Dark Hunger


Chapter 6


"I don't think that-"

"They rub together when I walk. Squishy."

"Mary, I'm sure-"

"Is Julia okay, Jack? She's not acting weird?"

"No more than usual," I said, trying to make a joke. I was feeling bad as I said it. For days I had wished that people would level with me about Julia, but now that I had something to share with Mary, I wasn't going to level with her. I was going to keep my mouth shut. I said, "Julia's working hard, and she sometimes is a little odd."

"Does she say anything about a black cloud?"

"Uh ... no."

"The new world? Being present for the birth of the new world order?" That sounded like conspiracy talk to me. Like those people who worried about the Trilateral Commission and thought that the Rockefellers ran the world. "No, nothing like that."

"She mention a black cloak?"

I felt suddenly slowed down. Moving very slowly. "What?"

"The other night Ricky was talking about a black cloak, being covered in a black cloak. It was late, he was tired, he was sort of babbling."

"What did he say about the black cloak?"

"Nothing. Just that." She paused. "You think they're taking drugs out there?"

"I don't know," I said.

"You know, there's pressure, working around the clock, and nobody's sleeping much. I wonder about drugs."

"Let me call Ricky," I said.

Mary gave me his cell phone number, and I wrote it down. I was about to dial it when the door slammed, and I heard Eric say, "Hey, Mom! Who's that guy in the car with you?" I got up, and looked out the window at the driveway. Julia's BMW convertible was there, top down. I checked my watch. It was only 4:30.

I went out into the hall and saw Julia hugging Eric. She was saying, "It must have been sunlight on the windshield. There's nobody else in the car."

"Yes there was. I saw him."

"Oh yes?" She opened the front door. "Go look for yourself." Eric went out onto the lawn. Julia smiled at me. "He thinks someone was in the car."

Eric came back in, shrugging. "Oh well. Guess not."

"That's right, honey." Julia walked down the hall toward me. "Is Ellen here?"

"Just got here."

"Great. I'm going to take a shower, and we'll talk. Let's open some wine. What do you want to do about dinner?"

"I've got steaks ready."

"Great. Sounds great."

And with a cheerful wave, she went down the hallway.

It was a warm evening and we had dinner in the backyard. I put out the red-checkered tablecloth and grilled the steaks on the barbecue, wearing my chef's apron that said the chef's word is law, and we had a sort of classic American family dinner.

Julia was charming and chatty, focusing her attention on my sister, talking about the kids, about school, about changes she wanted to make on the house. "That window has to come out," she said, pointing back at the kitchen, "and we'll put French doors in so it'll open to the outside. It'll be great." I was astonished by Julia's performance. Even the kids were staring at her. Julia mentioned how proud she was of Nicole's big part in the forthcoming school play. Nicole said, "Mom, I have a bad part."

"Oh, not really, honey," Julia said.

"Yes, I do. I just have two lines."

"Now honey, I'm sure you're-"

Eric piped up. " 'Look, here comes John now.' 'That sounds pretty serious.' "

"Shut up, weasel turd."

"She says 'em in the bathroom, over and over," Eric announced. "About a billion gazillion times."

Julia said, "Who's John?"

"Those are the lines in the play."

"Oh. Well, anyway, I'm sure you'll be wonderful. And our little Eric is making such progress in soccer, aren't you, hon?"

"It's over next week," Eric said, turning sulky. Julia hadn't made it to any of his games this fall. "It's been so good for him," Julia said to Ellen. "Team sports build cooperation. Especially with boys, it helps with that competitiveness."

Ellen wasn't saying anything, just nodding and listening.

For this particular evening, Julia had insisted on feeding the baby, and had positioned the high chair beside her. But Amanda was accustomed to playing airplane at every mealtime. She was waiting for someone to move the spoon toward her, saying, "Rrrrrrr-owwwww ... here comes the airplane ... open the doors!" Since Julia wasn't doing that, Amanda kept her mouth tightly shut. Which was part of the game, too.

"Oh well. I guess she's not hungry," Julia said, with a shrug. "Did she just have a bottle, Jack?"

"No," I said. "She doesn't get one until after dinner."

"Well, I know that. I meant, before."

"No," I said. "Not before." I gestured toward Amanda. "Shall I try?"

"Sure." Julia handed me the spoon, and I sat beside Amanda and began to play airplane. "Rrrrr-owwww ..." Amanda immediately grinned and opened her mouth.

"Jack's been wonderful with the kids, just wonderful," Julia said to Ellen.

"I think it's good for a man to experience home life," Ellen said.

"Oh, it is. It is. He's helped me a lot." She patted my knee. "You really have, Jack." It was clear to me that Julia was too bright, too cheerful. She was keyed up, talking fast, and obviously trying to impress Ellen that she was in charge of her family. I could see that Ellen wasn't buying it. But Julia was so speedy, she didn't notice. I began to wonder if she were on drugs. Was that the reason for her strange behavior? Was she on amphetamines? "And work," Julia continued, "is so incredible these days. Xymos is really making breakthroughs-the kind of breakthroughs people have been waiting for more than ten years to happen. But at last, it's happening."

"Like the black cloak?" I said, fishing.

Julia blinked. "The what?" She shook her head. "What're you talking about, hon?"

"A black cloak. Didn't you say something about a black cloak the other day?"

"No ..." She shook her head. "I don't know what you mean." She turned back to Ellen. "Anyway, all this molecular technology has been much slower to come to market than we expected. But at last, it really is here."

"You seem very excited," Ellen said.

"I have to tell you, it's thrilling, Ellen." She lowered her voice. "And on top of it, we'll probably make a bundle."

"That'd be good," Ellen said. "But I guess you've had to put in long hours ..."

"Not that long," Julia said. "All things considered, it hasn't been bad. Just the last week or so." I saw Nicole's eyes widen. Eric was staring at his mother as he ate. But the kids didn't say anything. Neither did I.

"It's just a transition period," Julia continued. "All companies have these transitional periods."

"Of course," Ellen said.

The sun was going down. The air was cooler. The kids left the table. I got up and started to clear. Ellen was helping me. Julia kept talking, then said, "I'd love to stay, but I have something going on, and I have to get back to the office for a while." If Ellen was surprised to hear this, she didn't show it. All she said was, "Long hours."

"Just during this transition." She turned to me. "Thanks for holding the fort, honey." At the door, she turned, blew me an air kiss. "Love, Jack."

And she left.

Ellen frowned, watching her go. "Just a little abrupt, wouldn't you say?"

I shrugged.

"Will she say good-bye to the kids?"

"Probably not."

"She'll just run right out the door?"

"Right."

Ellen shook her head. "Jack," she said, "I don't know if she's having an affair or not, but-what's she taking?"

"Nothing, as far as I know."

"She's on something. I'm certain of it. Would you say she's lost weight?"

"Yes. Some."

"And sleeping very little. And obviously speedy ..." Ellen shook her head. "A lot of these hard-charging executives are on drugs."

"I don't know," I said.

She just looked at me.

I went back into my office to call Ricky, and from the office window I saw Julia backing her car down the driveway. I went to wave to her, but she was looking over her shoulder as she backed away. In the evening light I saw golden reflections on the windshield, streaking from the trees above. She had almost reached the street when I thought I saw someone sitting in the passenger seat beside her. It looked like a man.

I couldn't see his features clearly through the windshield, with the car moving down the drive. When Julia backed onto the street, her body blocked my view of the passenger. But it seemed as if Julia was talking to him, animatedly. Then she put the car in gear and leaned back in her seat, and for a moment I had a brief, clear look. The man was backlit, his face in shadow, and he must have been looking directly at her because I still couldn't make out any features, but from the way he was slouching I had the impression of someone young, maybe in his twenties, though I honestly couldn't be sure. It was just a glimpse. Then the BMW accelerated, and she drove off down the street.

I thought: the hell with this. I ran outside, and down the driveway. I reached the street just as Julia came to the stop sign to the end of the block, her brake lights flaring. She was probably fifty yards away, the street illuminated in low, slanting yellow light. It looked as if she was alone in the car, but I really couldn't see well. I felt a moment of relief, and of foolishness. There I was, standing in the street, for no good reason. My mind was playing tricks on me. There was nobody in the car.

Then, as Julia made the right turn, the guy popped up again, like he had been bent over, getting something from the glove compartment. And then the car was gone. And in an instant all my distress came flooding back, like a hot pain that spread across my chest and body. I felt short of breath, and a little dizzy.

There was somebody in the car.

I trudged back up the driveway, feeling churning emotions, not sure what to do next. "You're not sure what to do next?" Ellen said. We were doing the pots and pans at the sink, the things that didn't go in the dishwasher. Ellen was drying, while I scrubbed. "You pick up the phone and call her."

"She's in the car."

"She has a car phone. Call her."

"Uh-huh," I said. "So how do I put it? Hey Julia, who's the guy in the car with you?" I shook my head. "That's going to be a tough conversation."

"Maybe so."

"That'll be a divorce, for sure."

She just stared at me. "You don't want a divorce, do you."

"Hell, no. I want to keep my family together."

"That may not be possible, Jack. It may not be your decision to make."

"None of this makes any sense," I said. "I mean the guy in the car, he was like a kid, somebody young."

"So?"

"That's not Julia's style."

"Oh?" Ellen's eyebrows went up. "He was probably in his twenties or early thirties. And anyway, are you so sure about Julia's style?"

"Well, I've lived with her for thirteen years."

She set down one of the pots with a bang. "Jack. I understand that all this must be hard to accept."

"It is, it is." In my mind, I kept replaying the car backing down the driveway, over and over. I was thinking that there was something strange about the other person in the car, something odd in his appearance. In my mind, I kept trying to see his face but I never could. The features were blurred by the windshield, by the light shifting as she backed down the drive ... I couldn't see the eyes, or the cheekbones, or the mouth. In my memory, the whole face was dark and indistinct. I tried to explain that to her.

"It's not surprising."

"No?"

"No. It's called denial. Look Jack, the fact is, you have the evidence right in front of your eyes. You've seen it, Jack. Don't you think it's time you believed it?"

I knew she was right. "Yes," I said. "It's time."

The phone was ringing. My hands were up to the elbows in soap suds. I asked Ellen to get it, but one of the kids had already picked it up. I finished scrubbing the barbecue grill, handed it to Ellen to dry.

"Jack," Ellen said, "you have to start seeing things as they really are, and not as you want them to be."

"You're right," I said. "I'll call her."

At that moment Nicole came into the kitchen, looking pale.

"Dad? It's the police. They want to talk to you."

DAY 5

9:10P.M.

Julia's convertible had gone off the road about five miles from the house. It had plunged fifty feet down a steep ravine, cutting a track through the sage and juniper bushes. Then it must have rolled, because now it lay at an angle, wheels facing upward. I could see only the underside of the car. The sun was almost down, and the ravine was dark. The three rescue ambulances on the road had their red lights flashing, and the rescue crews were already rappelling down on ropes. As I watched, portable floodlights were set up, bathing the wreck in a harsh blue glow. I heard the crackle of radios all around.

I stood up on the road with a motorcycle police officer. I had already asked to go down there, and was told I couldn't; I had to stay on the road. When I heard the radios, I said, "Is she hurt? Is my wife hurt?"

"We'll know in a minute." He was calm.

"What about the other guy?"

"Just a minute," he said. He had a headset in his helmet, because he just started talking in a low voice. It sounded like a lot of code words. I heard "... update a four-oh-two for seven-three-nine here ..."

I stood at the edge, and looked down, trying to see. By now there were workers all around the car, and several hidden behind the upturned frame. A long time seemed to pass.

The cop said, "Your wife is unconscious but she's ... She was wearing her seat belt, and stayed in the car. They think she's all right. Vital signs are stable. They say no spinal injuries but ... she ... sounds like she broke her arm."

"But she's all right?"

"They think so." Another pause while he listened. I heard him say, "I have the husband here, so let's eight-seven." When he turned back to me, he said, "Yes. She's coming around. She'll have to be checked for internal bleeding at the hospital. And she's got a broken arm. But they say she's all right. They're getting her on a stretcher now."

"Thank God," I said.

The policeman nodded. "This is a bad piece of road."

"This has happened before?"

He nodded. "Every few months. Not usually so lucky."

I flipped open my cell phone and called Ellen, told her to explain to the kids there was nothing to worry about, that Mom was going to be okay. "Especially Nicole," I said. "I'll take care of it," Ellen promised me.

I flipped the phone shut and turned back to the cop. "What about the other guy?" I said.

"She's alone in the car."

"No," I said. "There was another guy with her."

He spoke on his headset, then turned back to me. "They say no. There's no sign of anyone else."

"Maybe he was thrown," I said.

"They're asking your wife now ..." He listened a moment. "She says she was alone."

"You're kidding," I said.

He looked at me, shrugged. "That's what she says." In the flashing red lights of the ambulances, I couldn't read his expression. But his tone implied: another guy who doesn't know his own wife. I turned away, looked over the edge of the road.

One of the rescue vehicles had extended a steel arm with a winch that hung over the ravine. A cable was being lowered. I saw the workers, struggling for footing against the steep slope, as they attached a stretcher to the winch. I couldn't see Julia clearly on the stretcher, she was strapped down, covered in a silver space blanket. She started to rise, passing through the cone of blue light, then into darkness.

The cop said, "They're asking about drugs and medicines. Is your wife taking any drugs or medicines?"

"Not that I know of."

"How about alcohol? Was she drinking?"

"Wine at dinner. One or two glasses."

The cop turned away and spoke again, quietly in the darkness. After a pause, I heard him say, "That's affirmative."

The stretcher twisted slowly as it rose into the air. One of the workers, halfway up the slope, reached out to steady it. The stretcher continued upward.

I still couldn't see Julia clearly, until it reached the level of the road and the rescue workers swung it around, and unclipped it from the line. She was swollen; her left cheekbone was purple and the forehead above her left eye was purple as well. She must have hit her head pretty hard. She was breathing shallowly. I moved alongside the stretcher. She saw me and said, "Jack ..." and tried to smile.

"Just take it easy," I said.

She gave a little cough. "Jack. It was an accident."

The medics were maneuvering around the motorcycle. I had to watch where I was going. "Of course it was."

"It's not what you think, Jack."

I said, "What is, Julia?" She seemed to be delirious. Her voice seemed to drift in and out. "I know what you're thinking." Her hand gripped my arm. "Promise me you won't get involved in this, Jack."

I didn't say anything, I just walked with her.

She squeezed me harder. "Promise me you'll stay out of it."

"I promise," I said.

She relaxed then, dropping my arm. "This doesn't involve our family. The kids will be fine. You'll be fine. Just stay out, okay?"

"Okay," I said, just wanting to mollify her.

"Jack?"

"Yes, honey, I'm here."

By now we were approaching the nearest ambulance. The doors swung open. One of the rescue team said, "You related to her?"

"I'm her husband."

"You want to come?"

"Yes."

"Hop in."

I got into the ambulance first, then they slid the stretcher in, one of the rescue team got in and slammed the doors shut. We started down the road, siren moaning. I was immediately moved aside by the two paramedics, working on her. One was recording notes on a handheld device and the other was starting a second IV in her other arm. They were worried about her blood pressure, which was dropping. That was a great cause for concern. During all this I couldn't really see Julia, but I heard her murmuring. I tried to move forward, but the medics pushed me back. "Let us work, sir. Your wife's got injuries. We have to work."

For the rest of the way, I sat on a little jump seat and gripped a wall handle as the ambulance careened around curves. By now Julia was clearly delirious, babbling nonsense. I heard something about "the black clouds," that were "not black anymore." Then she shifted into a kind of lecture, talking about "adolescent rebellion." She mentioned Amanda by name, and Eric, asking if they were all right. She seemed agitated. The medics kept trying to reassure her. And finally she lapsed into repeating "I didn't do anything wrong, I didn't mean to do anything wrong" as the ambulance sped through the night.

Listening to her, I couldn't help but worry.

The examination suggested Julia's injuries might be more extensive than they first thought. There was a lot to rule out: possible pelvic fracture, possible hematoma, possible fracture of a cervical vertebra, left arm broken in two places and might need to be pinned. The doctors seemed most worried about her pelvis. They were handling her much more gingerly when they put her into intensive care.

But Julia was conscious, catching my eye and smiling at me from time to time, until she fell asleep. The doctors said there was nothing for me to do; they would wake her up every half hour during the night. They said that she would be in the hospital at least three days, probably a week.

They told me to get some rest. I left the hospital a little before midnight. I took a taxi back to the crash site, to pick up my car. It was a cold night. The police cars and rescue ambulances were gone. In their place was a big flatbed tow truck, which was winching Julia's car up the hill. A skinny guy smoking a cigarette was running the winch. "Nothing to see," he said to me. "Everybody's gone to the hospital."

I said it was my wife's car.

"Can't drive it," he said. He asked me for my insurance card. I got it out of my wallet and handed it to him. He said, "I heard your wife's okay."

"So far."

"You're a lucky guy." He jerked his thumb, pointing across the road. "Are they with you?" Across the street a small white van was parked. The sides were bare, with no markings or company logo. But low on the front door I saw a serial number, in black. And underneath it said SSVT unit.

I said, "No, they're not with me."

"Been here an hour," he said. "Just sitting there."

I couldn't see anyone inside the van; the front windows were dark. I started across the street toward them. I heard the faint crackle of a radio. When I was about ten feet away the lights came on, the engine started, and the van roared past me, and drove down the highway. As it passed, I had a glimpse of the driver. He was wearing a shiny suit of some kind, like silvery plastic, and a tight hood of the same material. I thought I saw some funny, silver apparatus hanging around his neck. It looked like a gas mask, except it was silver. But I wasn't sure.

As the car drove away, I noticed the rear bumper had two green stickers, each with a big X. That was the Xymos logo. But it was the license plate that really caught my eye. It was a Nevada plate.

That van had come from the fabrication plant, out in the desert.

I frowned. It was time for me to visit the fab plant, I thought. I pulled out my cell phone, and dialed Tim Bergman. I told him I had reconsidered his offer and I would take the consulting job, after all.

"That's great," Tim said. "Don will be very happy."

"Great," I said. "How soon can I start?"

DESERT

DAY 6

7:12 A.M.

With the vibration of the helicopter, I must have dozed off for a few minutes. I awoke and yawned, hearing voices in my headphones. They were all men speaking:

"Well, what exactly is the problem?" A growling voice.

"Apparently, the plant released some material into the environment. It was an accident. Now, several dead animals have been found out in the desert. In the vicinity of the plant." A reasonable, organized voice.

"Who found them?" Growly.

"Couple of nosy environmentalists. They ignored the keep-out signs, snooped around the plant. They've complained to the company and are demanding to inspect the plant."

"Which we can't allow."

"No, no."

"How do we handle this?" said a timid voice.

"I say we minimize the amount of contamination released, and give data that show no untoward consequence is possible." Organized voice.

"Hell, I wouldn't play it that way," said growling voice. "We're better off flatly denying it. Nothing was released. I mean, what's the evidence anything was released?"

"Well, the dead animals. A coyote, some desert rats. Maybe a few birds."

"Hell, animals die in nature all the time. I mean, remember the business about those slashed cows? It was supposed to be aliens from UFOs that were slashing the cows. Finally turned out the cows were dying of natural causes, and it was decomposing gas in the carcasses that split them open. Remember that?"

"Vaguely."

Timid voice: "I'm not sure we can just deny-"

"Fuck yes, deny."

"Aren't there pictures? I think the environmentalists took pictures."

"Well, who cares? What will the pictures show, a dead coyote? Nobody is going to get worked up about a dead coyote. Trust me. Pilot? Pilot, where the fuck are we?" I opened my eyes. I was sitting in the front of the helicopter, alongside the pilot. The helicopter was flying east, into the glare of low morning sun. Beneath my feet I saw mostly flat terrain, with low clumps of cactus, juniper, and the occasional scraggly Joshua tree. The pilot was flying alongside the power-line towers that marched in single file across the desert, a steel army with outstretched arms. The towers cast long shadows in the morning light. A heavyset man leaned forward from the backseat. He was wearing a suit and tie. "Pilot? Are we there yet?"

"We just crossed the Nevada line. Another ten minutes."

The heavyset man grunted and sat back. I'd met him when we took off, but I couldn't remember his name now. I glanced back at the three men, all in suits and ties, who were traveling with me. They were all PR consultants hired by Xymos. I could match their appearance to their voices. A slender, nervous man, twisting his hands. Then a middle-aged man with a briefcase on his lap. And the heavyset man, older and growly, obviously in charge. "Why the hell did they put it in Nevada, anyway?"

"Fewer regulations, easier inspections. These days California is sticky about new industry. There was going to be a year's delay just for environmental-impact statements. And a far more difficult permitting process. So they came here."

Growly looked out the window at the desert. "What a shithole," he said. "I don't give a fuck what goes on out here, it's not a problem." He turned to me. "What do you do?"

"I'm a computer programmer."

"You covered by an NDA?" He meant, did I have a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent me from discussing what I had just heard.

"Yes," I said.

"You coming out to work at the plant?"

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