|CHAPTERS 11-20 | 21-30 | 31-40 | 41-50|
FUTURE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING NOVEL
A supposition of intermittent progress
By Richard W. Baker
LATE IN THE SUN-DRENCHED AFTERNOON they found Jack's dehydrated corpse sprawled across an altar atop the ancient pyramid. Decimating his chest was a deep incision smeared with dried blood. His heart was gone. His guts, swarming with flies, stank; in the hot jungle sun, they had begun rotting the moment they were exposed to outside air. The expression on his face suggested astonishment.
Jack had been a rangy six-foot-four, and his legs protruded awkwardly from the pint-sized altar. His right arm had become detached from his trunk and lay at the altar’s base. The thumb pointed up, suggesting a dejected, but persistent hitchhiker. The stuff that used to be Jack could never be reconstructed for a bearable funeral. Too gory to ship to Maine, his body parts would be bagged and burned. Pinkal, this long ago abandoned city that Jack had brought to light, would be the final resting place for his ashes. Mayan ghosts would have to endure this gringo intrusion forever more.
Juan, a highly decorated colonel in the Guatemalan army, got there first. He was near retirement age and had put on weight. In Guatemalan restaurants, there are hundreds of varieties of tamales, and Juan had tried most of them. Climbing the massive pyramid had left him winded. As he paused to catch his breath, he felt his ample stomach turn. A veteran of Guatemala’s endless internal warfare, he had seen his share of broken men, but never anything like this. "Who could have done such a thing?" he asked Carlos, the young lieutenant who had climbed the pyramid with him. Carlos shook his head. This atrocity was far outside their realm of shared experiences.
Both men were well aware the Mayans had once practiced human sacrifice. Ceremonial protocol had involved extracting the still-beating hearts of vanquished foes and in a barrage of blood fling them down to the wildly excited masses at the foot of the pyramid. Modern-day Mayans weren't proud of this, and most were quick to point out that the Aztecs, known to sacrifice thousands in a single afternoon, had been far more bloodthirsty. Almost to a man Mayans felt this part of their heritage was best forgotten, and that it was better to celebrate the striking artwork and feats of ancient astronomers and calendar makers.
Juan had heard young Mayan men speak disparagingly of gringos plundering ancient artifacts, shipping them back to Boston and New York for the entertainment of ignorant gawkers. He wondered if some young Mayans might be dreaming of reclaiming lost glory through retribution. "Could this be the beginning of a rebellion?" he asked.
"El Cobra and his men have been staging raids in the north," Carlos said. "They dream of overthrowing our properly elected government. But they haven't come here. Our young men want none of this."
"Properly elected?" Juan scoffs. "Surely you jest. But I pray you're right about our young men. I pray to the Holy Virgin Mother you're right."
A MONTH EARLIER, a far more animated Jack jolts me out of a deep sleep. I had never realized my communicator ring could buzz so incessantly. Jack’s buzz is a tone I find particularly irritating. Groggily I consider flushing the device down the crapper although the last time I tried I couldn't get it off my finger. Much more of this and an amputation might be in order.
Reluctantly I twist the stone that activates the infernal contraption. I assume Jack is calling to cancel his account. Why he is getting things underway at four-twenty isn't clear, but at this hour nothing is. No matter the time, I hate it when customers quit, even when doing so is clearly in their best interests. As a self-taught Webmaster of dubious technical experise, I take most everything personally.
"Doug, ol' buddy, did I awaken you? Please tell me you were up already." When I don't say anything for way too long, he resumes speaking. "I need to meet with you. Today. Early as possible. Can you make it to Mickey D's by seven?"
"That gives me two-and-half hours to get ready and make that two-minute drive. That’ll get me there a tad early, but what the hell, I can get started chugging the coffee I expect I’ll need. Yeah, sure, I can be there."
The sarcasm is lost on Jack, which comes as no surprise to me. Still it makes me sad. When we met, five years ago, Jack was the essence of civility and sensitivity. He was cultured personified; his manners impeccable. Nobody could have been more in tune with the nuances of gratifying human relations. Women loved him, men respected him, small children tugged his pants leg. Now more times than not Jack was oblivious to the needs of others. Events have turned Jack into a insensitive boor, not to mention hard-core nut job.
This isn’t to say Jack doesn’t have good reason to be unhappy. I shouldn't have called him a flaming, asshole, whack job, shithead. Not in public anyway. As a webmaster, my sacred duty is to serve a client’s every i-whim. Still, everybody more-or-less concurs with my admittedly blunt assessment. No doubt about it, Jack has fucked up his life big time. Most of all nobody wants to hear about his close association with his good buddy Quetzalcoatl.
Everybody was caught unprepared when Jack filed for divorce from Dinah at the same time that he took up with Lilly Muller, a barely-of-age coed at his university. Everybody had regarded Jack and Dinah as a perfect couple. She is attractive, a great cook and conscientious housekeeper, a creative hostess, a loving mother for their two young boys. On several subjects, she has an almost encyclopedic knowledge, making her a fascinating conversationalist. She also has a quirky sense of humor, which tended to keep Jack at least a bit humble. Jack wouldn’t discuss what prompted him to pack a bag and move into a over-priced studio apartment not far from campus. He kept saying that the move was best for all concerned, but nobody believed him.
By six-fifty-five as I pull up to Goggle/McDonald's it is already uncomfortably warm. This week’s Ellsworth Online has suggested that this summer's oppressive heat may actually have contributed to a reasonably healthy tourist season. Maine may be hotter than Hell, the article maintained, but it still beats the parts of Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia that have managed to stay dry. Of course, the season was nothing compared to the ones of old. Acadia once attracted better than three million visitors a summer. As expected, visitation fell off sharply since the nation’s national parks, including Acadia, were privatized. Acadia has been particularly hard hit since efforts to hold back the sea have mostly failed. These days, Mount Desert Island is approachable only by boat and moorings are few and expensive. The ferry makes five round-trips daily, but people still find it inconvenient. Of course the fifty-dollar-a-day pass price hasn't helped either.
I glance at the casino sign in the lot once belonging to the now-abandoned Key Bank. Eighty-five degrees already. It promises to be another triple-digit, rainless day.
Looking up into the cloudless sunburnt sky, I can count maybe a dozen drones. This is about average, although at times there are a hundred or more. I stand still in the parking lot, waiting for one to pick me out. It doesn't take long. The drone, a flying computer packing more intelligence than any mere mortal, has taken only a few seconds to lock onto me. Its quantum-controlled brain has noted that I am unchipped, and it is coming near to read my iris. Once it gets a clear image, it'll enter it into the system and have full access to my record. It'll separate out the data it regards as pertinent and enter it in to a logrhythm. It very well might conclude that I am a murderer and sentence me to death.
So far none of the drones that have surveyed me have done this, and I am fairly confident this one won't either. It's a big one, a bit ungainly, and old with a wingspan of at least twenty feet. It reminds me of a pterodactyl and is well on its way to being just as extinct. No need for undue concern. Early ones like this are notably conservative in their decision-making. They seemed a bit uncertain. Newer models are a lot more cocky. Museum specimens like this are mainly for show.
I stand still facing it. If I avert my face or take any other evasive action, it will hang around until it can make positive recognition. The evasion will be recorded, adding to the preponderance of probable guilt that already weighs heavily against the probability of a far-off future existence. To identify me, it needs to get within about fifty feet. I can’t be sure it isn’t heading in for a kill. Even junkers like this have lethal capabilities and could at any time decide to exercise them. Still my hunch is that's not what it's up to, and even if it were, there isn’t a blessed thing I can do about it. It swoops down close, hesitates, then circles back high above our small city.
I am glad when I get inside the restaurant and feel cool air. I am pleased to note the air conditioning is still functioning. No great surprise; this time of year, mid-November, it generally doesn’t cut out until early-afternoon. Electricity became an uncertain thing when the government shut down the last coal-burning utility in a futile gesture to stem the atmospheric accumulation of CO2. It was a waste of time. By the time the last denier slunk off, it was way too late to slow things down much.
I park myself in my favorite booth, the one near an open receptacle for my old i-pad. It's almost fully charged, but what the hell, why not use free juice? Most places have discontinued free WIFI–the more desirable customers have chips built into their brains– but for reasons not easily understood Goggle/McDonald's hasn't. Not yet, anyway. Precious as electricity is, my friend Goggle/Mac doesn’t seem to mind my using a little of its.
I glance around. I don't want anybody to witness my entering the code for my anonymous server. While not exactly illegal, accessing an internet separate from Goggle's might raise a few eyebrows. I peruse my messages and find nothing of interest. I punch a few keys and log into Goggle News (privately my cohorts referred to it as Giggle News; it tends to put a rosy glow on everything) when Jack sits down at my table. Dispensing with the “howdys” and the “how’re ya doings,” he twitches for several seconds before telling me, “We’ve gotta find him...”
“By we I mean you. You’ve gotta find him. Right now I can’t think of anything more important.”
"Quetzalcoatl, of course."
“Your pal is missing?”
“He’s vacationing, taking time off. Playing golf, actually.”
“So why not leave the poor guy alone?”
“He’s challenging us. I told him you’d be able to find the portal. He knows about your book, "Mystical, Magical Maine." For some reason, your book stimulated his competitive juices. He's challenging us. He says the portal is Downeast Maine's most magical spot and insists you'll never find it. I told him nobody else knows the mysteries of Downeast like you do. When I assured him you would have no problem finding that portal, he actually said ‘poppycock’.”
“I would be surprised if anybody has said ‘poppycock’ in at least two hundred years.”
“He did. Sometimes he has problems with the vernacular. He forgets which era he's in. A while back he referred to you as a young whippersnapper. He admires your outlaw status, says you’re just like Billy the Kid or a Bonnieless Clyde. He’s very articulate, but one day he spoke of Charles Dickens and Stephen King as though they were good buddies. In any event, knowledgeable as you are, he doesn’t think you’ll ever be able to find his portal.”
"You read my book, right?"
"Of course, I did. Enjoyed every damn page of it."
"Then you know that in the preface I emphasize how subjective my notion of magic is. It's a feeling of awe I get from time to time at certain places. It's a sense I get that miraculous things could happen there. These feelings, I say again and again, are completely my own. Others may or may not share them. This works both ways. Clint might feel that his portal is the last word in magic, and I might feel nothing at all."
"What about the haunted places? Sometimes you relied on others."
"True enough. There were times I accepted the accounts of others when it came to ghostly encounters. It's hard to verify ghosts.They can be most uncooperative. But I still don't know how I might respond to Clint's portal, should it exist and should I ever come across it."
"Clint says you would be overwhelmed by its magic. But he insists it doesn't matter, because you'll never find it."
“Assuming I would ever bother to look. I suppose I am expected to feel slightly offended, to listen to my hackles and rise to the challenge.”
“It’s vital you do so. We’ve gotta keep him interested in us and away from the others.”
“Others? What others? And should I ask why?”
“No, you really shouldn’t. I need you to trust me when I say finding him is absolutely vital, but I simply can’t explain why.”
“Finding him really isn't my job. I am your webmaster, not your lover or your private dick.”
"Nobody knows Downeast like you do. Certainly nobody knows more about its mystical aspects. I don't know how you do it, but I am convinced you can sense magical auras. I can't believe there are many you haven't already found."
"I don't even know what you and your imaginary friend regard as 'magical'. You say he read my book. Is there any reason to hope we're on the same page when it comes to magic?"
"Quetzalcoatl has used the word magic again and again when referring to the portal. Truth is I am not exactly sure what he means. I know you'll scoff, but I believe it might have something to do with alternative dimensions. He has hinted there are trillions of them and that he passes freely from one to another. All you really need to know is where that portal might be."
“What I really do know, Jack, is that I find the whole Quetzalcoatl thing ridiculous or, at best, confusing. Sometimes he’s a feathered serpent, which, even in Bar Harbor, must make him conspicuous. He sounds like a mascot for a demented sports team. At other times, he’s a white-skinned, bearded Caucasian, the guy that Montezuma confused with Cortes, quite likely the biggest and last mistake he ever made. Which is he?”
"He’s both of them, and probably a thousand other beings as well. He’s a spirit, a will of the wisp, an ethereal gasp of energy. He assumes whatever form he chooses. He introduced himself to me as Quetzalcoatl because he knew I would be intrigued. He knew I was an archaeologist specializing in Meso-America, and people here are still waiting for the return of Quetzalcoatl, and if, in fact, should he return, I would love to arrange an exclusive interview.”
“So he got your attention.”
“Oh, yes, for sure. He definitely got my attention.”
“You realize I suspect he is about as real as the as the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny. Granted, a thousand years ago a bunch of Meso-Americans put a great deal of faith in him, and I guess many still do, but just as many Southern Baptists put just as much faith in Beelzebub, who, cloven hoofs and all, never came on as ridiculous as a feathered serpent.”
“Forget the feathered serpent stuff. Forget Quetzalcoatl for that matter. He wants us to call him Clint. If you see a guy in red, checkered plus fours, it's probably him. He thinks these are still appropriate golf attire.”
“Clint you say?”
“Seems he's a big fan of Clint Eastwood, Bill Clinton, and Richard Clintford Burgess.”
“Intriguing characters, especially R.C. Burgess, a legendary cocksman. As an Ambassador at large, he claims to have fucked women in 87 countries. Are there really 87 countries?”
“There are, including some you've never heard of. With him we're talking both quantity and quality. He didn't confine himself to just any women. He insisted on going after the wives, daughters, and girl friends of high-ranking officials. The more ill-advised an affair, the more he felt compelled to go all out. His charms were amazing and his penis, I’ve been told, was monumentally goat-like. He infuriated important people wherever he went. If he hadn’t kept files on everybody who was anybody in Washington, he would have been forced into retirement long before he was shot. As it was Washington had to keep moving him from embassy to embassy. People were so pissed that when he wasn’t available to kill, they often decided any American would do. Towards the end, Washington had to abandon so many embassies, President Beldin finally decided to disband the entire diplomatic corps. Fortunately this went along with our country’s newfound appreciation for Libertarian principles. Didn’t really matter. By this time we had methods far more efficient than diplomacy to keep other countries in line.”
“And this is the guy our Clint wants to model himself after?”
“I have come to realize he has a finely honed appreciation for beings of an opposing sex. This includes beings with descriptions far beyond your powers of imagination. It’s a miracle he never went after President Beldin. Or if he did she never reported it. She would seem to be his type. But what he really wants more than anything is to be one of the guys. He believes that the more females he screws, the more guys will accept him. He claims to have lost count of the various life forms he has had sex with, and I see no reason to question his word. He has said he wished they all could be California girls, but I have a feeling he says this only when he's on planet Earth. He has said he wants to be a Beach Boy, referring to a now defunct musical group. When he isn’t going on about surfing, he obsesses about golf. He says he loves the firm thighs of female golfers. He says he wants to be the kind of guy that other golfers want on their scramble teams. He doesn’t believe me when I tell him that the ability to get up and down from fifty yards out would be far more advantageous than getting up and down with countless women. His highly touted sexual capacity if anything would make guys uneasy. Unfortunately, from fifty yards out, he skulls as many over the green or chili dips them short as he puts within 20 feet.”
“So who cares?”
“From what you’ve said, he seems to be a real asshole jerk.”
“It's easy to see why you would think so. But you can’t apply ordinary standards in judging him. You’ve gotta remember, he’s not a mortal man. He’s a free-floating spirit. He alternates between pure energy and solid mass and can assume whatever form he wishes. It’s possible he’s been around literally forever. He claims he can remember the Big Bang. He says he was along for the ride when the Big Bang boomed and in a second or so the universe expanded at a speed much faster than that of light. He says it was one hell of a rush.”
“What a guy. I guess he has license to do whatever he wants. And on top of it all he wants to be your friend. Any idea why?”
“No, but for some reason he likes to confide in me.”
“Up until recently, yeah, lucky me. He has done me some mighty big favors. Don’t forget, he led me to Pinkal. The pretty little bug I brought back earned me a cover shot in Archeology News. I shouldn’t have to remind you of this. God knows you’ve posted enough lost city photos on my website. In some circles, I am really quite famous.”
In other circles, you’re regarded as a lunatic, I reflect. But of course he has a point. The long lost city of Pinkal is no longer lost, thanks to him. Jack had hacked his way through miles of Guatemalan jungle, foliage that nobody had penetrated for at least a thousand years. There is no denying that something inspired him to beat this brush, and he insists it was Clint who was urging him on. When he first started blathering about Quetzalcoatl or Clint or whoever the hell he was talking about, I thought that some sort of jungle fever had rotted his brain. Still, the bottom line is he found that city.
And Pinkal isn’t just another abandoned Mayan city. It is, in Jack’s words, the most astonishing of them all. It was, Jack insists, a city that could not have been built without extraterrestrial assistance. The city walls had exact north-south/ east-west orientations. Stones for the pyramid, some weighing over two tons, were brought from a quarry 300 miles away. These people had neither wheels nor draft animals. Building the city, Jack insisted, was clearly a supra human endeavor.
There are certainly plenty of people who refuse to buy this last assertion. But it is awkward for them to find a way of denying a Mayan/Egyptian association. In this city, Jack found a scarab beetle medallion that could only have come from Egypt. Once carbon-dating proved it went back at least 4,000 years. It was accepted by some as incontrovertible proof that there had been intimate contact between Mayans and ancient Egyptians. Even though most mainstream archaeologists chose to ignore the finding, it had made Jack semi-famous. He chose to have me build the website sensationalizing his discoveries, getting him on the wrong side of several university trustees. So far Jack’s tenure and fame has enabled him to thumb his nose at them. He has even able to get away with dating Lilly, a barely-of-legal-age, daughter of worried parents.. Tenure is wonderful, but it doesn’t render one completely bullet proof. His contract has a moral turpitude clause along with verbiage making forced retirement possible should mental or physical illness render him unable to perform his duties.
Several trustees have urged the others to press a case against Jack. So far the others have held fast to the notion that Jack might rebound back to being one of the university's most popular professors. Jack is well aware that his status is tenuous, but this hasn't led him to stop insisting that it was Quetzalcoatl who introduced the Mayans to the Egyptians. Quetzalcoatl, he has said time and again, was little more than a go-between, a communications bridge between the two cultures.
According to Jack, Quetzalcoatl put himself in jeopardy by getting too involved in earthling matters. It was a direct violation of protocol, but he says he couldn’t help himself. The Mayans were trying to build with stone, but their buildings kept collapsing. Quetzalcoatl encouraged them to stack stones into pyramids. This struck me as a no-brainer, but evidently it had never occurred to the Mayans. Apparently they were way better calendar-makers than structural engineers. In any event, Quetzalcoatl ended up bringing over master builders from Egypt.
"The master builders were helpful," Jack conceded, "but they weren't enough. The Egyptians had extra-terrestrial contacts, and they brought them in to assist the Mayans."
I remember the first time I heard Jack mention alien advisers. When I asked about them, Jack side-stepped the question by asking, “How much do you know about Egyptian pyramids?”
“Just that they’re giant tombs for ego maniacal pharaohs,” I replied, knowing full well my answer was inadequate. (Very often the temptation to bait Jack was impossible to resist.)
“Wrong,” Jack shot back without hesitation. “They’re not tombs at all. They could be observatories; their alignment coincides with solstices of that time. But they’re probably power plants. That’s the opinion of a growing number of experts, anyway. These days hardly anybody with any claim to expertise believes they’re tombs. Had they been tombs, they would have contained mummies, right? Well, they didn't. Not a single mummy has ever been fund. By the way, did you know that pyramids are found on all the earth's continents?"
Jack had already told me all of this, of course. More than once. Jack had told me more about pyramids than I ever wanted to know, and I had come to pretty much ignore them. It had become pretty much a ritual for me to let Jack fill me in on pyramids. Part of my role was to pretend to be chastised. So I hang my head in mock shame. The ball seems to be back in my court, so I ask, “What does Quetzalcoatl say the pyramids were for?”
"He has been vague on this point," Jack admits. “One day I asked him point blank, and all he would say is ‘they are what they are.’ But as everybody knows, many of the blocks in an Egyptian pyramid weigh several tons. The Egyptians didn’t have the technology to hoist and place them precisely. No way, Jose. They couldn’t do it, and I am not at all sure we with all our technology could do much better. But the Egyptians did it. I am submitting they had assistance. Clint agrees."
“I think you should find yourself some other friends. As far as I can see, Quetzalcoat or Clint or whatever his name is, is not a fun guy. Why don’t you just tell him to go fuck himself.”
“I can’t,” Jack insists. “Please don’t ask why. I just can’t. All I can say is that it is vitally important you find him. I need you to promise you’ll try to find him. Give it a go. That’s all I ask. Just try. Okay?”
Watching Jack plead is more than I can take, so I just look down at my nearly empty plate. It isn't even mid-morning, but I still feel like I need a nap. Fatigue is settling in like Eastport fog. My eyelid muscles have turned to mush; they're losing the battle against gravity. One thing for sure, I need to be away from Jack. “Yeah, sure, whatever you say,” I mutter. “I’ll see what I can do. Why the hell not? But now I’ve gotta go.”
AN HOUR AND A HALF LATER, I am on Route One heading towards Rockland. I did grab a nap, but it had to be a quick one. Beside me is Noah Winston, a semi-retired lawyer who gives me legal advice in exchange for taxi service. Mentally, the seventy-nine-year-old barrister is sharp as a tack, but failing eyesight renders him unable to drive. He has friends throughout Downeast Maine, all of whom sooner or later require his legal acumen. Today I am taking him to see a woman in Rockland who feels she is being stalked by rebel drones.
“Are there really such things as rebel drones?” I ask.
“Doesn’t matter,” Noah replies. “Not in the slightest. In her mind there are such drones, and they're focusing on her. It’s possible they're real. Martha may have strayed from the straight and narrow. She derives a modest income from the sweaters and scarves she knits and sells at craft fairs, and she admits she might have neglected to mention to Goggle some under-the-table cash she received. It's been awhile since Congress privatized IRS collections, and many people have been slow to recognize Goggle's authority here. Somewhat understandably, Goggle is touchy about such things. I don't believe any such drones would harm her, but Goggle may have dispatched them to intimidate her. If this is the case, I'll enter a formal objection. There are still a few friendly judges out there. No where near as many as I'd like, but still a few. Martha is a dear old friend, and it's my job to put her mind at ease.”
Noah, like me and most of his clientèle, is unchipped; unlike me, Noah could easily have been chipped. In his day, he was highly influential and greatly respected, and even after computers had taken over most legal grunt work, he could have signed on as a consultant or special adviser or some such thing. His refusal to be chipped is his way of protesting what he calls the mechanization and dehumanization of our culture. Less poetically, he told Goggle CEO Howard Champ to go fuck himself seconds after he had been offered a position as Senior Adviser for the Executive Committee to Deny Climate Change or some such thing.
I am able to give Noah rides because somehow I have managed to keep my ancient Accord on the road. These days nearly all cars are driverless electrics, operable only through the chips embedded deep in the brains of registrants or their assigned alternatives. Hotshits at Goggle never tire of repeating how both auto crashes and auto thefts have been reduced to near zero. On top of that, there are few uninsured motorists since the chips in registrants' brains have insurance factored in. Only outcasts such as myself have to worry about unprotected liability.The same fat cats never grow weary of pointing out that cars like mine, besides being uninsured, are controlled (sometimes out-of-controlled) by unpredictable mortals, assholes who are often distracted, angry, inebriated, drugged, insane and/or dangerously fatigued. Goggle insists we constitute a public menace, and sometimes we do. If it were not for the cost and effort of enforcement along with the near impossibility of extracting fines from the chipless, cars like mine would have been outlawed long ago.
So, in the spirit of Libertarianism, they have allowed a rapidly dwindling number of folks like me to stay mobile, certain that problems of obtaining fuel, spare parts, and mechanical services, not to mention the losing battle against the ravages of rust and corrosion, will grind us to a halt. They're right, of course, but I am determined to hold out as long as possible before I am forced into walking. My only long-term hope is that I might come across a truly rare book. A first-edition Carrie in fine condition would fetch a much better vehicle.
Noah’s legal practice has all but ground to a halt. He once represented a dozen or so large corporations, but not now. He has been reduced to giving advice to people who, for one reason or another, are divorced from the system, people he calls unchippables. Legally, he isn't even supposed to be doing that. He has no license to practice law. He has friends, not clients, long time associates who have gone astray. As would be expected, they have problems paying him. I know of one instance when Noah worked two-and-half days for a ham sandwich. The provider wasn’t even able to perk it up with mustard and a pickle. And this was far from his worst day. I know there were many other days when Noah received nothing more than deep gratitude.
“What time is your lady friend expecting you?” I ask.
“In time for a late lunch. I will be spending the night, and she will drive me back in the morning.”
I have to hand it to Noah. Old as he is, he's still attractive to the ladies. Although he once told me that sex at his age was like playing pool with a rope, he still ties down more than most. Gray hair and beard have made him look distinguished, not old. He speaks in softly modulated tones, and often seems remarkably wise. His social persona is utterly without pretense. ”I am what I am,” he often says, bringing to mind Popeye the Sailor Man without spinach or biceps. “No sense pretending I am somebody I wouldn't care to associate with.”
I glance at my watch. Nine-fifty-five. My business is in Belfast, but I have no objection to taking an additional 45 minutes to get Noah to Rockland. It gives me a little more time to plumb his brain. So why wasn’t I? For reasons I don’t quite understand, I am holding back.
Jack’s urgent, early-morning request has wrenched my mind into meditations on magic. My grandfather used to say that the age of miracles is past, and I wonder if the same can be said for the age of magic. Maybe they're one and the same. Thus it is that as we pass through Orland, Maine’s Red Paint People come to mind. Not much is known about them, except that they were here an awfully long time ago. Anthropologists say they go back at least 7,000 (and maybe 9,000) years, long before Egyptians were building pyramids. These same anthropologists say they weren’t related to the Indians that greeted fourteenth century Europeans. They represent a whole separate branch of humanity, one with seemingly no past and certainly no future.
So who were these mysterious people? We have found a few of their stone implements, but the main way we know they were around is the red ochre they used to decorate graves. Sometimes they used a lot of it, a gallon or more, and they must have regarded it as vitally important. The nearest source for the ochre is Mount Katahdin, several days walk away. Nobody has come up with a convincing explanation for their obsession. What we do know is that five of their graves have been found in Orland, more here than anywhere else. These days there isn't much going on in Orland, although it is home to WERU, a fine community radio station. To the Red Paint People, however, it obviously was a special place. They wanted their dead to be buried here and to be adorned by red ochre. The Red Paint people appeared and disappeared as if by magic. Is it absurd to suspect they might have used magic to bring their ochre here?
We are crossing the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, passing by its amazingly high observation tower. (Local tourist brochures bill it as the world's highest bridge observation tower, although for all we know it might be the world's only one.) I am considering how best to deal with this in my guidebook when Noah weighs in. “You’ve got something on your mind. I can tell. So out with it, young man.”
I hesitate to say anything. By this time I am preoccupied not by the peculiarities of ancient inhabitants, but by another big idea. This one was all mine, but the particulars are vague to say the least. I don’t want to bother Noah with what, at best, was a half-baked scheme. But finally I decide, what the hell. “I am thinking of writing a sort of tell-all guidebook,” I say. “No more pulled punches, no more puffery. I know just about all the business people in Downeast Maine. Why not call the assholes asshole? Maybe blow the whistle on the motel-restaurant owner who shafted me out of fifteen hundred bucks. Maybe even point it out when somebody influential cheats on his wife or keeps two sets of books."
“Is some of this retribution for how you’ve been treated?”
“Maybe a little. But wouldn’t I be doing the traveling public a service by letting them know who the jerks are? A really good guidebook might try to lead people away from them.”
“You would be dealing in highly subjective material,” Noah points out. “As I am sure you realize, one man’s pirate is another man’s prince. Should readers regard your opinion as holy grail?”
“Maybe, maybe not,”I say. “It’s up to them. But writers take risks. Good ones live dangerous lives. They stick their necks out, bask in the glory when it’s forthcoming, accept without complaint occasional, but inevitable, unpleasant consequences.”
“So in your quest for literary glorification I guess popularity no longer concerns you.”
“That’s pretty much the case. I am already a pariah among the upper echelon chipped.”
“If you’re asking for a legal opinion, I would have to say that legally you would have no problem. Goggle isn’t entering allegations of libel into the matrix. They say that under their governance freedom of expression has become an absolute. In other words you can write or say any damn thing you want with no fear of legal repercussions.”
“This is a good thing, right?”
“Only if through the mud you’re the dragger, not the dragee.”
“But certainly Goggle is acting altruistically…” I love playing devil’s advocate. Noah will never entertain the possibility that Goggle might act altruistically. If I am sure of anything, I am sure of that. And, of course, Noah is unamused.
“Get real,” he replies. “The big brains at Goggle have never entertained a single humane thought about the chipless. They have, however, gotten a bit smart. The have come to realize that stifling communications always backfires. Heroic communicators will always find a way to get their message out. They know if enough different people say enough different things, nothing will take root. Throw enough shit at the wall, and none of it will stick. It all becomes a mishmash of incomprehensible jibber jabber. There is certainly no way to organize a rebellion that would challenge its authority.”
“Will you ever get over wanting to stick it to the man?”
“Not likely. Not in this lifetime.”
“Most people, at least those with chips, are happy with the way things are.”
“I don't believe they are happy," Noah says. "What they are is satisfied. They're satisfied because their basic needs are met. Since there's nothing much to complain about they try to show gratitude. But hapiness is something else again. Happiness is feeling progress is being made toward achieving a future goal. Happiness is a sense of hope for a better future. Happiness is a sense of achievement."
We ride on in silence, which Noah finally breaks by asking a pointed question. “Do you know what your major problem is?”
“Poverty, lack of love, stupidity, no ambition?”
“Those are miner faults. Your major problem, and just about everybody else’s, is a lack of conviction. You have no fighting spirit. It’s not your fault, really. We’ve run short of causes obviously worth fighting for. Until recently, this nation has never lacked just causes. Self-government, emancipation, women’s suffrage, defeating Hitler, fighting Communism, supporting organized labor, defending evolution, repealing prohibition, peace, civil rights, animal rights, vegetable rights, trans species rights, freedom of choice, legalization of forbidden substances, homosexual marriage, capital punishment, tax refusal, legalization of prostitution, the battle against fascism, the list is endless, or so it seemed until recently.”
I think about refuting Noah’s point. Maybe I should defend myself. In my mind I have shown plenty of fighting spirit since my fall from grace. I have never completely buckled under to Goggle. I have operated a private, rogue server, hosting the online pages of unchippables in the face of Goggle’s tacit disapproval. A few years ago, Tom, my young, cyber-savvy right-hand man, devised a way for anybody anywhere to attach pages to my server. His software is such that the authorities have a very hard time determining who has done the posting or where they might be. Users can encrypt these pages or leave them open for any and all to peruse. The encryption, while state-of-the-art, isn't perfect. Goggle can crack it and has. But doing so requires a warrant from our tired, old judicial system, and Goggle hasn't bothered going to the trouble of chasing down a living and breathing judge all that often.
I decide to stick up for myself as best I can. "I am all about defending free speech," I assert.
"True, you are," Noah concedes, "but you don't give much of a Goddamn what's said. You allow everything, but support nothing."
And that's the way I like it, I say to myself. No doubt I'm lazy, but I am content being left with no control over what I host. "I am pleased that maybe I'm making Goggle squirm," I say. "Surely you would agree I am making a worthy contribution."
Noah nods. "You're such a tease."
"I suppose I am. Being naughty makes my day. Goggle knows there's little sense dragging me into one of its courts in a show of quasi-legality. It has no chance of gaining access to anything encrypted on my server. I couldn't assist them if I wanted to. I have taken free expression to the ultimate extreme; anybody can say anything, advocate anything, threaten anybody, and tell lies til the cows come home without fear of retribution."
Noah is unimpressed. "I am sure you realize you're hosting some pretty bad stuff," he says. "Word on the street is one can find high grade military weaponry, stolen art and hot jewels, even hit men and sex slaves. You're catering to some nasty people, slime balls intent on committing the most unsavory crimes."
"So I've been told. You've gotta remember I am not the boss of that server. It's a free for the taking public utility. I've made it a point to excuse myself from jury duty. I haven't seen most of the content and don't want to. My ignorance is, indeed, bliss. Postings are complementary. What money I do make is from clients who want me to create or maintain web pages. I like to think of my server as the one place on Earth where anybody can broadcast a primal scream around the world and suffer no consequences. Was it Voltaire who said, 'I may disagree with what you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it'?"
"He is credited with having said something like that, but I don't think he was talking about turning young girls into sex slaves."
Score one for Noah, but I still like things the way they are. What is free speech if you think it should only apply to people you agree with? Legally I am home free. In this great Libertarian land of ours, independent servers aren't prohibited. Few things are. Goggle might not like them, but tough shit. I am well aware that my server has allowed several anonymous whistle-blowers to avoid consequences while making public serious corporate and governmental malfeasance. I have also been told that officials working for important Goggle bureaus–– including national parks, prisons, and online news––are using my server because they realize it offers far greater security than Goggle's.
Admittedly, there have been a few hitches. All had gone well with my original server until it was destroyed by a fire that investigators (from Goggle) decreed had been caused by spontaneous combustion. It took the life of my good friend Robert Mann. Later I learned that all over the country there had been instances of independent servers bursting into flames. Bad batteries was a common explanation. Plenty of fingers have been pointed Goggle's way, but no one could prove culpability. Just because Goggle had long contended that its servers were all the world needed, one couldn't positively conclude that it would take steps to make this so. To be sure those rogue servers hadn't seriously threatened Goggle, and nobody could prove that such a high and mighty corporate entity would bother destroying them. Still, so many mysterious fires would make anybody with half a brain suspicious. My current solar-powered server deep in the Guatemalan jungle requires scant maintenance. Once in a while, Jack washes off the solar cells.
Thinking about my friend's horrific death has made my attention wander, and I haven’t realized that Noah has been been speaking. When I come to, he is saying, “When there was nothing else, there was always two parties facing off. The Democrats, on their good days, thought they were battling to level the playing field between haves and have-nots. As they saw it, they were fighting in behalf of the common man. The Republicans, on the other hand, thought they were defending individual rights against corrupt collectivism. In their minds, they were the defenders of freedom. The Greens thought they were saving the environment. Members of all parties tended to feel self-righteous. From everybody's standpoint, it's us against them, and that is how it should be. Out of the turmoil comes progress.”
“Long live the Hegelian dialectic,” I say.
We ride on silently, and I think I have achieved at least a temporary synthesis. But it doesn’t last long. “It might interest you to know,” Noah says, “that Hegel never used the terms thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The German philosopher Fichte popularized their usage.”
I sigh, but keep my mouth shut. I know better than to argue with Noah. Why bother? No doubt he is right, not only about Hegel, but also about me. I am not wholeheartedly devoted to any particular cause. When it comes to conflicts, I can usually see all sides. Sometimes I think I should have been a lawyer. In my mind, there almost always is something to be said for all concerned. I'll argue either side of a case with equal conviction. More often than not, I am willing to admit I just don’t know whose argument I like best.
'There are often many sides to a given issue," I say at last, "and I am cursed with being compelled to appreciate most of them."
"I suspect you're harboring a few heartfelt moral principles," Noah says. "I happen to know you've turned down some decent commissions."
It's true, I have. I did say no to the young lady who wanted to post instructions for assembling a dirty radiation bomb even though her sizable, jiggly breasts were braless and she hinted I could expect payment in hot, sticky sex. And this was before Marlina and I became an item. I also had turned down the guy who wanted a site glorifying pedophilia, gentlemanly man-boy love as he termed it. There had been a skinhead or two, and one with a do-it-yourself germ warfare kit, but for the most part I had been more than happy to argue anybody’s case. Of course these people were free to have their sites made elsewhere and posted on my server in a fashion that would be difficult to trace.
I suppose my scarcity of deep down convictions might make my life a bit empty. But this is far from my most pressing problem. Competing for first place right now is the one I acquired that very morning. What exactly do I owe Jack? I had made some sort of commitment, but am not sure what it is. Yes, I had agreed to look for Clint, but what exactly does this mean? Certainly it means more than a cursory glance hither and yon. For sure it calls for some sort of honest, concerted effort. Still, it has to mean less than kicking every suspicious bush in the territory. Something in between will have to do.
"You've lived in these parts pretty much forever, " I say to Noah. "Where would you say is the spot most magical?"
"Impossible to determine," Noah replies. "There's magic everywhere. There's more magic in a drop of water or a thimble full of topsoil than we could grasp in a hundred lifetimes."
This was exactly the sort of wise answer/non-answer I had anticipated. Too bad, because this was one instance when waxing philosophical wasn't going to do. I needed something solidly definitive. True, I know my way around eastern Maine, but am not at all convinced this qualifies me to find the region’s most magical spot. Coastal Maine has long attracted mystics of every stripe, but as far as I know there is no single thing drawing them in.
"I need an actual place," I say. "Think man. Where should I look?"
Noah gives the matter several moments of quiet contemplation. Finally he says, "I suspect it would be somewhere in the intertidal zone. The area between low and high tides is home to creatures who have adapted to both land and sea. They perform magic daily and routinely."
Still no help. Maine's intertidal zone, a jagged line tracing every cove and inlet puncturing its coastline, is more than 3,500 miles long. Tripping from Maine to California entails shorter distances. To find Clint's portal, in the unlikely event such a thing exists, I need to zero in on a particular spot. My first impulse had been that my guide might point me in the right direction. It seeks out businesses capable of passing what I call the "Oh Wow Test." My theory is that any business that survives its first two years has some sort of Oh Wow Factor, something uniquely special that sets it apart from the competition. When I figure out what that is, I publicize it. Still, there's a deep chasm between the typical commercially adaptable Oh Wow Factor and the unfathomable mystery of Downeast Maine's most magical spot.
My agnosticism goes way beyond religion. It readily extends to Mayan man-gods. Pinkal or no Pinkal, I am far from being ready to concede that Clint is real in any sense other than Jack’s delusions are real. It seems more likely that Jack is the victim of an incredibly canny con man. Chances are Jack has been bamboozed by a crook—not any ordinary run-of-the-mill crook, but an extraordinary one. Certainly no ordinary slickster could have convinced Jack he was, among other things, an ancient Mayan man-god. Jack is no dummy. Far from it. Jack’s I.Q. dwarfs mine. He skipped a couple of middle school grades, was in college at age 16, got his PhD. without breaking much sweat. Jack has book smarts for sure, and also street smarts. As a college student, he supported himself selling used cars. And misused cars, he is quick to point out. He tells funny stories about how he was taught to twist the truth, never all that much, not so much that it could come back to bite him, but enough, as he put it, to turn lemons into lemonade. Whoever was working Jack had both talent and patience. For sure, he is taking his sweet time. Jack has assured me there has been no attempt to appropriate money or anything else.
"Clint seems to be able to will money into existence," Jack once said.
Yeah, right. How nice for him.
I am having problems dealing with the concept of "most magical place." Can magic be a matter of degree? Or is magic something like unique? Unique means one of a kind. A thing either is or is not one of a kind. It's either unique or it isn't. One thing can't be more unique than another thing. Can the same sort of reasoning apply to magic? To be magic, a thing must violate the rules of normal reality. A thing either violates these rules or it doesn't. Logic insists that something is magical or not magical, but not more magical than something else. So what the hell am I doing looking for Downeast Maine's "most magical place?"
I want to help Jack. I really do. In some ways I feel a bit to blame for the sharp downturn his life has taken. I could have gotten him to tone down his website. It has been mostly my idea to use bright primary colors and plenty of 60-point aerial bold. I haven't hesitated to use all my Search Engine Optimization tricks to make sure that Goggleworks will bring it up no matter how vaguely a query might reference it. All those splashy exclamation points are mine, but now they're like darts piercing Jack’s hide.
But it really isn't guilt that's motivating me. Simply put, Jack has been more than a client. He's been a friend, a man I could trust to do what he says he will do. I know that somewhere in the abominable new Jack the old Jack is alive and well. I need to find a way to bring him out.
All of which means that I will do more than go through a charade pretending to look for Clint. There is always a chance that by poking around I will find the guy conning Jack. This is a long shot, for sure, but within the realm of reason. Truth be told, I also see the possibility of personal gain. Inquiries about magical places might point to interesting material for my book. More realistically, however, inquiries about magical places will get me branded as certifiable. Oh well, it wouldn't be the first time.
Magical places, I muse. Where are Downeast Maine's most magical places? Clint or no Clint, it is an interesting enough query. The guidebook I have been working on the past five years seeks to touch upon every important aspect of Downeast Maine. "Captain D's Insanely Great Guidebook to Downeast Maine" is going to be my crowning glory. It is a new kind of guidebook, one situating pretty much every relevant point of interest in the territory, but paying particular attention to those places that pass Captain D’s Wow Test! Sure, I would point out pretty much everything. With it people would be able to locate not just the usual tourist traps, but also such things as churches, doctors' offices, greenhouses, fast food franchises, car washes, beauty parlors—you name it. Editorially, it is laid out geographically, making it easy for strangers to find most anything. The book I envision will be extraordinarily useful to first-time visitors. I certainly don't want to overlook the region's most magical spots, wherever they might be. My idea of making it completely honest was new.
I believe in magic. I am convinced we experience magic every day, but don't usually recognize it. It is so commonplace that it goes unnoticed. By this I mean I believe there are some things science will never explain. Love pops most immediately to mind. Pyramids, ESP, spirits, Philadelphia experiments, disappearances, spontaneous combustions, and the unlikelihood of life itself are others. I hope to God, (another case in point), science will never deprive us of our delicious and wondrous mysteries.
I am no scientist. Far from it. But I have read just enough about quantum mechanics and astronomy to realize there is much more to reality than our everyday senses perceive. You certainly can’t rely on intuition. In the land of the very, very small, objects can routinely be in two places at once. They can move in more than one direction at the same time. They can go backwards in time and faster than light. Sub-atomic particles twinkle in and out of existence. Their very existence seems to have something to do with our observing them. Perhaps they sometimes buzz off to other dimensions. There's ultra-strange quantum entanglement, Einstein's “spooky action at a distance." Two particles at opposite ends of the universe can interact instantaneously. No time lag permitting communication as we perceive it. Destroy one of these particles and the other perishes in lockstep. Before the Big Bang, everything there ever was or ever could be was packed into a microscopic dimensionless wad of nothingness. A timely explosion, at a time when there was no time, created us all. We are all made of stardust. If this isn’t magic, what the hell is? Then, or course, there is dark matter and dark energy comprising most of what is, but forever beyond our sensual reach. Alice’s wonderland made far more sense than our reality.
I am reminded of the words of author William Whitecloud. "We are magical beings. We make everything up — our personalities, our life experience, everything. We can just as easily make up a brand new life, exactly the way we’d love it to be." Maybe everything we experience is in a dream.
Nice idea, and I believe it. Trouble is I also believe the opposite, that genes and events barge in, forging distasteful actions and personalities. If quantum mechanics allow bits of matter to move in two directions at once, or to communicate instantaneously over vast reaches of space, it must be okay to hold contrary opinions. Who was it that said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”? Try as we might to create scintillating new persona, we’ve all been impacted by painful bugaboos that are bound to warp our most creative intentions and inventions.
I don't give a flying frisbee how technologically advanced we might have become, people still feel intimidated by malevolent magic. We are superstitious as ever. Tiger Woods and Brian Goodman both wore red shirts on Sunday. Brought them luck, they insisted. And maybe it did, as least until it didn't. Eddie Pincher wore dirty underwear when he ran the mile in three minutes, thirty-seven seconds. It’s no secret how superstitious many athletes are. But it isn't just athletes. Many otherwise reasonable people are convinced that bad luck can be associated with broken mirrors or black cats. I wasn't so sure I was immune. I wondered if we know for sure that such beliefs are bullshit? They have persisted for centuries. If there isn't something to them, shouldn't they fade away? Could they be gateways to a deeper reality than our everyday senses perceive? I hated it when my head starts messing with issues that can’t be proven one way or another.
Once we are in Searsport, I look for the buildings of Penobscot Maritime Museum, and begin thinking about the disdain for superstition shown by the people behind this venerable institution. Designed as a unique 19th century seafaring village, the museum is housed in thirteen buildings, both historic and modern. Thirteen! The unluckiest number of all! Is this a coincidence, or are they shouting to the world that they’re above superstition?
“The museum has spent a fortune building seawalls to keep back the rising ocean waters,” I note.
“Talk about pissing into the wind.”
“Ironic, isn’t it,” I suggest, “that the same ocean that made the museum possible will soon destroy it.”
I swear Noah snorted. “Fitting, I would say. There is something fulfilling about the inevitable completion of cycles.”
“What goes around comes around,” I venture.
“I’ve often wondered what that really means,” Noah says. “Are we saying that history necessarily repeats itself?”
“In the long run maybe so. I mean the really long run. No doubt a Big Crunch necessarily follows a Big Bang. Of course, this can all take billions of years.”
“And so on and so forth for evermore. Tell me, would time run backwards during Big Crunch time?”
“Who knows? If it does, maybe I could become a kid again.”
“Yeah, but the return to the womb would be a bitch.”
“Careful what you say about my dear departed mom. But where were we? I guess we were discussing expansion followed by contraction followed by expansion followed by contraction. This makes me wonder, would a halfway reasonable god create anything this pointless?”
“Whoever said God was halfway reasonable? Didn't He turn Lot's wife into a pillar of salt for no good reason whatsoever?”
“Should anybody worship anything other than an utterly reasonable god?”
I sigh. This sort of conversation seemed way more interesting back in college when it went all night and was fortified by Acapulco Gold. I miss those days. Smoking pot became a lot less fun once it was legalized.
The museum is a reminder that Mainers were once the most cosmopolitan people on Earth. Maine craftsmen built amazing, wooden ships that sailed the seven seas. Maine sea captains thought nothing of heading off to China to bring back spices and other rarities. Sometimes they brought their wives and children along. In the late 1800s, Searsport was home to more sea captains than anywhere else on Earth. There were more than 200 of them, each trying to outdo the others by their exploits and displays of ostentatious wealth. They built the impressive mansions lining Route One. Today, much of this heritage is being sold off to tourists from Searsport’s numerous antique shops.
It isn't like seafarers aren't superstitious. Superstitions arise from feelings of helplessness, so it was inevitable that folks attempting to wrestle livings from the sea would have embraced superstition. Historically, their frail wooden vessels have all too often been no match against storms at sea. The sea is a hostile environment. Fishermen are engaged in the world’s most dangerous occupation—unless you count obsolete trades such as Mafia hitman or Mexican drug runner.
Maybe that’s why they have been way more superstitious than most of us. How else can you explain sailors nailing horseshoes to masts to protect against witches? What’s sensible about tossing pennies overboard to placate Neptune, the ancient god of the sea? Quite likely these same people have placed a silver coin under the base of their mast to keep it from toppling over in a storm.
"The museum has thirteen buildings, I say. "How's that for giving superstition the finger?"
This is all very much on my mind as we pass through Northport and Lincolnville before proceeding into Camden. Even this late in the season, the main street is jammed with traffic. It takes a solid fifteen minutes to get to the south side of town. Once we do, traffic bursts forth as though shot from a gun, obviously relieved from frustration. It's full speed ahead, straight to Rockland. Just beyond Rockport, before we get to downtown Rockland, Noah points to a gravel road off to the right. Half a mile down it, we get to Martha’s house, a small, white, well-kept Cape. Martha is outside, down on her knees, tending a small garden plot. She turns towards us as we come up the drive, and with the help of a walker struggles to her feet. She is about five-foot-seven, gaunt, almost no body fat. I stop and car, and she inches her way toward us, putting little or no weight on her left side. She brings to mind a crippled, young woman named Christina Olson, a woman immortalized by Andrew Wyeth in his painting “Christina’s World.”
Martha is getting about a lot better than Christina did. Christina had to crawl wherever she went. In his famous rendering, Christina is on the ground, her torso strangely twisted. In the background, quite far off, is a stately, old, weathered farmhouse and a few outbuildings. It must have taken Christina hours to crawl this far. The setting is the Olson House in Cushing, a quiet rural community just south of Thomaston. Wyeth is said to have been entranced by this property. He did a lot of work here. He probably might well have considered it a magical place.
In my book, Mystical, Magical Maine, I devote almost two full pages to Christina's World. The painting, Wyeth's most famous, has haunted me from the first moment I saw it. Wyeth had a magical way with a paintbrush, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this painting. His style has often been described as "magical realism." He had a trick of getting perspectives just a bit out of kilter in a way that attracts a viewer's gaze, drawing them in.
I say farewell to Jack and Martha. Since I have plenty of time, I decide to drive out to Christina's famous house. I remember the way. Route one to Thomaston to Wadsworth Street to the River Road to Pleasant Point Road to Hawthorne Point Road to Muscongus Bay and the Olson House. Over the years, I have visited here four or five times. Built in the late 1700s, it had fallen into serious disrepair before John Sculley, the former Apple Computer CEO, bought it. (Sculley, gone, but not forgotten; he is remembered mostly for his egregious blunder of firing Steve Jobs and the way he drove apple into near bankruptcy until Jobs came back to save the day.) Sadly for him, he is less well known for the public service he performed donating the house to Rockland's Farnsworth Museum, a venerable institution boasting a long association with the Wythes. The Farnsworth maintains the place and keeps it open to the public.
Andrew Wyeth had visited here so often that the Olsons gave him an upstairs bedroom for a studio. Working here for 30 years, Wyeth came to know the Olsons intimately. Much of the realism and personality of his work can be attributed to this intimate involvement. His friend Christina had a degenerative muscular disorder that worsened with age. She refused to use a wheelchair, preferring to crawl. Some say that in the painting she is crawling across the property to visit the graves of her parents. Many small details suggest Christina's determination and courage. People are drawn to the solitary, yet courageous quality of this painting. Christina’s face is not visible, her facial expression not shown. Nevertheless, the painting emanates perseverance and silent strength. It is no doubt Wyeth's most magical painting.
I recall that Jack had once told me that Clint finds art interesting. According to Clint, art is inevitable once life gains a foothold. Barring some sort of cosmic catastrophe, intelligent life will eventually evolve. Natural selection holds true everywhere. Intelligence trumps every other defense every time everywhere. On Earth, mankind, with nothing other than smarts, was from the get-go destined to be dominant. Sooner rather than later, intelligent critters learn to communicate symbolically. And when that happens, art is an inevitable byproduct.
Clint's thesis sounds right to me, but does it follow that he finds art magical? I have to wonder what his attitude toward Wyeth would be. Some critics have held that Wyeth wasn't a "real artist," but merely a facile illustrator or, worse, a "regionalist." Of course, many artsy dipshits are suspicious of any popular, financially successful artist. Would Clint be among these morons or would he appreciate Wyeth's work for its simplicity and unadorned beauty? Then I remind myself that Clint is a figment of Jack's demented imagination. My brain was turning somersaults. Why am I wondering if Clint is an asshole? What does this say about me?
It's late in the season, and there is nobody at the Olson house. The place seems a bit forlorn. To me it appears no different from what it's always been. I give it ten minutes, but get no sense of the supra natural. Somehow I know Clint isn't here. I feel restless and decide to detour over to the Owls Head Lighthouse. Legend has it that not one but two ghosts inhabit this old light. One of them is a former light keeper. He has been seen time and time again walking in the tower. The other is a woman who appears often on the steps outside the light or in the kitchen. Countless visitors have reported hearing strange rattling noises or seeing shadows out of the corner of their eyes. I drive to the light and stop the car. I would love it if one or the other of those ghosts would put in an appearance, but somehow I know this isn't going to happen today. I quickly decide to move on.
Moments later I am on Route One, heading back the way I came. On impulse, I turn right onto the road leading to Samoset, a luxury resort. I park my car in front of Samoset's impressive lodge. More than a few of my friends have called my Honda hideous, what with its unsanded bondo on the sidewalls and the crack in the windshield. Fortunately for me, Libertariasm dismissed mandatory inspections years ago. Permission to live dangerously now is seen as a good way to eliminate undesirables, a category occupied by both me and my car. As I get out of it, I see it still attracts glances from people walking by. For sure it doesn't belong with the late model luxury vehicles taking the other parking spaces. Like ducks in a row are a Jaguar, a BMW, a Mercedes, and my car. No argument about it, mine is the ugly duckling. I do hope I am not besmirching the beautiful oceanside golf course here, a layout often referred to as Pebble Beach East. It is a lovely and, yes, magical, spot Clint might find appealing.
Hoping not to attract undue attention, I walk out onto the course. Time passes quickly.I spend the better part of an hour walking Samoset's scenic fairways. I have played Pebble Beach, but actually prefer Samoset. I visualize shots I would attempt to hit from various positions. Good sport, but I find no hint of a portal. Of course, I reflect, I have no idea what Clint's portal looks like assuming it actually exists. I imagine a sort of shimmering doorway with a thickly, translucent middle. The only way I would be able to see what lay on the other side would be to walk through, something Jack had told me in no uncertain terms I was never, ever to do.
It is becoming a sort of surreal game. No way will I admit I believe in Clint. Not really. What rational person would? But, if there is such a being, where in all of Downeast Maine would he choose to place a portal? Downeast is a very special place. I have sent years writing about the many, more-or-less magical places, but which would be the most magical of all?
Still in Rockport, I swing by the Vesper Hill Foundation Children's Chapel. I have to think this open air chapel perched upon the rocks overlooking Rockport Harbor will appeal to a romantic like Clint. I slow way down, but can see nothing unusual, certainly nothing that looks like a portal.
I had to believe that Clint might be attracted to Merryspring, a 66-acre floral preserve devoted to preserving Maine flowers and shrubs. Merryspring is well off the beaten tourist track although it's actually only about a third of a mile off Route One. I especially like the herb garden, with its medicinal, culinary and medieval herbs. I know that such things are said to hold magical properties and wonder if Clint might come moseying about.
I turn into Camden Hills State Park, one of Maine's finest. (This park provides 26 miles of hiking trails through more than 5,000 acres.)
On a hunch, I drive the road to the summit of Mt. Battie. It is here that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote Renascence, which begins, “All I could see from where I stood was three long mountains and a wood...” Surely a romantic like Clint would find magic in such a spot. The view, which I have seen many times before, is undeniably spectacular, but I find no hint of a portal.
On my way out of Camden, I come upon "Norumbega," a castle-like structure built by Joseph Steam in 1886. The Stearn family were original settlers to Maine, having immigrated from Britain. In the later 1860s, Joseph invented the duplex telegraphy system, patenting it in the U.S. and throughout Europe, giving him his first fortune. While traveling through Europe, he became fascinated with the many castles and would visit as all he could, making sketches and notes. On his return to Maine, Joseph hired the famous New York architect, Arthur Bates Jennings to design the now famous Queen Anne style home. He had long considered Camden to be the most beautiful place he had ever seen and decided to locate his castle overlooking the bay. Taking his favorite features from each castle, Jennings incorporated them into the design for the Norumbega Inn.
The name "Norumbega" itself conjures up thoughts of magic. On many of the earliest North American maps, a city said to be of fantastic riches bears the name Norumbega. New England's answer to El Dorado, Norumbega was often placed in the Bangor area. The legend drew much of its fire from the journal of a seaman named David Ingram who in 1568 had found himself put ashore from a slave ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Not one to take his plight lying down, he ended up trekking through unchartered wilderness all the way up through Maine into Canada. He wrote prolifically about notable things along the way, real and imagined, including Norumbega, which he described as a city over-flowing with gold, silver, and other precious stones. Thanks to his flowery and fanciful account, many16th century explorers were drawn to Maine. None could find any trace of Norumbega, but the name showed up on maps for at least a century. It occurs to me that Ingram was the sort of guy Clint might have liked. They are, in a sense, two of a kind. They're both bullshit artists, prone to the most outlandish and highly imaginative exaggerations. I can visualize the two of them together, head to head, each trying to outdo the other.
By this time, I have breezed by the inn. The place is an interesting landmark, but I am growing increasingly impatient with the whole idea of hunting for magic. There are too many places I can think of as being conceivably magical. I have already expounded upon a book full of them. My destination for the day, Perry's Nut House, is just twenty miles further on. When Jack first mentioned Downeast Maine's Most Magical Place, Perry's was the first thing that flashed into my mind. I am impatient to get there.
Exactly why Perry's came to mind isn't apparent. Perry's is among Maine's best-known places, but to my knowledge nobody has ever suggested it's magic. But why not? I can't think of Perry’s without reflecting of the glories of capitalism, which brings to mind Adam Smith’s invisible hand doing amazing things. The hand, they say, is quicker than the eye, and what miraculous magic might we expect from one that's not only quick, but invisible as well? I have known plenty of people who insist that capitalism can create wealth as if by magic.
Perry's got started in 1927, the result of shortsightedness. Made aggressive by the booming economy of that era, Perry had invested heavily in Georgia pecans, saw a bumper harvest, but then realized there weren't sufficient storage facilities to save most of the crop from rotting. So Perry set about becoming the King of Nuts. In a classic case of turning lemons into lemonade (or maybe nuts into nutmeg), Perry began promoting the sale of pecans and other assorted nuts from his cigar factory on Route One in Belfast. To attract customers, he added curios and museum pieces he had accumulated on his travels. In no time at all, the venture took off big time. It was so successful that he had to move it to a large sea captain's home that would become Perry's Nut House.
Perry wasn't satisfied with local success. He traveled all over South America and Cuba and brought back more oddities. He started a nut collection that contained almost every species known to man including the world's largest nut, an unbelievable basketball- sized astonishment. The menagerie in his yard came to contain a life-size wooden elephant, stuffed alligators, ostriches, monkeys, trick mirrors, turtles and boxing bear cubs. Perry even got hold of the huge head of a water buffalo shot by Teddy Roosevelt and presented to William Howard Taft before these two men became political rivals. The business was featured on thousands of post cards sent all over the world.
With people flocking in from all over the place, Perry began carrying, among other things, wild strawberry jam, homemade fudge, hand-woven baskets, scented pine pillows, more nuts, and ginger and guava jelly.
Perry died in 1940 (apparently not, as local legend has had it, as a patient in a nut house), and the business came under the management of Joshua Treat III of Winterport. The 19-year-old Treat turned out to be a promoter who in some ways out-perried Perry. He added an elephant and rickshaw, a size 144 shoe complete with the old lady who lived in it, a life-sized wooden zebu drawing an authentic Oriental wooden-wheeled cart depicting a primitive way of bringing cashew nuts to market.
I park my car, get out, and look around for something that might be a portal. I don't really expect to find anything, and, sure enough, I don't. I shrug my shoulders and go into the shop for a piece of complementary fudge. Then I purchase a bag of chocolate-covered peanuts, the kind I used to get when I was a kid. These days I don't find them anywhere but here, and I don't mind coughing up cash for them. I eat several, but realize I am still hungry. Time for a late-afternoon lunch. I take the turn to downtown Belfast, catch the Main Street light green, grab a left, then another left across traffic to a diagonal slot in front of Traci's Diner. I know what I am going to get, Traci's "plain ol’ cheeseburger" with a side of her fries. I always preface these with a mug of her strong black coffee. I have been careful to pen a glowing account of Traci's in my guide. Best lunch in Downeast Maine in my mind. In exchange for an occasional lunch, I include her URL with my mention.
As always when traveling alone, I have brought reading material. The book I happened to have that day is an old one, Carl Hiaasen's diversion from his usual Floridian lunacy and into golf, a sport he had given up for thirty-two years with what he called it a much-needed layoff.
I like Hiaasen's writing, but was having problems focusing on it. What is it about bare midriffs? What’re we talking? Sixty square inches of exposed skin? On the right girl it can affect me like nothing else. I like breasts and butts and gams and hair and ankles and all the rest, but the right bare midriff can arrest my gaze like nothing else. And there it is in front of me, squeezing into my booth, and, I hope, into my life.
The tabletop blocks view of much of her midriff. I let my eyes scan her upper body, taking care not to linger on her ample, partially exposed cleavage. This is no time to wonder why so many women show as much as the law will allow only to take offense when some one gives them more than a casual glance. Soon enough I get to her eyes, olive green ones with gold specks.
"You look like a man on a quest," she says.
I know I look like a man reading a paperback, but, what the hell, I'll play along. "And you could be the end of the road," I suggest.
"Do you believe in magic?" she asks.
"I do now," I say as I look down at my plate to smear just the right amount of ketchup on a fry.
“I want to show you something." She smiles as she says this, flashing straight pearl-white teeth surrounding her blood-red tongue, and I am definitely interested in seeing what she has. It’s out back. Follow me there?”
I nod dumbly, a gesture that went unnoticed since she is already moving towards the door. I like confident women. I stuff a farewell fry sans ketchup into my mouth, spot Traci at the register and wave my thanks, then chase after mystery babe. By the time I get outside, she is walking briskly alongside the restaurant towards a vacant lot out back. I try to keep up, but am a dozen steps behind her when she rounds the corner of the building. I step up my pace even more.
I reach the end of the building and turn the corner. The boot from out of nowhere is aimed at my crotch. I avoid utter (udder?) disaster by twisting a little; the kick doesn’t score a direct hit. Instead it catches my left hip and spins me around, shooting pain all down my side. I stagger a couple of steps, trying without much success to keep my balance. The second kick seeks the same vulnerable spot. I barely have time to notice I am dealing with a different kicker. They are both female, both hot, both bare midriffed, both apparently determined to do me serious damage. Neither is the girl from the restaurant. I catch a glimpse of her standing over to the side, a slight smile on her face. I deflect the second kick with a backhanded slap. It was dumb luck, but the timing is perfect. The blow knocks the kicker, a lithe, long-legged blond, a little off balance. She is a bleach blond, Marlina would have been quick to point out. I don’t waste time wondering if her sizable, jiggling, braless breasts are natural. Instead I dive at her long legs, rolling under her. Tumbling to the asphalt, she squawks in frustration.
One down, momentarily, but I take a little too long pondering my next move. The first girl plants a kick squarely in the side of my head. I am pretty sure her boots have steel toes. I might have blacked out. I am not sure, but the next thing I know all three girls are standing over me. The thing I notice, they all have bare midriffs. Global warming is causing some real problems, but it does bring out Mid-November bare midriffs. I have always believed the world would be a dreary place without bare midriffs. Do the bearers of these riffs realize how easily they distract me? Or do they regard them as mere coverings for stomachs, intestines, yuckie digestive systems? Never mind; I have had my fill. I wonder if belly buttons have forever lost their glory for me.
I think vaguely about kicking someone, but the girl from the restaurant has a gun in her hand. It is a six-shooter, like something out of the Old West. She is holding it steady. She extends it away from herself, and her left hand is tucked under her trigger hand, very professional. Without a hint of nervousness, she aims the gun directly at me. I can’t imagine any sort of tricky move that might save me, so I lay my head back and try to relax. Maybe it won't hurt so much if I am relaxed.
The long-legged blond I had toppled seems angrier than the others. She is wearing torn jeans and a white blouse that's seen better days. There are scrape marks on her right knee, and the blouse is dirty. I hope she isn’t due for any sort of interview, like a secretarial position in an upscale office. She isn’t happy. I wonder what she is so mad about. She and her cohorts started this ruckus. Nevertheless, she seems to be snarling when she kicks my ribs. I swear she growled. She is wearing steel-toed, alligator boots and could probably have kicked field goals for the Patriots. Payback can be a bitch. I roll over twice, trying to put distance between them. "Shoot him," she says to the girl with the gun. "Shoot him, shoot him now."
The girl with the gun is smiling broadly now. She seems to find all this incredibly amusing. Not so amusing that she points her weapon in some other direction, but her expression suggests she is enjoying a silent joke. I realize the gun isn’t just for show. She intends to shoot me, and there isn’t a thing I can do about it. I consider rolling over and over, but unless she is an incredibly bad shot, it wouldn’t do any good. The way she is handling her gun, I am pretty sure she isn’t a lousy shot. I close his eyes and waited for the impact of a bullet into my body. I wonder if I will feel it. Would I live long enough for pain to travel from my gut to my brain? Then I hear her gun click. This is followed by four clicks in quick succession. “What the fuck…?” she exclaims. She doesn’t sound amused.
What the fuck, indeed. She doesn't seem like the sort of person who would forget to bring bullets to a street brawl.
There is a suspense-filled moment of complete silence. I wonder if she will take time to reload. Then she says, “You’re one lucky son of a bitch. But here’s a little advice. Stay away from Clint, asshole. He’s our huggy.”
I was groggy, I guess. I wasn’t sure if she had told me to stay away from Clint’s asshole or if she had called me asshole. I decide it really doesn’t matter. I can hear sirens off in the distance. They're coming closer. I hope they're for me. The long-legged blond gives me a goodbye kick in the ribs.
I choose to stay prone for a few minutes after the girls left. The asphalt is hard, but movement is harder. “Hey, Mister, are you okay?” I turn my head to the side and see a small boy leaning against a bicycle. “Peachy,” I say. “Just peachy. Never better.” I hurt in several places, but have tentatively concluded that nothing is broken and it seems likely that my vital organs are more or less intact. Internal bleeding is a distinct possibility, but I have no idea what to do about that.
I spend the next few minutes alternating between trying not to move and probing various sore spots. By the time I get up, the sirens, obviously for somebody else, have receded into the distance. I look around, wondering if anybody else has witnessed my indignity. If anybody has, they are making themselves scarce. The boy inquiring about my well-being has sped off on his bike. There isn’t a soul in sight. With considerable difficulty I achieved a vaguely vertical posture and hobble to my car.
Driving out of Bucksport, I think of the witchey women who attacked me as I pass Buck Monument. The stone bears the outline of a foot and leg. According to legend, Colonel Buck was serving as a judge in Massachusetts when he ordered the execution of a woman accused to witchcraft. As the flames licked up around her, she promised to dance forever on Buck's grave. There are plenty of reasons to discredit this story, but it remains a popular tourist attraction.
To me the cursed stone conveys no tinge of magic. No matter. It isn’t yet four o’clock, but I am done for the day. Maybe for the next several days.
I KNOW IT'S FOSTER DRAKE by the three hard knocks on my door. Nobody else knocks like that. He must have knuckles of steel to rap so authoritatively and in such rapid succession. It is the knock of annoyance, a knock by somebody who thinks his precious time is being wasted. Foster Drake is perpetually pissed, all too often at me
I am lying on my cot, nursing the bruises I acquired the previous afternoon. I don’t feel like getting up, but know Officer Drake will not just go away. So I struggle to my feet, limp to the door, open it, and step back to let the man in. “Morning, Foster.”
He nods as he brushes by. “Once again, that’s Inspector Drake to you, asshole.”
“That’s asshole, Sir.” I say. “Certain protocols must be observed.”
As has become our custom, I let him into my van. My Mr. Coffee is ready, and I pour two cups of black coffee, handing one to the plain clothes detective. Drake sips the hot liquid cautiously; maybe he thinks I've laced the brew with cyanide.
For the first time, Foster looks at me closely. "You look like shit," he says. "Don't tell me you ran into somebody with a punch better than yours."
One thing Foster won't do is let me forget is I was once a professional fighter. A pretty damn good one too. The press called me Demon Dog Douglas Doberman for the supposed voraciousness of my blows. I hated that name. I thought of boxing as both an art and a science, a sacred combination traceable back to the ancient Greeks, never an unholy assault on another man's consciousness. I wasn't a terrifically hard puncher. Instead of a show of massive force, I threw a lot of quick jabs. Getting hit so many times in rapid succession disoriented my opponents. They would try to mount some sort of defense, but, when all went well, a torrential rain of rapid-fire punches made it impossible. On one of my really good nights, I didn't take any hard hits.
It all came to an end the night I fought Rocky Marrs. By the fifth round, Marrs was thoroughly beaten, barely able to raise a glove to protect himself. I had to give the kid credit; he wouldn't go down. A good young fighter, Marrs could take a punch or, in this case, multiple punches. He had potential, but was too green for this main event. The ref should have ended it, but he didn't. I kept looking at him, but he ignored my gaze. I later found out he had a bundle riding on Marrs making it to the seventh.
I was beginning to feel sorry for the kid and was holding back a bit. By round five I didn't want to keep beating on him so I decided to try to end it with one big, decisive blow. I landed one okay, and Marrs fell to the canvass unconscious. The trouble was, he never woke up. He was in a coma for eleven days. I had wanted to put him out of his misery, but not like that. I had visited his bedside every day, and I'll never forget the look on his widow's face on the twelfth day when she learned he was dead. When she saw me she screamed and threw a bed pan at my head. I tried to tell her how sorry I was, but she wasn't listening. I never fought again. Eddie Marino, my manager, begged me to keep going. I was in line for a championship bout. I was, to put it bluntly, a contender. I knew I was being unfair to him; he had taught me a lot and deserved a big payday. But it didn't matter. I just didn't have it in me to get back in that ring. Still in the eyes of my drone my fists are lethal weapons, and I am a potential menace.
Having made his mandatory reference to what he calls the violent side of my nature, Foster proceeds to other matters. "You've been moving around a bit more than usual," he says. "Any particular reason for that?"
"I just like a change of scenery once and a while," I say. "I get tired at looking at the same old dumpster. I don't suppose I've frustrated your drones much. Not much chance of my slipping beneath their radar.”
"None whatsoever," Foster says. “Important you realize that. However, they’re Goggle’s drones, not mine. You do need to remember that.”
What I do realize all too well is that Goggle's drones, especially the one earmarked for me, know more about me than I know about myself. No doubt, I've forgotten a few things. The drones, on the other hand, don't. They will retain my personal data pretty much forever. Silicon lasts a lot longer than brain tissue. It's entirely possible the drones have concluded that I am a murderer when in all honesty I still hope I'm not. Uncertain as I am, I decide to go on the offensive. “It’s important for you to realize that Goggle seems to have it in for me,” I say. “I am really quite sure that Goggle’s henchmen torched my first server.”
“You must be pretty important if they didn’t have anything better to do.”
“Goggle doesn’t like competition.”
“Apples and oranges. You're no competition. Everybody who is anybody already carries a Goggle chip.”
I sigh. Foster is right. Who am I kidding? My little operation doesn’t threaten Goggle in the least. I like to think I am providing a home for dissidents and whistle blowers, but, actually, my customers are mostly rejects, cads, and misfits. No doubt some are criminals. What nearly all of my customers have in common is that they've been deemed unproductive and, therefore, unchipworthy.
We've been down this conversational path many times, and it never ends well for me. So I figure I might as well change the subject. “It’s been almost a month-and-a-half since your last visit,” I say. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
“Progress,” he says. “We’re making some. Things are starting to speed up. Moving pretty rapidly, really. Seems I’ve been talking to your girlfriend."
“I don’t have a girlfriend, Foster. You know that. All the local women are afraid I’ll murder them.”
“There must be a few who would find the possibility titillating.”
“There’s also the possibility I’m still attached.”
“A possibility that’s growing ever more remote.”
“But one that can’t be entirely ruled out. Not even by you or that pet drone.”
“I suppose you have a point. So far we haven't established overwhelming evidence of guilt. But soon we will, I suspect. Everything seems to be heading in that direction.”
“So what’s Suzi got to say?”
“Quite a lot, actually. It took a bit of prodding, but I got her to admit she’s getting a real strong feeling there’s something important buried out back of your old digs.”
“You know damn well those digs now belong to the bank. Whatever is buried there, is no longer mine. But what it could it be? Give me a clue. Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral?”
“Animal, I guess. Suzi says she senses the presence of something that once was alive. My theory is a rotten potato wouldn’t qualify.”
“We agree that Suzi is amazing. But her psychic abilities are, to say the least, on again, off again. She mostly just wishes they would go away.”
“Yeah, but they don't. And often as not, they hit home. I would be remiss if I didn't follow up. I would like for us to take a look.”
"Why tell me. Tell the bank."
"The First Bank of Goggle doesn't give a fuck. I spoke with an officer, and they won't even request a warrant. Both me and the bank would appreciate your cooperation. Of course, should you refuse, I would upload news of this to your drone. It would be less incriminating that a dead body, but every little bit hurts."
“Ah yes, your shit pile of circumstantial evidence. Day after day it grows ever deeper, tilting the gauge ever nearer to the E.”
“E for empty?”
“E for execution.”
“Alas, you're right about that gauge. It is pointing way far left. I swear it's died there. The warning light’s been on for a long time, and you’re running on fumes. I can practically hear the final sputter."
"Enough with the metaphors."
"I am not quite done. Let me just add that the wheels of justice are about to run you down."
"Why do I sense I am being taken for a ride?"
"Because you are. As you're well aware, the accumulation of enough evidence, circumstantial or not, can add up to near certainty. There's been many a conviction without an actual dead body.”
"Ah, for the good old days of habeas corpus. My friend Noah Winston is appalled by the notion that my fate is in the hands of a secret algorithm none of us are allowed to inspect."
"Your friend Mr. Winston is way too old-school. Last I heard, he has no license to practice law in this or any other state. As for habeas corpus, Latin has been a dead language for a long time now. We've moved on to plain English, words such as unassailable conclusiveness."
“Sure you can handle that many syllables?"
"Goggle's drones are armed with unabridged dictionaries. They know way more words than you do. They also recognize many ways of saying 'guilty as charged'."
"Translations can be slippery, but I suppose they come close enough for government work.”
“Not government, dumbshit. We both know government’s all but gone. Close enough for Goggle. Close enough for a Goggle drone to deduce an overwhelming likelihood of guilt.”
“And carry out an execution.”
“Alas, this is so. It may be a tad imperfect, but ours is the best system of justice ever contrived. We’ve eliminated gullible juries being swayed by glib lawyers. No more convictions based on race, religion, or B.O. No more scumsuckers walking free because the prosecution can’t remove that last smidgen of so-called reasonable doubt. No more lawyers conjuring clouds of criminal confusion. No more juries hopelessly hung because some anarchistic shithead decides to be contrary. No more countless appeals stretching out cases until everybody’s dead or lost interest."
"For a lawman, you seem to find time-tested legality horribly distasteful."
"What I do appreciate is how far we've come. The near certainty of justice prevailing has reduced the crime rate to just a bit above zero. Progress has left me with not much to do. Other than chase down cold cases such as yours, I could just as well retire. Once Goggle realizes law no longer requires enforcing, people such as myself will be richly rewarded.”
"In your accolade to the wonder of it all, you forgot to mention how chips make it possible to account for nearly everybody's whereabouts for the past six months.
"That is indeed helpful. Thanks to the near certainty of apprehension, few people even think about committing crimes."
“I suppose I should salute justice's new scales, but all this seems a lot less cheerier when you’re the accused.”
"No doubt, this is true," Foster says, shrugging his shoulders. "So if you haven't got anything better to do, let's drive over to the house in my car."
From the beginning, Foster has acted as though he is certain I killed Marlina. I have to wonder if he can really be all that cocksure or if he is trying to psych me out. Without a body, there is no real evidence that Marlina has been killed, never mind any that I killed her. What evidence there is is circumstantial, and there isn’t much of that. Whatever happened to presumption of innocence? Whatever happened to beyond a shadow of a doubt? Was there ever a time when law enforcement paid attention to such things? Has near-certainty of guilt always been enough to satisfy cops? Does anybody today have a clue who Miranda was? How about an entitlement of legal representation?
As I understand it, there was a time when courts of law paid close heed to rules of evidence. Material improperly obtained could not be submitted at trial. That was before the word "liberal" became more taboo than "nigger," or "cunt," or "joke," before the consensus grew that such prissy niceties were insufferably inefficient. The world had gotten more and more into a rush, and these days most trials were replaced by summary executions. Tom liked watching Matlock and Perry Mason, television shows Goggle had exorcised from its deep archives. I never knew how Tom was able to acquire such shows, but I suspected any representation of such perfect rule by law had to be mythological. Hard to say, but one thing is undeniable: Both Miranda and Marlina are long gone. People just got tired of Miranda and kicked her out of the car miles from anywhere. And Marlina?. She had been in the kitchen, a bit pissed off, but definitely there when I left around seven that evening. The next morning when I wake up on the kitchen floor with the mother of all headaches, she isn’t there.
There were no signs of foul play—no evidence of forced entry, no indication of a struggle, no hint of robbery. Her car was parked in the driveway right where she had left it that afternoon. On the counter top I had left a hundred and twenty-one dollars (five twenties, four fives, and a single) and forty-eight cents (a quarter, two dines, and three pennies) and a large vial of hydrocodone/acetaminophen 5, a painkiller better known as Vicodin, a prescription-only substance familiar to young punk thieves everywhere. They would never have left the cash or the drugs. It’s hard to make a case for home invasion if you have to rule out young punk thieves, and there was no indication that any had been there.
So where the fuck is she? I have no idea. I can’t blame Foster for thinking I know more than I am owning up to. Every cop will tell you that most murders are easily solved. Look for a spouse or a lover or a lover of a lover. Sort through these and most always you’ll find the culprit.
Just about everybody assumes Marlina and I were married. We weren’t. I often refer to her as my wife, and we thought of ourselves as united or bonded or spiritually akin, but legally we weren’t man and wife. When we were in collage, she asked me over to a house she was renting with three other girls for a glass of juice.I drank the juice, stayed for supper, stayed the night, stayed the next night, and stayed many nights over the next ten years. In some ways it was the path of least resistance. We got along, mostly, and usually enjoyed each other’s company. Marlina was a good person. I had few complaints. I never cheated on her, not once, not ever. There had been enticing opportunities, but entertaining them had made me feel cheap and untrustworthy, and nothing ever came of them.
Maine doesn’t recognize common law marriages, so in the eyes of the law we were two single individuals who happened to be living together. I had never been sure we wouldn’t part at some point, go our separate ways, but we never came near reaching that point.
Foster and I know that Suzi can be eerily accurate with her premonitions. She never knows when they will pop up, but when they do they tend to be on target. If she had a real strong feeling that something was buried out back, chances are good that something is. I may have wanted to find out what even more than Foster did.
It is a fifteen minute drive from the Ellsworth Goggle/Walmart to my old place in Surry. When we get there, I say, “There are over ten acres here. How do we know where to dig?”
“Suzi said she was getting real clear vibrations.” Foster reaches into his briefcase and withdraws a file folder. “She drew me a map. She said the spot was right between twin boulders in a clearing fifty feet from a giant elm. Shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
Not hard at all. I know the spot. Marlina and he had picnicked there. It was, in fact, the first place we had made love.
“Your shovel or mine?” I ask.
“Yours,” Foster replies. “I didn’t bring mine. I knew there would be a couple lying around.”
We go out the back door, and I grab a shovel from a small, gone-too-ruin garden plot. I wonder if it would occur to Foster that I could use it as a weapon. Foster doesn’t seem at all concerned. My hunch is that Foster suspects I am responsible for Marlina’s demise, but hadn’t done anything so inelegant as bludgeoning her with a shovel. Probably Marlina and I had had words and I had shoved her and she had stumbled, had fallen and hit her head on a table corner or something like that. After that I probably panicked and disposed of the body somehow. As good a theory as any I guess.
Working against me is Foster’s knowledge that something like that has already happened. It was two or three years ago, we were arguing about something, I can’t remember what, she pushed me in anger, I pushed her back, a little harder than intended. She tripped and fell. She wasn’t hurt. She scrambled back onto her feet in no time at all and let go with a few choice obscenities.
I had been genuinely sorry. I apologized again and again. Marlina had calmed down quickly; she wasn’t all that pissed off. An hour later, we had enjoyed a peaceful dinner together and later had make-up sex. The incident could have been quickly forgotten. Trouble was, someone had witnessed our little fracas. Whoever it was reported it to Foster. Years later Foster passed the info along to my own special drone. Thus my propensity for violence was imbued forever in an unforgiving silicon brain that was keeping perpetual tabs on me. I guess it is filed under anger management issues. Humans can forgive; they can forget and move on. Marlina could and did. But computers can’t. The one in my drone would forever hold this against me.
Foster lets me carry the shovel. He doesn’t seem at all concerned that I might turn around and whack him with it. I try to ignore a vague resentment over being regarded as completely non-threatening. Foster is right, of course; I am not about to bash him with that shovel. No matter what we find out there, assaulting him is out of the question. Still, he might have shown some respect by being a bit concerned. Nobody wants to be regarded as utterly innocuous.
I had known both Foster and Suzi for a very long time. I believe we were in daycare together. We went through grade school, middle school, and high school together. In high school, both of us had dated Suzi; Foster first, then me. Foster was taller than me and a bit more muscular. In a fair fight, the smart money, hell, all the money, would have been on Foster. He was always the number one jock—quarterback on the football team, leading scorer in basketball. My only success athletically was in golf, which wasn’t regarded as a legitimate sport. Suzi had been a cheerleader, and I used to kid her about never showing up at golf meets. Still, I did end up with her, at least for a while. But now she seemed to be working for Foster.
I wonder if my familiarity with the spot between the twin boulders will further implicate me in Marlina’s disappearance. I consider disguising my knowledge of the spot. I could lead Foster around for twenty minutes or so before stumbling upon it. I could tell Foster I had never before been there. The hell with it, I quickly decide. I want to see what, if anything, is buried there.
I know it will take me fewer than five minutes to lead Foster to the spot. If Foster will feel this implicates me more deeply, so be it. When we reach the spot, I feel an incredible surge of conflicted emotions. A flood doesn’t describe them. They are a tidal wave, a tsunami, engulfing me entirely, immersing me in a complex mixture of memories and anticipations.
It is like being gang-tackled by the Pittsburg Steelers of old, or at least what I imagine that would feel like. What if Marlina is buried here? At least then I would know she is dead. God knows I don’t want her to be dead. I want her to live a long and happy life, if not with me then with somebody else, anybody else, whoever can make her happy. But if she were buried there, would there be evidence implicating me in her murder?
The spot is just as I remember it. Two Smart Car-sized boulders about 20 feet apart. For some reason, grass doesn’t grow between them. There is a stretch of bare ground. Did I once see something like this in a bad movie? A patch of ground so immersed in evil no grass can grow there?
“Suzi said the hole should be centered between the boulders,” Foster says. I place the shovel blade on the ground mid-way between the boulders and push down with my right foot. it slides easily into the loose soil. Marlina had been an avid gardener, and under her direction, we had dug holes all over the property. We had planted fruit trees, rose bushes, tulips, and bulbs of many varieties. This was New England, and I had learned to expect to hit rock with my first few probes. But here the digging couldn’t have been easier. After scooping out seven or eight shovelfuls, I clunk down on something solid.
I scrape away some dirt and see it isn’t a stone. “I’ve hit upon something,” I say. “It looks like a tin box.” I begin digging faster and quickly extract a galvanized container the size of a small suitcase. I recognize the box. It's the one I had used to save golf memorabilia. Way bigger than it needed to be, it had contained my hole-in-one ProV1 dutifully signed in red Sharpie by yours truly, the final-round scorecard from the time I nearly won the Maine Amateur, and a gag tee in the shape of a big-breasted naked woman (I never could understand why these disappeared from the market; surely today's golfers are no less salacious than yesteryear's). There were other things I could have added, but never got around to. I had never gotten into being much of a collector; a trait Marlina chalked up to a disturbing lack of sentimentality. (I insisted it indicated an impressive ability to focus on the now). I had been vaguely aware that I hadn't seen the box lately. I hadn't needed it and assumed it had to be around somewhere.
We look at it warily. “Too small for a body,” Foster finally says. I think I detect a hint of disappointment.
“Maybe it’s filled with stolen bank loot or blueprints for a doom’s day weapon,” I say. “I’d hate to think you’ve been wasting your time.” I am sure the box no longer contains my old golf stuff; I would have been able to feel and hear the ball rolling around.
It isn’t locked, but it has a sliding catch that must be filled with dirt. I can’t budge it. Foster takes it from me and shakes it. “Something’s banging around in there,” he says. He sets the box on the ground. “Stand back,” he says as he draws a revolver from a shoulder holster. I thought that the box might prove to be evidence of some sort, but this doesn’t seem to concern Foster. With a single shot, he blows the catch away and the box flies open. I edgd closer, anxious to see what it contains. The first thing I see is bones of a small animal. Then I notice the tags. They had belonged to Tippy, Marlina's Welsh Terrier, named for the flash of white at the tip of his tail. If she thought that maybe I did Tippy in, she never said so. We agreed that somehow he had gotten out of the house and had run away. I thought the mutt yipped way too much, but she had loved that dog. Marlina never much liked it when I called him Yappie.
“Marlina’s dog?” Drake asks.
I nod."His tags anyway."
“What a coincidence,” he says. “Not long ago, I uploaded some data about you and that dog. It was about the time you said, ‘Somebody ought to shoot that damn, yapping dog'.”
Don't get me wrong; I like dogs. Certainly they're way better than cats. But I think they should be strong silent types and at least as big as a yellow labs.
BY EARLY AFTERNOON, I am back in my van wondering what to do next. If there is such a thing as Clint’s portal, I have no idea where it is or what it looks like. There is no end of potentially magical spots in Downeast Maine. I have been thinking so much about magic, everything has taken on a magical hue. Maybe the Hindus had it right. Maybe everything is illusion. Maybe we can no more trust our eyes than we can anything else in our cockeyed universe. My grandfather used to say, "don't believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see." I think he may have put too much trust into seeing.
I have brewed myself a cup of tea and am using it to wash down a stack of Double-stuff Oreos that seem real enough when there comes a knock on my door. “It’s open,” I yell.
I am only a little surprised when Suzi eases through the barely opened door. “Cookie?” I ask. I am quite surprised when she takes an Oreo from my outstretched hand and begins nibbling around its edges. Over the past several years, many things have changed, but Double Stuff seems to be forever.
“Foster tells me you found what was left of Marlina’s terrier,” she says between nibbles. Opening the cookie, she begins licking the stuff. Seeing I was eying her appreciatively, she makes a funny, squiggly face, and sticks out her white frosted tongue. “Yum,” she says.
I chuckle. “I like a lady who appreciates honest-to-god stuff. Too many of your gender would be afraid it might make them fat. You should be careful though. Word is they’re habit forming, every bit as addictive as heroin. Actually, scientists say, given a choice, rats prefer Oreos.”
“One cookie seems to satisfy my cravings. Besides I have more important things to worry about. First off, are we okay? You’re not angry with me for helping Foster?”
"Angry? With you? I could never be angry with you."
"I made him promise if he wants further help from me, he has to keep me informed. I suspect he realizes that whatever he tells me I'll pass onto you."
"He doesn't care that I might use such info to make a successful getaway?"
" Deep down I don't think he cares. So tell me the truth, are you pissed off at me for helping him?"
“I have no reason to expect you to do otherwise. I know you well enough to realize you’re way more interested in disclosing truth than saving my butt. And, believe it or not, I commend you for that. Truth is I am glad you did what you did. I am anxious to find out as much as I can about Marlina’s disappearance.”
“I like your attitude, but I still feel like I owe you one. That’s why I am here. I have to talk with you about something you might find disquieting."
She had gotten my total attention. "Okay. Fire away."
"I mean for this to be private, just between the two of us. It’s about Jack. I keep getting flashes. They come and go quickly, but they’re all about Jack. The flashes seem almost violent. I think he might be in some sort of trouble. Could you give him a call, see that he’s okay?
“Last I heard, he was heading south. In Pinkal, he’s incommunicable, to say the least.
“Do you know when he’s coming back?”
“You know Jack. He’ll come back when he’s good and ready.”
Damn. I would feel a whole lot better if I knew he was okay.”
“Jack can take care of himself. It would take a lot to bring him down.”
Suzi didn’t seem at all convinced, but she did seem resigned to the realization that there was nothing she could do.
“There is one other thing,” she went on. “I still feel like I owe you one.” She moves closer to me, She is standing and I was sitting, and she brings her hip up against my shoulder. I was out of practice, but not so far out that I don’t know an invitation when I see one.
I reach up and stroke her hip. “You do realize I may be a mad dog killer.”
“I don’t think so. I am pretty sure I would know it if you were.”
“But you realize I have no idea what has become of Marlina.”
“I know it,” she says. “And I hope she comes back soon. You two were good together. But in the meanwhile, you have a life to live.”
I couldn’t argue with her logic. Instead I grasp her hand and lead her into the bedroom. As I kiss her forehead she presses her body close to mine. Her small breasts feel firm and round. I kiss her mouth and feel her tongue search all the crevices of mine. We fall back onto my cot and begin scrambling to remove each other’s clothes. Within seconds we are naked and clinging to each other. I feel an intensity more forceful than any I have ever known. She returns it in kind. We come together in an all-encompassing burst of pleasure. It makes up for all I have been missing and then some.
“Happy now?” she asks. "We're even?"
“You never owed me a thing. But if you did, now you don’t. I have been paid in full.”
For a long moment Suzi's gaze meets mine. "I lied," she admits. "I came on to you not because I thought maybe I owed you. I came on to you because I wanted to. I wanted you and have for a long time. I hope Marlina comes back. I really do. But at the same time I hope she doesn't. How's that for being screwed up?"
I hope she isn't looking to an answer to that question. I haven't got one. "You're definitely screwed up," I finaly say. "But so am I. So is just about everybody, I guess."
Suzi hugs me even tighter as she brings her lips to mine. I have no idea how long we held each other. It might have been a minute; it might have been ten minutes; it might have been an hour. I just don't know. It was like my mind and all the senses associated with mind had ground to a stop. But then I feel Suzi grow tense.
"There is something I didn't tell Foster. I don't know. It's probably nothing, but still it's weird."
"What is it."
"I was practicing remote viewing. I have had some good results with it, but some awful ones as well. I was picturing Marlina in my mind's eye, trying to project myself onto her, when I had the strangest vision. Only it wasn't Marlina. It was you and Peter, the two of you entering an old stone church. Please don't ask me what this meant, or if it meant anything at all. Sometimes I get maverick flashes that make no sense whatsoever."
"Any idea where this church might be?"
"No, none, although a name flashed into my head. Province Properties, Ltd. Somehow I think it's associated with the church."
"Me being drawn to a church? I haven't been near a church in twenty years. And that was for my aunt's funeral. If anything, churches repel me. I believe I can say the same for Peter."
"There is something in this church."
"God? Redemption? Holy water?"
"Something old and musty."
"God? Redemption? Holy water?"
Suzi sticks her tongue out at me. "I didn't say you were in the church," she points out. "I said you along with Peter were being drawn toward the church."
"Opposites attract, I guess."
"I tried remote-viewing Marlina on three different days, and each day I visualized you, Peter, and that church."
I know better than to shrug off Suzi's visions. "I wonder where Province Properties Limited might be. Maybe somewhere in the British Isles. The British in all their humility are fond of calling businesses Limited."
"I already did a search," Suzi replies. "In all the world, so far as I could tell, there are just two companies called Province Properties Limited. One is in Nova Scotia, the other in South Africa. I am all but positive the Nova Scotia company is the one you want."
"I suppose I ought to check it out."
"I really don't want to butt into your business, but I took the liberty of getting you the number." Suzi hands me a slip of paper.
I twist the stone on my communicator. "That's a Halifax exchange," I note as I begin tapping in the code. After two rings, a female voice fills the room. "Province Properties, Limited. How may we help you?"
"You have a listing for an old, stone, dilapidated church. I don't know the exact location although it's somewhere in Nova Scotia."
"Hold on," the voice says. This followed by a pause that turns into a two or three minute wait. When she returns, her voice has taken on a tone of weariness. "I believe I have found the one you want," she says. "It's an abandoned church in Lunenburg. Apparently it's in quite poor condition and utterly uninhabitable. We have much nicer properties we'd be happy to show you."
"I am sure you do, but right now this is the one we're interested in. How is the sale being handled?"
"It's listed with us, but owned by RBC Royal Bank. They would love to dispose of it, but the best they can offer is a quit claim deed. There is no set price. We're accepting bids although so far there haven't been any. We haven't advertised it, nor do we intend to. There is no well, no septic, and no electric. There isn't even any road access. It's just a bare bones stone building surrounded by forest that is starting to fall down." She pauses to catch her breath. " How's that for a sales pitch?" she finally asks.
"Just wonderful," I laugh. "You've all but sold the place. Can you tell me when it was built?"
"We don't really know. Under Age of Structure, there's a question mark. I am looking at the listing form, and there's a hand-written note stating that people in Lunenburg say it's been there for as far back as anybody can remember. Nobody knows who built it."
She sounds relieved to be rid of me when she says, "Hang on, Bob just came in, and it's his listing."
After a moment, a male voice replaces hers. "Cindy tells me you're inquiring about my church."
"I am just trying to learn what I can. She tells me it's a stone church in poor condition. It might be just what we're looking for."
I can tell my his tone that Bob is struggling to remain businesslike. "There was a congregation holding services there up until fifteen or twenty years ago. Then attendance fell off and eventually dwindled down to nothing. Old people died, young people didn't come along to take their places. It's sad, but this is taking place in churches all over the country."
"How did the bank get it?"
"After five years, abandoned structures are declared by the town to be public nuisances. They're turned over to a bank and auctioned off."
I thank Bob for his assistance and sign off.
I turn to Suzi. "Your vision is barely alive and not at all well in Nova Scotia. Peter and I aren't doing all that well in the book business. Maybe it's time we start a new religion." Peter has a commercial location on the Bar Harbor Road in Trenton, and for the past several summers, we have pitched a tent and sold secondhand books. Business at best had been fair to middling.
"It might help if one of you would volunteer for crucifixion." Suzi chuckles. "Back in my Catholic girlhood, we were told about all kinds of saints and their visions. Kind of like me, if I do say so myself. If I lend your church moral and financial assistance, can I be canonized? And how does one go about acquiring a halo?"
"First things first," I say. "We would welcome any and all donations and might even suggest tithing. As for canonization, you would have to verify a couple of miracles. Putting up with me wouldn't count as one. I would have to check your resume, but I am quite sure you wouldn't qualify."
"Damn it all to hell," Suzi grumbles..
In all seriousness, the church business has roused my curiosity, as did mention of the town of Lunenburg. I am quite sure that Peter's partner Betsy has family there. "I need to discuss some matters with Peter," I say. "I think sooner would be better than later. I'll mention the church to him."
MARLINA'S DISAPPEARANCE triggered a series of events culminating in my living in my van. During our decade together, she had become something of a celebrity. Almost effortlessly she had become a highly regarded motivational speaker, and in the process quite well-to-do. Some of her gigs paid astonishing amounts of money. I tended to believe that people able to come up with so much money must already be motivated. Many times I had tried to analyze her success, and had come to believe we owed it to her credibility. Her innate honesty always came shining through. We live in an age of incessant bullshit, so people respond positively on those rare occasions when real sincerity comes their way.
There was nothing revolutionary about her message. Marlina would tell people their lives would improve measurably if they avoided negativity and practiced loving whatever and whoever they came across. She meant it, and they believed her. In any event, she booked a solid schedule and found it necessary to travel extensively. She had been gone much of the time, but always kept in touch. She had made it a point to call me every night. In ten years, she had never failed to make that call.
Shortly before her disappearance, she got her really big break. She was invited to deliver an address during the halftime of next February's Super Bowl. Seems that over time the halftime proceedings had gotten totally out of hand. Year after year, they had gotten wilder and wilder, until last year the musical festivities included a forced gang rape followed with a death by strangulation. The instigators insisted that the death was accidental, but Harry Dingle, commissioner of the National Soccer League, decided enough was enough. The league was losing popular support. He sought to set things right by having Marlina deliver an inspirational make-yourself-rich-and-better, heart-warming address. Marlina was handed a golden opportunity opportunity to make herself known to millions of people around the globe.
I was happy for her, but entertained somewhat mixed emotions over the prospect of international stardom. She would laugh at these and jokingly point out that I had a gift for finding the negative side of everything. Privately I wondered if we needed my negativism to balance off her perpetual positivism. Getting rich seemed okay, but I had been happy enough with the way things were. She made enough money to easily finance a new house in Surry. We had kept current with the mortgage even after the Big Bubble burst and we were left with a house that was worth way less than what we were paying for it. “Under water” was what economists called their situation, although it wasn’t under actual water as were so many homes along low-lying stretches of the Maine coast.
I had considered bailing (what could be more appropriate when under water?), but Marlina wouldn’t hear of it. In her mind we had entered into a solemn agreement and were obliged to honor it. I respected her ethics, even if I didn’t extend The First Bank of Google's mortgage department such reverence and thought she was being financially irresponsible. Marlina’s income had made it feasible for us to continue making payment after payment. This all changed when she disappeared. Without her income, I had no hope of keeping current. I didn't wait for the foreclosure. Six weeks after her disappearance, soon as I stopped thinking she would reappear any time now, I went into Goggle/mortgage and handed the keys to Wendy. "It's yours," I said, and that was that. Why can't all legal transactions be so simple?
Van living wasn't bad. In many ways I liked it. No monthly mortgage payments, no property taxes, no lawn to mow. Most nights I parked behind Goggle/Denny's for the free WIFI. Sometimes I got tired of the view—cinder blocks, mostly, a view interrupted only by an over-flowing dumpster—and moved to a different location. It was easy enough to switch parking spots.
I know I annoyed the police. They wasted no time dispatching a personal drone to keep me under near-constant surveillance. They had their mind-games down pact. They knew that I would grow used to my drone if it were always on hand. By having it come and go, I couldn't avoid keeping a watchful eye for it. I couldn't resent that drone. I would have regarded it as dereliction of duty had they not dispatched it. Nor could I resent them not buying into my story. It wasn't even a story. Nevertheless, they did their duty and tried to break it down. They interrogated me again and again, repeating question after question about events that evening.
My answer was always the same: I can't remember. No worries about getting confused and tripping myself up with inconsistencies. I was something of a history buff, and had read a lot about events leading up to Richard Nixon’s resignation. Nixon was said to have told a confidant that one sure way to avoid being found guilty of perjury was to insist upon an inability to remember events being discussed. Later on, Hillary Clinton had much the same problem when being questioned about some of her real estate and commodity dealings, and after that Herman Sachs couldn’t recall a thing about why he dumped 100,000 shares of Xternia just before it tanked. The thing that made me different was I really couldn’t remember.
Privately I would catch myself wondering if I could have killed her in some sort of psychotic rage. Could I have snapped? Could anybody be sure they are incapable of acting psychotically? Still, I reflected, crazy as I would have to have been, I did a good job of covering up the crime. Somehow I had disposed of her body. I had been clever enough to eliminate the incriminating evidence that taints nearly all crime scenes. Me, the Master Criminal, evil incarnate. If I had my wits sufficiently enough about me to do this, I couldn’t be all that crazy. Right?
It's not like we always got along. She thought I spent too much time playing golf and not enough time helping her in the garden. She felt I should alway wear freshly pressed khakis; I prefer faded jeans. She's a vegan; I like my steaks semi-rare. Once half-jokingly she suggested that maybe I had taken Tippy to the pound. I had made no secret of not really caring for her Welsh terrier. Don't get me wrong, I like dogs okay. I just think they should be at least the size of yellow labs and not bark much. Tippy, I felt, was lacking in bravado; he had never been inclined to leave the area immediately behind the house. So Tippy's disappearance remained an unsolved mystery without my being a serious suspect.
I like to think we both knew I wouldn't have done anything to harm the critter. Even though we didn't always things eye-to-eye, we trusted each other. Case in in point: I was all but certain Marlina hadn't gotten involved with another man (or woman). Keeping secrets never seemed to have occurred to her. Deep down I held her in highest regard. I had never known anybody so completely ethical. In ten years, I had never caught her in a single prevarication. Not even a white lie, half-truth, or harmless fib. Sneakiness just wasn't in her. She hated cheaters. The other man theory was the only alternative the police came up with. But they put no stock in it. We lived in a smallish community ant the police had a way of knowing other people's business.
One of the things the authorities couldn't figure out was what shut down her chip. Her whereabouts should have been easy to establish. Goggle had developed chips to the point where anybody's activities can be traced back for the past six months.
There had been a window of opportunity for Marlina to leave the house. Foster had admitted to me that on that fateful night my house had been under observation only 87 percent of the time. During that period, nobody came or went. Did I just luck out when it came time to dispose of her body?
My van kept me one small step short of homelessness. Secretly I rather enjoyed the mobility and the opportunity to deprive the town of real estate taxes. I kept my Y membership, depending on it for basic hygiene, and showed up weekly at several free church suppers.
All and all, I lived simply. Years ago I had pretty much sworn off alcohol and as time went by had lost interest in pot. Yeah, sure, I took the occasional drink and turned on sometimes, but I could easily have gone without these pleasantries for the rest of my life. My vices of choice were caffeine and double-stuff Oreos.
Everybody knows that people familiar to the victims commit practically all crimes of violence. We had had a lusty argument the night she disappeared. The police were right in focusing on me. Who else was there? They would love to have wrapped this case up with me as the designated culprit, but the computerized drone assigned to my case was holding back. I had no idea why. True, they had no body, but convictions have been upheld in numerous bodyless cases. I know, I know, they couldn't prove a crime had been committed, never mind that I had committed it, but I had an uncomfortable feeling my drone might regard these facts as bothersome technicalities.
I knew that one way I might have gotten off the hook would have been to solve the mystery. But I had no idea how to do that. At times I wondered if I really wanted to. What if I solved it by discovering I was a homicidal maniac? Would I turn myself in? That, of course, would be the honorable thing to do. There was a part of me that really did favor truth, justice, and the American way. But nobody has ever confused me with Superman. But would I turn himself in? The question kept reappearing in my mind, churning around like laundry in a dryer. Truth was, I wasn't sure what I would do. This was one of those things one could never know until the time came. Like leading a charge up a hill with ChiComs in a machine gun nest spitting out a hail of bullets. I might do this, but I had to admit there was an awfully good chance I would hightail it in the opposite direction.
For a long time I was afraid to be seen with another woman. I knew, or at least felt, the police were watching me, and anybody I was with would immediately become a suspect. Sometimes I would bring up gogglegirls.com and arrange to have one come over for supper and sex. Legally this was unacceptable since these girls were supposed to accept only payment by chip. Nevertheless, nearly all of them proved willing to engage in under-the-table, over-the-mattress transactions. One girl, Melinda, proved to be a reader. She would service me for a hardcover Sue Grafton. For a Stephen King, she would stay all night. It bothered me a bit that Melinda's name was so close to Marlina's. Did this compound the sin of my faithlessness? Talk about being screwed up. Sometimes it bothered me that this didn't bother me more than it did. Still, I was never really comfortable with these trysts. Had I been caught my disreputable activity might make me appear guiltier to Goggle’s awful judgmental logarithms.
I do know that business sucks. Practically no new customers came looking for websites or hosting. I offered an incredible guarantee. I promised to increase visitation by at least 25 percent. I had a developed a system unique to the industry. I put it in writing that if If I didn't increase business by that amount, hosting was free until I did. I got few takers. Just about everybody in town thought I was a murderer. Maybe they were afraid I would bludgeon them if they paid late.
WITH NEW BUSINESS having slowed to a trickle, I am thankful that several of my old customers have remained loyal. Among the best of these is Ron Sutherford, who unexpectedly shows up behind Goggle/Walmart in his BMW convertible. I heard him pull up and have opened the door to my van before he got there. Ron has to crunch down his lanky six-foot-three frame to make it into the cramped confines of my abode.
We exchange a few pleasantries before Ron gets to the point. Turns out it is my former house in Surry. Ron says he picked it up from Goggle Financial for a song. Ron is endowed with a trust account from a very wealthy grandfather; and what to him is a happy tune is to most mortals an incomprehensible full-bore symphony..
"It’s a well-kept house in a nice neighborhood,” he notes. “So the question arises, just what am I to do with such a house?"
"Several possibilities occur to me, but only one makes real sense."
I say nothing.
"I would like to sign it over to you."
For a long moment, I still say nothing. Then I point out, "My income has hit an all-time low. I can't afford a hovel, never mind a house."
"I would like to sign it over to you here and now, free and clear, no questions asked. Nothing down and convenient monthly payments of, oh, let’s say zero. I’ll also pay your property taxes. Hell, I'll also toss in heat and electricity after I convert it to solar."
"I like the price, but you’ll have to excuse me for wanting to check the fine print. I do hope you're not trying to involve me in some vast criminal enterprise. Am I selling my soul to, well, the devil maybe? My nerves can't handle a more intimate association with Goggle’s drones than I am currently experiencing."
"Lucky thing for you I am neither a criminal mastermind nor a capitalist pig, As you well know, Goggle/realty would try to squeeze a couple of thousand a month out of you for such a fine house. I don't have to remind you that the First National Bank of Goggle drains the last drop of blood from every mortgage it holds. But I say screw the mother fucking banksters. Cast the loathsome money changers from the holy temple."
“Your grasp on the dismal science is matched only by your outstanding theological foundation. So just what is this offer I obviously can’t refuse?”
“Oh, what I am contemplating is mostly fun and games. My father is looking for a hot teammate in the upcoming high-stakes scramble at Kebo. I have convinced him you would be the perfect guy. A real ringer. Actually I guess you could say we have convinced each other. He brought you up before I did. He had heard of your golfing prowess and is eager to meet you. "
“You do know how to flatter a guy. But how could this help you?”
“My father currently sucks at golf. He used to be pretty good, but now he’s in a huge slump. Has been for the past two summers. I know it’s a long-shot, but if tips from you could get him playing decent golf, you might get close to him. Hell, he’d kick mom out and invite you to move in with him. If you won his confidence, he’d tell you things he wouldn’t tell anybody else. Father has a trusted attorney, but there are many things he holds back from him. My theory is nobody gets closer to a golf addict than a successful swing coach.”
“Why do you want me cozy up to him?”
"This is just between you and me, right?"
“ Well, it turns out I have good reason to believe he and his big-shot cronies at Goggle are contemplating a monstrous crime. He’s has joined up with a group called the Liberation Foundation. Among other things, this group insists that world population must be reduced to five hundred million. What’s it at now? Ten billion? I have no idea how he thinks they might achieve such an astounding reduction, but it would entail mass murder at a scale never before seen. Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Mohammed Ohamand? Pikers compared to murder on a scale such a reduction would require. These guys, including my old man, gotta be stopped, and maybe by being close to him you could help rein them in.”
“I am guessing this would take way more than you and me.”
"Of course it would. What's important for you to know is I have associates. Fellow Sovereign Citizens. You've heard of us?"
"Now and again, yeah. I don't know too much about you, but, yeah, I've heard of Sovereign Citizens."
"Then I guess you know that we’ve declared ourselves free of Goggle. We refer to it as stepping out of the fog. Get it? Fog? Free Of Goggle? We represent the Great Unchipped.”
“How many of you are there? Who all belongs?”
“Many. A great many. As for who, we like to say we’re a motley crew. Did you know there was once a popular band by that name? Anyway, our membership is more diverse than you can possibly imagine. There are, of course, the unchippables, people Goggle regards as intrinsically unproductive. Once they're so branded, these people tend to remain unemployable forever. Some are known criminals, some are lazy, some are psychotic, some are dirty, some have low intelligence, some simply have had no opportunity to develop habits compatible with the workplace, things like showing up every day on time and not sexually harassing the women.”
“Sound like a fun crew to drink beer with and watch sports, but not much of a basis for an Army.”
There are hundreds of thousands of others, some quite respectable. Evangelicals refuse to be chipped. Some Biblical injunction against it. Many people are convinced that Goggle can use chips to brainwash people or even disable them. For sure, Goggle can track their every move."
“Yeah, I get it. But what’s the point? Getting free of Goggle is like getting free of your own skins."
“Some of us don’t like the idea of being controlled by anything but ourselves. Maybe being free spirits requires the shedding of our skins.”
“Allow me to play devil’s advocate. Do we not live in the most free system ever conceived? We’ve all but eliminated government for God’s sake. Nearly all jails or prisons have been rendered unnecessary. There was a time when America, land of the free, had more people behind bars than any other country. People could be locked up for twenty years for possessing bags of marijuana. Women were jailed for accepting cash for sex. Occasionally, not often, but occasionally, their customers were jailed as well.”
Straddling a kitchen chair, young Ron is fiddling with a salt shaker and doesn't appear to be listening. Finally he says, “There’s more to Goggle than meets the eye. We have very good reasons for rejecting it. As sovereign citizens, we refuse to be chipped. We’re not in any system. To get by, we rely upon barter or any old cash we can come by.”
“What are some of those reasons?”
"Goggle is about to declare a national emergency. It’s been in the works for the past several years. It is preparing to issue a new commandment: Thou shall do no business with any company but Goggle or a Goggle affiliate.” This will be presented as a temporary measure, a necessary precaution to protect us all until the threat is over.”
“Take your pick. There’s terrorism, subversion, invasion, big government, foreigners, Democrats, Republicans, or a combination of two or more of the above. Businesses unaffiliated with Goggle will be asked to shut down voluntarily. They will, of course, be generously compensated. I want you to ignore this directive, and keep your server open for business.”
“They can do this?”
“Who’s going to stop them?”
“Sounds like a lot of people will be out of business.”
“It’s not that hard to become a Goggle or a affiliate. The main requirement is a willingness to give Goggle five percent of gross proceeds.”
“Not a bad racket.”
“Most businesses cope with it by raising prices five percent. As usual it’s the common joes that pay the piper. The Great God Goggle giveth and likewise taketh away.”
“Who keeps you up to date on all this?”
“More than anybody else my father’s secretary, Amy. I think she has a crush on me. Trouble is, I don’t know where she is. I haven’t seen her in the past ten days. Father says she found a better job elsewhere and moved on, but I find that a bit hard to believe.”
“Your father is still moving up in Goggle’s managerial ranks?”
“Yeah, he sure is. He's just outside the inner circle. You know, I used to think he was one of the good guys. Not too long ago, he taught a course in resource depletion at College of the Atlantic. He is an authority on the skyrocketing rate of extinctions. There was a time when he cared about obscure, little-known species passing out of existence. What I didn’t realize was how little it would take to draw him into the Liberation Foundation.”
“The Liberation Foundation sounds a lot like the old New World Order.”
"They're one and the same. It's the same old bitch in a different set of clothes."
“It always struck me as outrageously far-fetched, especially the bit about reducing world population to 500 million.
“My father and his cohorts think they’ve found a way.”
“Just how would they manage it?”
“Amy wasn’t sure. She said what she overheard was totally outlandish. It had something to do with a ghost or a spirit of some sort.”
“Maybe they hope to scare people to death?”
A YEAR AGO, I was all but out of business. My overhead was low, but my income was even lower. Without Marlina's income, I wasn't making it. For me cash-flow problems were nothing new, but in the past there were always people who owed me money. There were people who were slow in paying, people I would have to go pester, but people I could count on eventually paying. With so much of the Maine coast inundated with rising ocean waters, tourism had become uncertain at best, and there was reduced demand for my guidebooks.
I let some clients run up a sizable balance, and some of them fucked me over. Included here was a Mexican restaurant, a motel/restaurant in Ellsworth, and a boating company on the backside of the island. I was able to withstand the occasional hit, but I was guilty in letting things get out of control.
In the year since Marlina disappeared, many clients had found reason to leave. I was left with very few money-in-the-bank types. I had never before been in a situation that seemed so hopeless. That is why on a gray day in March, I was sitting at my desk contemplating the futility of it all when the phone rang.
I considered just letting it ring, but whoever it was seemed unusually persistent. So I finally picked up, and a voice asked, “Is Douglas there?” The voice was that of a middle-aged man with a slight accent I can’t readily identify.
“He’s in a meeting,” I li. “Can I take a message?”
“Tell him I have a proposition that could bring him a considerable sum of money.”
I hesitated. “Oh, wait a moment,” I said. “I think I hear him now.” I set the phone down, shoved my chair into the desk creating a distracting noise. “Doug, call for you,” I yelled. I stomped away from the desk, returning twenty seconds later.
“That was a rather elaborate ruse,” the voice said. “What was the point?”
“Bill collectors,” I said. “I try to avoid them.”
“They’re a problem?”
“Now and again. Yeah, they can be bothersome.”
“I can help you out with that.”
“As you’ve obviously surmised, your reference to a considerable sum of money steered me away from a path of apparently fruitless duplicity.”
“Funny how that works. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to get right to the point.”
“Nothing could please me more.”
“I want you to build and maintain a Website for me. I will provide all of the content. Everything will be deeply encrypted, and you are not to try unraveling it. Doing so would constitute breach of contract and I would seek remedies both legal and extra-legal. Am I making myself clear?"
"I want your man Tom to put extra effort into this site. It must be as impenetrable as possible."
I smelled a trap. "Tom isn't permitted to work on websites," I said.
"Like I said, I want this site to represent his best work."
"After Tom helped the feds penetrate the Dark Net, they repaid him by arresting him, jailing him, placing him on probation, and prohibiting him from working on the net."
“So they did. I am very much aware of Tom's work. It very nearly proved ruinous to a great many people, including me."
“If you have a problem with Tom, maybe you should take it up with him.”
“Who said anything about a problem?
“Sounded like one to me.”
"Well, I didn't mean for it to have. You need to understand how much I admire him. I know he had the best of intentions for doing what he did. By helping the feds apprehend Skinner Bob, he assisted in ridding the world of one of its worst inhabitants. As I know you're aware, our boy Bob got rich selling leather goods made from the hides of young girls he butchered. Amazing how much certain deviants will pay for such mementos."
"So you've come to pay your respects?"
“I certainly haven't come to threaten him. If I were a vindictive man, I would have dealt with young Tom long ago. I could have had him killed or at the very leas taken him to court for invading my privacy. I chose to do neither. I admired him too much to make his life any more difficult that it already was. True, I have kept an eye on him. His is a unique talent. In some ways I know him better than you do. Ask him about software he wrote called Refuge.”
“I need to know more about you.”
“Forget it. You know all you’re ever going to know. However, if you can produce the Website I need, it’ll be worth a cool $50,000. I am talking $25,000 when you agree to take on the job, $25,000 when you’re finished. We can negotiate additional hosting fees when the time comes. If the site lives up to my expectations, you’ll be in a position to extract more money that you ever expected to see in this lifetime.”
"Tell me something, will your site entail illegal activities?"
"Depends on your point of view."
Okay, fair enough, but let it be noted that I try to have no point of view. It seems to me that once you adopt a point of view, you risk becoming oblivious to useful input from other points of view. In theory I would like to embrace as many points of view as possible. I have often said that when it comes to the constitution of the U.S., I am an absolutist. To me, free speech should mean just that—the freedom for people to say whatever they wish. People should be able to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. They shouldn't, of course. It would be far better if they refrained. But it's up to them. This speech along with all other speech should be protected. Marlina once told me that Taoists believe wise men appear stupid. Far be it for me, a humble webmaster, to decide that some speech is is so odious it must be prohibited. This is what attracted me to the original internet. It was like the Wild West. Then like an oldtime U.S. Marshall, Goggle came to town and established law and order. Western settlements became safe for the preacher and the school teacher, and the outlaws had to head for the hills.
I told my mysterious caller that I wasn't sure if I would be able to provide the technology he required. The truth was I knew his requirements were beyond my capabilities. But they might not be beyond Tom's. My caller said he would contact me tomorrow at this same time.
Our connection broken, I sit for a few minutes contemplating my communicator. Talk about two-edged swords. A few months after becoming CEO at Goggle, Ronald Champ began handing out thousands of the damn things. They are kind of neat . Personalized with the recipient's birthstones, the setting in my communicator contains a crystal blue zircon befitting my Christmas-day birthdate, my Capricornical placement in the astrological scheme of things. Zircon, the oldest mineral on earth, appeals to me. They say it dates back more than 4.4 billion years and contains traces of uranium. Its radioactivity changes the stone’s chemical structure and color over time. Supposedly ziron wards of evil and brings prosperity and wisdom. Among many zircon is considered a grounding stone that increases confidence and compassion. It is said it can bring visions into reality and provide the guidance needed to achieve goals. when I received my communicator, it slid easily over the ring finger of my left hand. Almost immediately, however, the band seemed to tighten, and now I am not sure I could ever get it off. As communication devices they are better than old-fashioned call phones. They enjoy full connectivity anywhere on Earth, and their power sources never need charging. They have no off-switches, and there are many times when I wish I could be free of the thing.
I wasted no time chasing down Tom. I found him in the library, online, in direct violation of his parole. More times than not he could be found here seeking out some sort of arcane information. Tom liked to say he was a fan of freaky factoids. “How do you like them F Words,” he would laugh. "Astonishing alliteration."
One of the terms of Tom’s probation was that he was not allowed to own a computer. Although the judge had thought this would frustrate Tom’s hacking forays, it had little or no effect. Tom couldn’t own a computer, so he had problems saving sensitive files, but he always had his handy zip drive. Tom was welcome to use one of my computers, but, for reasons of his own, he often chose the anonymity of the library.
I didn’t know all the details of Tom’s legal wrangles. I did know that his hacking activities had gotten him in deep doo doo. As In understood it, the authorities were considering setting Tom up as an example. He faced the possibility of several years in prison, a penalty set aside only after one of the companies he had hacked wanted to hire him for security purposes. Strings were pulled, deals were made, and Tom walked, but not without conditions.
Tom was concentrating on his work, and didn’t notice my approach. Not wanting to intrude in the middle of something vital, I sat down in a nearby over-stuffed chair and leafed through an old New Yorker as I waitied for Tom to notice me. When Tom did look my way, I set the magazine aside and nodded towards the door. “We need to talk,” I said.
We crossed State Street and walked by the backs of Main Street businesses to Karen’s Café. When Karen first opened here, I thought she had chosen a terrible, hard-to-find location. But as things turned out, the locals quickly became aware of where she was and knew her pastries were unsurpassed. She did a big take-out business from neighboring offices and seemed to be doing remarkably well. I ordered a couple of espressos at the front counter and joined Tom at a table near the back. I told him about the mysterious call and asked if he knew who the caller might have been.
“Hard to say,” Tom admitted. “When I was hacking the Dark Net, I got into pretty most of the sites there. We're talking about several hundred. Some of those sites were selling under-aged women, several were peddling illegal guns, and any number were offering really nasty drugs. This was back when simple possession of a weed like marijuana could send people to prison for extended stays.”
“How did you crack into them?”
"Factoid," Tom said. "The original TOR had 4,000 relays, and every message passed through three of them. These were supposed to be selected randomly, but true randomness is all but impossible to achieve. I knew the government programmers would hedge their bets and leave open a back door. I found a way to detect which gateways they would enter. After that it was easy to track them all the way.”
“You were on to several criminal enterprises.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t want to be. The dickheads would have let me go scot free if I had come clean about all of them. Fuck ‘em, I said. I didn’t spill a single bean. For me, hacking the Dark Internet was all fun and games. I wasn’t looking to bust anybody and you know I wouldn’t engage in criminal activities myself. But I wasn’t about to become a ratfink."
“I never really understood the Dark Internet. It amounted to a separate Internet just for bad guys?”
“Factoid: It wasn’t all bad guys. Government officials, good and bad, used it. Political dissidents and whistle blowers used it. So did a lot of corporations who wanted to keep legitimate communications confidential. A lot of this was on the up and up.”
“Be that as it may, the chances are my would-be client is a scumbag.”
“Yeah, but you don’t know that for sure. Maybe he’s just another guy with a girlfriend on the side he wants to keep secret or maybe he's writing the great American novel which he wants to share with nobody but his editor.”
“I guess it doesn’t really matter. I can’t deliver the website he wants.”
Tom didn’t reply. He directed his gaze at his espresso, apparently deep in thought. “How much did he say he’d pay you?” he finally asked.
“Fifty thousand plus sky-high hosting fees. Twenty-five up front, twenty-five upon completion. I would be lying if I didn’t admit the money sounds awfully good.”
“I might be able to help you out,” Tom said reluctantly.
“After I cracked the Dark Net, I began wondering if I could create a system that nobody could crack, not even me. It was intellectually challenging, the biggest challenge I ever took on. It was like having the brain understand itself without changing into something different from what it was. It took two long years, but eventually I came up with something I call Refuge.”
“Our mysterious benefactor told me to ask you about that.”
“Really?” Tom said. “That’s very interesting. You see, nobody else knows about Refuge.”
“Somebody must. Who?”
“Nobody, I can name. I’ve kept it quiet. It would be of interest mostly to criminals and corporate types and old-time government officials. I developed it as a hobby. Goggle would have me incarcerated it it knew I was even thinking about such a thing. Then Google would grab it up for itself.
“If it works you could probably sell it for a fortune.”
I guess there are any number of potential buyers, but I have no interest in any of them. I would get arrested if I tried to sell it, but even if I could work around that, there is no way would I sell out to the secretive assholes of this world.”
“So who knows about it?”
“I worked on it with Judy Bixler. We went way out of our way to keep it quiet. We kept it offline. I burned all my notes. The program is on a single disk that I keep in a safe deposit box in an account under an assumed name. There. Now you know my greatest secret.”
"What is it anyway?"
"it's software that will encrypt any data submitted to it. the encryption is so deep that without the key I would have no idea how to decipher it. I believe it might will be literally impossible to do so."
“I should tell my mysterious benefactor to go screw himself.”
“Why? He hasn’t asked you to do anything illegal.”
“Ignorance is bliss, I guess.”
“It also can be a safe harbor from prosecution.”
“You’re willing to let me sell Refuge?”
“Yeah, I think I am. I haven’t forgotten I owe you big time. If Goggle finds out I have it, my goose is cooked. On top of that, I am curious to see if Refuge works. I haven’t had an opportunity to field test it.”
The next day, my mysterious benefactor called at the precise time he had promised. I told him about Refuge and we set up terms for a transfer. I e-mailed him Refuge and he transferred fifty thousands dollars to my bank account. This went without a hitch despite the enormous amount of trust required by both parties. I wondered if I would ever know the identify of my mysterious benefactor.
HALF AN HOUR after Sutherford hands me the keys to the house I am back there. The place seems both familiar and strange, and I know it'll take some getting used to. I have spent the last forty-five minutes drinking coffee and thinking about Suzi. Just as I am finishing a second cup of coffee, Jack pulls up in front. I am not especially happy to see him.
I know he'll be looking for a progress report, and I have none to give. I am way more interested in savoring my time with Suzi than listening to a jackass carry on about Clinton. I have already relived every delicious moment of our encounter and see no reason why I shouldn’t continue doing so again and again maybe pretty much forever.
“How come you’re not out and about searching diligently for Clint?” he asks.
I sigh deeply. “How the Hell did you know I was here?”
"I was driving by and saw your car," he says.
I get defensive. "You've given me precious little to go on if you expect me to find your friend."
Seating himself in my favorite recliner, Jack strokes his chin and seems contemplative. Leaning back he closes his eyes and appears lost in deep thought. Or maybe he is napping. How the hell would I know? “I guess I do owe you more of an explanation,” he finally says. “What you have to know is that Jack is the Galactic Monitor.”
Flashes of grade school rush through my mind. At the Bryant C. Moore School, Hall Monitors had great power. I was never well-behaved enough to be one, and I held in awe the kids who were entrusted with such grown-up authority. They could detain another student on his or her way to the bathroom, even when he or she held a legitimate pass. A male Hall Monitor could retain a female student for quite a long time, five or ten minutes maybe. If nobody was around, I imagined a Hall Monitor could demand a kiss. In my eight-year-old mind, this constituted godlike capabilities. I didn't really want a kiss, even at that age I knew about germs, but the idea of being able to demand one was staggering. Looking back at that time, it makes me wonder if deep down I wish I could force myself on women without suffering any consequences. Is this every heterosexual male's secret dream?
“Telling you this is violating his trust,” Jack continues. “I vowed to keep this between us.”
“Even if I really, really need to pee?”
“Never mind. I was thinking of something else.”
Jack shoots me a quizzical look. He might by having seconds thoughts about sharing important secrets with the likes of me. “Try to pay attention,” he says. For several seconds he seems to be thinking about what to say. Then he says, “Tell me, have you ever considered the possibility that mankind is alone in the cosmos?”
“No, not really,” I say. "Seems rather unlikely."
“Well, let me...I am temped to say put your mind to rest, but your mind already seems almost completely somnolent. Anyway, in case it ever occurs to you to wonder, there are billions of biological systems out there. In terms of life, we would find many iffy, but plenty more that would pass any life-definition test you might construe. God didn't construct a universe billions of light years across just to give us a place to hang out."
“Okay. This seems reasonable, except maybe for the God part. Real estate is too expensive to waste.”
“Damn right, but the important thing is millions of these molecular forms evolve intelligences that could enable them to colonize interdimensional space.”
“Good for them. I am sure their mothers are proud.”
“The problem is almost all of them would make lousy neighbors.”
“No problem dealing with lousy neighbors. I’ve known plenty. Most of the time you can safely ignore them. Other times you can intimidate them into at least semi-compliance with
“Well, it’s Jack’s job to prevent them from colonizing.”
“Certain inalienable rights mean nothing to your friend?"
“Stop trying to be funny. Or wise. Or whatever you're trying to be. You’ve gotta take Clint seriously. There is no doubt in my mind that he can be one tough motherfucker.”
“From what you’ve said, he sounds like more of a piss-ant. How does he all by himself stop folks from colonizing?”
“Any way he can. And there are dozens of possibilities. And now we’ve evolved to the point where he feels he may have to do something about us soon. He says he should have intervened in the late sixties when we first put men on the moon.”
Now Jack is really beginning to worry me. Jack, not Clint. I know Jack can be delusional, but down and dirty paranoia is new and scary. Some of the blame no doubt is mine. Certainly the website I made for him contributed to his mental deterioration. I realize I didn’t have to use bright, primary colors and sixty point Aerial black. I admit that. I did it because I have a weakness for sensationalism. I like to see my work stand out. But no way should I take all the blame for the catastrophic climax to Jack’s normal existence.
I could have reminded Jack he hadn't really needed his own website. The university gives tenured professors free pages on its site. Jack isn’t selling anything, and the university site actually draws more traffic than his does. Trouble is the university would have demanded that he show a bit of restraint, a quality he abandoned some time ago. Could I have coaxed him into backing off a bit? Maybe. Probably. Yeah, I know I could have. But I didn't try. Designing and hosting a site that created something of a sensation hasn’t hurt my business at all. It has attracted a few paying clients, some a bit on the crazy side, but still contributing to a small, but much-needed, revenue stream. Had I sacrificed a friend for a few lousy bucks? Hopefully not. I don’t like thinking of myself as that sort of person.
I am half humoring Jack and half responding to curiosity when I ask, “Just what might Clint do? What does he have for super powers? And should that be ‘he’ with a capital h?”
“Lower case will do nicely,” Jack replies. “As for what can he do, how about a neighborly super nova? Or a massive black hole in mid-town Manhattan? Or an ignition of our atmosphere?"
“I guess these would all pretty much suck.”
“Stop trying to be witty. Concentrate on some grim possibilities. Given a nudge from Clint, the Earth could easily go tumbling into the Sun. Or how about a city-sized asteroid shoved up your ass at 37,000 miles an hour? Or a Yellowstone eruption covering half the globe in six inches of smoldering ash? Trust me. These are just a few of the things Jack could do.”
“So he is rather godlike…”
“You better believe it.”
I am not really stunned by Jack's response, but I am rendered momentarily speechless. Am I to blame for Jack’s deteriorating condition? There are those who insist I am. They think Jack could begin rebuilding his life if we would just bring down that site. Maybe with a fresh start he could resume some hint of normalcy. He has nothing to lose. His lunacy is becoming burdensome, his wackiness losing whatever quirky charm it might once have had. Women who had wanted to nurture him, are now shunning him.
I have to wonder how long I would be able to count on him to maintain my clandestine Guatemalan server.
To most the worst thing is Jack's claim of a personal association with Quetzalcoatl. Why this is so bothersome, I am not sure. Plenty of people say they talk to God. Many say God talks back to them. What's so different about getting it on with an eons-old Mayan man-god who had a way of popping up whenever the mystery of the Mayans was hot topic number one? So what if he is a gaudy feathered serpent? Most of us have learned to accept cross dressers. Let us not sweat the small stuff. For that matter, who cares if most people assume that jungle rot has gotten to Jack’s brain? We haven't evolved beyond simple prejudice. There is no good reason the Judeo-Christian God of Old and New Testament fame is way more acceptable for chitchat than a mythological Mayan with an oddball name.
It doesn't help that Mayans have fallen from favor. Once the business about the Mayan calendar, 2012, and the end of the world had come and gone, people just sort of lost interest in Mayans.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t have cared. Nobody had more tolerance for mental deviation than me. Truth be told, few things make me feel more to home. This is fortunate since I attracted whack jobs like hound dogs attract fleas. They seemed to seek me out. Luckily, I tended to find them, if not always fascinating, at least more interesting than humdrum normalcy. I found there often was quite beautiful logic in their offbeat meanderings once one accepted a few basic if unsustainable premises. The trick is to suspend disbelief for however long it takes to adjust to the twists and turns of an insane point of view.
“Why is this coming to a head right now?” I ask.
“He’s losing patience with us. He says he expected us to annihilate ourselves long ago. He has said he has other things to do besides playing nursemaid to us. He seems to be in a rotten frame of mind. Part of the problem is his golf game. He’s in a terrible slump. He can’t stop hitting duck hooks.”
“That’s it? The fate of us all hinges on his inability to hit straight tee shots?”
“There is a bit more to it than that.”
“He is under a lot of pressure. He says he should have stymied us years ago. He says he could lose his job. There are others who want his job. There are few better ones.”
“Can’t we try to convince him that we would be wonderful neighbors?”
“No way. We aren’t in the running. There are way too many things wrong with us. We spend endless hours thinking about fucking. We eat the flesh of other sentient creatures. We wage war on one another. We lie, we cheat, we hate other folks simply because they differ from us. Trust me, we have no chance of being accepted by the greater cosmic community.”
“If any of this were true, which I doubt, it sounds like we’re doomed.”
“We are, but maybe not just yet. Clint believes you have something he desperately wants.”
“And that would be?”
“Something Ben kept from Valerie?”
Jack glares at me. “Dammit, Jerko, stop trying to be a wag. There couldn’t be a less appropriate time for flippancy. As you well know in the early fifties Ben Hogan claimed to have discovered a secret way to swing a golf club that made him all but unbeatable. ”
"I know, I know, I know. Over the years there has been unending speculation as to what Hogan's secret might be. Live magazine paid him a hundred thousand dollars for a photo shoot purporting to divulge his secret. After that many people speculated that Hogan held back his real secret."
"Clint is willing to let you into his game because he thinks you know Hogan's secret. He will try to pump you for it. In the meanwhile, Clint is baiting you to try to find his portal. We know it's somewhere Downeast. He told me he has the perfect place for it. He said it is Downeast Maine's most magical place. Nobody knows Downeast Maine better than you. I am all but certain you can find it, but if you can't, I am know damn well your psychic girlfriend can.”
“There are two problems with this. First off, she isn't my girlfriend. Second off, even if she were my girlfriend, she's totally defensive about her abilities. No way will she hire them out. Much as I might wish otherwise, she's hardly at my beck and call.”
“No matter. The fate of mankind is at stake. Are you telling me she won't do what she can to save the human race?”
“I am telling you she'll think you're nuts. And she's seldom wrong about such things”.
“You'll just have to convince her otherwise,” Jack insists. "She'll at least listen to you.”
Yeah, right. She’ll listen if she can stop laughing long enough. Cuckoo I can cope with. Cuckoo can be fetching. Relentless sanity, after all, can be downright wearing. But Jack was reeking of mental malfunction way beyond cuckoo, a craziness I couldn't comprehend, never mind mend. Delusional paranoia maybe (is that a real thing?), or some even more obscure malady never mentioned in psych 101. Jack's condition cried out for a professionalism I just didn't have.
“I can't even spell Quetzalcoatl,” I point out. “I don't know what he looks like. And besides that he isn't real.” The hell with humoring him, I decide. Maybe a bitch slap to his self-esteem would bring him around, although I doubt it.
Hardly anybody can spell Quetzalcoatl,” Jack allows. “Some days I can't. I don't want you to spell him, I want you to find him. He's real, he's very real, and he's somewhere Downeast, or his portal is. Of course, he may have assumed an entirely different persona. We can’t expect him to be Quetzalcoatl forever.
“I guess it doesn’t matter I don’t know what he looks like since he’s likely to become somebody else altogether.”
“That’s right. You got a problem with that?”
I just look at him.
“He’ll leave clues. He promises he will. You just have to be receptive to them.”
Nobody knows the region better than you. He's playing with us; to him it's a game. To make things sporting, he's given us a few clues, so now I need you to track him down.
“You need a bloodhound, not a webmaster.”
The human race needs you to find him. And quickly! He holds our fate in his hands. You have to promise me you'll give it your best shot. Promise me that. Now!"
"Yeah, sure, whatever," I say, vaguely aware I had made, however halfheartedly, a solid commitment that would certainly come back to bite me.
“Have you tried Googling “Quetzalcoatl”? I ask with as straight a face as I can muster.
“Actually, yes,” Jack admits. “I got well over a million references. Just for the hell of it, I checked out the first hundred. I knew damn well none would be helpful.”
“Can’t be too many folks out there named Quetzalcoatl.”
“Actually he’s adopts different names for when he’s in human form."
"He's not always a feathered serpent?"
He can assume whatever form he wishes. Like I’ve said, lately he wants to be one of the guys, and he’s afraid Quetzalcoatl might be off-putting, as he terms it.”
“He sounds gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”
“You haven’t heard him expound upon his sexuality.”
“Perhaps he proves my point?”
“I’ve seen him eyeball passing chicks. Gays don’t devour women visually like he does. Trust me, he isn’t gay.”
“Whatever he is, he has a point. Showing up as a feathered serpent would be plenty off-putting. So when he’s in human form, what’s he call himself?”
"When he developed a strong admiration for Dirty Harry, he started calling himself Clint. Then he developed an even stronger attachment to President Clinton. This was when the prez was facing heat for porking Monica. In his mind having sexual relations with that woman was the penultimate one-of-the-guys thing to do. So for a while he used the name Clinton, later shortening it back to Clint. I don’t know if he claims a last name.”
“I take it he’s no prude.”
“Well, yes and no. Sexually he’s a libertine. Claims to have screwed thousands of different life forms. Makes Chamberlain look like a choirboy. Once he told me he wished they all could be California girls. I guess he was pretending to be a beachboy. In his mind, nobody is one of the boys more than a surfer dude.”
“But in other ways?”
“Except when he’s struggling to be studman, he is scrupulously honest. He hates liars. He knows which local merchants are bent and has nothing but derision for them.”
For somebody so deeply muddled, Jack could seem infuriatingly focused.
I sigh. I groan. I roll my eyes. “I am a Webmaster, not a Super Hero. Chasing down promiscuous mythological godlike beings isn't my thing. You need the Fantastic Four or the Silver Surfer or at least the Nightstalker.”
“I need you, my man. More to the point, mankind needs you. You're the one slim chance the human race has to stick it out a bit longer. You're it, like it or not.”
Like it or not? My choice? Well, I'll go with not. Definitely not. Dealing with somebody as crazy as Jack, no matter how faithfully he pays his bill, is something I would never really cozy up to. It is stressful. It doesn't matter how often I tell myself it's all make believe. I know I should relax and have fun. But why do I attract so many crazies? They're drawn me, a mysterious attraction I certainly hadn't tried to encourage.
Okay, I'll conced, maybe I have made a few unwise moves. Quetzalcoatl really isn't any more imaginary than Captain D, a character I had devised to represent my company Downeast Directions. My real name is Doug and I have called my business Downeast Directions, so calling myself Captain D was a logical choice. This seems harmless enough, but over the years, Captain D has taken on a personality of his own. He has assumed an outlook on life I don't completely control. On the plus side, Captain D is confident and out-going, a crackerjack salesman. He is, however, an outspoken liberal and likes arguing politics with people he regards as tea party yahoos. D was always on the verge of souring business deals by bringing up politics or religion. Doug, on the other hand, is usually quiet and a bit withdrawn. Most often he preferred reading to socializing. He would go out of his way to avoid conflict while you really didn't want to fuck with Captain D.
ANOTHER CUSTOMER who has stuck by me is Alfonso the Magnificent. To my friends he's Crazy Al, the Magic Pal. He’s a magician, and while not exactly world-class, he makes up with undying enthusiasm what he lacks in raw ability. Al, who has a well-trimmed mustache and slicked back black hair, is nearly always dressed in a formal tux complete with a flowing cape, black on the outside, red inside, and an outlandishly tall top hat. From the moment I first laid eyes on him, he had seemed strangely familiar. Then one day I found out why. I came across an ancient comic strip, Mandrake the Magician, and realized Alfonso had modeled himself after the fanciful comics character. A difference is that Mandrake was a slender man, a six-footer at least, while Alfonso needs lifts to reach five-foot-five. I have come to think of Al as mini-Mandrake, although I would never call him that to his face.
When Al approached me about making a website, he said he wanted something magical. I welcomed his business, but assured him I had no netherworld connections. No matter, he assured me, magic is a matter far more of attitude than connection. That's cool, I thought, but still I felt inadequate. To me the internet itself was magical enough, but Al wanted more than that although he wasn't able to articulate what exactly he did want. I had about given up hope when Tom Deegan came to my rescue. Seems Tom had been experimenting with technology that focused on captured brain waves. It was primitive, but by concentrating hard most people could learn to do basic things online, things like throwing a specific switch or even making pixels conform to their wishes. Tom was something of an electronic genius, and had developed special switches that were especially sensitive to brain waves. Tom had come up with a computer that would log on if he simply glared at it and thought, “Let’s go bitch.”
When it came time for Al to choose a webmaster, Tom had gone way beyond this. He had developed a helmet that enabled trained users to transfer mental images to computer screens. It was still something of a work in progress and wasn’t easy to work. When Tom first let me try it out, I couldn’t make much of anything happen. It took awhile before I was able to produce anything besides meaningless and haphazard flashes. No way could I control them.
Tom told me to concentrate on something that would focus my entire attention, so, at the risk of being crude, I tried visualizing Beverly Beaver, a notoriously loose girl I had lusted after in high school. Loose as she supposedly was, she didn't want me. At first, despite my best efforts, my mental projections tended to look like rejected Picassos. But I kept at it, day after day, week after week. At the end of the third month, I produced an image of Beverly's perfectly rounded naked breast. Don't ask me what I had done differently. It just popped up there, tantalizingly full and fresh. It flashed me back to algebra class and my page of unsolved equations. How well I recalled the impossibility of focusing on X when the luck of alphabetization had put Beverly in the seat next to mine. She often wore a blue cashmere sweater I longed to caress. My success with Tom's software was like being born again. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I just wished I could reach over and fondle her.
Eventually I got quite good at tweaking metal images, especially Beverly's breasts, and this bit of trickery convinced Al I should be his webmaster. Although Tom's computer skills are unsurpassed, I have at times questioned his marketing instincts. He insisted on calling his invention "PsychoPhoto," despite the likelihood people would associate it with psychopath and be frightened off. A perfectly acceptable definition of psycho, he pointed out, was "of the mind," as his projections certainly were. Tom never did go public with PsychoPhoto, and it's possible it wasn't at all marketable. Its immediate practicality was questionable since its long and winding learning curve required considerable dedication and the end result didn't do much that PhotoShop couldn't do easier. Still Al likes believing he is on the cutting edge, and he also has an insatiable fondness for female breasts, especially those as enticing as Beverly's. For him it didn't matter that they beckoned back to long ago. There was no sense in reminding him that no doubt they had long since begun to droop. The astonishing realization that visualizing them could engender consenting pixels proved irresistible. To Al it couldn't have been more magical.The job was mine.
As a magician, Al looks the part, but often seems clumsy. Sometimes his slight-of-hand is painfully obvious. I have seen six-year-olds snicker at his tricks. Trooper that he is, he has managed to turn ineptitude into asset. His initial blunders were inadvertent, but he was able to replicate them, and has incorporated the funniest ones into his act. Turns out Al’s instincts as a stand-up comedian are finely tuned. His performances tend to be wonderfully comic. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. The audience breaks up when he gets his wand stuck in his assistant’s cleavage. It could be said he’s turning is dorkiness into dollars.
Like so many of my clients, Al might well qualify as a certified whacko. He spends God knows how much time trying to find a long-legged, big-breasted female who will submit to what he calls his famous longitudinal bisectional extravaganza. Placards for upcoming performances always include the query: Will This Be The Day That Alfonso The Magnificent Performs The Longitudinal Bisectional Extravaganza?
So far the answer has always been no, not today.
The illusion (I hope it's an illusion) involves a table saw with a circular, three-foot blade. Al lives in an old farm house on a dirt road in Town Hill, and one day when I was in his barn taking photos, he turned the saw on, making a deafening roar. Effortlessly, he sliced an eight foot two-by-six the long way. I can still hear the ear drum shattering buzz and see the sawdust fly. No question about it, the blade was real. Ever the showman, Al assured me that bringing it up between a lady's legs and entering her body bottom to top only adds an element of bizarre sexuality. I saw no reason to doubt this. Later he tapped the blade, and it sounded like a gong. Al told me the teeth were C4 carbide, a highly durable type, he was quick to submit, that is used only in the best, premium blades. Whatever trickery Al had up his sleeve, it definitely wasn't in his blade.
Sensing my misgivings, Al has assured me he is much more interested in seducing women than sectioning them. Al never knew how happy I was to hear this. As have things worked out, Al has neither seduced nor sectioned anybody. There simply have been no volunteers. Still, his lack of success notwithstanding, he has never given up the notion that he's onto a terrific way to meet hot women. Without fail at every performance Al describes the trick and invites volunteers from the audience. Sometimes as incentive he offers to bequeath a hundred dollar bill. So far nobody has stepped forward.
Anyway, creating his website led me to research the history of magic. Turns out magicians have been around for at least five thousand years. Think about it. That is two-and-a-half times further back than Jesus Christ himself—who gained a formidable reputation walking on water, turning water to wine, and bringing the dead back to life. Three thousand years before Jesus, a magician named Dedi cut off and restored the heads of a goose, a pelican and an ox, all this to entertain folks in the court of the Egyptian king Cheops. I don't know if Dedi was looking to meet women, but he seems to have inspired generations of magicians into dismantling and reassembling living creatures.
When I was a kid I had gotten a bit interested in magic as a hobby. My parents were friends with a guy who was a pretty good amateur magician. It struck me as a swell thing to be able to do. Then I saw the movie Houdini with Tony Curtis and got hooked for real. About this time my folks bought him a simple magic kit. From it I learned a few elementary tricks. The one I liked best created an illusion of passing a rope through a volunteer. Done with great dramatic flair, it made me the star of a junior high school talent show. I knew a dozen card tricks and learned how to cheat at cards, dealing myself however many wild cards I wanted. I had a lock/cigar cutter that only I could operate. I had steel hoops that would seemingly pass through one another. I could appear to draw a colorful silk handkerchief from your ear. I had magic magazines selling apparatus that I couldn't possibly afford.
Magic remains a popular form of entertainment, although these days we've all gotten sophisticated and cynical and don't believe in magic. What we celebrate is the magician's showmanship and technique. People are still interested in Houdini, and new biographies still appear. Although Houdini was known primarily as an escape artist, he was also a formidable magician. He made an elephant disappear in Madison Square Garden, a trick nobody has ever figured out. In many parts of the world, a belief in real magic remains alive and well. Such magic is often depicted as coming in one of various colors. Like black and white witches, black magic is intended to do harm while white magic serves the needs of human society. There is also gray magic, a type of magic all its own, and may be used for many different purposes. "Folk magic" is an eclectic collection of herbalism, faith healing, curses and hexes, candle magic, and other workings that has thrived in rural areas for centuries.
One might think that as we all get better educated we might be less interested in magic. This doesn't seem to be the case. If anything, people might be more attracted to it. Marlina was far from alone in turning to witchcraft. Wicca is probably the fastest growing religion in America. Young people in droves are turning to it. I wonder if it's related to insecurity. When times are tough people get desperate. They sense they have no control over their destiny. Magic promises control.
One day I told Al I was looking for Downeast Maine's most magical spot, and he told me he knew of a spot that was incredibly magic, Crockett's Cove on Deer Isle.
"I want to go back there soon," he says. "Come with me and I'll tall you a story that'll blow your mind."
"How about now?" I suggest. "My mind could use a good blowing."
Al chuckles. "Get ready for a blow job to end all blow jobs."
For sure, Al has aroused my curiosity, but as we leave Ellsworth, I decide not to press it. For his part, Al seems otherwise occupied. “Did you know that yoga in the United States is an annual fifteen billion dollar industry?” he asks as we pass Surry Yoga. I have no idea how valuable the yoga industry might be, but am not surprised that it is well up into the billions. Seems like nearly everybody I know has tried it at one time or another. The fact of the matter is I know quite a few amazing things about yoga. Tom once spent half an hour filling me in. One thing is that yoga can make you fat. It reduces the body's metabolic rate, which results in fewer calories being burned. A second disturbing thing about yoga is that it can cause strokes. These happen when clogged arteries divert blood from the brain. That's the bad new. The good news is that yogis quite possible can lead folks along "the path to the ecstatic union." According to Tom, advanced yogis can shut their eyes and light up their brains in states of ecstasy indistinguishable from orgasm."
I consider taking the Morgan Bay Road. Besides being a pleasant, more-or-less traffic-free drive, it takes us by the Morgan Bay Zendo. It seems to me entirely plausible that Clint might have settled down here. Jack had told me that Clint describes himself as spiritual, not religious, and has no patience whatsoever for the particulars distinguishing one religion from another. As I understand the philosophy behind the Morgan Bay Zen do, it offers a smörgåsbord of spiritual entres. A lovely, tranquil setting, the Zendo provides an opportunity for people of all faiths to practice Buddhist meditation. According to its Website, the meditation practice includes elements from Zen, Ch'an and Vipassana schools of Buddhism, all of which sounded good, but was essentially meaningless to me. Doberman had reflected that the peace of the campus here might be regarded as magical.
At the last minute, I decide that the Morgan Bay Road can wait. I want to take the more direct route to Blue Hill, the one passing by the fairgrounds. As we drive along, I tell Al about Clint's trick with my monitor. "So how does he do it?" I ask. "How does he get those words to appear on my screen?"
"Beats me," Al confesses. "However the hell he does it, it's a damn good trick. I hope you'll clue me in if you ever figure it out."
"Shitballs. You're the magical mastermind. I was counting on you to tell all."
Al shakes his well-manicured head. "I am old school. I make things turn into something else. Hocus pocus, puffs of smoke, incomprehensible incantations, now you see it, now you don't, that sort of thing. I distract the gaze, my quick hands beat your slow eyes every time. I am analog; you want digital. High-tech trickery is out of my realm."
I have to wonder what Al regards as his realm. "What got you into magic?" I ask.
"Houdini," he replies. "When I was a kid I watched the old Tony Curtis movie, The Great Houdini.
"You decided you wanted to be an escape artist?" I ask.
"I decided I wanted to be Houdini. Before he began specializing in escapes, he was an accomplished magician. It still hasn't been explained how he made an elephant disappear from Times Square. Houdini was a great showman, and he also had a strong interest in the supernatural."
"He was something of a mama's boy. After she died, he missed her terribly and was determined to contact her. He went to mediums and participated in seances. All he got was frustrated. He could see through the trickery of these mediums. This began to piss him off. Realizing they were frauds, he set about exposing them. Eventually he became a self-appointed crusader, describing fraudulent mediums as 'vultures who prey on the bereaved'."
"Anything in particular set him off?"
"Guilt, I believe. He may have been ashamed that early in his career, during his medicine show days, he masqueraded as a medium."
"A magician apologetic for deception? Isn't that more than just a bit self-contradictory?"
"One might think so. Houdini certainly wasn't above using trickery to make his escapes seem more death-defying than they really were."
I can see why Houdini fascinates my friend Al. "He was really a complex character, wasn't he," I point out.
"More-so than hardly anybody realizes. He had no doubt that there was life after death, and was sure the dead could communicate with the living. He promised his wife Bess and others that when he died he would find a way to contact them from beyond the grave. He devised a secret code known only to his wife. It seemed like a foolproof way to enable her to divine the legitimacy of any messages he might convey."
"Anything ever come of this?"
"Possibly something did. Shortly after his death, Bess began holding seances offering $10,000 to anybody who could contact him. A man named Arthur Ford claimed he received a message from him which Bess allowed did seem to use the secret code."
"Did she pony up the $10,000?"
"I am not sure, but she did continue to hold seances until the Fall of 1936. They captured public imagination, but no further contact with Harry. Bess finally decided to end them, and the grand finale was broadcast all over the world. To everyone's disappointment, an hour went by and nothing happened, but as Bess was ending the seance, a violent storm broke out. Thunder boomed, lightening flashed, rain poured down, drenching everyone involved. What's even spookier, it turns out the storm was limited to the seance location. Everyplace else stayed dry."
"Are you suggesting that Houdini's ghost could control weather?"
"I know that sounds outrageous. So does Arthur Ford's claim that he got a coded message from the dead Houdini. An so does my claim that for the past three years Houdini has been contacting me."
I keep my mouth shut as I ponder this. Finally I say, "So what has Harry had to say for himself?"
"Early on he said he wanted to help me with my magic career. He said he wanted to reward me for being his most devoted fan. The he showed me ways to perform real magic."
"Which, I am assuming, you went ahead and did..."
"He gave me some incantations for making things disappear. I didn't believe for a minute they would work. I almost tossed them into the trash. Then, just for the fun of it, I decided to go through the motions. It was kind of fun making believe I was a real warlock. Don't ask me why, but I decided to try it out on my mother. I did just as he said. Imagine my surprise when it came time for dinner and I couldn't find her. She wasn't in her room where I thought she had been napping. she wasn't down in the cellar, she wasn't out back, she wasn't anywhere. She had flat out disappeared."
"So what'd you do?"
"After four or five hours, I decided to file a missing person's report. I told the police the whole story, but they didn't believe me. What they did was call in Dr. Adam Fleshman, a psychiatrist."
"So how'd that work out?"
"He listened to my tale and suggested I was suffering from Magical Thinking, a schizotypal personality disorder in which the nut case mistakingly attributes events to his or her earlier actions. Basically, it's a case of his or her assuming his or her actions have a far greater influence on events than is actually the case."
My ears perk up at the sound of the word "magical." Maybe Al isn't referring to the mystical, hocus-pocus, other-worldly type magic I am pursuing, but still, to some extent, magic is magic.
"So what did the good doctor propose doing," I ask. "Was he looking to take you on as a patient?"
"I think he thought his ship had come in. He suggested that possibly my mom had grown weary of my incantations and voodoo juice and had taken off on her own to get some relief. He told me it might take several sessions at $350 per for me to grasp the reality of the situation."
"What'd you say?"
"I told him I believed he was the one with a shaky grasp of reality."
"So what happened next?"
"I went home. Truth is, I went to bed. For 24 hours, I was beside myself in anguish. I had no idea what to do, so finally I decided to go back to Crockett's Cove. As soon as I got there, who came out of the woods but Houdini and my mother. She was all happy, claiming that Houdini had showed her a wonderful time. She called him a 'real gentleman'."
I am thinking that Al is gaging my response to his latest wrinkle of showmanship, and I decide to humor him. "It must have felt great, doing real magic," I suggest.
"It scared the shit out of me. I rushed back to bumbling incompetence. I am happier doing stand-up comedy."
"You doing real magic. Wow! Shouldn't we put that on your website?"
"Minus the part about me being scared shitless. Yeah, sure, let's do it." Then Al looks doubtful. "I don't want people to think I am crazy."
"Surveys show that more than half the people in the country believe in ghosts. They'll accept the business about you and Houdini."
Al isn't convinced. "Do you believe there's an afterlife?"
"Not really. I hope there isn't one."
"Sounds intolerably boring. Even if I make it to heaven, which I wouldn't bank on, I can't long for an eternity during which I can't do much except play a harp and occasionally go bump in the night. I am willing to accept my alloted lifespan and call it quits after that."
Al seems to accept this, as he remains silent for the next several miles. I have to wonder how he copes with his various identities. He models himself after Mandrake, worships Houdini, and has developed a presentation that brings to mind Victor Borge substituting slight-of-hand for piano playing. Still, I concede, he has retained a personality that is distinctly his own.
At the reversing falls in East Blue Hill, I stop the car. The tide had come in, and the water is churning fitfully, preparing for the trip back to the sea. "One of God's better tricks,” I note. “The disappearance and reappearance of H2O. Now you see it, now you don't. And nothing up his sleeve."
"He is a tricky son of a bitch."
"His is an impressive bag of tricks. He utilizes the sun, the moon, and probably the stars. We have a word for it: Gravity. But that’s just a word; nobody has any idea what it is or how it works. They say they've observed gravity waves, but so what? they still don't know how it works. They say it's the weakest of the natural forces, but it has a solid grip on Pluto, more than three billion miles away. If it were something we never saw, but just heard about, like yogis levitating, or something that cropped up just once in a while in mysterious places, like spontaneous combustion, we would suspend believing it existed."
We get back on the road, and as we approach the Deer Island Bridge, I wonder as usual what holds it up. Magic? Could be. Maybe it's the lay of the land, but to me its towering pylons always seem to be cocked at a weird angle. Three or four degrees off perpendicular. Legend has it that plans for this bridge were doodled by a none-too-bright high school kid working on a term paper. Against all odds, three such bridges were built, two of which fell down. If this story is true, the Deer Isle Bridge is the sole survivor. Much of the time there are people working on this bridge. What exactly they're doing isn't apparent. All I know for sure is that so far it hasn't fallen down. Oh, yeah, I also know that once I've crossed it, I feel relieved.
Once over the bridge after my customary sigh of relief we pass through Deer Island village and head for Stonington. In these parts, it seems like on a year-round basis just about everybody is an artist, a fisherman, or engaged in an enterprise serving one or the other. During July and August, there is a nice assortment of well-too-do summer people and all kinds of tourists.
Stonington doesn't look much like anybody's idea of a seaport. There are no berths for big ships or heavy-duty cranes for loading and unloading. But Stonington is an important port. More lobsters are brought in here than anywhere else in Maine. The annual haul, more than 15-million pounds, is worth some 50-million dollars. Unlike other New England fisheries, the Maine lobster industry is thriving. Most years bring in new record catches. For once governmental regulation seems to have served everybody well. Wise conservation measures can take the credit. Immature lobsters and big, old breeders are thrown back. Lobsters perform their own kind of magic. When the government all but vanished, the wise fishermen agreed to maintain existing regulations. Lobsters are bottom feeders, feasting on the dead crap littering the ocean floor. How they turn this into the sweetest meat imaginable is first-rate magic.
When John Steinbeck was writing "Travels With Charlie," Stonington was one of his first stops. His description, written half a century ago, details a town that has hardly changed at all.
Al directs me to Whitman Road, which leads to Crockett Cove Woods. We park in one of the three available spaces and follow a path into the woods. Almost immediately, we are in dense fog; I was ten feet behind Al, but can barely see him. “Hold up,” I yell. “I don’t want to lose you.”
Al stops and turns around. When I catch up with him, he points to a barely discernible path off to the right. "Down this way," he says. "I met with Houdini down this way."
I sigh. It seems like I've spent way too much time humoring my friend Al. We take our time, walking quietly as though any excessive noise might disturb the woodland spirits. A quarter of a mile later, when the path dead-ends, we're in a small clearing. Al looks around pensively. "It was right here that Houdini appeared," he notes. "He told me this is a psychic hotspot, which makes it easy for him to materialize."
I wonder if Clinton might find this spot magical. Who knows? Maybe he's here now. An hour later, he hasn't shown up, and we're still waiting to hear from Harry. For the past twenty minutes, Al has been pacing back and forth. He seems to want to reassure me we aren't wasting time. I don't really mind. I am enjoying the quiet solitude of the forest. Not Al. He's nervous as hell. "Houdini told me that Captain Kidd's treasure is buried nearby," he blurts out of the blue.
"Captain Kidd's treasure?"
"Legend has long had it that the world-famous pirate buried a treasure hereabouts. It is thought that the original John Jacob Astor, a fur trader, acquired it. Astor definitely was active in these parts, and it is well documented that his income rose spectacularly in a single year. Officially, it went from four-thousand dollars to half a million. That's when he began speculating in Manhattan real estate and eventually becoming one of the world's richest men."
I think Al is being irrational. "If Astor got that fortune, how can it still be buried nearby?"
"According to Houdini, Astor got a lot, but not all of it. Houdini says there is plenty more to be found."
"How come Houdini knows so much about it?"
"He tells me he's not the only ghost to haunt these parts. He claims he's friends with Captain Kidd's spirit. Actually, this might not be as outlandish as it sounds. Locals insist that on many a dark and stormy night, local fishermen have spotted in the fog Kidd's ship Adventure Galley with none other than the ghostly figure of Captain Kidd himself astride the quarterdeck."
I give my friend a long hard look. "If anything he's saying is even a little bit true, it suggests there really is life after death. Not good news as far as I am concerned. Why the hell would anybody want to go on forever? Why would a reasonable person want to spend all eternity with nothing much to do but occasionally go bump in the night?
Another hour passes. This day has been a huge disappointment. There isn't any point in hanging out here longer. As we start back toward the car, I notice something glittering on the ground. I bend down to get a better look. Handcuffs! They're dirty, but not rusty, and haven't been here long. "What's with these?" I ask as I hand them to Al.
A smile breaks out on Al's face as he inspects them. "These are cool," he says. "Vintage Mattauck cuffs used by most major metropolitan police forces in the 1920s. But they're special." He turns his back to me and crosses his wrists. " Here, snap them on."
"I don't have the key," I protest. "We'll have to saw them off."
"Just do it," he insists. "I want to show you something."
I oblige. Al smiles. "I guess you think I am your prisoner." A second later he hands me the open cuffs. "Well, think again."
"Neat trick," I say. "I didn't know you are an escape artist."
"I'm not," Al admits, "but I recognize the cuffs. They were part of Houdini's arsenal." He pointed to a spot next to where a key would be inserted. "Press here, and the cuff snaps open. Piece of cake. Houdini was a suburb athletic, but he wasn't above trickery. I don't know why he didn't show up today, but I think he's reminding me he's still around."
I AM AWAKE ALL THAT NIGHT and first thing in the morning I call Suzi to see if she will accompany me back to Crockett Cove. There are times when her psychic abilities are triggered by particular places. Once a visit to my van led her to proclaim that Marlina was alive but inaccessible. Neither of us had a clue what this meant. Since it made no sense, we dismissed it. Still, every so often, it comes to mind. Maybe some places are psychic hot spots. Maybe Houdini's got it right. Maybe Crockett's Cove is where I'll find Marlina.
Suzi is chipper as usual. She says she would love to go on an outing, will even provide peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but there's a hitch. She is entertaining a house guest, who she is to pick up at the Ellsworth Evangelical Church within the hour. “Can she come with us?”
I am not terribly pleased to hear this since I want as few distractions for Suzi as possible. But what can I do? “The more the merrier,” I say. “But she’s a church goer? Will my cussing offend her?”
“Not at all,” Suzi assures me. “Carolyn Chapel is a broad-minded and with-it young woman.” Whenever I hear the term “broad-minded,” I remember an old joke about a young man who, told he was what he thought, replied that he must be either a cold beer or a skinny blonde with large teats. I resist the temptation to pass the quip along to Suzi.
Carolyn turns out to be nearly six feet tall, big-boned, but well proportioned. She looks like somebody who might eventually put on weight, but right now she just looks healthy. She radiates the sort of energy one associates with large-lunged Olympic swimmers. When she heard they would be going through Blue Hill to Crockett Cove, she asks if the cove is near Homestead. “Ever since I was a little girl, I have admired the Nearings,” she said. “I would love to see their place.”
It's quite a ways out of the way, but I have no problem going the extra distance. I haven’t been to the Castine area this year, and wonder if things have stayed the same. I take the Bucksport Road to Orland and Route 175 south from there. This brings me through West Penobscot to Route 166 which leads to Castine.
Scott Nearing was a freethinking foe of capitalism. Too critical in the minds of many. In 1915, his left- leaning, possibly communistic tendencies led to his dismissal from his teaching position at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Economics. In 1932, disgusted with a system that had not only dismissed him, but also brought on the Great Depression, he and his wife Helen left New York City, moving first to Vermont then to Maine where they strived for a self-sufficient lifestyle. Laboriously they grew their own vegetables and built stone buildings from native rock and showed us all how to live. They were back-to-the-landers long before the idea became popular. One of his books, “Living the Good Life,” became a cult classic.
Scott died in 1983 at age 100. Helen passed a dozen years later. Their philosophy of simple, frugal and purposeful living has been carried on at the Good Life center at Forest Farm. The public is welcome here, and every year thousands make the pilgrimage. Surely this place was magical, and I could see Clint latching onto it.
"As long as we're here, let's head down the road a bit further," I suggest. "I'd like to show you Castine."
"I've heard a bit about Castine," Carolyn allows. "Wasn't Paul Revere here at some time?"
"He was indeed," I reply. "But under circumstances he would just as soon have forgotten."
Carolyn is very curious. "How so?" she asks.
"The year was 1779 and the British were occupying the Castine area. Paul Revere was the officer in charge of land artillery with what became known as the Penobscot Expedition. Its mission was to toss the British out of Castine, and it should have been a rather simple task. The Americans had 44 ships and had the British badly out-manned and out-gunned. The British were prepared to surrender, but for reasons impossible to understand, the Americans hesitated to attack. They dithered around for three weeks before British reinforcements showed up. They chased the Americans up the Penobscot River, a dead-end."
Carolyn's look changes from curious to disbelief. "Then what happened?" she asks.
"The Americans were humiliated and embarrassed. They burned several of their own ships to keep them out of British hands. Until Pearl Harbor, the Penobscot Expedition had the distinction of being the most disastrous U.S. Naval defeat ever."
Carolyn is both intrigued and curious. "What happened to Paul Revere?" she asks..
"He and most of the other men ended up walking back to Boston. Legend has it that he buried a treasure in silver somewhere along the way, but so far nobody's found it. For his failure to even fire a shot, Revere faced court martial charges. Fortunately for him, the war ended, and later he was acquitted."
"So what we remember is his midnight ride," Suzi notes. "He came out smelling a like a rose."
"Thanks to Longfellow," Carolyn adds.
The conversation sparks a recollection in my mind. "Tom once told me there was a fourteen-year-old girl who made a longer ride to warn that the British were coming."
Suzi makes a squiggly face. "Girls never get the credit they deserve. Tell me Doug, why is that? Why is life so unfair for the fair sex?"
I do not reply. I am busy making a left turn at the Maine Maritime Academy building, getting onto the street that leads to downtown Castine. I know better than to engage Suzi in a discussion over the difficulties women endure.
I give the girls a quick tour of Castine, pointing out a few of the town's many historical markers. "Castine is the only town in the country to have flown under four national flags—the U.S., England, France, and Holland," I point out. "The Plymouth Pilgrims established a trading post here to raise money to pay for their ship Mayflower."
Castine has but a small downtown area, and within minutes I am back on the highway heading towards Crockett's Cove. I have to drive several miles north on Route 166 to get around Northern Bay and back down to Deer Isle. The long drive gives me a chance to get to know Carolyn.
Turns out she does vocals for a Christian rock band. She has been rehearsing for a gig the following Sunday. I have heard of such bands, but have tended to dismiss them as creations of perhaps well-meaning, but rather pathetic religious fanatics trying woefully to be hip. Without knowing a hell of a lot about it, I have assumed that such efforts were bound to fail, that normal, young people were far more likely to be turned on by anti-religious and sacrilegious devil-worshiping rebels. I am willing to concede I have a bitterly cynical attitude toward young people.
I try to steer the conversation in a cordial direction. "What's the name of your band?" I ask.
"We call ourselves Rapture."
“Rapture?" I ask. "Isn’t rapture when Christ returns to Earth and begins zapping unbelievers with fingertip laser beams?”
“There are those among us who entertain such beliefs.”
I know I should shut up. I sense I was being drawn towards a black hole of religious dogma, but can not resist responding. “I was taught to revere Jesus as a sort of pacifist, a love your enemy, turn the other cheek sort of guy. Blasting heretics to smithereens doesn’t coincide with my image of him.”
Carolyn smiles benignly. “Mine either, actually. Don’t forget that ‘rapture’ can be defined as ‘entering into a lofty emotion such as ecstasy’. Rapture can be brought on by drugs and by sex, but also by song and by exposure to the Holy Spirit.”
I feel like Carolyn had given me a gracious peace offering. Thanks to her forbearance, the subject could now change. I ask her where she was from and how she had met Suzi.
“I was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” she begins. “I met Suzi five years ago while vacationing in Bar Harbor. I had been shopping and mindlessly enjoying the day when I walked off leaving a bag from the Art and Rock Shop next to a bench in the Village Green. Suzi spotted it, and when she picked it up she somehow sensed I was staying up Mount Desert Street at the Mira Monte Inn. What’s more, psychic that she is, she knew I was in the Wingwood Ashe Cottage. She caught up with me there and returned my bag. I rewarded her with a burger and beer at the near-by Mad Hatter Pub and Grill where we struck up a friendship. We’ve stayed in touch ever since. We’ve established a telephonic bond, and we know when one of us needs cheering up.“
“Cool,” I said. “A friendship transcending time and space.”
Carolyn goes on to say she had been brought up in a deeply religious, fundamentalist family. Her mother, especially, took the Bible literally, including the notions that the man that God created in his image co-existed with dinosaurs in a world that He patched together in seven days some six thousand years ago.
I hold my tongue. I have known a few fundamentalists, and it has always seemed pointless to argue with them. I can't share their beliefs and know I can't get them to consider the error of their ways. I don't care what they believe, but don’t want them trying to impart their beliefs on me. Their utterly irrational faith trumps science, and trying to convince them otherwise seems like coming up against a God whose existence can never be questioned, a God who can do anything, a fire and brimstone God who might strike you dead just for the hell of it.
Carolyn seems to be reading my mind. “My generation has rejected a lot of the literality,” she says, “but we have retained a profound respect for His glory and believe religion can be a major force for good. I believe that with God all things are possible. I deeply enjoy singing his praises. I find it thrilling. I started singing before I could walk. For as long as I can remember, I have felt that music comes closer to appreciating the greatness of God than words alone ever could. Sometimes I feel like that is why God gave us music.”
“Sounds good,” I admit. Despite my wariness, I am starting to like this girl.
“Suzi tells me you haven’t been chipped,” she notes. “This gives you something in common with five million Evangelicals.”
“Captain D is a devout agnostic,” Suzi points out. “Don’t bother trying to convert him.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Carolyn insists. “But I would rather dwell on our similarities than our differences.”
The conversation is beginning to make me a bit uncomfortable, so I try changing the subject. “How do you all get by without chips?” I ask.
Carolyn pauses a moment, thinking things over. “How do you?” she asks. “I am sure it’s easier for us. We associate mostly with one another. All told, there are some 80 million Evangelicals, and whenever possible we help each other out. All too often, we do find dealing with chipped people to be awkward. Suzi isn’t an Evangelical, and I probably wouldn’t be visiting her if she were chipped. As Evangelicals, we’re a tight-knit community spread out across the world. ”
“Your rejection of chips is a religious matter?”
“We tend to have a healthy respect for Biblical prophecy. We pay attention to current events and have to believe that these are the end of days. Those days, we feel, are upon us, although we have no idea how matters will progress. It could be years or even decades away, but in cosmic terms it’s very near. Hell, it could be tomorrow or, for that matter, this afternoon.”
“What does this have to do with chips?” I ask.
“The Book of Revelations refers to people being marked. It says that most people will covet the marks, but that those who have them cannot find salvation. Scriptures state that people without marks will be unable to buy or sell. This would seem to describe the current siuation with Goggle. We believe that the chips and the marks may be the same.”
“Are Evangelicals alone in rejecting chips?”
“Hardly. Many other denominations have followed suit. And don’t forget Muslims. Goggle has denied them chips, but quite likely they would refuse them in any event. There are almost two-billion Muslims, spread out all over the world.”
I know a bit of the history here. Goggle big shots decided it was too complicated separating moderate Muslims ones from extreme ones even though the extremists constituted a tiny minority. Muslims were denied access to the United States before Goggle declared more-or-less open warfare on them everywhere. Drone attacks have killed thousands of them. Every other week or so Goggle would announce that a top terrorist leader, a Muslim, had been taken out by a drone. Sometimes the report would embellish that everybody, usually described as sympathizers, within a hundred yards was also taken out. On a particularly slow news day, Goggle might refer to the inevitable collateral damage and even hint at feelings of remorse.
I am tempted to take us on another detour, to Christy Hill in Sedgwick. It is here that Bill Henderson built his "Tower for No Reason." He chronicled the experience in an excellent book he titled "Tower." To him his lot on Christy Hill was a magical spot, and I wondered if Clint might share his feeling. This could well be Downeast Maine's most magical spot, but I sense my friends haven ridden around enough for one day and decide to visit Christy Hill another time.
At Crockett's Cove I park in the same spot as yesterday. Silently, Suzi and Carolyn follow me on the path through the woods. The fog and the silence haven’t changed. When we reach the clearing, I take Suzi’s hand. Looking her in the eye, I bring my face close to hers. As calmly as I can, I give Suzi specific instructions. "Focus on Marlina. We're here to focus on Marlina. Try to bring her out from wherever she is."
Wide-eyed, Suzi returns my gaze. For a time, it seems like she has stopped breathing. We stand like that stock still for maybe 30 seconds. “Then she slowly shakes her head. A tear appears from one eye and runs down her cheek. Then there are tears from both eyes. “I am sorry,” she sobs. “I am so sorry. I don’t feel a thing.”
I kiss her dampened cheek, leaving a salty taste on my tongue. “It’s okay,” I console. “It’s not your fault. It was a long shot, a really long shot, so I am not at all surprised it isn’t panning out. I had no real reason to think it might. I am desperate so I tried a hail Mary.”
For a moment I wondered if my casual religious expression might offend Carolyn. I glance her way, and see she is smiling warmly. “I forget which coach said if you throw a long, desperation pass three things can happen, and two of them are bad,” she notes. “But there are times when they’re appropriate.”
Suzi is still forlorn. I hug her for a moment, kiss her repeatedly, stroke her silken hair. She is crying now, holding nothing back. Sensing she wants to be alone, I am about to turn away when I glance at a nearby bush. There is something stuck in its branches, something leather. Drawing closer, I see that suspended among the small, red berries is a man’s wallet. I reach in and draw it out. It's an ordinary, brown leather wallet, a trifold, no different from countless others. I flip it open and withdraw a drivers’ license from its slot and stare at it dumbfounded. It bears the likeness and signature of Jack.
“My God,”I gasp in a tone that draws both girls’ rapt attention. “I just found Jack’s wallet. Look! I swear it wasn’t here yesterday, but here it is. Why would he have been out here?”
Something about the wallet makes me uneasy. I hold it out in front of me, well away from my face, treat it like it's a small, but nasty creature intent on attacking me. Without hesitation, Suzi reaches out and takes it. With a faraway look on her face, she holds it to her chest. I watch her expression change from one of close concentration to one of wonder to one of horror. “Jack’s dead,’ she finally says. “He’s in Pinkal and he’s been brutally murdered.”
CONTINUED ON 11-20.html