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 Because, after all that nonsense back in Vermont, James was still withdrawn.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

Sunday in the Sun + 17 December 17

Sunday in the Sun 17 Dec

It’s becoming difficult not to look at events in the United States over the last two years as a kind of autophagia, but over the last two weeks, the impression has been almost overwhelming – and the need to turn and look away in disgust has become as overwhelming. Decent men everywhere, if there is indeed still such a thing, have looked on in August, self-righteous horror as, like falling dominoes, the mighty have fallen – yet the timing of all this strikes me as a little odd, a little too opportune. Then the spectre of a candidate for the United States Senate refusing to concede defeat after a special election, surrounded by his legions of the evangelical faithful, telling his acolytes that the country is being engulfed in a morass of moral relativism – all the while denying he’s been up to his elbows in fourteen-year-old girls. I’m tellin’ ya…you can’t make this stuff up, and it would almost be funny if it wasn’t so surreal.

Our president, our fearless leader, now denying he ever made those comments about “grabbing pussy” – even as audio tapes and witnesses call out the lie of his words. We have, as president, a pathological liar – and yet there isn’t a Republican out there who will stand up to the man. One or two will issue veiled references of his incapacity to lead – then shrink away into the night, and so this red-headed autophagic monster just gets bigger, eats his way into the body politic with each new impulse on Twitter, leaving our most sacred traditions as nothing more than a waiting smorgasbord for his pathological delight. And yet, we stand by in mute disbelief as he shits the remains of all that we once held dear all over the White House lawn, and then calls it snow.

This Republican Bonfire of the Vanities is burning down the house, and all the rest of us stand idly by, simple collateral damage. The tax cut bill, a scam that will benefit corporations and billionaires, is a setup, a pretext to gut social safety nets enacted during the New Deal, so now Republicans dance with glee in the aisles – after they cash their checks and get set to retire – while Democrats slink away into the night, still clueless after all these years.

The Democrats are deep into their own autophagic rituals now, too. After eight years of W the United States would have elected someone, anyone other than a Republican, and so they anointed the one man who would alienate the vast majority of white men in this country. When his time behind the curtain was up, and after much hand-wringing, they came up with the second person most likely to alienate white men, aka Hillary, and then after her shellacking conclaves of Democrats could be heard asking “why did we lose the white vote?” You can hear refrains of “we’ve got to win back the alienated white vote” as Democrats gather at the temple of inclusiveness and put forth yet another platform dedicated to the proposition that the transgendered among us need to be able to go to the bathroom wherever they want. I mean, hey, it’s not like we have serious socio-economic dislocation going on, with legislatively sanctioned structural inequality overturning seventy years of progress after each new Republican bill sails through Congress – unopposed. No, Democrats are asleep at the switch one more time, proving once and for all time they are no longer a party to be reckoned with, ready to be consigned to the ashbin of history. Just another people who failed to live up to their ideals, let alone our ideas.

There’s this decent Democrat, Uncle Joe Biden, who just might have been able to pull it off. Get the party back in the hunt, so to speak…but no, he’s already been shown the door. There are women waiting in the wings, waiting for their turn under the lights now. Cultivating their angst, tearing down what’s left of us, watching with smiles, and tears, waiting for the checks to roll in. Maybe after eight years of Trump, we’ll be ready for that ride again, but somehow I doubt it.

Dolomites

I love this image. Read about it here.

Sunday in the Sun + 3 December 2017

sunday in the sun 12 3 17

Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10:1-4)

A tax cut bill referred to by the majority of the people in this country as a scam to benefit billionaires.

A tax cut bill that will curtail abortion rights.

A tax bill that will make drastic cuts to health care programs for both seniors and children, and one notable provision will make expensive chemotherapy agents unaffordable for most seniors again. It’s worth noting that Senator John McCain, who is currently receiving such chemotherapy, is voting for the bill.

Lobbyists are crafting the bill behind closed doors, sending copies to senators only hours before they are scheduled to vote on the almost 500-page act.

This is the fate of democracy once it falls into the hands of the billionaire class. Congressmen and women can be purchased like whores on the street, purchased to do their master’s bidding, and those entrusted to protect the lives and liberty of those they would pretend to represent have now turned on their constituents in one of the most brazen betrayals in history.

And all this aided and abetted by a “news” organization – Fox News – started by a malicious foreigner and funded by billionaires for almost thirty years.

They have purchased the death of representative democracy in America.

May we rest in peace.

the hand that feeds him