A sojourn in St. Petersburg creates an odd resonance for Minta Castelberry, touring this most European of Russian cities, with her mother-in-law. Here the women find themselves accosted by the insinuating stranger, John Emmett. Emmett insists on telling his story, and Minta soon finds his arrogance hides a melancholy soul…and finds herself invested in his quest. Then she finds this crossing of paths is no coincidence.
Are You Alienated
The doors opened; the queue bunched.
Like the oysters of Walrus and Carpenter fame, the group were mostly fat, and many, by this time, winded. When at large, their Americanness did not stand out badly. They were tourists, but wore what everyone wore, parkas and windbreakers, jeans or cargo pants, sneakers. At their sides their nylon sleeves, as they pressed onwards, swished. Those who had come prepared to photograph everything were strapped from left shoulder to right hip, left hip to right shoulder, black zippered bags bumping, massive-lensed Nikons and Olympias dangling, nervous elbows stilling these.
Blood had spilled here; sorrow, biding its time, had smoldered here, restrained behind intentful eyes…hatred had flared in revolution. Today, the square’s indifferent paving blocks were trodden by spongy petro-chemical outsoles. The guide took his post at the top of the stairs, his assistant counted heads; the group drifted to their lodestar and lodged in a roughly deltoid shape, fanning wider towards the rear. Stragglers, reconnecting, gulped their way to the bin, dropping off bottles and cups.
They were cold. They were weary on their feet, but they had another museum to cope with. Clouds pushed across the blue sky, a fulsome ionic weight bellying their mid-sections. The sun vanished. The idling bus drew wistful glances.
Minta scuttled through the glass door, carrying her two plastic-handled shopping bags. Her purse slumped off her shoulder and came to rest, a nuisance in the crook of an elbow; around her neck, her own camera (a small ELPH) was swinging on its lanyard. She spotted a bench, and veered from the group. This bench and its alcove were ideally proportioned to each other, and with unapologetic aggression Minta spread her burdens to either side. A tee-shirt slipped its bag, dropping to the floor.
“Put both of those in the same one,” Mrs. Castelberry said. “Why do you wanna carry two?”
Minta’s mother-in-law had doubly secured her cross-body bag, zipping its steel-wired strap under her vest’s mesh security pockets. She wore black yoga pants. The pants had sporty white stripes, but for exigency’s sake, she had allowed these. Her shoes were blunt and bloated, and might have been created by the injecting of foam insulation into a clog-form.
Mrs. Castelberry shopped for clothes every day, if TV counted. She didn’t buy, but kept avid tabs on price, length, fabric, workmanship (“which with the computers you never find anymore”). She knew everything in stores had been tried on, was therefore too much money for not being really new. And everything you got mail order had been sent back…they just threw it in the bag and shipped it out again. And anyway, they only made clothes these days for young people. Half Minta’s mother-in-law’s conversations dwelt on these unhappy symptoms of progress.
Mrs. Castelberry grunted, then heaved a labored breath. She squatted and flailed after the shirt. Minta, feeling by this show of effort obligated, pushed herself upright. She folded the bag no longer needed, stuffed it to the bottom of the other (extra padding for a gift-boxed set of glass ornaments: eggs in the style of Fabergé). She held the bag open, while her mother-in-law stood for a moment, tucking and folding. Mrs. Castelberry began to snug the shirt in place, then said, “Gimme that. Move your stuff, I gotta sit down.”
Minta said, “Oh, boy, my arches.”
“You wear the wrong shoes.”
“Mom”—Minta tugged at her purse—“if your feet are okay, you should go look at the museum. One of us should.”
“I don’t like paintings.”
“They have a whole room full of jewelry.”
“It’s fake,” Mrs. Castelberry said. “They keep the real stuff in a vault. I don’t have to walk to look at glass.”
Their group meanwhile filtered away. Dr. Slater’s voice faded into the main gallery, floating aloft, descending over his bald and leathery head, upon the ears of his followers, “…a work on a monumental scale, noted chiefly for its subject, which, if you have read Tolstoy…” His assistant, Cammie, stared back at the Castelberrys. Her smile was anxious, her eyes bugged; her expression said, “Don’t make trouble for me.” The Castelberry women shook their heads, and shooed their hands at Cammie.
Their tour group tended, as well as to carry too many accessories, to over-bundle against the weather. The lobby echoed with the sounds of peeling garments, tinkling buckles, shooshing zippers, clacking plastic, the occasional dwoink of a stubbed toe. Minus the group, its ambient noise was much reduced. Another voice, one of finicking enunciation and showy mannerism, encroached. The voice grew louder as the man filming himself with his phone, walker closer.
He danced weight from foot to foot, perfecting a position before the lens. He was now (per Dr. Slater) Maréchal Michel Ney, framed by the battle of Jena, fought—behind the figure hidden by his own—in hot contention. Anyone’s ordinary living room wall would have come, as to this painting’s scope, well short…even the palace-sized museum wall could display nothing else. Its vastness rendered its subject near life-like.
“Now, what I find interesting…”
His whitish blond hair, razored to a length not much longer than that of his faintly seen lashes, did not so much recede from his forehead, as recede from the foreground. He faced the Castelberry women, and gazed with an oblique squint, not making eye contact, but beginning to address body language to them.
“…is that public edifices…”
He extended the hand with the phone farther, for a wider view. He airily flicked fingers over and behind his head; he half-closed his eyes and smiled at himself.
“…such as this space-occupying academic blight, were intended to be instructional. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, there existed no aesthetic informed by popular taste. The rich man’s ormolu candlestick, his plate and china, his absurdly heroic depictions of famous battles, his coy mythological pornography—these were means of communication. The message long since has lost its piquancy. And yet, today we discover housed too often in publicly funded museums, such collections of mediocre artifacts, the harvest of a mediocre period. A myth is now perpetrated upon the citizenry, that some defunct dynasty’s dreary tat can rank among the world’s treasures, rather than admit these so many erstwhile status symbols of royalist propaganda…that if sold would not un-profit humanity’s common heritage.”
Now he looked directly at Minta. Meaning nothing, other than a reflexive friendliness, she nodded to him. He approached, amid a display of unhurried busyness, looking down as he strolled, at his phone, and tapping. Attached to his belt was a slim, black, box-shaped gadget. It whirred. A piece of paper began to emerge from a slot at its base.
“My card,” the man told Minta, extracting the paper, and handing it to her. It had curled into a parabola; it felt slightly warm. “I am, of course, John Emmett. Shall I join you?”
He’d made it impossible to say no. She scooted, snagging her purse and drawing it onto her lap. Mrs. Castelberry, who had stared in a fixed and disbelieving way at Emmett from the moment he’d entered the museum’s lobby, pushed herself against the wall. Emmett dropped companionably between them.
Minta said, “My name is Minta Castelberry.”
He changed his phone from right hand to left. He held it out and up, checking the framing of himself, in the act of shaking hands. “We make new friends along the way,” he narrated. “Smile, love, for the camera.” He turned to Mrs. Castelberry. “Now, who are you?”
Not your beeswax, her face was telling him, but she answered, “I’m Valerie.”
He unsnapped the breast pocket of his cargo vest, and slipped the phone inside. “The Castelberry women,” he said, “are of Russian descent?”
“No,” Minta said. “I don’t think so.”
“Ah. You wish merely to further your education?”
“What education?” This from Valerie.
The women had sat taking in all that could be gleaned without budging, of the glass display cases (the nearest holding a military helmet, a sword, and some medals), and the corner statuary, uncurious to read the cards that explained them. The lobby, Valerie had remarked a minute or two ago, is where they keep the junk no one wants to steal. But she rose, picking up the shopping bag. She stared…and Minta avoided her eye.
“One,” said Emmett, “ought never speculate as to another person’s education. However, I have come to St. Petersburg in the hope of learning…” He turned fully to Minta, not caring that half his audience had left him.
“…you will be interested to know what.”
She sat close enough to scrutinize Emmett’s pallid, preternaturally smooth skin. His eyes, though, were brown, rather than the watery blue she would have expected. It was the one thing, she thought, that made him attractive.
“Are you permitted autonomy, or must you remain tethered to Dr. Slater and his minion?” Emmett asked.
This startled her. “Are you with the tour? I never saw you.” Neither could she believe it. Emmett seemed incapable of keeping quiet…and had a man of his alien appearance done so while lurking in the background, the effect would have been conspicuous…if not disturbing.
“Do you use Android?” He contrived an expression combining condescension with distaste, a simultaneous half-smile and pursing of the lips.
“I…don’t think so.
“I expect you do. But give me your phone. Have you ever paired it?”
Minta snagged her purse and rooted. This, she thought, is how stupid people get themselves in trouble. Emmett, chuckling at her wide-eyed shake of the head, had answered with an offensive “gimme” gesture.
He tapped and scrolled, scrolled and tapped. Once, he snorted, and twice chuckled. He drew Minta’s purse towards himself, taking hold, with thumb and forefinger, of its decorative tassel. He dropped her phone inside. He did these things with a conscious implication that the squishy Italian leather, with all its hardware and trimmings, made for a silly object.
“You’re staying at the Baltic. Actually, it’s a decent hotel. Did you want to have dinner with me?”
Minta shrugged, about to say, “You mean both of us?” But Emmett appeared dismay-proof.
“Expect me to show up, then.” He stood, and walked away.
In the hotel bathroom, she saw her face brightly lit. The hollows of her eyes were erased. I look good, Minta thought.
Her house had one bathroom. The window had been covered by the previous owner in sticky frosted plastic. Quentin had told her she could buy solvent to remove this. He was right. She could learn what she needed to know, and do the work herself.
The plastic remained, peeling at the edges, dirt and hair caught in the glue. The window faced the door. The sink was tucked away in a little alcove, opposite the linen closet. An overhead globe was the only light by which Minta ordinarily saw herself, while making up her face.
“Why don’t we,” she said to Mrs. Castelberry, “try one of the restaurants in town?”
“We’re leaving tomorrow. It’s a bad time to get lost.”
“Look.” Minta herself looked, putting a knee on the heater, and craning to view the street below. She heard her mother-in-law gasp, rolled her eyes, then wondered too late if the glass had shown this like a mirror. The whole trip, she’d given way to Valerie’s fear of heights—the reason they could never open curtains. All their meals were taken within the safety zone of their hotels. Minta now and then prodded her mother-in-law’s boundaries…but she knew better.
“Mom. Just standing here, I see two or three places. It’s not possible for us to get lost.”
“If we stay at the hotel, we know where we are.”
“People speak English everywhere,” Minta told her.
They heard a low buzzing. Slowly, this segued into a sustained tone; gradually, it took on a musical character, albeit atonal. Glass seemed to break. The noise came from the nightstand between the two beds. Mrs. Castelberry rolled her own eyes. She had her son to blame, however…it was Quentin who’d customized his wife’s phone. Quentin, whose eyes were a watery blue, but whose hair was black, had looked at Minta, frank with literal-mindedness, and said, “You can get rid of it if you don’t like it.”
He knew she couldn’t, unless she asked him to help her.
Certainly, when Quentin called and Minta found herself embarrassed at the grocery, or in line at the ATM, she never failed to snatch her phone at once. She didn’t know what industrial clanking, what graveyard shrieks, might erupt from her purse if she allowed the clip to play itself out. She would rather not know.
Her hand within an inch of grasping it, the phone silenced itself. Its screen flashed, and a new image appeared.
“I am waiting for you outside your door.” John Emmett spoke.
“Don’t open it!” Valerie darted into the bathroom. She darted out again, adding, “Why did you invite him?”
Emmett, like the frog prince, wanted—for having made a bargain—in. Minta heard four rapid little taps. The noise repeated; the volume seemed to increase. She had a vision of Emmett’s having made an audio file of his signature knock.
“I have to answer the door,” Minta whispered. “And I didn’t invite him. Not exactly.”
She heard Emmett’s chuckle. It came over the phone’s speaker. Waving her hands in exasperation, Minta scooted past her mother-in-law.
“Not,” said Emmett, sauntering in, “that you need dine with me, if you’d rather we aren’t seen together.” He sat on the nearest bed. “I can tell you my story here. We might order room service. I suspect it costs something like ten thousand rubles, but why not?”
Mrs. Castelberry had fished her own phone from the inside pocket of her vest. She held it at arm’s length, as though a weapon. She took Emmett’s picture, and glared at him in triumph.
“Well, Valerie, you have a rare souvenir,” he told her. “Few people like risking coming across a photo of me unawares, while having an innocent reminisce over vacation pics.”
“You!” She tossed her phone onto the unoccupied bed. “You dome-headed weirdo…”
He seemed delighted. He smiled with approval.
“…just get out of our room.”
She must throw the weight of her vote, Minta felt, behind the unpopular minority. “Maybe we could order room service…” She moved closer to her mother-in-law. She did not bother to whisper. “I’d like to hear John’s story. He said it was interesting.”
He chuckled once more. “I have prepared a little slide show. However, you no doubt would prefer to begin with…”
“Listen. I am a township trustee. I’m not an idiot.”
“Valerie, I have no notion of the job’s requirements. The title is new to me.”
Minta saw her mother-in-law’s eyes crimp. Emmett was a smart-ass, these projected, who thought he was putting one over with his fancy talk.
“My daughter-in-law is happily married.”
Emmett looked directly at Minta. She found herself shrugging, making a comic face.
Valerie said, “Oh, come on!”
“You’re just playing up to her.”
“Valerie, I am going to agree with you. In the interest of suspending hostilities, I will stop right now. I act in good faith. I beg you merely to bear it in mind that you know what it is you mean by ‘playing up’; whereas, I am ignorant. Therefore, if I offend, I hope you will explain to me in plain terms the nature of the offense.”
Minta had meanwhile been skimming the menu, and the moment for distraction seemed ripe.
“Mom, you can get the chicken you had last night.” Intercepting Emmett’s smirk, she put a finger to her lips, behind Valerie’s back. Playing up, no doubt.
“You order. I’m not hungry.”
“As you’re flying home tomorrow,” Emmett said, “you will want to choose a meal which lingers in your memory. Okroshka and lamb pelmeni, I would suggest. With plenty of hot tea.”
“Are you aware…”
Their supper had not yet arrived, but Emmett had turned the lights down in preparation for his slide show. They sat in the dark. He aimed his phone at a patch of wall by the closet. The image was a street scene, a painted door, grey, numbered 55.
“…are you aware of the events of 1960?”
“Kennedy beats Nixon?” Valerie wasn’t really speaking to Emmett. But Minta, seen in the bluish light, had shown a baffled face.
“Well, for that matter, it was the final year of the Eisenhower administration. However, we are in St. Petersburg, and I refer, of course, to one of the great excitements of the cold war era…the American defections to the Soviet Union.”
“I never heard of it,” Minta said.
“You have probably heard of the Gary Powers incident, but that largely fell under the category of embarrassing exposure.” He chuckled. “I suppose the suicide pill is all right in theory. No, my interest is in the Mitchell and Martin affair, and in the curious pas de deux between the Empires.”
He advanced to a black and white news photo. Everyone in the photo, and they were all male, adhered to a naive conformity of dress. Even the eyeglasses were alike.
“Not that this is especially edifying.”
He glanced round. Anticipating his own plans, he smiled; and, in the dim, unnatural light. Emmett seemed to gain authority—the surreal effect, in this case, a complement to his appearance.
“I am writing one of my books,” he told them. “And out of my conscientious attention to detail, I will provide you a bit of background. William Martin and Bernon Mitchell were artisans of encryption under the auspices of the U.S. National Security Agency. Valerie.”
She shot him a baleful eye, and under her breath said, “Oh, for cripes sake!”
“The pas de deux,” he repeated, aiming, with a particularly loaded French accent on the word deux, at her sensitivities. “I will not bore you, Valerie.” He shrugged. “Unless I happen to, of course. A public story is intended to serve a public purpose. The Soviets produced a wonderful bit of stagecraft to showcase their coup in obtaining the services of Mitchell and Martin. Now, what do you think?”
He was quick to follow up his own question.
“Well, what was everyone terrorizing themselves over in the cold war years? You can answer that one, can’t you?” He appealed to Minta. “I like some audience participation.”
He prompted her, then, hovering a finger near the screen. The slide was a sign, one with three yellow-orange triangles, posted outside an institutional portico.
“The bomb,” Minta said. “The nuclear holocaust.”
“Well, atomic. That was the word they liked bandying about in the early days.”
“Someone’s at the door.” Mrs. Castelberry sprang to her feet.
“You must,” Emmett said, rising also from the bed, where a second ago he’d flopped next to Minta, “allow me to cover the tip. You are far too generous, Valerie, in paying for my meal. I am a stranger to you.”
It was true. The room service charge would be added to their bill.
“Valerie.” Emmett took up his theme.
Valerie had plunged to its depth the furrow between her eyes, and with this laden stare followed him when he made for the bathroom. While washing away the grease of his meal, Emmett left the door open, though he fussed for some minutes over the drying of his hands. This time, he allowed the room lights to remain on. He approached Mrs. Castelberry’s half, faced the mirror and looked at himself as he spoke. “You hold a position of trust. You live in a community.” She forked willfully at the chicken Minta had ordered for her anyway, and would not look up to see him twice arch his brows. Failing then, to make indirect eye-contact, he swung his attention to Minta.
“Uh huh,” she answered. “She does. We do.”
“You live in a neighborhood within a community. You hob-nob among family, friends, co-workers…and neighbors, as one supposes. Many of these people are known to you; many are liked by you. Some, you dislike.
“Let us postulate, for the sake of example, that you dislike a man named Smith. Let us suppose, as well, that a new family has moved into the erstwhile empty house on your street; that you don’t in the least know them. You do not envision yourself making an injurious assault upon Mr. Smith, reasoning that the world is better off without Mr. Smith, on the strength of your disliking Mr. Smith? You do not wish to campaign against this new family; to drive them from their home, on the strength of not knowing them? You do not, as you picture your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your neighbors, imagine them the sort who would, on the pretext of not liking or not knowing a person, launch a criminal attack against him?
“And yet you believe that this quality, this state of mind, can be attributed to someone, that such dangerous people are out there, although you cannot find this quality in yourself or in the people you know and trust. You do not see the world as consisting of people like yourself. You, trustworthy and law-abiding, hopeful for the future, fearful of strangers; they, also trustworthy and law-abiding, also hopeful for the future, and fearful of you, a stranger to them.
“You find the world to be constructed like a pyramid. You and yours sit at the top.”
Valerie let out a breath. “Oh, Jesus! You wanna pretend I’ve done something to these people you’re just now making up? Did I hear you right? I’m minding my own business here!”
Emmett, like many who expound, had—to the extent the room allowed—paced and gestured as he spoke. He’d come to rest against the closet door. She was closer, now, to his phone, than he was. But Valerie was not a practiced plotter…her eye had fixed on its object, and Emmett discerned her intent.
“I am perfectly amenable to negotiation,” he said. “I am speaking to you, Valerie. Rather than do violence to my property, you may ask me to leave.”
“But is that it?”
He smiled kindly on Minta. “I have three points to make. After which, I had meant to answer your question. That is to say, I promise, if Valerie approves, to tell you what I came to St. Petersburg to learn.”
“Deviation from the norm.”
He walked street-side, speaking whenever a lull in traffic permitted his voice to be heard. Minta followed her own rhythm, leaning to stare at window displays, straightening to exchange a glance with Emmett while they passed the architectural line of demarcation dividing concrete embrasures from tinted, insulated glass.
Emmett, as the two embarked, had held up a finger and left her, wordless, zipping down the corridor and popping into the elevator. Minta shrugged, and lingered, for embarrassment’s sake. A woman seeming only to wait in the alcove, ignored the chime and let Emmett board alone. Her eyes stared, focused and not focused, in Minta’s direction; a stare, if the thing were possible, both bored and penetrating.
Minta’s mother-in-law could not accept John Emmett, as a package-deal, but at the last could not persuade herself he was a criminal. Pleading a sinus headache, she’d consigned them to one another.
“Do what you want. I can’t stop you.”
Emmett crossed the room to peer down at her. She grimaced and put a hand over her eyes.
“Valerie, you must lie quietly in the dark. I will take Minta away for an hour.”
“Mom, should I get you a washcloth?”
“No! Being left alone, that’s what I need. Both of you leave.”
Minta jerked up her anorak by its hood, and stooped to snag her purse. That her stock at home not lose excess value, she tried, “John and I could sit with you, if you’d rather.”
“Oh, shut up!”
All this promised worries to come. It wasn’t Mrs. Castelberry she minded eating crow for. It was Quentin. Already, Minta could hear her mother-in-law’s voice through the door, phoning.
The chime sounded again. Emmett emerged in a duffle coat, and extracted from its pocket a black knit cap. Wearing these, he receded into ordinariness. She must revise her earlier opinion. Emmett was capable, after all, of trailing a target in the background, unnoticed.
Why was she saying target?
“I almost gave up on you,” she told him. Still offending, he held off his answer until she’d walked out with him, choosing her own from the lobby’s array of glass doors, since he would not hold one open.
“It is the almosts we live for.”
John Emmett, Minta told herself, was poorly socialized. But she’d allowed him success with these mannerisms, so why complain? She was glad of her freedom. She was going out. She hadn’t done this for years.
On this thoroughfare, they were camouflaged further by the play of light from headlamps, a stream of these shifting beams across the static rectangular fall of amber from windows, circles from lampposts, and the scattershot red and blue of LED displays. Minta felt like a contented non-entity, cocooned in the crowd, moving against its current. She breathed away the malaise of recirculated hotel air.
“Deviation from the norm. Picture,” Emmett said, “Nevsky Prospect as it might have been in the late 1950s, on the brink of a new decade. Europe was young…a continent reborn in a way, after the slaughter of a generation. Even, perhaps especially, the Soviet Union was young. I will not complicate the experiment by altering the hour or the season.
“Winter, therefore, is drawing on, and darkness, on this particular evening, has fallen. You are, of course, in Leningrad, and Nevsky Prospect is your Oxford street. You feel excited here, as do all who approach the city’s neon heart from its grey suburbs. You are yourself young.”
“Well,” Minta, surprised, said. “Not so much. But thank you.”
“Uh.” They were stalled by the queue at a backlit map of the city’s Heritage zone, and Emmett, looking down at Minta, evaluated her face. “I find myself embarrassed.” He did not sound embarrassed. “I don’t actually refer to you. Rather pointlessly, I had asked you to view my narrative through the eyes of a fictional witness to these events.”
“Does”—Minta tabled this for the time being—”Leningrad really have a heart of neon?”
“Leningrad is, in fact, modestly cosmopolitan. You may shop here, you may attend the theater. You live in a gateway city; inevitably, you enjoy a certain traffic with the free states of Europe. Now, let me ask you. You are an American…”
“A minute ago, you said I was young…and then you took it back. Are we talking about me, or some made-up character?”
He sighed. “When you refuse to enter into the spirit of the thing, you shatter my little imaginary glass dome. Shall we suppose I refer to you? You are an American, and we will suppose moreover that you grew up in a small town…”
“Your options may have been limited.”
“I didn’t have options.”
“That, in a way, is the point. Governments rarely manage deprivation in such a fashion as to render it superior deprivation. Whether your life had been spent on an American Indian reservation, in a Basque village, a suburb of Belfast, or a kommunalka…there existed, during the Cold War era, certain leveling global influences. And, here we see the Cold War idea superimposed on an ordinary social process, one that is inherent in human nature. Suppose that you had been born in 1950…”
“Oh, come on,” Minta said.
“You, Minta Castelberry, were born in 1976. But I don’t mean you. And by the way…” A small, lozenge-shaped white car, rusty about the underpinnings, pulled to the curb. It maintained a modest angle, and avoided committing itself to any legal zone.
“There are some of your friends,” Emmett remarked.
Dr. Slater backed from the taxi. He hovered his hand above the shoulder of a red-haired woman, and attentive to his companion, bustled her to the sidewalk, while his assistant, unaided, struggled from the cab. Out (at last) shot Cammie like a cork coming unstuck, along with an armload of knapsack, video camera case, a man’s overcoat, and a shopping bag. She carried, also, a bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic. This, she dropped. She alone, for darting over her shoulder the sort of glance embarrassed people dart over shoulders, happened to notice Minta and Emmett, as they stood watching. She jerked her face away, with such an obvious reddening, that Minta in turn, felt embarrassed.
“If I look you up,” she asked Emmett, “what would I find out?”
“You might try the experiment now, if you are really interested.”
Minta thought she ought to. It hadn’t occurred to her to use her phone. But no, she realized…she would probably find out nothing, or he wouldn’t be so confident.
“You said, ‘by the way’.”
“I was going to mention, if it would please you, that you appear somewhat younger than your age.”
This austere compliment was, Minta thought, at least offered sincerely. He’d held his mistake at the back of his mind.
“Have you made your three points yet?” she asked.
“No, not even the first. You keep jumping about from topic to topic. Let me see… You were born in 1950, or, it might equally have been 1960. Not you, of course.”
“The woman who lives in the dome.” Enjoying the waywardness of the conversation, Minta added a declamatory fling of the hand; and, for an instant, found herself locking eyes with a young man, either performing as he walked along, or rapping to music piped into his ear. Without missing a beat, he continued to do so.
“What did you dream of becoming when you were twenty years old?” Emmett asked.
“Oh, goodness!” She was caught off guard. She felt herself blushing, karmic payback for staring at Cammie. She looked at Emmett, and decided he must have grown to like her. A corner of his mouth curved, but―almost in a caring way―he turned his face from her.
“Well, I used to sing. I thought I was going to be…”
“A rock star, something to that effect.”
“Okay, but doesn’t everyone?”
“Again, my point. Not, however, one of the three points. We haven’t got there yet. You are twenty years old and you dream of becoming a rock star. Your ethnicity, your religion, your economic position, your country of origin—those things are immaterial. Anywhere on earth, you may live on the hope of the unattainable at an age when all things seem possible.”
“So I―the character―was born in 1950?”
“You find,” Emmett touched Minta lightly on the arm, signaling her to look, rather than listen, “that the city envelops you? As though you were a child exploring the family lumber room, among so many painted vanities and stuffed heads?”
She shrugged, conjuring his imagery in her mind. He meant something by it, after all. Emmett continued: “We will have a look at the river Neva. It possesses something of the Waterloo Bridge phenomenon. A certain nighttime allure as the light’s reflections bob along with the wavelets. But let’s assume that it is 1990. You are nearly forty, we will say, and you no longer dream.”
“I can dream a little, can’t I?”
“You may dream of stability. You and others of your generation. Your expectations have matured. Your generation’s influence on your nation’s politics and culture will be a mirror of your own experience.”
Minta and her mother-in-law had bought a discount tour package. The river, at this season, was neither bathed in romantic light, nor encased in ice. Its steady current pulsed silver, like many voices whispering a word in confidence. Emmett’s cryptic thoughts called to Minta’s mind his first remark.
“When we started walking, you said, ‘deviation from the norm’.”
“My three points. I told you earlier, that a public story is created to serve a public purpose. Equally so, if you have, unknown to your opponents, acquired information privately, and you find this information useful, you will keep the information, and your plans for its use, private. In 1960, as I had mentioned, two American encryptionists…encryptioneurs?…defected to the Soviet Union. The Soviets did not conceal this, by any of the many means by which they might have―compare the rocket accident at Baikonur of the same year―rather, they held a press conference to announce their triumph.
“The Americans responded by calling Martin and Mitchell deviants; by claiming the defectors knew little of value, and by saying that it was nearly impossible to avoid the accidental hiring of such people, given the deficiencies of the screening process.
“My second point is a minor one; but, it segues into the third point, which is really the gist—if your business is fear, then your factory needs certain raw materials in order to produce a regular supply.
“Now, the Fear Story is an odd position, when you consider it. It isn’t necessary. It doesn’t serve a public purpose. You may say that governments can’t do miracles. They cannot protect people against all threats―not even those which allegedly lurk within the walls of their own agencies. But much is encompassed under the umbrella of ‘awareness’. Returning to the public position, if I, for the sake of argument, have a thirteen percent chance of some danger, I have, as well, an eighty-seven percent chance of safety. The Fear Story is a fiction. And it needn’t be told in a particular way, so long as the punchline survives. I will digress for a moment.”
Minta raised an eyebrow; she tilted her head and looked up at Emmett, but before she could fully engage an expression of mock-astonishment, her phone provided its own digression. An elfin, gender-free voice emerged from her handbag to warble a single line. Baby, it’s been a long time… The music ceased.
“There’s Oswald,” Emmett said.
“I’m sure there was no ’90s band called Oswald. Give me a minute; I’ll think of it.”
“I meant to say…what’s-his-name…texting you at your Euro-number. I’m fond of Stockhausen, but I took the liberty of altering Oswald’s handiwork to something succinct. Five seconds is all that ought to be permitted, per ringtone.”
“My husband’s name is Quentin.”
“Oh…yes…I think you’re right. Well, a ‘q’ majuscule looks much like a ‘o’. This is the way the world ends, Minta. Filed under the wrong letter.”
She fished out her phone. The message was: Where are you? Using lowercase, dispensing with punctuation, because she was not adept at texting while walking, Minta answered, “im fine”. She knew it offended Quentin’s eyes. She dropped the phone back into her bag. His question did not have a simple answer, and she didn’t want to return his call. Quentin had been talking to his mother.
After studying with interest Minta’s irritation, Emmett said, “What do you consider a weapon of terror?”
She thought she should not be drawn into such a discussion on a public street. She sought an approach to Emmett’s personal side. “You seem to know Dr. Slater…”
He chuckled. “You are changing the subject. You fear that the moment is at hand, and I am about to reveal to you some indecent proposal. No. My third point, Minta… There is an epigram, which you may have run across, attributed anecdotally to various celebrated inquisitors…Conrad of Marburg is my favorite…the one in which some iron-fisted type proposes killing everyone, and assigning to God the task of recognizing his own.
“This maligned god may find, as he shakes out his tuna net, that he has snagged an assortment of creatures, including the occasional dolphin. My point. If I frighten you, I mean to disturb you and disrupt the normal conduct of your business. If I have discovered a thing that reliably frightens you, and I have a persistent reason to disturb and disrupt you, I will deploy my weapon. Persistently and ruthlessly. Because you allow me to.
“How might you neutralize my weapon of terror? I have asked you to consider a construct: fear as product, generated from the raw material of propaganda. The fear factory generates its product because it is an entity. An entity tends to self-perpetuate. Why so? Because it would otherwise self-destruct. Have we seen an agency which asks to be defunded; to have its authority curtailed, its staff reduced? Superimposed upon a forty-year epoch in which ordinary post-war recovery must steadfastly have followed a course of maturity―it could not have avoided doing so―we saw a rickety scaffolding of enmity. Whom did the Cold War benefit?
“Superimposed, I repeat, upon every modern-day hostile action, we see disproportionate and anti-social—in the truest sense of the term—scare-mongering. An incident requires investigation, containment, and mitigation. You cannot enhance the nature of any of those things, or expedite their carrying-out, by placing them in a heightened environment of fear. Fearfulness is antithetical to the cautious state of mind which justice demands.
“The position is a lie. Hysteria is not a public service. The job of recovery will have to be done in any case, and would be done more competently and more fairly, absent the fraught politisphere. And whom does this scare-mongering benefit?”
“But why…” Minta had a question of her own. And, as she supposed, Emmett might have talked around his subject, because he never meant to fully explain it. She tried again. “All this Cold War background…and then, if I understand you…” she stopped.
“I have made myself obscure to you.”
“No, I see what you mean…” She drew out the word “mean”, as she sorted her thoughts. “If I were young…well, when I was young and poor, I was in the same boat as everyone―everyone else in the world who was young and poor, that is.”
“You were malleable. But you were not political. Not to say,” Emmett added, “that your mind might not have been excited by ideas. You may have joined a street protest, or circulated a petition. But politics, true politics, are conducted at the level of, for example―the township trustee.
“There are, Minta, literal raw materials, which must be obtained, and there are nations that control them. Those nations are not always friendly trading partners with the nations that have need of those materials. There are shared borders. You cannot always fulminate at the podium; on occasion, you may encounter your neighbor at the mountain pass. What I am telling you, Minta, is that, for a time, the phenomenon of defector was highly publicized. The Defector became a public character; the device created a nice cover under the shadow of which shadow defectors were able to do their work. I mean, of course, double-agents. The hazard in working under cover is that, when you become dispensable, you have no recourse. Stop here for a moment.”
They’d woven across a broad, intersecting street, and begun retracing their steps. Emmett pinched Minta’s sleeve at the elbow. He stepped up into an entryway; following, she saw a white sign, cheerfully lit, its lettering blue, and to her eyes unreadable. The sign was framed in the window beside the door’s closed blind.
“What have I come here to find out?” Emmett asked. “Will you let me show you something?”
“We’re friends, now,” she began. “You know, I think we really are. So you understand…my mother-in-law…I can’t just…”
“Seriously,” he said. “Please let me have your phone.”
“Are you going to take the voodoo off?” Again, she rummaged in her bag.
He tapped and scrolled, this time with a face that struck Minta purposeful, angry possibly—not smug. He held the screen before her eyes. The image was an angled view. She saw a steering wheel…her own car. She knew this, because the sun-catcher, swinging from the rear-view mirror, was hers. And the light, shining through the spotted skin of a tree frog, casting irregular scintillations of blue and green, fell across her own head, as her face loomed in, ballooning over the lens. She cringed. She was talking to herself. Her phone had been filming her from the passenger seat.
“Quentin, don’t lie to me,” Minta’s voice was saying. She heard this rattle on, hoarse, adenoidal, spitting out a little diatribe. It was not the first time Quentin had taken the garage door opener from her car.
She felt odd.
She felt mortified, of course…and felt undercurrents, also, of a kind of panic, tiny needles pricking her skin.
“I don’t get it. I must,” she added, “have hit the wrong button…” She said this, but it came out a question.
“You might have hit the wrong button.”
Emmett tapped, the phone deedled, and the screen went dark. He dropped it in her bag. “You might have got into a habit of doing that. And never realized it. Your husband might have organized these clips and put them into a passworded folder because he thought you wanted them. He might tell you so, if you asked.”
“Is it supposed to be a joke?”
“As an outsider, I am not in a position to say. But consider: does an individual who practices, in secret, to observe ordinary human behavior, find such behavior inherently humorous…or, does this type of person need to share his secret, in order to find it gratifying?”
“I don’t want to consider that.”
“My father,” Emmett said, “was assigned throughout the sixties to an embassy post in Helsinki. He’d been rather an elderly bachelor at the time he softened on the wedlock scenario. You and I, Minta, are rough contemporaries. My mother was a native of Leningrad, a journalist by profession. She had fled the Soviet Union with her mother, in 1952, and settled in London. They―my parents―had presumably never known one another, but met for the first time, when my father took up journalism on his own account.
“He was hired by the Times to visit Leningrad―this was in 1971―and to write a series on contemporary Soviet life. He was a fluent speaker of Russian. He, of course, had many contacts in the region. I mention it, because on this pretext of his needing to prepare for the assignment, he began fraternizing openly among the Russian expat community in London.
“I suppose…” Emmett studied Minta.
Now, when he seemed finally saying it…the promised thing…he’d spoiled her concentration with Quentin. She eyed him back, and he flashed her the smallest of grim little smiles.
“If you had ever been aware of my pathetic debut as a public figure, you have forgotten. The scandal took place in 1980. My father, the elder John Emmett, had been caught spying. He was welcomed to a place of refuge, where he had so often run his little errands. Leningrad…now St. Petersburg…is, of course, that city to which I refer. My mother had offed herself, a year earlier. I didn’t know my parents, so you mustn’t feel bad for me.”
Minta saw a picture of herself in high school, slumped at a desk in bored misery. A television, set up on a cart, played a video. But the cart had been placed near a window; the school year was nearly over. The teacher himself, knowing his audience, glossed past these latter events of world history. Maybe, like Minta, he’d been staring at the immediate world on the other side of the window…thinking of freedom, and his summer job.
But, remembering this, she recalled also, that she had once heard the name John Emmett.
“Well,” the namesake of the disgraced British ex-diplomat observed, “shall I walk you back to our hotel? Although, truthfully, you are capable of finding your way. We could say goodbye here.”
He spoke in the withdrawn manner of one affronted. Minta did feel bad now. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I was daydreaming for a minute…” She was struck, suddenly, by an understanding. He had told her his mother committed suicide. And mentioned it in such an off-hand way…
“Goodness,” Minta said.
“Is your father still alive?”
“My father was born in 1921. He was well up in his fifties when I came along. It wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility, I suppose. However, I have been informed that my father has been dead for many years. I had meant to natter on a bit with my story, but it seems to have had a stultifying effect on you.”
In the interest of mending fences, Minta tried to show some intelligence. “Your father was living here, as an exile?” Exile might not be the word. “And so, you wanted to find out…”
“I found out nothing. The first time I came to St. Petersburg. That was ten years ago. I will admit to you, since you raise the point, that at the time I had some hope of discovering him alive. If in childhood you had ever been prodded forward to say hello to some elderly person with no idea of who you were, you can readily visualize the joyful occasion, as it might have unfolded. Only, being that I was well into adulthood, and of a generally disappointing demeanor, so much the more awkward and painful. But it was not to be. I thrust my father’s photo into dozens of faces, but met no one who claimed to have known him.
“Shall we walk?” He touched her lightly on the shoulder. “I feel that we will be asked to move along, if we continue to loiter here.”
And again, everyone else seemed crushing together in the opposite direction. Minta and Emmett pushed against the flow.
“I was naïve,” he said. “The experience was embarrassing. But, you should not suppose I hadn’t thought of making ordinary inquiries. I found my father’s old editor, a man named Torbay. Torbay, being of a younger generation, continued sprightly, and he evinced”—here Emmett dodged towards Minta a significant look, then straightened—“great interest in my quest. He had himself, had Torbay, longed to solve this mystery. Hoping to write a book about the Emmett affair. Could use someone to help him in his research.
“As you might guess…or perhaps not, but as, in any case, I am about to tell you…Torbay had collected a box of photos and documents, all exciting and suggestive. I wanted to help, you understand. I felt it was my right to tell my father’s story, if anyone were to tell it. I thought I’d done a clever job, unearthing Torbay. And at Torbay’s behest, I might spend a hopeful day on the phone, seeking news of the Finnish minister my father had befriended in 1962, listening to the audio deteriorate into gibberish. Or, I might be dispatched to such a place as Shoeburyness, to interview one of my father’s expat cronies at his last known address.”
“And the people there told you they’d never heard of him?” Minta hazarded.
“When I was lucky, it ended that quickly. Torbay was a sort of gatekeeper. All roads led to Torbay, when it came to my father’s case, and there were few ways past him. I was not, after all, so clever; had I known better, I would have done well to avoid Torbay’s web of influence.
“I quit visiting him. I decided I would return to St. Petersburg. But I would apply some actual methodology to my investigation. Who was my father? What did I know about him? To reach the people who might be able to tell me something, I needed to become my father, in a manner of speaking…see the city through his eyes, figure out where his haunts might have been.
“People do like to tell what they know, really. I make myself familiar by showing up, time and again. The center may be shrouded in mystery, but further towards the periphery, are all the bits of information they are not so touchy about. I learn a thing, and I use it to take a step closer. They allow me to, because I appear to have ‘got in’ to a degree, already. You see what I mean, Minta.”
“It’s dangerous, isn’t it?”
She saw what he meant, but the tactic he described called for feigning knowledge, and using such a ruse to approach those with real knowledge. Emmett either misunderstood the thrust of her question, or chose to view it from another angle. “I can’t promise,” he said, “that I am not a danger to anyone’s secret. There is such a thing as public accountability. And I don’t myself know what I may discover.”
She gave him this prompt, at his silence, and he went on. “On my fourth visit to St. Petersburg, I made a friend. Or, it may be, some guiding hand was at work―someone felt it was time for me to be led astray. At any rate, however cynical one becomes, all thrilling breakthroughs must be followed up. I will call my friend Ilya, because it is what he calls himself.”
“But you told me your father was dead. Or,” Minta remembered “you said you’d been informed. Was Ilya the one?”
Emmett snorted. “What have I taught you? Ilya had not known my father. But he had lived in the house my father once occupied. He was cagey about his sources, but offered to show me proof. And so he did. My first actual connection, the ghost arisen―it was, in fact, a little eerie. Ilya brought me a snapshot, and I saw my father. Standing next to him, his friend, the Finnish minister. Flowing placidly in the background, the river Neva. Incidentally, the Finnish minister had disgraced himself in his own right, in 1979, while publicly cavorting with Helsinki’s fascists.”
The Baltic Hotel was offset from the street by a sort of plaza, flanked on one side by a wheelchair ramp. The outer wall of an unrelated bank completed the space. Emmett stopped here, and gazed down at the minimalist burnished box enclosing the hotel’s fountain. An inch or two of water shivered over pebbles lining this, and withdrawing a hand from his coat pocket, Emmett tossed coins, one after another, with a meditative deliberation. When he had cast away the fourth, and last, he said to Minta, “I received an email from Ilya, after I had returned home. Along with a lot of rubbish which I might charitably consider to have been well-intended. I have always understood,” he added, “that a person of my sort is vulnerable. There is no reason…”
After a pause, Emmett began again, quietly, “There is no reason why my friendships are more interesting than anyone else’s. Never mind…Ilya’s story would have forced me back to square one. And I can’t do it.
“My father, according to Ilya, was being treated for cancer―I don’t know what variety―at a research center in Moscow, and I might learn more…if after ten years, I wouldn’t mind going to Moscow and starting it all again. It’s not, Minta, that I am incapable of rallying. Russian medical records aren’t easy things to research. But I’ve tried. I made a list for myself; I have phoned and emailed with due diligence. And Torbay turned up once more.”
“Why,” she asked, “if Torbay knew everything, would he not have known how your father died? Or did he not tell you everything he knew?”
“Now, be serious. You ought to have guessed Torbay hasn’t told me a fraction of what he knows. Minta, he offered to buy me lunch…and given his air of portent, I had to accept. While doing a fairly decent job suppressing his amusement, he told me I’d wasted the past year, bothering over Ilya’s story. My father, he said, was a suicide. Letting me know. Chicken belatedly come home to roost…
“Torbay has his sources. He is, after all, one of the farmyard’s proprietors. No, my father’s story had ended well before my first search began, when he’d pitched himself into the waters of the Neva―from the Alexander Nevsky Bridge. You see, it had all been an ugly, mean-spirited joke. And there Torbay sat, holding his spoon, dripping miso soup on his tie, expecting me to believe him. I haven’t found Ilya this trip, you see. That I would try to, I think, was Torbay’s test for me.”
“I don’t want to say the wrong thing…” Minta was cautious. Emmett, having checked his emotion earlier, had spoken this time with real anger.
“…but I don’t understand. I mean, it’s awful, but what makes it a joke?” She let her voice trail into meekness. She found Torbay unlikeable, as Emmett characterized him, and could imagine he had behaved offensively—
“You haven’t understood my Waterloo Bridge reference.”
She did understand, now he’d recalled it to her.
“But then,” Minta said, “people sometimes do…I mean…obsess over…” And seeing error in the direction she was heading, gave up. She was about to say goodbye to Emmett. She would hate to leave him with a stupid, insensitive comment.
“People,” Emmett said, “driven to the extremity of despair, sometimes do, nonetheless, take the trouble to plan a grand gesture, an homage, one might call it…” He shrugged. “They do, occasionally. And no doubt, a bridge is convenient. There seems always to be one nearby. But I don’t believe it. Intuitively, I don’t believe it. You may be right to call me obsessed, however.”
“Oh, now, I never did. But…what do you really need to know, John? I think,” Minta said, testing this, “you’ve had an unhappy life, and you’re looking for something that explains it.”
“The secret diary? True, my father cracked under pressure of family responsibility. His career in treason had gone along serenely enough, until the late ‘70s. It was this groping after conventionality that inspired him to inflict unnecessary harm. I can say to you, Minta, without undue self-depreciation, there is no reason I ought to be here.” He gave her a steadying look. “I don’t find it out of the question that he might have left behind personal papers. Discovering them―if they exist―may not give me peace of mind. Mrs. Castelberry…”
He tugged down his cap, having surprised her with this address, and took a step towards the street, a leave-taking preliminary.
And, if he were not coming in, he must have some errand that remained. She wanted to say, “I’ll come with you.”
“…I’ve chosen badly. Miss Graham did not in the least understand me.”
“Miss… Oh, Cammie?”
“I am not paranoid,” he told her, “but I am aware of being watched. You will realize it can’t be otherwise. The British government would have been happy to intercept my father, had he ever attempted to re-enter England. He might have tried to contact me. I had been…in a manner of speaking…his closest relative.”
“But he never did.”
“I don’t believe so, no. I have often thought, though, that it would be wise to have a friend. I’m afraid I’m not very good at making friends. I had a poor start in life.”
“If you need someone…”
She raised her voice. He had taken another step away from her. “Someone to help you in your work. That way, with a friend to pick up the slack…well, you know…you might have an easier time.”
“I’m done with it, actually. I have paid my last visit to St. Petersburg. But, Minta, I’ve added myself to your contact list. You may call me if you like.”
Minta stared at Quentin’s tuft of a pony-tail. It caught against his shirt collar, tucking itself in, wagging loose, while he hunched over his table. He had called her to his study; he was now keeping her waiting. She knew the routine.
“I’m having a bagel. Do you want one?”
She’d just said it, and Quentin’s move was to dither over the question of deviled ham or peanut butter. Because she wouldn’t stoop to playing it, she was hostage to this game. She still fixed him snacks, picked up his sneakers, let him choose their TV shows.
“You decide,” he told her, after a long minute of drumming a rhythm with his pen; making a sucking noise in his cheek.
She was in the kitchen, spreading peanut butter, when he called out.
And just as the toaster popped, with a surplus of bagels that would have to be lunch, Quentin called her a second time. These days, thanks to John Emmett, she felt acutely aware of these dynamics, that aggravated every minor power struggle of her marriage. She brought Quentin’s plate, put it on the file cabinet with a small emphatic clink, and wondered, leaning across his absorbed back, how strongly might his hairstyle resemble his mother’s, if that pony-tail were snipped off with a pair of scissors?
Quentin’s tablet was suspended on a sheet of silicone; his drafting table’s pitch showed Minta the screen, but as always, he’d concealed his private files—never had she seen anything of these—behind his little utility. The screen shimmered, as though it were a graphite-hued, placidly blank reflecting pool. And every ambient noise in the room caused a ripple to wave outwards, a drop of water seeming to have plunked there.
Quentin glanced over his shoulder, then spoke to his tablet, able still to be fascinated by this phenomenon of his own creation. His watery blue eyes were childlike.
“Minta,” he said, “let me tell you about the Snocrowave.”
When with her husband, and seeing every word mocked by the quivering thing on the table between them, Minta always felt as though a third person were in the room. A rude little person. For having learned something, she now wondered if Quentin recorded their talks, if his partner Art were listening in, even…if they would chortle together, when she’d left the room.
“The Snocrowave,” she said, “is that what you’ve been working on?”
“Snow,” said Quentin. He swiveled on his stool, and slapped hands against his knees. “Think about the nature of snow. It’s funny, isn’t it? We might have a storm that dumps ten inches, and we’re like, we have to get rid of it. We stockpile salt, we maintain fleets of machinery. Traffic is disrupted, businesses and schools close, roofs collapse. People die in accidents. You have power failures. Then, you might have more deaths from carbon monoxide poisoning. And yet, consider, Minta, that snow is ephemeral. You get a March snowstorm and within two days, the temperature goes up forty degrees. The snow disappears.
“Snow as a municipal problem, as a regional problem, makes no sense. The amount of money spent, the damage done, the loss of revenue…what public hazard is managed as inefficiently as snow?”
Minta would have guessed this a rhetorical question. But Quentin looked expectant, so she said, “You’re right. It’s too bad we don’t all work at home.”
Getting, and needing, nothing from her comment, he went on, “Military technology adapted for the public good. The Snocrowave would be a drone-mounted pulsed high-frequency beam…harmless to structures, and to, well…non-structures…”
“People?” she asked.
“In ordinary circumstances, we would see very little interaction between the Snocrowave and incidental humans.” He made a fog-clearing push with his hand. She hadn’t been going to say any more.
“But of course the Snocrowave technology is safe. The point is, these drones would be deployed on an as needed basis. And the snow would all be vaporized. You would have no ice residue to create a secondary hazard. Streets, sidewalks, roofs of public and private structures, power lines, cleared in a matter of seconds…and floods! Think of shearing away layers of snowpack, so that when the spring thaw arrives, you have none of the seasonal flooding of the past. Millions of dollars saved!”
He nodded, as though she’d got it, and said without irony, “Any great idea is biblical.”
“Does it need to be called the Snocrowave?”
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t.” Bored with their talk, he swiveled away from her. He was hunching again, secretive, fiddling idly with his tablet, and Minta felt she could safely back through the doorway.
“People get used to things…Minta,” he added suddenly. She halted, and crossed her arms.
“Did someone steal your phone…and you were afraid to tell me?”
She raised her eyebrows.
“No. I would tell you anything, Quentin.”
If he hadn’t wanted her to contact him, it would have been sense not to suggest it…he seemed impossible to get back to. She sat cross-legged on the bed, switched on the TV, and muted the sound. She propped her laptop on her knees. She noted, among her new messages, nothing from John. Minta had been worried over his state of mind.
He had no social accounts, and…was indeed author of two art history books. These seemed to make people angry. Both the Guardian’s and the Telegraph’s reviewers had fronted his name with: “the reclusive”. Neither mentioned his father.
Following three irritating dropped connections, she’d got his number to ring. He hadn’t answered. He didn’t have voice mail. He had an inbox; the address was on the card he’d given her. On arriving home, Minta had sent a brief message.
How are you doing? I just got back.
Emailing John’s publisher struck her as stalker-ish, embarrassing for him…a breach of trust if he had really confided in her. And he might only have had second thoughts.
She sighed, and hoped Quentin didn’t consider the Snocrowave off-limits for discussion. He hadn’t said so. Emmett, Minta thought, was taking on the role of invisible friend. She saw a therapeutic benefit, talking out her frustrations in this one-sided way.
Her husband’s charm—and why suppose it couldn’t be charm?—was in his energy. He had fits of this. He was vocal. His first words to her had been, surprisingly, over her shoulder, “You probably think you want that, but you don’t.”
She’d got the name of the EP like a spy…rubbing the side of a pencil over a post-it pad. She didn’t know what collectors of vinyl wanted, what they dismissed.
“No,” the stranger had a grin in his voice, “a lot of people always think live is raw, so it’s got to be the best. This…”
He nudged her arm with the edge of it.
“…is the only one they got, grab it! Yeah, it was actually the last time Ian sat in on a studio session, before he o.d’d.” Quentin had given her a look, widened his eyes…you know what I mean. She’d laughed, and he’d said, “It’s not funny.”
“Are you Matt’s brother?” she’d asked him. Her boyfriend was going to say, of either choice, “Oh, great. It’s not what I wanted…but great.”
They weren’t brothers. They were friends, though. The-not-very-coincidental coincidence had got her talking to Quentin.
And though until Emmett, she’d had no catalyst to accelerate her rebellion, she’d known her husband was a bully. She’d known it, because he accused her, before she’d opened her mouth, of practicing passive aggression; and because he took real enjoyment in seeing people lose. But he could be both those things—a charming asshole—and nonetheless legally entitled to film what he liked in his own house. Minta feared she had no recourse. Unless she left him; unless Quentin were creepy enough to follow her, so to speak, with his gadgetry.
She hit ‘Send’, and a thought occurred to her. She could look up Torbay. She typed his name into her search bar, and was answered with a long list of localities―finally, on the third page, she found a bio blurb: Douglas S. Torbay, ( b. 1943— ) journalist and newspaper editor, author; officer, British army…
He was in his seventies. The work he’d written was not the planned Emmett opus, but a three-volume study dealing…as Minta had to assume, exhaustively…with the history and politics of the Dardanelles region, through the first half of the twentieth century. She clicked the link. It would be nice for Torbay, she thought, to get a click. And she was curious to know what the authorial voice of Torbay sounded like.
A name caught her eye. Below the title, at the entry for the middle book of the series: Stranglehold: 1913-1919, Years of Conflict, Minta noticed the words, “Foreword by Roland Slater, Ph.D.”
She thought, there aren’t likely to be two of them. And she still had Dr. Slater’s email address. May I make an appointment to see you? she typed, and added, shamelessly: I just learned you wrote the foreword to Mr. Torbay’s book…
She had popped her head round Dr. Slater’s door; judged, by his face, that he knew her, but hadn’t placed her at once…and that the mental file drawer in which he’d first rummaged for a clue was labeled, “Nuisances, female.”
“Mrs. Castelberry.” He recovered, smiled, stood and offered his hand. “Please have a seat.”
Caring for some reason not to offend, by noticing the seat in question was coffee stained, Minta hunched her shoulder, let her bag fall, then slid her fingers over the upholstery while scooting the bag aside. The seat was dry…and a little sticky. Coffee with sugar.
“I had no idea you were interested in the Dardanelles,” he began.
She’d got as far as the flicker of a smart comeback…and decided the safest answer merely: “Ah…”
“Dr. Slater!” A student burst through the open door, backpack slung over one shoulder, bandanna worn as a headband, strands of hair caught up in its knot. The issue she had come to discuss was urgent.
“I took the course you’re teaching this term…301…Jen?” She patted the backpack and pulled out a phone, nodded when Slater nodded, checked a text.
“…from the professor who taught it last term. And then I missed the final. Here.” She held the phone, screen out. “I had the flu…really bad. This is from my doctor. You can call.”
Could he give her the final? Slater could…but finals must be proctored. She might take it in a few days, while his other students were taking their mid-term…No? Well, if special arrangements were necessary…
Minta pushed her earbud in tighter; she was making herself smile. She swayed slightly—not embarrassingly, she hoped—and sang under her breath.
Every one of us needs some understanding…
She had, lately, rediscovered a taste for the music of her youth.
While Slater and his student negotiated, Minta thought of Torbay. He was not a boring writer, but she could read in his style a certain insinuating undertone. Torbay―as pictured on his book jacket (and as posed by the photographer), had the demeanor of an important male author, the face of an egotist. Something about the eyebrows, the serious forehead, Minta decided. Torbay wore a turtleneck under a houndstooth hacking jacket; he leaned towards the camera looking at the reader over his glasses. You and I, his face confided, realize this is all a bit silly.
She couldn’t dislike Torbay for that…for profiting from the projection of this conventional persona, while at the same time commenting on it sardonically—but, she’d noticed the same superior detachment in his writing, skimming the sample excerpted from Stranglehold:
…Redmond continued agitating in the Commons for an investigation. Suvla Bay was of a magnitude beyond concealing; the Press, this time, had refused to act in concert, by portraying the evacuation as a matter of strategy. Asquith demurred, offering to the House the acceptable explanation that Hamilton could not hear testimony from officers needed for active duty.
“I apologize,” Dr. Slater said. “If you don’t mind closing the door, we should have no more interruptions.”
Minta reached across from where she sat, and gave the door a little push. Here she was, in jeans and hoodie, plugged into her phone, not bothering to get out of her chair. This environment, she thought, is making me revert.
She sat up straight.
“You would like to join our October tour.”
“Well,” she said. He was ahead of her. The rough idea had been unelaborated, the only knowledge she’d come prepared to fake, a limited acquaintance with Torbay’s literary output.
“I understand,” Slater said, “that you may be on your lunch break. Again, I apologize.”
“Oh no, I don’t have a job.”
She hated self-pity, and there was something in the confession that seemed to force it. “It’s your time that matters. Mostly, I’m just curious.” She hazarded a guess. “I’m not sure I can afford a trip to…abroad…” Thus avoiding choppy waters, she hazarded two more guesses, remembering Torbay’s biography.
“Dr. Slater, was it in the Dardanelles you met Captain Torbay?”
“When I began teaching,” he answered, “I took a study group to Turkey each year from 1975 to 1983. The project ended at that point. There was not a great number of our subjects left to interview.”
This oblique response told Minta something. She had not successfully passed herself off as an insider. “I have a friend,” she confessed, “who knows Captain Torbay.” She wondered if she were wrong then, also, to call him that. Slater had not taken her up, to confirm whether Torbay used his military rank.
“Well, Doug and I worked together for a number of years…he, on his project, and I on mine.”
“And then…” She plunged into it. “He moved on to his next project.”
“I suppose so.” Slater shrugged. “But, you tell me you are not working. May I ask you, Minta, is it by choice?”
“I’m open to suggestions.”
“My researcher—of course you know Miss Graham―has taken a leave of absence. And I, having not led a group to Canakkale for more than thirty years, have a lot of catching up to do. Now,” he lifted a canvas duffle bag, that had lain sagging over the front corner of his desk. He pushed a tablet, its screen waking at his touch, towards Minta. “May I ask you to enter your information?” Slater tapped, and an address-book opened. “Since,” he said, “you are worried about the cost of the tour, I think we can come to an arrangement, which will work out nicely…”
She crunched over de-icing pellets liberally applied to the pedestrian walkway. That was the redundant name given the railed passage along the bridge, where foot traffic could cross the river. Here one read a host of little signs, admonishing through symbolic language, icons crossed out: No Bicycles, No Skateboards, No Roller Skates, No Littering.
Also, she supposed, no loitering…but when she got to the high point of the span, Minta wanted to lean and look over the railing, watch the water flow. Think. In late autumn, the river was the color of rain washed through the city’s storm drains, half-translucent, half tannin and asphalt. Each time the wind gusted, it frothed up white-caps around obstructions along the bank.
“Well, I don’t have any personal stake in this,” she told herself.
And after all, she had time on her hands. She’d picked up an echo of John’s story, and been mildly disturbed, when Slater had asked her help with his research. Emmett, assisting Torbay, had been driven to discouragement; he was more than half defeated, but had sought―and won―a friend. Taking up his cause at the point he’d talked himself into abandoning it, John’s friend could be objective. Her position was stronger.
And if she found she was getting the run-around…
“I’ll just quit this job.”
She caught herself. It wasn’t a job. The agreement she’d reached was not for payment, only a discount on the price of a trip, one she’d never planned to take.
She had already accepted her first fool’s errand.
“I have a funny story.”
Minta’s head was in the cabinet. Somewhere, she had a new box of coffee filters, and thinking this must have got shoved behind the spices, she’d pushed cream of tartar, sesame seeds…espresso powder….out of the way. A jar shuttled to the edge, fell and rolled, its flight cut short by the refrigerator grate. Minta was not optimistic, but—fool again—she accepted Quentin’s challenge.
“You have a funny story?”
“What are you looking for?” he asked. When he saw her bend to chase after the turmeric, he leaned in first and picked it up.
“Coffee filters. I just bought some. Quentin, are you really set against flying?”
“You see,” he said, “it’s a kind of karma. That’s exactly how it started. I got up to make myself a cup of coffee. I was standing by the window. And I saw this girl.” He left the kitchen and walked into the living room. He gestured at the yew hedge, the green Volvo in the drive, the shining silver Celotex panels of the neighbor’s half-done siding project, all visible through the parted curtains of their picture window. The living room faced onto the street, as did his study.
She understood her husband’s two trains of thought. Quentin depended on coffee enough to make his own. And on a cart, under his study window, he kept a coffee station.
“She had red hair…and a sort of refugee squint, you know? She was wearing a navy blue parka. And she was leaning sideways, looking at the front of our house. I opened the window. It made her jump.” It would, Minta thought. Quentin had co-opted their second bedroom as his work space. The girl had probably been only a few feet away when he stuck his face against the screen.
“Who did she turn out to be?”
“A friend of yours.”
She walked into his study, rifled his cart, pulled a sheaf of filters from the box. He hadn’t followed. Re-entering the living room, Minta repeated her question, in a way he ought to get.
“Quentin, couldn’t we take a trip someplace together?”
“I know what you say about firmware. All the signal relay towers, or whatever you call them, have firmware. But if that were really a danger, it would happen all the time, wouldn’t it?”
“Where did you want to go?”
He was silent. Minta added, “It’s no different from anyplace else.”
“She said her name was Cammie Graham. I invited her to sit on the sofa and wait for you. I told her you ought to be back soon.”
“And…she didn’t wait, obviously. Did she say what she wanted?”
“You see. That’s where it gets funny. She said she heard from you we were selling the house. Said she just wanted to take a look.”
“Cammie?” Minta thought the voice didn’t sound right. She had her back to him, facing the TV cabinet where she kept her phone. A direct refutation, she’d decided, would sort Quentin best.
“No, this is Mrs. Graham. May I take a message?”
Well, awkward. Cammie, Minta guessed to be in her late twenties. Which was no reason she shouldn’t live with her mother. But she wanted to speak to Cammie only to learn why she’d lied, not to give support to the lie.
She offered minimal information. “I’m Minta Castelberry. Do you have my number, Mrs. Graham? Cammie stopped by to see me, and I wasn’t home.”
She tossed her phone onto the sofa and looked at Quentin.
“Yeah, this place needs work,” he said. “Be a bitch, trying to sell it. I figure it’d sit on the market a long time.”
“Kills that idea, then,” Minta answered.
Dr. Slater had assigned her the task of locating two people.
These were former students, last known to Slater during the early ‘80s. Presumably he had some contribution to the October tour in mind, which these two might make.
So, Minta asked herself, where do I look for someone who’s been missing for thirty years? She decided to compose one of her emails to Emmett. It would make an organizational exercise. And he might answer.
She thought at first that she had heard from him. The message identified the sender as “me”—but an Emmett reference had been part of the subject line, and Minta, after opening it, found herself amazed.
Actually, you need not refer to my old rank in addressing me; it has been many years since I have had to do with the army. Friends call me Doug. I hope I may call you Minta. You will let me know if you object. In any case, Ms. Castelberry, I have been informed that you are interested in John Emmett. I may be of some help to you.
“Well,” she said aloud, “what do you mean by ‘interested’, and which John Emmett?”
And, under the circumstances, how could she not contact Torbay?
She did not yet hit Reply. The name Brian Virgil appeared at the top of Minta’s list of two. She did a cursory search, pulled a news article, checked social icons that popped at the bottom of the page, reminding her of their existence—visited seven of these sites. Two hours later, she’d ruled out all of numerous Brian Virgils. Including the one with a “Space 1999” Pinterest board.
Making a sticky note, she typed “BriVi”; underneath, she indented and put “not social”. The alumni office had listed him as a native of Crescent City, California. So, the hometown newspaper?
She began composing her phantom email to Emmett.
I get how useful it can be to have a third-party researcher. Time-consuming stuff, finding people, I wouldn’t have thought! Of course, maybe BriVi doesn’t want to be found. But I don’t think I can go too far. I mean offend, intrude, whatever they call it. Breach of privacy. I’m too ignorant. Anyway, if he comes back flaming, I’ll just apologize. I’m only the hired help. So you see, it would be harder for Dr. Slater.
She saw nothing to be gained in mentioning Torbay, until she’d learned what Torbay meant to offer. She thought of her other news.
Emmett had brought Cammie Graham into his affairs. Minta pictured her, gauche in her theater-going dress, the coat with its satin lining sliding away. And Cammie―doing the work of a servant, not an assistant―grabbing at folds of fabric, trying to hoist the pile of objects with her knee. The flowers falling to the street. Cammie’s stricken, humiliated face. The empathy she’d felt because Cammie allowed herself to be ill-treated. But Cammie, looking up, had seen two watching her.
Well, Minta was a ruthless researcher now.
“And,” she typed on, “I give her credit for thinking on her feet. The house-for-sale wasn’t a bad invention. If I’d been home, she couldn’t have used it. So I’m guessing she thought it up just when Quentin made her come inside and leave her number.”
Now she could tackle Torbay. She opened his email again.
Doug, I want to thank you for contacting me.
Minta stopped and considered. She had first got in touch with Dr. Slater. She’d used Torbay as a medium, so it was her own fault if she’d raised some sort of alarm. Torbay, smart man that he was, had let her know how he’d found out about her. She was being pushed off, courteously, but firmly. And having no real position to defend, she ought to reassure Torbay. She had not intended peeking in at his back door.
I’ve been told you’re an expert on John Emmett. My interest in the case was only a matter of friendship―still, Doug, if I can be of help to you, I will be happy to do anything. Your friend, Minta.
She would never ordinarily sign an email that way. The tone was artificial, a little smarmy. But he would probably delete this and be done with her. She hit Send.
Her husband had cast himself, under a thin and unbecoming veil, as wronged man. Minta knew it was whatever Emmett had done to her phone, some message in the act that Quentin took to heart; this, more than her lying…as he saw it…about St. Petersburg. Cammie had done her no favor.
They shared the sofa, but Quentin held the pizza box on his lap. Greasing up the remote, he scanned channels, pausing for a few seconds to catch a movie, clicking just at the moment an actress breathed, “No…oo…”
“Ah, Hastings, what is it have I always said to you?” Click.
“He scores! He scores!” Click.
“Oh, yea a a a a h. That’s one bad mamma-jamma!” Click.
“Here’s a show,” he said. His voice betrayed nothing. Minta glanced up from her nail polish. The show was, Sell Me!
“Don’t make the mistake of de-cluttering your house, only to clutter up your garage! A great looking garage gives you a real edge!”
The show being what it was, this comment by the male host was followed by a burst of electric guitar music, accompanied by fast-motion footage; the footage showed staff in blue polo-shirts carrying blue plastic storage tubs into the spotlighted garage.
The female host spoke. “Trey, here’s an easy tip for getting the job done in an afternoon!”
“Mom,” Quentin said, “the rule is keep it or throw it away. You can’t put stuff back to sell.”
“Well, that”— in the light of the open garage door, Valerie turned a ceramic wishing well upside down—“makes no sense. This,” she told her son, “is good enough…you could stick a little plaster on that place. Sand it down, paint it.”
“See, Mom.” Quentin, trying rubbing alcohol on an oil stain, rose from his knees, and reached for his bottle of beer. “They said if you start planning yard sales, you make another chore for yourself. You have to haul it away. Someone else can sell it. You could sell it.”
“I don’t wanna bother with it.”
Minta was sorting boxes of old financial records. She couldn’t guess now why they’d decided to keep these in the garage. Things to shred—Quentin would not like a third category.
BriVi had majored in cultural anthropology. Cultural anthropologists generally began their careers with fieldwork, then settled into teaching. If BriVi had found a teaching position, he’d have been writing articles for professional journals. He might have written books. But he seemed not to have. She needed to take a page from John Emmett.
I am Brian Virgil, Minta told herself. Conscious of some change in the set of her shoulders, she glanced over one. Quentin stood flipping through a magazine. The only stickler for Trey and Courtney’s rules had fallen by the wayside.
I have left my old home, and apparently, I have not returned. I’ve given up anthropology. I don’t keep in touch with the people I used to know. Why am I like this? Am I dead? Have I done something I’m running away from? Am I sick? Am I unemployed, friendless?
The time was right for lunch. There was garlic bread in the freezer; Valerie had brought fried chicken. Minta could toast the first while the latter was in the microwave.
“Hey, guys! I’m going inside.”
“Are you fixing lunch? I’ll help you.”
From mid-ladder, with an oof, Quentin’s mother came down. She’d been rummaging near the insulation, on the shelf where they stashed old paint cans, plastic packets of cables, wall fasteners…those extras that came with hand-vacs, printers, dead computers, forgotten when the junk was junked.
Minta had been sitting among her file boxes, back propped on a set of steel shelves. She let one bear her weight, and pushed to her feet. She snagged a box, took two kitchen steps without touching the rail. Quentin, glancing at both women on and off, said, “You shouldn’t do that.”
“I know,” she told him. “Mom, could you grab that other box? Thanks.”
She figured each sheet of paper, one by one, would need evaluating. And there was a two-hour time-waster, born of Quentin’s pay-you-back garage project.
Valerie had taken off with the wishing well.
Quentin, coming in to lunch, carried with him a stack of Dwarf Stars, his old sci-fi mags. “You know, I read these a long time ago, and now I don’t even remember the stories. It’s like I never read them at all.”
But when he was pottering with his little enthusiasms, she cared for him again. They were not fighting.
Minta, on the other hand, recalled too well, as she looked over each receipt and tax record, her old, naïve habits of thought. Not this year―it was too late; not now, some obstacle prevented―
But next year, or the year after, definitely…the master’s, the better job, the DIY bathroom fix.
It occurred to her this box, carelessly shelved in the garage, was a chronicle of her own disappointment. Yet…Quentin had always told her to handle the finances. He would like her to believe he was transparent with her. He allowed her to pay the bills, file the taxes―if she left him, she would have to, presumably, accept that what he’d told her about his company’s earnings had been true; that he didn’t invest through his friends to hide his assets.
She found a folded letter, and inside the letter, thin sheets of newsprint―the stuff on which her final statement from her pension fund had been printed. Minta opened the little bundle long enough to verify it was as she’d thought, the remnants of her retirement savings documented, cashed out for five thousand six hundred and twenty-four dollars. She and Quentin had been looking for a house at the time she’d lost her job.
“No problem. We’ll get your name off the loan.”
He’d been enthusiastic about her windfall…they could borrow that much less. But Minta now had no personal savings. She depended on Quentin.
Thinking of this, she thought again of BriVi. Why, she asked herself, am I overlooking the best clue I’ve been given?
“I am Brian Virgil.”
This time, alone in her living room, she said it aloud, even let herself do a voice for him. “I am young, and I am helping Dr. Slater with his oral history project. I collect stories…I may have learned—let’s say I have—the language spoken by the local people, here on the Gallipoli peninsula. Am I alienated? Have I been bullied, when I wanted a friend? Pushed to the margin, when I wanted to participate? Shown the door, when I wanted an assignment? Do I feel more at home here than anywhere else?
“For all we know,” she mused, becoming herself again, “Brian Virgil may be easy to find. He may have changed his name. He may have been there all along.”
“Animal is big.”
“Animal,” the second host―whose black hair was tipped in blond; whose eyes were ringed in morpho blue―cut in, “is immortal.” Cammie’s eye was attracted by the fingernail treatment―four iridescent black, one blood red―as he gestured to emphasize his next hint, “but this spring, we will be seeing animal with a new whimsy.”
Cammie looked away from the TV. Grey, these two told her, remained decisive. She had been wearing a grey sweater, as she’d sat with her counsellor, in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs. OGSA. Og sucks, that was the joke. Her counsellor was Dr. Slater’s friend. She hated, of all things she hated about this woman, the fake hair.
“You have a hair,” Brenda told her. And she pointed at Cammie’s sweater with a letter-opener…a bent out of shape letter-opener, that Cammie imagined Brenda used prying other people’s locked drawers.
She picked the hair off her sleeve. She allowed it to fall to the carpet in Brenda’s office…but Cammie had wondered, why call attention to a thing, if all you can do is make someone feel bad? Like a clean person’s hair didn’t fall out? When Cammie spoke, Brenda checked herself, ever so slightly, before she replied.
But she was free now, so the bitch didn’t matter. Cammie did not really see herself going back. She would get a job. Her mother would get used to it. While the television aired Fashion On!, Cammie watched also, on her tablet, an ‘80’s comedy, Men in the Wilderness...
Her eyes strayed from the TV, the music signaling one of the funnier bits. She raised the speaker volume and giggled, while the hero, pursued by a bear―the zipper of his sleeping bag frozen shut―hopped towards the edge of a cliff.
Her phone was under the wax wrapper of the nacho burrito Cammie had bought herself for lunch. Warmth and grease had transferred through to the screen. She wiped this on her tee shirt. “Delete all calls?” the phone asked. Cammie hit cancel and thought about Minta Castelberry.
What had John said to her? That was all she really wanted to know.
She pictured herself, feeling like she was breaking some rule, even though her nighttime hours were free, and she was allowed to go out. Scared of Russia, Cammie hadn’t done it, the first time.
The tour company was not affiliated with the university, but they did business “through the university” as Dr. Slater explained it. Semi-retired professors, employed as guides and lecturers, lent gravitas to the company’s excursions, and the tours were marketed to faculty and alumni. That was why everyone else Cammie met was old, and she’d made no friends.
“Do you go to clubs?”
He’d approached her at a moment when, as she stood in the Baltic’s lobby, she’d felt she might walk through the entryway and continue walking all night, along the St. Petersburg streets. She would aimlessly invite danger, or adventure, or nothing. In which case, she would crawl back to the hotel in the early hours, and let work dispel her loneliness.
So at this she’d been bold, where normally in answer to such a question, she’d have shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”
She looked John Emmett in the face. And thought, he’s not so bad. “Are you asking me?”
He’d taken her to the Fifty-Five, if she had the name right. His friend was there, Ilya, and the three of them found a little curved booth in a corner. Ilya had large eyes and curly dark hair, and when he spoke, he bowed his head, looking up in an appealing way, wanting to befriend everyone, even Cammie.
“Because,” he told her, “it’s high time.” He and John put their heads together and laughed quietly.
She was a little over the top…she’d gone by then, with the boys, one round too many. But when she said, “I don’t get it,” Cammie had felt confused, not drunk.
“The address proved a fortuitous coincidence,” Emmett said. He said these words with a perfect clarity. He downed the rest of his vodka and lime, and said no more for several minutes, until Ilya, finally absorbing Emmett’s remark, taking it as a great joke, dissolved again into laughter, drawing Cammie into her own fit of giggles.
“Technically speaking,” Emmett said at last, “five-fifty-five is high time, because there is no six-sixty-six. However, you may like to say that twenty-three twenty-three is high time. You will notice that it reduces to fifty-five, which is, of course, one and zero…thus, a fortuitous coincidence.”
And when Cammie had trailed Brenda and Dr. Slater, juggling his coat, losing her grip on his patronizing flowers―some instinct or awareness had warned her to glance up. He’d been there, John, looking at her without looking at her, as though he would not acknowledge knowing her. Because he’d taken up with Minta Castelberry.
“I think,” Minta said, “something you told Quentin gave him the wrong idea.”
“I don’t remember what I said.”
“Well.” She was trying to handle this with tact. “If you make Quentin a serious offer, he may take you up on it.”
Cammie giggled weakly. The impulse Minta suspected her of acting on was human enough…but stalking the home of a rival was not the behavior of a well-socialized adult. And most of what Minta had learned of Cammie tended to confirm it. The girl was a poor starter. She had not yet left home or school.
Cammie’s job, though, had not been Dr. Slater’s offer. That would be impossible—Cammie belonged to the university, Minta didn’t. Dr. Slater and his friend Torbay had an interest, about which Cammie likely had no clue, in monitoring Minta’s activities.
“Cammie, why did you stop by to see me?” She heard, over the phone, inarticulate noises of interior debate. “Listen, is there a place you’d like to meet me for lunch?”
“I eat here every day. I get from the take-out counter. ‘Cause…” Cammie, pushing the sleeve of her grey cardigan back from the shower of ice that filled her cup, gestured. With a straw, she pointed towards the door, and the glass panels that framed it, and Minta saw the familiar suburban fringe clustering beyond traffic signals: a gas station at the intersection, a shopping center whose chief business now was a medical office, a sign: “Free Web Hosting”, and a Subway, a defunct box store with rugs for sale in the parking lot. Cammie’s neighborhood was not unclean, but rimmed with characteristic waste, plastic cups and plastic bottles, plastic silverware, paper wrappers blowing neglected along the ditch in the wake of semis that rushed the red light.
“…I live up that way.” She finished, with little nudges of Diet Pepsi, filling her cup. “See that brick building, the sort of brown one?”
Minta’s cup was printed with a message, or a poem:
El viento y el rio no conocen fronteras
Una semilla brota lo que Dios quiera
Nuestra Mesa had only a handful of tables for eating in, and diners were encouraged to use its app to place orders. Minta accepted Cammie’s lead: “Nacho burrito, thanks.” They would have the same thing. It made a conversation starter.
It had occurred to her that Cammie could be made use of. She might already have been asked to search for BriVi. She might, for all Minta knew, be highly competent at that sort of thing…in which case, why duplicate effort?
“Well, rain is better than snow, anyway.”
And this concluded Minta’s remark on the weather. She’d given Cammie her chance to speak up. She must raise the issue point blank.
“So, when you worked with Dr. Slater, did he ask you to locate a man named Brian Virgil?”
The freckled face looked strained. Then, from whatever she’d braced herself to say, Cammie shied. “I never heard of anyone named Brian Virgil. Locating people? That’s not the kind of thing I did.” She sucked, noisily, the last dregs from her cup. “Did he talk about me? Did he think it was funny?”
“Honey, the only thing he said to me was that you had taken a leave of absence.”
Cammie peered sideways at the cashier, who gave her a friendly nod. “No,” she said, lowering her voice. “John. I saw you with him. He wouldn’t look at me…but I didn’t do anything. He liked me at first. Did he talk about me? Did he say why he wouldn’t see me anymore?”
Ah. Poor Cammie had formed a crush on John Emmett. And needed the right thing said to her…
This hesitation, Minta’s weighing how she might make a plausible lie of John’s words—“Miss Graham did not in the least understand me”—had explained itself by now, anyway, in Cammie’s eyes.
“Let me try to help you…”
She jumped to her feet, dragged her macramé bag from the floor, reached for the navy parka. It came with its chair, scraping along the tile; then Cammie jerked the hood in anger. The chair keeled and crashed. Minta took her turn meeting the cashier’s eye…took one sheepish sip of her coffee, then rose to set the chair upright.
As she unlocked the Volvo, she saw Cammie, on the far side of the divided highway. That the disadvantaged locals, with two double lanes to cross, were expected to scurry, bending and pumping their arms in imitation of the little figure on the screen, while the warning sign ticked off seconds, and the engines of impatient drivers churned, made Minta feel worse for Cammie. She watched her take a short cut, down and back up through the ditch, leap a concrete bumper, disappear at length between a pair of featureless apartment blocks, arrayed with rows of stingy little windows.
In her drive, she saw Art’s electric car. Art was nominally Quentin’s boss, the CEO and founder of their company. But they were too soul-matey, the two of them, for such distinctions. She found them sprawled, wearing their virtual reality gear, Quentin in the recliner, Art on the sofa. Minta was glad, of course, that Quentin had evolved past filling her living room with an eighty-inch TV (now stored in the garage).
“Are you watching golf? Or playing golf? Or whatever?” she asked.
Art sat up. He removed his headset.
“Minta.” His eyes twinkled. Quentin had not stirred. She wasn’t really fond of Art. She knew―she could see it as clearly as if she were watching one of Quentin’s clips―that not long ago, talking out loud to herself, she had groused about his personality. This twinkliness she mistrusted. He’d parked in their drive on that occasion as well, and Minta had again pulled her car in behind his. She’d been folding her umbrella when Art popped out of Quentin’s study, where they’d been at work on some nameless project, with the Art-like notion of picking up an order of tuna rolls. Sushi was Art’s pizza.
“If you give me your keys, Mint, I’ll just take your car. You don’t mind.”
He talked like a salesman who’d just made her a limited-time offer. She knew he was going to re-set her radio stations, and she would not be able to figure out what he’d done. She had a bad habit of talking to herself, apparently. But she hadn’t known what meaning lay behind Art’s grin, his exchange of glances with Quentin. She’d assumed they were just two aging frat boys, shoulder-bumping over some nerdism. She could not recall now what she’d said about Art, but he must have greatly enjoyed hearing it.
The folder, on her own phone.
Give the victim custody of the evidence. Explain that, Mrs. Castelberry. Minta shrugged, and went into the kitchen, her vexation at Quentin’s wireless weather station, and the counter space it commanded, heightened by her mood. She crowded his gizmo with her bag, allowed fate to preserve it, and opened the refrigerator.
When she’d last bought groceries, she hadn’t shopped for disgruntlement. Likely, she wasn’t going to find cheese danish, or buffalo wings…she was sure she didn’t have blue corn tortilla chips in the cabinet, either. She settled for ice cream, and was closing the freezer door when she heard a tone. The tone reminded her of an incoming text, yet was one she thought she’d never heard. Battery low, she made herself guess, and setting the ice cream carton aside, dug her phone out of her bag.
The screen came to life. Emmett appeared. The refresh rate was somewhat jerky, and not fully consistent with the audio. “Minta,” he said, “you have given me some disquieting news. And, some rather expected news. I assume that when you say ‘BriVi’, you refer to Brian Virgil.”
“How are you? I was a little worried.”
“Really.” He seemed to be his old self. “Are we exchanging pleasantries? Where would you like to meet? I might come to your house. I’m curious to know Quentin.”
“No. That would be a bad idea.”
Emmett chuckled. “You will have to make a suggestion, in that case.”
“But, wait. Are you saying you’re here? In town?”
“I have not ventured beyond a Marriott at the airport.”
“Hey, ice cream! Are you dishing up for everyone?” Art padded in, moving with stealth in thick-soled sandals. Art was a year-round sandal man. Minta, caught at first by an impulse to hide the phone, decided there was no reason for this.
“Art, get your own. You know where everything is.”
“Oh,” he said, looking, with a stagey leer, over her shoulder, “you’re on a call.” He clattered, and pottered, opening cabinets and drawers.
“John, do you know where the university library is?”
“I obtain my information in the usual way. But I will find out where it is. Meet me there”—he sounded highly amused—“at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. Be prompt.”
The library’s architectural style was modern. It was of the 1960s, the building’s spare outer walls segmented into stunted rectangles of concrete composite, offset by ranks of recessed, tinted windows.
But in the ’90s, an environmental project had added a disharmonious piazza of sorts to the library’s front. A sculpture—rusted, corrugated sheet metal bunched in cylinders—spoke undoubtedly to the tension between rural simplicity and urban sprawl. And radiating outwards from this, patterns had been laid in the paving blocks; along the borders were trees that flowered in the spring, ornamental grasses marked with bronze tags on little wire props…finally, benches, bike racks, a hut of trash receptacles and recycling bins.
Minta wore a dress. The dress was sleeveless, as she didn’t know whether the library would be over or under-heated. She’d added a cardigan, boots and her good herringbone coat. Something about her interview with Cammie had made her want to assert her adulthood, on this next visit to the university.
The library had, arguably, two main entrances; it had, as well, a dozen floors—but Minta had faith in Emmett’s voodoo. She looked for an empty bench. Only the one close to the hut, overhung by a tree and puddled with water, remained forlorn. The outdoor space was popular despite the winter weather. Most students here (and faculty) had their faces turned towards the landscaping, or they rocked back and gazed at the sky. They were on their phones. Minta lit gingerly, scooching onto the bench’s only dry corner, her eyes, as she was digging out her own phone, on her coat pocket.
“Emmett,” someone said, “ought to be along shortly.”
She knew his face, though until this moment, she had never heard his voice.
Rising, she offered her hand. And taking hers in both of his, while looking into her eyes with a sympathy, perhaps tinged with pity, Torbay said, “Minta. Well, I’m afraid your name has come up.”
This time, he wore glasses: the lenses rimless, the earpieces made of some spectacular high-tech metal, reflecting light at certain angles in such a way as to seem invisible. Emmett’s ascetic black was accented with style points too esoteric for the commonplace shopper: the glasses, the glossy Italian wingtips, the tiny, unidentifiable red, white, and yellow logo on his watch cap. All this made him appear, once again, alien to his environment.
“Why don’t we,” he said, having been there when Torbay stepped aside, “stroll about the campus green, such as one finds it in early winter, and discuss financial wizardry?”
Torbay strode off ahead; Minta scrambled, catching up. Emmett trailed. She turned to him. “John, I thought…” How odd it was for these two to be there depended, she guessed, on who they were. “Are you and Doug colleagues? Did you fly over together?”
“You suspect me of putting across a canard. You may guess I have lied about my identity, knowing that if I provide you with a piece of information you yourself are able to verify, you may unquestioningly accept the rest of my story.” Here Emmett paused, and smirked. “But really, I could show you my passport. You would be reassured on one or two points. I do dislike Doug, and we are far from doing the same sort of work. However, strange bedfellows, and all.”
Emmett gave Torbay the intimate look his last words demanded.
Torbay shrugged. “Nonsense, John. At my age, I am not susceptible to the vapors.”
They descended a flight of steps divided by a center railing. Traffic flowed indifferently up and down both sides, and Emmett, now moving ahead, regarded with distaste the sidewalk squashed over with sycamore balls. “All right then.” And acquiring Minta’s eye, he went on:
“A company has obtained a robust capitalization. Let’s say, upwards of three hundred million dollars. What does it do? This company is not a manufacturer of products. Its engineers, if one calls them as they call themselves, ‘conceptualize’.”
Quentin’s word. She must assume it was to Tin Art, LLC, that Emmett referred. The name, as Minta thought of it, represented Quentin and Art’s seedy little marriage. But also (she could hear them earnestly explaining), this idea of the pioneering mind…
“…where all things are taken back to their roots, their essentials.”
“A salt shaker,” Art had told her, his myopic eyes studying the microwave control panel. “A waffle iron.”
“As though…” (Quentin) “someone needed this thing for the first time in history, but instead of nineteenth century technology, they had no limits…”
“And so,” she said. “Art and Quentin are closet billionaires? Let me smack myself.”
“That,” Emmett smiled, “would be overstating the case. They are rich in intellectual property. As you know, their company functions as a clearinghouse. They match ideas to funding schemes.”
“Money,” Torbay put in, “is a wonderful tool for raising money. Even if you have borrowed money, and you must, of course, pay it back…you can raise money using the money you’ve borrowed.”
“But, if this is an international issue…and I’m guessing it has to be…are you saying Tin Art is transferring funds overseas?”
“Now you see, you’re an American. Every country is overseas to someone. Tin Art, it may be, has established an international presence.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
Torbay said nothing.
She was the one in the dark. But Emmett and Torbay had sought her out. They were sharing information; albeit, not a great deal of it. “You said,” she turned to Torbay, and he in turn smiled at her. He had aged two decades; his hair was now grey, but his expression echoed that of his book jacket.
“You said”—Minta raised an eyebrow back at him—“that my name had come up.”
“It was,” Emmett answered, “a fortuitous coincidence. And I am not a believer in coincidence. We are familiar with Mr. Virgil. And we had uncovered one cache of files that bore your name. Your name is rather unusual. Not knowing you, at the time, to be a person…”
“A particular person, no less…” Torbay murmured.
“The name,” Emmett finished, “might have referred to anything.”
“I don’t see why it should refer to me. But Brian Virgil is…”
“In your back garden.” He chuckled. “Well, that’s an idiom. Last night, I happened to notice him in your kitchen.”
She regretted giving Art that saucy little nickname. No wonder he’d been dogging her. And she blamed Emmett, to a degree. He might have warned her sooner.
“What has Art done?”
“Oh,” Torbay shrugged, “tax evasion at a minimum. We are hoping Mr. Virgil will agree to assist us with our inquiries. Money laundering is difficult to prove. It’s something of a grey area, this type of practice. Supposing that I have a line of credit…I can use it, if I like, to profit from a short-term investment. There are myriad examples. Some parts of the world do a brisk trade in the buying and selling of contracts. Then of course,” he made his voice wholly diffident, “arms are a popular black market commodity. You see, I am not a bank. The bank which finances my line of credit, and thus, my activities, is funded by its account holders. They will want to see interest paid. But I, having for a time made off with the bank’s money, am virtually unaccountable.”
“Do you mind,” Minta asked, “if I pick up a coffee?”
An aluminum trailer bed, fitted with a pink-painted, home-crafted wooden shed, sat where it touched the edge of a no-parking zone, its cinder-block prop placed with great care.
“We are in no hurry,” Torbay said.
Emmett joined her. “Toasted caramel, large,” she told Louis, the man behind the window. Her companion frowned, but said, “I suppose I will have the same.”
“Two,” Minta said. “How are you, Louis?”
“Keeping an eye out,” he told her.
“He doesn’t have a license. Everyone buys from Louis,” she explained to Emmett. Torbay either was not a coffee drinker, or having a nose for scofflaws, held himself aloof. He rejoined them as they walked up the street. Now it was Torbay who trailed, and Minta asked Emmett, “Aren’t you worried Art is going to destroy all those files you were talking about? I suppose he knows he’s being investigated.”
“Art is fairly intelligent,” Emmett replied. “That is to say, clever…clever without a doubt…but also, fairly intelligent―so, therefore, he will understand his position. One does not produce a flurry of activity at a late hour. No, Art is the inquiring sort, but he’s not likely to pop off. You don’t feel yourself in danger, do you, Minta?”
“From Art? No. He’s an idiot. Well,” she conceded, recalling he was also BriVi, “I guess he is clever.”
“We would not want you to feel you were in danger.”
As far as Minta knew, they were only walking and talking―Torbay and Emmett had mentioned no destination. This might have to do with Art’s inquiring habits. At the traffic light, Torbay again took the lead. He stepped round and turned at the corner, back in the direction they’d come. Emmett, hanging behind for a moment, switched to Minta’s left.
Crossing here, her red hair blowing over her shoulders, a woman bumped up against Emmett. He retained his grip on his cup, holding it out above the curb. With his free hand, he caught her by the sleeve.
“Miss Graham, I apologize.”
“Miss Graham,” Cammie looked at Minta, an up and down assessment. “Why don’t you call me Cammie? Where are you from, with that Downtown Abbey stuff?” She yanked her arm away.
Emmett seemed nonplused, and hesitated on the brink of decision. He would find it nearly impossible, Minta thought, to answer Cammie’s question without sounding sarcastic.
“Well, I’m sorry,” Cammie said. “I like your boots, Minta.”
She had already stepped from the sidewalk, kicked the flapping pink tape, pounded past the barrier of six-inch stakes, onto a winter seeding of grass. She cut across at a diagonal, and they saw her stop and wait, leaving a distance of feet between herself and the last person in line at Louis’s coffee cart. Once, she glanced back at them; then, pulling her parka’s hood with both hands, hid her face.
Minta walked quietly beside Emmett, following Torbay along the familiar way that led to the river. The concrete was patterned in salty halos. Emmett, having taken several sips of coffee in a meditative way, said again, “Art understands his position. Do you have any notion, Minta, of how to delete Quentin’s content from your computer?”
She closed the jaw that had dropped for a moment…what else would Quentin have done?…and popped the flap of her purse. “Do I need to write something down?”
“What I would like you to do, is consider a scenario.”
He lapsed into silence, considering his own scenario; then added, “Why not suppose that you had taken the computer to a technician, and had Quentin’s files extracted?”
“Should I do that?”
“And then, we shall suppose, Quentin claimed you had created these files yourself. Which, in effect you did, opening his emails and so forth.”
“Am I in trouble?”
Torbay turned and stopped walking. Foot traffic was thin here, where the campus gave onto the bridge, and the suburb beyond. “What Emmett means to say is that ignorance is your shield. If you depart from your ordinary pattern of behavior, becoming active and busy”—he gave her the lifted brow; she nodded, having just been told this—“it looks worse for you. Particularly if you attempt to destroy evidence.”
“People generally do keep records of some kind,” Emmett said. “As you must collaborate with others, you can’t be certain what records they’ve kept. And what appears insignificant may prove incriminating in a future context, which is not, at present, apparent to you. Besides which, people fall out of favor with one another, and form new alliances. Art,” Emmett craned to see past Torbay, who stood with his back to the bridge. “Let’s walk on, shall we? Art has a system. There is a nightclub in St. Petersburg, that shares its premises with a server farm. The server farm is also, on paper, the property of the nightclub’s owner.”
“John’s friend,” Torbay said. “Ilya.”
“The owner,” Emmett austerely corrected, “is Mr. Virgil. Ilya has no money of his own.”
“Art,” Minta asked, “has a system?”
“If you had read the sort of adventure yarns that I grew up with…” Torbay gave her a once-overing look. “Which seems unlikely…you’d have come across some variation on the treasure map motif. That is to say, each pirate clings to his particular shred of the mother map; no lone pirate obtains the ascendency, to betray his fellows and gain the treasure.”
“Art’s files, or they may be fragments of files,” Emmett said, “might be stored on any device that has memory, and that accesses the internet. Anyone’s computer may be a host, but things we typically don’t think of as computers may also be used. These pirates, because they aren’t human, will share information very readily. You need only ask them the right question.”
“And Art has been using my name as a password?”
“Your actual name is Araminta, is that correct? Do you know there is a constellation called Ara? And that ara in Latin means altar; and that the constellation of Ara is near Scorpius? Insofar as things are near things in space. Ara is a pallindrome and can be reduced to a pallindromic number, one-oh-one…or eleven…or two times five-point-five…”
It sounded like one of Torbay’s yarns, superinvested with the all-seeing masonic eye on the back of a dollar bill. But, also, it sounded familiar.
“Quentin would enjoy that stuff.”
“Well, there you have it.” Emmett tilted his head towards her, and with the open palmed gesture that means, “there you have it”, went on. “We must attempt to solve these riddles, because the people we deal with do indeed enjoy creating them.”
She remembered Valerie sending links about the St. Petersburg trip. They were ordinarily beach cabin vacationers. Quentin, who would not fly, was at least willing to drive. On occasion. Minta had not seen this whim of Valerie’s beyond likelihood…
“John,” she said, “you can’t mean to tell me my mother-in-law is…I don’t know what. Faking headaches so she can hold clandestine meetings, I suppose.”
“I don’t see why you would think so. You might as easily have been the courier.”
She stopped; put her hands on her hips. “Oh, come on.”
“Sometimes the old-fashioned ways are best.”
She had turned in Emmett’s direction. She stood beside Torbay, and they’d all stalled, again, in their progress. Emmett’s secretive smile—of one who takes pride in his mysteries, whatever cost the tedium—dropped. He took a step away from Minta, and with fingers steadying his eyeglasses, scanned the bridge’s walkway.
Where the river deepened, an angled support dovetailed with a vertical beam. The spot was popular with photographers and birders, often seen precariously braced, leaning in the “v”. She had been about to say a reassuring word on this point, when she saw the woman―the one Emmett had noticed―put a foot against the railing, and haul herself up. Cammie now stood balanced―her touch on the beam all that prevented her fall.
It was Cammie…her parka and her red hair. Seeing Emmett break into a run, Torbay made a noise of exasperation.
“Frighten the girl, Emmett!” He offered this as general comment, while he and Minta trotted behind, caution pairing them in an awkward gait. Torbay dug for his phone.
“911,” she said.
“Yes, I realize that.”
“Cammie.” Emmett took a tenuous hold of her coat hem. He changed his mind, and removing his right glove, reached for her again. This time, she allowed him to take the free hand she dangled, slack at her hip. But she said, “Why are you talking to me?”
“I wish,” Emmett told her, “I could answer that. This has been horribly unfair to you. But I…” He stepped, or almost slid, closer to the railing, and looked down at the water. Cammie looked far away, at the blue sky beyond the hills.
“…I don’t really have human feelings. I don’t want to be answerable for having harmed someone. I might trade places with you, if that were practicable…”
She made a distressed, frustrated sound; she turned her head, swaying, as she looked down into Emmett’s face. He looked up, miserably, at Cammie’s, and squeezed her hand tight.
“Won’t you come down?”
Sirens heralded professional help on its way. Cammie frowned and swayed again, turning her eyes in the other direction. Minta supposed the sirens to be a sorry compromise. The EMTs had to move with priority; they had to get people out of their way.
“Who cares?” Cammie said, or Minta thought she heard Cammie say it.
She had no idea what went through a person’s mind at such a moment of resolution. Cammie bent her knees like a diver, and Emmett, perhaps understanding her, made a sort of leap, trying to catch hold. But the falling velocity of a human body is considerable. And Emmett’s momentum had thrown him off balance at the start. He was jerked forward, like a fish on a line.
“Within reason,” Minta said.
“I don’t know,” Torbay told her, “that anything I’ve uncovered is very unreasonable, at this point. I will grant it’s curious…or sad in a way…how benign it has all become. But, of course, the elder Emmett did great harm in his day.”
“Then why were you so discouraging?”
“I was not discouraging.” He’d raised his voice; then, remembering where he was, quietly went on, “I was entirely forthcoming. But John is a thorough worker. And uniquely qualified, to stir up the sort of trouble no one wants to see.”
“But I suppose…” Minta glanced to the side. John had come back to them, at intervals, in a semi-conscious state. Which didn’t mean he couldn’t hear what they said. “He only wanted to find some proof that his father had not abandoned him. That he had some feelings about what he’d done.”
“Scholarship,” said Torbay, “can achieve only so much.”
“This…” Emmett said. He had such a lot of bruising and bandaging on the left side of his face, that he spoke only half-coherently.
“…this is what drowning feels like?”
“More of what colliding with scaffolding feels like.” Torbay, interpreting after a moment, peered at Emmett. “You, acting as a sort of counterweight, managed to bring Miss Graham to a rough safe landing. What did they say the trouble was, Minta?”
“Spalling in the joints.”
“Yes. I’ve had the same thing myself, for years.”
Minta ignored him, and elucidated for Emmett. “They’ve been doing bridge repairs. The scaffolding was only out a few feet from the deck. You could easily have missed it. You were very lucky.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” Mrs. Graham told Minta. “I mean, when you raise kids, you do your best. Cammie was always quiet.”
“I’m quiet,” Minta said. This was not particularly true. But she remembered once attending a drinks party hosted by a former boss. While she’d hung at the periphery of a group of strangers, smiling, trying to find her place, the woman had startled her by singing out, “Minta, you’re so quiet!” She understood how insulting the word could be.
Mrs. Graham said, “Maybe that’s why you two are such good friends.”
Her daughter would not consider Minta a friend. Was it possible Cammie’s mother imagined a life for Cammie, as she imagined a personality for her? But, be fair, Minta told herself. She took Mrs. Graham’s hand, and said, “Please let me know how you and Cammie are getting along.”
And, having phrased her parting words in that way, Minta left the hospital’s ED, worried about Cammie; worried she might now have to play this role—of counselling friend to the Grahams, mother and daughter—the notion having organically insinuated itself.
The living room was dark. Quentin had drawn the curtains…or, he had never opened them to begin with. Now the sun was setting, and it was too late. Minta switched the lights on. In the kitchen, she put ramen noodles in a saucepan, filled it with water, and turned the burner up. The chicken she’d left that morning thawing on the countertop, untouched for so many hours, now rested in a soup of pink juices.
Quentin was mad at her. He might come out of his study, if he could distract her with a pointless story just as the noodles boiled over.
“You might expect me to care, but I don’t.”
“Art.” She kept her eyes on the spray of Windex; continued wiping the counter down. He had probably been lurking in her bedroom for some reason. “Has Quentin gone somewhere?”
“No, I would have sent you a picture.”
For weeks, Quentin had not left the house. Minta wasn’t sure it amounted to a symptom at this stage.
“I haven’t checked for cobwebs, but I think he’s still in there.”
Art nodded in the direction of Quentin’s closed door, and leaning across the island range-top, studied the contents of the saucepan. “They came over to my house with a warrant, Minta. I said…so, if you don’t need me here, I’m leaving. I told ’em, you can take it all, if you want. They wouldn’t let me go. But, you know, I live in the moment. And it’s a good moment. What kind of ramen?”
“Aren’t they all alike?”
“No, no, if they were all alike, why would they have different flavors?”
“All I know is, they all seem alike to me.”
Art stared into the pot. He was conceptualizing, Minta suspected. She said, “Art, turn that burner down.”
Her exercise in channeling Brian Virgil had altered Art in Minta’s eyes. She almost empathized with his displaced, misfit status. Art’s loutishness, merged with Brian’s isolation, became the lonely gropings of an outsider, a man with no social graces.
“Maybe I like chicken,” he said, in an abstracted way. His face, dewy from the boiling noodles over which he’d hovered, bore for the first time a resemblance to the photo Dr. Slater had sent Minta, attached to one of his emails. Art had long since grown pasty from a life shut indoors; he had lost his hair, and his eyes had lost their hopefulness. Art’s life in prison, she thought, might not be so different from his everyday life.
“If you’re staying for dinner, I hope you like chicken. Ramen.”
She knotted the garbage bag and tossed it in the garage. While they ate, she would have to draw him out. Not that she’d agreed to…but she understood Torbay. This was why he and Emmett had come here to see her in person.
“But you see, I’m being cued to buy chicken flavored noodles, because I tell myself I like chicken noodles. Maybe they are all alike.”
The glow of Quentin’s screen was the only light in his study. He was half-heartedly prodding with a stylus at a tiny calculator, the size of a solitaire card, while beneath it, his equations scrolled, fresh lines of red symbols and digits on a black background, shoving older lines out of the way.
“I brought you your supper,” she told him. “Art’s here.”
“I know Art’s here.”
He sounded snappish. Art, Minta considered, was a tacky wisecracker. She wondered…and then, crossing to Quentin’s coffee station―the only level surface on which she could set his plate―she stumbled over his discarded shoes.
“Quentin, don’t let your noodles get cold.” Minta picked up his accumulated coffee mugs, three of them, clinking together as she held them by the handles.
She’d called Quentin from the hospital and explained why she had to be away, probably until evening. Art must have been loitering around then; or, if his ordeal hadn’t ended, had turned up shortly afterwards. Minta would like to think Quentin was sulking because he felt rotten. He had done a rotten thing, and tomorrow, she was going to talk to him…no wisecracks allowed.
The city was too large. The coincidence would have been too absurd. Cammie could not have turned up at that street corner, at that moment―and if she had, she would have been astonished to see Emmett there. But she hadn’t been astonished, she’d been angry. So angry she’d shoved him…on purpose. Aggressive, when he hadn’t seemed to notice her. What would Cammie have felt, if she’d thought Emmett had asked her to meet him? That in the company of Minta, he was embarrassed to acknowledge her? It would have seemed cruel. And it was cruel.
Minta guessed Quentin had texted Cammie, this pretense meant to hurt an enemy who’d trod on his territory. He was uninterested in the incidental humans. The stunt held enough cross-referencing and complication to please his sense of rightness.
And as with Art’s chicken noodles, Cammie had been cued to see something that appealed to her. Quentin had probably couched the text in ambiguous terms, in case she saved it.
Minta found Art sketching pictures in his little spiral-bound notepad, bare toes in prehensile grip on her living room table.
“Have you invented a new flavor of ramen? Art…” She didn’t expect an answer to her first question, but if a wedge had developed between the soul-mates, she might gain her own toehold. “You lived overseas for a long time. You wanted…” She supposed the inadequate phrase would have to do.
“…to help people?”
“I always wanted to help people.”
“But, you wanted to be rich.”
“I wanted to be rich, so I could help people.”
“But Art, you don’t like people.”
He showed her his drawings, and she nodded, having no idea what they depicted. “Well, you know,” he said, “you don’t like the people you know, the ones you can think of…but you assume there are good people out there.”
He was unconsciously inverting something Emmett had said. His eyes, as he met hers, seemed damp at the corners.
Minta opened her email.
“I’m going to the bedroom,” she’d told Art, and in his subdued mood, he hadn’t even leered. But he might pull his tablet from his backpack, and read along with her. She felt almost charitable towards Art.
As Quentin had said, people get used to things.
The subject line caught her eye.
“My dear new friend, I am very happy to know you! But you amaze me to say that I am lost. I have searched to find myself for many years! Today, my friend Minta, as I ate my bread, I noticed an ant crawl across the plate. Very slowly, he made his way. I asked myself, am I more than an ant? An ant is not less complex in his creation than the stars. And there are billions of stars! I have spent an hour in contemplation of this beauty of a single ray of light…”
She had forgotten her other lost soul.