Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chapter Eight: The Perfect Hiding Place; or, What to Say When an Arrow is Aimed at Your Heart

On the following Tuesday night I received the phone call I had been expecting. The gruff voice on the other end of the line said, "It's time. Forty-five minutes."

The plan had begun.

I had spent most of Saturday afternoon with Wanda while she explained what she and the Brethren were trying to do to.

"Our plan is threefold," she said. "We want to regain control of the Federal Antiquities Bureau, thwart Octavian Bench's ambition to possess the Liber Draconis Mundi, and break the power of the Children of Rufus. We think we have figured out a way how we can do this."

Her plan was convoluted and complex. I was involved in it only a little, because Wanda felt that I would be unable to be as duplicitous as was needed. I reminded her that I fooled her with regard to my orientation, but she didn't take it as a joke and moved on quickly. The first thing I had to do was secure the book in a safe place. Then, on Tuesday night, my small part of the plan would begin. Wanda hoped that I would be out of it by the following weekend. I went along with her, still thinking about how I could follow her plan and still keep the book. I didn't care if it was publicized, but I wanted to read it first. I had gone through far too much to have it snatched away.

I'm sure Wanda didn't trust me, but that was fine, because I didn't trust her either. I was surprised she let me keep the book, but when she dropped me off at my apartment late Saturday afternoon, she said nothing when I took it with me. She had made a phone call and gotten the police and the FAB to leave me alone, at least for the time being, so my street was deserted when I finally returned. I smiled at Wanda and told her I hoped my revelation didn't ruin our friendship, and she glowered at me and gave me her cell phone number. "Call me only if something goes wrong before Tuesday," she said. "If nothing happens, I'll see you then."

"Sweet dreams, Ms. Plátano," I said. Her tires squealed as she drove away.

On Sunday I hid the book. I had thought long and hard about where I would hide it, and I came to one conclusion: I couldn't keep it in the city, or with a friend. Ghoti had lied to me, for whatever reason, but suddenly I couldn't trust him. Anyway, after learning about the Children of Rufus and their tactics, I didn't want them to go after him, whether he lied to me or not. I was sure that either the Children of Rufus or Octavian Bench and his allies would know all about my friends, and I didn't want to involve them. I also wanted to get the book out of the city. The Bench influence was everywhere in New Alexandria, and I simply could not think of anyplace safe to stash the Liber Draconis Mundi.

Early Sunday morning it struck me. There was only one place I could take the book. If I couldn't take it to a friend, I would take it to an adversary. I would take it to Pax.


The drive to eastern Jefferson was long but never boring. I drove up the Napoleon River Gorge along the old highway instead of on the interstate running by the river. The old highway ran through the hills and along the cliffsides of the gorge, and was far more interesting and scenic. Leaves burned red and yellow by the crisp autumn weather clung desperately to branches and gazed down at their fallen comrades, browning stalks of corn stood sentinel in harvested fields, and the denizens of the small towns along the way sat on porches in front of granges and country stores smoking pipes and watching the big-city folk pass by. I was driving my El Camino and listening to Howlin' Wolf on the tape deck, and I had the windows down to let the breeze in. The book was wrapped in bubble wrap on the seat next to me, but I forgot about it as I drove through the beautiful landscape. I had lived in the Alex all my life, but I had traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest for years, soaking up all the local history and legends. It was my passion. So as I drove east, I remembered everything I had heard about the towns along the way:

In Dixon, Mayor Abercrombie participated in the 1932 dance marathon and won, but at the cost of his right foot, which had to be amputated because his hangnail cut into his flesh and after 122 hours of dancing, gangrene had set in.

In Murraysville, George and Gertrude Murray, the original settlers, liked to sit in straight-backed wooden chairs alongside the highway, which was only a broad dirt road back in 1853, when they first settled the homestead. They would invite solitary pioneers into their homes for a nice dinner, and afterward, they would kill and eat them. This went on for twelve years, until the local militia, based in the Alex and headed by the young Octavian Bench II, rode out to check on rumors about the couple and found they were true. They hanged the Murrays and sold their vast ranch, but the settlers they didn't eat honored them by naming the town after them because Gertrude's snickerdoodles were so damned tasty.

In Ahtumwock, Regina Livesay turned early 1900s-morality on its ear by marrying six men at one time and making them all work her farm. In 1912, her sixth husband, Honorius, told the New Alexandria Benchmark that Regina "made all her men happy," which is why they all married her. This was too much for the puritan government then in power in the Alex, and they drove Regina and her husbands out of the state, telling them that they should settle in a "Gallic" place like Seattle, which they did, becoming world-famous restauranteurs.

In Horse-And-Buggy, the legend goes that young lovers on the verge of consummating their relationship on the Hill of the Grayhounds right outside the town will always see the ghost of Chief Great-As-The-Sky-And-Swift-As-The-Lightning, who supposedly threw three of his daughters off the peak and down into the gorge to their deaths for losing their maidenheads to young braves. Chief Lightning will howl angrily as the lovers attempt to make the beast with two backs, begging the question of why anyone would go out there to do it. The story is that if you can ignore the chief and push through, not only will you have excellent sex, but you will always be together and never lose your passion for each other.

I turned south at Falltown, at the head of the gorge and the end of the desert, and followed the Gilead River south. The Gilead flows north out of the Cascades and through the brush on the fringe of the Great Eastern Desert, and the area right along it is pleasant country and a hot vacation spot for the city-dwellers to the west. I drove along Route 14 through small towns and the Kiutlwak Indian reservation, with its brand new casino on the hill overlooking the river. At the Thrushby Falls I turned east into the desert. The next town was 200 miles away. I was not going as far. About 50 miles along the road I turned left onto a dirt track that was almost invisible. I bumped along this track for 20 miles until I came to a fence with a gate blocking the road. I knew that I had to get out and identify myself, even though it appeared there were no recording devices whatsoever.

I opened my door, got out of the cruck, and stretched. I had been driving for almost three hours. I surveyed the landscape. I knew the house was in front of me not that far away, but it was down in a hollow and I couldn't see it from the gate. I could see nothing else in any direction.

"Pax," I said. "It's me. Isosceles."

Nothing but the wind answered me. "Come on, Pax, it's important."

Far away the sound of a truck reached my ears. Other than that, silence. "Do you really think I'd drive all the way out here if it wasn't important, Pax? Do you really think I'd put myself through that grief?"

I heard a click. I looked and the gate was swinging open. "Thank you, Pax," I said and climbed back into the El Camino and drove it across the threshold. Even though the landscape was exactly the same, I felt a subtle shift in the atmosphere. Tension crackled across the ether. Pax had that effect.

I drove about ten minutes and saw the hollow in which Pax had built his house. I never knew what to expect - it had been a decade since I had visited, and I knew Pax liked to construct things. I parked the cruck before I reached the lip of the hollow and got out, bringing the book with me. I walked to the edge of the hollow and stared, amazed. The original house had been a simple cabin made from stone and wood, with only two rooms. Now the house sprawled down the gulch, with at least six new rooms. Pax had been busy in the ten years since I had seen him.

He stood on the front stoop, holding a compound bow with an arrow aimed at my heart. I hesitated only a moment before beginning my walk down into the hollow. I had gotten about halfway to his front door when he said, "Okay. Far enough."

I froze. When Pax spoke, people tended to listen if they knew what was good for them. His eye never wavered from my form. "Is that your copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?" He had seen the book I was clutching. It was an old joke at the expense of my job. He knew I didn't like to talk about it.

"This is the reason I came. I think you'll like it."

"Not good enough, B.G. I need a better reason not to put this arrow in your heart."

One of the reasons why I fell out of favor with Pax is that I had no interest in his psychotic persona. Others, like Morton X. Morton, thought it was clever. I found it tedious. However, when a hermit living in the desert is aiming an arrow at your heart, you need to take him seriously, even if you don't think he's actually going to do it.

"This is the Liber Draconis Mundi, Pax."

"Means nothing to me." I had a feeling he was lying, but couldn't chance it. I also didn't have enough time to explain.

"Octavian Bench would be very happy to get his hands on this book."

That clinched it. Pax's hatred of Octavian Bench VII was legendary, even among the mainstream media, thanks to Morton's series of articles fifteen years earlier. It went back to when the two men were in college at Bench University - Octavian, obviously, had a bit of an edge when it came to getting into that prestigious university, which was known as the "Drexel of the West" - and had shared a room in their sophomore years, and a woman in their junior. Women, of course, always get in the way of good friendships between men, and this was no exception. It began with this beautiful woman, Helena Troila, and ended with Octavian's marriage to her and the mysterious murder of his prize ewe, for which Pax always claimed credit even though he had an alibi for the night of the crime. He claimed credit simply to drive Octavian mad with grief and to stake his place as Bench's arch-enemy. Who killed the ewe is still an urban legend in the Alex. Pax lived in the desert partly because he lost his feud with Octavian Bench VII. He had other reasons as well.

He lowered the bow and smiled. "Shit, Isosceles, how the fuck are you? Come on in." Without waiting, he turned and entered his house. I hesitated for a moment. Did I really want to do this? Then I followed. I had no choice, really.


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