Copyright © John Shannon, 2003
Lt. Ken Steelyard took a sip of Calvados and bent over the lovely 4-8-4 GS-4 Daylight locomotive in its Southern Pacific colors (he had an identical one in the more austere black and graphite "war baby" colors from World War II). He adjusted his grip minutely on the pencil tip soldering iron as he silver-soldered a tiny grab bar onto the cab. The western half of his HO layout was all steam era, but the eastern half--colonizing the rest of his immense basement--was so up-to-date he'd had to repaint all the AT&SF diesels to say Burlington Northern Santa Fe after the merger. The tracks all joined up at a sort of surreal fold in time, which occasionally sent a sleek diesel rocketing out of a contemporary suburb and through a small stretch of grazing chaparral into an Old West town. Such anachronism didn't bother him in the least. The trains had already cost him two wives and a lot of random grief at Harbor Police Station, so a little more annoyance suited him fine.
His cell phone hooted its pale imitation of a two-note diesel airhorn from where it lay on the workbench. He scowled.
"Detective, sorry to interrupt there. I know you're probably about to come around Deadeye Bend on full steam, but the sheriff's guys got some bad kid trouble just over the line in PV. They're saying, like a 207. They're goths, you know, those high school kids who all try to look like Count Dracula."
"Let the County guys sort it out."
"The missing kid lives in town. In fact, all of them do, so Higher thought we ought to take it."
He got the location and hung up. No sense moaning about it. His partner Gloria was off sick, too, getting a benign lump cut out of her breast, and he'd have to open the book by himself. He finished the Calvados before unplugging the soldering iron. Once it was poured it was spoken for.
Jack Liffey opened one eye from his nap, took a moment to wrench himself bodily out of the baffling foreign city that had sucked him down into its confusion and guilt, almost hearing a pop as he reemerged into his ordinary bedroom. He glared at the green oxygen cylinder by the bed. He had come to hate it for what it reminded him of, but he reached for the mask and cranked off a whiff. He was short one lung for now and a gulp of pure O2 was like a quick pick-me-up of single-malt scotch. Though the comparison was merely a memory. He hadn't had a drink in years.
"Hon, you okay?"
"I just had one of those energy flags. How long have I been down?"
"Almost an hour."
Rebecca Plumkill lowered herself gently beside him and ran her fingers lightly on his arm. "You've got an appointment with Auslander at 2."
"Can I have a wisdom tooth out instead?"
She chuckled and ruffled his hair. He closed his eyes and pressed his head against her hand like a pet.
"I really appreciate you, Beck."
The calamity that had left him with a collapsed lung and as weak as a kitten had also reinforced what seemed to be a slow-burning nervous breakdown, and he was astonished Rebecca had stayed with him through it all. Dicky Auslander was a shrink, and Jack Liffey didn't get along very well with him, but he was an M.D., too, and the only access to the pills that kept him from a lot worse. His normal life, for whatever that phrase was worth, was tracking down missing children and he hadn't been able to get back to that for several months now.
"You're still pretty good in bed, even if you're not much good for anything else."
"I can make a farting sound with my underarm," he boasted.
"And you still make me laugh," she said. "No woman asks for more than that."
"A lot have, believe me."
The phone on the bedside table rang, and Rebecca Plumkill answered it. She made a long face, reluctantly divulged that Jack Liffey was there, and then listened for a while with a dubious furrow across her brow. He gave insistent tugs on her skirt until she offered up a fatalistic shrug and handed him the receiver.
"Do I ever deny you?"
"Jacko, it's Art Castro. How you doon, amigo?"
"Every day a little better."
"Better than what?"
"That's the question all right. Better than a big hole in the ground. You know the Rule of Holes, Art?"
"When you're in one, stop digging. How about you? You back in the good graces?"
Art Castro worked for Rosewood, the big detective agency in town, and he had gotten in dutch with his bosses, basically for helping out Jack Liffey on a job that had slumped abruptly into a terrorist quagmire, bringing down a lot of guys in dark suits on the Rosewood offices.
"They had to let a couple operatives go, you know, for multipurpose ethics and stuff like that, but I finally have my old office back. I can see the outside world again. And I even get a visitor's chair."
"That's great. I felt a bit guilty." Jack Liffey noticed Rebecca Plumkill's eagle eye on him as he talked.
"A bit? That's rich, compa. You had me in the FBI office three times explaining why my third cousin once read a book about Ali Baba. But, hey, what's a little hard time between friends?"
"That's the attitude."
"Fact, I've got an absconded kid for you if you want the job. You're always good with the ones off on a religious bender."
He wondered if Rebecca could sense any change in his expression.
"This time it's Satanism, and the parents want to pay somebody to duel with the Old Serpent for the kid's soul."
"Most of that's just adult hysteria, Art. A kid draws a grinning devil on his schoolbook and the mom freaks."
"In this case the kid really seems to have joined up with an honest-to-God Church of Satan, with some anti-Pope up in San Francisco named Mad As Hell."
Jack Liffey laughed. "Sounds more like performance art. Can't do it, Art." He caught Rebecca's skeptical eye. "The powers that be say I'm not ready for work yet."
"Sorry to hear that. But I can dig it. Lately you seem to be leaving a big chunk of you behind on every job."
"The lung's just collapsed temporarily. It's having a little rest." But there was also a metal plate in his head, a rib with a titanium peg in it, a star-shaped scar on his shoulder and a bad Frankenstein stitch down one leg. "Thanks for the offer, though. If you get any tickets for the Pasadena Penguins, let me know."
It was an old joke between them. Jack Liffey pretty much hated all professional sports and referring to the non-existent Penguins was his usual way of changing the subject.
"It's off season for the 'Guins. Take care, Jacko."
He hung the phone up delicately with two hands.
"But you really wanted to take the job, didn't you?" Rebecca said huskily. She bent close to play erotically with a slight protrusion under the covers.
"What if there were no such thing as rhetorical questions?" Jack Liffey whispered in her ear.
Darkness before and darkness after and this pain in between. Why keep a journal, why record what I am belatedly learning? I only know others have done so and it is from them that I have learned how to take up the bow again. And how to act wholly within a code.
Father, to honor you finally I must become chiseled down.
I can see now that worthiness gradually wanes from the world, the slow decline of men's capacities. As the gold is used up, men settle for silver. And after the silver... what?
All those who know what I know and have been where I have been will be dead in another 30 years. Perhaps that 30 years is the limit of one historic period of moral stillness. I long for the stillness, the way I knew it once, night after day, within a forest blind, on a ridge overlooking paddies, braced in a tree beside a trail. All this comes back now as distraction, nostalgia, pointless wish. Yet--the smell and feel of the tropics, that mildewy undertone to all sensation, like a damp inbending of time and space to enclose one in calm. I miss the inner calm.
I know I have lost my edge. I must substitute a new code of being for the discipline of danger. No, substitute is not the word. The code will undergird everything, complete and define and perfect. My strength may not be sufficient, but it still buoys me above most of the pain.
Honor is all. Honor is salvation.
Before the first act today I did 500 pushups and tested my capacity for watchfulness for two hours, 15 minutes. My dozukuri was only partial. Thoughts came to me unbidden, distractions. I must eliminate one comfort from my life to see if I can get back some of my stillness. What should I give up? The bed, perhaps. Sleep tonight in the warehouse, on concrete, and sleep only half the night. No, better: tonight I will not sleep. I will find a place in the midst of distraction and remain mindful only of my breathing. Strength. Loyalty. Justice. Bravery.
Father, I know honor is all, but the pain is so great.