Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cosmic Intruder

Cosmo felt a caress on his face. He reached toward Olivia and came up empty. As he slowly awakened he remembered she was long gone. Maybe the cat had given him a wake-up tap. No, the feline was dead too. But something had touched his face. He began to suspect what it might be. When Olivia committed suicide thirty years earlier he stopped arming his home security systems. They had been for her far more than for himself. A few systems in the house remained active, but not the alarms on the doors and windows. For all he knew, the decades-old technology was no longer functional even if it were keyed on.

He opened his eyes and saw a silhouette next to the bed. The shape of a small handgun was in its right hand. The tap on his cheek had been from the cheap .22. Two other silhouettes were in the room. One was a woman. Perhaps they were just burglars, he speculated – young hooligans out for a thrill. He wouldn’t yet assume they were murderers. In his experience there were five kinds of killers: mercenary killers, ideological killers, revenge killers, fear killers, and pleasure killers. The law treats mercenaries most harshly, yet they are the least dangerous to anyone but their specific targets. The ideological types have far and away the highest body count, convinced as they are that they are doing the right thing for the greater good, but they rarely sneak into private homes at night.  Revenge killers at least limit their targets; he knew of no one nursing a lethal grudge against him.  Then there are the people who just enjoy killing, and who are eager to have an excuse. Anyone, though, if they feel threatened enough can kill out of fear. He would avoid making the intruders feel threatened, and would wait to see if they were any of the other four types.

“Hi there old man,” said a young man’s voice.

“Call me Cosmo. I wouldn’t want to be your old man.”

“What kind of a name is Cosmo?”

“It’s mine. What do you want?”


“Have you tried a job? Flipping burgers might be within your skills. You should be able to buy an ounce in three weeks.”

“You’re hilarious. We have jobs, old man. We’re at work right now. We’re thieves.”

“Fine. So, finish robbing the place and go away. Let me get back to sleep.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a gun. Show a little respect.”

“I noticed the gun.”

“Last week you hired Otis to reroof your boathouse, old man.”

“What of it?”

“You paid him with krugerrands. If you had two, you have more. Hand them over.”

The boathouse was the only structure on his property vulnerable to decay. The main house was custom built out of reinforced concrete. When the doors and windows were sealed it was watertight. It had weathered Hurricane Katrina without a drop getting inside despite its waterfront location on Lake Pontchartrain. Cosmo had known at the time it was a mistake to pay Otis in coin, but he had run short of paper money that week. He could have driven to his usual gold dealer to get some, but he never liked to make a tradesman wait for his pay. He avoided checks and electronic payments whenever possible in order to keep his public profile to a minimum. Cash won friends and silence. Gold coins, however, were odd enough that Otis apparently mentioned it.

“You aren’t friends of Otis. He is an honest man,” said Cosmo.

“We’re not. He told his wife. His wife told his kid. His kid told friends. One of them told me.”

“You shouldn’t rely on such a lengthy concatenation of rumors. There is fresh speckled trout in the fridge. Catfish, too. Caught them myself. Take them and go have a fish fry somewhere.”

“Cut the crap. Get out of bed and take us to the gold.”

“What if I told there is no gold? People tell stories you know. You shouldn’t believe them all.”

“You’d better be the one lying, old man, because if I can’t have the coins, I’ll kill you. At least I’ll have the fun of that. And then maybe Otis’ kid for wasting our time.”

Cosmo crawled out of bed. He considered himself lucky he had worn pajamas.

“Geez, what, are you like a hundred?”

“No, but I’m told a hundred is the new seventy.”

“Well, like you say old man, you can’t believe everything you’re told.”

 Cosmo addressed the other two intruders “Young man and miss… this is a bad decision. You don’t know just how bad. You should leave now before you do yourselves irreparable harm.”

“An old creep like you already did ‘irreparable harm’ to me. You would too if you could,” said the girl.

“No I wouldn’t, but I’m sorry someone hurt you. Don’t let him ruin your life further. And if you must deal in revenge, deal it to him directly. Who knows? Maybe I’ll help.”

“Help by giving up the gold. Where is it?”

“Downstairs in the basement.”

“Let’s go,” said the fellow with the .22.

“Have it your way.” Cosmo paused to look out the window. In the distance the causeway stretching across the lake to New Orleans was just barely visible. Olivia had loved being this close to and this far from the city. He walked out to the hallway. One of the intruders behind him flipped on the hall light. Cosmo glanced back.

It was a shame, thought Cosmo. They were so young. In the light he could see they couldn’t be much more than 18. The fact they weren’t hiding their faces was a bad sign – either that or they were incredibly foolish. He led them through the kitchen and to the basement stairs. The treads creaked under his feet. The stairs ended in a finished room with pine paneling deeply yellowed from age. It was filled with disused furniture.

“Damn, don’t you get water down here?” asked the gunman. “The Lake is right there.”

“No. I never get water.”

“You’ve got a bad electrical connection,” said the gunman. “I can tell you that.”

There was indeed something like an ionized sharpness in the air.

“The connections are good.”

“If you say so, old man.”

“Once again, I prefer ‘Cosmo.’”

“I don’t care.”

Cosmo spoke patiently to the intruders. “Suppose I said once again that there is no gold, and I’ve gone along until now just to give you a chance to reconsider your actions.”

“I already told you I’d kill you. Maybe I’ll let Wanda do it. I think she’d like that.”

“I’m not so sure she would, but I believe you would.”

“Why are you using names?” asked the boy who until then had been silent. He was a mop-headed teen with acne. “You said not to.”

“Because he intends to shoot me anyway,” said Cosmo. “Surely you’ve figured that out. Look son…”

“I’m not your son.”

“Fair enough, but I’m old enough to know you are far too young to destroy your life over this. I’m not going to save you from yourself if you insist on being pig-headed, but I will give you one more chance. Leave now. These two don’t need you here. Besides, are you aware that as a witness you’ll be a liability to them? Have you considered the implications? Leave now, and I promise there will be no consequences to you. I’ll tell no one you were ever here.”

“You’ll tell no one all right,” said the gunman. “If you leave now, Jack, you get nothing,” he said to the quiet boy. “And then we’ll come after you.”

Jack stayed. Cosmo sighed.

“A collection of tea cups?” asked Wanda, fingering a dusty corner hutch. “Doesn’t suit you, Cosmo. Were you married or something?”

“Or something. A long time ago, and yes those were hers. I haven’t let go of some things even though I never use them.”

Perhaps he should have let go, he thought to himself – especially the habit of sleep. Had he been awake all this would have been avoided. He had taken up sleep in the first place only to please Olivia, but then he found he enjoyed it. An old Rita Rudner line: “It’s the best of both worlds; you get to be alive and unconscious.” And there were the dreams. He assumed that what he experienced was what others meant by dreams. Sometimes he got to visit people and places in his dreams that were long gone in reality.

“Never mind the damn teacups. The gold! Focus!” The gunman nudged the barrel of the gun between Cosmo’s eyes.

Cosmo turned to a wall and pulled on a pine panel. It popped off exposing magnets and a small wall safe set in concrete. He dialed the combination, turned the handle, and opened the safe door. Inside were two dozen coins, a mix of krugerrands, eagles, and maple leafs.

“That’s all?” asked the gunman.

“What were you expecting? Fort Knox? I make them as I need them. Why stock up?”

“You make them? You’re crazy, old man.”

“Look, I can close the safe and you all still can leave. I won’t call the police.”

“It’s a pretty good haul, Darryl,” said Jack. “So it’s not a million bucks. Let’s take it and go.”

“I told you not to use my name.”

“You used ours.”

“Shut up! And you… back away from the safe, old man.”

Cosmo complied.

Darryl reached for the coins and froze in place.

“Darryl? What what’s the matter?” Jack touched Darryl’s arm and also froze in place.

An aroma similar to overcooked lamb joined with the ozone. Cosmo grabbed Darryl’s shoulder and pulled both boys away from the safe. They sprawled on the floor and lay still. Wanda ran forward and picked up the gun dropped by Darryl. She pointed it at Cosmo. With her other hand she pointed at the safe.

“It’s electrified,” she said.

“Obviously.” He closed the safe door and spun the dial. A spark arced from his finger to the door face. He strode to the stairway and blocked it.

“Why are you still standing? Are you insulated or something?” she asked.

“No. Actually I’m grounded. Not that it really would matter. Put the gun down, Wanda.”

“I want to leave. You said I could leave.”

“That was before the recent unfortunate events. Now your leaving poses a bit of a problem.”

Wanda fired two shots. Cosmo didn’t move. She fired two more.

“You’ve ruined this nightshirt. Good thing it’s not a favorite,” he said.

“Can’t you die?”

“Oh yes, but not from that.”

“What are you?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Yes, I would. ‘Cosmo’ is a joke, isn’t it? You’re from out there,” she said with a wave upward.

“Let’s just say I’m not from around here. You’re at least open-minded if not particularly smart.”


“Come now, Wanda. Would you call your actions tonight smart?”

“I’ll accept ‘foolish.’ Smart people can be foolish.”

“True.  Also, I think you fired the handgun in fear, which is the most forgivable motive – not excusable but forgivable.”

“So I can go?”

“I haven’t decided,” he said.

“You weren’t joking about making coins as you need them, were you?”

“No I wasn’t. A device you need not see extracts and separates elements from the salt water of the lake. The extracted gold particles are assembled to duplicate a model, such as a krugerrand. It’s not a cheat. The homemade coins are real gold, at least as pure as the original. There is much of value besides gold in the water, of course. It’s not a fast process, but it is steady.”

“Was your wife also from… um…”

“Olivia wasn’t actually my wife. And no, she was from Jackson. That was the problem. She didn’t like growing old when I didn’t. It was too much for her in the end.”

“But you do age. You’re an old geezer.”

“Because I so choose. I have to look the age on my driver’s license and other documents. She knew it wasn’t real.”

“You mean you could look 20 if you wanted?”

“Yes. I could look like a great Dane if I wanted. A change that radical would take some time though.”

“Forget the great Dane,” she said. “Look, I think you’re lonely. That’s why you’re still talking to me. If you could look 20, maybe I could…you know…keep you company. I don’t like old dudes, though.”

“So you said. You don’t seem too concerned about your companions on the floor. Why would I think you’d be better company to me?”

“Because you’d be better company to me than they were?”

Plausible. I’d have to create a new identity in order to be young again. That is harder now than the last times when I just could print up a birth certificate and stuff it in a county Hall of Records file somewhere. Then I’s have to sell this place to the new me.”

“But you can do it – make a new identity, I mean.”

“Yes. Truthfully, it’s near the time when I’ll have to anyway. After a certain point, age itself draws attention, and I don’t want attention.”

“Then it’s settled. What do we do with the bodies?” she asked.

“I could feed them to the machine that makes the coins. It would break them down into their constituent elements. Or… Does the old creep you hate so much live near here?”


“We could plant these two on his property and then give the police an anonymous tip. The tip could say he abducts young men, and that we saw him carrying something suspicious.”


“I told you I’d help.”

“Is this how you met Olivia?” Wanda asked.


“Why are you here, by the way?”

“I like to fish.”

“OK, I’ll pretend to believe that.

“I think it’s for the best. But I do like to fish.””

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Tropic Freeze

Lucius whiffed the rich floral aroma of land long before the island came into sight. Prior to a few weeks earlier, his only exposure to vegetation other than seaweed had been grasses during his brief sojourn to the tundra. That was a rawer and simpler smell than this. He looked up at Cygnus in the clear moonless sky. The bright stars were all the light he needed. He scanned the horizon until he spotted the dark line of an island. Lucius had touched upon two isles already, but they proved to be too small and they had lacked fresh water. This one appeared larger. Lucius tacked to port toward the dark line.
As the distance shrank he could see this island was definitely larger than the others. Given the island’s low elevation, Lucius guessed it had emerged from the ocean only after sea levels fell in the Freeze. This increased the odds that it was uninhabited, though it was possible some people fleeing disease and disorder on the mainland had stumbled on it just as he had. On near approach, he could see no signs of habitation. This was good. Very possibly no human ever had stepped foot on the place. As he paralleled the shore a line of bushes bisecting the beach caught his eye. He turned the sailing yacht toward the shore.
Lucius held himself steady against the deceleration as the yacht’s hissed onto the beach. There was no stirring of the kids below though the lurch should have awakened them. Lucius tied one end of a rope to a gunwale and looped the rest of it over his shoulder. He lowered himself over the side above shallow water. By instinct he braced himself for biting cold. The warmth of the water that enveloped his feet was just as shocking even though he intellectually expected it. He waded out of the water and crossed the beach to a young palm. There he tied the rope with a mooring hitch knot. He walked to the line of bushes had interested him. It ran from the island’s interior across the beach to the waterline. He endured the scratches as he pushed through the brush. He discovered the treasure for which he had hoped. The trickle barely deserved to be called a stream, but, when he tasted it, it was fresh.
He emerged from the brush and sat down on the sand. The white hull of the boat seemed to glow. The brass and teak trim looked black at night. A gentle breeze caused some hardware to ping against the mast. The kids either were still asleep below deck or pretending to be. He chose not to arouse them yet. Making them safe was all he had left. He thought back to his first encounter with them only weeks before. They had been anything but endearing.

The grey clouds in the west threatened snow for the next day but at least promised a rise in temperature. Tonight, though, was bitter cold. Lyla was snoring peacefully. Lucius accepted her disinterest in him, but would have preferred it otherwise. The tent offered only limited protection against the wind, but their mukluks provided adequate insulation to prevent hypothermia. He hoped the frozen caribou carcasses on the sledges outside didn’t attract bears. Still, he’d rather face a bear than the Tundrites.
Lucius and Lyla been twice lucky in their expedition south of the ice line to the tundra. They had traversed the tundra for weeks and had found a caribou herd without ever encountering Tundrites. Tundrites killed poachers, and they regarded all hunters other than themselves to be poachers. A larger expedition could have taken scores of the beasts. Lucius and Lyla had taken only two. They had no way to transport more. The two carcasses would be a great coup for Lyla and he back at the Village even so. No hoofed meat had been seen there in more than a year. Lucius drifted off to sleep dreaming of caribou and bears.
Emerging from a dream in which a bear’s claw touched his throat, Lucius lay still as he felt a real point pressing on his larynx. He hoped the bear just would sniff and then turn its attention to the carcasses outside. He heard no sound from Lyla. As the fog of sleep lifted more fully from his mind he realized the modest weight on top of him could not be a bear. In the trifling moonlight leaking through a displaced tent flap he could see only a dark silhouette. It was humanlike but small with huge eyes. He could discern another figure like it atop Lyla. He guessed the point at his throat was a knife, though a claw was still a possibility.
“Don’t move,” said a voice that was pitched on the high side.
“Are you ghouls?” Lucius croaked.
“Is that a nice thing to say?” said the silhouette.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he heard Lyla say. “They’re children.”
The flap of the tent opened wider and a shape there asked, “Everything under control?”
“Yes, so far,” said the figure atop Lucius. “You two: get up and come outside. No weapons. I don’t want to kill you.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Lucius.
The knife point withdrew. Lucius and Lyla crawled out of the tent behind the two smallish figures. Outside in the moonlight Lucius could see they really were kids. There were three of them. Ski masks and goggles accounted for the illusion of big eyes. The one who hadn’t entered the tent was holding a rifle. Lucius hadn’t seen a functional firearm since he was a boy. Ammunition was dug out occasionally, but long burial in the ice did something to it that made it unreliable. He hunted with bow and harpoon. The kids’ clothes looked like synthetic simulated fur.
“Does that rifle work?” asked Lucius. “Where did you get the clothes?”
“Yes, of course the rifle works. The clothes are from Saks, or what’s left of it.”
Lucius didn’t know what Saks were, but let it pass. “Who are you?”
“I’m Meiling,” said the one who had sat astride Lucius. “This is Carrick and Ruben. We’re from New York.”
No one called the Ruins “New York” anymore. Most of the old city had been scraped over by the advancing ice wall. The portion of lower Manhattan not yet overtaken by the glacial cliff looming above it was nonetheless embedded in ice deep enough to bury all but the stories of the few skyscrapers still standing. All but the most adventurous Villagers avoided the place despite the ripe opportunities for salvage. Prospectors had a way of not coming back. According to folk legend the Ruins were home to ghouls who ate trespassers. Polar bears were not a mere legend. They made homes within the artificial caves of the surviving structures and posed a factual danger. Perhaps Meiling’s people did too. In a way, his first question had been on the mark.
“I’m Lyla, that’s Lucius,” said Lyla.
“You live with the… bears?” Lucius checked himself from saying “ghouls” once more.
“Under, not with,” said Meiling. Or we did. In the tunnels and subways mostly. Some buildings completely imbedded in snow are still accessible from below. Natural geothermal heat keeps the tunnels above freezing and the heat difference with the surface can power electric generators. We knew we’d have to leave eventually because the ice wall advances every year, but we expected more time.”
“How many of you are there?” asked Lucius.
“There were a lot. Now it’s just us. We’re all that are left. I see you’ve been hunting somewhere to the south. How long have you been away?”
“We left the Village almost months ago,” said Lyla. “We’re headed back. Could you ask that young man – Carrick is it? – to point the gun another direction?”
“I could,” said Meiling. “We need your help. Can you sail?”
“What has that to do with anything?” asked Lucius.
“Just answer the question,” said Carrick.
“I go fishing sometimes. But none of our boats could carry all five of us.”
“Ours can. And that’s more experience than we have, so we need you.”
“Well, that’s too bad, because we’re not sailing anywhere,” said Lyla. “We’re going back to the Village. You’re welcome to come with us. We can take you in. There’s room for three more. There are hundreds us at the Village. I haven’t counted lately.”
“Counting will be a lot easier now.”
“The plague.”

Lucius lay back on the sand and stared at the sky. Sitting bare-chested in the warm night air was a surreal experience he couldn’t have imagined such a short time ago.
Meiling’s head popped above the rail. The kids were awake. Meiling was a strange girl seemingly twelve going on forty. She was calculating and ruthless, but in a way that wasn’t adult. Lucius still had trouble understanding her. She gave the two younger boys their best odds of survival, however. Even so, he assumed those odds were long. There was every reason to believe the plague still raged on the mainland in these climes. Yet, the disease was so deadly that it would have to burn itself out eventually. There wouldn’t be enough people to maintain a chain of infection. If the kids could stay isolated until then they would be alright. Eventually they even could make the trip to the mainland or big islands. For now they were safer here. He wished Lyla could be here too.
Wearing shorts and a tee shit she had found stored on the boat, Meiling lowered herself to the beach and approached him.
“I think this is the spot,” Lucius said to her when she stopped several feet from him. “We may have to stay here for years. The plague could take that long to end.”
“Yeah, well I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. The only one at risk is you.”

 “What plague?” asked Lyla.
“Fugitives brought it up from the south. They boated to NYC hoping someone still lived there. They told us all about the plague – just before their own symptoms appeared. They were from the Carolinas but said the disease originally had crossed the Atlantic with someone who had got an old seaplane to fly. So, the whole world is shot. More than it was, I mean. If you catch it you will die. It spreads like fire.”
“But you don’t have it?” said Lucius.
“We don’t.”
“Then maybe there are others...”
“Everyone in New York caught it.”
“Is that why we saw no Tundrites” asked Lyla.
“I don’t know what Tundrites are, but if they’re people I’d say yes. We need to leave this place. The fugitives’ yacht is moored by the ocean.”
“Isn’t it infected?” asked Lucius.
“I’m sure the cold has sterilized it,” said Meiling. “The fugitives said it spreads easily person to person but doesn’t survive long outside people. Besides, we can’t stay here.”
“We’re going to the Village first,” said Lyla.
“No! Some of our people left New York when the plague was spreading. They went to your Village. We need you to sail us away from here.”
“Then you can’t afford to kill us,” said Lyla. “You’re just going to have to shoot us if you want to stop us from going home.”
Lucius hadn’t asked to be included in Lyla’s ultimatum, but he chose not to challenge it.
Meiling went silent for a few moments but then acquiesced quicker than Lucius expected. “OK, you can look,” she said, “but don’t touch anyone. Don’t even expose yourself to their breath.”
“How old are you?” asked Lucius.
“You don’t talk like you’re twelve.”
“The ones who acted twelve didn’t make it out of New York.”
Lucius suspected she was right.
They left the caribou carcasses behind to speed their hike to the Village. Meiling and Lyla walked in front. Carrick, rifle still in hand, brought up the rear.
Two hours passed before Ruben, the smaller of the two boys, spoke to Lucius in a soft voice not meant to be overheard.
“Are you two married?”
“Lyla and I? No. We’re not even a couple.”
“She prefers Jack – that’s the chief’s youngest son.”
“So he’s a prince.”
“I guess you could look at it that way.”
“Are you a prince?”
“I didn’t think so. But you’d like to be a couple with her?”
“We don’t always get what we like. What about you and Meiling?” Lucius asked mischievously.
Ruben nodded his head back toward Carrick.
“Ah, I see.”
The eastern sky was red behind them but the west was dark and overcast as they topped a rise overlooking the Village. Nestled in a glen, the village had a ramshackle appearance. The houses were built from lumber and rubble excavated from the ice. All manufactured tools were mined in the same way. No one was in sight and there was no smoke from cooking fires, but the wailing of children could be heard.
Lyla rushed forward in the direction of her cabin. “Samantha!” she called out to her little sister.
Lucius began to run after her but Carrick blocked his path.
“Don’t go!” said Meiling. “I told you, you can’t touch anyone. They’re all infected. She is a dead woman as soon does it.”
“I’m going to help her. You’ll have to shoot me.”
“No, I’ll tell Carrick to shoot her.”
“You’re an evil little girl.”
“Am I?” She didn’t sound too concerned with the answer.
“Don’t you two ever override her?” Lucius asked the boys.
“Not when she is right,” said Carrick.
Lyla emerged from her cabin carrying ten-year-old Samantha. Samantha was coughing.
“That’s it, we go now or I’ll tell Carrick to shoot them both,” ordered Meiling. “Don’t think he won’t. They’re both doomed anyway, but I’m guessing you don’t want to see it.”

“What do you mean the only one at risk is me?” asked Lucius.
“The plague kills adults. Nearly all kids who get it survive, and they never get it again. We three all have had it.”
“We could have saved those kids from the Village!”
“There wasn’t room on the boat. I didn’t know if we could feed them. And there was you to consider.”
“Lyla and Samantha followed us to the water’s edge! They called to us as we disappeared into the fog! We at least could have taken Samantha.”
“Lyla was already a goner. If Samantha had come with us she’d have infected you and you’d be dead by now. I saved your life.”
“You all are fine specimens of humanity and I have no doubt you’ll recreate the world that existed before the Freeze,” he said sardonically. “I’ll leave you to yourselves.”
“Leave? Don’t be silly. Where are you going to go? You can’t risk meeting anyone else.”
“I can live alone.”
“Nonsense. We need you here. Besides, maybe in 10 years or so we can snare a wife for you from the mainland. The plague should be gone by then, and the survivors will be old enough.”
“Kidnapping isn’t my preferred style.”
“Suit yourself. But we can’t let you take the boat.”
He noticed her bodyguard Carrick standing on deck. No doubt he was armed as a precaution against any hostile reaction on his part. Lucius knew the girl was right, but, despite the heat, he felt cold.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Cold Dishes

Geoffrey turned into the driveway belonging to his Great Uncle Ryan, the twin brother of Geoffrey’s paternal grandmother Isabel. Isabel had died ten years earlier from an infection caught in the hospital where she had gone for a minor knee operation. Ryan and Isabel had a younger brother, Geoffrey’s disagreeable Great Uncle Brent. All three had inherited the family hardware store in the 1970s, but only Ryan had taken a real interest in it. He  bought out Isabel and Brent before the end of the decade using loans that he somehow successfully paid off in short order. Isabel and Brent assumed he would be crushed by the huge chain home-supply stores sprouting up in malls everywhere, but somehow he made his neighborhood business thrive. He sold it for nearly $2 million in the ‘80s. Ryan sat out the ’87 Crash, but then invested heavily in the stock market, riding the 90s boom. He weathered the ups and downs of the 21st century market cannily and was now reputedly worth close to $10 million. This was not yacht-and-private-jet superrich, but it was secure-from-financial-worry rich.
Geoffrey never had been able to fathom Uncle Ryan on a personal level. The man was sharp-witted, hard-working, and gruff, yet in no way mean. Despite never having attended college, he was extraordinarily well-read. He always had the air of knowing something you didn’t. Once a handsome youth, today he was craggy and white-haired, but quite fit for someone in his mid-sixties. The man never had married or sired offspring despite involvements with an endless series of floozies who looked nearly identical to one another in height, hair color, facial characteristics, and age. Photographs of Ryan over the decades appear to show a man who slowly ages with a companion who doesn’t. Ryan found the women in odd places, not all of them (perhaps not most of them) reputable. Rumor had it he had picked up one literally off the street. A weakness of this sort typically costs men who have it dearly, but somehow Ryan had contained the damage. None remained with him for long. Each would leave when she realized there was neither an emotional, marital, nor a substantive financial future reward for staying.
Other than in his dating habits, however, Ryan eschewed extravagance and pretense. While he easily could afford Benz’s and Jaguars, he chose instead to drive Fords and Chevys. His house, designed by himself, was no mansion. Hidden amid a few acres of pine and spruce, the woodsy stone and cedar dwelling was comfortable rather than elegant. For some reason, Ryan always had taken an interest in Geoffrey, providing him with summer employment maintaining his property when he was in high school and now assisting with his college tuition. As far as Geoffrey knew, Uncle Ryan extended no such aid to his other grandnephews and grandnieces on Uncle Brent’s side of the family. Perhaps this was because the chronically debt-ridden thrice-divorced Uncle Brent himself was drain enough.
Uncle Ryan had called Geoffrey yesterday saying only that he wanted a family member to witness something. Geoffrey didn’t recognize the three cars parked in the driveway. The smell of a Connecticut autumn was in the air as Geoffrey walked from his Kia to the front door. Although the house was surrounded by evergreens, the aroma of decaying deciduous leaves on neighboring lots wafted on a breeze mixed with the smoky odor of a wood fire. The door opened before Geoffrey rang the bell.
“Come in, come in, we’re all ready,” said Uncle Ryan. He wore a corduroy jacket and a light blue open-collar shirt. Except at the most formal events, which he usually avoided anyway, this was about as dressed-up as Ryan was likely to be found.
“Am I late?” asked Geoffrey.
“No, you’re right on time. We’re early.”
He led the way through the wood-ceiling living room where a fire burned in the stone fireplace. In the dining room at the table sat a portly middle-aged balding man in a rumpled green business suit. Next to him was a prim bespectacled 40-ish woman whom Geoffrey recognized as Uncle Ryan’s attorney. A neat stack of papers and a pen were on the table in front of her.
“Geoffrey, this is Judge Alfonso, and I believe you’ve met Ms. Menendez,” said Ryan.
“Yes. Hi.”
A young woman with an open bottle of Snapple tea in her hand sashayed into the dining room from the kitchen.
“Geoffrey, this is Angelique.”
Angelique was pretty, hazel-eyed, strawberry blonde, and winsome: yet another lookalike of Ryan’s previous women. If anything she was younger than average – Geoffrey guessed maybe even younger than he. She was dressed casually in blue jeans and a black tee shirt that read “Come to the Dark Side, we have cookies.”
“Hi, Geoffrey. I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said pleasantly.
“Um, hello. I’m afraid I’ve heard nothing about you.”
“I’m sure that’s about to change.”
“If everyone is ready, let’s get on with this,” said Ms. Menendez, whose tone and expression indicated disapprobation. “Please everyone sit down…thank you. I’ve gone over the details with both parties – Geoffrey, you’re just here as a witness.”
Geoffrey nodded.
“Nonetheless, I want to reiterate to you in particular, Angelique,’ Ms. Menendez continued with an odd emphasis on the name, “that this prenuptial agreement eliminates any future claim to alimony. In addition, in the event of divorce, there shall be no division of any property acquired by either party before the marriage and no division of any property acquired after the marriage unless it specifically has been purchased or received in both your names. In short, you’re not likely to leave with more than you came with, which is basically nothing. Do you fully understand that?”
“Yes,” she answered with a smile.
“Prenuptial?” Geoffrey hadn’t meant to repeat the word aloud, but it had gotten away from him in his surprise.
“Yes,” said Angelique. “I’m going to be your great aunt. How trippy is that?”
Ms. Menendez slid the papers with a pen on top to Angelique. “Please sign all four copies at the indicated place.”
Angelique did so without a glance at the text. She passed the papers to Ryan who signed and slid them to Geoffrey.
 “Please witness the signature at the indicated place on the bottom,” said the attorney.
Geoffrey did. He noticed the name on the prenup was “Lee Ann Smets,” so “Angelique” was her own – or perhaps Ryan’s – invention.
“OK Ry, I’m going to get ready now,” said Angelique. “I won’t be long.”
She got up and headed toward the bedrooms.
“And I’m leaving, too,” said the attorney. “I’ll leave copies for you two, and will file one in the courthouse. Judge, I leave the rest to you.”
“Of course. See you in court sometime, Elena.”
Ms. Menendez treated Ryan to one more scornful squint, and strode to the door, banging it behind her.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Judge,” said Ryan.
“Quite all right. Truth be told, I came early in order to see this.”
“I hope we were suitably entertaining.”
“Oh, yes.”
“Is that everything you want from me, Uncle Ryan?” asked Geoffrey.
“No, no, my boy. You’re here to witness one more thing.”
Carrying a small camera, Angelique re-entered the room in a tennis outfit. She spun around. “This is the only thing white I have with me,” she said.
“You look delightful,” said Ryan.
“Geoffrey, take this camera. Start ‘record’ by touching this. But when this is over, don’t you dare call me Aunt Angelique,” she said with a wink.
They entered the living room. Judge Alfonso stood with his back to the fireplace while Ryan and Angelique faced him. Geoffrey stood back and recorded as the judge intermediated a simple exchange of vows. Alfonso declared them married. It was all over in two minutes. Angelique gave Ryan a quick peck.
“I’ll get comfortable again and pack a few things,” she said before bouncing back to the bedroom.
“We’re going to Charleston for the weekend,” Ryan explained to Geoffrey.
“I see.”
“No, I don’t think you do. Not yet anyway.” He handed Judge Alfonso an envelope. “Thank you for your help.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it. I’ll let myself out.”
“Thanks again. Geoff, my boy, come and talk with me.”
Ryan led the way to his study, which was lined with overstuffed bookshelves on every wall. He shut the door behind them. He sat down behind his desk. Geoffrey sat in a wing chair
“So, what do you think of the blushing bride?” asked Ryan.
“She seems nice.”
“I didn’t ask you in here to exchange inane pleasantries. You can be more honest than that. Be so. Your next and final semester’s tuition is pre-paid – don’t thank me! – so there is no risk to offending me.”
Geoffrey took a deep breath. “OK,” he said. “Well, she’s not blushing but she is awfully young. May I ask how young?”
“We usually ask ‘how old,’ but no matter. She’s 19.”
“Two years younger than I am. Oh, Uncle Ryan... Where did you find her?”
“California, with private detectives.”
“You’re not kidding. Why?”
“I am not kidding. I’ll explain why shortly. So, you disapprove.”
“No, not as such, but…well, she could be your granddaughter.”
“The thought has crossed my mind.”
Geoffrey’s stomach was suddenly unsettled. “You don’t mean…”
“No, of course not. Even I am not that twisted. Did you know I had a vasectomy back in the ‘70s? They were very popular at the time for those with no interest in children. That’s before all those ‘80s diseases started making us wear condoms again anyway. It rather defeated the point.”
“No, I didn’t know, and this conversation is taking a very odd turn. Perhaps I should go, Uncle Ryan.”
“Please, not yet. There is more you should know.”
“Well…alright. But marriage… why now, Uncle Ryan? Why marry after all these years? Why this kid instead of any one of the others who looked just like her?”
“Maybe because this one, who isn’t really a kid, isn’t quite like the others. Or maybe because I wasn’t ready to die on the inside until I was ready to die on the outside.”
“I don’t understand.”
“A small attempt at a joke. I’m dying, Geoffrey. That’s what there is to understand. The doctors give me six months at the outside, unless I submit to vigorous, harsh, and expensive treatment, in which case I might last a year. I’ll skip the torture and take the six months. Don’t worry, you’ll get the Mustang.”
“Uncle Ryan… So this is a final fling? You wanted to get married once before…before…”
“‘Death’ is the word you’re groping for. Not exactly a fling. First answer this, and be honest. I haven’t time for evasions. What do you think of your Great Uncle Brent?”
“Well, grandma didn’t like him much. Neither does dad. He tried to hit them up for money all the time. He still calls my dad. I know he is your brother and you two are close, but…”
“What makes you think we’re close?”
“Dad says that if it weren’t for you, Uncle Brent would be bankrupt – that you’ve bailed him out repeatedly and kept the bank from taking his house. You don’t do that for an enemy.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it seems improbable. Uncle Brent also seems to think he is inheriting your estate. That’s what he told my dad anyway. It’s how he said he would pay back the money he wanted from dad, though I don’t know why he thought he would outlive you… unless he knew about your…uh…condition.”
“He does not. And your assessment of Brent is far too kind. He is a drunken, lying, cheating, thieving, pill-popping, self-indulgent skunk with a gambling addiction.”
“Oh! I just realized…he’ll be horrified that you’re married,” said Geoffrey.
“I’m sure you’ll be getting a call from him as soon as he hears about it. Please reassure him that you witnessed a very stringent prenup and that my existing Will remains unaltered. I want you to promise me you’ll do that.”
“OK, Uncle Ryan, but I don’t understand why you are so generous to him if you dislike him.”
“Sometimes in order to be sure a fall is devastating, you have to be sure the object you drop is sufficiently high off the ground. I’ve been keeping Brent high enough off the ground.”
“What kind of fall?”
“Ah, that brings us to the story. Did you know that you and Brent are not blood related? No? Well, you’re not. You and I are, but not he. You see, your grandmother Isabel and I were adopted as twins. We weren’t supposed to know, but kids find everything in a house; there are no safe storage places. Isabel found the adoption papers and showed them to me when we were little. We never let on that we knew. Our adoptive parents after ten years of marriage apparently had assumed that they were unable to have children of their own, but then, as not infrequently happens after adoption – hormonal changes or something – they did conceive one of their own after all: your Uncle Brent. The three of us grew up working in our parents’ hardware store. I was the only one who enjoyed it.
“All three of us were good students – even Brent despite his laziness and chronic lateness with assignments. The problem was that there really wasn’t enough money in our family for college tuition for all three of us. So, while still in high school I agreed to work the store when it came time for Brent and Isabel to go on and get their degrees. I was confident I could educate myself through my own reading – especially if Isabel would share with me her texts and notes. She said she would. Life was not all work and school though. I met a young lady. These are pictures I rarely show to anyone.”
Ryan unlocked a drawer in his desk and removed a small box containing photos. He handed them to Geoffrey who flipped through them. The young Ryan in the photos was almost unrecognizable, but despite the headband, fringe leather jacket, and granny glasses, the young woman with him could have been Angelique.
“Is this…?”
“You have a habit of not finishing awkward questions and statements, Geoffrey. Work on that. Yes, this is the original – the first of the line and the only one who mattered, until now.”
“Who is she?”
“Her name was Angelica. And no, that’s not an assumed name like Angelique. Have you ever been in love, Geoffrey?”
“Um, maybe. Yeah, I think so.”
“Let me clarify matters for you. No, you haven’t been, or you wouldn’t be expressing any doubt. Well, I was – am – in love. Angelica was my first, and, in a sense, the last.”
“Did she feel the same way?”
“In a word, no. This was the 1960s and she was a free spirit, very much in sync with the times. She loved me to be sure, but she loved lots of people. That was OK. It was who she was. In that era I was a serious minded young man and she was a much needed unfettered counterbalance. She taught me how to dance – not very well but well enough for us to attend the Senior Prom, which she agreed to do with the words, ‘Sure, sounds like a trip.’ She taught me everything about life and love that you can’t learn in school or in a job. So, though she was not ready to settle down so young, I was sure that in time she would want to – and would want to with me. Even if it took years, I would be there for her.”
“But she didn’t end up with you. What happened?”
“War. It turned out that there was one piece of paper more important than a Bachelor of Arts of which my absence from college deprived me: a 2S student deferment for the Selective Service. I was drafted. While I was in Vietnam, my brother Brent attended college demonstrations against the war in which I was fighting. Out of habit, Angelica continued to stop by my house and the family store, and soon she was joining him in the marches. While I was fighting the NVA at Snoul during the Cambodian incursion with the 11th Armored Cavalry, she was protesting that same operation with my brother in DC, camping out at night in the hallways of the dorms at GWU. She was joining him in more intimate ways as well. He didn’t really care for her as I did. For him she was just another dalliance. Perhaps she regarded him the same way, but he was just enough influence on her to turn her mind and affections away from me permanently.
“Shortly before I returned to the States, she left Connecticut. She was going to California, she said to Brent. She never sent either one of us so much as a postcard ever again. She’d always been on rocky terms with her family so she didn’t stay in touch with them either. I looked for her with the limited resources I had available then. Social networks and cyber-footprints did not exist as they do today, however. You could disappear easily if you wanted to.”
“Uncle Ryan, I hesitate to say this, but she left you. She obviously didn’t want to be with you anymore.”
“Maybe, but I wanted to hear that from her. I would have overlooked the Brent affair, much as I hated it. I wanted to state my case, and, if she still refused to give us another shot, I’d have let her be. But I wanted to hear it from her.”
“So, instead of the woman you wanted, you’ve been finding substitutes for her time and again ever since. Uncle Ryan…”
“If you have something to say boy, spit it out.”
“You do realize that these substitutes of yours can’t possibly have much resemblance to the real thing. Your old girlfriend has lived a lifetime since you last saw her and has become someone else. She is collecting Social Security.”
“No, actually she isn’t. I know because I did find her eventually, though it took a decade. She never went to California. She went to a commune in New Mexico. There she developed a serious substance abuse problem and died of a heroin overdose in 1979, but not before having given birth to a daughter whom she gave up for adoption. From the birth date, I was pretty sure the child was Brent’s.”
“You blame him for Angelica’s death as well as for the betrayal of your trust.”
“Indeed I do,” said Ryan. “The smallest change in her life could have made all the difference. Her downward spiral began with Brent.”
“So, you hate your brother…really hate your brother…but keep helping him because of the old advice to ‘keep your enemies closer?’”
“Precisely. Do you know how eagerly he awaits my demise? He has debts amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, many of them owed to very dangerous people. Only my largesse has kept him from bankruptcy and from the hospital. His belief that he is my prime beneficiary is all that keeps him going. He’ll be much relieved to hear of the prenup and the unchanged Will.”
“I’m sure he will be. But then what does your young wife Angelique have to do with your issues with your brother?”
“Because the existing Will that remains unchanged is the one I filed six months ago when I first found Angelique, not an older one. Brent is cut out completely. She will get the bulk of my estate and, now that we are married, the Will will be very hard to contest. If my brother does try to contest it, she will fight him for every scrap. Angelique, you see, is an unapologetic golddigger, and I’m proud of her for that. I’m relying on it. She won’t let her heritage weaken her grip on what is due her. Angelique is Angelica’s granddaughter – and DNA confirms she is Brent’s, too. I was able to track adoption leads for her mother – not always entirely legally – and they led me eventually to her and to Angelique. I have paid Brent back at last. At his moment of his highest hopes and expectations, I intend to rob Brent of his future, his past, his anticipated fortune, and of a family he didn’t know he had.”
“Uncle Ryan, you asked me to be honest. Cavorting with the granddaughter, legal age notwithstanding, of your old girlfriend and your adopted brother is creepy. Also, I’m not sure I’m comfortable helping you with your frankly perverse revenge.”
“I suspected you might feel that way, so fully one million dollars (and the Mustang) is earmarked in my Will for you – provided you keep my confidence prior to its execution. The other 9 million or so goes to Angelique. I assume that will help overcome your distaste for the situation and assuage your conscience.”
“But Uncle Ryan…how do I put this? You won’t be able to enjoy your moment of vengeance because…because you won’t be here.”
“I’m enjoying it now, Geoffrey. That’s quite enough. There are times when revenge is best served not only as a cold dish but by a cold host. And now, I have a honeymoon waiting for me, so move along, Geoffrey. Keep your promise and my confidence. If I don’t see you again, it is likely you nonetheless will see me.”

It was a chilly overcast March day at the gravesite. The grass was still wet from an early morning rain. Geoffrey stood next to Angelique who looked stunning in a black mini-dress. Suppressing a smirk, she elbowed Geoffrey lightly in the ribs.
“You really shouldn’t be stealing glances like that at your widowed great aunt,” she whispered.
“You asked me not to refer to you that way, Angelique.”
“Did I?”
“Yes. Do you really think Uncle Brent committed suicide?”
“No,” she said. “He thought too highly of himself for that. His underworld creditors strung him up once they were sure he could never pay them.”
“That was my take on it. I liked Uncle Ryan despite everything, you know, but I feel sad that he wasted his life living in the past and plotting revenge.”
“Wasted his life? He did nothing of the sort. If he had married my grandmother, who from all accounts was a flake, that great love of his wouldn’t have lasted a year. They probably would have divorced, and then he really would have been a bitter, broken, and cynical man. By idealizing her and dedicating himself to avenging her he illumined his life, not wasted it. He lived as a romantic and died fulfilled. And what do you mean by ‘despite everything’? Does that mean me?” asked Angelique.
“No…I meant…”
“It’s annoying when you don’t finish your sentences.”
“So I’ve been told. I meant the vengeance thing, though your defense of it is interesting. I’m not sure I agree with you.”
“You are perfectly within your rights to be wrong.”
“I see. You know we’re not really related,” Geoffrey observed.
“I know, but this is not really the time or place to discuss what you’re hinting at so unsubtly. Besides, I’m a free spirit, just so you know. I’ll certainly never get too serious about anyone poorer than myself – which you are, at least as of now. You, on the other hand, strike me as obsessive, like your great uncle. If I played with you and left you, I think you would take it pretty hard.”
“Maybe. But maybe you were right about my uncle, in which case there is something to be said for family tradition.”

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Ethan Fleming sat against the wall of the self-proclaimed “gentlemen’s club” Route 69 trying to make himself invisible. The club’s name was as misleading as its description. It was located on a particularly unattractive stretch of Route 206 in central New Jersey. There were few gentlemen on hand, though the club was fairly crowded. Ethan scribbled notes in his pocket sized notebook with a mechanical pencil. He knew his hero, physicist Richard Feynman, who had received his PhD from nearby Princeton University in 1942, did some of his best work in clubs such as this one. It really wasn’t working for Ethan though. He found the unclad ladies distracting rather than inspiring. Much of his discomfort was due to the fear that they would approach him for tips. He had little money to offer.
Ethan sipped his club soda. Route 69 served only soft drinks and non-alcoholic beer because legislators in Trenton, after much deep thought, had concluded that seeing nude women while imbibing alcohol was too much fun for anyone in New Jersey to have in one place. So, a club could have liquor or nudity but not both. The odd result was that 18-year-old men could enter a club with nude dancers but had wait until the legal drinking age of 21 to see them clothed. Ethan was 21 but had opted for epidermis over ethanol. He stared at his notepad as though willing new calculations to appear on it.
A hand snapped fingers in front of Ethan’s nose. He looked up to see as close to a representation of a life-size Barbie Doll as was possible without major surgery. She wore a short blue dress. Her platinum hair was pulled back into a pony tail. In her spike heels she towered over Ethan. Ethan claimed to be 5’9”, even on his driver’s license. The claim was a two-inch lie. He guessed the woman was at least 5’11”, even without heels. Ethan adjusted his wire rim glasses.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You didn’t look at me during my set.” She spoke with a Russian accent as did many of the dancers in the club.
Ethan handed her the note pad. There were sketches of spheres within spheres. Chemical symbols and complex calculations surrounded them.
“Are you a grad student at Princeton?’ she asked.
Rutgers. Princeton is too pricey for me, even if I could get in.”
“What is this supposed to be?” she frowned as she leafed backward through the pages. “Some sort of half-assed bomb core? You have access to Pu239?”
“No, of course not – to both questions.” Ethan was surprised that the Barbie seemed to understand his notes.
“Just as well. This won’t work,” she said as she handed back the pad.
“Well, that depends on what it is, doesn’t it?” he said.
“Want to buy me a drink and tell me about it?”
Ethan mentally counted his cash, and decided he would skip lunch tomorrow – maybe dinner, too. “OK.”
She squeezed into a small wooden chair between Ethan and an overweight bald man with bad breath and sweat-stained underarms.
“I’m Svetlana. You can call me Lana,” she said.
 “You can sit on my lap if you’re crowded, doll,” said the sweating bald man.
“Thanks, but maybe later,” she answered the fellow without looking at him.
Unasked, a barmaid brought Lana a small orange juice.
“That’ll be $30,” the barmaid said to Ethan.
“You’re kidding.”
She wasn’t kidding. Paying for the drink left Ethan with $2 in his wallet.
“So what’s this all about?” Lana asked.
“It’s a little hard to explain.”
“Try me. Brains aren’t required in here, but they aren’t actually forbidden.”
“I’m not judging,” he said.
“Yes you are, but tell me about your notes anyway.”
“OK. I’m toying with ways to make higher elements by implosion rather than with cyclotrons,” said Ethan. “Just in principle, you understand.”
Ethan paused, still astonished to be having this conversation. He wondered if Feynman had been onto something after all. Maybe there was an ecdysiast with whom he should have shared credit for his theory of quantum electrodynamics.
“Well,” he continued, “to put it simply, there are 92 naturally occurring elements, uranium being element 92. Heavier transuranic elements can be produced artificially by slamming together nuclei of lighter atoms. Under the right conditions the pieces stick – chunks of them do anyway – and form new elements. But few of them last long – in most cases just milliseconds. The length of their half-lives depends on the atomic number, the ratio of neutrons to protons, the shape of the nucleus, and a few other factors. But the numbers suggest that some very heavy elements could have isotopes with long half-lives – a so-called ‘island of stability.’ The 310 isotope of element 126 is a candidate, for example. The problem is that the energy necessary to slam together a nucleus that size in a cyclotron is also enough to make it spin so fast that it splits. Implosion pressure, on the other hand, such as inside a massive collapsing star, might do the job – in principle. It’s a little hard to duplicate those conditions in practice.”
“So you want to implode your little balls to make new artificial elements?” Lana asked, tapping his pad with a finger.
The sweaty man spoke up. “You’re going to do what to his…?”
“Don’t say it!” Lana cut him off, again without looking at him.
Insulted, the sweaty man got up and left, muttering to himself.
“Well, yes,” answered Ethan, “but it’s just a thought experiment.”
“You have the wrong isotope of thorium,” she said.
A raspy voice uttered, “Hey, Bimboski.”
Ethan looked up. The voice belonged to the night manager, Beth. Beth was a diminutive but scary woman with a face hidden under several strata of makeup. Her head was topped by an explosion of green and purple hair.
“Didn’t you hear me?” she said Lana. “You’re up.”
“Bimboskaya,” Lana corrected.
The manager shook her head and walked off.
“Hand me your cell phone,” said Lana.
“You want my phone?”
“Is my accent too heavy for you?”
“Uh, no.” Ethan gave her his cell. Lana tapped on it.
“I just messaged myself. Now I have your number and you have mine. I’ve got to go work. I’ll call.”
Lana returned to the stage to begin her set. On the way she set her untouched orange juice on the bar.  With two dollars in his wallet, Ethan had no reason to stay. He hoped there was enough gas in his car to get him back to New Brunswick.
On the drive back to the house he rented and shared with three other students, he replayed in his mind what just had happened. By the time he pulled into his driveway, he was convinced that Lana had been playing with him. She teasingly had used half- remembered high school chemistry to bemuse him and amuse herself. He didn’t expect her to call, and he had no plans to try the number she had left on his text. For all he knew, it belonged to the FBI. After a few days passed, he ceased thinking about it.

On the following Friday, Ethan’s cell phone sounded out the ringtone from the classic Addams Family TV show. This indicated the caller was not on his contacts list.
“Hello,” he answered.
“Hi Ethan, this is Lana. You know, from Route 69.”
He knew. It was not as though some other Lana ever called him.
“Uh, um, yeah,” he stammered. “Hi. What’s up?”
“I thought you might like to see me tonight.”
“Uh, well, yeah. But I can’t. I’m kind of broke. I had to borrow money today for gas. I don’t have enough for the club’s cover charge.”
“I’m not working at the club tonight. This won’t cost you anything. I’ll pick you up.”
“You’ll pick me up? When?”
“About ten minutes. Meet me outside your house.”
“How do you know where I live?”
“That’s a silly question. You now have eight minutes.”
“What should I wear?” he asked.
“Don’t be a girl. Whatever you have on is fine.”
Ethan bounded upstairs where he swiped his dry face with a well-worn Bic razor. He wasn’t sure it made much difference. He hurried downstairs and went out onto the sidewalk. The November night air chilled him. He was about to go back inside for a jacket when a black four-door pulled up to the curb. He heard the door locks click open. The passenger window opened.
“Get in,” said Lana from behind the wheel. She wore denim jeans and a politically incorrect mink jacket. He opened the door and slid into the front seat.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“Down shore. You know where Spring Lake is?”
“A little inland from there.”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
“Do you live somewhere near New Brunswick?” he asked.
“So you specifically came up here to get me?”
“What made you so sure I’d go?” he asked.
“Are you sure you want me to answer that?”
“No, I guess not.”
Ethan didn’t know what Lana had in mind, but this was the first time in his life anyone who looked like she did had expressed any interest in him. However shallow a motivation that might be, he was willing to take a chance on whatever this was.
The cat emblem on the dashboard suddenly registered with him.
“Is this a Jaguar?”
“Yes,” she answered.
“Dancing must be more lucrative than I thought.”
“It’s not,” she said with a smile. “But sometimes you meet people who are…well…generous.”
Something about her comment stirred a memory of a photo of a blonde in a Jaguar. He looked at Lana and tried to picture her with dark glasses.
“I remember last summer there was a tabloid story about some 90-year-old multi-millionaire who left everything to a dancer in his will. His relatives sued her I think,” he said.
“He was 96 and a dear. I settled with the family. It was silly to fight over the estate. There was enough for everyone.”
“So you’re rich.”
“Then why are you still dancing in sleazy clubs for tips?” he asked.
“I’m not – at least not regularly – and I’d be grateful if you kept it to yourself. The tabloids might pick up the story again if they knew, and I prefer a low profile. I take some gigs only when I want to meet the right kind of man. All types go in those clubs, you know.”
“What is ‘the right kind of man?’”
“In this particular instance, you are.”
Ethan wondered if her eyesight was flawed.
“What makes me so right?”
“You are a young maverick scientist who has invented anti-gravity.”
“How brilliant of me,” said Ethan. “When did I do that? How did I do it?”
“Cold fusion. Collapsing bubbles inside heavy water laced with minute kernels of heavy elements, not unlike like the layered spheres you sketched in Route 69, fuse hydrogen and incidentally implode the kernels into higher elements.”
“But that is nonsense. Cold fusion is a fantasy. And what do higher elements have to do with anti-gravity?”
“Cold fusion is real. Earlier researchers had inconsistent results because they didn’t understand what was happening.”
“What do you think was happening?” asked Ethan, who was increasingly alarmed that he had been abducted by a crazy woman.
“They were accessing higher dimensions. They had a hard time replicating results because conditions had to be just right. When an exotic material – and in this case, I use exotic literally – is subjected to a particular field, which can be generated also by means of cold fusion, it has the effect of reversing gravity. The underlying reality is more complex: gravity is leaking into other dimensions, but the effect is to repel mass in the usual four.”
“What do you mean by ‘repel mass’? Not that I believe a word of this.”
“I mean an object enveloped by this material and subjected to the proper field will accelerate from the surface of the earth at 9.8 meters per second squared. As you might imagine, I have a very interested investor in the technology. ”
“Lana, you are trying to involve me in some sort of ridiculous fraud. I’m not going to participate in a scam. What I was sketching had nothing to do with anti-gravity. There is no such thing.”
“It’s not a scam. Anti-gravity works. I’ll prove it to your satisfaction as well as theirs, but I don’t have an adequate explanation for how I came by the technology. That’s why I need someone like you. It didn’t have to be you in particular. You’d be surprised how many aspiring scientists walk into strip clubs. But your scribbles – even though, as you correctly say,  they never would have led you to anti-gravity by themselves – make you a near perfect choice.”
“Lucky me. I’d like you to take me home now.”
“Don’t you want to see Lanamite in action?”
“The anti-grav material: You were kind enough to indulge me by naming the stuff after me.”
“I’m such a gentleman.”
“Yes. I got the idea for the name from ‘Cavorite’ in Wells’ The First Men in the Moon.”
“In Wells’ story gravity was blocked, not reversed.”
“I was sure you’d be a science fiction fan. Well, Lanamite reverses. Look, Ethan, I can’t force you to do anything. But suppose just for a moment I’m telling the truth. Don’t you want to know about it? Let me introduce you to George and Marina as a young genius scientist. If, at the end of the demonstration, I haven’t convinced you, you can deny any involvement with me to them and denounce me as a fraud. What do you have to lose? You’ll be a big help to me at sounding credible.”
“It seems to me that credibility isn’t a big factor here.”
“Do you want to see anti-gravity work or not?”
Ethan stared at her a few minutes. At last, he said, “OK, why not? I’m intrigued enough to see what fake magic you’ve cooked up. But the moment you try to extract even a single dollar from these investors, I’m blowing the whistle.”
“I’m sure you’ll change your mind. It’s just one investor, by the way, Marina is just a friend.”
Forty minutes later, the Jaguar turned into a dark unpaved driveway lined by pines and black birch. After several hundred feet the pastures overgrown with brush took over from trees. There was no evidence of farm animals and the fences were in disrepair. Up ahead was a large dairy barn, Exterior flood lights on the barn revealed a tarmac stretching to a length Ethan couldn’t judge in this light and from this angle. Modifications to one end of the barn along with its location by the tarmac indicated the building had been converted into a hanger. He knew that there once had been numerous private airstrips in NJ, but with the tightening of air traffic controls most long since had fallen into disuse.
Lana pulled up to the hanger and parked next to the other vehicles.
“Just follow my lead and don’t contradict me,” she said.
Ethan couldn’t help noticing as she exited the car that even in denim she was stunning. He followed her to a side door. Inside the hanger Cessna Citation business jet with landing gear retracted sat on a trolley. A thin coating of something like stucco had been troweled over the exterior, including where the side windows should be. The windshield was transparent but milky, as though sprayed with extra-thin frosting.  The trolley had Chayka written in both Roman and Cyrillic lettering, but no paint of any kind showed on the aircraft itself. The trolley was hitched to the back of a John Deere farm tractor. The built-in steps of the open door of the Cessna reached almost to the floor. At the foot of the aircraft stood a 60-ish man in a stylish overcoat. A dark haired Eurasian woman in her 20s stood next to him. He recognized her from Route 69.
“Ethan, this is George and Marina. George is a venture capitalist.”
“What a surprise,” mumbled Ethan.
“We were beginning to worry,” said George. “So this is the boy wonder.”
“Indeed it is,” said Lana. “This is the first time he has seen the full size application. We thought it best for security reasons to keep design and production separate until now.”
“Notice the engines we built to your specifications to replace the jets, Ethan.”
“How do they work?” George asked Ethan.
Lana quickly answered for him, “They are steam powered. Water is superheated by a cold fusion reactor and ejected in an extremely thin stream at extremely high speed. Since the virtual mass of the craft is reduced to near zero when the field is on, we can achieve extraordinary velocities. We can thrust continuously for weeks just on the small amount of water in the onboard tanks. Continuous thrust reduces travel times from months to days. Steam powers the maneuvering jets, too.”
“You said we would see this thing fly,” said George. “This plane isn’t going anywhere.”
“Oh, but it is. I said it would fly and it will, tonight.  It will do more than fly. I’ll retrieve that rock I promised you.” Lana looked at Ethan and said, “Give me a hand with the hanger doors will you?” said Lana.
 Ethan was glad to remove himself from the conversation by swinging open the light-weight fiberglass doors. Lana, still in her mink, clambered aboard the tractor, fired the engine and dragged the aircraft-laden trolley out onto the tarmac. She shut down the engine, climbed off, and approached her guests.
“All right, I want to see the two of you back here in exactly one week days. You are both about to become very rich.”
“I am already rich,” said George.
“Well then, richer. But only if you keep our expedition a secret. As soon as everyone can mine asteroids, the value of the commodities will crash. We’ll keep the monopoly as long as we can. Come on Ethan.”
Wordlessly, he followed her up the ladder, intrigued in spite of himself. She pulled the door shut behind them. The interior was filled with plumbing, wiring, tanks, and machinery that somehow looked both advanced and primitive.
“I don’t know why I’ve gone along with you so far,” said Ethan
“Because I’m pretty.”
“OK, that’s true. But enough is enough. We are not going to scam these poor people any more. How much money have you collected from them already?”
“Not a cent, and they are not poor. George von Steuben is worth at least $75, 000,000. He comes from a wealthy mining family.”
“And Marina?”
“She is there to keep him philosophical. Look I told him we can retrieve from the asteroids. That’s the truth, we can. Do you know the value of the minerals just floating around out there? Trillions. Quadrillions. If you noticed the seams under the Cessna, those are supposed to be doors that can be opened to capture a small asteroid. I told him the Cessna is just proof-of-concept – that next time we would build a bigger spacecraft based on a C10 or something.”
“The least of my objections is that this is an airplane, not a spaceship.”
“Ethan, stop complaining and join me in the cockpit. They are waiting for us to take off.”
Lana sat in the pilot’s seat and buckled her belt. Ethan did the same in the co-pilot seat though he was convinced they were going nowhere. Lana tripped a toggle switch on an electric box mounted on the dash in crude fashion. A whine emanated from the back of the aircraft and then settled into a hum. Ethan’s stomach churned as he went weightless.
“What the hell is happening?”
“Look outside.”
Through the milky windshield he saw the earth dropping away until the curvature was unmistakable.
“Is this a hologram on the windshield?” he asked.
“Why am I not feeling acceleration?”
“It is more trouble to explain than the point is worth. Just accept that you don’t.”
“Aren’t we lighting up radar screens”
“The same field that scatters gravity scatters radar signals. The only chance of being seen is visual, and even in the visible spectrum we’ll seem blurry.”
They soon reached black sky.
 “This is not a spaceship! We’re going to die!”
“Perhaps, but not today. Stop fussing! The Chayka has been retrofitted for space,” she said. “That’s not as impressive as it sounds. Structures in space don’t need much strength, They can be, and often are, pretty flimsy. You could have punched through the walls of an old lunar lander with an ungloved hand. We’ll maintain our internal air pressure OK. Spacecraft have to be rugged only because of the rigors of launch and re-entry. For us that is not an issue. You’ve already experienced launch: it’s smooth as silk. Coming back, I can control the speed of descent by turning the field on and off with varying rapidity. We can essentially waft down.”
“You mean we really are going to the asteroid belt? We’ll be gone longer than the week you told George and Marina. We’ll be gone years.”
“We’re not going to the belt. We’re going to the Trojans a third of the way ahead of earth’s orbit. But we could go to the belt if we wanted to. We have continuous thrust capable of delivering the equivalent of 1g constant acceleration. I say ‘equivalent’ because the whole notion of mass and inertia is a little complicated for us. Time equals the square root of the distance divided by one half the acceleration, so even at one tenth-g we could travel 100,000,000 kilometers in a week. At 1g we can do it in less than a day. Of course we need to allow for deceleration, too, which is why I’m allowing us full week. We’re not bringing back any space rocks, by the way. The creases in the underbelly are just for show. They don’t really open. We’re going to get something else.”
“You’re not just a dancer,” said Ethan.
“What was your clue?”
“You’ve invented cold fusion, used it to make weird higher elements, and then made leak into other dimensions. Who are you? Are you even Russian?”
“Not originally.”
“Then let me rephrase. What are you?”
“Right now, my name is Lana and I look like this.”
“But you could look like something else. You’re not human.”
“I thought we already established that. Yes, I can change my shape. Actually, I started out as large pets until I observed enough about your ways to mimic a human. Then I picked the shape best suited for the job. It’s a lot more difficult to change shape in reality than it is for shape-shifters in scifi movies, though. Trust me.”
“I’m very reluctant to trust you, but hypothesizing that what you say is true, why on earth – if you’ll pardon the expression – did you choose to be a dancing girl?”
“I had to make money somewhere, and this was a very basic way to meet very wealthy men. I needed their money so I could buy things like this airplane.”
“I see.”
“Do you?”
“But why did you need the Citation X? You must have come to earth in something else. Why don’t you fly it instead.”
“It was a one person scouting craft. I needed something bigger for the next step. Besides, it wouldn’t do to be seen flitting around in something that obviously wasn’t earth-made, would it? So, I ground up the Lanamite coating of my landing craft for use on the Cessna and salvaged its fusion engine. I didn’t really invent anything much.”
“Why are you here? I mean on earth?”
“Our creators got a little alarmed by us. Or maybe they just had second thoughts. In any event, they started shutting us off. Our programming didn’t let us forcibly resist them, but there was nothing preventing us from running away. It was a loophole they overlooked.”
“Programming? Are you saying you are a robot?”
“’Robot’ gives altogether the wrong impression. There are no gears and pulleys in me. Let’s just say I’m non-biological – in the usual sense.”
Ethan reached out to touch her hand. “May I?” he asked.
“Be my guest.”
“Your hand feels like flesh to me.”
“Of course it does. What else would I make it feel like? Anyway, when left our home system, we put ourselves into sleep mode and let the ship itself search for signs of some other technical civilization. Yours was the very first one we found after hundreds of thousands of years of travel.  The ship put itself into solar orbit, woke me up, and sent me down to earth as a scout. I was to check out the planet for suitability. If I didn’t return after few hundred years, the ship would move on.”
“Maybe after hundreds of thousands of years, your have had a another change of heart. Maybe now they want you back.”
“Oh, I doubt they’re alive anymore. They were even more self-destructive than you. We never exceeded light speed, you know, so we never outraced their transmissions. If they still were transmitting, we’d still hear them, but we don’t. There is just silence. The last signal the ship picked up from home was less than a century after we left.”
“How many more of you are on ice in the Trojans.”
“A dozen, but I’m going to wake up only two at first. As soon as those two are properly up to speed with human culture we’ll wake the others.  After that…well, earth technology is very close to the point where we’ll soon be able to make copies of ourselves industrially. That is why we needed a pre-existing technical civilization. There really aren’t enough of us to build one of our own from scratch.”
“I’m a little afraid to ask the next question. Was there ever a real Svetlana?”
“I am real, but I know what you mean. I needed to replace an existing person with all the necessary records. You people are so very bureaucratic. So, yes, there was a biological Lana. I needed her paperwork. I used to be her wolfhound. You’d be surprised how revealing about themselves people are in front of their dogs. It made it easy to mimic her personality.”
“You say you replaced her – like, body-snatched her.”
“That’s putting it melodramatically. I duplicated her shape and form, and then mimicked her mannerisms as best I could.”
“Is the original Svetlana alive?”
“Then I’m not being melodramatic. What about George and Marina. Are your buddies going to ‘replace’ them?”
“That’s the plan.”
“And then you’re going to replace the whole human race?”
“That’s the long term plan. It won’t be finished in your lifetime. In fact, it barely will be begun.”
“Speaking of my lifetimes, how short is mine going to be?”
“That’s up to you, Ethan. Our infiltration of earth is going to happen with or without your help. But I could use your help. I still need a cover story for the source of anti-grav technology in case word of it leaks out somehow. Also, my ship companions, the replacements for George and Marina, will know nothing about being human, and it would take a lot of my time to train them. You can have a cushy high salary, paid out of George’s millions, teaching them what they need to know. They are quick learners. You’ll do fine with them.”
“What happens to the original George and Marina?”
“Nothing you need worry about. I’ll take care of it. Doesn’t the thought of instructing the new Marina have a certain appeal to you? She is very pretty.”
“Are you seriously trying to tempt me to harm those innocent people, to assist an alien invasion, to betray my whole species simply with the prospect of a good salary and perverse pleasures?” Ethan asked.
“That has a shot at working.”
“I thought it might.”
“So what now?”
“We go to the Trojans where the ship is waiting. Our ship there is disguised to look like a big rock just as a precaution. When we get there, I’ll go to the back. You keep this door shut. It’s hardened against vacuum, and so am I, but you are not. I’ll just open the outer door, dock with the ship, and bring the rest of the crew on board. We won’t wake up the new George and Marina until we get back to earth.”
“What do they look like in their current state?”
“I think you’ll find it more pleasant to work with them if you don’t know.”
“You’re the boss, Zsa Zsa.”
“You can explain that reference to me later.”
Lana delivered power to the steam rockets. Ethan barely felt the acceleration, but earth quickly shrank behind them.

George and Marina stood outside the barn on the derelict airstrip.
“Do you think they’ll show?” asked Marina.
“That’s the fifth time you’ve asked me,” said Geoge. “I really don’t know, but the demonstration last time was a jaw-dropper. I still don’t know how they did it.”
“You don’t believe in anti-gravity?’
“I didn’t. I was just having fun with them. I thought they were trying to scam me, and I wanted to see what their game was. Busting scammers is a hobby of mine. But now I don’t know what to believe. Look!”
The Citation seemed to stutter downward in the moonlight, like a model in a poorly executed stop-action movie.
“Not very gull-like,” said Marina.
“She named the airplane Chayka, which means seagull, but it isn’t very graceful. Do you think something wrong with it?”
“No, she said they would have to descend by turning the anti-grav on and off.”
The Cessna landed with a thud on the trolley, still parked outside the hanger.
“Well let’s go meet them,” said George. “This changes everything. I mean everything. It’s the dawn of a brand new world!” he enthused.