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Mating Season

 

 

Mating Season

 

 

Ulf Wolf

 

Shakespir Edition

October 2016

 

 

Copyright

 

Mating Season

Copyright 2016 by Wolfstuff

 

http://wolfstuff.com

 

 

All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

 

 

Shakespir License Notes

 

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

::

 

 

Part I — Approach

 

 

:: 1 ::

 

They say Jesus Kristus was untouched.

You learn it in school, you hear it from parents, from grandparents—from them especially—from friends, and from preachers. You read it in the Bible: Jesus Kristus was the first to, and the only one ever to, escape, ascend, transcend, what have you, the Storm. He was the first ever to rise above it unscathed, as they like to put it on the late-night TV preacher-shows, especially now with a new Storm approaching, although unscathed means the same as untouched, just has more of a bite to it, I think, and these late-night TV preachers like biting.

And not only was Kristus untouched or unscathed, they then go on to tell you, he was conceived beyond the Storm—or unconceived, is how the Bible puts it in many places—although born in December like the rest of us, mind you. He was Stormless, is how I like to think of it when I believe the most. Sometimes I believe less, or not at all, and then I don’t really care how He is thought of.

Grandma, who always believed—hungrily, thirstily—used to say He was beyond the Storm: “Jesus Kristus was beyond the Storm,” she would say, with a sigh, with a blissful little expulsion of air, with an upward longing, her eyes moist, seeing not what was there right in front of her, but instead looking at (or for) some private heaven, some longed for celestial ecstasy. Beyond it, she’d sigh. Beyond it and Untouched, is what she kept telling me since as far back as I can remember. Hungrily, thirstily. Longingly.

And not only Untouched, she would then go on—and when I was little there was no getting away from her or her going on—Kristus was the first to see the Storm for what it was. He was the first to call it by its real name: Temptation. That’s the name she gave it, and often. As does the Bible, and all those preachers, too.

Temptation. Temptation. Temptation.

But let me tell you, the Storm is more than temptation. This word, this thing, temptation, if you really look at it, it implies a choice, does it not? Doesn’t it promise you some say in the matter? So my question is, how can the Storm be a temptation if you have no choice? But Jesus Kristus, too, uses that word. In the Bible. And so she did, as well, Grandma did. Temptation. And often.

“The Storm is temptation,” she’d say. “It is Nature’s test of the spirit.”

And it is also God’s command to make more of us, Grandma would often add, in the form of desire: the urge to people God’s beautiful planet with more of us. And that little heavenward sigh. She was so blissful, especially when she had me in her clutches.

Of course, that’s what they teach you in school as well. The Storm is nature’s way to make sure we go on. Without it there would be no more of us, no humanity, no babies, no sir. That’s what I was taught when I went to school, and that’s what they still teach, as far as I know. And who’s to argue? It’s true enough, that’s plain. The proof lies in the sea-of-babies pudding come December.

Still, Jesus Kristus does urge temperance in many places. I don’t find that surprising, really. What I find surprising is that He never urged abstinence, not that I can find, though those biting late-night preachers swear He said it. They go on about it. And on about it. But I have not read Him say it. What I have read Him say in the Bible is to let the Storm enter only for the sake of offspring, only deeply enough to spawn.

That accomplished, He says, shun it. Do no invite it, He says—as if we were inviting the Storm. It doesn’t need an invitation.

In other places Kristus warns against “indulgence.” That is how the New Testament puts it, and therefore how Grandma puts it, too: Indulgence.

Before He arrived on this Earth to save all of us these couple of thousand years ago, the New Testament goes on to tell us (and yes, I’ve read this, too), the Season—or the Storm, one word’s as good as the other—was nothing but one long orgy. Was nothing but a month of sexual revel and abandon. Of course, that pretty much hits what happens these days right on the nail, as if the New Testament had never been written, or read, or certainly never followed—talking to itself like just so much old paper, even if gilt-edged, like Grandma’s Bible.

Yes, He warned us about that, Kristus did. He warned us about the dangers of letting all restraints go—which is how you indulge: you let all restraints go. And when you let them go you become inhuman, which I’ve always found to be a strange word to use in that context. One of His Disciples, Luke, I think—or is it Matthew?, now I’m not sure—uses the word unhuman instead, equally strange but for some reason it seems to fit better. It is the same thing though: inhuman, unhuman. Grandma had another word for it: Beastly. She liked to say that word: beastly. Again and again. Beastly. Said it a lot.

But I do know what He is talking about. What He’s talking about is letting all restraints go. He’s talking about opening your doors wide and letting the Storm in and letting it take over. To open yourself up wide, to offer no resistance, to let the Storm enter fully. To let it rage. Perhaps that’s what Kristus means by invite.

Lately, I’ve come to think that perhaps what Kristus means by inviting is agreeing. And that what He means to say is that we are not animals. Not beastly. We are better than, higher than, stronger than, finer than the beasts. That we, being human and not un-, have a choice, where animals don’t. But here’s where I return to square one, for I don’t think we have a choice. I don’t think the Storm is a temptation, no matter what Kristus says, Untouched and all. I think it is an imperative.

Something that occurred to me a long time ago is this: how would He know? If He indeed was untouched, if He was never seared by that awful (or wonderful) heat, how would He know, truly know, what the Storm was like? How could He call it a temptation if He had not been tempted by it? That’s what I’d like to know. And that’s one question Grandma never got around to answering—she could be very hard of hearing when she chose to, could Grandma, looking around to see where the noise was coming from, not finding it, giving up, changing the subject—although, as I grew older, I got around to asking it often enough.

Had He been Touched, and then ascended—shaking himself free of the Storm—well, that’s one thing. But He’s always Untouched, as in Never Touched. That’s what bothers me.

Sometimes—especially as the Season draws near—I think the Bible, and especially the New Testament, is just a gathering of lofty off-Season notions. Lots of good intentions—which I hear the road to Hell is paved with. Notions that perhaps meant something to ancient saints and crazy hermits but which don’t mean much to normal people at the best of times, and nothing at all to anyone once the Season arrives. And by normal people, I should add, I mean the vast majority who have not—unlike me—been neutered.

Still, that’s the message: Normal people are to strive for these lofty things: temperance, abstinence, harmony, ascension. Says the Lord, and His Apostles, and the many preachers you see more and more of on television the closer the Season draws. We’re to ascend the beastly and the animal in us for the lofty and unreachable, for the ultra-human, the Untouched. We’re to move, like Kristus, beyond.

The plain truth—which I sometimes like to look straight in the face and be real honest about, that actually gives me a thrill—the plain truth that these lofty feats are quite impossible, if my experience is anything to go by, seems to escape them, these early ante meridiem evangelists.

Untouched. It’s a sweet word, and Grandma sure believed it to be a true one. This theoretical and hoped for word. This unattainable beauty. That’s what the Bible is full of. Things unattainable. I wish they could be attainable. But in this world, so full of tables and chairs—and this table and this chair in particular, and this pen and this paper, and this elbow which hurts a little when I write too much—here in this world it’s hard to conceive of these unattainable things being attainable.

Untouched. Even for a neutered like me, it’s hard to envision.

Though I do try, believe me, I do try.

[*:*]

I used to be not neutered.

I used to be normal. For eleven Seasons I used to be normal. From my first Season at fifteen to my last Season at twenty-five I was as un-neutered as the next guy. Then I grew sick and tired of it, disgusted with the whole thing, with the whole crazy thing. I could not handle it anymore.

Besides, the money came in handy.

Well, the thing is, I never was much good at fighting, or at asserting myself, and you must be average, at least, in that department, if not slightly above average—survival of the fittest and all—to have much success with the female of our species during the Season. For come the Storm, there is always competition. Always. There are always others. Which is odd when you stop to think about it. I mean, statistically there are more women than men in the world.

Be that as it may, during my Seasons there were always others, and hardly ever were there any females left over for me. They were always spoken for. Always some above-average prowler to tell me to get the fuck out of here kid, or he’d beat me up. And he means vanish, now.

And if I didn’t move to leave, which sometimes I didn’t—the need is tremendous—he’d come at me. Then I’d move, fast. He’d still give chase, pissed now, but I’m hard to catch, for I’m very fast on my feet, or was.

And all I wanted was to… like everyone else.

So what do you do? With your lower half in turmoil, burning with the wonderful, hateful, urge we call the Storm. What do you do? When you must pierce and expel, and would do nearly anything—no, not nearly anything, when you would do anything.

And running for your life, threats of violence still fresh in your ear, pursuing you like angry birds.

What do you do?

Let me tell you what you do. You find your way home, is what you do, you lock all doors, and then you help yourself, that’s what you do. You empty the bucket once, twice, perhaps three times to you gain a modicum of peace before your nether regions regroup and begin screaming again. And repeat. And repeat.

Ejaculation is always nice, of course. But for all that warm pain, for all those deeply swimly feelings it drags along—as if swimly’s even a word—my Seasons were not so pleasant on the whole.

For my eleven un-neutered Season were nothing but month-long fevers where all I could think about was copulation. Eleven Seasons mostly spent cooped up in my room, with a lot of ventilating (a clever euphemism, that—much used in advertising). And I mean a lot.

Seriously, despite those white rivers of ejaculation, I really did not enjoy those Seasons.

I came upon a good word for it the other day: monomaniacal. Look it up, that’s what it was like. Those March months, those eleven Marchs.

Monomaniacal. A very good word for it. Mono, one, single, alone. Maniacal, having a mania, an obsession. It comes from the Greek, meaning then, loss of reason—how appropriate. And earlier than that it meant rage. Even more appropriate. The one rage. The only rage. The only thing to really exists for you under the Storm’s spell.

For, you see, nothing else does matter. Yes, every now and then you get hungry, and then you eat something; you get thirsty once in a while, and then you find something to drink. And you sleep off and on. But other than that, there is only the one thing on your mind. It becomes your mind, your room, your world.

God has seen to that. God’s somewhat cynical gift to man. That’s what the Old Testament calls it. Well, it does not say cynical, of course, but it calls the Storm a gift. I say cynical. As if He didn’t trust His creation to make more of us without it, this gift is, apparently, God making sure.

Monomaniacal.

“Eve’s fault,” says Grandma. And really means it.

I know you’re wondering, so I might as well get it out of the way: The answer is “yes.” Four times.

Three of the four women were my age (two of which I had to pay good money for).

The fourth was my mom’s age, and here the word rape (or as we normally call it: Un-Invited Intercourse, or UII)—springs to mind, and where I was the rapee, though perhaps it wasn’t all that uninvited. Let’s just say that she didn’t stop to ask, and would not have taken no for an answer.

Details? Not so much of that. Just the urge to. Nothing, nothing, nothing is more important in the entire world to you (or her) once you get going. All else ceases.

Once you lock onto each other with the understanding that, yes, it is going to happen, you’re like some heat-seeking missile that’s found a target, no way to call it back now, it’s going to pursue and copulate.

At times during these eleven Season the urge grew so intense, so searing, so all-encompassing, that I caught my self astounded, observing myself in amazement, taking myself in: how can anything be so driven, so compelled.

Just for a flash this would last, this stepping outside in amazement. A second or two, then back again into the drowning.

Looking back at these moments, I’ve thought that perhaps it was the spirit moving out of my body to take an amused look, but I don’t know, it happened so fast. All I am really certain of is the amazement, the astonished at. That you can be so out of control, or so completely in control, depending on viewpoint, on who’s doing the controlling.

Now, let’s clear up another point, an important one: Neutered is not the same as Untouched. For even once you’ve had it done, the Storm still touches you. Only thing is, you can’t do anything about it.

Not that they tell you this upfront, before the operation.

No, that’s a kept secret. In fact, before you have it done, they have you sign an agreement—in very small print and un-plain language—where you promise to not talk to anyone about how you feel after the operation.

Once you wake up after surgery, and before they let you leave, they give you a little booklet—which you have to read then and there and then hand back to them—that explains, in much clearer language, what you’ve agreed to, and how you will feel. Not Untouched, is how you feel.

And the secret you agreed not to share with anyone is this: it still aches. It doesn’t burn or rage like it used to, no. And it doesn’t take over and drive you like it used to. It’s receded to an ache, dull enough to still let you function.

It’s like you’re a tall building and your way down there basement is smoldering, unpleasantly hot.

There is nothing you can do about this ache. After a while it aches less, though it still aches. After five years—yes, it’s been five years now—it still aches.

I must confess that sometimes I think that Jesus Kristus was nothing but another neutered—or gelding, as we’re sometimes called. And that’s what a lot of people say, especially those who don’t believe in Him, or who haven’t read the Bible, and who say that Jesus Kristus and the Bible is a lot of hogwash. Yes, it’s true, sometimes I, as well, think He was nothing but some neutered person with a big mouth and a bunch of industrious hangers-on.

But then the off-Season returns, and the ache goes away altogether, and I find easier to believe, to once again see him as the Untouched, as the unconceived preacher of moderation. As the unattainable I wish for more than anything else.

For the off-Season is so very different.

[*:*]

Once the Season ends—officially with the last day of March, even though sporadic incidents usually straggle into April—the cleanup begins. People have calmed down by now, though they tend to walk around a little stunned for the first couple of days, like what on Earth? They smile meekly at neighbors, drive carefully, take in the mess, the breakage, the neglect, the garbage (which usually piles way up even though we have a small army of neutereds to run the Sanitation Department and other such services during the Season).

And the damage assessment begins. City engineers, with the help of sometimes police, sometimes firemen or even the National Guard, take stock of the ruin and draw up plans for full restoration. They’re good at this, they do it every year.

Come the end of April, restoration is in full swing, and, depending on the severity of things, it’s usually complete by mid- to end of May; though last year June was almost over before everything was back to normal.

And so begins the Calm.

Well, officially it begins with the end of the Season, but you don’t really think of it as Calm until things are restored.

The Bible describes the Calm as “that Sea which does not ripple.” An apt enough description which is both true and untrue. If by ripple the Bible means sex—which I think it does—then it is true, very true: the Sea does not ripple, not in the least; for men and women no longer see each other as men and women, but as people, as humans, sans sex but for the fact that men usually urinate standing up while women sit down.

But if by ripple we include frictions and misunderstandings and upsets, then the Bible lies, that Sea still ripples: for people still disagree, conflicts do occur, fights do erupt, sometimes with lethal outcomes. Life—even if sex-less—is still a matter of survival, and what survives me may not necessarily survive you.

And there is a downside to those Calm conflicts—when they escalate beyond negotiation: they are never tempered by sex, for sex is nowhere to be found.

Tempered may not be the best word, but it’s as good as any, and will do, for of course sex, during the Season, acts as a dispersal which filters out everything but sex itself: a tempering effect.

By contrast, off-Season disagreements strike me as pure, clinical. I sense the intent to injure for the sake of gain, and I look in vain for compassion or quarter given. None. Off-Season animosity is undiluted, undispersed.

But so—and this is the upside of Calm conflicts—is rationality, and as often as not disputes are settled by an honest exchange of views, especially when guided by negotiators.

For the off-Season lets you think. It lets you carry one thought from birth to conclusion, lets you foster it, guide it, grow and develop it, undisturbed, sometimes for hours. Rationality is possible.

And that’s—even before I was gelded—that’s when I would view things clearly again, and that’s when my faith in Him would resurrect for a good many months, until the next Season swept in, crazy with urge, doubts in tow. I mean, who can believe in fairy tales when Hell rages below and the world goes insane again all around you. It’s hard to hold onto your sanity then, much less your faith.

And that’s why—as I’ve tried to explain—that’s why I had myself neutered, or gelded, as some say. That and the money.

 

:: 2 ::

 

Harry caught his first heightened scent of the Season that morning. It was a dog in heat, some blocks away.

It was a few minutes before six and barely enough light to see by. The stars were still out in force, and the air was cold with just that hint of gasoline on it that said yesterday had been smoggy. Streaks of high amber hovered in the eastern sky, beyond the mountains, climbing their far side. Though the night had been windy, there was no wind to speak of now, just the occasional stirring, shivers, memories. A thin layer of pine needles not only covered the lawn but had now blown onto his covered porch as well. The roof would be full of them, too, he thought. May have to get up there later to sweep them down.

He had stepped out into the cool morning to save the paper before the sprinklers got to it, and as he bent down for the loosely stringed Los Angeles Times he caught it, as if the scent had been standing in wait for him, right there, and now suddenly moved to reveal itself.

Clear as a bell, it hit his nose with precision, a minor explosion of message telling him his Season wasn’t far off now.

He’d been expecting it, of course—any day now—with one eye on the calendar as March approached. Still, it was with a slight quiver—a small physical shock that chilled him—that he recognized the aromatic clarity which for him was always the first sign. He rose, paper in hand, turned in the direction of the scent—a faint, flavored wind—closed his eyes, and took a deep breath through his nose, testing the air with purpose, and again.

More than likely: that white poodle. He’d seen her often—she’d usually bark at him as he jogged by—over on, what was it? Deerborne Street?, and now she was announcing her availability to the world. He nodded to himself. Yes, more than likely. What was her name?

There would be an unseen cloud of pheromones surrounding her, thinning as they sped away like some exploding little galaxy, soon to be discernable as far as a mile away by other dogs—discernable by Harry for several blocks once he reached Season peak.

He looked up at the sky, took another look at the beautiful clouds out east, already visibly lighter, took another deep breath—part sigh. Only a matter of days now.

He returned inside. Vixer looked up at him as he entered, just a brief glance involving no more than eyelids and eyes. Then he too caught the scent. His nostrils widened and his muzzle rose to test the air, once, twice. His ears peaked. He looked back up at Harry who now was closing the door behind him, shutting out the scented breeze. Vixer sighed an “oh, well” and decided this was too early for him, anyway. His head sank down onto the carpet and he closed his eyes again. Crazy people, up at this time. Crazy dogs, too.

Harry tossed the paper onto the kitchen table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. Leaned forward to begin reading, but changed his mind. Instead he slumped back in the chair, looked out the window across the deck, across his back yard, his lawn, his plants, his trees, all gradually stepping into dawn now from the cover of night. The birds were up too, he could hear them discussing things among themselves.

And beyond these things—beyond this silently approaching spring morning—he imagined the Storm gathering.

When Harry thought of the approaching Season he pictured it like a flood, or like an avalanche, cloudy or dusty and distant, still rounding itself up, still building, like something you could hear advancing if you really listened: a nebulous but mammoth something, still the far side of the San Gabriel Mountains, upper desert somewhere, no, farther away than that: Nevada, Utah, Arizona, the far side of taller mountains, amassing, sweeping, almost quaking the earth as it spread out from some unknown mid-continent epicenter toward the Pacific, soon to reach the San Gabriels and scale them to then creep not so unhurriedly down the crevices and slopes this side of those silent hills to find Sierra Madre, Monrovia, Altadena, Pasadena, and from there on to the ocean, smothering everything in-between with lust.

A milky, almost metallic, unseeable fog, a miasmatic flash flood of Biblical proportions. Covering the Earth.

Approaching.

He shivered, as if to clear himself of the image, then sat up, reached for the paper again, and this time took it, unwrapped it, balled the string as best he could and tossed it toward the waste paper basket by the stove, missed. He rose—almost tipping the chair over as he did—picked the string up from the floor, and placed it in the basket—hard to miss from two feet, he thought—then sat down again.

He unfolded the paper to the front page and shifted forward to scan the headlines. Mostly Season related stuff, of course, this close to March—more and more as the Season approached: interviews, suggestions, and of course, ads, and ads, and ads, but nothing yet, no actual incidents to indicate its arrival.

Officially, the Season arrived on the 1st of March each year, but since Nature is not wont to observe legislation too closely it usually arrived a few days early or a few days late, depending on who knows or reports what.

Unofficially, each year, the Season was sparked (according to the media, and according to what there was of folklore these days) by the first Seasonal incident—a much employed word this time of year, everyone waiting, waiting—the first fight about a woman, the first UII, the first open copulation.

Harry perused the various sections. More of the same. And ads. And ads. More Seasonal ads. But other than that, Los Angeles seemed to have had a normal Tuesday: accidents (as usual), too little rain so far this year (as usual), a something something at the Getty Museum had been well attended (as usual). Several pictures of the something something showed many smiling faces, self-congratulatory in a not too offensive a way. A new jazz restaurant opening in Pasadena, re-opening actually, it had been at that spot in the 1980s according to the reporter. Pictures of that too, smiles not quite as smug.

A couple of book reviews. Business goings on. People still buying stocks, people still selling stocks. More articles (all trying to help) about the upcoming Storm: what to do, what not to do, what to wear, how to prepare, how to odor-proof as best you can, how to this, how to that, all very much about the around the corner Season, but nothing as yet to say it had actually, if unofficially, arrived. Not as of going to press, at least.

Probably for the last day, thought Harry, for once his scent arrived, the first incident was never far off. Never more than a day off, that he could remember.

That first Seasonal incident acted like a starters gun.

For once this incident had taken place, and been duly reported—over the radio, on television, or online—what over the last month or so had steadily been building (some manufacturers and most services—you have to book in advance, you know—began advertising as early as January) would erupt into an advertisement and commercial frenzy: for here was the narrow window— a week’s worth at the most—to reach the Seasonal consumer, for after the Season’s first week no one would be in any sort of state to pay attention to anything but copulation.

Nor would much else be covered in the way of news either: the Season was the news. All the news. Was everything.

And frenzy was the word. The papers would be glutted with Seasonal ads, the television stations would shift everything to the New Season, as loudly and as offensively (in Harry’s opinion) as possible. All else would, for all intents and purposes, cease to exist.

But not yet. Everything was still under starter’s orders. No first incident reported, no arrival—at least not according to the Los Angeles Times. Of course, much could have happened overnight, but Harry had no urge to check the television news. As far as he was concerned, let calm reign a little longer.

He didn’t read further, but instead leaned back again in his chair, and looked back out across his yard. So, this was to be the year.

[*:*]

Vixer stirred in the front room, roused himself, stretched and yawned the way only dogs can, ready to swallow the Earth. Scratched himself briefly behind his left ear with his hind leg. Arose, stretched, shook his pelt as if he had just stepped out of water, spotted Harry by the breakfast table and sauntered into the kitchen mumbling something about hungry and food.

Harry turned and exchanged glances with his dog—saw him but didn’t really see him. Reached down to scratch him behind the ear, which Vixer really liked, almost as much as he liked food. Did scratch him behind the ear, but not really, not really aware of doing it.

He had promised himself, repeatedly: this was to be the year when.

And here it was, just around the corner. So easy to make future decisions as long as the future stays put; but it had ceased staying put, it was here. Could it really be done? Was it really doable? To his mind, yes. It had to be.

After all, it had already been doable twice, if only for a moment, if only for a glimpse.

 

:: 3 ::

 

Fletcher Jones had spent the night in his sister’s garage. He had lost yet another job, had been kicked out of yet another week to week, sparsely furnished apartment and with nowhere else to go, he had returned to where he had promised, often, never to return.

His sister Samantha didn’t want him there, had asked him, pleaded with him, begged him on many occasions not to come back there again, ever, to leave them the hell alone, for Kristus’ sake, please. To get a life. She had even changed the locks to the garage, three times in fact, each lock a little more “secure” than the next: meaningless gestures. Fletcher could break into just about anything. So he came and went pretty much as he pleased, or as his needs dictated, his younger sister’s prayers notwithstanding.

The garage was used for storage rather than cars these days and Fletcher, ever resourceful, could always find things to curl up upon and beneath. This time, to his delight, he had discovered an old couch—which either Sam or her husband must have tired of—and plenty of old sheets and blankets to boot. Made to order. Like a real bed. Hotel-like.

He knew it in his sleep: the Storm was here. He knew when his dreams turned from running and hiding and avoiding and getting fired or evicted, and getting even with the bastards and perhaps scoring some coke or ludes or crack and outwitting and running again, to sniffing, tracing, chasing down, and yes, hallelujah, raping—though that was such an unfair word, it wasn’t really rape, not really uninvited, was it?, when in the end they’re always willing—and hey man, enjoying life again. He knew it without even waking up: His Season was back. Full swing.

And as he knew this, he turned over onto his stomach the better to rub himself, the better to relieve himself as his dream raced on along with his mates and hunted her down, cornered her outside the old Nate Simmons warehouse with nowhere left for her to run, and no one around to hear her scream, first with fear, then with ecstasy.

Oh yes, he thought, even as he dreamed, it was here all right, he was hard and pulsing. Finally. Life was about to turn sweet again, really sweet. She was moaning beneath him, screaming. The others were holding her down, just to make sure. He was moaning too, breathing hard, and harder, then he exploded.

Then he surfaced.

With a smile on his face. He shifted onto his back. Touched himself. All gooey. Oh, yes. And here he was, already stiffening again. Oh yes. Man, was it ever back. He looked around for something to clean himself up with: rag, towel, anything. Nothing. In the end he used one of the sheets.

Good enough. Then he found himself not just hungry, but starving.

As he stepped out of the garage and he sniffed the air once, then again; and of course—as if he needed confirmation—his scent was back too.

He entered his sister’s house through the kitchen door, which faced the stand-alone garage. She was already up, by the stove, fixing something or other for breakfast. She turned when she heard the door open. She was not pleased to see him.

Though not surprised.

“I heard,” she said.

“You heard what?”

“You’ve been fired again.”

“What the hell? That’s not true.”

“You’ve been fired again,” she repeated. “They called here, looking for you.”

“It was a shit job anyway,” he said.

“It was a job.”

“It was a shit job.”

“I doubt you’ll get a better one.”

“Well, I’m happy to see you too, Sam.”

“I am not happy to see you. You can’t stay in the garage.”

“It was only for one night, I promise.”

“Promise, my ass.”

“No, seriously.”

“I hope so,” said his sister. Then, taking a closer look at him, “What’s wrong with you?”

“What?”

“What are you grinning at?”

“It’s here.”

“What’s here?” As if she didn’t know.

“You know, the Season. My Season has started.” He couldn’t stop grinning.

“Happy about that, are you?”

“You know it, Sis. Always.”

Sam didn’t answer.

“I’m starving,” he said. “A couple of eggs? Too much to ask?”

Sam still didn’t answer.

“And some toast. If it’s not too much trouble,” in an attempt at being sarcastic, though it came out wrong.

“You can’t stay here,” said Sam without turning away from her chore at the stove.

“I won’t. I promise.”

Then she turned. “I’ve promised Josh.”

“Well, fuck him.”

“You have to promise.”

“I do. I promise.”

“Promise.”

“I said I do. I promise.”

 

:: 4 ::

 

Lara West was an orphan. Or, to use the official term, she was unclaimed.

December was rarely called December, it was called Birth Month. True, some were born late November, and there were stragglers who didn’t show up until early January, but even so: hospitals, schools, churches, and many of the larger hotels turned into makeshift maternity wards during the last month of the year to cope with the annual births.

The year Lara was born had been particularly busy and it was never clearly established whether her mother had in fact lost her (it was know to happen) or had simply slipped away in the general confusion of things, wanting nothing to do with her daughter, most likely the result of some unfortunate event—the going euphemism for rape around the wards; or a UII—an UnInvited Intercourse—the official designation. In either event, Lara ended up unclaimed, officially. An orphan.

By the time she was ten she had escaped, been caught, and returned to, the #6 Arcadia Orphanage—known as Arcadia Blue—a record fourteen times. A record which, by the way, still stands since the fourteenth escape finally prompted review and overhaul of the facility’s security arrangements and after which not even Lara—though not for lack of trying—managed to slip out again.

After her fourteenth escape she didn’t see much of the outside world until she, with the rest of that year’s litter, was released at age thirteen—the age that statistically signals the first female Season; and since California orphanages are not equipped to handle the calamity of volume estrus, law mandated (still does) release of female charges by the 31st of December of the year they turn thirteen. This, again statistically, avoids most of the trouble, or to be more precise, relegates this trouble to the outside world.

Except that Lara—known as trouble—beat the stats by a year and entered her first Season at age twelve, and with it, the requisite confinements and strap downs, never a pleasant experience under the best of circumstances.

Early Seasons are not unheard of—some girls experience them as young as ten—but in an orphanage they are always traumatic, for ward and personnel alike. Lara, far from a favorite at Arcadia Blue to begin with, received very little in the way of comfort and support during this, her initial Season; this to the point where she—although she had heard all about the Season by this time, no one reaches that age ignorant about it—assumed, when it did arrive, that she had in fact gone insane.

For hearing tell about the Storm, and experiencing it, are two very different things.

Lara was now twenty-eight years old and a wisp of a woman. She kept her blond hair short, worked out regularly, kept a fiercely independent cat, and was not very ladylike. She also had a habit of vanishing—without her cat, who could fend for himself, thank you—toward the end of February every year, not to return until early April, when it was all over. Whenever asked, she was vague about precisely where she had been—not that it was anybody’s business.

[*:*]

This Wednesday morning she pulled up at work on her 250 cc Yamaha dirt bike a few minutes early as usual. She needed the extra time to mount the ungainly messenger box on the back of her bike, not an easy task on most bikes, an outright pain on a dirt bike; it took both a special carrier and custom straps.

When her boss, and (pretty much only) friend, Helen Suffolk saw her arrive, she got up from her desk, and stepped out of her office to meet her.

“Lara.” An almost shout from just outside the small lobby of Helen’s Messenger Service. She waved, too, then set out for Lara. “A word?”

Lara looked up from wrestling the box into place, grimaced and squinted at the sun, large in the sky behind Helen. “Sure.”

Helen had a few years on Lara and was nowhere near as thin. But she had a friendly face which many, including her husband, found beautiful. Lara did too. Helen now sauntered up to Lara wearing a part smile, part frown.

“You’re still here,” she said. She made it sound like a question, though it wasn’t.

“I told you I would be.”

“So you’re not going this year then?”

“No, not this year.”

“You sure about that?”

Lara, still working one of the straps, nodded, “I’m sure.”

“You know, it’s not a problem, not at all.”

“I know. You told me.”

“So if you want to go.”

Lara pulled the final strap tight, secured it, then stepped back to admire her handiwork. Then looked back up at Helen. “I appreciate it, Helen. I really do. But I’m staying.”

“Sounds like you mean it.”

“Yes, I do.”

When Helen said nothing, Lara added, “It’s time. It’s something I must do.”

“Really,” said Helen, as if set on talking Lara into leaving. “It’s okay if you want to take off. Just give me a few hours’ notice. Besides, we’ll be shutting down shortly.”

“I’m staying, Helen.” Lara wasn’t sure whether to laugh or yell.

“What will you do?”

“I’m not sure, Helen. Not leaving. That’s all I’m sure of right now. Not running.”

“You’re not running.”

Lara didn’t answer.

“Do you need any money?” Helen asked apropos of Lara wasn’t sure what exactly. And it earned her a surprised glance.

“No, I’m fine.”

“I was thinking maybe you need a private guard, or want to hit a spa or something. They don’t come cheaply nowadays.”

“No, I’m fine. And you?” said Lara. “What will you and Larry do? And the kids?”

Helen looked over as she heard another messenger arriving, waved briefly at him, then looked at her watch, as if to make sure there was time enough to answer. “Well, the kids are off to their center as usual, although with Susan turning twelve this year, it’s getting tricky.”

Lara nodded. She understood, all too well, “I know.”

“As for Larry and me, we’re going to bunker it, as usual. We’re already stocked to last the full month, with lots to spare.”

When Lara didn’t answer right away, she continued, “We’ve also installed some extra locks this year, you can never be too sure, and bought enough ammunition to fight a small war if it should come to that.”

“You may have to,” said Lara, though she wasn’t sure why. Wished she hadn’t.

“Oh, I hope not.”

“Seems to come to that, though, more and more,” said Lara. Then added, “If the news are to be believed.”

“That’s true,” said Helen. “That’s why.” Then, after checking her watch again, and a brief silence. “You should find yourself someone.”

“As in a guy, husband-guy?”

“Well, as in someone-guy.”

“That’ll be the day,” she said, then grabbed the box with both hands and shook it again to make sure it was secure. It was. Ready to go. “So,” she said. “What have you got for me today?”

“Don’t know,” said Helen. “Check with Al. Don’t forget, though.”

“Don’t forget what?”

“It’s not a problem, not at all.”

“I know. And I appreciate it. Really.”

“But you’re staying.”

“Yes, Helen, I’m staying.”

Helen nodded, turned and walked back to her office while Lara headed over to the dispatcher’s office to see what Al had for her this morning.

Crossing the parking lot tarmac Lara couldn’t help but wonder if she had lost every last one of her marbles. Was she really going through with this?

Was she really staying down here? She had strived to sound all determined to Helen—who was more perceptive than Lara dared to acknowledge—but that was not exactly the case. No small part of her wanted to drop everything right now, drive back to her apartment, grab her backpack—which in fact was packed and ready—and head out of the city. The remaining part of her, and still in the majority, remained resolute: no, she would not run this year, that was not who she really was, she was stronger than that; she would face it. Ride it out. Face the damn thing down. On her own.

Without the aid of trees or water or solitude or distance or whatever it was that brought her sanctuary.

It was possible—the last ten years stood as proof—it was possible to stay undrowned; and if she could do it up there, then she could do it down here. She knew what she’d be looking for and she’d steel herself against it.

That’s all.

[*:*]

Lara’s Seasons set in early, as a rule sometime during the last week of February. She considered this lucky—almost like an omen at times—as it gave her time to head out before the Storm proper descended in force.

At the first sign of oncoming Season—normally her scent intensifying, though sometimes her hearing, and some Seasons even her eyesight (subtle, that one, creeping up on you like that)—she would calmly finish off what she was doing: day’s work, visit, shopping, whatever, then go home, get her already prepared backpack—at the ready since mid-February: food, books, medical supplies, gun, ammunition, clothes, sleeping bag, thermal blanket, and other needed odds and ends—lock her apartment (after making doubly, triply sure Shadow wasn’t inside), get on her bike, and head for the San Bernardino mountains.

Here first few Seasons away from Arcadia Blue had been as traumatic as her first. At thirteen—she’d by now been transferred to a State sponsored school for unclaimed girls—she had been confined to her dorm with the rest of her class, something she had objected to in terms so certain, and so repeatedly, that after two days of putting up with her they sedated her instead, and after that she had more or less slept through the Season.

Same the next. They weren’t taking any chances with this one.

At fifteen they tried confinement again, which she endured this time, though with some medical help. With no way of releasing the terrible tension—all forms of self-help were strictly forbidden by the school—she found it nothing short of painful, and also degrading. This was repeated for two more years, after which she graduated the school and left the charge of the State. Lara was now eighteen years old and very much on her own.

After a month of looking, and prepared to accept pretty much anything, she found a job as a motorcycle-messenger for a small firm in Glendale which paid her rent and put food on the table, though not too much more. But she liked it. There was a nice sense of freedom on a motorbike—which they provided, at least until you could get your own: you could go anywhere you wished to, and fast.

This appealed to her. Very much

As the next Season approached, or more like attacked—her scent exploded from normal to amazing in a matter of hours—her immediate impulse was to flee. Now that she was alone, and could turn to no one for help, that was her only solution, her only direction: away; as if the Season was outrunnable and she was the one to outrun it.

And she acted on this impulse. She finished her deliveries, called her boss for Seasonal leave, which naturally was granted, filled up her bike (she had found a well-maintained and affordable 250 cc Suzuki only the month before), bought a sleeping bag, and a backpack, and as much food as it would hold and set out going east on the 134.

No plan, no destination, just away. Led only by instinct and the need to out-run; and by the ever advancing tarmac of the freeway. The 134 soon gave itself over into 210 East and while she had the sense of running towards the advancing Storm, as if to meet it, she also felt that she was putting distance between herself and its approach. The bike beneath her ran smoothly, the engine humming, almost singing, as if happy to get away too, glad to stretch its legs. She leaned forward on the tank and faced the onrushing air with a determined but happy smile.

Near San Bernardino she approached her first choice: 215. North or South? As the wheels spun on beneath her, they seemed to say: neither. She listened to them and found herself on California 30 heading for she had no idea. At Highland the next choice: stay on the 30 for Interstate 10 and Palm Springs, or veer left onto California 330 and the mountains.

Looking back she cannot remember actually choosing, actually thinking: no, I don’t want to go to Palm Springs, or yes, I should head up the 330. Again, the spinning wheels, and the singing engine seemed to do the choosing and before long she found herself winding her way past Running Springs and other smaller mountain communities, except now the road was called California 18. With water in sight she turned left again onto the smaller still California 38 and several miles beyond Fawnskin she spotted, on her right, or her bike did, a small unpaved road, leading into trees with the promise of water.

No buildings here; and the road got worse—I could do with a dirt bike here, she thought to herself—and worse still. Several impressive roots had reclaimed tree-territory, and here she finally stopped and stepped off her bike. She killed the engine into wind, and—overwhelmingly—scent.

She looked up: straight strong spines of forest elders, ignoring her. Not inviting her. A “keep out” sign could not have done a better job.

But kept out was the last thing Lara would settle for, and then there was the stillness, the promise of stillness.

She rolled her bike around—best as she could—or over the knotty suggestions that she turn around. Another fifty yards and all pretence of road had ceased. She was steering her cautions bike over forest floor and toward water.

She could hear waves. Not big ones, no, not like the ocean, more like a reassuring watery rustle, water moving on stones, a constant motion. And, to her left, between the ankles of these great and brooding trees, she spotted what at first she thought was a single, very large, yawning boulder; but then, following its outline, the boulder became a toe to a foot to a leg to a mountain and the yawn, partially concealed by leafy branches of birch and aspen, an entrance; though still not inviting.

She looked around for somewhere to park her bike, she wanted to take a closer look. She leaned it against a graying pine to her left, but—and to this day she doesn’t not know what made her: it was as if the tree had objected—immediately unleaned it, looking up into a branchy frown.

Instead she guided her bike towards, and then into the yawn and the dry and quite roomy cave within. She steered the bike to the back of the rocky room and unfolded its stand. There. No objections here.

She squirmed out of her backpack, placed it on the pine-needly floor, looked around her and knew: she had arrived.

[*:*]

Two weeks later she was running dangerously very low on supplies. She had found the lake water clean enough for consumption, but even though eating as sparingly as she possibly could—she felt weak at times—she was down to four cans of mixed fruits, half a dozen protein bars and two bags of trail mix: nuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, and dried pineapple. It would not last her the Season.

The day before she had ventured out in order to, somehow, replenish her stock—hoping to avoid hunters or other prowlers, while finding an open, neutered-run store: a long shot. She had not thought this through. Well, she had not thought at all, was the point. She had simply upped and run.

She’d rolled her motorbike out of the cave, then navigated it over and around roots and bushes—all of which seemed to do their best to make her turn around—for the road, but before she reached it the drowning suddenly set it, and set in with such force that it physically shook her, as if she had walked into a wall or a fence, charged, demanding. Reeling, she let go of her bike, which fell over, and she staggered back, into safety, waters receding.

With some effort she pulled the bike right-way-up again, and rested it on its stand. She steadied her breath and stilled her heart, then approached the road again, slowly, alert.

And again into a wall, savage with hands.

And again, her first instinct was to recoil, and that was the one she acted on; but there was also this second notion that said: let’s enter, let’s drown. Let these hands enfold you and carry you into the mist which she could almost make out from where she stood, a mist surrounding, held at bay.

Held at bay.

Tentacles, as if the mist knew she was there and strained to reach her, to snare and capture. Held at bay.

She stepped back farther, out of harms way. Then looked around; attuned now to the spectrum of the mist, she could make it out clearly, massively surrounding. She turned; looking past the cave and toward the lake she found herself at the very edge of a glade, a clearing in the allness of milkish steel. Looking up she could not make out sky.

Taking one more step back her foot caught a root and she fell. Things shifted: the mist vanished, or rather, she could no longer see it, she could still feel its presence.

Scrambling to her feet she went to retrieve her motor bike, and again: it was a magnetism, palpable. With some difficulty she pushed against it, folded the bike stand back and made for the cave.

Why here? Was that the question? Or was the question, why me?

Lara spent the remainder of the Season not finding an answer to these questions. She ate sparingly beyond caution, but did not have a choice; although she had found some edible berries in the glade, the food she had brought just had to last. On two occasions she fainted from fatigue.

Some days she could make out the mist clearly, others not at all. Either way, she would perceive the wall—its greed—whenever she approached it.

The answer to why some days she saw the mist and others not also proved elusive. It wasn’t that she felt differently day to day, it was as if some days she caught the right frequency, others not. But even though she could not see it at will, she was getting more attuned to the mist, for toward the end of her stay, she could sense it, even from within the cave. Hovering, waiting, waiting, for her.

On the 2nd of April, by her watch, she would up, exhausted, into a mist-less world. It was gone, she had no doubt. Humming, irritated, shifting the night before, and rustling past her in her dream, in the morning she knew: it had withdrawn, the Season was over.

Weak—as exhausted as she’d ever felt—the nonetheless made it back into the small town of Fawnskin where she did find an open gas station; the little store attached to it had restocked and she bought three candy bars, two sodas, and some nuts.

Which she devoured in about ten minutes. Five minutes later she was violently sick in the restroom; but still, all things considered, she felt much better. Well enough to make the ride home.

The following year she knew precisely where to go. Reaching the end of the little road she felt not as much welcome as grudgingly accepted. By whom, she had no idea; but the feeling was palpable. She steered her bike back into the cave which, from what she could make out, had not been disturbed since the previous Season.

This time she had planned better; had filled her messenger box with supplies as well as brought a larger back pack. As far as she could calculate she would be set for the Season.

She saw the mist off and on; could still not determine the reason. She pondered why the glade, why her: still no answer. She read a lot: Her electronic book reader housed over two hundred books. She walked the glade end to end—which to the best of her reckoning measured roughly ninety by ninety yards, well, ninety by seventy, the remaining twenty yards extended over water, and was only an approximation from those days where the mist was visible to her.

She exercised. She even swam once—but the water was too cold for her to repeat that venture.

And she sat at the mouth of the cave, looking out over the lake, not doing anything but sitting at the mouth of the cave looking out over the lake.

Time, in this state (is how she came to think of it) seemed to cease, or rush rather, for one moment the sun was high in the sky, and the next it was setting beyond the western shore, an afternoon all but expired.

One morning, again, she knew that the mist was gone, the Season over, and she made it back to Los Angeles.

For eight more Seasons she had done this: taken refuge. Escaped. Startled for her sanctuary at the first sign of. Run away.

It was on the ride back from her previous Season that the feeling fully stirred and then sprouted: She would stop running away. For all the strange blessings of the glade and the cave, she could not help but feeling that she was, well the word that sprung to mind, and which she could not shake, was chicken. It wasn’t really who she was, she who had escaped Arcadia Blue nearly at will before they made the thing into a fortress; she who had always fended for herself; she who always made it without anyone’s help, except come the Season.

She resolved then and there, heading west on the 210, the sun setting ahead: she would not return to the glade next Season.

[*:*]

Though it had yet to manifest, she could feel her scent approaching. Hours, perhaps only minutes, away. In fact, it was as if it had already risen and filled her, but was standing so still that she could not detect it.

Then it moved. She turned to see who had spoken, but there was no one. Just the trace of a dog on the prowl, perhaps a block away. Loud and clear.

The urge to out-run returned and for a moment filled and seized her. It took all of her determination not to submit, and again head for the sanctuary of the glade.

 

 

:: 5 ::

 

Returning from work by way of the supermarket, Harry swung his car into the driveway.

He could hear Vixer’s backyard greetings even before he killed the engine; oh, so happy to see him again, or anxious about dinner, or both. Harry got out of the car and opened the backyard gate to let Man’s best friend out.

Vixer was all over him in a second, What’ya get me? What’ya get me?

“Easy, boy. C’mon.”

Harry let them both into the house, placed the groceries on his kitchen counter, then fed a just a tad disappointed Vixer—Harry had not brought him any Vixer treats this time; though not complaining, mind you, food is food, just fine with him. He set about attacking his dinner as if time might run out before the bowl was clean while Harry washed the fruit, rinsed the spinach, fixed the salad.

He did this mechanically, from habit, his mind not on this task.

His mind was on the two days, maybe three, he had before he reached full bloom, and truth was he’d actually made no preparations.

What. So. Ever.

He would cross that bridge when he came to it. For months. Well, the bridge was here. So how exactly was he to cross? This standing up to and staring down the Storm. This regaining the up and above. This untouched. This dream.

Well, he needed to stock up, at the least. He needed to do that. That would be part of the crossing, and an important part at that.

He sliced the tomatoes and added the olive oil.

To ascend again—that had been the feeling: ascending—and stay ascended. That was the dream, what he hoped to achieve by not giving in. His decision. He fanned it by, as he so often did, turning it this way and that, by tasting it, imaging it, his notion to; no, it was more than a notion or a dream, it was a need. A need to. A need to validate a notion. No, that didn’t make sense.

[*:*]

Harry Oates was born and raised in this very house. Well, he was born at Fenton Memorial (which was now St. Mary’s Hospital) in Pasadena one very slow—if his mom were to be believed—December 32 years ago, but raised in this house. His parents had bought it even as it was being built, part of a new development. Harry still had pictures of it at inception, without the trees, without the grass and the landscaping, the house rising out of plain earth as so many two-by-fours and bricks. It looked much smaller then, in those pictures, being born from mud. But they had not added to it in all the years since, it was still the original house, and really none the worse for the ware either. Surrounded now by lawns, both back and front, and trees, many trees. Protecting it.

His parents gave him the house (here Son, take good care of it: his dad ceremoniously holding out the keys, his mom shedding a tear or two just behind him) when they finally made their long planned move to New Hampshire. That’s where his mom was originally from, and still had family—siblings and such. She had wanted to return for years (the Eastern air is different, she said, more history to it, saltier somehow, many such reasons). And no more than a week after his dad retired from his teaching position at Cal Tech, and his mom from hers at CSU Los Angeles, some six years ago, they up and left. His mom’s family home had been left to her (as the eldest daughter), and since his dad didn’t mind, glad to get out of the smog and millions of people every day, actually, they had re-settled out east.

This was the house that had seen his first steps, the house where he scraped his first knees, climbed his first tree, fell out of his first tree, learned how to read, how to ask many questions—to many according to his mother—and learned how to make do with often make-shift (don’t bother me now, Harry) answers; and where he had experienced his first Season.

In fact, since he had gone to college locally (not Cal Tech, which had been his father’s hope—Harry wasn’t quite the wiz with numbers his dad was), this was the house he’d never left. He had meant to once he was through college but his parents made it known they were relocating soon, so why don’t you stay put, Son, you’ll have it all to yourself once we leave.

Didn’t take too much arm-twisting, that. It was a great house, free and clear now. Who would argue with that?

And this was the house where he—in his late teens, and on two different occasions two years apart—had experienced the impossible.

The first time it happened was during the 1993 Season.

He was seventeen.

He had been in his room, locked in his room, actually, slightly medicated (his mom had seen to that, to take the edge off, as she had put it), but still battling hard, pacing the floor, sweating, sitting down, standing up, sitting down, standing up, pacing some more. Trying to read, trying to watch whatever televised not quite out and out pornography his parents would allow (to help things along, as his mom wouldn’t come right out and say, as if he needed any help—still, it seemed to help, seemed to fit, somehow, like furniture or curtains seem to fit). Venting liberally, miserable in general, when he had suddenly (and later could never for the life of him pinpoint what exactly had sprung the lock, what thought, what action, what memory, what anything), when he had suddenly floated up—is the best way he ever put it—floated up and out of the mist.

Not only did he see his body from above; well, from one of the corners of the ceiling, working away at venting again (for the ninth or tenth or Kristus knows what time that day), but suddenly he was, yes, that was the word, wasn’t it?, untouched. There was no other word for it. Outside of it, and not touched.

And from that vantage point (and at that moment he was simply too surprised to be scared—terrified would follow later) he could see not only himself—well, his body would be more correct; himself seemed to be the thing looking at the thing laboring away on the bed. Not only could he see this, but also the mist which filled the room, while no longer filling him. Yes, that was the sensation: although the mist filled the room, he was (while in the room, too, of course) outside the mist. He watched it: gray, almost white, like a thin, stainless milk (is how he thought of it later) shifting, rolling, flexing its misty muscles, and entering his body—down there on the bed, not quite at orgasm yet—with every intake, and exiting again with every exhalation, but not only that: it had volition, this mist, it seemed alive. More than just a fog: alive, and—and this is what finally scared him: looking for him. As if it had noticed him gone missing, and was now searching for him in every nook and cranny of his body; a body still laboring away, nearing, nearing, nearing and there was the messy release.

And with the release Harry was suddenly inside again, burning and thrown about by the violence of ejaculation. As if sucked back in by the force of it; as if the mist had finally spotted him, just in time, and reeled him back in.

The contrast: that is what struck him the most. The contrast between the curious, the calming, stillness of outside, and the raging war of the inside. So much more raging now against the backdrop of that, of that wonderful out and up stillness of not being touched.

He told nobody about it. To be honest, he wasn’t entirely sure that it had in fact happened; and if it had, well, then he was bound to be a little crazy, wasn’t he? Who’d ever? And as the Season advanced, the less sure he grew. By the end of it: Dream perhaps?

Still.

By the following Season the incident was all but forgotten. And if he thought of it at all, surely, yes, of course, it must have been a dream. His imagination. Must have.

But then it happened again during the 1995 Season. Under similar circumstances. The only difference was that he wasn’t locked in his room that year. His parents were off at a seclusion spa up north for the Season and he had the run of the house—with the promise of no visitors. Don’t let anyone in. Not a soul. Yes, yes, he had promised. Of course not. And, good son that he was, he had been true to his word.

But even with the whole house at his disposal he spent most of the time in his room, enduring the onslaught. Venting as usual, going through his supply of canned food, watching old movies and racy commercials and the now out-and-out pornography (no parents around to say no, besides, he was nineteen now).

When it happened again: he floated out, and up. And, this time, farther out, and farther up. He saw first his laboring body, then the whole room, then the house from above, and would probably have risen even higher had it not been for the pine. That’s right, that’s exactly how it felt, as if the pine in his front yard had reached out with long, invisible branches and caught him before he lost his gravity-less bearings altogether, and perhaps would never have found his way back. Caught in a sort of piney net, or piney embrace, and gently brought back towards the roof of the house, and then through it and trough the ceiling of his room as well, and sort of deposited there, still hovering, still floating, in one of the corners.

Still outside and untouched by the irritated mist.

Untouched by the same thick, steely, milky mist, shifting, entering, exiting, entering, exiting, and—there was the same feeling again—searching. For him.

His body on the bed was close to ejaculation now and then he recalled the last time, as if a warning sign: it was ejaculation that had pulled him back in; and he tried, from this strange, floaty, vantage point to slow it down, to hold back. But found himself powerless to. Found nothing to slow it down with, nothing to brace against, and suddenly there it was, one, two, three, four squirts onto the paper towel, and with it, as suddenly, and as forcefully, there he was: inside again, sucked into that rage which was the sexual.

There was no denying it this time: it had happened. And yes, he was crazy, of course. For who had ever heard? But, crazy or not, it had taken place. No longer dream.

Again, he never told anyone about this—with the exception of Harman-Karman, his friend, but that was not until years later, and his mom, which was a mistake. What he did, however, was try to discover whether this had ever happened to anyone else.

Who’d ever heard?

Well, the only untouched he had heard of was Jesus Kristus, of course. Not that his family was in any way religious, they came down squarely on the scientific side of things, but nonetheless; school, television, you will run across this fact (fact?). Jesus Kristus, the Untouched.

So he bought a bible.

“You turning religious on us?” his mother wondered one day after straightening up his room, as she liked to call it.

“Please, Mom. I’ve asked you not to. I’ll do it myself.”

His mom, a Psychology professor at CSU Los Angeles, was never one to let a question go, once asked.

“You’ve never had any Biblical leanings before, have you Harry?”

“No.”

“So what’s the occasion?”

And this is where Harry made his mistake. He could think of no good reason why he’d have a Bible in his room, not one that would make sense to his mom. Could not think of a good enough lie, that is. So, he told her. The whole thing. And for a moment—for his mom watched him so intently that he mistook her mien for understanding—he was even wondering if perhaps the same thing had happened to her.

Then, once she was sure he had finished telling her, she began to shake her head. Slowly, a little sadly. Near enough patted his knee in sympathy. Shook her head some more. Took a deep breath. Made Harry regret he’d told her. Very much.

“Well, Harry. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?”

“I do, Harry, I do.”

He didn’t answer. Waiting for more.

“It’s not uncommon—well, that is to say, it is uncommon, but not under certain circumstances. During certain conditions.”

He recognized this voice, this diagnostician that his mother became on occasion. And braced himself.

When she didn’t go on, he asked, “So what do you think? I’m sick?”

“Heavens no, Harry. I didn’t say that.”

“What then? What certain conditions?”

“Only twice?” she asked.

He didn’t get it.

“This, this floating. Only twice?”

Got it. “Yes.”

She seemed relieved. Took another deep breath, as if to speak, but said nothing.

“What?” he asked again.

“Well, it is a condition,” she began.

He did not like the sound of the word “condition.” She had a way of making it sound like “severe malady.”

“It’s a condition known as acute ascension.”

He didn’t like the sound of that either. Sounded very much like a malady to him.

“Basically,” she said, and looked him straight in the eye for some time before she continued, “it’s the brain playing tricks on you.”

“It was more than that, Mom.”

“Well, if you say so.”

He knew that tone of voice as well. “But you know better, right?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

“It was not a trick,” he said.

“But only twice?” she asked again.

“Yes, Mom. Only twice.”

There was that relief again.

“When was the last time?” she wanted to know.

“A couple of years ago.”

“1995 Season?”

“Yes.”

“And just the two times?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“Well, I wouldn’t worry about it then.”

“I’m not worried about it, Mom. I just wanted to know what it was all about. That’s why I bought the Bible. Kristus was, apparently, untouched. Is what it says.”

She shook her head again, as if at a small child’s folly. “As I said,” she begun.

“Yes I know, acute ascension.”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s it.”

Then his mom took what he later came to see as a fatal step as far as their relationship went. She said, “Please let me know if it happens again.”

Translation: If it happens again, it may be serious. You may need treatment.

Harry promised he would, but knew that he’d never, never, never. For he was sure: it had not been a “trick of the brain,” or some acute ascension mental malady. It had happened, he—he, the person—had floated out and up, and he had seem himself, no, not himself, but his body, on that bed, masturbating away. No dream, no trick, no condition, it had happened. And his mom did not get it. At all.

“Sure, Mom.”

“Promise?”

“Yes.”

She gave him her “Are we okay?” look, and he said, yes, yes, we’re fine. Then she did in fact pat his knee, signaling the end of the audience.

And the mistake.

He had not brought it up again, nor had she. Nor had it happened again. He did however have the sense, for a few months after telling her, that now and then he was the subject of hushed parental exchanges, and that some glances his father gave him contained concern. But nothing out in the open, and he certainly knew better now than to leave Bibles around for his mom to find.

But he kept looking.

The best references he ever found (all of which he had since included in his library—now that he house was his, and free of mothers stumbling upon things like Bibles to ask uncomfortable questions about) hailed from Ancient India.

He’d asked one of his professors, a Mrs. Dorin, who—if rumors were true—was a Buddhist, or whose husband was a Buddhist, one or the other.

“Untouched?” she said. “Other than Kristus?”

“Yes.”

“Buddha, for one, was untouched. And the ancients.”

“Ancients?”

“India,” she said, a little as if that was the key to the whole problem. “The Indian ancients.” Then, “Why are you asking?”

“Just curious,” he answered.

And when he wouldn’t elaborate, she smiled and said, “I wish there were more curious students.”

The Vedas were as Indian Ancients as they came, and there he did find mention. Several.

The Ran Veda for one, and the Chintaka Upanishad for another. And for a third, and most importantly, the Dhammaphada.

In one passage of the Ran, Varuna descends (in a Chariot—but that’s beside the point) upon the City in Season and sees the river of milk enter and exit in a constant and fervid ebb and flow as the populace copulates.

In another passage Indra leaves his body, and “floats, out and up, to see his body, immersed in the churning milk, copulating with a water woman, while the milk, noticing his absence, begins to look for him.”

Harry gasped as he read this, then put the book down, unable to go on. After a stunned moment or two he picked it up again and re-read the passage. And again. He tingled.

For whoever wrote that had known exactly what Harry had experienced. Exactly. He was not alone.

And, so much more importantly, he was not crazy.

In the Chintaka Upanishad several of the gods would copulate from the outside, seeing their bodies—their human Avatars as they are called in the poems—labor in milk, sought by the milk (the breath of Yama).

Yes, the breath of Yama, is what they called it. The white breath of Yama—the King of Death—making sure Death will never end life as life, making sure there will always be more bodies for life to return to once it departs its current dwelling; the knowing and aware breath of Yama that finds you when you go missing. The breath of Yama, catcher of spirits, spawner of mortal life. Yes, they knew, these ancient people who had written this, they knew what had happened to Harry.

Exactly.

And, no, Harry was definitely not crazy.

Ever since that Season of 1995 he had tried, and tried hard, to float again, to leave, to ascend (the word had stuck, despite its connotation and smack of mother), but he could never do it, no matter how hard he tried to let go, as he later came to think of it.

He also researched, and to quite an extent, acute ascension, as if to humor his mother (now happily back in New Hampshire—calling him once a week, usually on Sundays, you have got to come visit us again, Harry). But after many months of combing through dire texts on this and other ailments, he found what he had come to expect: that when the supposed “science” of mental disorders doesn’t know how to explain something, it gives it a label instead, to make the thing appear understood.

Thus:

Acute Ascension , Neurological Disorder (official definition): A chemically induced neurological illusion which, during sexual stimulation, can make the subject believe that he or she sees him- or herself from the outside, as if floating above the body looking down upon it, as if ascended. This sensation, normally cogent (hence acute) is best treated by sedation, or shock, or both. Possibly hereditary, though not so proven.

Which really doesn’t say anything, other than that the phenomenon has been observed and described. Chemically induced, normally cogent. Fine words, that really explain nothing.

And of course Harry disagreed. This was not a disorder. Of that he was certain. If anything, it was a blessing. But science doesn’t know what to do with blessings, doesn’t deal in them, and has to find other ways to explain the phenomenon.

But the one thing Harry did take away from his research, was that the phenomenon, though by no means common, was not unheard of either—hundreds of cases had been documented over the years, many of these successfully treated according to the Journals he found in the library. Sufficiently not unheard of to warrant mention, at any rate. He was definitely not alone, others—if wrongly diagnosed—had experienced the same thing, and more recently than ancient India.

So, not in the least crazy. At all.

Another other thing he took away was the certainty that whomever put this down to a neurological disorder had not experienced it first hand, could not possibly have. For it had been no illusion, no “phenomenon.” I had taken place. Had happened. Of this he was certain.

So much for science.

He returned to those who took “the phenomenon” seriously, back to the wiser race of India. This time to the Dhammaphada, and the Buddha.

Who at the end of his contemplation beneath the bodhi tree reportedly “saw the spirit three times drowned. First in the Season and its milky mist, then in the body the mist engendered, and lastly by the world and its many needs.”

The world, in Season, he went on to say, “is clouded by milk, drowned by milk, driven by milk.”

And that was the thing they agreed on, all these ancients, and Harry too: from the outside, from above, ascended, it was a milky mist, strange in that it was entirely transparent, yet entirely there. There with color and motion; yet not tangible, or visible, from the inside.

But he, Harry Oates, like the Buddha, like Indra, had seen it. The breath of Yama.

Harry stopped just short of becoming a practicing Buddhist; that is, he never actually joined anything. He wasn’t much of a joiner, period.

Still, ever since finding the Dhammaphada he had tried to live by the precepts of the Buddha as gleaned from that wonderful book. He had become a vegetarian (well, they call it vegan now; apparently vegetarians can eat fish and fowl and dairy, and for some reason still hang on to the title, quite a stretch of the definition: usurped by non-vegans), and he had learned—with the help of other books—how to meditate. And so armed, he had tried, and tried again, and tried again, Season after Season, to float (as the Buddha called it). And again, and again, and again, had failed to do it, his vivid memories of that particular and peculiar and wonderful state notwithstanding.

How had it happened in the first place?

He had scoured his two ascensions, both in meditative contemplation and otherwise, but could not find the trigger: the thought or thing that had sprung the lock and let him out. Simply could not. One moment he had been deeply engaged in venting, the next, out and up, as if lifted. But something must have triggered it, something. Because it had taken place. There was the effect, so there had to be a cause.

And his notion was to. No, it was more than a notion, it was a need. A need to. A need to validate a notion. No, that didn’t make sense.

Or maybe it did. The notion that had finally formed (based again on the life of the Buddha) was that he would have to face it, would have to stare it down, the Season. Would have to refuse to comply, to refuse to agree. To prove himself bigger than, stronger than. Just as the Buddha had done when at the beginning of the Season he had sat down to meditate beneath the bodhi tree—to meditate upon the problem of the Storm with the resolve to not rise again until he had solved it.

Thus, he had stared it down. And floated.

That was the only answer he could find. Follow Buddha’s lead. Now to validate it.

But how, precisely, was he to do this?

Should he mirror his two ascensions, and self-medicate to take the edge off. For he had been slightly medicated the first time it had happened, that was a fact he returned to now and then. Then again, the Buddha for sure had not been medicated in any way. So what then? Precisely?

A spa perhaps, away from the city? It was too late for that though, you need to book them way in advance. What then? These questions, much like panicked little birds now that the Season was actually at the door, refused to sit down to be asked in earnest. And so flittered about answerless. As yet.

And still, like a mantra, he kept telling himself: this was the be the year when.

[*:*]

He finished tossing the salad, brought it over to the table and sat down. Surveyed the green mixture, spangled here and there with the red of tomato and bell pepper, then tossed it a few more times for good measure. He glanced over at Vixer devouring his meal as if it was his last: full throttle. Tossed the salad one last time. Then ate.

After four satisfying bites into it—the toasted wheat germ really did the trick—the door bell rang. Once. Twice.

Why is it, he wondered, that he could recognize Harman-Karman by the door bell alone. “It’s open,” he yelled, startling Vixer from tracking down no longer existing crumbs in his bowl—making extra, extra sure.

Harman-Karman lived four houses down from him. He was tall, and he was black, and he was thin. And as devout a carnivore as they ever came, with a metabolism that Harry believed could handle nails without breaking a sweat. No matter what that man ate, or how much of it, he stayed tall, thin, and yes, carnivorous. And now, as he entered the kitchen, he looked down with feigned disgust at Harry’s as yet barely disturbed salad.

“All that innocent bird food, devoured by uncaring vegans,” he said.

“To each his own,” Harry replied. Now, he, on the other hand, had to watch what he ate. He could add pounds in the wrong places by just thinking about dairy products.

“Poor you,” said Harman-Karman.

“Just about here,” said Harry after two more bites.

Harman-Karman, patting Vixer, didn’t answer.

“My Season,” said Harry.

“Scent?”

“Beginnings of it. This morning. I could smell Ritva over on Deerborne street.” That’s right, Ritva was her name.

“Ritva?”

“She’s a white poodle.”

As if Vixer understood English—though not in detail—he left the kitchen to see if perhaps a poodle named Ritva was at the door.

“You’re on first name terms with a white poodle?”

“Apparently.”

Harman-Karman shook his head: to each his own, indeed. Then asked, “Mind if I fix some tea?”

“No, not at all. Go ahead.”

“Want some as well?”

“Yes, please.”

While Harry returned to his salad, Harman-Karman heated water and prepared green tea for both of them, as at home in Harry’s kitchen as in his own. Poured, sat down. Sipped. Said nothing. Watched Harry chew each bite carefully, each mouthful a task.

Vixer returned from his mission—no Ritva out there—tail wagging slowly, looked at both of them, as if speculating as to who was going to speak next.

Turned out to be Harman-Karman. “I think they’re neutering the wrong people,” he said.

Which earned him a curious Harry-glance, greens halted half-way to his mouth, clinging to the spoon. “Apropos of what, precisely?”

“Seems to me,” said Harman-Karman, “that they’re going out of their way to dig up the worst they can find and press them into service.”

The greens completed their journey, and Harry finished working the bite. Then said, “No one’s digging up anyone. They are volunteers. You know that. They have to take what they can get. Not too many do nowadays.”

“Not too many do what?”

“Volunteer.”

“But have you seen them? They look more like criminals than cops. No matter how much they dress them up. You never used to see cops sporting tattoos. Not that I can remember. This new breed looks too violent to be police.”

“Well, they are neutered. Emasculation is supposed to curb violence. Is what I hear.”

“And where did you dig that word up?”

“That’s what Dad used to call it.”

“Emasculation?”

“Yes.”

“Well, whatever you want to call it, I’m not so sure it curbs enough of it. Remember last year? Three days. They kept me locked up for three days.” He held up three fingers. “And nights,” he added. “For walking down the street in broad daylight, for heavens sake, minding my own business. Three days, with no privacy, to boot.”

Harry remembered, how could he not, Harman-Karman had brought it up often enough. “They must have had some reason.”

“You keep saying that.”

“And you keep saying they didn’t.

“They didn’t.”

Harry returned to his salad, another couple of careful bites, then blew on his tea to cool it. Sipped a little. “You were loitering,” he said.

“I know that’s what they said.”

“And you were not?”

“No. I was looking for bottled water.”

“Which returns us to the moral of that story: be sure you have enough bottled water before it sets in.”

“Trust me. The basement’s full of it.”

“I have to do some serious shopping,” said Harry after a moment’s silence.

The silence continued. Harry resumed his salad, Harman-Karman scratched Vixer behind his ears.

“Is it me, or is it getting worse every year?” said Harman-Karman.

“I can’t tell. A little, perhaps.”

“Weren’t we into July last year before the clean-up was complete.”

“End of June.”

“Even so.”

“Same as the year before, as I recall.”

Harman-Karman pondered that. “Perhaps you’re right. Seems crazier each year, though.”

“So, are you going through with it?” asked Harman-Karman after watching Harry eat for another little while, seemingly fascinated by his friend’s dedication to greenery, and to careful chewing.

Harry didn’t hear, or chose not to hear. What he said instead was, “How’s your pact coming. All confirmed?”

“No, it’s off.”

That earned him a concerned gaze. “Why? What happened?”

“She’s going to some spa in the High Sierras. Near Yosemite.”

“Wow. This is news.”

“Yes, I know.”

“So, change of plan, huh?”

“Yes.” Harman-Karman looked a little uncomfortable. A man with a problem, studying his tea.

“So, what are you going to do?”

“Don’t know. A pro, perhaps. Or maybe just vent, you know, keep emptying the bucket. At this point, I’m not sure.”

“Doesn’t sound like you.”

“What doesn’t?”

“Just venting.”

“True.”

Another short silence, Harry still digesting the news. “Wow. I thought you had it all arranged.”

“So did I. Well, I did. I did have it all arranged.”

“She didn’t give you much notice, did she?”

“Actually, she told me a couple of weeks ago.”

“Ah.” And didn’t ask why Harman-Karman hadn’t told him before.

“And you?” said Harman-Karman. “You’re still, what?, going through with your staring it down bit?” A little more pointedly this time, a question hard to miss, or ignore.

Harry decided to hear. “That’s the plan.”

“Or lack of one.”

“Or lack of one.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Probably.”

“Definitely.”

“Probably.”

“The floating thing?”

In the end Harry had had to tell someone. Someone not his mom, that is, someone not a mistake to tell; at least one person. It was as if his decision wasn’t fully his unless at least acknowledged by another person. And that other person, though not spiritually inclined—far from it, in fact—and maybe not even a person who would, or even could, empathize with, or grasp, his two ascensions, was Harman-Karman.

To Harry’s surprise Harman-Karman hadn’t laughed. Nor had he quite understood, and had admitted as much, sensing that honesty was called for. But he hadn’t laughed. So, you’re a mystic, he said. I’m not so much into that. I know, is what Harry had replied. I know.

But even if Harman-Karman didn’t empathize or understand, he knew that Harry was sincere, and he respected Harry’s quirkiness, as he put it.

“Yes,” said Harry. “The floating thing.”

“I know you’ve given this a lot of thought,” said Harman-Karman, “but you know that it can’t be done, right?”

“I don’t know that. Yes, you’ve told me often enough, and I’ve read it often enough, and I’ve arrived at that conclusion myself often enough. But I don’t know that.” Harry stopped playing with his fork, and looked up at his friend.

Who said, “You’re crazy.”

“Well, I know that.”

“It’s what they do in the Bible. Not in real life.”

“You mean Kristus?”

“Yeah.”

“He wasn’t the only one.”

“I know, you’ve told me.”

“So you see, it’s not impossible.”

“It’s been impossible for the last couple of millennia.”

“As I said, I don’t know that to be a true statement.”

“I think it adds up to wishful thinking,” said Harman-Karman.

“Perhaps.”

“You’re staying here?” Harman-Karman, after a brief pause and some not too subtle scrutiny of his friend, indicated the house with his left hand. A gesture which reminded Harry of some actor whose name escaped him.

“I think so,” said Harry. “I don’t know.”

“I can see you’ve worked it all out to the finest detail,” said Harman-Karman and took another sip of his tea.

“Exactly. I’ve done absolutely nothing.”

“Well, if that’s your plan.”

Harry didn’t answer, was looking at something else. Then said, “It’s a royal pain in the ass, is what it is.”

“What is?”

“The whole thing, the Season, the rush, the mayhem, the confusion, the whole damned thing.”

“It’s mother nature, is what it is,” said Harman-Karman.

“She does have an odd sense of humor, does mother nature, or if not humor, an odd sense of I don’t know what.”

“I must admit I kind of enjoy it,” said Harman-Karman.

“I know you do.”

“At times, anyway. When if first hits you.”

“It’s certainly hard to ignore.”

“No, seriously. Don’t you like it, that rush, that, you know that surge when it first hits you?”

“I guess,” said Harry. “I guess I would if that was all there was to it. But I don’t like to vanish, you know. It’s like drowning, in a way. Once it’s risen all the way, once it covers you, when you’re in it, gone. Drowned.”

“I don’t really see it as drowned.”

Harry didn’t answer.

“To me it’s more like, well, fully charged. Like a battery.”

“Some battery.”

“I know. But, before that,” said Harman-Karman, “Before you drown, as you said.”

“Yes,” said Harry. “Before that. I agree. That can be pretty spectacular. Especially the smells. I love the smell.”

“I was thinking more about the surge.”

“I know you did.”

[*:*]

Harman-Karman refilled their small Japanese tea bowls with by now lukewarm tea, then leaned back, looked out over Harry’s back yard, though he found himself mostly looking at a reflected Harry lost in thought, at his long fingers resting on the table, slightly overlapping—should have been a piano player, Harman-Karman thought, and not for the first time—at his brown hair falling forward, almost into his eyes, at his dark eyes resting on but not really seeing his hands.

Vixer returned after a sojourn to the living room and mumbled a bit, still hungry, he said to no one in particular. Then nuzzled up to Harman-Karman who on reflex reached down and scratched the golden retriever some more behind the ears.

Harry stirred, “And you? Anything yet?”

Harman-Karman turned to face him, as if trying to decide who had spoken, his friend or the dog. “Scents?”

“Yes. Or sounds.”

“No,” said Harman-Karman. “Nothing yet.”

 

:: 6 ::

 

Lara sat on her living room couch, elbows on her knees and head in her hands, looking over at, but not really seeing, her backpack where it huddled in its hallway corner by the front door, all set and ready to go. Impatient to go.

She had packed it a few days earlier, just in case, along with enough foodstuffs to last her; asking herself all the while what on earth she was doing, she was not going anywhere. It’s just in case, she’d tell herself, just in case something totally unforeseen happens, and she would have to get away fast. It’s just in case.

And now, looking at it—or at least in its direction—twice she almost rose to get the food and rest of her things together and head out, away, back up into the mountains, back to water and trees and the safety of the glade.

And twice she didn’t, but instead closed here eyes and went scouring for things internal with which to buttress and reinforce her resolve to stay: her decision to prove herself stronger than, larger than, the need to run; being a coward if she did; memories from Arcadia Blue that sang Helpless, Helpless, and she wasn’t helpless, she was Lara West, her own, not helpless, not running away, person. And she would not, would not.

She looked over at the backpack again, which now seemed to wonder what on earth she was doing, procrastinating.

Shadow seemed to wonder the same thing, sitting on the floor looking up at her, right at her, not even blinking. Isn’t it time you got out of here, Lara?

“No,” she heard herself answer.

Shadow made no indication he had heard her, nor did he look away. Lara didn’t notice.

She would stay and she would face the Season down, right here. From this very room, from this very couch, from this very spot, with this very cat right there, looking right at her—now she noticed. She did not go back on her word, not even on word to herself. She had decided, and for better or for worse she would live with her decision.

She reached down to scratch Shadow behind his ear, but this, apparently, was not quite agreeable at the moment, for he moved away, backed up, just out of reach.

“Shadow?”

He didn’t answer, but continued to look at her.

“I’m staying, Shadow. I’ve told you.”

And if cats could talk—or rather, if humans could here them talk—Lara would have heard him mutter something about totally crazy. Then he turned and sauntered into the kitchen, tail in the air: he was not going down with her ship.

Her backpack, too, seemed bemused by her crazy talk, and pleaded with her, please, Lara, be reasonable. What will you possibly gain by staying down here? Let’s go back. Now. Besides, you know it’s impossible. It’s one thing to keep a lid on things in the glade with trees and still water keeping things at bay, but quite another to do it in the midst of a raging battle. The mist will reach you, it will devour you. Don’t you remember your first few Seasons? You thought you’d gone insane.

Oh yes, she remembered. Only too well.

But she was done running.

She rose. Followed Shadow into the kitchen where she made herself a light dinner, not too happy with her decision, not too happy about wavering, but satisfied nonetheless that it was the right one, and that she was sticking to it. Leaving the backpack to its objections.

 

:: 7 ::

 

Fletcher Jones did not keep his promise. Knowing Josh, his brother-in-law, would still be at work, he invited himself back to his sister’s for an early dinner.

“You get the fuck out of here, right now.” Sam, trying to close the kitchen door on her brother, was shaking, and on the verge of tears. “You fucking promised.”

“I know. I meant today, today would be the last time I’ll bother you.”

“You said never again.”

“I know. And I meant it.”

“So what are you doing here? Josh will have a fit.”

“Last time. Cross my heart and hope to die. Just a beer and something to wash down.”

Sam had been through this before. She was not strong enough to physically throw him out—Fletcher, though Sam had an inch on him, and probably weighed as much, was surprisingly strong: 140 pounds of malicious muscle. So in the end she backed off, even held the door open for him.

“Last time.”

“You know it, sis.”

Fletcher went straight for the fridge and grabbed one of Josh’s beers, snapped it open with a fizz which dribbled onto the floor. If Fletcher noticed he didn’t let on, or do anything to prevent it.

“You know where the stuff is,” said Sam, turned, and left for the living room.

Fletcher set out to fix himself a sandwich. In the living room, Sam turned up the television volume. A few seconds later she turned and said, loud enough for Fletcher to hear, “You may want to see this.”

The regular programming had been interrupted by the breaking story, already subtitled in gaudy red letters: “The New Season.” Fletcher appeared in the living room doorway, then leaned against the frame, beer in hand. Interested.

The reporter, Alwyn Moore, breathing hard from what seemed a mixture of worry and excitement—at least by her facial expression, or perhaps she had been running—spoke rapidly to the camera, while behind her a crowd had gathered to observe the goings on; some looking at the television crew, and at Alwyn Moore, others fascinated by the two lifeless bodies covered by blue paramedic blankets. Half-open mouths. Some pointing. Not excitement so much as allure. The camera swung back to the reporter. Who said:

“Thank you Lynne. Yes, several witnesses here at the scene have now confirmed, and the police officers agree, that this fight, as first suspected, was indeed Season related. Making this, as far as we now know, the first incident of the new Season. Tragically, it ended in two deaths.

And continued:

“According to witnesses, a white male in his thirties, apparently in early heat, had caught the scent of a black female and was tracking her when he was attacked from behind by a teenage black man, not much more than a boy, also apparently tracing the woman’s scent.

“The ensuing fight had no winner. The teenager died from what the police officers say are stab wounds to the chest and face, while the man died from loss of blood, possibly from a bite in his neck which may have severed the aorta.

“So, while we still, by the calendar, have two days to go, the Season has indeed arrived. And with it a taste of what’s soon to come. Back to you, Lynne.”

“Thank you Alwyn,” said the pretty blond talking head which anchored the KTLA evening news. “And good work, as usual,” she added in that phony way which always rubbed Fletcher the wrong way—smug fucking assholes. Then the anchor, as if as an afterthought, asked of her reporter, “Now, isn’t this a little bit later than last year?”

“Yes, Lynne. Last year we had our first incident,” she quickly checked a note to make sure, “on the 25th of February. So we’re two days off the pace this year.”

“Now, that incident, as I recall, was a UII, no one was killed.”

“I believe you’re right, Lynne.”

“So, this does not bode well.”

Alwyn Moore frowned briefly, as if deciding where to go with this, then made up her mind to follow her anchor’s lead: to be as alarming as possible. “I agree. This is not a good sign. Seasons that open with killings tend to be worse, as far as fatalities are concerned, than those that don’t.”

“My thought, too.”

“Though that is not a hard and fast rule, statistically.”

“All right, thank you Alwyn. And be careful out there.”

“Thank you. I will.”

The camera left her solemnly agitated face—the kind of face only TV reporters seem capable of—and again panned across to the crowd, catching other reporters, and their cameramen, on the way there. The crowd was shown whispering, shrugging, grimacing, and more pointing. For some—the professional bystanders—there was no better entertainment, and there were a few in every crowd.

Then the picture returned to the studio, where the KTLA anchor woman stopped watching her little monitor and instead faced the audience again. Sighed, as if to impart extra severity to her next words. “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, confirmed. The Season has arrived, and unfortunately with two deaths. Whatever your plans are, please do what you have to do to prepare. And take care.”

“Hal-le-lu-jah,” said Fletcher, and took another long swig from the can.

“This is terrible,” said his sister. “They’re right, I’ve read it somewhere. When the Season begins with deaths, the count goes really high.”

“What’s terrible about it? The Season is here, a great new Season. It’s nature, Sis. A new dawn.” And laughed.

“I wish you’d just get the hell out of here.”

“I will. I promise. You won’t see me again.” The added, “Soon as I’ve finished this beer. And the sandwich,” which he turned to the kitchen to finish fixing.

 

:: 8 ::

 

Harry’s phone rang. It was Harman-Karman.

“Are you watching?” he asked.

“No.”

“Well, it’s here.”

Harry frowned, took a deep breath, and closed his book. He did not put it down. Something uncomfortable shifted in his stomach, not really fear, but a distant cousin. “Fight? UII? Killing? What?”

“A fight. With a killing. Killings, actually.” Harry could hear Harman-Karman’s television in the background.

“And Season related.” It wasn’t really a question.

“Indeed.”

“So it’s here.”

“It’s here.”

“Still going to work tomorrow?” said Harry.

“Probably. You?”

He hadn’t thought about it. Did briefly. “I think so. I’m still a couple of days off.” Then added, “If nothing else, to wrap things up with my clients.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Then neither spoke for what could have been an uncomfortable while, but wasn’t. Then Harman-Karman said, “Good luck.”

“You too.”

Harry hung up and stared at phone for a while, as if wondering what it was doing there, exactly. Then stirred and looked up and over at his dark television set. He could see himself in it, book in his lap, feet resting on his leather ottoman. Looking back at the looker.

It’s here. Hell breaking loose again. It was not a comforting thought.

He thought about turning on the set, but didn’t, apprehensive about what it would show, hoping to keep the Season at bay by refusing to look, by refusing to acknowledge, by refusing to agree. Instead he opened the book again, found his place and tried to read on. And tried again. Looked up, then tried again. Couldn’t. He closed the book and put it on the table. Leaned back into his armchair.

He could feel his scent intensifying almost by the minute, filling him with a finer and finer texture of evening. Truth be told, Harry didn’t mind this part of it, at all. Enjoyed it, in fact. The sensation was intoxicating and expansive both: it was as if his sense of smell went from a faint black and white, or a foggy gray, to brilliant three dimensional color—what dogs must experience all the time, he thought. He closed his eyes, and by scent alone could locate the various things in his living room: in a way he saw the various things in the room via odor: Vixer, of course, by the front door, like a little odor weather system, hard to miss. Then there was the front door itself, reeking with the new coat of varnish—well, new and new, it was two months old, but reeking nonetheless. The windows, the glass panes—the steely smell of long ago sand. His plants, each distinct, each boiling with scent. The television set, which even when turned off seemed to emanate ions or electrons or something which smelled of second, third, or fourth hand electricity. The fireplace, the chimney replete with soot and its dark, noisy smell of long ago wood. To live in this aromatic universe all the time, no, he would have no problem whatsoever with that, not at all. Vixer stirred. A quick glance at Harry. A moan to say, yup, still hungry. Not too hopeful though.

To Vixer’s pleasant surprise, however, Harry got up, filled his food bowl—the greatest sound on earth—then fixed himself some tea.

Harry returned with the tea to the living room and after three more attempts managed to enter the spirit of his book again.

 

:: 9 ::

 

I often think of myself as Neutered. Neutered. As if it were a proper noun; a name and not an adjective.

Neutered.

Hey, Neutered, it’s time to eat. Turn the TV off and come and sit down before it gets cold. So what did you do today, Neutered? Did you hear what Neutered said, Grandma?

A name like any other.

Or better yet, as if heralding a long and hard to read novel about whales: Call Me Neutered.

I was raised in the shadow of Jesus Kristus. Well, that’s what Grandma said, “We are raised in the shadow of Jesus Kristus.” Actually, that is not what she said, she said we are raised in the light of Jesus Kristus, but since that light has since faded and become shadow-like, her words, too, have changed, so now I can hear her very clearly say precisely that, that we are raised in the shadow of Jesus Kristus: to the point where I can even hear me asking her what she meant by that, though I can never make sense of her answers. He casts a purging shadow, is one of them. A healing shadow, was another. Why shadow? I’d ask. And she’d just shake her head in that Ah, children will be children way that usually meant that time was up and that was it for me asking any more questions. Surely I must have been asking about the light, not shadow. Memory is a funny thing.

Either way, in the light of, in the shadow of, the Untouched. Is how I was raised.

Under the spell of, is how I think of it now. Under the spell of Grandma, of the Bible, of the Untouched. Under the spell of all of them, especially the Bible.

Her Bible, by the way, was very old, it had belonged to her grandma’s grandma (she was fond of saying). She pointed it out to me once: Printed in 1867, illustrated by Gustave Doré, a French artist whose pictures I really, really liked, much more so than the words if truth be told. Grandma told me—and Mom confirmed this, so it must have been true, for Mom usually got her facts straight—that her Bible, when it was first on sale in America was the most expensive book offered anywhere in the country. Well, of course it is priceless, she’d add. Priceless indeed. The priceless book under which spell I was raised. Though I guess I’m not alone, to be raised under the spell of a Bible I mean—though not this particular one, of course.

It tells you all about the Season, the Bible does. The Season is older than the world: that’s all in the Bible. The Season begot the world, that’s in there too—though that takes a little reading between the lines (which Grandma was quite the expert at when she wanted to, other times she was extremely literal).

And the Storm returns again and again and again to teach us.

To teach us what, Grandma?

Humility, strength, purity, she’d say.

The Storm serves a vital purpose say my teachers, and say the books in school. Without it we would cease, humanity would simply up and vanish—as would the animal kingdom, for that matter—would cease to procreate and so would be no more. Gone. Not in God’s plan.

If your parents—or grandparents—haven’t already spilled the beans, you’ll get the first mention of it in first grade. When you grow up, every March—is what the teachers tell you—every March you’ll feel very strange and you’ll need to find a girl (or a boy) and you’ll mate, is what they tell you. And it doesn’t really matter how much you ask how it is that you will feel, precisely, they will not answer you with any sort of precision; you’ll feel like mating they say. And then usually mumble: You’ll find out soon enough.

And mating is what, exactly? I wanted to know early on, always the one to ask, always the curious one. Always the one to make the girls giggle and make the boys seriously think of beating me up at recess.

It is how babies are made, is the stock answer. I must have been told this a hundred times. But how, exactly? No, not in first grade; they would not elaborate. Nor in second grade. Nor third.

[*:*]

Oh, did I mention we don’t really talk about my father much. At times I wonder if he even exists, or ever did, he’s been met with so many fates, at least according to Grandma. If I weren’t here I’d be sure he was nothing but a figment of her imagination. Fiction.

“We don’t talk about your father,” she’d tell me in confidence, whispering lest Mom would overhear.

“Why?”

“He moved away.”

“Why?”

“He was a bad man.”

“Why, what did he do?”

“He was a baker.”

“Is that bad?”

“No.”

“What then?”

“He didn’t stay.”

“I know. That’s the bad thing, right?”

She’d nod. Then, “He died.”

“How?”

“He was run over by a train.”

“How old was I then?”

“I don’t’ remember, three maybe.”

But this was one story Grandma never got straight: “He was firefighter. Died in a blaze.”

“He drove trains, he did. Drove one of his trains right off of a bridge. Oklahoma, I think.”

“He was one ugly man.”

“It was his good looks charmed your mother.”

“What does charm mean?” I may have been four then, building my vocabulary.

“Charm?”

“Yes. What does it mean?”

“It’s not a word Kristus used.”

Or, “They were on their way to get married when he was killed by a bus.”

Or, “He had promised to stay with your mother, but he left well before the Season was over. Last I heard he’s in Europe somewhere.”

Or, “He was a hunter. It was terrible. It was uninvited. But Kristus has forgiven her.”

And, often, “You mustn’t ask your mother, it’ll make her sad.”

“Would it make her cry?” Again, perhaps I was four, or five.

“Yes. It would make her cry.”

At eight I was so confused about my father I had to make her cry.

My father had been a hunter the Season I was conceived. A hunter who had promised to stay. A good looking hunter who had given his word to marry her once the Season was over. A good for nothing hunter who’s word was empty and foul. That’s when she cried, and said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

Of course, I’ve asked her again since, just to get it straight in my mind; time and distance tend to mend these wounds, and as I grew older Mom no longer cried at his mention.

A nice enough man, she told me, but as obsessed with the Season as the next one. He had promised though, and she had believed him. Believed that he really meant to stay. Would stay and protect her—he was man enough to, believe you me—would make her his wife. Had we known each other better, come to know each other off-Season, I’m sure he would have stayed, she told me. But that’s the way with the Season, it rarely takes wishes and plans into account; and it certainly ignored your father’s and mine.

“So what happened?”

“He stayed with me for eight days. When I woke up on the morning of the ninth, he was gone.”

“Did you ever hear from him again?”

“No.”

“But Grandma says,” I’d begin to offer.

“Grandma says a lot of things, she’d sigh. “Especially about him.”

[*:*]

Then Grandpa died and Grandma moved in with us. I was nine then.

And now I got daily doses of Grandma: You need to walk in the shadow (or light) of Jesus Kristus she kept telling me. You’re such an innocent child, you must strive to stay Untouched, just like Jesus Kristus our savior.

“Leave the child alone,” Mom would tell her, and Grandma would frown and not say anything back, for fear of saying something she’d regret, is what I think, now that she lived with us and all.

“Why wasn’t Jesus Kristus touched by the Storm,” I’d ask her.

“Because he was God’s son,” said Grandma.

“But we’re all God’s sons and daughters,” I reminded her.

“Yes, yes. That is true. But Jesus Kristus was his only son.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“What do you mean, child?”

“If we’re all God’s sons, and daughters, Jesus Kristus cannot be his only son. You said only son.”

“Never you mind what I said. What I meant was that Jesus Kristus is God’s only special son.”

“Because he is Untouched?”

“No, he is Untouched because he is special.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We’ll talk about this some other day.”

And some other day I’d ask, in a brazen mood, “So what’s the big deal?”

“What do you mean, child?”

“What is the big deal with being Untouched?” I actually wanted to know.

“Don’t be impudent.”

“I’m not. I don’t understand. Why is Untouched so important? Why is Kristus so important?”

And then she’d roll her eyes in her Ah, these children way and smile and lick her lips (which she did often, her tongue darting out like a little lizard is what it made me think of, the eye-less head of a lizard, before she was about to speak). Then she’d say that I’d find out for myself soon enough. But once I insisted, wanted to know now, really, what was the big deal?

“The big deal,” she said, suddenly stern and stressing the word big, “was that Jesus Kristus remained spirit in the face of the Storm.”

“Remained spirit?” I asked.

“His spirit, his soul, his true self, it never drowned, it was never touched by the Storm.”

“Remained spirit.”

“Yes.”

“And no one else ever did this?” I asked.

“No, no one else ever did this,” confirmed my grandmother. Proudly, like.

“Please,” said Mom from the kitchen, doing the dishes by the sounds of it. “You don’t know that to be true.”

“If you’d deign to read the Bible now and then,” Grandma answered back, loudly, in Mom’s direction. Then she looked back at me as if to say Mom didn’t know what she was talking about.

“What does deign mean?” I asked.

“Don’t you worry about that,” said Grandma, and in that voice which I recognized as ruling out further questions down that particular path.

“It means to stoop down, to do something below your dignity,” said Mom.

“Like what?”

“Like me reading the Bible, apparently.”

“Jesus Kristus was the only one,” Grandma insisted.

“There were others,” said Mom.

“There were others?” I said.

“Yes,” said Mom.

“That remained spirit in the Storm?” I asked. “Untouched?”

“No,” said Grandma, and with finality. “There was only Jesus Kristus.”

“There were others,” Mom repeated from the kitchen. Loudly, and equally certain, approaching.

“Don’t listen to her,” said Grandma. Which confused me at the time, since Mom never lied to me as far as I knew, and usually—as I think I’ve said before—knew what she was talking about.

“The Buddha for one,” said Mom, who now stood in the doorway with a towel in her hand and frowning at Grandma.

“A heathen,” said Grandma.

“The Buddha was Untouched as well, and there were others,” said Mom, looking directly at me. “That is what religions are all about.”

“There’s only one religion,” said Grandma.

“There’s only one religion for Grandma,” said Mom, looking at me.

“Don’t be impertinent,” said Grandma.

“What other religions?” I asked, meant as a question for Mom.

But it was Grandma who replied, almost shouting: “We are not animals. We are better than, higher than, stronger than, finer than animals,” she said, quoting the most expensive book to be sold in America in 1867.

I wasn’t looking at Mom but I could almost hear her shrug. Shrugged so hard it trembled the air, perhaps that’s what I heard. She didn’t answer my question, though. Instead she sighed, mostly for Grandma’s benefit, I think, and returned to the kitchen and the dishes.

But the question stayed with me. Others had stayed untouched, had stayed undrowned, others had remained spirit in the face of the Storm? Who were they? These other religions (as yet not brought up in school at this time—I was only in third grade, remember), what were they? What did they say about the Storm?

Grandma was obviously not the source to turn to for information. She lived with her Bible, or in her Bible, I thought, carried it around the place—even though it was huge. More like hauled it around. And then she’d sit down to read it in the most inconvenient places and at the least convenient times, was how Mom put it, as when Mom had people over. And that was very true, not convenient at all: Grandma would simply arrive, sit down in the middle of them and start reading, sometimes aloud. Please, Mom would say, Please, and that would offend Grandma, who then would sulk and go to her room and read loudly, very loudly, from there, making Mom roll her eyes a little, smile almost ruefully and apologize.

Some of my friends wondered—more than once—if my grandma wasn’t a little soft in the head, but no, she wasn’t. Odd, perhaps, I agree. A little. But not crazy.

And not a good source of information. I found my school library to be a much better one; it did have a small section on World Religions.

At first I thought of checking some of these books out and read them at home—there was The Life of Siddhartha Gautama, which was about the Buddha; there was one book called The Fundamentals of Baha’i, which I never got all the way through; then there was a long book called The Wonder that was India, which covered India’s many religions from the word go; they had two or three books on Islam, and one simply called World Religions—but I soon thought better of it. Grandma would somehow sniff them out, and that would be that, she would have a fit. And would also, as a result, more than likely cut my secret allowance as well (at this time I was getting $5 a week from Mom and another $5 a week from Grandma which Mom didn’t know about—or, more likely, pretended not to know about—a boat I very much liked and did not want to rock). So, instead I read these books at school, during lunch and recess, sometimes even after class, especially if I was in the middle of an interesting part.

I came to find out that Mom was right (as usual). The Storm was central to these other religions, too. Though there were other questions—such as who we are and where we come from—the always burning on was: how to stay spirit when the Storm arrives, how to stay unaffected in the face of it? How to not drown? This, although apparently impossible to do—the various religions differed on exactly how impossible this was—was the goal of all life. On this they all agreed.

Well, then, I thought, how would we procreate if we stayed spirit and were not affected by the Storm, if we stayed Untouched?

I asked Mom once, well out of Grandma’s earshot. Well, there’s wasn’t any risk of that happening, she said. No one was taking the staying spirit thing too seriously. In fact, she added, very few were taking spirit seriously.

So why so many religions then?, I asked.

To keep people from going too crazy, said Mom.

I told her I didn’t understand, and she said I would soon enough.

And then March would roll around and Mom would get all edgy and Grandma would lock herself in her room with her Bible, and I’d be sent away to that center again, or to some camp or other if Mom could afford a camp that year.

[*:*]

As I may or may not have mentioned, I endured my first Season when I was fourteen. That was a little late, apparently. The norm is thirteen, twelve is considered early, fifteen very late. So I was a little late.

When I say endured, and I mean it. I was sure I was going crazy, sure that I had in fact gone crazy.

I was at camp when it happened, Mom had enough money that year; or maybe it was Grandma—who did have some money saved—who paid for it. Either way, I woke up one morning from the most amazing dream and all I wanted to do was to go back into it.

And that’s when I came to realize why the camp-staff checked the beds each morning in the older boys’ dorm. My sheets were a little wet and smelled faintly of fish. I had not peed myself though, no, this was something else.

All morning I walked around in a daze, scratching myself—I was all hard and sensitive below, and for sure crazy—trying to find a door back to that dream and then Mr. Drew (I think his name was, and who, I later found out, was a neutered) came and got me. Told me that what I was feeling was natural, absolutely nothing to be afraid of, and that I was not going crazy or anything. It was the beginning of the Season for me, he said. It was all very natural.

Then he told me to go pack my things—yes, right away, please—and within the hour I was on a bus and on my way to another camp not that far away that did not have any girls at all anywhere and which had a very high wall all around it and where we were all told a lot not to scratch ourselves no matter what, which I did anyway, a lot. We all did. It was a month full of inexplicable dreams and an increasingly sore penis—from all the scratching we weren’t supposed to do—and I thought it would never end; though in a way I kind of hoped it wouldn’t.

Other times I wished for nothing else.

Then it did. End.

They had told Mom (and Grandma) what had happened, of course they had. There are laws about these things.

When I came home Mom said with not quite a smile: see what I mean? and was really nice about money for a while, and Grandma wanted to read me stuff from the Bible all the time now.

Then I turned fifteen, then sixteen, then seventeen, and then—it was a Wednesday—Grandma died. Mom was a lot more upset about it that I would have thought. They didn’t seem to get along most of the time, but I guess she loved her deep down and missed her. She was her mother, after all.

And then I turned eighteen and stopped going to camp during the Season. There are laws about that too.

It’s one thing to survive—yes I guess survive is the right word—it’s one thing to survive the Season in a camp where you have nurses, and pills “to take the edge off,” as the expression goes—and even injections to put you out for a day or so if you need them; it’s quite another thing to face the Season on your own, out in TRW as we used to call it in camp, out in The Real World.

I think I mentioned, too, that I was not very assertive, and that, you see, is a real drawback when it comes to girls. For as I said, when it comes to the Season there’s always competition, always. Well, for me anyway. And I always lost out. And I mean always. Usually all it took was one fierce look in my direction from one of those possessed—I thought of those brutes who literally would kill you if you got in their way as possessed—and I’d back off, slither back home to my room and vent for the rest of the day, or week.

And, no—and I think I mentioned this too—I haven’t copulated much, you know, with real women. Four times in all. I say real women, for there were very clever, almost life-like dolls at camp that we were allowed to use on occasion, and I tried that a couple of times. It’s like practice. Apparently nothing like the real thing, though, from what the other boys—those who had done it, or claimed to have done it—said.

Then I turned twenty.

And then I turned twenty-five and my Seasons had turned into murky, frantic tunnels from which I wanted nothing but to wake up. That year’s Season was sheer hell, and as soon as it was over I decided to get neutered. Handle the whole thing. Out from under it.

I didn’t tell Mom about it. I didn’t tell anyone about it. Just did it.

Mom cried when she finally found out. Looked at me for a long time at first, as if to decide whether I was kidding; when she saw I wasn’t she tried to smile, though not very successfully, then came over to me and held me very tightly for a long time. My cheek got wet.

But Mom being Mom, she soon got over it—or appeared to. There are worse things I could have done with my life, apparently; at least I was helping keep the place together, as she put it.

Well, it was partially that—for there were good jobs to be had for a neutered, pretty much guaranteed—but it was mainly to get away from the craziness; and, of course the money, I cannot deny that. They pay you handsomely for going through with it.

As for jobs:

Health care and police topped the list, but there was also sanitation and such jobs, much needed during the Season when no one else functions well enough to keep things afloat. Jobs like utility worker (keeping gas, water, and electricity going), emergency phone operator (one of the busiest jobs around), you know, jobs like that.

I didn’t much care for the garbage detail, especially considering the devastation of the Season, and I couldn’t see myself as a cop (you have to be assertive, or at least be able to give that appearance); but health care, yes. Sure, why not. They needed people to handle the March madness, and as a nurse I would do some good off-Season as well.

So nurse it was. And nurse I am.

[*:*]

Years ago, well, up till 1973, compulsory castration was still in force. You know, to make sure there were enough police and hospital staff and garbage men (sanitation engineers nowadays). This was done by lottery. Each year the Federal Government’s Bureau of Sterilization (FBS) would estimate how many additional neutereds they’d need for the next Season and by a lottery system (same as they still have in many European countries, from what I hear) so and so many were picked from here and there and then sterilized or gelded. Castrated is not a much used word.

This—though admittedly hard on those chosen—kept law enforcement (in particular) strong and also kept hospitals and other facilities well staffed, and as a result the Seasons back then were not as devastating as they have become—at least, that’s what I’ve read.

That all ended with the Federal Freedom of Choice for Americans Act of 1973 (FCAA) which although challenged by several states—Utah, Idaho, Texas, and Florida come to mind—prevailed and became the law of the land. With it forced sterilizations were outlawed and a voluntary system was put in its place. This worked well for a while, especially since, initially, a lot of money was set aside for inducements and such to garner volunteers. But then those appropriations grew smaller and smaller and by the 1990s there were little or no financial benefits in offering yourself up for sterilization, just a guaranteed job and some extra March bonuses. And with that, it naturally followed—and I’m surprised they didn’t see that coming—fewer and fewer volunteers.

This to the point where we had an almost catastrophic shortage of functioning police and nurses and so on during the infamous Seasons of 1999 and 2000—when the clean-up/restoration was not complete until August and September respectively—after which the financial incentives were hurriedly put back in place to go with a new, strong recruitment drive. There was even some talk at the time of reinstating mandatory sterilization along with the lottery. This was shouted down, however.

A chemical solution would be so much better, of course. Something that would eliminate the urge—temporarily or permanently—but, alas, they are still looking for that one, nothing eliminates the urge.

The only thing that actually does the job are those injections that put you out, to sleep, gone—it’s not for nothing that they call them sleepers. And that only for the day; if you’re to skirt the Season altogether, you need a sleeper a day, which is very not recommended, long term effects and whatnot; though those who can afford it, and who don’t care, do this anyway. We call them, you guessed it (not very imaginative, I know): Sleepers.

The only thing that actually does the job, if you’re to stay awake and function—said a recent article on the subject—is sterilization, and by that the writer meant—he made this very clear—the physical removal of the testicles. He then goes on to say, that if the testicles are in place, physically there, you will go into heat once the Season arrives, no matter what chemicals you try (short of sleepers).

So, sterilization it is, that seems pretty much proven.

The article concludes by informing us that the scientific consensus is that there will never be a chemical solution. Ever. There is only the neutered solution, and that’s probably part of the jokey nature of God or fate or whatever’s up there amusing itself with the poor human race. For their sins, as Grandma would have said (and often did say).

You understand, I’m talking about the elimination of the need here, of the smothering of the urge. For of course, as I’ve alluded to, there are many chemicals and other treatments, herbs and such, that will—or attempt to—lessen the urge, that try to make it bearable, or less unendurable, and so forth; to “take the edge off.”

Oh, my, yes. Commercials are full of them during the approach, but none of these soothers—as they’re called—work well enough when it comes to people like us, you know, nurses, police, garbage collectors, public service sector. Us keepers of things running. We have to stay unaffected by the Storm—despite the dull ache that replaces the need—we have to stay functional.

I should also mention the Equal Rights Movement (ERM), and by that I mean the 1960s movement where women demanded that the Government use them as well as men as keepers of things running. And they tried it—it’s well documented—especially for health care. Only to discover that even with the uterus removed, the urge still descends upon women during the Storm, and they remain affected, at least until after menopause.

So.

Long story short: Three years ago I took the plunge.

As I said, I was tired of it, of that crazy, hectic fog that never let up. Also, I kept wondering and kept wondering about staying spirit.

I read a lot (still do). And staying spirit is how they mostly put it. Jesus Kristus talked about it all the time, especially in his Sermon by the Sea, which Grandma often read to me.

She left me her Bible in her will, by the way. I’ve been reading it lately. It’s a beautiful book, and quite valuable by now from what I understand. Mom has told me to take very good care of it, it’s like a nest egg she says. That valuable.

Anyway, Buddha also talks about staying spirit, and his solution was not prayer (which is what Kristus mostly prescribes; pray to your Father in Heaven and he will protect you, and shield you from the Storm, and nurse your spirit, et cetera) but what he called floating or ascension, which can be confusing since it is the same word the Bible uses for Kristus’ return to Heaven, but what Buddha meant by ascension was the spirit actually floating out of (and I guess up from, hence the word) the body. And once out of it, it would be unaffected by Storm. Untouched.

Now, you see, that made sense to me, theoretically, even though I’m not all that sure that there is such a thing as a spirit to begin with; but allowing that there is one, Mr. Buddha made sense. More sense than Kristus, to be honest. And the more I read, the more curious I grew: could it be that sterilization would help you stay spirit?

So that was part of it—the decision process—as well: Staying spirit.

Adding up and tipping the scales: I volunteered. Had it done.

Well, as I said, you don’t stay unaffected. There’s the ache. True, you do remain functional, which is the what the government cares about, you’re no longer compelled—but you ache.

And as for staying spirit: Let’s put it this way. The Storm still enters you, you don’t stay spirit; but you can’t do anything about it (in a way it feels like your body’s gone apathetic about it and given up and no longer bothers you, just aches), and that makes you safe, and functional, which is the operative adjective here.

But the Storm remains: although losing your nuts muffles it, so to speak, it certainly does not kill or deflect it. It’s still there, inside you, you can feel it move and shift, but it’s like you’ve got a body-wide, month-long shot of Novocain, you can feel it but you can’t feel it, if you know what I mean.

[*:*]

I work at St. Mary’s Hospital. Not the original Los Angeles St. Mary’s, that one burned to the ground during the 2000 Season, no, I work at the new one in Pasadena, which used to be called Fenton Memorial until they won the right to use the name St. Mary’s in court two years ago—how can a name apply to ruins, with no plans for reconstruction? went the argument. During the Season I mainly take care of UII victims.

On my floor, I work with five other gentlemen sans nuts and two older women, both beyond menopause, all calm now—although they still flush a little during Season.

And they’ve already begun to arrive, the UII victims, some dead on arrival. One of them raped then strangled then raped again by the looks of things. That was a woman from Alhambra, not too far from the hospital. The bastards broke into her apartment and went to town.

The new Season’s here all right.

 

:: 10 ::

 

Fletcher Jones was in his element: In what he spent the rest of the year waiting for, looking forward to—like others do Kristmas: the all out fantastic urge and the more or less legal license to indulge it as much as you want or can. The freedom to open yourself fully, to give yourself up to it, to simply let go, let loose, and run where the Storm takes you.

To let the Storm take over and be you.

What could possibly be greater?

He was always one of the first to stir, as early as the 25th some years, and he usually lasted a little longer. Most years he was a few days into April before he finally subsided. He counted himself lucky. Very lucky. Made for this.

He left his sister’s house before Josh returned from work. Not that he minded the guy, or that he minded the guy minding him. Just a hassle that’s all. So he did as promised, finished the beer and the sandwich, then another beer: for the road, he said with a grin, and slipped out through the kitchen door. Into the back yard, over the newly painted fence—Sam’s husband was a painter, after all—and down the alley beyond. He had to re-arrange his pants to accommodate his erection, tried it this way, then that, couldn’t quite get comfortable with it, but what the hell, worth it. Just not used to it yet.

He stopped to fill his head with odor. He was in full and lovely bloom now. The scents were everywhere. He breathed them, sifted them, sorted them: the flowers from the trees from urine from dogs from cats from garbage from insects from grass, ground, earth, water, rust on those garage door hinges, searching all that time for that very special, for that very telling scent: the here I am, honey, waiting for you, waiting for you, come, take me. And sifted some more. But there was none, no honeys within his range. Well, it was early, but there were always early honeys too, just have to find them is all. Sniff ‘em out, as it were.

The alley led onto Walnut Drive half a block south of Florence Avenue. He sauntered north, looking about, sifting, sifting, sifting the odors as he went, alert to any hint of a trail, much like a predator. Well, he was one, wasn’t he? The thought appealed to him: predator, that’s what he was.

Once he reached Florence Avenue he turned left, feeling great, a real high this. Partly the beer, but mostly the hunting. At last.

Evening was coming on and the light was fading. Even so, he kept to the deeper shadows, smelling harder than looking, alert for tangy call signs. Keeping close to the wall, he passed an electronics store. Three, no four, television sets in the display window and all showed another fight, the second, or third, or fourth, or whichever, he wasn’t sure, he couldn’t hear the announcer. Then the news program broke for commercial. And now they were all Seasonal: what to wear, how to paint your lips, how to attract, entice, invite. How to find the right mate—you don’t want to go with the first available one now, would you? How to escape, how to defend, how to fight him off if he isn’t the right one; one of those. Fletcher had seen them all before, of course, and to hell with that. He was here, and ready, and very available, and if you’re ready too, darling, I’m not so sure you’ll have so much say in the matter.

Word about the first incident—and with it the Season arrival—had spread, and with it a change in mood. He could see it in people’s eyes—caution now, quick glances, uncertain smiles: March or not, the Season was here, or as close to here as to not make much difference. He could see it in their steps: a little more hurried. Even the buses seemed anxious to be on their way a little sooner for the doors began to sigh shut even before the last passenger was all the way on board. You never know. Maniacs on the prowl. Every Season: The Crazies.

There were hunters and there were crazies. Fletcher, of course, didn’t consider himself crazy, just lucky.

You could tell them—the crazies—if you knew what to look for: the thin anticipating grin; the empty, glowering eyes, hoodedly fixed on you, the prey; the breathing, shallow and fast; the heart racing loudly enough to almost hear; the sweaty palms; the crouch; the need, carved in his face, his features, his movements.

But close enough to tell a crazy from a regular hunter—not that you wanted to get in the hunter’s path either, far from it—for certain, well, that was far too close: that was the famous dilemma.

So, you take no chances: if he looks like a crazy from a distance, even vaguely, be wary. Turn aside, use the other sidewalk, use another street, take the next bus even if it isn’t yours. Shut the doors. Keep distance.

Away.

They warned about them in many of the commercial television spots, and on the radio too. Be careful out there had grown into a slogan over the last many years, you could hear it everywhere. Yes, most men, even the hunters, are good at heart, if a little, or a lot, too friendly, of course, but most will stop short of UII, if you insist, if you really insist. Most will.

Most.

But not the crazies, they will stop at nothing. Too blinded by the need, to driven by the Storm, they have been know to advance, and advance, and keep advancing despite the first, the second, the third bullet; pursuing—like a frenzied animal with blood on its teeth—until their harts find nothing more disseminate.

So, beware. Just take care out there, okay?

Pure sap. Fletcher was a hunter—a predator, he smiled again at the taste of that word—and proud to be one. And lucky.

The diesel from the departing bus stung in his nostrils. He had to turn away and cover his nose. Fuck, man. Two women with a little boy between them cast him worried glances as they passed. They seemed to know. He showed signs. Hugging the wall like that, and covering his nose, crouching, could only mean.

The two women exchanged quick, meaningful glances and hurried their steps. The little boy looked up at them, complained; he had to run to keep up, almost dangling between them barely touching the ground as he ran, each of them with one of his little hand in hers.

But neither of these honeys were ready, not even a hint of ready, so why so worried, ladies? Fletcher moved on, scenting deep rivers of air. Sifting, sifting for a trace.

He had almost reached Hooper when he caught it. Only a suggestion at first; blocks away to the south. He took another slow, deep breath through his nostrils: then there was no doubt. A honey all right, out and about, and broadcasting indeed.

Following the scent, Fletcher turned down Mace Place. It was stronger to his left and south. Over to Parmelee, and walking fast now with short, flexing strides, almost running, he turned south.

Same as the guy across the street, come from the opposite direction. Fletcher held up and slipped into a doorway. The other guy hadn’t seen him yet. But then he, too, stopped mid-stride, froze, and tested the air, turned to his right and spotted Fletcher soon enough. There was no hiding, not with this damn scent, and no way of turning it off either. You could smell the competition as loudly as you could the prey.

For several long seconds neither of them moved, one sizing up the other. The guy was not black exactly, but leaning in that direction. Black dad probably met a Mexican honey, something like that. Nor was he particularly big, which was a good thing, for Fletcher stood only five foot eight on a good day, with not much meat on him—though what meat there was was sinewy and mean. And he could fight if need be, liked to, in fact.

The other guy—heavier, and none of it fat by the looks of it—apparently decided he could take care of Fletcher if need be; unfroze, and set out down Parmelee again, daring Fletcher to follow.

Fletcher didn’t move for several more seconds. He was not in a fighting mood, not yet anyway, but the honey was close now, and clearly begging for it, and he was damned if he was going to give her up to some grease ball darkie. And then wished he had brought a weapon, a gun, a knife, anything, wondering at the same time if the other guy had.

He set out again, in the direction of the honey, keeping the other guy in sight, all the while scouring the sidewalk for anything he could use, a stick, a stone, and there, a piece of heavy gauge wire, a foot or so, in the street near the gutter. Fletcher picked it up and, with some effort—this really was heavy wire—bent it around is right hand: makeshift brass knuckles, with the sharp edges sticking out on each side. Would have to do. Certainly better than nothing.

The other guy cast him a glance now and then, not pleased. Was the guy armed? No way of telling. He should be more worried, Fletcher knew that, but with the honey so close.

She was watering the lawn of all things, in a back yard on 77th Place. In the rapidly fading light, almost dark now. Didn’t she know? Fuck, she must know. They all know, don’t they, when it sets in?

From what Fletcher could make out she wasn’t much to look at, not by any stretch, but not a complete disaster either. But then again, once the heat took hold, complete disasters did not really exist, did they? This one did have shapes, though, nice ones too. Full ones. Curvaceous was the word.

Then she stopped short, tested the air, and turned. Saw them, first the darkie and then Fletcher. Then she carefully put the hose down. Walked over to the wall and turned off the water. Slipped inside.

Moments later, her husband, man, boyfriend, brother, what have you, slid open the back door and looked out. “Get the fuck outa here,” to both of them, no more than ten paces apart now, “I’ve got a gun.” Showed it. Then slid the door shut, locked it, and drew the drapes.

The other guy spoke first, “This is fucked.”

Fletcher didn’t answer.

“She’s got company.”

“I noticed.”

“Wanna do him?”

Fletcher hadn’t thought of that, not yet. Thought about it now, though. And the thought appealed to him. But that would mean sharing the honey, unless he could take care of this guy afterwards.

“He’s got a gun,” Fletcher said. “You saw it.”

“So do I,” said the guy, and held up a 9 millimeter automatic.

“Damn,” said Fletcher.

“Well, you never know,” said the guy.

“Damn,” said Fletcher again. “Okay. Fuck, let’s do it. Let’s team this one.”

The guy nodded, and kept his gun out.

Fletcher picked the back door lock easily enough, and the other guy proved to be very talented with both ends of the gun. Between them they beat the husband, boyfriend, brother, what have you, senseless and then beat him some more, and then feasted, repeatedly, on the luscious, if not very good looking—especially in the much better inside light—honey over the next hour or so.

Oh, damn this was great.

And Fletcher didn’t mind sharing, especially not with someone who could do that much damage to a face with a pistol butt, in that short amount of time. She cried at first—they usually do, these spoken for lilies—but then could not help herself. She was in heat, all the way, and when it came right down to it, Fletcher had never seen a single honey who in the end would say no and actually mean it. She sniffled off and on between servings, but stopped once they got going again.

Oh, man, this was life: and it was absolutely fucking fantastic.

Once done, the little honey, or not so little—curled up on the big bedroom bed—kept moaning between sobs what sounded like ill over and over, which Fletcher finally realized must have meant Bill, probably the guy’s name. Bill wasn’t very pretty, and wasn’t moving so much either, no, not a bit.

Good luck with Bill, darling.

They let themselves out the patio door and left without a word to each other. In opposite directions. Different circumstances could as easily have seen them fight to the death. Not this time, though. Fletcher couldn’t help grinning. He just loved this. Just loved it.

 

:: 11 ::

 

Helen and her husband larry were watching the news. Susan and Brad were down in the den, not watching television, Larry had made sure of that: by unplugging it and carrying it up and out into the garage. Nothing on now for you guys, play your computer games or something.

“It’s coming again, isn’t it?” said Susan.

“What’s coming again?” her brother wanted to know.

Susan told him to shut up, as Larry nodded, yes, it’s coming again. But that’s not what he said. What he said, again, was “Why don’t you play your computer games or something.”

The news showed another fight. The fourth, the fifth, the tenth? Helen wasn’t sure. And here was the Season’s first UII.

The commercial breaks weren’t much better. God, she hated this. This blatant, such a damned blatant, what’s the word, exploitation, of the Season. It wasn’t as if you could do anything about it, but why on earth would you want to aggravate the situation? Some very shapely woman was telling her to wear a skirt that barley covered her panties because “If you don’t invite them, they won’t come.” A phrase, and supposedly clever double entendre, she recognized from last year’s campaign, as well as a lie and a laugh. She knew very well, and so did the idiots putting these commercials together, that they would come either way, invited or not. Couldn’t help but. It was the scent, not the view, that drove them. So why? Why this tripe? She looked over at Larry who watched the commercial too, with a puzzled not quite disapproving frown. “Boy, that barely covers her, you know. Won’t she be cold?” he said.

“Lara is staying this year,” said Helen

“What?”

“Lara is staying this year.”

Larry turned to face her. There was a brief pause while he put two and two together, and arrived at four. “She’s not taking off?”

“No, she’s staying put this Season.” Then added, “That’s what she says.”

Larry faced her still, tried to assess the significance of this, why was she telling him this? Helen could tell he came up short.

“I’m worried about her,” she said. “She’s never been around, from what she tells me. Not since her first few Seasons.”

“Where does she go?”

“She’s actually never told me. Just that she gets out of town, as she puts it.”

“That’s odd.”

“Yes it’s odd. She’s odd. But I like her.”

Larry looked back at the television screen, another commercial, as blunt and blatant as the next, selling God knows what sort of ointment or weapon—to defend yourself, mind you. Then he turned to his wife and said, “We should get Susan and Brad off to the center. Tomorrow, perhaps.”

“I’ve felt nothing yet,” said Helen.

“Me neither.”

“Then it can wait. Maybe Friday.”

“Probably Friday.”

Down in Florence, said the reporter—and damn if she didn’t seem happy about it—some woman had been subjected to UII. In her own house. Everything pointed to more than one perpetrator, for they had assaulted and nearly killed her husband in the process.

Larry shook his head. These things made absolutely no sense to him. Not yet anyway, since his Season had not even begun to stir. The frightening part, however, was that once it did stir, once it did arrive, these things took on meaning and were no longer entirely pointless. Not quite as terrible. Even carried some thrill.

He looked over at his wife who still seemed to brood on Lara not getting out of town this year.

 

 

:: 12 ::

 

Harman-Karman had not been entirely truthful with Harry. He had noticed things. If only the beginnings. His scent was, if not a whole lot, at least noticeably sharper. Nothing like Harry’s yet, but still, the cheese was a little more pungent, the wine a little more fragrant. He could even tell by scent there was a cat not far from his back door, prowling for something to eat, or chase, or kill. Not like Harry’s blocks away yet, but still, louder than yesterday, louder than this morning.

But more than smell—and this was an oddity with him: normally hearing was not much affected by the Storm, what mostly altered was the scent, of course, and sight, and to some degree taste—his hearing had sharpened considerably, for not only could he smell the cat, but the sounds of soft paws and nimble legs making their way into his back yard also reached him loud and clear.

It wasn’t just as if someone had turned up the volume. It was finer than that. His hearing grew discerning, tunable. He could direct and focus it, like others directed and focused their sight. It became hearing with very good binoculars. He could, for example, focus on that cat—who, by the way, had stopped moving now, and stood stock still, had probably spotted a mouse or some other rodent—and shut most of the remaining world out.

This, in his experience, meant his Season was only two days off, at most. And it meant, he told himself—now that his pact had fallen through—he would have to figure out what to do.

He turned on the late news. The official count was already up to eighteen. Twelve fights, six UIIs, plus an additional five arrests for stalkings and attempted rapes, not officially part of the tally. By tomorrow, he thought, hell will have broken completely loose.

And now that things had started, the media too—and he should know, he worked in advertising after all—would go crazy. For once a Season arrives, officially or not, and for the next week or so—after which the Storm will have gained so much hold that no one paid much, if any, attention to ads or commercials anyway—all advertising, well, virtually all advertising, will focus on one thing, and on one thing only: mating. Tomorrow’s papers will feature very few ads other than; and the television spots, already more frequent, feature nothing but.

And here came number nineteen. Another fight said the anchorman—that guy who shaves so closely, or so often, that his cheeks always shine (they could, should, fix that in make-up, he thought)—and not far away either, Gardena. According to witnesses, two teenagers had knifed and killed a third boy, apparently in a brawl over a woman in early heat. All three youths reportedly in heat as well. The reporter either didn’t have all the details or was withholding them, things sounded a little sketchy. Perhaps they were juveniles. Still, that brought the tally to nineteen.

The news now displayed what at first glance struck Harman-Karman as a scoreboard—damn, he looked again, it was a scoreboard—brightly tracing the figure nineteen. In very bad taste, he thought. And here was another commercial break: surprise, a mating spot.

Harman-Karman tuned it out.

The cat had apparently had enough of whatever it was chasing and was moving on. So the thing had outwitted him—and, yes, he sniffed the air again, he was definitely a male. Who said cats were smart anyway? Harman-Karman had a T-shirt that he liked to wear to piss his cat-loving friends off at times: picture of dumb, ungrateful cat, text below: “I am stupid, and I hate you – feed me.” His dog-loving friends approved, for the most part. His cat-loving friends not entirely sure how to take that.

He could hear this particular outwitted cat slink away along the side of the house and in under the garage. To lick its wounded pride, no doubt.

Another commercial: This one promoting a professional service bureau. Supplying both men and women of pretty much any legal age, race, color or creed, available by the hour, day, week, or for the entire Season should you so choose (offering special discounts for weeks and full Season—call for details). Did not come cheap, though. Harman-Karman (actually interested in this now that his pact had fallen through) surveyed their wares: long-legged white females, mainly, a few well built brutes in elegant suits. He recognized the outfit, one of the classier ones. In fact, they had been clients of his firm at one point, up until a couple of years ago. He didn’t know why they had parted ways, wasn’t his department, not his job to keep track of the comings and going of clients. But it had been a big deal at the time, when they left them for a New York firm. Someone, Wilson—yes, that was his name, cocky bastard—had got himself fired over it.

Another commercial. Which Harman-Karman watched with a detached professional interest. He actually had the habit of switching from one channel to another when a commercial break was over in order to find another one to scrutinize, evaluate, compare; something Harry—though he professed to understand why—just couldn’t get over: “You’re inverted, man, transposed.”

This one promoted an herbal adjustment guaranteed to “take the edge off.” Six weeks supply. A small fortune. Sloppy job, thought Harman-Karman and switched the channel. And again. And again. Odd that he couldn’t find another commercial; ah, they had discovered number twenty. Out and out UII. The woman not too badly hurt. The offender was a white male in his late teens according to witnesses, just a boy said some very upset neighbor who would not stop crying into the camera (which news directors for some reason he could not grasp deemed good for their ratings, always someone crying into the camera). Enough of this.

He turned the television off and listened for the cat again. Not a trace of him. Lots of other sounds, though: in the bushes, under the house—mice he reckoned—across the street, wind in the trees.

He glanced at his wrist watch, it was getting late, and he decided to call it a day. Did his usual round of the house to turn off all lights (except the porch light, which he turned on). Checked the windows and doors, then retired to his bedroom.

[*:*]

Harman-Karman had kept a journal ever since he learned how to write, and he was now on volume twenty-four.

True, you wouldn’t really call volumes one through seven “volumes,” precisely, they were more like collections of sporadic jottings housed by spiral bound notebooks of various colors and sizes. But starting with volume eight, which he began at age fourteen, he had turned more or less religious about it, and spent some time each day before he went to bed recording not only what he had done (which he sometimes even skipped), but, more importantly, what he had felt, thought, hoped, wished, desired, decided, you name it, during the previous twenty-four hours. One day, he kept telling himself, one day he would make some use of them, perhaps there was a novel or something in there, a memoir, something, some day, but for now, he kept jotting—as he sometimes thought of it, though not in public, where it was known as journal keeping.

Truth is, it had become a need, something that fulfilled him. His day wasn’t complete without it.

That is, each off-Season day. Come the Season, no matter how hard he had promised himself to keep the journal up, no matter what, he always missed some, if not most days. It wasn’t that he was unable to bring himself to do it, he simply forgot, forgot he was keeping a journal, forgot there were such things around as journals.

[*:*]

His bedroom faced his back yard. As did his small bedroom writing desk, neatly tucked in under the window. It was a sturdy thing, made out of oak and maple. He had bought it years ago with just this in mind: a place for his journal. A miniature sanctuary. With a drawer just large enough to keep it, and a surface just large enough to comfortably write it, it was the perfect accessory. He had found it at an estates sale and it had been like spotting an old, though quite expensive, friend across a crowd. Love at first sight, et cetera. It had served him well and faithfully ever since.

Now he sat down, opened the drawer, took out the book, and the pen; took a brief look at his reflection in the window, frowned at it, then looked down, and wrote:

 

H-K Journal—2/27/2008

The Season is here.

Twenty incidents so far, so we’re all underway. Ad-wise all hell will break loose tomorrow. Honestly, I wonder why we do it. It’s not as if we need reminding, or need prodding, or tempting. That’s amply taken care of by nature, who I believe has done a thorough enough job of it from day one. But, surprisingly, it does move product, there’s no denying that. And it does put food on many a table, mine included. So I’m not complaining, mind you.

There are two days to go till March—we’ve a leap years this year. My scent is stirring. And my hearing’s back. Heard a cat this evening. Clearly. So, I’m not far off then. A little early this year. Wonder if age has something to do with that? Whether you’re early or not. Got to check up on that.

Harry’s started up too. His scent. He can already smell for blocks.

I hope this Season will not be as violent as the last.

And this year I will keep this journal up.

Whatever it takes. I know I say that every year, but I will.

I will.

[*:*]

His journal closed with a soft whisper, more like a papery gasp at being shut so soon.

It was a thick leather-bound notebook of about five hundred, eight and a half by eleven, quality sheets—five hundred and twelve to be exact—which he had paid way too much for, according to Harry. But Harry didn’t keep a journal, and didn’t realize—although Harman-Karman had tried to make him see, and more than once—that this book meant as much to him as eating, as much to him as sleeping, as much to him as anything. It was something you just couldn’t pay too much for. Money and this book did not share a universe, they traveled different time streams. His hand rested on the book’s smooth, nearly black surface, cool and old to the touch. Confidant. Best friend.

Then he put it away in its drawer.

It was dark outside. All he could see in the window was his own face, his own mouth, and now his pen tapping his teeth as if he had suddenly delved into deep thought, which he really hadn’t, but it was an interesting pose, and one he liked to strike now and then. The pondering pose. Speculative.

Then he stirred out of it and let the pen follow the book into the drawer. He pushed it shut, rose, and went to bed.

 

:: 13 ::

 

The Storm—aware of itself, or unaware of itself, depending on your choice of philosophy, if any—was still gathering.

Was still stirring from its nearly year-long hibernation: exiting caves, crevices, rivers, lakes, swamps, earth, still rising from the glowing core of planet into ground level sky, into mist unseen; gathering and stretching and testing limbs and filling lungs. Ancient mass amassing.

Eager little forerunners—tendriled little stormlets—too happy to be alive again to quite contain themselves: free at last—had already shivered into independent life and slipped away to race across the deserts and mountains and fields and highways for the glittering ocean to the west. Eager to seek, to touch, to spark, to fill, to wreak.

Purpose? Does an unthinking thing have purpose? Does a thing that is purpose, have purpose?

It did not ask these questions, for it would never occur to it to question itself. Things were, had always been, would always be.

Storm.

 

:: 14 ::

 

As Harry drifted for sleep he thought he could hear—or if not hear, then sense—the Storm approach: An inland tsunami gathering beyond the mountains whose scouting tendrils, like trickles, were already reaching Los Angeles, were already touching here and there, setting things off: sparks heralding the Season, making television crews scramble to reach scenes.

He did not sleep well. His dreams were filled with odors, pursuit, and much killing.

 

:: 15 ::

 

Lara did not sleep well. Her dreams brought her turbulent rivers and inclement weather, rolling mists and hooded eyes, all in search of her.

And a vast gathering somewhere in a Kansas which was not really Kansas or where Kansas was supposed to be, but far to the south of there in mostly desert (where the Gulf of Mexico should be), though there nonetheless: a gathering on perhaps thousands of short, nearly non-exiting legs, collecting itself, gathering, gathering, gathering, and now slowly scurrying out for her. In it’s windy—no dusty; no misty—hands it’s got a much folded sheet of detailed directions, a map with arrows and finely-printed instructions leading directly to her, showing exactly where she was, and where she’ll go, where she’ll hide, it’s all on that map that knows what she intends even before she does, and which rightfully should belong to her but doesn’t, it belongs to the Storm, and the Storm is now studying the directions—then looking up and around for any telltale signs—then back to the map, intent on finding her.

And then her dream locks the door behind her, on the small padded room in Arcadia Blue, with a click, and then another click, with her inside, aching, as much from apprehension as from the sudden onset of fever. She has heard about the Storm, of course, and about the signs, of course, the feverish signs; the older girls will always talk about them in the spring and the younger girls will always listen in and pretend to know all about them as well. So far she’s been doing the nodding and listening, the pretending.

But several times these last few days she has caught the nuns leaning closer to each other, whispering, in small snakelike words—so she wouldn’t hear, but she did anyway—about how the Season (which really sounded like hissing) will surely visit her this year by the looks of things, and what should we do about it; but when she asks them what are they talking about, are they talking about her? Oh, no, not at all, dear—if they choose to hear—or no answer at all when they choose to pretend she wasn’t there and hadn’t said as much as a word.

Then one morning they come for her and with only the one answer to her urgent questions: “It’s time, my dear,” they put her in this small room, this padded little room which is more like a cell than a room with its high, barred window and no sharp corners, this little room which she knows is for girls in Season, with it’s blue and white door with a single wire-mesh enforced little window, and now they close this door behind her and turn the lock, twice—just to make sure. As if this girl needs extra locking up.

Then it starts, that same morning, or the following morning, memory seems deceiving, but it starts, and it starts from the toes up through her calves to her thighs up the inside of her thighs and all she can think about is to stick something up there, something big and pulsing and then ride, ride like a seesaw up and down and it burns even harder at the thought of that and she has to scratch and the moment she does the nuns—who observe her through the little window in the padded door—unlock the door, twice, and come rushing in, two or three strong ones, and they strap her down to the bed with leather straps not as well padded as the walls so that she can’t scratch and the burning, which at first felt kinda nice actually, intensifies and grows teeth and now rips rather than strokes and there is nothing she can do about it for she can’t move her hands now and she knows, she actually knows, that she is going crazy for absolutely and definitely sure.

And the gathering on its millions now legs and small feet feet feet with map in hand—a giant giant caterpillar with unkind eyes—knows she’s hiding in this little padded room in Arcadia Blue and even though she’s hiding in the past it knows how to follow her back there and into dream, and now it’s outside the door and rattles the handle harder and harder and she knows that if it enters this little room—the room so small, and this outside rattling the door thing so big—she’ll suffocate. She must keep it out of her little cave, her little padded cave with the still lake not a stone’s throw away and the tall impolite trees standing guard. And the burning knows no end, but she will not scratch. She will sit and watch the water ripple ripple ripple against the shore and she will listen to the wind talking to the trees and she will not scratch and she feels how the trees surrounding—though not really pleased she’s there—still, they somehow reach her, reach through her, doing their best to comfort her, to still the beating pulse, to soothe the burning, and the little padded door seems to hold the Storm at bay but she has no idea for how long, or if the trees are going to grow tired of keeping the Storm at bay.

Her eyes sprung open onto the hard to make out ceiling.

She had left the counter light on in the kitchen and it was now creeping in trough the small hallway and the little crack where her bedroom door stands not quite shut to drape with a not quite darkness the ceiling, the walls, the bookshelf, her dresser, her side table, her bed, her blanket, her hands, which she held up close to her eyes, five-fingered darknesses against the not quite as dark.

She was trying to decide, was she awake or still dreaming. Then she looked closer at her fingers, moved them, noticed them move and decided that she was indeed awake. Awake, hearing her heart still strain against her chest for escape. This was awake, that had been dream, a terrible dream, which she for a moment could not remember a thing about but then slowly did, the rattle of the handle, the little room—had it really been padded?—at Arcadia Blue. Something shifted outside. It was a tree, bending toward her window, touching it, not gently, like the trees in her dream, like the trees by her cave, reluctantly clearing the mist.

Oh, Kristus, she was insane to stay. She eased herself onto her elbow. Looked closer at the window, at the tip of a branch just outside, tap, tapping on the glass. And in the hallway she could almost hear her backpack shifting restlessly about by the front door, let’s go already, let’s go. She turned her head in that direction, made it out. Unmoving, but impatient. She eased back into the pillow. Closed her eyes. Opened them again.

She could make out the ceiling now, was the last thing she thought before she drifted off into dream again, another dream, this one not so unpleasant, alive with fragrance.

 

:: 16 ::

 

Some have philosophized—principally Heruclides, the Alexandrian, and Howe, his latter-day disciple—that each soul on Earth has its true and only nemesis in the Storm; that for each soul there is a precise and malevolent Storm counterpart, call it a breath, or a gust, a life even—or if not a life, a livingness—to match; that we are in effect born part spirit, part Storm.

Today, this strikes many a little far-fetched, and is something Modern Science—advocating as it does the gene theory—scoffs at, and in fact barely stops short of ridiculing even though the notion and theory of malevolent Storm counterparts is found not only in past religions but in past—and some current—philosophies as well.

And for good reason, for there is in truth no single soul on planet Earth who is not touched by the Storm, and touched by it in a personal and precise way; each soul quite convinced, once touched, that his or her private dreams—those seldom or never spoken, or shared, dreams; those not even articulated but dreamed nonetheless—that his or her hopes or thirsts or desires would be fulfilled if only, if only: and here the connection severs, for logic cannot bring itself to take the final step, or leap: would be fulfilled if only they would copulate? For that is the private promise of the Storm: I will complete you.

Viewed in the calm, off-Season, light of day the Storm’s many personal promises make little or no sense, they simply do not logically add up; for why should, or how could copulation be the answer to one’s personal dreams and wishes? It simply does not follow.

Then again—and this is a crucial question—why is it then, that once the Storm arrives, they all, all these individual longings and promises, spring to life again and so beautifully and forcefully bridge this chasm in logic: Yes, copulation is the answer, after all. If only. If only. And now it makes perfect sense.

This large, stormy, beautiful calling that explains everything by never explaining anything.

For the Storm, once arrived, once it enters, grows larger than logic, dwarfs logic and promises the illogical with impunity—and for that fleeting orgasmic moment seemingly delivers.

In this light, the Storm could be viewed as para-logic, if you will; many do.

Add to this that once the Storm does arrive, honestly, who cares about logic anyway? When all one’s inmost dreams and goals are so within reach. So near, so close, so touchable, if only. When no dream seem to fall outside this need, this need to. This all encompassing need to.

How does it know? This perfectly matched counterpart, this misty mirror of the soul. This personal twin demon. It has never been proven it isn’t so. Though, for that matter, nor has it been proven it is.

And that is the problem with philosophies like ours: they are so finely and nebulously spun that truth turns unclear.

Whether the Storm consists of individually matched Stormlets, or one single broadly compelling force, much money and effort is spent each year trying to determine its true source. In part out of scientific or philosophic curiosity, but also with an eye to perhaps discover a “cure,” a defense, to discover a choice.

But it is nigh on impossible to track something you cannot physically see (though many do claim they see it each year). It is not like the Storm is a fog that crawls up from marshes and lakes to fill forests to then slink down mountains—even though that is, precisely and paradoxically, how it is most often described by those who claim to see it: as a milky fog.

For the rest of humanity—that don’t see it, if indeed there is anything there to see—it simply arrives, tracelessly, each year, as if invisibly rising out of the Earth or falling from clouds as unseeable rain, or, as some—the lunatic fringe—maintain, ooze out of television sets.

Perhaps it makes its home on the moon (a widely popular notion in the late eighteen hundreds) to shine down upon a defenseless Earth come the Season. Maybe it is part and parcel of the Earth itself, sublimating once a year. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

But since it does indeed arrive—and no one disagrees on this point; since it does have destination, it must it arrive from somewhere: another thing agreed. And that is why, even though you can’t see it, even though you can only testify to its existence by falling pray to it, the prevalent aim both of science and philosophy, though they approach the problem from different angles, is to trace—or claim to trace (some, it is often and publicly alleged, receive considerable funding for doing exactly nothing)—its source.

Many West Coast philosophers hold that the Pacific Storm most likely gathers in or around the mountain states: Utah, Colorado, and spreads west from there. East Coast philosophers claim other sources: Georgia, North Carolina, even New Jersey, according to some.

A smaller, but at times very vocal section of the West Coast philosopher fraternity is still of the once popular out-of-the-sea persuasion. But that, according to majority consensus, is only a convenient (but far from true) explanation, the Pacific Ocean being so near and so handy and often so foggy, especially at that time of year.

East Coast philosophers mostly argue about whether the Storm arrives from the center of the continent, coming at them from the west, or from Canada in the north, or out of the Atlantic to the east. Most of the northern states—Vermont, the Dakotas, Maine, Idaho, Montana—seem convinced Canada is to blame for our March troubles. Often not jokingly.

Canadians favor the North Pole, or the United States as the malignant source—malignant in the philosophical sense of clouding judgment and logic.

Many have set out to end speculation and find its source.

Many may. Endless expeditions, each freshly funded, freshly enthused, setting out to positively, finally, and beyond all question establish the source of the Storm.

For everybody—except, of course, Modern Science—agrees: It has to originate somewhere. It has to, since it does in fact arrive. And anything that arrives has to originate, ergo: it comes from somewhere. But how do you track that which is both trackless and invisible?

That is the question.

[*:*]

At least the philosophical question, for today the world holds two major views.

The philosophical view: The Storm has, must have, a source, or many sources; or as someone recently put it: it is a single lung with many nostrils.

The modem scientific/popular view: It’s nature. Plain and simple. It is how we are made. And this is what children are now taught in school: It’s in the genes, we’re programmed this way. We have an internal alarm clock that sparks and fuels it, set roughly—or precisely, depending on whom you believe—to March 1st and which then keeps alarming for a month, before returning to sleep.

No Storm, no mists, no origins; all genes.

However, it has to be pointed out that this view, courtesy of Modern Science, though it is now the Federally mandated view (each State has some room to maneuver when it comes to the finer details) and taught in most schools—is the latest theory to join the fray, for the gene theory goes no further back than fifty odd years.

Prior to this, the Storm—regardless of whom you asked—was never anything but variations on miasma, on mist, on fog, a physical (though invisible) gathering of an alarming poison—or blessing, some held—that came from somewhere (external to us) and returned to that same somewhere (still just as external to us) at the end of the Season.

And despite the legally mandated inroads of Modern Science, this earlier, this more primal view, is still extant; mostly for the excellent reason that so many still believe it to be so, and so many, each year, claim to see it, this invisible thing. Claim to see it coming; claim to see is rolling over the mountains to the east and north of us and spill into the valleys below.

See it slip into the cities and houses and lungs and being of every citizen alive. Feel it enter and fill their own blood and hearts and minds and at first whisper then talk then scream.

This Seasonal mist, this miasma, this Storm.

And for the excellent reason that for the many—according to recent, though not very widely published, surveys—it still makes sense.

 

:: 17 ::

 

When Larry Suffolk was a kid back in St. Louis—he grew up in Richmond Heights—one of the most persistent myths among boys his age was that apricot juice, liberally applied—no, not drunk, applied—would give you a manly erection even if you had not yet seen your first Season, would kind of artificially induce it, even if short-lived. Well, he had tried it by the gallon. Had literally showered in the stuff. Had been a load of bunk.

That’s why he laughed over the morning paper when, yes, apricot juice: our special apricot juice will enhance and prolong your erection—and stamina—by, say a factor of three. It may very well stay up all Season, was the tag line. He shook his head. Chuckled some more. For one, it usually stayed up all Season anyway, and for two, he flashed back on those many allowances he’d blown on the stuff, apricot juice.

“What’s so funny?” Helen wanted to know.

“Ah, these ads.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said, though she didn’t. He wasn’t sure whether he’d ever told her about the apricot juice or not, and now didn’t seem to be the time.

“Anything?” she asked, in a different tone of voice, and by that he knew exactly what she meant.

“No.”

“Kids stay then?”

“You?”

“Nothing yet.”

“Yeah, they’ll be all right today then.”

“We’ll take them tomorrow,” said Helen.

“Tomorrow,” agreed Larry, and turned the page. The entire spread was Seasonal ads. Creams by the dozen: to make it softer, harder, slipperier, warmer, colder, longer, shorter, and all these implements, who dreamed them up? And who could take them seriously enough off-Season to design and manufacture them?

Turned the page again. Another spread. Seriously. Services: Trained neutereds will watch your children, will watch your wife, will watch your house, will watch you. Another section: and these professionals were not neutered, in the least, and they would really take care of you. Nothing hidden. At all. Would you look at that. Were those models or real employees of the agency?, Larry wondered.

Next page, and finally some sense of the normal. People were still buying and selling stocks, apparently. Well, they did try to keep the exchanges open straight through, and mostly they succeeded. It was all automated now, of course, but even the best of systems break down and with most of the technicians in heat, yes it had happened, he remembered, two days a few years back—was in all the papers—when it all came to a standstill, not that many had cared at the time, or noticed. The real trouble had been to get it up and going again.

“They should train some neutereds to run the stock exchange,” he said, not quite to himself.

Helen turned from the stove to face him. “What’s that, honey?”

“Oh, nothing.”

She gave her husband a long look before returning to her cooking. “Susan,” she yelled, “Brad.”

“Kristus.” Larry jumped at the sudden burst of voice. “What are you trying to do to me?”

“Sorry.” Then back toward the open door, “Susan. Brad. Breakfast.”

Susan arrived first. “There’s a lot of stuff,” she said, to no one in particular. As if she couldn’t believe it.

“What do you mean?” said Larry, putting his paper down.

“On TV, they say the count is now in the hundreds.”

“I don’t want you watching that stuff,” said Helen.

“There’s nothing else on,” said Susan.

“I’m sure there’s something,” said Larry.

“There’s cartoons,” said Brad, helpfully, “but Susan changed the channel.”

“I’d seen it,” said Susan in that voice that among siblings means, you just wait until we’re alone again, “a thousand times.”

“All right you two, sit down,” said Helen, and put the platter of scrambled eggs on the table.

“No milk, right?” asked Brad, who claimed he hated scrambled eggs with milk in it because Jimmy down the block, who was six years old as well, but a lot stronger than Brad—proven several times—said that milk was only for babies.

“No,” lied Helen.

“Excellent,” he said. Jimmy said “excellent” a lot.

“When are we leaving?” wondered Susan.

“Not until tomorrow,” said Larry.

Susan, helping herself to the orange juice, didn’t answer, and instead wondered if there was any toast. Helen said she was making some right now, hold your horses.

Brad dug into his scrambled eggs, happy they were milk-less.

Larry returned to the paper.

The toaster sprung to life and served up a couple of golden and brown slices.

 

:: 18 ::

 

Fletcher was hurt.

He had made it back to his sister’s garage sometime before daybreak, but only barely, unable by then to put any weight at all on his left leg. It was his damn knee. The bitch had kicked it hard, really fucking hard, so damned hard in fact she had almost bent it the wrong way. Could have cracked the kneecap. Maybe she fucking did. Something had cracked. Well, something had sounded. He sure as hell hoped it wasn’t the kneecap, but damn, it hurt.

Hot and swollen it drummed with pain, big fucking mallets of pain. He sat down on the couch and tried to pull his pant leg up to have a closer look, but the damned thing was too swollen now even for that. Instead he eased his pants down, as carefully as he could, and fuck that hurt.

And there it was, like some angry fucking ball, discolored and screaming: each pulse a detonation of pain. He forced himself to take a closer look, to touch it despite the pain. Had to, had to check the cap. Felt the surface of it, and from what he could tell, it was intact. Something else then had made that noise, ligaments or something. Who the fuck knows. All he knew is that something was terribly wrong. He had to get to a doctor. Fuck. No question about that. He grimaced, and pulled his pants up again. Set the knee off ever worse. Jesus. He had to get to a hospital. And it was too early to wake Sam. Besides, he had promised her he’d stay away, really promised her this time; yes, Sam, for sure this time, I promise. Cross his fucking heart and hope to fucking die. Well, he was hurt now, wasn’t he? And she was his sister, wasn’t she? Where else could he go? To a hospital, that’s where, he answered himself, and the sooner the better. Then he actually tried to stand again, as if he were going to walk there, this instant, but the pain brought him back down onto the couch. Near enough made him faint. Jesus. He sat motionless for a while, holding on to himself riding out the pain, and sitting still like this it subsided a little.

Despite the fucking knee, he couldn’t help grinning: man, she’d been a real honey. And wanting it too. Wanting it badly, her scent boiling with heat. She’d been in full bloom, no question about it. Not exactly what she said though, and boy did she put up a fight, broke his damn knee for crying out loud. But he’d gotten the better of her in the end, and by then there hadn’t been too much in the way of protest either. Just a pretty wild one, despite herself. Always happens, that’s how they all get, despite themselves. That was the beauty of it all. For once you get going, who can stop? The problem was getting them started, that always seemed to be his problem. Getting them started.

In the end his knee had screamed at him to stop, hurting like hell by then: a fire in his leg, screaming. Which had brought the fight back, and her kicking it, and for good measure he rearranged her teeth a little to get even. Left her whimpering and bleeding. That’d teach her. Cut his knuckles a little on her teeth, though not that badly.

His erection was still going strong, of course, and despite the pain; he had to smile at that too. Through thick and fucking thin is how he thought about it, once it got going. Through thick and fucking thin. Get it? He didn’t much care about their shapes, thick or thin, as long as they were in heat, and not strong enough, or armed enough, to fight him off. Through thick and fucking thin. And proud of it. But this damn knee. He looked out the small garage window and across to Sam’s house. The kitchen was still unlit, so she wasn’t up yet. As soon as, though, she’d have to take him to the hospital. Have it looked at.

Then the night gave him everything it had and his exhaustion finally took over, lowered him another notch and he managed to fall asleep. Just as he was sitting, erection still going, through thick and fucking thin.

A burning knee with an odd erection is how the strange dream saw it before it lowered him into the darker waters below.

 

:: 19 ::

 

The official tally in los angeles county—and now they were only talking UIIs, the anchor man wanted to make sure that you appreciated this fact: only successful UIIs (as if the two words belonged together)—stood at a now confirmed two hundred and twelve.

“Attempted UIIs and Season-related fights have now escalated beyond any reliable tally. The last figure we had was close to eight hundred.

“Since law enforcement officials now tell us they can no longer provide reliable numbers, we have already reached the point of limiting the tally to UIIs.”

Here—while the neon-lit digits 2-1-2 display behind him—he pauses for grim effect.

“This, then, although March is almost a full two days away, is a Season in full swing. Let go to our lady on the spot, Alwyn Moore. She is with Edward James, of the UII emergency unit at St. Mary’s Hospital in Pasadena.

“Alwyn?”

“Thank you, Rick. Actually, it’s Edward John. He is in charge of the UII emergency unit at St. Mary’s Hospital here in Pasadena.” She turned away from the camera to face a short, thin man in hospital greens whose blond, receding hair needed trimming. The bland, almost beardless, face of the clearly neutered looked first at the camera then at the microphone then at the reporter with a frown that said that he really should be somewhere else right now, would this take long? “Doctor John, is not this UII count unusually high this early into the Season?”

Harry, one eye on the paper, one eye on the screen, tried to estimate the age of the good doctor; he was old enough he decided, but still couldn’t make up his mind whether the doctor had been neutered from birth and groomed by then existing law for doctorhood, or whether he had volunteered later in life. The man looked so thoroughly neutered. Still, he came down on the side of volunteered, though he couldn’t say why. Then he changed his mind. What he had assumed to be a faint stubble turned out to be shadow, his smooth cheeks plain now that he shifted a little—no beard at all, not even a hint of one, so, probably from birth.

“I haven’t kept track,” he began.

“Two hundred twelve,” she informed him. As if this were good news.

“Two hundred twelve?” repeated the doctor. Not thrilled, not interested. He looked behind him, over at the hospital doors, almost longingly. He had to get back, really.

“Yes.”

Back to the camera, then the reporter. “Well, if that is an accurate count, it does seem high to me.” Then added, “It is a big city.”

“So, what does this mean?” she asked, ignoring his explanation. “Does it not seem to you that each year the Season starts a little earlier, and a little more violently.”

“I believe we had an earlier start last year.”

“It started on the 25th last year,” the anchor interjected from the news desk.

“Sorry?” said Alwyn Moore and looked up into the camera, a small frown, annoyed perhaps at being interrupted.

“The 25th, last year. It began on the 25th last year.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you, Rick.” Then turned back to the doctor. “The 25th, last year. Yes, you’re right. That was a little earlier. But not so violently, wouldn’t you say?”

“I don’t know. Possibly.”

“What do you think that means?”

“What does what mean?”

“The increased violence.”

“I’m not sure what it means,” said the doctor. “I’m not sure it means anything. I’m not sure the violence has increased. A few years ago, if I recall correctly, we had over four hundred incidents within the first twenty-four hours.”

Alwyn Moore looked back at the camera. “Rick?”

A short pause. Then the reply, “Four hundred twenty-six.”

“Four hundred twenty-six,” Alwyn Moore repeated for the benefit of the doctor. “But as you pointed out, that was within the first twenty-four hours. It hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet since the first incident.”

“Right.”

“So we have till this evening.”

“We have till this evening for what?” wondered the doctor.

“To surpass four hundred twenty-six. Do you think it can be done?”

“Perhaps. At this rate, perhaps.”

“Would you call this alarming?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Not even a little?” To Harry she sounded disappointed.

“Perhaps.”

“So it is alarming?” Hopeful again.

“I don’t know what it is. Alarming may be the wrong word.”

“But would it not be alarming if we surpass four hundred twenty-six by tonight?”

“I guess.”

“So this is an alarming trend?”

“Perhaps.”

“Yes, or no? Would you say?”

“Yes. Perhaps.”

She turned to face the camera. “There you have it, Rick. Looks like were coming in stronger than usual. Back to you.”

“Thanks Alwyn. And I apologize to you Dr. John. Sorry about that.”

Fed up, Harry killed the television (which died with a hiss) wondering if they had their figures straight. He thought back to the previous Season, but couldn’t remember the specific dates. But it always started like this, late February, and always with a rash of UIIs like this. Was it worse or earlier than normal? He wasn’t sure. They always tried to make it worse than ever before. That’s one thing he did remember thinking last year, and the year before that. Then again, that was their job. Havoc sells. Isn’t that what Harman-Karman keeps saying? Havoc sells.

Harry watched the dark television screen, havoc sells.

Vixer’s wet nose touched his hand in that “feed me” way of his, or was it in the “are you okay?” way of his? He looked down to meet doggy eyes and they were feed-me eyes, yes, definitely—getting, as he often did, the sense that his dog was trying his hardest to keep a straight face, to fail at it in a burst of silent dog laughter the moment Harry turned his back. Vixer had him well trained, there was no doubt about that. But there were no thoughts of feeding him just now, instead he scratched him behind the ear and then patted his nose, which apparently was just the kind of food he’d craved, for Vixer closed his eyes and contentedly wagged his tail four times and then sauntered over to the door, slumped down, and curled into a comfortable study of happy dog.

With the television off Harry could hear the wind outside, stronger today. The two oaks in his back yard were whispering among themselves, now and then shuddering as if at scandalous news.

Then, beyond the wind, he thought he could sense the approaching Storm again, the main system, far away still, but large enough and violent enough now to rumble, to softly shake the earth, even at this distance. He could hear it, could sense its horde of scouting fingers already arrived, touching here and there, setting things off, two hundred twelve things by latest tally, while the mother ship gathered strength somewhere beyond the mountains, gaining speed, heading for them, for him particularly, for him who had the nerve to object, to challenge, to think there was something he could do to stand up to it, to face it down, to stay untouched, refusing—the impudence of it, it would deal with him soon enough. It would find him, would fill him, would bend him, crush him. Well on its way to do exactly that.

While the room shuddered with scent.

 

:: 20 ::

 

Much as Harman-Karman had predicted, the morning paper was an orgy of Seasonal ads, including three special supplements. Much the same on the television.

He leafed through the paper and the supplements, with an eye to layout, design, and potential impact, judging the competition and mostly giving them the nod. He himself had not been involved with Seasonal ads this year, something he was quite happy about, truth be told.

On the whole, pretty civilized, he concluded. But give it another day or two and they all shout their various offerings, one ad louder than the next.

He gathered the paper and threw it in the trash. Well, toward the trash. Most of the paper ungathered enroute and hit the floor instead. A sigh. He picked it up and dropped it in the trash this time. Fixed himself something to eat. Looked out. Overcast. Odorous. Windy.

The cat—whose cat was that, anyway?—was moving outside again. And there were tiny spasms below now. Jerkings. As if his penis was stirring from a long and satisfying sleep. Getting ready. Things gathering. He recognized this. He was not far off.

The cat pounced on something.

 

:: 21 ::

 

Lara woke uneasily. Into a gray room that spoke of an equally gray day outside. And a windy one. She could hear it rustle the trees now and then and sing the telephone wires. The room was cold and she did not feel like stirring from under the blanket. She was gathering her thoughts, her self. Awake.

Into relief: she had been let go of, and by something large. Something large that in the end had acquiesced, opened its fist and let her out, back into the world of the awake. A dream.

A deep, grim, dark, demanding thing that only occasionally had let her sink below it into respites of real sleep. She had been aware of dreaming, and those are the worst, when you know you’re dreaming, but you can’t wake up. Not a nightmare, more like an uncaring alternate reality with all its doors locked unopenable.

She shifted slightly, found a comfortable spot, looked toward the window and the shifting branches outside. Didn’t really see them though. Instead, she tried to recall what, specifically, it had been about, the dream; but now—shifting her unseeing gazed up into the off-white, finely puckered ceiling, she could not gain a hold on even a fraction of it. All she found was what it had left behind: a hole in her chest, thirsty it said, for something missing. And gone without a trace.

Well, to hell with that, she said finally, and aloud. This is ridiculous, and jumped up out of bed and into the shower, where, once her mind was off of it, the dream suddenly returned, and with such force that she could hear it rattle the handle to her apartment door.

We have to get out of here! That was her backpack from the hallway, a Piglet very afraid now, and pleading with her to come to her senses, right now, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. We do not want to explore this particular woods, Pooh, we want to go home now. A warm bed, and honey, think of honey, Pooh.

But this Pooh had made up her mind. She would explore this woods, she would not run away this time. Her resolve reclaimed the upper hand and as she let the hot water wash away the strangely palpable thing that must have been dream, she felt her resolve grow stronger, then into comfort, then into certainty that this was her own decision, this was her doing, not the demand of the onrushing Storm. It was her choice. Her will.

And that was exactly what was at stake, wasn’t it? Her will. Her decision. Her own determination. Her soul.

She dressed, grabbed a quick breakfast and left for work, satisfied that she was doing the right thing. Dismal day though.

 

:: 22 ::

 

As if aware of man-made borders, the Storm halted for a moment along the California-Nevada line. Resting atop and smothering the towns of Beatty, Goldfield, Tonopah, Hawthorne, and Carson City.

A breather, perhaps. A short break. Taking inventory and regrouping for the final assault: its annual mission. All the while dispatching flocks of scouting tendrils for the coast to herald its coming.

Towns and cities already smothered enroute now lay shaking in the throes of bloom, as part of the Storm remained to fill and dictate—to be gathered up on the way back—while the main body not so much moved as expanded for the coast.

The winds were favorable, the atmosphere electric with its coming, the Earth expectant, massive mating imminent.

And having rested a while, all inventoried and regrouped—all parts in unison and ready to move on—the Storm sets out again, at speed now and eager to arrive, crossing the border into California.

 

:: 23 ::

 

Lara stepped outisde.

It was not far off, she could tell. It was a ripple in the air, a warning. Like a very low note that only she (she assumed) could hear. A precursor pressure wave telling of something very large rapidly approaching. Tall, wide, vague, misty; but substantial enough to disturb the air and send ripples ahead of it. Yet, it wasn’t the air that moved. The wind had died down and the air outside was now still. This ripple traveled some other ether.

She knew what it meant. Had felt it before: the approach.

She should have been at the glade by now, away from people, all these people, back among the trees. Her reluctant guardians, is how she saw them now, relieved perhaps that she wasn’t coming. This disturber of their peace.

But hearing again the low rumble, this warning, feeling this ripple, now she wished she had left after all.

Well, listen, it’s not too late. She almost turned to walk back into her apartment to pick up Piglet and head out of here, but she checked herself again. She had resolved to stay. This she had done, of her own free will, her decision, and she would not sway from that and run this year. This time she would face it. Confront it, and stare it down. Whatever it took. She would observe it first hand, to observe how it went about wreaking so much destruction.

As she worked the lock and chain to free her motor bike she noticed, too, that her scent had improved, considerably.

[*:*]

She sped down the Harbor Freeway toward the Manchester exit with a delivery for an auto supply outfit in Inglewood. Traffic was light, noticeably lighter than the day before. Not a few, then, had already quit working. Either already in heat, or getting ready for it; some to conquer, some to defend. She was glad she didn’t have a family to worry about, like Helen. Must be hell for her and Larry; farming out the kids, then barricading themselves more or less, which is what it took. Stocking up and then hiding out in their basement behind new locks while the storm blew over. Well, who was she to speak, that’s what she’s been doing for years, of course, though not here. In her glade.

The trees would object to her calling it hers.

She found Manchester Avenue nearly deserted, which she found hard to believe since there were still two days to go. Not that she minded, mind you, or complained. She made very good time to Inglewood.

 

:: 24 ::

 

The pain woke him up.

Something in his sleep had made Fletcher shift his knee and now it screamed him awake. At first he couldn’t place the sound, frantically clawing his way back up to the surface, away from that scream, that pain, then—with the garage, the lawn mower, the gardening equipment, the workbench, the tool chest, the many things surrounding—he arrived: his knee, his god- damned, fucking exploding fucking knee.

He rose, or tried to. Fell back instead, which hurt his leg even worse. He managed to lower his pants again to take another look at the knee.

Red, blue in places, thick, accusing. And pounding. He really had to get to a hospital. Now. No choice. He could not deal with this. Hitched his pants back up.

He stood up, sat down, stood up again, all his weight on his right leg. It took all he had to hobble out of the garage and into his sister’s kitchen. She was not pleased to see him.

“Fuck are you doing here?”

“Busted my knee.”

“You promised.” Close to tears. Swallowed. “You promised you would stay away.”

“I know, Sam, but I busted my knee. It hurts like hell.”

She shook her head, swallowed again, didn’t believe a word of it. Looked down at his legs. “Seem fine to me.”

“It’s not fucking fine,” said Fletcher, and pulled his pants down to show her.

“Jesus,” she said, “are you crazy.” Then caught the knee, discolored and obviously swollen. “Jesus,” she said again. “Oh, man.” Went to him for a closer look. “That looks bad.”

“It is bad. It’s fucked up.”

“Can you sit down.”

He did, but could not bend the hurt knee, now pulsing fresh pain with every heartbeat.

“Let me take a look,” she said. Squatted by him.

She frowned, then looked up at him, and back at the knee. It was all too obvious there was nothing she could do about it. He had to get to a hospital.

She called 911 for him, hoping they would not be too busy with the early Season to come right away.

“Any painkillers?” asked Fletcher.

“Aspirin.”

“Fine.”

She found some and handed them to him with some water. Part of her wanted to help him, part of her wanted him out of the damned house as soon as possible.

Fifteen minutes later both parts of her still wondered where the hell the ambulance was.

 

:: 25 ::

 

Harry worked at a large telecommunications company on Lake Avenue in Pasadena. He designed telephone systems for big and far-flung client corporations. He had to explain that a lot, what he meant by designed.

By designed , he’d say, taking a deep breath, he didn’t mean from scratch, as in some lab somewhere, you know, dreaming up and creating these things, circuit boards and transistors; no, what he did was put together already invented and manufactured bits and pieces of hard- and software, making sure that all the different parts—interfaces and software modules, lots of detailed stuff like that—worked well together to provide a specified or required functionality. By which time they would nod, yes, yes, they understood, designed. The hell they did.

It was a good job, though. Got to meet a lot of people, intelligent people for the most part. Got to figure things out technically and precisely. Got to see things work as designed, which was a source of satisfaction to him. And it paid rather well. Too well, Harry thought privately and quite often. He felt a little guilty about it. They paid him a lot of money for not that much effort.

His office wasn’t far from his house. An eight minute drive at most, no matter what the traffic. His colleagues hated him for that, especially those who lived far away: Palmdale, Simi Valley, Alta Loma, and who arrived at work with an hour, and sometimes two, of mind-numbing commute under their belts—or around their necks. Living as close to work as he did was anything from indecent to unpardonable in their eyes. Oh, well. He had stopped rubbing it in though—it would genuinely piss some people off.

As far as he could tell there were only two people missing from the office this morning. The same two that were missing early last year, and the year before. In fact, always missing as soon as they legally could, Harry decided. Whether in heat or not. To each his own. Really, Harry didn’t care.

He didn’t get much work done though. For once the initial incidents hit, the rules change—well, perhaps not so much the rules, as the priorities. You still call your customers, you still work with them on designs, you still double-check their requirements and so on, but not so much to get the data—which you mostly already have—or to verify designs—which for the most part are already verified—as to stay in touch, to make sure we’re still okay, to make sure the project will survive the Season come what may. That’s how Harry viewed it: protect the project. Make sure the bits and pieces of it can be picked up once the Season’s over, and then as quickly as possible.

For every Season brought casualties of one kind or another. Every Season, always. The image of securing a ship for sea frequently came to Harry’s mind this time of year, battening down the hatches, securing all cargo in the holds, making sure the ship could ride out a force nine gale if need be.

He made several calls, discussed pretty much the same thing: the tally, the coming Season. Exchanging good wishes, that sort of thing, all the while the range and depth of Harry’s scent kept improving:

Alice in accounting was dangerously close to heat, he could tell. Really, she should not be at work in that condition. A lot of glances were cast her way, by men and women alike. Men with a wondering hunger, women with curious disgust. What was she up to? Alice seemed oblivious of the effects she caused, either from innocent ignorance or artful deception. Could be she enjoyed it. As yet, Harry could care less, just annoying is all.

For everything was still peaceful below, with only the occasional twitch to herald distances closing. And it seemed more there. Waiting.

No, he was not far off.

Suddenly the floor was awash with security guards. He had no idea the building had so many. He counted three, four, perhaps a fifth, he wasn’t sure, running by. All in the direction of Alice’s office.

Before long they returned with Steinberg between them, frustrated, disheveled, panting from the fight. “She should’ve stayed home,” I heard Mitch Bradley, two cubicles over, mumble to somebody, none too softly. Must say I agreed with that. I later heard that Alice was okay, she had held him off until help had arrived.

Yes, the Season was definitely knocking on the door, demanding to be let in. Banging, in fact.

As he was getting ready to leave for the day he heard someone mention that the UII tally was now up to well over five hundred. The comment produced a few gasps and a snicker or two. Harry shook his head and headed out of there.

His scent was close to peak. Made him wonder, again, if this was what dogs experienced all the time. Like those breeds he’d read about somewhere that only required a molecule or two per cubic yard (which he, truth be told had a hard time actually believing—but the article was quite scientific and specific, so, perhaps) to sense an odor miles away. His scent, even at peak, never reached those levels, but it was certainly headed in that direction.

[*:*]

As he turned up his street, even from within his car—though, granted, his windows were rolled down—he could now smell all the local dogs, estrus and rut setting in, three to his left, two on his right. Also, Mrs. Yu—they had moved in about three months ago—was definitely in heat as well, he could smell her through her closed, and most likely locked doors—they really should consider scent proofing their basement, if they could afford it, this woman was broadcasting loudly. And once he stopped the car and stepped into the air, it was—again—like stepping into a many dimensional spectacle. His rising scent not so much intensified his sense of smell as added three or four additional senses, at least that is how it felt.

The tall pine tree on his front lawn, through fragrance, seemed to extend physically halfway down the block. To Harry is was as if it cast a tangible shadow of pine across the air. The grass, his flowers—ah, the flowers—the deciduous trees across the street, the many little lives the filled the grass, the brush, the two oaks in his back yard, other trees, the air, each emitting, each the center of a fragrant nimbus, dense at it’s core, ever thinning away into nothing, for feet, for yards, for blocks, overlapping, mixing, like a painting where all the colors bleed, not to obliterate the scene, but to form it. Leaning against his car, he tried to still his heart, his excitement, his welcoming of this, this, well, he thought of it as a miracle.

He would have about two days of this, at most, of this great new world, before the force that gendered this wonder would intensify into sheer and utter hunger, into the need to procreate, which once fully arrived, would melt into insignificance any such wonder as his front lawn and this street and this sky and this particular and wonderful moment.

Unless.

Unless he could ascend it, and have it be just this. For this was the year.

Vixer was going on by the back yard gate, but not as loudly as usual. Perhaps out of some odd recognition that something was happening to Harry which it would be best to let Harry to get used to at his own pace. Though a soft bark now and then—just to remind him that he hadn’t eaten all that much lately—wasn’t out of place, of course.

Harry noticed but didn’t quite register Vixer, but instead wondered again whether this was the world of dog, all the time. He knew that dogs’ eyesight wasn’t the best, but at this rate, who would need eyes, you saw just as well, better, actually—and with more detail—in this world of scent. And again he wished that it could stay this way, always, simply this, this extra dimension (though it felt like more than one), this sense of knowing so much more about everything through their constant evaporation of some essence he would interpret as scent. Much like the sun, he thought—again not for the first time—forever emitting itself across space to the Earth as sunlight, to farther away as starlight, yet never, seemingly, diminishing. Same as his pine tree, as tall, as piney, as barky as always, yet emitting an ever radiating aura which made Harry think of evaporation: if it kept this up much longer, it would dissolve, should vanish. But it never did. What a world it would be, if this could stay forever. Magical. All these little suns.

Vixer’s less and less subtle attempts at making himself known finally registered with Harry and he stepped up to the gate to let him out, parting the universe of scent as he went.

[*:*]

Harry’s Pine was a Ponderosa who stood seventy some feet tall while still in its early teens as Ponderosas go. Not that this bears much relevance, for pine trees are born ancient and don’t really age: they simply sprout, grow, ponder their fate and their surroundings for many a year, and fear fire.

And they remember. They remember everything. Everything from the first seed, millions of years ago, that held this very tree in its heart, this very pine, and it was generally held by pines, or other trees for that matter, the world over that immobility was a small price to pay for this memory.

Harry’s Pine didn’t think of itself as Harry’s Pine, of course, and when it thought of Harry—which it did from time to time—it thought of him as his human. It liked Harry. Felt protective of him, as do most pines of whomever they adopt. It found Harry to be more awake than other humans that came and went, drove up and down the street, walked to and fro. There was a spark in him, in this man, a small burning light that only trees could see, or to put it more correctly, could be.

For trees—any tree—cannot hear, nor can they see. They can in fact taste a little—raindrops falling on their pines, for example, have a certain taste to them, while the water drawn by their roots has a different flavor.

Trees have also a keen sense of smell. It is as potent a wizard for trees as for say dogs or bees and, in Season, humans. They also know touch quite well. The earth touches roots, the wind touches branches and needles, humans sometimes lean ladders against them, they feel the pressure. Birds land on their branches—which is the touch they enjoy the most, and sometimes—especially in winter—long for.

And they have the sense of being.

Within reason—reason as defined by trees of course—any tree (and pine trees were especially good at it) can reach out and permeate—be—another living thing, sensing their internal as well as external universes. This sense—which brings about hearing and seeing by extension—is best translated as being. For that is what the tree does: it is the life it visits.

How far can they wander in this fashion? It differs species to species.

A beech, for example, tall and expansive though it is, can only be what finds itself immediately below its branches. A birch (or “beriosa” as they have named themselves in a tribute to Russia, the home of more birches than anywhere else) as a rule—though no one can say with any degree of certainty, not even the Bristlecone Pine (who may know but chooses not to), where or when this rule was enacted—can touch and be anything within a radius of two times two its own height.

The average Ponderosa Pine can reach as far as a mile. The tall Canary Island Pine three houses down, however, can reach about three miles (a fact it is very proud of, and rarely withholds); and it is said that the Bristlecone can reach from the Eastern Sierras all the way west to the coast, though it prefers to stay put and just be air.

Harry’s Pine noticed (was, briefly) Harry’s condition and knew that soon he would be in the throes of annual mating again.

It was a strange thing, this Storm, and Harry’s Pine spent not a little of its time pondering it (as did many trees), remembering times—oh, they were very long ago, those times, shadowy times they were, before the pine was pine even—when the Storm was less intense. And remembering times before even that when there was no Storm, nor humans, nor animals. Fish perhaps, though it wasn’t so sure about that. Remembering so far back could be a hard and imprecise activity. You had to be memory, not an easy thing, not even for the Bristlecone who indeed could remember all, and with clarity.

Harry’s Pine gently reached again through glass and wall to find Harry in his kitchen where it settled softly in his heart and spread throughout. He found his human pleased and happy with his rekindled scent, happy with the many colors of smell, not at all upset. Well, and good. The pine withdrew and thought of other things for a while, say temperature, or moisture, or whether all pines were the same one pine, or were truly individual, one pine to the next.

Harry didn’t notice this visit, though Vixer did. Barked a little at it until Harry gave him his what-on-earth look, which meant he’d better shut up about it.

 

:: 26 ::

 

Fletcher Jones presented a problem for hospitals.

For one, he was uninsured and for another he had a criminal record. And now, to make matters worse, he was in full-blown heat as well, which made him an uninsured, criminal male in heat—an unwelcome mix to say the least.

St. Vincent and Good Hope both flatly refused to take him and told the ambulance driver, when he radioed in, to not even bring him, citing the risks he would pose to other patients. They were simply not equipped to handle. The same went for Hobart’s in Alhambra.

In the end they had to drive all the way up to St. Mary’s in Pasadena, one of the few hospitals in the city equipped to deal with his kind. The hospital had received generous State funding for their high security wing—built for the likes of Fletcher—so they could not well refuse him.

“Two days, three at the most,” the admitting nurse told his sister. “Then you’ll have to collect him.”

“I want nothing to do with the bastard,” she said.

“That, I’m afraid, is not our problem.”

“It is if I refuse to get him.”

“You’re next of kin.”

“So.”

“You brought him.”

“So.”

“We’ll report you.”

“What does that mean?”

“We’re in Season, honey. You’re responsible.”

“I don’t get it,” said his sister.

“We have rules,” said the nurse, which didn’t explain a thing. “Three days, by this time Saturday, or we’ll report you.”

“Why can’t you keep him?”

“This is not a life and death case. We’re going to need every available bed for real emergencies.” With a pointed stress on real.

His sister didn’t answer, just turned and left, wondering what the hell she had done to deserve this, and then wondering how the hell she would get back home.

 

:: 27 ::

 

The talking head seemed genuinely happy about what he announced as “a record tally.” And then went on to elaborate, proudly, “Well over five hundred,” as if this were good news indeed and he was the one responsible for them. Harry switched the channels.

The news helicopters, hovering over some extra gruesome scene, a bad Season related traffic accident they said, many casualties, struck him as a vultures scenting death, gathering to feast. Dragonflies hovering.

He switched the channels again. Only to find more of the same.

Disgusted now he turned off the television but remained standing, looking at the black, silently offended screen, still making small static noises, as if shrinking.

He had two days, at most, at best, to figure this out. Jesus, talk about eleventh hour. To no only come up with a plan, but to put it into action. He was truly crazy. Dreaming.

On off-Season paper his decision was straightforward enough: do nothing. Face the Storm and ascend. And if he really was going through with exactly that, well, then he wouldn’t have to do anything; other than stock up on supplies and start facing.

But failing that, how about a plan B? Should there be one? Or would that admit the possibility—or, to be frank, likelihood—of defeat?

Yes, he had really thought this thing all the way through.

Vixer seemed to agree.

[*:*]

For someone like Harry, who was single and fairly well-to-do, plans B were replete. They were often listed and elaborated on in various self help magazines, especially as the Season approached. And they were advertised furiously both in magazines and papers, and on television, many such ads—it’s best to be prepared, early bird, et cetera—starting to appear as early as January.

The main option, of course—and the one most practiced by the unwed or otherwise un- single male—was onanism. Masturbation.

This was most commonly referred to as self-release, though it went by many other names in the sea of commercials that hawked the various tools of that particular trade: self-gratification, pressure-release, self-venting, auto-ventilation. One year, the phrase “Emptying the Bucket” took hold, and was used in what just had to be way too many commercials.

Each Season there were literally hundreds of commercials offering tools and gadgets to aid this process, as well as portable (some not so portable) pornography screeners, “to help, if needed”—as if help were needed.

There was, for example, the “semen relaxer” made by some company in Ohio which you wore on your erection like some oversized, electronic condom and which purportedly sensed “semen pressure” (according to the ads) and which when reaching a predetermined level (specified by you when placing the order) vibratingly induced ejaculation (and gathered the semen in its little—or not so little, again determined by you—disposable and replaceable pouch) without your physical intervention. Of course, you had to replace the pouch two or three times a day.

They had thousands of customer testimonials on file, they claimed. All happy, all repeat customers. Harry couldn’t see it. He’d rather take care of his own business, with his own hands.

And then there were special gloves “for a better grip,” and a host of receptacles “to keep things tidy,” as one commercial put it.

A whole industry had sprung up around artificial vaginas to meet every conceivable size, shape, density, and depth requirement. Ads for these usually began to appear as early as January. They were built to order, you know. Get in line to ensure your private “heaven.”

Harry’s all time favorite self-help euphemism was the “liberator” or “liberation” theme from a few years back when semen wasn’t voided or ejected or emptied as in years past, but suddenly liberated. We had the “semen-liberator,” the “stress-liberator,” the “auto-liberator,” et cetera. This word—sword in hand, chasing the invaders out of the homeland—has since fallen out of favor from over-use. For which Harry was grateful.

The official word for the practice was onanism, and it covered all things self-induced. And was clearly a plan B candidate: Keep that bucket empty.

Then there were the medical options.

The most severe of these, and the only one that really worked, as it were, was to submit yourself to what was unofficially known as “coma,” which is to say: admit yourself to a “facility” for the duration of the Season. Here you were put under, and kept under, through your entire cycle, and so remained unaware of, and untroubled by, most if not all of it.

This, of course, meant sleepers and lots of them, and was not good for you, side effects and such; and for that reason was rarely recommended. The sleeper option was exercised almost exclusively by older men—though not beyond rut—of ample means. These were men who had had their fun and who now could afford to not be bothered and who could not care less about the side effects.

Discreet male or female nurses (up to you) took care of the liberation business as needed to relieve pressure—semen buildup takes place whether you’re awake, or care, or not.

For Harry, however, this was not a viable plan B. Too expensive for one, and for another he didn’t like the notion of hibernation, or coma. For a third the side effects, though apparently not very well documented, were still—in most articles about it—held to be dire, whatever that meant.

A more feasible plan B was self-medication.

This plan B came in a plethora of prescription and over the counter drugs, herbs, teas, you-name-its. The prescription variety were officially known as “repressors” (which they really were not, since they did not repress the urge, only managed to alleviate it in varying degrees), while the over the counter assortment was known as “relievers,” (which, again, was a misnomer since they didn’t relieve much, just took the edge off, as the phrase went, if that).

The herbals and tees were called “soothers,” and their efficacy was widely debated, as well.

There was another medical solution that did, if not repress the urge, at least bought you some time. Known as “delayers,” this approach consisted of a strong drug cocktail (differing slightly as to ingredients, depending on the manufacturer)—the coma drug to knock you out, plus what amounted to a set of amphetamines to keep you awake, and functioning, nonetheless.

Yes, this worked, for about three days. Four at best. After that, this mix put your life at risk, literally, for the drawback to delayers was that they were very—as in very very—hard on the liver, and few people could, with any degree of safety, use them for more than three, perhaps four, consecutive seasons, without giving them (and their liver) a rest.

The rule of thumb was that you would then have to abstain for as many Seasons as you’ve taken them, while the liver curled up, licked its wounds and recuperated.

Senior police, lawyers, researchers, some priests, and—mainly—television reporters, were the leading consumers of this very expensive, tightly controlled, and quite dangerous, “solution.”

Terrible plan B. Harry didn’t even look in that direction.

Then there was “seclusion,” which came in a number of varieties as well. The theory went that completely secluded, that is with no sight of—or especially scent of—or interaction with, the opposite sex, the urge itself stilled somewhat, became bearable. Eased, was the phrase du jour.

It did no harm and seemed to do some good.

Again, here was a ripe field for entrepreneurs and their many variations on a theme. Spa-like retreats away somewhere upon some mountain, solitude guaranteed. Harry often wondered what would happen to that solitude if there were too many takers. Naturally, these retreats also offered full sets of soothers, relievers, and—if medically accredited—repressors.

There were some that simply took off for seclusion at first sign, usually scent. Took off for wherever they went to hide and ride it out. Mainly the mountains, or deserts, or if you owned a boat, that was another good option. A month at sea, with all that sailing to do to keep your mind off it. A friend of Harry’s at work swore by it, and had done it every year until he met his wife, after which he remained ashore, with her, bunkered.

Harry had tried one of the mountain spas one year, and truth be told, it had helped. Five weeks among the pines and clear sky, plenty of books to try to read and long trails to exhaust you. Yes, it had helped, there was no doubt about it, and this outing had further raised the question, or hope: would it not be possible to remain unaffected? Since there were ways to lessen the urge with solitude, surely there must be a way to eliminate it altogether.

Ascend.

Harry returned to the same spa the following year, and with similar result. It made the Season bearable. Yes, the Storm was present, it was as much present as ever, but the solitude held it in abeyance, in a sort of stasis. A calm lake, no ripples, and if you sat really still: that was the sensation; if you sat really still nothing happened. But it was like sitting unmoving in still liquid sub-zero water, which remained liquid only until you moved, at which moment it turned to ice, all of it, instantly and violently. But a long as you sat still.

And sitting still in seclusion consisted of rising very early, before dawn, a cold shower, a light breakfast, a long walk. It consisted of focus on your surroundings, then try to read your favorite books—those that have touched and moved you in the past, though truth be told reading was not easy, your mind—at times it felt like it was no longer yours to control—could not focus, not easily anyway. Lots of exercise. No television, no radio, no outside contact. No scents other than pine and water and rock and sky. Just you and nature and solitude. And yes, the trees. Harry could never put his finger on it, but for some reason he had felt that the trees helped.

Still the bucked needed emptying, of course. But things were not so hectic. Worth the money, actually.

That had been three Seasons ago. The following two Seasons he had stayed in town. The first he had spent on repressors, which had helped, yes, not so frantic, but which also left him sluggish, lethargic and uncomfortable.

And last year he had tried an herbal soother, not very successfully, he ended up hiring a professional for his ten day peak. When he called to complain about the soother and its claims, the product support line referred him to the fine print: is not guaranteed to always work for everyone. Who can tell these things. Well, you should, he’d suggested before hanging up in frustration. Where do they find these morons?

Seclusion also came in the “bunker” variety. The soundproof, and almost scent-proof basement. Stock up for a month, lock the door.

Or build yourself a shelter. There were kits for this too, of course. You dug yourself a twenty by twenty foot hole, twelve feet deep, in your back yard, which you in essence then equipped and furnished. Well, there was a little more to it than that. Bottom line was that you had a soundproof, again almost scent-proof, sealable bunker in your back yard where you could ride it out. Some called it shelter, others called it bunker. The commercials that sold the kits called it “Shielded Seclusion.” Odd name, thought Harry. Some, not reputable, outfits claimed that if your bunker was well sealed, and you provided your own oxygen, the Storm would not touch you at all. That of course was crazy, since you had to vent the thing or suffocate from your own carbon dioxide. He wasn’t sure how they got away with saying things like that. He assumed there were those who believed it and bought their kits, enough of them anyway to keep those outfits in business.

Either way, basement or shelter, these were both referred to as “bunkering.”

Not Harry’s cup of tea.

A popular, though expensive, plan B: The Professional.

In essence, a hired partner: for the day, for the week, for the Season. The Season-long arrangements were also referred to as “pact” which was a little unfortunate, because that term was also used for the true pact, where you, and a member of the opposite sex, agree to spend the Season together, but only this one. Let’s see what happens.

Repeated pacts usually became love became marriage.

The professional pact, however, was strictly a business transaction. You rent yourself a mate for a duration you afford, and have at it.

Not Harry’s cup of tea, either. More like Harman-Karman’s. Who also was not one to flinch from the most sinister of plans B: The Hunt.

This option—variously also called the Prowl, the Chase, or the Pursuit—seemed to be what the Storm, deep down, on a fundamental level, demanded of the male of the species. It was what felt (or should feel—at least if the commercials, as well as many learned views on the subject, were to be believed) most “natural” for a man in heat.

On the Hunt, you spent the Season on the prowl, equipped—which meant well armed—to fight off contenders or, though never stated as such, to subdue targets. Hunting equipment would also normally include a light bulletproof vest, and often included (although these were deemed illegal) break-in tools. You could buy ready-made (off the shelf) kits in just about any well-appointed store, especially between the first of the year and March. Specialty shops offered customized kits, tailored to your specific needs and desires. They never came cheaply.

An even more sinister variation on the Hunt was the Team Hunt. This consisted of a pre-arranged team—as opposed to a spontaneous team, which just happens, and which normally only stays together for the one single chase, then splits off again into solo hunts—of two to four men, who would then hunt as a pack throughout the Season and share all spoils. Equipment consisted of pretty much the same as for the solo hunt, plus communication equipment to stay synchronized, and specialty weapons, both defensive and offensive: team members assuming specialist roles as attacker or defender. Most of the casualties during the peak of Season came from Team fights, and these were—from a spectator’s view—also considered the most entertaining.

Probably every man alive, old enough to rut, has spent at least one Season on the Hunt. It was almost considered a rite of passage, your first hunt.

Harry too had hunted. Of course he had. And he had enjoyed it. Of course he had, what man wouldn’t? But for Harry there was something very frightening—especially in the calm retrospect of aftermath—to realize that you totally let go. That you utterly abandoned all self-control, that you took leave of all you knew as fine and noble and let go of all that made life quite enjoyable on the whole during off-Season.

And when you did; when you simply opened the gates to let the Storm in to fill you, then you hunted. Once let in, once it occupied you, that is what the Storm told you; what the Storm, if you then hesitated, demanded; what the Storm, if you still hesitated, enforced.

For once you let the Storm wholly invade you, once you give yourself up to the Storm completely, it will possess you entirely and fully, and you have to Hunt. In some fashion or another. You have no other option.

Harry’s last hunt had been nine years ago, and he did not even vaguely consider it a plan B.

[*:*]

As late as early December of last year Harry had still been fairly decided to return to a spa in the Sierras, had even reserved a spot, deposit and all, but had changed his mind early January. He felt that it smacked a little of running away, of getting help when he should be able to go it alone. For there had to be a way to lessen the impact without solitude. There had to be a way to will your way through it. A way to stay awake. If you stayed awake—aware—enough. The old Hindus claimed they could do it. Buddha had done it. Even some Kristian mystics claimed they could do it: by will alone navigate their way through, above.

Most religions, in fact, claimed it was possible to stay untouched, though their solution was uniformly—well, as far as the Western religions went anyway—voluntary castration. No one but Jesus Kristus could withstand the Storm unaided. And aid, according to the Bible’s latter Books, consisted of sterilization in one form or another.

But that was just it, Harry refused to believe that there was no other way than losing your testicles.

Buddha, according to the Dhammaphada, had spoken of the ability to float atop the waters; many of the earlier Indian writings said much the same.

“Like a Lotus atop water, so shall you let your self go,” one local guru—whom he had dragged the not altogether amused Harman-Karman along to see give a lecture a couple of years back—used to say. “Float up to the surface and never look down.” Of course, Harry thought, this guru forgot to mention that the stem of the Lotus is indeed immersed not only in water, but deeply in the mud below. Not a good analogy, he decided. But floating was good, floating he liked. It rang of ascension. To float atop Storm, unaffected, untouched. Seeing it for what it was. Like a sailor on top of water. Could see the sea. Fishes could not. He wanted to not be fish, he wanted to be boat, or better yet, bird. Albatross came to mind. They, with their constant roaming of the seas would have a good view of things, untouched in air.

There was a way, he was sure of it. All Harry had to do was find it.

And, as yet, no plan B.

 

:: 28 ::

 

Alwyn Moore had a wonderful singing voice as a child. Her mother used to called her “my little sparrow” and pay exorbitant fees for singing lessons by the very best teacher her money could buy, who in the end turned out not to be such a good teacher after all, or at least not as well connected as he had claimed to be in order to justify some $200 an hour.

Not that her mom was hurting for money. Alwyn’s father had left her a pretty fortune when he died from wounds received in a Season related incident when Alwyn was still in her infancy.

He had come to the aid of a late February attempted UII victim and paid for it with his life. However—and this was covered extensively by the media at the time, and has since served as precedent—since that took place both before the 1st of March and before any other Seasonal incident had been reported—and his insurance company sought both high and low for that one incident which would have nullified the policy and saved them a bundle—and since he did in fact prevent what would have been the first reported UII, the Season, as it happened, had not yet started, neither officially nor un-officially, and his life insurance policy, therefore, was still in force.

Which meant a sizeable, if not huge, settlement added to his already not inconsiderable savings, all left to his wife.

Suddenly wealthy, her mother, through her very white attorney, had bought a fine house on Avon Place in South Pasadena—causing quite stir at the time as the only blackish people on the block (neither Alwyn or her mother were black black, but dark enough to raise old money eyebrows and considerable—though covert—outrage). Her mother didn’t care, she owned the house outright (with lots to spare), this is where she lived, end of story. It’s a free country, so fuck you.

And that was the house Alwyn grew up in.

First and foremost to achieve the fantastic goals of fame her mother had set for her.

Now, whether that were to be the opera, or the stage, or as a recording artist, her mother didn’t much care; it didn’t matter which path brought Alwyn to stardom. What did matter was that she was firmly headed in that direction and would indeed arrive. And arrive she would, of that her mother was certain. The singing lessons were a good investment, and she intended to reap a good dividend.

Not that Alwyn didn’t enjoy singing, for she did, but she did not like the pressure her mother poured in her direction day in and day out, and she liked her singing teacher even less. Also, she didn’t much care for opera, which is what her teacher specialized in (she loved the blues, and jazz, and adored Billie Holiday, wished more than anything that she could have been born in time to have met her); nor did she particularly care for hard work and discipline (which opera in particular demanded of its aspirants—a favorite phrase of her, before long now, ex-teacher).

And when it came right down to it, she enjoyed writing more than singing. Word painting is what she called it. Scribbling away (her time), as her mother put it.

Inevitably, Alwyn’s musical tastes, her literary inclinations, and her antipathy for arduous practice led to the typical, though in her case unusually intense, break between mother and daughter. This happened shortly after Alwyn turned eighteen, which is when she announced to the world in general, and to her mother in particular, that she wanted nothing more to do with opera, singing careers, and especially not with that fucking asshole singing coach of hers whom she claimed was not only useless, but was making passes at her as the new Season approached.

“What do you expect,” said her mom. “He’s a man. It’s the Season.”

“I don’t give a shit,” said Alwyn. “I’ve had it.”

“But what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to write.”

“But honey. All the money. I have spent a fortune.”

“I’ll pay you back,” said Alwyn and left.

Moved out, and for good.

An equally rebellious friend took her in for a few months, while she found her feet and got herself a job as a sales clerk at Stephenson’s which paid her enough to cover a small studio rental and part-time college fees. By now Alwyn had made up her mind that journalism was the sensible way to go since it would both earn her a living and let her write (though her real goal was still fiction) and she took a steep set of classes to get her there as soon as possible.

By twenty she had shed the last trace of accumulated ballast.

“But opera singers are supposed to be . . .” her mother would begin.

“Be what, fat?”

“No. No. Not fat. Substantial. Eat up, Alwyn. Please.”

And with that extra weight gone from body and face she discovered, along with others, that underneath it all she was beautiful, very.

At twenty-one she was accepted into Freedman’s School of Journalism in Los Angeles where she excelled. She had finally managed to make at first peace, then a pact with discipline and hard work: she would apply herself if they in turn promised to get her where she was going.

Which was were precisely? Well, she pictured herself with the Times or the Herald, or perhaps even with some smaller paper, writing against deadlines during the day and pouring herself into her fiction, sans deadline, at night.

Her 21^st^ Century Journalism teacher had other ideas. At one of their monthly teacher-student conferences she eventually got around to: “Not that I want to steer you away from writing, I know you’re set on it Alwyn, but you are made for television.”

“I don’t like television,” said Alwyn. “I want to write.”

“You should take a look at yourself.”

“So?”

“I cannot think of a network that wouldn’t want you as a reporter.”

“On looks alone?”

“Well, of course not.”

But Alwyn realized that “on looks alone” was in fact the case, was what her teacher was pointing out to her as diplomatically as possible; was what television first and foremost wanted, required, even.

At their next conference her teacher announced that she had got her an interview with a local station.

“I want to write,” she said.

“This is a very good opportunity,” said her teacher.

“I want to write,” said Alwyn.

“You’d waste your talent.”

“Looks are not a talent.”

“Of course not. And you are a good writer. But you are also a good observer. And you have what it takes for television.”

“It’s not that I’m ungrateful,” said Alwyn. “Or that I don’t appreciate your help. I really do. But I want to write, and I’m going to write.”

[*:*]

She graduated with honors two years later and was offered a job with the Orange County Register, covering local events mainly.

And running errands.

And more errands.

And more errands.

And in the end, well fuck this, after six months she was still the way too pretty office boy, and at nights she was too burned out, or too seething, or too both, to get any fiction done. She called her teacher.

“Are you still in touch with that local station?”

Which is where she still worked. Now as their on-the-spot face. Making good money. Very good money. Had in fact paid her mother back. Every penny, and with interest. And she did get to spend some evenings, and most weekends, alone with her fiction, her favorite place. There is not a feeling on this earth, she would tell her friends, that even vaguely compares to what you feel when writing is going well. It’s a wonderful place.

Not even? they would ask. No, not even.

Which was the place she had hoped to revisit that evening, when yet another call reached the station with a possible exclusive: a particularly gruesome scene at St. Mary’s Hospital in Pasadena. One of the nurses (and an informant of the station’s) had called as soon as she had found out.

None of the other stations had it yet, Jim, her night producer, was pretty sure about that.

So, could you, Alwyn? I know it’s your night off, but we’re really stretched here, could you please?

[*:*]

When she and Tim, her cameraman, arrived at St. Mary’s she confirmed that they were indeed the only crew on the scene. Which was good news, very good news. Another exclusive, and the third one today. They entered the large, sand-colored building.

“No,” said their public relations person, suddenly materialized out of the administrative recesses of the place, in answer to her question. She had a nodding acquaintance with the man, they had run into each other before. “There is no Fletcher Jones here,” he said.

Alwyn took a good look at him. It was Brian something. Harvey. Brian Harvey, that was it. “Oh, but there is Brian,” she said. “And, from what I hear, he has just managed to get out of a security ward and violated two of you patients, one of whom is in critical condition as a result. And this in the best equipped hospital in town.”

Harvey didn’t make a sound for exactly long enough to confirm the story. As he drew breath to deny everything, he knew that she new. What he had meant to say was, again, “There’s no Fletcher Jones here.” What he did say was, “Who told you?”

“Let’s skip that,” she said. “What I want to know is, what happened? Exactly.”

“You can not run with this,” he said. It was a plea.

“I can, Brian, and I will. How much of the story will be fact and how much will be educated guess is up to you.”

A good public relations man knows when he’s outmaneuvered, and he took it gracefully. You could see his gears shift from denial to damage control.

“Follow me,” he said.

Alwyn signaled for Tim to follow and they all headed for the nearby bank of elevators. Harvey punched the tenth floor button. On the way up Alwyn asked, “So what happened here?”

“I don’t have all the details,” said Harvey. “It seems like Mr. Jones, in full-blown heat, apparently—in fact, what we would deem overcharged—was brought in with a sprained knee earlier today. As is our policy with such individuals—and according to our search the man has a criminal record as well—he was taken to the secure wing on the tenth floor for treatment and confinement. They patched him up well enough, nothing was broken apparently, ligaments something, then sedated him and left him to rest. Somehow he then managed to break out of the ward and into the women’s ward located in the opposite end of the security wing and, well, you seem to know the rest.”

“Somehow?” asked Alwyn.

Harvey hesitated again. “There was a mix-up.”

She didn’t answer, waiting for more. As they reached the tenth floor she noticed with satisfaction that Tim had the camera running, low-light mode. The lower of the two little red lights below the lens was blinking, like a pulse—alive. She didn’t think Harvey had noticed, or he would have said something.

“Mix-up?” she said as they stepped out of the elevator.

“That’s all I know,” he answered. “What he was given was not a sedative, apparently. Or if it was, it wasn’t strong enough. Whatever they gave him seems to have taken care of the pain, but little else. He got up as soon as left alone, broke out of the ward and . . .”

“Broke out?”

“Apparently.”

“It’s a secure ward.”

“Mr. Fletcher is apparently resourceful.”

“It’s a secure ward, Brian.”

“I know.”

“No guards?”

“Apparently not.” Harvey had begun to sweat, if only lightly, but Alwyn know to look for these signs. “And then, well, by scent, of course, found his way to the female ward.”

“You don’t have the scent blocked?” Alwyn sounded incredulous although she very well knew they didn’t. Scent proofing was still a very expensive process, and the material used—a graphite compound ten times the density of lead, though nowhere as heavy—was not readily available yet. What little of it could be found was usually bought up by the very wealthy who had now begun to scent proof their bunkers.

Harvey looked at her, surprised. “No. No, of course not. The funding.”

“I would have thought,” began Alwyn.

“No, the State never approved the funds for scent proofing. To scent proof a wing, or even a ward, would cost a fortune.”

“Ah,” said Alwyn, as if taking a mental note of that. Then asked, “I still don’t understand how he manage to get out of a secure area? It’s designed, is it not, to keep the likes of him in?”

They had turned right at the elevators and were, according to the signs, heading toward the secure male wing. As she asked the question, Alwyn was wondering what it was Harvey had planned to show them? Why had he brought them?

“I honestly don’t know. As I said, he must be very resourceful.”

“And how did he get into the female ward? It is secure as well, isn’t it? He never left the floor, right?”

“No, he never did. And yes, it is. And again, I honestly don’t know.”

“Who were his victims? And how are they doing?”

“You know better than that.”

“I’m not asking for their names.”

“I see.” He looked around, as if searching for something, then looked back at Alwyn. “One of them, a middle-aged women, sustained several blows to her head and chest. She probably tried to fight him off. The other, a girl in her teens, got away with bruises.”

“So it’s the older woman who is in critical condition?” Just to confirm.

Before he had a chance to answer, and as if on cue, an alarm sounded, and within seconds all activity on the floor seemed to flow past them toward the female ward behind them. Alwyn turned, and set out after them, motioning for Tim to follow. Harvey, taken by surprise, was temporarily rooted to the spot. “It’s this way,” he said indicating the opposite direction, to no one in particular now, though meant for the swiftly receding news team. Then he swore and set out after them.

The nameless middle-aged woman, Fletcher’s first victim, had taken a drastic turn for the worse, had flat-lined, and now a gaggle of doctors and nurses, crowded round her bed, tried to revive her. Defibrillation paddles, chemicals, oxygen masks, all impressively orchestrated. Alwyn wondered at the spectacle and Tim was getting some very good footage.

Alwyn recognized Edward John, the physician she had interviewed earlier in the day, then turned as Harvey caught up with them.

“You have to leave,” he said even before he reached them.

“Who is it?” asked Alwyn.

“You have to leave,” he said again.

“This patient, who is it?”

“He should not be filming,” said Harvey.

“Is this one of the victims?” asked Alwyn.

Harvey didn’t know for sure, but suspected it was. “We must leave,” he said again.

More people arrived, and suddenly Alwyn and Tim found themselves much in the way. “Get these people the hell out of here,” yelled one of the doctors, loud enough for security to react, and soon they were all back in the hallway, looking through thick, wire meshed glass at the activity inside.

Then, as if everyone suddenly lost interest in their doings, it ceased. The flat line remained flat, and dejected now—their body language spoke quite clearly—the small congregation began to dissipate without looking at each other.

“She didn’t make it,” said Alwyn.

Harvey didn’t answer. “Was that one of the victims?” she asked again.

“Shut that damn thing off,” said Harvey to Tim who was still filming.

“Why did you bring us up here?” asked Alwyn.

Harvey looked at her as if she had spoken some other language, not quite tracking. Then he caught on. “Fletcher Jones,” he said. “I wanted to show you Mr. Jones.”

“Who is now also a killer,” said Alwyn.

“That is completely unconfirmed,” said Harvey. “Besides, even if it were the case—which I’m not saying it is—since the man was in heat, he would not be legally responsible.”

“I know,” said Alwyn. “Although you, the Hospital, would be.”

“We don’t know what just happened here, this could have been a different patient,” said Harvey, glancing back in through the thick glass at the still patient and the lone nurse now remaining to tidy things up.

“Though we can be fairly certain,” began Alwyn.

“Follow me,” said Harvey.

At the other end of the long hallway, through equally thick, and wire meshed glass, Harvey pointed out a sleeping figure strapped to a bed. “Mr. Jones,” he said.

“What medication was he given initially?” asked Alwyn, while casting a quick glance at Tim that meant: start up again.

She could see the little red light blinking, and again asked the question.

“Sorry?” Harvey didn’t follow.

“The initial medication, the sedative he was supposed to have gotten. What was it?”

“I don’t know.”

“But it did not subdue him?”

“No.”

“And now one of his victims are dead.”

“As I said, that is not confirmed.” Then at Tim, “Please, I asked you to turn that damn thing off.”

“Has this ever happened at St. Mary’s before?” she asked, knowing full well that it had.

“We strive to keep incidents like this to an absolute minimum.”

“But has it happened before?”

“Once or twice. It is almost impossible to avoid, especially at peak of Season.”

“Though you could hardly call this peak of Season. It’s hardly begun. We’re still in February.”

“We strive to keep these incidents to a minimum,” Harvey repeated. The official line.

“Well, he seems quiet enough now,” said Alwyn, and motioned for Tim to capture the sleeping Fletcher Jones through the glass.

“He is no threat to anyone at this point,” agreed Harvey, as he turned and set out for the elevators, by now painfully aware that bringing them up to witness and film the now secured Mr. Jones had been one major faux pas.

“This is not an auspicious beginning,” said Alwyn.

“To what?”

“Why, to the Season, of course. What else?”

“Mr. Jones is now safely subdued. It was an unfortunate accident.”

“Yes, especially for that poor woman,” said Alwyn and nodded in the direction of the opposite wing.

Harvey didn’t answer, instead he pressed the elevator button to summon his escape from this embarrassment.

Once outside, Tim quickly uploaded their digitized footage to the studio, and Alwyn then went live with her report. She noticed with satisfaction that other stations had yet to arrive.

A brilliant exclusive.

 

:: 29 ::

 

Although I work on the ninth floor, which is where they bring most of the UII victims, I was up on tenth helping set things up when they brought him in. Tenth is where they bring the overcharged ones. Males to the right, females to the left. That’s what they call them: overcharged. The violent ones. The crazies. That’s what they call the men; the women are called insatiable or, yes, crazies as well. It’s like two Storms take hold of these poor people, anything can set them off. Out of any control.

The wards on tenth are secure, on paper.

This guy was overcharged all right. And hurt as well. His knee. First they fixed him up, but then I have no idea what they gave him, but it sure as rain wasn’t the right thing. Didn’t knock him out or sedate him at all, quite the opposite it seems. There’s going to be hell to pay for this. Television crew came as well—it was Alwyn Moore—and very quickly, too. Someone called them, I’m sure; and I think I know who did. Yes, I believe I know who it is calls them when these things happen, but that’s none of my business of course.

I’m pretty sure I know, though.

But he sure as rain didn’t go under, this crazy didn’t. Instead, first chance he got, he broke out of Ten East and into Ten West (this man must be good with locks, is all I can say).

And went crazy in there. I mean, all these women crazies—even if sedated and no longer as willing to play—I’m sure would drive anyone around the bend. Sure drove Mr. Jones around the bend and he went mad with it and now he’s violated and killed one woman and UII’ed a girl. Real bad screw-up is what it is, and there will be hell to pay here, I’m sure. I’m just so glad I wasn’t involved. So very, very glad.

He’s sleeping now, Mr. Jones is, and I’m still up here in Ten East to help make sure he stays that way. His knee is not looking too good. He shouldn’t have moved around on a knee like that, made it a lot worse. We may even have to operate now, but that’s not of immediate concern, said Dr. John. Of immediate concern, he said, is that this does not happened again, that any-thing like this never happens again. I’m not sure who screwed up, though I think I know.

Whoever is definitely in trouble.

 

:: 30 ::

 

By the time Lara returned to her apartment that night the official UII count was nearing six hundred, some anchor person said, as if things were progressing satisfactorily and some goal was now within reach. She sighed and changed the channel in time to catch Alwyn Moore’s report from some hospital or other where some crazy or other had gotten loose. She shook her head and changed the channel to more of the same somewhere else, then turned of the set.

She could smell the night, all of it, every nook of it. This part she enjoyed, this painting within a painting, these amazing colors that she assumed dogs and other such animals could perceive all the time. She envied them a little. No, not a little: a lot. It was like walking in a painting, odorous color in abundance where none had been before. The dust on the floor had color, the varnish of her table, the many cookings elsewhere in the building, the trees and the grass, and the air outside. Her own clothes, the sofa, even the remote control had an odor. Immersed. That’s what she was, and she wished it would stay this way, just this, nothing more.

She had told Helen she may not show up tomorrow, depending. Helen was fine about that, of course. Either way, take care, girl. She really was a great boss.

It was dark outside. She imagined she could smell the darkness, that it too had an odor, but really, it was only what traveled on the wind. And the trees outside, palms lining the street, and three tall eucalyptus trees in front of the building, fragrant year around, almost violently so now.

[*:*]

The scream ripped the scents apart.

At first Lara thought it came from the television, it was a television sort of scream, acted: not truly painful nor truly afraid, then she caught the echo of it, and in it the fear was real; and it didn’t come from the set which sat there, dark and brooding, as if falsely accused.

She listened hard for more, and there it was again, outside, from the alley below. She ran up to her window and looked out. Saw nothing. Ran across her living room to turn off the lights, then back to the window. After a few seconds she could make out the alley, but it was silent and still. No one chased or frightened. Then came the scream again, farther down, away from her building, and then there was motion. Three shadows, darkly dressed, a team. Their victim, even though moving away, was screaming louder now, screaming for help, the word quite clear even over the wind and the increasing distance. Lara thought of getting the gun out of her backpack and run down to the woman’s aid, but thought better of it. Likely the three men—or boys, she couldn’t tell—were armed too. And they were likely to turn on her as well, even though she was still a day or two from true heat. She could not defend herself against a team of three. She pressed her face closer to the glass the better to see, then opened the window and leaned out. But the alley was quiet again, the shadows had moved out of range. Other windows had gone dark, too, and she could pictures other people, lone women like herself, lone men not yet ready, children even, peering out into the night to catch a glimpse; leaning, listening for more. None of them moving to help. Just like her.

And just like her closing their windows again, pulling their curtains shut, and turning their lights back on.

She was a little sick with herself. She should have done something, she should have helped. No, she should have left for the lake after all. This was crazy. And this was only the beginning. Not even the beginning, hadn’t even begun.

Her telephone sprang into life, and loudly. Lara jumped, then cursed. Virtually ran over to the damn thing and checked the calling number. A marketeer, with that number, a marketeer. She unplugged the set from the wall, then turned the television back on, for company if nothing else. Her pulse was still racing from the sudden sound. She willed herself calm and sat down.

The public service station aired a dos and don’ts program, and as timing would have it, one of the don’ts the cheerfully serious interviewee—an oldish, gray-haired woman, who looked more like a man than a woman, a professor something, UCLA—held out as very important was: Don’t get involved. You’ll only get hurt. There is no reasoning with a hunter, or a team. They will have bolstered themselves into a quiet, calculating frenzy. That is what the hunt is all about. Knowing, or at least convinced, that the victim wants the outcome. Why else would she beckon? No, the good professor shook her head quite emphatically, do not get involved. This is nature. Let it run its course. You’ll have enough problems of your own.

Let nature run its course? Even though she knew: this was nature during Season, Lara found the words hard to believe. Or accept. Some poor woman, or girl, was at this very moment falling pray to a team. And not willingly, no way willingly—those screams held real fear, real emotion; not play, not a game—which the woman on the screen was now if not actually claiming, at least suggesting.

Let nature run its course, the woman said again from the screen, as if a mantra, a solution to the whole problem.

She went on to other dos and don’ts, but Lara tuned out. Went back to the window, pulled back the curtains, but could see nothing now. Most of the lights were back on in the windows across the alley. Show’s over. Nature was running its course down below, out of sight.

That was as close as Lara came to getting her final things together and take off for the glade.

But no, God damn it, she had promised herself to stay, and she would stay. To take her mind off of what was happening outside, nature taking its course, she looked around the room for something, something, and decided on music. She found a CD of Peter Hurford’s Bach organ, put it on. Not too loudly, just enough to soothe. Enough to fill the room and blend with the many scents. Then she unpacked her Piglet backpack—who seemed resigned to its fate and did not kick up a fuss—then fixed herself a late dinner.

 

:: 31 ::

 

Harman-Karman looked out over his fading back yard, then down at his book, crisp in the pool of lamp light, and put pen to paper; casting a moving shadow across the sheet as he wrote:

 

H-K Journal—2/28/2008

As I thought: commercially, hell now reigns.

I did go to work. Debated a little whether or not to, though, but I can’t sit around the house all day for no good reason. Five guys were missing. I know they’re making a big deal out of it, but I think that perhaps the Seasons are starting earlier and earlier. I don’t remember so many guys out last year, not this early.

I kept things pretty well in check at work although things were coming on strongly, and in the end it was all I could do to stay till five.

And that’s it for work. I’m nearly tenting now, and scent is here as well now. I find it hard to concentrate, find it heard to write this even. As if someone’s installed a boiler somewhere near my heart—or liver or loins, hard to pinpoint—and turned the heat all the way up. My blood’s flowing a little faster, a little thinner (or thicker), a little closer to the surface, as if I’ve taken niacin, flushing and burning, but not with vitamin B: with Season, come to visit once again.

Now that the pact is off, I think I will hunt. The thought does appeal. The letting go. I’ve had many good hunts, and I have some more ones in me, I’m sure.

I will keep writing though. I will. I will.

No matter what happens, I will.

 

:: 32 ::

 

Alwyn Moore returned to her apartment late that night.

Partly proud—satisfied that she had done a good job, and especially pleased they had beaten the rest of the stations to St. Mary’s, by over an hour, as it turned out—and partly sick of it.

Her station’s ratings were very good, and she was as much the reason for that as anyone else, she knew that—something her pocketbook and bank accounts amply confirmed. But then there was her other life, her favorite place. Her unfinished, or rather—and more to the point—her often conceived but never really viable, novel. Stillborn, over and over. Re-started, over and over. Scrapped again, over and over. She had eight Chapter Ones on her hard drive, not counting the two that never made it that far. Stillborn novels all, incomplete, missing limbs, missing heart. Why she kept them, she had no idea. She should probably erase them.

And then she would turn to short stories. Short shorts, she called them. That’s to say, on good days she’d call them that, or sketches; on bad days she put them down to literary doodling or exercises. These she wrote by hand. She had a small mountain of them, in blue ink on thick white paper. Sketches in ink, the novel—the novel, was it the same novel over and over or a new one each time, she wasn’t sure—on the computer. That’s how she worked.

Two fictional lives: the lifetime, the marathon, the novel on the one hand, and the day, the dash, the sprint, the sketch on the other. This evening she couldn’t face either. She was too tired, too spent, exhausted, beat, bushed, drained, whatever the synonym, to even try. Instead she closed her eyes and toyed with these adjectives. Just too damn empty. No ink in her veins, nothing to say, nothing she had seen. Nothing to fan that quiver of curiosity that she recognized as the writer within her stirring. Nothing she had to say. No image she had to capture. That’s how she fell asleep. Coat on the sofa beside her, shoes barely off her feet. Dead to the world.

[*:*]

Until the sirens screamed her awake.

God, what time was it? She counted two, three, four cars. One police, one ambulance, and two fire trucks—she had long since learned to tell them apart by sound alone, you had to in her line of work. She pulled her left arm free and twisted her wristwatch band to see the dial, held it up to reflect the soft light from the street lamps outside, and finally made it out: three thirty. Oh, Christ.

A soft call from far below said to ignore the sirens, said to close her eyes. Said, you’d be an idiot not to sink back against the warm soft fabric of the sofa, or better yet, fall down to your right and curl up on it, drift back into wherever you just surfaced from.

And she was just about to heed the voice, when the professional in her—now stirring as well, registering the time, my God—took over. This was a big deal. At this hour, in this neighborhood. She ambled over to the phone and called the station’s night producer. James picked up on the second ring.

It was all over the emergency service frequencies. The Benedictine Convent in Hollywood was on fire. It was a four station call. It would have been the Glendale trucks she had heard rush by on Los Feliz Avenue two blocks north of her condo. And James had heard the word arson mentioned more than once, he said. The entire convent was in flames, all four corners on fire working itself toward the middle.

“Who have you got?” she asked.

“Bill and Francene are on their way.”

And the sofa beckoned again. But what she said was: “Mind if I go, too?”

“Live?”

“No. No, let them handle it. For extra footage. Background, perhaps. See what I can find.”

“No. I don’t mind.”

“Please call Tim, would you. Tell him to meet me there.”

“Where exactly?” James, ever the pragmatist. “It’ll probably be crowded.”

She thought briefly about the Convent layout. “Tell him to meet me at the Griffith Park entrance. Which street is that again?”

“Fern Dell and Los Feliz.”

“Yes, at Fern Dell.”

“Will do.”

“And to bring several cards.”

“Okay.”

She hung up. Then, by sheer habit, headed for her wardrobe to change clothes and then refresh her makeup, to get ready for a live broadcast, when she remembered that Bill was taking care of that. She didn’t have to pretty herself up. And thank God for that. All she needed was a warm jacket.

Then something hit home: The Benedictine Convent. On fire. James had mentioned arson. She shuddered, picked a jacket, and headed out into the dark February morning.

Once she got onto Los Feliz she saw the glow in the western sky as if from a large and distant city. Las Vegas from a hundred miles away. At Wayne, where the street crested, it was as if Los Feliz itself was running straight for an orange hue. She got a red light at Hillhurst and waiting for green the fire struck her as some evil sun trying to climb out of the west.

Two blocks later she could make out smoke, or thought she could. The reds and yellows rose and disappeared into a darkness thicker than night, which she took to be smoke.

Other fire trucks, green—also from Glendale—came up from behind and she pulled over to let them pass. Sirens blaring, engines racing. She set out after them. By the time she reached Fern Dell, and pulled off to her right, the fire was all you’d notice. Only a couple of blocks over now, the western sky was lit in yellow, red, almost green in places, and the smoke, the darker, billowing, vicious smoke.

Tim arrived a few minutes later. “Sorry,” he said. “They’ve blocked off Franklin. Had to get around it. Fire trucks everywhere.”

“What do you hear?” she asked.

“It’s now a five station alert,” he said, checking the battery of his camera.

“Arson?”

“That’s the word.”

“Are you okay there,” she said, nodding at the camera. “Cards?”

“Two extra, and one extra battery.” He patted his shoulder bag. “What’s your angle?”

“I don’t have one yet.”

“Bill and Francene doing the live?”

“Yes.”

“Which means that we are . . . ?”

“I want to find a different angle.”

“Literally?” he asked.

She looked up at him, smiled, “Yes, why not,” she said. “Let’s go to the North side.”

They got in his Jeep, better suited and less conspicuous than her Mercedes, took Fern Dell north to Live Oak which wound it’s way to Tyron. “You sure this will get us to the north side?” said Tim.

“No,” she said. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s park here.” She pointed at an empty spot four cars down. They climbed out, she looked around, took her bearings.

The local residents, awake of course, stood gaping in doorways and on lawns, or hung out windows, trying to understand what was happening, and so nearby. They struck Alwyn as a string of kids by a mammoth bonfire, enjoying the spectacle, watching the flames and smoke rise straight up—and very lucky, she thought, there’s no wind, or they would most likely find themselves homeless in a flash; something they seemed childishly oblivious to, all eyes and more eyes. Lots of mouths.

“Chained.” Someone to her left was telling someone else. She turned to face him. He was an older fellow, dressed in a security guard uniform, possibly ex-cop she decided, not making enough on his pension to retire altogether, or just not able to sit idle for the rest of his life, whichever. She said, “Chained?”

“Chained,” he said. Loudly, to be heard over the flames and the sirens that still squealed down Franklin heading in their direction. “Chained. The back gate was chained.”

“What do you mean?”

He took a long look at her, recognizing her most likely, or thinking he did, and now trying to place her oddly lit face. “Chained,” he said again. “The back gate’s been chained and padlocked.” Said as if very out of place.

“Normally it’s not?” she asked.

“That gate is never locked. It’s the north gate. They call it the North Gate.”

“Who calls it the North Gate?”

“You know, the homeless and so on. It’s well known around here that if they get too desperate they can always go to the North Gate. That,” and he pointed, “is the North Gate. Over there.”

Alwyn strained to see, but could not make out a gate among the flames and smoke.

“The North Gate?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know? That it was chained, I mean.”

“I noticed it, just as the fire started.”

“You saw the fire start?” Alwyn took one step aside to allow Tim to get a shot of this man. She couldn’t hear the camera pulse into action, the flames and the sirens drowned out what little noises it made, but she had worked with Tim long enough: when she stepped aside like this, giving him a clear shot, it meant: prime the mike, then get this on the card, as best you can.

“No, I came just after that.”

“Worked late?” she guessed.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“But you noticed the gate.”

“First I noticed the fire,” he said. “The flames rose over there,” he pointed to the south. “And over there,” he pointed to the east.

“At the same time?”

“At the same time.”

“And the gate?”

“Then I noticed the gate. Sometimes it stands ajar, you see, so I check it on my way home. I push it shut for them sometime. Some guy arrived and didn’t close it after him. So I looked, by reflex, you know, and it was secured, as we’d say.”

A cold fist brought the next question: “From the inside or outside?”

“Well, that’s just it,” said the man. “From what I could see, It was locked from the out side.”

As the meaning of this came rushing at her, Alwyn tried to steady herself into the professional.

“And you’re sure about this?” She asked. “It was chained from the outside?”

“Yes. I took a closer look just to make sure.”

“Thank you very much, Mister, Mister?”

“Chandler.”

“Mister Chandler.”

“Arthur.”

“Arthur Chandler?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Alwyn turned to Tim who nodded, yes, he’d gotten it.

A crowd was gathering around them in the unnatural dawn of the fire, half of them eyeing the interview, recognizing her, the other half looking at the fire raging. Growing taller, hotter. Angrier.

To Alwyn’s ear it wasn’t like a scream at all, not at first. It was like that whistle that a log can sometimes let go from a fireplace, amidst the crackling and sputtering of the consuming heat. A long whistle like that, only so much larger, longer, alive. The big log of the convent giving up its spirit. Only it wasn’t the convent, it wasn’t a log. It was a nun, or nuns, more than one voice. Human beings. Human logs. At least, that’s what she guessed, and her stomach suddenly grew very hollow, falling. Those were screams. They were burning.

Tim was filming the blaze. She had to touch him twice on the shoulder to get his attention. Motioned to him to follow her down Tyron Road. Listening again for the voices, she was no longer sure she could hear them, no longer sure what she was hearing, they were too indistinct, drowned by the roar of flames. And hoping she was wrong.

“Do you hear screams?” she asked him.

He stopped to listen. “No,” he said.

“I could have sworn.”

“The nuns?”

“The North Gate was locked,” she said. “From the outside.”

“Yes, I heard that.”

“Is there a west gate?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

They moved down the road, negotiating around people who didn’t see them coming, who only saw the fire, not diminishing, as if the convent was unexpectedly rich: a well-stocked larder, a feast for flames.

They came to the westward bend in Tyron Road and from here they could see the gate. She had no idea whether it was called the Western Gate, but she could tell—now that she was looking for it: it too had been chained shut. She could see no lock, however, could not tell whether it had been locked from within or without, but she could see the chain, and she thought she could see the outline of a body a few feet inside the gate. Charred habit, a something large dropped on the ground, perhaps covering something alive, or recently alive.

Again, she thought she heard a scream, though it was very hard to tell over the roar, the storm of the fire. “There,” she said to Tim, who again didn’t hear. He was busy, his job, getting it all on the card. “Can you hear it?” she said, louder this time. He lowered the camera and listened. “No,” he said. “Just the fire.”

“Maybe it’s me,” she said.

But then the scream tore itself from the fire, rose on more than just pain, it rose on anguish, on rage. It finally reached everyone’s ear and they looked at each other, first in wonder, then in horror. “They haven’t gotten them out?” said one woman to no one in particular. Incredulous. At least on the surface, thought Alwyn. Also a little pleased: the catastrophe was improving.

“They’re burning,” said the same woman, this time to the man next to her. “The nuns are burning.” To Alwyn’s ear the woman actually sounded elated.

Four firemen came rushing across the lawn to the south of where they stood. Tools, cutters. More firemen behind, a hose, and another.

“Are they still in there?” she shouted at one of the helmeted fighters but either he didn’t hear her or he ignored her, intent on his job. She didn’t repeat the question. Instead she looked behind her to make sure Tim was getting this. He was.

The four fighters approached the west gate, almost reached it, but did not take the few final steps. Could not. It was simply too hot. The men coming up behind them with the hose stopped too, then began shouting to others farther down the line. Alwyn realized that the hose was not long enough, they were yelling for an extension.

She looked back up Tyron Road for sings of hydrants, but could see none. Of course, these men would know where they were. Minutes passed. Long, long minutes. Tim was filming. No one got nearer to the gate. The fire, if anything, was intensifying.

There was another scream, more than one. Two. Three nuns, rushing out of the burning building through a small door perhaps a hundred feet from the gate. In flames.

Out of nowhere—perhaps wishfully—Alwyn thought of stunt men, this was a film set. This was not real. These nuns were well protected underneath—hardy stuntmen. Let the cameras get everything in the can, then the foam will reach them and cool them and they will step out of their costumes smiling and high-fiving, safe and sound.

But these screams were not scripted. You don’t act anguish like this. These women were dying, horribly, painfully, rushing for the gate, one of the them falling down now, still in flames, still screaming; then the second, tumbling, flailing like something epileptic, on the ground, rolling, and suddenly, instantly still and quiet; the third—even from where she stood Alwyn could sense the strength in that woman—reached the gate and grabbed it with both hands, grabbed the nearly red hot iron bars with both hands, searing them to the gate, and screaming louder now, with the fresh pain. Then she simply expired. Turned dead quiet, slumped down against the gate, her hands holding her up, still welded in their original grip. She struck Alwyn as someone hanging by tied hands to a whipping post after a hundred lashes, killed by her punishment (and chided herself for thinking: she must remember this, she must remember these details, how would she put this in words—disgusted at her mind’s detachment, at it’s inhuman fascination with exactly how her hands were welded to the searing metal).

Finally another huge roll of fire hose was brought up and joined to the one already in place. Plenty long enough now. And then the water. She could hear it fill the hose, rush to the rescue.

And then the water threw itself on the flames, on the gate, turning to steam, to cloud at first, then cooling the gate enough to remain water a little longer, a little farther. Extinguishing the shape slumped against the gate. And giving dimension to the outline already on the ground. More than just an outline. Charred.

Alwyn could here more fire truck approaching, sirens wailing, rushing up Western. The smoke rising from the burning convent now mixed with steam, and the light was lessening a little as the water fell and fell from many directions. She thought of crossing the long, sloping lawn to the south side of the grounds, but she saw more fire crew approaching in their direction and did not want to get in the way. Instead she got Tim’s attention and motioned for him to follow. She needed to find someone in charge. The fire or police chief. Someone who knew. She had to make sure.

Once they reached Tim’s Jeep they realized there was no driving it anywhere. The narrow street was jammed now with other vehicles. Two Station vans included. Setting up to report on the fire. But there was more to this than fire, than arson. This, quite possibly, was premeditated murder. It was insanity. It was . . . , she could find no words for it. But she had to confirm, had to find someone who knew for certain.

They returned down Tyron Road on foot, Alwyn almost running, Tim in tow. To reach the southern gate of the campus they would have to cross the large lawn to the west of the convent, and Alwyn set out in that direction. There had to be someone in charge, perhaps closer to Franklin.

Could this be what it appeared to be? And if so—and this finally struck her, though it should have occurred to her sooner—could it possibly be Season related?

Something caught her eye, more like a shadow than a clear impression. It struck her as a thin, silently moving tree. Leafless, just trunk and branches. Then the image of Flay, Mervyn Peak’s skin and bones only manservant from Gormenghast flitted across some internal screen. It was familiar, this shadow, but not from a book, no, and from not so long ago: Los Angeles. Downtown, about two weeks ago, recently anyway. And then it came to her, and she had to smile, the horrible circumstance notwithstanding: It was Blackburn Small.

So aptly and yet so inaptly named—they had joked about it more than once. All six foot two of him, slim as a willow, but with the incompatible name of Small, which he was so very far from. And he, a Blackburn, worked for the LAPD’s arson investigation unit. Headed it up, nowadays. The first time she met him and he told her his name, she couldn’t stop giggling for what was definitely an unconscionable amount of time. It just struck her so, so; well, if you had sat down to plan it, you could not have topped it. She wasn’t giggling now though, and her smile soon faded, too. But this was the man she wanted to see, perhaps whom she had intuitively set out to find. He was moving about, smoothly, studying the ground, looking for who knows what. She was very pleased, professionally, that he was alone, no other reporters around; Mr. Small, for all intents and purposes, as yet unnoticed.

And neither had he seen her and Tim. He straightened now, looked back down at the ground and then followed some trace or path with his eyes. Alwyn tried to discern what, but couldn’t. Then, as if he had found or seen something, he headed away from them, back toward Franklin. Alwyn picked up her pace to a flat out run. Tim protested somewhere behind her, he had the camera to lug, plus he was almost twice her weight.

“Blackburn.” It wasn’t quite a shout. But loud enough to reach him over the din of the fire and stop him in his tracks. He turned around, alarmed at first, then frowning. She was not a welcome sight, at least not on first reflection. “Alwyn,” he said. “So soon.”

“I live nearby,” she said.

“Ah,” he nodded.

In the reddish light of the fire he looked more like a large bird than a tree, a thin wading thing, picking at things by his feet. “The gates,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“This was deliberate,” she stated more than asked.

He looked at hear for a while, scrutinized would be the word. Making her out. As if assessing how much she might know and how much to trust her with. Then made up his mind, “Not only was it deliberate,” he said. “They wanted us to know it was deliberate.”

“They?”

“Oh, this took coordination. A team.”

“You can tell?”

“Look,” he said. “This is not the best time.”

“I’m know. I’m sorry. When can we talk?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you give me an exclusive on this?”

“You know I can’t.”

“Just two minutes. Please.”

“Two minutes,” he said, and held up two of his long spindly fingers.

“How can you be sure this is the work of several people?”

“This fire started in at least six, perhaps eight different places, simultaneously. Points of the compass.”

“Points of the compass?”

“Evenly spaced round all directions.” Then he noticed Tim, noticed the little red dot blinking which meant the camera was on, filming. “Turn that off,” he said. It wasn’t a request. It was an order. Alwyn motioned for Tim to do so.

“And the gates?” she said.

“Yes.” He confirmed.

“They were locked?”

“Yes.”

“From the outside?”

“From what I can tell.”

“So then,” she said. “This is not only arson, is it?”

“No,” he said. “It’s not only arson.”

“Why?” she heard herself almost stutter. “How could?”

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s insane.”

“Storm-related?”

“Who knows.” Then he looked over at Tim, as if to make sure he was not filming. “I’ve got to go,” he said.

“You said two minutes.”

“It’s been two minutes.”

“I has not.”

“I’ve got to go.”

Alwyn watched the crane-willow-Flay of a man move away, still following some trail on the ground she still could not make out. She turned to Tim. “You get that?”

“Yes,” he said. He had simply covered the red light with his finger. He was nothing if not a professional.

She nodded, “Good.”

When she turned back to see where Blackburn Small was headed she could no longer spot him. No way of telling where he had gone. “Let’s get some more footage of the gates,” she said.

[*:*]

By the time Alwyn and Tim got to the station it was almost six o’clock; though it might as well have been four in the afternoon and its mad rush for the five-o’clock news. Seemed like everyone not already in Season was in. James was still running things: he was officially in charge of the station until eight a.m., which is when Shirley Fields would take over. Shirley was in, too, of course, in her office, on the phone. Most of the office was on the phone; and from what Alwyn could make out, it was all about the convent fire.

The Arson.

But as yet, not about the murders.

She tapped on the glass wall of Shirley Fields’ office. Shirley, a rather stout woman in her early forties with a face no older than thirty-five, and hair no older than twenty, looked up and motioned for Alwyn and Tim to enter.

By the time they had, she was off the phone.

“The fire,” said Alwyn. “What do the other stations have?”

“Same as us, pretty much. It’s arson, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Bill?”

“We’ve aired two reports from him already. We’re doing well here.”

“And the gates?”

Her day producer looked at her quizzically. “The gates?”

“Has anyone mentioned the gates yet?”

“No,” she said, still a little puzzled. “Not to my knowledge. What about them?”

“They were all locked,” said Alwyn. “Every gate was chained and locked—from the outside. No one could get out.”

Shirley Fields took this in, looked from Alwyn to Tim to Alwyn, “You have got to be kidding.”

“No. Blackburn confirmed it.”

“Blackburn Small?”

“Yes.”

“But, Alwyn,” said the day producer, the professional, and not without excitement, “that’s huge.”

“I know.”

“Do you have enough to go with that?”

“I do.”

“Let me call James. Better yet, let’s go see him.”

The three of them, Shirley, Alwyn and Tim, almost ran down the corridor to James Bittle’s office. He was also on the phone. Saw them approach, waved them in, and hung up.

“We’ve got to go with this right away,” said Shirley. “Your decision, of course.”

Alwyn explained. Of course they went with it. It was an exclusive. She would have to mollify Blackburn Small—who would be furious about this—later. He would understand though, eventually. He was a professional. She was a professional. Jobs to do. Just doing hers.

 

:: 33 ::

 

According to Thurman Wright—who made it his life’s work to trace and document historical evidence of the Storm—the first recorded mention of it dates from pre-Aryan India, to the Harappa civilization of about 3,000 B.K., say five thousand years ago. Naturally, there are scholars who claim that the Rig Veda—which is replete with references to the Storm—predates Harappa, although those form a small minority.

It was Thurman Wright’s now famous archeological expedition to current Pakistan that in 1992 unearthed the Harappan Tablets containing writing which by accepted dogma predates the Rig Veda by well over a thousand years. Many references are made in these writings, so Wright maintains—and many agree—to the Storm; though others (the field of Storm Philosophy is nothing if not argumentative) claim that those references are to a flood, an actual prehistoric disaster, perhaps the Biblical Flood (a popular conclusion), and further claim that the Harappan word veeni really means water, or the sea, hence flood. Not storm.

In fact, Wright concedes this point—he agrees, veeni does indeed mean water—but then quickly adds that the Harappans most likely conceived of the Storm as originating in the sea, much like those East Coast philosophers of today who sees the Storm rise out of the Atlantic, or those in the West Coast who still look to the Pacific as the source.

But Wright also, in one of his rebuttals to his critics, points not only to the writing, but to the entire Harappan civilization, including its cities (which, he claims, included what we today refer to as bunkers, places where husbands and wives could ride out the Storm, protected from, and undisturbed by, other elements, such as hunters), and to its many artifacts, often detailed and well preserved, as supporting his theories and conclusions.

For one, it is well established—and for the most part agreed—that many of the Harappan terracotta figurines that have been found—and by carbon-14 dating established as at least five thousand years old—depict their subjects in heat. The act of copulation is indisputable in some of these clay dolls, though there is no way to ascertain whether this act was consensual or not; the figurine faces of both males and females seem to depict pleasure but, as we know, sexual pleasure is well-nigh indistinguishable from such pain as would indicate, say, UII—for, as has often been pointed out and elaborated on—the face of a man or woman in sexual ecstasy is virtually indistinguishable from a face in pain: the grimace of ecstasy, the rictus of Storm.

What Wright stresses, however, is that when you compare the figurines in heat with other Harappan terracotta artifacts, say those of ox-drawn carts, or buildings or tools or toy animals—some of these even with moving parts and heads—you will notice that the un-copulating figurines are more elaborate and exquisite in their detail, as if more care, more time, or more concentration (is the word Wright uses) was applied to them; whereas the in-heat figurines seem rushed or frenzied by comparison, as if produced in heat, signaling, he concludes, that the cycle, as we know it, clearly existed at that time.

Further signaling, he says, that the Storm was on their artists’ minds, and, by extension, that this is what the Harappan Tablets allude to as well.

To be sure, no one disputes that the cycle existed then, how else would the species have procreated? The dispute (waning as of late) is whether or not the Harappan Tablets do in fact mention the Storm or not.

However, Wright does not rest there, he also maintains that the tablets speculate on ways to rise above the Storm, on how to remain untouched, but even he has conceded that we as yet do not know enough about the Harappan language to claim this with any degree of certainty.

Be that as it may.

[*:*]

By the time of the Rig Veda, dating—according to most experts—back to about 1600 B.K., all ambiguity, and disagreements, as to Storm references are gone. The Aryan priests were quite wordy about it, and much of the early part of this collection of writings deals primarily with the Storm and its perceived problems: how to know it (not very hard), how to face it (harder), how to escape it (ride it out—harder still), how to transcend it (stay untouched—nigh impossible).

The latter part of the Rig Veda then proceeds into the ultimate causes and effects, beyond and before (and after) any and all Storms, as do many of the other Vedic Hymns.

[*:*]

The Upanishads, mostly dating from about 800 B.K., and which many take to be musings and extensions of the Vedic Hymns, attempt to probe what Thurman Wright refers to as the celestial backgrounds of the Storm and other mysteries, and may indeed be the first written record of the Storm as Mystery. There is no doubt that by this time Eastern Religion is more or less preoccupied with how to deal with—and how to transcend—our annual insanity (as Thurman Wright puts it).

[*:*]

About 525 B.K., Siddhāttha Gotama—by what strength and insight is not really known or understood—with his Season approaching, sat down beneath a pipal tree (now known as a bodhi tree) at Bodh Gaya to stare Mara down—vowing not to rise until he had found the truth about Mara—Mara originally meant “you kill” in Sanskrit but had by then, by what ancient insight is not known either, been adopted as the Indian word for the Storm.

This he proceeded to accomplish, and after forty-nine unwavering days of facing not only the Storm but the balance of existence, he transcended both Storm and body (if accounts of the event are to be given credence—which Thurman Wright does).

At this point—whether still exterior to his body he does not say, but legend has it that he remained exterior to the Storm for the remainder of his days—he is reported to have told the small gathering by him that he had come to realize full awakening and with it insight into the nature and cause of human suffering—which, in his words, was ignorance—along with the steps necessary to eliminate it.

These steps he named the Four Noble Truths.

The state of Supreme Liberation—the goal of all humanity, and which he claimed was attainable by any being—is Nirvana, and having attained it for himself he came to possess the Nine Characteristics which are said to belong to every Buddha— Siddhāttha Gotama never claimed to be the first, nor the last.

According to one of the stories in the Āyācana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya VI.1), a scripture found in both Pāli and other canons: immediately after his Enlightenment, the Buddha pondered whether or not he should teach the Dharma (meaning the teachings of the Buddha that lead to enlightenment, or the constituent factors of the experienced world) to human beings.

The Buddha was concerned that as human beings were overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, they would not be able to see the true dharma, which was subtle, deep and hard to understand. However, a divine spirit, Brahmā Sahampati, interceded on humanity’s behalf and bade that he teach the dharma to the world.

The divine spirit said, “There are those who will understand the Dharma.”

The Buddha bowed his head in acceptance.

Thus guided, and through his compassion for all beings in the universe, the Buddha become a teacher.

[*:*]

And taught Four Noble Truths.

He taught the First Noble Truth; He taught the Nature of Dukkha: All life is suffering.

The word Dukkha mean “suffering.”

Storm is dukkha, birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha; union with what is displeasing is dukkha; separation from what is pleasing is dukkha; to not get what one wants is dukkha; to get what one does not want is dukkha.

He taught the Second Noble Truth; He taught the Origin of Dukkha: Samudaya.

Samudaya means “desire” in all its many forms—some ancients make no distinction between Samudaya and Storm.

The Second Nobel Truth states that suffering is caused by desire, by the craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust—the Storm in so many words; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, and the craving for extermination: “I die that you may live” is perhaps the Storm’s darkest message.

Suffering rises from dreams—whether fulfilled or not—gendered by our desires, and our attachment to—our adoption of, our embracing, our belief that we are one with—those desires; for even when our desires are fulfilled our desires are not extinguished, rather that fire is fueled and we desire more and more until we have devoured the entire Universe and become just so much cold, lonely rock.

He taught the Third Noble Truth; He taught the Cessation of Dukkha: Nirodha.

Nirodha means “elimination.”

It means emptying, it means releasing, it means letting go of.

He taught us that to eliminate suffering, we must eliminate desire. This elimination is the remainderless fading and cessation of craving, the giving up and letting go, freedom from it, and non-reliance on it.

The third Noble Truth says that thus suffering can be eliminated, and it asserts that it can be done, that it has been done—and that ascension is possible.

He taught the Fourth Noble Truth; He taught the Way Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha: Magga.

Magga means “path.” It means the eightfold path leading to the end of all suffering.

He taught us that to eliminate desire we must follow this path and live by these holy concepts: the right view, the right intention, the right speech, the right action, the right livelihood, the right effort, right the mindfulness, and the right concentration.

While it is not disputed—at least not among non-Kristians—that the Buddha was enlightened, and that he achieved a state of Bodhi; that he was in fact Untouched; it is also clear that neither the Buddha nor his followers were accomplished takers of notes, for nowhere can we find documented a workable method—with stress on workable—of transcending the Storm.

What He instead handed down was an oral and somewhat vague tradition of guidelines—which, to be sure, have subsequently been put down, and elaborated upon—or as Bertrand Fokke puts it in his A Critical View of the Holy: “The Buddha left behind him a be-good path of not much use to the modern man.”

And one might wonder, as does Fokke quite explicitly, how the Buddha would have viewed—or transcend, for that matter—our current avalanche of commercials and advertisements come Season time.

Ignoring, and so ascending, the Season may have been a lot simpler in the Sixth Century B.K., though there is no telling for sure, of course.

This be-good path—as Fokke puts it, and as mentioned above—can be summarized, as Fokke does in his seminal work, as follows:

Life is full of suffering; suffering is the result of craving or desire; suffering can end when desire ends; and the way to end desire is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path; which consists of:

Right views, right aspiration (regarding one’s mind-set), right speech, right conduct, right livelihood (regarding one’s ethics), right effort, right mindfulness, and right contemplation (regarding one’s knowledge).

Thus, for our times, the bottom line: be good.

Which bottom line does not in any fundamental respect differ from the one given us by—though somewhat better, or sooner, documented—Jesus Kristus.

And men have tried: they have hunted, they have violated, they have killed, they have died being thusly good.

Fokke, it is said, died a miserable man, being thusly good.

Yet, in fairness to objectivity, there are men, though mostly in the East, who claim that this four-by-eight path (one of Mr. Fokke’s more humorous, if somewhat condescending, turns of phrase) does indeed work, has led them to ascension.

Fokke may not have been good enough. May not have given the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Paths sufficient credence.

It may well be that there is more to this than met Fokke’s eye, that there is more to it than simply be good.

Do we then turn to the Buddha for answers?

 

:: 34 ::

 

Leap day dawned gray and cold.

At least Vixer’s nose—which is what woke Harry this morning—had nothing warm about it. Nudging him first on his cheek, then his neck, then his cheek again until it was no longer possible to ignore the cold, moist affection of man’s best friend.

Whenever Harry overslept—and Vixer consequently over-hungered—a battle of wills would ensue, which Vixer always won. Sometimes, granted, it took licking Harry’s face for some time, but in the end it was always Harry who conceded defeat, who pulled himself out of bed and served Vixer his Doggy Chow Chow breakfast. And this last of February morning was no different.

Was it the Season, the leap day, his improved scent—definitely in full bloom now—or did the Doggy Chow Chow all of a sudden appeal to him? Harry had to smile to himself as Vixer out-and-out attached his food.

But his smile faded as he noticed the spasms below, so unmistakably stirring. Today may well be the day. And no preparations. None.

There was no thinking about going to work, he could flare at any moment—not that he expected to, not until perhaps later in the day, if previous years was anything to go by. So, instead he set water boiling and stepped outside to fetch the paper. The breeze was cool and soft and from the north. And a stream of fragrance, above all from his pine, which seemed twice as substantial for its vivid thereness: Harry had to stop, turn to it and look. It was almost as if it spoke to him. As if it wanted to embrace him, take him in and shield him.

Then he regained the slipping grip on himself, shivered himself awake, or more awake, out of these strange notions. He turned from the tree and collected his LA Times.

The convent fire had made it onto the front page, barely—not enough time for full coverage before going to press. But there was a column outlining the stark facts. Arson, a virtual certainty. So far no survivors. The very good picture of burning nuns struck Harry so hard that he had a sudden urge to vomit.

It was all over the television news, of course. Fire still raging.

Then the ominous exclusive from KTLA: Alwyn Moore’s interview with Blackburn Small. About chains, and locked gates. The grim picture she painted with dub-over commentary drew an even grimmer conclusion: They were meant to burn. This was carefully planned mass murder.

Harry’s nausea returned, and again he fought it down. Vixer came into the front room from the kitchen and stopped to look at the television flames, as if he too were disturbed by the news. Then he looked up at Harry, a glance Harry couldn’t make out at all. Concerned, almost.

The knock on the door was Harman-Karman’s. Vixer and Harry turned their heads in unison.

“It’s open,” Harry said, loudly enough to make Vixer look back at him, in wonder. What’s the deal? He hears better than I do.

The door rattled. Was locked. Harry got up and let Harman-Karman in.

“I’m pretty much there,” said Harman-Karman. His voice a little lower than usual. There was tension, too.

“Me too, probably later today,” said Harry.

“I’ve decided,” said Harman-Karman, and sat down.

Instead of answering, Harry turned toward the television again as a clearly annoyed Blackburn Small came on with a voice rather louder than the question, “It’s speculation, pure and simple. It is an ongoing investigation. Nothing has been determined.”

“But we have you on record,” said the reporter.

“On record?” It sounded like a small explosion. “I have said nothing on record about this. And I have nothing further to say.”

With that, Blackburn Small made to move away.

“But it is arson, right?”

The arson specialist hesitated, then turned toward the reporter, “Yes. It is arson.” No uncertainty.

“But the gates were not locked, is that what you’re saying?”

“It’s an ongoing investigation, is what I’m saying.”

“We can see what looks like chains,” said the reporter.

“Until the fire is out we cannot make a determination.” And with that Blackburn Small did make his escape.

“That was Blackburn Small of the LAPD Arson Unit heading up the investigation of the early morning fire at the Benedictine Convent in Hollywood, still raging behind me as you can see. Over to you.”

Harry shook his head. “You seen this?”

Harman-Karman shook his head that he had not. “What’s with the gates?”

“They were chained and locked, apparently. Before they set fire to the place.”

“So how did they get out?” asked Harman-Karman.

“That’s just it. The didn’t.”

“Jesus.”

“Precisely.”

“Everyone?”

“As far as they can tell.”

“Jesus.”

There were more pictures of the fire. An areal shot. Different angles and distances. Flames were still feeding hungrily and smoke billowed up into the now gray morning sky. With dawn, the winds had picked up and they were showing the evacuation of some of the nearby buildings, just in case.

Another shot focused on one of the gates, hard to make out through the mist and smoke, but surely, those were chains securing it shut, were they not?

When the picture abruptly returned to the studio and the pleasant, now excited, face of the anchor re-appeared with the stock phrase, “This just in.”

He was holding up a letter sized sheet of paper, an email just received by the studio, he said. “I will read it to you.”

He looked it over, perhaps for the first time. “It’s cryptic,” he said, more to himself than to the camera. Then he looked back up, and into Harry’s living room, and read:

“For centuries they have denied us our God-given right. For centuries they have held the Seasonal Storm up to ridicule and scorn. For centuries they have locked themselves away from healthy man, denying him. Well, if it be their wish to die, who are we to refuse them?”

The talking head looked the message over again. “It is signed The Western Front,” he said.

“The Western Front?” said Harman-Karman.

Harry was still shaking his head, slowly back and forth.

“Ever heard of them?”

“No,” said Harry. “Never.”

 

:: 35 ::

 

“The Western Front?”

Alwyn Moore, lack of sleep finally catching up as the rush of the fire was wearing off, looked up from her copy of the email and back at Shirley Fields, her producer.

“Yes, that’s what it says.”

“Every heard of them?”

“No, never.”

“Sounds like a weather system.”

“Or a war zone.”

“Or a war zone,” said Alwyn.

“You want to run with this?”

“Absolutely,” answered Alwyn.

“After you’ve caught up on some sleep,” said Fields. “You don’t look your best.”

“A shower and I’ll be fine. And I’ll have make-up touch me up.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

 

:: 36 ::

 

Lara dreamed of the lake by the glade. Or of lakes. There were many. All so different, still all so the same. And of trees, sentinels all, rimming lakes and glades large and small. Stern trees, whispering trees, disapproving trees, embracing trees, contemptuous trees, but in the end, even the oldest and sternest: welcoming trees, branches reaching for her and providing safe passage.

And other lakes, still and hidden; roots reaching for and finding them beneath and out of sight, drawing strength and sustenance from these waters unseen.

Shifting trees and shifting lakes now beckoning her, now greeting her, now warning her, now lamenting her, depending on lake and the mood of the forest.

And then her own glade swam back into focus, her own lake, her own stern and barky parents standing guard on a Lara-less glade wondering where she might have gone to. They did care.

At first she did not want to wake up, did not want to surface; wanted to remain, secure in the arms of caring water and forest.

But the doorbell insisted. And again.

She scrambled out of bed—one leg still in her dream—and one-leggedly navigated out to the front door. The bell rang again.

Lara peaked out through the spy hole at the optically bloated features of Helen. She unchained the door and opened it.

“You are all right,” said Helen on seeing her.

“Sure. I’m fine.”

“When you didn’t come in, I tried to call you. There was no answer. And you said you would stay in town.”

“What time is it?”

“About ten.”

“Oh, my. Guess I didn’t want to wake up.”

“And there was no answer,” said Helen again.

“No, I unplugged it.”

Helen didn’t answer.

“Want to come in?” asked Lara and stepped aside, holding the door open for Helen, who after a moment’s hesitation, entered, looked around, and then sat down on the living room sofa. “Did you hear about the fire?” she asked.

“No, what fire?”

“The Benedictine Convent.”

“In Hollywood?”

“Yes. To the ground.”

“Wow.” Lara was standing in the kitchen doorway, halfway to making them some coffee. A spoon in her hand. Still now, listening. There was more to this.

“No one made it.”

“What do you mean?”

“They all died.”

“The nuns?”

“Yes.”

“How on Earth?”

“It was arson. And the bastards had chained all the gates shut. They apparently lit six or eight simultaneous fires round the perimeter of the convent. They didn’t have a chance.”

Lara looked at Helen as if trying to make her out, what was she saying? “But that’s murder.”

“That’s what they’re calling it.”

“Jesus.” Lara sat down, spoon still in hand, coffee forgotten. Shaking her head slowly. “That’s insane.”

“That’s what they’re calling it that too.”

“What?”

“Insane. Seasonal insanity.”

“It’s Season related?”

“Apparently. The Western Front.”

“The what?”

“The Western Front. That’s what they’re calling themselves. They emailed one of the stations. Claimed credit. For denying them their Earth-given right.”

“Earth-given right? What Earth-given right?”

“To copulate, I guess.”

“With the nuns?” Lara could not believe what she heard.

“That’s what they think they mean.”

“Has this ever . . . ?” Lara fell silent, not knowing exactly what to ask.

“No,” said Helen. “Not as far as I know.” Then added, looking at Lara’s dark television. “It’s probably on all the stations, if you want to see for yourself.”

Lara looked up at her from her many lakes and trees. “No, I’d rather not.”

She discovered the spoon in her hand and looked at it as if wondering what on earth, then remembered the coffee and rose for the kitchen.

“How are you coming along?” asked Helen from the living room.

“Today, probably,” said Lara, measuring water and spoons of ground coffee into the percolator. “Scent’s in bloom.”

“And what are your plans?”

She came to the door. “So far, none.”

“You’d better think of something, honey. It’s getting pretty crazy out there. Apart from the fire, the UII count is well over a thousand now. It’s getting to be unsafe again.”

Lara didn’t respond. Then, “And you?”

“About the same. Scent’s in bloom. Larry’s too.”

“The kids?”

“We’re taking them to the center later today.”

“And then the bunker, huh?”

“Then the bunker,” echoed Helen with a quick smile, not necessarily looking forward to it. “We’re thinking of scent proofing it next year.”

“That’s going to set up back a bundle.”

“Larry says the cost should come down.”

“You’ll be safe enough, though. Right?”

“Sure.”

“I mean, what can happened. Everything’s locked, right?”

“I tend to emanate quite a bit,” answered Helen. “We’ve had the front door rattle more than once. But they haven’t been anxious enough to break in. Not yet. It’s a house and they figure there’s an armed husband around somewhere. But what if the next team is anxious enough?”

Lara though of saying she was sure Helen would be fine, but those would be empty words. She had no way of knowing that, it was only a hope, or something you said without thinking.

Instead she said, “Larry’s a big guy.”

“But no match for an armed team.”

Lara shivered, willing herself not to picture it. “Let’s hope not.”

Helen nodded. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.” More to assuage Lara’s concern than her own. “Gotta get back. Just wanted to check up on you.”

“How about the oHoHocoffee?”

“I’d better get back.”

Helen stood up. Lara followed her to the door. There was an awkward moment when they both realized that this was the last time they would see each other for a while. It could even be forever. Helen moved to give Lara a hug. Lara, not the effusive kind, shied away at first, a foal starting at the gesture, then embrace her boss as well. “You take care, kiddo,” said Helen, Lara’s senior by not that much.

“You too,” said Lara, and finding the embrace strangely comforting, squeezed Helen tightly and for many breaths.

 

:: 37 ::

 

“You were saying,” said Harry.

Harman-Karman looked away from more pictures of the fire, and back at Harry. “About what?”

“You said you’ve decided.”

“Yes, I’ve decided.”

“Decided what?”

“I’m hunting,” said Harman-Karman, looking back at the screen. Someone being interviewed now.

“Hunting?”

“To be honest, I miss it.”

When Harry didn’t answer, Harman-Karman said, “The more I think about it, the more appealing it becomes.”

“So don’t think about it.”

“You know that’s not an option.”

Again, Harry didn’t answer.

“I’m hunting. I came over to let you know. And to check, of course, if you’d consider it.”

“Whether I’d consider hunting?” Harry looked away from the screen.

“Yes. Team up.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“I thought not.”

“I won’t be seeing much of you then,” said Harry.

“I doubt it. I’m heading out to equip right now.”

“Equip?”

“Well, re-equip. Remember?”

Harry remembered. Harman-Karman had lost his gear during the last hunt.”

“I remember.”

“I’ve got to be ready by full bloom, which, by the feel of things, is not far off. Scent’s already in bloom, and I can hear for blocks. Tonight, by the latest, it will be all risen.”

“Interesting choice of words,” said Harry. Then sighed. He cast another glance at the television set where they still discussed The Fire as the lettering across the top of the screen spelled out, then they cut to a commercial and Harry looked back at his friend. “When are you off?”

“Now, actually.”

Harry didn’t say anything for several moments. Wasn’t quite sure what to say. These moments always arrive abruptly. Even though you’ve been expecting them, have known them to be not very far off. “Well, you take care, then,” he finally said. What else was there to say? “I’ll see you when I see you. After, I guess.”

“Will do,” said Harman-Karman. A quick, almost embarrassed smile. “And you too. I’ll see you after.”

Then he stood up and helped himself out. He didn’t look back. Tall, eager. Anticipating the hunt, thought Harry.

 

:: 38 ::

 

At first Fletcher Jones thought he must have been on a drinking spree and that this was a serious hangover. Then he opened his eyes onto a ceiling he did not recognize, at all. Could not make out where he was. And these odors. Nothing like Sam’s garage. Or any other place else he knew, for that matter. Too clean. And those long islands of fluorescents. Could mean what? Jail? He was in jail? How could he be in jail? Too many fixtures for jail, he finally concluded. Then his knee woke up too: first as distant ache, like a sound almost, far away, then closer, and then fully arrived, strong and insistent. And everything came back to him: he was in the hospital. Sam had brought him. And, ah yes, lots of women around, he remembered. Had taken quite a few guys to tear him off of them, or her. Yes, it all returned: definitely, the hospital.

Then, as he shifted, his left knee screamed another reminder, and Fletcher could not help but moan at first, then swear, loudly.

A nurse showed up. From where was hard to say. “Knee bothering you?”

What a damn question.

“You could say that.” He bent his head around to get a better look at the guy. One of those neutereds. They fascinated him. The impossibility of them. He just couldn’t picture it. As if they were a different race of men, a different species even.

This one was blond. Thinning hair combed back; a shiny face with blue eyes. Not much of a guy. Small ears, he thought. Not to scale somehow.

Then he noticed the straps. “What the hell.” And began pulling, but only until the knee again screamed at him.

“Just making sure,” said the nurse, nodding at the straps. “You went wild last night.”

“Only natural,” said Fletcher.

“Be that as it may,” said the nurse.

“Got anything for the damn knee?”

“I’ll check with the doctor.”

“It’s killing me.”

“I’ll check with the doctor.”

“She kicked me.”

“What?”

“The bitch, she kicked me.”

The nurse turned and left him.

 

:: 39 ::

 

He is not a nice-looking guy. Not by any stretch.

Now, I’ve seen worse, to be sure, but there is something real sinister about this one. He’s hungry; all hunger. I can tell despite the medication. Let loose he’d probably kill me to get to the women again. A beast, this one. A talking beast. His knee doesn’t look too good though; discolored and some pus, I’d say. Hurts him, he says. He’s asking for something for the pain. Were it up to me I wouldn’t give him anything for it. Let the bastard suffer.

But it’s not up to me. I’ll have to tell the doctor. Besides, the doctor will want to speak to him now that he’s awake.

Why don’t we just neuter these people?

 

:: 40 ::

 

Blackburn Small was yelling into his phone with a voice that carried quite well despite a shut door and thick glass; Alwyn had no problem making out the gist of it. He was letting his secretary—who now, phone to his ear, was looking up at Alwyn with an apologetic smile—know exactly what he thought of her.

And this gist was: “No, I’m not seeing that bitch.”

Then he looked up and through the glass and caught her eye. “Sorry,” she mouthed silently, as clearly as she could. “Really sorry.”

He didn’t smile. Nor soften. Nor would he see her.

Damn it.

Please.

No.

[*:*]

Alwyn knew when to cut her losses. She thanked the secretary for his help—he tried anyway—turned, and headed out of LAPD’s downtown HQ; and now, to complicate matters, disturbingly aware of scents. The timing could not have been worse.

She put a call in to Shirley Fields back at the studio, and told her she would be out for an hour or so, had to take care of some things; “And, Shirley, I need a sitter. The sooner the better.”

Her boss understood and would get right on it.

Alwyn then drove through light traffic on to the 110 freeway for Pasadena and her personal physician. She needed her annual delayer, and she needed it as soon as possible, by her rapidly improving scent.

Being a female television reporter during Season arrival was precarious business. Delayers kept her functional despite her own onset—and allowed her to cover the initial two or three days of the Season, the busiest news time of the year—but they did little to suppress her emissions.

Hence, body guards, or sitters, to keep hunters—attracted both by her fame and by her pheromones—at bay. One good, armed, sitter would normally suffice, but it sometimes took two or three, depending on her assignments and on how far her own Season had progressed.

This was one part of her job Alwyn did not like. At all. The coma and amphetamine mixture both dulled and hypered her. It made her feel like she, brilliantly awake at the core, wallowed through not air but liquid; something not quite as thick as water, but more resistant than air. The curious, and altogether unpleasant, mix of wide awake and wide asleep.

And the sitters. One slip up could cost her dearly. And there had been some, even if none had been serious. Not as yet. Well, it stood to reason since neutereds by their very definition are unaggressive, no matter what their size; no matter their training, no matter the pay. A hungry team, bent on pursuing her would in fact, in the end, succeed, and she knew this. All too well. The drill was not to get into those situations. And to bail out of sight after the first few Seasonal days.

Then things took an even worse turn. After blood and urine tests which took longer than she had anticipated—she had to call Shirley Fields twice to let her know that she wasn’t done yet—her physician broke the bad news.

“I’m afraid you can’t do it this year.”

Alwyn made no connection whatever between what was said and what it could possibly mean. It must have showed.

The doctor held up the test results, as if they explained everything, and should make perfect sense to Alwyn.

Alwyn still didn’t get it.

“I cannot prescribe delayers this year,” said the doctor.

Finally: that hit home, registered. Not that this was an option. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“It’s not funny.”

“That’s my point.”

“I’m not kidding.”

“You’re saying I can’t use delayers this Season?”

“That’s precisely what I’m saying. Yes.”

“Why on earth not?”

“I’ve told you before. The liver cannot take more than four consecutive Seasons. Then it has to rest. This would be your fifth year. I took the tests to verify, just in case.”

“Just in case what?”

“Just in case you could use delayers this year without irreparable damage.”

“And?”

“And, Alwyn, you can’t.” She held up the test results again. “Four years have taken their toll. I cannot with a clear conscience prescribe them again this year.”

“I can go somewhere else.”

“If you want to kill yourself, sure, be my guest.”

That got her attention. “That serious, huh?” she said.

“That serious.”

“So, what’s with it, my liver?”

“It takes more than just an off-Season to clear the liver of the delayer residue, that’s why it builds up.”

“And after four Seasons?”

“After four Seasons there is a dangerous residue level. Adding to it could be fatal.”

“But my job,” said Alwyn.

“I’m aware of that.”

“No way, huh?”

The doctor shook her head. “No.”

Alwyn looked around her, as if there were a very good solution to this problem somewhere on the walls, or in the ceiling. But there wasn’t.

“What do you suggest?” she asked finally.

“You could try some herbal remedies.”

“Do they work?”

Her doctor hovered her hand in a universal so-so gesture. “Not really. My opinion. May help a little.”

“So what then?”

“Let nature run it’s course, Alwyn. Get out of town. Find a seclusion camp. Or go sailing.”

“I don’t like boats.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I can’t leave, especially not now.”

The doctor guessed right: “The Fire? I saw your commentary.”

“If the fire is what it appears to be—and nothing points to anything different—it is the most monstrous thing I’ve ever seen the Season do to people. I want to—no, I need to—follow up on this.”

“You need to stay alive,” suggested the doctor.

“That too.”

“Either seclude yourself at home, or get out of town. That’s my advice. And sooner rather than later. I can tell by your hormone count that you’re not far off. You’ll soon be broadcasting.”

Alwyn smiled at their little inside joke. Then shook her head. “I can’t leave town.”

“Then hide.”

“I can’t do that either.”

The doctor’s turn to shake her head. “I can only advise.”

“And I appreciate that,” said Alwyn.

“Your life is more important than, than any of this.”

“I know,” said Alwyn. She gathered her things and rose. “Thanks doc,” she said, and left her office.

You’ll soon be broadcasting.

 

:: 41 ::

 

Helen and Larry Suffolk drove their kids to The Little Retreat center in Granada Hills. It was reasonably priced and had treated their kids well over the last three years. No reason to change. It was a mixed camp, of course, but neither Susan nor Brad were in any danger zone, not yet. Granted, with Susan—although ten years old was considered safe—you could not be absolutely, absolutely sure. Helen herself had her first Season at eleven; well, almost twelve.

By same token Susan was almost eleven. Still, there had been no signs whatever, and they settled on The Little Retreat for both of them again. Next year might be a different story. One year at a time, though.

The early afternoon traffic on the 210 west and then the 118 was very light. What traffic there was seemed to be commercial. Keeping deliveries going, gas stations in business, stores stocked. That sort of thing.

They said good-bye to Susan and Brad a little after three in the afternoon, with the promise to come and get them as soon as this was over. Susan understood, but Brad didn’t, and he was fighting down tears as they left, and pretty much breaking Helen’s heart in the process.

During the drive back to Pasadena—the kids now safely deposited—Helen noticed what she hadn’t on the way there, with the impending goodbyes running interference: the many fires. She counted them. Ten or eleven in the San Fernando Valley alone. One of them was either one large fire or two small adjacent ones; the smoke hid the flames, no way of really telling.

“Did you see,” she asked her husband, without turning to face him, “all these fires?”

He looked over at her from the driver’s side, stirred from his own thoughts. “Fires?”

“At least ten over to the right.”

Larry glanced past her. “There are always fires,” he said.

“This many, this early?” wondered Helen, turning toward her husband.

“Beats me,” said Larry.

“You think Susan’s going to be okay?”

“They wouldn’t have taken her,” he answered.

“I know that.”

“So stop worrying.”

Helen looked back out across the western end of the San Fernando Valley. Counted again. This time she counted eleven, for sure. Driving had changed the angle, she decided. Separated the two fires that had looked like one.

 

:: 42 ::

 

Shirley Fields was not at all happy, but she agreed. For now. Until.

A day, that’s all I need, please. She would keep it under control. She would. She just needed a good guard.

“I’ve got you one of those,” said her boos. “He’s on his way.”

“Chuck?” said Alwyn. “From last year. That was his name, right? Chuck something. He was good.”

“That was his name,” confirmed Shirley Fields. “But he’s not available.”

Alwyn gave he a concerned glance.

“They’re sending a new guy, Leon. Just-as-good-as-Chuck, according to the agency.”

“Well, they would say that,” said Alwyn.

“Of course.”

“Please,” said Alwyn again. “Twenty-four hours. I’ll keep it in check without the delayer. This is too important.”

“I can reassign.”

“No, Shirley, this is my story.”

Okay. For now. Reluctantly. Twenty-four hours.

Waiting for Leon to arrive from the agency Alwyn grew increasingly aware of the scents around her. Kristus, it was coming on fast. She felt a little light headed, fought it down; focused; de-focused; re-focused.

Focused on: The Western Front.

She put in another call to Blackburn Small, who either truly wasn’t in or who refused to talk to her.

“Please tell me,” she told the secretary. “The truth: is he in or not?”

“Not,” she said.

“Honestly.”

“Honestly.”

“When you see him next, or speak to him, please tell him I am sorry,” Alwyn added. “Really sorry.”

“I will,” he said. “Although he’s not all that fond of you right now.”

“I realize that.” Then she asked, oh by the way, “Any idea where he’s gone?”

Either his secretary had no problems telling her, or Alwyn had wondered off-handedly enough to sneak around Blackburn Small’s injunction against revealing his whereabouts.

“Back to the fire,” he said. “The convent.”

“Thanks,” she said, and hung up.

Leon, more than likely Italian and flirting with three hundred pounds—although most of it muscle by the looks of it—knocked on her door. She signaled for him to come in.

“Miss Moore?”

“Leon?”

“The Agency sent me.”

“Good.” She gathered her things, then tried to find Tim. Nowhere to be seen. He may finally have trotted off home to bed. She decided she didn’t need him, and that he deserved a rest.

“Let’s go,” she told Leon.

In the car she explained: Hang back ten or so feet. Eyes wide open for anything that even looks at me the wrong way.

Then, “You are neutered, right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Sorry. I had to check.”

“I understand.”

Continued to lay the ground rules: should anything look threatening, any thing, then move up close to me and get between me and whoever. Normally they do not approach me in public (unless they’re really out of it, she thought, then pushed that thought aside). One of the perks of fame, she added. He nodded that he understood her well, and that he would do as asked.

“How long will you need me?” he asked her.

“For the rest of the day,” she said. “And maybe tomorrow morning.”

“No problem.”

The drive down Sunset and up Western took only a few minutes. But Russell was as far as they got. Western was still blocked off from just south of Franklin.

After twice the time it took them to get there she found a parking place, and only because someone was pulling out. In fact she recognized the car: it belonged to the competition.

Finding Blackburn Small proved harder still. Not that she had any clear notion of exactly what to tell him, or what to ask him, when she did find him, but find him she must, that she knew.

The fire refused to die, flaring up here and there despite the massive amounts of water that had been aimed on it. Ambulances shuttled to and fro, Hollywood Presbyterian, St. Mary’s in Pasadena, Glendale Memorial, all shared the grim duty of decoding, identifying, and declaring the dead.

They walked along Western to Neindorff Drive and struck north, careful to keep out of the way. Firefighters and other emergency crews with much purpose did not take too kindly to running into reporters of any kind, even if they were named Alwyn Moore.

Then she spotted him. Like a heron, she thought again, those long legs, and if his arms were feathered: the picture stayed with her even as she set out among the hoses, stretchers and body bags on the lawn between Neindorff and Tyron. Weaving her way through activity, gaining ground on her sighted, she almost thought, prey.

Then the confusion surrounding organized itself into a little wall. Four, perhaps five men, all wearing official emergency fatigues of one sort or another, firemen Alwyn guessed. Or police, perhaps. Only, once the wall had formed there was no further movement and Alwyn knew with sickening certainty that she was in trouble. These men were not friendly, and she could scent their hunger. Leon, too, noticed that something was wrong and stepped up to intervene, but how do you intervene between your charge and a surrounding wall? This proved too much for Leon—not bright in the best of circumstances—and he turned to Alwyn, on the verge of tears, she thought.

“What should I do?” he asked her. “What do you want me to do?”

“You armed?” she asked, loudly enough for either of the men surrounding to hear.

“No,” he said, and again looked like tears were not far off. “They didn’t tell me to.”

That seemed to be the signal, or some confirmation that they had been waiting for. With what must have been rehearsed accuracy—incongruously, the word grace occurred to Alwyn—the wall closed in on her and the voice of the man to her left, as tall as Leon, but much leaner, whispered, “A sound, a false move, and you’re dead Miss Moore.”

To her right someone stuck Leon with something, a needle, a syringe, and within seconds she saw her paid protector slump to the grass, his last semblance of use evaporating with the descent.

The man to her left grabbed her arm and twisted it up behind her back, and she yelped with the pain of it. Tried to keep a clear head despite what she feared was coming. She looked around her for anyone, anything that might help her, but the catastrophe was too self-involved to take much notice of her. Again she spotted Blackburn Small across the the detritus of disorganized emergency. And he, looking around for something or someone, spotted her as well. He gave her a long, wondering sort of look: what the hell was she doing here, and what exactly was going on? Not really caring one way or the other. Then, about to turn back to what he was doing or looking for, he must have sensed something was amiss. He looked again, then said something to the man beside him and set out for her.

“Spotted,” said someone to her right, and suddenly they moved. This was rehearsed, she realized, she was almost carried by the speed. She twisted her head back to see if Blackburn Small was following but by now they had veered south and around foliage and were heading for Neindorff Drive. She could no longer see him.

Their limo, black and with darkly tinted windows, was waiting, engine running. The back door opened as they approached and she was virtually thrown onto the floor of the back. The door slammed shut and the limo shot off.

[*:*]

There was no one else in the car, that was her initial impression. Only whoever drove it somewhere out in front. Then, as panic and shock slowly began to ebb, she made out feet; black, sneakered feet, and black, fatigued legs. She sat up, or tried to, as the car turned right and she fell against the far door; she tried again and this time she succeeded. Leaning against the limo’s reverse seats she looked up at a man dressed in all black looking down at her and not smiling.

Then he spoke some of the most welcome words she had ever heard; for she believed them, his voice, calm and even, made her believe them: “We are not going to harm you, Miss Moore.”

She hitched herself up a little further, then pulled herself all the way up and into the seat facing the man. Her mind still revolving off-center, she still could not find words to say or the means to say them. The car took another sharp turn and she almost fell over again. She noticed the man opposite brace himself. Then the limo straightened out again, now on Franklin going west, some portion of her thought—though she could not be sure, the window tint allowed no view—and she managed to sit up again, and finally found her voice.

“Who are you?” was the question she heard herself ask.

“The Western Front,” was the answer.

Which she should have guessed. “Why?” she asked.

“I take it you’re looking for an exclusive, Miss Moore,” said the man, whom she now realized had a trace of an accent. Couldn’t place it, but accent nonetheless. Europe somewhere. “We’ve decided to give you one.”

“Strange way of offering one,” she said.

“We’re not going to come to the studio, if that’s what you mean.”

“I realize that.”

The limo took another sharp right and again the man braced himself, and again Alwyn toppled, but this time into the soft wall to her immediate right and remained upright.

“He’s in a hurry,” the man explained, almost apologetically.

“I can tell.”

Then, belatedly, as if her wits were just now catching up, Alwyn realized that she was sitting opposite the man who more than likely was responsible for more than two hundred deaths. Closer to genocide than murder. How come then he sounded so calm, so, so, logical?

“Who are you,” she asked again, stressing you.

“You’ll understand if I’m a little reluctant to introduce myself,” he answered.

“Do you head up this, this outfit?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, do you?”

“All in good time.”

“You’ve just murdered an entire convent.”

“That we have.”

“Why? Why on earth? What could possibly?”

“All in good time,” he said again.

“You are their leader then?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You said ‘perhaps.’”

“I said ‘perhaps.’”

The limo slowed and then turned left and down a ramp of some sort. Underground garage, thought Alwyn. Somewhere in Hollywood, possibly West Hollywood. She tried to visualize what buildings in West Hollywood had underground garages with steep ramps and realized that most had, or at least too many to be of much use as information.

They came to an abrupt stop, and Alwyn fell back against her seat. The man opposite her braced himself again, mumbled something, actually swore something—was her impression—in a language she did not recognize.

Then he said, with that faintly European accent, “Again, you’ll have to forgive me, but we’ll have to blindfold you.” He reached into his pocket and handed her a black hood. “Pull this down over your eyes,” he said. She did. And the world went completely dark. She could make out nothing visually, and so thick, and so tight was the hood that most of what she heard was muffled as well. If not for the perforations for mouth and nose, she would have had trouble breathing.

Out of the car, European hands assisting. Into an elevator, she heard the muffled “ting” as it arrived, and the soft sigh as the doors opened, then closed.

Upwards. She tried to count floors but there was no indication, nothing audible anyway, to give the floors away. The elevator rose fairly slowly which made her think the building was not very tall. Well, that, at least, was something. Not that there were many tall buildings in West Hollywood.

The elevator stopped after five, six, seven, floors perhaps. Doors sighed open onto a thinly carpeted floor. Into a warm place. Two pairs of hands took one arm each and she was led for quite a while—she pictured a carpeted corridor, but of course could not be certain—then through a door (opening too narrow for her minders to walk in abreast with her) into a smaller space, the air said smaller, more compact. Said windowless, and she was right. When someone behind her removed the hood, she found herself in a conference room, internal to the building. Windowless. Only wall.

Three men. Alwyn was no longer certain she would not be harmed.

 

:: 43 ::

 

Lara closed the door behind Helen, secured it shut with both dead bolt and chain, then turned to face her apartment. She had no idea what to do. None.

As she passed the front closet she could almost hear her back pack moaning in there about glades and lakes and safety, trees and dreams. It wasn’t too late, it complained, not quite yet.

An imprint of Helen still remained in the hallway; Helen was right, she was emanating strongly, and she was not even in full heat yet. Yes, Lara could imagine her in full bloom. They could definitely do with a scent-proof basement.

Lara sat down on her living room sofa, tense now, undecided again, her dream swelling up, not begging but telling her to leave, now, while there was still time. For several long moments she did nothing, so nothing that she could hear her heart racing; sat so still it seemed nothing in the world was moving: just her chest with every breath, and her heart, frantic to leave. She sat as if listening intently for something: for footsteps, for Storm, but she wasn’t listening, she wasn’t thinking, she wasn’t anything.

She caught herself chewing her fingernails and made herself stop. That brought her back. She was hungry, now that was for sure. What else was for sure? She was not yet in full bloom, that was for sure, too, no aches or burning yet, but it wasn’t far off. Then she noticed her hearing for the first time, extending as well. Some birds arguing in a tree outside, something she normally could not pick out with the windows closed. Closer then, than she had thought; by tonight, or sooner.

When at the glade she would sit down by the water, sometimes for hours, hugging her knees, seeing nothing but only listening. In full bloom she could hear for, well it seemed like miles. Susurrant trees in all directions, as if they all knew her and knew she could hear them. What would it be like here in the city? This was something she hadn’t even considered.

Listening to the natural harmony of forest was a pastime, almost a sustenance; here in the city, could she keep from hearing what she didn’t want to hear? She answered herself: Yes, recalling the many nights in her cave, she believed she could. Sinking toward sleep she could close the curtains on her ears and hear nothing but her own breathing and perhaps the odd scurry of very small feet nearby. Now she hoped those curtains were thick enough to shield her in the city as well.

Hungry, yes. That she was.

She had better get a serious move on if there was even a chance she’d be in full bloom by the end of the day. She needed to stock up: food and water, and emergency supplies—well those she already had in her pack, she realized. But there was still much to get and there might not be too much left on the store shelves. She kicked herself for not planning this better, or for not planning this at all. Then she jumped up, brushed her teeth and headed out into the gray 29th of February to find herself a cab.

 

:: 44 ::

 

It took harry three supermarkets to find one with undepleted shelves. He had left this too late, much too late, he realized. What on Earth had he been thinking? The Seasonal rush was on—had been on for days—and the two stores closer to his house were now all out of most basic food stuffs like bread and cheese, and canned foods, and no one couldn’t tell for sure if they were getting any more that day.

Luckily the Vons at the corner of California and Pasadena seemed to be receiving deliveries as he pulled up: two large semis parked along the side of the store, and lots of activity by them boding well; and to boot he found a parking spot close to the entrance which he—not necessarily logically—also thought boded well for whatever needed well boding.

 

:: 45 ::

 

Much has been made in some journals of The Fishbowl Effect. This is where a group of men and women in budding or incipient heat seem, as it were, confined to each other in a way fish would be in a bowl: hence fish-bowl. Circling, eyeing, touching, sensing, smelling. The official term—coined by Vanguard-Lessing—is hormonal adhesion: The natural attraction, or affinity if you will, of two (or more) humans in developing heat.

The stress here is on the word developing, since once heat is in bloom it seems this phase, this attraction, evaporates and is rather brutally replaced by the sheer need to copulate—no longer an attraction as such but a blind slamming together. Heat at its peak is not particularly selective, if indeed it is selective at all, whereas pre-heat, for want of a better word, is.

The Fishbowl Effect has been the subject of considerable study.

Melissa Vanguard and Richard Lesser stand as the most prominent researchers in this field, and in some circles this selective vs. non-selective observation is mostly referred to as the Vanguard-Lesser Distinction.

Their reasoning goes something like this:

Off-Season, human affinities are established and maintained primarily on the basis of likeness of interests, of goals and skills. Sometimes of looks. One engineer, let us say, would naturally seek and find affinities among other engineers, especially among those in his or her particular field. Seeing as most interaction off-Season is analytical and/or aesthetic this stands to reason. For surely a composer would not naturally seek the company of a truck driver for there would be little, if anything, in common. Nor would a beautician seek the company or social interchange of, say, a computer programmer.

Vanguard-Lesser refers to this as analytical adhesion or—as Melissa Vanguard let slip in one of her more famous, or infamous, articles, and for which she received an ungodly amount of mail, of both the electronic and paper variety, and not all of it favorable, far from it in fact—untainted affinity. The hue and cry was about her implied judgment and relegation of Seasonal factors as tainted or tainting. The media made much of it, many interviews on television, that sort of thing.

The scientific and religious, if not the popular, voices—unified for a change—agreed with her, however: there is something tainting (in the not so complimentary sense) about the Seasonal effects; but the world at large did not. How can something “natural” be tainted or tainting? was the most voiced objection.

Be that as it may.

Analytical adhesion, then, is the natural affinity between two human beings based on non-Seasonal likenesses. They may develop between two men, or between two women, but, curiously (and statistically), although non-Seasonal, these relationships tend to develop between women and men as opposed to man-man or woman-woman by a (conservative) factor of ten to one; which, as a phenomenon, although statistically unassailable, has as yet to be fully understood.

Does the Season cast a shadow of foreboding on all our activities? Does memory of Seasons past, knowledge of Seasons future, and the analytical possibility of children and rearing them together color the affinity to imply or promise or propose possible marriage, and so on? These are possibilities, but fact remains, no such links have yet been proven—though some say that the statistics are proof enough.

Be that as it may.

The Vanguard-Lessing research isolated the nature and foundation of these relationships as consisting of what they officially termed “the Five Cornerstones” (but sometimes called the “Pentangle of Relationships”):

Communication; Understanding; Exchange (sharing); Appreciation, and Admiration (CUEAA). It is, according to their findings, what we indeed strive for as persons, or as Dr. Vanguard puts it, what we strive for as untainted persons (and for which she received so much criticism, having the nerve to even imply).

Evidence of CUEAA can be found all around.

Sample any conversation or gathering say in August or September of any given year, and this will become plain enough. There is interest, there is eye contact, the is the desire to explain and be understood. Chiefly, the desire to understand. And when there is touching (so Dr. Vanguard points out) the touch is more for emphasis or attention than for the physical affection so observable during hormonal adhesion.

On the cusp of the Season, however— the Storm now incipient, as if whispering the air and clearly breathable by one and all, but as yet unarrived; and primarily heralded (although this varies from individual to individual) by a sharply intensified olfactory sense, and to a lesser degree by heightened hearing—the natural, the analytical adhesion, the untainted affinity as it were, is subtly, almost imperceptibly so, replaced by, or super-imposed upon by (discussions still abound among scholars as to how this change is actually effected) the phenomenon of hormonal adhesion which softly and delicately begin to alter the individual’s values. And by values Vanguard-Lesser specifically mean what the individual appreciates, values, finds interesting and likeable.

Whereas off-Season, for example, two well-read and literary minded individuals, say a woman and a man, will find much joy and value in as simple a thing as a well-turned phrase—a fine poem, or a perfect metaphor can light the flame of much shared admiration and common enjoyment—during pre-Season these two same individuals will subtly begin to see and take notice of the shape of the other’s lips, fineness of teeth. He will begin to notice the color or depth of her eyes, and she will again begin to notice those things we refer to as “manly” during the pre-season: strength, agility, depth of voice timber. Touch gradually dons the role of affection rather than emphasis. It is as if a blindness to physical aesthetics gradually begins to lift (or as if the seeing begins to descend).

Were you to observe our hypothetical couple in more detail you would notice that each will now begin to pay much—what would certainly qualify as undue during off-Season—attention to their own looks, their dress, their odor, their appearance, in a word (in Melissa Vanguard’s word, or words, actually): their physical aesthetics.

A good observation and an in depth discussion of this phenomenon can be found in the collection of essays that Marie Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal) named Love. In this work (which curiously postulates a year-around state of hormonal adhesion) he captures the essence of this stage in his term crystallization. It is a work with which the serious student or would-be scholar would do well to acquaint himself (or herself, of course).

In this pre-Season state, the affinities that only days before were firmly grounded in what many, especially among the religious scholars, call spiritual interchange, begin to ever so slightly shift toward the physical.

This then, scientifically, is hormonal adhesion.

This, religiously, is approaching storm.

And this, colloquially (ask the man on the street), is rather fun. Many, many (see Stendhal above) have expressed the wish and hope and dream that this stage or state could remain thus, and never (or not so soon, anyway) slip into the screaming rage that is the Storm.

The scientific designation (also adopted by Vanguard-Lesser) of the Storm, in line with Analytical Adhesion and Hormonal Adhesion, is Compulsory Attraction. It is uniformly agreed that there could be a better designation for the phenomenon, but this one has been with us for so many years now that is liable, and unfortunately, likely to so remain.

Hormonal adhesion normally lasts from two to four days, sometimes for as long as a week, gradually intensifying, especially during the last day. Some have described this final day as a rushing toward a precipice, unable to—nay, more insidious than unable: unwilling to—stop; eager in fact to leap into an abandon that only weeks ago would have been shunned at pretty much all costs.

Abandon is a good word. Much used. Vanguard-Lesser believes it embraces most, if not all, of human activities during the Season itself, during Compulsory Attraction.

Which returns us to The Fishbowl Effect, such as you can observe in, say, a supermarket on the very cusp of a Season, last minute shoppers in pre-heat. The close proximity of such quantities of hormonal adhesion is a curious phenomenon, and one which has been often observed.

Many fishes, dressed and perfumed to please, intensely aware of both their own and others’ bearing and demeanor, circling, circling, accidentally or not so accidentally brushing up against each other, recoiling from the contact as if shocked by some charge, circling again, never straying too far, brushing up again, recoiling again, on constant lookout, always moving as if the cessation of movement—as with the shark—means death.

The air palpable, not unlike water. The Season whispering of days to come.

Not a bad designation: The Fishbowl Effect.

 

:: 46 ::

 

Harry and Lara entered the same supermarket at pretty much the same time, but through different doors. Lara had asked the driver to wait for her, and yes, she did have the money, Sir, even showed the driver a few $20 dollars bills to prove it. The driver—neutered by his complexion—asked, almost apologetically, for a deposit, can’t be too sure, sorry, Ma’am.

Frowning, but nonetheless understanding, she gave him one of the twenties, grabbed a cart from the stall, and pushed it toward the north entrance.

Harry stepped out of his Honda Prelude and took the south entrance.

Once inside, they headed for different sections.

 

:: 47 ::

 

Harry should have prepared the list before leaving his house. This grew increasingly clear as he now tried to itemize it in his head, and with all this distraction. Man. All these, well, very good looking women and some not so good looking ones but on the whole rather attractive. Okay, the thing he was most in need of was ammunition, and canned foods, and water, and yes, tea. He set out for the “Kits, Weapons and Ammo” isle (converted from what used to be the spice isle, as the Season approached). Halfway there he realized he should have grabbed a cart outside, was about to turn around to get one when saw an empty cart with his name on it by the mountain of snacks at the end of isle 4A. He grabbed it and set out for the ammo when “Hey, man, what’re you doing? Get your own cart, man,” brought him to a standstill. An unfriendly young man behind him. “Sorry,” Harry said, to no reply. So he headed back outside to find his own cart after all.

More people arriving, all going straight for the carts. He got the next to last one. Well this one did have his name on it, but he realized that he would have to hold on to it.

Back to the ammo. The isle was hastily put together, more like stacks of things than organized shelves. Backpacks of different colors and sizes with (according to their oversized labels): Flashlight, Batteries, Knife, Gun – Matching Ammunition, Blanket, No Doze (No Doze?), Matches, Radio (Harry begun to flash back on Boy Scouting, this wasn’t so much different, although he saw nothing about compass or maps—no, take that back, there was a kit that included compass and maps, where on earth would they hunt?), Water Purifier, Gloves (Gloves?). Harry stopped reading the labels. He was not here for a kit. He pushed the cart down to the ammo piles. What caliber was his gun again? It was a Beretta. 9 mm was it? Sounded right. And, ah, yes, there was the pile and it said Beretta quite clearly.

He reached for a box on the top of the 9 mm pile, and she reached for a box at the top of the 9 mm pile. Then the touch. He pulled back. She pulled back. He smiled, found something rush to his head he hadn’t felt for a while, she—fine, dark features and full lips, full, almost black hair, and oh, such nice breasts—pulled back, smiled too. “Sorry,” he said. “You go ahead.”

“Thank you.” She said. Such nice teeth.

Someone came up behind her. Large, and possessive by the look he gave Harry. “Find them?” he asked the woman.

“Yes,” she said, and gave Harry one more glare before she turned to either husband or boyfriend or, possibly—though Harry didn’t think so—body guard.

He grabbed one box, then a second, then, just to be sure, a third, and put them in the cart. Huge cart, made even bigger by the three lone boxes of 9 mm shells at the bottom of it. What else?

He looked up, as if signs would tell him where to go next. Looked down again, around. How could they all be enticingly dressed? And why do hips suddenly move so seductively? Hair, he was partial to hair, he decided. Thick, long, dark hair. Hair smelled just right. Like the woman he just touched. Like invitations.

Unbidden, Baudelaire sprung to mind.

Harry took a deep Baudelaire-like breath and smelled the sea of hair. This sea of auburn, blond, red, brown, black, even gray hair mixing and fanning some small unseen flame to send hot shivers up his spine, his limbs, through his lungs and to his head.

Just like, what was that sketch of his?

Then he remembered: A Hemisphere in your Hair. College. He had studied French Literature and Poetry, and especially Baudelaire (before the pragmatic side of him, in his final year, had opted for a different and more business-suited direction), and now realized that he actually remembered the thing: “Let me breathe the fragrance of your hair for long, for ever. Let me plunge my whole face in it, like a parched man at the water of a spring. Let me wave it with my hand like a perfumed handkerchief, shaking memories into the air.”

He had to stop; he could feel his spasms intensify and knew that if he did not focus on the external, if he didn’t leave Baudelaire alone to his long ago vices, he would hasten his erection and that would not do, would it? He had shopping to do.

But, said memory, “If you could know all I can see! All I can feel! All I can hear in your hair! My soul floats on the perfume as the soul of other men might float on music.”

Now, cut that out!

But that woman’s hair. And that woman’s hair. Harry was in trouble. Had to focus. So, okay, he’s got the ammo. What else was there? Water? Yes, there was water, but it was not as important as, not as important as, as, yes, canned food. Foods that keep.

He turned his cart around. Did not look at—yet could not help but notice—several very beautiful heads of hair on his way to the canned food section: and bedlam. Well, comparatively speaking. This was the focus of shopper attention all right. Again, he kicked himself for not doing this before.

The term “flying off the shelves” applied quite literally, and the two stockers that working the isle were actually handing goods, cases of goods, directly to the customers—edging their small cart-ships closer and closer to either of them or one of the two additional store clerks that were helping, jostling for position.

Jostling and edging and looking and brushing up against, and touching with touches that were, or were calculated to look, accidental, scouting faces and breasts and hands and legs like Harry found himself, still, scouting the small ocean of heads of hair.

They were ships: “Your hair contains a complete dream of sails and masts; it contains the high seas whose monsoons waft me on to pleasant climates where space is deeper and more blue, the atmosphere perfumed by fruits, and leaves, and human skin.”

“‘Scuse me!” A bump, not a touch, from behind. She was old, and cranky. And he was in her way, and, apparently, daydreaming. For she actually said, “Wake up!” And he did.

“Sorry.”

“I need to get to them,” she said and pointed to the canned pineapples. “You’re in my way.”

Harry moved to the side, and the old woman squeezed past. Muttering. Not really mad, but in a hurry. Then another touch. Blond. Nice long hair. And yes, breasts. Full. Invitationals. This woman was either in heat or so close to it as if not to matter. Harry’s head reeled. His erection was not far off, not at this rate. He must focus, must must must focus. Canned goods. And Baudelaire was no help:

“Within the ocean of your hair . . .”

The blond woman smiled, and smelled so nicely, so warmly, so like a sea of dark tresses that Harry had trouble maintaining his balance. He grabbed his cart with both hands and held on. Smiled back, but forced himself to look away, as if searching the isle for his particular brand of canned fruit, very important.

“With the ocean of your hair, I glimpse a port aswarm with melancholy songs, with men of vigor from all nations and ships of every sort, subtle, complicated structures silhouetted on a massive sky, the source of everlasting heat.”

The source of everlasting heat? He had got to get Baudelaire out of his head. But this was the way his head worked, once a record started to play, it insisted on playing itself all the way to the end.

Now, you focus, damn it!

The blond, invitingly busty one was smiling in some other direction now. This woman was very close to heat. Dangerously close. He found himself looking around for guards, in case someone.

Someone did. Middle aged, in a track suit with nowhere to hide his erection. He was pulling and pushing his way towards the busty one, but with a woman in tow, same age, screaming now for what must have been his husband to come back, to stop it and come back. The husband, in the clutches of immediate heat neither heard nor stopped. And would have accosted the blond and oh-so-busty one if not for the two guards that he did spot and that did show up very much in the nick of time. One to each of the man’s arms, they virtually lifted him back toward his wife, erection springing out like a vertically mounted tent. Humorous under some circumstances, sad now. Harry looked at the blond woman, who looked inexplicably calm. Almost disappointed.

Next to her, curiously studying the would be accoster, another beautiful blond woman. Short hair this one, and no breasts to speak of. Like a blond willow. Like a blond spring of cool water. Like a willowy wind fanning his heart, his spine, his lungs. Harry could not stop looking at her. All the while Baudelaire rambled on: “In the caresses of your hair I find again the languor of long hours on a divan among potted trees and cooling water jugs in the cabin of a handsome ship, swaying on the imperceptible swells of the harbor.”

Now, he had always had a problem with that word, “imperceptible.” And here, in the canned food isle, under the onslaught of this willowy dream of his—standing not 10 feet away and still studying the spectacle—to steady himself he seized this problem and clung to it as a sailor would to a mast: It was the same in French as in English. Why would im-perceptible, in other words not-perceivable, mean very slight or tiny and not none? He liked words to mean what they said, and none of his teachers would answer him this question though he asked it often enough. Finally he did discover that the English Oxford—much to its credit—agreed with him.

But she was sculpted, this fine blond woman, sculpted, Harry decided, from willow. Very white skin, marble like in places, freckled—at least a little—in others, especially on her arms. Must have been some red in her family, some generations ago, he suspected. Her hair had a shaggy look to it, as if sheared by some sheep herder in a rush, but Harry recognized this as being in fashion, and it suited her to a tee. Sculpted from marble willow, he mused, Baudelaire fashion.

Who chimed in: “On the warm hearth of your hair, I breathe the odor of tobacco mixed with opium and sugar. In the midnight of your hair I see, resplendent, the blue infinity of tropic skies. On the downy shoreline of your hair, I am intoxicated with the mixture of the odors of pine tar and musk and coco oil.”

The young woman—well young and young, what could she be? Twenty-five?—looked in his direction but not at him. Blue eyes, very very blue eyes. Steve McQueen blue eyes. Pale and radiant.

“Let me bite your thick, black tresses forever. When I gnaw your springy and rebellious hair, it seems to me I’m eating memories.”

But there was nothing black about this woman’s hair. Nor springy, nor tresses. Just the fresh—yes, fresh was a good word—shock of blond hair, almost made her look like a boy, but no boy was ever that beautiful. Should he?

Should he what? Approach?

Harry finally took note of the cranky old voice again, the woman tugging at him, asking him for the he wasn’t sure what time (he had heard her voice for a while; no idea it was addressed to him) to “Sir. Please, sir, get out of the way. I need to get to the asparagus.”

“Asparagus?” His eyes finally let go of the blond marble willow dream and turned to the cranky one.

“Yes, right there,” she nodded, “on the other side of you.”

“Sorry,” and he pushed forward to get out of the way. When he looked up again, the willow was gone.

Baudelaire was gone too, done with his recital, though Harry could still smell her hair, the blond willows hair which he had not been close enough to discern, but which he nevertheless could conjure the scent of. Fresh, leafy, clear water, smiling, and yes, it too: inviting.

Where was she? Harry pushed forward to try to catch her; didn’t exactly watch where he was going and managed to ram the cranky one from behind. Not badly but hard enough to evict a yell. She spun around as if actually expecting it to be him. Then said nothing, just glared. “Sorry,” he said again. Pulled the cart back and veered around her, heading for the end of the isle and where he had last seen her. The willow.

Nowhere to be seen. Not at the end of any isle. Not in any isle, as he now more or less raced down them, checking each.

Not by the checkout counters. Plain gone. He made another round of the entire store, certain—on some ludicrous level, he told himself—that she was someone he had to see, speak to, touch. Oh yes, touch.

Still no sign of her. Then he spotted her, or what he thought was a glimpse of her, more like a blur of blond beauty trembling on the air as the cab door slammed shut on her actual person. Yes, it was her. He could see her silhouette against the air of the opposite back seat window. Like a very blond, but shaggier Mia Farrow (the Rosemary’s Baby edition). And, ah, so very, very beautiful.

Smitten, he told himself. You’re smitten. Watch it, man. At this stage you’ll get smitten by anyone that even vaguely matches your fancy. And yes, he shivered at the thought, and laughed aloud to himself—turning a few heads—he had always loved Mia Farrow. And there she was, a young, vital, willowy version, marbly leaning back as if to catch her breath in the back seat of the soon to be gone taxi. Then she turned her head and spotted him. Looked straight at him, still looking as the cab did pull out and away.

Smitten was the word.

Harry looked back and there was the cranky one again (what was with this woman?) still regarding him as if he were some curious phenomenon of nature, relatively harmless, but oh so unpredictable. He smiled at her, and did not say “sorry.”

His cart was still empty but for three lonely boxes of 9 mm ammo. What else, Harry? Pull yourself together man.

Then a Mexican woman with Jeanne Duval’s tresses crossed his path, and with a rush of warmth to his budding erection he forgot all about Mia Farrow. Then he closed his eyes, forcefully and hard. Held them closed, while he counted to himself, as hard and emphatically as he could, silently, he hoped, but actually aloud: “One, Two, Three, Four . . .”

The cranky one was getting her money’s worth today.

Until Jeanne Duval rejoined Baudelaire and left Harry alone to at least attempt to concentrate on the task at hand: shopping. He opened his eyes. The Mexican woman was gone, replaced by five others. Harry shook his head, he had to focus. Had to. Focus, focus, focus.

He veered back to the canned food section and actually, yes, in the end, managed to get some shopping done.

 

:: 48 ::

 

Lara had made her list in the cab. The four stores in Glendale they had tried—the two that she had suggested, and the two that the driver had—were more or less out of stock, period. No deliveries until later that afternoon, or perhaps not until tomorrow, who could tell? How about Pasadena? Lara wondered aloud. The driver had cast her a glance in the rear view mirror, one of those, sure, you’re paying, glances. Then he said he knew of a Vons near the freeway, at Pasadena and California, try that one, perhaps? Sure.

As they pulled into the store parking lot Lara spotted two delivery truck by the side of the store; lots of people carrying things. Looked promising.

The crowded parking lot didn’t.

The driver found a spot though, and after what she thought of as bribing him to wait for her, pushing one of the few available carts ahead of her, she parted the automatically sliding doors and found herself in a beehive of charged shopping activities.

She could hear the buzzing.

The list. She had it in hear head, firmly affixed now:

Toilet paper.

Bottled water.

Canned food, fruits, and vegetables (for a month?).

Batteries.

Short-grained brown rice.

Tofu.

Fresh fruit, at least a week’s worth.

Olive oil.

Garlic.

Ginger root.

She set out to fill her cart with.

The buzzing unnerved her a little. It struck her as a party, as a mingling, a dance almost. The many looks—furtive, appreciative, assessing—the smiles, the quick little brushes, touches, frowns, the jolts, the I’m sorrys, the Look where you’re goings, like a congregation of very intelligent dogs, examining and evaluating. To be fair, there were untainted specimens (where did she get untainted from?), that lady over there, for example, too old to care, all intent on checking date stamps on loaves of bread, looking for the freshest—or the oldest, perhaps on sale; or even that young woman with the “Fuck You” tee shirt, she was assessing no one, not in heat yet, or even approaching. More curious than anything. But they were the exceptions; the rest, and there were a lot of them, seemed driven not by curiosity or need to find the freshest—or stalest—bread, but by some other hand, large and omnipotent, twirling them round and round like fishes in a bowl.

Always moving, as if like the shark they would die if they stopped; yes, even though some stood still, they seemed like moving, circling.

A young man, he must have been in his late teens, asked her if she needed help. Politely. No undercurrent that she could ascertain. Perhaps he worked there, she couldn’t tell. She said, sure. But as he reached for the twelve-pack of toilet paper she pointed out, he first brushed his left arm against her right, and then as he placed the pack in her cart, touched her shoulder. Accidentally, twice, apparently. Jolts both.

“There you are,” he said. But didn’t move back.

“Thank you so much,” she answered, stressing “so” as hard as she could, hard enough that in the end the boy did pull back, a little disappointed now perhaps, undercurrent finally visible, but he was soon distracted by what must have been some sort of professional, all hair and bust, trailing a part natural, part manufactured veil of musky scent. The young man followed her, as if suddenly leashed, and Lara, amazed, watched him depart. Shook her head, then picked the next item on her list.

Not much bottled water left. A six-pack of one liter bottles was all she could get her hands on. Okay, canned foods. Isle, what? She scanned the signs. Isle four.

The buzzing shifted a little in timbre and pitch to a light hysteria coming from her right. She turned in time to see two security guards at a half trot heading for, yes, they turned up isle four. Some sort of emergency. Curious buzzers trailed the pair. Enough to make Lara decide to skip isle four for now. Next: batteries.

Plenty on the shelves.

Rice next. Plenty there too.

And tofu, never a big seller, also in good supply. Olive oil, no shortage there either. Not much fresh fruit, though. She grabbed two bags of oranges and one bag of apples, noticing too late (thus ignoring) the “limit one bag per customer” notice above the oranges. She’d take her chances with come checkout time. What are they going to do, arrest her?

Done so far, she turned back toward the canned goods, hoping isle four would have settled down by now.

Turning up the isle she found it crowded still. Whether from the recent excitement or from high demand she couldn’t tell. She was not going to battle through this throng of carts to reach far end of the isle which held the canned fruits according to the signs.

She took another, less crowded, isle then approached the canned fruit from the north (is how she pictured it).

Someone was looking at her. Not assessingly, but steadily, curiously. At first she could not spot whose eyes, it was more a feeling than a direct perception, but she had always been able to do that: to sense when she was being studied.

She browsed the jostling crowd again and saw him. Rather tall, with nice brown hair. Regarding her, unsmiling, as if unaware that she was now looking back at him. She could not make out his intention. She shivered slightly. Not that he seemed menacing, or, for that matter, that he was bad looking, rather the opposite, but she did not like being scrutinized. She pulled back and went looking for the garlic and ginger root instead.

Got what must have been the last of both and counting herself lucky she returned to the canned fruits. And her luck held: by the time she got there the buzzer were fewer and that curious man was no longer there.

She had not realized, though—and she caught herself at it—that she indeed would check to see if he were. Oh, well.

The canned fruit supplies were dwindling fast and she helped herself to as much as she could of what was left. Apricots, apples, pineapples (where she bumped in to a cranky old lady who behaved like she owned that shelf), pears, mangos, and, yes, strawberries.

To her right she found some asparagus and tomato, which she added to her now almost full cart, and that was it. For the fruit. She picked up six cans of small, peeled potatoes, and some yams. Okay, now she’s done.

The rest of the isle were meats and hashes and things her vegetarian ways did not allow.

Very Done. The checkout went smoothly—her two bags of oranges didn’t even earn her a second glance. Luck holding.

And, the cab was still waiting for her. No more sign of the brown-haired man. He really had studied her.

Once loaded up and safely ensconced in the back seat she took one last glance at the store, and there, just inside the entrance, there he was again, looking straight at her.

Still looking her way as the driver pulled out and away.

 

:: 49 ::

 

Someone closed the door closed behind her.

Carpeted silence.

Off and on Alwyn Moore had noticed that even under certain off-Season circumstances her perceptions, and her assessment of those perceptions, sharpened notably. Details—some significant, others not—would easily find her and remain as vivid memory.

One such circumstance was pressure. You’re given an hour to get there, get the scoop—meaning significant detail—put it all together and file a live, broadcastable report. Given that the trip there could be 30 minutes, that gave you 30 minutes on the ground to outperform the competition.

And here she thrived. It was as if the scene stood ready-made for her to take in: summarized: the right things underlined, red arrows pointing to other important aspects, interesting sidelights nicely circled, and within the allotted 30 minutes she would gather the complete picture, either stored on card—for edit and later broadcast—or ready for a live report.

Another such circumstance was fear.

She recognized this as she absorbed the room in almost painful detail: three men. None of which were her abductor. Three men none of whom concealed his face, which struck her—hard—as a malevolent omen: they did not care if she could identify them. Would that mean? And her fear tightened another notch. She had to fight down an acute impulse to vomit.

In two sweeps of the room her eyes registered: four paintings on the walls, each virtually centered on its own wall, except for the entrance wall, where the painting—of Darwin standing on the stubbed bow of HMS Beagle somewhere in the South Pacific by the looks of it, islands in the background, palm trees, endless blue sky; white beard fluttering in the wind and the old man intent on something or other in the room—was centered between the door and the far end of that wall.

The other three paintings were still lifes of various fruits and vegetables. One exclusively of apples, four of them on a table top; one of a mixture of oranges, bananas, grapes, with four bearded wheat heads in a green what looked like (but probably wasn’t meant to look like) plastic bowl; the one behind her of grapes, both green and purple, two oranges and a glass pitcher of water. None very well done, she thought, but for some reason each painting (except the one of Darwin, which clearly was a print) struck her as both original and expensive.

The lower parts of the walls were wainscoted in she would guess oak, and the upper parts paneled in a lighter wood, beach perhaps? Very upper-end law-firm-ish.

A live palm in the corner, she could smell the tree itself and the moist earth in the large terracotta-colored plastic planter, could see the natural color of the leaves. One wall, the one behind the three men, housed a pull down projector screen mounted near the ceiling. She doubted they would be using it for this briefing.

The table, a conference table with room for at least a dozen people was polished to a sheen and contained not a single scratch. Teak most likely. Or rosewood. It was either very new, or its owners, her hosts, were meticulous people when it came to the preservation of furniture. She counted eight comfortable office chairs on large casters which allowed for easy movement over the plush light brown carpet. Ash trays. Sparklingly clean. Not for use apparently, at least not in the presence of these men.

These men. In the unnaturally white light falling on them from four recessed fluorescent fixtures, they looked like Mediterranean statues. Two bearded, one not. All three intent on her, saying nothing.

Maintaining the carpeted silence.

So, she spoke first, doing her best to keep her voice level and unafraid.

“I believe this amounts to kidnapping,” she said.

The three statues remained in character. Hardly shifted a glance. Could she detect pity in two of these eyes? Or was it scorn?

“I have been abducted,” she added. Part question, part statement.

The statue in the middle, a fraction taller than his counterparts, dressed in a gray, double-breasted suite with a bluish shirt and an expensive dark blue tie. All business. Possibly Iranian, or Armenian. Though a little too light of a complexion. Armenian father, she decided, mother from the Midwest, or even Canada—wherever she got that from. This statue stirred to life with what must have meant to be a smile.

Invited, Miss Moore.” It corrected.

No accent at all. As Los Angeles as anyone, possibly educated in the East. Princeton? Harvard? The assessing part of her that absorbed, filled in details, rounded out figures, gave them background (discovered them, deduced them, or made them up as needed) was not afraid—it never was—it was simply doing its job.

So this was the leader.

The man to the right shifted. Also in a gray suit, but with a white, collar-less shirt. He had a dark beard, or perhaps it was an intense five o’clock shadow. Surely he was Mediterranean. He looked at her with what oddly struck her as compassion. He could sense her fear.

“We will not harm you, Miss Moore,” this man said. Now he did have an accent. European, perhaps Eastern Europe. Russian? Georgia? So this was the leader.

No, she suddenly realized, the man to the left, remaining statue, simply observing. He wore a dark suit, not black, but so navy blue as to amount to black, with a matching turtleneck. Gray hair and a finely trimmed full beard. Class. And quiet. He, she realized, was the leader. And she knew that she would be surprised to hear him speak. He was not there to talk, he was there to listen, observe and silently approve.

“I appreciate that,” she said, with some difficulty for her mouth had gone dry. The leader must have noticed for his hand moved, then pointed at her briefly at which the man to his left placed a quick call on his cellular phone. Within what could not have been more than ten seconds a young lady brought her a carafe of water and a glass on a silver tray. Both the carafe and the glass were of old crystal which glowed faintly. As if some long ago sunlight still resided within. It registered with her as beautiful.

She nodded her thanks in the direction of her benefactor but received no acknowledgement in return. Nothing out of the ordinary: things were done this way, they were not beasts.

“Call me James,” said the man in the middle. Obviously not his real name. “And this is,” he indicated the five o’clock shadow to his left with a very white hand, “Tom.”

“James and Tom,” she repeated.

“Precisely.”

He did not introduce their leader. She had not expected him to.

“The fire,” she said.

“The fire,” said the James.

The Tom moved to place his arms on the table. Darker hands than the James. He leaned forward. A large gold ring on his right ring finger. Possibly a college ring but it seemed too unadorned to be one. Besides, the Tom didn’t look the college type. “We have claimed responsibility,” he said.

“Yes,” said Alwyn. “We received your email.”

“We had nothing against these women,” the Tom said. “Not against these women, or this convent, specifically. There was nothing personal, and we regret the loss of life.”

“Purely business,” she said.

If the Tom was at all taken aback, he didn’t show it, “Precisely.”

“That has got to be the lamest excuse in the book,” Alwyn heard herself almost explode and she wondered first at her nerve—where the hell had it come from?—and then whether the nameless leader had actually, for an instant, smiled to himself.

“It is not an excuse, Miss Moore,” said the Tom. “It’s a statement of fact.”

“Do you have any idea how many women you have just killed?” she asked.

“Two hundred and fourteen,” said the James, not referring to notes. But he made it sound like read from a ledger.

“You do know,” she said—almost gasped.

“This Earth,” said the James, and Alwyn still had the feeling that he was reciting instead of saying, “was formed by the Storm, was peopled by the Storm.” He paused, as if inviting comment.

None came.

“Throughout the history of Man, the hunt has been his single most important pursuit, for without it there would no longer be Man.” Another pause.

Another silence.

“For too long, for far, far too long, has Man allowed this most important of all pursuits to be undermined, thwarted, opposed even, by the ramblings of mystics.”

Again, silence. The Tom, his face without expression, was studying his fingers. The leader had apparently closed his eyes—or was studying his lap through veiled eyes—as if listening to and following with his mind some sacred text.

The James picked up from where he had left off, “Monks have shut themselves off from the world, denying it their seed. Nuns have shut themselves off from the world, denying it their wombs.”

As Alwyn took this in, two things grew clear to her: The James was reciting a text, these were printed words she was listening to, printed and remembered. And, they really believed this. She was hearing dogma.

“The cowardly monk, not daring to face the need of the world, sins against the one true God: Creation. The cowardly nun, not daring to face the need of the world, sins against the only true God: Creation.”

Alwyn drew breath to speak, but the James, noticing, held up a hand. Not now.

“By their long-standing example, by locking themselves away from the world, by denying men their Earth-given right, others now follow, resisting the seed, hiding from it, cowering from it, denying in turn other men their Earth-given right. There is only one God, one true God, and his name is Creation.”

Alwyn drew breath again, no objections this time. “Earth-given right,” she said. Part question. “Are you not confusing creation with procreation?”

“And who opposes the one true God, must face his wrath. We are his weapon.”

“Earth-given right,” said Alwyn again. “To kill nuns?”

“We don’t require—or even expect—you to understand,” said the Tom. “We only require that you listen carefully, and tell others.”

“How is killing nuns an Earth-give right?” she asked again, knowing well that she did understand what they were talking about, but couldn’t resist this misunderstanding.

“That is not what is meant,” said the Tom. “Creation is Man’s Earth-given right. Or, as you put it, procreation. Equally true.”

“Ah,” said Alwyn. “Procreation, the only true God.” And immediately knew that she had either just crossed—or was just abbot to—a boundary she did not want to cross, not if she wanted to see the sky again.

Both the James and the Tom looked up at her, and then immediately to their right to see their leader’s reaction. For a second there was none, then a small, almost imperceptible shake of the head: let it go; and they did.

Letting Alwyn know where not to go.

“You will have questions,” said the James. “We will try to answer them.”

Questions had already begun to accumulate, it was automatic with her, as with any of her colleagues: things that didn’t make sense, or didn’t fall neatly into place. If they bothered her—or interested her—they would also bother—or interest—the intelligent viewer (Shirley Fields’ favorite mantra). And several things bothered—and interested—her, now that she sensed the luxury to let them.

“Why have I never heard of the Western Front?” Which she hadn’t. Nor had anyone else at the station (or any other station for that matter).

“Because it’s not a Western Front,” answered the James.

“But your email,” she said.

“It seemed as good a name as any.”

“But is not your real name?”

“No.”

“Do you have one? Does your group have a name? Is it a group?”

“Arrak,” said the James.

Now, that was a name she knew.

And now she also knew that notwithstanding what had been promised, chances were she would not see the sky again.

“Arrak,” she said. As if making sure.

“Yes.”

“But Arrak is a street gang.”

The James and Tom again looked over to the silent man in black, who still seemed to have his eyes closed, and he nodded faintly. A yes, go on.

“Arrak is more than a street gang, so much more,” said the Tom. Then looking up from his fingers to Alwyn, catching her eyes head on. “Arrak is the force of the Earth.”

“You make it sound like a religion.”

“It is not a religion,” said the Tom. “It is a brotherhood.”

“A brotherhood that has had enough,” added the James.

“I’ve only heard of Arrak as a street gang,” said Alwyn. “The graffiti, the art of Arrak.”

“To date,” said the James, “our only visible arm.” A slight emphasis on visible. “There is much more.”

“Why haven’t we heard of, of this much more?” she asked. “How have you managed to . . .”

“Stay undetected?” The Tom.

“Yes,” said Alwyn.

“The Freemasons stayed undetected for centuries.”

“No they didn’t. They were known from the beginning.”

“Really? So, when did they begin?”

“Early eighteenth century,” said Alwyn, who had done some research on masonry for a program that in the end never aired, something that still irked her a little.

“Case in point,” said the Tom.

“What do you mean?”

“They’ve existed since the twelfth century.”

“They have?”

The Tom didn’t answer.

“And you, Arrak? For as long?”

“No. But long enough.”

“How long?”

“Long enough,” the Tom said again.

“Can I take some notes?” she asked, now realizing she didn’t have her shoulder bag with her. “My bag?”

“It’s in good hands,” said the James.

“We’ll give you a full kit,” said the Tom.

A kit? Like a media kit? Alwyn looked from one to the other not at all sure what to make of them. And something else: none of these men were in heat, or seemed to be. She could trace no scent, none whatever, which, now that she considered it, didn’t add up.

She looked again, from one to the other—and none of these three was neutered, she would stake her life on that—and as softly as possible took a long deep breath through her nose to trace any particle of heat. She could not believe what her nose did not detect: not a single scent, no emanation whatever from either of the three.

They must be medicated, delayers—but even as the thought formed she shook her head inwardly, no. No medication worked this well. You could always detect heat, even in sleepers.

The Tom startled her back into the room by repeating, a little louder, “We’ll give you a full kit.”

And connected. “I’d appreciate that,” she said.

“What other questions do you have?” said the James.

She wanted to ask about their scent, or lack of it, but perceived that this question would possibly cross the unspoken line. And she did want to see the sky again.

So instead she asked, “Earth-given right notwithstanding, how can that possibly justify the death of two hundred fourteen women, by fire?”

“A subtle warning,” said the James.

“Subtle?”

“Yes, I mean subtle. The will of the Earth will not be refused. By no one. The will of the Earth will be done. This is our subtle way of pointing this out.”

“Subtle? Are we using the same dictionary?”

“As in understated?”

“Precisely. What on earth is understated about this fire.”

“Things are always relative,” said the James.

Alwyn tried to picture an even event that would make the fire relatively understated, but stepped away from it. It was not a pleasant notion.

“Are you planning other,” she fished around for the word: “hints?”

The man in all black—or navy blue—smiled again, even raised his eyes and cast her a glance. Was humor involved? she wondered.

“No,” said the James. “Not this Season. This will stand as the warning.”

“Warning of what?” she asked.

“It’ll be in the kit,” said the James.

“Your demands?”

“Not demands. Our rights.”

“Earth-given rights,” clarified Alwyn.

“Earth-given rights,” confirmed the James, in all seriousness.

“You demand the right to exercise them, I take it?”

We demand nothing. The Earth does.”

Alwyn hesitated. These men were insane, surely. “Arrak,” she said after a while, more to herself. Then looked up at the Tom “Does it mean anything? I mean, what does the name, the word, mean?”

“Seed,” he said. “Or more precisely, Seed of the Earth. It’s in the kit.”

“You planned the fire,” said Alwyn, looking across to the James.

“Yes.”

“Who carried it out?”

“Arrak. Members who are no longer in the country.”

“You are international, then?”

“We are of the Earth.”

“Of course.” She tried her best not to sound sarcastic, perhaps not with too much success, for a frown crossed the leader’s face. Go easy, girl.

Again she questioned what the odds were that they would indeed let her go. They were insane. Clearly. Cleverly disguised in tailored clothes and well-manicured hands (yes, she had noticed that). But no less insane for all that. They had killed over two hundred innocent women and thought absolutely nothing of it. As a message. A hint. And a subtle one at that.

But the professional within formed other questions: How large was Arrak? How old? Were they only Seasonal? What were their actual aims and goals? Would they tell her if she asked? Well, there was only one way to find out.

So she asked: “If you could fashion the world, utterly to your wishes, how would it appear?”

The Tom looked at the James who in turned looked over at the man in black, who finally spoke. A soft voice, not one she would have anticipated. Deeper than expected too, but soft.

“It’s in the kit, Miss Moore, but let me say this.” He shifted slightly. Both the James and the Tom turned to face him and regarded him intently. This, apparently, was not scripted. “The Earth yearns to return to its untainted nature.”

Now that was a mouthful; and was it French? Was there a French accent beneath that velvety voice?

“The Earth yearns to return to the hunt, to the purity of the hunt.” He stressed the word purity. “To return to victory and survival of the strongest seed. To return to an Earth untainted by pharmaceutical mollifiers and herbal adjusters. To return to an Earth free of bunkers and spas and scent proofing panels. The Earth yearns to return to an Earth untainted by those who openly oppose or try to hinder the quenching of His thirst: popular religion for one.”

He fixed her with a hard look, a stare almost. “Man was put on this Earth to create, Miss Moore. To procreate. This right is being diluted at every turn. We mean to restore that right. The Earth is a survival of the fittest. It is raw nature against raw nature.”

He paused and regarded Alwyn for several pregnant heartbeats. Then said:

“We are the Seed of the Earth. We shall return this seed to its rightful owner. To the Earth.”

“Arrak,” said Alwyn.

“Precisely.”

“And how?” she asked, not exactly sure what she meant.

“We have shown how,” he answered. “We will punish those who taint or whose aim it is to mask, suppress, or prevent the seed.”

“Nuns?”

“I believe you called it a hint.”

Alwyn shook her head. “I’m still not convinced that subtle is the right word.”

His answer chilled her. “Believe me, Miss Moore, that was subtle.”

“You mean?”

“I mean, we will do what is necessary to return the seed to the Earth.”

The James and the Tom silently acquiesced, nodding their heads slowly, as if in contemplation.

“How?” is what she managed.

“This, Miss Moore, is where you come in. We have begun.” Then he retrieved and opened a thin briefcase; produced a thick folder. An inch perhaps. “Here, Miss Moore, is the kit.”

The Tom stood up, took it and walked it round the table to her.

“The instructions as quite precise. It spells out what we want the broadcast to say, how often, what stations. You will tell the world about Arrak, Miss Moore. It is not exactly how we had planned it, but you stepped right into our path, so to speak, and we’re both the richer for it.”

“How on earth am I richer for it?”

“You’ll be the most famous reporter in the world.”

“You want me to be your spokesman?” Incredulous.

And that, she realized, was precisely how far she should go in that direction, another step and she would not see daylight again.

The man in black considered her for another long silent moment; here, something hung in the balance. Then, coming down on the side of keeping her alive, he said, “Not spokesman, per se, a conduit. This, after all, is news. Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she managed. “This is news.”

“Well, then. We are agreed.”

“Certainly.”

The man looked at the James and the Tom as if asking: anything to add? Neither did.

“Can I ask one more question?” she asked.

Their leader did not immediately answer. Then, “That depends which question.”

“Why are you men not in heat? Why do you not emanate?”

“No,” he said. “You may not.” Then added, “James here will see you out.” And that was the last thing he said.

The James produced the hood and asked her to don it. She did.

 

:: 50 ::

 

Harman-Karman’s pride was his car.

It was a 1975 Jenson Interceptor III. He had flown to England to inspect the car in person before he bought it and had it shipped to the United States. He had since had it restored to mint condition by Juanito Alvarez, his crazy El Salvadorian mechanic friend (who shared his passion for English sports cars). All original parts, save for those few Juanito could not track down, even with the help of the Internet, which he instead manufactured himself, from scratch. The car was silver-gray and hugged the road like a large cat crouching. “She’s like driving on rails,” was one of Harman-Karman’s favorite—and wildly overused, according to Harry—expressions. But it was true, the car would not even tilt through curves, so stiff was the suspension. It made for a shaky (literally) ride even on the smoothest of freeways, but you soon got used to it, and it was worth it.

It was in this head-turner of a car that Harman-Karman pulled up to “Red Sun Market” in Alhambra.

Owned and operated by Ch’ien Yung Lee, a childhood friend of Harman-Karman’s, this market served two distinct purposes: a fair priced and well supplied food market for the local neighborhood, and an exclusive, though overpriced (well, for most anyway), outfitter for the hunt. There was, as Ch’ien Yung would gladly remind you, nothing he could not obtain, for an appropriate fee.

As soon as Harman-Karman had parked, two teenage boys, whom he recognized as relatives of Ch’ien Yung’s, exited the store to keep an eye on the car. Obviously sent by his friend. They both nodded in Harman-Karman’s direction, discreetly, but no more than that, they were too cool to be seen as friendly. Harman-Karman nodded back as unobtrusively, and entered the Market. He passed the isles of produce and canned foods and grains, and came to an ominous door at the back of the store, attended by another non-smiling relative of Ch’ien Yung’s who looked at Harman-Karman with a mix of suspicion and expectation. Ready for anything.

“Lotus,” said Harman-Karman.

The non-smiling relative performed another discreet nod—to perfection, they must practice these, Harman-Karman thought—and disappeared inside.

A moment later the door opened again and Harman-Karman was ushered inside. He recognized the well-lit interior of the store which served as Ch’ien Yung’s office.

Ch’ien Yung rose and greeted him with open arms. He was almost as tall as Harman-Karman and fitter still: a man who’d made fitness a religion. Even hugging him, Harman-Karman could feel the muscles ripple in his friend’s arms. A tall Bruce Lee came to mind.

Stepping back, but still clutching Harman-Karman’s upper arms in a friendly inspection: “Harman-Karman, my friend. What brings you here, to my humble establishment?”

“I’ve decided to hunt this year, Ch’ien Yung,” said Harman-Karman.

“You have come to the right place. As always.”

“As always.”

“What can I get you? Tea? Food?”

“Tea would be fine.”

A bead-curtain rustled as someone Harman-Karman had not even noticed left the room, most likely to get the tea.

“Sit, my friend,” said Ch’ien Yung, and indicated one of two deep armchairs by the farther side of the room, a small coffee table at the side of each.

Harman-Karman did, as did his friend. Harman-Karman could not help but admire the courtesy his friend paid him by this unhurried, personal attention. When it came to hunting kits and supplies, this was the height of selling season, still Ch’ien Yung acted as if Harman-Karman was the only customer he’d had all week, and was likely to have for the next. All the time in the world.

“So,” Ch’ien Yung asked, “Solo or team.”

“Solo.”

His friend tested the air with his nose, nostrils quivering a little, as if sifting for scent. “And not a moment too soon,” he said with a smile.

“Yes, I know. I left it late. I had a pact, but it fell through.”

“Women,” said Ch’ien Yung, with a sigh.

“Yeah.”

“Where?” wondered Ch’ien Yung, all business now.

“Pasadena, perhaps Hollywood.”

“Downtown?”

“No, don’t think I’m up to it.”

“It’s exciting,” said Ch’ien Yung.

“True, that. Though dangerous. No, Ch’ien Yung. I want to make sure I survive the hunt just fine.”

“All right.”

The bead-curtain rustled again, and gave way to tea. Harman-Karman was surprised to see that it was carried by a young woman, dressed as a man; in the very early stages of heat, by her scent.

“My sister,” said Ch’ien Yung, and smiled at her—pride in that smile. “She came over from Taiwan a little over two months ago.”

“I didn’t know you had a sister?”

“Same father, different mother,” he explained.

Harman-Karman smiled at her. “Nice to meet you.”

She looked at him, and smiled back, but said nothing.

“Not a word of English,” explained Ch’ien Yung. A statement which might or might not contain a single grain of truth.

Harman-Karman kept smiling at her, perhaps a little too long. “She is my sister,” said Ch’ien Yung, pointedly, and Harman-Karman quickly returned to all of his senses.

“Of course,” he said. “She is very beautiful.”

“Yes, she is.”

Ch’ien Yung poured tea for both of them, while his sister more or less evaporated as far as Harman-Karman could make out, still leaving her shadow of scent on the air.

It took an effort to ignore it.

“I brought a list,” said Harman-Karman and handed it to him.

Ch’ien Yung glanced at the list. It was not short. “All of this?” he asked.

“Afraid so,” said Harman-Karman. “I had to abandon my pack in 2006. Chased by a team. Ditched everything and ran.”

“Yes, I remember. You told me.”

“Right.”

“Too bad,” said Ch’ien Yung. “It was a good pack.” He should know, he had supplied it.

“It was a very good pack.”

Ch’ien Yung returned to the list, inspecting each item, and as he did he mumbled, fairly loudly, things in Chinese which, as Harman-Karman would soon realize, someone was taking close note of, for within five minutes, if that, a young man parted the beaded curtain, carrying a dark brown back pack, customized to the tools and equipment it carried.

“Ah,” said Ch’ien Yung. “Here we are.”

Harman-Karman looked over at his friend in amazement, as always impressed by the sheer efficiency of the man. Ch’ien Yung received the pack from his employee or assistant or partner (or brother)—there was no way of telling which—and opened it. He glanced briefly at its content, a quick inspection, then nodded briefly at the man, who bowed and then withdrew.

“Okay,” said Ch’ien Yung, and began handing Harman-Karman the kit item by item—for his inspection and acceptance.

“Two Baraks.”

Harman-Karman took the two rather heavy Israeli made handguns from his friend.

“These are IMI SP-21s, the original 9mm version. Holds 15 rounds,” said Ch’ien Yung.

“Perfect,” said Harman-Karman. “I swear, someone made these for me,” as he weighed each in his right hand, feeling the grip, cradling it, and the fit was so perfect that the gun might indeed have been made specifically for that very hand.

“Don’t leave these behind,” said Ch’ien Yung. They’re too expensive to lose.”

“I promise,” said Harman-Karman.

“You know what ‘Barak’ means, right?” asked Ch’ien Yung with a smile.

“No,” said Harman-Karman. “But I have the feeling I’m about to find out.”

“Lightning,” said his friend.

“Lightning?”

“As in thunder and.”

“Good name.”

“And, ah, yes, here are the silencers to go with them. Just in case.”

Harman-Karman fit one of them to its muzzle. Snug and perfect. “It still balances well,” he said. “Brilliant,” and he meant it.

“If anyone deserve these, you do,” said his friend, referring, Harman-Karman knew, to his marksmanship. They had competed often in the past, placed pretty hefty bets actually, and Harman-Karman had always—except once, he had been sick at the time, though he never stooped to using that as an excuse—come out the richer for it. He was an excellent shot. And knew it. And Ch’ien Yung knew it. He had stopped betting him.

Next Ch’ien Yung brought out three knives. Each with a scalloped handle of about the same size, though they differed in length of blade. Each had one sharp, curved edge and one sharp serrated mate. Shortest for close fighting, medium length for defense against a single attacker—it was also well balanced for throwing. The longest blade was for use in defense against more than one attacker, once—or if—ammunition for the Baraks ran out.

Harman-Karman hoped he wouldn’t have to use any of the knives, especially not the long blade. It would probably be the last thing he’d do.

He weighed the medium blade and balanced it. “Beautiful,” he said.

“Give it to me,” said Ch’ien Yung, and held out his hand. Harman-Karman did. Next Ch’ien Yung’s arm blurred briefly, and next came the thud of the knife hitting a small wooden square (with many marks from other similar demonstrations, as Harman-Karman now noticed) where it vibrated for several long seconds before settling down in what struck Harman-Karman as an exclamation point.

“Well thrown.”

“Good knife,” said his friend.

His employee or assistant or partner (or brother) materialized by the knife, and brought it back, handing it to Harman-Karman.

Next Ch’ien Yung fished out a thin thermal blanket. “Best on the market,” he said. “It’ll keep you warm no matter what or where.”

“Excellent.”

Then came the medical supplies, for treatment of wounds: bandages, compresses, morphine and other painkillers, two tourniquets (“Should worse comes to worst,” said Ch’ien Yung), and sterilizing liquid.

Rope, various lengths. Some for strangling, some for tying, and one for escaping. Along with three pitons and three carabiners. “You sure you need this mountaineering gear?” asked Ch’ien Yung.

“Ever since it saved me in 2002,” said Harman-Karman. “I will not leave home without it.”

“I remember,” said his friend; then brought out the telescoping blowgun, one of Harman-Karman’s favorite weapons. To subdue the not so willing, is how the hunter looked at it. “This extends to three feet,” said Ch’ien Yung and showed him. “Accurate up to twenty or so feet, depending on your lung power.”

“And the darts?”

Ch’ien Yung brought out a small case of twelve darts, each in it’s own plastic capsule. “These will put anyone out within five seconds, for about ten minutes.”

“Perfect.” The thought of it: his best weapon against not so cooperative women, added volume to his still rising erection. Not many hunters used blowguns for reasons Harman-Karman could not imagine, it was the perfect weapon.

Two flashlights, one large and one small; water purifying pills; high protein bars; compact night-goggles, invaluable for seeing in the dark, prey and enemies alike; matches; artificial kindling, guaranteed to burn strongly for as long as it took to set whatever else on fire; and a week’s supply of the best—not at all legal—delayers available, should the pressure get too great—which it easily could, especially if the hunt went well, too well. “Would I ever have the presence of mind to take it?” asked Harman-Karman the last time Ch’ien Yung supplied him. His friend was the expert, and would know.

“Yes,” he had answered. “You will sense, deep down, that you either cool down or explode, it becomes life or death, and yes, you will have the presence of mind to take them.”

And lastly, the vest. Light but proof against most caliber guns and light knives. Harman-Karman had requested one with long sleeves. He had scars from the 2006 Season to prove that a short-sleeved vest was not in his best interest.

Ch’ien Yung held it up for him to take and try on. Harman-Karman did. It was a very nice fit.

“This will be cooler than the last you wore,” said Ch’ien Yung.

“Perfect.” Harman-Karman waved his arms around, and found the vest to be curiously generous with his movements. “Perfect,” he said again.

And then the invoice.

“Whoa,” said Harman-Karman, not expecting a five digit amount.

“And that is at cost,” said Ch’ien Yung. “Virtually.”

Knowing that his friend was telling the truth. Harman-Karman paid what he was asked, no problem.

He rose and donned the backpack; it fit snugly and comfortably. Ch’ien Yung must have had his measurements on file. Again, the efficiency of the man. “Feels just right,” he told his friend.

Ch’ien Yung also rose. “Have a fruitful hunt,” he said, and offered his hand, indicating the meeting was over.

“And you the same,” said Harman-Karman.

“I wish,” said Ch’ien Yung.

“No hunt?”

“A pro, at best. After some delayers. Business is good, I have to attend to that, first and foremost.”

Harman-Karman nodded, he understood.

“A fruitful hunt,” his friend said again. “And, don’t tip the kids.”

Harman-Karman was about to ask what he meant when one of Ch’ien Yung’s assistants came in and said something to his friend in soft Chinese. Ch’ien Yung listened, nodded, and then looked back up at Harman-Karman and smiled. Another assistant appeared to lead him back out to his car. Harman-Karman smiled back at his friend, gave a brief wave, then followed the assistant out of the store.

The kids were still protecting the Jensen, making sure no one got too close.

Ah, and he were not to tip them, got it.

Instead he thanked them, with a grin, which they did not return. Only that almost imperceptible nod; and if either had expected a tip, there was no way of telling.

He drove off, the hunting kit beside him on the passenger seat.

 

:: 51 ::

 

Helen and Larry Suffolk were locking up.

The house always seemed empty after dropping the kids off. Every year, the same desolation. That one day or two between turning childless and entering full heat were the worst of the year, especially for Helen. Larry seemed to take it in better stride, possibly because he, as a rule, was a little farther gone than her by that time, not quite as impressionable. Still, it was with mixed emotions they both put the final touches to their seclusion.

They would spend most of the Season in the basement—the most secure place in the house—which they had already (four years ago now) sound proofed.

Three years ago they had replaced the basement door to the den (den by off-Season, bunker by Season) with a steel-reinforced, pretty impossible to bust through “bunker-door” (is how the commercials put it), and this year (after several—half-hearted, but still—attempts had been made to enter their house the previous Season) they had done the same with the upstairs door leading down to the basement. As safe as it’s likely to get, said Larry once he had managed—after much of an afternoon—to hang it properly. The steel-reinforced frame made is “safe as a safe” (another of the commercial slogans).

They got new batteries for the outside microphones—to make sure they would work all month—then mounted them, allowing them, as usual, to monitor activity just outside the house. They used to have close circuit cameras as well, but those were easily spotted and stolen, and they got tired of replacing them. Besides, this was a warning system, not meant for entertainment, and the microphones did the job as well as any camera. Plus, they were small and hid well in the ivy and under the eaves. Once placed, they were more or less impossible to spot.

But effective. You could clearly hear not only intrusion attempts, but also talk among the intruders, as well as traffic going by outside, and birds and wind.

Once done with the mikes they faced the necessary evil four hour project of mounting all the inside window bars. A must, if you wanted to keep them out. Years past there would be a broken window or two, to test the bars, but seems like word of their efficiency had spread, and when an intruder now saw a house with window bars, he would no longer bother, focusing instead on the door, which as a rule was easier to get past than the bars.

Helen’s and Larry’s front door, for many years now, was of the bunker variety.

That evening they emptied the upstairs fridge and brought its content, along with the cases and cases of canned food and bottled water they had bought, down to the den (which Larry by now had begun calling their little “love nest,” a sure sign he was getting close).

A final round, checking all the widows again, testing the bars, testing the mike (Larry walking around talking loudly to himself, Helen monitoring him from the den: all okay). Then they locked first the front door, then the door leading to the basement, from the basement side, then the door to the den from the inside.

Their Season, for all intents and purposes had begun.

Television, cards, reading, talking, wondering how the kids were, placing that last phone call to the center, that sort of thing is how they braced for the approaching Storm; Larry all the while pinching Helen here and there in the process, and anticipation.

Before finally entering the blood-colored tunnel of heat, where nothing else really mattered, they went through their last ritual: hiding the keys.

Like a safety deposit box, the den door was locked with two different keys, and you needed them both to get out. To ensure that neither Larry or Helen, in the throes of mid-heat, decided to head out and test other waters—it certainly was not an unheard of phenomenon, many couples had some patching up to do after the Season—they each hid one of the keys somewhere in the den (which was rather large and had ample places to hide a key) from the other. A proven way of keeping the physical integrity of the marriage intact.

That done, they waited some more. Watched some more television, played some more cards, Larry sensing the approaching Storm throughout. He usually got it pretty bad, and once if full bloom could spend hours at a time in sheer, wrenching copulation. Not that Helen objected too much, they were well matched in that department. She used to joke, though it really wasn’t a joke at all, that the Season and it’s sexual acrobatics was the best exercise cum weight loss system she knew. Sometimes (though deep down she didn’t mean it) she said she wished it could last all year.

Then all Larry could smell and sense and want was Helen, and the Season was truly upon them.

 

:: 52 ::

 

Lara tipped her driver well. So well in fact that he offered to help her up with the groceries and supplies. And with so many bags, an offer she gladly accepted.

And now they stood, like a white little army with various and strange hairstyles, on her kitchen counter and on her kitchen floor. This was it then. She heard the cab driver climb back into his car, and speed away from the curb. She heard a water pipe cough, or stutter is how she thought of it, in the apartment below. Always did that when they—so they were still in town then?—took a shower.

So this was it. She left the bags for the moment and sat down on her living room sofa. Closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Everything, the entire apartment and much of the outside, entered. A thousand scents, and only a few of them trees. That is what struck her the hardest: only a few of them trees. Several males, some near or in heat, announcing themselves, and she wondered whether they could scent her as well as she could them. Oh, who was she kidding, probably better, she realized.

And she listened. To the wind in the branches of the lone elm—apparently not unhappy to be so far away from his eastern family—almost as tall as the palms farther down the street. And as tall as the towering eucalyptus a little up-street; also away from home.

She listened to the susurrant mumble of the buckbrush and blueblossom bushes below her window. And took in their scent, partly desert partly ocean. When she settled for this apartment a few years ago, it had been almost as much for these blooming bushes as for the apartment itself, or let’s put it this way, the bushes tipped the scales. Now they almost spoke to her. Wondering why she was still around, and not at the glade.

Which was an excellent question. And not so easily answered, not now, sitting on the brink of the Storm with no clear direction.

Again, what now?

Well, first of all, lock the door, twice; then dead bolt, chain. Make sure the windows are all locked. Not as important. She lived on the second floor with no practical access to her windows, no drainpipes or fire escapes to climb. But the door. She wish she had more locks, and more chains. She wished she had one of those New York-loft doors (which always struck her as being fortress-like), looked more like a punk-rocker with all their pins and chains than a door. Would it really help though, a thousand chains, if someone really wanted? No, don’t go there.

Okay, door locked. What now?

You wait. Well, you put away your groceries, then you wait. Just sit here and wait? That’s it? You read, you watch your television, you smell the bushes outside, you listen to the wind, you listen to the trees, and you brace yourself, and you wait.

She put her groceries away, then began to do just that: wait.

 

:: 53 ::

 

Harry’s Honda Prelude was packed to the more or less brim, or spilling over, depending on how you look at it. The trunk was full, the backseat (not really much room there—some auto reviews termed the Prelude backseats as purely cosmetic) overflowing, the passenger seat and floor, packed. Well, there should be enough here for, what, two, perhaps three weeks. Unless he got anxious and into eating too much—not an unknown occurrence with him.

Now for the unloading.

Which took, it seemed to him, the better part of the afternoon. Actually: thirty-two minutes.

It was during the final back and forth: car to kitchen, that he grew aware of the swelling. The jerky little spasms had ceased and moved on to rising, to warming of the lower pit of his stomach, to the almost gushing comfort that came with it, and to more rising. He would be in full heat by tonight, if not sooner.

He drove the car into his garage, and covered it. Wouldn’t be doing much driving now, would he? Would he? He actually wasn’t sure. He closed the garage door, then the gates to his back yard. Looked down the street toward Harman-Karman’s house, but saw no sign of life there.

The rest of the world was brimmingly alive though. A feast, a universe of scents, and on the air: several girls or women in heat, and not far, and no, no, no he wasn’t even going to wonder where from. He was going to simply walk inside, close the door, lock it well. Check the windows, and put away everything he had just unloaded. He was going to put everything away he had just unloaded and then make himself a nice dinner. Make himself a nice, nice dinner. Concentrate on making himself a nice dinner, and then eat that nice dinner, and see how strong the rising might be after that.

And that’s what he did. Put each thing away where it belonged, filled the fridge, the freezer, the pantry; the remaining canned food went into the garage.

He locked all the doors, then did that round again, to make sure. All locked. Yes.

He returned to the kitchen. Looked around. Everything stowed away. Hatched battened down. Ready for sea. Check.

Then he set out to prepare dinner.

But it was more like watching someone else prepare dinner; like watching someone atop a volcano about to blow prepare dinner. Watching—curious and apprehensive, with just a sprinkling of anticipation—while sensing the gathering of strength, gathering of ocean, gathering of lava, gathering of heat: man, how appropriate can a simile get, the rising of magma, slowly, inexorably, rising, rising.

Harry’s Pine felt not a little sorry for him.

 

:: 54 ::

 

Harman-karman brought the book out of its drawer and put pen to paper:

 

H-K Journal—2/29/2008

This is going to be harder than I though. I can tell.

Much.

But I will.

Write.

I will write.

I will enter something every day. Make an entry every day. No matter how much, or how little, or how badly I get it. I will make an entry, at least one word, every day.

Every day.

Ch’ien Yung helpful as usual. But very expensive. I had not planned to pay this much—not even sure what I had planned for, or budgeted in my head, but not this much. This was a lot. Then again, what do you do once he’s put it all together for you, and he’s been a good friend? You pay, is what you do, and you grin and your bear and you enjoy. Maybe kits have actually gotten this expensive in the last couple of years. Possibly. And, of course, as always, Ch’ien Yung’s wares are the best.

I am virtually there, if not there already—no, I am there. I find it hard to see each word distinctly as I write it. It’s like writing through a fog. Each word tend to float a little, shimmer a little, but when I sharpen my focus and ignore the warm rustling, rumbling, grumbling, thunder, below—which is, Kristus it is, it is so sweet—and I fix upon the letter, upon, upon, u-p-o-n each letter, then I make them out clearly again. It’s like willing yourself to a surface, when that surface is not really where you want to be through a fog or a sea which offers resistance; I have to push my pen against it to form these letters, these letters, these l-e-t-t-e-r-s.

That is the odd thing, this warm rustling, rumbling, grumbling, thunder, when it fills you, even though you know, you know—really, you do know—that it is not necessarily the most wholesome feeling in the world, you could even know that indeed it was noxious, still you want to drown, you actually want to drown. I don’t know how better to put it. Part of the feeling—it’s almost like an hypnosis—is that you want the feeling to remain, you want it to seize you and fill you, and rise above you and submerge you and you simply don’t want to will yourself to the surface; but is it really you not wanting it, or is it the feeling not wanting to abandon or deny itself? Have you become the feeling, has it take over? Has it taken so over that you now are the feeling, and nothing but the feeling and so help you God?

Is the not wanting to leave it your own wanting, or is it the feeling’s wanting masquerading as your wanting? I guess that’s the question. Is there free will involved, or is the will you still think free no longer so, while giving that appearance? Could the Storm be that insidious? Oh, I would not put it past it.

Be that as it may. I am soon there, or I am there.

(I notice that I gain some distance to it as I examine it—I notice that I gain some distance to it; that is an important distinction: I — it.)

I will head out tonight. I will hunt again. The thought itself rustles the heat and I can feel the long red tunnel approach, the space—or lack of space—where such things as surface and willing yourself there cease to have meaning, it’s just tunnel and you follow it at speed, planting your seed wherever you can, doing your bit for the human race, not that this thought even enters as much as the periphery of things; but I can note the thought now, because I just had it, before I enter, before I vanish, before I drown completely.

But how am I to keep up the Journal throughout? It’s so easy to make a decision like that, unrustled—what could be easier?, but now I can see the mountain this is going to entail. I may just be dreaming.

Should make for interesting off-Season reading. So I will. Try.

I must.

I will.

I said goodbye to Harry this morning. Not sure how he’s going to make it. He didn’t seem prepared, to say the least. Also seemed a little dismayed at my decision to go hunting again this year. Well, be that as it may.

Several women on this block are already in full heat. Four houses down on the other side of the street, and three houses up, also on the other side of the street. Both married, I believe. The rustle doesn’t care, though—married or not, available or not, willing or not—it never did. Sitting here, writing this down, this all of a sudden strikes me as frightening, this non-distinction. And I feel like a diver, crouched and at the ready, on the very edge, like one of those cliff divers down in Acapulco, ready for the gigantic leap out into the net-less nothing, now midair, all that gravity rushing you down for the Storm to devour.

It’s like an anesthetic. An anesthetic of sorts. I’ve been put under a few times. You know that when they flick that little gauge or valve or whatever they call it on your IV hose or cannula, you have about two or three seconds before you are g-o-n-e, gone. And while you’re gone, you are gone. And then you wake up, groggy, wondering (and not really knowing) what actually took place.

Well, the same with the Storm: once it enters, once it takes over, you are—at least rationally, analytically—gone, and I mean g-o-n-e, gone; once you enter the tunnel, and while you do remember, at least bits and pieces of it, once you wake up, it’s still as if you woke up from an operation, groggy, quite lost, wondering what on earth.

I can sense a third woman on the block. Six or seven houses up, my side of the street, a few houses above Harry’s. Married as well, I believe. Time to focus, to prepare, to head out.

I notice again—and this is curious—that as I write, as I let the letters flow, as I manage to focus on each word and the meanings they carry, that I do gain some distance to the rustle, rumble, grumble, thunder, below. I gain some altitude; yes, that’s a good word: altitude, that’s what I gain.

I wonder if that’ll happen tomorrow? I wonder if I will write at all tomorrow? I wonder If I can write tomorrow. Will I be me tomorrow?

Yes, I will, and I will write. I will, I will.

I will.

 

:: 55 ::

 

They dropped Alwyn Moore off at Hollywood and Taft. By the Seven Eleven parking lot. The last thing they did before letting her out was remove the hood. Then he—it was the same man who had collected her, she was pretty sure of it, although nobody had said a word to her this time—placed a sizeable plastic envelope in her hand and more or less pushed her out the door. She almost stumbled at the curb, but made it onto the sidewalk upright.

Night had arrived. Headlights heading south on the Hollywood Freeway, and tail lights chasing north.

The man pulled the door shut behind here and black limo spurted away, too fast for her to catch a license plate—which was not lit, if indeed there was one. And even had she caught it, would it be authentic? Oh, she very much doubted that. The limo turned right onto the North freeway exit and was gone—soon just another pair of anonymous tail lights.

She clutched the plastic envelope to her chest. It reminded her of those bulky things you get from your bank to hold all of your loan docs. Lots of paper inside. Just like this one, lots of paper inside.

Then she started laughing. At nothing. No, not nothing: she was alive. She stood in open air, under open sky, and then realized how it could very easily have turned out differently. She had passed some sort of test, a test she could as easily have failed, and failure, she realized, would have meant no more open air. Either as death or confinement.

She was alive and free, and for the last few hours she had, she realized, no longer dared to take those things for granted.

Still clutching the envelope she walked west on Hollywood Boulevard to Bronson, took it south to Sunset, and there, all lit up as well—that building always seemed to celebrate Kristmas—was the KTLA building. She entered. A casual hello to Raphael, the night receptionist, who looked at her with a mixture of surprise and relief, then smiled, and reached for the phone.

Alwyn took the stairs to her floor. Two at a time.

Pretty much ran down the hallway for her office, hoping to make it past Shirley Field unnoticed. No such luck. First James Bittle, who was in Shirley’s office, and then Shirley herself, spotted her through the glass wall.

“Alwyn!”

She could hear her boss quite clearly even through the thick glass and the closed door. James was saying something too, but whether to her, or to Shirley, or to the third person—it was Blackburn Small of all people—she couldn’t tell.

Always slowed to a brisk walk, but still headed straight for her office.

“Alwyn!” Shirley’s voice was actually frantic, and James threw the door opened behind her. Shirley’s voice again: “Alwyn. You’re all right.”

Then it finally caught up with her: they, of course, would have been worried sick. They would have found, what was his name?, Leon—oh, that’s why Blackburn Small was here. Someone had someone punctured the guard, she remembered. And Blackburn Small had seen this. She stopped, and turned.

James was holding the door open, smiled. Relieved. Other people were looking up from their desks now, all in her direction, saying things back and forth, smiling too. Good news, she was back.

Alwyn made her way back and into Shirley Fields office, still clutching her plastic envelope.

“You’re all right,” said Shirley again.

“Yes.”

“God, Alwyn, what happened?”

Alwyn looked over at Blackburn Small. “I saw you,” she said to him, “just before, just as they.”

“I saw the scuffle,” he said.

“Is Leon all right?” asked Alwyn.

“Who’s Leon,” said James.

“My body guard,” said Alwyn. “Or poor excuse for.”

“Yes,” said Shirley. “He’s fine.”

“The Western Front,” said Alwyn. “It was the Western Front.”

“The Western Front?” Shirley’s question

“Arrak, actually.”

“Arrak?” That was James’ question. “The street gang?”

“They’re a part of it, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” said Alwyn. “I have their kit here.” She held out the plastic envelope for all to see.

“Their kit?” A puzzled Shirley.

“Yes.”

“A media kit?” James again.

“It’s a long story,” said Alwyn. “I’d like to go through this.” She indicated the envelope again.

“What happened?” Shirley not happy without an answer.

Alwyn took a deep breath. “I was, well,” how was she to put this? “I was granted an interview.”

When no one replied—obviously expecting more—she started again: “Basically, I was kidnapped. By what they initially said was the Western Front. A very polite man in a black limo brought me to an office building somewhere here in Hollywood, or perhaps West Hollywood, but not farther away than that.

“You don’t know where?” James.

“There was no way to see out of the limo, then they made me wear a very efficient black hood,” said Alwyn.

James nodded. As did Blackburn Small. Alwyn continued. “They brought me to an office building. Not too tall is my guess, the elevator moved fairly slowly. Couldn’t count the floors though, so I don’t know for sure how far up. Somewhere between the fifth and eighth floor would be my guess.”

“In Hollywood, or West Hollywood?” Blackburn again.

“Yes.”

“Could it have been Studio City?” James.

“Possibly, but I doubt it. I don’t think I was in the car that long. Nor did it take that long getting back here. Although, I should say that the limo did go north on the 170 once they dropped me off. Conceivably.”

“What happened?” Shirley again, who seemed to have lost capacity for all but those two words. “Then?” she added.

“There were three men. In a conference room. No windows. Three men. One called James, one called Tom, one without a name.

“Their real names?” asked Blackburn.

“No,” said Alwyn.

They waited for her to continue. Alwyn took them in, three pairs of eyes, unblinking, fixed on her. She saw they would not let her leave without the full story, so she finally sat down, plastic envelope in her lap.

“They confirmed responsibility for the fire. First as the Western Front, but then as Arrak.”

Again she indicated the kit they had given her. “An old organization, they said. Ancient. They called it a brotherhood. The force of the Earth. They claimed Earth-given rights. The fire, they said, was a subtle warning not to stand in their way.”

“Subtle?” Shirley.

“My reaction exactly,” said Alwyn. “Nuns, according to Arrak, oppose the will of the Earth; and the will of the Earth will not be refused.”

“Any demands?” Blackburn.

“No. Not per se. Just their Earth-given right to procreate—or, create, as they put it—unopposed. They mentioned the purity of the hunt. No more medication or herbal adjustments, no more facilities or bunkers. Restore the Earth to its, well, basics.”

“And they gave you a kit?” said Shirley, as if she had just noticed. “A media kit?”

“That’s what they said., something like that. They referred to it as the kit.”

“You saw their faces?” Blackburn again. Concerned, and a little puzzled. “They allowed that?”

“Yes. And that really scared me, that they didn’t hide themselves. Made it possible, obviously, to identify them. When they removed my hood and I set eyes on these three men I thought I was done for.”

“They must be very sure of themselves. Of their abilities,” said Blackburn.

“My feeling is that they are capable. Very.”

“And no demands?” Blackburn, who beneath the arson specialist persona was all detective, asked again.

“Well, sort of. I’ve been appointed their spokesperson, in essence. According to them, the instructions are all in here.” Again she indicated the plastic envelope in her lap.

“Spokesperson?” James.

“Conduit, was the word,” said Alwyn. “He, or they, want me to be their conduit.”

“You haven’t had a chance to . . .” Shirley indicated the kit.

“No. That’s what I was on my way to do.”

Someone knocked on the door. Shirley said yes, and Mervyn, the evening anchor stuck his head in, looked at James, and asked: “Do we report Alwyn’s return?”

Suddenly James Bittle realized that Alwyn’s return had to be covered, and right away at that. He excused himself and followed Mervyn out.

“Yes,” said Shirley, looking at Alwyn, “You’re news, honey.”

“Guess I would be.”

“They confirmed the fire,” said Blackburn. Still all business.

“Yes. And they said that whoever actually did it are already out of the country.”

Blackburn nodded. “Did they strike you as capable of doing that? Setting the fire, getting their people out?”

“Oh, yes,” said Alwyn. “Oh, yes. Quite.”

[*:*]

The media kit was exhaustive, including a treatise on Arrak, it’s formation (claimed to be spontaneous, at the Earth’s own insistence—something Alwyn seriously doubted), organization, aims, and goals (restoration of Earth to His—yes, His—natural and original state: the hunt).

How much of this was true, and how much was doctored for her, and through her, public, consumption, Alwyn wasn’t sure; but it made for interesting reading.

What was beyond speculation, however, was what Arrak wanted her to tell her viewers. That was not a polite request, it was a demand, and it was scripted. She read it again, for perhaps the fifth time, and this time with Shirley Fields as the audience. They were in Alwyn’s office now: Alwyn, Shirley, and Blackburn Smith, trying to get as much information as possible on the now confirmed perpetrators of the morning’s terrible arson.

Shirley sat on Alwyn’s desk trying not to chew her nails, Blackburn was leaning into a corner, one knee raised, foot behind him on the well: a crane, Alwyn could not shake the image.

She looked back at Shirley. “There are four different messages,” she said. “One for each week of the Season. To be broadcast four times a day: noon, at three in the afternoon, at six, and then again at nine in the evening. On the hour.”

“Or what?” asked Shirley.

“Or they burn another convent.”

Shirley drew a quick breath.

Blackburn said, “Do they say which?”

“No, just a convent, somewhere in the United States.”

Her boss shook her head. “That’s insane.”

“Especially considering it’s not an empty threat,” said Blackburn.

“My thought exactly,” said Shirley. Then to Alwyn, “Sorry, go on.”

Alwyn picked up the first of the four scripts.“It reads like a religious tract.”

Then she read:

 

Arrak, the Seed of the Earth, has germinated long enough, has now taken root, has now risen to claim its rightful place on Earth.

We regret the necessary loss of life in the recent Los Angeles fire, but we believe we assumed correctly that nothing short of that would catch your attention.

For centuries now the Earth has suffered the indignities of refusal, of denial, of spurning His basic purpose of creation. For centuries now fanatics have devised plans and means of opposing the basic truth of the Earth, of denying Man’s own nature, of hiding from the Earth and the Hunt both Men and Women.

The Earth is displeased and now demands that this stop.

Two Hundred Fourteen women died in the Los Angeles fire, two hundred thirteen women who had pledged their denial of the Earth, who had locked themselves away from creation, who refused the Hunt. And so they suffered the consequences: the Justice of the Earth.

Arrak will not rest until the Seed is returned to its rightful owner: the Earth.

 

“That’s it?” asked Shirley Fields.

“That’s the first one.”

“No demands, no calls to action.” Blackburn’s question was more like a statement.

“No. None.”

“How about the others?” asked Blackburn.

“More of the same.”

“Let’s hear them,” said Shirley.

Alwyn read them out too. As she said, more of the same.

A long silence where they could hear the din of busy people the other side of the glass wall.

“What do they want to achieve?” said Shirley.

Alwyn looked up at her boss. “I think they want to make themselves known. Perhaps set the stage for coming years.”

Blackburn Small frowned, but said nothing.

“You may be right at that,” said her boss.

“This is my question,” said Alwyn Moore. Then hesitated, and looked up at Blackburn. Then back at her boss. “Though this is probably just between you and me.”

“Don’t mind me,” said Blackburn.

Shirley Fields got Alwyn’s meaning; saw the implications of LAPD presence were they to make editorial decisions. She, too, turned to Blackburn. “Actually,” she said. “In this case I’m afraid I do. Besides, editorial questions wouldn’t interest you.”

“They might.”

“I must insist,” said Shirley.

Blackburn straightened his leg, then straightened his entire frame. “Your call,” he said. Then, looking at Alwyn, added, “Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Not quite a joke.

Alwyn smiled, but didn’t answer.

In three steps Blackburn Small was through the door and on his way out of the building.

“He was really worried about you,” said Shirley Fields.

“He hates me,” said Alwyn.

“No, seriously.”

“Seriously, Shirley.”

“All right.”

“My question is this,” said Alwyn. “Do we go with it?”

“Do we have a choice?” said her boss.

“Of course we do.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, we don’t have to comply.”

“At the risk of another fire,” said Shirley.

Alwyn looked out over the many reporters working by their desks the other side of her glass wall, then back at her boss. “Do you want to be party to this?”

“No. Of course I don’t.”

“Well, neither do I.”

“So, what do you suggest?”

“I suggest we don’t do a damn thing with it. I suggest we turn this, this kit, over to Blackburn or someone else at the LAPD or the FBI or whoever, and wash our hands off them. That’s my gut feeling.”

Now it was Shirley Fields’ turn to survey the small sea of desks and the many men and women working at their terminals and keyboards.

“We have an exclusive here,” she said finally.

“Oh yes, that thought has crossed my mind.”

“And you know what that means.” That was not a question.

“Sure.”

“Can we afford not to use it?”

“Can we live with ourselves if we do?”

“The public has a right to know,” began Shirley, then stopped, realizing she was not talking to a politician or a police officer or a Joe Public. Instead she said, “Sorry.”

“So can we?” asked Alwyn.

Shirley didn’t answer.

“Live with ourselves?”

Shirley hesitated, then said, “If we don’t do it, they’ll just go to another station who will.”

“That’s the oldest—and lamest—excuse in the book,” said Alwyn.

“Nonetheless valid,” said her boss.

Alwyn’s turn to not reply.

Instead, she looked down on the tracts in her hand, as if reading them again, as if trying to decide. Truth be told she no longer saw them. Didn’t, couldn’t, think about them at all. Instead she worked to repress her own internal waves, which suddenly had sprung alive—and with claws—fighting the scents that now reached her from the other side of the glass wall of men who were as close to heat as she felt. And she realized, with a sickening certainty, that she could not make it unaided.

She would either need a delayer, or she would have to get the hell out of there. Now.

“I need a delayer,” said Alwyn.

Her boss didn’t reply for several seconds. “But you said.”

“I know what I said. I just need one. That’s all I need. Just to get this,” she motioned her hand in the direction of the kit now strewn across her desk, “taken care of. Perhaps the station nurse?”

If the issue at hand was in the best interest of the station, Shirley Fields was normally for it. The station always came first. It was more important than friends, than husbands, than possible damage to star reporters.

“One,” said Alwyn. “Just one. Please. And that’s it.”

“Okay, one. One.” Then she fished her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed the company nurse. Spoke briefly. Put the phone away again. “Ten minutes,” she said.

“Thanks, Shirley.”

“So, Alwyn, what do we do with this?” Looking back at the scattered kit.

“I need the delayer, Shirley. I really mean it, I can’t think straight.”

“Okay, let’s take a break.”

“Yes, let’s.”

[*:*]

The delayer shot helped. A lot.

The blockers brought their coma and the amphetamines brought their alertness, as Alwyn crested upon them both as upon swells turning waves.

Below her Alwyn could feel the numbing fill her, submerging the submerger as it rose, blackening the smoldering need into sweet oblivion. And as the need withdrew its claws she realized that even unnoticed—or unheeded, rather—the Storm’s slowly rising tide had affected her vision and her concentration; had dimmed her clarity of view. Muddied it, tainted it.

She felt much better. Almost herself again.

And now, looking over the kit, still scattered across her desk, she knew what to do. And what she had to do next was convince Shirley—now back in her own office—who did have the final say, about it.

She rose, began gathering the kit, when Shirley, as if telepathically alerted that Alwyn was heading in her direction, arrived in Alwyn’s office.

“Feeling better?”

Alwyn nodded. She had undone the ponytail she normally wore when not on the air, but nodding now the hair fell down in her face, and she gathered it up and tied it back again. “Thanks, I really appreciate it.”

“Just the one, though. No more,” said Shirley.

Alwyn nodded again, “No more.”

“So, how do we approach this?” She nodded at the half-gathered kit on the desk.

“I was just coming to see you about that.”

“And?”

“And, I want to denounce them.”

Shirley didn’t answer right away, but instead sat down. Stretched her legs and rubbed the base of her nose, as if she had been wearing glasses, which she had not. Grimaced. Looked up at Alwyn, who remained standing behind her desk, looking at her boss not taking the news too well.

“Denounce them?” she said finally.

“We have to.”

“They will burn another convent. You read that yourself.”

“Well, that’s just it, Shirley. Since when did we give in to blackmail?”

“This is a little more than that.”

“In what way?”

“They have proved themselves capable of carrying out their threat.”

“And that makes it less of a blackmail?”

That earned her a quick, not necessarily appreciative, glance from Shirley. “No.”

“What then? How is it anything but blackmail?”

Her boss turned to rubbing the base of her nose again. And with closed eyes said, “It’s one hell of a story. You’re proposing to ditch it, or pass it on.”

“I’m not proposing to ditch it. I don’t want to pass it on to another station. I want to denounce it.”

“Well, it amounts to same thing.”

“No, Shirley, it does not.”

Shirley Fields, who had begun to view their unique position as a conduit for Arrak—an unwilling conduit, to be sure—as a ratings boon, did not want to let go of four ready-made daily public reminders, and over the next four weeks, to boot, of precisely how unique her station was. That would not be in the station’s best interest.

When her boss didn’t answer right away, Alwyn went on:

“Shirley. These men,” then she paused, and took a deep breath. “Let me point out that I saw not a single mention of women in the entire kit. Not one. Women, in the view of these men, serve only one purpose: seed receptacles.

“These men have one, and only one goal as far as I can see: and that is total access. They want nothing to oppose, thwart, or make in any way difficult, their hunt. They demand that every girl or woman in heat be available, accessible, and what’s more, willing, when they set out to spread their seed for the good of the Earth.

“That goes against what I believe; it goes against what I know you believe, Shirley. And it certainly flies in the teeth of religion as we know it, mostly the Kristian dream of staying untouched.

“They want to remove anything that hinders that touch. They want to remove any resistance to the Storm.”

A long sigh from Shirley, seeing the ratings boon slip away in the wake of Alwyn’s logic. “You’re right. They are crazy and about four thousand years late.”

“Well put,” said Alwyn. “And we will get mileage out of denouncing them.”

Her boss took a long look at her star reporter before she answered:

“True.” Then she added, “And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“When they discover that you’ve defied them; maybe even betrayed them.”

“That’s my bridge to cross.”

[*:*]

Alwyn Moore’s announcement, which opened the nine o’clock evening news, was seen by both Harry and Lara. Helen and Larry Suffolk were also watching KTLA just then.

Harman-Karman had already left his house for his first hunt of the Season, and so missed it.

Fletcher Jones was still asleep, supplied with small, but regular amounts of morphine in his drip, best that way.

Blackburn Small had returned to the KTLA studio to get some more Arrak detail rom Alwyn Moore, and he caught the broadcast from Shirley Fields’ office.

Alwyn Moore, who had forgotten to undo her ponytail for the broadcast, caught most of her viewers by surprise. First, by the different look—not so made up, more down to earth. The tail. Jeans, sweater, despite the urgent news.

Second, by appearing at all. Most viewers knew, of course, that she had been abducted, and later safely returned. None had expected her to return back on the air so soon. There are traumas involved with these things, as hinted at or played up by rival stations.

And thirdly, by what she told them.

“The Western Front,” she began, “the organization who earlier today claimed responsibility for the death of two hundred fourteen women in the Benectine Convent fire, is—this station has now confirmed—just that, a front, the western front for Arrak, an international brotherhood bent on returning the world to utter barbarism.

“To date we have only known Arrak as the South Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Torrance street gang, famous—or notorious—for their daring and artistic graffiti displays, but we have now discovered that to only be the tip of the iceberg. Arrak is so more, and so much more sinister, than that.

“This afternoon this reporter was abducted by this group, by Arrak, blindfolded, and brought to a meeting with three of its leading men. Three men who confirmed culpability, then made their demands in what can best be described as a blatant attempt at blackmail.

“They demanded that this station undertake an ongoing PR campaign for them, or, they claimed, they would burn another convent somwhere in the United States; a monstrous and cowardly act they have already proved themselves capable of.

“Let then this broadcast be a warning, an alert to all police agencies, and to all American convents, to stay vigilant and prepare for a possible attack from these people, this mob, this Arrak.

“It is this reporter’s, and this station’s, opinion and conviction, that these men, and they are only men—the data supplied by them does not show a documented woman among them—think only of heat and hunting and of gratifying their baser, though some would say—and Arrak certainly does—natural, needs. Were they to succeed in their aims, as communicated to this reporter in what they termed a ‘media kit,’ this world would return to an uninhibited survival of the fittest, to a world of no religion save procreation, to a world where nothing matters, but the hunt.

“We believe that these are aims not shared by sane human beings, and we denounce them, as we denounce the group, the brotherhood, the mob that strives in that barbaric direction: Arrak.”

[*:*]

The first one to explode was Blackburn Small.

“She cleared none of this with us,” he yelled at Shirley Fields, who had given him no warning whateve of what was about to be broadcast. “How many convents in Los Angeles?” he asked. “Do you know?”

Shirley Fields, still far from altogether comfortable with the broadcast, especially now that it was done, and so competently, by Alwyn Moore, didn’t catch the question.

“How many what?”

“How many convents do we have in LA County? Do you know?”

“You don’t think?”

“They are capable of it. And to me it makes sense that, with the leaders apparently in town, they would have rehearsed more than one assault in our area.”

Shirley Fields nodded. Made sense. “About a dozen,” I think.

“Who would know?”

“I’d check with the Archbishop’s office.”

Without another word Blackburn Small stalked out of her office to talk the first desk he came to into letting him use the phone.

At eleven o’clock that night the Sisters of St. Joseph on Brighton Avenue in Los Angeles caught fire. But thanks to Blackburn Small’s diligence and to the broadcasted warnings (which by then had been made on all local, and most national stations) the heightened alert spotted the six simultaneously started fires and doused them wihtin fifteen minutes.

No one was hurt.

That was the good news.

The bad news was an email from Arrak to Alwyn Moore care of KTLA which in so many words pronouced her a dead woman.

 

:: 56 ::

 

I have no idea why we would let him go. Or how we could possibly.

The man had killed. Over-heated or not, he had up and violated a woman who had subsequently died, that’s killing. That is murder. Letting him out is same as setting a killer free.

This was Season related, they said. He was, yes, over-heated, frenzied, and so not truly responsible; besides, we don’t have room. There is no room for him. We’re getting inundated with the truly dangerous.

The truly dangerous? How dangerous do you have to be to be truly so?

He’s hurt, they explained. Can’t get around on that knee. Will not pose a danger to others now.

Still. I argued back, but against a very determined wall of deaf ears who had already made up their collective mind. I let it go. Had to.

“His sister is coming to collect him later this morning,” I was told. “Be sure he’s ready to leave by eight.”

 

:: 57 ::

 

Fletcher Jones awoke that Saturday morning a little not quite there, at a stone’s throw from himself, is how he sort of felt it, removed; but other than that in good spirits, and with little or no pain in his knee.

He’d slept more and deeper than in years, felt rested, and with the treatment, and the morphine to be sure, his knee felt just fine right now. The swelling had gone down, and the bandage around it felt strong and comfortable, like a firm hand. A firm, warm hand.

The other swelling had not subsided, however, and his erection would not stop calling, calling, calling (had called for hours in his dream, like a thunder rumbling beyond distant mountains, or far above a distant surface) for Fletcher to wake up and do something about it.

He hitched himself up on his elbows and looked around for someone to complain to, about still being here, and was a little starteled to see that the ward was full. Each bed, as far as he could make out, had someone bandaged up and sleeping in it. Many of them strapped down. He had been, too, he recalled. No longer though.

A couple of male nurses at the other end, down by the windows, were making the bed around some poor sod or other that didn’t look to good.

How the hell to get out out of here, that was the question.

And there, the other side of what looked like very hard to bust glass panels, as if by answered prayer, she was; as if conjured by the very question: Sam, wonderful Sam, frowning and not at all pleased he could tell, but here nonetheless, and to get him out of her, no?

Another male nurse, neutered, too, by the looks of him—well, they all were, weren’t they?—was guiding her through the doors now, and together they approached his bed. Flecther could make out the tail end of what the nurse was saying, something about too little room, him not being an emergency at this point, grateful that she had come on such short notice. Kinda stuff. The nurse place a pile of clothes at the foot of his bed. He recognized the shirt, and the slacks. His clothes.

But though his knee felt fine lying down, it would not support his weight standing up. The nurse shook his head a little and said, “Wait here,” and vanished quickly in the direction he and Sam had come from. Before he went through the door, he turned and said, “Get dressed.”

“Neutered, right?” said Flecher knowingly to his sister.

“What do you think?” she answered.

“What time is is?” he asked.

“Almost eight.” She said, though more like complained.

He looked out through the windows to his right, could see the day, gray clouds just a patch of two of blue. So, morning for sure. Then got out of his stupid gown and into his own clothes. Sam had to help him on with the slacks, the bandage made the left leg stick a little on its way up. But not too badly.

The nurse returned. Wherever he had been off to was not too far away. Carrying crutches.

“Never!” said Fletcher. “Not on your fucking life. Never.”

“You can’t stay here,” said Sam.

The nurse was busy adjusting the height of the crutches and wasn’t paying Fletcher much attention. Done. “Here,” he said. “Try these.”

“Never,” said Fletcher again.

“You’re out of here whether you take them or not,” said the nurse. “If you have someone to carry you around, fine, you won’t need them. But if you have any plans to move around on your own, you’d better take them.”

So damned fucking know-it-all. But, now that he put it that way, probably right.

“Let’s see those damn things,” he said. And tried them. And tried them some more, and then hobbled along after Sam and the nurse as they headed out of the ward. The nurse made sure the door was safely shut and locked behind them before showing Sam and him to the elevator.

On the way down Sam asked him how he felt, and he said fine. Just fine. “They gave me some pills for the pain,” she said, and handed him a small brown plastic bottle of Vicodin. “Only when it hurts,” she said.

“It doesn’t hurt,” he said.

“The morphine hasn’t worn off yet,” she said. “The nurse explained it.”

“That neutered?”

“Yes.”

Outside Sam headed over to her car, and to his dismay Fletcher saw that her husband sat at the wheel of their out of date Buick. Sam held open the back door for him, and he lumbered inside, crutches an all.

“How you feelin’?” asked his brother-in-law.

“Been better,” said Fletcher, though he felt pretty damn good still.

“Glad to hear it.”

“Where to?” asked his sister. A strange question, and one that Fletcher didn’t much care for once he understood the implications: he was not invited back with them, that much was clear.

“Oh, anywhere is fine,” he said.

“You have the pills?” asked Sam.

Fletcher patted his pocket. “Yes.”

Then nothing more was said until they reached Florence, and, with the knee beginning to feel a little uncomfortable, Sam said to her husband, “Here’s fine,” and Fletcher guessed here would be as fine as anyplace.

His sister then turned around and asked, “Got any money?”

“No.”

“Here,” she said and dug out two twenties which she handed to him over her shoulder.”

“Thanks,” he said. After a brief fight with the car door he managed to get it open; almost scraped the sidewalk with it. Then lumbered out of the deep backseat and onto the sidewalk. Reached back in for his crutches. What a hassle.

“Take care,” said his sister.

“Yes, take care,” echoed his brother-in-law. And off they drove, leaving him, knee achier by the minute now, and his gut and erection throbbing with Storm, on the sidewalk. Not even waiting for him to answer. Which he hadn’t planned to do anyway.

He tested his crutches again. Then rested on them, flexing his knee a little. Didn’t feel so good anymore. Then he sampled the air. And again.

It was replete with. For the Season was truly here.

 

:: 58 ::

 

On the morning of March 1st the Storm halted briefly along the San Gabriel–San Bernardio Mountain range, as if to collect iself. As if making sure any stragglers caught up, as if making sure any forerunners knew it was coming.

Satisfied that all was well, it then began spilling over the peaks and crevaces of these mountains and spreading both to the west and south it rolled down the slopes and onto the Los Angeles basin. Life, already disrupted by the many scouting tendrils, took a steep turn toward the chaotic as the Season arrived in force.

 

Part II — Arrival

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harman-Karman Selby

 

:: 59 ::

 

After a shallow and fitful sleep Harman-Karman woke up, sweating. Had there been any doubts about it—and there had been none—they would all have been dispelled by the fresh ejaculation just prior to waking up: stalking, cornering, and yes, finally, entering, and entering, and entering. She had not put up much of a fight, this checkout clerk, this dark haired checkout clerk who worked at Ralph’s on Lake and Walnut. And then, with the rush of release, he woke up all the way.

Oh, man.

The previous night had not gone well.

First there had been the question of whether to hunt locally or elsewhere. He had settled for elsewhere. Then the question of transportation. His first notion had been his car, always an attention getter. But, no. He could not leave it unattended, not during the off-Season, not during the Season. In short order there would be no car left. Okay, so the bike. The Moto-Guzzi, then, his other pride and joy. But that, too, would be stolen within minutes, especially now. He had not thought this through very well. All equipped but nowhere to go, and no way to get there. In the end he settled for a local foray, on foot. Feet were safe, nobody would steal them.

But this had not been a success. Not by any stretch.

Sure, there had been targets enough, but none very accessible. Married mostly. Or well armed boyfriends. Or guards. His neighborhood was not one for revelry. People planned ahead, and they protected themselves well. They took effective precautions again the hunter. They could afford it.

He had ended up sifting through perhaps a dozen heated scents, tracing, finding, abandoning, all the while—with each promise of potential release—his erection grew sterner and sterner, more and more demanding.

Screaming for release. But there was none to be had.

In the end, midnight by this time, he had withdrawn to his house, had carefully locked all doors, then helped himself several before he fell asleep: exhausted and somehow—he felt—cheated. Not an auspicious beginning. Though, and this was his one consolation, the Season was not all here yet, or had not been last night. This morning, things felt very different.

Very.

It had arrived.

For he woke into true heat. Into that blood-red tunnel that brooked no refusal. Into the edict. What last night had been a shifting kaleidoscope of scents and sounds, had this morning turned river, a mist so thick that need and urgency spoke from all directions.

He virtually hummed with the need to copulate, with the need to isolate one, just one of the many many calls the river carried. And he remembered now, from all earlier Seasons, this particular madness, how when it rises from what you had assumed to be heat, to true Season, to true heat, where little, if anything, else mattered; how it again takes you by surprise, that anything could be so, so thorough—was the word he felt, picked, agreed with. Should write that down, he thought, thorough. Tonight, he decided, tonight, in his journal. Tonight. Thorough.

He was hungry, starving in fact, and that too did matter. Somewhat. He had to eat. He had to make it from bedroom to kitchen, he had to focus: on food, on bacon, on eggs, on the stove, on not dropping everything and simply head out. He set out for the kitchen, but had to sit down half-way; simply to collect himself. Sweating with the effort to gather thoughts, to still his passion long enough to move from A to B with purpose other than Storm. Purpose like eggs, bacon, skillet, purpose.

He made it to the kitchen. Managed that strange procedure—strange when you’re humming to be elsewhere and it seems like those arms, those hands, those fingers do not belong to you, not in the least, but still, surprise, surprise, they do your bidding and they crack two eggs, and they strip off three long strips of bacon, the third bringing the fourth clinging to his buddy for dear life, okay, you can come too.

The smell of frying bacon is strong and virulent and fills his head with, no, not hunger, but women. He shakes his head, as if to spin the mist away to see clearly again, but no such luck. They’re still women. He does however manage to carry the plate and some orange juice into the living room where he puts them down without braking anything. He turns on the television. More by habit than anything else. It rustles on, and yes, as if confirmation were needed: the Season has arrived. It’s Back, is the caption on KTLA’s news at Eight.

Eight? That’s the time? He checks his arm for the watch to verify, but can’t find it. Back into the bedroom and the night stand. Surprised he had the presence of mind to take it off last night. Some things you do so automatically it really should scare you.

Eight o’clock indeed. He could have sworn. Sworn what? Much later than?

He made it back to the living room, to images from Hollywood of badly controlled mayhem. Of fights, copulations in doorways, on sidewalks, on benches, on stairs, in parks. Of girls, barely of age, in full heat and now out for a swim to see who will fight for her and win her. So odorous are these young things you can almost see the pheromones like a mist around them. In first or second season. Should be tucked away safely somewhere, but no, these were more than likely runaways with nowhere to be tucked away in, and now, freshly heated, young and strong, few males could resist, and the camera (the operator neutered for sure—or topped up with delayers—for the picture was rock-steady, or the camera was very expensive) following the two, three, then four males drawn to this one particular little beauty.

She’s eighteen perhaps, if that, but oh so very aware of her power, of the alluring zone she emanates, a magnet for the hungry, for the large and not so large fish swimming this river now, this flood of flesh and need.

It is almost a ritual. Harman-Karman has seen it many, many times: as each male becomes aware of his competition, out come the weapons, the knives and guns (if they are true hunters), or fists and feet and teeth if not. The smallest, least armed are soon frightened away, erotically sulking, while the remaining two or three fight it out. One is left standing, or unfled, and now there is only lust, for the rule of the Season is that if you win the fight you get the price.

Few are the women who entice a fight, remain to learn the winner, then refuse, or attempt to refuse, the victor. Few are the women to attempt this and survive. They are invariably UUI’ed, and none too kindly.

This particular confrontation is quick, you couldn’t even call it a fight. The blond man, not much more than a boy—twenty, perhaps—is a hunter, the only hunter among them, and only has to show weapon for the other three to back off, envious glances over their shoulders, soon gone, defeated dogs.

He seizes the blond girl by the arm. She giggles, or something like it, and they disappear into the alley. The camera doesn’t follow; it doesn’t have to. There’ll be copulation scenes enough to satisfy even they thirstiest voyeur, a month’s worth coming up. Programs dedicated to it. This was the news after all.

The Season: It’s Back.

[*:*]

And then, there she was.

Harman-Karman recognized her of course: Alwyn Moore.

But not the Alwyn Moore he was used to, not the cool, seemingly unscented Alwyn Moore, the more-beautiful-plastic-doll-than-woman Alwyn Moore; no, this one was different. This one was real.

To be honest, even the plastic-doll Alwyn Moore would occasionally swim into, around in, and out of his head off-Season: a far-off aesthetic ideal, if somewhat plastic, yes; and on a baser and more regular basis in-Season.

Most of his friends begged to differ: look, the woman is not beautiful, there’s nothing there, just plastic. And surely on delayers come the Season (before she’d vanish off the air). But Harman-Karman knew what he liked, and to him she was unmatched, and, of course, unattainable.

Her just gorgeous eyes, her wonderful hair—tied up into a ponytail this morning, odd; and something else, very much something else. At first he could not put is finger on it. Then he looked again. Not a doll at all. For heaven’s sake, she was emanating. Sure as he was sitting there, she was emanating. He could literally see the pheromones around her. This woman, his aesthetic ideal, was in heat. And apparently concentrating very hard on saying what she needed to say, and succeeding.

He didn’t catch all of it—too distracted by the woman herself to fully grasp what left her mouth—but the gist had to do with Arrak and threats and not giving in to them. Had to do with threats on her life, and not giving in to them. An email from Arrak.

But try as he may, Harman-Karman could not concentrate on exactly what she was talking about for all he could see, what filled him, and filled him, and filled him completely, was the non-doll Alwyn Moore, in heat, and he knew—it was an intense visceral certainty—that this was his woman.

Here was the woman he would pursue this Season. In effect, he had no choice. This was the woman, his woman. She was the reason he had decided to hunt again. She was the reason he was well equipped again. She was the reason he had woken up this morning. She was the reason he was alive.

Alwyn Moore.

She said something else, which, again, Harman-Karman did not quite catch: an email threat, her freedom to choose, something something, blackmail, but then quite clearly, Arrak had threatened to kill her, but that’s what cowards would do when they don’t get their way (which were fighting words if he’s ever heard any, is what crossed Harman-Karman’s mind; this woman had guts—what a woman); then the obligatory “Stay safe,” then she was off the air.

Not to return this Season, said the male anchor who now filled the screen. Wishing her good luck in that very synthetic anchorman voice. He didn’t like that guy’s smile at all, that little sneer with which he wished Alwyn Moore good luck; sneer in Harman-Karman’s eyes, anyway. His woman. His reason for living.

[*:*]

Alwyn Moore: his woman.

Alwyn Moore: his focus.

He discovered that having a focus helped. Helped quite a bit, in fact. It seemed to channel the Storm within, and in a way which fortified him, made him less pervious to the river surrounding. Having a focus helped him focus.

He laughed at that, as the self-fulfilling something or other, not sure what, of the thing; he should make a note of that, too, in his journal. Really, he should.

Yes, he should. And did: stood up, laughed again at the odd circle of the phrase and made to his bedroom; and did, write, it, down:

Having a focus helps you focus.

And again: Having a focus helps you focus.

And he laughed again.

His focus: Alwyn Moore. Not the plastic one, the real one. A shimmering light the far side of the pulsating tunnel; the focus and channel both.

Like a vision; a vision for his heart to thirst for. Good one. Should write that down, too.

And did.

And at the end of that throbbing tunnel: the focus not only of his heart but of his life: Alwyn Moore. Yes, precisely. That was the feeling, and not only a feeling, it was the truth.

The truth.

Harman-Karman tapped the pencil on his teeth as he tried to get a clear view of this, the tunnel, her face, and as he caught a glimpse of himself in the window, he saw the stance he had always assumed for effect, now assumed naturally, and not for effect, and then he saw that cat (it was the same cat wasn’t it?) charge across the law in pursuit of something or other which suddenly proved itself adept at flight much to the cat’s dismay, which it tried to dispel (or disguise, Harman-Karman couldn’t tell which) by suddenly start washing its face by first licking its paw then rubbing the paw against the side of his face, while moaning softly. A cat moaning? He listened closer. Focused all hearing on the preening cat, and damn if the thing wasn’t moaning, humming, no, not purring, humming.

Her wrote that down as well. It felt good to be writing. He was actually writing. The Season was here and he was writing. Sure, it had only been here for what, a few hours, but he was writing, was writing. He wrote that down, too.

I am writing.

Alwyn Moore.

That warm voice. That finely textured intelligence. That soft (is what he assumed anyway) skin. And that unruly (a little, he had notice that too at times) hair. Lithe. Lean. Finely chiseled face with those fine, very kissable (weren’t they?) lips. And those hands. Those fingers. Bet she plays the piano. Piano fingers, surely. Long, strong fingers. Surely.

As he studied her through the length of the tunnel she grew more and more real, almost as if present; as if she had entered and now sat in the room, on his bed perhaps, talking to him, telling him about how she liked to dress, what food she preferred, and how she really had no idea who the hell Harman-Karman was.

Oh well. There was that to consider, of course.

But once you put a face to the hunger of the heart, it will never let go.

And the face Harman-Karman’s heart had put to its hunger belonged to Alwyn Moore.

He put away his journal, rose and looked out at the cat still preening away, still moaning softly, and then at his reflection, and a little closer at his reflection: shower man, you need a shower.

The hot water touched him in places that set him off again (and he was damned if he was going to take it cold). So he helped himself twice—not really thinking of Alwyn Moore, not in that way, not yet, she was more than that, more than that. Thinking instead of he had no clear idea precisely what; his need did his thinking for him. Once, twice. Made sure he got all that washed off and rinsed down the drain as well.

Dried himself off, and dressed.

He had no plan. Find Alwyn Moore, that was the plan. The goal, purpose, plan, all in one. No further details.

And, of course, this was all sheer insanity.

He thought of calling Harry. Then did call Harry. No answer. Well, Harry would have his own problems right about now. Even less prepared than Harman-Karman, he was sure of that.

And her wonderful waist. And those legs. Bet you she has small feet. Not very breasty either. Harman-Karman (and his heart) liked not very breasty women. Alwyn Moore—now that his heart was set, fixed and focused—was indeed perfect.

And focused. Again, he noticed how the sheer force of focus kept the river of scent at bay, held the Storm at arm’s length.

A focus helps you focus. Laughed again at that.

So how then? Was he for real?

And his heart answered right away: Oh, yes.

Alwyn Moore? Oh, yes.

You sure? Oh, yes.

So, what the hell would he do? Could he do?

Who was he kidding?

He sat down on—more like fell back into—his living room sofa. He closed his eyes and for a moment let slip his focus, letting the river in: rushing, he could almost see it now, it had color, no, not so much color as wavelength, wavelength in the air that distorted color, softly distorting colors and setting them ashimmer.

Ashimmer?

Yes, ashimmer. Things took on a faint glow, fainter than faint, they were glowable, potentially aglow. Aglow?

Harman-Karman shook his head, trying to clear it of ashimmers and aglows. Okay, man, get it together here. Please.

He looked out at his Weeping Juniper, weeping indeed in the slight wind outside. A beautiful tree. Harry thinks so, too. Knocked the price up about five grand, said his real estate agent when he bought the house. A desirable tree, is how she put it. With curb appeal, is how she put it. So he bid over the asking price, about those five grand over the asking price as he recalled. Which got him the house, and the curbly appealing Weeping Juniper; no regrets. Swaying slowly now, the blue-green droopings, sad but not, stately, just like Alwyn Moore.

He had absolutely no idea where to begin. Or how.

He called Harry again, not really sure why. He wouldn’t know either, how could he? But Harry usually carried around a little more sense than Harman-Karman did, so perhaps, perhaps.

Still no answer. He let it ring. Had indeed forgotten that it was still ringing when after what? twenty rings?, Harry did pick up.

“Harry. You’re there. You’re home.”

“Harman-Karman,” he said. Perhaps a little annoyed. Something.

“Yes.”

“What do you want?”

“Alwyn Moore,” said Harman-Karman.

Harry said nothing.

“How are you doing?” asked Harman-Karman.

“Not so sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was doing fine until the phone rang.”

“Doing what?”

“Drinking tea.”

“Drinking tea?”

“Yes.”

“You got company?”

“No.”

“Drinking tea?”

“Yes. I usually do.”

“We’re in Season.”

“Yes, I know.”

“And you’re drinking tea?”

Harry didn’t answer this. Instead he asked again, “What do you want?”

Harman-Karman went looking for and came back with his reason for calling; saw her face, warm and fine and so very unplastically wanting at the far end of all that wanting. “Alwyn Moore,” he said again.

“Alwyn Moore?”

“Yes.”

“What about her?” said Harry.

“Any idea how I could find her?”

After a brief silence: “You’re going after Alwyn Moore?”

Going after might be a bit strong.”

“What would you call it?” Some interest now. Less annoyance.

“My focus,” said Harman-Karman, truthfully. “That’s what I would call it.”

“Your focus,” said Harry. Then, after another little silence, “I have no idea.” And some more silence. Then, “No idea.”

When Harman-Karman didn’t reply right away, Harry said, “Your focus?”

“It helps.”

“What do you mean?”

“It helps me focus.”

“Well, obviously.”

“It’s more than that.”

“What exactly are you talking about?”

“Having a strong focus helps you focus.”

“And?”

“It helps keep everything else at bay.”

Every thing else?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it.”

“Your focus does?”

“Alwyn Moore does.”

After yet another brief silence: “I see.” And perhaps he did see. He didn’t sound confused. No irony present.

“Do you have any idea how I could find her?”

“No.”

“You know anyone who would?”

“I don’t,” said Harry. “But you might.”

Which took Harman-Karman by surprise, and a fruitful one at that. Now, that’s a though. Should have thought of that. Yes, he did might, and started sorting through some internal address book of friends at work and friends of friends at work who had friends in the industry (how he hated that term). Searching and sorting so long that Harry eventually wondered: “Still there?” which stopped him sifting.

“Yes, sorry.”

“I said that you might know someone who might.”

“That’s an astute observation Harry.”

“Thanks.”

“Are you all right?” said Harman-Karman.

“So far, so good. Let me know if she has any sisters,” he answered.

“Sure, Harry. I will.”

“Excellent.” Then, “Really, Harman-Karman, are you really setting your sights on Alwyn Moore?”

“That’s a great way of putting it: setting your sights.”

“Thanks; but are you really?”

“Yes, Harry.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No doubt.”

Really really?”

“Really really.”

“Doesn’t sound too feasible, or possible.”

“I know that.”

“But you’ve made up your mind?”

“I’m focused.”

“Oh, man,” said Harry.

“And you,” said Harman-Karman. “Are you starting it down?”

“I’m staring.”

Then nothing was said for so long that each of the two friends slipped back into his own world. Eventually Harman-Karman said: “You take care now.”

“You too,” said Harry.” And good luck, with your focus.”

“Thanks, and you too, with your staring.”

Harry hung up first.

Harman-Karman sat down to continue sorting through names and faces. Who might know someone who might know someone? The constant pressure to relieve himself—Now! Now!—made it difficult to concentrate, but he found strength, strength in focus, strengthen himself to focus.

On Alwyn Moore.

By eleven he had called several people, none of whom had answered. Not surprising, the Season was here after all. By noon he had called them all back, to still no answer.

He fought back the mounting pressure from below. Sheer act of Alwyn Moore induced will. And again. This took some doing. The focus, focus, focus on Alwyn Moore; which he then managed to shift to his hands—scrutinizing them—to the sky and some clouds outside, to the trees, to a car driving by, to that damned cat again. To waiting, to perhaps calling these people back for a third time, when by early afternoon, the phone finally sprang to life.

A Jennifer. Something. Jennifer Crowley. Third floor, in layout. She had a sister did she not?

She was not exactly completely lucid.

“Alwyn Moore? Is that what you said?”

“Yes, anyone you know who would know her?”

“And you’re Harman-Karman?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve often wondered,” said this Jennifer Crowley, “do you have a last name?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“Selby.”

“Selby?”

“Yes.”

“Man, that sounds English.”

“I guess it is.”

“But you’re . . .”

“I know I am.”

Long silence. “How do I know you’re Harman-Karman?”

“Don’t you recognize my voice?”

“Yes.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“How do I know you’re not impersonating Harman-Karman?”

“You don’t.”

“Well, that’s my point.”

“Jennifer, I promise. I’m the real Harman-Karman. Fifth floor. Two floors up from you. Concepts and Design.”

“Selby, huh?”

“That’s right.”

“That’s very English.”

Harman-Karman chose to ignore that. Then put the question to her again: “Do you know anyone who might know Alwyn Moore?”

“Right.” Remembering why he had called.

“Do you?”

“Used to.”

“You wouldn’t have a number or anything.”

“Don’t think so.”

“You sure?”

“Wait.”

The knock and rustle as she put the receiver down, and the crash as the receiver fell from whatever surface to the floor, by the sounds of it. A distant “Sorry.” Then silence, more or less, for quite a while.

Then, “You ready?”

“You’ve got a number?”

“818-226-8484.”

“818-226-8484.” Just to make sure.

“That’s right.”

“Who is this for?”

“Bruce Chalkhill.”

“Sounds English too.”

“Bruce is English.”

“He knows Alwyn Moore?”

“When I knew him, yes. Had worked with her at the Orange County Register.”

“Ah.”

“You think it’s all right if I call?”

“I have no idea.”

“Of course. Listen, Jennifer. Thanks. Really. Thanks.”

“Good luck, with, whatever. Why do you want to find Alwyn Moore?”

“Personal.”

“Why don’t you just call the station?”

“Which station?”

“KTLA. You know. Where she works.”

Yes, why didn’t he? He was really slipping here. But then again, a personal contact was much better.

“I will,” he said. “Good idea.”

“Good luck then. With everything.” Which included the Season, finding Alwyn, and whatever else was left of his life by the sounds of it.”

“You too.”

She hung up first.

Bruce Chalkhill did not answer. Not after three tries with twenty-four rings each, which is when the phone company cuts you off with that wailing tone and the suggestion that if you’d like to make a call, you should please hang up et cetera. Cuts you off as the moron you were for not realizing they were not going to answer; but Harman-Karman saw Alwyn Moore in the shower, hearing the phone ring over the spraying water, getting out, hurriedly drying herself off to catch the phone before he hung up, so he wouldn’t hang up, waiting for her to reach the phone. And he wasn’t even calling her. What a moron.

So he called the station. He got a receptionist. Asked for Ms. Moore. Was passed on to a secretary cum screener of calls. Ms. Moore was not in now, had in fact left for the day, for the week, for the Season. What was this about? Could she take a message?

No, no message. He’d try back later. After the Season.

Two more calls to that Mr. English Chalkhill. Same result, only he didn’t let it ring twenty-four times before hanging up.

No voice mail either. No way to leave a message.

Outside, the wind had picked up. Not only had his Weeping Juniper begun complaining a little, but its friend and neighbor, an evergreen Chinese Elm, had begun swaying in the stronger breeze. Susurrant exchanges, tree to tree. Harman-Karman walked up to the window to get a better view. Alwyn Moore came along, kept interrupting.

Then the phone followed suit.

It was the Mr. English Bruce Chalkhill. “You’ve called me five times,” he said.

“Sorry,” said Harman-Karman. “I got your number from Jennifer.”

“Anderson?”

“No, Crowley.”

“Ah, Jennifer, the artist.”

“That’s the one.”

“Who are you?”

“Harman-Karman Selby.”

“And you work with Jennifer Crowley?”

“Yes.”

“So, what do you want? That you call me five times.”

“She said you might know Alwyn Moore.”

“Well, I do. Or did.”

“You know her well?”

“Yes. Well enough. Did.”

“Well enough to know how to reach her?”

Which may or may not have been the best approach. “What do you want with Alwyn Moore?”

How to explain. Better yet, how not to explain. Some good reason now. Come on Harman-Karman. And a word floated out of him, more or less on its own accord. And across to Mr. English (whose accent was untarnishedly British still), “Arrak.”

“Arrak?”

“The Fire.”

“What about it?”

“They have threatened to kill her.”

“I know.”

“I can help her.”

“Then you should call the station. That’s what I would do. I believe she’s off for the Season. On leave. According to the news.”

“I did. I tried that.”

“And?”

“She’s in danger.”

“Apparently.”

“And I can help.”

“Call the police then.”

“Tried that too,” he lied.

“Help her how?”

Harman-Karman had no answer whatever to that question, but must not not not let that show; he heard himself say: “I have an untraceable hideout she can use.”

“I’m sure she’s safe.”

“I’m not so sure.”

After a silence, “Jennifer Crowley gave you my name?”

“Yes.”

“And you work with her?”

“Precisely.”

“What’s your name again?”

“Harman-Karman Selby.”

“Hardon-Karman. That’s an odd name.”

He let that one go. “I know.”

“Mind if I call Jennifer just to make sure.”

“No, not at all.”

“Bye then.”

“Bye.”

Twenty of the longest minutes in Harman-Karman’s life ensued. Then the phone sprang to life again: “To be honest,” said Bruce Chalkhill without preamble, “I don’t know how to reach her. I don’t have her home or cell number.”

“Nothing?”

“I know her mother lives in South Pasadena.”

“She could be there?”

“I don’t know. I just know that when I knew her she had just begun patching things up with her, with her mother that is, and was visiting her almost every weekend; every weekend she wasn’t working.”

“You wouldn’t have the address, by chance?”

Yes, turns out he did. Gave it to him. Had been there once or twice, he said. Big house on Avon Place. White. Southern Gothic. Can’t miss it.

“What’s Southern Gothic?” Harman-Karman got a picture of some Gone with the Wind mansion, but he wasn’t sure.

“You know, Neo-Classical, Colonial, Greek Revival, tall pillars, that sort of thing. Think Gone with the Wind.

“Ah, got it.” Almost shared the coincidence. But instead, “Anything else? That might help.”

“No,” said Bruce Chalkhill. Then asked—and Harman-Karman could tell this had been on his mind, or on his tongue for a little while now, “How the hell do you get a name like Hard-on?”

“It’s not Hard-on-Karman, it’s Harman-Karman.”

“I know,” laughed Mr. Chalkhill. “Jennifer set me straight. Though I think I like Hard-on better.”

“Oh well,” said Harman-Karman. “Thank you though, you’ve been very helpful.”

“Hard-on Car-man.”

The British accent on the other end of the line was of course not the first humorist to go to town with his name, and normally he suffered those fools if not gladly, then at least tolerantly. But he was fresh out of patience, and besides, Alwyn Moore beckoned.

“Really very helpful,” loudly. “Take care.”

Then pressed down on the switch hook with his right hand, and so hung up first, for the first time today. He regarded the receiver in his left for a long time, as if unsure what it actually was for, and a little stunned perhaps that sounds had come out of it, and in an English accent to boot. Then he came to, re-roused by many images of Alwyn Moore, and replaced it.

The wind outside had not died down, had increased rather, but seemed undecided as to direction. Tossing back and forth, making his Juniper and Elm appear in conversation, touching here and there to make a point.

Harman-Karman got out a street map to look up her mother’s house on Avon Place. Found it. It was actually not that far. He could walk there. Well, it was a couple of miles, a little more perhaps. Even so. He’d rather walk than risk his Jenson or even the Moto-Guzzi. And the walk would do him good. Thing to do.

Then there was a sudden shift in the wind that seemed to bring it inside, and he was suddenly overcome with the need, the sheer compulsion to do something, right now, about the re-rising ache below. He looked around his living room and thought of wavelengths again, shimmering as they entered through his eyes, ears, mouth, nose, touch even, to take possession of him.

It was all he could do to stand still, without fainting from the impact.

He tried to fix Alwyn Moore’s face in his mind but did not succeed. For the moment he was besieged by other images, of legs, stockinged and not, breasts, halfly bra’ed and not, hair in many and all alluring styles, eyes, lips, lips, lips and teeth and smiles and legs and hands touching him and long fingernails touching him, and while touching himself his knees buckled and he fell back into the nearest armchair to navigate these hundreds of images each of which demanded, simply demanded, compliance.

Then, once, twice, and a third ventilation finally eased the pressure. Jesus Kristus what a mess.

On shaky legs Harman-Karman made it to the bathroom and took another shower. He had forgotten (or chosen not to remember) the strength of the urge, the force of that whip when it does decide to lash into you. The tsunami that brooked absolutely no refusal. That would just twist the screws a little tighter and a little tighter and a little tighter still until you do its bidding. No two ways about it.

He scrubbed himself thoroughly and focused on not being ambushed again. He had not seen it coming, not until he was drowning in it, and he can’t recall what sparked it. Something had, usually did, didn’t it? Now, he concentrated on lathering the shampoo evenly through his hair, on soaping down his entire body, thickly, thickly with this great soap, rinse a long time in the hot, then cooler water. He kept adjusting it to cooler and cooler but chickened out before altogether cold. Shut it off. Then, what the hell: steeled himself, and turned the cold—ice cold—water on again. Just the cold, and Jesus, what a shock. Got his complete attention. For one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand four, and then for a little longer while he closed his eyes and endured, then perceived, then—yes, actually—enjoyed that cold water. Man. He remained in this state—it is a state, I should write that down too, the cold shower state—for perhaps a minute before shutting the water off again.

He stepped out and dried himself.

Man. That felt good. Checked himself in the mirror. All glowy and not too badly looking, at all.

So what had set him off? What had sparked the tsunami? Was it Alwyn Moore? Had she triggered him? No, he didn’t think so.

A shift in the wind; then images, hundreds, thousands of them.

The thing to do—and he had realized this before—was to not let them in. These images. To not let the first image in. To not be open to let the very first image in. For once he made it in, he’d open the doors from the inside and call all his buddies and shimmering they’d arrive and swamp you and take control.

But how did that first image enter, uninvited?

How did the guard drop, to expose the tiniest of cracks for the shimmer to negotiate through? Was is just the unwary shift of attention? Was that enough? The wind had shifted.

Of course, normally he wouldn’t mind, he would in fact invite it, come and get me, but not now, not with Alwyn Moore to find and then, yes, and then what? Crossing that bridge later.

He was hungry again. Thought briefly of frying himself a steak, something succulent, then settled for grilled cheese and lots of vitamins. Juice as well. The cheese melted and sank over the edge of the buttered and sizzling bread and then added to the sizzle and the aroma that now filled the kitchen. Appetizing.

He spatulaed the two sandwiches out of the skillet and onto a plate. Brought them to the table. Sat down, rose again to get some silverware. Sat down again. Looked again for the cat out his kitchen window, but it was nowhere to be seen now. Birds though. And wind. Dancing.

Had the wind triggered it? The wind had shifted. Had the wind also shifted the shimmer? No, he didn’t think so. But it had definitely caught his attention, lowered his guard. Perhaps that was it.

He took a bite or two.

Thought briefly, then, about Harry, about how he might be holding up; but then, as he could feel—he could actually feel it, damn it—another wave approaching, he focused every ounce of attention onto the very, oh so very beautiful face of Alwyn Moore. And as he did, he had the palpable sensation of burrowing down into sand under canvas while the Storm, the wave, the tsunami, and that raging sand screamed its violence and demands overhead in the furious wind, though not entering him; clipping him a little, skidding off of him, but not entering, not filling him again with images, that rain of need that crowded everything else. He wrapped all of Alwyn Moore around him, and she kept him safe and sheltered; and so he managed to ride out that attack well hidden.

Five minutes, an hour, hard to tell. His barely touched grilled cheese sandwiches were cold now. He ate them anyway, then set out to get his kit in order.

[*:*]

All unpacked, inventoried, double-checked, assembled and re-packed by mid-afternoon. He was ready to leave.

To be sure, he had vented, twice, just to ease the pressure; in the end had to ease the pressure, and again, and immediately afterward—almost feeling normal—he turned on the television to catch anything out of the ordinary, if this could be considered ordinary. Anything he should be aware of before he heads out there. The caution of the hunter. Much better safe than sorry.

But everything was ordinary. As far as Seasons go.

Normal services had come to a more or less standstill. The city was now in Emergency mode, or Storm mode, or Season mode—different channels used different phrases, but they all meant the same. The Season was here, in full force, and, well, what the hell, you might as well enjoy it.

Coverage of several team fights, several not so subtle copulations, in parks, doorways, on benches, lawns, you name it, a blanket sometimes to keep from bruising, but that was about it. Modesty? Not a word in the Season’s dictionary. Need had climbed to the top of the heap and it reigned supreme; and brooked no competition, nor obstacle.

Here and there you could spot a gelding—the cameras tended to linger, as if a little envious, or solicitous, or both—keeping something or other functional, like the doorman at the Bonaventure Hotel smiling blandly at the camera, and confirming, yes, they were fully booked, and yes, the Season had arrived at the Bonaventure as well.

KTLA confirmed—and Harman-Karman realized that this was the news he wanted to verify—that Alwyn Moore had done her last broadcast and would return in April, post-Season.

So, then, more than likely not at the station. He decided to call again, to make sure. Different receptionist, different secretary, same result. No, Miss Moore is not at the station. She will return in April. Thank you.

Harman-Karman got out the street map again. Located Avon Place again, and pathed the shortest, or if not the shortest, the most practical route there. He wanted to reach the place as unnoticed as possible; did not want to attract fights, nor competition. Dressed for the hunt, other hunters would take an instant dislike to him, that was simply how it worked, and might challenge him on the spot, target or no target. So unseen was best, and as for unseen, the darker the day the better.

He thought again of Harry, and even called him. No answer though, nor did his machine pick up. He must have disconnected the phone altogether. Harman-Karman sensed problems with his friend and briefly entertained the notion of dropping by. He only lived four houses up from him, after all. But he decided against it. Once the Season arrived it was up to each male to fight his own devils (as far as Harman-Karman could recall, those were in fact Harry’s own words); no one could fight them for him. Friends rarely got together during the Season, primarily to save the friendship—so went the prevalent theory—since no matter how close the friendship off-Season, once the Storm raged, male friends were instantly transformed into competition, potential enemies.

They had tried, was it three years, or perhaps longer ago, to beat that myth, as Harry had put it, with near disastrous outcome; almost coming to blows within minutes, each suspecting hidden intentions and furtive plotting in the other. After that Storm they looked back upon this and laughed at it, amazing what it can do to you, this Storm, and recognized it for what it was: temporary, Season-related insanity. Even so, they—if not in so many words—agreed not to repeat the experiment, for any reason short of life and death.

Harry’s disconnected phone was not life and death, is what Harman-Karman’s concluded. Even so, he did step out on the sidewalk to look up the street. No lights were on in Harry’s house; the wind was playing in his pine, who seemed, for all its size, a little bemused.

 

:: 60 ::

 

A little past the dawn of time (say a minute or two) he had been given a choice: on the one hand was mobility, on the other immobility. With the one hand—mobility—came sex, and with immobility came peace.

Well, perhaps not the he he, the he remembering right now, but a he sufficiently related to seem the same tree even so, for the memory of trees is shared and brought forward intact generation to generation, bridging back to—all the way back to, yes—to that one choice, when the morning dew still clung to creation.

And the Giver of this choice? Harry’s Pine had no clear view of who or what it could have been, the one extending this offer, this ur-choice; that is to say, memory revealed neither shape nor personality, nothing to show the form or character of the Giver of Choice.

All Harry’s Pine could see, all he could be, was the he given the choice, and this he now pondered his two options. He had been given all the time in the world to decide, and he took most of it; well, at least lots of it.

Looking back upon it—for the tenth, hundredth, perhaps thousandth time; for he liked to ponder this event—Harry’s Pine again saw that the choice, at its core, consisted of this: Animal or plant?

Which kingdom was he to join? And his ur-father, ur-brother, his early, early, early self (either of these notions felt just right) did take his time.

[*:*]

Now, there was a lot to be said for mobility. Least of which was not that you could get away from things: lava, rain, snow, fire. Especially fire.

Mobility would also let you look at things from different angles, say from beyond that ridge over there, or from the other side of that mountain; from up there if you had wings, from down there in the blue water had you chosen to retain your fins. With mobility, like the wind, you could sweep across the many layers of the Earth and sample life in its many forms and fashions.

But the Giver of Choice was very clear about this option: with mobility came sex.

This sounded to his ur-self as a price to pay. Mobility did not come free. He wondered, in fact—and quite politely—if perhaps he could sample it.

And this thing called peace? It must be very valuable if it were to make up for loss of mobility; yes, these were price and compensation respectively, were they not? There was a balance, wasn’t there?

The Giver of Choice—whom Harry’s Pine tried again to get a clear glimpse of, but again failed to as much as sense a direction to—said yes, there was a balance, and yes the one was a price you paid, and yes the other was recompense you reaped.

What about sampling, he asked again—for the Giver of Choice had not heard, or had chosen to ignore his original request—could he sample? It would help him decided.

This time the Giver of Choice heard, or chose not to ignore: And “No,” was the answer, he could not sample, he would have to take the Giver’s word: Sex—he, she, it, they, said—is simply a reminder, a gentle prod in the direction of procreation. For there were things you must do, actions you must take, to ensure the continued survival of the mobile species.

Peace, on the other hand, the Giver of Choice went on, is the absence of sex, is the problem of continuation—of procreation—solved in a less, shall we say encompassing, or intrusive, way.

And went on to say that continuation involves seed either way, but for the mover the seed must be deposited, firmly and deeply with the female of the species—which could conceivably be forgotten, there is so much else to life to keep you busy and your mind occupied—while for the stationary, seed is simply let go, given without thought or anxiety to the air for the wind to carry and scatter upon the Earth.

“You said ‘anxiety’ just now,” said Harry’s ur-pine.

“I said ‘anxiety’ just now,” confirmed the Giver of Choice.

“I don’t like that word.”

“Neither do I.”

“So with sex comes anxiety?”

“A modicum thereof, yes.”

“And when you say ‘deposited, firmly and deeply with,’ What do you mean precisely?”

“There is, ah, how shall I put it, some requisite activity involved.”

“Requisite activity?”

“Let us say that the male of the species has a depositor. And let us say that the female of the species has a receptacle.”

“A depositor. A receptacle. Yes.”

“In order to spread the seed, the male of the species must enter the female’s receptacle with his depositor, to squirt the seeds within her.”

“You said ‘squirt’ just now.”

“I said ‘squirt’ just now.”

“What does that mean? Squirt.”

“What it means is that during heat the male’s depositor will grow stiff and itchy—the easier to enter the female’s receptacle, and the better to inspire, or shall we say, encourage agitation—and once entered, the depositor . . .”

“When you say enter the female receptacle,” interrupted Harry’s ur-pine. “I take it you are talking metaphorically.”

“No,” said the Giver of Choice, “I am not talking metaphorically. I use the word enter in its very physical and literal meaning.”

“Ah,” said Harry’s ur-pine.”

“And,” continued the Giver of Choice, “once entered, with his depositor, the male of the species will agitate it to still the itch with the eventual result that seed will pump out of one and into the other.”

“You said ‘eventual’ just now.”

“I said ‘eventual’ just now.”

“So this take time, this depositing?”

“Long enough to be enjoyed.”

“And how long is that?”

“Long enough to be enjoyed,” repeated the Giver of Choice, in exactly the same tone of voice, and Harry’s ur-pine did not press.

Instead he said, “And this does not hurt the female of the species? This entering, this agitation?”

“No, in heat she will itch too, and she will lubricate, and she will welcome the depositor. She, too, will enjoy this intrusion.”

“You said ‘lubricate’ just now.”

“I said ‘lubricate’ just now.”

“And you really mean that?”

“Of course.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“It is interesting.”

“If a bit bizarre.”

“If a bit bizarre, yes.”

“But you also said ‘heat’ just now.”

“I said ‘heat’ just now.”

“What precisely is this ‘heat?’”

“It is the gentle prodding.”

“How are you using the word ‘gentle’ in this context?”

“I use it to mean efficacious without undue duress.”

“Undue?”

“Yes.”

“As in no more duress than what is needed to achieve the intended effect; efficaciously?”

“Precisely.”

Had Harry’s ur-pine had a head, it would have nodded sagely just about now.

Then he asked, “When does this gentle, this efficacious without undue duress prodding take place? Is it constant?”

“No. Only once a year. Springtime seems most appropriate.”

“And how does this gentle, this efficacious without undue duress prodding work, precisely?”

The Giver of Choice took a deep, though unseeable, breath: “It works like this: Come spring, imperceptibly small amounts of the sexual urge will begin to ever so gently mix itself with things like admiration, liking, and aesthetics. Just a tad, mind you. So very little. So very little as not even to be noticed.

“Just enough to enter, then permeate, the system unseen, unheard, unheeded.”

At this point, had Harry’s ur-pine had a head, it would have looked up at the Giver of Choice a little skeptically.

“You said ‘urge’ just now.”

“I said ‘urge’ just now.”

“So it is an urge. Which is something you must do. That goes a little beyond a gentle prodding, as you put it. Doesn’t it?”

“I did say efficacious.”

“That you did.”

“That I did.”

“Does he, or she—the male or the female of the species—have a choice?”

“None to speak of.”

“Right. So, just enough sexual urge to enter, then permeate, the system unseen, unheard, unheeded.”

“Yes.”

“Unseen, unheard, unheeded?”

“Unseen, unheard, unheeded.”

Again, had Harry’s ur-pine had eyes, it would have tried to make out what the Giver of Choice really had in mind here.

“Unseen, unheard, unheeded?”

“Those are the words, yes.”

“Why?”

“By necessity.”

“Ah. Keeping efficacy in mind?”

“Precisely.”

“And then?”

“And then,” said the Giver of Choice, “as spring progresses—as we approach heat—a little more and a little more of this unseen, unheard, and unheeded urge is added, enough now to taint the blood perceptibly, but still gently, still unobtrusively. Just enough to make beauty hum. Enough to make an admirer flush. Enough to make a sharer long, just a little, to perhaps bring the depositor a little closer to the receptacle.”

“That’s the gentle prodding?”

“No, that’s laying the groundwork for the gentle prodding.”

“The groundwork for the gentle prodding?”

“Yes. Or not so gentle.”

Again, Harry’s ur-pine would have looked a little alarmed: “Or not so gentle?”

“Yes. For you see the spring is a busy season, lots of new things to see, smells to smell, winds to savor, and the male of the species may find all of this very interesting and he may forget all about planting seeds.

“So,” continued the Giver of Choice. “Should, once spring has arrived in full bloom, the male of the mobile species have yet to deposit his seed with the female, deeply and firmly, he may then need a little more prodding. More than just gentle.”

“Please explain.”

“Remember, I did say efficacious.”

“I do remember. You said efficacious. I’ll keep that in mind. Please explain.”

Had the Giver of Choice had a head, it would have nodded affirmatively (I will) just about now. As he went on to say:

“Each spring a Storm will cover the Earth. Perhaps not a storm. Perhaps ‘storm’ is not a good word. A river, if you will. A flooding of the very urge itself, undiluted and direct. But this urge, this river—now in its raw form—is too coarse to enter uninvited, it must be given entry from within.”

“You said ‘undiluted’ just now.”

“I said ‘undiluted’ just now.”

“How undiluted is un-diluted? If too undiluted to enter uninvited.”

“Perhaps coarse is a better word.”

“Yes, you said coarse.”

“Yes, I did. Perhaps cruel is a better word.”

“Cruel?”

“Precisely.”

“So cruel it might be resisted?”

“Perhaps.”

“Fought, even?”

“Perhaps.”

“So cruel it must be invited to gain entry?”

“Yes.”

“You did say efficacious.”

“I did say that. And this is why the groundwork is laid. The small drops—so small as to resemble a mist—of the sexual urge assimilated earlier into aesthetics, admiration and affinity, and now already in place—ensconced safely in the blood, so to speak—recognizing the river without will then rise to open the gates from within, allowing the main flood to enter. And that’s the true reminder. The perhaps not so gentle prodding.”

“The efficacious one?”

“The efficacious one.”

“And that is the true reminder? The flood is the true reminder?”

“Yes. That is the remainder that will—if earlier, more gentle prodding has failed to—wake the male of the moving about species to his bargained for duty to deposit, deeply and firmly with the female of the species, his seed.”

“And I take it, in the name of efficacy, that once the flood enters, the he or she of the species does not have much of a choice.”

“None to speak of.”

“At all?”

“Not really.”

“And the mist? The subtle groundwork. Is there a choice?”

“None to speak of.”

“At all?”

“Not really.”

“But you can resist it?”

“Only if you notice it.”

“And it is imperceptibly fine.”

“Precisely.”

“Imperceptibly as in ‘undetectable’ or imperceptibly as in ‘almost undetectable?’” wondered Harry’s ur-pine.

“Imperceptibly as in ‘virtually undetectable,’” answered the Giver of Choice.

“Virtually as in ‘close to’ or virtually as in ‘for all intents and purposes?’”

“Virtually as in ‘you really have to be all aware and really on your toes, and even then you probably won’t see it coming,’” said the Giver of Choice.

“So that’s what you meant when you said ‘unseen, unheard, unheeded,’ a little while ago.”

“I believe those were the words, yes. And yes, that’s what I meant.”

“Virtually undetectable?”

“Yes.”

Had Harry’s ur-pine had a face, it would have frowned just about now.

“Why?” he asked.

“Efficacy.”

“To make sure.”

“Precisely.”

“I don’t think I like the sound of this.”

“To each his own.”

“And peace. What is peace? Other than not sex?”

“Well, that is pretty much what it is.”

“The absence of sex?”

“Pretty much.”

“But there’s more?”

“Well, without the urge, there’s no anxiety.”

“Of which sex contains, I believe you said a modicum?”

“A modicum, yes.”

“ But from what you have just told me about the river, the too-cruel-to- enter-uninvited river, this modicum of anxiety might conceivably grow far stronger. Might grow, to, say, an obsession. Am I correct?”

Harry, or Harry’s ur-pine seemed to sense a smile, and perhaps even a nod, from the Giver of Choice. But he was never sure of this.

“You are correct.”

“This does not sound a pleasant thing.”

“Believe me, it is pleasant.”

“By what definition?”

“By the hectic, anxious, slightly-painful definition.”

“And without this, this sexual urge, there is no such hectic, anxious, slightly-painful pleasure?”

“No.”

“Nor anxiety.”

“Not of this variety, no.”

“Of what variety, then?”

“Of a much more sensible variety.”

“Such as?”

“Such as the pondering about weather, about rain and wind.”

“I would not call that anxiety.”

“I said it was different.”

“What else will this anxiety-free absence bring?”

“It will bring untainted aesthetics, admiration, and affinity.”

“That I do like the sound of.”

“But, remember, there is no mobility.”

“A small price to pay.”

“Others beg to differ.”

“Let them differ.”

“I just wanted to make sure.”

“So, what happens now?” asked Harry’s ur-pine.

“You choose immobility?”

“I chose not sex.”

“There you are then.”

“There I am what?”

“Then you are tree.”

“Tree?”

“You will grow tall and strong. Your roots will burrow the Earth. Your branches will explore the sky. The wind will scatter your seeds. And you will be at peace.”

“Though stationary.”

“Though stationary.”

“No mobility at all.”

“Only through offspring.”

“I don’t understand.”

Had the Giver of Choice had a throat, he may have cleared it at this point, or he may risen to stretch a little before answering.

Then did answer, “Should you want to reach, say that ridge over there, you will offer seeds to the wind who will scatter them, and within a generation perhaps, another three will grow as far from you as you are tall.”

“Then another seeds will land.”

“Yes, other seed will land, and a generation later a tree will grow as far from your offspring as it is tall.”

“Reaching that ridge will take many generations.”

“So many that the ridge may or may not be there once you arrive.”

“That is our mobility?”

“That is your mobility.”

“What of fire?”

“Your only enemy.”

“For I cannot flee?”

“No, you will perish.”

Harry’s ur-pine asked no more questions, but pondered this danger for many seasons.

Then said, “It is worth the risk. Peace is worth this danger.”

“If you say so.”

“I choose tree.”

“Then you are tree.”

“I am tree.”

[*:*]

Harry’s Pine has been grateful for many generations.

Satisfied and happy that his ur-brother-father-self had made the right choice. Of this he was convinced.

He had since, by being, experienced sex of course, and nothing, nothing in this or any other world would entice him to trade peace for the anxiety ridden, compulsive urge that drove mobiles like Harry to distraction once a year. Nothing.

And Harry’s ur-pine was pleased to hear this.

Harry’s Pine noticed Harman-Karman noticing him and wondered what he was looking for. A quick glimpse—a quick being—told him. He worried about Harry. Well, so he should. Harry was not having much fun.

 

:: 61 ::

 

Harman-Karman gave Harry’s house another glance, looked again at Harry’s pine, then up at the sky, as if searching for something. He tested the redolent air and its thousand promising tendrils, forced them aside as best he could and turned back for his house, his juniper and elm still arguing and exchanging touches as he passed them to his left.

He stopped again. It was like walking through water. The wind was replete will calls: the musty currents of female pheromone spreading like so many hundreds, thousands (if you really concentrated) of thin, pulsating layers. This, thought Harman-Karman, is the river. This is what we swim in, breathe in, live in, this is what the Season brings. There were hundreds of calls Harman-Karman could have answered, could have locked onto like a guided missile with a perfect homing device. He had done it often enough in the past, selecting the one scent, the one strand of river, the one direction of current, and then, having chosen, filtered out all others as so much static and simply pursued.

It was like seizing upon a single tendril, luminescent now that it is selected, and easy to trace. Closer and closer to its source, and the closer the brighter, the more complete. And closer still to its source the trace grew tongues, told of needs and desires and soft and tender caring, and of invitations, and of loneliness, and of hopes, and of threats too of others possibly homing in on the same yearning, yes within a hundred or so yards you could tell, you would know whether the scent, the trail, the tendril was shared by others, and that’s where you had to make your choice: drop it or fight.

Often, though, there were no others, there was only the one source, the one siren, calling the one hunter, conjuring in his mind (and conjuring, he had more than once noted in his journal, is the precise word, for the image produced by the tendril was not the image of the actual female emitting, but your image of the female you want to be emitting, and often as not these two images were in wild conflict): the lonely, lovely, seductively dressed, mysteriously inviting, always willing woman closer and closer, and there, perhaps stepping out of a car, perhaps looking out a window, perhaps walking toward you, even, perhaps, running away from you, there she was and now, you’re that close and emitting tendrils, thick as tentacles, of your own, reaching for, reaching, snaring, and now like a fly-fisher with a glistening, laughing trout on the line, you begin to reel her in, and all you see is whom you want to see, and she is all that her scent portrayed, for you supply all the details, and perhaps she sees you the way she dreams you to be, though sometimes (which is why he’s convinced that women see better than men in these circumstances) she sees you for what you are, as not necessarily her dreamed and longed mate, and parts of her change her mind, or tries to change her mind quite desperately, but cannot, for your line is too strong, and too taut, and her need is too fundamental.

The duration of what then follows seems to Harman-Karman to have a rational relationship to how well the two dreams merge, or mesh. How well reality matches dream. For if after the first blind coming together—scales now fallen from eyes, at least temporarily—reality and dream are simply too far apart, both will quickly arrange themselves for flight and depart; but where dream and the actual harmonize, copulation can go on for hours, even days, turning into what in essence is an impromptu pact.

Sometimes turning into, in the end, life-time pacts and marriage.

Harman-Karman had experienced both extremes, and more than once.

But this Harman-Karman, this afternoon—turning toward evening now—with hundreds of calls swirling about him, locked on to none of them; for him there was to be only Alwyn Moore.

As he stepped inside, he shivered slightly at the utter abundance, as evident inside as out, then forced himself to again focus on: kit, dress, food, map (he tore out the relevant pages—he would have to make it from page K-112 to page K-114—of his handy size street map, the only size he had).

Then looked around; could think of nothing else he would need.

Then thought, yes, he really should check, just to make sure he wasn’t walking into needless danger.

Fishing up the remote from the table, he switched the television back on and tuned to the Pasadena Seasonal Service, a constantly updated account—not unlike a traffic report, only more detailed—of current Seasonal calamities such as team fights, police interventions, fires, that sort of thing.

At this point Harman-Karman was mainly interested in team fights, he did not want to walk into one. True, they seldom developed on any scale in his neck of the woods—Pasadena was a relatively safe place in that regard, not like Hollywood or Van Nuys, for example, who had some of the highest counts of deadly team fights in the nation, year after year. In fact, they were still trying to figure out exactly why this was—though Harman-Karman found the answer quite obvious: too many very good looking women, that’s why. Could it be more obvious?

The broadcast showed activity north of the freeway in Pasadena, but none, not for the moment—said a bland looking reporter Harman-Karman did not recognize, probably from some temporary agency specializing in geldings—none in other parts of Pasadena. And none in South Pasadena, except for two Storm related homicides which the police was responding to at the moment. The reporter mentioned the address, and Harman-Karman checked his maps. No, he wouldn’t have to get near those either (they drew attention, and attention was the last thing he wanted drawn).

His plan, if you could call it that, was simple: reach Alwyn Moore’s mother’s house unseen, wait there until completely dark, enter and find out from her mother, by whatever means (which Harman-Karman had yet to catalog, not even cursorily) where Alwyn would be. He assumed that her mother would know. Going by Mr. Chalkhill, they were on good terms now. In fact, Alwyn Moore might already be in that house.

He pieced the pages of the map together and with a yellow high-lighter marked the path he assumed would be the best: following down smaller streets, cutting across properties to avoid the larger streets. The last thing he wanted to do was run into other hunters, who likely as not would challenge him.

He would not fight, that was a given, which meant flight, and too much flight could easily force him way off course and perhaps he would never even make it to Avon place. He had experience that circus before: going from A to B during the Season, especially as hunter, is a lot easier said than done.

So, unobtrusively was the key word.

He turned the television off, replaced the remote, and took one last glance around him: nothing forgotten.

He hefted his pack which wrapped itself nicely around his shoulders and back. Ch’ien Yung, he reflected thankfully, indeed knew what he was doing.

Harman-Karman rolled his shoulders around a little, flexed his body, and damn, it felt like the backpack wasn’t even there. Outside, the cat caught his eye. Same cat. Murmuring to itself, pretending not to approach, was it the same bird as before? Then it began preening itself again, look, bird, I’m not even vaguely interested in you.

If birds had even half the brains Harman-Karman assumed they had, that is, twice that of cats, it would be obvious what this one was up to. Like whistling in the dark to prove how unafraid you were, meanwhile wetting your pants. Pathetic cat this.

Having just gotten through thinking that, however, the cat—and the bird—exploded into a brief flurry of cat and feathers, and damn if the cat didn’t catch it. Harman-Karman shivered, again. Was this a good omen or a bad one?

Then (thank God he remembered) he almost ran into his bedroom, and fished out his Journal from its desk. Almost forgot. But he had decided: he would keep it up. He would keep it up. No matter what.

No matter where.

He unshouldered his pack and placed it on the desk. Moved things around a little inside to make room for the Journal. And for a pen, and another pen, just in case. This would upset the balance of the pack a little, but small price, he decided. Shouldered the pack again, and this time, without looking around, he went straight to the front door, stepped out, locked it securely behind him and headed down Catalina Avenue.

Almost, but not quite, running toward Cornell Road.

 

:: 62 ::

 

The image of intimate conversation was aided more by wind than by volition. Harman-Karman’s Juniper and Harman-Karman’s Elm were not as friendly, or such confidants, as appearances made them out to be.

In fact, as trees go, they did not much care for each other.

Well, for one, the Chinese Elm found the Weeping Juniper a little vain. A little too self-conscious about her good looks. Yes, it was a good looking Juniper, there was no denying that, but why the attitude?

The Juniper, on the other hand, found the elm a little uncouth, a little unrestrained, and little rampant. In need of some artful pruning.

But they had one thing in common: they liked Harman-Karman, very much; and as they both perceived his departure they sighed in unison at such folly. Every year, the same madness. The Juniper shook her head in slow consternation, rustling her blue-green foliage to good effect.

“Blinded again,” she said. “Like clockwork.”

The Elm had thought almost the same thought, and the same, or very similar, comment had been working its way to the tip of his tongue—so to speak—but now that the Juniper had beat him to it, it wouldn’t do to echo her sentiments.

So, instead he said, “You make your bed, you lie in it.”

“Don’t be impertinent.”

A short silence. “What’s impertinent about that?”

“Have you no feelings?”

“I do.”

“Well, it wouldn’t hurt you to show them once in while.”

“I do.”

“You don’t.”

“I do.”

“You make your bed, you lie in it,” she echoed. “For one, it’s a dull image, dulled by overuse if nothing else, and impertinent. For another it’s not as if he wills himself to do this. He doesn’t remember, you know.”

The Elm knew this, of course. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have the Juniper’s brains, as it were, he was quite as agile in that department as anyone, but when it came to communicating his thoughts, he was, as trees go, a little tongue-tied. The Juniper—by no means dumb, of course; no trees are—was quite the opposite, perhaps even a little glib; erring now and then by not thinking everything—perhaps most things—through and through before she spoke; but she had a gift of gab that the Elm could only marvel at. Where had she learned this? Was it learned? Was it a long standing Juniper trait? Pondering, pondering but never quite to the point of asking her.

“I know,” was all he managed by way of clever rejoinder. “But it’s not impertinent,” he added. Though that didn’t come out right at all, rather petulantly in fact, he thought.

And all the Juniper did in response to that was rustle her foliage again, and again to good effect. For answering that was simply beneath her.

Then the Elm said, “I wish there was something we could do to help him.”

And before the Juniper could check herself—for it wouldn’t do to agree with the stupid Elm—said, “I wish so too.”

Which left them both a little perplexed, if not embarrassed, at least as trees go.

After another long—and somewhat awkward—silence, he said, “But how?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “And now he’s gone.”

“I can still sense him,” he said.

“Me too.”

“He’s pretty determined.”

“Fixed,” she said.

“Fixed,” he repeated.

“You’re lucky,” said the Canary Island Pine next door, a tall, arrogant fellow. It was as if a nearby sky had spoken. Then he said, “My two stay in their basement all Season and hardly even take a break. If you know what I mean.”

The Juniper, of course, was the one to answer, and not a little put out by the interruption. “It’s not polite to eavesdrop.”

To which the tall pine said nothing

“She’s right,” said the Elm. “It’s not polite.”

“Well, keep it down then,” said the Pine.

“Now you are being impertinent,” said the Juniper.

“You like that word,” said the Pine.

To which the Juniper did not have an immediate retort, and that surprised the Elm. She was a little hurt, and taken aback, he sensed, and to his surprise, and hers, he heard himself come to her rescue.

“You may be overgrown in the trunk department,” he said. “But you’re far too short on tact for comfort.”

To which the Pine said nothing, to his own, the Juniper’s, and the Elm’s surprise. Mostly the Elm’s, who, as far has he could remember, had never won an exchange like this in his life, if indeed you win these things. Felt like winning. Felt unfamiliar. Felt good. And mostly (and this he couldn’t really explain) because he had helped the silly, far too vain, Juniper.

Then he said, to the Pine. “How far can you see.”

The Pine, who at heart was a nice fellow, and someone who could not hold a grudge for much longer than a breath, was very proud of his long reach, and would never pass up an opportunity to talk about it. So, he replied almost immediately, as if the earlier exchange had never taken place. “Blocks. Miles.”

“Which one is it?” said the Juniper. “Blocks or miles?” Both curious and a little peeved about the vague reply.

“Miles,” said the Pine.

“How many?” asked the Elm.

“Three,” said the Pine.

“I don’t believe you,” said the Juniper, although she did.

“It’s true,” said Harry’s Pine from four houses up.

“There’s another one,” said the Juniper to no one in particular. “Hasn’t anybody heard about privacy around here?”

“I’m sorry,” said Harry’s Pine. “But it’s true. He can reach about three miles. Three times farther than I can.”

“Apology accepted,” said the Juniper.

“I wish there was something we could do to help them,” said the Elm.

“So do I,” said Harry’s Pine.

“He wouldn’t listen, though,” said the Juniper, meaning Harman-Karman.

“Doesn’t hear too well?” asked the Canary Island Pine.

“Doesn’t hear at all,” said the Elm. “Just not open to us.”

“Doesn’t hear at all,” echoed the Juniper.

“My one is open enough,” said Harry’s Pine, “though I still don’t know what I can do for him. Once it sets in, there’s no stopping it. He’s not doing too well, my one.”

“Mine are already at it, in the basement,” said the tall one.

“Ours has gone hunting,” said the Juniper. And I’m losing him. Have lost him.”

“I’ve lost him too,” said the Elm.

“I can feel him,” said Harry’s Pine.

“Me too,” said the tall one.

“What’s he doing?” asked the Juniper

Which was exactly what the Elm was about to ask, but she beat him to it.

 

:: 63 ::

 

What Harman-Karman was doing, or trying to do, was to stay unnoticed. And that was proving harder than he had thought or hoped.

He had spotted his first hunter on the corner of Mentor and Cornell. He had seen another run down Kewen Drive, perhaps after spotting Harman-Karman first, he couldn’t tell. A third was casing a two story house on Dale Street—must be someone within who had called. A fourth and fifth hunter, which struck Harman-Karman as a father-son team, were walking down Oak Knoll Circle, in plain view, as if asking for challenges (Harman-Karman could not see that they were tracking anyone or reeling in a call). As if they were simply out to fight others. Not unheard of, but unusual. Could explain the father-son impression though (fathers and sons rarely hunted together—not that it was illegal, but it was far from encouraged, and only just condoned).

Oak Knoll Avenue, for some reason he found hard to grasp, was crowded. That’s to say, for a residential Pasadena neighborhood it was crowded. Could have been a nice summer evening, the Season long since ended and off your mind again. Families out for an evening stroll, neighbors chatting, comparing gardening horror stories, three or four joggers out for their nightlies. Just as busy this evening.

He counted five hunters, three of them obviously teamed for two of them stood guard while the third member was busy copulating with a very large woman atop what Harman-Karman made out to be a thermal blanked in the corner of a well lit lawn. More than likely she was the owner of the house, for he saw no activity within—which there usually was if your property was invaded by a team in action: calls to the police, threats, with weapons to back them, from windows, that sort of thing. None of that.

The other two hunters were clearly keeping an eye on each other (likely following the same scent), neither noticing him, for which he was grateful. The smaller of the two, across the street and two blocks down, carried a coil of rope, prepared to scale God knows what. The other, tall and lean, walking with purpose in the same direction, but on the opposite side of the street. Harman-Karman imagined a fight within ten minutes, for he could scent the woman himself now, strong and alluring. Had not the image of Alwyn Moore served to shield out her competition, he would likely have taken up pursuit, too: the scent evoked a luscious woman in her early thirties, simply writhing with the need to.

Yes, Alwyn Moore notwithstanding, Harman-Karman had to do serious internal battle to stay on course; but stay on course he did (though had his erection had veto powers, he would have followed the luscious scent). As it was, he cut across a few lawns, and at one point around a bungalow to reach Ridge Way from the east. This street was quieter. Only two people about that he could see. One, an older man securing his house, locking it up tightly. He was carrying a shotgun under his left arm. The other, a teenager on closer inspection, apparently getting ready to head out, checking things. Not in hunting gear, but looked set to hunt nonetheless. Neither of them noticed Harman-Karman.

Ridge Way suddenly ended and he had to work his way around several properties to reach South El Molino. And here, where people didn’t notice him, dogs did. Not his cup of tea. He did not care for dogs, especially not the larger kind, and twice he had to retreat and walk a wide circle around a backyard to avoid the one guarding the place.

He finally made it though, and found himself on Old Mill Road, one house shy of El Molino.

Dogs. He shivered at the thought where he stood. He’d had run-ins with dogs before, and he had never gotten the better of it, except the once when he actually shot the thing. Unfortunately, that owner had seen him, had confronted him, and in the end Harman-Karman had paid him a considerable sum of money in compensation and to avoid prosecution. Seemed like dogs just didn’t care for him. Probably true what they say that they can smell, if not fear—for he wasn’t afraid of them, particularly—then dislike.

He was breathing quite hard from the part running part brisk walk and part leaping fences and hedges, and was sweating. This bulletproof vest, though much cooler than his old one, was still nearly air-tight, and was not really made for running, at least not for any distance. It was made to stop bullets and less than perfectly struck and sharpened knives. Also, his legs were shaking just slightly. Whether from the unfamiliar dodging and running exercise or from the doggy excitement he wasn’t sure. Heart pounding away. He took several deep breaths. He took in the trees. The wind had died down a little, at least here, the tops of the arrowhead shaped Italian Cypresses to his left barely swayed and the whatever they were with lots of broad leaves rustled a bit—Sweet Gum was it?—but that was it.

Breath and heart rate finally back to normal he brought out his street map and the smaller of the flashlights. Got his bearings. Approached El Molino and looked left to confirm it: yes, Old Mill picked up again half a block down the street. He set out for it, keeping close to the high hedge to his left.

The question returned, unanswered as yet: what if she is not there? What if her mother didn’t know where she was? What if her mother lied to him, and she really was in the house? What if this, what if that. His plan, he had to admit, wasn’t really a plan at all, just a sort of broad general drift in Alwyn Moore’s direction—hopefully. He had not thought this thing through, not nearly enough. Still, there would be time—he assumed, hoped—for that. The first step remained simple enough: get there.

Unseen.

And this first, simple enough step was very nearly not accomplished.

Rule one: Stay alert to everything. His own rule to be sure, but a good one. But with the image of Alwyn Moore hovering, and with the question of what, precisely, to do, still percolating, he violated his own edict: he did not stay alert to everything. Particularly not to the shadow that suddenly sprang alive to his right and came at him with a short? medium? long? knife.

What the fuck?

Harman-Karman sprang back just in time to avoid the glitter of steel and caught the grimace of a not more than fifteen year old face.

Then he came at him again. Harman-Karman still too stunned, shocked, call it what you will, to react properly. Still hadn’t gotten out a weapon, still trying to reconcile the attack: why?

The kid, he could see him better from this angle, the street light falling on his pimply face, cratered what the word that sprung—from God knows where—to Harman-Karman’s mind; crouching now, moving on him again.

“Hey!” Harman-Karman yelled at him. Made him hesitate. “Hey!” Again. Louder still. “What the hell are you doing, man?”

“She’s mine.”

“Who?”

“She’s mine.”

“I’m not after her.”

“I’ve followed you, you’re moving in her direction.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

“Alice.”

“I don’t know Alice. And I’m not going after Alice. She’s all yours.”

The kid straightened up a little, looked Harman-Karman over closely. Then looked around him, as if for witnesses. Back at Harman-Karman and seemed to take note of the fact that Harman-Karman was well equipped and more than likely could kill him if it came to that. “Sure?” he asked.

“Positive,” said Harman-Karman.

The kid didn’t answer but slipped off down the street, then vanished under a hedge, leaving Harman-Karman with a new bout of sweating, harder breathing, and a racing heart. It took him five minutes to calm down again. He could not afford lapses like this. You can get killed for all the wrong reasons, easily. He knew that. Unless you remained alert. Alert. Rule one. He had to stay alert.

Look around.

Different trees here. Tall Mexican fan palms; sky dusters, they called them. He could see why, even when as now they rose into dusk. Dusting the belly of darkening sky. Only their lower halves lit by streetlights. Swaying slowly. As if settling down after the high winds.

At Mission and Los Flores he got out the street map again. And the small flashlight. Found her house. Only a couple of blocks away now.

[*:*]

The hum of a smooth engine caught his ear. Approaching. A minute later a limousine passed: a dark Mercedes going west on Mission, headlights on in the dusk and barely missing him; even so he backed up a little, into deeper shadow. From there he watched the car turn left down Garfield. Soon the hum of the engine had vanished as well—or blended sufficiently into the rest of the night to amount to the same thing—and Harman-Karman thought no more about it. Instead he kept an alert eye out for other hunters, while trying to ignore the constant shifts of scent, calling, calling, calling him and his warm erection, throbbing mildly, with a sweet touch of pain.

He moved down the south side of Mission, close to another tall hedge to his left, willing himself as difficult to spot as he could: just another strange shadow cast by the oddly spaced streetlights. One here, two there.

Then he froze: there was the engine again. The same one.

He slipped back into deeper shadow. Soon the limo itself appeared, now emerging from another side street and turning left onto Mission, slowly rolling down toward Avon Place.

As yet Harman-Karman did not add things all the way up. What did disturb him though was the slow pace of the car. To settle things, he made up his mind about it: Safari. Must be.

The practice was certainly not unheard of, if frowned upon; the way you as a true hunter of game would frown upon—nay, despise—the old practice of shooting buffalo from trains (you read about it in school), or of hunting elephants from a helicopter—where on earth was the thrill in that? Harman-Karman never could understand this practice, only one step removed as it were from having someone actually shoot the thing for you. Was it a rush by proxy? The satisfaction of a vicarious killing? He shook his head.

In a similarly despicable vein, safari services catered to the over-aged, over-weight, and under-sexed cowards who could not hunt for themselves; normally consisting of one or two or three professional guides/guards (usually ex-army or police, skilled in martial arts and weapons) who drove you around in comfort—a well-equipped limousine was the standard—on the lookout for suitable pray. Once found, and once competitors were fought off, or held at bay by the hired help, the “hunter” would emerge “victorious” from the safety of the back seat to make the “kill.”

Pathetic actually.

They called them safaris. Not that they were illegal, but you couldn’t advertise them in print or on television. Still, while there was a market for them, so there would be a supply.

And here was just such a one. For that’s exactly what it was, wasn’t it?

It turned left, down another side street. Was it Avon Place? No, he didn’t think so, though it could be. He started a light run. Crossed Garfield, Montrose, Milan. The limo had turned down Milan. He spotted it farther down the street, now turning right at the lights. Harman-Karman quickly moved over to Avon Place. Alwyn’s Place. He stopped at the corner of Mission and Avon, in shadow, looking for people, dogs, movements. Scents were still strong, swirling a little, dizzying. He could hear voices inside the many houses, could hear birds shift in trees, cars like soft thunder on some distant freeway. He sifted for that particular engine, the safari. And there it was, soon followed by the crouching limo, now slowly turning right onto Avon and heading right for him.

Harman-Karman slipped sideways and behind the hedge to his left. He curled up behind the foliage, then shifted about until he could get a better view through the greenery—a little thinner here, he could see the street well enough to make out cars, that’s for sure. He waited for the limo to appear.

No limo.

Another engine now, approaching fast. And here came the car to go with it. This one was in a hurry, tires protesting at the sharp left turn. That was no safari.

Harman-Karman eased back into the street, for a better view, careful to remain in shadow.

And then spotted the limo—parked opposite Alwyn’s house, he suddenly knew with the chill of certainty—and the other car, stopped now, too, on the east side of the street, across from the limo.

It was a Land-Rover (more appropriate for a safari—where did thoughts like this come from? Harman-Karman shook his head). The Land-Rover doors swung open and people—he counted two from the front and two from the back—exited in a hurry, as the limo suddenly sprung alive again and pulled away. Fast. Too fast in fact for Harman-Karman to react, and he suddenly found himself illuminated by strong German headlights. Bit of a deer syndrome. He didn’t move. In fact, just shielded his eyes. So much for unobtrusive. Uncaring, the limo sped past him and turned left on Mission. Tail lights in a hurry.

Down the street four car doors slammed shut, and he counted people again. Still four.

These men were pros, he could tell even from this distance. Their dress, their stance. Guards. Hired professionals. One of them stepped up to the front door and he soon heard what he took to be an odd sounding doorbell within the large house.

And now, finally, he managed to add everything up. The limo: Arrak; the cars, the guards: protection.

Which meant, didn’t it?, that unless they had come to protect her mom, which didn’t make much sense, they had come to protect Alwyn Moore.

Which, in turn, meant that she was staying with her mother. All this firepower (four well trained guards, in Season, did not come cheap, and were more than likely bankrolled Alwyn’s employer) for her mom, no, he couldn’t see it.

In fact, he was certain now: the very thing he was looking for, his reason for living, only half a block away.

That is to say: half a block, four guards, and people-in-speeding-limos-set-on-harming-her, away. Might as well been two states and a Grand Canyon away. This was not according to plan (if you can call it plan), though his erection—not mindful of detail—begged to differ, emphatically. Close to mission accomplished according to it: throbbing harder now, straining for release, and shouting. Harman-Karman swayed a little from the screaming, then steadied himself again, slipped behind the hedge, sat down, leaned against a rather annoyed Oak, closed his eyes, and tried to focus the pressure away.

Tried. To. Focus.

With marginal success; still, every little bit helped. He did fight down the urge to simply rush the place, track her down and go to town: certain death, in other words.

Now what?

 

:: 64 ::

 

“He is sitting down now,” said the Canary Island Pine, who was the only one with long enough reach to be (and so perceive) Harman-Karman at that distance.

“Doing what?” said the Juniper.

“Not much of anything. Resting. Wondering what to do next.”

“How’s he feeling?” asked the Elm.

The tall Pine didn’t answer for a while. Then, “Pressured. And confused.”

“Pressured?” said the Juniper.

“You know, the way they get.”

There was a short, awkward, treey silence. If trees could blush, the Juniper would have.

“Confused about what?” asked the Elm, eager to change the subject for more reasons than one.

“He wants to find this woman. I can see her face, a fine face as people go, this is whom he’s come for, whom he wants to give his seed. And she is in a large white house, that’s his conviction, down the street a little.”

“So why doesn’t he go there?” said the Juniper.

“Because,” said the Pine.

And then he fell silent again for a while. Perceiving. “Because there are obstacles. Some people want to do her harm, kill her in fact. Other people, there are four of them according to your boy, want to keep her alive, have been paid to do so by her employer from what I can make out. Your boy had anticipated none of this when he set out, and now he doesn’t know what to do next.”

“Is he coming back, you think?” asked the Juniper.

“He doesn’t have any plans to,” said the Pine.

Had he had a head, the Elm would have shaken it, out of sympathetic consternation. “Poor creatures,” he said. “Poor, poor creatures.”

“They seem to enjoy it though,” said the Pine whose two charges were going at it like rabbits in their basement, and there was no mistaking their partiality to the activity.

“Yes, and no,” said Harry’s Pine, who was still listening in, although he had his own concerns with Harry.

“What do you mean?” said his taller cousin.

“It’s not really by choice,” said Harry’s Pine.

“They chose,” said the Elm. “Same as we chose.”

“Perhaps, but we remember the choosing and they don’t.”

“True,” said the Juniper.

“And were we to be really honest, did we make our choice or was it made for us?” Harry’s Pine wanted to know.

“It was the right choice,” said the Elm.

“That was not the question,” said the Juniper.

“I know,” said the Elm. Then he asked, “What’s he doing now?”

The Canary Island Pine fell silent again, you could almost hear him reach—though it was more like spreading himself—down the street and across the many back yards and pools and lawns all the way to where Harman-Karman still sat, back against the still reluctant Oak, staring up over the dark rim of the hedge and into the night sky, not wondering about the stars at all, although they were quite bright and seemed quietly amused by the spectacle on planet Earth below.

“Still sitting there. Unresolved,” said the Canary Island Pine.

“About the same thing?” said the Juniper.

“Yes. He doesn’t know what to do.”

“Is he determined about that one woman?” asked Harry’s Pine.

“Completely,” said his taller cousin.

“Then he will find a way.”

“I agree.”

“Why is it you can reach so far?” asked the Elm.

“Because he’s a Pine,” said the Juniper.

“The other Pine’s a Pine,” said the Elm. “He doesn’t reach all the way.”

“I’ve thought about that,” said the other (Harry’s) Pine. “I think we all have the same overall gift, only it’s proportioned differently with different species. I bet there are things you do better than say our fellow Tall Pine here.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” said the Tall Pine, who didn’t like the implications of this; he knew he was the tallest, the farthest reaching, the ablest of all tress on the street.

“How well to you scent?” asked Harry’s Pine.

“Not so very well,” the taller Pine had to admit.

“Quite well,” said the Juniper.

“How well?” asked Harry’s Pine.

“I can scent pretty well too,” said the Elm.

“He wasn’t asking you, he was asking me.” The Juniper then thought for a little while. “I can, for example, scent four, no five, dogs from here. Two up this street, two one street over, and one about three streets over.”

“How about you,” Harry’s Pine asked the Elm.

“Me too. Yes, the five.”

“And you?” Harry wanted to know from the tall Pine.

“None of them,” he answered reluctantly, after trying to scent them for some little while. Trees were nothing if not truthful, especially since any tree could easily tell whether another tree was having them on.

“You see?” said Harry’s Pine. I think you’ll find that this holds true. “We each have the gift, only it’s allocated a little differently.

“I can be things and people for nearly five miles,” said the tall Pine, lest they forget, exaggerating just a little.

“Exactly,” said Harry’s Pine, helping his cousin keep face.

“What’s he doing now?” asked the Juniper.

“Still mulling things over,” said the tall Pine.

“Still sitting down?” the Elm wanted to know.

“Of course he is,” said the Juniper, though she wasn’t sure.

“Yes,” said the tall Pine. “He’s still sitting down.”

“Do you know the Bristlecone?” asked Harry’s Pine of no one in particular.

“He’s a relative of mine,” said the Canary Island Pine. “A cousin lots of times removed, but in my direct line.”

“I don’t know him,” said the Elm.

“Me neither,” said the Juniper. “Why do you ask?”

“They say he can reach from the White Mountains all the way to the coasts.”

“You mean the coast,” said the Juniper.

“No,” answered Harry’s Pine, I mean the coasts. East as well as west.”

“Where are the White Mountains,” asked the Elm.

“Here in California. In the Sierra Nevadas,” said Harry’s Pine.

“Ah,” sounded the Elm.

“Do you know where the Sierra Nevadas are?” the Juniper asked of the Elm.

“Yes I do,” he answered. “Do you?”

The Juniper pretended not to hear that question.

“I wonder if that is all he can do,” said Harry’s Pine.

“The Bristlecone?” said the Juniper.

“Yes.”

“Reach?”

“Yes.”

“Surely he can scent something,” suggested the Juniper.

“Not much to scent up there,” said the tall Pine.

“Can we ask?” asked the Elm.

“They are hundreds of miles away,” said the Juniper. Not unkindly.

“Have you ever spoken with them?” Harry’s Pine asked of his taller cousin.

“No.”

“Ever tried?”

“No.”

“Could you?”

“Wouldn’t know how.”

“Would you want to?”

“Yes, sure.”

“No, would you really want to?”

The tall pine though about that for a while, and then another while, and then another while, and then he said, “Yes.”

“Then,” said Harry’s Pine, “I’m sure you can find a way. If you return to where you parted ways, and follow the other branch, perhaps.”

“Perhaps.”

“What’s he doing now?” asked the Juniper.

 

:: 65 ::

 

What Harman-Karman was doing now was still sitting with his back to the old, still somewhat annoyed, Oak. Still undeciding. Still trying to quiet the throbbing, the tremors, the swelling from below. Still focusing, or trying to—not as easily as earlier in the day—on Alwyn Moore, holding her face before him to shore up the walls to keep the river of other currents at bay.

Still trying to form a course of action, and still unable to arrive at any sort of strategy.

And still wondering who exactly was Arrak and who exactly were the guards, and who were they there to protect?—Alwyn, surely—when softly, reaching him on still air: the purr of two well-tuned engines, far away still, but approaching. Harman-Karman focused on the sound: closer, closer, a block away perhaps, then no closer, just the hushed purring. Then not even that. Silence.

And more silence. As if the evening held its breath.

As did Harman-Karman.

Nothing happened.

Then several car doors opening, soft feet on pavement, murmurs, car doors closing with deliberate care, as quietly as possible.

Movement of soft feet. Many soft feet.

Approaching. Some on street, some on sidewalk—Harman-Karman’s hearing was now completely attuned to the approach. He tried to count pairs of feet, not an easy task. Tried harder: each pair treading at a slightly different rhythm, a slightly different pace, the lift and landing of each sole unique. Four, no five. He re-counted: five. And again; five.

Five pairs of rubbered soles moving up the sidewalk now, slowly, quietly, toward—he again knew with that sickening certainty—Alwyn Moore’s house. Reaching it. Spreading out. Feet even quieter now. Some moving on grass, some moving on tarmac. Some not moving at all.

Then none moving at all.

Then the first shot.

Or what is a shot?

Instinctively he listened for an echo, a reverberation, a distant crack in answer.

But there was no echo. Instead there was the clatter of glass, loud in his ear. A window, a stone perhaps through a window.

Then again, another shot, like a metallic infliction on the air; then, again, the garish glassy clatter. Another stone through another window.

The quiet returned.

Then another rock through yet another window.

More stillness.

And stillness.

And then, now that was a shot. And there was the reverberation from several blocks away.

Harman-Karman eased himself up onto already stiffened knees—the Oak quietly good-riddancing him all the way—flexed them once or twice to restore circulation then slowly stepped up to and put his head around the street end of the hedge. Carefully.

A clear view: Land-Rover by her house, his side of the street. Two dark cars—Mercedeses both, owners of recently purring engines, now malignantly reflecting the yellow street light into threat—crouching farther down, almost at the end of, the street.

No sign of men, owners of feet.

Except—he focused—except, in the driver seat of the foremost Mercedes, a blond head, then a hand, then a brief light, a match or a lighter, a cigarette. A lookout. Keeping an eye on the street, the sidewalks, inhaling now: Harman-Karman could see the end of the cigarette combust. Almost hear the soft crackle of it.

Harman-Karman slowly withdrew is head, and began to softly move along the inside of the tall hedge toward what he already thought of as Alwyn’s house. Got to the end of the lawn where the hedge did a ninety degree to the left, no way to scale it.

Two oaks to his left, one with branches hanging over onto the other side. He jumped, reached the lowest branch and surprised himself by swinging up onto it on his first attempt. Then moved up onto the second, overhanging one. Moved out, over the hedge, and dropped himself down, again with surprising dexterity, quietly onto a new lawn. And a new hedge on his right. He moved along the side of it to the end and another ninety degree left turn. This time with no trees to climb.

He followed the hedge toward the back of the house. Well lit here. Light streaming out through many windows. No people though. Not that he could see, or hear. Timers, he thought. They were probably bunkering it in some well-appointed basement, while keeping lights going on and off upstairs. At least that’s the sense he got. Still, he didn’t want to take the chance that someone might spot him, so he kept to the shadow as best he could.

Another shot, louder this time. Closer. Faster reverberation too. And another, which hit metal with an angry shriek that spun off into silence. Then nothing. Evening holding its breath again.

He concentrated on moving as silently as he could.

Two thirds of the way down this leg of the hedge, a gate onto the next house. He tried it. Opened without a sound. Used a lot then. Well oiled. Neighborly neighbors, is what he thought. Unusual. Well, perhaps not in these neck of the woods. Old money, old ties. Perhaps even related.

Harman-Karman stepped through and onto a third well-manicured lawn. Closed the gate behind him. It clicked into place with a sigh almost that said snug fit. Someone was taking well care of things around here. Probably the gardener.

He turned. Could see clear across this back yard, over to the next house. No tall hedge separating this one from the next, only a low, white picket fence. Huckleberry Finn sprung to mind out of absolutely nowhere; or was that Tom Sawyer? One of Twain’s boys. The fence, of course. White, so white it looked freshly painted. But then again, things were well tended around here.

And beyond Huck’s fence lay the large white house of Alwyn Moore’s.

He hugged the hedge and followed it around the back yard to the fence. Stopped. Listened.

Movements.

He moved up to and pressed himself against the trunk of yet another Oak. Younger. Trunk not wide enough to fully shield him.

He made himself as thin as possible, then bent slightly around it for a better view: Alwyn’s house.

Yes, more like a mansion than a house, a southern mansion. Chalkhill was right: Gone with the Wind, though not that large. The pillars were there, the veranda, extending down the side of and across the back, most likely going all the way around. It was a beautiful house. Graceful, stately.

And threatened.

Another shot. This time he saw a muzzle flash, light from the tiny bullet explosion. From an upstairs window. This bullet found grass. The soft thump of lead into earth. Were they shooting to kill or shooting to scare? They hadn’t hit anyone yet, that’s for sure; he’d heard no cries, and no one takes a bullet sound-lessly, at least not in his experience.

Then he realized what the stones were all about: barrels through glass, the guards getting ready, taking up positions. Why not just open the windows?

Two figures materialized from shadow by the corner of Alwyn Moore’s house. The Arrak men, dressed in dark fatigues—he assumed they were Arrak men, what else could they possibly be?—pressed themselves closely against the wall to stay out of site from the upstairs snipers. Leaning toward each other they whispered (in a language Harman-Karman could not make out) and pointed; by their gestures something about entering the house through an upstairs window, or—he realized after getting a better look—through the veranda French doors facing the backyard.

Harman-Karman had a clear view of the two men, who remained by the side of the house: good targets. Led partially by the hunting instinct now, partially by the beckoning face of Alwyn Moore, and partially by an odd sense of curiosity, he softly swung his pack off of his shoulders and onto the ground; fished out one of the Baraks along with its silencer; quietly checked the magazine, fifteen rounds; clicked it back into place (he could hear the well-oiled click, but he would wager that you couldn’t hear it a yard away; hats off to professional manufacturing standards); he screwed on the silencer, then weighed the gun in his right hand: Ch’ien Yung was right, it balanced perfectly, even with the silencer.

Could he do it? This was not target practice with Ch’ien Yung. These were men.

[*:*]

The question still lingering, he lowered the silencer onto this bent left arm for support and took aim. To main or to kill? It would have to be kill. These men were not there to maim, of that he was certain. They were there to kill. His Alwyn Moore.

It was like stepping into a cold shower: that decision to kill. Suddenly he was all alert to every detail. The two men, how they stood, still leaning in toward each other, conferring in their odd language, one of them looking up to his right now, as if trying to make out someone else, then back at his partner, saying something else, briefly scratching his left ear, neither of them facing him. Committed now, Harman-Karman slowly leaned against the tree to his left, the silencer still resting on his bent left arm, and then, still in the cold state of complete concentration took a deep breath, held it for a second, then slowly let it out as he squeezed the trigger twice: Once, a quick shift of the barrel a fraction to the left, and again. Less than a second between them: thud, thud.

They both fell to the ground, with small black holes, one in his temple, the other in his forehead, he noticed as they fell in slow, slow motion—or perhaps true, but for Harman-Karman everything had slowed.

And not a sound.

Then he inhaled again. A deep breath. He needed the air, something to fill the terrible void that had just opened: this was only the second time, second and third time, that he had killed someone. And the first time where killing had been premeditated.

He remained cold, still filled with icy concentration.

That left four, he thought, subtracting; four Arrak men to go.

Between him and Alwyn. Three plus the lookout. Or perhaps there were eight men between him and Alwyn: he had no idea how kindly her guards would take to his arrival.

Then all hell broke loose.

One of the remaining Arrak men, spotting his two downed mates, was sounding the alarm, well, screaming something which sounded to Harman-Karman as swearing in Albanian or something. The other two men came running (the fourth, the lookout, presumably still stationed in the car, his assigned job). The first man leaned back and pointed up at a second floor window, assuming—thank God—and making the other two assume as well, that they had been shot from inside the house.

One of them suddenly flung his semi-automatic from his shoulders into his hands, ran into the back yard and started firing indiscriminately at the upper floor windows. What remained of those panes rained glass onto the veranda, a glassy waterfall accented by the continued sputter of the one gunman who seem to have gone mad, firing almost blindly.

Harman-Karman was crouching now, by the tree, watching through the gaps of the picket fence. It didn’t give him a clear view, but it also kept him out of theirs. The semi-automatic was still sputtering, but by now the other two had begun screaming at him, presumably to stop.

Then number four showed as well, rounding the far side of the house, deserting his limo guard duty. Who wouldn’t at this point? Asking what the hell? in English. An American.

To no answers in any language.

Three quick shots from the house, Harman-Karman didn’t catch from where precisely, and two screams. The guards, he realized, were definitely shoot-to-maim. One of the men in black was clutching his knee while the other dropped his weapon and grabbed his arm. The third shot found dirt with a soft thud, and Harman-Karman saw the remaining figure hit the ground and roll away for cover, presumably unhurt. Should he?

Then he noticed the lookout. He had frozen at the last two shots, and now began to move backwards, one slow step after another. This, Harman-Karman realized, spelled trouble. This man, if anyone, would call for backup. He was expecting him to reach for a cell phone. But he didn’t. And didn’t. And still he moved backward, away from the lawn, and back toward the far end of the house. Harman-Karman assumed he must have left his cell phone in the car, or he would have called by now. Instead, he was still backing up, trying to stay as un-shot as possible. Still in view. Still not calling. Not even looking for the phone. In the car then. Then the man rounded the corner of the house and was out of sight.

Harman-Karman knew nothing about Arrak, but deduced that any group that sends six people to deliver on a threat has resources to spare and would stop at nothing. Scores would arrive if summoned. This man must not be allowed to call.

Harman-Karman (realizing that, as he too was dressed in dark fatigues, he could as easily get shot by the guards inside as by either of the two remaining Arrak men still in working order) silently donned his pack again, then moved as fast as he dared, semi-crouched along the picket-fence toward the street. He came to the end, where he cleared it onto Alwyn Moore’s front yard in a quick leap, and then cleared it again onto the sidewalk, now charging for the running lookout and the parked cars at full sprint.

The lookout yanked open the driver side door, and slipped inside before Harman-Karman could get a shot off.

The next shot—he could feel the air sing just to his left—hit the car, and Harman-Karman dove for the sidewalk; quickly rolled to his left and, he hoped, out of view of whomever was now firing.

Another shot, this also hit the car. The soft thump of bullet-proof glass, as the bullet hit, its power absorbed, and then fell to the ground.

Harman-Karman—in an inspired move—rose to a crouch, dashed around the back of the car, then, leaning against the driver side back door, shielded from the sniper at the house, fired two rounds toward the upper story of Alwyn’s house—hoping he wouldn’t hit anyone.

The man inside the car, noticing and mistaking him—as Harman-Karman had hoped—for one of the Arrak men, slid his window half-way down and turned toward him. Two quiet, wide-eyed seconds, then: “Who the hell are you?”

“To keep an eye on things,” Harman-Karman heard himself say.

“What?”

“I’m here to keep an eye on things.”

“Jesus,” said the man. Blond, surfer-type is as far as the gap in the window and the yellowish street light would go.

“You have two men down and two wounded,” said Harman-Karman.

“This is fucked up,” said the surfer cum lookout.

“Very,” said Harman-Karman. “You’d better call for back-up.”

“That’s for damned sure,” he said and fished around the front seat for his cell phone.

Harman-Karman, fresh off his second and third killings, felt the icy cold return. This man, this surfer boy here, meant to have Alwyn Moore killed. That was the overriding factor. That made his next move not only all right but necessary. And he slowly raised his Barak, still will the silencer, and fired once. Through temple and into brain, where the bullet scattered and killed instantly.

Surfer boy slumped forward and hit the wheel, and with it the horn, just like in the damn movies. For a couple of bewildering seconds Harman-Karman couldn’t locate the overwhelming noise, then realized what had happened, yanked open the door and reached in to pull the man back and away from the wheel. Abrupt silence. Then he pushed him over to the right, and he fell onto the passenger seat.

Two more bullets hit the car: one hit more glass, the other ricocheted off the roof and into night sky.

Lights were coming on in other windows, and curious and scared people in nearby houses were more than likely on the phone to police by now. Whether there were any to spare that would in fact show was another question, and one Harman-Karman had no intention to wait around to see it answered.

Another shot, this one from the back of the house, and next he heard someone scream from inside. That sort of scream that doesn’t complete itself as the screamer runs out of life before it has a chance to.

One of the guards.

So the one Arrak man he had seen spin away, apparently unhurt, was indeed alive and well and very professional by the sounds of it.

And, he prayed, cell-phone-less.

The three remaining guards would now longer aim to maim, he thought as he quickly dashed from the cover of the car to the hedged edge of the side walk. Unnoticed by the house. Guards probably with other things on their minds by now.

He caught his breath for a few moments, then looked up at Alwyn’s house. From this angle he could make out no movements in any of the windows, neither upstairs nor downstairs. And no sounds that he could pin down. Perhaps the moaning of hurt Arrak men, but nothing else. Crouching still he charged back up the sidewalk, then, diving, he cleared the low hedge onto the lawn of Alwyn Moore’s down-street neighbor. Rolled once, twice, three times as he landed and up against the very same hedge that after its right-angle turn also separated the two houses.

Here he caught his breath again, then peeked through the dark foliage onto the side of Alwyn’s house. He could detect no movement. He remained still for a minute, perhaps a little longer, listening hard and with focus.

He could hear the two downed Arrak men quite clearly, groaning from their wounds , one of them whispering something to the other, a question, an urgent one, like how badly are you hurt, or how the hell do we get out of here, something like that. Then the movement of someone coming his way the other side of the hedge: the third, the un-hurt Arrak man, moving fast now, with purpose, past him but not seeing him.

Then he stopped, looked over at the cars, where he either must have spotted the surfer, slumped over, or sensed something amiss, for he stood stock still for several breaths, as if trying to make up his mind about what he saw, or didn’t see, and about what to do next.

Harman-Karman lay very still. The tall man was not twenty feet away, and if his hearing was anything like Harman-Karman’s in heat, he would easily pick out Harman-Karman’s heart beat if he concentrated.

But he wasn’t concentrating on whom might be lying prone, hugging cold grass on the other side of the hedge, not twenty feet away, he was trying to ascertain what was going on with the cars, where was the driver, or why he couldn’t see him; then he turned, leaned back and surveyed the house, as if wondering how best to enter: eyeing the windows, the front door, and the small stairway that led down the side of the house to an outside basement entrance.

The man moved, and disappeared briefly down those stairs. Harman-Karman heard him try the door. It made hardly a sound, as if welded in place, meaning to Harman-Karman’s mind that what the man was testing was not so much a door as a fortification. He came back up the stairs, confirming: he wouldn’t get in that way.

Then he seemed to reach a decision and disappeared around the front of the house, out of Harman-Karman’s sight.

But there were other movements now. One of the two wounded men had struggled to his feet, and was now helping his mate up as well. Moaning, the both of them. And now, coming his way. One leaning on the other, and swearing—was Harman-Karman’s guess—in his strange tongue.

Harman-Karman remained prone. Still gazing through foliage, and here they came, un-shot at, apparently allowed by the guards inside to return to their cars alive.

The third man appeared again from the front of the house, met the two. Then a brief conference, pressed against the side of the house. Urgent words which Harman-Karman really wished he could understand.

The tall man nodded an agreement and did bring out a cell phone. Which he began to dial. Why he had not done this before, Harman-Karman could fathom; what he did know, however, was that there was now way he could allow him to do it now.

Turning all ice again, time slowed for him, and his aim was certain. Light pressure on the trigger, then resistance, then a deep breath, begin to let it out, slow pressure through the trigger resistance and the tall man sank to the ground, dropping the cell phone which bounced once on the bricked path, then clattered down the stairs to the basement door.

The two wounded men must have heard, they were not fifteen feet away. But neither of them turned, each too stunned at seeing what must have been their leader slump to the ground for no apparent reason. Except he was missing one eye, replaced with dark, gushing now.

This they noticed, and they—virtually in unison, not missed on Harman-Karman—spun around. And spotted him.

This was a dilemma. Does he kill these two men as well? Did they have cell phones? Who didn’t these days? The ice had left his system, at least for the moment, and he felt no compulsion (it’s so easy to make up one’s mind about compulsions—they come with the mind ready-made up for you) to kill them or harm them further. But what if? What if they did have cell phones and within minutes another couple of cars would appear?

[*:*]

The sudden sound of engines approaching from the north rendered the worry moot. Angry engines, large cars. Reinforcements, but whose? They parked in front of the house, he could see the tip of the first car, black and sinister, like a jaw.

He could see none of the second. The two men had a better view and then said something in their language which sounded like relief and this answered Harman-Karman’s question. Someone had called.

This brought the ice back into his veins, the ice of knowing exactly what to do. Killing these two would serve no purpose now, but getting farther out of sight would, and as quickly as he could he rose, then sprinted to the back of a rather lush yard, scaled the tall fence that separated this property from that on Milan Avenue. Landed on more grass, belonging to another mansion size house.

Much safer here. Trees. Oaks all of them. He climbed the one nearest to the fence, where he reached a good view of Alwyn Moore’s back yard.

Waiting now. Catching his breath. Realizing that he had just killed three men. Four. He had killed four men. With good reason, yes. And Seasonally, yes. But four nonetheless. He shuddered with this fresh knowledge where he crouched, wedged in between a thick rising branch and the rough trunk of what he now noticed—the prickly leaves gave it away—as a Coast Live Oak. None to happy to have him there, it seemed, but resigned to his presence for the moment.

There were no lights anywhere in Alwyn’s house that he could see, but he thought he noticed shadows move by the windows. Did they know what was coming? Did they know the Arrak cavalry had arrived?

He counted eight. Eight additional carriers of more foreign tongues. They assembled on the south side of the house, by where he had just been, talking in urgently hushed voices with the two injured men. Two of the new arrivals then helped their wounded comrades back to the cars and out of harms way. An engine sprung to life and one of the newly arrived cars pulled out and away. Harman-Karman spotted four shapes in it as it sped off, leaving six. Six men on a salvage mission. Professionals all, Harman-Karman had no doubt about that.

The next shot came from an upper window. Fired at what must have been a nearly impossible angle, it was nonetheless fired very accurately and found its mark: one of the six went down, as if all air suddenly simply left him.

A heap.

The remaining faces turned toward the sound then the little crowd scattered with such efficiency that within a breath or two Harman-Karman had trouble locating even a one. And the one he saw hugged the very same strip of lawn that he himself had clung to not five minutes ago.

All was very silent, but war had been declared, you could tell by the tension, as if the air, the trees, the hedges all knew, and now held their collective breath: a tense, war-filled silence.

[*:*]

Shattered by a loud voice. It took a while for Harman-Karman to realize it came from a bullhorn. That electrical edge to the voice. Nothing if not prepared, these people. Must have been heard for blocks, he thought, but that was relative to his own hearing, which was peaked now (and hurting a little from the onslaught of the accented voice): “We want the woman. That’s all we want. The woman.”

No answer from the house.

“Send the woman out and we will not attack.” The voice was coming from the front of the house. Harman-Karman could not see the speaker.

There was still no answer from the house.

“We will give you five minutes. Five minutes. Or we will fetch her.”

Odd use of “fetch,” thought Harman-Karman. Though grammatically correct. This was English the classroom way.

The response from the house—a burst of rapid fire—must, by the brief shrieks, have taken down at least a couple. They must be wearing night goggles, he thought.

There had been two short screams, more like sighs. Surely that meant. Which would make it four men remaining. Six minus two. Harman-Karman knew that he had to keep this math straight, or he would not see daylight. Makes four. Though there was no way Harman-Karman could be absolutely sure. The only one he could see remained the prone black figure the other side of the low hedge, and he was staying put, looking about from his low vantage point, trying, like Harman-Karman to assess damage.

This response apparently voided the five minute grace period, for the next move followed almost immediately, and it was not pretty.

Harman-Karman caught the movement. An arm, a flicker in the air, a grenade hit the French doors and exploded on impact. The flash revealed the full outline of the thrower, and ice returned to Harman-Karman’s veins. They would, he realized, make good on their promise to “fetch” Alwyn Moore, and that he could not condone. Spectator was not an option.

He steadied himself against the Oak’s trunk and took aim: carefully, deep breath, slow exhale, and “thwe” the silencer coughed and within a heart beat the grenade-thrower began his fall: deflated.

Makes three.

Harman-Karman shifted his aim to the prone figure by the hedge and fired. Twice to make sure.

Makes two.

Suddenly bark exploded into a fine rain by his right ear. Two inches way. Someone had spotted him. At this point the Oak had had just about enough of him and dropped him to the ground—later, Harman-Karman could never remember actually jumping out of the tree, his sensation was then, and would remain, being dropped, unceremoniously: as in gotten rid of.

He rolled once, gained his feet. Another shot hit the Oak that had just dropped him, and hit the very spot where he had been wedged, would in fact have killed him.

(Had the Oak saved him? This was one of the questions Harman-Karman came to ask in earnest off-Season, and upon ampler reflection; but the embryo of it surfaced at this very moment).

He darted to the right and behind another tree. Caught his breath. Adjusted his pack. Checked his Barka, and silencer, all in place.

The front room or garden room or whatever it was that the French doors opened into was burning now, and images of the convent sprang to mind. These were people who had killed two hundred some nuns. They were serious. And it suddenly felt just right that he had killed, several—no new number sprung to mind—of them.

A shadow crossed the reddish glow of fire, but too quickly for Harman-Karman to fire again. Next, with a single crack, a large man fell out of a second story window, very Hollywood like, shot from the ground, toppling over in the air before hitting the veranda deck, back first, with a loud thump, stone dead, blood making its way out of a small hole in his forehead. Good shot that. Harman-Karman looked around for the shooter. Could see none.

A second explosion, this one from the other side of the house, and he could see another shadow move. He aimed and fired. Caught him in the shoulder, but not well enough to stop him from turning round and open fire in his direction with a semi-automatic. Harman-Karman hit the ground at seeing the barrel making its half-circle toward him, and heard the staccato of irritated bullets just above where he now lay. Rolled to his left, and rolled again, and again, away, away.

He could see nothing from there. Behind a low wooden door. No gaps here. Crouched again, slipped farther to his left, to the very corner of the yard. They knew now. They know he was there. So, nothing rash. Rash would get him killed. Time to gather one’s wits.

Not that there was much time for that. Two grenades had hit the house, and it would soon be truly on fire. His guess was that both Alwyn, and her mom, if she, too, was in the house, were in the basement, which might or might not be fire-proof.

Were they to retriever her, the attackers would have to make it into the house before it truly caught fire. Or—he shuddered—did they mean to fry her alive? It was in keeping with their convent M.O.—an unpleasant thought.

He had a better view from here. The fire was gaining hold. One of the remaining two guards suddenly charged through the garden room from inside the house and jumped through flames and out onto the back lawn, semi drawn. He hit the ground, rolling, rolling out of view.

Harman-Karman crept along the tall fence separating the properties, and found a gate. Slipped through it and eased his way to the right, back toward the low hedge and Alwyn’s house. From here he could make out the man he had shot from the tree, lying where he himself had lain only recently. He crawled toward him, reached him, and surveyed things from there, through the cover of the hedge.

He spotted the guard, shielded now by the trunk of one of Alwyn’s oaks. Standing very still.

The new sound caught him before he saw anything. Latches, heavy with iron or steel and age. Working back and forth and not so very successfully. But where? Harman-Karman concentrated. There it was again. Down the side stairs, the other side of the basement side door. Coming out.

He hoped he was the only one hearing this. For a moment he stopped breathing and only listened, very focused now. Yes, definitely. Someone was working stiff latches the other side of a thick door. Alwyn, or her mom. Or the remaining guard.

Working the door harder now, actually swearing (yes, that was a man swearing, would have to be the remaining guard, unless—well he had no reason to suppose that there were no other people in the basement, some of whom could be male, of course), swearing and working, working, and there, finally, succeeding. The heavy door swung open on protesting hinges. That was loud enough to catch anyone’s attention, but apparently didn’t.

The first thing Harman-Karman saw was the top of a blond head. A large, blond, alert head. The remaining guard then. A careful peeking above the ledge face, looking around, checking the coast. Taking way too much time checking the coast, and that cost him his life.

Harman-Karman could only sense that the shot came from somewhere to his right. Not far from where the last guard stood. A good shot. Smack in the middle of blond forehead, and down he went, tumbling, laboriously, down a few steps, to rest against concrete. Someone screamed. Did not sound like Alwyn, probably her mother. Harman-Karman was waiting for a door to slam shut, but it did not. A dead guard in the way, was his conclusion. A much too-heavy-to-move dead guard.

Semiautomatic fire. The guard by the tree must have spotted the shooter and fired wildly in his direction. Not finding a target. No moans or shrieks. They were dealing with a professional, not remaining, even for an instant, in a place from which you have fired.

Flames. Louder now.

All quiet again, only flames.

Someone eased his way around the corner, favoring his shoulder. The man Harman-Karman had hit earlier. He stood still now, listening for his partner. Had he gone down with the machine gun fire? And where he stood: a still, good target. Harman-Karman picked him off with a well placed shot in the eye. The dead man fell with a rustle, as if into a pile of leaves; into a small bush by the side of the house, Harman-Karman confirmed.

The quiet returned. Only flames. Only the flames. He could hear sirens far off, but they seemed not to be headed this way. There were other fires, other emergencies. This was the Season.

Here, nothing moved. No one moved. Harman-Karman tried to make out the remaining guard again, but could no longer spot him.

Prone now, still beside the dead Arrak man, Harman-Karman, too, lay as still as he could, his blood cold and watchful.

 

:: 66 ::

 

“what’s he doing now?” the Juniper wanted to know.

The Canary Island Pine didn’t answer, and didn’t answer.

“What’s he doing now?” she asked again, peeved. Impatient for news.

The tall pine, intent on his observations, either didn’t hear or outright ignored her.

“Tell us.” Louder.

“Yes, please,” said Harry’s Pine. Not very loudly, nor impatiently. But with weight, pine to pine.

“He’s very still.”

“Hurt?” wondered the Chinese Elm.

“No. Just confused. Well, not confused either. Concerned. Concentrating. Looking. He is still cold. Very cold.”

“From killing,” said the Juniper.

“Yes,” said the tall pine.

“He had no choice,” said the Elm.

“He didn’t have to go,” said the Juniper.

“They don’t have all that much voice in the matter,” said Harry’s Pine.

“Still, he could have taken his burden elsewhere. Where he wouldn’t have to kill.” The Juniper was not happy with Harman-Karman.

“That face,” said the Elm. “He had no choice.”

“He could have found another face.”

“In this condition,” said Harry’s Pine. “Once a heart latches on to a face, it cannot let go.”

“Is that a fact?” said the Juniper, who did not like being contradicted in any way. It wasn’t really a question.

“I’m afraid it is,” said Harry’s Pine.

“Is that a fact,” she said again. This time definitely not a question.

“Yes it is,” said the tall pine.

“Yes, it is,” said the elm.

“No one asked you,” said the Juniper. Then to the tall pine, “What’s he doing now?”

“Still lying prone, looking, listening. Very cold. He’s ready to kill again if needed.”

“Will he find her,” the Juniper wants to know.

“He thinks so.”

She stirs, rustles, as if to shake a darkness. “He’s gone mad.”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” agreed Harry’s Pine.

“And there’s nothing we can do?” asked the Elm.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“You can’t talk to him?” asked the Juniper.

“No,” said Harry’s Pine. “He won’t hear me.”

“Why?”

“He doesn’t know he can hear us.”

“How would he know?”

“He would have to hear us.”

“But if he can’t until he knows?” she said.

“That is the problem, isn’t it?” said Harry’s Pine.

“Once they hear, they know,” said the tall pine. “Those who lived here before, years ago now, they at least were not convinced that they couldn’t hear.”

“What does that even mean?” asked the Juniper.

“It means that there were times they thought they could hear me. They didn’t rule it out.”

“But they didn’t know?”

“No, they didn’t know.”

“So they didn’t hear.”

“Not for certain, no.”

“Does your man hear?” asked the Juniper of Harry’s Pine.

“Not yet,” he answered.

“You sound like you expect him to,” said his taller cousin.

“I do.”

“Really?” said the elm.

“He knows, but does not yet know he knows.”

“That makes no sense either,” said the Juniper.

“Perhaps not. But it is nonetheless true.”

“What’s the difference between he doesn’t know and he knows but doesn’t know that he knows?” she wanted to know. And right away at that.

Trees don’t sigh per se. They just shiver ever so slightly. It’s a faint ripple from the topmost branch all the way through to the deepest roots. Harry’s Pine sighed in just that way. It’s not a sigh of impatience, or of sadness, or of anything, as much as simple—though perhaps unwilling—acceptance that this is how things—and others—are, just now.

And then he said, “Perhaps it would be better to say that he knows, and almost knows he knows. He knows. That is, this knowing is present and he senses this presence, like your upper branches sense your roots, although this presence has yet not risen all the way.”

“All my branches sense my roots,” said the Juniper, sounding slightly offended.

“Of course they do. Now. But there was a time, wasn’t there, when they did not.”

And, since trees are truthful, and since the Juniper was a tree, she had to admit that yes, there was a time when her branches, young and free and swaying in air, had no idea, didn’t care one iota for, could not sense, that roots existed. And that she, in fact, had some.

“Do you remember when you first noticed your roots?” asked Harry’s Pine.

The Juniper fell silent for some little time, then said, “I see what you mean.”

“Harry has yet to discover that he has roots.”

“I see,” she said again.

“I don’t see,” said the elm.

“You probably don’t have any roots,” said the Juniper.

“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” said Harry’s Pine.

“Sorry,” said the Juniper, and to her surprise meant it. “And now?” she said, to their observer.

“He remains very still. He is very cold.” Then the tall pine fell quiet.

“And now?” the Juniper wanted to know after only two moments of silence.

 

:: 67 ::

 

And now something moved.

Harman-Karman froze and absorbed harder; at first unsure whether what had moved had moved by sight or by hearing.

There it was again. By his hearing: a sound with purpose. A shifting something heavy at the bottom of the short set of stairs leading down to the basement. With effort. That was the only motion.

And again. Followed by the soft curse of a well-known voice. It belonged to Alwyn Moore; trying to shift the dead guard, Harman-Karman was certain of that now. Was she going to surface? By the guard’s attempt to do so it may not be an inspired idea.

Harman-Karman surprised himself by moving, and quickly at that.

Across the low hedge in one leap and over to the stairway in another. Three, four, five, bullets carved speedy tunnels in the air behind him. Was it the damn guard shooting? Or the remaining Arrak man? He had no way of telling. He landed on the third step down, slipped on blood, and slid into a stunned Alwyn Moore.

“What the . . .?”

Fell into her, pushing her back into the basement. Harman-Karman, now tripping over the dead guard and losing what little balance he had retained, followed her, first flailing, then falling into the dark room.

“Who the . . .?”

He lay still for a breath or two, left knee suddenly on fire. He stretched his leg. It worked. A bruise then. Stretched it again: nothing twisted or broken. He collected himself, sat up, seeing better now, eyes adjusting to the musty darkness, softened by a door at the far end of that room, or was it a corridor, where a light shone, and from where he could hear someone moaning.

Alwyn Moore came alive. She had not fallen. She was training a gun on him.

“Who the fuck are you?” she wanted to know.

“Not Arrak,” he had the presence of mind to answer immediately. “And please, aim that thing somewhere else.”

“Who are you?”

“Harman-Karman.”

Harman-Karman?”

“Yes.”

“Harman-Karman what?”

“Selby.”

“Harman-Karman Selby?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who are you?” She asked again. “Who the hell is Harman-Karman Selby?”

Quite a question.

“A fan,” was the best he managed. The stupidity of which stung him.

“Oh, fuck,” she said. “That’s all I need.”

“Look,” said Harman-Karman, stupid or not. “Your house is burning.”

“I know.”

“Is that your mother?” he asked, looking toward the open door at the far end of the room, leading to a corridor of sorts.

His concern seemed to mollify her somewhat. She did lower the gun, but did not relax her arm beyond that. Harman-Karman, still very cold and focused knew that a wrong move would bring it right up and that her finger would not hesitate to pull the trigger.

“Yes,” she said.

“How’s she holding up?”

“What do you think?” she said. “How would she hold up? With her house on fire and everybody shooting at each other in her back yard.”

“One way of putting it,” said Harman-Karman at which he actually detected the beginning of a mile. So, she did have a sense of humor. He knew it. Then he said. “We have got to get out of here.”

“I know.”

Then Harman-Karman heard footsteps; approaching the basement stairs, and trying to do so as quietly as possible. Whomever this was reached the stairs and swore at what he saw. The guard then, spotting his colleague. He took a first step down for a closer look.

Harman-Karman held up his hand, signaling for Alwyn Moore to stay quiet, please, someone’s coming. Now she could hear him too, and her face turned in the direction of the open basement door, unclosable for the dead guard.

Another step down, slow, slow, and another. Then all the way down, and a head, peering into the darkness, not seeing much. And other steps now, running, approaching fast. Ah, shit. The guard, not with Harman-Karman’s hearing, finally heard too and his head spun around just in time to get shot. Stunned, the face registered the weapon, the impact, the end.

He toppled backwards, hit his head, dead by now, and already bleeding out of two holes, on the concrete wall, then slumped down on top of his dead mate.

Alwyn Moore drew breath to scream, but nothing emerged. She tried again, but her throat no longer functioned. Neither did the rest of her. She could not move, could not look away. Could not speak.

“What was that Alwyn?” The voice from the corridor. A scared, worried, sick, weak, voice. “Have they come?”

Harman-Karman had no idea who “they” might be. The cavalry?

“Has who come?” he said to Alwyn.

She looked at him as if she had never seen him before, as if trying to relate him to the dead persons one on top of the other not ten feet away.

“Are you expecting reinforcements?” Harman-Karman asked.

“Who are you talking to Alwyn?” asked the voice from the doorway. “Is there someone there with you?”

She finally found her voice. “A man,” she said. “A man I don’t know.” And to Harman-Karman, “I have no idea.”

“Don’t let him in,” said her mother, still only a voice to Harman-Karman.

“He’s already in, Mom,” she said.

Her mom didn’t answer.

“You are not with them?” she looked at Harman-Karman, trying to ignore the dead men. An effort.

“Arrak?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s some thing,” she said, and Harman-Karman could hear something of the normal, unshocked Alwyn Moore returning.

“You’ve got to get out of here,” he said.

“My thought exactly.”

“Is you mother ill?”

“Hysterical,” she answered, as if that explained everything.

“Can she move?”

“Oh yes. She can move all right.”

Movement again. Steps, soft and stealthy, one, then the other, closer and closer to the top of the stairs. Harman-Karman held up his hand for Alwyn Moore to be quiet. She froze again, knowing now that his hearing was reliable, expecting the worst by the looks of her.

“Who is he?” wanted the voice from the doorway to know.

Neither answered.

Another soft step reaching, and another, very slowly, deliberately, onto the first step down, then the next, then a pause, then the next.

Harman-Karman moved toward the door, careful to keep in shadow, reached the wall to the left of the opening, pressed against it and sidled toward the door. Could see stairs, could see feet. Black boots, fatigues, that now froze, stock still, as if they too were listening. And then Harman-Karman simply knew: this man had his hearing, had heard him approach the door, could hear him lean against the wall, could hear him breathe, could hear his heart, racing now, same as Harman-Karman could hear his breath, his heart doing the not racing of a seasoned professional.

There would be no surprising this man.

As if to oblige with a confirmation the still feet disappeared, not so softly but very swiftly up the stairs, back onto dirt, onto grass and then still again, hiding now in aural shadow.

“Who is he? Why don’t you answer me, Alwyn?”

Harman-Karman didn’t even bother to ask Alwyn Moore to shut her mother the fuck up. What did it matter who he was? The woman was making far too much noise. Not that it mattered either.

There was still one to go, and he had probably called for reinforcement already. They did not have much time, that was the awful bottom line. Against a marksman that could almost hear him think.

Jesus.

Harman-Karman pulled back from the wall and into the room. Alwyn Moore was pulling back too, toward the open door, the light, her hysterical mother.

“He’s gone?” she asked.

“For the moment.”

“Arrak?”

“Definitely.”

“How many?” she asked.

“Just him,” said Harman-Karman, “but I’m sure he’s called for others.”

She nodded.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Her mother screamed her name several times.

“Is there another way out of here?” he asked.

“No,” she answered, knowing what he meant.

“No other way?” he said again, as if asking twice would change things.

“No,” she said again. “We can’t go upstairs. It’s on fire.”

He was still cold, still running chilled blood through his heart, and he noticed—first without amazement, then with—that he, for the moment, in this stillness, in this chill, was free of the Storm. Alwyn Moore, the object of his desire, the adopted reason for his hunting, living, life, only feet away, did not race his heart, did not fuel his erection—which, and this was amazing, was gone, did not overwhelm him with need.

The stillness in which he found himself shielded him from the Storm, crystallized everything, and made him say, just to make absolutely sure, for the answer to this question was crucial: “There are no other ways out? No windows? No cellar doors? No vents? Nothing?”

“No. This is the only way out now,” she said, looking over at the door.

Sitting ducks was the unpleasant phrase that came to Harman-Karman’s mind. Even if there was now only the one Arrak man left, getting out of the basement alive, over the two dead guards and up the stairs, with Alwyn Moore and her hysterical mother be nearly, if not completely impossible considering the man’s hearing and amply demonstrated marksmanship.

Then again, what options were there? Others would arrive soon, that much was a certainty, and when they did, with no guards still alive that he could figure, they, to put it bluntly, were as good as dead.

And then he heard it, clearly, the beeping tones of someone punching in numbers on a cell phone, probably just around the front of the house, and that was the opening, the one opening they actually had.

He ran to the door, leaped over the two dead guards and scaled the stairs in three quick steps. Pressed himself against the wall (warm, though not burning yet) and now heard the voice of the caller. Hoarse, urgent, and—a good sign—afraid. Fear bleeds through in any language

Harman-Karman. He raised his gun, walked to the edge of the house, turned, faced the startled Arrak man, cell phone still to his hear, semi-automatic slumped and pointing to the ground. And fired. Twice.

Though the last shot never happened—number sixteen—number fifteen did the job. Harman-Karman’s looked at the dead man, still clutching the cell phone, a small voice now making its way out of it, demanding, he assumed, to know what was going on.

Harman-Karman turned and ran down the stairs, again slipped on blood, stepped on one of the guards but landed inside the basement still on his feet. Spotted Alwyn Moore after a second of adjusting to the new darkness. “Get you mother,” he said. “Now.” And when she did nothing of the sort for a fraction of a second, he repeated, almost screamed, “Now.”

To her credit, Alwyn Moore did not question him, did not take offense, but hearing the urgency in his voice, ran toward the lit door, and within seconds returned with a woman that was smaller than her voice. Saying “What, what, what?” and resisting her daughter’s pulling her. “Mrs. Moore,” said Harman-Karman.

The old woman looked at him, unsure, scared.

“Mrs. Moore.”

“Yes,” finally.

“We have to get out of here, now.”

With that he took her arm and virtually lifted the woman out the door and over the guards and placed her on the third step up, beyond the slippery blood. “Come on,” he sad to her daughter, just behind him.

The mother remained where Harman-Karman had place her. “Move,” he yelled at her. “Now.” This was a woman who didn’t like being bossed around, and Harman-Karman was amazed to notice that she’d object, and actually refuse to move, even in a situation like this. Shook his head, grabbed her around the waist and carried her up the steps. Alwyn Moore followed immediately behind.

“We have to get away from here.”

Alwyn Moore nodded that she understood. Her mother frowned and was very displeased at having been manhandled by a stranger. Even so, he grabbed her right arm, and as if on cue her daughter took her left, and quickly they steered her toward the streets and escape.

The sound that caught Harman-Karman’s ear returned all the ice to his blood. The last Arrak man was still alive, and the sound he heard was his weapon being raised, with effort, with whatever strength was left in him, the final effort.

“Down!” he yelled to the two women, and tried to drag the mother with him as he hit the dirt. Alwyn Moore hit the ground at about the same rate as Harman-Karman, but her mother had had just about enough of this badly behaved bossy nobody stranger, and would not drop on command. Would do nothing of the sort, would do it in her own good time. And that was the last hesitation she’d ever manage.

The dying Arrak man only managed four or five rounds. Then, whether he ran out of ammunition or out of life, the shooting stopped. But not before two or three of his brief and final salvo had hit Mrs. Moore, and killed her standing up. She slumped into a small pile between them, and at first Alwyn Moore had no idea. “Good,” she said to her mom. “That wasn’t so damn hard now, was it?”

But Harman-Karman knew. He had heard the soft thud-thuds as the bullets hit the older woman, and had heard the gasp, that rattle of wind in lungs which is air leaving for the last time. He knew the woman was dead, and saw that Alwyn Moore had no idea.

“Is he dead?” she asked. Referring to the Arrak man.

“I believe so,” said Harman-Karman, then looked back toward the house, saw the slumped man, his weapon dropped to his right. “Yes,” he said, confirming it.

“Okay mom, we’ve got to get a move on,” she said to the dead woman.

“Miss Moore,” he said.

“Mom,” she said. “Mom. Come on, get with it.”

“Miss Moore,” he said, and the mixture of urgency and regret in his voice finally caught her ear and she looked up at him, and then actually looked at her mom, black spreading from three wounds, warm and glistening in the angry light of the fire, now gaining a final hold on the front of the house as well.

“Mom!” she screamed this time, and seized her head, forced her to face her, screamed again, “Mom! Look at me. Look at me, damn it!” But her mom would not comply. Stayed dead, and that very famous face looked up from her mother’s and found Harman-Karman’s, pleading for whatever it was that he had to do to make things right.

He could only shake his head, as if to himself, slowly. There’s nothing we can do.

She looked back down at her mom, and looked, and looked.

“Miss Moore,” he said. “We have to leave now.”

She finally looked back up. “We can’t leave her.” It was said like a question.

“We don’t have a choice. We have to. More Arrak people will arrive any minute.” And having said that Harman-Karman heard engines and tires not three blocks away, coming closer. “We have about fifteen seconds,” he said, and this with the same urgent finality that Alwyn Moore had already recognized as reliable. Harman-Karman reached over and grasped her arm. Stood up, with her. Ran. She followed.

Instead of heading for the street, however, where cars would soon appear, he raced for the low hedge to the left, and clear it in one leap. Alwyn Moore followed, stumbled, but he caught her.

Once on the other side they ran around the back of that house and for the next hedge, which Harman-Karman cleared too in a leap. Alwyn Moore, however, had trouble with it, too wide. Harman-Karman, again, helped her.

The protesting tires now reached the top of Avon place, loudly enough for Alwyn Moore to hear them as well as they ran for the back of this new, surprisingly large, back yard and toward the house facing Milan Avenue, separated from the expansive lawn only by a low picket fence, same style as the ones he had already negotiated a few times up the street. He spotted a gate, and they used it; then ran around the side of the house. It was well lit but there were no people in the windows that Harman-Karman could see.

Trees here. He stepped close to one of the wide trunks and indicated for Alwyn Moore to follow suit, masking themselves with the tree’s dark and overhanging shadow. Who knows, there might be yet other Arrak cars, circling the block by now, looking for them. He thought this unlikely, but everything so far had been unlikely, and it had all happened, so.

After they had both caught their breaths, Harman-Karman finally found the presence of mind to say, “I’m sorry,” and really mean it. “About your mom.”

She looked up at him through the dim light, as if trying to make her mind up about something; this something then descending on a side in his favor, she said, “Thank you.”

Sirens now, far off. Then closer. Then closer still. Police or fire engines, he wondered.

“Fire engines,” said Alwyn Moore, as if she had heard his question.

 

:: 68 ::

 

“And what now?” asked the Juniper. “What are they doing now?”

“They’re waiting. Listening and waiting. Under a Camphor Tree, by the looks of it.”

“A Camphor Tree?” said the Camphor Tree two houses down.

“It is not polite to listen in on conversations,” said the Juniper to this new intruder.

“Did you say under a Camphor Tree?” said the Camphor Tree as if the Juniper hadn’t said a thing.

“Yes,” said the Canary Island Pine.

“Good tree to be hiding under,” said the Camphor.

“As good as any,” said the Juniper.

“He is fine?” wondered Harry’s Pine.

“So far as I can tell,” said his Canary Island cousin.

“And the woman?”

“Shaken, and numb.”

“Her mother,” said Harry’s Pine.

“Yes.”

“He’s killed so many of his own,” said the Elm, as if surfacing, gravely troubled by this fact, which he was.

“He couldn’t help it,” said the Juniper, coming to Harman-Karman’s defense. Not that the Elm was accusing him particularly. Just concerned.

“I know,” he said.

“They go crazy,” she explained.

“I know,” he said. Too concerned about Harman-Karman to mind the unnecessary and somewhat pointed explanation.

“They can’t help themselves once the Season arrives,” she amplified for his benefit.

This he did mind. “I know,” he said.

“It will hurt him,” said Harry’s Pine. “Once the Season’s over and he realizes the magnitude of so much death.”

“She’s right though,” said the Canary Island Pine. “He did not have much choice. It was kill or be killed.”

“Even so,” said Harry’s Pine. “It will catch up with him, and it will hurt.”

“So many,” said the Elm, almost in wonder.

“They’re moving again,” said the Canary Island Pine. “Running this way, I would say.”

“And the cars? Do they know?” asked the Juniper.

“Cars don’t know,” said the Elm.

“The people in the cars.”

“I can’t tell,” said the Canary Island Pine. “He is running. He can hear the people from the cars shouting things at each other. But he also hears the fire engines now, they’ve arrived at the burning house, and they’ve begun to pour water on the flames.”

“Are they safe?” wondered the Elm.

“I can’t tell. He’s very worried. They are both running hard, and yes, definitely in this direction.”

“Back to here?” said the Juniper.

“Would be my guess, yes.”

“To hide,” said the Elm.

“Of course, to hide,” said the Juniper.

“You’re lucky,” said the Camphor Tree, apropos of nothing.

“What do you mean?” said the Juniper.

“Excitement,” said the Camphor. “Things happening with your people. Mine. Oh, they should be in a geriatric ward somewhere. They just flush a little, that’s it. Nothing else.”

“Perhaps you’re the lucky one,” said Harry’s Pine, and not necessarily kindly.

“That’s all they do,” said the Camphor, as if he had already given a full description. “Sitting, watching their television, commenting back and forth.”

“Just like us then,” said Harry’s Pine.

This brought an odd silence among the trees, none of them certain whether he had just made a caustic joke or a delivered a scathing comment on their activity. Nor did he bother to explain.

“I don’t know about that,” muttered the Juniper finally.

“Still running,” said the Canary Island Pine.

 

:: 69 ::

 

They were running.

Harman-Karman, who did take care of himself reasonably well, and who was in what would pass as good shape, did fine at this pace, but Alwyn Moore, not as exercise-minded, was wearing down, and fast.

“We’ve got to,” she managed. But when he neither answered nor stopped, she said no more, and used what little lung capacity remained for running. Two more lawns, a couple of more fences, each one harder and harder to cross. Her lungs aching, burning, her legs weak, liquidy by now. Shaking.

“We’ve got to,” she tried again. He turned and looked at her, but without really slowing down.

“I’ve got to,” she said. And stopped. Leaning over, her hands on her knees. Breathing quickly and hard. Head handing down. Then looking back up at Harman-Karman, the perspiration on her forehead glistening with reflected streetlight.

“We don’t have too far now,” he said.

“I have to rest,” she said.

He looked around. “Okay,” he said. “Over here,” and moved over to a towering oak, lots of shadow. She slowly made her way over to where he stood. Then slumped down, back against the trunk. Working her lungs hard still.

“I think we’re okay,” he said, “but you can’t be sure.”

She didn’t answer.

“They were really serious about getting to you,” he said.

She nodded.

“I’m sorry about your mom,” he said again.

She looked up at him, but said nothing. As the icy stillness that had served him well over the last, what? hour?, quietly seemed to remove itself—as if evaporating into the leafy overhang—Harman-Karman found her face incredibly beautiful; so gently carved in the half shadow half light of mercury streetlamps and overhanging branches.

His erection—returning, now, as if making up for lost time—spoke a different, cruder language, but agreed wholeheartedly.

He looked around, to put his attention elsewhere, tried to read the name on the street sign to his far right; made it out: Elliot Drive. He got his makeshift street map out, and confirmed: “We don’t have far now.”

A car, not a black one, drove up South Oak Knoll Avenue, but too slowly for comfort. As if scouting the area, looking for someone. Harman-Karman slid down the trunk to sit beside Alwyn Moore, shoulders touching, his jolted by the contact. She did not seem to react at all, which did not go unnoticed. Obviously, her mind elsewhere, you wouldn’t expect.

He slowly rose again, just in time to see the car, the same car he was pretty sure of that—he would have to pay better attention, damn it—come down Oak Knoll, at the same slow speed, in the same suspect manner. He slid back down, slowly as not to draw attention, even though he was pretty sure he could not be seen from the car.

Some of the icy stillness returned, “I think that’s them.”

Again, she said nothing, only looked at him. “We’d better stay here for a while,” he added.

She nodded that she had hear and understood.

“You were close?” he asked after a while.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, and no. We were close, then not so. But we were finding each other again.” She hesitated, as if deciding whether to tell him, or whether to speak at all. Then went on. “I guess I was finding her again, I don’t think she ever lost me. She didn’t seem like she had. She called every Friday. Nine o’clock. Every Friday. Even when I wouldn’t speak to her. Every Friday. For years. Messages. In the end I made sure I was home to take the calls. That’s how she reeled me in.” Then stopped.

“Reeled you in?” said Harman-Karman.

“That’s how it felt at the time. I saw myself an escaped fish or something, that she was casting for, every Friday at nine o’clock. Amazing tenacity.”

Harman-Karman felt himself a little out of his depth here. This was not his strong suite, heart-to-hearts. But he wanted to know. “You had a falling out?”

She was looking down at her feet, still breathing harder than normal. “Not per se. Well, yes, you might call it that. She had plans for me, that differed from mine.”

“Differed from your own plans for you?” he asked, knowing with some portion of his awareness that he did not normally employ, that he was asking the right question. It earned him a quick glance from her.

“Precisely. I was to be a singer, or a pianist cum singer, I was never certain what her precise image was, how she saw me. I don’t think it really mattered to her so much, as long as I was in the spotlight.”

“Well, you certainly made it as far as the lights go.”

“That I did.” Then, after a brief pause. “She was very happy about that. As if her plans had worked out in the end, after all.”

“You still play?”

“The piano?”

“Yes.”

“On occasion.”

“And you sing.”

“Even less frequently.”

“No plans then,” he said, “in that direction?”

“Heavens no.” She didn’t laugh precisely, a chuckle perhaps, at some personal view of things.

“Are you, involved?”

Harman-Karman could literally have shot himself for that. This was not a question he had meant to ask, it was more like an erect wondering which he had not managed to quash in time. And it earned him a curious, not very friendly glance.

“I’m not sure that’s any of your business. Sir.”

“No, I’m sorry. Of course not.”

“But as it happens,” she added, “no.”

“No time for that, huh?”

“Something like that.”

“It happens,” he said, as if he knew what he was talking about.

“What happens?”

Harman-Karman realized—and realized that she should have known—that this woman had no problems posing questions. “You know, work takes over, becomes everything.”

“Especially when you’re a successful black woman?”

That had a bite to it. “That is not what I meant.” And that was the truth.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I do get that, a lot.”

“In a way, I guess I do too,” he said.

“And what do you do, Mister Selby?”

“Harman-Karman, for crying out loud.”

“Harman-Karman,” she said. “And, Alwyn,” she added, and extended a quite formal hand, which he took and shook.

“Alwyn,” he said. “Nice name.”

“Harman-Karman,” she said. “Odd name.”

“I know.” Then, added. “Advertising.”

She glanced at him again. Nodded. But did not comment further.

“So, what do you do, I mean, what do you like doing, you know, when you’re not working?” He, on the other hand, did have problems posing questions, apparently. Then he added quickly, “Or does your work indeed take up all your time?”

“Indeed,” she said, as if tasting it. Not to ridicule, just to taste.

“Indeed,” he said, which he had intended to follow with something else, which now escaped him utterly.

“Work does takes up most of it, to be sure,” she said. “But what time I can wrestle free, I like to spend writing.”

“Fiction?”

“Yes.”

“Stories?” He looked at her, her soft and shadowy profile, genuinely interested.

“Yes. Short stories. And novels. I start novels.”

He didn’t answer for so long, that she repeated her reply.

“I’ve dabbled,” he finally said, not sure why. He made it sound like an admission, which it was. It was not a thing he told others about, as a rule. Harry, yes, but he was probably the only one who knew that he harbored literary ambitions, if you could call them that. Dreams most likely the better word.

“Seriously?” she wondered.

“Dabble seriously?” he asked.

“I know. Oxymoron,” she said, and he could feel, more than see, that she smiled as she said it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how serious you can get—or can allow yourself to get—about something so nebulous.” Again, he surprised himself. Both that he actually managed to phrase this concern of his—and it was a concern, had always been a concern down there beneath it all, and this: the way he had just put it, was precisely the concern; and also that he had let those words escape, and told her. All very odd.

“That’s pretty much up to you, isn’t it?” she said.

“Is it?” he said.

“Why, yes.” She turned to face him. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Good question. “For one,” he begun. “No one makes any money at it nowadays.”

“So?”

“For two,” he paused. “For two, you need readers.”

“True.”

“Or do you?” He looked up through the thick foliage of the oak, and was surprised to spot a star through that near black canopy. “I’ve kept a journal for most of my life,” he said, as much to the oak and the star as to Alwyn Moore. “No one’s ever read it, but me. And to be honest, I don’t even read what I have written very often. But I sure enjoy the writing.”

“I think you do,” she said. “I mean, I think you need readers. If you have something to tell, I think you need someone to tell it to, or it’s not a telling.” Then she fell silent, emphatically so, as if struck by something. Her mother, Harman-Karman thought. Her mother.

He did the right thing again, he felt, by not saying anything. By shutting up. By in a way acknowledging her silence, her grief. Or was it too early to grieve? Had it really sunk in yet? How could it have, so soon? Only minutes. He rose to a half crouch to get another view of the street. Other cars, two of them, neither of which seemed to look for people hidden beneath oaks.

But he spotted another type of bad news: a lone hunter, on the other side of Oak Knoll. Scenting, looking around, testing the air again, and suddenly Harman-Karman realized that Alwyn Moore, of course, was emanating, spreading scent around. And strongly at that.

And this is what the man across the street had caught, for now he turned and turned, looking for the source, and now looked in their direction, and stepped off the curb to cross the street. At this Harman-Karman rose full length, and walked to over to the edge of the lawn facing Oak Knoll, where he stepped into plain view, gun suddenly and reflexively in hand—he wasn’t even aware of having fished it out. The hunter spotted him and as always happens in these situations took rapid inventory: his own capabilities and equipment versus the opponent’s. Harman-Karman knew (with some pride) that he cut an impressive figure in his black fatigues, and was not surprised to see the other man softly shake his head and turn down Oak Knoll again. Had it been a team, however—Harman-Karman shivered slightly at the thought. They were not safe, far from it; they needed to move again.

He turned back to the tree, and his charge, looking up at him as he returned.

“What was it?” she asked.

“A hunter.”

“Gone?”

“Going.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“We have to get moving again,” he said, and offered her his hand to help her up. Which she looked at, then took, then pulled on to heave herself upright. “Ouch,” she said, stretched her back. “I’m not in very good shape.”

“No matter,” he said. No matter? Where the hell did that come from? “We’re only a few blocks away. As the crow flies, it’s not more than a mile. But we have to avoid the streets.”

“Of course,” she said.

“And keep our eyes out for teams.”

And as if she, too, suddenly realized that additional danger, she shivered slightly. Nodded. “Will do.”

They would have to cross Oak Knoll, there was no way around that, but Harman-Karman motioned for her to stay back while he took a better look, up and down the normally busy street. Two more cars, and a third. Intent on getting to where they were going, not prowling—that’s the impression they gave him. A couple, hurrying about two blocks down, for their house, or for safety of some sort. Another lone hunter, several houses north, scenting, but not looking in their direction. Safe enough. Two teens, not hunters, but still scenting, laughing, heading their way, then turned up into a driveway.

Clear. He waved for her to follow, then he stepped out on the sidewalk, and with Alwyn Moore closely behind, ran across the street, onto the opposite sidewalk, turned north and then right into a paved driveway leading them past the side of a large yellow house. He could hear people moving about inside, but no lights were on. Once past the house and in another lush backyard he stopped, waiting for his charge to catch up.

They negotiated several variously hedged and fenced yards, moved quickly across first Hillcrest Avenue, then Canon Drive, then several other well manicured lots. In each house they quietly passed, Harman-Karman could hear activity, mainly in basements, owners bunkering for the Season, but other than that, they saw no one else.

[*:*]

This changed at Kewen Drive. It was Alwyn Moore who spotted the first one. They had just skirted three sprawling houses to find a clear path to the street—the fences here were more like walls, high and meant to keep people out, Harman-Karman imagined broken glass liberally sprinkled along their tops, though he could not see any.

As he stepped out on Kewen Drive, he looked to his left.

Alwyn Moore just behind him, glanced to the right, and caught the man looking straight at her, and not only looking but recognizing.

It was Harman-Karman who heard her name whispered, urgently, look guys, Alwyn Moore, over here. Over there, pointing with his voice.

Then he turned, in time to see two more hunters clear the corner to join the man pointing, arm and finger now. Look. There. Alwyn Moore.

This was not good news. Harman-Karman heard the three hunters huddle and without much discussion—the only objection, the only obstacle really, was Harman-Karman, soon dismissed, hell, we’re three, he’s alone—decide to go for it. Not only was she someone in heat, she was a good looking, famous someone in heat; ripe for the plucking was the term one of them used.

Oh, this was bad news. Very.

“Are they?” she whispered.

Harman-Karman nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid so.”

She looked around. For what, Harman-Karman wasn’t sure. It wasn’t as if there were going to be patrolling police to call on, or other help to be gotten. No ordinary citizen—unless in a team larger than the opposition—would meddle with a team of hunters, no matter what they did. Self-preservation still ranked highly, Season or no Season.

“There’s no one,” she said. Resigned confirmation.

“There’s you, and there’s me,” said Harman-Karman. It came out rather philosophically, something he had not intended. She eyed him skeptically. “And that’s all there’s going to be,” he added. “Can you fire a gun?”

She shook her head. “No. Not really. I tried once. For a story. Didn’t much care for it. No good at it.”

He grabbed her arm and pulled her back off of the sidewalk and onto a wide, moist lawn. And farther, toward an impressive tree that looked like a weeping willow but which turned out to be a Montezuma Cypress. Good cover. Harman-Karman slid to the ground and unshouldered his backpack. Alwyn Moore slid down beside him. The low-hanging branches almost shielded them from view. Almost. She said something which Harman-Karman didn’t catch, intent on fishing out the ammo. Found it and quickly topped up the one Barka he had used, and then brought out the other, which he checked as well, yes, fully loaded. That made it thirty rounds between them. She said her thing again, “They’re coming.”

Instead of answering, Harman-Karman handed her the second Barka. “It’s not all that hard,” he said. “You aim, and you fire. It’s got a bit of a recoil, be prepared for that, but it doesn’t pull in any particular direction, just kicks back. Hold it steady, aim for their bodies—if anything, aim a little low, the kick will lift the path—squeeze the trigger. It’s not hard.”

She hesitated before she took the gun from him. Frowned. Like the weapon was something alive and not to be trusted. “Listen, Alwyn,” he said, “it’s either us or them. These men have only the one thing in mind, and nothing short of a bullet will stop that.” This was true—and he knew that—and he did his best to make sure that she saw it the same way.

She did.

She nodded. This time nervously. Kept looking back toward the street. Harman-Karman’s eyes followed hers. She was right, here they came.

With any luck this would be a very short fight. Harman-Karman knew that he would effectively injure, or kill, one of the three, and if Alwyn Moore could at least injure one of the remaining two, the third would surely see the wisdom of flight, and if not, he was fairly certain he would be able to pick him off as well. “I’ll take the one on the left,” he whispered. “You aim for the guy to the right. Anywhere, just make sure you hit him.”

She nodded again. Swallowed, or tried to. He could hear her effort. She tried to swallow again, not very successfully. “Take your time,” he said. “Relax, take aim. Take a deep breath, hold it, then let it out slowly as you squeeze.”

The three hunters approached slowly, but confidently. Without Alwyn Moore he would have fired already, probably twice, and it was probably that lack of gunfire that assured the attackers that—Harman-Karman’s outfit notwithstanding—they were not armed, at least not lethally.

“On three,” he whispered. “One, two . . .”

Alwyn Moore’s unfamiliarity with guns, and her nervousness combined to make her miss. Made her fire early and hurriedly, and made her arm recoil sufficiently to shift her into Harman-Karman. Not a push, but sufficient contact to pull his shot out of true, making him miss too.

The three hunters reacted almost instantly, scrambled for cover, and before he could get another shot off, there was nothing to shoot at. Part empty sidewalk, part empty street. Doors shutting somewhere in the house behind them. Shutting and locking, people making sure.

“I’m sorry,” she said, realizing as she said this that she had foiled a quick and easy victory, and instead left the three hunters alive and alert now to the danger.

He didn’t answer, perhaps didn’t even hear her; and if he did, it didn’t register, all of his focus, all of his chill, now on the three—and as far as he could, on each one individually. Their approach, their tactic.

Now that they knew that their prey were armed, they were all caution. At the moment they each lay still where they had landed, listening in turn for what he and Alwyn Moore might do.

Which for the moment was nothing. Stay as still as possible. Harman-Karman could not rule out that one of the three might hear as well as he did; it was a sought-after quality with teams, and any such member was highly valued.

So, stay as still as possible.

In the silence that followed the two errant shots he—if that member did exist, and if he now focused—would probably be able to hear him and Alwyn Moore speak. Which thought had just crossed his mind when he heard her draw breath to say something. He turned, finger on his lips, motioning silence. Pointing in their direction. Would she understand?

She nodded. Yes, she was up on the makeup of teams, she understood.

And no one moved.

Three pairs of lungs breathing at slightly different rates, three heads turning this way and that, though one head turning less than the other two, only shifting now and then the better to hear, just like Harman-Karman did his, and there was his confirmation, they did have a listener among them. This was trouble.

The hunter nearest them, the one of them in best shape—or with most experience—by his slower breathing, hidden by the high wall that bordered the sidewalk, was rising slowly, pressing himself against the wall to ensure he remained out of sight. Motioning, Harman-Karman would guess, for the others to follow. This was the listener, for having stood up, he remained motionless for some time, head cocked, ear turned toward them, Harman-Karman would guess.

Then he heard the movement of a second hunter, a little farther down Kewen Drive, ten yards perhaps, also rising, also pressing himself against the wall. A third rustle came from across the street, from behind a thick hedge. This hunter had darted to his right upon the shooting and taken cover behind the thick foliage. The Listener—as Harman-Karman already thought of him—was motioning, presumably to the man across the street. On a certain count, he imagined, dash across the narrow street and join them. Then again, perhaps not. From what Harman-Karman could hear that third hunter was instead crawling north, along the hedge, perhaps to cut off any escape he and Alwyn Moore might entertain.

This was very not good.

To his right Alwyn Moore drew breath again to speak, and again, Harman-Karman put his finger to his lips. She nodded, but then she leaned against him to whisper, and the shock of so much warm woman actually leaning against him, so much ready and available, and emanating woman physically pressing against him, confused him long enough to allow her whisper to reach the air.

“Where are they?” she breathed.

Harman-Karman turned to press his lips as closely to her ear as possible, even though he knew that the Listener—if he were of Harman-Karman’s caliber—would have no problem picking that up as well, said, pointing, “Two against the high wall, one across the street, by the hedge, crawling forward.” He pointed toward the hedge as well, barely visible through the overhanging leaves. Harman-Karman even imagined that he could see the man, soldier-like, snaking his way toward the driveway at the edge of the grass.

“Our chances?” she whispered.

Instead of answering, Harman-Karman shrugged, hard to say, not good.

Alwyn Moore frowned, looked hard into Harman-Karman’s eyes as if to plumb for a better answer, something more certain, then leaned back against the trunk of the big tree, sighed. Truth told, Harman-Karman would have liked something more certain himself. Their situation was precarious. His life, and possibly hers as well, hung in the balance. They would take him out, would definitely try to. Then reward themselves with her. Which might or might not leave her alive. The threat kept his senses, and especially his hearing at peak. And restored the ice to his blood.

And then first the Listener and then the second hunter moved, both still pressing close to the wall, moving toward the driveway and the corner, perhaps to venture a look, and yes, there, briefly, a face, if only for a second, just a look to confirm what he heard, eyes straight in their direction, although Harman-Karman doubted that they could actually be seen behind the overhanging branches.

The head disappeared as fast as it had appeared and Harman-Karman heard the whisper, “Under the tree.”

The other man didn’t answer, but it sounded like he was nodding his head, a short rhythmic rustle of cloth and hair.

The man across the street had reached a driveway and Harman-Karman could make out his head peak round the base of the hedge, also in their direction, also disappearing as fast. Harman-Karman thought briefly of shooting, but he was too well concealed by thick foliage and firing at this point would no doubt force the other two out from behind the wall, to return fire, and he did not like those odds, not one bit.

It was a stalemate of sorts. The first one to speak would lose; even though they were three to his one, or one and a half at best. Whoever shot first would be shot at.

They had to get out of this place. With one hunter across the street, they could both, if the others managed to coordinate, be taken out, and too easily at that. He motioned for Alwyn Moore to move around to the other side of the tree, away from a possible clear shot from the third hunter. She understood and quickly slipped around the trunk. Then he pointed to the house, or more specifically toward the side of it. They’d have to run for it. Really run. He rolled his hands round and round each other to indicate quick feet. She nodded. He sped up the roll: very quick feet. She got it. He counted with his fingers, something he realized she would be very familiar with from broadcasts, three, two, and one finger, and they both took off as quickly as they could for the side of the house, then around to the back where they stopped short. Pressed against the wall.

No one had shot at them. But they knew.

Harman-Karman regretted this move almost immediately, as he heard the third hunter—now that the coast was clear—rise from behind the hedge and dart across the street to join his two mates. All three together, able to coordinate fully again. Not a good move. Fortunately Alwyn Moore had not heard him move, and did not realize the folly of their dash.

Harman-Karman looked around and to his dismay discovered another eight or so feet high wall at the back of this property and also facing its two neighbors to the north and south. In effect boxing them in.

Trees though, many and large. He dashed for them, and Alwyn Moore followed him, another large Montezuma Cypress. Good cover, but sure as hell not good enough to stop bullets.

On the far side of the tree they stopped and Harman-Karman listened again, and this confirmed his fears. They were on the move. Possibly they knew, if they were familiar with the neighborhood, that they were indeed trapped, and their movements seemed to indicate this. The Listener, still breathing evenly and seemingly calm—a soldier, thought Harman-Karman, he had to be, or at least someone trained in maneuvers such as these—rounding the corner of the high wall that had concealed them and moving down the driveway by the side of the house, to round it and come at them from their right. The other two spread out and approached them from the front of the house, one moving close to the building itself, the other heading for the very tree they had sat under not three minutes ago, to approach from their left. Pincering. Coming for them.

Harman-Karman, for the first time in his life, suddenly had the sense that this was it. He could think of no strategy, nothing that would work and get them out of this jam—despite the gravity of things, he had to smile at his choice of word, this was indeed a jam if he’d ever been in one, would certainly qualify. Big time jam.

What seized him next, and almost overwhelmed him, was the bitter certainty that he had failed her. He looked over at Alwyn Moore, his charge, soon to become victim. Beautiful, alive, waiting for his next move, waiting for his solution to this problem. And he had none to offer.

“One,” he said, knowing well it didn’t much matter now if he was overheard, “is coming at us from over there.” He pointed. “The other two are approaching down the other side of the house.”

“And?” she asked, waiting for direction.

[*:*]

He didn’t answer for so long that she understood, really understood, their predicament. And then, it was as if a light came on in her eyes—as he would describe it to his Journal—she made up her mind, and brilliantly.

“I’ll draw them out,” she said, and before Harman-Karman had a chance to respond she was off, at a full run toward the street.

“They’re going for it,” yelled one of the men in front of the house, and at this the Listener rounded the back of the house, also at a full run, joining the other two in pursuit of Alwyn Moore.

That’s when Harman-Karman saw what she was doing. The three men, all now with the back to him, provided excellent targets, running almost directly away from him. He drew the Barka, leaned against the trunk and fired. The Listener went down, without so much as a cry. Brain penetrated before telling his voice about it. A second hunter spun then screamed then fell from a bullet in his chest. The third hunter froze, turned toward Harman-Karman and fired. Missed. Though a small shower of bark told him how close it was. Then he fired again, but not at him. He heard Alwyn Moore scream, more like a curse actually, at which Harman-Karman stepped out again from behind the tree, and damning the torpedoes, although he saw the hunter raise his gun and take aim in his direction, made very sure he had the man’s face in his sight before he fired. The man managed to fire first, but again missed, this time slightly to the right—Harman-Karman could feel the disturbance in the air two inches from his ear.

Harman-Karman did not miss. The bullet literally found that spot between the two eyes, though a little higher, that’s been known here and there as the third eye, and drilled one for him. The man sat down, stupidly, then fell to his right and bled profusely onto the tarmac.

Harman-Karman pocketed his gun and ran as fast as he’s ever run in his life toward Alwyn Moore, down now on the opposite sidewalk, and still swearing. A good sign, thought Harman-Karman. Swearing is good. Screaming is not. She was clutching her left thigh.

“Not a good shot, that one,” said Harman-Karman.

“Good enough,” she said.

“Let me see,” he said.

She lifted her hand to reveal a dark gash in her slacks, rapidly filling with blood, but not so rapidly as if an artery or a vein had been hit. He brought out his first aid kit and poured disinfectant into the wound, which did not still the cursing one bit. “Not too bad,” he said. The he brought out gauze and a bandage. Pressed the gauze into the gash and wrapped the bandage around her thigh, tightly, making sure most of her blood stayed where it should be.

She cursed again.

“Do you want some morphine?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No.”

“Can you stand?” he asked, offering his hand.

She grasped it and stood up, quickly shifted her body weight from her left to her right leg. Cursed some more. “Not very well,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll carry you,” he said.

“Let me just lean on you,” she said. “I can use the other leg.” And hobbled a little to prove it.

“Fair enough.”

She draped her left arm around his neck, and he caught her around the back and under her right arm, cursing himself for actually noticing the weight of her breast close to his right hand. With the help of residual ice shook himself free of the feeling (which still took some doing), and set out.

She hobbled quite well. The only downside now being that they would have to stick to the streets. Not the worst of fates, though, they only had a couple of blocks to go.

“That,” he said after a while of hobbling up Mentor Avenue, and just past Dale Street, “that was brilliant.”

She turned to see what he meant, and understood. “Yes,” she said. “It was.”

“They provided excellent targets,” he said.

“Lucky you know how to use that thing.”

“Yes,” he said. “It is.”

“You are a good shot.”

“Yes,” he said. “I am.” Then, “How’s the leg?”

“Been better.”

“Want to rest?”

“Naw, I’ll manage. Is there long to go?”

“A couple of blocks.”

“I’ll manage.”

“You sure?”

“I’ll manage.”

“Okay.”

They turned the corner of Cornell and turned right. Catalina Avenue was in view, and finally Harman-Karman allowed himself to know that they would make it.

 

:: 70 ::

 

“They are very close,” said the Juniper. “I can feel them.”

“Me too,” said the Elm

“He is hurt.”

“No, she is hurt,” corrected Harry’s pine.

“Not badly though,” said the Juniper as if that is what she had meant all along.

“But hurt,” said the Elm.

“He is tired,” said the Juniper.

“Very tired,” said the Elm.

Harman-Karman and Alwyn Moore rounded the corner of Cornell and Catalina and slowly made it up the street toward Harman-Karman’s house.

“Her leg,” said the Elm.

“It hurts badly,” said the Juniper.

“And she wants to tell him about that,” said the Elm. “Wants to complain. Wants him to feel sorry for her.”

“But doesn’t,” said the Juniper.

“I think we can all see for ourselves,” said the Canary Island Pine, as diplomatically as possible. And it had the desired effect. Both the Juniper and the Elm fell quiet, all four trees now content to follow Harman-Karman’s progress up Catalina, and then, with a “Here we go,” to Alwyn Moore, and an extra lift with his right arm to help her hop up onto the sidewalk, they made it onto his driveway and up to the door.

Alwyn Moore let go of Harman-Karman while he fished around his backpack for the keys, leaning instead again the door. He brought them out, unlocked the door, inviting Alwyn Moore’s arm again before entering.

“They made it,” said the Juniper.

“You think?” said the Elm. To which no one replied.

“He likes her very much,” said the Juniper.

“Of course,” said the Elm. “It’s their season.”

“No I mean, he likes her more than that,” she said. To which the Elm said nothing, knowing that she was right.

 

:: 71 ::

 

Harman-Karman was born tall.

At least, that’s what his father, not an unknown basketball player in his day, used to say. Which was true enough: he had been born a good two inches above norm.

Tall, and ready-made for the game. The game, of course, was basketball. No other games really existed.

“But he’s got freckles,” his father’s friends took great pleasure in pointing out. “A freckled basketball player? Who are you kidding?”

“They are not unheard of,” his father would respond, and then fire up, anew, his short, or not so short lecture (depending on how much beer had so far been, or had yet to be, consumed) on flawless, well-paid, black, and, yes, freckled, players.

No doubt in his mind, Harman-Karman was to be the next famous, ridiculously well-paid, black, and yes, freckled player; after all, he was named for the most famous of them all.

“No one remembers Harman Karman.”

“I remember him. He was the best damned basketball player to ever have walked this Earth. He was the reason I started playing.”

“We know, we know. Toss me a beer, will you.”

“He was my high school coach.”

“We know, we know.”

At which point Harman-Karman’s father would turn maudlin, or agitated, or both, again depending on beer consumption.

As a child Harman-Karman was both fascinated and frightened by these holdings forth, always overheard through mostly closed doors, and always somewhat indistinct. Frightened by his fathers strange behavior, fascinated that he, just a boy, was the cause.

And for the longest time he never made the connection that his father was in fact talking about someone other than him, that there had actually been a Harman Karman: stylish, flamboyant, mediocre pro-player turned high school coach to charm his father into becoming a much better player himself—though his father would never claim or admit that.

For like a dog who never really detects anything but his own name in the odd stream of people speak, Harman-Karman never heard the surrounding words: his father was telling his friends about him, Harman-Karman, and with love and pride, with sometimes tears and a very loud voice.

Later, having seen his friends to the door, his father would pat his head, or lift him up, and smile at him—his Harman-Karman—all in confirmation; his smiling mother not far of, corroborating: all was well with the world.

For years.

Until, somehow, he discovered the truth.

Later in life Harman-Karman could never quite put his finger on how he came to realize that his father wasn’t talking about Harman-Karman, the born-tall boy at all, but about someone completely different, someone from Turkey who for some reason had ended up with his name and who had won his father’s heart, to never give it back.

But that’s when Harman-Karman stopped growing—or at least slowed down as if all the brakes were applied at once.

“At this rate, the boy will reach seven feet five,” his father would proclaim before that fateful day. “Well, look at him. There’s no stopping him. I can’t keep him in shoes.”

Harman-Karman was six years old and already five feet tall when this happened, when shocking conclusion somehow came to possess him and he went to his mother that she might dispel this catastrophe, but instead smiled at him and explained that, no, no honey, daddy’s not talking about you, oh, Heavens, now; he’s talking about his high school coach. Harman Karman. You were named for him—Heaven knows I was against it.

After that, for the balance of his life, he only managed an additional eleven inches.

And the jealousy that took hold of this young boy’s heart at discovering the truth: that his father loved not him but this foreign man he had never met, made him hate basketball with a passion; would have nothing to do with it in school, no matter the pleading, the threats, the cajoling, the bribes, the beatings (once beer graduated to whiskey, and daily).

He decided more than once to change his name, legally, but never did, somewhere inside he derived some perverse pleasure in carrying around the hyphenated flag of his nemesis.

And refusing to ever watch, much less play, the game—as his father spoke of it—was retribution enough; his father suffered, just like he had made his son suffer.

Once through high school Harman-Karman left home and moved as far away from New Jersey as he possibly could and still walk American soil: California.

Four years at Berkeley, then south to Los Angeles and the agency which had recruited him during his third year in college.

His father died a bitter man a few years later, enlarged and diseased liver, they said. Harman-Karman did not attend the funeral.

His mother died six months after that from a broken heart.

He did travel back for that service; and to settle the estate—he was an only son after all—which netted him a surprising amount of money.

He had known Harry for years before he told him this story. And telling him he suddenly felt a lot better about his dad. As if the misunderstanding, finally communicated, dislodged his dislike for the man.

“You never told him?” asked Harry.

“No.”

“Oh, man.”

“I know.”

“How tall do you think you’d be if you hadn’t found out?”

“I had to find out at some point.”

“I know. But say you hadn’t.”

“Seven foot five.”

“So how did you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Stopped growing.”

“That’s what a broken heart does to you.”

 

 

:: 72 ::

 

Harman-Karman and Alwyn Moore entered his large front room into odd space, filled as it were with the consciousness of four trees, all four interested to see how Alwyn Moore was doing and to see what, if anything, would come of this violent rescue.

It was Alwyn Moore who noticed it first. Harman-Karman had just eased her down into his large, white sofa, and was now standing back, frowning at the dark spot on her bandage, signaling that she was still bleeding, though not profusely. Though enough to cause concern.

She looked around as if searching for something. “Who else is here?” she asked finally.

Harman-Karman looked up from studying her bandage and into worried eyes. “What do you mean?”

“Are there, others?”

“No.”

“Sure?”

“Of course.”

“I could have sworn.” She looked around the room again, then over her shoulder into the breakfast area, and out through the patio doors at the back yard. “You know the feeling that someone’s just left the room?” she said.

It wasn’t really a question, and Harman-Karman didn’t answer. Instead he looked around too, a little worried now because he too, now that she’d mentioned it, sensed that kind of echo that people, or pets for that matter, or even insects, tend to leave when they hurriedly depart to keep out of sight. Like a visible disturbance in the silence. A visual echo.

“I could have sworn,” she said again.

Harman-Karman took another look around, felt the odd presence, or almost presence, but still didn’t answer.

She looked back up at him. “Odd,” she said. Then she winced, and looked down at her wound, as if rediscovering it.

Harman-Karman followed her gaze. “We’ll have to take a better look at this,” he said. “You need to take off your slacks.” Then, as if having said something inappropriate, he added, “Let me get you a robe, or something,” spun around and took off for his bedroom and the closet. He was back in seconds with his light blue terry cloth bath robe. “Here,” he said, handing it to her. “I’ll turn around.”

“Sorry,” she said. “I appreciate the propriety, but I’m going to need some help with this. Help me up.”

“Just a second,” he said, and left again, this time for the bathroom, where he stood for quite a while looking at himself in the mirror, suddenly in turmoil, flooding with the need, adjusting and adjusting again his trousers to make room for—no, not make room for, to conceal—his now violent erection.

He was sweating, felt clammy, wiped his face with a towel, washed it with cold water, wiped it again with his towel, did his best to seem, look, appear normal. His hand shook a little as he ran it over his head, as if his hair was still long. Something normal for his hand to do. Did it again. She was in there, not too badly hurt, and emanating. Oh, yes, really emanating now, as if she had just entered Season for real, this very minute. And telling him—him, Harman-Karman—on many levels now, that she would choose him, had in fact chosen him. And now asking him to help her remove her slacks, an act which he doubted himself capable of.

He wiped his face again, and took a deep breath. And another. Willed his hand to stop shaking. Thought of the Journal, he had to keep it up, no matter what, had to keep up his Journal. Still perspiring. No matter what.

“You all right in there?” Alwyn Moore’s voice from his living room. The one who had chosen him. His reason for living.

“Yes,” he managed. But he doubted it made it through the door.

“Yes,” he said again, louder.

“I’m going to need some help here, it’s bleeding pretty badly.”

The emergency of the moment finally regained the upper hand, and he took one last look at himself, wiped his face for the third or fourth time, adjusted his penis—which he realized would remain impossible to conceal, well fuck it, and went back out to his charge. Well, guest by now.

Alwyn Moore had tried to remove her slacks, but had only succeeded in tearing the wound open and she was now bleeding quite profusely, onto his sofa, onto the carpet, while she also, also emanated so strongly now that entering his living room was like entering a mist.

Still, her life was actually—actually, actually, he repeated to himself—at risk, he had to swim above this, he had to find some of that ice, he had to function now, had to do the right thing, to keep her alive.

This Alwyn Moore.

She had managed to wriggle part way out of her slacks, but that was about it, standing, clutching her leg now, she struck an odd figure. The Alwyn Moore.

“Sit down,” he said.

“I can’t,” she said.

The blood kept flowing while she tried to keep the compress—saturated now—against the wound. She was losing too much blood. Harman-Karman grabbed her two lower arms and forced her back into the sofa.

“The blood,” she said. “It’ll get on the.”

“Sit down,” he said, while he sat her down for her. Then he bent down and in rapid sequence removed her ankle boots, socks, and with one long hard pull, her slacks (revealing, he noticed—could not help but notice—two of the nicest looking legs he’d ever set eyes on, one of which was bleeding profusely from a thigh wound). Harman-Karman! It was his own voice, rising from somewhere rational, calling him back to what urgently needed doing. Get with it you damned fool. She needs you help, now. You can ogle later.

He surfaced, shivered, found and seized some of that internal chill that was necessity, threw the slacks aside and grabbed his backpack. Tourniquet. Tourniquet. Hadn’t Ch’ien Yung supplied one? Could have sworn, and yes, bless him, his friend had added a nice, professional tourniquet. An inch-wide, non-elastic band with an ingenious tightening and locking mechanism.

Harman-Karman applied it around the top of Alwyn Moore’s right thigh, all business for a change, but before pulling it tight noticed that the wound was bleeding less again. So what the hell was he doing with a tourniquet? If no vein or artery was damaged. He scrambled for his backpack again, got out some disinfectant and a clean compress; poured the white powder on the would, then pressed the compress against it.

Alwyn Moore shrieked a little from the pain.

“Sorry,” said Harman-Karman.

She didn’t answer. Her eyes were closed and she was gritting her teeth a little, as if trying to keep the pain in.

“Put you hand on this,” he said. “Press hard.”

She did.

Harman-Karman returned to his backpack, found a bandage, found another, a little wider, then remembered he had several more among his medical supplies in his bathroom. Rose and went to get them. Returned with a better suited one: long and wide.

She was doing a good job keeping the pressure on.

“There’s nothing in there, right?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“No bullet, fragments, nothing?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. How do you tell?”

“I don’t think so either, but if there is, we have to get it out.”

“Then, let’s decide there isn’t any,” she said, trying to smile.

“Well, there either is or isn’t.” He wasn’t up to smiling, not yet, anyway.

“I doubt it,” she said. “It felt like a tear.”

“Like it grazed you?”

“Yes, not like a hit.”

Harman-Karman returned to his backpack and came up with the smaller of the two flash lights.

“Ease up a little,” he said. Meaning the pressure on the compress. She understood, and did. Then he slowly removed her hand and lifted the compress to expose the wound. Though still bleeding, definitely no veinal or arterial damage. What was he thinking, tourniquet?

He shone the strong flashlight directly onto the wound, revealing angry pink tissue, almost yelling for him to get the light out of its eyes. Not pretty, but not very deep. And he was happy to see a groove rather than a hole. She was right, the bullet had only grazed her.

“It’s clean,” he said after a while. “You’re right, the bullet only grazed you. You, we, were lucky.”

She nodded.

He poured some more disinfectant powder on the wound. Turned it into a small winter landscape, he thought—and where the hell had that come from? Quickly turning red, or black, in places as the blood seeped through. He dug out another compress, pressed it down hard, and then bandaged it in place, thoroughly.

Looked up from his handiwork at her. “How’s the pain?”

“The pain is good,” she said, still gritting her teeth a little.

“You mean,” he begun.

“I mean, it hurts like hell.”

“I’ll get you something,” he said.

“I’d appreciate it.”

“Morphine?”

“If you have some, yes.”

Harman-Karman returned to his amazing backpack where Ch’ien Yung had thought of everything. Several small, disposable morphine syringes in a plastic case. He took one out, stabbed the fine needle into her thigh near the would, and broke the top of the syringe off allowing the morphine to enter.

Almost immediately Alwyn Moore sighed and said, “Better.”

She, too, regarded his handiwork, then touched his hand. “Thanks. For, for everything.”

Then Alwyn Moore, the Alwyn Moore, still smiling—Morphine and exhaustion teaming up—closed her eyes, leaned back into the sofa, said, “My mom,” and fell asleep.

 

:: 73 ::

 

Harman-Karman rose, stretched, stepped back, and surveyed the mess.

And a mess it was. Lots of blood, dark on the sofa and carpet. And now, Alwyn out like a light. He took a look at the syringe: how much had he given her? Took a closer look, close enough to read: twenty milligram. Well, no wonder. A bit of an overkill.

Passed out indeed, but emanating no less for that, and Harman-Karman found himself in a whirlpool of mixed eddies and emotions: He needed to clean things up, he needed to get her to bed; he needed to secure the house better, at this rate she would soon attract visitors; he needed to clean himself up; and he needed release, now: his penis, thighs, belly combining volcano-like and about to erupt.

He eyed the sleeping woman, on his—his, mind you—sofa, and the thought occurred to him that he could so easily. Corralling what little self-determination remained he pushed back and managed to put that thought out of his head. There was no way. No way. Absolutely no fucking way.

Instead he went into the bathroom and without a second thought vented into the toiled bowl, once, twice, three times, mostly missing, leaving trails of semen on the seat, the tank, the floor, near enough the ceiling; but at least the immediate pressure was off, for now.

He then headed for the kitchen and lots of paper towels to de-seed his bathroom with.

[*:*]

It then took Harman-Karman the better part of an hour—and two return trips to the bathroom to vent—but he had finally managed to maneuver an unconscious and limply unmanageable Alwyn More into bed—the guest bedroom, he gratefully realized as if for the first time, faced the backyard and so lay as far away as possible from the street and the hunting world outside—as well as get most of the mess in his living room cleaned up—though the blood, drying now, would take some serious professional getting rid of come off-Season.

Returned to the bathroom for one more venting—well aimed, no clean-up needed.

He then sat down at his breakfast table to take stock of the situation.

He noticed his hands were still shaking, a little.

He noticed they were sweating, too.

And there was that cat again. Had the thing moved in or what?

There was movement in the street. A car. He rose and went through the kitchen to his dining room (which faced the street) and parted two of the vertical blinds, peeked out. A car was pulling into the driveway a few houses down. He recognized it. A supply run then. Everything else seemed still, and eerily normal. He hoped it would stay that way, but had no illusions about it: the woman now asleep in his guest room was emanating loudly and clearly like a distress beacon. You’d be out-of-State, or dead, not to pick her up.

He’d never spent the Season in his house with someone else, never formed a pact, so he had given little thought to barricading the place. Now he wish he had. It would not be a hard place to enter, especially not for a determined team. Well, there was nothing for it, little he could do about it now, especially since he did not want to draw attention; and a sudden fortification project—were that even possible—would do just that. He’d just have to make sure everything was as tightly locked and sealed as possible, which is exactly what he set out to do.

 

:: 74 ::

 

“He’s in a bad way, I think,” whispered the Juniper to the Elm. A whisper which surprised her as much as it did the Elm (as much as it did the other surrounding trees, for there is really no such thing as successful whispering among trees). Neither had ever seen in the other much of a confidant, and here she was, whispering away.

“He’s certainly confused,” the Elm whispered back.

“Doesn’t know what to do.”

“He should be happy though,” the Elm pointed out. “He found the person he set out to look for.”

“But now he doesn’t know what to do.”

“At least things are happening with him,” complained the Camphor Tree two houses down. “My people . . .”

“We know about your people,” interrupted the Juniper. “And what did I say about listening in?”

“Not polite,” added the Elm.

“Sorry,” said the Camphor.

“And all those deaths,” said the Elm after a short silence.

“He’s not worrying about that,” said the Juniper.

“Well, he should,” said the Elm.

“Perhaps,” said the Juniper.

“He should,” said Harry’s Pine, seemingly not caring about listening in one way or another.

“And her mother,” said the Juniper. “It’s as if she hasn’t realized yet.”

“He gave her something,” said the Elm.

“I know,” said the Juniper, back to her old self, almost snorting, if indeed trees can snort.

“I wish I could help him,” said the Elm.

“You can,” said Harry’s Pine.

“How?” said the Juniper.

“You can,” said Harry’s Pine.

“How?” said the Elm.

“It’s not our place to change the course of things,” said Harry’s Pine. “But we can give them a little breathing room.”

“What do you mean?” asked the Juniper, a little more deferentially than she had intended, and she gathered herself a little and straightened her trunk in an attempt to mask it.

“I mean,” said Harry’s Pine, “that you can buffer him a little. Fill him so full of you that it leaves less room for the stormy rage, which then has to remain outside for a while.”

“Can we do this?” asked the Canary Island Pine. A little shocked perhaps. “Is that any business of ours?”

“Not in any ultimate sense,” answered Harry’s Pine.

“In what sense then?” asked the Canary Island Pine.

“In the common decency sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“I like to alleviate suffering or confusion where I can.”

“There’s too much of that around to make any difference.”

“In the world, yes. But we can make a difference with our people.”

“If it were any business of ours,” said the Canary Island Pine.

To which Harry’s Pine said nothing.

“When you say fill do you mean occupy?” asked the Elm.

“As when you perceive them,” said Harry’s Pine.

“I will try that,” said the Elm.

“I was going to try that,” said the Juniper.

“That’s fine,” said the Elm. “You go first.” Surprising both himself and the Juniper.

“Why, thank you,” said the Juniper, and extended into and filled as best she could as much as possible of the troubled person of Harman-Karman.

 

:: 75 ::

 

Who startled.

Startled and dropped the cup in his hand, which luckily was not of porcelain, nor was it as yet filled with his tea, so instead of breaking and spilling, it bounced three times on the floor, then rolled a short erratic course before coming to rest against a kitchen table leg.

Startled, he looked at the cup, still quivering against the leg a little accusingly, and listened. Hard, and with what felt to him his whole body. There was someone else here, close by, looking in perhaps through a window. He turned, and turned again, but all he could think of was trees.

He picked up the cup and placed it on the counter. Stopped and listened again. Nothing. Not even the cat. He could have sworn.

Only the rustle of branches, faint, like a quiet light. Like a shimmer, a distant scent.

[*:*]

H-K Journal—3/1/2008

I am writing. It’s evening. It’s night. I am exhausted. But I am writing.

Alwyn Moore, yes, the very one Alwyn Moore, is asleep in the guest room, I hear branches shimmer in my head, and I am writing.

Actually writing.

Actually writing.

Writing.

Writing.

Even though the Season is here and I am definitely immersed in this river we call Storm, I seem to manage to find these little pieces of mosaic we call words and unruly and ungainly though they are, as I sit here, pen in hand, I manage to put one after one after one after the other in some fashion as well, like this, and like this.

And like this.

I have killed.

I have killed.

And killed.

I lost count at four, or was it five, or six, and I find it liberating to seek and find and place these words one after one after one after the other—like this—to tell about it. I am amazed that I am amazed that I am.

She’s sleeping in the other room. Alwyn Moore.

I saw her on television and decided to find her, to seek and find her—of course this was sheer madness but a madness which somehow nonetheless felt completely true and real and for me; as if it had been there all along and just then—as I watched her being not at all so plastic as she normally is—made itself known, and I ended up rescuing her from, definitely, yes, surely, certain death, and now she’s in my guest room, which luckily faces the back yard, and I am filled with her, so very filled, but there is also the shimmer and rustle of leaves, even now in the still of night, even though there is no wind outside, there is the shimmer and rustle of leaves inside, yes, inside, inside not only the house, but inside me it seems and this rustle is a bed is a pillow is a sanctuary I can rest my head upon as I dream each of these words up from pretty much nowhere, one ungainly one after one after one after the other, and place them one after one after one after the other, in un-ungainly fashion—finding them and bending them to my purpose—no, not bending them, but finding for them their mission. Adapting them to the telling, and so I give them grace, I gainly them (which is not a word, I know, but neither is delible, and I’ve seen it used to fine effect—delible footprints in the sand, what could be more delible?—though that isn’t a word either, same as using gainly as a verb).

Not that this makes any sense, but that doesn’t matter because in seeking and finding and endowing with purpose each of these words, resting upon the shimmering rustle of leaves, I am less affected, I have gained distance (yes, that is the word: distance) from the Storm. As if it is being held at bay by these words one after one after one after the other, or by the soft rustle of leaves.

Alwyn Moore just turned in the guest room bed, but doesn’t turn again, so she found another of sleep’s sweet spots and sailed on.

Which I should do soon too. Sail on. Find my own sleep’s sweet spot and sail on.

And I’m writing, I really am writing. And for this I am grateful, though I’m not sure to whom. To the rustle of leaves, perhaps, which seems to have come to stay, and for that I am grateful, though I’m not sure to whom.

This sweet rustle, though in a way more like a scent, of leaves.

In the very stillness of night (though I can hear cars and sirens in the distance now).

The scenty shimmery rustle.

 

:: 76 ::

 

The Juniper and the Elm took turns into the night, to extend to and fill their Harman-Karman, who seemed to sense their presence as the shimmer or rustle of leaves. That’s what he thought anyway, although more like scent than rustle he wrote, too, in his Journal.

“It works,” whispered the Elm.

“Why are you whispering?” said the Juniper.

“I don’t want him to hear.”

“He won’t,” said Harry’s Pine.

“He won’t?” asked the Elm.

“No.”

“How come?”

“They have the wrong sort of ears,” said Harry’s Pine. Not exactly true, but it made a point.

“So, there’s no need to whisper,” said the Juniper, though she regretted it almost right away, feeling sad rather than superior for showing the Elm up.

“But it works,” said the Elm.

The Juniper seemed to nod her agreement, if indeed trees can nod.

“He’s writing, and he’s happy about it,” said the Elm.

“Mine never write anything,” said the Canary Island Pine.

“Ours does,” said the Juniper, and if trees could elbow each other, she would have, playfully, the Elm—who understood that and smiled to himself, if indeed trees can smile.

 

:: 77 ::

 

Harman-Karman woke early with a violent erection—which indeed was what had woken him, clamoring for not only attention, but action. Then he heard her again. A soft moaning, fending off her pain; then a deeper pain, fought with stifled sobs.

Awake now, it came back to him, all of it. Alwyn Moore, the Alwyn Moore, his Alwyn Moore was in his guest bedroom, and he had killed many, many people.

He then did two things, and in the correct order: He vented twice, to gain some semblance of control, then he went to see to his guest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alwyn Moore

 

:: 78 ::

 

Alwyn Moore watched the fingers dissapear one by one: three, two, one, took a deep breath and looked straight into the camera.

Then, without preamble: “Arrak has threatened to kill me.

“Arrak has threatened to raze other convents.

“Arrak, by death and threats and violence, wants to muzzle us, make us bend to their demands.

“Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, this station, for one, will not be cowed into performance, or silence, and I am sure the same is true for our colleagues here in Los Angeles and across the country.

“The moment the public media gives in to blackmail, truth ceases to exist and there is only propaganda.”

She took another deep breath, trying to contain the warmth spreading from below, and now threatening to swallow her. Shirley Fields had flatly refused her a second delayer, and Alwyn knew better than to push her. She had promised, after all. Only the one. Now she wished: only the two. It was like riding something warm and rising, and she wasn’t so sure she could.

Another deep breath, or was it a sigh. Just get through this, Alwyn, another minute or two, sign off, and get the hell out of here. Continued:

“We received this threat a little over ten minutes ago,” she said and held up the printout for the camera. “In this email to the station, Arrak promises to, as they put it, put an end to the myth and person of Alwyn Moore for her laughable attempt to thwart our mission.”

She paused. Gathered herself again.

“Each person on this Earth has the freedom to choose. I know many would argue that, especially now, with the arrival of the new Season, but even so. Each individual is free to choose, and if a person chooses to devote his or her life to religion, or to science, or to public service, it is a personal, and a sacrosanct choice, which must be honored by others.

“The moment this freedom is stolen, either by government—as in some African and Asian countries—or by blackmailers like Arrak, life—the beautiful thing we all do our best to cope with—this life ceases to exist, and becomes, instead, slavery.”

She paused again, two more deep breaths, or sighs, her own internal battle raging. Then:

“This is Alwyn Moore saying goodbye for now. I will see you again after the Season. Stay safe.”

The Number 2 camera went dark, and number 3—alive again— brought the anchor back on screen.

“Thanks Alwyn. And good luck to you. You stay safe too.”

She didn’t smile, didn’t hear. She rose, or tried to. Then sat down again. Another deep breath. She was shaking a little. Part fatigue—she had not slept much—part Storm. She had to get out of there.

Rose again, successfully. Went straight to her office to collect her things; called the front desk for a cab.

“We have a driver for you, Miss Moore,” said the doorman.

“Great. I appreciate it.”

“No problem. He’s ready, and waiting.”

On her way out she stopped by Shirley Fields’ office, to say goodbye and wish her good luck with the Season.

“Alwyn,” said her boss.

“Shirley.”

“All set?”

“I guess.”

“We’ve got a car for you.”

“Yes, I heard. I appreciate it.”

“It’s a ruse.”

“Ruse?”

“Arrak,” said Shirley, as if that would explain everything—which it did.

“Of course,” said Alwyn. “Of course.”

“It’s at the front. Get in as if you’re leaving.”

“Which I am,” said Alwyn.

“It’ll then cut through the garage to take south entrance. You have another car waiting below.”

“Ah.”

“Switch cars as fast as you can, so whoever is keeping an eye on you won’t get suspicious.”

“But won’t they see?”

“Dark windows.”

“Ah.”

“It’s a blue Toyota. Below. Get in the back, and lie down so you won’t be spotted. It’ll drive out the north entrance, and take you to your mom’s place.”

“And the limo?”

“Will head north on the 5, toward San Francisco. Hopefully that’ll run sufficient interference to let you get out of here unnoticed.”

“Good plan.”

“It was Blackburn Small’s idea.”

“I didn’t think he cared.”

“I’m not sure he does. But he’s good police.”

“That he is.”

“So, good luck, Alwyn. Stay safe.”

“Thanks Shirley. And you too.”

The limo was waiting, and she slipped inside. It headed for the gate, but turned left at the underground parking entrance, and out of view. The blue Toyota was waiting, at the ready, back door open. Alwyn was out of the lime and into the smaller car in less then five seconds. Shirley would have been proud.

Alwyn watched the limo head for the south exit, then leaned over on the back seat and out of sight.

“There’s a blanket on the floor,” said the driver. “Cover yourself.”

“Right. Thanks.”

The Toyota waited another minute, then took the north exit and headed east on Sunset.

[*:*]

After an indirect route, which included several switchbacks and extra trips around many a random block they arrived at Avon Place shortly after nine o’clock. No signs of pursuit said the driver.

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

“You be safe now.”

“You too.”

Before she had a chance to let herself in, her mom yanked open the front door. “Alwyn. Oh, God, Alwyn, what have you done?”

Her mom took a quick look outside, up and down Avon Place, then pulled Alwyn inside and slammed the door shut.

“You’ll get us both killed,” she added.

“I’m glad to see you, too, Mom.”

“This is no time for jokes, Alwyn. You shouldn’t have come here.”

“Where else would I go?”

“Anywhere but.”

“I want to be with you, Mom. Make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m not the one you should worry about.”

Her mom, a good foot shorter than Alwyn—Alwyn’s father had been a very tall man—hair graying now, stood, arms akimbo, not done dressing her daughter down just yet.

“How are you doing, Mom?”

“Fearing for my life, is how I’m doing. How should I be doing?”

“I mean, Season-wise.”

“Oh, that’s no business of yours. I can take care of myself.”

“So, you’re okay?”

“I am not okay. They’ll find you here, and they’ll kill us all.”

“All?”

“Both.”

“If they are keeping an eye on me, they’ll think I’m heading for San Francisco right now.”

When her mother didn’t understand, Alwyn explained.

“And how long is that going to keep them fooled?” she wanted to know after frowning in silence for what seemed a full minute.

“I don’t know, Mom. For a while, I hope.”

“And then, and then what?”

“Guards. The station has hired guards.”

“So where are they?”

“They’ll come if they’re needed.”

“If they’re needed? Of course they’re needed. They’re needed right now.”

“No one knows I’m here, Mom.”

“So?”

“One way of telling anyone who wants to know that I am here, is to have a gaggle of guards show up.”

“Don’t use words I don’t know, Alwyn.”

“A bunch of guards.”

Her mom took that in, and did see the wisdom of that.

“They’ll keep an eye out for anything suspicious, and if needed, we’ll have guards here right away.”

“Who’s keeping an eye you?”

“I don’t know, security people. I don’t know, Mom.”

“They had better.”

“That is true,” said Alwyn. “They had better.”

[*:*]

What scent-proofing was commercially available was far too expensive for the average house owner, but Mrs. Moore was not the average house owner. She had spared no expense during the 2007-2008 off-Season remodel—as she put it—which had transformed the Avon Place basement into what she called our fortress : into what essentially consisted of two separate studio apartments, sound-, scent- and bullet-proofed, with one set of common doors between them, lockable from either side. Barring a fire—or a nuclear war, as Alwyn put it—you could ride out a Season here just fine. Unnoticed, un-molested, un-worried.

And well stocked, to boot. Food for six weeks, just to be safe, and enough soothers and repressors to maybe even have an effect. And implements, as and if needed. Mrs. Moore didn’t want to discuss those, but they were one of those necessities you just had to live with here on planet Earth, come the Season. And more so Alwyn—judging by her allotment of this arsenal, her mom quickly pointing things out—than her mother.

Alwyn shook her head in amazement.

“Well, you never know,” said her mom. Then quickly changed the subject, “Have you had breakfast?”

Mrs. Moore was nothing if not a great cook, and once the cheese began to melt inside the omelet, some of it spilling into the hissing butter, Alwyn realized that she was starving, and had been for a while.

“And you’re sure they’re keeping an eye out,” said Mrs. Moore between bites.

“I’m sure, Mom.”

 

:: 79 ::

 

It was not until after breakfast that the warmth began to attack Alwyn in earnest. Up until then the broadcast, the ride, her mother, factors to keep her afloat; but now, a delicious omelet later, and her mother “wanting to take a nap,” left her alone in her own basement studio, awash in Storm.

She tried to focus on other things, writing for instance; even went so far as to turn her notebook computer on; even went so far as to open up the last opening chapter in the word processor; even went so far as to read the last paragraph again, and again, and again, but here she derailed, letters not connecting into words, or if they did, words not connecting with meanings, intended concepts elusive, the paragraph so much black against so much white, and all she really could think about: warmth and warmth and the need to relieve or quench or blossom it. She closed here eyes and noticed the familiar color red. For her the color of darkness was red, and red, and leaning back into her bed—no time, or need for implements—she vented the pressure once, twice, and several more times after that, before she fell into shallow and uneasy sleep.

[*:*]

And into familiar dream.

This is how she always, since her very first Season, dreamed its arrival:

There is an ocean, or some other very large body of water. A restless ocean, swells in many directions, tides shifting in disrespect for the moon, following no pattern.

She swims on this ocean, buoyed at first high in the water, as if she was swimming in the Dead Sea, half above, half within the warm currents.

There is land off to her right, and there is land off to her left. Two shores. Ahead is only water, and behind is only water. She has to choose the correct shore and chooses the one to her right. It seems to her closer of the two, and she knows she must get out of the water, now, before she drowns.

And so she turns and swims and swims for this alien shore, only to find, looking over her shoulder every so often, that the shore now behind her is in fact the closer of the two. Surely. The one ahead now so distant.

So, she turns, and swims for that closer shore, only to find it receding instead of approaching. She looks over her shoulder and discovers, no, she was right the first time, that shore is the closer of the two, so she turns again, but not longer rides so high in the water. Something is tugging at her feet, something is tugging at her legs, and soon it is all she can do to keep her mouth and nose and eyes above the ever warmer water.

Still swimming, for the closer shore, which is now drawing back and away: she is swimming for the wrong shore.

And so turns again, as tentacles now not only tug at her legs but slithers up the inside of her thighs and higher and hither and then enter. And enter, and enter, and the shores are moving closer and closer and as they do they rise and rise and touch above her to form a roof, a red roof above the red ocean where the tentacles are entering and entering still and filling her and filling her and the ocean becomes a mouth, and the shores have formed a tunnel and the tentacles enter and enter and she has no choice but to enter herself, the red tunnel which is the warmth of arrival.

The warmth of arrival.

And it is calling her name, “Alwyn, Alwyn, Alwyn,” over and over, which is not how she remembers it for it has never known her name before, and then it calls again, “Alwyn, Alwyn,” and something, not tentacles, more like hands, has hold of her feet and they are pulling her back and back and out of the tunnel and out of the red ocean and out upon dry land and her mother’s face leans over her, gray hair spilling down and almost touching Alwyn’s face, and now actually touching, and a hand shakes her shoulder, “Alwyn, Alwyn.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“The station.”

“What?”

“The station is calling.”

“Shirley?”

“I don’t know, he didn’t say.”

“What time is it?”

“Six.”

“Six what?”

“Six o’clock.”

“A.M.?” It felt like morning.

“No, it’s evening, Alwyn.”

“I’ve slept all day?”

“You were exhausted.” Probably some truth to that.

“Even so. You shouldn’t have.”

“Shouldn’t have what?”

“Let me sleep.”

“The station’s on the phone, Alwyn.”

She sat up, fell back, sat up again. The tunnel, the ocean, still alive between her legs calling her back to sleep with rising and receding tide.

“The second line,” said Mrs. Moore.

Alwyn reached for the receiver and picked it up; then pressed the blinking button indicating line two.

“Alwyn Moore.”

“Miss Moore?”

“Yes.”

“Just a moment.”

Which became two, then three, then far too long. Shirley Fields came on the line just before Alwyn was about to hang up.

“Alwyn. You’re okay?”

“Yes. Why?”

“The limo,” said her boss.

“What limo?”

“The ruse limo.”

Alwyn said nothing.

“We’ve lost it.”

Alwyn, still battling to return to the present—or if not the present, to the more important task of sheer survival—tried to add things up. “Lost it?”

“We can’t raise the driver. We have to assume.”

And things finally did add up, a cold hand touching her. “Arrak?”

“Yes.”

“Do they know?”

“Yes. We think so.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’ve spotted a limo in your neighborhood.”

“How do you know it’s them?”

“It’s been there for a while now, as if reconnoitering. Circling nearby streets.”

“Is there any protection?”

“They’ve dispatched a four-man team. They should be there any moment.”

“Nothing so far. Where are they coming from?”

“I’m not sure. But they should be with you any moment now.”

As if on cue the upstairs doorbell sounded once—her mom had yet to fully close, and seal, the main bunker door, the one leading into her mom’s studio from upstairs, or they would probably not have heard it—then again.

Alwyn looked over at the close circuit television monitor. Four men on the front porch. One working the doorbell.

Which sounded an impatient third time, and then a fourth.

“They’ve arrived, Shirley.”

“Good news.”

“Thanks for the heads-up.”

“Take care, Alwyn.”

“You too.”

The doorbell sprang to life again, still impatient. Mrs. Moore was watching Alwyn from their adjoining door, not sure what to do, more than just concerned: afraid.

“We’ve got company, Mom.”

“Who are they?”

“Guards.”

“We need guards? Alwyn, why do we need guards? Is it those people? Are they coming?”

When Alwyn didn’t answer right away, her mother, much louder now, “Talk to me. Are they coming, these Arrak people?”

Looking up at her mother—wringing her hands, shifting, and not far from tears—it dawned on Alwyn what a fool she had been to come here, to put her mother at risk.

“Just as a precaution.”

“Do they know you’re here, Alwyn? Those Arrak people?”

“No, Mom, they don’t. It’s just a precaution.”

When the doorbell rang again, along with loud banging on the front door—urgent fists—Alwyn rose, and ran upstairs to let them in.

[*:*]

Four very expensive men—large, neutered, ready for battle, never came cheap—in fatigues stood on the front porch. Three of them surveying the street, the fourth looking down at Alwyn.

“So you are here.”

“Sorry, we were downstairs.”

“Can we come it?”

“Of course.”

“A limo pulled away as we arrived.”

“It’s them?”

“That’s what we must assume.”

The four men stepped inside and looked around.

“How many are you?” asked the same man.

“Just me and my mother.”

“Bunker?”

“ Sound- and scent-proof,” said Alwyn.

“Go back there, and stay there,” said the man.

“Do you want me to show you around?”

“No. We’re fine. We’ll take it from here.”

There was something very ex-cop or ex-military about the quartet that now began to spread out through the house, and Alwyn felt reassured: these people were professionals, they would protect them.

“Okay then. You can use the intercom if you need us,” said Alwyn, indicating a wall phone by the hallway leading to the kitchen. “Dial the basement.”

“Will do.”

Alwyn heard her mother calling her from below, wanting to know if everything was all right. Good question.

“Four is enough, right?” to the man she now thought of as the leader.

Who looked at her, perhaps a little offended. “Should be.”

“Should be? You’re not sure?”

“Four’s enough, ma’am. Should we need more, we’ll call for backup, or the police, or the army. You can relax ma’am. You’re in good hands.”

And that was the impression Alwyn got, she could relax, they were in good hands.

“Well, good. As I said, call if you need anything.”

“Will do.”

Mrs. Moore was calling out again as Alwyn reached the basement stairs and made her way down to reassure the woman.

[*:*]

Once she closed and sealed the main bunker door, the one in her mom’s studio that led upstairs, they were, for all intents and purposes—as far as sounds went—alone.

The close circuit television monitors would tell a different story.

When Mrs. Moore had the bunker studios constructed, she truly had spared no expense, and that included an elaborate eight-camera close circuit system with two sets of four split-screen monitors, one in Alwyn’s studio, and one in her mom’s.

Four cameras were mounted at the outside corners of the house, just under the eaves, which gave a good view of any approach. One was mounted over the front door, one showed the back porch and its French doors from a camera concealed in the back garden, one showed the inside entrance, and one showed the upstairs main hallway.

The security contractor had proposed a sixteen-camera system, but Mrs. Moore felt enough was enough: eight’s plenty.

The silence that followed upon closing the main bunker door—effectively shutting them off from the outside world—brought both Alwyn and her mom to the monitors.

“How many are there?” her mom wanted to know.

“Four.”

“Big?”

“Big and strong.”

“Neutereds?”

“Of course.”

“I hope they don’t make a mess,” following the movement of two guards down the upstairs hall, who then choose different bedroom doors to vanish through.

“They’re professionals, Mom.”

“I hope so.”

There was no sign of the other two guards. Each of the eight cameras held motionless displays of both outside and inside.

Until.

Maybe it was nothing, corner of the eye, dark movement. Alwyn looked again, no. nothing. And nothing. And nothing. And something.

And not something, someone. And someone else. Approaching the house from the south. Three, perhaps four. Dark shapes. Quick, determined movements.

Alwyn glanced over at her mom, expecting something frantic, only to discover she was busy arranging another meal. Which suited Alwyn just fine. No need upsetting her.

For Arrak had arrived, there was no doubt; but they had professional protection. They were safe.

More movements now, both back and front, and then two black shapes fell in two heaps touching on the back lawn. To remain fallen. And motionless. Alwyn gasped. Loud enough to reach her mom, who turned from chopping whatever it was she was chopping to wonder, loudly, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, Mom.”

Mrs. Moore came over to see for herself. Watched, but didn’t speak. Tried to, then tried again, but remained silent; watching as two other black figure fell down on the back lawn, one clutching his leg, the other his arm.

Watching as angry flashes aimed fire at the second floor windows. Watching as a single back figure appeared at the front of the house and then took off down the street, soon to be followed by another.

Again, Alwyn regretted having come here. But there was nothing for that now. And surely, police or reinforcements would arrive soon. They were under attack. The guards would know what to do.

Two large, dark cars appeared from the top of the street and parked just behind the guards’ Land-Rover. Many people climbed out. All in black. These were not reinforcements. These were Arrak, and suddenly Alwyn knew they were in serious trouble.

Surely, the guards had called for more troops by now. So where were they?

Alwyn saw how one of the men in front of the house brought out a bullhorn and, directing it toward the second floor, spoke into it. Alwyn wished she could hear it, but none of even the amplified sound made it through to her.

“What’s he saying?” demanded her mother.

“I don’t know.”

“What’s he saying? she demanded again, as if Alwyn had said nothing.

“I don’t know, Mom. I can’t hear any better than you.”

“He’s saying something.”

“I know.”

More men fell to the ground. Two to remain still, a third to clutch his shoulder and then roll away.

Then the screen showing the French doors exploded. An explosion. So loud that they could both feel it through the structure if not by sound. Right above them, of course, thought Alwyn. The garden room would be just above them.

She looked at her mom, who stared at the screens in what struck Alwyn as fascination. Or was it shock? Her mother was mumbling something which Alwyn didn’t catch. Except for the word doors. And again, something doors.

Another shock wave reached them, this from the front. Another explosion.

Then the first smell of smoke.

The image of the convent appeared unbidden. Arrak fire. Here was another one. Alwyn tried to shake her head free of it, but it remained. Two hundred women, charred without a second thought. How much would they hesitate charring only two?

Two loud thumps on the outer bunker door startled both of them.

Another thump.

“Someone’s,” began her mother.

Alwyn jumped up, it had to be one of the guards. Another thump. Alwyn unlocked the door and swung it open.

“Miss Moore,” said a tall, blond man, not the leader of the group. “We have to get you out of here.”

“But the Arrak men?”

“The house is on fire, ma’am. Remaining here is not an option.”

“The house is on fire, Alwyn,” screamed her mother. “They’re burning my house, Alwyn.”

The tall man looked at her, “Yes, ma’am, they’re burning the house, and you have to get out of here.”

“They’re burning my house, Alwyn,” yelled her mother, now close to hysteria.

“There is a way out from the basement. The plans showed a way out from the basement, am I correct?” said the man.

“Yes. There’s a side door.”

“Show me.”

Alwyn took another look at her mother, who by now was pale as a sheet, and staring with wide eyes on the screens that showed fire: the view of the French doors, and of the foyer. Some flames had also begun appearing on the second floor.

“This way,” she said to the man.

They headed out of the bunker, turned left down the basement hallway—where the overhead light now flickered, as if preparing a retreat—and through a large storage room—with no light at all—to the far wall, home to a rarely used exit to the outside, now barely outlined by the tentative hallway light.

“Where’s the light switch?” asked the guard.

“By the door,” said Alwyn.

The guard found it, used it, to no result.

“We hardly ever come here,” said Alwyn.

“The door?” said the guard.

“It leads to a short set of stairs to take you up to ground level,” she said.

The guard took as good a look as he could at the heavy, apparently fire- and burglar-proof door. Three latches, and a heavy-handed levered locking mechanism that looked like a challenge. The door belonged more on a ship than in a house.

The man took a closer look. “Does it open?”

“Sure,” said Alwyn.

The man shook his head and began to work the top latch, which had frozen in place from under-use. Swearing under his breath, he wondered again, “Sure?”

He tried the middle latch instead, which eventually did slide open, as did the bottom one.

“My house is burning,” screamed Mrs. Moore from the far entrance to the storage room.

“I know, Mom,” said Alwyn. “I know.”

The man returned to the top latched with urgency now. Turned again to Alwyn, “Do you have a hammer, something like that?”

“I’ll see.”

Alwyn looked around the dark room, an old work bench, places for tool on the wall, but no tools that she could see. A chest on a shelf, she went to open it.

“Never mind,” said the man. “I’ve freed it.”

“Good.”

He then started working the lever, which, too, was uncooperative from under-use, but which, too, worked free under the urgency. He unlocked the regular bolt, and pressed the handle. The door swung open on disagreeing hinges.

“Stay here,” he said to Alwyn, and slipped out.

The guard climbed the stairs one by slow one, then carefully peaked out over the stairwell rim. To his left, to his right, then not at all.

It’s an established fact that you never hear the firing of the bullet that kills you. The guard did not hear the firing of this one. Instead, he toppled backward down the stairs to land in a large, intractable, unbreathing pile.

 

:: 80 ::

 

Alwyn, however, had heard the shot, and knew immediately what had happened. And now, so apparently did her mother, who had come up behind her and now started screaming.

As if in reply a machine gun sprang to life then went quiet.

And all was quiet. Even her mom.

Alwyn knew she had to shut the door, or whoever had shot the guard would soon follow, only there was no way. She tried, once, and again, to shift the dead weight bulk of the still bleeding guard, but there was no way. Absolutely now bloody way. A third attempt confirmed it. The man must have weighed three hundred pounds, all of it refusing to shift, acting instead as the perfect door stop. There was no way.

Absolutely now way.

A rush of movement leaped over the stair railing, slipped down the stairs and tripped on the dead guard to land on top of her.

“What the . . .?”

Literally fell into her, pushing her back into the basement.

“Who the . . .?”

Scrambling to her feet, spotting a gun the guard had dropped—which she had no idea how to use—she nonetheless picked it up and trained it on the man, still on the floor, favoring his knee.

“Who the fuck are you?” she wanted to know.

“Not Arrak,” he said, still rubbing his knee. “And please, aim that thing somewhere else.”

“Who are you?”

“Harman-Karman.”

“Harman-Karman?”

“Yes.”

“Harman-Karman what?”

“Selby.”

“Harman-Karman Selby?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who are you?” She asked again. “Who the hell is Harman-Karman Selby?”

“A fan.”

“Oh, fuck,” she said. “That’s all I need.”

“Look,” said Harman-Karman. “Your house is burning.”

“I know.”

“Is that your mother?” he asked, looking toward the far end of the room, and the silhouetted Mrs. Moore in the doorway.

“Yes,” she said.

“How’s she holding up?”

“What do you think?” she said. “How would she hold up? With her house on fire and everybody shooting at each other in her back yard.”

“One way of putting it,” he said, which made her smile, or at least made her think about smiling.

“We have got to get out of here,” he added.

“I know,” she said.

Then he held up his hand, signaling for Alwyn to stay quiet, please, someone’s coming. Now she could hear him too, and her face turned in the direction of the open basement door, still unclosable for the dead guard.

They stood very still for what felt like minutes while the man worked his way down the stairs as quietly as possible. Then all the way down, and a head, peering into the darkness, trying to make things out.

One of the guards.

Other steps now, too. Running. The guard pulled his head back out of the doorway just in time to get shot. Twice.

He toppled backwards, hit his head, dead by now, and already bleeding out of two holes, on the concrete wall, then slumped down on top of his already dead mate.

Alwyn drew breath to scream, but nothing emerged. She tried again, but her throat had ceased to function. Neither did the rest of her. Could not move, could not look away. Could not speak.

“What was that Alwyn?” her mother wanted to know. Terrified now. “Have they come?”

“Has who come?” Harman-Karman wanted to know.

She looked at him as if she had never seen him before, as if trying to relate him to the dead persons one on top of the other not ten feet away.

“Are you expecting reinforcements?” he said.

“Who are you talking to Alwyn?” asked the voice from the doorway. “Is there someone there with you?”

She finally found her voice. “A man,” she said. “A man I don’t know.” And to Harman-Karman, “I have no idea.”

“Don’t let him in,” said her mother.

“He’s already in, Mom,” she said.

Her mom didn’t answer.

“You are not with them?” she looked at Harman-Karman, trying to ignore the dead men. An effort.

“Arrak?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s some thing,” she said.

“You’ve got to get out of here,” he said.

“My thought exactly.”

“Is you mother ill?”

“Hysterical,” she answered.

“Can she move?”

“Oh yes. She can move all right.”

Harman-Karman held up his hand for Alwyn Moore to be quiet.

“Who is he?” her mother insisted.

Neither answered.

Alwyn listened as hard as she could, but could make out nothing besides the angry hiss and scrape of flames. Then, yes, perhaps, a step on one of the outside stairs. A very careful one. And another one.

Harman-Karman moved toward the door, careful to keep in shadow. Pressed against the wall to the left of the opening, sidled toward it. Stood very still, looked, and looked.

“Who is he? Why don’t you answer me, Alwyn?”

The she heard quick steps retreat up the stairwell, and then nothing.

“He’s gone?” she asked.

“For the moment.”

“Arrak?”

“Definitely.”

“How many?” she asked.

“Just him,” said Harman-Karman, “but I’m sure he’s called for others.”

She nodded.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Yes.”

Her mother screamed her name several times.

“Is there another way out of here?” he asked.

“No.”

“No other way?” he said again.

“No,” she said again. “We can’t go upstairs. It’s on fire. This is the only way out now.”

Suddenly, as if privy to information she was not, he ran to the door, leaped over the two dead guards and disappeared up the stairs.

And a shot.

Then quiet.

[*:*]

Harman-Karman appeared again. “Get you mother,” he said. “Now.”

When she hesitated he repeated, almost screamed, “Now.”

She grabbed her mother by the elbow and dragged her in Harman-Karman’s direction.

“What, what, what?” she said, resisting her daughter’s pull.

“Mrs. Moore,” said Harman-Karman.

Her mother looked at him, unsure, scared.

“Mrs. Moore.”

“Yes.”

“We have to get out of here, now.”

With that he took her arm and virtually lifted her out the door. “Come on,” he said to Alwyn. She did.

To find her mother planted on the stairs, refusing to budge.

“Move,” he yelled at her. “Now.”

When she didn’t he grabbed her around the waist and carried her up the steps. Alwyn followed immediately behind. He turned to her.

“We have to get away from here.”

At that he grabbed her mother’s right arm, and as if on cue Alwyn took her left, and they quickly steered her toward the streets and escape.

Then another movement.

“Down!” yelled Harman-Karman, and tried to drag her mother with him as he hit the dirt. Alwyn Moore hit the ground at about the same rate as Harman-Karman, but Mrs. Moore had had quite enough of this, and would not drop on command.

The dying Arrak man only managed four or five rounds. Then, whether he ran out of ammunition or out of life, the shooting stopped. But not before two or three of his brief and final salvo had hit Mrs. Moore, and killed her standing up. She slumped into a small pile between them.

At first Alwyn had no idea. “Good,” she said to her mom. “Was that so damn hard, now?”

Then to Harman-Karman, “Is he dead?” Looking over at the Arrak man.

“I believe so,” he said. “Yes.”

“Okay mom, we’ve got to get a move on,” she said to the dead woman.

“Miss Moore,” said Harman-Karman.

“Mom,” she said. “Mom. Come on, get with it.”

“Miss Moore,” he said, and something in his voice finally caught her ear and she looked up at him, and then actually looked at her mom, black spreading from three wounds, warm and glistening in the angry light of the fire, now gaining a final hold on the front of the house as well.

“Mom!” she screamed this time, and seized her head, forced her to face her, screamed again, “Mom! Look at me. Look at me, damn it!” But her mom would not comply. She stayed dead, and that very famous face looked up from her mother’s and found Harman-Karman’s, pleading for whatever it was that he had to do to make things right.

Then she looked back down at her mom, and looked, and looked.

“Miss Moore,” he said. “We have to leave now.”

She finally looked back up. “We can’t leave her.”

“We don’t have a choice. We have to. More Arrak people will arrive any minute.” And having said that Harman-Karman froze and listened, “We have about fifteen seconds,” he said, and reached over and grasped her arm.

Then they ran.

 

 

:: 81 ::

 

Alwyn dreamed of trees. Which, in her dream, she found strange, because she never dreamed of trees.

A large forest, pines for the most part, though sufficiently deciduous to sing. She was somewhere within it: lost, though yet not lost. Protected, was the word. And she felt like singing in turn.

Closer to the surface, called there by pain, she wondered why she was moaning. And closer still, when the memory of her mother brought her all the way awake, she began to cry.

[*:*]

A knock on the door. She doesn’t hear it at first. Then again, a soft tapping. “Alwyn.”

When she doesn’t answer.

“Can I come in?”

He doesn’t wait for a reply before easing the door open. The hinges did not squeak was a weird thing to notice. But they didn’t, and she did. The next thing she noticed as all five foot eleven of Harman-Karman, concern—and a shadow of need—on his face. A syringe in his hand.

“How’s that leg?”

Pulsing. Dull and achy. Hurting, a lot. “It’s all right.”

“You sure?”

“No.”

“It’s hurting?”

“Yes.”

“A lot?”

“Yes.”

“Morphine?” he said, holding up the syringe.

“Please.”

She pulled the sheet aside to reveal her bandaged thigh. He frowned. “I’ll need to re-bandage this.” Then, without warning, he stabbed her with the needle and here came the warm no-pain-at-all as if a faucet with lots of it had just been opened.

“That’s better,” she said. “A lot.”

“Thought so.”

He frowned some more at the bandage before he began removing it. Which still did hurt, and she winced. “Sorry,” he said.

But he was good at this. Five minutes later her wound had been cleaned, disinfected, and dressed. It felt a lot better.

Then she remembered her mom again, her stubborn, stupid, egocentric, caring, and so cruelly dead mom, and flooded with a different pain, the morphine not quite strong enough to do the trick.

“Your mother,” he said. It sounded like a question at first, then she realized that it wasn’t.

“Yes.”

He said nothing, but looked as if he understood.

After a short silence, “You hungry?” he asked.

Which, now that he mentioned it, she was. Very.

“Yes.”

“Try to get some more sleep. I’ll fix breakfast.”

“I don’t think I can.”

“Try anyway. You’ll feel better.”

“I feel pretty good as it is, it’s just that . . .”

“I know.”

And then he gathered the old bandage, along with the empty syringe, and left he room. A few minutes later she could hear kitchen noises not far away, which brought her mother back and she began to cry in earnest.

[*:*]

He brought fresh fruit, an omelet, bacon, and coffee. This guy, she thought, had saved her life, and was continuing to do so. A fan, he’d said. Why on earth had he appeared like that?

She was about to ask when Harman-Karman turned on the television set. “Let’s see what gives,” he said.

Fine.

And there was her mother’s house, or what was left of it, still smoldering. Rivulets of smoke rising into the still morning air. And much steam, still.

The single most violent incident so far this Season, the news anchor said. Fourteen dead, not counting the old woman, who had been identified as the owner of the house. Four security guards, and ten what must be assumed to have been Arrak men.

It was still too early to sift through the remains of the house for what they feared might be the remains of Alwyn Moore.

At which Alwyn drew a quick breath. “My God. They think I’m dead.”

After a while her host said, “That’s the best news yet.”

“What on earth do you mean by that?”

“Arrak,” he said. “If Arrak thinks your dead, they will not come looking for you.”

He let that sink in, and sink in it did. Deeply. And she realized how true his statement was. “I hope I stay dead,” she finally said.

“My thought exactly,” he answered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Oates

 

:: 82 ::

 

Harry dreamed of trees. Not through the night—earlier on his dream had been more like nightmare; a dripping, dark, red, insistent, laughing, chasing, Storm-driven thing that had all but smothered him—but toward morning, on his way for the surface, he found himself walking in a light beech forest. Tall, straight trunks reaching into the clear blue above, like hands, like leaved fingers reaching for the far beyond, a touch of cloud here and there, gaily avoiding high above capture, and as he walked on the soft ground—pillowed by a moss of last year’s leaves, or from the year before that—from tree to tree, he touched each gray, shooting stem of forest elder and he felt at peace. He had reached a sanctuary, a shelter from, yes, the Storm—and he smiled in his dream as he thought the words, not really intending the pun, but certainly not avoiding it either.

[*:*]

When he opened his eyes he knew. He was in bloom. The beech forest receded and the Storm approached, entered, took over. The need.

It was not focused, this need, not at all, but need nonetheless. A low, burning must which seemed to grow out of the Earth and with each breath. Chasing before it, for hiding and safety, the small-winged notions of ascension, who like so many disoriented no-see-ums served no purpose at all now, save to annoy and perhaps disgust. These were his noble intentions, darting for cover, like so much dust.

He thought of helping himself.

Then some more of helping himself. But one of the many gnats darting for cover had left a trace and he remembered his resolve, the one about not giving in to the Storm, about floating above, and he almost laughed at himself, at the folly of even thinking.

But he didn’t vent, and he did manage a shower, and a cold one at that, and with the freezing water he gained some distance, and with the distance he felt the rustle of leaves and as the distance grew a little further with what he could have sworn was the scent of forest he began to feel like himself again, or like a reasonable facsimile of someone just like him who also had decided to rise above the storm and stare it down.

He dried himself, donned a bathrobe and sauntered into the front room. Vixer looked up. Eyed Harry with concern. Put his head back down on his front paws but didn’t close his eyes, didn’t let go of his human. Sensing the state of things, and in some doglike fashion remembering, understanding. Worrying. Not even thinking about food right now, although it was well beyond breakfast time, and not too far from his thoughts.

Harry sat down and turned on the television. Anything to keep his mind off.

Mayhem.

Fights, doorway copulations, sidewalk copulations, on benches, on stairs, in parks. Images of girls barely of age—and perhaps not even that—in full heat and now out and about (when they should have been at home—if indeed they had homes) testing the waters. So odorous, these young things, Harry could almost see the pheromones like little galaxies around them. In their first or second season. They must be runaways, he reflected, nowhere to go but the street, young and strong now with a heat few males could resist, and the camera (the operator—neutered for sure, for the picture was rock-steady) following the two, three, then four males drawn to this one particular honey. Eighteen perhaps, she is, if that, but very aware of her power, of the alluring zone she emanates, a magnet for the starving, for the large and not so large fish drowning in this river of must.

It never developed into fight. One of the men was a hunter, the only one among them, and as soon as the others saw this they backed off, soon gone. The hunter seized the girl by the arm.

She laughs, or it looks like she laughs, or giggles, before they vanish into an alley. The camera doesn’t follow them. It does not have to. Enough copulation to go around on other channels by now, on programs dedicated to the purpose. This was the news after all.

And this was the news. The Season: It’s Back.

As if Harry didn’t know.

[*:*]

And the news was also Alwyn Moore. A somewhat strange Alwyn Moore who now gazed into Harry’s living room, a sheet of paper in her hand, saying something Harry didn’t catch at first.

It was Always Moore all right, but not the normal one. This one was, this one was, Harry was trying to put his finger on it. Well, not really made up, for one. Her hair was in a pony tail for another, and her face shone a little, reflecting the studio lights. And, yes, emanating. She was emanating.

“We received this threat a little over ten minutes ago,” she went on to say, holding up a paper in her hand. “In this email to the station, Arrak promises to, as they put it, put an end to the myth and person of Alwyn Moore for her laughable attempt to thwart our mission.”

Vixer said something about food, that’s how Harry perceived it. While the rustle of leaves seemed to fade and the emanating person of Alwyn Moore grew more and more vivid. He had trouble hearing exactly what she was saying, as her features and obvious heat threw him, and as Vixer now rose and sauntered up to him. “Food,” he said. Or appeared to.

“Each person on this Earth has the freedom to choose,” he heard her say.

“Food,” said Vixer again, and Harry got the very odd sensation that his dog was more intent on distracting him than on food. And the leaves rustled a little again, too.

Then Alwyn Moore was gone and the news talking head, very made up and not glistening at all in the studio lights, hoped she’d stay safe.

Then back to mayhem news. And then some more of the same.

Harry turned off the set and rose. Made for the kitchen, Vixer in tow. Set the tea water going, and fed Man’s best friend (who was very appreciative—tail going).

Leaves still rustled and Harry felt unnaturally normal (or is that naturally normal, he thought). He made his tea, drank it slowly, to the softly scented rustle in his head.

When the telephone rang.

[*:*]

It struck Harry as probably the last thing on Earth he’d want to do right now: talk on the telephone. More than likely it was a sales call of some sort or another. Or work. Yes, it would be some problem (not of his making, he’d covered all his bases, he was sure of that) that his name had come up as a possible solver of. Yes, someone from work. Surely. And whom he did not want to speak to. At all.

After many, many rings the telephone gave up, and Harry finished his tea. Ate an orange. Then another. Then the phone rang again. Yes, definitely his work then. And it rang, and rang, and rang. The rustle of leaves faded, pushed aside by this ringing insistence.

In the end he answered, to shut it up.

“Harry. You’re there. You’re home.”

“Harman-Karman.”

“Yes.”

“What do you want?” A little—or not so little—annoyed with him for disturbing what he already looked back upon as his peace.

“Alwyn Moore,” said Harman-Karman.

Harry said nothing.

“How are you doing?” asked Harman-Karman.

“Not so sure.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was doing fine until the phone rang.”

“Doing what?”

“Drinking tea.”

“Drinking tea?”

“Yes.”

“You got company?”

“No.”

“Drinking tea?”

“Yes. I usually do.”

“We’re in Season.”

“Yes, I know.”

“And you’re drinking tea?”

He didn’t answer this. Instead he asked, again, “What do you want?”

After a short silence, Harman-Karman said, “Alwyn Moore.”

“Alwyn Moore?”

“Yes.”

“What about her?”

“Any idea how I could find her?”

“You’re going after Alwyn Moore?”

Going after might be a bit strong.”

“What would you call it?”

“My focus,” said Harman-Karman. “That’s what I would call it.”

“Your focus,” said Harry. His friend wasn’t making much sense. “I have no idea. No idea.”

When Harman-Karman didn’t reply, Harry said, “Your focus?”

“It helps.”

“What do you mean?”

“It helps me focus.”

“Well, obviously.”

“It’s more than that.”

“What exactly are you talking about?”

“Having a strong focus helps you focus.”

“And?”

“It helps keep everything else at bay.”

Every thing else?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it.”

“Your focus does?”

“Alwyn Moore does.”

“I see.” That made a little more sense. Focus. Yes, he could see that. Especially if Harman-Karman focused, that’s one thing he was very good at, focus.

“Do you have any idea how I could find her?”

“No.”

“Know anyone who would?”

“I don’t. But you might.”

Which brought no reply from his friend. Not for the longest time. “Still there?” he asked.

“Yes, sorry.”

“I said that you, not me, might know someone who might.”

“That’s an astute observation, Harry.”

“Thanks.”

“And you’re all right?” said Harman-Karman.

“So far, so good.” He was doing okay, wasn’t he? Then added, perhaps as a joke, perhaps not, “But let me know if she has any sisters.”

“Sure, Harry. I will.”

“Excellent.” Then, “Really, Harman-Karman, are you really setting your sights on Alwyn Moore?”

“That’s a great way of putting it: setting your sights.”

“Thanks; but are you really?”

“Yes, Harry.”

“You’re crazy.”

“No doubt.”

Really really?”

“Really really.”

“Doesn’t sound too feasible, or possible.”

“I know that.”

“But you’ve made up your mind?”

“I’m focused.”

“Oh, man,” said Harry.

“And you,” said Harman-Karman. “Are you starting it down?”

“I’m staring.”

And could think of nothing else to say. Eventually, as if to kill the silence, Harman-Karman said: “You take care now.”

“You too,” said Harry.” And good luck, with your focus.”

“Thanks, and you too, with your staring.”

Harry hung up. His hand shook a little. There was no rustle of leaves now, only the roar of the river, waters rising.

 

:: 83 ::

 

Harry’s Pine did his ancient best to fill his human. At first—during the cold shower, and then during the little tea ceremony—he succeed, and gained Harry some precious distance.

Until his telephone rang. Bringing the outside world, the Storm, crashing back upon him in the shape of his hunter friend.

After that he grew hard to help.

 

:: 84 ::

 

Harry walked back and forth through the house. Not unlike a caged animal, though the image did not occur to him. But he had found a grip on his resolve, to not, to not give in to the rising waters. And now he paced, paced, paced, room to room, past second by second of not doing of not doing what the river so insistently so insistently demanded he do.

Not bending, not bending.

Pacing, not thinking, pacing, not doing.

In the end he wore himself out, and by mid-afternoon he slumped back in his living room armchair, exhausted from not doing.

[*:*]

A vice, that was the first image. No, not a vice; Moses parting the Red Sea—the Stormy Sea—was the image; and not the parting but the ensuing rushing together again of the two walls of erect water. Slowly. Majestically. Inexorably. Seeking to press, fill, seep into every pore and cavity.

He resisted with his whole being. With parts of his being he did not recognize. For a moment it felt like he was generating force-screens, strong, water-proof vice-resistant force-screens, to keep the two massive walls of standing water apart, Harry in-between, the soon to be fatality.

Any moment now.

But his screens held, and now they held a little longer with the scent of pine in the air. And soft rustle. And held.

Immeasurable tons of water, of red, standing water, walls meeting above to form a tunnel now, a water-walled tunnel stretching out before him, humming with the need to collapse; at the far end: images: moving, swaying, beckoning.

Harry knew that were the screens to hold he must not look, must not grant them any existence, must in no way not pull them closer.

Shimmering in the far distance, they were the Storm’s key, they were what would unlock the screens to let the water come crashing down on him. They were the daemons what would slip in by unguarded invitation to open the vault of will from within, to beckon the Storm to come crashing and fill him entire.

He knew that a single glance in that direction would be fatal, would be tantamount to an invitation: for to see them is to create them, and to create them is to let them in.

But surely, one glance. One quick just-to-see-if-they-were-still-there glance, although he knew damn well they were. So why the glance? To make sure, to make extra, extra sure, he told himself; to fulfill: for without seeing, knowing, without perceiving—again—that they were still there, he would not know, would he? How could he? And not knowing, he would not be fulfilled, how could he? Unseen, they incompleted him. Unseen, he would remain, and forever: incomplete.

And so, choosing to ignore his own specious reasoning, the inner eye of Harry Oates lifted sufficiently to take in a stockinged leg, spreading out to reveal hunger, a vagina so moist, so shuddering with the need for him to enter, that all of Harry’s attention sped for her, Red Sea or no Red Sea, tunnel or no tunnel, crashing walls or no crashing walls.

[*:*]

And so, Harry Oates—now but another fatality—vented.

Once, twice, three times, and four, before he was sufficiently spent to regain a degree of self-will.

Messy. Very.

And to think that he thought he could. Laughable.

[*:*]

Afterward, he floated for a while, bopping like a bobber on the little ups and downs of rippling water. At peace. At last.

He hadn’t really failed. For there isn’t really such a thing as failure in the face of the Storm, is there? For it’s only natural, he told himself. Of course it’s only natural. It’s nature. Who was he to fight nature? He was part of nature, was part nature, how could he conceive of himself otherwise? And as long as he was part of nature—physically breathing, lungs, veins, stomach, genitalia, that sort of thing—he would, of course—wouldn’t he?—need to vent. Or he would overflow and explode.

Or he would suffocate for lack of breathing space, or he would be—and here came that interesting word again—or he would be incomplete.

Incomplete.

He tasted that word, that thought, and it had a piney taste to it. Rustling a little. Like food when you’re on a calorie-counting diet. You’ve had your 400 calorie lunch and your stomach knows it wants as much again to be happy. The feeling—at least for a minute or so—is of incompleteness. Just not complete without that desert, or another helping of French fries, whatever is within reach, really, which your stomach has a taste for.

In-com-plete. Not entire.

But here came that other word again, the one he’d ignored just a few moments ago, but which now rose again like a specter from some post-ethical nether region not so much tut-tutting as it approached—but that, too—as simply drawing closer to prove a point: failure.

He. Had. Failed.

He had decided not to, but he had done. A failure so fundamental it cannot be denied or hidden from: he had decided not to, but he had done.

And here it came, along with its siblings shame and dislike.

Failure.

An hour ago, thirty minutes ago, twenty minutes ago, he had still—no matter how confusedly, or crazily, or desperately, or sweatingly—been true to his own decision, still the master of his own actions. No longer so. Four minor explosions of semen—still fresh in memory—served to bear stern witness: he had failed.

What could possibly be more fundamental? Decide not to do, then do; or decide to do, then not do. Proving the point.

What point precisely?

Ultimate weakness, lack of strength in the face of obstacles. Incapable of. Lesser than. How can you live with that?

You forget and try again.

You forget and try again?

What else is there? Are you going to give up entirely?

But I’ve just shown that I can’t.

You can always start over.

I’ve already blown it.

True, true. This once.

This Season. I said I would, then didn’t.

Find something you can do, decide to do it, then do it.

Like what?

Like take a shower right now. You need it.

Okay, I’ll decide to take a shower right now.

Then do it.

I’ll do it right now. See, I’m standing up, I’m on my way.

And so Harry took a shower, dried himself down, and felt a little better about himself, though not much. He had, after all, decided to stare the Season down, something the Season apparently objected mightily to, and as a result decided to teach him a lesson or two about. Relative size, lessons like that.

But why? Why can’t I?

Why can’t you what?

Why can’t I stare it down? Rise above it?

Perhaps you don’t know precisely what to stare down, or what it is you want to rise above.

The Storm, of course. The Urge.

But what exactly is it? Where does it come from? And where is it going? And why is it?

I don’t know.

You don’t know.

I don’t know.

And that may be the reason you cannot stare it down, or ascend it. What precisely are you to stare down or ascend? The unknown is a formidable obstacle, a convincing whip.

So if I knew?

Possibly.

How can I find out?

You know as well as I do.

I do?

Sure.

With that Harry, dressed now, and looking out is living room window, sat down and closed his eyes. Something he should not have done for as he did his private tsunami rose again and engulfed him, venting him two more times.

Puppets and strings did not come to mind, but should have.

 

:: 85 ::

 

Harry’s pine tried again, and again, to enter his human, to fill him, to succor him, to gain him some precious distance; but the walls were too secure, the rising waters too infested.

His human had failed his noble intention. Miserably and shamefully—if Harry himself was to be believed. Not surprising to his Pine, for he had yet to see a human succeed, to see a human stand up to the waters once they rose and pried and squeezed through even the tiniest chink in the best willed armor.

For the Strom brooked no resistance—it was as if it fed on resistance itself, as if it usurped such strength as it took to defy it and turned this strength against the defyer. The devious cleverness of the Storm.

And again Harry’s Pine was very happy about the ur-choice made so many many pine generations ago, made a minute or so after the very dawn of time: to decline the offer of sex.

His human had become puppet. Impervious to the soothing presence of tree. Unable to sense and open, unable to let in.

Still, Harry’s Pine tried again to relieve the pressure, but Harry was in the tunnel now, laboring away and now headed for another small explosion and another convincing piece of evidence that he was not strong enough.

[*:*]

For a while Harry Pine did nothing. Nothing, that is, aside from filling the room where Harry was slaving away, to vent, as Harry thought of it. He filled it just to stand by, to be there just in case the tunnel walls would weaken and perhaps give access; though at the moment, red and glistening, and driving Harry the puppet toward yet another climax, the situation didn’t hold out too much hope.

Once in the tunnel humans are lost to trees.

Down the street a Juniper and an Elm were having a discussion with a Canary Island Pine about their human—out hunting. He listened in for a while, and even partook in their conversation. Not wholeheartedly, however, for he was concerned, very much so, about Harry the puppet, drowning, and drowning inside his house.

[*:*]

And again he filled Harry’s living room, filled it so much that even the tiniest of tunnel wall fissures would have gained him entry, but no doing: Harry was keeping the walls intact, red and pulsing, noisy with zeal.

Harry’s Pine sighed, then withdrew.

 

:: 86 ::

 

And again.

Harry was wondering where on earth was it coming from? He’d been at it all day. Was he handling some kind of backlog? Well, of course he was handling some kind of backlog, eleven months worth of backlog—and he smiled to himself at that, true or not—and again: the tunnel clamored for release, and again he set out to oblige.

Well, now that he’d blown it anyway, why not enjoy it, at least a little.

Or a lot.

And finally.

The tunnel receded, but not much. Breathing space, barely. Though Harry thought he heard the rustle of leaves, or the wind in his pine, but it must have been memory—or hope—for the stillness, now that he listened, was rustle-free.

Still, it was as if, as if, and the memory of smell of pine begged him to listen again, perhaps. But there were no trees in Harry’s living room. Only tunnel, and it was gathering itself for another onslaught.

As Harry sank. Again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Helen and Larry Suffolk

 

:: 87 ::

 

Helen woke first. She usually did, except during the Season when, as a rule, it was Larry who gently—or not so gently—shook, prodded, stirred her awake—he himself shook, prodded, stirred awake by need demanding he now shake, prod, stir awake hers too.

But this, the first official, morning of the Season, Larry was still snoring softly by her side when she turned over and opened here eyes. She twisted her arm free to see what time it was, angled her watch face toward the soft corner light to make out the dials: five minutes to eight. She knuckled her eyes clear of sleep, and hoped that she wouldn’t get a headache from oversleeping; anything beyond six in the morning was oversleeping for Helen, and for Larry too, still not so much snoring as moaning in his sleep. Well, they had been up most of the night, she remembered, and giggled softly to herself. No wonder he was still asleep.

[*:*]

She reached for the remote control and turned on the television, looking for and finding the mute button before the sound would wake Larry.

News at Eight. And the Season in full swing, by the looks of things.

And then an odd Alwyn Moore gazed into the den, then down at a sheet of paper in her hand, is if collecting herself, then she took a deep breath, and looked back up and right at Helen.

Helen unmuted the set, scrambling at the same time to lower the volume. Strange, Helen thought, not the Alwyn Moore she was used to seeing. No make-up for one, hair pony-tailed for another.

Alwyn Moore said, “Arrak has threatened to kill me.”

“Arrak has threatened to raze other convents.

“Arrak, by death and threats and violence, wants to muzzle us, make us bend to their demands.

Helen, interested, turned the volume up just a little, but that was enough to stir Larry awake who now sat up, looked at his wife, then over at the television set. Helen put a finger to her lips, I want to hear this.

“Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, this station, for one, will not be cowed into performance, or silence, and I am sure the same is true for our colleagues here in Los Angeles and across the country.

“The moment the public media gives in to blackmail, truth ceases to exist and there is only propaganda.”

KTLA’s star reporter paused again, as if gathering herself. She’s in heat, realized Helen, the woman is in bloom, fighting it down. A deep breath, then:

“We received this threat a little over ten minutes ago,” she said and held up a piece of paper. “In this email to the station, Arrak promises to, as they put it, put an end to the myth and person of Alwyn Moore for her laughable attempt to thwart our mission.”

Then she paused. Re-gathering.

“Each person on this Earth has the freedom to choose. I know many would argue that, especially now, with the arrival of the new Season, but even so. Each individual is free to choose, and if a person chooses to devote his or her life to religion, or to science, or to public service, it is a personal, and a sacrosanct choice, which must be honored by others.

“The moment this freedom is stolen, either by government—as in some African and Asian countries—or by blackmailers like Arrak, life—the beautiful thing we all do our best to cope with—this life ceases to exist, and becomes, instead, slavery.”

She paused again; not for effect, Helen realized, but it might has well have been, for it was very effective.

Then, again looking straight at Helen:

“This is Alwyn Moore saying goodbye for now. I will see you again after the Season. Stay safe.”

The anchor returned: “Thanks Alwyn. And good luck to you. You stay safe too.”

[*:*]

“Did you see that?” said Helen.

Larry had, and nodded, yes. Sure.

“Poor woman.”

“What?”

“They’ll kill her now.”

“Who?”

“Didn’t you hear what she said?”

“The nuns?”

“Arrak. They’ve threatened to kill her. And after killing all those nuns, yes,” Helen stopped. Took a closer look at Larry who was no longer listening to her, but—judging by the tent formed by the sheet—was ready to resume last nights activities.

And, come to think of it, so was she.

She turned off the television set, put away the remote, turned to her husband, and picked up where they had left off, exhausted, a few hours earlier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lara West

 

 

:: 88 ::

 

Lara West was safe among the trees.

She had just eaten first one, then another can of pineapple, drinking the juice right out of the can once the thick, sweet, yellow slices were all gone. In her eagerness, or thirst, really, she spilled some of the juice on her sweater. Wondered then if it would leave a stain if she didn’t soak it in water right away. Decided it probably would, and so changed into a shirt instead, and brought the sweater down to the edge of the water and soaked it for several minutes; the cool water welcoming her hands, not really cold, just kissing her fingers with the memory of cold, comforting her with the silky grip that is water.

She brought the dripping sweater back to her cave; wrung it softly on the way, then hung it to dry.

She was still hungry though, and went rummaging for another can of pineapple, one more should do it.

Then there was a knocking on the door, which struck her as very odd at first, since the cave didn’t have a door, and odder still now that the door no longer sounded like a door but like an alarm clock, an alarm clock begging to be let into the pineappley shelter of trees and lake.

And wouldn’t take no for an answer.

And wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Until Lara finally awoke, looked over at the alarm clock which she had forgot to disarm the night before, now screaming: seven o’clock over and over and over, and then she reached it and said, yes, I hear you.

She fell back and looked up at the ceiling. Distant and gray. Overcast. Not much of a welcome. Not like trees at all.

Was the last thought she had before she drifted back to sleep, returning to the cave and the missing third can of pineapple.

Must be here somewhere. And then she slipped another layer and into black, and didn’t dream at all.

She woke up again with a start: pineapple.

She was starving.

The ceiling was still overcast, the room was cold. She hugged the quilt around her for warmth, and reached for the remote control. The little bedroom television sizzled into life with the News at Eight.

Lara watched—still not absolutely sure where, precisely, she was—how exactly the world was going crazy, and not so far away either.

Going crazy. But what had she expected?

[*:*]

An unmade-up Alwyn Moore filled the screen, she looked very serious. No, determined, she decided. Quite determined. She didn’t say anything for a while, just sat there with a sheet of paper in her hand.

Then she looked up and said: “Arrak has threatened to kill me.”

“Arrak has threatened to raze other convents. Arrak, by death and threats and violence, wants to muzzle us, make us bend to their demands.”

Lara, all the way awake now, turned up the volume.

“Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, this station, for one, will not be cowed into performance, or silence, and I am sure the same is true for our colleagues here in Los Angeles and across the country.

“The moment the public media gives in to blackmail, truth ceases to exist and there is only propaganda.”

“We received this threat a little over ten minutes ago,” she said and held up the sheet of paper. “In this email to the station, Arrak promises to, as they put it, put an end to the myth and person of Alwyn Moore for her laughable attempt to thwart our mission.”

Lara shivered a little, and not from the chill in the room, though partly that too.

“Each person on this Earth has the freedom to choose. I know many would argue that, especially now, with the arrival of the new Season, but even so. Each individual is free to choose, and if a person chooses to devote his or her life to religion, or to science, or to public service, it is a personal, and a sacrosanct choice, which must be honored by others.”

Lara, could not agree more. Fascinated now by this woman, whom she had never really liked, and now did.

“The moment this freedom is stolen, either by government—as in some African and Asian countries—or by blackmailers like Arrak, life—the beautiful thing we all do our best to cope with—this life ceases to exist, and becomes, instead, slavery.”

Alwyn Moore paused, as if fighting for balance, then looked straight at Lara:

“This is Alwyn Moore saying goodbye for now. I will see you again after the Season. Stay safe.”

The anchor returned and said something Lara missed for a strange certainty had risen and threatened to drown everything else: this was all her fault. If only she had left for the glade, this would not have happened.

Her staying had killed all those nuns.

But that was crazy, of course. Utterly.

Of course.

She hugged the blanket around her, and shivered a little again; this time all from the room. The gray, overcast, tree-less room.

Would the glade miss her?, she wondered. Would those tall and indifferent trees even remember? Would they realize she had not come this year?

Part of her hope, really hoped that they did.

Then she thought again of that determined black reporter denouncing tyranny, and again she agreed with all her heart. Now there was someone taking a stand, making things happen. She admired the effort, and the courage, a little daunted by the risk—she realized—that the woman must be taking. These Arrak people were not joking.

[*:*]

And then there was another knock, on another door. Another alarm.

Another disturbing presence. Demanding Entry.

At first she looked around for the source of the sound: the telephone, the front door—none of those, not the alarm clock. Her bedroom window, too, was silent.

Even though she knew she would find nothing she rose and went into her living room, perhaps those windows, the wind, branches, a bird perhaps. No.

She sank back onto the sofa and closed her eyes, or perhaps they remained open—later she wasn’t sure. She saw, whether eyes closed or not, her right hand slither down her belly and into the warm and insistent voice she finally heard. As if coming from Arcadia Blue, that isolation cell, that first Season when she wasn’t sure what to expect.

Staying here, away from the protection of trees, she had not been sure what to expect; but now, observing herself reaching for the itch that was more pain than itch, she realized that she should have. Known.

[*:*]

For she fell. Over and back and down and falling still she found the itch and the movement that would still it—no, not still it at first: intensify it, to bring it out and up and into explosion to then still. And as she fell the walls turned pink then red then pulsing and the room became cell became tunnel became gullet became insatiable—falling still.

[*:*]

Falling, she knew what she was doing but knew, too, that she was powerless not to. Rising—still now, breathing hard but evenly—she knew what she had done: she had done precisely what she—she—had decided not to do, and what now washed over her in one sickening wave after another was, first, shame, then dislike, then hatred: the hatred the quelled feel for the quellor. And all aimed at herself for not leaving when she could have; for now she could no longer.

She knew that as the blood-colored gullet yawned again for another swallow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neutered

 

 

:: 89 ::

 

It’s been a long night.

Sometimes I don’t notice it, how long they are; they spin by so fast you never stand still long enough to worry about things like that, there’s just one thing after another to take care of.

But sometimes I do notice; those times when things disturb me, and the disturbing was well on its way from the moment they told me they’d let him go in the morning. Setting the killer free. Same as, I kept telling them that, but they would not listen.

His sister did come to collect him at eight. None to happy, I could tell. No love lost between those two, but collect him he did. Next of kin and such.

I had to get him some crutches, which he wouldn’t take at first, not until he discovered he could not walk without them—what an idiot.

Last I saw of him he was hobbling behind his sister toward the elevators. I felt like spitting after him but that wouldn’t do. Instead I turned to see what else, what last things: my shift was over, finally.

I don’t like traveling during the season. I prefer staying put. But what can you do?

The 47 bus was late—buses are always late, only just more so during the Season. But then it came, laboring around the corner like a steel whale, leaning a little, then straightening out and sighing to a stop where we stood, me and a half dozen others—also working at St. Mary’s, I recognized them. The bus sighed again to open its mouths to let us in.

I knew the driver. Well, knew might be too strong a word. Still, he smiled at me as if he knew me. Then said, “Night shift?”

To which I answered, “Yes.” And I tried to smile. Nothing’s to be gained by not being polite. Mom used to say that a lot. She was always right about things like that.

I wish my bus would go from a St. Mary’s A to an Alta Dena B (that’s where I rent my apartment), but it doesn’t. It’s more like a slow-moving sightseeing service for Southern California, and by the time I stepped off the bus it was almost nine o’clock. Well, that’s just ridiculous.

Still, I said “thanks” to the driver, who smiled at me, before he sighed the door shut behind me and urged his whale into motion.

I live modestly. More than modestly. Tersely. That’s how mom puts it. Tersely. I can come up with a lot of adjectives that would describe my one room apartment better—that’s one bedroom, a living room, and a kitchenette just off the living room, to your left just as you walk in—but then again I think of it as terse (although apartments can’t be terse, not really) and have to agree with mom: it’s terse.

It’s light though: on the third floor facing south—actually, more like southeast, thought not quite; what is it they say, south by southeast? Or is it south-southeast. Anyway, I get a lot of sun in the morning, and during the day, though not so much in the evening, which suits me just fine.

Light and terse.

[*:*]

I think briefly about fixing myself something to eat before I go to bed, but, honestly, I’m too tired. Instead I drink some juice and sit down for a moment on my terse living room sofa, and look out into the terse south by southeast sky which is all light blue by now, some white sunlit clouds, ignorant of the madness below. Ah, to be a cloud.

To have no idea.

A new record, said Bernstein just before I left. Record? I asked. Forty-nine. He said.

Admissions? I wanted to know.

Yes.

We don’t have forty-nine beds, I pointed out.

They had to put some in the basement, he said. A new record. He seemed almost proud of it, as if this was his doing, his achievement, something that would earn him a plaque.

Forty forty-nine (we have forty beds in our ward) made it up to our floor last night, and during the morning hours. It was crazy insane wild ridiculous, but not in a way that makes time go fast, quite the opposite. It slowed time down it was so crazy, as if there were to be no end to his one.

Yes, we filled up all the beds, and, if Bernstein is to be believed—and why should I doubt him, he looked so proud—we began stacking them in the basement as well. Four died within the hour. Three more before I left, all on the ward, freeing up beds. Whether they then moved people up from the basement or brought us new ones to refill the beds I don’t know.

When it gets that busy it’s not much you can do for them. Lots of morphine, the worst ones into surgery to set limbs, cut out bullets, stem bleedings, that sort of thing. Most of our guests come to us from the losing side of fights. Some—you can usually tell by scratches, UII victims scratch a lot at first—winners, but so injured during the fight that I don’t see how they possibly could have functioned sexually; much less enjoyed it. But they seemed to, some arrived with grins on their faces: things carried out. This while bleeding so much they would be dead by now—should be dead by now—had they not been found and picked up and brought it.

Crazy insane wild ridiculous, and slow. An awful night.

And then to let the killer go. There really is not rhyme or reason to all of this. And I really should get some sleep.

I have to be back there in ten hours.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fletcher Jones

 

 

:: 90 ::

 

“Oh, anywhere is fine,” he said.

Sam asked, “You have the pills?”

Fletcher patted his pocket. “Yes.”

After some driving Sam said, “Here’s fine.” Then she turned around and asked him, “Got any money?”

“No.”

“Here,” she said and handed two twenties over her shoulder.”

“Thanks,” he said.

He got out of the car.

“Take care,” said his sister.

“Yes, take care,” echoed his brother-in-law. And off they drove, leaving him, knee achier by the minute now, and his gut and erection throbbing with Storm, on the sidewalk. Not even waiting for him to answer. Not had had planned to.

Florence somewhere. Fletcher did not recognize precisely where.

He rested on his crutches, looked around. Landmarks. Familiar signs. No. Could not place exactly where he was, couldn’t see any street names either from where he stood. He sampled the air. Sampled it again. And again.

Didn’t really care where, precisely, he was. There was plenty to choose from.

If only the damn knee. Then he remembered the pills. As he pulled the bottle out of his pockets, the two twenty-dollar bills Sam had given him fluttered to the ground, and he had trouble, real fucking serious trouble, bending down to pick them up. Fuck.

Then he dropped his bottle, which rolled away from him, mimicking his sister and her god-damn husband. He put the money in his back pocket, then hobbled over and stooped again; another fucking production just to catch the bottle and pick it up. Fuck.

Caught it though. Took two pills, which he couldn’t swallow without something to drink, so he chewed them instead, and chewed some more into dry and bitter powder which was hard to swallow.

He fitted his crutches to his armpits, they seemed sore already: don’t tell me they’re going to fucking hurt, too. This was going to take some getting used to.

Then he hobbled a few steps, stopped, sampled the air again, and found her scent.

Clear and calling. For him.

[*:*]

She entered his nostrils and filled his head, filled his body, drove the aching knee away—with some help from the painkiller, perhaps—lifted him in the direction of.

He turned once, twice. And again. There. Not two blocks away.

The sidewalk ceased being sidewalk, turned shallow river upon which he floated, walking on smoothly flowing water in the direction of.

The buildings, to his left, and across the street, to his right, approached each other, narrowing the channel, forming a ravine, elevating the river to rapids, flow to turbulence as he moved—unaware of his hobbling, of the already pain in his armpits—in the direction of.

The sky first lowered then darkened then shifted from blue to magenta and farther still to red, and redder still, as he ran, fled, raged in the direction of.

One block away, not even that.

He turned to his left, filled anew with the explosion of need that rushed his nostrils, and then saw her, moving away from him but not at his speed.

Other scents: other needs: grittingly from behind, breathingly from his left, urgently from farther left, rapidly from ahead, in the direction of.

He stopped, turned, saw. He was not alone. Of course not; how dumb can you fucking get? To think. He took more careful stock: one was approaching from up ahead, smoothly on undamaged legs, not looking left or right but only at the honey who herself had now stopped and was looking around, either alarmed or thrilled by the attention rushing her way; two were approaching from his left—half a block apart, one of them running now; a fourth one was coming up from behind, running too. And each on the same scent, no question about it.

The one up ahead was closing in on the woman now, as was Fletcher. The others closing as well.

Fletcher could not tell whether or not the honey was smiling as she slipped into a recess leading to a closed electrical supply store: gated, gone for the season. There she stopped, and yes, definitely smiling now, all this wicked attention—oh, you’re going to get what you have coming, honey.

Though he really should have backed off: a weak but realistic voice tried to make itself heard, drowned by the escalating rush of need. He was not going to listen to that shit. This was his honey, he had spotted her first, he was the closest, she was his by right. He’d be fucked if he’d back off.

Instead he set out again, picking up speed now, almost leaping onto his crutches (which should have hurt his armpits—probably did—but he wasn’t about to notice, not in his condition), making good headway.

He got there first, almost.

The man approaching from ahead had a couple of steps on him, and as he drew up beside the woman—not a bad looking one, either, now that he got a better look—the man planted himself, arms bent and hands fisted.

“Forget it, pal.”

He looked soft to Fletcher. And young. He had the size on him, but not the strength, Fletcher was certain of it. If only his damn knee.

“Listen, kid. Why don’t you disappear? And no one gets hurt.”

“What? You? A cripple?”

Fletcher had had enough of this, and raised his right crutch as a weapon. Brought it back to strike, when someone grabbed it from behind, ripped it out of his grasp, and kicked him heavily in his back.

All of his weight shifted to his damaged knee and suddenly pain arrived from everywhere.

Someone else arrived, and instead of engaging the man who still held Fletcher’s crutch, he joined him in delivering well-placed and fever-induced kicks into the writhing shape of Fletcher Jones.

As did someone else just arriving from the darkness.

[*:*]

Fletcher Jones knew that remaining on the ground meant death. This was a certainty.

He curled, thrashed, rolled, and tried to elbow himself away from the killing shoes, shoes, boots, boots. But always into the path of a new kick, another broken rib, unseeing eye, or punctured organ.

With a scream, as loudly as he had ever screamed, he heaved himself up onto his knees, then onto his feet, fueled now not by lust but by sheer survival—the raw need to stay alive. His left knee threatened to buckle under the strain, now that pain no longer wielded authority. But that meant back on the ground and meant death, so instead Fletcher spun and lurched at the face of an amused, then surprised middle aged man, and buried his right index finger in the man’s eye. Pushed and pushed and ripped it right out of the socket.

The man screamed, almost as loudly as Fletcher—still calling up strength from that final source that refuses to die—then grasped his face, hands now read and stick with blood, then turned, ran. One less.

Fletcher made to turn to the next man, but the baseball bat hit him first. He never saw it, had not seen it, it simply arrived with the sickening sound that said crushed bone, shards of which now bore into his brain, deeper and deeper as the bat slowed and slowed to a standstill, and then fell away from his face.

Fletcher didn’t hear the bone crush, nor did he hear the shards splinter and enter what he had not really thought of as home, but had nonetheless occupied for a troubled lifetime; it was more like an internal acceptance that death had (from some unknown unseen somewhere) arrived unexpectedly—for he had really thought he could fight his way out of this, knee or no knee.

Death arrived as echo to the impact, first by color, than by ripple, then by falling, and falling, and finally—once what had just moments ago been the wailing swinging tearing ripping Fletcher Jones now lay crumbled broken and bleeding, heaped, disregarded—as rising.

He was surprised. Very.

That he could see what was him—no, used to be him—being prodded by toes of shoes and boots, turning him over—that thing that wasn’t really him—turning it over to view the vacant blood-filled stare of the recently deceased.

They backed off then, the remaining three men, each drawing deep lungfuls of breath as if steadying themselves, as if refueling. One less contender. Two less, actually.

The woman tried not to smile, but the power that surged through her—that she was the source of this, that she had brought about this ultimate sacrifice to her allure—left the smile intact. She quickly surveyed the remaining men, assessing; then retreated a step, then another, into the recessed entrance, out of harm’s way from the fight that any second now would erupt again: there was no team here, only individuals intent on the price, intent, come what may, to prevail and then mount her.

Fletcher could not see her thoughts, but nonetheless knew what she was thinking as he saw her step back into the recess, while the remaining men began circling.

Then, another voice, and Fletcher suddenly found himself elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrak

 

 

:: 91 ::

 

The man Alwyn Moore had presumed their leader, the one neither James nor Tom; the one in a suit so navy blue as to amount to black, with a matching turtleneck; the one with gray hair and a finely trimmed full beard. The one who didn’t speak. That one who now rubbed the bridge of his nose with thumb and index finger, as if he had been wearing glasses for too long and was now easing built up pressure.

But it was not his nose that ached, it was his head.

And he had a name. It was Raphael. And he was indeed their leader.

He sat with James (who’s name was not James, but Sharid) and Tom (who’s name was Thomas) and three other men—all generals of his organization—in an elegant corner office in the same building and on the same floor where they had taken Alwyn Moore less than twenty-four hours ago.

Sharid, still dressed in his gray, double-breasted suite and bluish shirt—though he may have slept in these clothes: they had lost their crispness over the last many hours—looked at Raphael with a mixture of concern and apprehension, then over at Thomas, then over at the others, but said nothing.

It was, Thomas, still also in a gray suit—though he had changed from his white collar-less shirt to an expensive black jersey—who spoke. “My take is she perished in the fire.”

Raphael’s hand went still. He opened his eyes and looked up at Thomas.

“Your take?”

“Yes, Raphael.”

“But we don’t know, do we?”

“No.”

“And the older woman, her mother. She escaped the fire?”

“Yes,” Sharid said. “She was found outside, on the grounds.”

“Shot?” said Raphael, wanting confirmation.

“Shot,” confirmed Thomas.

“And you think Miss Moore remained in the building after her mother made it out?”

“There is no trace of her,” offered one of the other three men.

Raphael looked up at him.

“Which means precisely what?” he asked.

“Which means that she either perished in the flames, or that she has escaped,” said Sharid.

“That is precisely what it means,” said Raphael. “We will not know for sure until later today, or tomorrow—once they’ve sifted through the ashes, if indeed they will get to that at this point—whether she is dead. However,” and he looked from one of his generals to the other, “for now we will assume that she is not dead; that she has escaped.”

“I don’t see how,” began one of the men, but meeting Raphael’s eyes he fell silent.

“She had help,” said Raphael. “Good help. Two of our teams—three, in fact—are dead. To a man. Her four guards are dead too. Someone else, either one or several, must have come to her rescue.”

He paused to again look at them each in turn. “We will proceed on the assumption that Miss Moore is alive. And we will find her, and we will kill her.”

Thomas nodded.

Sharid said, “Yes. Yes, we will.”

Raphael dismissed no one, so no one left. He fell silent again, however, and resumed rubbing the bridge of his nose.

Three teams had failed to kill this woman. And two additional teams had failed to find her. Perhaps she was dead, perhaps she had stayed in the basement of the house for some reason, perhaps she ran back to get something, who knows what, and then didn’t ma