Thursday, July 05, 2007

The World Reborn

On any other day, news of a dead gorilla found floating in the middle of Lake Michigan would have at least made the lower tier of the national news. There would have been footage of the baffled Coast Guard officers hauling the grisly, dripping anomaly onto their deck with hooks and poles, and perhaps some terrible pun on the newscaster’s behalf.

But Wrigley Field and its sudden, cataclysmic collapse kept that unusual item from attracting much notice. At first, the people of Chicago were just grateful that the stadium had been empty, and no one hurt.

There would eventually be a single body found among the wreckage, but not by rescue workers, and never reported. In the dark of night, it would be wrapped in its own heavy coat, and carried reverently to a long black car of uncertain make and model, and driven away toward a quiet, anonymous grave in a plot outside London, purchased many years before.

For now, as the entire South Side felt secretly delighted, and just a little bit bad about that, and the entire North Side mourned the passing of an institution, everyone could agree to be glad that it wasn’t terrorism, wasn’t some attack. Just bizarre bad luck. The final stroke of the Billy Goat curse, perhaps. There was talk that, perhaps, in the new stadium already going up on the drawing board, the Cubbies would finally have a shot at the series.

A stern, well-dressed city commissioner gave a briefing to the press, explaining the details of the structural collapse. But it was very dry, and very technical, and on the few stations that bothered to carry it, fewer viewers bothered to watch.

Even if they had, very few indeed would be bothered to note the small silver object gleaming in the commissioner’s lapel, just beneath his American flag pin.

A single sewing needle.

Indeed, in the years to come, a great many people — fishmongers and stockbrokers, policemen and architects, librarians and shop owners, would pass each other on streets and buses and trains, in highway rest stops and shopping malls, and spot the needles tucked in each other’s lapels. They would nod knowingly to each other, and go on about their lives. It had become a symbol without a purpose — just a reminder. A force of habit.

Had they ever risked exchanging anything more than glances, they might have noted a single, odd commonality to their lives: They all had extraordinarily bad luck getting a cab.

Nora Swift fell out of sleep with shapes still assembling themselves in her head. She nearly stumbled over the cat in lunging her way toward the drawing table, and fully awoke only after she’d already begun putting lines to paper.

The cat watched, tail flicking in annoyance, and padded off to the kitchen to further attack the mound of food that had been dumped into his long-empty bowl, by way of apology.

Nora wasn’t sure what she was drawing, but she knew why. She’d been dreaming about flying. And she’d been dreaming a lot, having spent the past three days catching up on her sleep, with occasional breaks to order pizza or Chinese, or take another shower. Sometimes, she had been dimly aware, the phone rang for a while, and eventually stopped.

Now the urgent flashing of her answering machine nagged at the corner of her vision, throwing off her concentration. She sighed, and slapped out the hand she wasn’t drawing with, and eventually hit the button that made it talk.

The first five messages were all from her mother, and more or less identical save for their escalating level of hysterics. After the first two, Ruby started skipping the rest.

The sixth message was from Murray, her NTSB boss, leaving a message to ask how she was enjoying her vacation, and to ask, if she had a chance, to let him know where he’d put that file on the latest upgrades to the cockpit doors on 767s. Ruby thought of the way she’d last seen him, tiny silver needles poking from the back of his head, and couldn’t tell whether to shudder or feel relieved.

The seventh message was where things got interesting.

“Ms. Swift? Hi, this is Tom Meachum, of Brinkley Fellowes Davis. This… this might come as a bit of a shock to you, but we’ve been operating under confidentiality agreements that have just been lifted. You may or may not know that you were listed as primary beneficiary in your grandmother’s will for any and all business interests she may have possessed.”

Nora nodded, pencil scratching away. She paused, hastily erased one line, and redrew it different. Better. Somehow, the news coming over the machine sounded like something she already knew.

“I’m not sure if you knew, but your grandmother operated a midsized aviation design firm for several years. It was purchased by a larger company in the ‘60s, but there were… complications and disagreements in the purchase, and your grandmother took the buyers to court. I’m getting all this thirdhand, you understand — I just started here a few months back.”

Nora stopped, squinted at the design emerging on the paper. She thought back to her engineering classes, imagined wind flowing over the shapes of it. Damn. She was going to need a better computer.

“Well, it seems the decision finally came down, in favor of your grandmother’s estate. So the upshot is that you, uh, you kind of own a company. There’s some property and assets, and some cash, plus the settlement. We should really meet to sort all this out in person. My number’s—”

The machine beeped, and cut him off. Nora smiled, having only half-heard any of it, and not quite paying attention to the next message, in which Meachum quickly blurted out his number, and a few more pleasantries, and hung up.

The next five messages, at least, were all from Nora’s mother. So she simply unplugged the machine, and solved that problem altogether.

At some indeterminate point afterward, she set down her pencil, blew away the fringe of eraser shavings, and looked at her work. It was just a sketch — just the faintest beginning, really. But she could see it already, had been seeing it in her dreams, carrying her through the clouds to all the places she’d never known she’d wanted to go.

She picked up the pencil again and wrote in small, careful letters in the corner of the design: CYCLONE MARK V.

The cat sauntered back into the room, looked up at her, and chirped. Nora rubbed sleep from her eyes, stretched in her chair, and lifted the sheet of paper to show to him.

“What do you think, huh?” she laughed.

The cat seemed singularly unimpressed.

The year’s first snowfall draped the city, muffling sound. The night sky glowed a soft orange-gray, fat, whirling flakes dancing in the beams of the lampposts and sticking themselves against windowpanes. Rafe Windham, his coast still dusted with snow, sat in a darkened office with a telephone to his ear. He reclined in a plush leather chair, savoring the way the springs creaked, his feet casually resting on a large, ornate mahogany desk. A crisp stack of cash sat neatly on the desk in front of him.

“You’re absolutely right, Mum,” Rafe said, and was still quite surprised to realize that he meant it. “Yes, yes, entirely foolish. Well, no, I think it’s more that my senses have come to me, really.”

He heard voices approaching outside the office door, and smiled to himself.

“As it so happens, I’m a class or two away from earning about four — no, wait, five degrees, I forgot zoology. Anyway, I’ve checked with the various institutions, and they’re only too happy to let me complete the courses by correspondence. In fact, they somewhat insisted I do all my learning at the greatest possible distance.”

The voices grew louder. A key fumbled in the lock.

“Money? Um, actually, I thought I might get a job. Mum? Mum, will you quit — Mum, please stop laughing, I’m serious. Please. Just… there you go. Breathe. There’s a bookshop I like that needs someone to do the deliveries, and I’ve been getting to know the city quite well… Mum, you’ve gone giggly again.”

The office door opened, the light flipped on, and Leopold “Eight Fingers” Kruczyk stopped dead in the middle of a very animated conversation with his two large, violence-prone associates to stare in sheer disbelief. Rafe looked up, nodded at him briskly, and raised an index finger. Just a minute.

“Mum, I — I think I heard a thump. Was that Dad on the extension? Oh. Oh dear. Have you checked his — yes, just to the side of the windpipe, on the right. His right. Oh, good. Well, just get him a blanket, then. Maybe a glass of water for when he comes round.”

Kruczyk’s large associates reached into their terribly unfashionable jackets and pulled out equally large guns, which they leveled across the desk at Rafe. He held up his finger once more, with a look that suggested they were being highly inconsiderate.

“Mum, I’ve got some friends here. Must go. Yes, yes. No, it’s really not a joke. Yes. Yes. Will do. Love you, too. Cheers.” Rafe hung up the phone and favored the three men with a dazzling smile.

“Mister Englishman,” Kruczyk grinned slowly. “May I ask, perhaps, what you are doing in my favorite chair?”

“Settling accounts,” Rafe said brightly, swinging his feet down off the desk. He scooped up the stack of bills and began thumbing through them eagerly. “That’s… yes, five thousand, three hundred, and twenty dollars. Less a few for the cost of a trans-Atlantic phone call, because I’m a sporting fellow.” He tucked the bills into his coat.

“And what is the significance of this sum,” Kruczyk asked, “which is apparently equal to the value of your life?”

“It’s the amount I would have won here a few weeks back,” Rafe said, “had your men — is it one of these two still, or do they all just look like that? — decided to so thoroughly cheat me. Not a penny more, I assure you.”

Kruczyk nodded, as if this were entirely reasonable. “I am just saying to the boys,” he said, “it is so difficult to shoot a man these days. Always the struggle, the resistance. Here I was very sad, thinking I would not have again the chance to shoot you. It is true what they say about you English — you are very considerate.”

Kruczyk’s very large associates cocked the hammers of their very large guns and centered them on Rafe’s skull.

“Considerate, yes,” Rafe said. “To a point.”

The men fired. The window shattered, and the leather chair died in a glorious flurry of upholstery and stuffing. It was no longer occupied.

The large men, the Tweedles, looked at one another, confused, and then at their guns.

The massive desk took flight, spinning end-over-end through the air, to come crashing down on the Tweedles, pinning them to the floor. Their heads hit with identical coconut thumps, and they saw stars, and then quite a lot of nothing.

Rising from his crouch beneath the desk, Rafe drew his twin obsidian blades from beneath his coat. Flakes of snow and a chill, cutting Chicago wind drifted in from the gaping hole in the glass behind him. He smiled at Kruczyk with neat white teeth.

The gangster reached into his shabby Members Only jacket, drew forth a pistol. Something blurred just in front of him, and he found that the pistol no longer had a barrel. Or an entire front half, for that matter. And then something very large and sharp came to rest just under the soft, wattled flesh beneath his chin.

“Eight fingers,” Rafe said, looming over him. At the point of his stone knife, he drove Kruczyk slowly back against the wall of his office. “Seems a positive surplus to me. It could always be less.”

It took Kruczyk a moment to identify exactly what this strange feeling was that came over him, this sensation of battery acid injected into his limbs, and a mongoose scrambling frantically around with his stomach. It had been quite a while since he had personally experienced fear.

“I think you should retire, really,” Rafe said, his voice low and quiet, his eyes unwavering. He began to drive the point of the knife very slowly upward, until Krucyzk stood pinned against the wall on his very tiptoes. “I hear Florida’s nice. Get a boat. Do some fishing. Play some cards with the other seniors. Might do your health some good.” Rafe paused, meaningully. “At least, it’d be far better for your health than staying here. Do you understand?”

Krucyzk mouthed words, maybe Polish, maybe English. His world had contracted to the face of the man before him, and the point of the knife at his chin.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Rafe smiled, genially, and whisked the knife away, leaving the faintest of cuts in the spotted flesh of the old man’s neck. Kruczyk sank slowly along the wall to the ground, shaking.

“Law of the jungle,” Rafe told him, not without sympathy. “There’s always something bigger than you out there. And chances are, it has very large teeth. See you around.”

Rafe strode from the office, leaving the door swinging open behind him, whistling. He stopped. The corridor between him and the upstairs casino was filled with even larger, unhappier-looking men, all reaching with thick, skilletlike hands into their poorly fitting jackets for their various firearms.

“Gentlemen,” Rafe smiled, holding up one hand as he moved to shrug off his coat. It was dry clean only, and he’d hate to get anyone’s blood on it. “Does any of you perchance know a good florist? There’s a young lady in Surrey I’d rather like to send a bouquet.”

Kruczyk’s men charged, guns drawn. Rafe sighed.

“Suppose I’ll have to look it up, then,” he said to himself. The knives moved him forward.

The spring rain had just ended, mist still curling up off the asphalt into the night sky, as the long blue car turned off Michigan Avenue and pulled up beside the nightclub. A rear door opened, next to the curb, and Trip Morrow folded himself out, clutching an only slightly battered assemblage of flowers wrapped in crumpled paper.

“You think about my offer, son,” came a stern, official voice from inside the car. A gray, weathered-looking man in a crisp green uniform, golden stars glinting in neat rows on his shoulders, leaned forward to catch his eye. “Your country could use you.”

“I will, sir,” Trip nodded, not quite daring to smile. “Thanks for the ride.” He shut the door; the car drove off, and Trip turned to the club, fishing a half-crumpled ticket from the pocket of his sportcoat. A line had already begun to form beneath the club’s shining marquee. In bold letters, it read: TONIGHT ONLY — DANGEROUS MAGIC.

After she had filled herself full of knives, and shot holes clean through a pair of playing cards — the exact pair her volunteers from the audience had chosen; after sealing herself in a tank of water, and reappearing from the wings, toweling herself off, to open it; and after her big finale, the notorious Flaming Coffin, left the entire club on its feet, stunned and applauding (and fire codes be damned), Sully Wells went backstage to find Trip Morrow waiting by the dressing room door.

“Nice of you to make it,” she grinned. “Saw you in the back row.”

“Thanks for the tickets,” he replied. “But what, you couldn’t have gotten me closer?”

“Ingrate,” Sully laughed. She leaned over and kissed him, further mangling the flowers crushed between them.

“You shaved,” she said after, running a thumb along her own lower lip.

“You noticed,” Trip replied, and kissed her again.

The air was cool and fresh, the shops of Michigan Avenue glowing in the mist, as they threaded their way among the crowds of jostling people. Buses and cars rumbled pass, an endless stream of light. Far ahead, the top of the Hancock Building vanished into the clouds.

“I still can’t believe you just walked away from OMG,” Trip said, shaking his head.

“Oh, God, if you had to put up with endless brownie-related conversations on a daily basis,” Sully groaned, “you’d have walked away too. I just… it’s not good when you find yourself looking across a table at your bread and butter and wondering where, exactly, you could shoot him so he’d take the longest to bleed out.” She shivered a little. “Guess it runs in the family.”

They passed the Virgin Megastore; row after row of OMG: Feel the Illusion video games filled the window, next to a cardboard cutout of the mystery man himself.

“Anyway, I wrote his contract way back when,” Sully continued, “so I still get five percent of the gross. Enough to fund my own little tour. I’m never gonna have his natural talent, but I’ve been practicing, and the reviews are good.”

“And how’s the arm?,” Trip asked, concern creeping into his voice. Sully unbuttoned the sleeve of her black shirt and rolled it up; a scar shone dimly against the rest of her skin, winding its way around her forearm.

“Still only skin deep,” Sully shrugged. “The docs say the tendons and nerves healed up better than they thought. It makes my sleight of hand a bit trickier, but like I said, I practice.” She looked over at him, and mussed his hair, over his hasty protests. “And what about you, boy genius? What have you been up to?”

“I, uh, I just had a very interesting conversation on the way to your show,” Trip said, smoothing out the single streak of silver in his hair. “Hey, you want to see something really great?”

Sully smirked. “What, you want to show me your etchings?”

“I don’t have etchings,” Trip said, mock-insulted. “I have blueprints.”

He stepped over the curb, held up his left hand to let the silver-and-amber signet ring catch the light, and whistled for a cab.

“Go on,” Trip said, as he and Sully stood before the vast silver door on the top floor of 900 North Michigan. “Guess how it works.”

“Duh, genius,” Sully laughed. “I opened it the last time. Where are those tuning forks?”

“Nope,” Trip grinned. “Changed that mechanism out. Too easy to fake with the right synthesizer.”

“An all-new impossible key?” Sully asked. “OK, this I gotta see.”

So he showed her.

“Oh, that’s good,” Sully smiled, as the unbreakable door swung shut behind them. “That’s really good.”

“Thought of it myself,” Trip said, reaching over to flip on a switch. Lights sprung to life, illuminating the now-familiar outlines of the Lookout. It was crammed with all manner of strange devices, cluttering corners and balancing precariously on tables, or on piles of half-opened cardboard moving boxes.

“I see you’ve made yourself at home,” Sully smirked. “You moved in how many months ago?”

“Hey, I’ve been busy,” Trip groaned. “Not all of this stuff is mine. Some of it got moved down from my grandpa’s storage locker in Jersey. Even with the notes he left, I’m still trying to figure how how half this stuff works.” He headed for the kitchen. “I think I’ve puzzled out the coffeemaker, though.”

“Dear Trip, do not use,” Sully said, peering under a dust cloth at some weird triangular assemblage of metal and wire. “Will blow up the Earth. Love, Grandpa. So all this is yours, huh?”

“I’m not sure who was more suprised,” Trip called from the kitchen, clattering around in the cupboards. “Me or the building owners. I don’t think they even knew this space was up here. I’m, uh, I’m still not sure it always was.”

“Can’t argue with the view,” Sully shouted back, opening the glass doors to the balcony. She saw traces of blue tape lingering at the corners of the frames, where the glass had been fixed.

She leaned against the railing and watched the traffic thread itself down Michigan. The clouds were too thick to see the lake; instead, she gazed into the black surface of the Hancock tower, looming unnervingly close. If she craned her neck, she could just make out the rough outline of the bland, Modernist skyscraper that had gone up in the ‘50s, according to city records she’d found, on the former site of the Wormwater Building.

Trip elbowed his way through the door, a mug of coffee in each hand; Sully took the one with the picture of Einstein printed on it, the one where he was sticking out his tongue.

“So,” she said, taking a sip. “This interesting conversation you had…?”

“Let’s just say there’s a lot of strange things popping up these days,” Trip smiled, holding up a mug that explained the mathematical relation between matter and energy. “Some of it safely tucked away in warehouses, some of it not. Satellite images showing landmasses that the eyes in the sky never quite managed to spot before. My former employers — you remember them? — they, uh, they came and looked me up.”

“Uncle Sam’s getting jumpy, huh?” Sully asked.

“To say the least,” Trip nodded. “Because if there’s anything the military loves, it’s uncertainty. And, well, my family has certain experience in these matters. And word’s somehow gotten to some higher-ups in the Pentagon about what really happened in Wrigley Field. I suspect there may have been some, uh, needlework involved in that.”

“Can’t say I mind that change of heart,” Sully said, taking another sip. A trace of winter still lingered in the air, and she was glad for the warmth.

“So it turns out that the Defense Department’s thinking it might just need a Special Science Division again,” Trip told her. “Very quietly, tucked away in some corner of the budget.”

“You break their balls about it?” Sully grinned, already knowing the answer. Trip blushed, and looked away.

“Uh, we haven’t really begun formal negotiations about it. I was hoping, maybe you…”

“Negotiations?” Sully said brightly. “With professional hardasses? I think that might possibly hold some appeal.” She leaned against him, giving him a convivial bump with her shoulder. “So tell me, are you just using me for my arbitration skills?”

“I thought maybe you might want to, I don’t know, travel a bit,” Trip smiled. “See the world. Keep your life interesting.”

Sully’s smile flickered for a moment, and she felt her fingers curl and uncurl, almost of their own volition. Her hands wanted to hold guns, these days. They wanted to hold guns all the time.

“My life’s plenty interesting,” she said quietly. Then she looked back at Trip, and smiled again. “But I wouldn’t mind some company. Think it might do me good. You talked to Rafe and Nora about this?”

“I was going to,” Trip said, “but I wanted to ask you first.”

Sully smiled, and shook her head a bit, shifting her sharp dark hair from her eyes. “Any particular reason?” she asked.

“You were likely to hurt me if I didn’t,” Trip said, and grinned at her. “Among other reasons.” And their lips met again.

“I can live with that,” Sully said, when they came up for air.

Trip exhaled, leaning over the railing next to her to gaze out at the lights and the city. In a few more hours, it would be dawn again; if the clouds cleared, he could stand here and watch the sun rise over the lake.

Somewhere, in some reality, his grandfather had stood on this same spot years ago, looking out on a world without limits, determined to never stop searching for the new and the marvelous. There was always a World Yet to Be, Trip thought, waiting just out of sight. Just beyond the curve of the earth. You simply had to look for it.

He turned to Sully and raised his mug. “To us,” he said softly, “and to doing the impossible. Preferably at least once a week.”

Sully clinked mugs with him. “Impossible?” she teased. “I thought impossible was just an excuse.”

Trip shook his head slowly, and felt a smile spread across his face, and all through him.

“No,” Trip said, looking off to the east, waiting for the sun. “Impossible’s just the beginning.”

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