Daphne couldn’t stop thinking of Queequeg, the dog who survived a pulverizing crash unscathed but for the fact he was blind. Going blind was the stuff of legend—Saul of Tarsus and movies in which Rock Hudson is a brain surgeon. Thinking about a blind dog somehow put a damper on Daphne’s outrage at the many human parasites operating freely in the world. For this reason, she agreed to meet the ghostwriter when he emailed her with “Das Quartett book killed in bunker: debrief?” in the subject line.
The covers of four of the books the ghostwriter had written said “with Sebastian McLennan”; that was both his nom de plume and nom de guerre. He’d penned memoirs for an ex-soldier of fortune, a CIA whistleblower, and a Lebanese arms trafficker, so maybe the gonzo attire wasn’t that much of a stretch.
“The deal is off,” he said upon arrival at a café called Diesel. He of course was late—everyone not over sixty who arranged to meet Daphne at a public place usually kept her waiting ten minutes or longer.
“I’m shocked you’re not shopping it around,” she said.
Like a force of nature, he descended onto the small chair. “Eugenie might shoot me—or worse.” He reached inside his breast pocket and produced a phone that he set on the table.
She was peeved. “How many of those damned things are there?”
“That one was retrieved from the crash site.”
“I hope you weren’t there.”
“I got it from Miki.”
“The guy hired by Sturgis to find Eugenie—or Yolanda or whatever he name is.”
She looked at the phone. “It’s gruesome knowing it was in the car with her.”
“I thought you’d want to throw it in the pond.”
She looked at him skeptically.
“Wanna go?” he asked.
On the drive to the cemetery, Daphne acquired information that would’ve been useful to know before multiple people had died. First, Miki had been Jaja Dapkunaite’s on and off boyfriend for ten years and was terribly broken up by her death. Second, Jaja and Trygve weren’t whom Sebastian McLennan was working for. It was the Lexington Group—and by extension Thornton Winkill, who held the Lexington purse strings.
“I can’t believe you could work for Winkill,” she told him.
“I had a plan.”
“How’d you know?”
“They’re all evil.”
“Technically it was Winkill with the plan, a big fat one. He told me Eugenie had been falsely claiming he’d been one of her clients.”
“It’s not like a law firm,” said Daphne. “She called them confidents.”
“Anyway, Winkill said he wanted to blow her and her operation out of the water. Trygve and Jaja were the dupes. I approached Jaja with the book proposition. They thought they were going to get a million-dollar advance from Random House.”
She looked out the window. “It’s horrid what happened to them.”
“In any event, after Winkill got plugged, The Lex went into lockdown—no book, no VF, ghost the fingerprints and shred the paper trail.”
“The Lex? That’s cute.”
“Oh and by the way,” he said with a smile, “your Helix are bankrolling them.”
She felt hopelessly naïve. “So what was your subterfuge?”
“I was going to write about The Lex ordering the reputation hit on these four lonely old guys—setting up the turkey shoot. But punking The Lex meant doing the same to the lonely old guys. I was stuck. There was no way out.”
“Except with some of them dying.”
“That’s usually how it works.”
She tapped her knuckle against the window. “How do I know you’re not just making this up because the deal is off?”
He shrugged. “You don’t.”
“So you’re saying you were duping The Lex who were duping Trygve and Jaja who were duping the four lonely guys and me?”
“And Eugenie was duping everyone.”
“Do you know where she is?”
He shook his head. “Not a clue.”
She looked concerned. “You really think she shot Winkill?”
“I thought she was blackmailing him, threatening to tell the Garts that he’d been partaking of her services.”
“Who are the Garts?”
“The Helix, your bosses.”
She couldn’t believe the monumental mystery of her job boiled down to words like “the Garts.” “Well, thank God it’s Friday—the last day of Live Every Day.”
He laughed. “What will the world do without inspirational billboards?”
“Be like me. Collect unemployment.”
“Unemployment’s barely money.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think Eugenie would ever do anything for money.”
He laughed. “I can’t believe I’d ever hear that from someone riding in my car.”
After they’d parked and were walking up Central Avenue, he asked, “Why the hell did you come here so much?”
“I guess I was fascinated by Buckminster Fuller.”
She shrugged. “He was such an odd duck, but he understood absolute failure—he suffered a bottoming out that most successful people never know. Or maybe they know it but keep it to themselves. He taught my uncle, so my uncle always liked him. I admired him because he was so honest about his life.”
“I’ve heard of Bucky Balls but couldn’t tell you what they do.”
“He thought the greatest scientific discoveries were really ‘the after-image inducements of tail-end events’—by which he meant earlier failed experiments. He believed we are the culmination of our history—and if that history is riddled with failures, then this is the stuff that makes for a breakthrough if a breakthrough ever happens.”
He didn’t seem to buy this. “Why do people have heroes? Always crushing up against a stage or hovering around a table to get something autographed.”
“You’re talking about fans,” she said. “Fans are addicts and supplicants. But you can have living heroes you don’t particularly want to meet or talk to—at least I do. I admire how a lot of people think. And also how they react when dealt a bad hand. I don’t care what they’re eating at a restaurant or who they’re sleeping with. Fuller was a pretty weird guy.”
“Was he still alive when he became your hero?”
“No, but Robert Nozick was.”
“A Harvard philosopher I was supposed to interview but then he died of stomach cancer—just recently—and now he’s buried here. He understood people’s natural urge to cling to life until the very end but suggested an altruistic alternative—that those who’ve lived good and full lives and still had their intelligence and health might lay down their lives for some noble and decent cause. He was thinking of people in their seventies. Doing risky things to help people who are sick or in danger of harm. Aiding those in war-torn areas.”
He laughed. “Somehow I don’t think that’s ever going to catch on with the Boomers.”
She shrugged again. “He thought we should live as if some aspects of our lives and being were eternal—all the more so when we do have evidence that our lives are finite. Because we attach to ourselves at least the dignity of eternity.”
He stared at her as if she might be putting him on. “They must’ve been ecstatic to nab someone like you for their enterprise—your old guys I mean. They must’ve thought you were sent by the great and powerful Oz.”
She laughed. “Why did you say Oz?”
He thought for a moment. “I don’t know who or what pulls the levers. Do you?”
The cemetery’s emptiness of humans seemed to be crying out like a hurt animal—the leafless trees more rigid, the artificial pond more still. Daphne pulled the phone from her bag and studied it one last time before flinging it high. The deed done, they walked along with him lagging until she turned to ask, “What were you going to call your book?”
“The Lex wanted it titled The God That Failed: Delusion and the Liberal Dementia. That was Winkill’s idea.”
“What was yours?”
“Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett. German titles sell books because people think it’s about Hitler.”
“So what’s next for you?” she asked.
“I may go to Yemen,” he said. “How about you?”
She laughed. “I won’t be going to Yemen. I’ve got a book to edit.”
“That’s the ticket,” he said. “Edit, don’t write.”
“Why don’t you use your real name on your books?”
“Because it’s my father’s name,” he said. “I was his junior. I didn’t know him that well.”
“What did he do?”
“He killed two people.”
She couldn’t help laughing.
“Not two people together,” he clarified, “but at separate times. He got mad and killed someone one year and got mad and killed someone else another year—in another state and another decade.”
“Is he in jail?”
“Was he sorry for killing those people?”
“He was sorry for getting caught.”
“How do you think it feels for the ones who are sorry? Is it eternal agony?”
“You know a killer who’s sorry?”
“I don’t know him but he wants me to forgive him.”
“His case worker called my shrink. The guy’s already up for parole.”
“You’re telling parts of a story.”
“Parts are what it feels like. Little pieces of wineglass you keep finding and finding.”
“Who got killed?”
She thought for a moment. “I call him X.”
“Because X can be a number, a vector, a matrix, or even a function. He liked to say ‘To be is to be the value of a variable.’ ”
“What happened to him?”
She never knew where to begin a short version. “A car hit a motorcycle.”
“And . . . it sent the motorcycle flying into a field—in the White Mountains. He was driving and saw it happen. The car that smacked the bike didn’t even slow down, just kept going. The motorcycle crashed, and he went to help the victims. The woman was dead, and the guy driving didn’t have much wrong with him.”
“You were there?”
“We were on vacation, but he went out by himself for coffee. The guy had a gun that he didn’t have a license for. The guy shot him in the chest—the theoretical physicist coming to help him.”
“Why did he shoot him?”
She shook her head. “He died at the hospital, right before I got there. I signed a paper so they could give away his corneas.”
After some silence he asked, “So the shooter’s the guy who wants to be forgiven?”
She stiffened her backbone. “He had all kinds of previous offenses. He lost his handgun license because an ex-girlfriend had put a restraining order on him.”
“Obviously he was in shock. You said the woman was dead. Maybe he thought your X was the one who hit them.”
“Other people saw,” she said, “a family in a van with kids. They said the guy just ran around in a circle, like he was running a race. He still had his helmet on, running round and round.”
“It was the hit-and-run driver who’s the villain,” he proposed. “For the survivor it was just bad luck. If he didn’t have a gun he probably wouldn’t have shot anyone.”
“He shouldn’t have had a gun. That’s why they took away his license. He was a dangerous man.”
“I guess the circumstances don’t matter to you, right? X is gone, regardless of who caused it.”
She had nothing to say to that.
“So you loved him a lot?” he asked.
She tried to find the language for feelings she was only just realizing. “Maybe you can love someone so much but the relationship is unsustainable.”
He made like he was going to say something but stopped himself.
“He was afraid I was going to die on him,” she continued. “Maybe that’s why I loved him so much. But he began to act like he was experiencing me as a memory—at some point far into the future. Each time he saw me it was like I was someone who died and came back to life. He was so relieved, but his relief was . . . I don’t know, melancholic, like we weren’t living in real time. When I was sleeping he would kiss me awake, bringing me back to life.”
He put his hands in his pockets. “He probably would’ve stopped with time.”
“I started to wonder if maybe he was so immersed in the quantum aspects of time that his life lost linearity. He wanted to know why the universe’s past and future are so different when they’re supposed to be the same. Maybe that thinking spilled over to his life.”
He blew out a mouthful of air the way men do when they are out of words. “Thank God for the universe.”
As they walked she looked around at the bare trees. “What a mess, huh? What happened to this country in such a short time? During the last decade we thought we had everything under control.”
“People thought Clinton was the new new thing, but he was crafty. Après moi, le déluge.”
“I wish I’d known those were the last days of Pompeii.”
He glanced down to check his phone. “The nineties—it was the best of times . . . it was the best of times.”
Daphne declined a ride back to the Square, opting to walk and think about the remaining characters in Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett—the Turtle and the Flying Dutchman, the ghostwriter without a name, the lonely-hearts Serb, Vern Sturgis who looked as gangster as Tom Menino, the stand-up Welsh Pavarotti, Martha Downey the apprehensive Skylark driver, Gwen Counts the online Avon Lady, the mysterious Mr. Dowling, the elusive, at-large Mistress Eugenie. When she returned to her office she found her brother waiting in the chair beside her desk.
“What’s wrong?” she asked with alarm. “Has something happened?”
“I wanted to see you.”
He looked so different every time she saw him during these years before midlife kicked in. Men aged like the devil in their thirties—the weight, the laugh lines, the thickening skin all happened aggressively. She saw him only a few times a year, so the losses were more striking and painful. She hugged him thankfully and apprehensively, like he was someone come back from the dead.
“You know I hate surprises,” she said upon release.
“I hope it’s not a surprise that your office is closing after today.”
“Yeah, how about that? No more words of inspiration to make single mothers stay off the WIC coupons.”
“Maybe you can go back to clubbing baby seals.”
“Look at you!” she said. She felt his arm as if determining how safe a bicycle tire was to ride on.
He allowed her this sentimental indulgence before turning to more pressing matters. “Did you get a chance to see Ed Dowling when he was here?”
“Yeah. Thanks a lot for making me to go back there again.”
“There’s a point in adulthood when you’ve got to become objective about your life, Daph.”
This was brutal coming from him. “Well I still haven’t got there and I’m not ashamed to say so. You can’t spin it any other way. I was miserable. I missed you and Dad and Jack. And there was Mom trying to make friends for me. You had it different.”
“What do you mean different? Don’t you think I missed Mom—and you?”
“You had a complete family.”
“Yeah, but not my real family.”
“Ed Dowling said he thought Mom didn’t want to leave Dad.”
“That’s probably true.”
“Why couldn’t they stick to messing up each other’s lives and leave us alone?”
“You have to call Mom.”
“So you’re getting married to that woman.”
“Why is everyone in the universe suddenly named Jen?”
“Because there were too many people in the universe suddenly named Courtney.”
“You’re way smarter than me, Paul.”
He was used to hearing that from her; his look said it was a tired excuse. “I’ve been reading the obituaries—I guess they’re called remembrances—of your Quartet friends.”
“They got buried under news about WMD.”
“Andy said Teddy Kennedy was at both funerals.”
“Him and a bunch of senators and former cabinet members. People like Paul Nitze. The Clintons blew them off.”
“Daphne, Mom doesn’t know anything about what’s been going on—I never told her what you did. I kept my word even though she’s your mother. She has something important to tell you.”
“Is she dying?”
He sighed. “Daphne, Jack might be your father. She’s been wanting to tell you that for a long time.”
She didn’t know what to say but it wasn’t because she was shocked.
“My God,” he said, “you’ve known all this for so long. You always know the truth, Daphne. You just won’t come out of your world.”
She looked down at her hands. “I tried to do that and it died.”
He leaned toward her. “But you need to do that all on your own. Come on, Daph—we knew the score when we were kids. We had to be the grown-ups . . . just because.”
After a few moments of silence she said, “I guess I should meet your Jen.”
“That’s highly doable since she’s outside the building.”
“You left her out in the cold?”
“Yeah, how cruel is that? Especially since she’s got her six-year-old.”
“I didn’t know she had kids.”
“You never asked me one thing about her.”
She couldn’t look at him.
“And it’s just one daughter.”
“What’s her name?”
He hesitated. “It’s really kind of an odd name, but she was named after her dead grandmother, Uta.”
“Uta?” she said with a laugh. “You’re kidding me.”
He laughed too. “Why would I kid you about something like that?”
She shook her head, still smiling. “You have the Uta.”
“If it’s any consolation,” he added, “I like to call her Uta Mae.”