Easing off the accelerator again, Mrs. Fischer gestured toward the trees. “Even in daylight they look real, but they aren’t.”
“They aren’t Joshua trees? Then what are they, ma’am?”
As we coasted forward, she said, “Just try to ram the gate, and you’ll find out.”
A nine-foot chain-link barrier, topped with coils of concertina wire with razor-sharp projections, loomed out of the rain, and Mrs. Fischer braked to a stop before it.
Fixed to the gate, a large ominous metal sign featured a skull and crossbones in each corner. Red letters warned: EXTREME DANGER / BIOLOGICAL RESEARCH STATION / VIRAL DISEASES / FLESH-EATING BACTERIA / TOXIC SUBSTANCES / DEADLY MOLDS / DISEASE-BEARING TEST ANIMALS / ADMITTANCE ONLY TO PROPERLY INOCULATED PERSONNEL. Those words were repeated at the bottom of the sign in Spanish.
Mrs. Fischer said, “That’s just Mazie and Kipp’s way of saying ‘Private property, keep out.’ ”
“Probably works. Who’s Kipp?”
“Her husband. You’ll love him.”
“I thought it was just her and her two sons.”
“Well, dear, she’s a woman, not a paramecium. She didn’t just split in two a couple of times to produce Tracker and Leander.”
“Ma’am, the way things have been going lately, I take nothing for granted.”
From her purse, she retrieved her cell phone and placed a call. “Hi, Mazie. It’s Lulu from Tuscaloosa.” She waved at the gate, which I took to mean that a concealed camera was trained on the windshield. “Well, he’s my new chauffeur.” She reached out to pinch my cheek. “Yes, he’s adorable.”
Because it seemed to be the polite thing to do, I waved at the camera, wondering if it could detect the blush of my embarrassment.
Mrs. Fischer said, “Oh, that’s just because he dawdles. And since we’ve got an emergency we have to get to, I took the wheel.” She listened for a moment, said, “Thank you, Mazie, you’re a sweetheart,” and terminated the call.
I said, “Lulu from Tuscaloosa?”
As the gate began to roll aside, she said, “Oh, that’s just sort of my secret password. When you’re in the line of work that Mazie and Kipp are in, you need passwords and codes and cryptograms, that kind of thing.”
“What is their line of work?”
“Being helpful, dear.”
“That’s a pretty broad job description.”
“Being helpful, but only to those who ought to be helped.”
She coasted through the open gate, and I said, “How do Mazie and Kipp decide who ought and who ought not?”
“Well, they take new business only by referral from people they trust. And Mazie has the very best bullshit detector ever. And then there’s Big Dog.”
We came to a halt in a cage, chain-link overhead as well as on all sides, another gate directly in front of us. The gate behind us rolled shut.
As we waited, I said, “Who’s Big Dog?”
“When you see him, you’ll know. There just couldn’t be any other name for him.”
Slanting through the chain-link and the concertina wire, some of the raindrops battered and shaved themselves into a fine mist. Chaotic gusts of wind spun those ravelings of fog into half-formed dancers with featureless faces, as ragged as anything that had been long in grave clothes, and waltzed them across the cage, out into the open night.
“Ma’am, I hate being all questions, but—what are we waiting here for?”
“They’re checking out the car to be sure no one else is in it, because maybe we came here under duress.”
“How are they checking it out?”
“Beats me. Techie stuff. They’re probably scanning for insect spy drones, too, though I’m sure there isn’t one in the car.”
The gate in front of us rolled open, and Mrs. Fischer drove into a large compound that must have had a reliable water source, like an artesian well, because a forest of phoenix and queen palms tossed in the wind. Mazie had made an oasis for herself.
Mrs. Fischer followed a gravel driveway, which appeared to be bordered by beds of succulents. She parked under a portico that, on blistering Mojave days, would shade the front of the house.
Neither the portico nor the residence was elegant. From what I could see, the single-story structure sprawled over as much as ten thousand square feet, but it was built of poured-in-place steel-reinforced concrete left in its “natural” finish, with a flat roof. It looked more like a bunker than like a home, with narrow deep-set windows that featured small French panes within stainless-steel frames and muntins that flashed silver in the headlights.
When we got out of the Mercedes, lights came on in the ceiling of the portico.
“Way out here, they must have their own generator,” I said, raising my voice to be heard above the keening wind that thrashed the palm fronds.
“Lots and lots of solar panels,” Mrs. Fischer said as she took my arm and pretended that I was helping her to the front entrance. “Plus two gasoline-powered generators, one to back up the other.”
“What are they—survivalists?”
“No, dear. They just like their privacy.”
More suitable to a vault than to a home, the stainless-steel door opened, and before us stood a fifty-something guy with a shock of red hair and lively green eyes. He had a face as sweetly appealing as that of Bill Cosby, a face of such likability that he would have been perfect to play the father in a TV-sitcom family, not in any contemporary show but in one made back in the day when sitcom dads were more real and less grotesque than they are now, when everyone still knew that families matter, when the word values meant something more important than the sales prices at the currently cool clothing store where you buy your gear.
He wore white tennis shoes, khakis, a white T-shirt, and a full-length yellow apron on which were printed the words KITCHEN SLAVE, and he was wiping his hands on a dishtowel. At the sight of Mrs. Fischer, he broke into a killer smile that would have been hard to match even by Tom Cruise or a golden retriever. “Come in, get out of that nasty night.” As he ushered us across the threshold, he tucked the towel in an apron pocket. He took Mrs. Fischer’s hands, brought them to his lips, kissed them, not as a courtly Frenchman might have done, but as a son might have kissed the worn and aged hands of a beloved mother.
He said, “We were so happy when we heard about Oscar.”
“Kipp, dear, you’re as kind as ever. Oscar waited a long time for his big moment, and I’m sure he found the wait worthwhile.”
“No suffering?” Kipp asked.
“Not for someone who’d so completely gotten back his innocence. Oscar had been smooth and blue for years.”
“It’s just great news.”
“When the people at the funeral home gave me the ashes in an urn, we all drank some Dom Perignon. You know how much Oscar liked Dom Perignon.”
Turning to me, Kipp said, “You must be Edie’s new chauffeur.”
“Yes, sir. Thomas is the name.”
We shook hands, and he said, “May I call you Tom?”
“That’s as good as anything, sir.”
“Please call me Kipp.”
He would never need a knife to spread a pat of butter on his toast. That smile would quickly melt it.
“Have you had dinner?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Back in Barstow.”
“We ran into Chandelle and Gideon outside the restaurant,” Mrs. Fischer told him.
Our host said, “That was an amazing thing they did last December in Pennsylvania.”
“Wasn’t it, dear? And for ever so long, poor Pennsylvania has needed something amazing to happen there.”
“We might be outnumbered, Edie, but we’re going to win this thing.”
“I’ve never doubted it,” Mrs. Fischer said.
“What thing?” I asked.
“The whole amazing thing!” Kipp declared with childlike delight. “Anyway, we were just about to have dinner when you showed up, but I hear you’re in a hurry.”
Mrs. Fischer said, “We’re in a terrible hurry, Kipp. Could you put dinner in stasis and help us first?”
“That’s exactly what we’ve done, we’ve put it in stasis.”
I knew what the word stasis meant: the state of equilibrium or inactivity caused by opposing equal forces. I suspected that Kipp didn’t simply mean that they had stowed dinner in a warming drawer.
Something huge and black burst into the foyer, and I let out a squeal of alarm that was no doubt identical to the sound that Little Miss Muffet made when a spider sat down beside her on that stupid tuffet.
THE CREATURE SURPRISED ME, COMING FROM MY RIGHT side, but when I reeled back, I realized this was none other than Big Dog, because he was a really big dog, a black Great Dane with soulful brown eyes. He was the most humongous specimen of his breed that I’d ever seen, his head so large that you might have been able to do a handstand on it if you could have trained him for a circus act. His ears hadn’t been cropped when he was a puppy, which is a common practice among breeders; therefore, they didn’t stand up but folded forward as if they were the flaps on two velvet purses.
Kipp said, “Don’t be afraid, Tom. Big Dog is as gentle as a lamb—unless you mean to harm anyone in this house, which you don’t.”
“I definitely don’t, sir.”
“Just call him Big or Biggy, and let him smell you.”
I said, “Hey there, Biggy. Big Biggy. Good dog.”
The Dane snuffled at my jeans and sweater with such enthusiasm that I half thought he might vacuum them off my body.
Mrs. Fischer cooed to the dog: “Sweet Biggy Wiggy, him such a pretty, pretty boy.”
Suddenly done with me, whimpering with extreme doggy pleasure, Biggy collapsed at Mrs. Fischer’s feet. He rolled onto his back and bared his belly, tail swishing and thumping on the polished-mahogany floor in recognition of his old friend.
Mrs. Fischer knelt to rub the dog’s tummy, and Kipp said, “What do you need, Edie? Birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, somebody’s computer system hacked? Oh, and we’ve just got some of those insect spy drones the government doesn’t want the public to know about, complete with control stations.”
Biggy’s mouth had fallen open, revealing two curved archipelagos of white teeth in a sea of black gums. In his throat he made a deep purring sound, as though he had swallowed a house cat whole.
As always, Mrs. Fischer knew what she wanted. “Kipp, dear, we need one bulletproof vest for Tom. Then a police gun belt hung with four spare magazine pouches, two Mace holders, one snap pouch to hold a Talkabout, one stretch sheath with a little flashlight, no swivel holster. We need a double shoulder rig so the child can carry a pistol under each arm. We’ll need two Talkabouts, one for the gun belt, one for me. We don’t want Mace for the Mace holders, but two ten-shot units of pressure-stream sedative. For the pistols, we’ll need whatever you can match with sound suppressors. This job falls apart as soon as anyone hears a gunshot. Can you do all that?”
“What do you think?”
Getting up from the Great Dane, she said, “I think you can. Oh, and plenty of copper-jacketed hollow-point ammunition.”
Kipp grinned at me, clapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Tom, you must be planning a trip straight to Hell City.”
“I’m hoping it’s just a suburb, sir.”
“Come along. I want you to meet Mazie and the family. Then we’ll outfit you pronto.”
The sprawling house was furnished differently from what I had imagined and was much warmer and more welcoming than I expected. Intricate and beautifully worn Persian carpets on the hardwood floors. Antique Japanese cabinets. Pictorial Japanese screens on the walls. Shanghai Art Deco chairs and sofas upholstered in rich silks. Stained-glass and amber blown-glass lamps. And scattered here and there, large plush squeaky toys for a ginormous dog.
Later, Mrs. Fischer would tell me who Kipp and his family were and how they came to be in this place. As this is my memoir, however, I will use authorial license and insert that information throughout my account of events in Casa Bolthole, which is what they called their desert home.
Kipp had been a hugely successful equities trader in a major investment firm with a sterling reputation. The company had installed a new CEO, a man with deep investment-management background, who had also previously been a senator from a major Eastern-seaboard state before losing his re-election bid. In two years, the senator managed to bankrupt the firm with large reckless bets on foreign bonds and currencies. Even worse, a billion dollars of investors’ money had gone missing, not lost in the bond or currency debacles—just gone. Because we live in a brave new world of financial buccaneering in which properly connected politicians, current and former, can steal from the public or private purse with little chance of punishment, the senator was not indicted, but Kipp was. The evidence, as well-concocted as any martini that might please James Bond, persuaded a jury to convict.
Before he had been an equities trader, Kipp had served as an intelligence officer in the marines. He knew a thing or two about surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, and cleverly structured entrapments of the enemy, as did a number of his former marine buddies, who came to his assistance. In a seemingly private venue, when the ex-senator thought he was in the company of a like-minded public servant with equally sticky fingers, after a couple of drinks too many, he gloated about the cleverness with which he had framed Kipp for the charge of embezzlement. A recording made without the knowledge of the subject cannot be easily entered into evidence in a court of law. But between Kipp’s conviction and his sentencing, the ex-senator’s gloating, with accompanying video, was put on YouTube by an anonymous and untraceable truth teller.
The judge declared a mistrial. The prosecutor dropped all charges. Then something else happened, something far worse, and at his wife’s suggestion, Kipp agreed that henceforth they should live off the grid. Through false identities and clandestine means, they constructed Casa Bolthole with a purpose in mind. To this day, the senator remains a free man, so lawyered-up that every time he goes to court, the tramping of attorneys’ feet sounds like a Memorial Day parade from a lost time when uniformed servicemen and ribboned veterans marched by the thousands to honor their country and to be honored in return by crowds lining the parade route.
The kitchen in Casa Bolthole was large, with Santos mahogany flooring, golden bird’s-eye-maple cabinetry that featured rounded corners as in a ship’s galley, and black-granite countertops, all clean flowing lines that soothed the eye. At the round dining table, six places were set for dinner, and the flames of candles fluttered in crystal containers. The overhead lights had been dialed low, and more candles stood on the center island.
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