Trace

The rock comes through my window; it is 5 a.m.; the yellow sticky says, “Read the fucking book, Jake. Now!”

Trace by Bill Capron

 

 Midnight – Now-Now

 “You are a strange man,” said Mr. Satterthwaite slowly. “You believe in the past, not the present. Why?”

“You used, not long ago, the word atmosphere. There is no atmosphere in the present.”

                The Mysterious Mr. Quin, Agatha Christie

 

It’s been nineteen hours; I am in an FBI safe house. Agent Jesse gets the girls ready for bed; I’ve known the agent six hours over eight years. She doesn’t know me; no one knows me – I lie on the couch; the bandages don’t ease the pain; my doctor was the Torquemada of medicine – I don’t know me either.

I’ve been killing for eight years; it seems longer, but who’s counting? Well, me, Jake Killman, that’s who, I always count. My life is narrative tension; first Special Forces in Pakistan, then the CIA in Afghanistan, and now the FBI as a last violent wall of witness protection. I am off-the-books and off-the-record, the essence of plausible deniability for the wizards of smart who run my life.

Until this morning I drove the car of life with no rearview mirrors, then suddenly the past plays out on separate screens of the multiplex cinema of my head, but they’re not going the same directions. I’ve been on the psychiatrist’s couch; she asked the wrong questions. Not, can a man without the passion of anger, love? can a man without fear be brave? and if I don’t save someone I can, is that murder?

Sometimes you can’t save the children.

How broken am I, and why, and do I want to be unbroken?

My life is a cartoonish one-dimensional pastiche enlightened by a cascade of insights – real or imagined? – into why I am who I am; as if I have a clue. I don’t even know how much of me or my life is real.

If the day has taught me anything, it is that although a thing is known, it may not be known, and although a thing is done, it may not be done, and sometimes I don’t know the right questions until I know the answers, and then the answers aren’t right at all. Now, where did those crosshairs come from? And who killed Janna? And what is the larger picture? And what happened in that hospital six years ago?

I don’t know if I’m at the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, but now other lives hang in the balance, and they depend on me.

I am a rare man, but how rare? There are thousands like me walking among us who are never afraid, and can’t be afraid. How many of us are sociopaths? Am I? Or am I like the fireman who walks through Hell to save a life, or the regular Joe who wades into a fight that’s not his? Who are we? You know us, but we can never be your friends; we don’t have friends.

And how wide is the gulf between then and now? They seem separated by no more than nuance, both in the now; then-now and now-now, it is all now.

Agent Jesse sticks her head out the bedroom door and crooks her finger at me. I look in on the best brass I’ve ever picked up.

When I lie down again the screens pop up in my head and I live it all over again. Then-now? Now-now? Is there a difference?

 

5:00 a.m.

“In cases such as these, a good memory is unpardonable.” Elizabeth Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

I am a serial killer; there is no Killers Anonymous 12-step program so I can change my ways, but I don’t want to, because I am good at it.

My dreams are populated by dead people; soldiers, children, mothers, Pakis, Afghanis, the people I didn’t save. I don’t know their names, but I’ve seen their bodies and touched their blood. It’s as if I killed them. What else can I think? I could have saved them but for a moment’s hesitation, or chance, or bad judgment, or low priority, or an incorrect guess, or a gust of wind that stole my line. The whys don’t matter, the dead are my unpaid debts. Will I ever be even? Life doesn’t work that way; not mine anyway.

The crash of breaking glass wakes me from dreams of my past.

I spin off the bed and smack the floor hard; my eyes sweep at ground level while my hand wraps around the grip of the heavy Glock velcroed to the innerspring. I scramble on my elbows to the closet door before leveraging myself up to take in the room. A rock rests four feet beyond the end of the brass footboard; a yellow sticky is attached with a thick rubber band.

Click; my brain zooms in but the angle is wrong to make out the words.

A cold gust ruffles the curtain and swirls around my ankles; the east wind has arrived.

I say clearly, but not loudly, “Espadrille, secure the bedroom.”

The metal blinds descend on the outside of both windows, and the door to the hallway swings shut and locks with an audible click. The last shards of the broken pane shatter on the hardwood floor as the room goes totally dark.

“Espadrille, bedroom lights, on, bright,” and the room is lit.

Espadrille is like a person, she talks to me, or, more importantly, she listens and alters herself to meet my needs. She is the wife I’ll never have, and after all these years, she is still magic to me, unlike any woman since Janna, or before.

I touch the base of the lamp next to the bed and it dims. The room is in order; everything is in its place; except for the rock.

I place the Glock on the bed. It is an older model, heavy and front-weighted with a bulbous, but effective, silencer. It is not a weapon for the streets, but up close it’s accurate and fearsome. I gingerly dodge broken glass and kneel to the rock. It’s shaped like a fore-shortened peanut with craggy sharp edges, and it’s heavy, about three pounds. I slip the rubber band around my wrist.

The note is more aggressive. “Read the fucking book, Jake. Now!”

It’s the same handwriting.

A smile works at the corners of my mouth. There’s not much new in my real-world job, by choice, but this is unique. It’s a mantra of the business, ‘Make the query letter interesting; give it a punch.’ The author accomplishes this with a minimum of words and a maximum of impact. I am about to read his story.

I work my way gingerly to the bathroom, but my mind is on the book.

My face stares back from the mirror as I brush my teeth. I look all of my thirty-seven years; sun-lines around my eyes radiate a history of accumulated knowledge, but is there wisdom? Do I have the wiring for it? Am I really only thirty-seven? It doesn’t seem possible, but my being alive speaks strongly against impossible.

Don’t go there! Re-center.

The flashing blue light says the razor needs recharging. I pull my hand down my face and the beard rasps like eighty-grit sandpaper; the stubble can wait. I take in the bathroom. Order is losing to entropy, but tomorrow the cleaning girl can plug in the charger, change the linen, remove life’s spoor and rescue me from chaos.

From the hook next to the toilet I retrieve yesterday’s jeans, a clean tee-shirt, and long-sleeved polo; I sit on the footstool next to the shower entrance to pull on my socks, and the watch, my mobile connection to Espadrille.

My thoughts return to the book; the method of delivery will make an interesting story at the authors’ conference in three weeks in San Diego. I’m introducing the keynote speaker, a mega-successful author I made a pitch to at Judy’s instigation. The woman doesn’t much like the look of me and goes with another agent; she’s not the first one. That’s okay, but she asks for me to introduce her. That’s because I’m good at what I do, so I’m worth knowing, and being on the right side of me now for when times may not be so good shows a certain wisdom.

“Espadrille, unlock,” and the door swings open.

I descend the already-lit stairwell. The bedroom lights switch off as I clear the lower landing. Espadrille is surprised by my early waking and defensive protection measures, but she sticks with the routine. Anthropomorphizing a computer named Espadrille comes easily to me, because we share so many traits, and she is my truest friend.

Is Judy coming in? No, she left for San Francisco last night.

A metronome ticks in my head. It never stops, not since sniper school, but the speed changes to match the situation. Right now it’s slow and rhythmic, but with an ominous undertone, as if I’ll be adding to my bad history.

Stop, there is no reason to think that.

I haven’t yet caught the author’s essence of time. I fight a naturally rebellious urge to say, screw you, and go out for a coffee, but the attraction of the book is too strong, and the note.

I am a person who seldom swears. I don’t have anything against it, but it loses its impact when it joins the common vernacular where it becomes strictly vulgar. When I grew up, fuck was an angry word – though times have changed – and I don’t get angry. The man who wrote that note, he thinks the same way, he wants me to know he means it. He is a man like me, and we could never be friends.

I pass another mirror. Comb your hair; you look like hell.

I run my fingers through the tangles until nothing sticks out too weirdly, but I need a haircut. My eyes are puffy. I turn right into Judy’s anteroom, open her short refrigerator and extract two ice cubes. I press the cold squares against my lids and shiver for a quick second. The skin tightens and I look less kind, like I always look. The cubes clatter in the sink.

Espadrille monitors the watch’s echo locator; she turns lights on in front of me and off behind me as I wend through the house, but out of my sight so they seem to be always on; it’s the magic of Espadrille.

There are no switches on the walls; the house is controlled by my computer companion with her uninterruptable power and intelligent sensors. Judy has a watch too, but Espadrille is my secret. Judy thinks the in-wall sensors are the whole magilla. After four years Espadrille has become so much a part of my life that I sometimes feel, for fleeting seconds, lost in the real world where she isn’t smoothing my way. It’s a passing thought.

I anticipate the book, is it worthy of its introduction? Adrenaline prickles on my skin like a niacin rush. It’s not normal – different is seldom better in my life – but like the metronome’s undertone, my body pre-empts my thinking mind and prepares for the worst. Why the anticipation? It is wasted effort because in mere seconds all will be revealed.

But it’s not Afghanistan, and my mind won’t wait.

I turn right and reflexively blink at the over-bright office lights. It’s how Judy likes them. Has Espadrille forgotten she’s not coming in? As if she reads my mind, the lights dim.

A heavy rain beats against the dark windows; the wind thrums in the background.

The book is where I left it. It cues a recollection as my mind jumps back ten hours.

~          ~          ~

My memories are primarily visual, edited HD projections on the multiplex of screens in my head. I’ve been like this since the motorcycle accident six years ago, or was it before? I don’t remember, but the images and scenes go back to my youth, as if the ability were always there, untapped beneath the surface. Whenever this happens, it’s always now, never then; my past is a present tense event, but it’s stranger than that.

Am I the only one?

~          ~          ~

I start my run in a drizzle and finish in a downpour; the rain sucks the heat from my skin. Espadrille forecasts the cold wind from the east will dive beneath the warm wet system from the southwest to cool the air quickly and dangerously, and by tomorrow night the city will be at a standstill. The local weather-people don’t agree, but I trust Espadrille’s NSA-developed intelligence.

I walk the last hundred yards; the outdoor lights switch on. Espadrille tracks me by GPS and she knows where I am at all times. Would she worry if she couldn’t find me?

I mount the thirty-nine steps to the front door with the briefest whimsical thought to the officially-nonexistent single-purpose inside passage connecting the garage to the kitchen thirty feet above. The stairs are slick under my running shoes.

A package shudders in the wind on the stone bench outside the protected portico. It is the size of a self-published children’s book. I don’t do kid-lit. A yellow sticky-note has a flamboyantly handwritten “Jake, you have got to read this book!”

It’s from someone who knows about me, and thinks the direct approach increases his chances; but he – I assume a male, because women know better – obviously doesn’t know me, and has never seen me in real life, else he wouldn’t think that.

Espadrille double-checks by examining my face through the eye-hole camera, and the bolt on the front door whirrs and clicks as it unlocks.

I turn left into Judy’s office. I twist the package in my hands and feel the sharp corners. I toss it into the trashcan.

~          ~          ~

Yes, he doesn’t know me.

~          ~          ~

I move seamlessly between the simultaneous time-frames.

~          ~          ~

I was wrong, the writer knows me better than I think. It is a disquieting thought.

My vision zooms in on the trash basket, and everything else goes out of focus, but in another part of my brain, it is all being recorded and analyzed. I don’t tell anyone about this camera-like ability. Who’d believe me? And, is it real or imagined? Since when? I’m not sure.

I lift the package and heft it again. I pull at the damp wrapper, but there is too much tape. I slit the upper edge with the scissors, open the zip-lock bag, and slide out the contents. The hard-cover book is eight-by-five with blue boards and black binding and gold-lettered title;

‘Get Me The Money’

The words stop me cold. It’s not a title, it’s an order, and the writer isn’t seeking membership in my stable of fifty-nine authors.

I twist the book in my hands. It could have been printed by any number of local shops. The top edges of the pages are smooth-cut and tinted in the same gray that highlights the book’s title. It’s good work for a one-off.

Have I already gone too far? Not if I don’t read it.

~          ~          ~

An eight year-old memory fills a screen. Janna’s last message spills melodiously from my answer machine. “I’m off to Jalalabad. I’ll tell you how it went. See you tonight. Love you.”

~          ~          ~

Like that’s going to happen.

I lift the cover. Neatly typeset on the flyleaf is;

Jake, not to worry about the editing, this is the first and only edition.

Not good. The tickle of adrenaline returns. It’s a recurring theme of my life, another choice without a choice.

I cannot close the book.

~          ~          ~

Another memory cues up its own then and now.

~          ~          ~

The chopper weaves through the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains guided by a combination of GPS and radar and starlight and pilot experience; the low whoop-whoop of the blades is surreal. The farther we go, the higher we rise, and the closer the ground gets. The winds buffet us relentlessly, like the swell of waves. I calm my stomach.

My life resumes five hundred feet below.

Janna is dead four days. I try to visualize her, but instead I see her eyes, that is, the left eye, half hazel like the right, and the other half blue with a bright jagged separating line of gold-green.

~          ~          ~

Do I see that then, or do I see it now? It’s a question without an answer.

~          ~          ~

I stare into the dark and keep my eyes level on mountains outlined against the starry black sky. Janna’s bright gold line flickers against the background like the lit edge of a cloud. An alien world shimmers darkly below me.

The chopper delivers me to my new home like the angel of death that I am.

~          ~          ~

Though I never left, I am back.

~          ~          ~

I utter the words aloud, like an order, “Throw away the book!” but that’s not me.

~          ~          ~

I steel myself against an unknown future.

~          ~          ~

The next line;

You might want to be sitting for this.

I sink into Judy’s black leather chair to read the dedication: To Shana and Audi, who, with luck, will live until tomorrow.

Shana is my ex-wife of ten years, and Audi is her daughter by the man she left me to marry. A woman I don’t love, and a child I don’t know, there is no reason for the adrenaline.

The internal voice echoes; it is the voice of reason; ‘Throw the book out.’

I know trouble, and the book is trouble. The next line jumps out at me: Look at the picture at the back of the book, Jake.

It is the decision point, before the first bullet, before the first red spray of blood, before the first dead man. The waste basket looms.

~          ~          ~

There and here, then and now.

~          ~          ~

I push off into empty space, the chute opens with a snapping puff, and the brisk mountain air brings tears to my eyes. The chopper rises and twists back to the north rocking the chutes in its wake. In seconds the sound of its blades is history as its crew heads to the safety of the U.S. airbase.

I am alone. But for the wind in my chute, the silence is total. The ghostly image of the supply packs drift in front of me.

~          ~          ~

My eyes look to the fireplace. I breathe deep before letting out a sigh of surrender.

I open the back cover and the picture falls to the desk top. My eyes follow its twisting path – click, click, click – before it flips and lands face down. It is as clear as if it had landed face up.

Shana is duct-taped to a chair, her face is bruised, her collagen-puffed lips are bloody, and the welts of cigarette burns mark her forehead. Her eyes are wet, but her cheeks are dry.

A girl I assume is Audi – I’ve never seen her – is in the background. I turn the picture face up. She too is taped to a chair, but tighter than her mom. A long-barrel .22 Ruger’s silencer rests between her eyebrows welling up the skin. Her visible left eye stares fixedly at the weapon. Her profile is pretty, her neck is long, her hair is short and dark brown, and she doesn’t look like her mother. Shana strikes a pose, amazingly beautiful and defiantly angry; how very Shana. The reddened outline of a hand marks the child’s cheek, and dried blood trails from the corner of her mouth to her chin, but she is not terrified. Why?

An anger rooted deep in the shadows that protect me from my past twists my stomach. The demons are knock, knock, knocking, but they are demons no one knows about but me.

I take in the room where Shana and Audi are held. It’s an old memory, I know that room, but I can’t place it, like a name that won’t come to my lips. My tongue runs along the back of my teeth as I try to coax it out.

My mind wanders.

~          ~          ~

I smell Afghanistan as I descend. It crinkles my nose. The odor dissipates as I pass through the village’s plume.

~          ~          ~

Keep your focus! I shouldn’t have jumped. I shouldn’t have looked.

~          ~          ~

A picture of Shana flashes unbidden on my brain. It is fuzzy. She is naked. It’s her milieu. The fine blond hair is real. She arches her thin body to push forward breasts she readily admits are fake. She is proud of the woman she’s made herself. That façade is complicated by the un-intentionality of her life, that is, she happened more by accident than intent. Shana always traveled the easiest path, without purpose or reason.

I don’t understand Shana, or, for that matter, being Shana. In my mind there is no complete Shana, merely vignettes of Shana. It is as if she isn’t her own fault, that she is instead powered by forces larger and smaller than herself. It is likely she hasn’t a clue about herself either.

I haven’t seen Shana in ten years, but, from the picture, she hasn’t changed. She still plucks her eyebrows for that surprised expectant look, and the lashes are as long as ever, and the eyes as blue, and the skin as smooth. Ten years without a glimpse, but I’d have recognized her on the street, because my brain misses nothing, even when I’m not looking. And Portland isn’t that big a town.

We share a few acquaintances, like her brother, and we are both immersed in the glitterati to some extent, but we travel in different circles. Yet I am struck by the impossibility of our not crossing paths, so she made it happen. It wouldn’t be that hard to do; her art is soap operas, her music is KISS, and I’m not friends with criminal lawyers who work for the mob.

~          ~          ~

I touch down on the flat rocky patch and after two quick hops to catch my balance, I disengage the chute. The mountain blocks out half the sky, but in the moonless night – the sliver of the waning moon is hours away – the stars are brighter than I’ve ever seen them, and cast enough light to navigate without tripping.

My supplies look like coffins off to the left. They are my CostCo life-line from a civilized world I no longer occupy. A pyramid of stones six feet to my right identifies a landmine from a previous war. I could have been dead before I started.

I invade Afghanistan as the latest soldier in a never-ending kaleidoscope of war.

I am alone. Officially I am not here, so there are no Department-of-Defense lawyer eyes looking through my sights. If I die, my mother will hear a cover story, but no one will know what became of me. It is a daunting thought, but I recognize how unimportant my death is, except for avenging Janna.

Dying is a risk, but it’s not going to happen. I have work to do.

~          ~          ~

I am surrounded by enemies.

~          ~          ~

I am safer among the Taliban than I am with Shana.

I flip through the pages before I return to the front of the book. There are people pictures and one-paragraph biographies. They are all men, mostly ugly and mean. One stops me, a Manny Manola. He has a square head and eyes like buttons. He is half-Italian, half-Mexican. He was arrested three times for murder. His reputation preceded him, and the last time no witnesses came forward.

My life gets precarious, but that’s not uncommon.

On page one I read: Got your attention, eh, Jake? Well, let me tell you a little story. No, come to think of it, the story can wait. Your man is arriving at the airport at Gate C-8 at 6:30, so you better move if you’re to catch him exiting the United Terminal. And remember, Jake, if you miss him, Shana and Audi are dead. It’ll be your fault, not mine.

I don’t think like that.

Since you are already running late, you can read the rest at the airport. So go!

I grab my heavy Carhart jacket from the back of a chair and re-order priorities on the fly. I race up the stairs to my bedroom skirting the glass chips and turn into the office which faces west.

I bend to the large-screen Mac to talk to my girl.

“Espadrille, outside perimeter,” and eight outside views fill the screen; “Rewind medium,” and time goes quickly backwards. The smart cameras mix light and infrared to near daylight quality. I see the dark shape of a man.

“Play.”

The man hefts the rock into the air to feel its weight; he does this three times. He wears a dark hoodie pulled forward over his face, and black gloves cover the hands. His jeans are probably black, as are the Nike running shoes. The body is strong, lean and short.

My life is noticing and counting. He isn’t anyone I know.

He throws the rock through the window. Glass breaks. He runs around the house and down the side of my property to the road where he disappears up Westover.

“Fast forward.” When no car comes down the street, I say, “Yesterday, 3:30,” which is when I started my run, then, “Forward. Fast.”

As the video speeds, the weather turns progressively nastier.I see the man.

“Play.”

He is the same man with the hoodie. He climbs the stairs easily, like an athlete and leaves the book. He does not raise his face to the cameras, which, despite being well hidden, he knows are there, and he knows I am looking at him now.

~          ~          ~

I cut the chutes from the two packs. I and the packs weigh the same to drift together. They comprise my total world of housing, food and weapons.

I am okay with that; I have no reason not to be here.

~          ~          ~

I fast forward my life to now.

Do I have a single now? It’s a continuing question; since the accident. Judy used it as an excuse for months; “Oh, that happened during Jake’s Lost Week.” The past seems so real, so now, but I wonder at the truth of it. I remember life so much more vividly than I lived it, and I recall details I didn’t notice at the time, as if I were a computer parsing through miscellaneous and unprocessed, yet recorded, data.

Three years ago, I tested myself.

I was at a writers’ conference all day. I reviewed the day in my head, thinking about where my eyes had been. I concentrated, probing for facts I had no reason to notice, more or less save. Suddenly I was filled with visions; the wall-paper with its raised-felt fleur-de-lis pattern, book posters and brochures, faces behind the tables and around me; all of this is as if I had noticed at the time. I zoom in – where did that ability come from? – on a brochure and the picture, title, author, blurb are all there. Am I imagining the detail?

To prove me to me, I return to the hall. The doors of the ballroom are open while the staff prepares for dinner. I stop at the table piled with three books by the same author. The brochure is as I ‘saw’ it, and the blurb is word for word.

I don’t doubt myself after that, but a feeling inside me says I must be nuts.

~          ~          ~

I enter the walk-in closet, slide the floor-to-ceiling mirror to expose a hidden door, and turn the combination to 6-6-6. My symbolism, like my name, is simplistically obvious, though I come by the name honestly.

“Espadrille, open.”

There is a substantial click as the door shifts and opens on my personal ten-by-eight Hell.

A license, passport and bank card in the name of a more cartoonishly monikered Jake sit atop the small desk in the far corner. I stash them in the hidden pocket in my coat.

Eight handguns hang from hooks in an open cabinet on the wall. Two of the weapons are without silencers; one is a .22 Ruger, the other a 9 mm Beretta with a short clip. The Ruger has the serial numbers filed off, and the Beretta is my history since Sniper School eighteen years ago. They are threaded for silencers.

I slip one weapon into each pocket and become the other Jake, the cartoon version of me. Or is it the other way round?

The cash box holds a thousand in loose fifties. I unwrap a package on the desk which looks like a manuscript addressed to a post office box in the name of a third Jake. I expose ten stacks of fifties for five thousand each. I stuff two packets into the inside pocket, and the loose thousand into my right pants pocket.

I lift the custom-made suitcase with the broken-down SR-25 sniper rifle, three silencers and extra magazines. I’m not a gun nut, and I’m not a survivalist, but I am a survivor. I believe in survival of the fittest.

In my business the fittest have guns and cash.

~          ~          ~

I protect my storehouse and armory from the elements and prying eyes with the camouflage ghillie cloth, adjusting the tie-downs and stacking stones until nothing flaps in the mountain wind. My life depends on being invisible to the Taliban, even when I’m in plain sight.

I strike off to find a home.

~          ~          ~

I take the stairs two at a time.

Never run away, turn and meet the enemy, that’s how I keep the advantage. I sense a long day coming on, and people are going to die. It’s my history. Throw caution to the wind? Not exactly, but I do what needs to be done until it is done, then I stop. It’s all I know.

I pull on the running shoes without undoing the elastic laces.

“Espadrille, I am leaving now.”

The door clicks open.

“Espadrille, defensive measures, passive.”

The door closes and the lock engages with a mechanical whirr.

If I’m not back by nightfall, Espadrille will reschedule the cleaning girl. For now she watches inside and outside and will call me in a voice scarily reminiscent of a female version of HAL from 2001 if anything abnormal happens. How does she know? She knows what is normal; everything else is not.

If I’d said “active”, her actions might be fatal. I don’t trust her decision-making enough for that. It might be the voice.

I step into the slanting drizzle. It is killing weather. Bad weather is my friend, and the worse it is, the greater my advantage. I take care on the slick outside steps.

The Mercedes is in the garage and the Dodge truck is on the street. I opt for the truck’s traction and sheer aggressiveness.

The brisk December air brings tears to my eyes. A shiny icy patch on the sidewalk nearly lays me out, but I catch my balance by grabbing the tree between the sidewalk and the road.

Slow down, don’t be stupid!

I cross the road to the truck.

The little girl’s unwavering stare has me confused. I know fear, but it’s defiance I read in her face. It’s not normal.

My fingers fumble with the key.

Slow down! What is the girl to me? I don’t know her.

I take a deep breath as my heart thumps in my ears, out of sync with the metronome in my head.

Another breath and the past intrudes.

~          ~          ~

The stench of the cave is a mixture of bat guano and death.

~          ~          ~

I’ll be fine, I am not committed. Another breath and the muscles in my face relax.

I press the coded key, open the door and stow the carrying case in the hidden compartment beneath the rear seats. I start the engine, turn to cross the street and the sidewalk, then back into the street and coast down Westover. The temperature hovers at thirty-two, but the road isn’t iced yet. I steer carefully into the curves before joining the numbered and alphabetized streets. The indecisive crunchy slickness to the surface could go either way in next few hours.

Another picture of Shana forms in my mind. This time it is clear.

I negotiate the S-curve.

She is again naked. Her hair shimmers in the breeze from an open window, goose-bumps dot her skin, and the blond hair on her arms stands erect. It reminds me what I like about the girl.

I make a left onto 25th Avenue.

I like nothing at all.

I turn right onto Lovejoy.

My eyes and hands and feet work on automatic pilot as I drag out the long-buried particulars of Shana. We were married three years too long.

The wind slants the quickening rain into my windshield. I speed up the wipers.

We were married three years. Why did I stay with her? How did I marry her in the first place? I haven’t a clue, but whatever the reason, it left few hard memories to fall back on, more an empty feeling of her. That’s not like me, but Shana is this black hole in my life, sucking stuff in and never giving back.

I accept total responsibility for me and Shana, but what about Janna? Do I accept total responsibility for Janna? For what was? Or for what wasn’t? Both women were so long ago, but my memory makes them real, makes them now.

Shana is a woman of paired adjectives; short and shapely, blond and beautiful, cunning and clever, charming and glib, vain and intellectually vacant, mean and condescending, worldly and promiscuous, soulless and cruel. She is not so very uncommon, except in the totality of her. Janna is the anti-Shana; tall and willowy, auburn and pretty, intelligent and educated, charming and reticent, sweet and endearing, naive and faithful, brave and patriotic. She is not so very uncommon either, except in the totality of her.

I veer around a double-parked car. In a different part of the world it could be an IED. A memory of a past explosion intrudes. I give it a wide berth.

Promiscuous explains the why of Shana, but my mistake is thinking it has to do with me.

The intersection at 13th Avenue is empty. I barely touch the brakes before I run the red.

Shana doesn’t consider herself promiscuous, or if she does, that there is no crime in it. Janna might explain it to me, she knows so much more about people, but I never ask, I don’t care enough, and Shana is already my past. It is no more than Shana following her instincts, like a dog in season, and being in season, she gets pregnant by a married lawyer she meets in a bar.

In the Middle East Shana would be long dead already.

Janna is dead while Shana and I are alive; only the good die young. That thought is too trite for the feelings I have; but are they real feelings, or the feelings I think I should have?

Whatever, they are all I have.

I stir the pot and another ghost rises up.

~          ~          ~

Thirty years ago my dad died young. I never think of him as good or bad, he merely is; much the same as I don’t classify myself as good.

~          ~          ~

Shana did me a favor by leaving for greener pastures. I might have let her occupy a piece of my life for years, not deciding, avoiding issues that were unimportant to me, because Shana was unimportant to me. That was a mistake that she corrected for me, and it was the last time I let my life flow downhill like water.

I bear left for the entrance to the Broadway Bridge.

Never again, always decide, even if it’s deciding not to decide. But if I do decide and don’t tell her, is it really a decision? Poor Janna, what was I thinking?

The lawyer, Robert Sampson, eyeballs his aging wife and dumps her for the beautiful Shana. It is the perfect meeting of shallow and shallow.

I merge from Broadway onto Weidler.

What about me?

Fleeting glimpses of the past march across the screen like movie outtakes, quicker than words can describe them; they are bookmarks in the story of Jake Killman. There is no first chapter, only a hodgepodge of the time before Janna and the time after Janna.

I parlay my fleeting football notoriety into a job as second-banana sports reporter on a local television station. It is low bucks and high visibility. I have fans like some celebri-tard, but it’s not enough to hold Shana when she latches onto the well-to-do lawyer for the criminal-rich. She loves her new world of high rollers and loose morals and plentiful money.

I make the right onto Vancouver Avenue; I tap my foot as I wait my turn to enter 84.

Janna runs from the posh world she was born to. She never takes the easy path. Despite the million-dollar house and matching bank account in the States, she lives on her captain’s pay as if she was atoning, but she has no reason for penance that I know about.

Shana doesn’t care where the money comes from.

I jump the green with the car in front of me. The driver to my left blows his horn. I look for the AK-47. I am safe.

It is fine with Shana that the style to which she becomes accustomed is purchased by drug dealers and money launderers and ruined lives. The woman doesn’t see beyond the checkbook.

I accelerate onto the highway.

To Shana money is always clean, or clean enough. Janna thought money corrupted the soul. They were both wrong.

I slip into the fast-moving pod of traffic in the left lane and climb the butt of the guy in front of me. The Middle East taught me to be aggressive.

~          ~          ~

A memory odor of raw sewage and diesel crinkles my nose. The scent of Janna’s perfume tinges the edge of the recollection.

~          ~          ~

Shana’s situational ethics provide her a solid footing on shifting sands of moral turpitude; it’s her way.

The driver pulls over; he flips me the bird. There is no RPG on the end of an AK-47. If he feels better, I’m all for it.

I give Shana her divorce and get on with my life which is much simplified by her absence, as if that were slightly true.

I check the speedometer and tap the brakes.

I move Shana into my forgotten past by running from it. I avoid confrontation, an unusual step for me. I don’t introspect on the reason; I’m not designed for introspection with its constant regurgitation for an in-depth review of feelings I don’t have. What about now? Time has changed nothing. The why of Shana eludes me and always will.

I hear about the baby, Audra, from shared friends who soon after slip out of my life. They read the signals, I don’t care enough. It isn’t the first time. I don’t take it personally.

It’s decision time: I-205 or 82nd Avenue?

I don’t hear about the girl after that.

I return to school, finish my MBA, re-enlist, and pull the cushy assignment in Afghanistan. When I get stateside, I start the literary agency. I have enough saved to survive the lean first year, and persistence pays off. Three years later I embark on a co-career inserting myself between hit-men and their witness-protection targets. The jobs have my full attention.

Audra Sampson is someone I don’t know from a forgotten past. It’s hard to get lower than that in my life.

Robert Sampson was murdered a week ago. I heard about it as a recap at the tail end of a newscast. It is a mob hit; dance with the devil, die by the devil. I don’t care enough to learn more; that’s a defining theme of my life.

A day later a friend tells me Sampson left Shana with squat. I don’t believe it, he had to pull down a high seven figures from the pond scum he represented, but who knows, old life, new life, enough lives and it gets expensive.

I veer into the exit for 82nd Avenue.

It won’t take Shana long to get on with life; grieving is no more than wearing a black dress to the funeral, and returning it to Saks the next day. Am I bitter? No. Funerals? I’ve said so many sad goodbyes to people I barely knew who risked their lives for me. I go when I can. And the dress? It was what Shana did for her mother’s funeral, and she loved her mother, I think.

~          ~          ~

What about Janna’s funeral? I am not there for it. I am three-hundred miles away on a high plain in Afghanistan dressed in the clothes of a nomad. She is on my mind, but more, as if a part of me has been cut out, and the pain is the one reminder of feelings I don’t know I have and can’t quite define.

It has nothing to do with not caring enough.

~          ~          ~

I negotiate the two right turns with no one getting mad. There are no shots fired at the Portland intersection. How very civilized we are, but civilization, even deeply entrenched, isn’t forever.

Shana is a strange woman, not in any one aspect, but again, in the totality of her. She is cut from a template I’ve not seen before or since, but I don’t get close to enough women to know, that is, close as in love. Sex is not love, and knowing one’s sexual partners adds baggage to pleasure. I don’t complicate my sex life.

A Subaru cuts me off. I move to the left lane as he makes a right.

I don’t talk about my life to other people, but no one I know wonders why I am single.

I stop for the red light at Sandy.

Shana is certifiably nuts in all the worst ways, and being a bad wife is the least of her faults. She is paranoid and hyper-sensitive and vindictive, an explosive combination, and she has a way of dissociating the person she thinks she is from the person she really is, while at the same time admitting to every evil thought and act. She could say, “I’m a really nice person for an asshole,” without a trace of shame or irony.

Shana is so not Janna. What a jerk I was to marry her.

I slam on the brakes to avoid shooting the light at Alderwood. There is a cop to my right. He is armed, I am armed, but I am by far the more dangerous person. I do dangerous work, and have since I was nineteen.

Looking back with twenty-twenty hindsight, marrying Shana Doyle was dangerous and stupid. I get over it.

Janna Davis is a U.S. Navy captain stationed at the Embassy in Pakistan. She is a doctor who cares about and for people she doesn’t know.

Shana could kill a friend or relative without a thought. I don’t know this for a fact, but I believe it. Whatever her feelings for me, they don’t include love. I am necessary while Shana has me, but I don’t know what need I satisfy. Is she a sociopath? I used to think so, but measured against my life, it’s hard to make that judgment. I mean, what am I?

Shana and I are two people without normal emotions; maybe in the great cosmic scheme we are meant for each other. I hope not.

Shana is the invisible past, dammit, remember that!

My heart thumps in my ears. After ten years with nary a thought, the woman sets off alarm bells, no one else comes close. I have no idea why. It’s not as if I care for her, or that I am afraid of her, or that I have any feelings about or for the woman at all.

Logic says it is fear, but I don’t know fear. It could be it’s me I don’t understand.

The picture in the book fills my mind and I see it in a different light, how Shana might see it. Setting aside the pain, she enjoys being at the center of the story, beautiful and defiantly angry. She plays the role of a lifetime, and I am certain that she doesn’t think the risk of death is real. It won’t occur to her that I might fail at what has to be done, and though she has no good reason to think that, she might be right.

Did Shana see the real me? I doubt it, but what do I know? Women can surprise a man.

~          ~          ~

Janna knows the real me though I don’t tell her either.

~          ~          ~

I accelerate slowly into the intersection. When the cop turns right, I step on the gas.

If I do fail, Shana will talk her way out of danger, that’s what she thinks. Shana was an actress who did soap opera work, but she was too much of a drama queen in the land of drama queens.

~          ~          ~

We are on vacation and Shana argues with the pool boy! Who argues with the pool boy when they are on vacation?

~          ~          ~

Janna would never.

~          ~          ~

I stop for the Max line.

I rescue Shana from her career before she kills someone in a PMS-inspired rage. I save Shana from being Shana, the bitch in heat. For what? So that after ten years with not a word, I am supposed to save her life.

The light rail train slips by with a high-pitched metallic whisper. Its shiny windows become additional screens reflecting my life of bullets and bombs and bodies and blood, but not much love.

The gates go up.

I pound the steering wheel. “Don’t be an idiot.”

I am not committed. Forget Shana and Audi. Turn right.

~          ~          ~

My father left my mother thirty years ago this month; so much for commitment.

~          ~          ~

I make the left onto Airport Way. There is a short backup from the traffic into Departures from a driver trying to break into the line.

I relegate Shana to the forgotten past, unspoken about and unthought about, but that’s not the worst of it. In the story of my life, her ten pages of infamy might be viewed by an unbiased reader as a sedate chapter. She could be the good times, but that’s not how I remember her, though I have forgotten events that pale what she has done to me.

Who are you trying to convince, Jake? And I never forget anything.

I am good at keeping the past in the past, but someone is making the past present, and I dredge among discarded memories because I have to, raising specters like dust motes in the shuttered closets of my mind. When I do this, my mind goes where it will.

Now that the door is open, can I control that past?

~          ~          ~

Janna’s sweet perfume lingers in my air.

~          ~          ~

The Predator’s propellers whirr with an eerie pulsing as the drone passes directly overhead. I steady the infrared marker at the building as two missiles whoosh from the tubes under the wings. The smoke trail is an easy trace to the brick hut set back from the only real road in Andarab province. As soon as the missiles impact the building, I flick off the infrared, pull back the rifle and slip behind a rock outcropping. The blast casts a bright shadow before the compression wave thumps my body like a velvet fist. Stones and debris rain on me as I sprint east. Another larger explosion shakes the ground as the ammo dump blows. This time some of the debris is human.

That’s how war works. I’ve become immune, but it could be I always was.

In four days I’ll be back to civilization, or at least a nearest outpost in this God-forsaken country. The ammo dump is my New Year’s 2002 celebration as my private war reaches its end.

I recall another Predator experience. I don’t trust Trevor Smith enough to hold my position. He knows that I might assume once to be an accident, but twice is definitely intentional, and if he doesn’t get me, I’ll kill him.

I don’t know what else Smith is afraid of, but he is afraid of me. He should be. I am his killer.

~          ~          ~

I lower my window and the cold breeze clears the warmth from the truck. I shiver in prelude to a very hard day.

A mountain of a man walks between the lanes of traffic. He wears the jean coveralls of a central Oregon farmer, and the open jacket, an older version of mine, shows its depredations like a soldier’s medals. I smell livestock, goats. I am alive because of goats and sheep. Never go where no goat has trod, it’s an Afghan rule. The land is riddled with mines, and the bones of the animals that detonated them, and the towns are dotted with amputees caught unawares as they conducted normal life.

~          ~          ~

The man’s face morphs to Afghani and acquires a limp, and then he is the farmer again with his limbs intact.

~          ~          ~

I’m in a minefield now; what are the markers? Don’t over-think it. I trust my instincts.

My name is Jake Killman. It’s a good name for a football linebacker or a sniper or an author’s agent. That’s me; I was, I have been, I am, I am a lot in-between. Many people think me mean, but I’m not, I’m simply unfriendly in an aggressive way, but it’s not intentional. I look like a person you don’t want to know, like an actor who plays bad guys though he is good-looking.

Nobody sees harmless. They see an unexploded shell that could blow at any time.

~          ~          ~

The Army psychiatrist tells me I am broken. She blames it on combat. She is wrong, I am not broken, it isn’t the war, and I am the same me I always was.

~          ~          ~

I don’t actively think about my past, though it is why I am, and that I am more shaped by who I didn’t kill than who I did. I recall every fact without looking directly at the past; is that possible? Of course, it’s what I do. Stealing from Faulkner, the past is never dead, it’s not even past; like my life where the past is a never-ending sequence of nows.

Who needs a past? The public me is a two-dimensional projection without the back-story; I am an actor’s persona that has become me as my life is directed by men and forces darker than myself. The public me lives where the normal people are.

Writers are my interface to the real world, but up close I scare them. It marks their faces the first time they see me. I am hard, and I look hard. One said I have no sympathy in my eyes, but it goes way beyond my eyes. A lot of people don’t like me, some are my clients. Judy is the salve to balm the injured souls; she’s good at it, by necessity; but I’m good at what I do because I’m not afraid of the truth, so her pitch is easier than if I were an incompetent jerk.

Whether the hidden me or the public me, I don’t exist for other people. I am not waiting to be validated. Liked? I don’t think of myself in terms of like or dislike. I am, and I can be, what is there to like or dislike about it? Regrets? No, regrets exist in the past. I count my shots, I pick up my brass, it’s the only proof I was ever there. My enemies know me from what I leave behind, and I leave behind nothing. My past is not dead, it is not buried; it is intertwined into a complicated present.

I veer into Arrivals. The traffic is light.

Why me? Who picked me? Why should they think I care about Shana or Audi?

No, that’s not the big question. The question is why am I here like a puppet on a string? They can’t know how dangerous a puppet I am.

Sometimes you can’t save the children.

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