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Prologue: Hell’s Son The spirit slept. But this sleep brought no repose, only darkness and pain. In Hell, sleep offersno rest. No peace is found there. No comfort. No relief. No escape. Waking or sleeping, the spiritknew only the dark cocoon of its hellish cage, hung in a sunless cavern filled with unbearable stench,smothering despair, and screams -- the lullaby of the damned. Still mannish in shape, even after its long absence from a body of flesh, bone, and blood, thespirit‟s body was ethereal as smoke; little more than a shadow of the splendid physical being it hadonce been in mortality. Hell is, after all, a spiritual realm where things of corporal nature exist only inmemory. Even the web-like shackles that held the spirit bound for centuries were of no mortal make.They were forged not of iron, nor steel, but of something far stronger -- a total domination of will. InHell, all is relinquished at the Gates. There are no choices, no freedom of will; only submission to theOne True Lord. Other than the mad wailing of fellow inmates, the spirit had no sense of anything or anyoneoutside of itself. It never spoke to nor saw any other being. Regret was its only food, misery its onlycompanion. It did not eat, nor see, nor even breathe. While asleep, its mind sought out its own darkpaths, wandering in twisted imaginings. While awake, its thoughts invariably fixated on eventsproducing the most pain, memories of a previous mortality it could relive over and over a thousand,thousand times but never amend. Stripped of all other belongings, the spirit clung passionately to itshatred and fury, but was given no way to wield them, no way to remold the clay of its torment. “I, Qeoc-neh-qiti, once greatest of prophets, the icon of power, am powerless,” it would moan,gnashing at its bonds without hope, and in this despair centuries passed by. Then, into this bleak eternity, at the eve of one more endless day, a summons came. The spiritheard a voice, distant yet distinct, cold as night, hot as a falling star. The voice said, simply, “Come to me.” Its cage fell to the ground like a drop of blood and burst open. The spirit lay dazed, but as airslowly filled its lungs, a resurgence of all its physical senses came rushing back in one electrifyingsurge. At first the spirit could not, dared not move, but the impossible reality of its new situationbecame more definite and it began clawing frantically to free itself from the black, spidery webbingsthat bound its legs and wrists. Astonishingly, for the first time in reply to all its railings against themthey had broken, crackling like paper, falling away as ash, and the spirit felt an overpowering sense ofliberation as the stranglehold on its will was released. The bonds of endless ages were broken. With a hiss, it slowly, warily uncoiled until it could stand erect. Lifting its head, it opened twoflint-like eyes and blinked once or twice. There was no sight in the impenetrable darkness. No matter,it thought. It did not need to see. The One True Master had called and that was enough. Why this was,
the spirit did not know nor question. In Hell, one simply obeyed. It was enough to accept that theMaster knew all that needed knowing. When it suited Him, the spirit would be told the reason for hissummons. Until then, unthinking acquiescence would show the way. The spirit immediately sensed where to go and began on its way, fear guiding it like a scenttrail through a pitch-black labyrinth. It stumbled at first. After a near-millennium of disuse its limbswere annoyingly dysfunctional and movement was incredibly slow. It took some time to coordinatemovement, to contemplate the motion of walking then figure out how the appropriate action was to bebrought about. Only after some humiliating but progressive trial and error could it make any realprogress on its journey, fighting with each movement to gain control over its gangly shufflings.Pausing frequently on its journey, leaning against anything it could find for support, it took time tocatch its breath; for, indeed, the simple act of breathing was also a skill it needed to relearn. As strength gradually returned, its excitement also grew. It was being called to duty! This wasa good thing, it thought, a very good thing; perhaps the only good thing to be found in all of Hell. Thespirit knew the Great One could be generous if He was pleased. There would be a reward for successsurely and perhaps, just perhaps, a chance for redemption. In its black heart, the spirit knew its time had come at last. Ω 5
Chapter 1 A green valley flanked by the jagged mountains of the Salt River Range of western Wyominglay in slumber beneath a full moon. Lights of small farmhouses and barns twinkled like bright starsamong the night-washed fields. All was quiet, except for a few coyotes taken by sudden obsession tohowl. Their voices wafted over the pastures and up the hillsides like a poignant, homeless windlooking for company, then disappeared somewhere out of hearing and out of mind. An owl, cockedand ready on its pine-hidden perch, blinked sharp amber eyes, eager to sustain its life by takinganother‟s. Beneath its perch padded a skunk, unaware and unconcerned, as skunks are apt to be, aboutanything but themselves. A red fox, nose low to the ground, ears alert, trotted swiftly along the edge ofan alfalfa meadow toward a distant dairy barn, hoping a carelessly-latched gate on the nearby henhousemight provide it with an opportunity. Disappointingly, it found all was secure when it reached itsdestination. It would have to search elsewhere in this moonlit night for a meal to feed its kits. Suddenly, a loud “mmaaahhh!” emanated from inside the barn. Startled, the fox tucked its tailand scurried off, disappearing behind a mountain of baled hay. A silent figure stood watching beneath the dappled shadows of a small grove of aspen. All iswell in this valley, the stranger thought to himself with a wistful smile. The creatures move in theirspheres of dominion, as each should. Life abounds, takes, gives, and revels in itself. „Tis a pleasantspot, this -- a comforting place -- rare in this old, gray world. Would that all my pastures were asgreen. The figure turned as if to go, then paused, cocking his head. Yet, I almost sense …something reaches to me here. What? Who? He stood for some time, still and thoughtful. Hm.My imagination, I expect, he concluded, shaking his head. Off with you, old fool! There are otherneeds pressing. This is not a night to get distracted from your duties. The moon ducked behind a playful wisp of cloud and, as the light over field and thicketdimmed, the figure beneath the trees vanished as quietly as he had come. Ω Michael Johns awakened suddenly in the middle of the night and sat bolt upright. From thebarn fifty feet away, he could hear a cow bawling. He heard his father stir in the bedroom across thehall and call, “Michael?” Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Michael checked the time on the big,wind-up clock at his bedside. Three a.m. A moment later his father called again weakly, “Michael?” Michael already had his boots on. “Go back to sleep, Dad. Im on my way.” He finished dressing, scrubbed his hands and arms at the kitchen sink, and made it to the barnin less than five minutes. He hated to leave his father alone, even for a few minutes, but both of them 7
understood that when a $5,000 registered dairy cow is ready to calf, and her babys worth at leastanother $500 before it hits the ground, a rancher has to be there. She was well into it when Michael arrived, with part of the calfs head crowning. Michaelcould see right away that the angle of the head wasnt quite right. If he couldnt get the calf twistedaround the right way, the mothers strong contractions might damage her defenseless offspring before itwas born. Quickly smearing lubricant from fingers to elbows, he knelt beside the straining cow, andgently slid one arm deep into her birth canal. Between every contraction, he worked to turn the youngones body and head. When he was satisfied with the calf‟s position, he waited for the next contraction and pulled thecalf forward with all his might, encouraging both animals as he worked. “Push, Becky, you old bucket-kicker,” he said through gritted teeth. “You can do it. Come on,Calf. Dont make your mama and me do all the work. You gotta put out at least a little bit of effort toget into this world! A dark, wet nose appeared. With one hand, Michael cleared out the calf‟s nostrils and withthe other, guided the head. Becky loudly announced the coming of the next contraction.Then, suddenly, the head was out, its eyes wide open. They looked right into Michaels, brown-to-brown, spirit-to-spirit, and blinked. Michael could not help but laugh, then braced himself for thenext step. Reaching deep into the birth canal, Michael slipped his hands past the calf‟s neck, grabbingits shoulders. He took a great breath and held it, waiting for the next contraction, tightening hisstomach, his arms, his back, his legs into one straining halter of muscle, bent on a single purpose --bringing that calf into mortality, head to tail. With a loud protest and a final, desperate effort fromBecky, the calf pumped forward, greased with birth fluids. The calf fell into Michaels arms,plastering him with blood, mucus and afterbirth. His knees buckled under the weight and they both fellbackwards in the hay, Michael still holding the newborn. Becky bent her head around with a wild-eyed stare and called her calf. Its body lay heavy ontop of Michaels chest for a moment as they both rested from their mutual effort, but it was not longbefore it began squirming out of his grasp, just missing Michael‟s face as it kicked with its tiny, butsharp, front hoof. “Happy Birthday, Calf! Welcome to the world!” Michael said with a grin, and let it go. Becky was immediately on her feet, gently nosing her offspring. Over the next severalminutes, Michael watched the mother lick the newborn clean and the little one struggle to find itsfooting on wobbly legs. Within ten minutes the calf was up and able to make its way over to itsmothers udder. Sitting back in the hay, his arms covered with blood up to the shoulders, Michael wearily, buthappily, watched the mother inspect the calf proudly as it butted and slurped at her teat. He wouldallow them to stay together only a few days and then he would separate them. The calf would bebottle-fed. But for the moment, all three were content to let nature take its course. Seeing birth on the Wyoming ranch was a thing Michael Johns had witnessed time and again,but the miracle of it never diminished. He came to his feet, dusted the hay off his clothes, and begancleaning up the mess around him. When he was finished, he looked at his watch; a half-hour, barely,till the other cows would need milking. Just time enough to clean himself up and make a quick checkon his father. Walking through the blackness of a morning not yet dawned, he opened the screen door andwent straight to the deep, metal, back-porch sink to scrub clean. He stripped off his shirt and bentunder the pump-handle faucet, letting the stream of warm water splash on his face, arms, and chest.The brisk, cold air that tingled his skin afterward and the wholesome smell of soap filled him with
exultation. He had just brought a new life into the world. It was going to be a beautiful morning. Hisfather would be glad to know the birthing had gone well. He pushed open the back door and strode into the kitchen. “Dad,” he called, mounting thestairs up to the bedrooms. “Dad, you should have seen old Becky. She was telling the whole world... ” The words broke off as soon as he looked through the open door to his fathers bed. Hisfather‟s eyes were closed, his hands folded peacefully on his chest, but somehow, even through theshadows of the darkened room, Michael knew he was gone. His fathers pain was over. Quickly, he walked to the side of the bed, knelt down, and took Robert Johns limp hand in hisown, holding it tenderly. It was still warm, but completely lifeless. “Oh, Dad, Im sorry,” Michael choked, realizing that after all the months of constant, lovingcare, when the final moment came, he hadn‟t been there. “I‟m so sorry I wasnt here to say good-bye.” Tears streamed down his face. He gently stroked his father‟s leathery hands, and tenderlyrubbed the square, stubbled cheek. Memories came flooding back, the special times he‟d spent withthe man who now lay so still and gaunt upon the bed beside him. Up until the cancer, Robert Johnshad been a robust, big-hearted, hard-working, loving parent entirely devoted to three things; his son,his ranch, and enjoying life. He preached his philosophy of life by example: work hard, but whenit‟s done, you get to play. In his book, both were equal ingredients in the recipe for happiness. Robert Johns lost his wife when Michael was still a little fellow and spent the rest of his lifein her sorely-felt absence determined to provide the best he could for his son. That included givinghis all to the hard, day-after-day labor to build up a well-run, profitable dairy ranch his boy wouldsomeday inherit. Michael learned at his father‟s side the value of sweat and toil, but also to make every spareminute away from it count just as much. “Ya better like what ya do, son,” he heard his father say ahundred times, “because you‟re gonna spend most your life doin‟ it. But remember,” he would addwith a grin, “work‟s the thing we do to support our fun habit.” While growing up, Michael was never far from his father‟s heels and his father, in turn,spent every moment he could spare with his boy. There had been fishing trips every weekend insummer, hunting trips every fall and, in winter, they never missed a chance to take out thesnowmobiles. Oh, if Michael had a dollar for every time they rode horses up the canyon to pickchokeberries for jelly and syrup! If he could have a dime for every time they chopped wood,practiced lasso tricks, or roasted wieners over a campfire! How he yearned for one more hiketogether to some lake hidden high in the peace and solitude of the Salt River Range, to spend theday telling jokes, singing old songs passed down from father to son since the days of Robert‟sgrandfather, or just plain lying back against a tree watching the clouds change shape. If there was ever a good life lived, Robert Johns was the man who lived it. Michael,suddenly overcome, put his head in his hands and wept. He cried a long while in that quiet room, mourning a good parent‟s love bitterly lost andfeeling keenly the silent, emptiness in the room. Gradually, the sobs subsided. Michael lifted his head and roughly wiped his eyes. “At any rate,” he whispered, looking down at the face he loved so well, “you‟re free now, Dad.It was a long, hard haul, but youre past it now. No more pain. No more grinding your teeth becauseyou cant lend a hand. You look peaceful. You should. You deserve your rest. Go tie up a fly andfind a big rainbow waiting for you under the riffles in God‟s river. God knows you earned it.” Michael cleared his throat and attempted a smile, but it caught on the way out and onlyserved to make his mouth twitch. When he spoke, his voice was husky. “Dont worry, Dad. Youknow Ill be all right. You taught me all I need to know. Whatever happens, whatever I become, ifit turns out good, itll be because of you.” 9
The ache arose again. Michael fought it this time, not willing to give in to the emptiness, thegrief the hole in his heart demanded. He had known the end was coming, but God Almighty, he wasntready for it yet. This man had been everything to him and there were so many things he still needed tosay. But now, the chance for words was gone. Knowing this, Michael continued talking aloud, sure his father would somehow hear. “Wemade quite a team all these years, didnt we, old man? We can both be right proud of this place.Prettiest little dairy ranch in Star Valley. There are a lot of people besides me who‟d say so.” He hesitated. “I hope youll understand, Dad, but I have to let it go. This ranch was your life,not mine. I dont know whats out there waiting for me on the other side of these hills, but something inmy gut says Im not supposed to stay here. Now that you‟re gone, its time to find my own purpose, tofigure out why I‟m on this planet.” One last time, Michael pulled the faded Indian blanket up to his father‟s chest and brushed backa few wisps of gray-streaked hair from the forehead that now lay smooth and full of peace, unfurrowedby pain at last. He sat back on his heels, gazing at the man in the bed, trying to comprehend the factthat the ordeal was really over. In the first hours of that yet-unborn day, Michael Johns had held closethe face of both life and death. It seemed a long mile of barbed-wire eternity between the two. A ray of sunlight peeked through a crack at the window. Outside, a rooster crowed. Michaelrose, strode across the room and threw open the curtains. The young rancher could see the colors of agentle dawn sky ripening to sunrise. A soft quietness settled over him and, with it, comfort. This waswhat life was, his father taught him. A lot of stuff you didnt like but were forced to deal with. Thealternative, to let life defeat you, was cowardice, and that was unacceptable. His father had lived a full,robust, wonderful life doing what he loved most. There should be no regrets at his passing andMichael knew his father would understand about him leaving the ranch. Robert Johns had worked hiswhole life to make his life his own. Robert Johns understood about finding dreams. With this thought, Michael lifted his shoulders and took in a deep breath, square to his decision,ready to face whatever consequences his choice would hold for him. The farm and his life here was asgood as over. It was time to move on. “Yes…, I hear the cows bawling, Dad,” he said with a soft chuckle. “Don‟t worry. I‟m on it.By the way, Ill call Pete Grover this morning and well get the funeral set up. Well do it simple, theway youd like.” He started to go, but stopped with his hand on the door and turned back. “Oh, Dad? Be sure tostop by the barn and see Beckys new calf.” He added, smiling. “Shes a beauty.” With that, Michael Johns turned and walked out of the room, closing the door on all thecertainty he had ever known. Ω Colorado State University is located comfortably in the lap of Fort Collins, a pleasantcommunity in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains some sixty miles north of Denver. The Universityoffers its student body of 28,000 a high standard of academic excellence and a laid-back venue ofacademic pursuit. Outside of class, there are mountains with plenty of fresh air, hiking and bikingtrails. The city of Fort Collins, itself, offers good restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops, theaters, artgalleries, gardens, museums and three golf courses, basically all the amenities treasured as part of theColorado lifestyle. In short, hidden from the world at large by the Rocky Mountains that enfold it, FortCollins is a perfect oyster, and Colorado State University, its pearl.
Most weekends this late during spring term would find the CSU campus quiet and deserted.Some students could perhaps be found studying in the library; there might be an open-air concert in thecenter green, or a lecture series presented by a visiting academic dignitary; but there were usuallyrelatively few participants. In general, the students found their off-campus week-end options in thewarm April weather to be much more stimulating than whatever might be happening on campus. On this otherwise rosy day of daffodils and tulips, the atmosphere inside the boardroom forvisiting dignitaries in the Administration building was dim, stifling, and palpably tense. Despite thegracious surroundings of walnut-paneled walls, overstuffed chairs and a highly-polished cherry-woodconference table, the five people seated there were highly agitated, and the conversation going onbetween them was far from genteel. Bill Hyden, dean of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Sciences, sat at the head ofthe table, plump and red-faced, drumming his fingers. Across the room from him, standing next to a large, salt-water aquarium, was Dr. FrankCurnow, professor of zoology, running his index finger across the glass, tracing the meandering path ofa blue-striped sergeant major fish. Curnow, lean as an asp in his impeccable tweed blazer, bald but fora horseshoe ring of dark hair, wore a crusty frown. "Explain to me exactly,” he said acidly to his colleagues seated across the room, “why thefamous James Omega would condescend to come to Colorado State University? To someone like him,we‟re nothing more than a doghouse with flea-bit credentials.” Curnow‟s eyes turned to focus on Annie Groff. She sat to the right of Dean Hyden, her backstraight as an arrow, eyes keen as its point and glaring straight back at Curnow. Annie was animpressive woman. At age thirty-five, she held two PhD‟s and was the assistant dean of thedepartment. Annie was as beautiful as she was brilliant, but some, especially Curnow, might say sheseemed all the more untouchable because of her perfection. “I agree with Bill,” she said. “If James Omega applies out of the blue for a position on ourfaculty, then we should be thanking our lucky stars.” “Well, something doesn‟t fit,” Curnow continued crossly, taking her comment as a personalrejection. “If he really wants to get away from the University of Chicago, the man could take his pickof any Ivy League school or even go abroad. Oxford, Edinburgh, you name it. Theyd take him fasterthan a rattlesnake could kiss my butt and no questions asked.” "No self-respecting reptile would lower itself to kiss your butt, Frank," Annie sniped. CSU‟s lanky professor of animal husbandry from Texas, Derkston Long, known to everyonepresent as Derk, grinned from across the table at Annie and added in his lazy drawl, “Not so, Annie.Frank‟s got snakes waitin‟ in line to kiss his butt!" Annie smiled back. Curnow grunted and rolled his eyes. The last person on the committee was petite, gray-haired Dr. Juliet Marsh. Standing at fullheight she was little more than four foot ten and was usually a soft-spoken, gracious woman whosegrandmotherly appearance belied the nickname her students called her behind her back: “Grandma theHun.” Curnow viewed her as an oddity: the sort who could smile at you while kicking you in theshins; a sort of chocolate chip cookie made with gravel instead of chips. Oddly, Juliet seemed a bitdreamy on this occasion. She glided into the conversation like some giddy, summer cloud that had nosense the other clouds about it were brooding up a storm. “Oh, but don‟t you think Dr. Omega is good-looking on camera,” she said breathlessly. “He‟sa very handsome man for his age, don‟t you think? And very dignified. I can hardly wait to meethim!” 11
Annie smiled and answered her elderly colleague fondly, “Yes, Juliet. James Omega doeshave, shall we say, a presence. If he joins our faculty, we may just have to fight over him later.” Sheglanced at Curnow, a wicked twinkle in her eye. “Please, spare us!” he groaned as he strode to the conference table, yanked out a chair, andplopped into his seat. Curnow took out his Blackberry and tapped open his email. He knew Anniehated his reading email during meetings and a sharp look from her told him he better put it away. Hesmiled challengingly and called up his first message. "Ive already met him once," Annie said casually, purposely turning her back to Curnow. "You have?" Juliet gasped. “Mm-hm.” Annie was slyly watching Curnow‟s reaction out of the corner of her eye. I‟veheard him lecture several times and was even introduced to him once.” "Well?” Juliet pressed. “Whats he like?" Annie reflected. "Impressive. Great speaker. Has the audience eating out of his hand in notime. Of course, if you‟ve watched his Vanishing Eden series on PBS, you already know that.” “Yes, we already know that,” Curnow monkey-echoed under his breath. Juliet took no notice. “Hes got to be a marvelous teacher, then! I mean if hes as much at easein front of a live audience as he is before a TV camera, he‟d be a whiz in a classroom, wouldn‟t he?”She nervously patted at her stiffly-sprayed coiffure. “You‟d hope so,” Derk put in. “But not necessarily. Some people can be as smart as a whip,have four or five degrees hangin‟ on their wall, but you get „em in a classroom and theyre borin‟ as abeaker.” His eyes caught Annie‟s and glanced sideways in Curnow‟s direction. Annie caught the jibe but was not about to be diverted from her point. “But Omega‟s not likethat, Derk. He‟s the real thing.” Juliet squeezed her arm. “So what is he like, Annie? I mean, as a person.” Annie thought a moment then said, “Well, I know his students at the University of Chicagoadored him.” “I heard,” Derk butted in, “some people say hes a bit of an odd duck.” Curnow gave a short, nasty snicker. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” Annie went on, “but when we met I found him lucid,articulate, very ... interesting. I must admit, my heart fluttered a bit when he shook my hand." Juliet gasped, “Oh Annie. Lucky you!” “Really,” Curnow muttered, still tapping away at his Blackberry, “isn‟t he a bit elderly for you,Annie?” “There are plenty of women who think age improves a man,” Annie defended herself , “A lotcan be said for ... experience.” “That‟s right,” Derk spoke up. “A good stud horsell keep the mares happy long after hes quitthe racetrack.” Annie laughed outright, but Juliets face turned bright red. She removed her glasses and beganwiping them on her sleeve. “Bless me, my glasses keep fogging up. Isnt it hot in here?” Dean Hyden cleared his throat, his face even redder than usual. “We‟re getting sidetracked,people. Let‟s get back to the discussion at hand. In a few moments, James Omega is going to walkthrough that door. You may ask him any questions you like. When you‟re finished, we will dismisshim while we arrive at our decision. But while you‟re at it, I just want to remind everyone thatPresident Hewitt called me personally this morning on this matter. He‟s delighted by the whole thingand is highly in favor of it. That should be a guide for our decision, I think.” Curnow snapped to attention. "I can see everyone is all in a heat over the great James Omega.But remember one thing, people, before you all go into a molt from your adrenaline rush; the university
is not rich. Our financial resources are limited. Do you want some money-guzzling celebrity to gobbleit all up? Guess whose budgets and salary will take the hit?" This produced an awkward hush. “Is that true?” Juliet leaned forward with a look of consternation. “Will someone‟s position bethreatened? Will we have to take a cut in pay if Dr. Omega…?” “Juliet, nothin‟ Curnow ever says is exactly true,” Derk reassured her. “He just likes to yellwolf whenever he gets the chance. Pay no attention.” “You‟ll see,” Curnow snapped. “The minute Omega moves in, one of us moves out!” “Calm down, people,” Dean Hyden commanded. “I expect some decorum at theseproceedings.” “Frank,” Annie said sternly, “you obviously have reservations about Omega. Let‟s get thewash out in the air to dry. What exactly have you got against him?” Curnow, happy at last to be handed the gavel, cleared his throat. "I just want you to think,people, instead of going all mushy in the cerebellum just because the man‟s a celebrity. Reality check.First of all, what has CSU got to attract a man of Omega‟s caliber?" "Now just a minute, Frank," the Texan responded in an offended tone. "CSU is a damned goodschool and you know it. In the field of Animal Sciences, we‟re one of the best in the country! We havenothing to be ashamed of.” “Here, here!” Dean Hyden cried. “It certainly appears James Omega thinks CSUs goodenough for him. He‟s the one who initiated his application, isn‟t he? Can‟t you understand, Frank, thatwhen a man like this comes knocking at the door, we can hardly look a gift horse in the mouth?” “Specially if he‟s a thoroughbred!” Derk put in. Curnow coughed and looked up from his email. “Omega‟s not a thoroughbred, he‟s an egotist.My word, I cant stand this idol-worship mentality! Hes just a biologist, not a demigod! No morededicated to his profession than you or me. Damn it, people! Why do we have to endure all thistheatrical hype?” Annie closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. “Frank, you‟re a real peach.” “Now don‟t you give me that high and mighty attitude, Annie,” Curnow sputtered. “As amember of this committee I have the same rights to express my concerns as anybody else. You want totalk about my reservations? Okay, let‟s talk. Let‟s talk about the biggest bug of all on Omega‟swindshield: the mongoose. What about the god-damned mongoose?” Annie shook her head. “That soup is stone cold, Frank. Water under the bridge.” “Well, I think not.“ Curnow‟s eyes flashed, “I think it weighs heavily on this committee toremember two years ago your amazing Dr. James Omega claimed to have genetically-engineered thebirth of a red-banded mongoose, re-introducing an animal extinct since 1943.” Annie sighed. “Yes, Frank, everyone here reads the papers and listens to the news just like youdo. We all remember the mongoose. What about it?” Curnow‟s lips tightened. “Fraud was implied, I believe. Nasty little word, fraud. I would hateto see CSU find itself in a fix on account of James Omega the way the University of Chicago did, that‟sall.” “What you gettin‟ at, Frank?” Derk asked. Curnow drew himself up. “The scientific community has a keen nose for humbug. The minutethe University of Chicago made the announcement of Omega‟s purported achievement, red flags shotup everywhere. Everyone could smell a stink in the air. One just does not bring back an extinctspecies. Such a feat, as we all know, is impossible.” “It was believed to be impossible,” Annie said pointedly, “until Omega did it.” 13
“Annie, dear,” Curnow answered with a curl of his lip, “there are more than a few veryreputable scientists who still think the whole thing was a ruse, myself among them. In my opinion, itwas all staged and when Omega‟s bluff was called, it created a scandal. Of course, the University ofChicago tried to cover it up, which is evidence in itself the mongoose was a fake and James Omega is acharlatan.” "Thats a low blow and uncalled for!" Annie said, rising to her feet. "The mongoose was abrilliant piece of genetics and you know it. The trial vindicated both Omega and the University of anywrong doing. Omega‟s accusers were proven guilty of perjury and sabotage. Some even admitted tohaving been bribed to falsify Omega‟s lab books. The real issue here is that you are jealous, aren‟tyou, Frank? You‟ve been the big cheese for so long, you‟re afraid Omega is going to come along andoutshine you, and you can‟t tolerate the thought!” “What?” Curnow cried, rising to his feet. “I‟m so tired of it, Frank.” Annie cried. “Every time we try to do something to upgrade thedepartment, you shoot it down. If an idea doesn‟t come from you, it‟s no good. If it‟s your project thatneeds funding, you‟re suddenly everyone‟s friend, but if it‟s somebody else‟s, you veto it without evenconsidering it. Do you know what I think, Frank? I think you‟re a very petty man. Oh, a genius, Iadmit, but a petty genius.” To everyone‟s surprise, Annie clenched both fists and pounded them on the table. All fourcommittee members jumped in their seats. She faced Curnow, her eyes narrowed, her teeth clenched.”Well, this is one time I‟m not going to let you sabotage a golden opportunity! James Omega cominghere would open doors, not just for our department, but for the whole university. All I can say to you,Frank Curnow, is if you‟re going to let personal prejudice prevent you from making a rational decisionconcerning the best interest of this institution, then perhaps you should resign from this committee!” The entire room fell to stunned silence. “Oh dear,” Juliet whispered, covering her mouth with her hand. Curnow stood, drop-jawed. He finally sputtered, “If that‟s what you think—if that‟s the wayyou feel, Annie -- why then, I beg your pardon! I have never harbored any intentions that were foranything other than the good of this department. I‟m stunned. I cannot understand why you would saysuch things.” “Don‟t get me started…” Annie snapped. “People, please!” Dean Hyden exclaimed. “This henpecking accomplishes nothing. Let‟s allremember our manners here. We are all professionals. Let‟s act that way, shall we? Now everyone,please -- just sit down!” Annie stiffly took her seat and Curnow lowered into his, each looking spitefully at the other.But at least order was restored. The dean drew a long breath and adjusted his tie before he spoke. “To be just, Frank has aperfect right to bring up the mongoose trial. Should Omega come to reside on this faculty, Omega‟spast could at some point become entwined with CSU‟s future. However, as you point out, Annie, itwas proven there was no fraud on Omegas part, so Frank‟s point is moot. What we all hope is thatwhat James Omega will bring with him to CSU is his brilliant reputation, not a tarnished past.” “It wasn‟t tarnished in the first place…” Annie insisted beneath her breath. “Just remember I warned you.” Curnow had to have the last word. A telephone resting by the chairmans elbow interrupted the pending altercation. Everymember of the committee froze as the room filled with an electrically-charged silence. “Quiet, everyone!” Dean Hyden pleaded, picking up the phone with a shaking hand. "Yes,Mrs. Walker?” he spoke into the mouthpiece. “Thank you, but, no, don‟t just send him in. Ill comeout and escort Dr. Omega in myself. Please tell him Ill be right out."
The dean replaced the phone on its cradle, cleared his throat, and faced his colleagues. "Well, hes here. We‟ll postpone the remainder of this discussion until after the interview.Perhaps some of you will change your minds after you meet the man. In any event, we will address allof your concerns before we arrive at a final decision. In the meantime, Frank, Annie, behave! Do notembarrass me!” “Yes, Frank, be nice.” Annie hissed at Curnow before looking up at the dean and folding herarms like a child in Sunday School. She smiled sweetly. “We‟re all ready now, Bill.” “Praise the Lord,” Hyden said, pulling at his tie. “Stay that way. I‟ll be back in a minute.” Hepushed away from the table, rose, and hurried from the room, pulling the door closed behind him. Everyone watched him go. In his absence, the people around the long table remained still andpensive, eyeing each other in tight-lipped silence. Everything about James Omega irked Frank Curnow. He would never tell his colleagues onthe committee of the indignities he suffered because of James Omega. He would never admit to thehumiliation, especially not to Annie Groff, whom he tried so hard to impress over the years. During the course of their day-to-day contact—her office was just down the hall from his -- shenever encouraged his personal advances nor applauded his academic prowess. If she wouldn‟t accepthim as a suitor, so be it. But couldn‟t she at least give him credit for his brilliant articles andmeticulously-researched book series? Perhaps, he reasoned, it was only the subject Annie had anaversion to. He was fascinated by the reptilian world, while Annie‟s head was up in the clouds withher birds. He respected that she was also a published authority in ornithology, specializing in raptors.No question about it, Annie Groff was smart. That was the first thing about her that attracted him. Heloved getting in debates with her, loved showing her how much he knew. But for some bafflingreason, Annie did not seem to view his intellectualism in the same light he held hers -- a highly-desired, commonly-held trait, which could, if allowed, form the bonds of a stimulating relationship. Hecould not understand why she didn‟t see that. And, now, there was the threat of a new wedge comingbetween them. What if Annie became infatuated with James Omega? She was showing all the signsof an adoring fan already. Sickening. Her misplaced adoration provided Curnow another reason fordespising the man. But the first and foremost reason for his animosity came back to him now, a badmemory resurfacing just when he thought it had been buried for good. Three years ago, Curnow put his heart, soul and eighteen months of blood, sweat and tearsresearch into writing an article to be published in the prestigious Journal of Herpetology. Just beingaccepted for publication by this, the top academic periodical in the field, was an honor. Curnow hadprepared a three-installment series on lizards of Colorado, which he hoped would be well received andsecure his ranking on the top rung of his specialty -- western North American herpetology. Of course,he announced to his CSU colleagues the date the article was coming out, and then waited on pins andneedles, spending two sleepless nights sitting up smoking his pipe prior to the article‟s release. Annie teased him over it. “I swear, Frank,” she said. “I bet a snake has an easier timeshedding its skin than you‟ve had in getting this article published. You look terrible. Go home, curl upunder a nice warm rock and take a nap.” Her flippant remark hurt, but not half as much as what happened later. A copy of the Journal with his article in it finally arrived at his office the following morning.He opened the pages and there it was, in actual print, right before his eyes! A Comparative Study of theNine Species of Phrynosomatidae Habitating in Colorado: Part One: Patterns of Cell Proliferation,Migration, Maturation, and Synaptogenesis. His hands were shaking. It was one of the proudestmoments of his life. He immediately got on the Internet and ordered a full case of the publication, cost 15
charged to the CSU biology department. It would be, of course, a required text for his students topurchase next term. During the course of the day, Curnow proudly showed the article to his colleagues, the mostprominent of which were Dean Hyden, Derkston Long, Janet Marsh, and Annie Groff. The first threeoffered hearty congratulations and praise. Then Annie said, “So, your moment of glory has come atlast, Frank I look forward to reading it as soon as I can grab a minute. I‟m sure it‟s brilliant andcorrect to the smallest detail. But you know me and herpetology, I hope I can stay awake to the end.” He winced and her cheeks reddened. “I‟m sorry, Frank. That was a mean thing to say. God,I‟m such a jerk today. It‟s the moon. The moon made me say it. I‟m so sorry.” His face fell. Seeing this, she repentantly lay a hand on his arm. “I‟m sorry, Frank. That waslow. I‟m just jealous that you‟re published again and I‟m not. Honestly, I‟m sure it‟s wonderful.You‟ve worked your tail off and, now, you‟ll finally get some recognition for your effort. Good foryou. Can I buy you lunch?” But Curnow was stung to the core. He politely refused and returned tohis office in a huff. The next day, he couldn‟t wait to get onto the internet and read the reviews. There were five,all of them brief but positive. Words like „insightful‟ and „well-substantiated data‟ were used. Frankwas beaming. He was pleasant to everyone, even his students, for whom he usually spared no rod. Dr.Curnow was proudly adept at criticism and rarely lost an opportunity to remind his students that nomatter how smart they thought they were, they knew absolutely nothing. It was, therefore, his job tofill their empty heads with something useful; and shouldn‟t they be grateful for the privilege of being inhis accomplished tutorage? If a student showed any lack of humility, such as raising a hand tooconfidently, or providing an answer too readily, or, heaven help him, contradicting or challenging whathis professor taught, Curnow fell on the upstart like a python, squeezing him for further details therewas no way he could know, strangling his initiative, choking his zeal, embarrassing him in front of hispeers until he shrank back in his chair, limp as a dead goat. Students had to know their place — tolisten with rapt attention and take copious notes, as their professor allowed them a sip of his preciouswaters. But, for three months, during which his two other articles followed the first in publication andcirculation, Curnow was as sweet and tolerant of his court of underlings as a King Cobra sitting oneggs. The euphoria lasted until the day that James Omega ruined everything. Curnow was sitting in his office, rereading, for the fourth time, his third article, when DerkstonLong suddenly stuck his head in the door and said, “Say Frank. Here‟s something you might beinterested in. James Omega put out a new book yesterday, on almost the same topic as your Journalarticles. Since it‟s up your alley, I just thought you‟d be interested. The book‟s making a big splashapparently. It must be good. Well, gotta go. Bye.” Curnow sat dumbfounded, staring into space as Long shut the door and the sound of hisfootsteps disappeared down the hall. He felt as if he had just been slugged in the stomach. It couldn‟tbe true. It couldn‟t. Heart racing, he jumped on the Internet and, sure enough, Derk‟s dreaded tale was confirmed.Photos, interviews and critiques flooded the academic community with praise like, „Omega‟s done itagain,‟ „James Omega outdoes even himself,‟ and „another masterpiece from a master scientist.‟ The lowest blow was delivered by the chief editor of the same journal in which Curnow‟sseries had appeared. That review actually compared his own work to Omega‟s, saying, “While wecommend Dr. Frank Curnow on his inexhaustible detail and expert comparative analysis of the lizardsof Colorado, Dr. Omega‟s work makes them come alive on the page. Omega writes about thesecreatures as if he lives with them. After reading The Amazing Snakes and Lizards of the Western High
Country , we of this publication staff are awestruck, being so engagingly reminded of why we allbecame herpetologists to begin with—that these creatures of scales, horns, claws and teeth are uniqueorganisms that continue to fascinate and delight us. Kudos to Dr. James Omega! Our readership willbe happy to know we have already secured rights to a series of interviews over the next four issueswith Omega. Look forward to them. We guarantee, you will not be disappointed.” Frank hit the Close button with fury and the computer monitor went blank. This wasoutrageous! How could this happen? Over the past three months he had received dozens of emailsfrom herpetologists all over the country saying how they admired his breadth of knowledge and askingfor more information. He had reveled in the glory and answered every request in depth. His name wasout there -- on every herpetologist‟s lips. But now, every ounce of thunder Curnow had rightfullyearned from his peers was being stolen by a PBS smart ass whose only redeeming asset as an authorwas that he could tell a good story. It seemed to Frank Curnow that James Omega had personallypurposely targeted him with the sole intent to best him. Omega must have read his articles andrealized, thanks to Curnow, that herpetology was the latest biological hot topic and gotten the idea forhis book. While Curnow knew, in reality, no one, not even James Omega, could write and get a bookpublished in three months, he overlooked that and took the affront personally. To him, this wasnothing less than an insidious attempt to demean a lower-than-dust biology prof at PiddledunkUniversity, while the great James Omega raised himself into the limelight. Curnow was next to tears. Didn‟t the man already have money and popularity and clout inspades? Omega was literally crushing him under his heel, thinking no more of the deed than onewould of stepping on an ant. He prayed none of his CSU colleagues would take notice of Omega‟s book. They lived inworlds of their own and, since none of them were much into reptiles, it was unlikely any of them wouldpick up and buy a copy of it. One thing they must never know was how much this undeserved rivalryhurt him. If the subject should, by chance, come up, he would be quick to downplay it. Annie wouldprobably misinterpret anything Frank said against Omega to defend himself as jealousy. No. Hewould not bring any of it up in conversation, ever! He would bear his pain in quiet dignity. Curnow did not emerge from his office that day until five minutes before he had to teach a late-afternoon class. He glumly gathered his things and forced himself to go, thinking no farther ahead thanto somehow get through the next hour and then go home. When one of his students raised his hand,quoted from Omega‟s new book and asked Curnow what he thought about it, it was the last straw. It took all the self-control he had to keep from screaming. He bit his tongue, schooled his tone,and said evenly, “Beware, people, of humbug science that purports itself as truth, and the man hidingbehind the curtain who creates it. You must always be on the lookout for Piltdown Man. Never letyourself be fooled or mislead. True science is facts, backed up by solid research. Not fairytales byDisney, nor bedtime stories by Thorton W. Burgess. Do not believe everything you read. In the worldof science, one must tread on solid ground or be laughed into oblivion. Yet, even now, up springs aWizard of Oz, and his name is James Omega.” With that, Frank Curnow packed his lesson presentation back into his brief case, closed it, andwalked out of the auditorium without another word. Now, unbelievably, James Omega himself was coming to CSU, asking for a job. It wasludicrous! Why would a PBS superstar give up all his publicity and prestige at the University ofChicago, to come to little Fort Collins, Colorado, boasting no more than 135,000 residents, and ignoblytitled by its student body as “Funtown, U.S.A.?” 17
It didn‟t make sense. Omega already had everything. His PBS series had made him as famousas Carl Sagan, plus he had three or four bestsellers in his hip pocket, not to mention numerous publicappearances on the late night shows, and who knew what else in the wings! Why give all that up?There had to be something in it for him. Unless…, unless the man had been discreetly offered his hatat the University of Chicago after the mongoose fiasco and was simply trying to find a place to lie lowuntil the waters settled. That had to be it! Curnow grinned and at once began to lay out a course of action in his mind.He would not embarrass the dean or the department by attacking Omega directly at this interview as hehad previously thought to do. No, for the time being, he would be insidiously gracious and polite. Hewould acquiesce to Annie and the rest, and would not cast a ballot against bringing the Great Wizardaboard CSU‟s ship. But in his heart, he was steeled: James Omega was a man who needed watchingand Frank Curnow was the one who would do it.
Chapter 2 The spirit groped its way blindly through dark tunnels and up stairways where it sensed bothsides falling away to bottomless depths. Despite these terrors, it pressed on, sometimes erect,sometimes scrambling on all fours; urged ever onward by the call of its master. The labyrinth itfollowed echoed with the same sort of shrieks and angry cursing it had heard in its previousquarters; they rang through the depths, anguished hymns of hell‟s cathedrals. From shadowed grottos, the merciless laughter of tormentors mixed with the cries of thetortured. It made the spirit quail to hear them. All too well it remembered what went on in thoseunholy pits. Mere physical torment was no match for the cruelty inflicted there -- hell‟s firesburned hottest when stoked by grief, regret, jealousy, and wounded pride. The Master‟s fiends weregiven control over the minds of their captives and took delight in forcing them to relive their mosttragic moments of mortality again and again, only to be laughed at and mocked for their pain. Wellthe tormentors knew their victim‟s sorest wounds and picked at them like ravens. There was nomercy. They inflamed the mind, never letting an injury heal, never letting a memory, ripe with thejuices of misery, be forgotten. Anguish was their food and hate, the sweetest honey. Pressingthrough darkness, the spirit cringed, recalling all too keenly the bitter taste of its own sordidrecollections, and hurried on its way. At last, from out of the pervasive blackness, a glow came in the distance, as if radiating froma bed of living coals. The spirit paused, stretching its neck and sniffing the sulphurous air. Amidstthe smoke it caught the smell of fear. It was strong here, very strong. It meant the Master was upthere somewhere, near to that glow. This, then, was where it must go. Gingerly, it moved forward, testing one step at a time just in case its freedom was all a crueljest, just in case the floor were to give way and it were to find itself back in that hellish cage with aring of tormentors bent double in laughter. But surely not, it reassured itself. Its bonds had beenloosed. It had been called for, had it not? This could be no joke. But then, in hell, one never knew.There was nothing to do but go on. The spirit shuffled to the end of the tunnel and found itself standing at the mouth of acavern, hot and red as a kiln. For some time, the spirit could barely look inside the chamber due tothe intense brightness and heat emanating from it. But it was able to gradually lower its arm fromits eyes and squint to take in the sight of the massive room. It was shaped like the inside of animmense, hollow tower. There seemed to be no ceiling. This then, was the very place it had heardof for so long. The throat to the upper world and the throne room of Satan! With a paralyzingsense of dread, the spirit forced itself to enter. The spirit‟s flint-dark eyes examined the details of the resplendent chamber‟s magnificentdecor. Gold-leafed pillars and cornices draped with swags of vivid purple velvets graced walls thatrose upward and upward until disappearing in a ring of shadow. Flickering topiaries of brilliantflame burned in huge stone urns and cast shadows that danced like imps at play against gleamingwalls. Radiant and unbelievably beautiful mosaics of gems studded the floor while statues of nakeddancing fauns and satyrs filled every corner. In the center of the room and, most impressive of all, 19
was a pedestal of carved marble, formed in the likeness of three huge beasts. Upon their muscularbacks rested the great Judgment Seat, where a silent, silver-robed figure reclined on silken cushions. At once the spirit dropped to its knees, completely overcome, then fell prostrate to theground. “Ah, my newly-awakened servant,” a voice came from above. “The Master calls and I obey,” the spirit croaked. “Look at me,” a voice smooth as liquid ore commanded. Ever so slowly the spirit lifted its head. The face it beheld was impassive but exquisitelyhandsome with eyes sharp and penetrating, like black stars. “How long has it been since your judgment, Spirit?” the Great Master asked. The spirit paused, uncertain. “I forget, Lord.” “Some seven hundred years, I believe.” “Yes, Lord.” The Master nodded. “And after all this time, do the fires of hatred still burn in your breasttoward your old enemy, Kokaetalan?” The sound of the name that had haunted it for all the centuries of its torment pierced thespirit‟s ear, burning like poison. “Kokaetalan! My brother,” it hissed with great distaste and spat atthe floor. “I see they do.” The True Lord sounded amused. “Good. I have a task for you, servant and,perhaps, if you are faithful, a way to quench those fires.” The silver-robed figure stood, throwing his mantle over his shoulder and slowly descendedfrom the throne. He walked to where the spirit recoiled in apprehension on the floor and stopped,towering over it. “Rise.” The spirit climbed quickly to its feet and waited breathlessly, shoulders hunched in respect,staring at the floor. “ Come,” said the Great One, stretching out his hand.. I have something to show you.” The spirit stared incredulously, hardly believing the True Lord actually wanted to touch him,but the robed figure gestured again, making it clear he meant to take the spirit‟s hand. Gingerly, thespirit complied and weakly grasped the heavily-ringed fingers of its monarch. There was nosensation of touch at their contact, only an electrified charge of submission to power. Instantly, colors in the room began to fade and swirl. The spirit felt itself rising like acolumn of heat twisting above a furnace, being lifted higher and higher into the air with a dizzying,sickening sensation. It could not hold back a scream. “Hush, fool. I have you,” the molten voice said. “Instead of wailing like a dying goat, youshould be singing praises. You have been plucked from the fires and released from captivity! Wego to open air and freedom! We go to see my miracle!” Overcome, the spirit could not reply. It stared down, mutely watching the floor drop away. Linked as one they rose together, Lord and servant, light-winged as bats, soaring up, up,through the dark womb of the tower. At its top, a gate of iron teeth guarded the opening, but theGreat Lord only laughed and, with a wave of his hand, they passed through jaws and ceiling aseasily as moonlight through glass and were gone. Ω
Dr. James Omega stood outside the impressive cherry wood doors to the conference room,straightening his tie and stroking every whisker of his beard in place. He knew full well the outcomeof the meeting ahead. Of course, he would be offered the position. Nevertheless, he wanted to make agood first impression on the people with whom he would soon be rubbing shoulders. Dean Hyden, standing beside him, assured him for the tenth time how excited everyone was tomeet him and how honored they were to have his application in hand. Omega thanked him, andpolitely encouraged, “I look forward to meeting the committee. Shall we go in?” “Of course, of course!” Hyden beamed and opened the doors. Every person turned to stare as he entered the room with Dean Hyden whispering somethinginto his ear. Several rose from their seats in unison as if yanked up by a magnet. Despite theireagerness, Omega could sense the intense scrutiny being directed at him from this group as eachprofessor‟s eyes met his. Hopefully, he seemed human enough. He was probably a bit leaner than they expected, mostpeople having told him television puts on pounds. Personally, he liked to think of himself as fit, notscrawny. He had taken care to tie back his shoulder-length, white hair at the nape of his neck with ablack satin ribbon. It complemented his gray-streaked beard, which was short and immaculatelytrimmed. He held his chin high, exuding a poise he hoped demonstrated a keen observance of hissurroundings rather than arrogance. He knew himself older than most expected, and was quietlyamused as he saw their faces reacting to it. Just what is his age, they were undoubtedly wondering —sixty? A well preserved seventy? On that point, with his trim build, straight posture and the confidentstride with which he now approached them, he hoped to keep them guessing. With Dean Hyden at his elbow, Omega approached the front end of the table, nodded to theprofessors and waited politely for an introduction. Frank Curnow‟s discreet appraisal could find no fault in Omegas outward visage, but he wasnot one to be taken in by appearances. If anything, Omegas youthful forbearance in old age causedmore questions to form in his mind than were there before. The oddest part, the thing he couldntshake, was that in spite of this man‟s age, whatever that was, Omega was first published only sevenyears ago. Before that, no one seemed to have heard of the man. Despite his current fame, the manremained an enigma even under the tightly-scrutinized lens of academia‟s microscope. Like a termite,he‟d sneaked in out of nowhere and gnawed his way into the woodwork and had everyone believing hecould pull an extinct species out of his hat. But Curnow knew a rabbit was just a rabbit. He wouldmake it his mission to unmask this nefarious intruder. He would be his exterminator. With a forced smile, he turned to greet the university‟s honored guest. “Professor Omega, welcome to Colorado State University,” Dean Hyden began. “May I beginintroductions with Dr. Annie Groff, specialist in avian zoology, and our assistant dean.” He gesturedacross the table. Omega immediately left his place at the Dean‟s side and went straight to the woman‟s chair,sticking out his hand. “Doctor Groff! If I am not mistaken, you and I have already met,” Omega commented with awide smile, shaking her hand enthusiastically. “Three years ago at the Los Angeles Conference onRaptor Migration in the Western Hemisphere, was it not? And as I recall you presented a magnificentpaper on the resurgence of the North American bald eagle. One of my favorite birds, the eagle. Iespecially loved your insights on their bonding with a mate for life.” 21
The woman‟s eyes opened wide as two full moons and her face beamed just as brightly. “Mygoodness, Dr. Omega, you do have an excellent memory for the trivial,” she laughed, lookingsomewhat flustered but pleased. She composed herself and managed a sincere, “Thank you.” The lanky professor at the woman‟s left said with a Texas accent, “Now folks, theres a sightwe‟ve never seen before. Annie Groff turnin to Jello.” Annie reddened with embarrassment. Dean Hyden hurried to continue introductions. “Dr. Derk Long, animal husbandry,” he saidgesturing toward the Texan. The two men exchanged a hearty handshake. Omega received a much colder greeting from the next man at the table, an eel-thin man with ahairline in full retreat, introduced to him as Dr. Frank Curnow, zoology, with a specialty inherpetology. “We‟re all quite proud of Frank around here, “ Hyden said eagerly. “He‟s nationallyrecognized as an authority on snakes and…” “Yes quite, “ Omega interrupted the dean politely. “I know your articles, Dr. Curnow.” “You do?” Curnow said, in genuine surprise. “Yes. I especially like the one on copperheads … in the February issue of Evolutions, as Irecall. And your series in The Journal of Herpetology on the lizards of Colorado. Outstanding.” Curnow was apparently astounded beyond words. “It is an honor to meet one of the top herpetologists in the country, Dr. Curnow,” Omegacontinued with sincere geniality. “I would like nothing better than to discuss some of your findingswith you at length over lunch if such an opportunity presents itself.” Curnow reddened around the collar and nodded at the invitation, while Omega smiledinwardly. An air of resentment and suspicion surrounded the man like scales. He marked theinstinctive impression in his mind for future reference and turned to the final person at the table. A short, gray-haired woman rose to her feet fairly atwitter with nervousness and shook his handas if he were the King of England. “Dr. Juliet Marsh,” she introduced herself with quavering voice. “Microbiology.” “Ah, the world of infinitesimal giants,” Omega said, giving her a most complimentary smile.“An invisible realm that virtually overshadows the visible world.” “Why yes,” she murmured. “Quite true. Few people seem to really appreciate the significanceof my field, I‟m afraid.” Omega beamed at her. “Then they are fools. I for one, Dr. Marsh, applaud you in so worthy apursuit — unraveling the unfathomable complexities of the simplest forms of life. A humblingoccupation, no doubt. It is a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Marsh. A genuine pleasure.” “Oh my,” Juliet gasped, responding to this attention like a flower to the sun. She dropped intoher seat, hand over her heart, misty eyed and breathless. The amenities finally done, James Omega returned to his seat as the other professors adjustedtheir chairs and shuffled a few papers. This was followed by a few nervous coughs, then silence. For what seemed a very long time, no one in the room spoke. Omegas only noticeablemovement was the gradual movement of his eyes as he slowly appraised the individuals about him oneby one. They, in turn, could not help staring back. Dean Hyden leaned forward from his chair, propping his elbows on the table. "Well, then, nowthat weve all been introduced, I, uh, I believe we should proceed. As all of you know, we areconducting this interview in accordance with Dr. Omegas request to be admitted to the Colorado StateUniversity faculty in the College of Natural Sciences. You have had sufficient time to study his vitae
and the text of his request and I am certain you are impatient to begin the interview. I will now turn thetime over to the committee." "Doctor Omega, I would like to go first if I may,” Annie began without hesitation. “You realizeit is very unusual for any university to seriously consider this kind of unsolicited request. We currentlyhave no vacancies in our biology department. Yet, you have come to us asking for a position on ourfaculty. If you were anyone else, we would have refused your application out of hand. You are,however, a person of incomparable reputation and prominence in the scientific community. Werecognize the honor it would be to our school to have you here and feel compelled to seriously consideryour request." Omega acknowledged the compliment with a nod of his head. “Thank you.” He liked thiswoman. She was direct, honest and played the game without guile. Someone it would be wise to haveon his side. "We are very proud of our agricultural and natural sciences departments,” she went on. “But, tobe honest, Dr. Omega, CSU could never hope to pay you the kind of salary you are currently receiving,nor offer you the amount of financial support for research to which you are accustomed. Because ofthis unusual circumstance, we need to ask, I mean, we need to understand...” Here Hyden interrupted, obviously worried Annie was not being very diplomatic. “Excuse me,Annie, but what she is asking, Dr. Omega is, could you please tell us why you would want to leaveyour prestigious position at the University of Chicago to come to ... to, uh, a lesser known school suchas ours?" Omega knew the good dean would as soon have dug his own grave and jumped in it as tooffend him. He was well aware of how valuable a commodity he was, and Hyden had made it clear byeverything he said since they met that he was wanted at CSU. Badly. To the deans great relief, Omega did not mind the question in the least. He merely stared intospace for a moment as if in thought, then responded, "The answer is simple, really, Dean Hyden. First,let me make it clear that I am very impressed with the biological sciences program at CSU and wouldbe proud to be associated with it. But, frankly speaking, the reason for my application is that I need achange of pace." Committee members exchanged glances. Curnow raised an eyebrow. Omegas gaze again moved from one member of the Committee to another as he spoke, thistime meeting their eyes as if personalizing his message for each one. "Some people might envy theposition I am in,” he said, turning purposefully toward Curnow. “To those, I would say, publicityextracts its toll and fame is a heavy task master. As my reputation has grown, the demands on me haveincreased tremendously. Indeed, I have been under a very arduous schedule of teaching, in constantdemand on the lecture circuit, and there is always the pressure to publish.” “We should suffer such hardship,” Omega heard Curnow snort behind his hand to Derk Long. Omega ignored this and went on. “At the University of Chicago, I felt like I was being forcedto constantly parade in the spotlight. My dean was a very good friend, but even he was guilty ofapplying pressure in his own way. Whenever I complained about the rigmarole eating into mypreparation time for classes or into my research, he would say, But it is all for the University, James.His solution was to give me a staff of my own. Trouble is, I found it took up even more time tomanage the staff. Call me a fool; I am the sort that would rather do things myself. You may knowwhat I mean.” “I hear ya,” Derk Long put in. “Too many fingers messin in the pie, you end up with puddin.” “Yes, Dr. Long, exactly,” Omega said, smiling; but his tone grew earnest. "To make a longstory short, at Chicago, there was progressively less time available for me to do what I wanted to do. It 23
was very frustrating. You see, I have set for myself some very significant research objectives and, incase you have not noticed," his eyes twinkled good-humoredly, "I am not getting any younger!" This produced muffled, but polite chuckles around the table. Frank Curnow looked unamused. "To be totally honest,” Omega said, “I am searching for a place where I can get out of thelimelight, unwind a bit and concentrate on my research. I believe…, I hope, CSU is the place. I wouldlike to think of it as my new home.” “We all do!” cooed Juliet Marsh. “The question is,” Frank Curnow said dryly, “if this particular home has a budget capable oftaking on an addition to the family.” “Frank!” Annie looked like she would like to kick him under the table. She composed herself,interlocked her fingers, and faced Omega. “Excuse this rudeness, Dr. Omega. Dr. Curnow‟s feelingsdo not represent the rest of us. I‟m sure, when it comes to the budget, we can surely worksomething…” Omega held up his hand for her to stop. He sat back and crossed his legs. “There is no need toworry, I assure you, Dr. Groff. Please put your minds at ease on that point. I have no intention ofletting money become an issue. A modest salary would be acceptable for I am already financiallysecure. Offer me what you will, I will likely accept it. There are more compelling reasons for mywanting to come here." Annie and Bill Hyden exchanged amazed looks. The committee members released anunconscious, but collective, sigh. There was a noticeable easing of tension in the room, except forCurnow, whose fingers tapped the table. “I must say, we are relieved, but surprised, Dr. Omega,” Bill Hyden said. “But are you sure ourfacilities will be adequate for your needs?” "Certainly. The research I have in mind does not require elaborate technical support," Omegacontinued, politely. "A lot of it is done in the field and merely involves the use of a few graduatestudents and a half dozen laptops to aid in the collection of data. For the rest, CSU has all the datasystems capacity and laboratory facilities I require.” Again, shared looks of approval passed around the table. Omega abruptly dropped the smile. The tone of his voice grew more serious as well. “To beblunt, my friends, I sincerely feel bringing my research here to Colorado State can do your school asmuch good as it will do me. But, now we come to the meat of it. There are, I must mention, someproblems to be solved, some delicate webs needing to be strung, shall we say? There are certainstipulations I must insist upon in my contract." “Aha! Here we go. He wants a star on his dressing room door,” Curnow whispered in JulietMarshs ear. “Shh!” she commanded, finger to her lips and turned away. "First," James Omega continued, choosing not to notice, "I want a light class load. Restassured. I do not want to displace anyone from the department,” -- Juliet Marsh looked quite relieved --“and I need time to work on my projects in relative peace and quiet. This will include, on occasion,short periods of sabbatical leave." "Those types of things can be arranged," Hyden spoke up quickly. "Good. Second, and I consider this item non-negotiable...,” “Name it,” Hyden said. Several committee members leaned slightly forward on their seats. Omega hesitated. “I want the university to provide me with ... protection." A questioning murmur rose and buzzed around the table. Curnows eyes squinted. "Protection, Dr. Omega?" asked the Chair.
"Protection from publicity,” Omega explained, matter of factly. “I do not want the exposure Isuffered in Illinois to continue. In fact, I would prefer no announcement at all of my coming to theUniversity for at least six months." "But Dr. Omega,” Derk Long interjected, among astonished protests from the committee,"what good will it do this institution to have you here if no one knows about it?" "I expect I will be found out, but I would prefer it to be later rather than sooner," Omegaclarified. "Just, please, do not advertise it. As soon as word gets around, you will, no doubt, bebadgered about it to no end. But I must, even then, be let alone. No interviews. No press releases. Ijust cannot, you see.... Time is precious to me. More precious than you know." His voice took on an unexpected urgency. He leaned forward. "Honored committee members,when I said I need protection, I meant it literally. I am on the verge of a truly mind-bogglingdiscovery. If I can have some time to work on it in privacy, without a lot of distractions, it can becompleted soon. But there are an unscrupulous few who chase me like hounds. They would like tosteal my research and defame me. As I told you, fame has its price. In my case, unintentionally, I havemade enemies -- mean-spirited, jealous people, who have made it their goal in life to discredit me.Thus far, they have not succeeded. So you see, it is necessary I have protection from them as well asthe media. Therefore, I would expect you all to be extremely discreet if any questions about mywhereabouts or my work are asked." At this point, everyone around the table was exchanging mystified expressions, includingCurnow, who narrowed his eyes and actually set down his Blackberry. "As to Dr. Longs question of what good I can do your institution ... in return for yourcooperation, I will make you a promise," Omega said, placing a hand firmly on his breast. "If I canfind some reasonable seclusion here and finish my work, when the time comes, I will publish all myfindings in the name of Colorado State University. It will be an astounding revelation, I assure you,and well worth your inconvenience. I guarantee it." He leaned back in his chair. “Well then, those are my conditions. Take me or leave me. Oh,by the way… I must have my answer ... today.” For several moments, excited murmurs and head-to-head conferences began around the table.Chairman Hyden called for attention and order, and Omega volunteered himself to submit to anyfurther questions from the committee that might help them in their decision. Frank Curnow took some time to probe hard at the nature of Dr. Omegas research and thelength of time required to complete it, but Omega deftly avoided responding in specifics to hisquestions, indicating only that his research was in genetics, primarily with vertebrates. A minimum ofone to two years, he estimated, would be required for the results to be published. Juliet Marsh stuttered out how she appreciated Omegas not wishing to displace any of thefaculty. Still, she wanted to know exactly what kind of a class load Omega was expecting. Perhaps heshould go one or more terms without teaching if he liked? Actually, Omega responded, he really enjoyed teaching and was looking forward to gettingback into the classroom. Was not that the true purpose of science, after all, to pass the torch along?He thought he could be settled in and ready to begin a class by fall term. One class -- he specifiedseniors -- and, perhaps later, an additional graduate seminar would be about right. Annie said she was putting together a summer lecture series. Did Dr. Omega think he could bea guest speaker for one evening? Would it be an imposition? Omega smiled and thanked her. He would be delighted, would consider it a pleasure. Justkeep it small -- CSU student body only. No TV crews,” he added with a wink. Omega answered the remainder of their questions patiently until it seemed they had run fullcircle and were beating around the bush at the same issues. At length, he said, “My dear colleagues, I 25
sense there are still some unspoken tensions here you are too polite to address. I know my coming hereis unusual. I know I have proposed some things that may seem a bit unorthodox. What can I say? Isimply ask you to have faith in me. I promise you, I will not let you down.” Frank Curnow cleared his throat. “Just one thing more,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Yourname. James Omega is not your real name, is it?” Omega smiled. “Why do you ask? Is something wrong with it?” Curnow smirked. “No, of course not. It‟s just, a name like Omega … I‟ve never heard itbefore, except maybe in science fiction novels.” Omega‟s smile tightened. “I assure you, Dr. Curnow. There is nothing fictional about me. Iam as real as they come. And so is my name.” Bill Hyden coughed loudly and stood. "Ah yes, well then, well then ..., I believe we havesufficiently run Dr. Omega through the gantlet this afternoon. We thank you all, doctors, for coming,and thank you Dr. Omega. You have given us much to think about. Now, if the Committee is ready to terminate this interview, we will excuse Dr. Omega to thewaiting room while we attempt to arrive at a decision." The committee members nodded heads to one another in the affirmative. Hyden indicated thedoor with a gesture of his hand. "Again, thank you very much for coming, Dr. Omega. If you willshow yourself to the door, Ms. Walker, my secretary, is waiting for you outside. I will rejoin youshortly in the foyer with our answer." “Of course,” Omega said and, quietly rising from his chair, strode for the door. But he stoppedjust short of it and turned. “By the way, Dean Hyden,” he said, motioning with his eyes toward theaquarium on the other side of the room, “your poor fish are about to poach.” “What?” the Chairman muttered. “The temperature of the water is too hot.” Hyden walked over to the aquarium and squinted at the tiny thermostat. “Why, youreabsolutely right. Its a full five degrees above what it should be! But, how could you know? Youcouldnt have read the thermostat from across the room.” “I know,” Omega replied with a grin, pulling the door closed behind him as he finished over hisshoulder, “because the fish told me.” The heavy brass lock clicked shut and the room stood in silence for a very long moment. “Howd he do that?” Derk Long broke the silence, shaking his head in amazement. “Isnt it bad enough the man thinks hes god without having to demonstrate a psychicconnection with fish?” Frank Curnow snapped. “Hes a biologist,” Annie commented stiffly. “A very observant one, obviously. He saw howthe fish were behaving, thats all.” But, having said this, she pursed her lips and looked strangely at thedoor through which a very amazing man had just exited. Heads slowly nodded agreement, while an unsettling question mark seemed to float almosttangibly above the faces around the table. Omega certainly had charisma and most of them liked him -- liked him a lot. Still, there was something more to this business than he had been willing to divulge. The Chairman stood, tapping his pen on the tabletop for attention. "Okay, folks. Lets tacklethe subject at hand. In spite of the unusual circumstances, sound judgment tells me we should notquestion our good fortune. James Omega could do great things for our university. A mind like that --here! Hes as much as begging us to take him, asking so little and offering so much in return. I dontneed to remind you President Hewitt has taken the effort to call me personally on this matter.
Therefore, as Chair of this committee, I move we accept James Omegas application along with theconditions he requests. All in favor?" Curnow was silent as the others responded in an eager affirmative and he knew when he waslicked. If he voted no, he would never hear the end of it, from Hyden, from President Hewitt andespecially from the beautiful, hard-nosed Annie Groff. Begrudgingly, his hand joined theirs. "Wonderful! Then the votings unanimous,” Hyden said, delightedly rubbing his hands. “Wewill therefore offer Dr. Omega a full professorship in both departments -- natural and agriculturalsciences, contingent upon the negotiation of a satisfactory salary, benefit and tenure arrangement.Meeting adjourned.” Ω 27
Chapter 3 Anna Dawn Hamlyn prepared to enter her new Fort Collins apartment, balancing a full-loaded laundry basket of immaculately folded clothes topped with some twenty plastic hangers, plusan open box of sheet music sitting atop that. Biting her lip in concentration, she leaned against thedoorjamb and dug into her sling purse with one free hand to retrieve the key she had just been givenby the landlord. As she reached for the doorknob, her wire-rimmed glasses tilted sideways and amischievous lock of red hair fell forward on her face. She blew it away with an impatient “poof,”slipped the key in the lock, pushed open the door with her hip, and battled her way through thedoorway. Just after she stepped over the threshold, the heel of her shoe caught on a braided rug shedidnt expect and couldnt see, making the entire precarious cargo fall forward. For a moment AnnaDawn successfully counterbalanced, overcorrected, then gravity took over. With a shriek, she wentdown amidst a cascade of garments, a thunderstorm of hangers and an Avelanche of sheet music. She lay for a moment with her eyes tightly closed, afraid to open them. Other than oneelbow shooting sparks hot enough to make her eyes well with tears, she didnt think she was hurt. “Anna Dawn,” she moaned aloud, “you are such a klutz. Amazing. You managed to do thison your first load. Imagine what wondrous feats you can achieve with the next twenty loadswaiting for you down in the car!” She readjusted her glasses on her nose, then, groaning with the effort, pulled herself to herfeet to begin bringing order to chaos. “You know, youre actually very good at putting things in order, Anna Dawn,” she toldherself, cheerfully. “Unfortunately, youre even better at orchestrating disaster. Youre a paradox,that‟s what you are -- a Franklin Planner with a confetti aptitude. Lord help you.” Despite the unfortunate introduction to her new home, within two hours Anna Dawn hadunpacked her little, overwhelmed Honda Accord, lugging up the stairs to the third-floor apartmentseven cardboard boxes, four suitcases, five houseplants and a very large musical instrument case.Within another thirty minutes she unpacked her clothes, arranged them in the closet according tocolor, put away the dishes, and placed the plants around the apartment according to their individualrequirements for sunlight. “Yikes,” she exclaimed, glancing at her watch. “It‟s two-thirty already! Im due at theStudent Employment Office in an hour. Forget everything else, Anna Dawn. Hurry, get in theshower! Oh no. Which box has the shampoo?” An hour later, Anna Dawn was sitting at the Colorado State University Student EmploymentCenter, dressed, pressed and confident, filling out a job application. The personnel advisor sittingacross from the neat, confident-appearing, redheaded girl watched her, never guessing thedisheveled appearance of this same person sixty minutes earlier. Everything about the applicant‟sgrooming and person bespoke an immaculate attention to detail.
The advisor took the finished application from Anna Dawn‟s hands and scanned it quickly,turning it from front to back. “Youre from Texas, Ms. Hamlyn?” she asked politely. “Yes, Carpenter, a small town just outside of San Antonio. Anna Dawn gave a nervouslaugh. “Remember the Alamo!” “Yes. Indeed. Well, judging by your resume and appearance, you give a very fine firstimpression,” the advisor said, smiling at her encouragingly. “Thank you,” Anna Dawn blushed. “Where are you staying, if I may ask?” “I found a apartment not far from campus.” “And some nice roommates, I hope?” “No roommates. Just me and Bowlinda.” “Bowlinda?” the advisor questioned. Anna Dawn laughed. “My cello. We‟re best friends.” The advisor nodded. “I see. It says here you type 95 words a minute?” “Thats right,” Anna Dawn said. “And what would you consider your other strengths?” “Well, Im a whiz with a computer. As you can see, I‟ve had secretarial experience. Imvery organized and neat -- you could eat off my desktop -- and I enjoy meeting people.” “Excellent. And your weaknesses?” Anna Dawn hesitated. “Well, Ive been told by my roommates I tread a bit too closely to theneatnik edge of sanity.” The personnel advisor smiled. “By the way,” Anna Dawn added, “Im looking for just a part time position so I can attendschool.” “Of course. Most of our employees here are part time for the same reason. What are youstudying, Ms. Hamlyn? “Botany, with a music minor. Im actually coming here on a music scholarship.” “Well, thats lovely. Now, as to an opening ... as luck would have it, your timing isimpeccable. I received a request from the College of Natural Sciences a few days ago for a parttime secretary. After reviewing the resumes already on file, I was left wanting. And, then, youwalked through the door. You have the manner and personality of a good receptionist and the skillsof a good secretary. Besides that, you are studying botany, which means you will fit right into thebiological science department. All in all, Ms. Hamlyn, you not only seem the best qualified, but Ijust have a strong feeling you and this job were made for each other. Will you be available to starton Monday?” Anna Dawn gulped to catch her breath. Life didnt usually hand you a job on a silver platterat the first try. This was a welcome stroke of luck. She paused, reflecting within a split-second, how everything seemed to have fallen in placefor her since deciding to come to Colorado State University. It was like one of those fate things …meant to be. Then again, Anna Dawn, checked herself -- she did not believe in fate -- luck maybe --but not fate. No predetermined path for her feet! No battling against the gods. Free will and choicewere two essential elements of her being. Nevertheless, she was not opposed to taking advantage ofa lucky break and this job sounded perfect. “Oh yes, mam,” she said enthusiastically. “I can start tomorrow, if you want me.” “No. Monday will be fine,” the advisor said. “That will give you four days to settle in, getunpacked and get acquainted with the city. I hope you will like Fort Collins.” 29
“It‟s bigger than I expected,” Anna Dawn said. “But I like it. I feel at home here already.With the plains and hills and all, its not so awfully different from Texas, really.” The advisor folded her hands on her desk and looked kindly at Anna Dawn. “Well then, wewill expect you to begin work Monday morning, eight oclock sharp. You will work in the Sciencedepartment. Here is a card with Dean Hydens secretarys name and extension. Report to her in theHughes Building, fourth floor. I will call her and tell her to be ready to go over the job descriptionwith you and take you to your office where you may begin getting things organized. Since summerclasses begin in three weeks, I imagine your professor will want you to get right to work.” “Thats great, but who, may I ask, will I be working for?” The advisor hesitated. “I was just about to tell you that. Actually, it‟s someone very special.Hes new to our faculty this year and a bit of a celebrity, they tell me. His name is Dr. JamesOmega.” Anna Dawns purse fell off her lap. She leaned over, picking it up with shaking hands. “Notthe Dr. James Omega, the James Omega on PBS?” “The same.” “My gosh. Hes a professor here? Youre kidding.” “No, Im not.” Anna Dawn pushed up her glasses. “Wow. I mean, wow! I cant believe it. This isunreal!” “No, Ms. Hamlyn,” the advisor said with a smile. She stood to bend over the table and offera parting handshake, “this is one hundred percent real, believe me. And now I must mention, thereare some very specific instructions I need to give you. Dr. Omega‟s presence on the campus is, forthe time being, to remain a secret from the world outside the campus. Dean Hyden said Dr.Omega‟s been terribly harassed by people at his previous post—I suppose that‟s the price you payfor fame—anyway, the Doctor insists on his privacy. Thus, part of your job will be to ward offoutsiders, and that goes especially for anyone from the media. Screen all his calls carefully. If theyare not directly related to his work here at CSU, do NOT connect any such callers with Omegadirectly. Do what you must, but DO NOT do or say anything that might reveal the nature of hisresearch or even the fact that he is a member of the faculty here. If anyone outside the universitycalls for him, say, “One moment, please,” then transfer them to Dean Hyden‟s secretary withoutfurther explanation or comment. Do you understand? “Sure. No problem,” Anna Dawn responded, taking on a wide-eyed expression. “Soundsvery intriguing.” “It is not your job to be intrigued, Ms. Hamlyn,” the advisor said flatly. “You are to do whatDr. Omega asks you to do and protect his privacy as the situation arises. Do you think you canhandle that?” Yes.” Anna Dawn nodded confidently. “Certainly. I can handle that.” “Very well. That is all,” the advisor concluded, placing Anna Dawn‟s application to the sideof her desk. Then, as an afterthought she looked up at Anna Dawn and added, “For your sake, Ihope hes a nice boss and not, as some celebrities are, a conceited schmerk. Good luck, Ms.Hamlyn.” Anna Dawn smiled slightly, rose from the chair, thanked the secretary, then turned andwalked somewhat dazedly out the door and down the hall. “Schmerk?” she questioned, as she tapped the elevator button. “I don‟t think so. Dr.Omega seems so nice on TV. I can‟t imagine he‟s a schmerk.” She stepped inside when theelevator opened. As there was no one but herself in the car, she continued to talk to herself aloudduring the ride down to the lobby.
“Well, hey, Aunt Carol, can you believe this?” she beamed to an unseen party. “I‟m reallyhere, at CSU and I‟m going to be James Omegas secretary! The real James Omega! And I‟msupposed to protect him. What do you think that‟s all about? The way I see it, this is either goingto be one extremely interesting job, or the total pits. But at least I‟ve got a job. One less thing toworry about. But there‟s still a hundred things to do! Keep an eye on me, will ya? I love you.” That night, a breath of cool wind from the west came up, found the open window in AnnaDawn‟s new kitchen and ruffled the freshly-ironed curtains hanging there. Anna Dawn turned fromwhere she sat at the kitchen table and looked at them. It was as if something was out there,something new and tantalizing, calling to her. She got up, stepped to the window and looked out.Her apartment stood on a little rise and the third floor window allowed her a partial view of the far-spread lights of Fort Collins. In the pale moonlight she could see the outline of low mountains inone direction, rolling plains in the other. From the window, Anna turned and looked across the kitchen into the living room, whereBowlinda the cello was propped in a nearby corner. “How about Pizza, tonight?” she asked her silent, stringed friend. She pulled a Fort Collins phone book off the top of the fridge and began to thumb throughthe yellow pages. Her finger stopped on the first Pizza Hut she came to. Then her heart caught inher throat. Under her finger was a line of print revealing the Pizza Hut‟s address. “This is too much!” she cried, a little spooked. She turned to her cello. “Bowlinda, you areNOT going to believe this! 1509 Omega Place Plaza! Wow. It‟s like a sign. Everything that‟smeant to be makes a circle, you know. If it‟s right, all the loose ends fit together in the end. I feelgood now. In place. I‟m where I‟m supposed to be.” Shaking her head still somewhat amazed, she made the call, ordering a medium, deep-panmushroom-pepperoni and a root beer, delivery. She put down the receiver and again returned to stand at the window, her thoughts turningover again and again how she had come to be here, all the way to Colorado, to this particularuniversity. Who would have thought her Aunt Carol‟s recent death would bring with it a change inthe direction of her life? Who would have thought her old-maid aunt‟s executor would appear fromout of nowhere and present Anna Dawn at the gravesite with proceeds from an insurance policy thatshe didn‟t even know existed. $40,000 wasn‟t a fortune, but enough to get her out of the smalluniversity where she was piece-mealing together an Associate degree and into a quality universityfor her Bachelors. No, not a fortune, but enough to give her a chance. Enough to maybe make afew dreams come true. Still, who would have ever thought she, a Texan, born and bred, would end up here, in theRockies of Colorado? With her inheritance, she could have chosen to go to college anywhere in herhome state. But Anna Dawn wanted a fresh start. It was time for something different. For several weeks over the past months, she had explored the websites of many differentcolleges, being especially interested to find one where botany and music, her two great loves, couldmatriculate hand in hand with best advantage to both. She selected seven or eight possibilities andsubmitted requests for more detailed information. The packets soon arrived. Three things about Colorado State University in Fort Collins,Colorado, immediately caught her eye. One was that a top cellist, retired from the New YorkSymphony Orchestra, was on the music faculty. The second was that the botany and agriculturaldepartments were ranked among the best in the country. But the clincher was the front cover ofCSU‟s packet. It showed, simply, a shot of the Hughes Science Building framed by a hedge of blue 31
French lilacs, her aunt‟s favorite flower. Anna Dawn fairly gawked when she saw it. The lilacswere like Aunt Carol‟s personal stamp of approval. The cellist, the botany program and the lilacs,all put together, fairly shouted at her that Colorado State University was where she was supposed tobe for the next two years. Anna Dawn Hamlyn was not one easily swayed nor one to make up her mind quickly. Shecontinued to go over all the other possible choices for several weeks, but the initial feeling aboutCSU did not subside. In fact, it grew stronger. At last, Anna Dawn concluded there must be areason she felt so good about this choice and gave in. She applied, was accepted and even given ascholarship. The next thing she knew, she was packed and on her way to Colorado. Now, here she was, settled in with a nice apartment, her studies all paid for and a secretarialjob to boot. Who could ask for more? Why then, did Anna Dawn harbor mixed feelings as shegazed out the window at the lights of Fort Collins? Excitement was there, surely, mostly for herforthcoming courses of study. Wouldn‟t it be grand to study cello under a master? And she couldhardly wait to delve into the classes on botany! Perhaps, then, it was the new job with JamesOmega that had her on edge. She didn‟t know why, but there was something disquieting about it;something that set off an uneasy, tingly feeling in the pit of her stomach. “I‟ll be the best secretary he ever had,” she promised herself aloud, convincing herself shehad nothing to fear. “After one week, James Omega won‟t know what he ever did without me!” Except for the rustling curtains lifted by the wind, nothing replied to her comment. Theapartment was quiet as a grave and the pizza was taking forever. Anna Dawn reached for her cello and pulled a kitchen chair to the small wooden deck setoutside a pair of sliding glass doors in the living room. The wind at the window now sought herhair and teased it against her face. Anna Dawn paid it no mind. She settled on the chair and set the instrument in its familiarposition between her knees. Gently, lovingly, she wrapped her arms around its body and caressed itwith the bow. The cello sang back to her with a low alto voice, responding to every nuance of herfingers. She closed her eyes and let it sing. A new home. A new beginning. She was where she should be. The grief and loneliness oflosing Aunt Carol and leaving behind all she had ever known would surely pass with time. Shewould not allow herself to feel alone any more! She would be happy here! Happiness, after all,was a decision. This was the beginning of a new life, and she would make sure it was everythingshe wanted! Apart from a little, nagging tingle that erupted whenever she thought about her newboss, everything seemed peaceful and right. Anna Dawn bowed and swayed, her fingers dancing. Her music rose and fell with the nightwind at the curtains and floated upward to the stars. Ω Dr. James Omega requested only a modest office. He said he did not want to make wavesby pushing anyone out of the offices they were used to and he wished to minimize in any waydrawing attention to his arrival at CSU. However, he did insist on an efficient, part-time, secretaryand at least one window. “I am used to being out of doors,” he said with a shrug to the woman in the administrationoffice who arranged such things. “Walls make me nervous. I once went a very long time coopedup inside a place with no sunlight getting in at all and, ever since, I..., well, I must have a window.”
“Thats no problem, Dr. Omega,” she said with the words from President Hewitt, Give himwhatever he asks for! still ringing in her ears from a phone call that morning. “We have a very niceoffice, with a window overlooking the quad, just waiting for your name on the door.” Omegas first day on the Colorado State campus as an official member of the faculty wasone of the last few days of spring term. Carrying only a briefcase, he headed hesitantly along one ofthe walks that dissected the greens. He found himself caught in an onslaught of students scurryingout of the surrounding buildings in a frantic pace to get to the next class. Omega paused, letting theflood pass as his eyes surveyed the unfamiliar domain. A few students looked at him with a hint ofrecognition, but either they did not believe their eyes or they were too shy to stop and say anything. Let me see. I am ... here, he thought to himself, pointing to a campus map giving directionson a marquee by the sidewalk. I know I am here because it says, You are here, so indeed, I mustbe. And in this case, “here” is the building in front of which I am standing..., the Lowry StudentCenter, if one may believe what one reads in this brochure. And my destination is ... yes, there itis! One green down -- the Hughes Center for Biological Sciences! Hurray! Well, off you go, then,old fool. Pick up your feet and hurry along! Omega drew in a breath of anticipation and began a brisk pace toward it, thinking how muchhe loved biology buildings. He loved the laboratories smelling of chemicals, the foyers displayingprehistoric skeletons, the inevitable menagerie of stuffed animal life and, most of all, the lecturehalls filled with students. He felt comfortable in biology buildings, and stimulated, and alive. Hehad been in many and, just like people, each one seemed to have its own personality. Thisparticular building was cream-colored brick, five stories high with white-framed windows. Itlooked like it meant business. He had been given a brochure with a floor plan of the place. Laboratories and classroomscomposed the basement and first four floors, but the fifth floor, looking down on the rest as ifsymbolic of the god-like authority that went with it, housed the offices of the natural sciencesfaculty and administrators. He looked up at the edifice with reverence. James, old boy, welcome to your new home. Hepaused, taking in the moment, squinting into the bright sun, then squared his shoulders to the taskand hurried up the front steps with long, eager strides. He reached out to open the double glass doors just when the campus bells commenced adeep-throated chiming. Pausing to listen, he counted twelve long strokes in all. At the last bong, afew stragglers, now late for their noon classes, buzzed past him like hornets, jostling through thedoors and disappearing up the split-entrance marble staircase inside. Ah, my young dream-chasers, Omega thought wistfully. Better hurry or your dreams willleave without you! For a moment longer, he looked after them. I wonder, he reflected with a sigh,where is the dreamer I seek? He entered the building and, giving the elevator only a passing glance, climbed the marblestairs at a brisk pace. There were four sets of stairs, each with twenty-four steps (he counted, takingthem two at a time on his way up), but it was actually a short climb for him. He arrived at the top ofthe fifth floor landing with a spring in his step and even breath, a feat many of the studentsthemselves could not have managed. He found himself looking down a hall on his right, which he followed to its very end until hecame to a halt before a heavy, dark-stained wooden door. "515...," he read the stenciled numbers on the door aloud. Moving his eyes to a 3 X 5 cardtaped below the number, he noted a sign, written neatly with black marker: Dr. James Omega 33
Biology "This must be it," he said, and opened the door. The space that greeted him was divided into two offices, the front being the larger of thetwo. This rooms walls were lined with shelves -- all filled with boxes and stacks of books. A rowof gray filing cabinets took up one entire wall. Central in the room was the secretarys receptiondesk, upon which sat a running computer, a meticulously organized stack of papers and, Omeganoticed, a small bouquet of fresh lilacs sitting in a glass of water. The secretary, herself, however,was not to be seen. “Judging from her desk, I believe I got a good one,” he mused aloud. “Lady Joy wouldapprove of her on the basis of the lilacs alone.” In the back corner was a second office, separated from the front area by a door, which wasopen. From what he could see, it was nicer than the outer room and likely meant to be his own. Hecaught a glimpse of somebody moving about, so he called out, "Hello? Anybody here?" In response, a young woman bustled out and, seeing him, gave a little gasp and took up ahasty position behind the reception desk. "Dr. Omega…, sir! “ she said, struggling to soundbusiness-like and hide her excitement. “Im Anna Dawn Hamlyn, your secretary." Omega discreetly looked her over and liked what he saw. She was a petite young woman,with long hair the color of burnished copper plaited into a braid behind her slender neck. Shecocked her head at him as she awaited his reply, her blue eyes bright behind a pair of square, wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Perky, intelligent, orderly, and a redhead -- what more could I ask for? "How nice to meetyou," Omega said, extending a hand. "There is no need to sir me. You will find I am not much onformalities. I gather I am where I am supposed to be?" “You certainly are. Did you have trouble finding it?” “Not too much.” “Im new here myself. Dont ask me where anywhere else is or I might get you lost!” “You are new at CSU, then... a freshman?” “No, I‟m a junior. I just transferred here with an associate degree from out of state. Well,anyway ... welcome!” Omega received a most enthusiastic handshake from across the desk. "Ive been trying to getthings ready for you,” she went on. “I wanted everything to be perfect. I was just now dusting youroffice and cleaning off your shelves. I hope youll be satisfied with my work, sir ... I mean … whatwould you like me to call you?” “James?” “Thats a bit of a stretch for me.” Anna Dawn said, shaking her head. “After all, you arefamous, as well as my boss.” “Dr. Omega will do then, until you feel more comfortable around me.” He grinned. “Trustme. The famous part will wear off right away.” She seemed to relax a little. “Well, Dr. Omega, this....” she turned and gestured to the backroom, "this is your office, in here." He followed her inside. "Very nice,” he said. “Quite cozy." Omega entered the small spaceand looked around. “Im sorry its so small. Im to tell you a larger office is being painted and will be availablefor you within a week or two. Your name will be stenciled on the door in gold....”
"No, no. This is fine, really. I like it,” Omega said, walking to the back of the desk. Hesettled into the brown leather swivel chair. “Very compact. And exceptionally neat, thanks to you.You have done a great job in getting it ready for me, Miss Hamlyn.” His secretary cleared her throat. “Actually, I prefer Ms. Hamlyn to Miss Hamlyn. But Imnot much on formalities either. Why dont you just call me Anna Dawn?” She‟s not afraid to clarify what she wants, a useful trait in a secretary, Omega thoughtapprovingly. “Certainly, Anna Dawn. I am sure we will get along just fine.” “Well, then," the young woman said, backing toward the door, "Ill be at my desk if youneed anything." He watched her leave, shutting the door behind her. In a few moments, sounds of a vigoroustyping commenced. Anna Dawn. Lovely girl. No doubt we will soon be friends. Omega put his briefcase on the floor, leaned back in the chair, hands behind his back, andslowly appraised his new quarters. Spartanly furnished with only a desk, swivel chair, one floor toceiling bookcase and two guest chairs, the office had little to offer except for the required window.But that was all right. It was a welcome relief from the flashy, over-dressed suite he gratefully leftbehind in Chicago. All he really wanted, what he hungered for, was privacy; some time and spaceto concentrate on the great task before him, the purpose that compelled him to come to ColoradoState University. Yes, he liked his new office very much. It was perfect. Unconsciously, he began humminga little of the tune, "Be it ever so humble...,” a contented smile spreading on his face. He thought back to the interview with the Selection Committee. His fore-knowledge of thecommittee‟s decision was based on much experience and insight into the minds of professionaleducators. In the winding labyrinth of his many paths, he had changed jobs frequently and beeninterviewed by people much like these. He liked Derk Long and Juliet Marsh, and Annie Groff wasa special pleasure. Frank Curnow, however, would be one to keep his eyes on. It wasnt difficult tosee shrewdness in the man, nor sense his distrust. Omega learned from experience to tread lightlyaround such people. Snakes like this had bitten him before. For the past seven years, the world had beaten a path to James Omegas door and theUniversity of Chicago wanted the world to go away impressed. But here, he hoped, it would bedifferent. He had his fill of show and trivialities. Here, in this little Colorado town, in this office, inthis simple space, was more than enough room for his needs. Besides, he had his window, which, tohis delight, was round, much like a porthole. Omega rose and went to the circular window to look out. It provided a perfect, lens-eyeview of the busy ramblings of students below. Better still, above the campus rooftops stretched abig, bright sky, uncluttered with smog and skyscrapers and, in the distance off to the west was a lineof low mountains. Yes, it would do. It would do nicely. He wasnt planning to spend much time in his office, anyway. He would be out in nature asalways and, when he was on campus, most of his attention would be centered on his students -- one,in particular, although he did not yet know who that one was. The old biologist rose and, leaning his elbows on the windowsill, looked down upon thecampus. Students filed along both sides of the sidewalks, moving in opposite directions. Like antson a scent trail, Omega mused. He touched the window glass with his finger, as if tracing theirmovements. But it is I who must find and follow the trail now -- I who am the seeker. And I mustfind him quickly! All my labors depend on it. Ω 35
Chapter 4 From the torrid darkness of Hell into the cool darkness of a clear Earthen night, the spiritcreature so recently dispossessed from its seven hundred year prison held desperately to the hand ofits powerful Master. They flew beneath a curtain of stars over desert and mountain, through cloudspearly in moonlight and above a black ocean with foamy crests rising and falling below, all in themidst of a heartbeat, all in the space of a thought. In this flight, sense of direction and true passageof time was confused, but the spirit sensed they had covered a vast distance and perhaps, passed intoanother age. Looking down, it could see strange buildings, higher than could be imagined, seeming tochallenge the sky itself. Palatial structures were crowded shoulder to shoulder and lit withthousands of square eyes, while around their feet scurried small hard-shelled beasts, also withlighted eyes and bright red, blinking tails. The beasts were charging madly along a grid ofpathways in seeming chaos and the shade could make no sense of it. Their bleating sounds grewlouder as the spirit and its Master came nearer the ground. It was dizzying. Fascinating, but toomuch to take in. The spirit squinted in confusion and tried to hold its free hand over its ear to blockout their insistent braying. Gratefully, within a short time, the Great One brought them to rest on solid ground at last.The spirit wavered shakily a moment or two, testing the feel of the hard gray surface beneath itsfeet, trying to find its bearings. Gawking around, it saw that they were in a dark walkway betweentwo enormous domed buildings, the perfection of which could not be fathomed. Hard as stone cliffsand taller than trees, they must be the home of gods. “San Francisco, California, to answer your question,” the Master answered coolly, releasinghis handhold on his servant. “To be more precise, we are between two import warehouses by thedocks.” The Lord‟s lips twisted at the corners. “Impressed?” The spirit nodded, though it did not understand a word. Warehouses? Docks? San Fran …something. “Please, Master, why have we come here?” “I have something for you,” the Master spoke. “A great gift. A miracle. Look, over there,against the wall. Tell me what you see.” The Great One pointed to an indistinguishable heap on theground a short distance away. The spirit gave its master a questioning glance then crept forward, crab-like, squinting intothe shadows. On the ground, a male human body lay face-up. Its eyes were open, staring. It didnot move. “Too late to help, I fear, Lord,” the spirit said regretfully. “I think this one is dead.” The One True Lord laughed, but without mirth. “You amuse me, Spirit. This is it, my gift,my great miracle. This is your body now. I give it to you.” The spirit stared in disbelief. This limp body of cold but otherwise flawless flesh … was tobe his? In eagerness, the spirit cowed over the prize like a vulture over a carcass. 37
Upon examination, the spirit noted the body was, except for being dead, quite splendid. Inspite of the strange, restrictive clothing, one could tell the muscular build was lean, the skin ofhandsome, tanned complexion and the hair, black, thick and glossy. The face itself, thoughmacabre with its staring eyes, was still quite comely with sensual lips and an arrogant jaw. It wasobvious this man, whoever he was, had cut an imposing figure in life. “It is truly mine, Lord?” the spirit asked, kneeling down and running trembling fingers thelength of the well-formed torso, touching the strange garments, pawing the clay-cold hands. “Youare giving this body to me?” “Yes,” the molten voice answered. “The mortal who last inhabited it was one of myservants. He obviously doesnt need it anymore. It is therefore free to be used and use it you will,presently.” The Great One cocked his head, admiring the body approvingly from a distance. “It is beautiful, isnt it? That‟s important, you know. Beauty is an essential element in thisworld. Always has been. People love it. They defer to it. Fools that they are, they even trust it.Knowing that, I have taken great pains to assure the gift I give you will present every advantage. Inyour new capacity, you shall have wealth, status and respect, and you shall be beautiful.” “I do not know how to thank my Lord,” the spirit replied with appropriate appreciation.“But what do you wish me…?” “And you shall be powerful,” the True Lord went on, ignoring the question. “There are afew tricks I can teach you on that regard, oh yes. You will be briefed on them when I feel you areready.” “As you say, Lord. But what…?” “This body is my miracle,” the Great One continued, still disregarding the spirit‟scontribution to the conversation, “my great work. I have remade it for you. Oh, the artistry of it! Ihave taken sand and created porcelain!” The spirit nodded mutely. “I shall pour you into this body, Spirit, as lead into a mold,” the Master said, slowly circlingthe lifeless, staring form on the ground. “You shall be reborn, remade in the likeness I haveprepared for you. You shall walk again as flesh. You shall breathe. You shall speak. You shalleven make love. Is it not marvelous? Is it not the most wonderful thing you have ever seen?” “Certainly, Lord,” the spirit agreed eagerly. “I only wonder…” The True Lord suddenly frowned, looking put off. He stroked his chin.“Unfortunately, my creation is not without certain shortcomings.” “No, no,” the spirit interjected. “It is perfect!” But the Master‟s dissatisfaction settled upon him even more deeply and he shook his head.“Oh, I have assuredly improved the thing since it was vacated. It can now readily repair itself aftermost injuries, making it next to immortal. But the restoration process required certain …adaptations, shall we say, which have diminished some of its temporal functions. Its senses are a bit... dulled, I‟m afraid. The essence of taste, touch, pain, pleasure and so forth are there, but withoutthe intensity you may remember from your mortality.” He clicked his tongue. “Im truly sorryabout that. It could not be helped. But no mind. Other than that, the body will function fully wellas any other mortal body would. There may even be some residual memories, which could behelpful.” “It is more than I deserve, Lord,” the spirit cried, overcome. “More than I could ever hopefor. If you will allow me to venture, I suppose you have some marvelous reason in mind, somemission for giving me this body?”
The Great One turned to face his servant, touching a long-nailed finger to His lips, thecorners of which pulled into a facsimile of a pleasant smile. “Why, Spirit. Do you think I offer you this gift selfishly, for my own gratification? I giveit to you to bring you joy. It is my wish that all men might have joy, that all might find peace, as allmay through faith and obedience to me.” “Of course, Lord. I only meant…” “Hush, and listen! You are in part correct. There is a task for you to perform to merit thisgreat honor.” The spirit bowed low. “Anything, master! My soul is yours to command.” The Master folded his arms and looked down his nose at the subservient gesture. “Ofcourse it is. And in case you should be inclined to forget it, you are about to experience a briefreminder. Lest pride of your newly exalted station dim your memory, let this be a lesson of thepower of your Master and a reminder of where your loyalty lies.” The tone of the Great Lord‟s voice sent a foreboding chill down the spirit‟s back. It lookedup apprehensively. “I will enter you now,” the Great Lord said, “to touch you with my power and enlightenyour mind. Give me permission.” “Permission, Lord? How am I to give permission to you?” The Master‟s dark eyes flashed. “Give me permission, dolt, before I smite you to ash!” The spirit fell to its knees, trembling. “Granted, of course, of course. Anything you ask…” “Thank you.” A searing pain suddenly stabbed into the spirits mind with an agony of heat and stiflingpower. It could not be endured! The spirit collapsed, writhing on the ground. Its breath came inpainful gasps. Its brain felt as if it were melting, like copper at the forge and into this chaos came aroaring wind through a honeycombed grotto. “What you are experiencing, Servant,” the voice which was the wind said, “is called theBinding. This discomfort you feel now is caused by my spirit occupying the same space as yours,my mind speaking directly to yours, my essence controlling your will. You are very honored, spirit,to be touched so intimately by the Master Himself.” The spirit twisted in agony, holding its head, helpless to resist or think a thought of its own.The voice came again. “You are to have this same power when you are ready, and a mightyweapon it is. Even so, Binding is only one of the things I will teach you.” The force that controlled the spirit was domination beyond its wildest dreams. Even throughits pain the words of the master sank in. It, too, was to have this power! Suddenly, a hunger towield it almost overcame the terror, and the feeling burned in its bowels like a hot ember. How itwanted to be able to do this! Someday, it promised itself, it would. “I feel your desire, Servant, ripe and hot as a sire with a whore. Sweet, is it not? Suchthirst for power is good. It motivates us to perform our duty; knowing when all is done, we willobtain our reward. But you must know there are rules concerning these powers and you must learnthem well. Foremost in the Binding is this; you cannot go where you are not invited. Obtainpermission any way you like, but there must be, however obtained, permission granted. Rememberthat! It is important!” “I will remember, Lord,” the spirit whimpered. “Please, now, please release me!” The Master ignored the entreaty. “You must not take this lightly! There are certaininscrutable Laws we must all obey. Yes, even I. My kingdom is a realm of order and for a reason.Without law, there is chaos and, with chaos, there is no obedience and, if there is no obedience,there is no power. Therefore, you shall be taught the Laws, which pertain to your powers and will 39
be expected to obey them. Know this, if you bend a Law, you will suffer a corrective punishment.If you break a Law, you will be cut off and destroyed. The man who last wore this body broke alaw. Do you understand?” By now the distraught spirit could barely function, but somehow forced itself to respond. “Iunderstand, Lord. Please, please…” “Know this also,” the Master continued increasing rather than slacking his vise over hiscaptive‟s will, “this body is not to be abused. You will take very good care of it.” “Yes, of course, Lord. Please release me.” The Great Lord hid a chuckle of amusement with a cough. “Patience. This skin will fit youbetter and better the longer you wear it. And after you‟ve become adjusted to it and are ready formore, I will visit you again. I will teach you how to exit and enter this mortal frame at will. It is,after all, merely a physical apparatus with which to work in a physical world. Think of this body asa vehicle, my son, a miraculous vehicle.” The Great One paused, tapping his chin. “Think of it as… a Lamborghini. Yes, that‟s it! Think of it as a Lamborghini.” The spirit quailed, confused. “A what, Lord?” “Never mind,” the Master huffed. “Just remember, this is no small gift you are being given.Take care of it. Appreciate it.” “Of course, Lord, of course.” “Good. Well then, now that that‟s settled, lets put you in the driver‟s seat and take it for aride, shall we?” Anna Dawn Hamlyn opened the door on her second day of work at the Hughes ScienceCenter, to find the room filled with the smell of fresh paint. A sound of something metal gratingagainst the floor was coming from Omegas office. “Dr. Omega?” she queried, dropping her purse on the computer desk and steppingquestioningly toward the commotion. “Is that you? Is everything all right?” “Anna Dawn, yes it is me, no need for concern,” his voice came out the door, soundingalmost apologetic. She poked her head in and couldnt believe what she saw: the renowned Dr. James Omega,perched atop a six-foot ladder, painting the tiny office white! “What ... are ... you ... doing?” she stuttered. “The walls were gray. I like white,” he explained over his shoulder as he stretched to hit acorner, just so. He stopped to rub his nose with his sleeve. “Perhaps you can tell me, Anna Dawn,why is it your nose starts to itch the very moment you cannot scratch it? There must be somescientific explanation.” Anna Dawn put her hands on her hips. “There is; the Universal Law of Prickly Nose Hairs -- basically the same thing that makes you sneeze just when a boy you particularly wanted to impressis puckering up to kiss you good night. You do realize we have work crews to do that. Professorsdont paint walls.” Omega cocked an eyebrow. “Then either I am not a professor or these are not walls. Evenmore likely,” he pointed to his paint-spattered oxford shirt, “I am not painting them, but myself.What is his name?” Anna Dawn looked perplexed. “Who?”
“The boy you sneezed on whom you wanted to impress..., if you do not mind my asking.” “Oh. He doesnt exist. Just an imaginary friend. By that I mean there are currently no menin my life. Dont you remember I told you they are preparing another office for you? Im suretheyll paint it whatever color you prefer.” Omega shook his head. “I do not need, nor do I want, another office. This will do nicely,especially now that I have some ownership in it. As to the other, I do not believe you for a moment.Surely, an attractive girl like you has a whole string of young men lined up at her door.” Anna Dawn folded her arms and leaned her hip against the door. “This is beginning tosound like an interrogation coming from someone I have only just met.” “Ah,” Omega rubbed his nose on his sleeve again. “I am sorry. I have a tendency to skippreliminaries with people I like and get right to the up close and personal stage. It is a fault I amworking on. Forgive me.” She thought about that. “Youre forgiven. Now get down ... please. A man your ageshould not be on a ladder. If youre not happy with the color of this office, Ill just call maintenanceand put in a work order.” Omega smiled, but refilling his brush, turned his back on her to begin anew. “If I wait for awork order to come through, I will have to wait for eternity. Look at this. Look what I haveaccomplished, all by myself. Two walls in thirty minutes.” She looked at him oddly, but admiringly. It was plain he was not about to budge and thiswas one argument she was not going to win. “Not bad,” she said, conceding defeat, and walkedaway. She had not yet reached her desk when his voice called after her, “And I would not talkabout my age, if I were you.” She froze in her tracks, biting her lip. Had she insulted him? Oh boy. That would not begood. Not on the second day of work. Her face reappeared at his door “Im sorry. I didnt mean to be rude.” He grinned down at her. “No, you mistake me. You are not rude at all, just concerned aboutmy safety, which I think is sweet. No, I meant, if you do choose to talk about my age, you might bemistaken, and I would hate to have to humble you at this early point in our relationship by pointingout your ineptitude.” She blinked hard, twice. Was that a challenge? Nobody challenged Anna Dawn Hamlynwithout a fight on his hands. Although it was risky, although it went against her better judgment,some red-headed-linked gene fired off in her brain and she took the bait. “So you think I cant guesshow old you are?” He returned to his work with a shrug. She thought of saying sixty-five, but reconsidered. Better play it safe and flatter him.“Sixty,” she said. “Honestly, now, you can do better than that.” “Sixty-four.” “Do I really look sixty-four?” he asked with a snort. “Come on. Give me your best shot.” She moved her lower jaw back and forth, calculating. Would he get angry if she went toohigh? Would it get them off to a bad start, leading to something that would keep coming up againand again like the proverbial pebble in the shoe? She had worked for other bosses who would dothat sort of thing and find ways to get back. On the other hand, Omega didnt seem the vindictivetype. He was most likely playing a sort of game with her. There was a hint of a twinkle in his eyethat she had noticed, and it was that twinkle she was going to bank on. Here goes, she thought.Honesty. 41
“Seventy.” “Nope.” “Seventy-five?” “Not the last time I checked.” “Eighty??” Omega dropped his arm, resting the paintbrush on the top of the ladder. “Tell you what. Letus say that years are a relatively unimportant assessment of age. Age should be measured inwisdom gained, not in gray hairs. So, I prefer to think I am just getting started. ” Anna Dawn thought a moment and then cocked her head. “I think I could concede to that.” “Very well,” he said, smiling. “We will consider it settled. Please excuse me, Ms. Hamlyn.I have work to do.” “Certainly,” she said, somewhat unsure what had just transpired between them. She turnedto go, then hesitated, her hand on the doorknob. “I, I didnt offend you, did I, Professor?” He stopped and looked at her in a way that made her feel like she had never felt before, in away that made her feel like he was a father and she, a daughter. It was a look of gentleness andsincerity that evoked a foreign longing inside her. “Anna Dawn,” he said, in a voice soft and kind, “you could never, nor would you ever, hurtmy feelings. In the brief time I have known you, you have done just the opposite.” She hadnt expected that. It was sort of like a hug. Not knowing what to say or how to feel,she turned to go. “By the way, there is something for you on your desk,” Omega said resuming his work.“Nothing big. Just a thank you for the nice welcome yesterday, the clean office and all. Iappreciated it.” “Thank you.” A myriad of thoughts were clicking through her mind as she left Omega and closed the doorto his office behind her. This was one strange, hard-to-read, but very intriguing, person she workedfor. Maybe all celebrities seem a little odd to the rest of us, she figured. Within fifteen minutes, he had made her feel curious, protective, piqued, tender and angry ...just like a father would. Or, at least, how she imagined a father would. The thought brought backan old emptiness not felt for a long time, a yearning to know what it would be like to have hadparents -- to have argued with them, teased them, hugged them, loved them. She dismissed the feelings as quickly as they appeared. It did no good to dwell on whatcould never be. She walked briskly back to her desk. What she found when she got there, wrapped in a cone of newspaper, was a sprig of wild,dawn-pink roses. Ω Michael Johns gave one last hard twist on the barbed wire fence with the pinchers, makingsure the splice was good and tight. The young rancher gave it a sound tap to test the knots mettle.The wire squeaked in protest, but accepted the adjustment without slippage. He stood back, pushedup the brim of his western-style straw hat and wiped his brow with a dusty denim sleeve. Wrinklingup his well-tanned face, he appraised the two rejoined wires with a practiced eye. “Looks good,” he
grunted over his shoulder to his horse, “tight as newlyweds on their honeymoon. Not that Id know.Not that Ill ever know at the rate Im going.” A cloud of dust down the road caught his attention. A black pickup truck was comingtoward him. Pete Grover, he thought. Wants to settle up. He stood, removing stained leather gloves and wiping sweaty hands on his jeans, ready tooffer one to the man who got out of the truck and walked toward him. “Michael.” “Pete.” The man met the young rancher‟s outstretched hand with a firm shake. “Doin‟ okay?” heasked. “Getting by,” Michael replied. “Thanks for the nice job on the funeral, Pete. It was justwhat Dad would have wanted.” “Nothings too good for my old pal, Robert Johns,” the man said with a nod of the head thatpassed as a compliment between them. “Im ready to make good today, Pete. Just sold Becky and her calf.” “I think we should hold off on that for a bit, Michael. Ive come to make you an offer on thisranch, if youre willin to take one.” Michael pulled off his bandana and wiped his brow. The surprised look on his faceremained. “If youre going to get all serious on me, Pete, maybe wed better go sit under the treesand talk.” Pete nodded. They moved to a grove of cottonwoods next to a meandering pasturestream and planted themselves down on a hillock of clover. “I know you want to get back to college,” Grover began. “You put in, what? Three years atLaramie?” “Thats right. I only came home because Dad needed me. To be truthful, I‟m aching to getback.” “I know youre smart, Michael. You won that award an all and your dad was always soproud of you, gettin straight As. It just seems to make sense that a young man like you with adream in his pocket to be goin‟ somewhere else wouldnt want to stay and work a ranch all on hisown.” “Guess you got me pegged,” Michael grinned, hesitantly. “What are you offering? Theranch is in good shape and on prime land. It ought to be worth something.” “Im thinkin, with the mortgage, operatin‟ loan and your dads medical expenses, youre in adeep pile o debt.” “Youd be right on that one.” “And dairy ranchin is a risky business. Most are holdin their own only cause of the worthof the land, not the milk and butter.” Michael pulled up a weed stalk and put it between his teeth. “Right again. Although, thisranch is better off than most. Still, youre right. Its not the easiest way to bring down a buck.” “And you got a second mortgage on the place…. ” Michael slapped his gloves across his open palm, a look of puzzlement on his face. “Howdyou know about that? You been snooping? Are you up to something, Pete?” The man wrapped his arms around his knees and looked at the ground. “Okay. So lets justsay Im doin this because I owe Robert Johns a lot more than money can ever repay, not becauseIm dyin to get in the cow business. Sorry. Morticians shouldnt use that phrase lightly. Its a jinx.” Michael grunted. “Youre beating around the bush, Pete. What are you trying to say?” Grover turned and looked Michael in the eye. “Michael, you dont know this, but after I lostLaurie, when I was down and out, bankrupt and on the verge of jumpin off Palisade dam, your 43
father came to see me. Without bein asked, he went and took out a second mortgage on this placeand gave the money to me.” Michael didnt flinch. “Well, Pete, I suppose thatd have something to do with the fact yourisked your own life to pull him out of the collapsed Marine barracks in Lebanon, wouldnt it?” “Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was just because we were friends. Anyway, nows mychance to get even. That second mortgage is really my debt to pay, not yours. Im doin okay nowand Im in a position to put things square. I made this same offer to Robert, but he wouldnt haveany of it. Now hes gone and I figure, if Robert Johns boy is half the man his father was, if hes gotsomething he sets his mind to do, hell do it and hell see the wisdom in this deal. Im givin you achance to get back to your schoolin and not have to look back. Ill give you $900,000 for the ranch.I know thats no fortune by the time you pay off your debts, but it should be enough to pay tuitionand livin‟ expenses for a while; maybe, even, get you a Master‟s degree. My boys don‟t want to gointo the mortuary business and they‟ve been workin‟ weekends here for so long that they love theranch almost as much as you. So, they get a permanent change of lifestyle, which they sure as hellwouldnt mind, and you get to start sleepin in past four in the morning. What do you say?” At first Michael said nothing. He just stared out over the fields toward the farmhouse andthought. He finally stood up, so did the man, and they faced each other. Michael put his hands on his hips. “I‟d say, Pete, old friend, you just bought me a dreamand yourself a headache. But, hey, what can I say? Thanks.” They grasped and shook hands, the older mans free hand gripping the young ranchersshoulder. “Its my pleasure, Michael.” “Dont be too fast to say that,” Michael said, out of the side of his mouth. “The land‟spretty, but what youre really getting out of this is a herd of 300 cows, four teats each. Sure hopeyou know how to use a milking machine.” Ω
Chapter 5 After only a single week, Omega caused another stir in the calm, ordered waters of hissecretarys life. He realized he had overstepped his bounds before and kept a polite, professionaldistance between them for a few days. But he could not keep it up. She was going to be a part ofhis life now and there was no sense wasting time treading water. Time passed too swiftly. He was over two hours late this particular Monday morning. She was already at her desk,typing away like a hen pecking at a June bug when he came bursting in through the outer door,walking backwards, lugging behind him a load of heavy boxes on a wheeled cart and holding in histeeth a plastic Home Depot bag containing an electric drill, a rubber mallet, wood glue and a sack ofassorted metal fasteners. Anna Dawns eyes widened in disbelief as she watched him drag theparaphernalia past her toward his office. “Beth not to ask,” he said, passing her with a Cheshire grin, his diction slurred by the plasticbag. He ambled on without another word, shutting his office door behind him. Within a few moments, sounds of drilling and pounding were rattling the walls like anearthquake. He knew she would be curious, but, if he was any judge of character, she was not goingto give in, out of principle. He was right. For three hours, he hammered, glued and drilled in totalprivacy. Finally he emerged from the small, very-white office, victorious. “Wahla!” he announced,beaming with pride as he dusted off his pants. “Want to see?” “Let me guess,” she said, giving nonchalance her best shot. “A built in entertainmentcenter?” “Sadly, I am not much for television. Try again.” She stopped her typing. “How can that be? Youre on television! Youre Mr. “Save theAnimals”, himself, for goodness sake.” He was brushing dust from the top of his head. “Want my autograph?” “Just on my paycheck.” Her typing resumed. “Aw, come on. Guess.” The typing continued. “I thought you wanted this syllabus typed by the end of the week.” “This will only take a second.” “Professor….,” “Ms. Hamlyn, stop what you are doing and come in here! Right now!” She froze, looking at him over the top of her glasses, polite insubordination written all overher face. “You just want me to come in there and gush all over whatever it is youve done, all thewhile knowing Im the one who will have to clean it up.” “Certainly not!” Omega beckoned impatiently. “Gush or not, as you wish. Just come see!” “Oh, all right.” Anna Dawn pushed back her chair and followed him into the room. “Youknow youve probably made a huge mess in there ... with who knows what, all over the place. Badenough, I cleaned up after your paint job, Ill be hanged if Im going to....” 45
“Look.” With a sigh, she walked in. “Shelves!” he said, “What do you think?” She peered past him. A set of finished oak-stained shelves, five levels high, stretched thelength of one wall behind the desk. Anna Dawn took off her glasses and wiped them on her crisply-ironed shirttail. “Keep thisup, Professor,” she muttered from the side of her mouth, “and theyll fire you from your day job andwrite you up full-time on the maintenance crew.” “That good, huh?” She nodded, approvingly. “Surprisingly good. For someone your age.” “Please, not age again!” He grunted disapproval and plopped down in his leather chair, alittle cloud of shredded packaging material powdering the air around him. “I do have purposebehind this madness, you know.” “Uh-huh. What?” A gleam shone in his eye. He rubbed his hands eagerly. “I have some ... things ... that willbe arriving any day now. Knickknacks, you might call them, very old and very special. Theydeserve a place of honor.” “Oh?” “You will see, when they arrive.” “Fine, be secretive. But Im warning you, Dr. Omega, dusting knickknacks is not in my jobdescription!” She folded her arms, with a mock pout. “No dusting will be expected.” “I want that in writing.” She turned to leave. He rose from his chair. “Wait, Anna Dawn, I have something for you.” She stopped, looking uncomfortable. “You dont have to give me things, Dr. Omega. Theroses were great, but I dont think.… ” He interrupted, "Anna Dawn, someone told me you were a botany major when you are notbusy being my secretary." "Thats right,” she answered, warily. “I‟ve scheduled all morning classes during fall termand will work here afternoons." "Well, then, from one scientist to another, have a look at these.” He pulled on his deskdrawer, withdrew a rolled up newspaper and spread it open on his desk. It was filled with tiny, bluewildflowers. Her mouth opened slightly, like a fish not quite sure if it should take the worm or worryabout a hook. He smiled at her happily, sure she must like them; sure he had chosen well. “You see, AnnaDawn,” he explained, simply, “I like to go for walks on the weekends and I found these by theroadside yesterday evening. When I saw them, I wondered if my little botanist, Ms. Hamlyn, couldidentify them for me? What do you think?” She leaned in for a closer look. “Pretty.… ” He offered them to her. “Here. Take them. Smell. They are quite fragrant." She put them to her nose and inhaled. "Yes, very sweet, like honey." "Well?" Omega looked at her intently, waiting for an answer. “Well ... what?” “What are they? You are a botanist?”
She examined the flowers more closely over the top of her glasses. "I dont think Imfamiliar with this particular plant," she admitted, avoiding his penetrating gaze. “I need my fieldguide.” His gaze softened. "Not to worry, Anna Dawn. The world is full of questions wantinganswers, is it not?" She pursed her lips. “Youre putting me on the spot, on purpose. Why?” “Being put on the spot is good for us, sometimes,” Omega smiled kindly. "We all needchallenges, hills to climb. A good student is not necessarily the one who has all the answers, but theone with the questions." She relaxed a little, recovering her nerve. “Are you lecturing me, Dr. Omega? Should I betaking notes?” He liked that and laughed. "No, no. I just thought it could be a little ... thing ... between us.I find the flowers, you identify them. Could be fun.” She nodded, “Yes. It could be.” “So, perhaps you could just tell me what they are later, when you have time to find out." "Be glad to," she said, handing them back to him. “Its very nice of you, to think of me.” "Oh, please keep them. I picked them for you." She looked at him, not quite sure of the whole deal. His eyes twinkled. “I am not flirting with you, Ms. Hamlyn, if that is what is bothering you.I am a happily married man. Believe me, I am merely being nice and trying to get to know you alittle better.” She smiled, with a tilt of her head. “In that case, Ill have to be careful around you. Im notone to give myself away, not without a fight.” “I never for one moment thought you would be,” he answered. Anna Dawn was thoughtful a moment. “I haven‟t met your wife,” she ventured cautiously.“You dont talk about her.” Omegas eyes lit up. “Johanna? Oh, she is wonderful. A brilliant woman. I consider her agreat scientist in her own right. Insightful, resourceful, brave and very dear.” “Id like to meet her sometime.” “I hope you may. But it may be a while. She is in Africa right now.” “Africa?!” “Yes. Working on one of our projects.” He sighed. “I do not see her very often these days.We are both so busy. I miss her.” For a moment, he stared off into space, then cleared his throat,bringing himself back. “You seem a bit lonely yourself, Anna Dawn. Am I wrong?” Anna Dawn hesitated. “I live alone, if thats what you mean.” “Partly. I guess what I am asking is, where are your family? Who are the important peoplein your life?” She reddened. “My, how we do pry, Professor!” “Forgive me. I am only saying, you can talk to me if there is no one else to listen. I understand what it is to be lonely, Anna Dawn.” She bit her lower lip and said softly, “I‟ve been orphaned since I was three. Car accident.Killed my parents and my baby brother. I was raised by my Aunt Carol, my fathers sister. She justpassed away last winter. She was all the family I had. So, you see,” she forced a smile, “after allthese years, Im an orphan again.” For a moment, she waited, as if deciding whether to say more, then, he could tell from herface, she smelled the hook. That would be all the fishing he would get done today. “Ill look for 47
something to put these in,” she said, gathering up the newspaper and blue flowers and starting forthe door. Omega was wise enough to know now was not the time to press her more, so he simplycalled to her as she walked out, "By the way, Ms. Hamlyn, I notice your eyes are the same color asthe flowers.” He held up both hands in a gesture of self defense. “Not flirting, not flirting -- just aninteresting coincidence. Have a nice morning." Anna Dawn returned to her desk. For a long moment, she examined the wildflowers, herfingers strangely trembling. How was she supposed to react to things like this? If he made her souncomfortable, why the devil did she like him so much? Maybe she was being silly, reading things into their banter that was all perfectly innocent.What was there to fear, really? That somebody was being nice, was actually attempting to careabout her? She had been alone so long, independent and self-directed…; no one else to have to planfor, or worry about. This whole idea of permitting a personal relationship to develop between them -- a “thing” he had called it -- rubbed like a new pair of jeans. But, then, she had never known afather, so how could she know what to expect from a man? Worse, she had never known a mother,so how could she know how a woman effectively interacts with a man, whatever his role? Andbeyond that, it had to be admitted, her new boss was an entirely different animal altogether fromanyone she had ever met, from either sex. How one was to appropriately respond to him wasanybodys guess. An instruction manual had not been written on the likes of Dr. James Omega. To be truthful, she didnt think he meant anything unseemly by his attentions. But shecouldnt get over the feeling he was after something. Did he sense her aloneness and was just tryingto be a friend? Hard to say. Reflectively, she stared at the cheerful bouquet in her hands. Found them by the roadside,did he? she thought. The wild roses from the previous week probably came from his walks, too.James Omega seems to have a knack for finding things others pass by, whether its flowers or ... me.The question is, do I like being found? As she fingered the tiny blossoms, she felt a small shiver of delighted discovery -- eachdelicate blue flower had a perfect, white star in the center. Boxes began arriving that afternoon. Anna Dawn was sitting at her desk, looking over thefall class schedule when the UPS courier came through the door with two packages, one roughly thesize of a microwave oven and the second the size of a shoebox. “Mam,” he said, “some parcels for a Dr. J. Omega?” “Yes,” she said. “You may leave them here. Hes out of the office, but Ill sign for him.” “Fine. Where do you want them put?” “Over there, by his door.” She pointed to his office. “What are they?” The courier shrugged. “I dont look inside em, Mam, I just deliver em. But most of emsay Handle with Care. Were you expecting something fragile?” Anna Dawn shrugged. “I dont know. He just said he had some, uh, things that werecoming. Im guessing these are what he meant.” “Okay, then. The delivery is insured. If theres any damage, he can fill out a form forreimbursement. Ill be back” As soon as he left, Anna Dawn allowed herself to walk over and peek at the labels. Neitherbox had anything to give away what was inside. She bit her lower lip. No, Anna Dawn. Whatever
it is and, with Dr. Omega, it could be anything, you are not going to let your curiosity get the betterof you. We do not open our boss mail. Who knows what he has in there ... lurking. He did saythey were old and very special. Stop it! Youre not going to think about it. Youll find out soonenough. Get back to work.” She stalked back to her desk, picked up the schedule, and began flipping through pages. Agrunt caught her attention. She looked up. The courier had returned with three boxes, this time ona hand truck, one carton just a bit smaller than the other two. He left them beside the first two andexited. The sixth box was the largest so far; more the size a large desktop computer set withspeakers and monitor might fit into. For the courier, it was a single trip in and of itself. After several more appearances, the courier leaned wearily against the counter by Dawnsdesk, wiped his brow and blew air out his cheeks in relief. “Thats the lot, Mam.” “Thank you,” she said. “Can I get you a drink of water or something?” “No mam, just your signature.” He offered her the clipboard. “There you go,” she said with a sympathetic smile. When Omega returned, there were seventeen boxes of varying dimensions awaiting himoutside his office door. Anna Dawn looked up as he came in. “Merry Christmas.” Omegas eyes lit up. “Oh good! Wonderful! They are here! Would you help me unpackthem, Ms. Hamlyn?” She didnt show it, but if he hadnt invited her, if she had to wait another five minutes to seewhat the boxes contained, she would have popped. She had no idea what to expect, but she wassure it would be something amazing and she was right. Omega opened the first box, reached deep into the Styrofoam peanuts that filled it, andwithdrew ... a bird carved of wood. Its plumage was painted powder pink and lavender with a whitebreast and it was seated on a branch, head back and beak open, in a pose of singing as if it werebeckoning with all its heart for the sun to rise. Omega stared at it fondly a moment, then turned to Anna Dawn. “Springs Herald,” he said.“Lovely, is she not?” “Yes,” Anna Dawn agreed. “I dont think Ive ever seen anything like it. What did you callit?” “Springs Herald.” “Thats an unusual name.” “I enjoy giving animals my own little nicknames. It is more fun than Latin.” He placed thebird on the center row of his newly-made shelves. “Springs Herald is, or was, a real bird -- amember of the lark family. You have not seen anything like her because she and her kind have notbeen on the planet for a very, very long time. She is extinct now, and a sad thing it is. Her songwas..., that is..., was reputed to be ... quite beautiful.” The next box held a real stuffed squirrel in an air-tight glass case, or at least, Anna Dawnguessed that it was a squirrel. Then, again, truthfully, it didnt look quite right. “What is this?” shequeried. “It looks something like a squirrel, but it‟s yellow.” Omega took it from her and gave it a place of honor beside the lark. “Good guess. It is amember of the lemur family, actually, a pomatuu ... a golden pomatuu at that; Toe-sleeper, I liketo call him. From South America.” “Is it extinct, too?” Omega nodded. “Every box you see here contains a creature that is no more.” Anna Dawn looked astounded. “How did you get all these?” 49
“It is a collection I have been making for many, many years. These animals are veryprecious. Many of them are the only proof that they ever existed. Not only are they all extinct, buta few of them are also extremely old. Anna Dawn shook her head in disbelief, “So how old can they be? I mean, dead animalsturn to dust in a few years, unless they are mummified, and mummies could never look this good.” Omegas eyes twinkled. “Let us just say, I know some people who are very good at whatthey do. The point is, Anna Dawn, you are looking at a very valuable collection. It is the only oneof its kind in the world. Now, will you help me get the rest of these out of their prisons and up onthe shelf? I tend to think of them as my pets, you see, and I do not like them to be cooped up anylonger than necessary.” She bit her lip and pushed up her glasses on her nose. Right. Your pets. Oh, boy. For the next hour, it was like some bizarre birthday party, opening presents. The specimensranged from reptiles to fish to insects with a bit of everything in between, the majority beingmammals and birds. When they were done at last, Omega stood back, admiring the display. “Now it feels likemy office,” he said. “Dr. Omega?” Anna Dawn asked. “Is there ever going to come a day when you cease tosurprise me? Im asking, because if there is, just let me know and Ill call in sick and stay home.What Im trying to say is, Im getting addicted.” Omega looked puzzled. “To what?” “To you,” she said, and walked out, leaving it at that. Ω The man awoke with a dull headache and the sprinkle of a cold rain hitting against his faceand skin like small bullets. He brought himself to his elbows, shook his head and looked dazedlyaround. He was in an alley, lying on a crumpled pile of newspaper. The filth of decaying garbageassaulted his nostrils. His clothes were soaked through; his white shirt, stained with his own blood,was made transparent by the rain growing heavier by the minute. Get up! Stand up before you drown, he thought in a language that seemed both familiar andforeign. Somehow, he understood the meaning, but it was as if he was creating words as he usedthem, as if when they formed in his mind, he was using them for the first time. He staggered to his feet, shivering. Weakly, he leaned against a brick wall to regain hisbearings. Looking upward into the weeping sky, he blinked into the rain and covered his face withhis arm. “Where am I?” he muttered aloud. “How did I get here?” Even as he spoke, he knew. Hazy memories, fog-like images, crept around the corners ofhis mind. Garrin Cross. That was his name. He had been attacked from behind. The last thing heremembered was a plastic bag being thrown over his head. “Who? Why?” he asked, frowning, fighting to sort it out. One answer seemed to makesense, and a name. Chang. One of Changs hired thugs. It had to be. Angrily, he fought to forcethe scattered remnants of memory to take form, to stick.
I was to meet him here, he remembered. We were supposed to seal the deal. When I droveup, he was over here by the alley. I walked toward him ... then ... someone came from behind andbefore I could react, or even draw my gun, somebody hit me and then ... the bag … and … I died. I… died?! A shouted curse from Crosss lips dashed against the surrounding brick walls and was blownto shreds by the wind. He shook his fist at nothing but a face in his mind. “Chang! Traitor! Howcould you do this to me! Youll pay for it, you Chinese son of a whore!” He stopped in mid-sentence. But ... Im alive, he puzzled. He slowly took a deep breathand blew it out quickly. No problem breathing now. He held his hands in front of his face,wriggling his fingers as his curse was slowly replaced by laughter. “Look at me! Im alive. Imalive!” For a moment, all was confusion as two memories fought each other, neither making sense.The man held his head and closed his eyes, straining to knit the two ends of a broken rope together. I am Garrin Cross. But I am not Garrin Cross. I am Qeoc-neh-qiti, high priest of theBrothers of the Moon, given this body, given a new life as Garrin Cross. Yes. It was starting to come together, the elements of his existence swirling, coalescing intoa sphere he could grasp. I am here to serve the One True Lord. He has given me rebirth. I am here to become thisman, this Garrin Cross, to assume his identity, to enter his world. There is a mission for me, but Imust wait until I am told.... I must master this body, this double language in my brain, and learn tolive with power in this new life, before I can serve Him. Only then will he come to me. Only thenwill I serve the purpose of my re-creation. Garrin Cross lifted his head and looked around. At the end of the alley he saw a portion of aderelict building with a loading dock and, parked near it, a sleek, black automobile. “That‟s mycar,” he said aloud, the memory of the machine forming in his mind. “It‟s called a, a Porsche.That‟s right. That‟s my Porsche.” He staggered toward it, half-running, at the same time reachinginto his pocket for the metal and plastic thing, called a key, that he knew would make it work. Following instinct that guided him even as he made the movement, he pressed a button onthe keys monitor pad and the door latch clicked. With an instinctual movement, as if he had done ita thousand times before, he slipped behind the wheel. For a moment he sat in the machine,wondering what to do next. Coaxing the memories of its function to manifest, he found he knew toput the key into the ignition and, thus, started the motor. A second curse expressed his amazement. “Good. Very good. Its working. Now, I amsupposed to make this thing move.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I damned-sure hope Iknow how.” He did. His left hand automatically switched on the headlights and wipers, his right handtook the wheel and his foot pressed the gas. The car surged forward into the storm. He drove, following the images and recollections that entered his brain, sloshing at firstthrough dimly-lit, deserted back streets, then moving on through neighborhoods of tightly-woven,busier streets and finally joining a frantic, coursing torrent of automobiles, trucks and buses that wasthe interstate. He careened a bit unsteadily from lane to lane until he caught the hang of it. A fewcars swerved and honked, spraying water on his windshield in their wake, but he finally settled intothe lane that felt right and stayed there. I‟m remembering. It‟s coming back. That ramp, up ahead is Highway 101, he instructedhimself, reading a long, green sign as he drove under it. I take this and my exit should be coming upin twenty minutes after that. 51
Sure enough, at the prescribed time he saw the exit he was looking for and turned onto theramp; leaving the nightmare of the freeway with a soft mutter of gratitude under his breath.Another half hour of driving, remembering turns as he came to them, landmarks as he saw them,found him in an up-scale residential area. He squinted and scowled through mists of rain to makeout the road signs. Coastal Pine Drive. My house is this way..., he confirmed, turning off the main street onto atwo-lane, winding road that slowly climbed its way up the thickly-wooded, eastern slope of the SanRafael mountains. Peering through mist and a foggy windshield at the dark, blurry outlines ofhouses and trees, he finally recognizing a gated driveway, leading to a Spanish-style mansion setwell back off the road, its lawns mostly obscured by a dense fortress of scrub oak and pine. Hepulled to a stop in front of the gate, pushed a button on a remote control he recalled being located inthe dashboard -- it was right where his memory told him it was -- and the gate swung open. He drove forward, up the brick-paved drive, and stopped in front of the expansive, red-tiledand stucco hideaway villa. As he approached, two black dogs, lulling under a covered porch,sprang to attention, ears forward, noses pointed toward the car and its occupant. Cross got out ofthe car and whistled. Both dogs came running, jumping and whimpering, deliriously vying for theirmasters attention. Cross rubbed their ears and scratched their chins. “Miss me, boys?” he asked.The dogs responded in the affirmative with wagging tails and happy barks. With the same remote control that opened the gates, Cross keyed in a digital code thatopened the front door and stepped into the warmth of a spacious entry hall. He looked inamazement at the luxuriant furnishings, massive fireplace, carefully-detailed architecture and gilt-framed artwork that decorated the place. It was an odd sensation, seeing each thing, eachpossession for the first time, yet knowing it intimately at first sight. Straight ahead rose a fabulous,carved railing and an ascending, Mexican-tiled staircase. He hurried up it to the bedroom andshower he knew were waiting on the second floor. There, he threw open the bedroom doors,stripped off his sopping tie and shirt, and headed straight to the bathroom to turn on a steamingstream of hot water in the shower. No sooner had he done so than he heard a movement and softcry behind him. “Garrin?” He turned to see a slender, stunningly-beautiful, dark-haired woman dressed in translucentwhite lingerie hurrying toward him, her arms outstretched. She came to him and kissed him hard, pulling him close to her as her arms passionatelyembraced him. “Oh Garrin,” she breathed, pressing her head against his chest. “Ive been soworried.” A name came to him. Alicia. Alicia Elizando. The woman continued with trembling voice, “When you took off like that this morning ... Iwas afraid you werent coming back. Where did you go? And what..., look at you!” She drewback, noticing for the first time his hair, skin and remaining clothes were soaking wet. “What onearth? Your head! Its bleeding!” She pulled him to the sink, held a hand cloth under cold water and dabbed at the gash on theside of his head with a shaking hand. “Garrin, what in the world happened?” “Im all right, Alicia,” he answered, taking the cloth from her hand. “Dont fuss over me. Ineed a shower, badly. Then we can talk.” She backed away. “Certainly. Of course. I..., Ill wait for you on the patio. Im just ... soglad youre home.” He could sense she was offended and hurt. “I didnt mean to be curt, kitten. Im just ... well,its been a rotten day.” He brushed her cheek with his hand. “Get me a brandy, will you?”
She turned to go, wiping her cheek. He grabbed her wrist. “Alicia, youre crying.” It gave him an odd pleasure to see it. “I was worried,” she explained, flushing. “But youre home now. Everythings all right.” “Yes.” “Ill get the brandy. Dont keep me waiting too long.” He smiled at her, a dark ember lighting within that he had not felt for a very long time. “No,pet. Not long.” He watched her leave the room, her negligee gossamer about her body as she moved, herlong hair shining like an ebony mane down her back. “Beautiful woman,” he whispered as atapestry of memories of her flooded into his brain. “And I own her, body and soul.” Garrin Cross ducked gingerly into the shower and began to scrub everywhere, eagerlywashing away the grime and filthy smell of garbage and blood. He had just lathered his hair andwas letting the hot water rinse the suds down his back when he heard the bathroom door open acrack and a mans voice call out through the steam. “I cant believe you went by yourself this morning, boss. That was very, very foolish. Howdid it go?” Cross turned off the water. “Hand me a towel and Ill tell you.” The man obliged and stood waiting outside as Cross toweled off. A few moments later,Cross emerged, wearing a white terry cloth robe, slicking back his dark hair with a silver comb. Hiseyes, in one quick sweep, took in the tall, blond Swede standing by the door with every bulgingmuscle in his great arms taught, his jaw set like iron. He remembered this man as soon as he laideyes on him. Erik Holtz, his bodyguard. “He tried to kill me, Erik.” “Chang?” Cross nodded and turned sideways to a gilded mirror above an ornate, ash wood dressingtable. He pushed back his hair, revealing a bruised gash. “Pretty, isnt it?” “You shouldnt have gone without me,” the Swede said, his accent thick with disapproval. “I thought everything was set,” Cross explained, the recollection of events re-forming fasteron command now, playing one by one in his mind. “I thought everything would be okay. Changcalled at six a.m., gave me an address, and said, Come alone or the deals off. Ill expect you withinthe hour. I hesitated at first, but then I figured too much was at stake for him to do anything tomess it up. When I got there, nobody was around. Then I looked and saw him waiting by somebuildings, so I got out and walked over there....” “Hells hounds, Cross. Dont you recognize a set up when you see one?” the Swedegrowled. “Im not a total idiot, Erik. I wasnt unarmed. I thought I could handle it. As I got closer, Icould see it was he. He smiled and held out his hand to shake and I reached out to take it. Rightthen, as he held on to my hand, one of his cutthroats came up from behind and hit me over the head.I vaguely remember these big octopus hands throwing a plastic bag over my face and I struggled tobreathe. They held me down on the ground until everything went black” The Swede looked shocked. Frowning, he bent forward to look into Cross‟ face. “You saythey covered your head with a plastic bag?” “Thats right.” “Then how are you still alive?” 53
Crosss rubbed his face with his palm and grinned. “Thats a good question, my friend. I‟mthinking he removed the bag to look at my dead face, but removed it too soon. The bag was not onmy head when I woke up” The Swede shook his head. Cross could tell he didnt quite buy it. “And then what happened?” “I woke up in an alley, soaking wet, with a headache and a bloody skull, but otherwise, nonethe worse for wear.” “Well, youre one lucky son of the devil,” Erik grunted. “I cant believe professionals likeChang‟s henchmen would be so sloppy. If itd been me, youd be dead.” “Comforting,” Cross replied, hardly amused. “I believe I can trust you to make thingsright?” The Swede looked pleased. “I was hoping youd ask. Dont worry, Ill find out who did it.The incompetent creeps as good as dead.” “Chang, too.” At this, the Swede fell silent. “I know it wont be easy. He wears bodyguards like a sultan wears jewels.” The big Swedes gray eyes flashed. “Thats why you were smart to hire me, Cross. Youknow I can do whatever you need done. Changs history.” The Swede turned to leave. Cross held out his hand, signaling him to stop. “I just want youto know, Erik, I appreciate your skill,” he said, his dark eyes narrowing, looking straight into theother mans, “and your loyalty. I know the risk youll be taking. I also expect Chang will try tomake you a better offer.” “Dont worry,” the Swede said, allowing no emotion to enter his voice. “I dont believe inmaking things complicated. I only work for one man at a time.” “Good. Thats what I wanted to hear. You can trust me to make it worth your while.Tonight?” The Swede shook his head. “This kind of thing takes a bit of time to do right. I need to findout his daily routine, where he‟ll be when and with whom. With his security, it may take a while.But don‟t worry….” Holtz reacted to Cross‟ disapproving frown, “I‟ll get the job done and doneright. Im assuming you want more than just a hit, you want a message sent, to anyone else whomay be contemplating messing with you in the future. Am I on target?” “You read me like a book.” “Best stay home until its over. No sense taking chances. If he were to discover you‟re stillalive, he could try again. For added protection, we should increase security around the property; putin a gatehouse and guard.” “Fine,” Cross said with a shrug. “Whatever you think best.” The bodyguard turned to go. Cross again put out a hand to stop him, his handsome featurescontorted with an ugly snarl. “Oh, and Erik ... make him suffer.” The Swede paused, his thin lips showing only the slightest trace of a smile. “You can counton it,” he said, and left the room without looking back. Cross took time to locate a box of Cuban cigars and lit one before he strolled outside to thepatio. Overhead, a thin quarter moon fought against currents of choking clouds, still threateningrain. A chilly breeze, sweet with the smell of Pacific salt, teased the heavy wine-red draperies at theopen glass doorway. He breathed it in deeply, savoring the scent and power of darkness. Silhouetted against the pale sky was the figure of a slender woman, her back turned towardhim, her raven hair blowing in the wind. He advanced to where she stood rubbing her arms andshivering and watched her from behind.
“Youre cold, pet,” he purred in her ear. “Come inside and let me warm you.” She startled, then turned to face him, her eyes wet with tears. “Oh Garrin, I was thinking ...if ever I should lose you..., ” she started to cry. He held her against him, stroking her hair. “Now, now, kitten, I will never leave you, and Iwill never, ever let you go. You can be certain of that.” She looked into his face, blinking and smiling, and he wiped her tears with his fingertip.“Lets go inside,” he coaxed. “I feel like its been an eternity since I felt the way Im feeling now,here in your arms. Lets go inside and see what happens.” “Yes,” she whispered, pulling him by the hand, “lets.” Ω 55
Chapter 6 The Johns old blue Ford truck kicked up a cloud of dust behind it as it rattled down the roadleading from the farmhouse toward the highway. As soon as he hit pavement, Michael rolled bothwindows down and fiddled with the radio dial until he found a country station that he liked. Musicwith a solid beat and homey lyrics, the warmth of early summer‟s sunshine on his bare arm, thewind in his hair, all helped take his thoughts away from missing his father, selling a ranch that wasthe only home he had ever known, and the uncertainty of the future he now faced. Around him, Star Valley, Wyoming spread out like a well-worn quilt, a patchwork of greenand yellow pasture squares knotted on each corner with a white sideboard farmhouse here and aramshackle barn there, the whole effect stitched together with barbed wire and fence posts. StarValley was, in fact, two valleys joined in the shape of a peanut. The valleys, known as the upperand lower valleys, were in the minds of the locals the most beautiful place on earth. Few outsiders,once having seen their unspoiled grandeur, would dispute them. The dirt road Michael was drivingon from his ranch soon joined Highway 89, which ran straight through both valleys, due north tosouth. He passed Star Valley‟s famous cheese factory on the outskirts of a little horse rail of a towncalled Thayne, then drove on through the Narrows, where the Salt River flowed lazily betweengreen banks of willow and cattail. Here, where the valley was cinched in like the waist on a bridalgown, a deer suddenly darted across the highway, narrowly escaping Michael‟s truck. He slammedon his brakes and swore. Glad for the deer as well as himself, Michael muttered a short prayer of thanks and sped onhis way. The narrows opened and the upper valley opened before him in all its bucolic postcardperfection. The morning suns glare on his dusty windshield forced Michael to squint as he viewed theapproaching town of Afton, some ten miles distant, tucked against the western skirt of the SaltRiver Range. The whole familiar sweep of it was easily taken in by one glance of his eyes. Thistime he almost resented the beauty of it. For all but three years of his life, he had wakened, workedand slept within the bosom of this valley, a place he must now leave for good. The parting wouldbe bittersweet at best, the result of a wedge driven between himself and the people here when hewas eighteen years old. The loss of his father and the ranch were merely a final blow. There wasnothing to keep him here now. In his mind, he told himself, he was likely looking at these fields,these farms and Star Hill, which bore the valley‟s high school symbol, a star formed of white,painted boulders, for the last time. He passed the tiny hamlet of Grover and drove by more farms until he reached the outskirtsof town. To a worldly traveler, there probably wasn‟t a lot to commend Afton, Wyoming. But toMichael, this place was one fond memory after another. Except for one. And that memory, of hisdarkest hour, he quickly pushed from his mind. Today, Michael Johns would think only of thefuture. The town began now in proper. Michael drove past a string of small businesses, the dentist,the insurance agent, a Pizza Hut, then on past the town‟s only two gas stations, a car dealership, and
then the Frosty River—a drive-in where he and his friends had demolished many a greasycheeseburger and thick chocolate malt after a Braves‟ football game. Streets lined with a hodge-podge style of houses, built anywhere from the 1930‟s to present, side by side. Even so, pride ofownership was evident. The yards were kept well. Backyard gardens of vegetables and raspberrybushes spoke of a self-reliant people who loved their little spot on earth. The homes may behumble, but dear. Michael felt an ache in his gut. A part of him longed to stay in this place, sofamiliar that had he been struck blind, he could still have navigated every street. But a restlessnessstirred inside he could not ignore. It whispered in his ear like an insistent fly. There‟s more thanthis for you, Michael Johns. Time to go. Time to go. He drove down the eight-block length of Main Street, grinning as he passed under one of thetown‟s more charming features, a worn, elk-horn arch erected right across the highway. It was saidsome veterans returning from the Korean War had nothing to do when they got back to the Valleyand thought an elk-horn arch would be just the thing to attract tourists. It had stood there ever since,looking down on all the rodeo and homecoming parades, observing the changes in automobiles thatpassed beneath it, mutely taking note of all the comings and going of the town folk at theirshopping. Michael grinned. If that old arch could write a book, what tales it could tell. Moving on, Michael cast nostalgic sidelong glances at more small buildings standingshoulder to shoulder, businesses that had been passed down from parent to child for generations -- afurniture store, a pharmacy, grocery store, a jewelers and, last of all, the newspaper office. He hadbeen in every one of them, knew every item stacked on every shelf. And everyone behind everycounter knew his name and he theirs. Leave it behind, the fly buzzed in his ear. Time to go. At the end of the block he turned left, drove two streets east past the town park, up to a tidy,yellow, gabled house, which had been converted into the Lincoln County Library. Here he parkedthe truck, hopped out, and started up the walk. Turning his head, he noticed an elderly couple sitting in rockers on the porch of the housenext door. “Hello there, Robert Johns boy,” a silver-haired man called out cheerily, but the mans wifeleaned over and pulled his sleeve. “Hush you!” she whispered. “Dont you talk to him, Samuel! Thats the boy what stirred upall that trouble.” Michael clearly heard her words, but pretended he didnt. “Shistt, woman!” the man hissed back. “That boys pa is Robert Johns, one of the earthscream, I tell you. If his boys a little headstrong, well then, I expect we all got a fault or two.” The old man waved and called out again, beckoning for Michael to come nearer.“Hey, son! Hows your pa doing these days?” Michael stopped on the sidewalk, but didnt go over. No use wearing out a welcome whenthere wasnt any to begin with. “Buried him three weeks ago, sir.” “Oh, Im right sorry to hear it. He was a fine man, your pa.” “That he was.” “Cancers a hard way to go.” “Yes sir, it is.” “Well, good luck to you, young man..., whats your name?” “Michael.” “Good luck to you, Michael.” “Thank you.” “Samu-el!” his wife hissed again. “Leave him be!” 57
Michael walked over to a yellow climbing rose trailing over a trellis above the library porch.He plucked off a blossom, walked over and presented it to the old woman. “My compliments,Mam,” he smiled. “Hope you have a good day.” Then he turned and walked into the library,without a backward glance. “Well, I never!” the woman snorted the moment he was gone. “Did you see the brazennessof that young puppy? Vandalizing Lionas roses right in broad daylight!” The old man reached over, took her hand with the flower in it, and pulled it toward his nosefor a deep, long sniff. “Darn nice of him, wasnt it?” The woman glared at him. “Nice?” “Yes, nice. That boys all right now, aint he?” The old woman sat back with a huff, rocking hard. “Not necessarily. They say you cantalways see insanity plain out, Samuel.” “He aint insane, Amelia,” the man retorted. “You been listnin to too many rumors.” She snorted, smoothing the crocheted afghan over her knees. “Alls I know is that nobody inhis right mind would do what he did and thats a fact. An‟ you mark my words, that young man isgoin‟ ta destroy everythin‟ good that happens around him.” The man hit his knees with his hands. “Oh, for heavens sake! All thats been near fouryears ago, Amelia! He was just a high school boy. So he made a mistake. He thought he was inthe right. Why cant you forgive and forget?” “I can forgive, cause Im a good, Christian woman,” the old woman answered tartly, rockingher chair until it squeaked in protest. “But theres some folks thatll never forget.” The old man shook his head. “Where theres no forgettin, theres no forgivin,” he said. The womans jaw dropped. “Well, I never!” she choked, gathered herself and her blanket upand stormed into the house. For a long time, the old man sat and rocked by himself. “Shes right though,” he said softlyto himself. “Some folksll never forget.” The elderly librarian was sitting at her desk, reading, her back to Michael as he entered. Shewas dressed in a navy blue, cotton-print dress with a doily collar. This would be the way he wouldalways remember her, Michael thought -- twinkly, gingersnap eyes and a doily collar. As she did not look up when he came in, Michael tiptoed up behind her and put his handsover her eyes. “Gracious!” she gasped, dropping her book to the floor. Michael leaned down and whispered menacingly in her ear, “This is a stick up, ma‟am!Hand over your rubber stamps and paper clips or Ill be forced to use my voice in a loud and unrulymanner.” The woman laughed then and reached up to grasp his strong young hands with her frail,bent, arthritic fingers. “Michael Johns, you scoundrel! You about gave me a heart attack.” “Ah, Mrs. Crandall, howd you know it was me?” Michael asked innocently as he removedhis hands, picked up the book for her, and sat himself down atop her desk. Bright eyes, framed with sagging eyelids and crows-feet wrinkles, frowned up at him withmock disapproval through a pair of square, rimless glasses. “Who else would it be but my favoritestudent? I see your behavior has not improved since you graduated.” Her voice was stern, but herwhole face suddenly broke into a warm smile. “I am awfully glad to see you, Michael!”
Michael looked deeply into those sweet, wrinkled eyes he knew and trusted so well. Hewondered at the strong prompting he felt that morning to come talk to her. Perhaps it was that Mrs.Crandall had been his champion and sounding board ever since he had her for Sophomore Englishand Literature at Star Valley High. No matter what the subject of conversation, whether it wasgrades or fishing or Shakespeare or baseball, she always loved to visit with him during lunch orafter school. After he graduated and left for Laramie to attend the University of Wyoming, shewrote him letters and often phoned him on holidays. In many ways, Michael looked upon Mrs.Crandall as a surrogate mother. So it made sense that he would want to see her after all thathappened the past three weeks. But the prompting he felt this morning to see her was something more. It wasn‟t a casualthing, but a pressing need. From the moment he opened his eyes, her face popped into his head andalong with it, a desire to talk with her. The feeling nagged at him through breakfast and followedhim around through chores like a toothache, until at last, he felt he was almost yanked out of thefarmhouse by his earlobe and dragged by the seat of his britches out to the truck. He didn‟t evenknow what he was supposed to talk to her about, but talk to her he must. So it was, on this fairmorning, Michael Johns found himself standing before her, somewhat confused, but neverthelessanxious to see her. She smiled at him and said softly, “I heard the funeral was very nice, Michael. I‟m sorry Iwasn‟t able to attend. I was visiting a friend out of town and did not hear of it until I returned justthe other day.” “I felt you there—in spirit,” Michael said, squeezing her hand. “It was a longer time comingthan he would have wished. He hated feeling useless or a burden. Of course, he never was aburden.” “I know it was tough on you to leave college and come home and run the ranch while he wasgetting treatments in Utah.” “No‟m. It was an honor.” Michael said. “I was glad he agreed to come home at the endand die in his own bed.” Mrs. Crandall sniffed, reached for a tissue and dabbed her nose and eyes. “I want you toknow I admired your father very much, Michael. A kinder, more generous man I‟ve never met. Hesuffered with great patience all those months.” Michael nodded. “I‟m really going to miss him.” She patted his hand affectionately. “Of course you will. He was a fine, fine man ... and soare you. What are your plans now? Going to stay and work the ranch or go back to school?” “Pete Grover made me an offer on the ranch and I took it. I intend to go back to theUniversity for fall term.” She clasped her hands, in relief. “Oh good, good. You should. Youre such a good student,Michael. You have a wonderful mind. I know youll go far.” Michael looked down at the floor, swinging his legs. “I hope so. I want to make Dad proudof me, ...and you, too.” He looked up at her and grinned. “Youre my favorite teacher, you know.” She shook a finger at his nose, smiling. “Well, you‟d better do well or it reflects on me,then! I have great hopes for you.” “Thanks. Ill try hard not to disappoint you. I owe you big time for helping me get myscholarship.” “You deserved it.” “Maybe. But I couldnt have done it without you.” The librarian blushed, pulled a tissue from a box on her desk, and dabbed her eyes. Therewas an awkward silence. 59
Embarrassed, Michael decided it was time to change the subject. “Say, Mrs. Crandall, Iwonder, do you have anything I could read?” She sniffed and smiled. “I believe I might.” Her hand gestured toward the shelvessurrounding them. “This is a library, you know.” “Thought a good book might take my mind off things while Im hanging around waiting forschool to start. Does the library subscribe to any current scientific journals or magazines?” “You always did have a thirst for knowledge, Michael. Its one of the things I liked bestabout you. But Im afraid we have a very limited number of scientific publications. Probablynothing up to your caliber, anyway. Maybe a National Geographic or two.…” “Thats better than what Ive been reading, “Michael hopped off her desk to take her elbowand help her up. “All Dad kept around was Readers Digest.” “Oh dear, we can surely do better than that.” She tapped the pencil on her desk in thought.“I know! How about a good novel? Science Fiction?” Michael shook his head. “Dont think thats quite my style. Sorry.” She peered at him over her glasses. “Something dashing then...; an adventure story. TheThree Musketeers?” “I dont think so.” “It has some juicy parts....” Her eyes sparkled with mischief. “Definitely not, then.” “Why not. Too mushy?” “No. Its just hard to read about a banquet when youre starving.” “What?” Mrs. Crandall dropped back down in her chair. “Michael, you dont have agirlfriend? A strong, good-looking, brilliant boy like you?” “Please!” Michael interrupted her, reddening. “No. I dont. Yet.” “Why not?” He shrugged. “Havent met the right one I suppose. Plus, I havent had much time forlooking. But when I find her, youll be the first one to get an invite to the wedding, okay?” “Only if you dont take too long,” she said sternly. “Im not going to live forever, you know.You listen to me and settle down, young man, or one day youll wake up and all your chances willbe gone.” The librarian suddenly brightened, “By the way, I have some interest in science myself, youknow.” “That doesnt surprise me. Since high school, Ive looked up to you as the ultimate authorityon just about every subject.” “Well, arent you a dear?” she laughed delightedly. “You know, Michael, now that Imretired from teaching, I like to travel a little now and again. It so happens I have an old friend whoworks over at Colorado State University in the administration office. Two months ago, she calledme up and asked if I would like to take a refresher course being offered there in library science. Sheinvited me to come out and stay with her for a while at Fort Collins. Sounded like fun, so Iaccepted and, in fact, I just got back a few days ago.” “Then the science you are referring to is library science?” “No, no, silly boy! Just listen. While I was there, my friend and I had time on our hands inthe evenings, so we started attending a summer lecture series. And one of these lectures was onbiology. Thats your specialty, isnt it, Michael?” “Im beginning to wonder,” Michael replied. “What do you mean? Isnt that your major?” Mrs. Crandall stared at him. “It is, if I ever get back to it.
“Of course, youll get back to it! Dont let me hear you talk like that!” Michael pulled a chair over to the desk and plopped down. “Oh, dont mind me. I m justfeeling a little unsure about what I really want right now. But, go on—please. You were sayingyou went to a lecture on biology and...?” “And, I was enthralled! Simply enthralled!” she exclaimed, clapping her wrinkled, benthands for emphasis. “The professor giving the lecture was one of the most fascinating men Iveever heard. The way he talked, youd think biology was the most amazing subject in the wholeworld. Held us all spellbound for two solid hours. Now, I say if a man can keep me glued to mychair for two hours talking about worms and snakes and prairie dogs, hes something extraordinary.” Michael chuckled. “Id say so. What was his name, do you remember?” The librarian looked up. “Ill never forget his name, in fact, because it was so different -- Itwas Omega. Dr. James Omega.” Michael straightened up, eyes wide open. “James Omega? At Colorado State? I thought hewas at Chicago.” “You sound like you know him.” “Not, ah..., personally, “ Michael stammered. “But he is someone special to me. Kind ofan inspiration, you might say. Well, you see, I read one of his books back in High School and itmade me first think of going into biology as a career. Hes quite famous, you know.” “Really?” “Yes, hes been on television and written some of the most wonderful stuff on endangeredanimals Ive ever read.” “That sounds pretty passionate for someone who claims hes uncertain about his major.” Michael put his chin on his hand. “Oh, its not that I dont love biology. Its just that it hasntbeen quite what I thought it would be. But, you don‟t have time to listen to my worries.” Mrs. Crandall settled back into her chair and smiled that warm, gentle smile he loved.“Michael Johns, for you, I have all the time in the world.” He hesitated, then began. “I just dont know quite what to do.” She said nothing, just listened. “I love animals, you know that. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be a vet. Then I reada book by Omega, “A Biologist‟s Notebook: Animal Societies and How They Interact.”I was hooked. Wow, I thought, I wanted to learn more about all that. By the time I graduated, I hadread everything by Omega I could get my hands on and I knew that biology was the direction Iwanted to go. To be honest, though, my three years at the University of Wyoming weredisappointing.” He paused. She still said nothing. “Oh, there were fine professors there and plenty to learn. It was just all textbooks andformaldehyde. I kept thinking I was ready to take it to another level -- I wanted to see andunderstand animals the way James Omega did. Man, I cant believe you got to hear him lecture! Idgive my best saddle to…” “Michael,” Mrs. Crandall said, very, very softly. “What?” “Why dont you transfer to CSU?” There was silence. Michael stared at her. “You could, you know.” A grin slowly spread across Michaels face. “I guess I could, couldnt I? But I can hardlybelieve Omega is at Fort Collins. Are you sure he wasnt just visiting?” 61
“Just a minute.” The librarian opened the side drawer of her desk, shuffled a few papers andpulled out a brochure. “Here it is, the pamphlet for the lecture series. See? Theres his picture.You read what it says.” Michael picked it up, a tingle going through him as he stared at the face of the man heidolized only a slim horsehair less than his father. “Dr. James Omega, our featured speaker, is thenewest member of CSUs Faculty,” he read aloud, “and will begin teaching classes this fall in theDepartment of Natural Sciences.” Michaels voice was filled with disbelief. “Holy cow.” “Well?” Michael straightened, looking toward the door. “I knew I was supposed to come see youtoday. This is why. Now I know what to do.” He bent and kissed her lightly on the cheek. “Mrs.Crandall, you have just shown me the way. Again. Like you always do. God bless you.” Crooked fingers patted his hand. “God bless you, Michael Johns. I see in you great things.” “I‟ll try like heck to not disappoint you,” he grinned. “Guess I better get crackin‟ if I‟mgoing to get an application to CSU in time for fall semester. Bye, Mrs. Crandall, and thanks again.” Grinning like a schoolboy, Michael Johns threw his former teacher a farewell kiss andcharged out the door. Ω “Eritrichium nanum!” Anna Dawn greeted Omega triumphantly as he walked through thedoor at 8 o‟clock Monday morning his third week at Colorado State University. “Beg pardon?” he said, setting his briefcase down beside her computer desk. “The blue wildflowers ... Eritrichium nanum. Family, Boranginaceae. Common name,Alpine Forget-Me-Nots. Genus name, erion, comes from the Greek word for “wool”, and trichose,meaning “hair,” referring to the soft, wooly hairs on the leaves. Satisfied?” Omega grinned at her. “Very. Good work, Ms. Hamlyn. You have proven yourself aworthy opponent. Now, how well will you do with these...?” He opened his briefcase, unrolled anewspaper, and handed her a spray of creamy white blossoms. “The gauntlet has again beenthrown.” He turned and walked into his office. Anna Dawn, he thought, seemed to enjoy this little ritual of his bringing her flowers foridentification as much as he did. He was glad he thought of it. And he was glad for her. She was ablessing -- just the secretary he hoped for. That was important. She would soon be trustee toseveral things of a delicate nature and, not only cooperation, but discretion from his secretary wouldbe essential. His last secretary betrayed him and he could not let that happen again. Anna DawnHamlyn had a straightforward manner and an honest and pretty, face. He felt already he coulddepend on her and he hoped it would be mutual, that she would come to trust him as well. Trustwas akin to loyalty and loyalty was a binding virtue. He believed without question it was meant to be; that this particular girl being here at thisplace and time was no accident. If there was anything Omega had learned, it was to trust in thehigher-powers to arrange important things. Not a very scientific philosophy, but one, which hadproven itself true to him over and over again. In much the same vein, he trusted the intuition that led him to this new university. He couldhave chosen from any in the world, and logic might have brought him to a more prestigiouslocation; but he was not concerned about his own career. Not hardly. He was on a quest forsomeone he must find, a very special, unique soul, who probably had no idea of his true calling,
…yet. Such a search took faith. Omega knew when one goes looking for a single shell on a beachof thousands, one had better trust in something more reliable than logic. So I follow my gut and this is where I end up -- Fort Collins, Colorado, for goodness sake!Who would have thought? He chuckled softly, shaking his head. He leaned his elbows on his deskand let his eyes wander back and forth over his beloved knickknacks and reflected. Quite a leapfrom Chicago to Fort Collins, from celebrity to this humble swivel chair. James Omega has shownhe can dance in the spotlight, now we will see if he can exit gracefully off the stage. One seasonwanes, another waxes. You do not miss the hoopla. It is so peaceful here. It has all come roundfor the best so far, right, old man? Being here feels right. You have to trust in that. You have totrust that you have been led where you are supposed to be. He pushed back his chair, stood, and moved once more to his precious window. Hisfingertips drummed on the window ledge as he peered down, watching the buildings below swallowthe students in gulps. Except for Anna Dawns keys snapping away in the next room, the office wasperfectly peaceful and silent. The afternoon sun beamed in soft rays through scattered clouds above,its position in the sky almost directly overhead. Soon it would move southward, summer wouldpass and the precious days would keep marching onward, unabated. The master-clock is ticking. Time, precious time, is slipping through my fingers. I mustfind him!“ He struck the desktop with his hand in frustration. “This is the right place to look, I know it, I know it!” he spoke aloud, trying to reassurehimself. „All that is needful, shall be given, he thought, that is the promise. Ah, but what a test! Ifeel as if I stand in the vortex of a rising storm, holding my breath, waiting for the cyclone of eventsto sweep my way. I cannot run from them, nor control them. I can only play my humble part as bestI can. And for now, in this decision to be here, I must stand firm! I have followed the call. I amwhere I should be. Surely, he cannot be far away.” Omega drew in his breath and held it a long time in pensive thought. There were heavystakes in this game he was playing. Where much was to be gained, much was at risk. The enemieswould be out hunting for him, soon enough. Like bloodhounds, they had his scent in their nosesand werent about to give up the chase. He had bought himself a little time with this move, but hewould be found out sooner or later and then they would be after him again. A sudden anxiety rose like a cold hunger in his stomach. He splayed his hands against theglass, pressing its silicon chill against his palms as if trying to reach desperately through it, to touchsomeone below, beyond his grasp. He pressed his forehead to the window, fighting to keep downthe anxiety that rose like bile to his throat. The greatest danger of this game was not going to be forhim. Please, dear Maker, bring him here, quickly, he prayed. Let me find him before they do. Ω Alicia Elizando opened her eyes, turned and saw the bed was empty -- Garrin had alreadyleft. She could hear water running in the bathroom. She lifted the sheet and sat up, when a pain onher cheek drew her attention. She touched her face gingerly with her fingers and winced. The fleshwas hot, tender to the touch. She walked to the mirror above the dresser and stared at herself moreclosely. The left side of her face was swollen, the cheek turning a greenish blue. She pulled back with a short gasp. Looking around, she found a partially melted bucket ofice next to the bar in the bedroom. Taking two cubes in her hand, she wrapped them in a napkin 63
and held them gently to her face. The pain made her eyes tear, but it was not unbearable. She grither teeth and walked out of the room toward the patio balcony, continuing to hold the ice pack toher skin. The rays of a warm California sun filtering through the late morning fog touched her facelike a caress. She stood there on the flagstones, face upturned, eyes closed, soaking in the comfortof it. A voice from a lounge chair in the far corner of the patio startled her. “Good morning,Alicia. Its ten thirty. You two slept late.” Her hand jerked, dropping with the icepack to her side. She turned sharply, her free handinstinctively covering the bodice of her negligee as she spoke. “Erik. I didnt see you there.” He stood and came toward her. “Whats the matter with your face?” She turned away, raising her hand to shield the bruise behind the icepack. “Let me see....” Erik insisted, his voice firm, with uncharacteristic tenderness. He movedher hand away and stared at the bruise for a long moment. “I sincerely hope you ran into a bedpost,not what Im thinking,” he said. “Garrins never hurt me before,” Alicia answered, her eyes showing the betrayal. “It was myfault.” “Why? What did you do?” She threw the dripping napkin angrily on the ground. The ice cubes cracked and scattered.“Last night, he ... he was very tense. I knew something was upsetting him, but he wouldnt tell mewhat. I tried to comfort him, to please him....” Erik stood away at the remark, his glacial eyes downcast. “As only you can, Im sure. Thenwhat?” “I, I just made him mad, thats all,” Alicia snapped back, clenching her fists. “I tried. I triedhard. But he couldnt get what he wanted. Finally, he exploded. He slapped me across the face andthen...” She turned her back to the Swede, her voice shaking. “He got very ... mean. Hes neverdone that before, Erik. It scared me.” She could feel him standing there, staring a hole in her back with those hard gray eyes ofhis. When she turned around, he dropped his hand, as if he had been thinking of touching hershoulder. “Hes had a lot on his mind lately,” the Swede said gruffly. “Sometimes a man does thingshe regrets when hes tense.” Alicia shook her head with a frown. “Hes been upset before and never taken it out on me,”she said sourly. “He wasnt himself.” “Alicia...,” the bodyguard cut himself off. Whatever he wanted to say went unsaid, and hisfeatures hardened, regaining again, their usual, unreadable visage. “Go get cleaned up. Ill rundown to the kitchen and tell them to bring breakfast up to the patio this morning.” She turned to go, then stopped. “Erik,” she whispered, “dont say anything to Garrin. Donttell him I talked to you about it at all. Please.” His voice was colder than she expected. “I would never, not for a million dollars, get in themiddle of what goes on between my boss and his woman. You dont need to worry. I never talkedto you. I never saw the bruise. Good morning, Alicia. Expect breakfast in a half hour.” Without a further word, the big man turned on his heel and exited through a side halladjoining the patio. “Thank you,” she called softly after him, but the door had already closed and he was gone. For a long moment, Alicia stood, wondering what to do next. Should she pretend nothinghappened? Should she pout and make Garrin feel guilty? Should she give him the silent treatment,
just enough that he would know she was angry and hurt, more deeply than the bruise on her face?She finally decided to play it cool and see how his mood played out at breakfast. During the threeyears she had known him, he had spoiled her, petted her, indulged her, but he never, ever abusedher. Surely, this was a one-time thing. Surely, it didnt mean he was tired of her or that she couldntsatisfy him. Stop it! Dont go there, she told herself. Mustnt think such things. Thinking it makes itcome true. Hurry. Make yourself beautiful before he sees you. Maybe hell apologize. Maybe hellwant to make up. You have to be ready. You have to be beautiful. Hurriedly, she ran to the closet to select something lovely to wear, tight pants, a blouse thatshowed off her best features. In her rush, she passed the mirror and paused once more to look at hercheek. Not too bad, she thought. Itll go away in a few days. Foundation and blush will cover it tillthen. One thought nagged at the back of her mind, a question she didnt really want answered.Why had Erik looked at her like that? But there was no time to worry about that now. Garrinwould be coming out of the bathroom soon, expecting breakfast, and her. She hurried off to her own room and a shower. When she saw him next, she would besmiling and perfect. She would be everything he wanted her to be and more. Ω 65
Chapter 7 The early sun climbed into a rosy dawn sky above Star Valley, Wyoming. Everything at thedairy ranch was in order, the cows were milked, the sheep, pigs and chickens fed. The barn wascleaned and stocked with hay, the house spic and span. Michael Johns had the blue truck packed and ready to go and the engine idling as he shookhands at the door of the farmhouse with Pete Grover. “See youre chompin at the bit,” the mortician turned dairy rancher said. “Right anxious toget away from these here cows, aint ya.” Michael popped a stick of gum in his mouth. “No sense hanging around here. Its threeweeks until fall term begins. I need to line up an apartment, make sure my registration and scheduleare all ship-shape and check out the lay of the land. You know, get to know my way around town ...check out the local fishing streams…” “And the fillies,” Grover put in with a knowing wink. Michael snapped his gum and looked down at his boots. “Yeah, maybe.” Grover delivered a sound clap to Michaels back. “Well, good luck, Michael. Dont worryabout things here. Im a fast learner, I have three sons to do most of the work and you‟ve done agood job of showing us how the place runs. You go catch up with that dream of yours.” “Thanks, Pete. Say, if you get a chance, drop in to the library and tell Mrs. Crandall Ill callas soon as I get settled, will you?” “Sure.” “See ya.” Michael started down the porch steps. Grover slid his hands into his rear pockets. “Id be downright surprised, but I hope so.” Michael paused and said over his shoulder, “You never know. Take good care of Scout. Imight come back for him someday.” He walked the distance to the truck, got in, and slammed the door. The two men waved andMichael gunned the engine, leaving a cloud of dust swirling behind him as he headed down the dirtroad for the highway, the first mile toward whatever lay on the other side of those mountains. It excited him to think of going to CSU and taking a class from James Omega. Due to agreat G.P.A. at Laramie and an impressive track record of volunteer conservation work, hisapplication to the school was accepted immediately. It seemed a bit odd to have something go sosmoothly. A bit odd and danged unusual. Most of the gains he made in life came with heavy costand no small effort. Just like what his father used to say: “Most times, lifes like tryin to plow witha broken harrow. But never mind. You do it anyway. Its gotta be done, and the fields not goin toplow itself.” So, this is it, he thought as he headed south through the valley, perhaps for the last time.Everything he passed had a memory attached. But he had memories enough to last awhile, he
figured, good and bad. Now, he needed to make some new ones. He was at a turning point fromwhich he hoped to mark the true beginning of his life. Somehow, he knew it would be just that. It was a good two-hour drive from Star Valley down to Evanston and another two and a halfeast to Rock Springs across a lot of wide-open nothing with little to look at—just an occasionalhawk on a telephone pole, a warren of prairie dogs, or an antelope or two. There were a few flat-browed buttes standing buckskin bare, silent sentinels of a quietly hostile and lonely land. Otherthan that, mile after mile of dull rolling swells and washes were the only scenery. But Michaelloved it. For a man Wyoming born and bred, nothing was more exhilarating than miles and miles ofbig sky stretching overhead, meeting at last a horizon far beyond a mortals reach. Here wasfreedom. Here was a connection to ones place on the planet. Here was room to breathe. Southward, a bank of gray storm clouds gathered, looming like haughty, angry lords,summoned to battle. He noticed and frowned a little, knowing how quickly a summer thunderstormcould come from nowhere on these plains and wreck havoc. By the time he reached Laramie, he was getting stiff and tired. He stopped for a shake andburger at a local drive-through and took time to check his watch. Four oclock and he estimated hestill had about another two to three hours to go to get to Fort Collins. He stretched his arms over hishead and twisted his back. Funny, he mused, letting a low moan express his discomfort, how hecould ride Old Scout around all day and not feel a thing, but sit on the padded seat of a truck for halfa day and he could feel every bone poking into every muscle of his body. “Not much better than riding a sharp-spined mule bareback,” he sighed loudly, mounting theseat again. “Oh, well, back to it.” Driving past the University of Wyoming on the way out of Laramie without stopping gavehim a peculiar feeling. After three years, he had a strong feeling of kinship to the college and hefelt somewhat like a traitor, an unfaithful lover, deserting it for another. Hed had some good timesthere, sitting in the bleachers at a football game with his face painted yellow and brown, rooting forthe Cowboys. He remembered his roommates with fondness, and the girls he dated -- they weresweet, but there was no one so far he wanted to put his brand on. That was all right. He wasnt in ahurry. He also enjoyed most of his classes, though something always seemed to be missing. At thetime, he figured it must be his own fault -- maybe he had a rotten attitude, or was just beingidealistic, expecting biology to be this grand thing, when what it really amounted to was a lot ofmemorization and hours of dusty-jacketed textbook reading. Will it be different at CSU, hewondered? A strange tickle in his stomach rose with the question. There was that feeling again. He asked himself for the hundredth time, was he really doing the right thing, basing a majordecision like this on gut instinct? Life taught Michael Johns to believe in reasons; it was his fatherwho taught him to believe in dreams. The former was much easier to throw a rope on, and Michaelwould have loved to back up his choice with a good, solid, down-to-earth reason why he felt socompelled to change horses mid-stream. It wasnt until the Wyoming state line was well behind him and he was on the last lonelystretch of highway to Fort Collins, that he recalled how Laramie was as far east and south as he hadever been, except for a few months volunteer work in Louisiana. From here on, it was all newcountry -- a new state he had never been to, a new town, a brave, new beginning. He suddenly feltrather heroic. The long, late August evening wore on. The wind was picking up and the sky was evergrowing darker. A little on again, off again, skiff of rain made the road slippery in spots. Michaelfrowned, turning on the wipers. Just one more thing to wear on his nerves. Another hour passed. The rain scattered and returned, as if the cloud lords couldnt make uptheir minds whether to war or just bluster. Michael knew he was getting close now, only about 67
twenty miles, he estimated, short of his destination. Not a bit too soon, he thought. It had been along drive. He was concentrating on rain slicks and wind gusts with half his brain and deep in thoughtas to what he wanted that brave, new beginning of his to be with the other half, when two thingshappened simultaneously. If he had been fresh and alert, he probably could have dealt with eitherone without mishap. But as it was, both his mind and physical reflexes were functioning prettymuch on autopilot, neither capable of a judicious, immediate response. As he came over a rise, passing a clump of trees, a streak of feathers came from nowhereinto his line of vision -- a hawk, right in line with his windshield. He hit the brakes and swervedhard to the right to avoid an almost certain collision. To his amazement, within the same second, anold man appeared right in front of him, standing just off the side of the road, waving his handsfrantically as Michaels truck made a beeline straight for him. The hawk hit the windshield.Michael cringed and overcorrected to the left to avoid hitting the old man and the blue pickup wentskidding sideways then backwards across the slippery highway, over the muddy edge and down anembankment. At the bottom the truck hit soft earth and began to roll upward to one side, stoppedjust shy of the roll‟s crest, then thudded back down on all four wheels. The rocks were still settling from a miniature landslide as Michael, hands trembling but witha vice-like grip on the steering wheel, heard a voice coming from above, back up on the shoulder ofthe road. “Are you all right, young man?” it called, shrilly. “Are you hurt?” Michael, still reeling, shook his head to clear it. It took him a moment to answer, to registerhe was indeed all right -- he was still alive and he hadnt hit the old man, thank God. Still shaking,he managed to roll down his window and turn off the engine. “I, I guess so,” he answered weakly. “Yes, Im all right.” Then again, not exactly all right. There was no telling what damage the truck had received.. “What? I cannot hear you,” the voice said. “Wait. I am coming down.” In his rear view mirror, he could see the man starting down the slippery bank. He seemedrather spry for someone his age. It was only a fleeting thought and Michaels brain was still ratherscrambled. He closed his eyes, rested his head on the steering wheel, and fought to regain hiscomposure. A strong hand gripped him on the shoulder through the open window. “You look unharmed,boy,” the voice said with a tone of relief. “No broken bones, no head injury, no whiplash?” “I dont think so,” Michael muttered, not raising his head. “Good. Then I must go check on the bird.” Sounds of shuffling feet up the embankment. Michael jerked his head around just in time to see the figure disappear over the top of theembankment. “Go check on the bird?” he said, incredulously. “What in tarnation are you thinking,Grandpa? Here I am, stuck in mud up to my hubcaps, a good twenty miles from civilization and,hey, I almost ran you down -- you could be DEAD right now -- and you‟re worried about thebird?!” Slowly, Michael pushed open the door and pulled himself from the cab. He stood amoment, getting his feet to hold him, and scratched his head. He looked up to the road andshrugged. “So, Michael, lets go see how the birds doing, shall we? What else have you got to doright now?” He made his way unsteadily up the slick, rocky bank until he gained footing on the asphaltof the highway. His boots were sticky and clotted with mud. From where he was, he could see theold man, his back to Michael. He was across the road, down on one knee, bending over what must
be the bird -- or what was left of it. A pang of regret stabbed Michaels conscience. Hawks held aspecial allure, the essence of freedom. He loved watching them soar, seeing them sitting on atelephone wire or on a high tree branch back at the ranch, surveying their kingdom. They seemedregal, somehow, the royalty of birds. There had been no avoiding hitting this one. It was a realshame. Michael walked slowly across the highway toward where the man kneeled, not reallywanting to see the damage he had done -- the sight of it could hardly be pleasant. But as heapproached, the man, whose complete attention was on what lay on the ground before him, held outhis hand without looking around, motioning for Michael to hurry. “It is alive,” Michael heard him say, though he hardly could believe it. “Amazingly, youjust grazed it. Broken wing is all. It can be fixed.” Michael was close now, trying to peer over the old mans bent shoulders to see. He worejeans and a long-sleeved kacki-green sweatshirt. A ponytail of white hair, tied behind his neck witha leather thong, stuck out behind a brown leather hat. Rain was dripping off the brim. “Fortunately I know a man who rehabilitates injured raptors,” the man was sayingbreathlessly, speaking softly and calmly. “He can help once we get it stabilized. Meanwhile, it fallsto us to do the first aid. Perhaps you would be good enough to give me a hand here....” “Sure, sure. What do you want me to....” “We need to cover its eyes, so it will stop struggling. Have you got anything ... ahandkerchief, a strip of cloth, anything for a makeshift hood?” Michael could see the bird was in great distress, flapping, pecking and clawing at the oldman who was trying, unsuccessfully, to calm it. “My bandana. In my truck.” “That will do. Please, get it. Quickly.” Michael ran across the highway, made it down to the truck with only a few slips and scrapes,then hurried back up, waving the bandana. “Here you go,” he said, panting. The old man reached behind him and took the handkerchief. He grunted. “This is much toobig. Could you tear it into strips?” “Tear it? This is my new bandana.” The old man was still fighting gingerly with the bird, trying to restrain it without gettingbitten or sliced by the small, razor-sharp talons. His next words had a distinct edge of impatience.“This is a peregrine falcon, boy. An endangered species, as you may know.” “Of course I...” “It is worth a hundred of your bandanas. Now, if you would be so kind as to tear me off astrip ... ouch! Tear me off a strip the right size to make a blindfold for this poor, suffering creaturewhich YOU injured....” “Hey, I didnt mean to, I couldnt help....” “... preferably before my hands are MINCEMEAT, I would greatly appreciate it.” Michael was speechless. He simply bit his lip and said nothing. Removing his pocketknifefrom his back pocket, he cut a slit on the hem of the bandana and pulled. Repeating this, he soonhad three strips, meeting the specifications as instructed. He handed them over the old mansshoulder. “Here.” “Good. Now if you could just help me hold her, while I tie it on....” “Hold her. Right.” Michael kneeled down next to the man, who was cautiously restrainingthe birds talons by holding its ankles with his left hand and gripping its flailing good wing with his 69
right. As Michael replaced the old mans hands with his own, the hawk screamed. Hurriedly, theman took one of the strips of bandana and tied it around the birds head. For the first time, Michael caught a glimpse of the old mans face. His eyes grew wide, hisbreath caught in his throat. “What is the matter, boy? Are you sure you are all right?” the man said with genuineconcern, turning his face and looking squarely at Michael for the first time. “Im fine. Help the bird,” Michael said lamely. The man turned back to the hawk. “I intend to. Just hold her a moment more and I willhave it,” the man said, his hands working now with confidence and skill. “Poor thing is reallyhurting. After the hood is on, she should calm down. Then we have to apply a splint.” “A splint? You know how to do that?” “Yes. Find me a flat stick, about eight to ten inches long, if you can.” “Gotcha.” Michael, heart pounding, hurried off and returned shortly with a wooden ruler. “Im astudent,” he said. “This was in my school stuff.” “Very fortunate. Now, come here and I will show you what to do.” Together, the two of them worked side by side, Michael listening to and followingdirections like a nurse in an operating room, as the man secured the broken wing to the ruler withthe two remaining strips of bandana. Even as the man said, the bird quieted almost instantly whenher eyes were covered, although her talons still struck out with lightning reflexes whenever she feltso inclined. In all, it took about twenty minutes to complete the task to the mans satisfaction.Michael became so engrossed, he hardly noticed the rain begin afresh, pattering persistently on hisbare neck until it trickled down his shirt. Even then, riveted to the task at hand, he paid it littleattention. At last, the man said, “Done!” and they both leaned back on their heels, with a joint sighof satisfaction. “That should hold her until I can get her to my friend. I think she will be all right.” Theman patted Michaels shoulder. “Well done, boy! You could make a fine veterinarian someday ifyou keep this up.” Michael laughed. “Actually, I want to be a biologist ... like you, Dr. Omega.” The man turned sharply and looked Michael up and down in a quick assessment. “Youknow who I am, then?” “Oh, yes. I definitely know who you are.” A slight smile spread across the mans face. “You think so, do you?” “Im on my way to CSU for fall term,” Michael explained. “With the intention to take aclass from you, if I can.” “I see. Not many people know I teach there. How do you?” Michael motioned toward the falcon with a jut of his chin. “A little bird told me,” he said,grinning. Omega frowned. “No seriously. I wish to know.” “A friend, my former high school teacher, attended a lecture you gave earlier this summer.She told me you were here.” “Ah yes. The western deserts seminar. I see.” Omegas face and tone of voice changedslightly, showing a subtle wariness. “That was a select audience. Less than a hundred people werethere. My being at the seminar was a last minute decision. It was not advertised. So, the chancesof this friend of yours attending and hearing me speak were small.” “Lucky for her. Lucky for me,” Michael said guilelessly. “Sometimes things that are meantto be have a way of working out.”
Omega eyed Michael strangely. “Yes. That is true. I had hoped, however, it would take awhile longer before I was pegged….” His voice trailed off. Michael had no idea what he meant by that, but, obviously, the man was troubled. Omega expelled a breath through pursed lips. “Well ... I should not be surprised. I expectedthe news to get around sooner or later.” Then it began to click. “Im sorry,” Michael said. “I imagine a popular public figure likeyou gets badgered all the time by nobodies like me. I didnt mean to upset you.” Omegas face softened. He put a hand on Michaels shoulder. “My boy, you are certainlynot a nobody! You just saved a peregrine falcon. That places you pretty high on my good guyslist!” They both stood, slapping the mud off their jeans as best they could and straightening theirbacks with mutual groans. Omega was the first to offer a hand. “You know my name, young man. What is yours?” “Michael Johns, sir. Very pleased to meet you.” They shook, heartily. “The pleasure is mine.” “Sorry, I almost killed you.” “That was my fault, not yours.” Omega stooped, slowly lifting the bird in his arms. “Wehave to get this bird some help now. She is hurting.” “Yes, but theres one little problem....” Michael thumbed in the direction of the truck. Just as he did so, a charging eighteen-wheeled rig barreled around the bend. It blew its hornat them as it went by, the driver staring at them through his windshield. Almost immediately thebrake lights went on and the big truck pulled to the side of the road, flashing its emergency blinkers. After a brief explanation, which seemed to interest the trucker greatly -- especially the partabout the falcon, a tow chain and winch were produced, attached to the pickup and, in amazinglyshort order, Michaels truck was being yanked up the slippery bank and deposited safely back on theroad, the only apparent damage being one bent fender. With a wave of his hand, the trucker pulledaway, shaking his head, muttering something under his breath that Michael barely caught,something about how he thought hed seen it all. “Truckers. Gotta love em,” Michael said, meaning it. “More than once Ive followedbehind a rig like that in a blizzard and been right glad to my dogteeth it was there in front of me,plowing the road.” It was then, for the first time, Michael stopped to think about a few things. “Youre a goodways from town, Professor. What brought you clear out here all alone, anyway?” Omega stood rocking the falcon in his arm, just as would a mother with a baby. “Fieldwork. Research. You perhaps know I specialize in endangered species. Well, there was a pair ofperegrines I have been keeping my eye on, their nest is not far from here ... and I came out to checkon them. They mate for life, you know. I was just in the middle of a conversation with this oneabout it when....” “Wait. You say you were talking to the falcon?” Omega smiled wryly. “Only in a manner of speaking. Anyway, I was distracted and it wasdistracted, and it suddenly spied a ground squirrel. It dived straight for it without another thought inits head and flew right into your path. Raptors are apt to do that, you know. They have amazingeyesight, but a terrible case of tunnel vision, and tunnel mind, for that matter. They see food, focus,and go for it like an arrow, often to their deaths if they are by a highway, just as this one almostdid.” 71
“You, too,” Michael reminded him. “You came pretty close yourself to being road kill.You scared me to death!” Omega shrugged it off. “It was thoughtless of me to step onto the road and I am sorry --about your truck, about the delay, about the scare, about everything.” Michael shrugged. “Hey. No problem. The drive was getting boring. And, anyway, Imreally glad I got to meet you ... see you at work and everything. It was great.” Omega laughed outright. “Glad you think so.” “So, wheres your vehicle?” Michael asked, looking around. Omega hesitated. “Oh, I have no vehicle. I do not drive.” Michael was dumbfounded. “But, how did you get out here in the middle of nowhere?Thumb a ride?” “Not exactly,” Omega seemed to be hedging. “I am quite a hiker.” Michael ran his fingers through his hair. “Id say you are.” “But now, since you are here,” Omega went on without a blink, “and since it is raining, Iwould appreciate a ride into town, if it would not be too much trouble.” “Not to mention the falcon needs attention as soon as possible,” Michael added. “Quite right.” “Well, what are we waiting for? Hop in.” Michael was in biologist heaven all the way to Fort Collins. He kept wanting to hit himselfover the head with a rail post to bring himself back to reality. Could this really be happening? Wasthe one and only Dr. James Omega himself really sitting beside him, the two of them chatting awaylike old friends -- Omega talking about how amazing falcons were and Michael explaining how heloved animals and wanted to learn all he could about them. He was careful to not get too “groupy” on Omega. If he said, for example, that Omega washis lifes inspiration, his reason for turning his whole life around and transferring to CSU, or that hefelt drawn to him by some inexplicable cosmic force, that would have been a bit much, prettyembarrassing for them both. So Michael constrained himself, remarking he really enjoyed the“Vanishing Eden” television series and had actually read all of Omegas books. He figured that wasenough -- -a pretty good, not too sappy compliment, while staying within the bounds of good taste. The rain all but cleared by the time they reached town. Omega asked to be let out at theCSU parking lot nearest the Clarke Building. Michael wondered at first why Omega would nothave asked to be dropped off at his home, but then concluded he was probably going directly to hisoffice to telephone his friend and get help for the bird. Omega came around to Michaels side of the cab and reached through Michaels openwindow to say farewell with a handshake. “I look forward to seeing you in my class, MichaelJohns. I will never forget your help with the falcon today.” Michael gave a quick nod of his head to say thank you. “Let me know how she does.” “Of course. Good-bye.” “Bye.” Michael drove away, leaving Omega waving from the curb. “Man alive, what a day!” hesaid, spanking the steering wheel with his palms. “Can you believe it? James Omega! Right there,he sat right by me! Holy cow. Holy cow.” The young rancher drove down the street and around the corner on his way to the motelwhere he had reserved a room for the night, never looking back. He did not see James Omega standfor a long time staring after him, pondering whether the boy was friend or foe. He did not see the
worried look in the old man‟s eyes, or the grim set of his mouth. And he did not see him, cradlingthe bird in his arms, turn and walk hurriedly away from the University for a good block beforedisappearing from view behind a clump of trees. Ω 73
Chapter 8 It was the first day of fall semester and students were scurrying by the thousands across thecampus greens, filtering into the various campus buildings where their classes were located. Omegastood watching them from his small, but lofty, porthole. “Anna Dawn,” he called through the door. “Did you purchase the item I asked for?” “Yes, Ill bring it right in,” the reply came and in a few moments, Anna Dawn Hamlynstepped through the door, laying an empty, 2-quart glass pitcher on Omegas desk. “Here you go,”she said, a little breathlessly. She has been bustling around all morning, Omega mused, running here and there, like a catmissing a kitten. She has a case of first-day fever like the rest of them. It made her face flush in amost becoming way. “Ive got to hurry or Ill be late for my first class. Ill be back to work from one to five thisafternoon. Professor? I dont understand why it was so important that it be a glass pitcher,” shesaid, straightening. “Couldn‟t be esthetics. You teach biology, not home ec, right? So, is MarthaStewart attending your class?” Omega shot her a faux look of disapproval. “You have a certain wit, Ms. Hamlyn,” he saidwryly, “that may get you into trouble one day.” It came easily now, this tête-à-tête between them. Omegas efforts were paying off. Thesummer had ripened their relationship into a comfortable, friendly one. “That may be true,” she answered. “But I still want to know. Not Tupperware, my dear,you said, or Rubbermaid.” Dawn imitated his voice. “It has to be glass. So Im asking again,why glass?” Omegas eyes twinkled in a certain way when he had a secret and they were twinkling now.“Because, oh inquisitive one, of the tinkle.” Anna Dawn put her hands on her hips. “The tinkle? What is that supposed to mean?” Omega held up the pitcher, examining it. “It must tinkle, loudly, when I fill it with ice cubesand water. Plastic does not tinkle.” “I suppose not.” “It must tinkle at the precise moment I want it to tinkle.” He shook a finger at her. “Neverunderestimate the power of audio stimuli on the psyche, Anna Dawn. Sensory impressions are themost dynamic channels of learning we have and one of a teachers most powerful tools. I have apoint to make today, this first, all-important, day of class and a tinkle plays a very big part in it.” Anna Dawn held up her hands, conceding defeat. “Okay, okay. Youre the one with thedoctorate degree. I respect that. I acknowledge you must know what youre doing. If you say aglass pitcher is indispensable in an upper-level Honors biology class, who am I to question?” Sheappeared ready to leave, then paused. “By the way, that last bouquet of Monday flowers you gaveme, the little pink ones, really had me guessing for a while. I figured it out but it took some effort.” “Good for you. Well?” “Lathyrus littoralis, or, the Silky Beach Pea. Pretty little things. But what puzzles me,Professor, is their habitat.”
“Oh?” “It seems they only grow on sand dunes along the Pacific Coast -- anywhere fromWashington state down to central California -- and nowhere else. Now, I know you like to hike, Dr.Omega, but I think it highly unlikely you tromped all the way over to the Pacific Coast and backover the weekend. So, if I may ask, just how did you manage to get me a batch of fresh flowers thatgrow 1400 miles away?” She stood there, arms folded, awaiting an answer. The biologist only laughed and turned away. He began packing his briefcase in preparationto go to class. “Ah, the inquisition comes, at last,” he said merrily over his shoulder. “There aremany explanations I could give. I could, perhaps, tell you I raised them from seed. I could tell youI am the member of a wildflower garden club that mails me unusual plants every month. I couldeven tell you I own my own jet and can fly wherever I wish on the weekends. But,” he wagged thefinger again, “I will not tell you any of those things, because they are not true.” Anna Dawn looked at him quite suspiciously, wearing that here he goes again, expressionshe used whenever Omega pulled out another of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of tricks hekept up his sleeve. “Drat it, Professor, youre being deliberately elusive. Somethings rotten in the state of Ft.Collins, or Im a fool.” She frowned, tapping her foot. “I think youre hiding something.” Suddenly Omega stopped to face her. “There are still a few things about me you have yet tolearn, Anna Dawn. Someday, I will tell you everything you want to know. When the time is right, Iwill tell you all my little secrets. But not just yet.” She grew quiet at that remark, her beautiful blue eyes showing her puzzlement. “All yoursecrets, Dr. Omega? Nothing too mind-boggling, I hope?” Omega snapped shut his briefcase. “You might be surprised, my dear. You might besurprised. So, how do I look? Is my tie straight?” She nodded. “You look very nice. Good luck with your first day of class.” “Thank you. You, too. How did your schedule turn out? Did you get the classes youwanted?” “Pretty much and some will be a challenge. The one Im most worried about isMicrobiology 358, taught by Dr. Marsh.” Omega slipped on his suit coat. “Juliet Marsh is a lamb. You will love her.” Anna Dawn picked up the class list from the desk and handed it to him. “Not according tothe scuttlebutt Ive picked up. They say at first glance she looks and acts like your very own sweetlittle grandma, but when she grades, all that sugar and spice turns into vinegar. Her tests aresupposed to be your worst nightmare.” Omegas eyebrows raised. “Really? Juliet Marsh? Who would have thought? Anyway, Iam sure you have nothing to worry about, Anna Dawn. If you are the same kind of student as youare secretary, you will do wonderfully in any event.” Anna Dawns cheek flushed. “Why, thank you. Thats very nice of you.” He liked to see her smile. If only he had had a daughter of his own ... Omega cleared histhroat. “Well, I must away. There are eager minds waiting.” “Eager minds that dont yet know who their teacher is,” Anna Dawn reminded him. “In theclass schedule it merely lists the instructor of your class as faculty. Id like to be there to see thelook on their faces when James Omega walks in.” “Ah, yes. Well, hopefully they will not all get up and leave.” “Fat chance,” she smiled, handing him a plastic bag also sitting on the desk, filled with littlefoil pouches. “Not when they find out they get treats. Now, off you go. You said you wanted to beearly.” 75
“Right.” He started out the door. “Wait!” she cried. “Dont forget your precious pitcher!” He took it from her and paused. “Thank you, Anna Dawn. Thank you for all you do for me.Someday, I hope I get the opportunity to pay you back.” “Theres nothing to pay back, but....” a mischievous sparkle lit Anna Dawns eyes, “just helpme get through Dr. Marshs class,” she said. “Microbiology really isnt my thing. I could use anysuggestions you have to give on the final project. If I get an A on that, Ill consider you my ownpersonal miracle-worker.” “Not to worry, my dear,” the old biologist said on his way out the door. “I have been knownto work a miracle or two.” Ω Michael Johns hurried down the twelve concrete steps in front of his small rental home. Itsat on the top of a moderate-sized hill and, in order to descend to the street below, one took thestairs. It was not a matter of choice. He quite liked the little frame house on Pineview Street and felt lucky to get it. Housing wasat a premium when the college students returned to town. They came like a tide held back a fullsummer, eager to sweep in and occupy every shelter with a bed and toilet, no matter howdilapidated. He had tried through a good part of the summer by phone and on the Internet to find asuitable apartment without success. Then, with unbelievable luck, Michael happened upon a FORRENT sign posted in the window of the house, high above the street and virtually out of sight.Calling the phone number given on the sign, he was told the house belonged to an elderlygentleman who had been placed in a rest home just two days before. His sister was going to try tofix it up and sell it as soon as possible. She hadnt even placed a newspaper ad yet. Michaelimmediately offered to fix it up for her if she would discount his rent, an agreement was made rightthere on the phone and both parties hung up feeling fortune was smiling on them. He took the steps three at a stride, his backpack bouncing against his shoulder blades like aloose saddle. Here it was, the first day of classes and he was just one flip of an egg away frombeing late. He threw open the door and hit the seat of the blue truck coming from a full run, landingwith a precision only years of practice can bring. When he turned over the engine, a cloud of blackregurgitated from the exhaust pipe. Rats, he thought, Im burning oil! Oh well. Itll have to wait. No time to fix it now. His nerves tightened. He hastily grabbed his class schedule to check once more the roomnumber of his first class, then gunned the engine and tore off down the street, leaving a three-footpeel-out smudge on the pavement and a vapor of dirty smoke diffusing into the air. Omega arrived thirty minutes early at what would soon be his classroom. The amphitheaterwas still empty. He hid the glass pitcher, freshly filled with water and ice cubes, behind the podiumand hurriedly wound his way back and forth across every row in the room, placing a foil bag on thearmrest between each folding seat. Turning to a table in front of the podium, he opened his briefcase and lay out his notes. Abox containing copies of the class syllabus, typed and organized to perfection by Anna Dawn, wasalready there on the table, ready to distribute.
He walked to the computer/media console and turned it on. Within minutes he had hisPowerPoint presentation up and ready, awaiting his command. He checked the overhead projectorand the microphone. All was in order. For a moment, he stood silently, gazing out at all the emptyseats. Today, the students who filled those seats were in for a bit of a surprise. One by one, theybegan streaming in. Omega quickly left the room before he was spotted and waited in an adjoiningstorage room for his entrance. At exactly nine oclock, Dr. James Omega opened the door to the lecture hall and walked tothe front of the classroom. He stood behind the podium, looking up at the students seated beforehim in the amphitheater and tapped the microphone lightly with his pencil. “Let us begin now, shall we?” Chatter hushed to an immediate silence. Slowly, whispers behind hands, pointing fingersand nudging elbows revealed the students gradual recognition of who stood before them. Theirreaction was one of stunned amazement. Omegas eyes scanned the audience. Immediately, he recognized three faces -- Dean Hyden,Derk Long and Annie Groff were seated in the back row. They waved and smiled as a show ofsupport. He acknowledged their presence with a respectful nod. Of course, they would not missJames Omegas first public performance on their turf if their lives depended on it. He noted FrankCurnow was not with them. “May I get some help to pass these out?” he asked, walking over to the box on the table.Several students eagerly volunteered. “You, you, and you....” he said, pointing. “Thank you. Makesure there is one for everyone. No one gets overlooked in this class.” The distribution of the syllabus gave him a moment to collect his thoughts. He found hewas much more nervous than usual. It wasnt the teaching, or even that he was being so blatantlyevaluated by his peers -- he had performed under much more intense scrutiny. It was because ahope, a desperate hope, that his someone might just be there, seated right in front of him, sitting inone of those chairs. That singular hope pushed all else into secondary importance. He held his breath. Slowly, his eyes passed over every face, one by one. Many lookedback at him, smiling shyly. He gave them a reassuring nod, all the while keening for some spark ofintuitive recognition. There was none. No fire of confirmation. Yet. With a sigh, he rotated hisshoulders and adjusted his tie, trying to let the disappointment go. Maybe in next terms class. Thesearch was not over. He could not think about it now. There was work to do. His eyes brightened to a sparkle.“Good morning. I am Dr. James Omega and this is Biology 451, Evolving Ecosystems of theTwenty-First Century,” he said in a friendly tone. The students exchanged looks, smiles spreading around the room in a chain reaction. So, itwas him, not a look-alike. Amused, Omega saw it register, watched them sit up straighter to make agood impression, noted them eyeing him like a mongoose eyes a cobra -- alert, intent, sizing himup, ready to spar. “May I suggest you check your class schedules and make sure you are in the right place?”He cocked an eyebrow at the crowd, waiting. As always on the first day of class, there were a few students, undoubtedly freshmen, who,greatly embarrassed, rose and clattered conspicuously from the hall, followed by snickers from theupperclassmen. As they filed out, Omegas eyes followed them to the door, where he noticedanother student entering. He looked flustered, arriving late, an apologetic frown written across hisface. The bird boy, Omega thought, recognizing him. Late to class. What was his name? Michaelsomething, I think. 77
For a moment, he reflected on the incident that had introduced them. It was that the boy hadrecognized him so readily that unnerved Omega. That and his story of how he knew Omega wasteaching at CSU. It seemed suspicious that anyone besides a spy for the enemies would havetracked him down so quickly and, yet, a warm reassurance spread over Omega at seeing him again,not a feeling of dread or warning. The feeling was comforting. Perhaps the boys story waslegitimate, but enemies had come before in seemingly innocent guise. At any rate, there was notime to dwell on it now. He had a class to teach. Omega let Michael get settled in on the back row, then cleared his throat. “Well, now thatwe are all here...,“ he winked and grinned in Michaels direction -- Michael reddened and salutedback with his pencil. “And if you are sure you all belong here, and I am fairly certain I do, why notbegin?” Everyone seemed to simultaneously ease back into their seats, ready for the show. Omega said, “To answer the question I see in your eyes, yes, I am who you think I am. Imust tell you I am delighted to be standing here today at this excellent university as the newestmember of the Natural Sciences faculty.” He shot a glance up at the dean and his colleagues.“Hopefully I will earn my keep and they will let me stay.” At this, the audience broke into polite applause. Omega held up his hands. “Well, thank you! That is very kind of you. Now, I know someof you may feel a bit unsettled, being in a class with a public personality as your instructor, but letme assure you, I am not here to make you uncomfortable. Let us not put up the illusion of celebrityon a pedestal, like a wall between us. Make no mistake about it, you are the important ones heretoday. We are here together, at this place and time, to edify and instruct each other. I want there tobe a bond between us, beyond teacher and student. I will, in fact, be very disappointed if we do notfinish up this course as good friends.” Oh, yes, James Omega knew how to tame a mongoose. He held up a finger, pointing it in their direction. “And do not think that I may not have timefor you in my busy schedule. You, my young friends, are more important to me than any televisionshow or book tour. I want to get to know you, every single one of you, on a personal as well asacademic basis. I offer you an open invitation right now to come up to my office as often as youwish, whether it is to discuss an assignment, argue a point of view, or just have a good long chatabout your family dog. You can e-mail or phone me at any time at the numbers on the cover of yoursyllabus. Please, please do not think of me as some beyond-your-reach celebrity from PBS. I amyour teacher. I am here to help you any way I can.” He paused, assessing the effect he was having on the audience. The students were as still intheir seats as a bed of sleeping clams. “Now then,” Omega went on. “We are here to study biology -- the study of life! What agrand adventure we shall have! You may have noticed a bag of peanuts by your chairs. These are asmall welcome gift from me. If your first morning of fall semester went anything like mine, you areprobably feeling a little nutty....” A chuckle from his listeners. “Yet, look at us. Somehow, we all made it here and that calls for a celebration. During thisfirst lesson, let us all pop out of our shells, so to speak, and get acquainted. At the least, I thought alittle tangible positive reinforcement might be in order. That should please the behaviorists in thecrowd.” The audience laughed outright at that one.
Omega took a place behind the podium and flipped on the overhead screen. “Please, openyour bag and enjoy the peanuts as we talk. Let us begin our class with this seemingly simplequestion -- how many animals can you name that eat peanuts?” Within a few minutes, everyone in the room was engaged in discussing and debatingpeanutivores, all the while unconsciously popping the roasted, salty treats into their mouths. Omegaaugmented the discussion with several PowerPoint visuals on variables of why certain animalsmight prefer peanuts in their diet -- availability of the food source, the shape of mouth, teeth,appendages, its type of stomach and so forth. He asked, would a circus elephant, for example, acreature readily associated with peanuts, really eat peanuts in its natural environment? The entire discussion was delightful, but one might argue, somewhat deficient of substance.That was all right. The point he intended to make had nothing to do with peanuts or elephants.Omega subtly noted, after about fifteen minutes, the audience had finished most of their treats. Hewatched their faces carefully now, especially their eyes. The telltale signs he was looking for wouldappear there first. On and on through the discussion he led them, blithely unaware of the devioustrick he designed for them. As students were encouraged to talk, Omega, an astute observer of physical behavior, beganto see the very looks he was anticipating -- the beginnings of thirst. Eyes started to squint and blink,caused, Omega knew very well, by a lack of moisture in the eyeballs vitreous humor. Studentslicked their lips, cleared their throats and swallowed; all in an unconscious attempt to alleviate thedryness of tongue and esophagus highly salted peanuts so effectively induce. Another ten minutesshould do the trick, Omega thought. By then they will kill for a drink. He purposely launched off into an overview of the text, syllabus and course objectives -- aninstructional segment as dry as the Utah Salt Flats, by intentional design. Throughout, the studentssuffering increased, discomfort becoming torture, evidences of genuine thirst written on every face.They squirmed and coughed, barely able to concentrate on a word the professor said. Now was thetime. Omega quietly stopped his lecture in mid-sentence and pulled out a glass pitcher of sparkling,crystal-clear ice water. Every eye in the room riveted toward it. “Excuse me,” he said apologetically. “My throat is a little dry. Please, pardon me.” He took out a glass and set it beside the pitcher. He could see the students staring at him,mouths slightly open, tongues lolling out over crusted lips. This was a teaching moment. Taking his time, he filled the glass with water, deliberately close to the microphone. Sureenough, the ice cubes tinkled right on cue and the amplified water sloshed into the glass with thegurgling resonance of a virginal Rocky Mountain spring. From the audience, utter silence. “Cheers,” Omega said, seemingly oblivious to their agony. With several loud, gusty gulps,he drained the glass to the last drop and set it down with a lip-smacking sigh. An audible groan swelled through the ranks. “What?” He looked at them innocently. “Oh, I am sorry! Are you thirsty?” The students glared at him. Not funny. This bordered on student abuse. “Oh, I see, I see,” the master teacher said, rubbing his beard thoughtfully. “Could it be thosepeanuts, those harmless little salted peanuts, are making you wish right now you had never beenborn? Or maybe you are wishing James Omega had never been born?” Lips quivered. Some students looked ready to mutiny and make a mad bolt for the nearestdrinking fountain. “I understand that to receive credit you must sit in those seats and listen to me talk for a fullhour....” Repressed gnashing of teeth. Did the man have no mercy? 79
“But, if you will forgive me my cruel, little joke, for it was done in the interest of teachingyou something of infinite value and, if you will allow me to speak for only another few minutes, Iwill excuse you early so you can all make a beeline for the drinking fountain. Deal?” Disgruntled submission. No one in the audience was in the mood, or the position, todisagree. “Very well,” their teacher said, “with your thirst, we begin the real lesson for today. Thiswater,” he said holding up the pitcher, “is knowledge, the most precious substance we have onEarth. If you would obtain it, you must thirst for it, with all your might, mind and strength. It is notoften easily won. It is a thing, when you have it, to be savored, every single drop. Never, ever takeit for granted.” Slowly, with great dignity, he bowed to them. The students faces showed their surprise.James Omega, an internationally recognized scientist, bowing to them? “You are students, my young friends. I revere you, for to be a true student is a great thing.You are the seekers of knowledge ... a holy quest! But here is the question.... What will you do withyour knowledge, once you have it?” He took the pitcher and poured water into his cupped palm, letting it dribble through hisfingers. “If you have no glass, no container, no shape for it to assume, knowledge is useless. Itgoes where it wills, not where you will it. It gives you no power.” Taking up the glass again, he filled it to the brim. “The glass, is your purpose; crafted inyour image, it is your own, special, unique niche, your contribution to the world. If you have theglass firmly in your hand -- a goal, a direction, a shape, into which your knowledge can flow, thenyou can begin to really do something. Then all these classes and tests and research papers take onmeaning -- they become a springboard to your power, your tool for change. And it is the using ofthis power, the power to make a positive difference, a personal power that only you can wield, thatwill quench your thirst. “You came to this class today for knowledge. It is my task to fill your glass and I intend todo so. But into what glass will you pour it? How will you quench your thirst? That is for you todecide. You must find your passion and, once you find it, never let it go.” He stopped, slowly looking into the eyes of each of his captives. “When I look around thisroom, I see more than just the faces of a few honor biology students, I see the faces of the nextgeneration of saviors. Yes, saviors. Saviors of the natural world. “These are perilous days for the plants and animals of our planet. Species are disappearingto the point of extinction at a rate unparalleled in any other era of the earths history. There havebeen mass extinctions before, but never for the unjustifiable reasons that are happening now. Forthe first time, this planets incredible biological diversity is threatened to dwindle past the point ofrecovery. My friends, it is predicted that the last tiger will be extinct from the wild by the year2040. Think of that! Think of a world without the elephant, the cheetah, the vulture, the wolf, orthe panda. You are not only on the brink of losing all these wonderful animals so well known andrevered, but hundreds, thousands of more species you do not even know about. Plants are vanishingas well and, with them, the ecosystem they support. What was once a beautiful, complex planetaryorganism is all starting to cave in, like a black hole. “Look at this....” Opening his briefcase, Omega withdrew a small box, about the size awatch might be kept in. He opened it, gently tipped its contents in his hand and held it up for all tosee. Necks craned and eyes squinted to get a better view of the tiny, sun-colored object not muchbigger than a walnut in his open palm.
“This little fellow, when it was alive, was one of the most beautiful, little amphibiansscience has ever seen -- the Golden Toad of Brazil. It used to thrive in the rainforests of theAmazon. Now it resides in this box in my office. Here, you may handle it. Pass it around.” He handed the mummified toad to the closest student, who gazed at it in wonder. “Take agood look my friend. You will never see another. The golden toads are gone. The last one wasseen in 1989. Hold it. Admire it. Its like will never be among us again, except as a two-dimensional image in a book. If you feel sorry for it, well you should -- but multiply your sorrowby a thousand. No, by ten thousand. That is the sorrow I feel -- for every animal pushed toextinction before its time. The golden toad is no different from the tiger or cheetah. It is only oneof many species that will meet its doom in your very own lifetime. Unless..., unless people like youcome along and make some changes. “Listen to me, my friends. This is my battle cry and you will hear it from me again andagain. If you think the discomfort of salt on your tongue is painful, it is nothing compared to thebitterness, the emptiness, the bleakness of a barren Earth. You must not let this happen. You arethe chosen ones. The saviors. I believe, deep in my soul, everyone here feels a fire of desire tohelp. I know you do, or you would not be sitting here, honor students majoring in biology. As Isaid, biology is the study of life, of living things. To be a biologist is to be a disciple of life, achampion of it. “There is a fight out there needing champions. A battle of life and death, but it is also abattle of ethics, a war of intellect, a battle of politics and priorities. And it is all over this centralquestion: is mankind smart enough to co-exist with other life forms, or will he dominate, incarcerateand, eventually, eliminate the complete global ecosystem? Once man was given the Garden ofEden. If things do not change, he will end up with Hell.” Omega paused. His fingers ached, gripping the podium, so tightly his knuckles turnedwhite. It was hard to stop. There was so much he wanted to tell them. How important they were.How much depended on them. But that was a heavy dose of medicine, best given one precious dropat a time, and he had a whole term to do it. For now, the point had been made, the door thrown open, the challenge issued. How heloved this moment, this thing called teaching, this awakening of minds. The importance of it neverfailed to excite him, or humble him. Its outcome could perhaps re-stabilize the fulcrum of themighty pendulum, swinging so dangerously off balance. “Students,” he went on, softly, “remember the thirst you have felt this day. Let itsdiscomfort remain in your memory long after you have slaked it.” His voice was earnest now,entreating. “Please remember it. Each and every time you drink a glass of water, remember it.Thirst for knowledge as you have thirsted for water today. Savor it. Prize it. Do not let it slipbetween your fingers, unused. Find the right glass for it, your special purpose, and take your stand.Make your mark. Let the world be better because you are in it. You are the ones who can make thedifference between Eden and hell. You are the saviors. Now, go get your drink. Dismissed.” No one budged. This was a surprise. Omega expected every student to jump and make a dash for the nearestexit, but they didnt. The entire audience sat still, completely and utterly quiet. Then, one studenton the back row began to applaud. He stood and clapped and others joined in, until the entireamphitheater of people was on its feet, clapping and whistling. Omega looked startled, a hint of wetness forming on the lids of his eyes. He glanced aroundand found his three faculty colleagues enthusiastically joining in the applause, broad grins on theirfaces. He also peered into the back row, focusing on the student who began the applause,narrowing his eyes. The bird boy. Michael Somebody. They made eye contact. To his surprise, a 81
sudden jolt ran through him, electric, confirming, so strong it took his breath away. Was this it?The sign he had been praying for? It was all he could do to maintain his demeanor, gripping thepodium to support his trembling knees. The students filed out slowly, a great many stopping on their way, in spite of their thirst, tosay Thank you, Great lecture, Im going to love this class! I cant believe its you!” and the like.Omega returned their compliments with grins and nods, but right now, he wanted only one thing, tospeak to the bird boy on the back row. But his adoring audience surrounded him, demanding hisattention. Michael did not come down to the front, but merely waited at the back until the room wasmostly empty. To Omega‟s disappointment, when they made eye contact one last time, the youngman simply waved and walked out. Omega held out his hand. “Wait.…Michael…. ” But the lad was gone. How he would like to have stopped him, run after him, done anythingto engage in conversation with him. But Dean Hyden, Derk Long and Annie Groff were there now,offering congratulations, blocking his path. “Excellent presentation,” Hyden said, pounding him repeatedly on the back. “Well done,James!” “Thank you.” Omega said, thinking, Next class. It is all right. He will be back. I will seehim again next class. With shaking hands, he gathered his papers and turned off the console panel. Annie Groff noticed what she took for first-day jitters. “There, there, James,” she said,patting his arm. “Its over and you did a superb job. Im surprised to see you, of all people, sonervous.” “I just wanted to make a good impression on you, Annie,” he said as explanation. “Well, you did. Your words were very ... moving.” “You had me in tears, Ill tell ya,” Derk Long sniffled, melodramatically wiping his eyes onhis sleeve, then laughed. “Seriously, James, you were great. My hats off to you!” Annie Groff cocked her head to one side, as if puzzled. “Where on earth did you get agolden toad, James?” Omega hesitated. “I collect specimens of endangered species.” She eyed him suspiciously. “Ah. I see. And here I thought that was illegal.” “No, no,” he assured her. “I would never take the life of a living creature, nor break anylaws, I assure you! However, I do manage, with no small effort and certain connections, to acquirea specimen here and there ... after it is dead of natural causes, of course, …for scientific research.” “Oh.” Groff looked immensely relieved. Omega finished packing his papers and clicked his briefcase shut. “You shall have to comeand see my collection. I am keeping it in my office at present,” Omega said, inferring the invitationextended to all present. “I believe I could boast it is quite unique and extremely valuable.Eventually, I would like to put it on exhibit here at the university, with Dean Hydens permission,and the assurance of adequate security, of course.” “Of course!” Dean Hyden beamed. “What a coup that will be! A prized collection of JamesOmega on exhibit, here at little old CSU. Very generous of you, Doctor!” Derk Long clapped his hand on Omegas shoulder. “Were heading over to the LowryCenter cafeteria for lunch, James. Join us?” Omega nodded. “Love to. Thank you.” Together, the group of teachers moved up the aisle of the amphitheater, heading for the exit. “I especially loved the metaphor of the water,” Annie added. “Very effective. Itll stick.” “Thank you.” Omega held the door for her and the others.
“You‟re quite the teacher, James,” Hyden said, exiting. “Kept them on the edge of theirseats the entire hour. What‟s your secret?” Omega shrugged. “It is all in the tinkle, Bill. All in the tinkle.” With no small satisfaction of a first-day‟s job well done, Dr. James Omega smiled tohimself, flicked off the lights, pulled the door closed, and walked away. Ω 83
Chapter 9 The darkness of night spread across the sky outside the Spanish-hacienda mansion like afloating phantoms veil. A few stars, escaping the thickening tendrils of fog, peered in through thewindows, where two figures hunched before a flickering fire. Inside, the chime of an ornate clockstanding in the corner of the luxurious, formal sitting room struck the hour eleven. Garrin Cross sat in a black leather chair, rolling a smoldering cigar between his thumb andforefinger, eyeing the muscular blond bodyguard seated across from him. “So, its done, then?” heasked. “Yes. And done well.” The Swedes Arian gray eyes shone like ice under moonlight. “How?” “You want the details?” “Yes. Every last one.” The Swede looked amused. “Thats not like you, Cross. You‟re usually a bit, pardon me forsaying so, squeamish.” Cross sucked the cigar, caressing it with his lips. “Not this time. This time, I was killed!Well, almost killed,” he corrected. “He fully intended to kill me. Yes, Erik. I want to know exactlywhat happened to the maggot.” The bodyguard hesitated. “You seem changed since that night, Cross. I cant put my fingeron it, but youre different.” “A brush with death can do that to a person,” Cross snapped, narrowing his eyes. “It makesone wiser. Less trusting. Definitely less squeamish. Now, go on. Tell me. Tell me everything.” The Swede shrugged. “All right. I suppose you ought to know what youre paying for.” As Cross listened intently to Eriks account of Yo Chang‟s agonizing death, he lay back andclosed his eyes, savoring the feelings of pleasure it awakened in him. To think he had orderedanother mans murder and it was carried out with no question or argument. That is power. That ispure power. “I took out the bodyguards, too. Four of them. And Changs wife and daughter.” Cross sat up, opening his eyes. “Wife and daughter?” Erik frowned. “They were witnesses. I couldnt leave them alive.” “What about the bodies?” “At the bottom of the Bay. They won‟t be coming back up.” “I understand. No loose ends. Well done.” Cross withdrew a well-stuffed envelope fromhis smoking jacket and pushed it across the coffee table. “This is for your trouble.” The Swede picked it up and placed it, without opening it, in his front jacket pocket. “Thankyou.” Cross stood and walked to the immense fireplace, his dark eyes reflecting the glowingfirelight. “There are other matters to attend to, now that Changs out of the picture. I need to pay avisit to a certain senator from California.” “Bob Westland,” Erik said. “Exactly.” Cross paused, considering. “How long have you worked for me now, Erik?”
“Two years, doing the odd job here and there. Almost six months fulltime.” “Yes, well, I believe its time you were brought more in on whats going on. Youve provenyourself trustworthy more than once. And I need another person who can back me up when thetime comes. Not just follow orders, but actually make some decisions, if need be. Youunderstand?” The Swede nodded. “Id like that.” “So would I. I realize I cant be everywhere at once. I need a man like you. Someone witha brain, as well as brawn. And loyalty ... thats key.” A nod of agreement. “Understood.” Cross continued. “The man you just killed was Westlands toughest competition.” “Chang was in politics?” That brought an unexpectedly hearty laugh. “Hardly. The other way around. The politicianis into crime. Behind the skirts of his office on Capital Hill, our upright Senator Westland runs avery profitable side-business in black market African goods, selling mostly to Asian markets. Stufflike ancient African artifacts, animal hides, elephant tusks and rhino horns. Westland finances thepoachers and I move the merchandise. Its a tricky business ... you have to have a nose for it. Bythat I mean, youve got to have an inborn instinct who you can trust and who you cant ... an instinctI possess, which is why I know I can trust you.” “I appreciate that.” Cross tapped the ash from his cigar into the fireplace. “Anyway, Westland depends on meto get his African goods sold for the right price, quickly, and with the proper amount of ...discretion. I have contacts all around the East -- Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Manila, Seoul andHo Chi Minh City -- places where this particular sort of contraband is most marketable. Privatecollectors and Asian apothecaries make up the bulk of people I work with.” “What about opium?” Erik asked coolly. Cross grunted. “Uh-uh. Not in the picture. I avoid that messy business like the plague.Very nasty characters in that line of work. And the law. Big bucks are going into enforcementagainst drug runners nowadays. Its getting harder all the time for those folks to make a decentliving and keep themselves out of jail or, even, just stay alive. Deal drugs? No thank you, verymuch.” In the firelight, Crosss eyes narrowed. “Poaching has all the advantages and none of thedisadvantages of running drugs. Yes, there are some occasional hassles with local park rangers, butthey are, in general, easily bribed. Westland secretly recruits a fair number of park rangers into hispoaching ranks. Simply makes it more profitable for them to hunt the animals than protect them.Plus, there arent many rangers to begin with. The reserves are poorly-funded and sloppily-run.Certainly not efficient enough to protect such a vast area of hunting grounds.” “And your end of it -- dumping the goods? Is that an easy ride, too?” Cross smiled. “Easy? Yes and no. You must understand, my friend, our line of work hasexisted in the Orient for centuries. The people I work with have been smugglers and dealers incontraband for generations. To them it is a fine art. No, more than that, a proud family tradition.As long as you provide quality goods and the price is right and you have honor -- -that means theyknow, if you ever got caught, you would die rather than sing -- you can rest assured the lines willstay open and all will be well. And profitable. Very much an I scratch your back, you scratchmine sort of arrangement. As long as you follow the rules, yes, it‟s easy. If you don‟t, your headmay end up on somebody‟s wall someday.” “I see.” The Swede sat back and folded his hands. “How did Chang figure into all this?” 85
The angles of Crosss face, outlined in the fires glow, suddenly hardened. “Yes, lets talkabout Chang. Everything was going very well, for both Westland and me, until he came along. Heseemed to come from out of nowhere. Took him less than eight months to get his own business upand going, threatening our sources, underbidding us and, in some cases, pirating our goods. Changwas aggressive and smart. His attempt to undercut Westland almost succeeded. He might have, ifhe hadnt been stupid and tried to kill me. I guess Chang figured he could inflict the most damage toWestland by taking out his dealer.” “Foolish man.” Erik said. “Not so foolish.” Cross rolled his cigar back and forth between thumb and finger, themovement subtly betraying his anger. “If he had pulled it off and really killed me, Westland wouldhave had no choice but to go to him as my replacement, paying triple the price I charged.” “I see.” Cross shot Erik a sharp look. “Ive definitely got to pay the good senator a visit. Illschedule an appointment with him next week.” “Am I coming?” Cross turned, nodding his head. “Yes, but just for show. No need for muscle, yet. Notunless the good senator refuses my demand for a higher percentage. With this attempt on my life,things just got a lot more risky. I think I deserve a compensatory consideration. The Senator hadbetter agree. I think he will, after the favor weve done him by eliminating his competition. Plus,Im sweetening my pitch with a subtle, but very powerful, means of persuasion ... Alicia.” The bodyguard grunted. “Then the poor man doesnt have a chance.” Cross turned on him, using the cigar as a pointer to emphasize his words. “If you want toplay with the big boys; if you want all the chips on the table to end up in your pile, you find and hirethe best -- like Alicia ... and like yourself, Erik.” Erik did not voice but nodded a thank you. Cross continued, “I pay you both well enough for me to expect premium results in return.You, Erik, never disappoint. And Alicia has proven herself very useful in the past.” He hesitated.“But...,” “But?” Crosss fingers ran back and forth over the mantles sharp rim. “Lately, Ive been getting thefeeling shes losing her edge. She seems less focused, even dissatisfied. Under the terms of ouroriginal agreement, she was willing to do whatever I asked her to do and, in return, she gotwhatever she wanted from me. A simple contract, yet it worked well enough for both of us. Now,over the last few weeks, she seems ... I dont know ... possessive? I think she wants more of methan I can give.” The Swede sat, frowning down at the floor, “Youre a dolt, Cross. Cant you see? Shes inlove with you.” Cross looked up sharply, then turned toward the Swede, one hand poised motionless,holding the cigar, the other braced on the mantle. He made a dark figure silhouetted against the fire,the tip of his cigar glowing like a tiny red eye. “Poor girl,” he said, tapping ashes into the fire with a flick of his finger. “But I supposethats not so bad a thing, as long as she doesnt expect me to love her back.” He released a shrewd laugh and the Swede, with a sardonic, sideways smile, shook his headand joined him. Crosss cell phone rang, a jarring interruption of this shared moment of private confessions.Cross took it from his pocket, flipped open the cover and placed it to his ear. “Yes.”
He waited a moment, then said, “Yes. I understand. No problem. Next Thursday at oneoclock will be fine.” He listened a moment longer, then added, “Right. Ill be there,” ending theconversation by snapping the phone shut with a click. Thoughtfully, he stood staring at the fire,then turned toward Erik with a sideways grin. “Guess who that was.” Erik shrugged. “Who?” “Bob Westland. Calling me first. It seems news travels fast.” In the dark shadows atop the Mexican-tiled staircase, Alicia pressed her back against thewall and covered her mouth with her hand. She had envisioned making her entrance down thestairs, melting into the darkened sitting room like a taste of warm, fluid chocolate, shooing theSwede out with a wave of her imperious hand, and seducing her dark master in front of the fireplacewith all the skill at her command. She had opened the bedroom door silently, to take him bysurprise and stood on the landing. She did not mean to overhear a conversation concerning thingsshe did not want to know about, but she did, beginning with someone named Bob Westland andending with words and laughter that struck her like a knife. For a long time, she stayed there, her hand stifling the sobs, her eyes spilling tears. Shecould never have him then, she realized, not his love at any rate; which was the one thing shewanted, the one thing beyond her reach. She clamped her teeth hard together, swallowing a sob, trying to get a grip. Was GarrinCross worth all this pain? She hadnt always loved him, she thought bitterly. At first, he wasmerely a fascination, then an opportunity, a chance to escape the grind of coming up with rent forlittle more than a hovel a few blocks from the Berkeley campus, scrimping from the grocery moneyto somehow squeeze out tuition for an art class here and there. That was her only choice then; eator take classes. When you never know when the next painting will sell, and youre always justscraping by, you do what you can to survive. She discovered there was a fairly regular income to bemade by selling her body, which she did; but the clientele were usually college boys. Bright, butoften younger and poorer than she was. Still it paid the bills, if at the expense of self respect -- asmall price to pay to stay in school. Then, by sheer luck and chance, she met Garrin and all thatchanged. Alicia slumped down in shadows of the hallway landing and wept, remembering. She sawherself as she was on that rainy Sunday afternoon when they first met. She set up her paintingsunder a store awning, instead of her usual spot on the curb, and sat on a step a short distance away.There she waited, like a lost kitten, wearing tight jean shorts and a body-hugging pale blue top,smoking pot, hoping for a customer -- either for her art or her body, she didnt much care which --when a limousine drove by, then circled the block and drove by again. She looked up into thedarkened, rain-streaked windows as it passed, smiled and waved, thinking, “I cant see whos inthere, but hes gotta be rich. I wonder, what would it be like to be rich and ride in a car like that?” To her surprise, the limo pulled to the curb. A moment later a man got out and walkedtoward her. She well remembered that first time she set eyes on Garrin Cross. He was beautiful, sovery beautiful, and elegant, and suave. Her heart nearly flew from her chest. He stopped, admired her artwork, and asked how much she wanted for them. He liked theone of a cougar killing a deer. The big cats claws raked deeply into bleeding buckskin shoulders,its teeth sunk deeply into a haunch. The roes head was turned upward, staring over its shoulder atits attacker. What he liked best, the man said, were the deers eyes -- wild, wide and terrified, yetdulled, as if resigned to its fate; as if it understood struggle was useless, the end was near. 87
“Submission to absolute power,” he said, “its a very potent thing. Very ... arousing. Howmuch?” “Fifty,” she said. He gave her two hundred. She stared at it, unbelieving. He held out hishand. “Come with me.” She looked up at him, her head tilted a little to the side, her breath catching in her throat.The words were neither a question nor a command, but their inference was irresistible. It was thefirst time she had felt the full potency of power. The man was dripping with it. “Sure,” she said, her voice shaking. “Where?” He looked over her street, her world, and said simply, “Away from here. And if I like you,youll never have to come back.” “Yes,” she said, and followed him back to the car. A new life began for her in that moment -- fine things, travel, excitement and lustful passion.Since that day, Garrin fed her, clothed her and thrilled her. Then he trained her and used her. Nomatter. He did, in a way, need her and, as time passed, she realized she was in love with him. It hurt her then, after she realized her feelings for him, to be asked by him to pleasure hisclients. She was icing on the cake, the reward for a good deal. At first, she rather enjoyed the effectshe was able to have on these wealthy, influential men. It was part of her new life, a kind of headypower, and the immorality of it didnt matter. But later, when her heart told her she was in love, itdid. Garrin mattered. His love mattered, like the beating of her heart, like the breathing of herlungs. She never wanted to leave him. More than anything, she wanted him to reciprocate those feelings. She once thought shecould make him love her. Tonight, overhearing his talk with Erik, she knew it was all an illusion.The laughter she heard below was a slap across the face, a blow of reality to her hopes. Silently, she straightened and quietly slipped back through the door into the bedroom. Shedid not turn on the light, but felt her way in the dark to her dresser and opened the top drawer.There were pills inside, pills that made the hurt go away. She shook four into her palm, padded tothe lightless bathroom and fumbled in the dark for the drinking glass. She turned on the faucet,filled the glass with cold water and swallowed the pills. For a long time, she held her hands under the cold, running water, her thoughts playing withalternatives and finalities until, at last, her mind began to cloud. She turned off the water andstumbled to the bed, collapsing into a pile of satin pillows, soon stained with tears. “If I push him,” she choked, “hell detest me. I see that now. But, what shall I do? Whatcan I do?” She turned her face into the bedding and tried to cry her grief away. After a while, her sobs slowed, smothered by a creeping drowsiness. This doubly frustratedher because, although she initially took the drugs to bring forgetfulness, the answer to her questionwas just starting to come, dim but hopeful, like a distant harbor light glimmering through a chillingmist. Her mind swam toward it. “All right, then,” she mumbled, struggling against the ever-deepening desire to sleep, “Illback off. I have to. And Ive got to be strong ... cant let him see how much hes killing me. Aslong as Im useful, he wont send me away. And I know how to be useful.” The last thought she had was, “Ill find a way. Ill find a way to reach him. I cant go backto what I was. Theres no other life for me. Somehow, Ill find a way to stay.” She reached up and fumbled with a delicate gold chain around her neck, rubbing thediamond pendant between her fingers like a child with a blanket until sleep came at last.
Ω James Omega sat cross-legged on a Montana mountaintop, back propped against the stumpof a fallen fir tree. Squinting his eyes, he gazed out at a sunset that appeared, as Montana sunsets sooften do, to set the horizon on fire. While the lights on the heavenly stage gradually changed fromchaotic orange to somber lavender, his hand idly stroked the ears of a red fox. The fox did notappear to notice the dazzling light show. It just lay splayed across Omega‟s lap, eyes half-closed incontentment, docile as a lapdog. Omega loved to watch the rising and the setting of the sun, and he made it a point to seeboth as often as possible. In them, he could experience the motion of Earth turning beneath him andobserve the heaven dancing bright with her gypsy shawls around a solar bonfire. This never failedto inspire him, nor to quiet his mind when he was worried or perplexed. The old biologist also loved the big sky country of Montana, with a special fondness for theGallatin River Valley. He chose to be here this particular evening because he had not visited thearea for some time. No better spot, he thought, to refresh the soul and clear the mind. He scratched between the foxs shoulders. It responded with a stretch and a sort ofappreciative purr. He gave it an affectionate pat on its rump. “Off with you now,” he said. “Youhave a family to feed, while I have much to think about and must be left alone to do it.” The fox bounded, soft-pawed, to the ground and, with only a brief backward glance,disappeared into the woods. Omega, watching it leave, rubbed his beard. Michael Johns, he thought. What to do aboutMichael Johns? That was the bird boys name. Yes, he quite remembered it now. A week had passed sincethe peanut lecture and the electric shock he felt on making eye contact with Michael. Surely thefeeling was an affirmation. Surely, the Shepherd had been found! At that moment, Omega hadwanted nothing more than to rush over and throw his arms around the boy. Tell him that he wasjust the person he wanted most to see in the whole wide world. Tell him that you had a mission forhim. An opportunity to do something amazing, beyond his wildest dreams! Omega chuckled. Probably a darned good thing he did not get to do that. Putting himself inthe boy‟s place, the old man imagined how he would feel if some wild-eyed professor, whom hehad only known a day, came over and gave him a big hug. At best, it would have been very strangeand awkward. Completely inappropriate. You would think your professor was … well, anynumber of things came to mind. None of them favorable. No, there was a time and place for everything. The telling must be done very carefully. Itmust be arranged in detail and executed with patience and a certain amount of cunning. Althoughthere was a tremendous pressure to hurry, the acquisition of the Shepherd for his fold was a taskwhich would take time. Then, he paused. Was he getting ahead of himself? Was this boy really the one? In hisfervor, was he jumping to conclusions over a chance meeting beside a remote highway? Think, oldfool. Think! he warned himself. Where were the signs? If Michael Johns was the truly the one hesought, there would certainly be signs. The old man picked up a stick and idly traced patterns in the ground as he thought over theirfirst meeting on that rainy afternoon. That he and the hawk and Michael Johns were all in the sameplace at the same time, that they should—literally—run into each other like that, had to be morethan mere coincidence. After all, it could have been anyone who had hit the hawk, but it was a boyon his way to CSU, with the specific, expressed desire to become Omega‟s student. He recalled 89
Michael‟s comments about discovering how Omega was at Ft. Collins through a former high schoolteacher and how he had decided, on the spot, to transfer to CSU. That scenario, as Michael told it,had also seemed strangely contrived. That Mrs. Crandall just happened to hear Omega lecture, thatshe just happened to mention it to Michael, who had just happened to want to see her that morning,although he did not know why, couldn‟t all have just happened out of the blue. These were signs!Omega felt strongly he had been led to CSU and ,just as strongly, that Michael had been led to him.The powers that forge spirit to spirit had brought them together. The electrifying jolt he felt in thelecture room was a divine confirmation.. But what of Michael Johns? Did the lad have any inkling that this series of events wasguiding him toward his eternal destiny? Not likely. Yet, the lad admitted he felt a prompting, afeeling in his gut, and had acted upon it. That, Omega was certain, showed he was in touch withthe spiritual threads, ignorant of them though he may be. That he had already taken that first step offaith, boded well. Omega threw down the stick, rose to his feet, eagerly rubbing his hands. His heart waspounding. It must be him! It must! For several moments, he paced back and forth kicking leaves, fairly dancing a jig. Asquirrel from an overhead branch, scolded. Omega looked up at it, feeling sheepish. Forgive me,whisk-tail, he sent. I must seem a bit crazy to you. But I cannot help it! I am very happy at themoment. Very, very happy! And the great James Omega, world-renowned scientist held in thehighest esteem by millions, reputed as one of the greatest intellects of the age among the scientificcommunity, threw his arms out wide and spun around and around like a schoolgirl in a new Sundaypetticoat, laughing, until he finally collapsed on the ground on a carpet of leaves. The squirrel, now thoroughly vexed, gave the last word, a long, sharp, berating trill, thenscampered off through the branches to a safer part of the forest where there were no crazy two-legged creatures creating havoc in the underglade. For a time, Omega sat in silence on the mould, slowly composing his thoughts. He rubbedhis forehead. There was so much to plan, now that the person desperately sought for so long wasfound. Firstly, how should he approach the young man and inform him of his destiny? How couldhe tell this innocent farm boy what he now needed to know without scaring him off? This was noBoy Scout outing he would be signing up for. It was an ordeal. Oh yes, a great honor, but an ordealnonetheless, fraught with danger and hardship. Well Omega knew, if he were in the lad‟s shoes, hewould think the whole thing was, well, as a rancher would put it, the excrement of a cow. I will begin by making him my friend, Omega decided. I will be his mentor and, in time, hisconfidant. Before I can tell him anything, he must trust me. And I must trust him, Omega added as a note to himself. I must know the raw materials ofsoul I am starting with. I need to assess the lad‟s capabilities -- intellectual, emotional andspiritual -- as well as his strength of commitment, his intuition and his openness of mind. Can heaccept new ideas? That is essential! If I am to mold this boy into my elect protégé, I need to knowhis strengths, his weaknesses. I need to know him as a son. I expect, if the boy is the Shepherd, he will come already equipped with the basic values inplace, Omega reasoned. The Maker will have prepared him and shaped him, given him a worthyshare of life experiences to toughen him, to build his character. The Maker does that well. IfMichael is the Shepherd, he will already know the value of hard work and enjoy it. He willunderstand the necessity of getting a thing done, no matter what it takes to do it. And he will behonest. Once he gives his word, he will fulfill his oath or die. Reliability. Fortitude. These are thevirtues I expect to find in Michael Johns.
And now, it all would fall to him, Omega realized, to take this uncut jewel and hone it toperfection. It was his responsibility to show the lad who he was and what he was meant to do, toset his feet on a marvelous, perilous journey, from which he would never return. It was to be hisburden, and his joy, to hand the Shepherd his staff. This mission would certainly prove as daunting for the teacher as for student. Nevertheless,Omega could not help feeling a surge of exhilaration at the thought. There must be tests. Inaddition to his education in biological science, Omega must guide other aspects of Michael‟sdevelopment, just as important. How well could Michael handle decision-making and leadershiproles, for instance? Omega eagerly planned to provide the lad with several rigorous opportunities todo just that. If the boy passed muster, as Omega believed he would, then the serious training wouldbegin. Now that would be when the real fun began! Omega grinned, but at the same time, felt asurge of urgency. There was so much to do and so little time! The old man rose to his feet and looked upward. Night now draped the heavens in a silk ofdark indigo and the first stars were forming in its folds: Venus, his favorite planet, ruby Arcturus,haughty, silver Vega, bright, blue Deneb, and ice-white Altair—twinkled down at him as he staredback in awe. The last three stars formed a huge arrowhead pointing southward. He recognized it atonce as the Summer Triangle. It was one of his favorite constellations. But James Omega knew itby another name, taught him in his youth. Heavens Compass, it was called by his people, for itaimed directly at the center of the galaxy, the throne of God, the heart of spiritual creation. His eyes moved to another constellation at the point of the Triangle. Set with Altair, itsalpha star, as its shining avian eye, a mighty thunderbird spread a wingspan of a thousand lightyears across the heavenly expanse. Aquila, Omega whispered reverently, staring at the breath-taking sight. To the Greeks—thegreat eagle, messenger of Zeus. To the Anasazi, Itto-ak-sii, the wise Hawk lord, protector of thebrave of heart. But, to me, thou art Michael the Archangel. Michael, the valiant, who led the costlyfight that defeated Satan and cast him from grace. Great was the victory of that feat! But alas!For the souls who joined the Fallen One and were lost with him forever, great was the sorrow. For a long moment, the old biologists eyes lingered on the stellar image, admiring the formof the mightiest cherubim of all, wings unfurled, ever the watchman over the sons and daughters ofEarth, ever the foe of evil. Omega shivered. A sudden fog creeping silently up the mountain was slowly engulfing thegrove where Omega stood. One by one, the stars were swallowed and winked out. Ah, Great Angel, Omega whispered, as an unwelcome foreboding stirred in his heart, I holdin my hands another Michael-- destined to take his place as one of the great ones. I fear the powersof evil will be no less a foe to him than to thee. He will have no less a battle of wits, virtue andcourage to try his soul. Either he will succeed, and the Plan goes forward, or fail, and all I haveworked for these many years is lost. There are no guarantees he will win. O Michael, Great Soul!For so long I have sought him and, now that he is here, I worry. I worry. When his time comes,when the wolves attack, will my young shepherd be victorious as thou, or will he die as suddenly asan exploding star, bright, bright, bright … but gone? A brief flash of glory, then … nothing. Huddling his arms against his body to ward off the fog‟s chill, James Omega stood in coldforest solitude, head bowed. It had all seemed so right when the stars were shining above him. Hehad felt the thrill of great hope and anticipation. Everything seemed to be falling in place. Hislong-sought prize was real and within his grasp. His plan was being guided by Maker‟s hand. But,now, darkness obscured heaven‟s light and the reality of what lay before him sank in. Well heknew, whenever goodness put up a tender shoot, the heavy foot of evil would rise to smash it. He 91
must secure his treasure, test him, train him and arm him before the enemy found out. All must bedone efficiently, correctly and expeditiously. Omega gave a parting glance skyward, hoping for one last view of the stars. There wasnothing but fog and darkness. He reminded himself, even though he couldn‟t see them, the stellarpillars were still there, strong, bright, everlasting. This gave him some solace. But in his heart heknew the truth. Make no mistake about it. As soon as the identity of the Shepherd became known,the wolves would come. Ω You are invited to continue reading in Book 1 of the White Circle Trilogy: Omega’s Shepherd