SAHARA’S SONG

 Prologue

        (Washington, D.C. 1939)

 

 

            Knox knew they would either kill him or help him. From the look of the five men in black suits moving down the path toward him, he figured the muddy lake he’d been staring at for the last hour might just become his grave.

           He inhaled the scents of late autumn in America. A much different bouquet than back home in Ireland. That particular sweet smell of wet, decaying leaves was his favorite. He took in the gun-metal gray sky, the way the wind gusts were twisting the last of the leaves, tearing them from the tall tree skeletons surrounding the park. He took comfort in knowing if these were his last moments, he was spending them wisely.

           The men approached silently. Knox didn’t stand up to greet them. He kept his hands in a non-threatening position on his knees, eyeing them from beneath his tweed cap. The pocked-face, cocky one in the middle stared back. The others scanned the area behind dark glasses, their heads turning slowly in different directions, their hands shoved deep into their pockets.

            “You’ve got five minutes,” the cocky one finally said. The others dispersed and began pacing the area as he sat down next to Knox on the bench and loosened his tie.

            “I only need two,” Knox said.  “I came here to assure you in person that it’s real. I pulled the document from the dragon hill with my own hands. It’s true, I give you my word.  You can even have your own translators look at it if you don’t trust ours.”

        “Why give it to us?”

        “We just want it in proper hands. Not some struggling communist country, but a country that has enough resources to search for the second part and enough decency not to use it to terrorize the world.”

        “What kind of payment are you looking for?”

        Knox knew this was a trap. He swallowed his temper and an urge to walk away. “I’m not trying to get rich off this thing.” His weathered hands circled the air in a gesture of helplessness and then fell back on his legs. “Look, if it is found by some fellah, some country that wants to come to power through destroying life as we know it…this weapon will allow just that to happen.  As it has already demonstrated.”

        “A myth,” the man said.

        Knox eyed his stone face. He didn’t care for his odds right now. The man obviously thought he was crazy or stupid. Or both. He had come such a long way, just to talk to a stone wall. Fatigue was setting in.

        “Right,” Knox sighed. “I suppose it’s not easy for you to accept my word. I do appreciate your time.”

        The man’s eyes narrowed and his jaw worked back and forth, his gaze still never leaving Knox. Then he stood up suddenly, buttoning his coat.

        “All right. Loan us the document to translate and we will let you know if your request for a search will be granted. No promises.”

        Knox watched them disappear back down the path and breathed a sigh of relief. He did it and he was still alive. Was he trusting the right people, though?

        A strong gust pushed against him, sending a chill through his bones.

       Only time would tell.

 

 

 

 Chapter One

 

        Sarah Raine stood still under the crisp, slate sky of winter, moving nothing but her mind. The man who had been following her also stood silently, waiting. She glanced over her right shoulder toward the Commons, knowing she could sprint back there into the safety of a student-populated area. For now, she watched the twitching tail of a squirrel clinging to an oak tree in front of her, her back to the man in the black overcoat. Curiosity was holding her there. It, beyond what fear she had felt at first, would be her guide. A distant awareness of construction going on a few blocks away reached her like smoke. Soothed her. A heavy pounding, boom boom BOOM. . .boom boom BOOM. She felt her muscles relax, her heartbeat slow to match the rhythm, her thoughts scanning the possibilities for this man’s actions. Suddenly the squirrel seemed alert, jumping to the left and then the right and finally shooting straight up the tree. Sarah turned to face her stalker.

            “Can I help you?”

            The man seemed a little surprised by her confrontation and searched her unflinching stare.  His stance softened; his shoulders visibly relaxing under the heavy coat. His eyes, two pools reflecting the color from the pale sky, now held a glint of amusement. He bowed slightly, taking a step back as if to signal he meant her no harm.

            Her coffee brown eyes flashed with tiny embers of warning. She was beginning to feel uncomfortable under his stare. He pulled out a white envelope and extended it to her, still watching her face expectantly.

            Sarah didn’t reach for it. She kept her eyes locked on his. “What is it?”

            “Just a game.”

          His smile was genuine, and surprisingly affective, bringing his whole face to life.

            Sarah frowned. “I don’t like games.”

            “I know,” he said. “But I’m betting you’ll like this one.”

            He began to walk away; his hands shoved into his pockets for warmth, then turned and took a few steps backwards as he shouted, “Give me a number, any number.”

            “What?” She was distracted, wondering what he meant by ‘I know’.

            “Any number, just throw out a number.”

            “Five hundred and seventy two,” Sarah shouted back, a little annoyed at the ridiculous request and the fact that she was so confused, so caught off guard.   

            She heard him laugh easily then. She glanced down at the sealed envelope as she caught his final words, his voice carried effortlessly by the wind.

            “You can open it now.”

            She watched him go and then stared at the envelope again. She began to open it and then stopped. An envelope from a total stranger? Was she crazy? What if there was anthrax or something inside? She shook it. It was like shaking air. Whatever was in there, didn’t weigh anything. Maybe she should just throw it away. God, you’re being ridiculous. Who would want to poison  you? You’re nobody.  Just open it.

     

              Her heart pumped harder as she tore off the side and slipped out a single sheet of paper. She stared at the paper trying to fit this new, odd piece of the puzzle into place.

             “Wow,” she looked up, trying to spot the man, but he was gone. “That’s some magic trick.” She shook her head incredulously. Written in black ink, one number stood alone in the center of the paper:  572. She heard herself calling it out just minutes ago, annoyed and confused. Now she was even more confused. But even more alien to her was a new feeling, a twinge of excitement and expectation that something important was about to happen. Someone had scrawled a phone number on the bottom.

 

            The house was cold. She still had a lot of phone calls to make, but the paper with the phone number now lay on her kitchen table, beckoning her to do something. She couldn’t think of anything else right now. This was crazy. Feeling anxious, she moved to the kitchen, putting space between her and the object of her anxiety.

          She filled the teapot and twisted the burner on. Rubbing her still frozen hands together, Sarah placed them closer to the burner, enjoying the chill that spread up from her body and into her fingers as if the heat were drawing the cold toward itself and then swallowing it.

       She made her mind focus on the cold and away from the disturbing paper. Cold. Ice. Winter. Snow. She held these images, meditated on them. Cold. She didn’t mind the cold so much as the fact that in the winter everything seemed lost somewhere between life and death. Color withdrew, becoming the gray ghost that haunted the skies and everything beneath them. The songbirds fled carrying away their music. Stark and bare trees could do nothing but be still against the bitter winds and wait to be beautiful once again. Sarah felt like one of those trees in the winter- standing still, conserving energy, waiting to feel alive once more. Of course, she thought silently, winter in her soul could come at any time of the year. The shrill whistle of the teapot brought her abruptly out of her thoughts. She sighed, feeling worse and poured the hot water into a chipped white cup.

            Sipping silently, Sarah stood over the table, staring at the phone number. Obviously someone wanted her to call it. What would it hurt? It’s just a phone call. It would satisfy her curiosity then she could get back to work. A feeling of being watched overcame her and she glanced out the window and then pulled the blinds down.   

            Lowering herself into a chair, she began to sift through her past. Was there something that could explain this? Something did seem familiar.  All she could come up with was the event in Edith Brennan’s hospital room the day she passed away, and a few small events since then.

          She dug through her coat pocket, which was draped over the back of her chair and found her cell. The adrenalin surged through her body, quickening her breath as she dialed the number and waited. On the third ring a business-like, male voice brought her back into the real world.

            “H.E.R. Laboratories, how can I help you?”

            Sarah hung up quickly. H.E.R. Laboratories? She’d never heard of them. What did they want with her? Maybe Noah would know. Well, at least someone isn’t trying to kill you, she mused silently.

 

        Sarah meant to finish her tea and get back to work, but A Day Without Dawn was so much easier to escape into; the feel of its tattered pages a physical comfort. She had read the novel at least a dozen times before over the years, bringing it out when she felt particularly lonely. Sylvia Banner was a genius in her eyes, a writer who didn’t make up characters but introduced her to friends that she missed at the end of the book. She slipped comfortably back into their world and then into a deep sleep.

          Darkness came quickly and Sarah woke abruptly to the sound of a key in the door. Still lost in the fog of her dreams, she was trying to adjust her eyes to the shadows that were morphing into furniture shapes and the figure that had stepped into the room.

            “Hi. Did we forget to pay the electric bill again?”

            Her husband’s dry humor made her smile. He walked over, turned on the lamp beside her and placed a kiss on her cheek.

            “You okay?” he asked on his way to the kitchen. “I’m starving. Do you want to get Chinese tonight?”

            Sarah sat up slowly, still groggy and distracted by the fading images of her dreams. A young girl in a gray dress with thick pantyhose and stiff blonde hair was still watching her, smiling sadly. Sarah could smell her perfume. It smelled like honeysuckle after a rain. Sarah had been dreaming about this girl with reoccurring frequency in the past few months. She could recall that they were having a conversation—she and this girl—but the sounds never formed words and melted into the unreachable places of her dreams as she awoke.

            “Do you smell flowers, Jack?”

            Her husband popped his head around the corner, a spoonful of peanut butter in his mouth. He gave her a strange look and then shook his head.

            “Do you need to get out tonight?” He asked after struggling to swallow.

            “Sure.” Get out, get away, whatever.

           She moved into the bedroom and watched him change into jeans and a wool sweater, his dark curly hair and blue eyes appearing from beneath it as he slipped it over his head. She thought about showing him the paper she had stuffed in her jewelry box. He was very practical. He’d try to figure it out, but he’d also want to know details and she didn’t have any yet.  She decided to wait.

            He glanced at her as she cradled a pillow on the bed.

            “Did you play today?”

            Sarah knew the implications of this question and what her answer would tell him. She shook her head. She had promised him she would try, but just the thought of trying made her panic.

            “Belle Asiago’s then?” He held out his hand and she took it, grateful that he knew her so well, grateful that she didn’t have to pretend with him. Almost as an afterthought, she checked her reflection in the hall mirror before leaving. Her course, dark hair was still stuck in the form it had taken from her nap, thick short bangs sticking straight up on one side. She hadn’t bothered putting any make-up on today, nothing to cover up the paleness and the dark circles. She wet her hand and smoothed down her hair.

            “You’re beautiful,” Jack whispered in her ear. “Come on.”

            The restaurant was warm and comforting. Sarah managed a small but genuine laugh at the expense of one of Jack’s colleagues as he talked about his day. She was starting to feel a little better. This had become their routine when the darkness threatened her. He would talk. It didn’t really matter about what, it was his voice that mattered; the sound of it was her lifeline, pulling her up and out of the pit she was slipping into. She could feel her cheeks blushing as the red wine spread warmth throughout her body, numbing her feelings just enough to find some pleasure in the steaming pasta in front of her and the quiet atmosphere around her. She let her eyes wander lazily over the amateur murals on the wall beside them. Renderings of Italian villages, grapevines out of proportion to the houses, maybe to stress their importance to their culture. She shrugged, maybe just a bad painting. She turned her attention back to her husband and watched his hands and mouth as he ate and talked between bites. She liked it when his lips were stained orange from the sauce; they looked more alive and animated. She smiled contently. The moment was in his hands and he drove her expertly into a safe place.

 

            “Noah wants me to sing at the benefit.” She had been silent most of the evening but now, in the safety of her husband’s arms, she opened up. She felt him turn to her in the dark. Snuggling up closer to him she whispered, “I miss it.”

            “It hasn’t left you.”

            Sarah closed her eyes and sighed. What she had meant was she missed the all-consuming desire to sing while her fingers moved effortlessly over the keys of a piano. This desire had been her constant companion for as long as she could remember. Music was such a part of her that she had no identity separate from it. She was as much a part of the music as the music was a part of her and this had definitely left her. This desire was now only a memory. Its body, once animated by joy, now lay buried in the dry ground of her barren soul. What she was left with was only the memory of desire and even that was fading fast.

            “If I forced myself to sing, it would break my heart in two,” she said.

Jack tucked her head protectively under his chin. His words came softly from a half-dream state.

            “My Sahara…the sadness won’t last forever.”

            She smiled softly then, feeling the tears well up under her closed eyes. Jack had given her this nickname on their first date. She thought nothing of it, no more than a play on her name until the day he asked her to marry him two years later, when he explained the meaning behind it. On his knees under a full summer moon, he had recounted the memory of their first meeting. How, from the moment their eyes met, he felt she would be his wife; and how, when he gave her his last name in his mind, he couldn’t help but smile at the beauty and truth behind her new name. She was his miracle, the sudden arrival of an end to his thirst, the swelling of his heart being filled like that of a dried up lake. . . his desert rain.

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