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The man kept opening his mouth, wanting something from me, but it was a language I didn't know. Not Mandarin. Not Thai or Vietnamese. Only sounds. His voice rose and fell in pitch. Shouting, demanding. I shook my head, the sour, foul smell of my own body washing up over me in waves, tongue so swollen I could not talk, could not respond. Soon the pain would start again. And I would rise, hover near the ceiling looking down. Watching. Apart.
I woke suddenly, rushing to exchange the currency of dreams for coin I could spend. Morning light fell dazzlingly through the skylight onto the futon. Those wide shadows were not bars or slats in a cageonly the leaves of plants in hanging baskets up there. That sound was only the phone.
Nothing else in the room. No windows. The futon, a painted bamboo screen against one wall, an expanse of blond wood floortongue and groove I'd put in myself. About as close as the real world gets to the ordered simplicity of oriental drawings.
No one else, either. Only Gabrielle and myself.
She slept crosswise on the futon, my head cradled in her lap. Trying to get away from the light, I turned over. "Oh yes, please," she said. But obviously the phone was not going to quit ringing, so I snaked along the bed to answer it. Gabrielle grabbed me as I went by and held on.
I listened for a moment and hung up. "Wrong number," I told her. "I've got your number," she said, head moving to replace her hand, but I stopped her, wrapping black hair around both my hands and pulling her up into a slow, easy kiss. "I'm going for a run," I said. "Get thesludge out. Want to come along?"
"At six in the bleedin' mornin'?"
With Gabby you never knew what accent you might get. Her features came mostly from an Irish mother and patrician Mexican father, but her extended family was pure goulash. Dad left when she was three, and she and her mother spent years shuttling from household to household, family to family, country to country. This early morning, the accent was British, a better choice than most, I suppose, for gradations of polite outrage.
"Okay, but don't say I didn't ask. So go back to sleep now, my little peasant."
"Peasant. Half an hour, tops, even with a head wind. I'll bring breakfast."
"And here I thought you were breakfast."
"Miss, have you considered taking up a hobby?"
"No time for it." "That was my point.
She shrugged. "One stays with what one's good at. Run along now," she said, and was asleep again before I got shorts and shoes on.
I stood watching her a momenther compact brown body against light blue sheets, breasts just a little too heavy, rib cage set highthen went into the bathroom. Turned on the radio there. It was Mozart, a serenade performed on "original" instruments which the musicians wrestled valiantly to bring into tune. Thousands upon thousands of dollars, thousands upon thousands of hours, had been expended on this bogus authenticity, these elaborate counterfeits. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then stood at the window looking out till the piece was over. One doesn't hang up on Mozart.
There were few others in the park that early: a handful of runners and dog walkers; one young mother who looked remarkably like Shirley Temple pushing a pram; another trotting along with three children at her heels, all of them androgynous looking and none over five years old; street people starting off on their day's boundless odyssey. Birds and squirrels worried at yesterday's leavings, perhaps hoping their investigations would help them understand these huge, dangerous beings that lived in their midst.
I swung around the park's perimeter in an easy jog, following an asphalt bike path, and stopped at a pay phone on the far side, the kind of old-fashioned booth you rarely see anymore. There I dialed a number I still knew all too well. It was picked up on the first ring.
"Age has slowed you, perhaps."
"As you must realize, I was in no hurry to return this call. At first, I was not even sure that I wanted to respond at all. And after eight years"
"Actually, it just slipped over the edge into nine."
"I believed it likely that whatever business you think you have with me could wait a few more minutes."
"Perhaps. However, your plane departs at ten or thereabouts. American, Flight eight seventeen. You are Dr. John Collins, a dentist on vacation."
"It has been, as you say, nine years. I have a career, a new life, commitments."
"I am no longer in your employ."
A still longer silence. Then finally: "It will be good to see you again, David."
I hung up and ran back the way I'd come, pushing myself now. A light breeze was coming up, and full sunlight struck the artificial lake at a slant, tossing off sheets of glare. Birds and squirrels didn't seem any closer to understanding us. Neither did I.
They were waiting by the benches about halfway around, in a space partially screened by trees. You wouldn't be able to see much, here, either from the street or adjacent apartments. So some thought had gone into it, at least.
One was in jeans, black sweatshirt and British Knights, twentyish, a broad, pale-complected man with bad skin. His head kept tic-ing convulsively towards his right shoulder, crossing and recrossing the same minute, almost imperceptible arc. The other was maybe ten years older, wearing what had once been an expensive suit, with a chambray dress shirt frayed to white at the cuff and loose threads at the collar, and a knit tie with the knot tugged down to his breastbone. Lank brown hair tucked behind his ears.
"Your money, sir?" the younger one said, stepping in front of me. "Don't mean to hurt you. This can all be over with in half a minute, you want."
Chest heaving, heart throwing itself again and again against rib cage, I sank onto one of the benches. A placard alongside documented this as STATION NINE (9). Pictographs indicated that I was to restretch muscles and tendons, check my pulse against my own personal MHR, perform ten to twenty deep knee bends.
"... Minute," I said. Then, catching my breath: "I don't carry money when I'm running, boys. Better pick another pigeon."
"Done got our pigeon." The older one. He raked straying hair behind one ear with the open fingers of his hand. Ran his nose quickly along that coat sleeve. It was slick already from prior crossings. "Just got to fry it up now. Drumsticks."
I glanced briefly at him, and when I did, the younger one made his move.
With amateurs, it's always easier when there's more than one. Then you can use them effectively against each other, the same way you use an attacker's own momentum against him in classic judo. That's the physical part. But they also get overconfident: safety in numbers and all that. And even those who know something about what they're doing can get sloppy or, hesitating to check on the other one, let down their guard for that essential brief second.
With these guys I swiveled into a basic high-low, unwinding like a spring, low and moving inexorably rightward to take out the younger one with a sideways blow to the knee as I spun past, then on past the older one, coming in high and behind as he was looking down to see what happened to his partner, watching him crumple from an open-handed blow just below the third cervical vertebra as I went past.
I followed the arc out to its natural stop and straightened, concerned. You never lose the reflexes, but the edge fades on you. You lose the exact touch, where imperceptible gradations can mean the difference between stunning an adversary and permanently damaging him. I was afraid I might have come down a little too hard.
But apparently not. If anything, from my concern over going in too hard and fastwhen I shouldn't have been thinking at all, simply reactingI'd held back. The older guy had already climbed to his feet and was staggering towards me with a hunting knife he'd tugged out of his boot.
I felt all consciousness of self melt away, felt myself dissolving into motion, reflex, reaction.
The knife clattered onto cement and he lay in a grassy patch beside a bench, elbow shattered, face draining of color.
"Please," he said. "Oh shit. Please."
I stood there a moment. Yesterday, even an hour ago, what had just happened would not have. I'd have handed over whatever money I had, talked to them. Or simply run. And yesterday, even an hour ago, once it had happened, I would have called the police and awaited them. I'd spent years trying to turn myself off, shut the systems down, before I was finally successful. And now the switch had been thrown again: deep within myself, whether or not I wished it, whether or not I accepted it, I was again active, and on standing orders.
So I left the muggers there, knowing they were people with complicated histories and frustrated needs like my own and probably didn't deserve what had happened to them, and went home to Gabrielle.
She stumbled into the kitchen just as I was finishing breakfast, wearing one of my T-shirts, which hit her midthigh, and white socks that had started off at the knee and now were bulky anklets. She took the cup of tea I handed her, looked at my face and said, "What's wrong, Dave? Something has happened."
"Sit down." I slid a plate of buttered rye toast, fruit and cheese in front of her. Ceramic plate, thrown on a wheel near Tucson, signed by the artist, all brilliant blues and deep greens. I sat opposite her with my own tea, in a mug from the same set.
"This is going to be difficult."
"Yeah, looks that way. But we've been through a lot together. And we've always handled it."
"Nothing like this, G, believe me."
I looked at the window, wondering how the birds and squirrels were doing, then at her face. So familiar, so filled with meaning for me. So open to me now.
"Everything you know about me, everything you think you know, is false."
"No," she said.
"Yes. I have to tell you that much, have to insist on it. But for good reason I can't tell you more, not now. Now I have to ask you to do something for me, to do it immediately and without question."
After a moment she nodded.
"I want you to pack whatever you absolutely must have and I want you to go away. Not back to your apartment, but somewhereanywhereelse. Preferably out of the city. I don't want to know where you are. In a week, a month, whenever I can, if I can, I'll come and find you."
"It would be easier if I knew why, Dave."
"Yes. It would."
"But I don't have to know."
She was away maybe ten minutes and came back into the kitchen with a huge over-the-shoulder bag and one small suitcase. I sat at the table and drank my tea, looked out the window. Heard sirens nearby, then, as though just an echo, others far away. Watched an ambulance pull up at a brownstone down the street, lights sweeping.
"Well," she said.
"You're an extraordinary woman, Gabrielle. I love you, you know."
"Yes. You do."
And she was gone.
Outside, several million lives went on as though nothing had happened.
After a while I walked through the archway into the studio. Began capping tubes and cans of paint, turning off burners and hot plates under pots of wax, soft metals, glue. It would be a long time before I came back here, if I came back at all.
At one end of the long room, by the windows, sat the piece I'd been working on, a forbidding mass of mixed materialsburlap, clay, metals, wood, paperfrom which a shape struggled to release itself. You could feel the physicality, the sheer exertion, the intensity, of that struggle. I threw a tarp over it and as the tarp descended, the sculpture's form, what I'd been seeking, what I'd been trying to uncover for so long, came to me all at once: suddenly I could see it.