The sun was setting over the city. San
Francisco was all sun and splendor, even at night. The water caught the light
and held it the sparkles in the water gave the stars some pretty stiff
Benny has always liked the city. Despite Tony Bennett. Despite the Rice-A-Roni commercials. Maybe it had something to do with the street cars. Or that the hills of old San Fran made Rome look like an Iowa plain. Ben Hur on the Goldengate bridge what an idea for a Spielberg flick!
It had taken some conniving to get Jonathan to book a room above the eighth floor, and a decent ten minute nonstop patter to get a decent view and a terrace. But then, Dr. Moorhouse couldn't complain, could she? The mysterious beaching of over a thousand fish was easily blamed on the contents of their stomachs pounds of crudely shaped metal balls. Jonathan's glee had disappeared when they'd had the objects analyzed by a local gunsmith.
How the hell did a school of bluefish end up with handfuls of Revolutionary war musket balls in their digestive tracts? He still hadn't come up with a snappy title for that one, but Jordy'd be sure to give him at least page two, maybe half of the centerspread, if Joan Collins wasn't promoing another one of her sister's books about sin city.
In a way, it was nice just to lean on the balcony and watch the sunlight creep away from the buildings. No plane to catch until noon, maybe dinner on the wharf, find some amiable female company....
The shiver, when it hit him, was something of a surprise. Until he realized that someone was standing beside him on the terrace. "Dee?"
She was wearing more ebony lace than he thought existed in all of Seville and a black mantilla drawn about her shoulder, shading her face. "When you take a room on the thirteenth floor, you should expect to see me," she said lightly, her black gloved hand resting on the terrace railing.
"Yeah, well, it's tough to find thirteenth floors any more. World's getting superstitious. Maybe we're setting up for another paranormal blitz. Sure could use the sales."
Her sigh was the sound of Autumn leaves skittering across cement. "Always the mercenary, Benedek. And I thought you'd been doing this out of the goodness of your heart."
"Me? Perish the thought." He turned his back to the city, daring a sidelong glance at her. He'd never seen her face. And there was enough of the daredevil in him to contemplate leaning over and tearing away the black lace veil.
Instead, his hands curled securely around the rail behind him, the action mimicking hers.
"You're learning," she noted pleasantly.
"I'm getting old."
"Not for lack of trying."
Benny shrugged. "Give a guy a get-out-of-death-free card and you can't blame him for using it."
"But not giving it away."
The accusation was made in a soft tone of voice, so he knew he wasn't in any real danger. "You heard about that, huh?"
"Heard?" She laughed, her breath billowing the black lace, but revealing nothing beneath. "I've told you before on countless occasions, I am everywhere. Heard? I have seen."
"Yeah, big year for you, isn't it? I mean, natural disasters alone...then the business in Africa, famine, and dear old Kadaffy Duck. I'd think about franchising."
"It has been wearying, yes," she admitted. "And you've changed the subject."
"Hey, gotta give me some points for trying, right?" It was growing darker and the black of her clothing was more difficult to discern from the twilight surrounding them. She seemed to grow larger, more threatening. "This isn't a social call, I guess."
"The docks today his time passed by again."
"Again?" Benny felt the catch in his throat and swallowed. He'd chalked off Jonathan's tumble from the wharf as a good laugh, until he'd been forced to endure the salt water and free his friend from a rope before a mooring boat slammed into him. It was an accident, pure and simple. Nothing even remotely fatal about it, like a hundred other mischances Jonathan seemed to take. A bad step, a loose bit of carpeting, a long hose, or a low hanging branch.... "Again?" he repeated. "You mean, it's been working?"
Her sigh was different this time, impatient...the leaves were now blowing over gravestones. "I told you that it would and it has for him. Countless times I have waited and countless times I have been forced to pass him by."
"Whaddya know, the thing works," mused Benny. He started suspiciously. "You, uh, don't want it back, do you?"
"Once I give a gift, I never ask for its return," she chided. "But the gift was for you, Benny. For your service and aid. He does not know what he has."
"Jack'd never believe it if I told him."
"And you don't plan on telling him?" Her voice lowered in tone. "Benedek, he's beginning to rely on it. What if he should lose it? His life would no longer be charmed."
"No worry on that score," said Benny cheerfully. "I made sure he felt guilty enough to stick it on his keyring, right next to that little dingly thing the Nobel people gave his dad. He'd die, uh...before he'd lose it." He gave her a half-smile.
The black lace veil fluttered in the breeze as she shook her head. "But keys can be lost, or stolen, or mislaid. They might even...disappear."
"Now that's dirty pool!" accused Benny, pointing his finger at her. "You promised "
The wind kicked up with her words. "Nothing! To him I promised nothing. Only to you. For services rendered." His face must have shown his distrust, because her tone became apologetic. "Not me. I would not touch him. I can't not as long as he has it. But it can go on only so long before the course of time must correct itself. It has tried already, and it can only get worse, much worse, for him...and for you."
"Whaddya mean, for me?" asked Benny, the chill returning with her words. "You mean, like, whatever they send at him...I might get caught in the backlash?"
"Or the full force of the storm. It has happened already, with a car...."
His heart stopped momentarily, then Benny let out a long, low whistle. "No kidding. And that wasn't supposed to...gee."
"How long do you think you can remain in the eye of the hurricane?" she asked, her tone pleading. "And it's just outside the eye where the winds are strongest, the true force of the malicious gale one day you will step too far and fall."
He gulped, seeing her point. "Better me than him, huh? I mean, I'm working with a good stretch ahead of me."
"There is no guarantee. Not as long as he has the talisman." There was a rasp in her voice, now, "Have pity, man! There are people waiting for him on the other side. Would you disappoint them again and again? They need him there."
"And I need him, here." There. It was said. He looked straight into the blackness of the mantilla. "He's my friend. I've never had many of those. He deserves better."
"And if you die, who will tell him what he holds on that key chain, beside that 'dingly' bit of metal that he so prizes? Who will explain to him that he cannot die unless he disposes of it, that he will go on into old age and grow old and ever more brittle without the promise of peace? Would you condemn him to that? And to watching disaster after disaster surround him, strike down those he cares for, because time cannot correct itself, because he is an anomaly?"
Wincing, Benny stepped back, until he came up against the terrace rail. "Yeah, well, maybe I should tell him. When he's ready. But the least I can do is give him a few more years." Taking her stillness as a good sign, he licked his lips and continued, "Just a little while. Let him have a family, earn a name for himself, have some fun. Christ on a bike, Dee! I don't think Jack even owns a pair of sneakers. Just a little more time. Come on, what's a decade or so between friends, huh?"
"But would it be worth your life?" she asked sadly.
Benny stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Dunno. You tell me."
"I would not say so."
"But you like me." Benny broke into one of his most charming grins.
She laughed, the most pleasant sound he'd heard from her. "I can't think why, but I do. And that's your final word?"
"'Fraid so." He followed her glance toward the interior of the hotel room. "What?"
"One day," she stepped forward, touching his hand, "when the time comes, you must introduce us."
"Story of my life," said Benny glumly. "Setting up dates for Jonathan."
Her gloved fingers squeezed his hand affectionately. "We shall talk further, Benny. But not soon."
"Not soon," he agreed, raising her hand to his lips, in an unconscious imitation of Jonathan.
But she pulled her hand away, already dissipating in the darkness. He could see the lights of the city behind her, then through her. "Take care," she whispered.
The scent of her still lingered on the breeze, an incongruous mixture of dying roses and day-old carrion rotting in the hot sun. He shook his head to clear his nostrils of the stench of it. Where had she been this time, to carry such a smell? And where was she going next?
He turned, startled. Jonathan was standing in the terrace doorway in his bathrobe, toweling his wet hair vigorously. "Is there someone else out here? I heard you talking."
"Just me, myself, and I," said Benny, arms wide to indicate the empty space. "Take a look for yourself."
"If you've got a 'research assistant' out here " threatened Jonathan. He hesitated, then took Benny at his word and walked out onto the terrace. "I could have sworn Lord, what's that stench?"
"Trash burning," said Benny confidently, looking of the view of the city. "Uh, you don't happen to have your keys on you?"
"Keys? No, they're in my coat pocket."
Smoothly, Benny maneuvered himself between Jonathan and the terrace railing. "Maybe we'd better have dinner in, tonight. I mean, your hair isn't dry. Can't go out with wet hair now, can we? And I'd feel a lot better if you'd keep that key chain with you in the bathroom. A lot of accidents happen in the tub then somebody might break into the room and rip your keys off while you're pulling plaster out of your hair."
Jonathan stared at him, wide-eyed. "What are you babbling about? Of course we're going to dinner. We've got reservations. What's gotten into you? What's wrong?"
"Wrong? Heck, what could be wrong in San Fran?" Benny tried a smile, but Jonathan still stared at him, hands on his hips. "S'okay, you got me, Jack. I don't know this place like the back of my hand and there's been some nasty business on the wharf recently."
"The fearless, worldwide adventurer afraid to leave his hotel room to go to dinner?" Jonathan laughed. "I wish I had a tape recorder for that one. Come on, Benedek, aren't you always telling me that nothing's ever for certain? That you have to take chances? Live a little? After all, the meal is on the Institute expense account."
Live a little. Benny snickered, muttering, "Easy for you to say." Live a little. He couldn't go blithely back to chasing shadows with Jonathan, knowing that each day that passed brought the stack of chips piled against him a little higher. Then again, he couldn't spend the rest of his life watching the sky for stray meteorites to squash him, either. It was all a matter of proportion, a calculated risk. As well as being the only game in town.
"You ready to eat those words?"
Jonathan's face fell. "What did you have in mind?"
"As long as the tab's on the Dragon Lady, I figured a good old San Francisco king size steak might be about right." Rubbing his hand along his chin, he reconsidered. "Although"
"No!" decided Jonathan, backing toward the door, knowing full well that one of Benny's 'gourmet' alternative would probably prove to be far more inedible and complete unappetizing. "It's fine. Really. Ten minutes. That's all."
Benny clasped his hands together and leaned over the balcony, chuckling softly. When Jonathan found out the steak was from an octopus....
The momentary twinge of guilt passed quickly. Hell, Jack would forgive him. He might even like it. Live a little. Yeah.
And take it one minute at a time, as long as it lasted.
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