5085

 

Midnight Became Her

 

 

by James Foley

 

 

 

Past midnight at Julian’s: then she came in with Allen. And midnight became her.

 

Dr. Allen White, a political scientist at Georgetown. And everything was suddenly so quiet you could hear the stereo tripping out magical in the low glow of the ambient bar lighting.

 

Saxophone euphoria: Lou Donaldson and Lucky Thompson wailing away at Monk’s Carolina Moon. Time frozen, lost in the music of Cold War nights. Early fifties. Call it: ‘52.

 

Description? Allen had nailed it: “A distinguished young foreign service officer…distinguished by raven hair, sea-green eyes and long slim legs.”

 

A face not beautiful, but arresting; and absolutely not pretty. Irregular features: high cheekbones—too pronounced. And strangely pallid for September: pale as melancholy. But a face you weren’t likely to forget. You might remember it the rest of your days. Or nights.

 

Plus, the payoff: those bulletproof legs.

 

Nights happen like that, or should. A big man like Allen comes in with some heartbreaker hanging on his arm old-school style—and every other male instantly feels his hit-man potential reaffirmed.

 

But to rent a boat? That strains gullibility.

 

“You must know her,” Allen had said. “Everybody knows Claudia.”

 

“No, I don’t think so.”

 

“Well, she knows you. From Annapolis…or some place. She wants to charter a yacht.”

 

“Why me?”

 

“Because that’s what you do. I don’t know. Ask her.”

 

Everybody came to dress-parade alert—handshakes, grins going around. Those sad eyes…and that dark dark hair—richly textured and shining in the light that shimmered over the dark varnished wood. Soft light on dark leather—easy gleams glistening from bright polished glasses, bouncing off a big bar mirror.

 

And the music holding in there, making hearts skip a few beats. An extraterrestrial horn solo—quick like that: so great, so soon ended. And after it’s over, death is no more. You know they’ll never tag you for speeding again.

 

She was circling the group—bright nails stretched out, her smile right in your face:

 

“Was that our song they just played?”

 

“You know it? What do you know?”

 

“Kenny Dorham’s trumpet half-chorus. I could see the trance you were in. It was…it was pornographic.”

 

“Wait. You didn't just say ‘Kenny Dorham.’ I was hearing things.”

 

“Beethoven’s A-Minor Quartet?”

 

“Now I'm shaking my head.”

 

“It’s unsurpassed. Try it back-to-back with some of Miles’ and Bird’s early Savoy sides. Or Keith Jarrett’s Works.”

 

It was September: a new West Coast craze—gubernatorial recall. A bald man at the bar was offering odds: “Arnold, seven to three!” But no takers.

 

“No bet, friend. The man’s a shoe-in.”

 

And one remembers Allen’s large thundering figure raising a double blackjack: “A prophecy: even as Minnesota was overmastered by Jesse the Body…even so shall Conan the Barbarian conquer California.

 

“See you later, Terminator.”

 

And one remembers how she smiled at all that.

 

Then later, the others drifting away as from a hopelessly done deal—her voice always low: “I saw you race at Annapolis.”

 

“No.”

 

“I couldn't miss it. You were a machine. Loving it—though you wouldn't let yourself know you were.”

 

“Don’t do this.”

 

“I was on the Charteris.”

 

“I'd remember.”

 

“I was dressed like...oh my God! Like a tramp.”

 

Laughing, pushing back that midnight hair. “My hair was...I don’t know…you wouldn't have spit on me, let alone look at me.”

 

“I don’t believe that.”

 

Her whole mood suddenly sadder, more pensive:

 

“Someone very important to me is in trouble. Please don’t laugh.”

 

“I'm not laughing.”

 

“My brother. He’s being damned by the damned secrets business. Please! No one can know what I've just said—least of all Allen.”

 

Turning away, eyes filling: “Sorry. That was all pretty perfunctory, wasn’t it?”

 

“My middle name’s Perfunctory. But excuse me, ma’am, I don’t…”

 

“Claudia.”

 

“Claudia, you’re not…”

 

“Making any sense?”

 

“Not much.”

 

Eyes closed tight: “I need to talk to someone…non-official. This thing is so unbelievably stupid…yet incredibly real. I guess I'm trying to get your sympathy without telling you anything.”

 

“That’s working.”

 

“But not the sympathy?”

 

“Maybe a little.”

 

“Can I take your hand? Would you mind? Could I study your palm for a moment?”

 

“If you do, my sympathy might overdose.”

 

And it’s easy to remember a girl’s laughter the first time she touched you—fingers prying open your fingers. “The hand shows…occasional confusion about complicated regulations.”

 

“Yeah. I figured a little bird told you that already.”

 

“Possible willingness to do something a little borderline…a little dicey, legally speaking—for someone wrongfully targeted by a government agency. Something simple, quite ordinary…but very confidential.”

 

“By an agency?”

 

“Yes…to help this person.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Out of sympathy.”

 

“Sorry, Claudia. That’s not sympathy where I come from. That’s brain damage.”

 

Smiling sadly: “So you won’t help us. But you won’t snitch us out—what I just said?”

 

“Claudia, I wouldn't know what to snitch.”

 

September:

 

Bermuda braces for Fabian

Tropical Storm forms in Gulf

Korean typhoon: death toll tops 100

 

I telephoned; count ‘em: five times—love’s hopeless telemarketer leaving coolly worded pleas of lonely passion. As, day by day, every day grew quotidian. Snail days—watching TV news:

 

Hurricane Isabel: nearly 160 knots

Giant asteroid threatens Earth in 2014.

How spammers get your e-mail

 

Then one evening when you’ve been running home through a rainstorm cursed by the living, down streets missed only by the dead—climbing stairs, shaking wetness off…

 

…grabbing a cold Sam’s Choice lemon-lime soda, turning the news on again:

 

Isabel shuts down D.C.

Almost all of Italy goes without power

 

Standing at different windows, staring out at the same downpour, cutting odds on boosting blood alcohol or just toughing it out, the rain keeps on keeping up…

 

…and she calls. Your life goes off the calendar into somebody else’s biography.

 

Georgetown: Claudia country—south of Wisconsin Avenue…west of Oak Hill Cemetery. Sometimes over the park and Massachusetts Avenue to the Philips Collection. The Corcoran Gallery was a little farther south.

 

Days playing tennis with Claudia by the Potomac. Sailing with Claudia down the broad river. Nights hopping restaurants: music in cafés. Allure of fire-engine nails, Ferrari-red lips. Blues, rock n’ roll, easy talk, slow love:

 

“All those weeks—when I didn't answer your telephone calls…?”

 

“Only five calls, Claudia.”

 

“Maybe. But you were going crazy. I could tell.”

 

“Uh-huh. I was so upset I walked all the way home in the rain one day from my driveway.”

 

“Liar! You almost committed suicide. I know I'm right.”

 

“Right. You’re right, all right.”

 

And her taste in jazz rocked too. So for about as long as one cares to hold one’s breath that corner of the planet seemed mine, so near the White House and the Capitol:

 

White House will cooperate, But not investigate CIA leak

Most Britons think government lied about WMD THREAT

 

Nights in Georgetown—playing house in Claudia’s Georgian townhouse . Elegant silk falling on elegant carpets—shuttered eyes canceling reflections on the ceiling from passing headlights down below.

 

Whispered memories of her brother: “Do you know what it’s like when someone you adore seems somehow doomed by the system?

 

“I remember one summer day—both of us still in our teens. It was raining. We were out at the East Hampton house, in the library—lying side by side on the floor beside a bookshelf. Twenty volumes or so of the Oxford English Dictionary, bound in red leather! God, they burned into my mind. One never forgets a thing like that.

 

“Facts: A British scientist committed suicide. And an American ambassador’s CIA wife was outed. Hypothesis: the same angel of doom has my brother.”

 

“Claudia, that’s crazy.”

 

“Corporations…on government contract…billions at stake.”

 

“What’s this about? Why?”

 

“He knows too many secrets…about a foreign country.”

 

“Yeah. And this country has a name, I bet.”

 

A whisper: “No, sweetheart. That’s the news that’s not fit to print.”

 

In the dark—as draped hair veils your eyes, bare shoulders fill your hands…in the perfumed night…her skin burning your lips. And always that languid sweet rap about her brother:

 

“Someone forced now to take evasive action. Just one yacht trip to the islands. It’s as simple as that.”

 

“Anyone can charter a yacht, Claudia. Anywhere.”

 

“Not the way you’d charter this one.”

 

“Why me?”

 

“Because you know too many secrets…about a foreign country. Help us or not, sweet—just don’t breathe our secret.”

 

And so…October:

 

Arianna Huffington withdraws from California race

Gitmo translator had secret CD

NORTH Korea processed 8000 fuel rods

Man sentenced for selling body parts

Recall day finally arrives

It's Governor Schwarzenegger

 

Twilight turned to darkness as the big Chris-Craft nosed up to the dock—portside fenders barely touching. Lasso a piling. Make the bow line and the bow spring fast.

 

Engine in reverse now—bringing the boat’s stern against the dockside. You set the lines aft, kill the engine and the instrument lights, take the ignition key out, and vault over the lifelines…then walk down the pier to Julian’s. October night sweet: very clear and calm. Light sea breeze that would soon veer lighter from the land.

 

Allen was there with a bar bunch, maybe working their way from lunch into happy hour. I nodded, snagged a booth; and after a while he came over: “Where’s Claudia? Thought you two were an item now.”

 

“Actually, I'm expecting her. Can I ask you something, Allen? Did her brother investigate some military fraud overseas? So he’s being scapegoated now? As a whistleblower…a troublemaker?”

 

“Brother?” Allen dropped into the booth heavily. “Claudia doesn't have any brothers.”

 

“Her younger brother. Colin.”

 

“Colin? Her husband? You thought he was her brother?”

 

Wait. Freeze it out—don’t even blink: “I saw a photo. They look alike.”

 

“Damned straight. An amazing coincidence. Like narcissism—falling for one’s own mirror image.” He shrugged. “They were married very young, somewhere overseas. Both Army brats, you know. There was a lot of strange talk—but it was never anything but talk.”

 

“As for your question…” Allen laughed. “He’s being investigated. Colin’s a bagman born. The case was hushed up for a while—sweetheart contracts…scandals at the top: skimming, fraud…the usual. But evidently it went too far, so maybe now ‘scapegoat’ applies.”

 

“Allen!” someone said. “How’s it hanging? What’s the varsity take these days on our big bad world?”

 

A dark-haired guy was with us—about as tall as Claudia…but a younger version by several years. Chiseled, pallid features—actually more beautiful than hers, and just as delicate:

 

“Well…I'm all packed. I shoved my gear into the forward cabin. That okay?”

 

Look of a mother’s boy who never in his life worked anything straight…and never really wanted to. But Claudia was there now with both arms around his waist—leaning against him, her eyes swimming—drop-dead ecstatic.

 

“I'll need the keys,” he said.

 

Sometimes foreboding drops like dark thunder. At that moment, I needed space—all at once ripped away…as if they had just canceled existence…or I wanted them to.

 

“I've got to check the instruments,” I said. “I'll start the engine.”

 

I remember walking down the pier. Despair overwhelms. It’s sudden. I'd hardly slept for two nights, working out plans…now twisted and disgusting.

 

I started the engine, powering up the sonar and GPS—then went below to check the instrument readouts in the saloon. Remorse dulled me like a drug. I lay down on a bunk—no intention of falling asleep…but soon I must have been dreaming, and in my dream, if it was a dream, I was moving hypnotized towards the engine room. Something had hit, some hint of hink. Some number 14 wires that didn't play right.

 

Obviously recent work—carried as unobtrusively as possible down the edge of the saloon paneling…then along the molding above the cabin sole. Dream-walking, I followed them to where they disappeared under the after bulkhead. Then, stooping and duck-walking, I went aft through the narrow passageway into the engine room. The same wires issued from that side of the bulkhead.

 

The huge stainless diesel fuel tank, maybe six by seven—up to four hundred gallons: a big fat target. Those wildcard wires led down along the port side of the tank towards the bilge. And when I lifted a hatch cover on that side, I could see what looked like a triple deck of jerry cans stashed under the tank and all around it—the wires leading to some kind of wrapped material lashed to one of the cans.

 

All very crude and obviously improvised. Still, probably effective. But not the way well-appointed yachts come fitted out from the dealer.

 

I think I was about to follow the wiring back to where it led up into the deckhouse…when I woke up, glancing at my watch and vaguely at the engine passageway that I'd just been dream-exploring. I'd slept seven minutes. It seemed hours.

 

Back at Julian’s the noisy crowd oppressed me. No sign of Claudia or Colin or Allen. Everything wavering—too bright and unreal. I went to the men’s room to splash water in my face. Then, later, at some point, Allen was at the bar and I was asking, “Have you seen Claudia? Or Colin?”

 

“He just went to the boat.

 

“Look, Allen. He was showing his face around here openly. Was that a slip?”

 

“I doubt it. Colin doesn’t make slips.”

 

“This is going to sound crazy. But it’s important. Do you see him staging his own suicide?”

 

“Suicide? Never.”

 

“Apparent suicide. Pseudo suicide.”

 

“Pseudo? I'll buy pseudo. Colin was pseudo from the gate. Still, Claudia worships him—the way women can worship a man as flawed and beautiful as he is.”

 

“Where is she?”

 

“She had a headache. I think she took something. Some medicine and went to lie down.”

 

“Where? How long ago?”

 

“About…half an hour... On the boat. Where else could she lie down?”

 

“Colin knows about this?”

 

“No. He just left. He was telling everybody goodbye.”

 

I was running flat out—the yacht already gone. At the end of the pier I could see lights far out. Claudia—there in the after cabin? Otherwise, I'd have seen her. And Colin’s gear was stowed forward.

 

A small fiberglass dinghy was riding at one of the pilings—a Dyer, about nine feet, with a fifteen-horse Yamaha. Not nearly fast enough, but I was dropping into her—starting the outboard, spinning away…everything blurring.

 

I think that I actually did overtake them and that what I recall is true: Colin already motoring away from the yacht in an inflatable dinghy—turning suddenly as I shouted, “Colin. It’s Claudia. In the stern cabin.”

 

Only a moment’s hesitation—he was back, climbing quickly aboard the boat, which was already shaking from the first tremor. And as he ducked below, flinging his life away in at least one supremely beautiful act in that life, all the air was blown away by the second detonation.

 

I've seen a boat explode—not a video…in real life: near Tangier Island on the Chesapeake. Walter Hall’s boat—a friend, a waterman. We worked on each other’s engines together.

 

And it was like that now, the yacht lifted out of the water, bellying asunder, capsizing the Dyer. Then, surging up from the water, I could see them, two black shadows in the smoky flame. Debris from the wreckage kept falling down on me, but I saw them silhouetted arm in arm in the fiery night…until in one final blast all the light was blown out; and survival meant swimming away from burning water.

 

Cold water—shore lights far off. I didn't crawl—just side-stroked…slowly, deliberately. It was over. I'd make it. I'd survive.

 

I'd live. In time, I'd grow old. Somebody had to.


 

© 2004 James Foley

James Foley is a native of Alabama. He studied Latin and Greek classics and philosophy for six years at Jesuit colleges; then became a naval officer; later, a special agent for naval intelligence, working in North Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe. About a year's experience as a private investigator was followed by two years of English literature studies at the University of Alabama. He is now self-employed in the boating business in Florida. He began to write short stories last summer--four now published: in The Write Gallery; The Toasted-Cheese Journal; storySouth (their featured story); and The Southern Ocean Review.
schooner@sprintpcs.com