Yes, friends, relatives, and assorted creditors: It’s that time again! Many people have written recently to ask about what fiction projects I have on the anvil. The answer is: Too BLEEP!ing many! And whenever I try to work on any one of them, the others all start to whine that they’re being neglected. It’s worse than having a gaggle of girlfriends. In that situation, the women usually don’t know one another…and the bachelor at the center of the circle strives to his utmost to keep things that way.
Anyway, have a peek at the opening to a novel I expect would raise howls from coast to coast…if anyone were to read it…and if I could just figure out how to end it.
The working title is Powers Of The Air.
Friday afternoon, October 5
Clement Guillory laid his hand on the knob of the Green Room door and turned it. It opened easily. He poked his head out tentatively and scanned the corridor. A courier scurried down an intersecting hallway with cardboard tubes bundled under his arm. An efficient-looking young woman in a pale pink skirt suit and pumps clicked past while muttering to herself and pressing buttons on a PDA. It was quieter than he would have expected, only ten minutes before a major live broadcast.
He thought about fleeing for the thousandth time, closed the door and returned to his perch at the edge of the coarsely surfaced couch with its shock absorber springs and cinderblock stuffing.
Ari would have killed her own mother to be here. If I’d even hinted that I’d decided against it, she’d have clouted me with a chair and shown up in my place.
His cell phone rang. He fished it out of his jacket pocket and flipped it open. The number on the tiny screen was that of his own lab. He sighed and thumbed the Answer key.
“What’s up, Ari?”
“Nothing, baby.” Despite their fifteen years’ acquaintance and involvement, Ariel Axelrod’s Texas contralto still put him in mind of a silver screen siren. “Just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“What if I’d been on stage?”
She chuckled. “They’ll remind you to turn your phone off. Relax, Clem, you’re going to be a smash. The headline of tomorrow’s Variety will probably be ‘Science Stud Wows Jessie’s Girls,’ or something like that.”
“Just what I always wanted.” He tried to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, but some seeped through. There was a brief silence.
“It’ll be good for both of us, baby.” An edge formed under her Dallas drawl that warned him not to change his mind. “It’ll bring in help from all over the world. This isn’t the kind of thing we can investigate all by ourselves anyway.”
“So relax.” The edge faded away. “Get this done, and we can spend the rest of the month watching foundations wave their checkbooks at us.”
“And if I get stoned off the stage?”
“Stop worrying, Clem! Just come back in a good mood. I’ll make sure you have a good evening. Promise.”
“Okay. I love you.”
“I love you too, baby. Bye!”
He closed his phone and shoved it back into his pocket.
I should have wrung her neck.
Nothing like that had occurred to him at the time. Nothing but puzzlement at Ari’s excitement over a matter of the most abstract interest. He’d dashed off the note to Physical Review Letters mostly to shut her up. Then his phone had started ringing, and never stopped.
Reporters camped outside his apartment building. At first he’d tried to smile and pass them by. He hadn’t guessed how physically aggressive they would become, how little heed they’d pay his pleas for privacy, or how little protection the police would afford him.
It didn’t matter whether he talked to them or not. They kept following him. All of them were certain that he held the keys to the human soul. Each of them was confident that, if allowed just a few minutes alone with the reticent Dr. Clement Guillory, he could squeeze out the truth about this fantastic claim…a claim Clement hadn’t even made.
He had to compose himself. They would be coming for him soon.
Pilar Quinteros was blotting up the condensation puddles on the long aluminum table in St. Gregory’s parish meeting room when Gail Borden burst in and summoned her to the television. She set her rag on the counter near the sink and followed the big blonde woman through the breezeway to the rectory.
Eight other parish members had crowded into the pastor’s little study. The old sofa was overfilled. Four women sat on the floor, knees drawn up and encircled by their arms. All eyes were riveted to the tiny television screen. Father Michael Keane, the pastor, stood in a corner with his arms folded across his chest. His expression proclaimed his certainty that the event they were about to view would prove irrelevant.
The screen showed top-rated talk show hostess Jessica Weatherly, media-anointed guru to the young women of America, peering intently at an attractive man in his late thirties or early forties. Weatherly was dressed to the nines as usual in a form-fitting beige skirt suit and matching high-heeled pumps. Her guest wore a navy blue suit of classic cut, a lavalier microphone, and a look of pronounced unease. Surges of sound from the studio audience floated in and out of their conversation.
“Can you tell us more about this experiment, Dr. Guillory?” The hostess leaned forward, eyes and smile wide. Her honey-blonde mane rippled gently about her head, and her white silk blouse pulled open to reveal a hint of cleavage.
Guillory pulled back into his chair. It would have slid away from the hostess had someone not thoughtfully bolted it to the floor. “Not a lot more, no. Please remember that it’s really a tool for investigating particle theory. My main interest has always been the cosmological implications of—”
“But you’ve turned it to such a fascinating purpose,” Weatherly purred. The interruption was so smooth and soft that Guillory seemed to have fallen silent of his own accord. “Surely you’ve mused over the theological implications, as well as the cosmological ones? And you must admit, millions of women worldwide would love to have an answer to the mystery you’ve probed.” Her bright smile took on a monitory edge. “You could even say they’re desperate for it.”
Pilar tugged at Gail’s sleeve. “What are they talking about?”
Gail shushed her without taking her eyes from the screen.
Guillory sighed. “All right.” His eyes hardened. “But I want to be very clear about this. What we’re about to discuss is speculation, not science. It comes from my research assistant, not from me. And while I don’t reject her conclusions, neither do I endorse them.”
The smiling Weatherly dipped two fingers into a pocket of her jacket and pulled out an index card.
“Dr. Ariel Axelrod is a graduate of Cornell University. She graduated summa cum laude, like yourself. Cornell awarded her a Ph.D. in physics, like yourself. Her name has appeared on papers published in Nature, Physical Review and the Colloquium of Particle Physics—”
“Like myself,” Guillory snarled. The interjection blew Weatherly off her stride. Before she could regain herself, the physicist forged ahead. “How clever of you not to mention that those papers were all principally authored by another chief investigator, someone who took prime responsibility for the subject matter, the methodology employed, and the conclusions drawn: myself!”
The studio audience rippled in unease. Weatherly made a show of drawing herself up.
“Would you be so kind as to share Dr. Axelrod’s speculations with us anyway, Dr. Guillory?”
The physicist resettled himself in his chair and steepled his fingers against his chest.
“Some background first. We had a tragedy in our lab about two months ago. An old friend of mine, a retired physicist who was intrigued by the approach I’d taken to Higgs particle detection—”
“That’s the one they call the ‘God particle,’ isn’t it?”
Guillory’s face twitched. “Yes, it is. My friend had come to see the device in operation. He had a heart attack and died while an experiment was in progress, and the Higgs detector went briefly off the scale. It didn’t last for long, no more than ten seconds, but the readings were about seventeen times normal for ambient Higgs field strength in a region free of nuclear effects.”
“What was your friend’s name?”
Guillory shook his head. “You don’t need to know it.” He bulled on past Weatherly’s petulant frown. “The phenomenon electrified Ari—”
“Dr. Axelrod, you mean?”
The physicist’s face twitched again. “Yes. Dr. Axelrod wanted to investigate further. She went to a number of local hospitals and begged permission to put our Higgs detector into their terminal wards. All refused. Then she tried a hospice, and received qualified permission. We had to guarantee that the device would not alarm or disturb any of the residents, whether it was operating or not. Eventually we settled on an arrangement.”
Guillory briefly pressed his steepled hands against his lips.
“The phenomenon was perfectly reproducible. To the best of our ability to determine, a human death always correlates with a rapid crescendo in the local Higgs field strength, to a peak of roughly seventeen times ambient normal, that lasts for about ten seconds. The diminuendo back to ambient normal is quite sharp, lasting only a few milliseconds at most.”
“Crescendo and diminuendo,” Weatherly said. “Those are musical terms, aren’t they?”
Guillory nodded. “They are.”
“And what is Dr. Axelrod’s theory about what you observed?”
Guillory’s face worked in discomfort. “She believes we detected the departure of the soul from the body.”
The uproar from the studio audience was matched by amazed shouts from all the occupants of the little study. Father Keane stepped forward from his corner to gawk at the set.
Pilar was struck by a thought she could not bear to articulate. She groped for Gail’s arm and clutched it. Gail flashed her a look of surprise, but said nothing.
Weatherly’s cosmetically perfect smile was back in place. It had taken on the tinge of the pugilist who’d tasted blood and had prepared a knockout blow. She leaned forward once more.
“But surely, Dr. Guillory, with a result like that in hand, you didn’t simply rest on your laurels, did you? You must have been curious about what you might be able to observe at the other end of life.”
Guillory nodded. “Ari—Dr. Axelrod certainly was. She pleaded for experimentation at a fertility clinic, and I couldn’t talk her out of it.” He shifted in his seat. “Children By Choice provided us with a time slot in which we could witness four in vitro conceptions.”
“And your results, Doctor?”
The whole world seemed to have gone silent.
“Negative.” Guillory’s voice cracked over the word. “We detected no Higgs field deflections from ambient normal.”
Stewart Wyeth closed the cabinet doors over his office’s plasma-screen television and returned to his desk. The calendar icon on his PC’s screen blinked slowly, indicating an appointment that day, but not yet imminent. He ignored it.
There should be a way to use this.
Clearly, there would be many who would not accept the supernatural interpretation of Guillory’s and Axelrod’s Higgs field measurements. Your position would depend on whether you accepted the contention that he’d observed the soul leaving the dying body. If you didn’t, no matter, but if you did…
He was careful not to endorse his assistant’s conclusions. I wonder if she could be pulled into the public eye? There has to be a reason Weatherly interviewed him and not her.
He pulled his PC’s keyboard toward him and dove into the NSF’s database of scientific personnel. As holders of physics doctorates, both Guillory and Axelrod were guaranteed to be listed there.
Guillory’s records were extensive and evocative. He was from a wealthy continental New York family that was older than the country itself and quietly powerful in finance and law. One of his lawyer uncles had made national headlines a few years back by dropping dead in a federal district court, right in the middle of a high-profile sedition trial. His client had assumed the burden of representing himself and, incredibly, had been acquitted.
Guillory had distinguished himself early, while still a graduate student. He’d propounded several innovative theories concerning cosmological mechanisms. Most had been dismissed, but one had become the basis for his doctoral dissertation, and another was under investigation by astrophysicists at Cornell and particle physicists in Geneva.
His career in high-energy physics had made all the usual ticket-punching stops. Two years at Brookhaven. Two years at CERN. Two years as an adjunct scholar at Lawrence Livermore, which had tried without success to get him to accept a permanent position. An impressive list of his published papers trailed down the screen.
Black sheep. Jumped out of his family’s usual channels young and has been mavericking around the world of science for twenty years. Has a big nest egg, doesn’t seem to pay it much mind. Where did it come from? Bequest?
Wyeth made a mental note to look into the Guillory family’s structure and its internal distribution of power.
Ariel Axelrod’s dossier was briefer. The embedded photograph pulled Wyeth’s head toward the screen. The woman had supermodel looks to go with her Ph.D. Taller than Weatherly and just as blonde, with warm blue eyes, a perfect smile, and the kind of figure that causes traffic accidents.
Axelrod was the product of a working-class upbringing in the suburbs of Dallas. She’d shown unusual intelligence and drive from high school onward. Her exceptional beauty had drawn the interest of the usual New York and Los Angeles talent scouts. She’d flirted with them briefly, but a career in the hard sciences had been her goal from the day she’d headed northeast for college.
Axelrod was as well traveled as her boss. She’d met him at Cornell, when he was pursuing his doctorate. After her doctorate was granted, she joined him at Brookhaven to work on light-induced nucleonic resonance. She followed him to CERN where they did research into baryon decay, then to Livermore to participate in the time-reversal program, and back to New York to develop his Higgs detector. For the past four years they’d worked together in a lab he’d built with his own funds, beholden to no university nor grantor institution.
It seemed likely. Guillory was thirty-seven and Axelrod thirty-three. Neither had ever been married. Both were attractive, hypercerebral types, and they spent enormous amounts of time together. If there was a barrier between them, it would be Guillory’s lineage. That seldom impeded the pleasures of the flesh.
Acorn will want to know about these two.
It was possible that Acorn knew about them already. Not that the sciences and their trappings much concerned the little sorcerer, who dismissed physical methods of amassing and manipulating power as excessively complex and unbearably cluttered. Still, if the Guillory / Axelrod experiments could be turned to advantage, or might become an impediment, Acorn would want to know. If he discovered that he’d been left out of the loop, he’d want to know why.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Undersecretary for Reproductive Policy pushed his keyboard away, picked up his phone handset and pressed the speed-dial button he’d labeled “A.”
Early Friday Evening, October 5
Clement found Ariel waiting for him at the door to his apartment.
He hardly had time to speak before she closed on him, eyes bright. Her arms snapped shut around him with an audible report. An instant later they were kissing like fifteen-year-olds on their first date: she trying to swallow him whole, he fighting her for space and breath.
“Ari…mmmh…” He forced his arms between them and pushed her a millimeter away. “Can I at least take off my tie?”
Her face clouded momentarily, but she stepped back and allowed him to open the door to his apartment. She stood with her arms crossed as he shed his jacket and tie and riffled through his mail.
From the age of seventeen, Ariel Axelrod had fought her way through the old-boy network of big science, one of the most heavily calcified webs of access and influence in the world. Even with his mentorship and constant support, she’d had to surmount more obstacles than a male graduate student would have faced. Yet she had prevailed.
Ariel was not one to admit defeat. She wanted to share his home. Her maneuvers toward that end wouldn’t cease short of success or her severance from his life. Yet in all their years together, she’d never once mentioned marriage.
“Didn’t I say you’d be a smash?” she said.
He dropped his mail on the little table that stood by the door. “Really, Ari? What did I smash?” She started to reply but cut it off when he turned and made for his bedroom.
He hung up his jacket and tie, kicked his shoes off directly into the closet, and slid the mirrored doors closed. His reflection looked back at him with dissatisfaction and a sense of having been used.
“Clem?” Ariel stood in the doorway, her arms still across her breasts.
“Are you ready to tell me why this was so important to you?” he said. “I can’t back out of it any more, so it should be safe.”
“I had to dodge reporters from one end of the city to the other, Ari. I had my dark glasses on in the subway. There’s no telling how long it’ll be before this blows over, but until it does I’ll be a hunted man. I’ll have no privacy.” He jabbed a thumb at the telephone on the night table. “Do you know why the phone isn’t ringing?”
“Watch this.” He reached behind the phone and pulled up the wire. The end dangled freely from his hand. “And this.” He plugged the wire into its socket, and the phone immediately began to ring. After four trills, he yanked the wire out again, restoring silence.
Ariel’s hands fell to her sides. Her face had drained of color.
“That’s what we in the trade call an experiment, Ari. You know, a test of a hypothesis that has causal implications? If I plug the telephone in, it will start to ring. No matter what time of day it is. The only reason I didn’t have to fight my way past a regiment of reporters is that building security has managed to keep them from learning about the service tunnel to Seventy-Fourth Street. I came in with the laundry. Now will you please tell me what was so vital about getting your half-baked notions about souls and the Higgs field out to an audience of brain-dead housewives that I had to surrender every shred of peace in my life?”
He hadn’t known he was about to boil over. From the desolate look on her face, Ariel hadn’t known it either. And now it was gone.
He stepped toward her hesitantly and took her shoulders in his hands, trying to ignore her tiny flinch. She looked away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t ready for all this.”
She nodded, eyes still averted.
“Did anyone call the lab while I was across town?”
Her head came up and around. “Yes. Someone from the NSF, Brian Holland. Said he wanted to schedule a lab visit, see the setup and the experiment. I told him you’d call him back.”
Clement suppressed a groan. “Anyone else?”
“Your mother. Family dinner tomorrow night. Emphasis on family. Neither excuses nor guests will be accepted.”
A new yoke of weariness crashed down on his shoulders. “Oh God.” Six hours’ driving each way and a whole day lost from the lab, just to eat unseasoned chicken and listen to Mother’s veiled denigrations of Ari. She thinks they’re veiled, anyway. “Was she at least polite to you?”
“She was. Clem, I’m really sorry about all the disruptions.” Ariel’s low, sweet voice insinuated itself into his bones and muscles, softening him from within. “Can we just not think about it tonight, have this evening for ourselves? Steaks at Lutzen’s, a few drinks at Albie’s, maybe a little dancing?”
“All right.” He released a breath he hadn’t known he held. “Should I put my tie back on?”
Her hands rose to the buttons of his shirt and began to undo them. “Not just yet.”
Pilar quailed at Father Keane’s guileless grin.
“It wouldn’t be good for the group or the cause,” the pastor said. “Even to let people know that Conscience Awakens is a parish group would be a bad idea. Besides, that’s not what you want it to be forever, is it?”
Pilar considered. “No, I guess not.”
The handsome young priest rose from his desk chair and stood with his hands in the pockets of his jeans.
How little like a priest he looks without his cassock! In Argentina he’d be a screen idol. He wouldn’t be able to pass the streets without drawing a crowd.
“Father…” She cast about for the right words. “We don’t know how to do this. We feel we must, and that’s all. Without you to guide us, how will we know what to do? Without you to speak for us, how will we know what to say?”
He blinked in mock confusion, then allowed his impish Irish smile to spread across his face.
“You don’t need me, dear. You already know why you’re doing this. Try it out. Close your eyes and just think about an abortion. Think about going to one of those clinics and lying down on a gurney. Think about allowing some technician to stuff a hose into you and suck out the child sheltering in your belly. How does the idea make you feel?”
Eight years living with the memory of horror had granted Pilar Quinteros the gift of external self-control. Her expression remained completely impassive.
He does not know. I must remember.
“Dirty.” It wasn’t strong enough. She groped for another word, imagined for one awful moment that it was herself on the gurney once again, skirt pulled up and panties down, having her baby taken from her by that suction hose, and came up with a better one. “Wretched.”
Father Keane nodded slowly. “And do you think that any other woman in that position, who knows what she’s about, could feel any other way?”
“No, Father. Not…not if she’s alive inside.”
The priest’s green eyes were fathomless. “Just so. Now make them imagine it with you, before they can feel it in reality.”
The dapper little man in the gray three-piece suit sat motionless in Wyeth’s guest chair, his fingertips pressed together. He wore a look of untroubled contemplation, like a mathematician rotating an interesting new problem in his head.
“I would advise against it, Stewart.” His mouth twitched momentarily. “It’s been a long road to here. The public’s gotten past discussions of the supernatural aspects of the thing. I can’t see that it would do us any good to encourage them now.”
Wyeth thought about it briefly. “There are still seventy million Catholics in this country, Acorn. A lot of them vote.”
The little sorcerer’s face crinkled with superior amusement. “How long until the clinics are slated to open?”
“The first one will open this month.”
The sorcerer nodded. “From all the newspaper reports, the election’s already been decided. And you worry about the Catholic vote? Besides, even if there were a reason to worry about popular opposition, there’s no good to be had trying to reason with those…mystics.”
Wyeth had seldom seen Acorn indulge in a conspicuous display of emotion. The smoothness of the face below the completely bald pate was integral to Wyeth’s picture of the sorcerer. A crease near his eyes or mouth carried more force than a belly laugh or a stream of obscenities from another man. The light emphasis he’d laid on the word mystics conveyed a truckload of contempt.
But then, Acorn, what are you?
“So we should just let it pass by, then? No attempt to exploit it?”
Acorn inclined his head. It was less a nod than a weary acknowledgement that a slow student had finally seen the point.
It might be possible to prime a weapon and hold it in reserve against unexpected developments. Perhaps I should still talk to this Guillory fellow.
He opened his mouth to change the subject, and clapped it shut as Acorn spoke again.
“I really don’t think you should try it, Stewart. When you battle religion with science, you’re mixing oil and water. The underlying belief systems just aren’t compatible. Besides, what makes you think you can get the cooperation you’d need? Dr. Guillory has already displayed considerable pique at having had to confront the media. That he funds his own labors should tell you that he’s not easily manipulated. And I really wouldn’t appreciate having attention thrown on my own researches.”
The sorcerer’s voice was as mild as always. The threat in the words came through loud and clear.
He’s playing dominance games. He wants to establish that I’m answerable to him.
“I suppose your researches couldn’t continue if they were noised about, could they?” Wyeth rose, circled his desk, and leaned against its edge with his arms folded across his chest. “People in most parts of the country do take a dim view of blood sacrifice. All the same, if Brian Holland reports favorably, I will make arrangements to speak to Dr. Guillory about his experiment. If that should cause you some inconvenience, let me know and I’ll help you arrange to minimize it.”
Not a muscle twitched in Acorn’s face. His eyes remained steady on Wyeth’s own. Presently he levered himself out of the plush leather guest chair and made a production out of straightening the lines of his suit.
“Do be careful, Stewart.”
He turned and walked casually out of the office.
Wyeth watched the door close behind the little sorcerer. He stood reflecting for perhaps half a minute, then picked up his phone and pressed the intercom button.
“Any calls or visitors, Valerie?”
“Ring up NSF, please, and tell Ira Sokolow that I want to speak to him and Brian Holland as soon as Holland is back from New York.”
Wyeth laid the handset in its cradle with exaggerated care, seated himself and allowed his thoughts to wander where they would.
Friday Evening, October 5
The bedroom had muted from the glow of the late afternoon sun to its evening tones of gray and earthen red. Clement flexed his left arm gently, careful not to pinch Ariel’s neck, and glanced at his watch. Seven-fifteen.
Ariel stirred against him, opened her eyes and smiled. “Getting hungry?”
Under the sheet, her hand slithered teasingly down his torso. “For food?”
He grinned. “Might be better if we saved seconds of that for later.”
Her eyes narrowed in a catlike smirk. They arose and dressed.
Ariel said little as they prepared for their evening out. Clement braced for offhand comments about how few outfits she had to choose from, how she didn’t have the right shoes for the dress she wanted to wear, or how the best of her jewelry was twenty blocks away. He heard nothing of the sort.
She must have decided to try a different tack.
He botched his first attempt at knotting his tie, pulled it loose and tried again.
Am I being fair to her? It’s been fifteen years. Just because I don’t want kids is no reason to deny them to her, and her time is getting short.
He pulled the knot up to his collar, checked it in the mirror on his closet door, and grunted satisfaction.
“What, baby?” She slipped into her black pumps and straightened up as he turned to face her.
“Nothing.” He raised his eyebrows. “How do I look?”
She smiled, sauntered up to him and ran her fingertips along his cheeks. “Like my handsome genius.”
He took her hands in his, a wave of affection washing over the pebbles of doubt he’d mounded around him. “Come on, pretty lady. Let’s get fed.”
He opened the door and bowed her through in his mock-gallant way, and was surprised to see her freeze in place, eyes wide. He straightened up and found an unprepossessing, blue-suited man of middle years, a brown leather folio under his arm, standing directly before the door. The man smiled formally and extended his hand.
“Dr. Guillory, my name is Brian Holland and I’d—”
Clement’s right fist crashed into the point of Holland’s chin with all the force his hundred eighty pounds could generate. Holland flew backward, slammed into the corridor wall, and slid to the floor. His folio settled to the carpet beside him with a muffled clap.
Clement rubbed his knuckles, pulled out his cell phone and dialed the building superintendent.
“Fleurie Towers, superintendent’s office.”
“Mr. Ringill, this is Clement Guillory in twenty-three F.” Clement made no attempt to keep the anger out of his voice. “I’ve just found an unauthorized visitor standing at my door, waiting for me to come out. He’s now lying unconscious on the hallway floor. At least I think he’s unconscious, though I suppose I might have killed him. In a moment I’ll be heading out for the evening. When I return, I expect to see a hallway free of bodies and a doorman on station who knows better than to allow visitors I haven’t cleared to make their way to my apartment door. Is this clear?”
“I pay two thousand dollars a month in commons charges, Mr. Ringill. For that I expect both privacy and security. The hiring and supervision of security personnel is your domain. Now, will you do as I ask, or must I make this a matter for the attention of the board?”
A sigh. “Yes, Mr. Guillory.”
“Thank you, Mr. Ringill.” Guillory closed and pocketed his phone. Ariel regarded him with a look of guilty fear.
“We were about to go to dinner, weren’t we, dear?”
Hesitantly, she held out her hand. He took it and led her to the elevator.
Pilar hesitated before the sacristy door. Gail Borden turned to her with eyebrows raised.
“They’re waiting for you, P.”
Pilar nodded and looked down. “I know. I just don’t know how ready I am for this. Gail, couldn’t you…?”
The big blonde took her by the shoulders and squeezed gently. “It’s your show, P. They all know it’s your show, not mine. You’re the sparkplug, and it’s time to fire. Do you need a glass of water or something?”
“No, I…” I need to be somewhere else. Somebody else. “Okay, let’s go.”
Gail looked at her critically for an instant longer, then took her hand and led her out into the church. They were greeted by applause of surprising volume and duration.
Gail left her standing there at the altar rail and squeezed herself onto a front pew. Pilar was alone and defenseless before the crowd.
And a crowd it was. Every pew was filled to capacity. Both walls were lined with standees, and more clustered at the back before the tall oaken double doors to the church. There were at least five hundred people there, all of them watching her, awaiting her words.
It is not for me. I am no one. It cannot be for me.
They are here because they care, or because they bear a guilt like mine. But it is not for me.
I cannot do this without Father Keane!
She clamped her lips together and prayed swiftly for strength. The church was silent.
“You are here,” she faltered, “because you care about the unborn. You have seen and heard and read about the slaughter around us until it has sickened you to the core of your soul. Thinking about it makes you want to rip out your heart. And you want to do something about it. You just don’t know what to do.
“I must confess this to you: I don’t know what to do either.”
She waited for a cry of protest. None came.
“We know what not to do. We know because we have done it and it has not worked. Politics. Protest marches. Letter-writing campaigns. Carrying angry signs in front of abortion clinics. We have tried all of that, and the blood still flows.
“I am not the smartest of women. I clean other people’s homes for a living. I have no husband, no children, and no education. I live in an apartment so small that I must fold up my bed before I can set up a table to eat at. I am no one and nothing.
“But I am smart enough to know that one does not continue with what does not work. We must try other ways.”
The crowd’s murmur flowed caressingly over the church walls.
I must give them what I have, or I have called them together for nothing.
“I know a woman who stopped an abortion once. She had a friend, not a Catholic, who confided to her that she had betrayed her husband with another man, and had become pregnant. The friend could think only of killing her baby to save her from the shame of her sin. But the friend had never had an abortion, and did not know what to expect. The woman knew, for she had had one, even though she is a Catholic.
“The woman told her friend of the event, the fear that came before and the terrible shame that gripped her after. She told her friend about being opened to the instrument of death, feeling it enter her and suck out her baby to feed its hunger. She told of the horror, the guilt, the sense of disconnection from God. And because she had spoken from her heart, from the truth her sin had etched into her bones, her friend listened, and believed, and changed her mind.”
A second murmur raced around the room. The attention of the huge crowd was riveted upon Pilar, compelling her to complete the story she had not known she would tell.
“The woman…” Her voice cracked and fell to a whisper. “The woman who’d had the abortion was me.” She bowed her head.
There had never been a silence like the one that filled St. Gregory’s in that moment. It was a thing of such palpable grief that it seemed the church might fail to hold it, might burst to let it mushroom through the city, down every street and into every home for miles around.
Dear God, give me strength enough to face them.
She looked out once more across the throng that filled the church. The sea of faces was still fixed raptly upon hers. The eyes were uniformly bright with the glitter of tears.
“So we know…we know it can be done. We know we can reach them, awaken their hearts to what they propose to do to their babies, if we have the truth, and the desire. We will not always succeed. But we know it can be done. And I think this is what we must try.
“We should talk about our attempts, whether they succeed or fail. We should keep records. We should invite others of other faiths to join us in our efforts. We should be warm to those we counsel, not cold or threatening. We should be good confidants, and good allies, and good friends.
“That is what I am going to do. It is all I know how to do.” She opened her arms to the gathering. “Will you help me?”
The church exploded with the thunder of clapping hands and the music of joyous cheers. Dozens of men and women surged forward to embrace Pilar. They lifted her off her feet and bore her aloft, down the center aisle, through the great double doors and into the sunset glow like an icon of life and hope.
Ira Sokolow hung up his phone with the delicacy of a museum curator adjusting the position of a spun-glass figurine. He turned a comically blank expression to Stewart Wyeth.
“Brian didn’t get to speak to him.”
Wyeth frowned. “Guillory managed to avoid him?”
The Director of the National Science Foundation chewed at his upper lip. “Not exactly, Stewart. Brian called at Guillory’s lab and found it empty, so he decided to corner the fellow at his apartment. Apparently he did an unwise thing, bribed a doorman to let him go up to Guillory’s apartment without Guillory’s prior approval. Guillory knocked him out cold. Brian came to when the superintendent dumped him on the sidewalk outside the building.”
Wyeth regarded Sokolow uncertainly. “You’re serious?”
The NSF director nodded.
“Well,” Wyeth said, “one can only hope this isn’t a lasting first impression. Do you have anyone else we might send to interview the man of the hour?”
Sokolow canted his desk chair back and fitted his fingertips together. “I suppose I could, but in light of developments, I’d prefer to wait a bit. Guillory’s hackles are up. If there’s anything to be had from him, we’re less likely to get it if we press him at a tender time.” Wyeth’s face must have betrayed his emotions, for Sokolow peered into his eyes and said, “You do see the logic, don’t you?”
Of course I see it. I simply don’t like it.
Wyeth allowed himself a deep, calming breath. “No argument, Ira. Just let me know when you decide to approach him again. Before you approach him, would you please? The first clinics are scheduled to open this month.”
Sokolow nodded. Wyeth rose and let himself out.
The ride from Arlington to Washington was slow and uneventful. Wyeth peered out the limousine window with distaste as Arlington’s graceful Georgian mansions gave way to Washington’s apartment towers, strip malls and slums. The slums and shabby commercial areas had encroached ever more closely upon the federal city. A walk of a mile or two from any of the great Washington landmarks would put you in mortal danger, no matter which direction you traveled. HHS’s own offices were nearer to the plague zone than most.
At the edge of the belt of degeneracy, where Wyeth could see the beginnings of the alabaster and marble city he loved, stood one of the new HHS clinics. Under the security floodlights, it was plain the shell of the building was complete. As this would be one of the first to open, its internals were no doubt near to completion as well.
There’s too much riding on this to gamble on a wild card like Guillory. He has to be made an explicit part of the picture, or discredited and flushed out of the public eye.
I could go to see him myself. Ira wouldn’t like it, but I could. He’d be a bit less likely to clout me than one of Ira’s flunkies.
The corners of his mouth lifted.
If I can bear Acorn’s disapproval, I think I can bear Ira’s.
He pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket and dialed the HHS travel office.
“Maeve? Stewart Wyeth. Could you make arrangements for a shuttle to New York for the day after tomorrow, please? Not too early.”
Copyright © 2010 by Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.