CHAPTER TEN

NEITHER HEAT, NOR FROST, NOR THUNDER

 


Once again, Alexandra walked under the sun. As before, her masked face received curious looks, but no one laughed. Everybody knew what she was.

I don't mean that they knew her name or about the High Tower. I mean that they knew...

Have you ever sensed that a great event was coming? You see an odd news headline or hear a strange word that seems like the gust of an approaching hurricane. You don't think about it for long. The details of your personal life distract you, but that feeling never quite goes away.

When the people of New York City saw Alexandra -- the store clerks and the police officers, the mothers and the fathers, the children and the drug dealers, the blacks and the whites -- they had a vague sense that she could be the center of a great change. It was hard to see past those scarves, but you could see the way she walked and the way she crossed her hands in front of her. The revelers of the Silver Moon Masquerade saw her power clearly through their love of fantasy. They imagined a world with a queen. They knew that Alexandra could be that queen.

I wondered if the word was spreading about Alexandra. The Masquerade revelers would not speak in the public sphere, but they would whisper about her in their dark clubs and small groups. Watch, they would say. Listen. The queen will soon come.

And then there were the people who spotted the girl with the hidden face. They probably shared the story with others and laughed about it in that terribly ironic way New Yorkers have fashioned. Gradually their laughter would die, and they would realize that this strange young woman held more power than they could ever have.

The world is all the same. A man plots in a cave, and then thousands of people die in a faraway country. A deformed teenager prepares to conquer the world, and the world senses the touch of her hand.

Would she hold the world gently, or would she squeeze?

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Edward Bradbury was using his phone. He was talking in French. I didn't speak the language, but I could hear the testiness in his usually calm voice. That was how Alexandra and I found him when we arrived at his top-floor apartment. He had his back turned to us, but he likely sensed us.

Alexandra briefly listened to him speak French. Then she walked up to him and gently took the receiver from his hand. He looked at her with his mouth frozen in the act of forming a word.

Alexandra spoke to the other person in French. Her voice was even and subtly commanding. I didn't know who the other person was, but I'm sure he didn't dare interrupt her.

Their conversation was short. Alexandra handed the receiver back to her father. He listened to the third person. When he spoke, his tone was satisfied.

Then he hung up and said, "Thank you, Alexandra."

She nodded. "Where is Layla?"

He nodded toward the west side of the building. "On the terrace."

"I'll be in my room." She walked away from him, past me and into her simply furnished room. She closed the door behind her. After a half-minute, I heard Bach from her record player. I briefly listened to the music, then turned to Bradbury. He hadn't moved. His hands were in the pockets of his formal pants.

"I'm going to talk with Layla," I said. There was nothing more to say than that. It was pointless to ask him about the spy. What could a spy tell him? All the time he had suspected Alexandra's plans. He knew that he was as helpless as I was. Both of us were just spectators now.

Or, at least, that's what I thought at the time. Never be quick in your assumptions about Edward Bradbury.

At that moment, he just nodded slightly to me. I walked past him, through his enormous apartment and found the outside terrace.

Layla was leaning with her elbows upon the stone parapet surrounding the terrace. She watched the people walking on the street or passing by the windows in other buildings.

I took a spot next to her and leaned against the parapet. We spent a few moments listening to the city's hum.

"Quite a view," she said, not looking at me.

"Hm," I commented. "I just realized something."

"What's that?"

"I don't think Edward Bradbury has a television."

"Huh. I think you're right."

"Funny, isn't it? All that wealth, and he won't buy himself a television."

"Well, you don't have a television. Not down in the Tunnels."

"True."

There was a short lull in the conversation. Then Layla said, "I don't think Alexandra is bisexual."

"Really?"

"I'm not sure if you can categorize her. I don't think gender matters to her."

"Well, age certainly doesn't matter to you. What's lesbian-speak for 'chickenhawk?'"

"Jacob, if you still want to fight..."

"Look, this is serious. You know what the laws are."

"If you put Alexandra on the stand and let her explain what she feels for me, no jury would convict me. You know that." She shook her head. "Dammit, Jacob, I'm not some priest molesting an altar boy. And I certainly never thought that I would feel this way for a fifteen-year-old girl. But Alexandra and I know what we're doing. Hell, Alexandra knows everything." She poked me on the shoulder with a finger. "I'm certainly not going to take criticism from you. I've heard about your grandiose sex life. How many laws did you break with adult..."

"Okay, okay. I get your point."

I finally looked at Alexandra. The wind was gently playing with her brown hair. However hard her expression, you couldn't ignore the attractiveness of her face.

"I can't blame her for loving you," I admitted.

"Looking for a three-way?" she asked with a straight face.

With a straight face to match hers I responded, "Sure. That would be hot."

"Is that what you want?"

I sighed through my nose and said, "I don't know what I want."

"Yes, you do. You want Alexandra to walk away from the Tower. You want her to go to the Tunnels."

"And you want her to take power."

"That's right."

"So we have something else to fight about."

Layla slowly turned away from me. She pointed toward the right. "You can't see it from here," she said.

"See what?"

"Remember that street where Alexandra and I stopped yesterday? For no particular reason?"

"I assume there was a reason."

"My parents were murdered there."

I avoided the usual responses -- "I'm sorry" and the rest. I just listened to her.

"It happened when I was seven years old. The year was 1979. The hostage crisis was still going on, and my parents were coming back from a party. I was being baby-sat. Along the way they ran into a few drunk guys who decided that it was open season on the 'rag-heads.' It started out as taunts, then as pushing and then my parents were being bludgeoned to death. Right there in the street."

She turned back to me. Her face was blank. "Rather cliched, I know. My parents were killed so I grew up wanting to fight crime."

"Nothing wrong with it being personal," I said. "Hard not to make it personal."

"Yeah. The thing is -- there are a lot of streets like that one. Hell, there are whole nations. My parents were both atheists. You know how some Middle Eastern countries treat people like that?"

"So...you're saying that Alexandra should change the world."

"I'm saying that I'm tired of the bullshit. And if Alexandra can shovel it up and burn it, I don't see why she shouldn't."

"You're assuming that she can. And that it's her right."

Layla released a short, derisive laugh. "Christ, Jacob, don't you know her? She has a mind like nobody else's. Why shouldn't she take control? Or, better yet, why should she leave us with the leaders we have? They sure don't seem smarter than her."

I held back my answer for a few moments, then replied with a question. "Do you know what happened to my mother?"

"Catherine Chandler? Yeah. I already knew about her before I met you. Joe would talk a lot about her."

"Then you know that my mother wasn't killed by some street thugs. A person of great wealth and power killed her. A person like Edward Bradbury. The kind of person Alexandra could become."

Layla waved her hands in dismissal. "No. Don't start that 'power corrupts' crap. Power isn't good or bad. It's just a tool."

"'Tools can be the subtlest of traps.'"

Layla paused, then said, "Did you just quote poetry?"

"No. A comic book. The Sandman."

"Never heard of it."

"You'll probably hate it. My point is -- there may not be a 'neutral' tool. And for Alexandra -- for anyone -- to say that she is entitled to rule the world...I don't buy it."

"Do you think Alexandra just wants power for its own sake?"

"I assumed you were a lot more skeptical than that, Layla. If we were talking about anybody else except Alexandra, wouldn't you be raising the same questions that I am?"

Layla kept silent for many seconds, then said, "Point taken. But we are talking about Alexandra."

"Someone you love very much."

Layla smiled slightly and looked down at the ground. "Strange, isn't it? To feel so much about another person and so quickly..."

"I know that feeling."

"But it isn't just about her." She raised her gaze. For the first time I saw a tear forming in Layla's eye. "After Joe was killed...I just got so sick of...everything..."

Without thinking I placed a hand on her shoulder. For a moment I thought that she was knock it off. Instead she placed her own hand over it. "I got so sick," she continued, "of this world's craziness. I just want...I just want somebody to do something about it."

"I understand."

Layla wiped the tear from her eye. "Jesus, look at me. Look at us. I can't believe I'm here with you, I'm talking about some snake-girl who could take over the world, I'm talking about whether we should accept this..."

"That's all we can do. Talk."

"Are you sure?"

"Alexandra has been planning this for a long time. You're right. Nobody has a mind like hers. The only one who can stop her plan is her."

"So we just stand back and watch whatever happens."

"We can be there for her, whatever choice she makes. Can you promise me that you'll do that?"

"Of course."

"No." I squeezed her shoulder. "Be sure. Can you promise this?"

She knew what I was asking her. She squeezed my hand in return. "As long as you can," she said.

I nodded. Then we pulled apart from each other. We returned to watching the city.

"You know..." I said.

"What?"

"I cannot believe that Edward Bradbury doesn't have a TV set."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

You would think that there would be lots of things to do in a billionaire's apartment, but not in Bradbury's. There were many books to read, but they were mostly classical works. My tastes mainly ran to detective stories then. I killed some time with Thackeray and Milton, but I was too restless for them.

Layla was even more restless. She quickly grew tired of the books and went to the kitchen. Bradbury had a lot of interesting foods in his fridge, and she made herself a big, sloppy sandwich out of bits of them.

Bradbury raised no objection to her fridge raid. He spent most of the time in a private office. I wondered if he had given Layla the same kind of talk that he had given me. He didn't seem concerned that his daughter had fallen in love with a woman twice her age. I wouldn't call it 'tolerance.' To a man who could command the fate of nations it was just irrelevant.

Eventually he finished his work in his office and joined me in the living room. I was trying to get into Brideshead Revisited at that time. Layla was eating a sandwich and getting crumbs all over a chair. Bradbury casually entered the room and looked at his bookcase. He selected Swann's Way and sat down with it. I noticed a subdued satisfaction on his face as he read Proust's complex sentences in the original French.

Layla gave me a look. I just shrugged. I had seen this behavior from Bradbury in the past. He faced events that could shatter his life with a strange aplomb. I wouldn't call it 'courage under fire.' He just took the fire for granted.

And a pure, tender voice sang Bach on Layla's record player.

'Segne die, so uns regieren...'

Bless those that rule us...

'Die uns leiten, schutzen, fuhren...'

Guide, protect and lead us...

'Segne, die gehorsam sein.'

And bless those that do obey their will.

Then the music stopped. We all looked up.

Alexandra opened the door and stepped into the living room. Her face was still covered in scarves. She said --

"Summon the Nobles."

 


Continued in chapter 11