first things :: a word from the medium
if you were part of my circle of friends on my space, you might remember that i'd used my blog, in part, to publish a long story in serial form, with a new post anywhere from every few days to after a break for a couple of weeks. the effort eventually petered out when i got sick of dealing with my space, but the story did not die. in fact, i have almost twice as much of it as was ever published and i still do love the idea of having a serial on the web. aside from that, i've grown really attached to this particular story, more so, i'll venture, than to anything else i've ever written. perhaps because it's been with me so long.
it's still far from finished, but that will come with time. i'm hoping that pacing myself in the publication will allow me to keep up, since it'll give me time to work on the other end.
this is a first draft, so i can guarantee you'll find mistakes in it. spelling mistakes, grammatical mistakes, etc., will come out in the editing process, however, in the interests of being able to create a story- however misspelled- that everyone can enjoy, please feel free to write me with any continuity errors you spot. general feedback is also encouraged.
i will be starting the story again from its beginning, so if you remember that part, you can probably skim until it gets to something that doesn't look so familiar. i will be posting weekly updates to the story, most likely on wednesdays, since it falls kind of nicely between mental health mondays and friday favourites. i'll have to come up with a fancy alliterative name for it. the updates will appear on this page, not on the main blog, so you can either bookmark this page or hope that i figure out how to put a link on the main page to make it easy to access.
all written work is copyrighted and may not be used or excerpted in any form, for any purpose, without the expressed written consent of the author.
the images are not mine and remain the property of their respective copyright holders.
©Kate MacDonald/ F Squared Media 2007- 2011
Think through it carefully… Five… two… seven? Five? Dammit. One number at a time, try to just hold your fingers over the pad, try to see trace the invisible lines that connect one point to another. Now, see the points… Five… two… seven… three… two… three… eight. It’s on the eight that her fingers tremble a little, balk at committing and start to unwind the thread that’s connected all the other digits. In her mind, she sees them fall into a pile, sees them drop from magic code to meaningless jumble. It’s the dead hour of the night and she’s out here, alone with the fog hugging at her shoulders. Whoever answers that phone will be pulled from a fog of their own and will likely struggle to understand the spatter of words, fears, tenuously connected facts and fantastic assumptions that she will be unable to form into a coherent whole. Best to be sure that it’s the right person on the other end, for all that it will matter. Best not to commit, best to yield to the hesitation in her fingertips.
Besides, it was five-two-six, not seven.
She rests her head against the receiver of the payphone, muttering the exhortation: “Think, Adela, THINK”, as she always does when it’s something important she’s forgotten. And, as usual, her mind takes the opportunity to scurry to fifty corners, none of those corners revealing the proper answer, the proper phone number she wants to reach. A flurry of thoughts that dissipate like the first snowflakes of the year.
She shouldn’t be resting her head against the receiver. It’s filthy. She can feel a film of scum built up. Shouldn’t even be touching her fingers on the keypad. Should find a tissue or something to act as a buffer.
She’s been here before, on this stretch, in the night, at this moment when desolation presses down. She’s seen the same leggy transsexual hookers eyeing her through these same grimy panes of Plexiglas. The same wind has blown the same dust devil along the church steps across the road and the same message has ineptly beckoned to potential parishioners: “Jesus comes once a year, how often do you?”
Or perhaps she just dreamt it.
She can feel the foggy damp creeping between the layers of clothing she’s wearing and next to her skin. As hot as it’s been, she cannot keep warm and the irony is vexing.
The one thing these thoughts have in common is that they are not helping her remember the digits of a phone number.
Adela grips the clammy snake that connects the receiver to the rest of the telephone and tries to concentrate. One number for each ridge, she counts it out. Five-two-six-three-four-two-eight.
“Christ,” she mutters, her jaw dropping in fury and frustration. “Who was it I was supposed to be calling?”
She could, if she wanted to, remind herself that these sorts of episodes have become increasingly rare. She could think back to a recent time when she would not have been able to remember any of what she has in her mind right now.
There are two calls to make. One for her own peace of mind, one for others.
Then the gates of the mind open to reveal.
A trip to Hong Kong that never happened.
A woman’s voice with a French accent on the phone.
Lloyd’s dingy shop, stuffed to overflowing.
David putting all the backpacks together, explaining in dead monotone the procedure for her phone call.
A friendly face in the middle of the cold marble sea at Cronos corporate headquarters.
Five. Two. Six. Three. Four. Two. Eight.
It’s a woman’s voice that answers, as she might have expected. Ivy would be well into her third trimester right now, swollen and distended but fragile, easily shaken from tranquility or sleep. Her voice is soft and sad, as if anticipating bad news.
“Is Frank there please?” Adela is surprised at the tension, the harshness, in her own voice. She spits the line out as if it’s been forced up against the back of her teeth, waiting to get out.
Surprisingly, Ivy says nothing, does not ask who it is, but murmurs to wait a moment while she gets him. Perhaps that’s part of the corporate training. You have to be prepared for these calls in the dead of the night, that moonless hour. Perhaps this isn’t the first such call that Ivy’s answered.
“This is Frank.”
“Listen to me, this is very important,” she hisses, a little caught off guard that he sounds awake, alert. He might have been getting ready to work. “You need to call in sick today. Don’t go into the office.”
“I beg your pardon? Who is this?” Even flustered, he doesn’t sound abrupt or impolite. He probably thinks this is some crazy person calling him and, for one deep, desperate moment, Adela wonders if that’s what it is. You can’t really be crazy if you believe you are. Cold comfort, that thought, coming as it did from someone who was probably now running through the streets, snarling and howling.
“Frank, you need to believe me. I know you, I’ve met you, I know you don’t want to be involved in the sorts of things that are going on and if you go into the office today, something very bad is going to happen.”
“Now listen,” he sounds almost consoling, “I don’t know who you are, but it sounds like you might have had a rough night.”
“That boat that’s coming in…” She lets it trail off, unable to commit to saying more.
Has that done it, at least? Has the fact that she knows about the boat elevated her status from random crazy to insider informer? She tries to think about what is happening, about David and the other Chess Club boys and about Adam and everything else. Then she tries not to think about it. Tries not to remember what David’s eyes looked like, fixing her, warning her. One phone call, nothing else.
Something stirs behind her and she jumps, literally jumps within the grimy confines of the telephone booth, imagining herself being pounced on by her watchers. It’s nothing, it’s gone.
“Hello?” Frank’s voice, just as she remembered it, distinctive enough that she could remember it, a gentleman’s voice. The good man’s voice. An innocent voice.
“Please understand that I can’t explain, but you need to stay at home, at least promise me you’ll stay home in the morning, take Ivy to the doctor, or just make her breakfast, whatever you want to say, but don’t go anywhere near the office and you’ll be safe.”
“Wait a minute, is this-“
Adela presses gently down on the receiver, not wanting to know if her cover has been blown. If she’s wrong, if he’s not really the good man, then he’ll be on the phone in seconds, sending out an alert. If she’s wrong about him, she mat have just condemned a group she considers friends. She doesn’t think she’s wrong.
For a moment, she feels a sense of rot in her stomach that Frank might yet be naïve enough to call into the office to try to warn others, that he might trip the alarm without meaning to. She doesn’t think he’s that jejune, although it was a chance she’d thought about earlier, when the idea of making that call had first come to her as a method of assuaging what guilt she felt, sweating under these same layers of clothing in her apartment and trying to steady her trembling stomach with whiskey that’s still corroding the lining of her organs, hours later.
She releases the receiver and carefully presses the buttons for the next phone call she needs to make. This number is not so hard to remember. David’s trained her, tricked her into keeping it in her mind. She can hear his nasal voice clipping out every number, see the flicking of his lizard’s tongue as he annunciates each syllable.
It would be more reassuring if she weren’t shaking, if she couldn’t feel the fingers of her own stress gripping at her skin from the inside. Some soldier in the battle… She thinks of Chris and Daniel, imagines them tripping and falling into a hole on the way to battle. David never said what would become of them. Did he tell them? Had it even been his decision to make, or had they arrived at some glorious consensus, brothers-in-arms as they were? For that matter, David had never said what he expected to happen to himself. He only tasked her with making this one call and told her to go home afterwards.
The other line picks up, but there is no voice. She is speaking into a void.
“It’s here. Go ahead.”
And then she hears the click of the other receiver being replaced.
Adela holds onto the payphone receiver until she hears the dull drone of the dead line kick in. What’s done is done. She can go home now and wait for whatever is to come.
She backs out of the phone booth, because if something is coming, she doesn’t want to know, doesn’t want to see it before it gets her. But all that is behind her is the industrial expanse of the corroding port and the chill fog, come to signal the conclusion of the pleasant Indian Summer they’ve been experiencing.
It is so quiet here, so empty-seeming. Here, she can imagine that it is just herself and the rats and the other animal denizens, alone and abandoned to watch the arrival of a ship that passes like a cloud over the moon.
But it’s not the case. Somewhere, there are eyes on her. Without fail, someone out in the night is tracking her, perhaps someone observant enough to realise that she made two calls. And is that someone who wants the operation to succeed? Or has she been betrayed to the hands of the others? The image of Adam being walked away, about to speak, unable to speak, flits through her mind. Are there footfalls in the dark, those figures coming to collect her now as well?
The phosphorescent aureoles around the sodium lights make the sky eerily bright a few feet above her head, but where Adela stands is in shadow. There is nothing to do, she knows, but go home and wait. Her part is done and she can only try to think of how it started. The past months falling away, opening up what has passed. What happened? Not so long ago, she probably would have been unable to remember.
Months ago, only months.
Pick one point and start. An afternoon like many others, some time after the move, during that period of adjustment, during that period of unfamiliarity. That time when she couldn’t find her way, when she would end up, too embarrassed to carry a map like a wet tourist, wandering the streets, searching desperately for a beacon to lead her home. She’d moved from another city, where everything had been safe and formal and familiar. She’d moved with Adam, because this was where his career was leading. It was a step forward. She just couldn’t remember the correct steps to get back to her home.
She’d been at the hair salon, paying an unreasonable amount of money to hear in detail about the blow jobs Toula had been giving her new boyfriend.
Toula was the hairdresser, her hairdresser, the person who had been recommended to her by some women at Adam’s office who had been at the cocktail party they’d attended. Toula was the best. And this particular day had been Adela’s second appointment with her, she was fairly certain. At least, she was painfully aware now that she had been there at least once before, because Toula had made it clear that Adela had failed to acknowledge her when they saw each other on the street. This was not an unfamiliar problem.
So when Adela had shown up for her appointment to have her highlights done, she’d been greeted with a wall of twenty-something resentment hovering under a fashionably disheveled mane of chestnut hair with almost white highlights. Toula’s dark eyes fixed on her accusatorially and immediately Adela was able to surmise the nature of her offense.
“I said hello to you on the street the other day,” Toula told her suspiciously, after a period of chilled silence.
“I ignored you, didn’t I?”
“Was that on purpose?”
“No. I didn’t recognize you. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again, either.” Adela waited for the perfunctory expression of confusion to creep over Toula’s Athenian features. “There’s something wrong with me. It’s a sort of amnesia.”
The perfunctory confusion gave way, as it always did, to a sort of suspicion. How did a woman who suffered from amnesia remember to show up for a hair appointment?
“It’s not everything,” Adela explained, her voice weary with it, “just certain things that I can’t remember.” She produced her notebook as proof. Notes on who she had spoken to, what she had done, things that she had yet to do, but which were of some importance. Her mind in its pages.
Toula hadn’t lost that furrowed brow that came from disbelief, but she relented a little. Any woman bizarre enough to be carrying around, even showing off, a diary of the most mundane details of her life might have some excuse for not acknowledging her hairdresser on the street.
Her way of dealing with the revelation of Adela’s problem had been a little more disturbing than most, however. Toula had decieded, evidently, that if Adela was likely to forget things that were said to her, that it meant she could be trusted with the most graphic information imaginable. Already, Adela had had the urge to interrupt and clarify that she didn’t forget everything but merely, certain things, and that she couldn’t guarantee which things those were. But she had liked the cut that Toula had given her and didn’t want to risk offending her with the details of her condition.
“I mean, it’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen, because my ex, he was huge, but it’s nice, you know. It’s really straight, no curve at all, so it just slides in there, which is nice, because my last boyfriend, he curved a little, and it was tricky, because I couldn’t always figure out where it was going to end up, once I got it in my mouth, you know?”
Adela closes her eyes, because she doesn’t want to watch Toula’s lips during this speech. She doesn’t want to watch her removing pins from her mouth to hold Adela’s hair in place.
“And he’s not cut, which I thought would be kind of gross, but I actually kind of like it, because it’s like this surprise inside, something no one else gets to see.”
This is how the conversation, in so much as they are conversing, goes. Adela is unfortunately aware of the fact that this is not something she is likely to forget, that every time she looks at her own hair for the next week, she is going to picture some unknown man’s foreskin rolling back to reveal…
Which is odd, considering that Adela isn’t even certain she could remember how to make it back to her own apartment without notes.
When she’s done, when Adela is paying for services rendered, Toula puts a hand on her arm and widens her light brown eyes with a sort of schoolgirl solemnity.
“Don’t worry. I won’t be angry if you forget me again, Adela.”
There’s still something in Adela’s make-up that’s shocked by the sound of her own first name. She still expects “Ms. Landis”, even though she knows no one really stays that formal anymore. And formality would hardly be in keeping with the discussion.
All the same, Adela makes a show of pulling her notes on getting home from her pocket, so that Toula will be confident that whatever she’s said will be consigned to the rubbish bin of her eccentric client’s memory. It’s hard to find a decent hairdresser.
The salon is in a strange area, in the process of gentrification, but still resisting, lined with coffee shops advertising fair trade goods and stores with actual vinyl records in the windows. Something in it seems deeply familiar, more so than could be explained by the fact that Adela has been to the hair salon before, but she knows better than to trust what she feels.
Five blocks ahead, turn right again.
There are a few rough looking patches just off the main thoroughfares of the neighbourhood, from which Adela averts her eyes. It’s a strange sort of self-consciousness, this, feeling a little bit like they can see through her, into the history of her family and their questionable wealth. As if they can read history on her bones.
Turn left and continue for eight blocks.
If she wanted to be recognized for what she is, she would have brought the car and made a show of parking in front of the salon. She would have made indignant noises when parking wasn’t available close enough. Her aunt has been known to make quite a spectacle of herself when in a hurry.
But Adela couldn’t ever trust herself with a car. Walking is challenge enough, let alone having all of these things to remember while jolting down the road at those speeds. So she walks, inadvertently disguised as a woman of less means, more comfortable on the ground than she actually is.
She reads the number of the building again, repeating it under her breath in the hopes that it will start to stick soon. When the ongoing stress from the move has subsided, when she feels more comfortable with her routines here, when these streets become her accepted scenery, she will start to remember more accurately. For now everything, every thought, every recollection, every bit of knowledge she has of this city is suspect. Her mind rearranges things to get even with her for disturbing it.
There is, as always, the slight sense of dread and disappointment with the house. It’s a temporary thing, but even as such, it doesn’t make her happy. For starters, it’s older than she likes, not like the pristine, new-built places Cronos normally puts its employees. (“They didn’t have any of their regular units empty. We had to take what we could find,” Adam explained.) It’s not a building, either, something which Adela is embarrassed to realise bothers her. At least in their old place, the doormen would stop her when, wrapped up in whatever was rattling her at the moment, she accidentally walked past the building where she lived.
This place is a quarter of a house. An old mansion, really, not exactly slumming, but less than perfectly maintained. Drafts creep in at night and boards creak underfoot. At night, when she’s in bed, wishing for something more profound than the hallucinatory half-consciousness that passes for sleep, she hears the neighbour’s radio warbling from downstairs, up, she supposes, through the radiator’s pipes. It’s some company while Adam drifts in oblivion, but no comfort.
She’s tried not to mention any of this to Adam, who is understandably awkward about her standards and maintaining them. But she can feel the childish reticence about the place well up in her blue eyes like tears and knows how bad she is at hiding anything. At least Adam, being what he is, never says anything.
He’s there as she ascends the stairs, in his study, the screen of his laptop casting a purplish glow over the lower part of his face, reflecting white stars on his glasses. And for just a second, that hair of time before he notices her, Adela feels herself panic that this man is not anyone she knows, but simply an intruder wearing a familiar flesh suit.
He looks up and Adela immediately feels guilty, because here is Adam, who’s been with her for longer than she would have imagined anyone could have put up with her quirks, the man who is her solid base and security blanket, who is very well known and not an intruder in any sense and she’s mistaken him for one of her phantoms. It’s little consolation that, as bright as he is, he wouldn’t understand any of what’s going through her head as she greets him.
“How’d the hair go?”
“Fine. She’s good, I like her.” She pauses to concentrate on what she is about to say. “We’re having dinner with your new boss and his wife tonight, aren’t we?” It’s not something she should be proud of, but remembering this is an accomplishment for her, given the disorientation of the last weeks.
“Yes,” he nods. “You remember I leave tomorrow morning?” He asks it tonelessly, obviously not expecting that this will have registered.
“No,” she answers, aware of the note of hurt and worry in her own voice. “Where are you going?”
“Hong Kong. I’m meeting with our engineering team there and we’ll be touring factories in China. I’ll be gone for two weeks.”
Adela flips through her imaginary card index, desperately trying to link this to an earlier conversation, to some event that she has held in her mind, but it is gone. Adam has returned his eyes to the laptop, but continues to speak.
“I’m staying at the Shangri-La Hotel. You can pull the number off the internet if you need. My cell should work when I’m there, but I have to go into China during the days and you won’t be able to reach me.”
Adela has to rush to the kitchen to grab pen and paper before the words fade and reorganize themselves. Hong Kong, she writes. Two weeks. Shangri La hotel. Then, suddenly afraid of what else might slip her mind, she adds “Adam”.
“You got it all down?” he asks when she returns to the study door.
“Yes.” She thinks of trying to repeat it, but it hardly seems worth it. “You leave in the morning?”
He nods, a slightly dubious, slightly sad expression darkening his features. Or perhaps it’s a shadow as he turns away, momentarily, from the laptop. And for a second, Adela means to pursue a conversation. About anything. About whatever project it is Cronos has moved him here to work on, since its parameters have always been a little fuzzy for her. About what they both think of the city so far, how different it is from living in Washington. About vacations they might like to take, once the dust settles and he can take some time away.
These are conversations that she is dimly aware that they have already had. He humours her by repeating them, she knows. Every line that comes to mind to start off a new topic seems just a little too familiar, a little suspiciously easy, to be entirely original. The words form a clog in her throat, unable to move in any direction.
“So you’re OK, then?” he asks, turning back to the computer.
“Yes. You’re off for two weeks. But we’re still going to dinner tonight?”
“Yes. I need about half an hour.”
Bluewhiteglassgold. The décor of the place has a sort of Czarist Russia-inspired decadence, a conscious excess for its own sake. It’s not the sort of bloated steakhouse that her uncle always favoured for business dinners, but Adela knows the scene. She makes a nice prop with Adam the same way she would do for her uncle before- nothing too obtrusive. She even remembers to steal a minute in the ladies room to review her notes.
Julian Baker, Development Director. Wife Claire. Concert pianist.
Adam’s new boss and his wife deserve the meretricious opulence of the place, almost carry it with them, an aura of brilliance, flashing gilt expanding from their satisfied persons. Adela would call them smug, she does call them smug in her head, but outwardly she nods and takes in their stories, stretched out like homemade taffy, sweet and without substance. An expression of polite interest is all that’s required of her. Adam knows better than to put her in a situation where she would have to be social.
Julian speaks about the office until his wife breaks in, cutting a smile that would be charming if it had any warmth, to say that the two of them- she and Adela- don’t want to hear about work on a night out.
Adela really couldn’t care less what they’re discussing. She’s tuning it out anyway and watching how Julian Baker forms his words, with a deliberateness and forethought that shows the sign of having been practiced for years. He’s good, this charismatic man, still young to be in the position he’s in, his cadence is rolling and his pace fast enough that the signs of rehearsal are buried deep. Adam won’t see it.
The wife, too, Claire, is perfect poised, More so, even, than her husband. It’s too easy to see her, shoulders squared, sleek neck extending from a designer black gown, sitting in front of a piano more expensive than most houses. She’s performing with every gesture, every considered syllable.
Adela watches them flow seamlessly as tides into one another. Claire’s story of her adventures losing her luggage in Dublin the previous spring and finding out at the same time that the Prime Minister would be at her show that evening washes into Julian’s nightmare of trying to attend the annual Cronos shareholders’ meeting, coming back from Europe, when he realised he was traveling with an expired passport. They smile and make room for the others in the conversation, pick up easily again when things reach a quiet point. This is something they’ve done before, Adela can tell.
Julian is the more interesting of the two. Claire’s icy composure is opaque, her beauty so obvious even the waiters seem reluctant to leave without taking a flirtatious shot. He is not so. Adela can picture Claire sitting with him, rehearsing his demeanour, burnishing the roughness from him, the flat accent that lurks in his throat when he speaks too quickly, the slouch he fights as he gets a little comfortable. Claire has given him the image he needs to move forward. A little too ugly, a little too ordinary to have caught his wife any other way, Adela can tell this is someone who will rise like a balloon in the wind through the corporate maze.
Adam is staring with a dangerously unguarded admiration at Claire when the main courses arrive. She’s telling the story of her very first recital, trotting out the vulnerable moment to make everything feel more honest, when Adela catches the expression on his face. A stare of almost wanton longing, not just lust, but a desire to have what it is he sees. The stunning hostess, the gracious decoration to charm the masses. This is what he needs.
Instead, he has Adela. No matter what he does, he’s forever shackled with the tacit understanding that he got his initial promotion, his first break at Cronos, because he was dating the niece of a senior executive. And Adela knows that what bothers him the most is that that’s true. Of a dozen qualified candidates, Adam won his promotion because Uncle Joe could never stand to see his favoured niece disappointed. She’d so wanted for Adam to emerge victorious.
After all, he was the one who’d taken care of her. From the day they’d met, back when Joe was still trying to hammer her into some kind of position with the company, something that would justify his doting on her, Adam had emerged as the person who she could rely on.
The afternoon of the day they’d met, a regional managers’ meeting that she’d organized, an unseasonable heat wave crushing down on her, along with the force of the presence of other people, big American boys who hurt her fingers when they shook her hand and talked loud enough that she could hear them from across the room. The clamour of people pounding into her chest and her back, talking, talking- even the memory makes her a little dizzy.
She’d gone out to the little balcony while there was a break, the balcony that was technically off-limits, but that had no lock, in order to catch some breath. And it was there, chest and shoulder heaving with effort, perspiration forming an adhesive between her blouse and her skin, that Adam had found her, all innocent concern in his eyes, as if he’d no idea who she really was. For a long time, she’d liked to imagine that he hadn’t, that he’d noticed her and come to check out of some innate goodness of heart.
It occurs to Adela that, as much as everyone seems to be making of the restaurant, the food tastes like nothing. Perhaps that’s a new symptom of her medications, though. Loss of taste. Another thing to try to remember to point out to the doctor. She feels her chest tighten when she realises that she can’t simply take out her notepad and write down the reminder.
In the dark centre of that anxiety attack at the managers’ retreat, while she was growing agitated over whether or not one of the sales team had gouged a hole in an antique table provided by the facility where the meeting was taking place. She was boiling under the skin, anticipating the looks that the owners would give her, after they had cautioned her about the value of certain pieces of furniture and she had reassured them, with no reason to suppose that what she said was true, that the people attending the meeting knew how to behave themselves. In the midst of that, Adam appeared out of the dusty hall and stood with her in the burning sun, asking if she were all right, if she needed help. He stayed until her uncle, still trying to lower his head to her electrical storm, joined them and suggested that perhaps the heat was making her a little ill and that she should go back to the hotel. It was Adam who offered, knowing that he would miss crucial time at the meeting, to drive her there, rather than trust her to the dubious fate of a taxicab.
They must have gone out to dinner, perhaps to a movie, some time after that- Adela can remember only vaguely. What she remembers is the meeting. This is how her fractured memory works. The early part of their relationship is lost, but she can still feel the prickling of fine hairs along the neckline of her blouse, the swampy discomfort of the heat, at the moment he came out to check on her. The details of the one scene crowd out everything else.
The conversation has slipped back to Julian, who is talking now about joining Cronos, how they came for him like a prospective suitor while he was still at his last job. She’s already lost the description of what that was. Adam is paying obsequious attention, still cutting an occasional glance at Claire. Adela feels herself sink back into the banquette, growing a little fuzzy around the edges, the effects of a couple of glasses of white wine mixed with her chemically altered blood. She feels a certain serenity, letting herself disappear this way, forcing a smile at the appropriate moments to draw herself out of the fog a little. She doesn’t panic so much any more.
Julian shakes both their hands heartily when they part company. The valet needs to bring his car around. Adam and Adela need to catch a cab. Claire says good night with an elegant formality. Julian, with a sort of professional heartiness that trails off only in the last seconds of his shaking Adela’s hand. Even being quiet, being reserved and trying not to frighten, she can shake the confidence out of another person. Claire chooses to nod and avoid touching.
“That was a nice evening.” Adam advises when they are in the cab.
Adela nods, unsure as usual, what differentiates a nice evening from a bad evening in his mind. She knows she hasn’t embarrassed him. Perhaps that is all he needs. But he still flushes, his cheeks full of cabernet, when he speaks of Claire and her accomplishments. Adela managing to find her hair salon is hardly a comparison.
That night, as she listens to the half-breathing, half-snoring of Adam next to her, his breath drawn in like rocks through a tunnel, exhaled exasperatedly, and wonders if he might be dreaming of Claire. It occurs to her that she should feel jealous, but she can understand too well. It’s not his fault.
Radio voices churn up from the lower flat, muttering about world events, things unaffected by the facts of dinner in a glitzy restaurant or the static body in the bed next to her. The neighbour, by this hour, must be asleep. All decent people are asleep now, in preparation for what they can or must do under the watch of daylight. The voices from far away are speaking just for Adela.
There’s a window open in the room, because the heaters can make it unbearably stuffy, but every night, Adela is left, dozing, drifting away from the bed and then sharply dropping back again and desperately gathering the bedclothes around her, trying to keep the icy fingers of air off her skin. Even drawing closer to Adam, trying to curl up to his furnace-like chest, she can’t get comfortable. His warmth affects only the part of her that touches him and the rest of her body feels even colder by comparison.
In the deep night, she drifts away, feels herself crouched in a cold place, by a still black lake, crouched in her nightgown, trying to keep warm. She can see her breath, mist grey against the dark sky, her lips a bluish colour that speaks of exposure. She’s folding origami, something she has always admired, but actually has no skill for, folding origami boats and setting them afloat across the lake, their impact on the water like a touch on a taut piano wire.
The shore on the far side is a silhouette, the sky orange, marbled peach and persimmon and vibrating above the matte black frame of the ground. Somewhere, in the distance, a city is burning, and she can only sit here, imprisoned and protected, setting paper boats upon the water.
The lightening of the sky is just visible around the edges of the blinds when Adela hears the muffled clunk of the street door. Adam never disturbs her when he leaves early, in the hopes that she might actually be sleeping, that she can’t hear his cautious shuffling amidst the noises of the almost dream world she inhabits at night. He wants her to be well rested. He wants her to be well.
The radio is a horror this morning, spilling out stories of the explosion of a chemical plant in India, cries of the families of the injured and dead caught up in the tape of some journalist. Adela can picture their teary faces, their distended mouths and weeping eyes too well. They come at her from the distant fire, floating formless out of the lake, until she fully opens her eyes to disperse them.
She is alone. Just her and the radio. She wonders if the old lady downstairs is even awake to hear.
She’s come to hate mornings like this, the endless waiting until the rest of the world allows her to actually go out and do things. She’s made a list of everything that needs to be done this week, has carefully crossed off those things that she’s managed to complete. She has a piano air running through her mind when she gets up, the same eight bars again and again, mocking her with how perfectly she can remember them.
She needs to buy some groceries.
Visit the bank to make sure that all of their accounts have been properly transferred.
Call the insurance company to make sure that their new address has been registered.
The list seems oddly lacking, something that often happens when there’s something she’s forgotten. Somehow, there is an invisible space between the lines of what she’s written where something else should fit. She makes an attempt to call Adam on his cell phone, but it goes directly to his voice mail, already shut off in anticipation of the flight.
There are still hours to wait before the world is ready to let her be busy, hours when she can look at the pallid sky and try to fill in the blanks.
Other people, she imagines, use this time to reflect on their memories, try to put their lives in some kind of comprehensible order. Some day, she imagines that she would like to do that, but her life is and has always been a sort of meaningless pile of unrelated images, fragments she can’t quite place. So each morning, she simply reviews those that are the strongest, tries to keep the more recent ones from fading like dreams into the soft sleep of her mind. It’s all in there somewhere, she knows, She just hasn’t found the combination to the safe yet.
Instead, she plays in her mind with the jumble of pieces she’s been given. Very early: herself as a toddler alone in her parents’ apartment, although how she’s aware that she’s alone is a mystery, since she has no memory of being left there. A woman coming to collect her, a woman she assumed for years was her mother, but realised later on that it couldn’t possibly have been. Later on, playing in her uncle’s office, perhaps during the summer, or after school, when nothing else could be done with her. Her memory is limited to a few minutes, when, playing with a stapler, she managed to staple two of her fingers- the sharp, penetrating pain that seemed to shoot through her whole body before she could even catch her breath.
This is how the morning unfolds, with a sort of agonizing slowness, until it’s a decent enough hour that she can rely on the outside world to distract her.
It’s a chilly day, heavy and cloudy, which makes walking from place to place a chore, rather than a pleasant form of exercise. There are times, she knows, when she enjoys it a lot more. Many times, happy times, blurred together into a single, almost never-ending stroll, but this will never find itself in that feature.
She’s wandering through an area that looks somewhat familiar, trying to find the greengrocer’s she went to before, hoping that the familiarity means she’s on the right track, since her notes were a little wanting in this case, when she needs to have a break. The first shop window that seems to call to her, strangely, is stuffed with books, compact discs and dusty vinyl records, arranged to look like a schoolroom. Except that the students in the school are all toy robots… toy robots assembled, she realises from the carcasses of a variety of other toys. Some of the robots have human appendages- arms, legs, even a head. All of this, she reflects, entering the store for lack of anything better to do, has been seen before. Although it’s hardly surprising that something of that tableau would have lodged in her mind.
The store on the inside is somewhat less exciting than she might have hoped. The books crushed together in what looks like no particular order. The records seem to have been collected from garage sales and the whole place, despite some amber-tinged incense, is redolent of mold.
The clientele are likewise somewhat down-at-the heel, not being quite composed enough to pass for the hipster-types Adela remembers seeing, perhaps in the vicinity of the hair salon. The man at the counter is a little more styled. She can see the work of gel in his spiky brown hair and his clothes have been pressed.
Feeling a little sorry for the store and for using it as shelter, Adela flips through the discs. She has never been an aficionado of music and all she can think of is that she’d like to hear something with piano, either to expel the still-repeating refrain from her mind, or to let her know what it is. She takes a selection of Debussy.
She’s a little bit surprised when she gets to the counter, to discover that the man behind it, on closer inspection, is older than she is. There are little hints in his face that she didn’t notice before, telltale folds around the eyes and lips, a worldliness that his slightly punk look belies. He gives her a slightly sharp, curious glance, perhaps wondering why she’s in his store at all, since she seems like such a poor fit.
“This one a gift?” he asks gently.
Adela frowns, unsure of why it would matter, but shakes her head. “Just for me.”
The man’s expression deepens to one of confusion. “If there was something wrong with the first copy, you know, I’ll take it back.”
Adela feels heat rise in her throat like lava, realizing what she’s done. This is bad enough when it happens with people who know her, intolerable when it happens with strangers. The man is eyeing her with that curiosity, expecting the punch line of the joke at any minute.
It’s in that stomach-churning gap of silence that Adela suddenly becomes aware of how crowded the place is. The shelves, stuffed from floor to ceiling, loom over her, their protruding volumes craned out like church gargoyles, perched and waiting. This rush of claustrophobia is not uncommon when she finds herself in such awkward moments, like everything around her anticipates her next action.
Normally, she lies. Lately, her fall-back story is to tell people that she was drunk, because, for reasons Adela doesn’t want to think about, people find that more believable than the truth. She’s also been known to tell people who look particularly softhearted (and perhaps a little soft-headed) that she’s been in a car accident and has a concussion.
There is something about the man here, with the granite eyes and subtle piercings, that catches her attention. His granite eyes are level with hers- they are, she realises, about the same stature. It’s ridiculous, she knows, to equate that with being equals, balanced, but it’s an idea that, once it begins to roll in her head, picks up layers of sediment, gains currency in spite of itself.
It takes her a strangely long time to answer, but, for once, an answer rather than a cover story is what is given.
“I have this problem,” she begins, irritated at the quavering in her voice. “No one can quite figure out why, but I don’t remember things. Anything, really. I mean, I know my name and I know what things are, but I… The other things… Places, people… I’m not so good.”
“You mean like amnesia?” he answers, scowling as if he expects she’s trying to pull a fast one on him.
“Well, yes. Except it’s ongoing. The doctors think…” She has to figure this one out, she’s been told so many things, by so many different doctors. She knows that her mind has a tendency to paste new stories together from the wreckage of all of them combined. “The doctors can’t really figure out what happened. They think I might have hit my head or something when I was very young. Knocked my brain off-kilter a little.”
|[photo courtesy of fox music sotre in watertown, wi]|
This at least gets a smile, although his eyes say that he still doesn’t quite believe her.
“I don’t really think that I need another copy of this, thanks.”
“Lloyd,” he responds dryly.
Adela arches her brows a little, oblivious.
“My name is Lloyd. I guess,” he pauses, as if wondering whether to proceed or not, “you probably forgot.”
“I was talking to you?”
“Yes, you were.”
“You really forget everything? Do you know where you live?”
Adela reaches reflexively into her purse and pulls out her notepad. “That’s why I have this. I keep my address… and directions… notes on what I have to do… Phone numbers…” she makes sure to point to an example of each, which has the desired effect of making Lloyd’s stony eyes glaze over. People, she senses, are not interested in the details of her condition, once they are convinced of its reality.
“What did I talk to you about?”
“Now, if I tell you, are you going to remember?”
The fact that he smiles when he says this makes it a little easier to bear. Adela produces a pen and writes in the margins of the first blank page: Lloyd. Record/ book store. Conversation.
He gives a broad smile that she can still see in her mind an hour later when she finally makes it to the vegetable market.
When Adam is away, Adela has noticed that she spreads out, all over the bed. She rests on her stomach most of the time, but allows her body room to travel across the expanse of combed cotton, examining every curve and divot of the ridiculously appointed bed, bedecked with every comfort yet invented, upgraded by Adam with almost alarming regularity, all in the hopes that somehow, Adela will manage to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Instead, getting familiar with the bed and tracking its seemingly magic changes becomes kind of an engrossing game for her while she hovers in the twilight realm she inhabits when she grows very tired. And when she is alone, it gives her more opportunity to explore.
The radio has jazz to offer tonight, a fractured, stuttering jazz symphony that reminds her of something she’s heard recently, she’s certain. It sounds like a flock of migrating birds, rushing at her from over a steely lake, gliding from the seam of the purplish horizon where her eyelids meet.
There’s something new on the bed, between the mattress and the sheets, something soft, something that seems almost alive against the contours of her body. It’s holding her, a living thing with an ephemeral outline, inviting her to relax, to close out the squawking from the radio downstairs.
She turns the light on for a little while, to review her notes, the pointers she kept so that she wouldn’t embarrass herself in front of Lloyd again. Lloyd. The name is starting to stick, since she’s been repeating it in her head all day long. With time, as things become familiar, her mind lets them in, lets them rest there.
“Perhaps,” someone had once joked, “your brain wants to make sure that someone is going to be worth remembering, so it waits until they’ve been around a while.”
She can’t remember who said that, though. Perhaps it was just something she dreamt up herself.
Lloyd. 43 yrs. Born here, lived here whole life, traveled a few years- 20s.
This is how her world is constructed. Staccato impressions that serve as cues, or as lone beacons of what has happened.
Bought record store- 4yrs. Knew old owner. Music fan.
She’s not precisely sure here whether this meant that Lloyd or the old owner of the store is a music fan, but she assumes it’s safe to think it’s Lloyd.
There are a few other notes on music and books and although she can’t remember the specifics, it is enough to trigger the memory of smiling- of him smiling and of her responding in kind.
At the bottom of the page, scrawled in such a way to indicate that she was writing it hurriedly, possibly while moving:
Then she notices, in the margin, in another person’s handwriting:
XS. Wednesday 9 p.m.
There’s an address she doesn’t recognize written in the same handwriting.
It’s Wednesday morning now. A whole day ahead before she goes to meet this strange man, this friendly man, an idea that suddenly makes her a little shaky, a little unsure about being with people, with anyone, let alone a person she hardly knows.
Lloyd. Friendly. Funny.
By about ten in the morning, she figures it’s acceptable to call Adam, to make sure that he’s landed, as if he’s the one who needs to be worried about. As if he’s the one who might get into trouble. She’s even careful to check the time difference, to make sure that he will be back at the hotel, that she won’t be bothering him in the office there.
Her early memories of him are scattered and punctuated by instances of his taking her hand. Always leading her, guiding her, reining her in. Eventually, she can roll these moments into an extended scene, her body extending backwards out of his arm.
There’s no answer on his cell phone, but she knows he had cautioned her about something, about how it might not work, so she collects her note on the hotel where he is staying, the hotel location, with the number she added to make sure the information was all in one place.
She’s never seen Asia, can’t picture what it looks like where he is, except that she imagines it would probably be like the inside of a major hotel anywhere in the world.
“Goodeveningshangrilahotelhowmayihelpyou?” It flows out of the voice on the other end of the line in a single word, with no variation whatsoever.
“Can I have Adam Hunter’s room, please?”
It is a long moment, a moment when Adela can feel a faint prickling under her skin, a static charge, like just before a storm arrives.
“I’m sorry,” the voice punctuates each word now, aiming, it seems, for clarity “could you spell that name please?”
Adela obliges, slightly amused that the name Adam Hunter could be exotic somewhere in the world.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, there is no one by that name.”
“No one?” Adela scrutinizes the note again. “This is the Shangri La hotel?”
“Yes ma’am, but no Adam Hunter here.” The voice pronounces his name flawlessly as if to emphasize the impossibility of a mistake on this point.
“You mean he hasn’t checked in yet?”
“We have no reservation for that name.”
Her note seems to fade a little before her eyes. She’s made a mistake, she’s written it down wrong, or gotten the timing wrong. She tries his cell phone again, but again, it glides right from the initial ring tone into his voice mail. He’s out there somewhere in the world, unaware that she is trying to reach him, that she has been cut off.
It’s hours, a couple of hours at least, before she knows anything she can do, before she can reconstruct the dull panic in her brain, that tremor that keeps her locked on the memory of the voice on the phone, into some sort of plan to move forward. The morning is lost to cups of tea and the methodical scraping of her bottom lip, a habit to which she is prone.
Back at home, she would have called her uncle to smooth things over, to figure out what to do and correct the problem. Even long distance, she knows that she could still reach out, but some how, it seems inappropriate. She’s supposed to be able to deal with these things herself at her age. Only she has no one who could tell her what the information on that scrap of paper should be, what the magic code is to put her back in touch with Adam and end her solitary confinement.
In the end, there is nothing to do but call the one place that might have that information, the Cronos office, something she generally tries to avoid. Somehow, her frailties seem so much more obvious set against their chrome-polished efficiency.
But call she does, since no one else is likely to know Adam’s whereabouts. Perhaps in this case her slightly scatterbrained demeanour will give her a sort of credibility. Who wouldn’t believe that she wrote Adam’s hotel details down wrong?
“I’m sorry, Ms. Landis, I can’t give out any details of Mr. Hunter’s itinerary,” is the first response she gets.
The young woman who serves as the departmental assistant may well be one of the people who Adela hasn’t met, though. She may not know the difference between her and some stalker calling to hunt Adam down. Adela has to refer back to her notes about the people in the office.
“Can I speak to Bruno, please?”
Bruno. Co-project manager with A. Right hand man. Bad teeth.
So say Adela’s notes on the staff at Cronos. Bruno’s name appears about halfway down the page, but she has taken the care to draw a thick arrow beside his name, indicating that he belongs at the top of the list.
“No, I’m sorry, Bruno is out sick today.”
Words on her notes page spin out from their centres, kaleidoscopic and fragmented. Who to ask for next? Her line of command stops with Bruno. The rest are just names with notes, impressions that do not tie them to any role that might help her. It never would have occurred to her that she would need so many lines just to track Adam down.
“Is there anyone there who might be able to tell me how to get a hold of him?”
“You could send an email,” comes the bored response.
Adela feels more flustered for not having thought of this before. So obvious, really. She doesn’t bother to end the conversation, only hangs up.
The message is as basic as she can make it.
“I’ve written the hotel information you gave me down wrong and I can’t get you on your cell. Call when you get a chance.”
No “I love you” or “I miss you”. Verbal expressions of affection have never been their style. Occasionally, when they’re watching television together, or after they’ve been out to dinner, he takes her hand, rolls it around in both of his, presses it neatly and lets it rest like that until it seems like he is unwilling to ever give it back. That sort of gesture has always mediated between them. They are not wordy people.
She gives herself the luxury of a long time in the shower, not wanting to wait to hear if the computer is alerting her to a new message, not wanting to sit there listening to the silence when nothing comes. It’s easy to say, when she is running errands and taking care of things for the house, that there is a balance between them. Less easy when she is waiting in turn for acknowledgment.
The move here was a major promotion and, for Adam, a major relief. It wasn’t that he minded so much being in such close proximity to her family, or to her uncle more specifically, but every day passed in the job was a reminder that he had his position because of her. Uncle Joe had been willing to give him a shot at a better position to indulge her, but he made it clear in his unquestionable way that there would be no further favours. Adam was on his own to prove himself. And prove himself he had, apparently.
And now, even when he returns home after twelve or thirteen hour days, even after he’s in the office on what most people would call their weekends, he sits at home, fretting away at whatever it is that they’ve given him to work on. Adela’s given up asking about it, since what she gets are answers that tell her the issue of the moment and the grand picture is left blurry, out of focus. Besides, she never remembers it anyway.
There is that momentary surge, that inadvertent smile, when she emerges naked and dripping to see that she does, indeed, have a new message. An automatically generated thing telling her that her previous message could not be delivered. Address not recognized.
A little pool of shower water forms under her wrinkled feet. The radio downstairs thumps out a sort of folksy jug-band rhythm oddly in time with the drips of water falling from her hair and landing with a slap against the desk and the keyboard. Adela is distantly aware of it, but at the moment, there is only her, the computer and the message announcing another failure.
“I need to go for a walk,” she announces, to the walls.
Adela’s walks have always been a bit of an issue. When her own wild electricity builds up in her, her choices become movement or implosion and that is when she walks. Unfortunately, she has a tendency to walk a long time, quickly, with her usual sense of direction, something even she has come to remember can be dangerous, particularly at night. But somehow, it always comes down to a choice between wandering until her feet chafe and her knees feel swollen almost out of their sockets, and simply having her body collapse into itself under the strain of trying to deal with her various short circuits.
So she walks.
There are landmarks in any city, things that show where the core is, where the escape routes are located. Failing all else, there should always be the sun, although Adela has noticed that this place has its ways of confounding even that, with its askew geography and misnamed quadrants. Even the ley lines of major streets are cut in odd points by a viaduct, or an overpass that forbids passage.
She could call Cronos back, of course, but then how would that look? The woman who was calling for Adam Hunter, claiming to be his fiancée, can’t even get his email address right. Except that it is right, it’s stored there in her computer from previous exchanges so that she never has to worry if it’s right or not. So that she never has to trust her ragged memory to retype it, or even to remember where she’s written it down. It’s one thing she hasn’t had to worry about. It’s one of the things she’s fixed.
Grey skies and a sort of perpetual twilight cling to her as she cuts with alarming speed, through the side streets in order to avoid being slowed by other pedestrians. She should know what to do, should feel secure that eventually, Adam will call her, that he will get in touch and wonder why she hasn’t called him. She should feel the sense of warm security that she knows he always gives her, but she doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the new environment. Perhaps she just hasn’t learned to feel at ease here yet.
Her own name seems like the most surprising thing to hear. On this blustery corner, she should be unknown, but a woman around her own age, with a pretty face untouched by make-up and a lion’s mane of brown hair is looking at her, expectant. Adela can’t remember her, or anything about her, even if this is someone she knows from this city or another.
Her own name seems like the most surprising thing to hear. On this blustery corner, she should be unknown, but a woman around her own age, with a pretty face untouched by make-up and a lion’s mane of brown hair is looking at her, expectant. Adela can’t remember her, or anything about her, even if this is someone she knows from this city or another.
“You probably don’t remember me,” the woman adds sweetly.
“It’s OK, I met you really briefly a couple of months back. At the Cronos Christmas party. You said you’d just moved.” The woman extends a hand, which Adela, desperately trying to connect the mention of the Christmas party to some particular image, takes. “Louise Beaudry. I work at Cronos.”
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry, I never remember…”
“It’s OK. We only met briefly. How are you and Adam settling in?”
“We’re… He’s away. You remember me very well.”
Louise laughs in a particularly endearing way. “It’s sort of a curse. I have one of those memories that doesn’t let anything go. People least of all.”
Adela flushes as she realised that her jaw has gone slightly slack at this piece of news. Louise might has well have told her that she had a pet unicorn or could fly, her talent seems no less magical.
“Are you headed somewhere?”
The street is, as Adela imagined it would be, entirely strange. It’s looming townhouses obscure the meager light the sun has to offer, casting the scene in a weird sort of afternoon shadow.
“No, I was just out for a walk.”
“In this cold? You’re brave!”
Adela, honestly, had not noticed the cold particularly, although, when Louise calls her attention to it, she notices that her fingers have grown quite numb in her time out.
“Just like to clear my head sometimes.”
Louise’s brow folds a little. “You OK?”
“Yes, I just… I did the stupidest thing… I’ve lost the name of the hotel where Adam’s staying… Just annoyed with myself.”
“Can’t Cronos give you the name?”
“Well apparently not. They won’t, at least.”
Louise rolled her eyes. “Paranoid lot, I’m afraid. I wish I could help you, but I work in a different division than Adam. Not even in the same building.”
“What division are you in?”
“Home products. Plastics, that kind of thing. In public relations.”
“Sounds interesting,” Adela says unconvincingly offering her standard response.
“I guess it could be. Bad week this week, though.”
“Sorry to hear it. Did something happen?”
“One of our plants in India had an accident.”
For a second, Adela almost feels as if she recognizes Louise, as if she remembers seeing her somewhere, or hearing her dry voice in some other conversation.
“Listen,” Louise continues, obviously wanting to talk about something else, “I have to get going but here’s my card. I know it can be rough adjusting to a new city and everything, especially if Adam’s traveling, so, you know, if you want to grab a drink some time, give me a call.”
Adela thanks her and takes the card, not giving in to the urge to examine it.
“If you wanted to, later, I’m meeting someone for a drink.”
Louise looks a little startled, just for a second, before she smiles again. “When and where?”
“Nine. A place called XS… I can’t remember the address.”
“XS? Oh, you mean Moebius. I always get confused when people call it that.” She seems about to add something, but then starts to turn away. “I should be able to be there. Would be nice.”
They say their goodbyes nonchalantly and Adela shuffles off, much slower than before. Now she is not so sure she wants to walk. Now she is simply puzzled, as she often is under such circumstances. Louise Beaudry’s card cuts into her palm a little, but Adela is reluctant to let it go. There are, she knows from previous experiences, moments when she remembers things. Strange things, little details. What colour someone’s dress was, or what she had in a restaurant, or, in this case, what her plans were later in the day, without having to look at her planner.
She knows that her doctors have told her repeatedly that she should not try to read any undue significance into which details she remembers. It’s random, they’ve told her often enough that she’s learned it. There is nothing about the particular memories that she needs to note. It’s to do with her mood. Or her surroundings. Or any number of other factors that are of limited importance. But at such moments, when she feels flushed with the power of having saved something, her doctors’ words are an insult. There must be a pattern.
This is not a date. After all, Louise may well be joining them. It is simply two people meeting for a drink in a friendly way, without any sort of implications beyond that. But Adela would feel better if she knew that Lloyd was aware of Adam’s existence. There is nothing in her notes to lead her to believe that they ever discussed him. Hardly conclusive, of course, but Adela is stuck with the sense that Adam has been omitted from her dealings with Lloyd thus far.
At least if she could get a hold of Adam, she could tell him her plans for the evening and could escape the sensation that she is hiding something from him. How can she be hiding something from him if she can’t get in touch with him? After all, it isn’t like she’d fail to mention her plans if he called, which he hasn’t, because she always tells him what she’s doing. It’s just that her plans normally involve staying at home and watching television or reading.
The move has taken a little weight off her. The safety of home and the comfort of having Adam around had filled her out, softened her lines a little, hidden the bones. She’s still not what you would call undernourished, but now she can see the underlying structure more clearly. Toula’s handiwork on the hair is more dramatic than Adela remembered, making her own face a strangely unfamiliar site in the mirror. How many people can have this experience, looking into a mirror and seeing someone unrecognized, as if staring through a stranger’s window?
It isn’t a date, but Adela would at least like to know that the person who is being sent out to meet Lloyd is at least presentable.
XS, as it turns out, would be difficult for any person to find, but all the more so for Adela, who circles the block three times at least before she realises that that particular name refers only to a piece of somewhat crude ironwork that guards the grubby staircase leading to the speakeasy-subtle door. Engraved right into a plate on the door, radiating a sort of awkward permanence is a single word: Moebius.
The bar itself extends well back into the gloom, receding into a sort of dark fog, farther back than her eyes can reach from the door. In fact, the inside is so poorly lit that Adela freezes at the doorframe, suddenly unsure of whether to advance or retreat, and seeing no sign of Lloyd. She hangs there a few seconds before moving, quickly, so as to outrun her uncertainty, into the room.
Lloyd is already there, of course, since her delay in finding the place has made her late and is already enjoying a drink. In fact, Adela guesses that he is at least a couple of cocktails ahead of her, from the slightly unfocused look in his eyes and the lethargically content smile he gives when she greets him.
“Was beginning to think you were standing me up.”
“Oh no… Just missed the doorway the first time around.” There is no reason for him to know that it was missed more than once. She does not need to look ridiculous.
She takes a seat next to him and orders a vodka with soda, at which point she starts to notice the surroundings. The bartender looks almost like a bizarre puppet, tall and spindly with no hair, but metal protruding from every surface of his thickly painted body. His eyes, the only thing remotely human in his appearance, are huge, seeming to catch everything around him.
From the bartender, Adela’s gaze moves across the walls, adorned with a riot of tapestry that descends into a sort of drapery around the tables. Frighteningly, there are a large number of votive candles around the room, along with some mismatched beaded sconces that offer the large room’s only lighting.
The clientele seems to range from university professors to bikers, overwhelmingly male, she notices.
“This place has been here forever,” Lloyd says wistfully.
Adela returns her attention to him, a little embarrassed that she has been caught gawking.
“Was a sort of counter-cultural centre during the late sixties and early seventies. Used to get raided pretty regularly.”
“But you weren’t here then?”
Lloyd scowls with humour. “How old do you think I am, exactly?”
Adela feels herself laugh self-consciously. He couldn’t possibly be old enough and yet pinning down the exact age of anyone in this place is difficult. They all seem so much outside any particular age.
“When did you start coming here?”
“Oh, years ago, when I was in school. It’s strange, because my parents used to come here, when they were that age. What a disappointment as a rebel I was. Even hanging out at the same bars as my parents.”
“Perhaps it would have been more rebellious for you to become an engineer?”
Lloyd smiles, but, Adela can’t help but notice, looks a little sad.
She can make out a poorly lit stage near the back of the room where a woman in a faintly glittering costume is dancing. Her movements suggest the removal of clothing, but Adela can’t make out if anything is actually coming off. The motions simply seem to repeat themselves in a predictable cycle, as the oddly cacophonous music dictates the rhythm.
“They introduced that in the eighties,” Lloyd adds with a nod towards the dancer. “Wanted to appeal to a different clientele, I guess.”
“Did it work?”
“Not even a little. This place is what it is. The owners might try to make changes, but the place itself doesn’t seem to care.”
“Who are the owners? Have they always been the same?”
“Not really sure, actually. I’ve never heard of the place being sold, but I’ve never heard who owns it either. Guess it doesn’t matter as long as it’s here.”
For no reason she can pinpoint, Adela does think that it must be important, so she changes the subject. “How did you end up with the store? Did you always want to?”
“To run my own business? No, not really. But I always loved music and books, so I wanted something that would let me be around those.” Lloyd drains his drink and orders them both another. “I never really had anything specific I wanted to do, but I was always in the store, collecting old records and talking to the old owner, so when he wanted to give it up, I just sort of fell into place.”
There’s a sort of explosion of sound- laughter, shouting, glasses, from a table at the end of the bar. A group of men, with a few young women draped around them like shawls, look up in shock, as if they don’t realise the noise has come from them. They look vaguely like soldiers absconded and hiding out, with a slight military tinge to their attire. Adela has visions of them crawling in here through an underground tunnel, escaping the punishments of army life and entertaining the women with stories of exploits never actually completed.
The eldest of the group stands and reaches for the curtain next to their table, catching Adela in mid-stare as he does. She has never been self-conscious about her staring, never flinches at the uptight, slightly offended reaction it provokes. In this case, the reaction is a little puzzled but, Adela notices, also curious. Most people would turn away at the first sign of eye contact, but Adela does nothing. The man’s eyes, visibly dark even from a distance, rest on hers for a long moment, the thrall broken only when the drapery descends, dividing the table from the room.
At first, Adela doesn’t even realise that Louise has arrived, struck as she is with the strange notion that something profound has just occurred.
“Sorry I’m late,” Louise greets her breathlessly.
Adela shakes her hand and makes the introductions, watching Lloyd’s face for any hint of disappointment at the arrival of a third party. In fact, he seems pleased for the additional company.
“Adela and I were just talking about the history of this place. Do you know much about it?”
Louise smiles endearingly. “I heard about this place before I was even living in the city. I remember hearing about the people who were arrested here making explosives.”
“Explosives?” Reflexively, Adela’s eyes dart towards the curtain now surrounding the table of paramilitary types and their women.
“Oh that was ages ago,” Lloyd reassures her. “Student protests that got out of hand.”
“But I guess that was the heyday here, no?” Louise continues.
Lloyd shrugs a little. “Guess it depends on your perspective. That was when it was purely a political hangout. Later on, they started in with the music and the art-“
“And the stripper?” Adela interjects.
“-and it became more well-rounded. More of a place where you’d want to spend an evening.”
“Last time I was here, there was a group of guys in fatigues handing out leaflets to organize an armed movement opposing genetically modified foods.”
Once again, Adela glances in the direction of the table she can no longer see.
Lloyd shrugs a little. “Still every other night here. People still remember how it started out.”
“Did you have any luck tracking Adam down?” Louise continues, apparently disinterested now in the surroundings.
Adela resists the urge to glance at Lloyd and see his reaction. “No, I guess I just have to wait for him to call me at this point. But I feel pretty stupid.”
Lloyd takes a heavy swallow of his drink, clears his throat and says nothing.
Adela can feel the alcohol in her blood now, distorting the room from inside her as she tries to pay attention to what’s being said. They’re back on the subject of the bar, or at least, they seem to be, but Adela catches only parts of the sentences, which are lost to her moments later. Normally, of course, she tries to avoid alcohol because this is what she’s faced with.
“For Cronos? Really?” Lloyd frowns a little.
Louise nods “Adela’s husband too.”
“He’s not my-“ Adela hears her own voice get lost under the din of conversation and the strangely angular sounds coming from the speakers around them, like some form of intergalactic jazz reaching out for kindred spirits. It’s not necessary to specify that she and Adam aren’t married. After all, he fulfills all the roles traditionally attributed to a husband and they’ve said that, at some point, they plan on getting married. But somehow, Adela would feel more comfortable if the nomenclature were correct.
“This was a long time ago, of course,” Lloyd is saying. The conversation has moved on without her, Adela realises.
“Well, now they have people like me to take care of that,” Louise adds mirthlessly. “But you must hear a lot of the dirt about Cronos from Adam as well, no?”
Adela freezes, suddenly aware of how ridiculous what she was about to say sounds. She doesn’t know anything about what it is that Adam does. He is a mechanical engineer with a background in chemistry as well and they have been moved here so that he can head up a specific project, which has something to do with their aeronautics division. She doesn’t know what the project is. She doesn’t know, specifically, what branch of the Cronos tree it will be part of. Normally, Adela doesn’t mind sounding a little daft, a little vapid, like she couldn’t keep up with what her fiancé was doing if she tried, but normally, she’s not with these people, with companions she chose and would like to see again. Open your mouth, you’ll sound like an idiot. Keep your mouth closed, you’ll look like an idiot. Choose which sense to offend.
“He doesn’t talk about it that much. Think he wants to keep a low profile at first.”
Louise is not so quick in her recovery that Adela misses the faint look of skepticism this gets.
There are different types of remembering and not remembering.
Adela’s mind awakes to an image of the bartender at Moebius leaning over to take orders, is struck jointly by the beauty in his lithe movements and with the realisation that this is not something she has dreamed but rather something she has seen. It’s a memory locked in her mind, his dark, deep set eyes, turned forever towards the bar, away from the people, frozen in time. Surrounding him, she’s aware, there is a lot of noise, a lot of action, a cloud of violence in the place, but he seems so disinterested. She knows there are parts missing, because there always are. The photograph she imagines is sitting in a larger world and she can’t see beyond the frame.
She could lay there, face down in the pillow for a long time, not feeling up to opening her eyes, feeling better floating arm in arm with the picture in her mind, only a little disturbed by its stillness. She can feel a sticky crust of mascara still on her eyes and a sort of acid burn in her stomach that she hasn’t had in a long time. She has no idea of how she ended up back here, nestled in the comfortable scent of her own bed. Her path is obscured in the shadows. This, she knows, is the sort of not remembering that other people are used to, but it’s something she generally has avoided.
The phone goes off with what seems like a physical force next to the bed.
There was something with a lot of loud, sharp noises last night. Breaking glass, perhaps. Or machine gun fire.
The phone detonates a second time.
Adela can picture someone falling outside in a crowd of people, a lot of people moving outward in unison, in a hurry. There’s a dull pain in her hip that makes her worried that it was her. She can almost picture looking at her own legs on the sidewalk, but the image is smeared and untrustworthy.
A third blast from the phone is choked off as the call is redirected to her voice mail.
She knows that she didn’t bring a notebook with her the night before, not wanting to seem completely ridiculous. Even if someone were to tell her how she’d been spirited back here, her knowledge would only be as reliable as another person. Another person who was likely in the same condition she was.
Her eyes open sharply, assaulted as they do by the flashing message beacon on the phone. Only now does she remember that there is someone whose call she was hoping for.
She checks the call display, but it shows only that the last call came from an “unknown number”.
The message, such as it is, is simply the click of the other party hanging up, giving up.
It could easily have been Lloyd or Louise (yes, she can recall the names without too much of an effort now) checking to see if she was all right, since presumably one of them brought her here. Or it could have been Adam, wondering why she has been so uncharacteristically silent.
She won’t know either way.
Cronos should be able to help her with this, give her some guidance as to where he is, so she grabs her book to check for the correct number and name to call. Which is when she finds her notes from the day before. Useless. Rejection. Somehow, he’s slipped where she can’t see him, possibly without him even knowing. She hopes it’s without him knowing.
Adela sits up and rubs a bit of the oily, unwashed make-up and perspiration film from her face. It had never before occurred to her that Adam’s disappearance was anything more than an accident, an accident caused by her writing the hotel down wrong. That isn’t necessarily the case. Her stomach twists a little.
How much of a burden is she, exactly?
As incapable of looking backward as her mind is, she has never had any trouble looking forward. In fact, she can project out years of a happy life that Adam could be living somewhere, protected, invisible, without her to yoke him.
More trouble than you’re worth. Her uncle has said that to her, enough times that she remembers it clearly, but always in an affectionate way. Affectionately telling her she’s a problem.
She could, of course, call her uncle. Tell him that she’s misplaced Adam and ask him to release the tracking hounds at his disposal. It’s too ugly to contemplate. Someone at Cronos has to know what’s going on, someone has the information that she needs, but she’s evidently not going to get it over the phone.
Once, about a year after they’d started seeing each other, Adam had found her on the floor, howling, frightened, incoherent and had had to take her to the hospital. Somehow, despite whatever she was going through, despite the fact that she must have been heavily medicated in the aftermath of the episode, she has always been able to remember this very clearly. There they were in the hospital, her tongue weighed down with drugs as she tried to say thank you, that she understood that this was more than he had bargained for, that she didn’t mean for things to be so out of control. He nodded, almost undoubtedly unable to make any sense of what she was trying to say and told her that everything would be fine, that she shouldn’t worry, all the time averting his eyes. Adela has never mentioned that this was one of the things that stuck with her.
Someone at Cronos will be able to tell her what she needs to know. They just need to see her so that they can know she’s not as crazy as she probably sounds on the phone. At least, she hopes she’s not.
The Cronos building rises like an errant iceberg out of the surrounding trees. Despite it’s size, despite the fact that it juts up at a shocking right angle against the soft curves of the landscape around it, the building is invisible from every angle until one is almost upon it. It’s a feat of engineering, this compound and one that Adela has been familiar with, in theory, for a long time. Her uncle worked on this throughout its planning and construction, shared strange anecdotes of its story with her, back when he was trying to fashion her into his right hand man or girl Friday, without success. She vaguely remembers Adam marveling over it the first time that he saw it, or the first time that he saw it when he had the time to appreciate it, as they had arrived for a party to celebrate some business accomplishment in which they had actually had no part, where he dragged her around most of the perimeter, her in her evening wear, until her ankles almost gave way. It’s the pain that she remembers, and she is able to work that back into Adam’s wonder-filled eyes, staring up at this magical assemblage of glass and metal.
From the vaulted entrance, everything in the building, everything up into the offices above the foyer, is visible. Adela can is momentarily bewildered by the insect swarm of motion rising above her head. Panels of frosted glass, or strategic stacks of glass blocks, give some areas of privacy, reducing the people who slide behind them to smoky shadows or funhouse forms. At the centre of the main room, perched above the expanse of granite floor, sits an immaculately groomed blonde woman in a silver grey blouse. While her pale eyes seem to have found the newcomer in the foyer, Adela is struck with the sense that the woman is not looking at her, but rather around her, that she is somehow aiming her eyes in the direction of the new presence, without actually focusing.
She checks her notes before advancing. This is not the theatre in which to flub a line.
“I’m looking for Julian Baker,” she announces, as tonelessly as she can manage.
“Was he expecting you?”
“No, I’m afraid he wasn’t, but I only need to see him for a moment.”
“Mr. Baker is in a meeting,” the receptionist tells her flatly, without bothering to glance at her computer or her desk for any verification.
“I can wait, if you’ll just let him know that I’m here.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t interrupt him, but if you leave your name, I will ask him to call you back.”
“I’d rather wait. Do you know how long he’ll be? ”
“I believe he’s tied up all day.” The woman never seems to break eye contact, even to blink. Adela is possessed to grab her by her peony-white hair and bang her head into the immaculate glass top of her dais until she confesses the whereabouts of Julian Baker.
“If you could just try to reach him and tell him Adela Landis is here.” Adela prays that he’ll actually remember her name from dinner. She hardly spoke and might already have faded from memory. “I’m willing to wait.”
“As I said,” the woman repeats, with just the slightest hint of impatience, “he’s in meetings all day. “Perhaps you could call his assistant to arrange for an appointment.”
“Miss, I understand that he’s a busy man and I respect the fact that you’re trying to protect his privacy, but I have a personal matter that I need to discuss with him and I need to see him today.”
Even as she says it, Adela is aware that the panic in her voice and the utterance of the fatal term “personal” have done her in.
“I’m sure his assistant would be more than willing to help you,” the woman responds coldly.
“Could you get her on the phone?”
“She’s in the same meeting that he is.”
“Please…” Having slipped this far, there is no point in trying to maintain any pretence of dignity. Perhaps under her frosty surface, this woman has some molecule of humanity in her. ‘Please, I need to speak to him about my fiancé. His name is Adam Hunter. He’s traveling in Asia right now and I copied down the wrong information about his hotel, so I haven’t been able to contact him. I’m worried. I’ve tried calling and no one here can help me, or will help me, because they don’t know who I am. Julian Baker knows me, we went to dinner together, I met his wife. I just need to speak to him so that I can find out where Adam is staying, so that I can get a hold of him. It won’t take a minute. Please, can you call him?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you. He’s in a meeting all day and can’t be disturbed.” The answer is so unflinching that Adela wonders if the woman even heard her. -18-
“Excuse me, can I help with something?”
Adela turns so quickly she feels a jolt of pain in her neck. Normally, it’s difficult for anyone to be able to get close to her unnoticed. This man, a man she’s never seen before, has managed to get right beside her.
“Need help?” He repeats.
From the beginning, he seems to radiate a strange warmth. Adela can feel it around him like an aura. He smiles and she is completely at ease, an unfamiliar feeling. Some people, she thinks, are simply born good and have no hope of being otherwise. The kind of people who see an agitated woman and immediately wonder: What can I do to help?
“I’m trying to get a hold of Julian Baker. It’s a personal thing, but I just need him for a minute.”
“Ah, the big man. I think he is actually in a meeting at the moment-“ the newcomer cuts a glance at the receptionist, “but I have to drop something off at his office, so I can walk you up there. Maybe someone can say when he’ll be getting a break.”
“Thank you,” Adela gurgles, almost overwhelmed.
The man leads her to the elevators at the back of the foyer under, Adela notices, the suspicious eye of the receptionist.
“I’m Frank DiPasquale,” her new hero says, extending a squarish hand.
Frank DiPasquale has an unmistakably Mediterranean appearance- lots of wavy dark hair and bronze-toned face. He looks like he might have migrated from a photo of the Sicilian highlands circa the turn of the century.
“You a friend of Julian’s?”
“Not exactly. I’m-“ Experience warns her that, no matter how well-meaning this person seems, she would be best to be vague about the exact problem. “My fiancé works for Julian, but he’s out of town and I needed to clarify something.”
“Oh really? Who’s your fiancé?”
“Adam Hunter,” she answers tentatively.
“Ah, yes. He’s the only one newer than me,” Frank beams. “We’re working on different projects, but I’ve met him before.”
“Are you new to Cronos? Or just to this office?”
“Only worked for Cronos six months. Recruited me from my last job… Wouldn’t take no for an answer.” He smiles affably. “It’s a real culture shock, coming from a much smaller place.”
“I can imagine.”
“Here we are.”
The elevator opens to a semi-circular room with a desk to one side of the arc. It’s arranged so that even the outer office is afforded a view of the steel and glass piazza below, but the goings on in the office would be hidden from any eyes turned upward. The desk, as Adela feared, is unattended.
“Evelyn might be with him in his meeting, but if you wanted to leave a note, at least then she knows you were here in person.” Frank reaches over the top of the desk and hands Adela a pen and notepad.
She feels her hand trembling too much to risk taking the pen. She doesn’t want to look rude, but something tells her that if she doesn’t stay, if she doesn’t break through to Julian Baker in person, she will never here back, she will never know where it is that Adam has gone.
“Are you OK?”
The gentle voice rattles around her head until the words are lost. She is not OK. She is alone in a strange city. She doesn’t know where Adam is. She can’t remember the way home. She doesn’t know how the bills are paid, or who to call when something goes wrong. She doesn’t know what she was doing the night before, what connects the strange shards of imagery that hang on her even now.
“I…I’m just…” Nothing of use comes to her, nothing that will answer this simple, well-intentioned question.
“Here, sit down for a second.”
Frank guides her towards a sofa across from the desk, which feels precariously close to toppling into the chasm of the foyer below. He hesitates for a minute before sitting beside her, keeps a respectful distance.
“I know how stressful it gets, with a new city and all. Believe me, I know. My wife still gets tense around home- she’s pregnant with our first and now I’ve taken her somewhere unfamiliar… I know how it upsets her.”
“When is the baby due?” Adela knows this is what you’re supposed to ask, although she has no idea why he’s telling her this.
“In the Fall,” he answers, beaming. He produces a picture from his wallet, a slender and exceptionally pretty oriental woman with haunting pale eyes. “That’s Ivy.”
Adela tries to imagine that Adam would ever have the same expression on his face when discussing her. It’s an appallingly selfish thought, she realises, and a depressing one. Everything that has meaning for Frank DiPasquale is evident, would be evident to any observer, watching him look at that photo. Adela feels an uncharacteristic urge to shield him, to cover him up.
“She’s beautiful,” Adela says, at length. “I’m sure she’ll be fine here.”
Frank looks at her, a little sadly, as waiting for her to furnish some proof of what she’s said. -19-
The elevator door opens and an exceptionally tall, dark-haired woman strides out into the room.
“Hello, Frank,” she says coolly, her eyes hesitating on Adela only for a second.
“I was bringing up the blueprints Julian wanted to review,” he says, extending a package towards her. “And this lady needed to speak to him for a minute.”
Julian’s assistant pauses, as if trying to figure out how to deal with Adela. Frank’s presence makes it impossible for her to resort to the stone-faced barrier of the receptionist, but its clear that she has no more inclination than the woman downstairs to help.
“Well, Julian is in a meeting,” she says crisply, choking a little on the use of his given name. “He won’t be able to see you today, I’m afraid.”
“Surely he’s got a break at some point, no?” Frank smiles in a way that makes disagreement impossible.
“Well, I assume,” she answers slowly, glowering at him just a little, “but I couldn’t say when that would be.” She stretches to her full height, which allows her literally to look down at both of them. “Really, there’s nothing I can do. I was given very strict instructions that he wasn’t to be interrupted.”
Adela feels Frank’s concerned stare fall on her. As much as he might have an insider’s advantage, even he cannot break through the ranks.
“Perhaps you could let him know that I came by,” Adela mutters, unguarded about her disappointment. “My name is Adela Landis.”
The woman simply nods at first, but, after a moment, slips behind the desk and scribbles out the name on a piece of paper. “I’ll have him get back to you.”
“I’m sorry,” Frank says when they’re in the elevator on the way back down. “Usually these meetings aren’t quite so locked down. I thought you might have a chance at getting through.”
“Thank you for trying.”
“Listen, you might just want to take a look in Adam’s office. It’s two levels below the entrance, follow the L-hall to the end and turn left.”
The door opens noiselessly back onto the lobby. Frank steps towards the door but, as he does, presses another button, “S2”.
“Check it out, anyway.”
The door slides shut and Adela feels the elevator start to descend. The building, she recalls now, was built with the vast majority of its space underground, a secret labyrinth of offices and laboratories. It dawns on her that she’s never asked Adam where in the complex his office is.
Two floors down, the door opens on a room lit in such a way as to disguise its subterranean location. Even compared to the library- quiet of the upstairs, the lower floor is shockingly silent, like the sound has been vacuumed out of it. Adela advances into what looks like a waiting room with several hallways sprouting from it. Each one has a small placard with a single letter in seemingly random order: B, R, S, L, W.
Carefully, Adela calls up what Frank has just told her about where she needs to go, tries to bring to mind the exact words, as he said them. The only word she remembers is “hallway”, of which there are five identical ones in front of her. Hallway. Which one?
Tentatively, she turns down the one closest to her, B. There is a series of doors, almost indistinguishable from one another, some with names engraved directly on the steel panels. Although Adela knows that Cronos likes to treat their prized employees well, this implies a level of permanence that is surprising. A resignation would necessitate pulling out and replacing the entire door.
No sound emits from any of the offices she assumes lie behind these custom doors, no other person is evident anywhere in her field of vision, and there is no door that bears the name “A. Hunter”.
At length, she comes to an open room, almost indistinguishable from the one she first walked into, but for the fact that there is no elevator. Again, several lettered hallways split out from it. R, J, Y, D. She imagines the compound as a giant spider web, expanding under the city, unbeknownst to its citizens. Somewhere in this labyrinth, there are people digging more tunnels, leaving behind letters so that they can find their way home. -20-
Hallway R seems to head back in the direction she came, which, it occurs to her, is not a bad thing. If she can get back to the original room, she can at least start by exploring the immediately adjacent hallways, in the hopes that Adam’s office is near the elevator.
Part way down hallway R, she notices a feature that she hadn’t seen in the previous corridor. In fact, she can see that one of the doors, with no designation, is open to reveal a shorter hallway extending at a diagonal, connecting it, from appearances, to one of the other hallways further down. And for the first time, Adela sees a possible sign of life. An unattended janitor’s cart is sitting next to one of the doors and, although it is so faint she almost wonders if she is imagining it, there are some muffled sounds.
As she stands there, contemplating whether or not it would be wise to seek help and reveal her status as an interloper, a man emerges from one of the rooms. In stark contrast to the other employees she has seen, the man looks disheveled, rough. He is slightly stooped with age, the curve of his upper back pointing to some possibly degenerative condition. A wild shock of silvery hair almost overwhelms his thin face, almost hides the fierce eyes that meet hers before she can move away.
“Help you miss?” he asks, clearing his throat with what seems like considerable effort.
Adela is frozen, feeling strangely as if she is doing something wrong, as if she is about to be handed over to the authorities. Although her name, or at least her uncle’s name, would get her out of any serious trouble, she feels her stomach quiver in fear.
“I’m looking for Adam Hunter’s office,” she says at length, trying to steady her voice.
“He’s over in Lab 24. Hallway L.”
“Wait, come here for a second.”
Adela feels her eyes widen.
“It’s OK, sweetheart. He proffers his left arm, the hand bent at a frightening angle and curled into a claw. “I’m no threat to you.”
Tentatively, Adela takes a few steps towards him, but freezes when he approaches her at a startling speed. He catches her arm with his good hand and leans very close, so that he need only whisper to be heard.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“Pardon?” Adela stares straight back at his feverish hazel eyes.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
She catches him rubbing his right arm nervously, his frayed sleeve sliding back to reveal what looks like an ancient scar, stretched but decidedly not random. Time has distorted whatever symbol, perhaps, she thinks some sort of army patch, beyond recognition. Catching her looking, the man brushes his sleeve back in place.
“I mean it. You shouldn’t be in this place,” he repeats a third time. “It’s not safe.”
“Not safe how?”
He simply shakes his head and, once again, fidgets with his sleeve.
At the sound of a new voice at the entrance to the hallway, she feels the old man start. He almost jumps back from her.
Slowly, she sees Frank DiPasquale move towards them, a curious but unthreatening expression on his face.
“Oh, Frank, it’s you,” the old man says with audible relief.
“Yes, I just realised when I was on my way back to my office that I’d given Adela here some bad information.” He smiles, still looking just a little puzzled. “I told you to turn left in Hallway L. Then I remembered that they don’t keep the side corridors open here. You need a pass card to open them.”
“Guess that’s why this young lady is lost,” the old man replies, chuckling tensely.
“You know you’re in the wrong hall, though?”
Adela feels herself blush a little. “I have trouble remembering directions. I saw all the halls and I got a bit confused.”
“Well come this way. I’ll walk you over and I’ll even make sure you can get through the door.”
As she follows Frank back towards the elevator room, she can’t resist a parting glance at the janitor. His intense stare is fixed on her, a strange mixture of fear, suspicion and pity visible in his wizened features.-21-
Adam’s office, as it turns out, is in one of the diagonal connectors, like the one she was just in. With the door closed, the hallway entrance is indistinguishable from the rest of the wall. Frank’s pass card allows one of the panels to slide silently out of the way, revealing a hallway identical to the one where she encountered the old man.
On the right hand side, the first door they reach, is engraved: Lab 028. And listed under that: A Hunter, B. Georgescu.
Once again, Frank’s pass card is required to open the door. Guests arriving must either need to be escorted to their destination, she thinks, or else given some kind of temporary card, programmed only to open certain doors. Whichever it is, it is clear that, wandering the hallways, Adela had stuck out. This was not a place where aimless movement was encouraged. But how should that make her unsafe? Or was it that somehow her presence was making things unsafe for others, disrupting the orderly flow of bodies from entrance to office, without hesitation? The old man’s stare, his parting expression, hangs in her mind.
Lab 028 stretches out from the door like a slightly awkward wedge of pie, a wide reception area blocking access to the space behind. A woman, slightly older than the previous two, but no less well turned out, gives them a slightly surprised smile in greeting.
“Good morning Frank,” she says brightly enough.
“Morning Jackie. I’m just escorting this lovely lady to Adam’s office.”
“Adela, isn’t it?” Jackie asks, giving her a wide smile.
“I met you at the cocktail party here just after Adam started.”
“Of course,” responds Adela, who can recall nothing of this woman at all.
“What can I do for you?”
“Well,” she begins, feeling very foolish at having to explain not only to a stranger but to Frank, who might almost have mistaken her for normal, “it’s the stupidest thing. I wrote down Adam’s number at his hotel and I got it wrong, so I haven’t been able to get a hold of him. I was wondering if you could let me know the name of the place where he’s staying.”
Jackie nods solicitously. “Funny you should ask that, because I’m trying to figure out what’s going on there. The number I have for him is at the Shangri La, but I’ve tried there and they don’t know who he is. I was off for a couple of days with the flu and I come back and-“ she gives a bewildered gesture at her desk. “Well, they had Michelle from accounting subbing for me down here and I can’t figure out if she just didn’t keep any notes, or if no one bothered to tell her what was going on, but I’ve been trying to get in touch with Julian all morning, so I can find out how the plans changed. You haven’t seen him, have you?”
This last question is obviously intended for Frank who shakes his head. “Bruno’s not around, is he?”
Jackie rolls her eyes a little. “He’s in pretty bad shape, apparently. I figured he had the same bug that I did, but I spoke to his wife this morning and she apparently had to take him to the hospital. Some kind of bacterial infection.”
“I wish I could help you,” Jackie adds, for Adela’s benefit.
“Thanks anyway.” At length, she adds, “Could I ask you a huge favour? I came by taxi and I was wondering-“
“I’ll call one for the front,” Jackie reassures her. As she lifts the receiver, next to her, she addresses herself to a point behind Adela’s back. “Not now, Gerald.”
Adela twists to see that the door behind her has opened and the janitor is hovering. He cuts a meaningful look at Adela, holding her bewildered gaze for a long moment as he backs away. When she turns back, Adela notices Jackie looking at her thoughtfully over her square-framed glasses.
“The cab will be here in a few minutes,” she says sweetly.
“Listen,” Frank says a little awkwardly as he escorts her back to the elevator, “I don’t know if there’s anything I can do for you, but, you know, if you think of anything, if you’re having any more problems getting through to people here, please don’t hesitate to give me a call.” He proffers a business card, which she takes.
Upstairs, he shakes her hand quickly and makes his way to another section of the lobby. The flaxen-haired receptionist is speaking to a delivery man in a dark uniform, but, Adela notices, cuts a glance towards her and Frank for an instant.
As her cab winds its way through the leafy park that surrounds the Cronos building, the sandy-skinned driver gives her a nervous smile. “You’ll laugh at me,” he says with a pronounced accent, “but that building… it scares me. It jumps out at you.”
Adela smiles wanly. “I won’t laugh at you. I think maybe the place is supposed to be a little frightening.”She expects that he’ll try to explain more, try to rationalize the fear, to himself as much as to her, but he remains silent for the rest of the ride. -22-
“What do you know?”
It’s just a voice, coming to her through the walls and ceiling of this otherwise empty room. A perfectly even, uninflected voice, insistent without overt threat.
Empty room, her lying on a table, like a surgical bench, grey walls, steel panels, an utterly silent room. It takes effort to move her eyes around, to determine that she is alone her, alone with a disembodied voice asking her what she knows.
“Miss Landis, please answer the question.”
She wants to ask about what, about whom, but she lacks the energy. It is so warm here, the air blanketing her and encouraging her to close her eyes, to rest.
Besides, she doesn’t know anything. With her damaged memory what could she know? I don’t know what I’ve eaten today. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know the names of the people I’ve spoken to unless I’ve written it down. What could I know?
“Miss Landis? You’re falling asleep, Miss Landis, wake up.”
Sleep, such an ephemera for her, such a strange concept after nights of lying awake in a half-dream state, unsure if sleep has ever come. She forces her eyes open, forces herself to look at the room, as it resolves itself into a clearer picture.
It isn’t an empty, grey room at all. It’s her sitting room and she’s on the sofa, not on a table. There are still voices but muffled, in the distance, speaking among themselves, the perennial voices from the downstairs flat, from her neighbour’s radio.
Without thinking about it, Adela walks to the radiator, from whence the voices seem to emanate, and sits next to it, wrapping her arms around her knees. There are screams falling around her.
The screams gradually fade, replaced by a woman’s voice. Adela’s heard this story before, the nightmare chemical spill in India, the howls of the injured, of mothers and children alike, she knows this is familiar.
“There has been no word so far from Hyperion Chemical, the plant owners, who say they will wait to hear the preliminary report on the causes of the accident before commenting. They did, however, issue a statement emphatically denying any involvement with two local council members who were forced to resign when evidence surfaced that they had been taking bribes for several months, allegedly to ignore reports warning of safety problems with the plant.”
For a moment, Adela is convinced that the howling voices have returned, welling up in fury behind the colourless voice of the newscaster. But the broadcast drones on, moving to the next story of national interest, the weather.
Adela opens her eyes just as the phone starts to ring, suddenly unsure if she has been awake or asleep.
“Adela? It’s Louise.”
“Oh, yes, hello.” It’s a relief to hear that voice, already starting to seem strangely familiar.
“So do you feel as rough as I do?”
“I just… I had a bit of a nap. I didn’t feel so hot this morning.”
“I don’t think any of us did. I didn’t know how to check on Lloyd, but I figured I should call you just to make sure you made it up the stairs all right.”
“Guess I don’t need to mention that I don’t remember getting home.”
“You know what’s funny? I remember us dropping you off, but I have absolutely no memory of getting home myself. The damn cab driver had to wake me, that’s all I remember. So how did your pictures turn out?”
“You were taking pictures with your phone, that’s what started the fight.”
“Fight,” Adela echoes.
“Those guys at the other table said you were taking their picture and they got angry. Honestly, I don’t even really know what happened. I think Lloyd might have said something. I remember getting shoved out the door and falling down.”
Adela grabs her cell phone from the table and opens her photos. There are, as Louise has indicated, a collection of pictures from Moebius, blurry shots of Louise and Lloyd, a couple of shadowy images of the bartender, stretched like an exotic snake, indistinct images of other things, a group of unidentifiable figures at a distance, faces in the background. Adela’s been known to resort to this before, snapping pictures, when she’s found herself without a notepad. But under normal circumstances, when she’s not dead drunk, she has the sense to conceal what she’s doing.
“Well, there are pictures. I can’t imagine anyone getting upset over them for any reason.”
“Oh, those guys were drunk, I think they just wanted an excuse to argue with someone.” Louise sighs heavily. “It was pretty funny, from what I can remember.”
“Well, if someone I don’t recognize punches me in the face while I’m walking down the street, at least I’ll have an idea why.”
A warm chuckle on the other end of the line. “So have you heard anything from Adam yet?”
“No,” she answers, trying not to sound too crestfallen. “I went… I went to Cronos this morning to see if someone there could help me.”
“You were at the office? You should have come by.”
“That’s right. I’m sorry, I forgot you worked there.”
“Well, I’m in a totally different section anyway. We’re nowhere near the main building.”
“Well, our office does all the public relations for their different branches. We’re in the media a lot. I don’t think they want a lot of reporters wandering around their main labs.”
Adela feels once again as if she’s back in the underground network of corridors, silent and empty of life.
“So did you get anything useful from visiting the compound?”
“Nothing. Someone tried to help me, but it didn’t do any good. Someone else… It was weird there.”
“You don’t find it just a little bit eerie there?”
Louise gives another throaty laugh. “No. I find it very eerie there. So do you want to have some dinner? I’m really not up for cooking tonight. Need something to slay the hangover beast.”
“I want something greasy.”
“Well, there is a place, right on top of Moebius that serves great greasy gobs of pub food.”
“Are we going to get beaten up?”
“All right then,” Adela laughs in spite of herself. “Sounds good. At least I’m fairly certain I can find it.”
“I can meet you there around seven?”
“Sure. We’ll see you there.” -24-
Adela fidgets in her purse to find her notebook with the directions to Moebius. Perhaps it’s the fact that she was there only the previous night, but she’s fairly confident she could find her way there without too much trouble a second time. That is enough to make her smile a little, enough to break through the cloud of the rest of the day for a moment.
As with most of her failures, she’d like to avoid thinking about the excursion to Cronos, but images seem to crop up like glass shards, faces and phrases out of context, simply reminders of the unpleasantness of the experience. The chilly receptionist, the lifeless quiet of the underground corridors, and, more frequently than the others, the face of the janitor as he hissed his warning at her.
Hoping for a little luck, she dials Adam’s cell phone again, but once more, it goes directly to his voice mail. Frustrated again, she hangs up without leaving a message. None of her own confusion explains why he hasn’t tried to get in touch.
She’s stood in front of the mirror like this, before, trying to find the person resting underneath an exterior that has always seemed a little indistinct. At her best moments, she likes to think that her face, her posture, show something of her lineage, a certain aristocratic, old world class. At others, she can see only deep set blue eyes set in a sort of blancmange, without an underlying structure.
Since the move, she can see that there’s a bit of weight gone, a bit more definition, something that frequently happens when she’s under stress. When she’s at her healthiest mentally, she knows, although she’d like to deny it, that she verges on plump. Now, her face is a little leaner, her eyes seem a little larger and wilder. Not a happy face, but a little prettier, a little more the kind of face that someone might want to come home to. She hopes.
The radio voices seem, loudest here, in the en suite bathroom just off the master bedroom and, although she tries to tune them out, tries to will herself unconscious of them, they seem to find a way in. Even as she tries to block them, as she simply tries to evaluate the changes she can see in her face, as she tries to feel better before heading out of the safety of her home, they find a way to burrow in.
It even makes her start a little, unsure of what she’s just heard. She’s certain, as paranoid as it seems, that they’ve just mentioned Cronos.
“… stock held its value in spite of those developments. Analysts pegged the company’s continued strong performance on rumours of an acquisition of a major European electronics firm, Vypro, who have seen remarkable growth in the last two years and are reputed to be looking for a major investor to supply capital for their future projects.”
Adela realises, after the initial surprise starts to dissipate, that she’s listening to a financial report and that it would be by no means extraordinary for Cronos to be mentioned in that context. In fact, as an owner of a mass of the corporation’s stock, what she’s heard should constitute good news. It’s irrational that it should leave her with a sense of unease.
“Pull yourself together,” she mutters, exasperated, eyes locked ahead of her.
The woman in the mirror purses her lips almost imperceptibly and raises an almost defiant brow.
Louise twists her fork into her salad again, her sharply defined brows almost touching. “I’m telling you,” she mutters, “this lettuce is recycled.”
In point of fact, all of the food has a sort of bedraggled quality to it, but Adela isn’t complaining. It turns out that Louise’s promise of greasy food was somewhat out of date and the former dive has been converted into a vegan café, staffed by earnest, cosmetic-free people of slightly indeterminate gender, with multiple visible piercings. The clientele mostly resembles the staff, with the exception of the bartender from Moebius who, despite a collection of ornate jewelry and hints of serpentine ink on the parts of his skin that are visible, retains an otherworldly presence, even in this crowd.
The only remnant of the place’s greasy spoon past is a rather spectacular grease stain on the wall, spurting like arterial spray from just above the stove almost all the way to the ceiling. Even looking at it is enough to make Adela feel a little queasy, without even allowing herself to think of how old and how thick the grease must be.
Adela watches the interplay between the girl behind the counter and the Moebius bartender with more than an appropriate interest. Their actions are the sort of theatre she could watch for hours (and sometimes does), a series of small, supposedly subtle movements that efface whatever meaningless conversation anchors them. The waitress, a little younger and obviously awkward, seems to be fighting between the instinct to maintain her granola-girl indifference and the desire to smile, to reach out- physically, if not emotionally- to the exotic figure speaking to her. He, on the other hand, seems to flit with each blink of his heavy lids, between enjoying the attention and wanting to retreat.
It occurs to Adela only when he turns and catches her, that she is staring.
“I think he’s generally pretty popular,” Louise adds, smiling a little.
“Was I that obvious?”
“Yes. But why shouldn’t you be?”
Adela’s stomach squirms a little, her usually sense of slimy shame rising. It’s not just being caught looking at someone, but the idea that, even momentarily, she’s allowed others access to what she is thinking, that they’ve seen her hiding place.
“So what was it exactly that happened at Cronos?”
Adela closes her eyes for a second, picturing her arrival in the sleek lobby. “Well, no luck with the receptionist.” She can see the woman’s peach-tinted lips forming the words, with just the tiniest hint of saliva to indicate her humanity. “This guy, another engineer, I think, he came over and he helped me. He took me up to Julian’s office. But Julian wasn’t around, so I had to leave a message with his assistant.”
“I wouldn’t bet any money you can’t afford to lose on that message making it through,” Louise adds bitterly.
Adela nods, having already pretty much accepted this on her own.
“Then I went downstairs and I tried to get to Adam’s office. Well, I mean, I did get there…” Just for a second, Adela can see the janitor in front of her again, can hear his raspy warning, feel his surprisingly firm grip on her arm. Again, her stomach lurches a little, for reasons she doesn’t understand. Yes, it was a startling thing, but it’s not exactly this that bothers her. What makes her uneasy remains beyond seeing, but present.
“There was this weird guy working there who tried to talk to me.”
“Some sort of janitor. Seemed nuts.” Adela knows that isn’t the case, but somehow, it’s more comforting and fits more with telling a light story over dinner.
“Anyway, it turns out that no one there knows where Adam is either.”
“And they don’t consider that odd?”
Adela tries to remember the face of his assistant, the look in her eyes when she spoke about not knowing where Adam had gone, but the image seems to fog up in her mind, as if she’s looking through a window and standing too close.
“Whatever they consider it, the woman that I spoke to doesn’t know any more than I do about this.” -25-
“Whatever they consider it, the woman that I spoke to doesn’t know any more than I do about this.”
“You’re doing well,” Louise responds at length.
“You mean I’m not having a nervous breakdown because I can’t figure out where he is?”
“Well, that too. I meant your memory. You didn’t have to look at your notes at all.”
Adela flinches, having no recollection of ever telling Louise about her memory problems. Somehow, it’s come out. Louise, who might have once viewed her as normal, is privy to her invisible disability.
“It’s funny, because it comes in flashes. Like this afternoon, I have no idea what I was doing most of the time, but I remember hearing the radio- my neighbour’s radio no less-“
“Must have been pretty damn loud.”
“Well, it’s on 24 hours a day, all the time, very loud, always on the same station.”
“Nice. Must help you sleep.”
“Oh, I don’t really sleep anyway.”
“How can you not sleep?”
“I never have, really.”
“You mean, you can’t remember sleeping.”
“No, I mean I actually don’t sleep. My family sent me to clinics and things. I have all these reports at home, people watching me while I laid in bed, people trying to figure out why I wasn’t sleeping. Trying to figure out where my mind went at night.”
“That’s insane. You’re telling me you’ve been sleep-deprived since childhood?”
The term “insane” is always one that has made Adela shudder, with its amorphous meaning, at once casual and technical. She tries not to mind hearing Louise use it. “As far as I know, I’ve never had a full night’s sleep since I was very young.”
“And you wonder why you can’t remember things.” Louise furrows her brow again and looks at her with what might be friendly concern. “Sorry, you were saying about the radio.”
“Right, what I wanted to tell you. I can hear the radio and there’s a news report on talking about Cronos. It’s like they followed me home.”
“Well, to be fair, they make the news a lot, but I can see where you’d be spooked. Out of curiosity, do you remember the story?”
“Actually, yes. It was about their stock. How it had performed well.”
For a moment, Louise looks pensive, almost, although Adela can’t imagine why, disappointed.
“It was talking about an acquisition.”
“You mean Vypro?”
“Yes, that was it.”
“Our department is handling the press for that as well.”
“Really? You worked on it?”
“No, one of the other people in the office with me. I didn’t even realise she was going to press with it already, but I guess they’re pretty much ready to sign the deal. Up until now, it’s been this big secret. I’m not even supposed to know, but I heard Veronica, the one working on that project from our office, talking about it.” Her face suddenly brightens. “Adela, is there any chance that Adam’s working on the acquisition?”
“He’s never said anything about it.”
“Well that’s my point. It’s a pretty quiet thing, so they might have said he wasn’t allowed to discuss it. But this company they’re buying, they probably would have wanted a senior engineer to meet with them.”
“I guess… I mean it’s possible, but it just seems like he would have told me. And I wouldn’t have any idea how to check.”
“Well, I may have an idea about that. And I was just thinking, this company, Vypro, they-“
“They’re looking to have someone buy them up and cover their tracks, so that they don’t have to pay the price for the kind of evils they’ve been unleashing.”This new voice is male, clear and, while not overwhelmingly loud, cuts through the noise of the place with precision. Adela and Louise look up in tandem at the speaker, a man in his forties, dirty blond hair graying around the temples and receding just slightly in the front. His vaguely military fatigue-style clothing hangs off a shockingly gaunt frame, punctuated by a set of dark eyes which, while not especially large, give the impression of bugging out of his head. Although he technically responded to Louise’s comment, his wild stare rests on Adela, as if he is waiting for her to answer. -26-
Adela can hear the air going into and out of each of them in the thick silence that follows. She is vaguely aware that there are two others, at a distance, watching them and hopes that she and Louise aren’t going to have to fight their way from the place. The interloper still fixes on her, with the look of someone trying to crack a safe. Air goes in, air goes out, in strange unison.
As she looks at him, she’s lit up for a second with a sort of awareness. Mostly, she can’t tell when her memory will kick in, when she’ll actually retain something unaided for future reference, but there are these moments, which are different. There have been a handful in her lifetime and she’s certain that she could list them all without too much trouble. Almost all have had to do with people. Her first memory, a toddler, watching a woman who is not her mother arrive at the door. Meeting Adam on the balcony outside in the freakish spring heat. Examples of something she’s never been able to describe, but that is unmistakable. That’s what she’s feeling now. That instant, like recognition, like watching the sun lapse below the horizon at the end of the day. That which is supposed to happen.
Of course, she says nothing, feels incapable of speech and merely stares back, her pale eyes wide, waiting for a sign that things will be all right. It’s Louise who finally breaks what seems like a long silence.
“Is there something you wanted to say?”
The man looks at her, as if he’s confused by her speaking.
“I wanted to apologise,” he says crisply. “We got a little out of hand last night.”
Adela can feel her hip aching, the same as it was when she woke up. There’s a foul haze around the events of the night before.
“I wasn’t taking pictures of you,” she snaps, a little surprised at her own brusqueness.
“You didn’t mean to,” he answers gently. “We were concerned that we were in the background, lurking. Don’t like having our photos taken, you see.”
He gestures mildly towards the two other figures at the bar, similarly clad and staring, cold-eyed in their direction.
“You attacked us,” Louise interjects.
“Hence the apology. Please, at least let us buy you dinner in recompense.”
Louise looks to Adela for a second, as if abdicating the decision. Although Adela has no idea why it should be up to her, she nods and thanks the newcomer, not entirely sure if she’s made the right choice.
At her acceptance, he pulls over a chair from the next table and settles in, waving his companions over.
“We can get a little uptight about these things, you understand.”
“We understand now,” Louise retorts.
“You were talking about Vypro, no? Interesting company. Do you know what they do?”
Despite her silence, his question seems directly only to Adela, who clutches her purse a little closer.
The man’s two companions take their seats at the table adjacent, their expressions still suspicious. Unlike their spokesman, they alternate looking at Adela and Louise, each taking turns looking at one and shifting their gaze almost perfectly in synch.
“They make electronics,” Louise answers dryly.
“A broad classification, no?” The stranger smiles in a way that seems intelligent, but far from warm. “After all, a company that makes electronics could be making toasters or supercomputers.”
“They make state of the art mapping and positioning systems. Best in the world, from what I understand. They just weren’t quick enough to get their systems into any of the big auto makers.”
“Indeed. So what possible interest could a conglomerate like Cronos have in a company like Vypro, considering that a car company is one of the only things that Cronos doesn’t own? Yet.”
Louise arches her eyebrows cynically. “So you think Cronos is going to buy a car company?”
“Would that make sense?”
“No,” Adela answers, a little surprised at the sound of her own voice, “it wouldn’t.”
This much, Adela can speak about comfortably. This is what she’s managed to learn from years of following her uncle around. It’s not memory, exactly, just a form of seeing. Their new friend looks at her with a little surprise.
“Car makers are too well-established, too well known. It makes them hard to integrate.”
Louise makes an awkward attempt to camouflage her astonishment. “You sound pretty convincing, Adela.”
“Adela,” he repeats. “A lovely name. I’m David.”
David extends a bony arm which she somewhat tentatively accepts.
“This,” he continues, “is Chris and David.”
His two companions, who Adela can now see are quite a bit younger than him, probably in their twenties, nod as their names are mentioned. They’ve pulled out a chess board and are setting up a game.
“This is Louise.”
Louise shakes his hand as if it’s covered in snot.
“So, as our resident business expert, do you have any ideas about why Cronos would want to buy Vypro? I mean, it’s all over the news so it must be true.”
The stockier one, Chris, snorts audibly, without taking his eyes from the chess board.
“I have no idea,” Adela murmurs. “I’m sure Vypro has something they want. Something unique.”
“Can’t think of anything that those guidance systems would be good for?”
“They could be good for almost anything,” says Louise, sounding a little exasperated. “I guess since you seem so interested that you have a theory?”
“I don’t pretend to know how the corporate brain works,” he answers with what seems like a false humility. “As you said, they could be used for a wide range of purposes. So maybe that’s the answer.”
Adela shakes her head. “That’s not how they work. Cronos buys a company because they have a specific reason. Something in particular that fits.”
David nods to her graciously. “As I said, our resident expert.”
Louise is prodding her lettuce again and giving Adela an impressed look. Adela has learned that it’s a common assumption that a lack of memory is indicative of a lack of brains. Even people who like her are prone to thinking of her as a sweet simpleton and occasionally end up looking across a table at her with this same expression when she has spoken about something with which she is comfortable, but which others never imagine her capable of grasping.
“Where’s Lloyd this evening, not joining you?”
Adela is a little surprised that the two of them made it to introductions in the midst of the melee the night before, but says nothing for the moment.
“We haven’t managed to track him down yet today,” Louise answers with an exaggerated shrug. “Unless you spoke to him, Adela?”
Adela shakes her head, feeling a little guilty that she hadn’t thought to invite him along.
“Get you folks anything else?” the bored sounding waitress intones.
“If you could just put these ladies’ dinner on my bill,” David beams, “and bring us a round. Adela, Louise, what are you having? They do all their own beers here, all fresh.”
“I’ll take whatever you have in a dark,” Louise says quickly.
Adela knows that it is not a good idea for her to drink again. Once, during a time when she and Adam were struggling a little, she was drinking vodka every day, a lot of it. She knows this only because, eventually, she was told, by her doctor, by her uncle, perhaps by Adam, she’s never been entirely sure, that she had to start tracking it. What happened when she would drink, she has no idea. All she knows is that her heart and stomach contract every time she tries to remember it. It’s these sorts of symptoms that warn her to let some memories go, to leave their heavy stones unturned. What hides beneath them is never something she wants to find.
Since then, she’s tried to be regimented: drink as little as possible, to avoid the effects, which seem so pronounced on her; never drink on consecutive days; only drink with food. Nonetheless, she feels strange, or like she would be stranger than usual, for refusing a drink when everyone else seems to be indulging, so, at length, pretending she’s been studying the list of libations chalked up on the blackboard behind the counter, she orders a wheat beer. It sounds almost healthy. -28-
At the next table, David’s friends finish their game quite suddenly. Daniel, the slighter, dirtier one, calls out his “check mate” loud enough for most of the room to hear. Chris grimaces, but shakes off the defeat quickly and suggests another game.
“You want to play with him?” Chris grunts to David. “He’s getting too good for me.”
“Go ahead, you’re well matched. Besides, I’m talking to these fine ladies.”
The bartender from Moebius passes by their table with a quizzical look in his dark eyes. Adela catches the full force of his stare as he walks towards the door and tries, just a little, to smile. Everything is all right now. They have made their peace. She’s not quite sure how things escalated the night before, nor why they are so different now. She tries to reassure herself that, as long as everything is fine now, the road past doesn’t matter.
“So are you an insider or an outsider?” David asks, his slightly manic stare fixed on Adela again.
“Insider or outsider?”
“Well, people who know about how businesses work are always one or the other. People who have to know it, because they work within the machine and have to know for the sake of their position and their future, or they’re people who want to take the machine apart and who’ve gotten to know how it works in order to figure out where it’s weaknesses are.”
“Well, I guess I’m an insider. I’m not trying to dismantle anything.”
David is visibly disappointed. “You don’t seem like someone who works for a corporation like Cronos.”
“That’s because I don’t. I don’t work at all, as a matter of fact.”
“An idle rich profiteer, then?”
“Something like that, yes.” Adela motions to Louise. “She’s the worker.”
“I can picture that,” he drawls, studying, or appearing to study, Louise’s face. “You seem much more like a worker bee. I’ll bet you’re very good.”
“Yes,” Louise responds, a note of irritation in her voice, “I am.”
“You, my dear, on the other hand, are a bit of a paradox.”
“Yes,” Adela says wryly, “I am.”
“I guess we don’t have to ask which you are,” Louise adds. Her comment is clearly directed at David, but she cuts a conspiratorial glance in Adela’s direction.
“Am I so transparent?”
“The vaguely military look, the paranoia about photos, the mention of “the machine. Yes, I’d say it’s a reasonably clear picture.”
“And yet I was a worker bee at one point too.”
Louise raises her brows a little skeptically. “Before you grew up and realised how the world really works?”
“If I said yes, it would sound like I was insulting you. And I would feel terrible for that.”
The waitress returns with their drinks, setting David’s down last and aiming a slightly wounded look in his direction. He looks almost surprised, uncomprehending at this, but Adela can see something forced in that. He wants the others to believe he is surprised. At the next table, Chris shoots a bemused look at Daniel, who responds in kind.
The game between them is obviously going in Daniel’s favour, from the number of pieces remaining on the board. Chris leans forward, resting his heavily tattooed arms on the table, as if to give his pieces some leverage. Among the various inked patterns and images, she can see one that appears to be part of the skin itself, directly on the inside of the right forearm, impressed rather than printed.
“It’s a brand,” David says, apparently having followed her gaze.
“Like what they give cattle.” Louise could hardly sound less impressed.
“Or what they give products,” Chris adds, pivoting and moving his arm to where Adela can have a better look at it.
“What’s the symbol? Is it something you designed yourself?”
“Something we all got,” Chris answers, good-naturedly enough.
David undoes his sleeve and exposes a matching brand for comparison. His is darker, as if it’s been cut into him over top of the brand. There are purple ridges defining it, making it look, Adela thinks, horrifically painful, even though healed.
“It look like yours got infected,” Louise observes, reaching over to run a finger along the raised line on David’s arm.
“A couple of times. But I think it makes it look better.”
“It must have hurt?” Adela’s voice wavers between comment and question.
“Part of the process,” David answers nonchalantly, lowering his sleeve to end the show.
“What does it mean?” Louise asks.
“It’s our brand. We’re all branded in some way, no? We all carry some mark to show what we belong to, to show our meaning.”
“Individuals have meaning?”
“I hope so, don’t you?”
“I mean, you’re saying that people have some specific meaning.”
“Meaning that we give ourselves, or that we let other people give us.”
Chris volunteers again. “The same as you do at work.”
“I do public relations,” Louise responds tersely.
David raises his eyebrows triumphantly. “You create meaning.”
“And that’s what your mark of the beast does?” She seems both incredulous and impatient.
“Absolutely. Self-created rather than allowing someone else to do it.”
“And you all mean the same thing?”
“You think it’s asinine. But it means something slightly different for all of us, and at the same time, shows a bond to each other.”
“Were you in the army together?” It’s the only parallel Adela can think of.
“No,” David smiles, “I don’t think any of us would make good armed forces candidates.”
Louise smiles in agreement, her sharp, swarthy features visibly tensed.
“There are different armies you can belong to,” Chris adds, conceding the second game in a row.
“Symbionese Liberation?” Louise ventures.
“Interesting organization,” Chris nods, ignoring the obvious sarcasm. “Some people think that a group like that had real guts.”
“Because they were counter-cultural and violent?”
“You think that’s always wrong?” Daniel jumps in, still looking pleased from his victories.
“I think that the cases where it’s right involve countries with a lot bigger problems than we have,” Louise replies archly.
Daniel gives an exaggerated scowl, ironic, impudent. “You don’t think there are real problems here?”
“I said bigger problems, not real problems. And I’d say that the kind of problems that make it necessary for ordinary people to start picking up guns and lobbing Molotov cocktails are significantly greater than anything anyone at this table has experienced.”
Chris flushes and seems ready to interject when David waves him off. He stares searchingly at Louise’s animated face, her dark eyes dancing as if preparing for a fight and at length, with a sort of resignation said, “Do you mean that there has been nothing in your entire experience, no principle or place or person, that would have been worth laying down your life for?”
Louise reflects a moment only. “No. Nothing.”
“And you?” He turns to Adela once again.
“I’ve never thought about it.” It was honest enough. Certainly, there was nothing she could remember that had struck her as worth losing everything for, and if there had been such a thing, it would be unlikely that even she would have forgotten it. Briefly, she thinks of Adam and wonders if she would be willing to die for him. Noble Adam, who had taken such good care of her. If the bullet was coming for him, would she jump in to protect him or close her eyes in guilt and horror?
“I think,” David says quietly, “that your lives may have been quite sheltered.”
“That’s a low blow,” Louise retorts sharply. “Maybe it’s because we’re happy with our lives that we don’t want to throw them away. Maybe we feel that we have more to live for.”
Adela was fairly certain that she hadn’t said there was nothing she was willing to die for, but, seeing the increasingly aggressive look in Louise’s eyes, decided that she did not want to isolate her.
“So what is it?” Adela cuts in.
“What is it that you’re willing to die for?”
David smiles a little, a smile that seems to cascade lightly from his face to those of his younger companions. He shrugs affably enough and finally answers, “Our brand.”
“Well, look at that,” Louise murmurs dryly. “They’d rather fight than switch.” -29-
This is a luxury that Adela can only indulge in when she knows she’ll have the place to herself for a while. She’ll sit in the middle of her bed, her overstuffed, over-fluffed, over-decorated bed, right in the middle and smoke a cigarette. The taste will be glued to her lips and palette for days and the smoke will cling like pond scum to the fibres of the sheets, even with the window open, which is why she could never do this when Adam’s return was imminent. He’d know what she’d been up to and then he’d worry about what it meant, about what deeper perversion it masked.
The radio in the apartment downstairs brings something soft and mournful, some funereal lament in no language Adela can identify. She takes a drag from the cigarette and watches as the glowing tip briefly highlights the shadows on the walls around her. When she was young, she used to believe that the shadows were alive, used to believe that they paused only when an adult would enter the room, that left alone, they would reach for her, to pull her away from the safety of her bright daytime life.
Closing her eyes now is no different. She can still feel the approach of spindly shadow-creatures behind her, their arms like branches reaching across planes. Gradually, their bony grey limbs embrace her, spiny fingers close over her paralysed mouth and she can feel herself drawn away.
Standing with her adoptive father in the light rain, looking up at the forest of monuments. She was too young to understand what it was, the Hill of Crosses and for years after, would believe that it was some densely packed cemetery where her parents were buried. She’d no idea what it meant, this place of pilgrimage. That knowledge would come later. Perhaps it was simply that her new parents had wanted to see the site. Or perhaps it was that, having made a journey of defiance themselves and come up empty-handed, they sought solace from a shrine of defiance.
Her adoptive mother’s cheeks were whipped into roses by the wind and rain and Adela could tell that she was tense about being there. A fallen Catholic, she would always seem a little superstitious, a little nervous, when confronted with signs of devotion to God. She’d joked about it in the car on the way there. “The pilgrims coming to pitch their last firewood,” was how she put it. Adela had no idea what she meant, but the thought of the hill engulfed in flames, the crosses carbon black against the cayenne-coloured sky, stuck with her.
There is nothing of the beginning of school, of young friends, of idyllic summers in Adela’s memories of her childhood. But there is always this, the scene on the Hill of Crosses, her new parents wondering what to do.
It’s the pain that draws her out of her reverie, her spying on the past. She’s dropped her cigarette on the bare skin of her ankle. Another reason why Adam, if he were here, would be cross with her for smoking. She’s never been what could be called coordinated.
The wind has picked up outside, cooling the room noticeably. Adela normally likes the windows open, but finds the frosty nip a little much and goes over to close it. The bedroom window affords an excellent view of the drop down the back of the house, the steep incline of the hill on which it sits peeling away, so that she feels she should be high enough to touch the cloud cover. There are a few trees around, some of which seem to reach for her window, buoyed by the blustery conditions.
It’s just a flitting thing she sees, a momentary, moth-wing light movement in the dark of the alley between her building and the next as she comes to the window. A figure in the shadows, moving deftly out of the way. She tries to catch up with it again, but it’s gone. It could have been someone cutting through the alley to get home. It could have been a dog, for that matter. But Adela feels almost certain it was human and that it was not moving until she came to the window, until she was in a position where she could have seen it.
The street and alley below look abandoned. The wind is the only thing that moves and there is no one who she can see now.
Adela retreats to sitting on her bed and listens to what sounds like a new wave band being dissected by a training surgeon coming from the adjacent radio. The shadows of tree-arms, buffeted by the wind, stay back, stretched along the wall, drumming their fingers idly and waiting.
So the night passes, sleepless as ever, until she’s called to life again by the phone. -30-
Adela darts to the television to turn on the local news, the phone still in her hand. After some fidgeting between channels, she finds it, but it’s just the usual cheery bright faces discussing the latest plans at city hall, the latest local entrepreneur to make it big. No mention of an old man, possibly a little crazy, being attacked by a gang of thugs in the middle of the night, with no one to help him. -31-
Adela smiles in return. The nice thing about seeming not too bright is that people assume you’re too dim to know how to lie.
Adela is about to try to comfort him, but it seems patronising to placate him by saying no one will notice. After all, it’s like everyone will notice. It’s hard not to notice. She tries to remember if Frank said that the only living relative was deaf or blind, wondering if blindness might actually be a consolation to the bizarre figure in front of her.
“Party?” exclaims the funeral director as they walk back to the chapel room. “That’s not funny!”
As usual, Adela has no idea whatsoever what time it is. It strikes her that it might be very early for a phone call, but she can’t be sure. Reaching for the phone, she notices that she left the curtain aside when she got up to close the window. Thinking of the nocturnal figure in the street below, she shudders a little. It’s a ridiculous fear, of course. Even if someone could scale one of the trees high enough to get close to the window- an astounding feat in itself, requiring someone both nimble and almost feather-light- it would be almost impossible to stand on the exterior frame for more than a second without falling. Still, she catches herself looking for signs of an intruder.
“Hello, is this Adela?” comes the voice in response to her greeting.
“Yes.” She smiles at once, not needing to even hear what comes next.
“It’s Frank DiPasquale from Cronos.”
“Well hello, Frank. How are you?”
“I’m all right thanks.” There’s a stiff pause before he continues. “Have you had any luck tracking Adam down?”
“That’s too bad. I do hope that gets cleared up soon.” There’s more to come, Adela can feel it, something that requires another pause before being said. “Listen, Adela, I hope you don’t mind me getting your phone number from the company registry…”
“No, it’s nice to hear your voice again, actually.”
“Well, it’s the strangest thing, but somehow I thought I should call you. Do you remember Gerald Porter, the old janitor you ran into when you were at the office?”
For a second, Adela can feel his grip on her arm again and the surge of fear in her stomach. “Yes,” she replies, falteringly, “I remember him.”
“You see, he died last night.”
“That’s terrible.” Somehow, in her mind, she can feel his grip tighter than ever.
“Yes, it’s quite sad. He’d been with the company a long time. He was a little crazy, but really, you couldn’t meet a nicer person. He always asked how my wife was doing and all.”
“I’m sorry to hear.”
“Yes, you see, I thought you might be, I mean, you seem like such a nice person yourself, so I thought you’d be a good person to call.” Adela can hear that still more is coming.
“Is there something that I can help with?”
“Not help, exactly. I was just calling because Gerald didn’t have much family. There’s one sister who’s in full care herself and apparently quite deaf. He took care of her on his salary for years, apparently. But other than her, he seems to have had no family or friends.
“Anyway, in light of his service, Cronos is picking up the bill for his funeral, so that this little old lady can at least see her brother properly buried. But we wanted to try to get a few people to come out, just so that it doesn’t look like he was quite so alone in front of her. It’s mostly just people from work, of course, but I thought you might be willing to come, since you’d spoken to him and all.”
Adela cringes at the thought of being close to that man again, as if somehow, he’ll jump from the grave to accost her, but she doesn’t want to sound crazy to Frank.
“Sure, Frank, I’d be happy to come by, just tell me where and when.”
“Well, this just happened last night, so it hasn’t been confirmed yet. We should know by the end of the day, so I’ll call you back.”
Adela finds it remarkable that he sounds so shaken by all of this, and tries to imagine the wild-eyed old man being so kind as to warrant that sort of reaction. She knows better than to let any of this on to Frank, however, so she simply asks: “I hope he went peacefully, at least. I know he looked to be in good enough health, but at a certain age, I guess you’re just more vulnerable.”
“That’s the truly terrible part,” Frank says bleakly. “It looks like he was the victim of some kind of home invasion. He was apparently beaten to death. I can’t imagine what these kids thought a poor old janitor would have that was worth stealing.”
Adela’s stomach lurches. “Did they catch the people who did it?”
“No, not so far, but apparently, the police are looking into it.”
“Thank you for letting me know, Frank. I’ll definitely come to the funeral.”
“Much appreciated, Adela,” he says, recovering some of his genial tone. “I’ll let you know the details as soon as I have them.”
Even in a relatively non-violent city, it shouldn’t be so much of a shock. An eccentric old man, living alone, the kind of person likely paranoid enough to hide his life’s savings in a drawer or a mattress, and exactly the kind of person likely to become a target for the hyena packs. Aged and frail, separated from the rest of the herd, prime considerations when selecting a victim.
It’s the idea of the beating that makes her shiver. No simple, single-gesture stabbing or shooting. The fear he must have felt laying there, feeling blow after blow, still hoping that he might survive, always hoping. She tries to shake it off. He might have been knocked unconscious from the first strike. His death might have been accidental.
On the internet, at least, she’s able to find a story, a minor one, about a home invasion in a poor area of town and an elderly victim. There is no mention of how he died, or of his name, or of the fact that he had worked for a long time as a janitor. Only the sad report of an act of violence, lacking face and flesh. Strangely, the only detail given was the nearest major intersection, as if the chief interest of the reader would be in determining how close by the marauders had come, how much danger there was of being the next victim.
Still agitated from the phone conversation, Adela goes back to the bedroom. She starts to pull on some clothes, thinking, at least, that going for a walk might clear the static interference in her head. Searching for something that can be donned quickly, her eye falls on the window, the curtain still off to the side. Despite the bright sky, she closes it, noticing, as she does, a few figures below. None of them seem to be trying to avoid detection, or to be aware of her presence in the window.
There’s a warm cushion of air outside, surprising after the cold damp they’ve had recently. In wooly layers, Adela finds she’s overheated almost as soon as she steps outside, and has to loosen her jacket and scarf. She feels vaguely like a child, imprisoned in winter clothing at her parents’ insistence.
She has her notes, things that she could or even should do, her directions to get from one place she knows to another, but none of it is good enough now. Nor does she simply want to walk until she loses herself, until she dissipates into the city. What she wants now is the scene of the crime. As tenuous as her connection is, she needs to see where the old janitor fought for life and lost. She’s become, she realises, a tourist of other people’s mortality.
The drawback, of course, is that she’s never been to the area of town where this man lived, nor does she have the faintest notion of how to get there. It’s a separate universe, the run down tenements that he called home, not a place she’d have occasion to wander on her own.
Rethinking her position, she runs back inside, sheds a layer, checks the skinny news article she found earlier and prints out directions from her house to the intersection where the crime occurred. Now there is something she wants to do, something that she is eager to do, with her day.
The walk, somewhat to her surprise, does not take very long. The good and bad areas of town, it seems, are not widely separated. In fact, they seem almost woven, one over top of the other, into a broader pattern that she can’t make out.
Surely enough, the houses deteriorate from elegantly restored to neglected and needing attention to hastily built later models that are already in danger of collapse. Battered doors sag forward from cheaply sided houses, now apparently divided into cramped flats with sheets and blankets adorning their windows. Inside, Adela realises, full of lives like the one that just ended. Her sense of bourgeois guilt, a recent addition to her range of anxieties, flares up a little. Somewhere inside is a dirty toddler crying enough to disturb the neighbours. Exactly like she herself had once been.
There is no sign of foul play at the intersection mentioned in the article but, assuming that it may have just given the nearest major intersection, Adela probes a little further into the neighbourhood. The actual crime scene is not difficult to spot.
A few blocks away and set off an alley rather than the actual street, it remains cordoned off by a glistening banner of yellow tape, to let the neighbourhood know that the rest of them are protected. A few children still lurk around the site and a few adults watch, Adela sees, from windows above.
The door to what was apparently the janitor’s old flat is on a tiny vestibule that has entirely separated from its house. It tilts forward at a bizarre angle, held somewhat upright, apparently, by the resiliency of the ground on which it sits. There is a triangular gap between vestibule and home that, Adela can only imagine, must have let through a powerful draft in the winter.
Rather pathetically, given the state of the entrance, someone had taken te time to cover a window on the side of the vestibule with some leftover siding. Perhaps, at some point, it had made a difference.
Of the place itself, Adela can see little. She can’t even tell for sure whether the police are looking in the flat at the back of the ground floor, or at one in the basement. The children gawk unselfconsciously, turning occasionally to look at Adela and the other scattered adults who are not too shy, or too polite, to look.
Of the half dozen adults lingering around, most are clearly from the surrounding area. They are dressed and groomed as a perfect fit for these buildings. An older lady with a wild thatch of salt and pepper hair, a few seedlings from which have spread to her cheek and chin. A teenaged girl dressed to catch attention of some sort, all garish colours and glitter, making a half-hearted effort to keep a couple of the kids under control while she talks on her cell phone. (Adela hopes, silently, that she is an older sister and not a mother.) A bored looking man in his twenties, sticking close to a slight woman of middle age, craning her neck without trying to be subtle.
Off to one side, leaning against a dark sedan parked back from the alley, are two who obviously aren’t from the neighbourhood. Reporters, Adela thinks, or police investigators. One is a man, his back turned to Adela, paying no attention to the scene or anyone in it. He seems to be conversing with an attractive, dark-haired woman in a very businesslike cream coloured suit. Even leaning back against the car, the woman is obviously tall. Standing straight, she would likely tower over her companion and Adela wonders if she is leaning to prevent her partner from feeling belittled.
The woman sees Adela watching them and locks onto her, squinting a little, as if trying to see her more clearly. Strangely, Adela is frozen and simply continues to stare, feeling uncomfortably as if she has seen that chiseled face before. Moebius? Cronos? The hair salon? It’s useless trying to go through the options, of course. It isn’t going to come to her, no matter how many scenarios she runs through. The woman seems almost to have an expression of recognition as well, but makes no attempt to approach. She leans closer to speak to her partner, who casts a glance over his shoulder, possibly in Adela’s direction.
A police officer exits the house and proceeds to his own car, cutting glances to either side as he reaches for his radio. The dark-haired woman hardly looks at him, now apparently occupied with watching Adela.
Ultimately, she realises, she is either going to have to approach the woman and politely ask where they’ve met, if at all, or leave. Standing here, observed and observing, has become acutely uncomfortable, not least because the woman’s expression is far from kind.
She’s left with the strange sensation, sneaking away, that she has something to hide, that somehow, being there, she’s done something wrong that the woman and her companion could report her for. It takes several blocks before she feels calm again, before she feels relaxed enough to walk at a regular pace, without scurrying or checking over her shoulder, before she can make herself realise that she’s guilty of nothing.
It still startles her, a few blocks on, when her phone rings.
The number is unrecognized, but, not wanting to give in to paranoia, she answers anyway.
The connection is so laden with interference that she can hardly recognize her own name. It’s a man’s voice, shot through with digital distortion. He continues to speak, but she can make out nothing beyond that first word.
“Adam?” It might be his voice and besides, she can’t imagine what other man would be calling her. “Adam, if it’s you, I wrote down the-“
The call goes dead with a sharp beep from the phone. She tries redialing to no avail. The number is either protected or long distance from an area where it can’t be identified.
“Well great,” she mutters aloud. Looking around her, she realises that she’s been walking for some time without consulting either the street signs or her map. The warm air is being steadily eroded by a surge of cool wind, spitting sparse but heavy raindrops in her face. “Now what do I do?”
Lloyd is able to enter the café and walk up to the table before she recognizes him, a little bit of a disappointment, since it is usually easier for her to remember people she likes.
“Well, I have to say, you don’t exactly look lost.”
“That’s because I’m sitting still.” It’s true. She’s learned that this is the ultimate disguise for her disorientation. If you stop moving, no one can tell you don’t know what direction you’re going in.
Seeing him now, Adela realises that Lloyd is a little more weathered than she had thought. The lines around his eyes are a little deeper, the hair on his temples a little greyer, than she had imagined. Even his clothing has a worn quality to it. His leather jacket and his shoes are both scuffed in different places. And, at the moment, they are damp with rain that he doesn’t mention. Doesn’t want to make her feel guilty for calling him for help.
She does, though, feel just a little guilty, because she could just as easily have called Louise, who would have had a car. It’s just that she was with Louise both of the last two nights and doesn’t want to appear dependent. So she called the only other friend’s number she had stored in her phone.
“So you’ve been sitting here, all afternoon, just waiting for me to close the shop?”
Adela nods a little self-consciously.
“Why didn’t you just take a taxi home? It’s not like you don’t know your own address.”
“I’ve had some bad experiences with taxis.” The cab drivers are insidious. They all seem to be able to figure out her problem. Journeys of six blocks have cost her upwards of thirty dollars. Somehow, they always know that she’s at their mercy.
“Well, no worries. I’m sorry I couldn’t come earlier. It got a little bit busy at the end of the day.”
“I’m grateful you were able to come get me at all. I would have had to live here if not.” Smiling, she glances down at her notes from the day, as much as she’s been able to cobble together sitting here for the last hours. “Lloyd… Did you call my cell phone earlier? And get cut off?”
“Someone did. A man, but I’m not sure who.”
“Maybe it was your husband?”
“He’s not my husband.” It comes out so quickly that she hardly has time to think about it. While she and Adam have discussed it and had at some point decided that, some time in the future, they would get married, they’ve never discussed a date, or anything like a plan. There seems to be a gulf between where they are and the festival atmosphere of most weddings she’s gone to. The distinction has always been important to her.
Lloyd smiles a little. “If it was important, they’ll call back, I’m sure. Or they’ll try you at home.” He gives her a slightly curious look. “I don’t mean to pry, but can I ask how you ended up here? I mean, in this neighbourhood. It’s not exactly the kind of place I would picture you having an appointment or anything.”
Adela looks into his clear eyes and tries to imagine how she should explain what she’s been doing and where the boundaries of the explanation would have to fall. A misplaced fiancé, a trip to an underground bunker where she’s accosted by a crazy old man who’s now dead, who gave her some sort of cryptic warning and whose funeral she’s now been roped into attending.
“Oh I don’t know what happened,” she sighs, widening her eyes so that she looks more hare-brained than usual. “I just wanted to go for a walk and before you know it, I’m in the middle of a neighbourhood I’ve never seen before.”
Lloyd smiles and shakes his head. “Well, let’s get you back to your element then.”
Frank’s instructions clearly stated that the funeral service was Monday at two, with guests invited to arrive between one and two in order to sign the registry, leave donations and flowers and take their seats. However at 1:20, when Adela arrives, the place looks as if it’s been deserted. The doors are open and a young man with an inexpertly pierced ear, who looks like he’s fresh out of high school gives her a program and directs her to the correct room, but it turns out she’s entirely alone.
Or almost alone.
At the front of the room is an open casket and Adela can just see the profile of the man lying inside it. She approaches slowly, partly convinced that she must have been directed to the wrong room. If the man was beaten to death, they couldn’t very well be holding an open casket for a man who was beaten to death, could they?
The face in the coffin is hardly recognizable as that of the grizzled man who so frightened her at the Cronos offices. He looks as if he’s received intensive botox treatment on his entire face, or as if he’s been pumped up like a balloon. His face is practically unlined. He has on more make-up than Adela would ever consider wearing, his skin painted and powdered to a cherubic peach glow, his lips strawberry-tinted, his eyebrows immaculately groomed and penciled in black for his big day.
Even through the thick-as-cream-cheese make-up, Adela can still see a few telltale shadows. Bruises that refuse to be entirely obliterated. They must be almost black underneath.
Aside from the indignity of the make-up, which is arguably necessary, the man has been squeezed into a suit several sizes too small to accommodate him. Although the jacket has been left open to disguise this and the pants have been adjusted at the waist (Adela suspects this has been done by simply slicing them open at the back, but doesn’t want to check.), the cuffs of the pant legs rise part way up his shins, showing off most of his socks, and both his shirt and jacket sleeves expose much of his scruffy forearms.
The arms have obviously been left unprepared, being ruddy in colour and still covered in wiry hairs. Considerable, but not entirely successful effort has been taken to correct the crippled left hand. The details of the encounter have not proved difficult for her to remember. On the inside of the right forearm, Adela can see the blurred white lines of a burn scar and, for a second, feels that same rush of fear that she had when he grabbed hold of her in the hallway.
“His brand,” Adela murmurs wryly.
Looking more closely, she’s struck by the apparent non-randomness of the burn. It truly is a brand, but stretched and distorted with age so that the exact placement of the lines is a little difficult to guess. Without thinking, she reaches out and runs her finger along its lines, desperately trying to determine if it follows the same pattern as the one she saw on the arms of the chess club boys the night before. Her memory of seeing their brands is strong enough, but the actual pattern seems to shift every time she tries to picture it. And the one she sees now has become so indistinct, it’s hard for her to tell if she’s not simply trying to connect some unrelated dots.
“Oh there you are,” comes a shockingly high-pitched man’s voice.
Adela is so startled by the voice that it almost blunts her surprise at the man’s appearance. His face is heavily flushed and surrounded by an unevenly distributed mop of curly black hair that does not quite disguise a shiny pink bald spot. He has a strange goatee, sparser on the right side than the left and a pair of glasses so thick she almost believes he has on a pair of goggles. He wears a cheap suit, too snug on his portly frame, Chinese-style slippers and a pair of blue latex gloves.
“Well, go ahead, say it,” he shrills.
“Say it?” Adela stammers, trying to figure out if it’s a trick of the lenses or if his eyes really do point in two different directions.
“If you think you’re being polite, you’re mistaken, young lady.” He wrings his hands a little, looking down at the casket. “I mean, if anyone sees this, I’m going to be the laughing stock of the community.”
Adela wonders vaguely how he would have avoided becoming the laughing stock of the community anyway, but he sounds as if he’s about to cry, so she says nothing and simply nods, trying to figure out exactly what he’s talking about.
“I ask you, what kind of cleaner shrinks a suit that much! And I’ve been giving them business for years!” He presses his tiny hands together in a way that reminds Adela of a squirrel. “And it’s the only suit I have available today! We’re full up!”
“So I guess you didn’t get the notice?”
“The service had to be pushed out until three because the nursing home can’t spare anyone to come over with his sister. They were supposed to let everyone know.”
“Well,” Adela reassures him, gesturing to the empty room, “I think they let everyone know except me.”
“Do you want tea, then? I have a pot of Dong Ding gunpowder ready in my office.”
“I’d love some,” Adela says quietly, trying not to laugh at any of this.
The office is a cluttered little room in the back, strewn with papers and jammed with strange looking furniture. There’s a small hot plate in one corner, not far enough from the papers for Adela’s comfort, and, as promised, a freshly prepared pot of tea.
“What do you take in it?” Her host inquires brightly. “I have some sugar here, although I think most of it spilled last time I was here late, was a terrible mess, because it got kind of damp when I tried to wipe it up and then a bunch of papers got stuck together. YOU try explaining to some grieving mother why her stupid son who managed to get himself killed wrapping his car around a tree can’t be released for burial. No one understands that sometimes these accidents just happen. That they happen to us the same way that they happen to everyone else.” He looks at her meaningfully.
“No,” Adela answers, not sure what she’s supposed to say, “they don’t.”
“Humph. What would you know, you’re not one of us.” He moves some papers around and pushes others so that the cascade onto the floor. “I was sure there were some creamers here as well, let me see… Oh, no, wait.”
He jams a hand into his pants pocket and triumphantly produces several creamers. “I always find them eventually.”
“Really, just plain, with nothing, is fine.”
“Well,” he sniffs, “you might have said so before I went to the trouble.”
“I’m sorry.” Adela tries a polite smile as she watches him puncture the tops of the creamers with a fork that he produces from behind the hot plate. He then turns the creamers upside down and squeezes them, effectively milks them, into his cup.
“I never get tired of that,” he exclaims gleefully. “Just like a cow.”
She quickly casts her glance downward, hoping that he misses the look on her face.
It’s at that point that she notices the furniture. The legs of the table where she is sitting are, in fact, real legs. Not flesh and blood legs, but various prosthetic legs, cut to a uniform height. In fact, as she looks around, much of the room seems to be furnished with limbs. The coat hooks on the wall are hands, as are all the inward facing doorknobs. The arms of the larger chairs are arms.
Adela gasps audibly, fighting to stifle a scream.
“Oh you like the décor?” He gives a delighted and, Adela thinks, slightly insane grin. “I did it all myself with the leftovers.”
“Those things can’t go in the incinerators, you know. They’re made of plastics! They’d bung up the whole works!” Proudly surveying his space, he continues, “It started the first time I had to figure out what to do with a couple of legs. You can’t really hand them off to the family after the service in a shopping bag, so I managed to think of a way that they could still feel useful, even if they weren’t attached to their original owners.”
“They feel useful?”
“Well, I imagine they do now!”
Adela feels her large eyes widen.
“Oh don’t be prissy. I wash them first. Besides, it’s not like I’m taking them while the originals still need them.” He shrugs and adopts a more philosophical tone. “It’s all we are, in the end, just parts. We don’t think anything of it when we use something else’s parts, do we, but for some reason, when it’s a person, even when it’s a fake part of a person, we get all squeamish.”
“I was just surprised, is all,” Adela responds, regaining her breath.
“So how did you know poor old Mr. Porter?”
“I didn’t know him that well. I met him at his job.” The funeral director gives her a quizzical stare and she feels the need to embellish. “He worked with my fiancé.”
“Horrible what was done to him.”
“I heard he was beaten to death.”
“Have you seen what people look like when they’ve been beaten to death, miss?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“It’s the worst way to go. I’ve only seen a few of them, but it’s always sickening. You can see how every blow landed. You can just feel the impact.” He shakes his head sadly. “You know I had to put a marble in his left eye socket? It was almost completely detached when they found him and by the time they got him here there was nothing we could do with it. Just had to cut it loose and make do.”
Adela shudders, imagining the vulnerability of the eyes in an attack. An old man, strong enough for his age, but overpowered, probably outnumbered. Still, the viciousness of an attack on his weakest point disturbs her.
“I had to stuff practically his entire face with foam. There weren’t enough unbroken bones for me to work with. No teeth in the front of his mouth. I mean, what kind of person could do that to another human being?”
“Your furniture is made of other people,” is what Adela thinks, but “I can’t imagine,” is what she says.
“Would you like more tea?”
“No thank you. But it is very nice tea.”
“Crescent Moon café. They only bring in the good stuff and their pricing is dirt cheap. I don’t know how they do it.” He turns one of his eyes towards the ceiling. “Yes, you’re right,” he says, whether to her or the ceiling, Adela can’t tell, “we should go out and get ready. The guests will be arriving soon.”
“Let’s get the party started,” Adela sighs, suddenly wishing that Frank had not thought of her as a potential guest.
While they are no longer completely alone, it would certainly be an exaggeration to describe the room as crowded. The young man who gave Adela directions to the room has come in and is helping a middle-aged Asian woman, taller and heavier than him, move a very elderly woman in a wheelchair to the front of the room. The woman, who Adela assumes is the sister, seems completely unaware of her surroundings, and turns her slack-jawed face from one person to another in utter incomprehension.
While she is positioned at the front of the room, a group of half a dozen women and men in somber but business-like dress, hang at the back, talking amongst themselves. None of them makes any attempt to speak to the sister, the funeral director, or anyone else outside their little circle. They are certainly not of an age that they could have been friends and Adela knows from the notes she took after Frank’s original call that the man had no younger family.
As Adela puzzles over their place in the proceedings, she has an odd tremor in her chest. She knows what this means, it’s happened before. Without any prompt, without any assistance, she realises that one of the people in the small group is known to her. What’s worse, she sees in the next heartbeat, is that she is known to him, as he lifts his eyebrows in greeting. If this is meant to convey surprise, it is a surprise so mild that it hardly matters. This person expects her to be here, but this person, categorically, is not Frank DiPasquale.
She has a moment to evaluate the man, face and form, as he approaches her from the back of the room. In any room, she can imagine that this is a man who is accustomed to having women look at him. Tall and slender, with fine features and dark hair that is starting, in only the most distinguished way, to go grey and turned out in a dark suit and overcoat that murmurs seductively of wealth and privilege, he makes Adela suddenly aware that there was a run in her right stocking when she checked, probably visible just above the heel of her shoe, but that, being in a hurry, she had chosen to wear them anyway.
He smiles easily, in a manner that suggests he is used to disarming others cannier than Adela Landis with that weapon and suddenly she remembers: Julian Baker.
Here, presented for her evaluation, is the man she spent so long trying to find at Cronos only a few days ago, smiling at her as if she’s an old friend.
“Well hello there, Adela,” he says without a hint of wracking his memory for her name. “It’s very decent of you to come. We wanted at least a few people to be here so that-“ he gestures towards the sister, who is having a long stream of drool wiped from her face by her nurse. “We wanted to have a few people here in light of the number of years of service Gerald had with us.”
Adela doesn’t need to know anything about the specifics of Julian’s history to know the general path. His amaranthine aura betrays the story of someone who has always been exceptional, most likely in many aspects of his life, but not least in his sheer physical beauty. Thinking back to the night of their dinner, it occurs to Adela that she had been so overwhelmed by the poise, grace and general exquisiteness of his wife that she had quite missed the man’s own considerable charms. She imagines that once he was young and fresh, but somehow she can also imagine that he and his wife were simply hatched only for the purpose of being matched for each other.
Adela can feel that her skirt has shifted slightly, that the zipper is sitting in the wrong position and wonders if he is able to see that it is not hanging properly.
The cry, like an aggravated sheep, cuts off all other sound in the room. Even Julian Baker turns in its direction.
It’s the sister, pushing at her nurse and motioning shakily towards the coffin. “Angus!” she bleats again.
“No, dear,” the nurse admonishes in a stage whisper, “Angus is dead. That’s Gerald, your brother.”
“Angus is dead, but her brother is in the coffin.” Adela doesn’t even realise that she’s said it out loud until she sees Julian raise a hand to his mouth to cover the beginnings of a laugh he can’t entirely stifle.
“Angus was her husband,” he explains, quickly regaining his composure. “They were married briefly, during the war. Then he joined the army and got killed shortly afterwards. Gerald told me that she never got over it.”
“You spoke to Gerald about his family?” Adela tries to imagine a conversation between Julian, the clothes on his back worth more than a janitor’s monthly salary, and Gerald, his weird brand visible below his filthy shirt sleeve. It seems perverse.
“Of course. It’s one of the things that Cronos expects from its senior people. You talk to everybody. Everyone has a story, something to contribute, something worthwhile hearing about.”
“And that was Gerald’s story?”
“You’d be surprised, but he was a very interesting person.”
Adela feels herself flush at the word “surprised” and its faint rebuke.
“He was a very smart man, a university graduate. Not the kind of mind you would ever expect to have mopping the floors in an office complex.”
“Does Cronos have high standards?”
He smiles gently at her feeble joke. “No. Gerald also had some problems throughout his life. He took what work he could get, so that he could pay for his sister. Her welfare was very important to him.”
“But surely his sister hasn’t been in care that long. I mean, she’s elderly now, but…”
Julian waits until her voice trails off, so there is no question of his having interrupted her. “No, she’s had a lot of health problems for many years. In and out of various hospitals.”
“ANGUS!” She appears to be quite agitated, almost as if she’s trying to stand and bewildered at realizing that her legs refuse to respond.
“If you two could please take your seats, we can get started,” huffs the funeral director.
Julian guides her to two seats a couple of rows back, away from both the sister and the rest of the group, who Adela now assumes are other Cronos employees. None of the others look familiar. Frank is assuredly not among them. Adela sits, isolated from all others, with Julian Baker, his dove grey eyes turned respectfully towards the front of the room. All Adela can think is that she is next to the exact kind of person who would normally go to some lengths to avoid her company. Despite the poor, desecrated body at the front of the room and the wailing, oblivious relative deserving of pity, Adela is occupied only with her seat mate.
“I came by your office,” she mumbles. “To see you.”
Julian looks at her uncomfortably, making her feel how gauche it was to try to start a conversation at that moment. Still, there is no reproach when he answers. “I got a message. I asked my assistant to call you back and see if she could help you.”
“Thank you for coming, ladies and gentleman,” begins the funeral director, with a theatrical flourish.
Adela continues to stare directly at Julian Baker, wondering how much worse it would be to start talking to him about Adam and the trip and the hotel while the service is in process.
“Where’s Angus?” whimpers the old woman.
“Gerald Porter,” the director continues heavily, “was many things to many people. A brother-“ he waves a hand towards the sister, who is clawing at the sides of her wheelchair, “an employee-“ a broad sweep of the Cronos contingent at the back of the room, “and-“ his brow furrows a little as he locks on Adela, “- a trusted friend.”
This, she thinks, is news to her. She glances discreetly at Julian from the corner of her eye, to gauge his reaction, but there is nothing. He seems as respectful as if he were at his own mother’s funeral, as detached as if he were watching a presentation by bankers.
“We knew Gerald Porter as responsible, caring, generous with those he loved.” Adela recalls that she knew Gerald Porter for a few minutes only at the end of a long life, as creepy, aggressive, inexplicable. But remember him she does, without prompting or notes.
“And however he may have touched our lives, we gather today to mourn his untimely passing.”
The nurse attempts to quiet her charge, which only seems to upset the old lady more. Adela can hear her whimpering even as she hears of the passing of a brother she apparently no longer remembers.
The more she listens to the tremulous voice of the funeral director extolling the virtues of Gerald Porter, his exemplary life and unparalleled generosity, the more Adela harkens back to that one encounter. To the feeling of his calloused hand on her arm, the rabid look he gave her and above all, the strange warning. She shouldn’t have been there.
At the time, she took it as a bitter reproach for the fact that she was wandering the halls when she oughtn’t have been, that she was a trespasser. After all, she was there without any kind of permission, in a place that had the atmosphere of one that normally required advanced security clearance. She’d been an extra piece of detritus he’d felt forced to remove.
Then she recalls the scene in Adam’s office area. She can picture, perfectly, the furtive look he gave her, so completely unlike his regard from earlier. It was as if he had become a different person in the space of a few minutes, as if somehow, he had been moved from the enemy camp to hers, as if they shared some unspoken bond. Perhaps, she reflects as the eulogy soars to its contrived climax, he felt as she had felt as he received his rebuke from the assistant. Rather than feeling as if he belonged, he too, for all his tenure, had become a trespasser.
The eulogy ends almost abruptly and the room fills with a tinny recording of “Where Sheep May Safely Graze”. The sister is reduced to tears, but Adela doubts it has anything to do with the words she’s just heard. Through muffled sobs, she can still hear the old woman protesting, “But Angus, Angus…”
She expects Julian to excuse himself to return to the rest of the Cronos group, but he does not. The rest of them leave as if they are no longer cognizant of his existence and he remains sitting next to Adela as the small group of spectators disperses.
“Mr. Baker,” the funeral director gushes, approaching them with his arms spread as if to invite a hug. “I hope that was what you were looking for.”
“Yes, very much. Simple and direct.”
Adela notices the director eyeing her in a slightly tense way and backs off a few steps. The nurse and her charge are making their way, unnoticed, to the back of the room. Julian is occupied with the funeral director and Adela is on her own.
Her body begins to act on her plan before she could even start to articulate what it was. Without thinking, she finds herself moving towards the coffin at the front of the room. With the eyes of everyone else in other directions, she is able to get alongside the body once again and, glancing briefly to make sure that she remains unobserved, she takes her cell phone out of her purse.
Delicately, trying not to attract attention, she draws back the right sleeve of the ill-fitting suit as far as it will go and snaps a photo of the branded skin. She is fidgeting, positioning herself for a clearer shot when she feels the horror of a firm hold on her arm.
With only the vaguest hint of suspicion or curiosity in his grey eyes, Julian Baker smiles in his charming way. “Please, Adela, I recall you don’t drive. Let me give you a lift home.”
Adela feels her whole body go stiff, unsure of how much of her actions he was able to perceive. From his expression, she can ascertain nothing. He leans forward and takes her arm with his hand and she allows him to lead her out of the funeral parlour, outside to the glossy luxury sedan she could have pegged as his from a hundred yards away. British racing green with a light camel-coloured leather interior, replete with gadgets, but not ostentatious.
At the best of times, Adela is befuddled for conversation and this is not, she is painfully aware, her best moment. Although he looks completely at ease, Adela can’t tell how deep that goes. She can’t make herself feel the same way. What’s worse, she can’t think of any way to start conversation and he seems disinclined to do so. Circumvent any awkwardness and come up with a clever excuse for what she was doing? Talk about the horror of what happened to poor Gerald Porter, or her actual impression of him? Ask, perhaps, about the whereabouts of Frank DiPasquale, who had, after all, invited her?
When she finally does think of a valid starting point, she feels almost ashamed that it comes at the end of a list of possible alternatives.
“I came by your office the other day. I was hoping you could help me.”
“Help you?” Said with a gentle, polite curiosity. “How?”
“I wrote down Adam’s hotel wrong and now I can’t get a hold of him.”
“Well certainly I can help you with that. I’ll call my assistant and have her get the information for you. Not a problem.”
“I thought I wrote it down right. I mean, I thought I’d remembered it, but I tried calling and they haven’t heard of him and then no one would help me at the office. They said you were in a meeting.” To her embarrassment, she can feel thick tears behind her eyes, can hear them in her voice.
Julian notices it too, because with a quick, anxious glance in her direction, he adds, “You know, I probably have that written down in my book at home. I think I have all the contact information for that project there. If you wouldn’t mind stopping by, I’m sure I could find it quickly.”
It’s a diminished feeling, this victory, because even though she’ll have what she wants, she feels like she’s played a sort of game to get it. What’s worse, is that she knows she’s not really crying about losing Adam. Her mind is already straying back to the man in the coffin and the scene of the crime. This is what she really wants to know.
Julian’s home turns out to be a loft in a refurbished building, a commanding view of the city available from all of its massive windows. The main room has, as its virtual centerpiece, a full size piano, its ebony surface polished to a lacquered shine. Everything else appears to be done in tones of white and off-white, making the piano stand out all the more.
“It won’t take me a minute to find that,” Julian reassures. “Can I offer you a drink in the meantime? I don’t know if you like scotch, but I have a great bottle that Claire gave me for my last birthday.”
“That would be nice.”
Scotch is something that Adela has always associated, for no reason she can remember, with adulthood. Whenever she’s had it, it always seems terrifically mature, grown up, but also of another era. She can imagine herself in a paneled room in the twenties, sipping and smoking a cigar, discussing the vexations of the stock market or her weekend at the yacht club.
The drink is, as she remembered, smoky and vaguely salty. She sips at it, lounging on an eggshell-coloured sofa with cushions in shades of toffee and buttercream, looking out at the city huddling under the slanted light of late afternoon. Within even a few sips, she can feel the scotch relax her a little, can feel its heat working its way through her bloodstream.
Checking her phone, she is relieved to see that the photo of Gerald’s arm, although a little unclear, is saved. The pattern of the brand is still visible against the skin, although the full pattern is obscured. Looking at the photo, she sees something that she’d previously missed. The fingers of his hand are misshapen, posed in an artificial way. It occurs to her that they were broken when he was dying, as he attempted, pathetically, to block the assault.
Once again, the unchecked brutality grabs her by the throat. She tries to imagine what it would take, with the blood and the cries, to keep going, to finish him off.
“I’m more useless than I feared,” Julian says regretfully, joining her on the sofa. “I have the information on their original hotel, but I know they had to change at the last minute and I’ve left that name and number at the office. I do promise I’ll find it first thing in the morning.” He pauses to take a sip from his own drink and pours a bit more for Adela. “My assistant is out of the office this afternoon, or I’d have her find it now.”
“Oh, tomorrow is fine.”
“You seem very distracted.”
“Sorry, I was drifting.” She pivots to face him, noticing for the first time the stunning portrait, blown up to beyond life size, of Claire that hangs next to the staircase. It’s black and white, her Amazonian figure all the more striking for being done in larger than life proportions. Her chiseled features seem carved from the same stone as the walls. A perfect match for her perfect husband.
“What’s on your mind?”
“How do you keep the piano from fading?” Adela spits it out before she has a proper sense of what exactly it is she’s about to say. “I mean, with all the windows and the light.”
Julian smiles, as if she’s just said something very interesting. “Well, we have a timer that lowers the shades at certain times of the day to keep it protected.”
Adela splutters a little, taking more scotch than she intended.
“You’re concerned about our furniture?”
“Well,” she looks down, feeling a little uncomfortable at his steely-gaze curiosity, “I was thinking about that poor man. About what happened to him.”
“Completely savage, I hope that the police catch whoever it was who did it.”
Adela catches her breath, aware that she was about to say that she’d been to the old man’s home, that she’d seen the outside of the dump he lived in, with the police moving in and out and the crowd of gawking neighbours. She almost tells him that about the man and the woman she saw, obviously not from the neighbourhood, observing the scene, observing her, scaring her off with the weight of their cold eyes and that she suspects, although she hasn’t articulated it even to herself, that these people were from Cronos, there to survey and contain and determine what they would need to do.
She is about to say this, until she looks at his eyes, his lupine eyes, studying her a little too intently, his wife’s eyes behind and above him, taking in the scene from her celestial perch. She can feel those eyes trace a line along her shoulder, up her neck and pause at her lips, hesitating there to know what she is about to confess. In truth, she teeters momentarily on the precipice of confessing everything, in the hopes that Julian Baker can answer all the mysteries that seem to orbit her mind at the moment.
Instead, she chews her lower lip a little and says, “It’s probably for the best that his sister wasn’t aware of what was going on.”
“I would say so. It would have been devastating for her. Look at the effect it has on you thinking about it and you barely knew the man.”
Adela looks at him quickly, feeling her eyes widen like a cartoon character.
“You’re shivering,” he explains, placing a reassuring hand on her arm. “You must be quite sensitive.
She attempts to compose herself, aware that “sensitive” was the word her stepmother used to try to explain her erratic behaviour at school years before. It wasn’t her fault, she was a sensitive girl, the explanation went, just look at her early life, the condition in which she’d been found, the shadowy tale of her parents. “Sensitive” to Adela has always been a code term, meaning there is something wrong with her. She was a teenager before she realised that the word had positive connotations.
Julian pats her arm reassuringly and pours both of them more scotch.
“You were looking at the body, at the end of the service.”
“Morbid curiosity, I guess.”
“I didn’t take a good look myself, but I suspect that they didn’t do a very good job. The director told me that they wouldn’t charge us full price.”
“Well,” Adela furrows her brow a little. “They didn’t quite get the suit size correct. He was sticking out a little.”
“Oh dear.” Both of them laugh a little ashamedly. “It bothered you, seeing the body, didn’t it?”
“More than I thought it would, yes. I thought it would be… My parents were killed in a car accident when I was in high school. But I saw them afterwards and they were fine. You couldn’t tell what had happened. On him… I mean, they’d covered it up, probably as best they could… But you could still see…”
“I’m sorry it distressed you. As I said, it was very decent of you to come.”
Adela is aware of what he has said, but continues on her monologue, with a sort of trance-like fixation. “He even had some kind of burn mark on his arm.”
“On his right arm, you mean?”
“Yes.” Adela is drawn sharply back. Whatever reaction she had expected to get, this sort of matter-of-fact acknowledgment was not it.
“That wasn’t caused by his killers, although I’m sure they inflicted a terrible number of wounds. He’s had that since he started working at Cronos, as far as I can tell from his personnel file.”
“You keep that sort of information on file?”
“Distinguishing marks, yes. It’s a way of protecting our employees, in case anything happens to them. Allows for ease of identification, in case they’re ever hurt or in trouble.”
Julian turns Adela’s arm over in his hands. “Gerald had a brand on his arm,” he says, calmly running his index finger along the inside of her forearm, “right here.”
He places her arm on her lap and regards her with a strange mix of curiosity and apprehension. She tries to imagine him looking at his wife in the same way, touching her arm so casually while they sit here at night, watching the stars and the city, aware of their position above it all. She can’t. She can’t imagine Claire suffering herself to be looked at with anything other than admiration, or tolerating anyone in whom she could see a hint of imperfection.
“Do you want to know what it means?” He smiles, already knowing that it’s the kind of question no one could answer in the negative.
“It wasn’t just his mark?”
“No, I’m afraid that it has to do with a little part of history that Cronos doesn’t talk to much about. But it’s an interesting story all the same.”
“Of course I want to know.”
Julian smiles, as if impressed with his own ability to build tension. “Well, back in the forties and fifties, Cronos was faced with a lot of competition. They’d built up fairly quickly during the war-“
“Yes, exactly. And they’d done fairly well for themselves, as did many companies. Of course in post-war America, there was all sorts of money to go around and there was an even greater demand for weapons, what with the cold war and all. The trick being that everyone was looking for things that were new and groundbreaking, so there was always a lot of competition between companies to figure out the next, greatest way to kill people.
“And, necessarily, there was a lot of competition between companies to hire people. If you were a scientist or an engineer with any talent, you could get yourself a pretty amazing position straight out of school. Some of the good ones were nabbed before they finished their degrees. There were recruiters going around to schools, sniffing out the new blood.”
“I remember hearing something like that.” In fact, the whole story sounds familiar to her, as if he’s reading from a book she knew as a child. “I think that’s even how my uncle got hired, originally.”
“Of course, what was even better than the young and fresh were those who had done some work, who had the experience to know how to work quickly and anticipate problems. People think that corporate espionage came later, but there were real wars going on between manufacturers, stealing employees from each other, or paying people off to tell what their competition was doing.
“But Cronos and most of the companies like Cronos realised that there was a limited talent pool in the US and so they started looking elsewhere. As you can appreciate, that was a little trickier then, because not all that many places were producing world class scientists. So they went to the places that had them, which at the time meant Europe.
“Most people went to England first to do their recruiting, since there was less of a language barrier, but Cronos went to France.”
He pauses to top up Adela’s glass and touches it with his own. His grey eyes rest on her for what seems like a very long time, watching the colour she can feel rising in her cheeks before he continues.
“In the process of recruiting, they ended up in contact with a philosopher by the name of Alexandre Kojeve, one of the architects of the European Union- and a Soviet spy, as it turns out, although you wouldn’t have guessed it at the time.
“A lot of the people who Cronos recruited through him and a group he was involved with were out of luck after the war, because they had been collaborators with Petain’s government and they were terrified that they were going to be thrown in prison or worse if the government found out where they were. So Cronos spirited them out of the country and set them up with new identities in the United States, effectively reinventing them as new people.
“Rescuing French fascists from their own country. More than a little ignoble.”
“Not just French. They picked the cream of the crop from all over Europe, including Germany, if you want to talk ignoble. But you can’t be too harsh on them. After all, even the American government was doing it, importing all manner of experts to increase their knowledge, or just to keep them out of the hands of the Soviets.”
“And eventually they started recruiting janitors as well?”
Julian smiles endearingly. “Not exactly. But all of a sudden, you had these displaced people in a new country, working in a new language- remember that even the ones who spoke English wouldn’t be used to the complicated terminology a scientist requires- away from their families and everything familiar, having survived a war against the people who were now employing them. It must have been hard, especially since many of the people they were working with at their new company were fresh out of the armed forces and had been firing guns at anyone who sounded like them only a few years before.
“So, they did something that was probably understandable- they started socializing together. They moved from social dinners and chess matches to forming little discussion groups, which took on a political bent, because, after all, their political beliefs generally accorded well with each other. And eventually, they started recruiting from outside the original group, started becoming more activist, which wasn’t entirely unwelcome in the political climate of the time, since they were so avowedly anti-socialist.
“For a few years, Cronos became like a political entity. Almost everyone who came to work for the company ended up getting drawn into the political side of it, to the point where it was almost embarrassing. They had monthly meetings that required renting halls. They had all the trappings of a surging political movement, including an emblem that adorned letterhead, banners and even the bodies of some of the members, who, it was rumoured, burned it into their forearm as a sign off their lifetime commitment to the organization.”
“So you’re saying that this man whose funeral we just attended was some kind of fascist?”
“I’m not saying it, his body says it.” Julian responds lightly.
For no reason she could ever fathom, she lunges towards the door as if something is chasing her, as if he is actively trying to restrain her from leaving. She’s outside the building before she realises that she’s been ridiculous, before she realises that she probably had nothing to fear at all.
The cab has stopped and Adela has to fumble through her purse for a few minutes before it occurs to him to turn the light on for her. He has driven her out of the twilight and into the dark without knowing it.
“So what happened to all these people?”
“Well, the political action stopped. Cronos was competing for a lot of government contracts and they couldn’t afford to be seen as a hotbed for any kind of political movement. So they split up the group, moved the leading actors away from each other and brought in some pretty stiff rules about employee conduct to control the rest.”
“But if the group was that entrenched, they must have had people siding with them high up in the company. Why didn’t they resist if their politics were so important?”
Julian shrugs a little. “Maybe they did. But more than likely, they had gotten addicted to the money and they didn’t want to risk that for the sake of political affiliation.”
“Does Cronos tell that story to everyone they hire, or is it just senior people?”
“Cronos doesn’t tell that story to anybody. I think they’d be happy if it were entirely forgotten.”
“So how do you know about it?”
“I did my master’s thesis on the contributions of former enemy experts to the American post-war boom.”
“Was Cronos one of your case studies?”
“No, there isn’t enough research material available on their particular case to build a proper study. They did a remarkable job of covering their tracks. About the only book that was done on the subject was by a professor here. I think it was called “The Mark of the Beast” or something equally melodramatic and it was pretty loose on academic standards, but Cronos still sued it out of existence.”
He turns to her and smiles again, but for just an instant before, he eyes her with a detached curiosity. A cat observing an insect. The momentary coldness sinks into her, crackles through her chest and her brain like an electrical current, disrupting whatever thoughts she might have been having. He reaches out and touches her hand lightly, the larger than life image of his wife frozen in the background, observing them both with her dead eyes.
“Where is your wife?”
He touches her hand again, eyes unwavering, completely without self-consciousness. “She’s in Prague, doing a recital with an orchestral group there.”
Adela is aware that she has had too much to drink. Her head is thick with it, her hands and feet hot and swollen, more than seems reasonable given what she’s actually consumed. Julian watches her, a picture of composure. She can feel herself shaking a little.
Outside, the light has faded a little. The reflection of the sun is still on the sky, but the colours have been stained a little. It’s a fantastic view, the kind that lesser mortals dream of, what every employee who works under Julian at Cronos secretly aspires to, including Adam. Every aspect of life burnished to perfection.
She feels her head incline backwards, a reaction, she realises almost as an afterthought, to the sensation of fingers in her hair, massaging the back of her head, coiling through her hair and pressing against her skin. She feels herself being rolled towards another body, a boat pushed on by an unseen ocean.
Julian doesn’t grab at her, doesn’t force himself close but just winds himself closer, so that she can feel the warmth of him through the perfectly pressed linen of his shirt. Even up close, he is without flaws. Even the hints of grey in his hair seem like sparkling highlights against the black background. Adela can’t imagine the beauty of any children he and his wife would produce. They would be too much for the world.
It’s a beautiful view.
Adela is aware of how much she wants him to kiss her, how much she would like to be kissed by this perfect person. He turns towards her, inky lashes waving flirtatiously, but makes no move beyond that. It’s too much, the idea that anything could happen. Adam’s boss, a man married to a real beauty, to his equal. Adela doesn’t belong here.
“I have to go,” she whispers, awkwardly disengaging herself.
She thinks she catches a look of shock, just in passing, before Julian’s mask settles in.
“Are you sure? You’re welcome to stay a while.”
“I have to go,” she repeats dumbly.
“All right, let me call you a taxi.”
“No,” she insists, backing towards the door without taking her eyes from him. “I’ll be fine, I’ll walk.”
“Adela, don’t be silly, let me call you a taxi.”
Still, she rushes several blocks, sweeping past well-heeled couples and groups slipping from the doors of buildings into waiting taxis, people who she can imagine sitting in the loft she exited moments before, sipping wine, the proper courtiers for the setting. Her presence in that space is aberrant.
It’s several blocks before the static storm in her head dissipates enough for her to realise that she has a much more pressing problem. She has no idea where she is. Buildings loom up at strange angles to each other, forming a protective wall between her and the city, defending the neighbourhood from its surroundings. Here is nothing she knows. Here has nothing she wants.
She sees the cabs pulling away from the buildings, all of them carrying smooth, burnished people off into the washed-ink stain twilight. Furtively, she moves up to one of the buildings, ignoring the bloodshot judgment in the eyes of the doorman and crawls into the back of the first taxi that arrives. She expects an argument, that he’ll ask what apartment she’s from, but he says nothing, he mutters into his headset, too absorbed in his own conversation to worry if he’s just picked up the wrong customer. They’re four blocks away by the time he remembers to ask her where she’s going.
“Do you know Moebius?” she asks, struck with the desire to be anywhere but home, to be anything but alone. Perhaps, she reassures herself, Lloyd will be there. Perhaps Louise will be curious again and turn up. At the least, David and his chess club will be there.
The driver nods and they are off, smoothly floating through the space of the city, well-manicured homes giving way to the first lights of the evening, strange electric blooms low in the sky. The road grows wider, louder, the people outside are garish, younger and Adela feels herself becoming more timid, intimidated. This is not what she needs for comfort.
She can feel the alcohol still, sparking in her blood, rearranging the circuitry in her brain. Maybe it would be better to go home. The apartment, with its reassuring citrus and lanoline cleaner scents, with its familiar cushions and the bed she claims as her personal province, although she’d never tell Adam that. And with its strange groans and pops from the floors and walls, the scrabbling of ghostly tree-fingers against the windows, the voices boiling over from the flat downstairs, she knows that she couldn’t handle it. Every rattle of a branch against the window, every chuckle from the heaters, every sigh from the wainscoting in the office will ricochet around her brain, will ratchet up her nerves that much more.
Julian had looked so confused, so politely confused as she had backed away, had reached out, without reaching at all, as she recoiled from him. What had he been thinking? Backing away and still feeling the hot pressure points of fingertips, his, on her neck. Adela twists a little in her seat to shake off the echo of that sensation. What had he been thinking, there under the blue star eyes of his Venus de Milo wife, off running her elegant fingers over ivory in Prague?
She shakes her head, to clear the dragonflies of thought that seem to be crackling around her. Prague? How did that of all things stick with her? What had he said? The story, about Cronos, about the Nazis and their scientists. Werner von Braun, she thought, she remembered his story well enough, heard years before at a college ethics seminar. The ethics of the nation state. Can governments truly be ethical? What was that doing there, this stray memory of her, pearls and sweaters, lost years ago? She’d gotten an A in that course. The professor seemed surprised that she could answer, he’d been warned about her problems. He’d been cautioned to be gentle with her, but had told her in his gruff manner that she wouldn’t receive any special consideration. Everyone has problems was how he put it. She heard later that his wife had left him the previous summer for one of his doctoral students. Everyone has problems. At first, it had seemed to irritate him more that she was so capable. She’d won him over.
“This is it.”
Moebius is lively, although she knows it’s still early.
There’s a pulse through the bar from the bass in the music. Even more than she remembered, it looks like a den in someone’s basement, draperies and moldering sofas, a dilapidated clientele hung from the corners, familiar to each other, not to Adela. Louise is not here, nor Lloyd, not even the Chess Club is here. She takes a seat at the bar to wait.
“Welcome back,” the bartender greets her, his lupine features lit in almost warmth. Everything about him is sharp. His nose, his jaw, his narrow shoulders, all jagged against the slightly softened, worn backdrop of Moebius.
“You don’t look like you belong there,” she thinks, almost says aloud.
Even the intensity of his dark stare cuts at her, dislodges her from her moorings. Julian would be mismatched here in almost the same way, would cut through the pleasant haze of the surroundings like the prow of a ship separates the water. She’d like to explain that to the bartender, but she knows it wouldn’t come out the way that she wants. So she orders a drink instead. Vodka and soda. It comes with a slice of lime and a slice of cucumber. The expected and the unexpected. She can taste both.
She can feel it moving to her blood right away and, to steady herself, she tries to remember what it is she’s eaten today, what she had for lunch, for supper. But she hasn’t had supper. Somehow, she’s missed it, because of the funeral and Julian. She’s there in Moebius, having spent the afternoon at a funeral, then at Julian’s, having a drink, looking out over the domain of the city. She tries to remember if she could see the verdant canopy of Cronos, but it seems she couldn’t. Or she isn’t remembering it properly. She’s not sure she would have known it. She’s missed supper.
“You here alone tonight?”
The bartender pours them each a shot, indicating it’s his treat. She doesn’t bother to ask what it is that burns the inside of her mouth and throat like an isotope. It doesn’t matter. She nods and says, yes, she is on her own. He gives her the same skeletal smile as earlier.
“You need anything, you just ask.”
There’s a cadence to his voice that doesn’t fit here either. Foreign to the room, she thinks, but foreign in general. He has an accent, rich and dark, like natural chocolate, the kind her uncle would bring her from his business trips to Europe throughout her childhood. Looking at his eyes, she can imagine them made from that same, rich cacao, its bitterness mellowed only slightly.
“I’d love to taste your eyes.” She doesn’t realise, for a moment, that she’s said it out loud, not until she sees his heavy lids flutter in amazement.
“I haven’t been told that before,” he laughs.
She wants to explain to him about the chocolate, that this is what his eyes had put her in mind of, but he’s off to serve some new customers now, a couple of younger, fresher, prettier things. She can’t blame him for choosing them, their skin glowing like amber, even in the dim lights of Moebius.
She’d been thinking about her uncle. It’s been a while since she’s spoken to him, she thinks. Longer than she’s used to. Or had he called and left a message? Calling, always, to check up, to make sure that she isn’t coming off the rails, because, although he might have trusted Adam enough, might have been impressed enough at his ability to keep her grounded, she knows he’s expecting it to disintegrate, expecting that he’ll once again have to come and collect her, as he has before.
“You’ll come and stay with me,” was all he said, tonelessly, without looking at her, standing in the hallway of the home of her second set of dead parents.
Adela was a teenager then, capable of understanding this intervention of fate. She just couldn’t understand what she’d done. Her Uncle Joe, Joseph to everyone else, stood there, finally cutting his blue eyes towards her, trying, she could tell, not to pity. He knew her well enough to know that wasn’t what she wanted. “You’ll come and stay with me.”
And she did.
“You OK still?” The bartender is back, dark stars of eyes on her again, as if he’d never left, as if he’d been looking forward to getting back to her, which is ridiculous, she knows.
She shrugs, unable to think of anything clever to say, still aware that she’s fresh off saying something stupid, something about tasting him. So unlike her.
He takes it as a cue to refill her drink, which she doesn’t resist.
“You know I was actually orphaned twice?” she blurts, laughing a little.
“Twice?” he smiles quizzically. “Me, only once.”
“You’re an orphan too?”
He bows a little. “Since seventeen.”
She wishes she could place his accent, almost French, almost Italian, decidedly not Spanish, but like that.
“How does someone get orphaned twice?”
“My parents, my adoptive parents, were killed in a car crash. I was fourteen.” She chokes a little, thinking of what must come next, the prequel. Why is she talking about this to a stranger? “My parents, my birth parents-“ she tries, always, to avoid the term “real parents”, but almost stumbles here, “were… when I was very young. Maybe two.”
“They were what?” He leans closer, as if he’s missed what she’s said, unaware that the ellipsis was in her speech. Her parents were what?
“They died suddenly.”
“Really?” He looks at her full of sympathy and sorrow and she thinks she’d like to bite him. Joe knew better than to look at her like that, even while she stood in the home of her second suddenly-dead parents.
Or her first.
After all, her first parents weren’t necessarily dead. They were legally dead, severed from their daughter, but nothing more. She knew the story, had asked what it meant, that errant cloth strip of memory, unmatched to anything else in the house. She’d asked her mother about it.
Adela, terribly young, crying for no reason she knows, standing on her own in an almost bare room she can’t remember from anywhere else. And the woman in the brown suit walks in to collect her. The brown suit that scratches her tear-chafed cheek.
Why was I crying?
Where was that room?
Who was that woman? (At first, she’d imagined it to be her mother, except that her mother never wore brown, hated brown.)
The music grows louder, closer, larger and the crowd in the bar seems to sway towards the back room, towards some action there. The bartender has gone to the far end, even, stretching his egret’s neck a little to watch.
“You were crying because you’d been left alone. The room was in the apartment where you lived. The woman was a social worker.”
She doesn’t think it came out quite so matter-of-factly, but it did come out.
“Why was I living alone?”
Adela, still young, still a child, could not imagine how she had been looking after herself years earlier. What had happened to bring her back to such utter dependence?
The crowd is happy, jovially taking in the scene in the back room, the movements of a dark-haired woman, amazon-tall, coiling around the pole at the centre of the stage. Adela can see why, since her eyes, once they can make out what it is she’s watching, drain back the beauty of the movements with a greedy relish.
Somehow, Adela knows that this is not the same dancer she’s seen here before. Without being able to call to mind any features, she simply has an impression of listless, somewhat disinterested movements, smoke curling its way from the edge of a cigarette towards an open window. This woman moves differently, like the shadows of birds in flight. No wonder the patrons clamour for her. The bartender inclines his head even further to the side, the vertebrae popping along the back of his neck, visible even from Adela’s seat further down the bar.
She’d been explaining to him about her parents, all of them. The memory of the woman, coming for her when she wailed. Of gripping her father’s hand, her second father, at the moment he became her father, at the Hill of Crosses. They’d found nothing. They’d come looking- her mother was still looking over her shoulder as they approached the hill- and found nothing. That was the grave of her first parents and it would take years for her to realise that it was no such thing. That was where she had let them go. Years later, she’d thought to ask her uncle if he knew more, but decided against it. She was happy being taken in.
“The dancer moves like a snake,” Adela thinks, or maybe she says it, although with no one there to hear it hardly makes a difference. She smarts a little at the triteness of the analogy, the standard description for the coiling, boneless movements that charaterise this sort of performance. But she is a snake, the cappuccino skin of her face becoming scaly, deep seaweed green and indigo over her body. And the more she moves, the more her outer skins are sloughed, the more her undulations seem to coax a snake from the depths of the curves of her body.
Adela looks around for the people she came with and finds herself quite alone, abandoned. The bartender is not looking back to see if she’s still there. Who was she with when she arrived?
She’s punctured by the recollection of the afternoon, of Julian’s strangely mask-like face, unmoving and still speaking. Her own ignominious retreat from his contemporary castle. She tries to imagine his expression, his reaction, watching the dancer here. She can remember his eyes, flitting around slightly, looking for something, telling her the story of the evil in Cronos.
Her uncle, composed as always in his flawless worsted suits, came to her parents’, his sister and brother-in-law’s, funeral and stayed near the back of the room, away from the caskets, even though they were closed and, Adela realised even at the time, probably empty. He watched the others there pay reverence to the hollow boxes and then ushered her into his car to go home. The two of them sat, uncomfortably full of silence, alongside and distant, both looking to the driver for some assistance that never came.
He didn’t show her to her own room when they got home, but just let her pick a place to settle, without looking at her, without offering the sympathy that might have been expected. Perhaps he thought that they hadn’t meant so much, being her adoptive parents. Or that she’d become inured to the pain of losing parents after the first time. Later, while they sat, dead silent, pretending to eat dinner together, he wouldn’t stop looking at her, those piercing blue eyes cutting right into her mandible as she mimed the motions of chewing what the pleasant Guatamalan cook had prepared for them, that stare, dissecting baby fat from adult bone underneath, wondering what was to be done with her. The acute sensation of being a burden, of being demanding, of being the demon who’s slipped in through the open window.
And when she’d finally tired of playacting eating, she’d looked up and dropped her cutlery with a loud clatter, to which he’d answered, emptily, “Now what?”
The show is over, at least, for the moment, the dancer coiled low around the base of the pole, her plum-coloured nipples like eyes staring back at the admiring crowd. Adela feels the group sway backwards, catching its collective breath, hovering still, waiting for the cue to resume movement or fall back under the spell, to act or remain enchanted.
In one unbroken movement, the dancer raises herself and salutes the crowd, releasing them with a wave of the hand that seems to cut the strings that bind them to her. The bartender seems almost to stumble backwards until he is directly in front of Adela.
How did she end up here? Who is she supposed to be with?
The room is moving, now, bifurcating into smaller groups, their unity shattered.
How did Adela end up here?
The bartender smiles slightly, his dark chocolate eyes warming a little, she is almost certain.
“Now what?” she asks, reaching forward slightly and tracing the contour of his cheekbone with her hand.
Sensing him start to pull back, she digs her claws into his skin just slightly. Enough to send a signal, enough to stop him. She wants to know what comes next. She wants to know that there is something of some importance that comes next.
At the far end of the bar, there’s a young couple, their disheveled clothing piling from one into the other, tongues flicking between two white faces, long fingers pulling through layers of jersey and polyester.
“Can I get you another drink?” the bartender drawls, taking her hands in his and removing them from his face.
Simultaneously, she can feel every point at which his skin is in contact with hers. On her neck, she can feel that hand on her neck, Julian’s hand, pulling her backwards, into that afternoon, into that story and into that flash of desire for him, that moment of wanting to smear herself against him, to break his smooth perfection, make him smudged and worn and damaged.
“Do you want to come home with me?”
He smiles as if he hasn’t quite heard what she’s said, or as if it didn’t make sense. For a second, she struggles to find what she really means.
“Can I take you home with me?”
He twists his hand away and gives another gentle smile, patting her lightly on the cheek. It surprises her how much like lightly dampened cloth, how little like skin, his hand feels. How it lacks the heat of moving blood underneath, the pulse. She wants to rest her head there, to keep something close, but it drops away, lifeless and his smile has faded to ill-masked pity when she looks back up. She knows from his expression that her eyes are still begging, still refusing to back down entirely. Part of her is still hanging on to him. Please.
She eyes the corner where the young couple were groping each other, but they’re gone, leaving, strangely, a lone slouchy woman’s boot and a man’s wallet and chain, the last link of the chain severed crudely, as if it’s been wrenched or bitten in half.
She grabs the drink that’s materialized beside her, a consolation offering, and leans closer to see the abandoned remnants of a teenaged tryst, wondering, even through the swampy mire of too much alcohol, how heated things could have become, that they would have lost track of a boot and had a wallet wrenched away. There are drops of what might be old paint near the sofa, near the leftovers.
“The sofa’s eating people,” she says to no one in particular. A woman in conversation with two men pivots sharply in her direction, expression confused, but her dark eyes charged with curiosity.
Adela realises that it’s the snake-woman, the dancer, her reptilian skin coming into focus under a sliver of light.
“The sofa,” Adela gestures feebly towards the leftovers, “is eating people.”
She’s aware sharply, of how ridiculous this sounds and simultaneously aware of the fact that she’s fresh from embarrassing herself in front of the bartender. The dancer smiles, her interest acute, but does not move in such a way as to invite Adela into the group. Behind her, only severe, mildly curious faces, perhaps resenting her distracting the dancer’s attention from them. It’s a second before she sees Julian’s face, cut as it is by shadows.
“You’re here?” she hears herself slur and moves towards him, only to have the kaleidoscope shift around her and change him to someone else when she looks up. “No, wait…”
The room shifts a little, so that she can once again see the spot next to the sofa where she had been looking. Where did those people go? There and then gone and leaving these hints. She wants to know where they are now, but can’t think of why it’s suddenly so important, so very important. Or why she had been so relieved for a moment to see Julian, before he had been replaced by someone else. Perhaps there was something she’d wanted to ask him, something he’d left out when he was talking to her, exposing an underbelly.
She thinks to call someone, her uncle, it would have been once, to call and wake him up and let him hear the condition she’s in, mocking his position as surrogate parent. Now who? She’d like Adam to hear her. She’d like to tell him what she’s thinking at this moment, what she’s been thinking for hours.
She can’t remember if Adam’s ever seen her drunk, although it seems he must have at some point. At least, he’s seen her fall from what little grace she tries to project, seen her collapse, laughing and crying and unable to explain, all rattling and unmendable. This would be nothing. Or perhaps it would be, being a new manifestation, something he hasn’t had to collect the pieces of yet.
It’s hot, thick and dry with heat in the apartment and, despite some vague sense of forboding, Adela opens the window, almost falling through it when she does, hitting the screen and seeing it fall like a shadow body, to the ground, scattering other shadow-bodies on its landing.
“I see you! I know you’re out there!” she cries at the shadows. Below, one lone figure turns its face upward in response, a twisted satyr’s mask, its primeval expression compelling her to step back from the window and pull the curtains tight shut.
It’s no use, of course. The figure outside is sentinel, not shock troop, the truth is that her home has already been infiltrated. Even now, she can catch the woodsy, musky scent of an outsider, the trace of an intruder. When she closes her eyes, there are others around her, dark-eyed monsters dipping low to prod at her and pull her away from her moorings. When she closes her eyes, she can almost see the telltale signs, the alterations that have been made in the monsters’ passing. But when her eyes are open, nothing is clear. Then, there is only the scent of bark and resin and the knowledge that some change has been made.
Eyes closed again, she can see herself, composed and poised, sitting by the side of the lake, the same lake she always sees, olivine willows drip gracefully towards the surface, where she sits, looking at Julian, polished as ever, the two lone humans on the tableau. And for a moment, she can believe in the tranquility reflected back from his opalescent eyes, until her mind settles and once again, there are the earthy noises of animals and life around them, and she notices the sky gone dove grey, presaging rain.
Eyes open, the house is at peace, as much as it ever is, the familiar creaks and taps punctuating the monotonous flow of words coming from the flat below. There is something else she should know about going on, but the voice twists on itself every time she tries to get the message. She can feel the sensation of her gut twisting tighter with each breath, can taste the parched filth of her mouth.
She can feel the movement of water, the natural tug of the seemingly placid lake, underneath her, can feel its insistence even as she tries to hold herself perfectly still against it. Somehow, she knows that this is a lost cause, but the idea of releasing herself to the natural motion around her seems far more dangerous. Either way, she knows that this struggle eventually ends up with her lunging for the bathroom in a panic.
When she straightens up, still shaky and depleted and knowing there may be more to come, she becomes aware of something on the bathroom mirror, a smudge from one of the beasts, a fingerprint.
She turns on the light, partly expecting that this will dissolve it, but, strangely, it persists, a message scrawled in a waxy red-plum colour that Adela suspects is the lipstick she was wearing yesterday.
“The Mark of the Beast”- Cronos- book- ask
“Ask what?” She actually says it to the mirror, as if her reflected self will be able to answer. There is something unsettlingly familiar about what is written, although she can’t even be certain it’s her own handwriting, distorted and oversize. “Ask what?” she mutters again, wiping her face off.
Unable to face the challenge of staying upright, Adela creeps along the wall, feeling her way out of the bathroom, the strange lipstick trace still scratching at her brain. She’d been out last night. She’d obviously, from her current condition, been drinking last night. She closes her eyes, something that usually helps her to get a visual image, but immediately, the world starts to list, as if she’s come loose and has been cast out on the ocean. The world pitches and rolls and Adela opens her eyes again to grasp for stability.
Just as her eyelids flutter between closed and open, she catches a strange stray image. Herself and a man, not Adam, sitting together in an open boat on the water, facing each other. So who else but Adam, then? She knows that her mind sometimes muddles people, sometimes distorts them, but in this case, she cannot make Adam’s rounded face, his slightly stooped posture, his cool indifferent brow, map properly onto the refined bones on the face she sees in her mind. He has an identity. She simply hasn’t found it yet.
“The Mark of the Beast”. It sounds like some sort of joke, the a silly religious tract or a flaky album title. So why the link with Cronos? For a moment, she is transported back into the sterile underground halls, the incomprehensible webbing of the Cronos office. She’d been looking for Adam, looking for clues to his location, his heartless disappearance, in the company labyrinth, until.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
The voice comes back to her in its unflinching clarity, with all the sharp edges and hard angles of the original. The old man, gripping her arm and throttling her with those eyes, those storm-on-the-horizon eyes, the old man, sucked from that scene, from that live-wire moment, life drained from him, lying dead but still perplexing in the funeral home.
“I did it all myself with the leftovers,” says the funeral director, interjecting himself straight through the mangled body of her memory. She pictures him leaving the funeral home at the end of the day, his chubby form packed into a car made of leftovers he can’t easily place in his office. She knows the old man’s eyes would be the headlights.
You shouldn’t be here.
And, Adela knows, she shouldn’t. She has no foothold in this world, no birthright that entitles her or accomplishment that justifies her position. Cronos and oceanic expanse is not the property of, is not commanded by, one person. She knows only that her uncle is important. More important than Adam, certainly, and more important even than Julian Baker, the golden child parachuted in to run the division.
Julian Baker. Adela feels her pupils narrow, feels her focus sharpen through the swampy most that seems to encase her corneas. Julian Baker. She can see them perfectly, dressed as if for tea, or an afternoon at the Ascot in a bygone era, each poised and perfect and facing each other with the water, reflecting the darkening sky. Adela has never been so composed, so elegant in her life. For that breathless instant, she belongs.
Julian Baker. Aching, Adela crawls back so that she can see the message on the mirror again.
“The Mark of the Beast”- Cronos- book- ask
“Ask who?” she snaps at the glass. “Ask what?”
Ask Julian? It’s an occasional trick of her mind that thoughts are diced up together when they have nothing, really to link them, but somehow, she feels that there is some bridge. She can almost here his voice, that soft, insistent voice, reading the message to her. Almost. She can at least imagine him perfectly saying “The Mark of the Beast”, one of those odd little clips that catches a fish-hook inside her mind, while she thrashes in the water to grab onto the rest of the scenery.
The water around the two of them that she can see is the lake she always seems to be looking at during those periods that pass for sleep, but which never seem like they are entirely encased in the cabinet most people call dreaming. She’s seeing it from a different angle, not staring across it, looking at the world from an isolated post. Perhaps this is the end of the trip. Perhaps Julian has brought her here.
Words seem to fall into her lap with an almost tangible weight.
“I think it was called “The Mark of the Beast” or something equally melodramatic and it was pretty loose on academic standards, but Cronos still sued it out of existence.”
The whole phrase, almost lyrical, in Julian Baker’s voice, the image of his face, close, his crystalline eyes focused on some point beyond sight, telling her a story, a story about a book. A book and Cronos and an image of her sitting alone with Julian and nothing else. But a memory nonetheless. Something that has happened, the reality of which she can feel stirring in her.
Book. Cronos. Understood. Ask? Like the seeker before the magical gates, she knows neither the question nor the answer and cannot think of who can help. It takes some effort for her to reach across the floor where, she notices for the first time, her purse is splayed like a dead animal, its insides revealed and no longer entirely contained. Her phone is caught in the lining, its battery light blinking accusatorially. There are no pictures from the night before, which she had been counting on for hints. Instead, there is a single shot of a disembodied arm, marked with a peculiar sort of burn, something she’s seen before but which doesn’t seem important at the moment. No further hints as to the origin of the message or what and who must be asked.
A scan through the phone’s contact list, another place that has been known to yield information, reveals nothing new. The freshest entries are those belonging to Lloyd and Louise, who she is fairly certain know nothing of her activity the previous night. And still, these are the only people she can think of to call, with Adam still off in the ether. Her finger hovers momentarily between the two names, side by side as they are, until a decision seems to make itself.
“Lloyd?” she mumbles in response to the scratchy-voiced greeting. “It’s Adela.”
“Well hello there. How was your funeral?”
For a second, Adela can imagine herself in a casket, staring paralysed and desperate at the mourners pausing to look down on her, unable to see that she is begging to be freed.
“Was… fine… I guess…” In truth, she has only a vague notion of what he is talking about, and doesn’t want to get sidetracked thinking about it until she has managed to form her question. “Lloyd, have you ever heard of a book called ‘The Mark of the Beast’?”
“About twenty of them. Mostly stuff on Satanism or heavy metal. Which topic were you interested in?”
“Neither. The book I’m thinking of is about Cronos, I think.”
“Don’t think I know that one.”
Adela feels the air sucked out of her, suddenly dropping her back to the bottom rung of a ladder she’d hoped to ascend.
“Oh wait,” Lloyd continues, after a lengthy pause. “You don’t mean ‘Remaking the Beast’, do you?”
“I’m not sure I know what I mean. Just a book I wanted to find on Cronos. Someone recommended it to me.”
“Well if that someone has a copy he’d like to part with, tell him I have a couple of rare book dealer friends who would be willing to give him a very good price, pretty much regardless of condition. That thing’s been out of print since practically before it came out. It was sort of a scandal when it happened. The poor bastard who ran the publishing company ended up going nuts and killing himself, I think. And the company basically went bankrupt in a rather valiant attempt to defend itself legally.”
“So this book is hard to find?”
“No. This book is almost impossible to find. I wasn’t kidding about knowing people who’d pay good money for it. I’ve never even seen a copy and it was a local job.”
“The publisher was local or the author was?”
“Both, I think. Written by a university professor, although I can’t remember his name. What brought this up all of a sudden? You can’t seriously have had someone recommend the book to you. It’s one of those things where only advance copies sent for review survived. The publication holocaust was complete.”
“It was mentioned to me. I’ve no idea if the person who mentioned it read it or not and, even if he had a copy, I don’t think he needs the money. You seem to know a bit about it though.”
“Ah, my rebellious youth. I remember when the book was banned. Got Cronos some pretty bad publicity locally, because it really did look like them beating up on the small time local guy. But I don’t think the story got much beyond here, unfortunately. No offense to your family, but they could have used a little public smack.”
“I don’t take it personally.”
“Professor Geoffrey McCormick.”
“The wonders of leaving the web browser open at work. I just looked it up and that’s the name of your author. Professor Geoffrey McCormick. And the name of the publisher was Sean Callaghan. Hung himself less than a year after the book’s release, looks like.”
“The curse of Cronos,” Adela jibes grimly. “Or at least, the curse of criticizing them.”
There’s an extended pause, which Adela takes as awkward, until Lloyd finally chimes in with, “Well, surprisingly enough, it looks like someone dodged the curse.”
“Your professor McCormick is still listed on staff at the university.”
“Well, I don’t know how often the university updates its web site, but my guess is that it’s at least recent. He’s listed as part of the History faculty.”
“Wonder if he keeps office hours.”
“Can I ask why this is suddenly so important?”
“I’m not sure I can really remember, but I left a note for myself last night, so there must have been something that made me want to find that book.”
“Good luck then. Remember, if you find a copy, I know buyers.”
The university campus seems to want to exist in its own leafy solitude, away from the drudgery of daily city life, but, squished as it is between middle class residential streets, some of the some of the attendant ordinariness has rubbed off. As much as it shrinks from the road and hides among its trees, it cannot quite compare to other campuses, refined and removed on mountainsides or deep in parks. It allows itself to great a proximity to the dirty world.
Adela steps out of her taxi, aware that she looks like she’s attempting to pass for a student, with her layered sweaters and comfortable tights, her eyes shielded from the daylight assault by the largest, darkest sunglasses in her collection. Plenty of real students are making their way around the grounds in similar get-up, a number of them probably in similarly rough shape from the night before. As she often does, Adela blends into the background as she makes her way through the corridors, searching out the office of Professor Geoffrey McCormick.
Far from the idyllic groves of imaginary academe, the hallways are marked by a sort of seventies-era institutional aura, all taupe and beige with an anathema for natural light. The bodies trudging through these corridors are visibly stooped, as if the pursuit of a degree has laid them low with both depression and rickets.
Prof. McCormick’s office is in a claustrophobic passage off another passage, giving Adela the sudden feeling that she has plunged into an oversized rabbit warren. The figure hunched over an ancient-looking computer terminal in the corner does little to call to mind a loftier idea of education. In fact, when he turns, he appears almost rodent-like himself, with pinched little facial features and rounded ears project from his head. He squints at her suspiciously through a pair of surprisingly fashionable horn-rimmed glasses.
“Well, what do you want?” he barks, so loudly that Adela feels herself jump.
His sharp eyes switch up and down her figure several times, still cautious, almost threatening in their appraisal.
“I said papers wouldn’t be ready for pick-up until next week. What do you want?”
“I’m not a student,” Adela croaks.
“What?” He sounds as if she’s insulted him and the eyes show burgundy sparks from their dark centres.
“I’m here to talk to you about your book.”
He pivots to face her a little, his hostility still present, but perhaps tempered, she hopes, by a hint of curiosity and egotism. “Which one?”
“’Remaking the Beast’.”
This appears to be the wrong answer, because he springs up in a shocking motion, grabbing her arm and jerking her to one side, while at the same time pulling the door to the closet-like room shut.
“What on earth do you want to know about that for?” Adela can’t determine if he’s fretting or angry.
“I had someone mention it to me.”
“Do you always hunt down the authors of books that people mention in passing?” His voice rises excitedly, which makes Adela think that she is about to be thrown out of the place. He stands very close, rat-like eyes honed in on her.
Adela senses that she needs to make her answer much better than what she can actually remember, which is that she thinks Julian Baker said something about the book and that interested her enough that she held it, without notes, in memory for the rest of the day and left herself a reminder even in the stupor in which she had arrived home.
“I was at a funeral yesterday,” she begins, giving the last fact she has recorded in her notebook.
“Well that’s just fascinating.”
“I was talking to someone there and he mentioned the book.”
“Yes, I understand, someone mentioned my book to you, you said that already, but what I want to know is what brings you here to talk to me about a book you can’t possibly have read.”
“Because the book is out of print.”
“Well,” he grumbles, easing the revolver of resentment just a little further back, “if you could say it was ever in print, then I suppose that’s accurate.”
“Cronos forced the book out of circulation.”
For the first time, Adela believes that he doesn’t quite hate her. At least, she has the sense that she’s finally said something that he finds interesting.
“Yes. They didn’t like what it said about their history.”
“You must have known that you were at risk of angering them when you were working on the book.”
The Professor gives an exaggerated shrug. “Well, no one likes to have their bloomers hung in the public gardens, but when I was working on it, I talked to enough people there that I figured they would have mentioned that they had a problem with it before the book went to press.”
“But they didn’t?”
He motions to her to sit down and returns to his chair. “Not a word. I didn’t ever ask, but I sort of assumed that I had their tacit approval. I was researching for months, talking to people who’d been with the company a long time, talking to former employees, everything. Then the book goes to press and all of a sudden, my publisher and I have an army of corporate lawyers squaring off against us.”
“Perhaps they didn’t like the end result?”
“I guess not. They drove Sean’s business into the ground in a few months and drove him right into the deep end- I’ve always thought that was a much better expression than ‘off’ the deep end. More complaints against the book than we could count, new ones coming every day, piles of them. And none of them should have been able to stand up in court.”
“But some did?”
“They never went to court, but a number of the people I interviewed signed claims saying I’d altered what they said, or that I had faked the requests giving permission to publish their statements.”
“You think they were bullied?”
“Well of course they were. Funny, still living here, after all this time, I see those people occasionally- see them avert their eyes in the grocery store, hoping I don’t remember who they are. If they duck from me, I can’t imagine how they act when they see Sean’s wife.”
“Why do you think Cronos turned on you?”
“Someone dropped the ball, I guess. Someone didn’t properly explain to management what it was that I was doing and when they found out, they had to react quickly.”
Adela shakes her head. “They don’t drop the ball. Everything is… transparent… there, at least from certain vantage points. They had to know what you were doing, unless you hid something from them.”
“Why would I have hidden anything from them?” he snorts indignantly. “As far as I was concerned, I was writing about something that happened in their past, something that maybe they shouldn’t have been proud of, but their own board drove those people out, broke up their little social club. They’d ostensibly done the right thing, even if they had ended up profiting from it.”
“Social club…” Adela can’t entirely hide the questioning in her voice.
“You don’t mean to tell me that you don’t know what the book was about?”
“I know it’s about Cronos and that they had it buried. I can’t…” She gestures rather than explain that she can’t remember something that was said to her yesterday.
Professor McCormick gives her a cold hard stare. “Who are you, really?”
The question hits Adela like a stone. She can’t even begin to give a sensible answer. “I’m nobody.”
“How nihilist. Well, Miss Nobody, what is it that interests you about my book?”
“I want to understand more about Cronos. There’s something about them that… I want to know what it is that scared them so much.”
“Whose funeral was it?”
“You said you were at a funeral yesterday. Whose funeral?”
The janitor. She can’t very well answer that, but it’s all she can grasp hold of in the moment. The crazy old janitor with the religious zealot eyes. “I… I can’t remember.”
“What? So you just go to random funerals for fun?”
“No, it’s a problem I have, something with my brain. I don’t remember things very well.”
“I forgot my wife’s birthday five years running and it got me divorced, but if I go to see someone interred in their final resting place, I generally at least take note of the deceased’s name. Did you get hit on the head or something?”
“No, I have these… holes… My mind just drops information. It’s not like having a bad memory, not exactly, it’s like I don’t retain certain things at all. Remembering almost anything is an effort, something that I have to concentrate on.”
“Really? What’s my name?”
“Well,” he sniffs, “you seem to have remembered that well enough.”
“You have your degrees posted on the wall behind you.”
He jerks his head as if startled, as if the framed diplomas are mounting an attack.
“Blind people compensate by developing sharper hearing. I compensate by looking for clues.” She folds her hands, feeling that, for once, she has the upper hand at something. “The funeral was for an old man who worked at Cronos. He was a janitor and I met him once when I was at their offices. He spoke to me.”
“What were you doing in their offices? What did he say?” The professor leans towards her, a detective interrogating a subject.
“I was looking for someone… my fiancé, he works for them and he’s disappeared. And I saw this man there, who told me that I shouldn’t be there. The man died.”
“To put it mildly.” The professor opens a drawer in his desk and pulls out a couple of news clippings. The first is an obituary for Gerald Porter, briefly stating his age and the fact that he was survived by a sister. The second is a crime story, a horror story, an old man beaten to death in a robbery.
“I was there,” Adela whispers, before she can catch herself. “I went to see where he lived. I heard about the killing.”
“And you went to his funeral.”
“I was asked to go by someone I met at Cronos the day I went there.”
“You said your fiancé disappeared. How do you mean?”
“He went on a business trip to China and he’s not at the hotel where I thought he was. He doesn’t seem to be anywhere there and he hasn’t been getting in touch. It’s not like him.”
“I suppose it hasn’t occurred to you that he ran away.”
“He wouldn’t run away. His job means a lot to him.”
“What did they tell you at Cronos?”
“Nothing. They wouldn’t help.”
“Why do you know about this man dying?”
“Perhaps I just follow the news,” he answers evasively.
“I follow the news, but I don’t keep clippings of people’s obituaries in my desk. Even when I go to their funeral.”
“He was one of my recanters. He spoke to me when I was writing the book and then tried to take back what he said.”
For the first time since she entered the office, Adela feels a certain warmth for this gnomish figure. As the word ‘recanter’ passes his pinched lips, there is an almost tangible melancholy that emanates from him, so strong she can picture copies of his book, his work, burning up anew inside his chest. She moves a hand, thinking to quell the hurt, but lets it fall before she reaches him.
“So he tried to throw you out of the Cronos building?”
“No, not at all. He just told me I shouldn’t be there. Like it was some kind of warning. Like it was dangerous.”
The Professor arches an eyebrow at her. “Well, a lot of people think Cronos is dangerous in general. He certainly did, at one point.”
“What did he think?”
“That he’d found some sort of sinister group controlling things from behind the scenes. Standard conspiracy stuff.”
“But you believed it?”
“I believe that Cronos had some questionable people in its ranks in the past and that they’d made some attempt to cover it up. What happened beyond that is pure speculation.”
“You didn’t see any evidence of it?”
He gives her a thoughtful little glance and opens another one of his desk drawers. She can see the mass of papers shake as if it contains something living, unwilling to part with it until he fights a while. Finally, he produces a book, corners slightly blunted with age, but not what she would call well-thumbed.
“I kept a few copies for myself, strays. The agreement was only that we would take copies out of circulation and I didn’t believe it was circulating in my office.”
Stunned for a second, she shakes her head to clear it, to try to wake herself enough to make sense of what has happened. A square-shouldered man, tall but not enormously so, with a shaved head and frightening dark eyes, dark almost all over, with only the hint of white at the edges, glares at her, as if challenging her to stand up to him. At first, he puts her in mind of the bartender, at Moebius, but somehow compressed, made stockier, meaner, the languid ease drained out of him. She wonders, looking to connect the points in her life, if they might be brothers, but it’s a common enough look. The man stalks past without a word or even an expression of regret and Adela finally is able to exit.
Adela leans forward, but he does not offer the book to her, or even present it for her inspection. He just sits, as if waiting for her to speak the magic word before entrusting her with it.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” he says, his tone sharp again.
“Adela.” There is a lengthy silence where her family name should fall.
“What, like Liberace? Parents couldn’t afford a second name?”
She feels cheeks colour at the rebuke, balancing the necessity to give some adequate answer against the knowledge that her last name may well set off alarm bells with anyone who has crossed Cronos.
“Adela Hunter.” Although she and Adam say they are engaged, they have never taken any formal step towards a wedding. Momentarily taking his last name, something which she had decided she wouldn’t ever do, even if they were married, is the only time she has ever tried out any element of the mysterious role of Mrs. Hunter.
For just a second, the Professor gives her a strange, withered look and exhales heavily, pushing the book towards her.
“You’ll have to let me know what you think.”
And then Adela has the mysterious text in her hands, finding it small, less substantial than she had imagined. Seeing it real, physical and undeniable in front of her, she’s afraid that she’s been very silly, can imagine Adam scolding her for wasting her time and effort just for some obscure book by an irascible university professor no one’s heard of. It’s small and ordinary. She can hold it in her hand. Harmless.
“Thank you,” she stammers, “I’ll get it back to you as soon as possible.”
“I’d appreciate that. And don’t flatten the book when you put it down and crack the spine. I hate that.”
Perhaps, if it looked something like a bomb, if it had wires and metal casing and some sort of warning light, it would seem like it warranted the trip. Anything that made it look like it needed to be handled with care. She stares at it, waiting for it to become more imposing.
“Thank you,” she repeats dully. She’s overwhelmed with a desire for sleep, so deep and expansive she could drown in it. It actually seems to pull her down, out of the chair, so heavy she feels that it could actually pull her right under, as if, for once, she could sleep for days, all curled up around this strange little book. It’s with an effort that she excuses herself, that she shuffles from the Professor’s office, still under his watchful stare. She could sleep now, sleep here in the hallway, until someone came to push her out of the way.
It’s so rare, this sensation of needing to sleep, that she normally tries to indulge it. But normally, she stays closer to home. Now there seems a terrifying distance between her and where she would feel safe simply closing her eyes, giving herself up, for once, to a dreamy catatonia.
It’s not that she never sleeps, exactly. The doctors who have spent so much time probing and recording the activities of her brain have explained that, if she truly never slept, she’d die. And yet she doesn’t sleep like most people sleep. (“Poor Adela,” her mother consoled her, “always has to be different,”.) Adela’s sleep is more like a light trance, a momentary departure, sometimes at night but just as often during the day, her brain’s way of grasping desperately at what it needs. Some animals do it, the doctors say. Animals who don’t have the luxury of safety in which to sleep. Adela understands why animals who live and sleep in fear of predators don’t fall into a deep, comatose sleep. She doesn’t understand why she, with her history of comfortable, lavishly appointed beds, would be unable to let go.
Now, of course, she feels as if she could. Now she feels as if body and brain are already giving way and that she needs to race to safety, ahead of whatever predators are hunting her, before Hypnos overtakes her entirely. There will be taxicabs outside, she reassures herself. Safe passage home.
On the stairs, she finds herself grappling at the railing, too certain of falling forward, rushing as she goes, steps falling on each other until sheer momentum seems to carry her off the end and into the door. Into the door, because just as she reaches it, it opens sharply and painfully into her face.
Thinking of the bartender at Moebius stirs something uncomfortable, makes her stomach clench and release in a way that only happens on those occasions when she’s had to much to drink. She can see him, long oval face in her hands, an uncomfortable expression, a desire for withdrawal. She’s been ridiculous, but can’t quite recall. She wishes her mind would erase the vestiges of that, along with everything else. But it’s always like this, the meat of the matter gone and an unpleasant taste remaining.
There are no taxis outside. There is a bus.
Adela really has no idea if the bus is going anywhere near where she needs to be, but is possessed with an impossible urge to move and at the same time to become utterly still. The destination point, when she asks it, sounds at least familiar, although she can’t quite place it. Its familiarity should mean that she will at least end up somewhere that she can find a taxi without much trouble. For now, she needs to sit down.
Lowering herself onto a set of seats near the back of the bus, she sees a disturbing figure stomp aboard as the doors close. Shaved head, mean expression… She sees him once again glaring at her, having pushed the door in her face. He wears a thick jacket that seems to stand out from his body, a small gold logo on the left breast that seems to vibrate subtly in the waning sunlight. He doesn’t seem to notice her, perhaps wouldn’t remember her even if he did.
Strange, thinks Adela, pulling up her coat collar and ducking her head into it, the idea that she might remember something that another person didn’t.
Still in her arms, she can feel something from the book, a sort of energy coursing through it, twitching. Surreptitiously, as if she’s in possession of contraband, she opens the cover, stares at the chapter listing, cryptic word puzzles chattering before her eyes. Startled by nothing, she glances up and is hit by the force of the same dark, angry eyes staring at her. He’s glowering from the centre of the bus, his regard drilling through the indistinct forms of other passengers. Adela blinks, ceding the confrontation, but when her eyelids raise, he is looking in another direction entirely. Not turning away, but fixed on a point somewhere outside, completely oblivious to her existence. More chilling, she finds, than when he was looking directly at her, that look she can feel in her stomach, a punch, a jab.
Adam would look at her with that mix of concern and disappointment he so often had and tell her that the man hadn’t been looking at her at all, that she had merely been transposing one memory- of his glare when she had seen him earlier- to another moment- the present moment. He’d smile as if he felt sorry for her, as if he wished he could cure her and the conversation would be over.
The man isn’t looking back at her, but focusing on the outside, oblivious, it seems, to the others on the bus.
Adela closes her eyes for an instant, feels herself pulled down towards sleeping, feels her mind dragged into unconsciousness, and once again is looking in those dead dark eyes. She forces her eyes open. That look, she knows, was in her mind. The rest seemed real enough.
She fumbles in her purse, finally locating and removing her phone, and dials Adam’s number. For what? To tell him that she’s on a bus to somewhere she’s not quite sure of, to tell him she’s in possession of a book that may or may not have some dark secrets about the company that controls both of their lives? To tell him that she can’t remember any of the previous night or about the mysterious message on the mirror that she can still see shining in her mind? Or that yesterday, she was speaking to his boss after the funeral? She twists, literally, involuntarily, at the vague memory of sitting with Julian. It seems like a long time ago.
Adam’s phone goes directly to a message that advises he is not available. Not even his voice, but a droning, disinterested network voice, no one Adela will ever know. It doesn’t even give her the chance to leave a message, to plead for understanding.
What would she tell him anyway?
What would he make of it, this wandering, this sleuthing that she’s engaged in, this mystery she’s playing out in her head. Without any clear idea as to why, she suspects he’d disapprove of the book on Cronos. She suspects he’d want to know why she was reading it, would hang over her shoulder while she tried to concentrate, thus shattering any sort of focus she had, fracturing her ability to understand what was going on, what was really being said. And then she would sound foolish, paranoid, grasping.
It’s only in those few moments, when she can hold it all like a bowl in front of her, that she feels she’s suddenly able to see everything at once, all the elements in concert, the way that she imagines people like Adam see the world all the time.
Inevitably, just as that moment crystallizes, things fall apart.
She’s aware at first only of a lull in the sound around her, only that the noise that she imagines is in her head has quieted down, that an unsettling calm has descended around her. It takes a minute for her to open her eyes and see that she is, in fact, in the back of a bus that is empty, save her and the driver, who is mumbling into his cell phone at the front of the bus, oblivious, it seems to Adela’s presence.
She should insist on getting off the bus, should insist on knowing what neighbourhood she’s been transported to, should leave and go home as she had planned to do, but instead she sits in her seat at the back of the bus, wondering if, perhaps, the driver is aware of her after all and is ignoring her out of a sense of pity, perhaps believing her to be homeless or hopeless, with nowhere else to go. And in fact, Adela would like nothing more than to curl up, to feel safe here, to let herself, for once, sleep a peaceful, dreamless sleep and awake somewhere she could feel protected.
It never happens.
Looking out the window, she can see almost-familiar, almost recognizable shapes through the grime. The shapes of half-timbered houses, removed from the crashing and clanging of the city, away from the ambling bodies that patrol these streets. She knows these houses, these latter-day castles. She grew up here, spent her teenage years here. This is where, protected by nothing stronger than a few pine trees, her uncle’s house is located.
She can just imagine him, those fish-scale grey eyes regarding her in the same cynical way as always. What did you get into today? She feels her fingers cramped around the edges of the book, her little sin, imagining herself, even now, hiding it from him, knowing the uselessness of the effort. What is it you’ve got now? Would this get her disowned, finally? Years of shuffling between schools and universities and jobs within Cronos later, is this the final heresy she can commit? It’s so tempting, so very tempting, to run out of the bus and ring the doorbell, just to find out. Wouldn’t you love to know?
The driver has a strange, fluty voice, as if his bass speaker has expired, leaving only a reedy treble to deliver his messages. He’s walking towards her, a terrific round dirigible of a man, speaking with a helium-tinted voice and a wobbling, rolling gait. He can’t be real.
“Ma’am, you have to get off the bus now,” he says slowly, as if he’s speaking to someone who couldn’t possibly understand the significance of his words. “You need to move along now.”
Adela finds herself perversely wordless, unable to respond to this simple request and likewise unable to move. She simply stares at the approaching sphere, half-imagining that she will be able to hold onto him and float away, back to where it is she’s supposed to be.
“You have to go now, this is the end of the route,” he insists, extending an arm to show her the way, in case she had missed it, towards the door.
“We’re near my uncle’s house,” Adela ejects without thinking. As if this beach ball of a person is in the least interested in whom she knows nearby.
“Good,” he says indulgently. She can almost hear him think the words “so go there”, so clearly that’s what’s on his mind.
She stands noticing for the first time that she stands a good three inches taller than him in the shoes she’s wearing. She fights the urge to start petting his head vigourously, possessed with a child’s curiosity to see if he’d start to bounce.
She’ll go, of course, to her uncle’s house. She’ll hide the book, of course and lie about how she was in the neighbourhood. He won’t believe her, of course, but he’ll be happy for the visit, happy to see that she’s at least functioning, that she can venture out of the house alone and that she isn’t simply lost in a new city.
Her feet touch the pavement outside at the exact moment that her logic spins in opposing directions. “New city” is the thought that does it. She’s in a new city, not the one she’s used to, not the one where she grew up at all. The realisation comes at the exact moment that her eyes perceive her surroundings- neglected buildings with greasy brick exteriors, built perhaps to house the burgeoning working-class in the post-war period, now sheltering the city’s shadow-people. These clusters of resentful architecture are found in various places throughout the city, she knows and one of the things they have in common is that none of them are remotely close to her own home. It’s possible, she realises, as the square bus with the spherical driver pulls away, that she’s further from home than she was when she got on the bus to begin with. The streets, while the names are vaguely familiar, are strange. The faces of the people passing her are the faces of those who have never walked past her street and who would be as lost there as she is here.
Most distressing is the lack of taxis, which she was counting on to return her home when her transit adventure ended. This, she can deduce, is not a popular place for people to hail cabs. This is where her hero, someone she knows, Adam or whoever is substituting for him, is supposed to appear from behind a dark corner and come to her rescue.
Her hand hurts from gripping the book so tightly, as if she’s about to be robbed of it.
The buildings seem huddled together, as if for protection against the raw wind coming off the water. They extend, she can see, a few blocks back and uphill, ending in a perfect band, above which rises a green cap of trees, luxuriating in the little sun available, sun that does not seem to permeate to the streets on this side. She can imagine its woodland paths being frequented by people with sated, content faces, happily oblivious to the world below their eyes.
A major thoroughfare seems to circumnavigate the hill, which seems like it must be a good idea. The foot traffic is negligible, but cars roar by her at frightening speeds. She can’t imagine how they can think quickly enough to decide on where they’re going, especially with the noise to distract them. This is why she doesn’t drive. She has a perfect image of herself making leisurely laps on a road like this one, swinging around the hill again and again, following the same track until the car ran out of gas, because thinking four or five moves in advance, trying to hold them in her mind, would be too much.
There are no signs to indicate what park this is, which usually means it’s something she’s supposed to know without thinking, something that’s supposed to be as familiar as her own skin.
“Trees and plants look the same in a city.” She actually says this aloud, her eyes searching randomly among the leaves for something that seems familiar, some sort of clue.
Strangely, it’s the scent that she feels she knows. Somewhere in her memory, she can remember the scent of chlorophyll and rain in her nostrils, with just this sort of sweetness, this herbal undertone. The oldest section of the brain, she knows this. Animals, other animals, live by this. A lesser animal would know from that woodland aroma exactly where she had ended up. Adela doesn’t. But it’s there, almost, close behind her conscious thought.
There’s a low outcropping of buildings huddled in the trees, arranged so that they are almost invisible from the road. Squinting, she can see that there is some kind of road, or path through them, that leads from an unseen point, a division in the leaves to allow, but not encourage access. It’s several minutes further along that she comes to the termination of the path that curves down to meet her. Paved, but barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other, the point where it connects with the main road is flanked by two low stone columns, unmarked save a small metal plaque on each bearing a classical looking insignia.
“Jesus.” She actually says it out loud because, even with her brain’s faulty wiring, this is not a symbol she is liable to forget. She’s outside Cronos’ offices. A different entrance, she’s certain, than she’s seen before, but it’s theirs. Instinctively, she pushes the book into her coat. A bus ride into nowhere and this is where she’s been spit out.
She lingers a moment at the gate before, perversely, starting up the path, towards the buildings. She’s at least half way before her brain has resolved the reason why she is doing this., before she finds a justification.
The entrance to these buildings is considerably less grand than the main atrium she had seen previously, being not only smaller but closed in. Here, there are no vast expanses of glass walls or long sightlines. The receptionist sits in a compact vestibule surrounded by espresso-coloured panels and brushed aluminum fixtures.
The young woman looks at Adela in a way that is almost, but not exactly, welcoming. She’s acting the part, but she is, ultimately, a barrier. Adela stretches to her full height, hoping that this makes her either intimidating or dignified in appearance.
“May I help you?” The young woman begins.
“Yes, I’m here to see Louise Beaudry.”
There’s a heartbeat where the woman seems to be processing what she’s heard, assessing whether or not to grant access. “They must have given you horrible directions if you ended up here,” she says at length, with an unearthly white smile. “May I take your name? I’ll call her to come.”
And, immediately, she picks up the phone, as if it gives her pleasure to help, her warm smile remaining until she replaces the receiver and reassures Adela that Louise will be with her shortly. Adela sits in one of the eggplant coloured chairs and waits, listening to the soundtrack of the receptionist’s melodic greetings until Louise arrives.
When she does, after about ten minutes, she doesn’t look in the least surprised that Adela’s come to visit.
“Couldn’t resist?” Louise whispers, leaning close and motioning that Adela should follow her out of the vestibule.
“Needed to find out in person?”
Adela feels as if she’s being spoken to in a code she hasn’t heard before. “What do you mean?”
“The message I left this morning. I’m assuming that’s what dragged you out here.”
“What? Wait… I had an appointment, I turned my phone off…” Adela scrambles to find it in her purse.
Louise scowls as they enter an elevator disguised as one of the panels in the entrance room. “Those phones aren’t any good to you when they’re off. I found Adam.”
Louise lowers her shoulders and raises her head, cutting a perfect figure to accept an accolade.
“Well, a few years ago, someone had an idea that the public relations office was losing too much time just doing research on our own people. So they created a system for us to check details on anyone who might be put in a position where they would have to speak for Cronos in any capacity on the company intranet. So we’d receive their relevant quotes from their department and then be able to fill in a little bio at the same time. Recently, they also changed it so that we can check the projects on which these people are currently working, in case it turns out that we could use their expertise on more than one thing. Adam’s name hasn’t been on it before, but now it is. He’s listed as working on a project called Versailles.”
Reflexively, Adela reaches into her purse and grabs her notebook. Flipping back through the pages covering the time between their move and Adam’s disappearance, she scans for the word- Versailles- in any of her notes. She tries to make a point of writing down at least a few of the details Adam tells her about his job, about the points that make up the parts of his life that she doesn’t see.
“He never mentioned it.”
“Going to France?”
“That either. But there’s nothing about a project called Versailles or anything.”
“What about Vypro?”
“What about it?”
“That’s what Project Versailles is. The Vypro acquisition.”
Adela feels her features compress. This is a word that she remembers, but she knows, feels in her head, that it isn’t something she’s ever heard Adam talk about. Dutifully, she checks her notes again.
“Nothing about that, either.”
“We were discussing Vypro with our anarchist friends at the café above Moebius. Remember that?”
A couple of images, one of Louise scowling over a plate of food, the other of men playing chess skid through her mind. And the voices, the qualude calm of the voices on the radio. That’s where Vypro comes from, that’s what the voices are saying.
“I heard about it on the news.”
“Right. And then we were talking about it with that guy- David- and his henchmen. You were quite incisive.”
“I’m sorry I can’t remember it, then.”
Louise smiles. “So Adam is in Paris.”
“No chance Cronos equipped their employees with tracking devices that the P.R. department can locate them with?”
Louise ushers Adela into a small but cosy office that looks as if it was carved out of a section of honeycomb, notable chiefly for its unorthodox shape and ceilings that seem to recede into shadows, far above their heads and above the partitions between offices.
“No, they haven’t forced people to start wearing homing beacons yet, but that’s where the finesse comes in. Once I knew what he was working on, I figured that had to mean he was in Paris. Because, as you rightly point out, the story is on the news and Vypro has their head office just outside the city.”
“So is there a particular hotel near the head office?”
“There are three. But I doubt he’s in any of them.”
“But if that’s the place where he’s meeting-“
“Ah!” Louise raises her hand, the magician about to perform her great trick. “One thing you learn working here is that Cronos doesn’t like head offices. They don’t like to invite people into theirs and they don’t like sending their representatives to someone else’s. Offices are like great corporate bedrooms for them. They don’t want to have to see what goes on in them.
“So I figured that they’re likely to be meeting at a hotel somewhere else in the city. Neutral ground.”
“Well,” Adela says, trying not to look despondent at the idea of trawling through a Paris hotel directory one location at a time, “I can get started looking.”
Louise folds her arms with a funny little smile. “Well, I didn’t’ stop there!
“It’s not like they could be staying at any little bed and breakfast. These are big meetings and they require first class facilities. Which pretty much means that you’re dealing with a very highly rated place.
“This acquisition is still unconfirmed. What gets discussed has to stay absolutely quiet. And that means that they can’t risk leaks from staff. So they would want some place where they had at least some comfort level with the staff and management and where they were likely to have the same group of people dealing with them- catering, setting up, all the fun stuff that’s supposed to be invisible- every day.”
Adela nods. “Because fewer people means fewer opportunities for a leak.”
“And makes it easier to catch the culprit if there is a leak,” Louise adds ominously. “So once you apply the common sense filter, or the Cronos sense filter, it cuts down your options a lot. To two likely ones, as far as I can tell.”
Louise pushes a piece of paper at her, with the names of two separate hotels. One is a French one that Adela can’t think how to pronounce. The second is the Shangri La. “Shangri La,” she reads.
“Extremely highly respected boutique hotel group. Very exclusive, very high end.”
“That’s the hotel name that Adam gave me.”
“In Hong Kong?”
“So maybe that was a hint. He’d been told that he wasn’t allowed to share what he was actually doing with you, but he dropped you a little hint.”
“One that I couldn’t ever have figured out and he’d know that,” Adela adds glumly.
“One that made him feel like at least he wasn’t entirely deceiving you.”
“So I should call him?”
“Well, he might want to know that you’re worried about him.”
Adela can’t quite imagine how he’d react to that. Her calling him at a location that’s supposed to be secret, not because there was anything wrong, but because she wanted him to know that she Adela was worried about him Adam. For no particular reason.
“Can you call for me?” She’s disappointed at how meek this sounds.
Louise takes the piece of paper back and punches the numbers into her phone, tapping the speaker button for Adela’s benefit. A man’s voice answers, his congenial tone jumping the language barrier and Louise motions to Adela to take over.
“May I have Adam Hunter’s room please?” She tries to speak very clearly.
“One moment, madam,” the voice answers. There is a moment where a swell of music rises from the tinny depths of the phone, cut short by the return of the man’s cinematically accented voice. “I’m connecting you now.”
“Allo?” The voice cuts in midway through the first ring, as if the call was expected. An accented voice, although not so heavily as the hotel operator. An unknown voice. A woman’s voice.
“I’m sorry,”Adela stammers, trying not to look at Louise, “I think they connected me to the wrong room. I was looking for Adam Hunter.”
“Adam can’t come to the phone right now,” the woman responds without a lost beat. “He’s busy.” Adela can almost hear a sardonic twist of the lips in those last two words. She’s staring dumbly at the phone, feeling her insides curdle and utterly lost for her next move. Louise’s hand flits into her field of vision and disconnects the call.
“Adela, I’m sorry.”
Adela looks at the phone, waiting for it to explain, trying to imagine what its explanation could be.
“I’m really sorry,” Louise repeats.
So that’s it. Adela feels herself trying to talk, her tongue struggling to shape words, but in the end she can manage only a gesture, a wave of the hand, as if this is nothing, as if waving her hand with wave away the lingering memory of that voice like a puff of smoke, as if she’s wiping it from the eraser board of her memory, along with all the other details that depart so easily. She’d be happy to forget this. She waves her hand through the air and shakes her head a little, the inside of her mouth, her entire body, suddenly desert-dry, barren, disintegrating.
Robotically, she disengages herself from the conversation that Louise helplessly tries to make, her ears incapable of hearing any of it. Adela packs herself into a cab, which Louise calls and insists on seeing her into and hears herself read her home address to the driver.
Then she’s at home, on the floor, moving her lips and wondering if she is going to be sick. That voice is still in her, still filling her up and squeezing her own organs to the side so that it hurts to breathe, so that her chest aches with the effort. She feels her lips touch the floorboards and expects to taste something instantly repulsive, something that will make her sick and force that voice from her once and for all, but there is nothing.
If she could cry or scream, it might be some relief, but the swelling pressure of that voice inside her is too great to allow it. Air escapes her lips in a dry rasp. How long is it she stays on the floor like that, waiting for her insides to deflate? Who knows? Not Adela, who finds herself laying on the sofa in the waning light some time later, still waiting for the pleasure of forgetting.
Of course, this is when she remembers, when fragments from the corners of her mind are rattled loose, images of her past with Adam, which she has never thought of as past before. The fragments are disconnected, an old puzzle with pieces missing, impossible to complete. She can’t see the whole thing.
There’s some explanation. Explanation?
A coworker, someone waiting for him to be ready so that they can go to a meeting together.
Who the hell invites a coworker into their hotel room while they get ready to go to a meeting? She’s angrier with herself for the weakness of the justification than for the desperate happiness she felt at the thought that this might be a misunderstanding.
Call him. You have the hotel name because for once, you can’t forget, call back.
And although it seems to take a ridiculously long time, she does call back, only to be told, twice, that there is no answer in Mr. Hunter’s room.
Would she like to leave a message?
She wants to laugh and yell and demand what a message would do, but it’s hardly the fault of the hotel operator, so she simply declines, hangs up and lapses back into misery in the oppressive murk of their flat.
She never even saw it before they moved, never saw it because he knew she wasn’t going to like it, but it was what they had to take while he got settled in at the new job, while he got grounded in the new city. He said that, openly when they’d moved. He knew she wouldn’t be happy, but they had to accept it temporarily.
She can see his unruffled expression, absolutely calm as he always was, while he told her this. There had been no hint of apology, because Adam wasn’t ever sorry. He explained what he did and moved on, because he believed that they were for the best. Telling her that he knew she wouldn’t like the place had been unnecessary, but that sort of honesty had been characteristic of him as well.
She’d once run a car into a tree after storming out on him following an argument. He’d come to collect her with that same calm, had told the police officers who arrived what had happened, while she sat behind the wheel seething and crying and he doused the fire of her rage with his even demeanour. Nothing to it.
It’s a strange comfort to her that cheating, some random outburst of passion, or even some contrived tryst, would be so utterly out of keeping with the behaviour she remembers from him. Adam with his dark tranquil eyes and phlegmatic movements getting carried away by the moment seems impossible. Whatever tried to carry him away, he would ground it, pull it back to earth, steer it safely to port. She hopes it’s not just her that brings this out.
It’s that realization of the non sequitur, that inability to connect the Adam she knows with what she suspects that finally allows the pressure inside her to subside a little. There are no answers, but there seems to be a little hope. Even as the remnants of that cool, composed voice still rattle around her head, she’s managed to cut through its bulk with an objection.
Aware suddenly that she’s sitting alone in a dark space, she switches on the lamp, noticing for the first time that her bag, her shoes and her coat trail back to the door like debris strewn from an accident. Her bag, in fact, appears to have barely made it in the door, its contents spreading out as testimony to her careless, reckless entry. From the top of the bag, she can see the corner of a book, something she doesn’t remember taking with her.
Moving as quickly as she has in hours, she snatches it up out of the bag, off the floor and cradles it protectively in her lap. Ages earlier, before the call and the voice and the feeling of having her insides saturated to the point of bursting, this had been the point to her day. Staring at the cover, she tries whispering to herself to force forward the memory of what its exact importance is, why it was so important to her earlier in the day.
“Remaking the Beast,” she reads aloud. The cover is strangely dull for something with such a lurid sounding title, a sort of misty grey mottled in parts, but without any kind of hint as to what the contents might be.
On the inside cover, a slightly out-of-focus image of Geoffrey McCormick’s face grimaces back at her. This on its own is enough to bring back some of the afternoon’s conversation. Only this afternoon and it seems like a year. It’s the way she imagines most people remember events of a year past, with this slightly soft filter on the image, the sound slightly dampened.
“Who are you, really?”
His sharp little voice and vole-like eyes cut through the fog of unremembered details with a surprising clarity.
“Why the hell would he ask me that?” She actually says it, right out loud, to no one but herself. Then again, why shouldn’t he ask?
It’s there, in her night table, towards the bottom. She knows this even though she’s never told anyone. She suspects that Adam knows, because he’s betrayed more knowledge than he should have about the contents of her night table. Her birth certificate, the only document in her possession with her real name, her birth name, the one that her long-dead, unremembered mother and father gave her before leaving her alone in an apartment to be collected by social services and handed over to the next set of interested parents.
Her mother, her second mother, had shown it to her when she was still very young- perhaps ten- and Adela had marveled at it. Those strange words on the page that somehow referred to her. Any of them would have been incomprehensible to her, and strung together, they looked like some magical incantation. It was years before Adela stopped thinking of them that way, in fact. Even now, on those rare occasions when she looks at the document, it is to imagine that those still-strange words have some power to conjure another self, a self possessing all the memories that Adela has lost.
When she first moved into her uncle’s house, she used to stare at that paper frequently, waiting for it to speak. She never showed it to her uncle, although she supposes that he must have been aware of its existence. She has never had many secrets from him.
In her teenaged years, Adela was able to assemble enough research to determine that she looks fairly typical of her origins. She has the wide cheekbones, fair colouring and small chin typical of Lithuanian women she sees in photographs. She imagines still that she might look like her mother, but this is only speculation, because she’s never seen a picture of her.
Her father is a slightly different matter. She once found a photo of him in a directory of Cronos employees that her uncle had. Both of her fathers were in that directory, actually, along with her second mother and, of course, her uncle. All of them subtly linked before Adela ever arrived to unite them.
The photo of her father looks like a high school year book picture, his eyes focused just off the lens, at something she’ll never be able to see. He looks every bit the awkward scientist and, she thinks, betrays something of his foreign origins, even in a shot framed identically to those of all his coworkers. Perhaps, she is given to speculating, it’s that he seems more formal. But there’s something in his expression, almost defiant, that brings him forth from the page, with its uniform representations of his vacant-eyed co-workers. She’s never told anyone that she can see this, because even in her more deranged moments, she knows it sounds queer, or like she’s embellishing. But she can tell from the timeline she knows and when the book was printed that he must have been fresh from defecting, convinced he’d gotten away with it, so maybe there’s something to it after all.
Adam doesn’t like those times when she pulls out the certificate to wonder at the intricacy of her name. He sees it as indicative of some deeper melancholy, perhaps because she so often turns to its strange powers when she is already starting to feel unhinged. It doesn’t mean anything is how he puts it. She knows this isn’t true, because she’s checked and the words have very specific meanings, but she understands that he means that it means nothing in terms of who she is today, that it has no real power over the person she’s become. And from a certain point of view, he is correct.
Holding the strange book on her lap, she’s very tempted to cheat and check the endnotes to see the names of people she knows and when in the narrative they appear. But that’s not how a book is supposed to be read and it’s a rule she’s peculiarly reluctant to violate. There’s something almost violent about cutting up a written work and reordering it in the way that one wants. Besides, she doesn’t know the story yet.
“Once, not upon a time, but once at a definable moment in time, there was an upstart manufacturing company called Sturgeon Steel, named after the fact that the owner, a childless confirmed bachelor anmed Frederic [Fred] Franklin Stokes, loved nothing more than fishing and his prize was a 30-pound lake sturgeon, caught on a trip in his early twenties.”
This, Adela muses, is one of the strangest introductions to a story about a corporation that she could imagine. Is that really where the story of Cronos, with its spidery legs unfolding all over the globe and all over the lives of so many people, starts? A thirty-pound lake sturgeon? There’s something a little ominous, she thinks, about that, although she doubts it was what the author intended. Somewhere in its murky past, the company is rooted in a purposeless and violent death.
Once, not upon a time, there was a baby who would some day be named Adela born and from the moment of her birth, she was part of Cronos, although, of course, she was not aware of it.
“…Stokes realized he had taken the operation as far as it could go and that keeping up the pattern of growth he had experienced would require capital investment that he could not supply without recruiting other investors. Of course, through his industrial contacts, and given the company’s enviable track record, investors were not difficult to come by.”
The baby born to Dr. Stanislaw and Ekaterina Kazlauskas realized nothing of her situation, being to young to be aware of anything. She was unaware that her father, an eminent scientist, had recently defected from the Soviet Union, where he had worked for years in the service of the government. The specific projects he worked on would remain unknown to his daughter, who would likely have forgotten them even if she had ever known.
“… With its new board of directors, along with the network of contacts each member brought with him, the newly minted Cronos corporation was in an advantageous position to profit from the outbreak of war.”
Adela can almost feel a moral judgment in those words, balancing profit and war so precariously on either side of the final phrase.
Stanislaw Kazlauskas did not have trouble finding work after his defection. Through whatever means, and as an adult, his daughter knows that it could not possibly have been luck, he came to be employed by Cronos corporation. It must have been a mutually beneficial arrangement. Kazlauskas got a means of supporting himself in his field of expertise in his new country. Cronos got their hands on someone who could tell them what they were really competing with on the far side of the iron curtain.
“…Aware that they were likely to face a post-war boom in manufacturing and that this would, in turn, mean increased competition, Cronos embarked on an ambitious program to recruit the most talented scientists in the world as employees. This was only the start of a policy of retaining an awe-inspiring talent pool of scientists and engineers over the next decades, but at no time was the program so rigourously pursued as it was in the time following the war. It was during this period that Cronos first started to exert its influence on politicians whose campaigns had benefited from the support of key board members in order to bring about the program that came to be known as Project Paperclip.
Certain details of this program have become well-known to most Americans. That the American government benefited from the knowledge and work of former Nazi scientists like Werner von Braun is established, but what is less clear is the extent to which certain corporations, Cronos first and foremost among them, were able to draw from those scientists whose expertise was not immediately useful to the government and its agencies.”
The Kazlauskases were apparently popular. Adela’s second mother would tell her of meeting her first parents at parties hosted by important people at Cronos. Both Stanislaw and Ekaterina spoke English before their move to America, so they were able to converse easily and were apparently quite charming. If they had any fears, any regrets, any anxieties about the dangerous flight they had taken, they took it with them to their graves.
“The presence of a group of scientists and engineers of this caliber, who only a few years earlier had been working with the Third Reich to destroy the country they now called home, apparently did not raise any eyebrows. Amidst the increasing paranoia against left-wing conspirators, it is possible that these gentlemen and their families seemed more desirable as employees because of their staunch anti-communist positions.”
Baby Adela was apparently very healthy. Adult Adela knows that she must have been a robust child because she knows that, while she was still a toddler, her first parents disappeared. No one knows why, at least no one has ever told Adela. Perhaps the pain of separation from the rest of the family- brothers, sisters, parents- had been too great and the Kazlauskases had decided to defect back. Perhaps the KGB had refused to let them go and had kidnapped them or worse. Adela’s replayed the story thousands of times in her brain without ever finding a categorical answer.
What is known, to Adela and to others, is that one day a neighbour in the apartment building where the Kazlauskases lived, angry and scared at the fact that she’d heard Baby Adela crying for almost a day without respite, called the police. They arrived with social services, a woman in a scratchy brown suit who is Adela’s earliest distinct memory, and found the baby alone, with no clue as to what had become of the parents.
“…In the late 50s and early 60s, Cronos sponsored dozens of additional family members of those they had already recruited, many of whom ended up in low and mid-level positions within the company themselves.”
How did it happen, Adela’s fortuitous tumble into the arms of Andrew Farnham and Patricia Landis Farnham, her second parents? Adela doesn’t think anyone has ever explained this to her, although she’s not entirely sure. She knows that her uncle, when she has asked, has occasionally told her that they’ve been through it already and given her that some, tired, worried look he always seems to have when she’s around. Andrew and Patricia had known the Kazlauskases. They heard what happened. They had no child of their own.
“…If the mix of European specialists at Cronos brought out any nationalist tensions, it was never enough of a cause of concern that the Cronos board looked into it. Indeed, since those arriving at the Cronos offices were loudly and passionately anti-communist, this similarity may have helped overcome what differences existed. Many former employees indicated that it was common practice for many of the immigrants to socialize together, although several also acknowledged that it took some time for the Germans to be included in this circle.”
So the Farnhams, wealthy and wanting a child, adopted the Kazlauskases’ abandoned baby and Adela was born from the ashes of her early life. This is not, of course, anything she remembers. Even a normal person would have been unable to recollect things at such a young age. Adela remembers only that she was Adela Farnham, fair and smiling in young pictures, on beaches, on skis, with family members, alone. Images of Adela fill up the Farnham house, which makes it look like the houses of all her friends, like all the large, normal, happy houses she visits after school.
Even when they go to Lithuania, when they stand by the Hill of Crosses and Adela holds the hands of the parents she knows, it seems strangely ordinary.
Then, a few years later, Adela wakes from a nightmare, screaming and inconsolable, a nightmare of being locked in an empty place, of a strange woman in a scratchy brown suit coming to take her away from the place where Adela at once wants desperately to remain and to escape. Her parents come and her father holds her and her mother says something that Adela doesn’t hear. The nightmare and the waking are one.
The next day, or maybe another day soon after, Patricia enters her daughter’s room, pale and nervous, and asks her to come, because she has something to tell her that’s very important. Something of Adela’s nightmare has escaped and frightened her mother.
“…It can hardly be said that the political action group that emerged from the social group was a secret one. To be sure, their exact positions, their allegiances and their purpose remained obscure, but their members were quite proud to be counted as such, many of them- largely those from poorer backgrounds, with experience in the military- going so far as to brand their bodies with the insignia of their newfound brotherhood.”
Adela lingers long over that paragraph, touching the line with the tip of her finger until she can almost feel the ink absorbing through her skin.
“Not just anywhere on their bodies,” she whispers to herself, elated at her own power of recollection, “their arms.”
She has to scramble for one of her notebooks because, as often happens, memories fall like individual snowflakes around her head. They’re there, always, doctors have told her, but sometimes they got knocked loose and a lot of them come at once. This gets more confusing as she gets older, when more individual memory flakes are there to be dislodged.
- The members of an apparently far-right political group made up of Cronos employees had an insignia that some members branded on their arms.
- The janitor who died had that brand on his arm.
- Someone else I’ve seen recently has that mark on his arm.
The last line hovers, tantalizingly on the page. She thinks of the bartender at Moebius, covered in tattoos she can’t separate one from the other. The thought of him brings a wave of shame, for what she can’t be certain, but it is unmistakable. Why would he have that particular brand on his arm? Why would anyone at that place have anything to do with Cronos?
She puts pen to paper again, waiting for the answer to come out. When that fails, she picks up the book again.
“…The imminent threat of a federal investigation finally spurred Cronos’ board to action and, while their response to the situation was delayed, it was ruthlessly efficient. Of paramount importance was stifling any further news coverage of political radicalism among employees and, indeed, after June of that year, there seems to have been no report in any major news outlet- print, radio or television- even a follow-up to the stories that had already been printed. Complete silence was the order of the day.
“Even with the media kept out of the picture, Cronos was aware that scrutiny from the authorities required that some concrete action be taken, something to indicate that the company could still be trusted with publicly-funded projects and that there would be no risk of further embarrassment. To facilitate this, Dr. Peter Schiess and three members of his staff, along with the more recently imported Wassily Martov and two of his assistants were dismissed. Several others were reassigned to corporate branches throughout the country and their communication with other employees was subject to strict monitoring.
“As part of a severance package- and this was years before such packages were common- none of the employees were permitted to speak about the reasons for their dismissal or any aspect of their employment with Cronos.
“As it turns out, Cronos had little to fear at any rate. Witness the grim list of their fates: three developed cancer and died before turning fifty, one committed suicide by jumping from a bridge less than two years after leaving Cronos, Schiess was killed in a violent car accident in California around the same time and Martov developed Alzheimer’s disease in his early fifties (although he, at least, remains alive). The remaining sacrificial lamb, a man named Jonas Meyrinck, who had worked with Dr. Schiess since his time in university, simply disappeared. He moved sporadically from job to job after leaving Cronos for five years, but after that point there is no record of him anywhere.”
It’s with a certain sadness that she reads that last line, with its frustratingly ambiguous finality. Whoever this man was, he didn’t cease to exist unless he died. But the records of him, his relation to the rest of the world, stopped at a particular point in time. And yet some people seem to have this gift, this strange ability to render themselves invisible to all others, even those closest to them. Adela knows all about that.
Looking at her notes again, she puzzles over the familiarity of the insignia. In the margin, next to the line about seeing someone else bearing that symbol, she writes: Jonas Meyrinck- member, disappeared.
“As far as history is concerned, Cronos corporation’s brush with political controversy ends with the expulsion of Schiess, Martov and their associates. Whatever end they came to, through whatever means, there is ample evidence that none of them were in contact with Cronos for the rest of their blighted lives, including the mysteriously disappearing Meyrinck.”
Adela almost lets the book slide from her lap. There in front of her, placed a little strangely in the book, after the text that it relates to, is a graphic photo of the mangled body of a man in a wrecked car. It’s impossible for her not to feel repulsed by its obscene proximity, to wonder what sort of person would come so close to the scene of an accident and think only to take a photo. It is a heartbeat later that she realizes that the waxy face in that photo is that of Dr. Schiess, pictured a few pages earlier, tanned and vital, in a section of the story outlining his fall from grace.
As she turns away, she has a fleeting image, a photograph in her mind, the same accident seen from the side, from a more discreet distance, the car crushed from impact, a woman’s scarf, a ghoulishly human touch, hanging like a feather on the back of the wreck.
A woman’s scarf?
Hesitantly, she looks at the photo again, as well as the description of the accident. There is no evidence that Schiess had a woman with him at the time of his fatal accident. In fact, she ascertains by checking a few pages back, he had no wife, no family and was rumoured to be a homosexual, in other words, someone with very little reason to have a woman and her scarf in the car with him. And still it hovers there in her mind, a photo she’s seen before.
This is not something she can let go, the way she can so many almost-memories that torture her on a daily basis. Scarf. Car wreck. Photo. She’s seen this before, the death scene of a man about whom she knew nothing half an hour before. The aftermath of violence, frozen and silent. Something else, perhaps, something similar, but almost eerily so. That’s it.
Oh yes, she has seen this, but not this exactly. She stands up and retrieves one of her photo albums, an old one, stored behind some of the newer collections, her fragments of memory stacked neatly in display cases in the living room. It doesn’t take her long to find what she’s looking for. She’s very organized about this.
She’s saved not only the photo, but the entire article. The car, smashed beyond recognition. The scarf, like a beacon of surrender, snagged on the back, where the convertible roof is retracted. Andrew and Patricia Farnham, killed in a tragic car accident while out for a drive on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
She has to hold the photos of the two accidents side by side to understand why one puts her in mind of the other. It’s not merely a personal association with violent car crashes, although, she guesses, that may be part of it. After a second, it occurs to her. The angle from which the shocking photo of Peter Schiess is taken dictates that he was in a convertible with the roof down. Then, along the side of the Schiess photo, she sees that the driver’s side of the car is folded in, suggesting an impact from that side. The photo of the Farnham’s car, her second parents’ car is taken from the demolished driver’s side.
There are the two scenes, the still aftermath, looking almost like the same place, shot from different angles. Reduced to black and white, the cars even become the same colour. Only that strange beacon, a woman’s scarf, separates one scene from the other. Why so similar? She rubs her fingers over them, trying to feel the similarities under her skin. Of all the images to find in this book, why this one?
Following the car accident, Adela would have no more parents. Her uncle came to collect her and take her with him, giving her a home, as much help as his considerable money could purchase, even a new last name. Adela Farnham ceased to exist at the same time as Andrew and Patricia Farnham and Adela Landis emerged from the chrysalis as a teenager, frightened as a fawn and, predictably for a newborn, lacking memory. As an adult, Adela is aware of the irony that she can remember the time when her memory problems began.
Not wanting to spend time with what she can remember, Adela turns back to the book. The story of Cronos and their industrial domination continues well beyond the embarrassment of a far-right political cell in their midst and the expulsion of a few bad apples, of course. As time passed, the company grew and profited greatly from the knowledge they imported in the time around the end of the Second World War and during the Cold War. Adela does not need any book to tell her this, because she has been one of the beneficiaries of the wealth that was generated. Timothy Landis was one of the men involved in generating that wealth and his son Joseph, Joe as family knew him, had done an admirable job of carrying on his father’s work.
Left on its own, the story seems a little disappointing. Adela can see the professor’s eyes, a feral animal in a trap, as he evaluated her suitability as a reader. She knows that the book was crushed, that it is rare, that it is special precisely because it held some power over the mighty Cronos, because it said something that was intolerable to them.
And yes, she reflects, there is something ignoble, something sewer-nasty about the idea that the company grew based on the work of people who in the years and possibly even months before arriving at Cronos, had been working to kill the people whose money they then happily accepted. But the practice was sanctioned through the government’s own actions, so it hardly seemed that Cronos could be blamed. Even the idea that some far-right cell had sprung up in their midst was hardly crippling, considering their crackdown on its activities.
Adela wonders how she might have reacted, if it might have disturbed her freshly reborn Landis-self, if someone had told her these stories. She wonders if she would have cried in her room, waiting for the forces of vengeance to come and collect her, until her brain released it and the knowledge of the misdeeds that brought her so much comfort was gone from her mind. It’s with some concern that she realizes it is entirely possible that someone had told her this at one point in the past and that her brain had already released it.
She is a little shocked when she reaches the end of the book, partially because she did not expect she would be able to read it in one sitting and partly because the ending feels like no ending at all. The text simply stops, as if someone has torn out the last few pages. The evil conspirators were disciplined and disappeared. Cronos flourished. But somehow the story of the two groups together seems unresolved. What of the people who stayed on? What of the group itself and their beliefs? What of the contributions of these people to the glory that Cronos experienced afterwards? Something, Adela can tell, is missing. She is all too adept at spotting the perimeter of empty spaces.
This is when she knows that she should be trying to sleep. People, other people, read books and fall asleep and dream about entering the adventures they’ve read about. She’s seen Adam do it before, seen him, reading glasses pushed slightly off kilter, asleep next to her on the bed with the light still on. She doesn’t disturb him when he’s like this. She likes him disheveled.
Adela knows that she sleeps. She’s been told by doctors that she must sleep, or she’d become insane and die. She’s tried to explain that she rests, she closes her eyes and starts to drift from reality, farther from reality than she normally is, but that she’s aware, she can feel herself moving and that she jumps away from these strange visions as soon as she starts to see them. Real life is strange and frightening enough.
So Adela doesn’t go to bed, doesn’t let herself rest there, but rather stays sitting on the sofa, the book on her lap, watching the ghostly shadow of one of her bedroom curtains beckoning her from the wall, motioning her forth, as if there is something she just must see on the outside. Sometimes, its gestures become more urgent, as if there is imminent danger, but then the phantom arm settles a moment, before reaching out to call her again.
She plays these games often, sometimes answering the summons, sometimes not. In the end, it’s merely that she finds it chilly in her apartment, that she can feel the breeze that the window is letting in that makes her go to see what the phantom arm wants. At the very least, she wants to be comfortable again.
The view here always induces vertigo, appearing to drop off more sharply than it should. Logically, Adela knows that this is because the house is on a hill. The descent at the back of the building is much greater than at the front. It still makes her dizzy to look at the ground falling away from behind her apparently stable house.
It’s been raining again, the ground visibly slick with it even from this height. Between the houses below, she can see what looks like the shadow of an errant branch moving in and out of view, moving forward as if to observe her, back like a cockroach in the light when she leans closer to scrutinize it. They repeat this strange ballet, slight moves forward and back, a few times until she’s convinced that whatever it is has passed or that she imagined it to begin with. There is nothing in the alley below that her mind hasn’t put there.
Convinced now that she is alone and unobserved, Adela makes her way to the bed. At least she can sit down and relax and possibly even indulge in a cigarette, which she feels she’s somehow earned.
The cigarettes are hidden in the back of the drawer of her night table, giving her a convenient excuse to unearth her strange paper history. The first sheet, a record of her birth, with its magically, incomprehensible script that still seems like a goblin language to her. The second sheet, the certificate of her adoption by the Farnhams, in proper English, although the legal terms have always carried an air of incantation for her. There is only one term on the form that seems entirely not to fit, entered by an unseen human hand in the places where the name of the adoptee belongs: Svajone Audra Kazlauskas- henceforth “the infant”. The infant, henceforth Adela.
She has imagined the Kazlauskases holding their tiny baby for the first time, the strange wealth of their experience somehow being beamed into her like rays of sunlight, like microwaves. How strange she must have seemed to them, this tiny fleshy sack carrying the burden of their dreams, holding their faintly toxic light inside her. Perhaps they could always see something of their past underneath the carnation-petal folds of her baby-skin, could see it threatening them from the future until they had felt compelled to run away.
This sort of explanation has a ring of artistic purity to it but, even at her most whimsical, Adela knows it is ridiculous. More likely, having escaped to the new world with its attendant freedoms, her birth parents had chafed at the restrictions imposed on their lives by a baby and had chosen to run away. Their mysterious and total disappearance was likely a consequence of the poor tracking methods available at the time rather than of some spectral intervention by unseen forces.
And still, she imagines that baby body, growing always with her parents’ light trapped inside, destabilizing her, by turns magical and dangerous, always keeping her core in flux, where others simply cooled and became consistent. At moments like this, where she feels close to that ancient self, as she attempts to take in the immense proportions to which it has grown in the intervening decades, she imagines that she can see fissures in her hardened public shell, that the nuclear glow from within is shooting cracks in the surface, heating, expanding and reshaping the person that exists in the world of others. Every time Adela feels she has a grasp on who that outer person is, the outside cracks, the plates of her armour shift and reform and there is some new aspect she has to contend with.
She imagines that she can hear an alarm that the transformation is taking place again, just as some sense of stability had been achieved, that parts are on the move. Like an alarm bell that ricochets through her temporarily vacant skull, leaving echoes in its wake. Until she realizes that it’s not an alarm at all and that her phone is ringing.
“I thought you’d be here for sure,” the audibly inebriated female voice drawls through the line. The wires are coming directly into Adela’s brain, connecting her again to the realities of the world beyond the heavy walls of her urban castle. “Don’t you just want to get out and get back at him?”
“Louise?” The name comes back to her on its own, without her thinking of it, without her reaching to grasp it from the garden of short term memories she is able to maintain. “Where are you?”
“I’m at Moebius and I figured you’d be here too.” There is a burst of noise, human and mechanical, in the background. “Adela, screw him. He has some woman with a throaty voice in his room answering his phone and you’re at home. He’s an idiot, but you shouldn’t be one. Get out here and get him out of your system. Like flushing the damn toilet.”
The ugly, twisty pain of remembering Adam, the voice on the phone, the finality of rejection wriggles through her. Adela doesn’t want to go to Moebius. She wants to stay within the safety of her turret and wait for an answer to find her. But there is something in Louise’s voice, something Adela is not used to hearing, there’s a neediness. Louise’s night is somehow incomplete without Adela there. And who is Adela to leave someone else hanging?
“Lloyd’s here,” Louise adds hopefully. “He was asking about you. I think he likes you. But, hell, you can do better than that. And those guys are here, the chess club and the weird one who acts like their leader.”
“I want to change.”
“Why the hell would you change to come here? Come on, get a move on.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Don’t leave without me.”
Moebius is, as always, crowded with people who look like extras from an alien landscape. As Adela enters, her path is sliced in half by a woman who seems to extend almost to the ceiling, looking like nothing so much as a cybernetic maypole- strange glowing strips of colour sprouting from her at various points.
Louise has definitely been indulging for a while. Everything about her is askew. She is half in her coat, stretched slantwise over the side of a chair, talking in the ear of one of the chess club, Chris, the stocky one with the shaved head. Adela finds it a little funny to think of Louise suddenly being so friendly, but it’s obvious she’s had some assistance in letting down her guard. She leans forward, arms open to greet Adela, with an indistinct, happy sort of expression.
“You made it!” she cries gleefully.
“You made it sound like it was too much fun.”
“You remember Chris?” Louise swings an arm back towards him, which he parries just before it lands on his face.
“Yes, of course I do.”
Louise leans forward and grabs tight onto Adela’s collar. “You should grab his little friend. The skinny one. He’s kind of cute.”
“I don’t think that I need to-“
“Seriously. Screw the old guy, he’s creepy, but let’s find you someone who can help you get revenge.”
“I don’t need revenge, I-“
“Of course you do.”
“What about the bartender?”
Adela winces, although she can’t quite figure out why. She feels the reaction register on her face.
“I thought you liked him? Yeah, well, maybe not. Besides, I always try to avoid having sex with guys if it looks like I’d need a tetanus shot afterwards.”
Adela cracks up laughing in spite of herself. Louise is still hanging onto her with remarkable pressure. It feels like Adela’s neck is in danger of being dislocated. A little ways across the room, she can see David, who does not look especially creepy by the standards of the room, despite Louise’s injunction, talking to a cherubic redhead.
“Well hello there!” Lloyd seems unusually cheerful, although not so much as Louise, as he arrives bearing an armful of drinks. Hands appear from various parts of the immediate area to collect them, until he is left with only a single glass of liquid that shines an eerie shade of blue-white under the black light overhead.
“This place seems to be strangely addictive,” Adela jokes.
“Oh yes, once you start coming here, you become part of it. I believe that’s how it sustains itself.”
“Absorbs everyone who enters?”
“Part of them at least.”
He beams her a look at once tired, humourous and strangely hopeful. Maybe there was something to what Louise had said… “I think he likes you”. Adela can feel a twitchiness in her chest that she’s not used to. The black light is illuminating tiny pieces of lint on his dark shirt that dance like static before her eyes.
“Adela needs us to cheer her up,” Louise giggles.
“Really? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Louise is worried that I’m depressed, but I’m here now, I’m fine and no one needs to think any more about it.” Adela gently detaches Louise from her and reclines her back towards Chris. She notices, a little surprised given their brief but tense history, that Louise seems more than happy for the excuse to drape herself along the length of his heavily tattooed arm.
“Well,” Lloyd says, raising a glass towards her, “I think Louise is cheery enough for a couple of us.”
“And what about you?”
“Oh, I’m always-“
Adela misses the last part of what he says in a sudden outburst of sound from Louise. It takes her a second to recognize the yelping, barking sound as a cough. The spasm has bent her forward, Chris dutifully attending her, brushing the long strands of chestnut hair from her visibly flushed face.
“Are you OK?” Adela grabs her hand.
Louise nods her head quickly, sniffling a little and raising her delicate squared jaw so that all of them can see she is still conscious and in control of herself.
“I’m starting to get a cold, I can feel it.” She looks at Lloyd, then at Chris, before her dark eyes settle on Adela. “I could use a glass of water though.”
“I’ll get you one,” Adela volunteers.
“No, it’s fine, I’ll go with you,” Louise answers, rising to show that she has recovered. She grabs her drink as they make their way towards the bar. Her eyes linger a little on Chris, who returns her look with a cocky sort of smile.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” Louise drawls, pushing into Adela’s back with such uncoordinated force that they both almost end up on the ground.
“When did that cough start?”
“I don’t know- yesterday some time. It comes and goes. My nose was running all afternoon, although that seems to have gone away. Kind of lucky for me, since last time I checked, gentlemen only liked wet noses on puppies.”
Adela is about to respond, but instead waves to David, who turns away from the sweet young thing now clinging to his neck to salute them as they pass by.
“Adela, please tell me you’re not interested in him.” Louise pushes her forward with some determination.
“You seem awfully concerned about it, but no, I’m not. Besides, even if I was, I think I’m old enough to have given birth to the type of women he seems to go for.”
“I mean it,” she continues, suddenly serious. “He’s a creep. Ask Lloyd- they’ve known each other for years. He was just talking about it earlier.”
This is news to Adela, who is almost certain Lloyd never said a word about this before. She wonders how he ended up talking about it with Louise.
“OK,” she reassures her, “I promise I’m not interested and I’m not going to do anything with him. I’m still not quite ready to write off my errant fiancé at the moment.”
The bar is thick with bodies in various states of dress and undress and, Adela notices, wrinkling her nose a little, various states of cleanliness. As she inches her way up to the bar, she becomes aware that she is coming in proximity to one of the uncleanly elements. The fetid scent reminds her a little of the sickly smell that rises from the freshly thawed earth- a season of rotted foliage and dog shit thrust to the surface.
A couple of feet away, she spots the likely source of the olfactory assault. A old man, greasy grey hair hanging down his back in an anemic ponytail, bony hands clutching a pint of flat-looking beer, sits by himself, addressing himself to his drink. He looks like a hippie cast aside by the sixties, tie-dyed shirt overlaid with dirt stains, decrepit sandals revealing gangrenous-looking feet. Adela watches him, slowly realizing that he is sobbing into his drink. It’s strangely, sadly hypnotic, the sight of this broken figure weeping and muttering to himself.
“You wonder sometimes if it’s bad choices or bad luck,” Louise whispers, her eyes also fixed on him.
Tentatively, Louise presses Adela towards the bar, looking to break the spell the man apparently has on both of them.
“Good evening ladies,” the bartender smiles, oozing unaffected charm. “And what can I do for my two lovelies this evening?”
Adela feels shy of speaking to him and hesitates a moment. Something she said, something embarrassing she’s done. Adam would be able to remind her of it if he were here. His absence jabs at her stomach like a tiny fist, forcing her sense of shyness away.
“Just a glass of water for my friend.”
“Screw that,” Louise objects. “I want another G&T.”
“You have one in your hand,” Adela laughs.
Louise raises her eyebrows mockingly and gulps the rest of her drink, then annunciates very clearly, “Another gin and tonic, please.”
“One gin and tonic, one vodka cranberry and a glass of water, please.”
Louise smiles and coughs a little. Though much less forceful than her previous fit, it still sounds bad to Adela.
“I don’t suppose you have anything I could take for this?” she moans.
“Nothing that I’m going to give to someone whose been drinking.”
“See? This is what I don’t get.” Louise throws her weight onto the bar as she speaks, mercifully cutting off Adela’s view of the old hippie. “You say you can’t remember where you live without notes, but you can remember what medications not to mix with alcohol. How does that work?”
“Well for one thing, I’ve been taking medications for longer than I’ve been living here, for one thing, but…” Adela isn’t sure quite how to express what she wants to say next, but Louise’s curious expression drives her forward. “I don’t know how, but I feel like I’ve been better, like I’m remembering things lately.”
“I just don’t really get it. Normally, if something changes, like moving, or being on my own, or anything like that, I get worse. That much I can remember easily because I’ve been told enough times. And now, all of a sudden, there are these little improvements.”
“Not to press a sore point, but is it possible that you’ve gotten better because you have to take care of yourself? You don’t have Adam around, even by phone, to rely on?”
Adela shrugs a little. In truth, she hadn’t thought of it, but it does have a ring of believability to it. Louise’s eyes are unfocused as she grabs her drink off the bar and takes a big sip, much of which runs down the front of her blouse.
“Has this happened before?”
Adela feels the air go out of her in a long steady trail. “I couldn’t tell you. That I don’t remember.”
“Weird.” Louise takes a more cautious drink. “I mean, good weird, but still weird.”
“Yeah, welcome to my highly suspect reality.” Adela glances towards the end of the bar. There is a figure there she knows. She couldn’t say how she knows him, only that she is absolutely certain that she does know him, from somewhere. Perhaps from here. Perhaps he lives near her and she’s seen him on the street. Other people would be able to place him, but Adeal can only be sure that she knows him, without being able to back that up.
“Something caught your interest?” Louise leans in very close, the fermented vegetable scent of gin encircling her.
“What I was saying before. I know that guy. Now, I can’t remember where I know him from, but I do remember him, I’m absolutely certain.”
“Which one. There are a bunch I’ve seen here before.”
Shaved head, black jacket with the gold crest. Standing by the wall talking on his phone.”
“Looks like a cop. You talked to the police recently?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Well, if it helps, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before.”
Louise finishes her drink and smiles.
“Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“How the hell should I know? Maybe. Give it a try.”
“I’m just wondering…” Adela has to plan her words very carefully, scared of igniting something. “You’ve been really good to me. You tracked Adam and you’ve gone to dinner and out for drinks with me… I mean, you’re being a real friend.”
“I feel like you’re about to make a pass at me.”
“No,” Adela giggles, momentarily sidetracked. “I just wonder… What… What did you do before?”
“You mean why don’t I have other friends?”
“Sounds sort of harsh, but I guess that’s kind of what I was asking.”
“You think I’m after something?”
“No, and this is why I asked if you’d mind. I like having you around, I like having someone to talk to it’s just that I usually don’t and it makes me wonder how this ended up happening.”
Louise’s eyes flit from side to side and she coughs a little. “I’m actually from a small town south of here. Moved to the big evil city about ten years ago to live with my boyfriend, who had a good job offer. Didn’t know anyone and most of the people I met were his coworkers. Two months ago he told me that he didn’t love me any more and that he was moving in with a woman he’d met through an internet dating site. So I guess I’m just happy to find someone who feels like as much of an alien here as I do.”
“You know, if you want his house burned down, I’m really the last person anyone would suspect.” Adela raises her glass just as Lloyd and Chris emerge from the hedge of bodies around the bar.
“We thought we’d lost you,” Lloyd chortles.
“Just getting to know each other better,” Louise beams, clumsily reaching for Adela’s hand.
“By all means,” Chris leers as he says it. “Get to know each other as well as you want.”
“You’d be lucky to get one of us,” Louise retorts, her tartness cut with humour.
“Any man would be,” Chris beams, obviously pleased with his handling of the situation.
“OK, I’m done, I’m leaving, who’s coming with me?” Louise announces, as if from nowhere. “Not you Adela, you just got here, you stay and have fun. Lloyd, keep her company.” She turns confidently to Chris. “You going to walk me outside, son?”
Chris takes her arm and leads her towards the door as Adela and Lloyd stare after them.
“She seemed a little different tonight,” Lloyd ventures.
“Sometimes, I guess you just need to get out and enjoy yourself.”
“Although that cough makes me think she’d be better off at home with some warm soup.”
Adela wonders if Chris is anything close to the gentleman he was pretending to be, if letting Louise leave with him, even when she seemed so confident of what she wanted, was a good idea.
“So then, Adela, how have you been since the last time we spoke?”
Lloyd smiles with that same warmth that made her remember him back when they first met. Or soon after they first met.
“I usually always say I’ve been fine when people ask me that, because it’s less embarrassing than explaining that I don’t remember a lot of it.”
“Most people say that they’re fine, although it’s more because they don’t want to go through all the details.”
“Exactly. I give the same answer for different reasons, but I still look comparatively normal.”
“Now why would you want that?” he chuckles.
“I found that book.”
Lloyd’s piercing little eyes widen. “You’re not serious.”
“Oh but I am.” Adela wonders, fleetingly, if she’s making the right decision by telling him this, but she’s desperate to share with someone and Louise was in no condition to hear about it. It seems uncharitable, doubting him this way, Lloyd who seems as translucent as water. She knows that paranoia is one of the many weaknesses to which she is prone. At the same time, there is something in his expression as he reacts to the news of her having the book in hand, something vaguely greedy, vaguely jealous, that triggers her hypersensitive alarm system.
“How? Have you started reading it?”
Innocent curiosity from a confessed bibliophile? Or interrogation? There’s excitement visible in his face. A boy sensing a new game? Or a bird eyeing a worm? Say something. He smiles again.
“I finished reading it.”
“It wasn’t exactly War and Peace. Just a very simple story about a group of people who were imported from Germany at the end of the war and from eastern Europe during the Cold War and how they became politically active.”
“No, there’s more to it, but,” she eyes him to see if there is any hint of prying in his question, “I can’t for the life of me figure out why Cronos should have been so upset by it. It makes it look like this was all of historical interest. Doesn’t make it sound like there were any remnants left at all.”
“Although there were.”
He glances reflexively around as he says it and laughs as if he’s making a joke. Adela tries to respond but her rhythm is off. She no longer knows what they’re talking about, or who he is. How should he know about this?
He nods and leans a little closer, so she is very conscious of the beery scent of his breath as he speaks. “There were remnants long after they made their little cull.”
“How would you know that?”
“Don’t be mysterious. You volunteered that information, you wanted me to know, you can’t just pull back from the brink now.”
A great flash of light comes from the back room and a troupe of out of synch dancers, including the Snake Woman who had previously performed on her own, take over the stage. Each seems to be dancing their own personal ballet and yet they move seamlessly around and through each other’s steps. One of the dancers has a very visible prosthetic leg.
“Is it burlesque or a freak show?” Adela wonders aloud.
A completely androgynous figure in front of her, caked with make-up, shoots her a withered look. She is an alien among aliens.
Lloyd steps closer, so that he is speaking directly in her ear. “Back in my punk rock days, I was quite the political activist. I protested against all sorts of corporate evils.”
“Including Cronos?” Adela smiles, imagining her sweet, slightly faded companion as a young firebrand.
“Especially Cronos. Around here, if you’re railing against anything, you can pretty much guarantee you’re up against Cronos or one of their personae.”
“Were you a real radical? Did you stockpile weapons? Did you set things on fire?”
“Perhaps I don’t want to incriminate myself.”
In the morphing light of the club, Lloyd looks alternately melancholy, tired and faintly amused. Adela can’t imagine what she found threatening in him.
“So how does a rabble-rousing young punk end up a capitalist businessman fraternizing with the enemy?”
“You’re making some assumptions about how lucrative an enterprise a book and record store is these days. And besides, I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things.”
A huge bellow, like the sound of someone possessed, rises from someone in the audience nearer the stage. It’s a frightening sound, wraiths shrieking from behind the ether.
“The natives are restless,” Lloyd grimaces, pulling Adela a little further back from the crowd.
It occurs to her as they move into a space that seems to have more oxygen that her mind is at it again. That little hitch- the barely human noise, the movement, the change in light, in atmosphere- she doesn’t know what it was he was saying. Something to do with Cronos, with himself, with the book. It’s gone now, wiped clean as things so often are. She feels her neck muscles tense, suddenly disconcerted by the shadows around her, unsure of how she ended up in this place, now or ever. I should have stayed home. The music in the club, always abrasive, kicks at her ears with new ferocity. Lloyd gives her a little smile, as if he feels quite pleased about something. There was something she’d wanted him to tell her.
“Why did you do that?” She withdraws her arm from his grip, aware of the simmering anxiety leaking out in her voice.
“You wanted to move closer?”
“What?” The crowd seems to be chanting, what words, if words they are, she cannot tell. He’d pulled her away from them, the braying masses. “No, not that, it’s-“ She can feel anger sprouting all over her but can no longer feel its source. “You distracted me. I- I can’t remember what I was asking you. I can’t remember what we were talking about.”
“I was just trying to get you away from the crowd. There’s no need to get touchy about it.” His tone hovers on the edge of friendliness and annoyance.
This, Adela realizes, is why she doesn’t have many friends. She can never recall exactly how, but she knows that eventually those who haven’t been put off by her perpetual confusion do something that irritates her, throws her off her rhythm, and her reaction persuades them that it would be best to back off. She wonders if Lloyd is surreptitiously plotting the quickest path to the exit.
“We were talking about my past. I was a politically aware young man and I used to protest things, including things that Cronos were involved in. You asked me how I came to be where I am now and I started to tell you that the things I believe in had changed over the years.” He raises his eyebrows, the way she’s seen medical professionals do when she’s being uncooperative, the way that makes her feel like a ten year old.
Adela runs through what he’s just said, mildly pleased that it does trigger phrases from the conversation, that she can remember some of what was said, if not the exact order. But something is missing.
“What were we saying before then? There was something else. I’d meant to ask something.”
They both hang there like marionettes. His eyes flicker hesitantly, as if trying to catch sight of something behind his head. Hers rest on him, trying to permeate the outer layer.
“I didn’t mean to be cranky with you,” she adds, although she’s not sure if he’s heard it.
“No, you’re right,” he answers at length, “there was something that got us onto that whole topic.”
After a long second she sees something akin to a match lighting in the shadows of his eyes. “Yes- you were saying you thought it was harmless enough and that it was just a historical thing, since they got rid of the culprits. And I said that they hadn’t, not exactly. You asked how I knew.”
This, she will have to take his word on. She can’t quite get that far back in the conversation. There’s another primal roar from the crowd, although she can’t see what’s caused it. Near the front of the stage, she can make out a jostling sort of motion that could be dancing or a brawl. She cranes her neck, a little ashamed that she may be looking for blood.
Suddenly, her field of vision is gone, blacked out by a figure cutting sharply between her and everything else, even Lloyd, who seems to get knocked off balance in the other direction. The figure moves quickly, especially in this place, where no one seems to have any forward thrust. He’s bumped Adela to the side before she registers a face.
She turns after the aggressor, about to shout after him, only to notice that he is staring malevolently back at her. It’s the man who was at the bar. “I know him”, she’d told Louise only a short time before. From where? Those terrible eyes have been on her before, she knows, boring into her with that same mute anger that they do now, hooking under her skin into the flesh inside.
“Where do I know you?” she whispers to herself.
The stranger jerks his shaved head away from her and disappears in the direction of the door.
“Polite fellow,” Lloyd rejoins wearily, having recovered his footing.
“I’ve seen him before,” Adela murmurs absently.
“Friend of yours?”
“On the bus.”
“You take the bus together?”
“I saw him on the bus the day that I went to the university. He was at the university, actually. He pushed a door into me when I was leaving.”
“Maybe he likes you.”
Adela is unable to respond, realizing for the first time ever that she is less happy for having remembered something.
“Would you like to continue this conversation somewhere a little quieter?” Lloyd ventures.
“You think they’re gangsters?”
“I don’t know. I mean, anything’s possible. But we might be jumping to conclusions based on movies and pop culture.”
“Or based on the fact that they’re a group of men in expensive black suits sitting in a Chinese tea house in the middle of the night talking in hushed voices.”
“Perhaps they just wanted a place to talk in private too.”
“That wouldn’t exclude them being gangsters.”
The puffy, arthritic doyenne of the establishment arrives at the alleged gangsters table with a pitcher of wine. There is a familiar sort of discussion with them, a mother addressing her misbehaving children. As the men look up, Adela and Lloyd let their faces drop so that they are both watching the chintzy table cloth.
“You think it’s safe to look up,” Adela chuckles at length.
“How should I know? I’m counting the stitches in the linen pattern the same as you.”
Red and pink lamps seem to glow from every part of the small room. Even Adela’s tea is tinted rosy. They had come here to talk, she and Lloyd, but instead they’ve been staring at the these men at the table across the room, making up a nefarious history for the group of Oriental men speaking in hushed voices. A crisp peal of laughter erupts from across the room, which gives Adela an excuse to look over in their direction. They do not even glance. The two figures seated by the window are of no interest to them, evidently.
“Do you always think that people you see are criminals?”
“Most of us have a little criminality in our past.”
She gives him an elusive sort of smile. “Nothing on an official record. You think they’re corporate types over here making a business deal?”
“Well I guess they could be a different kind of gangster in that case.”
“Thanks Leon Trotsky. What about you? Is your mug shot on a bulletin board somewhere?”
“I don’t think the FBI is looking for me at the moment, no.”
“You never got picked up at any of the protest rallies you went to?” She realizes that he has made a point of repeating the main points of their conversation a few times while they searched for a place that was still open. She also realizes that he’s done this so that, in the interim, she’ll be able to keep the subjects in mind. It’s a kind of chivalry, really. It makes her feel grateful and a bit pathetic.
Lloyd shrugs his shoulders a little a fidgets with his mug. “I always thought it was just the stupid ones who got caught, really. I guess I was clever enough to avoid being arrested.”
There’s more to what he wants to say, she can tell, because his fidgeting continues after the words have stopped. In his mind, he is adding to what he’s willing to say in public.
“So,” he says, dropping his reverie and looking directly at her, “you didn’t think much of the book?”
“It was interesting for what it was, I guess. And I suppose it looks bad for Cronos to have gotten in bed with a lot of these right-wing types, but the author makes it sound like he’s detailing something that already happened.” She pulls out her notebook, where she jotted down some reactions to the book. The lines seem to glow with familiarity. “They made examples of a few people, scared the rest out of keeping up with their group… Great.”
“I wrote down here “ending funny”. No what the hell did that mean?” She snorts, annoyed with herself. “I’ll have to check it when I get home.”
“Perhaps I can shed some light on that.” He gives a mysterious little smile.
“You can try.”
He folds his fingers together and begins in a professorial tone. “From what I understand- and I’ve never actually read the book, but I’ve spoken to someone who has- the ending just sort of tails off. Very unprofessional by academic standards and probably the reason why Dr. McCormick ended up having to put the book out through a tiny local publisher rather than a respected university press.
“Rumour had it that he’d rushed the book to publication because he started receiving death threats while he was working on it. So he decided it was safer to get something out there in public, so if anything happened, it would look suspicious.”
“Death threats? Over that thing? He said himself that a bunch of the people he spoke to recanted what they told him anyway. It would have looked like a second rate conspiracy theory. Not exactly the kind of thing that was going to bring an entity the size of Cronos to its knees.”
“I’ll take your word for it that there’s nothing in there that should have upset them so much. But so you know, I’ve heard the recanting came after publication, not before. So that could just have been the second line of attack when bullying didn’t work.”
Something shakes loose in Adela. “You’re right. He said something about that. How he was surprised no one said anything before it was published.”
“So then what I heard was right?”
“I guess so. Was this something you heard from the same people who had read the book.”
Lloyd pinches his lips a little. “Person. One only.”
Reading some discomfort in his expression, she feels the need to inquire a little further. “This person, did something happen to them? Were they hurt or…?” She doesn’t know how to end her question without potentially making the subject more upsetting.
“No… Well, let me rephrase: I guess it would depend on your point of view. He’s certainly not had an easy time of it, but he’s still alive and in comparatively god health. And you’ve met him, by the way.”
Adela’s brows furrow.
“David Jones Addison.”
“David from the bar?” There’s a sharp note of surprise in her voice and at the same time, she can picture it. Him in his vaguely militaristic clothing, that cultured but faintly patronizing voice, grabbing hold of a book like this and using it as evidence of the evils of the wealthy, the privileged, the elite. It is not surprising. It makes a type of sense. And she remembered who he was.
“Yes, David from the bar. We knew each other way back. You know, back when I had all those radical ideas I told you about.”
“The angry young men.”
“Yes. This was back when I was in college, before I got sick of it and decided that living on the fringes of the music scene was my calling. He was a little older, one of these types who was very good at getting students fired up about all the things that were wrong from the third world to their backyards.
“So, me and a bunch of others like me heeded the call and we marched and yelled and threw things at people who we saw as responsible and we were happy to have a way to vent all our youthful angst at something.”
“Did you ever feel like it was doing any good?”
“I suppose I did at the time,” he says, staring ruefully at the swirl of his spoon spinning sugar into his tea. “It didn’t change anything, though. It was just walking and making noise. Sound and fury.”
Adela can tell that these last words are connected to something else. Something that most people would get immediately. She can always recognize when someone is quoting another person. As surreptitiously as she can, she types the phrase into her phone with the intent of finding its source later on.
“That’s a bit creepy,” she manages to croak.
“Anyway,” Lloyd continues heavily, his eyes rising from the vortex he’s created in the pale green liquid, “I realized, as most others did, that we were wasting our time and that, rather than railing against everything that everyone else was doing wrong, we should just try to live our lives and be decent people. So David and I parted ways and I haven’t really seen too much of him since those times.”
“He wasn’t one of the people who got over the lure of protesting.” She states it without any implied question, since it’s obvious enough from her little exposure to him that he is very much as Lloyd described him being decades earlier.
“No,” Lloyd confirms, “he certainly wasn’t. I suppose he looks down on me for giving up. It doesn’t keep me up nights. Owning a shop may not revolutionize the world, but it lets me live pretty much on my own terms and at least I haven’t been blown to bits fighting the glorious fight.”
Ominously, the lights in the restaurant seem to flicker. From the corner of her eye, she sees the men at the far table move their arms, quickly, tensely, then relax when they realize it is a momentary blip. The room glows scarlet around them and all is well again.
“Were a lot of your fellow protesters blown up in your marches?”
“No, not in anything I was involved with, thank God. But there were some elements of our group who were into doing a bit more than just marching. I heard that one of David’s protégés lost an arm trying to cook up some home made explosives a few years after we parted company.”
“Sounds like you made the right life decision.”
He smiles graciously and gives a little nod. “Well I like to think so.
“Anyway, he had that book, Remaking the Beast and he was quite adamant that there were some underlying elements to the story that weren’t obvious in the text.”
Adela leans in, intrigued. “Such as?”
“Such as the ending being left sort of amputated. He claimed that it was because the whole affair wasn’t over and that Cronos had done what was necessary for P.R.- sacrificed a few expendable people- in the interests of protecting their whole. He said that the same group of ultra-right neo-fascists were still running the corporation-“
“My uncle is one of the people running that corporation.”
“No offense intended to you or any members of your family. Just relating his thoughts on the matter and, by the way, I wouldn’t go advertising your connections in front of him or any of his brood. I don’t want you kidnapped by guerillas or anything.
“Anyway, he believed, perhaps still believes, that Cronos was a pretty malevolent organization, seeking to consolidate power outside of public scrutiny. He claimed that the people they purged were peripheral and even said he suspected Cronos had hunted and killed them off afterward to keep them from revealing what they knew.”
Adela feels a cold electric charge run the length of her back, the effects buzzing through the skin in her legs. The book, with its lurid imagery and emotionless documentation of the aftermath of the Cronos purge opens before her like a sinkhole. Rather than being unable to remember anything, her brain is suddenly allowing her to see everything simultaneously, too much to start to explain in a linear fashion.
“I suppose it is. But take it for what it is, the invective of a very embittered man who wanted to others to believe that Cronos and corporate entities like them, were the embodiment of pure evil in the universe.”
Adela shakes her head, not to disagree, but to physically dislodge one of the thousands of thoughts shimmering before her, to give herself a fragment to hold onto.
“Yes, but Lloyd, those people did all die prematurely. All except one and I think he just disappeared.”
He gives a quick smile, like they’re having fun plotting their mystery but, just for a second, she sees the distinct shadow of concern dull the light in his eyes.
“Were they actually murdered?” he asks with forced levity.
She can feel her internal kaleidoscope begin to shift a little. What she sees is blurry. The somber faces of Cronos employees distort and smirk at her from a distance. She feels herself scowl, trying to exert enough pressure to hold them still. The faces are gone, the words on the page are gone. But, just before the entire tableau crumbles, she is able to snatch one image from the air.
“No, not outright murdered, I don’t think. A car crash. One of them was killed in a car crash.”
“Was it suspicious?”
“I’m not really sure.” Then, tentatively, “It looked suspicious to me.”
“This is quite fascinating now isn’t it? What made it suspicious?”
“It-“ She still has the image in her mind, the brutally crushed car rendered in that muddy newsprint quality, the dots converging to form a specific image. The car, the trees behind, the sun high above, its rays illuminating a white scarf snagged on an antenna, waving like a flag of surrender. “I’m sorry, I don’t exactly remember. Something to do with a scarf, the way it was caught on the car.”
As soon as she’s said it, Adela feels a sense of physical revulsion, as if she might throw up on the tacky embroidered tablecloth. Sensing her hesitance, Lloyd picks up again.
“If you look at who some of these people were and what they believed, you have to consider the possibility that a lot more people than the power brokers at Cronos may have wanted them dead. Even if the deaths are suspicious, it doesn’t really implicate anyone.
“David believed that, because the book never categorically stated that the group had been effectively dismantled, it was implying that it continued to exist. And that Cronos made sure it was buried because they had so much to hide.”
“Having political views, even if they’re reprehensible, isn’t illegal.”
“No. But he used to hint that they were involved in a lot of below-board things that they couldn’t risk coming to light. All part of the grand consolidation of power.”
He continues, gently, perhaps thinking that the criticism of Cronos is a little too close to a personal attack.
“Look, Adela, no one’s saying that any of this has any basis in reality. David is a smart man and I don’t doubt for a second that his beliefs are sincere, but he’s also a fanatic. Fanatics are all reductive. They want there to be a source of evil, so that they can believe that, once that source is eliminated, all will be well with the world. Some people think that source is a particular country or government, David thinks it’s large corporations. And, because they’re such an obvious local force, he tends to target Cronos. He says a lot of things and parts of them are probably true, but no one, probably not even the man himself, can see which parts those are.”
“Which parts do you think are true?”
“I can’t even remember half of what he’s said.”
“You remember the parts about the book pretty well.”
“Yes, that I do. Personal reasons. There were a bunch of us who got together one night. Nothing political, really. We all smoked a lot of hash and David gets all manic and worked up and he was talking about this book he’d been reading. I’d heard him mention it before, but not in that kind of detail. He started talking about Cronos, like they were some sort of monster, like they were a poison that needed to be cleansed from the surface of the earth. And he was going on about something- I honestly don’t ever think I heard him properly- having to do with him being the one who was going to set things right, like he was some sort of crusader.
“Then he started going on about how he’d been studying Cronos and how they worked, how he knew all these things that weren’t in the book, but that were between the lines. Basically what I’ve just told you, although in more colourful language. And he started talking about a sword, about raising some kind of sword and then he pulls up his sleeve to show this horrific fresh scar on his arm- his brand as he refers to it now- painful just to look at, the scabs ripped off to keep it open, signs of infection, the works. The symbol of the nefarious Cronos group with a sword driven through it, it was supposed to be.
“And I remember him saying, very clearly, ‘You start this and you’re in for life’.”
Lloyd, drifting on his own plane of memory, is a little removed. He shakes his head a little. “That was the moment when I realized that I did not want to pursue insurrection as a life path. That despite my values, I wanted to have the opportunity to be boring and indolent and happy. And honestly, he scared the hell out of me.”
There’s more in his head, Adela can feel it, like the breath of another person on her neck. “Do you ever think of what your life would have been like if you’d stuck with him?”
Lloyd raises an eyebrow ironically. “Yes, when I heard that poor bastard blew his arm off, I thought about it a lot and I patted myself on the back for making the right decision.”
“And were probably happy that you had an arm to pat your back with.”
They both laugh at this, which diminishes into a sort of liquid silence, full and churning.
At length, Lloyd speaks again a little shyly. “So, I don’t mean to offend you or anything, but I’ve noticed that Louise has mentioned your fiancé a couple of times.”
“Yes,” she responds, a little nervous of the turn in conversation.
“Is there a reason why he’s never with you when you come out?”
“Ah, I understand. Whereabouts?”
The murky details of tracking Adam, of a woman’s voice in his room, of her feeling of abandonment, press down on Adela like stones. “I’m not sure I remember,” she says quietly. “France, I think. Or China. I’d have to check.”
“Is that why Louise was saying we needed to cheer you up? Because you’re feeling lonely now that he’s away?”
“Not exactly.” Adela heaves a breath, trying to throw the weight of her own unhappiness. Lloyd doesn’t pursue the conversation.
There’s a crash that startles both of them and, Adela notices, the men in suits. In fact, the sound is just the owner placing a tray of cutlery on the counter, but it echoes off the walls so that it sounds like a bomb going off. Even the weathered-looking dragon at the centre of the fountain in the entrance looks more awake.
“Lloyd,” she says, after both of them have caught their breath, “I think I need to know if it’s true or not.”
“If what’s true?”
“All of it. The book, what David said, everything to do with Cronos.”
“It’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to be documented anywhere. I doubt there’s a way of finding out one way or the other.”
“Nor is it something I can bring up over the dinner table with my uncle. But I want to know. Everything I have comes from Cronos. Even my life. I don’t want to think that I’m the beneficiary of some immoral empire moving the levers of power from their underground sanctuary. But if that is what I am, then I don’t want to be ignorant of it.”
Lloyd nods. “A very noble way of thinking. So how are you going to get to the truth, if it’s not recorded anywhere?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. I mean, I’m close to Cronos. That has to be good for something.” She hesitates before completing what it is she wants to say. “Will you help me?”
He looks a little taken aback. “I don’t think there’s anything I could do, really.”
“You know this place, the city. And you know things about Cronos that I’ve never heard-“
“Things that may not even be true.”
“- but things that, if they are true, are pretty important. You know books and you know this area. You remember things. We’re not doing anything we could get in trouble for. I promise you’ll keep all your limbs.”
Lloyd chuckles. “OK, whatever I can do to help, I will.”
A young man, dressed in a black suit similar to those at the table, bursts into the room from a passage in the back. He is obviously animated and, unlike the others, his suit shows signs of his having recently been in a fight. He speaks almost at the top of his voice, in a language Adela doesn’t understand but guesses to be a form of Chinese. He gesticulates frantically, but as he does, she notices he is distinctly favouring his left arm, that he seems almost unable to lift it. The other men at the table rumble to life. They rise with a thunder clap of guttural noises, and follow him out the same point where he entered.
A few seconds later, Adela hears a thud, a security door, she imagines, being thrown open with considerable force. The owner continues to polish her cutlery, without looking up, observing each piece to see the reflection of the gaudy interior lights on its surface.
“This might be a good time to go,” Lloyd mutters tensely.
He drops some money on the table and pulls her out of the room. As they disappear into the vestibule, Adela can still see the flicker of forks and knives through the smudged door.
The street is desolate of traffic and people, save for a few unfortunates who are making a bed in the thresholds of shops. A stinking river, most likely effluent from the restaurants and dingy grocery stores up the hill, slithers towards them and beyond, into the sewer. This, thinks Adela, is what people mean when they say ‘the dead of night’.
“How are you feeling?”
“I realize you probably want to go home and sleep, but, in the interests of helping, I was thinking it might be an idea to find somewhere else to sit for a while and make notes on everything we talked about. Maybe we’ll start to see some sense in it.
“At the very least, it’ll mean that you’ll be able to refer to it, in case it gets knocked from your memory.”
Adela gives a weary smile. “I don’t sleep, actually. You’re the one who has to get up early in the morning to open the shop, so if you’re up for it, great.”
“Well, one of the perks of being the boss is that you get to make and break the rules. No one cares if I sleep in.”
He starts off, pressing a hand against her elbow, guiding her forward. The streetlights buzz like a swarm of hornets overhead, throwing shadows in every direction. Adela tries to focus on what her companion is saying, but her eyes turn unconsciously towards the starless city sky.
“They’ve left us here to die,” the journalist translates tonelessly.
Although the iris-blue sky is growing paler and her morning newspaper is waiting for her by the time Adela shuffles up her stairs and through her door, she can’t resist the urge to peek at the copious notes she’s been taking. Her hands and wrists ache with the effort, especially as she hangs her coat up in the front closet.
Her wince becomes a smile, as a quick vignette from the note-taking session comes back to her. It’s a quick little snippet, a few frames of reality, but amusing. As she was writing she felt a shooting pain in her right wrist, straining under the pressure to keep up. So she switched hands.
The image she has is of the surprised, impressed expression on Lloyd’s face as she continued, almost without missing a beat, to write.
“How do you do that?” he marveled.
“No one is that ambidextrous.”
Adela knows this. It’s one more marker of her peculiarity. Doctors have theorized about this, why she doesn’t seem to have a clear preference for which hand she writes with, how remarkably similar the writing from each hand is. She can see the difference, of course. She can see the firmer pressure from her right hand, the slight hesitation there. But it’s been pointed out often that these things are invisible to others. To anyone else, she is an oddity, an impossibility.
“Well I am,” she retorted humourously.
The pipes are performing a sort of futurist symphony, something she’s noticed is happening more and more often at the break of dawn, when the world is supposed to be resting. At least, she knows it’s happened before. She thinks it’s recently. Feels it’s recently.
Before she allows herself to pore over her notes, she heads to the kitchen to make some tea. Adela is generally uncomfortable in kitchens. Cooking has never been her forte, with its insistence on method and memory. She has cooked, of course, staring at recipes and recreating them to their exact specifications. She remembers making a romantic dinner for Adam, some time in their past, for a birthday or anniversary or Valentine’s. She remembers the careful, cautious, panicky time in the kitchen. She can’t remember if it was any good, or if he had had any reaction to it at all. It was better than the time she set the house- which house?- on fire when she was much younger.
She fills the kettle and sets it to boil, takes out her mug and places the tea bag inside it. When her preparation is done, she goes back to the living room, takes her notebook from her purse and heads immediately back to the kitchen without opening it. She can’t risk sitting down in the living room. Even with her kettle that whistles loud enough to be mistaken for an air raid siren, she doesn’t feel comfortable. And being uncomfortable, she’ll start to panic wondering how she can calm down. And while she’s thinking about that, she’ll forget about the kettle and ignore the strange sound as she tries to concentrate. The fact that she knows how these things happen does not prevent them from happening again. At moments like this, where she’s lucid and capable, she can figure out a lot of things about herself. It’s just that she’s not like this very often. Clear.
Watching the gas flame flicker as she waits for the kettle, she can hear noises. The radio downstairs again, recounting in that same dull tone as they always have, in every city, the day’s tragedies and points of interest. She can’t imagine how anyone can sleep in the apartment downstairs, if it’s that loud in her place. She can make out almost all the words without straining.
“-has grown into a thriving metropolis, as a result of so many western corporations moving into the area. Unfortunately, that also means that it has grown increasingly overcrowded and that local and state regulations have been subverted or outright ignored in the interests of bringing more capital in.”
A horrible human sound, a man’s voice gibbering in a language Adela does not know cuts in. The sounds convey pain, anxiety, horror.
Adela feels her stomach tighten. It’s this again. The explosion, the decimated town in India, the same story she’s heard before. Did it happen again? Is this still the same place? The howls of those suffering on the other side of the world push through her with a burning force. They enter through her ears and seep into her bloodstream. She feels toxic.
Steam rises around the edge of her silver kettle, flickering up higher and higher as it comes closer to boiling. The orange edges of the flame flutter around the bottom, rising from their blue roots, that bright blue heart that hisses and rasps with heat. Adela feels that blue heart, feels it sucking the air out of her lungs and inside it. It’s harsh hiss grows loud around her and then bursts, shrieking.
It’s the kettle. The kettle’s boiled.
Pushing her breath back inside her, she removes it and, with a surprising force, shuts off the gas. Steam clings to her nose and cheeks as it lands on the tea bag and she rubs vigourously to remove it.
She notices the newspaper sitting on the counter. Evidently she had brought it with her when she came in to make the tea. Indeed, on the cover, are the faces of the crying masses. Trapped mutely in newsprint, they still speak to her. The story below, which she cannot resist reading, outlines the corporate and government malfeasance that has lead these people, those lucky enough to have found themselves in a comparatively wealthy metropolis. She doesn’t want to read the second part of the story, an editorial inside, but she does.
The phrases roll past, “… assigning blame…”, “… all too familiar…”, “… fears among western stockholders…”, “… company spokesperson…”
The article is solemn in tone, but, strangely, she senses that the words of sympathy and indignation are forced, that the writer is like the voice of the radio, with a few modulations added. A smudgy photo of a man with a thick, dark beard crowns the article. This space of paper is his domain, where his opinion is the law. Other sections of the paper belong to others, even some who might rail against him and his patronizing evaluations, but he does not hear them.
Wanting something else to focus on, Adela reads through the rest of the page. In fact, everything on the page seems to bleed unhappiness, from the commentary on the left into the local stories on the right. She pays particular attention to the local news, struck by the idea that somewhere in that mass of words, she’ll find a mention of the old janitor beaten to death in his home. Perhaps there’s been an arrest. Or a break.
It’s a far-fetched idea at best. There are no stories about the old man. The world has moved on from trying to find his killers. But there is something for her. From the lower part of the page, the headline reaches out and grabs her.
Cronos under quarantine
Corporate giant takes drastic measures in face of ‘mystery illness’
For a second, seeing the name, Adela is filled with the sort of hysterical paranoia that would land most people in a mental hospital. For that one second, it seems that Cronos truly are everywhere, controlling her and manipulating her life from the sidelines. Even in her kitchen at sunrise, they can get to her. She forces herself to keep reading.
The headquarters of multinational giant Cronos Corporation confirmed today that they are instituting a partial quarantine of employees following the death of senior engineer Bruno Georgescu last Friday.
“We want to emphasize that there is no call for public alarm,” Cronos spokesperson Lucy Hilliard said. “We believe in exercising the utmost caution where our employees are concerned and when faced with a case where an employee has died from an unknown cause, it is crucial that we mitigate any risk until we have more information.”
Cronos has asked a number of employees who were in direct contact with Mr. Georgescu to remain at home until there is a definitive report issued on the cause of death. The company will be providing any employees under quarantine with access to a “meals on wheels” service and day care for their families, as well as offering other forms of assistance.
Bruno Georgescu, 48, had been sick with what appeared to be a bad case of the flu for several days. On Thursday, his condition suddenly worsened and he was taken to the hospital by his wife and son late that night. He slipped into a coma just after being admitted to St. Michael’s Hospital and died a few hours later without regaining consciousness. St. Michael’s is currently conducting tests to determine the exact nature of Mr. Georgescu’s illness.
This case threatens to revive debate about Cronos’ links with St. Michael’s, which were called into question last year following the death of Cronos employee Beatriz Coca. Ms. Coca was admitted to St. Michael’s after the sudden onset of seizures and psychotic episodes. Two weeks later, she escaped from her hospital room and ran three miles, until she was struck and killed by a cargo train. The cause of the symptoms that originally sent her to hospital was not investigated following her death.
There was a public outcry when it was revealed that Dr. Walter Pye, the Head of Infectious Diseases at St. Michael’s, had previously been employed by Cronos for seven years. Criticism stemmed from the fact that it was Dr. Pye who made the decision that no further investigation into Ms. Coca’s condition was warranted. The hospital conducted an internal inquiry and subsequently found that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Dr. Pye.
Ms. Hilliard was adamant that there is no connection between the two incidents. “Aside from the fact that both of these situations resulted in a sad and heavy loss for both the family of the individual and the Cronos Corporation, there is no comparison between them. Our employees are free to go to the hospital of their choice and given that St. Michael’s is renown for the quality of its care, it is hardly surprising that both Ms. Coca and Mr. Georgescu would have elected to go there.”
All employees subject to the quarantine have been notified and Cronos says that other employees have nothing to fear from coming to work.
“We believe that our actions represent an excess of caution on our part,” Ms. Hilliard said. “And the rest of our employees can feel safe because of that.”
Adela frowns at the article and takes a sip of her tea. Although, as often happens, she can’t place the cause of her anxiety, there is something that strikes her as peculiar about the article. Perhaps, she thinks, running her finger over the relevant paragraph, it’s the awkward linkage of the case of Bruno Georgescu with Beatriz Coca. If anything, the implementation of a quarantine would indicate that Cronos had learned from the earlier case that they should be seen to exercise greater caution with their employees.
On the other hand, it could be the fact that this story is in the paper at all, since Cronos generally likes to keep its affairs as private as possible. That said, putting the information out there is obviously one way of controlling what information circulates.
She takes her notebook and starts flipping through the sections on Cronos. Sometimes, reading things like this gives her a strange feeling because it relates to something or someone she knows, but cannot remember. This is where the notebooks come in very handy.
Given the timing, it’s unlikely that she has any mentions of Beatriz Coca. Bruno Georgescu, however, is a possibility. And, indeed, there he is, captured in the lined sheets of her notebook.
Bruno. Co-project manager with A. Right hand man. Bad teeth.
Co-project manager with A?
Adela feels a little sick. Despite Adam’s suspected perfidy, she worries for him. Has he been warned of the quarantine? Does this mean they’ll be sending him back? A bubble of feeling sloshes inside of her, like a jellyfish on the ocean’s surface, unsure of the direction in which it is headed. Adam could be sick. Adam could be in danger. Adam could come back. It’s a lot of revelations and Adela has no idea how she feels about any of them. She just floats and waits to see if she can tell where her emotions are going. She needs to know more.
She could call the hotel where she found him in France, in the hopes that the elegant sounding woman is no longer in his room, guarding his phone calls. But she’s not sure if she wrote down the name and, even if she did, she certainly can’t remember where she put it. She’d have to call Louise for that.
Louise. It’s not immediate, but images of the night before, of a few nights at Moebius, are lifted from the fog of her mind. Focusing, she tries intently to pin them down before they fly away. Louise and Adela. Her new friend. Her friend who had her heart broken recently. She can picture Louise’s dusky eyes when she talks about it, although the words are gone and Adela, used only to being needy, feels an urge to protect this near stranger. That feeling of protection brings forth another memory, something she is almost certain is from the night before. Louise was coughing badly.
Dimly aware that it is still very early to be making phone calls, Adela nonetheless grabs that phone and flips to Louise’s phone number in her notebook.
“Hello?” answers the creaking voice on the other end.
“Yeah… What time is it? Wait- Adela? Adela are you OK?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I wanted to make sure you were.”
Louise croaks out what sounds like a laugh. “I was pretty lit last night, wasn’t I?”
“You seemed happy.”
“Oh my god.” She sounds so genuinely shocked that Adela wonders if something really has gone wrong. “I’m still wearing my shoes. Nothing else, just shoes. How does that happen?”
“Well, maybe you were in a hurry to get to bed.”
“Oh yeah. I don’t remember a whole lot.”
“I know the feeling.”
“But I’m never that drunk. I think he left about an hour ago. Was really sweet, though. Believe me, I’ve done worse.” True to Adela’s memory, she coughs as if she is trying to force one of her internal organs up through her windpipe. “What about you? Did you end up taking home his cute young companion?”
“I ended up spending the night with Lloyd.”
“Lloyd? Really? Well, I guess in a certain light…”
“We went for coffee and talked. Nothing as wild as what you likely got up to.”
“I feel like I’ve spent the last eight days at the gym.”
“That’s a good thing, if memory serves.”
“It’s a good thing even if memory doesn’t serve. You should try it some time.”
“Louise, have you gotten a call from Cronos this morning?”
“Ugh. No I haven’t.”
“There’s something in the paper this morning about them instituting some kind of quarantine on employees. It’s not everyone, but apparently one guy died and they think maybe what he had could have been contagious.”
“Oh damn. Is that what it is?” Louise cackles dryly again. “Did they quote Lucy?”
“Lucy Hilliard? Yes, they did. Who is she?”
“She’s the little witch who’s scamming her way into a promotion. Looks great on camera, used to be a model or something. Legs about the length of my entire body. Guys are too busy drooling over her to ask her any serious questions. She’s an airplane blonde.”
“She has a black box.” Another throaty laugh. “Anyway, she’s been working on some top secret thing for the last couple of days. Assuming that she didn’t reveal corporate secrets or use the term anal fisting to the press, she’ll be in line for a promotion, since she handled a sensitive dossier.
“They give things like that to women who look like her because they know those women can get away with murder. So where does that leave the rest of us?”
“I don’t see any quotes about anal fisting here.”
“So how many people are under quarantine.”
“It doesn’t say, but here’s the thing: the guy who actually died-“
“Yes, him. He’s the co-lead on Adam’s project. I met him and I wrote it down.”
“Weird and scary. I mean, does this mean Adam could have been exposed to something? Could he have exposed me?”
“They don’t say anything about what it is?”
“They don’t seem to know what it is.”
“OK, yeah, that’s a little bit scary.”
“Do you know anything about this? Has Ms. Model Airplane dropped any hints around the water cooler?”
“Not a breath. She’s barely been out of meetings and she’s much too proud of herself to let the rest of us know what’s going on. Trust me, if I thought they’d tell me anything that would help you, I’d call now.”
“Well what about helping you?”
“Oh I know Bruno, but we never worked closely.”
“You were coughing hard enough to crack your ribs last night.”
“Just a cold.”
“You don’t think maybe you should have that checked out?”
Louise coughs, a long, low wheeze. Adela can tell she’s trying to hold it in, trying to dampen the sound.
“At least call in sick,” Adela adds in the sweetest tone she can muster.
“They’ll go ballistic. They’ll send a HAZMAT team over here.”
“Probably give your friend Lucy a hell of a bad day.”
Another laugh that breaks up into a cough. This one is obviously beyond her control. “OK, that’s a good enough argument for me.”
“And besides, I think I’m still drunk.”
“Get more rest. And give me your address. I’ll come check on you later and bring you chicken soup or something.”
The sun has risen far enough that the overcast sky is illuminated like a giant film screen. So, Adela thinks, sipping her tea, let’s see what’s playing today.
Adela records the details of what she is supposed to do and where she is supposed to go in her notebook with Louise’s name written above it. The matter of her own health is somewhat less clear. She shows no symptoms, of course, so on that level, she has no reason to be alarmed. On the other hand, she has been around Adam every day until recently. She’s been in his office. She’s spoken to his assistant. She’s been with his boss. The general public, the newspaper article states, has no reason to be alarmed. But Adela is not the general public.
Unsure of what else to do, she looks up the number for Cronos and calls. When the cool, bored voice comes on the line, Adela immediately feels as if she’s made a huge mistake. The sense of humiliation, of shame she felt begging for help there once.
“Hello, may I have Julian Baker’s office please?” Adela tries to sound as confident as she can manage.
“May I let him know who’s calling please?” comes the skeptical response.
“One moment please, I’ll see if he’s available.” It seems quite certain that the woman on the other end of the line does not believe that there is any chance that Julian Baker will be available. Adela hopes that she at least goes through the charade of asking.
“Julian Baker’s office.” It’s another equally crisp, disinterested voice.
“Hello, yes, I’m trying to reach Mr. Baker.” Adela winces at the hesitation she hears in her own voice. It’s a chink in her exterior. They’ll sense her weakness.
“May I give him your name please?”
“Adela Landis,” she repeats for the second time in as many minutes.
“One moment, Ms. Landis.” Adela has time for only a couple of breaths before the voice returns.
“I’m afraid he’s about to go on a telephone conference Ms. Landis,” she says smugly. “He says that he can see you at 12:30.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“He’ll see you at 12:30 today at the office.”
Adela doesn’t know quite what to make of this. Perhaps these are not the same people. Perhaps her last name has tripped someone off. But somehow, she has penetrated the barriers around Julian Baker. Far from being frozen out, she is now his guest.
“Can I confirm that appointment with him?”
“Yes you can. I’ll be there at 12:30.”
The condition of her notes from the previous night are testimony to how much she and Lloyd were talking. They had evidently picked through as much as either of them could remember about the story of Cronos. In Adela’s case, that doesn’t amount to much. Snippets form the book, certain images, a few phrases that may or may not be important. Scratched in smaller writing, in margins, between lines, there are other notes, just for herself, little observations about what was being said, what was happening in the space surrounding the conversation.
David had read the book. David was convinced that it was a sort of revelation. (“Adela politely disagrees” written beside this comment, in Lloyd’s handwriting. She remembers him grabbing the pen from her.)
David believed that the book was rushed to print, because the writer had told him that he had received death threats as he was completing his edits. The writer had actually meant to write more, but decided to get what he could out in the hopes that a public profile would protect him from the shadowy assassins.
Adela’s side note- David knows, or knew, the professor. (Geoffrey McCormick added in brackets. She remembers Lloyd trying to help her get the name right, without success. He eventually caved in and told her.)
David had also called attention to the fact that nowhere in the book does it say that the group was expelled from Cronos. Only that the company fired a number of individuals. And that those individuals all died premature deaths in the years that followed.
Adela’s side note- not all. One survived? Or disappeared? Check book.
Dutifully, while the thought is with her, she pulls out her copy of McCormick’s book and finds the section dealing with the unpleasant ends of the disgraced few. Carefully, with the rest of her notes from the previous evening, she records:
Wassily Martov- alive at time of publication- Alzheimer’s
Peter Schiess- Disappeared
The more times she writes the names, the better her chances of remembering them.
Some of her original notes on the book make more sense now. Yes, she had seen someone with the strange brand of the Cronos contingent, or almost the same. She’d seen it on David’s arm. She’d only missed the fact that, in his version, it was run through with a sword.
How obsessed he must have been. How angry. To burn his own flesh, to scrape back the scar tissue to keep the wound from healing. A sort of delirious anger Adela can’t imagine. At her most unhinged, her fury and violence is amorphous, general, without any real target beyond the shadows she spots in the corners of her vision. That brand is something different. That is anger honed to a fine point, anger that is sure of itself and its aim.
Lloyd and David were involved in a political action group together- basically a loose-knit fraternity of dissenters. Protested a number of things, including Cronos. Lloyd left after one night when David’s ranting about Cronos and the secrets of the book unnerved him.
Adela can picture Lloyd’s slightly uncomfortable expression as she wrote that down.
“Is that so important?”
“I don’t know what’s important,” she responded matter-of-factly. “That’s why I want to keep track of as much as possible.”
Adela’s side note- Lloyd seems uncomfortable with this.
“What are you writing?” he demanded curiously.
“Just a note to myself.”
“They’re all notes to yourself. Why take such pains to cover that one?”
“It said I have a crush on you.”
“So let me see it then.”
Reluctantly, she’d raised her hand off the page to show him what it really said. He looked quite sad at the words, but said nothing.
“Well you do,” she said defensively.
When this failed to generate a response, she wrote in bubbly, girlish writing along the side of the page “I have a crush on Lloyd”, in the hopes that by seeming cute and non-threatening, she might make him forget that she’d hit a nerve.
“The last girl I remember writing mushy notes about me weighed about two hundred and fifty pounds, had acne on every visible part of her skin and was in a class I was tutoring for mentally challenged kids in our high school.”
“Did you ask her out?”
They had started assembling a list of questions, important things that seemed to be missing from their narrative.
What evidence is there that Cronos completely dismantled the political group operating within it? Is there any clear evidence that they did not dismantle it?
What, if anything, is distinctive about the people who were disciplined?
Is there any evidence that Cronos bullied some of McCormick’s interviewees into recanting what they had said after the book was published?
Most puzzling of all, the final question:
What was it that made Cronos feel so threatened by the book that they forced it out of circulation almost immediately?
“I guess the cognate of that,” said Lloyd, scratching his reddening eyes, “is how did the book get to the point where it was published in the first place?”
Adela switched her writing hand (margin note- he’s giggling a little at the fact that I’m ambidextrous. Like that’s the weirdest thing about me.) and continued to jot down ideas.
“Well, start with the obvious theory.”
“Shoot.” She remembers Lloyd giving her a sharp little nod as he said this, like he was giving her a stage cue.
“It got that far because, aside from granting the original permissions to look at their files and talk to some of their people, Cronos basically forgot about the whole thing and didn’t realize until the book was about to publish that there was damaging information included in it.”
“Right. That seems like the simplest explanation.”
Adela shakes her head. “Yes, but it doesn’t make any sense. Cronos is a highly controlled organization. They keep a lid on everything. You don’t just get a carte blanche to go running around in their files because you’re writing a book. They never would have let someone like that slip through.”
“OK, so, moving on.”
“They granted him access because they felt somehow that Cronos had something to gain from allowing him to write the book.”
“Seems a little strange, given the subject,” Lloyd whispers pensively, “but who knows what they thought he would flush out.”
“That would imply there was something at the time to flush.”
“Yes, it would. Or, they had nothing to gain at all.”
“And the professor just lied to them about his purpose in order to get access.”
Lloyd raises his eyebrows. “That would make me pretty angry, if I were Cronos.”
“I’d want to get back at him, for sure.”
Adela’s notes on this part of the conversation are neatly organized into three columns: Cronos wanted to see what Prof. M found; Prof. M lied about his subject matter; Other ideas. They had listed off the ideas they had pertaining to both, their opinions wafting from one belief to another as they did.
“So now what?” She says it aloud exactly as her uncle says it, mimicking his clipped, deadpan voice.
There, on the bottom of the page, in her tiniest writing, are the words “something is wrong- remember loft”. It’s a sort of a joke on herself, of course, because the fact is that she can’t remember what happened at the loft, only the feeling of panic that it still gives her. She’s learned to pay attention to these flashes, though. Her body remembers what her mind can’t.
The answer had always been hers to give. She could have what she wanted, all she had to do was ask. Perhaps, she thinks, she’d feel better if she just ran back to him, to his giant, empty house, with its scents of flowers in the front garden. She knows this isn’t the first time this thought has occurred to her, but it is the first in a while. She could go back, of course, whenever she wants, without asking, without even letting him know to expect her. She could walk through the streets and feel at home and eventually she would forget this place and Adam would become another confusing spirit whose real existence melted into her over-active imagination. She believes that she could forget.
Remaking the Beast glares at her accusingly. Would she forget it? She wants to think she could. It isn’t difficult for her to free her memories. Unless she concentrates on holding tight, most of them just fly away of their own accord. And yet somehow, she can’t quite think of the mark left on her by these mysteries surrounding Cronos, her shadowy benefactor, as something that she could release. Like the memory of crying as she was carried away by the woman in the scratchy brown suit, some things she can’t get rid of.
So now what?
She runs her finger over the carefully recorded notes, trying to feel out the story that lies underneath them. It’s no use. For all the pages she’s filled, for all the talking she and Lloyd did, for all the details they were able to recall, the sobering fact remains that the two of them really don’t know much at all about what happened, either with Cronos or the book.
Half without noticing, she reaches for the phone, recalling only when she hears the dial tone that she has to call Lloyd before she forgets the breakthrough she’s having. She ruffles the pages of her notebook to find the phone numbers.
“Lloyd it’s Adela,” she announces, when the voice mail predictably kicks in. “I know what we need to do next. We need to talk to the professor again. Call me later and I’ll tell you why. Bye.”
Frantically, she scribbles in a few lines at the end of her notebook so that her memory is captured, a firefly in a bottle. Then she stands because, her cell phone reminds her with a fierce chirp, she has to get ready to go to Cronos.
As detestable as she finds the idea of taking taxis, there’s pretty much nothing else she can do to get to the Cronos office. She tries her best to sound authoritative when she gives the driver the address, in the hopes that this will make her less susceptible to being given the scenic route. Not that she’s sure that she’d know if she were.
The cab driver eyes her in the mirror as she gets in. Adela generally prides herself in making an effort with her appearance- as far as she can tell from the various family photos she’s seen, this has always been the case, even in circumstances when she would be expected to be relaxed. Today, she’s made a particular effort to smooth out the kinks that might betray her addled state of mind. Today she appears as her uncle’s princess and public smile, a role she’s played often. That quick look she catches as she takes her place in the back seat is strangely refreshing. Perhaps Adam has grown too accustomed to seeing her. It seems like a long time since she’s seen that look in someone’s eyes.
On the way to Cronos, she studies her notes. The newspaper article is neatly folded and taped into the book. Beside it, she’s made notes of what she needs to ask Julian. And underneath, written smaller so that no one else will be able to read it, there are a few more words. Things that she is supposed to remember, but not speak of.
Her memories ambush her at times when she has a lot of energy. This morning, with all the fun of discovery and the fear of quarantine and the surprise of being given a personal audience where she was previously shown the door, she can fairly hear her skin humming with what’s pent up inside her. And so, as she was washing her hair, running her nails along her scalp and feeling the thick pleats separate between her fingers, something rose up to confront her.
The memory makes her want to squirm uncomfortably, although she can’t see enough of the context to know exactly why. All she sees is Julian’s face, his handsome face staring after her with a puzzled, startled expression. She can feel her ignominious retreat from his loft, can see the piercing crow’s eyes of the image of his wife on the wall. She can even feel her own sweaty desperation to escape. She doesn’t know why.
“It’s a terrible thing,” the cab driver says emotionally.
“Pardon?” Adela can’t think what he means.
“This young guy in Poland.”
“I didn’t hear this.”
The lunchtime news burbles from the radio in the front.
“Poor guy was just a tourist there and he was attacked by some kind of gang. They beat him to death for his wallet.”
“That is terrible,” she concurs.
He waves his hand towards the radio, indicating she should pay attention.
“Mr. Robson’s friends and family are in shock,” says the disembodied voice. “He was in Prague as a visitor, fulfilling a dream to travel through the former eastern block. There are no suspects and the police say that these sorts of crimes are difficult to solve, because witnesses are often too afraid to come forward. The American embassy has issued a statement that they will be working alongside the Czech police to provide whatever information they can to see that Stan Robson’s killers are brought to justice.”
“Who the hell goes to Poland for vacation anyway?”
“The Czech Republic,” Adela corrects him.
“Ech,” he grunts, “all the same to me. Bunch of thugs they unleashed over there. They should come down on them again with the Soviet boot. That’ll keep them quiet.”
Adela can’t think of a politically correct response to make, so she limits herself to a vague smile.
“You know, these guys over there, they’re all like that. They can’t stand the tourists, the British, the Americans, but they need their money. So they wait til they’re there and they kill them. Packs of wild dogs that need to be put down.”
Adela purses her lips to form a slightly smaller smile. The driver’s seething hatred for anything eastern European continues to seethe forth unabated. The image of predatory human packs aside, there is something about the story that unsettles her, makes her stomach shiver. Quietly, she takes a note, giving the bare details of the story. She can always check the newspaper and the internet when she gets back home.
The jutting face of the Cronos building is still startling, thrusting forward seemingly out of nowhere. Adela pays the cab driver who, she notes, grows quite quiet as they approach the main entrance. The speed with which he takes off tells her that he is eager to be gone.
As she walks into the foyer, the sun emerges from behind clouds, flooding the entire office with natural light and warming the look of the metal and glass canopy around them. At the front desk, a model-perfect receptionist motions to her to wait for a moment. The young woman is strikingly beautiful, chiseled features, platinum hair, manicured nails. Adela can’t be certain that this is the woman who greeted her last time, but she gets the feeling that it is.
“May I help you?’ she asks with icy politesse.
“Yes, I’m hear to meet Julian Baker,” Adela responds, mimicking the woman’s tone as best she can.
“I see. And do you have an appointment?”
The blonde looks just the faintest bit skeptical. “I’ll ring his assistant. Who can I say you are?”
It’s an odd question, one that makes Adela want to giggle. She wants to tell this woman that she could say it was the Queen of England if she wanted to. After a brief pause, she answers.
The blonde nods with a perfunctory half smile as she picks up the phone.
“Hello, Gloria? I have an Adela Landis her to see Mr. Baker.” There’s barely a heartbeat before Adela sees the woman’s eyebrows lift a little. “Oh I see. I’ll send her straight up.”
She hangs up and gives Adela a decidedly friendly expression. “You can go right up that elevator over there, Ms. Landis. It’s the third floor.”
The sugary pleasantness suffusing her voice is somehow more off-putting than the indifference she’d displayed previously. Adela, happy to have cleared the first hurdle, heads for the elevator. As the doors slide closed, she sees something she wouldn’t have imagined possible. The icy perfect receptionist gives her a polite smile before returning to her desk. Perhaps that’s the disease that they’re worried about. An outbreak of friendly helpfulness.
The door reopens into the front office, where Julian Baker’s assistant sits. She is likewise lacquered, without an eyelash out of place. She’s a little older than the one at the front desk, dark hair cropped close to her head and a crisp business suit pinched in all the right places, that speaks of a higher salary. She wears a headset even as she stands up to greet Adela and motion to her to have a seat while she waits.
“Mr. Baker is on the phone just at a moment, but he shouldn’t be too long. I’ll let him know you’ve arrived,” she says in a professionally cordial tone. “In the meantime, can I get you a glass of water or a cup of coffee?”
Adela knows from rereading her notes that she has met this person before. She knows that it was only because of the kind intervention of Frank DiPasquale that this woman didn’t throw her out. Now, suddenly, she is a welcome guest. All the same, Adela can see a coldness in the woman’s dark eyes. She can walk through the friendly act, but it isn’t her. Even her movements betray a sort of military gait, as if she’d rather be fighting than sitting at a comfortable desk, answering phone calls and booking appointments. Adela watches her return to the desk. Although she wears heels, it’s clear she’d be tall, taller than many men even without them. The tailored suit shows the femininity of her figure, but doesn’t quite downplay the broad shoulders and muscular build underneath. And as she watches, Adela has a strange sensation, like a buzzer going off inside her eardrums. For some reason, she’s almost certain she’s seen this woman before. The sensation is almost painful, taunting as it is. She knows she can’t figure it out and at the same time, she feels perfectly aware that the answer is in her somewhere, if she only possessed the map of the inside of her mind to find it.
The assistant glances up and notices Adela looking. She forces a smile and says, “He shouldn’t be too long now.”
“I met you before, I believe,” Adela offers, hoping that someone else will furnish the answer for her.
“Ah, I thought you looked familiar. You came in here before, right?”
“Yes, I was trying to get into see Julian.”
“That’s right, he was out of the office.”
Adela knows from her perusal of her notes that this is not what she was told, but doesn’t want to bicker.
“You were here with Frank DiPasquale.”
There is something Adela finds discomfiting about the way she says this. It’s too fresh in her mind, sounds too close to the voice of a police officer trying to trap a suspect with facts.
“But I think,” Adela ventures, eager to corral the subject to where she wants it, “I’ve met you somewhere else, as well.”
“Really? I don’t recall.”
She’s lying. It strikes Adela like cold rain, right in the eyes, throws off what she’s been thinking. Just for the instant when this woman says those words, Adela can see her onyx eyes narrow, like an animal finding some interloper in its territory. It’s a strangely gauche move, since the fact that she finds it necessary to lie is more alarming than almost anything she might have said.
“I was at a party here a few months ago,” Adela adds primly. “I might have seen you there.”
“Yes, that’s a possibility.”
There’s a pleasant soft ring, which the woman answers with a tap on her headset. After a moment, she taps again and looks at Adela brightly.
“Mr. Baker will see you now.”
As Adela walks towards the office, she can’t resist cutting a glance backwards, to see if the assistant’s eyes are following her, but they are not. Somehow, the woman seems unaware that she has betrayed herself.
Julian’s office is as spectacular as Adela might have anticipated. It sits on a corner of the building in a pie wedge shape, the enter outer perimeter a wall of glass that affords a glorious view of the harbour. There are men and women throughout this company who doubtless dream of someday being able to occupy this office, or similar. The man who does occupy it seems strangely lethargic as Adela enters the room, although he does rise to greet her.
“Adela, so good of you to come.”
“So good of you to see me.” She is wary of approaching, of getting too close. It’s immediately obvious that there’s something off about him, something changed.
As she slows down, hesitating to walk up and shake hands, he springs over to her with an unexpected agility. Up close, she can see the difference more clearly, something that might perhaps be invisible to others. He’s lost some of his luster, grown slightly softer than she remembers, like fruit left out too long. He squeezes her hand firmly and directs her to a chair before heading back to his desk. Their eyes meet uncomfortably as each of them waits to allow the other the opportunity to start the conversation.
“I read in the paper this morning,” Adela begins, “about the quarantine.”
“Ah. I was wondering what was on your mind. But listen, I have to say, I wanted to tell you about the last time I saw you-“
Adela gives a little smile and gestures to wave him off, not wanting to talk about this at all.
“No, please. You left so abruptly, I obviously did something to upset you.”
Adela shakes her head more vigourously. “It’s nothing for you to worry about… I… I startle easily… I get… uncomfortable…”
“I certainly didn’t mean to do anything to make you uncomfortable.”
She wonders if his insistence on pressing forward is because he feels badly, or because he, like many, live in fear of her uncle. She smiles to calm him, no matter what the source.
“Please, Julian, it was nothing. It’s nothing you did-“ For a second, she has a perfect recollection of the warmth of his hand on the back of her neck, the snaky electric charge that ran down her body. “I’m a little… high strung. I don’t do well with people… I have to… acclimate.”
“You’re being very sweet. I suspect too much so, but I won’t pressure you. I just wanted you to know that if there was anything I said or did to offend you, I sincerely regret it and I wanted you to know that it wasn’t my intention.”
He gives a little cough and smile formally at her.
“Well, I certainly apologise for being such an ill-mannered guest.” She returns the smile to seal their détente.
“Sorry, you were asking about the quarantine.”
“Yes, I read about it in the paper this morning. I just wanted to confirm that there’s no reason for me to worry. I realize you- Cronos- are saying there’s no reason for the public to fear, but this man who died-“
“Bruno. Very sad case that.”
“Yes, so I understand.”
“And Adam’s partner, I believe.”
Julian’s expression remains unchanged, but she sees his eyes grow murky.
“Yes,” he replies, nodding, “they were working very closely together.”
“Have you been in touch with Adam for him to get tested?”
“Yes, absolutely. We’re having him fully examined at a hospital overseas.”
Julian hesitates, visibly appraising her before answering. “Yes,” he says slowly, “in Paris. His health is obviously of particular concern to us, so we’ve asked him to stay in hospital for a few days while they run tests and check to see if any symptoms present.”
“And have they?”
“Presented. Symptoms. Is he sick?”
“Not so far. He looks fine. I’ll get you the hospital number so you can speak to him directly.”
“What about me?”
“It’s really a very limited thing. The quarantine only applies to a small number of employees working in one particular area.”
“And their families.”
“Merely as a precaution.”
“Well I live with one of the people you’ve asked to stay in quarantine. Should I be tested?”
“Ah, I see.” Julian gives her another business smile. “Have you shown any symptoms?”
“Cold or flu-like symptoms.”
“No, but a friend of mine did.”
“Does this friend work alongside Adam?”
“No. But I’m worried if this is some kind of infectious disease that I could carry it and transmit it even if I don’t show signs of having it.”
“It’s not like that. We’ve only asked Adam to remain in quarantine as a precaution, because Bruno was starting to show symptoms just before Adam went away. Unless you start to get sick, there’s nothing that you need to worry about.”
“So I couldn’t have transmitted it to my friend?”
“No. You aren’t a Typhoid Mary.”
This answers Adela’s question, but does not make her feel any better.
“So what is it?” She’s determined to get the most out of her time with him that she can.
“We don’t know yet. Some type of bacterial infection most likely. We’ll know when the coroner reports, I suppose.”
“You seem to know how it spreads, though.”
“Just what the hospital’s told us.”
“Will Adam be in quarantine for a long time?”
“Eager to have him back, I guess?” Julian gives her a cheery smile that seems just a bit fatigued. Something has been creeping into bed with him at night, some dark spectre scratching at the back of his neck and keeping him from sleep. Adela can see the way his head inclined toward hers and wonders if he might be remembering too. “It’s lonely being the one who’s left at home, I know. My wife is got held over for more performances, so she’s still in Prague for at least another week.”
“I just wanted to know how long he’ll be in Paris for.”
As soon as the word “Paris” is uttered, Julian’s mask slips. For just a moment, short, but long enough that she has time to register it, he is no longer his charming self, no longer offering the warm smiles and reassurance he had been. Instead, she catches a glimpse of something else, something aggressive, something animal that lurks inside his elegant costume. She has not only surprised him by knowing where Adam is, she has made him feel threatened, something she imagines has rarely, if ever, been seen by anyone in this building. He makes a guttural noise, clearing his throat, she supposes, but it sounds disconcertingly like he gives a low snarl.
What was the story when she was a child? Her uncle’s guard dog, or a neighbour’s? Was she living with her uncle by then or was she with her parents, visiting? Or were they all on vacation? What she remembers is the Doberman. The guard dog who snarled and barked and frightened people cocking his head curiously as she approached, white arms sticking straight out in front of her, while family voices hollered to her to stop. The way the dog leaned forward to sniff her unprotected fingers, the feeling of his wet nose pressing into her arm and, as she knelt in front of him, her neck. This is all she really remembers, her own moment, clipped from context. She advances closer to Julian’s desk, meeting his wary, curious stare full on.
“I found out where he is.”
“I meant to tell you,” Julian lies. Surely, he must be able to tell that he is not recovered enough to sound convincing.
“He’s in Paris and he’s with another woman. A woman who evidently feels comfortable enough to answer the phone in his hotel room while he’s indisposed.”
“There are women assigned to his work team.”
“Really? Would you hire me for a job like that?”
Julian swallows hard, obviously trying to regain the advantage. “I’m sure,” he says stiffly, “that it’s just some misunderstanding.”
She hears the air rattle in his throat, another bestial noise, entirely different than what she remembers of him. She lets the silence sit, watching the motions of his trying to struggle back into the disguise he normally wears, letting it fill up the space most others would fill with conversation. She edges just a little closer, unsure how far she can push her luck.
“I just want to know if this means he’ll be in Paris for much longer and when you anticipate him being back here.”
He gives a mirthless sort of chuckle and fidgets with a paperweight on his desk. “That depends entirely on when the hospital see fit to release him.” He picks up a crystal paperweight from his desk and rolls it in his hand like a baseball, like a pitcher trying to find the perfect next pitch. “Obviously,” he continues deliberately, “working as closely as he did with Bruno, Adam is at a somewhat greater risk if it turns out that Bruno was killed by a contagious disease, so we need to be absolutely sure that he is cleared of any contagion before he is allowed to return.”
Adela smirks. “Is there anyone else in quarantine with him?”
Julian looks at her sharply, as if he has just noticed how she has closed the distance between them. “He is in a solitary room at a hospital just outside Paris. He is attended by two doctors and three nurses in rotating shifts, twenty-four hours a day. He is subject to daily blood tests, urine tests, fecal tests and physical exams. He is observed on camera at all times except when he is in the bathroom. He is kept sedated most of the time to keep him from developing an acute cabin fever and becoming psychotic. He has no phone and no internet access. It’s not a holiday, I assure you.”
“And yet you’re sure I’m in no danger?”
Julian holds his hands on his temples, shielding his face from her searching gaze. “We have taken every precaution advised by the hospital.”
She is expecting that he is about to ask her to leave, giving some vague excuse about work and meetings, but he does not. There is nothing for her to do but push her advantage.
“I wanted to thank you,” she begins falteringly, compelled forward despite her certainty that she is making a huge mistake, “for the book recommendation.”
He raises his head and peers at her narrowly with a faint sort of whimper.
“I found it. The book you talked about.”
“Are you sure that you remembered the name correctly?” he mutters disdainfully.
This sort of low blow is nothing like what she’s seen of him thus far, nothing like the reserved figure who so frightened her with his chiseled perfection.
“Quite sure. I had some help finding it.”
No sooner has she said it than it dawns on her that this is a very bad idea. Revealing that she had managed to track down this cursed book is one thing, but implicating others is not something she wants to be responsible for. For the first time since she mentioned Paris, Adela feels uncomfortable. Although she’s fairly certain that she shows little of this outwardly, Julian seems to catch hold of it like a scent in the air, even smiling a little.
“I’m impressed at your resourcefulness. And I’m amazed that you know anyone who’d even be aware of the book’s existence. Not something that anyone from outside this area would be familiar with.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” she says brightly. She thinks for a moment of flat out telling him that her uncle had purloined a copy for his own amusement, something she could easily see him doing, but this seems even riskier. She doesn’t know the relationship her uncle has with Julian, but it seems that she’s heard that there is a relationship. She can’t have Julian calling up Uncle Joe to chat about her reading habits.
“Don’t sell yourself short. I’ve heard of that book for years and I was led to believe that there were no copies left in existence.”
Adela shrugs, but something in what he’s said deflects off her like a blow. It’s off. She takes a moment to reflect on it, lest this feeling of revelation wriggle away from her. Julian has been hearing about the book for years. He seems interested. And yet he’s never believed that copies were in existence. She feels a panicked need to reach into her bag and start flipping through her notes, despite the fact that this would make her look ridiculous, more ridiculous than she did stumbling out of his loft. Her hand twitches on the clasp of her purse and then it dawns on her. Surely this man who has risen to such a prestigious position would have thought to try to track down the author. It took Lloyd minutes to do this.
So that’s it. He’s lying to her again. If he was really interested in the book, he no doubt would have found the professor, meaning that he’s either read it himself or that he was rebuffed and told there were no more copies in existence. She aches to write this down, unsure if her mind can stand the strain of remembering.
“So do tell me what you thought of it?” he asks greedily.
“A little disappointed,” she croaks, trying to think of a trick that will help her remember her line of thought later on. “It was really just a story about something that happened in the past. No big mystery. I can’t imagine why anyone thought it was so controversial.”
Julian looks at her pensively and smiles, a little more like his old self than before. “Perhaps Cronos was embarrassed about their past.”
“Is that what you think?”
He seems about to answer but starts coughing violently, his eyes locked on her as he does. Adela steps around the desk and crouches in front of him to offer a handkerchief, but as soon as she is close he grabs her by the arm and pushes his face towards her ear.
“Don’t,” he growls, continuing to simulate a cough.
She can feel the pressure of his nails on the tender inside of her arm and has to concentrate not to cry out.
“Don’t what?” she manages to say.
“Not here of all places.”
His grip relaxes just a little and she feels herself rock away from him. However, it’s only an instant before he grabs her again, his sooty-looking eyes inches away, filling up everything she can see.
“What do you mean? You’re hurting me.”
“Not here,” he repeats slowly, twisting his hand against her arm.
She can feel heat coming off him, too much heat, as if he’s a live ember, as if there is fire in him. She can’t remember if it felt like that before. The skin on his chest is hot enough that she can feel it reflecting off her neck, can feel the humidity of sweat. This close, she can hear how rapid, how frighteningly rapid his heart is. It’s stressful to be this close.
Adela is confused, which is nothing surprising, but she is not stupid. She’s perfectly aware that, if she wanted to get away, she could scream, she could hit him, she could struggle to get away. If her uncle caught wind of it, Julian Baker would be lucky to get a job working on a fishing boat in Greenland. But while she might want him to go a little easier on her arm and say things that actually made sense, Adela does not want to run away. Whether Julian is aware of it or not, she wants him to keep talking, to let her in on some of the secrets she seems to be circling. He continues to keep a tight hold on her and he says nothing more.
“What is it?” She resorts to the only thing that seems to draw speech from him. “Is it the book? Is that what you don’t want me to discuss here?”
He gives her arm another painful twist but looks at her with a strange blend of pity and yearning. What does that mean?
Furtively, he raises his other hand and presses a finger to his lips. He then runs his hand along the side of her face, letting it rest just underneath her chin, a gesture perched precariously between caressing her neck and seizing her throat. As they connect, the tips of his overheated fingers against the skin on her neck, Adela can feel something familiar, something that she hasn’t had in some time. She’d almost forgotten the sensation, like an arcing circuit throughout her circulatory system, sparking in all directions, sending power crazily through her. For the instant she is able to contain the reaction, she sees his face change, sees his features soften and his eyes grow dull. The fevered anxiety of his pleas for her silence have subsided, she’s drained the fear from him, taken out the buzzing panic. If she withdrew, it seems like he would simply collapse forward.
He’s no longer the polished figure she remembers meeting with Adam or the honourable employer she met at the funeral. She wonders what his ice princess wife would think of him now, deflated and sullied by sickness and stress. Would she repair him, remodel him? Or would she simply move on to find the next golden boy?
Julian presses his overheated forehead against hers and as he does, she believes she could simply lead him out of the office and back to his beautiful loft. She could remove the idol of his wife and consign her to the past, could install herself as his partner, his sidekick, even his lover while he took it all in. And not only does she believe she could, but at that moment, she wants to. Forget Adam, forget the book and the strange mysteries of Cronos. Consign them all to the inaccessible vaults of her memory and move on.
“We do need to talk,” he whispers very softly, “but not here. Meet me.”
There’s a long pause where she can almost hear him thinking, deciding, reconsidering. “There’s a place called the Schooner Bar. Look it up. I’ll meet you there at seven.”
As she backs away and rises, smoothing herself out, Julian starts to cough again. When he looks up, however, he seems to have recovered himself. His eyes are lively and alert and he offers a smile.
“Perhaps you should have that cough looked at,” Adela offers.
“Just a bit worn out from all of this quarantine business. Haven’t been getting enough sleep.”
“Be careful. That’ll make you crazy if it keeps going.”
“Indeed.” He observes her, his eyes moving in away that makes her feel a little self-conscious, his expression equally curious and calculating. “Thanks so much for stopping by,” he continues, ushering her towards the door, “I’ll let you know as soon as I have news of Adam. We’ll have him home in no time. Meanwhile, you have my number if there’s anything at all you want to ask.”
He takes a few steps into the outer office with her, his assistant rising like a good pupil as soon as she sees them.
“Gloria, could you please call Ms. Landis a taxi?”
“Of course, sir,” says the good student.
Adela awkwardly tried to shake his hand but they are standing too close. Even more awkwardly, she tries to turn the gesture into a social hug, thrusting her shoulders forward to keep things appropriate. He rests his hands on her shoulders and pulls her a little closer than he should. Pulling back a little, she turns to give him a peck on the cheek, but lands much closer to his lips than she had intended. He returns the gesture and hangs on, allowing both of them to take in the other’s scent, feel the unnerving sensation of bodies in proximity.
He disappears back into his inner sanctum and Adela moves towards the door. She catches the look of condescending disbelief that his assistant shoots her way. Yes, he has a perfect, elegant beautiful, talented, successful, terrifying wife and yet here he is in the middle of a work day, embracing Adela, tiny, anemic-looking Adela, in full of his employee. It wouldn’t make any more sense to the woman than it does to Adela herself.
“Should I have the taxi wait out front, Ms. Landis?” Gloria asks crisply.
Adela lets the question hang in the air while she decides what it is she really wants to do.
“Actually, you can skip the cab, but there’s someone else I thought I’d stop in on while I was here. Can you tell me where Frank DiPasquale’s office is?”
“Of course. Second sublevel, hallway C, Lab 2.”
Adela has a flash of the halls, expanding like fireworks from a hub, the eerie desertion, the old man, trying to warn her of…
“Perhaps you could write out the directions?” Adela asks abruptly. “I always get lost in those hallways.”
“Wait,” she shakes her head, confused. “Did you mean Bruno or Adam?”
The directions are a great help, written in Gloria’s prim hand. Before going directly to Frank’s office, though, Adela darts into one of the abandoned looking hallways and scribbles down everything she can remember about what has just happened. Then she pulls out her phone, finds the location of the Schooner Bar and types the appointment into her calendar, with an alarm. She doesn’t want to miss this meeting.
Lab 2 is similar to what she remembers of Adam’s office, but larger. There are more people puttering around in the front area and there is no receptionist in evidence.
“Excuse me,” she asks a man young man still showing signs of acne, “I need to find Frank DiPasquale.”
“Number four.” He gestures with a tiny, childlike hand and shuffles back to his desk. Whatever they are doing here, it seems to be keeping all of them very occupied.
Behind door number four, Frank DiPasquale is standing at his desk, scowling and speaking in an aggravated tone to his telephone.
“Yes,” he says through clenched teeth, the sweet manner that Adela remembered being held down within him, “I do understand that these things can get delayed. What I’m telling you is that the delay isn’t our fault, so we’re not going to accept a change in the completion date. Your courier screwed up and you need to address that with him. In the meantime, you need to get more people on there, for as many hours in a day as you can get them there, and work until you’re ready to get us what we requested, when we requested it.”
He exhales heavily through his nose as he listens, face down, to the voice on the other end of the phone.
“Good, so you call me back in two hours and let me know the status. And if you plan on getting a contract from this company ever again, I would consider making the status something I want to hear.”
He hangs up, but does not slam the phone. Frank is frustrated, but not rude. Somehow, this is comforting to Adela. He is the person she thought he was.
“Rough day?” she asks sweetly.
Frank starts a little and looks bewildered. “Adela, hello! I hope you didn’t get to hear all of that.”
“Just the ending. I think it sort of filled me in on what I needed to know.”
“You know, this place has been nothing but problems for about right months. They switched something and the whole operation went to hell. But no one has the time to find us another place to do our independent testing. My wife has fired two housekeepers in the time I’ve been waiting for their results on this.”
“I can give you my housekeeper’s number if you like.”
“Is she good?”
Adela smiles a little. “No. I think I was just trying to say something helpful.”
Frank grins and seems to relax a little. “Please come in and see if you can excavate a chair from underneath some of those file folders. My lab assistant went into labour this morning and my supervisor is on sick leave. It’s a bit of a day.”
Adela gingerly lifts the folders and piles them neatly on the floor.
“So what brings you down here today?”
“A meeting with Julian Baker, if you can believe that.”
“Wonderful. So I guess you’ve managed to get the answers you needed.”
“Some of them, I guess. But it’s certainly been more gratifying than my last trip here.” She gives him a quick smile. “You haven’t been hit by this quarantine business?”
“Not at all in this area. That’s right, though, your fiancé worked with Bruno. How is he?”
“Oh, of course. He’s in quarantine, in Paris.”
“Really? Is he sick?”
“Not so far. I just came up to find out the prognosis for him and if I should be getting checked out by a doctor.”
“Have you been feeling sick?”
“No, but… I have a friend who seemed to be sick recently.”
“Someone from here?”
Frank’s face is still filled with the Mediterranean sun of his ancestors. She can’t imagine that he could hide anything. He’s probably the kind of person who ends up telling his wife what he’s bought her for Christmas, or what her family plans on doing for her surprise birthday party. Still, she feels strange tossing him the rope that links her and Louise.
“Well we all work for Cronos ultimately, don’t we?”
“Certainly in this place. It’s a city with history and a decent population and it still feels like a company town. Remarkable.”
“I’m glad to know that you weren’t affected by the plague or whatever it is.”
“Well, no one seems to know what it is, or at least, those who do know aren’t saying.”
“Julian told me they were still waiting on doctors to tell them what was going on.”
“Well,” Frank says dubiously, “maybe yes, maybe know. Rumour around the water cooler is that they know perfectly well, but they don’t want to let the news out until they figure out how to spin the story.”
“They have to spin a disease?”
“That’s the thing. They say that it isn’t a disease at all, but something that went wrong in the lab. Apparently, there was some kind of accident when Bruno was in the lab alone a few days before he first got sick. And now, with him dead, no one can figure out exactly what he got exposed to, or how it works.”
“Why wouldn’t they just ask Adam, if he was working with him?”
“They’re a little vague on that, but if you think about it, all he’d be able to tell them is what was in the place to be exposed to, which they already know anyway.”
“But they think it might have been something that can potentially spread?”
Adela shifts a little uneasily in her chair, unsure of how to move the conversation forward.
“Frank, why weren’t you at the funeral?”
He starts a little, taken aback by the directness of the question. Adela starts a little as well, not understanding how that question just rose from her chest and out her mouth without her brain inspecting it first.
Frank seems about to answer, but then his shoulders slump and his face dips down, a sense of shame evident.
“I really did mean to go. I liked Gerald, I always did. Sure, he was a bit crazy, but he was a decent guy and he certainly didn’t deserve what he got. Hell, no one deserves that.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, I called a few people who I knew who’d talked to Gerald and gotten to know him just a little bit over his years here, so that there’d be a group of us going.”
“Well there was a Cronos group there. Julian was with them?”
Frank scratches and shakes his head. “Oh I know. But it wasn’t the group I organized. A couple of days before the funeral, Julian Baker hauled my boss, Linda Anton, into his office and told her that Cronos was covering the cost of the funeral and they would make the decisions about who would and wouldn’t go.”
“And she told you to bail on it?”
“In no uncertain terms.”
“Why would they replace the people who knew him and talked to him for a group of randomly selected suits?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
“I doubt that.”
Frank looks at her guiltily. “So I’m guessing this means you went?”
“Oh,” Adela smiles at her own private joke, “I’m pretty sure about this one.”
Adela nods, recalling something of an odd atmosphere at the whole event, without being able to hold onto any specifics. She lets it fade, more interested in wondering why Cronos, why Julian Baker, would be so strict about who from the company would attend the funeral of a wild-eyed janitor who lived by himself.
“Did you know Gerald very well?” she queries.
“Not really, no. We talked a few times. When I first came here, I didn’t know anyone and I kept getting lost in the maze. He kept having to bring me back to my office when I wandered into places I wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Is it that secretive?”
“Oh yes. None of the teams have much of an idea what the other teams are working on. Within the first month I was here, there was an explosion in a lab down the hall from us. We all scurried out to see what had happened because there was this boom. Soon as we got to the door, this young tech runs by screaming and on fire. I still have no idea what they were doing, but I thought of asking my boss if we could at least move our team further away from that project.”
“Someone was running through the halls on fire?”
“I think it was more his protective clothing being on fire, since I heard later that he wasn’t hurt. I guess he just saw the flames and freaked out a little. Which is, I guess, excusable.”
Adela laughs a little. She can picture it going through her head again and again, some poor dope rushing down the hallway like a rocket with his afterburners blazing.
“I think the secrecy is more to protect the company when people leave. Mitigates the damage they can cause by revealing corporate secrets to their new employer,” Frank adds quickly.
There’s an awkward silence while Adela tries to think of how the conversation might continue and as she tried to figure out why, as genial as he is, he seems uncomfortable with her presence.
“Your wife,” she says, groping at a memory she hopes is accurate, “how is she doing?”
“Rounder than ever,” he beams. “She’s so willowy most of the time, it’s bizarre to see her like this. You can still see this narrow frame, but now there’s this huge medicine ball hanging on the front.”
“Is it your first?”
“Yes. We were trying for over a year, actually. Then, of course, the second it happens I get offered this job out here and we have to move away from both our families.”
“I know hat you mean. It was hard for me and I never had to worry about children.”
“You and Adam don’t plan on having any?”
Adela tries to imagine herself in that mysterious capacity of mother, tries to imagine herself nurturing another human being, wondering if anything that was produced by her body could possibly emerge unscathed. She can picture herself, trying to remember important dates- birthdays, vacation days, school deadlines- and the hurt look on this imaginary child’s face each time she would unwittingly forget. She can also imagine the toxic stew of congenital defects and chemical agents brewing in her womb. Cognitive problems, internal irregularities, a lifetime of medical treatments would surely determine that anything borne of her body was a mutant from the moment of conception. She’s been warned, repeatedly that she should never consider children. Since Adam is uninterested in them, he has always made a good match.
“No, we’re pretty comfortable just the way we are, actually. And I think we’re a little late to start.”
“My older sister was forty-one when she had her first,” Frank says brightly, “so you shouldn’t write it off.”
Great, Adela thinks, let’s make it even more difficult for this kid.
“Your parents must want grandchildren?” he continues, undeterred.
“My parents are dead.” All of them, she adds to herself only.
Frank starts to apologise with that embarrassed, jittery tone that people always take with her when they stumble across this news. She waves him off.
“Happened many years ago. My only family now is my uncle.”
Frank takes a deep breath. “That reminds me,” he starts slowly, “after we met, I figured out who you were. I’m embarrassed because the name didn’t even click with me at first.”
Adela suddenly thinks that she’s found the source of his slight discomfort around her. They are no longer friendly acquaintances who met by chance. She is someone with power, power over him. She looks down and smiles shyly.
“I’m a relative. I’m not really involved in Cronos anymore.”
Frank smiles again, still slightly on edge, despite Adela’s aura of harmlessness. She wants to make him understand that she is a very different entity, a sort of strange parasite that feeds off Cronos but contributes nothing. She wonders if Louise and Lloyd have this uneasy expression when they’re with her, when she’s not looking, or in those spaces where she can’t remember.
“Frank,” she offers sweetly, “would you like to have lunch with me?”
“I shouldn’t really.” He looks cheerlessly at the mess on his desk. “I have to get through a lot of this today.”
“Sometimes it helps if you take a little break from things. And besides, it seems like standing me up at a stranger’s funeral is at least worth a sandwich.”
Frank laughs, relaxing for the first time since before she walked in. “OK then, but I’d rather go somewhere outside of here. The cafeteria is great but when you go there, you always get pulled into work discussions.”
“Fine, but you’ll need to drive.”
“You don’t drive?”
“Never have. I don’t think I’d be very good at it.”
“You don’t know until you try, though.”
Adela is fascinated by the tablecloths. They’re like old fashioned white and red gingham cloths you’d take on a picnic, the fabric slightly puckered from washing, testimony to their history. She can smell laundry detergent on them, just faintly- when she tells Frank he says he can’t smell anything, even when he puts his face close and takes a deep breath, which makes her laugh because one of the waitresses sees and looks at him like he’s crazy. It reminds her of how irritated Adam gets about her almost extra-sensory perception, the things she smells or feels, like when she tells him that a thunder storm is coming, which she knows because the down hair on her arms pricks up a little, like it’s full of static. Sometimes, it seems like he’s frustrated because he’s jealous that she can pick up things that he can’t. Others, and she would normally not have been so uncharitable to even give this thought the space to form fully in her brain, she thinks he’s angry because he wants her to believe that all of her oddities are handicaps, things that need to be suppressed and hidden. Knowing that alongside the memory problems, inappropriate emotions and need for order, there are these strange talents, conflicts with the world view he’s constructed for them.
The place is a nice enough little faux bistro near the Cronos campus. There are a few young business people at the tables, but it’s far from full. The woman minding the place is an swarthy figure, obese, with a thick black moustache and the marks of a hare lip that’s been surgically corrected by a slightly inept doctor. She sports a large yellow gold wedding ring, but Adela finds it hard to imagine that she was ever a beauty. She shuffles from one table to another bearing coffee pots and pitchers of water, never cracking a smile. Her feet are cracked, showing the telltale signs of years of abuse and neglect, the edges of varicose veins, like squashed sub-dermal blueberries, peeking out from under the crumpled cuffs of her pants. She wears a pair of robin’s egg blue plastic gardening shoes, as if to underline her lack of concern over her appearance. It does sort of work against the city bistro atmosphere.
Frank is talking about his wife, Ivy. How he had been close to marrying his previous girlfriend when he met her and how he’d known right away that this was the woman he was meant to be with. When he says this, he pauses, making room for Adela to respond. She smiles, not knowing what he expects to hear, and wonders if she should congratulate him. The cannoli in the display look good, the pastry cream curled into perfect spirals on each one.
“What did you think when you first met Adam?” he asks after a moment.
The sticky heat on the balcony, the feeling of her silk blouse clinging to the film of sweat on her chest is what she remembers. The sound of her heaving, desperate breaths as she tried to convince herself she was not suffocating.
“I was having an anxiety attack. He showed up and took care of me.”
“A knight in shining armour,” Frank beams.
“You really are so sweet,” she responds, trying to seem just as genuinely kind. “You say good things about people, you recruited people to go to that funeral. You’re a very decent person.”
“Well, I guess if I were truly decent I would have shown up at said funeral, but thank you, I’ll take whatever compliments I can get.”
There’s a flash of pain on his face as he mentions not going to the funeral. It bothers him still.
“I guess if you were told not to go, there’s not much you can do.”
“I know, it’s just that…” Something rises and gags him, silences him for the first time since they walked in and sat down.
“You’re upset about it.”
“It just seemed strange. Sort of unfair. I don’t claim that I knew Gerald well or anything, but if I wanted to go to his funeral, I don’t see what harm could have been done by letting me go.”
“Hardly your fault, though.”
Another long pause before he continues. “Yeah, but… I hope you won’t take this personally…” He turns his soft brown eyes towards her, seeking permission for what he is about to say, which she assumes will be a criticism of Cronos. She nods at him to continue.
“I was with my previous company for a little over five years. Cronos actually started to try to woo me, I guess you’d call it, within my first year. I turned them down, they went away, but they always stayed in touch. Then they started after me again and just wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I was always a little uneasy about working for a really huge company like this, particularly since I was coming from a pretty small company. I felt like I needed more time to work my way through different-sized places, to get a sense of how they all work.”
“Cronos hires people out of university, sometimes before they even graduate.”
“I know, it’s just that I’m a small-town boy and they seemed- still seem- a little overwhelming.
“But they made an excellent offer and so I moved us out here and they’ve been nothing but helpful to me. We weren’t counting on Ivy getting pregnant so soon, but their HR people got her hooked up with good doctors and recommended preschools and had me filling out all the appropriate tax and insurance forms so that they can file them the second the baby emerges. I mean they did all this before I could even find my way back to my desk.”
“The way that place is built, I don’t see how anyone could find their desk unless they attached a length of string to their belt.”
Frank laughs, but his eyes remain cloudy, absent. “So I feel kind of ungrateful.”
“For being annoyed about the funeral?”
“For the fact that I’m not happy. I don’t know what it is. They treat me well, they make sure I have whatever I need. I’m doing work that yields clear results when, at my old job, I was dithering in some lab, watching the same thing happen again and again and making bets with my coworkers about the rate of advancement of the cracks in the ceiling. I’m well paid and there’s a career path in front of me if I keep doing well.”
“But you still don’t like it. Is it the company?”
“I don’t know. It’s not the job. I can’t say that I love the city. I mean, I’ve lived in cities for years now, but this one, it just never feels like home. I can’t get comfortable.”
Adela can see herself, wandering confused and intimidated through the streets, wondering if she would ever feel at home, or if she would go on missing her old city for the rest of her life.
“Maybe it would help if you and Ivy were able to make some friends.” She smiles not so much to be friendly as in pride at the fact that she’s remembered Ivy’s name. Perhaps it’ll stick. Ivy Ivy Ivy Ivy Ivy Ivy. Ivyivyivyivyivy. “Might make you feel more grounded here if you had people you could rely on.”
“Possibly. But the only place I see people is at work and there’s just something… I guess this is where I sound ungrateful… There’s something just a little off, a little creepy. It wasn’t just that I thought I should follow my boss’s order not to go to Gerald’s funeral. It’s that… I was scared. Like I thought they’d do something, not just chastise me, actually do something to me or my family if I didn’t obey.”
Adela would like to break out laughing and reassure him that he’s just projecting his anxiety over the new job and the new city onto his employer. She’d like to pat his hand and say that everyone gets like this sometimes, that everyone wants to find some big exterior reason for their own fears, because it helps them feel like they have a something legitimate to be scared of. She knows the words to say, she’s heard them often enough from her own doctors they’ve managed to stick, she can say them by rote.
But instead she pats Frank’s hand and says nothing, because those words are not reassuring and his fears are not necessarily illegitimate. The cloud of unease that hovers over the city when it comes to Cronos, the corporation’s own paranoid secrecy, the implied threat that people seem to feel around it are things that she has never experienced, but which are unavoidable to her now.
“I keep trying to picture raising a kid in this place, but I can’t. I wanted to run away to the country and buy a vineyard. My grandfather owned a little vineyard in Sicily. He did all right. I feel like we’d be safe there.”
“Frank, I really don’t think you’re unsafe now. I think that Cronos scares people a little because they make themselves scary. It helps maintain control. But I’m certain they don’t mean you any harm. Look at how hard they came after you. Seems like they think you’re valuable.”
Frank smiles a little, shaking his head as if to loose something that’s stuck in his hair. “You’re right, of course. I’m just imagining some threat because I’m used to a company that’s so open. It’s not like I can’t understand the reasons for their attitude, for them wanting to keep things quiet.”
“The edict against attending the funeral is kind of extreme, I grant you. But I think at some point the people there just need to do these unreasonable things so that everyone knows who’s in charge. Don’t let it worry you.”
She could tell him, of course, about all the suspicions other people have voiced. Former Nazis and rabid right-wing ideologues who slipped past the iron curtain. Mysterious disappearances. The tragic endings of those who crossed them. But she can’t allow herself to force this on a nice, vulnerable man whose only wish is to harvest grapes and see his child grow up happy.
“You know the funny thing about Gerald?”
Adela shakes her head, trying not to imagine his eyes. She has never had any trouble remembering those eyes.
“He was actually a scientist.”
“The janitor was a scientist?”
“A pretty capable one, too. He was in collecting the garbage in the lab and my team and I had been agonizing over this one issue for two days. I was alone when this happened, but he came up and tapped me on the shoulder and said he could help. He’d seen our notebooks lying around and he’d figured it out- no mean feat, by the way, it was pretty advanced stuff, not like he came up with a deceptively simple solution.
“He made me promise I wouldn’t tell anyone that he’d helped. Said he used to work in the field and it was still kind of an addiction for him. Thanked me for giving him the chance to get a fix.”
“But that’s bizarre. If he was that talented, surely it came out at one of his screenings at Cronos. Why on earth would they have had someone that good working as a janitor?”
“I don’t know for sure, but he sort of hinted that science wasn’t the only addiction he had.”
“Ah,” Adela rests her chin on her hand. She’s aching to take out her notebook and start writing, but she doesn’t want to make Frank feel more uncomfortable than he already does. “I guess if he wasn’t willing to help himself, there’s not a lot that anyone else can do.”
“Sadly no.” He shakes his head again. “I kept wondering if that’s how he ended up… Whether he might have been able to run away, but was too out of it to notice what was happening.
“Up until just now, I’d kept my word. I never did say anything to anybody about what happened.”
“Well the secret’s safe with me, for all it matters now. But I honestly think he might have said that to avoid tarnishing your reputation. No one wants to be the guy who had his conundrum solved by the company janitor.”
“You may be right,” Frank says gently.
But Adela can tell he doesn’t believe it. She can tell he feels in his heart that there is something terribly wrong. And who is she to argue with that?
Adela has just left the bistro and is wandering down the street, trying to figure out whether there’s a way for her to avoid taking a taxi home and observing the number of people on the steps of local businesses, relaxing as if they’re trying to catch some sun, except that it’s quite cloudy out, when her phone rings. It’s Louise, although it takes her a moment to realize this, because Louise’s sounds like it’s being filtered through a belt sander.
“You sound awful!”
“Ugh, I feel awful. I thought it was just a hangover or lack of sleep, but now I think this cough is really something nasty.”
“Have you gone to see a doctor?”
“Yeah, I started to go into work, but by the time I was about half way there, I realized it was a bad idea, so I went to a clinic instead.”
“What did they say?”
“They took some swabs and some blood and they gave me some truly exciting syrup for the cough- really, you have to try this, I think I’m going to get more so I can do shots of it- and some pills for the aches. They’re going to call me if I have anything wrong.”
“Have you had anything to eat?”
“I can’t even think about eating. If I stand up too quickly, which is to say at all, it feels like my brain and my intestines are rushing to switch places.”
“I can bring you something.”
“I’d love you forever if you brought me popsicles, but I don’t think it’s the greatest idea for me to be social right now. My entire body is overrun with contagion.”
“Don’t be silly. You’ve got a bad case of the flu. I’ve had a flu shot every year since I was in high school, I’m not going to catch anything. I’ve never once had the flu.”
“Get the hell out of here. Seriously?”
“Maybe when I was young. Or, you know, maybe I just don’t remember. But I think the flu shots work.”
“You remember the shots, though?”
“I remember that there’s a page I stick at the beginning of all my notebooks which has a list of all the medications and shots I’m supposed to get and that the flu shot is on there. I check it off every year. You’re in rough shape. I want to help, I want to find you some popsicles.”
“Your funeral, lady.”
Louise’s house is a little bit outside the downtown area. Adela decides not to take a taxi and finds that it’s a good forty minute walk, some of it hilly. She has to monitor the little GPS on her cell phone almost constantly, but she makes it there without any wrong turns or doubling back. She doesn’t trust this little machine entirely, not like she trusts her notes, but since she has no notes to go on, it seems like the next best thing.
She arrives at the little detached building, very much like a tiny cottage among other tiny cottages, her arms replete with as many popsicles as she could carry from the corner store at the base of the hill where Louise lives. She’s reasonably certain that she can feel the ones cradled next to the inside of her elbows starting to melt. At the site of her, flushed and slightly sweaty from the march there and the clingy humidity, bearing an oversized bouquet of popsicles, Louise breaks up laughing, although the laugh devolves disturbingly quickly into a long cough.
“I hope you have a big freezer.”
The two of them giggle as they stuff Louise’s freezer full of the slightly less than frozen treats. Louise is coughing frequently, holding her head as she does. She grabs a grab one and starts to devour it, the dye staining her lips the colour of blackberries almost immediately.
“This feels better than I can explain,” she croaks.
The house seems strangely empty. The thick floorboards, with their natural unevenness, add to the cottage impression Adela got from the outside. There are a few chairs in the open room- living room that dissolves into kitchen, but very little else. There’s a sooty fireplace that looks large enough to heat the entire home and next to it a scroll of papers, coming undone to reveal paintings, simple black and white things, with blocky forms.
“I haven’t cleaned that in months,” Louise says sheepishly. “I have to get someone in to do it and I keep forgetting.”
Adela wonders if the paintings are something she’s supposed to notice and decides not to mention them right away.
“What did they tell you when you called in? Were they worried?”
“You mean, do they think I have some bacterial infection that’s going to kill me? No, or they’d have shipped me to hospital by now and you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near me.”
“They don’t want you to get tested or anything?”
Louise grimaces a bit. “Well…”
“Don’t panic. They’re sending someone over to do some blood tests so that they can run them through their lab. They didn’t want to wait for the clinic tests and besides, I’m pretty sure that the clinic wouldn’t know what to look for.”
“I’m not sure Cronos knows what to look for.” Adela furrows her brow. “Doesn’t that mean they think there’s a chance you’ve been exposed to this? And that I’m getting exposed right now?”
“I’m coming to get you, Adela,” Louise jokes in a zombie voice that once again trails into coughing. She shakes her head vigourously until the fit passes. “I get the feeling they’re more worried that there’s another thing going around and they want to make sure they aren’t accidentally mistaking one thing for another. If they even suspected I’d gotten close enough to be exposed, I’d be in quarantine.”
Adela nods. “Adam is.”
“Oh yes, in France. I mean, if anyone’s going into quarantine, it’s going to be him. They were lab partners.”
“I hope the nurse jabs him a few times before she can get the needles in right.”
“Hey, I’m saying that for you, because you’re too nice a person to call him an asshole.”
Louise punctuates this last remark with a throaty sound that Adela finds worrisome.
“When does the mobile blood collector come to see you?”
Louise stretches her mandible, making a strange growling sound, like an animal trying to clear its throat. The heavy sound is all the more unnerving because it is so deep and resonant that it hardly seems possible it comes out of Louise’s thin frame.
“They said they’d be here late this afternoon, but that’s about all.”
When Louise looks up, Adela can see that this is something worse than a common case of the flu. Louise’s colour is gone. Her skin has the grayish tone and waxy surface of paraffin. The skin seems to be sinking back against her bones. Adela can see the hairs on the surface of her skin bristling forward. She hopes that her expression doesn’t betray the depth of her concern.
“I hope this isn’t something Chris gave me,” Louise mutters.
For a second, Adela can see a flash of the customary liveliness in Louise’s dark eyes.
Louise smiles and puts her arms tightly around Adela’s shoulders. Adela can hear her saying something, but it’s lost in the tangle of their hair and she doesn’t have the heart to ask her to repeat it.
“Chris. One of the tattooed guys. I went home with him last night, remember?”
Adela can see Louise flouncing out of Moebius, her young catch in tow behind her. “I forgot to ask you how that went.”
“Better than today,” Louise grins. “Sweet guy, really. Didn’t mind the fact that I insisted on walking home. I took off my shoes and threw them at a car at one point and I guess he gathered them up for me, because they were here this morning. Ripped the shit out of my nylons, though.”
“Hopefully no one else saw you doing that, because I think you’d have to use all your PR skills to explain what you were doing wandering around the city streets blind drunk in the middle of the night throwing your shoes at people.”
A cloud passes over Louise, making her look even smaller and more frail than usual. She has the expression of a dog catching the scent of imminent danger.
“That’s the weird thing. They were following us.”
“The people in the car. I saw them three or four times behind us, or at corners when we were crossing. I didn’t want them to follow us all the way back to my place. I didn’t want them to see where I lived.”
“You were pretty out of it. Are you sure you didn’t just think it was the same car every time?”
“Chris was joking about it. I can’t remember which of us saw it first.”
“He might have been having you on because he saw you were getting paranoid.”
Louise shakes her head insistently. “No, they were following us. They took off after the shoes hit their car. I couldn’t even see how many of them there were. After that, I remember Chris came and put his jacket around me and he seemed really worried.”
“Maybe he was worried you were going to get arrested.”
“Adela, you of all people know about trusting your gut. They were following us. Not like a bunch of college yahoos trying to bug us, either.” Louise looks pained, quietly imploring Adela for some understanding. “I was scared.”
There it is, likely the worst thing that Louise can bring herself to admit. She was scared. Trotting around with her confidence sailing, a young man wanting to take her to bed and feeling the decadent rush of being drunk on a weeknight, the crucial thing that she remembers, the thing that she needs Adela to get from what she is telling her, is that she was very, very scared and cannot quite figure out why. Who is Adela to deny her some understanding in these circumstances? Adela, whose whole life is made up of sensing things about the people and places around her, of indistinct realities that form her life.
“I was just kidding, Louise, I believe you. I can tell it got to you.” She expects Louise to recover herself, to make some kind of joke, but after a long silence, Adela continues.
“Do you know anyone who might follow you?”
“You mean like my ex, stalking me because he realized he was wrong, or because he doesn’t want anyone else to have me?”
Adela shrugs, not quite sure she can remember the details of Louise’s ex. It ended badly. That may be all she needs to remember.
Louise shakes her head. “It wasn’t him. There were two of them, at least. It felt like there were more.”
“Did you get a look at them?”
“Only shadows, the car’s windows were dark.”
“And there’s no one else you can think of who might have wanted to follow you?”
“Adela, I’m no one special. I don’t have a rich family-“
Adela wonders if this is intended as a bit of a shot.
“- or political connections. I don’t have dirt on anyone. I don’t owe anyone money.”
“What about your ex? Maybe he’s in some trouble, so people are looking into you.”
“Anything’s possible, but he’s not exactly the type to have loan sharks after him or to have run afoul of the law. He’s pretty vanilla.”
“OK, so then what’s the obvious answer?”
Louise smiles a little. “They weren’t following me. They were following Chris.”
“And you just happened to be with him.”
Adela is pleased to see her smile a little, to see the tension fade from her face.
“You have to admit,” Adela pushes forward, “he’s a much more likely-looking candidate to have people following him. He obviously thinks he’s part of some political organization. Maybe he showed up on someone’s radar.”
“You might want to be careful there. If he is being watched, maybe you don’t want to have a section in his file with the label “shoe-hurling girlfriend”.”
Louise laughs brightly, which is more of a relief to Adela than she had anticipated.
“OK, I’m going to head back home, but I want you to understand that I’m not kidding when I say I don’t sleep. If you need anything, day or night, you call me and I’ll come for you.”
“They’re both under the weather. Other than that, there’s no similarity and if you keep insisting on looking for one, you’re going to start imagining all sorts of things.” Lloyd emphasizes his point by putting a box of new merchandise heavily on the counter. “I had a sneezing fit when I got up this morning too. Am I implicated now?”
Adela, tired from walking and slouched on the floor, against the counter swings her arm at him. She’s been trying to explain the things that have connected her experiences in the day, but he seems quite intent on dissuading her. She can’t figure out if he really doesn’t believe in the connections that she sees, or if he just wants to challenge her to see if he can get a rise.
“It’s not just that they’re both sick, the illness is a side effect. They were both just so scared. Like they’d been traumatized by something. Even Frank-“
“Of, this really nice guy who helped me out once when I was there.”
Lloyd raises his eyebrows a little disdainfully.
“He even seemed spooked by something,” Adela continues. “It’s not that far-fetched. I’m not saying they were taken away and tortured by aliens, I just mean that I think there’s something bad going on there. Something’s gone horribly wrong at Cronos and everyone is afraid because of it.”
Lloyd crouches next to her. “Something’s always going horribly wrong at Cronos. They’re like a nation. They’re so big and there are so many different parts, there’s always something that teeters on the brink of disaster. It’s not even that big a secret most of the time. Hell, you’ve probably heard on the news that one of their chemical plants in India blew up and killed a bunch of dirt poor people, poisoned hundreds more. These things are not infrequent when you’re talking about something the size of Cronos.”
“I know that much, thank you. But that kind of thing is too small to matter.”
“You’re a real humanitarian.”
“I’m not saying I agree with it, I’m just saying that I know what they’re like and that’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t cause more than a day’s worry over there. This felt like something bigger.”
Lloyd tousles her hair gently. “Just don’t start connecting the dots because it’s fun to do. Chances are it’s just the usual things going on, there’s a flu going around and you’re more inspired by the good professor’s book than you want to let on.”
“None of that explains why Julian Baker would want to meet me outside of the office tonight.”
Lloyd rises, shaking his head. “You’re right, of course. What motive could he possibly have wanting to meet you in a bar after work?”
“I think he wanted to talk to me about the book. You should have seen him.”
Lloyd eyes her in a way that seems gently mocking. “You said yourself that he hit on you when you went over to his place. And he was grabbing onto you when you were there today. He’s acting like he’s fascinated by this book because he can see that you are. It gives him another excuse to see you.”
“Oh please.” Adela wants to continue, but for a second she is in that moment, earlier in the day, Julian’s hand gripping her arm with increasingly force, that moment where she could feel the possibility of simply allowing them both to float off into something else, into their future as a couple, the elegant world that could be.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you to meet him?”
“No, no. He’s going to be uncomfortable if I bring a stranger with me.”
“That might not be the worst thing in the world.”
“I want him to talk to me. I want to know what got to him to make him so frantic.”
“Mm-hmm,” Lloyd responds with a sort of theatrical emphasis.
“Almost sounds like someone has a thing for this Julian person.”
He nods, almost like he hasn’t heard, but she knows perfectly well that he has.
Adela pivots on her hip, convinced that she must have misinterpreted something and, at the same time, blushing like a teenager. “Are you high? I want to find out what it was about me talking about that book that made him so upset. I’m meeting him in a bar, not his bedroom.”
“Of course, no one has ever had a tryst with someone after meeting in a bar.”
She can tell Lloyd wants to come, not just for the manly thrill of feeling like her protector, but because, as much as he might be teasing her for her interest in the mysteries of Cronos and the power of the book they’ve uncovered, he’s getting drawn into it too.
She fidgets through her notes, her finger looping between the blunted corner of the pages and a loose thread on her skirt. Seeing Lloyd’s slightly disapproving look, she’s just as happy that she went home to change before coming here. She’s worried that in her fancier togs, he might have gotten the wrong idea about what she was up to.
“There’s something else, though,” she continues, swirling her finger around the reminder in her notes, pressing down so hard that the ink starts to smudge and bleed onto her fingertip.
Lloyd looks at her a little skeptically, as if he still doesn’t quite believe that she doesn’t have designs on Julian Baker.
“I want to talk to the professor again and for that I do want you with me.”
“You think he can shed some light on the situation beyond what’s in the book?”
“He can give me the details of what was left out and what exactly Cronos objected to so strenuously.”
“Maybe he doesn’t even know.”
“He knows better than we do, at least.” She tugs insistently on his leg to emphasize her point. “Come on, what’s the worst that can happen? He’s a character, so if it’s a complete waste of time, you’ll get a laugh out of him.”
“Or Cronos gets wind of what we’re doing and dispatches their secret assassins with killer flu bugs to get us.”
Adela tugs harder on his pant leg, which gets her a light kick in the arm and a begrudging smile. How on earth did she end up here? She has a quick vision, herself and Adam at some kind of reception, a wedding, maybe, or an anniversary celebration for a couple they know. Cronos in full evidence, team members flowering around them, Adela wearing a milky, peachy coloured thing that cost a fortune. Whether it looks good to others, she is positively in ecstasy with the feeling of the light fabric against her skin, the light vibration against her thighs when the breeze picks up. “You’re smiling a lot,” Adam tells her as the couple they were talking to moves on. And she is. She feels very beautiful, very special, very regal.
And now she is sitting on the floor of a used record and book store in a rough grey wool skirt and a black turtleneck with a plum-coloured cardigan, looking positively bohemian, unlike anyone who would ever end up breathing the gardenia and honey scented air she is almost certain she can remember. At the same time, Adela can connect the two moments not merely by her presence in them, but by the fact that, inexplicably in this case, she feels beautiful in both of them. She smiles broadly at Lloyd but something from that past memory is pricking at her. She’s wondering if this feeling is dangerous.
Lloyd grabs her fingers and presses them in his. “OK, then, princess, I am at your command. We’ll go to see the professor and get some answers out of him.” He cocks his head a little to one side. “What’s bothering you?”
Adela can feel her brow lined with concentration. “It’s what you said,” she mumbles, shaking her head a little. “Someone else used to call me princess, I think.”
“I can well imagine.”
And what she means, although she doesn’t say it, is that someone used to call her by that name with that exact same tone of rueful obligation, the implied acknowledgement that they were somehow compelled, against their will, to give into her for reasons not spoken.
“You’ll be careful tonight?” He says it looking away from her, as if he’s being very offhanded.
“Of course. I’ll call you when I get home.”
The Schooner Bar turns out to be the kind of place that someone should be warning Adela about. She intends on heading over by foot, since it doesn’t seem terribly far from her home, but, as it turns out, not very far from her home in the direction of the Schooner Bar, the neighbourhood goes through a rather alarming transformation. Rather than stately grand dames of Victorian architecture, this area smacks of hastily constructed late twentieth century urbanity and abandoned thirties and forties era glitz.
Although she expects at every turn to see the cloud of decrepitude lift and resolve itself into something more refined, after twenty minutes of the same and aware that she must look like a rube tourist, checking her directions every few minutes, Adela gives up and hails the first cab she can flag.
“Now what the hell would you be doing out here?” The cab driver is in full Rastafarian get up, his enormous mound of dreadlocks encased in a colourful wool sheath threatening to snap his bony neck.
“I’m looking for the Schooner Bar,” she answers glumly, almost choking on the marijuana smoke.
“Sheesh,” he ejaculates, opening the window a crack to allow some of the smoke to dissipate. “Pretty lady like you?”
“I’m meeting a friend there.”
“Your friends have a weird sense of humour. Someone should be taking you out to a nice restaurant.”
Adela obliges him with a grateful smile and resists the urge to say that she feels the same. Neither she nor Julian Baker belong in this part of the city, they stick out. It reinforces the idea that there is something secret at work here, something that needs to be hidden.
The cab screeches to a halt in the middle of the street without any kind of warning.
“Here you go, my lady,” he grins. Adela goes for her wallet, but he shakes his head. “It’s on the house.” Another glowing white grin.
“Thank you,” she says awkwardly, sliding out the side that looks to have less traffic screeching past it.
The Schooner Bar is not what anyone would call a hotspot. As soon as she enters, she is assaulted by the smell of stale beer and gasoline. She presses her hand close to her face only to realize that the marijuana funk from the taxi is clinging to her.
“Great,” she mutters, surveying the bar for signs of life.
A few old men are perched on stools around the bar. One of them, his lower lip hanging pendulously low and trembling, observes her through watery, reddened eyes. The man next to him raises his head just a little at the sound of the door. This patron is actually wearing a suit, beige, with visible grease and mud stains. He’s even put on an exceptionally fat tie for his trip to the pub. He swings his vulture’s head from side to side, barely raising it off the bar. Adela assumes this is because of a long-term stupor until she notices that the exaggerated curve of his spine, that would prevent him from standing at much more than half his natural height.
If the pasty, pock-marked bartender notices her presence, he hides it well. Even in her grey and black dressed down clothes, Adela is aware that she is far beyond being able to pass for a regular here. Julian Baker is nowhere in evidence and she can taste her own rising panic as she wonders if she’s made a mistake, if there’s another, cleaner place where they are supposed to be meeting.
Hesitantly, she starts to approach the bar. About ten paces away the greasy barkeep notices her and, without smiling, asks if he can help her. He doesn’t sound particularly helpful.
“I just wanted to make sure I had the right place. This is the Schooner Bar?”
“’S’what it says on the sign,” he grunts back. “You wanna drink?”
“Sure.” She can see a pasty coating of dust and bung coating the liquor bottles behind the bar and decides it is better to leave these dormant. “What kind of beer do you have?”
“Draft and bottled,” he answers humourlessly.
Adela is about to try to explain that this isn’t what she meant, but thinks better of it. “I’ll have a draft.”
The beer is watery enough that she can barely see the colour and she wonders how the sad sacks on the bar stools ever manage to get the alcohol content they crave from drinking this.
She has never in her life been as happy to hear her own name as she is at this moment. From the somber depths of the bar, she can see Julian Baker rising to greet her, beckoning her over to the booth where he is effectively isolating himself from the rest of the place.
“Favourite hang out of yours?” she whispers harshly at him, when she’s satisfied that she’s beyond the interest and hearing range of the bartender.
“Hey, this is where I met Clare. She was playing the piano for them on two for one Wednesdays.”
He smiles affably. “I had to use the phone in here once when my car and cell phone chose to break down at the same moment. It was one place where I knew no one was going to look for us.”
“Why would anyone be looking for us?”
He doesn’t answer, but embraces her as if they’re old friends. She feels his face nuzzling into her neck through her hair and starts to wonder why she was so adamant that Lloyd not join them. Surely she could have hidden him in a dusky corner somewhere, just for protection, which she now feels she needs.
Julian pulls her into the booth he’s been hiding in, shoving his briefcase and papers out of the way so that the two of them can huddle conspiratorially. At least being close to him smells better than breathing in the air, resinous and smoky, amber and fresh tobacco and cedar. She closes her eyes, not wanting that wonderful scent tainted by the surroundings.
“It’s tricky for me, talking about these things at the office,” he begins, still speaking with the nervous cadence of one who suspects he is being observed. “They keep a pretty close watch on everything that goes on there, although I expect that’s something you already know.”
He turns away to cough into his sleeve, dry and hacking, like his lungs have filled with dust.
“I don’t actually know very much at all about how Cronos works,” she offers.
“Of course not.” He turns his radiant eyes back to her and continues with a strangely pitying expression of both voice and countenance, “You’re such a sweet, innocent sort of person. Who would want to expose you to any of the nastiness that goes on in such settings? I’m sure he keeps you well sheltered from…”
“’He’ meaning my uncle, I take it?”
“Of course. A very intelligent man, by the way. Uncannily smart businessman. The best I’ve ever seen.”
All of these phrases seem to come out in short bursts, as if he’s trying to clear something out of his throat.
“You wanted to meet me to talk about my uncle?”
“Well, in terms of his work and his role at Cronos, you probably know as much as I do. We’re not in the habit of talking business much these days. Even when I was working with him, I don’t think I had a very good handle on what all he was doing.
I thought you wanted to talk to me about the book. The book that I found that talked about Cronos importing former Nazis and anti-Communist extremists from Europe.”
Julian stares at her a long time. “It’s quite seductive.”
“What?” she feels like a child, a student who can’t quite follow the lesson plan. Not for the first time.
He winds a tendril of her hair around his fingers, pushing it back from her face. His mind is not with them, not in this room, but has escaped to some happier, gentler place, leaving only his vacant eyes to show the inner absence.
“Quite,” he murmurs again. “Although,” he continues, returning to himself a little, “I expect you knew that already.”
“Julian, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He laughs a little and pats her cheek, as if she’s telling a very clever joke.
“So you were saying you didn’t think much of the book?”
“There really wasn’t much to think about. It’s of historical interest at most and it wouldn’t even be that, but for the fact that Cronos decided to go so crazy over it. It’s not like there aren’t well documented cases of enterprises- private and government- importing politically questionable talent.”
“Very true.” He coughs again, louder than before.
“Although some might say,” she carefully withdraws her notebook and opens it to the page she had flagged, the page with her notes and questions for the evening, “that the fact that they did react so strongly is evidence that the issues addressed in the book weren’t just historical, that the only reason to pursue the book with such vitriol would be if those people and their organization were still operating, or if they had been linked to some larger secret that Cronos still felt the need to protect.”
“Who would say that?”
Adela turns back to her notes, flipping back a couple of pages to review what she had gleaned from the book, as well as the points she and Lloyd came up with. Although she doesn’t turn to look at him directly, she is aware of Julian in her peripheral vision, his eyes drifting hungrily towards her book. She lets her hand fall over the few notes that are in different handwriting- Lloyd’s handwriting- before, she hopes, he spots them.
“Drug addled conspiracy nuts? Militant freaks? Old hippies?”
“Not groups of people who are known for their reliable counsel.”
Adela wants to scream. She wants to throw the remains of her tepid beer in his face and scream in his ears and hurl the glass against the wall and claw at him until rivulets of blood run from his head down his back.
Instead, she places a hand over her notebook and goes through the names of those who have indicated some suspicion. The professor, who she wants to leave out of this in order to protect the source of her copy of the book. Lloyd, who seems highly equivocal on the existence of a plot. David, who seems to fit the descriptions she’s already given.
“Me,” she snaps quickly. “Let’s say I’m saying it.”
His expression becomes quizzical, hovering between curiosity and fear, an animal spying movement. She feels herself pull back a little, anticipating a pounce. Instead, he brushes a finger against her nose and winks, like she’s said something very clever. At the same time, she sees the nails, the perfectly manicured nails, of his other hand dig into the table top.
He gives a sort of low hiss. “Well, if all you’re going on is the book, thinking that you see some sort of vast conspiracy behind it makes you sound kind of paranoid.”
“It’s a description I can live with.”
“Some of your paranoid brethren have voiced the opinion that Cronos not only didn’t break up the right wing cabal in its midst, but that it never intended to.”
“Why wouldn’t they, if these people were such an embarrassment?”
“Because the work they were doing was too valuable to lose them, no matter what they were doing.”
“So they selected a few especially noisy sacrificial lambs as a warning to the others to keep quiet and then let the rest of them be?”
“It’s what some people think.”
“What do you think?”
Adela finds herself acutely curious at this point, if only because she can’t imagine how Julian could possibly have an opinion that somehow crossed the invisible electric fences his job placed around him. She sees him pondering, perhaps finding his opinion for the first time, or perhaps determining whether or not she was to be trusted with it. Instinctively, Adela reaches out and lightly rests her hand on his leg, remembering, although in only a general way, the soothing power of contact.
Julian’s eyes close, but she can still see the nervous trembling of their movement underneath the lid. He is twitchy through his whole body. She can feel the spastic contraction of the muscles in his leg, the pulsation in his neck, as if something is trying to wriggle its way out of him. When he opens his eyes again, after what seems like a long moment hung outside of time, it seems as if those faint creases around the sides of his eyes, wispy cracks in the surface of his otherwise smooth skin, have grown deeper, more entrenched. He stays very still, very controlled, but Adela can feel that it’s more of an effort than usual.
“I would say that there is so much inconsistency in the course of events that it’s hard to see the influence of one person or group behind it all.”