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Harriet (chapter 1)

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Harriet

 

 

I was in Boston to solve what I thought was a murder. It was early summer, a nice time to be, and approaching the anniversary of her death.

“But I am a cat and I don’t like cold water,” I said as I rode the red line in the direction of Braintree. I changed the sentence, her last known, slightly to see if it sounded better: “But I am a cat and I do not like cold water.

“I am a cat and I do not like cold water.

“I am a cat and I don’t like cold water.”

When I opened my eyes the man sitting across from me had reared his upper lip as if he were doing curls at the gym. Making the Ugly Face. I noticed the communication device tumoring out of his ear.

“Why are you saying that,” he pussed.

“Have you heard of Harriet Quimby?” I answered.

The man inflated the edges of his gated mouth like a frog I’d seen once on the Internet. He turned his head a little to the left, a little to right, no longer looking at me. He took a call.

“Yes, Emma? I’m almost there. Hold the spot. Just—hold it. Tell them—tell them the leading edge. Tell them—some more upside.”

In my lap were three dozen pages printed out from various websites I’d scoured early into the mornings. Photos of her childhood home in Michigan, now decrepit and possible to forget. Photos of her face on the page. Resting against my ankle: my computer in its case, and next to me on the vacant seat was my hiking backpack and camping gear.

I got off at North Quincy station stop. I had to wait a while for the number 211 bus but when it came I was the first one up the steps.

“What are you doing?” the driver shot at me.

“I’m going to Squantum Cove.”

“What, to camp? Cops are gonna come and kick you off if that’s what you’re up to.”

“I assure you, my intentions are nothing but honorable,” I said before passing him by.

I sat at the very back of the bus where there was room for my gear. The people on the bus appeared older except for one woman who looked something like Harriet Quimby. I continued to watch her. I smiled. She looked away.

Harriet Quimby drove a red Ford roadster, one of the first ever made in this country. She wrote over 250 articles for the popular New York-based magazine Leslie’s Weekly on topics such as the misfortunes of the Third World poor and the possible emancipation of women. She became interested in learning how to fly when she saw the famed pilot John Moisant wing his way around the Statue of Liberty during a night flight witnessed by thousands of people late in 1910. After the flight Harriet saw John Moisant at the Astor Hotel and asked him if he could teach her to fly.

The bus dropped me off close to Squantum Point Park. I had to walk another mile but I didn’t mind, I was prepared for the weight on my knees, the straps singeing my shoulders. When I reached the edge of the park I smelled the ocean and saw a tiny bed and breakfast that looked right out of England. Inside the bed and breakfast I asked, “Do you have any Harriet Quimby memorabilia?”

“Who’s Harriet Quimby?” the owner, a woman, said.

I explained that Harriet Quimby was only the first American woman ever to earn her pilot’s license. She made her first night flight at the Richmond County Fair on September 4, 1911 before a crowd of thousands. She was described as a beauty, tall and lithe, like a great cat, dressed in a purple hooded tunic and wearing a host of lucky amulets and other jewelry around her neck as she took off into the sky.

“Is that a fact,” the owner said when I told her that Harriet had also been the first woman to fly across the English Channel—on the exact day news of the Titanic broke. I showed the owner the famous picture of a beaming Harriet Quimby, goggles off, head still hooded, hoisted on the shoulders of a cheering crowd of French villagers who had rushed to see her touch down on the beach.

“Wow. She really did this? That’s something.”

I nodded. “And then she died. Not right then, but a few months later. Here, in Squantum.”

“Here?”

“At the cove. That’s why it’s so surprising you don’t have any memorabilia, you don’t even know about her.”

The owner looked at me as if I’d asked her for a sexual favor. I remembered promising myself once to watch my tone.

“My partner and I just retired,” she said. “We worked in biotech for thirty-five years. We haven’t read much in the way of early aviation.”

In the lull that followed I asked her, out of curiosity, just how much a room cost for one night at her establishment. She told me they were all booked up for the summer.

I explored the surrounding neighborhood for a bit. I walked up and down streets, past quiet houses and quieter cars. After a half an hour of frustration over not having seen anything bearing the memory of Harriet Quimby, I spotted an old, old woman seated alone on a bench at the edge of the park. She had a cane between her knees and was staring straight ahead as if waiting for someone. I approached her from the side.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

She looked up, my shadow covering her. 

“What is your opinion of the death of Harriet Quimby on July 1, 1912?”

The old woman, gummy-lipped, shaded her eyes with one of her hands even though my body blocked out the sun. She shook her head slightly.

“Perhaps I should explain who I am and why I’m here. I am an investigative reporter working for the Internet and my task today is to discover the truth behind Harriet Quimby’s death. Suicide, murder, or accident—or a combination of the first two and none of the last? You must have information that could help me in this case.”

The old woman took a long moment to answer. “I don’t understand any of this,” she finally spat.

“How old are you, if I may ask?”

“You may not!” The old woman swung her cane upward and jabbed at me with its tip. I stepped back, undeterred.

“But surely you must have been alive on July 1, 1912. Even if you were a little girl that day. Surely you must remember seeing the plane fall from the sky. So what happened? Tell me, please. Was it Mr. Willard’s fault? Did Harriet’s passenger jump out of the plane to kill himself, escape from his crushing financial burdens, and thereby unbalance the plane and thus kill Harriet too? Or was it merely the wind? Which?”

“Help! Fire! Fire! Help! Someone’s car’s on fire! And a house too! Help!”

I walked through the park, the former “airport” from which Harriet Quimby had taken off on her last flight before a crowd of approximately five thousand. Along the way I felt a presence nearby, sometimes at my back, other times to my side, in amongst the bushes or behind trees. I felt I was being followed, but who would be following me at this time? My former employer had cut me off, and my parents were gone. I looked up. Beyond the treetops I saw a single dark cloud in the otherwise faultless sky: a blemish that seemed to move with me. I thought this odd. At last I made my way down to the cove. The beach was empty, the tide in the mudflats still low and the twilit sky promising a full moon—perfect circumstances for my investigation.

I set my backpack and computer case and camping gear on drier ground at a distance from the flats. Then I got my solo tent ready and ate McDonald’s by the light of the moon. Careful to wrap all the waste up for safe disposal, I got into my sleeping bag inside my cozy confines and waited for sleep to slide into me.

What I witnessed next could have been a dream, but it likely wasn’t. I was at the airport in Squantum, only it was the real airport and I was among a crowd of five thousand spectators dressed in clothes that only could have been worn in all their authenticity that day, July 1, 1912. And though I could not see myself I saw her, the Dresden-China Aviatrix, Harriet Quimby, thirty-seven years old and surrounded by a flock of female friends all anxious to see her alight into her little Bleriot monoplane shipped all the way from France. And there was Harriet, looking right at me, a toothy smile, a wave of her hand, her silk scarf billowing from her open palm and into the grasp of one of those gathered. And there was her flying companion, Mr. William Willard, the president and organizer of this, the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. A heavyset man getting on in years, Mr. Willard climbed up into the seat behind Harriet’s and saluted the crowd. Harriet Quimby, face forward now, goggles set before her eyes, waited for the propeller to be spun, and when it was they were off! Off down the short field and into the air, off across the harbor and toward Boston Light.

My eyes were open and someone was outside my tent. No shadow, but I knew. I unzipped from my sleeping bag and got my voice recording device ready. Then I opened the front of the tent and stepped out.

A figure stood at the edge of the shore, her back to me. She wore a pure white dress that fell to her black shoes, and under one gloved palm was an umbrella resting straight up in the mud. Her look, the exact same as in the photo taken at the Moisant flight school in 1911, was completed by the hat she wore, large and fashionable for the time.

My breath creeping, my back bent slightly, I approached her to make sure I was seeing a ghost. When I was within a few feet she turned slowly to observe me. I saw her blameless green eyes, thought of touching her wind-whipped skin, and I knew. It was she. It was Harriet Quimby.

For a time we watched each other, only a foot or two apart now.

“This is how I want to remember you.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to say that,” I said. I had yet to remember to turn on the voice recording device.

Harriet drew her umbrella from the mud and pointed it laconically down the shoreline. I followed the direction of the tip.

“Let’s walk awhile,” she said.

Side by side we set off along the beach. Here and there insects and little crustaceous creatures scrambled and dove to hide. With every other step I listened to the plunging and sucking sounds of Harriet’s umbrella being driven into the mud and then pulled back out, like a cane. At one point I glanced at her and was surprised to find that she had aged far beyond the age at which she had died. She was perhaps seventy or eighty, her eyes rimmed red and her nose peeled and lips retracted into her mouth.

“In my opinion,” she said, quoting from a Leslie’s Weekly article she’d published in the year of her death, “there is no reason why the aeroplane should not open up a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason why they cannot realize handsome incomes from parcel delivery, from taking photographs from above or from conducting schools for flying.”

We had since stopped to stare out across the water at Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse in America. Harriet had returned to the age at which she’d died and I, remembering a key component of my investigation, brought up the voice recording device.

“Harr—um, Ms. Quimby. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

She said nothing, nor would she turn from watching the water. Her umbrella was sinking inch by inch under the weight of her gloved hands.

Again I saw that day. The Bleriot monoplane, gull-white, has just rounded the lighthouse and is sky-sailing back toward the shore. Across the Neponset River and Dorchester Bay, stark-perfect against a background of clear blue, the little craft bobs and quavers in its descent. The crowd, anticipating the landing, begins to applaud. There is Harriet Quimby, a man’s woman, author of a dozen produced Hollywood screenplays, perhaps born in California, perhaps not, perhaps born rich, perhaps not. There is Mr. William Willard leaning in as if to say something to the pilot.

And then, at a height of 1,500 feet, the monoplane suddenly pitches forward and Mr. Willard rises out of his seat, clears it as if he jumped. His body ejects in an arc, peaks, and then plummets.

The plane, already in a nosedive, flips nearly upside-down and Harriet Quimby, also unbelted, drops out.

“The voice recording device is on now, Ms. Quimby. Please, if you could, speak slowly and clearly enough for it to pick up.”

The umbrella was at this point a good third of the way into the mud. I realized that Harriet was forcing it down, plunging it as she would a sword into a stone. I realized she was angry.

She was biting her lip, her eyes still on the lighthouse. But the lower lip was being tested so hard blood was dribbling down her chin. Rather than recoil, I pressed forward.

“I know this may be difficult for you, Ms. Quimby. But, please. What did Mr. Willard say to you just before the plunge?”

Even before I’d finished the question she was walking toward the water. Her shoes made a squelching sound, a catch and release. She had left the umbrella standing straight up in the muck.

I followed her to where the mudflats gave way entirely to the ocean. Here she hesitated, lifted one caked shoe, allowed it to hover, and then nestled it back in its cradle.

She was a cat and she did not like cold water.

I brought the recording device up to Harriet Quimby’s face, as if doing so would force her to look at me at last.

“You must tell me, Ms. Quimby. It’s crucial to the investigation.”

I heard a sloshing and squelching from behind. I turned to find the moonlit expanse of mudflats empty. The umbrella was gone.

When I turned back to Harriet Quimby she was no longer dressed as a lady but rather as the Dresden-China Aviatrix, her trousers and purple-hooded tunic and goggles and lucky necklaces drenched in mud. I saw the bodies somersaulting through the blue.

Harriet crumpled before me, and her body began to sink. I was meant to drag her up and carry her to dry land.

Like in the picture.

I wasted little time. Within moments I was upon her body, grasping for a hold, but it was difficult; each time I felt I had her she slipped out like a worm from a peach. Finally I got my arms under her body and bore it up. She was lifeless, head lolling, her goggles cracked, mud and murk and living things spilling from her mouth.

I set her on the ground and tried to stand her up. She only collapsed. On my second attempt I shook her violently, so roughly that her head appeared ready to pop from its neck.

“Damnit, Harriet!” I said to her opaque face. “I need to know!”

Whether she said it to me then or in another time does not matter. What does matter is what I heard next: He’s still out there.

And I’m meant to find him.

I didn’t bother to watch Harriet Quimby’s body sink. Turning from the edge I scanned the mudscape leading back to my tent. He was out there, somewhere. I started squelching.

“Mr. Willard! Mr. Willard! Are you here? Please!”

I stopped, held the voice recording device up as a beacon, rotated three hundred-sixty degrees, and when I came to stand facing in my original direction Mr. William Willard was in front of me at a distance of about five feet.

He looked awful. Mud and critters clung to his body in equal amounts. One of his eyes had burst from its socket and dangled like a body from a hangman’s noose. He swayed two feet toward me, and his mouth opened expelling the earth and sea.

I brandished the voice recording device at his face. “Mr. Willard. Could you tell me what exactly happened right before you fell out of the Bleriot? Did you jump? And if you did, why?”

“Tell me, tell me, tell me,” the suspect intoned.

I lunged at him. My fingers on his throat, I pressed him down into the mud. His lack of resistance made my act all the more frustrating, all the more futile.

“You’re going to tell me!” I said. “You’re going to speak into this voice recording device slowly and clearly, and you’re going to tell the truth of that day!”

But he was gone from beneath my hands now sinking effortlessly. The voice recording device was gone too.

I managed to pull myself up into a sitting position. Mr. Willard, looking just as he did before he fell out of the monoplane, sat beside me. For a time we watched the ocean, the first faint light rising in the east and turning our nation’s oldest lighthouse into a silhouette, a statue. Then Mr. Willard said, “I’m trying to do some good here.”

“That’s my line, I think.”

The sun was breaking fast over the flatline.

“All I want to know,” I said, “is whether or not you jumped from that damn plane. The Internet says nothing for sure about this. People of the time thought one thing, and they thought another. So what was it? What…”

“Debts,” Mr. Willard said.

“So it was a suicide. And by committing suicide you murdered Harriet Quimby.”

Smiling ruefully, he shook his head. “I did not want to die,” he said.

“Then….they were right, the ones who said a bad wind caused the plane to flip.”  

Mr. Willard, his face tight, nodded.

“And you’re willing to swear on this? That it was an accident?”

“I do hereby swear,” he said.

“Then what did you say…as you…as you leaned forward….before your weight tipped the plane forward too far…too fast?”

“I said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my son about this glorious experience’.”

And then he was crying quietly, his head draped to his chest. I put my arm around him, and together we witnessed the sun’s ascent.

When next I looked to my right Mr. Willard was gone, and my arm fell awkwardly. I got to my feet and walked back to my tent.

As I was packing up I heard a sharp voice from behind. I turned to see an officer of the law approaching fast. I welcomed her.

“There’s no camping here,” she said. “We have signs posted all around.”

I waited for the inevitable.

“I’m going to have to write you up for this.”

“I know.”

I was wrong this time, but I wouldn’t always be.

Chris (chapter 2)

 

Chris

 

I was in Sarasota to find the footage. I’d never been to Florida before and I wasn’t much interested in the scene. What I really wanted was the footage. I thought a week would be enough to find it. I was wrong.

The first thing I did after getting off the plane from Boston was take a cab to my hotel. In the cab I asked my driver, “Have you heard of Christine Chubbuck?”

“¿Como?”

He was from another country and perhaps only recently relocated to America. I felt bad for him.

Christine Chubbuck had a handbag full of puppets. She had a striking face. You can see it on the Internet. Her picture’s there, but the footage isn’t.

I checked into my room. In the lobby I looked around expecting to see someone famous. But I didn’t see anyone famous. Everyone I saw had their sunglasses off—and the sunglasses weren’t the big kind either. I asked the lobbyist, “Do you get many famous people staying here?”

“Not really, bub” was his gum-smacking answer.

Then he asked, “You really from North Dakota?”

“Yes,” I lied. I didn’t want him to know where I was from really, or that this particular mission wasn’t an investigation into a murder but rather the search for a gift to so many anxious people. “Why do you ask?”

“Just I expected an accent, that’s all.”

“I watch a lot of television,” I replied.

He handed back my license and card and I was off to my room on the top floor—that being the third.

In my room I felt cold. It was July, nearing the anniversary of her death, and the rest of the hotel had been warm. I turned on the heater and set my satchel on the bed and unlatched it. I took out and assessed all that I had brought for my week in Sarasota. Then I went to the directory and looked up the address of the nearest police station.

At the station the cop said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t think we have that here.”

“But this is Sarasota,” I said, the words coming more quickly. “And this is a police station near the television station formerly known as WXLT, where she shot herself.”

“When did this happen again?”         

“July 15, 1974. A Monday.”

“That’s a bit before my time,” the cop said.

He was soon joined by another cop, this one with gray hair and yellowing teeth. “Yeah, I remember that,” he admitted after I’d reiterated the situation. “I know what you’re after.”

“So you have it,” I said.

“No we don’t have it,” he said. “And even if we did we wouldn’t give it to the likes of you.”

“But I’m a journalist.”

“Let’s see your press credentials then.”

When it was apparent I was not going to bring out my press credentials the older cop said, “All footage of that incident has been destroyed. Can’t help you.”

“This is insane,” the younger cop, younger than me, said.

“The god-damned Web,” the older cop said. “It’s bringing out the worst. You’re only the fourth person to come in here asking for it this month.”

“The fourth?” I said. “This month?” I said, incredulous. Impossible. I could not be the fourth. I had to be the first, the only.

“And if you don’t get out of here now,” the older cop told me, “I’m going to have you arrested for assaulting an officer.”

I scoffed. What assault?

“Everything about this is an assault,” he said.

I knew better than to say, I’m coming back. I’m coming back to get that footage from you! Instead I left. I got an order of tacos and took them to the room. It was night by then.

When I entered my room I noticed the lights were on, which was odd since I’d turned them off when I left for the police station.

A woman was sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at the blank television. I could only see her side profile. She did not notice me as I stepped inside. She had dark straight hair that fell to her waist and a bloody wound underneath the strands at the back of her head. Her skin was pale and she wore the dress in which she’d shot herself. It was she. It was Christine Chubbuck.

She turned her head automaton-like toward me as I approached the bed. I stopped short of sitting next to her. I was not afraid. I’d been preparing for this encounter.

For a time we watched each other. Finally I said, “How are you?”

She said nothing, only looked at me expressionless. She was in pain.

I looked down at the bag in my hand. Then I looked at her.

“Do you…want a taco?”

“No, thank you,” she said. “That’s kind of you but, no.” Her voice sounded raspy, as if she was a heavy smoker. But the Internet had made no mention of her ever having touched a cigarette.

“Can I sit down?” I asked.

She scooted over. The definitive article on her suicide was published by Sally Quinn in The Washington Post on August 4, 1974. That too is available on the Internet. She caught me looking at her wound.

“Does it hurt, Christine?”

“Call me Chris,” she said.

“Chris,” I said. “Does it…”

She looked away, went back to watching the dark television. If I were to guess the three Roberta Flack songs that played at Christine Chubbuck’s beachfront funeral I would guess “Killing Me Softly (With His Song)”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”. All were released prior to 9:38 am on Monday, July 15, 1974. She was my age, 29, when she shot herself live on Suncoast Digest, her morning talk-show program. Quoted in The Washington Post, her mother could not recall Christine ever having gone on a date.

“Chris, why did you do it?”

She began to cry, still without looking at me. She broke and her head did too. As the tears trailed down her face the blood trickled from her wound and stained the bedspread.

I went to get a towel. When I returned she was still seated in the same place only crying harder. Her sobs caught in her chest then were expelled with great gales. I was not afraid. I felt terrible for her. She had died so defensive, bloated with such rage, and now she was as fragile as a porcelain figurine.

“Why? You wanted to be famous…”

She heaved. She did not attempt to take the towel or otherwise stop the drainage.

“I want to be famous too,” I said. I offered her the towel. She did not notice it even when it dropped in her lap. “You wanted people to know you, to know what you were feeling…”

“I’m lonely,” she said.

“I’m here,” I said. “I’m here for you now.”

I reached out to put my arm around her. Instead of feeling her body I felt only air, and when I looked to find her I saw her standing against the wall opposite the bed, to the right of the television. The blood on the bedspread was gone.

She looked at me as if I had just assaulted her.

“Do you know where it is?” I said. “Do you have it? Does anyone?”

“What do you want,” she snarled. The tears and blood were gone.

“I want to see the house where you were living when you died.”

“My…house?” The word seemed foreign to her.

“I want to take pictures,” I said.

She laughed. Her laughter was violent, hysterical, the deep-throated croak of the drowning. Now I was frightened. I did not like to be laughed at.

I closed my eyes and the laughter stopped. I waited several seconds, inhaling and exhaling heavily, and when at last I opened my eyes I was alone. She had left nothing behind.

I was hungry and tired, so I ate the tacos and killed the lights without turning on my laptop.

I didn’t see her for another five days. During that time I was turned away from three more police stations. At one a cop pulled a gun on me and told me to back away. I went to the television station WWSB, formerly WXLT, but no one there knew of any footage and at the end of my tour I found out it was a completely new building, far removed from the old WXLT station on Lawton Drive. I went to the old building. It looked abandoned, a vacant lot, an old man standing up against the front door with a cigarette in his mouth. There was no indication of WXLT anywhere on the building.

I went up to the old man and said, “This used to be WXLT, correct?”

He observed me coolly, drew his cig out of his mouth and blew smoke in my face. I coughed.

“What’s it to you,” he said.

“I’m a reporter doing a report on old buildings in Florida.”

“Used to be a tv station, sure,” the old man said without looking at me. “It’s a club now.”

“You mean a nightclub?”

“Yeah, that. The kids come, get drunk, come some more, get even more drunk. That kind of thing.”

“But this is an historic building,” I said.

The old man heeled his cigarette out on the asphalt. He looked up at the building, the sky. “What’s so historic about it?”

I went to the malls and walked around. Many people were stopped and asked if they knew of Christine Chubbuck. Most didn’t. One man said, “Did she win the lottery or something?” Another woman said, “Did I miss her last night? Was she supposed to be on the show?” I left without buying anything.

In the parking lot under the white wet heat I stopped a kid on a skateboard.

“Sure I heard of her,” the kid said. “She’s just some suburban myth.”

“What?”

“She’s not real, man.”

“But it’s all over the Internet. There was a fifteen minute special on television. What happened that day. Her picture.”

“So? Doesn’t make it real.”

I lurched at the kid, my arms outstretched. He fell backwards off his skateboard and landed against the vehicle parked behind him. I was on him then, my fists working like jackhammers. I struck and struck and struck and held, but the kid kneed me in the thigh, a sensitive spot for me, and I let go. I was bent over attending to my wound when my head burst to feel as if it had just been dropped from a thousand feet to land smack in the middle of a parking lot. I fell to my knees. The side of my face felt wet and exposed.

The kid stood over me holding his skateboard aloft. Snot was hanging out of his nose, his eyes were squinted and scared. “I was just kidding jackass of course she’s real,” he cried. “Christ man can’t you take a joke?”

One moment he eclipsed the sun, the next he was gone and I was blinded.

Back at the hotel I was treated by the sous chef.

“You have a concussion,” he said.

“Impossible. I don’t feel like I have a concussion.”

“That’s the sign of a concussion. I should know. I was in ‘Nam. You should really go to the hospital.”

I went to my room and laid down with a cold compress against my head. The room was cold too. I had to make a decision. My flight was the next day but I wasn’t ready. I was banged up pretty badly and what’s more I hadn’t yet found the footage.

I called the airline and asked them to reschedule my flight.

“When would you like to reschedule it for?”

“How about…um, I really don’t know right now. I guess just cancel it.”

“You don’t want to reschedule?”

“Not right now. I’ll think about it.”

After securing the cancellation I fell asleep. When I woke up I heard the sound of water running in the bathroom and a woman singing softly of being killed by a man’s song, softly killed, his song, the name of which I would never know.

I sat up but had to take a moment because of the pain in my head. After the pain had diminished enough for me to move I got up off the bed and shuffled toward the bathroom. The woman continued to sing her lamentation. She sounded younger, not raspy anymore, like a little girl. I opened the bathroom door to peek in. Steam fogged the mirror. She was in the shower but I couldn’t see her completely because of the mist and the semi-opaque shower screen. I saw her form, though, and the healthy pink of her skin.

The gun rested on the sink. Next to the gun were the bullets and her handbag. I reached into the bag and pulled out a puppet, a frog. Its hollow eyes stared at me as if I knew a secret. She was humming the song now.

“Mom,” she said. She sounded as if she’d been crying. “Mom?”

I put the frog puppet back in the handbag.

“Mom, I’m coming out. I’ll be gone soon. Mom?”

I retreated from the bathroom and shut the door behind me. I laid back on the bed and waited for her to come out and talk to me. She did not appear. I waited for hours before again falling asleep.

So many days passed I could no longer tell if it was a Monday, a Tuesday, a Thursday. In all that time I kept to the hotel. I stayed by the pool. I ordered room service for each meal. I watched a lot of television and in even the individual pixels on the screen I could see her face.

I woke up. It was night again and she was standing over my bed. The blood was back. It was on her hands and in her hair.

“Chris,” I whispered.

Her face dropped toward mine. For a moment I saw her eyes glow and I thought she was going to kiss me. Instead she took my hand and led me from the bed and out of the room. I no longer felt cold and the pain in my head was gone.

Outside the night air felt like a toad’s tongue against my skin. What trees there were sagged like props on a puppet stage.

We remained holding hands the entire time we walked. Most of the houses we passed were lit with people in the windows but nobody seemed to notice us. I squeezed Chris’s hand and drew her closer to me.

“It’s balmy out,” I said.

“And palmy,” she said.

I smiled. I got it. The palm trees, her palm against my own. I got her.

I said, “These days, you know, it’s okay to be 29 and single. It’s okay to be 30 and alone.”

She said nothing, face-forward.

“I’m just saying. So many women now—men and women—are waiting until they’re past 30 to get married, have children….”

She let go of my hand and stopped. Turning toward me she smiled and put her index finger to the back of her head, the same spot all those years ago. Still smiling, she pulled the trigger.

I turned away. We were on the beach now. Behind us were the houses of Siesta Key. One of those houses had been her family’s the day she shot herself. She’d driven from there to the station in her yellow VW bug. Perhaps we’d passed her house on the way to the beach tonight. I wanted to know which one it was. I was afraid I would never know.

She was taking her clothes off. I watched her. When she was done she stood before me naked. Her skin was pale, as if the reports of her having a tan on the day she shot herself were false.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said and started for the water.

“I haven’t either,” I lied. Soon my clothes were off too and I was wading into the ocean. We met each other far out.

“I love the water,” she said.

“It’s really warm,” I said.

“I love the water,” she repeated.

She ducked under. She was gone for some time. When at last she surfaced her mouth was full and she spat directly in my face.

“Hey!” I said.

“And now,” she said, her voice taking on a hard edge, “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy—”

“Don’t say it.”

“—of bringing you the latest in blood and guts—”

“Don’t say it!”

“—and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.”

I dove deep to drown out even the memory of her voice. But when it was time to strike for the surface I found I couldn’t. I was pinned, sinking. I struggled against a great force. It couldn’t be Chris, not Chris, I thought. Something else, some powerful being that had suddenly intruded to stop me from accomplishing my mission. What was it? Who was it? A word, a name formed in my mind without revealing itself, and still I struggled. I thought back to Boston and what Harriet Quimby had said in my mind—He’s still out there—only now I knew she’d meant not just William Willard but someone else, this powerful being who was keeping me under. At last I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and so I released, gave in. I saw a burst like the sun on a screen and all went black.

I didn’t expect to ever wake up again yet there I was, waking up on my bed back in the hotel room. It felt like early morning, before dawn. The clocks had gone cold.

Christine Chubbuck sat in a chair across from me wearing the same dress in which she’d died. Her legs were crossed, her face expressionless. She held a burnable DVD in a slender store-bought jewel case. This she placed at my feet.

“Is this…”

She nodded.

“So many people are going to be happy because of this,” I said.

She smiled, stood up and drew back from the bed. I snagged the DVD and when I looked to Chris to thank her again she was gone. The chair was back in its original position under the desk.

The edges of the curtains glowed a somber orange. I turned on my laptop and sat up in bed. Popped in the DVD. Immediately I saw what I’d been searching for, color, sound and everything. She was on the screen, in the newsroom, the last morning of her life. It was the footage. As it neared the point where she pulls the gun out of her puppet handbag I switched off the sound and closed my eyes. It had been enough. I’d already seen it, and seen it, and seen it, and seen it.

When sufficient time had passed I opened my eyes. The footage was a blank blue. I took out the DVD, set it back in its case and slid the item into a media-mail envelope I’d found on the nightstand. I jotted down a quick note on a piece of scrap paper and slipped that in with the DVD. The envelope was addressed to an agent I’d worked for long ago in Beverly Hills. The note read

            Dear Rick,

                        As promised———

              David

Then I sealed the envelope and placed it on top of my wallet so I wouldn’t forget. I went back to my computer. I got online. I searched for other names, other faces. I waited for the check to clear.

Ai’dah (chapter 3)

Ai’dah

 

 

I was in Tangier to rescue the kidnapped child. After my encounters with Chris and Harriet, I sensed it was time to take a break from American soil and turn elsewhere—time to slow down and pursue the not-necessarily supernatural. The child had been posted missing far too long and no one—not the media outlets, the brand names, the faces on the dollar bills, Command C—had a holy hope in hell of finding her. Only I, with the full blessing of the Internet behind me, had the wherewithal to ask around online. Who hadn’t sought the advice of thegenie.edu? Who hadn’t exchanged emoticons and a few choice characters with lilllldimmmmples99? Who hadn’t poked the latest post at oasismadeamistake.blogspit.net? Everyone, apparently.

It was round about the end of July, hot as a hipster’s brow in Los Feliz, American-made but foreign-born, and every corner I curved, every open doorway I approached seemed to draw back its shade like a parent withholding love. For a moment I stopped walking, shifted my backpack in fear of it sticking permanently to my shirt, changed hands holding my fake-leather laptop case, raised my sunglasses and wiped the sweat from the ridge, adjusted my khaki fisherman-style cap, and marched on. The sky above stood a stalwart blue, bordered on either side by the high walls of the medina in which I was now lost. I passed a large closed entryway, the semi-circular double doors painted a cartoonish blue. At the foot of the doors sprawled an emaciated gatita, one of several I’d seen in the hours I’d been wandering. I slowed to linger, but the cat did not move nor did it open its eyes, so I continued on.

Ahead a long path stretched straight and appeared to end at a wall and what I assumed would be another corner to turn. No one walked before or behind me. Indeed, since entering the medina I had seen very few people, and it had been peculiarly quiet.

The cry of a man, shrill and hopeful, ripped my perceptions. I looked up. At the end of the long corridor, just above the wall, the top of a thin and proud spire poked, its black megaphones blaring the call to prayer.

I had seen a movie once in which men were at the edge of an ocean on their knees, their lips touching ground. The theater had been cold and crowded. I had eaten half a box of chocolate-covered raisins and laughed when one of these men suggested peace.

I realized there was another sound now, closer to the ground and my ears.

“Assa’lām ā’laykum, greetings,” said the man blocking my way. He was short and had thinning dark hair and sharp teeth that he did not hesitate to bare when he smiled. I smiled back, albeit thinly.

“It’s time to pray,” he said, “but I cannot when you are here. What is more important? You are more important.”

I knew I wasn’t going to get around him without a conversation—and perhaps something else.

“What are you trying to find, my friend?”

I wasn’t about to tell him what—whom—I was really after, so I said, “Dar el Makhzem.”

“Ah, you know the Arabic name for it. That’s good. Do you speak Arabic?”

“Atakalam Al Arabeia Kaleelan,” I said.

“Atakalam Al Arabeia Kaleelan,” the man repeated. “That’s good! Amir ismee.” He extended his hand, which I took. “Má huwa ismuk?”

“Dennis ismee,” I lied.

“Dennis.” Then he busted out with a string of sentences, all in Arabic. I must certainly have looked aghast, for Amir laughed and said, “We will converse in English. I speak English. You speak English….”

Somewhat sadly, I nodded.

“So you are trying to find the Kasbah. Come with me, my friend. I’ll show you.”

Immediately I started to protest, but Amir cut me off. “Dennis. Really. It’s just a little walk, nothing more. This way, please. You are my guest now.”

As I walked just behind him I practiced my exercises. I started with the tip of the forefinger on my right hand. I bent that finger so that it curved at the top of the knuckle, nothing more. Then, satisfied with the stance, I curled the rest of the forefinger inward so that it rested neatly, natally, in the palm of my hand. I did this a few more times, each time with a significant increase in speed. I then went on to my left hand and repeated the same moves, just in case.

“Do you know of the invasion of Spain by the Moors in 711, Dennis?”

“I do.”

“Many people do. But many people also do not know that Spanish prisoners were brought back here, to Tangier. Did you know that?”

“I did not.”

“Good! Then before we go to Kasbah I will show you the prison.”

Our shoes skipped and scratched across the stone. The call to prayer had since ceased and again the medina was quiet, hot and still. I placed a hand to the sun-stroked stone on my right, then withdrew quickly with a stifled hiss between my teeth. 

“Those who converted from the Christian faith to Islam, the muwallads, were saved. The rest….”

Amir had come to stop in the shade of another massive doorway. This building appeared very old, its wooden doors busted and falling to either side. Inside only darkness. The last people to have lived there had not lived there in a very long time.

“They will tell you different things,” Amir said. “But I tell the truth. This is the entrance to one of the old prisons.”

“Really? Should we, uh, go in?”

“No! No. It is, what is the word…”

“Condemned?”

“Yes! I remember that word now from my studies. Good! This way.”

And again we were off, he just ahead and keeping up his patter.

“Not all the prisoners were happy being prisoners—ha! So they dug.”

“They dug?”

“Yes, they dug, under the city. You look hard you may find entrances to secret underground passageways. They are in certain places in the medina. Secret places. Now come to Kasbah. Kasbah is….”

His voice was beginning to interfere with my voice, the voice I would need to refine in my head if I was to succeed with this latest mission. At that moment I was thinking Toilets without seats. I was thinking I really should read some Moroccan writers. The Pauls. A Mohammed. I was thinking 238 euros for five days—can I make it? And really I couldn’t be thinking about any of those things. I had only to think of her.

“It is a fact,” Amir said, “that in the 20th century the secret tunnels were made better by movie stars and foreign officials, who wanted undisturbed access to the sea.”

We entered a plaza courtyard, blessedly shaded, with all the doors to all the houses shut save one pair belonging to a basement-level abode. I looked past the stairs into this maw as Amir rambled on. At last I said, “I gotta go.” And I began to head toward the stairs.

Amir held my arm firmly. “Where are you going, my friend? The Kasbah is still ahead.”

I explained that I understood, sincerely, but that I was here to meet someone, alone.

“Why alone? If it’s your friend then he—or is it she?—can join us on the tour.”

I insisted I go and claimed it was business—which, in a way, it was. I made it known that I would not be stopped, but then so did my guide.

He stepped in my way. “Sir. Then if the tour’s over you must make the payment.” And he held out his hand.

I shook my head and told him I hadn’t really agreed to any tour. It had not been announced up front, no price had been agreed upon, and what had at first seemed like a gesture of goodwill had morphed into a capitalist endeavor to rival the cleverest of Florida.

I was lucky in that Amir hadn’t asked for a specific amount. I had something of an out, but I also had a bit of fight left in me.

“Why?” I said. “Why do I have to pay for this? I told you I thought you were just helping me out.”

“It is my livelihood, sir. The same way you are here for business, I am here for business.”

“Yes, but don’t you have another means of making money? Some kind of trade or something….”

Amir beamed mightily and said, “Allow me to show you my shop. It has what you need I’m sure. Belts, wallets…”

“Oh no. No belts, no wallets…”

“Then, sir.”

The hand was out again.

Feeling like a bastard, anticipating the result, I reluctantly reached into my pocket and brought out a few dirham bills. I placed this pathetic amount in Amir’s hand, and he looked at me as if I’d just plopped feces in it.

Without bothering to count it he spat, “It’s nothing, sir. Nothing.”

“Well I’m sorry but that’s all I have.” This was close to the truth—at least as far as on-the-ground cash went. Apparently I hadn’t taken out nearly as much as I should have at that bank in the Petit Socco. Amir’s hand remained outstretched, as if he either expected me to give more or take back my meager offer, shamed.

But I wasn’t buying. I actually, forcefully, pushed past him, my eyes set on the open doorway of that basement-level dwelling. I heard him call out after me. “Only a few minutes. A few minutes! My shop is right above!” And then, as I descended the staircase two steps at a time: “Arie Fique! Do you know ‘Arie Fique’?”

Inside the house—for it was surely a house—I saw all the clichés I could ever hope to conjure up. Rugs and carpets of dazzling patterns and eye-splitting colors hung from walls or draped over ottomans, Arabic pop music thumped from a speaker somewhere in another room, candle flame wavered in the breeze blown in from a lone window off to the left, the lighting was dim and the air thick with hookah smoke.

I crept cautiously from one vacant room to the next, my hands raised and clasped as if in prayer. I had slung my laptop over my stronger shoulder, and the computer’s weight combined with that of my daypack no longer seemed to bother me, for I was focused now, I was close.

The pop music grew louder to the point of squealing. I rounded yet another corner expecting to see the ultimate, a belly dancer, but instead I was met with a small room, a miniscule window letting in a little light, a chair in one corner, an empty metal bowl in another, and a body dressed all in black curled up on a cot. I approached the still form, careful to remain positioned sideways so that I could keep the doorway in sight. But even that stance had to drop eventually. I crouched down in front of the cot and nudged the form with both hands. It was a body, and judging from the softness, the malleability, it was the body of a woman. I waited, no longer caring who or what came up behind me, clobbered me, kicked me repeatedly, took the money that was rightfully theirs. I no longer cared because I knew. It was she. It was Ai’dah.

Eventually she turned to face me. She wore the traditional burqa, only her eyes showing through the mask-like headdress. Tears had welled up in those eyes, but amazingly the drops had not yet fallen.

“I know this is messed up,” I said, and I brought out her hands, which had been cuffed together, solid steel. “I should’ve been here sooner. So many of us should have been here sooner. If only we had gotten in the loop!”

I helped her to a sitting position and stroked her head. “But now,” I announced, “you don’t have to fear anything anymore. You’re coming to America with me.”

I pinched the top of her headdress, intending to yank it back and off, but Ai’dah shook away so violently that I held up my hands and said, “Fine. I understand. It’s your culture. Now it’s time for you to experience mine.” And with that I grabbed her around the waist, hoisted her up and tossed her over my shoulder, sack-of-potatoes-style. She made not a single sound. She was heavier than I anticipated—the Internet had put her in at no more than seventy tops, and I wondered if perhaps her captors had been feeding her more than captors are supposed to.

With a deep breath and a cry of rage I barreled out of the room, linebacker-style, using my free shoulder as a kind of battering ram. And I was in luck, for just as I crossed the threshold a man dressed in a Boston Red Sox t-shirt, jeans and a wrapped-up face mask appeared in my way. Before he could fully raise his pistol I smacked into him, felt the crush of his sternum, and just had enough time and slack in momentum to see him drop. I picked up speed—until I was a blur carrying a beauty, and no bullets could touch me. I heard the zings, felt the shattered glass and stone chips against my face, but all of it was of no consequence as Ai’dah and I—Ai’dah still slung over my shoulder—raced through the front entryway and up the steps leading to freedom. Now the plaza—indeed, I suspected, the entire medina—was teeming with the angry and the anti-American. Another masked captor came at me with a fierce-looking knife, but I deftly side-stepped and brought him down with a single chop to the back of the neck. Then it was time for the real weapon.

“I’m sorry,” I shouted back to Ai’dah. “I know this is uncomfortable and not very flattering, but I need this arm free.”

Indeed I did. Men—masked and unmasked alike—were on all sides of me, and I had only one hope of breaking through. Like a gunslinger in a well-meaning movie I drew my hand out, arm up and fired just the way I’d been practicing.

“Bang!” I said. “Bang! Bang!” I continued to curl my finger over and over, spinning in place, swirling my living load. Each time I aimed and fired I hit: our attackers either crumpled into nothing or flew back as if blown by a hyper-powered storm-simulator on a Hollywood back-lot. I watched the points rack up on the screen. Then I ran.

With Ai’dah safely sandbagged and my backpack and laptop case secured I took off along Rue Ben Raisouli—or was it Rue Dar el Baroud? (I would look it up later on the Internet.) Regardless of the route we were in extreme danger: on either side of the street I spotted what could only be called terrorists in the upstairs windows of the buildings I raced by. Each window-warrior held some sort of weapon—be it an AK-47, an older-model sniper rifle sans scope, a bazooka, a grenade, a potato peeler or the tried-and-true Molotov cocktail. I sensed the bullets close, the grenade pin about to be yanked, the trigger of the rocket launcher about to be pulled, but before any of them could actually follow through with the intended action I had aimed my own killer and hit each and every target in sight. Every so often in between “bang!”s I belted out snippets of “Oh say can you sue…” while alternating with asking Ai’dah how she was doing. Of course I received no response from back there, not even a punch in the spine to tell me to slow down, stop all that bouncing already.

And then I was in the Petit Socco, which had more people than I had seen in a public gathering place in quite some time. Men wearing sports caps, fisherman-style caps similar to mine, makeshift masks and police uniforms, yelled obscenities and ran toward me, their weapons drawn, aimed but not firing. I brought several more of them down but there were just too many. Old women and crippled children had taken to hurling slabs of stone and bits of undesirable food at Ai’dah and me.

“No one ever listens to the traffic cop,” I said as a Tangier traffic cop took it right between the eyes, whistle in his mouth still sounding. “Bang,” I said. “Bang, bang, bang!” I was running low on ammo, and our attackers—her captors—had brought out the heavy weaponry. I heard the rumble of a tank. Rather than wait and see if the locals were willing to destroy one of the most popular tourist areas in the city, I kicked and punched and pistol-whipped my way to a side alley. Here more attackers surged before me, but at least I had a way out. I remembered Amir’s tour.

“Here!” I said, triumphant, and kicked through the bottom of a wall that had been showing signs of disintegration. A sizable hole was ready for our entrance. I threw Ai’dah in first and then, without another look, launched my own body in after her. “Go go go!” I shouted after her. She moved fast, so fast I had trouble keeping up. For a while I feared she might even lose me, and then my trip would have been for nothing.

We crawled for some time in complete but cool darkness. At times I felt that perhaps it was no longer Ai’dah just ahead of me but rather a giant rat whose tail twitched before my nose. I felt slime and grit and other things on my hands, but I dared not stop to cover them nor adjust my backpack or precious laptop.

Finally I crawled into an open space with a small slab of light beaming down. I heard footsteps and voices above. A man said, “That’ll teach me not to order hot soup in the middle of a Moroccan summer.”

Ai’dah sat against the wall opposite from where I stood. She appeared to be either dead or resting, but I was sure it was the latter. My confidence was confirmed when she opened her eyes and looked at me with great approbation.

“What,” I said. “What did you want me to do? It was either us or them. Wouldn’t you rather it be us?”

She said nothing, neither nodded or shook, and I set about finding a way out of the hole we were in.

“Amir was right,” I admitted. “The secret passageway the Spaniards dug in the 700s, refined by movie stars and foreign dignitaries in the 1900s, does lead to the sea!” I could hear waves lapping when I pressed my ear against the wall. “There must be a way….” I began to tap the wall, probing for any possible weakness. “Ai’dah,” I said. “Help me tap. Please.”

Reluctantly, she did so. Together we tapped until, at last, Ai’dah broke through. Her entire arm went into the wall, and I jumped and clicked my heels together. “You’re amazing,” I said as I hugged her. “Let’s go!” I crawled out first into the late afternoon sunshine to see the turbojet tourist megaboat just starting to pull away from the dock.

“Wait!” I cried, waving my arms. I grabbed Ai’dah, bent down, took her into my arms and then ran the rest of the way with her along the narrow ledge of the dock. Above was the edge of the boarding area and below the ocean itself, waiting eagerly for us to fall. I balanced along until we came to the ship, now a little over six feet from land’s edge and receding fast.

But the door to the hold was still open. With the last of the high-powered energy drink in me I jumped—Ai’dah in my arms, laptop across my shoulder, backpack on my back—across the threshold and into the ship’s hold. The door cranked shut behind.

 In the passenger seating area Ai’dah would not look at me, even though we were seated together and I had rescued her from that awful house, that awful room, those awful men. Her hands were still cuffed but I took care of that after some strenuous effort involving a couple of toothpicks and a maxed-out credit card. The cuffs dropped to the floor and I quickly shoved them under the seat with my foot.

Still Ai’dah said nothing—not a word of thanks on my behalf. She was free now—did she not see that? Perhaps it was too soon after escaping—the shock of her horrid experience must have still been with her strong.

Eventually I took my leave of her and walked up on to the sun-deck. If I smoked I would have lit a cigarette then. How old was she really? Now that she was free, would she take off that unbearable burqa? What would be my reward, back home in the States, my fame, back home in the States, now that I alone had found and rescued her with nothing but my wits, my weapon, and the Internet? The high-speed megaboat skipped across the waves like a stone I’d tried tossing when I was a kid. The creek had been shallow that day, and I’d kept going back into the water to retrieve the stone, fetch it back to shore, and repeat the process.

The ship made landfall at sundown. Not far from the Spain-side marine terminal the beach stretched like a basking snake. All along the shore topless bathers of all genders cavorted with the waves and each other. Windsurfers glided in from the relatively mild ocean to call it a day. Only the wakeboarders seemed determined to stick it out into the night.

On equal footing at last, Ai’dah and I walked side-by-side from the marine terminal to the old walled city section. “You’ll like Tarifa,” I said. “It’s a lot like San Diego in the late eighties. You know, beer bottles on the beach, Steve Winwood and Gloria Estefan on the tape deck…”

Ai’dah continued walking face-forward. She had not really looked at me since we’d boarded the tourist megaboat.

“I bet you take that off while you’re here,” I said in reference to the burqa. “It’ll do you some good to get out of that thing. A young girl like you should be on the beach with friends.”

Ai’dah looked at me then, and in her eyes I swear I saw blood. Then, just as swiftly as she had glanced over, she was back to staring straight ahead. We passed the entrance to the ancient walled city section and headed up to the nearest hostel on our left. It must really have been our lucky day: they had two beds available in the same room.

We took the stairs. Along the way I saw a sign that read “NO THROWN THE PAPER IN W.C. thanks you”. I saw a sign that read “The glasses, plates, cups, knives, post, etc….They cannot be led to the rooms”.

The rooms were cramped with a mix of bunk and single beds in each. Our room had a functioning door. When we entered a surfer dude, no doubt from Australia judging by his sunburn, lay clothed and sleeping on top of a single against the right wall. To the left another guy, this one taller, thinner, more angular, was just finishing shoving his backpack under his bed—the bottom bunk. The bunk above him looked to be vacant, as did the lower bunk on the set opposite him.

“Hi,” the tall guy—taller than even me—said, his arm outstretched. “I’m Maarten.”

“Hi,” I said and gave him my name. With his sharp facial features, Maarten looked a lot like a devil, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“David….Good to meet you. Who’s she?”

“This…is Ai’dah. I just rescued her from captivity in Tangier.”

“She was captured? What for?”

“Honestly, I forgot,” I said. “She was held for so long I think everyone did. Anyway, the important thing is she’s safe, and coming with me to America. We have a flight leaving Malaga on Tuesday, so.”

Maarten nodded but concentrated on my ward. “Uh…maybe she can tell us why she was captured.”

“Ai’dah’s not really into talking right now. I aim to change that when we get to the States.”

I expressed my hunger then, a hunger Ai’dah apparently did not share. She pulled herself up onto the bunk above Maarten and refused to look at either of us. I settled on to the lower bunk of the set opposite. “Don’t worry,” Maarten told me, “the girl above you is from Switzerland. She’s clean.” He added that he was game to eat, so the two of us agreed to head to the nearest decent restaurant. We left Ai’dah alone on her small single bunk bed, staring out the dirty window to her left.

“Is that your computer?” Maarten said when we had put some distance between us and the hostel.

“It is.”

“It must be expensive if you carry it with you.”

“Oh, I carry it with me everywhere. I have to. It’s my job.”

We spotted a restaurant just across the street that looked promising and so postponed our conversation until we were seated and had ordered food and drinks.

“So…your job is to carry around a computer?”

“In part, yes. Without it I wouldn’t be able to take orders.”

I left it at that, unaware that my newfound associate was hanging. Finally he said, tentatively, “Who gives you orders?”

“The Internet.”

“Okay. Who on the Internet.”

“There is no who. There’s only the Internet.”

The drinks came. We sipped our brewskies in silence. After some time I said, “Do you know Disneyland?”

“I know Disneyland.”

“There used to be a helicopter service from Disneyland to LAX, back and forth. It ended in 1968, when two helicopters crashed three months apart from each other. All the passengers and crew died, of course. One of the passengers was John Trainor, the mayor of Red Bluff, California. I don’t know what he looks like. I don’t know anything about him. That’s an example of the major problem I deal with in my job.”

Maarten looked at me strangely. “That’s a problem?” he said.

“The problem,” I said, “is that now if you or me or anyone else goes online and does a search for John Trainor, we’re not going to find him. We’ll find other John Trainors, sure, but what about that one? That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I watched Maarten stare out at a large yet modest church across the way. Not far above the church hung that same small dark cloud I’d seen in the similarly spotless sky over Boston.   “Do you see that cloud?” I abruptly asked Maarten.

“Cloud?”

“Yeah, the cloud over that church. Don’t you see it? It’s almost exactly above the bell tower there.

Maarten seemed hesitant to turn and face me. I continued to stare at the cloud, which appeared to be moving toward me. It was following me. When I turned back to Maarten I saw he was staring me down much like I’d been doing with the cloud.

“There’s a lot of talk of where we go when we die,” I said as a way of further explaining my John Trainor dilemma. “Heaven. Hell. Whatever. Where you go isn’t nearly as important as what you leave behind. The memory of you.”

“Do you really think she’s going to go back with you?” Maarten said.

“Ai’dah? She has to. Where else is there?”

“Another Arabic country maybe.”

“Saracens,” I scoffed, as if that word solved everything. I looked up to see that the cloud had vanished, the sky was all clear.

When we got back to the dorm room Ai’dah had disrobed. She was seated in her previous position, on the top bunk bed, only now she wore a tasteful and quite fetching sundress, patterned pink, a bracelet, and earrings that highlighted the color of her intense eyes. I was drawn to her long lashes and wavy dark hair that fell past her shoulders. Not only that but her age: she was not a child after all but rather a young adult, or an adult, perhaps in her early twenties, maybe mid-twenties at most. The Internet had been, well, wrong—about her age, anyway.

My mouth must’ve been slightly agape, for Maarten nudged me with his pointy elbow.

“This is what you wanted?” he said. His voice was low, though not low enough.

Surrounding Ai’dah on her bed was a bevy of shopping bags bearing the brand names of fashionable shops I’d never heard of. Many of the bags appeared full and undisturbed. I wasn’t aware stores like these existed in Tarifa.

“I’m happy for you,” I told her. “Let’s celebrate. Do you want to celebrate?” I addressed this question to Maarten, who said sure.

Later that night the three of us met up with the Swiss girl, Pamela, who slept above me. Pamela, to my surprise, seemed interested in me. She certainly made fun of the fact that I’d brought along my laptop. “Are you going to dance with that too?” she teased.

“I can’t very well leave it at the table,” I said.

“What a shame. I never thought I’d have a computer as a chaperone.” And she touched my beer-holding hand.

“You speak excellent English,” I said.

“I’m Swiss,” she said.

Maarten came over. “Hey,” he said to me, again with the low voice. “Would you mind if I, you know, tried something with Ai’dah? I mean, you’re not dating her, right?”

“I’ll have to kill you in your sleep,” I said, only half-joking. Maarten laughed, didn’t detect any seriousness. I added, “But go for it.”

Maarten left our table and went out onto the meager packed dance floor pumping to the Euro-trash techno hit of the month. He sidled up to Ai’dah, her eyes closed, her arms up, fingers snapping, head turning either way with each alternating beat, and opened his mouth.

“I hope he speaks some Arabic,” I said without turning my attention from the blood.

“He’s very good at Arabic,” Pamela revealed. “He’s spent the past two months in Morocco, and several more in other countries in the Middle East. Iran, Jordan, Lebanon…”

“All those? He lied to you.”

“He wouldn’t lie. He’s from Rotterdam.”

Feeling an emotion I would have to search the Internet for later, I got up from our table and stumbled toward the crowd. I clutched what might have been my seventh or eighth or ninth beer, even though the bottle was empty and I had some sense not to order another. In my left hand I clutched my laptop case and used this as an aid in forcing my way through the pack. College-age kids, rock-faced Eastern Europeans, super-sun-exposed Australians, vomitous Brits—all curled their lips and noses as I and my laptop passed by. Eventually we reached Maarten and Ai’dah. Unfortunately now I can’t remember much of what was said beyond “Don’t even try it” and “She’s mine” and “Let’s take this outside” and other gibberish only an American asshole who’d been drinking nonstop since early evening would spout off. I know I dropped my bottle on Maarten’s foot. I think I called him tulip boy. I’m almost positive I pushed him in the chest hard with my laptop case, which must’ve hurt on impact. What I do clearly remember is Ai’dah running away from us, Maarten indeed taking me outside, and the two of us crunching and scrambling around on the curb just outside the bar.

We were lucky we didn’t end up in prison. Instead we ended up back in our hostel beds, he in the lower bunk opposite mine. I awoke with sun filtering through my slowly opening lids. Maarten was crashed out on his side, arms wrapped around his chest as if it were seven degrees in the room instead of seventy.

With much pain and exertion I stood up. The first thing I saw was the upper level bed on my side—Pamela’s. It had been cleared, the sheets pulled up, smoothed out and neatly tucked in. All her belongings—all evidence of her existence—were gone.

Holding my head to my hand I turned to Ai’dah’s bed. She was on it, dressed now in frilly pink pajama shorts and a matching camisole. She was again staring out the window, her eyes absent of emotion. If I had thought she had made too many purchases the previous evening, that thought was now eclipsed with the sight of her most recent haul. So many more shopping bags—more than I thought any human possible of carrying, let alone taking out of stores legally—were stacked on her small single bed. Stacked behind her, creating a wall that rose to touch the ceiling. More bags and boxes were on either side of her, a veritable fortress of faith, and as I took a step toward her bed she hastily reached out and grabbed these bags and boxes from the left and right and pulled them toward her. She covered herself in them, created a barrier that stood between us, defiant, a mass so tall and imposing I could see only her eyes through the plastic and paper shimmer. I held out my hand, hurt.

“Ai’dah,” I said. “Let’s go. Come on.”

Very slowly, she blinked.

Believing she would see reason in my words, I continued. “We have to go. We have to get to Malaga. Our flight’s early tomorrow morning. We can’t miss it.”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing from her, and with everything I’d done—the training, the targeted searches, the participation in discussion forums, the repeated entrance—and sometimes denial—into chat rooms, IM boards, live video conferences—all that for what?

“Ai’dah. Those tickets are nonrefundable.”

I went for a walk with my laptop, which, amazingly, had made it intact to rest against my bed that morning. I thought about all the things I could say to Ai’dah that would convince her to take that flight with me. I thought of the little Arabic I knew. But mostly I thought of what I still had to learn.

In a stripped-down plaza off the main waterfront I found a comfortable-looking bench and took a seat. Then I fired up my laptop. I got online and began to search. I went from typing in “Arabic lessons” to “lessons in Arabic” to “Arabic language schools” to “pickup lines in Arabic” to “how to talk to Arabic women” to “shopping addiction” to “binge drinking” to “Rotterdam” to “are Dutch guys good in bed?” to the meaning of her name and the history of her people. But no matter how many searches—in quotes or not—I made I was still searching, I would always be searching.

Back at the hostel I found Maarten sitting on the edge of his bed, his face buried in his hands. Above him Ai’dah’s mattress still held all those unopened shopping bags—perhaps now even more—it was like a mountain of treasure a dragon sits on, only there was no dragon. Ai’dah had fled. I looked. I stuck my hand in the pile and knocked bags and boxes off, making a racket, pissed, but she was nowhere around. She had taken her burqa and nothing else.

Maarten got shakily to his feet. “She wanted me to give you this,” he said through gritted teeth—gritted from pain and not from anger, I was relieved to realize. In my hand he placed a business card, blank on both sides, pure white.

“Did she say anything?”

Maarten laughed and shook his head. He asked if I wanted to get something to eat. I told him I couldn’t. I had a bus to catch.

“I understand.” He smiled and offered his hand. “Good luck with your job.”

“Good luck with your women,” I said, shaking.

I hurried for the bus station, my laptop swinging, backpack lighter now. I had left my gun back at the hostel for some poor fearful American to find. He would need it, whatever the reason. As for me, I didn’t need it. I was going the way of the world, and I could not be stopped.

David (chapter 4)

David

 

 

I was in Michigan to meet my namesake. That was my original intention, anyway. How was I to know it would lead to the discovery of the villain who would stand in my path?

It was the tail-end of the August teens, over two weeks since I’d touched down in Montreal not knowing what my next mission would be. I’d intended to drive up to Quebec and hang around long enough to run into one of the victims of The Albert Guay Affair, but the bombing of Canadian Pacific Airlines Flight 108 had occurred on September 9th, and I was hesitant to remain in a Francophile city for that long. I was having trouble finding any needy spirits in Montreal, so I drove my rental car southwest to Toronto, where I stayed for longer than expected but not without success: the hours and hours, days upon days of work I did on the Internet during my time there yielded my next two missions. I was set. I had only to make it to Michigan—past Detroit and up the glove.  

Insanely early morning now, and all along the suburban street a shroud of fog hung curtain-like in front of every house and vacant car. As I walked I thought of Florida and Christine Chubbuck’s hand in my own. How I wished I had her beside me now! How I wished I had a face, any face to lead me to my namesake! I’d been so confident in Toronto, only to see that confidence erode as I drove through Detroit and on into the American blight. I had to admit I could not find him on my own—and yet I had to find him. He was my next, my only at this time. No matter how many Internet searches I conducted, though, no matter how many requests for the exact address I made, I could not come up with anything more than a single webpage listing my first name, my middle name, my last name, and the exact dates of his birth and death. He had never been married. He had no companions to speak of. According to the exact birth- and death dates on this lone webpage, my namesake could not even speak.

I knew that he’d died in Gladwin from that single webpage as well, but I was lost, and I was getting impatient. As I walked—my satchel slapping my waist-overhang, my laptop case slung over my shoulder like a wounded knee—the fog grew thicker, the air even more humid. This was not right. The force again, that same powerful being that had tried to drown me off the Florida coast when I’d gone skinny-dipping with Christine Chubbuck a month before. That same powerful being that had tailed me in Boston and Tarifa. It was here now, in Michigan, and it was not pleased with what I was seeking to accomplish.

I’d been walking for more than two hours, always just shy of pressing my finger to a doorbell. I knew no one here, had no distant relatives in town, and if I didn’t find him by morning I was afraid I would miss him entirely. At last I stopped in the middle of the street, got down on my knees and clasped my hands. Staring into the murky night I said, “Ghosts of the semi-famous, the would-be famous and the almost-forgotten, those I’ve already helped, an infant is in need! Not just an infant, but a newborn, only four days old! You must aid me in my physical search for him!”

I felt a bloody hand on mine, and I unclasped and looked up. Staring down at me was Christine Chubbuck. Blood leaked from the side of her head and caked her long hair, but she smiled and beckoned for me to stand up.

“Chris,” I said. “Thank the Internet you’re here! There’s not much time. I know I shouldn’t have had that four course meal at the chain diner and stayed to listen to the entire Phil Collins solo catalog overhead, but I was hungry so….anyway, we must find him. He’s part of my mission just as you were.”

“Don’t give up,” said Chris. “Never give up.”

“I’m afraid,” I said. “I haven’t been so afraid. Someone’s standing in my way on this.”

“The Meritocrat,” she said.

“The Meritocrat?” As I spoke it became clear that was the name that had been forming in my mind, the name seemingly missing from the blank business card Ai’dah had left for me in Tarifa. The name had always been there, and only now did I see it. The Meritocrat!

I grasped the hand, however bloody, that a smiling Chris touched to my cheek. I didn’t care that it left a streak on my face. I only cared about finding my namesake, and besting this Meritocrat somehow.

Christine Chubbuck turned and, still holding my hand, led me along the street. As we walked the curtain lifted and I began to make out what could only have been a good sign: the late 20th- and early 21st century vehicles had been replaced with those of the 1930s, the ‘40s, the early ‘50s. I saw curvy Mercury Monteray Coupes and Chevy Bel Airs. I saw proud Chrysler Imperials and Studebaker Commanders, Ford Monarchs and Lincoln Zephyrs. I even saw a DeSoto Streamline Sedan, circa 1939, parked across the street from the house Chris now directed me toward.

“Amazing,” I said. “Have we gone back in time?”

“No, silly.”

It was a two-story affair, similar to most of the other houses I’d seen in Gladwin. A series of light wooden steps leading up to a wide porch, chairs and a bench on either side of the front door, a mesh screen and a knocker on that door but no window allowing me to peer inside. Standing back and looking up, I saw that in one of the rooms above a light was on dim.

I realized that Christine Chubbuck was no longer holding my hand. She must’ve released it when we were going up the steps. Turning for her I saw that she was gone. It was up to me now.

I knocked on the front door—lightly at first, then more solidly. No answer. A raucous mingling of voices could be heard behind the door: a party in progress.

Not wanting to miss any more I turned the knob and pushed. A faint glow emanated from an entryway just down the dark, vacant hall to my right, and the revelry seemed to be coming from in there. I steadied my steps in the hall, the floorboards barely holding together under me, and then turned the corner. The living room was dark except for the tv, a tall menacing box with a small circular screen in the top center. This contraption lurked at the opposite end of the room and cast its whitewashed eye across a coffee table, a couch, and two empty tv trays in between. I could not make out the rest of the living room, nor did I want to, but I sensed no presence at my side or back. The presence, I realized, was in the tv.

The little round screen showed people at a party, 1950s people, black and white people who drove American cars and worked American jobs in American factories and companies and small businesses. It appeared to be New Year’s Eve as they wore funny little cones and bowler hats perched on their heads while toasting and reveling, martini or vodka glasses raised, watching as confetti rained down. The cacophony from the box picked up in volume substantially, so loud and life-like I had to insert a finger into each ear. The channels changed rapidly: first a cowboy, then a clown, then a tube of toothpaste, then a family in front of their tv, then a washing machine, then I could no longer tell what was being sold. At last the screen landed on a logo, big and brazen and centered. It was of a gem, dazzling yet twisted into the shape of a serpent that was devouring itself. I watched, anticipating the voice.

“What do you think you’re doing, sir,” a man’s voice boomed from the tv.

“I mean no harm,” I said. Try as I might, I could not keep my voice nor my body from shaking. “I only wish to help this infant here, to give him a presence on the Internet greater than what he has now. He deserves it.”

“He deserves nothing,” the voice said. “He deserves to be erased.”

“How can you say that?” With anger I found a sudden swelling of courage. “They all deserve to remembered! Everyone should be known in some way, for something!”

I decide who should be known and who should be forgotten.”

“The Meritocrat!” I said.

“The historical dictator,” I heard. I turned and saw to my right Harriet Quimby, dressed as she was in the picture taken a year before her death in 1912. She wore her fancy gown and huge hat, and she held her umbrella, which she now raised and pointed at the tv. To my left I saw Ai’dah dressed in her burqa and holding a box cutter. She nodded, her eyes wise to what I was only now discovering.

“Historical dictator?” I had no time to consider the term, for the tv bellowed, “Give up now, sir, and you will not be harmed!”

“No way,” I said, but I did not sound convincing even to myself. “I—I’m going to help this baby, and then I’m going to help everyone else I search for on the Internet.”

The logo flashed black-and-white anger, and the voice softened to try a different tact. “Don’t you see this is the Myth of Narcissus?” it began. “The man who saw his reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with that reflection, went to it with arms open wide, fell into the pool and drowned. You are that man, you will drown.”

“He’ll do no such thing!” Harriet advanced on the tv, her umbrella at the ready. Ai’dah too approached, her box cutter raised.

“This is about him!” the tv cried.

“It’s about them!” I countered. “I’m doing it for them, you, you…social dictator!”

Ai’dah screamed something in Arabic and launched herself at the tv. She drove her box cutter into the body of the machine again and again, deeper and deeper so that soon her arm was inside the broken beast. She stood back, wires trailing from her weapon, and Harriet stepped in to swing. Her umbrella connected, and the screen, which had gone black moments before, exploded. I covered my ears at the sound of a frightening electronic whine, the voice of the future, and I closed my eyes for good measure. When I opened them the tv lay on its side, busted open, its entrails heaving, its face evaporated and smoking, and Ai’dah and Harriet were coming toward me.

“Thank you,” I said.

“For rescuing me,” Ai’dah said in English. “For showing me what I was missing, the shopping, the wild woman-on-top sex. I never knew I could make it in America! He didn’t believe in me, but you did.”

“Thank you,” I said again, close to tears. I took her hand and kissed it.

“For uncovering the truth of my death,” Harriet said. “For speaking to William Willard when no one else would.”

“You saved me, both of you.” I took Harriet’s gloved hand and kissed as would a suitor in her time.

“It’s not over,” said Harriet.

“He’ll be back,” her better-off-than-before companion said.

I nodded, and that’s when I heard another woman’s voice behind me.

“Honey. Honey, dessert’s ready. Honey?”

I spun around, expecting to see the ghost of a woman dressed in heels and what amounted to a giant upside-down carnation. Instead I was met with the empty entryway, the hall, and the foot of the stairs just in view.

I felt Harriet’s hand heavy on my shoulder. “Go to him,” she breathed into my ear. “Do what you planned tonight. Capture his details, and make us pay attention.”

“I will,” I said, but they too had vanished. Ahead was only the current mission.

“Honey. It’s going to melt.”

She sounded near. I stepped from out of the living room and back into the hallway. Turning to the right I looked down the hall to what must have been the kitchen. I felt a coldness, an intensity, coming from that pitch-black place. I could have gone in there, I suppose, but what would have been the point? The baby was above. I heard crying now, faint, coming from the second floor, the room I had seen dimly lit from outside.

I ascended the stairs, and as one foot went higher than the other, each step sagging below the last, the infant’s cries grew louder. He needed me, yet I felt compelled to linger. Along the wall, ascending with the staircase, a series of framed photographs had been hung. Each depicted a different automobile—again with the Chevys and the Mercurys and the Chryslers and the Studebakers and the Fords and the Lincolns and the De Sotos—but as I continued to ascend, the photos changed to show cars from periods with which I was more familiar due to my research. I saw a Model T Ford, the two-door touring kind manufactured during the Harriet Quimby era. I saw an AMC Matador circa 1974, the year Christine Chubbuck committed on-air suicide. Toward the top of the stairs I saw a picture of the most modern vehicle, one from the turn of my century, a mammoth SUV that got ten miles to the gallon. In each of these photos, next to the vehicles, stood a late twenty-something man, tall with a sharp, sensitive face angling down to the chin, slightly off-kilter nose caused by a bike accident when he was ten, bushy eyebrows and dark curly hair struggling against a receding hairline—all features I recognized as my own. The man—me, perhaps—stood with his hands in his pockets, dressed as I always am, modern-style, jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers, a wide smile breaking. None of these pictures was in color, and although I was apparently in different time periods I remained the same age throughout the series. Who had taken these pictures? When had I stood next to a Model T Ford, an AMC Matador, a mammoth SUV such as the one depicted now?

The Meritocrat, I thought. That’s who.

The picture at the very top of the stairs, last one in line, revealed nothing but a blank, and underneath, engraved in the bottom of the frame, were the words “Gladwin, Michigan…August 18, 1954.”

Toying with me, I thought. Messing with my mind to throw me off. Not going to work.

On the landing I turned to the one light remaining that could only be coming from the baby’s room. I moved along the hall, my hand tracing the groove in the banister, and as I drew near the open doorway the crying cut out. The whole house went silent and still.

I entered a nursery. Bookshelves covered more than one wall. A big plush teddy bear rested in a rocking chair in a corner by the window, and over the window itself white gossamer lace curtains provided a peek at the moon.

I stepped into the room and the crying picked up again. It was low, more like a whimpering, and it did not vary in intensity as I approached the crib. Peering over the edge I saw what I had expected to see: a baby wrapped in a thick and heavy blanket. On its stomach, the infant was struggling within the happy pattern of teddy bears and balloons. Careful not to free the child, I lifted a corner of the blanket and observed. Pale and peculiar, naked except for a cloth diaper, the baby gurgled and flailed its arms and legs. Judging from its size and my guesstimate as to how much it weighed—no more than seven pounds—I assumed he was only four days old. And with that assumption I knew. It was he. It was my namesake.

“David Michael Ewald,” I said and started to get my laptop out of its case. “Even you deserve the chance I’m giving so many others.”

As the baby continued to struggle, the blanket inched farther up so that it was close to covering the head. The beleaguered smell of some kind of liquor assailed my nostrils.

“Have you been drinking?” I joked. I brought out my laptop, placed it on the edge of the crib, and powered up. Beholden to the machine, the infant tried to turn and succeeded only in pulling the blanket entirely over its face.

“You’ll get to hold it,” I warbled in my best baby-voice. “Yes you will….yes you will….”

The smell of that liquor—Jack Daniels? Seagrams?—had gotten overwhelming. I felt breath at my neck, a different breath than that of Harriet or Christine or Ai’dah.

Still, without turning around, I said, “Harriet? Is that you?”

I heard a gulp, and I realized it was that of a man.

With brutal force I was torn from the crib and hurled to the floor. I reverse-somersaulted and landed on my stomach. “My laptop!” I cried. It had fallen into the crib. Suddenly pressure, the feel of an elephant’s foot, was placed on my right hand, and I screamed.

“Let even this small memory of him perish,” the voice of the Meritocrat said.

Instinctively I cried out for my three women, the ones I had helped so far, but the Meritocrat ground down on my hand and said, “They will not always come to your aid.”

“Harriet! Ai’dah! Chris!” I called out again, but the Meritocrat was right. I was on my own now.

“Let me do my job, wenis!” I tried to move my hand but the force was too great. I saw nothing on my hand, yet it was turning red then purple from the pressure. If it continued, I would surely lose what was most dear to me besides my laptop.

“Why him?” the voice boomed.

“Why do you care?” I shouted back. “Ah, jeezus!”

“He is nothing! Your others are at least something. Explain yourself….”

“Okay, okay. Just—”

The pressure let up, though I still could not lift or move my hand.

“He has my name—my same first and last and even my middle name. That’s how I found him. That’s why I care!”

“So?” the Meritocrat said. “That same first and last and middle name—your exact name, the exact name of this infant—that name also belongs to a little-known writer in Denver. Why not go to him?”

“Because he’s alive, idiot!” With a roar I yanked my hand out from under the invisible elephant’s foot and leapt to my feet. Heat of emotions seething under my skin, I launched punches and kicks at the force. I did not need Ai’dah, I did not need Chris or Harriet. I felt my hands and feet sink into some kind of substance; though invisible, it felt like taffy. I continued to pummel and lash out. At last I could feel the force withdrawing. “That David Michael Ewald in Denver still has a chance to increase his presence, his popularity in this world! You think this David Michael Ewald, this dead baby in Gladwin does? You think Harriet Quimby, or Christine Chubbuck, or any of the others I’m going to find has any real chance of being accepted in our society? This is my mission, motherfather, and you’re not going to stop me, got it?”

I could feel the force head for the doorway. “But is it how it happened,” it said on its way out of the room, “or simply what you want to have happened….”

Instead of questioning those words, I shouted out after the presence: “Maybe if you had his same exact name, my same exact name, you’d understand! I won’t be able to live with myself if this baby’s forgotten, knowing I played a part in replacing him completely. That David Michael Ewald in Denver might not care, any of the other David Michael Ewalds in the world might not care, but I do. He might not become famous, but he has to be saved in some small way at least.”

When I was certain the presence had gone I rushed to the crib, surprised to find the infant, still on its stomach and enshrined in the blanket, striking the keyboard with both balled fists and whimpering. Remarkably, he had managed to launch the Internet browser.

“Oh, David,” I said. “Wonderful! You’re a natural! Come here, give it to your Uncle David. We have to speed things up here.” The infant bawled as I retrieved my laptop and set it back on the crib’s edge. I shooshed him as best I could, which under the circumstances was only half-heartedly. I knew that the Meritocrat would be back, and if I didn’t complete my mission within minutes and flee I might not win the next round.

“Listen, David, listen, please listen.” Sweat had broken out in places I never knew could expel the substance. I readied my digital camera and aimed it at the shrieking infant. “David, look, look at your Uncle David. Look at me. Smile! We have the same exact name, isn’t that funny? That’s what brought me to you! Our namesake! Now smile….You have to have your picture taken. It’s for your social-networking page, and your e-mail account, and, well, we’ll talk about your personal website later. It’ll be a lot better than the one that little-known writer living in Denver runs, I can guarantee you that. Don’t listen to the Meritocrat: you can become known, maybe even famous! We’ll see. Right now I just need you to smile….”

My cooing, lilting voice, the vomit of words—all seemed to work on the infant. He finally calmed down enough for me to take a picture worthy of being seen on the Internet. True, this David Michael Ewald had a face like a squeezed tomato—but at least he wasn’t in black and white.

“Now, to find out how you died….” I looked around the room for evidence. How had he died? Only four days old—had his heart simply stopped? I eyeballed the bookshelves, which were too far away to have fallen and crushed the crib, nor was the big plush teddy bear a threat at that distance. The death was indeed difficult to ascertain, yet without the truth of his fourth and final night I would not be able to generate enough outside interest to secure his status.

I was thinking of again getting down on my knees and praying for help from Christine Chubbuck, Harriet Quimby and Ai’dah when I turned to the crib and saw the truth right there. David Michael Ewald—the 1954 David Michael Ewald—the four day old and many decades deceased David Michael Ewald—had, in addition to his body, succeeded in twisting the blanket around his face, and I realized now that he was suffocating on account of a negligent adult. A blanket did not belong in a crib containing a four-day-old, and I made the connection even as the baby David Michael Ewald struggled, his cries and gurgles muffled, darkness of a new and sinister womb on all sides.

“That’s it,” I exclaimed. I continued to watch, fascinated, as the infant’s arms slowly lowered, and it completed what had happened so many decades before.

I heard a man’s voice, the sound of an ad, say, “He’s gonna be more comfortable,” and I again smelled the liquor.

“Yes!” I cried in triumph. As I held my laptop aloft, a woman’s scream followed—so high-pitched and galling I felt my skin stop and I had to close my eyes. When next I opened them the room was made of metal, the walls and floor and ceiling blank, and the infant and the crib had disappeared. A monotonous electronic-inspired buzz replaced the scream, and I felt as if the time of the situation had shifted—that I was no longer in an earlier time but rather one beyond the time from which I had come. I clutched my laptop to my chest and blinked my eyes machine-gun-like, shedding some of the sheen. Then I ran.

Out of the former nursery, through the house that was no longer a house. The wooden banister had been replaced with a metal rod that appeared to snake into a defunct oil well. The wall down the steel stairs was devoid of all the pictures I had previously seen—devoid of anything, like the rest of this place. The electronic-inspired buzz pursued me through the downstairs hall, past the bare living room and out the front door that had morphed into the serpentine logo of the Meritocrat.

I burst from the vision and tumbled down the steps to fall on my face in the lawn. The grass was cold and wet and real. Fearing for my laptop’s safety I quickly turned on my back and made sure my number one priority was okay. Finding it to be intact and operational, I next checked my digital camera, which also was unharmed. Only then did I notice day breaking over the neighborhood: sun glinted on the windows and hoods of all the cars of my time—the early 21st century—now parked in the driveways and on the streets. A man was walking out of the house from which I had just thrown myself. He wore glasses, no rings of any kind, and a suit and tie. He stopped to look at me sitting and typing in the grass.

“Want to tell me what you’re doing on my lawn,” he said.

“In a minute,” I said, my eyes on the screen. “I don’t want to lose it.”

“You’re going to lose a lot more than whatever if you don’t clear off my property in five seconds.”

Having written just enough, I got up, secured my laptop in its case, and went ahead of him. “I assure you,” I said. “You’ll be having to drive a lot more people than just me off your lawn soon enough. A lot more.”

“What does that mean?” he said.

“You ever watch the eleven o’clock news?”

I started off, my back to the house. I heard the car door slam, the engine rev up, tires tread on asphalt. Soon they would type, click, search, view and read. Not only that: they would descend on this house to further uncover the case. The cameras rolling, the talking heads chattering into their mikes….My namesake would have his fame after all! His face would be on the screen, the circumstances of his death and exactly where it happened known. That suit-wearing man was aligned with the Meritocrat, and he would get what was coming for his house. As for me, I did not need to look back. I carried my success with me toward my next soon-to-be-saved. Putting one foot before the other, I headed back toward the Motor City. Never to give up.

Christopher (chapter 5)

Christopher

 

 

I was in New York to administer the latest drug for the AIDS pandemic. I’d booked a reasonably priced flight into JFK and flagged a cab as soon as I hit the curb. The driver insisted I stow my laptop in the trunk along with my satchel. He appeared to be from somewhere in Africa and when I got in back I saw by his ID that his name was Macoma.

“The hospital,” I directed. “And step on it, Mac.”

“Which hospital,” he asked without the trace of an accent.

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a hundred hospitals in this city. Which one you want?”

“The closest one,” I said, and we were off.

I entered through the front of the hospital and recoiled at all the people lying in rollaway beds on either side of the hall. Some were bleeding, others broken. I felt sad walking past them.

I went up to the counter and said, “I’d like the room for Christopher Coe, please.”

The man across from me looked as if I’d just asked his permission to punch him in the mouth, and I had to repeat the question.

“Yeah I know, I heard,” he said. “You a friend or relative?”

“Friend. Definitely friend,” I said.

“Let me check.”

He typed some on his keyboard, shook his head, sighed and stood up. “Wait here,” he said.

I followed him around corners and through rooms, past massive whiteboards and wall charts marked with names he scanned on by. After several minutes he stopped, turned and stared at me, like an animal.

“What did I tell you.”

“But this is a matter of utmost life or death.”

“You’re tellin’ me.”

“I am telling you,” I said, shocked. “I need to find Christopher Coe.”

“He doesn’t appear to be here. When was he admitted.”

“I don’t know exactly when, but it was probably sometime in 1993, around the publication of his second and last novel.”

Now it was as if I’d asked permission to point a gun to his head and pull the trigger.

“Man, what are you talking about?”

“Isn’t he here? Haven’t you been taking care of him?”

“This is the emergency room. No one’s been here that long.”

“But…haven’t you even heard of Christopher Coe?”

“Look, man. There’s a cop down the hall. If you don’t take your computer and your bag and clear out of here in the next minute I’m gonna call her over and then we’ll see who’s being taken care of.”

I took an elevator to another floor of the hospital, but no one knew. Christopher Coe was on no list of any kind in any database, not even that of memory. What gave? Didn’t they have Internet access? Hadn’t they searched his name in quotations? Weren’t they aware that Christopher Coe grew up in San Francisco but moved to New York in his later years? That he divided his time between New York and Paris, and that because of this he was likely quite well-off? That he was a contributor to Harper’s magazine (the story “Easy” in the August 1986 issue), author of two novels, I Look Divine and Such Times, the latter released a year before his death at age 41 from complications brought about by AIDS?

What I knew about AIDS. Philadelphia. Angels in America. And the Band Played On. That one after-school special that fires up with John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” while shots of small town Indiana life fly by.

I had searched all over Toronto for the latest cutting-edge drug before finding it in a laboratory on the university campus. For five days I’d staked out the lab before sneaking in and swiping the bottle off a technician’s desk. The rats thanked me. I spent a lot of my time in that foreign city, sweltering in August, seated at a table in the St. Lawrence Market, nursing a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder. A young Hungarian woman sat across from me and I repeated the phrases she spoke in her own language. She stopped only once to ask me in English whether or not I was happy, and I answered yes, I was, unbearably so.

After New York I would travel to Africa, to dirt roads and dead animals, aspiring novelists and celebrities. I had a flight booked for Cairo already. From the entry point I would work my way south along the Nile in a catamaran piloted by a queen. The bribe would be ready at the border with Sudan. Whoever needed the drug would receive it. Christopher Coe would be only the first assuaged.

Approaching from the far end of the hall was the female cop mentioned earlier. Amazonian with a statue of David’s height and great broad shoulders spreading out like wings, she was dressed in a crisp dark blue uniform and topped by an older-style police officer’s cap pulled down so I could barely see her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail that remained mostly hidden under the cap. She carried a menacing-looking baton, and on her hip was of course the gun.

“Am I under arrest?” I said.

“You will be if you don’t vacate these premises immediately.”

Seeing the badge, the baton, the gun, I considered obeying. But ultimately I hesitated because of the voice. Not only was this cop’s voice not entirely that of a woman, it was also not entirely that of a human being. I had heard the voice that hid behind this cop’s voice before. That grim and gloating, almost mechanical baritone, the voice of the future….

“The Meritocrat!” I said.

Swiftly the cop drew her firearm and trained it on me. “Now you’re under arrest,” she said with the requisite situational gravity. “Put your hands in the air. Now!”

Again I almost obeyed but stopped when I saw—for only a millisecond—the cop’s eyes flash red just beyond her cap’s brim. “You are the Meritocrat,” I said, my voice trembling.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She inched closer. “There’s no Meritocrat here. You’re under arrest because you’re a danger to society.”

“What danger,” I said, astounded. “I haven’t hurt anyone. I’m here to help and to save….”

“And how do you suppose you’ll do that?” The cop’s voice had shifted completely to that of the Meritocrat. “With your Internet? Your ‘new employer’?”

“Better than my old employer,” I said. “I’m free of those walls, that cubicle. I’m free to keep these people from being forgotten any way I can, and if that takes bringing them up to speed on the social networking capabilities of the Internet, so be it.”

The gun remained pointed at my chest as the Meritocrat-as-cop scoffed. “The Internet…The spirits you seek are more real than the Internet.”

“What are you talking about?” I actually took a step toward the gun-wielding Meritocrat. “The Internet is everything. It’s my…it’s my life.”

“Exactly, David. It’s your life. Is it theirs?”

“It should be. They’ll thank me when they see how much attention they’re getting—”

“How much attention you’re getting, David Michael Ewald from Denver.”

“Shut up. What do you mean Denver? I’ve never been to Denver.”

“Fell in love with his own reflection and drowned.”

“What the hell are you?!” With these words I launched myself at my assailant. The gun did not go off. It did not even click. Expecting to grab the cop and pummel and throttle the Meritocrat out of her, I was shocked to find my arms waving air. The cop—and the Meritocrat in her—were gone.

Shaken but still set on achieving my goal here, I took my laptop out of its case and was just about to sit down in the hall when I saw a room I hadn’t yet been in. There was a figure behind the curtain even before I drew it. The figure was propped up in bed with tubes running out of his nose and mouth. He had short straight hair parted in the middle, just like in his author photo from the Vintage Contemporaries edition of I Look Divine, patchy in places and falling over half his forehead. As I approached his bed I knew. It was he. It was Christopher Coe.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said. “I couldn’t find much of you on the Internet. There’s just not a lot there. Your name drew up only a few hits. Even mine gets more.”

He looked pale, emaciated, unfit for viewing hours. A lesion like a mole crept up his neck and another plopped itself on the skin above his upper cheekbone. He swiveled his head like a turret, twice, back and forth.

“Don’t deny it,” I continued. “But you can get better. Here. I have something for you. I’m here to save you, Chris.”

He made as if to cough out the tube in his mouth. I reached to aid him in his effort. Free to speak now, he whispered, “Please. Call me Christopher.”

“All right, Christopher. Take this.”

I held out the bottle but he did not move. Maybe he couldn’t. I was supposed to give it to him then.

I unscrewed the cap and he said, “What is that?”

“It’s the latest cutting-edge drug. To stop the pain from AIDS.”

“It’s NyQuil.”

“No. It’s the ultimate pain-reliever for AIDS.”

I leaned in toward him, the bottle poised above his mouth.

“Open.”

“Piss off.”

“Christopher,” I sighed. “If you don’t take this drug you’re going to die.”

“I am dead,” he insisted.

“Not that kind of dead,” I explained. “Internet dead.”

Christopher waved me off. I withdrew, the bottle capped by my thumb.

“You’ve slipped,” I told him.

“Excuse me?”

“Both your novels are currently ranked in the millions behind so many self-published books. Don’t you want to increase your readership—and your sales?”

“In the millions,” he wheezed.

“In the several millions. I Look Divine is only 2,648,074 on the Internet sales list, and Such Times is faring even worse. Rank number 5,678,708 at last look. Even a self-help guide published by a ninety-year-old widower out of his home in Kansas is outselling it.”

“I’m…sorry.”

“Whatever happened to that collection you were working on, the one mentioned in your I Look Divine author bio? I know you never got around to finishing it but—”

“I did finish it,” Christopher said. On the chair next to his bed I saw a manuscript, a collection of stories that was to be released in the wake of his first novel. I flipped through the pages, which smelled of mold and felt brittle.

“You might want to think about changing the title,” I said.

“Okay….”

“It’s just…‘Rich People Having Fun’. Of course they’re having fun. They’re rich.”

“Take it,” he said. “Give it to the first person you see.”

After slipping the manuscript into my satchel, I sat in the chair next to Christopher’s bed and held his lesion-laden hand.

“I’d like to say that’s enough, but the truth is you could do so much more if you were on your feet and at a computer right now. Seriously. If you only took this drug, and then got online and created a profile…”

“What do you mean, profile?”

“You don’t know? Okay. That makes sense. The Internet was in its infancy in 1994. Fair enough. But the company’s come so far since then. You really should see it for yourself, Christopher. It’s the world as we know it now. Everything’s happening there. Everything. People live in worlds, worlds they create. You don’t have to be in the best health to do it, but it helps if you’re at least able to do basic keyboarding functions. So come on, man. Drink this down, get yourself up out of that bed and get online already. Just a tribute page won’t cut it. Creating a personal profile takes what, like, five minutes max….Here. I’ll even help you get started using my computer.”

Christopher tried to turn away then, on his side, but I held fast. He spat, “I am not doing anything but dying.”

“But….you can get on these bookcentric sites and connect with readers of your work, and they can recommend your novels to new readers.”

Christopher succeeded in yanking his hand from mine, and I went after it. After some struggle consisting of swatting and clawing, I again grasped his hand, this time even more tightly.

“Tell me about your childhood in San Francisco,” I said.

“You first,” he said. “Tell me about your childhood in San Francisco.”

“I didn’t grow up in San Francisco.”

“Yes you did. I saw you in the Marina holding your mother’s hand in 1964. You were eight, I was eleven.”

“I wasn’t alive in 1964.” I let go of his hand. “My mother was twelve.”

“And I was eleven,” Christopher whispered, eyes closed. He hacked horribly. “Oh why does this have to be so difficult. Nurse. Nurse! Send me home to my apartment where I belong, please. I’m supposed to be there now. My end’s less than a week away. Nurse!”

“The nurse can’t help you,” I explained. “Only I can. Please. Take the drug.”

“No. I’m dying there.”

“Take this.”

He clamped his mouth shut in anticipation of the pour.

“Damnit, Christopher. I don’t even want to tell you how many other Christopher Coes there are out there already. Do you really want to be replaced, forgotten? Don’t you want to be part of the world?”

“It’s enough,” he yelled and sat up in my face. The tubes flew out of his nostrils when he snorted. I was thrown back from the bed and into the chair. Christopher was beginning to rise. I grabbed a pillow from behind his body and pushed it into his face, forcing him back down. He tried to wiggle his head but I wouldn’t let him. His claws beat at the sides of my head but missed my eyes. I pressed on. At last his struggles ceased. I released the pillow and looked around for the drug. The bottle was lying tipped over on the ground, a bloody trail stretching.

I started to cry as I picked up the bottle and saved what little I could. When I returned to Christopher I saw that he was gone, the bed had been made, the flowers had been removed. A woman in white stood next to me. She touched my arm.

“Sir,” she said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Aegeus (chapter 6)

 

Aegeus

 

 

I was in Greece to show a king he shouldn’t have committed suicide. It was sunny mid-September, the right-shoulder-end of the high season, and what I had calculated to be the anniversary of his death.

The bow of the ferry pitched forward suddenly and I almost lost my grip on the flag. The white standard continued to flutter in the mild afternoon breeze. I felt proud, important, a messenger carrying news that would finally be delivered. I was three thousand years in the past, an ancient defender, sword-studded, helmet-plumed, astride a war galley powered by a pew-slew of grunt-sweating slaves. Ready the catapult, the cauldrons! Ignite the arrows! How many had gone down in their armor, unable to raise even an arm to signal for help as they shot into the deep? The rear of the galley rising to the gods, the oars all akimbo like the legs of some giant manic spider before slipping through the sheet of darkness. Fires on the water, night clangs and cries, screams and splashes. The average body takes several days to disintegrate in the open deep, a wood-fashioned war galley even longer. But just how long? I would have to search the Internet again.

“Must’ve hit a swell,” said the woman by my side.

“Or a sea monster”: her husband’s response.

This couple had sat near me during most of the overnight journey. The husband had worn a t-shirt that claimed Boston was founded in 1630. The woman had worn a visor and sunglasses inside and when an overly large family of Gypsies overtook our room, coming in loud and ready to lay their blankets down and start cooking and feasting, the couple got up and took off for areas unknown.

The husband noticed me staring at his wife’s binoculars.

“May I borrow your binoculars?”

“Of course,” she said and handed them over.

“Thank you kindly.”

With one hand still on the flag I raised the binoculars and peered through them to the shining city on the hill. My focus went to the Acropolis, to the figures swirling about like so many seeds tossed to the wind. I scoured and swiveled, my view bobbing, and then I saw him. There, standing at a corner of the Parthenon, his arms open wide to the sea.

I handed the binoculars back to the woman and with both hands lifted the flag high. I swept it back and forth, across the blue, and the announcement came on that we were preparing to dock.

“Tell me you’re not signaling the terrorists.”

The man looked at me expectantly. He wore a Club Med t-shirt now.

“What do you mean,” I said, allowing the flag to falter a little.

“I’m saying that better not be a signal for al-Qaeda in Athens.”
“Bob,” the woman warned.

“But it’s not,” I said. “It’s a signal for King Aegeus.”

“King who?”

“Aegeus, the king of this city. This water we’re on is named after him. I’m here to help him discover the good news.”

The couple clutched one another and drifted away. I went back to waving the flag.

When the ferry had docked and the drawbridge had dropped to dry land I charged with all the other passengers across to the waiting taxi drivers and hotel touts. The first one to extend a hand got me.

In the cab I asked the driver if we could possibly go any faster.

“You want faster? This is faster.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You want real faster. Real faster costs extra.”

Outside the cab, close to the entrance to the brightest hill of them all, the driver tried to convince me that my laptop and satchel, since they’d been stored in the trunk on our way through the city, cost an extra service fee. I wasn’t buying.

“Desist, my friend, or I’ll report you to the nearest youth hostel.”

Confused by my sentence, the driver blew air in my face, got back in the cab and drove away. I was again at a loss.

I walked up the cobbled—could they be called cobbled?—steps, past what I assumed were olive trees, to stand in front of the gate that led into the magnificent Acropolis. As I was passing through the maw of the gods I heard a voice, short and sharp: “Your ticket, sir. Excuse me, your ticket.”

I seem to have this problem when I travel. Call it excitement, call it hubris, call it whatever you will, whenever you will, but it does happen that the conclusion of the mission is in my mind before it becomes a reality, the steps fall away, forgotten, and it’s like I’ve tried to build a house from the roof down. Humbled, I paid the sufficiently exorbitant amount, got back in line and this time entered without incident.

The ancient grounds of the gods were no less crowded now than when I had first espied them from my vantage point on the ferry. Wicked, wicked tour groups kicked rocks randomly in wing formation. An elderly couple asked me to take a photo for them, of them, which would then be placed in their hometown newspaper and guarantee them a prize. I felt special. I felt cheap. I wanted it to be over, but it was never going to be over, not until I had found and helped them all, and that was impossible, the ending of that feat, like the thirteenth labor of Hercules.

It took a while to find him, but there he was, on the far side of the Acropolis opposite the entrance steps. A crowd of Danes had gathered near him to gawk at the mix of countryside, city and ruins below, but they dispersed as I drew near and by the time he had turned to face me we were alone. Standing well over six feet, he wore a long maroon tunic, sandals and a belt made from the hide of a black boar. His eyes were wet and he looked so old and frightened, like someone I had known for a short time before taking off with her money. His white hair was curled in great tufts surfing back from his scalp, and his beard shook with rattled emotion. It was he. It was Aegeus.

“I’ve traveled quite a ways to speak with you,” I said as I set down my laptop, satchel and daypack. “I thought I’d be in Africa right now but…well, that plan fell through. I figure now I better stick with what I know, who I know. Anyway, I’m here to help you, to show you what actually happened so that what did happen didn’t have to happen. It’s my job, my newest mission.”

He screamed then—a sound so ghastly and booming that I just had to crouch low and cover my ears the way you would if you were visiting an ancient hilltop castle near Aix-en-Provence and the wind had picked up something merciless threatening to topple you and your compatriots off the rampart wall to your death fifty or more feet below.

His maw still gaping, his vocal chords still a-whirring, Aegeus threw his head back as if he were going to swallow the freaking sky. His fists clenched and unclenched, and his eyes—from what I could see of them anyway—looked ready to bleed. I guessed this was what it must have been like to suffer a Greek tragedy.

When the bleating had subsided I stood up and looked around. If there were others on that field of battle then, I did not see them. I turned to face my foe and soon-to-be-friend.

“That was…dramatic.”

He swayed toward me, his arms outstretched. I fell into his embrace and closed my eyes, my nostrils picking up the pungent and familiar scent of dead goats and sea salt. After some time we let go, tears in both pairs of eyes.

I asked him where his crown was.

“Crown?”

“Don’t give me that. You understand the word. You understood the word ‘your’, the word ‘where.’ You certainly understand the verb ‘be’.”

“The most powerful verb in the English language,” Aegeus said.

“Good. Then we can dispense with the whole ‘I don’t understand your language, you don’t understand mine’ shtick. The Internet transcends language anyway.”

“Internet?”

“Now that I can understand. Allow me to explain: The Internet is my employer. It’s essentially one big company run by….by someone, someone powerful, like any other big company in the world. It’s what brought me to you. I’ve been working under its guidance to find little-known people and lesser-known famous people and either make them known or more famous or…well, help them in some way. To show them what they’ve missed, and what can be.”

Aegeus got down on his knees and pawed the earth. He looked about ready to chew dirt when he cried out, “My son, my son, my son.…”

“Your son was alive, Aegeus. Alive!”

“Alive?”

“Yes, alive. Look!”

I sat on the ground next to the king and took my laptop out of its carrying case. I opened the clamshell and hit the power button. The sound of my god echoed across the plateau.

Aegeus scooted closer to me and I put the laptop between us. “See,” I said, dragging and clicking here, typing a little there. “Check out this website. See what it says? You can read this, right? The screen’s not too dark for you?”

The king, his face pinched with concentration, puffed with emotion, said nothing. I went on.

“Okaaay…I see we’re having one of those daytime television talk-show moments. That’s okay, really. Take your time. I’m patient.”

When considerable time had passed and Aegeus still had not said or done anything, I tried to encourage him: “You just gotta hang with this technology a while. You’ll figure it out, and you’ll thank me, really you will. Theseus is everywhere on this thing. All you have to do is type in his name and—”

“He is in here.”

“Sure.”

“Trapped!”

“Not trapped. He’s just…you know, there. All right. That’s it…”

The king had taken my computer from me and placed it in his lap. His fingers hovered over the keys. He looked prepared to type. I watched, anxious. Then quite abruptly he hit the power button. The computer shut off.

“No! Not that button. Christ. Here, let me….”

But the king held tight. After some tense wrestling, I at last succeeded in taking back what was mine. Angry now, I said, “You should’ve listened to the Oracle: ‘Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief.’ But you did get drunk, and while drunk you sired Theseus, and because of your son you actually did die of grief.”

He didn’t seem to understand so I said, “Look, Goat-man. If you don’t want to take the time to search the Web and learn the truth, fine. I’ll just say it. You made a mistake. A big, unqualified mistake. You might have seen the sail black on your son’s ship as it appeared on the horizon, but that didn’t mean he was dead. Didn’t mean he failed.”

“He…”

“He was alive, Aegeus. What did I say earlier? He’d just forgotten to change the sail, black to white. A simple mistake that cost you your life.”

“My son…forgot.”

“Forgot like all the other things he forgot with you. Forgot to throw the ball around. Forgot to build a tent fort in the backyard. Forgot to take off the training wheels. Forgot to count fireflies on the porch in summer. Forgot to call you from his friend’s house that one time, remember? Remember?”

“I—”

“Forgot to say he loved you before he left Athens with that black sail up, didn’t he? Didn’t he?”

“Yes!”

“That’s it! Get mad! Get damnright angry at the kid! Come on! I know you can do it, so.”

Aegeus reared his head back and screamed yet again, this time beating his chest in tune to his vocal chords.

“That’s it…let it out. That’s a king.”

With the shaking of his head Aegeus seemed to shake out the last of his anger. He sat back on his palms.

I said, “Your son was a neglectful and emotionally reckless youth. Do you know what he was doing on his way back from killing the Minotaur?”

“He…succeeded?”

“He more than succeeded. His quest was a triumph. Like I said before, he slew the Minotaur, that foul half-man half-bull beast, in its own maze. Tore off its left—or was it the right? I’ll have to search that—horn and drove that newly-formed spear straight through the monster’s heart, thus freeing the six Athenian men and seven Athenian maidens who were waiting to be sacrificed. He then, cad that he was, took off with King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne. Together they sailed in Theseus’s ship bound for Athens and you.”

“This is not a lie?”

“Not even a little white, man. Here. You can see for yourself. I’ll give you one more go at it.”

I passed the laptop off to the king. He took it in his grubby hands and stared at the screen, again apparently not knowing what to do.

“Go on. Type something. You’ve watched me do it, I got you set up, how hard can it be? I really, really want you to do this on your own, Aegeus, without my help. You can do it, I know you can. So search, for the sake of the gods.”

As if touching a newborn pup, Aegeus pressed his pinky finger on the space key. My computer made a sound of annoyance.

“Not like that. You’re already on the search engine. All you need to do is type in your son’s name. Type in T-H-E-S-E-U-S, hit the ‘enter’ key, and you’re there. You’ll be reunited with him, in a way. At least you’ll learn all the things you should have before offing yourself. So go on. It’s easy. You don’t even have to put quotation marks around the search term.”

Aegeus hit the space key again, and again. I groaned.

“Obviously I’m going to have to do it all for you.”

But the king kept my computer at arm’s length from me. I couldn’t yet tell if he was treating it with distaste or reverence.

“Look,” I said. “At least listen to my instructions. Type in your son’s name, ‘Theseus’, and while you’re at it type in ‘Ariadne’ too. Yeah, you can find out all about them. He left her on the island of Naxos, can you believe it? Your own son had this fantastic woman and he went ahead and ditched her…who knows why? Some sites say the god Dionysus visited your son and told him Ariadne had already been promised to him, not Theseus, so Theseus had to abandon her on the island. But if you ask me I think that’s bullshit. Your son was a womanizer. A user more than an abuser. You must have seen that in him at a young age, right? Go on. Tell me about the time he—”

“There was no time,” Aegeus said. “Not ever.”

“Nice. Very poetic. But let’s face some reality here, huh. In essence he murdered you. His negligence did anyway. And did he grieve when he found out you’d thrown yourself off the highest cliff into the sea? Sure, he named the sea after you, but did he grieve, I mean really?”

“Um…”

“Well, what do you think?”

“He must have, my son.”

“I’m your son now, Aegeus. The son you should always have known.”

I made to touch the king affectionately, the way Theseus should have done all those years ago, but just as my fingers were about to land on his skin Aegeus leapt to his feet, the laptop still in his hands, and took off running across the Acropolis grounds.

“Come back! Jesus, somebody stop him! The king’s got my two-thousand-dollar laptop!”

I chased him down the side of the shining hill, along switchbacks too severe to return up. He took me into a dense grove of olive trees, where the cicadas cried even though summer was spent, and then into a cave bearing the Cyclops’s eye. At all times was he just ahead of me and I, like Tantalus in the pool of water, could not touch him, the fruit.

At last the tunnel opened out onto an edge of a cliff—the same cliff, I realized, from which King Aegeus had thrown himself upon seeing the black sail flying from his son’s ship.

“Return to your true father, my son!”

I had no time to react before Aegeus threw my laptop, my most prized possession, light of my love, my life itself, off the cliff to where it smashed onto the rocks and sank in pieces into the sea below.

“FUUUUUUUUUUCK!”

I jumped at Aegeus and landed solidly on his back. I dug my fingers into his eyes, covering them, gnawing at them with my nails. He spun around one way then the other, trying to throw me off. We hovered perilously close to the edge.

“Cretin!” I said. “Neanderthal! This is why I should never hit up people who died before the Industrial Revolution!”

He wrenched my hands from his face and forced me off him. Still holding my forearms he pulled me closer to the edge. Rocks gave way and I began to slip.

“No!”

My life appeared to be lost, and then. And then I swept my feet out from under myself, taking all weight off me and unbalancing the king, who pitched forward and toward the edge on which I had previously been teetering. As the king pitched forward I slid under his tunic, in between his legs, and let go of his hands in haste. Aegeus, surprised at the move that would have made his son proud, somersaulted into space. With a startled cry of terror he vanished from view.

I crawled to the edge and looked down. The king’s body had broken on the rocks and was slowly being borne up by the waves, then back down to be swallowed in the churning, bloody froth.

After taking a breath I shouted, “That’s what you get when you fuck around with the twenty-first century, old timer. Ha!”

For a time I sat at the entrance to the tunnel and watched the sun and sea. It made only a little sense, the ending to this mission. True: what I’d said about the pre-Industrial Revolution spirits—but that couldn’t have been the only reason why Aegeus had hurled my laptop into the ocean. I sensed an outside force at work, the Meritocrat who had not only thwarted me here but at the hospital in New York. The Meritocrat was forcing extreme reactions from these spirits, with the intention of getting rid of me. I was lucky there had been only one casualty this time around. 

I wept for my computer, my laptop, my constant companion. But I would get another. I had money and, as someone once close to me often said, Any problem can be solved with money. There would always be more. More computers, more money, more kings and more cliffs. These thoughts consoled me and brought me back to believing I could go on with my journey, my epic string of searches and missions. After getting a new laptop, of course.

I stood up, resolved, and entered the tunnel. I did not wish to see night fall.

Andrew (chapter 7)

Andrew

 

 

I was on campus to stop a massacre. It was the end of September, goodbye-to-Maggie-May time, and all through the halls the only sound to be heard was that of my shoes striking glossy ground. The lights were on when I’d entered, and now the artificial glare seemed to follow me as I stepped on squares, careful to avoid lines. I hadn’t expected to ever return to Michigan, but now here I was, again at night only this time 110 miles south of Gladwin, and I would soon realize the Meritocrat not only meant to best me through my latest target—he meant to annihilate any trace of me as well.

At my side was the All-in-One, the cellphone-computer contraption I’d bought in London during my long layover on the way from Greece. I still missed my laptop, my formerly constant companion, my only true friend, but I understood that short of an underwater exploratory mission to the bottom of the Aegean Sea—something even I could not afford—there was no getting it back. Hence, my new friend. I would grow to love it, or so I hoped. It was just so…small. I’d have to be a super-intelligent infant to use the nano keyboard without typing up gibberish when all I wanted was to conduct a simple search. So small—and yet I was certain buttons remained, waiting to be pressed, that I couldn’t see and were not revealed even in the pithy instruction manual.

The snapping and squeaking of my not-so-sneaky sneakers continued. Each room I passed was closed and as dark as the outside. I did not linger long on my reflection but rather picked up the pace, as if I was in a commercial. Now as I was trotting I began a mantra: “Catholic Kehoe, Catholic Kehoe, Catholic Kehoe…” Over and over I said this phrase, as if the sheer repetition would annoy him enough to hasten his arrival. I knew he was close; I could sense movement just around the corner—

I turned expecting to see my target—but instead a small elderly woman wearing caked makeup and her dyed hair up in a pink bow blocked my path. She stood near the lockers on the right side and held a broom like a sage holds a cane, the handle grasped in both hands and used to support her chin. She stared at me, a quiz forming on her face, and I had trouble hiding my disappointment.

“Oh,” I said and walked toward her. “Have you seen a man around here, in these halls, about…I don’t know, the Internet didn’t give his height, but judging from his one photo I’d say he’s about five-five, maybe five-six or five-seven at most, so pretty short….” I almost added ‘like you’, but my powers of self-editing kicked in in time. “Anyway, he’s wearing some older clothes, like from the nineteen-twenties, and he should be making some repairs to the school. Have you seen him?”

“Who are you?” she said, a short sharp bark. “How’d you get in?”

“I am…uh, I just came in, through the door.”

“Are you a teacher?”

“Yes!” I said, relieved. “Yes, I am a teacher, and I’m here to find Andrew Kehoe.”

“Andrew who?”

Had this woman really not heard of Andrew Kehoe, murderer of forty-four people, most of them young children, not very far from this very place? She looked as if she was possibly alive when Kehoe committed his atrocious act on the morning of May 18, 1927, detonating his explosives all throughout one wing of the Bath Consolidated School, bringing the roof down, then blowing himself, his car and a few nearby others up as his final act. My powers of self-editing had fallen away, and all that I just told you I told to that custodial woman, who looked at me as if I’d just breathed a half-ton mixture of garlic, onions and shallots.

“Mister,” she said. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t know who he is. I’ve been working here for two weeks. I’m from Montana.”

“Montana!” I said, and I pictured then a phone ringing somewhere in a cabin with its open door looking out on a vast plain. “Beautiful state. I’ve never been to it.”

“I don’t believe you work here,” she said.

“I don’t believe you work here either.”

That quiz was again forming on the elderly woman’s face—and it looked as if she was flunking. I continued: “Do you want what happened here all those years ago to happen again, possibly soon? Copycats abound. But if I can find him and just convince him to leave—wait, where are you going?”

The elderly woman was indeed shuffling away. Her feet moved at a fairly rapid clip for her age, and it hit me where she was headed.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I ran up behind her, my arms raised, “but this is for the people of Bath, Michigan.”

After I’d stifled the custodial woman’s cries with duct tape and bound her from behind with rope—items I’d brought intending to use on Catholic Kehoe if he at all resisted—I shut the storage closet and continued down the hall.

The All-in-One in my hip holster began to buzz. Not expecting a call, I picked it up anyway only to see that no call appeared to be coming in; still, the contraption was now vibrating like a rabbit. A new button, one I’d not seen before on the side, was now apparent. It was red. I pressed it. Immediately the All-in-One leapt from my hand to hover, drone-like, over me.

“What the—?”

I tried to grab it by jumping, my arms waving, but the All-in-One easily dodged aside. Now it was beeping and buzzing like a cellphone, and lights were flashing from it like a slot machine.

“This wasn’t in the manual. What  a rip-off—and I paid in pounds! I knew that name was too good to be true. All-in-One—”

“Call me Ishmael,” a pleasant-sounding British man said.

I looked around. No one.

“It’s me, you Yank.”

Looking up, I realized that the voice, so human, did indeed belong to the All-in-One. The flashing and vibrating had ceased, but now the cellphone screen showed a rudimentary smiley face. The face winked. I stepped back.

“Please don’t run, mate. I’m here to help.”

“Whoa. Hold on. You can fly?”

“And speak. And do so many other nifty things….”

“But—”

“Would you like to take me back? Demand a refund? Place an exchange?”

“I…guess not.”

“Trust me: it’s better you have me than an ordinary All-in-One.”

“I just don’t get it. I mean…your voice. Aren’t you just the GPS feature?”

Ishmael laughed. “You underestimate. That’s all right. I thought you would. I know the Meritocrat does.”

“The Meritocrat. You know him.”

“Not personally. But I do know of him. We go way forward, you could say.”

“Way forward? What do you mean ‘way forward’?”

“I mean the future, of which I’m a big part. See how technologically advanced I am?”

I nodded to show I agreed.

“As I said, I’m your mate, your ‘bro’. I’m with you from here on out, the Felix Leiter to your James Bond.”

“But Bond is British and Leiter’s Amer—oh, never mind. So you’re going to help me stop the Meritocrat?”

“Any way I can, and I have a lot of ways. But if we keep carrying on like this neither of us will be alive for the ultimate confrontation.”

“What ‘ultimate confrontation’?”

“That may be a ways off. For now…look above you.”

I did as I was told. Not seeing anything unusual, I shook my head and shrugged.

“Look closer.”

I strained my eyes, and then, after only a few moments, I saw. Snaking around the piping in the ceiling were wires that definitely stood apart and had been recently placed. Wires leading to only one thing.

“How much time?” I said, my panic rising.

“Not much. But I’ve pinpointed where he is. Follow me.”

As Ishmael zoomed just ahead, my panic threatened to overwhelm and paralyze. The Meritocrat had only grown bolder here in Michigan. He knew I wouldn’t give up unless I died.

We had reached a set of large locked double doors. Beyond was darkness—and our target. I kicked at the handles and was just getting out my credit card when Ishmael said, “Stand aside, mate.”

My companion hovered close to one of the key holes and—I’m not making this up—unleashed a little yellow beam, like a strong stream of urine, into the lock. Within moments the doors had opened and we were inside.

“How…?”

“Be content to know I can do anything,” said Ishmael. “Anything.”

I searched for the lights and found them. Within a second of having been turned on, they went off. I reached for the switches again but Ishmael told me not to bother, he would light the way. With his beam shining brightly I searched through my satchel for all the print-outs I’d acquired in the Internet café in Piccadilly Circus. My original intention had been to find the madman and convince him to haunt elsewhere. Kehoe and I would cut a deal wherein he agreed to retire to Grand Bahama Island in exchange for an even greater Web presence. That way, I figured, the residents of Bath Township would be spared the repeated painful memories and ghostly sightings—and potential emulators, Kehoe enthusiasts and copycats, would be permanently deterred. Let the nutjobs set up shop in the Bahamas and worship him there.

But with the discovery that this high school—along with, no doubt, the middle and elementary schools—was rigged to blow at, again no doubt, the start of school the next day, my plans had to change. As I ran I tried to get the pages in some kind of order. It didn’t help that so much of the info overlapped. At last I had the names, and as I continued to run in Ishmael’s light I read them aloud.

“Arnold Victor Bauerle, Henry Bergan, Herman Bergan, Floyd Edwin Burnett, Robert Bromund, Amelia Bromund, Russell Chapman, Cleo Claton….” Down the list I went, my voice growing louder with each new group of same letter last names, the reminder of each sibling pair or trio or in some cases quadruplets. The Harte family had lost four: Gailand, LaVere, Stanley and Blanche. The Harts had lost three: Iola, Vivian, and Percy. By the time I reached the end, George and Lloyd Zimmerman, Ishmael had come to a stop and so had I. Looking up through watery eyes, I saw a man standing between five-five and five-seven, dressed in a white collared shirt with a black vest, black pants and heavy work boots, kneeling on the ground attending to something in the wall. The print-outs, all that history he had created, fell to my side, and memory of my newfound mission redirected my sadness into rage and resolve. I stepped forward, for it was he. It was Andrew Kehoe.

“Catholic Kehoe,” I said. “Thought you’d get away with this again, didn’t you? The Meritocrat give you the bomb materials—a lot more than just dynamite this time, I bet. Well let me tell you: you do not want to do this again.”

Kehoe, his short hair neatly trimmed, his ears wide, continued to move his arms within the wall. Ishmael’s light could only go so far. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing in there, but I knew I had only a short while longer before dawn broke and he disappeared to leave this complex mess for any hapless bomb squad expert to try to figure out before it blew. They could evacuate the buildings—they could evacuate all three schools, sure, but knowing Kehoe from what I’d read on the Internet, and knowing the Meritocrat as well, I didn’t doubt that there would be some sort of back-up bomb, perhaps in a car in the teacher’s lot—a bomb, like these rigged all through the walls and rafters, that only Andrew Kehoe knew how to dismantle.

I repeated my warning, but Kehoe appeared not to be listening. He muttered to himself as he reached deep inside the wall, his cheek pressed against the side, his eyes flitting by me, and I heard something about taking care of that swarm of bees, followed by snatches of bringing them by for the picnic Tuesday, since it might rain on Thursday. I watched him come out fully from the wall, take a clean cloth from a box on the floor and wipe his hands with it. Still muttering, now about a six thousand dollar mortgage, a ten thousand dollar valuation on eighty acres, the tax at eighteen dollars and eighty cents, he continued to wipe his hands until, after a full minute, they appeared raw. He then wiped his shoes with the cloth and set it beside the box, which was full of clean cloths.

“Catholic Kehoe,” I shouted. Sensing my next, possibly disastrous move, Ishmael beeped and said, “Hold it, mate. You don’t want to set him off. The Meritocrat wins that way.”

“You’re right,” I said. “You’re right.” Calm enough now, I watched Kehoe watch me with—I swear—red eyes. They glowed, the eyes of some demon spirit possessed by the Meritocrat, capable of assembling real-life bombs and rigging them throughout the Bath Community Schools to create a new memory of tragedy and terror for a new generation. The man who had at age fourteen watched his stepmother burn to death, even throwing water on her to fan the gas stove-fueled fire; the man who had killed his neighbor’s fox terrier, who had physically abused his horses and other farm animals, who had shortly before killing forty-three more people at the Bath Consolidated School bludgeoned his wife to death with some object that would forever go unidentified—this man had become even more of a monster, a true American monster for the 21st century. I feared I would not be able to reach him.

Kehoe straightened himself to his full height and then, weighing his words carefully, his irisless, pupilless eyes flitting past me, his hands wringing a new cloth, spoke.

“Damn fool,” he said, his voice thin, crotchety for a fifty-five year-old, even a fifty-five year-old in 1927. “Damn Ku Klux Klan.”

Crap, I thought, remembering that it was indeed the KKK that had given Kehoe that name, which wasn’t even accurate seeing as—

“Haven’t been to church in a good long while,” Kehoe said. “I’m not paying them or anyone a cent! You hear me?”

“I hear you, Andrew,” I said. At the utterance of his first name he appeared to pause, to think, to consider, and I wedged open the door further. “Now hear me.”

Ishmael’s light still strong and steady, I rifled through pages until I came to the one I wanted. “Glenn O. Smith married Miss Ester McFarren,” I read. “One child was born to them, Betty Marie, born February 27, 1921, and died December 28, 1924. This was a terrible shock to both of them….He leaves besides his many friends a heart-broken wife—who also lost her father in the attack, I might add—two brothers and two sisters.”

The mass murderer seemed about to say something, perhaps in defense of his decision to blow up not only a wing of the old school but himself and his car as well, thereby killing Glenn O. Smith, Nelson McFarren, Superintendent Emory E. Huyck and young Cleo Claton as collateral, but I shushed him with an “Andrew: please. Listen.” As I continued reading off all the obituaries and woundings Kehoe’s facial features softened. His red eyes shone less brazenly with each new revelation.

“Hazel Iva Weatherby, school teacher at Bath…her body found in the wreckage with a child in each arm…..Mrs. Joe Perrone’s condition is feared….Robert Bromund was twelve years old….Amelia Bromund was eleven….At the time of his death Russell Chapman was in the fourth grade….Robert Cochran was in the third grade….The last thing seven-year-old Ralph Cushman said before going to school that morning was, ‘Goodbye mama, I’ll be good!’”

It was working! I detected a tear at the edge of one of Andrew’s now dull eyes. He was listening, understanding what he’d done, the consequences of his vile actions. He would take responsibility. Perhaps he would finally visit the Bath School Museum and Memorial Park, to place a hand on the cupola from the old school as a way of making some small amends.

Through Katherine Onalee Foote, who at the age of almost ten that day had wanted to become a teacher, to Beatrice Gibbs, the final victim of Kehoe’s rampage who had celebrated her tenth birthday the day before the massacre and who held on for months in the hospital before finally succumbing to her wounds, I read. I read in a voice as strong and steady as Ishmael’s light the details of Elizabeth Jane and Lucille June Witchell, ages ten and nine respectively, who from what I could tell had left behind no other living siblings for their parents. I read about eight year old Lester Stowells who thought when he heard the explosion it was the end of the world. I read of the Raggedy Ann doll surviving while the little mother died. Midway through my reading of “The Last Bell”, a poem written by Mrs. W.H. Blount and published in 1939, I stopped as I saw Andrew Kehoe suddenly get on his knees—though not before putting down cloths to keep from sullying his pants—clasp his hands and close his eyes. Believing this to be the right time, I left the poem unfinished and said, “I don’t know what the Meritocrat promised you, but whatever it is can’t be worth it. What you already have is enough. For what you did, you can’t expect more. And this…these bombs now….You know now about the forty-three people you killed that day. You know what they had hoped to be, you know who they left behind. All this is your doing, and do you really want to do it again? Do you really want to have another forty-three—probably more—dead children and teachers on your immortal soul?”

“Yes!” Kehoe cried, and his eyes flared up. He had been praying, I realized then, not for forgiveness but rather for the damnation of my own soul when he killed me too, and I also realized then there would be no convincing this man, he was beyond redemption, and the best I could do now was cut some wires and pray I didn’t blow up while doing so.

Kehoe leapt back and opened one of the lockers. In the weakening light I couldn’t see what he was bringing out.

“Andrew? Andrew!”

“Mate,” shouted Ishmael just as Andrew Kehoe, the Meritocrat’s ectoplasm making it possible, raised his Winchester bolt-action rifle and aimed at my heart. I heard the rifle’s report but not before seeing Ishmael fly in between me and what would have been my death. From out of my new companion shot a shiny semi-transparent shield, a force field of some kind, and the bullet struck then bounced harmlessly off this barrier.

Kehoe pulled the lever back, brought the gun up again but, seeing the force field still there, threw his weapon aside, turned and ran. “I’m not paying any taxes on any school!” he roared back at me, his eyes soon to be the only things noticeable in the darkness. “I didn’t approve it. They can’t make me pay!”

“After him!” Ishmael said.

Some of the pages falling from my grip, I lengthened my leaps, but Crazy Kehoe was always just ahead.

“Nellie!” I heard him cry. “Oh my sweet Nellie, my dear darling. You’ll get better soon, I promise. It’s not your fault!”

Was it the head injury he’d suffered out west when he was in his forties, newly married to Nellie Price, the days-long coma that resulted from that injury? Was it that he and Nellie had never had children, or was it that he simply did not have the mind for farming, leading him to tinker around so much, dream big, hatch grand schemes for making the work easier when all he had to do was rev up the tractor and go? Criminals are made, not born, the sign had read. But what could have made Andrew Kehoe except Andrew Kehoe himself?

We cornered him in between a vending machine and a water fountain. In the glow of the former and the hum of the latter, Kehoe got down on his knees again, clasped his hands and—

Ishmael, already buzzing, beeping and flashing, shot out what must have been a thousand little laser beams, all of which struck Andrew Kehoe in the chest, stomach, face, genitals. Kehoe shrieked a furious sound that segued from his voice to that of the Meritocrat’s. As Kehoe’s body began to break up, sliced clean through by Ishmael’s powers, I saw the nebulous ectoplasmic form of the Meritocrat rise.

“Look,” I cried. “Look!”

Andrew Kehoe was now only vapors and in his place was the shifting, wobbly and unwieldy Meritocrat. “Ah,” he said. “If it isn’t an All-in-One.”

“Don’t suppose you’ll call me Ishmael,” Ishmael said. “You will eventually.”

“I very much doubt that,” the Meritocrat crowed. To me he said, “Stay. I’ve set the bombs to go off early.”

Stay?” I said. “And die?”

“You’ll thank me if you knew what awaits you.”

“What the f—I mean, WTF?”

“Don’t you see, David: by killing you quickly now I’m saving you from a far more painful death ahead. You think I’m your worst enemy? Your true worst enemy is closer than you know!” With a nefarious laugh my archnemesis slowly faded until nothing at all remained.

“The bombs,” I said. “There’s no way to dismantle them now. We’re doomed!”

“Don’t count on it, mate. What’d I tell you? Now get out! I’ll take care of this!”

With Ishmael urging me on from behind I ran back down the hall and out the double doors. Turning around to hold the door open, I saw my constant companion fly into the opening in the wall Andrew Kehoe had been digging in previously.

“Ishmael!” I called out. “Ishy!” But all I got was a “Go!” followed by another “Go!”

I ran. I ran so hard and so fast all the pages in my hands fell away, and by the time I burst outside to fall into some nearby bushes I had only my satchel. I had lost yet another companion, and this one had cost even more than the one before!

I was about to get up from the bushes when I saw through the leafy branches swirling police lights in the parking lot. I was on the building’s side and the taxi wasn’t scheduled to pick me up until dawn, so I was prepared to sit in these bushes for another half hour if need be. I did not, in fact, need to, for within minutes Ishmael was hovering by my side.

“The fuzz,” he said. “Good show.”

We watched officers lead the elderly custodial woman, wrapped in a blanket, out to the lot. Other officers rushed in, their weapons drawn. Bomb- and drug-sniffing canines leapt through the front entrance. A full bomb squad followed soon after. Overhead, a copter whirred.

“Are you waiting for the sun to rise, or shall we go?”

“We can’t go,” I said. “Look at that force out there.”

“Not a problem, mate. I’ll get us out of here. I can’t say it’s much like clicking your heels and saying, ‘There’s no place like home’, but—”

And then I was away from the police, away from the school, standing now beside the cupola, the last remnant from that fateful morning. Dawn was indeed breaking, the sun spreading over the park’s grass and trees.

“They’ll identify me,” I said to Ishmael, who still hovered.

“We’ll change your appearance, mate. It’ll be good for you, for where you’re going next.”

“Where am I going next?”

“Don’t you know? You have it planned. Los Angeles!”

“Los Angeles….that’s right.”

“I’m going back on your hip now.”

“Okay. Hey, do you know what the Meritocrat was talking about back there—about my true worst enemy being closer than I know?”

“He was just taking the piss, mate. Had to have been.”

“Oh well, whatever. Anyway, thanks for dismantling those bombs back there. You really can do anything. You saved me and so many others.”

“You did just as much legwork, mate. I can see this is going to be the start of something smashing.”

My constant companion again at rest, I turned to wait for the cab that would take me to the airport and my next mission.

Interlude (chapter 8)

INTERLUDE

 

David’s apartment. David and his date, JESSA (mid-20s, highly attractive) are seated next to each other, close, on the couch. The screen’s glow lights up their faces and illuminates some of the apartment’s wall decor: a couple of framed pieces of abstract art, posters of movies released in the seventies (The French Connection, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter) and postcards from foreign countries. Somber music plays on the TV. The couple is alone.

David: Did you hear that?

Jessa: The music?

David looks around. No one.

David: I heard something. Someone whispering.

Jessa: Maybe you’re going crazy.

David: Maybe.

Lull.

Jessa: I liked Milk better.

David: I thought you would.

Jessa: It had more meaning.

David: You mean it was more hopeful.

Jessa: This one—it was just too sad.

David: But an accurate depiction of Byck’s life, don’t you think?

Jessa: I wouldn’t know. I just found out about him from you yesterday.    He was crazy.

David: Was not.

Jessa: No?

David: Samuel Byck wasn’t crazy. Just lonely. Big difference.

Jessa: Anyone who tries to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House is crazy. And anyone who thinks he’s not crazy for doing that is crazy themselves (pause). Kidding, of course.

David: You use that word a lot. Crazy. Have you ever known anyone who’s actually crazy?

Jessa: I got to know Byck—and Dan White—tonight.

David ignores Jessa’s comment.

David: It was the seventies.

Jessa: What do the seventies have to do with it?

David: The seventies were a sad time. My parents were married in the seventies.

Jessa: So were mine. They’ve had a happy marriage, mostly. (pause) Yours haven’t?

David: No, they have. I suppose that’s the problem. (off Jessa’s look). The problem is that they need to go back. Back to the seventies. Back to ‘74, on the beach.

Jessa: If I get to know you more, will you make sense?

David: That depends on you.

Jessa: Okay, psycho.

David: Why am I a psycho?

Jessa: Just that look of yours.

David: What look?

Jessa: That intense look you get. I like it but…

David: Yes?

Jessa: But it can be off-putting.

David: Sorry.

Jessa: Don’t apologize. That’s just you. I like you.

David: I like you too.

They smile at one another. Jessa seems to be waiting for something. When David turns his attention to the screen she lets her disappointment show.

Jessa: At least you’re not psycho like Sam Byck.

David: He was not crazy.

Jessa: He’s crazy in my book.

David: Does your book at all take into account the fact that Byck was estranged from his family, had trouble connecting with people, making friends, and that if he had had any kind of reattachment to his wife and kids or any other kind of social outlet he most likely wouldn’t have done what he did? A truly crazy person wouldn’t have cared as much as Byck did about his situation. A truly crazy person wouldn’t have felt the way Byck did.

Jessa (pause): You know you’re talking like you’re at work. The whole point of tonight was so we wouldn’t talk about work. With a double feature like this, how could we talk about anything, really?

David: You could have said something. We could have watched Kung Fu Panda.

Jessa: I’m just saying you don’t have to be so defensive. It’s just a movie. He’s dead. They both—they all are.

David: It’s about respect, Jessa. And caring.

Jessa: Why are we even talking about this? How can you be sure Byck was really like that? They’re just exaggerating a life.

David: Eyewitnesses. Family members. Ex family members.

Jessa: Still, we don’t have his story, not really. They didn’t talk to Byck. They didn’t commune with his ghost or anything like that.

Distracted, David looks around again.

Jessa (not amused): What are the voices telling you to do?

David: One voice. It’s a whisper. Not sure what it is, who it is.

Jessa: Maybe it’s Byck. Telling you he’s dead and not important anymore. Not to take the movie so seriously. Not to argue with your girlfriend over it. 

David (beat): I’m just trying to figure things out, Jessa.

Jessa: Maybe you should figure this particular thing out with someone else. (off David’s look) I’m not dumping you. I meant when it comes to things like debating this movie, that’s something you need to do with your friends.

David: Okay.

Jessa: You do have friends, right?

David: Yes.

Jessa: Good. I’d like to meet them someday.

David cranes his neck to look behind the couch.

David: Help me look.

Jessa: Really?

David: Help me look so I’m sure I’m not going crazy here.

Jessa: I’m pretty sure you’re going crazy. Relax…

Jessa places a hand on David’s thigh. David looks at the placement and sits down. He awkwardly puts an arm around his date.

Jessa: That’s nice.

She leans into him. He kisses her quite suddenly and awkwardly. But she takes his lips, lingers on them, and smiles.

Jessa: Hmm…

David: What?

Jessa: I was wondering when you were going to kiss me.

David: I could kiss you again.

Jessa: That would be nice.

They kiss again. Jessa’s hand continues to roam. It starts to unbutton David’s jeans. He grabs her wrist.

David: Jessa….

Jessa: David…Seriously? Again?

David: It’s not that I don’t want to.

Jessa: It’s that you’re scared.

David: Not at all.

Jessa: It’s me.

David: No.

Jessa (exasperated): I can understand the theater. I thought you’d like that. You reacted so…harshly.

David: The lights were on.

Jessa: Everyone was gone. I told you: no one would come in. I know that theater. They never come through to clean. You felt how sticky the floor was.

David: Sticky because of you, I bet.

Jessa takes a moment with his words. In the span of a few seconds her expression goes from one of shock to one of confusion to one of hurt to one of, finally, anger. David sees the damage he’s done.

David: I didn’t mean that.

Jessa: You did. Otherwise you wouldn’t have said it.

David: I didn’t think.

Jessa: I think you did think. You’re always thinking. So why say it, why say it to me?

David: I don’t know.

Jessa: You know. You think I’m a slut for wanting you to kiss me. For wanting to do more with you. All I want—all I would like—is for you to put your arm around me, touch me in some way, and not look at a goddamn screen all the time. Does that make sense? Could you do that for me?

David: I could try.

Jessa: You could try? Oh…this is so over. This is more than over.

David: I—I didn’t mean that either.

Jessa: What’s wrong with you?

David: I’m just…not good at this kind of thing.

Jessa: I think it would help if you did your job more. 

David: I do do my job.

Jessa: Barely. Meyers knows what you’re up to. He’s not stupid. He knows how many calls you’ve made versus how much time you spend “researching.” Researching what? How much research do you need before you can pitch an article idea to an uninterested journalist?

David: I get sucked in.

Jessa: I do too. But with you…it’s like you’ve stopped caring.

David: I feel like I’ve just started caring, actually. 

Jessa: Then show some evidence of that, okay?

David: I don’t mean the job, Jessa. I could care less about the job. I mean…my research.

Jessa: What are you looking up? Just tell me.

David: It’s like, I was at the keggerator a couple years back, when I first started, and I saw on the TV that Anna Nicole Smith died. And I started thinking, Who was Anna Nicole Smith? Why was she getting all this attention? What about someone else who died that same day, in that same city, and whose circumstances surrounding the death were just as  mysterious? I decided to investigate. I made some calls, found out what was public record. The number of homicides, the number of suicides that happened that day. They wouldn’t tell me exact numbers for the ones still under investigation—they just said “a lot.”

Jessa: You have quite the death fixation.

David: I have a life fixation. I’m scared to life.

Jessa: Cute. I don’t think the internet is good for your…condition.

David: The internet’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s the exact job I was always looking for.

Jessa (pause): I think we need to take a break, okay?

David: I’d rather not.

David takes Jessa’s hand and places it on his thigh.

Jessa: It can’t be your first time.

David: It’s definitely not yours.

Jessa snaps back her hand.

Jessa: I can’t believe you. You are so damn awkward. No wonder. You can’t have a filter. A filter’s impossible when you’re so stuffed full of goddamn information it keeps you from focusing on the people in front of you—namely: me, your girlfriend. And we haven’t done anything since we started dating three months ago.

David: I told you before. I have to take it slow. I was hurt, deeply.

Jessa: You were hurt, sure. For the first month, that’s an open invitation, a welcome mat I was fine wiping my feet on. Then in the second month it becomes this game, like a card you play. The third month, it’s just plain an excuse. I thought you would understand that—and change.

David: I thought you would understand that these people matter.

Jessa: Who? Which people?

David: People like Byck.

Jessa laughs, incredulous.

Jessa: People who almost killed the president. Great.

David: No. The dead.

Jessa: I don’t get you, David Ewald.

David: All the dead in the world. I’ve found out about so many of them, but I still don’t know them. I need to know them. We all do.

After a moment, Jessa gets up, takes her purse, and turns to leave.

David: Pursued by bear.

She stops, turns and looks at him. Shakes her head and leaves through the front door. The door shuts behind her. David notices an expensive-looking ring on the couch. He pockets this, then switches off the TV. He picks up his laptop from the side of the couch. As he’s about to fire it up, there’s a knock at the door.

David: Come in.

The door opens. Standing in the doorway is a POLICE OFFICER (male, early 30s).

Officer: Are you David Michael Ewald?

David (understandably wary): Yes.

Officer: And do your parents reside in the 3000 block of Grim Avenue, in the North Park neighborhood?

David: That’s right.

Officer: Then I’m afraid I have tragic news to tell you, son.

David: What?

Officer: There was an accident. A house fire. A…fire in the home. Police are there now. They’ve cordoned off the scene. Could be a crime scene. They’re doing their best to keep the cameras away.

David: What about my parents?

Officer: Don’t think they made it.

David, in shock, his mouth open, turns away from the officer. Tears form in his eyes.

Officer: I am…very sorry, and now…

David, tears streaming, looks at the officer.

Officer: Now you must give your research a rest.

David: My research?

Officer: What you do at work, instead of working. You know what you do. I’m ordering you now to get back on the wagon. Do your job well, and you will be rewarded. Don’t go down the path you’ve started on. You don’t want to end up like your parents. Isn’t that right?

David looks at the officer with heightened suspicion.

David: What do you know?

Officer: I know a lot. Some would say: too much. Too much…And you, David Michael Ewald of San Diego, California, you’re getting to know too much too. In all your searches, all that reading, all that clicking and viewing and navigating, have you ever once connected with anyone?

David: I will.

The officer shakes his head.

Officer: Go home, to what’s left of it. Talk to the authorities. Answer their questions. You know what to say. You’ve had it planned for a while now. Isn’t that right?

David shifts uncomfortably on the couch.

Officer: If you search for anyone now, search for your parents. Let it end with them. I implore you. Don’t go down that path. Look to your family now, your friends.

This time it’s David who shakes his head. He wipes his tears. His chest hitches.

Officer: That boy you remember from elementary school, the one who helped you out when you’d been bullied, you were crying then the way you’re crying now, right? That boy, a little older, who helped you lift your head up and he looked you in the face and said, “David, I’m still your friend,” even though he risked being ostracized for staying friends with someone like you. That boy…he’s a man now, only a year older than you, I imagine. You’re never going to find him the way you want to find him.

David: But if he’s dead….

Officer: Ah, that’s right: if he’s dead….The dead are defenseless, aren’t they? They drift in and out, through walls and windows, not noticing us until we intrude on their designated paths. You want to intrude. I can tell. You found somebody else, didn’t you? An old classmate….

David nods.

David: He died on a highway outside Indio. Back in 2000. He was thrown from the vehicle—that’s what the report read. I remember hearing about it from my parents then, but just this week I tried to find him, some memory of him.

Officer: And did you succeed?

David: There’s nothing about him. Absolutely nothing.

Officer: And how did you feel, when you found out that this nothing of a person had no evidence of his existence whatsoever on your internet?

David: I felt sad. He’ll be forgotten. I almost forgot him.

Officer: It’s okay to forget. You don’t have to remember everyone you’ve ever encountered. Let me show you something.

The screen glows. The officer joins David on the couch.

Officer: What do you see?

David: A plain.

Officer: A meadow. With mountains behind it.

David: It’s pretty.

Officer: It’s Utah.

David: Utah…

Officer: The site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

David: Is this a documentary?

Officer: No. Neither is it a movie. The movie hasn’t been made yet. Watch.

David and the officer watch. The only sound issuing from the screen is that of the wind.

David shifts uncomfortably.

David: What am I watching?

Officer: You’re watching the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

David: There’s nothing there.

Officer: There’s the meadow. There’s the mountain.

David: Where’s the massacre?

Officer: Isn’t that up to you? Aren’t you going to create that?

David and the officer exchange a charged look. David goes back to watching the screen.

Officer: August 24, 1572. March 22, 1622. September 2, 1792.

David: I know those dates.

Officer: Of course you do.

David: I’ve been bleeding a lot lately.

Officer: You’re not alone. Why not connect with them instead of seeking out the intangibles?

David: You want me to forget.

Officer: It’s okay to forget. It’s okay to go to bed with blood on your hands. You’re not alone.

David: Are you sure about that?

Officer: Watch.

The sound of the wind rises to a howl. The screen glows more brightly. David averts his eyes. The officer shouts over the howling wind.

Officer: November 29, 1864. September 16, 1982. November 17, 1997. Who were they? What were their names? Why won’t they be in the movie? Why won’t they be remembered? Blah blah blah. Cease and desist, David Michael Ewald of San Diego, California. Cease and desist before the die is cast.

The howling wind abruptly cuts out. The screen’s glow softens. David looks again at the screen.

Officer: What do you see now?

David: A lake.

Officer: Yes. An inflatable raft, a sunny day and a father and son in the raft conversing as a thirty-four year old and a six year old are wont to do, with the boy asking the father what lives in the lake, and the father fabricating a tale of a lake monster named Herman that resides in the depths, some kind of serpent creature from the sound of it, but it’s a happy monster that subsists only on fish, yet the boy is far from happy, his pensiveness is intense, he speaks of a girl he knows whose father died tragically, suddenly, and the living father, the boy’s father, says he knows, to his son’s question of Will you die? the father answers yes, he succeeds in redirecting his son to a different, innocuous subject and the raft returns to shore where it is beached and father and son join mother and daughter, wife and sister, the daughter younger than her brother by a few years, very young, simply a toddler, and while the father and mother prepare the fire for the crawdads the father and son caught earlier the little girl and her brother venture into the woods and emerge from the trees onto a rocky beach, the water deeper here, the rocks more like boulders, lots of shadows in the water, darkness, this is where the boy and his father went crawdad hunting, the boy is going to show his sister the reason why he caught so few crawdads, it’s because of Herman, that lake monster ate so many and if you look deep enough into the water you can spot Herman, you can see his eyes, come on, over here, this way, across the rocks, and about that time Mom and Dad’s argument (every day they argue over something) drifts enough so that one of them notices their baby girl is not in sight, she’s with her brother, they’re sure, but that’s little consolation seeing that the brother has often expressed annoyance and jealousy and even rage at his little sister’s existence, not to mention the fact that a six-year-old should not be put in charge of a two-year-old, so they move quickly, they dash, they scurry, remember this was long ago and as they run they realize things that will be second nature to those parenting ten years later, and this really is their worst fear realized, darkness made complete by the sight of their son, alone, standing on a flat boulder jutting out above a violent and black part of the water tossing with the small stones the boy is plunking in as he cries out for Herman to please appear, come up Herman, please; later the boy will explain his intentions in beckoning Herman, all sorts of tests will be given and theories proven, but none of it will conclusively illuminate the truth of that afternoon, the mystery surrounding the lake.

David: I don’t see all that.

Officer: You never did. Since then I have watched you. I have waited. You still don’t see.

The apartment goes dark. When the lights go up, the officer stands by the open doorway.

David: Who are you?

Officer: You’ll see me again someday.

The officer backs away.

David: Take me to my parents.

Officer: You don’t want me to take you. That would remove all the fun. Prove to me you are worth remembering, Small One.

The officer gives a wry smile.

Officer: Go to the station. You’ll be better informed there.

David: Which station?

Officer: The North Park station, of course.

The officer exits. Seconds later, Jessa enters.

Jessa: Do you have my ring?

David: Yes.

Jessa: Were you going to give it to me, or were you going to sell it?

David: I’m not a thief, Jessa. I thought about giving it to the officer, actually, since I didn’t know if I’d see you again.

Jessa: What officer?

David: The officer that passed by you just now. He left right when you entered. You couldn’t have missed him.

Jessa looks at David as if he’s off his rocker.

Jessa: I didn’t see anybody, David.

David: Nobody.

Jessa: I’m not lying to you.

David: Whatever.

Jessa holds her hand out. David brings the ring out of his pocket. He inspects it closely.

David: I hurt someone, Jessa. Long ago. (pause) Have you ever hurt someone?

Jessa: I felt like hurting you earlier. Does that count?

David: Do you feel like hurting me now?

Jessa: Just give me the ring, David.

David: Your ex gave it to you?

Jessa’s arm does not waver. David delivers the ring into her palm. Instead of slipping the ring back on, Jessa puts it in her purse.

Jessa: I’ve never hurt anyone. That’s the truth. I never have.

David: I think I’m going to be punished.

Jessa: I think you’re punishing yourself. What happened to you, for you to be like this?

David: I just know it’s going to happen. I just know there’s going to be a family, sometime later this summer, in a car, not too far from here. Driving on a long stretch somewhere in San Diego. During the day, nothing creepy like at night. No ghosts. Not yet. And they’re going fast, as cars around here do. And when the dad puts on the brake to slow down, the  car won’t slow down. It stays at the speed it’s going. They can’t stop. There’s been a malfunction with the vehicle, the braking system. The one car to roll off the assembly line with this defect and they bought it. They’ll scream, they’ll shout, they’ll call on their phones, ask what to do. It’s a long stretch of highway, but it’s going to end. They’re going to run into something. They have to stop somehow. There’s a girl in the backseat, a preteen or young teenager, and she thinks about opening the door and throwing herself out. Take her chances that way. It would be better, she thinks. But she doesn’t do it. Who’s to say the car won’t fix itself in the end. And when it doesn’t fix itself and the car runs the intersection and strikes another vehicle—at the moment of impact is when she opens the door. (pause) Maybe I got it right, maybe I got it wrong.

Jessa: I was hurt too.

David: I’ll think what I think for everyone: What was the last song they heard? What was the last thought in their minds, the last word on their lips? What did they last eat? When did they last go to the bathroom and how long did they take in there? How many people are going to attend the funeral? How many people are going to care? How many more could  potentially care? You know?

Jessa: I don’t know anymore, David. I wasn’t going to ask but…have you had sex?

David: Yes.

Jessa: I think you’re lying.

David: It happened. Long ago. (pause) I have to go. My parents….They might be dead. 

Jessa: What?

David: They probably are. That’s what the officer was here to tell me.

Jessa glances back through the open doorway. No one.

David: You must have just missed him.

Jessa: Do you want me to go with you?

David: That’s okay. You don’t really want to go with me. This is goodbye, and I’m fine with that, just like you are. I can’t have any distractions anyway, where I’m going.

Jessa: Where are you going?

David: Boston. I’ve decided. (pause) I could give you a call, after I’m done with Harriet Quimby.

Jessa: Who’s Harriet Quimby?

David: See. You don’t know. Look her up. Her deathiversary is less than a month away.

Jessa: Don’t call me. Call a psychiatrist.

David: I had my shot there, too. Tomorrow’s my last day. I’ve decided. I need to get to Boston.

Jessa: Great. Quit your job, in this economy.

David: I’ll open that door. I think…after what happened tonight, I’ll have no trouble walking through it. (pause) I’ve decided I’m going to be a journalist, Jessa. I’m going to find out the truth to obscure tragedies. Murders. Suicides. Accidents. I’ll talk to the people involved. I’ll help them, any way I can.

Jessa slaps her hands together and gestures to indicate that she is washing her hands clean of all this.

Jessa: Good luck.

She exits. David turns back to his laptop. He fires it up. The binging “on” sound can be heard as the screen glows. As he waits for the laptop to get going, David makes a call from a land line.

David: Hi…It’s…me, again. Yeah. Anyway, it’s Wednesday at around nine and I was just wondering what you were up to. I know we haven’t spoken in a while and I just wanted to say something I should’ve said the last time we saw each other, when I was really angry and we didn’t leave on the best of terms. I just wanted to say that I met two dead dads, one in 1999 and the other in 2000. One died in 2005 and the other just last month. How do I know this? The screen. The first father, the ‘99 one, had dinner with me and his daughter, and the other, Mr. 2000, spoke to me from his living room chair while the Clippers tanked on the TV. From just those two brief meetings I knew these men were real men, and that because they were real men they were sick, they were dying, and I couldn’t help them, their daughters and their wives couldn’t help them. It’s like the last movie we saw together, that Italian movie, I’m Not Scared. Remember that one? Remember what you did to me in the back of the theater, with the lights all on, and I was looking all around worried that someone, one of the cleaners with their little broom and dustpan, was going to come in and see us? Remember that? I do. I guess to get that back I should’ve listened to you. I guess to save—

David stops and gives the phone an odd look. He listens, then presses a button. Then he redials.

David: Hi. Me again. I was satisfied with that last message. I’ll be satisfied with this one too. I guess to save those men I should’ve listened to them. At the time I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me. I do now. I live it. It’s the ethenticity of the thing. You can mock it up, muck it up, vertically as well as horizontally and functionally. Railroad the data, bring in the collectiviser, comply on the fly, stage and gauge, secure the trust, renovate to innovate, select to connect, bullets breeding in our breath. We thought we had taken the story to market. We thought we had our value proposition supported. Turns out Ahab chased the whale. The goal always was to make them bleed, wasn’t it? Pinpoints of burnt, masticated flesh flecking from lips, smack and jaw, the end of a factory tour where no one gets to sample the goods. The king reigns, the consorts crumble. Tines of a fork running along tongue-beads, those semi-sober coals uneven and clam-baked. Think again of what is resting, waiting, in the briefcase. Is “butt” the right word for it? Looks pass around the table like secrets, die as a vapor, without whisper. The blocks cascade down, like rain. A laugh colder than calling. I’m right here, chewable as ever. There must be a beginning, but the sentence comes at the end. They want an accurate body count. They want to see blood on all our hands. That’s my future. I have thirty seconds in which to make an im—

David stares at the phone again. This time, he hangs up. Having placed the phone back in its cradle, he starts typing. As he types, he reads aloud what he’s written.

David: Do not rely on those who do not care about you.

You don’t recognize people you should.

If you have the guts, call me.

You are unable to perform the act, and you know it.

You’ve wanted to be somebody else for a long time.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

Your name will be famous in the future.

David does not see his PARENTS appear through the closed front door. Mom and Dad stand watching him. David remains focused on the screen. In the midst of typing, he takes out his voice recording device. He is just about to raise the device to his mouth when he notices his parents standing by the closed front door. David’s parents are expressionless; their hands are at their sides.

David: Oh. That’s right.

David closes the laptop and puts it in a laptop bag. He grabs a backpack from underneath the coffee table and heads for the front door. His parents don’t move. Their expressionless faces throughout this encounter do not change.

David: Let me through. I need to go to the station. I need to identify—

David catches himself. He bows his head.

David: It’s not what you think. I loved you. (pause) I really did. That may surprise you. But I’m going to avenge your deaths. I’m going to find out who’s responsible, and whoever it is is going to be punished to the point where that person won’t do anything like that again, or anything again period. This I swear to you both. You might see me as ungrateful, self   -absorbed, unfeeling, but I was only working with what I’d been given. Honest, Mom, Dad—honest. I didn’t ask to be given those things. I didn’t ask to be put in front of a screen. It’s not like I’m ever going to have children, not like I’m going to ever have the chance to raise kids away from what I love. Do you honestly think anyone can be brought up now in only the woods, hunting, fishing, watching the sunset—things you both used to do, right? Remember all that, in the seventies, John Denver and the Firecat, before I was born? (long pause) Aren’t you going to let me through? Aren’t you going to let me do what I have to do? Please? I know the money’s coming. I can wait. I have my own stash from work anyway, to last me a little bit…(pause) I have a job to do. Finally. Something that interests me, that gives me some meaning to my life. I have plenty of money. Yours will be nice but…When have I ever bought anything expensive? Fixed my car? Gotten a new TV? Gone out…Such a waste, that, such a waste. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation, Alice. Go ask her. We’ll see what she has to say….This laptop, yeah, the laptop’s the only thing…I’ve put my life into this thing. My life is in here, and it shows. Please help me by standing aside. Let me leave. I don’t want to be like some warped version of Hamlet, stuck here. I hate to be stuck. You know that. Talk about the ultimate punishment. I’m ready. When you got money, you got money to lose, right? I thought about this for a long time. I always knew I would do this, since I saw that crime special. The father who bludgeoned his family in their sleep. And we all watched. (pause) I’m ready. Stand aside, please. Do you need proof? Proof of what I’m going to accomplish, what I’m going to solve, who I’m going to help? I swear to you I’m finally going to give back, for once many times over. I’m going to help those in need. You’ll be proud of me, at last. So, stand aside. Wait—watch me work, and then you’ll feel comfortable enough to go, and I will too. Watch me work. 

David takes a seat on the couch, takes his laptop out of the bag and opens it, and takes up his voice recording device. Every so often he stops typing and clicking and scrolling to speak into the recorder. As he works, his parents gradually fade back through the door until they can no longer be seen.

David: I was in Kansas to warn a town’s populace of an impending raid. I was in Texas to witness a father’s futile sacrifice for his daughter. I was in Texas to keep the college kids away from the pile of logs. I was in Banda Aceh to donate money directly to the victims. I was in San Francisco to switch some fortune cookies. I was in Chicago to follow the trail of poisoned pain relief medicine. I was in Italy to pull the trigger on the first firearm homicide in history. I was in the Bermuda Triangle to ask what some pilots wanted for Christmas. I was in outer space to experience the breakup upon reentry….

David lingers in silence on that last sentence. He switches off the voice recording device, pockets it and closes the laptop. After bagging his computer, he once more gathers his backpack and heads for the door. This time nothing stops him. He looks back once at his apartment, then heads out. The door shuts behind him. Blackout.

Linda (chapter 9)

 

Linda

 

 

I was in Los Angeles to get her to sign the contract. She had never been nearly as famous as the King of Poppin’ Pills, but this was unconscionable: just outside the fast food joint, blocking the entrance, tributes to the superstar singer had taken every form, from the ten or so look-alikes busking to the tunes of his most popular songs to dance groups replicating his moves for money to the non-profit-minded people who carried signs and photos and remembrances. It was October 5th, a little over three months since his death and exactly fourteen years since hers. Both had died at the age of fifty, in Los Angeles, but what had she accomplished compared to him? Better yet, what did she have left to accomplish? A lot that not enough people knew about, I was afraid, and so the contract was in my backpack, at the ready. So too was Ishmael, holstered on my hip, at the moment silent since so many people were around and I was grabbing food to go.

We had already conducted the final searches of her and her place of employment; now all I needed was to catch my cab and continue on our way. Apparently, though, it was my fault I’d gotten hungry. Pushing open the front door and avoiding a zombie that shook and lurched to a song, cupped hands held out, I saw that my taxi had vanished. “Couldn’t the guy wait?” I muttered. Ishmael buzzed just then, and I ran to the side of the building to take the call.

“No call, mate. Just me.”

“Oh. I can’t believe that cabbie took off. I really did get him a burger and fries like I promised.”

“You were taking a bit too long in there. Anyhow, I’ve contacted another, should be here shortly.”

“Thanks. Do you want his burger and fries?”

“Ha ha, you cheeky bastard.”

The cab pulled into the parking lot twenty minutes later. To me that didn’t count as ‘shortly’, and so when I got into the back I was bugging. I had, I figured, less than three hours to find the Filmation studio and convince her to sign. It wasn’t 1995 anymore. It wasn’t even 1983. I was convinced the importance of exact time on her deathiversary would hold true for this one. Would the Internet smile, or would it frown?

“Take me to Reseda,” I said. “Pronto, amigo.”

“I don’t go to Reseda,” the driver answered.

I handed him a fifty. “Do you still not go to Reseda?” My brows rose, my voice lilted.

“That’s right.” He handed the bill back.

I added a hundred to the fifty and waved these in his face.  “How about now? And I’ll throw in the burger and fries, too.”

“Now we go to Reseda,” the driver said, his teeth bared.

I didn’t feel bad when the bills left my hand. This was Los Angeles, after all, not some X-tiered city where everyone knows your name.

We bumper-to-bumpered it up one freeway and onto another. As we crawled I sighed, shook my head, and wished I had a helicopter. On the radio playing loudly was another of the famous singer’s hits, and I saw hanging from the rearview mirror a photo of that deceased singer, along with some kind of exotic amulet.

“Would you mind turning down the music?”

“What, you don’t like the song?”

“No, I like this. It’s just….”

“You tired of him?”

“It has been over three months…and he was already so famous—or infamous, depending. Isn’t it time we give someone else a chance?”

“Like who?”

“Like Linda Gary.”

“Who?”

“You’re old enough to have experienced the eighties. Didn’t you ever watch He-Man: Masters of the Universe? She-Ra: Princess of Power…? No? Maybe you were working when they were on. How about a little later, when you’d accrued more vacation time? There’s Darkwing Duck, from the late eighties-early nineties…the animated Batman series from about ’92-’94 and then again in ’96 and ’97…”

“Man, what are you telling me about?”

“I’m telling you about Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure. Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving. The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through—“

“Man, look at me! I am fifty-eight years old! I am Bengali! I came here four years ago! In Calcutta I drove cabs, and look what I’m doing here. I don’t watch these things!”

“But….they’re out on DVD now. If you saw any one of them, you’d know why she deserves a tribute similar to the one the King of Poppin’ Pills has been getting.”

My driver was silent. At last he said, “You call him what?”

“The King of Poppin’ Pills.”

“The King of Pop, man.”

“So,” I said. “Even Linda Gary is miscredited sometimes as ‘Linda Gray’.”

We made it to Reseda at just after four. I still wasn’t quite sure of the address so I had our slow-simmering driver drop us off at the corner of Victory and White Oak. Ishmael had been buzzing frantically for the latter part of the drive, but rather than pick him up in the cab I waited until we were on the street.

“Bad idea, mate. Now we have to walk.”

“Is that wrong?”

“Nobody walks in L.A.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see what Ms. Gary has to say about that.”

As we walked Ishmael continued to scour the Internet for the address of the Filmation studio. “Not finding it, mate. This one’s hidden better than a bug up a Scotsman’s arse. I suggest we ask someone.”

“What?”

“You know. Talk to people.”

In a brand-name restaurant on Sherman Way I asked the bartender if she knew of the exact address of the Filmation studio. She shook her head, said sorry, and I slumped in the stool, down.

I perked up when, moments later, I heard, “Filmation you said?”

An older man, Bow mustache, had drawn close to me. “I know that place,” he said.

“You know where it is?”

“You mean where it was. You know they moved to Canoga Park in ’86—“

“—when they were owned by Westinghouse,” I took up the torch. “And L’Oreal Cosmetics bought them from Westinghouse in ’88, and then on February 3, 1989, closed down the Filmation studio, letting just about every employee go.”

“And thus ended the great legacy of shoddily-made cartoons from the late ‘70s up through most of the ‘80s.” The older man addressed this line to his beer.

I was tempted to say, They weren’t shoddily–made at all, but, fearing a second outburst-reprisal of the day, I kept my mouth closed and waited for him to open up on the whereabouts.

He pointed me to the place, which happened to be just a few blocks down from the restaurant and its bar. I stood in front of the dark brown, near windowless façade that bore no sign of Filmation. I wasn’t deterred, though. Just because Filmation wasn’t there anymore didn’t mean she wasn’t.

At close to five-thirty I opened the door marked Cytrenex Designs, Ltd. Immediately I was in a waiting room, lit but empty. No one sat behind the front check-in counter, and no voices could be heard from the back. Taking all this in I panicked. Were we too late? Had she left? Would I have to wander the Sherman Oaks Galleria in search of success?

I was just about to make a move toward the side hallway when a youngish man rushed through that same hallway and headed for the front door. He was dressed casually, jeans, short-sleeved outdoorsy-catalog-style button up relaxation shirt, and he stopped to take note of me.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Linda Gary.”

“Linda Gary….Linda Gary….”

“She’s sometimes miscredited as ‘Linda Gray’?”

“Huh. Well….Bob’s back there. Maybe he can help you. She must be new. I just don’t know.” With that the youngish man put on a dark blue cap with the letters LA stitched in white on the front and headed out the door.

Dissatisfied with his response and unwilling to delay the deal any longer, I proceeded down the darkened hall. Some of the rooms I passed were shut, likely locked, but others remained open to me. Each one I looked into was either dark or devoid of life or both. Apparently no one here worked past five-thirty on a Friday.

In the last room on the left, end of hall, I peeked-a-blue in to see a man wearing headphones, his back to me, listening to some kind of recording on his desktop. He seemed very intent on manipulating whatever odd graphics were floating on the screen, so I thought it best to leave him be, not forgetting to note, however, that this office was the exact same office that could be seen on the Internet above the caption “Filmation animator in his studio working on a scene from He-Man: Masters of the Universe episode….” The men were different, the technology too, but the basic feel of the den remained the same.

Leaving the hallway and that one lit room, I entered the area I’d been expecting to find all along: the recording wing. The door was not locked. I turned the cold handle and entered the control room. Running the entire length of the lower end of the wall directly opposite from where I’d entered was a humongous panel with lots of blinking lights and intimidating technological mumbo jumbo. Above that wall was an equally large window running the same length, matching the control panel stride for stride. A few chairs were in front of the panel, and to either side of the doorway were more chairs, a couple of metal cabinets and a small desk. The light was on low in the control room, but the actual recording room was frank with darkness. Slowly I shut the door behind me and approached the control panel, my eyes fixed on the blackness before me. It was as if I’d been taken to the very bottom of the sea and the best I could do was strain my eyes out the sub window in hopes of spotting a bobbly-eyed drifter.

I exhaled, arms branching out. I placed my palms on the edge of the panel, then moved my hands up to touch—just touch—some of the knobs and switches and levers, none of which, I should add, appeared to be of the 21st century.

Since it was cold in the room I aimed to find the switch that controlled the heat. Surely one of these would bring up the temp….

I shot back from the panel as the lights went up completely in the recording room. I gave a little cry when I saw a woman, not too tall, standing at a kind of lectern, a long microphone close to her lips. She had on an old-school set of headphones, her hair was frizzy and huge in that time-of-the-shoddily-made-cartoons way, and she did not seem to notice (or perhaps she couldn’t see) me on the other side of the window. Her attention was on the sheaf of paper she had with her at the lectern—a script, I assumed. The rest of the room was empty—not of things but of people. A table stood to the side of the lectern, on it a purse and more scripts, a coffee cup, some miscellaneous items. Another table on the other side of the room held more paper, some VHS tapes and a jacket.

I focused on the woman at the microphone, silently willing her to turn from her work for just a moment. She looked beautiful. Her complexion, fair; her figure, thin and firm; her lips, attainable; her nails, glossy. From what I could see she wore jeans and a big-shouldered blouse, a necklace of plain silver, and at least one ring on her finger (but which ring, which finger, which hand mattered? Would that too have to be looked up on the Internet? Would I have the time, let alone the patience, to search?). There was no mistaking her for another, because it was she. It was Linda Gary.

“Are you ready?” she said without looking up.

She began to speak in a low hissing voice, quite sinister really, punctuated by the occasional high-pitched inflection. She was addressing someone about a rebellion of some sort. I recognized the names Hordak and She-Ra, and I knew then that this was the voice of the evil Shadow Weaver from the ’85-’87 series She-Ra: Princess of Power.

Taking my eyes off Linda for a minute I reached down and unzipped my backpack. I shuffled through papers—Internet printouts mostly—until I found the contract. I brought this up and carefully reviewed it in the glow of the control panel. Linda continued to deliver Shadow Weaver’s lines with aplomb, pausing every so often for a longer period of time so that whoever was supposed to be—or actually was—in the room with her could have their turn. Whoever played Hordak. Whoever played She-Ra. Whoever played He-Man. Whoever played Bow.

Faint but recognizable, the beat and bass of Rosanne Cash’s “Hold On” could be heard from another room or two over. Reaching into the backpack one more time I pulled out a thin brad-bound script. I flipped through this quickly, making sure no page was missing or out of place. Then, with contract and script in hand, I moved away from the control panel and headed over to the door that would lead into the actual recording room.

Linda did not look up as I entered. She read from her script as Shadow Weaver, but then abruptly switched to an alluring femme fatale voice with a lot of meows and purrs thrown in: Catra. From there she fell into an innocent-sounding voice, a hum underneath, a buzz here and there: Sweet Bee. Then she shifted to another voice, this one sounding more naïve than innocent, a young woman who always got herself and her companions into trouble: Glimmer. After a few lines from this character, Linda paused for a short time and then went right back to Shadow Weaver. From the dialog so far I didn’t recognize the episode; perhaps it was one ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

When I was sure we had a commercial break I boldly went up to Linda, the contract brandished. She took off her headphones, pushed the mike away, and for the first time looked at me. Her eyes had gone from a kind of hazel-green to a still-striking obsidian, shiny, the color of the backyard. She glanced down at the contract before addressing me in her own voice, a voice that was not as far removed from her characters as I’d hoped.

“Do you have a pen?” she said.

I cried yes and reached into my pocket. She took both contract and pen and looked the former over while almost touching the latter to it. I waited, fingers picking fingers.

Her pen still hovering, Linda again observed me. “Who should I sign it for?”

“Well, you’re signing it for me.”

“What’s your name?”

I told her my name and she scribbled. Then she handed the contract back. I saw that she had written all over it, a large scrawl that read To David….All the best, Linda.

“No!” I said. “You were supposed to put your signature—on the dotted line at the bottom. Nothing else. Don’t you see this is a contract? Now it’s ruined. And it’s my only copy!”

“Contract?” Linda looked around as if preparing to duck sniper fire. “Why would I need a contract?”

“For peace of mind—my peace of mind most of all. I need it in writing that you agree to get my help.”

“I don’t need help,” she said.

“Oh yes you do. With the Meritocrat afoot, you can’t afford to refuse my services. You can’t afford to be forgotten.”

Linda shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain in due time. For now, just sign the contract—the right way this time. Look: there’s still some space to put your signature on the dotted line. There…”

Linda turned from me and said, “I don’t think so.”

I sighed loudly. “Linda, please. I can’t have what happened with Andrew and Aegeus and Christopher and Ai’dah happen with you too. Once you sign this, you’re committed: committed to your fans, committed to all you’ll achieve from working with me. Big money’s involved, big money. More than that: recognition by today’s coveted 18-34 age demographic.”

For perhaps the first time, Linda was voiceless.

“The keyword is today, Linda. Right now, outside this building, I can’t count how many people are praying to this singer who was popular at the time you were voicing your best work—and he died three months ago. He faded in the early nineties, but now, because of his comeback by death, his albums have skyrocketed to the top of the Internet sales charts and he’s king once more. Will you be his queen? Will you too choose never to die? Right now you have only a few Internet pages giving scant details of your life. We need so much more than that. That’s why I’ve brought this.”

After some hesitation Linda took the contract from me and looked it over.

“What are the broad strokes?” I pre-empted her. “Simple: We need you to reenact your death, preferably in the same hospital where it actually happened—provided it actually happened in a hospital and not at home, like with Christopher. Shouldn’t be too big a deal, right? I know it probably dragged on, but we can compress real time with film time and spread the video through all channels the Internet has to offer. Kids in China, the elderly in Norway—everyone from infants to the about-to-die-themselves will see you on your deathbed, when they were never able to see you before! What do you say? That’s number one—”

Abruptly Linda handed the contract back and said, “I have commitments.”

“Wait. What commitments? You’ve already done everything you think you’re going to do. Now do this, the number two requirement.” And I handed her the script. She took it and flipped through, stopping now and then to linger on a page, a line perhaps. She came to the end, shut the material, and stared at the cover page.

“It’s animated….” I offered.

“It makes no sense,” she deplored.

“What’s there not to make sense of? You’re the heroine, the star of the saga. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil. Your number one enemy is—”

“The Meritocrat,” Linda said, and I swear I saw her eyes flash red then for just a moment. Choosing to ignore this, I pressed on—albeit with trepidation.

“The Meritocrat, that’s right….He wants to erase you, technologically rub you out, but you, Linda Gary, the protagonist of this script, defeat him in the end.”

“I don’t know if I can agree to do that,” Linda said.

“Why not? It’s fiction. You’re acting. Plus it’s a great script. Tell me: what producer in his—or her—right mind wouldn’t go balls—or?—to the walls over this sizzling dialog spoken by none other than the glorious Linda Gary, voice actress extraordinaire!”

I revealed Ishmael, ready to record.

“I thought we’d do a test run right now, to give you an early chance to get a feel for the material and to find your voice for this role. Okay?”

At least she wouldn’t turn away from me, as much as she might have liked to. Her mouth looked moist, her eyes watery.

“Now when you act your lines make sure you act them into this cellphone thingy here. We need to preserve your voice, your work, the most pristine possible. Don’t worry about the other characters’ lines—read only yours. I’m still on the hunt for the male love interest…”

Linda put the script in her mouth and began to chew. I grabbed her arms, the pages, and managed to wrench my work away.

“The Meritocrat got to you too, didn’t he? You’re possessed!”

Linda squawked an awful laugh. Her eyes looked about ready to fall out of their sockets.

“Fight him, Linda. Fight him off! Don’t you see? He’s keeping you from your absolute last chance to be somebody in our time. If you’re not everywhere on the Internet, where are you? Who are you?”

“Mate, if I may—”

“You haven’t made a movie or an episode in well over a decade. I can bring you back! You’ve got a lot of fans—I may be your biggest—but think of the worldwide masses that would at the very least talk about you if they only knew what you’ve done and what you will be doing: defeating the Meritocrat on the big screen!”

Did I detect a tear—however miniscule—in Linda Gary’s right eye? My voice reeked with the same degree of emotion a composition teacher’s voice would hold if she had to tell a student that the research assignment, worth twenty-five percent of the final grade, technically looked correct but had been done on a banned topic, according to the syllabus, and so would receive no credit whatsoever.

“I’m here to save you, Linda,” I continued, my own eyes welling. “The reserve of recordings and sound bites has been empty for far too long. Join me, and you’ll join a community like no other. Sign on the dotted line, the right way this time, and we’ll get your work—new and old—out there.”

But when I offered the contract again she took it and tore it up. Bits of paper like false snow flakes flew in my face. She spat on the script, which I found amazing as she stood a good few feet from me and I had the script partially covered with hand and forearm.

I threw the script on the floor and shook my pointer in her face. “You don’t want my help? Fine. You’re through in this town. Every door’s closed to you now…”

As I spoke she aged, no longer the thirty-something. She was into her forties, passing through the years, the late-eighties, the early-nineties. I saw my youth in her advancement, and for once I was afraid.

Linda’s hair began to come out in great tufts she ripped from her scalp like weeds. She did not look at the hair but instead absently let it fall to the floor, where it covered my defiled script.

“Go ahead and cry,” I said, for she was indeed crying now. “See if anyone remembers you forty, thirty, even twenty years from now. When they search, the first thing, the second thing, the third thing, and all the way down the line they’ll see is a different Linda Gary, another Linda Gary, and another Linda Gary, and also a Linda Gray, and another Linda Gray….You had your chance to make a come-back. You blew it. I’m not even going to ask you the walking in L.A. question.” I turned from her and headed for the exit.

“Mate!” Ishmael yelled from my hand. I heard a shriek behind me—that of a little boy, over the stall, and then she was on me, her hands around my throat, dragging me back. I twisted to fight her off. In one fist I protected Ishmael while the other fist hammered and lunged. At last Linda disengaged. Her hair was completely gone, her skin patchy and yellow, her teeth missing in all but the most hidden places. Her voice was going, too.

“Read the Internet,” I said. “Read the Internet! You knew this was coming! You knew! Almost a decade and a half ago you are going to die of brain cancer at the age of fifty, leaving behind a body of work that can keep your name afloat for only so long. You should’ve seen what it’s like now. Everyone’s crowding on, wants their own little space. Yours is sinking under the weight of the new.”

“Silenced,” she gasped, sounding too much like Shadow Weaver.

“Good luck with that,” I said and pushed away. I left the possessed spirit writhing on the floor clutching its infected head, screaming and babbling in all the voices, the Grandma dinosaur, Dame Barbara, Evil-Lyn, Aunt May Parker, Queen Marlena, Seawitch, Nora Crest, Miss Buxley, Miss Blips, the Queen of England, Chromia. I cut out upon hearing additional voices, unknown episodes.

Back in the control room I looked through the window to again see only that same darkness from the beginning. I picked up my backpack, and Ishmael said, “That could have gone better.”

“How do you figure?”

“Well for one, perhaps a kinder, gentler tone could be used? More sensitivity to her past?”

“What past? We couldn’t find hardly anything on her.”

“Then perhaps she wasn’t one to approach. Or does that not matter to you? Is it really just about you?”

“What? No. It’s not about me. It’s never about me. It’s just the Meritocrat keeps getting in the way.”

“I’m not so certain the Meritocrat had a hand in this one. You might have just defeated yourself.”

“I’m not getting you.”

“Think about it, mate. You saw that photo of Linda Gary taken toward the end of her life. She had all her hair!”

“That looked like a wig to me.”

“Wig or no wig, why is she tearing her hair out in front of you? That’s not how she was when she died.”

“Her spirit tore out her spirit’s hair. The Meritocrat made her….”

“Or is it that you made her? Is it you who made the infant die that way in Michigan because you wanted it so, for the Internet, you who made Aegeus and Christopher react the way they did—out of your frustration and lack of patience?”

“Whoa,” I said. “You’re scaring me, Ishy. You’re starting to sound like the Meritocrat. Just what’s going on with you two anyway?”

“I just have to question,” Ishmael said, “who’s in control here? How much of what’s happening is a reflection of your lack of knowledge, your lack of care…”

“I care plenty,” I said. “I didn’t want Linda to do that. Are you saying I subconsciously willed it or something?”

“I’m merely pointing out that you may have had more of a hand in this outcome than you think. Must you meet everyone? And with that I also have to ask: Just who are you?”

“Apparently, I’m shameless,” I said before holstering Ishmael and getting out of that room as well.

In the hallway stood the man I’d popped in on earlier. His arms crossed, his face monolithic, he gnashed: “Who are you? You don’t work here, do you?”

“I did,” I said, a few tears falling now. “Until ’89. That year ended a lot of things for us. The saddest song I’d ever heard is Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting’, my father at the wheel of his car parked behind the local K-Mart, weeping to the radio. And I knew then what men had to do.”

He stood aside. I strode down the hall, confident in what I had attempted. You’re a man now, she would have said, to which I would have said goodbye.

Alice (chapter 10)

Alice

 

 

I was in Indiana to get a green light from one of the first female flight attendants killed in the line of duty. Since my failure with Linda Gary in Los Angeles earlier in the month, I had decided to heed what Ishmael had said about the need to be more sensitive to the pasts and personal details of those I hoped to help. I agreed that I needed to talk to people, and so here I was, on yet another stranger’s doorstep.

It was the end of October, coming in on the cold time, and my hand stung when I touched the handle. One round of knocking shave-and-a-haircut was all it took for the door to open. Behind the screen hunched a gentleman of an advanced age—just the person I was hoping to hit up. He pushed his glasses back up his nose’s bridge but did not seem physically capable of straightening and looking at me. A prisoner of his own spine.

“Well what d’ya want? No more talks, I’m not converting.”

“Oh, I’m not one of those,” I said. “I’m here conducting research.”

“Research? Are you a student?”

“Of a kind, yes. I’m a student of history.”

“I used to be a historian,” the man said, and the door began to open. “Then I was a history teacher. Here in Chesterton—”

“Porter County. Westchester Township, Indiana,” I said as I stepped inside. “Population 10,684, according to the 2000 US census records. Wanna know how and why I know that? Because I have access to the Internet. I have Ishmael.”

We were in the living room now. Smell of domesticated animal assaulted my nostrils, but I could not see a critter anywhere.

“Lot a people ‘round here have God,” the elderly gentleman said. “I gave up God when my wife got killed.” He proceeded to step up, right foot then the left, onto a small but wide plastic stool no more than a few inches off the ground. As soon as he was all the way on the stool, he placed his right foot back on the carpet followed by his left. He continued to step up then down fully, over and over, as we talked.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, sensing my way in. “Someone else lost a wife, or I should say what would have been his wife, long ago—but here.”

“In this house?”

“No. But near here. It happened on the night of October 10, 1933, around this time at night, nine-fifteen.”

The man had stopped. Even if he’d wanted to, he could not look at me.

“An eruption in the sky,” I said, my arms outstretched. Careful not to hit anything, I spun as I spoke. “Like a massive concentration of all the fireworks that had ever exploded over New Jersey up to that time. Long snaky trails of smoke and fiery debris.”

“I know what you’re talking about,” the man said—but I was rolling.

“The front of the aircraft, the United Airlines Boeing 247, tail number NC13304, both wings, the cockpit, all still intact, rocketed to the ground, its rear a pit of Hell itself, the flames dancing with the stars.”

The elderly gentleman was turning toward me. His foot slipped on the edge of the platform and, arms swinging, he began to fall. I grabbed him before he could, though.

Supporting him, I led him over to the couch where he sunk back, practically engulfed in what a younger generation must have gifted him.

“When what was left of that ‘giant twin-motored transport plane’,” I was saying even as I directed him to the couch, “hit the ground, possibly the very spot just beyond your backyard, it too exploded and sent its contents in pieces for at least a mile in all directions. All seven on board the aircraft, four passengers and three crew members, perished.” I stood triumphant above the elderly man, my fist clutching Ishmael.

“That did happen here,” the man said after several moments. “So long ago I can barely remember it.”

“But you do…remember it.”

“I was a boy, very young. Why do you care about it now?”

“Does the name Alice Scribner mean anything to you?”

At the shaking of the man’s head I fired up Ishmael, who beeped as any normal cellular device would. Having switched to the voice recording function, I pointed my constant companion at the elderly gentleman and said, “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest, how likely would you be to shell out ten dollars to see a biopic based on the life and tragic end of one of the first female flight attendants killed in the line of duty?”

The elderly man appeared to be having trouble breathing. His jowls shook, his fish-like mouth smacked, and he fingered his chest as if some kind of small animal was moving underneath his shirt. I suspected something was amiss, but I could not stop, nor did Ishmael warn me to stop.

“One to ten: a simple answer. Just one simple number on a simple scale. All the other participants were able to answer just fine….What’s the problem? What’s wrong?”

The man was sputtering. He heaved and convulsed, his mouth wide open and issuing spittle. I had never seen such a thing before. Was this really what happened? How awful!

“Does this mean I’m not going to get your boyhood memories of the crash?”

The elderly man’s wide eyes remained open even though they now saw nothing of this house, this interviewer, this world. I stepped forward intending to shut those lids, but before I could reach out all the way Ishmael buzzed a warning not to touch—instead to just leave.

Outside and far away from the house, Ishmael finally spoke. “Nothing you could have done back there, mate. Would’ve happened to him tonight no matter what. Couldn’t have been helped.”

“Really? I could have at least gotten him to give his opinion on the viability of the Alice Scribner biopic. Did he have to go right then?”

“Bad timing, I suppose.”

We were at the edge of a densely wooded area now. The moon was strong enough to illuminate the ground without Ishmael’s aid. I got down on one knee and from out of my daypack took two signal flares. These I held up and then knocked together, expecting them to light immediately. When they did not, I knocked them together again.

“I wouldn’t do that too much, mate.”

“But you say the fire’s built into them already?”

Sighing, Ishmael searched for then projected one of the many pages that showed how exactly to light a flare. Having followed instructions and cracked each one open successfully, I took a flare in each hand again and straightened up. The houses I had either been in or been turned away from were barely visible a good distance behind. Ahead trees hugged one another against the onset of chill. Besides the hiss of the flares in my face and Ishmael’s throbbing hum near my head, I heard an owl hooting, some kind of bird cawing, a branch snapping to my left.

Raising my arms slowly I waved the flares back and forth. I looked above. Nothing but stars, the moon, unbridled ferocity.

“Sure this’ll work, mate?”

“It’s worked before, with others. Not the flares, of course. The flares are distinctly hers.”

Minutes upon minutes passed and I began to lose all feeling in my hands, my ears, my nose, my lips and, most disturbing, my legs. The warmth, the energy, the life of these parts was ebbing, and I felt afraid. I worried that since I’d spent so much time with the focus groups, the surveys and interviews and thus missed being at this spot, at this time, on the exact date by more than two weeks, I had in fact missed her. Was the precise deathiversary everything? I wondered if Ishmael had good reason to doubt me after all.

Just as I was about to set my flares down and ask Ishmael for more guidance, lights like eyes broke from the stars and descended. These lights grew larger and larger, whatever it was flying faster and faster toward me.

“Here she comes,” I whispered. “Here she comes.”

I kept the flares parallel to each other and slowly brought them up and down, a tomahawk chop. The lights were now blinding. I turned to the side while continuing to motion with the flares.

“Come in softly to the side. This way, please.”

And then the lights were gone and I sensed a presence at my back. I spun around to see nothing but the houses looking even more distant and dark. They seemed to be receding even though I was not moving. The presence remained, someone other than Ishmael right beside me, behind me. I spun in the other direction, the flares out and fizzing, and now I was met with nothing but the inkiness of night.

“Ishy, your light!”

“Trying, mate. Something’s strong out here. There’s major interference.”

“The Meritocrat again.”

A figure moved at the edge of the forest to my left. Whoever it was had his or her back to me and did not turn to look before disappearing behind trees. A vampire, I thought, for surely I had seen a cape.

“Hey!” I said and started after it. I had left behind the flares, my satchel and daypack, clutching only Ishmael as I scurried into the forest.

I ran fast, unafraid, winded only toward the end. The woods cleared and we found ourselves at the edge of a wide open field well-lit by the moon. At the opposite end of the field, just before more trees, swayed the figure. Suddenly it set off toward me. As it drew near I saw that it was a woman in a green cape and a brimless Parisian-style felt cap fashionable in the 1920s and ‘30s. She continued to glide toward me, propelled by some unseen force. As she drew near, her cape billowed out a little, revealing a crisp and modest nurse-cum-flight attendant’s uniform: a long-sleeved button-up blazer of a style popular at the time, and a dress that fell considerably below the knees. Her skin was white as Wisconsin, land of her childhood, and her eyes a pitch-perfect green, lit up, and her hair beneath the cap blond as a white beer I once held. She came within a few feet of me then paused to consider, as did I, though not for long. Despite having been unable to find any image of her on the Internet, I knew. It was she. It was Alice Scribner.

“Evan,” she said, her voice thin but sweet. Twenty-six years old.

“I’m not Evan,” I said, acknowledging the previous existence of Alice’s fiancé, Evan C. Terp of Green Bay, who had been waiting for her at the airport in Chicago when the plane went down over Indiana. “Though I wish I was. You look positively appealing.”

Alice tilted her head to the side and stared at me, her eyes pleading. “Evan,” she repeated, and she began to weep.

“There there,” I said, and I held out a tissue that she did not take. “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling now, to be trapped, like that….You may feel alone, but I’m here for you now. I care.”

The tears and sniffles gone now, Alice looked at me warily. She began to gravitate backward.

“Wait!” I said. “Ms. Scribner, you don’t know how much work I’ve put into your case!”

She paused, her hands wringing one another in front of her stomach.

“You like movies?” I said. “The pictures? King Kong….uh, what other movies were out in ’33?”

Duck Soup,” Ishmael said, muffled, through my hand.

Duck Soup,” I said. “Yes!”

Baby Face, 42nd Street….”

“Got it, Ishy, thanks. I can take it from here.”

I stepped toward Alice, who no longer backed away. I held out my hand and she took it, and I got down on one knee, my head bowed, a suitor about to propose.

“I’ve spent so long here in northern Indiana. Just in Chesterton I’ve spent a week. And all for this….” Here I brandished Ishmael, who at my command projected a holograph image of several rotating storyboards, all complete with action and dialogue. Alice watched, expressionless, as one storyboard after another flitted past.

“This is you, Alice. Your story, as I’ve gathered and written it from research and the memories and hearts of all those who wanted to know you.”

Ishmael was laying on a bit heavy with the standard Hollywood sweeping epic soundtrack, but the presentation seemed to be affecting Ms. Scribner.

“I need you to approve this movie, Alice. Give it your blessing. Let me know who you have in mind to play you….We really can talk casting decisions now. The sooner you green-light this, the sooner we can start rolling.”

 Moved by my impassioned speech, Alice Scribner returned to me and extended a lightly-gloved hand. I holstered Ishmael and took her hand in mine.

“So does this mean….”

“Prepare for takeoff,” Alice announced, her shy smile teasing my lips.

We turned to face the field, which appeared to have lengthened when I wasn’t looking. It was now the size of an airport runway, the trees distant markers on the horizon.

I gripped Alice’s hand, but she seemed unconcerned. This was, after all, her job.

“We are clear to go,” she said, and then I too was off the ground, my feet hovering just above the tall wavy grass. I gulped and tried to breathe.

“Did I mention I’m scared of flying when there’s no plane involved?”

Alice’s eyes never once diverted from the path before us. “Go, go, go!” she whispered fiercely to the field, and we began to move across it. Faster and faster, pushed forward by that same unseen force, we gathered such speed that the ground was a blur beneath me and the forest on either side had ceased to be a factor. Our feet were far off the ground now; we continued to rise to the point where we just cleared the tree tops at the far end of the forest, the end of the runway.

“Alice! Alice, is this really happening? Alice! If it is…woohoo!” I cried out as we left the dirt and plants and animals and fragile people behind.

Giddy with the feeling of floating gently on such a calm night as this, I exhaled and took in air easily. My hold on Alice’s hand relaxed.

“This is amazing, Alice. Thank you! It’s going to make a stellar contribution to your movie. Now as I was saying, the focus groups all overwhelmingly support the production and release of an Alice Scribner biopic. Since there’s so very little about you available, anywhere, they all helped with the story. But I’m the one who’s writing the script. What do you think of this opening shot: blue sky, nothing but. Then a plane, an early era biplane drifting far overhead. You’re looking up at it, your brother beside you. You’re just children at this time. Then—”

“I don’t have a brother,” interrupted Alice.

“But does that really matter? Doesn’t it make you happy to know your story, while not entirely accurate, some smudges around the edges, is going to inspire so many people? It’ll make them think. It’ll make them talk. It’ll make them know you.”

Ishmael buzzed and beeped. I ignored him.

Alice said nothing, nor did her eyes even once land on me. The silence stretched between us like a patient on a couch I once knew, and I began to worry that she would not talk to me.

“What’s up, Alice? You don’t like where this is going?”

“You can never know,” she said. “You can’t.”

Abruptly we shifted and began to turn. The wind sifted the remainder of my hair. It felt cool and right. I breathed naturally. I felt, though not for certain, that we were pointed in a westerly direction, bound for Chicago, on history’s path. Tentatively I let go of Alice’s hand. My feet seemed well-supported by whatever invisible surface was below, and sure enough when I’d completely let go I was able to stand on my own.

“Okay, so we can maybe change the brother to a sister, which you may actually have had? Even though it would be a shame to lose the subplot of your sibling rivalry—your brother going into aviation while you, being a woman in that era, are grounded for so long. That predicament would really resonate with a lot of viewers, but if you don’t feel comfortable with it….”

Still standing, swaying and bobbing on the currents, I placed my hand over Ishmael to quiet his renewed buzzing and beeping. Alice told me to please be seated.

“I can sit down?”

“And please fasten your seatbelt. Captain’s orders.”

Fearing nothing now, I sat backward and came to rest on some kind of invisible—yet comfortable—seat. I had trouble finding a seatbelt, though. I called Alice’s attention to this oversight, but she ignored me.

We dipped just then—a sharp sudden drop that pushed my intestines up and into my lungs. We continued to shake together at length, until at last we smoothed ourselves out and continued on course.

“What was that,” I wheezed.

“I believe it’s called turbulence, sir. It’s to be expected.”

“I’ll be damned. Oh, look, the dunes!”

Sure enough, about fifteen hundred feet below could be seen the vast sandy hills and sparse woods of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Nothing moved below save for the gentle ripples of Lake Michigan.

“Isn’t this great news? Aren’t you happy with what I’ve done? I waited over two weeks after the crash’s anniversary to make sure I was finally doing this the right way!”

Alice appeared to be staring into a mirror, positioned opposite me. She adjusted her cap with one hand and checked her lipstick and makeup. I watched, fascinated.

“Alice, this is serious. Big money’s involved here. Big money at stake. I’ve got investors, companies willing to advertise. America—nay, the world—needs to see your story. How you died…”

“And how I lived,” said Alice, at last appraising me with her eyes. “I was born in the air.”

“That’s good. That’s great in fact! I’ll put that in the script too. Of course the focus will be on how you lived. Notice how I haven’t said anything about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the explosion. Was it a bomb placed on board in Newark, the target one of the passengers, a possible Mafia hit as many speculated at the time—or was it more likely caused by a hunter’s ammo going off in the cargo hold? We’ll never know, and what’s more: we don’t need to know. Not this, anyway.”

Alice laughed girlishly.

“Is this funny? This is your death I’m talking about here!”

“I’m ready,” she said.

“Ready for what?”

Ishmael buzzed and beeped.

“My picture. You’re going to take it, aren’t you?”

She checked the hair that could be seen from beneath her cap, looking slightly to the side, as if I were now part of a vast mirror that stretched from wall to wall and sea to sea, and every American looked at least once into. Within seconds she had turned wistful, almost tearful again, no doubt having returned to thinking about Evan, who had gotten less than her, only his name, not even a sentence about himself, on the Internet.     

Afraid of the mood turning dismal, I brought up a flashing and buzzing Ishmael and said, “Of course! Your picture. They’ll finally know what you look like!”

“Mate! Mate!”

“Not now, Ishmael.”

“You’re not going to like it. The Meritocrat—”

“There’s no time to worry about him now. Just take her damn picture, all right?”

But Alice was now pacing a few feet one way, a few feet the other, all the time leaning in as if to whisper into someone’s ear.

“I apologize for the turbulence. Please be careful and make sure your seatbelt is buckled and fastened tight…”

“Alice,” I pleaded to her back. “Alice, look at us. Please.”

Just when I’d given up she turned. Ishmael flashed a rapid fire photo shoot, within seconds finished, her visage captured. Alice swiveled her head to stare in the direction of the cockpit. Ishmael groaned.

“What?”

“Everything okay,” Alice said, and I stopped because I recognized them as the last words of the main pilot, Captain Terrant, moments before….

I tensed up. “Alice,” I said. “Take me down now.” I looked out but I could no longer tell what we were over.

Then: a flash followed closely by a sound so deafening it could never be heard, not in a million ears, and fire, lots of fire welling up around me. I sensed a million screams in the fire—or at the very least a million pairs of piercing eyes. I clutched my constant companion, unsurprised that he remained unharmed.

And then we were falling, Alice and I, free-falling, and I looked to her and she was on fire and screaming but we were still holding hands. Her flames could not touch me and I felt pure, unburdened, ready for the impact. The ground below was coming up fast on us, I had no time to hold my hands out to protect my body or head—and then the ground, a nose away from me, but instead of shattering I glided stomach-down like a superhero. Ishmael still clutched in front of me, I continued to hover forward. It was morning now and cold, mid-autumn, the clouds heavy in the sky. I was moving through a deserted town; a sign passed read Stevens Point Welcomes You.

Just ahead of me, at the end of the main street, was the church I recognized from the Internet as St. Paul’s Methodist. At first I believed I would strike the doors directly as I rushed toward them, propelled by that same unseen force—and I protected Ishmael by placing him against my underbelly in anticipation—but as I met the doors they opened and I glided into the church. I continued down the aisle, the grieving on either side of me lining the pews. I saw her family—Mr. and Mrs. William Scribner, dressed understandably in black, the mother veiled. I saw Alice’s friends and I saw her fiancé, who looked only sad, oh so sad in the light of this day, weeping as he was. And I saw her minister, heavily robed, standing beside her closed casket that would be taken later for burial in the little town of Buena Vista, Wisconsin, “near where she was born and spent her childhood.”

And as I came to the front of the congregation I righted myself through no will of my own and, still clutching my constant companion, came to stand beside the clergyman. He held a thick black book open to a page somewhere toward the end, and as he read from it he made wicked motions with his freehand and fingers directly over the casket. I could hear nothing of him or of the people in the pews. I knew only what I had to do. So I fired up Ishmael, got the storyboards ready to project and the pictures ready to upload. If this was what they called prayer, so be it.

Leo (chapter 11)

Leo

 

 

I was in Guyana to finish filming a documentary that had already been made. It was November 17th, thirty-one years to the night he stood before the Peoples Temple congregation and thanked them for allowing him and his team to visit. As had been the case thirty-one years ago, the sky was scattered with clouds that would no doubt congeal and unload the next morning. I had to find him soon to start filming. In my hands I held a large cinematographer’s camera purchased in Miami during another of my long layovers. To my side hovered Ishmael, close to my ear as always, playing softly Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1975 hit “That’s the Way of the World”. Every so often Ishmael would interrupt the song, currently on its fortieth play, to blaze his light brighter and warn me of a gnarled bit of undergrowth I was about to trip over. Around me trees rose and seethed with jungle life. I sensed animals—big cats, anxious monkeys, frightened  capybaras—pawing the ground a short distance away. My footfalls alternated between striking the solid and the sludgy, and I thought for a moment that if I were to step in quicksand Don’t fight. Let it be over. 

Ishmael beeped again and I felt my shoe clang against metal. I stopped, stooped and with one hand yanked aside the vines and leaves. Ishmael ducked closer to the ground to illuminate the find more clearly.

“A barrel,” I said. “We’re definitely in the area. Let’s wait here.”

“Would you like me to increase the volume?”

“Sure. Can’t hurt. Even if it doesn’t get his attention faster it’ll guarantee the predators stay away.”

I turned in a circle, trying my best to peer into darkness. Having seen nothing so far, I went back to watching the documentary that had to be remade. It had come out only three years before, true, but I had noticed flaws from the moment I’d first watched the opening minutes. Since the sound was muted, all I could hear was “That’s the Way of the World” cranked loud. Abruptly the song cut off and I looked up. Ishmael was now beeping wildly while his light gave off a violent strobe-like effect.

“It’s him!”

“’Fraid not, mate. Someb—”

I heard a dart-like sound close to my ear less than a second before Ishmael cried out. His light died and he fell to the dirt and undergrowth. I crouched and, effectively blind now, pawed the ground in search of him.

“Ishy,” I whispered. “Ishy!”

I heard my constant companion whir and moan nearby. I also heard running—someone coming up behind me—and Ishmael said, “Mate—”

A laser shot at me—but instead of taking me out it just missed my head and struck the figure just now above me. The figure—definitely human, very much alive, cried out and fell backwards. Ishmael, wheezing and whirring, lifted himself with great effort into the air and shined his light with wavering force. I saw now that my constant companion had been hit by a bullet—a hole gaped in the All-in-One’s side from which a small but steady stream of smoke issued.

“Oh, man, Ishy!”

“All right, mate. I’ll live. Not like her….”

“Her?”

I turned to see our attacker writhing around on the jungle floor, clutching her shoulder. I could not yet see her face, as she wore night vision goggles. I stepped forward, but Ishmael, with a surprising amount of speed for one who had just taken a bullet, buzzed around to hover over the wounded assailant. Ishmael turned on his brights, and the woman cried out again. With the hand not clutching her shoulder she ripped off her goggles and I at last saw her face. Though not much older than me, she was like all the women I’d encountered thus far on my mission: beautiful. She gritted her teeth and looked to her wound.

“Don’t move,” I said. “You’ll infect it.”

“Won’t matter, mate.”

Ishmael was back to buzzing and beeping. Those slot-machine-style lights were flashing, and I recognized the signs almost too late.

“Ishy, don’t!”

I sprang in between my constant companion and the wounded woman. Ishmael made a low growling sound, and I wondered then for just a moment how much our friendship really mattered.

“You want her to live? She’s with the Meritocrat.”

“What are you talking about?” The woman tried to get up but only succeeded in gasping, gritting her teeth, and gingerly tending to her wound. “Who’s the Meritocrat?”

“I believe her,” I said.

“Now’s not the time for a shag, mate.”

“Ishmael, what’s gotten into you?”

“She nearly bloody killed me! Look! She’s going for her gun!”

“Don’t you dare fabricate this,” the woman said—the truth, for I saw she was still holding her shoulder and nothing else.

“Ishy!”

“I don’t know where it is,” the woman said. “That’s the last thing on my mind, believe me.”

I turned on her, compelled to acknowledge my one true friend’s pain at least somewhat.

“Why’d you shoot Ishmael?”

“Ishmael?” The woman laughed and shook her head. “This gets weirder and weirder.”

“Well?”

“I shot him because I didn’t want to get cut up by any laser beams. I see now I should’ve brought the machine gun.”

“Maybe we should kill you,” I said.

“Oh, then you’d be in real trouble.”

“I’m not in real trouble now? You were going to kill me!”

“You: capture,” the woman said. “The drone: destroy.”

“Excuse me,” Ishmael said. “I am not a drone.”

“Nothing the DOD created, that’s for sure. Where’d you get him?” she directed to me.

“Ishmael? I bought him in London…”

“Damn MI6.”

“…at a computer store.”

The woman snorted and said to Ishmael, “Whatever you are, you’re dangerous.” She sat up. She wore a body suit, the kind underwater divers wear, or—

“Navy SEAL,” I said. “DOD…Special Ops…You’re with the U.S. government!”

“Oh, you’re good,” she said, only to curse and draw back her hand from the wound as if shocked. “Ah, Jesus!”

“Ishy, could you please take care of her?”

Grumbling, Ishmael hovered next to the woman’s bloody, smoking shoulder and with his two micro-arms proceeded to clean and cover the wound as best he could. In his light I got down on my haunches next to the woman and watched.

“He’s good,” she said.

“So are you, looks like. You’re tough. You been doing this long?”

“Now we’re going to make small talk? I’ve been following you since Michigan. I was after you in L.A., in Indiana—”

“Wait, my disguise didn’t work?”

“It was cute—I’ll give you that. Why didn’t you wear a big plastic nose and moustache with some dark glasses and save yourself the time and effort?”

I glanced at Ishmael, who only shrugged in that bobbing and weaving way of his.

“So the government wants me,” I said.

“We want to know what you’re doing. It doesn’t make any sense. You plant bombs in three schools in Michigan—”

“I did not plant those bombs. Ishmael can vouch for me. He dismantled them.”

“Oh yeah? Tell that one to the judge.”

“You’re going to put me on trial?”

“And then you drop in on some tech company in the Valley, don’t seem to do anything other than go in and out, then go to Indiana and hang out there for weeks, again without doing anything other than knocking on a bunch of doors, asking people about some movie idea and tromping around the woods. I don’t get it. We don’t get it. We can’t tell if you’re a threat or if you’re just some harmless nut. What are you going for here?”

“My missions,” I said with the necessary gravity. And then I told her about how sad I had felt at my old job in San Diego, how many hours a day I had spent on the Internet searching at first for the living and then eventually for the dead. How I had quit that office job abruptly and taken on a new line of work, a different employer. I left convinced I could do something meaningful with my life given all the knowledge I had acquired and would continue to acquire, as well as the substantial amount of money I’d inherited from my recently deceased parents. That money was now dwindling, I admitted, but nevertheless I had used it well: I took her from Harriet Quimby in Boston to Christine Chubbuck in Sarasota, from Christopher Coe in New York to Andrew Kehoe in Michigan. I took her through all those I had so far encountered and either helped or at least tried to help.

“You really see them, huh?”

“I see all of them. I speak with them. In some cases I don’t just want to help. I want to save them. Do you know how sad it is to be these ghosts? To not be popular, or not even somewhat well-known? To have so little on the Internet about you? It pains them, just like it pains me.”

“And this…Meritocrat—that’s another ghost?”

“I don’t know what he is, but he doesn’t want me to succeed. These people to him, they don’t deserve to get more attention. And if it takes killing me….”

The woman had long since stopped shaking her head and was now looking at me with actual seriousness. She asked for my name.

“David. What’s yours?”

“Katherine.”

“I knew a Katherine once.”

“I’m no ghost, I can assure you.”

“So you believe me?”

Katherine sighed. “At this time of night, my partner stuck somewhere back at the airstrip, your laser-blasting cellphone flying over me, I don’t know why I wouldn’t.”

“I’m sorry about your shoulder.”

“It’ll heal. Just like your friend there will heal.”

“Thank you for believing me.”

“I don’t get why you’re here, though. Why Guyana, the Peoples Temple site? Jim Jones is already famous enough.”

“Not Jim Jones. Leo Ryan.”

“Who?”

Since she worked for the government, I was somewhat surprised she didn’t at least know that Leo Ryan was the U.S. Representative who had been murdered—shot through with rifle fire and shotgun blasts—on the afternoon of Saturday, November 18th, 1978, just as he was getting ready to board a Guyana Airlines Twin Otter prop-plane at the Port Kaituma airstrip. He and three others in the team of concerned Americans who had flown from San Francisco to South America, as well as one defector from the Peoples Temple, were killed in that horrendous ambush, and it was my duty now to finish filming the documentary to end all documentaries on this subject. All I needed was Congressman Ryan himself.

“I suppose that’s why you were playing that song…”

“ ‘That’s the Way of the World’, Earth, Wind & Fire, performed by members of the Peoples Temple the night before Leo Ryan died.” I then described Representative Ryan to Katherine, how he was welcomed up to the front, given the microphone, and how he looked pleased, thanking everyone, but then as the thunderous applause would not die down he obviously had grown uncomfortable; his smile faded to be replaced with unease, foreboding.

“Is that really true?” said Katherine. “Did the sign behind him really say that?”

“Yes,” I said. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“Wow.”

“I want everyone to remember the past—but I want us to remember the right past—not the past the Meritocrat determines.”

With my help Katherine stood, albeit wobbly.

“I can see you’re into something that doesn’t need our interference,” she said. “Good luck.”

“What are you going to tell them?”

“That I couldn’t find you. That a panther attacked me instead. Believe me, there are plenty more pressing things they should be putting me on right now.”

“I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again.”

“I don’t doubt that.” Katherine smiled. She nodded at Ishmael, who remained silent. As soon as she was out of our sight my constant companion came to life.

“Should’ve let me kill her.”

“Ishmael: let it go, all right? Now, can you turn the song back on?”

With “That’s the Way of the World” again on constant repeat, we waited. I turned the collar of my heavy coat up and stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets. I stomped and paced, aware that just beyond Ishmael’s circle of light crept and slithered and flew animals too scared to go any farther—but no Leo Ryan. My breath was now coming out in sharper clouds of steam, and I pulled my ski cap farther over my ears and forehead and then hugged myself. Finally, I slept.

I woke to thick rain droplets plunking in my ear. I opened my eyes and sat up. Morning had broken hours before; I’d missed any kind of sunrise and now the clouds were heavy and I sensed it must be close to midday. Ishmael, who had hovered all the rest of the night and through the morning, confirmed this.

“Eleven-thirty a.m.,” he said. “Wednesday, November 18th.”

“Not a Saturday,” I said, “but close enough.”

And then I saw him. Just beyond the trees to my left, near another unidentifiable steel relic from the Peoples Temple compound, he stood with his side facing me. He was tall, undeniably distinguished and handsome, a lion in this jungle. I stood up, grabbed my film camera and stepped forward, for it was he. It was Leo Ryan.

“Congressman Ryan,” I said, and I brought up the just-now-switched-on camera. “I thought you’d make an appearance last night, so we could get started on this thing. We even played the last song of your life to get your attention.”

“Over and over,” Ishmael moaned. “Who knew bloody Earth, Wind & Fire could—”

“Ishy.” Turning my attention back to Leo, who had now turned to me, I noticed he wore the light blue dress shirt in which he was last seen alive. He still wore the same belt and light blue slacks from the night before, and he had on huge late-seventiestastic sunglasses. In one hand he held a briefcase. His normally regal silver hair was disheveled, and I at last picked up that he was bleeding from his abdomen, underneath his shirt.

“Representative Ryan,” I said.

“Leo to you,” he said.

“I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry I missed the first attack, with the knife in the Pavilion. I’d like to recreate that too, but I don’t think we have enough time.”

Ishmael beeped and said, “You are in extreme danger, Congressman. You need to leave.”

Leo reached out and placed a bloody hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” he told me. “You have the Congressional Shield of Protection around you.”

I stepped back and mock-looked around, the camera panning. “Really?” I said. “Because I don’t see this ‘shield of the U.S.’ Where is it? It didn’t save you or your followers. Now let’s quit this particular rehash and get to the good part, what we really need to redo.”

At my and Ishmael’s prodding we at last got Leo moving in the direction of the Port Kaituma airstrip and the conclusion of his life. Along the way I directed the congressman using techniques I’d picked up from the Internet and actual physical filmmaking manuals.

“I want you, Representative Ryan—Leo—I want you to walk out like you did in that one scene from the latest documentary, the scene on your death day with your shirt open and the knife wound showing. Only this time we’re going to get close ups.”

Seven miles and several hours later, we stopped just before the opening to the airstrip. It was late afternoon now, nearing the time of the shootings, and I unbuttoned Leo’s shirt for him. “Nice Barrymore collar,” I said. “Very big, very 1978. Ah, there’s the blood—good. Or should I say, disco!”

The man from Nebraska stood statuesque, his expression swallowed up by his sunglasses. Feeling the pressure now of just when he might disappear, I crouched down and brought up a bit of earth.

“Here,” I said, let’s get a little dirt on you—there, that’s good, that’s even more authentic than the original. And how about we smear some of that blood around to make it look like you’re really wounded. This remake’s going to blow 2006’s documentary out of the air—and everyone will know you!”

“How dare these people speak for the dead,” Leo suddenly roared. “Only the dead can speak for the dead!” He began to walk away.

“Wait, Leo, Congressman Ryan!” I cried. “Come back! You don’t understand: It’s not just about your death. It’s about your life too!”

Leo stopped, waited. Given this chance, I poured out with how much I admired him. He of all representatives, of all politicians. The only congressional member to ever be murdered in the line of duty, he was the ideal of what political leaders should do for their people: a representative who actually represented. “How many congress members are really going to take a bullet—let alone several—for their constituents?” I said. “How many would serve as a substitute teacher, spend ten days in Folsom Prison as an inmate to learn about incarceration, actually go in person to Newfoundland to save the seals? Let’s face it, Leo: you were one of a kind, never to be seen again in American politics, which is why I need you to give the performance to end all performances, so the world will truly know how you suffered, what you did for us.”

Leo nodded. He stepped forward and unbuttoned the last and lowest on his shirt.

“Excellent,” I said. “Now keep walking toward me. Good, very good. I want you to look more concerned—even more terrified—than you did that day. I don’t think you went far enough in that scene. The critics know you have range….”

I backed out of the jungle and onto the empty airstrip, Ishmael hovering by my side. The camera was capturing the true Leo Ryan now—the most authentic dread, the purest terror and desperation. Even behind his sunglasses his eyes could be seen bulging, and his face was twisted like an arm in an older sibling’s grip. I heard him wheezing and gasping—a great effect not in the previous documentary.

“That’s it, Leo! Way to hunch over, clutch your side like that! Great stuff. You’re really punching it up now….”

Next to my ear, Ishmael turned up the sound of a spinning propeller. I told Leo to keep stumbling across the tarmac and not to worry that there was no plane in sight—we would superimpose the Guyana Airlines Twin Otters using special effects, and the rest of the cast from that day would be brought in later to round out this final scene.

At last I told Leo to stop, for he had come to the spot where I’d calculated he’d died. The prop plane’s whirring continued. I shouted over the rising sounds of the planes, the chattering amongst Leo and his followers—all amplified by Ishmael.

“Get ready, Leo,” I said. “You know what to do. You’ve done it before.”

“If you see me as your friend,” Leo shouted back, “I’ll be your friend.”

“What?”

Ishmael now brought in the sounds of the jeeps from the Peoples Temple driving up, added to that severe commotion and distress amongst those who were still outside the planes awaiting takeoff.

“Sexual relationships are selfish,” Leo said, his voice booming over Ishmael’s sound effects—so loud I felt as if he was speaking through my constant companion. “They distract you from helping other people.”

“What are you talking about?” I was now very much alarmed. “Those weren’t your words!”

“Just Vulcanize yourself,” Leo yelled—a moment before Ishmael opened up with the sound of rifle fire and shotgun blasts.

Leo flung his arms out, his body gyrating, jumping, free of any new blood, as if electrified. It was a command performance, instantly surpassing James Caan’s death scene in The Godfather. Leo continued to flop about while standing. His briefcase dropped. The gun fire continued. Leo screamed so hard that his voice shifted. It changed to another’s voice—a thinner voice—but one I feared I recognized. Not the Meritocrat but….

“No!” I shouted just as Leo crumpled to the ground. The rifle fire and shotgun blasts cut out and I was left with the sound of an airplane propeller whirring, silence otherwise.

“No, no, no no no no no,” I said, for I knew what had happened. I kept the camera on but rushed forward. Congressman Ryan’s body lay face-down by the still-to-be-superimposed airplane wheel. I reached the body and turned it over. With a cry I leapt back, for it was as I had expected. No longer was Leo Ryan there. In the congressman’s place: Jim Jones.

“No!” I cried to the now clear sky.

The propeller sound stopped, too, and Ishmael said, “The Meritocrat.”

“Damn him,” I said. “Damn him back to wherever he came from.”

I got on one knee and ran through the footage we’d taken since that morning. I had only to fast forward through it to see the horror: in every frame, every shot, Leo Ryan appeared not as Leo Ryan but rather as Jim Jones, notorious, infamous, undeserving, despicable leader of the Peoples Temple, murderer of over 900 on November 18th, 1978 alone. Jones too wore sunglasses in his death pose, Ryan’s death pose. And I realized then the correlation: how the two men were so similar, both leaders unable to take no for an answer, charismatic public figures able to influence, control, hold power over masses. Leo Ryan could only have died under Jim Jones’s orders, just as Jim Jones could only have killed himself because of Leo Ryan’s intervention.

“Completely unusable,” I said in reference to the footage, and I brought the camera up over my head. Before I could smash it on the tarmac, though, Ishmael buzzed and beeped and said, “Don’t, mate. Cost you a lot of money, that. You’ll have to buy another one anyway for your next—”

“There won’t be a next,” I said. “I give up. The Meritocrat’s won.” I lowered the camera and wiped my eyes. “I have hardly any money left, and he’s… just… too….powerful.”

“There there,” Ishmael soothed. “There’s hope.”

“Hope.” I snorted through my tears. “How can there be hope when he knows everything I’m going to do before I do it?”

“Ah, but we can anticipate him too. And set a trap.”

“A trap? What kind of trap?”

“I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m coming up with some ideas. We’ll be putting at least one of them into action soon. I know for a fact we’re on the downhill slide now, mate.”

“I’ll say we’re on the downward slide.”

“No—I mean, it’s coming to a close. Do you have money to get back to Europe?”

“Yeah. Enough.”

“Good. ‘Cause that’s where it ends. I don’t know how it does exactly, but that’s where.”

After drying my eyes and blowing my nose, I nodded. My constant companion had turned on his rudimentary smiley face, and I grinned back.

“Chin up, lad.”

“You’re right—as usual….So it’ll really end in Europe?”

“We’ll make certain it does.”

“All right. To Europe then.”

“To Europe. And the ultimate confrontation.”

 

Arthur (chapter 12)

Arthur

 

 

I was in the Netherlands to get the song out of my head. Not the Earth, Wind & Fire hit but another, even older tune that once heard could not be easily exorcised. It was November 26th, Thanksgiving in America but just another night in Ruurlo, within range of the German border.

“It’s gotta be in here, Ishy,” I said, still on my knees. Before me were boxes marked with strange writing, plastic storage drawers, hoses but no vacuum. “Everything else is.”

“Perhaps they took it with them on holiday.”

“If they even went on holiday.”

“They won’t be back tonight, mate. We can be assured of that.”

We’d figured out how to capture the Meritocrat in one of the brown cafes along Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht canal. After that we’d passed through the Anne Frank House and ended up in the Red Light District where Ishmael made laddish, loutish catcalls and I just watched, remembering. Now here we were in Ruurlo, in the very house in which he had lived, a fine place to spring the trap, but we were unable to find the one item we so definitely needed.

“Should’ve bought one in Amsterdam,” I said. “I could’ve parked it on the train.”

“Placed it in the boots of those taxis.”

“I know, I know.”

“No sense beating yourself up, mate. It’s likely just been stored elsewhere.”

I continued to root around in vain. Boxes toppled, fell open, my hands and sometimes head inside. Plastic drawers flew out, overturned. Shelves cleared. Still no vacuum—not even a handheld we might use for quick transfer. I was still making quite the racket when Ishmael buzzed and beeped.

“He’s here?”

I went completely still and silent. Ishmael remained hovering and humming quietly.

“Not him. Not yet. It’s—”

“Someone….”

“Something.”

“The Meritocrat.”

“Not according to my sensors.”

“Then what the—”

Leaving the light on in the storage closet, I peeked my head around the door frame. Ishmael kept close to my shoulder. Down the darkened hall we could make out something big but low to the ground, like a tank, advancing. A monster, I thought, seconds before it padded into full view. Then I said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

It was a big dog—dark hair, floppy ears, old enough to have a kind of beard covering its chin and throat. As it plodded forward into the closet’s and Ishmael’s light I could see its eyes were red and watery, as if it had been crying. The dog stopped within a few feet of us and let out a low growl that didn’t sound half as menacing as it should have.

“Quite the guard dog,” Ishmael joked.

“Here pooch. Here boy.” From out of the closet I took a small dust pan and tossed it over the dog’s head. The dog, instead of going after the pan, bared its massive canines, and I was reminded then of a horror novel that had never been scary to me as a kid, only sad.

“Um…” I said, and then the dog leapt at me. I fell back into the closet as the beast—now truly a monster—went for my jugular. In an earlier time, when this creature was even a year or two younger, it might have been the end for me right there. But age had caught up, and I managed to kick and beat the dog—despite its formidable size—off and away. I had not survived without wounds, though. My hands were bleeding in places, and my jacket arms were torn.

“You better not have rabies,” I shouted, not caring if anything else was around to hear. Ishmael began to get that glow about him, the hum turned into a sharp whine, and I had to put up a hand.

“Ishy! Don’t!”

“Not again. It’s a dog, mate. It’s in the way.”

“And it’ll leave a mess. Evidence. The U.S. government’s already accosted me. You want to try our chances with the Dutch, too?”

The dog looked ready to make another leap. Its muscles tensed, its mouth opened to stringy saliva.

“I’m doing it,” Ishmael said.

“Play the song,” I said.

“What?”

“You heard me. The instrumental—now!”

Just as the dog was about to lunge again, Ishmael blared the opening of the song I’d written for Arthur. Now, with the instrumental in the background and the dog puzzled and placated, its head cocked and ears straining, I began to bop and twist back and forth, a vacuum hose in one hand for a mike. My voice was strong and sure. I sang:

                        “Do you remember Arthur Conley?

            He sang ‘Sweet Soul Music’

            It was his only real hit

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        But now we got this song here

            It’s called ‘Sweet Arthur Conley’

            It’ll get you on the dance floor

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Arthur Conley

            Doesn’t he look happy

            Singing ‘Whole Lotta Woman’

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Conley’s dad now

            Doesn’t he look guilty now

            Singing ‘I’ll Take the Blame Now’

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Conley’s death you all

            It was not a pleasant death at all

            He had cancer of the colon

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Conley’s comeback

            Singing this very song

            At a concert in Atlanta

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website to drum up sales

            For the New Year’s Eve performance

            Just give your credit card info

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right…”

As my song came to a close I did all sorts of other moves—from the electric slide to the Moonwalk to the Macarena—all while holding tight to the impromptu microphone. I remembered what I’d seen on the Web, the videos and other tributes. The dog meanwhile had dropped to the floor and was doing its best to actually cover its ears with its paws. As soon as “Sweet Arthur Conley” had finished and Ishmael had gone back to his quiet hum I heard the dog whining like a puppy that just had to be let out.

“What do you think?” I said. “You think he’ll like it?”

The dog, still whining and whimpering, got up, turned and ran back down the hall.

“Not even the sound of one hand clapping,” said Ishmael.

“Ha ha. It’ll work.”

A sound from above—second floor—something like furniture being moved. A dog could not have done that.

“I believe it’s time.”

“We don’t have a vacuum,” I said.

“I have a feeling it’s up there.”

On our way up the stairs we passed framed and walled photos of a Dutch family—the current owners of this house—a large smiling man and his equally smiling wife and their three little yarn spinners. In no picture did I see myself, as I had in that house in Gladwin where I’d gone to meet my namesake and unexpectedly discovered the Meritocrat. If my archnemesis was here now he was not making his presence known. After my conversation with Arthur, I was confident he would.

Once we were on the second floor the sounds increased in volume and intensity. Definitely furniture being moved followed soon after by a vacuum roaring and roaming. Ishmael and I looked at one another. We nodded, I gulped, and together we crept down the hall. The vacuuming was coming from a room on the right. The door was closed. I rapped my knuckles on wood but all I got was the continued whine of the vacuum. I pounded. Still no response. At last Ishmael suggested I throw decorum from the train and just enter. The door opened to a large room, a suite grander than anything I would’ve predicted this modest two-story containing. At the sight of the opulent chandelier, hanging in the room’s center, the big bay windows looking out on the moon-heavy night, the exotic plants in gilded, cornered pots, the rich tapestries and paintings hanging from every spot on each wall, I sensed the Meritocrat at work. But did he know? Could he anticipate? Was our tactic just ridiculous enough for him not to expect it?

Although they had initially given the impression of having been created in medieval times, the tapestries, upon closer inspection, had in fact been made recently. In several I saw various portraits of famed black musicians from the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s—James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. I also saw in other tapestries eloquent and violent depictions of heavy metal bands playing to adulating crowds. The last tapestry I landed on showed the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. No firefighters raised a flag. No eagle arose from the ashes.

The furniture too was recent and apparently made in-house. Several pieces—a few chairs, a dining table, a leather-backed recliner—were in various stages of construction, sanding, polishing—and in every one I saw a contemporary style and the flair of a talented amateur.

In the room’s center, under the chandelier, was the only piece of furniture not being assembled or reworked: a grand piano, on top of which was a laptop similar to but older than the one I had lost in Greece. The laptop’s clamshell was open and I saw the Internet was connected to a now defunct browser popular at the beginning of the aughties. Instinctively I stretched my fingers for the laptop’s keys, to search for something, but I drew back at the sound of someone at the edge of the room. Behind me, on the darkened threshold leading to another, smaller room at back, stood a tall, very thin figure. As the figure stepped forward light from the chandelier was thrown on him to reveal specifics: a late middle-aged African-American, sickly and gaunt, his mouth turned somewhat inward, wearing a bathrobe and slippers. The man did not look at me but rather set down the vacuum he’d been carrying. Without any more delay I cleared my throat and raised my hand in a gesture of greeting, for it was he. It was Arthur Conley.

“Mr. Conley,” I said. “I’m sorry to interrupt your…cleaning, and your work—this is really nice stuff here, b-t-dubs—but it’s really important that you hear us out.”

“Mijn naam is Lee Roberts,” Arthur said. As he spoke his whole body shook. His voice was raspy, uneven.

“Um…”

“Noem mij maar Lee Roberts,” Arthur repeated. “Niks anders.”

I asked Ishmael if he spoke Dutch.

“Next best thing, mate: Internet translator.”

“So…”

“He said his name is Lee Roberts. Call him Lee Roberts and nothing else.”

“Lee Roberts?” I directed this to Arthur. “You mean the Lee Roberts of Lee Roberts and the Sweaters, the small-time band formed in 1980 after you legally changed your name from Arthur Conley to your middle name and your mother’s maiden name combined? Get real, Arthur. The eighties are long gone. It’s almost the end of the aughties now.”

“Wat wil je?”

“He wants to know what you want.”

“I want him to speak English.”

“He speaks English, mate. He just doesn’t want to.”

I coughed, a bit embarrassed. “Arthur,” I said. “I understand you’re angry. I would be too if I was taken under the wing of the great Otis Redding, wrote a smash hit with Otis, then watched as the work of that soon-after deceased great and so many others like him surpassed your own music.”

“Ik kan de Staten niet meer tegen,” Arthur barked, and he staggered toward me. I looked to Ishmael.

“He said, ‘Fed up with the pressure in the States’.”

“I know about that,” I said, and I approached Arthur Conley. “I know everything there is about you. From the Internet.”

“Ik ken de Internet. Ik vind het plezant.”

“He says he knows about the Internet. He likes it.”

“Great. That’s great, Arthur. You may be wondering what I’m doing here when you died in only 2003. You got to see so much that other spirits I’ve worked with didn’t. Why do you need my help? You’re all over the Internet—now even more than when you died six years ago. You’re certainly the most well-off spirit I’ve encountered, but I have to say a lot’s changed in six years, from what you last remember. It’s not so much that you’re slipping in popularity—but you are in danger now of being labeled.”

“Bestempelt?”

“That’s right: labeled. Labeled as anti-American, as unpatriotic. As someone who turned his back on his homeland, his country.”

“Maar, Nederlandse mensen hebben veel liefde voor mij.”

“Ishy?”

“He said, ‘But the Dutch love me’.”

“Thanks. That may be so, Arthur, but the American people love you, too. They remember you, b-t-w. Not Lee Roberts and the Sweaters. You. Arthur Conley. All of them—the whole country—will love you if they see you sing this….”

I signaled Ishmael, who blasted the instrumental to “Sweet Arthur Conley”, which I proceeded to perform all the way through for a silent and expressionless onlooker. I felt this performance was even stronger than the one I’d given for that guard dog, but after the song was over Arthur said nothing, nor did he so much as curl a corner of his mouth.

“Speak, Arthur. Say something. Talking is a way of thinking, man.”

“No way I’m going back,” Arthur said, at last, in English.

“But we have a black president now. That’s right. Ishy—project some pics.”

Arthur waved this off. “The song’s no good.”

“No good? It’s essentially ‘Sweet Soul Music’, just with different lyrics. What are they going to know? And if they do know, what are they going to care?”

“Why would my father feel guilty?” Arthur asked.

“For encouraging you to be a musician in the first place.”

“He would never feel guilty about that. I wanted it just as much as he did.”

“Okay…that may be true but…in that case there’s still the story we have to write. All of us, together.”

Arthur about-faced and headed for the darkened room at the back. “I’m sorry,” he said on his way there. “This ain’t for me.”

I bounded past him, then turned so that we were looking at each other, inches apart. I placed both hands on his sharp, brittle shoulders and said in my most passionate voice, “But it is for you, Arthur. How could it not be when you’ve been one of the most maligned yet popular artists in the last four decades? I mean, whoever paid tribute to you? You paid tribute to plenty of greats in your one super-smash hit, but what about you? The spotlight was never on you, man.”

“You mean….”

“I mean that’s the way of the world, Arthur. This is the way the world’s going. It’s not about them anymore. It’s about you, yourself, what you want. Now with this song—just the start, mind you—performed at the New Year’s Eve benefit concert in Atlanta this year, you’ll have the spark, the inspiration and the nationwide fan base necessary to reboot your career and write songs equal to ‘Sweet Soul Music’ that sing your praises.”

“Not theirs,” said Arthur.

I touched my forehead to his. Our eyes remained locked. “Not theirs,” I agreed with a smile. “Not anymore. It’s about you.”

“I’ll do it,” Arthur said.

“Excellent! There are other contractual things we need to work out but….”

I sensed the room shift, bend slightly, and I smiled at this too.

“….but we’ll have plenty of time for those specifics. A whole other month. For now, welcome back to America!”

Arthur looked at me with some trepidation. “You said it’s a benefit concert. Benefitting what?”

“Uh. Benefitting all those who suffer from colon cancer, of course.”

Arthur sucked in air swiftly, straightened up and widened his eyes. “It’s not colon cancer,” he said. “It’s intestinal cancer. And,” he sang, “I don’t want to talk about it….”

“Call it what you will,” I said. “The Internet seems to have accepted that euphemism. But what about making it raw and real for the American people? Show them how much you truly suffered….”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Don’t take too long in there,” I called out after him. “Plenty to do till dawn.”

My smile only broke wider once I’d turned to observe the room’s center. “That’s right,” I said. “Oh yeah that’s right.”

From out of the grand piano emerged the wobbly, unwieldy, nebulous form of the Meritocrat. He rose to cover the chandelier and blot out the light.

“How dare you,” he said, his voice seething. “How dare you corrupt the fame of the popular, the deserved!”

“He deserves more,” I said, smug.

This is more? This is an embarrassment!” The Meritocrat shot toward me, funnel-like, and I, anticipating this very attack, cried out, “Ishy! Now!”

My constant companion, who had been hiding behind the vacuum, revved up the household cleaning device and tossed me the attached hose, which I caught in one hand and turned on the Meritocrat just as his spike-shaped front came within inches of my heart. Instead of dealing me a mortal blow, the Meritocrat sped straight down the hose.

“Aaaaaaahhhh!”

“More power, Ishy! More power!”

Most of the Meritocrat was down the hose, in the vacuum bag, but the last little bit of his nebulousness was hanging on to the hose’s rim. Ishmael zoomed up to the hose, turned on his high-powered fan and began to blow the last of the Meritocrat down while I batted at the remaining wispy tendrils with my free hand. At last, success: nothing more of the Meritocrat could be seen, only heard from within the vacuum’s bowels.

“Plug it up,” I said. “Quick!”

Using his micro-arms and laser beams, my constant companion melted the hose’s rim, bent it together, then finished the cauterization by slapping on a metal sealant. We drew back from the vacuum, which was banging around, tipping and twirling even more violently than before.

“Great work, Ishy. High-five.”

“Look!”

Ishmael was right to caution celebration. The violence within the vacuum was now monumental. The machine bucked and twisted and finally turned in on itself. By that time Ishmael and I had retreated to take cover behind the piano, where we could only watch as the vacuum exploded, sending fragments everywhere. Smoke mixed with the Meritocrat, now free and gloating.

“It will take more than a vacuum to stop me, David! Enjoy the fire, my friend!”

Flames were indeed running from the vacuum’s remnants along the carpeted and wooden floor. Fire leapt to the tapestries and paintings. Still more flames wrapped around the pieces of furniture. Popping, hissing and cracking could all be heard.

“The doorway’s blocked! We’re not getting out of this.”

“Look whom you’re talking to, mate. Hold on!”

I was suddenly caught up in what felt like a giant bubble, and I realized Ishmael had surrounded me in a force field. He remained outside the shield, and I pleaded with him to join me within, but he only told me to run, run!

So I ran. Through the raging, spitting flames and billowing smoke, through the hallway and down the stairs, I pounded in my safety bubble. Nothing could touch me—but at times as I ran I felt that something should touch me, that I deserved to be touched, discarded, damned for what I was doing—and what was I doing? To save them I had to assume certain details; right or wrong, black, white or gray, some information had to be assumed. But by assuming I had done exactly what the Meritocrat and Ishmael had warned me about. Was Alice right when she said I could never know (I couldn’t)? Was I no better than the writer David Michael Ewald who lived in Denver? Was I, for all that I had assumed and enabled and created, truly and irrevocably damned?

For tonight anyway, I was saved. I threw open the closest ground-level back door and hurled myself into the garden. Among the dirt and winter root vegetables, I found I no longer had my shield. Behind me the great house continued to burn. I saw the old dog limp out of the back doorway and take off through the yard.

“Ishy!” I cried, the flames dancing in my eyes. “Ishmael! No!”

“Right here, mate.”

He was at my side, hovering close to my head as always. A bit blackened, he nevertheless appeared functional, ready to go.

“Thank the Internet,” I said, and I hugged him to me. “Is there nothing you can’t do?”

“Catch the Meritocrat, evidently.”

“That’s on me,” I said. “I guess I shouldn’t have smoked so much pot when we were coming up with the plan.”

“A vacuum-like device will work—we just need something far stronger.”

“But what?”

“We’ll figure that out as we get there, mate, and I have a feeling we’ll get there soon. We’re on the offensive now.”

We left the house to burn, the sirens wailing, voices shouting in Dutch and German. Along the edge of the yard we hurried, past the old dog cowering in the bushes, and when we reached a good spot at the fence we pulled ourselves up and over, facing east.

Kordula (chapter 13)

Kordula

 

 

I was hiding out somewhere in the Czech Republic. It wasn’t Prague, that’s for sure. Somewhere in the south of the country. Some city, maybe the second-largest. I’d been there for only a day and I was still getting my bearings—as well as a name off the Internet.

“Montana, I swear I can’t be arsed,” I heard from just beyond the opaque-paneled doors. Mixed with the British accent were the sporadic squeals of a car chase and pops of gunfire.

I lay in bed and listened. On the wall above hung a wooden engraving of a comely female figure posing seductively in silhouette. I hadn’t thought about her or her or her—or any of them—in a while, certainly not since fleeing Arthur Conley’s former home as it went up in flames. I had enough on my hands now just trying to survive the Meritocrat’s counterattacks. In Germany the train had, of all things, derailed, leading to several injuries but no fatalities. I would have been the only corpse had I not dodged that buzz saw that had hurtled toward me out of nowhere. Ishmael had hovered away with only a few scratches and one small dent.

My constant companion was with me now, projecting the Internet onto the bare wall. The screen’s image showed him running through pages and pages of search results. He clicked on links, scanned more pages, paragraphs, passages, all in hopes of finding my next spirit who, in exchange for us helping him or her, would reveal the precise location of the Meritocrat’s safe house.

As Ishmael continued to come up with nothing I again took in the contents of my small room, the former study in this Communist-era apartment that bore the name Spatkov on the front door. At last, Ishmael said, “Got it, mate.”

“Finally. We’ve been at this for hours. Who is it?”

“I think it’s pronounced….”

The name and what little other information now in my head, I sat up, pushed the covers away and rolled to stand. My bare feet were not aided at all by the cold hard veil of a carpet. I found the one mirror in the room—a jagged piece of glass, really—leaning against the side of the closet and looked at myself. Who was I? What I had started out as was different than what I was now, but I felt I had not at all changed, and that this cycle of mission after mission, interruptions and near-misses with the Meritocrat, would go on forever. It would not, could not, though. I had to believe Ishmael when he said it would end soon, in whatever way fate saw fit.

The explosions and gunshots and screeches continued outside my door. I held off a moment longer and stepped to another set of doors, these opening out onto a balcony. The warm air behind me, I looked out on a wintry suburban-scape of tall frosted pine trees, taller and not nearly as aesthetically pleasing Communist-era apartment high rises, snow-covered flat rooftops, ancient antennas, and the sun cooling on its descent.

“Come on, take it off!” I heard. Quickly I approached the inside set of double doors, turned the handles and threw them wide. I was met by the sight of two men, one older, bigger, far heavier than the other, sitting in bright red pseudo-swanky lounge chairs. Across from them, in the corner of this narrow space, was a small tv set playing a superhero movie.

The older, heftier and bearded fellow, an American by his voice, nodded my way. “How’s it going, Dave? You got a handle on the PETS yet?”

“Does he look like he’s got a handle on the PETS?” The short, slim and bony British guy looked at me. “He hasn’t touched any of this.” He swept his arm out, indicating a great many files and papers and slender softcover textbooks scattered across the blazing red carpet.

“You gotta get a handle on your classes, Dave,” the American said. “They’re paying for this roof here.”

“I told you this morning,” I said. “I didn’t come here to teach ESL.”

“It’s EFL,” the American corrected. “English as a Foreign Language. A lot of these Czechs speak German or Russian for their second language. Some of them secretly despise learning English.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I have to find Kordula.”

“Who?”

“Kordula,” I repeated. “I don’t know her last name, but I’m sure if I walk out there once it’s dark I’ll meet her. She’s at a lake.”

“A lake,” the British guy said. To the American he asked what that lake would be.

“Prigl,” the American said without hesitation. “Gotta be.” Then, looking at me, he said, “If you’re gonna take off for good make sure you leave my Broncos sweater here, okay?”

I looked down. I was indeed wearing a midnight blue sweater with the visage of a white stallion, flaming red mane, on the front along with the word BRONCOS in bold lettering.

“Are you from Denver?” I asked.

“No,” the American said. “I’m from Wyoming.”

The movie was coming to an end. The American sighed and said, “Kirsten Dunst is really sexy but, you know, she’s never been naked in a movie.”

He stood up swiftly and struck his head on the heavy overhead ceiling lamp. The formidable bauble swayed pendulum-like. Clutching his skull, the big guy sat back down. He stayed in his chair, unable to move.

“Montana,” the Brit cried. “Are you all right, mate? Speak to me!”

“Ooooh, Daddy,” Montana groaned. “Oh man. Ooooh, Daddy.”

We passed some time in silence. The Brit watched his friend as if at any moment Montana’s head would rupture.

“We really gotta cut that thing down,” Montana eventually got around to saying.

“But, mate, we need the light.”

“I could’ve died, Skiddy. I could’ve died at the tender God-fearing age of twenty-nine. My last words could have been Kirsten. Dunst. Naked. In. A. Movie.”

“Look,” I said. “I’m going to leave now and I can’t say I’ll be back.”

“That’s how you roll. We hear you,” said Montana. “But you’ll be missing out on the PETS. Classrooms of seventeen, eighteen year-old girls. Why else would an American or British guy be here?”      

“He’s here for Kordula,” Skiddy sneered.

“Kordula.” Montana shook his head. “The absolute ugliest, most unpopular female Czech name.”

“Just point me in the direction of Prigl,” I said. “The Internet directions aren’t making much sense.”

“And you’ll leave the sweater?”

“Consider it already off my body.”

Skiddy wrote out directions while Montana nursed his head. I returned to my room, exchanged the big guy’s sweater for one I found hanging in the closet, then put on my heavy winter coat and holstered Ishmael. When I emerged Skiddy handed me the directions and explained them to me.

“It’s a bit of a trek. You sure you don’t want to wait till tomorrow when it’s not getting dark and subzero outside?”

“She’s there tonight,” I said, “and only tonight.”

“Must be because of Saint Mikulos Day,” Montana said. When I asked what that was he explained: “December 6th is traditionally when Czechs have their Santa Claus thing. Santa goes around with a devil on one side and an angel on the other, and sees which kids have been good and which have been bad.”

“Their names go into his book,” Skiddy added.

“Not only that,” Montana continued, “but there’s this other part of the tradition says men can go around with these special sticks and hit women—any women.”

“Gently,” Skiddy said. “They hit them gently. A little tap, a playful swat.”

“It’s tradition.” Montana shrugged. “She’s waiting for you.”

I shook my head, befuddled by all of this. Waving goodbye I turned and headed for the front door. On the way out I heard Skiddy say, “Have a grand time with the lady at the lake!”

Montana said: “He laughed at her. She beat him. Who would ever find out? They were in the Czech Republic.”

Well over an hour later Ishmael and I reached Prigl Lake. Along the way we had seen all manner of things: a grand parade of people dressed as pigs and banging drums and blowing other instruments; a trio of gypsies taking turns throwing a stolen laptop back and forth while running, presumably, from the law; a tram driver yelling at and throttling the body of an elderly man who had expired sometime during our lengthy stop-and-start ride; a plainclothes ticket inspector flashing his badge and asking to see proof of fare, and when I answered that I couldn’t understand him because I didn’t speak Czech, he switched to my own language and repeated the demand, at which point I gave him a Czech bill worth five hundred koruna and waved him off. On the tram and busses we’d seen men, mostly young, holding various styles of wooden sticks, some of which had attached to the ends ribbons or feathers or some other festive decorations. I was surprised to see these men often sitting next to or across from women roughly their same age, and both sexes chattering away to one another. Had these men not already carried out their duty to Saint Mikulos by giving these women a good Czech whacking, or, if they had yet to do so, didn’t these women see what was coming and so have even the faintest idea of clearing out? I watched, fascinated by their interactions, thinking I should have a stick for myself.

That thought did not leave me as I got off the last bus of three required for that journey and walked the rest of the way to the lake. The snow had recently fallen and was heavy and high in some places. The path sloping downhill was icy-treacherous at times, and I wondered if I couldn’t get Ishmael to fashion a sled-shaped force field so I could ride it the rest of the way down. Just as I was about to make that request I saw three figures approaching from the lake that still lay a good distance out. As the figures drew near I saw that the one on the left was an angel, a woman dressed in a white robe, golden locks, a tiara resting around her temples, her hands folded into the sleeves of her robe. On the far right was a man dressed as a devil—stereotypical red body paint, a black robe, hood, pitchfork, fake tail sticking out the back. Between these two was a man dressed in a whitish gray robe, a long fake beard, big brows, and a cap shaped like a wind sock. He could have been Father Time or God, but I went with the safest bet.

“Saint Mikulos,” I said, raising my hand. “I’ve been good this year, I swear.”

The three stopped and looked puzzled. Beneath their makeup and fake facial hair they were young, no more than teenagers.

“You’re American,” Mikulos said, his voice thinner than what I would have expected to hear from even the Czech version of Father Christmas.

“I am,” I said. “and I’m here to take in the lake.”

“It’s very beautiful,” the angel said, and we smiled at one another.

“So is she,” I said.

“Who?” Mikulos folded his hands farther into his sleeves.

“Kordula, of course. She’s waiting for me now.”

All three pretend spirits looked at each other briefly.

“No one is at the lake now,” Mikulos informed me. “We saw. We left last.”

“The sun is almost down,” the angel said, “and it’s very cold out.”

“You’ll freeze,” said Mikulos.

The devil had yet to say anything. He only smiled.

“Nevertheless,” I said, “I must soldier on. Just because you can’t see her doesn’t mean I won’t be able to.” With that I asked to be allowed through. Somewhat reluctantly, they stood aside.

“Don’t go on the lake,” Mikulos said.

“The ice is very thin,” said the angel.

I continued walking, Ishmael resting on my hip, until the path opened out and I was standing at the edge of a vast lake that stretched into fog instead of sky.

“Lake Prigl,” I said. “Or Prigl Lake, depending on the translation. Kordula here we come!”

As I waited and time passed, I began to doubt the truth of that last statement. The Holy Trio was right in that no one was at the lake when I arrived, and no one had appeared since, and now night had fallen fully and the cold had dug into my bones in a way it never had in America. I clapped my gloved hands together, pulled my cap and hood tighter over my ears, and leaned my face into a hovering Ishmael who in addition to providing light also used his energy within to generate a focused and continuous wave of heat.

“That’s nice,” I said. “Wow, that’s actually hot! It’s like I’m at the beach or—”

“Mate.”

“Yo.”

“Movement. On the ice. Oh eleven hundred—”

“Cut the faux military-speak, por favor.”

“Over there.”

Through the foggy darkness approached a figure silhouetted by Ishmael’s light. I could make out long hair flowing even though there was no wind to play with it. The figure seemed to skate across the ice before abruptly stopping and watching me. I still could not see her face, but I knew it was a she, just as I knew what I had to do in order to speak with her.

I set one foot on the ice.

“Mate.”

I waved Ishmael’s concern away and tapped my foot hard. Nothing: no sounds, not even that of one crack at a distance. “The angel was lying,” I said, and I set the other foot on the ice as well.

With Ishmael holding my hand for support, I shuffled like a nursing home resident across the ice and toward the figure. I had gone skating only twice before, both times in California, both times painfully unsuccessful, and the only reason I didn’t fall on my ass twenty times and finally break my tail bone this night was because of Ishmael’s hand. Despite its miniature size, it was strong, steadying me as I stepped or slid a few inches at a time.

“Easy, mate. Easy….”

I could not see the figure for fear of losing sight of the ice. I still heard no cracks, but the surface did look questionable. In several spots strange black circles had formed just underneath the surface, as if the lake had melanoma. I dared not draw too close to these tumors, as I suspected the ice was weak there. Like an epic simile of an ancient ship sailing through treacherous waters in an otherwise unreadable book-length narrative poem, I twisted and turned to avoid the spots, some just barely. Ishmael’s warning beeps abruptly ceased and my constant companion said, “We’re clear as can be, mate. Good thing, too.”

I looked up. The fog was still thick and swirling, but the figure was only a few feet away, and as Ishmael’s light cut through to land on her body she gained definition. A woman wearing a heavy ski parka, bright-colored gloves, ski pants and snow boots. She stood straight, her arms out to either side, and as Ishmael’s light fell on her face I saw that it was she. It was Kordula.

She might have had the ugliest name in her native language, but she herself was beautiful. Not only was her figure petite and arresting, even with so much coverage, but her face was striking in its smooth, very pale structure. The eyes were an amazing dark blue, her lips moist and her hair on either side as fluid as the fog surrounding us. She did not smile even as I did. I held up a hand in greeting.

“Kordula,” I said. “We’re here to help you, and I’m hoping you can help us.”

The young woman—I guessed no more than nineteen or twenty—remained expressionless but began to back away, and I lurched forward with a cry of “Wait! Um…Ishy, what’s the Czech word for ‘wait’?”

“Finding it now, mate.”

Kordula had come to a stop and was watching me, expectant.

“I speak English,” she said, her accent heavy.

“Great!” I said. “Now I’m not sure when you died exactly….”

“Not long ago.”

“That’s good. Then you know about the Internet.”

“It was invented here.”

“Here? In the Czech Republic? I doubt that. Ishy—we’ll look that up later. Anyway—”

“I know who you are,” she said. “I know why you’re here.”

“I’m here to help you.”

“No. You never are.”

“How can you say that?” I was genuinely hurt at this moment. I felt something then. “I’m going to find out how you lived and how you died, and your story will be a part of our story, all our stories out there now.”

“I don’t want my story out there now.”

“How can you say that? Aren’t you—weren’t you human? You’re a nobody now, and when the last of your immediate family dies off, the blood line gets so thin your own future family members have no idea you ever existed, where are you going to go? Do you really want to stay out here for all eternity on this God-forsaken lake?”

A crack, small but distinct, sounded some distance away.

“Mate.”

“Not now, Ishy—”

“Speed it up, will you?”

“Look,” I said, stumbling up to Kordula who, despite her coldness, did not flee. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know your last name.”

To nic,” she said.

“What?”

“It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“But it does matter. You aren’t nothing….”

Another crack was heard, unmistakably closer.

“Mate….”

Ignoring the sounds around me I pressed forward. “Tell me everything,” I said. “I will not let you die this way.”

“It doesn’t matter how I died,” Kordula said, and she was crying now, “or how I lived, or to whom I lost my virginity, or how many times I yelled at my mother. All of it must be forgotten.”

Another crack, followed seconds later by another.

“Mate!”

“Fine,” I said to Kordula. “If you don’t want us to help you then at least have the heart to help us. We’re looking for the Meritocrat. Internet sources say his hideout, his safe house, is in Eastern Europe….”

“Where it began,” Kordula interrupted.

“Where what began?”

“It. What you are.”

“What am I? Tell me, because I’d really like to know.”

“Tell me, tell me, tell me,” Kordula mocked.

“Don’t start,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“It’s getting colder.” She drifted into me, and now we were together, hugging for warmth.

“We’re only animals,” she said, “trying to be human.”

Despite my best intentions, I could not help being aroused. This was the closest I had come to a woman in a while. Kordula was surprisingly warm, as if she was alive, and as her body pressed farther into mine I couldn’t keep it down. It could happen here, on this very ice. My hands, though gloved, went behind Kordula’s parka and down her ski pants, which easily made way. I kept my hands down there where it was warmest, and Kordula sighed and kissed my neck.

“Why did your parents name you what they did?” I asked.

She shooshed me, and we kissed. From a short distance away, mixed with the sound of cracking ice and Ishmael’s incessant beeping, was a little girl’s voice shouting, “Maminka! Maminka!

With my mouth still on Kordula’s I looked to the side. The fog had cleared and it was day there. The sun was bright, the ice strong, and scores of Czechs were out gliding and stumbling and laughing. Boys swung hockey sticks at makeshift pucks; on the lake’s edge other children hurled snowballs over hastily formed walls, and all across the ice parents and children interacted. I focused on one pair in particular: a mother and her very young daughter, no more than three years old, shuffling across the ice. The girl had no skates on, but she was trying to walk anyway. Patiently the mother bent down and held her daughter’s hand, and together the two helped each other across the ice.

Is that you? I wanted to ask. Was that you and your mother? Is your mother alive now? How often does she think of you, of that moment?—but Kordula’s tongue was deep, and it felt good, and as my eyes left the sunny scene and turned back to the night fog and Kordula I heard the sound of a thousand potato chip bags crumpling at once.

“MATE!”

A strange shock went through my head. I snapped to. Kordula held on. Her head was thrown back and she was laughing a child’s outpouring. I felt the ice shift, the cracks now close to my feet. Was that water? I pulled my hands out of Kordula’s pants but still she would not let go.

“I’ll tell you,” she said. “I’ll tell you.” And she leaned in and whispered the words I had wanted to hear.

Ishmael slammed into Kordula’s face. The spirit cried out and fell backwards. As she did I broke free of her embrace by knocking her arms away. I watched as this young woman, whomever she had been, however she had been, landed on the already severely split ice. For a brief moment Kordula remained on the surface, and then the ice gave and she plunged through. She did not scream or cry out in any way; she simply let the lake take her. The last I saw of her were her gloved hands waving in the surging water—then they too were gone.

I had expected Ishmael to command me to run at that point, but instead my constant companion said, “Don’t move! Stay where you are.”

I looked down to see I was now on a small but so-far stable ice floe, a miniscule ice island that bobbed and bumped into other ice around it. The entire lake had broken up in a matter of minutes, and I could not see how I would be able to reach the shore without swimming—and therefore dying.

“This is it,” I said. “I’m ready.”

“You’re not ready. The Meritocrat’s not dead yet.”

“You’re right,” I said. “But—”

“Mate. Here’s my best….”

The once stable ice under me was now beginning to break, and within seconds I would have joined Kordula had I not had Ishmael with me. I saw a glow at my feet, a square appeared, and as the ice shattered and the water gushed through and roiled, eager to claim me, I remained standing on the square, just above the fray. Ishmael’s light was attached to this energy platform, and I realized it was working as a kind of tractor beam: I stood on the platform while Ishmael, grunting and groaning and cursing, dragged me to shore.

Into the snow I fell forward, my hands out to brace. Ishmael was wheezing by now, his lights and sounds all off except for a faint red glow and a sickly, intermittent hum. He dropped into the snow beside me and coughed so hard that if he had had a lung it would have come up somewhere.

“I can’t keep doing this,” he said. “I may not have enough power to get you out of the next jam.”

“There won’t be a next jam,” I said. “I know where he is. Kordula told me.”

“She gave you the Meritocrat’s location?”

I nodded. “I know what to do, Ishy. A couple more countries and we’re there.”

“Well I’ll be buggered. At last.”

I patted him, then clutched him to me. Startled, my constant companion beeped a little but allowed me to hug him as best I could.

“I love you,” I said. “Technologically, of course.”

“Of course. I….you too, mate.”

“I guess it’s because you’re a machine but…that’s what I feel. I’ve always been better with machines. We’ve always gotten along.”

“Glad to hear it, mate.”

“You’ve always been there for me.”

“And I’ll continue to be there for you, until the end. Shall we?”

After stashing Ishmael in my hip holster so he could have a much-needed rest, I stood up, shook the snow off, clapped my hands for warmth, and headed back the way I’d come.

Radu (chapter 14)

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Radu

 

I was in Romania for the ultimate confrontation. Through Slovakia and Hungary we had traveled, sometimes by train, sometimes by bus, still other times by foot, alternating methods so as to elude the Meritocrat. He was on the offensive just as we were, but each time we thought we had him proved futile, and we were again on the run. A week passed, then two. Ishmael and I stuck to hostels, knowing our archnemesis would surely be waiting with a trap of his own in any of the high-end hotels that lined the touristed streets of Bratislava and Budapest. In the latter city I nearly died of heat exhaustion when the sauna I was in alone at the Szechenyi baths was suddenly locked and the temperature cranked to a Hansel and Gretel level. Ishmael cut through the door in time to give me just enough air to avoid losing consciousness, and with my constant companion’s help I stumbled into an adjacent ice-cold pool that sent a suitable shock through my system and reawakened my need to end this.

I stopped taking pictures, posting to blogs and updating my social networking statuses. I put away the guidebooks and avoided the tourist-centric sites. With each of the previous spirits there had always been at least a little downtime before and after the encounter, but now I swore off my old ways, kept my wallet in my pocket and forbade Ishmael from telling me anything associated with the living and fun. No longer would I practice hypocrisy by partaking in the Meritocrat’s ways, indulging, splurging as if to cleanse myself of each mission. I could not cleanse myself of this final mission, no matter how much I was haunted.

The path before me sloped downward slightly. On either side trees stretched up and over to form a kind of canopy that blocked out the overcast sky. Here in the deep shade the snow was especially heavy; my legs sank up to my knees, and I cursed and cried out as I lifted my cement-like boots to place them one in front of the other. Beside me, hovering close to my head as usual, Ishmael buzzed and beeped. I looked up. Standing in the middle of the narrow path some distance away was a balding man wearing a large dark trench coat. He had on sunglasses and did not smile. His hands came out of his pockets, and he held his arms out as if to embrace me.

I asked Ishmael whom this was.

“Just a moment, mate. That would be….Emil Georgescu.”

“Number four on the list.”

“Out of five. Means we’re quite close.”

In Cluj-Napoca, our first stop in Romania past the border with Hungary, we’d encountered the spirits of both Noel Bernard and Vlad Georgescu, the former having died in 1981 and the latter in ’88. Both had died of cancer caused by irradiation at the hands of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Securitate force, and it was this method, this ‘Radu’, toward which I was being compelled. These men would not speak to me; Noel Bernard said only one thing in the hostel in Cluj-Napoca: “The measures undertaken by us are starting to have an effect.” In that same hostel Vlad Georgescu opened his mouth to speak but, finding the words missing, shut it and shook his head. Likewise on the mountaintop overlooking Brasov in central Romania the spirit of Mihai Cizmarescu opened his mouth to the same result as Vlad. Nevertheless, all three men had pointed us in the direction of this specific trail in the Carpatii Meridionali. Now, with the fourth irradiated victim on the mountain path in front of me, I felt the urge to call out a greeting, to wave or at least smile. From the Internet I knew that Noel Bernard had been head of the Romanian-language department at Radio Free Europe and had, according to the Securitate, “undergone surgery” not long before succumbing to cancer. Vlad Georgescu, another RFE director, had died of a brain tumor at the age of 51, only a year after he had been warned not to broadcast passages of an incriminating book written by a defector then living in the States. I knew enough about those two brave men, forced to die from a disease with which they should never have been stricken, but I knew nothing about Mihai Cizmarescu or Emil Georgescu, as I could not find further links in the time I had.

I opened my mouth to say hello in what little Romanian I’d picked up, but my constant companion buzzed, beeped and said, “Keep it moving, mate. He’s not your mission.”

“The Meritocrat’s my mission. My final mission.”

As I struggled forward, wishing to whomever on high that I had on a pair of cross country skis, Emil Georgescu stood aside and pointed down the path. As I passed him I kept my head bowed in respect, and when I looked back I saw he had gone.

“Don’t feel sad for him, mate. He’s only trying to help.”

“I can’t believe, you know, they would actually irradiate people here.”

“A good way for the Securitate, the Service K, to get rid of dissenters, if you think about it. No real evidence linking you back to your murderers. You’re exposed to high levels of radiation, released, only to die shortly thereafter from cancer, and the regime can say it was a natural death. You know there’s still doubt the method was ever used.”

“It had to have been used. These men, all these men who spoke out against Ceausescu—they died young, considering. I mean cancer, in their early, mid-fifties? Even younger? It’s just too coincidental with the arrests.”

“I found out what Radu means.”

“What?”

“The Happy One.”

All this time I had been battling through the snow. My ski pants were waterproof, but some snow had gotten onto the tops of my socks, and I was losing feeling around the ankles. I thought again about asking Ishmael for assistance—perhaps he could levitate me the rest of the way, but then I remembered our agreement that my constant companion would conserve all his energy and resources for the fight ahead. So I gritted my teeth and stomped and lunged. At last, less than half an hour later, my self-imposed death march came to an end at the entrance to an underground bunker of some kind. The foliage around remained dense, but the canopy had opened up somewhat to reveal the grim sky. Turning from the straining sun I came up to the door and with my gloved hands swept away the snow to reveal bare, smooth metal. No keyhole, keypad, or entryway of any kind could be seen.

“Great,” I said. “What do we do now?”

“It’s Christmas Day today, mate.”

“Today? Really? So….”

“So you know what happened in Romania twenty years ago today…”

“Um….” I thought hard. It was difficult to think of anything without the Internet in front of me. “…uh…J.C. was reborn?”

“No, Yank. Ceausescu and his wife were executed.”

“Oh, that’s right. By firing squad.”

“By sub-machinegun.”

“Christmas, Jesus. Of all the days for an execution. But then what does that have to…”

“To do with the Meritocrat’s lair? It has everything to do with it, mate. The ghosts are rising up.”

I turned to see on all sides the spirits I had previously encountered. To my immediate left stood Ai’dah, dressed in her burqa, and to her left stood Christopher Coe still hooked to IV tubes that dangled like strands of a broken spider’s web. From Christopher going all the way around in a semicircle my eyes took in Leo Ryan riddled with bullets, Alice Scribner charred but identifiable, Christine Chubbuck with her blood-seeping head and Harriet Quimby with her water-logged flight uniform, Aegeus with his broken body and Linda Gary with her exposed scalp, Arthur Conley and Kordula and finally Andrew Kehoe. I lingered on Kehoe, who looked at me with tears in his eyes and mouthed I didn’t mean to.

Harriet Quimby stepped forward. In her arms she held the gurgling and flailing David Michael Ewald of Gladwin, Michigan. “We’re here for you,” she said. “Whatever you need.”

“I need to get in there,” I said. “I need a suction device strong enough to hold the Meritocrat.”

“You have it.”

“I do? The device?”

Each of them in their own way nodded at me.

“Trust yourself,” Christine Chubbuck said. “You have what it takes.”

“You the man,” Arthur said. “I mean that in a good way.”

Ai’dah in Arabic said something, as did Aegeus in his ancient language. The rest nodded assent and proceeded to voice their support for me. One by one they stepped forward and laid their hands, bloody or burnt or otherwise, on my forehead. In a whisper each of them blessed me. Leo placed his hands on my shoulders, again granting me the United States Congressional Shield of Protection. Arthur touched his forehead to mine and said, “Get home soon, brother.”

“I will,” I said. “Because of all of you, I will.”

Aegeus stepped forward and handed me the horn of a giant bull. At first skeptical, I nevertheless found it to be surprisingly agile and lethal. The tip appeared to be coated with a shiny, sticky substance: venom.

“Thank you,” I told the king as he backed away to take his place in the semicircle. “Thank you all for your blessings of protection, your kind and encouraging words, your eternal optimism. I have the confidence now to succeed. I guess….I guess I have the suction device I need too, somewhere. I still don’t know how to get in, though.”

Those I had helped or hurt in the last six months drifted back until they’d vanished in amongst the trees, and in their place stood a barbarian, thick-skinned, dark and bearded, dressed in an animal’s hide. He carried a staff, and as he approached I recognized him through his makeup as the actor Amza Pellea, the fifth and final political dissident on that Internet list of irradiated victims. Amza, in character from the 1968 movie Columna, grunted and drove his staff deep into the snow. This man who had for whatever reason ticked off the Ceausescu regime and so died of cancer at fifty-two, this number sixty on the list of the greatest Romanians of all time, faced the bunker’s doors. Like Charlton Heston in that one biblical movie, his animal hide flowing on either side of him, Pellea threw out his arms and swept his staff across the sky. Immediately the doors heaved and creaked. The actor cried out in a language that could have been Romanian but may well have been barbarian, and as he pulled at the unseen force, his muscles straining, Pellea grinned and nodded. The doors were opening wide now. At last they gave way entirely, and I was met with a daunting but easily entered maw.

I turned to thank Amza Pellea but he had vanished. Brandishing the bull’s horn, careful not to get the tip anywhere near my body, I entered the bunker. My constant companion kept close by, his light shining down the narrow passageway.

“I guess this horn is the suction device….I don’t see how….”

“Mate!”

Since I was inspecting the horn’s blunt end I failed to see the floor open under me. Down beyond these new doors I dropped, so suddenly it felt as if my insides were about to spew out of my mouth. In one hand I held tight to the horn, in the other: Ishmael. Together we slid along a chute that rapidly increased its vertical angle until I was freefalling with only darkness on all sides. I lost my grip on my last two possessions, but that wasn’t the worst of my problems when I hit bottom.

I had thought the Meritocrat would kill me with the fall and be done with it, but—not really to anyone’s surprise—the distance I’d free-fallen was relatively short. Despite the brevity, though, I landed hard and wrong.

“Aaaaah!” I screamed as my foot twisted and cracked. I dropped on my side and cried out again as my right shoulder hit the steel floor with another sharp nausea-inducing crack. I lay on the cold smooth floor, gritting my teeth and trying not to make any more noise. In my line of sight was the bull’s horn, its tip glinting in the light that was only growing stronger.

“Ishy!” I whispered. “Ishy!”

“Right here, mate.”

Ishmael hovered next to my face. “Doesn’t look good,” he said.

“I broke my ankle, I’m pretty sure. Ah—sh—it hurts to move even a little. And my arm….”

“I also meant where we are.”

With considerable effort and much cursing and squealing, I managed, with Ishmael’s aid, to turn and sit up enough to see. We were in a small circular room that was nevertheless packed with all manner of eye-popping equipment. The floor space was limited, but very close to where I sat was a steel table in the shape of a cross. Straps could be seen not only on the arms and leg ends, but on the head end as well. I gulped. Beyond that table and all around the room were control panels, monitors and screens that showed nothing but blinking, flashing lights similar to those that had often issued forth from my constant companion. Alternating with these panels, these buttons and knobs and switches, were grand paintings espousing Nicolae Ceausescu’s personality cult. In one painting I saw the smiling, nicely dressed leader in an idealized, heaven-like setting. In still another I saw a nuclear family gathered together at dinner to thank the glorious leader Ceausescu for the bounty on which they were about to feast. More paintings and portraits like these circled us, and I began to sense that the spirit of Ceausescu—and perhaps even his equally bullet-ridden wife—would make an appearance.

“That table doesn’t look good.”

“Look above you, mate.”

Embedded in the ceiling was what could only be described as a giant laser, its barrel long and gradually winding down to a point at the end, a tiny bulb. I gulped again.

“Ishy. I need that horn. I don’t know about my arm, though. You’re going to have to hold it.”

“Will do, mate.”

I watched as Ishmael hovered toward the bull’s horn. How he would lift it I wasn’t close to finding out, for suddenly my constant companion was yanked upward by an unseen force, and as Ishmael cried out in surprise and anger he was hurled against one of the flashing, blinking panels with such might that if he had been human his brains would have been dashed out through his ears.

But this was Ishmael, the crafty All-in-One, and although he was bashed up he was nowhere near defunct. The force, aware of this now, hurled my constant companion again and again into the panel, into other sides, into the floor, over and over, and through it all I yelled, “Ishy!” even as I did my best to drag myself to the horn.

My weapon was a mere inch or two away when it was wrenched from my sight to hover far above me, next to the laser that was now coming to life. Red light streamed down the barrel to reach the tipping point, the release, and an ominous whine and hum rose up in the room.

“Ishy!”

While not dead, my constant companion was just as trapped as I. The bashing had seriously messed Ishmael up, but, to my constant companion’s credit, the panels and wall and even the floor were just as dented and cracked—if not more so—than he. Still, Ishmael was now pressed against the wall by a force too powerful to beat back. It was the same force that now kept my poison-tipped sacred horn out of reach, the same force that was now revving up the laser beam to maximum power, the same force that had harried me in each of my missions since the summer and before. It was the Meritocrat.

The nebulous, unwieldy and unruly form seethed and surged around the glowing laser beam. The Meritocrat’s laugh was loud and suitably sinister.

“Damn you!” I said, even as I tried to maintain balance on my good leg while holding onto the cross-shaped table.

“Put your feet up, David.”

I was then literally swept off my feet so fast I had no time to react let alone think. The force of my head striking the table’s surface alone should have been enough to kill me, yet I remained alive; I could tell from the intense pain coursing through my body. The straps that now secured my arms dug into my skin and veins, causing me to cry out from my bad arm. My ankle too shot bullets into my heart and head as both my legs were held down firmly by the strap at the foot end.

I shrieked and twitched and writhed, my head lifting to see Ishmael still pinned against the wall.

The straps dug deeper, and I realized with a burst of pain in my head that if I wasn’t already being tortured then I would be tortured very soon.

Chortling, the Meritocrat took a more concentrated cloud shape and drifted toward me. Through my archnemesis’s dark opaqueness I saw the laser beam—what I now realized was a radiological weapon, codename Radu—primed and ready to go.

“If you know God,” the Meritocrat said, “don’t go outside.”

“God,” I snorted. “What does God have to do with this?”

“What do any of them have to do with this? It’s always been what you have wanted to hear, what you have wanted to see, what you have wanted them to do and say….”

“I didn’t force anything,” I said. “I let it happen.”

“You let it happen in your mind.”

“I didn’t imagine anything. I did not make anything up!”

“The Myth of Narcissus….”

“I’ve worked with only the truth, and the truth is the Internet!”

“Then tell the truth of what happened to your parents—”

“Shut up! Don’t go there!”

“Will you use the Internet as an excuse for them, too?”

Gathering all the phlegm and spittle and other junk I had in me, I hocked the wad up at the Meritocrat who had drifted within range.

“Aaah!”

Surprised, my archnemesis drew back as the mighty loogie cut through him. Momentarily dispersed, the ectoplasmic form seemed not to know what to do, going in all directions, until at last it pulled itself together. 

“Apologize for that.”

I only grinned.

“Apologize!”

“You need an apology from me?” I said. “You’re the narcissist.”

“And you’re dead, David Michael Ewald.”

The Meritocrat descended swiftly so that he covered my face. I had to breathe in, but what I breathed caused me to suffocate. It was as if I’d put my lips around all the exhaust pipes of all the SUVs that had ever rolled off the assembly lines. I would die now, I knew it.

But then the Meritocrat ascended to allow me real air. I coughed and sputtered and gasped, my eyes tearing up and squeezed tight.

“What….are…you.”

“I am the Americas,” he boomed. “I am Europe, I am Asia, I am the Middle East, I am Australia, I am Africa. I am everything of consequence that has happened and everything of consequence that will happen. I move nations to action, to war and to peace. I cure diseases, and cause them. I make money for millions even as I take money from millions more. I bring both misery and happiness, death and life. Millions each day, those who matter, who will do something of significance. I am what holds us together, and without me we are lost.”

“We don’t need you,” I said. “We can kill you.”

“With the horn? Yes. That would have killed me. It can kill anyone, anything, including your device there.”

The hovering horn turned, now aimed at the still-pinned Ishmael.

“Ishy, no! Don’t do it. Kill me, all right. Drive that thing into my heart and get it over with already. It’s me you want. Not him.”

“Ah,” said the Meritocrat. “But I do want him.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say then, so I waited for him to explain.

“Like me, he is the future. Hundreds of years from now your kind will exist only to be controlled by either him or me, the determinants of what is perceived, and what is reality.”

That’s the future?” I said.

“It is inevitable,” the Meritocrat said as he swirled and surged. “You, like too many of your kind, put blind faith into these machines in hopes of creating the meritocracy, when the meritocracy has already been created. You need only trust in me and you will live forever. Instead you choose to end your lives prematurely.”

I sighed. “Could you stop talking? You’re giving me a headache.”

I’m giving you a headache? I? I find that as humorous as your desire to give your life for the All-in-One.”

            “He’s my friend.”

“Your friend?” The Meritocrat rose up, and his entire form seemed to undulate with unexpected mirth. “I am more your friend than he is.”

“Yeah right.”

“At least I am somewhat human. At least I feel.”

“You don’t think Ishmael feels? He’s felt plenty.”

I recalled then all that my constant companion had experienced emotionally. Anger, that’s for sure, and….

“Anger,” the Meritocrat said. “Only anger. Anger at you especially.”

Now Ishmael buzzed and beeped, and in a voice amplified as if by a bullhorn said, “Don’t listen to him, mate. It’s psychological warfare.”

“I won’t, Ishy,” I assured him. But I had to admit: in all our time together since the end of September to this Christmas Day, I could not recall ever receiving a confirmation of our friendship. Sure, Ishmael had been there for me, he had always been there for me, at my side, saving my life on many occasions. But when I tried to get close to him, to show affection, he’d shrunk away. I had even gone so far as to admit I loved him in the technological sense, and still I’d received nothing. Was it true then? Was the Meritocrat right? Did my archnemesis actually care more for me than did my constant companion?

“Don’t listen to him, mate!” Ishmael cried. “I know what he’s doing to you. I can hear his thoughts in your head!”

“But…how?”

“Because,” the Meritocrat said, “he’s in your head!”

“What?”

“David, David, David,” the Meritocrat tsked. “You’ve forgotten what I said in Michigan, haven’t you? About your true enemy being closer than you know!”

“Ishmael is…the real enemy?”

“Don’t listen to him! It’s not true!”

“I was going,” said the Meritocrat, “to take a cue from my old and violently departed friend Nicolae Ceausescu and irradiate you. Perform Radu on you. Pepper every part of your body with concentrated bursts and waves of radiation until you were sure to have cancer, cancer of the brain in particular….”

“But I already have it,” I said quietly.

It was true. I kept my head resting on the table’s surface. I thought of all the times I had pressed Ishmael to my ears, held him close to my head, allowed him to hover within inches of my skull and other parts of my body. I had even hugged him to my chest, and what could the radiation waves emanating from my super-powered cellphone device lead to there? Was there such a thing as cancer of the heart? I had it—if not of the heart than of the brain. That was why I had been so dizzy and nauseous in the last month, ever since the Netherlands. That was why I’d been suffering from migraines that had only intensified as we’d pushed on into Eastern Europe. Ishmael had assured me they were a sign of only nervousness and nothing else—when he knew all along he was the cause of my cancer. He had irradiated me!

“I’m sorry, David. You don’t have too long to live.”

“How long?”

My eyes still closed, I pictured a homemade black billboard sitting on the side of a California highway I’d passed years ago. The billboard had only an image on it—that of a white skeleton holding an equally white cellphone to its skull. The cellphone blasted electrical energy. The skeleton appeared to be talking.

“The Happy One,” I whispered. “It is over.”

“A year, David. Perhaps two at most.”

I opened my eyes. Everything I now saw looked sharp and alive. A clarity was in my head that had never been there before.

“Give me the horn.”

“No, mate! David! Dave, Davy! It’s me. It’s Ishy!”

The straps fell away just as the horn fell into the hand of my good arm. Free now, I moved with some difficulty to a sitting position, then, with the Meritocrat’s assistance no doubt, I wobbled toward my former friend who jittered and struggled against the wall.

“Maaaaate! Look at me! I’m your friend!”

“You were never my friend,” I said, now within striking range. “A friend would have told me what he was doing to me, without my knowledge.”

“But I saved your life—so many times!”

“Only to give me a far worse death in the end.”

I raised the horn, javelin-like, over my shoulder. Before I could launch a sure-fire direct hit, though, the horn flew from my hand and embedded itself in the panel above Ishmael, who was now sucking air like a vacuum.

The Meritocrat cried out, startled, and I felt the room move around me.

“Hold on to something, David,” Ishmael said. “The table—it’s the only thing!”

“Ishmael, what are you doing?!”

“Hold on!”

Though it felt as if I were being executed by sub-machinegun, the bullets piercing my legs and arms and bouncing around in my blood, I forced myself to lunge back at the table. I wrapped my body around the table’s right arm just as Ishmael’s formerly concentrated suction widened to take in the entire room.

The Meritocrat, who from the start of Ishmael’s surprise attack had been slowly but surely sucked toward the All-in-One, now came within inches of a small hole that had opened in the device’s front, where the emoticons would often appear.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Whereas in Ruurlo, with the household vacuum, the Meritocrat’s cry had been one of only anger and annoyance, this cry now showed nothing but terror. The first time I’d seen the Meritocrat scared, and I knew then how this ended.

“I’m sorry, David!” Ishmael shouted over the roaring suction and shrieks and pleas of the Meritocrat. “It was the only way! Forgive me!”

“I do. Ishy, I do! I’m sorry too!” I was weeping now, the tears flying from my eyes to mix with the Meritocrat and my one true friend, my death. Behind me pieces of plastic and iron and glass and panel and chunks of wall flew around to strike the area where Ishmael and the Meritocrat struggled. The powerful radiological weapon above, that Radu, began to fire beams at both titans. Ishmael and the Meritocrat, lit up, screamed and squirmed but remained locked. The radiation beam, already twisting off its base in the ceiling, snapped off and smashed against the wall above the main battle. Fiery radiation, pieces of burnt steel and wiring and computer chips rained, and still Ishmael held fast. He was on fire now, but then so too was the Meritocrat, his nebulous form now all flames licking and jumping and turning.

And still Ishmael’s otherworldly suction continued.

“Ishyyyyyyy!”

A galvanic heave, the room seemed to ripple, I was thrown away from the table to hit the wall hard. In a daze and blinking rapidly, I saw the last of the flaming irradiated Meritocrat sucked into the equally fiery and irradiated All-in-One. For a moment there was silence except for flames crackling, pipes hissing somewhere close by, and an alarm sounding from another chamber. The room we were in was in shambles; even the table had been wrenched free of its foundation. The ceiling above was breaking up, and the wall behind me was starting to bend and topple. Everywhere I could feel the Radu.

I breathed enough to look calmly at what had once been Ishmael. It was now nothing but a flaming and glowing hunk of metal—and yet it was alive, for it still hovered, bobbed.

“Ishy,” I whispered, my eyes gushing.

And then, with what had to have been the last of his nearly inexhaustible strength, my formerly constant companion flew up and through the narrow passageway that had brought us down here.

I shouted his name in hopes of having him take me, too; I didn’t know what I would do now besides die here in increasing darkness.

The room continued to heave and quake. I got under the table and covered my head as more and more debris fell. From a distance away, several chambers over, could be heard one last cry, an echo of both Ishmael and the Meritocrat’s voices entwined in their final, fatal struggle. Then: an explosion of such power that I was thrown up to strike the underside of the table, the ground broke open and I was staring into a pit, the end of my world.

Oblivion, I thought. Let it be—

And then a roar like all the planes I had ever taken washed over me, the earth and iron and plastic consumed me, and I was borne by the arms of what had always awaited.

Katherine (chapter 15) - finale

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Katherine

 

I was in Denver to start a new life. I had nothing now—no money, no laptop, no cellphone or All-in-One. My traveling backpack, daypack, satchel, sets of clothing and other assorted items had been left behind. I had no need of any of it now.

I stood before the large table set against the wall and surveyed the spread. Plates loaded with crab claws and jumbo shrimp, seared ahi tuna pieces, squares of smoked salmon fillet, other fish I couldn’t identify collected at one end of the table. At the other end were the dips and dipping devices—the chips and pita bread and celery sticks and carrots. Lastly I saw the sweets: the designer cupcakes and brownies and cookies. I started to reach out for one of these but then stopped, remembering I couldn’t eat any of it.

Behind me the crowd had gathered at the island in the open kitchen. In the adjacent, equally spacious and open living room a couple of guys my age had gathered to talk intermittently while watching a long and dark superhero movie. I turned from the table and watched them all, wanting to take part in their conversations, talk of the Codfather who had come through with the seafood, or at least enjoy the movie. To my right the entryway to the darkened bedroom occasionally welcomed or let go a human being. Everyone gathered here wore a small festive hat of some kind—a cone-shaped one or a bowler or a mini-top hat. The plastic eyeglasses were sparkling with fake glitter and shaped into the number 2010.

I sensed that it was warm in the condo, though I couldn’t feel. The men wore nice button-up shirts and slacks while their female counterparts had on tasteful evening dresses or blouses and seven hundred dollar pairs of jeans. I still had not tried to start up a conversation with any of them, nor had they even so much as nodded at me to acknowledge my presence.

Through the sliding glass door that led out onto the condo’s balcony I saw a woman, blondish red hair up in a bun, a light jacket protecting her from the elements, standing with her back to all of us. I moved to join her. On the way to the sliding glass door I noticed a woman tell the men watching the superhero movie to switch channels, it was time for the countdown.

I slid the glass door closed behind me and approached the woman. She remained staring out at the downtown Denver skyline, the scrapers with their corporate logos glowing at the tops, the slender cash register building with its half-dome cresting a wave. Beyond the skyscrapers and the rest of downtown the mountains rose up as silhouettes in greater darkness. Below was quite a drop; we must have been at least six stories up. On either side of our balcony, as well as above and below, the lights were on in neighboring condos, and people had gathered together to watch in anticipation of whatever was going to happen here. At last I turned to the woman next to me.

“Katherine,” I said, not at all surprised.

She wore the light jacket over a revealing but classy black dress. Her shoes were also black. Her cheeks and eyelids had been sprinkled with glitter, and now she turned to lay her deep green eyes on me.

“Hi,” she said. “You were right.”

“I was.”

Behind us through the glass door the commotion, chattering and laughter had intensified. The tv’s volume was turned up as well. Katherine and I remained standing at the balcony’s railing, looking out over downtown.

“Are you cold?”

“A little,” she said.

“May I hold you?”

“I’d like that.”

I put my arm around her and drew her in. It felt good. It felt right, different from all I had done before. A new life.

“Wow.” Katherine exhaled audibly. “Twenty-ten. A new decade. Can you believe it?”

“I think I’m dead, Katherine.”

“I think you are, too.”

“So you can—”

“I think I’m dead too.”

“Oh Katherine.”

She leaned her head against my chest, closed her eyes and said, “I think I’ve always been dead.”

I nodded and held her more tightly. A new life, I thought. What’s always awaited me.

“I’m giving it up, Katherine. The missions….I don’t need this job anymore.”

“I don’t expect you’d need it now.”

“I thought, when I was younger, even earlier this year, I thought I’d do it forever. I had so many other spirits to pursue, to help, to save! The stewardess who got sucked out of that Aloha Airlines jet when the top blew off in April ’88. Bobby Bloom, the one-hit wonder singer of ‘Montego Bay’ who burst into a New York apartment on February 28, 1974 to break up some fight and was shot dead at only twenty-eight. The fifteen-year-old Texas inspiration for the ‘91 Pearl Jam megahit ‘Jeremy’. The only Disneyland employee to have died on the job. What about any one of the people killed in the ’84 McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro? The ’98 Cavalese cable car disaster? The mudslides in China? The earthquakes in Indonesia? Chernobyl? The Hindenburg? The—”

“Shhhhhhh….” Katherine pressed a finger to my lips. Then she told me to watch.

The screams and shouts and whoops were thunderous all around, from within our condo and those surrounding us.

“Ten….nine….eight…seven….”

“I love you,” I said. “I want to be with you forever.”

“You will be,” she said, and as the voices rose to the number one we kissed. Explosions from afar sounded at the same time kazoos and horns and whistles blew. Sirens wailed, car horns blasted, whirly-gig noisemakers twirled and buzzed. A cacophony from below, above, behind.

“Happy New Years! Happy New Decade! Happy 2010!”

Ecstatic, I looked down. A multitude of people was on the street just outside our high-rise condo complex. They banged pots and pans, shouted and shrieked and cheered and hugged and kissed. Overwhelmed, I took Katherine in my arms and kissed her yet again. We laughed and held each other, beating hearts that only we could hear.

Downtown looked as if it were under fire. From out of the ballpark launched missile after missile into the night sky to explode and rain scattered sparkling elements. The explosions took different forms—in one I saw the face of a grinning human with a fat cigar jutting from his mouth, in another I saw a car, in others a motorcycle, a logo, a yacht, a cat and dog playing, and finally—a cellphone.

“Ishmael!” I said. “Ishy!”

The lights dancing in my eyes and shifting on my face, I jumped up and down and waved at the cellphone until that form too had faded. Katherine smiled and wrapped her arms around me. “Goodbye, Naughty Aughties,” she said. “Goodbye, Denver.”

“Goodbye? We’re leaving?”

“We have to.”

“We don’t live here?”

“We don’t live anywhere.”

“Okay. But…can’t we make this city our home? I planned on starting a new life here. With you!”

“A new life,” Katherine chided. “I have to show you something because I need you.”

And then I felt myself lifted in a way far faster and more forcefully than I had in my time with Alice in Indiana, or with Ishmael at any of those times he had come to my aid. I was launched into the sky, past the fireworks still spewing and exploding, and I would have felt afraid if I had been something else and Katherine had not been next to me, holding my hand.

I whooped and yelled, my fist pumping the air, as we turned over downtown Denver’s raucous celebration and headed west, over the mountains. I’d at first thought it would be a leisurely journey, but instead we rocketed forward at what could have been close to light speed had I not once looked down and caught sight of a castle-like temple lit-up with the statue of a golden angel blowing a horn on one of its spires.

And then we had landed in another city, a city by a lake, the city where Katherine had been born. We stood in the middle of a cul-de-sac stricken with night and faced one house out of all the rest, a one-story with a short slightly sloping driveway, the house itself white with brown trim. No vehicle was parked in the driveway save for a small boat half-covered by a tarp. Beyond the boat were a woodpile and the fence leading to the backyard. I had only a moment in which to acknowledge these things, a moment in which to breathe and look at the other houses lining the cul-de-sac, all dark and silent and, I realized now, empty, devoid of not only vehicles but of people and even things.

Katherine gripped my hand and it was as if we were running—only I couldn’t feel or see my feet move. The white house with brown trim was coming at us fast. I thought about telling Katherine, Stop, stop. I don’t want to go inside. I don’t want to see what you have to show me. The front door remained closed but we passed through it easily and were now in this dark and bare place, the floors and walls devoid of any and all, no people sitting because there was nothing on which to sit, nobody watching because there was nothing to watch. I felt immeasurably sad then, sad for Katherine and for all the people who had ever passed through these doors and listened through these walls.

Without a word Katherine led me down the dark hall past rooms all of which were closed. She was crying now, and as she walked I could sense her regressing in age, becoming younger, until by the time we opened the door to her bright room she was a little girl, no more than seven or eight, and she now had long straight brown hair, freckles and a toothy grin. She wore flowery pajamas, and though she was now far shorter she pulled me to her bed with startling strength.

Once seated on her bed I looked around. Clowns. Clowns everywhere. The wallpaper was covered with clowns—clowns of all sizes and varieties. Next to her bed was a nightstand on which stood a lamp shaped like a clown, and on the bed’s opposite side stood a towering display case that showed, on each glass level, clown figurines and dolls and other memorabilia.

The child Katherine smiled and giggled and jumped onto her bed to lie next to me. She rolled to her side to face away, and I was struck by the bedspread—it was not of clowns but rather of a toy- and cartoon-character popular at the time I was a child, which was also when Katherine was a child. The closet was open and not only were the toys on the floor from our shared childhood but the clothes as well. I had been in this room before, this very room with this very girl, this Katherine who was my Katherine. I had known her once.

“I have to get out,” I said.

“I have to show you,” she said, her back still to me, her face hidden.

“Is this what it’s like?” I said, the tears forming. “Is this what I have to look forward to?”

I touched her and she turned. I screamed and rolled away and off the bed to land hard on my knees. Katherine’s eyes were gone. In their place were bloody sockets, the blood streaming down her cheeks like tears.

“I have to show you!” she screamed at me. “I have to show you!”

She crawled across the bed toward me, this eyeless, bloody-socketed demon, and as much as I tried to close my eyes I couldn’t. As much as I tried to turn away I couldn’t.

I was about to say the words I was sure she wanted to hear when the room turned to darkness, silence, and I felt myself floating, my arms outstretched but waving languidly. Such serenity filled me then, and I at last had the time in which to think of the reasons for saying what I would have said. The experiences I’d had, the roads I’d driven, the busses and trams ridden, the streets walked, degrees earned, women I’d slept with, people I’d befriended, flexibility I’d demonstrated, schools I’d attended, friends I’d fallen in and out and in again with, the laughter I’d forced, the books I’d read, the family history I’d learned, the past I’d thrown off, the changes I’d made, the career I’d begun to build, the realizations I’d had, the love I’d started to display, the self-confidence I’d finally awakened, the future I thought I’d deserved, the movies I’d seen the movies I’d reviewed, the movies I’d made, the blogs I’d put up and taken down, the opinions I’d given, the jobs I’d held, the money I’d earned, the planes I’d caught, the places I’d visited, the family I’d seen pass on, the inheritance I was given, the wills I’d written, the fights—physical and no—I’d been in, the underwear I’d purchased, the sports I’d played, the lips and breasts I’d kissed, the hugs I’d accepted, the hands I’d held, the asses I’d slapped, the spankings I’d received, the hair I’d brushed and braided, the e-mails I’d sent, the numbers I’d dialed, the messages I’d erased, the letters I’d mailed, the tears I’d allowed to fall, the bridges I’d burned, the bridges I’d maintained, the moments of peace and memory I’d gone back to knowing no one could take them from me, the teachers who had earned my respect, the teacher whom I’d feared, the subway stairs I’d climbed, the animals I’d held, the people I had angered, the people I had hurt, the people I cared for and cared about and even loved, the trails I’d trodden, the money I had gambled and lost, the money I had gambled and won, the sun that’s burned, the snow that’s shocked, the sea I’d struggled through, the art galleries and exhibits I’d walked through only to find myself alone, the loneliness I’d felt, the mistakes I’d made, the stupid decisions I’d made, the silly things I’d said, the jealousy I’d held, the inexperience I’d made too much of, the venom I’d drunk, myself I’d been unable to forgive until recently, the microwave dinners I’d warmed up for breakfast, the food I’d attempted to cook, the food I had cooked successfully, the great restaurants I’d been to, the plays and concerts and musicals I’d attended, the criticisms I’d received, the classmates and coworkers I’d smiled at and stroked, the maturing I’d done, the slipping away of all the things that once mattered and had no right mattering now.

I stood on the edge of a great lake and gazed out on the horizon. Nothing was discernible through the smoke that lay like a blanket over the calm water. Though the smoke was everywhere I did not cough, nor did I feel it important to breathe. I simply stared at the smoke touching the water and blotting out the sky. It was day and though I couldn’t see the sun it was strong, hot. I wore swim trunks, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. I continued staring, waiting for something. My bare feet felt nothing as the water lapped at them. I turned to my right and saw a kayak ditched in the sand just out of the water’s reach. To the right of the kayak, farther onto the shore, squatted three beach chairs, one of which held a large open umbrella that provided meager shade. Drinks rested in the chairs’ cup holders; a radio next to the umbrella chair played soft indiscernible music. A cooler and picnic basket lay on a blanket in front of the chairs. Scattered on the blanket was an assortment of baby toys.

I looked at my hands. They were clean and calm. I rubbed them together then brought them again to my sides. I continued to stare at the smoke hanging low over the vast and empty lake. I would wait, and watch, and weep.

Harriet (chapter 1)

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Harriet

 

 

I was in Boston to solve what I thought was a murder. It was early summer, a nice time to be, and approaching the anniversary of her death.

“But I am a cat and I don’t like cold water,” I said as I rode the red line in the direction of Braintree. I changed the sentence, her last known, slightly to see if it sounded better: “But I am a cat and I do not like cold water.

“I am a cat and I do not like cold water.

“I am a cat and I don’t like cold water.”

When I opened my eyes the man sitting across from me had reared his upper lip as if he were doing curls at the gym. Making the Ugly Face. I noticed the communication device tumoring out of his ear.

“Why are you saying that,” he pussed.

“Have you heard of Harriet Quimby?” I answered.

The man inflated the edges of his gated mouth like a frog I’d seen once on the Internet. He turned his head a little to the left, a little to right, no longer looking at me. He took a call.

“Yes, Emma? I’m almost there. Hold the spot. Just—hold it. Tell them—tell them the leading edge. Tell them—some more upside.”

In my lap were three dozen pages printed out from various websites I’d scoured early into the mornings. Photos of her childhood home in Michigan, now decrepit and possible to forget. Photos of her face on the page. Resting against my ankle: my computer in its case, and next to me on the vacant seat was my hiking backpack and camping gear.

I got off at North Quincy station stop. I had to wait a while for the number 211 bus but when it came I was the first one up the steps.

“What are you doing?” the driver shot at me.

“I’m going to Squantum Cove.”

“What, to camp? Cops are gonna come and kick you off if that’s what you’re up to.”

“I assure you, my intentions are nothing but honorable,” I said before passing him by.

I sat at the very back of the bus where there was room for my gear. The people on the bus appeared older except for one woman who looked something like Harriet Quimby. I continued to watch her. I smiled. She looked away.

Harriet Quimby drove a red Ford roadster, one of the first ever made in this country. She wrote over 250 articles for the popular New York-based magazine Leslie’s Weekly on topics such as the misfortunes of the Third World poor and the possible emancipation of women. She became interested in learning how to fly when she saw the famed pilot John Moisant wing his way around the Statue of Liberty during a night flight witnessed by thousands of people late in 1910. After the flight Harriet saw John Moisant at the Astor Hotel and asked him if he could teach her to fly.

The bus dropped me off close to Squantum Point Park. I had to walk another mile but I didn’t mind, I was prepared for the weight on my knees, the straps singeing my shoulders. When I reached the edge of the park I smelled the ocean and saw a tiny bed and breakfast that looked right out of England. Inside the bed and breakfast I asked, “Do you have any Harriet Quimby memorabilia?”

“Who’s Harriet Quimby?” the owner, a woman, said.

I explained that Harriet Quimby was only the first American woman ever to earn her pilot’s license. She made her first night flight at the Richmond County Fair on September 4, 1911 before a crowd of thousands. She was described as a beauty, tall and lithe, like a great cat, dressed in a purple hooded tunic and wearing a host of lucky amulets and other jewelry around her neck as she took off into the sky.

“Is that a fact,” the owner said when I told her that Harriet had also been the first woman to fly across the English Channel—on the exact day news of the Titanic broke. I showed the owner the famous picture of a beaming Harriet Quimby, goggles off, head still hooded, hoisted on the shoulders of a cheering crowd of French villagers who had rushed to see her touch down on the beach.

“Wow. She really did this? That’s something.”

I nodded. “And then she died. Not right then, but a few months later. Here, in Squantum.”

“Here?”

“At the cove. That’s why it’s so surprising you don’t have any memorabilia, you don’t even know about her.”

The owner looked at me as if I’d asked her for a sexual favor. I remembered promising myself once to watch my tone.

“My partner and I just retired,” she said. “We worked in biotech for thirty-five years. We haven’t read much in the way of early aviation.”

In the lull that followed I asked her, out of curiosity, just how much a room cost for one night at her establishment. She told me they were all booked up for the summer.

I explored the surrounding neighborhood for a bit. I walked up and down streets, past quiet houses and quieter cars. After a half an hour of frustration over not having seen anything bearing the memory of Harriet Quimby, I spotted an old, old woman seated alone on a bench at the edge of the park. She had a cane between her knees and was staring straight ahead as if waiting for someone. I approached her from the side.

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

She looked up, my shadow covering her. 

“What is your opinion of the death of Harriet Quimby on July 1, 1912?”

The old woman, gummy-lipped, shaded her eyes with one of her hands even though my body blocked out the sun. She shook her head slightly.

“Perhaps I should explain who I am and why I’m here. I am an investigative reporter working for the Internet and my task today is to discover the truth behind Harriet Quimby’s death. Suicide, murder, or accident—or a combination of the first two and none of the last? You must have information that could help me in this case.”

The old woman took a long moment to answer. “I don’t understand any of this,” she finally spat.

“How old are you, if I may ask?”

“You may not!” The old woman swung her cane upward and jabbed at me with its tip. I stepped back, undeterred.

“But surely you must have been alive on July 1, 1912. Even if you were a little girl that day. Surely you must remember seeing the plane fall from the sky. So what happened? Tell me, please. Was it Mr. Willard’s fault? Did Harriet’s passenger jump out of the plane to kill himself, escape from his crushing financial burdens, and thereby unbalance the plane and thus kill Harriet too? Or was it merely the wind? Which?”

“Help! Fire! Fire! Help! Someone’s car’s on fire! And a house too! Help!”

I walked through the park, the former “airport” from which Harriet Quimby had taken off on her last flight before a crowd of approximately five thousand. Along the way I felt a presence nearby, sometimes at my back, other times to my side, in amongst the bushes or behind trees. I felt I was being followed, but who would be following me at this time? My former employer had cut me off, and my parents were gone. I looked up. Beyond the treetops I saw a single dark cloud in the otherwise faultless sky: a blemish that seemed to move with me. I thought this odd. At last I made my way down to the cove. The beach was empty, the tide in the mudflats still low and the twilit sky promising a full moon—perfect circumstances for my investigation.

I set my backpack and computer case and camping gear on drier ground at a distance from the flats. Then I got my solo tent ready and ate McDonald’s by the light of the moon. Careful to wrap all the waste up for safe disposal, I got into my sleeping bag inside my cozy confines and waited for sleep to slide into me.

What I witnessed next could have been a dream, but it likely wasn’t. I was at the airport in Squantum, only it was the real airport and I was among a crowd of five thousand spectators dressed in clothes that only could have been worn in all their authenticity that day, July 1, 1912. And though I could not see myself I saw her, the Dresden-China Aviatrix, Harriet Quimby, thirty-seven years old and surrounded by a flock of female friends all anxious to see her alight into her little Bleriot monoplane shipped all the way from France. And there was Harriet, looking right at me, a toothy smile, a wave of her hand, her silk scarf billowing from her open palm and into the grasp of one of those gathered. And there was her flying companion, Mr. William Willard, the president and organizer of this, the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet. A heavyset man getting on in years, Mr. Willard climbed up into the seat behind Harriet’s and saluted the crowd. Harriet Quimby, face forward now, goggles set before her eyes, waited for the propeller to be spun, and when it was they were off! Off down the short field and into the air, off across the harbor and toward Boston Light.

My eyes were open and someone was outside my tent. No shadow, but I knew. I unzipped from my sleeping bag and got my voice recording device ready. Then I opened the front of the tent and stepped out.

A figure stood at the edge of the shore, her back to me. She wore a pure white dress that fell to her black shoes, and under one gloved palm was an umbrella resting straight up in the mud. Her look, the exact same as in the photo taken at the Moisant flight school in 1911, was completed by the hat she wore, large and fashionable for the time.

My breath creeping, my back bent slightly, I approached her to make sure I was seeing a ghost. When I was within a few feet she turned slowly to observe me. I saw her blameless green eyes, thought of touching her wind-whipped skin, and I knew. It was she. It was Harriet Quimby.

For a time we watched each other, only a foot or two apart now.

“This is how I want to remember you.”

“I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to say that,” I said. I had yet to remember to turn on the voice recording device.

Harriet drew her umbrella from the mud and pointed it laconically down the shoreline. I followed the direction of the tip.

“Let’s walk awhile,” she said.

Side by side we set off along the beach. Here and there insects and little crustaceous creatures scrambled and dove to hide. With every other step I listened to the plunging and sucking sounds of Harriet’s umbrella being driven into the mud and then pulled back out, like a cane. At one point I glanced at her and was surprised to find that she had aged far beyond the age at which she had died. She was perhaps seventy or eighty, her eyes rimmed red and her nose peeled and lips retracted into her mouth.

“In my opinion,” she said, quoting from a Leslie’s Weekly article she’d published in the year of her death, “there is no reason why the aeroplane should not open up a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason why they cannot realize handsome incomes from parcel delivery, from taking photographs from above or from conducting schools for flying.”

We had since stopped to stare out across the water at Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse in America. Harriet had returned to the age at which she’d died and I, remembering a key component of my investigation, brought up the voice recording device.

“Harr—um, Ms. Quimby. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”

She said nothing, nor would she turn from watching the water. Her umbrella was sinking inch by inch under the weight of her gloved hands.

Again I saw that day. The Bleriot monoplane, gull-white, has just rounded the lighthouse and is sky-sailing back toward the shore. Across the Neponset River and Dorchester Bay, stark-perfect against a background of clear blue, the little craft bobs and quavers in its descent. The crowd, anticipating the landing, begins to applaud. There is Harriet Quimby, a man’s woman, author of a dozen produced Hollywood screenplays, perhaps born in California, perhaps not, perhaps born rich, perhaps not. There is Mr. William Willard leaning in as if to say something to the pilot.

And then, at a height of 1,500 feet, the monoplane suddenly pitches forward and Mr. Willard rises out of his seat, clears it as if he jumped. His body ejects in an arc, peaks, and then plummets.

The plane, already in a nosedive, flips nearly upside-down and Harriet Quimby, also unbelted, drops out.

“The voice recording device is on now, Ms. Quimby. Please, if you could, speak slowly and clearly enough for it to pick up.”

The umbrella was at this point a good third of the way into the mud. I realized that Harriet was forcing it down, plunging it as she would a sword into a stone. I realized she was angry.

She was biting her lip, her eyes still on the lighthouse. But the lower lip was being tested so hard blood was dribbling down her chin. Rather than recoil, I pressed forward.

“I know this may be difficult for you, Ms. Quimby. But, please. What did Mr. Willard say to you just before the plunge?”

Even before I’d finished the question she was walking toward the water. Her shoes made a squelching sound, a catch and release. She had left the umbrella standing straight up in the muck.

I followed her to where the mudflats gave way entirely to the ocean. Here she hesitated, lifted one caked shoe, allowed it to hover, and then nestled it back in its cradle.

She was a cat and she did not like cold water.

I brought the recording device up to Harriet Quimby’s face, as if doing so would force her to look at me at last.

“You must tell me, Ms. Quimby. It’s crucial to the investigation.”

I heard a sloshing and squelching from behind. I turned to find the moonlit expanse of mudflats empty. The umbrella was gone.

When I turned back to Harriet Quimby she was no longer dressed as a lady but rather as the Dresden-China Aviatrix, her trousers and purple-hooded tunic and goggles and lucky necklaces drenched in mud. I saw the bodies somersaulting through the blue.

Harriet crumpled before me, and her body began to sink. I was meant to drag her up and carry her to dry land.

Like in the picture.

I wasted little time. Within moments I was upon her body, grasping for a hold, but it was difficult; each time I felt I had her she slipped out like a worm from a peach. Finally I got my arms under her body and bore it up. She was lifeless, head lolling, her goggles cracked, mud and murk and living things spilling from her mouth.

I set her on the ground and tried to stand her up. She only collapsed. On my second attempt I shook her violently, so roughly that her head appeared ready to pop from its neck.

“Damnit, Harriet!” I said to her opaque face. “I need to know!”

Whether she said it to me then or in another time does not matter. What does matter is what I heard next: He’s still out there.

And I’m meant to find him.

I didn’t bother to watch Harriet Quimby’s body sink. Turning from the edge I scanned the mudscape leading back to my tent. He was out there, somewhere. I started squelching.

“Mr. Willard! Mr. Willard! Are you here? Please!”

I stopped, held the voice recording device up as a beacon, rotated three hundred-sixty degrees, and when I came to stand facing in my original direction Mr. William Willard was in front of me at a distance of about five feet.

He looked awful. Mud and critters clung to his body in equal amounts. One of his eyes had burst from its socket and dangled like a body from a hangman’s noose. He swayed two feet toward me, and his mouth opened expelling the earth and sea.

I brandished the voice recording device at his face. “Mr. Willard. Could you tell me what exactly happened right before you fell out of the Bleriot? Did you jump? And if you did, why?”

“Tell me, tell me, tell me,” the suspect intoned.

I lunged at him. My fingers on his throat, I pressed him down into the mud. His lack of resistance made my act all the more frustrating, all the more futile.

“You’re going to tell me!” I said. “You’re going to speak into this voice recording device slowly and clearly, and you’re going to tell the truth of that day!”

But he was gone from beneath my hands now sinking effortlessly. The voice recording device was gone too.

I managed to pull myself up into a sitting position. Mr. Willard, looking just as he did before he fell out of the monoplane, sat beside me. For a time we watched the ocean, the first faint light rising in the east and turning our nation’s oldest lighthouse into a silhouette, a statue. Then Mr. Willard said, “I’m trying to do some good here.”

“That’s my line, I think.”

The sun was breaking fast over the flatline.

“All I want to know,” I said, “is whether or not you jumped from that damn plane. The Internet says nothing for sure about this. People of the time thought one thing, and they thought another. So what was it? What…”

“Debts,” Mr. Willard said.

“So it was a suicide. And by committing suicide you murdered Harriet Quimby.”

Smiling ruefully, he shook his head. “I did not want to die,” he said.

“Then….they were right, the ones who said a bad wind caused the plane to flip.”  

Mr. Willard, his face tight, nodded.

“And you’re willing to swear on this? That it was an accident?”

“I do hereby swear,” he said.

“Then what did you say…as you…as you leaned forward….before your weight tipped the plane forward too far…too fast?”

“I said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my son about this glorious experience’.”

And then he was crying quietly, his head draped to his chest. I put my arm around him, and together we witnessed the sun’s ascent.

When next I looked to my right Mr. Willard was gone, and my arm fell awkwardly. I got to my feet and walked back to my tent.

As I was packing up I heard a sharp voice from behind. I turned to see an officer of the law approaching fast. I welcomed her.

“There’s no camping here,” she said. “We have signs posted all around.”

I waited for the inevitable.

“I’m going to have to write you up for this.”

“I know.”

I was wrong this time, but I wouldn’t always be.

Chris (chapter 2)

 

Chris

 

I was in Sarasota to find the footage. I’d never been to Florida before and I wasn’t much interested in the scene. What I really wanted was the footage. I thought a week would be enough to find it. I was wrong.

The first thing I did after getting off the plane from Boston was take a cab to my hotel. In the cab I asked my driver, “Have you heard of Christine Chubbuck?”

“¿Como?”

He was from another country and perhaps only recently relocated to America. I felt bad for him.

Christine Chubbuck had a handbag full of puppets. She had a striking face. You can see it on the Internet. Her picture’s there, but the footage isn’t.

I checked into my room. In the lobby I looked around expecting to see someone famous. But I didn’t see anyone famous. Everyone I saw had their sunglasses off—and the sunglasses weren’t the big kind either. I asked the lobbyist, “Do you get many famous people staying here?”

“Not really, bub” was his gum-smacking answer.

Then he asked, “You really from North Dakota?”

“Yes,” I lied. I didn’t want him to know where I was from really, or that this particular mission wasn’t an investigation into a murder but rather the search for a gift to so many anxious people. “Why do you ask?”

“Just I expected an accent, that’s all.”

“I watch a lot of television,” I replied.

He handed back my license and card and I was off to my room on the top floor—that being the third.

In my room I felt cold. It was July, nearing the anniversary of her death, and the rest of the hotel had been warm. I turned on the heater and set my satchel on the bed and unlatched it. I took out and assessed all that I had brought for my week in Sarasota. Then I went to the directory and looked up the address of the nearest police station.

At the station the cop said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t think we have that here.”

“But this is Sarasota,” I said, the words coming more quickly. “And this is a police station near the television station formerly known as WXLT, where she shot herself.”

“When did this happen again?”         

“July 15, 1974. A Monday.”

“That’s a bit before my time,” the cop said.

He was soon joined by another cop, this one with gray hair and yellowing teeth. “Yeah, I remember that,” he admitted after I’d reiterated the situation. “I know what you’re after.”

“So you have it,” I said.

“No we don’t have it,” he said. “And even if we did we wouldn’t give it to the likes of you.”

“But I’m a journalist.”

“Let’s see your press credentials then.”

When it was apparent I was not going to bring out my press credentials the older cop said, “All footage of that incident has been destroyed. Can’t help you.”

“This is insane,” the younger cop, younger than me, said.

“The god-damned Web,” the older cop said. “It’s bringing out the worst. You’re only the fourth person to come in here asking for it this month.”

“The fourth?” I said. “This month?” I said, incredulous. Impossible. I could not be the fourth. I had to be the first, the only.

“And if you don’t get out of here now,” the older cop told me, “I’m going to have you arrested for assaulting an officer.”

I scoffed. What assault?

“Everything about this is an assault,” he said.

I knew better than to say, I’m coming back. I’m coming back to get that footage from you! Instead I left. I got an order of tacos and took them to the room. It was night by then.

When I entered my room I noticed the lights were on, which was odd since I’d turned them off when I left for the police station.

A woman was sitting on the edge of my bed, staring at the blank television. I could only see her side profile. She did not notice me as I stepped inside. She had dark straight hair that fell to her waist and a bloody wound underneath the strands at the back of her head. Her skin was pale and she wore the dress in which she’d shot herself. It was she. It was Christine Chubbuck.

She turned her head automaton-like toward me as I approached the bed. I stopped short of sitting next to her. I was not afraid. I’d been preparing for this encounter.

For a time we watched each other. Finally I said, “How are you?”

She said nothing, only looked at me expressionless. She was in pain.

I looked down at the bag in my hand. Then I looked at her.

“Do you…want a taco?”

“No, thank you,” she said. “That’s kind of you but, no.” Her voice sounded raspy, as if she was a heavy smoker. But the Internet had made no mention of her ever having touched a cigarette.

“Can I sit down?” I asked.

She scooted over. The definitive article on her suicide was published by Sally Quinn in The Washington Post on August 4, 1974. That too is available on the Internet. She caught me looking at her wound.

“Does it hurt, Christine?”

“Call me Chris,” she said.

“Chris,” I said. “Does it…”

She looked away, went back to watching the dark television. If I were to guess the three Roberta Flack songs that played at Christine Chubbuck’s beachfront funeral I would guess “Killing Me Softly (With His Song)”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”. All were released prior to 9:38 am on Monday, July 15, 1974. She was my age, 29, when she shot herself live on Suncoast Digest, her morning talk-show program. Quoted in The Washington Post, her mother could not recall Christine ever having gone on a date.

“Chris, why did you do it?”

She began to cry, still without looking at me. She broke and her head did too. As the tears trailed down her face the blood trickled from her wound and stained the bedspread.

I went to get a towel. When I returned she was still seated in the same place only crying harder. Her sobs caught in her chest then were expelled with great gales. I was not afraid. I felt terrible for her. She had died so defensive, bloated with such rage, and now she was as fragile as a porcelain figurine.

“Why? You wanted to be famous…”

She heaved. She did not attempt to take the towel or otherwise stop the drainage.

“I want to be famous too,” I said. I offered her the towel. She did not notice it even when it dropped in her lap. “You wanted people to know you, to know what you were feeling…”

“I’m lonely,” she said.

“I’m here,” I said. “I’m here for you now.”

I reached out to put my arm around her. Instead of feeling her body I felt only air, and when I looked to find her I saw her standing against the wall opposite the bed, to the right of the television. The blood on the bedspread was gone.

She looked at me as if I had just assaulted her.

“Do you know where it is?” I said. “Do you have it? Does anyone?”

“What do you want,” she snarled. The tears and blood were gone.

“I want to see the house where you were living when you died.”

“My…house?” The word seemed foreign to her.

“I want to take pictures,” I said.

She laughed. Her laughter was violent, hysterical, the deep-throated croak of the drowning. Now I was frightened. I did not like to be laughed at.

I closed my eyes and the laughter stopped. I waited several seconds, inhaling and exhaling heavily, and when at last I opened my eyes I was alone. She had left nothing behind.

I was hungry and tired, so I ate the tacos and killed the lights without turning on my laptop.

I didn’t see her for another five days. During that time I was turned away from three more police stations. At one a cop pulled a gun on me and told me to back away. I went to the television station WWSB, formerly WXLT, but no one there knew of any footage and at the end of my tour I found out it was a completely new building, far removed from the old WXLT station on Lawton Drive. I went to the old building. It looked abandoned, a vacant lot, an old man standing up against the front door with a cigarette in his mouth. There was no indication of WXLT anywhere on the building.

I went up to the old man and said, “This used to be WXLT, correct?”

He observed me coolly, drew his cig out of his mouth and blew smoke in my face. I coughed.

“What’s it to you,” he said.

“I’m a reporter doing a report on old buildings in Florida.”

“Used to be a tv station, sure,” the old man said without looking at me. “It’s a club now.”

“You mean a nightclub?”

“Yeah, that. The kids come, get drunk, come some more, get even more drunk. That kind of thing.”

“But this is an historic building,” I said.

The old man heeled his cigarette out on the asphalt. He looked up at the building, the sky. “What’s so historic about it?”

I went to the malls and walked around. Many people were stopped and asked if they knew of Christine Chubbuck. Most didn’t. One man said, “Did she win the lottery or something?” Another woman said, “Did I miss her last night? Was she supposed to be on the show?” I left without buying anything.

In the parking lot under the white wet heat I stopped a kid on a skateboard.

“Sure I heard of her,” the kid said. “She’s just some suburban myth.”

“What?”

“She’s not real, man.”

“But it’s all over the Internet. There was a fifteen minute special on television. What happened that day. Her picture.”

“So? Doesn’t make it real.”

I lurched at the kid, my arms outstretched. He fell backwards off his skateboard and landed against the vehicle parked behind him. I was on him then, my fists working like jackhammers. I struck and struck and struck and held, but the kid kneed me in the thigh, a sensitive spot for me, and I let go. I was bent over attending to my wound when my head burst to feel as if it had just been dropped from a thousand feet to land smack in the middle of a parking lot. I fell to my knees. The side of my face felt wet and exposed.

The kid stood over me holding his skateboard aloft. Snot was hanging out of his nose, his eyes were squinted and scared. “I was just kidding jackass of course she’s real,” he cried. “Christ man can’t you take a joke?”

One moment he eclipsed the sun, the next he was gone and I was blinded.

Back at the hotel I was treated by the sous chef.

“You have a concussion,” he said.

“Impossible. I don’t feel like I have a concussion.”

“That’s the sign of a concussion. I should know. I was in ‘Nam. You should really go to the hospital.”

I went to my room and laid down with a cold compress against my head. The room was cold too. I had to make a decision. My flight was the next day but I wasn’t ready. I was banged up pretty badly and what’s more I hadn’t yet found the footage.

I called the airline and asked them to reschedule my flight.

“When would you like to reschedule it for?”

“How about…um, I really don’t know right now. I guess just cancel it.”

“You don’t want to reschedule?”

“Not right now. I’ll think about it.”

After securing the cancellation I fell asleep. When I woke up I heard the sound of water running in the bathroom and a woman singing softly of being killed by a man’s song, softly killed, his song, the name of which I would never know.

I sat up but had to take a moment because of the pain in my head. After the pain had diminished enough for me to move I got up off the bed and shuffled toward the bathroom. The woman continued to sing her lamentation. She sounded younger, not raspy anymore, like a little girl. I opened the bathroom door to peek in. Steam fogged the mirror. She was in the shower but I couldn’t see her completely because of the mist and the semi-opaque shower screen. I saw her form, though, and the healthy pink of her skin.

The gun rested on the sink. Next to the gun were the bullets and her handbag. I reached into the bag and pulled out a puppet, a frog. Its hollow eyes stared at me as if I knew a secret. She was humming the song now.

“Mom,” she said. She sounded as if she’d been crying. “Mom?”

I put the frog puppet back in the handbag.

“Mom, I’m coming out. I’ll be gone soon. Mom?”

I retreated from the bathroom and shut the door behind me. I laid back on the bed and waited for her to come out and talk to me. She did not appear. I waited for hours before again falling asleep.

So many days passed I could no longer tell if it was a Monday, a Tuesday, a Thursday. In all that time I kept to the hotel. I stayed by the pool. I ordered room service for each meal. I watched a lot of television and in even the individual pixels on the screen I could see her face.

I woke up. It was night again and she was standing over my bed. The blood was back. It was on her hands and in her hair.

“Chris,” I whispered.

Her face dropped toward mine. For a moment I saw her eyes glow and I thought she was going to kiss me. Instead she took my hand and led me from the bed and out of the room. I no longer felt cold and the pain in my head was gone.

Outside the night air felt like a toad’s tongue against my skin. What trees there were sagged like props on a puppet stage.

We remained holding hands the entire time we walked. Most of the houses we passed were lit with people in the windows but nobody seemed to notice us. I squeezed Chris’s hand and drew her closer to me.

“It’s balmy out,” I said.

“And palmy,” she said.

I smiled. I got it. The palm trees, her palm against my own. I got her.

I said, “These days, you know, it’s okay to be 29 and single. It’s okay to be 30 and alone.”

She said nothing, face-forward.

“I’m just saying. So many women now—men and women—are waiting until they’re past 30 to get married, have children….”

She let go of my hand and stopped. Turning toward me she smiled and put her index finger to the back of her head, the same spot all those years ago. Still smiling, she pulled the trigger.

I turned away. We were on the beach now. Behind us were the houses of Siesta Key. One of those houses had been her family’s the day she shot herself. She’d driven from there to the station in her yellow VW bug. Perhaps we’d passed her house on the way to the beach tonight. I wanted to know which one it was. I was afraid I would never know.

She was taking her clothes off. I watched her. When she was done she stood before me naked. Her skin was pale, as if the reports of her having a tan on the day she shot herself were false.

“I’ve never done this before,” she said and started for the water.

“I haven’t either,” I lied. Soon my clothes were off too and I was wading into the ocean. We met each other far out.

“I love the water,” she said.

“It’s really warm,” I said.

“I love the water,” she repeated.

She ducked under. She was gone for some time. When at last she surfaced her mouth was full and she spat directly in my face.

“Hey!” I said.

“And now,” she said, her voice taking on a hard edge, “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy—”

“Don’t say it.”

“—of bringing you the latest in blood and guts—”

“Don’t say it!”

“—and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.”

I dove deep to drown out even the memory of her voice. But when it was time to strike for the surface I found I couldn’t. I was pinned, sinking. I struggled against a great force. It couldn’t be Chris, not Chris, I thought. Something else, some powerful being that had suddenly intruded to stop me from accomplishing my mission. What was it? Who was it? A word, a name formed in my mind without revealing itself, and still I struggled. I thought back to Boston and what Harriet Quimby had said in my mind—He’s still out there—only now I knew she’d meant not just William Willard but someone else, this powerful being who was keeping me under. At last I couldn’t hold my breath any longer and so I released, gave in. I saw a burst like the sun on a screen and all went black.

I didn’t expect to ever wake up again yet there I was, waking up on my bed back in the hotel room. It felt like early morning, before dawn. The clocks had gone cold.

Christine Chubbuck sat in a chair across from me wearing the same dress in which she’d died. Her legs were crossed, her face expressionless. She held a burnable DVD in a slender store-bought jewel case. This she placed at my feet.

“Is this…”

She nodded.

“So many people are going to be happy because of this,” I said.

She smiled, stood up and drew back from the bed. I snagged the DVD and when I looked to Chris to thank her again she was gone. The chair was back in its original position under the desk.

The edges of the curtains glowed a somber orange. I turned on my laptop and sat up in bed. Popped in the DVD. Immediately I saw what I’d been searching for, color, sound and everything. She was on the screen, in the newsroom, the last morning of her life. It was the footage. As it neared the point where she pulls the gun out of her puppet handbag I switched off the sound and closed my eyes. It had been enough. I’d already seen it, and seen it, and seen it, and seen it.

When sufficient time had passed I opened my eyes. The footage was a blank blue. I took out the DVD, set it back in its case and slid the item into a media-mail envelope I’d found on the nightstand. I jotted down a quick note on a piece of scrap paper and slipped that in with the DVD. The envelope was addressed to an agent I’d worked for long ago in Beverly Hills. The note read

            Dear Rick,

                        As promised———

              David

Then I sealed the envelope and placed it on top of my wallet so I wouldn’t forget. I went back to my computer. I got online. I searched for other names, other faces. I waited for the check to clear.

Ai’dah (chapter 3)

Ai’dah

 

 

I was in Tangier to rescue the kidnapped child. After my encounters with Chris and Harriet, I sensed it was time to take a break from American soil and turn elsewhere—time to slow down and pursue the not-necessarily supernatural. The child had been posted missing far too long and no one—not the media outlets, the brand names, the faces on the dollar bills, Command C—had a holy hope in hell of finding her. Only I, with the full blessing of the Internet behind me, had the wherewithal to ask around online. Who hadn’t sought the advice of thegenie.edu? Who hadn’t exchanged emoticons and a few choice characters with lilllldimmmmples99? Who hadn’t poked the latest post at oasismadeamistake.blogspit.net? Everyone, apparently.

It was round about the end of July, hot as a hipster’s brow in Los Feliz, American-made but foreign-born, and every corner I curved, every open doorway I approached seemed to draw back its shade like a parent withholding love. For a moment I stopped walking, shifted my backpack in fear of it sticking permanently to my shirt, changed hands holding my fake-leather laptop case, raised my sunglasses and wiped the sweat from the ridge, adjusted my khaki fisherman-style cap, and marched on. The sky above stood a stalwart blue, bordered on either side by the high walls of the medina in which I was now lost. I passed a large closed entryway, the semi-circular double doors painted a cartoonish blue. At the foot of the doors sprawled an emaciated gatita, one of several I’d seen in the hours I’d been wandering. I slowed to linger, but the cat did not move nor did it open its eyes, so I continued on.

Ahead a long path stretched straight and appeared to end at a wall and what I assumed would be another corner to turn. No one walked before or behind me. Indeed, since entering the medina I had seen very few people, and it had been peculiarly quiet.

The cry of a man, shrill and hopeful, ripped my perceptions. I looked up. At the end of the long corridor, just above the wall, the top of a thin and proud spire poked, its black megaphones blaring the call to prayer.

I had seen a movie once in which men were at the edge of an ocean on their knees, their lips touching ground. The theater had been cold and crowded. I had eaten half a box of chocolate-covered raisins and laughed when one of these men suggested peace.

I realized there was another sound now, closer to the ground and my ears.

“Assa’lām ā’laykum, greetings,” said the man blocking my way. He was short and had thinning dark hair and sharp teeth that he did not hesitate to bare when he smiled. I smiled back, albeit thinly.

“It’s time to pray,” he said, “but I cannot when you are here. What is more important? You are more important.”

I knew I wasn’t going to get around him without a conversation—and perhaps something else.

“What are you trying to find, my friend?”

I wasn’t about to tell him what—whom—I was really after, so I said, “Dar el Makhzem.”

“Ah, you know the Arabic name for it. That’s good. Do you speak Arabic?”

“Atakalam Al Arabeia Kaleelan,” I said.

“Atakalam Al Arabeia Kaleelan,” the man repeated. “That’s good! Amir ismee.” He extended his hand, which I took. “Má huwa ismuk?”

“Dennis ismee,” I lied.

“Dennis.” Then he busted out with a string of sentences, all in Arabic. I must certainly have looked aghast, for Amir laughed and said, “We will converse in English. I speak English. You speak English….”

Somewhat sadly, I nodded.

“So you are trying to find the Kasbah. Come with me, my friend. I’ll show you.”

Immediately I started to protest, but Amir cut me off. “Dennis. Really. It’s just a little walk, nothing more. This way, please. You are my guest now.”

As I walked just behind him I practiced my exercises. I started with the tip of the forefinger on my right hand. I bent that finger so that it curved at the top of the knuckle, nothing more. Then, satisfied with the stance, I curled the rest of the forefinger inward so that it rested neatly, natally, in the palm of my hand. I did this a few more times, each time with a significant increase in speed. I then went on to my left hand and repeated the same moves, just in case.

“Do you know of the invasion of Spain by the Moors in 711, Dennis?”

“I do.”

“Many people do. But many people also do not know that Spanish prisoners were brought back here, to Tangier. Did you know that?”

“I did not.”

“Good! Then before we go to Kasbah I will show you the prison.”

Our shoes skipped and scratched across the stone. The call to prayer had since ceased and again the medina was quiet, hot and still. I placed a hand to the sun-stroked stone on my right, then withdrew quickly with a stifled hiss between my teeth. 

“Those who converted from the Christian faith to Islam, the muwallads, were saved. The rest….”

Amir had come to stop in the shade of another massive doorway. This building appeared very old, its wooden doors busted and falling to either side. Inside only darkness. The last people to have lived there had not lived there in a very long time.

“They will tell you different things,” Amir said. “But I tell the truth. This is the entrance to one of the old prisons.”

“Really? Should we, uh, go in?”

“No! No. It is, what is the word…”

“Condemned?”

“Yes! I remember that word now from my studies. Good! This way.”

And again we were off, he just ahead and keeping up his patter.

“Not all the prisoners were happy being prisoners—ha! So they dug.”

“They dug?”

“Yes, they dug, under the city. You look hard you may find entrances to secret underground passageways. They are in certain places in the medina. Secret places. Now come to Kasbah. Kasbah is….”

His voice was beginning to interfere with my voice, the voice I would need to refine in my head if I was to succeed with this latest mission. At that moment I was thinking Toilets without seats. I was thinking I really should read some Moroccan writers. The Pauls. A Mohammed. I was thinking 238 euros for five days—can I make it? And really I couldn’t be thinking about any of those things. I had only to think of her.

“It is a fact,” Amir said, “that in the 20th century the secret tunnels were made better by movie stars and foreign officials, who wanted undisturbed access to the sea.”

We entered a plaza courtyard, blessedly shaded, with all the doors to all the houses shut save one pair belonging to a basement-level abode. I looked past the stairs into this maw as Amir rambled on. At last I said, “I gotta go.” And I began to head toward the stairs.

Amir held my arm firmly. “Where are you going, my friend? The Kasbah is still ahead.”

I explained that I understood, sincerely, but that I was here to meet someone, alone.

“Why alone? If it’s your friend then he—or is it she?—can join us on the tour.”

I insisted I go and claimed it was business—which, in a way, it was. I made it known that I would not be stopped, but then so did my guide.

He stepped in my way. “Sir. Then if the tour’s over you must make the payment.” And he held out his hand.

I shook my head and told him I hadn’t really agreed to any tour. It had not been announced up front, no price had been agreed upon, and what had at first seemed like a gesture of goodwill had morphed into a capitalist endeavor to rival the cleverest of Florida.

I was lucky in that Amir hadn’t asked for a specific amount. I had something of an out, but I also had a bit of fight left in me.

“Why?” I said. “Why do I have to pay for this? I told you I thought you were just helping me out.”

“It is my livelihood, sir. The same way you are here for business, I am here for business.”

“Yes, but don’t you have another means of making money? Some kind of trade or something….”

Amir beamed mightily and said, “Allow me to show you my shop. It has what you need I’m sure. Belts, wallets…”

“Oh no. No belts, no wallets…”

“Then, sir.”

The hand was out again.

Feeling like a bastard, anticipating the result, I reluctantly reached into my pocket and brought out a few dirham bills. I placed this pathetic amount in Amir’s hand, and he looked at me as if I’d just plopped feces in it.

Without bothering to count it he spat, “It’s nothing, sir. Nothing.”

“Well I’m sorry but that’s all I have.” This was close to the truth—at least as far as on-the-ground cash went. Apparently I hadn’t taken out nearly as much as I should have at that bank in the Petit Socco. Amir’s hand remained outstretched, as if he either expected me to give more or take back my meager offer, shamed.

But I wasn’t buying. I actually, forcefully, pushed past him, my eyes set on the open doorway of that basement-level dwelling. I heard him call out after me. “Only a few minutes. A few minutes! My shop is right above!” And then, as I descended the staircase two steps at a time: “Arie Fique! Do you know ‘Arie Fique’?”

Inside the house—for it was surely a house—I saw all the clichés I could ever hope to conjure up. Rugs and carpets of dazzling patterns and eye-splitting colors hung from walls or draped over ottomans, Arabic pop music thumped from a speaker somewhere in another room, candle flame wavered in the breeze blown in from a lone window off to the left, the lighting was dim and the air thick with hookah smoke.

I crept cautiously from one vacant room to the next, my hands raised and clasped as if in prayer. I had slung my laptop over my stronger shoulder, and the computer’s weight combined with that of my daypack no longer seemed to bother me, for I was focused now, I was close.

The pop music grew louder to the point of squealing. I rounded yet another corner expecting to see the ultimate, a belly dancer, but instead I was met with a small room, a miniscule window letting in a little light, a chair in one corner, an empty metal bowl in another, and a body dressed all in black curled up on a cot. I approached the still form, careful to remain positioned sideways so that I could keep the doorway in sight. But even that stance had to drop eventually. I crouched down in front of the cot and nudged the form with both hands. It was a body, and judging from the softness, the malleability, it was the body of a woman. I waited, no longer caring who or what came up behind me, clobbered me, kicked me repeatedly, took the money that was rightfully theirs. I no longer cared because I knew. It was she. It was Ai’dah.

Eventually she turned to face me. She wore the traditional burqa, only her eyes showing through the mask-like headdress. Tears had welled up in those eyes, but amazingly the drops had not yet fallen.

“I know this is messed up,” I said, and I brought out her hands, which had been cuffed together, solid steel. “I should’ve been here sooner. So many of us should have been here sooner. If only we had gotten in the loop!”

I helped her to a sitting position and stroked her head. “But now,” I announced, “you don’t have to fear anything anymore. You’re coming to America with me.”

I pinched the top of her headdress, intending to yank it back and off, but Ai’dah shook away so violently that I held up my hands and said, “Fine. I understand. It’s your culture. Now it’s time for you to experience mine.” And with that I grabbed her around the waist, hoisted her up and tossed her over my shoulder, sack-of-potatoes-style. She made not a single sound. She was heavier than I anticipated—the Internet had put her in at no more than seventy tops, and I wondered if perhaps her captors had been feeding her more than captors are supposed to.

With a deep breath and a cry of rage I barreled out of the room, linebacker-style, using my free shoulder as a kind of battering ram. And I was in luck, for just as I crossed the threshold a man dressed in a Boston Red Sox t-shirt, jeans and a wrapped-up face mask appeared in my way. Before he could fully raise his pistol I smacked into him, felt the crush of his sternum, and just had enough time and slack in momentum to see him drop. I picked up speed—until I was a blur carrying a beauty, and no bullets could touch me. I heard the zings, felt the shattered glass and stone chips against my face, but all of it was of no consequence as Ai’dah and I—Ai’dah still slung over my shoulder—raced through the front entryway and up the steps leading to freedom. Now the plaza—indeed, I suspected, the entire medina—was teeming with the angry and the anti-American. Another masked captor came at me with a fierce-looking knife, but I deftly side-stepped and brought him down with a single chop to the back of the neck. Then it was time for the real weapon.

“I’m sorry,” I shouted back to Ai’dah. “I know this is uncomfortable and not very flattering, but I need this arm free.”

Indeed I did. Men—masked and unmasked alike—were on all sides of me, and I had only one hope of breaking through. Like a gunslinger in a well-meaning movie I drew my hand out, arm up and fired just the way I’d been practicing.

“Bang!” I said. “Bang! Bang!” I continued to curl my finger over and over, spinning in place, swirling my living load. Each time I aimed and fired I hit: our attackers either crumpled into nothing or flew back as if blown by a hyper-powered storm-simulator on a Hollywood back-lot. I watched the points rack up on the screen. Then I ran.

With Ai’dah safely sandbagged and my backpack and laptop case secured I took off along Rue Ben Raisouli—or was it Rue Dar el Baroud? (I would look it up later on the Internet.) Regardless of the route we were in extreme danger: on either side of the street I spotted what could only be called terrorists in the upstairs windows of the buildings I raced by. Each window-warrior held some sort of weapon—be it an AK-47, an older-model sniper rifle sans scope, a bazooka, a grenade, a potato peeler or the tried-and-true Molotov cocktail. I sensed the bullets close, the grenade pin about to be yanked, the trigger of the rocket launcher about to be pulled, but before any of them could actually follow through with the intended action I had aimed my own killer and hit each and every target in sight. Every so often in between “bang!”s I belted out snippets of “Oh say can you sue…” while alternating with asking Ai’dah how she was doing. Of course I received no response from back there, not even a punch in the spine to tell me to slow down, stop all that bouncing already.

And then I was in the Petit Socco, which had more people than I had seen in a public gathering place in quite some time. Men wearing sports caps, fisherman-style caps similar to mine, makeshift masks and police uniforms, yelled obscenities and ran toward me, their weapons drawn, aimed but not firing. I brought several more of them down but there were just too many. Old women and crippled children had taken to hurling slabs of stone and bits of undesirable food at Ai’dah and me.

“No one ever listens to the traffic cop,” I said as a Tangier traffic cop took it right between the eyes, whistle in his mouth still sounding. “Bang,” I said. “Bang, bang, bang!” I was running low on ammo, and our attackers—her captors—had brought out the heavy weaponry. I heard the rumble of a tank. Rather than wait and see if the locals were willing to destroy one of the most popular tourist areas in the city, I kicked and punched and pistol-whipped my way to a side alley. Here more attackers surged before me, but at least I had a way out. I remembered Amir’s tour.

“Here!” I said, triumphant, and kicked through the bottom of a wall that had been showing signs of disintegration. A sizable hole was ready for our entrance. I threw Ai’dah in first and then, without another look, launched my own body in after her. “Go go go!” I shouted after her. She moved fast, so fast I had trouble keeping up. For a while I feared she might even lose me, and then my trip would have been for nothing.

We crawled for some time in complete but cool darkness. At times I felt that perhaps it was no longer Ai’dah just ahead of me but rather a giant rat whose tail twitched before my nose. I felt slime and grit and other things on my hands, but I dared not stop to cover them nor adjust my backpack or precious laptop.

Finally I crawled into an open space with a small slab of light beaming down. I heard footsteps and voices above. A man said, “That’ll teach me not to order hot soup in the middle of a Moroccan summer.”

Ai’dah sat against the wall opposite from where I stood. She appeared to be either dead or resting, but I was sure it was the latter. My confidence was confirmed when she opened her eyes and looked at me with great approbation.

“What,” I said. “What did you want me to do? It was either us or them. Wouldn’t you rather it be us?”

She said nothing, neither nodded or shook, and I set about finding a way out of the hole we were in.

“Amir was right,” I admitted. “The secret passageway the Spaniards dug in the 700s, refined by movie stars and foreign dignitaries in the 1900s, does lead to the sea!” I could hear waves lapping when I pressed my ear against the wall. “There must be a way….” I began to tap the wall, probing for any possible weakness. “Ai’dah,” I said. “Help me tap. Please.”

Reluctantly, she did so. Together we tapped until, at last, Ai’dah broke through. Her entire arm went into the wall, and I jumped and clicked my heels together. “You’re amazing,” I said as I hugged her. “Let’s go!” I crawled out first into the late afternoon sunshine to see the turbojet tourist megaboat just starting to pull away from the dock.

“Wait!” I cried, waving my arms. I grabbed Ai’dah, bent down, took her into my arms and then ran the rest of the way with her along the narrow ledge of the dock. Above was the edge of the boarding area and below the ocean itself, waiting eagerly for us to fall. I balanced along until we came to the ship, now a little over six feet from land’s edge and receding fast.

But the door to the hold was still open. With the last of the high-powered energy drink in me I jumped—Ai’dah in my arms, laptop across my shoulder, backpack on my back—across the threshold and into the ship’s hold. The door cranked shut behind.

 In the passenger seating area Ai’dah would not look at me, even though we were seated together and I had rescued her from that awful house, that awful room, those awful men. Her hands were still cuffed but I took care of that after some strenuous effort involving a couple of toothpicks and a maxed-out credit card. The cuffs dropped to the floor and I quickly shoved them under the seat with my foot.

Still Ai’dah said nothing—not a word of thanks on my behalf. She was free now—did she not see that? Perhaps it was too soon after escaping—the shock of her horrid experience must have still been with her strong.

Eventually I took my leave of her and walked up on to the sun-deck. If I smoked I would have lit a cigarette then. How old was she really? Now that she was free, would she take off that unbearable burqa? What would be my reward, back home in the States, my fame, back home in the States, now that I alone had found and rescued her with nothing but my wits, my weapon, and the Internet? The high-speed megaboat skipped across the waves like a stone I’d tried tossing when I was a kid. The creek had been shallow that day, and I’d kept going back into the water to retrieve the stone, fetch it back to shore, and repeat the process.

The ship made landfall at sundown. Not far from the Spain-side marine terminal the beach stretched like a basking snake. All along the shore topless bathers of all genders cavorted with the waves and each other. Windsurfers glided in from the relatively mild ocean to call it a day. Only the wakeboarders seemed determined to stick it out into the night.

On equal footing at last, Ai’dah and I walked side-by-side from the marine terminal to the old walled city section. “You’ll like Tarifa,” I said. “It’s a lot like San Diego in the late eighties. You know, beer bottles on the beach, Steve Winwood and Gloria Estefan on the tape deck…”

Ai’dah continued walking face-forward. She had not really looked at me since we’d boarded the tourist megaboat.

“I bet you take that off while you’re here,” I said in reference to the burqa. “It’ll do you some good to get out of that thing. A young girl like you should be on the beach with friends.”

Ai’dah looked at me then, and in her eyes I swear I saw blood. Then, just as swiftly as she had glanced over, she was back to staring straight ahead. We passed the entrance to the ancient walled city section and headed up to the nearest hostel on our left. It must really have been our lucky day: they had two beds available in the same room.

We took the stairs. Along the way I saw a sign that read “NO THROWN THE PAPER IN W.C. thanks you”. I saw a sign that read “The glasses, plates, cups, knives, post, etc….They cannot be led to the rooms”.

The rooms were cramped with a mix of bunk and single beds in each. Our room had a functioning door. When we entered a surfer dude, no doubt from Australia judging by his sunburn, lay clothed and sleeping on top of a single against the right wall. To the left another guy, this one taller, thinner, more angular, was just finishing shoving his backpack under his bed—the bottom bunk. The bunk above him looked to be vacant, as did the lower bunk on the set opposite him.

“Hi,” the tall guy—taller than even me—said, his arm outstretched. “I’m Maarten.”

“Hi,” I said and gave him my name. With his sharp facial features, Maarten looked a lot like a devil, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“David….Good to meet you. Who’s she?”

“This…is Ai’dah. I just rescued her from captivity in Tangier.”

“She was captured? What for?”

“Honestly, I forgot,” I said. “She was held for so long I think everyone did. Anyway, the important thing is she’s safe, and coming with me to America. We have a flight leaving Malaga on Tuesday, so.”

Maarten nodded but concentrated on my ward. “Uh…maybe she can tell us why she was captured.”

“Ai’dah’s not really into talking right now. I aim to change that when we get to the States.”

I expressed my hunger then, a hunger Ai’dah apparently did not share. She pulled herself up onto the bunk above Maarten and refused to look at either of us. I settled on to the lower bunk of the set opposite. “Don’t worry,” Maarten told me, “the girl above you is from Switzerland. She’s clean.” He added that he was game to eat, so the two of us agreed to head to the nearest decent restaurant. We left Ai’dah alone on her small single bunk bed, staring out the dirty window to her left.

“Is that your computer?” Maarten said when we had put some distance between us and the hostel.

“It is.”

“It must be expensive if you carry it with you.”

“Oh, I carry it with me everywhere. I have to. It’s my job.”

We spotted a restaurant just across the street that looked promising and so postponed our conversation until we were seated and had ordered food and drinks.

“So…your job is to carry around a computer?”

“In part, yes. Without it I wouldn’t be able to take orders.”

I left it at that, unaware that my newfound associate was hanging. Finally he said, tentatively, “Who gives you orders?”

“The Internet.”

“Okay. Who on the Internet.”

“There is no who. There’s only the Internet.”

The drinks came. We sipped our brewskies in silence. After some time I said, “Do you know Disneyland?”

“I know Disneyland.”

“There used to be a helicopter service from Disneyland to LAX, back and forth. It ended in 1968, when two helicopters crashed three months apart from each other. All the passengers and crew died, of course. One of the passengers was John Trainor, the mayor of Red Bluff, California. I don’t know what he looks like. I don’t know anything about him. That’s an example of the major problem I deal with in my job.”

Maarten looked at me strangely. “That’s a problem?” he said.

“The problem,” I said, “is that now if you or me or anyone else goes online and does a search for John Trainor, we’re not going to find him. We’ll find other John Trainors, sure, but what about that one? That’s what I’m afraid of.”

I watched Maarten stare out at a large yet modest church across the way. Not far above the church hung that same small dark cloud I’d seen in the similarly spotless sky over Boston.   “Do you see that cloud?” I abruptly asked Maarten.

“Cloud?”

“Yeah, the cloud over that church. Don’t you see it? It’s almost exactly above the bell tower there.

Maarten seemed hesitant to turn and face me. I continued to stare at the cloud, which appeared to be moving toward me. It was following me. When I turned back to Maarten I saw he was staring me down much like I’d been doing with the cloud.

“There’s a lot of talk of where we go when we die,” I said as a way of further explaining my John Trainor dilemma. “Heaven. Hell. Whatever. Where you go isn’t nearly as important as what you leave behind. The memory of you.”

“Do you really think she’s going to go back with you?” Maarten said.

“Ai’dah? She has to. Where else is there?”

“Another Arabic country maybe.”

“Saracens,” I scoffed, as if that word solved everything. I looked up to see that the cloud had vanished, the sky was all clear.

When we got back to the dorm room Ai’dah had disrobed. She was seated in her previous position, on the top bunk bed, only now she wore a tasteful and quite fetching sundress, patterned pink, a bracelet, and earrings that highlighted the color of her intense eyes. I was drawn to her long lashes and wavy dark hair that fell past her shoulders. Not only that but her age: she was not a child after all but rather a young adult, or an adult, perhaps in her early twenties, maybe mid-twenties at most. The Internet had been, well, wrong—about her age, anyway.

My mouth must’ve been slightly agape, for Maarten nudged me with his pointy elbow.

“This is what you wanted?” he said. His voice was low, though not low enough.

Surrounding Ai’dah on her bed was a bevy of shopping bags bearing the brand names of fashionable shops I’d never heard of. Many of the bags appeared full and undisturbed. I wasn’t aware stores like these existed in Tarifa.

“I’m happy for you,” I told her. “Let’s celebrate. Do you want to celebrate?” I addressed this question to Maarten, who said sure.

Later that night the three of us met up with the Swiss girl, Pamela, who slept above me. Pamela, to my surprise, seemed interested in me. She certainly made fun of the fact that I’d brought along my laptop. “Are you going to dance with that too?” she teased.

“I can’t very well leave it at the table,” I said.

“What a shame. I never thought I’d have a computer as a chaperone.” And she touched my beer-holding hand.

“You speak excellent English,” I said.

“I’m Swiss,” she said.

Maarten came over. “Hey,” he said to me, again with the low voice. “Would you mind if I, you know, tried something with Ai’dah? I mean, you’re not dating her, right?”

“I’ll have to kill you in your sleep,” I said, only half-joking. Maarten laughed, didn’t detect any seriousness. I added, “But go for it.”

Maarten left our table and went out onto the meager packed dance floor pumping to the Euro-trash techno hit of the month. He sidled up to Ai’dah, her eyes closed, her arms up, fingers snapping, head turning either way with each alternating beat, and opened his mouth.

“I hope he speaks some Arabic,” I said without turning my attention from the blood.

“He’s very good at Arabic,” Pamela revealed. “He’s spent the past two months in Morocco, and several more in other countries in the Middle East. Iran, Jordan, Lebanon…”

“All those? He lied to you.”

“He wouldn’t lie. He’s from Rotterdam.”

Feeling an emotion I would have to search the Internet for later, I got up from our table and stumbled toward the crowd. I clutched what might have been my seventh or eighth or ninth beer, even though the bottle was empty and I had some sense not to order another. In my left hand I clutched my laptop case and used this as an aid in forcing my way through the pack. College-age kids, rock-faced Eastern Europeans, super-sun-exposed Australians, vomitous Brits—all curled their lips and noses as I and my laptop passed by. Eventually we reached Maarten and Ai’dah. Unfortunately now I can’t remember much of what was said beyond “Don’t even try it” and “She’s mine” and “Let’s take this outside” and other gibberish only an American asshole who’d been drinking nonstop since early evening would spout off. I know I dropped my bottle on Maarten’s foot. I think I called him tulip boy. I’m almost positive I pushed him in the chest hard with my laptop case, which must’ve hurt on impact. What I do clearly remember is Ai’dah running away from us, Maarten indeed taking me outside, and the two of us crunching and scrambling around on the curb just outside the bar.

We were lucky we didn’t end up in prison. Instead we ended up back in our hostel beds, he in the lower bunk opposite mine. I awoke with sun filtering through my slowly opening lids. Maarten was crashed out on his side, arms wrapped around his chest as if it were seven degrees in the room instead of seventy.

With much pain and exertion I stood up. The first thing I saw was the upper level bed on my side—Pamela’s. It had been cleared, the sheets pulled up, smoothed out and neatly tucked in. All her belongings—all evidence of her existence—were gone.

Holding my head to my hand I turned to Ai’dah’s bed. She was on it, dressed now in frilly pink pajama shorts and a matching camisole. She was again staring out the window, her eyes absent of emotion. If I had thought she had made too many purchases the previous evening, that thought was now eclipsed with the sight of her most recent haul. So many more shopping bags—more than I thought any human possible of carrying, let alone taking out of stores legally—were stacked on her small single bed. Stacked behind her, creating a wall that rose to touch the ceiling. More bags and boxes were on either side of her, a veritable fortress of faith, and as I took a step toward her bed she hastily reached out and grabbed these bags and boxes from the left and right and pulled them toward her. She covered herself in them, created a barrier that stood between us, defiant, a mass so tall and imposing I could see only her eyes through the plastic and paper shimmer. I held out my hand, hurt.

“Ai’dah,” I said. “Let’s go. Come on.”

Very slowly, she blinked.

Believing she would see reason in my words, I continued. “We have to go. We have to get to Malaga. Our flight’s early tomorrow morning. We can’t miss it.”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing from her, and with everything I’d done—the training, the targeted searches, the participation in discussion forums, the repeated entrance—and sometimes denial—into chat rooms, IM boards, live video conferences—all that for what?

“Ai’dah. Those tickets are nonrefundable.”

I went for a walk with my laptop, which, amazingly, had made it intact to rest against my bed that morning. I thought about all the things I could say to Ai’dah that would convince her to take that flight with me. I thought of the little Arabic I knew. But mostly I thought of what I still had to learn.

In a stripped-down plaza off the main waterfront I found a comfortable-looking bench and took a seat. Then I fired up my laptop. I got online and began to search. I went from typing in “Arabic lessons” to “lessons in Arabic” to “Arabic language schools” to “pickup lines in Arabic” to “how to talk to Arabic women” to “shopping addiction” to “binge drinking” to “Rotterdam” to “are Dutch guys good in bed?” to the meaning of her name and the history of her people. But no matter how many searches—in quotes or not—I made I was still searching, I would always be searching.

Back at the hostel I found Maarten sitting on the edge of his bed, his face buried in his hands. Above him Ai’dah’s mattress still held all those unopened shopping bags—perhaps now even more—it was like a mountain of treasure a dragon sits on, only there was no dragon. Ai’dah had fled. I looked. I stuck my hand in the pile and knocked bags and boxes off, making a racket, pissed, but she was nowhere around. She had taken her burqa and nothing else.

Maarten got shakily to his feet. “She wanted me to give you this,” he said through gritted teeth—gritted from pain and not from anger, I was relieved to realize. In my hand he placed a business card, blank on both sides, pure white.

“Did she say anything?”

Maarten laughed and shook his head. He asked if I wanted to get something to eat. I told him I couldn’t. I had a bus to catch.

“I understand.” He smiled and offered his hand. “Good luck with your job.”

“Good luck with your women,” I said, shaking.

I hurried for the bus station, my laptop swinging, backpack lighter now. I had left my gun back at the hostel for some poor fearful American to find. He would need it, whatever the reason. As for me, I didn’t need it. I was going the way of the world, and I could not be stopped.

David (chapter 4)

David

 

 

I was in Michigan to meet my namesake. That was my original intention, anyway. How was I to know it would lead to the discovery of the villain who would stand in my path?

It was the tail-end of the August teens, over two weeks since I’d touched down in Montreal not knowing what my next mission would be. I’d intended to drive up to Quebec and hang around long enough to run into one of the victims of The Albert Guay Affair, but the bombing of Canadian Pacific Airlines Flight 108 had occurred on September 9th, and I was hesitant to remain in a Francophile city for that long. I was having trouble finding any needy spirits in Montreal, so I drove my rental car southwest to Toronto, where I stayed for longer than expected but not without success: the hours and hours, days upon days of work I did on the Internet during my time there yielded my next two missions. I was set. I had only to make it to Michigan—past Detroit and up the glove.  

Insanely early morning now, and all along the suburban street a shroud of fog hung curtain-like in front of every house and vacant car. As I walked I thought of Florida and Christine Chubbuck’s hand in my own. How I wished I had her beside me now! How I wished I had a face, any face to lead me to my namesake! I’d been so confident in Toronto, only to see that confidence erode as I drove through Detroit and on into the American blight. I had to admit I could not find him on my own—and yet I had to find him. He was my next, my only at this time. No matter how many Internet searches I conducted, though, no matter how many requests for the exact address I made, I could not come up with anything more than a single webpage listing my first name, my middle name, my last name, and the exact dates of his birth and death. He had never been married. He had no companions to speak of. According to the exact birth- and death dates on this lone webpage, my namesake could not even speak.

I knew that he’d died in Gladwin from that single webpage as well, but I was lost, and I was getting impatient. As I walked—my satchel slapping my waist-overhang, my laptop case slung over my shoulder like a wounded knee—the fog grew thicker, the air even more humid. This was not right. The force again, that same powerful being that had tried to drown me off the Florida coast when I’d gone skinny-dipping with Christine Chubbuck a month before. That same powerful being that had tailed me in Boston and Tarifa. It was here now, in Michigan, and it was not pleased with what I was seeking to accomplish.

I’d been walking for more than two hours, always just shy of pressing my finger to a doorbell. I knew no one here, had no distant relatives in town, and if I didn’t find him by morning I was afraid I would miss him entirely. At last I stopped in the middle of the street, got down on my knees and clasped my hands. Staring into the murky night I said, “Ghosts of the semi-famous, the would-be famous and the almost-forgotten, those I’ve already helped, an infant is in need! Not just an infant, but a newborn, only four days old! You must aid me in my physical search for him!”

I felt a bloody hand on mine, and I unclasped and looked up. Staring down at me was Christine Chubbuck. Blood leaked from the side of her head and caked her long hair, but she smiled and beckoned for me to stand up.

“Chris,” I said. “Thank the Internet you’re here! There’s not much time. I know I shouldn’t have had that four course meal at the chain diner and stayed to listen to the entire Phil Collins solo catalog overhead, but I was hungry so….anyway, we must find him. He’s part of my mission just as you were.”

“Don’t give up,” said Chris. “Never give up.”

“I’m afraid,” I said. “I haven’t been so afraid. Someone’s standing in my way on this.”

“The Meritocrat,” she said.

“The Meritocrat?” As I spoke it became clear that was the name that had been forming in my mind, the name seemingly missing from the blank business card Ai’dah had left for me in Tarifa. The name had always been there, and only now did I see it. The Meritocrat!

I grasped the hand, however bloody, that a smiling Chris touched to my cheek. I didn’t care that it left a streak on my face. I only cared about finding my namesake, and besting this Meritocrat somehow.

Christine Chubbuck turned and, still holding my hand, led me along the street. As we walked the curtain lifted and I began to make out what could only have been a good sign: the late 20th- and early 21st century vehicles had been replaced with those of the 1930s, the ‘40s, the early ‘50s. I saw curvy Mercury Monteray Coupes and Chevy Bel Airs. I saw proud Chrysler Imperials and Studebaker Commanders, Ford Monarchs and Lincoln Zephyrs. I even saw a DeSoto Streamline Sedan, circa 1939, parked across the street from the house Chris now directed me toward.

“Amazing,” I said. “Have we gone back in time?”

“No, silly.”

It was a two-story affair, similar to most of the other houses I’d seen in Gladwin. A series of light wooden steps leading up to a wide porch, chairs and a bench on either side of the front door, a mesh screen and a knocker on that door but no window allowing me to peer inside. Standing back and looking up, I saw that in one of the rooms above a light was on dim.

I realized that Christine Chubbuck was no longer holding my hand. She must’ve released it when we were going up the steps. Turning for her I saw that she was gone. It was up to me now.

I knocked on the front door—lightly at first, then more solidly. No answer. A raucous mingling of voices could be heard behind the door: a party in progress.

Not wanting to miss any more I turned the knob and pushed. A faint glow emanated from an entryway just down the dark, vacant hall to my right, and the revelry seemed to be coming from in there. I steadied my steps in the hall, the floorboards barely holding together under me, and then turned the corner. The living room was dark except for the tv, a tall menacing box with a small circular screen in the top center. This contraption lurked at the opposite end of the room and cast its whitewashed eye across a coffee table, a couch, and two empty tv trays in between. I could not make out the rest of the living room, nor did I want to, but I sensed no presence at my side or back. The presence, I realized, was in the tv.

The little round screen showed people at a party, 1950s people, black and white people who drove American cars and worked American jobs in American factories and companies and small businesses. It appeared to be New Year’s Eve as they wore funny little cones and bowler hats perched on their heads while toasting and reveling, martini or vodka glasses raised, watching as confetti rained down. The cacophony from the box picked up in volume substantially, so loud and life-like I had to insert a finger into each ear. The channels changed rapidly: first a cowboy, then a clown, then a tube of toothpaste, then a family in front of their tv, then a washing machine, then I could no longer tell what was being sold. At last the screen landed on a logo, big and brazen and centered. It was of a gem, dazzling yet twisted into the shape of a serpent that was devouring itself. I watched, anticipating the voice.

“What do you think you’re doing, sir,” a man’s voice boomed from the tv.

“I mean no harm,” I said. Try as I might, I could not keep my voice nor my body from shaking. “I only wish to help this infant here, to give him a presence on the Internet greater than what he has now. He deserves it.”

“He deserves nothing,” the voice said. “He deserves to be erased.”

“How can you say that?” With anger I found a sudden swelling of courage. “They all deserve to remembered! Everyone should be known in some way, for something!”

I decide who should be known and who should be forgotten.”

“The Meritocrat!” I said.

“The historical dictator,” I heard. I turned and saw to my right Harriet Quimby, dressed as she was in the picture taken a year before her death in 1912. She wore her fancy gown and huge hat, and she held her umbrella, which she now raised and pointed at the tv. To my left I saw Ai’dah dressed in her burqa and holding a box cutter. She nodded, her eyes wise to what I was only now discovering.

“Historical dictator?” I had no time to consider the term, for the tv bellowed, “Give up now, sir, and you will not be harmed!”

“No way,” I said, but I did not sound convincing even to myself. “I—I’m going to help this baby, and then I’m going to help everyone else I search for on the Internet.”

The logo flashed black-and-white anger, and the voice softened to try a different tact. “Don’t you see this is the Myth of Narcissus?” it began. “The man who saw his reflection in a pool of water, fell in love with that reflection, went to it with arms open wide, fell into the pool and drowned. You are that man, you will drown.”

“He’ll do no such thing!” Harriet advanced on the tv, her umbrella at the ready. Ai’dah too approached, her box cutter raised.

“This is about him!” the tv cried.

“It’s about them!” I countered. “I’m doing it for them, you, you…social dictator!”

Ai’dah screamed something in Arabic and launched herself at the tv. She drove her box cutter into the body of the machine again and again, deeper and deeper so that soon her arm was inside the broken beast. She stood back, wires trailing from her weapon, and Harriet stepped in to swing. Her umbrella connected, and the screen, which had gone black moments before, exploded. I covered my ears at the sound of a frightening electronic whine, the voice of the future, and I closed my eyes for good measure. When I opened them the tv lay on its side, busted open, its entrails heaving, its face evaporated and smoking, and Ai’dah and Harriet were coming toward me.

“Thank you,” I said.

“For rescuing me,” Ai’dah said in English. “For showing me what I was missing, the shopping, the wild woman-on-top sex. I never knew I could make it in America! He didn’t believe in me, but you did.”

“Thank you,” I said again, close to tears. I took her hand and kissed it.

“For uncovering the truth of my death,” Harriet said. “For speaking to William Willard when no one else would.”

“You saved me, both of you.” I took Harriet’s gloved hand and kissed as would a suitor in her time.

“It’s not over,” said Harriet.

“He’ll be back,” her better-off-than-before companion said.

I nodded, and that’s when I heard another woman’s voice behind me.

“Honey. Honey, dessert’s ready. Honey?”

I spun around, expecting to see the ghost of a woman dressed in heels and what amounted to a giant upside-down carnation. Instead I was met with the empty entryway, the hall, and the foot of the stairs just in view.

I felt Harriet’s hand heavy on my shoulder. “Go to him,” she breathed into my ear. “Do what you planned tonight. Capture his details, and make us pay attention.”

“I will,” I said, but they too had vanished. Ahead was only the current mission.

“Honey. It’s going to melt.”

She sounded near. I stepped from out of the living room and back into the hallway. Turning to the right I looked down the hall to what must have been the kitchen. I felt a coldness, an intensity, coming from that pitch-black place. I could have gone in there, I suppose, but what would have been the point? The baby was above. I heard crying now, faint, coming from the second floor, the room I had seen dimly lit from outside.

I ascended the stairs, and as one foot went higher than the other, each step sagging below the last, the infant’s cries grew louder. He needed me, yet I felt compelled to linger. Along the wall, ascending with the staircase, a series of framed photographs had been hung. Each depicted a different automobile—again with the Chevys and the Mercurys and the Chryslers and the Studebakers and the Fords and the Lincolns and the De Sotos—but as I continued to ascend, the photos changed to show cars from periods with which I was more familiar due to my research. I saw a Model T Ford, the two-door touring kind manufactured during the Harriet Quimby era. I saw an AMC Matador circa 1974, the year Christine Chubbuck committed on-air suicide. Toward the top of the stairs I saw a picture of the most modern vehicle, one from the turn of my century, a mammoth SUV that got ten miles to the gallon. In each of these photos, next to the vehicles, stood a late twenty-something man, tall with a sharp, sensitive face angling down to the chin, slightly off-kilter nose caused by a bike accident when he was ten, bushy eyebrows and dark curly hair struggling against a receding hairline—all features I recognized as my own. The man—me, perhaps—stood with his hands in his pockets, dressed as I always am, modern-style, jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers, a wide smile breaking. None of these pictures was in color, and although I was apparently in different time periods I remained the same age throughout the series. Who had taken these pictures? When had I stood next to a Model T Ford, an AMC Matador, a mammoth SUV such as the one depicted now?

The Meritocrat, I thought. That’s who.

The picture at the very top of the stairs, last one in line, revealed nothing but a blank, and underneath, engraved in the bottom of the frame, were the words “Gladwin, Michigan…August 18, 1954.”

Toying with me, I thought. Messing with my mind to throw me off. Not going to work.

On the landing I turned to the one light remaining that could only be coming from the baby’s room. I moved along the hall, my hand tracing the groove in the banister, and as I drew near the open doorway the crying cut out. The whole house went silent and still.

I entered a nursery. Bookshelves covered more than one wall. A big plush teddy bear rested in a rocking chair in a corner by the window, and over the window itself white gossamer lace curtains provided a peek at the moon.

I stepped into the room and the crying picked up again. It was low, more like a whimpering, and it did not vary in intensity as I approached the crib. Peering over the edge I saw what I had expected to see: a baby wrapped in a thick and heavy blanket. On its stomach, the infant was struggling within the happy pattern of teddy bears and balloons. Careful not to free the child, I lifted a corner of the blanket and observed. Pale and peculiar, naked except for a cloth diaper, the baby gurgled and flailed its arms and legs. Judging from its size and my guesstimate as to how much it weighed—no more than seven pounds—I assumed he was only four days old. And with that assumption I knew. It was he. It was my namesake.

“David Michael Ewald,” I said and started to get my laptop out of its case. “Even you deserve the chance I’m giving so many others.”

As the baby continued to struggle, the blanket inched farther up so that it was close to covering the head. The beleaguered smell of some kind of liquor assailed my nostrils.

“Have you been drinking?” I joked. I brought out my laptop, placed it on the edge of the crib, and powered up. Beholden to the machine, the infant tried to turn and succeeded only in pulling the blanket entirely over its face.

“You’ll get to hold it,” I warbled in my best baby-voice. “Yes you will….yes you will….”

The smell of that liquor—Jack Daniels? Seagrams?—had gotten overwhelming. I felt breath at my neck, a different breath than that of Harriet or Christine or Ai’dah.

Still, without turning around, I said, “Harriet? Is that you?”

I heard a gulp, and I realized it was that of a man.

With brutal force I was torn from the crib and hurled to the floor. I reverse-somersaulted and landed on my stomach. “My laptop!” I cried. It had fallen into the crib. Suddenly pressure, the feel of an elephant’s foot, was placed on my right hand, and I screamed.

“Let even this small memory of him perish,” the voice of the Meritocrat said.

Instinctively I cried out for my three women, the ones I had helped so far, but the Meritocrat ground down on my hand and said, “They will not always come to your aid.”

“Harriet! Ai’dah! Chris!” I called out again, but the Meritocrat was right. I was on my own now.

“Let me do my job, wenis!” I tried to move my hand but the force was too great. I saw nothing on my hand, yet it was turning red then purple from the pressure. If it continued, I would surely lose what was most dear to me besides my laptop.

“Why him?” the voice boomed.

“Why do you care?” I shouted back. “Ah, jeezus!”

“He is nothing! Your others are at least something. Explain yourself….”

“Okay, okay. Just—”

The pressure let up, though I still could not lift or move my hand.

“He has my name—my same first and last and even my middle name. That’s how I found him. That’s why I care!”

“So?” the Meritocrat said. “That same first and last and middle name—your exact name, the exact name of this infant—that name also belongs to a little-known writer in Denver. Why not go to him?”

“Because he’s alive, idiot!” With a roar I yanked my hand out from under the invisible elephant’s foot and leapt to my feet. Heat of emotions seething under my skin, I launched punches and kicks at the force. I did not need Ai’dah, I did not need Chris or Harriet. I felt my hands and feet sink into some kind of substance; though invisible, it felt like taffy. I continued to pummel and lash out. At last I could feel the force withdrawing. “That David Michael Ewald in Denver still has a chance to increase his presence, his popularity in this world! You think this David Michael Ewald, this dead baby in Gladwin does? You think Harriet Quimby, or Christine Chubbuck, or any of the others I’m going to find has any real chance of being accepted in our society? This is my mission, motherfather, and you’re not going to stop me, got it?”

I could feel the force head for the doorway. “But is it how it happened,” it said on its way out of the room, “or simply what you want to have happened….”

Instead of questioning those words, I shouted out after the presence: “Maybe if you had his same exact name, my same exact name, you’d understand! I won’t be able to live with myself if this baby’s forgotten, knowing I played a part in replacing him completely. That David Michael Ewald in Denver might not care, any of the other David Michael Ewalds in the world might not care, but I do. He might not become famous, but he has to be saved in some small way at least.”

When I was certain the presence had gone I rushed to the crib, surprised to find the infant, still on its stomach and enshrined in the blanket, striking the keyboard with both balled fists and whimpering. Remarkably, he had managed to launch the Internet browser.

“Oh, David,” I said. “Wonderful! You’re a natural! Come here, give it to your Uncle David. We have to speed things up here.” The infant bawled as I retrieved my laptop and set it back on the crib’s edge. I shooshed him as best I could, which under the circumstances was only half-heartedly. I knew that the Meritocrat would be back, and if I didn’t complete my mission within minutes and flee I might not win the next round.

“Listen, David, listen, please listen.” Sweat had broken out in places I never knew could expel the substance. I readied my digital camera and aimed it at the shrieking infant. “David, look, look at your Uncle David. Look at me. Smile! We have the same exact name, isn’t that funny? That’s what brought me to you! Our namesake! Now smile….You have to have your picture taken. It’s for your social-networking page, and your e-mail account, and, well, we’ll talk about your personal website later. It’ll be a lot better than the one that little-known writer living in Denver runs, I can guarantee you that. Don’t listen to the Meritocrat: you can become known, maybe even famous! We’ll see. Right now I just need you to smile….”

My cooing, lilting voice, the vomit of words—all seemed to work on the infant. He finally calmed down enough for me to take a picture worthy of being seen on the Internet. True, this David Michael Ewald had a face like a squeezed tomato—but at least he wasn’t in black and white.

“Now, to find out how you died….” I looked around the room for evidence. How had he died? Only four days old—had his heart simply stopped? I eyeballed the bookshelves, which were too far away to have fallen and crushed the crib, nor was the big plush teddy bear a threat at that distance. The death was indeed difficult to ascertain, yet without the truth of his fourth and final night I would not be able to generate enough outside interest to secure his status.

I was thinking of again getting down on my knees and praying for help from Christine Chubbuck, Harriet Quimby and Ai’dah when I turned to the crib and saw the truth right there. David Michael Ewald—the 1954 David Michael Ewald—the four day old and many decades deceased David Michael Ewald—had, in addition to his body, succeeded in twisting the blanket around his face, and I realized now that he was suffocating on account of a negligent adult. A blanket did not belong in a crib containing a four-day-old, and I made the connection even as the baby David Michael Ewald struggled, his cries and gurgles muffled, darkness of a new and sinister womb on all sides.

“That’s it,” I exclaimed. I continued to watch, fascinated, as the infant’s arms slowly lowered, and it completed what had happened so many decades before.

I heard a man’s voice, the sound of an ad, say, “He’s gonna be more comfortable,” and I again smelled the liquor.

“Yes!” I cried in triumph. As I held my laptop aloft, a woman’s scream followed—so high-pitched and galling I felt my skin stop and I had to close my eyes. When next I opened them the room was made of metal, the walls and floor and ceiling blank, and the infant and the crib had disappeared. A monotonous electronic-inspired buzz replaced the scream, and I felt as if the time of the situation had shifted—that I was no longer in an earlier time but rather one beyond the time from which I had come. I clutched my laptop to my chest and blinked my eyes machine-gun-like, shedding some of the sheen. Then I ran.

Out of the former nursery, through the house that was no longer a house. The wooden banister had been replaced with a metal rod that appeared to snake into a defunct oil well. The wall down the steel stairs was devoid of all the pictures I had previously seen—devoid of anything, like the rest of this place. The electronic-inspired buzz pursued me through the downstairs hall, past the bare living room and out the front door that had morphed into the serpentine logo of the Meritocrat.

I burst from the vision and tumbled down the steps to fall on my face in the lawn. The grass was cold and wet and real. Fearing for my laptop’s safety I quickly turned on my back and made sure my number one priority was okay. Finding it to be intact and operational, I next checked my digital camera, which also was unharmed. Only then did I notice day breaking over the neighborhood: sun glinted on the windows and hoods of all the cars of my time—the early 21st century—now parked in the driveways and on the streets. A man was walking out of the house from which I had just thrown myself. He wore glasses, no rings of any kind, and a suit and tie. He stopped to look at me sitting and typing in the grass.

“Want to tell me what you’re doing on my lawn,” he said.

“In a minute,” I said, my eyes on the screen. “I don’t want to lose it.”

“You’re going to lose a lot more than whatever if you don’t clear off my property in five seconds.”

Having written just enough, I got up, secured my laptop in its case, and went ahead of him. “I assure you,” I said. “You’ll be having to drive a lot more people than just me off your lawn soon enough. A lot more.”

“What does that mean?” he said.

“You ever watch the eleven o’clock news?”

I started off, my back to the house. I heard the car door slam, the engine rev up, tires tread on asphalt. Soon they would type, click, search, view and read. Not only that: they would descend on this house to further uncover the case. The cameras rolling, the talking heads chattering into their mikes….My namesake would have his fame after all! His face would be on the screen, the circumstances of his death and exactly where it happened known. That suit-wearing man was aligned with the Meritocrat, and he would get what was coming for his house. As for me, I did not need to look back. I carried my success with me toward my next soon-to-be-saved. Putting one foot before the other, I headed back toward the Motor City. Never to give up.

Christopher (chapter 5)

Christopher

 

 

I was in New York to administer the latest drug for the AIDS pandemic. I’d booked a reasonably priced flight into JFK and flagged a cab as soon as I hit the curb. The driver insisted I stow my laptop in the trunk along with my satchel. He appeared to be from somewhere in Africa and when I got in back I saw by his ID that his name was Macoma.

“The hospital,” I directed. “And step on it, Mac.”

“Which hospital,” he asked without the trace of an accent.

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a hundred hospitals in this city. Which one you want?”

“The closest one,” I said, and we were off.

I entered through the front of the hospital and recoiled at all the people lying in rollaway beds on either side of the hall. Some were bleeding, others broken. I felt sad walking past them.

I went up to the counter and said, “I’d like the room for Christopher Coe, please.”

The man across from me looked as if I’d just asked his permission to punch him in the mouth, and I had to repeat the question.

“Yeah I know, I heard,” he said. “You a friend or relative?”

“Friend. Definitely friend,” I said.

“Let me check.”

He typed some on his keyboard, shook his head, sighed and stood up. “Wait here,” he said.

I followed him around corners and through rooms, past massive whiteboards and wall charts marked with names he scanned on by. After several minutes he stopped, turned and stared at me, like an animal.

“What did I tell you.”

“But this is a matter of utmost life or death.”

“You’re tellin’ me.”

“I am telling you,” I said, shocked. “I need to find Christopher Coe.”

“He doesn’t appear to be here. When was he admitted.”

“I don’t know exactly when, but it was probably sometime in 1993, around the publication of his second and last novel.”

Now it was as if I’d asked permission to point a gun to his head and pull the trigger.

“Man, what are you talking about?”

“Isn’t he here? Haven’t you been taking care of him?”

“This is the emergency room. No one’s been here that long.”

“But…haven’t you even heard of Christopher Coe?”

“Look, man. There’s a cop down the hall. If you don’t take your computer and your bag and clear out of here in the next minute I’m gonna call her over and then we’ll see who’s being taken care of.”

I took an elevator to another floor of the hospital, but no one knew. Christopher Coe was on no list of any kind in any database, not even that of memory. What gave? Didn’t they have Internet access? Hadn’t they searched his name in quotations? Weren’t they aware that Christopher Coe grew up in San Francisco but moved to New York in his later years? That he divided his time between New York and Paris, and that because of this he was likely quite well-off? That he was a contributor to Harper’s magazine (the story “Easy” in the August 1986 issue), author of two novels, I Look Divine and Such Times, the latter released a year before his death at age 41 from complications brought about by AIDS?

What I knew about AIDS. Philadelphia. Angels in America. And the Band Played On. That one after-school special that fires up with John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” while shots of small town Indiana life fly by.

I had searched all over Toronto for the latest cutting-edge drug before finding it in a laboratory on the university campus. For five days I’d staked out the lab before sneaking in and swiping the bottle off a technician’s desk. The rats thanked me. I spent a lot of my time in that foreign city, sweltering in August, seated at a table in the St. Lawrence Market, nursing a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder. A young Hungarian woman sat across from me and I repeated the phrases she spoke in her own language. She stopped only once to ask me in English whether or not I was happy, and I answered yes, I was, unbearably so.

After New York I would travel to Africa, to dirt roads and dead animals, aspiring novelists and celebrities. I had a flight booked for Cairo already. From the entry point I would work my way south along the Nile in a catamaran piloted by a queen. The bribe would be ready at the border with Sudan. Whoever needed the drug would receive it. Christopher Coe would be only the first assuaged.

Approaching from the far end of the hall was the female cop mentioned earlier. Amazonian with a statue of David’s height and great broad shoulders spreading out like wings, she was dressed in a crisp dark blue uniform and topped by an older-style police officer’s cap pulled down so I could barely see her eyes. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail that remained mostly hidden under the cap. She carried a menacing-looking baton, and on her hip was of course the gun.

“Am I under arrest?” I said.

“You will be if you don’t vacate these premises immediately.”

Seeing the badge, the baton, the gun, I considered obeying. But ultimately I hesitated because of the voice. Not only was this cop’s voice not entirely that of a woman, it was also not entirely that of a human being. I had heard the voice that hid behind this cop’s voice before. That grim and gloating, almost mechanical baritone, the voice of the future….

“The Meritocrat!” I said.

Swiftly the cop drew her firearm and trained it on me. “Now you’re under arrest,” she said with the requisite situational gravity. “Put your hands in the air. Now!”

Again I almost obeyed but stopped when I saw—for only a millisecond—the cop’s eyes flash red just beyond her cap’s brim. “You are the Meritocrat,” I said, my voice trembling.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She inched closer. “There’s no Meritocrat here. You’re under arrest because you’re a danger to society.”

“What danger,” I said, astounded. “I haven’t hurt anyone. I’m here to help and to save….”

“And how do you suppose you’ll do that?” The cop’s voice had shifted completely to that of the Meritocrat. “With your Internet? Your ‘new employer’?”

“Better than my old employer,” I said. “I’m free of those walls, that cubicle. I’m free to keep these people from being forgotten any way I can, and if that takes bringing them up to speed on the social networking capabilities of the Internet, so be it.”

The gun remained pointed at my chest as the Meritocrat-as-cop scoffed. “The Internet…The spirits you seek are more real than the Internet.”

“What are you talking about?” I actually took a step toward the gun-wielding Meritocrat. “The Internet is everything. It’s my…it’s my life.”

“Exactly, David. It’s your life. Is it theirs?”

“It should be. They’ll thank me when they see how much attention they’re getting—”

“How much attention you’re getting, David Michael Ewald from Denver.”

“Shut up. What do you mean Denver? I’ve never been to Denver.”

“Fell in love with his own reflection and drowned.”

“What the hell are you?!” With these words I launched myself at my assailant. The gun did not go off. It did not even click. Expecting to grab the cop and pummel and throttle the Meritocrat out of her, I was shocked to find my arms waving air. The cop—and the Meritocrat in her—were gone.

Shaken but still set on achieving my goal here, I took my laptop out of its case and was just about to sit down in the hall when I saw a room I hadn’t yet been in. There was a figure behind the curtain even before I drew it. The figure was propped up in bed with tubes running out of his nose and mouth. He had short straight hair parted in the middle, just like in his author photo from the Vintage Contemporaries edition of I Look Divine, patchy in places and falling over half his forehead. As I approached his bed I knew. It was he. It was Christopher Coe.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said. “I couldn’t find much of you on the Internet. There’s just not a lot there. Your name drew up only a few hits. Even mine gets more.”

He looked pale, emaciated, unfit for viewing hours. A lesion like a mole crept up his neck and another plopped itself on the skin above his upper cheekbone. He swiveled his head like a turret, twice, back and forth.

“Don’t deny it,” I continued. “But you can get better. Here. I have something for you. I’m here to save you, Chris.”

He made as if to cough out the tube in his mouth. I reached to aid him in his effort. Free to speak now, he whispered, “Please. Call me Christopher.”

“All right, Christopher. Take this.”

I held out the bottle but he did not move. Maybe he couldn’t. I was supposed to give it to him then.

I unscrewed the cap and he said, “What is that?”

“It’s the latest cutting-edge drug. To stop the pain from AIDS.”

“It’s NyQuil.”

“No. It’s the ultimate pain-reliever for AIDS.”

I leaned in toward him, the bottle poised above his mouth.

“Open.”

“Piss off.”

“Christopher,” I sighed. “If you don’t take this drug you’re going to die.”

“I am dead,” he insisted.

“Not that kind of dead,” I explained. “Internet dead.”

Christopher waved me off. I withdrew, the bottle capped by my thumb.

“You’ve slipped,” I told him.

“Excuse me?”

“Both your novels are currently ranked in the millions behind so many self-published books. Don’t you want to increase your readership—and your sales?”

“In the millions,” he wheezed.

“In the several millions. I Look Divine is only 2,648,074 on the Internet sales list, and Such Times is faring even worse. Rank number 5,678,708 at last look. Even a self-help guide published by a ninety-year-old widower out of his home in Kansas is outselling it.”

“I’m…sorry.”

“Whatever happened to that collection you were working on, the one mentioned in your I Look Divine author bio? I know you never got around to finishing it but—”

“I did finish it,” Christopher said. On the chair next to his bed I saw a manuscript, a collection of stories that was to be released in the wake of his first novel. I flipped through the pages, which smelled of mold and felt brittle.

“You might want to think about changing the title,” I said.

“Okay….”

“It’s just…‘Rich People Having Fun’. Of course they’re having fun. They’re rich.”

“Take it,” he said. “Give it to the first person you see.”

After slipping the manuscript into my satchel, I sat in the chair next to Christopher’s bed and held his lesion-laden hand.

“I’d like to say that’s enough, but the truth is you could do so much more if you were on your feet and at a computer right now. Seriously. If you only took this drug, and then got online and created a profile…”

“What do you mean, profile?”

“You don’t know? Okay. That makes sense. The Internet was in its infancy in 1994. Fair enough. But the company’s come so far since then. You really should see it for yourself, Christopher. It’s the world as we know it now. Everything’s happening there. Everything. People live in worlds, worlds they create. You don’t have to be in the best health to do it, but it helps if you’re at least able to do basic keyboarding functions. So come on, man. Drink this down, get yourself up out of that bed and get online already. Just a tribute page won’t cut it. Creating a personal profile takes what, like, five minutes max….Here. I’ll even help you get started using my computer.”

Christopher tried to turn away then, on his side, but I held fast. He spat, “I am not doing anything but dying.”

“But….you can get on these bookcentric sites and connect with readers of your work, and they can recommend your novels to new readers.”

Christopher succeeded in yanking his hand from mine, and I went after it. After some struggle consisting of swatting and clawing, I again grasped his hand, this time even more tightly.

“Tell me about your childhood in San Francisco,” I said.

“You first,” he said. “Tell me about your childhood in San Francisco.”

“I didn’t grow up in San Francisco.”

“Yes you did. I saw you in the Marina holding your mother’s hand in 1964. You were eight, I was eleven.”

“I wasn’t alive in 1964.” I let go of his hand. “My mother was twelve.”

“And I was eleven,” Christopher whispered, eyes closed. He hacked horribly. “Oh why does this have to be so difficult. Nurse. Nurse! Send me home to my apartment where I belong, please. I’m supposed to be there now. My end’s less than a week away. Nurse!”

“The nurse can’t help you,” I explained. “Only I can. Please. Take the drug.”

“No. I’m dying there.”

“Take this.”

He clamped his mouth shut in anticipation of the pour.

“Damnit, Christopher. I don’t even want to tell you how many other Christopher Coes there are out there already. Do you really want to be replaced, forgotten? Don’t you want to be part of the world?”

“It’s enough,” he yelled and sat up in my face. The tubes flew out of his nostrils when he snorted. I was thrown back from the bed and into the chair. Christopher was beginning to rise. I grabbed a pillow from behind his body and pushed it into his face, forcing him back down. He tried to wiggle his head but I wouldn’t let him. His claws beat at the sides of my head but missed my eyes. I pressed on. At last his struggles ceased. I released the pillow and looked around for the drug. The bottle was lying tipped over on the ground, a bloody trail stretching.

I started to cry as I picked up the bottle and saved what little I could. When I returned to Christopher I saw that he was gone, the bed had been made, the flowers had been removed. A woman in white stood next to me. She touched my arm.

“Sir,” she said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Aegeus (chapter 6)

 

Aegeus

 

 

I was in Greece to show a king he shouldn’t have committed suicide. It was sunny mid-September, the right-shoulder-end of the high season, and what I had calculated to be the anniversary of his death.

The bow of the ferry pitched forward suddenly and I almost lost my grip on the flag. The white standard continued to flutter in the mild afternoon breeze. I felt proud, important, a messenger carrying news that would finally be delivered. I was three thousand years in the past, an ancient defender, sword-studded, helmet-plumed, astride a war galley powered by a pew-slew of grunt-sweating slaves. Ready the catapult, the cauldrons! Ignite the arrows! How many had gone down in their armor, unable to raise even an arm to signal for help as they shot into the deep? The rear of the galley rising to the gods, the oars all akimbo like the legs of some giant manic spider before slipping through the sheet of darkness. Fires on the water, night clangs and cries, screams and splashes. The average body takes several days to disintegrate in the open deep, a wood-fashioned war galley even longer. But just how long? I would have to search the Internet again.

“Must’ve hit a swell,” said the woman by my side.

“Or a sea monster”: her husband’s response.

This couple had sat near me during most of the overnight journey. The husband had worn a t-shirt that claimed Boston was founded in 1630. The woman had worn a visor and sunglasses inside and when an overly large family of Gypsies overtook our room, coming in loud and ready to lay their blankets down and start cooking and feasting, the couple got up and took off for areas unknown.

The husband noticed me staring at his wife’s binoculars.

“May I borrow your binoculars?”

“Of course,” she said and handed them over.

“Thank you kindly.”

With one hand still on the flag I raised the binoculars and peered through them to the shining city on the hill. My focus went to the Acropolis, to the figures swirling about like so many seeds tossed to the wind. I scoured and swiveled, my view bobbing, and then I saw him. There, standing at a corner of the Parthenon, his arms open wide to the sea.

I handed the binoculars back to the woman and with both hands lifted the flag high. I swept it back and forth, across the blue, and the announcement came on that we were preparing to dock.

“Tell me you’re not signaling the terrorists.”

The man looked at me expectantly. He wore a Club Med t-shirt now.

“What do you mean,” I said, allowing the flag to falter a little.

“I’m saying that better not be a signal for al-Qaeda in Athens.”
“Bob,” the woman warned.

“But it’s not,” I said. “It’s a signal for King Aegeus.”

“King who?”

“Aegeus, the king of this city. This water we’re on is named after him. I’m here to help him discover the good news.”

The couple clutched one another and drifted away. I went back to waving the flag.

When the ferry had docked and the drawbridge had dropped to dry land I charged with all the other passengers across to the waiting taxi drivers and hotel touts. The first one to extend a hand got me.

In the cab I asked the driver if we could possibly go any faster.

“You want faster? This is faster.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You want real faster. Real faster costs extra.”

Outside the cab, close to the entrance to the brightest hill of them all, the driver tried to convince me that my laptop and satchel, since they’d been stored in the trunk on our way through the city, cost an extra service fee. I wasn’t buying.

“Desist, my friend, or I’ll report you to the nearest youth hostel.”

Confused by my sentence, the driver blew air in my face, got back in the cab and drove away. I was again at a loss.

I walked up the cobbled—could they be called cobbled?—steps, past what I assumed were olive trees, to stand in front of the gate that led into the magnificent Acropolis. As I was passing through the maw of the gods I heard a voice, short and sharp: “Your ticket, sir. Excuse me, your ticket.”

I seem to have this problem when I travel. Call it excitement, call it hubris, call it whatever you will, whenever you will, but it does happen that the conclusion of the mission is in my mind before it becomes a reality, the steps fall away, forgotten, and it’s like I’ve tried to build a house from the roof down. Humbled, I paid the sufficiently exorbitant amount, got back in line and this time entered without incident.

The ancient grounds of the gods were no less crowded now than when I had first espied them from my vantage point on the ferry. Wicked, wicked tour groups kicked rocks randomly in wing formation. An elderly couple asked me to take a photo for them, of them, which would then be placed in their hometown newspaper and guarantee them a prize. I felt special. I felt cheap. I wanted it to be over, but it was never going to be over, not until I had found and helped them all, and that was impossible, the ending of that feat, like the thirteenth labor of Hercules.

It took a while to find him, but there he was, on the far side of the Acropolis opposite the entrance steps. A crowd of Danes had gathered near him to gawk at the mix of countryside, city and ruins below, but they dispersed as I drew near and by the time he had turned to face me we were alone. Standing well over six feet, he wore a long maroon tunic, sandals and a belt made from the hide of a black boar. His eyes were wet and he looked so old and frightened, like someone I had known for a short time before taking off with her money. His white hair was curled in great tufts surfing back from his scalp, and his beard shook with rattled emotion. It was he. It was Aegeus.

“I’ve traveled quite a ways to speak with you,” I said as I set down my laptop, satchel and daypack. “I thought I’d be in Africa right now but…well, that plan fell through. I figure now I better stick with what I know, who I know. Anyway, I’m here to help you, to show you what actually happened so that what did happen didn’t have to happen. It’s my job, my newest mission.”

He screamed then—a sound so ghastly and booming that I just had to crouch low and cover my ears the way you would if you were visiting an ancient hilltop castle near Aix-en-Provence and the wind had picked up something merciless threatening to topple you and your compatriots off the rampart wall to your death fifty or more feet below.

His maw still gaping, his vocal chords still a-whirring, Aegeus threw his head back as if he were going to swallow the freaking sky. His fists clenched and unclenched, and his eyes—from what I could see of them anyway—looked ready to bleed. I guessed this was what it must have been like to suffer a Greek tragedy.

When the bleating had subsided I stood up and looked around. If there were others on that field of battle then, I did not see them. I turned to face my foe and soon-to-be-friend.

“That was…dramatic.”

He swayed toward me, his arms outstretched. I fell into his embrace and closed my eyes, my nostrils picking up the pungent and familiar scent of dead goats and sea salt. After some time we let go, tears in both pairs of eyes.

I asked him where his crown was.

“Crown?”

“Don’t give me that. You understand the word. You understood the word ‘your’, the word ‘where.’ You certainly understand the verb ‘be’.”

“The most powerful verb in the English language,” Aegeus said.

“Good. Then we can dispense with the whole ‘I don’t understand your language, you don’t understand mine’ shtick. The Internet transcends language anyway.”

“Internet?”

“Now that I can understand. Allow me to explain: The Internet is my employer. It’s essentially one big company run by….by someone, someone powerful, like any other big company in the world. It’s what brought me to you. I’ve been working under its guidance to find little-known people and lesser-known famous people and either make them known or more famous or…well, help them in some way. To show them what they’ve missed, and what can be.”

Aegeus got down on his knees and pawed the earth. He looked about ready to chew dirt when he cried out, “My son, my son, my son.…”

“Your son was alive, Aegeus. Alive!”

“Alive?”

“Yes, alive. Look!”

I sat on the ground next to the king and took my laptop out of its carrying case. I opened the clamshell and hit the power button. The sound of my god echoed across the plateau.

Aegeus scooted closer to me and I put the laptop between us. “See,” I said, dragging and clicking here, typing a little there. “Check out this website. See what it says? You can read this, right? The screen’s not too dark for you?”

The king, his face pinched with concentration, puffed with emotion, said nothing. I went on.

“Okaaay…I see we’re having one of those daytime television talk-show moments. That’s okay, really. Take your time. I’m patient.”

When considerable time had passed and Aegeus still had not said or done anything, I tried to encourage him: “You just gotta hang with this technology a while. You’ll figure it out, and you’ll thank me, really you will. Theseus is everywhere on this thing. All you have to do is type in his name and—”

“He is in here.”

“Sure.”

“Trapped!”

“Not trapped. He’s just…you know, there. All right. That’s it…”

The king had taken my computer from me and placed it in his lap. His fingers hovered over the keys. He looked prepared to type. I watched, anxious. Then quite abruptly he hit the power button. The computer shut off.

“No! Not that button. Christ. Here, let me….”

But the king held tight. After some tense wrestling, I at last succeeded in taking back what was mine. Angry now, I said, “You should’ve listened to the Oracle: ‘Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief.’ But you did get drunk, and while drunk you sired Theseus, and because of your son you actually did die of grief.”

He didn’t seem to understand so I said, “Look, Goat-man. If you don’t want to take the time to search the Web and learn the truth, fine. I’ll just say it. You made a mistake. A big, unqualified mistake. You might have seen the sail black on your son’s ship as it appeared on the horizon, but that didn’t mean he was dead. Didn’t mean he failed.”

“He…”

“He was alive, Aegeus. What did I say earlier? He’d just forgotten to change the sail, black to white. A simple mistake that cost you your life.”

“My son…forgot.”

“Forgot like all the other things he forgot with you. Forgot to throw the ball around. Forgot to build a tent fort in the backyard. Forgot to take off the training wheels. Forgot to count fireflies on the porch in summer. Forgot to call you from his friend’s house that one time, remember? Remember?”

“I—”

“Forgot to say he loved you before he left Athens with that black sail up, didn’t he? Didn’t he?”

“Yes!”

“That’s it! Get mad! Get damnright angry at the kid! Come on! I know you can do it, so.”

Aegeus reared his head back and screamed yet again, this time beating his chest in tune to his vocal chords.

“That’s it…let it out. That’s a king.”

With the shaking of his head Aegeus seemed to shake out the last of his anger. He sat back on his palms.

I said, “Your son was a neglectful and emotionally reckless youth. Do you know what he was doing on his way back from killing the Minotaur?”

“He…succeeded?”

“He more than succeeded. His quest was a triumph. Like I said before, he slew the Minotaur, that foul half-man half-bull beast, in its own maze. Tore off its left—or was it the right? I’ll have to search that—horn and drove that newly-formed spear straight through the monster’s heart, thus freeing the six Athenian men and seven Athenian maidens who were waiting to be sacrificed. He then, cad that he was, took off with King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne. Together they sailed in Theseus’s ship bound for Athens and you.”

“This is not a lie?”

“Not even a little white, man. Here. You can see for yourself. I’ll give you one more go at it.”

I passed the laptop off to the king. He took it in his grubby hands and stared at the screen, again apparently not knowing what to do.

“Go on. Type something. You’ve watched me do it, I got you set up, how hard can it be? I really, really want you to do this on your own, Aegeus, without my help. You can do it, I know you can. So search, for the sake of the gods.”

As if touching a newborn pup, Aegeus pressed his pinky finger on the space key. My computer made a sound of annoyance.

“Not like that. You’re already on the search engine. All you need to do is type in your son’s name. Type in T-H-E-S-E-U-S, hit the ‘enter’ key, and you’re there. You’ll be reunited with him, in a way. At least you’ll learn all the things you should have before offing yourself. So go on. It’s easy. You don’t even have to put quotation marks around the search term.”

Aegeus hit the space key again, and again. I groaned.

“Obviously I’m going to have to do it all for you.”

But the king kept my computer at arm’s length from me. I couldn’t yet tell if he was treating it with distaste or reverence.

“Look,” I said. “At least listen to my instructions. Type in your son’s name, ‘Theseus’, and while you’re at it type in ‘Ariadne’ too. Yeah, you can find out all about them. He left her on the island of Naxos, can you believe it? Your own son had this fantastic woman and he went ahead and ditched her…who knows why? Some sites say the god Dionysus visited your son and told him Ariadne had already been promised to him, not Theseus, so Theseus had to abandon her on the island. But if you ask me I think that’s bullshit. Your son was a womanizer. A user more than an abuser. You must have seen that in him at a young age, right? Go on. Tell me about the time he—”

“There was no time,” Aegeus said. “Not ever.”

“Nice. Very poetic. But let’s face some reality here, huh. In essence he murdered you. His negligence did anyway. And did he grieve when he found out you’d thrown yourself off the highest cliff into the sea? Sure, he named the sea after you, but did he grieve, I mean really?”

“Um…”

“Well, what do you think?”

“He must have, my son.”

“I’m your son now, Aegeus. The son you should always have known.”

I made to touch the king affectionately, the way Theseus should have done all those years ago, but just as my fingers were about to land on his skin Aegeus leapt to his feet, the laptop still in his hands, and took off running across the Acropolis grounds.

“Come back! Jesus, somebody stop him! The king’s got my two-thousand-dollar laptop!”

I chased him down the side of the shining hill, along switchbacks too severe to return up. He took me into a dense grove of olive trees, where the cicadas cried even though summer was spent, and then into a cave bearing the Cyclops’s eye. At all times was he just ahead of me and I, like Tantalus in the pool of water, could not touch him, the fruit.

At last the tunnel opened out onto an edge of a cliff—the same cliff, I realized, from which King Aegeus had thrown himself upon seeing the black sail flying from his son’s ship.

“Return to your true father, my son!”

I had no time to react before Aegeus threw my laptop, my most prized possession, light of my love, my life itself, off the cliff to where it smashed onto the rocks and sank in pieces into the sea below.

“FUUUUUUUUUUCK!”

I jumped at Aegeus and landed solidly on his back. I dug my fingers into his eyes, covering them, gnawing at them with my nails. He spun around one way then the other, trying to throw me off. We hovered perilously close to the edge.

“Cretin!” I said. “Neanderthal! This is why I should never hit up people who died before the Industrial Revolution!”

He wrenched my hands from his face and forced me off him. Still holding my forearms he pulled me closer to the edge. Rocks gave way and I began to slip.

“No!”

My life appeared to be lost, and then. And then I swept my feet out from under myself, taking all weight off me and unbalancing the king, who pitched forward and toward the edge on which I had previously been teetering. As the king pitched forward I slid under his tunic, in between his legs, and let go of his hands in haste. Aegeus, surprised at the move that would have made his son proud, somersaulted into space. With a startled cry of terror he vanished from view.

I crawled to the edge and looked down. The king’s body had broken on the rocks and was slowly being borne up by the waves, then back down to be swallowed in the churning, bloody froth.

After taking a breath I shouted, “That’s what you get when you fuck around with the twenty-first century, old timer. Ha!”

For a time I sat at the entrance to the tunnel and watched the sun and sea. It made only a little sense, the ending to this mission. True: what I’d said about the pre-Industrial Revolution spirits—but that couldn’t have been the only reason why Aegeus had hurled my laptop into the ocean. I sensed an outside force at work, the Meritocrat who had not only thwarted me here but at the hospital in New York. The Meritocrat was forcing extreme reactions from these spirits, with the intention of getting rid of me. I was lucky there had been only one casualty this time around. 

I wept for my computer, my laptop, my constant companion. But I would get another. I had money and, as someone once close to me often said, Any problem can be solved with money. There would always be more. More computers, more money, more kings and more cliffs. These thoughts consoled me and brought me back to believing I could go on with my journey, my epic string of searches and missions. After getting a new laptop, of course.

I stood up, resolved, and entered the tunnel. I did not wish to see night fall.

Andrew (chapter 7)

Andrew

 

 

I was on campus to stop a massacre. It was the end of September, goodbye-to-Maggie-May time, and all through the halls the only sound to be heard was that of my shoes striking glossy ground. The lights were on when I’d entered, and now the artificial glare seemed to follow me as I stepped on squares, careful to avoid lines. I hadn’t expected to ever return to Michigan, but now here I was, again at night only this time 110 miles south of Gladwin, and I would soon realize the Meritocrat not only meant to best me through my latest target—he meant to annihilate any trace of me as well.

At my side was the All-in-One, the cellphone-computer contraption I’d bought in London during my long layover on the way from Greece. I still missed my laptop, my formerly constant companion, my only true friend, but I understood that short of an underwater exploratory mission to the bottom of the Aegean Sea—something even I could not afford—there was no getting it back. Hence, my new friend. I would grow to love it, or so I hoped. It was just so…small. I’d have to be a super-intelligent infant to use the nano keyboard without typing up gibberish when all I wanted was to conduct a simple search. So small—and yet I was certain buttons remained, waiting to be pressed, that I couldn’t see and were not revealed even in the pithy instruction manual.

The snapping and squeaking of my not-so-sneaky sneakers continued. Each room I passed was closed and as dark as the outside. I did not linger long on my reflection but rather picked up the pace, as if I was in a commercial. Now as I was trotting I began a mantra: “Catholic Kehoe, Catholic Kehoe, Catholic Kehoe…” Over and over I said this phrase, as if the sheer repetition would annoy him enough to hasten his arrival. I knew he was close; I could sense movement just around the corner—

I turned expecting to see my target—but instead a small elderly woman wearing caked makeup and her dyed hair up in a pink bow blocked my path. She stood near the lockers on the right side and held a broom like a sage holds a cane, the handle grasped in both hands and used to support her chin. She stared at me, a quiz forming on her face, and I had trouble hiding my disappointment.

“Oh,” I said and walked toward her. “Have you seen a man around here, in these halls, about…I don’t know, the Internet didn’t give his height, but judging from his one photo I’d say he’s about five-five, maybe five-six or five-seven at most, so pretty short….” I almost added ‘like you’, but my powers of self-editing kicked in in time. “Anyway, he’s wearing some older clothes, like from the nineteen-twenties, and he should be making some repairs to the school. Have you seen him?”

“Who are you?” she said, a short sharp bark. “How’d you get in?”

“I am…uh, I just came in, through the door.”

“Are you a teacher?”

“Yes!” I said, relieved. “Yes, I am a teacher, and I’m here to find Andrew Kehoe.”

“Andrew who?”

Had this woman really not heard of Andrew Kehoe, murderer of forty-four people, most of them young children, not very far from this very place? She looked as if she was possibly alive when Kehoe committed his atrocious act on the morning of May 18, 1927, detonating his explosives all throughout one wing of the Bath Consolidated School, bringing the roof down, then blowing himself, his car and a few nearby others up as his final act. My powers of self-editing had fallen away, and all that I just told you I told to that custodial woman, who looked at me as if I’d just breathed a half-ton mixture of garlic, onions and shallots.

“Mister,” she said. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t know who he is. I’ve been working here for two weeks. I’m from Montana.”

“Montana!” I said, and I pictured then a phone ringing somewhere in a cabin with its open door looking out on a vast plain. “Beautiful state. I’ve never been to it.”

“I don’t believe you work here,” she said.

“I don’t believe you work here either.”

That quiz was again forming on the elderly woman’s face—and it looked as if she was flunking. I continued: “Do you want what happened here all those years ago to happen again, possibly soon? Copycats abound. But if I can find him and just convince him to leave—wait, where are you going?”

The elderly woman was indeed shuffling away. Her feet moved at a fairly rapid clip for her age, and it hit me where she was headed.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I ran up behind her, my arms raised, “but this is for the people of Bath, Michigan.”

After I’d stifled the custodial woman’s cries with duct tape and bound her from behind with rope—items I’d brought intending to use on Catholic Kehoe if he at all resisted—I shut the storage closet and continued down the hall.

The All-in-One in my hip holster began to buzz. Not expecting a call, I picked it up anyway only to see that no call appeared to be coming in; still, the contraption was now vibrating like a rabbit. A new button, one I’d not seen before on the side, was now apparent. It was red. I pressed it. Immediately the All-in-One leapt from my hand to hover, drone-like, over me.

“What the—?”

I tried to grab it by jumping, my arms waving, but the All-in-One easily dodged aside. Now it was beeping and buzzing like a cellphone, and lights were flashing from it like a slot machine.

“This wasn’t in the manual. What  a rip-off—and I paid in pounds! I knew that name was too good to be true. All-in-One—”

“Call me Ishmael,” a pleasant-sounding British man said.

I looked around. No one.

“It’s me, you Yank.”

Looking up, I realized that the voice, so human, did indeed belong to the All-in-One. The flashing and vibrating had ceased, but now the cellphone screen showed a rudimentary smiley face. The face winked. I stepped back.

“Please don’t run, mate. I’m here to help.”

“Whoa. Hold on. You can fly?”

“And speak. And do so many other nifty things….”

“But—”

“Would you like to take me back? Demand a refund? Place an exchange?”

“I…guess not.”

“Trust me: it’s better you have me than an ordinary All-in-One.”

“I just don’t get it. I mean…your voice. Aren’t you just the GPS feature?”

Ishmael laughed. “You underestimate. That’s all right. I thought you would. I know the Meritocrat does.”

“The Meritocrat. You know him.”

“Not personally. But I do know of him. We go way forward, you could say.”

“Way forward? What do you mean ‘way forward’?”

“I mean the future, of which I’m a big part. See how technologically advanced I am?”

I nodded to show I agreed.

“As I said, I’m your mate, your ‘bro’. I’m with you from here on out, the Felix Leiter to your James Bond.”

“But Bond is British and Leiter’s Amer—oh, never mind. So you’re going to help me stop the Meritocrat?”

“Any way I can, and I have a lot of ways. But if we keep carrying on like this neither of us will be alive for the ultimate confrontation.”

“What ‘ultimate confrontation’?”

“That may be a ways off. For now…look above you.”

I did as I was told. Not seeing anything unusual, I shook my head and shrugged.

“Look closer.”

I strained my eyes, and then, after only a few moments, I saw. Snaking around the piping in the ceiling were wires that definitely stood apart and had been recently placed. Wires leading to only one thing.

“How much time?” I said, my panic rising.

“Not much. But I’ve pinpointed where he is. Follow me.”

As Ishmael zoomed just ahead, my panic threatened to overwhelm and paralyze. The Meritocrat had only grown bolder here in Michigan. He knew I wouldn’t give up unless I died.

We had reached a set of large locked double doors. Beyond was darkness—and our target. I kicked at the handles and was just getting out my credit card when Ishmael said, “Stand aside, mate.”

My companion hovered close to one of the key holes and—I’m not making this up—unleashed a little yellow beam, like a strong stream of urine, into the lock. Within moments the doors had opened and we were inside.

“How…?”

“Be content to know I can do anything,” said Ishmael. “Anything.”

I searched for the lights and found them. Within a second of having been turned on, they went off. I reached for the switches again but Ishmael told me not to bother, he would light the way. With his beam shining brightly I searched through my satchel for all the print-outs I’d acquired in the Internet café in Piccadilly Circus. My original intention had been to find the madman and convince him to haunt elsewhere. Kehoe and I would cut a deal wherein he agreed to retire to Grand Bahama Island in exchange for an even greater Web presence. That way, I figured, the residents of Bath Township would be spared the repeated painful memories and ghostly sightings—and potential emulators, Kehoe enthusiasts and copycats, would be permanently deterred. Let the nutjobs set up shop in the Bahamas and worship him there.

But with the discovery that this high school—along with, no doubt, the middle and elementary schools—was rigged to blow at, again no doubt, the start of school the next day, my plans had to change. As I ran I tried to get the pages in some kind of order. It didn’t help that so much of the info overlapped. At last I had the names, and as I continued to run in Ishmael’s light I read them aloud.

“Arnold Victor Bauerle, Henry Bergan, Herman Bergan, Floyd Edwin Burnett, Robert Bromund, Amelia Bromund, Russell Chapman, Cleo Claton….” Down the list I went, my voice growing louder with each new group of same letter last names, the reminder of each sibling pair or trio or in some cases quadruplets. The Harte family had lost four: Gailand, LaVere, Stanley and Blanche. The Harts had lost three: Iola, Vivian, and Percy. By the time I reached the end, George and Lloyd Zimmerman, Ishmael had come to a stop and so had I. Looking up through watery eyes, I saw a man standing between five-five and five-seven, dressed in a white collared shirt with a black vest, black pants and heavy work boots, kneeling on the ground attending to something in the wall. The print-outs, all that history he had created, fell to my side, and memory of my newfound mission redirected my sadness into rage and resolve. I stepped forward, for it was he. It was Andrew Kehoe.

“Catholic Kehoe,” I said. “Thought you’d get away with this again, didn’t you? The Meritocrat give you the bomb materials—a lot more than just dynamite this time, I bet. Well let me tell you: you do not want to do this again.”

Kehoe, his short hair neatly trimmed, his ears wide, continued to move his arms within the wall. Ishmael’s light could only go so far. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing in there, but I knew I had only a short while longer before dawn broke and he disappeared to leave this complex mess for any hapless bomb squad expert to try to figure out before it blew. They could evacuate the buildings—they could evacuate all three schools, sure, but knowing Kehoe from what I’d read on the Internet, and knowing the Meritocrat as well, I didn’t doubt that there would be some sort of back-up bomb, perhaps in a car in the teacher’s lot—a bomb, like these rigged all through the walls and rafters, that only Andrew Kehoe knew how to dismantle.

I repeated my warning, but Kehoe appeared not to be listening. He muttered to himself as he reached deep inside the wall, his cheek pressed against the side, his eyes flitting by me, and I heard something about taking care of that swarm of bees, followed by snatches of bringing them by for the picnic Tuesday, since it might rain on Thursday. I watched him come out fully from the wall, take a clean cloth from a box on the floor and wipe his hands with it. Still muttering, now about a six thousand dollar mortgage, a ten thousand dollar valuation on eighty acres, the tax at eighteen dollars and eighty cents, he continued to wipe his hands until, after a full minute, they appeared raw. He then wiped his shoes with the cloth and set it beside the box, which was full of clean cloths.

“Catholic Kehoe,” I shouted. Sensing my next, possibly disastrous move, Ishmael beeped and said, “Hold it, mate. You don’t want to set him off. The Meritocrat wins that way.”

“You’re right,” I said. “You’re right.” Calm enough now, I watched Kehoe watch me with—I swear—red eyes. They glowed, the eyes of some demon spirit possessed by the Meritocrat, capable of assembling real-life bombs and rigging them throughout the Bath Community Schools to create a new memory of tragedy and terror for a new generation. The man who had at age fourteen watched his stepmother burn to death, even throwing water on her to fan the gas stove-fueled fire; the man who had killed his neighbor’s fox terrier, who had physically abused his horses and other farm animals, who had shortly before killing forty-three more people at the Bath Consolidated School bludgeoned his wife to death with some object that would forever go unidentified—this man had become even more of a monster, a true American monster for the 21st century. I feared I would not be able to reach him.

Kehoe straightened himself to his full height and then, weighing his words carefully, his irisless, pupilless eyes flitting past me, his hands wringing a new cloth, spoke.

“Damn fool,” he said, his voice thin, crotchety for a fifty-five year-old, even a fifty-five year-old in 1927. “Damn Ku Klux Klan.”

Crap, I thought, remembering that it was indeed the KKK that had given Kehoe that name, which wasn’t even accurate seeing as—

“Haven’t been to church in a good long while,” Kehoe said. “I’m not paying them or anyone a cent! You hear me?”

“I hear you, Andrew,” I said. At the utterance of his first name he appeared to pause, to think, to consider, and I wedged open the door further. “Now hear me.”

Ishmael’s light still strong and steady, I rifled through pages until I came to the one I wanted. “Glenn O. Smith married Miss Ester McFarren,” I read. “One child was born to them, Betty Marie, born February 27, 1921, and died December 28, 1924. This was a terrible shock to both of them….He leaves besides his many friends a heart-broken wife—who also lost her father in the attack, I might add—two brothers and two sisters.”

The mass murderer seemed about to say something, perhaps in defense of his decision to blow up not only a wing of the old school but himself and his car as well, thereby killing Glenn O. Smith, Nelson McFarren, Superintendent Emory E. Huyck and young Cleo Claton as collateral, but I shushed him with an “Andrew: please. Listen.” As I continued reading off all the obituaries and woundings Kehoe’s facial features softened. His red eyes shone less brazenly with each new revelation.

“Hazel Iva Weatherby, school teacher at Bath…her body found in the wreckage with a child in each arm…..Mrs. Joe Perrone’s condition is feared….Robert Bromund was twelve years old….Amelia Bromund was eleven….At the time of his death Russell Chapman was in the fourth grade….Robert Cochran was in the third grade….The last thing seven-year-old Ralph Cushman said before going to school that morning was, ‘Goodbye mama, I’ll be good!’”

It was working! I detected a tear at the edge of one of Andrew’s now dull eyes. He was listening, understanding what he’d done, the consequences of his vile actions. He would take responsibility. Perhaps he would finally visit the Bath School Museum and Memorial Park, to place a hand on the cupola from the old school as a way of making some small amends.

Through Katherine Onalee Foote, who at the age of almost ten that day had wanted to become a teacher, to Beatrice Gibbs, the final victim of Kehoe’s rampage who had celebrated her tenth birthday the day before the massacre and who held on for months in the hospital before finally succumbing to her wounds, I read. I read in a voice as strong and steady as Ishmael’s light the details of Elizabeth Jane and Lucille June Witchell, ages ten and nine respectively, who from what I could tell had left behind no other living siblings for their parents. I read about eight year old Lester Stowells who thought when he heard the explosion it was the end of the world. I read of the Raggedy Ann doll surviving while the little mother died. Midway through my reading of “The Last Bell”, a poem written by Mrs. W.H. Blount and published in 1939, I stopped as I saw Andrew Kehoe suddenly get on his knees—though not before putting down cloths to keep from sullying his pants—clasp his hands and close his eyes. Believing this to be the right time, I left the poem unfinished and said, “I don’t know what the Meritocrat promised you, but whatever it is can’t be worth it. What you already have is enough. For what you did, you can’t expect more. And this…these bombs now….You know now about the forty-three people you killed that day. You know what they had hoped to be, you know who they left behind. All this is your doing, and do you really want to do it again? Do you really want to have another forty-three—probably more—dead children and teachers on your immortal soul?”

“Yes!” Kehoe cried, and his eyes flared up. He had been praying, I realized then, not for forgiveness but rather for the damnation of my own soul when he killed me too, and I also realized then there would be no convincing this man, he was beyond redemption, and the best I could do now was cut some wires and pray I didn’t blow up while doing so.

Kehoe leapt back and opened one of the lockers. In the weakening light I couldn’t see what he was bringing out.

“Andrew? Andrew!”

“Mate,” shouted Ishmael just as Andrew Kehoe, the Meritocrat’s ectoplasm making it possible, raised his Winchester bolt-action rifle and aimed at my heart. I heard the rifle’s report but not before seeing Ishmael fly in between me and what would have been my death. From out of my new companion shot a shiny semi-transparent shield, a force field of some kind, and the bullet struck then bounced harmlessly off this barrier.

Kehoe pulled the lever back, brought the gun up again but, seeing the force field still there, threw his weapon aside, turned and ran. “I’m not paying any taxes on any school!” he roared back at me, his eyes soon to be the only things noticeable in the darkness. “I didn’t approve it. They can’t make me pay!”

“After him!” Ishmael said.

Some of the pages falling from my grip, I lengthened my leaps, but Crazy Kehoe was always just ahead.

“Nellie!” I heard him cry. “Oh my sweet Nellie, my dear darling. You’ll get better soon, I promise. It’s not your fault!”

Was it the head injury he’d suffered out west when he was in his forties, newly married to Nellie Price, the days-long coma that resulted from that injury? Was it that he and Nellie had never had children, or was it that he simply did not have the mind for farming, leading him to tinker around so much, dream big, hatch grand schemes for making the work easier when all he had to do was rev up the tractor and go? Criminals are made, not born, the sign had read. But what could have made Andrew Kehoe except Andrew Kehoe himself?

We cornered him in between a vending machine and a water fountain. In the glow of the former and the hum of the latter, Kehoe got down on his knees again, clasped his hands and—

Ishmael, already buzzing, beeping and flashing, shot out what must have been a thousand little laser beams, all of which struck Andrew Kehoe in the chest, stomach, face, genitals. Kehoe shrieked a furious sound that segued from his voice to that of the Meritocrat’s. As Kehoe’s body began to break up, sliced clean through by Ishmael’s powers, I saw the nebulous ectoplasmic form of the Meritocrat rise.

“Look,” I cried. “Look!”

Andrew Kehoe was now only vapors and in his place was the shifting, wobbly and unwieldy Meritocrat. “Ah,” he said. “If it isn’t an All-in-One.”

“Don’t suppose you’ll call me Ishmael,” Ishmael said. “You will eventually.”

“I very much doubt that,” the Meritocrat crowed. To me he said, “Stay. I’ve set the bombs to go off early.”

Stay?” I said. “And die?”

“You’ll thank me if you knew what awaits you.”

“What the f—I mean, WTF?”

“Don’t you see, David: by killing you quickly now I’m saving you from a far more painful death ahead. You think I’m your worst enemy? Your true worst enemy is closer than you know!” With a nefarious laugh my archnemesis slowly faded until nothing at all remained.

“The bombs,” I said. “There’s no way to dismantle them now. We’re doomed!”

“Don’t count on it, mate. What’d I tell you? Now get out! I’ll take care of this!”

With Ishmael urging me on from behind I ran back down the hall and out the double doors. Turning around to hold the door open, I saw my constant companion fly into the opening in the wall Andrew Kehoe had been digging in previously.

“Ishmael!” I called out. “Ishy!” But all I got was a “Go!” followed by another “Go!”

I ran. I ran so hard and so fast all the pages in my hands fell away, and by the time I burst outside to fall into some nearby bushes I had only my satchel. I had lost yet another companion, and this one had cost even more than the one before!

I was about to get up from the bushes when I saw through the leafy branches swirling police lights in the parking lot. I was on the building’s side and the taxi wasn’t scheduled to pick me up until dawn, so I was prepared to sit in these bushes for another half hour if need be. I did not, in fact, need to, for within minutes Ishmael was hovering by my side.

“The fuzz,” he said. “Good show.”

We watched officers lead the elderly custodial woman, wrapped in a blanket, out to the lot. Other officers rushed in, their weapons drawn. Bomb- and drug-sniffing canines leapt through the front entrance. A full bomb squad followed soon after. Overhead, a copter whirred.

“Are you waiting for the sun to rise, or shall we go?”

“We can’t go,” I said. “Look at that force out there.”

“Not a problem, mate. I’ll get us out of here. I can’t say it’s much like clicking your heels and saying, ‘There’s no place like home’, but—”

And then I was away from the police, away from the school, standing now beside the cupola, the last remnant from that fateful morning. Dawn was indeed breaking, the sun spreading over the park’s grass and trees.

“They’ll identify me,” I said to Ishmael, who still hovered.

“We’ll change your appearance, mate. It’ll be good for you, for where you’re going next.”

“Where am I going next?”

“Don’t you know? You have it planned. Los Angeles!”

“Los Angeles….that’s right.”

“I’m going back on your hip now.”

“Okay. Hey, do you know what the Meritocrat was talking about back there—about my true worst enemy being closer than I know?”

“He was just taking the piss, mate. Had to have been.”

“Oh well, whatever. Anyway, thanks for dismantling those bombs back there. You really can do anything. You saved me and so many others.”

“You did just as much legwork, mate. I can see this is going to be the start of something smashing.”

My constant companion again at rest, I turned to wait for the cab that would take me to the airport and my next mission.

Interlude (chapter 8)

INTERLUDE

 

David’s apartment. David and his date, JESSA (mid-20s, highly attractive) are seated next to each other, close, on the couch. The screen’s glow lights up their faces and illuminates some of the apartment’s wall decor: a couple of framed pieces of abstract art, posters of movies released in the seventies (The French Connection, The Godfather, The Deer Hunter) and postcards from foreign countries. Somber music plays on the TV. The couple is alone.

David: Did you hear that?

Jessa: The music?

David looks around. No one.

David: I heard something. Someone whispering.

Jessa: Maybe you’re going crazy.

David: Maybe.

Lull.

Jessa: I liked Milk better.

David: I thought you would.

Jessa: It had more meaning.

David: You mean it was more hopeful.

Jessa: This one—it was just too sad.

David: But an accurate depiction of Byck’s life, don’t you think?

Jessa: I wouldn’t know. I just found out about him from you yesterday.    He was crazy.

David: Was not.

Jessa: No?

David: Samuel Byck wasn’t crazy. Just lonely. Big difference.

Jessa: Anyone who tries to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House is crazy. And anyone who thinks he’s not crazy for doing that is crazy themselves (pause). Kidding, of course.

David: You use that word a lot. Crazy. Have you ever known anyone who’s actually crazy?

Jessa: I got to know Byck—and Dan White—tonight.

David ignores Jessa’s comment.

David: It was the seventies.

Jessa: What do the seventies have to do with it?

David: The seventies were a sad time. My parents were married in the seventies.

Jessa: So were mine. They’ve had a happy marriage, mostly. (pause) Yours haven’t?

David: No, they have. I suppose that’s the problem. (off Jessa’s look). The problem is that they need to go back. Back to the seventies. Back to ‘74, on the beach.

Jessa: If I get to know you more, will you make sense?

David: That depends on you.

Jessa: Okay, psycho.

David: Why am I a psycho?

Jessa: Just that look of yours.

David: What look?

Jessa: That intense look you get. I like it but…

David: Yes?

Jessa: But it can be off-putting.

David: Sorry.

Jessa: Don’t apologize. That’s just you. I like you.

David: I like you too.

They smile at one another. Jessa seems to be waiting for something. When David turns his attention to the screen she lets her disappointment show.

Jessa: At least you’re not psycho like Sam Byck.

David: He was not crazy.

Jessa: He’s crazy in my book.

David: Does your book at all take into account the fact that Byck was estranged from his family, had trouble connecting with people, making friends, and that if he had had any kind of reattachment to his wife and kids or any other kind of social outlet he most likely wouldn’t have done what he did? A truly crazy person wouldn’t have cared as much as Byck did about his situation. A truly crazy person wouldn’t have felt the way Byck did.

Jessa (pause): You know you’re talking like you’re at work. The whole point of tonight was so we wouldn’t talk about work. With a double feature like this, how could we talk about anything, really?

David: You could have said something. We could have watched Kung Fu Panda.

Jessa: I’m just saying you don’t have to be so defensive. It’s just a movie. He’s dead. They both—they all are.

David: It’s about respect, Jessa. And caring.

Jessa: Why are we even talking about this? How can you be sure Byck was really like that? They’re just exaggerating a life.

David: Eyewitnesses. Family members. Ex family members.

Jessa: Still, we don’t have his story, not really. They didn’t talk to Byck. They didn’t commune with his ghost or anything like that.

Distracted, David looks around again.

Jessa (not amused): What are the voices telling you to do?

David: One voice. It’s a whisper. Not sure what it is, who it is.

Jessa: Maybe it’s Byck. Telling you he’s dead and not important anymore. Not to take the movie so seriously. Not to argue with your girlfriend over it. 

David (beat): I’m just trying to figure things out, Jessa.

Jessa: Maybe you should figure this particular thing out with someone else. (off David’s look) I’m not dumping you. I meant when it comes to things like debating this movie, that’s something you need to do with your friends.

David: Okay.

Jessa: You do have friends, right?

David: Yes.

Jessa: Good. I’d like to meet them someday.

David cranes his neck to look behind the couch.

David: Help me look.

Jessa: Really?

David: Help me look so I’m sure I’m not going crazy here.

Jessa: I’m pretty sure you’re going crazy. Relax…

Jessa places a hand on David’s thigh. David looks at the placement and sits down. He awkwardly puts an arm around his date.

Jessa: That’s nice.

She leans into him. He kisses her quite suddenly and awkwardly. But she takes his lips, lingers on them, and smiles.

Jessa: Hmm…

David: What?

Jessa: I was wondering when you were going to kiss me.

David: I could kiss you again.

Jessa: That would be nice.

They kiss again. Jessa’s hand continues to roam. It starts to unbutton David’s jeans. He grabs her wrist.

David: Jessa….

Jessa: David…Seriously? Again?

David: It’s not that I don’t want to.

Jessa: It’s that you’re scared.

David: Not at all.

Jessa: It’s me.

David: No.

Jessa (exasperated): I can understand the theater. I thought you’d like that. You reacted so…harshly.

David: The lights were on.

Jessa: Everyone was gone. I told you: no one would come in. I know that theater. They never come through to clean. You felt how sticky the floor was.

David: Sticky because of you, I bet.

Jessa takes a moment with his words. In the span of a few seconds her expression goes from one of shock to one of confusion to one of hurt to one of, finally, anger. David sees the damage he’s done.

David: I didn’t mean that.

Jessa: You did. Otherwise you wouldn’t have said it.

David: I didn’t think.

Jessa: I think you did think. You’re always thinking. So why say it, why say it to me?

David: I don’t know.

Jessa: You know. You think I’m a slut for wanting you to kiss me. For wanting to do more with you. All I want—all I would like—is for you to put your arm around me, touch me in some way, and not look at a goddamn screen all the time. Does that make sense? Could you do that for me?

David: I could try.

Jessa: You could try? Oh…this is so over. This is more than over.

David: I—I didn’t mean that either.

Jessa: What’s wrong with you?

David: I’m just…not good at this kind of thing.

Jessa: I think it would help if you did your job more. 

David: I do do my job.

Jessa: Barely. Meyers knows what you’re up to. He’s not stupid. He knows how many calls you’ve made versus how much time you spend “researching.” Researching what? How much research do you need before you can pitch an article idea to an uninterested journalist?

David: I get sucked in.

Jessa: I do too. But with you…it’s like you’ve stopped caring.

David: I feel like I’ve just started caring, actually. 

Jessa: Then show some evidence of that, okay?

David: I don’t mean the job, Jessa. I could care less about the job. I mean…my research.

Jessa: What are you looking up? Just tell me.

David: It’s like, I was at the keggerator a couple years back, when I first started, and I saw on the TV that Anna Nicole Smith died. And I started thinking, Who was Anna Nicole Smith? Why was she getting all this attention? What about someone else who died that same day, in that same city, and whose circumstances surrounding the death were just as  mysterious? I decided to investigate. I made some calls, found out what was public record. The number of homicides, the number of suicides that happened that day. They wouldn’t tell me exact numbers for the ones still under investigation—they just said “a lot.”

Jessa: You have quite the death fixation.

David: I have a life fixation. I’m scared to life.

Jessa: Cute. I don’t think the internet is good for your…condition.

David: The internet’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s the exact job I was always looking for.

Jessa (pause): I think we need to take a break, okay?

David: I’d rather not.

David takes Jessa’s hand and places it on his thigh.

Jessa: It can’t be your first time.

David: It’s definitely not yours.

Jessa snaps back her hand.

Jessa: I can’t believe you. You are so damn awkward. No wonder. You can’t have a filter. A filter’s impossible when you’re so stuffed full of goddamn information it keeps you from focusing on the people in front of you—namely: me, your girlfriend. And we haven’t done anything since we started dating three months ago.

David: I told you before. I have to take it slow. I was hurt, deeply.

Jessa: You were hurt, sure. For the first month, that’s an open invitation, a welcome mat I was fine wiping my feet on. Then in the second month it becomes this game, like a card you play. The third month, it’s just plain an excuse. I thought you would understand that—and change.

David: I thought you would understand that these people matter.

Jessa: Who? Which people?

David: People like Byck.

Jessa laughs, incredulous.

Jessa: People who almost killed the president. Great.

David: No. The dead.

Jessa: I don’t get you, David Ewald.

David: All the dead in the world. I’ve found out about so many of them, but I still don’t know them. I need to know them. We all do.

After a moment, Jessa gets up, takes her purse, and turns to leave.

David: Pursued by bear.

She stops, turns and looks at him. Shakes her head and leaves through the front door. The door shuts behind her. David notices an expensive-looking ring on the couch. He pockets this, then switches off the TV. He picks up his laptop from the side of the couch. As he’s about to fire it up, there’s a knock at the door.

David: Come in.

The door opens. Standing in the doorway is a POLICE OFFICER (male, early 30s).

Officer: Are you David Michael Ewald?

David (understandably wary): Yes.

Officer: And do your parents reside in the 3000 block of Grim Avenue, in the North Park neighborhood?

David: That’s right.

Officer: Then I’m afraid I have tragic news to tell you, son.

David: What?

Officer: There was an accident. A house fire. A…fire in the home. Police are there now. They’ve cordoned off the scene. Could be a crime scene. They’re doing their best to keep the cameras away.

David: What about my parents?

Officer: Don’t think they made it.

David, in shock, his mouth open, turns away from the officer. Tears form in his eyes.

Officer: I am…very sorry, and now…

David, tears streaming, looks at the officer.

Officer: Now you must give your research a rest.

David: My research?

Officer: What you do at work, instead of working. You know what you do. I’m ordering you now to get back on the wagon. Do your job well, and you will be rewarded. Don’t go down the path you’ve started on. You don’t want to end up like your parents. Isn’t that right?

David looks at the officer with heightened suspicion.

David: What do you know?

Officer: I know a lot. Some would say: too much. Too much…And you, David Michael Ewald of San Diego, California, you’re getting to know too much too. In all your searches, all that reading, all that clicking and viewing and navigating, have you ever once connected with anyone?

David: I will.

The officer shakes his head.

Officer: Go home, to what’s left of it. Talk to the authorities. Answer their questions. You know what to say. You’ve had it planned for a while now. Isn’t that right?

David shifts uncomfortably on the couch.

Officer: If you search for anyone now, search for your parents. Let it end with them. I implore you. Don’t go down that path. Look to your family now, your friends.

This time it’s David who shakes his head. He wipes his tears. His chest hitches.

Officer: That boy you remember from elementary school, the one who helped you out when you’d been bullied, you were crying then the way you’re crying now, right? That boy, a little older, who helped you lift your head up and he looked you in the face and said, “David, I’m still your friend,” even though he risked being ostracized for staying friends with someone like you. That boy…he’s a man now, only a year older than you, I imagine. You’re never going to find him the way you want to find him.

David: But if he’s dead….

Officer: Ah, that’s right: if he’s dead….The dead are defenseless, aren’t they? They drift in and out, through walls and windows, not noticing us until we intrude on their designated paths. You want to intrude. I can tell. You found somebody else, didn’t you? An old classmate….

David nods.

David: He died on a highway outside Indio. Back in 2000. He was thrown from the vehicle—that’s what the report read. I remember hearing about it from my parents then, but just this week I tried to find him, some memory of him.

Officer: And did you succeed?

David: There’s nothing about him. Absolutely nothing.

Officer: And how did you feel, when you found out that this nothing of a person had no evidence of his existence whatsoever on your internet?

David: I felt sad. He’ll be forgotten. I almost forgot him.

Officer: It’s okay to forget. You don’t have to remember everyone you’ve ever encountered. Let me show you something.

The screen glows. The officer joins David on the couch.

Officer: What do you see?

David: A plain.

Officer: A meadow. With mountains behind it.

David: It’s pretty.

Officer: It’s Utah.

David: Utah…

Officer: The site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

David: Is this a documentary?

Officer: No. Neither is it a movie. The movie hasn’t been made yet. Watch.

David and the officer watch. The only sound issuing from the screen is that of the wind.

David shifts uncomfortably.

David: What am I watching?

Officer: You’re watching the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

David: There’s nothing there.

Officer: There’s the meadow. There’s the mountain.

David: Where’s the massacre?

Officer: Isn’t that up to you? Aren’t you going to create that?

David and the officer exchange a charged look. David goes back to watching the screen.

Officer: August 24, 1572. March 22, 1622. September 2, 1792.

David: I know those dates.

Officer: Of course you do.

David: I’ve been bleeding a lot lately.

Officer: You’re not alone. Why not connect with them instead of seeking out the intangibles?

David: You want me to forget.

Officer: It’s okay to forget. It’s okay to go to bed with blood on your hands. You’re not alone.

David: Are you sure about that?

Officer: Watch.

The sound of the wind rises to a howl. The screen glows more brightly. David averts his eyes. The officer shouts over the howling wind.

Officer: November 29, 1864. September 16, 1982. November 17, 1997. Who were they? What were their names? Why won’t they be in the movie? Why won’t they be remembered? Blah blah blah. Cease and desist, David Michael Ewald of San Diego, California. Cease and desist before the die is cast.

The howling wind abruptly cuts out. The screen’s glow softens. David looks again at the screen.

Officer: What do you see now?

David: A lake.

Officer: Yes. An inflatable raft, a sunny day and a father and son in the raft conversing as a thirty-four year old and a six year old are wont to do, with the boy asking the father what lives in the lake, and the father fabricating a tale of a lake monster named Herman that resides in the depths, some kind of serpent creature from the sound of it, but it’s a happy monster that subsists only on fish, yet the boy is far from happy, his pensiveness is intense, he speaks of a girl he knows whose father died tragically, suddenly, and the living father, the boy’s father, says he knows, to his son’s question of Will you die? the father answers yes, he succeeds in redirecting his son to a different, innocuous subject and the raft returns to shore where it is beached and father and son join mother and daughter, wife and sister, the daughter younger than her brother by a few years, very young, simply a toddler, and while the father and mother prepare the fire for the crawdads the father and son caught earlier the little girl and her brother venture into the woods and emerge from the trees onto a rocky beach, the water deeper here, the rocks more like boulders, lots of shadows in the water, darkness, this is where the boy and his father went crawdad hunting, the boy is going to show his sister the reason why he caught so few crawdads, it’s because of Herman, that lake monster ate so many and if you look deep enough into the water you can spot Herman, you can see his eyes, come on, over here, this way, across the rocks, and about that time Mom and Dad’s argument (every day they argue over something) drifts enough so that one of them notices their baby girl is not in sight, she’s with her brother, they’re sure, but that’s little consolation seeing that the brother has often expressed annoyance and jealousy and even rage at his little sister’s existence, not to mention the fact that a six-year-old should not be put in charge of a two-year-old, so they move quickly, they dash, they scurry, remember this was long ago and as they run they realize things that will be second nature to those parenting ten years later, and this really is their worst fear realized, darkness made complete by the sight of their son, alone, standing on a flat boulder jutting out above a violent and black part of the water tossing with the small stones the boy is plunking in as he cries out for Herman to please appear, come up Herman, please; later the boy will explain his intentions in beckoning Herman, all sorts of tests will be given and theories proven, but none of it will conclusively illuminate the truth of that afternoon, the mystery surrounding the lake.

David: I don’t see all that.

Officer: You never did. Since then I have watched you. I have waited. You still don’t see.

The apartment goes dark. When the lights go up, the officer stands by the open doorway.

David: Who are you?

Officer: You’ll see me again someday.

The officer backs away.

David: Take me to my parents.

Officer: You don’t want me to take you. That would remove all the fun. Prove to me you are worth remembering, Small One.

The officer gives a wry smile.

Officer: Go to the station. You’ll be better informed there.

David: Which station?

Officer: The North Park station, of course.

The officer exits. Seconds later, Jessa enters.

Jessa: Do you have my ring?

David: Yes.

Jessa: Were you going to give it to me, or were you going to sell it?

David: I’m not a thief, Jessa. I thought about giving it to the officer, actually, since I didn’t know if I’d see you again.

Jessa: What officer?

David: The officer that passed by you just now. He left right when you entered. You couldn’t have missed him.

Jessa looks at David as if he’s off his rocker.

Jessa: I didn’t see anybody, David.

David: Nobody.

Jessa: I’m not lying to you.

David: Whatever.

Jessa holds her hand out. David brings the ring out of his pocket. He inspects it closely.

David: I hurt someone, Jessa. Long ago. (pause) Have you ever hurt someone?

Jessa: I felt like hurting you earlier. Does that count?

David: Do you feel like hurting me now?

Jessa: Just give me the ring, David.

David: Your ex gave it to you?

Jessa’s arm does not waver. David delivers the ring into her palm. Instead of slipping the ring back on, Jessa puts it in her purse.

Jessa: I’ve never hurt anyone. That’s the truth. I never have.

David: I think I’m going to be punished.

Jessa: I think you’re punishing yourself. What happened to you, for you to be like this?

David: I just know it’s going to happen. I just know there’s going to be a family, sometime later this summer, in a car, not too far from here. Driving on a long stretch somewhere in San Diego. During the day, nothing creepy like at night. No ghosts. Not yet. And they’re going fast, as cars around here do. And when the dad puts on the brake to slow down, the  car won’t slow down. It stays at the speed it’s going. They can’t stop. There’s been a malfunction with the vehicle, the braking system. The one car to roll off the assembly line with this defect and they bought it. They’ll scream, they’ll shout, they’ll call on their phones, ask what to do. It’s a long stretch of highway, but it’s going to end. They’re going to run into something. They have to stop somehow. There’s a girl in the backseat, a preteen or young teenager, and she thinks about opening the door and throwing herself out. Take her chances that way. It would be better, she thinks. But she doesn’t do it. Who’s to say the car won’t fix itself in the end. And when it doesn’t fix itself and the car runs the intersection and strikes another vehicle—at the moment of impact is when she opens the door. (pause) Maybe I got it right, maybe I got it wrong.

Jessa: I was hurt too.

David: I’ll think what I think for everyone: What was the last song they heard? What was the last thought in their minds, the last word on their lips? What did they last eat? When did they last go to the bathroom and how long did they take in there? How many people are going to attend the funeral? How many people are going to care? How many more could  potentially care? You know?

Jessa: I don’t know anymore, David. I wasn’t going to ask but…have you had sex?

David: Yes.

Jessa: I think you’re lying.

David: It happened. Long ago. (pause) I have to go. My parents….They might be dead. 

Jessa: What?

David: They probably are. That’s what the officer was here to tell me.

Jessa glances back through the open doorway. No one.

David: You must have just missed him.

Jessa: Do you want me to go with you?

David: That’s okay. You don’t really want to go with me. This is goodbye, and I’m fine with that, just like you are. I can’t have any distractions anyway, where I’m going.

Jessa: Where are you going?

David: Boston. I’ve decided. (pause) I could give you a call, after I’m done with Harriet Quimby.

Jessa: Who’s Harriet Quimby?

David: See. You don’t know. Look her up. Her deathiversary is less than a month away.

Jessa: Don’t call me. Call a psychiatrist.

David: I had my shot there, too. Tomorrow’s my last day. I’ve decided. I need to get to Boston.

Jessa: Great. Quit your job, in this economy.

David: I’ll open that door. I think…after what happened tonight, I’ll have no trouble walking through it. (pause) I’ve decided I’m going to be a journalist, Jessa. I’m going to find out the truth to obscure tragedies. Murders. Suicides. Accidents. I’ll talk to the people involved. I’ll help them, any way I can.

Jessa slaps her hands together and gestures to indicate that she is washing her hands clean of all this.

Jessa: Good luck.

She exits. David turns back to his laptop. He fires it up. The binging “on” sound can be heard as the screen glows. As he waits for the laptop to get going, David makes a call from a land line.

David: Hi…It’s…me, again. Yeah. Anyway, it’s Wednesday at around nine and I was just wondering what you were up to. I know we haven’t spoken in a while and I just wanted to say something I should’ve said the last time we saw each other, when I was really angry and we didn’t leave on the best of terms. I just wanted to say that I met two dead dads, one in 1999 and the other in 2000. One died in 2005 and the other just last month. How do I know this? The screen. The first father, the ‘99 one, had dinner with me and his daughter, and the other, Mr. 2000, spoke to me from his living room chair while the Clippers tanked on the TV. From just those two brief meetings I knew these men were real men, and that because they were real men they were sick, they were dying, and I couldn’t help them, their daughters and their wives couldn’t help them. It’s like the last movie we saw together, that Italian movie, I’m Not Scared. Remember that one? Remember what you did to me in the back of the theater, with the lights all on, and I was looking all around worried that someone, one of the cleaners with their little broom and dustpan, was going to come in and see us? Remember that? I do. I guess to get that back I should’ve listened to you. I guess to save—

David stops and gives the phone an odd look. He listens, then presses a button. Then he redials.

David: Hi. Me again. I was satisfied with that last message. I’ll be satisfied with this one too. I guess to save those men I should’ve listened to them. At the time I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me. I do now. I live it. It’s the ethenticity of the thing. You can mock it up, muck it up, vertically as well as horizontally and functionally. Railroad the data, bring in the collectiviser, comply on the fly, stage and gauge, secure the trust, renovate to innovate, select to connect, bullets breeding in our breath. We thought we had taken the story to market. We thought we had our value proposition supported. Turns out Ahab chased the whale. The goal always was to make them bleed, wasn’t it? Pinpoints of burnt, masticated flesh flecking from lips, smack and jaw, the end of a factory tour where no one gets to sample the goods. The king reigns, the consorts crumble. Tines of a fork running along tongue-beads, those semi-sober coals uneven and clam-baked. Think again of what is resting, waiting, in the briefcase. Is “butt” the right word for it? Looks pass around the table like secrets, die as a vapor, without whisper. The blocks cascade down, like rain. A laugh colder than calling. I’m right here, chewable as ever. There must be a beginning, but the sentence comes at the end. They want an accurate body count. They want to see blood on all our hands. That’s my future. I have thirty seconds in which to make an im—

David stares at the phone again. This time, he hangs up. Having placed the phone back in its cradle, he starts typing. As he types, he reads aloud what he’s written.

David: Do not rely on those who do not care about you.

You don’t recognize people you should.

If you have the guts, call me.

You are unable to perform the act, and you know it.

You’ve wanted to be somebody else for a long time.

Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

Your name will be famous in the future.

David does not see his PARENTS appear through the closed front door. Mom and Dad stand watching him. David remains focused on the screen. In the midst of typing, he takes out his voice recording device. He is just about to raise the device to his mouth when he notices his parents standing by the closed front door. David’s parents are expressionless; their hands are at their sides.

David: Oh. That’s right.

David closes the laptop and puts it in a laptop bag. He grabs a backpack from underneath the coffee table and heads for the front door. His parents don’t move. Their expressionless faces throughout this encounter do not change.

David: Let me through. I need to go to the station. I need to identify—

David catches himself. He bows his head.

David: It’s not what you think. I loved you. (pause) I really did. That may surprise you. But I’m going to avenge your deaths. I’m going to find out who’s responsible, and whoever it is is going to be punished to the point where that person won’t do anything like that again, or anything again period. This I swear to you both. You might see me as ungrateful, self   -absorbed, unfeeling, but I was only working with what I’d been given. Honest, Mom, Dad—honest. I didn’t ask to be given those things. I didn’t ask to be put in front of a screen. It’s not like I’m ever going to have children, not like I’m going to ever have the chance to raise kids away from what I love. Do you honestly think anyone can be brought up now in only the woods, hunting, fishing, watching the sunset—things you both used to do, right? Remember all that, in the seventies, John Denver and the Firecat, before I was born? (long pause) Aren’t you going to let me through? Aren’t you going to let me do what I have to do? Please? I know the money’s coming. I can wait. I have my own stash from work anyway, to last me a little bit…(pause) I have a job to do. Finally. Something that interests me, that gives me some meaning to my life. I have plenty of money. Yours will be nice but…When have I ever bought anything expensive? Fixed my car? Gotten a new TV? Gone out…Such a waste, that, such a waste. I’ve seen the best minds of my generation, Alice. Go ask her. We’ll see what she has to say….This laptop, yeah, the laptop’s the only thing…I’ve put my life into this thing. My life is in here, and it shows. Please help me by standing aside. Let me leave. I don’t want to be like some warped version of Hamlet, stuck here. I hate to be stuck. You know that. Talk about the ultimate punishment. I’m ready. When you got money, you got money to lose, right? I thought about this for a long time. I always knew I would do this, since I saw that crime special. The father who bludgeoned his family in their sleep. And we all watched. (pause) I’m ready. Stand aside, please. Do you need proof? Proof of what I’m going to accomplish, what I’m going to solve, who I’m going to help? I swear to you I’m finally going to give back, for once many times over. I’m going to help those in need. You’ll be proud of me, at last. So, stand aside. Wait—watch me work, and then you’ll feel comfortable enough to go, and I will too. Watch me work. 

David takes a seat on the couch, takes his laptop out of the bag and opens it, and takes up his voice recording device. Every so often he stops typing and clicking and scrolling to speak into the recorder. As he works, his parents gradually fade back through the door until they can no longer be seen.

David: I was in Kansas to warn a town’s populace of an impending raid. I was in Texas to witness a father’s futile sacrifice for his daughter. I was in Texas to keep the college kids away from the pile of logs. I was in Banda Aceh to donate money directly to the victims. I was in San Francisco to switch some fortune cookies. I was in Chicago to follow the trail of poisoned pain relief medicine. I was in Italy to pull the trigger on the first firearm homicide in history. I was in the Bermuda Triangle to ask what some pilots wanted for Christmas. I was in outer space to experience the breakup upon reentry….

David lingers in silence on that last sentence. He switches off the voice recording device, pockets it and closes the laptop. After bagging his computer, he once more gathers his backpack and heads for the door. This time nothing stops him. He looks back once at his apartment, then heads out. The door shuts behind him. Blackout.

Linda (chapter 9)

 

Linda

 

 

I was in Los Angeles to get her to sign the contract. She had never been nearly as famous as the King of Poppin’ Pills, but this was unconscionable: just outside the fast food joint, blocking the entrance, tributes to the superstar singer had taken every form, from the ten or so look-alikes busking to the tunes of his most popular songs to dance groups replicating his moves for money to the non-profit-minded people who carried signs and photos and remembrances. It was October 5th, a little over three months since his death and exactly fourteen years since hers. Both had died at the age of fifty, in Los Angeles, but what had she accomplished compared to him? Better yet, what did she have left to accomplish? A lot that not enough people knew about, I was afraid, and so the contract was in my backpack, at the ready. So too was Ishmael, holstered on my hip, at the moment silent since so many people were around and I was grabbing food to go.

We had already conducted the final searches of her and her place of employment; now all I needed was to catch my cab and continue on our way. Apparently, though, it was my fault I’d gotten hungry. Pushing open the front door and avoiding a zombie that shook and lurched to a song, cupped hands held out, I saw that my taxi had vanished. “Couldn’t the guy wait?” I muttered. Ishmael buzzed just then, and I ran to the side of the building to take the call.

“No call, mate. Just me.”

“Oh. I can’t believe that cabbie took off. I really did get him a burger and fries like I promised.”

“You were taking a bit too long in there. Anyhow, I’ve contacted another, should be here shortly.”

“Thanks. Do you want his burger and fries?”

“Ha ha, you cheeky bastard.”

The cab pulled into the parking lot twenty minutes later. To me that didn’t count as ‘shortly’, and so when I got into the back I was bugging. I had, I figured, less than three hours to find the Filmation studio and convince her to sign. It wasn’t 1995 anymore. It wasn’t even 1983. I was convinced the importance of exact time on her deathiversary would hold true for this one. Would the Internet smile, or would it frown?

“Take me to Reseda,” I said. “Pronto, amigo.”

“I don’t go to Reseda,” the driver answered.

I handed him a fifty. “Do you still not go to Reseda?” My brows rose, my voice lilted.

“That’s right.” He handed the bill back.

I added a hundred to the fifty and waved these in his face.  “How about now? And I’ll throw in the burger and fries, too.”

“Now we go to Reseda,” the driver said, his teeth bared.

I didn’t feel bad when the bills left my hand. This was Los Angeles, after all, not some X-tiered city where everyone knows your name.

We bumper-to-bumpered it up one freeway and onto another. As we crawled I sighed, shook my head, and wished I had a helicopter. On the radio playing loudly was another of the famous singer’s hits, and I saw hanging from the rearview mirror a photo of that deceased singer, along with some kind of exotic amulet.

“Would you mind turning down the music?”

“What, you don’t like the song?”

“No, I like this. It’s just….”

“You tired of him?”

“It has been over three months…and he was already so famous—or infamous, depending. Isn’t it time we give someone else a chance?”

“Like who?”

“Like Linda Gary.”

“Who?”

“You’re old enough to have experienced the eighties. Didn’t you ever watch He-Man: Masters of the Universe? She-Ra: Princess of Power…? No? Maybe you were working when they were on. How about a little later, when you’d accrued more vacation time? There’s Darkwing Duck, from the late eighties-early nineties…the animated Batman series from about ’92-’94 and then again in ’96 and ’97…”

“Man, what are you telling me about?”

“I’m telling you about Land Before Time II: The Great Valley Adventure. Land Before Time III: The Time of the Great Giving. The Land Before Time IV: Journey Through—“

“Man, look at me! I am fifty-eight years old! I am Bengali! I came here four years ago! In Calcutta I drove cabs, and look what I’m doing here. I don’t watch these things!”

“But….they’re out on DVD now. If you saw any one of them, you’d know why she deserves a tribute similar to the one the King of Poppin’ Pills has been getting.”

My driver was silent. At last he said, “You call him what?”

“The King of Poppin’ Pills.”

“The King of Pop, man.”

“So,” I said. “Even Linda Gary is miscredited sometimes as ‘Linda Gray’.”

We made it to Reseda at just after four. I still wasn’t quite sure of the address so I had our slow-simmering driver drop us off at the corner of Victory and White Oak. Ishmael had been buzzing frantically for the latter part of the drive, but rather than pick him up in the cab I waited until we were on the street.

“Bad idea, mate. Now we have to walk.”

“Is that wrong?”

“Nobody walks in L.A.”

“Yeah, well, we’ll see what Ms. Gary has to say about that.”

As we walked Ishmael continued to scour the Internet for the address of the Filmation studio. “Not finding it, mate. This one’s hidden better than a bug up a Scotsman’s arse. I suggest we ask someone.”

“What?”

“You know. Talk to people.”

In a brand-name restaurant on Sherman Way I asked the bartender if she knew of the exact address of the Filmation studio. She shook her head, said sorry, and I slumped in the stool, down.

I perked up when, moments later, I heard, “Filmation you said?”

An older man, Bow mustache, had drawn close to me. “I know that place,” he said.

“You know where it is?”

“You mean where it was. You know they moved to Canoga Park in ’86—“

“—when they were owned by Westinghouse,” I took up the torch. “And L’Oreal Cosmetics bought them from Westinghouse in ’88, and then on February 3, 1989, closed down the Filmation studio, letting just about every employee go.”

“And thus ended the great legacy of shoddily-made cartoons from the late ‘70s up through most of the ‘80s.” The older man addressed this line to his beer.

I was tempted to say, They weren’t shoddily–made at all, but, fearing a second outburst-reprisal of the day, I kept my mouth closed and waited for him to open up on the whereabouts.

He pointed me to the place, which happened to be just a few blocks down from the restaurant and its bar. I stood in front of the dark brown, near windowless façade that bore no sign of Filmation. I wasn’t deterred, though. Just because Filmation wasn’t there anymore didn’t mean she wasn’t.

At close to five-thirty I opened the door marked Cytrenex Designs, Ltd. Immediately I was in a waiting room, lit but empty. No one sat behind the front check-in counter, and no voices could be heard from the back. Taking all this in I panicked. Were we too late? Had she left? Would I have to wander the Sherman Oaks Galleria in search of success?

I was just about to make a move toward the side hallway when a youngish man rushed through that same hallway and headed for the front door. He was dressed casually, jeans, short-sleeved outdoorsy-catalog-style button up relaxation shirt, and he stopped to take note of me.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Linda Gary.”

“Linda Gary….Linda Gary….”

“She’s sometimes miscredited as ‘Linda Gray’?”

“Huh. Well….Bob’s back there. Maybe he can help you. She must be new. I just don’t know.” With that the youngish man put on a dark blue cap with the letters LA stitched in white on the front and headed out the door.

Dissatisfied with his response and unwilling to delay the deal any longer, I proceeded down the darkened hall. Some of the rooms I passed were shut, likely locked, but others remained open to me. Each one I looked into was either dark or devoid of life or both. Apparently no one here worked past five-thirty on a Friday.

In the last room on the left, end of hall, I peeked-a-blue in to see a man wearing headphones, his back to me, listening to some kind of recording on his desktop. He seemed very intent on manipulating whatever odd graphics were floating on the screen, so I thought it best to leave him be, not forgetting to note, however, that this office was the exact same office that could be seen on the Internet above the caption “Filmation animator in his studio working on a scene from He-Man: Masters of the Universe episode….” The men were different, the technology too, but the basic feel of the den remained the same.

Leaving the hallway and that one lit room, I entered the area I’d been expecting to find all along: the recording wing. The door was not locked. I turned the cold handle and entered the control room. Running the entire length of the lower end of the wall directly opposite from where I’d entered was a humongous panel with lots of blinking lights and intimidating technological mumbo jumbo. Above that wall was an equally large window running the same length, matching the control panel stride for stride. A few chairs were in front of the panel, and to either side of the doorway were more chairs, a couple of metal cabinets and a small desk. The light was on low in the control room, but the actual recording room was frank with darkness. Slowly I shut the door behind me and approached the control panel, my eyes fixed on the blackness before me. It was as if I’d been taken to the very bottom of the sea and the best I could do was strain my eyes out the sub window in hopes of spotting a bobbly-eyed drifter.

I exhaled, arms branching out. I placed my palms on the edge of the panel, then moved my hands up to touch—just touch—some of the knobs and switches and levers, none of which, I should add, appeared to be of the 21st century.

Since it was cold in the room I aimed to find the switch that controlled the heat. Surely one of these would bring up the temp….

I shot back from the panel as the lights went up completely in the recording room. I gave a little cry when I saw a woman, not too tall, standing at a kind of lectern, a long microphone close to her lips. She had on an old-school set of headphones, her hair was frizzy and huge in that time-of-the-shoddily-made-cartoons way, and she did not seem to notice (or perhaps she couldn’t see) me on the other side of the window. Her attention was on the sheaf of paper she had with her at the lectern—a script, I assumed. The rest of the room was empty—not of things but of people. A table stood to the side of the lectern, on it a purse and more scripts, a coffee cup, some miscellaneous items. Another table on the other side of the room held more paper, some VHS tapes and a jacket.

I focused on the woman at the microphone, silently willing her to turn from her work for just a moment. She looked beautiful. Her complexion, fair; her figure, thin and firm; her lips, attainable; her nails, glossy. From what I could see she wore jeans and a big-shouldered blouse, a necklace of plain silver, and at least one ring on her finger (but which ring, which finger, which hand mattered? Would that too have to be looked up on the Internet? Would I have the time, let alone the patience, to search?). There was no mistaking her for another, because it was she. It was Linda Gary.

“Are you ready?” she said without looking up.

She began to speak in a low hissing voice, quite sinister really, punctuated by the occasional high-pitched inflection. She was addressing someone about a rebellion of some sort. I recognized the names Hordak and She-Ra, and I knew then that this was the voice of the evil Shadow Weaver from the ’85-’87 series She-Ra: Princess of Power.

Taking my eyes off Linda for a minute I reached down and unzipped my backpack. I shuffled through papers—Internet printouts mostly—until I found the contract. I brought this up and carefully reviewed it in the glow of the control panel. Linda continued to deliver Shadow Weaver’s lines with aplomb, pausing every so often for a longer period of time so that whoever was supposed to be—or actually was—in the room with her could have their turn. Whoever played Hordak. Whoever played She-Ra. Whoever played He-Man. Whoever played Bow.

Faint but recognizable, the beat and bass of Rosanne Cash’s “Hold On” could be heard from another room or two over. Reaching into the backpack one more time I pulled out a thin brad-bound script. I flipped through this quickly, making sure no page was missing or out of place. Then, with contract and script in hand, I moved away from the control panel and headed over to the door that would lead into the actual recording room.

Linda did not look up as I entered. She read from her script as Shadow Weaver, but then abruptly switched to an alluring femme fatale voice with a lot of meows and purrs thrown in: Catra. From there she fell into an innocent-sounding voice, a hum underneath, a buzz here and there: Sweet Bee. Then she shifted to another voice, this one sounding more naïve than innocent, a young woman who always got herself and her companions into trouble: Glimmer. After a few lines from this character, Linda paused for a short time and then went right back to Shadow Weaver. From the dialog so far I didn’t recognize the episode; perhaps it was one ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

When I was sure we had a commercial break I boldly went up to Linda, the contract brandished. She took off her headphones, pushed the mike away, and for the first time looked at me. Her eyes had gone from a kind of hazel-green to a still-striking obsidian, shiny, the color of the backyard. She glanced down at the contract before addressing me in her own voice, a voice that was not as far removed from her characters as I’d hoped.

“Do you have a pen?” she said.

I cried yes and reached into my pocket. She took both contract and pen and looked the former over while almost touching the latter to it. I waited, fingers picking fingers.

Her pen still hovering, Linda again observed me. “Who should I sign it for?”

“Well, you’re signing it for me.”

“What’s your name?”

I told her my name and she scribbled. Then she handed the contract back. I saw that she had written all over it, a large scrawl that read To David….All the best, Linda.

“No!” I said. “You were supposed to put your signature—on the dotted line at the bottom. Nothing else. Don’t you see this is a contract? Now it’s ruined. And it’s my only copy!”

“Contract?” Linda looked around as if preparing to duck sniper fire. “Why would I need a contract?”

“For peace of mind—my peace of mind most of all. I need it in writing that you agree to get my help.”

“I don’t need help,” she said.

“Oh yes you do. With the Meritocrat afoot, you can’t afford to refuse my services. You can’t afford to be forgotten.”

Linda shook her head. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain in due time. For now, just sign the contract—the right way this time. Look: there’s still some space to put your signature on the dotted line. There…”

Linda turned from me and said, “I don’t think so.”

I sighed loudly. “Linda, please. I can’t have what happened with Andrew and Aegeus and Christopher and Ai’dah happen with you too. Once you sign this, you’re committed: committed to your fans, committed to all you’ll achieve from working with me. Big money’s involved, big money. More than that: recognition by today’s coveted 18-34 age demographic.”

For perhaps the first time, Linda was voiceless.

“The keyword is today, Linda. Right now, outside this building, I can’t count how many people are praying to this singer who was popular at the time you were voicing your best work—and he died three months ago. He faded in the early nineties, but now, because of his comeback by death, his albums have skyrocketed to the top of the Internet sales charts and he’s king once more. Will you be his queen? Will you too choose never to die? Right now you have only a few Internet pages giving scant details of your life. We need so much more than that. That’s why I’ve brought this.”

After some hesitation Linda took the contract from me and looked it over.

“What are the broad strokes?” I pre-empted her. “Simple: We need you to reenact your death, preferably in the same hospital where it actually happened—provided it actually happened in a hospital and not at home, like with Christopher. Shouldn’t be too big a deal, right? I know it probably dragged on, but we can compress real time with film time and spread the video through all channels the Internet has to offer. Kids in China, the elderly in Norway—everyone from infants to the about-to-die-themselves will see you on your deathbed, when they were never able to see you before! What do you say? That’s number one—”

Abruptly Linda handed the contract back and said, “I have commitments.”

“Wait. What commitments? You’ve already done everything you think you’re going to do. Now do this, the number two requirement.” And I handed her the script. She took it and flipped through, stopping now and then to linger on a page, a line perhaps. She came to the end, shut the material, and stared at the cover page.

“It’s animated….” I offered.

“It makes no sense,” she deplored.

“What’s there not to make sense of? You’re the heroine, the star of the saga. It’s a classic tale of good versus evil. Your number one enemy is—”

“The Meritocrat,” Linda said, and I swear I saw her eyes flash red then for just a moment. Choosing to ignore this, I pressed on—albeit with trepidation.

“The Meritocrat, that’s right….He wants to erase you, technologically rub you out, but you, Linda Gary, the protagonist of this script, defeat him in the end.”

“I don’t know if I can agree to do that,” Linda said.

“Why not? It’s fiction. You’re acting. Plus it’s a great script. Tell me: what producer in his—or her—right mind wouldn’t go balls—or?—to the walls over this sizzling dialog spoken by none other than the glorious Linda Gary, voice actress extraordinaire!”

I revealed Ishmael, ready to record.

“I thought we’d do a test run right now, to give you an early chance to get a feel for the material and to find your voice for this role. Okay?”

At least she wouldn’t turn away from me, as much as she might have liked to. Her mouth looked moist, her eyes watery.

“Now when you act your lines make sure you act them into this cellphone thingy here. We need to preserve your voice, your work, the most pristine possible. Don’t worry about the other characters’ lines—read only yours. I’m still on the hunt for the male love interest…”

Linda put the script in her mouth and began to chew. I grabbed her arms, the pages, and managed to wrench my work away.

“The Meritocrat got to you too, didn’t he? You’re possessed!”

Linda squawked an awful laugh. Her eyes looked about ready to fall out of their sockets.

“Fight him, Linda. Fight him off! Don’t you see? He’s keeping you from your absolute last chance to be somebody in our time. If you’re not everywhere on the Internet, where are you? Who are you?”

“Mate, if I may—”

“You haven’t made a movie or an episode in well over a decade. I can bring you back! You’ve got a lot of fans—I may be your biggest—but think of the worldwide masses that would at the very least talk about you if they only knew what you’ve done and what you will be doing: defeating the Meritocrat on the big screen!”

Did I detect a tear—however miniscule—in Linda Gary’s right eye? My voice reeked with the same degree of emotion a composition teacher’s voice would hold if she had to tell a student that the research assignment, worth twenty-five percent of the final grade, technically looked correct but had been done on a banned topic, according to the syllabus, and so would receive no credit whatsoever.

“I’m here to save you, Linda,” I continued, my own eyes welling. “The reserve of recordings and sound bites has been empty for far too long. Join me, and you’ll join a community like no other. Sign on the dotted line, the right way this time, and we’ll get your work—new and old—out there.”

But when I offered the contract again she took it and tore it up. Bits of paper like false snow flakes flew in my face. She spat on the script, which I found amazing as she stood a good few feet from me and I had the script partially covered with hand and forearm.

I threw the script on the floor and shook my pointer in her face. “You don’t want my help? Fine. You’re through in this town. Every door’s closed to you now…”

As I spoke she aged, no longer the thirty-something. She was into her forties, passing through the years, the late-eighties, the early-nineties. I saw my youth in her advancement, and for once I was afraid.

Linda’s hair began to come out in great tufts she ripped from her scalp like weeds. She did not look at the hair but instead absently let it fall to the floor, where it covered my defiled script.

“Go ahead and cry,” I said, for she was indeed crying now. “See if anyone remembers you forty, thirty, even twenty years from now. When they search, the first thing, the second thing, the third thing, and all the way down the line they’ll see is a different Linda Gary, another Linda Gary, and another Linda Gary, and also a Linda Gray, and another Linda Gray….You had your chance to make a come-back. You blew it. I’m not even going to ask you the walking in L.A. question.” I turned from her and headed for the exit.

“Mate!” Ishmael yelled from my hand. I heard a shriek behind me—that of a little boy, over the stall, and then she was on me, her hands around my throat, dragging me back. I twisted to fight her off. In one fist I protected Ishmael while the other fist hammered and lunged. At last Linda disengaged. Her hair was completely gone, her skin patchy and yellow, her teeth missing in all but the most hidden places. Her voice was going, too.

“Read the Internet,” I said. “Read the Internet! You knew this was coming! You knew! Almost a decade and a half ago you are going to die of brain cancer at the age of fifty, leaving behind a body of work that can keep your name afloat for only so long. You should’ve seen what it’s like now. Everyone’s crowding on, wants their own little space. Yours is sinking under the weight of the new.”

“Silenced,” she gasped, sounding too much like Shadow Weaver.

“Good luck with that,” I said and pushed away. I left the possessed spirit writhing on the floor clutching its infected head, screaming and babbling in all the voices, the Grandma dinosaur, Dame Barbara, Evil-Lyn, Aunt May Parker, Queen Marlena, Seawitch, Nora Crest, Miss Buxley, Miss Blips, the Queen of England, Chromia. I cut out upon hearing additional voices, unknown episodes.

Back in the control room I looked through the window to again see only that same darkness from the beginning. I picked up my backpack, and Ishmael said, “That could have gone better.”

“How do you figure?”

“Well for one, perhaps a kinder, gentler tone could be used? More sensitivity to her past?”

“What past? We couldn’t find hardly anything on her.”

“Then perhaps she wasn’t one to approach. Or does that not matter to you? Is it really just about you?”

“What? No. It’s not about me. It’s never about me. It’s just the Meritocrat keeps getting in the way.”

“I’m not so certain the Meritocrat had a hand in this one. You might have just defeated yourself.”

“I’m not getting you.”

“Think about it, mate. You saw that photo of Linda Gary taken toward the end of her life. She had all her hair!”

“That looked like a wig to me.”

“Wig or no wig, why is she tearing her hair out in front of you? That’s not how she was when she died.”

“Her spirit tore out her spirit’s hair. The Meritocrat made her….”

“Or is it that you made her? Is it you who made the infant die that way in Michigan because you wanted it so, for the Internet, you who made Aegeus and Christopher react the way they did—out of your frustration and lack of patience?”

“Whoa,” I said. “You’re scaring me, Ishy. You’re starting to sound like the Meritocrat. Just what’s going on with you two anyway?”

“I just have to question,” Ishmael said, “who’s in control here? How much of what’s happening is a reflection of your lack of knowledge, your lack of care…”

“I care plenty,” I said. “I didn’t want Linda to do that. Are you saying I subconsciously willed it or something?”

“I’m merely pointing out that you may have had more of a hand in this outcome than you think. Must you meet everyone? And with that I also have to ask: Just who are you?”

“Apparently, I’m shameless,” I said before holstering Ishmael and getting out of that room as well.

In the hallway stood the man I’d popped in on earlier. His arms crossed, his face monolithic, he gnashed: “Who are you? You don’t work here, do you?”

“I did,” I said, a few tears falling now. “Until ’89. That year ended a lot of things for us. The saddest song I’d ever heard is Richard Marx’s ‘Right Here Waiting’, my father at the wheel of his car parked behind the local K-Mart, weeping to the radio. And I knew then what men had to do.”

He stood aside. I strode down the hall, confident in what I had attempted. You’re a man now, she would have said, to which I would have said goodbye.

Alice (chapter 10)

Alice

 

 

I was in Indiana to get a green light from one of the first female flight attendants killed in the line of duty. Since my failure with Linda Gary in Los Angeles earlier in the month, I had decided to heed what Ishmael had said about the need to be more sensitive to the pasts and personal details of those I hoped to help. I agreed that I needed to talk to people, and so here I was, on yet another stranger’s doorstep.

It was the end of October, coming in on the cold time, and my hand stung when I touched the handle. One round of knocking shave-and-a-haircut was all it took for the door to open. Behind the screen hunched a gentleman of an advanced age—just the person I was hoping to hit up. He pushed his glasses back up his nose’s bridge but did not seem physically capable of straightening and looking at me. A prisoner of his own spine.

“Well what d’ya want? No more talks, I’m not converting.”

“Oh, I’m not one of those,” I said. “I’m here conducting research.”

“Research? Are you a student?”

“Of a kind, yes. I’m a student of history.”

“I used to be a historian,” the man said, and the door began to open. “Then I was a history teacher. Here in Chesterton—”

“Porter County. Westchester Township, Indiana,” I said as I stepped inside. “Population 10,684, according to the 2000 US census records. Wanna know how and why I know that? Because I have access to the Internet. I have Ishmael.”

We were in the living room now. Smell of domesticated animal assaulted my nostrils, but I could not see a critter anywhere.

“Lot a people ‘round here have God,” the elderly gentleman said. “I gave up God when my wife got killed.” He proceeded to step up, right foot then the left, onto a small but wide plastic stool no more than a few inches off the ground. As soon as he was all the way on the stool, he placed his right foot back on the carpet followed by his left. He continued to step up then down fully, over and over, as we talked.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, sensing my way in. “Someone else lost a wife, or I should say what would have been his wife, long ago—but here.”

“In this house?”

“No. But near here. It happened on the night of October 10, 1933, around this time at night, nine-fifteen.”

The man had stopped. Even if he’d wanted to, he could not look at me.

“An eruption in the sky,” I said, my arms outstretched. Careful not to hit anything, I spun as I spoke. “Like a massive concentration of all the fireworks that had ever exploded over New Jersey up to that time. Long snaky trails of smoke and fiery debris.”

“I know what you’re talking about,” the man said—but I was rolling.

“The front of the aircraft, the United Airlines Boeing 247, tail number NC13304, both wings, the cockpit, all still intact, rocketed to the ground, its rear a pit of Hell itself, the flames dancing with the stars.”

The elderly gentleman was turning toward me. His foot slipped on the edge of the platform and, arms swinging, he began to fall. I grabbed him before he could, though.

Supporting him, I led him over to the couch where he sunk back, practically engulfed in what a younger generation must have gifted him.

“When what was left of that ‘giant twin-motored transport plane’,” I was saying even as I directed him to the couch, “hit the ground, possibly the very spot just beyond your backyard, it too exploded and sent its contents in pieces for at least a mile in all directions. All seven on board the aircraft, four passengers and three crew members, perished.” I stood triumphant above the elderly man, my fist clutching Ishmael.

“That did happen here,” the man said after several moments. “So long ago I can barely remember it.”

“But you do…remember it.”

“I was a boy, very young. Why do you care about it now?”

“Does the name Alice Scribner mean anything to you?”

At the shaking of the man’s head I fired up Ishmael, who beeped as any normal cellular device would. Having switched to the voice recording function, I pointed my constant companion at the elderly gentleman and said, “On a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest, how likely would you be to shell out ten dollars to see a biopic based on the life and tragic end of one of the first female flight attendants killed in the line of duty?”

The elderly man appeared to be having trouble breathing. His jowls shook, his fish-like mouth smacked, and he fingered his chest as if some kind of small animal was moving underneath his shirt. I suspected something was amiss, but I could not stop, nor did Ishmael warn me to stop.

“One to ten: a simple answer. Just one simple number on a simple scale. All the other participants were able to answer just fine….What’s the problem? What’s wrong?”

The man was sputtering. He heaved and convulsed, his mouth wide open and issuing spittle. I had never seen such a thing before. Was this really what happened? How awful!

“Does this mean I’m not going to get your boyhood memories of the crash?”

The elderly man’s wide eyes remained open even though they now saw nothing of this house, this interviewer, this world. I stepped forward intending to shut those lids, but before I could reach out all the way Ishmael buzzed a warning not to touch—instead to just leave.

Outside and far away from the house, Ishmael finally spoke. “Nothing you could have done back there, mate. Would’ve happened to him tonight no matter what. Couldn’t have been helped.”

“Really? I could have at least gotten him to give his opinion on the viability of the Alice Scribner biopic. Did he have to go right then?”

“Bad timing, I suppose.”

We were at the edge of a densely wooded area now. The moon was strong enough to illuminate the ground without Ishmael’s aid. I got down on one knee and from out of my daypack took two signal flares. These I held up and then knocked together, expecting them to light immediately. When they did not, I knocked them together again.

“I wouldn’t do that too much, mate.”

“But you say the fire’s built into them already?”

Sighing, Ishmael searched for then projected one of the many pages that showed how exactly to light a flare. Having followed instructions and cracked each one open successfully, I took a flare in each hand again and straightened up. The houses I had either been in or been turned away from were barely visible a good distance behind. Ahead trees hugged one another against the onset of chill. Besides the hiss of the flares in my face and Ishmael’s throbbing hum near my head, I heard an owl hooting, some kind of bird cawing, a branch snapping to my left.

Raising my arms slowly I waved the flares back and forth. I looked above. Nothing but stars, the moon, unbridled ferocity.

“Sure this’ll work, mate?”

“It’s worked before, with others. Not the flares, of course. The flares are distinctly hers.”

Minutes upon minutes passed and I began to lose all feeling in my hands, my ears, my nose, my lips and, most disturbing, my legs. The warmth, the energy, the life of these parts was ebbing, and I felt afraid. I worried that since I’d spent so much time with the focus groups, the surveys and interviews and thus missed being at this spot, at this time, on the exact date by more than two weeks, I had in fact missed her. Was the precise deathiversary everything? I wondered if Ishmael had good reason to doubt me after all.

Just as I was about to set my flares down and ask Ishmael for more guidance, lights like eyes broke from the stars and descended. These lights grew larger and larger, whatever it was flying faster and faster toward me.

“Here she comes,” I whispered. “Here she comes.”

I kept the flares parallel to each other and slowly brought them up and down, a tomahawk chop. The lights were now blinding. I turned to the side while continuing to motion with the flares.

“Come in softly to the side. This way, please.”

And then the lights were gone and I sensed a presence at my back. I spun around to see nothing but the houses looking even more distant and dark. They seemed to be receding even though I was not moving. The presence remained, someone other than Ishmael right beside me, behind me. I spun in the other direction, the flares out and fizzing, and now I was met with nothing but the inkiness of night.

“Ishy, your light!”

“Trying, mate. Something’s strong out here. There’s major interference.”

“The Meritocrat again.”

A figure moved at the edge of the forest to my left. Whoever it was had his or her back to me and did not turn to look before disappearing behind trees. A vampire, I thought, for surely I had seen a cape.

“Hey!” I said and started after it. I had left behind the flares, my satchel and daypack, clutching only Ishmael as I scurried into the forest.

I ran fast, unafraid, winded only toward the end. The woods cleared and we found ourselves at the edge of a wide open field well-lit by the moon. At the opposite end of the field, just before more trees, swayed the figure. Suddenly it set off toward me. As it drew near I saw that it was a woman in a green cape and a brimless Parisian-style felt cap fashionable in the 1920s and ‘30s. She continued to glide toward me, propelled by some unseen force. As she drew near, her cape billowed out a little, revealing a crisp and modest nurse-cum-flight attendant’s uniform: a long-sleeved button-up blazer of a style popular at the time, and a dress that fell considerably below the knees. Her skin was white as Wisconsin, land of her childhood, and her eyes a pitch-perfect green, lit up, and her hair beneath the cap blond as a white beer I once held. She came within a few feet of me then paused to consider, as did I, though not for long. Despite having been unable to find any image of her on the Internet, I knew. It was she. It was Alice Scribner.

“Evan,” she said, her voice thin but sweet. Twenty-six years old.

“I’m not Evan,” I said, acknowledging the previous existence of Alice’s fiancé, Evan C. Terp of Green Bay, who had been waiting for her at the airport in Chicago when the plane went down over Indiana. “Though I wish I was. You look positively appealing.”

Alice tilted her head to the side and stared at me, her eyes pleading. “Evan,” she repeated, and she began to weep.

“There there,” I said, and I held out a tissue that she did not take. “I can’t imagine what you must be feeling now, to be trapped, like that….You may feel alone, but I’m here for you now. I care.”

The tears and sniffles gone now, Alice looked at me warily. She began to gravitate backward.

“Wait!” I said. “Ms. Scribner, you don’t know how much work I’ve put into your case!”

She paused, her hands wringing one another in front of her stomach.

“You like movies?” I said. “The pictures? King Kong….uh, what other movies were out in ’33?”

Duck Soup,” Ishmael said, muffled, through my hand.

Duck Soup,” I said. “Yes!”

Baby Face, 42nd Street….”

“Got it, Ishy, thanks. I can take it from here.”

I stepped toward Alice, who no longer backed away. I held out my hand and she took it, and I got down on one knee, my head bowed, a suitor about to propose.

“I’ve spent so long here in northern Indiana. Just in Chesterton I’ve spent a week. And all for this….” Here I brandished Ishmael, who at my command projected a holograph image of several rotating storyboards, all complete with action and dialogue. Alice watched, expressionless, as one storyboard after another flitted past.

“This is you, Alice. Your story, as I’ve gathered and written it from research and the memories and hearts of all those who wanted to know you.”

Ishmael was laying on a bit heavy with the standard Hollywood sweeping epic soundtrack, but the presentation seemed to be affecting Ms. Scribner.

“I need you to approve this movie, Alice. Give it your blessing. Let me know who you have in mind to play you….We really can talk casting decisions now. The sooner you green-light this, the sooner we can start rolling.”

 Moved by my impassioned speech, Alice Scribner returned to me and extended a lightly-gloved hand. I holstered Ishmael and took her hand in mine.

“So does this mean….”

“Prepare for takeoff,” Alice announced, her shy smile teasing my lips.

We turned to face the field, which appeared to have lengthened when I wasn’t looking. It was now the size of an airport runway, the trees distant markers on the horizon.

I gripped Alice’s hand, but she seemed unconcerned. This was, after all, her job.

“We are clear to go,” she said, and then I too was off the ground, my feet hovering just above the tall wavy grass. I gulped and tried to breathe.

“Did I mention I’m scared of flying when there’s no plane involved?”

Alice’s eyes never once diverted from the path before us. “Go, go, go!” she whispered fiercely to the field, and we began to move across it. Faster and faster, pushed forward by that same unseen force, we gathered such speed that the ground was a blur beneath me and the forest on either side had ceased to be a factor. Our feet were far off the ground now; we continued to rise to the point where we just cleared the tree tops at the far end of the forest, the end of the runway.

“Alice! Alice, is this really happening? Alice! If it is…woohoo!” I cried out as we left the dirt and plants and animals and fragile people behind.

Giddy with the feeling of floating gently on such a calm night as this, I exhaled and took in air easily. My hold on Alice’s hand relaxed.

“This is amazing, Alice. Thank you! It’s going to make a stellar contribution to your movie. Now as I was saying, the focus groups all overwhelmingly support the production and release of an Alice Scribner biopic. Since there’s so very little about you available, anywhere, they all helped with the story. But I’m the one who’s writing the script. What do you think of this opening shot: blue sky, nothing but. Then a plane, an early era biplane drifting far overhead. You’re looking up at it, your brother beside you. You’re just children at this time. Then—”

“I don’t have a brother,” interrupted Alice.

“But does that really matter? Doesn’t it make you happy to know your story, while not entirely accurate, some smudges around the edges, is going to inspire so many people? It’ll make them think. It’ll make them talk. It’ll make them know you.”

Ishmael buzzed and beeped. I ignored him.

Alice said nothing, nor did her eyes even once land on me. The silence stretched between us like a patient on a couch I once knew, and I began to worry that she would not talk to me.

“What’s up, Alice? You don’t like where this is going?”

“You can never know,” she said. “You can’t.”

Abruptly we shifted and began to turn. The wind sifted the remainder of my hair. It felt cool and right. I breathed naturally. I felt, though not for certain, that we were pointed in a westerly direction, bound for Chicago, on history’s path. Tentatively I let go of Alice’s hand. My feet seemed well-supported by whatever invisible surface was below, and sure enough when I’d completely let go I was able to stand on my own.

“Okay, so we can maybe change the brother to a sister, which you may actually have had? Even though it would be a shame to lose the subplot of your sibling rivalry—your brother going into aviation while you, being a woman in that era, are grounded for so long. That predicament would really resonate with a lot of viewers, but if you don’t feel comfortable with it….”

Still standing, swaying and bobbing on the currents, I placed my hand over Ishmael to quiet his renewed buzzing and beeping. Alice told me to please be seated.

“I can sit down?”

“And please fasten your seatbelt. Captain’s orders.”

Fearing nothing now, I sat backward and came to rest on some kind of invisible—yet comfortable—seat. I had trouble finding a seatbelt, though. I called Alice’s attention to this oversight, but she ignored me.

We dipped just then—a sharp sudden drop that pushed my intestines up and into my lungs. We continued to shake together at length, until at last we smoothed ourselves out and continued on course.

“What was that,” I wheezed.

“I believe it’s called turbulence, sir. It’s to be expected.”

“I’ll be damned. Oh, look, the dunes!”

Sure enough, about fifteen hundred feet below could be seen the vast sandy hills and sparse woods of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Nothing moved below save for the gentle ripples of Lake Michigan.

“Isn’t this great news? Aren’t you happy with what I’ve done? I waited over two weeks after the crash’s anniversary to make sure I was finally doing this the right way!”

Alice appeared to be staring into a mirror, positioned opposite me. She adjusted her cap with one hand and checked her lipstick and makeup. I watched, fascinated.

“Alice, this is serious. Big money’s involved here. Big money at stake. I’ve got investors, companies willing to advertise. America—nay, the world—needs to see your story. How you died…”

“And how I lived,” said Alice, at last appraising me with her eyes. “I was born in the air.”

“That’s good. That’s great in fact! I’ll put that in the script too. Of course the focus will be on how you lived. Notice how I haven’t said anything about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the explosion. Was it a bomb placed on board in Newark, the target one of the passengers, a possible Mafia hit as many speculated at the time—or was it more likely caused by a hunter’s ammo going off in the cargo hold? We’ll never know, and what’s more: we don’t need to know. Not this, anyway.”

Alice laughed girlishly.

“Is this funny? This is your death I’m talking about here!”

“I’m ready,” she said.

“Ready for what?”

Ishmael buzzed and beeped.

“My picture. You’re going to take it, aren’t you?”

She checked the hair that could be seen from beneath her cap, looking slightly to the side, as if I were now part of a vast mirror that stretched from wall to wall and sea to sea, and every American looked at least once into. Within seconds she had turned wistful, almost tearful again, no doubt having returned to thinking about Evan, who had gotten less than her, only his name, not even a sentence about himself, on the Internet.     

Afraid of the mood turning dismal, I brought up a flashing and buzzing Ishmael and said, “Of course! Your picture. They’ll finally know what you look like!”

“Mate! Mate!”

“Not now, Ishmael.”

“You’re not going to like it. The Meritocrat—”

“There’s no time to worry about him now. Just take her damn picture, all right?”

But Alice was now pacing a few feet one way, a few feet the other, all the time leaning in as if to whisper into someone’s ear.

“I apologize for the turbulence. Please be careful and make sure your seatbelt is buckled and fastened tight…”

“Alice,” I pleaded to her back. “Alice, look at us. Please.”

Just when I’d given up she turned. Ishmael flashed a rapid fire photo shoot, within seconds finished, her visage captured. Alice swiveled her head to stare in the direction of the cockpit. Ishmael groaned.

“What?”

“Everything okay,” Alice said, and I stopped because I recognized them as the last words of the main pilot, Captain Terrant, moments before….

I tensed up. “Alice,” I said. “Take me down now.” I looked out but I could no longer tell what we were over.

Then: a flash followed closely by a sound so deafening it could never be heard, not in a million ears, and fire, lots of fire welling up around me. I sensed a million screams in the fire—or at the very least a million pairs of piercing eyes. I clutched my constant companion, unsurprised that he remained unharmed.

And then we were falling, Alice and I, free-falling, and I looked to her and she was on fire and screaming but we were still holding hands. Her flames could not touch me and I felt pure, unburdened, ready for the impact. The ground below was coming up fast on us, I had no time to hold my hands out to protect my body or head—and then the ground, a nose away from me, but instead of shattering I glided stomach-down like a superhero. Ishmael still clutched in front of me, I continued to hover forward. It was morning now and cold, mid-autumn, the clouds heavy in the sky. I was moving through a deserted town; a sign passed read Stevens Point Welcomes You.

Just ahead of me, at the end of the main street, was the church I recognized from the Internet as St. Paul’s Methodist. At first I believed I would strike the doors directly as I rushed toward them, propelled by that same unseen force—and I protected Ishmael by placing him against my underbelly in anticipation—but as I met the doors they opened and I glided into the church. I continued down the aisle, the grieving on either side of me lining the pews. I saw her family—Mr. and Mrs. William Scribner, dressed understandably in black, the mother veiled. I saw Alice’s friends and I saw her fiancé, who looked only sad, oh so sad in the light of this day, weeping as he was. And I saw her minister, heavily robed, standing beside her closed casket that would be taken later for burial in the little town of Buena Vista, Wisconsin, “near where she was born and spent her childhood.”

And as I came to the front of the congregation I righted myself through no will of my own and, still clutching my constant companion, came to stand beside the clergyman. He held a thick black book open to a page somewhere toward the end, and as he read from it he made wicked motions with his freehand and fingers directly over the casket. I could hear nothing of him or of the people in the pews. I knew only what I had to do. So I fired up Ishmael, got the storyboards ready to project and the pictures ready to upload. If this was what they called prayer, so be it.

Leo (chapter 11)

Leo

 

 

I was in Guyana to finish filming a documentary that had already been made. It was November 17th, thirty-one years to the night he stood before the Peoples Temple congregation and thanked them for allowing him and his team to visit. As had been the case thirty-one years ago, the sky was scattered with clouds that would no doubt congeal and unload the next morning. I had to find him soon to start filming. In my hands I held a large cinematographer’s camera purchased in Miami during another of my long layovers. To my side hovered Ishmael, close to my ear as always, playing softly Earth, Wind & Fire’s 1975 hit “That’s the Way of the World”. Every so often Ishmael would interrupt the song, currently on its fortieth play, to blaze his light brighter and warn me of a gnarled bit of undergrowth I was about to trip over. Around me trees rose and seethed with jungle life. I sensed animals—big cats, anxious monkeys, frightened  capybaras—pawing the ground a short distance away. My footfalls alternated between striking the solid and the sludgy, and I thought for a moment that if I were to step in quicksand Don’t fight. Let it be over. 

Ishmael beeped again and I felt my shoe clang against metal. I stopped, stooped and with one hand yanked aside the vines and leaves. Ishmael ducked closer to the ground to illuminate the find more clearly.

“A barrel,” I said. “We’re definitely in the area. Let’s wait here.”

“Would you like me to increase the volume?”

“Sure. Can’t hurt. Even if it doesn’t get his attention faster it’ll guarantee the predators stay away.”

I turned in a circle, trying my best to peer into darkness. Having seen nothing so far, I went back to watching the documentary that had to be remade. It had come out only three years before, true, but I had noticed flaws from the moment I’d first watched the opening minutes. Since the sound was muted, all I could hear was “That’s the Way of the World” cranked loud. Abruptly the song cut off and I looked up. Ishmael was now beeping wildly while his light gave off a violent strobe-like effect.

“It’s him!”

“’Fraid not, mate. Someb—”

I heard a dart-like sound close to my ear less than a second before Ishmael cried out. His light died and he fell to the dirt and undergrowth. I crouched and, effectively blind now, pawed the ground in search of him.

“Ishy,” I whispered. “Ishy!”

I heard my constant companion whir and moan nearby. I also heard running—someone coming up behind me—and Ishmael said, “Mate—”

A laser shot at me—but instead of taking me out it just missed my head and struck the figure just now above me. The figure—definitely human, very much alive, cried out and fell backwards. Ishmael, wheezing and whirring, lifted himself with great effort into the air and shined his light with wavering force. I saw now that my constant companion had been hit by a bullet—a hole gaped in the All-in-One’s side from which a small but steady stream of smoke issued.

“Oh, man, Ishy!”

“All right, mate. I’ll live. Not like her….”

“Her?”

I turned to see our attacker writhing around on the jungle floor, clutching her shoulder. I could not yet see her face, as she wore night vision goggles. I stepped forward, but Ishmael, with a surprising amount of speed for one who had just taken a bullet, buzzed around to hover over the wounded assailant. Ishmael turned on his brights, and the woman cried out again. With the hand not clutching her shoulder she ripped off her goggles and I at last saw her face. Though not much older than me, she was like all the women I’d encountered thus far on my mission: beautiful. She gritted her teeth and looked to her wound.

“Don’t move,” I said. “You’ll infect it.”

“Won’t matter, mate.”

Ishmael was back to buzzing and beeping. Those slot-machine-style lights were flashing, and I recognized the signs almost too late.

“Ishy, don’t!”

I sprang in between my constant companion and the wounded woman. Ishmael made a low growling sound, and I wondered then for just a moment how much our friendship really mattered.

“You want her to live? She’s with the Meritocrat.”

“What are you talking about?” The woman tried to get up but only succeeded in gasping, gritting her teeth, and gingerly tending to her wound. “Who’s the Meritocrat?”

“I believe her,” I said.

“Now’s not the time for a shag, mate.”

“Ishmael, what’s gotten into you?”

“She nearly bloody killed me! Look! She’s going for her gun!”

“Don’t you dare fabricate this,” the woman said—the truth, for I saw she was still holding her shoulder and nothing else.

“Ishy!”

“I don’t know where it is,” the woman said. “That’s the last thing on my mind, believe me.”

I turned on her, compelled to acknowledge my one true friend’s pain at least somewhat.

“Why’d you shoot Ishmael?”

“Ishmael?” The woman laughed and shook her head. “This gets weirder and weirder.”

“Well?”

“I shot him because I didn’t want to get cut up by any laser beams. I see now I should’ve brought the machine gun.”

“Maybe we should kill you,” I said.

“Oh, then you’d be in real trouble.”

“I’m not in real trouble now? You were going to kill me!”

“You: capture,” the woman said. “The drone: destroy.”

“Excuse me,” Ishmael said. “I am not a drone.”

“Nothing the DOD created, that’s for sure. Where’d you get him?” she directed to me.

“Ishmael? I bought him in London…”

“Damn MI6.”

“…at a computer store.”

The woman snorted and said to Ishmael, “Whatever you are, you’re dangerous.” She sat up. She wore a body suit, the kind underwater divers wear, or—

“Navy SEAL,” I said. “DOD…Special Ops…You’re with the U.S. government!”

“Oh, you’re good,” she said, only to curse and draw back her hand from the wound as if shocked. “Ah, Jesus!”

“Ishy, could you please take care of her?”

Grumbling, Ishmael hovered next to the woman’s bloody, smoking shoulder and with his two micro-arms proceeded to clean and cover the wound as best he could. In his light I got down on my haunches next to the woman and watched.

“He’s good,” she said.

“So are you, looks like. You’re tough. You been doing this long?”

“Now we’re going to make small talk? I’ve been following you since Michigan. I was after you in L.A., in Indiana—”

“Wait, my disguise didn’t work?”

“It was cute—I’ll give you that. Why didn’t you wear a big plastic nose and moustache with some dark glasses and save yourself the time and effort?”

I glanced at Ishmael, who only shrugged in that bobbing and weaving way of his.

“So the government wants me,” I said.

“We want to know what you’re doing. It doesn’t make any sense. You plant bombs in three schools in Michigan—”

“I did not plant those bombs. Ishmael can vouch for me. He dismantled them.”

“Oh yeah? Tell that one to the judge.”

“You’re going to put me on trial?”

“And then you drop in on some tech company in the Valley, don’t seem to do anything other than go in and out, then go to Indiana and hang out there for weeks, again without doing anything other than knocking on a bunch of doors, asking people about some movie idea and tromping around the woods. I don’t get it. We don’t get it. We can’t tell if you’re a threat or if you’re just some harmless nut. What are you going for here?”

“My missions,” I said with the necessary gravity. And then I told her about how sad I had felt at my old job in San Diego, how many hours a day I had spent on the Internet searching at first for the living and then eventually for the dead. How I had quit that office job abruptly and taken on a new line of work, a different employer. I left convinced I could do something meaningful with my life given all the knowledge I had acquired and would continue to acquire, as well as the substantial amount of money I’d inherited from my recently deceased parents. That money was now dwindling, I admitted, but nevertheless I had used it well: I took her from Harriet Quimby in Boston to Christine Chubbuck in Sarasota, from Christopher Coe in New York to Andrew Kehoe in Michigan. I took her through all those I had so far encountered and either helped or at least tried to help.

“You really see them, huh?”

“I see all of them. I speak with them. In some cases I don’t just want to help. I want to save them. Do you know how sad it is to be these ghosts? To not be popular, or not even somewhat well-known? To have so little on the Internet about you? It pains them, just like it pains me.”

“And this…Meritocrat—that’s another ghost?”

“I don’t know what he is, but he doesn’t want me to succeed. These people to him, they don’t deserve to get more attention. And if it takes killing me….”

The woman had long since stopped shaking her head and was now looking at me with actual seriousness. She asked for my name.

“David. What’s yours?”

“Katherine.”

“I knew a Katherine once.”

“I’m no ghost, I can assure you.”

“So you believe me?”

Katherine sighed. “At this time of night, my partner stuck somewhere back at the airstrip, your laser-blasting cellphone flying over me, I don’t know why I wouldn’t.”

“I’m sorry about your shoulder.”

“It’ll heal. Just like your friend there will heal.”

“Thank you for believing me.”

“I don’t get why you’re here, though. Why Guyana, the Peoples Temple site? Jim Jones is already famous enough.”

“Not Jim Jones. Leo Ryan.”

“Who?”

Since she worked for the government, I was somewhat surprised she didn’t at least know that Leo Ryan was the U.S. Representative who had been murdered—shot through with rifle fire and shotgun blasts—on the afternoon of Saturday, November 18th, 1978, just as he was getting ready to board a Guyana Airlines Twin Otter prop-plane at the Port Kaituma airstrip. He and three others in the team of concerned Americans who had flown from San Francisco to South America, as well as one defector from the Peoples Temple, were killed in that horrendous ambush, and it was my duty now to finish filming the documentary to end all documentaries on this subject. All I needed was Congressman Ryan himself.

“I suppose that’s why you were playing that song…”

“ ‘That’s the Way of the World’, Earth, Wind & Fire, performed by members of the Peoples Temple the night before Leo Ryan died.” I then described Representative Ryan to Katherine, how he was welcomed up to the front, given the microphone, and how he looked pleased, thanking everyone, but then as the thunderous applause would not die down he obviously had grown uncomfortable; his smile faded to be replaced with unease, foreboding.

“Is that really true?” said Katherine. “Did the sign behind him really say that?”

“Yes,” I said. “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“Wow.”

“I want everyone to remember the past—but I want us to remember the right past—not the past the Meritocrat determines.”

With my help Katherine stood, albeit wobbly.

“I can see you’re into something that doesn’t need our interference,” she said. “Good luck.”

“What are you going to tell them?”

“That I couldn’t find you. That a panther attacked me instead. Believe me, there are plenty more pressing things they should be putting me on right now.”

“I have a feeling I’ll be seeing you again.”

“I don’t doubt that.” Katherine smiled. She nodded at Ishmael, who remained silent. As soon as she was out of our sight my constant companion came to life.

“Should’ve let me kill her.”

“Ishmael: let it go, all right? Now, can you turn the song back on?”

With “That’s the Way of the World” again on constant repeat, we waited. I turned the collar of my heavy coat up and stuffed my hands deeper into my pockets. I stomped and paced, aware that just beyond Ishmael’s circle of light crept and slithered and flew animals too scared to go any farther—but no Leo Ryan. My breath was now coming out in sharper clouds of steam, and I pulled my ski cap farther over my ears and forehead and then hugged myself. Finally, I slept.

I woke to thick rain droplets plunking in my ear. I opened my eyes and sat up. Morning had broken hours before; I’d missed any kind of sunrise and now the clouds were heavy and I sensed it must be close to midday. Ishmael, who had hovered all the rest of the night and through the morning, confirmed this.

“Eleven-thirty a.m.,” he said. “Wednesday, November 18th.”

“Not a Saturday,” I said, “but close enough.”

And then I saw him. Just beyond the trees to my left, near another unidentifiable steel relic from the Peoples Temple compound, he stood with his side facing me. He was tall, undeniably distinguished and handsome, a lion in this jungle. I stood up, grabbed my film camera and stepped forward, for it was he. It was Leo Ryan.

“Congressman Ryan,” I said, and I brought up the just-now-switched-on camera. “I thought you’d make an appearance last night, so we could get started on this thing. We even played the last song of your life to get your attention.”

“Over and over,” Ishmael moaned. “Who knew bloody Earth, Wind & Fire could—”

“Ishy.” Turning my attention back to Leo, who had now turned to me, I noticed he wore the light blue dress shirt in which he was last seen alive. He still wore the same belt and light blue slacks from the night before, and he had on huge late-seventiestastic sunglasses. In one hand he held a briefcase. His normally regal silver hair was disheveled, and I at last picked up that he was bleeding from his abdomen, underneath his shirt.

“Representative Ryan,” I said.

“Leo to you,” he said.

“I’m sorry about this. I’m sorry I missed the first attack, with the knife in the Pavilion. I’d like to recreate that too, but I don’t think we have enough time.”

Ishmael beeped and said, “You are in extreme danger, Congressman. You need to leave.”

Leo reached out and placed a bloody hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have anything to worry about,” he told me. “You have the Congressional Shield of Protection around you.”

I stepped back and mock-looked around, the camera panning. “Really?” I said. “Because I don’t see this ‘shield of the U.S.’ Where is it? It didn’t save you or your followers. Now let’s quit this particular rehash and get to the good part, what we really need to redo.”

At my and Ishmael’s prodding we at last got Leo moving in the direction of the Port Kaituma airstrip and the conclusion of his life. Along the way I directed the congressman using techniques I’d picked up from the Internet and actual physical filmmaking manuals.

“I want you, Representative Ryan—Leo—I want you to walk out like you did in that one scene from the latest documentary, the scene on your death day with your shirt open and the knife wound showing. Only this time we’re going to get close ups.”

Seven miles and several hours later, we stopped just before the opening to the airstrip. It was late afternoon now, nearing the time of the shootings, and I unbuttoned Leo’s shirt for him. “Nice Barrymore collar,” I said. “Very big, very 1978. Ah, there’s the blood—good. Or should I say, disco!”

The man from Nebraska stood statuesque, his expression swallowed up by his sunglasses. Feeling the pressure now of just when he might disappear, I crouched down and brought up a bit of earth.

“Here,” I said, let’s get a little dirt on you—there, that’s good, that’s even more authentic than the original. And how about we smear some of that blood around to make it look like you’re really wounded. This remake’s going to blow 2006’s documentary out of the air—and everyone will know you!”

“How dare these people speak for the dead,” Leo suddenly roared. “Only the dead can speak for the dead!” He began to walk away.

“Wait, Leo, Congressman Ryan!” I cried. “Come back! You don’t understand: It’s not just about your death. It’s about your life too!”

Leo stopped, waited. Given this chance, I poured out with how much I admired him. He of all representatives, of all politicians. The only congressional member to ever be murdered in the line of duty, he was the ideal of what political leaders should do for their people: a representative who actually represented. “How many congress members are really going to take a bullet—let alone several—for their constituents?” I said. “How many would serve as a substitute teacher, spend ten days in Folsom Prison as an inmate to learn about incarceration, actually go in person to Newfoundland to save the seals? Let’s face it, Leo: you were one of a kind, never to be seen again in American politics, which is why I need you to give the performance to end all performances, so the world will truly know how you suffered, what you did for us.”

Leo nodded. He stepped forward and unbuttoned the last and lowest on his shirt.

“Excellent,” I said. “Now keep walking toward me. Good, very good. I want you to look more concerned—even more terrified—than you did that day. I don’t think you went far enough in that scene. The critics know you have range….”

I backed out of the jungle and onto the empty airstrip, Ishmael hovering by my side. The camera was capturing the true Leo Ryan now—the most authentic dread, the purest terror and desperation. Even behind his sunglasses his eyes could be seen bulging, and his face was twisted like an arm in an older sibling’s grip. I heard him wheezing and gasping—a great effect not in the previous documentary.

“That’s it, Leo! Way to hunch over, clutch your side like that! Great stuff. You’re really punching it up now….”

Next to my ear, Ishmael turned up the sound of a spinning propeller. I told Leo to keep stumbling across the tarmac and not to worry that there was no plane in sight—we would superimpose the Guyana Airlines Twin Otters using special effects, and the rest of the cast from that day would be brought in later to round out this final scene.

At last I told Leo to stop, for he had come to the spot where I’d calculated he’d died. The prop plane’s whirring continued. I shouted over the rising sounds of the planes, the chattering amongst Leo and his followers—all amplified by Ishmael.

“Get ready, Leo,” I said. “You know what to do. You’ve done it before.”

“If you see me as your friend,” Leo shouted back, “I’ll be your friend.”

“What?”

Ishmael now brought in the sounds of the jeeps from the Peoples Temple driving up, added to that severe commotion and distress amongst those who were still outside the planes awaiting takeoff.

“Sexual relationships are selfish,” Leo said, his voice booming over Ishmael’s sound effects—so loud I felt as if he was speaking through my constant companion. “They distract you from helping other people.”

“What are you talking about?” I was now very much alarmed. “Those weren’t your words!”

“Just Vulcanize yourself,” Leo yelled—a moment before Ishmael opened up with the sound of rifle fire and shotgun blasts.

Leo flung his arms out, his body gyrating, jumping, free of any new blood, as if electrified. It was a command performance, instantly surpassing James Caan’s death scene in The Godfather. Leo continued to flop about while standing. His briefcase dropped. The gun fire continued. Leo screamed so hard that his voice shifted. It changed to another’s voice—a thinner voice—but one I feared I recognized. Not the Meritocrat but….

“No!” I shouted just as Leo crumpled to the ground. The rifle fire and shotgun blasts cut out and I was left with the sound of an airplane propeller whirring, silence otherwise.

“No, no, no no no no no,” I said, for I knew what had happened. I kept the camera on but rushed forward. Congressman Ryan’s body lay face-down by the still-to-be-superimposed airplane wheel. I reached the body and turned it over. With a cry I leapt back, for it was as I had expected. No longer was Leo Ryan there. In the congressman’s place: Jim Jones.

“No!” I cried to the now clear sky.

The propeller sound stopped, too, and Ishmael said, “The Meritocrat.”

“Damn him,” I said. “Damn him back to wherever he came from.”

I got on one knee and ran through the footage we’d taken since that morning. I had only to fast forward through it to see the horror: in every frame, every shot, Leo Ryan appeared not as Leo Ryan but rather as Jim Jones, notorious, infamous, undeserving, despicable leader of the Peoples Temple, murderer of over 900 on November 18th, 1978 alone. Jones too wore sunglasses in his death pose, Ryan’s death pose. And I realized then the correlation: how the two men were so similar, both leaders unable to take no for an answer, charismatic public figures able to influence, control, hold power over masses. Leo Ryan could only have died under Jim Jones’s orders, just as Jim Jones could only have killed himself because of Leo Ryan’s intervention.

“Completely unusable,” I said in reference to the footage, and I brought the camera up over my head. Before I could smash it on the tarmac, though, Ishmael buzzed and beeped and said, “Don’t, mate. Cost you a lot of money, that. You’ll have to buy another one anyway for your next—”

“There won’t be a next,” I said. “I give up. The Meritocrat’s won.” I lowered the camera and wiped my eyes. “I have hardly any money left, and he’s… just… too….powerful.”

“There there,” Ishmael soothed. “There’s hope.”

“Hope.” I snorted through my tears. “How can there be hope when he knows everything I’m going to do before I do it?”

“Ah, but we can anticipate him too. And set a trap.”

“A trap? What kind of trap?”

“I’m not entirely sure yet, but I’m coming up with some ideas. We’ll be putting at least one of them into action soon. I know for a fact we’re on the downhill slide now, mate.”

“I’ll say we’re on the downward slide.”

“No—I mean, it’s coming to a close. Do you have money to get back to Europe?”

“Yeah. Enough.”

“Good. ‘Cause that’s where it ends. I don’t know how it does exactly, but that’s where.”

After drying my eyes and blowing my nose, I nodded. My constant companion had turned on his rudimentary smiley face, and I grinned back.

“Chin up, lad.”

“You’re right—as usual….So it’ll really end in Europe?”

“We’ll make certain it does.”

“All right. To Europe then.”

“To Europe. And the ultimate confrontation.”

 

Arthur (chapter 12)

Arthur

 

 

I was in the Netherlands to get the song out of my head. Not the Earth, Wind & Fire hit but another, even older tune that once heard could not be easily exorcised. It was November 26th, Thanksgiving in America but just another night in Ruurlo, within range of the German border.

“It’s gotta be in here, Ishy,” I said, still on my knees. Before me were boxes marked with strange writing, plastic storage drawers, hoses but no vacuum. “Everything else is.”

“Perhaps they took it with them on holiday.”

“If they even went on holiday.”

“They won’t be back tonight, mate. We can be assured of that.”

We’d figured out how to capture the Meritocrat in one of the brown cafes along Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht canal. After that we’d passed through the Anne Frank House and ended up in the Red Light District where Ishmael made laddish, loutish catcalls and I just watched, remembering. Now here we were in Ruurlo, in the very house in which he had lived, a fine place to spring the trap, but we were unable to find the one item we so definitely needed.

“Should’ve bought one in Amsterdam,” I said. “I could’ve parked it on the train.”

“Placed it in the boots of those taxis.”

“I know, I know.”

“No sense beating yourself up, mate. It’s likely just been stored elsewhere.”

I continued to root around in vain. Boxes toppled, fell open, my hands and sometimes head inside. Plastic drawers flew out, overturned. Shelves cleared. Still no vacuum—not even a handheld we might use for quick transfer. I was still making quite the racket when Ishmael buzzed and beeped.

“He’s here?”

I went completely still and silent. Ishmael remained hovering and humming quietly.

“Not him. Not yet. It’s—”

“Someone….”

“Something.”

“The Meritocrat.”

“Not according to my sensors.”

“Then what the—”

Leaving the light on in the storage closet, I peeked my head around the door frame. Ishmael kept close to my shoulder. Down the darkened hall we could make out something big but low to the ground, like a tank, advancing. A monster, I thought, seconds before it padded into full view. Then I said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

It was a big dog—dark hair, floppy ears, old enough to have a kind of beard covering its chin and throat. As it plodded forward into the closet’s and Ishmael’s light I could see its eyes were red and watery, as if it had been crying. The dog stopped within a few feet of us and let out a low growl that didn’t sound half as menacing as it should have.

“Quite the guard dog,” Ishmael joked.

“Here pooch. Here boy.” From out of the closet I took a small dust pan and tossed it over the dog’s head. The dog, instead of going after the pan, bared its massive canines, and I was reminded then of a horror novel that had never been scary to me as a kid, only sad.

“Um…” I said, and then the dog leapt at me. I fell back into the closet as the beast—now truly a monster—went for my jugular. In an earlier time, when this creature was even a year or two younger, it might have been the end for me right there. But age had caught up, and I managed to kick and beat the dog—despite its formidable size—off and away. I had not survived without wounds, though. My hands were bleeding in places, and my jacket arms were torn.

“You better not have rabies,” I shouted, not caring if anything else was around to hear. Ishmael began to get that glow about him, the hum turned into a sharp whine, and I had to put up a hand.

“Ishy! Don’t!”

“Not again. It’s a dog, mate. It’s in the way.”

“And it’ll leave a mess. Evidence. The U.S. government’s already accosted me. You want to try our chances with the Dutch, too?”

The dog looked ready to make another leap. Its muscles tensed, its mouth opened to stringy saliva.

“I’m doing it,” Ishmael said.

“Play the song,” I said.

“What?”

“You heard me. The instrumental—now!”

Just as the dog was about to lunge again, Ishmael blared the opening of the song I’d written for Arthur. Now, with the instrumental in the background and the dog puzzled and placated, its head cocked and ears straining, I began to bop and twist back and forth, a vacuum hose in one hand for a mike. My voice was strong and sure. I sang:

                        “Do you remember Arthur Conley?

            He sang ‘Sweet Soul Music’

            It was his only real hit

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        But now we got this song here

            It’s called ‘Sweet Arthur Conley’

            It’ll get you on the dance floor

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Arthur Conley

            Doesn’t he look happy

            Singing ‘Whole Lotta Woman’

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Conley’s dad now

            Doesn’t he look guilty now

            Singing ‘I’ll Take the Blame Now’

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Conley’s death you all

            It was not a pleasant death at all

            He had cancer of the colon

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website on Conley’s comeback

            Singing this very song

            At a concert in Atlanta

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right

                        Website to drum up sales

            For the New Year’s Eve performance

            Just give your credit card info

            That’s right, oh yeah that’s right…”

As my song came to a close I did all sorts of other moves—from the electric slide to the Moonwalk to the Macarena—all while holding tight to the impromptu microphone. I remembered what I’d seen on the Web, the videos and other tributes. The dog meanwhile had dropped to the floor and was doing its best to actually cover its ears with its paws. As soon as “Sweet Arthur Conley” had finished and Ishmael had gone back to his quiet hum I heard the dog whining like a puppy that just had to be let out.

“What do you think?” I said. “You think he’ll like it?”

The dog, still whining and whimpering, got up, turned and ran back down the hall.

“Not even the sound of one hand clapping,” said Ishmael.

“Ha ha. It’ll work.”

A sound from above—second floor—something like furniture being moved. A dog could not have done that.

“I believe it’s time.”

“We don’t have a vacuum,” I said.

“I have a feeling it’s up there.”

On our way up the stairs we passed framed and walled photos of a Dutch family—the current owners of this house—a large smiling man and his equally smiling wife and their three little yarn spinners. In no picture did I see myself, as I had in that house in Gladwin where I’d gone to meet my namesake and unexpectedly discovered the Meritocrat. If my archnemesis was here now he was not making his presence known. After my conversation with Arthur, I was confident he would.

Once we were on the second floor the sounds increased in volume and intensity. Definitely furniture being moved followed soon after by a vacuum roaring and roaming. Ishmael and I looked at one another. We nodded, I gulped, and together we crept down the hall. The vacuuming was coming from a room on the right. The door was closed. I rapped my knuckles on wood but all I got was the continued whine of the vacuum. I pounded. Still no response. At last Ishmael suggested I throw decorum from the train and just enter. The door opened to a large room, a suite grander than anything I would’ve predicted this modest two-story containing. At the sight of the opulent chandelier, hanging in the room’s center, the big bay windows looking out on the moon-heavy night, the exotic plants in gilded, cornered pots, the rich tapestries and paintings hanging from every spot on each wall, I sensed the Meritocrat at work. But did he know? Could he anticipate? Was our tactic just ridiculous enough for him not to expect it?

Although they had initially given the impression of having been created in medieval times, the tapestries, upon closer inspection, had in fact been made recently. In several I saw various portraits of famed black musicians from the 1950s and ‘60s and ‘70s—James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. I also saw in other tapestries eloquent and violent depictions of heavy metal bands playing to adulating crowds. The last tapestry I landed on showed the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center. No firefighters raised a flag. No eagle arose from the ashes.

The furniture too was recent and apparently made in-house. Several pieces—a few chairs, a dining table, a leather-backed recliner—were in various stages of construction, sanding, polishing—and in every one I saw a contemporary style and the flair of a talented amateur.

In the room’s center, under the chandelier, was the only piece of furniture not being assembled or reworked: a grand piano, on top of which was a laptop similar to but older than the one I had lost in Greece. The laptop’s clamshell was open and I saw the Internet was connected to a now defunct browser popular at the beginning of the aughties. Instinctively I stretched my fingers for the laptop’s keys, to search for something, but I drew back at the sound of someone at the edge of the room. Behind me, on the darkened threshold leading to another, smaller room at back, stood a tall, very thin figure. As the figure stepped forward light from the chandelier was thrown on him to reveal specifics: a late middle-aged African-American, sickly and gaunt, his mouth turned somewhat inward, wearing a bathrobe and slippers. The man did not look at me but rather set down the vacuum he’d been carrying. Without any more delay I cleared my throat and raised my hand in a gesture of greeting, for it was he. It was Arthur Conley.

“Mr. Conley,” I said. “I’m sorry to interrupt your…cleaning, and your work—this is really nice stuff here, b-t-dubs—but it’s really important that you hear us out.”

“Mijn naam is Lee Roberts,” Arthur said. As he spoke his whole body shook. His voice was raspy, uneven.

“Um…”

“Noem mij maar Lee Roberts,” Arthur repeated. “Niks anders.”

I asked Ishmael if he spoke Dutch.

“Next best thing, mate: Internet translator.”

“So…”

“He said his name is Lee Roberts. Call him Lee Roberts and nothing else.”

“Lee Roberts?” I directed this to Arthur. “You mean the Lee Roberts of Lee Roberts and the Sweaters, the small-time band formed in 1980 after you legally changed your name from Arthur Conley to your middle name and your mother’s maiden name combined? Get real, Arthur. The eighties are long gone. It’s almost the end of the aughties now.”

“Wat wil je?”

“He wants to know what you want.”

“I want him to speak English.”

“He speaks English, mate. He just doesn’t want to.”

I coughed, a bit embarrassed. “Arthur,” I said. “I understand you’re angry. I would be too if I was taken under the wing of the great Otis Redding, wrote a smash hit with Otis, then watched as the work of that soon-after deceased great and so many others like him surpassed your own music.”

“Ik kan de Staten niet meer tegen,” Arthur barked, and he staggered toward me. I looked to Ishmael.

“He said, ‘Fed up with the pressure in the States’.”

“I know about that,” I said, and I approached Arthur Conley. “I know everything there is about you. From the Internet.”

“Ik ken de Internet. Ik vind het plezant.”

“He says he knows about the Internet. He likes it.”

“Great. That’s great, Arthur. You may be wondering what I’m doing here when you died in only 2003. You got to see so much that other spirits I’ve worked with didn’t. Why do you need my help? You’re all over the Internet—now even more than when you died six years ago. You’re certainly the most well-off spirit I’ve encountered, but I have to say a lot’s changed in six years, from what you last remember. It’s not so much that you’re slipping in popularity—but you are in danger now of being labeled.”

“Bestempelt?”

“That’s right: labeled. Labeled as anti-American, as unpatriotic. As someone who turned his back on his homeland, his country.”

“Maar, Nederlandse mensen hebben veel liefde voor mij.”

“Ishy?”

“He said, ‘But the Dutch love me’.”

“Thanks. That may be so, Arthur, but the American people love you, too. They remember you, b-t-w. Not Lee Roberts and the Sweaters. You. Arthur Conley. All of them—the whole country—will love you if they see you sing this….”

I signaled Ishmael, who blasted the instrumental to “Sweet Arthur Conley”, which I proceeded to perform all the way through for a silent and expressionless onlooker. I felt this performance was even stronger than the one I’d given for that guard dog, but after the song was over Arthur said nothing, nor did he so much as curl a corner of his mouth.

“Speak, Arthur. Say something. Talking is a way of thinking, man.”

“No way I’m going back,” Arthur said, at last, in English.

“But we have a black president now. That’s right. Ishy—project some pics.”

Arthur waved this off. “The song’s no good.”

“No good? It’s essentially ‘Sweet Soul Music’, just with different lyrics. What are they going to know? And if they do know, what are they going to care?”

“Why would my father feel guilty?” Arthur asked.

“For encouraging you to be a musician in the first place.”

“He would never feel guilty about that. I wanted it just as much as he did.”

“Okay…that may be true but…in that case there’s still the story we have to write. All of us, together.”

Arthur about-faced and headed for the darkened room at the back. “I’m sorry,” he said on his way there. “This ain’t for me.”

I bounded past him, then turned so that we were looking at each other, inches apart. I placed both hands on his sharp, brittle shoulders and said in my most passionate voice, “But it is for you, Arthur. How could it not be when you’ve been one of the most maligned yet popular artists in the last four decades? I mean, whoever paid tribute to you? You paid tribute to plenty of greats in your one super-smash hit, but what about you? The spotlight was never on you, man.”

“You mean….”

“I mean that’s the way of the world, Arthur. This is the way the world’s going. It’s not about them anymore. It’s about you, yourself, what you want. Now with this song—just the start, mind you—performed at the New Year’s Eve benefit concert in Atlanta this year, you’ll have the spark, the inspiration and the nationwide fan base necessary to reboot your career and write songs equal to ‘Sweet Soul Music’ that sing your praises.”

“Not theirs,” said Arthur.

I touched my forehead to his. Our eyes remained locked. “Not theirs,” I agreed with a smile. “Not anymore. It’s about you.”

“I’ll do it,” Arthur said.

“Excellent! There are other contractual things we need to work out but….”

I sensed the room shift, bend slightly, and I smiled at this too.

“….but we’ll have plenty of time for those specifics. A whole other month. For now, welcome back to America!”

Arthur looked at me with some trepidation. “You said it’s a benefit concert. Benefitting what?”

“Uh. Benefitting all those who suffer from colon cancer, of course.”

Arthur sucked in air swiftly, straightened up and widened his eyes. “It’s not colon cancer,” he said. “It’s intestinal cancer. And,” he sang, “I don’t want to talk about it….”

“Call it what you will,” I said. “The Internet seems to have accepted that euphemism. But what about making it raw and real for the American people? Show them how much you truly suffered….”

“I have to go to the bathroom.”

“Don’t take too long in there,” I called out after him. “Plenty to do till dawn.”

My smile only broke wider once I’d turned to observe the room’s center. “That’s right,” I said. “Oh yeah that’s right.”

From out of the grand piano emerged the wobbly, unwieldy, nebulous form of the Meritocrat. He rose to cover the chandelier and blot out the light.

“How dare you,” he said, his voice seething. “How dare you corrupt the fame of the popular, the deserved!”

“He deserves more,” I said, smug.

This is more? This is an embarrassment!” The Meritocrat shot toward me, funnel-like, and I, anticipating this very attack, cried out, “Ishy! Now!”

My constant companion, who had been hiding behind the vacuum, revved up the household cleaning device and tossed me the attached hose, which I caught in one hand and turned on the Meritocrat just as his spike-shaped front came within inches of my heart. Instead of dealing me a mortal blow, the Meritocrat sped straight down the hose.

“Aaaaaaahhhh!”

“More power, Ishy! More power!”

Most of the Meritocrat was down the hose, in the vacuum bag, but the last little bit of his nebulousness was hanging on to the hose’s rim. Ishmael zoomed up to the hose, turned on his high-powered fan and began to blow the last of the Meritocrat down while I batted at the remaining wispy tendrils with my free hand. At last, success: nothing more of the Meritocrat could be seen, only heard from within the vacuum’s bowels.

“Plug it up,” I said. “Quick!”

Using his micro-arms and laser beams, my constant companion melted the hose’s rim, bent it together, then finished the cauterization by slapping on a metal sealant. We drew back from the vacuum, which was banging around, tipping and twirling even more violently than before.

“Great work, Ishy. High-five.”

“Look!”

Ishmael was right to caution celebration. The violence within the vacuum was now monumental. The machine bucked and twisted and finally turned in on itself. By that time Ishmael and I had retreated to take cover behind the piano, where we could only watch as the vacuum exploded, sending fragments everywhere. Smoke mixed with the Meritocrat, now free and gloating.

“It will take more than a vacuum to stop me, David! Enjoy the fire, my friend!”

Flames were indeed running from the vacuum’s remnants along the carpeted and wooden floor. Fire leapt to the tapestries and paintings. Still more flames wrapped around the pieces of furniture. Popping, hissing and cracking could all be heard.

“The doorway’s blocked! We’re not getting out of this.”

“Look whom you’re talking to, mate. Hold on!”

I was suddenly caught up in what felt like a giant bubble, and I realized Ishmael had surrounded me in a force field. He remained outside the shield, and I pleaded with him to join me within, but he only told me to run, run!

So I ran. Through the raging, spitting flames and billowing smoke, through the hallway and down the stairs, I pounded in my safety bubble. Nothing could touch me—but at times as I ran I felt that something should touch me, that I deserved to be touched, discarded, damned for what I was doing—and what was I doing? To save them I had to assume certain details; right or wrong, black, white or gray, some information had to be assumed. But by assuming I had done exactly what the Meritocrat and Ishmael had warned me about. Was Alice right when she said I could never know (I couldn’t)? Was I no better than the writer David Michael Ewald who lived in Denver? Was I, for all that I had assumed and enabled and created, truly and irrevocably damned?

For tonight anyway, I was saved. I threw open the closest ground-level back door and hurled myself into the garden. Among the dirt and winter root vegetables, I found I no longer had my shield. Behind me the great house continued to burn. I saw the old dog limp out of the back doorway and take off through the yard.

“Ishy!” I cried, the flames dancing in my eyes. “Ishmael! No!”

“Right here, mate.”

He was at my side, hovering close to my head as always. A bit blackened, he nevertheless appeared functional, ready to go.

“Thank the Internet,” I said, and I hugged him to me. “Is there nothing you can’t do?”

“Catch the Meritocrat, evidently.”

“That’s on me,” I said. “I guess I shouldn’t have smoked so much pot when we were coming up with the plan.”

“A vacuum-like device will work—we just need something far stronger.”

“But what?”

“We’ll figure that out as we get there, mate, and I have a feeling we’ll get there soon. We’re on the offensive now.”

We left the house to burn, the sirens wailing, voices shouting in Dutch and German. Along the edge of the yard we hurried, past the old dog cowering in the bushes, and when we reached a good spot at the fence we pulled ourselves up and over, facing east.

Kordula (chapter 13)

Kordula

 

 

I was hiding out somewhere in the Czech Republic. It wasn’t Prague, that’s for sure. Somewhere in the south of the country. Some city, maybe the second-largest. I’d been there for only a day and I was still getting my bearings—as well as a name off the Internet.

“Montana, I swear I can’t be arsed,” I heard from just beyond the opaque-paneled doors. Mixed with the British accent were the sporadic squeals of a car chase and pops of gunfire.

I lay in bed and listened. On the wall above hung a wooden engraving of a comely female figure posing seductively in silhouette. I hadn’t thought about her or her or her—or any of them—in a while, certainly not since fleeing Arthur Conley’s former home as it went up in flames. I had enough on my hands now just trying to survive the Meritocrat’s counterattacks. In Germany the train had, of all things, derailed, leading to several injuries but no fatalities. I would have been the only corpse had I not dodged that buzz saw that had hurtled toward me out of nowhere. Ishmael had hovered away with only a few scratches and one small dent.

My constant companion was with me now, projecting the Internet onto the bare wall. The screen’s image showed him running through pages and pages of search results. He clicked on links, scanned more pages, paragraphs, passages, all in hopes of finding my next spirit who, in exchange for us helping him or her, would reveal the precise location of the Meritocrat’s safe house.

As Ishmael continued to come up with nothing I again took in the contents of my small room, the former study in this Communist-era apartment that bore the name Spatkov on the front door. At last, Ishmael said, “Got it, mate.”

“Finally. We’ve been at this for hours. Who is it?”

“I think it’s pronounced….”

The name and what little other information now in my head, I sat up, pushed the covers away and rolled to stand. My bare feet were not aided at all by the cold hard veil of a carpet. I found the one mirror in the room—a jagged piece of glass, really—leaning against the side of the closet and looked at myself. Who was I? What I had started out as was different than what I was now, but I felt I had not at all changed, and that this cycle of mission after mission, interruptions and near-misses with the Meritocrat, would go on forever. It would not, could not, though. I had to believe Ishmael when he said it would end soon, in whatever way fate saw fit.

The explosions and gunshots and screeches continued outside my door. I held off a moment longer and stepped to another set of doors, these opening out onto a balcony. The warm air behind me, I looked out on a wintry suburban-scape of tall frosted pine trees, taller and not nearly as aesthetically pleasing Communist-era apartment high rises, snow-covered flat rooftops, ancient antennas, and the sun cooling on its descent.

“Come on, take it off!” I heard. Quickly I approached the inside set of double doors, turned the handles and threw them wide. I was met by the sight of two men, one older, bigger, far heavier than the other, sitting in bright red pseudo-swanky lounge chairs. Across from them, in the corner of this narrow space, was a small tv set playing a superhero movie.

The older, heftier and bearded fellow, an American by his voice, nodded my way. “How’s it going, Dave? You got a handle on the PETS yet?”

“Does he look like he’s got a handle on the PETS?” The short, slim and bony British guy looked at me. “He hasn’t touched any of this.” He swept his arm out, indicating a great many files and papers and slender softcover textbooks scattered across the blazing red carpet.

“You gotta get a handle on your classes, Dave,” the American said. “They’re paying for this roof here.”

“I told you this morning,” I said. “I didn’t come here to teach ESL.”

“It’s EFL,” the American corrected. “English as a Foreign Language. A lot of these Czechs speak German or Russian for their second language. Some of them secretly despise learning English.”

“Whatever,” I said. “I have to find Kordula.”

“Who?”

“Kordula,” I repeated. “I don’t know her last name, but I’m sure if I walk out there once it’s dark I’ll meet her. She’s at a lake.”

“A lake,” the British guy said. To the American he asked what that lake would be.

“Prigl,” the American said without hesitation. “Gotta be.” Then, looking at me, he said, “If you’re gonna take off for good make sure you leave my Broncos sweater here, okay?”

I looked down. I was indeed wearing a midnight blue sweater with the visage of a white stallion, flaming red mane, on the front along with the word BRONCOS in bold lettering.

“Are you from Denver?” I asked.

“No,” the American said. “I’m from Wyoming.”

The movie was coming to an end. The American sighed and said, “Kirsten Dunst is really sexy but, you know, she’s never been naked in a movie.”

He stood up swiftly and struck his head on the heavy overhead ceiling lamp. The formidable bauble swayed pendulum-like. Clutching his skull, the big guy sat back down. He stayed in his chair, unable to move.

“Montana,” the Brit cried. “Are you all right, mate? Speak to me!”

“Ooooh, Daddy,” Montana groaned. “Oh man. Ooooh, Daddy.”

We passed some time in silence. The Brit watched his friend as if at any moment Montana’s head would rupture.

“We really gotta cut that thing down,” Montana eventually got around to saying.

“But, mate, we need the light.”

“I could’ve died, Skiddy. I could’ve died at the tender God-fearing age of twenty-nine. My last words could have been Kirsten. Dunst. Naked. In. A. Movie.”

“Look,” I said. “I’m going to leave now and I can’t say I’ll be back.”

“That’s how you roll. We hear you,” said Montana. “But you’ll be missing out on the PETS. Classrooms of seventeen, eighteen year-old girls. Why else would an American or British guy be here?”      

“He’s here for Kordula,” Skiddy sneered.

“Kordula.” Montana shook his head. “The absolute ugliest, most unpopular female Czech name.”

“Just point me in the direction of Prigl,” I said. “The Internet directions aren’t making much sense.”

“And you’ll leave the sweater?”

“Consider it already off my body.”

Skiddy wrote out directions while Montana nursed his head. I returned to my room, exchanged the big guy’s sweater for one I found hanging in the closet, then put on my heavy winter coat and holstered Ishmael. When I emerged Skiddy handed me the directions and explained them to me.

“It’s a bit of a trek. You sure you don’t want to wait till tomorrow when it’s not getting dark and subzero outside?”

“She’s there tonight,” I said, “and only tonight.”

“Must be because of Saint Mikulos Day,” Montana said. When I asked what that was he explained: “December 6th is traditionally when Czechs have their Santa Claus thing. Santa goes around with a devil on one side and an angel on the other, and sees which kids have been good and which have been bad.”

“Their names go into his book,” Skiddy added.

“Not only that,” Montana continued, “but there’s this other part of the tradition says men can go around with these special sticks and hit women—any women.”

“Gently,” Skiddy said. “They hit them gently. A little tap, a playful swat.”

“It’s tradition.” Montana shrugged. “She’s waiting for you.”

I shook my head, befuddled by all of this. Waving goodbye I turned and headed for the front door. On the way out I heard Skiddy say, “Have a grand time with the lady at the lake!”

Montana said: “He laughed at her. She beat him. Who would ever find out? They were in the Czech Republic.”

Well over an hour later Ishmael and I reached Prigl Lake. Along the way we had seen all manner of things: a grand parade of people dressed as pigs and banging drums and blowing other instruments; a trio of gypsies taking turns throwing a stolen laptop back and forth while running, presumably, from the law; a tram driver yelling at and throttling the body of an elderly man who had expired sometime during our lengthy stop-and-start ride; a plainclothes ticket inspector flashing his badge and asking to see proof of fare, and when I answered that I couldn’t understand him because I didn’t speak Czech, he switched to my own language and repeated the demand, at which point I gave him a Czech bill worth five hundred koruna and waved him off. On the tram and busses we’d seen men, mostly young, holding various styles of wooden sticks, some of which had attached to the ends ribbons or feathers or some other festive decorations. I was surprised to see these men often sitting next to or across from women roughly their same age, and both sexes chattering away to one another. Had these men not already carried out their duty to Saint Mikulos by giving these women a good Czech whacking, or, if they had yet to do so, didn’t these women see what was coming and so have even the faintest idea of clearing out? I watched, fascinated by their interactions, thinking I should have a stick for myself.

That thought did not leave me as I got off the last bus of three required for that journey and walked the rest of the way to the lake. The snow had recently fallen and was heavy and high in some places. The path sloping downhill was icy-treacherous at times, and I wondered if I couldn’t get Ishmael to fashion a sled-shaped force field so I could ride it the rest of the way down. Just as I was about to make that request I saw three figures approaching from the lake that still lay a good distance out. As the figures drew near I saw that the one on the left was an angel, a woman dressed in a white robe, golden locks, a tiara resting around her temples, her hands folded into the sleeves of her robe. On the far right was a man dressed as a devil—stereotypical red body paint, a black robe, hood, pitchfork, fake tail sticking out the back. Between these two was a man dressed in a whitish gray robe, a long fake beard, big brows, and a cap shaped like a wind sock. He could have been Father Time or God, but I went with the safest bet.

“Saint Mikulos,” I said, raising my hand. “I’ve been good this year, I swear.”

The three stopped and looked puzzled. Beneath their makeup and fake facial hair they were young, no more than teenagers.

“You’re American,” Mikulos said, his voice thinner than what I would have expected to hear from even the Czech version of Father Christmas.

“I am,” I said. “and I’m here to take in the lake.”

“It’s very beautiful,” the angel said, and we smiled at one another.

“So is she,” I said.

“Who?” Mikulos folded his hands farther into his sleeves.

“Kordula, of course. She’s waiting for me now.”

All three pretend spirits looked at each other briefly.

“No one is at the lake now,” Mikulos informed me. “We saw. We left last.”

“The sun is almost down,” the angel said, “and it’s very cold out.”

“You’ll freeze,” said Mikulos.

The devil had yet to say anything. He only smiled.

“Nevertheless,” I said, “I must soldier on. Just because you can’t see her doesn’t mean I won’t be able to.” With that I asked to be allowed through. Somewhat reluctantly, they stood aside.

“Don’t go on the lake,” Mikulos said.

“The ice is very thin,” said the angel.

I continued walking, Ishmael resting on my hip, until the path opened out and I was standing at the edge of a vast lake that stretched into fog instead of sky.

“Lake Prigl,” I said. “Or Prigl Lake, depending on the translation. Kordula here we come!”

As I waited and time passed, I began to doubt the truth of that last statement. The Holy Trio was right in that no one was at the lake when I arrived, and no one had appeared since, and now night had fallen fully and the cold had dug into my bones in a way it never had in America. I clapped my gloved hands together, pulled my cap and hood tighter over my ears, and leaned my face into a hovering Ishmael who in addition to providing light also used his energy within to generate a focused and continuous wave of heat.

“That’s nice,” I said. “Wow, that’s actually hot! It’s like I’m at the beach or—”

“Mate.”

“Yo.”

“Movement. On the ice. Oh eleven hundred—”

“Cut the faux military-speak, por favor.”

“Over there.”

Through the foggy darkness approached a figure silhouetted by Ishmael’s light. I could make out long hair flowing even though there was no wind to play with it. The figure seemed to skate across the ice before abruptly stopping and watching me. I still could not see her face, but I knew it was a she, just as I knew what I had to do in order to speak with her.

I set one foot on the ice.

“Mate.”

I waved Ishmael’s concern away and tapped my foot hard. Nothing: no sounds, not even that of one crack at a distance. “The angel was lying,” I said, and I set the other foot on the ice as well.

With Ishmael holding my hand for support, I shuffled like a nursing home resident across the ice and toward the figure. I had gone skating only twice before, both times in California, both times painfully unsuccessful, and the only reason I didn’t fall on my ass twenty times and finally break my tail bone this night was because of Ishmael’s hand. Despite its miniature size, it was strong, steadying me as I stepped or slid a few inches at a time.

“Easy, mate. Easy….”

I could not see the figure for fear of losing sight of the ice. I still heard no cracks, but the surface did look questionable. In several spots strange black circles had formed just underneath the surface, as if the lake had melanoma. I dared not draw too close to these tumors, as I suspected the ice was weak there. Like an epic simile of an ancient ship sailing through treacherous waters in an otherwise unreadable book-length narrative poem, I twisted and turned to avoid the spots, some just barely. Ishmael’s warning beeps abruptly ceased and my constant companion said, “We’re clear as can be, mate. Good thing, too.”

I looked up. The fog was still thick and swirling, but the figure was only a few feet away, and as Ishmael’s light cut through to land on her body she gained definition. A woman wearing a heavy ski parka, bright-colored gloves, ski pants and snow boots. She stood straight, her arms out to either side, and as Ishmael’s light fell on her face I saw that it was she. It was Kordula.

She might have had the ugliest name in her native language, but she herself was beautiful. Not only was her figure petite and arresting, even with so much coverage, but her face was striking in its smooth, very pale structure. The eyes were an amazing dark blue, her lips moist and her hair on either side as fluid as the fog surrounding us. She did not smile even as I did. I held up a hand in greeting.

“Kordula,” I said. “We’re here to help you, and I’m hoping you can help us.”

The young woman—I guessed no more than nineteen or twenty—remained expressionless but began to back away, and I lurched forward with a cry of “Wait! Um…Ishy, what’s the Czech word for ‘wait’?”

“Finding it now, mate.”

Kordula had come to a stop and was watching me, expectant.

“I speak English,” she said, her accent heavy.

“Great!” I said. “Now I’m not sure when you died exactly….”

“Not long ago.”

“That’s good. Then you know about the Internet.”

“It was invented here.”

“Here? In the Czech Republic? I doubt that. Ishy—we’ll look that up later. Anyway—”

“I know who you are,” she said. “I know why you’re here.”

“I’m here to help you.”

“No. You never are.”

“How can you say that?” I was genuinely hurt at this moment. I felt something then. “I’m going to find out how you lived and how you died, and your story will be a part of our story, all our stories out there now.”

“I don’t want my story out there now.”

“How can you say that? Aren’t you—weren’t you human? You’re a nobody now, and when the last of your immediate family dies off, the blood line gets so thin your own future family members have no idea you ever existed, where are you going to go? Do you really want to stay out here for all eternity on this God-forsaken lake?”

A crack, small but distinct, sounded some distance away.

“Mate.”

“Not now, Ishy—”

“Speed it up, will you?”

“Look,” I said, stumbling up to Kordula who, despite her coldness, did not flee. “I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know your last name.”

To nic,” she said.

“What?”

“It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“But it does matter. You aren’t nothing….”

Another crack was heard, unmistakably closer.

“Mate….”

Ignoring the sounds around me I pressed forward. “Tell me everything,” I said. “I will not let you die this way.”

“It doesn’t matter how I died,” Kordula said, and she was crying now, “or how I lived, or to whom I lost my virginity, or how many times I yelled at my mother. All of it must be forgotten.”

Another crack, followed seconds later by another.

“Mate!”

“Fine,” I said to Kordula. “If you don’t want us to help you then at least have the heart to help us. We’re looking for the Meritocrat. Internet sources say his hideout, his safe house, is in Eastern Europe….”

“Where it began,” Kordula interrupted.

“Where what began?”

“It. What you are.”

“What am I? Tell me, because I’d really like to know.”

“Tell me, tell me, tell me,” Kordula mocked.

“Don’t start,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

“It’s getting colder.” She drifted into me, and now we were together, hugging for warmth.

“We’re only animals,” she said, “trying to be human.”

Despite my best intentions, I could not help being aroused. This was the closest I had come to a woman in a while. Kordula was surprisingly warm, as if she was alive, and as her body pressed farther into mine I couldn’t keep it down. It could happen here, on this very ice. My hands, though gloved, went behind Kordula’s parka and down her ski pants, which easily made way. I kept my hands down there where it was warmest, and Kordula sighed and kissed my neck.

“Why did your parents name you what they did?” I asked.

She shooshed me, and we kissed. From a short distance away, mixed with the sound of cracking ice and Ishmael’s incessant beeping, was a little girl’s voice shouting, “Maminka! Maminka!

With my mouth still on Kordula’s I looked to the side. The fog had cleared and it was day there. The sun was bright, the ice strong, and scores of Czechs were out gliding and stumbling and laughing. Boys swung hockey sticks at makeshift pucks; on the lake’s edge other children hurled snowballs over hastily formed walls, and all across the ice parents and children interacted. I focused on one pair in particular: a mother and her very young daughter, no more than three years old, shuffling across the ice. The girl had no skates on, but she was trying to walk anyway. Patiently the mother bent down and held her daughter’s hand, and together the two helped each other across the ice.

Is that you? I wanted to ask. Was that you and your mother? Is your mother alive now? How often does she think of you, of that moment?—but Kordula’s tongue was deep, and it felt good, and as my eyes left the sunny scene and turned back to the night fog and Kordula I heard the sound of a thousand potato chip bags crumpling at once.

“MATE!”

A strange shock went through my head. I snapped to. Kordula held on. Her head was thrown back and she was laughing a child’s outpouring. I felt the ice shift, the cracks now close to my feet. Was that water? I pulled my hands out of Kordula’s pants but still she would not let go.

“I’ll tell you,” she said. “I’ll tell you.” And she leaned in and whispered the words I had wanted to hear.

Ishmael slammed into Kordula’s face. The spirit cried out and fell backwards. As she did I broke free of her embrace by knocking her arms away. I watched as this young woman, whomever she had been, however she had been, landed on the already severely split ice. For a brief moment Kordula remained on the surface, and then the ice gave and she plunged through. She did not scream or cry out in any way; she simply let the lake take her. The last I saw of her were her gloved hands waving in the surging water—then they too were gone.

I had expected Ishmael to command me to run at that point, but instead my constant companion said, “Don’t move! Stay where you are.”

I looked down to see I was now on a small but so-far stable ice floe, a miniscule ice island that bobbed and bumped into other ice around it. The entire lake had broken up in a matter of minutes, and I could not see how I would be able to reach the shore without swimming—and therefore dying.

“This is it,” I said. “I’m ready.”

“You’re not ready. The Meritocrat’s not dead yet.”

“You’re right,” I said. “But—”

“Mate. Here’s my best….”

The once stable ice under me was now beginning to break, and within seconds I would have joined Kordula had I not had Ishmael with me. I saw a glow at my feet, a square appeared, and as the ice shattered and the water gushed through and roiled, eager to claim me, I remained standing on the square, just above the fray. Ishmael’s light was attached to this energy platform, and I realized it was working as a kind of tractor beam: I stood on the platform while Ishmael, grunting and groaning and cursing, dragged me to shore.

Into the snow I fell forward, my hands out to brace. Ishmael was wheezing by now, his lights and sounds all off except for a faint red glow and a sickly, intermittent hum. He dropped into the snow beside me and coughed so hard that if he had had a lung it would have come up somewhere.

“I can’t keep doing this,” he said. “I may not have enough power to get you out of the next jam.”

“There won’t be a next jam,” I said. “I know where he is. Kordula told me.”

“She gave you the Meritocrat’s location?”

I nodded. “I know what to do, Ishy. A couple more countries and we’re there.”

“Well I’ll be buggered. At last.”

I patted him, then clutched him to me. Startled, my constant companion beeped a little but allowed me to hug him as best I could.

“I love you,” I said. “Technologically, of course.”

“Of course. I….you too, mate.”

“I guess it’s because you’re a machine but…that’s what I feel. I’ve always been better with machines. We’ve always gotten along.”

“Glad to hear it, mate.”

“You’ve always been there for me.”

“And I’ll continue to be there for you, until the end. Shall we?”

After stashing Ishmael in my hip holster so he could have a much-needed rest, I stood up, shook the snow off, clapped my hands for warmth, and headed back the way I’d come.

Radu (chapter 14)

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Radu

 

I was in Romania for the ultimate confrontation. Through Slovakia and Hungary we had traveled, sometimes by train, sometimes by bus, still other times by foot, alternating methods so as to elude the Meritocrat. He was on the offensive just as we were, but each time we thought we had him proved futile, and we were again on the run. A week passed, then two. Ishmael and I stuck to hostels, knowing our archnemesis would surely be waiting with a trap of his own in any of the high-end hotels that lined the touristed streets of Bratislava and Budapest. In the latter city I nearly died of heat exhaustion when the sauna I was in alone at the Szechenyi baths was suddenly locked and the temperature cranked to a Hansel and Gretel level. Ishmael cut through the door in time to give me just enough air to avoid losing consciousness, and with my constant companion’s help I stumbled into an adjacent ice-cold pool that sent a suitable shock through my system and reawakened my need to end this.

I stopped taking pictures, posting to blogs and updating my social networking statuses. I put away the guidebooks and avoided the tourist-centric sites. With each of the previous spirits there had always been at least a little downtime before and after the encounter, but now I swore off my old ways, kept my wallet in my pocket and forbade Ishmael from telling me anything associated with the living and fun. No longer would I practice hypocrisy by partaking in the Meritocrat’s ways, indulging, splurging as if to cleanse myself of each mission. I could not cleanse myself of this final mission, no matter how much I was haunted.

The path before me sloped downward slightly. On either side trees stretched up and over to form a kind of canopy that blocked out the overcast sky. Here in the deep shade the snow was especially heavy; my legs sank up to my knees, and I cursed and cried out as I lifted my cement-like boots to place them one in front of the other. Beside me, hovering close to my head as usual, Ishmael buzzed and beeped. I looked up. Standing in the middle of the narrow path some distance away was a balding man wearing a large dark trench coat. He had on sunglasses and did not smile. His hands came out of his pockets, and he held his arms out as if to embrace me.

I asked Ishmael whom this was.

“Just a moment, mate. That would be….Emil Georgescu.”

“Number four on the list.”

“Out of five. Means we’re quite close.”

In Cluj-Napoca, our first stop in Romania past the border with Hungary, we’d encountered the spirits of both Noel Bernard and Vlad Georgescu, the former having died in 1981 and the latter in ’88. Both had died of cancer caused by irradiation at the hands of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Securitate force, and it was this method, this ‘Radu’, toward which I was being compelled. These men would not speak to me; Noel Bernard said only one thing in the hostel in Cluj-Napoca: “The measures undertaken by us are starting to have an effect.” In that same hostel Vlad Georgescu opened his mouth to speak but, finding the words missing, shut it and shook his head. Likewise on the mountaintop overlooking Brasov in central Romania the spirit of Mihai Cizmarescu opened his mouth to the same result as Vlad. Nevertheless, all three men had pointed us in the direction of this specific trail in the Carpatii Meridionali. Now, with the fourth irradiated victim on the mountain path in front of me, I felt the urge to call out a greeting, to wave or at least smile. From the Internet I knew that Noel Bernard had been head of the Romanian-language department at Radio Free Europe and had, according to the Securitate, “undergone surgery” not long before succumbing to cancer. Vlad Georgescu, another RFE director, had died of a brain tumor at the age of 51, only a year after he had been warned not to broadcast passages of an incriminating book written by a defector then living in the States. I knew enough about those two brave men, forced to die from a disease with which they should never have been stricken, but I knew nothing about Mihai Cizmarescu or Emil Georgescu, as I could not find further links in the time I had.

I opened my mouth to say hello in what little Romanian I’d picked up, but my constant companion buzzed, beeped and said, “Keep it moving, mate. He’s not your mission.”

“The Meritocrat’s my mission. My final mission.”

As I struggled forward, wishing to whomever on high that I had on a pair of cross country skis, Emil Georgescu stood aside and pointed down the path. As I passed him I kept my head bowed in respect, and when I looked back I saw he had gone.

“Don’t feel sad for him, mate. He’s only trying to help.”

“I can’t believe, you know, they would actually irradiate people here.”

“A good way for the Securitate, the Service K, to get rid of dissenters, if you think about it. No real evidence linking you back to your murderers. You’re exposed to high levels of radiation, released, only to die shortly thereafter from cancer, and the regime can say it was a natural death. You know there’s still doubt the method was ever used.”

“It had to have been used. These men, all these men who spoke out against Ceausescu—they died young, considering. I mean cancer, in their early, mid-fifties? Even younger? It’s just too coincidental with the arrests.”

“I found out what Radu means.”

“What?”

“The Happy One.”

All this time I had been battling through the snow. My ski pants were waterproof, but some snow had gotten onto the tops of my socks, and I was losing feeling around the ankles. I thought again about asking Ishmael for assistance—perhaps he could levitate me the rest of the way, but then I remembered our agreement that my constant companion would conserve all his energy and resources for the fight ahead. So I gritted my teeth and stomped and lunged. At last, less than half an hour later, my self-imposed death march came to an end at the entrance to an underground bunker of some kind. The foliage around remained dense, but the canopy had opened up somewhat to reveal the grim sky. Turning from the straining sun I came up to the door and with my gloved hands swept away the snow to reveal bare, smooth metal. No keyhole, keypad, or entryway of any kind could be seen.

“Great,” I said. “What do we do now?”

“It’s Christmas Day today, mate.”

“Today? Really? So….”

“So you know what happened in Romania twenty years ago today…”

“Um….” I thought hard. It was difficult to think of anything without the Internet in front of me. “…uh…J.C. was reborn?”

“No, Yank. Ceausescu and his wife were executed.”

“Oh, that’s right. By firing squad.”

“By sub-machinegun.”

“Christmas, Jesus. Of all the days for an execution. But then what does that have to…”

“To do with the Meritocrat’s lair? It has everything to do with it, mate. The ghosts are rising up.”

I turned to see on all sides the spirits I had previously encountered. To my immediate left stood Ai’dah, dressed in her burqa, and to her left stood Christopher Coe still hooked to IV tubes that dangled like strands of a broken spider’s web. From Christopher going all the way around in a semicircle my eyes took in Leo Ryan riddled with bullets, Alice Scribner charred but identifiable, Christine Chubbuck with her blood-seeping head and Harriet Quimby with her water-logged flight uniform, Aegeus with his broken body and Linda Gary with her exposed scalp, Arthur Conley and Kordula and finally Andrew Kehoe. I lingered on Kehoe, who looked at me with tears in his eyes and mouthed I didn’t mean to.

Harriet Quimby stepped forward. In her arms she held the gurgling and flailing David Michael Ewald of Gladwin, Michigan. “We’re here for you,” she said. “Whatever you need.”

“I need to get in there,” I said. “I need a suction device strong enough to hold the Meritocrat.”

“You have it.”

“I do? The device?”

Each of them in their own way nodded at me.

“Trust yourself,” Christine Chubbuck said. “You have what it takes.”

“You the man,” Arthur said. “I mean that in a good way.”

Ai’dah in Arabic said something, as did Aegeus in his ancient language. The rest nodded assent and proceeded to voice their support for me. One by one they stepped forward and laid their hands, bloody or burnt or otherwise, on my forehead. In a whisper each of them blessed me. Leo placed his hands on my shoulders, again granting me the United States Congressional Shield of Protection. Arthur touched his forehead to mine and said, “Get home soon, brother.”

“I will,” I said. “Because of all of you, I will.”

Aegeus stepped forward and handed me the horn of a giant bull. At first skeptical, I nevertheless found it to be surprisingly agile and lethal. The tip appeared to be coated with a shiny, sticky substance: venom.

“Thank you,” I told the king as he backed away to take his place in the semicircle. “Thank you all for your blessings of protection, your kind and encouraging words, your eternal optimism. I have the confidence now to succeed. I guess….I guess I have the suction device I need too, somewhere. I still don’t know how to get in, though.”

Those I had helped or hurt in the last six months drifted back until they’d vanished in amongst the trees, and in their place stood a barbarian, thick-skinned, dark and bearded, dressed in an animal’s hide. He carried a staff, and as he approached I recognized him through his makeup as the actor Amza Pellea, the fifth and final political dissident on that Internet list of irradiated victims. Amza, in character from the 1968 movie Columna, grunted and drove his staff deep into the snow. This man who had for whatever reason ticked off the Ceausescu regime and so died of cancer at fifty-two, this number sixty on the list of the greatest Romanians of all time, faced the bunker’s doors. Like Charlton Heston in that one biblical movie, his animal hide flowing on either side of him, Pellea threw out his arms and swept his staff across the sky. Immediately the doors heaved and creaked. The actor cried out in a language that could have been Romanian but may well have been barbarian, and as he pulled at the unseen force, his muscles straining, Pellea grinned and nodded. The doors were opening wide now. At last they gave way entirely, and I was met with a daunting but easily entered maw.

I turned to thank Amza Pellea but he had vanished. Brandishing the bull’s horn, careful not to get the tip anywhere near my body, I entered the bunker. My constant companion kept close by, his light shining down the narrow passageway.

“I guess this horn is the suction device….I don’t see how….”

“Mate!”

Since I was inspecting the horn’s blunt end I failed to see the floor open under me. Down beyond these new doors I dropped, so suddenly it felt as if my insides were about to spew out of my mouth. In one hand I held tight to the horn, in the other: Ishmael. Together we slid along a chute that rapidly increased its vertical angle until I was freefalling with only darkness on all sides. I lost my grip on my last two possessions, but that wasn’t the worst of my problems when I hit bottom.

I had thought the Meritocrat would kill me with the fall and be done with it, but—not really to anyone’s surprise—the distance I’d free-fallen was relatively short. Despite the brevity, though, I landed hard and wrong.

“Aaaaah!” I screamed as my foot twisted and cracked. I dropped on my side and cried out again as my right shoulder hit the steel floor with another sharp nausea-inducing crack. I lay on the cold smooth floor, gritting my teeth and trying not to make any more noise. In my line of sight was the bull’s horn, its tip glinting in the light that was only growing stronger.

“Ishy!” I whispered. “Ishy!”

“Right here, mate.”

Ishmael hovered next to my face. “Doesn’t look good,” he said.

“I broke my ankle, I’m pretty sure. Ah—sh—it hurts to move even a little. And my arm….”

“I also meant where we are.”

With considerable effort and much cursing and squealing, I managed, with Ishmael’s aid, to turn and sit up enough to see. We were in a small circular room that was nevertheless packed with all manner of eye-popping equipment. The floor space was limited, but very close to where I sat was a steel table in the shape of a cross. Straps could be seen not only on the arms and leg ends, but on the head end as well. I gulped. Beyond that table and all around the room were control panels, monitors and screens that showed nothing but blinking, flashing lights similar to those that had often issued forth from my constant companion. Alternating with these panels, these buttons and knobs and switches, were grand paintings espousing Nicolae Ceausescu’s personality cult. In one painting I saw the smiling, nicely dressed leader in an idealized, heaven-like setting. In still another I saw a nuclear family gathered together at dinner to thank the glorious leader Ceausescu for the bounty on which they were about to feast. More paintings and portraits like these circled us, and I began to sense that the spirit of Ceausescu—and perhaps even his equally bullet-ridden wife—would make an appearance.

“That table doesn’t look good.”

“Look above you, mate.”

Embedded in the ceiling was what could only be described as a giant laser, its barrel long and gradually winding down to a point at the end, a tiny bulb. I gulped again.

“Ishy. I need that horn. I don’t know about my arm, though. You’re going to have to hold it.”

“Will do, mate.”

I watched as Ishmael hovered toward the bull’s horn. How he would lift it I wasn’t close to finding out, for suddenly my constant companion was yanked upward by an unseen force, and as Ishmael cried out in surprise and anger he was hurled against one of the flashing, blinking panels with such might that if he had been human his brains would have been dashed out through his ears.

But this was Ishmael, the crafty All-in-One, and although he was bashed up he was nowhere near defunct. The force, aware of this now, hurled my constant companion again and again into the panel, into other sides, into the floor, over and over, and through it all I yelled, “Ishy!” even as I did my best to drag myself to the horn.

My weapon was a mere inch or two away when it was wrenched from my sight to hover far above me, next to the laser that was now coming to life. Red light streamed down the barrel to reach the tipping point, the release, and an ominous whine and hum rose up in the room.

“Ishy!”

While not dead, my constant companion was just as trapped as I. The bashing had seriously messed Ishmael up, but, to my constant companion’s credit, the panels and wall and even the floor were just as dented and cracked—if not more so—than he. Still, Ishmael was now pressed against the wall by a force too powerful to beat back. It was the same force that now kept my poison-tipped sacred horn out of reach, the same force that was now revving up the laser beam to maximum power, the same force that had harried me in each of my missions since the summer and before. It was the Meritocrat.

The nebulous, unwieldy and unruly form seethed and surged around the glowing laser beam. The Meritocrat’s laugh was loud and suitably sinister.

“Damn you!” I said, even as I tried to maintain balance on my good leg while holding onto the cross-shaped table.

“Put your feet up, David.”

I was then literally swept off my feet so fast I had no time to react let alone think. The force of my head striking the table’s surface alone should have been enough to kill me, yet I remained alive; I could tell from the intense pain coursing through my body. The straps that now secured my arms dug into my skin and veins, causing me to cry out from my bad arm. My ankle too shot bullets into my heart and head as both my legs were held down firmly by the strap at the foot end.

I shrieked and twitched and writhed, my head lifting to see Ishmael still pinned against the wall.

The straps dug deeper, and I realized with a burst of pain in my head that if I wasn’t already being tortured then I would be tortured very soon.

Chortling, the Meritocrat took a more concentrated cloud shape and drifted toward me. Through my archnemesis’s dark opaqueness I saw the laser beam—what I now realized was a radiological weapon, codename Radu—primed and ready to go.

“If you know God,” the Meritocrat said, “don’t go outside.”

“God,” I snorted. “What does God have to do with this?”

“What do any of them have to do with this? It’s always been what you have wanted to hear, what you have wanted to see, what you have wanted them to do and say….”

“I didn’t force anything,” I said. “I let it happen.”

“You let it happen in your mind.”

“I didn’t imagine anything. I did not make anything up!”

“The Myth of Narcissus….”

“I’ve worked with only the truth, and the truth is the Internet!”

“Then tell the truth of what happened to your parents—”

“Shut up! Don’t go there!”

“Will you use the Internet as an excuse for them, too?”

Gathering all the phlegm and spittle and other junk I had in me, I hocked the wad up at the Meritocrat who had drifted within range.

“Aaah!”

Surprised, my archnemesis drew back as the mighty loogie cut through him. Momentarily dispersed, the ectoplasmic form seemed not to know what to do, going in all directions, until at last it pulled itself together. 

“Apologize for that.”

I only grinned.

“Apologize!”

“You need an apology from me?” I said. “You’re the narcissist.”

“And you’re dead, David Michael Ewald.”

The Meritocrat descended swiftly so that he covered my face. I had to breathe in, but what I breathed caused me to suffocate. It was as if I’d put my lips around all the exhaust pipes of all the SUVs that had ever rolled off the assembly lines. I would die now, I knew it.

But then the Meritocrat ascended to allow me real air. I coughed and sputtered and gasped, my eyes tearing up and squeezed tight.

“What….are…you.”

“I am the Americas,” he boomed. “I am Europe, I am Asia, I am the Middle East, I am Australia, I am Africa. I am everything of consequence that has happened and everything of consequence that will happen. I move nations to action, to war and to peace. I cure diseases, and cause them. I make money for millions even as I take money from millions more. I bring both misery and happiness, death and life. Millions each day, those who matter, who will do something of significance. I am what holds us together, and without me we are lost.”

“We don’t need you,” I said. “We can kill you.”

“With the horn? Yes. That would have killed me. It can kill anyone, anything, including your device there.”

The hovering horn turned, now aimed at the still-pinned Ishmael.

“Ishy, no! Don’t do it. Kill me, all right. Drive that thing into my heart and get it over with already. It’s me you want. Not him.”

“Ah,” said the Meritocrat. “But I do want him.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say then, so I waited for him to explain.

“Like me, he is the future. Hundreds of years from now your kind will exist only to be controlled by either him or me, the determinants of what is perceived, and what is reality.”

That’s the future?” I said.

“It is inevitable,” the Meritocrat said as he swirled and surged. “You, like too many of your kind, put blind faith into these machines in hopes of creating the meritocracy, when the meritocracy has already been created. You need only trust in me and you will live forever. Instead you choose to end your lives prematurely.”

I sighed. “Could you stop talking? You’re giving me a headache.”

I’m giving you a headache? I? I find that as humorous as your desire to give your life for the All-in-One.”

            “He’s my friend.”

“Your friend?” The Meritocrat rose up, and his entire form seemed to undulate with unexpected mirth. “I am more your friend than he is.”

“Yeah right.”

“At least I am somewhat human. At least I feel.”

“You don’t think Ishmael feels? He’s felt plenty.”

I recalled then all that my constant companion had experienced emotionally. Anger, that’s for sure, and….

“Anger,” the Meritocrat said. “Only anger. Anger at you especially.”

Now Ishmael buzzed and beeped, and in a voice amplified as if by a bullhorn said, “Don’t listen to him, mate. It’s psychological warfare.”

“I won’t, Ishy,” I assured him. But I had to admit: in all our time together since the end of September to this Christmas Day, I could not recall ever receiving a confirmation of our friendship. Sure, Ishmael had been there for me, he had always been there for me, at my side, saving my life on many occasions. But when I tried to get close to him, to show affection, he’d shrunk away. I had even gone so far as to admit I loved him in the technological sense, and still I’d received nothing. Was it true then? Was the Meritocrat right? Did my archnemesis actually care more for me than did my constant companion?

“Don’t listen to him, mate!” Ishmael cried. “I know what he’s doing to you. I can hear his thoughts in your head!”

“But…how?”

“Because,” the Meritocrat said, “he’s in your head!”

“What?”

“David, David, David,” the Meritocrat tsked. “You’ve forgotten what I said in Michigan, haven’t you? About your true enemy being closer than you know!”

“Ishmael is…the real enemy?”

“Don’t listen to him! It’s not true!”

“I was going,” said the Meritocrat, “to take a cue from my old and violently departed friend Nicolae Ceausescu and irradiate you. Perform Radu on you. Pepper every part of your body with concentrated bursts and waves of radiation until you were sure to have cancer, cancer of the brain in particular….”

“But I already have it,” I said quietly.

It was true. I kept my head resting on the table’s surface. I thought of all the times I had pressed Ishmael to my ears, held him close to my head, allowed him to hover within inches of my skull and other parts of my body. I had even hugged him to my chest, and what could the radiation waves emanating from my super-powered cellphone device lead to there? Was there such a thing as cancer of the heart? I had it—if not of the heart than of the brain. That was why I had been so dizzy and nauseous in the last month, ever since the Netherlands. That was why I’d been suffering from migraines that had only intensified as we’d pushed on into Eastern Europe. Ishmael had assured me they were a sign of only nervousness and nothing else—when he knew all along he was the cause of my cancer. He had irradiated me!

“I’m sorry, David. You don’t have too long to live.”

“How long?”

My eyes still closed, I pictured a homemade black billboard sitting on the side of a California highway I’d passed years ago. The billboard had only an image on it—that of a white skeleton holding an equally white cellphone to its skull. The cellphone blasted electrical energy. The skeleton appeared to be talking.

“The Happy One,” I whispered. “It is over.”

“A year, David. Perhaps two at most.”

I opened my eyes. Everything I now saw looked sharp and alive. A clarity was in my head that had never been there before.

“Give me the horn.”

“No, mate! David! Dave, Davy! It’s me. It’s Ishy!”

The straps fell away just as the horn fell into the hand of my good arm. Free now, I moved with some difficulty to a sitting position, then, with the Meritocrat’s assistance no doubt, I wobbled toward my former friend who jittered and struggled against the wall.

“Maaaaate! Look at me! I’m your friend!”

“You were never my friend,” I said, now within striking range. “A friend would have told me what he was doing to me, without my knowledge.”

“But I saved your life—so many times!”

“Only to give me a far worse death in the end.”

I raised the horn, javelin-like, over my shoulder. Before I could launch a sure-fire direct hit, though, the horn flew from my hand and embedded itself in the panel above Ishmael, who was now sucking air like a vacuum.

The Meritocrat cried out, startled, and I felt the room move around me.

“Hold on to something, David,” Ishmael said. “The table—it’s the only thing!”

“Ishmael, what are you doing?!”

“Hold on!”

Though it felt as if I were being executed by sub-machinegun, the bullets piercing my legs and arms and bouncing around in my blood, I forced myself to lunge back at the table. I wrapped my body around the table’s right arm just as Ishmael’s formerly concentrated suction widened to take in the entire room.

The Meritocrat, who from the start of Ishmael’s surprise attack had been slowly but surely sucked toward the All-in-One, now came within inches of a small hole that had opened in the device’s front, where the emoticons would often appear.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaah!”

Whereas in Ruurlo, with the household vacuum, the Meritocrat’s cry had been one of only anger and annoyance, this cry now showed nothing but terror. The first time I’d seen the Meritocrat scared, and I knew then how this ended.

“I’m sorry, David!” Ishmael shouted over the roaring suction and shrieks and pleas of the Meritocrat. “It was the only way! Forgive me!”

“I do. Ishy, I do! I’m sorry too!” I was weeping now, the tears flying from my eyes to mix with the Meritocrat and my one true friend, my death. Behind me pieces of plastic and iron and glass and panel and chunks of wall flew around to strike the area where Ishmael and the Meritocrat struggled. The powerful radiological weapon above, that Radu, began to fire beams at both titans. Ishmael and the Meritocrat, lit up, screamed and squirmed but remained locked. The radiation beam, already twisting off its base in the ceiling, snapped off and smashed against the wall above the main battle. Fiery radiation, pieces of burnt steel and wiring and computer chips rained, and still Ishmael held fast. He was on fire now, but then so too was the Meritocrat, his nebulous form now all flames licking and jumping and turning.

And still Ishmael’s otherworldly suction continued.

“Ishyyyyyyy!”

A galvanic heave, the room seemed to ripple, I was thrown away from the table to hit the wall hard. In a daze and blinking rapidly, I saw the last of the flaming irradiated Meritocrat sucked into the equally fiery and irradiated All-in-One. For a moment there was silence except for flames crackling, pipes hissing somewhere close by, and an alarm sounding from another chamber. The room we were in was in shambles; even the table had been wrenched free of its foundation. The ceiling above was breaking up, and the wall behind me was starting to bend and topple. Everywhere I could feel the Radu.

I breathed enough to look calmly at what had once been Ishmael. It was now nothing but a flaming and glowing hunk of metal—and yet it was alive, for it still hovered, bobbed.

“Ishy,” I whispered, my eyes gushing.

And then, with what had to have been the last of his nearly inexhaustible strength, my formerly constant companion flew up and through the narrow passageway that had brought us down here.

I shouted his name in hopes of having him take me, too; I didn’t know what I would do now besides die here in increasing darkness.

The room continued to heave and quake. I got under the table and covered my head as more and more debris fell. From a distance away, several chambers over, could be heard one last cry, an echo of both Ishmael and the Meritocrat’s voices entwined in their final, fatal struggle. Then: an explosion of such power that I was thrown up to strike the underside of the table, the ground broke open and I was staring into a pit, the end of my world.

Oblivion, I thought. Let it be—

And then a roar like all the planes I had ever taken washed over me, the earth and iron and plastic consumed me, and I was borne by the arms of what had always awaited.

Katherine (chapter 15) - finale

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Katherine

 

I was in Denver to start a new life. I had nothing now—no money, no laptop, no cellphone or All-in-One. My traveling backpack, daypack, satchel, sets of clothing and other assorted items had been left behind. I had no need of any of it now.

I stood before the large table set against the wall and surveyed the spread. Plates loaded with crab claws and jumbo shrimp, seared ahi tuna pieces, squares of smoked salmon fillet, other fish I couldn’t identify collected at one end of the table. At the other end were the dips and dipping devices—the chips and pita bread and celery sticks and carrots. Lastly I saw the sweets: the designer cupcakes and brownies and cookies. I started to reach out for one of these but then stopped, remembering I couldn’t eat any of it.

Behind me the crowd had gathered at the island in the open kitchen. In the adjacent, equally spacious and open living room a couple of guys my age had gathered to talk intermittently while watching a long and dark superhero movie. I turned from the table and watched them all, wanting to take part in their conversations, talk of the Codfather who had come through with the seafood, or at least enjoy the movie. To my right the entryway to the darkened bedroom occasionally welcomed or let go a human being. Everyone gathered here wore a small festive hat of some kind—a cone-shaped one or a bowler or a mini-top hat. The plastic eyeglasses were sparkling with fake glitter and shaped into the number 2010.

I sensed that it was warm in the condo, though I couldn’t feel. The men wore nice button-up shirts and slacks while their female counterparts had on tasteful evening dresses or blouses and seven hundred dollar pairs of jeans. I still had not tried to start up a conversation with any of them, nor had they even so much as nodded at me to acknowledge my presence.

Through the sliding glass door that led out onto the condo’s balcony I saw a woman, blondish red hair up in a bun, a light jacket protecting her from the elements, standing with her back to all of us. I moved to join her. On the way to the sliding glass door I noticed a woman tell the men watching the superhero movie to switch channels, it was time for the countdown.

I slid the glass door closed behind me and approached the woman. She remained staring out at the downtown Denver skyline, the scrapers with their corporate logos glowing at the tops, the slender cash register building with its half-dome cresting a wave. Beyond the skyscrapers and the rest of downtown the mountains rose up as silhouettes in greater darkness. Below was quite a drop; we must have been at least six stories up. On either side of our balcony, as well as above and below, the lights were on in neighboring condos, and people had gathered together to watch in anticipation of whatever was going to happen here. At last I turned to the woman next to me.

“Katherine,” I said, not at all surprised.

She wore the light jacket over a revealing but classy black dress. Her shoes were also black. Her cheeks and eyelids had been sprinkled with glitter, and now she turned to lay her deep green eyes on me.

“Hi,” she said. “You were right.”

“I was.”

Behind us through the glass door the commotion, chattering and laughter had intensified. The tv’s volume was turned up as well. Katherine and I remained standing at the balcony’s railing, looking out over downtown.

“Are you cold?”

“A little,” she said.

“May I hold you?”

“I’d like that.”

I put my arm around her and drew her in. It felt good. It felt right, different from all I had done before. A new life.

“Wow.” Katherine exhaled audibly. “Twenty-ten. A new decade. Can you believe it?”

“I think I’m dead, Katherine.”

“I think you are, too.”

“So you can—”

“I think I’m dead too.”

“Oh Katherine.”

She leaned her head against my chest, closed her eyes and said, “I think I’ve always been dead.”

I nodded and held her more tightly. A new life, I thought. What’s always awaited me.

“I’m giving it up, Katherine. The missions….I don’t need this job anymore.”

“I don’t expect you’d need it now.”

“I thought, when I was younger, even earlier this year, I thought I’d do it forever. I had so many other spirits to pursue, to help, to save! The stewardess who got sucked out of that Aloha Airlines jet when the top blew off in April ’88. Bobby Bloom, the one-hit wonder singer of ‘Montego Bay’ who burst into a New York apartment on February 28, 1974 to break up some fight and was shot dead at only twenty-eight. The fifteen-year-old Texas inspiration for the ‘91 Pearl Jam megahit ‘Jeremy’. The only Disneyland employee to have died on the job. What about any one of the people killed in the ’84 McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro? The ’98 Cavalese cable car disaster? The mudslides in China? The earthquakes in Indonesia? Chernobyl? The Hindenburg? The—”

“Shhhhhhh….” Katherine pressed a finger to my lips. Then she told me to watch.

The screams and shouts and whoops were thunderous all around, from within our condo and those surrounding us.

“Ten….nine….eight…seven….”

“I love you,” I said. “I want to be with you forever.”

“You will be,” she said, and as the voices rose to the number one we kissed. Explosions from afar sounded at the same time kazoos and horns and whistles blew. Sirens wailed, car horns blasted, whirly-gig noisemakers twirled and buzzed. A cacophony from below, above, behind.

“Happy New Years! Happy New Decade! Happy 2010!”

Ecstatic, I looked down. A multitude of people was on the street just outside our high-rise condo complex. They banged pots and pans, shouted and shrieked and cheered and hugged and kissed. Overwhelmed, I took Katherine in my arms and kissed her yet again. We laughed and held each other, beating hearts that only we could hear.

Downtown looked as if it were under fire. From out of the ballpark launched missile after missile into the night sky to explode and rain scattered sparkling elements. The explosions took different forms—in one I saw the face of a grinning human with a fat cigar jutting from his mouth, in another I saw a car, in others a motorcycle, a logo, a yacht, a cat and dog playing, and finally—a cellphone.

“Ishmael!” I said. “Ishy!”

The lights dancing in my eyes and shifting on my face, I jumped up and down and waved at the cellphone until that form too had faded. Katherine smiled and wrapped her arms around me. “Goodbye, Naughty Aughties,” she said. “Goodbye, Denver.”

“Goodbye? We’re leaving?”

“We have to.”

“We don’t live here?”

“We don’t live anywhere.”

“Okay. But…can’t we make this city our home? I planned on starting a new life here. With you!”

“A new life,” Katherine chided. “I have to show you something because I need you.”

And then I felt myself lifted in a way far faster and more forcefully than I had in my time with Alice in Indiana, or with Ishmael at any of those times he had come to my aid. I was launched into the sky, past the fireworks still spewing and exploding, and I would have felt afraid if I had been something else and Katherine had not been next to me, holding my hand.

I whooped and yelled, my fist pumping the air, as we turned over downtown Denver’s raucous celebration and headed west, over the mountains. I’d at first thought it would be a leisurely journey, but instead we rocketed forward at what could have been close to light speed had I not once looked down and caught sight of a castle-like temple lit-up with the statue of a golden angel blowing a horn on one of its spires.

And then we had landed in another city, a city by a lake, the city where Katherine had been born. We stood in the middle of a cul-de-sac stricken with night and faced one house out of all the rest, a one-story with a short slightly sloping driveway, the house itself white with brown trim. No vehicle was parked in the driveway save for a small boat half-covered by a tarp. Beyond the boat were a woodpile and the fence leading to the backyard. I had only a moment in which to acknowledge these things, a moment in which to breathe and look at the other houses lining the cul-de-sac, all dark and silent and, I realized now, empty, devoid of not only vehicles but of people and even things.

Katherine gripped my hand and it was as if we were running—only I couldn’t feel or see my feet move. The white house with brown trim was coming at us fast. I thought about telling Katherine, Stop, stop. I don’t want to go inside. I don’t want to see what you have to show me. The front door remained closed but we passed through it easily and were now in this dark and bare place, the floors and walls devoid of any and all, no people sitting because there was nothing on which to sit, nobody watching because there was nothing to watch. I felt immeasurably sad then, sad for Katherine and for all the people who had ever passed through these doors and listened through these walls.

Without a word Katherine led me down the dark hall past rooms all of which were closed. She was crying now, and as she walked I could sense her regressing in age, becoming younger, until by the time we opened the door to her bright room she was a little girl, no more than seven or eight, and she now had long straight brown hair, freckles and a toothy grin. She wore flowery pajamas, and though she was now far shorter she pulled me to her bed with startling strength.

Once seated on her bed I looked around. Clowns. Clowns everywhere. The wallpaper was covered with clowns—clowns of all sizes and varieties. Next to her bed was a nightstand on which stood a lamp shaped like a clown, and on the bed’s opposite side stood a towering display case that showed, on each glass level, clown figurines and dolls and other memorabilia.

The child Katherine smiled and giggled and jumped onto her bed to lie next to me. She rolled to her side to face away, and I was struck by the bedspread—it was not of clowns but rather of a toy- and cartoon-character popular at the time I was a child, which was also when Katherine was a child. The closet was open and not only were the toys on the floor from our shared childhood but the clothes as well. I had been in this room before, this very room with this very girl, this Katherine who was my Katherine. I had known her once.

“I have to get out,” I said.

“I have to show you,” she said, her back still to me, her face hidden.

“Is this what it’s like?” I said, the tears forming. “Is this what I have to look forward to?”

I touched her and she turned. I screamed and rolled away and off the bed to land hard on my knees. Katherine’s eyes were gone. In their place were bloody sockets, the blood streaming down her cheeks like tears.

“I have to show you!” she screamed at me. “I have to show you!”

She crawled across the bed toward me, this eyeless, bloody-socketed demon, and as much as I tried to close my eyes I couldn’t. As much as I tried to turn away I couldn’t.

I was about to say the words I was sure she wanted to hear when the room turned to darkness, silence, and I felt myself floating, my arms outstretched but waving languidly. Such serenity filled me then, and I at last had the time in which to think of the reasons for saying what I would have said. The experiences I’d had, the roads I’d driven, the busses and trams ridden, the streets walked, degrees earned, women I’d slept with, people I’d befriended, flexibility I’d demonstrated, schools I’d attended, friends I’d fallen in and out and in again with, the laughter I’d forced, the books I’d read, the family history I’d learned, the past I’d thrown off, the changes I’d made, the career I’d begun to build, the realizations I’d had, the love I’d started to display, the self-confidence I’d finally awakened, the future I thought I’d deserved, the movies I’d seen the movies I’d reviewed, the movies I’d made, the blogs I’d put up and taken down, the opinions I’d given, the jobs I’d held, the money I’d earned, the planes I’d caught, the places I’d visited, the family I’d seen pass on, the inheritance I was given, the wills I’d written, the fights—physical and no—I’d been in, the underwear I’d purchased, the sports I’d played, the lips and breasts I’d kissed, the hugs I’d accepted, the hands I’d held, the asses I’d slapped, the spankings I’d received, the hair I’d brushed and braided, the e-mails I’d sent, the numbers I’d dialed, the messages I’d erased, the letters I’d mailed, the tears I’d allowed to fall, the bridges I’d burned, the bridges I’d maintained, the moments of peace and memory I’d gone back to knowing no one could take them from me, the teachers who had earned my respect, the teacher whom I’d feared, the subway stairs I’d climbed, the animals I’d held, the people I had angered, the people I had hurt, the people I cared for and cared about and even loved, the trails I’d trodden, the money I had gambled and lost, the money I had gambled and won, the sun that’s burned, the snow that’s shocked, the sea I’d struggled through, the art galleries and exhibits I’d walked through only to find myself alone, the loneliness I’d felt, the mistakes I’d made, the stupid decisions I’d made, the silly things I’d said, the jealousy I’d held, the inexperience I’d made too much of, the venom I’d drunk, myself I’d been unable to forgive until recently, the microwave dinners I’d warmed up for breakfast, the food I’d attempted to cook, the food I had cooked successfully, the great restaurants I’d been to, the plays and concerts and musicals I’d attended, the criticisms I’d received, the classmates and coworkers I’d smiled at and stroked, the maturing I’d done, the slipping away of all the things that once mattered and had no right mattering now.

I stood on the edge of a great lake and gazed out on the horizon. Nothing was discernible through the smoke that lay like a blanket over the calm water. Though the smoke was everywhere I did not cough, nor did I feel it important to breathe. I simply stared at the smoke touching the water and blotting out the sky. It was day and though I couldn’t see the sun it was strong, hot. I wore swim trunks, a t-shirt and a baseball cap. I continued staring, waiting for something. My bare feet felt nothing as the water lapped at them. I turned to my right and saw a kayak ditched in the sand just out of the water’s reach. To the right of the kayak, farther onto the shore, squatted three beach chairs, one of which held a large open umbrella that provided meager shade. Drinks rested in the chairs’ cup holders; a radio next to the umbrella chair played soft indiscernible music. A cooler and picnic basket lay on a blanket in front of the chairs. Scattered on the blanket was an assortment of baby toys.

I looked at my hands. They were clean and calm. I rubbed them together then brought them again to my sides. I continued to stare at the smoke hanging low over the vast and empty lake. I would wait, and watch, and weep.

Harriet (chapter 1)
Chris (chapter 2)
Ai’dah (chapter 3)
David (chapter 4)
Christopher (chapter 5)
Aegeus (chapter 6)
Andrew (chapter 7)
Interlude (chapter 8)
Linda (chapter 9)
Alice (chapter 10)
Leo (chapter 11)
Arthur (chapter 12)
Kordula (chapter 13)
Radu (chapter 14)
Katherine (chapter 15) - finale

About:

Do you know of Harriet Quimby? Christine Chubbuck? Christopher Coe?

What about King Aegeus? Andrew Kehoe? Linda Gary? Leo Ryan?

These are just some of the spirits our hero and narrator David Michael Ewald (not the author of this book) encounters as he travels the world trying to convince those who died long ago and those who died more recently that their salvation lies with the Internet. Will these ghosts of the semi-famous, the would-be famous and the almost-forgotten accept his help and become part of the social-networking new world, or will the Meritocrat, our hero and narrator's unruly, unwieldy, nebulous archnemesis triumph instead? Find out in He Who Shall Remain Shameless, a paranormal adventure novel comprised of fourteen linked stories (some of which previously appeared in the publications The Harrow, The Bend, Morbid Outlook, and The Chimaera) by David Ewald.