They’re back at the racetrack, and Sarge is cleaning up.
“What’s that?” says Skye. “Five out of six?”
“How much you up?”
Skye holds his palms to the heavens. “Dayum! You and I live in different universes.”
“Let’s just say that my senses have been dulled by money, and that I have to bet a larger amount to get the same rush. Here, let me credit you a thousand so you can bet it on the next race.”
“A true gentleman might turn down your offer. It’s a good thing I’m not one of those.”
The digits pop up on his screen. He finds an 8-1 named Contraband and can’t resist. Sarge takes a bite from his salmon carpaccio and washes it down with India pale ale.
“You know, Skye, I got most of my money by being born. If you compared the money that you and I have actually earned, I’m sure we wouldn’t be that far apart.”
Skye is hesitant to respond. Sarge laughs.
“I know. I asked you not to bring up my finances. You didn’t. I’m offering it freely. And I will speak in non-specific terms. I was raised filthy rich, and I came to understand that my parents were obligated by their wealth to be civic leaders, to entertain an infinite lineup of ass-kissers who would hit them up for contributions to their causes. Even as a kid, I saw this situation as a rather elegant prison.
“Thankfully, my particular skills and interests led me in another direction. At the age of eleven, I began to prepare meals for my parents. At sixteen, I was catering their parties. I went to a culinary academy, and two years after graduation I took a loan from the family fortune and opened a restaurant in Sacramento. Three years after that, I paid that loan back. I even like to think I made my parents proud of me. Not that they weren’t supportive. I think they were just puzzled that I didn’t want to play the acquisitions game with everyone else.
“After catering my mother’s funeral – two years after my father’s – I was ready for some rest. After a couple of years of fending off the moneygrubbers, I took my inheritance and found this place. I’ve got maybe a dozen friends who I can trust to be real with me, and they certainly enjoy coming here. So I feel like I did a pretty good job of figuring things out. You, by the way, are now one of those dozen – otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you this story.”
“Thanks, Sarge. That means a lot to me.”
“I sorta had an idea you would end up in the inner circle. I enjoyed the way you handled my little cash incentive. You found ways to enjoy yourself and help other people at the same time. That luscious blonde in Hawaii. That story you wrote about the songwriter in Provincetown. I apologize if I know too much about this.”
“I sort of expected it.”
Sarge chuckles. “Andorra had more than the usual interest in your case. But of course, my rough estimates of your good nature were confirmed by the lengths you’ve gone to on behalf of Rachel. And bringing me that Gershwin – that was impressive. You’ve got a flair, Skye. You are Nature Boy.”
Skye smiles. “That’s what I’m shootin’ for.”
The miniature bugleboy reports to his post and delivers the call.
Skye takes a bite of his moose cheeseburger. “Now I know why the food here is so good. Does this little confession mean that I’ll have to sign another non-disclosure?”
He gives a wink. “With another cash incentive?”
“Nah, I’m good. Soon as Contraband wipes out the field.”
The bell goes off. Toy horses charge from the gate.
Bubba has taken a rolling slope around the far side of the mountain and carved out a ski run. Skye is comfy on skis, but Rachel opts for a snowboard. She’s a terror, snaking esses down the mountain, running up the steep banks, splitting the top of a snowbank to catch some air. She is, in this way at least, her father’s daughter.
Bubba drives a track alongside the run so he can meet them at the bottom and take them back up. Too soon, the sun drifts toward the western ridges, and they take a final run. They wait at the bottom, looking out over a long canyon, the rocky cuts frosted with snow. Skye gives Rachel a long kiss, and Bubba honks his approval. He greets them with a secret smile.
“Are you hungry?”
“Boy howdy!” says Rachel.
Bubba looks at Skye. “Does that mean yes?”
“I think so.”
“Thanks for the skiing, Bubba,” she says in her sweetest voice.
“You are certainly welcome. If I should ever lose this job, I think I might apply at a ski resort.”
“Let me know if you need a letter of recommendation.”
He turns onto a snowed-over fired road that takes them through a grove of pines. They end up at a flat clearing lined with boulders, a Stonehengey aura. Bubba heads for an A-framed structure at the center of the C and lets them out.
“I’ll be back in an hour. Enjoy!”
Skye takes Rachel’s hand and leads her to the shelter, whose walls are constructed of half-cut logs. Inside they find a table with two settings of china and silver, surrounded by serving dishes. A woodstove radiates heat. A lifting of various lids reveals asparagus with gorgonzola, sauteed mushrooms in white wine and olive oil, fresh-baked country bread with whipped butter, a pot of mulled wine, and crème brulee. The entrée is roasted quail with walnuts, pecan and a honey basil sauce. And a note: From the master chef.
Skye is about to dig in when he spots an arrow at the end of the table, composed of five butter knives. He seats himself at the tail and follows it into the far distance until he finds a familiar shape, a shoulder hunched against the setting sun.
Rachel sets her chin on his collarbone and follows his gaze. “This place never runs out of surprises, does it?”
“Nope. And now I’m gonna eat.”
It’s hard to top the food they’ve been consuming all week, but there does seem to be an extra level occupied by master chefs who own restaurants. The mushrooms toe a perfect line between moist and fresh, with a surprising touch of yellow curry. The gorgonzola has been fused into a sauce with cream, horseradish and bits of chive. The quail disintegrates on their forks in just the way it’s supposed to; the skins carry hints of lemongrass and brown sugar. The shelter fills with the oohs and ahs usually reserved for fireworks.
“I don’t know if the old man is just showing off, but he has won my approval.”
“Mmmph,” Rachel concurs.
A minute later, Skye butters a slice of bread. “Does Half Dome mean something extra to you?”
“Because it’s the thing that snapped you out of your trance. At the time, I thought it was simple familiarity.”
She pours more wine and takes a sip.
“When I was twelve, we drove across the country. Yellowstone, the Tetons, Idaho, and ended up at Yosemite. It was great. Mom was a pretty bad driver, and all those hours at the wheel kept Dad pretty focused. But then, when we got to Yosemite, we camped next to a couple of Arkansas shitkickers, the Timmsons, who coaxed Dad over with beer and horseshoes.
“My dad is the worst drunk on the planet, and you could chart the disintegration of events from the moment his lips touch that first beer. Having fun with the Timmsons reminded him of the basic inequities of life, the unwanted obligations – that would be us – and he returned to the campsite ready to balance things out between him and the unjust world. He picked and ranted and tormented; my mother gave back timid answers that only fed the flames. The only thing that could pull the plug from the drain was one of us meeting with his fist, his elbow, occasionally his boots. Once, when I was eight, he broke my jaw. Which was about the time my mother turned into the Secret Service, eager to take bullets on my behalf.
“And so, after the fucking inbred Timmsons filled him with brew and drunk-talk, the rest was a fait accompli. He threw a dozen baseless accusations at my mother, and then he threw a right hook. It fractured her left cheekbone and sent her sprawling backwards. She tripped on a log and fell, landing with her head in the campfire.
“He yelled at her. ‘Get up, you stupid bitch! What the hell are you doing?’ When she stood up, her hair was fully aflame. When I saw that, I realized the central truth of my existence: someday, my father was going to kill my mother. What he saw was his own idiocy. He ripped off his sweater and used it to smother my mom’s head. The Timmsons ran to get the ranger as my father cradled my mother’s ravaged head and launched into the usual litany of weepy apology and meaningless promises. Even then, it was all about him: his great sorrow, his shame, his pledge to conquer the beast that dwelt inside. Pussy.
“In all the hubbub, I was forgotten. I wandered away and found a spot in the middle of a field. I sat there crying for a long time, and then I noticed an astounding thing: the very cap of the moon sitting atop Half Dome like an egg yolk on a frying pan. As it lifted into the sky, I could see that Half Dome had a kind of face, and I decided that the two of us could be confidantes. I told him all my darkest secrets. I told him that I hated my father terribly, even though my mother told me that such feelings were wrong. I swore to Half Dome that someday I would run away from home and hitchhike across the country so that he and I could be friends forever. I suppose that, when you and Sarge took me to Yosemite, when I opened my eyes and saw my old friend, I had to run and greet him.”
Skye reaches across the table and takes Rachel’s hand. “You’re pretty amazing.”
“And amazing women deserve crème brulee.”
Skye wakes to the olivine wall, playing host to a square of dull light from the window. He stays there in its green embrace, reluctant to break with the comfort of sleep. He turns over and sweeps his hand along the bed, hoping to gather up Rachel, but comes up empty.
A few minutes later, he rousts himself and heads for the bathroom. As he’s urinating, he notices an open pill bottle on the counter. He washes his hands, picks up the bottle and finds a strange-sounding name, but the instructions seem to fit sleeping pills. Three of them are scattered on the counter, next to a half-filled drinking glass.
Nothing. He slips on a pair of pajamas and a sweatshirt and heads for the hallway, thinking of the reading room, but no one’s there. He continues down the hall.
“Rachel? Honey? Where are you?”
He sees a rectangle of light at the end of the hall, snowflakes drifting through the open doorway. He runs, pauses outside, waiting for clues. It’s a shallow slope covered in drifts. A steady downpour of flakes blurs his vision, but he can see a low stone wall, a gap that seems to indicate a path. He follows it, his bare feet crunching in the snow.
A hundred feet on, he sees a structure, white, Greek, an open dome on pillars. Deer something. Belvedere. He kicks into a run. He can’t feel his feet. He finds a body, curled into a fetal position on the belvedere floor. He can’t find his breath. He reaches for her neck. The body shudders awake, the dark eyes surrounded by red skin. He scoops her up and marches up the path, toward the open door.
“I couldn’t,” she sputters. “I tried but I couldn’t. I…I…”
The mutterings fission into shrieks, wild, hysterical. Skye ignores them, sets her on the carpet and finds a red intercom on the wall.
“It’s Skye. Rachel’s poisoned herself.”
“Where are you?”
“I’ll send someone right away.” Female voice. Andorra. He picks up Rachel and paces the hall. She has screamed herself out and is crying. He lays her on the bed, strips off her clothes and wraps her in a comforter. Gregor enters the room, carrying a red bag.
“You said poison? What kind?”
“Hers? From the medicine cabinet?”
Gregor smiles. “Excellent.”
Skye finds this response puzzling, but tries to stay out of the big man’s way as he checks Rachel’s pulse, listens to her breathing. He checks her eyes and stands from the bed.
“She’ll be fine.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Placebos.” Sarge appears in the doorway. “When you arrived, I asked Gregor to go through Rachel’s bags and replace her pills with placebos.”
Rachel spits in Gregor’s direction. “Bastard!”
Sarge runs a hand over his beard. “Gregor, run the young lady a bath. She might have a little hypothermia. If that doesn’t calm her down, perhaps a sleeping pill.”
The care and feeding of Rachel has now gone back to Andorra. Rachel is back to being sleepy, but has added steady fits of weeping and rage to her repertoire. It seems clear to Skye that she has begun the arduous work of battling her father’s ghost.
“Don’t feel bad about taking some time for yourself,” says Sarge. “That girl is a lot of work right now. And I think she feels awful for betraying you.”
Skye watches the steam coming off the water and thinks of the pond on Cape Cod.
“It occurs to me that she was passing on parting thoughts, preparing to make her exit. She told me to forgive my sister.”
“I hope you’ll join in on the counseling sessions – and take some yourself.”
“He’s the best.”
“Just can’t get over the name. Did you do that on purpose?”
“Nope. Let’s just say that it increased my interest. Imagine finding an accountant named Miles Davis. A plumber named Billy Holiday. Jack’s the best. Very straightforward. No B.S.”
“Thanks, Sarge. And thank you for swapping those pills. Sheer genius.”
“You are certainly welcome.” He takes a sip from his martini and sighs. “I’m going to miss you, Skye. You come back as soon as Rachel’s ready. I will take you on a balloon trip you wouldn’t believe.”
The room fills with Middle Eastern music. A trio of belly dancers enters, a cloud of bangles, veils and hips.
“Don’t worry. The show’s for me. But you can watch if you want.”
“How many veils are coming off.”
“As many as possible.”
“Well. If Rachel does feel guilty, I will consider this my just recompense.”
He double-checks the motel room, gets into the truck and starts it up. Rachel is solidly asleep, her worn face smoothed over by Andorra’s magic lotions. He takes himself back to the Jungle in Tribeca, distracted by Delilah’s disappearance and suddenly this embodiment of cuteness talking him into a dance, the ineffable formulae of attraction, generous eyelashes, a babyish pout to her lips, a dimple on her left cheek that appears in moments of anxiety, a precision to her mouth when she speaks, as if she had learned to talk in a charm school or diplomatic academy. Not defined until later, but all of them present at introduction, slipping in like an IV drip, planting their seeds for later, when she would roll past in those magnificent leggings, slick sunglasses, killer smile. This is the package as delivered, a sexy girl with faulty wiring, and how he has learned to hate her father.
He stops at the churchy coffeehouse, gets a breve latte and checks his map. Highway 108 offers a smooth shot through Twain Harte, a town named for two authors, then to Sonora, Modesto, Santa Cruz. After a seeming eternity of adventuring, he is one day removed from the Pacific Ocean.
Photo by MJV