Why not tonight?

I tip the glass up and the sharp taste of the Bushmill’s in it fills my mouth. It slides down my throat as I swallow like a fiery being that fills my body with heat. The surface ripples, catching a stray bit of light from the bar’s overhead illumination. It looks like an eye winking rhythmically at me, mocking me, daring me.

“I could do it tonight.”

No one could have heard me whisper the words to myself, not with the music blasting over the sound system. But I hear them, and I wonder why I don’t do it.

I have a gun, a snub-nosed .38 that even an expert couldn’t hit a target with from more than ten feet away. I told the man at the gun store I was buying it because several of my neighbors had been robbed, but that was a lie.

I have learned how to tie innumerable knots. I tell people I learned to tie them because I’m interested in boats. I am interested in boats, but that had nothing to do with my desire to understand knots.

I look down at the amber liquid in my glass. I could just keep drinking, drink until I can’t stand straight, until my senses begin to reel. The drive home is long, the road busy, and there would be many opportunities.

On the drive here, I saw men standing in the mouths of allies, sometimes alone, sometimes with other people. The way they all look furtively about, their very wariness, is a sign that they are buying and selling drugs. I could stop and buy something from one of them before going home to do it in private.

“So why don’t I do it? Why don’t I kill myself?” I ask the reflection in the whiskey. Life has been one long string of disappointments. A job I hate, one failed romance after another, family dying one by one, leaving me alone.

Why am I still alive?

I take another sip, look into the glass, and find the answer. I don’t kill myself because I still have hope. Some part of me believes my soul mate is out there, waiting for me to find her. A portion of my heart still thinks I’ll find a job that makes me fulfilled.

I look at my reflection, and the tired old man who looks back at me smiles. I push the glass away, stand, and head for the door. I look up as I exit and see the sky, darker than any of my musing. I see the scattered stars, shining like tiny beacons. Even as dim as they are here in town, they’re ever-present. Like my hope, they too refuse to fade away. I know why I won’t take my life tonight, or any of the countless nights to come.

“You don’t kill yourself because you’re too stupid to just lay down and give up, that’s why.”

It’s not much of a reason, but it’s enough.

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The strange case of Lindsey O’Hara

[This is the beginning of an idea for a crime novel I’m thinking of writing. Any feedback is welcomed.]

She had come in yesterday, just as Mike Shannon had been getting ready to leave for the day. A short, slender woman, her back as straight as a reed. She had the coal black hair of someone with am Armada survivor in her ancestry, but skin so pale it might have been paper. Her request was simple: she wanted to hire Mike to investigate the murder of Lindsey O’Hara, late of Tuam. She was willing to pay his rates, plus any extra expenses he might incur. Given the lack of cases Mike had had of recent, he’d ready to be dickered down, but if the customer wanted to pay him full rates, he’d not object.

So Mike climbed the stairs to his office over Flynn’s Pub intent on researching the crime, But his search soon made one stunning fact clear: Lindsey O’Hara was his most recent client. The face that stared out of the photo with her obituary was the same face he’d seen the night before. Further digging brought up more stories about the crime. Lindsey had been the only surviving child of Rory O’Hara, and the last living member of his family.

Rory had expanded his Tuam-based contracting and real estate development business into the Dublin market just before the Irish economic bubble had popped. Mike remembered his end well, having been part of the team investigating it. Exhibiting singularly poor business judgment, Rory had decided it would be better to get in bed with the Kinahan crime family than to go bankrupt. When his company went under anyway, his underworld ‘friends’ had taken him to an isolated farm on the outskirts of Dublin and put a bullet in his skull. Linsey had followed her father in dying a violent death. She’d been shot three times in what was described as a failed robbery of her home. After their usual bluster, the local garda had failed to bring anyone to trial for the crime. Eventually, the story had faded from from the headlines.

How he’d forgotten the shooting, Mike couldn’t fathom. He leaned back, his old office chair protesting at the sudden motion. “Well fuck me, how about that? I’m working for a dead woman. But how am I to get paid by a dead lady?”

The screen on his mobile lite up, and a tinny instrumental version of “Happy Days Are Here Again” began blaring away. He only used that ring tone for one person: Liam Pleshen, an old acquaintance and current a senior manager at the AIB branch where Mike did what banking he had. Liam had gotten in trouble with a couple of bookies over a bet on the Grand National. He’d won on a long shot, and suspecting Liam of possessing inside information, they’d not only refused to pay up, they’d threatened to go to the garda. Mike had managed to mediate an agreement by drawing on his former colleagues in the Dublin branch to lean on the bookies. Since then, Liam had been a vital source of information where banking was concerned.

Mike tapped the phone. “Well, Liam, how are things for the idle wealthy?”

“Yeah, hello and fuck you too, Mike. I called because there’s been some odd activity in your bank account. To be precise, five thousand euros were deposited in it overnight. The only way I can see you getting that much money is either you finally solved a case, or you’ve quit pretending to be ethical and have started blackmailing your ex-clients.”

Five thousand euros? That would cover what Mike charged for a couple week’s worth of investigation, maybe more.”Can you find out where the money came from?”

“Half a sec…” Liam’s fingers clattered on a keyboard was the only sound, then a muted “Fuck me!” before he spoke to Mike again. “The money came out of an account registered to Galway United Development, but isn’t that….”

Mike drew in a sharp breath. Galway United Development had been the shell company Rory O’Hara ran his other companies through, and the only one that had escaped liquidation after his death. As his sole heir, Lindsey would have had control of it. “Yes, it’s the last business holding of the O’Hara family. Is there any record of who authorized the transfer?”

“Mike, I’m just your friend the neighborhood banker, not a forensic accountant with the grada. They’re the only ones who could find something like that out. You should call your old pals in Dublin, maybe they can find that out who’d be sending you money from a dead man’s accounts. Then again, maybe they’ll be asking you why you’re getting money from a source like that. Why are you getting money from them, Mike?”

No way Mike was telling someone he’d been hired by a dead woman to investigate her own murder. “I don’t know, Liam, but I’ll find out. Thanks for the call. Maybe you should stop by Flynn’s and I’ll stand you a couple of pints as thanks for letting me know I’m flush again.”

“What, and drink on a dead man’s tab? Thanks, no.” and broke the connection, leaving Mike to sort out what he knew so far. He’d grown up in America, so he wasn’t one to believe in banshees or spirits. That meant either someone posing as Lindsey O’Hara was orchestrating an outside investigation of her death, or someone with the funds to hire an impostor was pulling the strings. But why?

“Well, Liam, I might just have to follow your advice for once.” Mike opened a screen, then accessed his ‘Doomsday’ file. It had all the names and contact information for every member of the garda who might be willing to help him as a friend…or whom he had dirt on to use to extract a favor.

Olivier Dzba was one of the former. The two of them had been in the same class at the Garda Training College, and with them both being outsiders, they’d become friends. Olivier had been six when he’d come to Ireland with his parents to escape a nasty civil conflict in the Congo. So unlike Mike, he’d come up through the Irish school system, and spoke Irish like a native. Watching the reactions of some of his Irish classmates as a stream of Galway Irish poured from the huge black man had given Mike many a laugh their first year. Mike tapped in the phone number he had for his old friend, and smiled as he heard that deep baritone coming from his mobile.

Ceanncheathrú Bhaile Átha Cliath, Garda Siochana, Bleachtaire Dzba ag labhairt.

“Olivier, you know my Irish isn’t worth shite, so could you speak in a language I can understand?”

“Mike? Jaysus, lad, where’ve you been hiding? It’s been ages since I heard your voice.”

“Athlone. Not the Middle of Nowhere…but I can see it from here on a clear day.”

That got him a laugh. “Ah, you always were one to love Dublin, weren’t you? For myself, I can’t wait for the next bank holiday…I’ve a spot already reserved on the Corrib. Three days salmon fishing, and not a case to be solved.”

For those who wander the deep

[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]

HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.

So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.

3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”

Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?

#

Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.

What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.

It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.

How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.

“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”

The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.

The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”

Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.

“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”

It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.

Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »

Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”

That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”

Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »

Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.

That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.

#

As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.

The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.

He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.

“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”

Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.

I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”

Confessions

“I love you.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said it. How many years had I known Nancy? How many times had I wanted to tell her? All those years, from grade school through high school, I’d known she was the woman I wanted to be with. In high school, other guys had made fun of her, called her ‘washboard’ and ‘carpenter’s delight’.

I didn’t care. She was kind, never laughed at my awkwardness, but always smiled at my lame jokes. Then high school ended, and I never saw her again. I followed my love of the stars into astronomy. College passed in a pleasant haze, surrounded by others who shared my interest and feeling at home at last. A degree, then another, brought me to manage one of the observatories atop Mauna Kea. Discoveries, even a measure of fame followed, but never love.

I don’t know why I started following my high school class on social media. I saw people I’d envied go on to fame, then failure. Others popped up, only to disappear again. The passing years brought something else: death. First one, then more of the people I’d gone to school with passed. Some died in accidents, others from disease. None of those notices bothered me. Then I saw the single line announcement that went through my heart.

“Nancy Phelan ne Coulette, died Feb. 25.”

Getting to her funeral was impossible, the notice appearing a week after her death. But I knew I had to go. So I’d made the flight, rented a car, and drove here. A mound of raw earth stood behind a plain gray granite tombstone. That was all I had to speak to, the only thing that could hear my confession.

But I had said it at last.

A vision of the future?

Paullus Lucius Decimus reclined on the cheap mattress in his rented room and watched the prostitute undress. Modern America had many things his native Rome had never had, but as an immortal, one thing he missed was brothels. He’d lost his virginity in one, and as a legionnaire, he’d frequented the brothels around Roman frontier forts rather than trust a local woman to not slit his throat as he slept. Now, rather than being able to go somewhere that he knew women were available, he was forced onto the seedier parts of the Internet in hopes of satisfying his sexual needs.

After discovering, in the disastrous aftermath of Teutoburg, that he was immortal, Paullus had refrained from long-term relationships out of self-preservation. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust a woman to keep his secret. No, many men he’d known had gone mad with grief after loosing a wife of lover, and Paullus knew his heart was no stronger than theirs. But no matter how many centuries passed, his desire for sexual release did not diminish.

So here he was, marveling at how like all those other prostitutes this one was. Her lips wore a smile that never entered her eyes, she told the same old lie about how ‘big’ his manhood was, and like every other prostitute, promised him she’d ‘show him a good time’. The sex itself was a series of mechanical acts interspersed with more lies about how ‘good’ he was in bed, what an ‘incredible’ lover he was, and when Paullus achieved climax, her theatrical exhibit of pleasure at the same moment was no more convincing than any of the others he’d seen.

Her job done, Tina, as she called herself, peeled the condom off his member and moved to throw it in the wastebasket beside. She stopped in mid-movement, her eyes fixed on Paullus’ diary. He’d left it open on the stand next to his bed, having no reason to suspect a random prostitute could read Latin. This one clearly did.

Latine loqueris?” she asked in a Latin that might have come from a patrician’s mouth and not a whore’s.

Maybe it was the shock of hearing his native tongue in such an unexpected situation that caused Paullus to blurt out “Facio, ita.”, but he collected himself before continuing in English “And how do you come to speak Latin?”

She gave him a smile, a real if wary one. “I studied Roman history in college, and knowing Latin was pretty much a requirement for accessing the original texts. You can only learn so much from someone’s translation. If you can read the original, in the original language, you can almost hear the writer speaking to you. How about you?” She pointed towards the diary. “This Latin’s not quite classic, it’s more like colloquial Latin. Only a few scholars can read that, let alone write as fluently as you do. Where did you pick it up?”

Damn, she would know the difference! Paullus had begun to suspect that Professor Upton knew his knowledge of Latin was far too extensive to put down to parental hectoring. That was one of the reasons he’d been happy to finish translating her cache of letters he himself had written before the final battle of the XIX Legion. How could he explain to this woman, who clearly knew his knowledge was uncommon? Better to change the subject. “You studied Roman history in college? How did you…?”

She finished the question for him. “How did a classic student end up a prostitute, a whore? You don’t have to be polite, I’ve been called worse. I came from a poor family, and scholarships only go so far. So I needed to raise some extra cash, and believe me, working a part-time job for minimum wage isn’t a good way to make ends meet, not and study. A girl I knew told me she ‘dated’ a guy and steered me to one of those sites where rich old guys go to find a ‘sweet young thing’ they can ‘financially assist’.” She even raised her hands to emphasis that she was quoting some standard line. “Well, I learned pretty quickly that the only reason most of those guys were willing to ‘assist’ me was if I’d ‘assist’ them in their desire to get laid.” She shrugged, and gave him a cynical smile he’d seen from far too many prostitutes. “So I could either have sex with some random guy and get paid for it, or I could starve. Not a hard choice. Problem is, once you get started, it’s hard to stop. You get used to having the extra cash, to not worrying whether you’ll have something eat or not. After a while, I started paying more attention to keeping my ‘friends’ happy than to my course work. I went from a GPA of 3.8 to 1.3. When my adviser told me to either get serious about my classes or I’d flunk out, I decided to drop out and go into prostitution full-time.” She smiled again, perhaps the first honest smile he’d seen on her face since she’d walked in the door. “What can I say? It isn’t always easy. I’ve had a couple customers decide they wanted to do the rough stuff with me, which I never do, no matter how much men offer me. The few who tried learned real fast that my cop dad taught his little girl how to defend herself. One idiot thought he’d be my pimp. I left him screaming on the floor with a nice compound fracture of the lower arm. No one’s been dumb enough to try that again.” Her eyes move back to Paullus’ diary. “And none of that explains how you know one of the less common dialects of Latin. So, care to spill, or should I just speculate?”

Time to fall back on the lie he’d told Professor Upton. “My father was a classics professor, my mother was a linguist. Between them, I learned the rudiments of around twenty languages. As for why I use that language, I always liked colloquial Latin because the cuss words are so very inventive.”

Tina laughed at that. “Yes, it is pretty good for insulting people, isn’t it?” Then, she looked at Paullus, at the web of scars that covered his body. “For a guy who’s smart enough to learn twenty languages, you’ve sure been injured a lot.” She tossed the spent condom in the garbage, then sat on the bed. “Modern medicine’s good, but these scars look like they’re from wounds that should have killed you. So either you were special forces, or you’re both the luckiest and unluckiest man alive to suffer these injuries and be close enough to care to keep you from dying. Which is it?”

Several centuries before, Paullus had killed a man who’d witnessed him surviving an attack by a huge brown bear in what was now the Kamchatka Peninsula. He’d seen too much of the attack to believe that Paullus was just lucky, but his fate had been sealed when started talking about how interested the local Koryak chieftain would be in a man who couldn’t be killed by a bear. Would he be forced to send this woman to the afterlife to spare himself the unwanted attention of modern society? Perhaps sensing he wasn’t going to answer, she settled her fate with her next words.

“Well, it’s not like we’re besties or anything like that. You don’t owe me an answer.” She dressed without wasted effort, scooped up the envelope holding the price of her company, and leafed through the bills with the practiced speed of someone who had done the task many times before. Satisfied that he hadn’t shorted her, she walked to the door.

“You’ve got my number, and I’ll be around for the next couple of weeks, so give me a call if you want another date. Di conservent te D. L. Paullus.” and she was gone, leaving Paullus to wonder how she’d managed to extract his name from one brief glance at his diary. He picked up the book and saw his name was nowhere on the pages she could have read. But on the stand, a coin winked at him. It must have been under the book because he was sure he hadn’t seen it when he picked it up. The bronze coin had the familiar weight and shape of a sestertius, and Augustus’ profile could still be made out. So how had a prostitute come to possess a two thousand year old coin that looked as if it had been minted only a few years before? Could she be like him, an immortal hiding in the shadows of modern society? He flipped the coin, caught it on the fall, and looked at the door.

“I think, Tina, you and I need to talk, and soon.”

The Prophesy Tree

I’d been on this trail for over two decades, but now, I had hope my search would be over.

The start of my voyage had been a line in my great-grandmother’s diary. She’d been a Highlands girl who’d gone to London to work in the war effort, the First World War that is. It had been just a single, cryptic line: “Just like the Tree said I would, I met Justin at Paddington Station.” Justin had been great-grans one true love, and he had died at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal. My grandfather had been born in November 1918, just short of a month after his father had died. With a child and the war effort winding down, great-gran had taken employment with a rich American family living in London. When they went home, they took their maid/governess with them. That’s how I came to be an American.

Now, I was back in the land that had given birth to my great-grandmother, sitting in a pub not far from where she’d been born. The King’s Head felt like a place that had existed since time began. There was dirt ground into every crack in the worn-smooth half-timbers sticking out of the plastered walls. No one smoked, but generations of smokers had flooded the fiber of the place with their fumes, leaving the air still smelling faintly of them. One who had added to that nicotine stench sat across from me.

Jamie Smith’s withered hand occasionally twitched towards his shirt pocket before pulling away, like he was reaching for a pack of ‘fags’, as he’d called them when he first sat down to talk to me. According to him, he’d quit smoking decades ago, but the habitual motions were still there as he sat, trying to answer my question without actually saying anything.

“Och, aye, everyone’s heard of Annag MacRae and how she went over to America. Banavie’s sent many a young lad and lass out into the world, and she was one of many who left the Highlands duing the Great War. But the last of her family died, oh, twenty years ago. I could show ye her father’s stone, and the rest of the family, at the church, but that’s all there is to see here Yank.”

I wasn’t about to let him avoid my question. “But why did she leave Banavie? You say everyone’s heard of her leaving, so why is it that one young woman leaving a small town like this is remembered?”

Jamie’s eyes, which had darted everywhere while he was talking to me, became even more determined not to look my way. “Ah, well, old stories like that get handed down….”

“But why? What was so special about my great-grandmother?”

That did it. Jamie started sliding towards the end of the bench he was sitting on opposite me, sliding away so he could get out of the small booth we shared. “I’m sorry, but I’ve to be going now. It’s good to see someone who’s family came from here return, but…”

I’d seen Jamie’s eyes following every tray full of drinks that passed us, so I decided to play my trump card. “I’m sorry, my manners are slipping. I haven’t offered to ‘stand you a pint’. I think that’s how you say offer to buy someone a drink over here, isn’t it?”

It worked. Jamie stopped trying to get out of the booth and moved back in front of me. “Well, if you’re willing to buy me a drink, I’d be happy to have it. But I’d much rather a wee drop a’ whiskey than a pint, if that’s all right with you.”

If it got the old man to open up, I’d have bought him a case of whiskey. “Of course, and you being the local expert, I’ll let you pick a good whiskey for both of us.”

#

Jamie upended the whiskey bottle, the last few drops making tiny rings on the surface of the amber liquid that filled his glass to the brim. He sat it down with exaggerated care, slowly took up his glass, and cocked it ever so slightly towards me. “Ta yer health, sir!” he said, as he had at the beginning of every glass before. Now, his words were badly slurred and his accent more pronounced. That he was still upright amazed me. I was nursing my second glass of Ben Nevis Blue Label, and my head was starting to spin. The rest of the bottle, plus a pair of ‘tots’ he’d drunk before I ordered the bottle, were all inside Jamie. But he raised the glass to his lips with hands as steady as mine, and drank a third of the glass in one slow swallow. When he lowered it, I made one final try at getting him to talk.

“So, Jamie, you were going to tell me about my great-grandmother…”
Bleary eyes fixed mine. “I was not! Why would I tell a Yank about the…” Jamie stopped, blushing and clearly flustered that he’d nearly said something he wasn’t supposed to. I decided to press my luck and see if I could bluff him.

“You were going to tell me about The Tree, the one that told my great-grandmother about the man she’d marry. So why don’t you start?”

Those blood-shot eyes widened, then narrowed. “Och, you’re jokin’. No outsider knows about The Tree.”

“But I do! My great-grandmother wrote about it in her diary, about how it told her she would meet the love of her life in London, at Paddington Station. All I’m asking for is a chance to go there, see The Tree, and maybe offer thanks for setting my ancestor on the right path. Is that wrong?”

Jamie’s eyes narrowed to thin strips, and I began to suspect he might have seen through my bluff. Then he shook his head and took another, deeper drink of whiskey before answering me. “Tha’ silly chit, writin’ somethin’ like tha’ down. No one outside of Banavie is ever supposed ta know ’bout the Prophesy Tree.”

So my guess was right. But he still hadn’t told me anything about the actual tree. Time to press it to the limit. “Well, she did, and I know about the Prophesy Tree. Would you be willing to take me there, so I can pay respects for my dead great-grandmother?”

That got a reaction from Jamie, not the one I’d expected. His eyes widened, and he recoiled like I’d just pulled a gun on him. “No, not in a million years!” He relaxed slightly and leaned forward to close the distance between us. I did the same, and he muttered. “”Sides, I dinna know where th’ tree is. Only ol’ MacGilleain knows where tis, an’ I don’ think ye kin get ‘im to tell ye.”

Jamie leaned back, glass in hand again, and drained its contents in a gulp. He placed it on the table like it were made of spun smoke, then with a drunken grin, pitched forward, unconscious before his face hit the wood between us. None of the other patrons seemed surprised by this, so I settled my tab, asked the bartender to arrange for Jamie to be taken home, and adjourned to my bed and breakfast.

How was I going to find someone based on their last name, even in a small town like this? My smart phone, when I queried it, came back with several people who had that name, but none of them lived in Banavie. One, though, did live nearby, and when I asked for directions to his house, I found it located in a small valley not far from the base of Ben Nevis. The map showed a road leading up to it, but based on the driving I’d done to date, that tiny, crooked yellow ribbon couldn’t be much more than a pave goat path. “Not something you should be tackling half drunk.” I told myself as I kicked off my shoes and lay down.

I’d planned to get undressed and take a shower before going to bed the night before. The rising late Summer Sun, slanting through my window, woke me. My head felt like a group of tiny men with huge hammers were inside it, trying desperately to beat their way out. The taste in my mouth was indescribable, like what I imagine having a herd of Highland cattle driven across your tongue might taste like. About the only plus was that my stomach showed no signs of rebelling, one of things I liked least about getting drunk.

Last nights clothing off, I got under the shower head and didn’t mind the time it took the water to warm. The initial icy downpour helped wake me the rest of the way up, and brought back what I’d learned the night before. Now, I had to find out of the MacGilleain my phone had found was the same one Jamie had hinted at. I scrubbed myself down, letting my mouth fill with water from the shower a couple of times to help rinse some of the foulness out of it. “Time I got ready to face the next stage of my search.”

#

The road that climbed away from the A82 was almost as bad as I’d imagined it to be. It wasn’t a paved goat path, but a single lane road, a narrow strip of pavement that followed a tortuous path through the bleakly beautiful Scottish hills. Here was not a place to take your eyes off the road to consult a phone for directions, so I was reduced to listening to the annoying voice telling me what to do.

“In fifty meter, turn left. In ten meters, turn right.”

No roads lead off the one I followed, making all those directions redundant. “To borrow the English line, would you sod off!” I growl at the senseless hunk of electronics. It ignores me, so I do what I can to tune it out. The road begins to climb, its back and forth rambling giving way a series of sweeping climbs up steep rocky hillsides, each one ending in a hair-pin turn. The sky begins to change as well. When I’d left Banavie, nothing beyond a scattering of clouds marred an otherwise perfect day. Now, with the mountains growing around me, the clouds joined into an uninterrupted deck of dark gray. Another turn, and the first raindrop spatters down on my windshield. It soon has plenty of company. The rain grows in intensity, becoming an unbroken sheet of that blocks out everything beyond a few hundred feet ahead. And still the road climbs.

I’m in the middle of nowhere, driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road with increasingly bad visibility. Is there another car coming down this narrow path? A moment’s break in the rain, and I find myself hoping there isn’t. Below me, just inches from the door, I have a view down the hill. I can see the road I’ve been climbing, a light snakelike path among the streaming rocks, and there is nothing to stop me from going over the edge. Opposite that terrifying view is a rough rock wall, a vertical slab of stone where the hillside has been carved away to make the road, and it is not much farther away than the drop. The rain closes about me, bringing both comfort and fear, and I continue my drive.

The rock wall grows lower, then drops away as I make a final turn onto a level space that stretches out of sight in the downpour. The road arrows into the center of that space, and I follow it, glad that I have encountered no other traffic. But now, my phone has gone silent, its annoying verbal barrage is no more. I slow to a stop and pick it up. It couldn’t be the battery, not with it plugged into the car. The screen shows the winding path I had come up, but according to it, I had yet to finish the climb. I tap the screen, and nothing happens. Closing the app, then opening it again brings the voice back, but now all it says is “Updating GPS, please wait.” over and over.

Outside, there is a final torrential rush of rain before it fades to drizzle. The road has climbed high enough that clouds surround me, leaving me as blind to my surroundings as when the rain poured down. My phone still complains that it can’t update its GPS system, and I decide to continue without it. I keep my speed low, for while there is no deadly drop-off, stout dry stone walls now outline the road, leaving little room to dodge oncoming traffic. The ground seems flat, but my inner ear insists I am driving up a slope. And the road continues on, with no diversions or branches.

A shape, indistinct, appears out of the mist, and I slow in hope of a house, of some sign of other humans. What I see was a house, but is no more. Rough stone walls rise from rank weeds. No trace of a roof remains. Empty holes, where once windows stood, flank a doorway that, incongruously, still holds a dark red door. I roll past the gap in the stone wall before that door and continue on, glad to put the desolate scene behind me.

The drizzle stops, and while the fog remains thick, I catch an occasional hint of what is around me. Steep, rocky slopes rise on either hand to disappear into the clouds. A swift stream rushes down, swirling below the road as it passes over a stone bridge with a weathered stone plaque bearing the date of 1823. A group of dirty white shapes stand in the grass beyond the wall, sheep grazing in this damp and dismal place, but no sheppard accompanies them. And the road continues on.

My mind begins to wander. My great-grandmother had written many times of her homeland. She had described the mist-shrouded mountains, but her words had made them feel like home. For me, who had grown up on the flat plains of the Midwest, they were an alien landscape, almost a scene from a nightmare. She had longed to see her native Highlands again, while I wanted nothing more than to find what I was looking for and get away from them.

The opening in the stone wall appeared and disappeared as I drove past it like the wall blinked. I step on the brakes, and the car skids, slewing to the left before coming to a stop. Reversing, I come before it. A pair of rough upright stones frame an opening hardly more than the width of the subcompact I’m in. Beyond it is a rutted path thick with weeds. There is no house visible, just the trail that disappears into the mist, but I know this is the path I must follow. How I know this I can’t say, but my heart tells me this is the path I must follow. I work the car around, line up, and drive through those gateposts with fractions to spare.

“Well, I was wondering when I’d end up on a paved goat path. Now, I’m on an unpaved one.” Telling myself that, with the weeds scrap the undercarriage, does nothing to improve my confidence that I’ll make it to where ever this road leads. At least there are no walls hemming me in, giving me hope that if I meet someone coming down this rutted excuse for a road, I’ll be able to get out of their way, A dark shape ahead resolves itself into a boulder the size of a garden shed, and the road jogs left to avoid it. It doesn’t go back in its original direction, but continues up an increasingly steep slope. The road becomes rougher, the ruts deeper. I hear a louder scrap from the underside of the car and know it’s not weeds hitting. No, it’s the central crown of the road, rising to the point where I’m barely clearing it, and ahead, things are worse.

I stop and get out to examine the ground around the road. Uphill, it feels solid, but downhill, my foot tries to sink in as soon as I put my weight on it. “Oh well, at least there’s enough room for me to get turned around on the solid side of the road.” I walk ahead and find my suspicions are correct. There are places where the crown of the road rises above the path by a distance that’s halfway to my knees. So I can get turned around and go back, but I can’t go forward, at least not in the car. But I still feel the impulse to follow this road, and rather than listen to reason, I decide to listen to my heart. The car humps across the crown as I crank the steering wheel all the way around and give it some gas. Three back-and-forth cuts and I’ve got it parked on the grassy shoulder facing downhill. I kill the engine, put the parking brake and emergency blinkers on before lock up.

The air is chilly, and seems to close around me like only a really dense fog does. I make my way to the road, my shoes soaking through from the dew on the grass. Down the hill, the weeds in the center of the road are sheered off inches from the ground. Uphill, beyond where they are beaten down by my turning around, they rise to my waist. No vehicle could come this way, not even a military Hummer, without leaving some sign of its passing. Yet I know without question that what I seek is at the end of this road. So I walk, through the fog that swirls around me, climbing ever higher, and wondering how far I will go before reaching my destination.

Long before I see it, I hear the rush and gurgle of water grow on my right. In the stark, silence-shrouded landscape, the sound of the normal world is welcome. Another dark shape grows before me, revealing itself to be a rock abutment, a bare heel of the surrounding hill that rises before me like a head-high cliff. Before it, the road bends again, a right turn far beyond a right angle. Now, the water does not rush, it roars. The rock fades into the mist, then returns. Before me, close beside the road, it rises in a vertical wall that disappears into the fog. A stream, strong with the recent rain, pours down, making a gray curtain that half covers the road. No way around it, not with the ground dropping away on the downhill side at an angle near vertical. All my surety that I was right were for this?

“So, this is what I came to find? A fucking gray rainbow on the side of a fucking Scottish hill?”

My words come back at me, a muffled echo from the rock before me, and I feel ashamed of myself. Great-grandmother walked this very road, and I have yet to complete the journey she succeeded in making. I walk towards the falling water and find the road continues beyond. I also see that provisions for those afoot have been made. A line of mossy, flat-topped stones rise from the stream feet from the drop-off, spaced to make a dry-footed crossing possible. I take them, one careful step at a time, feeling my feet shift with every movement. The fall is beside me, spray for it sprinkling, then running, down my neck.

A final step, and I’m across. The rock face the stream runs down drops back, a narrow beak of stone thrust from the hill behind it. Here the grass on the uphill slope ends at a stand of trees, huge shapes that peek through the fog and look as though they have stood since the hill arose. Is this what I seek? Does the tree my great-grandmother mentioned stand before me? No, I feel the same pull that has drawn me up this road. It is ahead of me, the thing I am looking for.

The road is no more, now it is nothing but a rough path through the grass and heather. Below me, the hill drops away less steeply, and my path no longer rises. The darkness begins to fade, and detail grow clearer, the fog begins to thin. I see a low structure ahead, but this is no rotting shell of a house. Whitewashed stone walls rise to a thick thatched roof. Windows, one with a candle burning behind it, fill their allotted openings. Smoke drifts towards me from the chimney, and I catch a whiff of earthiness born on the breeze. The door is black, an unadorned surface that might as well be a portal unto eternal night. It opens, allowing a thin stream of light to illuminate the flagstone walk leading to it, and through it steps a man. He is tall, stooping to pass through the low door, and while he carries a heavy wooden cane, his steps are firm and sure. His white hair is long and done in a single ponytail, the beard that hides most of his lower face is cropped short. None of that would be out of place in any of the Scottish towns I have passed through, but what would is his dress. He looks like someone fresh from central casting, a Highlander of ages past. A tartan cape, one I mistake for all black but as he comes closer I see is actually shot through with fine lines of yellow and green, covers his shoulders. He wears a loosely ruffled shirt over a kilt of the same dark tartan pattern, and white socks, or hose, rise to his knees from heavy square-toed shoes. Our eyes are the same height, and as his fix on me, and I feel as though he is looking inside me, not at me. He smiles, holds out his hand, and addresses me.

Beannachdan, coigreach, agus fàilte.”

I take his hand, and find his grip firm. Umm, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand you. Do you speak English?”

I feel like an idiot even as I speak, but the smile never fades. “Och, I can, but I ha’ hopes ye might know the Scottish. Ah well, I won’t ask what brings ye here. You were drawn here, weren’t ye?”

“No, I came here because of something I read in a diary.”

His eyes narrow slightly, and I know he can see I’m not telling the whole truth. “Oh, tha’s wha set you on the road, but tha’s not wha drew you here, is it? I’ll wager you didn’t read how to get here in tha’ diary, nor did it keep ye going when it looked like ye’d walked inta th’ middle of nowhere. Am I wrong?”

“No, you’re not. But how…”

The man gives me a sly wink. “You were touched by th’ Tree, weren’t you? Not you, precisely, but someone in your past.”

I nod, suddenly unsure of what I’ve walked into. He lets go of my hand and turns towards the house. “Well, come inside so ye can tell me the story in the dry. Fog like this only thins out when th rain’s about to come pouring down. So let’s sit someplace warm while ye tell me everything.”

I follow him up the walk, lowering my head as does to avoid the low door sill. Up close, the door is not plain. Upon it is an ornate knocker in the shape of a tree. Made of dull iron, the leafy boughs form an anchor plate, tapering down to a pair arms that are split above their joining with the trunk by hinges. The trunk hangs down to end in a spread of roots that serves as the handle. No rust defaces the mechanism, but the impression is of great age, as though it has hung here as long as the giant trees I glimpsed earlier. The inside of the house is warm and welcoming after my walk, and there is no sign of modern technology anywhere. The sole source of warmth is the fireplace, and it gives off no more than a dull light. A pair of candles flank a high-backed chair, a small pool of illumination in a room filled with shadows. It is into that chair that my host settles. He waves towards a small table.

Bring a chair, an’ sit yerself down by th fire. There’s more peat in th basket, feel free to throw nother sod on th fire if ye‘re feeling th chill.”

The chairs about the table are straight-backed, their wood grown dark with age, made smooth by use. I draw one to the fireside, see wickerwork basket sized for a large family filled with shaggy brown bricks, and pick one up. It is surprisingly light, and as it crumbles in my hand, the scent from the smoke outside rises to greet me. I lay it atop others already on the grate and settle myself facing the old man. He watches me, waiting, it seems, for me to speak. So I oblige him.

“You said the tree draws those who have been touched by it to them. What did you mean?”

He leans towards me, eyes locked on me. “Aye, a good first question. Those th tree favors with vision are forever linked to it, as are those who’s lives spring from that connection.” He tilts his head, first to one side, then the other, before nodding. “Ye‘re Annag MacRae child, aren’t you?” I kin see her in your eyes, and the shape of yer nose.

How would this man know what my great-grandmother looked like? There’s not a single photo of her in our whole family. “No, I’m her great-grand child. Annie is the name she’s remembered by, and she’s been dead nearly a hundred years now.”

The old man leans back, shaking his head. “A hundred years? Och, has it been so long in th world outside? But no mind. The Tree’s drawn you back, as it does everone.”

Wait, wait, are you trying to tell me you knew Annie? That’s impossible! You might be old, but there’s no way you’re that old.”

But the old man smiles at me as he nods. “Aye, you’re right…I wa a hundred years old a’fore Annag’s fathers-father wa even a hope in his father’s heart. Ive been here been far beyond all their lives, and until time itself stops, I will remain here.”

Are you telling me you’re immortal?”

The smile grows sly. “Ah, not ‘immortal’, at least not at first. I was a young man when I first touched The Tree and it granted me my sole vision. It showed me this house, this wee glen, and it showed me myself as I am now. I knew the moment I had the vision that I would see this place, and that here I would live far beyond the span of mortal men.”

Now I was confused. “You said the Tree ‘showed’ you this place…but isn’t the Tree here?”

“Oh, it is, yes, right here, not far from us at all.”

“Then how could it have shown you this place if it’s already here?”

The old man threw his head back and let out a laugh that shook the candle flames on either side of him. He continued, until with a slap to his knobby bare knee, he wiped his eyes and spoke to me again. “The Tree’s here because I brought it here, ye young fool. De I have ta spell it out for ya?”

But it’s not here! I saw the only trees, yet the feeling that drew me here drew me beyond them. So where is this mystical Tree?”

The old man rolls up first one sleeve, then the other. The arms under them are pocked with white scars, ranging from snowy freckles near his wrist to larger, ugly circles and lines farther up. “I earned each o’ these, at me own forge. I wa’ considered th’ best smith in all the glens, and one night I wa’ woke by a sound like thunder, but there wa’ never a drop o’ rain. Th’ next day, my laird came round. He had a black rock th’ size o’ me head, an’ said it’d felled a yew tree a’fore his house. He thought it were iron, and he wanted me to make it into a sword. He thought anything tha could cleave a yew could do th’ same to a man.” He shakes his head, eyes unfocused. “The MacLoed he wa’, an’ he wa’ a man o’ blood. I knew before I touched it tha’ MacLoed would use th sword I made ta start a feud wi’ one a’ the neighborin’ clans. He were ne’er happy wi’ just the few glens he ruled. His father wa’ wi’ The Bruce, an’ MacLoed always thought his father should’a been given more when The Bruce came to th’ throne. Then he laid it in me hands, an’ I saw it. My future. Bu’ I knew I could’na just walk away from the like of MacLoed. So I promised him a sword, an’ I made one too…just not fra’ his precious rock. He took’t ta raidin’, an’ one o’ th’ Campbell clan cut him down like a stalk o’ rye.”

The pieces dropped into place, and I looked towards the front door of the cottage. “So the Tree is…”

“Aye, it’s me knocker. I thought it fittin’ ta turn it inta a tree, wha’ wi’ it havin’ felled one. Those as ha’ the courage ha’ come here since, to speak ta me, thinkin’ I know where th’ tree is. Th’ Tree decides, or maybe Fate, who’re blessed with a vision. If they’re ta ha’ a vision, they use th’ knocker; if not, they beat on the door ’til I tell’em ta sod off.”

It made an almost cruel sort of sense, but I was left with a singular question. “But that doesn’t explain how you’ve lived all this time. My great-grandmother lived a long life for her time, but she barely passed the biblical ‘three-score-and-ten’. What’s kept you alive all this time?”

I dinna know. I think time runs a bit different in this glen. Ta me, it feels like Annag wa’ here just a few days ago. I know th’ trees near ne’er drop their leaves, bu’ when I came here ta build me cot, they acted like normal trees. Maybe me Tree does som’thin’ ta time.” He stops, looks me over again. “Ye’ve ne’er asked ta touch it, I see. Why is tha’, I wonder.”

Now that the puzzle was solved, now that I knew what had taken my ancestor away from here native land, I found myself uneasy. Not just with the idea that a piece of meteorite might have the power to grant a person a vision of their future, but with this entire house and everything about it. Especially the ancient man in front of me. He continues to watch me, waiting in silence for what I will say, what I will do, next. And all I want to do is run. I want away from this place, from this timeless man and this piece of Scotland that feels frozen in time.

I…just wanted to find out why my ancestor ended up in America, what drove her to leave her home. And I have.” I stand far quicker than I’d intended, the panic in the back of my mind taking hold, driving my impulse to fly from this cottage. I fight down the urge to run for the door. “Thank you for your help, and for your hospitality, but I’ve taken enough of your time. Good day, Mr. MacGilleain.” I don’t offer him my hand, I walk to the door as swiftly as I can without breaking into a run.

Outside, the sky is clear and the Sun has set. Both the flags and grass are dry, the latter with that dusty coating that speaks of a long period of dry weather. But it had all been damp when I’d entered the cottage. I strike the path down the hill, only to find that the waterfall is now little more than a trickle over the upper rock face. Below it, the stream bed shows fresh growth, as though the surrounding vegetation has taken sudden advantage of the lack of flowing water to expand into the stream bed. A single, none-too-long step carries me across the stream without the need for the stepping stone, and I let myself break into a trot, hoping to escape this place.

In the fading light, the weeds in the middle of the road look wilted, as though they have endured a long drought. I make the turn that carries the road downhill, but when I reach the spot where I am sure I left the car, I find nothing. I keep going, sure I will find it eventually, but I don’t. As the last light is leaving the midnight blue sky, I come to the road. It is strange, not the tarmac I remember driving, but an absolutely smooth surface like a continuous sheet of gray plastic. It’s miles to the A82, so far I’m not sure I could cover the distance if I pushed myself through the night. I’m tempted to sit down and wait for a passing car, but waiting for a ride on this deserted stretch of road seems like the definition of a forlorn hope. And more than anything, I want away from here. So I begin walking down the middle of the road, sure that I’ll see, or at least hear, any vehicle before it become a hazard. The Moon begins to rise, casting a pale light over the scenery around me. Then I hear something. I whistling sound unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It seems to be behind me, but what it is, I can’t tell. It grows stronger, like it were approaching, but I see no lights, not a sign of a vehicle approaching. Then, I catch a glint of moonlight reflecting off something. Another, closer, and as my mind begins to realize something is coming down the road at me, a dark shape appears. I have a moment to marvel at how fast, and how silently, it is moving, then I feel it hit me. There is a moment’s pain, then it disappears and I am left to marvel at how the starry sky seems to wheel over me before I hit the ground, and all sense leaves me.

#

Ian knew he should have had his pod’s onboard sensors fixed, but the malfunctioning ones were only for night-time use, and he rarely drove after dark. So here he was, stopped in the dark, sitting in the middle of the glide-road between Banavie and Torcastle because he’d run late leaving Torcastle. Without the radar and other navigation sensors, the pod hadn’t detected…whatever the hell it was Ian had hit. But did he really want to get out and see what he’d run into. Modern paint carried taggers, so the farmer who’d lost a sheep would know who’s pod had killed it. And because he’d left the scene of an accident involving destruction of property, Ian would face charges. Worse, his pod would be inspected, and when it was found he’d been operating it without all the safety equipment working, his problems would get exponentially worse.

Open access port.” he commanded, and the pod obeyed, letting in the cool outside air. There was a torch under the seat, and he withdrew it before examining the front. Ian blessed his luck that there weren’t any pieces of sheep or any other animal smeared across the leading edge, then began retracing the pod’s path. Maglev vehicles could stop quickly, and Ian had gone only a few steps before he saw the shoe. It was an old-fashioned one, something he remembered his father favoring known as a ‘trainer’. It was in the middle of the road, and Ian’s blood ran cold. Had he struck a person? Pods were supposed to be designed to cue in on humans and do everything possible to keep from hitting them. But what if more than just his radar and front lights were malfunctioning?

Ian swept his torch beam around, hoping against hope that he would see nothing. What he did see, when the beam of light played across it, looked like a bundle of old clothing thrown against the dry stone wall beside the road. Then he saw the blood, and his stomach betrayed him. Doubling over, he heaved, then again, and supper came spewing out his mouth. Another clinch of muscles, and more of his stomach’s contents splattered on the guideway. A third time, and all that came out was a thin stream of foul-tasting liquid. Ian spit, trying to get the taste out of his mouth, then raised his wrist to his mouth. “Call the police, emergency number.” The phone/browser/tracker sputtered, ticeshen replied. “Calling emergency services.” The double-chirp of the phone ringing came clear in the still night air, then the too polite female voice of an automated system answered. “This is Torcastle Emergency Services, how may I help you?”

I need to speak to an officer.”

Did you say need to speak to an officer?”
Ian fought the desire to scream at the phone. “Yes, I need to speak to an officer. I’ve had an accident on the Banavie-Torcastle secondary guideway…I think I might have struck a pedestrian.”

There was a silence, then a loud click followed by a bored voice. “This is Constable Owens. Did you say you’d struck a pedestrian?”

Yes, officer, I did…and I think he might killed them.”

The voice, when it replied, had not a trace of boredom in it. “I have your location and your identity entered, so if you attempt to flee, you’ll be regarded as a wanted fugitive in a felony criminal act. I’ve dispatched one of our patrol pods, it should be there momentarily. While we wait, I need you to answer a few questions.”

The questions were what Ian had expected: What had he been doing at the time of the accident? Had he overridden the pod’s safety protocols? Had he been aware that operating a pod with faulty sensors was a punishable offense? Constable Owens was telling him the time he faced for the charges hed already admitted to when Ian spotted the flashing blue lights of the patrol pod boring through the night. Like all other emergency service vehicles, the patrol pod wasn’t bound by the speed limits other vehicles were. Ian felt the pressure wave it generated buffet him as the craft came to a stop a scant two meters from him. Its access panel opened, and a young woman climbed out, adjusting the archaic but still regulation hat on her head as she approached him.

I’m Patrol Officer Morris. I take it you’re Ian Ivers?”

Yes, Officer. The man I struck is over there. I haven’t approached him, but I haven’t heard him move. Is he dead?”

I don’t know, but for now, I’m placing you under arrest for vehicular manslaughter. Please turn away from me and put your hands behind your back.”

Ian did as he was told and felt the cold metal of the restraints close around his wrists. “By law, I must warn you that if you attempt to flee, the restraints will deliver a shock strong enough to disable you if you exceed five meters distance from me. I must also warn you that I can activate the shock system if I feel you are acting in a threatening manner. Do you understand these warnings?”

Yes, officer, but if I’d intended to flee, why would I have called emergency services?”

I can’t speculate as to your actions or motives, sir, I’m just here to gather facts.” Her tracker had a small torch in it, and she shone this towards where Ian knew the body lay. When she found it, she extinguished the light and spoke into her tracker. “This is Officer Theresa Morris, ID 772, requesting the dispatch of a crime scene unit to my GPS location. Vehicular manslaughter, one victim.” She tapped the face of the tracker, then did it again. “Victim either does not have a tracker, or the unit was damaged in the accident. I shall make a preliminary examination to try to get an ID, so tell the technicians they’ll have to screen for my DNA on the victim. Stand by, Central.”

Ian watched the officer as she turned her light back on and approached the still form. In the quiet night air, he could hear everything she said to her listening colleagues. “Victim does not appear to be wearing a tracker, and there is no evidence of one near the body.” He saw her reach out and pull the body over, then saw her let it fall back. “Face is too badly damaged to use for recognition purposes. I will search the body for any identifying marks or distinctive items.”

The silence stretched longer this time as the officer searched the body. She stopped at a bulge in the rear trouser pocket. “Central, the victim is carrying an old-fashioned wallet.” She opened it and began rifling through its contents. “Victim has paper money, old-fashioned English pound notes! There’s an ID of some sort here, give me a second to extract it.”

Ian could understand the surprise. Scotland had declared independence from England twenty years ago, and even in England, nobody used physical money anymore. Where had this man come from? He got part of his answer as the officer read the ID she’d found.

The victim has what looks like an old-fashioned American state drivers license, dated as issued in 2019. It was issued by the state of Iowa, in the name of Paul Armando Sanchez, who resided at 328 South Central Street, in the city of Carswells Corner.”

For the first time, the tracker squawked out a reply. “Repeat, did you say your victim was carrying the identification of Paul Armando Sanchez?”

Yes sir, and while his face is a bit too much of a mess to make an ID from the photo, the description on the license matches the body. Why do you ask?”

Because, Officer Morris, you may have solved a missing person case that’s been on the books for over 60 years. Mr. Sanchez was reported missing in 2019, and his rental car was found less than a kilometer from your current coordinates. I wonder where the old boy’s been hiding all these years…and how a man that old could have stumbled into a guideway in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.”

Ian had gotten a good enough look at the body to know the dead man wasn’t much older than he was. Officer Morris clearly felt the same way.

Central, I don’t know who this is, but it can’t possibly be a man who’d be, what, at least 98 years old. The victim appears to be a man in his early thirties, if dressed a bit oddly.”

What do you mean? Describe how the victim is dressed.”

The light played over Sanchez’s still form. “White, I think they called them polo shirts, blue jeans that look as though they’re less than a year old and black laced cloth shoes…didn’t they used to call them ‘trainers’?”

The voice from Central did not respond immediately, but when it did, Ian could hear the anger in it. “Officer Morris, have you been reading the case file on this disappearance?”

No,sir, I haven’t!”

There was a sigh from the tracker. “Then maybe you can explain how your description is a words-for-word match to the description given by the last person to see Mr. Sanchez alive. Never mind. Just stay there, guard your prisoner, and hope the lab techs can sort out how a man can be missing all this time and not age a day.”

Echoes of the past

“…and so, honored mother, I hope you will know that I keep you always in my thoughts and prayers. I hope I remain always in your heart and prayers as well. Your son, Julius Maximius Gabinius”

Claudia Upton looked up from reading the translation to scrutinize the man who had picking it from the mud-soaked, decaying original text. Paul Sanchez had a face that could have been lifted from a Roman mosaic. Dark hair over an unlined, olive-colored face with none of the Mesoamerican features that so often marked those of Hispanic background. Well, the Romans were in Spain and the Iberian for centuries. Perhaps he’s a genetic fluke, a reversion to an ancestral appearance. Those dark, almost black eyes watched her, and she sensed he was waiting for her comments on his translation.

“It’s an excellent translation, Mr. Sanchez. You clearly have a good grasp of Latin. Could I ask you where you studied?”

A smile began to appear on the otherwise impassive face before her. Then it vanished, replaced by the same mask-like appearance that Sanchez always wore when he was around her. “Oh, I studied at home. My father and mother both knew Latin, and they insisted I should be at least slightly fluent in it.”

Claudia knew a snow job when she was being subjected to one, but this wasn’t the time to confront Sanchez about his surprising fluency in a dead language. She was just glad to have someone who could make sense of the badly-decomposed messages Claudia had recovered from a German bog over a decade ago. “Well, you definitely surpassed their expectations. I can read Latin without translating in my head, and even I couldn’t make anything of my find.”

Paullus Lucius Decimus looked across the desk at the young scholar. Needing some extra cash, he’d seen the online ad looking for someone to translate Latin text and been glad for the chance to make money reading his native language. What had caught him off-guard was what he was translating: messages he had written himself over two thousand years ago. As one of the more literate members of his cohort, Paullus had often been asked to write letters home for others. He even remembered the messenger who had been charged with taking the letters home to Rome…and wasn’t surprised to find that they’d been thrown in a bog. Atticus Erucius had been a slippery little shit, more inclined to informing on his fellows than fighting in the ranks. Paullus had never figured out who’s ass he’d kissed to be assignment to carry mail to Rome, but if not for that bit of foresighted butt worship, he’d have been slaughtered like the rest of Legio XIX by the Germans.

Paullus still had nightmares of that time, and they’d gotten worse since he’d taken the translation job. Just the night before, he’d bolted awake from a dream of those dark, stinking bogs so vivid he could have sworn he smelled them in his small apartment. Just reflecting on that moment brought other memories forward, things that made remembering a bog filled with screaming, dying legionnaires seem pleasant.

Are you all right, Mr. Sanchez?”

She was watching him, staring as if she could see the images of death and suffering that hung in front of him. His father had been of the Stoic school, and had enforced his ideas of a proper, impassive visage on his son with a well-wielded switch. To know that he had let himself slip more than embarrassed Paullus, it angered him deeply.

Claudia, watching the man sitting across from her, saw the mask drop away. Sanchez’s face went from its natural darkness to a gray pallor like someone an inch from death. Lines that hadn’t been apparent before became pronounced, giving him the appearance of an ancient. Then, his color returned, but not with a healthy evenness. No, this was the blotchy flush of someone deeply embarrassed…or very angry. Oh, very angry indeed, but why? The eyes that had given away nothing of the inner man were now narrow, hard openings into another person, one that frightened Claudia. Then, like a man forcing a door to another side of his soul closed, Sanchez’s face resumed its calm appearance. Claudia wasn’t fooled by the change, she knew that Paul Sanchez was not someone she would want angry at her.

“I’m fine, Ms. Upton. If I might ask, where did you find the text I translated?”

“I pulled them out of a former bog in Germany. A hiker saw some corroded metal beside a trail and thought it might be part of a bomb intended for Hannover. The German Army EOD team that came to investigate recognized it was too old to be from WWII and contacted the local university. I was studying there at the time and ended up being part of the team that went out to study the find. Turned out to be part of a Roman helmet, and my clump of peat-soaked messages was found nearby.”

Maybe Sanchez sensed her unease, because his body relaxed visibly as he spoke. “So you found a helmet with your mail. Kind of odd to find a single piece of armor, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, we found the remnants of an entire suit of Roman armor…and the person who’d been wearing it too. My German colleagues thought he might have lost his way trying to find his way through the bog. However he came to be there, these messages give us an insight into what life was like for soldiers serving on Rome’s farthest frontier.”

“’And we will know them by the things they leave behind.’ Is that what you’re saying?”

Claudia didn’t recognize the quote, but it was quite apt. “Precisely. After all, until some mad physicist invents a time machine, that’s all we have. I mean it’s not like I can sit a legionnaire down and interview them, can I?” She started searching her desk, digging through the piles of papers and folder before finding what she was searching for. She pulled the battered folder out and extended it to Sanchez. “Now that you’ve shown you can make sense of one of my messages, I want you to tackle this. It’s the prize of my messages, the one I really want translated.”

Paullus took the thin folder of reproductions and flipped it open. He understood her not trusting a stranger with the originals, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had the original documents in front of him. Would they carry the same stink of cold rot he remember so vividly from the bogs? So you weren’t the coward I imagined you were, Atticus? I’ll remember you in my prayers to Mars tonight, and hope the War God grants your spirit rest.

Aloud, he spoke in a different voice, in a language far removed from the plebeian Latin that was his mother tongue. “No, you can’t talk to a legionnaire, can you?” Then his voice caught in his throat. He recognized the scrawled Latin script before him, even if he’d only read it once before. It was the handwriting of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the political hack who’d sent so many of Paullus’ fellow legionnaires to their deaths. Willing his voice to be as calm as his as his face, Paullus continued. “It might take me a little longer than the first letter. I don’t know who wrote this, but their penmanship is terrible.”

“I know! But look at the next page…this is a letter home from Varus, the man who commanded the legions the Germans beat at Teutoburg. I was able to pick that much of it out, but with these eyes,” she gestures at the thick glasses that magnified to huge proportions, “that’s all I can make of it.” She smiled. “I’m willing to pay extra…call it ‘hazard pay’ for dealing with his terrible handwriting.”

Did Paullus want to read the inner thoughts of the man who’s incompetence led to the death of three whole legions, over 16,000 men? Paullus flipped to folder shut. He’d spent over two thousand years wishing Varus resided in the hottest fires in the Christian Hell, but he still needed money. “Well, as a poor, itinerant Latin scholar, I feel I should take you up on your offer of extra pay. Now, how much

extra are we talking about?”

Paullus enjoyed the dickering that followed. In a way, it was comforting that no matter the age, humans always sought the best deal. Now, alone in his rooms, he found himself hesitating. Almost every legionnaire had known Arminius was not to be trusted. The German auxiliaries that had stayed loyal tried to warn Varus of treachery, but neither he, nor any of the other commanders, had listened. What would Varus have to say? Had he been as clueless as Paullus always thought? There was no way to know but to begin reading. The desk he sat at, like every other item in his apartment, as someone else’s cast off. Some bored child had crudely carved “Billie, age 12, 1949” in the upper left corner, but it did the job. He toggled the switch on the magnifier, and its circular florescence bulb flickered to life, bringing the text beneath it into sharp relief. Paullus leaned over it, focusing on the first line and began to read.

“My Dear Wife…”

#

Paullus leaned back, stretched, and scrubbed his eyes. Immortality had saved him from death more times than he could remember, but it didn’t stop his body from aching after spending hours hunched over a piece of paper. Now, after twenty days struggling to understand what was written on those pages, he knew what Varus had meant to communicate. And what he had learned opened his eyes in ways nothing had before. He picked up his notes, the Latin script as neat now as it had been all those centuries before, and ran through Varus’ final message.

“My Dear Wife,

I write you because I know that if we ever see each other again, it will be in Elysium. I wish I could see you again, to hold you and our children one final time, but that is not to be. In my folly, I trusted Arminius, and he has betrayed that trust. I have learned that he intends to attack my legions, hoping he can rally enough warriors to his cause to overwhelm us. He has the advantage of knowing the land, and its people, while all I have is my confidence in the courage and training of my legionnaires. I know that I have no chance to prevailing, but if I were to run, what would become of me, of our family? So I will stay, and fight, to give what honor I can to you and our children.

Know that while I will die looking forward to our reunion, I hope that happy event is many years away. So live, my beloved wife, and keep my memory alive in our children’s hearts. I will not ask you to keep it alive in your heart, because I know it will never die there. Until we meet again, may Jupiter, Minerva and all the gods keep you always in their care.

Your husband,

Publius Quinctilius Varus”

It all made sense now. By dying rather than running, Varus saved his family from the humiliation of cowardice in the face of the enemy. But even knowing why he had done it did nothing to quell Paullus’ anger. No, it made that anger worse. No man’s honor was worth so many lives. But he had the letter copied, and once he’d translated it, he’d be paid…and getting paid was what it was all about. He glanced at the clock, and to his surprised, found it was 3AM.

“Sleep, I think, before translation. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish. Now, to bed.”

#

Claudia ran her hand across her eyes, wiping tears she hadn’t expected away. Sanchez’s notes, his detailed interpretation of what different words might be, were as good as anything she had seen . What those guesses and interpretations put together was heartbreaking, and the implications of Varus’ letter rewrote one of the most shocking defeats in history. She looked across her desk and found Sanchez watching her. The bland mask was in full force today, not even his eyes revealed what passed through his mind.

“Do you accept my translation, Ms. Upton? I’ll admit some of it’s guesswork, but put together, it all makes sense. Don’t you agree?”

I do. It’s also quite a story, which is why I wonder if anyone will take your translation seriously.” Claudia saw the eyes narrow and held up her hand. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t doubt you’ve done an excellent job translating the letter. I’m just saying that historians are not immune from fearing change, and this letter changes the whole narrative of Teutoburg.” She saw the man’s tension lessen, then with a smile, caught her by surprise.

“Fear of change has always been mankind’s greatest enemy. Perhaps if Rome hadn’t been so focused on victory, if they’d been willing to accept a fighting retreat, Varus might have found a way to bring his troops home instead of leading them to the slaughter.” Sanchez shook his head. “But all humans hate change, don’t they? Well, if you’re satisfied with my work, there is the vulgar matter of my fee…”

Claudia suppressed a chuckle at the old movie reference and opened the central drawer on her desk. She didn’t understand why Sanchez always demanded payment in cash, but she was happy to pay for this sort of quality. She pulled out the fat envelope holding his fee and passed it to him. “As agreed, sir. I’d like to offer you something more to express my thanks for your work. Would you mind if I listed you as a co-author when I submit the paper I intend to write based on this? I’m sure it would bring you more work, if you need more money.”

Sanchez was folding the envelope, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his khakis before responding. “Thank you for your kind offer, but no. I’ve been thinking of doing some traveling, and now I’ve enough money to actually do it. Perhaps after I return…”

“Oh, it’ll take me a couple months just to write the paper, then several more before any journal can do their peer-review before publishing. It might be as much as a year before it hits the in-boxes of anyone who would want to hire you.”

“In that case, I hope you’ll remember my services on the off chance that one of your peers asks for your translation recommendations.” Sanchez gave her a slight bow, not unlike some of her Japanese colleagues sometime would. Then, almost as if he were catching himself in something he shouldn’t do, he straightened and held out his hand. She took it, finding the hand that closed around hers hard, the grip strong. It had nothing of most men’s handshake, that attempted to convey strength without being obvious. No, the fingers that enclosed hers could just as easily close around her throat, or snap her neck, and Sanchez made no effort to hide the fact.

“I’d be happy to recommend you to anyone who needs your services, sir, and I hope you enjoy your vacation.”

Sanchez left, and Claudia began going over his notes, taking in the details of his deductive process. Yes, he’s got an exceptionally detail-oriented mind. Maybe a mild case of ADHD? She picked up another laser-printed block to text, and found something unexpected beneath it. It was a page covered in handwritten notes…notes not in English, but in the so-called rustic Latin. They had none of the hesitation of a person trying to copy a style, no, this was the flowing script of someone who wrote in the language. She saw a letter, then another one, and knew she’d seen them before. That same shape, the way the bar was formed on the “f”, but where? It couldn’t be…. Claudia dug into her notes, found the copies of the first text she’d had Sanchez translate. She rooted in her desk, found the magnifying glass she used these days, and examined the copy. The “f” was the same, right down to that odd little flick on the end of the bar. She examined the rest of the copy, going back and forth between it and Sanchez’s notes, finding more and more similarities with each examination.

Claudia leaned back, letting herself smile even as a chill of pure terror ran through her body. “I guess I could have interviewed a legionnaire…if he didn’t decide to kill me afterwards to keep his secret.” She stared at the door to her office, wondering if Sanchez might have seen the legions march away from Rome to their doom. Did the echoes of that long ago tragedy explain some of what she’d seen?

And what of Sanchez? Would Claudia find him already gone if she went to the address he’d given? No, Sanchez, or whatever his real name was, had lived a long life. She had no doubt that the vacation he’d spoken of was some way to disappear. “Good luck to you, whomever you are. The world must be becoming a much more hostile place for a man like you.”