March 01, 2004

Chapter One

Part I

Chapter One


This is how the end of the world began.

It was November, 1994. Reuben had been in Moscow for two months.

He was staying at the Hotel International, part of a complex of offices, shops, and restaurants near the parliament building, just a short distance from the Kremlin and the center of the city. The Russian name for the hotel was the "Mezhdanarudnaya," and it was called simply "the Mezh" by English-speaking expatriates. Built for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games, the Mezh was designed to showcase the technological and cultural prowess of the Soviet state to visitors from all over the world. At that time, it had been the jewel in the crown of the Russian hospitality industry. Fourteen years later, very much worse for the wear, the Mezh was dimly lighted, smoke-filled, grimy. The seediness of the place was surpassed only by the seediness of its clientele.

Reuben liked it.


He had learned that the place was an important Chechen hangout. Most evenings, he would stop in at the Café Vienna, one of the better restaurants in the Mezh, where he would dine on "Steaktoast mit salad" or "GulashSoup," as the English version of the menu read, while surrounded by a collection of what he was told were the most dangerous players in the Chechen underground.

These were not the turban-wearing freedom fighters that were to crop up on CNN a year or two later; these fellows were more urbane in an unkempt Russian way. Bad suits. Bad haircuts. They were obviously more comfortable in the city managing drug deals, whores, and protection rackets then they would have been back in the motherland putting it all on the line for the Cause.

Even regular Russian gangsters, Reuben was told, were afraid to set foot inside the Café Vienna. The tough guys from Chechnya were universally feared. This should have stopped him from becoming a regular, but it didn't. Having learned the truth about the place, he found it strangely compelling. Though he had no professional interest in the Café Vienna or its clientele, he had the background and training that instructed him how to behave in such a setting.

It was all about routine. Get your routine down right, and you could hide in plain sight.

You don't interact with anybody. Not because you're afraid, but because you're "shy." You go in almost every night, but not every night, so it doesn't particularly register if you're ever not there. You watch the room without looking at anything, you don't try to make eye contact, but you don't go out of your way to avoid it, either. Once in a while - for breakfast, never for dinner - you bring one of the other suits in with you to emphasize how the Café Vienna is nothing more to you than a place to eat.

Oh, and most importantly, you never stick around too long. Especially when the boys were drinking, which was often.

After a couple of months of measured observation, Reuben had the lay of the land down pretty well. He knew who the players were, and he had a good idea of who reported to whom. The man in charge, whom Reuben had nicknamed (inappropriately enough, he realized) The Czar, was a slim fellow of about 50 who dressed a notch or two better than his men. The Czar made only occasional appearances at the Vienna. He always spoke softly. And he always left early.

The Czar had two Lieutenants, whom Reuben had named Boris Badinov and Mikhail Barishnikov. Under the Lieutenants, there were about a dozen men who made regular or semi-regular appearances at the Vienna. It was hard to get the count exactly right, with new faces arriving and familiar faces failing to re-surface sometimes for weeks on end. Reuben could never be sure when somebody had made his final appearance. Whatever their number, these foot-soldiers were the dangerous ones. They made no secret of the fact that they were armed, and several of them seemed all-to eager for the chance to do something more than just wear their weapons.

And how they did love their vodka.

On more than one occasion — while making a hasty exit designed not look particularly hasty after the festivities got particularly boisterous — it had occurred to Reuben that he was as conspicuously unarmed as these guys were armed. He had returned his 357 Magnum when he left the company, and had not sought a replacement for it. It would not have been easy to get a weapon into Russia. His new employers were not interested in arming him, at least not yet, and he had thus far avoided trying to acquire a new weapon via the extensive black market. He wasn't suffering from withdrawal, and he didn't feel "naked" or any of that nonsense, but he did have a heightened sense of his own vulnerability.

Though he had made some progress in classifying who these guys were, Reuben still had no idea what they were up to. His Russian wasn't that good. He could tell when something was about to happen — a hit? a heist? that he couldn't say — but whatever is was, it was always preceded by at least three consecutive evenings in which the Czar and a set of six to eight men were in attendance. Reuben took this to be the forming of a crew for a specific task. He could also tell when something had happened (usually within a week or so of the last appearance of the Czar and crew) because there would be one or two evenings when nobody would show up: no lieutenants, no soldiers. Nobody. This was probably a laying low or cooling off period. What the point of that was, Reuben couldn't guess. These guys were apparently free to act with impunity.

Still, it was a routine. He could respect that.

All told, he had the players down, and he was beginning to understand their patterns. It was a good start. If he were on, say, an 18-month assignment to infiltrate this bunch, he would have been on schedule. But he wasn't. This wasn't part of his job. It had nothing to do with why he was in Moscow. Old habits die hard, he would tell himself.

Some nights, it was all he could do to keep from writing a report when he got back to his room.

His room was on the twelfth floor of the Mezh. He was just three doors down from a room where, company rumor had it, a WorldConneX employee had been stabbed to death by Russian gangsters two years before. At that time, the company was setting up one of Russia's first cellular phone systems. The business development team quickly learned that the budding crime syndicates were looking for exactly the kind of prestige and flexibility in addressing their business communications needs (as the brochures read) that the new mobile phones offered. Many of the best and brightest from the ranks of these syndicates became what the strategic marketing plan described as early adopters. It was a great business fit — new technology meets new market niche.

The trouble started when WorldConneX began sending out bills for this service.

To be more precise, the problems really started when they went ahead and shut off the service of a few of these early adopters who were wracking up thousands of dollars in charges each month, and who weren't paying for it. In preparing for this job, Reuben had read a lot of background material on WorldConneX, including a number of their business operational manuals. The Standard Policies and Procedures for Customer Service Center Operations (WCX SPP 147: 00 - 283) contained no instructions for what to do when four huge guys come strolling into your customer service center and butt through the line right to the front, where one of them whips out a knife and puts it to the throat of one of the Customer Service representatives and requests that his boss's service be re-connected, immediately.

They just never thought of that.

It turns out, Reuben had learned, that the correct answer is you re-connect the service and from then on you send the guy a zeroed out bill every month. Of course, that was the correct answer. That isn't what they actually did. Things had to get a whole lot uglier before the WorldConneX executives came up with a few of these more, as they call it, "out of the box" management practices.

But none of that had anything to do with what happened to the guy who stayed in the room down the hall from Reuben. No, he was an enterprising sort who had branched his dealings with his mobile telephony customers into various alternative markets. There were any number of money-making deals a guy could get into right then: mail-order-brides, drugs, shady real-estate speculation — the kind where little old ladies met with untimely automobile accidents, leaving apartments in central Moscow ready to be refurbished into luxury condos. No one was sure what the unfortunate fellow from three doors down had gotten himself mixed up in. But whatever it was, it had turned out to be a distinctly bad career move.

For his part, Reuben knew better than to try anything like that. He might dine with these guys nightly, he might conduct unasked-for and totally pointless surveillance of them, but he didn't want to do business with them. That was the primary reason he had not gone looking for a gun. And he had to be extra careful to keep in line with this policy with the one group who was actively soliciting business from him on a daily basis: the ladies.

Coming back from the office each night required walking from the lobby of the office complex into the hotel lobby (the two buildings were connected). At the hotel elevator, there would be a crowd of Russian women, ranging in age from about 16 to roughly 35. Friendly, friendly girls. They all had the same patter: "Hello, Meester." Most of them looked and sounded pretty dead to the whole thing; a few actually seemed to be having fun. These must be the new ones, Reuben decided. Either that, or they were coming from circumstances so desperate, that they would make life as a Mezh hooker seem happy and carefree and fun by comparison. These were circumstances that Reuben didn't care to dwell on.

The girls would offer their wares as the businessmen waited for the elevator. Some really persistent ones would get on the elevator and ride up with them, boldly extolling their own youth and beauty, getting right in somebody's face (Reuben's, often as not) asking him for his name, asking him how he was doing, asking if he was sure — really, really sure — that he didn't want a date for the evening?

The Mezh ladies never got anything more than a sad smile and a shake of the head from Reuben. This was partly a philosophical problem he had with paying for it, partly hygienic concerns, and partly the realization that even a transaction at this level would constitute doing business with the mob.

By and large, Reuben was content with this new life and this new home. Moscow seemed like the right place to be, and the Mezh was a diverting, sometimes even interesting, place to live.

Then one night it got more interesting than he had expected.

Reuben had just drifted off to sleep after a perfectly normal evening. He had come back from the office at six sharp and stopped off at the lobby bar for a quick vodka. He downed the drink in a couple of gulps, not really interested in it (exceptional quality of the vodka notwithstanding), but committed to the ritual of having a drink after work. He would often run into two or three of his fellow expatriate managers at the lobby bar. Such a meeting inevitably led to a more prolonged session of drinking, grousing, and flirting with the cocktail waitresses.

But the bar was almost empty, so there was none of that tonight.

Leaving a few thousand rubles to cover his tab, Reuben went back up to his room and dropped off his briefcase before heading back down to the Vienna for dinner. It was a quiet evening there. A couple foot soldiers came in and sat down in a corner booth, where they proceeded to smoke, drink, and eat in sullen and absolute silence. They weren't joined by any others. After making short work of his schnitzel and potato dumplings, Reuben managed to spend an hour actually reading the book he had brought with him.

Finishing dinner, he made another ritual stop, at the hotel casino. The casino was a small dim room on the second floor. It featured a roulette table, two blackjack tables, and a bank of five slot machines backed by four video poker machines. That was it, except for a tiny bar fronted by three uncomfortable iron barstools.

Reuben visited the casino on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Upon entering, he would immediately dispense with his gambling obligation. This would mean, depending on his mood, anywhere from five to twenty dollars — all gambling was done in US currency — usually lost in a matter of minutes at the roulette table. That duty discharged, he was free to take a seat at the bar and proceed to while away the evening chatting with Vladimir, the bartender, while having a drink or two and, once in a while, one of the exquisite Cuban cigars that Vladimir kept in the humidor behind the bar.

The main attraction at the casino was not the gaming tables, however, nor was it the booze (which could be had more cheaply in the lobby bar, not to mention much more cheaply at any of a number of kiosks less than a hundred yards from the front door of the hotel), nor was it even the cigars, although Reuben was admittedly partial to them. The main attraction, and the reason that Reuben visited the casino on those nights in particular, was Ksenia.

Ksenia was one of the casino's two cocktail waitresses. Perpetually underworked - there was barely sufficient business in the casino for one waitress, much less two — she would spend much of the evening standing at the end of the bar looking hopelessly bored and making the occasional comment in Russian to Vladimir, who would nod, or chuckle, or shake his head as appropriate. Reuben was one of the few people ever to sit at the bar. One evening, after an hour or so of just watching her while downing perhaps one more drink than he realized, he decided to strike up a conversation with her.

"Ah, dobraye vicher," he began. Good evening.

"Zdrasdye," she replied, uncertainly. Hi.

"Ah, let's see… ya Amerikanyetz," he ventured. I'm an American.

Vladimir and Ksenia shared a confused, if slightly amused, glance.

"Da, ya znayoo," she said earnestly. "Ya Ruskaya." Yes, I know. I'm Russian.

"Da, da!" Reuben was suddenly enthusiastic. This was his first attempt to speak Russian, and it was working. "Minnya zavoot Reuben." My name is Reuben.

"Iz vinitye," she answered, excuse me, turning curtly with her tray full of drinks and making for the gaming tables. She returned a moment later and set the empty tray on the bar.

"Ya Ksenia," she said.

"Ochyen priatna, Ksenia," Reuben answered, extending his hand to her. Very pleased to meet you.

She studied his hand for a moment, then glanced at Vladimir. He nodded. She shook his hand briefly and started to turn away.

"Ah, wait, oo vas yest…" Reuben said quickly, trying to keep her attention. "No, that isn't it…"

She turned back to face him.

"Let me think," he said, straining to remember the words.

"Vui…gaveritye…po-Ingliski?" Do you speak English?

"Da. Nyemnogo." Yes. A little.

"Horosho." Thank God. "I'm all out of Russian."

"I speak not much English," she responded, smiling nervously.

"Then maybe we can help each other."

So it began. The three nights a week that Reuben visited the casino, he would practice his Russian on Ksenia, and she would practice her English on him. Their conversations were often halting and awkward. Once and a while Vladimir, who spoke perfect English, would step in to help one or the other of them out.

Ksenia was initially shy, and Reuben thought she might be more than a little intimidated by his foreigness. She was a beautiful young woman. The shyness worked in her favor, as did the fact that the casino dressed its female employees in floor-length black skirts and modest white silk blouses. Juxtaposed with the frank, sometimes downright pushy professional girls in the lobby and on the elevators, she was something of a breath of fresh air.

Over the weeks, he had managed to learn a few things about her. She was 23 years old. She grew up in a little town just outside of Moscow. She had two older brothers: one in the army, one working on his doctorate in Germany. Her younger brother lived in Moscow. Both parents were dead - the mother from cancer, the father either from drinking or suicide. From what she told him, it was hard to be sure. Besides, he knew that the line between those two causes of death could be pretty vague in Russia.

Reuben liked Ksenia. Quite a bit. But he didn't have any particular designs on her. She was just a distraction, like the Chechens in the Café Vienna.

Or maybe a bit more than that. She was human contact, after all. A friend. A pretty face.

But whatever she was, she was not there, in the casino, this particular evening. So Reuben had lost his money, had a quick brandy with Vladimir, and made his way back up to his room for an early lights out.

He awoke with a start to the sound of explosions alarmingly close to the window. Looking up, he could see brilliant flashes of light around the edges of the thick curtain. Although there had been no hint of trouble in the past days' headlines, something serious was apparently coming down. He had heard that a couple of years earlier, WorldConneX employees staying in the same hotel had a perfect vantage point from which to observe passing military convoys and even the exchange of gunfire as the hard-liners stormed the Parliament building and battled it out with the progressives.

That had essentially been the communists' last stand, or at least it was supposed to be.

But what he was hearing now sounded like more action than any of his colleagues had described. There were blasts near his window, but he could also hear them coming from farther off, including a few faint ones indicating that whatever was happening was covering a good piece of the city of Moscow. This was no limited raid on one building.

What the hell?

So he did something stupid, something that violated both his training and common sense. He got out of bed and made his way over to the window.

Anyone with any experience of warfare would know that a window is not a smart place to stand when the flak starts flying. Reuben had no such experience, but he knew better, anyway. Still, he needed to get a better look, so he could determine whether it was time to hide under the bed or start making his way to the U. S. Embassy. He pulled a narrow slit of the curtain back in time for another tremendous boom and brilliant flash of light. As he opened the curtain wider and wider, a scene unfolded before him that he couldn't have expected.

It was a fireworks display.

Actually, it was not just one, it was several fireworks displays. From his twelfth-floor vantage point, he could trace the path of the Moskva river as it wound its way past the Parliament building, on towards the Kremlin and Red Square and into unknown quarters of the great city. The fireworks were being set off at the same time, spaced at regular intervals along, and on either side of, the Moskva river. He could count nine different displays.

Not the outbreak of war at all, which was a tremendous relief, and also perversely disappointing. This was a big celebration, covering the entire city, or at least as much of it as he could see. It seemed kind of late in the evening for fireworks. Reuben didn't check his watch, but his internal clock — reliable again after a prolonged period of jet lag — told him that it was about 11:30.

He watched the rest of the show (it didn't last very long), and then stumbled back to bed wondering what in the name of Mother Russia he had just seen.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chapter Two

Part I

Chapter Two

The next morning, Reuben arrived at the office still wondering what the fireworks had been about.

He dropped his briefcase on his desk and made his way to the cramped little kitchen behind the copy room, where a big, serious woman named Ola would prepare the staff's lunch each day. She had not yet arrived. He poured himself a cup of hot water into which he spooned some instant coffee and milk powder. He stirred his coffee and turned his attention to a report he needed to review in anticipation of his 8:30 meeting with a Finnish manufacturer of switching equipment.

He found he wasn't ready to focus on technical detail. He needed food.

Without Ola there, he was free to rummage for something to eat. The Mezh breakfast had been particularly unsatisfactory that day, some kind of hairy salted fish and cheap, smelly red caviar. Reuben had in mind a couple of those chocolate-and-graham-cracker cookies with orange jam inside that the Russian staff liked so much. He was attempting his third drawer in this search when into the kitchen walked Sergei.


"Dobraye utra, Sergei," he said, nodding and wishing him good morning in his native tongue.

"Good morning, Reuben."

Sergei was a little older than Reuben, but looked ancient. He was a handsome fellow, with big shoulders and once-sandy hair that had gone gray on him a little early. He was painfully thin, and was always neatly and precisely dressed in a suit that was just this side of shabby. It was no secret that he and a couple of the other Russian guys were ex-KGB hired on by WorldConneX' local partners because of their connections and their ability to see to it that things got done. They could run interference both with the government and the mob (assuming there was occasionally a difference.)

As Reuben understood it, Sergei's main task was greasing the skids to ensure that the myriad of licenses and permits required to do anything in Moscow, much less run a phone company, were received and kept up to date. He also suspected that Sergei played some role in seeing to it that the company didn't have to give away too much service to those mid-level gang bosses who tended to send knife-wielding underlings the company's way any time they had a serious bill dispute.

"So you are going to meeting this morning," Sergei said, uttering one of those Slavic inquisitive-declarative sentences which are not really questions, but which serve the purpose adequately. He reached into the middle drawer and produced a box of the very cookies Reuben was looking for out from under some paper napkins.

"Um…thanks," he said, grabbing four cookies from the box. "Yeah, I was just reading over some stuff." He gestured towards the report.

But on to the topic of pressing interest:

"So, Sergei, what did you think of the fireworks last night?"

Sergei returned the box of cookies to the drawer.

"I did not see fireworks."

"What? Were you out of town? How could you possibly have missed them?"

"Well…" he half-smiled. "Perhaps I heard fireworks after all."

Reuben nodded.

"Perhaps you did. What were they about?"

"Twice a year we have such fireworks in Moscow. In November, is Revolution Day. You know this day; you have seen on television parade in Red Square, yes?"

"Sure," said Reuben. "I've seen that. It's quite a show, with the banners flying and the missiles rolling by. Only I thought that was in October."

"No. Many people make this mistake. Seven November is Revolution Day, commemorating October Revolution. It has not been decided whether this will continue to be holiday. Was good holiday for Soviet Union, maybe not so good for Russia."

"But you had the fireworks, anyway."

"Da. Konyeshnye." Yes, of course.

Well, sure. That made sense. You can always decide later when your holidays should be, but let's use those fireworks while we've got them. Why not?

"Other day we have fireworks will not change. Is 12 April; also sometimes 9 March."

Reuben wracked his brain, trying to think of what those could be.

"Lenin's birthday?" he guessed.

"No, I think we will no longer have fireworks on that day, which is 22 April. You don't know these dates?

Reuben tried to think what they might be. Something to do with World War II?

"Maybe they have fireworks on 20 July in US?" Sergei prodded. "Or on birthday of your…Neil Armstrong?"

Ah. So that was it. The first man in space.

"So Sergei, you're telling me that they have fireworks to commemorate Yuri Gagarin's first space flight."

"Da. Nine March is birthday; 12 April is anniversary of flight. Sometimes in March, but always in April, we have fireworks."

"We don't do anything like that for our astronauts, I'm afraid. So Gagarin is still very much revered, isn't he?"

Something changed in Sergei's expression; he stared hard at Reuben. His eyes were moist and his voice trembled just ever so slightly when he answered.

"Da. Yes. He was good man, Reuben. Good Russian. He was very good man."

His voice cracked as he spoke. He turned suddenly away to pour the water for his tea. Reuben was astounded, not so much that Sergei had strong feelings about Gagarin, but that he had such feelings about anyone or anything.

That just didn't fit the profile.

He wondered - could Sergei have known Gagarin? He studied the back of his head. That would make him somewhat older than Reuben had taken him for. But even if so, this display of feelings was all wrong.

Reuben took a sip of his coffee and munched one of the cookies while he pondered whether it was appropriate to leave Sergei with his deep feelings and wander off as though nothing had happened. He was leaning heavily towards doing just that when Sergei turned back, tea in hand, with all trace of the previous moment's exchange gone from his face.

"You should know Yuri Gagarin, Reuben. All Americans, all peoples, should know. What you know of him?"

"I know a little. He was a cosmonaut, the first man in space. Before that he was an air force pilot. He died a few years after his space flight when he crashed his MiG on a routine training flight. "

Sergei smiled. Reuben sensed that he had handled the question better than expected.

"Da, those are facts. Essential facts. But you should know more. It would help you. To understand more."

"Help me?"

"In your work, Reuben."

He took a long sip from his tea. The emphasis on the word was unmistakable.

"My marketing work, you mean?"

Sergei let out a little snort, then treated Reuben to a look of abject perplexity

"Is there other work? What other work? You are head of Special Projects for WorldConneX Russian International Business Unit? Da?"

His tone and manner had shifted. For an instant, Reuben could picture this guy doing a real Cold War style interrogation.

"Da. That's what they tell me."

"So what other work I could possibly mean?"

Reuben didn't know how much Sergei knew about his actual job. He probably had a few suspicions, which there was no point in supporting or worse yet, confirming. He decided it was best to deflect the question.

"Oh, you know. I have some other projects. I've been perfecting my roulette system in the casino. And I've been trying to master a technique for hitting on the Russian ladies."

Sergei laughed.

"Okay, Reuben, we take it one at a time."

The Russian cop was gone, the jovial colleague was back.

"Roulette I know from visit to Monte Carlo, long time ago. I have friend, we both play roulette. His system is bet red. Always bet red."

"Another good Russian."

Sergei nodded.

"Da. Good Russian. He always bet red, he win every time."

"So you're saying that I should just bet red on every spin?"

"Not so simple. Every time I bet red, also. But I don't win every time."

"How can that be? You and he were betting on the same spins of the wheel?"

"Ah. Now we come to point. When I bet on red with friend, I win. When I bet on red without friend, I don't win. I win sometimes, maybe. Sometimes red, sometimes black, sometimes zero. Only one zero on French roulette wheel, but ball land on zero many times when friend is not there."

"Huh. That's not good. And you know, these Russian casinos use an American wheel."

"I know this. Two zeroes. So how to win without winning system?"

"So you're saying that the winning system in roulette is to be with your friend?"

"Nyet. No, Reuben. You must understand. There is only one winning system in roulette."

"And that is?"

"Must be lucky."

Both men took a sip from their cups. Reuben took another bite of cookie and thought about this. Sergei eyed him for a moment and then spoke again.

"Are you lucky, Reuben?"

"That," he answered, swallowing a bite of cookie, "I just don't know. But I'd like to be. Maybe that's what I need to help me with my other project."

"Russian women."

"Right."

"Here I can help you little bit, maybe. But first I ask question. What it means when you say you want to 'hit' woman? Why you would do this? I can not help you with that."

The tone was scolding.

"Go back to U.S., hit American woman. No. Don't. Don't hit woman. Why you ask me this?"

"Sorry, Sergei." Reuben played along. Sergei had surely known what he meant. "I would never hit a woman.

"Well, I would never hit a lady," he amended. "Anyway, I don't want to hit anybody. 'Hit on' is just American slang for picking a woman up. You know, trying to get lucky. "

"I see - hit on. A most unfortunate expression. Sometimes is hard to tell, what is hit, what is hit on. Also, what is woman, what is lady, da? But never mind. You answer your own question. Just like roulette table, you want to be lucky."

"So luck is the answer to everything."

"I think no. With woman, you must be more than lucky. Must be very careful. Anyway, get lucky, that is American expression again, yes? It means the girl talk to you. She like you. Maybe she come back to hotel room with you. No?"

"No. I mean, yes. I guess. Well, to be precise, I think you'd say the whole lucky part kicks in sometime after you get her to the hotel room. But, yeah, close enough.'"

"So you tell me, Reuben. Is get lucky what you want to do with Ksenia?"

Touché.

Reuben knew he had to answer quickly.

"Now, Sergei. She's just a kid, after all."

He had never mentioned Ksenia to Sergei, or to anyone else at the office. He had made a point of it.

"She is kid, you think? Looks plenty grown up to me."

His tone and expression had not changed. Just two guys talking about a girl.

"You're right. She's an adult."

He snorted again. Then he slowly shook his head with his eyes cast upward, a patient man sent beyond his limits by this American and his nonsense.

"Everything must be so complicated with you, da? She is kid; she is adult; she is lady; she is woman."

"Well, Christ, everything is complicated, Sergei. Ksenia and I are friends, that's all. I've thought about asking her out, but I don't know if it's a good idea."

"Not good for you or not good for her?"

"Either one. For me, I've got to get used to being single again."

Reuben suddenly wondered whether Sergei was keeping tabs just on his life now, here in Moscow, or whether he had access to his past.

"I see. Forgive me, Reuben, but how long it has been since you separated from, who, girlfriend? Wife?"

"My wife. She passed away two years ago."

Closer to three years now, he realized.

Sergei exhaled, sharply. So he didn't know. Or if he was acting, he was doing it very well.

Reuben didn't handle sympathy well, and he didn't handle pity, period. Sergei spared him both. He could see genuine pain in the older man's face. The guy seemed pretty sensitive for ex-KGB. He had obviously endured his own loss or losses somewhere along the line.

Gagarin? No, that was ridiculous. It had to be something else.

"I'm very sorry, Reuben."

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Yes," Sergei sighed. "Is very hard. People tell you, two years is long enough. Is time to start new. They say this to you, da?"

"All the time."

"Again I am sorry. I do not say such things. It is foolish."

"Well. They mean well, after all."

"Da."

There was a long, long pause, as Sergei and Reuben stared off into the near distance and contemplated the countless horrors wrought upon this world by those who mean well.

Or at least Reuben did.

"Then you must also tell me, Reuben," Sergei said after a while. "Why is bad for Ksenia if you try to hit on her?"

That question broke the mood, to their mutual relief. It also reminded Reuben that he was in Moscow talking to, not a close lifelong friend, but a stranger - a man he knew hardly at all, except that he was, like Reuben himself, an agent. An operative. Let's face it, a spy. And not just any spy, but one who - as the saying goes - knew too much.

That needed attending to.

"Oh, it's not bad for her, I guess. We might have some fun. But we'd be coming at this thing from awfully different points of reference. I just wouldn't want her to get hurt."

"I see. You don't want to hurt girl. That is ochyen dobri, Reuben. Very kind."

"If you say so. Or maybe I just don't like feeling guilty."

"Why you would feel guilty?"

"Well, say we go out a few times, have some fun, everything is okay. And then she wants to take it up a notch. Tangle things up a little."

"Tangle how?"

"Well, say she wants to take me home to meet her parents?"

Sergei didn't show any sign indicating that he knew this scenario to be impossible.

"So you meet them."

Reuben shook his head.

"No thanks. Besides, you don't think they'd have a problem with me?"

Sergei pondered this.

"Because you are, pardon me, black man? Da. Yes. They might have problem, might not have problem. Is also the case for you with white girl in America, da?"

"I wouldn't know, actually. I've never gone out with a white girl."

"So? Maybe Russia is good place to try something new. Besides, if they have this problem, is no cause for you to feel guilty. For them maybe, not you."

"No, not about that. I suppose I could. Meet her parents, whatever. But you see what I'm getting at. A girl like Ksenia - she's looking to meet somebody, you know what I mean? Meet somebody. I've heard some stories from the guys I work with. Some of the local girls can get pretty attached to expat guys pretty fast. Ksenia's just asking to have her heart broken."

"You are right," Sergei responded, a little of the slyness beginning to work its way back in. "You are right, she is asking. So why you are refusing?"

"What?"

"It makes no sense to feel guilty, if the girl ask you. If she say 'Break my heart, please' and you refuse, then you feel guilty. Because you don't give her what she want. But do not disappoint girl, even girl who wants broken heart."

Reuben laughed.

"I like that, Sergei. It's really twisted."

"You don't like my advice; you don't have to take it." He drained his tea and put the cup down.

"Well, maybe I'll take your advice after all. I mean about trying something new, not about breaking any hearts. But where should I take her?"

"You have been to ballet?" Sergei asked. "She would like that, I am sure."

"No, I haven't been. But that's a bad idea, Sergei. Too romantic. We want something more…neutral…" The sentence trailed off as Reuben considered his options.

"Neutral?" Sergei looked perplexed. "Take her to Art Museum. They are showing Chagal; my wife asks me to take her. Women like this."

"Hmm, that's not bad," said Reuben. "The Art Museum sounds pretty good, but I'm not so sure about Chagal. Still too romantic, I think."

"Is just pictures," Sergei protested. "How neutral this place has to be?"

They both paused for a moment, considering neutral venues.

"Take her with you when you go to buy snow boots," said Sergie. "That is not so romantic."

"Don't be a wise guy. Actually…you've given me an idea. I've been meaning to find my way over to the space museum. Maybe I'll go this weekend. I guess I could learn something about Yuri Gagarin there."

"Yes. Is good idea."

"So, maybe I'll see if Ksenia wants to go with me."

Sergei laughed, and nodded approvingly.

"Ha. You will never break her heart if you take her to such a place."

"That's the idea, right? But let me ask you something: who told you about Ksenia?"

"I'm sorry Reuben, forgive me," he said, turning towards the door, "I believe you are late for meeting."

Reuben glanced at his watch. Sergei was right.

He was late.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter Three

Part I

Chapter Three


A clear November afternoon in Moscow was a rarity. To have one fall on a Saturday struck Reuben as a lucky break, one that he doubted would last. Clouds were gathering and the brisk wind, which had begun as the faintest breeze, was gaining momentum as the day progressed. He set out from the Mezh and crossed the Moskva river on foot, making his way to the Hotel Ukraina.

Reuben liked the Ukraina. It was a product of the Stalin era: massive and powerful. It looked like a cross between the Empire state building and a medieval castle, much more interesting than the glass-and steel Mezh.

It was a short walk, not ten minutes from one hotel lobby to the other. He found the main lobby and, glancing at his watch, took a seat in a red leather armchair. He was five minutes early.

The place was almost empty; he noted that it was bigger, better lighted, and much cleaner than the lobby of the Mezh. He wondered what the guest rooms looked like — maybe it was time for a change of scenery. He could think of only one thing he would miss at the Mezh.

And there she was.

Ksenia had been there all the time, but he had not immediately recognized her in her heavy coat and red wool cap. She had not seen him, either. She was sitting on a sofa in the corner, next to a young man of about her own age. He was obviously another Russian — dark curly hair and a lean Slavic face. He was dressed in a long brown coat made of unconvincing fake leather The two of them were having what appeared to be a serious conversation in hushed tones.

He got up and strode over to the other side of the lobby to greet them. The young guy saw him first and nudged Ksenia, who smiled in recognition. They both stood up.

"Hi, Ksenia," said Reuben. "Dobraye Din."

"Hello, Reuben," she offered her hand in greeting. "Good day," she added, translating his Russian for him.

If this was a date, he thought, shaking her hand, it was getting off to a slow start.

"I’m really glad you were able to make it."

"I am glad for invitation. Reuben, may I present my brother, Pavel Victorvich Teremov. Pasha, this is my friend Mr. Reuben Stone, from the United States of America."

"How do you do, Pavel." He extended his hand to the younger man, who smiled and took it enthusiastically.

"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Stone." He shook Reuben’s hand vigorously. "Please to call me Pasha if you like. You are Ksenia’s friend, you are my friend."

"Pasha it is. And you must please call me Reuben, or I’ll feel like an old man."

"Okay, Reuben," he laughed, enjoying the unusual name.

"Pasha has said that he will be so kind as to drive us to museum. It will be long ride on the Metro, so we are lucky to have driver."

"That’s great, Pasha. Thank you."

"Come. If you will wait in front, I will bring car."

They proceeded out the front door of the hotel, where Pasha left them to retrieve the car.

"So," said Reuben. "You look very pretty today."

"Oh," Ksenia said, looking away. "Thank you."

In fact, she looked quite a bit different in daylight and wearing something other than the uniform in which he had seen her at least a dozen times. Her face was flushed, both with the cold and maybe with a little embarrassment. Reuben liked the change. She was more real now, somehow. She turned back to face him and smiled. She seemed nervous. That was normal. They had always been awkward around each other.

"Anyway," he continued, "I wasn’t expecting you to bring your brother. Is he the reason you wanted me to walk over here today?"

"Yes," she answered. "Is little bit easier for Pasha to drive from here. But I had other reason."

"Oh?"

"Is not important. But I am not allowed — no, ‘allowed’ is not right word — I am…" she clapped her gloved hands together, struggling to find the right word, "I am almost not allowed to be friend with hotel guest."

"Ah, I see. ‘Almost not allowed.’ You mean the hotel discourages you from socializing with the guests."

"Yes, that is it. Discourage."

"Well, I hope you’re not risking getting into any trouble."

She smiled. "We go from here, is no risk. Is no risk, in any case. Just, as you say, discourage…they discourage."

"What about Vladimir? He heard me ask you and he heard you accept. Do you think he’ll tell anyone?"

Ksenia considered this.

"I don’t think so. Vladimir said I should go after first time you ask. He likes you. He said you are okay for…for American man."

She quickly looked away again, once again embarrassed. Reuben couldn’t help but wonder whether she had edited out some racial overtones to Vladimir’s comment.

"That’s good. I’m glad he’s on our side."

"Yes," she answered, turning back to him. "And he is only one who knows."

That, of course, was not entirely true. The other person who knew, perhaps not that they were together today, but that he had taken a social interest in Ksenia, was Sergei.

Reuben suspected that Sergei had let Reuben know that he was being watched as some kind of warning. It was not made explicit what he was being warned about, but an obvious candidate was his nightly routine at the Café Vienna. Maybe his regular presence there was needlessly raising his profile. Going there served no purpose whatsoever, it was a pointless indulgence. Reuben had decided to phase it out.

Pasha arrived, driving a tan Lada that appeared to be in fairly good shape, which was itself something of a rare sight. Reuben was not sure what the seating protocol should be. Should he and Ksenia sit together in the back set, taxi-style? Or should somebody ride in the front seat with Pasha? It depended on whether Pasha was the chaperon, the chauffeur, or just the annoying fifth wheel.

Ah, to hell with it, he thought. He opened the back seat door for Ksenia, and then followed her in. This was the arrangement he preferred. If it was rude, it was no more rude than bringing your brother along uninvited.

He needn’t have worried. This seemed to be the seating plan that everyone was expecting.

"Okay!" said Pasha, enthusiastically. "Now we go to cosmonaut museum. Reuben, you have been before?" He drove the car out of the hotel parking lot and into Moscow traffic.

"No, it’s my first time."

"Oh. You will like this. I go when I was in school. All Russian children go."

"Really," Reuben said, turning to Ksenia. "You mean you’ve been there before?"

"Yes. When I was maybe seven, maybe eight years old."

"And you want to go back?"

She shrugged.

"Is interesting place," she said, "And there are two museums, not one. One is Museum of Cosmonautics—this is where everyone goes when they are in school—and the other is Cosmos Pavilion at the VDNKh."

"What’s the VD…KNH?"

"VDNKh. It is the Exhibition of Economical Achievements. One of the exhibits is the Cosmos Pavilion. And you may wish to look at some of the others."

"So we’ll go to the Museum of Cosmonautics first?" Reuben liked the sound of the Cosmos Pavilion.

"Yes," Pasha answered, smiling once again. "Is easier to go there first, then to Pavilion. Is little bit of walking, if you don’t mind."

"Not at all," said Reuben. "It’s a nice day for a walk. And I can really use the exercise."

The drive took about half an hour. The time passed quickly, with Reuben fielding numerous questions from Pasha about life in the US. A couple of times during the course of the drive, Pasha took a call on his mobile phone, which Reuben recognized as one of the brands supported by the WorldConneX system. He wondered what line of work this young fellow might be pursuing, to be driving such a clean car and carrying a status-symbol telephone known to be a favorite of pimps and drug dealers. The kid was definitely mixed up in something, it was just a question of what.

After a while, Pasha pulled over to the side of the road.

"Okay!" he said, turning to face them with a grin, his enthusiasm back in full force. "I leave you here now and you walk to Museum. Is not far from here. Excuse me for now, I have…appointment."

"Well, thank you very much for driving us, Pasha. It was nice meeting you." Reuben extended his hand.

Pasha didn’t take it.

"Oh, no," he said quickly. "I see you later and drive you back.. Is now," he glanced at his watch, "half past one. I meet you in front of Cosmos Pavilion at six."

Ksenia said something in Russian. Reuben recognized the word zdyes, here. Pasha seemed to disagree with whatever she had said.

"Ah, should we just meet you here at six and save you the walk?" Reuben asked.

"No, no," Pasha said, suddenly displaying the severity that had been previously reserved for his Russian exchanges with Ksenia. His smile was gone. "Is already decided. I meet you there."

This was neither an invitation nor a request.

Suddenly seeming to remember himself, he smiled again.

"Okay?" he said.

Reuben looked at Ksenia, who shrugged.

"Sure," he said. "If you really don’t mind, that will be fine."

"I don’t mind. Then maybe I take you both for dinner, yes?"

This day was not shaping up at all as Reuben had planned. But what choice did he have?

"That sounds great, Pasha."

They both climbed out of the car. Pasha drove on.

"Well," said Reuben, getting his bearings. "I guess we’re heading towards that thing." He gestured towards a gleaming tower a short distance from where they stood.

"Yes," said Ksenia. "Reuben, I am sorry for Pasha. Sometimes he also…discourages me." She looked puzzled. "But only sometimes. He also helps. Was kind of him to drive us."

Reuben nodded.

"He just wants to watch out for his sister. There’s nothing wrong with that."

"Come," she said, taking Reuben’s hand with a smile "I show you ‘that thing’."

That thing was the Space Obelisk, a shining metal tower standing about 300 feet tall. It’s shape was that of a plume of exhaust streaming out of an ascending rocket. Something about the curve of the tower as it swept both in and upward suggested tremendous velocity. At the top of the tower stood a stylized replica of a rocket.

"This is Alley of Cosmonauts," said Ksenia, pointing out the statuary that lined either side of the walkway leading to the tower. These were not full statues, but busts of the cosmonauts mounted on pedestals.

Reuben studied the faces of the cosmonauts as they passed. There was Gagarin, looking very somber. A little further down, they came upon Valentina Tereshkova.

"Hey," said Reuben. "She’s kind of pretty."

"So? You think everybody is pretty."

Reuben smiled.

"That is patently not true. But I always heard that that first woman you guys sent into space was kind of…well, butch I guess. It must have been Cold War propaganda. I mean, look at her; she’s lovely."

"They make statue to flatter, not to tell truth. However, she was very brave."

He studied the bust for another moment.

"You’re right about that. I guess brave is more important than pretty, isn’t it?"

Ksenia shrugged.

"Is more important for cosmonaut, anyway," she said.

"Anyhow, I don’t think that everybody is pretty. Just you. You and the first woman in space."

They pressed on to the museum, which stood at the base of the obelisk. Reuben paid the admission, a paltry 100 rubles, and in they went. He could see at once that there wasn’t much to the place. It was a single room, with just a smattering of memorabilia. There were replicas of the first Sputniks and other satellites, two scaled down space capsules, and two full-size replicas of the heroic Russian dogs who had given their lives to the exploration of space. Next to the dogs were their absurd-looking pressurized dog space suits.

Within half an hour, they had seen everything there was to see at least once. Reuben thought that Ksenia was woefully unimpressed by the significance of the Sputnik display. But then again, most people were. She was considerably more interested in the dog space suits and a blown glass sculpture of the Zodiac characters that ran along the far wall, but even these got old pretty quick. Reuben could sense that Ksenia was growing bored of the whole thing, and he couldn’t blame her.

"Well, what do you think?" he asked her. "Should we see if we can find this VDNKh?"

"If you like," she said, cheerfully enough.

As soon as they stepped out of the museum, Reuben knew that he had been right to suspect that the weather wouldn’t last. It was noticeably colder, now, and completely overcast. The wind had picked up, too, and was beginning to spit a few tiny snowflakes.

They started out across the plaza that led to the entrance to the Exhibition of Economical Exhibits.

"Sorry to take you out on a day like this," he said.

"Why? Is normal." She gestured at the sky.

"You don’t mind going out for a walk in the snow?"

She gave him a look of tolerant pity.

"Poor Reuben. Is not snow, today," she said. "Not yet. Soon we will see snow, real snow, and then you will ask who does not mind to go for walk."

"Meaning I won’t want to? Hey, I love snow."

She looked at him skeptically.

The VDNKh had a certain fading grandiosity to it. There were arches and columns everywhere, though many of the structures were crumbling or needed paint. Most of the buildings were boarded shut. A few that were not had been converted into small shops selling the ubiquitous matroshka dolls or other Russian souvenirs. Reuben could see stacks of toilet paper and dish washing soap in some of the windows. One particularly impressive building boasted a display of power lawnmowers. Walking past the open front of the pavilion, Reuben could see inside that there were rows of washing machines and dryers.

"I thought this place would be like the World’s Fair or something," he said. "It’s nothing but an enormous K-Mart."

Ksenia didn’t ask.

They stopped at a kiosk and had shish-kebabs. Reuben wanted to be close to the wood fire as much as he wanted the food. He was freezing.

Ksenia made short work of her kebab.

"Now we have ice cream," she said.

"Ice cream?"

"Is Russian tradition to have on cold winter day. Even on nice autumn day like this, is good. Will warm you up, Reuben. Come, I buy for you."

"Da," said Reuben, "Konyeshnye." Yes, of course.

After finishing their ice cream, they walked on past a fountain, not working, which was encircled by a ring of golden statues of girls holding hands. Ksenia explained that each of the girls, displaying a particular ethnicity, and dressed to match, represented one of the nations of the Soviet Union.

"This shows friendship forever of the nations," she explained.

"It’s pretty," said Reuben, stopping to take a longer look.

"For once you are right to use this word."

"I’ve been right more than once. Too bad about the nations, though."

"Yes, it’s a pity."

Reuben looked around him. He had never heard 700 years of Russian history summed up so succinctly: it’s a pity.

It certainly was.

They continued on their way. The snow, which Ksenia had not deemed worthy of the name, had grown much heavier, and was now mixed with rain. Turning a corner, Reuben could see what had to be the Cosmos Pavilion directly in front of them. In front of the building stood an enormous Vostock rocket. Reuben couldn’t tell if this was a full-scale model, or the shell of a real rocket which had never been used. It was flanked on either side by Aeroflot jetliners.

From this distance, it was impossible to see whether the building was open, or boarded shut as so many others had been. There were no kiosks out front. Nobody was selling cigarettes or Vodka or Snickers bars.

As they got closer, Reuben could see that the door of the pavilion was, in fact, open. There were people going in and out. They reached the front door, stepped inside, and saw what use had been made of this temple to the Russian conquest of space.

It was a car showroom.

All makes, all models, everything American or European, with a few Japanese. There was no place for even a clean Lada like Pasha’s, here. Just big Mercedes, Cadillacs, Volvos, even a pair of bright red Corvettes.

"Ochyen krasivi," said Ksenia, under her breath. Very beautiful. Reuben had to admit, the cars did look remarkably clean and new, especially in the midst of so much decay.

The place was crowded, although Reuben suspected that most of the people there were just having a look. The main hall of the pavilion was a long hallway. It was the car showroom, but beyond it, in a circular atrium with an even higher domed glass ceiling, it looked like there were still a few space exhibits.

Reuben left Ksenia to admire the cars while he had a look.

There were several panes of glass missing from the Atrium ceiling, and Reuben realized that he had to be careful where he stood as he admired the old space capsules, or he would get dripped on. He spent a few minutes looking at the displays. There was a full-scale model of the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz linkup. There were also replicas of the Russian Mars and Venus landers, plus several of the earlier Russian space capsules. These looked to Reuben like huge cannonballs with hatches.

Reuben noticed a false wall blocking off a portion of the atrium. Behind the wall, he could see parts of other satellites and spacecraft sticking out. They had apparently been pushed aside to make room for the cars.

On the far wall was an enormous photo portrait of Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin was crisply dressed in his military uniform. He was smiling, looking much happier than his bust back on the Alley of the Cosmonauts.

This was what Sergei had sent him to see, Reuben realized. He walked over to take a closer look.

This young man, hero to his nation, admired by all the world. In the moment the photo had captured, obviously some time shortly after his historic flight, he was beaming, on top of the world. A snow-white dove had been released just in front of him, and its spread wings made the perfect emblem for his chest.

Yuri and a dove: it was a ten-thousandth of a second of time, captured and preserved on the far wall of the Cosmos Pavilion.

Reuben stood there and studied the photo for a long moment. He didn’t know what he was supposed to see.

The he realized that he was no longer alone. Ksenia had joined him, and was also silently studying the portrait.

"I am sorry, Reuben," she said after a while. "I am sorry that you find museum in such condition."

Reuben shrugged.

"This is what life in Russia is," he said. "What life is."

"Da," she answered.

They stood that way for a long moment.

"How did you like the cars?" he asked at last.

"Cars were okay. Were — how you would say it? — pretty."

Reuben smiled at her.

"I see you’re learning."

"Yes, from you I learn how to say that everything is pretty."

"Well, you said you wanted to improve your English."

"Oh, is good English to call everything by same word. Now I know."

On a sudden impulse, he took her other hand and pulled her close to him. She turned her face up towards his.

"You need to ease up on the attitude," he said. "Besides, I don’t think everything is pretty."

"Oh, no? So tell me — what is one thing that you don’t think is pretty?"

"Well…" Reuben looked around. "That," he said, gesturing at one of the space capsules, "is not too pretty."

She looked at it.

"No," she said, turning back to him. "Is not pretty."

"So you see?" he said.

Not impulsively, but as naturally as anything could be, he bent down and kissed her. Her mouth was soft and warm. Her response was not one of surprise, and all traces of shyness or awkwardness were gone.

She drew back after a moment, and then looked at him, smiling.

"I do see," she said softly. She drew in close, this time taking the initiative.

She kissed him with a certain eagerness, perhaps curiosity, and Reuben sensed a passion he had not guessed at. She pulled away abruptly, apparently realizing that she was committing an impropriety.

The shyness returns, thought Reuben. He knew that taboos against public displays of affection are hard to shake off, but still. This wasn’t much of a public place; they were all alone in the atrium.

"Hello!"

The voice from behind explained everything. Reuben turned around and saw Pasha, more than two hours early and looking more cheerful than ever.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter Four

Part I

Chapter Four


"Hello," Pasha said again. He approached them. Cheerful as ever, but the smile looked strained.

"Hello, Reuben; hello, Ksenia. Excuse me, please, I do not mean to interrupt."

Ksenia stepped just a little to one side, and let go of Reuben’s hands.

"Not at all," Reuben said. "We weren’t expecting you so soon."

"Yes, I see that." Pasha eyed his sister. His smile looked even more strained.

"I finish my work sooner than expected. I hope you have enjoyed museums?"

"I did. But I think it was all pretty boring for Ksenia."

"No, no," she protested. She met her brother’s eyes for a moment and looked away.

Pasha laughed, not in a pleasant way.

"You see?" he said. "Not so bored. Ksenia is good at finding something to do."

No one said anything for a moment. Pasha looked at them both, still smiling, but abandoning any pretense of being cheerful or good-natured. Instead, he seemed tremendously satisfied, as though coming upon them as he did proved something, or gave him some advantage. His eyes were hard and cold.

Ksenia broke the silence.

"What shall we do now?" she said. Her tone was lighthearted.

"We go now," Pasha answered. "Too early for dinner, so I take you for drink. Yes, Reuben?"

Reuben was inclined to say no, but he wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Ksenia just yet.

"Sounds good," he said. "Where shall we go?"

"I know good place, not far from here." He turned to Ksenia. "Come, it will be good time with our American friend, no?"

Ksenia once again took Reuben’s hand.

"Yes, Pasha," she said. "It will be good time."

They made their way out of the Cosmos Pavilion and into what was now, by anyone’s definition, a full-blown snow shower.

"So Reuben," said Pasha, "how you like this weather in Moscow?"

"I was just telling Ksenia how much I love snow."

"Yes? There is good skiing in US. Do you ski?"

"A little. I used to live in Denver, near some excellent skiing."

Pasha slowed down, apparently taking a keen interest in this answer.

"WorldConneX is in Denver, yes? What you do at WorldConneX?"

"I’m in marketing. I manage several projects." Reuben recognized an opening. "What about you, Pasha? Where do you work?"

Pasha eyed his sister again.

"Ksenia did not tell you?" he asked.

"No, she never mentioned it."

He stopped and looked at her. She met his gaze with some defiance.

Pasha turned back to Reuben.

"I work at Mezh Hotel, same as Ksenia. I found job for her at Fortuna Casino."

"But you don’t work in the casino, do you? I’ve never seen you there."

Pasha glanced Ksenia’s way once again, but whatever it was he was looking for, he wasn’t finding it.

"Oh, no. Not in Casino."

"So what do you do?"

Pasha considered this question for a moment, and then laughed the unpleasant laugh again.

"I also manage some different projects. Is nice to be business man, no?"

Reuben shrugged.

"Sure," he said.

They continued walking, past the fountain with the golden girls and back towards the Space Obelisk. Reuben noted that the crowd at the VDNKh had grown throughout the course of the afternoon. A row of makeshift kiosks was being set up along the walkway leading out of (or into) the exhibition. The place was turning into a small flea market, with men and women setting out clothing, trinkets, and books. Many of the kiosks were not much more than card tables containing a box or two of clearly pirated audio cassettes, with a ghetto blaster providing a sample of the available merchandise. Almost all of the music was Russian.

They passed a girl of about 15 holding a up a white kitten. Next to her stood a boy of eight or nine with his small arms wrapped around an unwieldy cardboard box. Reuben remembered seeing something like this in front of the Kievskaya train station a few days before. That time it had been just one person, a middle-aged woman, holding up a puppy with a covered box on the sidewalk in front of her.

"What are they doing?" he asked.

Pasha ignored the question.

"They look for…home for cats," Ksenia answered. "Who will take a cat?"

"I see," said Reuben. "Where do they get them?"

Ksenia glanced at Reuben, not sure whether he was joking. She treated him to a reprise of the look of sympathetic condescension that she had offered earlier on the subject of snow.

"In Russia, we get little cats from big cats," she said.

Pasha said something to Ksenia in Russian. They both laughed. The mood lightened.

They proceeded out of the VDNKh, past the Space Obelisk, and back to the approximate place where Pasha had dropped them earlier.

"Wait here; I come back with car," said Pasha, and continued up the street on foot.

"So," Reuben said, guiding Ksenia a couple of steps back from the edge of the street. "I think I get it. The kids we saw have a cat at home who gave birth to a litter of kittens. They’ve weaned the kittens and are now here giving them to anyone who will take them."

"Yes, Reuben. I am sorry. I don’t mean to joke at you."

"Don’t worry," he said. "I’m just glad that Pasha cheered up."

"Yes. Again, I am sorry."

"Never mind that," he said. "But he did pick a hell of a time to re-appear, didn’t he?"

Ksenia smiled.

"Yes. Next time, we go without Pasha." She stepped back a little. "But today we will try to keep him ‘cheered up," okay?"

"Okay," he said. "But I hope I get to see you again soon."

She nodded.

The Lada appeared at the curb. Reuben and Ksenia climbed in.

The drive along Prospekt Mira (Peace Avenue, Ksenia told Reuben) and towards Pasha’s undisclosed "good place" was much like the earlier trip. Pasha was affable and talkative, as before. Ksenia seemed to be paying close attention to where they were going, although this time the two of them did not confer on the subject. It was a meandering route, quickly straying from the main street into a run-down, industrial section of the city. The streets narrowed; on either side of them loomed low edifices of brown and gray, many without windows.

At length, they arrived at a crumbling four-story building that sat a little way off the street. Between the street and the building was a yard enclosed by a chain-link fence. Within the perimeter of the fence, there were several mounds that Reuben assumed were pieces of machinery or piles of construction materials. But he couldn’t be sure, because they were carefully covered with tarps, which were by now mostly covered with snow.

Pasha drove the Lada to the gate and flashed his headlights. A moment later, a hulk of a man appeared wearing a shabby black coat and fur hat. He stared at the car for a moment and, registering some minimal recognition, proceeded to open the gate.

Ksenia said something in Russian. Whatever it was, Pasha ignored it. He drove them into the yard and stopped the car not far from what appeared to be the building’s back door. Reuben noted that there were a few other cars parked there, most of them foreign models.

"All right," he said cheerfully enough, switching off the ignition. "Here we are."

"Great, Pasha," said Reuben. "But where exactly are we?"

Pasha looked at the building and seemed to think about his answer for a moment.

"Is club," he finally said. "Is private club."

"Reuben," said Ksenia, "we do not go here if you don’t want to go. Pasha will take us where we like." Her eyes met those of her brother, and this time there was no mistaking her look of defiance. Pasha looked away.

Reuben admired Ksenia’s strength, but he doubted what she said was true. Glancing up at the rear view mirror, he could see that the giant had already closed the gate behind them. And he had been joined by two others, beefy guys of about the same size. One of them held a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag.

In this light and with the snow, it was hard to be sure, but Reuben suddenly had a very strong suspicion.

"Thanks, Ksenia," he said. "Pasha, if you don’t mind, I think I would prefer not to visit your club today. Could we go someplace else, maybe back to the Ukraina? I’d like to try the bar there."

"Yes," said Pasha, "of course. We go back to Ukraina and try bar there. But first, you must come in with me and have drink."

Ksenia said something in Russian, which Pasha ignored.

"I think I’d rather not, Pasha. Not today."

Pasha sighed and then turned to face them.

"I have friends here who want to see you. I promise them I take you here for them to meet. You must not refuse. Is very big insult if you refuse." He spoke coldly, no longer bothering to smile.

Reuben was suddenly angry at himself. If the kid’s car and phone had been red flags, his job at the Mezh had been more like 12-foot high sign reading CAUTION.

Distracted, he thought. By a woman.

"All right," said Reuben. "Let me be clear. I don’t want to go into your club. But if I refuse, your friends back there are going to persuade me otherwise, is that right?"

Pasha smiled.

"You understand very well," he said.

Reuben turned to Ksenia.

"I’m to understand that you knew nothing about this?" he asked.

Ksenia’s wide eyes were moist with tears. Her voice trembled with rage.

"I did not know," she said.

Pasha laughed.

"She thinks I serve as driver for her and [expletive]" — a Russian word Reuben could not understand, but guessed the meaning of — "because I care so much. She is stupid girl."

"Right," said Reuben. "Stupid. But she still has nothing to do with any of this."

Pasha looked puzzled. He looked at Ksenia for a moment.

"What you mean?"

"Don’t be an idiot. She’s your sister."

Pasha said nothing.

"None of this involves her, Pasha. Whoever is in that building, they want to see me, not Ksenia."

"So?"

"So let her go. Now. Go tell your friends back there to open the gate and let her leave, on foot."

He snorted.

"Why should I?"

"Because you don’t care what they do to me, but you don’t have any reason to expose her to them. These are dangerous people, aren’t they, Pasha?"

Pasha said nothing.

Ksenia started to say something in Russian, but Pasha shushed her again.

"Besides," said Reuben, "it will be much easier if you do it this way. I’ll go willingly, as soon as she has been allowed to leave. I won’t put up any kind of fight."

"You only get hurt worse if you do," said Pasha, but Reuben could see he was wavering. He glanced again at the rear view mirror. The three of them were still standing there, staring at the parked car. There wasn’t much time.

"Just go back there now, and tell them that you’ve decided you don’t want the girl here, and you’re sending her away. I’ll watch through the mirror. As soon as the gate is open, I’ll send Ksenia. You make sure she gets out safely, and then I’ll go in with you."

Pasha glowered at Reuben. Then he sighed and opened his door.

"You are pretty smart, Reuben. You still be smart and don’t do anything stupid, okay?"

He looked at his sister with disgust and said something harsh to her in Russian. She didn’t respond.

Reuben gave a thought as to how easy it would be to smash Pasha’s nose right into his sneering face. He could have this punk out of the game before he knew what hit him. The real trouble would be the three goons behind them. Could he take them all? He was unarmed. He couldn’t risk it.

Pasha stepped out of the car and trudged across the yard towards the gate. Reuben watched him through the rear view menu.

"Reuben, I don’t want to — " she started.

"No," he interrupted. "There’s no time. Listen carefully. You get out of here as quickly as you can." He glanced at his watch. "I want you to meet me at the newspaper kiosk in front of the Kievskaya train station in one hour. If I’m not there, I need you to call someone for me."

He glanced up. Pasha was talking to the three men. They were passing the bottle around; one of them took a drink. They were laughing.

"Yes, I understand."

He told her the phone number. She repeated it.

"Good," he said. "Ask for Sergei. Tell him who you are and everything that happened today. Tell him where I am as best you can. Don’t agree to meet him in person, and don’t let anyone know you spoke to him. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Reuben."

The man in black had swung the gate open. Pasha waved at the car.

"The main thing is for you to get out of here safely. Go now."

"Reuben, I am so sorry." She was trembling.

"Never mind that," he said. "This will probably be fine. These guys just want to talk to me. But if something happens…you’re the only person who can help me now. Don’t let me down."

Pasha waved again and called out. The guy with the bottle shouted something at the car, to the great amusement of the other two.

"Don’t be afraid. Just do what you have to do."

She let go of his hand.

"Yes," she answered, her voice clear and strong.

She had stopped trembling. Their eyes met for a moment.

"Go on," he said.

"See you again," she said.

She opened the car door and walked out into the snowy evening. Reuben watched as she strode past Pasha and the thugs. Her brother gave her a slight nod. If there was any response, Reuben couldn’t see it from where he sat. The other men said nothing to her, and didn’t seem to pay her much attention. After she passed through the gate, the guy in black closed it behind her.

Pasha walked back to the car. Reuben had already stepped out. The younger man walked past without looking at him or saying a word. Reuben fell in line obediently. They walked up the steps, where Pasha stopped at the door to check it. Locked. He pushed the buzzer, and they waited. A short while later, the door swung open.

It was dark and smoky inside. Reuben could see that they were in a hallway, at the foot of a staircase. The floor, the walls, and the stairs all seemed to be made from the same batch of crumbling gray concrete. He looked closely at the man who opened the door. He was tall and fat, dressed in an ill-fitting double-breasted suit.

Pasha and the Bad Suit had a brief and surly exchange of words. After asking Pasha what must have been the Standard Questions, he turned and made his lumbering way back up the stairs. Pasha sighed with exasperation, and lit a cigarette. The two men stood at the foot of the stairs for several minutes before the Suit returned.

He descended about halfway and then stopped and gestured back towards the top of the staircase. Pasha started up, with Reuben following. The Suit allowed Pasha to pass, but stopped Reuben in his tracks. He then proceeded to subject Reuben to a rough and thorough frisking. It went on much longer than necessary, and ended with the man giving Reuben a swat on the backside.

"Nice club you got here, Pasha," Reuben said, continuing up the stairs. "I’m still kind of new in town. Should I have tipped him?"

"Shut up," Pasha hissed at him.

Reuben said nothing more. They reached the top of the stairs, where suddenly the floor was carpeted, and the walls paneled with dark wood. Two high-backed red leather chairs lined the hallway, which led to a pair of double doors. Above the chairs were brass light fixtures with clouded glass shades in the shape of tulips; between the lamps was mounted a large painting, a gaudy mountainous landscape. They continued down the hall and through the double doors. The room they entered was designed for more of the same effect. It was a parlor, with white marble floors covered with intricate Oriental rugs. There were more paintings, more brass light fixtures. The furniture was dark and solid and heavy. There was a snooker table; there were bookcases. There was an enormous fireplace at the far end of the room. A sofa and several chairs were gathered around it.

Reuben followed as Pasha walked purposefully towards the small group of men seated around the fire. There were two men that Reuben had never seen before, but three that he recognized immediately.

"Hello, gentlemen," said Pasha, sounding quite pleased with himself. "May I present to you Meester Reuben Stone of the United States of America."

They turned and looked at Reuben. Now it was obvious: he had seen two of the guys at the gate before. And now, seated in front of the fire were two men Reuben had never seen before, along with the Czar and Comrades Mikhail Barishnikov and Boris Badinov.

Must be a slow night over at the Café Vienna, Reuben thought.

The Czar muttered something in Russian.

"Come here," said Barishnikov.

Reuben approached the Czar, assuming that Barishnikov was acting as interpreter.

"How do you do," he said to the Czar. Barishnikov translated.

"You must be fucking crazy," came the reply. "Who the fuck are you, and why the fuck are you here?"

Reuben eyed Barishnikov, which would be a breach of protocol even under more civilized circumstances.

"Just translate," he said. "I can do without the embellishments."

A brutal, crushing blow to the lower back brought Reuben to his knees. He struggled to catch his breath. The room went wobbly for a moment, and he thought he might vomit. He looked back and saw that the blow had come not from Pasha, who was nonetheless pleased with it, but rather from one of the men he had never seen before. He was a tall and lanky, cross-eyed fellow wearing a powder blue suit. He looked like a stork. He was holding some kind of rod; maybe it was a riding crop. This wasn’t one of the foot soldiers from the Café Vienna. Reuben would have remembered seeing him before.

"You will address only the man in charge," said Barishnikov.

"I understand," Reuben gasped.

The Czar took a sip from his oversized brandy snifter.

"Whom do you represent?" he asked, through the translator.

"I’m with WorldConneX, an American telephone company."

The Czar said something to the group, all of whom laughed in response.

"Don’t be stupid and don’t waste my time. Who has sent a black savage like yourself to spy on us? What is your interest in us?"

"Sir, please understand me," Reuben said. "No one has sent me to spy on you."

The Czar’s eyes grew narrow. He asked Pasha something. Pasha responded with a quick nyet.

"This is not credible. Do not deny that you have been performing surveillance on us for some time."

Reuben knew that the correct answer was to keep his cover: he should say that he was never spying; he just liked hanging out in the Vienna. Then they could beat up on him until he admitted it. Or died.

"I don’t deny it."

Screw the cover. He wasn’t trying to keep the world safe for democracy any more. He worked for the phone company.

The Czar looked surprised at this admission. The he grew visibly angry, his face reddening, his eyes growing darker and more narrow.

"Then why have you done this?" he demanded.

"It’s hard to say."

"I will be much more difficult for you if you do not say" the Czar said coldly.

"I guess it was sort of a hobby."

This statement took a while for Barishnikov to translate and, once translated, its meaning took a moment to sink in with the Czar. This time the blow came from above, the stork whacking Reuben hard across his shoulders. He fell the rest of the way forward, his hands not finding their place fast enough to avoid the impact when he landed forehead first on a Persian rug, which provided very little padding against the marble beneath.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Chapter Five

Part I

Chapter Five


Reuben opened his eyes. He was disoriented, lying in bed in a strange room. He could not remember where he was or how he had come to be there. He blinked hard a couple of times and tried to make sense of his surroundings. The ceiling was a long way off. His head hurt. There were people laughing. He turned his head to see who was laughing only to be hit by a powerful wave of vertigo and nausea. And more pain. He swallowed hard and blinked again. He could see chair legs, marble floor, black wingtip shoes, fire.

He was cold and wet.

It made no sense. Then it did. He was not in bed, he was in that place. That place where the …

He couldn’t remember what the place was. Then he was asleep again.

Pain. Hot. Burn.

Burn.

Reuben sat upright and cried out. Everything was clear. He remembered where he was. His interrogators had made two attempts at revive him, first by throwing cold water on him and second by burning his forehead with a…

He looked around the room, though his head and neck shrieked in protest when he moved them. He remembered the faces, now. It was the stork. He had put down his riding crop in favor of a fat, smoldering cigar. No doubt, it had had a glowing red tip at the time it was crushed into his forehead.

Reuben coughed. The pain was like a blinding light.

"You will get up now."

He attempted to do as he was told. He got to his knees and tried to stand up. It didn’t work very well the first, or second, or even third time. An outburst of laughter accompanied every failed attempt to get to his feet. He made it on the fourth try. He was wobbly, but he managed to stay up.

He turned slightly to meet the Czar face to face.

"Tell me why you are here and what is your interest in us," Barishnikov translated smoothly. "And no more foolishness."

"Okay," said Reuben. "All right.

"My name is Reuben Stone. I was an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1974 to 1991. For the past three years, I’ve been a private security consultant. Corporate espionage."

The Czar looked attentive as he took in the translation of what Reuben said.

When he had a moment, Reuben would consider the fact that he had fatally compromised himself. His cover, such as it was, was blown. He was out of a job.

"Explain corporate espionage," the Czar said, after a moment.

"Securing information for competitive advantage. I try to find out what the other operators are doing; I try to protect my own company’s position. "

"This does not explain," the Czar said after a moment, "why you have been subjecting us to surveillance."

"Well, you see, I must apologize for that…" a wave of vertigo washed over him. It took him a moment to steady himself. "The company I work for owns a mobile telephony company in Moscow. It’s called MoscowX. As you may know, MoscowX is the second-largest mobile carrier in Russia, and the first to offer GSM digital service."

It was marketing blather. But they were listening. He continued.

"We know that our chief competitor, Moscow Cellular, is selling heavily to…businessmen such as yourselves. We wanted to get a bigger share of this market. So I started watching your activities to get a feel for how we could better do business with you."

It was an absurd answer to anyone who knew anything about WorldConneX and its Russian subsidiary company. Both were already up to their eyeballs in mob connections.

There was a short discussion.

"You want to sell us phones?" the Czar asked.

"Yes," said Reuben. "That’s all. We just want to sell you phones."

The Czar conferred with his men again.

"You are a very stupid man," he said after a moment. "I don’t like stupid people, and I don’t like black savages who come to this country thinking they know so much. Maybe we kill you."

The Czar issued some commands, untranslated, to Boris and the stork. Reuben flinched when Boris put his hand on his shoulder, but it was all right. He escorted him, roughly, to a chair. Reuben took a seat gratefully. The stork appeared with a bottle of vodka and several glasses, and began pouring out tallish drinks.

"You must understand that what you did is a serious offense," the Czar said. "I hope for your sake that you have told no one about us."

"I haven’t," Reuben answered, truthfully enough.

The Czar’s eyes narrowed again, and his manner grew cold.

"If that is a lie, we will know that it is, and we will kill you."

"I understand. It’s not a lie."

"If you had another reason for watching us, not because you wanted to sell us phones, we will learn this reason. And again, for lying to us, we will kill you."

"I understand."

"Then we drink," said the Czar. He lifted his glass.

"Na zdarove," he said

"Na zdarove," they all answered, including Reuben, and drained their glasses. The vodka was good. It warmed him inside, after lying on the marble floor and being splashed by water, and it immediately took some of the edge off the pain in his head. It did little to help his dizziness, however.

"Now for our surprise," said the Czar, "and our special guest. Let us drink now," he said, "to the lady"

Then the Czar said something loud enough to be heard in the hall. Reuben looked towards the double doors through which he and Pasha had passed. The doors opened, and in walked the Bad Suit, holding his charge roughly by the arm.

It was Ksenia.

She scanned the room carefully, registering no response to seeing Reuben or Pasha. The Suit walked her to a spot in front of the sofa that the Czar was sitting on. The Czar gave a slight nod, and the Suit left. The bald guy handed her a glass of vodka.

"Now we will have one more drink before we have some sport. I understand that you enjoy games of chance, Mr. Stone."

Reuben nodded.

Once again, the Czar held his glass aloft. Everyone followed suit. Ksenia held her glass out with utter defiance. When the toast was made, she tossed back the vodka with grace and utter nonchalance, as though she drank that way all the time.

The Czar set his glass down and headed for the door. The others made it clear that they were all expected to follow. At the bottom of the staircase they turned left into the main room of the building’s ground floor. This room was about the same size as the parlor immediately above it, but it was rough and unfinished. A single light bulb hung down from the ceiling on a long cord. The bulb was fairly bright, but not up to the task of illuminating the whole room.

Under the light stood the Czar and Boris. Standing in a rough semi-circle behind them were a dozen or so others. The audience. The guys from the gate may have been among them; Reuben wasn’t sure. The group from upstairs entered the room and completed the circle under the light.

"We are ready to begin the game," said the Czar.

"I will explain the game," he continued. "It is a game of simple elimination, like a child’s game. When it is over, two will be eliminated, and one will remain. Luck will decide."

Boris handed the Czar a revolver.

"This is a revolving firearm." He held the gun up for everyone to see. "It has six chambers for bullets. Maybe all six chambers are full, maybe fewer. The empty chambers have been capped, so there is no way of knowing. Each of you will be given the weapon and the chance to fire in turn. The last one standing wins."

Reuben closed his eyes. He felt his knees going weak. This could not be happening.

It was a variation on an old game, and not much of a variation at that.

Roulette.

Russian. Fucking. Roulette.

Only one way to win, Sergei had said. Must be lucky.

Voices.

Ksenia said something. Pasha shouted something that was not translated. The Czar said "nyet." Then Ksenia asked a question, also untranslated.

Barishnikov did translate the Czar’s response, however.

"You may refuse your turn if you wish. However, if all three of you refuse to play, all three of you will be killed."

Reuben looked over at Ksenia.

"Sir," he said, to the Czar. "Don’t you think we would have better sport if the lady was not involved? Those two are family, which puts me at a disadvantage. Besides, this is a game for men, is it not?"

The Czar nodded

"Yes, it is a game for men," he said. "But more importantly, it is a game for three players."

"Well perhaps," said Reuben, "one of your men would like to play?" He looked directly at the stork. "Unless they’re too afraid, of course."

The stork laughed nervously.

"You shut up," he said. "You do not decide who plays game."

"Nyet," said the Czar, followed by something else which was not translated. He asked the stork a question. The others laughed. The stork began to look nervously around the room.

He said something in Russian, untranslated, which seemed to indicate that he had decided to play.

"It is decided," said the Czar. "The lady will not participate. She will kindly move to the center, directly here. And you will join the circle of players, there."

The stork stepped into place, hesitantly.

"Now," the Czar continued, "each player will take one shot at one of the other players, it does not matter which. If there is a bullet in the chamber, that is a shot. If there is no bullet, that is also a shot. After taking a shot, the player will pass the weapon to the player to his left. If a player tries to take more than one shot, he will be immediately disqualified."

He gestured towards the bald man and Barishnikov, who were both holding handguns of their own..

"If a player aims his weapon at anyone besides one of the other players, he will also be disqualified. The game will continue until only one player remains. Do you all understand?"

Reuben and Pasha nodded slightly. The stork muttered something, which was taken as acceptance. Once again holding the revolver aloft, the Czar gave the chambers three good turns, so that even the man who loaded the gun would not know what the first shot would be. Ksenia started out of the circle, followed by Boris. The Czar stopped them.

"One more thing," he said. "The lady will choose who goes first."

He handed the revolver to Ksenia and left her standing alone under the light.

Ksenia looked at Pasha, and then at Reuben. She was terrified. Pasha said something to her. He sounded desperate. Reuben looked directly into her eyes.

"It’s okay, Ksenia," he said. "You can do what Pasha says. Or you can give it to me. The whole thing is random, anyway. You can’t control it. Nothing that happens will be your fault."

Barishnikov translated what Reuben said. The stork said something, probably complaining that he was not being considered for the first shot.

Pasha was trembling badly, and weeping. He pleaded with his sister for a moment longer. She looked at Reuben once again and then, trembling herself, handed the gun to Pasha.

"It’s okay," said Reuben.

Ksenia stepped out of the circle and walked to a far corner of the room. From where he stood, Reuben couldn’t tell if she was facing the game or had looked away.

So the three of them were left, forming a triangle around the perimeter of the light. Reuben took a step back, as did the others. They were standing about twelve feet apart. The circle of spectators abruptly dissolved; they all fell in place behind Pasha. Pasha, no longer crying, cradled the gun in his hands. He looked up at the stork for a moment, and then turned toward Reuben. He raised the gun and aimed it at him.

Reuben assessed that if he had had the first shot, he would have taken it at the stork. You have to eliminate the stronger enemy while you have the chance. But there was nothing rational about Pasha’s decision. His face was eaten up with hatred.

He aimed the gun squarely at Reuben’s head. He was still trembling badly. Reuben studied Pasha, trying to keep an eye on every muscle in his face and hands simultaneously. The trick was to move right before the shot was fired. Too long before, and the shooter had time to adjust. And after was, of course, much too late. Still trembling, Pasha lowered his aim to Reuben’s chest. He started to say something to Reuben, still speaking Russian. His voice grew louder as he apparently came to some point.

Three things happened at once. Pasha squeezed the trigger just as his shouting reached a crescendo. But Reuben was already moving, turning away and down in a swift, jerking motion, realizing at the last possible instant that his previous injuries would force him to turn to the left, exposing his right side. The bullet had ripped through his shoulder before anyone heard the shot fired. Reuben was on the floor, hit.

First chamber was loaded, he thought.

He lay on his back, staring up at the light bulb. He was mostly numb. He could feel something hot and wet pooling around his neck. His blood. His shoulder didn’t hurt; he had felt the impact and nothing more. He could hear voices, and a sound he didn’t want to hear coming from Ksenia. And then there was a face looking down at him.

The Czar.

"Can you stand?" The question came from Barishnikov, a few feet away.

The Czar offered his hand, and Reuben took it with his left hand. As soon as he began to pull himself up, there was an incredible wrenching pain in his right shoulder. The room turned red, then purple, and all the sounds of voices were muffled by a roaring like that of a passing train. He was on his feet, somehow, and the noise subsided after a moment.

A man was standing in front of Reuben. He handed him a glass of water. Reuben started to drink it, and gagged. It was vodka. He dropped the glass and vomited on the floor. The man stopped him from falling forward by placing his hand on his left shoulder. The pain returned on the other side, brilliant and exquisite, and Reuben’s mind cleared.

Pasha passed the gun to the stork. The onlookers had already moved to the left, taking their positions behind him. Reuben had an insane thought: it’s like the crowd at a golf tournament.

Reuben shook his head; he had to keep his mind clear. The pain of movement helped. He was certain that the thug would use the same rationale as he had, and go for the stronger enemy. He was surprised when the stork casually aimed at Pasha. And then he realized: he had been twice beaten and once burned; he had consumed a copious amount of liquor; he had just been shot, and lost the use of his presumptive shooting arm; he was vomiting.

He was not the stronger opponent.

As Pasha had initially, the stork aimed directly at his victim’s head. Pasha was whimpering pathetically. Reuben glanced at Ksenia, who had her hands against her face, just below her eyes. She would witness whatever happened. Like Pasha, the stork spoke threateningly to his victim, his voice rising to a screaming climax. Just as he screamed, he shook the hand holding the gun. It was a perfect bluff; Pasha flinched and then tried to dodge as Reuben had done, although it would have been much too late had the stork actually fired.

Then, as Pasha crouched there, his eyes closed and his face clenched in a grimace of horror, the stork fired his shot. It was a perfect hit, blasting a hole in Pasha’s forehead. The young man slumped forward, dead.

Second chamber was loaded, Reuben thought.

There was a general murmur of approval for the stork and his shot. Reuben glanced over at Ksenia, who had dropped to her knees and was moaning, her face buried in her hands.

The Czar walked over and took the gun from the stork, and handed it to Reuben. Then he stepped back. The onlookers dutifully took their place behind him.

Reuben knew that this was his only chance. He raised the gun with his left hand, and aimed squarely at the stork’s chest. He held the gun out with a rock-steady hand for a long time. Half a minute, a minute. He was staring directly at the target, the center of the stork’s chest. Time ticked away. And then, with so little warning that his victim would have no chance to flinch, Reuben squeezed the trigger. There was a loud, hollow clicking sound.

Third chamber was empty, Reuben thought.

There was a sound of sniggering laughter from Boris. Not waiting for a cue, Reuben walked slowly over to the stork, his good arm extended, the gun lying flat in the palm of his hand. The stork reached for the gun. Reuben began to hand it to him and then, in one quick motion, pulled his arm back and clouted the stork with all his strength, the gun making a dull, meaty thud as it smashed into the side of his head. The pain from delivering the blow was incredible; Reuben struggled to stay on his feet. He let the gun fall to the floor.

The stork staggered backward, reeling from the blow. Regaining his balance, Reuben moved in on him and, just as the stork started to steady himself, kicked him hard in the groin. There was some hooting and laughter at this. As the stork doubled forward from the blow, Reuben moved in closer and pulled back his fist to deliver what he hoped would be a finishing to the back of the head.

Just then, the Czar shouted an order, and Barishnikov translated: "Enough!"

Reuben stepped back..

Boris, the bald man, and the Czar approached the stork, who had slumped all the way to the floor and lay there face first, his body jerking spasmodically. Blood ran freely from the side of the head where Reuben had hit him with the gun. It pooled with the substantial puddle that Reuben had left there a while before. Reuben was still bleeding, and he knew that consciousness couldn’t last much longer. He had done what he could to disable the stork before he took his shot at him. But he doubted he had done enough.

It took a while, but they were eventually able to get the stork to his feet. The Czar handed him the gun, and turned to Reuben.

"Perhaps you are not so stupid as we thought. Perhaps you are more interested in staying alive than you are in good sport?"

Reuben nodded.

"That is understandable. But there will be no more of what you did. There is to be no further contact between the players. Do you understand?"

"I understand," said Reuben

"That is good," said the Czar. "if you do find a way to survive, we may have further use for you."

And I for you, thought Reuben.

The Czar and the others cleared out of the way, leaving Reuben facing the stork. He didn’t look good. Reuben had managed to mess up the left side of his head even better than he’d realized. He’d struck the temple, and a huge black and yellow swelling had emerged around the eye, probably blocking his vision. The blood continued to flow, creating big purple blotches on his jacket. Most importantly, he looked wobbly on his feet — as wobbly as Reuben knew that he himself was.

The stork raised his weapon, aimed directly at Reuben’s head. His grip seemed steady. There was no malice to be read in the look on his face. He was either too smart or too dazed to respond emotionally to the beating Reuben had given him. He had the look of a man deep in thought, carefully considering what he had to do. It was hard to say what strategy to use now. The stork would know that his bluff, which had fooled Pasha, would not work on Reuben. On the other hand, Reuben didn’t think the stork would have any readable tells, either. He would never be able to anticipate when the shot was coming.

It was an even match, a push.

The stork held the gun that way for a long time, just as Reuben had done. There was something else happening peripherally: car noises and voices coming from outside, people behind the stork talking, making for the door. On some level, Reuben knew all of this was taking place, but the stork apparently did not. He seemed to have only one level, and it was dedicated to killing Reuben.

Reuben never heard the shot. He saw the flash, and the impact drove him to the floor. Then all was darkness.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter Six

Part I

Chapter Six


Fourth chamber was — what?

Reuben awoke with a start, looking into the light. It wasn’t right; it should be farther away. As he was calculating where the light should be, he realized that he was not there any more. He had moved, or been moved, to this new place.

He blinked, trying to get the light into focus. He would often awaken disoriented, uncertain whether he was still lying on that floor, still surrounded by enemies — which meant he needed to be thinking about how to get her out of danger, and how to save his own life— or whether he was someplace else, which meant that he didn’t.

Other times, he would not wake up. He would be in a dream place, crowded with faces and voices. All were familiar, but he couldn’t quite place any of them. She was there. He would strain to identify her. She was not the woman he had lost; nor the woman who had been in danger. He could never quite focus on her face. But she was so kind. There was so much comfort in her presence.

She would take his hand in hers and whisper the truth: everybody dies.

Reuben blinked again and looked around. He remembered his surroundings as he took them in. He was lying in bed; there were curtains, white, on either side of him; the wall directly in from of him was a pale green color. This was a hospital room.

He remembered, now. He had been there for several days. At least that.

This was good news, however many times repeated. It meant that he had managed to get out of the game alive. Relief enveloped him: it was over. Then the next wave of questions began, as they always did. What about her? Ksenia. If he had somehow managed to make it out alive, then surely she had. But he couldn’t remember how.

He lay that way for a long time, fading in and out of consciousness, never completely able to shake the delirious fear — Who has the gun? — that would grip him just as he drifted off or just before he awoke. Sometimes he would wake up at night, with the room completely dark, and it would take him longer to put it together. A nurse would appear from time to time and change his IV or make other adjustments. Once in a while, she would give him a sip of water, for which he was extremely grateful. And he would try to tell her thank you in Russian, but he couldn’t remember how to say it; and then he would try to tell her in English, and would realize that he couldn’t quite speak.

He also had images of a doctor, who came in much less frequently and changed the dressing on his head and shoulder. These impressions were fuzzy, and he realized in a more lucid moment that they must increase the drug dosage before the doctor came.

So he was drugged. Of course he was. Maybe for the pain; maybe for other reasons. Not that he minded. The drugs had apparently taken care of that.

It became a routine. And whatever else Reuben knew about himself and his life, he knew that he liked having a routine. This one was easy to get used to. He would awaken afraid and disoriented. Then he would begin to remember. The nurse came often; the doctor, rarely. This continued for quite some time — maybe days, maybe weeks, it was hard to say — before he began to notice some changes. He was not waking up disoriented as frequently. He was remembering from day to day that he was in a hospital. And he was beginning to hurt: only a little at first, but gradually it grew worse.

Then one morning, the nurse gave him a sip of water. She was plump, he noticed for the first time, and probably about 45 or so. The hair peaking out from under her expertly placed nurse’s cap was reddish. He took the water, and afterwards said "Thank you."

"You’re welcome," she replied, in lightly accented English. And then added, "Don’t talk."

"What’s your name?" he asked

"Olga," she said, fluffing his pillows. "No more talk. We are glad to see you are feeling better. But don’t talk, not until after you see the doctor."

She came back a while later with the doctor. Reuben had never seen him while in such a lucid state. He was also on the heavy side, with dark hair and sharp features.

"Mr. Stone," he said. "Olga tells me that you are beginning to feel better."

"The truth is," Reuben answered, finding speech to be a greater effort than he expected "now that your drugs are wearing off, I feel worse.."

The doctor nodded sympathetically.

"Yes. I hope you understand that we kept you sedated only for your own protection."

Reuben tried to shrug; then winced.

"You see? Mr. Stone, you have suffered some very serious trauma. I don’t know if you can remember any of that?"

"Yes, I can. Most of it. May I have another drink of water please?"

Olga responded with another sip from the yellow plastic cup. It felt good on his throat.

"I have some questions for you, doctor."

"Only a few today." The doctor reached behind one of the curtains and produced a stool with rolling legs. He sat down. "What would you like to know?"

"I had…I have a friend who was also there. Where I got these injuries. I need to know whether she’s all right."

The doctor frowned and glanced at Olga. She shrugged.

"I can’t tell you," he said. "We wouldn’t know about that. You have friends who are eager to see you. I will allow one of them pay you a brief visit tomorrow, and another the next day. I’m sure they can tell you about your friend."

"Well…" Reuben thought for a moment. "Are any of these friends who want to see me women?"

"I’m afraid not. Two men. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more."

Reuben sighed with exasperation.

"Okay, then I have another question. What is this place? And who are you?"

"Forgive me, Mr. Stone. I am Dr. Chevlenko, and I believe you have already met Olga. This is a private clinic, a small private clinic. We are not far from the city of Moscow."

"Does the clinic have a name?"

"It does not."

Reuben sighed again. It was hard to talk, and frustrating not to get answers.

"Do you expect me to believe that WorldConneX put me here?"

The doctor chuckled.

"Mr. Stone, I see that you are a suspicious man, nearly as suspicious as a Russian. No doubt this is a great aid to you in your work, whatever that might be. If one were asking questions, one might seek to know how a man as cautious as you appear to be ever came to such great harm. Yes?"

Reuben didn’t respond.

"In any case," Chevlenko continued, "you can believe what you wish about who has placed you here and how the accounts are being settled. Once again, that is a question for your friends, not for me."

He stood up.

"Wait," said Reuben. "Fine. There’s something you can tell me. What happened to me?"

The doctor sat down again and looked at his clipboard.

"What do you remember?"

"Just about everything you have written there, I guess. I took a blow to the small of the back. I took another one to my shoulders and neck. And I had a gunshot to my right shoulder. Did you have to remove the bullet?"

"No, it passed through. Do you know what else happened to you?"

"No." He thought about it for a moment. "Wait. Something to my head? I banged it on the floor. And there was a burn from a cigar?"

"Yes. The bump on your head was not too severe, and there was also a very nasty burn. But you sustained another head injury as well."

Reuben thought back, piecing together scattered images of the bizarre duel.

"I see," he said, after a moment. "He got me. So what, the bullet grazed my head?"

The doctor looked at Reuben sympathetically. He tapped the closed end of his pen on the clipboard a couple of times, pondering the question.

"You must pardon me," he said after a moment. "Sometimes my English is less than perfect."

"It’s been perfect so far," Reuben said. "Why are you stalling? What happened to me?"

"Well, when you describe a bullet ‘grazing’ one’s head, I’m afraid you have an image of something substantially less severe than was actually the case. It might be more accurate to say that the bullet passed through your head, just as the other one did your shoulder, though I must add that this was to a much lesser extent than what occurred there. Still, much more damaging in its own right."

Reuben nodded, considering this.

"Um, what about my brain?" he asked.

"Only a superficial injury, it seems. The bullet entered here," he placed a finger an inch or so above his own left eye, "and exited here," he moved his finger leftwards and around to the edge of the temple, a distance of maybe three inches. "I’m afraid the bullet broke off a piece of your skull in this area and we have had to replace a section of your forehead."

"I see," said Reuben. "What you’re telling me is that I got lucky."

That was the trick, after all, to winning in roulette. A wave of exhaustion washed over Reuben. He no longer wanted to talk.

Dr. Chevlenko shrugged.

"I would hesitate to describe as ‘lucky’ a man in the condition you were in when they brought you here. But in fact, had there been even a slightly different entry point or angle of the bullet, I doubt that you and I would be talking right now."

"Are you sure about my brain?" Reuben noticed that his speech was slurred. He didn’t want to talk any more, but this was important. "Never heard of a superficial brain injury."

The doctor looked him in the eye.

"Perhaps I chose my words badly. I can see no reason to expect that the injury to your brain was severe, but the brain is always a mystery. And I will tell you frankly that I am no expert. However, it is quite encouraging to see you awake and talking. Over the next few days, we will work on getting you back on your feet. We’ll know soon enough whether there is any particular reason for concern."

"But you don’t…think there is." That was it; he was finished talking.

"Not at present." Chevlenko stood up. "What’s important now is that you rest. If you need anything, Olga or Maria will be checking on you regularly."

He returned the stool to its place behind the curtain.

"Good night, then, Mr. Stone."

He turned and to leave, followed by Olga. On her way out the door, the nurse set the room’s light to the dim setting. The message was clear; he should sleep.

But there was a lot to think about. It seemed that his desperate Russian Roulette strategy had worked. Roughing the stork up had surely contributed to the thug’s inability to fire an accurate shot. That had saved Reuben’s life, but he still had no idea how he got from there to here. Or what had happened to Ksenia.

He was certain that he didn’t get up and fire at the stork after taking a bullet in the head; so he had, in fact, not "won" the game. He couldn’t imagine the Czar being overcome by a generous impulse and letting them go. Something had happened. He tried to remember. In the moment just before he was hit, there were sounds coming from outside, and voices. He tried to isolate the last thing he saw or heard. The last time he saw Ksenia’s face.

It was all a blur. A thick, warm blur.

It was later.

Reuben glanced up, and slowly realized that he had been asleep. The doctor was once again standing at his bedside. Only it was a different doctor, older.

"Hello, Reuben," he said.

Reuben tried to answer.

"Don’t," said the older doctor. "They’ve given you a sedative so that you’ll sleep. It might be hard for you to talk. I’ll be here in the morning and we can talk then."

Reuben tried to nod.

"I just wanted to look in on you. They said you were feeling better, and I wanted to see for myself."

Reuben couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. But he felt reassured, almost safe, seeing this man. He liked this doctor, who was really not a doctor at all. Reuben had known this man for a long time. Forever. He couldn’t think of what his name was, or even who he was. But it was there.

"Good night then," said the old man. "I’ll see you in the morning.

Reuben closed his eyes. That was it.

The old man.

He awoke to a crisp "good morning" from Olga and brilliant light. She had pulled the curtains back, revealing additional beds on either side, empty, and a window to his right through which daylight was streaming. The window looked out over a white field of snow with trees in the distance. The sunshine was dazzling on the snow.

"Good morning," Reuben managed. He smelled something good. Food. He was struck by a wave of hunger, then nausea, the hunger again. He shakily lifted his hand to where he could see it and realized both that he could lift his hand and that the IV tube had been removed.

"Yes," said Olga. "It’s gone. Now let’s see if you are ready to sit up."

Olga took hold of a remote control; the bed slowly raised Reuben to a more or less sitting position. This was much better. He could feel his mind clearing.

"How soon can I get out of this bed?"

Olga smiled.

"Maybe tomorrow; maybe later today. The doctor will decide. But now you will try some breakfast."

She swung an arm-tray in front of him. It was mounted on a pole next to the bed that also had, Reuben noticed, a control panel for the bed and an intercom for calling the nurse. The tray would serve as his table.

The other nurse, Maria, entered the room carrying a small breakfast tray. She was younger than Olga, and thinner. She placed the tray in front of him and removed the cover from the plate. Reuben thought he might faint from the smell. It was two small pieces of toasted rye bread with butter, a poached egg, and a sliced tomato. There was also orange juice and water.

Reuben dug in. He noticed that the china and silver, as well as the preparation of the food, reflected a higher standard than he would expect from a hospital. But this was, after all, a private clinic and — then he remembered. The old man. He had put him here.

"How is your breakfast?" Olga asked him.

"Great. I don’t suppose I could get some coffee?"

She looked disapproving.

"You Americans and your coffee. Tea would be much better for you, you know."

"Fine," he said, agreeably, "tea it is." Then he added, as casually as he could. "So do you know whether Mr. Keyes will be coming to visit this morning, or later?"

"I don’t know," she said. "He may be busy this morning. We shall see."

So he had not dreamed it. Not only was the old man there, he was going by his actual name.

Michael Forrest Keyes had always been the old man to Reuben; his father had called him that. At a remarkably young age, Julian Stone had built a lucrative shipping business in his home town of Kingston, Jamaica. When he was 25, he took a trip to New York, where he wangled a meeting with Keyes — shipping was one of the old man’s many business interests — to propose a joint venture in South America. The two men had never met, although their interests had sometimes overlapped, and sometimes been at odds with each other.

Keyes took an instant liking to Stone and to his proposal. Before the meeting was through, he had purchased the ambitious Jamaican’s company and hired him on. Julian Stone was to work for Keyes for the rest of his life, in a position that would be given a number of different official titles over the years, but he would always be referred to by his employer as simply the brains. For his part, Stone began calling Keyes the old man the day he accepted the job, although Keyes was himself at the time barely 40.

The name had stuck and had, in fact, been passed on to the next generation.

The old man was an enigma. He had amassed a great fortune over the years in shipping, oil, and precious metals. The arc of his success was almost anachronistic, a story befitting an industrialist in an earlier, grander, more heroic era. Keyes was famously charismatic and a notorious individualist; he viewed his fortune not as a means of fame, but rather a license for reclusiveness and eccentricity. He had an extensive collection of private jet aircraft, yachts, and personal rail coaches. And he had a renowned fascination with the paranormal, with a particular interest in UFOs and lost ancient civilizations.

Olga brought Reuben his tea, and whisked away his breakfast. His initial appetite notwithstanding, he had managed to down only a few bites before beginning to feel queasy. The tea was supposed to be able to settle his stomach, but it seemed to be having the opposite effect.

Reuben looked around the immaculate and well-appointed room, and thought of the old man. There was a time, many years before, when Reuben had sworn that he would never need the old man’s help again. And that even if he did need it, he would never accept it. But he was young, then, and angry. He considered the room. And Olga. And the food. Whatever this place was, it was a far cry from what he would have expected a Russian hospital to be. It was downright luxurious. More importantly, he sensed that he was much safer from the Czar and his men here than he would have been in a hospital.

In case they were still looking for him, which he didn’t know.

He took another sip of the tea and thought that maybe it was doing the trick after all. But he didn’t want any more. He swung the arm back out of his way, and thought about sitting all the way up. There were rails raised on either side of the bed, and Reuben could not figure out how to lower them. He fussed with them for a while, until he began to feel a little tired and dizzy. He lay back on his pillow.

There would be time for that later. Maybe what he needed now was some more sleep. He was about to close his eyes, when there was the sound of someone at the door. Reuben looked that way and was surprised to see not one visitor, but two.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter Seven

Part I

Chapter Seven


There stood the old man, looking the same as ever. Or maybe a little tired. He had dark patches under his eyes and his shock of wavy silver hair had flattened somewhat and was a dirtier gray color. He was stout and broad-shouldered as ever, however. And Reuben had almost forgotten how tall he was: the old man stood a good half a head taller than Sergei, who was next to him, smiling broadly.

"Reuben!" he said, stepping into the room. "I am so glad to see you are sitting up. How you are feeling, my friend?"

"I’m better, thanks."

They both approached the bed. The old man took Reuben’s hand.

"We meet again," said Reuben.

"I’m glad you’re all right, son. So is Betty. You had us worried there for a few days."

"How is Betty?"

The old man nodded, seeming not to hear the question. Sergei picked up a chair from against the wall and set it by the bed for the old man. Then he pulled the rolling stool around for himself.

"So, ah, anyway," Reuben began, "I take it you two have met?"

Sergei laughed. "Mr. Keyes and I first met long time ago, Reuben. I maybe know him longer than you?"

"You think?" said Reuben.

The old man turned to Sergei. "Haven’t you two told each other anything? I’ve known Reuben, here, his entire life. I’m his godfather." He sat down.

"Oh," said Sergei. He digested this fact for a moment, a few odd pieces apparently falling into place. "I did not realize that. Reuben, Mr. Keyes and I first met in 1979, it was a —"

"Forgive me, Sergei," Reuben interrupted. "I’d like to hear the whole story, and a lot more besides. But can we please start with how I got here? And what happened to Ksenia?"

Sergei sat down. Reuben realized that he also looked tired.

"Of course. Pardon me." He looked at the old man, seeming to grasp for where to begin.

"The girl is fine," Keyes said. "She told us the whole story. That was an ugly business." He shook his head. "She knows you saved her life, Reuben. She’s very grateful."

Reuben nodded. "I did what I could for her. But I don’t think I saved her life. I just bought her some time. Whoever got us out of there saved her life." He looked towards Sergei. "Not to mention mine. I think you get credit for that."

Sergei looked uncomfortable. He stood up and walked to the window.

"No," he said after a moment. "For me there is small credit. And much blame."

He turned and looked at Reuben.

"Ksenia has told me that, when you sent her out of car, you ask her to call me. I am ashamed, Reuben. What you do not know is this: was already my job to watch you, to keep you safe. Mr. Keyes ask me — before I ever meet you, before you come to Moscow — he told me you are coming and I will be expected to watch you and keep you safe until he arrives."

Reuben looked towards the old man, who would not meet his gaze. He wanted to be annoyed with Keyes, wanted to protest that he was capable of taking care of himself and that he didn’t need any protection. But under the circumstances, the argument seemed a little weak. He decided to let it go.

"So that’s how you knew about Ksenia? You had people watching me?"

"I know about Ksenia from Pavel. Since you are staying at Mezh, I keep an eye on you through my contacts there. Pavel manages health club at Mezh. One day I go for sauna; this is just before you arrive. I ask him to keep watch out for you. To let me know what you are doing. He agrees."

Reuben weighed this.

"He managed the health club?," he asked, after a moment. "That explains why I never saw him. I never went in there."

Reuben considered this a little further.

"That’s interesting," he said. "I had him pegged for more of a player than that."

Sergei walked back towards the bed. "Health club is important job," he said. "Good exposure, many good contacts. In Russia, much business is transacted in such places. Many important decisions are made at Mezh sauna. And in bar, no? Pavel was doing very well for boy his age."

"So what about Ksenia?" Reuben asked. "Was she in on it? Just following Pasha’s orders?"

"No," Sergei said. "He is told that you are often going into casino, so he ask her about you. Just making talk from brother to sister. Has she seen you? What does she think of you? And what do you know — she has seen you, many times. She tells how you come in and" — he smiled weakly — "hit on her. Pavel is very interested. He tells her is good idea for her to make new friend, American friend. She must be careful, but is good idea."

"But that’s as far as it went?" Reuben asked.

"You tell me, Reuben," he answered, sitting back down on the stool. "Ksenia went with you that day because she wanted to be with you, or she was spying for her brother?"

"I can’t say for sure. She certainly didn’t know about the Chechens."

Sergei and the old man shared a puzzled glance.

"Reuben," said Sergei, "where do you get idea that those men were Chechen?"

"I can’t remember. Somebody from the office told me, I think."

Sergei shook his head.

"Well, somebody from the office was wrong," said Keyes. "Those guys are from Georgia. The ringleader is named Tengiz Kolkhi. His uncle is a fellow called Markku, if that name means anything to you."

Reuben considered this. So the Czar had a name. And he was Georgian, not Chechen. It was the sort of thing he should have been aware of, especially after spending all that time watching them. He eyed the old man.

"No, I never heard of any Markku."

"He’s a powerful man. He controls or has a hand in just about everything that goes on in the Caspian. Legit or not."

Reuben nodded.

"Some buddy of yours, no doubt?"

"No friend of mine," said Keyes.

Reuben looked at the old man impatiently.

Keyes cleared his throat

"Well, yes," he said after a moment, "I’ve had dealings with him. A few years ago. To tell you the truth, he’s always struck me as pretty level-headed for a man in his…line of work. Anyhow, he was smart enough to send Kolkhi to Moscow to run things for him there. Got him as far as he could from Georgia. You may have gathered, Kolkhi has a reputation for being a dangerous character."

"Yeah," said Reuben. "I gathered. So that charming game he had us playing, that’s not a standard thing?"

"Is standard for Kolkhi," said Sergei.

"I’ve got a full dossier on him and his gang if you’d like to look at it later."

Reuben snorted.

"Now where would you get your hands on something like that, old man?"

Keyes shrugged. "I’ve made a few friends over the years."

"No kidding," Reuben said, with a trace or irony. "Well I wish I’d seen that file. I guess it would have saved me some wear and tear. And there wouldn’t be a certain two-word phrase hanging in the air right now."

"What phrase is that?" asked Keyes.

"Rookie mistake."

The old laughed heartily at that. Sergei, however, looked serious.

"Reuben," he said, " I don’t know what is ‘rookie,’ but was I who made serious mistake, not you. I still don’t know why you were conducting surveillance of Kolkhi, but I made mistake that tipped him off. I ask Pavel to keep an eye on you in hotel, and he notice that you spend too much time in Café Vienna. Pavel was not stupid. He knows who I am, and that gives him idea who you are."

"So Pasha was working for Kolkhi? I seem to remember he said something about that."

"Pavel was playing dangerous game. Mezh hotel is Russian operation, run by Russian outfit. Pavel works for them. Mezh tolerates the presence of friendly gangs like Georgians. Other gangs they work with."

"Chechens?" Reuben asked.

"No," Sergei shook his head and half-smiled. "Not for long time. Not at Mezh. But, when they were there, two years ago or more, they did often go to Café Vienna. So your information is not wrong, just out of date."

"Right. So Pasha was trying to get in good with Kolkhi. He saw me at the Vienna and correctly deduced that I was watching the Georgians."

"Da."

"I get it. He’s been doing the odd favor for Kolkhi, and now here’s his chance to deliver him something substantial. A chance to make a name for himself."

"Da. Yes. He knows he must do this away from Mezh, or he risks that his real bosses will learn that he is working also for Kolkhi. So when Ksenia tells him that you have asked her to go with you to Museum of Cosmonautics, he sees his chance."

"So is it fair to say that he didn’t know about the Russian Roulette game?"

Sergei shrugged. "Everyone who knows anything about Kolkhi knows about this game. But Pavel did not know that game would be played that night, or that he would have to play."

"Thinking things through was evidently not the boy’s strong suit," said Keyes. "He never considered the fact that he was exposing the girl to danger, or that he might be in danger, until it was far too late."

Reuben sighed. He felt a great weariness coming over him. Talking about this was exhausting. But there was more to cover.

"I’m guessing," he said, "that Kolkhi’s goons went after Ksenia as soon as Pasha and I walked into the building."

"Yes," said Sergei.

"Okay. And I know what happened next. So just tell me, please: how did you get us out of there?"

"Intelligence man always thinks he is smart," Sergei began. "This is great danger of being in KGB. Or in CIA, no? When I ask Pavel to watch you, I think I am smart. Then when Pavel mentions to me that he thinks you may be watching Kolkhi, I think I am smart to tell you that you are being watched in hotel. I do not say those words, but you received message, eh, Reuben?"

"I sure did."

Sergei smiled. "I did not want to say too much, but I wanted to say something, knowing that you would probably see risk and decide to lay low or abort operation."

"Only there was no operation," said Reuben. "I was just killing time."

"Well, you see, then," Sergei continued. "You think you are smart, same as I. You can conduct surveillance only to satisfy curiosity, and no one will know. Probably would have worked, too. If I do not mention you to Pavel, he does not mention you to Kolkhi."

"Maybe you’re both just a little too smart for your own good," said Keyes.

"Maybe smart isn’t really the right word," said Reuben.

"How about clusterfuck?" Keyes offered. "That’s what this was. Each of us made at least one essential contribution. If I hadn’t told Serge to keep an eye on you, he would never have talked to the kid."

"Da," said Sergei. "Was clusterfuck. Everybody smarter than everybody else; everybody taking steps to make sure no one is hurt; people end up getting shot."

"Didn’t you KGB guys have your own phrase for a botched operation?" the old man asked.

"Da. We would call such an operation an Amerikanski. Also sometimes a Bay of Pigs."

"I guess that’s fair," said Reuben, "seeing as Kolkhi’s game is called Russian roulette."

Sergei nodded.

"So then I begin to have doubts," he continued. "Doubts are other great curse for intelligence man. Always drive me crazy, thinking did I miss something? When I ask Pavel does he know what you are doing on this particular day, at first he says he does not know. Then he admits that he is driving you and Ksenia to museum. And I begin to wonder if I need to send someone to watch him."

"A spy to keep an eye on your spy," said Reuben

"Da, is standard Russian practice. A little insurance, like placing bet in the basket on American roulette table. I have doubts. I wonder if I was smart to put trust in Pavel in first place. And I wonder why he is slow to admit that he is driving you. Still, I don’t expect anything to happen. I just do it. For precaution.

"My man calls me in early afternoon; tells me that you have left Ukraina with Ksenia and Pavel and that he is following you on Prospekt Mira. Pavel lets you out near Museum. All seems normal. Later I get call that Pavel has returned and you are leaving VDNKh together."

Sergei stood up again and walked to the window again. He looked out for a while, and then turned back to face them.

"Short time later, I get another call. Pavel has driven not to Ukraina, but to old workshop for garment makers. I know this place, know that it belongs to Kolkhi. And I know that ground floor of this building is where he most often plays his game. My man reports that Ksenia was allowed to leave, and then brought back.. I tell my man to stay close by.

"Immediately I try to call colleague, who has connections with Moscow City Militia."

"Militia," Reuben repeated, puzzled.

"City cops," said Keyes.

"Da," Sergei continued. "Relations have never been good between intelligence division and police force. I call FSB, say it is emergency, and manage to get captain. I don’t know him, but he has heard of me. I tell him to send out militia immediately. But he says that he can not. Not against Kolkhi.

"I tell him that Kolkhi is holding American and there will be serious repercussions if this man dies. He does nothing. Then I tell him that this American is son of Mr. Keyes — I did not know you were godson at the time I said this. When I tell him this, he decides to call his superior. It is simply good luck that his superior is former colleague. But this man knows that Mr. Keyes has no son. So I tell him that this is American, important American, friend of Mr. Keyes. I tell him that later he will not want to be the man who could have saved this American’s life and did not. So he agrees to send militia. But he tells me I must not go there; and that I must tell my man to leave. He can give order to Militia that will not be traced back to him, but he doesn’t want Kolkhi to know that FSB has moved against him. My man and I are not FSB, but we were KGB, and that’s too close."

"That’s ridiculous," said Keyes. "Hell, Markku is former KGB."

"Nyet," Sergei responded sharply, followed by more Russian that Reuben couldn’t understand. "Mr. Keyes, Markku was not KGB. He was NKVD, was right hand of Lavrenti Beria."

The old man’s eyes grew wide.

"Oh?" he said.

Sergei looked away.

"You guys have lost me," Reuben said.

Keyes cleared his throat again.

"The NKVD were Stalin’s secret police. Think of them as the Soviet SS. Under Beria, they performed assassinations, a lot of them. But they also did large scale exterminations, killing thousands of people at a time."

Sergei turned back and looked at Keyes.

"Da. This man is not sensible businessman as you have said. He is murderer, mass murderer. His nephew is a very small man compared to him."

"I know that KGB has done much evil," Sergei continued. "So has CIA."

He turned to Reuben.

"We are not children, here, da? Some of the evil that is done is necessary, and some is done because evil men find ways to do it. But KGB and NKVD are not the same. One evil is different from other evil."

"I…apologize, Sergei," said the old man. "I didn’t mean any offense. "

"Is okay. But Mr. Keyes, you should know who you deal with. You should know what they have done."

"You’re right. The dossier only detailed Markku's activities beginning in the early sixties. It said that he had previously held an administrative position with an intelligence agency. I assumed too much about what that meant. "

Sergei turned back to Reuben.

"How is it that you are CIA agent and you know nothing of NKVD?"

Reuben blinked.

"I’m not sure. Russia was never really my area. Obviously. But still...to tell you the truth, it all starts to sound kind of familiar." He wearily raised his hand to gesture towards the bandage on his head.

"I’m not a hundred percent sure of my memory."

"Of course," said Sergei.

"Please continue with your story," said Reuben.

Sergei sighed, gathering his thoughts.

"So I call my man and tell him to clear out, that others are on the way. Then I go there myself, but I keep my distance. I wait a long while for militia to come, Reuben. I am sorry. I thought they would never come."

"Why are you sorry? They came, didn’t they?"

"Yes, but while I wait, you are being shot and shot again. You were almost killed. Ksenia might also have been killed. And the boy was killed."

"The boy had it coming," said Keyes. "You can’t waste any grief on him."

"I can," said Sergei, "and I do. Is not waste, Mr. Keyes. He did much wrong, there is no question. But how does young man like Pavel become what he was? Maybe at first he wanted to do something good, be good man. But how? If he becomes criminal, there is money and power. And pride. So he becomes criminal. I meet him, do I say don’t be criminal? Do I say be honest man? I do not. I hire him because he is gangster. So he is treacherous and murderous and a liar…what did I expect? What did anyone expect."

"I expect people to be responsible for their actions," said the old man.

"Yeah," Reuben said. "That’s true. But sometimes people have to make some shitty choices." He thought about the girls at the Mezh.

"Sergei, I think you may be right about Pasha. The kid was a mess. He tried to kill me, and I think he would have even killed Ksenia to save himself. But there was something else there. Anyway, whatever he did wrong, he’s paid for it."

Keyes nodded.

"In any case, Sergei, you have nothing to feel bad about," Reuben continued. "It sounds to me like you did everything you could. There’s no point talking about how they could have killed Ksenia or myself. Hell, Ksenia could have turned me down when I asked her out; Pasha could have decided against selling me out. That’s all beside the point. The point is, you saved my life."

Reuben extended his hand towards Sergei.

"I owe you one, buddy."

Sergei walked across the room and took his hand. He shook his head.

"I did not do all I might have," he said. "But I’m glad I was able to help,"

"While I am waiting for militia to arrive, I call Mr. Keyes, to tell him what is happening. Only then do I learn that he is already in Russia. The secretary cannot patch him through, but she says she will give him urgent message."

"I was out of the pocket just for a few minutes," said Keyes. "I called Serge about, what, ten minutes later? He explained the situation to me. He told me where you were, and that you might need medical attention. And that you would definitely need to be moved to a secure location. This turned out to be less of a tall order than Serge expected, because I was already setting this place up. Then I called a guy I know who owns a private ambulance service. So there was an ambulance with paramedics on the scene a few minutes before the Militia arrived."

"Was good thing," Sergei explained, "that ambulance didn’t arrive too long before militia. Was big surprise for Kolkhi’s men. Otherwise they might do something about it, but they are completely overcome by police when they arrive. Militia used element of surprise and superior numbers to take charge of the compound quickly and with no bloodshed. None of Kolkhi’s men, nor Kolkhi himself, could believe that anyone would actually move against them.

"I kept promise and stayed out of sight. By making calls behind the scenes, I make sure that both you and Ksenia are taken away safely to clinic. Other ambulance comes and takes away Pavel’s body. Then captain of militia offers sincere apology to Kolkhi, and quickly withdraws his troops. He drinks a vodka with Kolkhi before leaving."

"Of course no arrests were made, and no reports written," said Keyes.

"I still wouldn’t want to be that militia captain," said Reuben

"Da, we are fortunate that such a man was on duty. A man who would accept this assignment. Most would not."

Olga entered the room looking quite stern.

"Mr. Keyes," she said, "Dr. Chevlenko has asked me to remind you that this institution, though small, has strict regulations the same as any large hospital. Perhaps even more strict. The doctor would like to speak with you about this. Now."

Reuben couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But the old man just smiled in a good-natured way and stood up.

"Of course, Olga," he said. "Come Sergei, I think I may have got us into some trouble with the Big Man." He turned to Reuben.

"Get some rest, son. You need it. We’ll talk again soon."

He turned and started out the door.

"See you again soon, Reuben," Sergei said hastily, and followed Keyes out.

"Wait," Reuben protested, but it was too late. They were gone. But what was the old man doing setting up a clinic in Russia? And where was Ksenia now?

"I had some more questions," Reuben protested.

Olga took the control and leaned his bed back.

"There are always more questions, Mr. Stone," she said.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Chapter Eight

Part I

Chapter Eight


Reuben spent the first few days reading and sleeping. He would occasionally see Sergei or the old man, whom he questioned incessantly about Ksenia. He learned that she had arrived at the clinic with him in the ambulance, but stayed only a short time. Sergei arrived soon after, and he and Ksenia waited together while Reuben was in surgery. As soon as it was clear that Reuben would survive, she insisted on leaving. Sergei protested, but Ksenia was adamant.

Her brother had died and she would be needed at home.

After that, Sergei kept a close watch on her, unsure as to whether she was in any danger. Kolkhi might decide lash out because he was annoyed at having been crossed, but Ksenia seemed an unlikely target. She was merely Pasha’s sister, a person of no significance.

"To him, she is not worth wasting bullet," Sergei had opined, and he was probably right.

Kolkhi might decide to go after Sergei or the militia captain, but Ksenia was not worth killing. Reuben and Keyes, on the other hand, were probably too important to be considered targets (Reuben only by way of his close association with the old man.) Going after either of them would require Markku’s approval, which he was not likely to give.

Sergei speculated that, in fact, Kolkhi couldn’t go after any of them — not even Ksenia, had he been so inclined — without his uncle’s approval. Reuben found that surprising.

"You mean you have this big crime boss in Moscow and he can’t hit anyone without phoning home first? Sounds like Markku is quite the micro manager."

"Da," Sergei said, "he may be micro manager like executives from WorldConneX. But normally I think he doesn’t care who Kolkhi moves against. Kolkhi plays game all the time, I don’t think he checks with Markku first."

"Right," said Reuben. "And he doesn’t have to check in every time an old lady who owns a prime piece of real estate gets hit by a speeding car."

Sergei winced at this, and looked away.

"Yes," he said after a moment. His voice had grown cold. "But to move against any of us it will be different."

"Why?" Reuben wondered how what he said had brought about this change in Sergei.

"Because militia have been involved. Because Mr. Keyes’ name has been raised. Markku does not like it when profile is raised."

With Pasha gone, Ksenia had soon lost her job at the Mezh. Keyes offered to help her find another, but she refused any help. She was certain that she could find employment on her own. She spoke to Sergei once or twice a week, and always asked about Reuben. She promised to come and visit when he was stronger, but so far had made no appearance.

Meanwhile, Reuben continued his recuperation. A few days after being taken off the medication, he was able to get up. Before long he was taking daily walks around the clinic, which he quickly learned occupied two wings of a sprawling country manor. The old man referred to it, as the dacha, a term used by well-to-do Muscovites for their (usually modest) weekend country homes.

It took Reuben a few days to get the lay of the place. He first explored what he was told was the south wing of the dacha. His own and several other ward rooms were located on the first floor of that wing. All of these, save his own, were unoccupied. Dr. Chevlenko and the nurses also had offices on that floor, and there was a sitting room with books and television, all in Russian. (The nurses had provided Reuben a few English-language books and magazines in his room.) Upstairs there was a laboratory, which Reuben was not allowed to enter, and several rooms that he took to be meeting rooms or classrooms. The third floor was closed off, Chevlenko had explained to Reuben, because of weather damage.

The main building was where Keyes and the staff lived. Its first floor consisted of an impressive entryway, a huge expanse of empty space called the Great Hall, and a surprisingly small dining room in the back, where the old man and the staff ate.

There were large windows on the outer wall of the entryway, two on either side of the front door, facing a grand double staircase. The windows were mostly boarded up, with just a few panes of glass remaining. The marble tiles of the staircase were chipped, its banister was mostly missing. The second floor contained a library, empty, and a ballroom which, like the rest of the house, had clearly seen better days. The staff quarters were also on that floor. The old man lived on the third floor.

The stairways leading to that floor were always locked, and Reuben had not so far been invited to pay a visit. He was also not permitted to visit the north wing of the dacha, which housed the rest of the clinic. No one would tell him anything about it. In fact, no one would say much of anything about the dacha or its history; and the old man never seemed to get around to explaining to Reuben why he had happened to buy a clinic in Russia, or what he was even doing there.

This mystery was cleared up one afternoon when Reuben, up for an afternoon walk which had, to that point, been in compliance with all (or at least most) of Olga’s clearly stated regulations, tried the door leading to the north wing and found it unlocked.

Well, he thought, somebody made a mistake.

Although he had been explicitly told to stay out of the north wing, he decided that — with the door unexpectedly unlocked — he should just check in and make sure everything was all right.

Anyway, that would be his line should he be caught.

He found the north wing to be the mirror image of the south. The clinic wings were in much better condition than the main house. The patient rooms looked empty, although in one the bed was made and there was a vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. When Reuben reached the end of the hall, he found a sitting room, furnished and lighted better than the one in the south wing. Sitting on a small sofa, wearing pajamas and a pink bathrobe, a woman was hard at work marking up a manuscript, which was strewn out on the coffee table in front of her.

It was Betty Keyes, the old man’s wife.

Betty was a small woman, and thin. She had always seemed petite when contrasted with her larger-than-life husband. But now she looked as though she had been worn thin; she had grown frail. Reuben had not seen her in a year or two, and the change was more than noticeable.

"Hi, Betty," he said.

She glanced up and was clearly surprised by who she saw. Her eyes were bright as ever, and her smile as warm. Reuben realized that he had missed her, just as he had the old man.

"Reuben," she said. "I wondered when I was ever going to get to see you." She set her work down and reached out to him. Reuben came into the sitting room. He bent down and hugged her, and kissed her on the cheek. Then he sat next to her on the sofa and held her small hands in his. They felt brittle and cold.

"I had no idea you were even here," he said. "It’s good to see you."

"Let me look at you," she said.

She studied his face. Then she looked at the bandage on his head and what she could see of his shoulder through his blue flannel pajamas. "Oh, dear," she said, and then "oh, my." She looked at his face again and gasped, noticing the burn mark, partially covered by bandages, for the first time.

"My poor Reuben," she said, reaching out to touch the burn. "Oh, my God. We’re so lucky to still have you with us."

She treated him to a severe look.

"I knew it," she said. "I knew something like this would happen. This is why I said I would never approve of your cloak-and-dagger ambitions, and I was right. I knew it would come to something like this. Or worse."

She glared at him.

"What do you think your mother would say if she were here?"

Reuben sighed. He wanted to laugh, but didn’t.

"She would say exactly what you’re saying," he said, realizing how much he had missed this oft-repeated argument. "But she would be wrong. Remember? I quit the Agency a while back. All this happened to me while working for the phone company."

She made a dismissive gesture. "Don’t try that with me. I’ve heard the whole story. None of this would have happened if you had just worked for the phone company like you were supposed to."

"Maybe you have a point, Betty. If it will make you feel any better, I’ve been giving some thought to my next career move, what I’m going to do when I’m better. WorldConneX probably won’t take me back. I was thinking about seeing whether the old man needs any help."

Betty’s face lit up. She forgot all about being severe.

"Do you really mean it?"

Reuben nodded.

"I said I’m thinking about it. I haven’t said anything to him yet."

"Oh, that’s such good news," she said. "That’s the most wonderful news. It will mean so much to him, Reuben. To both of us."

This subject had come up many times in the past. Keyes had never pressured Reuben to join him in his business, although he made it clear time and again that there was a place for him. Betty, on the other hand, had not been shy about telling him where she thought he belonged.

But Reuben would never hear of it.

Reuben’s parents were killed in an airplane crash when he was fourteen. The old man and Betty, who had never had a child of their own, took him in. The situation was awkward at the start and only grew worse. Reuben had known and loved them all his life. But at fourteen, having just lost his parents, he could not accept the Keyes in this new role. He eventually settled the matter to his own satisfaction by applying to, and being accepted at, an exclusive boarding school in Europe.

The Keyes reluctantly let him go. So at age fifteen, he moved out.

Reuben saw them only occasionally after that. He usually made it home for Christmas and a week or so in the summer. When he turned eighteen, he called the old man and told him bluntly that he had won a scholarship to a state university, not one of the Ivy-League schools that he could have easily been admitted to, and that he had a job (he would not inherit his parents’ estate until he turned twenty-three); therefore he would no longer accept any financial assistance from the Keyes. Reuben would never forget how hurt the old man sounded when he told him that he respected his decision, even if he disagreed with it. And that he knew his parents would be proud of him.

After that, things warmed up somewhat between them. Once Reuben established that he didn’t need the Keyes’ money, it seemed easier for him to be around them. He began to visit more often.

Reuben majored in political science. He told the Keyes that, after his time in Europe, he was thinking about a career in the Foreign Service. He wouldn’t listen to Betty’s suggestions that the old man could help him get posted anywhere he liked. Just before graduation, he announced that he had decided against diplomacy in favor of espionage. He had been recruited as an analyst for the CIA. He knew there was no point trying to maintain a cover with the Keyes — the old man was bound to find out what Reuben was doing through his own channels. Even so, he wouldn’t allow the old man to make any calls or pull any strings on his behalf.

The years passed.

After Reuben’s wife died, he decided to leave the Agency. For the first time, he made a concession in the old fight. He wanted to go into corporate intelligence work, and he let the old man get him a job with WorldConneX. (A list of the members of the board of directors for WorldConneX would include the name Michael Keyes.) Now that that job was apparently over, Reuben was thinking about throwing in the towel.

He was nearing forty, after all. He had proved that he could fend for himself. Except for some cousins on his mother’s side whom he barely knew and an ancient grandmother in Jamaica whom he had seen only a few times (but with whom he corresponded two or three times a year) the Keyes were the only family Reuben had. Maybe working with the old man was the right answer, a way to re-connect with the Keyes and (in a way) with his parents.

He wasn’t sure. He was still thinking about it.

"We can talk about all that later, Betty," he said. "What I really want to know is: what is this place? Really. The old man has been evasive, more than usual. And what are you doing here?"

Betty sat back and seemed to think about the questions for a moment. Soon she was staring into space, and Reuben could tell that her thoughts were far from this sitting room in the dacha. After a long while, she seemed to remember herself. She smiled.

"I’m dying, Reuben," she said after a moment.

Reuben coughed; he felt like he was choking. Somehow he was stunned but not surprised by the news. There had to be a reason for all this, after all: a reason for the old man to buy a private clinic, a reason for him to be so evasive, a reason that Reuben had not heard any news of Betty in the weeks he had spent there.

"I apologize for the melodrama, but it’s the simple truth. Of course, Mike doesn’t see it that way, doesn’t want to see it that way. He brought me here because we’re through with the doctors back home. There’s really nothing more they can do. I got them to admit that much.

"But here Mike is free to pursue…well, different avenues, I suppose."

"But what’s wrong with you?"

"That’s the mystery. There have been as many theories as there have been specialists. All we truly know is that I don’t have cancer. Or lupus. Or AIDS. Or three dozen other things. It may be a virus, but they can’t seem to isolate it. It might be a genetic problem — perhaps I’m poorly wired, like this old house. Or it may just be age."

"But that’s crazy," Reuben protested. It occurred to him that he didn’t actually know her age, but he she was certainly younger than the old man, by at least a dozen years.

"Not crazy," she said. "But also probably not true."

"What…what are your symptoms?"

Betty sighed.

"Weakness," she said. "Some days it’s overwhelming, other days not so bad."

"Well, that could be a lot of things."

Betty smiled.

"So I’m told, dear. Then there’s dizziness. Nausea. Occasional bleeding, both internal and external."

Her tone of voice was completely matter-of-fact as she worked her way through the list.

"Let’s see…shortness of breath. Kidney problems. Heart palpitations. It just quits on me from time to time. Occasional problems with vision, with hearing, with speech. Oh, and pain. A lot of pain."

Reuben nodded. He felt disoriented and strangely detached. It was almost as if he was observing this conversation take place between two strangers.

"So if nobody knows what’s wrong with you, what goes on at this place?"

Betty looked around the room as though making sure no one else was there. She lowered her voice and moved in close.

"Just between the two of us?" she whispered, conspiratorially.

"Okay," said Reuben, also lowering his voice. Not that there appeared to be any need.

"Quackery goes on here," she said, her eyes wide with mirth. "It’s as simple as that. And you have no idea, my dear, what a vast menu of snake oil this world has to offer. But Mike does, not that he sees it in precisely those terms."

"So this Chevlenko is some kind of fraud, you think?"

"Oh, no, absolutely not. He’s an old friend of Mike’s and a very good doctor. It’s the others who come in. Psychic surgeons from the Philippines. Experts in crystal healing from Egypt by way of France. Herbalists from California. A shaman here, a witch doctor there. We’re covering all the bases. When I finally admitted that traditional medicine wasn’t going to work and agreed to start looking for alternatives, it was like giving your godfather a gift. He had so many ideas, so much information. You know how he is."

"Yes, I know."

"I couldn’t see the harm in letting him try. Not when it means so much to him. Mike believes, really believes, that there’s some kind of magic out there hidden in the world that can help me. So this is where we carry out the search for it. We decided on Russia because I’ve always wanted to come back here, and because it’s easier for Mike to sneak people and things into this country than it would be back home."

Reuben didn’t know how to respond to any of this. He felt great sorrow at the thought of losing Betty. But what was worse was the frustration that the old man would put her through this ordeal, rather than letting her spend her remaining time with some peace and dignity.

"Betty, I —" he started. He put his hand to his forehead, touching the scar from the burn. This had become an instinctive move for him when thinking. "I don’t know what to say," he continued after a moment. "Do you want me to see if I can do anything? Talk to the old man?"

She shook her head.

"There’s nothing for you to do, my dear. Nothing for you and Mike to talk about. This matter is settled; I’ve agreed to it."

Reuben sighed.

"Don’t worry. This may sound strange, but it’s wonderful to be able to spend so much time together. You know how Mike has always tried to juggle a dozen different projects at once. Well, right now he has only one. Or at least only one big one. And I’m it.

"Besides, I attached some strict terms to allowing him this indulgence. I insisted on doing whatever we were going to do in a real medical setting, with real medical supervision. That’s where Dr. Chevlenko and Olga and Maria came in. And I told Mike that I wouldn’t proceed with anything that seemed too painful or silly, or that the doctor recommended against. And most importantly, I told him that whatever they did, it couldn’t be allowed to interfere with this."

She held up the manuscript page she had been working on when he came in.

"A new book?" he asked.

Betty had once been a journalist. She had met the old man while working on a series of articles about him. She continued writing after they were married. As long as Reuben had known her, she had always been working on a book.

"Yes. My last, almost certainly. It’s about Russia. Russian saints, to be precise."

"Saints?"

"Yes, saints. That surprises you."

He shrugged.

"No topic you pick could ever really surprise me. You’ve been all over the map. It just seems a little out of character for you. You’ve always been so hard-nosed. Or is this some kind of exposé?"

She laughed.

"You know me too well. I started out doing a history of the Soviet collective farms, focusing on the personal stories of individuals who were a part of the system. The saints were just going to be a literary device; I would start each chapter with the story of a saint whose life made a good counterpoint to the person whose story I was telling. But then I got more interested in the saints than I was the farms. So the gimmick became the whole book.

"Even so, it’s hardly an exposé. Debunking the saints? To what end? To try to take away the one glimmer of hope in the lives of some very poor, very old ladies? Do you think I’m that cynical?"

Reuben blinked.

"No. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just a subject that seems more up the old man’s alley than yours."

"It’s true that, in this marriage, Mike has always had the market cornered on the eccentric. If I had any interest in debunking, he has provided plenty of material worthy I could work with. And he continues to do so. Anyway, the book is not an exposé, just a re-telling of some of the stories. I’m thinking about making it big and colorful, with imprints of iconographic art. You know, a coffee table book."

"That sounds really nice," said Reuben

Betty laughed again.

"My God, how did such a miserable liar ever decide he wanted to be a spy? You think I’ve gone off the deep end, don’t you?"

"No, Betty," he protested. "It just sounds like a real change for you. I think of the important books you’ve written. They’ve always been about serious topics, current topics. You know, wars. Political scandals. That one about the train wreck in Turkey."

"You’re right. This is a departure from those books. It won’t be a bestseller, but then I’ve never really written one of those, anyway. But I hardly need worry about whether this book sells many copies. We seem to be doing all right financially. And I’m certainly not concerned with my place in the annals of literary greatness."

Reuben shrugged.

"Well, I always liked your stuff. If anybody could make Russian Orthodox saints interesting, I suppose you could."

"Oh, they’re quite fascinating," she continued. " And I do consider them to be a serious subject, perhaps all the more so because they aren’t current. When we’re both feeling up to it, we’ll take a trip to the Monastery of St. Sergius. It’s not too far from here. You can learn a little about one of my favorite saints; you might be interested in this one yourself."

"Oh yeah?" said Reuben, seriously doubting that he would.

"Yes. Hers is a beautiful story. A little sad, perhaps, but very touching. And she had a lovely name."

"What was her name?"

Betty smiled at him.

"Her name was Ksenia."

Reuben coughed and looked around the room for a moment.

"Yeah, that’s cute," he said at last. "That’s really cute. But all that tells me is that you’ve been keeping up on what’s going on with me, while I didn’t even know that you were here. Much less that you were —"

The end of the sentence hung in the air between them. Dying.

Everybody dies.

Someone had just said that to Reuben. Just the other day. Who was it?

"That you were so sick," he said after a moment. His head hurt.

"I know. You have to forgive Mike. He was worried about you, Reuben. You had been through so much; he just wanted to hold off on breaking the bad news to you. Until you were stronger."

Reuben stood up, angry.

"I know," he said, not meaning it. "I know. The old man did the right thing."

He paced to the other end of the sitting room and looked at the bookshelf. The books on this room’s shelf were in English, he noted absently. He looked for the television, wanting to see if the old man had hooked up a satellite dish for Betty. But of course, there was none to be found. She had always hated TV.

He walked back to the sofa and sat down. The rage had passed, but he was still trembling.

"Anyway," he said, "I’m glad I know that you’re here. This will be great. We can keep each other company."

She put her hand against his cheek and brushed away a tear that he hadn’t even realized was there.

"That will be marvelous," she said.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chapter Nine

Part I

Chapter Nine


He made his way back to the south wing without being discovered. When Keyes dropped in on him late that afternoon, Reuben told him about his excursion to the other side of the dacha and what he had found there.

"I’m not surprised," Keyes told him. "I knew if I kept putting off telling you, you would find out sooner or later. Not that that was my plan, mind you."

"How long has she got?" Reuben asked.

Keyes frowned at the question, and let out a long sigh.

"That’s hard to say," he began. "Especially when we don’t know for sure what it is she’s suffering from. But she’s shown some improvement since we got here. Chevlenko has her on a new diet that’s got her feeling a little better. And starting on a new book has made a big difference."

Reuben could see that. Having something to be engrossed in, and something to accomplish, could only make life more vital and interesting. But what would happen when she finished?

She had described it as her last book.

"But that’s just the start," said the old man. "I have resources at my disposal, and I'm putting them to work."

He went on to describe in detail the program he had put together for his wife’s recovery. It was an elaborate plan, involving all the treatments that Betty had listed, and many more besides. Some of these were just a shade or two south of respectable. Others were almost comic in their strangeness and improbability.

"Reuben," said Keyes, "I know how this all sounds to you. And maybe you’re right, it does all look like a longshot. But only one of these things has to work, and it’s all worth it."

"That’s for sure," Reuben said. But none of them will, he thought.

"Well, there is one other possibility I recently learned about. It may be worth pursuing."

"What is it?"

"I’ll tell you in detail later, when I know more. It’s different. Really different. It’s going to require some travel and a little bit of snooping around. I was thinking maybe in a month or so, when you’re feeling better — "

"Of course. Whatever I can do."

Keyes smiled. A little of the gleam had returned to his eyes. The old man had a limitless capacity for hope, Reuben reflected. He wished he could have the same.

"Thank you, son," he said. "I’ll tell you more about it soon."

Over the next few days, Reuben began to join Betty in her sitting room on the days she wasn’t being treated. Sometimes they would have lunch together. Some days they would talk the afternoon away; others, he would sit and read while she worked on her book. From time to time, she even allowed him to read a few pages. The old man was sometimes there, often disappearing for long stretches of time to make phone calls or attend to some other piece of business.

The weeks went by. The dressing on Reuben’s head got smaller, and his shoulder and back began to itch infernally, indicating that they were healing. In the intervening time, neither the doctor nor Reuben could see any sign of brain damage, superficial or otherwise.

On a bitter December afternoon, Reuben and Betty paid a visit to the Monastery of St. Sergius. Betty had mentioned the place frequently. It took several tries, but Reuben was able to persuade Dr. Chevlenko that a change of scenery and some fresh air would be the best thing for both his patients. The old man opted out, claiming he had calls to make. Keyes’ driver, a wizened fellow named Anatoly, drove them there.

Reuben was amazed by the monastery’s huge white walls — fifteen feet high — which surrounded the compound. Betty told him that the fortifications dated to the time of the Mongol hoards. Inside, the white and blue onion-domed churches seemed out of place somehow: their beauty and grace were difficult to reconcile with the massive fortifications that surrounded them. There was almost an other-worldly quality to these churches; he could imagine them as living things which had sprung in all their intricate detail from the surrounding ice and snow.

Inside, however, with their candlelight and incense, their ornate metal work and stone floors, the churches were clearly the work of men. The work of men, but not belonging to them. Although the priests were men, and the few monks and seminarians seen around the grounds were young men or boys, these were not the true citizens of that holy city. The compound belonged to a small army of grandmothers, scarved and bent, as dutiful in their sweeping of the churches’ stone floors as they were in the singing of their part in the Mass.

Betty took him through each of the churches, looking for a priest whom she had met on one of her previous visits. Father Alexy, she explained, could tell not only the story of Saint Ksenia, but of any other saint whose story Reuben would care to hear. Reuben didn’t bother reiterating what a short list that would be. They looked for the priest for an hour or so, but to no avail. No one seemed to know where he was; and anyone who claimed to know was wrong. Or was thinking of a different Father Alexy, of which there appeared to be several.

As the afternoon passed, and the day grew colder, it became apparent to Reuben that there was something desperate in Betty’s urgency to find this priest. She stood outside the third church they had visited and looked one way and then the other, trying to decide where to go next. Her face had a bluish tint; she shivered violently.

"We haven’t been to the museum yet," he said to her. "Let’s go warm up there, maybe sit down for a while and have something to drink. Father Alexy will probably find us."

Betty said nothing, seeming not to hear him. She continued to look around anxiously.

"If not," he continued, "we can always come back and find him ourselves after we’ve had a chance to rest."

She still didn’t respond. Reuben took her by the hand.

"Come on, Betty. What do you say?"

She glanced up at him, looking almost startled to realize that he had been talking to her.

"I’m cold," she said, not really looking his way.

"I know you are," he said. "I am, too. Let’s go; we can find him later."

She looked off in the distance, her eyes moving from place to place, from figure to figure. But the elusive priest was nowhere to be seen.

"All right," she said at last, with supreme resignation. Now she looked directly at Reuben.

"Let’s go, dear," she said. "Take me home."

Reuben put his arm around her shoulder. He could feel her trembling.

"This is something we’ll have to leave undone," she concluded.

"For now," he said. "We’ll come back when it’s a little warmer. Or we’ll try again in the spring."

Reuben knew how unconvincing he sounded. Betty simply nodded.

They walked out together, through the arched gate that revealed the thickness of the compound wall. Anatoly was still sitting in Keyes’ gray Mercedes, parked near the entrance. Reuben opened the back door for Betty, then bent down so he could see in and talk to the driver.

"Anatoly, before we go, I need you to come help me with something."

The old driver sighed and slowly got out of the car. Betty gave Reuben a puzzled look.

"What are you doing?" she said. "I’m cold."

"Be right back," he said.

He and Anatoly walked back to the entrance of the Monastery. A boy stood just under the archway, holding up a black puppy. There was a cardboard box at his feet. The puppy was small and scrawny, with oversized paws and pointed ears.

"Tell him we want to see them," Reuben said to Anatoly.

Responding to Anatoly’s request, the boy opened the box. Reuben bent over and peered in. Two others lay huddled in the corner, also black.

"Guess we’ll take the black one," Reuben said. "Ask him what kind they are."

Anatoly asked; the boy said something in response.

"Well?" said Reuben.

Anatoly shrugged.

"Don’t know how to say in English. Is dog for…lambs. Sheeps."

Reuben looked at the pup. German shepherd, maybe.

"Ask him whether they’ve been weaned."

"Shto?" What?

"Oh, um…ask him if they still need milk from their mother."

"No," said Anatoly. "He wouldn’t give dog if it needed milk."

"Just ask," Reuben said.

Anatoly shrugged again, and said something to the boy.

"Da da da," the boy said. Impatient Russian for yes, what a stupid question.

Anatoly looked at Reuben.

"Is okay," he said.

"Great," said Reuben. On a sudden impulse, he reached into his back pocket and found his wallet. He had several ruble notes as well as some US currency. He found a five dollar bill and handed it to the boy, then took the puppy.

Both the boy and Anatoly looked astounded.

"Dobri!" the boy shouted., holding the bill up, and then quickly thinking better of that and stashing it in his pocket.

Anatoly muttered something in Russian and started back towards the car. Reuben followed with the puppy. Betty sat in the back seat with her eyes closed, not even bothering to open them when Reuben opened the car door.

"Look who I found," he said, setting the puppy in her lap. "I think we should call him Father Alexy."

Startled by the sudden weight on her lap, Betty opened her eyes. She looked down and let out a little gasp.

"Oh, my God," she said.

She lifted the puppy so she could see it better. It began licking her lazily on the face.

"Oh my God, Reuben," she said. "Are you crazy?" And she began to laugh.

"I just didn’t want the trip to the monastery to be a total loss."

"The poor thing is freezing!" she said, hugging the pup close to her. "What will Dr. Chevlenko say?" She laughed again.

"I don’t know. Maybe we just won’t tell him."

Six weeks to the day after coming to the dacha, Dr. Chevlenko removed the stitches from the exit wound in Reuben’s back; shortly before, the last of the stitches in his shoulder had been removed. A week later, on December 21, Dr. Chevlenko unwound the bandage on Reuben’s head for the last time, and carefully pried off the plastic cap which had held everything in place while Reuben’s forehead slowly knit itself back together.

"Looks like we’re unwrapping the present just in time for Christmas," observed the old man.

"No, we’re early," said Betty. "This year we’re going to celebrate Christmas in January, like proper Russians."

"Careful, old man," said Reuben, wincing as Chevlenko adjusted his grip on the cap. "The Saints are getting to her. Pretty soon we’re going to have a full-fledged babushka on our hands."

"Quiet please," said the doctor. And in one quick motion, the cap was gone.

Everyone was there: Chevlenko, Olga, Maria, Betty, and the old man. Reuben could tell from the strained and careful smiles, and the carefully composed we’re not shocked looks on all the faces, that this was not going to be pleasant.

"Well, Reuben," Betty said bravely. "I think the doctor did a fine job. It’s good to see you’re in one piece."

"Uh huh," he answered, far from convinced. "May I have a look now?"

Maria handed him a mirror. He had been right.

Pleasant it was not.

Now fully visible, the scar from the cigar burn was bigger than Reuben had realized it would be. It should have been just about the size of a quarter and located in the center of his forehead, but either the stork had moved the cigar while holding it to Reuben’s head, or his own quick motion in getting up had pulled the cigar, and thus the burn, down and to the right. Dangerously close to his eye. It was gray in color and shaped like a big comma on his forehead.

The burn scar was not as big as it might have been, however, because apparently some of it had been blown off along with the rest of the right corner of his forehead. This area, about half the size of the palm of Reuben’s hand, was an odd-looking salmon color, especially odd when contrasted with the deep brown of the rest of Reuben’s face.

"The color will be more normal in time," Dr. Chevlenko said helpfully.

One word caught Reuben’s attention: more.

However, color aside, it was plain to see that Dr. Chevlenko was a skilled surgeon. Reuben’s head was shaped more or less the way it should be. Moreover, as Betty had pointed out, Reuben’s first priority where his head was concerned — ahead of both coloration and shape — would have to be integrity. The breach had been sealed.

"Thank you, Doctor," Reuben said after a moment.

Chevlenko nodded at him.

"And thanks to all of you," he continued. "I’ve been to the edge. You all had a hand in pulling me back, and I appreciate it."

Before anyone could respond, Sergei entered the room.

"Ah, I am late for big unveiling!" he said.

"You look good, Reuben," he said after a moment. "You don’t look any different from before."

Reuben laughed at the preposterousness of the statement. Once he started, he found he couldn’t stop. He hadn’t laughed so hard in a long time. Sergei laughed, too, along with the old man and Betty.

"No, to be serious," Sergei said after a moment, catching his breath. "I can see that there has been change. Big change. I won’t lie."

"That’s better," Reuben said.

"But don’t worry, my friend, " Sergei continued. "Is change, yes, but maybe is improvement, yes?"

The laughter erupted again.

Dr. Chevlenko and the nurses smiled uncomfortably, but couldn’t really get with the joke. After another moment the doctor cleared his throat, said a curt "good evening," and left with his nurses in tow.

An uncomfortable silence ensued.

"Well," Keyes said after a moment, "looks like you managed to scare off your doctor."

"Don’t worry," said Reuben. "He’ll be back. Did you see the look on his face? I think that for the first time, he’s truly worried about brain damage."

"Don't say that," said Betty. "Not even as a joke."

"All right," said the old man. "I think we should check on Father Alexy before he chews something else to shreds."

The puppy now officially lived in a box in the kitchen, but could usually be found wherever the old man was. This included Betty’s room, much to the doctor’s disapproval.

"Come on, sweetheart. We’ll let Reuben talk to his friend. He’s had enough excitement. Besides, tomorrow is a big day for you."

"Helium detox?" Reuben asked.

Betty shook her head.

"I’ll be listening to bells tomorrow. Tibetan bells. Talk about brain damage."

The old man began pushing her wheelchair towards the door. She turned for a moment and looked at Reuben.

"Don’t worry about your scars. Mike knows some excellent plastic surgeons back home."

"We’ll talk about that later."

Reuben wished her and the old man a good night, and they departed. Sergei closed the door.

"Now we can talk," he said, seating himself in the doctor’s chair.

"Yes. So what have you learned?"

"Things have been very quiet. Kolkhi is not in Russia, he is on trip to Germany right now."

"Do you know what it’s about?"

"No. Some business of Markku’s. But what, I can not say. Meanwhile, his people have been mostly inactive. Pulling off a few small robberies and making their normal collection runs, that is all."

"Any sign of interest in Ksenia? Or any of us?"

"Not so far. Again, I don’t believe Kolkhi will take action. But I keep my eyes open, of course."

"Right," said Reuben. "What else can you tell me, Sergei? How is she?"

"She’s okay." He shrugged. "Here, read for yourself." He produced a small envelope from his pocket and handed it to Reuben. The paper was heavy and coarse; nothing was written on the envelope. Reuben tore into it. The note was written, neatly printed actually, on a small sheet of paper, equally coarse as the envelope.

Dear Reuben,

Sergei told me that he would go to see you and that you are well. I want him to give you this letter to tell you that I am well also. I write to say thank you for what you did for me. And to say I am sorry for the many terrible things. You have been kind and brave. You are good friend for me and always I will remember you. I wish for you health and happiness.

I remain your friend,

Ksenia

Reuben read it over several times.

"So?" said Sergei after a while.

"Well, she’s okay. She says she’s okay."

"That is good."

"Sure."

"But you don’t look happy."

Reuben set the letter down.

"Sure I’m happy. It’s just that…"

Sergei sat back in his chair. he crossed and re-crossed his legs.

"Is just what?"

Reben looked up from the letter.

"Well, she doesn’t say anything about wanting to see me." He scanned the letter again. "This thing reads like a goodbye."

"Oh, I see," Sergei said. "That is good. Must be relief for you, eh?"

Reuben looked at him, puzzled.

"What are you talking about?"

"You don’t remember, Reuben? Forgive me, maybe it was bump on head?" Sergei’s voice abruptly changed to a flat twang.

" ‘Oh, I don’t want girl to get hurt. Ya know, don’t want to confuse girl, so young and innocent. Want to take her someplace, ya know, neutral.’ "

It took Reuben a moment to realize that what he was hearing was an attempted impression of an American accent. He eyed Sergei.

"What the hell is that? Is that supposed to sound like me?"

"Da," Sergei said. "It sound exactly like Mr. Reuben Stone."

"I think not," Reuben said. "You sound sort of like a Texan, but not very much."

Sergei waved his hand in a scoffing gesture.

"Cowboy from Texas is American," he said. "Is all American."

"What, we all sound alike?"

Sergei nodded.

Reuben turned back to the letter. "I’ve never really liked you," he said, without looking up. "I think we should be clear on that point."

He read the letter again.

"So what are you telling me, Sergei?" he asked after a moment, setting the letter down again. "That it’s all for the best?"

Sergei sighed.

"Always so complicated," he said. "Reuben, you remember when we talk about roulette?"

"Of course."

"You have ever played roulette and run out of money?"

"Every time."

"Da," Sergei said. "That is exactly right."

"Um, you lost me, there," Reuben said .

Sergei sighed again.

"Sometimes when you play roulette, you lose much of your money. You don’t have much left, but you put all you have on one last bet. Sometimes you do this, and you win."

"Once in a while it works out that way. Sure."

"When this happens, what you do?"

"Well…"

Reuben pondered this.

"If I’m smart, I guess I quit. But usually I keep playing."

"No, I don’t mean that. I don’t care about are you smart gambler or stupid gambler. I mean what you do when you win."

"Huh?" Reuben shrugged. "I don’t know what you mean."

"You know — you do know, of course. When you win on big spin like this, you make loud whooping noise like Indian Chief and give big tip to croupier. Da?"

"I do that?" said Reuben, "I’m thinking you had Pasha watch the wrong guy. What’s the point?"

Sergei looked agitated.

"Point is this: you do these happy things. But what is one thing you never do?"

Reuben looked blank.

"Okay, then what is one thing you never say?"

"I’m sorry, Sergei, but I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Then I tell you," he said, still agitated. "One thing you never say after making big win is ‘it is all for best.’ Da? You never say this."

Reuben let that sink in for a minute.

"You’re right," he said. "I never do."

"No," Sergei continued. "But when you do same thing: make last bet, bet all money, and lose…"

Reuben suddenly saw his point.

Neither of the two men said anything for a while.

"So then what you’re saying is," Reuben started. "I mean…what are you saying? About Ksenia. Is it all for the best or not?"

Sergei folded his arms and sighed.

"I do not know, Reuben. Only you know. Do you still have chips? Do you still want to spin wheel?"

Reuben blinked.

"Do you steel feel lucky?" Sergei asked.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chapter Ten

Part I

Chapter Ten


It was the fifth of January, Christmas Eve on the Russian Orthodox calendar. While Reuben was having his breakfast, Michael Keyes appeared in the doorway of his room and said that it was time they talked about the assignment Reuben had accepted. Reuben was to be come to the old man’s office at 9:30 sharp.

Reuben had time to finish his breakfast, get dressed, and read for a while before starting out for the main house. The old man’s office was on the third floor.

A lot had changed around the place in the past few weeks. Contractors were busy refurbishing the dacha. It was a sizeable project that would take months to finish, but the immediate improvements were dramatic. While a glazier replaced all the panes of missing glass in the four front windows, a team of carpenters was at work replacing the banister on the front staircase. The new banister was functional, not ornate, but its major contribution to the room was what it took away: a sense brokeness and neglect.

A six-foot fir tree stood in the great hall. Dwarfed by the overall size of the room and the enormous table which had been set within it, the tree seemed modest. It was trimmed with red bows and white lights. Evergreen and holly boughs were placed on the mantle and in the window sills throughout the dacha, and a large wreath had been mounted over the front door.

The dacha had become a cheery place, and this had to do with more than just appearances. Betty’s health had improved noticeably. Dr. Chevlenko was cautious about saying what the cause of the improvement was, but there was no question that Betty was in less pain, was feeling stronger, and looked better than she had since first coming to the dacha.

She had supervised the decorating of the house and was planning a dinner — the first entertaining that the Keyes had done in their home — for Christmas Eve. It would be a relatively small affair, with only the Keyes, Reuben, Sergei and his family, and the staffs both of the clinic and of the household. Not more than 15 were expected.

Betty had gone on several outings to Moscow to make preparations, bringing Reuben with her the first few times. But now she refused to let him come a long. He was a distraction, she had told him. He was no help with shopping. She decided to hire a girl to help her out around the place, someone who could provide some real assistance.

Reuben used the back stairs (the front stairs being a construction zone) to reach the old man’s office. The door to these stairs, always locked before, was standing wide open. He made his way to the top and discovered that little work had been done on the third floor. The hallway was dark. All of the doors he passed appeared to be boarded shut. At the end of the hall, a door stood slightly ajar; light shone from the open doorway into the hall.

The old man’s office was a simple room: just a bed, a desk, a cabinet, and a couple of chairs. The desk had four or five telephones sitting on it, which was one of the old man’s trademarks. The room was entirely strewn with papers and books. Except for the bed, this place was a replica of every office the old man had ever occupied: a testament to the many different tasks he loved putting himself to at once, the many different ideas he was always entertaining. The old man sat on the floor studying a large schematic.

"Is that the seating chart for dinner tonight?" Reuben asked

Keyes looked up.

"Nothing quite that complex." He gestured at the drawing, which was at least three feet wide by five feet long. "This is an idea one of the guys back home has been pushing for a long time. See? It’s a whole new take on a grocery distribution center."

Reuben looked at the drawing for a few seconds, but couldn’t make sense of it.

"Wait a minute," he said, taking in the scale of the picture. "Are those little rectangles trucks?"

"Yeah, see they drive in here and get their loads pre-assembled off these carousels, here. Meanwhile, other trucks are driving in on this side and unloading produce, which is sorted and put on palettes and loaded onto the carousel."

Reuben shook his head.

"It’s enormous. How much would it cost to put something like this in place?

"I can’t say. It depends on how successful we are at getting the food suppliers and trucking companies and supermarkets to go in on it. Of course, they’ll all save a bundle in the long run if they do."

Reuben looked at the schematic for a while longer. It was a grand vision, a massive undertaking.

"So this is my new project? A grocery warehouse?"

"No," said Keyes. He chuckled. "Lord, no. Don’t I have enough problems?"

He got up and walked over to his desk.

"I got some other things in the same package that those plans came in." He sat down at his desk and lifted a sheaf of papers.

"This is what I want to talk to you about," he said.

Reuben took a seat across from him at the desk. Keyes passed the papers to him.

"Have you ever seen this before?"

It was a manuscript. Reuben couldn’t make out the language, but he would have guessed Latin. The pages were colorful, and were heavily illustrated. Some of the pages looked like they were taken from a botanical catalog: intricate drawings of plants accompanied by what appeared to be elaborate written descriptions. Flipping though, he saw that other pages had detailed geometric designs, and what looked like a zodiacal calendar. Still other pages had drawings of human figures, female, and what appeared to be a complex system of water pipes. Reuben looked at the manuscript for a long while.

"No," he said. "I’ve never seen it. And I’ve never seen anything quite like it, either. It looks old. What is it?"

"What you’re looking at is a copy. The real manuscript is currently under lock and key at one of the Ivy League schools. It was found in the twenties in Italy, part of some old collection of books. But it didn’t fit in with the other books. In fact, it doesn’t fit in with anything."

"How old is it?"

"Depends on who you ask. Anywhere from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth. But they say that there’s good reason to believe that the original document is itself a copy."

Reuben leafed through the pages.

"How would they be able to tell that?"

"Well, first there are no mistakes. That doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it suggests it. It’s easier to get something exactly right if you’re copying it than it does if you’re making it up. Also, look at the placement of the words. See how the spacing is kind of funny? It looks like whoever was doing the writing was trying to match the word placement from some source document, rather than just rattling the words off."

Reuben stopped and looked at a page with an intricate, zodiacal figure.

"What does it say? Is this Latin?"

"Not exactly. They say there are two different languages represented, or it could just be two different writing styles. Nobody knows for sure, because nobody can read the thing. The text is a combination of Latin abbreviations and Arab numerals. No one can make heads or tails of what it says. If it even says anything."

Reuben looked at it again.

"But obviously you think it means something," he said.

"Yes," said Keyes. "I think it’s a code."

"So you have cryptographers looking at it?"

The old man nodded.

"Not me per se. Cryptographers have been trying to crack this thing for years. I have put a few extra people on it. But I don’t think they’re going to find anything."

"Why not? You said you think it actually says something."

"But there are plenty of others who say it doesn’t. It could just be gibberish, the product of a very early hoax. It could also be the only surviving fragment of a lost language, which would make it pretty damn hard to decipher."

"But you don’t think it’s that, either."

"No. I just think that whoever created it knew what they were doing. They set it up so you can’t decode it unless you have their key. And their key isn’t included."

"Really?" said Reuben. "They came up with this in — what did you say — the thirteenth century? Before computers? Before World War II?"

"It looks that way. Actually, there are encryption techniques that have been around for a long time. You don’t need a computer to create an "unbreakable" code. But even so, I think we’re talking about a pretty smart bunch of people."

"What people?"

The old man sat back, scratching his chin.

"A group of them," he said after a moment. He cleared his throat. "A secret group."

"A secret group," Reuben repeated. "With a mysterious encoded ancient manuscript."

Keyes grinned.

"I know what you’re thinking, son. They’re called the brotherhood of the Magus Majorum. The Greater Magic."

"Aha. I had a feeling we were headed towards something like this. So what’s the Greater Magic?"

"Nobody knows. Like I say, they’re a secret group. They may be alchemists. It’s been suggested that there’s a connection between them and Al Razi."

Reuben blinked.

"Am I supposed to know who that is?" he asked.

"He was Persian, lived in Baghdad in the ninth century. He was a physician and an alchemist. One of the smartest men living at his time. Or ever, I suppose. His surviving writings are all classics. On the medical side, he wrote catalogs of illnesses with effective treatments. But he was also a philosopher, and he wrote about alchemy as both a practical discipline and a set of mystical truths."

Reuben said nothing.

"Are you familiar with the practical side of alchemy?" Keyes asked.

"Not really," said Reuben. "Oh, wait. You mean…turning lead into gold, right?"

Keyes nodded.

"That’s where it starts. The lead-into-gold idea was a kind of proof of concept. Lead was considered a base metal, while gold was higher and more pure. Al Razi’s school of alchemy was all about transforming base things into higher forms. Not just objects — they wanted to change themselves and others into higher beings. Immortal beings."

"I see. And this is all part of the practical side? I’d be curious to know what the other side was like."

The old man got up. On the cabinet at his bedside sat a stainless steel percolator. A green metal tree with white mugs stood beside it. He removed one of the mugs and looked at Reuben inquiringly.

"Sure," said Reuben.

"We’ll just keep it practical for now," Keyes continued, with no trace of irony. He poured the coffee.

"Anyhow, most of the so-called alchemists that we’re familiar with in the west were European charlatans who came long after Al Razi. They practiced a watered-down version of alchemy that had to do with finding the Philosopher’s Stone."

Keyes took down another mug. He opened the cabinet and produced a bottle of scotch. He poured himself a generous shot, then treated Reuben to the same inquiring look.

"Just coffee," said Reuben. "So what about this stone?"

"It was of a sort of catalyst" The old man returned to the desk. He handed Reuben his coffee. "It could change lead into gold; it could bestow eternal life. And that’s all most anybody knew or cared about."

Reuben took a sip of his coffee.

"So what’s that got to do with this manuscript? And what does any of this have to do with us?"

"Well, think about it, Reuben What these folks were after was a way to transmute human life into a higher and purer state."

"Meaning what?"

"They wanted to perfect a kind of human life that’s as different from what we know as gold is from lead. Life as we know it is drab and painful; it’s mired in all kinds of corruption; it ends in death. The higher form is free of sickness and pain; it includes moral as well as physical perfection; it never ends."

"It sounds like going to heaven."

"Similar ideas, but the alchemists believed that this higher state could be achieved in the here and now. You don’t have to wait for some afterlife."

Reuben sat back and sighed. He didn’t much like where this was going.

"And you agree with them?" he asked.

The old man sipped his coffee.

"I know how you feel about this kind of thing, Reuben. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Al Razi may have been more successful than history records. A lot more successful."

"He found the Philosopher’s Stone?"

"I don’t know. I personally think the stone is a red herring. Al Razi believed in it, but I don’t see why doing the things he did would have required the use of a magic rock."

"What did he do?"

Keyes smiled.

"Later. There’ll be time for that. Anyway, it may not have been Al Razi, it may have been one of his successors. But whoever it was that did it, it was recorded, and it has been passed on. It’s maybe even been built on and improved over the years. Who knows?"

"But what was it?" Reuben asked. He stood up, agitated.

"Did he actually change lead into gold? Did he bestow immortality on someone? Did he write that book?"

He bent over the grocery warehouse schematic and studied it for a moment. The old man said nothing.

"Well?" Reuben continued. "I mean, where is the guy? If he uncovered the secrets of immortality, he should still be around. Are you going to send me off looking for him?"

Keyes leaned back in his chair and looked at Reuben for a moment. He took a long sip of his drink. He smiled, remembering something.

"You never had a chance to meet Sergei’s boy."

"No," said Reuben. "No, I didn’t. I didn’t even know he had a son."

"He was a great kid. Always had something smart to say."

"Oh," Reuben said. Something fell in place.

"He was interested in the space program, wasn’t he?"

The old man blinked.

"Among other things, yes. How did you know that?"

"I bet he was a big fan of Yuri Gagarin’s. Could tell you anything you wanted to know about him."

Keyes looked puzzled.

"So Sergei did tell you about Yuri."

Reuben considered this: Sergei’s son, Yuri. Past tense.

Dead, obviously. Along with Charlotte. And Reuben’s parents. And even Pasha.

And soon enough, Betty.

"I guess he did, sort of. Not very much. How old was he?"

"He was just about to turn sixteen."

"How did he die? And when?"

Keyes sighed. He took another drink.

"It was about a year ago. Hit and run; the streets can be very dangerous in Moscow. The driver got away clean, although Sergei still pursues the matter."

Several things made sense now, like why an ex-KGB man would be so sentimental about a dead cosmonaut, and why Sergei had bristled at the mention of a hit-and-run killing.

"I’ve tried to help him all I could with that," Keyes continued, "but it’s hopeless. Sergei is never going to find the man who killed his boy. That’s the way it is."

Reuben shook his head sadly. He looked up at the old man for a moment, then looked away impatiently.

"What’s bothering you?"

Reuben sighed.

"How can you sit there and admit that it’s impossible to solve a year-old hit-and-run case, and yet think that it is possible that we’re going to go out and find some secret society that’s guarding the mysteries of the universe? That we’re not only going to find them, but that we’re going to talk them into giving us some of their ‘great magic’ so we can save Betty’s life. I mean that is the plan, isn’t it?"

Keyes stared hard at Reuben, and said nothing for a moment.

"I’ll answer your question," he said, "but let me ask you something, first." He reached across the desk and took the manuscript. He flipped through the pages until he found the one he was looking for. He held it up.

"What’s this a picture of?"

Reuben looked at it.

"A sunflower."

"No, it isn’t. Look again." He flung the book across the table. Reuben sat back down. He picked up the page and studied it."

"Look at the petals," said Keyes. "They aren’t right. And look at the seeds. You know what sunflower seeds look like. Those aren’t even close."

Reuben looked at the picture more closely. It was clearly not a sunflower.

"Yeah. So what?"

"It isn’t just cryptographers who’ve studied this manuscript. Botanists have, too. And that plant you’re looking at is definitely not a sunflower. In fact, as far as anybody can tell, it isn’t a plant that’s ever existed anywhere on Earth."

Reuben looked at it again.

"And the same is true for the rest of the plants in the manuscript. Look at them. Detailed, intricate, naturalistic drawings of plants that don’t exist."

Reuben thumbed through the pages once again, looking at the drawings of plants and the odd depictions of naked women happily bathing in the midst of complex plumbing.

What was this thing, anyway?

"I know," the old man continued, "so what? An indecipherable book with pictures of plants that don’t exist. It doesn’t prove anything. It’s just kind of odd. That’s all the botanists think, and the cryptographers. It’s an oddity.

"But my gut tells me different, son. It tells me that we’re right on the edge of something. Sometimes, you can tell when something is right. Can’t you? Or maybe not, maybe you can just tell when something is wrong."

Reuben wondered. He realized that he had been thinking the same thing himself. There was something wrong, something horribly wrong, with the world.

Everybody dies.

That’s what she had said. Everybody dies, she said.

His head hurt suddenly. It throbbed with the thought: everybody dies.

But wait.

He stopped himself. What the hell was he thinking? Who was she? There wasn’t anything wrong with the world; it was a simple fact of existence. Of course everybody dies. That’s life. You accept it after a while; it’s called growing up.

Everybody dies, and everybody accepts it.

But there was something else.

"No," he said aloud. "Damn it."

Reuben was on his feet again, and trembling.

The old man looked at him, surprised by the forcefulness of his response.

"It’s what she’s been trying to tell me," he said. He looked plaintively to the old man.

"Who’s been trying to tell you?" asked Keyes

Reuben’s eyes grew very wide and he began to laugh. And he kept laughing. He could feel the laughter pounding in his head, but even this intense pain made him want to laugh harder and harder, and then he was gasping for breath, which made him want to laugh still more, and then —

"Reuben!"

The old man had come around the desk and was standing in front of him. He placed his hands on Reuben’s shoulders and began to shake him.

"For God’s sake, son. Get ahold of yourself."

Reuben felt the urge to laugh more, but he resisted. He was gasping for air, catching his breath. He didn’t want to laugh any more. Then he felt it start again — beyond his control — his body wracked with trembling fits. He buried his face in his hands, weeping uncontrollably. The old man pulled him close.

"I’m sorry, son," he said, holding on to him.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter Eleven

Part I

Chapter Eleven


As he entered the great hall, Reuben marveled at how perfectly Betty had realized her holiday vision. The room was awash with different hues of soft, warm light. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of candles flickering in the new chandelier and in candlesticks on the opulently set table, and elsewhere throughout the room. A fire blazed in the enormous fireplace. And the Christmas tree flashed delicate points of red and white.

Standing by the fire were Dr. Chevlenko and Olga, along with Maria and a young man Reuben had never seen before. This would be Maria’s boyfriend.

In the large open area between the fireplace and the dining table, Betty stood with the old man next to a rolling cart on which sat an enormous bowl of eggnog. Betty was fussing over her creation: first seasoning it, then stirring it, then giving her husband a taste. For his part, the old man stood by ready to make his own contribution with a large crystal decanter, its contents a dark, nutty brown.

Either brandy or bourbon, Reuben thought. Depending on the old man’s mood.

On the other side of the dining table, in the far corner of the room, sat three musicians: one playing the flute, one on the violin, and one playing an enormous harp. Reuben could not make out the tune they were playing, but the sweet, light sound of the music blended with the candlelight and the warmth and the cheerfulness of the room. Reuben breathed deeply the scent of pine needles and wood smoke, of candle wax and food cooking in the kitchen.

He felt good, better than he could remember feeling. The memory of the incident earlier that day was still with him, but the shadow had passed. He had connected with something, something that he could not put into words. Or actually, he could, but they were the wrong words.

Everybody dies.

That was true, but it wasn’t the point. What Reuben had glimpsed for a thousandth of a second was a truth even more dreadful.

But whatever is was, it was real. Something that could be confronted. There was a strange comfort in this. Reuben found that his hope was inexplicably renewed. He felt a surge of purpose, a desire to begin.

He approached the eggnog cart.

"Are you open for business yet?" he asked

They both looked up and smiled at him.

"Merry Christmas, darling," Betty said.

Reuben bent down and kissed her on the cheek.

"Merry Christmas," he said. "And to you, old man."

"How are you feeling, son?" said Keyes.

"I feel fine. And that’s not just my opinion. Isn’t that what Dr. Chevlenko told you?"

The old man sighed.

"Yes, it is. But he also said you should stay here and rest for at least the next couple of months."

Betty looked up, puzzled.

"Why? Why would the doctor say that? Were you thinking about going somewhere?"

"The old man has been talking about putting me to work. Now that I’m ready to go, he’s not sure that he wants to send me."

Betty glanced at Keyes.

"Of course Mike wants you to start," she said. "But why not work here?"

Reuben shook his head.

"No, the job I was offered requires travel, and that’s the one I’m ready to start."

Betty looked from Reuben to the old man and back again.

"So what is this project?" she asked. "And where will you go?"

"I’ve got to find some people who haven’t been seen around for a long time. They have some information we need."

"That sounds shady and dangerous," Betty said. She turned to Keyes. "What have you got him into? This isn’t what we talked about."

"It’s not shady," the old man said, uneasily.

"Oh, meaning that it is dangerous?"

"No, listen," said Reuben. "We don’t know that it’s dangerous. I kind of doubt that it is. But it doesn’t matter. The point is, something significant happened today. The old man thinks I’m losing my mind, but it’s not so. I just saw something very clearly, something that I didn’t expect to see. And now I have to get to work."

"So what was it," the old man asked, "that you saw so clearly?"

"I can’t tell you. And I’m not being coy. I just mean that I can’t say it without misrepresenting it. I have to learn the right words before I can tell you."

"Then what is it that you have to do?" asked Betty.

"Find the people with the information."

"And do what?’ she persisted.

"I don’t know. I’ll figure that out when I find them."

Betty glared at the old man.

"I can’t believe it," she said. "You’ve turned him into you."

The old man shrugged.

"I didn’t do it," he said. "It just happened."

"Never mind all this," Reuben said. "We can talk about it tomorrow. We have a lot of important things to deal with tonight. This eggnog, for example. I have to wonder why I haven’t been offered a cup so far."

Remembering himself, the old man began pouring the contents of his decanter into the punch bowl.

"One moment, son," he said. "I got distracted, but I don’t want you to miss out on having this at full strength."

"Fine," said Betty. "Tomorrow. You’re not going anywhere until we’ve had a chance to talk. Agreed?"

Reuben nodded.

"Well, then," she continued, "what else can we talk about? My new girl is coming with Sergei. So this will be a chance for her to meet everyone."

"Ah, the new girl," said Reuben, "The one who knows how to shop properly. What’s her name?"

"Oh, and I forgot," Betty continued, ladling out a cup of the mixture and handing it to Reuben, "you’ve never met Sergei’s wife and daughter, have you?"

"No," Reuben said, taking a sip. "Hey, that’s good. Really good."

"Is it strong enough?" asked Keyes.

Reuben took another sip.

"Actually, it strikes me as being little weak. But maybe I’ve been living in Russia for too long."

Keyes looked at the bowl dubiously and poured in some more liquor. He then wheeled the cart towards the fireplace, where Anatoly and his wife had joined the party. Reuben and Betty followed. Introductions ensued, and the serving up of the eggnog. As the first cup was followed by the second and then, for some, the third, the conversation grew louder and merrier. It shifted from English to Russian and back, often splitting into smaller tributary conversations along the way. Olga, Maria, and Dr. Chevlenko served as interpreters for Reuben and the old man on one side of the language barrier, and Inga (Anatoly’s wife) and Niklaus (Maria’s boyfriend) on the other. Betty and Anatoly put up a brave front of participating on both sides, but didn’t try to pass themselves off as interpreters.

Inga was especially pleased to meet Reuben. She had seen him around the dacha, but they had never met. Ordinarily, Inga was the cook and housekeeper, supervising a small staff that included Anatoly and two or three maids. But different arrangements had been made for Christmas Eve.

Inga was very much a participant in the festivities, and seemed to have nothing to do with whatever was going on in the kitchen. She was a woman of about sixty, as thin as her husband and with razor-sharp eyes. She had heard some outrageous stories about Reuben — not least of which was the one about how he had paid a small fortune for a worthless dog — and she wanted to know if they were true. Reuben was happy to admit that they were. She asked if he would mind if she touched his head; she had never felt a gunshot wound before. Reuben let her do it. She placed her hand on his head and then quickly withdrew it, looking disappointed. Reuben couldn’t figure out what it was that she had expected.

Dr. Chevlenko and Olga told about their trip to Venice — Reuben finally realizing that they were married — and their planned trip to Canada. Niklaus perked up at the mention of Canada, and asked whether they would be going to the US as well. They weren’t planning on it. Niklaus explained that he worked for a company that manufactured machine parts, and there were plans to begin selling into western Europe and America as soon as the plant re-opened. He didn’t say why the plant was closed, and no one asked. In his threadbare tweed suit, which hung loosely from his narrow frame, he looked like he hadn’t seen a good meal, much less a paycheck, in quite some time.

Reuben was talking with Niklaus, through Maria, about what there was to do in Chicago — a city with which he was inexplicably fascinated — when Sergei’s family arrived. Reuben heard the door open and saw Betty dash off to greet them. Eager to see her new helper, he thought. They filed into the great hall a few minutes later and made their way towards the fireplace. Sergei’s wife was on the short side; she was blonde and plump and rosy-cheeked. Behind them walked their daughter, a girl of about 18, who was a taller and thinner version of her mother. After the girl came Betty, who was having an animated conversation with the woman who must be her new girl. She looked furtive and uncomfortable. She was wearing a familiar wool cap. Even so, it took Reuben a minute to recognize the face that had been so burned into his memory.

Betty’s new girl was Ksenia.

Later, there would be time to ask how Betty had done it, maybe even ask why she had done it, but now what towered above everything was the realization that she was there; she had come. Reuben was overwhelmed with happiness. There was a part of him that, deep down, that sternly objected to this sentimental claptrap, but he had no use for that part of himself at the moment: she was there; she had come.

Sergei greeted Reuben with a hug.

"Happy Christmas to you, my friend," he said. "What do you think of my surprise?"

"Your surprise?" Reuben said. "I figured it to be Betty’s surprise."

"Is true," he laughed. "I am only driver." Sergei introduced his wife, Marina, and his daughter, Dzheyna. Reuben acted as host, serving them eggnog and answering what questions he could about the dacha, although it quickly became apparent that Sergei knew more about the history of the place than he did. Sergei explained that converting the mansion to a medical facility was a project begun by a Brezhnev crony. The project was unfinished and lay dormant during the Andropov and Chernenko years. A friend of Gorbachev flirted with the project, but he was quickly caught up in more pressing concerns flowing out of Perestroika. It was only under Yeltsin’s privatization policies that the house had been acquired by Keyes. It was such a good fit to his purposes, it looked as though it would be finished as a hybrid: the main house would be restored as a stately residence, the wings would be repaired and finished to serve as a medical facility. Although what use, if any, that facility would be put to beyond the immediate care of the clinic’s one patient was unclear.

"But with Mr. Keyes," Sergei explained, "one can never know. He makes plans that reach very far, sometimes."

This was all truly interesting — as was Dzheyna’s lengthy exhortation on choosing a university — but Reuben could not stop glancing around for Ksenia. Betty had steered her over to Maria and Dr. Chevlenko, and she was now standing on the outskirts of a high-spirited exchange between the old man, Niklaus, and Inga. She seemed to be enjoying the spectacle, in a reserved way, but she was also glancing around: looking sometimes Reuben’s way, sometimes in other directions.

It was only a matter of time before their eyes met.

What passed between them was knowing, simple acceptance that the last words she had spoken to him — see you again — had been a promise. Somehow a promise on both their parts. And that promise was now being kept.

"Excuse me," said Reuben, leaving Sergei in mid-sentence on what subject he no longer had any idea. His eyes never left hers as he crossed the distance between them.

"Merry Christmas, Ksenia," he said.

"Happy Christmas to you, Reuben."

Betty, standing nearby, approached the two of them and started to say something. Reuben held his hand out in a halting gesture.

"In a minute, Betty," he said. "I need to show your girl the staircase now that it’s fixed."

Betty backed away. Reuben took Ksenia by the arm and guided her back through the great hall to the dacha’s entrance. Here a smaller chandelier was lit with fewer candles. A moonlit landscape of snow-covered lawn and hedge opened up before them through the new windows.

"Let’s go up one," Reuben said, and guided her up the stairs in the dim light to the second floor landing. Now standing above the chandelier, the moonlight fell on them unfiltered, and brighter than Reuben would have ever guessed was possible.

"I’m glad to see you," he said. "I didn’t know if I was going to get to see you again."

"No, Reuben," she answered softly. "You knew that you would."

"Well, sometimes there’s a thin line between hoping and knowing, and it’s hard to tell the difference."

He looked in her eyes.

"Ksenia, I’m sorry about Pasha," he said after a moment.

"We don’t talk about that now," she said. "This is not time for that."

"Well, what is it time for, then?"

She stepped back and looked at him, examining the scars on his head, looking at his shoulder for any trace of his injuries.

"First, I tell you what I tell Betty. I come and work for her only if it is all right with you. If you don’t want me here, I leave."

"I want you here," he said simply.

"Don’t say that; not if you say it from pity. You are kind man, and brave, but I do not need this job from Betty so much. I can find other job if I wish. So if it is easier for you if I am not here, you must say so. And I will go."

"I want you to take the job, Ksenia. It’s perfect. Betty and the old man will be good for you, and you’ll be good for them."

Ksenia nodded.

"How did Betty find you, anyway?"

"She comes with Sergei one day. They surprise me at my house. Sergei leaves her there and Betty and I talk, many hours. She is very wise lady, is Betty."

Reuben smiled.

"That’s for sure."

"She says to me that she needs someone to help her, that she wants young girl like me. And that she would not ask unless she thinks I can do good job for her. I believe her, but I do not accept. Three more times she visits and then I accept."

"Yeah, she’s pretty persistent."

"She loves you, Reuben. She says that you are son to her."

"It’s true. She and the old man are about the only family I have."

"Now I tell you. I take job because Betty is good woman, and I can do good job for her. But I also take job because I want to come here to be with you."

Reuben took her hands in his.

"I’m glad," he said.

"I love you, Reuben."

The words hit him like a heavy weight slammed against his chest, taking his breath away. Charlotte. That was all. Just Charlotte.

"Ksenia," he started, "I have to tell you — "

"Is all right," she said, interrupting him. "Betty tells me everything. I know about your wife. I do not say what I say because I want you to answer."

Reuben drew her in close to him and wrapped his arms around her. It felt good to hold her. They stayed that way for a moment.

He pulled back a little so that he could look in her eyes, his hands locked together behind her waist.

"Why do you still have this on?" he asked, reaching up to remove her cap. He ran his hand through her dark hair.

"I have to tell you something," he said. "I’m leaving, tomorrow or the next day. And I don’t know when I’ll be back."

Her eyes grew wide.

"Why do you go?" she said. "When will you return?"

"It’s something I have to do for Betty. You know that she’s sick, and that the
old…that Mr. Keyes is looking for a way to make her well."

"Yes."

"Well, I’m doing what I can to help him. I don’t know when I’ll be back."

"Then I will wait for you."

He sighed.

"I don’t know. I can’t tell you when I’ll be back. And I can’t say how things will be between us when I do come back."

She turned and looked out the window for a moment, studying the moonlight on the snow.

"I will wait," she said. "You are not wise, Reuben. Not like Betty."

"I’m not?"

"No. Because wise man knows what he sees, even when he sees things long way off. And you see things long way, long time from now. Don’t you?"

Reuben thought of the shadow that had fallen over him earlier. It wasn’t really a long way off; it was close at hand. And yet it was buried deep. It was under or behind the present moment, somehow both immediate and distant.

"Sometimes," he said. "Sort of."

"This is something I can not do. But I can see it in you, da? And I know is there. Sometimes you can see that something is there and you can…what is word, not admit?"

"Deny?"

"Yes, you can deny that you know a thing that you see. But maybe these things you see, you don’t know what are they, do you?"

Reuben thought about that.

"I’m not sure," he said. "I’m not sure that I see anything. Maybe it’s more about what I feel."

"Is strange. You see things and do not know them, is bad enough. But to feel what you feel and you do not know what is it…" her voice trailed off.

"But I know this much," he said. "I can tell you what I felt when I saw you just now. I felt like the world started over."

Ksenia smiled sadly.

"Yes, but you want to live in two worlds — old and new, yes? And now you go to do work for Mr. Keyes, and to help Betty. But also you go to choose which will be your world.

"Is difficult for you," she continued. "Difficult to see differences when everything is the same. When everything in the world is pretty.

"It has always been like this for us. From moment we first meet, and you tell me that you are American, and I tell you I am Russian—when we both know this already. When this is only thing we do know about each other. Then and now, we know what is truth between us."

"So what’s the truth?"

"If this is truth between us, you know already," she said.

Reuben nodded.

"So instead I will tell you something else. I will tell you your future."

"You can do that?"

"Of course. I think you will travel long way, and you will go for long time. Much longer than you think. But I will see you again."

See you again. She had said it once before.

The promise was renewed.

"You will come back to me one day. And then, I think, we will never be apart."

"I like the sound of that," he said, "but it sounds like a fairy tale."

Instinctively, he touched his hand to the wound on his head.

"What you’ve said will happen is what should be," he continued. "It’s a promise. I can’t make that promise, or any promise."

"I see," said Ksenia. "Then before you go, I don’t ask you to make promise. I don’t even ask you to believe. But I do ask for something now, not in future."

"What is it?"

"Kiss me, as you did that day."

Reuben obliged.

It was a long, long while before they made their way down to dinner.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Chapter Twelve

Part II

Chapter Twelve


July, 2002

This is how the end of the world begins.

As the elevator doors slide closed behind me, I round the corner and observe that the office is noisy for a Monday morning. The sixth floor of the WorldConneX building is a standard corporate purgatory. Vast banks of cubicles are punctuated by clusters of restrooms, cramped meeting rooms, copy machine cubbyholes, and micro-kitchenettes suffused with that burnt, cheesy odor of poorly made coffee and an over-used microwave. The carpet is gray; the cubicle upholstery is gray-brown. Disgruntled sunshine finds its way through the tinted windows only around the periphery. The main body of the sixth floor resides in the glorious flicker and incessant hum of standard, late-twentieth-century fluorescent office lighting.

This floor is home to a group called Product Engineering and Development, comprising about 150 software developers and related staff. We’re one of six or seven (depending on how you count) software development groups in the WorldConneX family. It’s not entirely clear how we relate to those other groups. The managers from each work together on cross-functional leadership teams and technology focus task groups, where they sign off on joint mission statements and agree to open up channels of communication and share resources and information in a manner reflective of the boundarylessness referred to in the WorldConneX mission statement.

Of course, they all despise each other and mainly attend such meetings out of a fear of what might be said about them in their absence.

A few, however, are more positively focused — the ones who’ve read Sun Tzu or who are otherwise predisposed to view team management programs as a chess board on which they can execute their various Machiavellian strategies. For them, such meetings provide the chance to observe their opponents’ weaknesses, to reinforce alliances with their friends, and to take such small steps as they can toward the final coup that will establish once and for all who the real software development group is.

Monday morning is usually a quiet and reflective, often downright sullen time on the sixth floor. But what I sense as I step around the corner this particular Monday morning is excitement. People are gathered in small groups around the coffee machines or in the clearings at the end rows of cubicles, talking in an animated fashion. Offhand, it looks like the interested and moderately uplifted mood of a group that has learned of someone else’s downfall.

That kind of news is always good for a Monday morning pick-me-up.

As I approach my cubicle, I encounter a gathering of members of my own workgroup, TDP: Training, Documentation, and Process. (We represent some of the aforementioned "related staff" in the PED menagerie.) My boss, Frank Childers, notices me.

"Good morning, Emmett."

"Hi, Frank. What’s going on?"

"PED has been picked for the QC Protocols. Some of us are going to participate." The others nod knowingly.

QC Protocols. Everyone seems to know what this means. How is it that I’m once again completely in the dark? I fight to suppress my long-standing suspicion that there’s an e-mail list from which I’ve been deliberately omitted. Either that, or these guys are having secret meetings and not telling me.

But at least I’ve learned my lesson. This time I don’t pretend to know what they’re talking about. Last time I did that, I ended up in the hospital for two days after getting into a (really) bad chicken fried steak in Wichita — a city I would never even have visited had I known what the ATA Conference was before agreeing to attend. It turned out it was the Association for Telecommunications in Agriculture.

They weren’t a bad bunch, but I’m pretty sure I would have passed had I known in advance.

"So what are the QC Protocols?" I ask. "Part of the QMS, right?"

Any time you see the letter Q at WorldConneX, you know it’s got to have something to do with the Quality Management System. A few years ago, they put up these posters all over the building that read Q is for Quality. They were part of a set. There were others that read T is for Teamwork and M is for Measurement, plus the big double-sized one which explained that P is for Process, Performance, and People. The posters hung around for four or five years and then just mysteriously disappeared. It’s widely believed that the QMS team finally reached some kind of critical mass of complaints about the condescending Sesame Street approach to explaining their program.

Not true.

You see, they didn’t all disappear. The Q is for Quality posters are still around; it was the others that had to go. From what I hear, an executive was accidentally strolling the corridors of the lower floors of the building one day and was enraged by these signs. How could we say that T is for Teamwork when it was also his middle initial? (He was the CTO.)

T is for technology, damn it, and nobody better forget it. And P is for Product, not that other horseshit. Q? He didn’t give a damn about Q. It could still be for quality, as long as nobody bothered him with it.

And so, now and always, Q is for quality.

"I don’t think it has anything to do with the QMS," says Frank. "Apparently nobody knows what the protocols are. But Carl here was thinking maybe you would know."

"Only because you spent all that time at Corporate last month," Carl explains.

Carl Ravel is a whiny pustule of a trainer, the only member of the team whom I feel free to despise wholeheartedly. The dislike I have for my other colleagues at least carries a few reservations and qualifications, taking into account mitigating circumstances such as the (exceedingly rare) occasions when their efforts have been of some use to me or the fact that they are — a few of them, anyway — otherwise likable people whom I probably wouldn’t have minded had I met them under different circumstances. But Carl possesses that rare combination of total uselessness and utter pain-in-the-assedness.

My feelings for him are pure.

"We’ll try it again, Carl. I did not spend all that time at corporate last month. I was there for exactly one afternoon, and it was a complete waste of time."

"Yes, I can see how it would have been a waste of time. For you. Wasn’t that meeting intended for trainers?"

That’s an attempted barb.

Carl is part of the Training Team, but he doesn’t do technical. He specializes in what he calls "the human side," which means all the rah-rah-go-team and contemplate-your-navel type stuff. One of his workshops is called "Be It. Believe It. Walk the Talk." I took this one myself, fulfilling a training requirement, and learned the actual meaning not only of boundarylessness, but also delight the customer (which I was picturing very differently) and nurture long-term shareholder value. You think you have a good idea of how repellent a day spent listening to lobotomized corporate blather is going to be, but then they go and throw words like delight and nurture in there, giving the whole thing a creepy undertone that you never could have anticipated.

Anyway, last month Carl was booked solid giving his "Agents of Change" workshop right when the Head Office down at Glen Meadow called for an emergency Diversity Seminar. Nobody was clear on what events had led to the diversity emergency, or even what exactly a diversity emergency was, but it isn’t for us in the divisions to ask such questions. When called upon by Corporate, we jump first and say 'how high' afterwards. You get the idea. Every training group in the company was required to send a representative, and I was the only person with a fairly clear calendar that week.

So Frank sent me.

I’m the first to admit that I’m no trainer (I have a little self-respect), but I am part of a training group. Now that was good enough for Frank, and it was good enough for the Head Office, but no way will it ever be good enough for Carl. There I was soaking up all that rich diversity knowledge and making all those wonderful intra-company connections, not to mention eating the excellent Danish rolls and chocolate chip cookies that the increasingly rotund Glen Meadow staff munch on every morning and afternoon…and it should have been him, damn it.

It should have been him.

Actually, I never did soak up any diversity knowledge. There must have been a mix-up of memos or something, because the meeting turned out not to be diversity crisis management, but rather how to present the 401K plan next year. As I don’t ever actually do that — present the 401K plan, that is — and as I am long since resigned to grudging participation in, with no real true understanding of, the 401K plan, I found that (cookies and Danish notwithstanding) my one and only visit to corporate HQ was even more a waste of time than I thought it would be.

And that is saying something, folks.

I decide to take the high road on Carl’s baiting. Ordinarily, there’s nothing that shakes off those weekend cobwebs like a good Monday morning pissing match. But I want to get to the bottom of this thing.

"No, the QC Protocols never came up."

I turn to Theresa Sandoval, a technical trainer who happens to be friends with some of the administrative assistants up in the executive suite on the 22nd floor. (She used to be one of them, before being "promoted" to PED.) Because of her connections, she’s a steady source of gossip. And a fairly reliable one, at that.

"What have you heard, Theresa?"

"It’s a test, that’s all I know for sure. They show you two boxes and ask you to pick one or the other."

"That much we all know," says Frank, giving me credit for knowing things that I don’t, "but what’s inside the boxes?"

"What I heard," says Lisa, another technical writer, "is that there’s a promotion in one, and a pink slip in the other."

"Oh, bullshit," says Frank. "No way. Think of the lawsuits."

"Yeah," Theresa agrees, "they like toying with us, but never that blatantly." She laughs. "That sounds like Catbert, Evil HR Director."

Carl clears his throat. The awkward silence is palpable.

Ha. What a coincidence. Speaking of diversity crises.

Theresa has apparently forgotten that in the latest round of Diversity Training, we were warned against engaging in the kind of "gross professional stereotyping" found in "a certain comic strip." So now Carl, who of course has not forgotten, would like to call Theresa on her inappropriate behavior, but he’s not sure he wants to say anything to her because she’s Hispanic and he’s a white guy.

There’s been a good deal of covert speculation on the team as to Carl’s sexual orientation. I’ve never had much of an opinion on the matter, mainly because his personal life is a subject about which I have zero interest. But just as a matter of intellectual curiosity, I think Carl’s quandary supports the not-gay thesis. A gay guy would have no qualms about taking a stand, here. I mean, surely gay trumps Hispanic. But no one can say for sure, since a clearly delineated PC-sensitivity ranking is exactly the kind of useful information they don’t give you in Diversity Training.

"All I know is what I hear," Lisa continues, ending the mini crisis without even realizing it had occurred. She pauses for a dramatic sip from her decaf. (Lisa also has admin connections, but with a much lower hit rate than Theresa.) "And what I heard is that a bunch, not just one or two but a bunch of people who’ve done this thing are gone now. Now you tell me. If it isn’t pink slips, what is it?"

Jeff Simpson, the quiet older guy who usually sits these things out, clears his throat. All eyes turn to him.

"It’s layoffs," he says.

Everyone listens to Jeff when he uses the L word. He’s been with the company more than 20 years. Most of us were working here when WestConnect became WorldConneX, but he can even remember the days before divestiture, when WestConnect was called Bell West. He’s seen his share of layoffs and survived them all.

"What have you heard?" asks Frank.

Jeff shakes his head.

"I haven’t heard anything. But I can feel it."

"Feel it?" says Carl. "You’re saying that you can feel it when we have lay-- uh, restructuring?" Carl manages to catch himself in time. We’re never ever ever supposed to use the L word. Even if it weren’t verboten, most people are superstitious about it. Come to think of it, Lisa’s reference to "pink slips" was also out of bounds. That’s one of the problems working for a company like WorlConneX. It’s hard to keep track of everything you’re not allowed to say.

Jeff nods solemnly.

"In my knee," he says.

Nobody laughs at this. You’ve got to respect Jeff’s knees. He used to climb telephone poles with them.

"Well, then, what about the boxes?" Theresa asks. "Who ever heard of a layoff where you have to choose a box? What is this, Let’s Make a Deal?"

Jeff shrugs.

"I don’t know anything about boxes," he says.

Apparently none of his joints are tuned to that frequency.

Frank looks at his watch.

"Well, I guess we can stand here and yack or we can all go try to get some work done."

"But what about these QC Protocols?" I ask.

"What about them?" says Frank. He turns and heads off to his office. The rest of the group disperses, leaving me standing there to reflect: you may never be sure what you’re allowed to say at WorldConneX, but it’s almost always safe to answer a question with another question.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Chapter 13

Part II

Chapter Thirteen


Later, the buzz has died down a little and I’m sitting in my cube working on about a three week backlog of timesheets. This is a tricky maneuver, inasmuch as a large piece of my time (sometimes 40% or more) is spent on non-project-related work — filling out timesheets, writing status reports (except for project-specific status reports, which of course may be billed to projects), standing around drinking coffee and speculating about what everybody is standing around drinking coffee and speculating about, and (of course) surfing the Web and sending out personal e-mails — but this presents a huge stumbling block in that no more than 10% of my time can be billed to these administrative or overhead activities.

Getting administrative time down to "between 5% and 10%" is a departmental target. If we achieve this target, we’re that much closer to getting our full departmental bonus, or "bonus opportunity" as the Glen Meadow folks like to say. So in fact, while the target is from 5%-10%, the pressure is on to keep admin time around 5% or less of total work time recorded.

Not a problem, really. All I have to do is bill the time spent on overhead activities to various legitimate projects. The trouble with doing that is that each project has a Project Manager who has an allotted budget and who has a target of keeping hours billed to his or her project to a minimum. So they keep a close eye on who is billing hours against their projects, and how many hours are being billed.

Naturally, I only bill to projects I am actually working on. To do otherwise would be to invite chaos. If I were caught billing time to a project that I’m not assigned to, I would have to

    1. Pretend that I’d made a mistake and apologize, and
    2. Go back and change already-submitted timesheets, which I avoid at all costs. I hate living in the past.

Worse yet, if I bill to a non-assigned project, the project manager might decided that I work for him or her and start assigning me work. I certainly don’t need any more of that.

So in the end, filling out these timesheets becomes a delicate balancing act of discretely adding fifteen minutes here and an hour there to work I actually performed until the whole thing adds up to 40 hours with not more than 10% of that time (preferably less than 5%) billed as overhead.

Oh, add to all that one more complication. I usually only get around to filling out my timesheets about once every two months or so. A three week backlog is a fairly light one by my standards, but even so — imagine trying to reconstruct your precise day the Tuesday before the Tuesday before last with an eye to subtly but thoroughly covering over most of the wasted time, whether that wasted time was the result of your own (lack of) volition or whether it was forced upon you by organizational mandate.

It’s a creative process.

I’m about halfway through two weeks ago when I hear a loud "knock knock" and I turn to see who it is. Of course, when I say I hear a loud "knock knock," I don’t mean to imply that anyone is actually knocking on anything, or that my cubicle has a door or other suitable surface for knocking on. No, an attempt to knock on my or any other cubicle would result in a plastic, upholstered, shuddery sound that would best be rendered as "thwop" or some other equally Dr. Seussian sound effect.

When I say that I hear a loud "knock knock," I mean that someone is standing at the entrance to my cubicle and literally saying the words "knock knock." This is a partly cutesy way we have of dealing with the fact that we work in a sometimes all-too boundaryless environment. There is something so perfectly absurd about standing at an open entrance that we all know really ought to be a door and vocally pronouncing the sounds that the correct introduction of our presence should produce, that it seems a friendly and lightly humorous thing to do, rather than the disturbing, pathological shriek for help from the deep recesses of the soul that it actually must be.

I digress.

So I hear this "knock knock" and turn around to find my immediate supervisor, Frank, standing at the entrance to my cubicle.

"Mr. Childers," I say in greeting, gesturing towards the guest chair. See I called him Mr. even though we’re on a first-name basis pretty funny huh.

"Hey, Emmett," he says taking a seat. "How is everything coming along?"

A question like this, plus a conscientious collecting — even if never accompanied by any actual reading — of my status reports is what passes for hands-on management in our group. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve had lots worse bosses than Frank. He used to be a tech writer himself (in one of the competing groups), so at least he knows what we do. Or anyway he used to. Plus, he’s a pretty regular guy. The kind of guy you can go out and have a couple of drinks with and always time your punchlines precisely so he’ll end up blowing beer out his nose. He never catches on to the timing, but he does get the jokes.

I’m not sure, but that combination could make him the perfect WorldConneX manager.

"Everything is coming along fine," I sigh. This is the only acceptable answer. Anything too positive would arouse immediate suspicion. Anything too negative would indicate a problem that Frank would have to do something about, and that would mean work, which he doesn’t want. But a resigned "everything is fine" is just about perfect.

"Good. Have you finished cleaning up the product spec for Tweety Bird?"

This is alarming…a detailed question that references not only a project but my deliverable by name. It cannot be a good sign.

"Well, that was actually due by close of business on Friday, but I’m still waiting for answers to some of my queries."

"How many queries?"

Definitely not good.

"Ah, well, actually…all of them. There are 39 all together, but most of them are pretty small. Anyway, I can show that I’ve been sending out daily follow-up e-mails. I called Gloria on Thursday and she promised me that I’d have everything by the middle part of this week."

"That’s fine," says Frank. He makes a note on the little clipboard I have just noticed he’s holding. I don’t believe this. He’s taking notes.

"I assume," he continues, "that you have renegotiated the delivery dates with Gloria?"

"Yeah, of course. I mean, not formally or anything, but she knows I can’t get the document finished until her people get back to me."

Frank drops the clipboard on his lap and lets out a loud sigh. I can’t believe it. He’s annoyed about this.

"Frank. Buddy. Don’t worry; we won’t take a hit on this. I’ll have the due dates changed by the end of the month. Nothing will go out showing that we missed a delivery date, because we didn’t."

He sits back, arms folded, and studies the ceiling for a moment.

"Yeah," he says, looking back at me. "I know you would. I just wished you’d done it sooner."

"Well, sorry I didn’t," I answer. "But what’s this all about?"

"It’s the experiment, Emmett. The QC Protocols."

"Yeah?" The hair on the back of my neck begins to rise.

"Yeah. Sheila called us all over and said that our group was picked." Our group, in this instance is System Development and Support (SDS), one of three segments within PED. Frank’s group, TDP, is one of the workgroups within SDS. "Buddy, Raku, Melinda, and I — " these are all the workgroup managers in SDS — "were all there. Sheila told us we each have to pick one person."

"Yeah? And?"

"I’m sorry, Emmett. I wish there was another way. You see, everybody else is tied up in mission critical stuff. And you are the junior member of the group…"

"Wait a minute," I cut in. "Hold it. So you’re telling me I’ve been picked. Okay. That’s okay. I think it’s a bad choice on your part, but okay. But what’s the big deal, here? You’re trying to cover my projects? How long does this thing take?"

I’m in free fall. I never saw this coming.

"It...it’s not like that, okay? It’s not about how long it takes. The point is…you’ll be leaving the group."

"What?"

"I’m sorry, Emmett. You, uh, need to sort everything into piles. Your own stuff in one pile; company stuff in the other. Security will come by in a while to box it up for you."

I’m staring at the man in complete disbelief. The words are getting through, but they just don’t register. Sure, people get laid off. It happens all the time. But what the hell is going on here? QC Protocols? I make a desperate lunge at reality.

"Frank, if this is a joke or a prank or something, it isn’t funny. Who do you think you’re fooling? I’ve seen people laid off and I’ve seen people quit and I’ve seen people get fired. Everybody boxes up their own stuff, with security standing by. I’ve never seen security box up anybody’s stuff."

Frank stands up.

"I, know, Emmett. This is different. You aren’t being fired or anything. You’ve just been picked for this thing. Security will be by to box up your stuff, but you’ll already be gone."

I can’t think of anything to say.

"They’ll be coming for you in about ten minutes. I hope that gives you time to get your stuff piled up. Oh, and be sure to use sticky notes to say which pile is which."

He sets the marker down and reaches out his hand towards me.

"It’s been a pleasure working with you, Emmett. We’re all going to miss you."

I stare at his hand for a moment, then give it a limp shake.

"Goodbye, Emmett."

"Frank." It’s all I can manage.

He turns to leave, then stops and turns back to face me.

"One more thing. Don’t leave your cubical until they come for you. And don’t talk to anybody."

And then he’s gone.

A long moment passes. I turn to start stacking up my stuff. I’m numb. I’m trying to think of what it all means. And then it hits me. I turn back to the empty doorway and say loudly (to no one)

"Hey! What are you saying? My stuff’s not mission critical?"

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 14

Part II

Chapter Fourteen


Two boxes, roughly the size and shape of cigar boxes, sit on the desk. The one on the right is dark gray. The one on the left is slightly less dark gray. The lighter one is labeled with a big black A; the darker one with a big black B. Both are sealed shut with a red seal.

Dr. Bryce has been talking for the past few minutes. He sits behind the desk, looking at his notes as he talks. He looks up for the occasional obligatory eye contact, but you can tell that his heart isn’t really in it. He started out explaining about risk management and actuarial tables and life insurance and stuff. I was following him pretty closely up to a point, but now he’s lost me. It’s all about how everybody spent years working on something called "cubits" or "Q-bits" or something and this other gizmo that I believe he said was called a "C-note," but what they should have been working on all along was the "cue-gate" (or possibly "Q-Gate.")

To make an incomprehensible story short, somebody managed to build one of these cue-gates last year and it sounds like things have really taken off from there.

Dr. Bryce is a big, bearded guy with white hair. I was expecting little and bald with enormous glasses and a white lab coat, but no — he’s wearing a blue plaid flannel shirt and Dockers. Business Casual takes the day.

"And with this foundation, the correct foundation, firmly in place," he continues, "the next step was inevitable. The world’s first true quantum computer was conceived and created at WorldConneX Labs. Here, in this building,."

I look around. That’s right, this is Labs. I had almost forgotten.

WorldConneX Laboratories is the research and development arm of the company. Of the six or seven (depending on how you count) software development groups within the company, two or three of them (again, based on how you count) are located here at Labs. Alternately the Country Club or the Ivory Tower depending on which disgruntled faction within the old guard of the company (i.e., the rest of us losers) you talk to, Labs occupies its own campus of buildings way out on the edge of town.

Labs is where it’s at; where things are happening. They get all the juicy projects and all the pretty girls. Witness Peggy, as I have nicknamed her, the lady sitting to my right. Her real name is Margaret Branch, and her no-shit, I-couldn’t-make-this- stuff-up-if-I-wanted-to job title is Vice President of Special Projects. She’s blonde, and a little on the slight side for my tastes, but she has fine features and a face that could have landed her on the cover of Vogue had she not opted for that MBA.

Peggy has been with me this entire morning. It was she who arrived, along with some little weasely guy who was never introduced, to escort me out of the building. She was there in the car for the ride over, and she was here with me as we waited for Dr. Bryce to finish his prior appointment. Through it all, she has treated me with kindness coupled with a certain crisp detachment. The School Nurse, as it were. I’m not sure if it’s this detachment, or her looks, or her scent (she smells wonderful) or her inaccessibility (a vice president, for crying out loud) or some wonderful mixture of all these elements, coupled with the utter absurdity of this situation, but whatever it is, I’m developing something of a crush.

Even though I’ve never visited Labs, I hear about it all the time. Carl is always coming over here delivering his training. To hear him tell it, he’s made some friends among the Labs inner circle and, at last report, is certain to be offered a position here after the traditional "scorched earth" period in August. It occurs to me that by being here, I have once again treaded upon Carl’s territory. Not as serious as infraction as all that time I spent at corporate last month, but an infraction nonetheless.

But that’s okay: I don’t think Carl would have had the proper appreciation of Peggy. And, at any rate, my new-found love interest notwithstanding, I wish Carl were here in my place right now. I really do.

"The potential applications for the quantum computer are many and varied," Bryce drones on. "For example, it has been suggested that such a device will be instrumental in proving the existence or non-existence of parallel universes. However, we were immediately intrigued by the predictive power that such a machine might provide. And it is that power which we have sought to exploit."

Wait a second. I seem to have faded back in just in time for the interesting stuff. Parallel universes. Predictive power.

Um, okay.

"Predictive power." I repeat. "Predicting what?"

"Outcomes," Peggy answers, turning towards me. She seems not the least bit impatient with Bryce’s meander. I can only guess how many times she’s sat through it.

"Well, sure. That makes sense. But it doesn’t tell me anything. I mean, what else could you predict besides outcomes?"

"The point is," says Bryce, "that there are many different kinds of phenomena to which we might try to apply predictive computational capabilities. But all of these have to be defined as outcomes in their own right in order for the technology to be applicable."

I ponder that one for a moment. It doesn’t sound like he’s answered my question; it just sounds like he added the words "in their own right."

"So if I want to make a prediction about which horse is going to win at the racetrack tomorrow, am I trying to predict an outcome?"

Peggy thinks about this, but Bryce’s response is immediate.

"Well that depends, you see, on whether the end you are looking at is an outcome."

I detect no trace of humor whatsoever. From either of them. But it’s pretty clear to me that either this guy is talking in circles, or I’m hearing in circles.

"Well, that’s my question." I persist. "Would the result of a given race be an ‘outcome’ by your definition?

"No, no, you don’t understand. At the quantum level, it is not a question of whether a given result is an outcome. Every result is an outcome. The question is are you looking for an outcome? A particular outcome."

Now some people might find this kind of thing frustrating. But as a technical writer who’s spent the better part of his adult life working with software engineers, I’m used to it. Questions asked and questions answered only synch up in the vaguest, most uncomfortable, most non-informative way.

But no matter; somehow, you find a way to plod on.

I look to Peggy for support. She senses my bewilderment.

"Look, Emmett, all we’re saying is that using the quantum computer to predict an outcome has to do mainly with how you phrase the question. In computer terms."

I nod.

"It’s a huge task," she continues. "In developing the programming language for the quantum computer, Dr. Bryce and his team have had to re-work two hundred years of math theory. Just figuring out how to construct the questions. If you don’t phrase the question exactly right, the quantum computer doesn’t work."

"So how do you phrase the questions?"

"That’s what we’re still working on," Peggy says. "We have the basic structure for making predictions, but we’re still nailing down the grammar. Some we can make, some we can’t."

"As you will see," says Bryce, "we’ve had some tremendously encouraging results from the MITE project."

"What’s the MITE project?" I ask.

"It’s the Mixed Incentive Test Exercise," Peggy answers. "What you’ve probably heard referred to as the ‘QC Protocols.’ It’s the reason you’re here today."

"Aha, the MITE Project," I say. "I get it — as in trying to predict what mite happen."

"Precisely," says Bryce.

I don’t add that I think it’s a lame and stupid name, needlessly jamming the words test and exercise together, when probably only one of them is needed. For all their scientific prowess, the guys at Labs are apparently no better at naming their projects than the bozos I work with downtown.

Worked with, I mean. Past tense.

"So what exactly is the connection between the quantum computer and the boxes?" I ask.

"Ah," says Peggy. "The fundamental question. Dr. Bryce?"

"Yes, well. The quantum computer is specially equipped with a printer and other equipment so that it’s able to output sealed envelopes containing official company documents. For each person participating in the test, the computer outputs two envelopes, one to go in each of the two boxes. For all participants, the computer outputs a $5,000 bonus check which is then put in box A."

Peggy reaches across the desk and picks up box A. Using a letter opener, she deftly breaks the seal on the box and produces a cream-colored envelope from inside. I am overwhelmed by a familiar sense of foreboding and deep mistrust.

What’s going on?

Bonus, my ass.

She continues with the letter opener, and quickly makes a perfect cut along the top of the sealed envelope. She reaches into the slit and—hey, wait a minute.

"Hey, wait a minute," I protest. "If you show me what’s in there, aren’t you blowing the whole thing?"

Peggy pauses, her hand inside the envelope. Her right eyebrow comes up, and she flashes me an inquisitive, if slightly impatient expression. She really is quite beautiful. But I have to remember that, crush or no crush, she is a part of all this, and I don’t trust any of this. Besides, I’ve always hated people who can do that one-eyebrow thing.

"What do you mean?" she asks, her hand still frozen in place.

"Well…"

Well.

Well, what?

"Well I assumed…"

Oh great: equals ass + you + me. Never ever ever ever use that word if you work for a big company. How they delight in shoving it back down your throat.

"What?" they both say together.

Now I’m pretty embarrassed. Oh, well. I have to push on.

"I figured that there would be something good in one box and something bad in the other and you were trying to predict which one I would pick."

"You weren’t listening," says Peggy. "Dr. Bryce just said that a bonus check for $5,000 gets put in Box A for everybody. And here it is." She produces a slip of paper from the envelope, which she hands to me. It’s a company check, made out to me, in the amount of $5,000.

Okay, now I’m really scared.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Chapter 15

Part II

Chapter Fifteen

I'm holding a check made out to me in the amount of $5,000. Basically, it looks right. It looks like a regular WorldConneX check, like the paycheck I used to get every two weeks before I switched over to direct deposit. But there's something wrong. The thing is too simple. It should be attached to a larger sheet explaining all the deductions. And five grand, even?

A WorldConneX check for $5,000 shoul read something like $3716.59. I've never seen so many zeroes. It looks so clean. This thing must be fake—a prop like those huge checks they photograph the sweepstakes winners holding. So the trick here is to make me think I'm getting five thousand dollars, when in fact I'm not.

Interesting.

Cruel, but interesting.

"All right," I say, handing the check back to Peggy. "So what’s in Box B? And what am I supposed to do?"

"Let’s try a little test, Emmett."

Peggy puts the check back into the envelope and, reinserting it into the box, puts the box back into its original place on the desk. "Tell me what you make of this statement: all company vice presidents are liars."

"Yes."

She looks at me expectantly, as though I’m supposed to grasp the hidden meaning at any moment. But what hidden meaning could there possibly be in that statement? I do admire her for having the honesty to come right and say it. It certainly tends to back up the notion that the check is a fake.

"Don’t you see a problem with that statement?" she asks.

"Ah, well…" What are we going for now? "I guess it’s a little self-incriminating."

"Right," she sighs.

It’s clear she doesn’t care for my answer. But it beats me what I’m supposed to say.

"Maybe that one hits a little too close to home," she says after a minute. "Let’s try it this way. What would you think if Dr. Bryce said the same thing about scientists?"

"Well, I guess that would surprise me a little."

"Why?"

I clear my throat.

"Because we expect scientists to be truthful and objective. Right? So it would be kind of surprising. But I would understand what he meant. I suppose all people are liars when you get right down to it. You know, to a certain extent."

"No. No." Peggy stops and thinks for a moment. She turns to Dr. Bryce, who looks puzzled.

"No," she says again. "We aren’t talking about anything to an extent. What I mean is, what if Dr. Bryce told you that all scientists are liars; that they tell nothing but lies; that everything they say is a lie."

She is clearly losing her patience with my inability to pick up the thread.

"Okay. I would have to say, again, that I would be very surprised."

"Why?"

"For the reasons I stated."

"So you would believe him?"

"Well, yeah. Why wouldn’t I?"

"Because he just told you that scientists never ever tell the truth!" She has this wild, triumphant expression on her face. This woman is clearly insane. Which I kind of like.

Question: Why am I always attracted to terrifying women?

Answer: Actually, you are always attracted to competent women, women of true achievement. And because you are yourself so mediocre both in your abilities and your accomplishments, and so utterly lacking in self-esteem, you naturally find such women terrifying.

Question: Well, in that case, why don’t I—

No. No time for that. Okay, now I’m seeing the problem. If he says scientists are all liars, it must be a lie. He’s a scientist. I allow a gratuitous expression of realization to come over my face.

"You see the problem now?" She looks a little less manic now, but still. This woman is way too into this.

"Yes. I get it. He must be lying."

Dr. Bryce coughs nervously. Peggy’s eyebrow goes up again, much higher than before.

"Are you sure?"

"Ah, yes. Yes I am." No, not really too sure at all.

"Explain."

"Well, if he’s right, and all scientists really are liars, meaning they never tell the truth, then he’s lying right now."

Dr. Bryce chuckles.

"True, but I think you missed one thing. You said if I’m right, then all scientists are liars. If we’re all liars, then I must be lying. So if I’m right, I’m lying. In other words, if what I’m saying is true, then what I’m saying is a lie."

"Well, granted, that doesn’t make much sense," I admit.

"Now let’s suppose that I’m not right," Bryce continues. "In that event—"

"Hold it," says Peggy. She picks up a yellow post-it notepad from the desk and writes something on it. Then she hands the pad to me. It reads: This sentence is false.

"True or false?" she demands.

I study the sentence for a moment, and I get it.

"I see, now," I say, sitting back in my chair. "If it’s true, it’s false. If it’s false, it’s true. Just like you were saying." I gesture at Bryce. "It’s actually neither true nor false. It’s just nonsense."

"Not nonsense," says Peggy. "Paradoxical. What you have encountered is a paradox of self-reference. Such paradoxes are important to us, because the programming language we use in the quantum computer is self-referentially paradoxical."

"So what does all this have to do with box B?"

"Box B is where the central paradox of the MITE project lies," says Bryce

"Which is?"

Peggy takes the ball.

"As I said, we have placed a bonus check for $5,000 in Box A. We have opened the box; you have seen the money. Box B we will not open until you have made a certain decision. In Box B, the computer has placed either a 24-month separation package, or nothing at all, depending on a profile that it has run on you."

A bonus in one box, a separation package in the other.

Lisa was right. Not to mention Jeff's knee.

"This profile," Peggy continues, "is based on observations of your work performance and other data, and has proved useful in predicting employee behaviors in certain situations. You have the choice of choosing either box B alone, or both boxes A and B. If the computer profile predicted that you would pick Box B alone, the computer placed the separation package in the box. If, however, the profile predicted that you would choose both A and B, the computer put nothing in Box B. So far, we have run this profile on a large cross-section of employees and have only proven to be wrong one out of a thousand times. So virtually every employee who picked both boxes has received the $5,000 bonus; while every employee who has picked box B alone has received the 24-month separation package."

"So everybody goes for Box B alone?"

Peggy beams me a flawless smile. "Yes, pretty much."

A 24-month separation package. The very idea. Two full years of salary, and you don’t have to work at WorldConneX any more.

It’s staggering.

I’ve been through three reorgs: 1994, first quarter 2001, third quarter 2001. In all three, the one and only topic of conversation around the coffee machines and clearings at the end of the cubicle rows for weeks at a time was, "What kind of package do you think they’ll give us?"

Actually, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. There was a little more to it than that. The conversations you heard around the sixth floor actually went something like this:

 

"Did you hear about Dave?"

"Yes, what a shock."

"He’s been here longer than anyone else in the group."

"I know. How are they deciding this?"

"I have no idea. It’s scary."

"Really scary."

"Did you hear what kind of package he got?"

"No, did you?"

"No."

Then there would be a long pause, eventually followed by

"What kind of package do you think they’ll give us?"

 

For any of the layoffs, there were a few highly skilled technical people who were given three or four months. But these were the real Brain Trust types, the ones the company ended up re-hiring as contractors a few weeks later at about a 50% pay increase. And maybe there were one or two really senior suits that got hung out to dry who were offered five or six months. But nobody ever went as high as 10, as far as I ever knew. And 24 months? It was a pipe dream.

And yet here I have it looking me right in the face. Box A contains $5,000, which sounds pretty nice. But Box B has so much more. Two years of pay, plus a free ticket out of this joint, meaning not having to go through the next reorg. Which everyone acknowledges is way overdue.

So this day—which got off to such an iffy start, has now led me to the best offer I have ever been given in my entire career. How strange and wonderful. If I had a little more time and emotional energy, I would give a thought to how sad it is that the best offer I have ever been given involves being laid off. But there’s no time for that.

"So let me see if I’ve got this straight. The quantum computer knows what I’m going to pick. And the separation offer is in Box B only if I’m going to open Box B alone. If I’m going to open both boxes, Box B is empty."

"That’s right," says Peggy. "Would you like a few minutes in which to consider your decision?"

"In a minute. First let me ask you something. What about lifers and people who love their jobs? Can they pick just Box A and take the bonus?"

"No," Bryce answers. "Choosing Box A alone is not within the parameters of the test."

"You want to keep in mind that we are applying this test to a very specific profile," adds Peggy. "It’s possible that people you would call ‘lifers’ are not part of that profile. I’m not saying that’s the case; I’m just saying it’s possible. In any event, anyone who wants to keep their job has a simple choice: they pick both boxes and, inevitably, there is no separation package in Box B."

"And nobody has sued you over this, Peggy?"

The eyebrow again.

"Thank you for reminding me." She reaches into her black leather briefcase on the floor and produces a manila folder. She opens the folder and passes me the top document. It is several pages stapled together.

"You will need to sign this," she says. "It simply states that you understand that you have been laid off and offered the opportunity to participate in the MITE program. By signing, you acknowledge that the terms and conditions of the MITE program are in complete compliance with your original employment contract, which I can assure you they are."

"But I thought I was only laid off if I get the separation package."

"If you choose both boxes and box B is empty, you will have a month with the company during which you can apply for any internally available position. If you don't find anything, you're gone."

"And I won't find anything, will I?"

"I'm not the Quantum Computer, Emmett. I can't predict the future."

I nod.

"So it doesn't really matter what I do. But if I sign this, it makes it hard for me to sue later."

"Yes it does. Suing WorldConneX is usually not a good idea, anyway, Emmett." This is a threat, but one delivered with empathy and understanding. It says something about WorldConneX that this woman who's turned my life into some bizzare party game is probably the most humane and compassionate member of senior management I've ever met.

"So I hear. What if I refuse to sign, Peggy?"

"You may call me Margaret."

Remember, Emmett? Some things we say, some things we only think.

"I’m sorry, Margaret. What if I refuse to sign?"

She shrugs.

"Of course, participation is strictly optional. As I said, you have already been laid off. This file contains the details of that decision, including a standard separation package."

"Which probably isn’t any 24 months."

There’s that smile again.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 16

Part II

Chapter Sixteen

I’m sitting at a table in a conference room, with a cup of coffee, a notepad, and a pen. I’ve been given a half hour to think over my decision.

I like these conference rooms at Labs. The chair backs are a little higher than what we get downtown.; the cushions are a little cushier.

Even the coffee is good. Peggy told me that every other floor actually has an espresso machine, but we were on the wrong floor. It wouldn’t occur to them that to somebody from the downtown office, taking an elevator ride or climbing some stairs in order to get a cappuccino would be well worth it. We do that anyway: six floors down to the lobby, out the door, down the street to Seventeenth, turn right, two more blocks to Starbuck’s. A jaunt down one floor wouldn’t even register as a trip.

There’s a knock at the door. I glance at my watch to verify that my half hour isn’t up yet.

Nope. I’ve only been in here for about 10 minutes.

I rise to answer the door, but it opens before I can. In steps a guy who I think I’ve seen before. But I can’t quite place him.

"Hi, Emmett," he says, taking a seat across the table from me. He’s got a big smile on his big jowly face. I know I’ve seen him somewhere.

"Hi," I say, and study him for the obligatory two seconds. "I’m sorry, but have we met?"

He shrugs.

"Hard to say."

"So," I continue, "are you with the MITE project?"

He smiles

"I have a sort of loose affiliation with it."

"Well, you seem to have the advantage, here. I’m Emmett Hamilton."

He shakes my hand, his big grin still in place. He has one of those almost-too-firm handshakes — the kind I guess they teach in MBA school.

"You can call me Rick. We don’t have much time here, Emmett, and we need to get right down to work."

"Yeah. Work?" I’m not being quite as articulate as I would like. I return to my seat and take a sip from my coffee.

"Yes, work. I need to walk you through your options on this Two-Box Experiment before you give your answer to Peggy."

I make a mental note:

    • He calls her Peggy, too.

That’s odd.

"Wait a second. I don’t see how you guys can send somebody into a room to think over a decision, and then send somebody else in there to tell him how he’s supposed to decide."

He just sort of shrugs.

"Hey, I’m not going to tell you how to decide. You pick. I just want to make sure you understand what the different options imply."

"Why?" I spit the word out as a challenge.

"You want to make the most informed and intelligent decision you can, don’t you?"

"I want the 24-month package."

"Of course you do. Therefore you will do what?"

"I’ll choose Box B alone."

"Why?"

I sigh.

"If I do that, it means that the computer predicted that I would. Which means that I’ll get the 24-month package." I sense there’s something wrong with this line of reasoning even as I form the words.

"So whatever you do, that’s what the computer predicted you would do?"

"That’s how it looks to me." No, wait…

"So you really have no choice at all."

"What?" I glare at him. "Of course I have a choice. I can choose B alone or A & B. And whichever I choose, that’s what the computer predicted."

"Let me ask you a question, Emmett. Do you think there’s a separation package in Box B, or do you think it’s empty?"

"I think it’s in there." Nobody is going to shake me from that. No way.

"So then what happens if you pick A and B?"

"Well, then…I get both."

That’s right, isn’t it? If they’re both in there, and I pick both, then I get both.

But wait.

"But wait." I scratch my head. I scratch my arm. Why do I itch all of a sudden? "If they’re both in there, and I pick both, that means the computer made an incorrect prediction. Peggy said if you pick both, you only get A."

"That’s right."

"Well, how can that be? Peggy said the computer has only been wrong once out of a thousand times."

"So? Maybe that record is about to become twice out of a thousand and one." Rick isn’t smiling any more. He looks very serious. Grim, even.

"I mean, really. Wouldn’t you rather get the package plus the $5,000 than just the package on its own?"

So here is the actual test. At long last. Now I understand.

They’re trying to see how greedy I am. Of course.

I can pass this, no problem.

"No, no," I say very slowly and deliberately. "The package alone will be fine. I don’t want anything more than just the package."

The smile returns: well, a milder version of the original. "Relax. Nobody is testing you to see how greedy you are. And I’m not trying to talk you out of anything."

How does he do that?

Are you a mind reader, Rick? Hello? Hello? Are you picking up on the fact that I think you’re an enormous asshole?

No.

I must not allow myself to be distracted. I want that 24-month package, damn it.

"All I’m doing is trying to help you understand what your choice means. If you want to pick Box B, that’s fine. Picking Box B alone means one of two things."

Rick stands up and turns around to the whiteboard. He finds a working black marker and writes DESTINY on the board.

"Do you believe in Destiny, Emmett? Maybe you pick Box B because you sense that you are destined to do so. Picking it proves that your sense of destiny is correct, so it becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. More importantly, receiving the two-year package proves that the computer accurately predicted your behavior. You really don’t have a choice, although you seem to. The handwriting is on the wall."

He underlines the word DESTINY.

"Is that the way it works?" he asks.

"Beats me. What’s the other choice?"

"Fair enough," he says. Next to the word DESTINY, he writes OUTCOME MECHANICS. He underlines this phrase and turns around to face me. He gives me this look like I’m supposed to say something.

"I’m not familiar with that term," I tell him. "Is it something like quantum mechanics?"

"Very good, Emmett. The quantum view of reality allows you to assume the role of the manager of the outcome. Since no one knows what the computer predicted, the contents of Box B are a mystery similar to the contents of the black box in the story of Shrödinger’s cat. Are you familiar with Shrödinger’s cat?"

"I’ve heard of it."

"Explain it to me."

"All right."

Luckily, I know this stuff. I have cable.

"A guy puts a cat in a box. Somehow he’s rigged the box so that there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the cat’s dead. I can’t remember how, but it’s a Wile Coyote setup with a piece of radioactive material, a Geiger counter, and a cyanide pill. Anyhow, looking at the box from the outside, you have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead."

"And?"

"And what? That’s all I know about it."

"But is the cat dead or alive?"

"You can’t know that until you look."

Wait. There’s more. I’m remembering what I read about this thing. Or, okay, what I saw on the Discovery Channel about it.

"Oh. I take that back. Actually, the cat isn’t dead or alive until you look. That’s right. It is only one or the other when you observe its state. Until then, it’s neither."

"Neither and both. As the physicists say, the wave function has not been collapsed"

"Right. Whatever."

"And do you accept that as an accurate description of the way the physical universe operates?"

"That’s hard to say. I guess if the physicists say it’s true, it is. On the other hand, somebody was just telling me that all scientists are liars."

I sit back in my chair for a moment to ponder this.

"So what you’re saying is that my 24-month separation package both is and is not inside the box. And when I look, that will determine whether the quantum computer placed it in there."

"Very good."

"So then how does the computer predict what I’m going to do?"

"Maybe in saying that the computer ‘predicts’ behavior, all we’re saying is that it has somehow managed to establish conditional quantum responses. If you pick Box B alone, the wave function collapses one way. If you pick A and B, it collapses the other way."

"What do you mean ‘maybe’? Don’t you know how the thing works?"

"No. Not entirely. To tell you the truth, I don’t think anybody does."

That strikes me as odd.

"Wait. Not even Bryce understands it?"

"Don’t make me laugh, Emmett."

I think about all this for a moment.

"So by outcome mechanics, you mean that I determine the contents of Box B depending on whether I choose one or both boxes."

He nods.

"Yes. Of course, it’s even more difficult to grasp this idea than it is to grasp the idea of the computer making accurate predictions. At least you can picture the computer putting the offer in the box, or not, as it sees fit based on its prediction. But in the conditional quantum example, what is the computer doing? It can’t put the offer in there, and it can’t refrain from putting the offer in there. It’s just like the cat who’s neither alive nor dead."

I take another sip from my coffee. Cold.

"Peggy said that the programming language for the quantum computer is paradoxical. Now I understand why. What you’re saying is that this whole test is set up so that what I do now, in the present, determines what the quantum computer did in the past."

"Possibly. But do you really believe that?"

That’s a fair question. Do I believe that geniuses at WorldConneX have invented some kind of time machine?

"Hell, no. The thing is either in there or it’s not. When I look, I’ll know the answer. But I won’t have made anything happen."

"And the quantum computer? How did it make so many accurate predictions?"

"I don’t know. I suppose they made some shrewd guesses. Like Peggy said, those work profiles or whatever. They might be gilding the lily about how accurate they’ve been. But anyway, they have been wrong. At least once."

"Yes. And what happens when they’re wrong?"

"Well…"I have to think about this for a moment, and frankly I’m tired of thinking. "It depends. If the computer thought I would pick just B, and it’s wrong, and I pick both…I get both prizes."

"Prizes?"

"Whatever you want to call them."

"Sure. And what about the other scenario?"

"Okay. If the computer thought I would pick both, and I pick just Band the computer is wrong…then there’s nothing in B. I get nothing."

Nothing!

But it’s only a one in a thousand chance.

Yeah, but who are you going to trust?

Nothing!

Those lying bastards. I knew this was too good to be true.

Quantum computer my ass.

They show you the check in box A because they know you’re going to pick B alone and then you get nothing. That’s what this thing is really all about. "Mixed Incentive Test Exercise." It’s some crazy HR thing; it’s Performance Management gone bonkers. They want to demonstrate that they can show somebody a check for $5,000, give them the opportunity to take it — seem to be fair about the whole thing — and then have the subject walk away with nothing.

Of course, the word "incentive" should have given it away. No doubt, they’re on the verge of implementing some vast new "benefit" program in which everybody gets strung along thinking they’ll get one good thing or another. And in the end, they get nothing. They choose to get nothing.

Nothing!

"So what you’re saying," I conclude, "is that I should pick both."

"I said nothing of the kind," he responds sharply.

"Yes. I have to pick both. Most likely, the computer knew I was going to pick both, and there is nothing in B. But if I just pick B, it could have made a mistake and then I get nothing. Or I could take both, and it makes a mistake and I get both. But I can’t run the risk of getting completely skunked."

"Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Here’s a question for you — when they were making their prediction for which box you were going to pick, do you think they knew that you and I were going to have this conversation?"

"I’m pretty sure Peggy knew, if that’s what you mean."

He picks up the eraser, and seems to study the board carefully for a moment.

"Peggy doesn’t know me, Emmett. She has no idea I’m in here. Nor does anybody who had anything to do with programming the quantum computer."

"Well, why are you here, then?"

He erases the words he wrote on the board earlier.

"Let me give you one more scenario, Emmett. Maybe the whole thing is a trick. Maybe they put something in both boxes for everybody, but your co-workers are too afraid to try. They’re all too ready to believe that a computer can predict their every move. So they just pick B like the sheeple they are."

"Be sure you pick carefully," he says, placing the eraser back in the tray.

He looks at me for a long moment, sizing me up.

"Look deep, Emmett. You have to look deep. It isn’t easy for guys like…you, but you have to give it a try."

Before I can think of a response, he opens the door and starts through it. Then he turns and looks at me again, pausing just for a moment.

"Look deep, Emmett," he says for the third time, "The answer is in the stillness. It’s been there all along."

"The what? Stillness?"

"Make a good choice, Emmett. And whatever you do, don’t forget to be happy."

He nods, he turns, and then he’s gone.

As the door closes behind him, I suddenly realize what it is that’s been bothering me about Rick. I knew he looked familiar. He looks like my Uncle Dave. My Dad’s brother. But there’s more. Yes, he does look like Uncle David, but he looks a lot more like somebody else—Grandpa Emmett.

Good old Grandpa Emmett. My favorite grandparent. The man I was named after.

My Mom’s father.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chapter 17

Part II

Chapter Seventeen

Well, here we are. Back in Dr. Bryce’s office.

The gang is all here—Peggy, Dr. Bryce, Box A, Box B, and of course, Yours Truly. Right now, there is inside of Box A a check made out to me in the amount of $5,000. I’ve seen it. Unless somebody tampered with things while I was out of the room, it’s in there. In Box B, there is nothing at all. Or there is a chance to start my life all over again: a free ticket out of WorldConneX plus two years to do whatever I want. Or there is an uncollapsed quantum wave—whatever the hell that means—which holds both the possibility of the package and of nothing, just waiting for me to observe one or the other. Waiting for me to choose my own fate.

If the box contains an uncollapsed quantum wave, it means that my eyes and my brain play a fundamental role in the ordering of the universe. There is no reality at all until I observe it. The idea is either liberating and empowering or kind if scary and megalomaniacal. I can’t decide which. But the trouble with megalomania is that I’m a tech writer from the downtown office. I’m the kind of guy who thinks that the taller chair backs and the espresso machines at Labs are a big deal. All this reality-manifesting-out-of-decisions-that-I-make business is more than I can handle.

I’m not ready to be God’s junior partner.

"Emmett, I have to ask you for the record, now," says Peggy.

I look her directly in the eye. Her eyes are a deep, violet blue. I’m struck by a tiny wave of giddiness. An absurd thought occurs to me: if I get the lay-off package, I will no longer work for the company. There’s nothing to stop me from asking Peggy out.

Yeah, right. That’s the reason I haven’t asked her out already…because we work for the same company. Right.

"Do you want to open Box B alone, or both Boxes A and B?"

There are a couple of possibilities. Rick hinted at one of them. Maybe the quantum computer accurately predicted that I would pick B alone, because Rick’s little pep talk was outside the confines of the experiment. I was definitely going to pick B alone until he showed up. So it could be that there is a separation package in box B. And maybe I’ll get both by picking both after all.

The other possibility is that I could tell Dr. Bryce and Peggy about Rick and bring this whole thing to a close right now. Surely having this unauthorized person come talk to me during my Thinking Time is grounds for invalidating the entire experiment. Of course, doing that I lose the $5,000, any hope of getting the two years, and I’m still out of a job. I will almost certainly just get that lesser (much, much lesser) package that Peggy has in that file of hers.

No. That one is a bad deal any way you look at it.

"Emmett," says Dr. Bryce. "We need your answer."

"Right," I answer.

One thing I will give these people credit for. You know how people always describe reaching a major decision point in their lives as coming to a fork in the road? Well, these Two-Box folks have created about as distinct a fork as I have ever stumbled across. Or had jammed up my ass, depending on how you want to look at it.

"Right," I say again. "Okay. I’ll take both."

Well, what do you know. I’ve managed to surprise them, or at least one of them.

Bryce holds his own, but Peggy needs to work on the poker face. Here’s a gal who doesn’t get surprised very often (I’m guessing), but look at the cool and dignity with which she handles it. Not bad. Still, the ever so slightly furrowed forehead is enough to give it away. I think—I’m not sure but I think—that had I made the right choice (meaning the choice she expected me to make) she would have given me the eyebrow instead.

Dr. Bryce makes a note on a form laid out in front of him.

"Can I confirm that, Emmett? You’re choosing both boxes?"

"That’s right."

"Initial here, please." He turns the form around and passes it to me, along with his pen. It is an almost blank page. It just has my name, the date, two check boxes, and some blank lines at the bottom. One check box is labeled B, the other one is labeled A&B. Two boxes for the two-box experiment. That’s appropriate.

Wait, shouldn’t one box be A and the other be B?

No, I guess it’s right the way it is.

Anyway, the second of the two boxes is checked. I put my initials under it, and pass the page back to the good doctor.

"And will you now please state your reasons for making this choice?" He is poised to write my answer in the blank lines at the bottom of the page. Why not just ask me to write my answer there myself?

Oh, well. Who am I to question these things?

"This is the only choice in which I am ensured of getting something."

"But—" Peggy begins and then thinks better of it. Bryce looks up and gives her a startlingly open look of disapproval. Here’s a new dynamic—the Scientist annoyed by the Corporate Drone who might ruin the crystalline symmetry of his experiment with her two-bit MBA meddling.

I like that. That’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.

Bryce looks back down and apparently writes what I said word for word.

"Anything else?" he says, looking up again.

"Yes. It also seems to be the choice I was not expected to make. That didn’t figure into my actual decision, but now that it’s made, I’m pleased with it."

Dr. Bryce seems to weigh the appropriateness of this answer for a moment. Then he writes it down word for word.

"Well," Peggy says brightly, "let’s see what we’ve got." She picks up Box A, which has been neatly resealed, and hands it to me.

"This part is going to be a little anti-climactic," I say, taking the box. "Or at least it had better be." The box opens easily. Inside, there is the envelope, itself not resealed. I reach in through the precise opening Peggy created earlier with the letter opener, and pull out the check. It’s there. Five large, made out in my name.

"Congratulations," says Peggy.

I nod.

This is just like Christmas morning, except we’re not in our footy PJs. Well, I guess it’s more like my birthday, since I’m the only one opening boxes.

Dr. Bryce reaches across the desk and hands me Box B. I fumble with the seal for a moment, until Peggy hands me that stiletto letter-opener of hers. Swish! Right through that little red seal. I insert my thumbnail into the lid and begin to pull the lid open —

"Okay, pal. Drop the box. Now."

I look up. Now where did those two come from? And why are they aiming guns at me?

Damn, Labs is an awfully strange place.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Chapter 18

Part III

Chapter Eighteen

 

This is how the end of the world began.

It was April, 1981. It was the warmest spring Celia could remember. As early as March, there were nights when the clunky, antiquated gas furnace didn’t kick on at all. This was unheard of, summer arriving ahead of itself. And it was a tremendous gift, not just because of what it saved the home in heating expense, but because it allowed the children time away from the common room, the dreary makeshift playroom/classroom in which they were forced to spend so much of their lives.

How much better it was, Celia thought, for them to spend their days outside. In the back yard there was a sandbox to dig in, a jungle gym to climb on, cool grass to lie in. There were swings to swing on. Overhead, the sky served as a canvas for clouds which the children could study, could shape into whatever designs their imaginations (which might be as strong as or even stronger than the imaginations of any other children) would allow. In the distance, far beyond the splintery brown backyard fence, were the mountains—blue-green with stripes of sand and rust in front, and silver-gray snowcapped behind. They could be glimpsed by a boy poised triumphantly, if never completely securely, atop the jungle gym, or a girl at the forward or backward summit of a perfect arch, legs outstretched, the yellow molded plastic seat of the swing pulling the delicate loops of the chains taut for an instant, and then giving way for the downward swoop.

Let the children be outside, Celia thought, for as many long, lazy afternoons as a summer chose to yield. Outside, where the hopes that she bore for them, that they might somehow bloom and flourish like the daffodils shooting up along the edge of the tool shed, seemed more substantial. Outside, where the shrill chirps of the birds, the chattering of the squirrels, the life, tactile and audible—its odor sweet or pungent or acrid, but undeniably there—insisted on itself, insisted that that which lives can change, can grow.

It was Celia’s first official year running the home. She had worked and lived there for nearly 15 years, and she knew every creaking floor board and every dripping pipe. The house stood at the edge of town. It was white, or at least that was the intention behind its most recent painting, which had been done during her first year there. Time and the elements had worn the exterior to a faded, comfortable gray, which was beginning to crack, and would have to be looked to before long.

It was a cloudy morning, the day the boy arrived, and it seemed unlikely the children would be spending any time outside. There had been rain before sunrise, with the threat of more to come. Celia’s office was on the first floor, on the opposite side of the common room from the kitchen. She sat there at her desk, talking with the boy’s parents, listening to the father’s belabored explanation of why he and his wife, and, more to the point, their son, were there.

"This isn’t easy for us, Miss Crawford" he said. "We never planned on it. If I could have kept my job here, maybe we wouldn’t need to come and see you. But I have to take this new job, like I said, on the oil rig. I’ll be gone for six months. And my wife, she can’t do it any more, not on her own. She’s not been doing well. We’re giving up our own place. She’s going back to live with her folks, and there’s just no room there. And we’ve got no more money."

They looked old, these two: old to be parents of a son of seven, anyway. The man appeared to be in his late forties; he was thin but broad-shouldered, with large, callused hands and a face deeply lined by the sun, and by worry. The woman was not much younger; she was pale and slight of build. It was easy to believe that she had not been well. She looked furtively around the room, seeming to listen not to her husband, but to the sounds of children playing in the common room. Their son sat between them. He had his father’s thick black hair, cut short, and his mother’s brown eyes, though more vivid and alert than hers. He sat perfectly still, unnaturally still for a boy his age, and stared at a point on the wall just above Celia’s right shoulder. This was not a vacant stare, however—not a dreamy "looking off into space" kind of stare. There was intensity to it. The boy was looking at something, something that was real to him. His face bore the burden of a prolonged focused mental effort, and the weariness that had resulted from it. It was a look that belonged to a much older face.

"And he’ll be better off, won’t he?" the mother said, distractedly. She shot her husband a nervous glance, looking as though she had almost missed her cue.

"Well," Celia responded, "of course, we do everything we can for our children here. But all things being equal, we believe that a child is better off in a family setting than an institutional one. We do what we can to place our children with families that will care for them."

Celia thought of Grace, the one child in the home whom she was most eager to place. Grace had lived there all her life, nearly five years, but she did not belong in the home. She had no disability. She was born there to a girl who was now gone, who had long since been moved to the State home, which was equipped to care for adults.

Without realizing it, Celia began running the boy’s parents through a mental checklist that she used to evaluate potential parents. There was no point in this. These people failed on the first criterion: they didn’t want a child. In fact, not only did they not want Grace, they didn’t want their own child. To Celia, there was something abhorrent, something fundamentally repulsive in this. She realized that it was unkind, perhaps even unfair, to feel this way. And she knew that, depending on what kind of home life these two had managed to provide, their son might very well be "better off" here in the home. Even so, there was something terribly wrong with this situation; Celia had felt it every time she had witnessed it. It was wrong, parents relinquishing their children to the home like disgruntled pet owners dropping off an unwanted dog at the animal shelter. She might well agree to take this child in. In fact, it occurred to her that she had already decided to do so. But she was not obliged to say things to make these two feel better about their decision, whatever their reasons for making it. On the contrary, she had a professional responsibility to make them see how serious that decision was.

"But if we can’t take care of him any more…" the mother began, apparently looking for someone else to finish her sentence for her.

"And we can’t," the husband put in.

Celia began to thumb through the folder in front of her. In it was a thick stack of papers. She had to admit that the parents had been thorough in trying to get help for their son, and in keeping track of their efforts to do so. Several of the reports were nothing more than cramped comments written at the bottom of forms used to perform standard tests. Others were neatly typed and went on for several pages of observation and analysis. But all came to the same conclusion: autism, severe. She glanced up at the boy again, wondering what those words really meant, wondering what kind of curtain it was that stood closed between his young mind and the world that surrounded him.

"Has he ever spoken?" she asked.

"No ma’am," the husband answered.

"But you believe he understands some of what is said to him?"

"Yes, ma’am.. He’ll sometimes come when we call him. He knows his name, and if we tell him to sit down or go to bed, he knows what we mean."

"And he knows how to dress himself, too," the wife put in.

Celia looked at the boy.

"Corey," she said. "Can you hear me?"

The boy looked away from the spot on the wall he had been studying, and their eyes met for a moment. His face registered no recognition of his name, although he had apparently responded to hearing it. For a moment, he stared right through Celia, before fixing his gaze once again above her right shoulder. There had been no hint of human contact in the look he had given her; it was as though he could see no distinction between her face and the wall.

The boy reminded Celia of Jolene; he had the same dark hair and eyes, and the same intense stare. Celia thought of Jolene in her final days at the home, just after giving birth to Grace. This is how she had become in the end: unable to speak, seemingly unable to recognize the presence of others. And that was also how she had been in the beginning, and for a good deal of the time she lived in the home. Yet there had been that one long period, lasting perhaps five years, when everything was different. There had been so much hope for Jolene, the possibility of a future far different from what the other children could expect. What had brought about this amazing change in the girl was never known, just as there was no explanation for her condition to begin with. But Celia knew the cause of the later change that occurred, Jolene’s reversion to her earlier state. The thought of it weighed on her mind, as it always did.

"Oh, he can hear just fine," said the father, gesturing at the file in front of Celia. "That’s been checked a couple, three times."

"I see," said Celia. "And he understands. Does he like to listen to stories? Does he ever watch television?"

"Sometimes he’ll listen to a book if you read it," said the mother. "Sometimes he even looks at the pictures. But then other times you’ll be halfway through and he just walks away. There’s no telling. But he never had use for TV."

"He likes music, though," said the father.

The woman twitched visibly at the mention of this, and was suddenly very careful not to look at her husband.

"Really?" said Celia. "What kind?"

"All kinds. Sometimes he used to sit by the radio for a hour or two. He figured out how to turn the knob and find different things to listen to. He especially liked old music, you know? Violins and harps and things."

"Classical music," said Celia.

The man nodded

"You said he used to sit by the radio." Celia continued. "He doesn’t do it any more? Has he lost interest in music?"

The man glanced at his wife, as though aware that he had made a mistake.

"Uh, no, ma’am. I imagine he still likes it. That is, we don’t know for sure."

There was a long pause.

"You see, the radio broke, and we never got a new one. So he hasn’t listened to music for a while."

The woman nodded.

"It broke," she said.

"Do you mean that Corey broke the radio?" Celia asked in a helpful tone. It was obvious to her that they were lying, or at least not saying something. "That happens sometimes; children break things."

The man and woman looked at each other.

"No ma’am," the father said after a moment. "I don’t think he ever broke it. It just broke."

"He never broke it," said the woman.

Celia looked at each of them in turn. Something had happened, but they didn't want to talk about it. She tried a different approach.

"Does he ever have bad days?" she asked. She felt uncomfortable asking such a question with the boy sitting there, and wondered whether it was appropriate to do so. Myra had indoctrinated her with the notion that the children were always to be treated with respect. How respectful could it be to delve into the boy’s behavior in the third person when he was sitting right in front of her? But it was her only chance to talk with the parents, and there was no place else for the boy to be at the moment. He had not been introduced to the other children, and his presence at play time might be disruptive.

She looked once again at Corey: motionless, intent on his targeted spot on the wall. Granted, it was unlikely that he would be disruptive, but there was still the possibility.

"You mean like does he get sick?" the father asked.

"He hasn’t ever been sick, not a day," said the mother.

"I’m glad to hear that," said Celia, "but that wasn’t what I was getting at. What I meant was, does he ever have bad moods? Does he ever become angry?"

"Never once," said the mother. "He’s got nothing to care about." She put her arm over her son’s shoulder and looked at him for a moment.

"Do you see what I’m saying, Miss Crawford? If you don’t care about anything, you don’t get mad about anything." There wear tears in the mother’s eyes as she spoke. Celia had not expected this; she had already tried and convicted the parents of indifference towards their son. And maybe they were indifferent, or less caring than they should have been. But the mother still had tears to shed on Corey’s behalf, could still feel anger or frustration at the thought of this life, her child’s life, which was so far from what it was supposed to be.

"Has he spent much time with other children?" she asked, hardly realizing that her tone of voice had softened.

"He used to stay with my sister some when I had a job, before I had to quit on account of my blood pressure," the mother answered, wiping her eyes. "She has three kids. They’re all older than Corey."

"How did he get along with them? Did he play with them? Did he ever fight with them?"

"No, ma’am," the father answered quickly.

"Never," the mother said impatiently. "Don’t you understand? He doesn’t fight; he doesn’t play. He doesn’t do those things, never has. I guess he never will."

"I see," said Celia. "So there were never any problems with other children?"

The father glanced at the mother and then answered too quickly, "No, never."

Celia looked at the mother.

"That’s right," she agreed. "Never."

Celia sighed. She wondered whether there was any point even asking these questions.

"How does he sleep?"

"Good," answered the mother. "Real good. Sometimes he’ll go twelve, fourteen hours. Once in a while he don’t even get up at all."

"That’s interesting," said Celia. "Have you ever noticed a pattern to his sleeping habits? Does he sleep longer after some change has occurred? For example, when you started your job? Or after you quit?"

Both parents sat back and seemed to consider the question.

"No," the mother said after a moment. "I don’t think it’s anything like that. I just think he likes to sleep, so he does.

The father nodded in agreement.

"And what about nightmares? Has he ever had them?"

A shadow fell over the mother’s face. The father cleared his throat. Neither parent attempted to answer the question.

"Why would you ask that?" the mother said after a long moment. There was deep suspicion in the expression on her face and in her tone of voice.

"Well, it isn’t unusual for a child with Corey’s condition to suffer from nightmares. All children have them sometimes. It can be a real problem for autistic children: to be afraid and to have no way of expressing it."

"Let me ask you something," said the father. "I’ve tried to find out what I could about this sickness. Have you ever heard of these retarded kids who can play the piano and solve math problems and that kind of thing?"

"Yes," said Celia, "I’ve heard of that, but I’ve never encountered it. They’re called autistic savants. Some people are as withdrawn as Corey and yet possess brilliant artistic or musical or, as you said, mathematical ability. Why do you ask? Has Corey shown some unusual ability?"

"No, he hasn’t" the mother said, before her husband could speak.

"I guess not," said the father. But then he continued: "Maybe, though, it depends on what kind of ability you mean. Do some of these kids do other things? Not the piano and like that, but…other things?"

Celia shrugged. "I’m sure it can take a number of different forms. What were you thinking of specifically?"

The woman glared at her husband, who now looked away and seemed to have nothing more to say. There was a long moment of silence.

"Look, sir," Celia said impatiently, "anything you can tell me about your son’s condition is going to help us. It’s best for him that we know as much as we can from the start. And whatever it is, I guess I’ll find it out sooner or later on my own anyway, won’t I?"

Neither of them said a word. Celia looked from one of them to the other.

"What are you not telling me?"

"Nothing," the man said at last. "I was just wondering, that’s all."

Celia sighed. She wrapped up the interview as perfunctorily as possible. The boy’s parents grew less responsive with each ensuing question until it became clear that she would get nothing more than she already had. She would have to uncover whatever it was that they wanted to keep secret through the course of time, just as she had said. It might take years, or she might know within hours of their leaving, but no matter. She would get to the bottom of it one way or another.

Corey’s parents left him standing on the front porch of the home. There were good-byes and a few more tears from the mother; Celia noticed that the mother hugged the boy, but that the father didn’t touch him, hadn’t touched him once in the two or three hours they spent at the home. The mother said that they would be back to visit as soon as they could, but Celia knew it was a lie.

It had begun to rain again, this time in earnest. Celia watched as the rusty blue pickup drove away. At her side stood Corey, holding onto a small suitcase which contained a few clothes and some never-used toys. He did not wave goodbye, nor even look in the direction of his departing parents. He would never see them again; Celia was certain of that. She stood there looking at the new boy for a long while after the truck was gone, wondering what he saw as he stared with such intensity out into the rainy afternoon. Wondering whether he had ever seen his parents, or anyone else, at all.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Chapter 19

Part III

Chapter Nineteen

 

Corey’s first day was trying, but by and large unexceptional. The ordeal with the parents took a toll on Celia that she wouldn’t have liked to admit. The range of feelings that they inspired in her—from curiosity to rage to pity—was exhausting. And it was depressing to have to preside over yet another goodbye in which the child had no concept of what was happening.

With no volunteers working in the home that day, Caroline managed the other twelve children on her own while Celia met with the parents. At age 32, Caroline Gray was seven years younger than Celia. She was in many ways unlike her employer, which both women knew was a key reason they worked well together. Physically, where Celia was small and thin, with fine features and red hair cropped short, Caroline was tall and obese, her black hair tied in a perpetual bun. Her nose was a plump red bulb, and her face was lined by eyes and a mouth that were quick to smile, and a forehead that was quick to furrow. Caroline was the jolly one of the pair, as well as the quick-tempered one, where Celia was slow to respond emotionally to any situation; her even temper was a good fit for the administrator’s job.

The children were not unaware of the disruption in their routine. With the rain preventing them from venturing outside, and with the lack of staff preventing them from breaking out into more specialized activities, they were all forced to spend the day together in the common room. Four-year-old Grace was curious about the new boy, and kept asking who he was and when she was going to get to meet him. Caroline had abandoned an arts and crafts project, papier-mâché hand-puppets, in favor of reading from The Wind in the Willows to Grace along with three of the older girls, Alice, Judy, and Bettina, while the rest of the children, ostensibly listening along, pursued their own activities independently.

Grace was restless, and kept turning around in her chair to look in the direction of Celia’s office door. She would occasionally interrupt Caroline’s reading and ask her to repeat the part just read—although she was paying no attention—and to ask to be allowed to see the new boy. Following Grace’s lead (as they always did), the older girls also began asking about him. They wouldn’t leave the subject alone, in spite of Caroline’s repeated attempts to return to the book, and her insistence that there would be plenty of time to meet him and get to know him later.

At sixteen, Alice was the oldest child currently residing in the home. She was always the first to repeat whatever Grace said. She was less outspoken than Judy, who (at thirteen) continually tried to assert herself as the Head Girl. Though one girl was white and the other was black, there was an odd family resemblance between them. Both girls bore what had until recently been termed mongoloid facial characteristics—the folds of flesh encroaching on the eyes and flattened bridge of the nose were now recognized as indicators of Down Syndrome. Bettina was twelve, a year younger than Judy, and she was considerably smaller and quieter than the other two girls. She had a Raggedy Ann doll, whom she had named Baby Lucy after one of the younger girls, and which she held close to her at all times.

Meanwhile Raymond and Joey, who were eleven and fourteen years old, respectively, and who constantly vied for the position of ringleader of the home’s boy contingent, spent the afternoon bowling in an over-wide lane defined by masking tape on the floor, using a plastic blue ball and multi-colored pins designed for much younger children. The three other boys—Robert, Andrew, and Todd—were younger and less prone to agitation. Robert and Andrew were both eight years old, a year younger than Todd. They played quietly together as they did every day. There was a soberness, a severity to their play. Today their game was trading baseball cards. They could not read the cards, which were in a well-worn deck of about 100 (mostly obscure players with quite a few duplicates), and had no real idea of what they were for, but Robert had picked up from Raymond the notion that they were for trading, and so trade them they did. The boys were content to play this game all day, and in fact did so for hours, waiting for a return to the home’s normal routine.

Todd, who could neither hear nor speak, and who never interacted with any of the other children, sat at the same table with his crayons and coloring book, adding garish red and green and purple strokes to the pages with no regard to the pictures outlined there. Todd resembled Alice and Judy; like them, he had Down Syndrome. He would stop coloring every now and then and reach down to the floor to make sure that his battered, wheel-less Tonka truck was still there. This was a ritual that he performed several times every day.

Meanwhile, the home’s remaining children, Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda, worked quietly in a far corner. Like Todd, Kathy was deaf. Her mental disability was much less severe than his, however, and Celia had considered from time to time that Kathy might be an example of misdiagnosis, and that she might be better off in a home for the hearing impaired.

Kathy’s best friend was Estelle, who was two years younger than, but almost the same size as, her friend. Estelle was Kathy’s protector, had been so for years. The two girls spent the day crocheting: Kathy working on a blue and silver hat, Estelle making a matching scarf. As the day proceeded, Estelle would not allow the girls to get comfortable working in any one place. She was restless, probably because of the change in routine, and she kept insisting they move to another spot every half hour or so. By the end of the day, they had encircled the common room twice.

Lucinda tagged along with Kathy and Estelle, her crochet efforts limited to one long braided strand of orange yarn. Lucinda’s eyes were lively, her nose was turned up slightly, and her mouth was missing two teeth in the front. She was only six, but was a special favorite of Grace’s, which made her an important person according to home’s peculiar pecking order. For there was no question in anyone’s mind, be they Celia, Caroline, one of the other children, or Grace herself—at age four, Grace was the children’s undisputed leader. She was in charge, she knew it, and she bore the office—by and large— with amazing dignity and kindness.

But dignity or no, Grace could have bad days like any other child of four. And today was one of those. The weather, the lack of things to do, and the attention given to the new boy all served to make her sulky. Her repeated pleas that she be allowed to see him eventually turned to whines, and it wasn’t long before Caroline was at the end of her patience.

She consigned Grace to Time Out, a punishment all too familiar to the home’s youngest resident. But on this particular day, Grace took the sentence badly, and sat at her chair in a far corner of the common room moaning at the injustice of it all. "It’s not fair," she said, over and over again, dragging out the word fair. To Caroline’s utter bemusement, the older girls began to join in, parroting "not fair, not fair, not fair." Caroline was considering a group time-out, and wondering what even more severe measures might be required, when Celia saved the day by walking back into the house with the new boy.

"Children, I would like you all to meet Corey," she said, standing with him roughly facing the common room, though of course not really looking at any of them. The room went silent.

"Say hello to our new friend," Celia said.

"Hello Corey," Grace said loudly, with a delayed echo from most of the other children.

"Corey is seven years old. He’ll be having his birthday in just a few days."

Judy raised her hand. Several of the other children followed suit.

"Oh! Oh! Miss Crawford!" Alice said desperately, her own hand shooting up. She hated it when Judy spoke first.

"Judy?" Celia said placidly.

"Um…" said Judy, indicating that she had been more concerned with the order of her question than its content. "Um…how old will he be?"

Alice snorted. It took a moment, and then Raymond and Joey laughed, too.

"That’s a good question," said Celia. "If Corey is seven now, how old will he be after his birthday?"

"Eight," several voices answered together, followed by an inevitable echo from Bettina, Judy, and Grace.

"That’ right," said Celia. "He’ll be eight."

"Oh! Oh! Miss Crawford!" Alice was for the moment the only child with her hand raised.

"Yes, Alice?"

"Will we have a birthday party for the new boy?"

The answer to this question was almost as obvious as the answer to Judy’s. Every birthday in the home was celebrated with a cake and ice cream and whatever party games could be arranged.

"What do you think, Alice?" Caroline interjected. "Don’t we always have a party?"

Alice nodded. There were smiles and excited whispers among some of the other children. There’s going to be a party!

"What other questions do we have for Corey?" asked Celia.

There was no response. Having established that there would, in fact, be a birthday party, it seemed the children had nothing more to talk about.

"Now, I think we’ve had enough of story and play time. Why don’t we put everything away and we’ll have Show and Tell. Miss Gray, will you help Corey get settled in? And then he can join us when he’s ready."

Caroline gave Celia a quick, grateful nod as she took the boy’s hand and led him towards the stairs. The children began putting their things away: Raymond and Joey loudly dropping the bowling ball and pins into the toy box; Robert and Andrew placing the baseball cards back in their tattered gray shoe box; Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda returning their yarn work to the wicker basket; Todd registering no reaction at all as Alice took away his coloring book and crayons. Amid this reorganizing of the home’s activities, a voice rang out.

"Wait! Where are you taking him? I want to see the new boy!"

Grace had at some point abandoned all pretense of facing the wall, and had turned her chair to face the front of the room. She remained seated, however—the notion of Time Out was apparently strong enough to keep her from getting up.

Caroline was proceeding up the stairs, the boy and his small suitcase in tow.

"I want to see Corey," Grace demanded.

At the mention of his name, Corey stopped climbing the steps. Before Caroline realized what was happening, he had let go of her hand and started back down towards the common room.

"Hey," said Caroline, startled that he would show this kind of initiative, "where do you think you’re going?" She followed him down the stairs. Celia looked on with interest. She motioned to Caroline, letting her know that it was all right, that she should leave the situation alone for a moment.

Reaching the landing, Corey stood perfectly still and stared intently in the direction of Grace. He didn’t look right at her, but this was as close as Celia had seen him come to looking at anyone, closer than he had come with his own parents.

He stood there for a moment, looking in Grace’s direction, seeming indecisive about what he was to do next. The other children were meanwhile oblivious; they continued putting their things away, and began arranging chairs in a circle for show and tell.

But Grace beamed with delight at the boy’s return.

"Corey!" she exclaimed, as though he were her oldest friend, just returned after a long absence. "Come here."

Still staring not quite directly at her, Corey started towards her and then stopped. The other children saw him now, and knew that something was up. Rather than continuing towards Grace, he started in their direction, towards the circle of chairs they had just finished putting in place. He took one of the chairs out of the circle, folded it, and turned back towards Grace.

"Hey!" Alice, Judy, Joey, and Raymond all said at once, their unified voice quickly dissolving into a cacophony of he can’t do that, bring that back, Miss Crawford!

Corey continued on, either not hearing or not interested in these protests. He stopped in front of where Grace was sitting. He unfolded his chair and seated himself, facing her. He did not look at her, but chose a comfortable spot over her left shoulder on which to fix his gaze.

Celia remembered what the boy’s mother had said: sometimes he’ll come when you call.

Where most children would be intimidated, Grace was delighted.

"I’m glad you came back, Corey," she said earnestly. "I got a lot to tell you. My name is Grace and I’ll be your friend. We got lots of friends here for you. See? That’s Todd, and that’s Alice, and there’s Estelle…"

She proceeded with naming all the children, pointing at each as she went. It didn’t matter that Corey’s back was to them or that his gaze never wavered from that fixed point on the far wall. Grace spoke, and perhaps he listened

Thus began a routine that over the next few days would make Corey as much a part of the home as any of them. His time was divided between the boys and Grace, who made a point of spending an hour or so "playing with the new boy" each day. She would fill up the time telling Corey "stories," which were rambling monologues on any and every subject that was on her mind. Corey would give these stories his undivided attention (or lack thereof, it was impossible to tell) as long as Grace was inclined to tell them. He never sought her out, but always came when she called. So far, he would not respond to a call from Celia or Caroline, or any of the other children. At any other time, he had to be led wherever he needed to go next.

Corey would sit with Grace, usually facing her, until she announced that she was finished. Then one or both of them would leave: Grace to some other pressing interest; Corey back to wherever he had been summoned from. When not "talking to" Grace, he would sit near where the older boys were playing, as Todd often did, and (like him) would not interact with them in any way.

Each time Grace insisted on playing with the new boy, Celia assumed it would be the last. For the most part, Grace had the same attention span as any other child her age; after making her initial point about getting access to the new boy, Celia expected that her interest in him would wane. But that didn’t seem to be the case. The little girl renewed her interest in Corey each day, and he responded to her as he did to no one else in the home. It was an extraordinary friendship, and the fact that the novelty was bound to wear off eventually, that Grace would surely lose interest sooner or later, did not make it any less so.

Corey’s fifth day at the home was the day before his birthday, the eve of the much-anticipated party. The rain that had accompanied his arrival had hung in for three days, an unusually long time. The fourth day the rain had stopped, but it was still too cool and windy, and the backyard was still too muddy, to allow the children to spend any of the day outside. So this day represented the first outdoor day for the home in quite some time, which was a relief both for the children and the adults.

After finishing up some bill-paying, Celia decided to join Caroline and Sheila, the volunteer girl from the university, in watching the children. She stepped out the back door to see the usual panoply of children swinging, climbing, and digging. Todd sat in the sandbox with Kathy, Lucinda and Estelle. For once, he was actually playing with his truck: scooping sand into the back of it and occasionally dumping it out, while the girls worked on what appeared to be an entire town of sand castles. Raymond, Joey, Andrew, and Robert were playing Army, with the jungle gym serving as their Fort. Alice and Judy were on the two working swings in the swing set, while Bettina stood nearby and looked on, waiting for a turn that would never come without some prompting.

Corey was seated at the red picnic table opposite Grace, whose height made it necessary for her to stand in the table’s built-in bench. Celia was surprised to see that they weren’t "talking;" they were playing a board game. Intrigued, she moved in to observe. It was Chutes and Ladders. There were two tokens on the tattered game board, one blue and one orange, both near the finish line.

"There," Grace said, completing a spin of the wheel, "that’s three for you. One, two, three." She moved the orange token, apparently Corey’s, three spaces on the board. It seemed that Corey was only "playing" the game through the good offices of his younger friend. Grace was actually spinning the wheel and moving the game tokens for both of them.

"Uh, oh. Chute!" Grace exclaimed. She slid the orange token down the chute, which was one space short of the finish line, to a position considerably behind hers on the board.

"Too bad, Corey," she said. "looks like I’m in first place now." It was difficult, Celia noted, to reconcile a desire to win the game with sympathy for a friend. Corey stared at the table, a little to the right of the center of the game board. He registered no reaction to his change of fortune.

Grace picked up the spinning wheel and spun again.

"Five," she announced. She picked up the blue token and began counting out the spaces. "One, two, three, four, five." Celia noticed the mistake: Grace counted the space she started from as "one," and therefore moved the token only four spaces on the board. This landed her on the same chute that had just sent Corey back.

"Oh, no," said Grace. "Chute." She dutifully slid her token down the chute and set it on the space next to Corey’s.

Celia was wondering whether it was worth mentioning the mistake, when something remarkable happened. Corey, his eyes never moving from their fixed spot, reached out and picked up the blue token and placed it on the Finish line where it belonged.

"Hey," Grace said, "You shouldn’t do that." She looked at the board again, and her four-year-old nature got the better of her. "Oh, I won! I won!"

She looked up and beamed at Celia.

"Miss Crawford, I won!" she exclaimed. "Thank you, Corey."

Grace apparently had no idea that she really had won the game, that Corey had caught her mistake and corrected it.

"Good for you, Grace," Celia said. "It’s fun to win, isn’t it? Now will you do me a favor and put the game back where it goes?"

"Yes ma’am," Grace answered, dropping the game pieces haphazardly back into the box, and closing the folded board over them. She took the box and started back into the house.

Celia looked at Corey, sitting there perfectly still, his gaze having not moved from the spot to the right of the now-absent game board. He doesn't fight, the mother had said. He doesn't play.

What else, she wondered, did his parents get wrong?

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chapter 20

Part III

Chapter Twenty

 

Celia sat in the swing on the front porch. With the younger children napping, and Sheila helping Caroline supervise the older ones, she could enjoy a few minutes of relative calm before starting her work for the afternoon. She was planning to balance the home’s checkbook, a tiresome chore that she always put off for as long as she could.

She looked out over the front yard as she rocked in the breeze. The rain had stopped for a while; the afternoon sun was shining through occasional gaps in the clouds. The home had a patchy front lawn, hard to keep green in this climate, especially with irregular maintenance. A magnificent flagpole rose from a concrete block in the middle of the lawn, soaring a good 15 feet higher than the roof. How or why the home had come to have such an overstated fixture had never been clear to Celia. And sadly they had no flag.

They had once had a big one, worthy of the pole, but it was buried out back five years earlier, and was not likely to be replaced. Its demise was tied to the most painful of Celia’s duties, that of finding a new home for Grace. Celia couldn’t put her finger on it, but there were somehow echoes of that time here, now, with this new boy.

A girl named Jolene, now gone, was handling flag duty at the time it was lost. Jolene was exceptional. At age 16 she was, by the standards of the home, an outgoing and talkative young woman. Arriving at the home at age five, she had been the picture of the severely withdrawn child, displaying a condition which was just beginning to bear the name autism.

Jolene quickly adapted to the home’s routine, but only as though from a great distance. She was generally responsive to requests and instructions, but she never looked at anyone. She was capable of speech, but would not answer questions. When she spoke, it was aimed at no one, and the words bore no relation to what was going on around her. She spent a great deal of time with books, but whether she was reading or simply looking at the pictures, it was impossible to say.

Then something remarkable occurred.

Around age 12, with the onset of puberty, there was an abrupt change in Jolene. Suddenly she made eye contact with those speaking to her, and she responded to questions that were asked of her. To Celia, it seemed as though she had somehow arrived. All at once, she began to initiate conversation. She would comment on the food or the weather, or approach Celia with questions about her own appearance: Did her hair look better this way? Was she getting too big for this dress? She began to have questions about the books she was reading, for it quickly became apparent that yes, she had been reading all that time.

Only now she put away the four or five picture books that she had been through countless times and began reading everything the home’s small library had to offer. She took particular pleasure in the Little House books and in the three Nancy Drew mysteries she found. When Mrs. West, the missions representative from the local Presbyterian Church (known to the children as the Mission Lady), observed this change in Jolene, she gave her a copy of the Bible, which the girl proceeded to read from cover to cover.

In addition to reading, Jolene began to learn to write. She told Celia that she planned to write a book of her own, which would be about a girl living on the frontier, or maybe a girl detective, or possibly a very rich and powerful king who travels to mysterious places. The Bible had been her inspiration for the last of these ideas; she had read the book as piously as she could, but was unprepared to grapple with theology and always reverted to a fascination with what to her were its exotic elements: kings, slaves, battles, miracles, olive trees (trees growing olives!), camels, golden calves, and on and on.

To Celia, Jolene represented the personification of the hope she nurtured for all of the children. Anyone who spent time at the home knew to avoid phrases such as a normal life when contemplating the future of one of their charges, but it was at least safe to say that more options would be available to Jolene than for many. As the years passed, she continued to read and grow in her understanding of the world. She had done well with the limited schooling that the home was able to provide. There was some talk of having her test for high-school equivalency.

Myra managed to get Jolene accepted as a part-time student at the vocational school. This was the only victory she ever managed in an ongoing war with the Superintendent of the local school system. For years, she had pleaded with the school board to allow her children admission to the school where the townsfolk sent their own special needs children. The Superintendent, a short, squat man with a fat face and a shocking rim of curly red-orange hair encircling a balding head, took the position that that the state funding the home received was intended to support the children’s education, and he was adamant that the home’s schooling facilities were adequate to the task.

Getting Jolene admitted to the vocational school had taken a direct vote of the school board. Myra came to the Board meeting with Jolene in tow, and allowed the girl to make her own case as to why she needed some schooling that the home was unable to give. It didn’t matter what the Superintendent said in response, or how much sway he held over the board. The board members could see the promise for themselves, and voted accordingly.

The vocational school was not the special needs school; it was for older students. Many of the more capable students from the latter were graduated to the former, along with others from the junior high school who, through a mysterious formula, had been selected for a vocational rather than an academic secondary education. At her new school, Jolene learned to type and picked up some appreciation of mathematics, at least to the level of making change. Because she "looked normal," that is to say, because her condition bore no visible mark on her face or in her mannerisms, and because she was a pretty girl with dark hair and dark eyes—tall and maybe just a little on the heavy side—and, moreover, because she had this remarkable facility for talking to other people (even strangers), Jolene managed to do something that no child from the home had ever done: she had made friends with some kids outside the home.

Down the road, who knew what might happen? She might be able to find a job, a real job, and live more or less on her own in a halfway house or some other partially supervised setting. Although that scenario would represent the realization of Celia’s fondest hope, she knew that she could not allow herself to become too enchanted by the possibility.

Up to that point, all of the children she had seen leave the home had been sent at age 21 (recently adjusted down to 18) to the State Home in Palmer. Each of these departures had been a terrible trauma for Celia, if not always for the child. She knew that the State Home was not a bad place, that in many ways it had more to offer than this tiny institution run by Caroline and Myra and herself. But it was always a bitter disappointment seeing them go there, a feeling that she had somehow failed in her charge to find something better for the child, even if her ideas around what better situation might be found for some of these children remained, at best, extremely vague. But this time there was nothing vague; the way forward seemed perfectly clear. And that, above all, was why Celia knew that it was important for her to curb her enthusiasm, to keep it from spilling over to Jolene. She knew that just because the way forward looked clear to her, it might not appear so to everyone else. A disappointment to Celia would be one thing, but a disappointment to Jolene could be disastrous. This was one of Myra’s cardinal rules for operating the home:

"The children have borne enough hardship," she had so often said. "Never build their hopes up with promises that can’t be kept."

But all those carefully guarded hopes came to an abrupt end the night they lost the flag. Jolene met Myra walking back into the home after bringing the flag down. The older woman was sitting on the old metal glider on the home’s front porch, having a breath of air between dinner time and the long procession of showers, pajamas, and toothbrushes that was bedtime.

Watching Jolene approach, Myra observed that the flag was not folded properly and that, as she carried it, the girl had allowed a corner of it to touch the ground.

Good evening, Jolene, Myra said as the girl walked up the steps and to the front door.

Good evening, ma’am, Jolene replied with a smile, and proceeded into the home.

Myra was a kind woman, but possessed of a variety of kindness not uncommon in a person in her position: a kindness tempered by a knowledge of, and strict adherence to, rules and procedures. Because flying the flag was one of the activities that occurred at the home, Myra had acquainted herself with, and made sure that all children assigned to flag duty were acquainted with, proper flag etiquette.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, as it had on just a few others over the years, Myra’s adherence to rules won the day in the struggle with her better nature. She called Jolene into her office and showed her the flag.

Did she think this was the correct way to fold it?

No, ma’am.

Did she know what the rules were about the flag touching the ground?

Yes, ma’am. That it should never touch the ground.

Did she know what would happen to a flag that had touched the ground?

No ma’am.

The flag was buried that night, in a hole that Jolene dug out back by the tool shed while Myra looked on. Celia only learned what happened the next morning, and by then, it was clear that what had been lost was much more serious than a flag.

Jolene was gone.

She left no note, and took nothing with her, not even her Bible. A panic ensued at the home, followed by the realization over the next several days that she was truly gone, that not even any of her friends from the vocational school knew where she was.

What had happened to Jolene? How had the girl interpreted the flag incident? Perhaps she was embarrassed or ashamed. Or frightened. Or even angry. Celia could only speculate.

There was no doubt, however, as to the effect that this episode (and the remorse that accompanied it) had on Myra. She aged 20 years in the span of a few weeks, her plumpness giving way to thin frailty, her blonde hair fading to a dull white. Her voice, which had rung daily through the home announcing playtime, mealtime, bedtime—and every other time—with great cheer was all but silenced. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper, and only to issue orders to Caroline or Celia.

Myra, who had always been tireless in her management of the home and all its affairs, became listless and uninterested in day-to-day operations, leaving virtually all of the care of the children to the younger women. She also began to lose interest in her administrative duties. Within a few weeks, Celia was managing essentially every aspect of the operation of the home, a situation that would continue (with only one interruption) for the next six years, until Myra finally stepped down and allowed Celia to take over in name as well as in fact. Celia found that she could never quite forgive Myra for her gross mismanagement in the matter of Jolene and the flag. Their interactions, which had always been warm and familiar, became cold and formal, and as infrequent as Celia could arrange.

It would be more than a year after her disappearance before Jolene was seen at the home again. Caroline answered the doorbell one evening to find the girl standing on the porch, dressed in a filthy and shabby coat and carrying a paper bag which later was found to contain only a stuffed bear and some old magazines. Her face was haggard; her once-long hair short and thin. And she was severely pregnant. She would not look Caroline in the eye, and seemed unwilling or unable to respond to anything that was said to her.

In fact, she said nothing at all.

Standing with Jolene was a police officer and a woman from Social Services who had been to the home a few times in the past. Jolene was picked up at the bus station, where she had arrived the day before, from where no one knew. No ticket was to be found. The manager of the bus station called the police after realizing that the girl had been there more than 24 hours, and finding that she did not seem to be able to understand him when he tried to talk to her. The police, in turn, called Social Services. One of the social workers thought she recognized Jolene from her visits to the home, so she and the officer decided to take her there.

Celia cried out in astonishment when she saw Jolene standing in the home’s foyer, and immediately went to hug her. The girl pulled away, seeming not to recognize Celia any more than she had Caroline, and obviously not wanting to be touched. It was only when Myra arrived on the scene of the homecoming that Jolene showed any sign of recognition. She allowed Myra to put an arm around her. Myra showed no emotion at the reunion, but immediately began to rattle off instructions to Celia and Caroline: the girl would need a bath and food and clean clothes, and she would need to see a doctor as soon as possible (this last instruction aimed at the social worker.)

Upon Jolene’s reappearance, Myra once again asserted her authority—at least for a while. She didn’t renew her interest in the operation of the home, but she took Jolene in and cared for her, full time, with no regard whatever for the home’s normal regulations and procedures. With a little help from Celia and Caroline, the old dispensary was cleaned up and turned into a makeshift private room. Myra took this extraordinary step because she knew that a young woman in her eighth or ninth month of pregnancy (they had no way of knowing for sure, but the girl was obviously well along) did not belong in a dormitory room with the younger girls. But she also did it because she was unwilling to let Jolene go to the State Home, where the girl no doubt belonged.

Jolene remained at the home for four months. After giving birth to her daughter, whom Myra named Grace, she became increasingly distant and difficult to care for. She showed no interest in her baby daughter, and could not be prompted to hold her or to feed her. Myra put the baby’s crib in her own room and began to try to care for both child and mother. Inevitably, the baby claimed the greater share of Myra’s attention. This new lack of attention may have been the cause of Jolene’s further withdrawal, or she may have been traumatized by giving birth, or possibly she suffered from postpartum depression.

But Celia believed the cause to be none of these things. There was no way to guess the specifics of the nightmare existence Jolene had known from the time she left the home until the day she returned, and Jolene was, of course, not talking. She had returned to the home because she had one last thing to do, to give birth, before giving up on life altogether.

And give up she did.

In her final days in the home, Jolene showed no recognition of anyone, not even Myra, and refused food and water. She would not bathe, would not allow her clothes to be changed, would not move from where she lay. She was in essentially a catatonic state, although both the doctor and then the psychiatrist sent by Social Services said that this was not technically the case. In the end, she was sent away to the state home.

Celia packed a bag for her before she left, packed her the personal items she had not bothered with when she ran away, and in which it seemed doubtful she would ever again display any interest. Celia saw her off alone: Caroline was too busy with all the other children, and Myra was busy with Grace. She could not spare five minutes of her time with the baby, Celia had thought bitterly; she didn’t even let the child see her mother leave. Not that that would matter, of course. It would be equally meaningless to both of them.

With some prompting, Jolene had been moved into a wheelchair. She was wheeled out of the home by Celia herself, transferred to the care of a social worker and driver from the state home who arrived in a van to take her away. Celia watched for a long time after the van pulled away, remembering the girl who had suddenly come to life, who had arrived unexpectedly. Now she was truly gone, assigned to the same fate as every other child Celia had watched grow up and leave the home.

But that was more than five years ago.

Now it was spring, that unusually warm spring. Myra had retired, having lost interest in Grace within a few months after the baby’s birth, and having never regained her interest in the home or in any of the other children. Her final years there were spent silently, aimlessly, and if Celia had never been able to forgive her, it was clear that she had likewise never been able to forgive herself.

There had been talk early on, from both Caroline and Celia, about moving the baby to a proper orphanage. It was the right thing to do, and it would have been accomplished easily enough. Grace would have been a good candidate for a foster home or adoption: a pretty baby girl with sandy brown hair and wide blue eyes. At first, this idea was blocked by Myra. Celia and Caroline didn’t push it because Myra was still ostensibly in charge of the home. Before long, however, when Celia (and to a lesser extent, Caroline) began caring for the child, the idea seemed just to fade away. It was only after Celia took over the management of the home that she began in earnest to try to find a new situation for Grace.

The decision to send Grace away was not an easy one. Grace had become, in effect, Celia’s own child, and she was the darling of the home besides. All the children loved her, to the extent that they were able to feel such a thing (or perhaps rather to display such a feeling), and she was doted on both by Celia and Caroline. But the home was not the right place for her; Celia knew it, had known it from the start, and knew that she owed it both to Grace and to Grace’s mother to see to it that the child be given every chance at knowing a normal life, which term was not only allowed in this instance, it was required.

Celia started by visiting each of the institutions in Greenwood and within about a 100 mile radius that were set up for normal children, children like Grace. There were five of these, and Celia had found them all wanting. While the facilities may have been better in one or two than what the home had to offer, and while Grace’s chances of being placed in a proper foster or adoptive home would be vastly improved by being placed in any of them, Celia was not convinced that they were able to provide the same level of care that she and Caroline could give. She decided instead to look for a home for Grace by herself. This was not unheard of; children from the home had been adopted before (in years past, before Celia had come to the home, but still she knew it was possible). It fell on Celia to find the perfect home for Grace; though she knew, of course, that there as no such thing. A good home, however, a fine home, even an extraordinary home—all of these were within reach. And it would have to be all of these things.

This is what she, Celia—along with Myra and the home itself—owed to Jolene.

A slight rumble of thunder of to the west roused Celia from her recollection. The sky had clouded up while she sat reminiscing. There was a chill in the air.

She got up and made her way back into the home. With rain threatening, the children who had been playing out back were rounded up and brought indoors. She found the new boy, Corey, sitting in a corner not far from where the other boys were playing.

She watched him for a long time. There was a tremendous stillness to this boy.

But there was something underlying the stillness: an awareness of the world around him that perhaps no one had seen. Or that perhaps his parents had glimpsed, but had tried to deny.

Why? Why would they deny what they could see in him? Why close off the possibility that their son could be more than he was? She shook her head, but she knew the answer.

Fear.

She had seen it in their faces. It made no sense, but there it was. It was an uncanny, superstitious dread. They had a clear image in their minds of what their son was. They knew his limits. Anything that stood outside of those expectations was disturbing to them, even frightening.

Celia saw things differently. She would continue to believe that anything that stood outside such limits was cause for hope.

He likes music, the father had said. This was particularly troublesome to the mother.

Why?

The checkbook be damned, Celia thought. She had more important work to do.

"Corey," she said. "I don’t think you’ve seen our record player yet."

He didn’t move.

"Let’s go listen to some music."

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 21

Part III

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Corey sat in the library, in a chair facing the school’s phonograph. Celia stood to one side, flipping through a box of 33 rpm record albums.

The record player was a donation. It was made of molded gray plastic and had speakers were built right into the lid; they disappeared when the phonograph was closed. At its base, the words Highest Fidelity were etched in a gold script. The turntable had a long stem reaching up from its center, and a retractable arm, so that records could be stacked and played in succession. Celia knew better than to use this feature, however — knew that it would scratch the records even worse than they already were.

“Let’s see, Corey…” she said. “I heard that you like classical music. I do, too, sometimes. I mean, to be honest, it isn’t my favorite. But I do try to appreciate it, you know?”

She looked up at him. He was staring intently to the left of her left shoulder.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said.

She came upon a thick box in the middle of the records. It was a four-album collection, entitled Classics of the Great Masters. She smiled at the hokey name, but this was what she was looking for. Obviously another donation, it looked like one of those mail-order specials that people would order off TV. It also looked as though it had never been opened, which was not entirely surprising. But a welcome discovery nonetheless.

“Let’s see what we’ve got, here: ‘First Movement, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; the William Tell Overture; the Waltz of the Flowers and other selections from the Nutcracker; Romeo and Juliet; the Flight of the Bumblebee’…not a very original collection, I’m afraid. But I suppose that’s to be expected. Anyway, the beginning might be as good a place as any to start. Or do you have any requests?”

She let the question hang there for a moment.

“The beginning it is, then,” she said, cheerfully, and removed Album 1 from its cover. She set the disk on the turntable, bypassing the stem-and-retractable-arm gadget, and set the needle in place. There was that moment of loud hissing silence as the needle found its way along the smooth outer rim, sliding to the groove, when suddenly the familiar first four notes of the Fifth Symphony blasted out like an explosion. It was hard to believe that an unassuming little device like the Highest Fidelity machine could produce such an impact. Celia looked down and saw that the three knobs, Volume, Tone, and Amp., had all been turned all the way to the right.

Not surprising, not in the least.

Instinctively, she reached down and turned the volume to a much lower setting. She was about to make similar adjustments to the other controls, when she realized that she had heard something else — something which had not come from the phonograph.

She looked up at Corey. He was staring directly at the center of the record as it turned. Not to left, not to the right. He was looking right at it. His expression bore that same intensity it always did, the suggestion that he was concentrating, working something out in his mind. But there was an added clarity. It wasn’t just that he was no longer looking to one side; he was seeing more. Somehow there was more of him in the room than there had been a few seconds before.

Corey made a sound, just the slightest grunt or yelp, but Celia caught it. It sounded like a protest. This was the first evidence she had seen that the boy had working vocal chords.

“What is it, Corey?” she said. “Do you like it louder?”

She turned the volume knob back to the right. The music was absurdly loud in the little room. Celia wasn’t sure whether Corey responded to the change — maybe he seemed to relax a little when she turned the volume up, she wasn’t sure. She watched him for a moment, then once again she turned the volume back down, lower than she had before.

“Awa,” Corey groaned, his face showing the strain of some vast internal struggle. “Awa, awa, awa.

There was no question; he wanted the music louder. Celia turned the volume back up. She watched the boy, saw the tension ease a little as he continued to stare at the middle of the spinning album.

“Now why did your parents tell me you can’t talk?” she said aloud.

In fact, she couldn’t be sure that what she had heard was language. But the sounds Corey made were not far from the words I want as pronounced in the softened, nearly consonant-free dialect of Alice and Judy, and of most of the other children at the home. Years of experience made it easy for Celia to decipher this kind of language when she heard it. Corey’s utterances were on the borderline — maybe he was attempting to pronounce words, maybe he was just letting out a primal sound of displeasure.

Corey visibly relaxed as the music continued. His facial expression kept its intensity, but he no longer appeared to be straining. He had the look of a much older boy, or even a grown man, working through some difficult mathematical problem.

“What are you trying to figure out, Corey?” she asked. “How is the music helping you?”

When the piece concluded, Corey did not cry out. He continued to stare at the record, although his gaze began to drift to one side almost immediately. Apparently, he could tell the difference between a piece of music reaching its conclusion and having someone randomly fiddle with the volume. The former was an occasion for protest; the latter was not.

Celia remembered the board game.

Corey listened to each sequential piece, his intensity never wavering, his gaze directed at the center of the record as it turned. Celia had played both sides of the first record before she realized that it was getting close to dinner time.

“What do you say we give it a rest for now?” she asked

Corey didn’t protest (or show any response) when she slid the record back into its sleeve and closed up the phonograph. Celia considered what she had observed as she led him back to the other children. That the boy was interested in music was confirmed. What it was his parents were trying to hide remained a mystery.

She led him into the common room, where the other children were gathering for dinner, and seated him next to Joey. Caroline and Sheila had set out plates with sandwiches and celery sticks for each child, as well as bowls of tepid tomato soup for some of the older children

Grace, who was seated in her booster chair at the end of the table, waved Celia over to her.

“Miss Crawford, come here,” she said enthusiastically.

“What’s the magic word?” Celia prompted, making her way to where the little girl was sitting.

“Please, come here, Miss Crawford. Please oh please oh please.” Celia had already arrived by the time Grace got to her second please, but she decided not to interfere with the elaborate show of courtesy.

“I am here, Grace,” she said. “What is it?”

“Did you play music for Corey?”

Celia nodded. Of course, everyone in the home must have known she was playing music in the library. Even with the door closed, there was no missing it when played at that volume.

“I think Corey likes music,” Celia said.

Grace nodded.

“Yes he does. It helps him.”

That struck Celia as a curious observation.

“I don’t understand, Sweetie. What do you mean when you say it helps him?”

Grace looked over at Corey, seeming to check whether he was listening.

“Well,” she said, “you know, it kind of helps him sometimes. He wished you would play some music and now you did.”

“Yeah, it helps him,” said Judy, who was seated at the end of the table, next to Grace. She was probably paying no real attention to the conversation. She spoke simply out of the habit of agreeing with, and repeating, whatever the younger girl said.

“I see,” said Celia. “That’s interesting.”

Grace’s imagination was clearly hard at work. The little girl didn’t need imaginary friends, Caroline had once observed, when she had so many flesh-and-blood friends who were essentially blank canvasses on whom she could paint any secret lives she wished. But it was odd that she would use that phrase, it helps him, in reference to Corey’s listening to music. For lack of a more clinical description, that was exactly how Celia would have put it.

“And how do you know it helps him to listen to music?” she asked.

Grace took a bite of her grilled cheese sandwich, and didn’t respond for a moment.

“That’s why he wished for it,” she said after a moment. “Because it helps him.”

“But how do you know he wished for it?” Celia insisted.

Grace eyed Celia thoughtfully.

“Did he tell you?” she said in a half-whisper.

“Did he tell me what?”

She gestured for Celia to come closer.

“Did he tell me what?” Celia repeated, now also speaking in hushed, conspiratorial tone.

“Corey has a secret,” the little girl whispered.

“What secret?”

Grace looked up and down the table, apparently considering whether it was appropriate for her to go on with what she was saying.

“He’s magic.

“I see,” said Celia. “How is he magic?”

“His wishes come true.”

“Oh, really?” said Celia. “How does that happen? Does he have three wishes?”

“No,” said Judy, who apparently was listening after all, even more so now that the conversation had become confidential. “He gets one wish. Then he blows out candles.”

“Right.” Alice chimed in. “Just one wish. Or it won’t come true” she said sternly.

Celia listened as the two older girls spoke, reflecting on Corey’s earlier vocalizations. It was possible that Corey had spoken. Celia was so used to the way the children in the home talked, she heard only the words. To a stranger sitting at the table, the exchange between Judy and Alice would have sounded very different. It might not have been distinguishable as language at all:

“Nuh, ee get wu wish. Din ee bluh ow cando,” Judy had said.

“Rye. Jus wu wish. Oh ee woh coh true,” Alice had replied.

“Candles on the birthday cake,” Lucinda interjected, making the exchange an official free-for-all. The subject of the upcoming party was not from any of their minds anyway.

“What kind of cake?” asked Joey.

Chocolate,” several voices answered at once.

“Not chocolate,” said Grace. “I don’t like chocolate.”

She looked at Corey.

“Can it please be a pink cake?” she asked in a pleading voice just this side of whiney. “A pretty pink cake? Please oh please.”

“We have to remember whose birthday it is,” Celia said to the group. “It won’t be long until it’s your birthday, Grace. I’m sure you can get a pretty pink cake when the time comes. But tomorrow, we want to have a cake that we think Corey will like.”

“What kind he likes?” Lucinda asked.

Chocolate,” the chorus answered again.

“Bet he’d like a pink cake,” said Grace.

“I think,” said Caroline, who had just emerged from the kitchen carrying a pitcher of red Kool Aid, “that Corey would like a nice yellow cake with white frosting.”

“Well, that should settle it, then,” said Celia. Caroline would already have made arrangements for the cake to be delivered the next day, and would know all the specifics. With that conclusion, the children lost interest in the subject and resumed numerous other conversations.

“Maybe he’ll wish for a pink cake,” said Grace.

“That’s enough, Grace,” said Celia.

“Well, he wished for music and he got that,” she persisted.

“How did you know that Corey wished for music?” Celia asked. “How do you know that he’s magic? Did he tell you?”

“No. He couldn’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Miss Crawford,” Grace answered with gentle patience. “Corey can’t talk.”

Celia laughed. The seamless mingling of fancy and reality was always startling to encounter.

“You’ve got me there, Missy. But then how do you know he’s magic? And how do you know what it is he wishes for?”

“I dreamed it,” she said, with utter nonchalance. She dropped her remaining crust of sandwich on the plate and turned to Judy. “Hey, after dinner I want to play Chutes and Ladders. I won this morning! Do you want to play?”

“Me, too!” said Alice, before the other girl could answer.

So meeting a magical boy whose wishes come true, winning a board game, it was all the same to a four-year-old. Celia decided to let the matter drop.

Corey’s birthday party took place the next day after dinner. Birthday parties at the home were a simple affair. As strapped for resources as the tiny institution was, it was all Celia could do to keep the children warm, clothed, and fed. Even providing some nominal educational and recreational activities was a strain.

Christmas was one thing. It was the only time of year when the community was able to remember that the home existed, and toys, food, and at least one tree would all find their way there with only a little prompting. But celebrating individual birthdays was a different matter. At times, it seemed like an unnecessary luxury. The practice was an artifact of the Myra years. Celia had changed many of Myra's longstanding traditions, but this practice would be a difficult to discontinue. And for all her reservations, Celia didn’t have the heart to do so.

An old, worn banner reading Happy Birthday was hung over the kitchen door, and a few balloons and scraps of crepe paper were affixed to doorways and the dinner table. The table was set with a colorful plastic table cloth with pictures of balloons. Each child was given a faded conic party hat to wear. The tiny elastic chin straps had long been lost on most of the hats, so few of them would actually stay on.

After dinner, Corey was given a stack of birthday cards made by the other children earlier that day. The cards were colorful and ornate, made from construction paper, crayons, paste, and glitter. Celia opened and read (or showed, when there were no words) each of these to the group, thanking each child individually on Corey’s behalf.

Next came the gift. Celia opened it herself, avoiding the ordeal of assigning the task to one of the children only to be met with protest by the rest of them. By scrounging, she was able to come up with a couple of dollars and had ducked out earlier that afternoon to find something for Corey. She tore off the wrapping paper, which she had applied just a few minutes before dinner. It was a record, a collection of big band music she had found in a clearance rack at the nearby discount store. There had been no classical music available.

The children applauded each of the cards in succession, but the sense of disappointment was palpable when Celia unwrapped the album. What fun could that be? But Grace, who was seated next to Corey, was pleased with the gift and cheered when she saw it. Out of habit, the other children followed suit.

For his part, Corey registered no comprehension that any of this was going on. Celia decided to forego the games that would ordinarily be part of a birthday party. This left only the item that the children were most interested in: the cake. With a nod from Celia, Caroline and Sheila went into the kitchen. A moment later, Caroline came back out and switched off the overhead light in the dining room. She held the kitchen door open for Sheila, who walked into the dining room carrying the cake, brightly lighted by the flames of its tiny candles.

The frosting on the cake was a vivid pink color.

“Okay, everybody?” Celia said, and started the children singing the happy birthday song. She made her way around the table, wanting to ask Caroline about the change of plan with the cake. Why would she choose to indulge Grace this way? Didn’t she know it was inappropriate?

But before she could speak, Caroline had a question of her own.

“When did you do it?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The cake. When did you call the bakery and tell them to change it?”

Celia shook her head.

“What…what are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?” Caroline asked. “I ordered a yellow cake with white frosting, same as always. Are you telling me this was some kind of mistake?”

That was an excellent question.

“You’re kidding, right?”

Caroline shook her head.

I’m kidding? Come on, I know Grace is your favorite of yours, but really. Isn’t this taking it just a little too far?”

Celia shook her head.

“I didn't call them,” she said.

At the end of the table, Sheila and Grace blew out Corey’s candles for him, followed by a round of applause from the rest of the children.

“What did you wish for?” Alice asked Corey.

That, thought Celia, was another excellent question.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 22

Part III

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

More incidents followed the one with the pink cake.

First there was the matter of the home’s television, which had been broken for more than two years. The TV sat in a corner of the common room, unplugged, a bulky old black and white Quasar. It needed a new picture tube, so the notion of repairing it or buying a replacement was somewhere near the bottom of the home’s list of priorities. Celia didn’t think either would happen — her hope was that a “new” TV would find its way to the home as a donation, just as this one had several years earlier.

A few days after the birthday party, at breakfast, Grace announced that she intended to watch Sesame Street later that morning. That such a program even existed, she knew primarily from what she had heard from some of the older children, and from the fact that the set of wooden blocks she played with from time to time sported colorful pictures of Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar the Grouch. It was unlikely that she could remember ever watching the actual show.

"I'm sorry, Sweetie," Celia explained, "the TV is still broken."

Grace shook her head.

"No," she said. "Not any more."

"That's right," said Raymond, with Alice and Judy quickly agreeing.

"What do you mean?" Celia asked. "Did gnomes come and fix it last night?"

"Not gnomes," said Judy. "It was — "

Judy caught herself just as Alice, along with Joey and Raymond, shushed her. Celia was amazed. Whatever their game was, this was the first time she could recall that the boys and girls were in on a secret together.

"You boys haven't been fiddling around with the TV, have you?"

Raymond's eyes grew wide and he shook his head.

"Not me," he said.

"Huh uh," Joey agreed.

"Boys?" she said sternly.

"No ma'am," they said together, correcting the informality of their previous replies.

She turned to the older girls.

"What about you two?"

Alice and Judy shook their heads.

"No ma'am," they both said.

"Nobody did a bad thing," said Grace. "Nobody did a thing they're not 'posed to."

She jumped out of her chair and ran to the common room.

"Grace," Celia called after her. "You haven't been excused."

"Come on!" Grace shouted from the other room. "We have to see if it'll work!"

The other children got out of their chairs and followed Grace into the common room.

"Wait a minute," Celia said, dumbfounded. The children filed out of the room. She had never before encountered this level of open rebellion, but she couldn’t help but be pleased by their enthusiasm. She followed them into the common room, where they were gathered around the old television.

Celia cleared her throat. They turned to face her.

"Excuse me, folks, but have we forgotten about a few things? Raymond, when do we get up from a meal?"

"When it's finished," he said, studying his shoes.

"That's right. And if we have to leave the table before a meal is finished, what do we say?" She looked from face to face. "Alice?"

"May I please be excused, please?"

That was one more please than Celia was looking for, but it appeared that she had regained control of the situation.

"That's correct. Now unless I'm mistaken, we have not yet finished breakfast and no one was excused from the table. So we're going to march right back in there and finish our breakfast. Let's go."

None of the children moved.

"Plug it in, Miss Crawford," said Grace. "It will work. Really."

Celia sighed and made her way over to the TV. Half out of a desire to get the day back on track, and half from a strange fluttering sensation she felt in her stomach — a sensation that she would have been uncomfortable admitting to — Celia decided to plug the TV in and prove that it was still broken. It would be an end to this particular lunacy.

With all eyes watching her, she inserted the plug into the wall socket. She then came around to the front of the TV and pulled out the On button (which also controlled volume). Pulling out the button produced the familiar electronic twang, which should not have occurred with a blown picture tube. But the sound was a small matter; there was something else undeniably wrong with the TV.

Or rather, undeniably right. Too right. The screen lit up immediately, rather than taking half a minute or so to warm up as it had always done in the past. And the picture, a weather map from one of the local stations, was as crisp and clear as could be asked for.

And it was in color.

Celia Gasped. The fluttery sensation in her stomach found its way to her knees, making her wobble for a moment. Somewhere, behind the roaring in her ears, she was aware of the children cheering.

There had to be an explanation. She looked at the screen, and then turned to look at the children, one after the other. Her eyes settled on Corey. He stood there staring off to one side, as oblivious as always.

No.

There had to be another explanation.

She quickly switched the TV off, to moans of disapproval. It was suddenly important, for reasons that Celia couldn’t quite grasp, that Caroline not see the TV working, at least not like this.

“Well, surprise,” she said. “The TV works after all. That happens sometimes with mechanical things. They break, and then if you leave them alone for a while, they start working again.”

Raymond looked at Alice, who quickly looked away, smiling. Judy giggled.

“My car,” Celia continued. “It happened with my car once. I think they call it vapor lock.”

Several of them nodded at this, but Celia knew she was babbling. A television had no moving parts, there was nothing there to freeze up. And besides, where a car might lock up and then start a while later, it wouldn’t transform from manual transmission to automatic overnight. That just didn’t happen.

“Now let’s finish our breakfast,” she continued, “and if we’re all good, we’ll see about watching Sesame Street this afternoon.”

After breakfast, Celia had the common room to herself while the children played in the back yard. She turned the TV back on. There was no question about it: it was a color picture, and much clearer than it had ever been before. She found the knobs in the back of the set and began fiddling with them. She could adjust the picture vertically or horizontally; she could wash it out to a bluish white blur, or turn it down to black, but she couldn’t change the color.

She wanted to hide the color, to turn it off. It took her a while to realize her mistake. Of course she couldn’t adjust the color; there were no controls for that.

It was a black and white TV.

She thought about unscrewing the back and yanking a few parts out. She could have the thing broken again in no time. But why would she do such a thing? It was broken, and now it worked. There was a practical side to this. Ruin a working television? And there was also the thought — lurking somewhere back there — that any damage she did to the TV would likely be undone.

Later that day, the children watched Sesame Street on the repaired TV.

Over the following weeks, Celia would allow the television to be on for up to two hours a day. She never offered any explanation for its repair. Neither Sheila nor any of the other volunteers at the home were likely to know that it was (originally) a black and white model. Caroline knew it, of course, and was often in the common room when it was on. But if she noticed the change — which she surely must have — she said nothing about it. And none of the children mentioned it, either. Aside from Judy’s near slip-up at breakfast that day and the knowing looks the older children had shared afterwards, it seemed that the cover-up was airtight.

A few days after the television had come magically back to life, Celia asked Grace how she had known that it was fixed.

“You know,” the child answered.

“I don’t know. Tell me.”

“Somebody made a wish.”

“Did you make the wish, Sweetie?”

Grace nodded.

“And Corey made it come true?”

She nodded again.

“And how did you know he did it?”

Grace giggled.

You know,” she said.

Celia didn’t know, but she didn’t pursue it. She didn’t want to hear that Corey had appeared in a dream to Grace and told her that he was going to fix the TV. She very much did not want to hear that.

The next incident occurred at night. It was 11:30, a full three hours past lights out, when there was a knock at Celia’s door. She was still awake, reading. Her room was one of three in the home’s attic, the other two being occupied by Caroline and Grace. When Grace was first moved from the girl’s dormitory to a room of her own a few months earlier, she would occasionally knock on Celia’s door late at night complaining of loneliness. But these episodes had stopped some time before. And the knock didn’t sound like Grace’s.

“Just a minute,” Celia said quietly and got out of bed. She slipped on her robe and opened the door. It was Caroline. Celia was not surprised to see her awake. She knew that Caroline had taken to spending a little time in the evenings watching late-night TV in the common room, now that it was an option. Time was, before the TV had broken, that the two of them would do this together. But a lot had changed since then. Watching TV after lights out was technically against the rules, even for staff, and Celia could no longer participate in minor acts of defiance against the home’s management. She was the management.

“You need to come downstairs,” Caroline whispered.

“What is it?” Both women kept their voices down. Waking even one of the children in the night could cause a chain reaction, from which it might take hours to recover.

“I was on my way up, and I decided to look in on the boys. It’s Todd.”

“What about Todd?” Celia tried to keep the panic out of her voice. She often found nights unsettling; her fears for the children would weigh on her, haunting her sleep. Sometimes even preventing it. She knew her night fears were irrational, a holdover from a childhood fear of the dark. It frustrated Celia that she should have to deal with such feelings. She would remind herself that she, more than anyone, must remain calm and in control. At all times.

Caroline shook her head.

“He’s okay. I just think you should come take a look.”

Celia followed Caroline down the stairs to the second floor. The boys’ and girls’ dormitories stood on opposite sides of the hall. The door to the boy’s room was slightly ajar. Caroline opened it a bit further and slipped through, followed by Celia. The room was dimly lit by a nightlight plugged into the electrical socket in the far wall. There was a row of five bunk beds, 10 beds in all, of which only six were occupied. Caroline and Celia approached Todd’s bed, which was a lower bunk with a vacant bunk above. He was lying on his back under the scratchy red Indian blanket that he always had with him when he slept. He was sound asleep. His truck was on the floor near the foot of the bed.

Celia watched him sleep for a moment, waiting to understand why she had been brought there. When after a minute or so nothing happened, she treated Caroline to a puzzled look.

“Wait,” Caroline whispered.

They waited for a few minutes longer. Todd and the other boys slept on peacefully. After a while, Caroline motioned for Celia to follow her out of the room. Celia quietly shut the door behind her. The two women made their way back upstairs.

“So what was that all about?” Celia asked, as soon as they were safely in the attic hallway.

“I really wanted you to hear it for yourself. Todd was talking in his sleep.”

What?

“I know,” said Caroline.

“But that’s impossible. He’s never said a word in his life. He’s deaf.

Caroline shrugged.

“I was on my way up, and I thought I’d give a listen at both doors. The girls were quiet, but I could hear somebody singing in the boys’ dorm. I went to have a look, and it was Todd.”

Singing?

“I know,” Caroline said again. “He was singing. Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

“In his sleep.”

Caroline nodded. Neither of them said anything for a moment.

“Jesus Christ,” Celia finally said.

“I know,” Caroline said for the third time. She let out a nervous little laugh. “What the hell is going on, here, Boss?”

Celia shook her head.

She lay in bed awake for most of the rest of the night, thinking about Todd. A boy of nine who could neither hear nor speak, he was nonetheless uniquely himself. He simply had fewer contexts than most children in which he could demonstrate that fact. Celia knew that he liked to eat oatmeal, and that he despised tuna sandwiches. That he had to have his Indian blanket with him when he slept. That he wanted his battered yellow Tonka dump truck, the one with no wheels, near him at all times.

Celia spoke to Todd every day, as did Caroline and sometimes (bless her heart) Kathy. Celia would patiently sign out “good morning,” to him and ask him how he was doing. She would let him know when it was time to play, and when it was time to eat. She would compliment him on his coloring. When he seemed nervous or frightened, she would tell him that everything was all right. There was no indication that Todd understood the signs, and of course he never signed back, but that didn’t discourage Celia. Besides — whether he could sign or not — she knew him, and she often knew what he was feeling.

She had known when his donated “new” shoes pinched his feet. She could feel his outrage and terror the day that Joey casually picked up his toy truck and walked away with it, and his relief and satisfaction when it was returned. She could feel his contentment when she hugged him, even if he had no way of expressing it — not hugging back, not even smiling.

This was the boy she knew.

The boy she had known for six years.

And she wondered, who would Todd be tomorrow? There was someone lying in his bed. Who was it? The same boy, only repaired like the TV? But the television hadn’t been simply fixed; it had been changed. Fundamentally changed.

Just before dawn, she drifted off to sleep. She dreamed that she was in the backyard on a perfect afternoon. The air was fresh and clean. All of the children were there, engaged in the serious work of play. Corey and Todd sat in the sandbox, talking. It was a serious and earnest discussion, the kind two boys might have on a summer afternoon. She couldn’t hear what they were saying.

“It’s okay. They’re smart.”

The voice was Grace’s. Celia looked down to see that she was holding the little girl’s hand. At the sound of her voice, the boys looked their way. Corey fixed his gaze directly on Celia.

“Todd had to be first,” Grace continued. “I wanted Lucy-Lu, but Corey said no.”

But why, Celia wondered.

“Not smart enough,” said Grace, answering the thought. “He needed smart helpers, like me and Todd. To start. But it’s okay. Pretty soon we’ll all be smart.”

The boys turned back to their discussion. As they talked, Corey scooped sand into the dump truck. Todd rolled it forward and back. He looked back up at Celia.

“Don’t you like it better with wheels?” he asked. “It’s still the same truck.”

Of course it is, thought Celia. Of course.

“Corey can’t fix everybody,” Grace said sadly. “He can’t fix Corey.”

The dream faded.

The next morning, Celia had no time to investigate what Caroline had witnessed — or at least thought she had witnessed; Celia didn’t want to get her hopes up that such a thing could really have happened — the previous night. She had to rush off to a school board meeting. The struggle Celia had observed since she first came to the home — Myra plodding on in her effort to secure more educational benefits for the home, with the Superintendent never budging — had become her fight some years before. The Superintendent had changed little with the passing time: he was a bit fatter in the face; his rim of hair had receded to two small tufts of gray fuzz. But he was otherwise the same, particularly with regard to his views on the old controversy. The meeting was a waste of time, as it always was. But Celia wasn’t about to give up.

It was mid-morning before she returned to the home. She went straight to the back yard, where the children were having their morning play time. She came upon a scene which, at first, could have been right out of her dream. Corey and Todd sat in the sandbox. Todd was scooping sand into the back of his truck, which was as hobbled as ever. But Corey was doing nothing. He sat perfectly still, staring off into the distance.

The two boys certainly weren’t talking.

“It all seems like a dream, now.”

Celia looked up. Caroline had joined her.

“A very weird dream, if you ask me,” said Celia. “So, we’ve had no new tunes from our late-night crooner?”

Caroline laughed.

“You must think I’m crazy.”

“No, I don’t. Not you, anyway.

Then she had an idea.

“Hey, Todd!” she shouted cheerfully, waving. “Look over here!”

The boy didn’t respond.

“No, that won’t work,” said Caroline. “How would he know his name is Todd?”

She put two fingers to her lips and blasted out a loud, shrill whistle. All of the children turned to look, Todd included. Todd first, in fact. He looked at Caroline, then turned his gaze to Celia and smiled.

“Holy shit,” said Caroline.

Language, Caroline,” Celia said absently. The admonishment was pure reflex. She put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder; she seemed to be losing her balance. There were other things that she needed to say, more important things. But she wasn‘t sure she could keep standing. She needed a moment to catch her breath, to think.

“It really did happen,” said Caroline.

Celia looked at her. Tears were streaming down Caroline’s face. Celia could feel her own tears welling up, and realized that she was laughing.

She didn’t need a moment. She didn’t need to think. She turned her gaze to Todd. He was now on his feet, still smiling, and walking towards her. Corey was, too. She realized that all the children were gathering around them.

There would be time later to think about what it all meant, time to think about getting Todd’s hearing checked and confirming what she already knew.

Todd stopped right in front of her. Celia fell to her knees and threw her arms around the boy. She no longer knew whether she was laughing or crying, and she didn’t care.

For the first time ever, Todd hugged back.

For a long while, no one said anything.

“Miss Gray, are we in trouble?” Judy finally asked.

Caroline wiped her eyes and turned to her.

“No. Of course not.”

“Well then why are you crying?” Grace asked in an accusatory tone. “And why was play time so short?”

Celia turned her head and looked up at Caroline, never loosening her hold on Todd.

“You whistled,” she explained, still laughing and crying. Still trying to catch her breath. Whistling was normally Caroline’s signal for the children to drop what they were doing and come here now.

“Oh,” said Caroline, experiencing a momentary loss of words. “Um…well…just testing. It was a drill. Good job, kids.”

The older children looked puzzled. There had never been a “drill” before.

“Is Todd okay?” Grace asked.

Caroline nodded. The tears were back.

“He’s fine,” she managed to say. She wiped her eyes again and caught her breath.

“He’s fine,” she repeated. “Now go…” she made a shooing motion with her hand, “…go play. The drill’s over.”

After lunch, Celia found Grace sitting with some of the younger girls at one of the tables in the common room, coloring. Grace’s picture showed two figures playing in the sandbox, with two others (an adult and a child) holding hands and looking on.

Grace looked up and smiled at Celia.

“See?” she said. “Just like yesterday.”

“I see,” said Celia. “It’s very pretty.”

“Were you there, Miss Crawford? Or was it just a dream?”

Celia considered this.

“I suppose I was there, Sweetie,” she said after a moment.

Grace picked up a green crayon and continued coloring the grass.

“What’s the difference, anyway?”

That was a question, Celia thought, that was supposed to have a very simple answer.

“Dreams are just in our minds. Just in our imagination.”

Grace stopped coloring and thought about this for a moment.

“Nuh-uh,” she said, shaking her head.

“Maybe not,” said Celia.

“In a dream, you can make a wish, and it will come true.”

“Well,” said Celia. “It might come true. But only in the dream.”

Grace laughed. She looked at Lucinda, sitting by her side and working very hard to color within the lines of a Flintstones coloring book.

“Is this a dream?” she asked.

“No, Sweetie. We’re awake.

Grace put her crayon down.

“What’s the difference?” she asked again.

Celia shrugged.

“Right now, I’m not completely sure. But let me ask you something, Sweetie. What did you mean when you told me that Todd was first?”

“You know already,” said Grace, deadpan, bored with the subject. She continued with her work. And then, without looking up, she added, “He can hear now, can’t he?”

“Yes. He can. How about this, then. Who did you tell me you wanted to be first?”

Grace looked up again.

“Miss Crawford, you know already,” she said impatiently, pointing her crayon at Lucinda.

Celia looked at Lucinda. Lucy-Lu, as Grace often called her. She had called her that last night in Celia’s dream, a dream that Grace apparently remembered as well as Celia did. She turned back to Grace.

“And do you think Corey can help the other children the way he helped Todd?”

“You already know that,” Grace answered in sing-song fashion, continuing to color.

Lucinda giggled.

“Already know-oh,” she said, imitating the sing-song cadence.

All three of them laughed.

“Grace, how can I help Corey?”

The little girl just shook her head. Her patience was exhausted. And she was right, thought Celia. She already knew what she needed to do.

Within a few days, Todd knew his name and responded when he heard it. Within a week, he was beginning to form a few words of his own. A week later, he was having halting conversations with some of the other children.

Meanwhile, Celia continued Corey’s music-listening sessions in the library. She found time for them two or three times a week. She watched for some change in the boy — any change — but none came. Each night, she went to bed hoping that there would be another dream, some additional clue as to what was happening and what it all meant. But there was none.

More than once, she wondered whether she might not be imagining it all. The cake would have been an easy enough trick for her mind to pull. And the television? Maybe it was a new set, the acquisition of which her disturbed mind had edited out. It wouldn’t be too hard to fill the gap in memory with a story about dreams and wishes and electronic resurrection. Or maybe the old one was still sitting there, unplugged, and she was imagining the children watching it every day. If she were ever to become delusional, that was exactly the kind of delusion she would expect — one in which the children were happy.

But she didn’t think she was going crazy, which, of course, (she reminded herself) they never do.

But she decided that if she was insane, it wasn’t her problem. It was for someone else to discover — Caroline, most likely — and address. So far Caroline had had little to say on the subject of the unusual developments in the home. And Celia wasn’t about to bring any of it up.

On the other hand, assuming that Celia was in her right mind, then she knew she needed to do what she could to care for and protect her children. Corey among them. Or perhaps, Corey most of all. She could see now that this boy could do more for the others than she and Caroline would ever be able to.

It started with Todd, soon followed by discernable changes in Alice, Judy, Joey, and Raymond. The older kids. And the others would follow.

Yet whatever it was that he was doing, it was not just to help the other children.

He needs smart helpers, Grace had said.

For what? Celia wondered. What was it that this quiet boy felt he needed to do?

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 23

Part III

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Celia would have no vacation that summer. She normally took a week in July, right after the Fourth. She would rent a cabin in the mountains, and find herself bored usually no later than the third day. It had been a few years since she had made the flight back east to see her family. But they weren’t complaining, and Celia preferred to save her money. It had been longer still since she had taken a full ten days to California and back, a lazy road trip with a companion now long gone from her life.

Jeff was a fire marshal, ten years her senior. He came to the home one day for a routine inspection and ended up asking Celia, at the time 24 years old, to lunch. Things between them were white-hot at first — to the point that it almost cost Celia her job — but it didn’t last a year. Maybe it was Celia’s long work hours, or her lack of discernible days off. Or the curfews. In the end, her job was the cause of the breakup, but it never occurred to either of them that she should quit, or that there was any alternative.

So it ended.

Two years later, Jeff was married. Celia still saw him from time to time, when he made his scheduled visits to the home. She would always ask him about his wife and three kids, and would try not to think about the nights he had spent in the home, in violation of good sense and all of Myra’s rules. Or about that long, sun-drenched drive through the desert — his arm, tanned and muscled and perfect, draped casually over her shoulder as he steered the car. How they talked on that trip, conversations as pointless and meandering as the route to California that he had chosen.

Years passed; things changed. Celia had no lover now, hadn’t had one since her relationship with Jeff ended. These days she had no interests or plans outside the home. In fact, she no longer had any real desire to take a vacation. Scheduling it was a logistical morass, arranging for two reliable live-in helpers to be on hand to assist Caroline. For her part, Caroline never expressed any interest in taking vacation. She had rarely left the home since coming there to work eight years earlier, just after being abandoned by her husband of six months. She had wrapped the home around herself like a protective cocoon, and would apparently be content if she never had to leave.

But it was not any lack of interest, or a giving in to her own latent cocooning instinct, that would prevent Celia from taking a vacation this year. Not at all. There was simply too much going on at the home. What was happening could not be handled by Caroline alone, or with any number of helpers. And Celia would not miss one second of it. Not for a vacation. Not for the world.

The children were changing.

Celia sat in a sagging overstuffed red chair in a far corner of the common room and watched them at play. The scene was incredibly different from what it would have been four months earlier, before Corey arrived.

Robert and Andrew were kneeling on the floor in front of her with an enormous sheet of butcher paper spread out before them. They were painting a mural — one of two that the children were currently working on. Over a black background that they had put down the previous day, Andrew painted a meticulous moonscape. The craters, scattered rocks, and distant mountains were set out in varying shades of silver and gray. Their scale and perspective were a perfect match to the photograph that he glanced at from time to time, a page in an open encyclopedia volume sprawled on the floor next to him. Andrew had blown the picture up 15 times or so, and was now confidently adding details from his imagination where the frame of the mural extended beyond that of the photograph. Robert, meanwhile, had finished a mottled blue crescent earth in the upper right corner and was dabbing a few white stars here and there.

Todd walked over and watched their progress in silence for a moment.

“It’s good,” he said. “When the two of you have finished this one, I’ll help you hang it up to dry. Then you can start on the earth picture with the rocket.”

Robert looked up at him.

“I thought they were doing it?” he said, gesturing at Kathy and Judy, who sat on the floor across the room with a similarly sized sheet of paper spread out in front of them. Judy was sketching something on the paper in broad strokes using a piece of charcoal.

“No, they‘re working on the other one. The new one.”

“A new one?” Andrew asked disapprovingly. He set his brush down and turned to get a better look at what the girls were doing.

“It’s Grace’s idea,” said Todd. “It’s about the Mountain People.”

“Oh. Well…okay,” Andrew said with resignation, looking to his friend. Robert shrugged and went back to work. Whatever their reservations might be, Grace’s imprimatur apparently settled the matter. That much hadn’t changed, Celia noted. Nor had the earnest seriousness of these two boys at play. They approached mounting a major theatrical production with the same methodical soberness they had applied to trading baseball cards.

It’s still the same truck, she thought. Even if it has wheels.

Celia got up and strolled across the room to get a better look at the mural Judy and Kathy were working on. It was a close-up of Mount Evans, the most prominent peak in view from the home’s back yard. Judy had outlined the contours of the peak perfectly: its flat southern face dropping off sharply to a bowl-like rescission that was the front of the peak, the north side gradually sloping off to meet a lower, broader peak. It was a perfect likeness of the real mountain except for one added detail. In the middle of the bowl, there was now a small city. A wall surrounded two or three dozen buildings — some were low and flat with odd, bulbous domes; others were long and elegant towers whose height rivaled that of the mountain itself.

It didn’t look like anything that was really on the mountain, or any real city that Celia had ever seen. It was pure fantasy. Or rather, it was the stuff of dreams ™ which should have been fantasy, but for some reason wasn’t.

“What do you think, Miss Crawford?” Judy asked, looking up from her work.

“It’s wonderful.”

She looked at the sketch a while longer while Judy continued drawing.

“So I understand that we’re going to be doing two plays?”

“Yes,” said Kathy, excitedly. Her speech was as flawless as her hearing. “And you know what? Judy’s writing this one.

“Is that so?” asked Celia.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Judy. “It’s about the Mountain People. Do you know about them?”

Celia nodded.

“Only a little,” she said.

The obsession with writing, staging, and acting out plays was a few weeks old. It started when Lucinda and Estelle read Cheaper by the Dozen one afternoon and observed that there were enough children in the home to play all the parts. At dinner, they announced that they had written a play based on the book and would begin production on it the next day.

Raymond protested that it was a girl’s book. If they were going to do a play, it should be something the boys liked, too.

“It is not a girl’s book,” said Kathy. “I just read it. It was written by a man and a woman. And half the characters are boys.”

“Well, I read it, too,” said Raymond, “And it most definitely is a girl’s book. They always put boys in girl’s books. That’s how they get you.”

Joey nodded in agreement.

Celia looked around the table, wondering how many of the rest of them had also finished reading a book of several hundred pages that afternoon. It wasn’t long ago that she or Caroline would read to them every day, usually not more than a chapter a time. Their attention spans wouldn’t allow for much more than that, and progress was slow with having to stop and offer frequent explanations as to what was happening. Now the period between lunch and dinner was apparently ample time for all them to read a book, and for two of them to write a play based on it.

“I can prove it,” Raymond continued. “Little Women has boys in it, doesn’t it? I guess it’s not a girl’s book, either.”

“You obviously can’t read,” Alice said, looking at him contemptuously. “Illiteracy is a shame, but it’s understandable…considering your upbringing. But you have no one to blame but yourself for being a male chauvinist pig.”

Alice,” Caroline interrupted, not daring to meet Celia’s eyes lest they both burst out laughing. “How are we supposed to treat each other?”

Alice looked down at her plate for a moment. Then she turned to face Caroline.

“We’re supposed to be —” she stopped short of the formulaic answer, one of the simple rules which, through the years, most of the children in the home had been able to remember and recite: be nice.

“We’re supposed to treat each other with respect and consideration,” she continued. She turned to Raymond. “I suppose I failed in that regard, so I apologize. Your statements were sexist and offensive, but there was no reason for me to resort to name-calling.”

“It’s one thing to call Ray names,” said Joey. “I doubt you hurt his feelings with your passé claptrap. But how dare you make a disparaging reference to his ‘upbringing?’ As if yours was any different. You’ve insulted both Miss Crawford and Miss Gray. You should apologize to them.

Alice’s eyes flashed with anger.

“Feminism is hardly passé,” she said. “An amendment to the Constitution which guarantees equal rights to women has already been ratified in 35 of the required 38 states.”

“Oh really?” said Joey. “And how many states in the deep south have ratified it?”

“Texas,” she answered defiantly.

Joey laughed.

“Texas,” he repeated. “Well, that’s one, I guess. You need to face facts, Allie. The ERA is dead in the water. Now how about that apology?”

Her initial wave of temper subsiding, Alice’s manner turned cold.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Maybe you should apologize for calling equal rights for women ‘claptrap.’ I thought you called yourself a humanist. Some humanist.”

“You know I have nothing against the idea of equal rights for women. Not in principle, anyway. What I objected to was your rhetoric. It was jingoistic. And divisive.”

Celia thought back to a fierce argument these two had had a year or so before about who would get to sit at the head of the table. In the heat of the moment, Alice called Joey a “stupid ugly stink.” Joey, who was often unable to come up with words under pressure, replied that she was a “stupid stinky-stink.” Needless to say, neither of them got to sit at the head of the table. But at the time, it was one the wittiest exchanges that had ever occurred between two residents of the home.

“Well I think that —”

“Hold it.” Todd interrupted Alice in mid-rejoinder. “Alice, you didn’t really mean to disparage Miss Crawford and Miss Gray’s management of this institution, did you?”

Alice shook her head.

“Of course not.”

Todd turned to Raymond.

“Ray, I’m sure you’ll agree that — whether you enjoy reading them or not — books that girls like are as legitimate as books that boys like.”

Raymond shrugged.

“I guess.”

“Well, then, in keeping with what Alice just said about respect and consideration — excellent points, by the way — I think the respectful and considerate thing to do would be to let Kathy and Estelle tell us about their play and for all of us to agree to act it out.”

Raymond snorted at the suggestion.

“Come on, Ray,” said Judy. “We can do a boy’s play next time.”

Celia observed that, these days, Todd and Judy often acted as peacemakers. The changes that had come over the children had diminished some of the old rivalries within the group (Alice against Judy, Joey against Raymond) and had exacerbated others (boys against girls). While Todd, Alice, and Judy had become de facto leaders of the group — along with Grace, of course — Alice remained a little too hotheaded to provide constructive leadership, and it often fell on the other two to iron things out. The older boys, Joey and Raymond, weren’t much interested in taking charge of the group. They generally went along with whatever the group decided, but objected when, as in this instance, they thought the girls were getting the upper hand.

“Please, Ray?” Grace implored. “Will you do the play with us?”

Grace’s pleading had an immediate softening effect.

“I never said I wouldn’t. But it still won’t work. There are only 13 of us. We need another boy to play the Dad.”

Estelle shook her head.

“Joey will be the Dad. Alice will be the Mom. Everything works out right if one girl plays a boy. I don’t mind; I’ll be a boy.”

“But then there’s only 11 kids,” said Joey.

“That’s right,” Kathy answered. “It’s historically accurate. One of the Gilbreth girls died in childhood. The play takes place after that.”

Raymond nodded, satisfied.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

The first rehearsal took place after dinner that night. The performance was the following day, after lunch. The play was a single act — just a series of scenes, really — and it ran about 45 minutes. Each actor knew his or her part flawlessly. The play had no costumes or sets; the common room served as a stand-in for the Gilbreth household and for the world at large.

Celia and Caroline applauded wildly at its conclusion.

A few days later, the children staged a much more elaborate production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Then came The Merchant of Venice. Next they did A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Raymond and Joey grew tired of all these “girl’s plays,” and said they didn’t want to do any more dramatic productions. Alice was able to entice them back by offering them the roles of Aldrin and Armstrong in her original play about the first mission to the moon.

Celia was looking forward to seeing that one, but — now that she had heard about it — she was much more intrigued by Judy‘s play. (She didn’t bother to wonder how a group of children could write, produce, and act out two theatrical productions at the same time. That sort of question no longer troubled her.)

She didn’t know much about the “Mountain People.” She had dreamed about them two or three times, but the dreams were muddled and difficult to remember. She knew only that they were strange-looking folk — like elongated marble sculptures of the human form come to life — and that they lived in a non-existent city on top of a mountain that she could see from her bedroom window.

Obviously Corey was responsible for bringing these mysterious dream-people into their lives. But no one seemed to know why.

The explosion of interest in drama followed on the heels of a science craze that Celia had been forced to nip in the bud when she caught Raymond and Joey digging through a neighbor’s trash looking for electrical parts. Earlier, Caroline had caught Bettina rummaging under the sink looking for borax. She wouldn’t say why. Celia felt she had to lay down the law. She gathered all the children together in the common room and set out the ground rules for scientific research in the home. No electrical gadgets, she told them, to the great dismay of the boys. And no chemistry experiments.

Whatever it was that Raymond and Joey (along with Todd) were working on was moved to the tool shed and kept under lock and key. All that remained of that project was an immense equation that Todd had scrawled on the blackboard in the common room, and that he or one of the children would occasionally stop and look at — sometimes making the odd correction.

Before science had come art, with the children fascinated with drawing and painting. The common room and their dormitory rooms were now elaborately decorated with their handiwork. Watercolor still-life — interiors of the home, landscapes, and seascapes — lined the stairway. Multiple sketches of each child (some self-portraits, some done by one of the other artists) hung over each bed. Additional portraiture was hung in the common room, scattered pictures of Celia and Caroline, of Sheila and Myra and Jimmy the Lawn Man and the Mission Lady from the Presbyterian church. At Grace’s request, using an old Polaroid image that Caroline peeled from one of the home’s raggedy photo albums, Alice painted a large portrait of Jolene, which was now hung over the fireplace. Of all the artwork the children had produced, this was Celia’s favorite.

The story of the children’s rapid progress could be read in the artwork. Todd was the first of them to begin drawing, a few days after he gained his hearing. His earliest sketches were of the fireplace and the jungle gym. As others began to change — Alice, Raymond, and Judy were next — they also began to draw. Then more children were changed, and the output of the early few became more complex and challenging. The art craze had culminated in the portrait of Jolene and an intricate mobile, now hung over the dining room table, with dozens of small birds made of soap, toothpicks, fishing line, and some feathers stolen from an old pillow. The birds were brown and red and blue. They were lifelike but for their too-small size, and posed in the many variations of flight.

Creating the mobile had somehow ushered in an interest in science. Naturalistic drawings of insects and birds observed in the back yard joined the portraits on the walls of the common room. A detailed map of the solar system was hung over the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen. Sketches of airplanes and spacecraft began to appear, followed by detailed technical drawings that Celia couldn’t understand.

Now the drama craze seemed to have brought them full circle, with the children once again consumed with the production of elaborate artwork.

But with Judy, Alice, and Todd, all of these changes — the sudden leap in intelligence and motivation, the acquisition and rapid mastery of new abilities — were compounded by an alteration of appearance. The physical symptoms of Down Syndrome had disappeared along with the behavioral ones. As she watched Judy standing there looking at her work in progress, her brow furrowed, Celia felt a wave of joy wash over her.

Look at her. My Judy.

“They live in this city,” said Judy, waving her charcoal-dusted hand around that portion of her picture.

“They’re not like human beings,” said Kathy. “Do you know what they’re made of?”

“I don’t,” said Celia. “Do you?”

Both girls shrugged.

“They look like statues,” said Kathy. “But they move.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Judy. “We know what they look like. And we know enough to tell the story.”

“Was it your idea to write the play?” asked Celia.

The girl nodded.

“Yes, ma’am. I asked if I could write this one, since Alice got to write the one about the astronauts. Grace said okay.”

“I’m glad,” said Celia. “I’m really looking forward to seeing both of them.”

“Miss Crawford,” said Kathy. “This time are we going to let outside people come and see our plays?”

Celia shook her head.

“I’m sorry, girls. That isn’t going to be possible. Not for now.”

Neither girl argued. They both knew what the answer would be before the question was asked. The idea of opening their productions to the public was Grace’s idea, and she was not easily dissuaded. But of course it was impossible. Celia had already been forced to let Sheila go, and had notified all of the home’s day volunteers — some of whom had been coming for years — that their help would no longer be needed. She couldn’t have people coming in and seeing what was taking place. Not yet, anyway. In any case, their help no longer was needed. The children required much less supervision now, and the older ones were perfectly capable of providing most of what was needed. Raymond and Kathy had even begun to cook.

Celia looked around the room. Alice and Joey were applying papier-mâché to a spacesuit frame made of chicken wire. They were working on the torso. The suit’s pants were already finished, as were the sleeves, which would be attached after the torso dried. Some ingenious work on the part of Todd had enabled Alice and Joey to give the suit arms and legs that could bend naturally. The perfectly round helmet was already finished and painted a gleaming white. Meanwhile Raymond, Estelle, and Lucinda were hard at work on an incredibly realistic, ¼ scale model of the Apollo 11 Lunar Excursion Module. It was made of construction paper, twisted coat hangers, aluminum beverage cans — which Raymond could only have acquired by leaving the yard and spending more time in the neighbors’ trash, in spite of Celia’s warnings — and huge sheets of aluminum foil from a roll stolen from the kitchen. This latter crime had been committed in full view of Caroline, and in spite of her vociferous objections.

Celia and Caroline didn’t talk to each other about the changes that were taking place in the home. Why that was, Celia wasn’t sure. Somehow it didn’t seem safe to talk about these events. Not with another adult. There was some risk that the spell would be broken, that it would all disappear — like waking from a happy dream. Celia couldn’t bring herself to initiate a conversation on the subject. Caroline made a few passing remarks, but that was as far as it went.

“While he’s dreaming,” she had said a few days earlier, “I wish he’d get an image of me about 70 pounds lighter.”

“That’s risky,” Celia had responded. “You know how dreams are. What if he saw you seven feet taller instead?”

That was the closest they had come to acknowledging what was going on.

She wondered what would happen to them if word somehow got out. What would happen to Corey. In all of this, the silent boy had very noticeably not changed. He sat now at one of the tables in the common room, staring approximately in the direction of Alice and Joey. Grace was beside him, coloring. She hadn’t changed either, but then she was already exceptionally bright. Perhaps Corey had sensed there was nothing there to “fix.”

The doorbell interrupted Celia’s train of thought. She wasn’t expecting anyone. She made her way to the door and opened it just enough to see who was there. The man was a stranger; he looked to about 35. He had on a gray suit, slightly disheveled, and carried an overstuffed briefcase. He could stand a shave, Celia thought, and a comb through his hair. But he looked harmless; probably an insurance salesman or something.

She opened the door a bit wider, mindful of blocking the man’s view into the home.

“Yes?” she said. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” the man said, distractedly. “I’m looking for Dr. Celia Crawford.”

Celia didn’t know how to respond.

“I’m not…I’m Celia Crawford. Who are you?”

“Ah, Dr. Crawford,” the man extended his hand. Celia declined to take it. “I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Darryl MacHale. I’m an associate professor of computer science with the University of Colorado.”

Celia blinked.

“You know…in Boulder?” he prompted.

“Yes, of course,” said Celia, shaking her head to try to make sense of this encounter. “And what can I do for you, Mr. MacHale?”

“Well, I received a letter from one your students outlining a very interesting research project, and —”

“Wait,” Celia interrupted. “One of my students wrote to you? Which one?”

“Westram. Todd Westram.”

Celia stared at the man for a long moment.

“You do have a student here by that name?” he asked.

Celia nodded. Yes, she thought, I do. Although he’s never exactly been a student of mine. He only just learned how to talk a few weeks ago. Somewhere, deep inside, there was an urge to laugh hysterically. Celia suppressed that urge.

“Look, I’m thinking I must have caught you at a bad time. I apologize for coming over unannounced, but the letter didn’t give a phone number, and there’s no listing for the Crawford Institute in the Greenwood directory.”

“The…uh…Crawford Institute,” Celia repeated. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t find a listing for that.”

MacHale glanced at the plaque next to the front door. It read: The John Mackey Home for Special Children.

“I see you share this building. Or is your institute located elsewhere?” He looked dubiously around the front porch and yard. The place was obviously not what he had been led to expect.

Celia cleared her throat.

“No, it’s…here. That is, everything we do is here.”

“Your students live on site?”

She nodded. There was a long moment in which neither of them said anything. Celia looked deep into the stranger’s eyes, unsure what it was she was looking for. She stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her.

“Let me be frank with you, Mr. MacHale. Other than sending a single student to one of the local schools, our…institute has never interacted with any other organization. Large or small.”

MacHale looked puzzled.

“But why?”

“I can’t explain that to you right now. All I can tell you is that the…” she groped for the right words “…unique educational programs that we’re engaged in are not a matter of public knowledge. I must ask you to keep everything you’ve learned about us in the strictest confidence.”

He nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “I should have mentioned it. Mr. Westram said as much in his letter.”

Celia smiled, in spite of herself.

“He asked you not to tell anyone about his project until you had spoken to us first?

“That’s right,” said MacHale, fumbling to unlatch his briefcase. He opened it and pulled out a sheet of paper. “Here’s the letter.”

Celia took it from him. The letter was neatly typed on heavy linen paper which bore the embossed letterhead of The Crawford Institute. She shook her head. Where that had come from, she would worry about later. There would be plenty of time for that. And for strangling Todd.

She glanced through the contents of the letter. Dear Dr. MacHale, it began, my colleagues and I are on the brink of a major breakthrough in the field of artificial intelligence.

She looked up at MacHale. She wanted to ask him what that meant, but realized that it was not appropriate for the head of the ‘Crawford Institute’ to ask such a question. She continued reading.

We have developed a set of algorithms that we believe can revolutionize speech recognition, the processing of visual information, and a number of related applications. These claims may sound extraordinary, but I hope that you will indulge me a few minutes of your valuable time while I outline our premise. Let’s begin with the recursive sequence deriving from the relation a(n) = a(n(n - 1)) + a(n - a(n - 1)), assuming that (a = 1) and…

Unable to make sense of what followed, Celia skipped a few paragraphs.

I’m sure you will agree, the final paragraph began, that if a small set of simple mathematical relationships lies at the core of the human ability to process such information, there is no reason to believe that it would be otherwise for machines. We are prepared to proceed as outlined above as soon as we have access to the requisite computing equipment. I would very much appreciate the opportunity to meet with you in person and discuss these ideas further. Until such time as that’s possible, I would ask that you keep our communication in the strictest of confidence.

Looking greatly forward to your response I am

Sincerely Yours,

Todd Westram

Celia couldn’t help but notice with pride what a beautiful signature Todd had. She wondered when exactly it was that he had learned handwriting.

Not to mention all this computer mumbo-jumbo.

She folded the letter and put it in the pocket of the apron she suddenly realized she was wearing. ‘Dr.’ Crawford indeed. Maybe the kids could pull something like this off, but she didn’t see how she would ever be able to. Still, what choice had they left her?

MacHale's dismay at her not returning the letter was obvious.

“Dr. MacHale,” she said, taking her cue from the letter as to how to address him, “I have a question for you. Does anyone know that you’re here today?’

He shook his head.

“No ma’am,” he said.

Celia nodded. She reached into her pocket and pulled the letter out. She looked at it for a moment.

“And you haven’t said a word about this to anyone?”

MacHale looked slightly annoyed at the line of questioning.

“The request for confidentiality was quite straightforward, Dr. Crawford.”

She nodded again.

“Yes. It was. And I can count on your continued discretion?”

“Absolutely,” he said.

Celia made her decision. She handed the letter back to him.

“All right then, Dr. MacHale.”

She turned and opened the door.

“Perhaps you’d like to come inside?”

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Chapter 24

Part III

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

“Miss Crawford, I think we have to talk about Corey.”

Todd sat in a folding chair in front of Celia’s desk, with Judy next to him. The boy looked anxious and tired.

Of course he’s tired, Celia thought. There had to be limits, even for this bunch. Whatever spark of genius Corey had grown within them, and whatever drive it was that possessed them and moved them forward, they were still just kids.

The performance was scheduled to begin in less than an hour, a production entitled Music in the Stones — it was Kathy’s play about the Mountain People. It had taken more than two weeks to put this one together, an effort that followed on the heels of the intense nine days the group had spent preparing for their play about the Apollo astronauts. Celia didn’t have the heart to try and slow them down, or even to ask the question that troubled her when she saw so much time and work poured into something that only she and Caroline would ever see, and that was over in a couple of hours: what’s the point?

Todd was not an actor this time around; he was in charge of the elaborate visual effects. But Celia knew all too well that the time Todd spent with the group working on their dramatic projects reflected just a small portion of his day. An entire corner of the common room now belonged to him and his research project. Raymond and Joey’s electrical contraption — which Celia had come to realize was really Todd’s electrical contraption, although she still couldn’t quite bring herself to calling it a “computer” — had been returned from cold storage in the tool shed.

In fact, it had never really been in cold storage. Todd had been sneaking out to work on it every night, violating the lights-out curfew, Celia’s decree that there would be no more electrical experiments, and Myra’s old rule that no children were allowed in the tool shed. Caroline was quick to point out that at least he hadn’t violated any of the home’s rules by picking the lock. There was no such rule; it had never occurred to anyone that one of the children might be able to do that.

Todd spent hours working on his project in the early mornings and late at night. Celia’s efforts to get him to adhere to a regular bed-time schedule were futile. He would simply go to bed, wait a few hours until he was sure everyone was asleep, and then head back down to work. He explained that he was on a tight schedule, that the paper he and Dr. MacHale were writing needed to be finished before the end of the summer term. When classes resumed in the fall, MacHale would not have time to spare for “The Crawford Institute.” As it was, MacHale was spending three or four afternoons at the home every week, often staying for dinner.

“What about Corey?” Celia asked.

“He’s not doing well,” said Judy. “Not well at all.”

Todd nodded in agreement.

Celia didn’t want to look overly concerned. She found any talk of a problem with one of her children unsettling. But she had an obligation to these two, to help allay their fears and let them know that she would set right anything that had gone wrong. Whatever else may have changed, her role as protector and defender of the children had not.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Well, you can see the change in him, I’m sure,” said Judy. “He’s grown so pale and thin. He hardly eats anything. And he doesn’t interact with us anymore.”

Celia thought about this.

“I don’t understand,” she said after a moment. “Maybe his appetite has suffered a little with all the changes, but is he really so different? Besides, he’s never really interacted with anyone, has he?”

“Yes, he has,” said Todd. “He’s always responded to Grace and, to a lesser extent, to you. He may not speak or play games, but in the past he’s often sought our company. But now that’s all stopped.”

“Joey had to pick him up and carry him to dinner last night,” Judy added, her concern apparent in her voice. “Corey always shows up for meals when called. But not now. And he doesn’t sit with Grace any more. He used to do that every day.”

“But…” Celia wanted to disagree, but she couldn’t. She had somehow overlooked these trends.

How?

She knew how. There was one instance of Corey’s interaction with others that had not changed. The one she was most deeply involved in.

“He still wants to listen to music,” said Judy, seeming to know what Celia was about to say before she said it, “but we think it would be best if we stopped that for a while.”

Celia was taken aback. Since she had taken charge of the home, this was the first time anyone had ever second-guessed her management. She wasn’t sure how she would respond if Caroline or one of the volunteers were to challenge her on a decision. She would like to think that she would be open-minded about it. But this was different. Very different.

“You…ah…you two think it would be best?”

“No” said Todd. “Not just the two of us. We all talked about it. Everyone is in agreement, even Grace.”

Celia felt her face grow hot, flushed with anger. The muscles in her neck and shoulders tightened. That a few of the older kids might believe they had significant input to make on a major decision was one thing, but all of them? Robert and Andrew? Lucinda? Grace?

This is infuriating, she thought. Who the hell do they think they are?

“I know this is awkward,” said Todd. “You probably think we’re out of line coming in here and telling you this.”

It was unnerving how closely they seemed to be tracking her thoughts.

“You know we think the world of you and Miss Gray,” Todd continued. “You’re both doing a great job running this place. You always have.”

“Why, thank you, Todd.” Celia was unable to control the sarcasm in her voice.

She couldn’t believe it. They were patronizing her, condescending to her.

“Your confidence is so reassuring,” she said flatly.

Todd looked down at the floor, apparently trying to think of what to say next. Celia turned to Judy, and was startled by the hurt look on the girl’s face and the tears in her eyes.

“No,” she said, “Miss Crawford, we mean it. We have nothing but the greatest respect for you. We would never patronize you or try to — ”

“Stop doing that!” Celia snapped, surprised by her own vehemence.

Now both of them were looking down. Judy brushed a tear away with the back of her hand. Another fell to the floor.

Todd looked back up at her, curious.

“Doing what?” he asked.

“Reading my mind.”

Celia was embarrassed as soon as she said it. Of course they couldn’t read minds.

Could they? Her anger began to subside as she considered the possibility.

Todd smiled ever so slightly. He shook his head.

“We can’t do that,” he said gently. “And even if we could, we never would.”

Judy looked up, wiping away another tear. She cleared her throat.

“Not in a million years, Miss Crawford. Celia.” She immediately looked away, embarrassed.

Celia started at the unexpected familiarity. She was struck with the realization that — now, for the first time — she had something she had longed for ever since coming to the home. She always knew she wanted to help these children, to improve their circumstances. To create opportunities for them. But there was something else she was looking for, a desire so far out of reach that she had never realized that she had it, much less given it a name. It was something she had come tantalizingly close to with Jolene, but was ultimately denied.

Friendship.

Celia looked at Todd, who met her gaze with perfect confidence, and at Judy, who had stopped crying, but still did not dare look her way. For all these years, she had been their defender and protector. She would continue to be those things for them. She was their mother (or at least one of them.) Moreover she had been their friend. But although she had yearned for it all these years, she had never imagined that it could work the other way.

And yet they came to her today out of concern for Corey, and in friendship.

They were her friends. All of them.

Her friends.

“I…I apologize,” she said at last. “To both of you.”

“It’s okay,” said Todd.

Judy looked up, sniffed loudly, and nodded.

“Please tell me what you think the problem with Corey is. And what we ought to do about it.”

“It’s the Project,” said Todd. “It’s becoming too much for him.”

“You mean your computer project with Darryl? Dr. MacHale? I didn’t know Corey was mixed up — ” she caught herself “— I mean, involved in that.”

Todd and Judy shared a knowing look.

“That isn’t exactly the project I meant,” said Todd.

“Miss Crawford,” said Judy, returning comfortably to the formal mode of address, “I think maybe you have it backwards. Corey isn’t working on Todd’s project. We’re all — all of us — mixed up in Corey’s project.”

Todd nodded.

“He’s been working on it since he came here. Ever since he met Grace.”

“Actually,” said Judy. “I think he’s been working on it longer than that. His whole life, maybe. But Grace changed things for him. When he’s with her, it’s like he can…see the other people and things that are happening around him. Before, he couldn’t do that.”

“What about the dreams?” Celia asked.

“Exactly,” said Todd, “the dreams. They’re the key. To all of us, it seemed like Corey began appearing to us in dreams, but that isn’t exactly what’s going on. I mean, it is what’s going on, but it’s not what we think.

“Corey has this other place that he goes to. Or maybe he’s there all the time, I’m not sure. He can’t talk to us here in this place, but in the other place — we call it the dream space — he can.”

Judy picked up the thread.

“Before he met Grace, he was all alone there. But somehow, Grace found her way to him. In a dream. Corey never realized that there was a way for other people to get to the place where he was. But they can…sometimes, anyway. By dreaming. Grace showed him it was possible. And so he started giving us dreams that led us there.”

Celia rubbed her eyes, trying to take it all in. She had resigned herself some time before to the notion that everything that was occurring was permanently veiled in mystery. In many respects, that was a comfortable position to take. But it turned out that there were answers to the questions she had given up on.

“How does he do that?” she asked. “Give us dreams.”

Todd shook his head.

“We have no idea. Even Corey doesn’t know how. But I think it’s safe to say that he does it the same way he does everything else. He turned a black and white TV into a color TV. He gave me a rewired brain and a missing aural nerve. And he changed my face. And Judy’s. And Alice’s. Compared to the other things he’s done, making us dream a particular dream doesn’t seem like that big a deal.”

Judy nodded.

“He just has to spark a few neurons.”

“Right,” said Celia. “Nothing to it. How about another question — why does he do it? What is this project of his?”

Judy looked at Todd, who seemed to squirm in his chair.

“We only know a little about what it is,” he said. “And please don’t take this the wrong way, but I couldn’t possibly explain it to you.”

Celia let out a dry little laugh. It was impossible to feel insulted in the face of such sincerity.

“Can’t you tell me anything about it?” she persisted.

Todd thought about this for a moment.

“It’s big. It’s a math problem. It has something to do with why the universe exists.”

He scratched his head and considered for a moment longer.

“No, I’m misrepresenting it. It’s actually much bigger than that.”

Celia sighed and shook her head.

“It’s bigger than why the universe exists? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Todd shrugged.

“Well, I said I probably couldn’t explain it…” he said tentatively.

“I think the Mountain People know,” said Judy. “Or at least they have some idea. But they’re hard to communicate with. What they say makes sense while you’re talking to them, but then later you remember it and it doesn’t make any sense at all. It’s a real problem, trying to have serious conversations in dreams.”

“Plus, we aren’t really sure whether they actually exist,” Todd added. “Although, either way, they’re still the only ones who seem to know what Corey’s doing.”

Celia shuddered with a sudden chill. She felt dizzy. She didn’t think she would be able to physically withstand much more of this conversation. She held her hand up to silence Todd and Judy.

“Okay, please…” she said. “I don’t want…I don’t think I want to talk about the Mountain People. And I’ll take your word for it on Corey’s project. But why do you think the project is too much for him? And what do you think we should do about it?”

“He needs to take a break,” said Todd. “He’s exhausted. None of us can really communicate with him any more, not even Grace. She’s told him he has to back off a little, but he just seems to be going deeper and deeper into it…into the numbers.”

“It’s gotten much worse ever since Todd started working with Dr. MacHale,” said Judy.

Celia sat back in her chair.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “What does any of this have to do with him?”

Judy again looked at Todd, who seemed to have developed a new fascination with his feet.

“Your research project…” she said, beginning to piece it together, “It isn’t really about…computerized voices or whatever it was you said in that letter you wrote.”

Todd looked up.

“Voice recognition,” he corrected. “Well, it is about the things I wrote in the letter to the extent that it could be applied to them. But that’s not the real reason I wanted computer time to analyze those recursive sequences. The real reason is that Corey needed them.”

“How much does Darryl know about all this?” asked Celia.

Todd considered this.

“He knows I have an interest in the findings beyond what was stated in the letter. But he doesn’t know it has anything to do with Corey.”

“What does he know about Corey?”

“Nothing. At least, I haven’t told him anything. He knows that there really is no Crawford Institute, and it wouldn’t be hard for him to find out what this place really is. I presume that he has done so.”

Todd sat back, seemingly uncertain as to whether he should say anything else. Then he continued:

“He’s spent a lot of time with you, here in this office. Has he said anything to you about it?”

Celia felt mildly embarrassed. She and Darryl had taken to spending a certain amount of time together. He would drop by her office for a chat after finishing with Todd, or sit with her on the front porch after dinner.

And, after all, there was nothing wrong with that, she thought. It was all very innocent. So they enjoyed each other’s company. So what?

“No,” she said crisply. “I haven’t told him anything.”

“I think he believes that Todd is somehow responsible for everything,” said Judy. “But he doesn’t really have any idea what’s going on. I doubt he’s given Corey much thought at all.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Yes?” Celia said.

It was Kathy. She looked like a ghost — dressed in a white robe, her face dusted white with powder. One of the Mountain People.

“I apologize for the interruption,” she said. “You guys, it’s time for everyone to be in their places.”

“Sorry for the delay, dear,” said Celia. “Can you give us just a few more minutes?”

Kathy hesitated for just a moment, then nodded.

“Okay,” she said, and closed the door.

“Let’s come to the point, then,” said Celia. “It sounds like the most important thing is for you to stop working with Corey on his math problem.”

“Right,” said Todd. “And I have stopped. But that’s not the most important thing.”

“It’s the music,” said Judy. “Don’t play any more music for him. At least not for a while.”

Celia knew it would come back to this. But she wouldn’t give in without a fight.

“But Corey needs his music. Don’t you understand that? It helps him.”

“Yes, we do understand,” said Todd. “No offense, but I think we understand better than you do. The music is the reason I can hear now. And speak. Every good thing that’s ever happened to me is the result of your playing music for Corey.”

“We aren’t sure how it works,” said Judy. “But somehow, music helps him to…realize things. Not so much here, but over there. In the dream space.”

“With or without music,” said Todd, “Corey is able to do whatever it is that he does. But with music, his ability is much more focused.”

“Then how could you even think about taking it away from him?” Celia asked.

“Because the ability is focused, but Corey isn’t,” said Todd.

“He’s too tired,” said Judy. “He can’t concentrate. His dreams — at least what we’ve seen of them lately — have become disjointed. And dark. A little bit scary, sometimes.

Celia remembered something from months before.

And what about nightmares? she had asked Corey’s mother. Has he ever had them?

Neither of them had wanted to answer the question.

Why would you ask that? the mother had finally replied. The question upset her more than it should. She was suspicious. Angry.

Fearful.

A tremendous feeling of dread washed over Celia.

If dreams can come true, so can nightmares.

“Oh my God,” she said aloud.

She stood up.

“All right,” she said, realizing that she was trembling. “All right.”

She cleared her throat. Her heart was pounding.

“I understand what you’re saying.”

Don’t panic. They need you to be calm. To be in charge.

Celia tried to smile. Todd and Judy looked at each other, puzzled.

“It’s okay, really,” she said, sensing their confusion. In passing, she observed that, for all their smarts, this possibility had never dawned on them.

“Don’t worry. Corey needs rest. So. The music sessions. Will stop.”

“Well, it’s for the best,” Judy said, uncertainly.

“Right. It’s for the best. Now you two…run along. Kathy needs you. It’s almost curtain time.”

Her frozen smile was obviously not persuasive to either of them, but they stood to go.

“Are you going to be all right, Miss Crawford?” Judy asked.

“I am,” said Celia. She waved them away. “Just go now. Please.”

They left.

It took Celia a moment to calm herself. She took a deep breath, and then another.

There’s no reason to panic, she thought. I’m just a little out of my depth, here.

What she needed above all was someone to talk to. Not Caroline or the children. She didn’t want to risk frightening them. Besides, what could they do?

What could anyone do?

Darryl.

She could call Darryl. He wouldn’t be afraid, and he would know what to do. It was a good idea. Just thinking about it made her feel better.

She reached for the phone and started to dial. Then she stopped.

“What the hell would I say to him?” she said out loud.

Celia began to laugh, feeling the tension ease. It was going to be all right. Of course it was. It had already been two days since she had had a music session with Corey. He was overdue. There was no reason to think that —

Screams interrupted Celia’s train of thought. There was a horrible shrieking coming from — it sounded like — the back porch.

She jumped from her chair and ran through the door to the common room, through the kitchen and onto the back porch. Estelle stood in one corner, wearing a white robe, her back to the kitchen door. Raymond was lying face down in front of her, between Estelle and the scrap box that the children used for arts and crafts projects. He was also robed in white and was moving strangely, writhing.

Estelle screamed again. Celia put her hand on the girl’s shoulder, meaning to ask her to explain what was happening. She turned to look at Celia. There were large welts on her face, four or five of them, with more on her bare arms. They wounds were red and angry. Her face was badly swollen.

“Estelle, what is it?” she asked. “What’s happened?”

The girl cried out again and pointed to Raymond.

Celia looked down. It took a few seconds — a period that seemed much longer than it was — for the scene before her to register. The boy was writhing in agony.

There was something moving on him.

Ants.

Enormous things the size of Celia’s thumb. They were red with pointed brown bulbs for tails. There were at least a dozen of them on Raymond’s back and legs. They moved quickly in seemingly random, crisscrossing patterns: stopping from time to time to take a precise bite right through the cotton of Raymond’s shirt with their grotesque, over-sized mandibles.

Celia screamed. Somewhere deep inside a voice told her that there were no such ants as these. That this was impossible.

She looked desperately around the porch for something to use to brush the monstrous things off Raymond. There was a newspaper in the scrap box. She stepped over to Raymond and reached for it. She grabbed it, only to let it drop immediately. She shuddered with revulsion. The newspaper, along with all the other contents of the box, was crawling with ants.

“Miss Crawford, look out!” Celia looked up to see that several of the children had followed her onto the porch. Judy had spoken, and was pointing at Celia’s legs. The ants were on her, now, too: climbing up her pant legs. There were four of them, already above the knee. She wondered how they had climbed so quickly.

Then she saw. One of the ants on Raymond’s back turned its head up and looked at her.

No, the voice said. Ants don’t do that.

It was staring right at her, its antennae flicking forward and back. Then it jumped from Raymond’s back and landed on her stomach. It was an impossible arching leap, nearly three feet high. Suddenly her left leg was seized with a burning electric shock. Celia cried out and almost fell forward. The pain ripped through her. There was another shock, equally severe, higher up on her leg. Then another one, on her right leg. The another one on her stomach.

As she lost her balance, Celia realized that she was being bitten.

She fell, but there were arms that caught her.

Judy and Kathy.

Joey was there, too, holding a broom with which he tried to sweep the ants off Raymond’s back. They wouldn’t budge. A few jumped from Raymond onto Joey. And then there were more of them. They began to leap from the box and land all around the room. Some landed on the two girls who were holding Celia up. More landed on Caroline as she knelt beside Estelle, trying to make sense of what was happening. They landed on the other children who had now found their way to the porch.

“No! Get out!” a voice called from the kitchen door. It was Grace.

“They’re the smart ones!” she cried. “The ones from the dream! The bad dream! Get out! Get out! Get out!”

An ant landed on her and she screamed.

There was more screaming. Some of the children — heeding Grace — made for the kitchen door, their arms flailing. Todd lunged madly this way and that, two of the creatures on his face. He lost his balance and fell forward into the box.

Then there was a different shock. Water, cold, under high pressure. It was in Celia’s face, then all over her. It was all around the room.

It was Corey. He had the fire extinguisher, the one that was mounted on the wall on the landing of the staircase. He sprayed Celia, never looking at her. He sprayed Raymond on the floor. He sprayed Caroline and Estelle. He sprayed the walls and the floors. He sprayed the box.

And wherever water touched one of them, the ants immediately shriveled. They shriveled, and then they were gone.

Dissolved.

Disappeared.

Gone.

Robert burst through the back door holding the garden hose. It wasn’t working, and then suddenly it was.

Andrew, thought Celia absently.

Robert sprayed the room down, soaking everything. Within a minute, there were no ants in sight. There was just the sound of crying and moaning.

“Help me,” said Celia, as she made her way to Raymond. Joey, who bore several of the enormous welts on his arms, but had escaped any bites to the face, bent over with her and gently turned the younger boy the right side up.

His face was utterly ravaged; the white powder was streaked with water and his own blood. The welts had merged into two hollowed gashes — one was on his left cheek, the other on his forehead. The gashes were deep. A bit of his cheek bone was visible. His eyes were wide open.

No,” said Celia. “Please, God. No.”

She let Raymond drop to the floor less gently than she meant. She turned around and took hold of Todd, who was hunched over the crushed box. There were still live ants in the box and a few crawling over Todd’s chest.

Robert quickly turned the hose on them. Todd had fewer bites than Raymond. His eyes were closed. He was still breathing

“Call an ambulance. Now”

Celia directed the order at no one. Caroline stood up and found her way to the kitchen.

Grace still stood in the doorway. She was soaked; her eyes were red.

“He’s sorry, Miss Gray,” she said. Caroline walked past her towards the phone.

“He’s sorry,” Grace repeated.

On the porch, Corey had set the fire extinguisher down. He was sitting next to Raymond, looking towards, but not directly at, the dead boy’s face.

“He didn’t mean it,” she said.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 25

Part III

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Darryl MacHale sat in a plastic chair outside a hospital room. He had been there for the better part of two days. Celia was allowed to sit in the room with the boy, but MacHale was not. He had been permitted only a few moments with Todd earlier that afternoon.

What exactly was going on, Darryl had no idea. He didn’t doubt Celia’s story that Todd had been attacked by ants, and that the other boy had been killed by them. But he knew there must be more to the story than that, just as he knew that there was more to Todd and the other children from the home than he had been told. He was not an impatient man. In the time he had spent with Todd and Celia, he had allowed the truth to present itself slowly, naturally. He knew he was confronting some great mystery, but he wouldn’t allow his curiosity to get the better of him.

There would be time, he had thought — plenty of time for everything.

Now he wished deeply that he had pressed Todd a little harder, or had been more direct with Celia. He felt weak and helpless in the face of a situation in which it seemed he could provide no real assistance. If he knew better what it was they were up against, maybe he could think of a solution.

But he didn’t know. He never got around to asking Celia directly what was going on before the tragedy had occurred, and now he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. He had had plenty of chances these past two days in the hospital to talk to her, to ask her anything he wanted to know. But whenever he got close to the subject, he sensed so much fear and dread in Celia that he had to leave it alone.

Again, his natural inclination towards patience, towards not trying to force the next step, kicked in.

Darryl stood up to stretch his legs. The unusually heavy and bulky object in his pocket shifted when he stood; he had forgotten that he was still carrying it around. He put his hand in his pocket and placed it around the small package.

He shook his head.

Madness, he thought. Utter madness.

It had all been Todd’s idea. The boy had brought it up so casually one day, and was so matter-of-fact in outlining his scheme, that Darryl couldn’t quite bring himself to be shocked.

He chuckled as he thought about it. The kid could sell a Frigidaire to Nanook.

But, no, it wasn’t just that. The plan had seemed right to Darryl. Crazy, perhaps, but no crazier than anything else: certainly no crazier than doing cutting-edge artificial intelligence research with some kid who lived in a secret enclave of child geniuses, disguised as a home for the disabled.

It had been Darryl’s job to launch the plan, to bring the idea to Celia. But now circumstances had intervened, and Darryl had no idea whether he would ever go ahead with the plan. And if he didn’t, he had no idea what he would do with the contents of the package.

He turned when he heard the door open. Celia stepped into the hallway.

“Any change?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“I just spoke to Caroline,” she said. “I have to get back.”

Darryl nodded. She was clearly exhausted.

“Is there a problem?”

“Apparently. She says there are some men there to see me.”

“Some men? Who?”

Celia rubbed her eyes.

“She didn’t say. Maybe the police. Maybe Social Services. Who knows?”

Darryl put his arm around her shoulder.

“Would you like me to drive you over there?”

“No. Stay here. As long as you can.”

He looked into her eyes, looking for even the faintest glimmer of the hope which once shined so bright. But it wasn’t there. All he could see was resignation.

Defeat.

“Celia, I…I want to tell you something. Something Todd told me a few days ago. Do you remember the day you discovered that he could hear?”

She nodded.

“Yes. What about it?”

“He told me that it was the happiest day of his life.”

Celia swallowed hard. She looked down the hall for a moment, then at the floor. She looked back up at Darryl, her eyes hard and cold.

“It was the happiest day of my life, too.”

“No, but…do you know why? I mean, for him.”

She shrugged.

“Because he couldn’t hear before, and then he could.”

She cleared her throat. She looked at her watch.

“I really have to go,” she said. She shrugged off his arm and started down the hall.

“Wait, that’s not it.”

She stopped. She turned back and looked at him, expectant. Impatient.

Darryl closed the gap between them. He took her hands in his.

“He told me that it was the happiest day of his life because he knew that he could tell you that he loved you. And that he had always wanted to do that.”

Celia closed her eyes.

“He’s a busy fellow,Todd” Darryl continued. He smiled slightly. “He has a lot on his mind. So maybe he never got around to telling you that.”

Celia shook her head. She opened her eyes, now wet with tears.

“He…hugged me,” she said.

Darryl reached out and brushed a tear from her cheek.

“I just thought you should know that,” he said. “And I think you should remember it.”

She nodded.

“Thank you.”

She turned to go.

“Uh, Celia?” he said.

She turned around again.

“Todd also told me that he was cured of autism around the same time he got his hearing back. When exactly did all this happen? Three, four years ago? Longer?”

Celia looked up, trying to remember. She wiped her eyes.

“A couple of months ago, I think.”

“A couple of months?

She looked confused.

“Well, call it ten weeks. Give or take. I’m not sure.”

She continued down the hall.

MacHale stood and watched her go. He sat back down in the plastic chair and heaved a great sigh.

“I’m not surprised at all,” he said aloud, to no one. “Not at all.”

---

Celia sat at her desk facing a man she had known for years and one she had never met before. Outside her office stood an armed police officer, which seemed like overkill. Or maybe that was required when delivering a court order, she didn’t know.

The man she knew was named Jepson. He was the Superintendent of schools, Myra’s old nemesis with the fat face and receding hairline. The man she had never met was named Asher.

He was her replacement.

“An unfortunate measure, to be sure,” Jepson explained “but a temporary one. Mr. Asher will be here only as long as it takes to conclude our investigation and return the home to normal operations.”

Celia knew better. Talk of Raymond’s death and of mysterious goings-on at the home was all over town. Earlier that evening at the hospital she had run into Mrs. West, the missions representative from the Presbyterian church (the same “Mission Lady” who paid a weekly visit to the home) who warned her that a court order was pending. She had learned about it from her husband, a bailiff in the county courthouse. Apparently this was not the first time that Jepson had brought a petition against the home. He had been working for years to try to shut the place down. Maybe he had grown tired of arguing with Myra; maybe he had designs on the home’s grant for the school system.

Whatever his reason — and Celia didn’t actually care what it was — he had finally found his opening in what he described as “this week’s tragic turn of events.”

It had been only two days. That part was hard to imagine; so much had changed. Things had spun so badly out of control. Raymond was dead. Todd was in the hospital, catatonic. Prognosis uncertain. She had left him there just a few minutes earlier. The other children were experiencing varying degrees of shock.

And Corey had fallen asleep. He had now been asleep for 51 hours. Celia didn’t want him to wake up, didn’t want him to have to face what had happened. But she also didn’t want him to sleep. Or at least not to dream.

Not any more.

---

Grace sat quietly in bed, folding and re-folding a slick, colorful sheet of paper. She couldn’t sleep and she didn’t want to, anyway. Everybody was always trying to make her sleep. The paper was the cover of a comic book; she had secretly retrieved it from the kitchen trash when no one was looking.

Grace couldn’t read, but she knew the name of the comic book was Creepy Tales. Raymond had told her that when he showed it to her. He had found it in the neighbors’ trash a few days before. The cover was garish; it depicted a man being eaten by an enormous ant.

Stupid picture, she thought.

It was wrong. The ants in the Creepy Tales story weren’t giants like on the cover, they were just big like the ones on the porch. And smart like them, too. Raymond had read her the story and shown her the pictures. With Corey sitting there all the while.

He never even looked at the book, she thought.

But she knew that was wrong. Corey always looked at everything. You just couldn’t tell he was doing it, that’s all. Then yesterday Grace tried to explain what happened to Miss Gray — there was no getting to Miss Crawford right now. She told her how Corey had had a bad dream, just like everybody has sometimes. And she showed her the comic book, so she would understand.

But Grace wasn’t sure whether Miss Gray understood. Who could tell with grownups? She looked scared. Then she looked like she was going to cry.

Then she got angry.

“Give me that thing,” Miss Gray had said, snatching the comic book out of Grace’s hand. She stalked off to the kitchen and threw it in the trash.

Everybody was upset and scared. Corey was in trouble. Todd was sick and they didn’t know when he was going to get better. Maybe he wouldn’t. Grace missed Raymond. He was one of her friends; her friends weren’t supposed to go away. They were all supposed to stay together and find new fun stuff to do, like the play about the Mountain People.

Now there probably wouldn’t even be a play.

First she had helped Corey, and then Corey had helped all of them. But now it seemed that it was all over. Corey had been asleep for a long time, and there were no dreams. She wanted to talk to Corey. Maybe she could help him think of something to do.

Grace had an idea.

She got out of bed and crept quietly to the door of her tiny bedroom. She had never liked being moved to her own room. It was something they did because she wasn’t special. Or sometimes they said they did it was because she was special. Miss Crawford and Miss Gray could never quite get their story straight on that point, but Grace knew what it meant. She was different from the other kids.

But not any more. Corey had changed that. Maybe they would move her back to the dorm now.

She opened the door as quietly as she could and looked out into the dim hallway. Miss Crawford’s door was closed. Asleep, Grace thought. Miss Gray’ door was ajar, the light off. Grace knew that this meant that Caroline was still downstairs. She suspected that she was in the common room watching TV. She knew that Caroline liked to do this, liked to watch grownup shows after everyone else was asleep. A couple of times, Grace had managed to stay awake long enough to go downstairs and join her.

“Miss Gray, I can’t sleep,” she would say, and Caroline would let her sit in her lap for a while before sending her back up to bed. But that had been a while ago.

She stepped quietly out into the hallway and headed down the stairs. They were squeaky sometimes, but she knew to keep to the left side. The doors to the boys’ and girls’ dormitories faced each other, both closed for the night. Grace thought about going into the boys’ room and trying her idea with Corey herself, but she was afraid. She wasn’t allowed in the boys’ room.

Besides, she wasn’t sure it really was such a good idea. The others would know.

All was quiet in the girls’ room. Kathy, Estelle, and Lucinda occupied lower bunks. Only the older girls, Alice, Bettina, and Judy, were allowed to sleep in the upper ones. Grace approached Alice’s bed. She climbed the ladder at the side of the bed and nudged Alice as she slept.

“Alice,” she whispered. “Alice. Are you awake?”

The sleeping girl stirred.

“What?” she said impatiently, not opening her eyes.

“Wake up, I need to talk to you.”

“Grace, what are you doing?” It was Judy, awake and sitting up in the next bed.

“Go to sleep Grace,” Alice said loudly, annoyed.

Quiet,” said Grace .

It took a moment for Alice to rouse herself. By then, Kathy and Estelle were also stirring. Lucinda remained asleep. Grace sat next to the older girl on her bed, their legs dangling over the lower bunk. Judy faced them from the opposite bunk.

“So you have an idea. What is it?” Alice whispered.

“I think we should talk to Corey.”

“We can’t,” said Judy. “Not until he has another dream.”

“Not unless,” Alice corrected. “Maybe he won’t have any more.”

“No,” said Grace. “No. ’Member how Corey made the pink cake and fixed the TV? I never asked him to do that in a dream. I asked him while I was awake.”

“Yeah, and he was awake, too” said Alice.

“Maybe he can hear anyway?” said Grace. “He never looks like he’s listening, but he always is.”

“Even when he’s asleep?” Judy asked.

“Maybe,” said Grace.

Alice shrugged.

“It’s worth a try, I guess. But what do you want to say to him?”

“I want to ask him to make Raymond better.”

Grace knew at once that she had said something wrong. Sometimes it was hard to know what the right thing to say was, but she could always tell when she missed the mark. Alice and Judy looked away uncomfortably.

It used to be easier talking to them, she thought. Before they got so smart.

“No,” Judy said after a moment.

“Absolutely not,” Alice agreed.

“But why? Corey can fix him good as new just like the TV. Then no one will have to be sad.”

“He can’t do it,” said Alice.

“Well, maybe he can,” said Judy. “But he shouldn’t. He mustn’t.”

Grace looked from one of them to the other.

“But how come?” she persisted.

Alice put her arm around Grace’s shoulder.

“It’s not allowed, sweetie.”

Alice had taken to calling Grace by the same pet names that Miss Gray used. Grace didn’t mind. Much. She could see that the children weren’t just getting smarter; they were getting older somehow. She knew it wouldn’t be long before she was no longer in charge.

She considered what Alice said. Not allowed was a powerful argument.

“But what if he does it and brings Raymond back? Miss Crawford will be mad that we broke the rules, but she’ll be real glad to see Raymond.”

“No, no,” said Alice. “That isn’t what I mean. It’s not against school rules. It’s against the laws of nature.”

Judy laughed. Alice looked at her, puzzled.

“Sorry,” she said. “I was just thinking the same thing — the laws of nature. I mean, isn’t it ironic that we of all people should be trying to enforce them? Everything Corey ever did was against the laws of nature. How do you think we’re even having this conversation?”

“Yeah,” said Grace. “See?”

Alice shook her head.

“You know what I mean, Jude. It’s against God’s laws.”

“No it isn’t,” Kathy said. She swung out from her lower bunk, followed by Estelle from the other side. The girls climbed up and seated themselves: Kathy next to Grace; Estelle next to Judy.

“You’re wrong about fixing Raymond,” said Kathy. “Then he took the child by the hand, and he said to her ‘Talitha Cumi.’

Alice and Judy looked at each other, perplexed.

“It means ‘little girl, wake up’,” Estelle explained. “Mark Five, verse 41.”

“It’s a story the Mission Lady told us,” said Kathy. “Jesus brings a Centurion’s daughter back to life. He tells everybody that the girl isn’t really dead, she’s just asleep. They all laugh at him, but then he tells her to wake up and she does. We found it in the Bible and read it ourselves.”

“And you memorized it?” asked Judy.

Estelle gave the older girls an embarrassed smile. She drew in a little closer to the center, ready to share some confidential information.

“We memorize everything we read,” she whispered.

Judy looked at Kathy. She studied the younger girl for a moment.

“When did you two start reading?” she asked.

Kathy considered this.

“Five weeks ago.”

“And you remember everything you read?” asked Alice.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus—’”

“Okay, okay,” said Judy.

“Romans eight, verses one and two,” Estelle explained.

Judy laughed again.

“You mean you’ve both memorized the whole Bible?”

“Oh, no,” said Estelle. “Of course not. Just the New Testament.”

“And the Psalms,” Kathy added. “And Proverbs. That was all that little Bible in the library had. Anyway, I think it’s okay for Corey to bring Raymond back. Jesus did it.”

“See?” said Grace. “Jesus did it!”

Alice shook her head.

“That’s different. Maybe the girl wasn’t really dead. Jesus said she was just asleep. It could have been a coma or something.”

Kathy and Estelle shared a knowing look.

“Okay, then what about Lazarus?” Kathy asked. “He was dead for days. He smelled bad.”

“It’s different,” Alice insisted. “Those were miracles. The power of God. What Corey does is not the same thing. We can’t tamper with life and death.”

“Yes we can.”

It was Lucinda. Now awake, she stood at the foot of Estelle and Judy’s bed. None of them had heard her stir.

“When a doctor uses electric paddles to resuscitate a heart attack victim, isn’t that tampering with life and death?”

Grace didn’t know exactly what that meant, but she understood that her friend was taking her side. Lucinda — the little red-haired girl in the white flannel nightgown, the second youngest child in the home, Grace’s best buddy — rarely spoke, but when she did, the others listened. It was generally agreed that she was the smartest child in the home. Or perhaps second smartest after Todd.

“That’s different,” said Alice.

“You’re right, Alice.”

Lucinda raised her arms and took hold of the bed posts on either side of her. She seemed poised to perform some gymnastic feat. Then she thought better of it.

“It is different. History, medicine, religion…none of these can provide a precedent for the choice we’re making. This is Terra Incognita. It’s a brave new world that has such people in it.

She let her hands drop.

“That’s right,” said Kathy, recognizing her line. She had played the role of Miranda in their production of The Tempest. “And so…we’re the people?”

Lucinda nodded.

“We are. Especially Corey.”

“So what are you saying?” asked Alice.

“I‘m saying that we have a choice. We can hide behind our fear of things we don’t really understand. Even when we have benefited from those things ourselves. Or we can put those fears aside and do what’s right.”

Alice thought about this for a moment.

“Okay,” she said. “But what’s right? How do we know what’s right?”

“Maybe we can’t know for sure. But I think it’s right for us to help our friends. Raymond and Todd. And Corey.”

“Yeah,” said Grace. “She’s right. We got to do the right thing.” She slid down the side of the bed, hitting the floor a little harder than she planned.

Quiet,” Judy whispered.

Grace stood next to Lucinda, taking her hand.

“Sorry,” she whispered.

“Come on, everybody. We got to go talk to Corey.”

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Chapter 26

Part III

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

Kathy opened the door to the boys’ room holding her flashlight down so that it wouldn’t shine in anyone’s eyes. She was followed by Estelle, then the older girls (including Bettina, who had managed to sleep through the entire caucus, but who was roused once it was time to put the plan in action) and finally Grace and Lucinda. The boys’ room was the mirror image of the girls: a row of five bunk beds filled the room. To the right was a closet; to the left, a bathroom. Opposite the door to the hall was a small window overlooking the back yard. All the boys were in lower bunks: Corey, Robert, and Andrew. Grace was struck by an odd feeling that there were fewer boys here than there should be.

And that was true. Todd and Raymond were missing, after all. But somehow that didn’t quite account for the sense of incompleteness. She shook her head.

There was no time to think silly thoughts.

Alice nudged Robert, then Andrew awake. It took a moment to explain Grace’s idea to them. They both sat and considered it, rubbing their eyes and trying to come fully awake.

“I won’t argue with the plan,” Robert finally said. “But we should remember the law of unintended consequences.”

Lucinda nodded. Then Alice and Judy nodded, too, but Grace suspected that it was just so everyone would think they knew what Robert was talking about. Grace had no idea what he meant, but she wasn’t interested in objections to her plan. She wanted to bring Raymond back, period.

“What‘s the law of unintended consequences?” Kathy was honest enough to ask.

“It’s what Miss Crawford encountered when she started playing music to help Corey out of his shell and ended up with a house full of prodigies.”

Andrew nodded.

“It’s also what Raymond encountered when he read Grace and Corey a comic book and ended up dead.”

“I’m not saying Grace’s idea isn’t good,” Robert continued. “I guess it’s the only chance we have. But there are risks.”

“Major risks,” said Andrew.

No one said anything for a long while. Alice finally broke the silence.

“I think we have to take the chance.”

The children gathered around Corey’s bunk. He was sprawled on his back, the covers fitfully kicked to the foot of the bed. He slept uneasily; his breathing was ragged.

“Corey,” said Grace. “Corey. Can you hear me?”

“Try waking him up,” said Andrew.

Judy moved in and nudged the sleeping boy gently on the shoulder.

“Wake up, Corey. Please wake up.”

Corey stirred. He made a low gurgling sound.

“Wake up, Corey.” Their was urgency in Grace’s trembling voice. “We’re all in trouble and we need your help.”

“Only you can help us,” said Judy.

“We need you, Corey,” said Alice. Tears streamed down her face. “Please help us.”

“I know you sleep like this when you get sad,” Grace continued. “But don’t be sad. We’re not mad at you. Nobody’s mad, not even Miss Crawford. Not even — ”

Grace looked up at the other children. There it was again, the puzzling sense that someone was missing somehow. The sense that there was someone who should be angrier even than Miss Crawford at the loss of Raymond.

But there was no such person.

“Nobody’s mad,” said Robert. “We’re your friends.”

Andrew moved in close to the bed, next to Grace. He took her hand.

“You don’t have to wake up,” he said. “Just dream a dream for us. Like the other times.”

“Dream a dream,” said Estelle, who stepped closer and took hold of Grace’s other hand. “Bring Raymond back to us.”

“Dream a dream,” said Bettina, joining hands with Estelle. “Make him okay.”

Lucinda squirmed her way in between Andrew and Grace.

“Dream a dream,” she said. “Make Todd better.”

“Dream a dream,” said Robert, taking his place next to Bettina. “Bring them both home.”

Kathy was next. She leaned over and kissed Corey on the forehead.

“Dream a dream,” she said. “Make yourself better.”

“Dream a dream,” said Judy, joining the chain. “Make everything okay.”

Alice took Judy’s hand on one side and Andrew’s on the other, completing the ring around the sleeping boy’s bed.

“Dream a dream,” said Alice. “Just like you always do.”

“Dream a dream,” each of the children said in turn. Again and again, a little more loudly each time. And then on some unspoken cue, their voices joined as one.

“Dream a dream, Corey. Dream a dream.” They said the words over and over. It was a cadence, now. A chant. They repeated it again and again. They began to sway with the rhythm of it. Grace let the rhythm take her; she closed her eyes as she continued to chant and sway.

Grace thought about the Dream Place, trying to summon it with her mind. Images from her dreams teased her, never quite coming into focus. She knew that she could never get there without Corey drawing her in. (And, besides, she was awake.) But it was where Corey needed to be if he was going to help Todd and Raymond.

For a moment she had a glimpse of something scary. She remembered that the ants weren’t the only scary dream. There had been another, weeks ago, about a hidden threat. She couldn’t quite remember the dream. It was something that ate. No, something that…erased.

And it was hidden, but it was right where everyone should always look.

Then the scary thought dissolved.

Grace saw a white city on the mountainside. It was the dream of the Mountain People. She knew more about the Mountain People than the rest of them did. She had been dreaming about them with Corey almost from the beginning. She knew that Corey had always been fascinated by the mountains. That whenever he sat in the backyard staring at nothing, some part of him was studying the mountains — looking for a hint of the white walls, the blue domes, the sky-piercing towers. The Mountain People lived there. Someday they would come and make Corey better.

That was the dream.

Yes, thought Grace. The Mountain People. The Mountain People.

They could do it.

They could.

Let them come, Corey. Oh, let them come and be real and be here. Let them come. Oh, let them come.

“The Mountain People…let them come,” she said aloud. Her words broke the rhythm of the children’s chanting.

“The Mountain People, let them come,” she said again, Lucinda joining her. “The Mountain People, let them come,” they all said together. It became a new chant, replacing the earlier one. The children slowly began to circle the bed.

A dazzling light filled the room, a light brighter than daylight. It’s happening, thought Grace. The light was coming from the mountains. The children stopped their chanting. They started to the window to see what it was.

Then Kathy cried out, jolting all of them.

“Who’s that?” she said, terror in her voice, pointing the unnecessary flashlight in the direction of one of the empty bunks. With the room now lighted, it was plain to see that there was someone, a boy, hiding under the bed.

“Raymond?” said Grace, somehow knowing that it wasn’t.

“Come out of there,” said Robert, approaching the bed. Andrew followed. They reached under the bed and slid the hiding boy out. The light was dimming, now. Then the room was dark again.

Robert and Andrew brought the hidden boy to his feet.

Kathy shined the flashlight in the boy’s face and screamed again, followed by the rest of them.

It was Corey.

But Grace knew it was not. Corey was stilling lying there in his bunk, twitching as he slept. This boy was more like Dream Corey in the way he looked around. He could fix his eyes on things, on people. With the flashlight shining directly in his eyes, he turned his head this way and that trying to get a better look at the other children.

Instinctively, Kathy lowered the flashlight so that it didn’t shine directly in his eyes. The boy who somehow both was and was not Corey looked directly at her.

Grace looked down. There was a flashlight on the floor. What was it doing there? Had someone brought a flashlight? She looked at Robert and Andrew, standing there holding the Corey thing in place. She looked at Lucinda and Estelle and Judy and Alice. What had happened. Was there someone missing?

It ate, she suddenly remembered. It erased.

“Don’t look at him!” She cried out. “Don’t! Don’t! Don’t look at him!”

---

From the frantic expression on the nurse’s face as she dashed passed him and into Todd’s room, Darryl could tell that there was something terribly wrong. Some alert from one of the boy’s monitors, no doubt.

Darryl felt sick. The fear and dread that had lingered in the background these past two days welled up.

This is it, he thought. He’s gone.

No longer interested in hospital protocol, he stood up and faced the door, which the nurse had left ajar. He pushed it open. The scene before him took a moment to register.

The nurse was walking towards him, frightened. Enraged.

“Where did she take him?” she demanded.

A light was flashing on a screen next to the bed. The device emitted a shrill beep. Another screen showed a flat line, refreshed, and then refreshed again. On the bed there was a rumpled sheet and a tangle of tubes and wires that were no longer attached to anything.

Todd was gone.

---

“I don’t understand,” said Asher. “If she’s normal, why would you keep her here?”

Celia sighed. She drummed her fingers on her desk. It hurt having the question about Grace put to her in these terms. By law, she knew that she should have turned Grace over to an orphanage as soon as she took over the home. It was something that Myra had refused to do, stemming from the guilt she felt about how she had handled the situation with Jolene. Myra had said that she would place Grace with a family herself, but had never taken any steps to do so. In her turn, Celia had made the same pledge. She, however, had taken steps and would in time make good on the promise. There had just been so much else to do. And Grace was so much a part of the place, so much a part of Celia.

“There’s a long history that you need to be aware —”

She stopped. The curtain on her office window, which faced the common room, was closed. But even so, she could see a brilliant light traced around its edges. It looked like sunlight. The two men, sitting with their backs to the window, were oblivious to the change.

Something very strange was happening. How long had it been going on?

What now, she thought. God, what now?

“Um, it’s a long history,” she started again. Why say anything? “It begins with the child’s mother. She…she was brought to the home at age four. Autistic. A fairly severe case. At, ah, age 12, we noticed a
remarkable —”

The front door banged closed.

What? Why would Caroline go out, now? Or was she letting someone in? Celia could hear footsteps approaching her office door. Caroline and someone? The cop?

She looked up, the light around the edge of the curtain was gone. There was a knock at the office door.

“Ah, were you expecting anyone?” Celia asked Jepson.

Jepson shrugged.

“Our escort may need to go off duty,” he said, sliding his chair back. He pushed the office door open without getting up. Then he stood and turned to look at Asher.

“Two of your charges,” he said. He swung the door open the rest of the way. “What’s this about, Officer?”

Standing in the doorway, with the police officer behind them, were Todd and Raymond. Celia gasped with terror and elation, uncertain which to feel and somehow feeling both at once.

“Oh my God,” she said.

They were both all right. She could tell at once. They were both fine.

“Thank…thank you. God. Thank you,” Celia said.

“They said they live here,” the police officer said tentatively. “And that they needed to talk to you.”

Asher and Jepson looked at Celia, trying to make sense of her response. Of course, she thought. They don’t know who these boys are.

“Miss Crawford,” said Raymond, smiling.

Celia was suddenly aware that there were was something else going on in the home. Shouting from the dormitories. The children knew, somehow. That’s what it was. They knew what was happening. Caroline had gone to tell them. It was a celebration.

She made her way across her office, brusquely sidestepping her two guests. She threw her arms around Raymond. She hugged him tight, lifting him up for a moment, although he was really too big for that.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

He nodded.

“Both of you?” she asked, turning to Todd.

Todd nodded as well. She pulled him in close, never letting go of Raymond.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Did you see Darryl? Dr. MacHale? Does he know.”

“No,” said Todd. He eyed the strangers. “We, uh, came straight from the hospital. If you see what I’m saying.”

Celia turned back to face her guests.

“What’s going on?” asked Jepson.

Celia laughed. She no longer cared what these men thought or said. She no longer cared about the authority they had been given over her home and her children.

“Well, Mr. Jepson. I wonder what the court will have to say now? You don’t have any idea who these boys are. Do you?”

There was a scream from the staircase. It was Grace. Celia turned and saw her running down the stairs, following Corey. So he was awake. Everything was going to be all right.

“Don’t look at him! Don’t look at him!” the little girl shouted, unable to keep up with the older boy.

“Don’t be afraid, Grace,” said Celia. “You don’t understand. Everything is all right.”

“No, you don’t understand,” she cried. “Hide your eyes!”

Todd and Raymond followed Grace’s instructions. They turned their heads away and put their hands over their eyes. The police officer did not.

“What the hell is going on, here?” Asher demanded. He was on his feet.

Celia ignored him. Just for a moment, she wondered why…someone…hadn’t done something about the children being so upset. But there wasn’t anyone, was there? She shook her head.

Corey was now at the bottom of the steps, walking towards her. There was something different about the boy.

Was it possible that he, too, had been healed?

He smiled as his eyes met hers.

---

Grace screamed and screamed as she reached the bottom of the stairs. There were four people in the common room: the three boys and herself. Had there been more? She couldn’t remember. Logic told her that there must have been some grownups there at some time, but she couldn’t remember them.

There was just this sick, awful feeling that somebody was missing.

There were footsteps on the stairs behind her. She turned and saw that it was Corey, the real Corey, coming down the steps. He leaped from the landing to the bottom of the stairs and headed directly for his twin.

“No! Don’t look at him!” she cried, but she wasn’t sure that was the right thing to say. Anyway, Corey never looked at anybody.

The other Corey was standing in front of Raymond, bending this way and that, trying to meet his gaze. Todd was watching from behind. He tapped the false Corey on the shoulder. He turned back swiftly to face him, but by then Todd had looked away.

Grace watched in horrified fascination.

The eater, eraser Corey looked up and saw his other self headed his way. He smiled.

Corey reached his twin and put out his hand. The other boy took it. There was no fight, no struggle of any kind. The other Corey simply vanished.

It was relief, but it wasn’t enough. Grace wanted to be able to forget him, as she must have forgotten some others. But she could still remember. The wrong Corey, the bad Corey. She could remember.

The other children came out into the hall and started down the stairs. Corey was now sitting on the floor, staring at nothing. Raymond and Todd stood on either side of him and watched the procession: Bettina, Judy, Estelle, Lucinda, Robert.

Five of them. Plus Corey and herself. Seven. And no grownups.

It seemed like everyone, but it wasn’t. She was sure it wasn’t.

---

Traffic in downtown Greenwood was at an absolute standstill. Main Street was not moving, and every side street leading into it was clogged. Darryl couldn’t believe it.

At this time of night? Where were they all going?

He knew where he wanted to go, but he was less clear on why than when he had left. Todd was missing. Darryl needed to get to the home so he could see…who? One of the kids? It didn’t make any sense.

People were beginning to abandon their cars and form small groups in the intersections. Darryl got out of his car and joined a small group that was forming directly in front of him.

It was a small group: a big man in blue coveralls who had apparently just finished a shift at the ceramics plant, a very thin, scruffy-looking younger fellow, and an older couple.

“Good evening,” the older man said.

“Evening,” said Darryl, nodding to the others. “Why have we stopped?”

The thin man gestured up the street.

“Roadblock,” he said. “The State Police are blocking off everything leading into the mountains.”

“And I just heard that they’re going to declare a curfew,” added the man wearing coveralls. “They’re afraid there may be a panic. Maybe riots.”

Darryl looked from face to face, trying to make sense of what he was hearing.

“What the hell?” he said. “What’s going on, anyway?”

“Haven’t you heard?” asked the older man.

“Haven’t you seen?” asked his wife. She pointed towards the mountains.

Darryl couldn’t make out what she was referring to. The he saw it. There was something unusual happening on one of the big peaks. Lights. Not in the foothills, where lights were supposed to be, but way up. And there were structures, dimly visible in the distance. It almost looked like a city skyline.

“What…?” Darryl stammered. “What?”

“It’s an invasion,” said the younger man. “Aliens.”

None of them disagreed.

Darryl shook his head.

“Didn’t you see the sky light up?” the woman asked.

“This is crazy,” said Darryl. “It’s insane.”

He turned and started down the street. He wasn’t that far from the home now. He would cut over on one of the side streets and be there in a few minutes.

He continued down the street, passing the occasional group of gawkers. Darryl didn’t bother to look at the mountain any more. There would be time to think about that later. He turned off Main Street and walked three blocks towards Emerson, the street that the home was on. Turning the corner, he noticed a weight in his pocket.

Oh, yeah, he thought. It’s the thing.

But there was something wrong. For some reason, he couldn’t quite remember what “the thing” was.

It was some idea of Todd’s. Some crazy idea.

But Darryl had been willing to go along with it. He had even been kind of excited about it, hadn’t he?

Yes. He had.

And come to think of it, he was pretty sure that he did know what it was. But it didn’t make any sense.

He stopped under a street lamp. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small, heavy box that he had been carrying around for two days. He opened the box.

As soon as he saw it, Darryl remembered it. He remembered going to the store and picking it out. He remembered wondering whether he could really afford it. He remembered wondering whether this was really such a great idea, and at the same time sensing that it was. A great idea. The best idea yet.

What he could not remember was who he had bought it for.

It was a ring. A diamond engagement ring.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 27

Part IV

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

The train to St. Petersburg was delayed. How long it would be, no one seemed to know.

The train station was cold and noisy. Reuben sat on the floor — the benches were all full — and leafed through the bulky file the old man had given him the previous night. The noise and press of the crowd made it difficult to concentrate. He looked up from his reading. The place was thick with cigarette smoke, which was giving him a sore throat. The people were rendered shapeless by layers of gray-black coats and wraps. To his right sat a mother traveling alone with her five children — all boys unless the baby she held in her arms was girl, and none of them older than eight. The two oldest boys were running up and down the line, asking everyone something in Russian that Reuben couldn’t make out. From time to time, the mother would call out their names in a desultory fashion; she was too constrained by her younger children to go get them herself.

To Reuben’s left sat an ancient couple who methodically peeled and sliced potatoes and onions, collecting their work in a good-sized iron pot. Reuben wondered whether they were going to build a fire and start cooking right there on the train station floor. He didn’t think it would surprise him if they did.

Unexpectedly, as though he had just heard her, the larger of the two boys heeded his mother’s call and dashed back to where she sat. Along the way he nearly tripped over the pot of potatoes. The old couple were quicker and more agile than Reuben would have expected. The man grabbed the pot before it could tip and pulled it back to himself. The woman clawed at the boy as he passed, apparently not really wanting to catch him, grunting some dire warning. The mother took hold of the boy by his coat collar and yanked him to a sitting position on the floor. She glared at the old woman, but said nothing.

It was now two days since the Christmas party, and Reuben had begun his journey later than he had wanted. He was following a course that the old man had laid out for him. Or at least, he had mapped out the first two steps. Reuben was to take the train to St. Petersburg, where he would meet a man who might have some more information for him. From there, he would fly to London, where he would await the arrival of someone else, who might be able to tell him something. It was as tenuous a start as Reuben could imagine, but it was a start. Along the way, he would study the file and — between what it contained and what he learned (if anything) from these initial contacts — he would begin his journey in earnest.

There was no good reason to take the train to St. Petersburg rather than fly there, but the old man insisted on doing it this way. Reuben didn’t argue; going by train allowed him to cover up his somewhat embarrassing skittishness where it came to flying Aeroflot. He knew that the real old hands in Russia — the old man, for example — never thought twice about jumping on a Russian flight. But Reuben found the whole Aeroflot experience unsettling: the food, the service, and (above all) the rather rough way the Russian pilots had of handling their aircraft.

It was a strange sensibility to have, considering some of the aeronautical situations Reuben had found himself in over the years. At least on Aeroflot, he reminded himself, you could usually count on all of the airplane’s engines working. Or one of them, anyway. And there was rarely anyone on the ground firing a rocket-propelled grenade at you. The airline wasn’t so bad when you thought about it that way.

Nonetheless, he avoided it.

Moreover the train, he rationalized, would provide him with more time to study the file and prepare himself mentally for the road ahead. He knew from the moment he had decided to go that the best thing to do was simply to go. But there had been preparations to make; the old man was still waiting for pieces of the file to arrive.

In any case, it had not been an easy parting; the good-byes were difficult with Ksenia and with Betty and with the old man. Even saying dos vidanya to Sergei a few moments before had been unexpectedly difficult.

Reuben had had to fight an impulse to invite Sergei to join him on the trip. That was out of the question, of course. Sergei had a family to take care of and a job to do at WorldConneX (Reuben’s own employment contract having been graciously set aside at the old man’s request.) It was an odd notion for Reuben anyway; he usually wasn’t fond of traveling with other people. But there was something about this particular journey that made the idea of companionship seem right. Somehow, it felt like a two-man job.

Or maybe more.

---

Reuben sat in his compartment, reading, vaguely waiting for that familiar lurching sensation to mark the beginning of a train trip. He didn’t think much of it when there was a knock at the door. They had already checked his ticket (twice), but he knew from the time he had already spent in Russia that they were good at doing things like that any number of times, for no apparent reason. When he opened the door, he was surprised to see not a uniformed conductor, but a fat man of about his own age or a little younger. He sported a long green parka and blue jeans, and was wearing white sneakers and a black baseball cap.

Reuben thought: Hell, why not just stamp “American” on your forehead?

“Reuben Stone?” said the American guy.

This wasn’t in the cards. Reuben didn’t see how anybody could be looking for him.

“Who are you?”

“David Coffey. I have a message for you.”

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a note. It was written in the old man’s handwriting on a sheet of paper torn from one of Reuben’s notebooks. Reuben relaxed. Of course, it made sense that this guy worked for Keyes. He glanced at Coffey again. It was hard to imagine him being hired by someone like Kolkhi.

He read the note:

Reuben-

It’s okay, Dave is on the level. He’s the guy I was sending you to see in St. Pete. Didn’t realize he was in Moscow until this morning. Proceed as we discussed. Call me when you get there.

OM

Reuben extended his hand.

“Glad to meet you, David,” he said.

“Likewise,” Coffey said, shaking his hand firmly.

“Come on in,” Reuben said, realizing that sharing his berth was going to cut seriously into the already limited space. On the other hand, hadn’t he just been thinking something about a two-man job? Coffey managed to shove his oversized duffel bag into the luggage compartment already occupied by Reuben’s two modest black bags. He then took off his enormous coat and squeezed it in there as well.

He sat down on the bench opposite Reuben.

“Well, I see that you got our latest research,” he said, gesturing at the file in front of Reuben on the tray table. “What are your impressions so far?”

“I don’t really have any.”

Coffey nodded.

“Yeah, it takes a while to sink in.”

Reuben flipped through a few pages, then looked back up at Coffey.

“So you did all this research?”

“A little of it. My job was to compile it all. Actually, there were a half dozen or so contributors to that book.”

Reuben studied his new traveling companion for a moment. He wasn’t quite as heavy as Reuben thought; the enormous coat had added a few pounds. And he was definitely younger than Reuben.

“So who are you?” he asked.

“Who am I…” said Coffey. He scratched his head.

“Is that too hard a question?”

Coffey laughed.

“No, I just want to give you the answer you’re getting at.”

He crossed his legs, one foot perched on the other knee, and began unlacing his sneaker.

“I used to teach English at an international school in the Netherlands before I got involved in the work. I’m a detective of sorts, I guess. A sleuth. A professional sleuth. I like the sound of that.”

With a grunt, he pulled the shoe off his foot.

“To put it less glamorously, I’m a researcher. I’m part of a small organization committed to locating the Philosopher’s Stone.”

“So I gathered from your book. I’m wondering if maybe you know my roommate from college?”

Coffey shrugged.

“What’s his name?”

“Actually, he changed it a while back. When I knew him, his name was Tony Sullivan. He hung one of those ‘Frodo Lives’ posters on the wall of our dorm room. Tony and I never spent too much time together in college. He was always hanging out with this kind of quiet, pasty-faced gang. They went around wearing cloaks and carrying swords. Played Dungeons and Dragons all the time.”

Coffey smiled at this.

“Go on,” he said.

“So anyway a couple of years ago I heard that he’s changed his name to Duil Kendor and that he now lives with a colony of elves somewhere up in Marin County, California.”

Coffey laughed. If he was offended, he didn’t show it.

“That’s a good one,” he said after a moment. “And you would expect my path to cross with somebody like that?”

“Look, no offense,” said Reuben. “But you strike me as a normal and level-headed guy. Do you really believe that there’s a magic rock that changes lead to gold and bestows immortality?"

Coffey smiled again.

“Well, when you put it like that… You seem pretty sane and normal yourself. What do you think?”

Reuben shrugged.

“I don’t know what I think. The old…Mr. Keyes doesn’t seem to believe in it. He told me he thought the Philosopher’s Stone was a red herring.”

Coffey re-crossed his legs and began to unlace the other shoe.

“I can see that,” he said.

Reuben hefted the book from the tray table and waved it at Coffey.

“Well from reading this, it sounds to me like you’re convinced that it does exist.”

Coffey sighed. The other shoe came off.

“I suppose I am. I mean, I believe that there is a true re-contextualizing agent, what has traditionally been referred to as the Philosopher’s Stone. But I also doubt that it’s an actual stone. I don’t see how a physical substance could have the properties that the Philosopher’s Stone is supposed to. But there are other kinds of agents.”

“Like what?”

“Well, it could be a physical process, as opposed to a substance. It could be a technique for re-contextualizing—”

“Okay, that’s twice,” said Reuben. “Do you mind if I stop you? I’ve been reading that word all afternoon. What does it mean? Is it the same a transmuting?”

Coffey winced at the use of that word.

“Pretty much,” he said. He slid his shoes under the bench and leaned back into the corner.

Transmute is the archaic term. It fell out of use along with the idea that things can actually be changed from one thing to another. We no longer believe that that’s the case. Now we believe that the same thing experienced in two completely different contexts will have different properties and will effectively be two different things.”

Reuben considered this.

“So when you say you change contexts, do you mean points of reference? All you do is change how you look at something?”

“That’s pretty much it,” said Coffey.

“And that changes the thing itself?”

Coffey nodded.

Reuben looked out the window for a moment. Lights were flickering in the distance, interrupted by patches of darkness — buildings and stands of trees. The train was moving. He hadn’t even noticed.

“Doesn’t that sound kind of…subjective? Solipsistic, even?”

“Absolutely. Is that a problem for you?”

Reuben nodded.

“Definitely. If something happens, I want it to really happen. I don’t want to just think it happened.”

Coffey shrugged.

“Maybe there’s a difference, maybe not. How would you ever know?”

Reuben leaned back. He sighed heavily.

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about this kind of stuff for a long time.”

He laughed.

“Not since I was living with the elf, come to think of it. Hey, did you ever hear this one? What if the earth is just an electron spinning around an atom that’s part of the fingernail of some cosmic giant? That’s a good one, too.”

“Sure,” said Coffey. He studied Reuben for a moment. “I think it’s going to be good for us having you on the team. I’ve always thought skeptics were a good influence. They keep us on our toes. But they usually burn out pretty fast.”

“Anyway, go ahead,” said Reuben. “You were saying that the Philosopher’s Stone might be a process or a technique?”

“That’s right. By extension, it could also be a device. Maybe there’s this machine that would enable a person to re-contextualize reality.”

Coffey got up suddenly and began rummaging through his things. He produced a bottle from one of the pockets of his enormous coat.

“But if it’s all subjective…” he thought about this for a moment. “What kind of technology would make that possible?” asked Reuben.

“Presumably, it would be extremely high technology. Past anything that exists on Earth today.” Coffey stuffed his coat back into place and sat back down.

“Brandy?” he said, offering the bottle to Reuben.

Reuben shook his head. Coffey shrugged, unscrewed the cap, and took a long draw from the bottle. He sat back and closed his eyes.

Reuben wondered why these discussions always seemed to involve the flow of liquor.

“Man, that’s good,” Coffey said after a while. “Anyhow, that’s one of the big problems with the device theory. The whole reason we’re looking for the Philosopher’s Stone is that we have reason to believe it already exists. In fact, that it existed a long time ago. It’s hard to imagine how people in the past could have developed a technology surpassing what we have today.”

“Maybe they used that same technology to cover their tracks,” said Reuben.

Coffey looked puzzled.

“Did Mr. Keyes give you some of our research besides what’s here?”

“No,” said Reuben. “and believe me, this is plenty.”

“That’s interesting. I just read a draft of a paper last week that proposes that very theory.”

Reuben smiled.

“Well, I was just throwing it out there. Not that big a leap, really. Once you give the ancient citizens of Atlantis — or whoever — magical powers, you can use those powers to smooth out any inconsistency in the theory. ”

Coffey nodded.

“I guess that’s true.” He paused and took another sip of brandy. “Which doesn’t prove that it’s wrong. Anyhow, the idea is gaining some ground in the movement. It’s a variation on the Devicist theory, which states that the Stone is a machine invented in a time of incredible technological achievement which occurred before recorded history. The variation is that the civilization that created the Stone used it to re-contextualize away all traces of their ever having been here. ”

“Not all traces, apparently. Or you wouldn’t have your little club.”

Reuben held out his hand for the bottle. If he was going to start thinking like these people, he might as well go all the way.

“But why would they do that?”

“Beats me,” said Coffey, passing him the bottle. “Of course, a lost ancient civilization is mysterious pretty much by definition. But I can’t see any reason why they would disappear. That’s my major problem with the Devicist approach.”

Reuben uncapped the bottle and took a sip. The brandy was harsh.

Really harsh.

“Okay,” he sputtered, “you said there were other things it could be?”

“Well, getting back to the idea of a process or technique, the Stone could be nothing more than way of thinking. Some of us believe that all thinking is re-contextualizing anyway. Perhaps there is a way to make this overt rather than latent.”

Reuben considered at the bottle he was holding and decided to take another drink. Maybe it would grow on him. He took a longer draw this time.

It did not grow on him.

“What the hell is this stuff, anyway?” he managed to ask, handing the bottle back to Coffey.

Coffey smiled.

“Plum brandy. From Siberia. Kicks ass, doesn’t it?”

Reuben nodded.

“So what are you saying, I can turn lead into gold just by thinking about it?”

“Why not? Ever heard of the anthropic principle?”

Reuben shook his head.

“It’s a scientific theory. I mean real science, you know? It has to do with our place in the universe. As observers. One version of the theory contains the idea that consciousness is a necessary prerequisite to the existence of the universe.”

Reuben considered this.

“And?” he said.

“So if that’s true, how big a leap is it? To go from the idea that consciousness in general is required to bring the universe in being to the idea that the conscious thought of an individual can change the universe?”

“My guess is that it’s a pretty damn big leap. Especially since it’s an extrapolation of one version of a theory that I doubt anybody has proved yet.”

Coffey laughed.

“You’re a tough customer, Reuben. I like that.”

He got up and returned the bottle to his coat pocket. He rummaged through his things for a moment before returning to his seat holding a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.

“Anyway,” said Reuben, “where does all this put the old man’s secret society? The society of the great magic?”

“Good question,” said Coffey. “They’re kind of a separate issue. Not everyone is convinced that they’re connected with alchemy at all. And even if they are, they might not actually hold the key to the Stone.”

“What do you think?”

Coffey shrugged.

“It’s hard to say.”

“Could they be that remnant of the lost civilization, keeping their super-technology alive?”

Coffey looked at his pack of cigarettes for a moment.

“Could be,” he said. “Some Devicists believe that. Or maybe they’re just a more secretive version of the Freemasons or the Rosicrucians.”

“Is that what you think?”

“That’s what seems most likely. But here’s an oddity.”

He picked up the book again and thumbed to the end. He handed it to Reuben, open to a page that contained an intricate diagram.

“You’ve seen this before, right?”

Reuben looked at the page. He nodded.

“It’s an astrological symbol from the manuscript the old man had.”

Coffey grinned.

“Uh huh, “ he said. “Now turn the page.”

Reuben turned the page and found the same diagram, rotated slightly.

“There it is again,” he said.

“Not really,” said Coffey. “The first diagram is a pattern from the ceiling of a Sufi mosque in Turkey. The second is a mandala from a Buddhist temple in Nepal.”

Reuben looked at both pictures again.

“But they’re the same as the picture in the manuscript.”

“Right. Whatever you want to think about the society of the Magus Majorum, they apparently are connected with the manuscript you saw. And the manuscript seems to be linked with some pretty interesting stuff. Including Al Razi himself.”

Reuben looked at Coffey.

“I don’t see how this explains anything.”

Coffey smiled.

“Who said it would? Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to provide all the explanations?”

Reuben shook his head, laughing with resignation.

“How did I get signed up for this job?” he asked.

“Say, Reuben, is it okay if I smoke?”

Reuben considered this. His throat was still smarting from the train station, not to mention the brandy.

“Well, to tell you the truth, Dave…”

Coffey raised his hand to cut him off.

“Say no more,” he said good-naturedly. “I’ll find a spot.”

With that, he was up and out of the compartment, sliding the door closed behind him.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Chapter 28

Part IV

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

Reuben sat back and sighed. What a character this Dave Coffey was.

He looked down at the book, still open across his lap. There was something fascinating about the shape of that design. If he stared at it long enough, it almost seemed to move. It was like it was rotating very slowly. He stared a little longer. After a while the design stood still and the train car itself slowly began to spin.

Reuben looked up, shaking his head to clear his thoughts.

That was odd, he thought.

It wasn’t just the dizzying sensation. That was clearly due to the optical illusion or whatever it was that made him think the picture was moving. There was something else — a giddy feeling. It seemed to come from a part of himself that he seldom accessed: a part that was always there, but that he managed to forget about most of the time. It was the same place that the shadow came from. It was a place that echoed with the words everybody dies.

But the sensation of movement was not the shadow. It was a feeling of constraints being lifted, of something being let loose.

Reuben stared at the picture again.

Time passed.

Reuben suddenly snapped his head back — from where? — and remembered that he was in the train car. Coffey had been gone for a long while. It had been a long while, hadn’t it?

All Reuben knew was that his head was pounding. Vertigo swept over him. He was certain he would vomit.

He took a deep breath, got to his feet, and decided to find the lavatory.

The train car was dark. Reuben made his way down the passageway towards the toilets at the end of the car. He passed several berths, most closed up for the night. One or two were open, their passengers drinking or talking or having a smoke, or simply looking out the window at the passing sullen darkness. The car was quiet. The ride was bumpier than Reuben would have expected.

David Coffey was nowhere to be seen.

Reuben passed the car’s babushka just outside the toilet. She muttered something to him in Russian, but he couldn‘t quite make it out. Possibly asking him whether he wanted tea.

“I just need some water,” he said, knowing that she wouldn’t understand. He slipped through the door and into the restroom. He realized at once that he had not adequately prepared himself for this experience. The smell, primarily. The floor was wet. In fact, every surface in the tiny compartment was wet. And the toilet fixtures were made of wood.

“And this is first class,” he said aloud.

Before he could make his way to the sink, a wave of dizziness struck him, and he fell to his knees. Something was happening to him — he was being turned around or turned over or, somehow, turned inside out. He closed his eyes. After a moment, the sensation passed.

He made his way to the sink; the water from the tap was ice cold. He splashed some on his face. It didn’t help that much. The dizziness was beginning to pass, but there was still a throbbing in his head. He finished in the restroom and stepped back into the passageway. The old woman was gone.

Fetching him a glass of water? He doubted it.

He made his way back to his berth. He had left the sliding door cracked opened, but now it had been slid fully shut. He tried the door only to realize that it had been locked, too.

Nice, he thought. That’s really nice.

He rapped lightly on the door.

“Hey, Dave,” he said. “What’s the big idea? Open up.”

There was no response from inside. Reuben made a fist and pounded on the door a couple of times. This time he heard Coffey moving, making his way to the door. The latch clicked, and the door slid open slightly.

“Shto?” It was a Russian man. Late fifties, early sixties. He was groggy, as though he had been awakened from a sound sleep. Reuben looked down the passageway to make sure that he had knocked on the right door.

He had…of course he had. This was the berth he had just left a few minutes earlier.

“Uh, I’m sorry to disturb you, but this is my compartment.”

The man blinked, trying to make out what he was seeing and hearing.

“Shto? Nye gavaroo po Ingliski.” What? I don’t speak English.

“Okay,” said Reuben. He sighed. Nyet problyem. How does one say, “hey, you stole my seat” in Russian? This wasn’t the sort of thing he and Ksenia had covered in their regular language sessions at the casino.

He took a stab at it.

The man clearly didn’t understand.

He tried again.

The man asked him a question in Russian. Reuben wasn’t sure he understood. He may have been suggesting that Reuben was on the wrong car, which was impossible. He had never left the car. It was a quick jaunt down the aisle to the toilet and back. At last the sleepy Russian man turned around and said something to Coffey, who it occurred to Reuben should have cleared this whole thing up before it started. In fact, it never should have started in the first place. Why did he let this guy into their compartment? Didn’t he know they only slept two comfortably?

The man slid the door open wider to reveal that the person he spoke to was not David Coffey, not at all. It was a woman of about his age, perhaps a bit younger. She had on a thick fur coat, with which she had obviously hastily wrapped herself. Reuben could see that she was wearing a nightgown beneath it.

This made no sense. From the way they were dressed, the fact that the man had clearly been soundly asleep, and from their personal effects — which Reuben could see were scattered in the compartment — it was obvious that these people had been there a while. What had happened to Coffey?

“What you want?” the woman asked in heavily accented English. Her expression was severe. She appeared to have less patience than her bewildered husband.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am. But can you tell me what happened to the man who was in this compartment before? Where did he go?”

The man said something to the woman in Russian. She responded and then turned back to Reuben.

“You have make mistake,” she said. “You go to wrong car, maybe go to wrong berth. No man here.”

“I guess he left after I did. Did he leave my luggage? If you will allow me to get my belongings, I’ll find another place and I won’t disturb you any further.”

She rolled her eyes impatiently.

“You are in wrong place. Maybe you drink too much? Your belongings not here.”

Reuben felt himself losing patience, which he knew wouldn’t help in a situation like this.

“Listen,” he said, steadying himself as the train lurched unexpectedly, “I was in this compartment before you people. There was another man here with me. I guess he left while I was in the toilet and then the two of you showed up, found the compartment empty, and helped yourselves to it. That’s fine. But I left my luggage behind and I need it.”

“No,” the woman said sharply, “is wrong. We are here, in this place, since we leave from Moscow. We do not move into this berth halfway to St. Petersburg. You have no belongings here.”

Apparently responding the disturbance, the babushka arrived on the scene. Not the same one as before, Reuben noted. This one was taller, fatter, and apparently older.

She conferred with the Russian couple for a moment and then turned and walked away.

“What’s going on?” asked Reuben.

“She goes to get…what is word…conductor. He take you to correct place.” With that, the woman slid the compartment door shut. Reuben heard it click locked.

Great, thought Reuben. It just keeps getting better. A few minutes later, the babushka returned with a distinguished-looking uniformed gentleman. Reuben thought he recognized him from earlier in the trip, but he wasn’t sure.

“Hello. What is your name, please?” he asked in perfect English.

“Stone. Reuben Stone.”

He shook Reuben’s hand.

“What seems to be the difficulty, Mr. Stone?”

Reuben did his best to explain the situation. The more he heard himself insisting on what had occurred, the more he wondered whether he hadn’t made a mistake.

The conductor listened, nodding gravely. He then turned to the babushka and spoke with her for a moment.

“Mr. Stone,” he said, turning back to Reuben, “It appears that you have made a mistake. This is not your compartment. I will be happy to assist you in finding your correct place, if you will please show me your ticket.”

Reuben was suddenly glad that the train had been so cold and that he had kept his coat on. He wouldn’t want to compound his difficulties by having no ticket. Strange that it didn’t seem nearly as cold, now. And there was something else different, but he couldn’t put his finger on what. He reached into his pocket and produced his ticket, handing it to the conductor.

The conductor studied it or a moment. He looked back at Reuben, puzzled.

“I’m very sorry, “ he said, “but I believe there’s been a mistake. Have you another ticket? A more recent one?”

“What do you mean more recent? I bought that this afternoon in Moscow.”

The conductor shook his head.

“No, sir. Look at the date — this ticket is more than four months old.”

He showed the ticket to Reuben. Reuben couldn’t read most of it, but the date was correct: January 8.

What the hell was the conductor talking about?

For his part, the conductor smiled patiently at Reuben.

“This must be a ticket from a previous journey, still in your coat pocket. Try again, and maybe you will find the ticket you bought today.”

“No, what are you saying? I bought it today and it has today’s date stamped on it.”

The conductor examined the ticket, now looking puzzled himself.

“No, sir,” he said. “This ticket is dated January. Eighth January.”

“So?” Reuben asked, exasperated. “What is today?”

“Today is 17th May, Mr. Stone.”

This is insane, thought Reuben.

He looked at the ticket again.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “I wasn’t feeling well and I suppose I got confused. Can you please help me find my luggage and the man I was traveling with?”

“May I ask to see your papers, please?” the conductor asked at last.

Not an uncommon request, even in post-Soviet Russia. Reuben was once again thankful that he had kept his coat on. He produced his visa and passport from his breast pocket and handed them to the conductor.

The conductor studied them for a long while, looking up at Reuben from time to time as he did so.

“Very, well, then,” he said at last. “Will you follow me, please?”

He led Reuben down several cars until they came to an empty berth oddly situated at the back of a third-class coach. The coach was packed with people, most of them trying to find a way to sleep in the cramped, narrow seats. Those who were awake were apparently all smoking, and a thick haze of cigarette smoke hung in the air. Several of the smokers eyed Reuben suspiciously as he made his way down the aisle.

The conductor slid open the door to the tiny berth.

“You may sit here for a while, Mr. Stone,” he said.

“What about my luggage?”

“I will go to look for your belongings. Meanwhile, sit down here and relax.”

“The man I was with is named Coffey. David Coffey.”

The conductor nodded.

Reuben sighed heavily as he sat down on the uncomfortable, barely upholstered, wooden bench. He looked at the window as he tried to make some kind of sense out of what was happening.

Then it occurred to him what else was different: it wasn’t as dark as it was supposed to be.

The sun had set hours earlier, shortly after the train’s departure from Moscow. Reuben looked at his watch; it was a little after 10 PM. It had seemed like the middle of the night because it was so dark and because people were trying to make the best of the sleeping time on the long train ride to St. Petersburg.

Only now it wasn’t so dark. Fully half the sky was gray — not black — fading off to a silver western horizon. Reuben wondered if he had fallen asleep for longer than he realized. Had his watch stopped? Was dawn approaching? He looked again. This was not dawn; it was dusk. This is what had bothered him earlier in the corridor, what he couldn’t put his finger on.

How had it become lighter out?

Reuben struggled to think of an explanation. Maybe it was a geographic phenomenon. The train was going north, after all. And the farther north you went, the longer the day. Of course. St. Petersburg was famous for its White Nights, nights where the sun set, or came close to setting, but it never really got dark.

There was only one problem with this theory. It was January. There were no White Nights in the winter. In wintertime, he should be witnessing the opposite phenomenon: the farther north you go, the shorter the day gets.

There was only one explanation. It really was May.

But that was impossible.

Well, not impossible, come to think of it. Reuben touched his wounded forehead. He hadn’t been well. He had taken a blow to the head a while back — apparently longer ago than he realized — the kind of injury that might lead to all kinds of complications. Dr. Chevlenko had said it: there was no such thing as a superficial brain injury. It was just that no adverse effects had surfaced yet.

And now, apparently, some had.

Reuben tried to put the sequence of events together. He had boarded the train in January. He got a headache somewhere along the way and decided to go to the bathroom. In the bathroom he blacked out, only to be revived some time later. Several months went by of which he now had no memory. Perhaps he was confused and disoriented throughout that period. And then, tonight — taking a similar trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg — he went to the bathroom again, triggering a similar episode.

Only this time he woke up thinking that it was still January, and that he was still on the first trip.

“Yeah, bullshit,” Reuben said aloud.

Of course, that would be the expected reaction of a deranged man given a logical explanation of his delusions.

So it was just a coincidence that the ticket from the earlier trip was still in his pocket. But since he was on the train in May, it must mean that he had a ticket for this trip on him somewhere, too. Reuben might be able to accept the notion that he was deranged, but he would never allow that he was a freeloader.

Maybe the ticket was in his other pocket. He reached in and found not the ticket, but something that completely destroyed the memory-lapse theory.

It was a sandwich, wrapped in aluminum foil. He quickly unwrapped it and confirmed — yes, it was a turkey sandwich. Betty had made it for him that morning out of the leftovers from Christmas dinner. He had meant to eat it earlier but had forgotten all about it after Coffey had shown up. At this point, it was no longer terribly appetizing.

But it was clearly no more than a day old. A four-month old sandwich — if Reuben cared to picture such a thing — would be disgusting. This sandwich was just a little squashed, and perhaps the bread had gone a bit dry.

What the hell, he thought. He took a bite.

Not that bad, actually.

He tired to think of some alternative explanations. Perhaps he had, in fact, started out on this trip in May, not January, and in his disoriented state he was now remembering that he left in January.

But that wouldn’t account for the January ticket.

Or he had left in January, and blacked out in the restroom as he speculated earlier, and Betty had given him another sandwich from a different turkey when he left on this trip in May.

Right.

And he had just happened to put it in the same pocket.

And for some reason he was holding only the ticket for the earlier trip, not for the one he was on now. And he was coincidentally dressed in exactly the same clothes that he wore in January.

No, it didn’t wash.

Just to be sure, he decided to give finding the May ticket one more try. He checked each of his pockets, coat and pants, with no luck. He sat back and sighed. Then he realized…the conductor had not returned his passport and visa.

He got up and went to the door. It wouldn’t budge. He tried it again; no luck. That didn’t make any sense.

Then it did.

A tiny cramped compartment in the back of third class that you could lock from the outside.

Reuben was being detained. He was a prisoner.

He thought about trying to force his way out of the compartment, but what would be the point? Was he going to jump from a moving train? He suddenly wished he had one of those mobile telephones that his former employer sold.

A quick call to Sergei would sure come in handy about now.

Reuben chuckled. Not that one of those WorldConneX phones was likely to work out here in the middle of nowhere.

Well, it was all a mix-up of some kind. He wasn’t really worried. More confused than anything else.

At some point, he must have fallen asleep. He awoke to the sound of the latch clicking on the door of his tiny compartment. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dazzling light. It was now morning; the train had stopped. The door to the compartment slid open. It was the conductor, along with two other men, uniformed.

Cops.

“Mr. Stone,” said the conductor, “Please accompany us.”

They led Reuben off the train and into the station. Reuben noted that they had not yet updated the sign in the station. It still read Leningrad.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 29

Part IV

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

Reuben awoke disoriented, as he often did, to the sound of screams.

“Pachemoo?” the voice wailed. “Pachemoo!”

Why, the man lamented. Why?

It was not a question; it was simply agony and despair. The wailing exhausted itself after a while, leaving only a softer moaning sound. Then there were other voices, lower in pitch, guttural. Telling the man to be quiet. Threatening to strike him if he made another sound.

Reuben’s eyes came fully open. He sat up and looked around. He no longer gave much thought to the cramped, stifling space that was his cell. He had somehow managed to grow used to the place. He had a bunk with a bare, filthy mattress and a hole in the floor that served as his toilet. He had a pitcher and a wash basin and a plate. He was given water and food, such as it was, once a day. He was taken out regularly for what were euphemistically referred to as “debriefing” sessions.

There was a pattern, here: a routine. He had adjusted to it.

Reuben was now in his second month of detention. He was dressed in a tattered prison uniform which had been too tight when he first put it on, but which was now loose fitting, and getting baggier every day.

He had had only one visitor. A thin, nervous guy from the American consulate — named Tubbs or Stubbs or something (for some reason, Reuben could never get it straight), an annoying little bureaucrat with a whiny voice and a pinched face — had made two appearances. On his first visit, he listened to Reuben’s story with little interest, taking the occasional perfunctory note on a small clipboard he carried with him. On his subsequent visit, he asked Reuben about his health, and whether he was being treated well. Those details struck Reuben as being beside the point.

“What about getting me out of here?” Reuben had asked. “Is anyone working on that?”

“I’ll be frank with you,” the man answered. “There isn’t much we can do in a case like this. Even my being here today involves something of a concession. Your circumstances are sufficiently unusual that some allowances have been made. We’re arranging for a psychiatric evaluation as soon as we possibly can. It could provide the grounds for your release to American custody.”

“Meaning you think I’m crazy?”

He looked at Reuben coldly.

“I don’t have an opinion one way or the other. Should you be found to be in your right mind, it doesn’t look good for you. You’ll have to stand trial for counter-revolutionary activities. I don’t think I need to inform you of the severity of sentencing for such crimes.”

“No. I’ve heard.”

In fact, Reuben had been hearing about the punishments doled out to traitors — death by hard labor in the gulags, numerous highly imaginative forms of torture, and (maybe most cruelly) notification that you’re going to be unexpectedly released followed by summary execution — on an almost daily basis since arriving. These descriptions were often screamed at him, with an occasional backhand slap or a nightstick jab to the ribs to make sure he was paying attention. He would sometimes get an hour or more of this at a time.

“Then I don’t have to tell you that you had better hope for your own sake that you are crazy.” With that the irritating bureaucrat named Tubbs or Stubbs turned to leave.

He turned back for a moment, remembering something.

“There’s one other possibility. Even if they find you guilty, they might be persuaded to exchange you for one of theirs. It’s been done before, but not lately.”

With that, he left. The visit had been more than three weeks earlier. Reuben had seen no one from the outside since then, and was given no indication when the psychiatric test would take place.

He was eager to take it. Not just for the possibility of release; it would be a relief to have confirmation that he had lost his mind. His memories of the past few months — the past few years, even — could not be reconciled with reality. The only explanation for this (at least, the only one that he cared to entertain) was that his mind had played some vast trick on him. Whatever else had happened, he knew that he had suffered a head injury at some point in the recent past; he had the scars to prove it. But even that couldn’t have happened the way he remembered it happening.

Technically, he was being held on charges of carrying a forged visa. This was certainly a serious enough offense in its own right. But what had really caught the attention of the authorities was the country which had supposedly issued the visa: the Russian Federation.

There was no such country.

This was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Still. Always. The Soviet Union had never fallen. Apparently, from what Reuben had been able to gather, there had been a Glasnost and a Perestroika. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Gorbachev had presided over tremendous changes in a short period of time. All as he had remembered.

But then things changed.

Gorbachev was assassinated. He was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, who didn’t last long in the office himself. The man who replaced Yeltsin was someone Reuben had never heard of named Gamilov. The new Premiere cracked down hard, bringing the would-be breakaway Republics back into line. Perestroika and Glasnost were now forbidden terms. The Gulags were overflowing with persons accused of pursuing these outlawed notions. Tensions with the west were higher than they had been in years.

Reuben managed to put all this together from information gleaned from his interrogators. They weren’t particularly forthcoming with the historical details, but they would occasionally blurt something out when they became frustrated with his obstinate insistence on his own memories. Of course, it was possible that this was all disinformation, that his captors were deliberately hinting at a false history to confuse him. But Reuben couldn’t make out what motivation they might have for that

In any case, he was the one who had been shot in the head recently and who had lost three months between January and May. The smart money said that these people were telling more or less the truth, and that Reuben was terribly confused.

And to those people, the guardians of the security of this new regime, Reuben’s visa was viewed as being much more than a clumsy forgery. It was evidence of sedition or, as they termed it, counter-revolution.

“Time you go,” a voice grunted at Reuben.

He looked up. Two of the prison guards were standing at the door to his cell. It was time for Reuben’s debriefing.

Per established procedure, Reuben stood up and faced the door, situating himself two paces from it. The door opened, and one of the guards entered. Reuben held out his hands. The guard placed the heavy iron manacles on his wrists, biting into flesh already bruised and scabbed from wearing them every day since arriving.

The guards led him down the passageway: one in front, one behind. Reuben didn’t look into the other cells as he walked past. He had grown used to the hopelessness of this place. The sorrow and desperation of his fellow inmates no longer held any fascination for him. He couldn’t even smell the stench any more.

They walked out of the cell block and into a maze of stairwells and corridors that took them through six separate security checkpoints — some days they took an alternate route that had only four security stops; Reuben had never been able to ascertain why there were two different ways of getting there — arriving at last at the interrogation room. Reuben had never seen this building from the outside, but he knew inside that it was vast. The hall that contained the interrogation room stretched a good fifty yards off into the distance, lined by doorways to what he assumed were similar rooms. And they had climbed six flights of steps in order to arrive there.

The walls here, as in the prison below, were bare stone blocks. And like in the prison, there were no windows. The only lighting came from dim lamps with black shades dangling from the ceiling. The lamps had been placed begrudgingly, if precisely, at distant intervals from each other.

As the lead guard opened the door to the interrogation room, Reuben steeled himself for what was to come. He had endured two months of verbal and physical abuse. The physical handling had been somewhat restrained, but was painful and wearying nonetheless. Through it all, Reuben had struggled to remain indifferent, to appear to be unperturbed by the whatever treatment was doled out. He entered the interrogation room and was seated in front of the desk.

As always, the Colonel was seated behind the desk. He looked up from his paperwork as Reuben was brought in, which was a change from routine. Reuben didn’t know the Colonel’s name, much less his actual rank. But the man’s white hair and goatee had reminded him of the spokesman for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and so the name had stuck.

The Colonel issued an order to the guards. Reuben couldn’t make it out, but he knew that it wasn’t the usual dismissal. To his surprise, one of the guards reached down with a key and removed his manacles. The Colonel then dismissed the guards.

The Colonel studied Reuben for a moment.

“Good morning, Mr. Stone,” he said at last. “You would like cup of tea?”

Definitely a change.

“Sounds good,” said Reuben.

The Colonel poured a cup from the incongruous white china teapot in front of him. He passed the teacup to Reuben. Reuben took a sip. It was mostly milk and sugar. His stomach rumbled. This was the first sweet thing he had tasted in a while.

“So you’re retiring Bad Cop after only a couple months?” Reuben asked. “And now we’re onto Good Cop? You know, in my experience, those work better if you have two guys doing it at more or less the same time.”

The Colonel eyed him dully.

“You have not been mistreated, Mr. Stone. This must be understood clearly. At no time have you been mistreated. And if you were, you must tell me who has done this thing. That man will be punished.”

Reuben sat back and gawped. Good Cop, indeed.

“Why is that an issue?” he asked.

The Colonel sighed. He turned back to his paperwork, which Reuben recognized as a record the officer kept of all their meetings.

“You have been charged with serious crimes. Men who have been charged with such, sometimes they are beaten. Sometimes they go two, three days with no food or nor water. Sometimes they are not allowed to sleep.”

Reuben raised his eyebrows.

“Sometimes they are killed,” the Colonel concluded.

“Fine,” said Reuben. “None of that has been done to me. We’ve had our regular chats. You’ve yelled a lot and made a lot of threats. Sometimes you or one of the boys have roughed me up a little. But no permanent damage. I haven’t lost any teeth.”

The Colonel shook his head.

“Some men lose much more than teeth,” he said.

Reuben took another sip from the tea.

“I’m sure. So you’ve mollycoddled me…because I’m an American? I don’t care. Why bring it up? Are you going to start beating me now?”

The Colonel shook his head.

“You are to be remanded today to custody of…other authorities. Order comes from very high. Men will be here shortly to take you away.”

The Colonel closed the notebook. He looked up, his face showing a bit of satisfaction. Just like that. Another case closed.

“These are strange times, are they not? Things can change quickly. Now things change for you, Mr. Stone. But before you leave, I want it clear between us what happened here. And what did not happen.”

Reuben nodded.

“Sure. But do you really think it’s going to matter to anybody whether I was mistreated? Because frankly, I’d be pretty surprised.”

“Someone cares. Someone has made enquiries as to how you were treated.”

There was a knock at the door.

The Colonel stood up and said something loudly in Russian. The door swung open. Three men in dark suits stood at the door of the interrogation room. The man in the middle spoke:

“Reuben Stone?”

Reuben nodded, surprised. This man was either an American or a Russian who had been trained to talk like one.

“My name is Hamilton. We’ll be taking you out of here.”

Reuben stood up. The other two men flanked him on either side. He waited for a moment before realizing that no handcuffs or chains were in the offing.

“I wish you the best, Mr. Stone,” said the Colonel.

Reuben turned and looked at him. He nodded again. This could be it. The fake release followed by summary execution. But he doubted it. For one thing, they never said they were letting him go, which was supposed to be part of the deal.

The man in charge, Hamilton, led them out.

Reuben sat near the back of the airplane, freezing. He shivered from the cold. He was still wearing his prison uniform, which provided scant warmth. The cabin of the plane was quite small — eight seats in four rows, with an odd single seat behind him. One of the guards was seated there. The other was across the aisle from him. The mysterious Mr. Hamilton was seated in the front row.

He estimated that they had been in the air for an hour.

Reuben looked out the window, but there was nothing to see but clouds. He hoped they would clear the top of them soon. He hadn’t seen the sun in a while.

He had no idea where they were going. He had kept quiet as they exited the prison, and during the drive to the airfield. Hamilton had spoken only to the guards, in Russian. Reuben worked to keep his curiosity in check. Sometimes it didn’t do to ask questions.

And, besides, at least he was out of prison.

Reuben closed his eyes and tried to slow his breathing. His teeth were chattering. He knew that keeping his muscles relaxed would lessen the stress of shivering. There was something else he was supposed to do, too, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

Oh, wait. That was it.

Think warm thoughts.

Reuben clenched his teeth. At least his sense of humor, such as it was, was intact.

For the first time in a long while, he wondered what was happening with Betty and with Ksenia. How was it working out between them? Did they know what had happened to him? He thought about the old man. Surely he and Sergei were working behind the scenes to find out where he was.

While in prison, Reuben wouldn’t allow himself to think of them. But now he was out.

Sort of.

He didn’t want to give himself over to it, but he had a suspicion that the old man must somehow be behind his release. The fact that there was an American involved seemed to support this suspicion.

“Do you want a sandwich?”

Reuben opened his eyes. Hamilton was standing in the aisle in front of him, a brown paper bag in hand. He nodded to the guard seated across the aisle from Reuben, who got up and moved to the front of the cabin. After Hamilton sat down, the other guard got up and joined his comrade in the front.

“I could use a blanket it you’ve got one.”

“Sorry,” said Hamilton, “no blankets.” He stood up and barked an order at one of the guards. The man opened a small compartment in the bulkhead in front of him and removed the black raincoat that Hamilton had been wearing earlier. He brought the coat back and handed it to Hamilton, who nodded towards Reuben. The guard grunted his understanding and dropped the coat in Reuben’s lap.

“Thanks,” said Reuben, squeezing himself into it. Hamilton was by no means a thin man, but he was smaller in the shoulders than Reuben. Reuben didn’t mind the pinching in his shoulders; at least he would stop shivering.

“How’s that?” Hamilton asked.

“Fine,” said Reuben. “Thanks.”

Hamilton nodded. He opened his brown paper bag and peered into it.

“Let’s see, I have chicken and…I think this is egg salad.”

“Chicken,” said Reuben.

Hamilton handed him the sandwich, which was wrapped in wax paper. Reuben unwrapped it and began eating. It was a very ordinary sandwich, but it was wonderful. He had had nothing for weeks but stale black bread and some kind of very thin onion soup.

“Sorry there’s no coffee,” said Hamilton. “I’ll get us some when we land.”

Reuben swallowed a bite of sandwich.

“Where are we headed?” he asked, as casually as he could.

“Georgia. Tbilisi.”

Reuben tried to think of answers to his question that he might have expected. This was not one.

“Oh? What’s there?”

Hamilton didn’t answer right away. He took another bite from his sandwich.

“A facility,” he said after a moment. “And someone who wants to see you.”

Reuben nodded.

“And is it somebody who you think…I will want to see?”

Hamilton looked over his shoulder out the window.

“Not likely,” he said, not bothering to turn back. “Not likely at all.”

Not the old man, then.

“This isn’t my psychological evaluation, is it?

“No.”

“Well, can you tell me who it is that wants to see me?”

Hamilton turned and looked back at Reuben.

“Sure. His name is Markku. Nino Markku.”

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 30

Part IV

Chapter Thirty

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

The facility struck Reuben as an odd place. Very odd, in fact.

It was a massive slab of concrete, gray and windowless. It sat uneasily near the top of a green hill, surrounded by three separate perimeter fences. The drive from the airstrip was a long and bumpy one, mostly on single-lane dirt roads. Along the way, Reuben did not see so much as a farmhouse in the distance, much less any sign of the city of Tbilisi.

He now sat in a leather armchair in a dimly lit room somewhere deep inside the facility. It was a good-sized room, sparsely furnished with two chairs and a huge wooden table. Behind the table, on the wall opposite Reuben, was a red velvet curtain. He assumed the curtain was decorative; a window would be pointless in the middle of the building.

The walls of the room were concrete blocks; the floor was poured concrete. Aside from the furniture and the curtain, and some decorations hanging from the walls, the place could easily have been a room from the prison Reuben had left some hours before.

The decorations were what really set the place apart.

Birds. They were everywhere. Starlings, crows, falcons, vultures, and numerous varieties that Reuben didn’t recognize. All of them black. All of them dead. Reuben hadn’t bothered to count, but he estimated there were three dozen of them, mounted on the walls and hanging from the ceiling. Seven more were lined up on the table, in descending order from the tallest to the shortest — aligned to resemble an un-nested Matroshka doll.

Reuben had given no thought to trying to escape, even though he had been left alone in the room. He assumed that Hamilton’s men were standing right outside the door. And even if they weren’t, he would have to get past two checkpoints to get out of the building, and then three more — if he didn’t feel up to scaling the barbed-wire perimeter fences, which he did not — to get out of the facility.

Besides, there was nowhere for him to go. He doubted that he would be able to “blend in” in Tbilisi (if he could even find it.) He could try to make his way through the countryside to Turkey, but crossing the border would be next to impossible. Reuben was no better off in Soviet Georgia than he would have been in Russia itself. If he were caught anywhere along the way, he would be right back prison. Possibly a much worse prison.

It was better to wait it out. After all, if Markku had wanted him dead, he surely would have killed him by now.

“Here’s that coffee I promised you.”

Reuben looked up. Hamilton was standing in front of him with a coffee pot in one hand and a couple of brown mugs in the other.

“The service in this place is kind of slow,” he said, taking one of the mugs. “But I love the ambiance.”

Hamilton nodded. He filled Reuben’s cup and then his own.

“Yeah, it’s charming all right.” He set the pot down on the table and took a seat next to Reuben. “And just so there’s no misunderstanding: the coffee stinks. It’s probably the worst I’ve ever had.”

Reuben took a sip.

“I think I’ve had worse,” he said after a moment. “But then I haven’t had any in a quite a while.”

“Markku will be here in a few minutes. From your reaction on the plane, I get the impression you know who he is.”

“I’ve never met the man. I did have a run-in with his nephew in Moscow.”

Hamilton registered surprise at this.

“Kolkhi?”

Reuben nodded.

Hamilton sighed with disgust.

“I take it you know him, too,” said Reuben.

“Psychopath,” Hamilton replied. “Sociopath. Nutcase. Extremely dangerous.”

He took a sip from his coffee.

“Yeah, I’ve met him.”

Reuben sat back in his chair.

“From what I‘ve been led to understand, that particular acorn didn’t fall very far from the tree. Although they say that Kolkhi’s a rank amateur compared to Uncle Nino.”

Hamilton nodded tensely. The subject apparently made him uncomfortable.

“You heard right,” he said.

“So, what the hell? What are you doing hooked up with him?”

Hamilton cleared his throat. He took another sip of coffee. The hand that held the mug was trembling.

“Look, Reuben. There’s a lot you don’t understand.”

“So, enlighten me. What are you doing working for Markku? And what does he want with me?

“Those two things are connected. It’s a long story. The short version is that he needed me to help find you. You should have been easy enough to find. You stood out like a sore thumb in Leningrad. But Markku can’t…make certain distinctions that are easy for us to make. And he makes distinctions that we can’t grasp.

“It was a lucky break having you end up in Russia, that’s for sure. You could have shown up anywhere. Or nowhere. And you could have been somebody else, too. But it’s possible that Markku set this all up as a fairly tight loop, if you see what I’m saying.”

Reuben shook his head.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. But never mind. So Markku needed you to find me. So what? Why do you care?”

Hamilton stared hard at Reuben.

“I’m looking for the same thing you are,” he said. “Markku is the only one who can help me find it.”

Reuben shook his head, puzzled.

“You’re looking for a cure for Betty?”

“No. I don’t know who Betty is. I’m looking for the pre-confluence.”

“The what?”

“The re-contextualizing agent.”

It took Reuben a moment to remember where he had heard that phrase before.

The train to St. Petersburg. Coffey. David Coffey.

“The Philosopher’s Stone.” Reuben said, taking another sip from his coffee.

Hamilton nodded.

“Markku is close to it. Very close.”

“Finding it must be awfully important to you, Hamilton. Important enough that you don’t mind partnering up with a — what was it again — psychopath? Sociopath?”

“Nutcase,” said Hamilton. “I know how it must look. And believe me, I do mind. But I have no choice.”

“Why don’t you? What’s so important?”

Hamilton got up from his chair. He set his mug down on the table, then turned to look at Reuben

“Everything,” he said simply.

Reuben considered this for a moment.

“What, you’re saying that everything is at stake? What do you stand to lose? Your life? Your home? Your family?”

Hamilton shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Everything. Not just me, not just you. Everything. Everybody.”

“Everybody dies,” Reuben said. The words welled up from within him from some distant place — an old dream about a shadow.

Hamilton looked surprised, but he nodded in agreement.

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it exactly. Markku may be an evil and twisted bastard, but he’s on the right side where it counts. The dawning has to be stopped, and you’re the one who can help us stop it.”

Reuben was about to ask Hamilton what the dawning was when he realized they were no longer alone. A man was standing just inside the doorway. Reuben thought that he must have been distracted by the conversation. He hadn’t seen any motion or heard a sound. It was almost as though the man had simply appeared there.

“Don’t get up, Mr. Stone. Be comfortable. I am Nino Markku.”

Markku was an old man, wizened, with sharp features and a completely bald head. He was dressed in the standard-issue Soviet Black Suit, but his shirt and tie were also black. His complexion was pale, almost gray in color. He stood there looking at Reuben for a long moment.

There was something unusual, if not unnatural, about his perfect stillness. Only his head moved as he looked at Reuben — and it moved too quickly, too sharply. It was a strange, birdlike motion.

“We have only a little time, I’m afraid,” said Markku. “Let us talk together for a while. Before you have to go.”

“Where am I going?”

“This is not your destination, Mr. Stone. Nor do I think you would want it to be.”

Reuben looked around the room.

“You got that right,” he said.

“Still,” Markku continued, “I’m sure you prefer these accommodations to the ones we found you in.”

Reuben shrugged.

“I guess. Thanks for getting me out of there, by the way. Why did you do it?”

Markku blinked.

“My people have been misunderstood for a long time, Mr. Stone.”

So much for getting anything resembling a straight answer, thought Reuben.

“Really? How’s that?”

“We have been accused by others — by people like yourself — of lacking poetry. Of lacking finer feeling.”

Reuben took a sip of coffee and swished it around in his mouth. It really was quite bad.

“I don’t know much about poetry myself,” he said.

“My people have been artists and poets since time out of mind.”

“Your people…” Reuben repeated. “What do you mean? Georgians? Communists?”

Markku shook his head. His expression was one of disdain.

“Certainly not. You know nothing of my people, Mr. Stone. Few of your kind have ever known anything about us.”

Markku stalked to the window. He stopped a few feet in front of it and stared at the red velvet curtain.

“Your kind have never appreciated our culture, our art,” he said bitterly. He turned towards Hamilton. “Although I must admit that Mr. Hamilton, here, has some vague appreciation. It is for that reason that we keep him on as part of our project.”

“Oh?” said Reuben “And what project is that?”

Markku attempted a smile. As with all his gestures and movements, the smile was too precise. Too angular.

“It is a work of art of unparalleled subtlety and grandeur.”

Reuben took a long look at Markku.

“No kidding,” he said, glancing over at Hamilton. “You guys?”

Hamilton let out a nervous cough.

“I’m involved in the project,” he said. “But I don’t see it in the same…aesthetic terms that Mr. Markku does.”

“Right,” said Reuben. “Well, am I correct in thinking that my being here has something to do with your project?”

“Absolutely correct,” said Markku.

“So what exactly is it that you‘re doing?’ he asked. He could feel his impatience growing in spite of himself.

“I mean subtlety, grandeur — that’s all very well. But you’ve got the wrong guy. I‘m not anybody‘s first choice for working on an art project.”

Markku laughed. It had a clanking mechanical sound to it.

What the hell is this guy? Reuben thought. There was no question as to whether that was the correct word. It was.

What was he.

Not who.

What.

“Perhaps you are better fitted to the task than you realize.”

He walked over to the table.

“Step away,” he said to Hamilton.

Hamilton, who had been leaning against the table, returned to the chair next to Reuben.

“Here is a gold coin,” said Markku, producing a large coin from his pocket. He set it on the table.

“And here is another,” he said, placing a second coin next to the first. “Which one will you choose?”

Reuben glanced at the coins and then at Markku.

“Neither,” he said.

Markku smiled.

“Excellent, Mr. Stone. A choice of one from two is not a proper choice. It is not well-formed. Such a choice lacks grace.”

“What does this have to do with poetry?”

Markku produced a third coin from his pocket and set it on the table next to the other two.

“Our art is not painting or sculpture. Nor is it words written or spoken or sung. Our art is interaction itself.”

“You mean play-acting?” Reuben asked. “Drama?”

“Games” said Hamilton. “They play games.”

Markku nodded.

“The word is misleading because it means something much less in your language, but the idea is essentially correct. Now here is a new game.”

He gestured towards the three gold coins on the table.

“Which coin or coins do you choose?”

Reuben scratched his head.

“It’s the same game as before,” he said. “I choose none of them.”

Markku sighed.

“Now you disappoint me, Mr. Stone. It is not the same game. To select from among three is to make a proper, balanced choice. Can you not see the difference?”

“No,” Reuben said, “I can’t. But I’ll take your word for it.”

“I will give you another chance,” said Markku. “Which coin or coins do you choose?”

Reuben looked at the coins.

“Do we really have to do this?”

Markku’s eyes grew wider.

“If you win this round,” he said coldly, “the game is finished. If I win, we advance to the next round. Believe me when I tell you that the game grows more difficult with each round.”

“Fine,” said Reuben. “I choose all three.”

Markku laughed harshly.

“You lose,” he said. “The proper choice from three is one or two.”

“I don’t get it,” said Reuben.

“Clearly you do not. Perhaps you will understand better in the next round.”

Markku walked across the room and took the corner of the red curtain in hand.

Hamilton stood up. He looked tense. Angry.

“I thought we talked about this,” he said.

Markku looked at him, puzzled.

“Yes. We did. But that hardly matters. He has left me with no choice.”

Hamilton started across the room towards Markku.

“I won’t tolerate this,” he said.

“You will stop,” said Markku.

Hamilton froze.

“We are quite finished with you, Mr. Hamilton,” said Markku. “You will leave us now.”

Without saying another word, Hamilton turned and walked out of the room.

Markku turned to Reuben.

“Isn’t it pleasant when people are cooperative?” he said.

“How did you do that?” asked Reuben. “Hypnosis? Drugs?”

Markku turned back to the curtain, which he slowly began to open.

“That would be a highly diverting subject, to be sure,” he said, “but we have so little time, and the game must be played out.”

The open curtain revealed a glass partition behind which was apparently another room. Reuben couldn’t see anything in the new room; it was completely dark.

“Now the game advances,” said Markku. “A man who will not choose coins may have an easier time with a different kind of choice. We shall see.”

The lights came up suddenly to reveal a room similar in size to the one Reuben and Markku were in. Three chairs faced the partition, with a young woman seated in each.

The woman seated on the right was Ksenia.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Chapter 31

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-One

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

The three women blinked and rubbed their eyes to adjust to the change in light. They had apparently been sitting in darkness for some time.

Ksenia looked different. Thinner. More worn, somehow. Her hair was cropped short. Reuben wondered what she had gone through in being brought here.

“Here are three women you’ve never seen before. You now know that the correct answer is one or two, so this is very simple. Which woman or women will you choose?”

Reuben would not allow himself to show any recognition of Ksenia. Of course, Markku knew who she was. According to Sergei, Kolkhi would have reported everything to him. And, besides, it was just too big a coincidence. Markku didn’t need to go all the way to Moscow to find women to use in his games.

But he had said that Reuben didn’t know her, and Reuben’s instincts told him to play along.

In any case, Ksenia had apparently not recognized him. Or she, too, was feigning unfamiliarity. Reuben wasn’t sure. She had certainly shown good instincts during the ordeal with Kolkhi. But the fact was that none of the three had registered any reaction to the room that had opened up before them. Reuben wondered if the window was a one-way mirror.

“Look, Mr. Markku,” said Reuben, “you’ve made your point. You win the game. I forfeit.”

Markku nodded in what he may have considered an agreeable fashion.

“Of course, that is your option. But perhaps you would like to understand the stakes of the game better before you make such a decision?”

Below the window was a small panel with a microphone and what must be the controls that Markku used to bring up the lights. Markku threw the mike switch and issued and instruction in Georgian. A man walked into their field of view from the left, the side of the room where Reuben assumed the door was. He was a big guy, tall and fat. He could easily have been one of Kolkhi’s goons.

Markku issued another instruction. The man produced a long, broad knife from inside his coat. Its jagged blade gleamed wickedly in the brighter light.

Markku turned to Reuben.

“Your choices are quite simple. You will select one or two women for Besiki to play with.”

Reuben felt sick. He understood, now, where it was that Kolkhi had acquired his rather unusual notion of a good time.

He considered his options. Obviously, the “game” had to be stopped He didn’t think he would have any trouble taking Markku out. There was something uncanny about the man, but he had to be 75 years old. And if Besiki was armed only with the knife, Reuben was pretty sure he could handle, that, too. The real problem was who else might be lurking in the corners of the other room, or who he might meet in the hallway getting there.

Then there was the problem of what to do next. Escape was as unlikely as it had been a few minutes before. Or rather, much more unlikely, with three civilians in tow. The only wild card was Hamilton. He had been opposed to the game. If whatever spell Markku had cast over him wore off, maybe he would help them get out of there.

It was the only chance he had.

Reuben stood up. As casually as he could, he moved in near Markku.

Just taking a closer look at the ladies.

“And if I forfeit?” he asked.

Markku turned and looked at him.

“Then I will give them all to Besiki. And you will get to enjoy watching him work. He, too, is quite an artist.”

Reuben was now standing next to Markku. From this vantage point, he could see most of the other room. It didn’t appear that there was anyone else there. He looked down to make sure that the microphone was switched off. When he made his move, he didn’t want Markku alerting Besiki.

The switch was set to the left. Did that mean On or Off? Reuben couldn’t be sure. There were no markers indicating which was which. And if there had been, he realized, he probably wouldn’t have been able to read them.

He would have to risk it.

Reuben inched slightly away from Markku. His plan was to knock him over. He needed a little more room to pull off the maneuver he had in mind. He would charge with his head straight into Markku’s side. This would take the older man down and knock the wind out of him. If he hit him hard enough to kill him, so much the better. But if not, Reuben would take care of that with his bare hands once he had him down.

Reuben didn’t like having to use his head as a weapon so relatively soon after getting it patched up, but he had no choice.

Without another thought, he bent and lunged in a single, precise motion — remembering to swing his head up slightly at the moment of contact. Crush a kidney, break a couple of ribs. It was all good.

The moment of impact was delayed, and it was wrong. Reuben found himself face down on the floor. He had hit it hard, and now he was the one with the wind knocked out of him. Somehow Markku had evaded him. The old guy was quicker than Reuben would have believed possible. Reuben got himself to his feet as quickly as he could, preparing to lunge again.

But Markku wasn’t there.

“You certainly are an amusing fellow, Mr. Stone.”

The voice came, impossibly, from behind Reuben. He whipped around to face his opponent, who was now standing a good ten feet back.

No way, Reuben thought, but he didn’t have time to try to make sense of it. With the element of surprise gone, all he could do was attempt a more deliberate attack. He began walking slowly towards Markku.

“You will stop now,” said Markku.

Reuben froze in his tracks. His legs no longer belonged to him. He couldn’t move them.

“This is all terribly amusing, but I believe I have already explained that we don’t have much time. Will you make your selection?”

Reuben struggled to no avail. He had feeling in his legs — he could still stand — but it was as if the connection that normally existed between his will and his feet had been cut. He strained with all his might, but didn’t move an inch.

Reuben struggled to keep his growing panic in check. He reminded himself that he had to remain calm, to use whatever was at his disposal. It was a desperate situation, but there were always alternatives. He looked around the room.

Birds.

Nothing but dead birds.

“I thought you said you wanted me to help you with your project,” Reuben said after a moment. “If you want me to help you, let them all go. If you harm them, I’ll never help you.”

Markku smiled, and somehow managed almost to look sad.

“But you will. You have come here to help me, Mr. Stone. You have come a greater distance than you realize. You can no more keep yourself from the right side of this struggle than you can walk across this room.”

Reuben could feel the sweat trickling down his neck. He was having trouble catching his breath.

“You said that if I forfeit, you’re going to give them all to Besiki. But that’s not right. That’s picking three out of three. It’s not a…” Reuben struggled for the phrase... “well-formed choice.”

Markku shook his head impatiently.

“If you forfeit, the game is over. I will not make a choice from three, I will simply give a gift to a friend. Now make your choice, Reuben.”

Markku turned to look at the women.

“There is one there whom you think you know, although I can assure you that you do not. I thought her presence would add an interesting element to the game. You already understand the game well enough to know that she is in no danger if you make a proper choice. Just choose one or both of the others and have done with it.”

“I can’t make that choice,” Reuben said simply. “I can’t be a party to murder.”

Markku smiled his humorless, mechanical smile.

“Nonsense. You remember playing a similar game in Moscow, do you not? You had no qualms about killing in the defense of your own life. And just now, if I’m not mistaken, you had in mind to harm me. Possibly kill me if you could.”

Reuben studied the three women. All three were of about the same age, size, and build. They all had dark hair, cropped short. Ksenia stood out not only because he recognized her, but because she seemed so much more alert, so much more prepared to act than the other two. She was carefully looking around the room, trying to make sense of where she was and what was happening to her. The other two were lethargic; once they adjusted to the change in light, they just stared aimlessly off into space. Reuben wondered whether they were drugged.

He looked at Markku, who was still facing the window. He tried once again to move his legs. Just for a moment, there was a sensation of something giving. He could step forward. But then it was gone.

Markku turned back and looked at Reuben. This time he didn’t say anything.

Reuben knew that time was running out. Any second, Markku could lose patience and give his thug the go-ahead. He was going to make a decision. Left with no choice, he could do it. At least, he was fairly certain he could. He had been trained for situations such as this, a long time ago.

“All right,” he said at last. “All right. I’ve made my choice.”

“So?” said Markku.

“Kill me.”

Markku shook his head.

“Do you honestly think that’s an option, Mr. Stone?”

Reuben shrugged.

“As you pointed out, I’ve played this game before. Or one like it. The other time I played, a substitution was allowed. Why not now?”

Markku was about to answer when he was distracted by a sudden movement on the other side of the glass. Reuben looked up. It was Hamilton. Apparently back in control of himself, he stood a few feet from Besiki with a gun aimed squarely at his chest. Markku made his way over to the control panel — walking directly in front of Reuben, who found his arms to be as immoveable as his legs when he tried to grab the older man by throat.

“Mr. Hamilton, you can’t be serious,” said Markku.

Hamilton didn’t bother to look towards the window. All his attention was on Besiki. The women turned around to watch what was happening.

“I told you I wouldn’t stand for this,” he said quietly, his voice tinny and crackling through the intercom system, “and I don’t intend to.”

Markku laughed. He shook his head, puzzled.

“So much effort wasted in the defense of strangers — women who, I can assure you, would value their own lives over yours if put in a similar position.”

“That’s beside the point,” said Hamilton.

“Then what precisely is the point? If you were going to kill poor Besiki, you would have done so already. You knew that surprise was your only hope, that I would stop you once I saw you.”

Now Hamilton did turn and look at them.

“Stone doesn’t understand this game. He doesn’t know what choices are available to him.”

He looked at Reuben.

“You might be interested to learn that choosing from four is sometimes better than choosing from two — I, mean, it’s complicated; sometimes four is worse than two, and sometimes it’s better than three, even — but choosing from five. That’s different. It’s elegant. Always good. As is a choice from seven. And when you combine them…to choose from twelve is what they call a divine choice, isn’t it Mr. Markku?”

Markku nodded.

“Indeed.”

“And if I remember right, the divine choice is always preferred. If there are not twelve to choose from, it’s preferable to choose from the highest number available. Five or seven if possible.”

“Seven is not a possibility in this case,” said Markku, apparently following Hamilton’s incomprehensible (as far as Reuben was concerned) argument.

“But five is,” said Hamilton.

Markku nodded.

“It would, indeed be possible to select from five.”

Reuben understood now, and he wasted no time.

“Kill Besiki, he said.

The shot was fired before Reuben finished saying the man’s name. Besiki slumped to the floor. The woman seated in the middle jumped up, terrified, and ran toward the door. The one on the left turned back towards the window, burying her face in her hands. Only Ksenia stayed still, watching Hamilton.

“We have finished just in time,” said Markku. “Some men have arrived to take you back to Russia, Mr. Stone.”

Reuben couldn’t quite process what Markku was saying. His heart was pounding; the rough prison-issued shirt was soaked with sweat.

I killed a man.

It was not the first time; nor could he be sure that it would be the last. Hatred for Markku welled up within him. He would pay for what he had made Reuben do. And for what he had made Hamilton do.

Reuben looked at Hamilton on the other side of the glass. He hadn’t moved; his shooting arm was still extended before him. He was frozen in place.

“Ah, but perhaps there is time to learn a bit more before you go,“ Markku continued. “We ought to make the most of the time we have, after all.”

“Mr. Hamilton, here, thought it wise to add a few variables to the game. But he must surely realize that if we change the number chosen from, we may also change who does the choosing. Isn’t that right, Mr. Hamilton?”

Hamilton began to tremble. He grunted something, apparently unable to speak.

Markku turned back and looked at Reuben.

“You went out of turn, I’m afraid. Now that we are choosing from five, I have decided that I will be the player. Not to worry, however. I will accept your choice. Besiki is one.”

He smiled hideously.

“But one is not an pleasing choice from five. Two is much better.”

Hamilton whipped around suddenly. The movement was jerky, mechanical. And far too fast. The gun was now aimed in the direction of the door.

Hamilton’s eyes grew wide with horror. He tried to say something, but no words came out.

He fired the gun. The woman seated on the left put her arms over her ears, apparently trying to blot out what she was hearing. Ksenia did not move, although Reuben could see that she was trembling. Hamilton was once again frozen in place.

Reuben couldn’t see the door from where he was standing, but he had no doubt that it was locked. The woman from the middle seat must have been standing in front of it.

“We might even choose four or all five.”

Markku continued talking as though nothing had happened.

“But there is an optimal choice from five, if you will recall. Can you remember, Mr. Hamilton?”

Sweat poured down Hamilton’s face. He made no attempt to speak.

“The optimal choice is three.”

In a quick spasmodic motion, Hamilton turned the barrel of the gun towards his own face.

“Thank you, Mr. Hamilton, for bringing Mr. Stone to me.”

“Wait,” said Reuben, catching his breath. “Hold on a second.”

Markku ignored him.

“That will be all then.”

Hamilton pulled the trigger.

Reuben stifled a scream. He had never known such a feeling of helplessness. If only he could be free for a minute. A half a minute. Ten seconds.

“Now, then,” said Markku. He reached down and dimmed the lights in the other room.

“The game is finished, and I’m afraid you have more traveling to do today.”

He took hold of a corner of the red velvet curtain and pulled it closed. Reuben could no longer see Ksenia or the other woman, but it appeared that their lives had been spared.

Markku walked over to the door — which Reuben would have sworn was open already — and opened it.

Three men stood in the doorway. It was a replay of the scene in the prison office earlier that day, with one major difference.

The man in the middle was Sergei.

Posted by Phil at 12:00 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 29, 2004

Chapter 32



Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Two

(Read earlier chapters.)

Reuben was dressed in fresh clothes. He had been allowed to shower and shave. He knew he could use a haircut, but that would have to wait. After being cleaned up, he was subjected to a number of seemingly pointless medical examinations, and was then served a meal.

He sat across the table from Sergei, who was just finishing his food. The food was good, but Reuben had not been able to eat much. A few bites of borsht and some bread was all he could manage. He still felt full from the sandwich and abysmal coffee hours before. It would take a while to re-adjust to eating.

They were in a tiny, cramped room in a building Reuben assumed was some kind of KGB regional bureau office. The city was Rostov. Rostov na Donu, the Russians called it — Rostov on the Don — apparently distinguishing it from some other Rostov (on some other river) that Reuben knew nothing about. The flight had not been as long as the first one; the airplane was warmer and Reuben had slept. His head was beginning to clear.

The horror of Markku’s bizarre game was already a distant thing. As he had been trained to do long ago, Reuben put away the shock of the violence and even his intense hatred of Markku. He would not forget the latter; he would simply keep it for a more convenient time.

For now, his focus was on Ksenia.

On the way to the airstrip, he had asked one of the guards (as casually as he could manage it) what would become of the two women who survived the game. The guard didn’t answer, but whether that meant that he didn’t know, or that he wasn’t permitted to talk to Reuben, or that he couldn’t speak English, Reuben couldn‘t tell. Once on the plane, he had repeated the question to Sergei — in the midst of a series of questions that all addressed subjects he was curious about, but which were not nearly as important to him. Who did Sergei work for? Why had he been brought to Markku? Who was Hamilton? What would become of the other two women? And where exactly were they going?

Of all these questions, Sergei had provided an answer only to the final one. Which was how Reuben knew where he was.

He wasn’t surprised by Sergei’s non-responsiveness, nor by the fact that he had registered no recognition of him. Contrary to Reuben’s memory of how things were, the KGB still existed and Sergei was apparently still an active agent thereof. As such, he would have to be extremely cautious about what he said and did in front of his fellow agents. Reuben had followed suit up to this point, pretending not to know Sergei, either.

Sergei finished his — Lunch? Dinner? Breakfast? Reuben had lost all track of time — and pushed his plate away. He sat back and lit a cigarette, waving the pack at Reuben.

Reuben shook his head.

Sergei pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and studied it for a moment. He reached in his coat pocket and produced a pen.

“I have questions for you, Mr. Stone,” he said.

“Whatever,” said Reuben.

“Mother’s maiden name?”

Reuben looked at him for a long moment.

“You have got to be kidding,” he said.

Sergei didn’t look up.

“Please to provide answer.”

“Her name was Brissaud. Emmanuelle Brissaud. My father’s name was Julian Stone. They both died in an airplane accident in —”

“Please to provide only specific answer,” Sergei interrupted.

He continued with his questions. “When you were three, four years old you had nanny. What was — ”

“Greta.”

Sergei registered no reaction. He wrote down Reuben’s answer.

“This nanny had dog—”

“Alfie. He was a Scottish terrier.”

Sergei noted it.

“Am I going to be held here for long?” Reuben asked.

“We continue with questions,” Sergei replied. “Who was first girlfriend?”

It dawned on Reuben that these questions must have been compiled by — or with the help of — Michael Keyes. In fact, the third question suggested Betty’s involvement.

“Real or imagined?” he asked.

Sergei didn’t respond. He looked at Reuben expectantly, his pen resting on the paper.

The question apparently referred to Suzette, the girlfriend Reuben mentioned several times in his letters home his first year of boarding school. Reuben had never confided to anyone that there was no such person, that he had invented Suzette (along with several other friends) to keep Betty from worrying that he was lonely. But he had long suspected that Betty had seen through his ruse.

“Suzette,” he said after a moment.

He had begun to suspect the old man’s involvement as soon as he saw Sergei. Like Ksenia showing up in Markku’s game, it was just too big a coincidence.

“What was color of school uniform?”

“Green blazer, with the school crest in gold under the left lapel. Striped blue and green tie. White shirt. Black slacks. Black patent-leather shoes.”

Sergei took his time writing out the detailed answer.

“Describe wedding gift from Michael Keyes.”

The old man. That confirmed it.

“He and Betty gave us some very nice silver candlesticks. They were antiques, about this tall.” He held his hand about a foot and a half from the tabletop.

Sergei wrote down the answer. He put the pen back in his pocket and began to fold the sheet of paper.

“Is that all?” Reuben asked.

“Da. Is all. You wanted more?”

“Well, wait. There was another gift, but I don’t count it.”

Sergei retrieved the pen.

“What was other gift?”

“It was a check for a million dollars.”

Sergei hesitated before beginning to write. There was a gleam in his eye and the beginnings of a smile at the corners of his mouth. For an instant, he was the man with whom Reuben had bantered so frequently at the WorldConneX office in Moscow.

A check for a million bucks. Must be lucky, indeed.

“Why…ah, you didn’t ‘count’ gift? You didn’t consider this to be real gift? Why not?”

“I had already told Mr. Keyes that I wouldn’t accept any money.”

Sergei nodded

“So you did what? You burned it? Threw it away?”

Although Sergei’s demeanor had not changed from that of the businesslike interrogator, Reuben doubted that these follow-up questions were part of the script. He was just interested in knowing what happened to the money.

“I signed it back over to Mr. Keyes and enclosed it in a Christmas Card. So we were even — we had each given the other a million dollars.”

Sergei nodded. He made an addendum to the answer he had written before, then folded the paper once again. He stood up.

“Do you need toilet?” he asked.

Reuben thought about this. He shook his head.

“Good. Then you will wait here.” With that, Sergei turned and walked out the door.

Reuben leaned back in his chair. He didn’t mind. He was used to waiting.

___

The Rostov Airport was mostly quiet. Reuben stood outside a departure gate flanked by the same two agents who had accompanied Sergei when retrieving him from the compound in Georgia. Sergei had left them standing there an hour or so earlier.

The sun was setting behind the Ilyushin airliner on the tarmac, distinguishable from any plane of western manufacture by the odd clustering of its four engines — two on either side of the tail. Reuben couldn’t be sure which day it was that was ending. Had he started out this morning in prison, or was that yesterday? Or the day before that? He didn’t know.

Passengers had boarded the plane some time before. If Reuben read the notice board correctly, it was bound for Istanbul. But it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Not yet, at least.

Reuben couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be on the flight or not. He would be glad enough to put Russia behind him (even if it meant flying Aeroflot), but he couldn’t stand the thought of abandoning Ksenia. Especially considering the circumstances under which he had left her. Still, if the old man was able to get Reuben — a prisoner — out of the country, surely he would be able to do the same for her.

This line of reasoning raised the troubling question of why Ksenia wasn’t with the Keyes to begin with. How had Markku managed to abduct her? It was possible that the old man and Betty had left Russia, but then why hadn’t they taken Ksenia with them? Or maybe — and Reuben didn’t really like this possibility — the Keyes had never been in Russia at all. Maybe they didn’t even know who Ksenia was.

That didn’t jibe with Reuben’s memories, but then so little did.

Sergei reappeared, a large brown envelope in his hand.

He issued instructions to the two other agents in Russian. They turned and walked away without the slightest hesitation.

“Very well, then, Mr. Stone,” he said. He handed Reuben the packet.

Reuben opened the envelope. Inside was a passport from the Caribbean island of Dominica. The photo was Reuben’s; the name was not. The ticket to Istanbul was made out in the same name.

“So I’m going to Turkey,” Reuben said.

“Da. You will be met there. And you will receive further instructions.”

“Thank you for your help.”

Sergei took a long look at Reuben. His expression was hard and cold.

“Listen very carefully,” he said. “You are lucky man, Mr. Stone. Is not every prisoner who gets this kind of help in leaving Russia. Especially not when he is CIA agent.”

Reuben nodded.

“Is important, though, for lucky man that he does not…press his luck too much? Da? You know this expression?”

Reuben nodded again.

“Good. Then I tell you this: don’t press your luck, Mr. Stone. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what is your game. But if any harm comes to Mr. Keyes or his wife, I will find you. And you will be very sorry. Do you understand me?”

Reuben looked around. Apparently Sergei was now talking without fear of being overheard.

“Sergei, it’s me. It really is me.

Sergei shrugged.

“I was not who needed convincing.”

“No, but listen. Your wife is named Marina. Your daughter is Dzhena. And as for your son…you named him Yuri.”

Sergei shook his head, his expression completely blank.

“Ask me anything,” Reuben continued. “Or how about this — you went to Monte Carlo with a friend. He told you to always bet on red. When you bet with him, you won. When you bet without him, you lost.”

Sergei laughed bitterly.

“Why you say these things? You want me to think you know me? That will not help you.”

Reuben thought about that. The conclusion was unavoidable.

“It won’t help because you and I have never met. We don’t know each other.”

Sergei didn’t answer.

“Well, is that right?” Reuben pressed.

“You tell me,” said Sergei. “You should know if we have ever met.”

“That’s the whole trouble, Sergei. I remember that we met and that we know each other. But obviously you don’t. And the thing is, I can see how my mind could invent a false history for Russia. It doesn’t explain the visa I was carrying, but put that aside for now. What I can’t see, is how do I know anything about you?”

“Is time for you to go,” said Sergei. “Airplane is waiting.”

“So tell me, do I know anything about you? Or did my mind invent those details, too?”

Sergei put his hand on Reuben’s back and began moving him toward the gate.

“You took my fingerprints and a blood sample,” Reuben continued. “I guess it was to get my DNA. And those X-rays must have been so you could compare dental records. You must have a pretty good reason to suspect that I’m not who I say I am.”

Sergei said nothing.

“That’s why you asked me those questions. Asking about things only I should know.”

“Is time you go,” said Sergei, ushering Reuben towards the gate with more urgency.

“Wait,” Reuben said again. “Wait.

He planted his feet.

“Why doesn’t the old man believe that I’m Reuben Stone?”

An answer of sorts occurred to Reuben even as he asked the question.

Sergei shook his head.

“That question is not for me to answer.”

“Sergei, am I dead?”

“You must leave now.”

“Or are there somehow…two of me?”

Sergei shook his head, exasperated.

“Why do you talk nonsense? If you are dead, how are you here? If there are two, then one is real and one is not.”

“And I’m clearly not the real one.”

Sergei shrugged.

“Clearly you are, if you have been allowed to leave.”

“But you aren’t convinced.”

“No,” Sergei answered. “I am not.”

They had reached the gate agent, who eyed Reuben with bored impatience. The flight had been delayed long enough.

“I wish I had more time to talk to you,” Reuben said. “But listen, I need your help. One of the women that Markku was holding is named Ksenia Privalova. Can you help her somehow?”

Sergei was surprised by the request.

“What can I do?”

“Just, please, get her out of there. She’s of no importance to anybody. Not Markku. Not anybody. She doesn’t know anything. I guess she doesn’t even know who I am.”

Sergei looked puzzled. As before, with the story of the check, his curiosity got the better of him.

“If she is of no use to Markku, he will be rid of her already.”

“I think he probably let her go. But could you make sure? And make sure she got home all right? She lives in Moscow.”

“If you don’t know her, why do you care?”

“She doesn’t know me, but I know her. Just like I know you. Please help her.”

He started to turn towards the gate agent, and then looked back.

“The Sergei I know would help her,” he added.

Sergei looked skeptical. He shrugged again.

“I will look into it,” he said.

“Have a safe trip, Mr. Stone.”

Reuben smiled with gratitude and relief. Sergei would be able to do far more for her than he would have been able to do.

“It’s Reuben,” he said, shaking his head. He then turned to board the plane.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 33



Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Three

(Read earlier chapters.)

Reuben stood on the terrace looking over the sun-drenched expanse of blue. Lake Como was a mirror reflecting the perfect, cloudless sky. The stillness was interrupted with an occasional whisper of a breeze. Sailboats dotted the lake's surface. Sunbathers lined the beach. It was a perfect summer afternoon in northern Italy.

Reuben had been to this chateau once, several years before. It was one of the Keyes' smaller homes, just ten or so bedrooms. There was something jarring about the experience of being back with the Keyes, once again recuperating. But it was different this time.

It was definitely different.

On the table in front of him sat a copy of a manuscript. It was the document the old man had shown Reuben in the Dacha, turned to the page with the diagram Reuben had been looking at on the train before everything changed.

This page, this picture, was the key. Reuben was certain of that.

The effect should be easy enough to recreate. If Reuben stared at the diagram long enough, he would begin to feel — as he did that night on the train — that something was coming loose. Something that was supposed to be fixed in place could be moved. And he, Reuben, could move it.

He quickly looked away from the picture whenever this sensation arose, the feeling had become both familiar and terrifying. But he kept returning to it, drawn to the sensation that he sensed he must by all means avoid.

The glass door to the terrace slid open. Betty Keyes stepped through. She was dressed in shorts and a baggy shirt. Her sunglasses were perched on the brim of her straw hat, and she carried a canvas beach bag.

"I've been looking for you," she said.

"I've been here most of the day. It's hard to beat this view."

She took a moment to look over the lake herself.

"Yes, it is spectacular."

She seated herself across the table from Reuben and gestured at the manuscript.

"I see that you've decided not to follow my advice."

He smiled. Betty had told him the night before to leave the mystery alone for a while. The old man had left that day to meet someone in Paris who was supposed to have all the answers. Reuben wasn't holding his breath. In any case, it was an odd twist on recent events: the old man setting out in search of answers while Reuben remained behind.

Frankly, Reuben had had his share of odd twists. But the manuscript wouldn't let go of him.

"I can't help it, Betty. I've tried reading, going for a walk…it doesn't matter. I always seem to end up here, staring at this damn thing."

"Well you need to stop it," she said sternly. She reached across the table, flipped the manuscript closed, and set it in front of herself. "There. Does that help?"

He shrugged.

"Sure. For a minute."

She shook her head.

"What am I going to do with you, Reuben? First you spend all your time moping about that Russian girl. And then as soon as you learn that she's okay, you park yourself here with this moldy old book."

Reuben smiled. He realized that Betty was right. He had been with the Keyes for nearly two weeks. He had spent his first few days with them fretting over Ksenia's fate and making repeated requests that the old man get in touch with Sergei about her. When the news finally came, it was good — if a little baffling. Sergei reported that Ksenia was back home in Moscow with her brother, safe and sound. Just to be sure, Reuben requested that Sergei check on the name of the brother she had been reunited with.

Of course his name was Pavel. Did he go by the dimunitive, Pasha?

Reuben didn't bother to ask.

This added bit of weirdness was all the impetus Reuben needed to begin to think seriously about what it was that was happening to him. He asked the old man for a copy of the manuscript. Keyes was not sure at first what Reuben was talking about. But as his godson spelled out the details of the drawings and the mysterious language, a look of recognition slowly came over the old man's face. Of course, he could get a copy of that manuscript for Reuben. It would be no problem at all.

He seemed absolutely delighted that Reuben had ever even heard of the thing.

"I beg your pardon," Reuben said to Betty, drawing the manuscript back to his side of the table and re-opening it, "I do not mope."

She sighed and shook her head again.

"I was just about to take a walk along the shore. Will you join me?"

"Another walk? No thanks."

"Well, then, why don't we go to Milan this afternoon? We could do some shopping, maybe take in a movie."

Reuben shook his head.

"I wouldn't be any fun, Betty. Besides, you and I need to talk."

Her eyes grew just slightly wider.

"What is it?"

"Well," he said, flipping the manuscript closed once again "I have something I need to tell you. And then there's something I need you to tell me."

Betty picked up the manuscript and casually dropped it in her beach bag. She snapped the bag closed with a maternal finality.

"I'm all ears, Reuben."

"Okay. It has to do with the other…scenario. And with this one."

Reuben had settled on the term scenario to describe each of the sets of circumstances he had encountered: the circumstances he remembered represented one scenario; the dramatically different world around him represented another. The old man used a different term, but Reuben would have nothing to do with it.

"You know why I was on that train. I had gone to work for the old man. I was looking into the origins of the document, trying to find out what information it contains."

Betty nodded.

"The same thing Michael is doing now."

"Right. But has it occurred to you to wonder why I, of all people, would undertake a task like that? Does that really sound like something I would do?"

"No," she said. "Actually, I never would have believed it if you hadn't told me yourself."

"Exactly. Now let me tell you why I was doing it. You know about the document, right? Alchemy and all that? Eternal life?"

Betty laughed.

"Don't tell me that Michael finally wore you down? That you're starting to see the world as he does?"

"Well, I wasn't, not really. After what I've seen these past few months, I'm not so sure. But before that, no. When I started my trip, I had no real conviction that there was anything to this. Just a faint glimmer of hope that there might be."

"I see," said Betty. She set her hat on the table in front of her.

"So what would inspire you to go after such a long shot?" she asked.

"You did."

Betty blinked.

"Excuse me?"

"I did it for you, Betty. To try to save your life. In the other scenario, you were very sick. You don't…didn't?…have long to live."

She stared at him for a long moment.

"I see," she said again.

Neither of them spoke for a while.

"Thank you, my dear," Betty said at last. "I should have realized it would be something like that."

"So you can see why I can't exactly walk away from this project."

"I…no, Reuben. You can. You've accomplished what you set out to. I don't understand how or what it means. I have no memory of being ill. But look at me: I'm fine."

Reuben reached across the table and took hold of her hand.

"I can't tell you how happy that makes me, Betty. Three undeniably good things have happened to me in the past couple of months. The first was getting out of prison and coming here. The second was learning for sure that Ksenia is all right. And the third — and by far the most unexpected — was learning that you're okay."

He turned and looked out over the lake for a moment.

"But now I need you to tell me something. You and the old man have skirted around this since I got back, but I have to know. What happened to me, Betty?"

She studied her fingernails for a few seconds, then turned up to meet his gaze. Her eyes were darker, more vivid than he remembered from the Dacha. Her face had fewer lines. But there was pain here just as there had been there. A different kind of pain, clearly.

Grief.

And no small amount of fear.

"How did I die, Betty?"

She didn't blink or look away.

"Don't be ridiculous, Reuben. Here you sit. You obviously didn't die."

"But you remember that I did. Just as I remember that you were sick. And I think you remember more than just the fact of my death. I think you saw me dead. Right? There was a funeral. If you wanted to, you could tell me where I'm buried. You've seen my grave."

Betty reached down for her bag. She began rummaging through it, looking for something.

"I need you to level with me on this. And what happened to Charlotte? I know that's different, here, too. Did I go first? Or is she still alive? Has she remarried? Whatever it is, I want to know."

Betty produced a packet of tissues from her bag. She peeled one from the top, wadded it, and looked at it. She didn't dab her eyes; she wasn't crying. This was a stall tactic. Reuben tried to remember Betty ever doing anything to avoid an unpleasant discussion, but he couldn't think of a single example. Ever.

"Tell me what happened to Charlotte," she said. "What you remember."

Reuben sighed.

"All right," he said. "It was three years ago last week. She was driving home from Dillon. She had spent the weekend in the cabin. There was a thunderstorm. Low visibility, fog, wet road. And she was driving too fast."

Reuben paused, remembering his wife.

"She would do that, you know?"

Betty nodded.

"She lost control of her car on a steep downgrade. She jumped a guard rail and hit a rock wall doing almost eighty." His voice cracked as he spoke. "It killed her instantly."

"Reuben…" Betty started. She pulled another tissue from the packet and began to twist it into a little rope.

"Was there every any suggestion…did anyone ever say…" She shook her head.

He looked at her, puzzled.

"Say what?"

Betty cleared her throat.

"That her death was maybe not an accident?"

The words hit Reuben with physical force.

Had anyone ever said that?

Decidedly not.

No one had ever said it because Reuben wouldn't allow it. Wouldn't hear it.

Sure, he and Charlotte had had their problems. All couples have their problems. And Charlotte had had some trouble with depression, everybody knew this. Things had not been good between the two of them. Not for a long while. Charlotte was unhappy with where they lived, with Reuben's job, with so many things.

But they were turning the corner. Or they were just about to. Reuben had decided to leave the agency, and had already given his notice. They would move, go wherever she wanted. And she was talking about going back for treatment. There had been a time, a few years earlier, when medication had moved her depression to the background of their lives. It had only been for a short while, and it had been some time before.

But it had given Reuben hope, especially when Charlotte made mention of that period in their lives — as she did once in a while — and offered up some vague intention of going back in for treatment. She had never gotten around to going back, but Reuben knew that she would in time. She was bound to.

It would be the best thing for both of them.

At some level, Reuben knew that he had lied to himself about his wife's death. But then he had, by and large, lied to himself about her life, and about their life together. With her gone, it became easier, so much easier to remember how intelligent she was, and how beautiful. How happy they had been together: their whirlwind romance following a chance encounter at a party in DC; their marriage a few months later; the blissful first two years. There was no need to dwell on the rapid downward spiral that occurred after that. The fights, the terrible temper tantrums. Her bouts of rage and melancholy so severe that from time to time Reuben began to think that he was losing his own grip.

There was no need to dwell on any of that, and Reuben did not, except for the occasional regret that he had not done more to make her happy. While part of him knew that was impossible, there was another part that believed that — had he only cared more, had he only tried harder — she might have been happy.

But he wasn't focused on her happiness the weekend it happened. He was thinking of himself.

He was planning to have a talk with her that weekend. He would let her know that he was ending it; he was leaving. He had been down that road before, and had somehow never managed to broach the subject. Ironically, this time it was an argument that provided the pretext for avoiding the discussion. In the heat of the moment, he told Charlotte that she could just have the cabin to herself that weekend. Then he stormed out of their house.

When he returned a few hours later, she was already gone.

If things had been different — if he hadn't said whatever it was to make her so angry that fateful Friday afternoon — it would have been him, Reuben, behind the wheel on the way home.

And everything would have been different.

"It was an accident, Betty," Reuben said at last. "Charlotte and I had some problems, sure, but she loved life."

Betty nodded.

After a while she said, "I really don't know how to talk about any of this, Reuben"

She stood up and walked to the edge of the balcony. She looked out over the lake for a moment before turning back to face him.

"Maybe things really are different in that other…situation."

Betty wouldn't even use Reuben's word.

"After all, I'm not sick. And I've never been very sick, never once in my life."

"I know," said Reuben.

"I personally think these two different worlds or histories or whatever you want to call them are some kind of trick of the mind. One of us is right, and the other one is crazy."

"Or we're both crazy."

She smiled sadly.

"In any case, my darling, the fact is this: while you remember your wife as loving life and being incapable of killing herself, and dying in a terrible tragic accident, that is not what happened. At least not to the recollection of Michael or myself."

Reuben blinked.

"Or anyone else," Betty continued. "Charlotte killed herself, Reuben. She shot herself in your cabin in the mountains, two days before the accident that you remember."

No one said anything for a while.

Reuben remembered — he had never forgotten, of course — the gun that was found in the trunk of the wrecked car. The gun that he didn't even know his wife owned.

"I see," Reuben said at last.

"But why are you telling me this? I wanted to know how I died."

Reuben knew this was not true. He had specifically asked about Charlotte. He dreaded hearing any more. As bad as what Betty had told him was, he could sense that something worse was coming.

She walked back across the balcony. She sat down at the table, this time beside, not across from, Reuben.

"Charlotte turned the gun on herself after she shot and killed her husband."

A long way off, on a yacht making its brisk way across the lake, a bell rang. Reuben looked out and watched it for a while, watched as its prow cut a neat wake in the smooth blue water. The wake opened up behind the vessel, ever widening as it faded off to nothing.

"I'm sorry, Reuben."

Betty reached out to put her hand on his shoulder. He shrugged her away and continued to look at the lake.

"I'm glad I know the truth," he said at last, his voice trembling. "Things are different here. What happened here and what happened there…they're different."

But that was a lie. She had the gun. In Reuben's scenario, the world where she died in an automobile accident.

She had the gun.

She would have killed him. Charlotte, his beloved wife, the woman he was still in love with — wanted him dead. She hated him that much. That fight they had, the one without which, Reuben had believed he would have saved her life — that fight had in fact saved his life.

He turned and to look at Betty. Tears ran down her face.

"Of course they are," she said. "That's why you're here, Reuben."

"Just because it happened here…"

"It doesn't matter, Reuben, " she interrupted. "Look at you, alive. Alive. I saw you dead. I saw you buried."

It would be a long time before either of them spoke again.

"Betty, do you hate her?" Reuben asked at last.

She shook her head.

"No, dear. I don't. I did at first. But mostly I hate what she became. I hate the sickness that destroyed her."

Reuben nodded.

"That's good. Because I wouldn't want you to…"

He stopped himself. What was the point?

"I know that Charlotte, the real Charlotte, would never have hurt you," Betty continued.

Reuben wondered about that.

He had never had reason to doubt it before, and yet now here was Charlotte murdering him in one — to hell with it, why tiptoe around it; the old man was right — parallel universe and apparently intending to kill him in another. One Betty was sick and another one wasn't. It made sense to try to figure out who the real Betty was. But the real Charlotte? Wherever she showed up, she wanted to kill him.

So what difference did it make?

Reuben laughed bitterly. He knew that wasn't the right response, but the right response wouldn't come. Maybe there wasn't one.

She had the gun. She wanted to kill me.

What that meant was going to sink in. Someday. But he couldn't quite make it register.

Not today.

"Not right now," he said aloud.

Betty looked at him, puzzled.

"What do you mean?"

He shook his head.

"Betty, what if there are more of these scenarios? If there's one where you didn't get sick and one where I didn't die, do you think there might be one where Charlotte didn't die?"

She looked down at the table.

"I don't know, Reuben. I suppose there are as many possible delusions as there are human desires."

He took her hand.

"That's too easy. You know you aren't a delusion, don't you?"

"I suppose."

"And I know that I'm not one. As long as we trust each other…there must be more going on here than just delusions."

She shook her head.

"Your logic is terribly flawed. It's like the ontological argument for the existence of God."

Reuben smiled, in spite of himself..

"The what?"

"Well…never mind. Let's just say that you can't lift your feet off the ground by pulling your own bootstraps. And you can't prove that something is real just because two people believe it."

"Whatever.I don't doubt that it's hard to prove that God exists. But I'm right here. This is really me. Alive." He touched his forehead. "And I've lived through things that couldn't possibly have happened, not in this scenario."

Betty sat back in her chair. She looked dubious.

"Well, it's hard to argue with the fact that you're here. You are."

"Then let's just say for a moment that there really are different scenarios."

"All right," she said. "How many?"

How many.

Reuben considered this for a moment, and as he did the balcony began slowly to fall into a subtle spinning motion. He looked up. Or was it the lake and the sky somehow beginning to rotate around each other? It was the same feeling as before, the sensation that something had come loose. He looked straight ahead and blinked. It wasn't real, of course. Just some kind of sensory illusion. Maybe it was inner ear damage, the result of his head injury.

Reuben felt a twinge of queasiness. The spinning could make him nauseous if it kept up. He put his mind to the question again. The sensation of motion became more intense.

Reuben stood up. He put his hand on the table to steady himself. He shook his head for a moment to clear it. The spinning stopped.

"I don't know how many there are. And I don't care to think about it. It's a disturbing question."

"All right," said Betty. "It doesn't matter how many. Say they are real. Then what?"

"Well, then…everybody dies."

She gave him a quizzical look. That wasn't what Reuben meant to say, but he knew at once that it was the truth. If the different scenarios were real, then so was the shadow that Reuben had sensed that day back in the dacha. It didn't belong in the world, there were no scenarios that could or should include it. That's what he had sensed about it first, the idea that it came from someplace…deep. Someplace behind.

Reuben could feel the shadow's presence, could almost see it: the shadow fell both on this world and on the one he had left behind. Moreover, it fell on the stage where all the different scenarios were built. It fell on the ability of worlds to exist in the first place. For anything to exist. The shadow insisted that nothing should be allowed to exist, and that everything that did must somehow be stopped.

His stomach felt worse.

"That's not what I meant," he said, suddenly finding it difficult to breathe. "It's not that everybody dies. It's worse than that. It's having everybody…removed. Erased."

Betty put her hand on his.

"Reuben…?"

He looked in her eyes. The balcony began to rotate again. His head was pounding.

"I think they're made of memories somehow."

"What is made of memories?" she asked "Or who?"

"All of us. The scenarios. One set of memories is one scenario, a different set is another scenario. The things don't have to be there. The people don't. And the places, events, whatever…can all be different. It's just the memories that matter."

He slumped back down in his chair. He took in a slow, gulping breath. The nausea was easing.

"I don't understand, Reuben."

He reached out his hand and touched her cheek.

"I don't either," he said. "Things can be the same; things can be different. It's all memories. If I'm alive or dead. If Charlotte…" his voice trailed off.

"Maybe one is as good as another," he said after a moment.

He took her hand in his.

"Or not as good. As true."

"But what would happen?" he asked, knowing she couldn't answer. Not really sure what he meant by the question. "What happens if the memories get taken away?"

"Well…I'm not sure. But it looks to me as if they get replaced by other memories. Better memories, Reuben."

Reuben turned and looked at the lake again. He wanted to believe that, but he couldn't.

The spinning stopped again.

"I don't know," he said. "I hope so."

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Chapter 34



Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Four

(Read earlier chapters.)

The cobblestone streets of the inner city of Mantua were slick with the alternating mist and rain that had been constant since morning. The main gate to the Palazzo Ducale towered before the three of them, an impressive structure of brown stone with a row of v-shaped turrets at the top and bullet-shaped arches at the bottom. The gate looked like a small medieval castle in its own right. Or perhaps not so small. Drawing closer, Reuben realized that the arches were 15 feet or higher. He followed the old man and his associate — who had been introduced earlier that day as one Iskandar Ahmad from Indonesia — under the central arch, which led to the palace’s main entrance.

Reuben thought of his trip to the monastery with Betty. The gate looked sturdy enough, but overall the fortifications seemed flimsy compared to the massive walls at Zagorsk. He pointed the difference out to the old man.

“It’s true,” Keyes smiled, appraising the walls as they passed under the arch and into a manicured green courtyard. “Two different histories; two different approaches to warfare. The Russians had to defend themselves from the Mongol hoards thundering down on them from the steppes. Old Gonzaga, what did he have to worry about? A spat with the big cheese over in Verona? Some spillover from the war between Venice and the Ottomans?”

Reuben stepped back to get a better view of the palace's outer wall.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Keyes continued, “I’m sure this castle saw its share of bloodshed. But the Russians were up against a completely different kind of enemy.”

“Maybe not so different,” said Reuben. “I think I read that it was at this very castle that Attila the Hun agreed to terms of surrender.”

Ahmad slowed his pace as this exchange unfolded. He had been walking a few steps ahead. He was a distinguished-looking Malay man, impeccably dressed in his Armani suit. He was an inch or two taller than the old man and (Reuben estimated) twenty or so years younger.

“Forgive me, Reuben,” he said. “But that isn’t entirely accurate. What you are describing happened long before this castle was built. And it was a few miles from here, along the road that eventually leads to Rome. That’s where Attila was stopped.”

“Is that right?” said Reuben. He wasn’t surprised that he had his facts wrong. History had never really been his area.

“Yes,” Ahmad continued. “And he didn’t surrender. He simply met with a delegation of ambassadors and agreed not to sack Rome.”

“A delegation?” Keyes asked.

Ahmad nodded.

“That’s correct. Pope Leo among them.”

“And what, they just talked him out of it?”

Ahmad nodded again.

“Well, there’s your difference,” Keyes said, with a chuckle. “What do you think Genghis Khan would have done with that delegation?”

Ahmad seemed to think about this for a moment.

“Attila was a businessman. Of sorts. The delegation persuaded him that sacking Rome would destroy the economy, which would leave him with very little to plunder elsewhere in the Empire. Sacking Rome would have been like killing the queen in a beehive from which you still want to gather honey. But the Mongols cared nothing for plunder. They wanted only to destroy. Had they ever captured the Pope, I doubt they would have shown him any more respect than they did the Caliph of Baghdad.”

“Really?” said Reuben. “And what did they do to him?”

“They tied him in a sack and ran over him with their horses. Over and over and over.”

Keyes let out a low whistle.

“Yes,” said Ahmad. “But in any case, that was hundreds of years after the time of Attila. I think I must agree with you, Michael, that the city of Mantua never faced anything so dire as the Mongols.”

He led them on into the main building. The foyer was both a souvenir shop and the entrance to the palace museum. Several tables were laid out with books: some specifically about the palace’s collection, a few others about Venice or Milan or Lombardy in general. A tired-looking Italian woman sat behind the cash register. Behind her was a turnstile leading into the Palace.

Ahmad approached the counter and spoke to the woman in Italian. She reached under the counter and handed him three CD players with headphones. Reuben looked pointedly at Keyes.

Had the old man dragged him all the way down here just to show him the sights? He hadn’t been in the mood for much of anything the past few days. But a self-guided tour of an Italian castle would be close to the top of the list of things he wasn’t in the mood for.

Before Reuben could say anything, Ahmad handed the audio sets back to the woman, telling her something apparently intended to clarify their purpose there. The woman nodded gravely. She stepped gingerly around the turnstile and disappeared down the hall. She re-appeared a few minutes later with an old man in a shabby gray suit.

Keyes greeted the old fellow with a handshake and a hearty buon giorno. The elderly Italian gentleman seemed genuinely pleased to see Keyes. The two of them talked for a moment. Reuben smiled at this. The old man seemed to have connections and acquaintances everywhere.

“Reuben, Iskandar, this is my friend André,” Keyes said, turning to face them. “He’s going to show us what we came here to see.”

“Which is what?” asked Reuben.

Keyes beamed.

“The Camera degli Sposi,” he said.

“Si,” said André, “La Camera degli Sposi.” He gestured to one side of the turnstile.

Reuben didn’t move.

“Am I supposed to have some idea of what that means?” he asked.

“It means the ‘Room of the Newlyweds,” Ahmad explained.

That’s helpful, thought Reuben.

“I see,” he said. “But that doesn’t exactly tell me why…”

“Per favore,” André interrupted, once again motioning them towards the turnstile.

Ahmad, Keyes, and then Reuben mimicked the gift shop lady’s earlier maneuver, taking a sidestep around the turnstile and starting down the hall. Their guide led them on a seemingly rambling trek through the twisting stone corridors of the palace. The hallways were dark and musty, which Reuben knew was to be expected. But even so, he got the impression that they were taking the back route to wherever it was they were going.

He decided not to pick up his earlier line of questioning. The old man had awakened him early that morning, telling him that they had “work to do.” Keyes had driven them from the lake home to the train station (Betty was otherwise occupied) where they met Ahmad. From there, they had boarded the train to Mantua. Along the way, the old man had kept the conversation steered to neutral subjects. Who Ahmad was, and what their purpose was in coming to this place, would apparently be revealed in good time. Reuben found that he had little patience for the mystery.

The walk ended with a climb up some steep stairs. Reaching the top, André turned to face them

La Camera degli Sposi,” he said once again, his voice now hushed with reverence.

They entered a room with paintings on the walls and ceiling.

No, Reuben corrected himself. Not with paintings. With painting. The room itself was the canvas.

Keyes and Ahmad strolled to the center of the room. Reuben walked around the perimeter, taking in its strange beauty. The design was intriguing: an enclosed room painted to look like an open-air pavilion. The walls were decorated with soldiers and hounds and stately noblemen. Tradesmen conferred; children played. A family posed for a portrait, one member of which was an extremely disgruntled-looking dwarf wearing what must have been an uncomfortable dress. Behind them the town and countryside stretched off into the distance. Puffy clouds floated by in the sky overlooking it all.

Reuben joined the others in the center of the room. He looked up. The ceiling was a dome, in the center of which was painted another opening. It was a false oculus, the ancient Roman answer to the skylight. Cherubs, winged and diapered in the traditional style, were climbing in and out of the opening. There were girls standing around the edge of the oculus, looking down into the room. They were accompanied by an ominous black bird and a sly-looking fellow wearing a striped turban.

After a while, the old man cleared his throat.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

Reuben tried to formulate an answer. An appreciation of the skill that had created the room momentarily took the edge off his impatience. It was an oddity, that much was certain. Beautifully rendered. And not without a certain sense of humor, or at least whimsy. But he couldn’t imagine what it was that he was supposed to see in it.

“Magnificent,” said Ahmad.

Reuben realized that the question had not been directed at him.

“I have reproductions back home in Jakarta,” Ahmad continued, “but they can’t do it justice. Look at how he has — ”

Ahmad stopped abruptly. He turned to Reuben.

“Take all the time you wish. When you have finished, we will leave.”

“Finished what?” said Reuben, his patience once again beginning to wane.

Ahmad looked puzzled.

“When you have finished looking.”

Reuben blinked.

“Okay,” he said. “But is there anything in particular that I’m looking for?”

“Just look,” Ahmad said simply. “We can talk about it later.”

Reuben turned to Keyes for help. The old man simply shrugged, and returned to studying the room.

Reuben sighed. He continued to look.

___


The rain had stopped, but it was still too wet to sit outside. Reuben, Ahmad, and Keyes were seated at a cramped table in a café just across the city square from the entrance to the palace. There were only a few tables; the place was crowded and noisy.

Reuben drained his espresso in three quick sips; he was thinking about having another. The other men nursed theirs in a more dignified fashion.

Ahmad talked about his long fascination with the room they had just visited. He told them about Mantegna, the artist who had created it, as well as the Gonzagas, the family who long occupied the Palace. Keyes listened with keen interest, asking frequent questions. Reuben listened indifferently. They couldn’t come to the point too soon for him..

“But enough of all this local color,” Ahmad said at last. “Reuben, I would very much like your impressions.”

“Well,” he said, “I’m really not much of an authority on art…”

“All to the good,” said Ahmad. “Being an art connoisseur might only get in the way. I want you to tell me what it was that most struck you about the Camera.”

Reuben considered this.

“I’d say it was the way the artist merged the painting with the room. The way a curtain or a window frame would start out as real and continue as part of the painting. It reminded me of the guy who drew that picture of the hands drawing themselves.”

“Escher,” said Keyes.

Ahmad nodded, looking quite pleased.

“Excellent,” he said.

Reuben shared a puzzled glance with the old man.

“What,” he asked “did I get it right?”

“You did,” said Ahmad. “You did indeed.”

“So then maybe you’d care to tell me…what exactly did I get right? And what does it mean?”

He took an abortive sip from his now-empty cup.

“And what the hell am I doing here?” he added.

“Bear with me for a while, Reuben,” said Ahmad.

From his coat, he produced a deck of cards. He dealt four of them face up on the table in front of Reuben. These were not playing cards. Each was printed with a colorful and elaborate geometric pattern.

“This quality you described,” said Ahmad, “of one thing merging into another: is it present in any of these designs? And if so, in which one is it most present?”

Reuben looked at the cards. There were no pictures, just shapes and colors: a red cone here, a green cube there, a maze of lines and angles. He studied them for a while, then shook his head.

“No,” he said. “I don’t see that quality in any of these designs.”

Ahmad considered this. He started to gather up the cards. Then he stopped and looked at Reuben again.

“Are you sure about that?’ he asked, returning the two cards he had picked up to the table. “Look deep, Reuben. You’ve come a long way only to give up now.”

“I never said I was giving up. I just don’t see the point in any of this.”

“Please, Reuben.” Ahmad gestured at the cards. “Which one?”

He looked at the cards again. He stared at each one, trying to recapture the sensation he had had when looking at the diagram in Coffey’s book on the train, and a few days before on the terrace at the lake house.

Look deep.

He studied the background of each of the cards. The geometric designs sat in a field of black spattered with gold and silver to resemble the night sky. He changed his focus, trying to bring the background to the fore. As he did so, the black spaces between the “stars” began to emerge, defining lines and shapes of their own

Reuben picked up one of the cards and held it half an arm’s length away from his face. He fixed his gaze on the background as though it were a great distance away. The black spaces began to cohere into a shape of their own. It was a circle. No a, cylinder. It was a hole in a ceiling. Cubes and tetrahedrons, the shapes from the foreground, were climbing in and out of the opening. There were polygons standing around the edge of the circle, looking out at Reuben. They were accompanied by an ominous pyramid and a sly-looking sphere.

Reuben laughed. He turned to the old man.

“Do you see what this is?”

Keyes was frowning. He shook his head.

“It’s one of those holographic 3-D puzzles. You find the picture inside the picture. They’re scenes from the Camera. This is the oculus.”

He set the card down in front of the old man and picked up another one. He stared at it for a moment.

“This is…what? Several people. It’s the family portrait. See the dwarf?”

He set that card in front of Keyes and picked up the next.

“A guy on a horse. No, a guy standing next to a horse. And there are the dogs.”

He set it down and picked up the last one.

“It’s a landscape,” he announced after a moment. “See, there’s a hill with a wall running along in front.” He set the card down and turned to Ahmad. “That’s an interesting test you’ve got, there. How did I do?”

Ahmad cleared his throat.

“You have not responded to the test yet. You might be interested to know that these cards were designed more than 300 years ago. So while, yes, they are similar to the holographic puzzles you mentioned, they are not exactly the same thing. I’m afraid that it is no great accomplishment to see the patterns within the cards and to match them up with images from the Camera, although this ability has been taken for arcane knowledge in the past.”

“Really?” said Keyes, who was holding one of the cards in front of his face and squinting at it. “I can’t see a damn thing.”

“You have to let your field of vision go blurry,” said Reuben. “Look at the image on the card as though it were a great distance away.”

The old man continued looking at the card. A half a minute or so passed.

“Nothing,” he said, flipping the card back onto the table.

Ahmad took a sip from his coffee.

“In truth, the patterns are a bit more subtle than what you would see in holographic puzzle. And not everyone can find the pictures even in those.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” said Keyes. “I’ve never heard of holographic picture puzzles. But never mind. Reuben, answer the question. Which one of these cards is the most Escher-like?”

Reuben considered this. He reached in front of Keyes and picked up the first card he had looked at, the one that contained the image of the oculus. It was different from the others in the way it used elements from the foreground to complete the picture. On the other cards, the image simply emerged from the background with no reference to the geometric pattern that lay in front.

“This one, I suppose.”

Ahmad nodded. He picked up the remaining three cards and stacked them to one side. He took the card that Reuben was holding and placed it on the table in front of him. Then he thumbed through the deck and placed four more cards around it.

“They’re all the same,” said Reuben.

Ahmad smiled.

“In fact, they are not. Each card in the deck is unique. All I can tell you is that one of them holds the key. Which one?”

“What do you mean, holds the key?”

Ahmad shook his head. He had nothing more to say.

Reuben sighed. As before, he began to pick up each card from the table and look at it. It was true, each one was slightly different. Only the geometric pattern in front was the same. The background images were all different. One was the oculus from the Camera. Another was an ornate cross, studded with jewels represented by the shapes in the foreground. The third was a five-pointed star.

Reuben looked at that one for a moment. Could it be the key? It was hard to say, since he had no idea what that meant. He set the card down and picked up the next one. He frowned. The image appeared to be the oculus again. But there was something different about it. It wasn’t really the oculus; it was some other circular pattern. He blinked, and that image was gone, replaced by the star. Reuben held the card back at a little more distance from his face. He blinked again. Now the star and the circle had merged. This was a familiar shape.

Reuben stared hard at the image. Something was stuck, he thought. Something was not quite right. He rotated the card 180 degrees. That was better somehow. The image seemed right at this orientation. It could be loosed now. As he looked intently at the image, the now-familiar sensation washed over him. Slowly, gracefully, the pattern — which was of course the same as the one he had seen in the old man’s manuscript and repeated twice in Coffey’s document — began to rotate. It made three full turns before coming to a halt. Then, just as slowly and gracefully, the little café itself began to rotate.

Reuben closed his eyes and shook his head. The spinning subsided. He flipped the card down on the table in front of Ahmad.

“That’s the one,” he said.

Ahmad nodded.

“Indeed it is,” he said. He picked up all the cards and placed the deck back in his coat pocket.

“I apologize to both of you for this rather idiosyncratic exercise,” he said. “An organization such as mine depends on secrecy for its survival. We have been protecting a secret for a very long time. Over the years we’ve developed a number of practices required to keep it safe. One of these is the validation of an initiate.”

“So we’re initiates?” asked Reuben. “Looking to get validated?”

Ahmad smiled. “Initiates no longer,” he said. “And your validation is complete.”

He extended his hand.

“Reuben, it is my honor to welcome you to the Congrigatio in Ars Magica Magnae.”

Reuben declined the handshake. He sat back in his chair.

“Say what?” he finally managed.

“You have met the criteria. Both you and Mr. Keyes are invited to become brothers in our fraternity.”

“The Society of the Greater Magic,” said Keyes.

Ahmad nodded.

“Well,” Reuben said after a moment, taking hold of Ahmad’s hand. “I’ll be damned.”

He shook Ahmad’s hand and then sat back in his chair. He looked from Ahmad to Keyes, and back to Ahmad again.

“So it’s real?” he said.

“Yes, Reuben,” Ahmad answered. “You have found that which you set out looking for some time ago.”

Reuben laughed, although there was no humor in it. He shook his head and sighed.

“I’ll be damned,” he said again.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 35

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben drummed his fingers impatiently on the table.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “I look at some paintings, play a card game, and now you’re ready to share all your arcane knowledge with me? That’s all it took?”

Ahmad laughed.

“Did you want it to be more difficult than that?”

“To tell you the truth, I never expected to find you people at all. But you’re right. If I ever did find you, I didn’t expect you to be such…pushovers.

Ahmad laughed again, joined by Keyes.

“What’s so funny, old man?” Reuben asked, annoyed.

Keyes grew silent.

“Nothing, really,” he said, clearing his throat. “It’s just that I’ve known Iskandar here for — what, 18 years? And all this time he’s been supposedly helping me to track this group down.”

He turned to Ahmad.

“You’ve been lying to me for a long time.”

Ahmad looked down, seeming to study the tabletop for a moment.

“I apologize for that. The deception is regrettable, but it was necessary.”

“Well, excuse me,” said Reuben, “but how do we know you aren’t lying now?”

Ahmad shrugged.

“You can only accept my assurance that I am not.”

Keyes nodded at this.

“I do accept your assurance, Iskandar. And your apology. But Reuben’s got a point. This did all seem kind of easy. I mean, is this how everyone becomes a member?”

“No. This is just one of dozens of possible tests. This one is usually administered by showing the candidate pictures of the Camera. It was interesting that you mentioned Escher, Reuben. I have a different test that I can perform by asking you to examine some Escher prints. Had we been anywhere else, I probably would have done that. But I couldn’t resist making the trip. Not when we were so close to Mantua.”

“So there are dozens of possible tests, but you only have to take one?” asked Reuben

“Not at all. An initiate is usually subjected to dozens of tests over a period of months or years before being validated. Few are ever selected. I regret to say that Michael, here, was tested a number of years ago and he…did not pass.”

“Now hold on,” said Keyes. “what are you talking about? You never gave me any tests.”

Ahmad took a moment to choose his words.

“Apparently, you were never aware that you were being tested. Which, in the early stages, is how it is supposed to be.”

Keyes took a drink of his coffee and looked off into the distance, remembering. After a while, he smiled.

“I’ll be damned,” he said. “You smooth-talking son of a bitch. All those highly theoretical discussions we’ve had about art and mathematics. And here I just thought you were some kind of…intellectual.

Ahmad laughed again.

“I may yet be,” he said. “Many of our conversations were just what they seemed: two old friends passing the time together pleasantly. But some of them, early on, were not.”

“And I failed?” said Keyes.

“I’m afraid so.”

“I never even made it out of the first round, did I? Or I would have known that I was being tested.”

“Don’t take it badly. Most initiates fail. But none of that matters now. You have been accepted.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. You give me a bunch of tests and I fail. You give Reuben only one — a pretty damn easy one, it looked like — and now suddenly we’re both in?”

“There was nothing easy about what Reuben just did. But he did have an advantage. Most initiates have never seen the diagram before they take the test. I’m sure it was easier for Reuben to recognize it than it would be for one of them.”

Reuben nodded.

“Today’s test was to some extent a formality. As I said, we have certain practices that we have to maintain. One of our rules is that no initiate can be validated without passing at least one test. So I subjected Reuben to this one. But his admission to the society — as well as your own by way of association — was a forgone conclusion.”

“But why?” asked Reuben.

“We aren’t pushovers, Reuben. You secured your membership through your unique accomplishment.”

Reuben looked bewildered.

“Which is what?”

Ahmad took a long sip from his coffee.

“You traveled to this world from another.”

So there it was.

Reuben got up and went to the counter. He pointed to his cup and held up his index finger. Universal sign language for one coffee, please. Three young women sat at a table near the counter talking quietly and giggling. Reuben figured they were late teens, early twenties. There was something irritating about how perfectly Italian they were: their long hair, their angular faces, and their short leather skirts. No doubt they belonged to the three sleek black motor scooters parked out front. The whole tableau was right out of a perfume ad in one of those glossy women’s magazines.

Reuben noticed that the women would turn quickly away from him every time he looked their way.

And more giggling would ensue.

What was this, he wondered. Flirtation? Curiosity? Were they repulsed by the scar on his head?

“Hey girls,” he said.

One of them turned and looked directly at Reuben. Girlish mirth immediately gave way to fashion-model severity. She treated him to a look of deadly disdain.

You,” said Reuben. “Have you ever thought about hooking up with somebody from out of town? I mean like…way out of town?”

“Reuben…” said Keyes.

“Non parlo di inglesi,” the young woman said, and turned back to her friends.

The café owner handed Reuben his espresso with a scowl. Reuben winked at him as he handed over his cash.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just not myself. It looks like maybe somebody else is. Or rather was. If you see what I’m saying.”

The café owner handed him his change and turned around in disgust.

Reuben started back toward his seat, still smiling at the girls. On some unspoken cue, they got up and headed for the door.

Reuben sat back down.

“You need to watch what you’re saying, Reuben,” said Keyes.

“Oh? Why’s that? Iskandar, are you going to throw me out of the club if I don’t behave? Right after saying I could join?”

Ahmad looked concerned.

“I can see that this is all quite troubling for you, Reuben. And I don’t blame you for being troubled. But I’m afraid there’s a good deal more you need to know.”

“Troubling?” said Reuben. “This isn’t troubling. It’s just background noise. Unless you’re going to be able to tell me something really useful about what’s happening to me, it’s just noise. Let me tell you what’s troubling, Mr. Ahmad. What’s troubling is when you find out that you’re dead.”

He poured some milk into his coffee. Then he added a sugar cube. Then two more.

“What the hell,” he said, smiling. “But I take that back. What’s troubling is when you learn that maybe you’re dead, maybe you’re alive, but it really doesn’t matter. Because either way, your life is a lie.”

“Now, son,” Keyes protested, “I don’t think it’s fair to say —”

Reuben held up his hand, cutting him off.

“I have a question for you, Iskandar. I was talking to Mrs. Keyes about all this the other day. She brought up a good point. How many of these parallel worlds do you think there are?”

Ahmad shrugged.

“I’m not sure that I accept the idea of parallel worlds.”

Reuben’s tone of voice grew cold.

“But you just said that I went from one world to another.”

“Forgive the inconsistency, Reuben. Perhaps I was making an unnecessary technical distinction. In everyday speech, I often talk in terms of parallel universes. But few of us in the society actually subscribe to the idea of them. Personally, I believe there is only one universe. But there are many points of reference from within it. Those different points of reference are the reality behind the language of many worlds.”

Reuben thought about this. It seemed he had heard something like this before, but he couldn’t recall where.

“Let me see if I understand. So from one point of view, it might look like somebody’s alive. But from the other, it might look like they’re dead?”

Ahmad shook his head.

“No, it isn’t a matter of what things look like. As viewed from one point of reference, the individual actually would be alive. As viewed from another, he would be dead. From still another, he would never have been born in the first place.”

“So you’re saying that I’ve somehow shifted my point of reference.”

“That’s right.”

“I mean, really shifted it. I want to know how I did that. But first, I want to go back to my original question. How many of these different points of reference are there?”

Ahmad shrugged again.

“It may be an infinite number. Or it may be an unimaginably high number, but still finite. I don’t have those answers, Reuben. But I would like to put you in contact with someone who might.”

“Good,” said Reuben. “Perfect. Give me your phone, old man.”

Keyes looked puzzled, but he reached into his coat for his mobile phone. He handed it to Reuben.

“What’s the number?” he asked Ahmad, his fingers poised to dial. “Let’s get this guy on the phone right now. I want to know how many of these parallel universes there are. Excuse me, points of reference. I want to know how many I get shot in. Or from. Whatever the hell it is.”

“Reuben, please…” said Keyes.

“Well wouldn’t you?” Reuben demanded. “Maybe it’s all of them. Getting shot seems to be my thing. Maybe I’ve found an unimaginably high number — but still finite! — of ways to do it. From my particular point of reference, I got lucky. I was shot by a drunk and disoriented Russian.”

He tapped his forehead.

“Survivable. But other versions of me apparently didn’t do so well. They had to contend with someone who was surprisingly a much better shot. My wife.”

Keyes looked stricken.

“Reuben, I‘m sorry. I didn’t know you knew.”

“Betty told me,” Reuben said simply. He took another sip from his coffee.

They were all silent for a while.

“I’m also truly sorry, Reuben” said Ahmad. “What a bizarre set of circumstances. But I’m afraid we can’t call the individual I have in mind. It will have to be a face to face meeting.”

“Why?” asked Reuben. “Who is he, anyway?”

“My counterpart,” said Ahmad. “The leader of the Congrigatio in Ars Magica Minor.”

“The what?” asked Keyes. “The Lesser Magic? I never heard of that.”

Ahmad smiled.

“No. And you never would have, had you not been admitted to the society of the Greater Magic.”

“Wait. Shouldn’t it work the other way around?” asked Reuben.

“Well,” said Ahmad, “one would think so. But you’re missing some vital information. There is no Greater Magic. The organization you’ve just been admitted to is a sham. It’s a hoax. We exist only as a smoke screen.”

Reuben looked at Keyes. It’s about time, he thought. Finally, one of the con artists the old man associated with was admitting he was as phony.

“A smoke screen for what?” he asked.

“Obviously, to protect the one that’s not a hoax,” said Keyes. “The society of the Lesser Magic.”

“That’s right,” Ahmad agreed. “We call it Magic Minor, by the way.”

Reuben rolled his eyes.

“Well, I don’t have any trouble believing your group is a sham,” said Reuben. “your initiation test notwithstanding. By our own admission, you’ve been lying to Mr. Keyes all this time. But why should we believe that one of these groups is real when one of them is an admitted fraud?”

Ahmad smiled.

“You may believe whatever you like. But ask yourself this question: why are you being told this here, in this world? Why was there no mention of it in the other world? Mr. Keyes apparently knows both myself and Mr. Coffey in both worlds.”

“Coffey,” Reuben repeated. “David Coffey?” Reuben suddenly remembered where he had heard some of this talk about points of reference before. It was on his train ride to St. Petersburg/Leningrad.

“That’s right,” said Ahmad.

“He’s part of your group?”

“He is,” said Ahmad. “But he would never have admitted to being so. His job was to keep Mr. Keyes, here, from learning the truth about us.”

Keyes looked stunned for a moment. The he smiled at Ahmad.

“I didn’t realize that you and David knew each other,” he said.

“Of course you didn’t,” said Ahmad. “You thought he worked for you, after all. His job was to keep you busy. To distract you with shreds of evidence that seem promising, but lead nowhere. I had a duty to protect my society. It is difficult to dissuade a man of your persistence, Michael. But I can tell you very frankly that, had circumstances not changed, Mr. Coffey would still be hard at work keeping you off the trail.”

“And the change in circumstances was my return from the grave?” asked Reuben.

“Absolutely. A few weeks ago, Mr. Keyes approached Mr. Coffey with what he believed might be evidence of the work of the society of the Society of the Greater Magic. A man who had died some time before was suddenly alive again.”

Keyes nodded.

“It seemed like a long shot. Everything I had heard about the Society told me they were involved in alchemy, not necromancy, but I was grasping at straws. I needed an explanation.”

For the first time, it occurred to Reuben that his reappearance was more than just an occasion for Keyes’ to rejoice at the return of his lost godson. It was that, to be sure, but there was something else. For a man who had devoted many years of his life to the pursuit of subjects largely ignored or (when noticed) ridiculed by most of the rest of the world, the undeniable inexplicability of Reuben’s showing up alive in a Soviet prison would have to be a triumph of vindication for Keyes.

“So what convinced you people that the old man was on to something?” he asked.

“Once reviewed, the proof is very persuasive. You’ll forgive me, Reuben, if I tell you that the remains buried in Denver are a perfect genetic match.”

Reuben looked at Keyes.

“You dug me up?”

The old man grew pale again. He squirmed in his chair as he tried to formulate an answer.

“Never mind,” said Reuben, “you had to be sure it was me, didn’t you?”

“And it wasn’t just the DNA evidence,” Ahmad continued. “Identical dental records, fingerprints. Even if you had a secret identical twin, which there was no reason to believe, it would have been very difficult to pull off such a hoax.”

“So you figured out that I somehow got here from a different frame of reference?”

Ahmad nodded.

“But how did you figure that? I would think that you’d go more with the old man’s explanation, that somebody used your minor magic to bring me back from the dead.”

“Magic Minor,” said Ahmad, correcting Reuben’s word order. “First, while I am not a practitioner of the art, I know a bit about it. And I can say with some confidence that Magic Minor cannot be used to bring someone back from the dead. At least not in the way you’re thinking, resuscitating a corpse like Dr. Frankenstein. Besides, how could anyone believe that you had been brought back from the dead? Your body was still dead and buried. And is still dead and buried.”

Keyes winced.

“Forgive me, Michael.”

The old man nodded.

“It’s all right,’ he said, “Go on.”

“Well, in any event, it was clear to me that this was an instance of Magic Minor. The first bona fide case that I have ever encountered.”

Reuben put this together.

“So do people use Magic Minor to do what I did? To somehow move from one scenario to another?”

“Precisely,” said Ahmad. “That is precisely what Magic Minor is.”

He drained his coffee.

“And it is the only real magic that ever was. Or likely that ever will be.”

“But wait,” said Keyes. “What about alchemy and the philosopher’s stone and all that stuff?’’

“Serious pursuits, to be sure,” said Ahmad. “A few of the most advanced practitioners of the alchemical arts had a glimpse of Magic Minor.”

“Al Razi?” said Keyes.

“Among others. But for most it was only a glimpse. It was not nearly enough. So by and large they, and those who came after them, traveled down one pointless road after another in pursuit of riches and eternal life. Roads leading nowhere.”

He looked toward Keyes with a half smile. “But still of great use to us, of course.”

“How’s that?” said Reuben.

The old man smiled.

“That’s their smoke screen, son.”

Reuben considered this.

“So what about this mysterious document. Just a red herring? Another fake?”

“Not at all,” said Ahmad. “Or I suppose it depends on what you mean by a fake. It is the Book of the Greater Magic. If ever translated, it will be revealed that it is a treatise on alchemy. Just as many of its investigators already suspect. It purports a fantastical and widely inaccurate description of how the universe works, but not much more so than many other documents from the period. The eventual translators will be delighted at first by the secrets it promises to deliver. Yet ultimately disappointed to find that it is just another ancient book of mystical blather. A bit more confusing and frustrating than most, perhaps, but nothing more.”

“And the diagram?” said Reuben. “The one that was on the card. The one that’s also in the mosque in Turkey and the temple in Tibet?”

“A link to the truth, to be sure. Even the most fanciful treatises on alchemy have a few of those. There is a connection between that mandala and the practice of Magic Minor. What that connection is, I cannot tell you. I have not been initiated into the mysteries. ”

“But other than that one symbol, there’s nothing special about the manuscript?” asked Keyes.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. The manuscript has something in common with our friend, here.”

He set his cup down.

“It, too, came from another world.”

Reuben stared hard at Ahmad.

“Point of reference,” he said.

“Even so,” said Ahmad. “The book of the Greater Magic is the perfect decoy. It is a truly mysterious artifact: the arcane language; the esoteric illustrations. An entire sub discipline has grown up within the field of crypto-botany dedicated just to the study of its illustrations of plants.”

“And there’s no danger that someone will eventually figure out what the thing says?” asked Keyes.

“Why?” said Ahmad, smiling faintly. “Are your people getting close?”

The old man snorted.

“Probably not as close as they think.”

“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. To decipher its meaning is to learn nothing. But there is something else about that manuscript, something known only to members of the society into which the two of you have just been admitted.”

“What’s that?” asked Reuben.

“The fact that it was once part of a set.”

“A set?” said Keyes. “Meaning that you had more red herrings you were prepared to throw in my path?”

“No, Michael,” said Ahmad. “Meaning that there is a second book, the Book of Magic Minor, which contains all the answers that you and Reuben have been looking for.”

“You have this book?” Reuben asked.

“No, my associate does.”

“The head of the Magic Minor group.”

“Yes.”

“And he can read it?”

“Well…” said Ahmad. It seemed there was something that he wanted to say, but then he thought better of it. “The book was translated long ago. By design, I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of how much of it is read and understood today. You’re going to have to talk to my associate about that.”

“And where do I find this associate?” asked Reuben.

Ahmad smiled.

“It’s a long way from here, I’m afraid.”

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 36

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben was an utter disappointment.

I know that sounds unkind, and I’m sorry about that. But he was. When I got the call from Ix telling me that someone was coming, someone who had, as we say, “made it through the door,” I knew (or I should say I thought I knew) who that individual was. I had been following this certain someone’s exploits here at home and out in the wider configuration space for some time, and I knew that sooner or later our paths would cross. So just when it looks like everything is coming together, and he should be on his way, who shows up?

This…tough guy.

Right out of one of those movies with the car chases and the explosions. A man of action. A man of few words. Strong and silent.

A right git, in other words. And a bloody American to boot.

Does that seem unfair? Unduly harsh?

You have to understand that the man I was expecting is a genius. A brilliant writer. Someone who can see clear to the heart of the profoundest of mysteries — mysteries that have stolen a good part of my life, secrets that fill me with such simultaneous fear and awe that I am usually able to deal with them only through a veneer of cynicism.

I had so many expectations, so many hopes for what this meeting would be.

I suppose I built it all up unrealistically in my mind. As a result, my first impression of Reuben was clouded by my thwarted desire to meet the man I had expected to meet. So yes, I was disappointed — utterly, utterly disappointed — when I first met Reuben.

But I adjusted.

Over time, I grew to regard him with a casual dislike, which would eventually mellow to an indifferent tolerance.

Besides, when I finally did meet my would-be soul-mate, the man with all the answers — or at least what was supposed to be a version of him — he turned out to be a disappointment of catastrophic proportions. An absolute wanker, that one.

When I met him, I felt deep regret that I had ever applied that term “wanker” to any other human being. I should have saved it for him, written in fine script on a yellowed parchment.

So this Reuben comes stumbling into the shop one fine Tuesday afternoon, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt like a typical American tourist moron and dripping sweat by the litre. He wasn’t bad looking. Not exactly Denzel Washington or anything (if you see the point of the comparison), but tall and quite thin. He was a little haggard in the face, and had a big messy patch on his head. It looked like it was perhaps a burn. He made no pretense of looking at anything in the shop — which I suppose is to his credit, in a sense — but he came straight to the counter and said:

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

Always the way to get immediately on my good side. Now why, pray tell, would I be able to speak English? But this is a business, and sweaty Americans are noted in these parts for their tendency to part with their money. Lots of it. So rather than telling him outright — or pointing out that this is, after all a former British colony and that I spent four years at university in Bristol — I decided to acquaint him with the fact that I most certainly do speak the language (better than he does, no doubt) by smiling and giving him my most courteous:

“How may I help you today, sir?”

He smiled back.

“Yes, well, I’d like to see Mr. Wong. Mr. Wong Yoke Yee.”

Brilliant.

Not that this was the first time this had ever happened. And at least he didn’t say “Mr. Yee.”

“May I ask why?”

He looked uncomfortable at this question. He turned and took a look around the shop to make sure no one else was there.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to discuss that directly with Mr. Wong. Please just tell him that Iskandar Ahmad sent me.”

So that was when it hit me. This was the bloke. Ix said somebody was coming, and I assumed I knew who it was. But I was wrong.

Ix.

How could you?

I needed a moment, but there was none to be had. And so it was right then that I decided that I hated Reuben Stone. As I mentioned, this was not to last, but it was good enough to set the tone for several things that happened next.

“So what can I do for you?” I asked.

He looked puzzled.

“No, you don’t understand. I need to speak with Mr. Wong.”

As icily as I could — which I have been assured is fairly icy — I said:

“We can dispense with the Mr. I’m Wong Yoke Yee. My friends call me Daphne.”

He looked appropriately startled and immediately apologetic.

“I’m an idiot,” he said, a point I would be slow to disagree with. He extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Daphne. I’m Reuben. Reuben Stone.”

“Mr. Stone,” I said, meeting his grasp with the briefest, coldest, deadest fish of a handshake I could manage. “Please call me Miss Wong.”

Git or no, it would be difficult for Reuben to miss my point. I said my friends call me Daphne. Dolt. Imbecile. American. He looked appropriately chastised.

Actually, for a moment he bore an uncanny resemblance to Modo — the beagle I had reared from a pup, whom I had put to sleep just a few weeks before. Old age. Modo would have the same look on his face whenever he tore up the flower garden or left a mess on the shop floor and I told him he was a bad dog. This resemblance may have softened me towards Reuben a bit. But only the tiniest bit.

“Ah, okay. Miss Wong. I don’t know if Iskandar told you I was coming?”

“He did.”

“And did he tell you that I’ve just been admitted to the…Congrigatio in Ars Magica Magnae.”

His use of the proper Latin name was halting, but the pronunciation was close enough.

“Of course.”

Actually, he never mentioned it in so many words, but he didn’t have to. Ix wouldn’t send somebody my way unless he had already cleared that hurdle.

Reuben nodded. He wanted me to say more. He wanted me to make this easy for him.

No chance.

“Right,” he said. “Well, did he tell you about my…unusual circumstances?”

I remembered, then, what Ix had said about this Reuben Stone. And I looked at him anew. This bloke had managed to do what few had ever done, even among the initiates. I considered the scar on his head and the scrawniness of his build, which didn’t seem to fit with his large frame. He had been through something.

I didn’t like him any better for it, but my curiosity was piqued.

“He told me,” I said, “but not in any detail.”

“Well, would you like to hear the whole thing?”

I sighed impatiently.

“Why not?”

I locked the front door to the shop, placing the Back Soon sign in the window. It had been a slow day for jade trinkets and fake antique Chinese woodwork anyway. I led him to the back, past the small gallery of real antiques — I hadn’t even bothered to turn the light on there — and into my office.

We sat down there, and Reuben gave me an abbreviated version of his story. Even the short version included a lot of sentimental glop about wanting to help his poor sick mother — or even more treacle than that: the woman who “was like a mother to him.” This is not to say that I’m unsympathetic on the subject of sick parents or stand-in parents or what have you, but I was more interested in getting to the bottom of how he came to be here. I would have thought that he was a member of a different context’s version of the Order, but that wasn’t the case. He had heard about the society of the greater magic in his context, but Ix was giving him and his Dad (godfather, stepfather, sugar daddy, whatever it was) the run-around. You can’t buy your way into our little bridge club, not even if you’re Michael Keyes.

What Reuben had done, he had done on his own. Apparently he pulled it off through some combination of having part of his head blown off, looking at one of the pretty pictures in the big book, and a bit of what the Americans call “dumb luck.”

He hadn’t walked through the door. He had stumbled through.

It was a fascinating story. It would make a wonderful movie. Really. But from where I sat, Reuben now looked even less likely to be what I was looking for than I had taken him for at first. He was most probably a one-off arrangement. What had happened to him was a fluke. This left with a problem: what to do with him?

So I asked him.

“Why are you here? What do you want?”

He thought about this for a moment.

“I almost didn’t come,” he said. “I’ve been having trouble deciding whether I believe in any of this or not. But I want to understand what’s happened to me. And if there really is something to all this, then I need to know whether I can somehow use it to help Betty.”

“How would you do that?”

“I don’t know.”

I thought about it.

“Well, there might be ways of doing it. If you knew what she had, maybe you could find a context where it’s been cured and bring the cure back to her. Or just find a really advanced context — where they can cure everything — and go back and get her and bring her there.”

“That all sounds pretty easy.”

“It isn’t. You have a lot to learn. But it looks like you could learn it.”

“So…what do I do? How do I start?”

“I’m afraid it isn’t as simple as that. First I have to decide whether you’re an acceptable candidate. Assuming that you are, you have to go through a period of training. That could take quite a while.”

“How long?”

“Well, we have a fellow in Chile who started the training under my dad. He was 24 years old when he started. He’ll turn 50 this year.”

Reuben looked puzzled.

“And he’s still at it? When will he finish?”

“Probably never. He doesn’t have it in him; most people don’t. But some people just don’t know when to quit. However. Seeing as you’ve already displayed a certain…innate skill, it might not take very long with you.”

“Meaning what?”

“A year, maybe two, and you would possibly be able to find your way back home. Or it could take another five or six years to find this hypothetical cure.”

“But by then…”

I didn’t press him on what he thought would almost certainly have happened by then. He was apparently under the impression that time passes at the same rate across all contexts. Six years was disappointment enough. No need to compound it by a factor of a few hundred. Or then thousand. Or worse.

“And there’s another problem. Worthy as your cause is, I’m not sure that our rules would allow you to pursue it.”

That one seemed to stick him a little. As well it might.

“Why not?”

“There are two schools of thought on Magic Minor. One is that we were never really meant to have access to it. That’s it’s some kind of colossal cosmic mistake. The other is that we were meant to have it, but only in the performance of a specific task. A big task.”

“What task?”

“I can’t really go into that with you now. But it’s a serious situation, to say the very least. In any case, the theory goes that magic minor has fallen into our laps as its intended remedy.”

“Intended? By whom?”

“Unknown. But pay attention to the options: either we shouldn’t use it at all or we should use it just in the service of this one task. And I’m sorry, but helping Betty is not the task.”

Now we both had disappointments to deal with. And while I may be something of a callous bitch, I’m not quite so far gone that I couldn’t see that his disappointment was the greater of the two. By some considerable measure.

“Still, I might be willing to push through an exception in your case.”

He looked up, hope returning for a moment. I had to crush it.

“I mean to get you home. Not to help your friend.”

He sat there for a long time. Looking at the floor. Then he looked up and said something that surprised me.

“I guess I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t know anything about your cosmic mistake. But I can see how this is looked at as something that we aren’t supposed to have. Or that we’re supposed to use carefully. What’s to stop you from using this power to make yourselves rich or powerful? There must be scenarios — or I guess contexts is the word?”

I shrugged.

“It’s my word.”

“Right. Anyway, if there are contexts that contain cures for diseases, there are contexts that contain other things.”

He seemed to ponder this.

“Technology,” he continued. “Wealth. Weapons. You could rule the world.”

I nodded.

“Or go find one worth ruling and rule it.”

I’ll give Reuben this. It seeped in with him faster than it did for most. Probably a result of already having made the trip. It wasn’t surprising that he took the Yank alpha-male “rule the world” scenario and ran with it. But where he went next did surprise me a little.

“Or just find a perfect world that you already rule and go there. There must be one where you’ve recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. You step in and take your own place.”

I nodded again.

“Why not? It might be hard to find one exactly like that, but it’s out there. Of course, you might want to find out what those mysterious circumstances were before you make the leap. Or you might get disappeared yourself.”

“So is every possible…context out there somewhere?”

“Nobody knows the answer to that. There are some that we can see and get to. There are others that we can see and not get to. Apparently there are some that we can get to but not see — that would appear to be what you did.”

“Wait a minute. Are you saying that you can look into these other contexts? See what’s going on there?”

I sighed. Maybe not quite as bright as I had thought.

“How would you have gone looking for that cure? Or a world to conquer? Trial and error?”

He thought about this for a while, putting it all together. He started rubbing that discolored part of his head. It looked like he was in pain. He put his hand on my desk, as though he needed to steady himself or something.

Then I became aware of the ripple. First it was just this low crackling hum. Then it surged, taking on a sharpness: a definition.

“Hey, take it easy,” I said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

He looked up. He was in pain. He didn’t say anything.

I felt the ripple again, more distinct this time.

“Reuben. Listen to me. You have to let go right now. I understand what you’re experiencing. It’s a new way of thinking for you, one you haven’t had for very long.”

He wasn’t looking at me any more. He was staring off into the middle distance. Sweat was streaming down his face. Not that that was anything new.

This time the ripple hit me heard, and I had to take hold the desk myself. I felt dizzy. I thought I was going to vomit.

Brilliant. Right there on my beautiful antique desk.

“Reuben,” I said. “Listen to me, you silly fuckwit. You have to stop now or you’re going to wake up tomorrow in another Russian prison. Or worse.”

No response.

“I’m letting go, Reuben.”

I said it, but I wasn’t actually sure if I could. I had never felt a ripple quite like this one before. One that makes you sick at your stomach.

“You’re going alone. I won’t be there to help you.”

The ripple hit again. Viciously. It was a grasping, tearing thing. The shop, my office, my desk — all began to slip away. He was taking me. Against my will.

Somehow I managed to stand up. I took hold of his plastic tumbler of water and threw it in his face.

“Reuben! You have to! Stop this! Now!”

I flung the tumbler at him but it missed.

My office was fading to a grayed out version of itself. We were on the verge. I was real, but it wasn’t. Or almost wasn’t. Once we left, we could end up anywhere. I wouldn’t be able to get us back. And he…well, who knew what he could do?

“All right, god damn it! I’ll do what you want! We’ll help Betty! You’ve got it! You win! Just STOP NOW!!”

The ripple stopped. The lights came back on. It took me a moment to catch my breath. He sat there stoically, as though nothing had happened. Then he pulled out a handkerchief and began dabbing at the water I had thrown at him. After a moment, he reached down and picked up the tumbler and set it back on my desk.

“Sorry,” he said with utter calm. Then he just stared at me.

This was a pickle. Now what should I do?

My impulse was to kick him the hell out of my shop. Ix or no Ix. The fact that I’d just promised to help his sick friend didn’t even register. I was under duress. I would have said anything.

No, what made it a pickle was not what I had said. It was what he had done. That ripple.

That ripple.

My God, I had never experienced anything like that in my life. This git had no idea what he was doing and he was still better at agitating the waveform than anyone I’d ever seen. Maybe, I thought, we should start shooting all our initiate candidates in the head.

An idea that appealed to me on more than one level, believe you me.

So what to do with him? I had to be realistic. As I’ve said, Reuben was not who I was expecting. I had good reason to expect someone else. But here he was.

And time was growing short.

“You’re sorry,” I said. “That’s good. Now you listen to me. I want to be very clear about what I have to say. If you ever do that again, I will kill you. Do you understand me? That isn’t just an expression with me. I don’t use those kinds of expressions. When I tell someone that I’ll see them later, I mean that I’ll see them later. When I tell someone they’ll be sorry, I mean that they’ll be sorry. And when I say that I’m going to kill you, I mean…”

“That you’re going to kill me,” he said defiantly. “I got it.”

I was expecting him to be a little more apologetic, but he really bristled when the subject of killing him came up. I would have thought that a tough guy would take this sort of thing with a bit more aplomb. Later I learned why he took it so personally. Even under the circumstances, threatening to kill Reuben was something of a faux pas.

A certain nasty incident with the former Mrs. Stone, don’t you know.

But it served to even the score between us. Now he hated me, too.

“Good,” I said. “I’m glad we’re clear. You’re a military man, aren’t you?”

He shook his head.

“Really? But you’ve served somehow. Somewhere.”

“CIA.”

Another surprise.

“Well…good enough, I guess. That means you understand about following orders.”

“Yes.”

“And you understand about a chain of command.”

“Yes.”

“Good. Well then get this straight. There’s the chain of command, and then there’s me. I’m the anchor at the end of the chain. Do you follow me?”

“I think so.”

“Well let’s be sure. You’re a recruit in the Marine Corps. What do they call them in the movies? A…grunt. And I’m the head Marine. The Minister of Defense.”

He blinked.

“No, that’s not right. What do you call it? Never mind. I’m the President. That’s it, I’m the President of the United States. And you’re a grunt Marine. Clear?”

He nodded sullenly.

Clear?”

He glared at me.

“Clear,” he croaked.

“You will address me as Miss Wong.”

He half-smiled.

Clear, Miss Wong.”

“Wipe that idiotic smirk off your face.”

He did, replacing it with an expression of sheer hatred. That was all right; I could live with hatred. I wondered whether I wasn’t laying it all on a little thick. But I would need to for what was to come next.

“Here’s how it’s going to work. Your training will begin tomorrow evening. I’m going to give you a copy of the little book, which you will have read by the following day. We’ll meet here at six tomorrow and then every day at the same time.”

“Yes, Miss Wong.”

And then I had this idea.

It came to me all at once: the convergence of several seemingly unrelated strands. It was a good idea, but a not a particularly nice idea, if you can see the distinction. But there it was — I could get this wanker’s help with the Situation, punish him for not being who he was supposed to be, and finally put into action a plan I had been nursing along for twenty years or so. All at once.

It was perfect.

“But before we start, you have to do something. To prove to me that you’re serious.”

I took a sheet of paper from my notepad and jotted the number down on it. I was surprised to realize that I knew it by heart. I handed it to him.

“I have a bank account in Switzerland. Between now and six tomorrow evening, you will have made a deposit into this account.”

He took the sheet of paper and looked at the number.

“Yes, Miss Wong,” he said.

When I didn’t say anything he asked:

“How much, Miss Wong?”

I smiled at him.

“One million dollars, US.”

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 37

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben looked at the piece of paper with the account number on it, then looked back at me.

“You have got to be kidding,” he said.

I stared at him in silence.

“Miss Wong,” he added.

I sat back in my chair, preparing myself for the exchange. A bit of resistance is to be expected in these circumstances, after all.

“When I say something, I mean it. You don’t want to muck about with this. I believe in second chances, but you’re already on yours.”

Reuben exhaled. He wadded the paper up and tossed it onto my desk. He was still bristling with the charge of disrupting the waveform. I could see that he was shaken by the experience — as much as I had been, or even more — but he wasn’t letting on. Or at least he was trying not to. Chalk it up to the aforementioned Yank Alpha Male Tough Guy mindset.

“You said you would help Betty.”

I made no reply.

“Miss Wong.”

There. That was more like it.

“After you complete your training, you’re going to have a job to do. It’s related to the problem we discussed earlier. When we have finished that, we’ll see what we can do about your friend.”

Reuben considered this.

“Maybe I don’t need any training. What did I just do? You said I was on the verge of changing worlds again. If I can already do it, why do I need your help?”

I smiled at him.

“Well, by all means, be my guest. And good luck finding your way back home.”

I offered him my hand.

“We’ll just say goodbye, then, Reuben. We shan’t see each other again.”

He stared at my hand. He did not take it.

“While I’m wishing you luck, good luck staying out of places that look exactly like home, but that have a poison atmosphere which kills you instantly on contact. And good luck avoiding the machine worlds where nano-bugs tag you as a contaminant and reduce you to dust in a matter of seconds. Or worlds where you’re organically compatible, but where time is drastically slowed. So you can step in and step right out again — only to find that a million years have passed in the world you’re trying to get back to.”

I could see that I was getting to him, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up yet.

“I did all right on my own the first time.”

My laughter in response to that preposterous statement was quite genuine.

“Forgive me, Reuben,” I said, catching my breath. “I think that you and I may have incompatible ideas about what it means when one says that one has done all right.

“So are they really different worlds, or are they just different points of reference on the same world?”

Ah, cleverly switching to the subject that truly interested him. And giving me the chance to move in for the kill.

“You will address me as Miss Wong. And if you want your first lesson, you’re going to have to pay the course fee.”

He shook his head.

“Miss Wong, you want me to pay you a million dollars just for the privilege of helping you solve your problem?”

I nodded.

“That and the privilege of getting back to where you came from. If possible. Plus the privilege of attempting to find a cure for your friend.”

“If possible.”

I nodded again.

“Precisely.”

“Well that’s crazy. Where am I supposed to get that kind of money?”

“Reuben, I know who you are. And I know who Betty is. A million dollars shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Michael Keyes probably has that much in the form of loose change under his sofa cushions. And if he doesn’t, we’ll see how quickly he can auction off one of those lovely boats or rail coaches.”

Reuben stared at me, disbelievingly.

“This is extortion,” he said.

Such an ugly word. I couldn’t help but have a pang of guilt — a slight one — but it passed.

“I hardly think so. Ix…Mr. Ahmad told me about the test you were subjected to in being initiated into the Society. I’m not satisfied that it was adequate. I need an additional show of good faith.”

“So you’re saying this is some kind of deposit or something? You’ll give the money back?”

“Absolutely not. I will do with the money as I see fit.”

Reuben shook his head. I could sense his growing sense of frustration. He decided to play the only card he had.

“So what does Ahmad think of this test of good faith?’

I shrugged.

“I’m not terribly interested in what he thinks. He can think whatever he likes. I hope you aren’t toying with the idea of running off and having a whinge with him about your mistreatment at my hands. Remember what I told you. There’s the chain, and then there’s me. He’ll be happy to go along with whatever I say. No questions asked.”

This was rather a gross exaggeration, I’m afraid. Of course, Iskandar would ultimately go along with anything I said. What choice did he have? But he wouldn’t be happy about it, and it certainly wouldn’t be the promised “no questions asked” scenario.

The man could be awfully straight laced at times.

Dear, dear Ix. It occurred to me that I still loved him, even after all these years.

“And that’s what you want from me. No questions asked.”

“Yes.”

“A million dollars, and I’m not supposed to ask any questions.”

I bit my lower lip and studied him for a moment.

“Well. We aren’t quite as idealistic as we like to make out, now, are we? At first it’s all this talk about how you would do anything, anything to help your friend. Quite sweet and touching, really. But when it comes down to brass tacks…that’s different. Suddenly it’s a matter of price. Isn’t it?”

I picked up the wadded paper and threw it back at him.

“No one else is going to be able to help you, Reuben. Only we can. Only I can.”

Reuben held the paper for a moment, deciding whether to throw it back at me. His hands were trembling — ever so subtly, but then I have a good eye for that sort of thing. Trembling with rage. He despised me, in part (I think) because he recognized the truth of what I had said. He really had been hung up on the price. And indeed, there was no place else he could turn for help. He began to unwad the paper. He smoothed it out as best he could, then folded it and put it in his pocket.

“All right,” he said, looking up at me. He kept his voice steady. “I’ll see what I can do. Miss Wong.

“Good,” I said. “You may go now, Reuben. I’ll see you tomorrow at six. And be assured that I will have checked my account balance.”

He stood up and started for the door.

“Ah, Miss Wong?” he said, turning back to face me.

“What is it?”

He rubbed that damaged spot on his head. I couldn’t help but feel a moment’s concern about his condition. He didn’t look entirely well, the poor man.

“A million in a day is kind of a tall order. Do you think we can make it Thursday?”

I smiled my most agreeable smile.

“Why, of course, Reuben. Of course. Thursday it is.”

He turned back around and left.

I sighed contentedly. It was a nice feeling, doing him a good turn.

 

 

 

I, Altheus, servant of Jaloor of (undecipherable), do here set forth the text of the Small Book in the Latin tongue, that it may be studied and understood by those who in (several words undecipherable) wisdom of my master and his people. Who writes these words is but a servant and student of the wise stranger. I am in all ways unfit to carry out this task, but there is no other. Jaloor the Wise will not deign to cast his thoughts in the tongues of this world; to do so would be an irreverence. All the tongues of man are such, even the Latin tongue, (though it, as the greatest of the tongues of earth, is also closest to the common tongue of my master’s home) that they are unworthy vessels of the great truths known to my master, old wineskins that would surely rupture were they to be filled with the New Wine of higher knowledge. Better that I, as impudent eavesdropper on a heavenly chorus, should dare to mimic the songs of angels on a warped and decaying wooden flute than compound my crime by imploring one of the celestial singers to do the same.

The courses of the heavens are (three lines undecipherable) we who breathe upon the Earth before these mysteries. And so do I, Altheus, add my own small warning to those terrible words with which this book begins. The disciple therefore who will in humility read that he may know, and know that he may grow wise, and grow wise that he may grow in goodness, shall thus prosper and transmute the baseness of ignorance to the gold of right knowledge and piety. But to the reader of the other kind — the thief, the glutton, the wanton, the one who seeks to own and hoard, the bloodthirsty, the slothful, the treacherous, the irreverent, the blasphemer — to him I say only, beware.

I, who have seen the glory of the sunlit day in a kingdom of peace and serenity that surpasses all human desire, who have drunk from the sweet springs of that land, eaten of its richness, and fallen to my knees like a drunken man at the sight of the glory and splendor of its starlit sky — I, Altheus of Milan, have seen also the dark place, have heard the cries of anguish, have seen despair and agony wash across the land as though a dam on some vile river of obscenity had burst, rendering of all a waste and a horror. These things have I seen, and I know the fate of one who would twist that which has been given for (several words undecipherable). And so I, Altheus, do say, to the one who would read from the Small Book, the book of mysteries — look deep and know your own heart.

 

Thus begins, with turgid prose, a not-so-thinly veiled threat, and — let’s be thankful — quite a few lines lost to the ravages of time, the Magnum Opus of our order.

The Big Book of Cosmic Secrets.

Or to be accurate, perhaps we should make that the little book.

How to Win Friends, Influence People, and Basically Just Bloody Well Run Amok with the Entire Space-Time Continuum.

The Book of Magic Minor.

Not, mind you, that there really is any continuum of space and time. A continuum we may have — though it's probably more accurate, and would certainly be more in keeping with our long-winded friend Altheus’ linguistic milieu, to speak in terms of continua, plural — but both space and time are less real than the edge of the flat earth that mariners used to fear sailing over, less real even than the dragons and other intimidating beasts these same sailors believed were waiting for them over the edge.

Now, if you will only indulge my lingering over the tangential, however briefly. It has always struck me that those sea serpents were manifestly superfluous: if one goes sailing off the edge of the earth, it seems to me that the fall should pretty well do the job.

Should it not?

How much more dead will one be if a dragon decides to make a Christmas Lunch of one’s shattered remains?

Wasn't life short enough for the ancient mariner, what with water, water being everywhere, but not a drop to drink? The albatross and the Sea Hag, signs and portents of every kind, scurvy, unsafe working conditions, no medical or disability insurance, no real job benefits of any kind that we would recognize — and yes, granted, the fear that your captain might, quite unintentionally, stray from his course and send you and your other sailor chums plummeting off the face of the earth — weren’t these sufficient inducements to dread?

Did they have to compound it all with mythical dragons?

Sadly, one can engage in this kind of thinking only before digging deeply into Jaloor’s little book, when one still thinks it makes sense to reject the idea of sea serpents lying in wait off the edge of the flat earth on the grounds of their manifest superfluity, or on even the seemingly more rational grounds that they are a lot of mythical nonsense. Reading the book changes that perspective.

It is only when one has read the book, let it sink in a bit, and perhaps even tried mastering a few of the techniques described therein, that one understands. And what one comes to understand is this: as needlessly intimidating, as superfluous, and as utterly mythical as those dragons may have looked before, they are real.

They are as real as anything ever has been or ever will be. Time and space, meanwhile (along with any “continuum” thereof), deservedly ensconced as the serious stock in trade of serious scientists, not to mention the very bedrock of non-chemical-induced reality are — prepare yourself — not only superfluous, not only mythical, they are outright fantasies. They are among the very few things about which one can say, with confidence, "there's no such thing."

But, you might well object to the previous (seemingly absurd) statement, what difference does that make? If you have, as I do, a smattering of scientific knowledge, you might point out that these concepts are only convenient mathematical abstractions anyway. So it’s no great loss to say they don’t exist. Moreover, if you have something of a philosophical bent, and are pre-disposed to Eastern modes of thought, you might be cheerfully predisposed to questioning the existence of everything. In which case, you might object to the dragons’ being permitted continued existence, while approving wholeheartedly that the application filed on behalf of time and space has been denied.

But let’s leave theory behind and look at the matter from a wholly practical point of view. It isn't as though we were doing anything with time and space, anyway. I for one have never done much with them. Oh, I mean to say — of course —I use them like everyone else. I take up space: more than I should, according to my always-concerned mother. I look at my watch. I live by the clock. I observe time marching on and healing all wounds and even flying on those all-too-rare occasions when I get to have a little fun.

In any case, it makes no difference whether I believe in time and space or have any use for them. My feelings towards time and space don’t matter, any more than the illusions of the sun rising and setting matter, any more than it matters that the earth appears to be flat.

The sun doesn't, the earth isn't, and time and space do not exist.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself..


I am writing this introduction to my special English Edition of the Book of Magic Minor with an audience of one in mind.

You know who you are.

If you're reading this, it means that you and I have probably already met, and I have probably already told you to your face a good portion of the background information you are about to read. Which means, foremost, that I really must have had my nerve — going on about how superfluous those dragons were, when it would appear that superfluity is my own personal stock in trade.

But there are reasons why I need to put all of this to paper, the most significant of these drawing from my repeated use of the word “probably,” above. I believe I'm going to meet you, and I believe I'm going to tell you all this, but I don't really know. It isn’t as though I can see the future.

Which is, when you come to think of it, a tremendously unfair situation.

Unfair, I say — because although time may not exist, the future does. It is every bit as real as the present and the past.

I realize how preposterous that sounds.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: the present is supposed to be the really real point on the timeline; the past is much less real because it's already over. But it really was real at some point, and so we give it partial credit. The future, on the other hand, is supposed to be the really unreal part of time. It hasn't happened yet, and maybe never will.

Now this does pre-suppose a Free Will model of how the universe operates. If you're the retro type, and you favor more of a Predestination model, then you might be perfectly cozy-comfy viewing the past and the future as equally real. But even if they’re each as real as the other, they still wouldn’t quite measure up to the present. It’s the one piece of time that is somehow "switched on" or "lit up" or something.

The Predestination view is the closer of the two to reality. The past and present are equally real. But the business about the present being more real because it’s lit up is wrong. It isn’t really lit up, we just think it is. As far as the central tenet of Predestination — the notion that all outcomes are foreordained, and that we really have no choice about anything — I have no answers. Maybe it’s true; maybe not.

In any case, although I plan to meet you, I don’t have any real knowledge as to how or when or whether that will take place. If I don’t ever meet you, I don’t have a back-up plan for how this document gets to you.

But I’m sure I’ll think of something.

So without further ado, some background:

This book, along with the book of the Greater Magic, was carried into our context by the aforementioned Jaloor in the early 14th century.

Jaloor showed up in northern Italy apparently having come from nowhere. He was oddly dressed and spoke a language that no one could understand. Fortunately, he had a substantial amount of gold on his person which he was able to parlay into a comfortable lifestyle.

We know nothing about where Jaloor came from, why he came here, or why he never went back. Speculation about his context is interesting but pointless. What is important for us to note is that our secret knowledge came to us from a different context. That doesn’t mean that we never would have come up with it ourselves, or that no one here ever has. But if they have, they’ve managed to keep the secret as well as we have. It also raises questions as to how widely known and practiced Magic Minor is out in the wider configuration space. Based on my personal observations, it isn’t practiced any too widely. Of course, I don’t claim to have observed anything like a representative sample of the total set of contexts within the waveform.

Altheus was a scholar, a member of an order devoted to the study of Alchemy. He spent a lot of time with Jaloor. He was the first person who was able to communicate with him. As is clear from Altheus’ prologue, he learned Jaloor’s language. Jaloor could never be bothered to learn any of our languages.

Jaloor was probably insane. At any rate, he thought the big book was as valid as the little book. There is some speculation that he was the author of both, or perhaps of just the big one. It’s more likely that he just copied the documents, or carried existing copies with him.

Altheus translated both books into Latin. And he founded two mystical orders to preserve and protect the secrets of each. It’s unclear whether he really bought into the major/minor dichotomy. We know that he could practice Magic Minor, but it is believed by many that he took his inability to practice the Greater Magic as a personal failing, and not a problem with the discipline itself. Or he might have recognized the big book as drivel from the outset. This is of no particular importance, except that it raises the question of whether the Society of the Greater Magic was always a sham organization subordinate to our own, or whether it gained that status over time as it became increasingly clear where the true power lay.

Jaloor’s original documents have been preserved by their respective orders. The Society of the Greater Magic operates under slightly different rules from ours concerning making copies of the sacred documents. We have in our possession only three documents: Jaloor’s original, Altheus’ translation into Latin, and now my translation into English.

The Society of the Greater Magic has operated in relative secrecy for more than 600 years. It has been a modestly influential group, with a few of its ideas working their way into mystical and esoteric movements around the world. Its membership has included a few names of note: mostly writers, artists, musicians.

The so-called Voynich Manuscript is a bootleg copy of the big book produced by a renegade member of the Society in the 17th century.

Our order, the Society of Magic Minor, has meanwhile operated in something approaching absolute secrecy. Our charter is primarily one of protecting the secret of Magic Minor and making sure that it is never used.

Clarification: our charter is to make sure that Magic Minor is used only under the proper circumstances. But since we’ve never had a perfectly clear idea as to what those circumstances might be, our de facto position has been as stated in the previous list item.

However, some circumstances have arisen which require investigation, if not outright involvement, on the part of our order.

Our Society is currently understaffed. We have two dozen members, and only three practitioners. Of the three, one is 87 years old and has cancer. Another is currently in hospital, being treated for severe psychotic episodes. And the third does not possess the skills required to master the entire craft. We need someone who can travel from one context to another. That’s where you come in.

Daphne’s notes ended there. The final note was handwritten, and had obviously been added just for Reuben’s sake.

He set the book down on the bed. While he knew that he was not the man Daphne was writing to — with the exception of that final note — it was hard to shake the sense that this was all aimed at him. Not just the words in the notebook — all of it: everything.

He stood up and stretched. His body ached with exhaustion. He wondered how much of the book he would be able to wade through before falling asleep. It was now more than 24 hours since his meeting with Daphne. He had spent a little of that time since then working on the financial arrangements, and the rest of it sleeping.

Maybe it was jet lag. Maybe it was some kind of hangover from the experience he had had. Anyway, he had slept, and was only now beginning to read the book that Daphne had given him.

He walked over to the window and drew back the curtain. The lights of the city were garish. Kuala Lumpur was not what he expected. Not that he had really had any specific expectations. But he never would have anticipated the skyscrapers or the new cars dashing along the wide elevated highways.

It was certainly a far cry from Moscow.

Reuben remembered the night he saw the fireworks. There was a straight line through time and space — or through whatever the hell, he corrected, thinking of what he had just read — that led from his standing before that window in a different city and a different world and his standing before this one now.

He thought of Betty and the old man. Not the couple he had left behind in Italy, but the originals. What did they make of his disappearance? Did Betty blame her husband for it? Did Sergei assume that it was the handiwork of Kolkhi?

He thought of Ksenia. What had his disappearance meant to her? Just another tragedy, a single line entry in a lifetime catalog of woes.

It’s a pity, she had said.

He had probably made a mistake allowing himself to get involved with her. Or maybe the mistake had been not getting involved sooner, and leaving her so quickly. What was he running away from? She was beautiful. She had strength and courage. He enjoyed being with her: she made him laugh. And they had shared passion and tenderness in their one night together. That one amazing night. There was something sharp and painful in its memory. No, not in the memory itself. In the realization that he had run away so quickly and deliberately afterwards.

Would he ever make it back to her? Hard to say.

Would she be waiting for him if he did? Probably.

Did he deserve that? No way.

If he did make it back, it would probably be years from now.

Or maybe Betty, this world’s Betty, was right. Maybe there was no need for him to try to go back. It was funny. The Betty he had left behind didn’t want him to leave. The one he had met here didn’t want him to return to where he had come from. Leaving would be hard on her, and on the old man. But then, at least he had been able to —

A knock at the door interrupted his reverie. Reuben opened the door slightly. It was a stranger, an older man, wearing a black suit and holding a very secure-looking briefcase.

“Mr. Stone,” the man said. It wasn’t a question.

“The name’s Kirkpatrick. Michael Keyes sent me.”

Reuben opened the door the rest of the way. The man entered and made his way over to the table. He set the case down and, after entering what appeared to be an elaborate combination, flipped the top open.

“Bearer bonds,” he said, removing the documents from the Kirkpatrick. “Thirteen of them. Fifty thousand dollars each.”

Reuben took the documents and leafed through them. He hadn’t seen them since he locked them away in a safe deposit box in a bank on Grand Cayman some ten years before. He wasn’t surprised to learn that the old man had recovered them upon his death, but he was surprised that he hadn’t liquidated them.

For some reason, all of Reuben’s assets had been carefully preserved. It was almost as though Michael Keyes had expected Reuben’s return. But that wasn’t it, not really.

He had simply been at a loss as to what to do with his godson’s money.

“This appears to be in order, Mr. Kirkpatrick. Thanks for your prompt delivery.”

Kirkpatrick nodded.

“The balance has been wired to the Swiss account per your request.”

He handed Reuben a slip of paper.

“Here are instructions for how to reprogram the briefcase combination. Are you planning on putting it in the hotel safe?”

Reuben thought about this.

“Well, I wasn’t. Not really.”

Kirkpatrick nodded.

“Good,” he said. “It’s probably better that you don’t. It’s safe with you.”

“I see. So I take it that you’ll be around?”

Kirkpatrick nodded again.

“Myself and several others. Until you’ve handed the money off.”

Reuben sighed.

“Mr. Kirkpatrick, I really don’t think I need any protection.”

Kirkpatrick seemed to think about this for a moment.

“Mr. Keyes thinks differently, sir.”

“All right,” Reuben said resignedly. He pocketed the instructions. “Thanks again.”

Kirkpatrick left.

Reuben sat back down on the bed, the documents still in hand. It occurred to him that, although the money was (in a sense) his, he had finally taken a million dollars from the old man.

Sergei would be fascinated.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 38

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben Stone was once again seated across from me at my desk. From the top drawer I produced the transaction record, which I had received by fax earlier that day. I set it on the table in front of him.

“Why,” I asked him, “can you not follow simple instructions?”

He picked up the bank statement, briefly looked it over, and then set it back down.

“I’m sorry Miss Wong, but this is the best I could do.”

“It’s not nearly good enough. This isn’t even half.”

“That’s true,” he said, setting his briefcase on my desk. He fiddled with a mechanism on the front for a moment and then opened it. As the lid was swinging open, I had a momentary image of neat little bundles of cash such as you see in the movies, but that was not the reality. The case contained a stack of odd-looking documents. They might have been title deeds to parcels of swampland or diplomas from some disreputable school.

I thumbed through them for a moment.

“What exactly are these things?”

“They’re bearer bonds, Miss Wong. Every bit as good as cash, and much easier to carry around.”

“I don’t see how anything could be “every bit as good” as cash. Furthermore, I didn’t ask for cash. I asked for a wire transfer. It’s a simple procedure. I’m baffled as to why you would have so much trouble with it. Did Mr. Keyes have a bad day at the race track?”

Reuben closed the case and put it back down on the floor. These “bearer bonds” were apparently mine to keep.

“I wouldn’t know. I don’t keep up with his finances. He assisted me in the delivery of these funds, but this is not his money.”

I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Then who?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Not you, Reuben.”

He thought about this.

“Well, not…exactly me.”

“Ah, I see. Your former self. Reuben, do you realize that you may be the first man in history ever to rob his own grave?”

He smiled at that, a little.

“I prefer to think of it as an inter-context loan. In any event, the same funds are available back on the world I left behind for any other hapless Reuben who comes along needing help.”

“That doesn’t seem likely.”

“Neither was my coming here.”

I set the documents down on the desk.

“Well, this is all very interesting. And I suppose you are to be commended for wanting to make your own way in this world rather than running back to Daddy —”

“He’s not my father.”

“Merely a figure of speech. And you will refrain from interrupting me again. Now, what was I saying? Ah, yes. It is in some sense commendable that you prefer making your own way in the world. Even if it isn’t exactly your own way. But close enough.”

I picked the bonds back up and waved them at him.

“These, however, are not close enough. I gave very specific instructions, and this is not what I asked for.”

“I apologize for the that, Miss Wong. If you’ll count them, you’ll see that the bonds total $650,000. When you add that to the $400,000 I had wired to your account, you come out $50,000 ahead. I thought it only right that I throw a little something in to make up for the inconvenience.”

I leafed through the bonds, counting them carefully. He was telling the truth. How could I tell him that I had been prepared to settle for the $400,000 — after subjecting him to the appropriate level of harassment, of course. I thought he was driving a hard bargain, and I was prepared to go along. I would have made him squirm a little first, but only for a while. It only goes to show how poorly cut out I am for this sort of thing.

Silly me, I would have been pleased with the just the wire transfer, delighted with it plus enough in cash — or rather, bonds — to make up the difference. And then Mr. Wonderful comes along with the full million plus a gratuity?

It was almost enough to make me feel guilty.

Almost.

“Very well, then. The first lesson can commence.”

I placed the bonds in my desk drawer. Reuben eyed me carefully as I did it.

“You’ll probably want to put those someplace more safe.”

“That’s my concern. I take it that you’ve finished reading the book?”

“To tell you the truth, I got about three-quarters of the way through it before I fell asleep. I’ve been awfully tired lately.”

I nodded.

“That’s not unusual. Disrupting the waveform is hard work, particularly for those who haven’t been properly trained. That is no excuse for not completing your assignment, however.”

“Sorry, Miss Wong.”

“Don’t let it happen again.”

“I won’t.”

“So, what questions do you have on the first three quarters of the book?”

Reuben looked at the desk and rubbed that spot on his head for a moment.

“I’m not even sure I know how to formulate the questions. I understood very little of what I read. He keeps talking about the Spiral. And the fundament. And that whole business about playing that game. Mancala. I’m sorry, I just wasn’t following any of it.”

“Well, let’s start with some basics. It will probably not come as good news to you that we have, over the years, replaced many of Jaloor’s terms — or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say Altheus’s terms, since he was translating concepts from Jaloor’s language to Latin — with more up-to-date nomenclature. The Spiral is now called the Waveform. The fundament we now call the Configuration Space. The bit about the game requires a somewhat lengthy explanation. And a demonstration. But first tell me what you understood.”

Reuben sighed.

“Okay. He started out talking about the…seeds?

“That’s correct. The game can be played with seeds. It can also be played with stones or seashells, or just about anything that’s small and abundant. It could also be played with coins, but — this is very important, Reuben — in the Society, we never play games with coins. That’s something you’ll want to keep in mind. If you want to be one of us, there will be no games with coins. No penny-pitching. No slot machines. Nothing.”

Reuben looked truly perplexed, as well he might be. There was no particular reason for me to take this digression into an obscure area of society law. But I have a gift for digression. I consider it a talent.

“Why not?” he asked after a moment.

“Because there are those who play games with coins, and we are not them.”

The look of understanding and recognition that came over him was so pronounced that it would have been comical, were it not obvious that this revelation was associated with some painful memory.

“You think you have some idea what it is that I’m talking about, Reuben?”

He nodded.

“Yes. I’ve met them. The people who play games with coins. I met one in Soviet Georgia. And maybe another one before that, in Russia. Who are they?”

He reconsidered his question as soon as he asked it.

What are they?”

That Reuben would make such a distinction indicated that he might, in fact, have had some experience with the Shedders. But I didn’t see how that was possible. He was here, after all.

And alive.

“We’ll talk about them later. We should continue with the lesson. What, exactly, did Jaloor say about the seeds?”

Reuben wouldn’t give up.

“Miss Wong, I think I should tell you something. There was a part of my story that I left out the other day. And it might be important. Before I went to Italy, I was in — ”

I slapped the table with the palm of my hand. Not too forcefully; just loud enough to get his attention and shut him up. I’ve always believed that a gift for digression is well accompanied by an irrational insistence on getting back to the subject at hand.

“I said that we would talk about it later. Now what does Jaloor say about the seeds?”

Reuben let out a sigh of exasperation. He then looked down for a moment, trying to remember what he had read.

“He said that it was more important to consider them, at first, than it was the bowls that contained them. He said something to like this…you can lay out a line of seeds or you can make a shape out of them. Or you can lay out a whole bunch of seeds and it will contain lots of different lines and shapes.”

I nodded.

“You’re on the right track. Let me show you.”

I wheeled my chair back a bit, and reached under my desk to pick up the game. It was beautifully carved from wood in the shape of an ornate, two-headed dragon. Two rows of rounded depressions, each a perfect little bowl, ran down the dragon’s back. Each row had seven bowls, and each bowl contained seven smooth and perfectly polished stones. I set the game on the desktop and took hold of several small stones.

Reuben looked intrigued.

“So this is the game? Mancala?”

I nodded.

“In this country, we call it congkak. This particular game is from Indonesia, where they call it congklak, with an L. It was a gift from Ix. Mr. Ahmad, I mean. He always insists that the Indonesian version of the game is superior to the Malaysian, although I was never able to ascertain any difference. But, in any event, it is the same as the Arab game that Al Razi’s followers played.”

“But Jaloor wasn’t one of Al Razi’s followers. Altheus was. How did Jaloor know anything about Mancala?”

Once in a while, Reuben would say something truly intelligent. Such moments put me in the precarious position of having to reevaluate his status as a know-nothing alpha male Yank git. And I was already a bit softened towards him in light of his Boy-Scout-like performance in delivering the entire requested amount.

Fortunately, such moments were rare. And they tended to pass quickly.

“That is a puzzle, isn’t it? Apparently, Jaloor’s world had a game sufficiently similar to Mancala that Altheus was able to make the leap. Perhaps it’s not as big a coincidence as it seems. It’s only to be expected, after all, that alchemist types from different contexts would share certain interests. In any case, no one has ever come up with a more satisfying translation than Mancala.”

“You mean to say that there are still some people who can read the book in Jaloor’s language?”

“Yes. The language has been lost and rediscovered several times through the years. As long as we have a copy of the original and Altheus’s Latin translation, we have a way back to Jaloor’s language. But we are digressing once again. Here is what the book says. If you have some seeds — or stones — you can lay them out in a vertical line if you wish, like this.”

I lined up three stones in front of him on the desk.

“Or you can make a horizontal line, like this.”

I picked up the same three stones and rearranged them perpendicular to their original configuration.

“With me so far?”

Reuben nodded.

I picked up a few more of the stones.

“Or if you wish, you can set the stones in more elaborate patterns. We can make a triangle…”

I lined the stones into triangular pattern.

“…or a circle…”

I straightened out the side of the circle

“…or a square. These are all good arrangements of the stones. We might call them valid configurations of the stones.”

“Okay, I can see that much.”

I grabbed several handfuls of stones from the game trays and set them out on the table.

“But what if we want to create not just one or two possible configurations of the stones, but all of the possible configurations?”

“Well, you’d need a lot more of them.”

“Precisely.”

I arranged the stones into five rows of six.

“Now, Reuben. Find a straight line.”

He traced his finger along one of the rows of stones.

“And a line perpendicular to that?”

He traced one of the columns.

“Now show me a triangle.”

Reuben traced a triangle with his finger.

“And a square? And a circle?”

He easily found both shapes embedded within the grid of stones.

“So I ask you this, Reuben: is there a circle in the stones?”

He nodded.

“I just showed you.”

“Yes. It was there when you showed it to me. Is it there now?”

Reuben took a moment to consider this.

“If I read the book correctly, then the answer is that the circle exists, but it doesn’t have…occasion.

I tried not to sigh impatiently and roll my eyes. Perhaps not as hard as I could have, but I did try.

Occurrence, Reuben. Not occasion. Occurrence.”

“Right,” he said, reaching out and moving one of the stones in closer to the others. “It doesn’t have occurrence.”

“And did it have occurrence before?”

“Yes.”

“When did it have occurrence?”

“When I was…drawing it with my finger.”

I nodded.

“You seem to understand what you read fairly well. What else did Jaloor say?”

“He said that, if you wanted to, you could find letters in the seeds. He talked about tracing the name MILANO. I suppose we could do the same thing with the name of any place.”

Once again he poised his finger over the stones.

“Here’s M,” he said, tracing the letter. “And now A. And L. A again. C. Then another C. And A once more. MALACCA. So it looks like your town is in there, too.”

I nodded.

“That reminds me. Are you still in that hotel in KL?”

He seemed startled by the question.

“Ah, no. I checked out this morning. It was going to take too much time, driving down here and back every day.”

“And do you have a place to stay down here?”

“Not yet.”

“I see. All right, then. Go on, Reuben.”

He shook his head, trying to get back on the subject.

“Then he talked about time. He said that time is like finding a poem, a sonnet, in the seeds. If I were to spell out the words Shall I compare to thee to a summer’s day, each of the words would have occurrence while I was spelling it out. And the length of the poem — it’s duration in time — would also have occurrence.”

“So does time exist?”

Reuben closed his eyes, trying to remember what he had read.

“No. Yes. Well, sometimes it has occurrence, so it must have existence. Right?

“It would seem that way. Or perhaps its occurrence is an optical illusion. In any case, unlike the shapes and the letters that make up the sonnet, if time exists it does so only when it has occurrence.”

“So you don’t know whether time exists?”

I shook my head.

“Not really. But I think it’s easier to assume that it does, since trying to think about the alternatives gives one rather a headache.”

He sighed.

“I get those a lot. Anyway, this is where the book gets kind of tricky. Jaloor says that if I hold two fingers over the seeds and trace out the sonnet, there will really be two sonnets. And if I have enough seeds and I run my whole hand over them — pointed down like this, I guess — there will be five sonnets.”

“And if your hand had a thousand fingers?”

“I’d be some kind of incredible freak. But if I had enough seeds, I could trace out a thousand sonnets.”

“And they would all be identical?”

“No. Each would be slightly different because of the different shapes and angles of my fingers. And the placement of the seeds.”

“Do you understand now, Reuben?”

He cleared his throat.

“I guess the waveform has a lot of fingers. And somehow I’ve jumped from a poem being spelled out by one finger to a poem being spelled out by another.”

I began gathering up the stones and putting them back in their bowls.

“So you do understand, after all.”

“But one thing I don’t get. What are the seeds? The stones, I mean.”

He watched me for a moment as I finished with the stones and put the game back under the table.

“Don’t you have any idea?”

He nodded.

“Maybe. Somehow I got this idea that everything is made of memories. Is that what the stones are…collections of memories?”

Once again, Reuben surprised me by understanding things that I wouldn’t have credited him with being able to grasp.

“Yes, Reuben. The configuration space is filled with collections of memories. The waveform passes through those memories, giving them occurrence. The order in which it moves from memory to memory is what we call time.”

We were both silent for a moment.

“And yes. The waveform has many, many fingers.”

Reuben rubbed his head for a while. He seemed disinclined to ask the questions he needed to ask next.

“How can they be memories?” he said at last. “Who is remembering them? God?”

I shrugged.

“Perhaps they’re only memories after the fact. It’s possible that everything we call existence is simply the process of potential memories becoming actual memories.”

“Okay. Fine. How are they collected, Miss Wong? I mean…how much is in each collection of memories?”

“I think you sense the answer to your own question, Reuben. Let me just tell you that motion, like time, is an illusion generated by the pattern drawn out by the waveform.”

“So each one of those rocks on the table was a snapshot? A freeze-frame?”

I nodded.

“And time is like some animated film where we move from one frame to the next?”

“That’s correct.”

There was another long pause before Reuben asked his final question. By the time it came out, it was no longer a question at all.

“ You’re saying that each one of these stones is a freeze-frame of an entire universe.”

I nodded again.

“If you’re going to be one of us, Reuben, you need to learn the correct terminology. Each of the stones is an instance of the universe. Each instance of the universe is complete and unchanging.”

“And the waveform…”

“It touches an instance of the universe. One after the other. For the briefest of moments, the waveform gives the collection of memories occurrence. And then it returns that instance of the universe to its former state.”

“It’s former state?” he repeated.

“Stillness, Reuben. It returns it to the Stillness.”

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 39

Part IV

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben’s phone was ringing when he returned to his room. He dropped his bag, made his way across the room, and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?” he said, a little winded.

“Hello, Mr. Stone.”

He recognized Sergei’s voice.

“I am calling on behalf of Michael Keyes.”

Reuben plopped down in a wicker chair and reached for the air conditioner’s remote control.

“Hi, Sergei. It’s great to hear your voice.”

An awkward silence followed.

“As I said, I make this call on behalf of Mr. Keyes. You have requested phone number. I have number for you.”

“Thanks. What’s the number?”

He fumbled for a pen and a notepad on the nightstand.

“Before I tell you, may I ask you two questions?”

“Shoot.”

“Shoot what?”

“Nothing. I just meant go ahead and ask your questions.”

“Yes. First, you are in Malaysia. Why?”

Sergei’s voice was equal parts curiosity and suspicion.

“How did you know that?”

“Mr. Keyes gives number to dial. I check country code. Either you are in Malaysia or call is being routed through Malaysia. Why you go there?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential business.”

Sergei sighed.

“Then please to answer second question. Why you want phone number of woman you have never met. Have only seen once?”

“How do you know I’ve never met Ksenia?”

“I ask. She says that she has never met you, and I believe her.”

“Well, that’s true. She’s never met me, but I’ve met her. It’s just like us. You don’t know me, Sergei, but I know you.”

“It is trick.”

“Fine. It’s a trick. May I have the number?’

“But why you want to speak to this woman?”

“I want to say goodbye to her.”

Another long silence followed.

“But this makes no sense. You have not seen her in months. She does not know you at all. She knows nothing about you. Why you wish to say goodbye to her?”

Reuben found that his patience was coming to an end.

“Because I’m insane. What do you care? May I have the number?”

“May I offer you some advice, Mr. Stone?”

“Would it kill you to call me Reuben?”

“No. Would not kill me. Would not make any sense, but would not kill me. I can comply. May I offer you some advice, Reuben?”

“What’s your advice?”

“Do not call her. Leave her alone.”

Reuben tapped the pen against the nightstand, puzzled.

“Why?” he said after a moment.

“International call will draw attention to her. She does not need this attention.”

Of course.

Ksenia was not in the Russia where Reuben had lived and worked. At least, this Ksenia wasn’t. She was in a highly paranoid and reactionary Soviet Union. Even something as simple as receiving a telephone call from another country could make her life complicated.

Reuben dropped the pen and paper.

“I see,” he said. “I understand.”

He knew that calling her was nothing more than an act of self-indulgence, anyway. And it would have meant nothing to her.

“Well, in that case, Sergei, can you do me a favor?”

“What favor?”

“Just please look in on her from time to time. Make sure she’s okay.”

“I could do this, but I don’t see point in it.”

“I would be very grateful if you would.”

“I do not promise. However, if time permits, I will look in on her.”

That was as good as an iron-clad guarantee. For what it was worth, this stranger who looked exactly like someone Reuben cared about would be looked in on. From time to time, anyway.

“Thank you.”

Another uncomfortable pause ensued. Reuben broke it.

“So how’s your wife, anyway?”

“She is okay.”

“And Dzhena? Has she started at university yet?”

“She begins next term.”

Reuben was about to ask where she was going to attend, when a different question occurred to him.

“That’s good. And what about Yuri, how is he?”

“Yuri is fine.”

Reuben coughed. In light of everything he had learned over the past three weeks -- and all that he had experienced in the months leading up that -- he knew that a small difference such as this shouldn’t take him by surprise. But it did, anway.

“I’m really glad to hear that, Sergei. I can’t tell you how glad. How old is he, anyway?”

“Mr. Stone, I have spent more time on this call than is wise. I do not have time to make chit-chat with you.”

“I understand.”

“We have agreed, then, that you do not need telephone number because you will not be placing call?”

“That’s right.”

“Very well. Goodbye then, Mr. Stone.”

Reuben hung up the phone. He realized that he was still smiling. There was something that he wanted to say to Sergei, something about realizing how lucky he was, how grateful he should be for what he had.

He laughed at the thought of it.

“Right,” he said out loud, to no one. “Then he would have known for sure that I’m insane.”

On an impulse, Reuben picked the receiver back up and dialed an international access code. When he heard the familiar tone, he dialed the number he now realized he knew by heart.

“Keyes,” the old man answered curtly.

“Hey. It’s me.”

“Reuben! I was just wondering about you. You’ve been keeping awfully quiet lately.”

“Been busy. Besides, why should I bother calling when you have people watching me all the time?”

“Now, son, that isn’t exactly fair. I needed to make sure that the money arrived safely and that it didn’t bring any undue risk your way. Besides, Kirkpatrick and his crew left more than a week ago.”

“Right. And you haven’t sent anyone in their place?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that little Italian guy who always seems to be lurking in the corners. He thinks he’s doing a pretty good job of staying out of sight. Actually, he is doing a pretty good job of it, but come on…an Italian? If he isn’t working for you, then I need to start worrying that he might be working for someone else.”

Keyes cleared his throat.

“Well…it’s all right. Put your mind at ease. He works for me.”

“Right. And how many locals? Is it two or three?”

A heartbeat or two passed.

“It’s three.”

“The kid who works in Daphne’s shop?”

“Wai Hoong. Yes. He’s one of them.”

“Okay. Then there’s the guy who runs the bar across the street.”

“Yes. He’s the other.”

“What do you mean the other. You just said that there are three.”

Another pause.

“Did I?”

“Don’t play games with me, old man. Who is it?”

“Well, the third is a little different.”

“Different how?”

“Betty worries about you, son. You really should try to talk to her more often.”

Reuben felt a twinge of guilt.

“I know I should. I’ll make a point of calling her later tonight. Or you can put her on after we’ve finished, if she’s around.”

“No. She’s down at the lake. I’m joining her for lunch.”

“Anyway, what does Betty have to do with this?”

“Well, she wanted a firsthand account of how you’re doing.”

“So I’ll call and give her one.”

“No, Reuben. I mean she wanted to hear from someone who has seen how you’re doing firsthand.”

“Right, so you let her talk to Wai Hoong?”

“No.”

“Well, you couldn’t have let her talk to the guy from the bar. What would he know about how I’m doing? He hasn’t seen that much of me.”

“No. Not him.”

“Well, then I don’t understand who --”

Reuben stopped in mid-sentence.

“Old man, are you telling me that your third spy is Daphne?”

“It’s not about spies, Reuben. How many times do I have to say that?”

Reuben was momentarily speechless.

“It was just, as I said,” Keyes continued, “something that I did for Betty. Something to make her feel better about things.”

“But, old man. Sir. You weren’t supposed to tell Betty anything about Daphne. This whole project is supposed to be confidential.”

“I didn’t realize you took it so seriously.”

“Well…maybe I take it more seriously than I did. Besides, I thought you took it seriously, anway.”

“It’s all right. She doesn’t know Daphne’s name. She doesn’t even know what country you’re in. I haven’t told anyone that. Well, except for Kirkpatrick and his men. And Santori. Oh, and I guess I gave it away when I gave Serge your phone number, but that was at your request. How did that go, by the way?”

“It went fine. Sergei persuaded me not to call her.”

“I imagine that’s for the best.”

“Yeah, well never mind all that. I’m still trying to understand what it is that you’ve done. Do you mean that you spoke to Daphne and reported back to Betty?”

“Yes. Partly.”

“Partly? What was the other part?”

“Betty insisted, son. You know how she gets.”

“So you’re telling me that you allowed Betty to speak to Daphne directly? Do you have any idea what a chance you were taking?”

“I was careful. Obviously, I set the whole thing up with Daphne in advance.”

“I can’t believe she went along with it.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t picture her as the comforting type.”

“Now, Reuben. Don’t judge her too harshly. She told me that she has to be a little rough on you to make the training stick. Don’t confuse the role she’s playing with the actual person. She’s really a very sweet girl.”

A gurgling, coughing sound emerged from Reuben’s throat.

“Anyway,” Keyes continued, “you know me. Master negotiator. Ladies man.”

“Wait a second.”

Something didn’t sit right, there. Negotiator.

Negotiator?

“Old man, don’t tell me that you paid her to talk to you and Betty.”

Keyes’ silence told Reuben everything he needed to know.

“I can’t believe it. I didn’t think this thing could get any more ridiculous. How much did you pay her?”

“That doesn’t matter.”

“Tell me.”

“Reuben, what does money matter to me -- to both Betty and myself -- in the face of our concern for your welfare?”

“How much?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything.”

“How. Much. Did you. Pay Her?”

“She assures me that it’s all going to the support of the Society.”

“How much?”

“Well, she asked for fifty, but I ended up giving her seventy-five.”

Reuben stood up. Feeling dizzy, he steadied himself.

“I -- I assume we’re talking in terms of thousands of dollars, here?”

“Um, yes.”

The line was silent for a long while.

“All right,” Reuben said at last. “Okay.”

He sat back down.

“Okay. I mean, look, I’m touched that you and Betty are so concerned that you would go to such lengths. And you’re absolutely right to say that you don’t owe me any explanations. You don’t. It’s your money. But will you please do me one favor?”

“What’s that?”

“Promise me that you won’t give her any more money. Seventy-five grand ought to be enough to buy a person a lifetime supply of Reuben updates.”

“All right. I promise.”

“Anyway, I was calling to let you know that we’re getting ready to start.”

“By that you mean that you’re leaving?”

“Yes, but we’re coming back. At least, that’s the plan. We’re just taking a test run. To see if I’m really capable of doing what’s being asked of me.”

“Reuben, are you sure about this?”

“Yes. Old man, there’s more at stake here than either of us realized. It isn’t about you and Betty and myself. It’s not even about my getting back, even though I still hope I will.”

“So what exactly is it about, son?”

“Everything. Everybody. It’s…kind of hard to explain.”

“Try me.”

“Well…what if I told you that I have to go save the universe?”

The old man chuckled.

“I think I’d have a pretty hard time believing it. Think about that, son: I would have a hard time believing it.”

Reuben laughed.

“I don’t blame you. I have a hard time believing it myself. And I don’t understand it.”

“I know you’re going to do what you’re going to do. You’re just like your Dad. Nothing I have to say is going to matter much. Just try to find your way back, son.”

“I’ll do my best. Can you have Betty call me later?”

“Sure.”

“You know, I think I have some advice for you. When this is all over.”

“Yeah?”

“Hire her. There’s got to be a place for Daphne somewhere in one of your operations.”

“Funny. I was just thinking the same thing.”

__

The knock at the door came just as Reuben stepped out of the shower. He threw on a robe and went to answer it.

The bellman was a Malay kid, not more than 20. He wore a ridiculously ornate uniform with a small black nametag: Faisal.

“Great,” said Reuben. “Here. It’s just these two suitcases and this box.”

The kid nodded and quickly loaded his luggage trolley. He turned to Reuben and handed him a claim ticket.

“Your luggage, sir. When will you re-claim?”

“I actually have no idea. My travel plans are a little confused right now. Hold on.”

Reuben stepped over to the nightstand and found his wallet. He put the claim ticket in and removed a fifty Ringgit note.

“Here,” he said, handing the money to the bellman. “Take good care of them while I’m away.”

The kid smiled with embarrassment.

“Sir, this one…cannot, lah.”

“I know you can’t take tips, Faisal. This isn’t a tip. I need you to look after those bags for me. All right?”

The kid nodded.

“Thank you, sir.”

Reuben closed the door after him and strode across the room to the balcony. He slid open the glass door and stepped outside. Although sunset was approaching, the heat and humidity were not diminished. The balcony was nice -- more wicker furniture and lots of bougainvillea -- but Reuben rarely used it. It was just too hot.

He looked out for a moment, admiring the odd mix of architectural styles that made up the small city: Chinese shop houses stood amid British and Dutch colonial structures. Several times before he had looked for remnants of the Portuguese occupation, but had never seen any -- other than the ruins of a fortress which sat at the top of the hill overlooking the city.

Clouds were gathering in the distance; rain would not be unwelcome.

The near silence was shattered when the call to prayer began at the magnificent mosque just across the river from Reuben’s hotel. With so many mosques in town, Reuben could never understand why the imams felt they needed to use such powerful loudspeakers. Were they trying to reach potential worshippers in Sumatra?

He went back into his room and closed the door behind him.

The clothes he was to change into were neatly folded on the bed. He had packed everything else away, with the exception of a few valuables that he had left at Daphne’s. It really didn’t make any sense. If he was going to be gone for so long that he needed to check out of his room and store his belongings, shouldn’t he pack something to wear?

When asked for an explanation, Daphne had demurred -- as she so often did.

Reuben began to get dressed. He would know soon enough, after all. He regretted that he hadn’t thought of calling the Keyes sooner. He wouldn’t be there to take Betty’s call.

Reuben finished dressing, and was just about to walk out the door when the phone rang for the second time. He walked back to the nightstand and picked it up.

“Hi, Betty,” he said.

“Mr. Stone, ah? This is Kai Ling at the front desk. You are checking out this afternoon, is it?”

“Ah, yes. In fact I’ve already settled up.”

“Yes sir. Mr. Stone, may we have a return date to put on your luggage?”

“I don’t know the return date.”

“Oh, I see, sir. But unfortunately, I cannot put the luggage into storage with a return date, lah. Can you estimate?”

Not really, he thought.

“Let’s call it a month.”

“Yes sir. One month. Thank you, Mr. Stone.”

“Sure. Oh, can you do me a favor? I’m expecting a call later from a Mrs. Keyes. Betty Keyes. Will you give her a message for me?”

Reuben waited, listening as the clerk got a pen and paper and began writing down the details.

“A message from…Mr. Stone to…Mrs. Keyes. Yes, sir. Go ahead.”

“Tell her I’m sorry I missed her, but I’ll be back in touch with her as soon as I return. So she shouldn’t worry.”

“…and…not…to…worry. Is that all, then, Mr. Stone?”

“I guess that’s it.”

“Would you like for me to tell your friend that you will be returning in one month’s time?”

Reuben rolled his eyes.

“Why not?” he said.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Chapter 40

Part IV

Chapter Forty

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Malacca lay quiet in the light of the setting sun. Behind Reuben stood one of the town’s most famous structures, a vivid red church in the middle of the central square. Malacca was a small town that packed a lot of history. Rows of shop houses lined the narrow street that led down to the Melaka river, where floated a replica of a Portuguese sailing ship — a floating museum. Reuben watched as the ship rocked in the gentle breeze. The heat of the afternoon was giving way the relative cool of evening: the temperature couldn’t have been more than 85. Over the weeks, his blood had thinned sufficiently that he could think of this as being “cool.”

He was dressed, per instructions, in slacks with a dress shirt and tie. A coat, he had been told, would not be necessary.

Wong Yoke Yee stepped out of the front door of her shop house, about a fourth of the way down the street. She saw Reuben standing in the square and started towards him. She was wearing a cheongsam, red and black with a dragon motif. Reuben had never seen her wear anything but western dress. He would have expected tight-fitting clothing to accentuate her weight, but it turned out the opposite was true. She had never looked more trim. Her hair was also combed differently than he had seen it before, swept back dramatically.

“Miss Wong,” he said as she approached. “You look great.”

She treated him to a cold stare.

“I believe I’ve already explained my policy on personal remarks?”

Although things had loosened up quite a bit between them over the three weeks, there were still moments like this. She would grill him relentlessly about his past — his experiences, his relationships — but she would not allow any discussion of her personal life. Reuben didn’t really care. He was mildly interested in learning how she of all people had come to be leader of the Society of Magic Minor. And he had a passing curiosity as to what was going on, or had gone on, between Daphne and Iskandar.

But that was it.

“They are unwelcome,” he recited. “And they will not be tolerated.”

“Correct.”

“Sorry. I didn’t know the policy applied to compliments.”

“It applies to any irrelevant, impertinent, half-formed comment which might be lurking in the recesses of whatever it is you have that passes for a brain. No matter how desperately they may try to escape, will you please keep them under control? Whether we’re in the shop or not. Please.”

Reuben nodded.

“Yes, Miss Wong.”

“Good. I appreciate your punctuality, Reuben. Are you ready to begin?”

“I think so. Would it be too impertinent if I asked why we’re dressed this way?”

“Our mode of dress is appropriate to our destination. That’s all you need to know.”

“How about this question, then — how long will we be gone? My hotel isn’t expecting me back for a month, but I don’t even have a single change of clothes.”

She stamped her foot with exasperation.

“Did I tell you that we would be gone for a month?”

“No, Miss Wong.”

“So where did the month come from?”

“I made it up.”

“Reuben, I never gave you a specific return date. The correct answer, if asked, would have therefore been a non-specific answer. Surely you can see that?”

Reuben shrugged.

“If you say so, Miss Wong.”

“Don’t be insubordinate with me. As far as your question goes, you wouldn’t even be asking it if you had paid more attention in class. Now, I believe we should get started. I’m starving.”

“Ah, right,” said Reuben. “Actually, I was just thinking about hitting one of the stalls before we leave. I was going to the Mamak man for a murtabak, but the lady next to him does a pretty good kway teow. If you’re interested. Or there’s the Nyonya place across the street.”

She looked at him curiously, her manner seeming to soften a little in spite of herself.

“I didn’t realize you ate at the stalls, Reuben.”

“Sure. Breakfast and dinner almost every day. And lunch on the days when you kick me out.”

She nodded thoughtfully. Reuben’s eating at the stalls seemed to hold some significance for her. He couldn’t imagine why. It had no particular significance to him — he just liked spicy food.

“Well, thank you but no. We will be dining when we reach our destination.”

“Okay.”

“All right, then. Let’s begin.”

She turned and faced the street from which she had approached.

“Reuben, do you see the mast of the ship?”

“Yes, Miss Wong.”

“We’re going to put a tall building almost precisely where the mast is. It will actually stand a bit back from the river, and be much taller. But it will be right there. Parallel with the line of the mast, and centered on it.”

“Yes, Miss Wong,”

“All right, Reuben. Give me a controlled ripple. Disrupt the waveform.”

Reuben closed his eyes and took a deep breath. As he had been trained to do, he pictured himself standing in the center of the mandala, an enormous blowup of the design he had seen in the manuscript Michael Keyes showed him. He now knew that the design was an elaborate compass, and that it was one of many tools used by members of the Society to find their way across the configuration space. He pictured the lines of the mandala as luminescent and superimposed over the landscape before him. The ship’s mast would be north. He started with the mandala positioned slightly off-center. As soon as he began — in his mind — to rotate the shape so that it’s northern point aligned with the ship’s mast, he was struck by the now-familiar disorienting lurch. As always, this was accompanied by a spinning sensation and a slight throbbing in his head.

But the pain, the disorientation, and the sensation of motion were now all under his control.

“Okay, Miss Wong. Coordinates, please.”

“How’s your grip?”

Reuben tested his grip. It seemed secure. If he wanted, he could quickly move the mandala to any of its possible configurations.

“My grip is secure. Coordinates, please.”

“Very well. Take us south by southeast with an incline of six.”

Eyes still closed, Reuben spun the mandala around him so that the central marker which had been north was now behind him and to his right. South by southeast. The next step was more difficult. He changed the incline of the mandala, tilting the disk of light so that it now intersected the ship’s mast about halfway up. An incline of 6 meant a 60 degree angle. A down incline would have been more difficult to manage, requiring him to tilt the mandala down into the ground and yet still see it.

“All right,” he said after a moment. “I think I have it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’ve got it.”

“Very well, Reuben. Let’s move ahead three steps.”

Reuben opened his eyes. The street lay before him as it had before, ending at the river. The ship was right where it should be. The world looked different, however. Less real. Grayer. Concentrating, Reuben pictured the mandala oriented precisely as he had seen it with his eyes closed.

He took hold of Daphne’s hand. He took a step forward.

A number of things happened at once. Several of the shop houses grew taller and wider, subsuming others that surrounded them. The street grew wider. The vehicles traveling on it changed. They were different models, now, and different colors. But the cars and trucks were indistinct to Reuben. His eyes were fixed straight ahead, right where the ship’s mast had been, but no longer was.

With the second step, the air changed. A hot blast of wind caught them in the face. The buildings were much taller now, the street much wider. A new building stood before them at the end of the street, slightly in front of where the ship had been. But this was not the building Daphne described. It was low and flat and gray.

Reuben took the third step. They were now on a busy street in a major city. It could have been Kuala Lumpur. It could have been Manhattan, but for the tropical heat and humidity. The shop houses were far fewer, and they now towered above them. Skyscrapers. One of them stood at the end of the street, running parallel to where the ship’s mast had been.

Reuben turned to Daphne.

“Is this is it?” he asked. He realized that he was winded. Taking these few steps was an effort, just as she had told him it would be.

“Let go,” she said.

He let go of her hand.

“No, Reuben. Your grip. Let go, now.”

It took him a moment. He sometimes had difficulty with this. It was easy enough to agitate the waveform, to get a grip on it and create a ripple within it. But it was harder, much harder to stop. He now knew that on the train to St. Petersburg, only his blackout had forced him to let go. There was a very real danger in keeping the waveform agitated — he might take a step or two in the wrong direction and land them both in a hostile environment. Or a deadly one. Or one just like the one they had left, only from which there was no way out.

Only Daphne could see where they were going, and only she could avoid all these potential traps.

Reuben closed his eyes again. He pictured the lights that made up the sides of the mandala flickering out. Then he pictured the dark lines left behind as dissolving into nothingness. He held his breath for a moment, then exhaled deeply.

He opened his eyes. The spinning had stopped. The throbbing had faded. And the world had its colors back.

“There,” he said.

He took a long look around. It wasn’t just the street they were on that had changed. The city had grown immensely, spreading out in all directions. The shop houses were gone, as was the central square where the church had stood.

“Wow,” he said. “Where are we?”

“We are in Malacca, three steps down the street from where we started.”

Reuben nodded.

“Maybe I didn’t phrase that question right.”

“Maybe not. Try again.”

“What happened? Why is this Malacca so different from the one we left behind?”

Daphne looked down to the end of the street and back, apparently considering the question.

“Because it is. Histories diverge. The more different they are, the more different they become. After a while, it’s difficult to pinpoint any one change and associate it as the cause of any one difference.”

Two passersby approached, a couple dressed in traditional Malay clothing. The woman’s kebaya was bright and cheerful, with a purple and scarlet floral design. The man’s baju malayu looked like very fancy green pajamas; the plaid sampin he wore over his trousers reminded Reuben of a Scottish kilt. It seemed at first that the couple took no notice of them, but as they drew closer it became apparent that they were deliberately avoiding looking at Reuben and Daphne.

Just as they passed, the man muttered something under his breath. Daphne responded loudly, and in some detail. The couple hastened their pace as they continued up the street.

“That didn’t sound like Bahasa,” said Reuben.

Daphne looked startled that he could make such a distinction.

“It was Baba Malay, which technically is a dialect of Bahasa. But here, what the Nyonyas speak is closer to Hokkien than it is to the Malay language.”

“So they were Nyonyas? Chinese? But the way there were dressed…”

“…is how the Nyonyas dress, here. Histories diverge. Besides, their clothes weren’t terribly different from the kinds of things my grandparents wore.”

Reuben considered this. He had read a little about the Baba Nyonya, the descendants of early Chinese settlers who could be found throughout the Straits of Malacca. Over the centuries, they had developed their own distinct culture, blending their native Chinese traditions, cuisine, and style of dress with those of the Malays with whom they intermarried.

Apparently they had blended them differently here. That was interesting, as was Daphne’s reference to her grandparents. It hadn’t occurred to him that Daphne was, herself, of Nyonya descent.

But of course, learning that sort of detail would have probably required some personal comments along the way.

“Anyway, what did the guy say to you?”

“Something about ‘foreigners.’ I couldn’t quite make it out.”

“And what did you say to him?”

Daphne looked away.

“It doesn’t bear repeating.”

“Miss Wong, I’m touched. You said something in my defense?”

She looked back at Reuben, puzzled.

“Why would you think that? He insulted me. This Malacca is bigger than Singapore, and a very proud city. They are used to seeing all sorts, but they don’t take kindly to mainland Chinese. Which, based on my apparel, he assumed that I am. It has to do with some old, old grudges.”

“But I thought you said we were dressed appropriately for our destination.”

“I did. What does that tell you?”

“That this isn’t our destination.”

Daphne almost smiled.

“We are making this trip in small stages. You did all right for your first actual go. I’ve seen much worse, I can tell you. But your incline was a bit off. Work on that.”

Reuben looked down for a moment, considering this.

“So if my incline was off, does that mean that I didn’t get us to the right place?”

Daphne shook her head.

“It doesn’t exactly mean that. But this isn’t exactly the right place, either. It’s probably better that you don’t think in those terms.”

“But…the building is there.

The half-smile disappeared. She glared at him.

“Reuben, try to imagine what it would have been like if you had had someone explaining all this to you in great detail over the past few weeks.”

Reuben blinked. He felt slightly helpless, as always, in the face of Daphne’s mounting temper.

“Oh, wait a moment. Hang on. I remember. Someone did explain all this to you. It was me.”

Reuben looked down the street, trying to remember what Daphne had told him on this subject.

“I guess…there’s more than one configuration that has a building right there?”

She nodded violently.

“Well, that sounds like a safe assumption, Reuben. Inasmuch as a few hundred thousand trillion is, indeed, more than one.

Reuben cleared his throat.

“Okay,” he said. “Take it easy. I remember, now. We aren’t going for a particular configuration. We’re just trying to end up somewhere in the middle of a cluster of configurations.”

And?

“And if my incline was off, I put us somewhere else in the cluster, or in a closely related cluster.”

And so?

Daphne’s face glowed red with a harsh defiance. She was practically spitting the questions at him. But Reuben was no longer intimidated; it was all coming back.

“And so you’ll have to make some corrections in our course over the next few steps to get us to our destination.”

Daphne’s rage began to subside.

“That’s correct,” she said.

“So I’ll have to do my best to keep my incline true. That will get us there quicker and make your job easier.”

She let out a bitter laugh.

“The one thing my job will never be is easy.

She turned and took a long look down the street, apparently trying to identify something.

“Now, Reuben we’re going to put a black bench just a bit to the left of where that taxi stand is. Do you see it?”

The stand was twenty yards or so in front of them. A lavender car with a rectangular blue light on top had just pulled in, apparently hoping to get a fare from the two of them.

“A black bench?” he repeated.

“Yes. Wrought iron.”

Reuben looked at her.

“Really? Portuguese?”

She nodded.

“How about that,” he said. “I guess histories really do diverge.”

He looked up at the buildings towering over them.

“I bet everything is about to get smaller again,” he said.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Chapter 42

Part IV

Chapter 42

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Michel LeClaire poured some more wine. He was a thin and wiry man, gray at the temples. Reuben had pegged the Frenchman for 50 when he arrived, but now, several hours and even more glasses of wine later, he seemed older.

LeClaire placed the bottle in the ice bucket bottoms up. Empty. It had been their third. Probably not a great idea after all that vodka, Reuben thought. Especially since Daphne was apparently planning that they would be walking back to Malacca -- the one they had come from -- after dinner.

"So that is all there is to tell," said LeClaire, "The time is very near. It draws close."

He lifted his glass in a quasi-toast.

“To the Stillness, mes amis. It is all that ever was, and all that shall be.”

Reuben didn't touch his glass. He had the walk back to Daphne’s world to consider, and he could see no advantage in trading one kind of headache for another. Michel’s story was a long one. It had not been easy, listening to it. But Reuben felt better knowing the truth, even if it had laid waste the festive evening.

Good food, better wine, and -- to top it off -- the end of the world.

Daphne, apparently stunned by what she had heard, looked at Michel with great sadness. Her eyes glistened with tears. Reuben couldn’t decide what was more surprising -- that she was capable of tears or that she wasn’t hiding them.

He wondered how she, of all people, could not know what Michel had told them.

"Isn’t there something that we’re supposed to do?" she asked.

Michel shrugged.

"That was our final delusion, cheri. I'm afraid there is nothing to be done. Your friend has arrived too late. If there ever was a possibility of doing something to help, it has passed.”

Reuben shook his head.

“I don’t get it. You people have known about this for a long time. And have been looking to do something about it. How could it suddenly be too late?”

Michel took a long sip from his wine.

“The changes are coming much more quickly now. For hundreds of years there was so little change. What we saw happening was so gradual. But it was the eye of the storm. Now we have the full maelstrom. And there is nothing we can do about it.”

“I don’t understand,” said Reuben.

“There are a good many things about which that could be said, I’m sure. But the point is simply this. It was commendable of you to come. But now you should go. There is nothing for you to do. The opportunity is lost.”

“I won’t accept that.”

Michel arched an eyebrow.

“Ah, indeed? Well, this must be the dogged Americanism that one hears so much about. You are demonstrating your ‘can-do’ spirit, n’est-ce pas?

Michel produced a pack of cigarettes from his dinner jacket. He offered the pack to Daphne, who waved it away. Hen then offered it to Reuben, who ignored it.

“No,” Reuben said. “I’m just not ready to walk away based only on talk.”

Michel lit his cigarette, nodding.

“I see,” he said, puffing smoke directly into Reuben’s face. “Well, what then would satisfy?”

“Show me.”

“You don’t understand what you are asking. You are not prepared to face it.”

He took another long draw from his cigarette.

“Monsieur LeClaire, I would request that you not blow smoke in my face again. It’s considered quite rude where I’m from.”

After a time longer than Reuben would have credited Michel for being able to hold his breath, the Frenchman exhaled. The smoke went down and away at a safe angle.

“You’ll want to be careful,” Michel said after a moment, “that you don’t confuse the customs of your home with the laws of the universe.”

“Let’s just chalk it up to my dogged Americanism. Now if what you’re telling us is true, I’m going to have to face the circumstances you described sooner or later. Prepared or not. We all are.”

Michel nodded.

“That’s true. But I don’t see that any good can come from facing it before we have to.”

He turned to Daphne.

“What say you, cheri? Can you accept what I have told you and return home, or must you, too, be convinced?”

Daphne took a sip of her wine.

“Reuben, I’m sure Michel knows what he’s talking about. There’s very little chance that he’s going to be wrong about any of this.”

She took another sip.

“But on the other hand,” she continued. “Michel…I’m afraid that I’m with Reuben. We haven’t come all this way only to give up without having a look.”

“But the risk…”

“As Reuben said, the risk is a moot point. It’s only a matter of time.”

Michel shrugged.

“Since you insist, I will show you. But I cannot be held responsible.”

“For what?” Reuben asked.

“For what happens to you.”

Reuben looked to Daphne, who nodded.

“We’re responsible for what happens to us,” she said. “We prefer it that way.”

---

It was morning.

Reuben stood in front of LeClaire’s, impatiently waiting for the others. He had managed to down a little coffee, but buttered croissants didn’t appeal to him after the excessive libations the previous evening. He had slept fitfully on a tiny cot in a room behind the kitchen. He was sure that Daphne had fared better, as she had been invited to sleep at Michel’s house.

A sleek, blue sports car approached. Reuben wasn’t familiar with the make or model. The car parked at the curb in front of the restaurant. Daphne and Michel emerged from it.

“Good morning, Reuben,” said LeClaire. “Did you benefit from rest, or are you still insisting on this exercise in futility?”

“I’m still insisting,” said Reuben. “What about you, Miss Wong?”

“Enough with the goddamn small talk,” said Daphne. “Let’s get going.”

The first ten or so steps back up the street were not too different from what Reuben had experienced on the journey there. The traveling arrangements were somewhat changed, however, with three of them making the trip. Daphne stood in the middle, holding an arm of each of the two men. Michel gave coordinates. Reuben disrupted the waveform.

It was in the vicinity of the tenth step that Reuben noticed the first anomaly. The red church, which featured prominently in so many variations of the city, appeared once again in the center of the town square. But it was different this time, much taller and broader than it had been in any other instance. With the next step, it grew even taller. It’s color changed, too, darkening to a garish purple.

But it wasn’t just the church that was changing. It seemed that the palette with which the entire landscape had been painted was being modified. The sky took on a brackish yellow hue. The surrounding buildings, which Reuben remembered from his walk the previous evening as being mostly white and gray, were now green and turquoise and, occasionally, vivid orange. The vehicles on the street assumed bulky and unlikely shapes, their wheels somehow not quite as round as they should be.

After another step, the church became even wider and impossibly tall. Reuben craned his neck back to find the top of it. It was the tallest building he had ever seen.

The other buildings began to recede in the wake of the growing church. They became smaller and fewer with each step.

A flock of oddly fishlike birds flew past.

Across the street, a little man was setting up a food stall in preparation for the morning’s trade. He was slicing what appeared to be an enormous turnip. Purple, gray, and green loaves of some unwholesome-looking material hung from a string above his head. There was something unsettling about the man’s appearance. His dimensions were wrong, somehow -- his hands too small, his head too big.

“It’s his hair,” Daphne, her voice trembling with disgust.

Reuben looked at the man’s hair. He couldn’t make out anything that unusual about it. It was dark and thinning, apparently held in place with some gel or ointment. Even so, it was flowing gently with the morning breeze.

Reuben watched for a moment longer before it occurred to him -- there was no breeze. The man’s hair was not moving in a single discernible direction. What he had taken for oiled clumps of hair were in fact individual strands, far thicker than they should be, and writhing.

Snakelike.

Reuben coughed. The air suddenly felt unbearably hot and oppressive. He fought back the impulse to gag. He swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a moment.

“I fear that it only gets worse from here, my friends,” said Michel. “Shall we not go back?”

Reuben cleared his throat.

“We’ll go on. Just give me a minute. I may have to throw up.”

“You are ill?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I overdid it a little last night.”

“We’ll stop here for a moment,” said Daphne, disentangling herself from the two men. “Come over here, Reuben. Into the shade.”

“I’ll be all right.”

“Does your head hurt?”

Reuben nodded. He joined her in the shade of a tree, which somehow had too many branches, and fuzzy leaves that were long and white.

“What is this place?” Reuben asked.

“It is a world that has occurrence,” said Michel, “just as the world you came from has.”

“But it wasn’t supposed to?”

The Frenchman shrugged.

“That isn’t for us to say. There are many occurring worlds which have higher degrees of improbability than this one. Much higher. But even a few months ago, one would have had to walk for hours and hours before reaching one. Now it takes only a few steps.”

Reuben nodded.

“So the middle of the waveform is supposed to be where the most probable worlds are, and the edges are supposed to be less probable?”

“More or less,” said Daphne. “The waveform runs through the most probable region in the configuration space. Think of improbability as being altitude: sea level is highly likely, 100 feet above is less likely, 10,000 feet above is much less likely. The waveform has always been a river of occurrence running through a valley of probability in the configuration space.”

“So what’s happening now? The river is running uphill?”

Michel nodded.

“Even so. It is scaling the hills of improbability, giving occurrence to a good many things which otherwise never would have been.”

Reuben rubbed his head.

“So it isn’t really the end of the world, now, is it? There is no shadow. Everybody isn’t going to die. Things are just going to get weird.”

Michel looked up and seemed to study the sky for a moment. Then he turned and looked up and down the street.

“We shouldn’t remain here. Reuben, are you well enough to walk on?”

“Actually, I could use a drink of water.” He looked towards the food stall. “Do you suppose it would be safe?”

Michel sighed with disdain.

“Water from that place? To drink? I think not. In any event, we have no money to give him that he would accept. And I doubt we could make him understand anything we said.”

As though sensing that he was being talked about, the man at the food stall looked up. His eyes were too big or too black or…something. Reuben couldn’t figure out what the problem was. But there was something uncanny, even grotesque about the little man.

He stared at them for a long moment, apparently as puzzled by them as they were by him. Then he started back on his turnip.

“I’m sorry we didn’t think to bring any water, Reuben,” said Daphne. “But I think Michel is right. We should get out of here.”

Reuben nodded.

“I’ll be fine.”

They returned to the sidewalk and resumed their journey.

On the next step, the church grew again. Another step and it became taller still, its violet walls now brightening to a kind of neon pink. The top of the building was now completely out of sight.

“It’s impossible,” said Reuben.

Michel shook his head.

“No, my friend. Not impossible. Just highly improbable.”

“Or at least it used to be,” said Daphne.

Michel smiled.

“Even so, cheri.

Reuben looked across the street. The stall and the little man were gone. The street was empty. The rest of the city had all but disappeared. A barren landscape emerged from behind what few structures remained. He turned around. There was now nothing blocking his view of the river where it emptied into the Straits of Malacca. The river was black, the seawater an unsettling mix of gray and yellow.

“We dare not go on from here,” said Michel.

Reuben felt his impatience rising.

“Wrong,” he said. “We dare.”

“It grows very dangerous, Reuben.”

“Yeah, well I don’t see it. There’s no one here to hurt us. What’s going to happen…are we going to start getting strange ourselves?”

“There is no one here because I have deliberately guided us in the direction of emptiness. We would not survive for long in a heavily populated version of this city. But now I am uncertain even of the composition of the air. We could be poisoned. We may be breathing poison now.”

Daphne took a deep breath.

“The river stinks. What else is new? We’re moving on.”

LeClaire sighed and muttered something in French.

They walked on. Two steps later, the last vestiges of the town of Malacca (other than the distended tower the church had grown into) disappeared. Only the street they were on remained, now nothing more than a slightly flattened plain. The land was barren, a desert -- no trees or grass -- just a few prickly weeds. The church was now a perfect cylinder, milky white in color. It stretched into the sky, but it no longer seemed to go on forever.

It went up 2,000 feet or so and then stopped.

And then, about another 500 feet higher, it started up again.

Reuben traced the church’s ascent. The pattern continued on as far as he could see -- dashes of tower punctuated by dots of open sky.

“It’s an optical illusion, right?” he said after a moment. “Or the product of some kind of advanced anti-gravitation technology?”

Non,” Michel answered. “Pas de tout.

“Well, then why doesn’t it just come crashing down?”

“Because this configuration is incomplete,” said Daphne.

“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Reuben protested. “What’s missing? Gravity? We’re still standing here, aren’t we?”

“Yes we are, fortunately. And the air still clings to the ground, or we would be suffocating. This configuration has gravity. What it lacks is coherence.”

“So this is all just a…random configuration?”

Michel shook his head.

“Not random. All configurations have some imperfections. All have a few incoherencies. But these are usually found buried deep in the laws that govern the universes they occupy. In my world, and in yours, the incoherencies are never visible on a macro scale.”

“But here they are.”

Michel nodded curtly at the tower.

Oui. Voila.

“So this is a universe that used to be like ours. Or at least, more like ours. Its anomalies were subtle. Only now the waveform passes through this unlikely configuration. And it’s still moving further in that direction?”

Michel nodded.

“There was a time, I believe, when a configuration such as this would never have been removed from the Stillness. And yet here it is. Or should I say here we are, in it.”

“So it’s like you said last night. The waveform is off course somehow.”

“Yes.”

“And the other world…the one we needed to go to.”

“Is no longer accessible to us.”

“Has it also gone…incoherent?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps not. But you would have to pass through incoherence much greater than this, much greater than you could hope to survive, in order to get there.”

“I see. So we’re finished.”

Michel nodded.

“And everything that exists is going to be plunged into chaos. That’s the shadow that I keep sensing.”

“Not exactly,” said Michel. “The shadow that you have sensed is the outer bound of the configuration space. The waveform is passing through these incoherent configurations on a collision course with that outer bound.”

“But I don’t see how a collision can be imminent. If we’re this close to the boundary, weren’t we certain to hit it sooner or later, anyway?”

“Remember what I told you, Reuben,“ said Daphne. “The waveform is a spiral. It has approached the edge of the configuration space many times. But it has always curved away from it.”

“But not now.”

“No. We’re talking in geometric approximations, but think of it this way -- we’ve lost our arc.”

“So the spiral has become a straight line?”

Michel shrugged.

“As Daphne says, we are speaking very imprecisely. But that is the gist, yes.”

“And what happens when it hits the boundary?”

Daphne shook her head.

“Nobody really knows. Not for sure. But the best guess is no more waveform.

“The configuration space will be thrown into perfect and irretrievable stillness,” said Michel.

“I see,” said Reuben. “I get it now.”

He looked back up at the impossible tower, rising sporadically to seeming infinity.

“Everybody dies,” he said.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Chapter 41

Part IV

Chapter Forty-One

 

(Read earlier chapters.)

 

Reuben let go, and color came back to the world.

“That’s done it,” I said. “We have arrived.”

He sighed with relief. He was visibly winded and trembling just ever so slightly. A few stops earlier, his head was pounding so hard that it had become difficult for him to walk, even a few steps at a time. We had stopped and rested for a while. He also complained that he was feeling queasy, which I gathered had to do with his spending too much time in the ripple.

At this point in his training, Reuben wasn’t ready for such an elaborate excursion into the configuration space. But then, I don’t know of anyone who has ever been truly “ready” for the things we do in the Congrigatio in Ars Magica Minor. Even so, I had never before asked for so much from such an inexperienced pupil.

Mind you, I won’t accept full responsibility for that set of circumstances. Although I maintained my position of absolute and unassailable authority throughout Reuben’s training, there was something about the man’s eagerness — urgency, really — that was infectious. I, who had never been in a hurry to do anything in my life, found myself caught up in this headlong rush to advance to the next step, and then to the next. At first, when my protégé was interested solely in finding the means to cure his sickly mother figure and get back into the arms of his little Soviet trollop, he was more than pushy enough. But after we had a chat or two about the Guides and the Shedders — one of whom he had, in fact, encountered (against all probability) — not to mention the growing shadow on the configuration space and the coming dawn, the man became positively obsessed.

And, inasmuch as I knew that something needed to be done about these things, and did have a plan — or at least an intention, a very strong intention — to do something about all that eventually…well, I thought it prudent to let his ambition drive us on. He was an American after all.

That’s supposed to be what they’re best at.

Reuben looked out over the river. It was understandable that he would fix has gaze there. Muddy, brown, stagnant, and uninspiring as the Melaka river might be, it was the only element of the landscape that remained reasonably unchanged in all the permutations of the city through which we had passed. Over the past hour or two — it was hard even for me to be sure about time; poor Reuben would by then have been utterly disoriented — he had agitated the waveform dozens of times. Together, we had taken hundreds of steps through hundreds of variations on the city. Now we stood, at last, before Michel’s place, which fronted the river. For me, it was a comfortable and reassuring sight. For Reuben, it was no doubt just another architectural oddity: two stories high with a balcony at every window, each enclosed by a semicircular grille of lacey black ironwork. There was a patio on the roof, and another one on the ground floor facing the river.

I sighed with contentment. An evening at Michel’s would be just the thing. But I realized that my companion didn’t share my blissful state of mind

“Are you all right?” I asked him.

He looked thoughtful, as though this was a question that required careful analysis before answering.

“I could use a drink.”

Ah, that was the spirit. For a moment, my feelings for Mr. Stone bordered on something similar to sentiments heading in the general direction of a state of mind that was not altogether unlike pride.

But, as I said, only for a moment.

“I imagine you could. Well, we’ve come to the right place for it. Let’s go in.”

The restaurant was dark, and a bit cooler. A young Maitre d’ whom I did not recognize stood just inside, impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo. Perhaps we were there a bit early to catch Rodolfo, or perhaps the old gent had the night off. The young man looked up from his reservations as we approached.

“Bonsoir, Madame. Monsieur.”

“Bonsoir,” I responded.

The Maitre d’ poised his pen next to the reservation list.

“Les noms, s’il vous plait?”

Out of respect both for my traveling companion and the French language, I decided to proceed in English.

“Madame Wong and…associate. We don’t have a reservation, I’m afraid. But I am an old friend of Monsieur LeClaire. Would you please tell him that we’re here?”

The transition from French to English brought about a parallel shift in manners on the part of the Maitre d’. He moved swiftly and seamlessly from obsequious helpfulness to annoyed impatience. His eyes no longer met mine. And his speech took on a curtness that screamed “You’re wasting my time!” with every syllable.

“I am sorry, Madame, but Monsieur LeClaire is not here at the moment. We are not expecting him for another hour or so.”

I smiled ever so sweetly.

“He’ll want to know that I have arrived. Would you be so good as to call him and let him know?”

The young man nearly gasped at this suggestion. Call Monsieur? On ze…how do you say…téléfone? Quel idée! The very idea. It was an outrage.

Still, he managed to compose himself and frame a response.

“I am sorry, Madame, but that is out of the question. Monsieur has made it very clear that he is not to be disturbed while at home under any circumstances.”

“I see,” I said.

The game was rather tiresome, but it needed playing out.

“When you call him, you will want to mention that it is a matter of urgent business. Club business.”

The Maitre d’ nodded. His next response, while as resolute as those that had come before, lacked the sauce with which the previous two replies had been served. And I noticed that his eyes had found their way back to mine.

“I’m afraid that is impossible. Perhaps Madame and Monsieur would care to have a drink while they wait? Or take a stroll on the riverfront and come back at a later time?”

I sniffed loudly and stared at his bow tie for a few seconds.

“What is your name, please?”

“I am Renee.”

“Well allow me to explain a few things to you, Renee. We do not wish to take a stroll as we have just had one. A rather exhausting stroll, I might add. We would like very much to have a drink without any further delay. So would you be so kind as to seat us and to call Monsieur LeClaire and tell him that we are here. And when you call him, please tell him that les jeux ne sont pas faits.

The young man nodded and made a note in his reservation book. He clapped his hands twice and a waitress appeared from the wings. She was a tall Chinese girl (or to be more accurate, a girl of little better than average height standing atop some excessively vertical heels.) She wore a dress not too unlike my own, although a bit more tart-ish. The slit on the side went practically up to her armpits.

But the effect was wasted. Poor Reuben was still so shaken from his travels that he couldn’t be bothered to drool.

“Vivian, this is Madame Wong,” said the Maitre d’. “She is a friend of Monsieur LeClaire. Please see that she and her friend are well taken care of.”

The waitress nodded.

The young man turned to face me. He was now a wide-eyed puppy-dog.

“Madame, I will be telephoning Monsieur with your message. I am certain that you will hear from him very soon.”

Merci, Renee” I said demurely.

We were seated on the second floor, a table on a private balcony overlooking the river. Reuben surprised me by ordering chilled vodka. I would have taken him for a beer drinker or, at best, a connoisseur of bourbon. I  ordered a proper whisky and glasses of water for both of us.

“So what was that all about?” he asked as Vivian walked away.

“What do you mean?”

Les jeux ne sont pas faits? Unless I’m mistaken, that means that the game is off. What game?

Once again, Reuben surprised me. On one level, I knew that there was nothing the least bit surprising about an educated man with a background in intelligence work who could speak a smattering of French. But I always found  myself expecting so little of Reuben, against all common sense.

It must have been his accent.

“It’s a password,” I explained. “Under normal circumstances, Michel can be accessed by close acquaintances by saying that they are here on ‘club business.’ But sometimes that isn’t enough. When he really doesn’t want to be bothered, he tells the staff not to contact him, not even on club business. Under those circumstances, there is yet another password for what you might think of as the inner circle. And that password is les jeux ne sont pas faits.

“But why that phrase?”

“I don’t honestly know. I think it has something to do with a novel by Sartre. Or do they even have Sartre, here? Or it may be a phrase they use in casinos. But whatever it is, I’m sure it’s terribly witty in that smirking Gallic way.”

When the drinks arrived, Reuben reached for his liquor first. He tilted the glass towards me in a perfunctory toast and then drained it. Then he did the same with his water.

Encore, Vivian,” he said. “S’il vous plait.

The waitress, who was still standing there — she had hardly had the chance to go anywhere else — nodded, and turned to fetch another round. I lifted my glass and returned Reuben’s gesture.

“Cheers,” I said. “To a successful navigation.”

“I’ll drink to that…in just a minute.”

I took a civilized, though certainly not dainty, sip of the whisky.

“So, how are you feeling?” I asked.

“A lot better. I think I just needed a few minutes.”

“Did you find that it was getting easier or harder as the journey progressed?”

He thought about this.

“I guess that getting and keeping my grip became easier. I just got so tired. And my head was really bothering me.”

I took another sip.

“You’re the first person I’ve met whose gift derives from an injury. That could account for why it’s so much stronger than normal, and why it has so much attendant pain. That may prove always to be the case, I’m afraid.”

Reuben thought about this for a moment.

“Do you mean to say that it doesn’t usually hurt?”

Apparently it had never occurred to him that the experience was different for each individual. But then, why would it?

“No. Not physically. Some are made dizzy by it; a very few get seasick. For most, it is just a little unsettling. On the other hand, there are those who claim to derive considerable sensual pleasure from the experience.”

“No kidding?”

Just then, Vivian returned — remarkably quick, that girl — with more water and a small flask of chilled vodka.

Reuben clearly was feeling better. He now took full notice of our efficient table service staff member and her nicely fitting, if a bit too well ventilated, attire. To his credit, he wasn’t overly obvious with his admiration. He didn’t drool or even gawk. Perhaps his government training was of some use, after all.

He watched her as she poured him a second round. She glanced at my glass to be sure that I was still proceeding at a stately pace, then  slinked away into the darkness. His eyes followed her all the way.

“Quite an aficionado, aren’t you, Reuben?”

“You mean the vodka? To tell you the truth, I’m surprised I can drink the stuff at all. After Russia. But some things just kind of stick with you, I guess.”

He took a sip.

“I didn’t mean the vodka. I meant the cocktail waitress.”

Reuben looked surprised. He shook his head.

“No. It’s not like that. Or…well, maybe she reminds me of somebody.”

I should have known. Such a straight arrow — incapable even of enjoying a little eye candy on its own terms. It’s as I’ve always said: you can take the boy scout out of his limited view of the multiverse, but you can’t take the limited view of the multiverse out of the boy scout. I was not, at the time, prepared to consider the possibility that a certain depth of feeling might lie behind Reuben’s obsessive behavior. It was just so much easier  — not to mention more satisfying — to write him off as a twit.

A deft change of subject was in order. Reuben supplied it.

“So how do you know this Michel guy?”

“We’re colleagues. We hold the same position.”

“You mean — he’s also the head of the Society?”

I nodded.

Reuben took another drink. A troubling thought was dawning on him.

“So…how many…?”

He couldn’t quite formulate the question.

“How many?” I repeated. “You tell me.”

He sighed.

“A very large number. But not necessarily infinite.”

“That’s right.”

“But I thought you said that people…like us, people who do what we do…are rare.”

I took a longish sip from my whisky.

“We are. Compared to everybody else. But one idea that you need to get a handle on, Reuben, is that just because something is rare, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t trillions and trillions of them.”

“So you’ve been here a few times. I gather that it doesn’t work the other way? Michel doesn’t come to you?”

“That’s correct.”

“You…and others…come here. This is some kind of meeting place for practitioners of  Magic Minor.”

It was probably just the drink, but at moments like this I couldn’t help but feel a certain warmth towards Reuben. If one could say nothing else in his favor, it at least had to be conceded that he was a fast learner.

“But I wonder…” he continued. “The Society isn’t always headquartered in Malacca, is it?”

“Not always.”

“Let me see if I have the story straight. After Altheus died, the leadership of the Society moved around Europe for a couple hundred years. It ended up in the hands of this young Portuguese trader who was an officer on one of the early expeditions to Asia. He settled in Malacca, married a local, and the leadership stayed with him and his family until the Dutch moved in. Then it somehow got handed off to a Chinese family, where it remains to this day.”

“That’s more or less correct. Don Fernando’s heir decided to return to Portugal, and he was more cautious than his illustrious ancestor. He feared that a shipwreck might be the end of the Society of Magic Minor. So he turned everything over to a friend. A wealthy merchant.”

“Your great-great-grandfather?”

“No. The leadership has changed hands a few times since then. When there is no heir apparent, the leader finds an individual of suitable character to whom to pass the reins. That’s something I’ll probably have to do eventually.”

I regretted saying it as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Damned whisky. I had broken my own rule about personal comments and opened myself wide for some loathsome, misguided curiosity or (worse yet) sympathy. There is much that I can endure in this life, up to and including my mother’s endless harangues about my unmarried state. But discussion of these matters with one Mr. Reuben Stone? It would be difficult to imagine a more vomit-inducing scenario.

Fortunately, whether he was taking the high road or he was simply too blur to pick up the thread of what I said, Reuben left that matter alone.

“But this Malacca has a different history. What’s with all the French-speaking?”

I was relieved.

I finished off the demon drink, resolving never to touch it again. Then I looked up. Where was that sluggard, Vivian? Precisely how long was one expected to wait for a refill in this place?

“In this context it was the French, not the Dutch, who supplanted the Portuguese. In Michel’s world, French Indo-China was — is, actually— a much bigger place than it was where I’m from. Or where you’re from. This is a very fortunate world, in some respects. Only one world war. And no Cold War.”

Reuben poured himself another vodka while demonstrating that he had a good ear for conditional praise:

“What’s the downside?”

“Well, here we are in the nineties and the French Colonials are still around. Be a pet, Reuben — when Michel arrives, don’t let on that I consider that to be a downside.

He laughed.

“Your secret is safe with me, Miss Wong. Besides, if we had stopped off in one of those variations where Malacca is just another Malay town, I bet we would have met some folks who would be distressed to learn that there are so many versions of Malacca where the Chinese are still around.”

I nodded.

“Or around at all. In my context, and yours, and the one we are currently in, a 15th century Emperor sent one of his own daughters to the Sultan of Melaka to be his bride. She was accompanied by 500 serving girls, who were the beginning of the Chinese population of the city. But in some contexts, it never happened.”

Just then the recalcitrant Vivian reappeared, with a flask similar to the one that she had left for Reuben. It was filled with a brownish liquid, some of which she poured into my glass. I was beginning to think better of the poor girl.

Doing her best, no doubt. I offered her a kindly smile as I raised my glass.

Plus, Reuben paid her no mind at all, this time. Not that his attention (or lack thereof) meant anything to me — it patently did not — but there is such a thing as good form, after all. He was too much enthralled with the romance of diverging histories.

“I’ll tell you what interested the me most,” he said. “we passed through several mostly Chinese and all-Chinese versions of the city on our way here, but one really stood out. Do you know the one I mean? It was kind of primitive. Very rough, in fact.”

“Yes, I know that one. I didn’t intend for us to stop there at all. It’s usually a step-through, but I was correcting for some of your inaccuracies.”

He let pass the critique of his form.

“I noticed you wasted no time in moving us on.”

“Yes. It would not do to hang around there too long.”

“Too bad. But I think I saw enough to form a theory.”

A theory? It was just too precious. I decided to forego the derisive laughter in favor of another tiny sip.

“What theory is that?”

“Well, based on just a quick glimpse of the townsfolk…and their buildings…and their clothes…I think they were Mongols.”

At that moment I experienced a very mild version of what the Americans, in their vulgarity, refer to as a “spit take.” Reuben had hit the nail on the head.

“Don’t laugh,” he said. “It’s just a theory. Histories diverge, right? What if the Khans hadn’t just sort of run out of gas. What if they had pushed on into western Europe and India…and even down here? And if they had hung on to their empire, not just let it sort of fade into the background of wherever they were?”

My choices were to confirm Reuben’s theory or lie and tell him he was wrong. I didn’t much care for either.

“Well, like I said,” he continued. “It’s just a theory. You know who I wish was here? Iskandar. He knows a lot about this kind of stuff.”

“He does, indeed, Reuben. But you have to remember that…Mr. Ahmad is not an initiate in our order. We can never discuss with him what we see in the configuration space.”

He looked surprised.

“Really?”

I shook my head solemnly.

“Absolutely not. Under no circumstances.”

Reuben took a sip from his glass, apparently distressed by what I had told him.

“So…I see,” he said after a while. “Then I guess that’s why you and he never got together?”

I shook my head again.

“No, no. Not because of that. It was ostensibly about religion. He worships Allah, where I bow down only before the altar of the almighty Daphne. But it was really about — ”

I finally stopped, but it was too late. Far too late.

He sat there, smiling. Nodding sympathetically.

It occurred to me at long last that I could continue to dislike Reuben as much as I wanted, but I was going to have to stop underestimating him.

I was just about to say something devastatingly sarcastic that would have set everything aright when, out of nowhere, Michel appeared.

“Mon Dieu, Daphne! I could not believe it was really you!”

I rose about half way from my chair  so he could give me a peck on each cheek. He then turned and looked at Reuben.

“But who is this?” he asked

That was going to take some explaining.

Posted by Phil at 11:59 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack