you would recognize.”

Claire turned inward now, afraid of the next question she had to ask. “Who created you, Ben?”

“Our granddaughter, Claire. Though her father helped.”

She nodded before she turned away, then closed her eyes – to stop the flow of tears.

 

(C) 2017 | Adrian Leverkühn | abw | fiction, all of it…