GOOGLE BETA 3
© 2016 John Selby / all rights reserved
Published by the WizeWell Media Group
Book ISBN 978-1511595315
LIMITED EDITION B3
For film-rights information contact
Birgitta Steiner: email@example.com
This is purely a work of fiction: all characters,
locations, organizations, companies, information
and situations represent a creation of the
author’s internal imagination and are not
to be construed in any way as real-world
physical events or present-day reality.
Deep thanks to the real Mahalena
for letting me play freely withher mythic alter-ego.
Thanks also to all those individuals at Google
and elsewhere in psych-tech
who continually push limits
and try to stay responsible
for what they bring into being.
And of course beyond all words
and essential as always … Birgitta
In this evolving universe
there is an immeasurable
driving presence we call
the power of intent
~ Don Juan Mateus ~
On that chilly December afternoon when Mahalena first appeared in my life, I was on campus administering my last exam of the Berkeley semester. From the lectern I spontaneously spouted a quick vacation joke – then realized it was one of my dad’s old quips and got choked up.
Declining an eager student’s offer to spend the afternoon together, I walked somewhat aimlessly on down to Tolman Hall parking lot. Climbing up into the suped-up VW camper my father had bequeathed me, I became suddenly aware of a casually-dressed man sitting in the passenger seat.
“So, breaking and entering – that’s illegal trespass,” I mumbled at the man, closing my door and sitting there in the presence of none other than Larry Bish. “Google out playing spy versus spy today?”
The intruder had once been a colleague of my father at Stanford before jumping ship to run a new mostly-invisible research division for Google/Alphabet. The guy was a generation older than me, fervently trusting new tech to heal all of our planet’s tech-induced trauma. Larry was also now my mother’s colleague and lover – but I continued to hold the man at full distance. “You were unlocked,” Larry replied in his perpetually upbeat tone. “Hey, we’re looking forward to your TED talk next month, bunch of my team is set to come.”
Impatient to be off on vacation and hating how Larry’s very presence reminded me of my father, I met his eyes. “Mom says she’s working for you direct now.”
“Danny’s a Google asset. You would be too.”
“So that’s why you’re here.”
“Jack, please, what’s up with you today – I think it was Alan Watts who said that life’s so serious, it’ll kill you if you take it seriously.”
“Anything I can help with?”
I scowled at him, not wanting to show my emotions. “Ever get hit real hard in the solar plexus?”
“Here’s the dynamic. I see your face and still I think instantly of Dad. Not fun.”
“Ah. And your mom says you quit therapy – it’s been two years, Jack, you gotta let go.”
“I’ll let go when the cops find his killer.”
“Good, so we’re in perfect synch. I’m working on something that involves your dad’s mid-phase research – we’ve stumbled onto some seriously illegal psych-tech.”
“So?” I replied noncommittally, wishing I could make this dude just disappear so I could go pack and head off for Baja.
“So – the research runs over-close to your dad’s fMRI mood-management project, I know because I worked on that study with him back then. This new variation is radical, a possible mood-disorder treatment with zero drugs, it’ll totally blow away the old-sector pharmas. And to the point, my superiors have decided to own and run with it. All we need from you right now is a bit of help in contacting the IP owner.”
I stuck my key resolutely into the ignition slot, controlling my rising temper. “Larry. Please. I’m busy for the duration with my own work. Go Google yourself.”
“I’m talking about a lead to who did in your dad.”
I took my hand off the ignition key, exhaled loudly, unzipped my jacket and leaned back, staring beyond my windshield at a vague barrage of lurking clouds. Larry moved – handed me a blown-up headshot of a young woman. I looked silently into her eyes.
“We haven’t much info yet,” Larry was saying. “Just a jumpy contact on the inside, plus vague fed rumblings around the periphery. But we’ve now identified a definite Stanford connect between that woman’s twin brother, and your father. And the reason I’ve driven up here to find you is because I just received word that she’ll be over at the Marin Museum in, uhm, about an hour.”
“And you obtained that location-fix how?”
“I’m Google, we gather data. All I need right now is a lead on the present whereabouts of this mystery woman’s twin brother. I never asked a favor of you before, Jack, but I’ll be deeply thankful if you head over to the museum and see if you can strike up a conversation, see where it leads. You were down in Guatemala a while back, you told me you love the place – so why not indulge in some spy versus spy, perfect way to start a holiday.”
I felt strangely attracted to the eyes gazing back at me from the photo – but I handed the picture back. “Larry. My mom likes you, and you probably mean well even though you did once dump on my father. But I’m just not interested personally or professionally in working even remotely on anything related to Google research.”
“That’s a knee-jerk reaction against bigness in general, an outdated prejudice of your libertarian father.”
I gave him a cryptic half-smile, half-scowl and quoted my dad: “Death to all hi-tech monoliths.”
Larry took a patient breath. “So yeah, it’s true – the reality of Google by whatever name is the reality of Google. We now live inside a tech koan, an expanded two hundred percent equation of good and bad – and so we accept reality like the I Ching says and do our best with limited choices. Your own dad taught that.”
“Hey – leave him out of this.”
“Sorry. But hear me. Bernardo Bernhardt was a grad student under your father, he came to Stanford just after I left. And yes – I do begin to consider him a suspect. More to the point, at larger spheres of influence we could be facing the seriously-explosive situation of a deadly terrorist tool landing in the wrong hands – and this guy Bernardo is definitely mister wrong hands. We need to find him and defuse him.”
“Bernardo Bernhardt was in the lab at Stanford the night your dad died.”
I reacted. “The police never told me anything about any Bernardo Bernhardt.”
“He was operating under a different name back then. He’s a slippery eel – and his pretty sister in that photo, she’s her brother’s nemesis, some feminist native-rights import flying below everybody’s radar. Until just recently.”
Larry handed me the photo again. “So please, for your dad’s sake and our country’s security, just drive over and have some fun with her – be subtle, see what you can find out about her brother and your father. Worth a couple hours to check her out. Her name’s Mahalena. Phone me early this evening.”
A cold rain was pounding the Marin Museum of Natural History. The lobby clock showed a quarter past four but already the place was jam-packed with curious locals. A native sculpture of a glowering male face on a pedestal, a lobby teaser for the visiting Mayan collection, stared down at the press of eager visitors who’d been lured here by the morning news reporting a somewhat scandalous sculpture of ancient Mayan genitalia that were temporarily on display.
A brochure stated that the collection’s center-piece was a life-size jade phallus that, at least from its brochure photo, did possess a rather remarkable organic similarity to God’s own handiwork. The carving had been discovered during the winter of 1939 about 20 feet down in the crystal clear waters of highland Guatemala’s Lago Atitlan.
The deep-diving native boy who’d brought the piece to the surface had sold it that very next day to two noted Scottish archeologists who were busy digging up random Mayan remains wherever they might find them. They also purchased or otherwise absconded with eleven other ancient stone carvings before being recalled home – and then, because of confused wartime situations, all twelve pieces were stored and completely forgotten for decades until a small fire in some London storeroom provoked a re-filing and subsequent rediscovery.
Finished reading the brochure, I stood there a moment. The museum’s lobby smelled of over-ripe perfume sharpened by the wooly hint of wet army blanket. Vacant stone eyes stared down at me from a Mayan statue perched up high in the lobby, waking up a bunch of teen memories. I’d travelled down to Guatemala as an exchange student when I was 16. A rush of vivid remembrances from that trip hit me.
Feeling slightly disoriented and a bit hot, I unzipped my jacket. Looking around the room, blurred colors moved past my eyes. My gaze came casually to rest on a young woman sitting over on a stuffed sofa in the far corner. She was the woman in the photo – Mahalena Bernhardt. And she wasn’t doing anything at all, she was simply sitting there calmly … looking right back into my eyes.
People between us moved and she disappeared from view. Without conscious decision I let my body move with the general flow of gabbling visitors toward the inner rooms of the display – then the sea of bodies parted and there she was again, sitting quietly in the midst of the lobby buzz, with her eyes now closed. She was wearing ordinary American clothes but to me she looked qualitatively different from the other people in the room. In fact, with her long dark hair, high forehead and strong nose, her face seemed subtly similar to the Mayan statue looming right behind her.
She turned her head as if sensing my eyes on her and again met my gaze, breaking the frozen moment with a slight smile. No one else noticed what was going on but I felt struck to the quick – her smile had shifted into the welcome of an intimate friend. I must know her, she seemed so intensely familiar; maybe she was in one of my classes, I had over a hundred students this semester.
But surely I would have recognized this particular woman. She was about my age, a bit younger than thirty, no make-up, wearing dark blue pants and a blouse that slightly revealed the beautiful curves of her body. She crossed her legs, cocked her head and suddenly lost the smile altogether as she looked intently at me.
The impact was unexpectedly strong. Flustered beyond reason, I felt the impulse to turn and get the hell out of the building away from her. Instead I glanced back in her direction but more people coming into the museum had again closed the visual corridor. I started to push impulsively toward her, not wanting to lose contact. But bodies banged into me, moving the other direction. Surrendering to the movement of the crowd, I walked on into the inner display room.
At almost that same moment, entirely unbeknown to me until much later, Larry Bish had arrived in a white Ford in the museum parking lot. Also (quite separately, as I’d learn from an entirely different source) there were already two nondescript vans in the vicinity with surveillance cameras videoing everyone coming and going from the museum that afternoon. Recognizing the arrival of a complication, they kept a special eye on Larry as he talked on his phone and watched a live-feed video being sent from a compatriot’s hand-held inside the museum.
Looking back now, I can’t quite understand why my mind failed to think through possible scenarios regarding my situation – sometimes the present moment can get so engulfing that it cancels out any wider picture; right then my mind was consumed with the lingering presence of that woman back in the lobby, and the sudden staring presence of yet another rough-hewn statue of a Mayan god emitting some ancient mythic message entirely beyond the confines of my professorial mindset.
And then I saw it – the solitary jade carving of the risen phallus, positioned over against the far wall and surrounded by about thirty people plus an armed guard. Perched on a velvet stand, the piece was rotating slowly with spotlights highlighting its various organic curves. Such dug-up artifacts portraying the erect penis and full set of genitalia are fairly common in archeological displays throughout the world, but reflexively I almost laughed outright – here was this blatant stone hard-on right out in public view, being reverently oo’d and aa’d over by tense-lipped matrons and blushing junior-high girls.
.A red cord kept observers a few feet back so there’d be no temptation to reach out and touch. Well, if I pushed against the cord I could probably reach the piece, but the guard would be after me instantly. My mind shifted back to the woman in the lobby and I thought perhaps I should turn around and focus in that direction again – but instead I stepped into an open space where I could let my eyes take in the relic close-up.
It was definitely a creative masterpiece, much more anatomically correct than the other pieces. How had ancient Mayans carved something so lifelike without modern tools? As I stood staring at the slowly-rotating statue, an inner image flashed in my mind of this carving held up high to the sky by some powerful naked native man painted all over in blue. A possessive urge came over me to reach out and touch the thing – then the impulse was gone and I was just standing there staring blankly at the slowly-turning display.
“Tradition says that unacceptable priestly behavior related to this piece caused the volcanoes to blow their tops and send lava spewing down over the town and lake,” a low resonant voice right beside me said. “Everything was lost except, as fate would have it, this particular piece.”
I turned my head in the direction of the slightly foreign-accented voice and found the same woman I’d gazed at in the lobby, now standing right next to me. She’d pulled her abundant dark hair back tightly into a pony tail. About half a foot shorter than my six feet, she was light-weight and looked like she could break into a fast run with no effort at all. The color of her eyes seemed to be the same blue-green as the jade of the statue. Calm but also on high alert, she glanced around the room as if taking in multiple levels at once –
“So tell me,” I said, rotely expressing what I’d been thinking just moments before, “since you seem to have the inside story – was perhaps that carving part of a Mayan ceremonial routine, were there actual female victims?”
My question had a direct impact on her expression – she frowned. “You are asking, at least from your own cultural perspective, a rather pornographic question.”
Again she turned away, looking over at the guard who was talking with some loud tourists. When she looked back her expression had become quite serious. “I will tell you this,” she said very quietly. “Whenever you perceive anyone as a victim, you disturb the deeper integrity of that person.”
She glanced at her watch and looked around the room as if now urgently expecting someone. “So,” I asked, remembering my dad and the purpose of this museum visit, “are you, uhm – did you go to Stanford?”
“Stanford University? No – never.”
“You’re originally from Guatemala?”
Her expression softened. “I was born and raised on Lago Atitlan, across the lake in Santiago. Since then I have been, how do you say it, around.”
A loud commotion jolted the hush of the display room. Along with everyone else, I looked reflexively over to where a young woman, about fifteen feet away by the entry, was staggering around strangely, gasping and gurgling, having some sort of medical problem, perhaps an epileptic fit.
The room became deathly quiet as she gagged for air. The guard made a move toward her but too late – her body went into a spasm that sent her collapsing down hard onto the floor. The short dress she had on went flying up, revealing yellow underwear. People gaped and stepped back as she continued writhing on the floor.
I turned my head back to the jade piece and couldn’t quite believe what I saw – the Guatemalan woman was pushing against the red cord beside the phallus display. Her left hand reached into her purse and emerged with what seemed to be an identical duplicate of the jade carving. Without hesitation her right hand went directly for the original on the pedestal and lifted it up into the air just as her left hand set the replacement on the pedestal.
It wasn’t all that original a move; I vaguely remembered seeing something similar in some jewelry-heist movie. And of course this small local museum would have minimal touch-sensitive security. Nonetheless she’d performed her act deftly. Slipping the stolen piece into her purse, she looked around the room to make sure no one had seen what she’d done – and caught me staring right at her.
“Please, stay calm,,” she whispered. “Come outside with me and I’ll explain.”
The woman on the floor was beginning to regain some semblance of control, with the distracted guard trying to pull her dress down over her exposed underwear. Suddenly I put two and two together.
As I’d later find out, Larry had been so busy watching his live video feed of the young woman trying to get her skirt pulled down over marvelous thighs and yellow underwear, that both he and his Google compatriot inside the museum failed to observe the swap of the real for the duplicate phallus, nor our quick exit from the museum.
While Larry’s supposedly-experienced spy hurried around the museum trying to find us again, we were already stopping at a beat-up Triumph sports car parked at the curb on Ross Avenue, out of sight from Larry’s white rental car but not, as it would turn out, beyond the video cameras of one of the two surveillance vans watching the exterior of the museum.
Through a momentary break in the clouds, the sun was reflecting off a dozen glistening surfaces but my eyes were fully engaged with my escort’s graceful presence; I never gave even a moment’s thought about the possibility that we might be under some kind of covert surveillance.
“Please,” she said very quietly to me, still holding my hand and glancing around uncomfortably, “you need to come with me, quickly now.”
“And if I refuse?”
Her expression softened slightly. “What I’ve done is not what you think but we must leave – I’ll explain later.”
Reason told me to turn and run for it before I became seriously involved with a robbery that could threaten my whole professional future. But at some subterranean level I was fully enjoying the unexpected gut-action rush of being with this woman. Opening the passenger door, I collapsed my big frame down into the tiny sports machine.
She drove fast, one hand on the wheel while the other worked to loosen her hair. For a few blocks neither of us spoke as I ran the situation through my mind. While doing field work with the Huichole Indians I’d witnessed ongoing native outrage over the refusal of museums to return sacred tribal objects to their rightful owners. This woman’s subterfuge had moved outrage into resolution –
She took a left turn onto a curvy residential road that followed some ancient trail up Mount Tam. This was one of my old stomping grounds – if you went right instead of left at the T, in ten minutes you’d drive right past my father’s old weekend cottage where I still spent some off time when Berkeley gave me a breather. Handling the turns deftly, she drove us up into the sedate old posh part of town overlooking the San Anselmo valley.
After a few twists and turns we came to a stop out in front of a small ramshackle cottage with a nicely-overgrown yard, one of those early more humble weekend-retreat constructions like my dad’s, still standing here and there amidst the big money estates that abound this high up the mountain. She turned off the engine. Silence settled down upon both of us.
“Your home?” I asked.
“My cousin’s,” she answered. “She is gone and I am babysitting her cats.”
A few big splatters indicating imminent rain ran in rivulets down the windscreen. I thought of my car back in the museum parking lot, remembered Larry and Google – and for the first time found myself wondering just how far I’d go along with this criminal flow in order to learn something about her brother and my dad.
“I must say,” I told her honestly, “that was a remarkable move you made at the museum. Do you do that kind of thing often?”
“You are not tempted to tell the police?”
“Not if the piece originally belonged to your people and you’re returning it back to them.”
“Bueno – then I will not have to shoot you,” she replied with just a slight trace of humor.
A sudden heavy downpour hit the windshield, pounding tin-drum-loud on the car roof. She grabbed her purse, jumped out of the car and went running around the hood and across the lawn toward the tree-shadowed rain-pestered house. She had a naturally swaying gait that was hard for me to ignore as I followed her across wet grass up onto the front porch. I had to admit to myself that, aside from anything related to my father, being with this mystery woman was an enjoyable rush.
Jack’s mother Danielle was sitting out on an enclosed terrace with a radiant heater, sipping petite Syrah harvested seven years ago from the 34 acres of vines she could see down below her. A steady rain was falling throughout the Napa valley as the winery got thankfully drenched.
Into the enjoyable cacophony of a million splatters of rain all around her, Danny heard her phone ringing – a leisurely acoustic guitar intro from Led Zeppelin that fit nicely into the natural rain sounds.
“I need your help – fast,” Larry was suddenly saying to her.
“Oh – of course, happy to help,” she responded, raising her eyebrows slightly to her vintner friend across the glass table. “What’s up?”
“I need you to phone Jack right now,” Larry ordered from his car in the museum parking lot. “Don't mention me. Just chat a bit, use your detective edge – find out who he’s with and what he’s doing – and phone me right back. This is important. He owes me a call but I don’t want to push him myself.”
“But – why Jacky?”
“I asked him to check on a woman. No major concern but act on it now, we’ll talk later.”
“Okay, will do.”
Larry sounded upset, that was unusual, something was amiss. Sitting up straight, meeting her vintner friend’s eyes without revealing anything, she pushed Jacky’s speed dial on her phone, her stomach tight – anything related to her son was intense for her. Especially after losing her husband, she couldn’t help being a worry-mom.
And so she sat and did her best to calm down her breathing while she listened to Jacky’s phone ring – and ring, and ring until his answering system cut in. Rather than leave a message, she hung up and phoned Larry.
“No go,” she said, “he’s not answering.”
“What’re you doing with Jacky, I thought you were hardly talking to each other these days.”
Larry grunted. “Work-related. Try him again in five and then phone me with news – I just need to know who he’s with and where they are right now.”
He punched her off and impatiently rang another number. “We lost him temporarily,” he told the woman who answered. “Anything new on your side?”
“Larry, sometimes you sound like we’re caught up in some crazy new series on Netflix. Half the time I feel stuffed with this new work, I love it, what a pleasure after government employment. And the other half of the time I’d like to be stuffed with you. Well I’ll have to leave a bit of room in there for my girlfriend.”
“Is that how you used to talk with your previous colleagues?” Larry said carefully, not sure how to handle this new highly-valuable recruit. “You know I’m already engaged at those levels.”
“I met her yesterday – surely you realize what I can do for you that she hasn’t even the slightest notion of.”
“Look, we need to keep these phone calls professional – any new data?”
“We shall not cease from exploration. You’ll see the light, Hold on a moment.” She was standing in her master bedroom on an ancient Iranian rug in just her underwear while the woman waiting in her bed was mostly hidden under covers. The joke on them both, Jennifer found herself thinking, is that we’re both total extrudes at work and yet bizarrely bashful in bed – and this new job, just like the old one, seldom allowed for prolonged intimacy.
She walked into the living room where a late-period Bach quintet was still playing. The downpour outside was impressionistically blurring her view of a happily-drenched Silicon Valley. “So then,” she said with an edge of impatience but also expectation to her voice. “Explain.”
“My guy Oliver,” Larry told her, “he’s very good, we stole him from your old boss – but he became temporarily involved in a medical emergency happening inside the museum. When he went to relocate our targets they were just – gone. Hopefully Jack took her off for a drink or something, I have his mom trying to phone him so we can grab his location.”
“Damn –Randall is pressuring me.”
“I’ll phone Randy and touch base.”
“He’ll kill you if he catches you calling him Randy.”
“He was Randy in high school, I rub his nose when I want. So what’s up on your side?”
“Richard just reported from D.C. to confirm those periodic transfers into a Bernhardt account in Guatemala.”
“What about the CIA insert that you mentioned, the guy who’s already down there?”
“His name is Nathan Wingster, attached to the embassy, quietly infiltrating the research facility, perhaps going rogue. Meanwhile you can advance with your plan to send your lovely Danielle down for prelim tomorrow, and then when advised, follow up with an acquisition team.”
“Uhm, listen Jennifer – let’s get clear here. I’m coming to you for info, not advice and certainly not orders. Randy has me locked on this directly. I know you like to lead, that’s your old style – but my team is running this. Your role is to update me with relevant data.”
“Larry, please – do not overstep.”
“I say the same to you. My clear understanding from Randy is that I’m the lead on this project.”
“That’s now past tense – we’re banging elbows in the dark with the feds, this has become a supersede. But right now I have a meeting to get back to, phone me in an hour – make that ninety minutes.”
She hung up and left Larry fuming in his car at the Museum. This was the ongoing problem at Google – too many potentially-conflicting egos. Jennifer was hot with covert data but she didn’t as yet grasp Google’s culture. Luckily Randy superseded everybody – and Randy was fully on Larry’s side for finessing this acquisition.
From where I was sitting in the Guatemalan woman’s breakfast nook I could just make out, way across the deep ravine, my own yellow back-yard bug light. My scientist reflex, always suspicious of coincidence, was running the improbability of this location – I pushed aside vague apprehensions that Larry had somehow set this all up. My mind took off for a moment meandering along the rough overgrown trail that ran down to the river from my side to a natural little swimming pool – a 15-minute down-and-up hike in good weather.
The woman in the kitchen with me was busy at a large gas stove cooking up a salivatious storm. The welcome nasal punch of onions and garlic, peppers and mushrooms cooking in olive oil and herbs had taken over the space. Outside it was almost dark but just then a brief hole in the clouds let a bit of light illuminate a big old oak tree where her back yard dropped away toward the canyon.
I felt her eyes on me and turned my head in her direction. “So shall we exchange names?” she said in friendly Spanish. “Up here I am Lena, in Europe Magda. Down south at the lake they call me Mahee or the full Mahalena. And you?”
“Pues,” I responded, also in Spanish. “My mom calls me Jackie, Dad called me Jack or John or Buddy. Farther down south I’m Juan.”
“So you speak Spanish.”
“My grandfather had Mexican cowhands and their families on his ranch, down in San Luis Obispo where I spent summers. I speak mostly back-country Nayarit.”
Her expression shifted suddenly, she had a habit of changing her moods without any warning. With a very serious look on her face she said something to me quite intensely – but in a language I didn’t quite recognize, with a whole array of curious clicks and guttural sounds.
“Wait – what was that?” I asked.
Her expression collapsed. “Ah, Nokalito, so you go no deeper,” she said in English. “But of course, what am I to expect? And besides, what is the hurry? This right here right now is enough. Can I offer you more wine?”
She filled my glass again. “I offer a toast to guards who cannot look away from a pretty girl’s yellow underwear,” she said with a mischievous grin.
I shrugged my shoulders in remembrance and grinned back as we clinked and sipped. I noticed she drank very little wine. Without another word she went back to her cooking.
“So – who’s this Nokalito?” I had to ask.
Busy dicing a garlic clove, she didn’t turn around to answer. “Perhaps this is a good name for you, from our family tradition.”
“Speaking of family,” I told her, “your house here is just across the gorge from my old family home. I’m the one over there with the yellow light on the back deck.” She came walking over close to me with knife still in hand, and leaned to see where I was pointing. “It was my grandparents’ place,” I told her, “then my parents’ weekend retreat. I’ve been hanging there on weekends recently. Have you been over here all along?”
“This time we arrived three days ago.”
“You and your epileptic friend?”
“She is the most beautiful, yes?”
“So what d’you intend to do with the piece, return it to some Guatemalan museum?”
“No, it is for the use of my people.”
“What’ll they do with it?”
She was standing with the large knife gripped in her left hand. She raised it up before him and made a quick multi-directional jagged slash through the air. “Just that!” she said. “Break the tradition – who knows, perhaps help to slightly redirect this crazy world’s staggering steps.”
“You handle the king’s English quite beautifully,” I commented, appreciating her words. “But redirect it how – with some ancient Mayan ceremony?”
“Please. I no longer participate in ceremony,” she said seriously.
“My group has now put all that away. I took the jade piece to make sure my brother cannot employ it.”
Her mention of her brother set off alarms in my brain. Suddenly I had an easy opening – but something was boiling over on the stove and she went off with a light dancer’s step to turn down the flame.
I sipped my wine and stared a moment out the window, reflecting on what she’d said about ceremony. I’d done field research in several traditional Indian communities – but they’d been staunch preservers of their tradition, not out to change it.
The back door suddenly banged open and the woman I’d last seen convulsing at the Museum walked in as if she was a regular visitor. Mahalena’s breath quickened as she turned, put down her wood spatula and came eagerly into the arms of her friend with kisses and a hug – but then the new woman noticed me and said hotly in Spanish, “Mahee, who is this man?”
“Relax,” Mahalena said back in Spanish. “I told you about Nokalito – this man, I have perhaps known him from, well, from before – we can trust him.”
“But he’s gringo, no?”
“Who can say what he is. Look, I’m preparing you a meal to celebrate our victory.”
“I can’t stay,” the woman retorted, still glowering at me. “I came only to make sure you succeeded.”
“Ah – one moment.”
Mahee hurried out of the room. The other woman didn’t move, didn’t look at me – and I remained mute. A moment later Mahee returned, holding the jade piece. “You must feel this at least once in your hands,” she said to the woman, continuing in Spanish.
The woman pulled back. “I don’t touch that.”
“But it’s in our control now, Bernardo has lost.”
“We shall see – when do you leave?”
“Early tomorrow morning, first to Rafael.”
“I return south in five days but now tell me – are you sure that this the genuine piece?”
The question made Mahee pause – I saw her jaw drop slightly and her eyes fixate intently on the smooth jade lying passively in her fingers. “Almost certainly yes, this is real.”
“So what do you feel?” the woman pushed, her voice breathless with some emotion right between awe and fear. “You’re the intuitive – tell me.”
Mahee got lost just a moment visually studying the phallus in her hands – then she shuddered slightly and glanced first at me, then to the woman. “No – I require Abierta with me, and my father. I can tell you only that there are definite emanations – but this is not the time to tap them.”
“So, the ancient ones are still here with us.”
“All that I can say now is I am thankful we have succeeded in our challenge. A la nueva.”
“Pues, a la nueva,” the woman repeated in a solemn tone – then, glowering at me a final time, turned and hurried out.
At that same moment several thousand miles to the south, three people were sitting comfortably around a thick hardwood coffee table. They were in a high round room that sat atop a large three-story secluded building, watching the moon rise high above Lago Atitlan.
In accordance with the usual routine, all the programmers and technicians and lab assistants who worked below this high room had been bussed off to their dormitories sharply at five. Everything down in the laboratories was now on hold until nine the next morning.
Two of the people around the lake-view coffee table sat quite passively, watching the third who had his laptop open watching live footage of the young woman in Marin walking out the back door of the cottage, illuminated by the very same moonlight now shining on Lago Atitlan. The young woman hurried fast across the sloping lawn and along a side path out of shot of the camera. Then everything was totally still except for the swaying of shrubs and tree limbs in the night wind.
The young man with the laptop was Mahalena’s twin brother and he was not in a pleased mood. “So you are saying,” he growled in accented English at the laptop’s microphone, “that you completely lost her for over three hours – but now she’s back in the house?”
“Definite,” said the jittery man on the other end of Skype. “She arrived in a different car and went inside with an unidentified male she picked up at the museum, we couldn’t risk getting close enough for video.”
“So in sum,” Bernardo said mostly to himself, “yesterday she just happens to appear at the Marin house just ten miles from the jade piece. There’s no way she can know our plans but she’s up to something.”
“We were tight on her when she left the cottage in the tagged Toyota and drove over to Bolinas – but she changed cars and we lost her. A few hours later Luis phoned to say she’d arrived at the museum in a different car. Then she headed back up to the house an hour ago with her new tagalong.”
“And you are set to take down that site?”
“Then hold on a minute,” Bernardo said, flapping down the laptop screen and looking intently to the two people at the table with him. “So. I am entirely out of patience with her,” he announced. “She’s has refused to cooperate all along, she’s entirely against us. End of story – we can’t risk her disturbing our plan.”
The close-clipped blond woman at the table, Ursula Eklund, had a disturbed expression on her stark Nordic face. “But she is your own family,” she reacted.
Bernardo was in a tailored suit, habitually slim and darkly handsome. “She is my blood relative but that is inconsequential, she might appear at the museum tomorrow and try to stop us. I’ve been patient for too long – it’s now time to drop her permanently before she can do more damage.”
“I entirely oppose your decision,” Ursula reacted vehemently in her Scandinavian accent, doing her best to express her upset emotions in Spanish. “You should be ashamed to even talk about doing such a thing to your own sister.” She turned to the other man at the table. “Talk reason to him, Nate. He can’t do this, it’s entirely beyond the bounds we agreed to when I came down here.”
Nate Wingster, a middle-aged American in a poorly-cut suit that branded him either a Mormon or a CIA op or perhaps a businessman from Omaha, showed zero emotion as he looked from one to the other, then down at his skinny hands folded in his lap. “I’m an observer here, not a priest,” he said dispassionately. "Logistics would definitely be easier with her gone.”
“Well then damn you both to hell and gone,” Ursula exploded, “I refuse to stay up here and be any part of this. It’s been an exhausting day – I’m going down to bed.” She stood up and walked with a quick clip clap of leather shoes to the door that led to the spiral staircase.
Bernardo and Nate silently watched her go, then met each other’s eyes. “So you trust her not to do anything against you?” Nate asked.
“I trust her to do just exactly what I expect her to do, same as with you. Mahee must go down – now.”
Bernardo looked back to the laptop screen, turned it on again – and nodded just slightly to the awaiting man in Marin. Then he closed the lap top and sighed as he looked out over the moonlit lake, letting himself experience only a momentary twinge of familial regret.
I sat alone in Mahee’s living room sipping my glass of after-dinner wine and staring out the picture window at the deep black smudge of the gorge. If I hadn’t gone to the museum this afternoon I’d probably be over there at my own cottage right now phoning someone and doing something. But actually I was pleased to be here, even though I’d made no progress finding out about her brother. My new-found thieving friend was a great cook, entertaining to talk to and who knew what the evening might flow into.