Time’s Bending Sickle

The beginning of this novel may be found in the archives under October 2010; scroll down to find chapter one.

36. For Such a Time do I Now Fortify

Jean opened the door of the hotel room and waved me in. She looked good, though tired and nervous, patting her hair and looking everywhere but at me. She was wearing a soft, light blue wraparound dress. We sat in easy chairs in one corner of the large room. She was silent for an awkward period, looking down and picking an invisible thread off her dress.
“How are you?” I asked, trying to sound neutral.
“OK.”
“I guess the cello got back safely.”
“Oh. Yes.” More silence.
“I’m grateful, but I just couldn’t keep it.”
“OK. I understand.”
“What’s on your mind?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why I came. I know you don’t want to get together again–you sent the cello back.” She was speaking more rapidly.
“I guess I should have called or written.”
She went on as if I had not spoken. “I–I’m in such a mess with Howell and the company. I don’t know–I guess I thought you might know something that would help. I’m sorry I bothered you.” She stood up.
“No, wait. Tell me what the trouble is. I probably can’t help, but I might.”
After some hesitation and a few false starts, Jean spun out a complicated story about how Howell had verbally agreed on one price for Jean’s stock during the buyout, but then claimed another price. There were conflicting documents, and Jean had neglected to keep some of the crucial ones, trusting Howell during their affair. Howell was now stonewalling, his lawyers putting out lots of fog. She was not broke, but some of her assets were frozen, and the delay in resolving the conflict had resulted in trouble with the IRS. The tangle with lawyers and accountants was threatening her already fragile peace of mind.
“Nothing occurs to me right now, but let me think about it and make a few calls,” I said.
“Thank you, Tony. You don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t mind giving it a try.” I stood up to leave. Jean came close and put her hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t hurry. I want to hear about you.”
“I’m fine. I’m working on a book on music. I think I’ll be all right.” As I spoke, she put her other hand behind my neck and moved closer, embracing me. She felt good. Memories of how good she could feel came flooding back. She smelled subtly of that soap she always used.
“California’s nice,” she murmured. “Couldn’t you come try it for a while? I have a friend who could get you a good job.”
“I don’t think so.” I put my hands on her waist to ease her away.
“Or I bet that hippie guy who did games would give you a job.”
“Probably. But I–” She yielded to my gentle push and stepped back. She reached for a snap at her waist and the dress came off in one smooth movement. She was wearing nothing else.
“I’ve missed you, Tony. Don’t go.”
God, was I tempted. I hadn’t had sex since our last, distant, half-hearted attempt, months ago–years, it seemed. I recalled that evening, realizing now that she must have been sleeping with Howell then–her weary sigh, her “Oh, all right,” her passiveness, coldness.
I had been acted upon, by any number of events and people, for a long time. It was not my choice to be a computer salesman, a cuckold, a gunshot victim. I may have contributed to those situations by going along with them. But when I left Dallas, things changed. I liked where I was, and I didn’t want to go back. I thought of Clio, of possibility, of hope, of music. I looked at the familiar but still exciting body before me, and said, as kindly as I could, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll still make those calls, and call you tomorrow.” I left before she could say or do anything, but I thought I heard her start to cry as I closed the door.

I called Callie, who knew a little more about the details, but admitted that she couldn’t sort it out. She confirmed that Jean needed help. I didn’t tell her of Jean’s offer. “We don’t expect you to be St. George, hoss,” she said, “but if you can do anythang to get her tit out of the wringer, you’ll rack up a lot of good karma.”
“Karma? Are you getting Californiaized?”
“Must be,” she chuckled.
“Can you give me any hints of what to do?”
“Not really.” She paused. I could imagine her scratching in some unladylike place. “One thang, though. It seems to me that Howell needs more money than he should. The buyout should have fixed him up good, even while it left most of you other peons out. And that’s strange since all the stories about the buyout remarked on how little money was raised for the leveraging through junk bonds.”
I next called J. C. Atwell, the investment banker Cullen used when it went public. “I thought the size of the lever was a bit small myself,” he said. “Ross Johnson, when he tried to buy out RJR Nabisco, was reported to have said, ‘Never use your own money.’ Maybe Howell didn’t follow that advice, and is having to pay up for something else.”
“What, for instance?”
“I have no idea.”
I made a few other calls, but didn’t get anywhere. Maybe it had something to do with Tedesco. Then I remembered the file Howell had named “wopkraut.” I hadn’t thought about it in some time. I went to my little cassette player and popped open the battery compartment. The two sheets were still there. The list of names and numbers made no more sense to me than they did when I first printed them out.
I looked at my desk, where the pile of paper for the manuscript of my book was slowly accumulating. I had spent most of a day fretting with Jean’s problem, and had done no work. Maybe if I sent this to Jean her lawyers or accountants could make something of it. Maybe she could use it to pressure Howell into a settlement. At least, maybe the gesture would help salve my lingering regrets and guilt about Jean. Less charitably, I thought, maybe it would get Howell in trouble. I had to go to the copy store anyway to copy a chapter draft for Doreen’s criticism. I took the list along and copied it. I called Jean.
“Tony. I’m sorry. I’m–embarrassed.”
“Forget it. Please.”
“OK,” in a very small voice.
“I’m sending you something. I don’t know if it is worth anything, but you might show it to your lawyer. And if he shows it to Howell and pretends he knows what it’s about, maybe that will move him to settle with you.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know, really.” Then I told Jean how I found it and explained the connection to Tedesco. “I’ll leave it at the hotel desk.”
“Thanks, Tony. I–I guess I’ll go back tomorrow.”
“Have a good flight.”
I dropped off the list and put it out of my mind. I was soon back into the In Nomine of Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger. That night I went to Clio’s to play quartets.
We were in the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Opus 59, number two, when a truck backfired, four or five bangs in rapid succession. Suddenly I was in my old office huddled under my desk, hearing the clicks of Abner’s gun, feeling the warm lump in the metal under my shoulder, seeing the grooves in the floor, smelling the gunpowder and my fearful sweat, feeling the kick of the bullet as it hit my leg. I jumped, of course, kicking over my music stand and flinging my bow across the room. Fortunately, no harm came to Clio’s cello or the instruments of the other players. I had been using my own old bow, thank goodness, for the tip split neatly when it hit the wall. I had not had such a strong reaction in some time. Everyone was concerned, and I was terribly embarrassed. They all knew my story and knew the cause of my exaggerated startle response.
Marina was silent while the others clucked sympathetically, and then said, “Tony, I think you should see one of my colleagues at the medical school.”
“A shrink?” I distrusted shrinks.
“Not really. A psychologist. She’s been studying post-traumatic stress disorder, and gave a very interesting talk on a therapy developed by a California woman.”
“California? Does it involve incense or crystals?”
“No. It’s odd, but it seems to work more often than not,” she said.
I later guessed that I was being negative because I feared that my visions might come up. “I couldn’t afford it.”
Marina persisted. “You’d probably qualify as an experimental subject. It would be free. What have you got to lose?”
The others chimed in supporting Marina. Clio said, “Try it Tony. I don’t want you throwing my cello around if I happen to pop some corn.”
That did it. I agreed to let Marina talk to the researcher and set up an appointment.

A week later, two days before my appointment with Dr. Levin, the researcher, I was banging away at the computer when I heard the stairs up to my apartment creak. I was at the door before my visitor could knock. He was a serious, square-faced young man in coat and tie. I was in my usual summer uniform of shorts, t-shirt, and sandals.
“Mr. Anthony Maclean?”
“Yes.”
“I’m agent Schirmer, FBI.” He held up an identification wallet and gave me plenty of time to read it. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“What about?” I smiled, trying not to look suspicious or guilty. Why should I feel that I might?
“They are in regard to Cullen Computing. May I come in?”
“Sure.” I opened the door and waved him in. “Sorry it’s so hot. Want to take off your jacket?”
“No thanks.” He looked around at my clutter. I moved some papers from a chair and invited him to sit.
“Want some ice water?” He was not sweating.
“No thanks.” He pulled two sheets of paper from his pocket and showed them to me. “Do you recognize this?” It was the wopkraut file.
“Yes, but I don’t know what it’s about.”
“Did a copy of this come into your possession?”
“Yes.” I explained as best I could how I found the file and why I had sent it to Jean. I didn’t offer the vague speculations suggested to me by Callie and Atwell. Agent Schirmer made a few notes as I spoke. When I finished, he looked at his notebook in silence for a moment.
“Are you convinced that Mr. Drew entered this file in the Cullen computer?”
“Yes.”
“And you believe that Mr. Drew was referring to Mr. Tedesco when he named the file?” He didn’t say “wopkraut,” nor did thinking of it make him smile.
“Yes.”
He put away his notebook and stood. “Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Maclean. If you think of anything to add, give me a call.” He handed me a business card. “I’ll be going now.”
“Just a minute. Could you tell me anything about what you know? Do you know what the file means? Do you suspect anyone of a crime?” I paused long enough after each question to give him time to answer, but he said nothing and his face was expressionless.
Finally he said, “I am not at liberty to discuss this matter further. Sorry.” He started for the door. “Thank you again for your cooperation.”
I called Jean in California. “What happened to that file I sent you?”
“I did what you said, and gave it to my lawyer. It must have worked, for Howell himself called, sweet as honey, apologized for the crudeness of his lawyers, claimed he had been too busy to supervise them. He said he was sure we could work something out very quickly, and that he would accept any reasonable proposal from me. I wish he’d said that months ago.”
“What did he say about the file, the list?”
Jean gave what almost sounded like a chuckle. “He minimized it, of course, said it was only a list of prospective possibilities for some deal or other. He said it was nothing, but could be embarrassing if it got around. I’ll bet. He couldn’t keep the nervousness out of his voice.”
“Did your lawyer show the list to anyone else?”
“I think he did,” she said. “He said he knew someone who worked for the government who might know what it was about.” I didn’t say anything about my visitor.
Jean and I ended out conversation on a pleasant note. I think we were beginning to get around some of the unfinished business between us, even though one couldn’t call it resolution.

The next day I was walking back to my apartment from the neighborhood store carrying a package of English muffins, when a large black Lincoln with three men in it pulled up beside me. The two men in front were wearing dark suits and shades, but the man in back was more casually dressed. His window oozed down and he called me by name. He flashed a badge and ID very quickly and asked me to get in the car. I looked at him, a well-groomed man of about forty-five in a black t-shirt and a gray silk jacket; he smiled pleasantly. “This won’t take long.”
I got in the car, which moved off smoothly but quickly. “I didn’t catch your name,” I said.
“It’s not important. I just want to ask you a few questions. To help with our investigation.” I thought I saw the driver, in the rear-view mirror, smile at his last word. The man beside me had polished nails and a large gold ring. His voice tanged of New York.
“What do you want to know?”
“You used to work for Cullen in Dallas, right?”
“Yes.”
“That’s where you got this, right?” He pulled out another copy of the wopkraut file. Everybody seemed to have one.
“Yes.”
“What do you know about it?” He looked serious. The driver glanced at us in the mirror.
“Almost nothing. Mr. Drew entered the file, and named it with a reference to Mr. Tedesco.”
“Very politically incorrect name, don’t you think?” He and the driver smiled slightly.
“I suppose so.” I went on. “I don’t know anything about any of the items on the list.”
“But you thought you might use it to get Drew or Tedesco in trouble, right?”
“Not really.” I was beginning to feel uneasy, and groped a bit. “At first it was just a game, a bit of hacking. Howell and Tedesco were being so mysterious that they aroused my curiosity. Then when I found the file I printed it out–as a kind of insurance, I guess.”
He frowned and looked at the list. “But Albert Salvaggio means nothing to you, right?”
“Right.”
“Or Old Town Imports?”
“Never heard of them,” I said. I noticed that we were in a part of town that was unfamiliar to me.
He pointed to another name on the list. “How about CCC Conversions?”
“No.”
He put the list back in his jacket pocket with an impatient gesture. “Do you have memory problems, Maclean? Did getting shot back in Dallas give you amnesia?”
“No. How–” Just then the man beside the driver, who had not moved or spoken, turned and put a huge automatic pistol in my face.
“Easy, Mel,” said the man beside me. “Mel seems to think another dose might refresh your memory, right?”
“Fuckin’ right,” said Mel. He clicked back the hammer of the gun and shoved the barrel under my nose. I could smell the oil and burnt gunpowder, and suddenly went cold all over.
Then there really was a gap in my memory, because the next thing I knew, I was lying on a hard, smelly surface, hearing someone say “These his muffins?”
“Fuckin’ wuss. Keep ’em.” Then a door slammed and the car drove off. I opened my eyes on a patch of sidewalk in a deserted street. I checked myself and found nothing bleeding or broken, but my joints felt watery. It took me a while to get home.

I had a vivid scene from Toby’s life that night. Toby and Balfour were walking on the walls of Breda, looking out on a low, flat landscape crossed with lines of trenches and fortifications of the besieging Spanish army.
“Spinola has studied Prince Maurice well,” said Balfour, “tis siegeworks that the prince could not help but admire.”
“At Bergen op Zoom he could not get close enough to mine the walls. We’ll pepper him here if he tries,” said Toby, fiercely, but with some desperation. “And if they should breach the walls, we’ll have my Devil’s Organ ready for them.”
Balfour looked skeptical. “Aye, if the new brake hold, and the last shots go not straight up to the clouds.” A puff of smoke appeared from one of the guns beyond the first line of trenches, followed by a boom that made Toby wince, and a thud as a cannonball struck the stone wall of a building in the town. “What we truly need,” said Balfour, “are guns with the reach of Spinola’s.”
“Aye. Or better still, relief from Prince Maurice.”
Cheering from a distance turned Toby’s attention to another part of the wall. A coach, drawn by four horses, drove slowly along the top of the wall toward them. As the coach approached, Toby and Balfour joined other soldiers on the wall in cheering and waving their hats. Inside the coach, a rosy-cheeked matron in a white cap and ruff waved back. From beyond the walls another, deeper boom was followed by a loud crash as an enormous hole appeared in the tile roof of a house nearby. The coachman steadied his shying horses, and the coach continued its circuit of the walls.
“Another bomboe from the new mortars,” Balfour said, frowning.
“Damn them,” Toby panted.
“But bless the Drossard’s wife for her show of courage.”

I was still shaky at the time of my appointment the next day. I had slept, but had such a vivid nightmare of Abner Cross shooting through my office door, that when I woke, I was afraid to go back to sleep.
Dr. Levin was a comforting presence, a plump, graying woman with a lively face and a soothing voice. She wore a suit instead of a white coat. She listened with sympathy to my story, and was especially concerned about my encounter with the manicured man and Mel.
“You have been strongly resensitized, which may be a problem. Have you reported this to the police?”
“No, not yet. They didn’t really hurt me.”
“But they did. And one of them seemed to be impersonating a policeman. You need to assert some control, and reporting the incident might help.”
“OK,” I said, thinking of agent Schirmer, “I’ll report it.”
She then began explaining the therapy. “We don’t know for sure why it works, what the details of the mechanism are. We know that when you process an ordinary memory, you integrate information from the senses into a story, a narrative. Details lose their intensity. That’s the difference between experiencing an event and remembering an event, the loss of immediacy. But a trauma seems to interrupt this process. You don’t just remember the event, you relive it.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ve felt that. But I’ve had nightmares about the first incident that are full of images that I didn’t really see. I never saw him, before or after he shot me. But I knew he was wearing his hunting outfit, camouflage clothes and an orange hat. Those details seem very important.”
Dr. Levin nodded and made some notes. “That’s very interesting. But you do have vivid recollections of the details you did see?”
“Yes. And heard and smelled.”
“Smell, yes, that’s an important feature of trauma recollections.” She tapped her pencil and looked away. “Do you feel you have an unusually strong visual imagination?”
I became hyperalert. This could get close to my visions. “That’s possible,” I said, “but if I’ve been this way all my life, I wouldn’t think it unusual, would I?”
“Perhaps, if you never discussed things you imagine with other less imaginative people.”
“I don’t make things up,” I said.
“No, of course.” She turned a page. “We may come back to this later. Let me go on to tell you about the exercises that make up the therapy. As I say, we’re not sure about the mechanism, but the therapy may allow the brain to get past the seizing up, the freezing the trauma causes, and go on to process the event as an ordinary memory.” She rolled her chair so that she faced me directly. “Now I want you to visualize your first experience, and describe it to me in as much detail as you can. But as you do so–and this is very important–keep your eyes on my hand.”
“That’s it?”
“Yes. It sounds like hocus-pocus, but it often works. It will be especially interesting if it works on you. Now watch my hand, and begin from the time your friend saw the man come into the building with his gun.”
I did so. It all came back, sight, sounds, smells, touch. But I watched Dr. Levin’s hand as it moved back and forth, left and right. I stopped at the point at which I passed out.
“Good,” she said. “Now do the same with the events of yesterday. Keep your head still and follow my hand with your eyes.”
Again I got in the car, saw the manicured hands, heard the New York voices, felt and smelled the gun, watching Dr. Levin’s hand.
“Good. Now let’s try a tactile exercise. This time you close your eyes–you can have a blindfold if you have trouble keeping them closed–and brush your hands along this textured board, from left to right and back.” I put on the blindfold and stroked the board as I told my tales.
“One more exercise. This time you don’t talk, but visualize everything as you listen to the sounds over these headphones.”
The headphones produced a pleasant hum that moved stereophonically from left to right and back again. I listened as I relived the shooting and the ride.
“All right,” said the doctor, “that’s it for today. I want to repeat these exercises, along with some talk therapy, for about five more sessions. Any problem with this time Monday, Wednesday, and Friday?”
“That would be fine. Unless the police need me for a lineup or something.”
“Sure. Just let me know. See you Monday, then.” She smiled and shook my hand. I went away feeling a bit less shaky, but not really different.

When I got home, I was curious about whether my visions would be affected. I put myself in a receptive position–on my back on the floor, staring at the ceiling–and tried to trigger a vision. With a mixture of regret and relief, I saw Toby’s aging mug swim into view.
Carrying a loaf of bread and bottle of what appeared to be oil, he entered a low shack built against a section of the inner town wall. Mary sat on the floor with Elizabeth, playing some sort of game with sticks and stones. Toby put the food on a table and sat on a bench, watching the end of the game.
Elizabeth laid a stick between two stones, and cried “I win!” She clapped her hands as Toby and Mary exchanged weary smiles.
“Was our house hit?” asked Mary.
“Not yet. But neighbor Horn’s house was crushed with one of the bomboes. They must weigh an hundred pound. I marvel that any mortar can cast such a ball so far.”
Elizabeth began to pick at the loaf of bread. Mary, as they talked, cut a slice and poured a bit of oil on it, and handed it to the child. “What other news? How stand the provisions?”
“Flesh and fish are gone, and I have heard of cheese, but not seen any.” Toby cut some bread and drizzled oil on it. “Corn we have for some time yet, and rapeseed oil. The hangman, who has been killing dogs for fear of their spreading the sickness, is said to be serving their flesh to the soldiers at a stiver and a half the meal.” Mary ate a piece of bread, and cut another for Elizabeth. “Many of the townsfolk are leaving, though tis said that Spinola will allow no more to pass.” Toby looked at Elizabeth, his eyes drooping. “I would that you would go before he stops all in earnest.”
“I swore I would never leave you again,” said Mary, matter-of-factly dismissing the topic.
“If you left, I could at least hope to see you again. If you starve or die of infection here, you leave me forever, and I could not bear that.”
“We will meet in heaven, I trust, if we must part here.” She looked up determinedly. “At any gate, here I stay.”
Toby sighed. “Well, the more that leave and die, the longer will our provision hold. I keep the pay of my men who die, so if we live, I may be able to pay the rising prices. I saw an egg sell for two stivers today.”

I remembered my promise to report my encounter with Mel and his boss. I called agent Schirmer and told him what happened. He sounded interested.
“I’d like to meet with you and show you some pictures. But someone might be watching your place.”
“Should I come to your office?”
“No, you might be followed,” he said. “Here’s an address near you that’s sort of neutral and unsuspicious.” He gave me the directions. “I’ll meet you there in an hour.”
“Er–am I in any danger?”
“I don’t think so. Just be alert, try to stay where there are other people.”
I wanted to know more about what I was getting into. “Can you tell me anything about who these people are? Are they the mob?”
“I’ll tell you what I can when I can.”
I drove to the address Schirmer had given me, an ordinary middle-class house in a quiet neighborhood. I don’t think I was followed. When I rang the bell, a bald guy whom I’d never seen greeted me like an old friend. “Anthony!” he said with a big smile, pumping my hand, “Good to see you. Come on in.” I entered, and he led me without another word to the dining room, where Schirmer had piled some thick books on the table.
“Thanks for coming, Mr. Maclean,” Schirmer said. The bald man left the room. “Have a seat and tell me if any of these people look familiar.” He took one of the books and opened it before me. I scanned the mug shots as carefully as I could. On the third page I spotted Mel.
“Here’s Mel,” I said.
“You sure?”
“Yes. I remember the chin, the jawline, the nose.” Schirmer made a note. I turned pages. In the same book I found the driver. Two books later I spotted the man on the back seat.
“Can you tell me who these guys are?”
“I suppose so,” said Schirmer, looking almost happy. “They are suspected mob figures. Mel is Melvin Hargraves, called ‘Graveyard’; the driver is Gino ‘Buster’ Bustamente; and the other guy is Alex Scarlatti. They call him ‘GQ’ because he likes to be fashionable. He doesn’t have a criminal record. Yet.”
I was not comforted by hearing these names, even though I liked the music of the baroque Scarlatti. “Now do you think I’m in danger?”
“I don’t think so. You didn’t try to lie to them, and they don’t know you’ve talked to me. They probably would have heard if you had gone to the police. They think you’re too scared to be a threat. Just be careful.”
“Are you going to arrest them?”
“Not yet. But when we do, we might need your testimony.”
“OK.” I agreed, but I had fears and reservations. Would the mob be after me? Would I have to enter the witness protection program? I felt besieged.

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