IT is a genuine mystery. The town of Tremona (Pop. 8,157) is a relatively isolated enclave amongst redwoods and sequoia in Siskiyou County in Northern California. About a year ago, the Tremona Gazette (circulation 7,100) began to receive handwritten letters by an individual called “John Priester” discussing the state of the world and requesting space in the newsletter as an advice columnist to be paid in part by “him.”
“We didn’t know what to make of it,” said Gazette managing editor Paul Leary. “The author was a good writer and we would have dismissed it, but when someone offers you a year’s advertising revenue in exchange for eight inches of column space it’s an offer you have to take seriously.”
That was then. The Gazette’s size is about to double thanks to “John Priester,” and interest in the column has grown intensely across the nation over the past seven weeks, all due to Priester’s predictions.
Because every one of them has come eerily—some would say, scarily—true.
“He’s 33 for 33, batting .400,” says Trevona resident Eric Boucher. “JP called the midterm elections and the CIA scandal (the “Muslim Luther” controversy) and the big cyber attack which originated in China. But the biggest one is the earthquakes in China and Turkey. How could someone know that ahead of time?”
There are five blogs, two fan clubs, and legends aplenty as to “his” identity and whereabouts. Many believe we are witnessing the creation of a folk hero. Some speculate that the author is actually a computer, or the product of the “Singularity,” a phenomenon long predicted to give birth to Artificial Intelligence, that is, a newly conscious Internet which can make predictions based upon a continuous input of scientific data and world events. Others say the author is a group of psychics making their best guesses having an extraordinary winning streak, or extraterrestrials making their presence finally know—through a gossip/advice column!
There is no end to the speculation. John, or JP, has confessed to sending dozens of letters to corporations as well. He claims to have contacted companies as diverse as ADM, Northrup-Grummann, Disney, the makers of computer games and children’s toys. In each he claims to have blasted the managers, practices and policies. As of yet there have been no confirming press releases from these companies verifying the claim.
“You wonder if he’s giving them buying tips, or what,” Leary says. “If he’s this accurate in this other stuff, he could make a killing on the stock market.”
His letters are apocalyptic in tone but non-denominational in outlook. He claims to possess the vision of the mystic and is a self-named “syncretist”—which means bringer-together of traditions—but the flavor of his texts are definitely that of the street preacher.
It all started with local residents writing in pseudonymously on love and life advice. The predictions began as casual asides that, residents noticed, were coming true within three weeks of each pronouncement.
Then he began to conclude his columns with quatrains, like Nostradamus.
The original letters, written in ink on handmade paper, have been framed. Copies of the first twelve Gazettes are now collectors’ items.
Sgt. Victoria Valdez of the 18th Precinct Main Station minimizes the article on the screen and picks up the bleating phone. It is Captain Drake calling her to his office. She wends her way through the sausage fest known as the Organized Crime Control Bureau, Narcotics Task Force, and ascends the scuffed staircase to Drake’s office, a sub-fiefdom of Narcotics concerned with the drug traffic in nightclubs. She vaguely knows what this is about—that new pill rumored to have appeared a few weeks ago at the Utopianist’s Complaint and a couple of other clubs. Their “canaries” had been unable to obtain any of the new substance, but continue to hear about a single dealer who hit the venues, giving it out for free.
She enters Drake’s office and is startled to find Ken Dennison there leaning upon the desk. Starck and Dorney are here, the latter a sergeant on loan from the 19th Precinct, chosen for occasional undercover work due to his Lower East Side biker-rocker look.
Drake produces a tiny plastic bag from which tumble three tiny discs. “We’ve got some. ‘Haoma,’ it’s called. Comes in purple.” She steadies her hand. The pills’ groove is yellow; a tiny number 801 is etched on the top section, an L in the lower.
“We had the Utopianist’s Complaint covered,” Drake continues, “but the dealer booged. You know how complicated that place is. We got a description of him, though. Ken here saw him. Tried to get a facial mapping but the eye malfunctioned.”
“Guy’s a Muslim,” Dorney says. “He was wearing a skullcap. Got a death-to-America beard, too.”
Victoria, irritated, snaps, “Ever heard of a disguise?”
“Well, lemme finish. Guy’s got an accent, too. Middle-Eastern.”
Victoria rolls her eyes.
Starck says, “He gave out a dozen doses for free. Randomly. Ken just happened to be there to meet the canary. Canary ran into this Muslim as he turned the room into a dispensary.”
Drake’s voice has that autopsic tone reserved for loved ones after the worst had happened. “The drug’s been appearing only on weekends. The reports are confusing. Takers experience euphoria, time dilation, mild hallucinations and enhancement of color. Kinda like Ecstasy or diluted ketamine. Heart rate goes up slightly. Dilated pupils. Oh, and get this—they say verbal skills seem to increase. Speech gets poetic, I guess the word’d be…Tangled. And people tell you straight up if they’ve taken it. Afterwards, they can’t describe it at all.”
Dorney puts in, “It lasts about three hours total and there is no crash afterward. They say they feel calm and that everything is different.”
“All hearsay, of course,” Drake continues. “They’ve painted it in the best light. Haven’t heard of any bad trips—yet. We will. It’s statistically inevitable.” He gestures at the bag. “We’re gonna send this to the lab. We need someone new there at the UC. Since it’s Saturday, we want you there tonight, Veev. See if we can catch this fuck in the act.”
There went her plans; she’s supposed to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden tonight. But that’s okay. She’ll call the babysitter and makes sure she’ll be available to watch her daughter Carmen.
She departs the office, relieved. Her fear did not play out on walking into that room-the fear that her colleagues would discover her relationship with Sgt. Ken Dennison.
THE UTOPIANIST’S COMPLAINT was the world’s largest nightclub, occupying an entire half block in Midtown Manhattan. Fourteen stories tall, its “Pandora” half housed 26 bars, 37 lounges, eleven full-sized dance floors and was always full due to its dive prices and the wide variety of bands, comedians and parties it nightly hosted. Its “Agora” side, entered on Eighth Avenue, was a cultural center offering classes in esoteric subjects, as well as yoga and meditation, painting, sculpting, music. The Pandora nightclub half of the venue had a spotless vice record, without a single violation, all tightly managed and owned by a company called Quincunx Productions. The manager, Aurelio Dias, had been reluctant to allow the Vice Squad to run any kind of operation on the premises. Possessing impeccable connections and the full trust of his employees, Dias was unaware of any drug distribution activity on the premises—not that it couldn’t happen, he admitted….
Vice and Narcotics ran surveillance there nevertheless, and had trouble with the place. One could easily get lost, in every sense possible, amongst its abstract lounges, the crush of hip and latecomers and gate crashers, the homeless who were allowed to freely mingle and even sleep in designated areas and get medical and psychological care there in two small clinics. The building’s bible-sized book of city permits and operating licenses caused endless questions of currency and legitimacy yet somehow investigations never rose to the level of Official Outrage or municipal pressure; the place seemed to be protected from on high by forces unwilling to publicly identify themselves. The nightclub was a major penumbra in the city’s fabric, and another set of rules seemed to operate there.
And, thinking back on it later, Victoria should have seen it as the key.
LATER THAT NIGHT Victoria Valdez is sitting in a Lincoln on 56th Street with three informants. These Task Force “canaries”—first-time offenders busted for felony possession that have agreed to do “community service” as undercover buyers in the club scene—had been unable to obtain any of the new substance, but continued to hear about a single dealer who hit the venues, giving it out for free. The orders are explicit: get on top of this new drug before it even has a chance to work its way into any further bloodstreams—more realistically, into the general consciousness of the nightcrawler population.
Ha, Victoria thought: fat chance of that.
“People use flash messaging when it arrives,” she says. “So if you’re lucky enough, you’ll see a bunch of people checking their phones and then getting up and all moving in one direction. It never arrives later than eleven o’clock. So go around and ask about it, if you can.” Victoria is dressed like she doesn’t care and somehow it has still come out right, in a low-cut black blouse and black skirt and pumps, her hair French-twisted. The three “canaries,” all men, give her still-grudging, half-grateful eye contact and it amuses her.
She sends them off on their furtive mission. A few minutes later Sgt. Colm Dorney shows up and they go inside.
She marvels at the size and ambitions of the nightclub. They sit at a bar called the Pharmacy ordering cokes and orange juice and eyeing the crowds. Their talk revolved around department shakeups, then grows even smaller than usual. She kids Dorney about his awful tattoos and he lectures her about the momentum of ink, the no-going-back. She sets up base camp on the alabaster bar as he moves throughout the Spectra Room’s auroras and supernatural mists, dozens of occupied couches and chairs going dim in the distance. The drug-takers apparently enjoy the visual spectacle of this particular room and another chamber, the Fishtank, as it is known.
Her cellphone buzzes. Two of the “canaries” have noted a swell of activity in a lounge on the next floor. The drug has apparently arrived. She pursues one of the informants, a thirtyish former stockbroker nailed last year on cocaine possession. She meets him in a corridor that simulates a forlorn alley with a bare lamppost and caged bulb and 1970s Bell telephone booths covered in faux graffiti.
“Yeah, he was here about an hour ago,” he says. “I looked for you guys.”
“Didn’t look very hard. Same guy?”
“Yeah, the Mullah, they called him.” He sniffs. “He was giving it out by the handful. Just handing it off to everyone. Not much you can do about that, heh.”
She and Dorney split up and begin targeting regular nightcrawlers with appeals for the drug, but no luck, it is apparently already coursing through the patrons’ veins. They return to the Spectra Room and find seats at the long sparkling bar. “We’ll sit right here and enjoy the show.”
Victoria says, “You hear about that thing going on in California? The guy writing letters?”
Dorney smirks. “World gets stranger every damn day, don’t it.”
“What if he’s a real prophet like Nostradamus?”
He gives her an incredulous smirk. “Nostradamus wasn’t a prophet. I could write some vague, spooky-sounding shit on this napkin right here and gimme three hundred years, you could twist it around to say that it’s come true in some way, right?”
Victoria considers this. “I saw something on the History Channel once…”
He laughs. “Oh, yeah—the channel formerly known as the ‘History Channel.’”
She looks out into the auroral mists across the ceiling. “This professor said we look at history like a single line, you know? We think things happen once, like a timeline, but see, Nostradamus thought it was circular.”
He looks grimly into his Coke. “Circular, well, shit, I know how that feels.”
“So this John Priester guy…”
Dorney raps on the bar with his thick tattooed knuckles. “Gotta be a gimmick. Publicity stunt, yeah? You know…A promo for a movie they’re making or some shit. You know—a virus campaign.”
She sips her orange juice. “Dorney, this guy predicted the location of two earthquakes. That’s no gimmick.”
He throws his hands out and that ends it. “So how’s your Bonham doing?”
“Bonner,” she corrects but is surprised he remembers even an approximation of her mentor’s name. And slightly gratified. “He’s in hospice now.”
“I’m sorry, Veev. He did you right. And did his job.”
She looks at her watch. An hour has passed since the dealer had shown up. They sit back and watch as whole areas of the Spectra Room go silent and the volume of conversation falls by half. The drug’s peak purportedly causes an overwhelming flood on the brain in which speech was impossible. Already a word to describe it had been coined: the Window.
“Fucked up,” Dorney says.
THEY GO OUTSIDE into the summer night and call Lt. Haverty at the Painted Word, in TriBeCa. “The Muslim showed up three hours ago. Got video of him going out the front door, but that’s it.”
THE NEXT NIGHT a camera records the “Mullah” at the same venue, the Painted Word, in a back room near the club’s business office. Victoria and the Task Forcers study the security footage. With the bright skullcap, long beard and what looked like a tweed longcoat, how could all the informants miss spotting this freak? Three patrons approach him, separately, one after the other and he reaches into both pockets and passes handfuls of the stuff to his beseechers. Some of the pills spill to the floor, which the last patron hastily stoops to retrieve.
Those lucky individuals’ further activities distributing the pills to the club goes uncaught on the other camera recordings.
The Task Forcers confer and conclude that access must have been granted to him by some intermediary within the Painted Word. The exchanges look too neat—scripted even.
VICTORIA CALLS THE four canaries she’s handling and gives them their venues and the times she’s to meet them. Then she calls the assisted living home in the Bronx where her mentor Bonner is in hospice care. Ten years into his retirement, he was diagnosed with emphysema, then confined to his apartment, then his bed, now hospice and oxygen in a home.
The nurse picks up and answers her in a thick Haitian accent and hands over the phone. His words come out singular wheezes. She thanks him once again, the last amongst thousands, perhaps the very last.
Victoria still shudders at how many ways she could have died if not for his intervention. Bonner had been a juvenile counselor and probation officer and he had gone the distance for her. All it had taken was the basics—food, water, shelter—but most of all, and something he wouldn’t even credit for himself, his presence and listening to her tales of the belt and her drunk stepfather’s overpowerings. Bonner had turned over the file to NYPD and wouldn’t stop until the man was prosecuted.
The monster had ran, and Bonner spent a month tracking him down upstate with a detective hired from his own meager savings. He had him arrested and sent him up to Attica.
But that had just been nothing more than justice.
Bonner continued to check in on her, helped her through her schooling at PS 153. She’d been in and out of juvenile justice for three years. Every winter she and her Bronx sisterhood competed with each to determine how many layers of clothes they could wear out of the K-Mart and make the sprint down the block to the older brothers’ waiting car. She’d gotten caught twice and gone to court.
Bonner came around to their apartment twice a week. Years later, he confessed to having had a series of dreams about her back then—nothing untoward—but simply visions of her living a happy and secure life decades hence. Something had singled her out amongst his filing cabinet of lost causes. There were no other Victorias in his life, he said—no other successes, he claimed.
She still did not know how to feel about this.
But you must pay it forward, as they say.
She has the third of her tri-weekly visits today. His 73rd birthday is just four days away, and she and Carmen are to bake him a cake and bring it. She takes the subway up to the Holly Grove nursing home in Morningside Heights. She kisses him on the forehead and holds his hand. He begs her for a cigarette and she vacillates until a final refusal, an old perverse game they play. She settles in the room’s only chair as his dinner is brought in, bad hospital food that he refuses. She chides him and begins to feed him.
He has lost more weight this week, she can see, from his obstinacy. His will is going.
One of his ex-wives comes by several times a week and there are get well cards and flowers from the other two. His sons have visited him twice apiece since his admittance here four months ago.
He asks, as always, about her daughter Carmen. She sits with him as he pokes through the cable stations on the remote, his eyes oblivious to the crap passing by on the screen, the compulsiveness has more than simple irritation behind it; it has necessity, a speeding up of events, a trying to catch up with something as the oxygen hisses and she can see his chest heaving unnaturally with every breath.
“Let’s go back,” he says.
It is a CNN segment on the “John Priester” phenomena. If he’s really interested his face doesn’t show it. His hand is across his chest and she watches the Knights of Columbus ring on his pinky wedged into a ridge by his swollen fingers rise and fall as he attempts to breathe.
“Crazy,” he puffs finally at the end of the report. “Maybe there’s something…”
THE NEXT NIGHT they have arrested the “Mullah.”
Captain Drake says, “We caught him on the second floor of the UC.”
The bearded man has been hauled into the department booking room, then to an interrogation cell. He hadn’t said a word, nor resisted arrest. He smelled, they said, like lilies, then every occasionally an overwhelming whiff of putrefaction. No drugs or identification have been found. He was dressed in ragged jeans and frock beneath the longcoat, without shoes, his bare feet calloused. He looked to all opinions some homeless tramp and remained totally silent.
They discover sand in his pockets, and that’s all.
Victoria Valdes stands before the one-way mirror watching the tramp. She holds the jacket at arm’s length then brings it towards her nose with gloved hand to catch the scent of lilies that surrounds the piece of clothing. The jacket feels strange in her hand, heavier than it should, too warm, as if a person’s body was still within it. There is something unnatural about it, an energetic buzz. She lays it across the examination table and probes the lining. Here is a manufacturers’ label:
Freres De Molay
1244 Montsegur, FR.
She slips on her bifocals. The fabric resembles some variant of tweed, with iridescence at the fibers’ edges. Its inner lining shimmers like polished gold. She reaches into the pocket and encounters crumbly sand grains. She reaches in deeper and pinches a fingerful—there’s more than she thought—and deposits it on the sheet of plastic. Three times she does this and the pocket is clear of the substance. She repeats the process with the other pocket when something appears within the chunks of sand, a few dark nodules that she crumbles between thumb and forefinger. She is stunned.
“Vic, what are you doing? We cleaned that shit up.”
“Oh yeah? Look. Here’s one.”
Dorney frowns. For several disturbing minutes they comb through the viscous sand, finding the pills in odd places within clumps and at angles to the grains. The sweet smell is overpowering. Through the process she begins to feel woozy. She pauses to retrieve a mask. When they finish, somehow, most of the sand is gone and eleven Haoma pills lay there, perfectly clean, on the tabletop.
Starck is in the room asking questions but the bearded fellow is just staring into the two-way mirror—or rather, right into Victoria’s eyes. She moves from one side of the room to the other and his eyes follow her.
“I think he likes you,” Dorney comments.
“How’s he doing that?”
Dorney makes a dismissive sound. “Mirror’s not that big. Seen ‘em do that before. Come on.”
Victoria knows better. The tramp smiles faintly, a stare that is both peaceful and millennial. Then he raises a hand and unmistakably gestures for her to join him.
“Ever seen that before?” she says.
“I guess that’s your cue.”
She enters the interrogation room, passing Starck at the door and sits down. The man is smiling, showing filmy brown teeth. She folds her hands and says hello. “What’s your name?”
He raises a bushy eyebrow. “Understand only this…My parents died before my birth, but that didn’t stop them.”
Okay, this is easy: Call Bellvue.
Up close she notices he has peculiar violet eyes, almost out-and-out purple, the type indigenous to the ‘Stans and Near Asia. His beard extends to his lap and has its own topographies and ideas of gravity.
“Are you a cleric or a mullah?”
“Heavens, no.” He clasps his hands together and gestures upward. “I have not yet won my degree in hypocrisy, praise Allah.”
“That’s what people call you, the Mullah.”
“People? How would they know that it’s me to call me that if they’ve never met me?” He seems pleased with this answer.
“Look. Where did you get these pills?” She points to the three discs.
He looks shocked.
“What is this sand?”
He says something rapidly in Arabic and is growing excited. “Once upon a time it was a mountaintop. The stones of a great city. It was a temple. The temple of she who is coming.”
“She. The Queen.”
Victoria gives up and he chirps goodbye effusively, happy.
“Nutjob,” she opines.
Captain Drake says, “We also picked up a guy, too, a musician, who works there. Had two doses on him. And some shake. You got him in room three, Veev.”
The musician is thirtyish, with dreadlocks, tattoos, urban gear. He’d moped through Dorney’s preliminary interview saying he’d taken the substance only once.
“Alright,” Victoria says, “you’ve no priors except that possession charge three years ago down in Maryland. This will be strike two and there’s a possibility it will be more than a suspension this time, you know it.”
She can see the fear in his eyes. He wets his lips. “So…”
“We’ve already spoken with a judge who will sign off on another suspension, with community service.”
He huffs resentfully. “You’re gonna ask me to set someone up, right? And I told you I have no idea who that guy with the stuff was or where he got it. And I don’t know the guy who sold me the shake, either. I don’t know any dealers. That was a one-shot deal. I swear. A-an opportunity came up, and, and I took it.”
He is sweating.
“We’re not asking you to set anyone up. I’m just here to tell you. We have people feeling out the clubs. And you play music in the clubs. We try to get on top of these new drugs and we’re basically in the information business. Just to keep an eye and ear out. Now, how did you hear about Haoma?”
“Derek at Aurora told me ‘bout it.”
“Aurora Records. In Williamsburg. S’where I work. Guitarist and bass. Session. Gig.”
“Derek’s last name?”
“I don’t know. He’s just a guy who hangs out there.”
She scribbles. “This Derek ever take it, or know where to get it?”
He shrugs, holds the shrug, then looks at his massive hands. “New molecules, right? No laws against it yet, right? This is a violation here, your bringing me in. Let me see a lawyer or let me go.”
“You know we can’t do that.”
“I didn’t have enough shake on me for anything but a fine.”
“One thing. This tramp, the ‘Mullah.’ You seen him before?”
“No, it’s dark in there. Someone just handed it to me.”
“What does this Haoma drug do?”
He seems to go wistful. “It’s like a time machine. Way back to the beginning.”
She twirls the pencil in her fingers. “You know all this stuff on the Internet about it. Things that say it causes a personality change.”
“Is there something to that?”
He nods at her. “No, do you believe all that? I mean, have you seen anyone complain about what it does, or have changed?”
She studies the tiny grains of sand beneath her fingernails. “James, answer my question, please. Did it change you in any way?”
“So what—if I say yes, you’ll think my word is shit, ‘cause I’ve been compromised by a drug? My testimony will be worthless, is that it?”
“No, that’s not—”
“Or is it Haoma that’s causing me to be truthful? Like I couldn’t tell the truth on my own? That’s what they say, right? That it makes people speak what they think, and what they think is the truth?” He folds his massive arms and leans back into the chair and slouches a bit. “That didn’t happen to me.”
Victoria stares unblinking at him. “Look. Just tell me. What. It. Did. To. You.”
“Read my blog. You’ll find some stuff there.”
She’s surprised. “You have a…”
“Everyone and their granny’s got a blog.” He nods down at himself. “I was an English major. Sure.” He looks up at the ceiling and shrugs again. He is a shrugging machine. “It’s a draft of things that happened. I just posted a big entry the other day. Huge. Just a draft, though.”
“What’s the address?”
He sighs. “Type in, ‘Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication.’”
“Don’t smartass me. You expect me—spell it, James.”
“Just type in ‘supergroova’. Browser will do the rest.”
“Your blog’s that popular?”
“No. Browsers’ are getting smarter, ’s’all. You’re not on the net a lot.”
“And there’s only one website called supergroova, yaddayadda.”
“I would think so, Mrs. Valdez.”
“Oh, I see.”
She leaves the interrogation and finds the exam room crowded. Here is Dickerson and Levine from Forensics, gazing down at Dorney and Parks as they lean over the jacket, their gloved hands sifting through sand. The pile of pills has doubled in number.
Dorney looks at her, ashen. “The sand keeps appearing in the pockets,” he says.
THEY RELEASE THE homeless man without his strange longcoat, replacing it with a long-unclaimed windbreaker with a GPS dot sewn into it. The jacket is sent to the lab for analysis. Having nothing to charge the musician with but simple possession of the cannabis, he makes bail, posted by someone at his record label, and they let him go.
Victoria checks his website. It is graphically overloaded and done up in fat floppy 1970s typefaces. His last blog posting is indeed huge, 174 kilobytes, and she begins to read it but it’s heavy with musical jargon and lingo, a code almost, and she quickly tires of it. She can always print it out later, if it turns out to have relevance.
LATER, KEN DENNISON leans into her desk, throws down a sheaf of paper. “Toxicology got the report back on the Haoma. It’s powdered honey. It’s a sugar mixed with elements of synthesized flowers, mostly a kind of lily. No better than a placebo, a damn sugar pill.”
“How do you think he switched it?”
“He didn’t,” he replies. “They tested all the samples, Vicky, the three from the UC and one from the Painted Word and what we found coming outta that Mullah dickhead’s jacket. It’s all the same.”
“So what are we saying? All these people are just imagining they’re having a trip? What?”
He smiles sloppily and leans in, his eyes mock-wild, and whispers, “It’s the CIA, obviously.”
She closes her eyes. “Don’t start.”
“A social experiment is what I mean,” he rasps. “A test, to see if mass hypnosis is possible? Mass suggestion. How many of these clubbers are having real trips? We don’t know. Then again, maybe we got a bum batch of the stuff. You told me that musician said he didn’t have the same experience as everyone else is reporting. But I don’t think it does anything. I think it probably gives a mild high, and suggestion is doing the rest. Like self-hypnosis. Anticipation, right? I think people are faking a good time to go along with the others.”
He’d always had this streak of loopy ideas. And she can smell the booze on him now, sees its effects in his watery eyes.
It’s one in the afternoon.
“We’ve had four samples from three venues from different times and all that sand looked like brown sugar. No-one tasted it, right?”
Victoria replies, “Giotto hasn’t tried it, or any of the canaries as far as we know. We can’t ask them to take some, you know.”
Dennison lumbers away and she shudders. She’s glad it’s over between them. It had begun as a squad-room trio going out for drinks. The trio became a duo later that night. Dennison was working on his fifth Heineken and third shot when the drunk next to them slammed into Victoria without apology and Dennison heaved him backwards in the next breath and the drunk bounced off the bar and took a swing that Ken anticipated. He grabbed the incoming fist and tugged the drunk’s arm down. The guy fell, hard, and he let the bouncers do the rest. There had been no bravado about it, and that was the problem. That’s what had been so charming. Like brushing away a fly.
Their second time out he drank less and was twice as animated, telling her stories about collars in the Lower East Side “Quality of Life” beat, which he’d worked for five years. They were leaning in close at the bar and he’d gently pinched her pinky in emphasis of some point. He was a bear of a man. The way he pinched her pinky that first time, and held on to it the second time. He leaned closer.
He was solid, despite the ex-wife and two teenage boys, but he seemed more solid than most of the others in similar situations.
They took a Saturday off and went to the Metropolitan—their first time ever visiting the famous museum, ever, in their mutual New York-born lives—and it inaugurated the weekly trysts at his Chinatown apartment. It had gone on for half a year already, but he always seemed to keep it at arm’s length, though, with the tense fixed firmly in the present. But that was the right speed for the both of them.
It was possible that she could fall in love with him, and that was as close as she could allow herself. It had nearly been ten years since her divorce. She knew she was attractive at 41, had long ago burned off the extra weight from motherhood and spent months at the gym, watched her diet.
And with the level of ball-breaking at a constant high in the squad-room, even a hint of their relationship was unthinkable.
THEY SPEAK TO all six of their community servicers and the lot of them swear to never have taken the drug, despite its at-present legal limbo.
VICTORIA AND CARMEN make Bonner a modest German chocolate birthday cake. After some deliberation Victoria decides to ask.
“Carmen, have you ever heard of something called Haoma?”
“Yes.” Instantly her hands come together, her left hand strangling her right thumb, her familiar sign of anxiety. Of guilt.
“Have you ever taken it?”
“No, I swear.”
“Have your friends?”
“You in cop mode? Which?”
“Doesn’t matter. Okay, mother mode, motherrr…”
“Albertina took it,” she says defensively. “That girl who wigged out I told you about.”
“Did she tell you what it was like?”
“She got all weird. She stopped using her cellphone and dropped her Facebook and got all wiggy.”
“Did she tell you what it was like? I mean how it affected her?”
“She couldn’t say. She just went all smiley. She wants to drop out. Of school.”
“So you’ll never take it.”
“Oh, hail no. I like school.”
VICTORIA’S GRATITUDE PLAYED itself out every time they visited Bonner together, as if Carmen was the living embodiment of his work 20 years ago in the Bronx projects.
That it was not in vain.
Carmen is mature for her age and seemingly nonplussed by the reality of aging and the grim institutional place, but Victoria could detect her disgust and occasionally, the fear, but is nevertheless impressed by her continuing wish to visit the mentor from her teenage years every week. She couldn’t determine whether it was out of some unconscious respect to the old man for making possible her very existence—something Victoria had never explicitly laid out—or simply to impress her mother.
“Thanks for coming along.”
“You say that every time.”
“Well, it means something.”
“You really love him, don’t you?”
“He’s been steady. He’s always been here.”
“I’m sorry he’s sick.”
“It’s what happens.”
“I try to get him to eat.”
Sometimes she worries about Carmen’s apparent asociality and the obsession with these devices by which she and her friends erect barriers around one another. In a sense it qualifies as addiction, just like any to substances, with quantifiable social costs. But Carmen also enjoyed things like Victoria’s own musical tastes, old movies and styles of dress, as if it was more than just affectation, or trying to be cool by being different. She actually did enjoy them.
THE NEXT WEEK there is no sign of the Mullah, yet the community servicers confirm that another few hundred Haoma pills had somehow worked their way onto the dance floors of the Utopianist’s Complaint, along with a new form of the drug: tiny paper squares. The informants try backtracking, to no result.
Then, in a bar within the Utopianist’s Complaint called the Mithraeum, the ex-stockbroker notices frenetic activity near the arched barrel vault support column and drifts over to it. The contact has shown up. He’s a series of angularities with long blue-black hair and dressed in vintage velvet. The stockbroker recognizes him as a Mithraeum regular, and notifies Victoria that a dealer is on the premises.
But an arrest wasn’t to happen that night.
Another fruitless weekend passes. By this time, news of the drug has seeped via the Internet into the Meridian Broadcast Corporation news division and the Metro desk of the New York Times—but until the kids start flying or dying, Captain Drake warns, all official NYPD stories will be embargoed. This, despite the fact that ingesters are now writing about their experiences on the Web, on blogs and message boards and the social networking sites. Nomenclatures and codewords are developing. The Times and Post and Daily News are quickly catching on. People who have taken Haoma are confessing things about themselves; they are ending relationships and quitting jobs, both summarily and with notice. There are rumors of “profound personality changes” whose actual quantification goes unanalyzed but for vague avowals. Those previously condemned as “depressives” are impressing loved ones and friends with mirth and changes in appearance and hygiene and demeanor.
Digital pictures of the pills turn up online. Artists are painting and sculpting it. Poems with elaborate, tortured syntax bearing obsolete words heavy with desuetude appear on the Net, as group projects. The sudden synergy of a micro-culture appears. All this, a mere three months from its first appearance.
“Goddamned Web amplification,” Drake says. His tone seems to mean: We will hold back the deluge with our paper cups and thimbles.
“WE GOT HIM, ViVi,” the captain says.
There in the room is a thirtyish bearded man in curled sidelocks and dressed in a white shirt and natty black suspenders and coal fedora. He is rocking in concentrating over a presumably invisible Talmud. Victoria chuckles to herself.
“Speaks Hebrew exclusively,” the captain says. “No ID.”
“Where’s his jacket?”
“We recovered about fifteen paper tabs this time.”
She puts on the gloves over manicured fingers and folds over the jacket.
“It’s the same,” Starck says. “Mont Segger. De Moliere Brothers.”
“De Molay,” she corrects, probing into a pocket. “Is there sand?”
“Let’s call it confetti.”
She gathers a few tiny pieces and scatters them on the table.
“There’s writing on them. Not Hebrew, English and some other hieroglyphic-type thing.”
“We’ll send it to the lab.” She shakes her head at the wonder of it all.
“Lovestone should be down here.”
LT. SIDNEY LOVESTONE speaks fluent Hebrew. The young Hasid requests a paper pad presumably on which a confession will be written. He is more forthcoming than the Mullah—in sheer verbiage, at least. He doesn’t know the Mullah except by reputation and anecdote. His left hand doodles upon a legal pad absently as he rocks and rants about a hidden Jerusalem occupying the same physical space as Manhattan but existing at a higher energetic plane—and that he is its current ambassador in New York. His alter-self in that city was the “writer” of the paper pharmacopeia in his pockets. He had simply been instructed to “hand out the everlasting Ain Soph, and Shekinah will do the rest…”
After the interview Lovestone confiscates the young man’s doodling. They depicted a series of hexagons laid out like a city grid, perfectly proportioned and seemingly draw as if with an engineer’s compass.
They keep his greatcoat. Both jackets are examined by the forensics lab and found to be composed of fabrics woven together at a microscale, a degree of complexity impossible to understand.
THE SOLE FRENCH speaker in the 18th Precinct calls Europol and the French Police Generale in Paris. They have heard nothing of Haoma in the Parisian clubs, but report that a new chemical is making its way through Rome and Berlin and Amsterdam. It is called Ludibria, and its reported effects are similar. It is described as yellow pill with a purple band, the numeral 108, and a small M…Further, after consulting a national business database, a gendarme official tells the Francophone that De Molay Brothers, the only clothier based in the village of Montsegur on the French-Spanish border, has been in business for nearly two hundred years. It has no telephone listing, much less a web presence. Orders are made exclusively through correspondence, as they have been for the past century.
THE FOLLOWING WEEK Haoma appears in the clubs in pill, paper and yet a third form, a liquid administered by atomizer.
The third dealer they pick up wears a Catholic priest’s frock-coat and collar, and is nabbed just as he steps from Alumbrados in TriBeCa. The lone pocket within the folds of his garment are perpetually damp, but unproductive of pills or confetti.
They turn over the frock to read the inevitable place of manufacture and curse that they did not get hair or saliva samples from the Mullah and the Hasid. DNA tests would give them something tangible, if nothing else the reassuring axiom that these three magician-perpetrators were at least fellow members of the human race. The “priest” has heard of the Mullah and the Hasid but claimed not to know them personally. “We are forerunning her.”
“Who?” Dorney asks.
“I make way for the Queen.”
“We are her forerunners.”
“You mean you and the Mullah and the Jew are forerunners?” Victoria asks.
He shrugs. “The Age is about to turn. We are sent out to gather the splinters. The Fish has been spilled onto sand…Only the waterbearer’s urn can revive it. But it doesn’t need reviving, try as you all might. And that is all I will say.”
And with that he falls silent, remaining so even through another fruitless three hours of interrogation and the outtake and biometric identification procedures, which he submits to without incident, then his release. Dorney discretely follows him down to the Battery in the July heat but the man seems oblivious. The “priest” stands staring at the Hudson for two hours, then Mitchell takes over the surveillance as the man drifts to a bench, where he tries to take a nap until rousted by a Port Authority officer.
Finally the Captain calls off the tail.
VICTORIA VALDEZ STEPS into the maze and leans above Ken Dennison’s desk. “The Jew’s confetti?”
Ken Dennison is as close to excited as she has ever seen. “The lab says it’s bits of handmade paper, an Asian kind of cedar. Look at this, Vicky.”
He holds up a blown-up JPG file, blurry, a page of text. “It’s a poem. Written in micro-millimeters. This writing was on a single piece. Each piece has a different poem written on it. Some of them are paintings. Can you believe this? Paintings—like those paintings in books from the Middle Ages?”
For the first time Victoria feels a cold stirring in her stomach. She thinks God might know what’s going on here: The NYPD, not so much.
Dennison reads her troubled expression and she intuits his need to give her some comfort here—physical comfort. Immediately she straightens. He continues: “Forensics says the only thing which would make writing and pictures this small is what they call a ‘quantum tunneler.’ It works in nano-meters, they said. You know how small a nano-meter is?”
She sighs and deadpans, “I’ll bet it is very, very small.”
“Supposedly this kind of technology doesn’t officially exist yet except at MIT or something. Hear what I’m saying?”
She hears but ignores. “What about chemically?”
“Same deal as the pills. The paper’s infused with some kind of sugar, from a kind of honey, that’s all.” His voice lowers and leans closer. “Hey, Vicky, is Carmen out tonight? What do you say we—”
“Sorry, I can’t. Not tonight.”
LATER, VICTORIA MAKES her way to the physical evidence pen and opens the large locker and frowns. An old grey and brown tee-shirt sliced neatly down its front hangs there beneath the cellophane and evidence tags. She checks the logs. She was the last to open the locker, two weeks ago. Someone is having fun with her.
She storms into the room, holds up the joke. “Anyone like to tell me what the fuck happened to the fucking Mullah jacket in the fucking lock-up? Who’s got it?”
Shaking heads, mild protests. “Whoa, we haven’t touched it, miss potty-mouth. Take it easy.”
“Valdez, watch your language.”
“Ha.” Then on closer inspection she notices the faint remnants of the DeMolay tag. Its lettering has faded to illegibility, the cloth square nearly dissolved. She recognizes the dim paisley swirls in the loose network of fiber. It is as if someone had washed the jacket a thousand consecutive times, or spent days methodically extracting key strands from the jacket, reducing it in size and bulk. Her anger doubles. “Lemme get this,” she shouts. “No-one here has touched this thing in the past three weeks? Look at it. Look at this thing.” She rattles it on its hanger high above her head. “Tell me no-one’s touched it.”
The Captain tries to calm her.
She skulks back to her desk and calls around to Organized Crime and Quality of Life asking if anyone had shown interest in the case and who would have taken or borrowed the piece of clothing. The replies are negative.
She gives up and returns to her desk. The Captain calls her. “Ken’s sample and the confetti came back from DEA. The sand isn’t exactly sugar but a kind of dried honey. You ever heard of a government agency called DARPA?”
“Well. Listen to this: The Feds had next dibs on our samples, right? They were sent to the Hoover Building. Then this outfit called DARPA came right the hell in and confiscated them. DARPA’s an R and D think-tank sorta thing with the Pentagon…The samples have been classified now, those little-bitty pieces of paper. We’re not to talk about it at all. We, uh—there’s a gag order’s been issued.”
He sighs. “National security. Maybe some cat got out of the bag. And about that, we’ve a reporter from the goddamn Daily News coming down. The time’s come for some word from us to the public.”
Victoria winces. “Seriously?”
“You’ll talk to her. Her name’s Erica Kane and she covers the metro beat, the nightclubs and all. We don’t have the press asking for a conference yet, but we hope to buy some more time.”
The reporter shows her press credentials to Victoria and sits down at the desk. Late 20s, dressed in a blue skirt and tights and she looks like a college student. “So how is your day going, Sergeant Valdez?”
“Can’t complain. How’s yours?”
“I hear you have a mystery on your hands. At the Utopianist’s Complaint and the Painted Word and other places?”
“We’ve gotta be careful.”
Erica Kane rattles off all she’s been told and outlines the angle she will take on the matter in her article, the named sources, the not-for-attribution sentences. The Daily News’ “Trends” was grateful for the Department’s willingness to cooperate and let them be the gateway for what was sure to be an amazing story. She speaks in that compulsive up-talk of the twentyish that annoys the hell out of Victoria; she actively weaned the habit out of Carmen early.
“Do you know about Quincunx Productions?” Rapidly Erica shuffles her fingertips across the stack of papers in her lap.
Victoria squints. “They own the UC. Right?”
“Not exactly. They designed the place and continue to lease it to this day. The actual owners of the building are a company called Alethea Holdings? This Alethea also owns the Painted Word, Alumbrados in the Village, and Syzygus in Union Square, Seven Pillars and the Chen Chang chain?”
Victoria is impressed. Maybe this liaison will actually lead somewhere.
“Now when I found this out, in the light of where this Haoma was showing up? I tried looking up Alethea on the web but there was nothing. They’re not even listed in the Yellow Pages. They have a PO box, that’s all. So I tried to get their charter from the SEC? I went to a contact of mine and he was surprised to find the relevant documents are under a form of classification he hasn’t seen before. They’re restricted, in other words. As in a national security classification?”
“So you’re saying the owner of these clubs is really, uh, someone in the Federal government?”
“Looks that way. The joint ownership of private companies can be classified, you know, things like that old Blackwater company and military contractors and such? The but the gist is that Alethea Holdings is some part of the government, yes.”
Oh God. Could Ken have been right? she thinks
“My friend did find something, though. There was an SEC file there for Alethea which had a series of letters in it.” She hands over a photocopy of a document. It bears an elegant letterhead with a small red mandala at the top, within which lays a three-humped smudge, like a mountain range, and script rendered illegible in the poor multiple-generation copying. The typewritten text is fat, fuzzy, but readable.
JABULQA & JABULSA
FOR ALL DEBTS ON THE LAND KNOWN AS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
“J and J is an international law firm? It has ‘representative embassies,’ they call them. They had one of these ‘embassies’ here in New York but the headquarters is in Switzerland and a second big office in Southern France.”
“Wait, whoa—wouldn’t be Montsegur, would it?”
Erica’s face brightens. “Very close but not quite. A town called Foix. I checked the pedigree of the last J & J office space here on Manhattan? It was in Midtown. Before J & J, it was last used by PKE. In fact, PKE owns the building.”
There’s a momentary condescending stare, quickly extinguished by her rapid banter. “PKE is the company which owns the Eudamonia Channel. You know. The Treasure Hunt?”
“Okay, yeah.” Although she has heard of it, Victoria was never one to watch reality television, even if it was a live contest for $100 million, involved thousands of participants, and took months. She opens the Haoma file before her. “Let me show you something, Erica. This is the big secret here. Look at this.” Victoria hands her the photos of the clothier labels and tells her the non-coincidence of apparel between the three dealers and the strange appearance of the jackets’ cargo.
Erica squints and frowns. “It just showed up in the pockets?”
“Yeah. Like this sandy goo started making the pills when it hit the air.”
Her lip curls. “Yick.”
“The sand looked like brown sugar and it just dissolved. The pills, or rather the sand or resin or whatever it was, came from some kind of honey. Then the second guy, the Jewish guy, had these tiny pieces of paper which had writing on them. Tiny writing. You need a special microscope to even see the writing. And pictures. The third guy, we didn’t find anything, but witnesses saw him giving it out in an atomizer, like a breath freshener type-thing?”
Erica studies Victoria. “Okay. Well, I have the clearance and purse to go to France? To visit the law office in Foix. I want to see these clothesmakers now too. Wouldn’t you like to see these clothesmakers up close and personal?”
The idea rapidly gains momentum in Victoria. It would be just what she needed now. On Official Business. Undercover. “How long do you think it would take?”
“No more than a few days? Fly out of LaGuardia. But Southern France is dangerous for someone like me,” Erica chuckles, “could get lost and end up at some spa for a week.”
“You speak French?”
“Yeah, pretty well. But they speak a dialect in the South? It’s called Occitan?”
“Yeah. I want to go with you.”
Erica suddenly shifts in her seat, looking crestfallen, but only for an instant. “I’ll be flying out tomorrow,” she replies.
“I’ll talk it over with the captain,” she says, masking her indignation at Erica’s initial reaction. “That’s short notice, but we’ll have to have someone check it out.”
After a conference with the Captain and the Task Force, the trip is approved and she is authorized to bring the remains of the two jackets.
Having never been overseas, she tries to contain her growing excitement as she tells Carmen.
“It’s three days, max. You’ll stay with Juanita and you’re gonna go to school.”
“Monday, you’ll go to school.”
But she wonders about “for all debts on the land known as the USA.” And those two words, Jabulqa and Jabulsa. A familiarity troubles her over them. It seems like something from her childhood, deep in those teenage days of fear and That Which Was Done To Counteract The Fear, events barely plumbed in the therapy sessions Bonner had paid for her.
THE PLANE TOUCHES down at Charles de Gaulle Airport and they connect to a flight to Toulouse-Blagnac in the Middle Pyrenees, where a rented Citroen awaits them. A few hours south down the A66 and they have left behind the silver aerospace boxes of Toulouse for vineyards and emerald hills and windy van Gogh skies. Cypresses seem to lunge at the car.
The landscape reminds Victoria of the California she’d known from a trip last decade.
Erica guides the tiny vehicle through the gentle hills south past a few wind farms and fields patrolled by enormous agribusiness machines. Then the landscape retreats to earlier periods of architecture: They wind pass villages tightly clustered around steeples, clouds just a few frequencies lighter than the background sky, brilliant greens. Mountains glimpsed, reed-veined, rusty on the horizon. Erica is on her cellphone half the time, which is fine with Victoria, losing herself in some Marvin Gaye and Teddy CDs she’s brought along.
They stop for gas and already Erica is troubled by the accent and the dialect and asking the locals to repeat themselves.
In an hour they are ascending hills that show ruins on each distant crown, castles and walls and buttresses. Victoria is amazed. People live here amongst it all. The road snakes into a more natural economy with the landscape. Their cellphone coverage fails. A dull anticipation stirs in Victoria, in synchronization with a wonder that appears at this exotic land—farmers in beaten clothes and caps herding cows to stone granaries. Erica taps her wrist and brings her out from her reverie. The GPS voice announces their destination. In the distance, the higher Pyrenees loom snow-capped, and Spain beyond.
The village of Montsegur is nestled beneath a high peak on which a castle fortress reposes, and it is no more than a collection of a few long avenues of continuous buildings, vivid red roofs with winding side streets that abruptly terminate.
“What’s the number?”
They come upon Freres De Molay in no time, between a boulangerie and a bicycle shop. Erica is photographing everything with her phone, a running video. Victoria starts her hand audio recorder. The windows of the clothiers are stained glass and seem to glow with something more than the late afternoon light is capable of. The door is of carved teak and vaguely Himalayan in motifs, with elaborate flames and stylized eyes. Victoria’s ears pop in the elevation as she pulls the shop’s bell cord. The sound of feet creaking on wood, whispers behind the door. A peephole gate ascends and clicks shut. Three locks are unclasped.
The man’s face wouldn’t be out of place as suave Eurotrash in some Hollywood thriller—lantern jaw, ample cheekbones, thick lashes ringing eyes of a violet color she’d never before considered as belonging on a human face, his skin a shade of dark olive, one of those faces kept genetically within strict regional parameters for many generations. Victoria recalls the color of the Mullah’s eyes.
“Que?” he says.
They exchange words and his face goes suspicious and haughty replies.
Erica says, “I told him we’ll definitely want to buy something.”
They enter the shop. It is dark inside, teak and pine following the motifs of the door, with a low ceiling hung with colorful prayer flags. Deep shelves line one wall. They bump past two small chandeliers hanging from the roof beams ringed with dead candles. Old lit hurricane lamps cast their shadows on all four walls. The proprietor’s sunken cheeks are sharp in the orange light. He hovers behind the counter.
Victoria regards the largest stained glass window and the hexagonal device amidst its traceries, repeated throughout its triadic design. Here and there are caricatures of bees. The place smells of candlewax and incense sunk deep into the skin of the enclosing wood. She gazes into a green area of the glass depicting some Buddhist saint and the light seems to contract and expand the figure and its surrounding flames. It pulls at her. The glass seems…alive somehow.
She shudders and turns to the proprietor. She holds out the remaining rags, now separated further into three pieces, even less substantial than their departure from Toulouse. She fingers the label. “You made this jacket…” Erica translates.
He recognizes the shape of the label and perhaps the jacket itself and is stricken and grabs for the tweed strips, yanking them from her hands. He is on the edge of tears. He goes yelling through a door into the back and another voice raises in consternation. Victoria giggles at the pitched hysteria in the two voices as they argue.
Erica translates their exchange: “‘I told you…the dirty air in that Sodom and Gomorrah place’… I guess he means New York…And he’s saying… ‘Who are they…How did they get here…We don’t have much time…The city is due…I saw it in the bowl? She has departed on her mission…Marno’s ready.'”
Victoria is confused. The voices fall beneath audibility for a moment, then he returns but in a glance they notice that it is not the man, but his brother. He is dressed in breeches and a white ruffled shirt and suspenders, looking like an extra from some Louis 15th docudrama—and is an identical twin. The face seconds his brother’s anguish and scrunches in confusion. They bark, almost in unison. Erica translates: “Moths? Insects?”
Shoddy manufacture, Victoria wants to reply. “No, not at all. Just air.”
Erica converses with the man a few moments and Victoria drifts along the wall. The woodworking of the shelves is strange—ornamentation that grows more intricate as she studies it, its graining deepening into landscapes, its rough surfaces carved with tableau on scales which change depending upon her eyes’ focus. It looks Paisley, and carved on a minute scale—a nanoscale, one might say? She pulls away, spooked. Dark green crystalline amulets and rings lay in tiny, neat levels on the fragrant shelves at outrageous prices. Here’s a chart of sartorial styles done in typeface and woodcut from the turn of the 19th century but for the contemporary prices and sizes, and they are cheap by American standards. In spite of herself, she thinks Ken might like the tweed jacket and she briefly considers buying one. Maybe she will—and its pockets would produce a nice amnesiac potion for the both of them.
Then she freezes in shock. There on the shelf, a stack of CDs:
AURORA RECORDS 2019 SAMPLER.
She points at the CD and snaps, “Where did you get this?”
The man shrugs, a full-torso motion.
“Do you know these people who run this record label?”
Erica translates. “No,” she replies, “they were sent here promotionally.”
Promotionally. Here. A business in a tiny French town with no internet presence. She will buy one. She wanders over to the shelves. Amidst the bobby pins and threads here was a row of small abstract-shaped jars, capped with bluish crystal stoppers. She squints:
PRODUIT Du Nord de L’ouest du Sud de L’Est
The substance inside, possibly a perfume or hand lotion, is pearly and viscous. She holds up one of the vials and asks how much.
“Four hundred francs,” comes a raspy reply.
She whistles. “Perfume?”
Erica lowers her voice as Victoria approaches the counter. “He says he has no idea how the jacket ended up where it ended up. They ship only once a year to the US to private customers and the list is closed. He won’t let us in the back, but says the jackets are made from local sheep and sheep in Provence.”
“I’d like to buy a tweed coat.” She points to the blazer on the poster. “This one.”
“Une?” comes the raspy voice.
“He knows English?”
“Barely. Knows ‘would like to buy.’”
They custom fit each jacket. She tells him it doesn’t matter but he scoffs at the notion. “They are made here, on the premises?”
She places the CD on the counter and counts out twenty Euros.
“I’d also like some honey.”
He studies her with a stricken look for a moment, sizing her up and being amused and offended at the result. “Je regrette, mais non,” then rattles off a fast speech.
“He says I think, he says they’ve all sold out.”
“But why cant I buy, oh, this bottle here?” Victoria says, holding it up and tapping it.
He waves a hand dismissively. “Il a dépassé sa date d’expiration. Il n’est pas comestible.”
Erica: “It’s expired.” She asks him a barrage of questions to which he grows increasingly brusque.
“We’d have to go to the apiary to get some…You know, maybe we should.”
THE BED AND breakfast they’ve taken a room in is tiny. Victoria wraps the CD in a forensic evidence plastic sheath and seals it. She will wait until back at the 18th Precinct to open it.
“I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt,” Victoria says later, “you know, that maybe some joker had sewn the De Molay labels into some other jacket. But then, the honey, right there. And this CD. We busted a guy with Haoma who works for this record label. It’s in Williamsburg. We should go to the beekeeping place and buy some and we could have it tested.”
“Beziers is about a hundred miles away. There could be a problem with our just showing up. I’ll call them.” Within a few minutes she’d obtained the number for Iohannis Presbyter Apiary and had the call put through. “We’re good for Thursday. They want journalists on their side.”
Erica calls her editor and clears the extra day.
SHE’D ALREADY SCOPED out the general layout of the streets. When night falls she leaves the hotel and makes her way through the village. The skies glow with a Milky Way unlike she has ever seen, like a visible backbone to the night. The high wind sounds through the buildings. The moonlight is clear. She walks down a bluish path that threatens to descend into the valley but then rights itself upward. She counts three buildings and climbs the scrubby hill, passing through firs. It levels off and she can see the stained glass window of De Molay Freres is open a few inches—or, she supposed centimeters. The sweet lily scent washes over her. No lights burn in that second story. Perhaps the brothers didn’t live here after all. Two, three shoves and the window is up all the way. She grabs the sill and pulls herself up, elbowing the sash. Into the darkness and enveloped by that peculiar smell.
She turns on the flashlight and finds herself in their business office. She steps lightly. The flashlight picks out calendars and a huge bone red Chinese herb chest, an old roll-top desk whose lid she engages. In the side slots and drawers she finds nothing. She opens a few of the herb chest’s drawers and discovers species of grass and dirt and sand, and strange luminiferous crystals.
She steps towards the far desk when the floorboards groan with a chink of metal on metal. It is an old iron ring.
A trapdoor lay below her feet.
She continues to the desk. Here are stacked letters from clientele the world over. Bingo. She thrusts the flashlight in the crook of her arm and cycles through the envelopes. All but one contain return addresses. She opens it to find a typed list whose writing has been effaced with whiteout and replaced with a series of hieroglyphs. There is a signature at the bottom: S. Marrano. One of the De Molay brothers had written 5 veste 9 pot du miel with a date of nine months ago. She examines the envelope closer but there is no indication of an address. Perhaps it is on a Rolodex or its equivalent somewhere here, or this Marrano could have been a regular customer, or maybe it has gone missing.
Again she checks both desks, then eases open the office door. The room they’d been in earlier is purple with strong moonlight sifting through the stained glass. She catches a sudden whiff of decay that she recognizes—the smell of the longcoat worn by that Mullah nutjob. She extinguishes the desire to steal that vial of honey, if she could find it. Here are their daily ledgers—and ah, addresses, postal rates, weights, the merchandise sent. She runs a fingertip down the list.
S. Marrano, 80 Ridge Street, New York, USA 10002–5 veste, 9 pot du miel
Five. So there might be two more jackets out there…and nine jars of that honey had been sent.
She returns to the office. The trapdoor. She pulls it open and her flashlight finds stone stairs. A humming sound emerges, almost imperceptible, a high singing chord, pleasant. She descends a spiral staircase of stone and a large chamber comes into view, rough grey slabs of wall as tall as she, medieval in age, perhaps hewn even earlier. The light picks out a forest of high wooden machines that in a few seconds she gathers are looms, pyramidal in shape and tall enough to stretch to the high ceiling where cobwebs nest, dozens of racks going off into the distance.
Something glows in the bins and she feels a sudden influx of adrenaline. What is nestled within resembles capellini—thousands of translucent strands emitting a greenish light she has difficulty adjusting her eyes to. Her breathing grows fast. The color is a glowing variant of the stained glass saints she’d seen above, this afternoon. And the rings on the shelves.
Radioactive? Sheep genetically spliced with what—firefly genes?
She tries the camera but something is interfering with its circuitry, the image clouded and freezing with fat pixels.
She retreats to the stairs and pads circling upward, leaving below what would have counted as some nightmare place and whose reality in her memory seems to diminish with each step. She slows, unable to get over the impression that this manufacturing has gone on here far longer than the two centuries she’d been told, no, it had gone on from antiquity, and the clothes made here had been spun and woven on looms from Elsewhere, like they had been designed for some other purpose.
She quickly exits, climbing back through the window into the chilling night and practically runs to the bed and breakfast. The whole operation has taken less than forty minutes. She tells Erica how the camera didn’t work and the strange subterranean workshop.
“That’s Europe for you,” is all she says.
“The fabric was glowing, Erica. It wasn’t normal…They sent jackets and honey to an address in the Lower East Side. Wouldn’t be surprised if that address is the lab where the stuff’s being made.”
“What stuff? The sand or resin?” she yawns.
Victoria doesn’t sleep for three hours. She goes downstairs to the desk and calls Carmen, then leaves a long message on the Captain’s voicemail box with the Lower East Side address and telling him vaguely of the De Molay strangeness.
At late dawn they check out and begin the drive 200 km north to Beziers. By the time they approach Narbonne and spy the blue Mediterranean, Erica Kane—despite her verbal handicap—has told Victoria her life story and become a confidant. After getting her journalism degree, she blogged for four years, living in her parents’ Carroll Gardens brownstone. Newsday hired her to cover the enormous new “budget social scene” that had evolved since the 2017 crash. She tells Victoria how she’s grateful for her new job working the club beat at the Daily News, not the gig she ever expected, but to complain about any job nowadays would be a form of treason, wouldn’t it? She is 31, unmarried, and ideally suited for the job, having the freedom and familiarity with the clubs and the subcultures sprouting up every few months, negotiating their increasing insularity and limited scope, like a second, deeper level of the turning inward and “bubbliciousness” of the American counter-world.
Victoria, long an expert at building bridges to the Lost Worlds of the possible lives she’d never lived, grunts with each new fact the younger woman throws at her as she learns of the microcultures of “one-minute cameraphone operas”, a recent “lunch-hour spooning party-orgy” fad, the Eudamonia Treasure Hunt,
After a while they come to a gate. The sign reads
…with a compass-rose whose hub encircles a stylized honeybee. The ends of its four directions curve out at their points, giving the design the look of a mock-sun. An iron weathervane with the same design towers above the gatepost—and on its opposing post, a vane just like the ones they’d seen in Montsegur.
A stone villa. It looks like a castle. Twelve cars sit idle beneath an enormous carport, a few Citroens and hybrids.
Jean Paradis is a bear of a man in a banker’s suit, bearded and with a shaggy graying mane, bright olive eyes and a booming voice, what appears to be a miniature lily in a buttonhole to which he dips his nose every few minutes as if taking a private sacrament as they talk. Erica asks if she can record the conversation and gets out her tablet.
“Here’s to the new day.” He is filling three snifters with cognac. “A day without madmen ruining our world with war. Gratitude for a basic prosperity of the distant past and the strength and virtue for its continuance…And the gift of the Apiary.”
Glasses tink. The cognac is good. Erica converses with him a moment in French and they switch to English.
“Do you do business with De Molay Brothers in Montsegur?”
“In the Village, oui,” he replies without a beat, nor a reaction. “They are distant nephews on my great grandmother’s side. One of them, I believe Jacques, came by here, it must have been a year ago. He purchased the Orchidee Noire apiage…
“The seasonal vintage, so to speak. Jacques bought me out entirely. That is a potent mix. It is blue-dominant and renders visible the Cherubim, not too psychically resonant for type O and carriers of a point mutation along the X chromosome.”
Oh, I see, Victoria thinks: Another madman. “Makes people psychic?”
“Well, non—it simply cleanses the lens.”
Victoria tries to recall the name for the French equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration. A sweet wind pours through the opened window, ruffling the papers and colorful prayers flags. Paradis’s wife is now outside with a two year-old in a crooked arm and leading another toddler out towards the weather vane. The children are clothed identically, in loose toga-like garments of blue. The arms of the vane spin, the crystal weights aligning and falling askance of one another, the sunlight glittering. She appears to be explaining its principles to the kids, pointing, their bonnets fluttering.
AFSSA: Agence Francaise de Securite Sanitaire des Aliment.
“So your honey has, uh, psychoactive properties?” Erica asks. “Is it regulated then?”
“Oui, of course,” he harrumphs. “The effects are minimal. Negligible. We are fully licensed and scientifically sound. Psychoactive is much too strong and crude a description. It works with the subtle energies of the mineral body. We also makes rings, rather old school, from the beeswax. And other elements.”
“We saw some at the brothers’ shop.
“Powerful rings. You won’t find that element they’re made from on earth.”
“What, like Moldavite?” Erica says.
“No,” he harrumphs. “Not exactly…”
Victoria asks, “Do you have here on your premises any scientific reports by Agence Francaise? Reports about the biochemistry of your honey?”
“Non, but the ADAPI have them. That would be the charge of the Apiculture Provencale.”
The two women look at each other.
Paradis rises from his seat and pinches his lapel to bring the tiny lily to his nostrils. “Someday conscience shall be a collective property of humans, independent of what we have called ‘virtue.’ But until then we may sometimes be shocked awake into a state of being where the power of greater forces actually function in us and bring us together. When this happens we see the Chain of Causes under which we suffered until that moment.” He smiles. Paradis then tells them the flowers and bees have been imported from a remote monastery in Bhutan: “The monks have kept these bees for millennia. They also claim to have access to a mineral lode within a cave in their valley that is extraterrestrial in origin and has affected all forms of life in the valley, the grass and deer and trees and insects and lilies—and their bees…And they speak of maintaining contact with an ancient race of beings who have lived beneath the earth for a hundred thousand years. This subterranean civilization will soon be sending a representative up here, they believe, to teach humanity some great truths.”
Victoria tries not to keep from giggling at the combination of animated demeanor and casual gravity with which he’s pronouncing these absurdities. “What great truths?”
Without a beat Paradis replies, “That the earth belongs to them and that the moon is not a natural satellite at all. Their prophecy tells that their ambassador was once a king and too hid from humanity…And the world as we know it will end. They are only the forerunners for the return of the Savior…”
Forerunner: Victoria licks her lips and snorts to herself.
“The monks believe the world order which has developed over the past six thousand years is a machine that simply reinforces illusions and creates human egoism and human dependency upon itself. They believe this corporation is meant to destroy the planet and kill as many humans as possible…They believe the ideas for the creation of this machine were implanted long ago in human minds, but by another, evil race of hidden beings who are controlling man’s destiny for its own purposes, for they need the biological spiritual energy of human souls to survive and build their own machine to travel back to their homeland…
Erica Kane is staring blankly into space, stunned by the random swerve into sheer insanity the whole enterprise has taken. Victoria is amused. “What does your company name mean?”
“Oh, it is a reference to a medieval legend. Of a king from the East whose apiaries were the source of Manna…”
No ego here—no.
“Where is a place north of west of south of east?”
“Depends on where you start,” Erica replies. “I think.”
“Nowhere, really,” Victoria says.
“Exactement,” Paradis booms. “And what does the word utopia translate into English?”
“Nowhere,” Erica says.
“The same. The honey is a product of no place, in reality.”
“So could we buy some of your famous honey?”
His eyes widened. “To transport back to America? I am afraid there are some restrictions on it.”
“Why is that?”
“You must take that up with the Agence Francais. And your Food Administration. All the apiaries of the south have complained en masse to your authorities on opening the American markets to our product. I’m afraid you would be violating the law in attempting to bring it through, and Customs would confiscate it.”
Somehow she didn’t believe it. “Well, then, I’d like to buy a jar of your latest…apiage.”
His expression went crestfallen. “This is unfortunate, for we have entirely sold out—just yesterday.”
“The De Molay brothers’ shop had a few jars left but they wouldn’t sell to us either. That’s just too bad…Well, where are your vendors around Foix? You must have sold them to supermarkets here.”
“The European market has been saturated and our stocks sold out within Provence.”
He was being evasive. Anyone could see that. “Not an ounce? Even a sample left here, Monsieur Paradis? That’s hard to believe. Imagine a winery without a tasting room…”
“I am afraid that this is the case of affairs.”
VICTORIA TRIES TO listen to the audio recording from the De Molay shop and finds it muffled shards of words with bursts of white noise. Likewise the video of the village street and the shop façade—rainbows, then a blank grey frozen slate screen. The recorder is a cheap Chinese knockoff, sure, but this seems more than a manufacturing glitch.
“Did you believe him about being sold out?”
“Yeah—that seemed off.”
“I don’t believe it.”
They drive to two small Beziers groceries and find nothing. At the third the proprietor tells them he has heard of the apiary and fielded requests before, but was told to refer all requests to a metaphysical bookstore in Toulouse—Le Tetractys.
They call the store from the car and are told the bookstore has nothing to do with selling honey and further to stop calling them about it.
“I don’t believe it,” Victoria says. “We’ll swing by before we go to the airport.”
VICTORIA DRIVES AS Erica retrieves the ADAPI phone numbers for both Toulouse and the national office in Paris. She leaves a detailed message at the Toulouse office and then briefly speaks with an official at the Paris headquarters.
“All the documents are publicly available on-line,” she says.
Using the GPS they are directed to Le Tetractys bookstore and café. The same Himalayan motifs adorn its door. The bookstore is a modest addendum to a sprawling café bustling with University of Toulouse students.
Victoria’s cellphone rings. It is Carmen.
“Hi Mom. It’s Bonner…”
She closes her eyes and gathers a breath.
“The nurse called me here on the landline and told me they’ve taken him to the hospital. He’s had a stroke, they think? He’s in that intensive care?”
Victoria has passed outside into the brilliant late afternoon sunshine. “Carmen, you stayed home from school.”
“I feel sick, mom—troof!”
She feels into the light out there for a path, any path, to Bonner, and her anger and surprise and worry and sudden nausea are a tangled mass here—no, it couldn’t happen this way, it shouldn’t, it can’t, that she wouldn’t be the person there holding his hand right now, the one goddamned time they might really need each other. She is away on duty 2,500 miles with a body of water between them staring at the European half-sized dinky cars lining the streets, everything around her unfamiliar. “Who should I call?”
“The nurse, the one at the home.” Carmen sniffles and adds a quick cough. Victoria takes a breath. The fury could come later, possibly. “We will talk about this later, young lady.”
She says goodbye and calls the nurse, who tells her he began having a thickened tongue and difficulty speaking and then went inert and they called the ambulance. Tests were being analyzed.
Goddamn medical “profession.”
He has a DNR order.
She leans looking into the bookstore and sees Erica talking to the couple behind the counter.
They will know more tomorrow, the nurse says. Then she calls her neighbor and tells her to go knock on their door and tell Carmen that she will go to school tomorrow.
She steels herself and reenters Le Tetractys and stands beside the counter.
“What’s wrong?” Erica asks.
“Nothing,” she shakes her head once. Then she notices Erica placing a small gold vial and receipt into a tiny paper bag.
“You got it?”
Victoria tells Erica what has happened and offers her condolences. “Well, I’m glad we’re flying out first thing tomorrow.”
The vial is about the size of a lip-balm dispenser and contains a clear crystal gem as a stopper. “Fifty Euros,” Erica comments.
“How did you get it?”
“I have my ways.”
Victoria uncaps it and inhales and exclaims, “Whoosh!” It smells like a hundred concentrated lilies and in seconds Erica rolls down the window at the slight headrush coming over her from even a yard away. “You sure this is honey, or perfume?”
They stop at a pharmacy, where Erica buys a roll of gauze and cotton and bandage tape, unrolls the gauze and wraps the vial, places cotton balls on either end and tapes the whole thing together, tightly sealed.
“I guess it’s our only shot,” she says.
“I’m not gonna get caught attempting to smuggle anything, so…You got immunity from the NYPD as far as I’m concerned. Let’s do it.”
They go to a post office and send the package to Victoria’s ATTN at the 18th Precinct.
She calls the neighbor, then Carmen.
“Ken’s been trying to get aholda you. Came by here, too.”
“SO THIS HONEY man told us the bees he uses are native to Bhutan. He’d dealt with De Molay Brothers. They’re related.”
“We just got reports from the French FDA and beekeepers society and everything’s kosher with them, they don’t say it has any kind of drug properties. Nothing weird about the honey.”
“Not a single photo of the place?” Dorney complains. “How did you manage that?”
“Take it up with Tech,” Victoria snaps back. “My phone didn’t work in that place. Worked fine at the beekeeper’s. The tape recorder Tech gave me didn’t work at Montsegur. The brothers said they had no idea how the jackets had gotten here to Manhattan but like I said I sleuthed it and I saw that name Marrano in their business ledger—and it was a real ledger, like a hundred years old or more.”
“There’s no Marrano at that address. It’s a Senior Citizen center.”
“Who owns it?”
“Title on the property’s with some company in Zurich.”
“They Molay brothers were selling promotional CDs for the record label that musician we picked up works for—Aurora records, out in Weeburg.”
She rolls her eyes. “Of all the record labels in the world. Aurora. Where this bass player James we popped first heard about Haoma? Do I have to spell it out?”
“Okay, Valdez, cool it—you can do the digging, then.”
Johann the Presbyter.
John the Presbyter.
John the Priest.
LATER HER CELL phone buzzes on her hip and sees that it’s Carmen and silences it as she comes into the office warren. Drake isn’t at his desk; he’s standing at the conference room door waving to her. She greets a few officers and endures the feigned amazement at her appearance up here when she walks through the door. Two men stand there. One of them is Doherty, of Internal Affairs. The last time she’d seen him here had been last year, when two brethren officers had been put on administrative leave, then canned for unexplained reasons. The third man, sitting unkempt at the table, is Ken.
“He’s been asking for you,” the Captain says. “He’s had a long few days. Just go in and talk to him.”
“What’s going on?”
“He’s had quite an experience.”
She could see it. He hadn’t shaved, dark bags beneath the clear blue eyes that now look stricken and almost distastefully at her. “Can I speak with you alone?” he says, ignoring the others.
The men leave the room and shut the door.
“Ken, what happened?”
He smiles and stares down into the sinusoidal graining of the desk. “Veev, you know, some things in life are worth resisting. Others you think at the time they’re worth doing. Others still you just don’t know. So you don’t do them…Well, for a man, doing’s always better than not. But it was wrong.”
She’s aghast, unable to intuit the referent to his words. She stares. “What?”
“Us. You and me. It was wrong.”
She wonders if the room’s microphones are engaged. She notices the absence of his normal tics—the tapping boot, the restless shifting in his chair. He is sitting straight, his posture good, both arms extended on the table open fists palm down on the table top. Then she seems to see his face for the first time here. He’s not drunk. She isolates the components of his face to find out what’s wrong with it, why he looks…different. Like some kind of twin brother has been placed here, one whose eyes showed a surrogacy of all the available grace originally intended for Ken Dennison.
“Some mistakes are big, you know,” he says. “We measure our future behavior by ‘em. Or we’re supposed to.”
“Why is Doherty here?”
He purses his lips and exhales. “Well, he would be, wouldn’t he.”
“I had a good run of it. I think I understand now. No. I do understand. All of it. And you know what? It’s fucking obvious. They should give out prizes for the most obvious things and the idiots who discover them…They do, come to think of it. That’s what the Nobel is for.”
At these words Victoria is alarmed, but it’s their delivery: A voice full and strong unlike she’d heard before, full of calm conviction. His eyes are clear and bird-like.
“Yeah, it’s true,” he continues, “a person can go so far away from home that they’re actually on the way back and don’t even recognize their own door until they stumble over it.”
“Ken, why was Doherty here, talking to you?”
“It’s about the money I stole, Vicky.”
“Forty K. It was right there, on the body. Burcky and me both. Took half and half. Eighty Gs, split down the middle.”
“You stole money?”
“Yes, I did.”
“When was this?” Her stomach turns to ice. She breathes deeply. She doesn’t know what to say but cop mode kicks in, an instantaneous defense, and it throws some words into her mouth. “Did Burcky tell IA about this, or did—”
“I told them.”
She can feel her lip quivering. “You didn’t tell me.”
“Why should I? I’m not stupid.”
“That was nine years ago, you worked with him.”
He smiled nonchalantly. “I made sergeant.”
She works hard to quell the nausea. She sits half a minute trying to understand first of all what she herself is exactly feeling and find nothing there—oh, there is numbness, her eternal companion from long ago, making one of its ghost entrances. But she knows how to deal here. She is older, wiser. Bonner had taught her long ago the basics: breathe, wait, breathe, wait. Any situation “beyond your control” is not yours to own or give power to, there is no doer but what is done. And then comes the original serenity prayer:
“HE TOOK THE new stuff,” Captain Drake explains. “Three nights ago. Wanted to test it out for us all. Unfuckingbelievable.”
Dorney’s jaw works a piece of gum. “So he comes in this morning and just lays it all the fuck out, a full confession.”
“Did, did the drug do it? Made him confess?”
“Hell n—maybe.” Captain shrugs. “Who knows. He’s more sober than I’ve ever seen him. Doc checked him out and he’s fine but for the liver. But look at him. He looks different, doesn’t he?”
She nods. It was uncanny. “Did he explain why he took it?”
“Research, he says. To help us out. To find out if it was a placebo or no.”
Dorney scowls. “That’s a joke.”
Victoria is puzzled. “Why’s it a joke?”
“You know,” Dorney barks, “he’s worked the clubs for what, the past six years. He’d been around party people a lot. Got involved deep into something, you know. He’d heard enough about this stuff, straight from the horse’s mouth. He thought, what’s the harm.”
The Captain booms, “Ken says it is no sugar pill. He saved us another dose to test again from the same batch. He got it at Alumbrados. Did he tell you about he and Burcky?”
“Nothing about the coke?”
They look at each other. “Oh, yeah. He admitted he’d taken an eightball off a dead clocker in 2015. He’s been using the stuff off and on for the past four years.”
Victoria walks away, propelling herself into the bathroom. Dennison had once confessed to her that he had experimented with pot while he was young, and further in a more intoxicated state one night admitted that he’d even tried cocaine and LSD when at Rutgers.
But this. He was 47 years old.
We know how this’ll end up.
SHE SEES BONNER. He is nestled within a matrix of machines. He’d always professed hatred of hospital machinery and she asks them to reduce the devices’ volume as far as possible. She will buy earplugs for him.
We start out lives in the warm uterine bath and end them, if we’re unlucky, in another kind of cold, sterile womb. She’s grateful he isn’t fully conscious to experience this. The hard time these nurses would be getting!
There are flowers and a card. She asks if he’s had other visitors and told a fiftyish woman has come by once and his son has called twice.
ERICA, SITTING BESIDE Victoria’s desk, is writing rapidly on her tablet and says absent-mindedly, “I heard one of the detectives here took this drug, Haoma.”
Victoria smiles pleasantly. “Where did you hear that, Erica?”
“My editor. It won’t go in the article, of course.”
“Better not, because it’s not true,” Victoria snapped.
“No?” She studies Victoria.
“That’s bullshit. I don’t know where your editor gets these things, but that better not be in any article or our…professional relationship will be terminated. That’s the way it goes.”
“No, really, where’d your editor hear that? Do you know?”
Erica’s gaze bounces around her tablet, to the floor, the desk. “I honestly don’t know, Victoria. He hears all kinds of things from everywhere.”
“DID YOU TALK to someone at the Daily News?”
“Yes,” Dennison smiles.
“I want the truth about Haoma to be out. In public.”
“When’d you do this?”
“I did it before I turned myself in. Called the Times and the Post and the Washington Post and the L.A. Times too.”
“You’re a real piece of work.”
“I haven’t had a drink in ten days and I feel great.”
“Media loves to twist things all to shit. I want people to know about this thing. It’s a gift, Vicky, it’s a gift from elsewhere. It’s not from this world. And we’re meant to use it to heal ourselves.”
Tears are welling in Victoria’s eyes.
“You know how I was talking shit about the CIA or the DARPA creating it and putting it out as an experiment? I was wrong. I was very wrong. It’s the opposite. It’s the opposite. It’s come from somewhere else and they know it and that’s why they confiscated those samples. They know it’s not from here, it’s not from this planet and—”
Victoria, grinding her teeth, shouts, “It comes from honey in France. From bees that were imported to France from Asia. The shit’s got psychoactive properties and Drake’s told you all this. I went over there and I met the beekeeper and he was a fucking lunatic. It’s caused by whatever flowers those bees use in Bhutan to make the honey.”
“Bhutan.” He giggles.
Victoria wipes away a tear.
Dennison is laughing. “How does a piece of clothing make dried honey that makes pills? You wanna answer that?”
“I don’t know.” She thinks of those awesome looms in the brackish glow of that dungeon, the smell, the brilliant strands glowing in those vats.
It is nothing that Ken Dennison should know right now. Possibly ever.
WHEN SHE IS composed enough to return to her desk she learns that they have taken Ken Dennison to the hospital for another full physical and his lawyer and two Internal Affairs counselors had shown up to arrange depositions. Dennison’s old partner Burcky had retired three years ago and moved to West Palm Beach. He would most likely be questioned by an NYPD rep down there and possibly arrested.
Doherty asks her into his office with the Captain they begin the inevitable questioning about the relationship. By this time her ambivalence towards Ken Dennison has become naked rancor and any amount of ball-breaking she will face in her future, from this position, will be easily undergone. “No rules against seeing someone,” she says. “It happens but it was over before this little show happened.”
“That’s not what he said.”
“Well, he didn’t know it was over.”
Doherty chuckles. “He checked out fine on his psych eval yesterday. We think the drug is indeed what compelled that gut-check. This stuff is dangerous, Sergeant.”
The Captain said, “We’ve told the Police Generale about it over in France and they say they’re sending investigators to that jacket-makers, but we doubt they’ll turn up some cooking shop or anything like that. The word is spreading further every day about Haoma.”
Doherty says, “You know there’s nothing we can do about your relationship with him. It’s past. If Ken confesses again while sworn and if we get records on the money he claims to have stolen with Burcky he will be in a world of shit. Now, I will ask you once. Did he ever—”
“No. Hear me. He never mentioned that he stole that money and coke, ever, not once to me. Nor any other criminal activity of any kind.”
The Captain has obviously gone over things with Doherty. The thing is over quicker than she thought. “Okay. I guess it’ll end there for now. You feel comfortable staying on this case?”
“We’ll keep you on,” the captain says.
She moves evenly to the bathroom and cries.
“WE HAVE THE Ridge Street address under surveillance,” Victoria says. “Starck went in with questions about grandpa and got a tour. It’s legit of course, all the Foundation Senior housing is.”
Dorney says, “Someone’s using the address. A relative of a tenant.”
Drake answers, “Yeah, in all probability.”
“Or someone living in the apartments next door. Or an employee.”
“Okay, alright already, Colm. We’ll ask them for the tenant list and employees.”
Sergeant Starck says, “The eye team’s got some freaks coming and going out the front service door of that joint and using a basement stair in the rear of the building. There’re two sorta false fronts on Pitt that both go into the garden behind the building and they just keep going. The door on Pitt’s padlocked and they have keys. These people’ve been coming and going and coming and going. All hours.”
Drake sighs in irritation. “When you say freaks…”
He hands Drake a photograph. “I mean hipster fuckers. And street surfers. Trust fund slummers, punks tattooed up. You know what I mean.”
“Yeah. I suppose I know. Like Colm.” The picture shows a bald, bearded man in a leather jacket and a young near-Goth woman in heavy black makeup and mismatched tights and a black dress; both have large duffel bags sling over their shoulders.
“Okay then. Next time one of them comes out with luggage like that I want a trail on em.”
“You got it.”
CLOSE TO NOON the next day, the same woman in black from the photo unlocks and enters the wood door on Pitt Street. Again a duffel bag hangs from her shoulder. She exits 20 minutes later. The task force uses a tag-team to follow her from Pitt Street to the Essex Street subway station. She takes the J line to Hewes Street in Brooklyn then walks to the Broadway G station and travels north, exiting at Nassau Avenue and walks to a brownstone in Greenpoint.
DORNEY POINTS TO the property owner’s name on the screen and looks expectantly at Victoria. “Jerrold Jardiniere. He’s a music composer associated with a record label in Williamsburg.”
“Aurora Records?” Victoria yelps.
Dorney strokes his long goatee. “You interviewed the music man we busted six weeks ago at the UC. Did he mention this guy Jardiniere?”
Victoria is flushed but she doesn’t know why. “No, but the owner of the label bailed him out, I remember. I’ll look up the name.”
JERROLD JARDINIERE HARDLY has a web presence besides that on the Aurora site: his own site looks a decade old and only contains MP3s of compositions. He is listed as composer for the Aurora band Borges Chinese Encyclopedia.
Her Bluetooth rings and she answers. “Starck. We’re relaying on another duo, first white male, early twenties, orange hoodie, black jeans, beard, long hair. Number two…African-American woman long straight hair, she’s wearing quite a get-up. Wouldn’t know how to describe it. A gypsy or some shit.”
“Roma, they’re called, Starck.”
“Yeah,” the sergeant continues, “they biked all the way from Pitt and entered a market at Mott Street ’tween Hester and Grand. Been in there about ten minutes. Just left their bikes against a pole. Didn’t even lock ’em down. That’s something—”
“Well, have you gone in there, yo?” Victoria beats the hell out of the law pad before her with a pen and throws it down.
“Conner’s in there looking for ’em.”
“For how long, he’s looking for them?”
“Three, four minutes.”
“Get back to us when they’re on the move.” She disconnects.
Dorney shouts across the room. “Vicky come look at this…”
She rises and wends through the cubicles and desks to the overhanging DV screen, tuned to a cable news outlet.
“Look at this. A sinkhole has collapsed a fucking mountain.”
A dread overtakes her at the sight: it is a wide helicopter shot looking down on a forest landscape. A hole a half-mile across in which clear water is unnaturally rotating and sparkling in a perfect whirlpool.
“Look at that!” Dorney shakes his head. “You’ll love this…The reporter just said that John Priester guy in California predicted a mountain would go down, two days ago. Maybe you’re right. Guy’s Nostradamus.”
Prismatic lens-flares flash on the screen. The water is undulating, and appears to have two sub-currents weaving through each other like mating snakes. Dorney murmurs in awe, then something about fracking.
Images appear unbidden in her mind. The vats in that dungeon: something more had happened there. The way the camera has zoomed in and is focused on that whirlpool. She saw a similar whirlpool in that subterranean space. She had been there longer than a few minutes. She smells lilies and sees minty green glowworms.
With difficulty she pulls her gaze from the screen and turns and takes a step away and stops. Someone is asking her if she’s okay. Tinny and distant. Her ears feel as if a warm and viscous liquid has pouring into every crevice. And the din of the precinct room is muffling further. Slow. It is too slow.
“Don’t look at it, Colm,” her lips move and she can feel the vibration of her vocal cords and throat as she says it. But she can’t hear it, a dull thrum. The room blurs to incoherence. She tries to dig at her ears and rapidly stretch her mouth to break the pressure. A hand’s warmth upon her forearm.
VICTORIA IS STILL watching the cable news coverage of the collapsed mountain when her inbox bleeps. It is from an unknown sender. Her phone rings; it’s Drake.
“Vivi, you’re about to get an email from an Army representative. This is about your trip to cheeseland. A government rep wants to talk to you. Okay? You’re to follow the instructions in the email. The thing’s encrypted.”
“Okaaaay…is that all?”
Drake hangs up. She opens the email to find word that a courier is to deliver a phone to her within the hour and she is to use the safe room in the 18th Precinct’s basement. There is no sender listed on the envois. Just as she rises from her desk to visit Drake’s office she sees the captain walking towards her with his shuffling gait with a shrink-wrapped white plastic bag that holds a small box within it.
“You’re cleared for time in the Oven.”
“Oh, am I? For what?”
Without a word he hands it to her.
“Captain!” But Drake waddles away. She spends five minutes with an exacto knife opening the package and the package within that. It is a satellite phone. Excitement stirs in her. She turns on the device and shoves it in her pocket and makes her way down to the first floor, through the first security checkpoint, the second, then the third, just before the old elevator. She’s indeed cleared to use the shielded, soundproofed chamber below. The guard gives her the day’s passcard for entry and exit to the “Oven” as they call it and she descends. She becomes almost nauseated with an odd anticipation. All these strange things occurring so rapidly, atop one another….
She presses the key to the scanner and the door hisses open in decompression and enters the large chamber. Lights flick on. She passes the key on the second sensor and hits the close button and seats herself at the large metal table. Disinfectant wracks a sneeze from her. She turns on the satellite phone. Within seconds it purrs with a pure muted tone, its square face lighting.
“Hello, Sergeant Valdez. I’m Lieutenant Farber with the Army’s Office of Internal Investigation.” He clears his throat. “Now I understand the NYPD your division the vice division has been investigating a new substance that has appeared in the bars and nightclubs in your jurisdiction. And you’ve been the lead detective in this investigation.”
“I wouldn’t say that. We’ve a team of four working the case.”
There is something about his voice, a subtle electronic tone to it. Other than that, the man could be a radio announcer or book-on-tape reader. It is a fluid voice, even and patrician, with an upper Midwestern twang. “You’ve managed operations to catch distributers of this substance, correct?”
Give back what you get. “I’m not at liberty to discuss any operations. Unfortunately.”
“Fair enough. Well I’ve been authorized to release to you, Sergeant Valdez, and you only, information pertaining to this substance. I’ll have you know this has been a decision by my superiors who have been following the evolution of this substance for quite some time. Now that it has become public knowledge that it exists and your unit has been in the vanguard exposing it, the tip of the spear so to speak, we at the office would be very interested in briefing you and you alone on the matter of this substance. This would be in a formal setting. That is to say, we could fly you to a location down here in D.C. for the briefing.”
Victoria is several beats behind; he did say “evolution” of this substance, didn’t he? Before she can consider the offer she says, “Yes, I’ll do it. And the ride, that’d be appreciated.”
“Very good. I’ve spoken with Captain Drake and he has cleared you for this briefing. I must emphasize that no one but he, Captain Drake, and you are to know about this briefing.”
Her eyes pivot about the room. “Sounds like a matter of national security or some such.”
There’s a pause. “Let us say that is a statement of conditional fact. You will be sworn for the purposes of this briefing and gain a higher-level GS clearance. There will be non-disclosure stipulations and you would have to swear an affidavit. As I understand it you are already at equivalent to GS-10 in the NYPD program.”
Victoria’s stomach goes ice. “I got no comment on any such program.”
She can hear a slight chuckle. “That’s fine. Now the timeline. What is the earliest you could be ready to board a plane at La Guardia? This would be a private jet.”
The voice is smooth, creamy. It is an advertisement from the 1950s. “And how long would these briefings take?”
“Hard to say. Anywhere from three to seven hours, let’s say.”
She stares at the school-cafeteria style clock on the wall. “I will have to make a few calls. I would be back at La Guardia by when, tonight some time?”
“Correct. The plane is ready for you. Right now, if you’d like. And Drake has authorized for you a PD chopper trip to the airport as well. At our request.”
“Well, whoa.” Now that was some serious shit. If it means answers to this mystery, does she have a choice? And they won’t speak to anyone but her? Drake must know a lot more about this than he let on. But since they chose her, probably because of the scouting mission, it explained why the Captain seemed so rankled. “Okay. I could be ready for the chopper in about a half-hour.”
“Very good. Very, very good. Keep the phone close to you, and please don’t let anyone handle it, Sergeant. We will be using it for further communication. You’ll surrender it when you arrive at the destination.”
She sighs. Too many things, too little space and time.