CHAPTER TWELVE

 

FROM EVERY ILL OF LIFE HAVE I PRESERV'D THEE

 


"Sorry that I interrupted your dinner. I can get my chef to cook anything you want."

 

I shook my head. I was sitting on one of the sofas in Bradbury's apartment. It was as comfy and exquisite as Bradbury's suit looked. He was slumped in a chair across from me. He pressed his head against one hand while leaning to his side. Despite the tiredness in his eyes, he was watching me very closely.

 

"Alexandra has been quite vague about the young man who broke into this apartment," he said. "However, I'm assuming that you didn't come to harm her."

 

I glanced at the closed door to Alexandra's room. "No," I said.

 

"Does it have something to do with Russ Garner?"

 

"What about him?"

 

"The day after you broke in, Alexandra told me that someone was killed in the procurement of the Keats book. I assumed that you told her."

 

"He was a friend of mine. And your 'organization' had him killed."

 

"I didn't order the kill. Crown did." He lifted a finger. "I admit that he has killed on my orders in the past. But this was a matter on which he took his own initiative. The same goes for Kathleen Knight."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"The downside of loyalty is that your followers often get a little carried away. Miss Knight has the job of obtaining rare books for me. She also knew that I was looking for a special edition of Keats. When Mister Garner beat her to it, she threatened the seller."

 

"Because you wanted the book as a gift for Alexandra."

 

"Yes." Bradbury wiped his hand over closed eyes. "I'm afraid that I gave Miss Knight the impression that any means would be acceptable in obtaining the book. Alexandra was going to do her yearly reading at The Wall of Sleep and...well...I wanted something special for her. But I never explicitly gave Miss Knight permission to threaten anyone."

 

"Does that matter? You surely knew what she was capable of doing."

 

"I have many concerns." Bradbury's voice hardened. "I do not have time to monitor the activities of everyone working for me."

 

"Does that include Crown?"

 

Bradbury hesitated, then sighed, "Well...I wish he had consulted me first." The weariness had returned to his voice.

 

"Do you feel sorry for Garner's murder?"

 

"I feel...a little sorry. But Russ Garner is not the first drop of innocent blood on my hands. Definitely not on Crown's. What's done is done. If you came looking for revenge, I understand. You just won't get it."

 

He leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees. "Now let's talk about you. What are your intentions toward my daughter?"

 

How else could I have responded? I laughed. "Do we need to establish a curfew?" I snickered.

 

"Does that mean you're dating?" Bradbury asked casually.

 

"Would that surprise you?"

 

"Please don't answer my questions with questions."

 

"Well, most people would find the idea improbable if they saw her unmasked."

 

"Most people would only see what she looks like, instead of what she is." I heard another emotion beneath the weariness. As Bradbury talked about her, his tone became gentle. "You've heard her read poetry, haven't you?"

 

I couldn't give a glib answer. "Yes," I said softly. "I have."

 

Bradbury nodded. "That's why you risked so much to meet her. Correct?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I obviously have an interest in books." He indicated the shelves. "I've always enjoyed...words. And I thought I understood them, until Alexandra read them to me."

 

"It's a pity she can't share this gift with more people."

 

"Yes...well...that's why she goes to The Wall of Sleep once every year. I try to give her as much freedom as I can."

 

"You know what, Ed? I don't think it's enough."

 

Anger rose in Bradbury's voice. "Of course it's not enough. I'm well aware of..."

 

A phone rang -- not with an electronic chirp, but with a genuine bell. Bradbury rolled his eyes and stomped toward a white phone. He grabbed a curved receiver lying on a hook. The only words he said to the caller were, "I told you not to...no, I don't care. Tell him to call tomorrow."

 

After he slammed down the receiver and dropped himself back in his chair, he grumbled, "You would think the Prime Minister of Germany would have better things to do than bother me."

 

He smiled slightly when he saw my surprise. "I don't know what Alexandra has told you about me," he said.

 

"Very little."

 

"What little did she tell you?"

 

"She made mention of 'others' -- some group you're a part of."

 

He slumped until his buttocks were close to the chair's edge. Somehow he didn't mess up his suit. He crossed one hand over the other on his stomach.

 

"The group," he said. "Yes."

 

"Is this where I find out that you're part of a secret society which rules the world?"

 

For the first time I heard Edward Bradbury laugh. It wasn't a loud laugh, but he was definitely amused. "Nothing so crude," he told me.

 

"But it is an important group. That's why you have a guy like Crown around. He'll kill anybody who learns your secret or gets near it."

 

"Which means if I tell you the secret, then your life is in danger."

 

"I think my life already is in danger."

 

Bradbury looked up at the ceiling and only said, "Hmmm..."

 

"So why not tell me the whole story? What's so important that Russ Garner had to die over a book?"

 

Bradbury kept his eyes raised for a long time. When he lowered his eyes he said, "All right. I'll tell you."

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

"Once upon a time...

 

"That's an interesting phrase, isn't it? Once upon a time. It's as if one time were no different than the other. Of course, what it usually means is that this is an old story, and that it happened in a land which didn't exist.

 

"In this case, the land did exist, but the time was long ago. The place was Europe, and it was the time of dying.

 

"You might have read about the Black Death. Once upon that time, the world literally appeared to be ending. Everywhere you looked there were bodies being carted and burned. Humanity had apparently met its killer in a disease.

 

"Humanity did survive in the end, but doubt was planted in the mind of one noble. If one disease could spread so far, could there not be a future sickness more powerful? And what about the means of destruction created by man? What about the endless clashes between the rich and the poor, the different nations, the different races?

 

"The noble decided that there were too many possibilities for total annihilation. There was no guarantee for the survival of the human race. So he set about ensuring his survival.

 

"He secretly met with some other nobles. There was no consistency about their backgrounds and beliefs, except that they were rich and they all shared this one noble's fear about the world. At that meeting of so many centuries ago, they made a pact. They would work together to protect each other from any cataclysm that threatened their lives. The rest of the world could burn, but they and their families would be safe. Somewhere there would always be a shelter. There would be no war or flood or plague that could kill them. They would all die peacefully in their beds while everyone else met their ends in suffering and fear.

 

"They gave a name to their group -- 'Turris Excelsa.' That means..."

 

"The High Tower."

 

Bradbury stopped briefly to look at me, then nodded.

 

"Now let's move upon another time. A little boy is at a playground. He's three years old so he doesn't move as quickly as the older children, but he's having lots of fun. He watches the world spin from the merry-go-round and tilt from the swing. He rides in the lap of an older child down the slide. Nothing can disturb his merriment.

 

"He's not bothered by the absence of a sky. The blue ceiling is as peaceful as any cloud. It doesn't bother him that concrete and steel separate him from the open air. The oxygen in the wide room containing this playground is pure as any breathed in the world, perhaps purer. Nor is he disturbed by the fact that this playground only leads to other rooms and a maze of corridors. The rooms have all been decorated comfortably and the maze has been painted with a soothing color. If he finds his way through the maze, he will encounter a large impenetrable door hidden from outside view. But this locked door and the armed men at its side don't make him uneasy. He knows nothing about what's happening in the world. He only knows that he's safe, that he's among friends and that his father loves him.

 

"The year is 1962. A conflict over a Caribbean nation has taken the world to the edge of hell. The High Tower has been preparing for this moment before Los Alamos, before Hitler became Chancellor, before Lenin took his train ride from Zurich. Cities might vanish in a second, children might disintegrate, the world might become a wasteland, but the members of The High Tower and their families will live. For them the world has shrunk to this shelter. It might seem spiritually grim compared to a field of grass or an ocean, but it will protect them. They... will...live.

 

"That's my earliest memory -- playing carefree while powerful men trembled. My father was the leader of the High Tower. They called him the Unseen King. His father had the same title, as did his father and all the way reaching back to that noble who first conceived our society. And now the title has passed to me.

 

"I'm the head of a very powerful organization, but I never use the power for the sake of wealth and controlling others. The members of the High Tower merely wish to protect themselves from harm -- nothing more than that. We kill anyone who threatens that goal, but allow politics to take care of itself.

 

"We're not the Illuminati or the Freemasons or the Elders of Zion. And I'm not Professor Moriarty or Fu Manchu or the Cigarette-Smoking Man. We don't want to control the world. Trust me -- you can have it. We're just people who don't want to be robbed of our small portion of life as the nations make their mad dash to self-destruction.

 

"Do you want any less?"

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

I realized that Bradbury had finished his story with a question -- one he wanted me to answer. I spent a few quiet moments absorbing what he had just told me. When I spoke, I said --

 

"Nobody wants to die, but not everybody is so focused on merely protecting their own ass."

 

"Not everybody...but most."

 

I couldn't think of a rebuttal, so I asked, "Why all the secrecy? Why is it important not to let the world know that some rich people have made their own bomb shelter?"

 

"We have more than a bomb shelter. We are prepared for every possible catastrophe. We even have a space shuttle for our personal usage." He chuckled. "Can you believe it? A space shuttle."

 

"I still don't understand why you kill to protect your secret."

 

"I told you -- we're very powerful. We don't just have great wealth, but great influence. Instead of using that power to solve the world's problems, we stand back and let those problems reach whatever end they chose. The world might see that as an abandonment of hope."

 

"Well...the world would be right."

 

Bradbury inhaled a long breath, held it for a moment, then exhaled. "Maybe. In any case, others would tear down the High Tower just out of spite, out of sheer envy that somebody else's survival was ensured while theirs was not."

 

"Or maybe they would do it because you're a bunch of corrupt bastards who..."

 

Bradbury sat up straight and pointed his finger with such force that I felt like an arrow had been shot at me. "I will not accept your judgment, young man," he said coldly. "Do you think I haven't questioned the morality of this organization? Don't you think that I've wondered if the High Tower can do more than just scurry into the cellar as the buildings fall?"

 

"No, I don't think that," I said, managing not to flinch before that chilly rage.

 

"I have. Other members haven't, but I have wrestled with these questions long and hard. Every time I come close to deciding to change the Tower, I remember..." His voice caught in his throat. He sunk back in his chair, and his eyes drifted toward a wall. When he finally spoke, his voice was softer. "I remember the gift that was given to that boy in 1962. And I realize that I have no right to take that gift from others, no matter how it was obtained."

 

Or you don't want to lose it yourself, I was tempted to say. What prevented me was where Bradbury looked. He was gazing at the door to Alexandra's room. For that moment I didn't see an arrogant billionaire. I saw a man who had sold his soul to protect the one he loved.

 

"Well," he said, returning his gaze to me, "I have told you quite a bit about myself. It would be rude of you not to return the favor."

 

He was right. Besides, what could I do to stop him from learning anything? If Crown's operatives could track Alexandra down to a small Indian restaurant, how could I hide the Tunnels?

 

I said, "My name is Jacob."

 

"Where do you come from, Jacob?"

 

"I live...underground. In the tunnels."

 

"Do you live with anyone else?"

 

I paused, then said, "Yes." I instinctually hesitated from saying more.

 

Bradbury looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "Are you related to Jacob Wells?"

 

I was stunned, of course. "How...how did..."

 

"Years ago the High Tower investigated an incident centered on a lawyer named Catherine Chandler..."

 

I could do nothing to hide my reaction. "I see you know about that," Bradbury said, then his eyes seemed to notice something about my face.

 

He mumbled, "I wonder..." Then realization lit up his features. "Of course. You're the son of Catherine and Vincent."

 

"Well, shit," I muttered. "You already know..." Then something strange happened. I realized that I was angry, but not in a way I had ever known before. I usually would feel changed in some way by my rage. This time I felt like I had always been this angry. My body seemed to be moving involuntarily as I leaned forward and said --

 

"Was Gabriel a member of the High Tower?"

 

"Him? Of course not." The disgust on Bradbury's face appeared genuine, but I didn't care. Nor did I care that Crown was standing right outside the room.

 

"Are you lying?" I said in a stranger's voice.

 

Bradbury didn't look intimidated. If anything, his eyes were sympathetic. "We had nothing to do with Gabriel," he assured me,"or your mother's death."

 

I took a few moments to judge his veracity. I decided that he was being truthful. My anger slowly receded.

 

"The High Tower is very strict about its membership," Bradbury said. "Even those with my lineage must meet certain standards. Gabriel was too..."

 

"Crazy?"

 

"Philosophical. His ambitions were too grand for us."

 

I nodded, now feeling uncomfortable with myself. I didn't understand the anger I had felt. I wasn't even sure why I had been angry.

 

Then I saw the obvious answer. I had been angry for Catherine Chandler.

 

Before that moment I had merely felt sorry for her, and for the people who had known her. Her death saddened me when Father first told me about her, but didn't anger me. Why should it have? All I had of her were stories, a few photographs and a painting of her and Father. I didn't have a touch, a smell, a word whispered to me at bedtime. Diana had given me those things. I had almost accepted Catherine's death as a natural thing.

 

But it hadn't been natural. Some bastard had killed her...killed my mother. She would have given me all the kindness that Diana had given. Instead the chance to do so had been taken from her.

 

A man like Edward Bradbury was responsible for that. There might have been 'philosophical' differences between Bradbury and Gabriel, but they both used their power for their own selfish purposes. That's why I was unimpressed when he said --

 

"If anything, we might have had to kill him ourselves. He was too powerful and too unpredictable. He might have ended up being a threat to the Tower. We had him under surveillance at the time of your mother's death, so we knew about you and Vincent. We also found out about Jacob Wells and surmised that there was some kind of hidden community under New York City."

 

"'Surmised?'"

 

"We never looked further. There was no need. Vincent and Mister Wells never knew about us. Of course I'm assuming there are more people down there than just the three of you."

 

Oh, hell, I thought, in for a penny..."The Tunnels is made up of people who needed to go underground, who needed protection. It's a refuge."

 

"I see. So it's like the Tower."

 

"No," I said, never feeling more firm on an issue. "It's nothing like the Tower."

 

"A secret group designed to protect others from the world's hardships? Where's the difference?"

 

"The people who come to us are powerless. They're trying to get away from people like you."

 

"I'm no threat to them," Bradbury replied, but showed little sign of offense.

 

"Yes, you are. You're a threat to everybody. Because you have the power to change things, but do nothing. Because you don't think beyond the walls which protect you. Because you work with people like Crown."

 

"You have Vincent. How is Crown dif..."

 

"DON'T EVEN THINK THAT THEY'RE THE SAME!" My voice was so loud that Crown burst into the room. I stood up, ready to die if I could spit in his colorless eyes.

 

"No," Bradbury said. That simple word halted Crown, but I noted the uncertainty in his gaze. And it wasn't just directed at me.

 

He left the room, though, to resume his silent post on the other side of the door. I turned to Bradbury.

 

"That...thing," I growled, pointing at the door, "is nothing like my father. He's just a well-functioning psychopath. My father..."

 

I hesitated, not because I was at a loss for words, but because the words came more easily than I had imagined. "My father," I said in a lower voice, "has more warmth in his heart than you could know. Yes, he's killed, but every death weighs on his soul. I see no remorse in Crown. He's Death's bridge partner."

 

"Have you ever killed anyone?" Bradbury asked. The question and Bradbury's mild tone surprised me so much that I had to sit down.

 

"No," I said. "I haven't."

 

Bradbury seemed thoughtful for a few moments, then said, "I'm sorry for what I said. You're right. Crown and Vincent are nothing alike. And, despite a certain similarity, the High Tower and the Tunnels are not the same, either." He paused, then added, "Which could be a problem."

 

And there it was. I could no longer try to make this just about Alexandra and me. I never could have.

 

"The Tunnels are no more of a threat to you than they were fifteen years ago," I said.

 

"That's because we were still a secret to them."

 

"You're still one. The only one from there who knows about the Tower is me."

 

"But do they know about Russ Garner? Do they know that you came here? And what about that woman you were with? She's seen Alexandra..."

 

Fuck-fuck-fuckity-fuck. I covered my face and hid from my stupidity in the darkness. Wasn't there some way for me to go back in time and never break into this apartment, never go to The Wall of Sleep, never try to find Russ' killer on my own, never pick the wrong goddamn book from his shelves?

 

"Don't blame yourself," Bradbury said. There was no irony in his voice, only sympathy. "Sooner or later the Tower and the Tunnels would have crossed paths. Secrets do not live in separate worlds from each other."

 

"The world is all the same," I mumbled.

 

"Excuse me?"

 

"Nothing." I lowered my hands. "The only way the Tunnels can hurt you is through exposing your secret. And we can't do that without exposing ourselves. Right?"

 

"You're...probably right."

 

"If I can convince the others not to look any further...will you leave them alone?"

 

Bradbury looked down at a chair arm and rubbed a thumb on its polished wood. "I would like to move on," he said, "and forget about the Tunnels."

 

"Then do it. You're the big boss man here, aren't you?"

 

Bradbury almost smiled. "I told you -- everybody in the Tower has to meet certain standards, including me. If the others find out about you..."

 

"They don't have to know."

 

"Crown knows." He lifted up his eyes and regarded me as a person he wouldn't want to be.

 

"Keep him in line then."

 

"That may be difficult. I've always given him a certain leeway to do as he sees fit. I do this because he has effectively worked to protect the Tower."

 

"Oh, come on! What's the problem? Does he work for you or what?"

 

"He works for the Tower, Jacob," Bradbury said in a stern voice. "And the Tower has become very dependent on Crown. He doesn't just look over Alexandra. That's just a task he personally handles. He runs our security force. The very secrecy of the Tower has been entrusted to him. If anybody gets close to exposing us, then Crown orders a hit."

 

"Russ wasn't even close to exposing you."

 

"As far as Crown was concerned, he was close enough. And now you're even closer." He lowered his voice. "If you were anybody else, I wouldn't hold him back."

 

"Are you sure that you're holding him back now?"

 

Bradbury paused, then said, "No, I'm not sure."

 

"Then we both have a problem."

 

"I agree."

 

We sat quietly for a few seconds. Then I said, "What do you mean, if I were anybody else?"

 

Bradbury smiled slightly, then motioned toward Alexandra's room. "Once again we return to you and her. What kind of relationship do the two of you have exactly?"

 

I could only say, "I'm not sure. I'm not sure about how I feel."

 

"Oh, yes, you do. You're just not sure why. You care for her very much....but she also disturbs you."

 

"Uh, Mister Bradbury, we just met. You couldn't know me well enough..."

 

"I know her. I know she's drawn to you, and you don't run. In fact, you came to her. But you still don't understand her. That's what bothers you."

 

I hesitated before replying, not wanting to admit that he was right. But he was. "It's not her face which bothers me," I said. "It's her gift."

 

"Maybe you should talk to her about it."

 

I waited for more from him. When I heard nothing for several seconds, I said, "What, right now?"

 

Bradbury slumped in his chair -- a natural position for him. "We're done talking," he said.

 

"No. We're not done yet until you guarantee that..."

 

"I promise you that Crown will not harm you or anyone from the Tunnels."

 

"I'm looking for a guarantee, not a promise."

 

"That's all I can give. Now go to her."

 

I had to do it. I wanted to do it. Despite the guilt and concern that was crushing me, I still needed to see the very person who had caused me to risk my family. The faces of Diana, Father and Grandfather in my mind couldn't block out my love for her; a love so quick and so powerful; a love capable of fucking my life to the infinite degree.

 

Love was why I stood and walked toward the door. Just as I touched the doorknob, Bradbury murmured my name.

 

"I thought we were done," I snapped.

 

"I need to know one more thing. You came here to avenge a friend's death. Do you still wish to do that?"

 

"That crime hasn't been forgiven." I turned to Bradbury. "But it has been forgotten. That's the best I can do."

 

"Actually," Bradbury said, "that's just what I wanted to hear."

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

She was kneeling in the exact same position as when I first saw in her room, except there was no book in front of her and the record player was silent. I closed the door, then stood behind her. A flame stretched long and tall from a candle's wick.

 

Alexandra spoke first. "Has my father told you about the Tower?"

 

"He has. He didn't tell me too much about you. It's obvious that he loves you."

 

"And I love him, even if he is a monster." She turned her face to me. The scarves and dark glasses were still there. "So am I."

 

"Oh, nonsense."

 

"I'm not talking about my face. I'm talking about who I am." She slowly stood up. "Let me tell you a story...

 

"In the month of June in 2001, a memo circulates through the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the White House. Nobody knows where the memo originated. Nor does anybody take it seriously. It predicts a horrid event to occur on an exact date and in an exact city. It even names the people who will be responsible for the event. This surely must be a joke, the readers say. Nobody could predict something like this to that degree of certainty. Since nobody knows who wrote the memo, it's simply ignored and buried in a file cabinet.

 

"Then, on September 11, 2001, the event happens just as described. Those who remember the memo rush to find it, but it has vanished. Some convince themselves that it had never existed, some repress the memory out of guilt and those few who dare to speak of its existence are silenced.

 

"Nothing like that memo ever appears again."

 

Alexandra waited for me to speak. I had trouble with doing so at first. "You predicted 9/11?" I finally said in a tight voice. "You can do something like that?"

 

"Occasionally. I've told you that there are connecting lines between everyone. I can use them to see the past and the present. And if an event is large enough, a vision of the future can ripple backwards along the connecting lines to me."

 

"You mentioned that before -- the connections. How can you see these things?"

 

"To understand my gift, you must understand me. I have lived my whole life in places like this." She indicated the dark room. "Incapable of being watched, I have watched others. I have gone to windows and looked down at the people. I've watched not only the people of New York City, but London and Moscow and Mexico City and Peking. I've thought about them. I have asked myself -- why were they on that street at that particular time? Where did they come from? I began to imagine their identity and intentions, just to keep away my loneliness.

 

"And, then at a certain point, my thoughts stopped being imaginings. I could read a person's history from a ring on her finger or a scar on his forehead or the shoes on their feet. I could see names and places through a person's eyes. You may find this improbable, but remember that you do the same with other people. You look at their clothes and faces for information about them. The difference is that I've turned this everyday behavior into an art. I couldn't go into the world, so I drew the world toward me.

 

"I never told anyone about my gift, not even my father. However, I did have access to the information he received through his many contacts and hidden sources. I read his reports, absorbing knowledge from a hundred different corners. My father thought that it was simple curiosity, but I was building toward a revelation.

 

"Then, in my mind, I saw two great towers fall. I tried to warn others about it. I used my father's office to whisper a few words in the corridors of power, as if I was a teen-ager sneaking a pack of cigarettes from a dresser. Unfortunately I erred by making my warning too specific, so no one believed it. Before I could fix the problem, the Tower discovered what I was doing. My father kept me from delivering any more warnings for fear I would lead others to the Tower.

 

"The eleventh day of September came. I...

 

"I spent the whole day in this room, but I could...feel everything. I could feel the great shockwave of fear and confusion. The city howled in my ears."

 

She paused, then said, "I can see where you were at that time. Underground in the Tunnels."

 

"Yeah," I whispered. I remembered children crying, Grandfather trying to keep everyone calm, Jamie sealing off the tunnels, Pascal grimly relaying the news of Helper deaths, Father and me holding each other tight...

 

"I remained in my room for several months," Alexandra said. "Father would bring me food, but I ate little of it. I hated him and the whole Tower. How dare they just stand by and let such things happen? How dare they keep me from helping others?

 

"Then one night he said to me, 'What if you did step forward? What if the world knew about you and your gift? How long do you think you'll survive before someone kills you to protect their plots? How long before someone finds a way to use your gift to their advantage? And how long before people simply see...'"

 

Alexandra touched the scarves around her face. "My father put fear in my heart, but that's not what changed me into a monster. On the same night I looked through the connections and saw...so much evil. 9/11 was just a cornerstone on a vast edifice built out of callousness, greed and depravity. Humanity lived through each day by committing a million cruel acts. Could I take responsibility for all of that?

 

"I couldn't.

 

"So I turned away from it all, just like my father did. I accepted my shelter in the High Tower. I live with my fear as a companion while the world destroys itself.

 

"Tell me -- isn't that monstrous?"

 

I looked away from Alexandra and peered into the darkness left untouched by candlelight. When I looked back at her, I said --

 

"A lot of people make the same retreat you have made. None of them have to deal with the High Tower. None of them have to worry about how other people will react upon seeing them. And no one can see the grim side of the world like you can. You have been the victim of things you can't control. Is it any wonder you feel powerless to control anything? That doesn't make you a monster, Alexandra. It makes you human. And you are a much...much better human than you think."

 

The woman in black stood silently before me. In the dim light I could barely see myself in her glasses.

 

"Oh, Jacob," she said at last, "I don't know how or why you see me the way you do. I do know that...I love you, too."

 

I strode toward her, arms spread wide for an embrace. She raised her own arms, but straight ahead. Her hands pressed against my chest and held me back.

 

She said, "That's why we can't see each other again."

 

I lowered my arms. I saw my stupid expression in her glasses.

 

"We can't continue like this -- not with the Tower threatening your people. If we keep seeing each other, it'll be impossible to protect them. Look how much trouble we've caused, and it's only been a few days. You can't risk that much, not for me."

 

"So that's it," I said in a flat voice. "We just walk away from each other and pretend we never met."

 

She dropped her hands to her side. "That's precisely what we must do."

 

I wanted to grab her and say no. Instead I said, "Well...who am I to argue with a woman who can see the world in a street corner?"

 

"I have much knowledge, but little wisdom. On this, however, I do know the truth."

 

"All right. But if this is the last time I'll ever see you, then I want to see you."

 

She hesitated a long time.

 

Then she pulled back her hood. She removed her glasses. Her red eyes shined like rubies in the candlelight.

 

She unwrapped the scarves one-by-one, exposing inches of green skin until her face was naked before me. I noticed how elegantly her scales were arranged as if nature had taken more care with her deformity than it did with the bumps and moles of other faces. Her white lips were full and sensual. They were also trembling as tears left her eyes.

 

I gently placed my hands on her cheeks and kissed those white lips. She did not touch me, but neither did she resist. I could taste her sweet breath.

 

The kiss lasted only a second, but I kept my hands on her cheeks and said, "'And for her eyes: what could such eyes do there/ But weep, and weep, that they were born so fair?'"

 

Then I turned and headed for the door. I kept waiting for a word from her, even though I knew that I would never hear it. I opened the door and the light hurt my eyes.

 


Continued in Chapter 13