by Sharon ~
Alex Ross was much too aware of the movement of the waiters setting tables behind him to get any writing done, not when the clink of glasses and ting of silverware were more interesting than the blank page in front of him. Coming to Vargo’s in its off-hours usually produced solid stuff, but today, it just wasn’t happening,
He sat perched at the restaurant’s bar, a laptop to one side and an empty legal pad under hand. The pile of cigarettes, crumpled like little white barflies in the ashtray, could attest to his frustration. Alex didn’t dare turn on his laptop: there’d be an untold number of emails from his editors demanding the copy pronto. He’d stretched their patience enough.
Worse still, his gaze was beginning to drift on a regular basis to the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s on the shelf behind the bar. Not a good sign when the only available morale boost was liquor. Especially this early in the day. He was a hard drinker, but he had standards.
He glanced at his wristwatch: two-fifteen. Not so early, after all…had that much time passed since he came in? But Mia was due to meet him at five-thirty for an early meal, before the usual dinner crowd swamped the place. Alex knew what the look on her face would be if she saw he’d started without her.
Hell, that look was making a regular appearance, no matter what he did.
He lit another cigarette – what was one more to the testimony at his elbow? The last thing he needed right now was to think about Mia.
I should never have told her about going back into my movie…
Intelligent and focused, she had been keen to prove herself an asset to the Point, never quite satisfied. She’d begun visiting the Point because of her ex-boyfriend, Victor Rudolph, who’d discovered it through a more loyal fan of the Creator. Her knowledge of most of their origins was sparse. But once that relationship was over, her visits became more regular as Mia became more intent on Alex. The attraction was more physical than anything else. Alex didn’t mind. Mia was exotically beautiful and self-assured and it was easy to get caught up in her charms. That she was his connection was not particularly obvious, nor was any of it actually love. Too often, the physical took precedence. Even so, they seemed to get along and Alex was tired of keeping company with only his Brothers. It felt good to be the center of female attention.
And all was steady, until he woke up gasping one night, shuddering from the pall of a nightmare. Myra laid out cards of a nuclear nature that blew up once she completed the spread, Doc Ansell opened jars with dead fingers in them, and Diego yipped a warning as he sat down at his typewriter…which then turned into his bowl…and that disintegrated in his hands…slipped away…
One night of that and Mia comforted him. Two nights and she was concerned. Five nights and he went into his movie without telling her. He figured it was the best way to confront whatever new dreck was surfacing in his brain. When he returned, he found her sitting at his kitchen table, staring at the little scorched Nagasaki dish.
Is it really that hard to ignore the siren call? Mia asked of him when he confessed his whereabouts. She didn’t just pout. She stormed, quietly, in a way that he knew would get ugly if he didn’t reassure her.
About as hard as it is to say no to you, he joked to lighten the mood, but it didn’t work. Aw, c’mon. You can’t be jealous of Myra. She knows nothing of the Point. To her, the world is the movie and nothing else.
I think it’s that bowl, Mia suggested, her dark eyes narrowed in a way that made Alex wish he were under cover.
For some reason, that remark made him angry. Rarely did anyone at the Point, resident and visitor alike, ever question why he had the little souvenir with him. It was a way to remember his origins, to remember the truth of what he’d chosen to leave behind.
I just don’t understand why you still have it, is all, she said, in that casual way that meant it was not at all dismissed.
What do you think I should do with it? He asked, the tone in his voice approaching a storm.
Take it back in, Mia said, flatly.
Doesn’t work, he replied with a bitter taste in his mouth. A week later I’m back in. I have it here at the Point because it’s easier than going through my movie just to get it.
Well, that’s ridiculous, was all Mia could offer as consolation.
I’m not the only one who does this, you know, Alex said, defensively. Max has Scarto and Argento, Cort has his sheriff’s badge and gun, John Biebe, his hockey gear. Ask any of the Brothers. We all have our totems.
Well, I don’t see any of them mooning over their stuff the way you do over that bowl! Have you talked to any of them about it? Max? Cort? John?
I’m done talking about it, he replied, resolute.
Then we’ll have to think of something else, she said.
So deep was he in thought that he was surprised to hear a familiar voice call down from on high.
“Hey you! Alex!”
He looked up, momentarily confused, to sight the graceful bow of an orchestral balcony positioned above the dining room, a remnant of the days when bands were heard but not seen. Its carefully renovated and revarnished wood had been adorned with fairy lights and faux plants, but above all that hung a face he’d not seen in awhile: Stephanie Girardeau, the good doctor’s wife. She leant on the rail and smiled down at him with pleasure.
“How are ya, Steph?”
“Boy, I tell you what, it’s been a while,” she remarked and made a general gesture to indicate the restaurant. “This is my first time back since the Wine Festival and…wow! Just gorgeous!”
Alex glanced around to appraise the surroundings with her. The dining hall of the restaurant was actually an old ball room set apart from the Hotel, a vintage glass and mosaic beauty from the turn of the 20th century. It had seen neglect and disuse as the Point expanded and developed new venues for visitors and Brothers alike. Then, Adalia arrived and the old building caught her eye. Once she became settled in as the new head chef, she decided to flex her own creative muscle and adopt the place as a signatory restaurant. She refurbished until it glittered with white walls, restored black and white mosaic flooring, white Victorian moulding, beveled mirrors, and cut glass French doors. Then, she named it after a cherished mentor and master chef, Albert Vargo, whose culinary influence could be experienced through its wood char grill and international cuisine. It became a near instant hit at the Point and points beyond.
“Been that busy, huh?” he asked.
“I have,” Stephanie grinned. “I’m kinda excited now because Anthony and I are having dinner here tonight. I’d heard about Vargo’s opening from Tina but just couldn’t ever make it over to see.”
“How long has it been?”
“Six months, can you believe it?”
“The restaurant opened five months ago. The chain gang had you penned up that long?”
“Oh, between Molly’s soccer games, the twin’s T-ball, a kid in kindergarten and a toddler, I’m lucky if I can make it out of the house with the right child, much less visit the Point. And then there’s family in other parts of the country, a trip to Disney World. Hang on…I’m comin’ down there…”
Within minutes, Stephanie joined him at the bar. “Amazing what a few coats of paint and a change of light can do for a place,” she said after they hugged.
“Yeah, it’s been a big hit, especially with all the Crossers,” Alex informed her. “But the other restaurants have been practically dead. Adalia’s had to scramble to keep them balanced.”
“Is that so?” Stephanie asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Soooo…um, tell me…does my favorite Old Republic Jedi† still come around, then?”
Alex grinned back at her, amused. Seemed like all the ladies at the Point had at least one Crosser they’d spent time with before discovering the Point. A lot of those Crossers managed to find their way, as well.
“He was gone awhile…but showed back up the other night. One of the patrons got a little too enthusiastic and before we knew it, ol’ Ben was reenacting the Cantina scene. You know the one…where he cuts off someone’s arm? No one lost a thing,” he added quickly, at Stephanie’s gasp, “but in the end, Indy’s whip was fried, Faramir was begging Eowyn to put away her sword, and Don Corleone tried to make Ben an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
“What a mess!” Stephanie shook her head in mock surprise.
“Should’a seen the look on his face when Obi Wan held up the lightsabre and said ‘this is not the shiv you’re looking for.’ “
“Ha ha ha! I love it! Just another day at the Point.”
“So is that what you came down to ask me?” he teased, as he lit another cigarette. “Not ‘how’s the food, Alex?’ or ‘you never call, Alex,’ or my favorite: ‘where’s my money, Alex’?”
“How are you, Alex?” Stephanie gamely asked.
“I got no kick.”
“I thought you’d be out on one of Bud’s investigations or with Cal tracking a beat or whatever it is you roving reporters do,” she said.
“Not this time. A writer’s gotta write,” he replied, and held up the tablet.
“You’ve been busy,” she noted.
“I have a few things I’m editing for an online blog, and a couple of articles. Bread and butter for my bread and butter.”
“Seriously, Alex, is life treating you okay?”
“I’m good,” he assured her, but frowned slightly at the sudden question. What was this about? “I have people keeping me on my toes.”
“Female people,” he smirked.
“Any particular female people?”
“Tina, Adalia, Savannah, Siobhan, you….”
“Liar,” she accused as she laughed.
“Others,” he added.
“Uh-huh. Sooooo…who is she, Alex? Is she that woman you were with at the Wine Festival? And are there wedding bells in the future?”
“Her name’s Mia Ahlberg. Here,” he said and pulled out his cell phone to show her a picture. They’d picnicked on the beach and their hair blew in their faces, but Mia maintained a certain cool, collected appearance in spite of it all. “She’s some kind of social director, I forget where,” he added. “And no, no wedding bells. Life’s complicated enough.”
“That’s true,” Stephanie agreed. “Well, she’s beautiful. Maybe we can have dinner together, then?”
“Sure,” Alex replied, and was about to slip the phone back into his jacket pocket when it went off.
For some reason, the number looked vaguely familiar. Knowing his luck, it was probably an editor wanting to know when he’d send the finished file.
“I should take this,” he said to Stephanie.
“Catch you later,” She gave his arm a gentle squeeze of affection and left as Alex tapped the round circle that opened up the connection.
“Alex here. Whoever you are, I’m almost done. Just hold your horses.”
“Oh…hi! Hello? I’m sorry. I guess I was expecting…um, is this…?” The voice on the other end was decidedly feminine and Southern in inflection. She read off the number and he replied with a shaky affirmative. The face in the mirror across the way from him was beet red.
“I got this number from a lady, the proprietor I believe, at the High Street Antique Emporium. She said I should call this number, the one that was left with a little Japanese bowl. I was hoping to speak to a Ross Millan†. Would you happen to know him?”
Alex found himself blinking in surprise, unable to answer for several seconds. The words “High Street Antiques” sent him flashing back to an afternoon spent with Mia on an antiquing expedition. She wanted china made in Occupied Japan, he wanted out of the Point.
It was in that shop an idea had germinated, a risky venture, an idea that Mia latched onto with alacrity. They debated it quietly between themselves, never saying anything to anyone else. And then Mia left the Point for a couple of months, a project she said needed her attention. When she got back, the tension had sharpened. Why hadn’t he taken care of it? Why did he continue to go back? Was it not worth it to see if it would stop the nightmares?
Alex waffled. A lot. But one afternoon, when Mia wasn’t there to tag along, he grabbed it off the coffee table, returned to the antique store, and worked out a little deal with the proprietor. He stipulated conditions, asked for assurances that it was in a safe little corner of the shop, not to be sold. The only instruction he gave was to keep it in the public eye and to call him if things changed with the store’s location. That was the only reason he left a phone number.
And now, someone else had it.
“I wasn’t sure if I should call,” the feminine voice went on. Alex found he liked it, a lot. It sounded warm and happy. Mia’s had become more and more strident. “I mean, you never know. I hope he hasn’t passed on….has he? The owner assured me that I could speak with a Mr. Millan.”
“Um…no…I mean, he’s still alive.” But dying from embarrassment. “He’s just not here right now. He’s…um…at an appointment.” Alex kicked himself for not having thought the whole thing through. He hadn’t planned on anyone actually taking an interest in it.
“I can give him a message, though,” he hastened to add. Now he remembered where he’d seen the caller’s number before: on the ident screen of his voice messages. She’d been trying to reach him.
“Is he your father?” He heard her ask.
Alex reached for his shot glass, spilled half of its contents on the bar.
“What did you want to know about the bowl?” he asked to divert her. He realized with dismay that he had to leave the mess alone, as no napkins were in sight.
“Well, my name’s Deirdre Montgomery, and I’ve always been interested in Pacific Theatre items. They’re extremely hard to find. And it’s such an unusual piece, especially since it was scorched by a nuclear blast, I couldn’t resist. That is what happened, right?”
Alex closed his eyes and forced himself to breath steadily. He really didn’t want to relive the memory.
“I realize your father might not be keen to discuss any of it,” she continued. “Most veterans aren’t. I just couldn’t help but try. He’s probably tired of being pestered about it, anyway. It’s just…the information on the placard raised so many questions for me. Is it true he was there after it happened?”
“That was the story he told me,” he managed to mumble. How logical was it that she thought Ross Millan was elderly? How awful he couldn’t tell her the truth!
“Provenance is so important for these things,” Deirdre said. “Is it from Hiroshima or Nagasaki?”
“Nagasaki,” Alex replied. “I take it you’re wanting to purchase it?”
The laugh that came over the line was a bubbling song, one that sent fireballs through him in a way that Mia had never inspired.
“I’m terribly obvious, aren’t I? I was never very good at disguising my intentions,” she replied. Alex realized he was smiling so wide, the corners of his mouth were feeling the stretch. “Yes, if it’s for sale, Mr…?”
“Alex Ross…Millan. Junior,” he rumbled, wishing he could see if the face matched the prettiness of her laugh. “Just call me Alex.”
“It would be a piece de resistance, Alex, if I were able to persuade him to part with it,” she concluded. “Are you his son?”
He cleared his throat. In spite of the good feeling, he now needed to draw the line. Ignoring her last question, he added, “I hate to tell you this: I don’t think you’re gonna be able talk him into selling the bowl, Deird…deer…”
“Dee. My friends call me Dee,” she interrupted. He pictured her doing a little hair flip the way women did whenever they flirted.
“Dee. Well, Dee, he’s…uh, he’s not good at parting with things.” Already, the words he needed to put together to ask her out on a date were spinning through his thoughts. Unfortunately, words like ‘Mia,’ and ‘the Point’ loomed pretty large as well.
“Perhaps I could simply take a picture of him holding the bowl, then? I don’t collect these things for possessions’ sake, Alex. My job puts me in the path of a lot of young people, and so many of them need to hear his story. So many of them stand there and try to grasp what it was like. Things like a bowl that witnessed history, even if it was such a horrible thing, gives them that connection. I would surely like to help them understand, Alex. Wouldn’t you?”
While every nerve ending and heart cell screamed ‘yes! Let her come!,’ his brain reined him in. It was one thing for ladies to willingly come to the Point and take in all the mysteries and pleasures and weirdness that it offered. It was another to go out into the Real World and expect outsiders to believe that such a thing was possible. Judging by her words, Dee hadn’t a clue that the Point existed.
Maybe, if he played it right, she wouldn’t ever have to know.
Another laugh came tinkling across the line. “Of course, if your father ever met some of the kids I’ve had to deal with….”
Well, she was certainly playing it right. Alex cleared his throat again. This was getting downright dangerous for his libido. “Yes, I would like them to understand, too. Are you a teacher?”
“Of a sort. I…well, full disclosure now. I work for the local museum. I’m curator for their history department.”
Alex experienced a sharp twinge of regret as reasons why he didn’t take it to a museum floated back into memory.
Just taking it outside the Point is pushing things, he told Mia in one of their more calm debates. A museum would at least protect it.
A museum won’t give it back, said she.
See, there’s this little thing known as a loan…
There’s also this little thing called ‘caring,’ too, Alex. Do you care at all for me? Do you want to do this thing or not? Sell it, Alex, if you mean it…
….and that was when the fight began, he mused.
Mia’s logic was not completely off-base. Paperwork, politics, time; all would serve to cause problems should he need to retrieve the bowl in a timely manner.
But did it really matter any more…?
It hadn’t been as hard as he thought to cross the borders of the Point with his little treasure. No walls came down, no banishments took place. It had taken everything in him to settle it in it’s little display case. And so far, so good. Nothing bad had happened to him. Yet.
Now, the museum came looking for him.
“I’ll see if I can get him to talk with you, at least,” Alex promised. “Where can I reach you…? Yeah, not a problem. I’ll let you know in the next couple of days. Yeah, thanks. Bye.”
He wrote a quick note with the number and name and stuffed the piece of paper into an inner jacket pocket. He genuinely wanted to meet her; he genuinely felt screwed.
And if Mia didn’t show up soon, he was going to have to calm himself with a bottle of Jack Daniels.
“You should have just told her Ross Millan was dead.”
Alex turned to see that he’d been joined at the bar by a black man in his 50s, dressed in a black pin-stripe oxford and charcoal gray suit. A salt-and-pepper shadow dusted his lower chin and a black handlebar mustache finished the grizzled look of a man who had many secrets, had seen many terrible things. Alex had heard nothing, no footstep, no pardons, felt no whisp of air as someone sat down next to him. It was as if the man just appeared on the stool.
“I’m here for a drink,” the black man said to the bartender, who approached with a shot glass and some whiskey. The newcomer downed it with one perfunctory move, then stared at the server until he turned pale and disappeared quickly into the kitchen, leaving the bottle behind on the bar.
“You should just take the gate,” was the advice Alex offered, after he lit a cigarette. “It’s not nice to eavesdrop.”
“Spare me your gumshoe patter, Ross,” said the man, giving him the barest acknowledgement as he downed a second shot. “You’ve got more serious things to worry about.”
“Who are you, Mac, and why should I give you the time of day?”
“My time is not relevant. What you need to focus on is a friend that causes problems for others.”
“I’ve never met you, friend. What trouble are you talking about?” Alex growled.
“The Point is in danger.” The man turned to face him full on, and Alex realized he’d seen him before, when a certain red-headed, scientific FBI agent had visited the Point on a reconnaissance mission. Dana Scully, he remembered. She hadn’t been too happy to see ‘Mr. X.’
Alex scoffed, reached for the whiskey bottle and poured himself a shot, looked around the room. Maybe one of his brothers was setting him up for a joke?
“You’re full of shit,” he told Mr. X as he threw the firewater down his throat. “Amscray.”
“Mia Ahlberg is not someone this place should ignore,” the black man enunciated, his deep brown eyes intense.
“Mia?” Alex nearly choked in surprise. “What’s she got to do with anything, other than coming to see me?”
“Drop her. Tonight.”
“You, of all people, should be able to spot a grifter, Ross,” Mr. X replied and stood up, pulled a Benjamin from his pocket, tucked it under the bottle. “I hope you haven’t shared too much. It could be the Point’s undoing.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Alex called as Mr. X rounded the bar and headed to the door. “There’s no dropping of anyone until you tell me more. What do you know about her? If it’s that important, why not just give it to me straight?”
“I understand the Boyz have a way of ensuring someone never comes back,’” Mr. X said after a dramatic pause. “Undo what you’ve done, Ross. Time is running out.”
† Stephanie’s story: “Letting Go,” found in The Library
† Original name of Alex’s character in James Hadley Chase’s book, “Myra Shumway Waves a Wand”