Chapter 29: THERE’S ALWAYS OREGON

There’s Always Oregon

Pandolf, United States

November, 2026

Noru listened to Michaela’s steps on the fire escape until they faded away. The gold bracelet that she gave Michaela for payment was ancestral jewelry from her family’s side, inscribed with religious carvings, that brought good fortune in this world and the one beyond.

Grim-faced, she closed the window and returned to her bed. There, she lay sleepless, hands together in prayer for safety for her baby. 

The sedative for Ahmat would last a couple of hours. As for her own pills that the Pandolf psychiatrist had prescribed for “postpartum depression,” she had stopped taking them. 

“There is nothing wrong with my mind,” she concluded. Instead, her world had changed into this foreign dangerous one with bomb threats at her door. 

Nightmares visited regularly. In the last one, her own bodyguard had put a knife to Ahmat’s throat. Then bloody and leering, he had hovered over her. Before he crushed her under his weight, her fear silencing her scream, she awoke. 

Since then, she had been unable to tolerate his muscled presence — his body’s acrid warmth — without revulsion. Things worse than her dream had happened in the history of leading families she knew — when the balance of power capriciously shifted.

If she was assaulted, which she feared more than death, she wondered who would find out? Who would even care?

“Change does not ask for permission,” a grim-faced Aisha had counseled her at the royal funeral. 

Back home, Aisha now spoke with Noru in guarded video conversations, her eyes revealing no emotion, describing that the new king was now securely in power.

On Saburian media, King Malik announced that he planned to marry a Saburian woman from a “good family,” educating his people about the drawbacks of marrying one’s relatives. Noru’s own parents had been first cousins, a tradition that protected property and power by marriage within powerful Saburian families.

Prince Bassam had made a rare public appearance to commend his nephew’s plans to marry. Noru froze the picture on the monitor to look more closely. She had only met him once. In his wheelchair, her husband’s older brother looked thin and ill.

The last time she had seen her hometown, it was in flames. Who was still alive there, she wondered? After Noru’s father had died in a rebel attack, her own mother had been busy with her role as a leader in the local community.

“A shepherd can’t be a sheep,” her mother would tell her.

“I am now that shepherd,” thought Noru. Putting Ahmat out there in public view would force her government to take action to protect his safety before a watching world.

Unable to sleep, she got up and walked out of her bedroom. The entry hall was fragrant with flowers, jasmine, lilies and roses for her recent 20th birthday. The magnificent bouquet from King Malik was the centerpiece in the living room. 

He was young, she thought, easily manipulated by his devious family. 

Sichet, too, had sent her a birthday gift, a hardy succulent with thick green leaves and Instructions in neat Saburian for:  “moderate temperature, little sunlight and minimal watering.”

 On Michaela’s phone, Sichet had texted plans to move her, Ahmat and her retinue to Chicago.

“But how fast can you do it?” she typed back quickly.

“These things take time,” he replied. “Your government does not  see urgency. They insist the bomb threat was a prank.”

“Then my plan executes the day-after-tomorrow.”

In English, her note to Sichet translated: “Then my plan executes the weekend after next.

There had been no reply.

Outside, Michaela strapped the sleeping child into a kangaroo-style wrap. The wrought-iron steps of the fire escape were wet from the irrigation system and she carefully descended. With her ear Dot, she called George and asked if she could come over.

“Charlie’s here but sure. We’re watching a movie.” 

“I don’t care,” she said.

Despite their well-laid plans for a friendly parting of ways, Michaela and Charlie had an explosive breakup about a year ago. 

Then Michaela called Sichet’s home number. Voice slurring, a woman answered.

“I need to speak to Mr. Sichet,” Michaela said.

“And how old are you?” the woman asked.

The woman hung up.  Michaela muttered expletives. “Lady, why not just tell your husband I’m trying to reach him?” 

She scanned another contact code for Sichet and left a message.

Entering George’s apartment, Michaela dutifully followed Shelly’s house rules even though Shelly was still in Germany. She placed wet shoes on the mat.

The boys’ movie paused on the large screen, sky warriors mid-action.

“What are you doing with a baby?” Charlie asked. 

“This is Queen Noru’s baby. She wants me to keep him safe. Her enemies may be trying to kill him.”

The boys looked alarmed and impressed.

“I left a message for the queen’s lawyer in Chicago,” said Michaela, sitting down on the couch between them. “He’s supposed to call me back with instructions. George, can I wait here for him to call me back.”

George nodded. “Sure, Michaela. What about your mother? Can’t she help?”

“Oh, no! She’s already under a lot of stress. My gramma was in the hospital and she’s now staying with us.” 

George said. “I’d call my father in Saburia but someone may listen in on our conversation. That may not be safe for the baby either.”

Charlie grinned. “I don’t need to call anyone because ‘moi’ can handle things by myself.”

Michaela gave Charlie a sharp look and moved to George’s other side. “George, I’m so proud that you didn’t go to Carrie Mather’s party last weekend. Charlie, I heard about how much fun you had.”

Between bites of pizza, Michaela unstrapped the sleeping infant from her carrier. 

“This is strange,” she observed. She laid her palm on the baby’s chest. “He’s breathing. But he usually wakes up so easily.”

When even unswaddling the baby until its skin turned cold and tickling his feet didn’t awaken him, she began to panic.

“Was this lawyer expecting your call?” Charlie asked.

“Yes,” she yelled at him. “Queen Noru had been talking with him on my phone translating app. I tried his home phone number and his scan code. I don’t know why I can’t reach him.”

“I can drive you to the hospital,” George suggested, “to the Children’s Emergency Room.”

Michaela shook her head. 

“No, the main entrance is too public and dangerous. The queen’s enemies may be already looking for him there. I don’t even have a carseat. But I know a shortcut through the woods behind this building to the hospital.”

 Rapidly, she tapped into her phone.

Charlie looked at her hand admiringly. “That ring’s gorgeous. Where did you get it?”

“From Queen Noru, it’s 22 Karat gold, that’s a diamond between the two emeralds. 

“Charlie,” Michaela went on, “this baby is a real young prince of Saburia, not some fiction in your stupid video game. His mother’s ring will pay for someone to unlock the tunnel doors for me — and more.” 

She began strapping the sleeping baby back into his carrier.

“Wait,” Charlie said. “Those woods are dangerous. I’ll come too.”

Michaela looked surprised. “Thank you, Charlie.”

“I just wish you guys would let me drive you there,” pleaded George.

“You can help, George,” said Charlie, “besides by making suggestions that neither Michaela or I like. You have a gun.”

“You do, George?” Michaela exclaimed. “What kind?”

“Gunpowder is so passe,” Charlie said. “It’s his dad’s SinfonX.”

“That’s just a gun in the A’50 game,” Michael said skeptically.

Charlie nodded. “But this one is real. George, show her.”

“OK, I’ll get it from the safe,” said George, ”only to show you, Michaela, not for lending it to you guys.” 

He quickly returned with a steel briefcase. Charlie opened it: “So, I know how to use it from A’50, look here’s the automatic cartridge with 100 energy bursts, a silencer — makes it quieter than a whisper —  binoculars for targets even a mile away and the gun itself.” 

Tenderly and nimbly assembling and then disassembling it, he carefully returned the pieces to the case. He pointed to an empty section in the foam padding.

“That missing part,” Charlie said, touching the vacant space, “allows the gun to fire 100 times in 10 seconds. Otherwise, it’ll be in a minute.”

Michaela looked at her phone. “I have a notification that the tunnel door is now unlocked. Gotta go. George, last time I came, I left my sneakers in Shelly’s closet. Would you mind getting them? My work shoes are killing me.”

“Sure.”

Unable to find her shoes, George returned. “Guys —.” 

The gun case lay empty. He was alone. He ran to the fire escape. Michaela, the baby and Charlie had disappeared with the SinfonX. 

In a dark corner of the parking lot behind the apartment building, Michaela placed a black trash liner over her head, holes torn out to protect herself and Ahmat from the cold breeze and also gave Charlie one. “Hurry up.”

Now shadows amidst shadows, they slipped down the hill. Charlie stayed close, the heavy SinfonX belt now strapped around his waist.

They crossed a gulley of shallow water where a stream once ran. Then they entered the trees behind the apartment complex. The lights of Pandolf Medical Center lay ahead. Michaela navigated the dim dirt path easily.

“Charlie, just stay behind me,” Michaela said.

“Why does the hospital have tunnels?” he asked.

“They’ve been around forever. My mom says that they used them to connect the buildings even back when she was a kid, something to do with the Cold War.”

Ahead in the darkness, lights appeared, flashing in the dry brush. Michaela whispered, “Charlie, get off the path, let me talk to them.”

She heard him click-click assemble the SinfonX behind her. “Just say the word, if you need help,” he said.

She pleaded with two people on the path. “I’m taking my cousin’s baby to the hospital on the back-way because … ask Chuckie.” 

They tapped on their phones.

“Alright,” they said and walked on, lights fading away. 

“OK, you can come out,” she called Charlie.

“Why’d you tell me to hide?”

“You’re the wrong tribe.” 

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll explain later. The tunnel entrance is now ahead.” Her voice trembled. “I’m scared. Ahmat is barely moving. We have to get him to the hospital.”

“What did you tell those people out there?”

“That Chuckie and I have a deal. Hurry.”

They reached a shed. “My mom grew up in an apartment building that used to be here.”

She opened the door. The space inside was empty.

“This used to be part of the laundry room,” she said. See, the folding table is still here.”

She pointed with her phone light to a broken, splintered ledge on the wall. 

“My mom has worked for Pandolf  since she graduated from high school and she always knows the latest about their construction projects. OK, come help me.

“Alright, it’s unlocked,” she said. Together, they raised a floor hatch. 

“She says they’re going to put a new building up here, some kind of rehab place. The tunnel stays.”

“This is amazing,” Charlie said. “I thought it would be all electronic, but you’re saying that your friend, Chuckie, has actual keys to these doors?”

“Shhh, lower your voice,” Michael whispered. “Chuckie says Pandolf wants someone to be able to open doors in case the grid goes down and there’s no backup power.”

Out of her backpack, Michaela produced masks. 

“Charlie,” she exclaimed, “Ahmat is waking up. I just felt him wiggle.”

“Michaela, as usual, you’re worrying too much. Now let’s hope he doesn’t start crying.”

“For once, I want you to be right,” Michaela said, pointing her phone light down into the tunnel. “Now, put your mask on, it makes Face ID harder for the cameras.”

“No.” She paused. “You should go back and return George’s dad’s gun. I’ll be OK. I feel better now that the baby is waking up.” 

She rubbed Ahmat’s cheek. Deep dark infant eyes were open.

 “My phone’s  buzzing, Charlie. Look, the Chicago lawyer just left me a message. I’ll check it as soon as I get to the hospital.”

Charlie hesitated.  “Michaela, I’m coming too. But there’s one thing I want to do before I enter that tunnel. Come outside.”

Charlie removed the SinfonX from his belt. Quickly assembling it, he attached the binoculars. Bringing his eyes to them, Charlie aimed the weapon at the distant target of a street light. 

“See that, it’s about a mile away.”

“Don’t. Do. It,” she warned. “Chuckie will be mad.”

He removed his finger from the trigger. “‘Pop,’ he said regretfully into the silence, “I’m not a vandal.” 

Disassembling the SinfonX, he returned it to its belt. “Anyway, I want to meet Chuckie. I’m coming with.”

“Charlie, you didn’t grow up here,” she said patiently. “Chuckie’ is just a name, a link on your phone, an organization of people you can trust in Pandolf to help you for a price. 

“You only meet ‘Chuckie’ for real if you get into trouble. When I was little, the older kids would threaten us that when Chuckie came for you, the first thing the person said to you is, ‘Chuckie’s so sorry,’ and then you’ll never be seen again.

“Chuckie has a boss,” she said, “I met one in middle school when I played in the band. He attended his son’s Pandolf High graduation. But I don’t know that he’s even in charge anymore.”

“Sounds like a gang,” Charlie said.

“It’s not a gang. That’s judgmental. It’s our community.”

“Is it racist?” asked Charlie. “Back there you said I was the wrong tribe? That sounds racist.”

“It’s not your race… more like you just didn’t grow up around Pandolf and you think differently. You’re not a face Chuckie knows — like a white Mather or a tawny Baluyn or me. We have a sense of family around here.”

They went back into the shed. Charlie went first down the hatch and helped Michaela at the bottom of the ladder. Bright ribbons of light turned on in the ceiling of the large round tunnel ahead.

“We have to run now,” said Michaela. “I know where to go. We used to play here as kids.” Charlie followed her down the branching path.

After going up another ladder, they emerged into a large storeroom, shelves stocked with medical supplies, massive hospital beds stored in the middle.

“Mickey, you’re here,” said a scruffy young man in a Pandolf housekeeping uniform. He was sitting on the floor with his computer.

“Dumbo,” said Michaela happily, pulling off her mask. “This is my friend, Charlie. Charlie, this is Dumbo, I don’t remember his real name.”

“Not funny, Mickey,” the other man said, getting up. “Hi Charlie, I’m Al.”

“Hey,” Charlie said, also removing his mask.

“We have to go,” Michaela said. “I have to take the baby to the ER.”

“Forget something?” Al said.

She hesitated and then handed over Noru’s ring. “Tell Chuckie thanks for unlocking the tunnel.”

Al scrutinized the ring. “It looks like the real thing, alright. Should cover a year of college even after Chuckie takes his share. Good luck, I”m going back to my test.”

“Aren’t you worried about losing your job here at Pandolf?” Charlie asked Al, “ if they find out that you’re letting people in like this?”

“No,” Al said. “Pandolf will just change the locks — again. It’s not like we actually stole anything. They spend more money on exterminating rats in the tunnels.”

“Kids will play, Chuckie says,” Michaela added in a sing-song voice.

Al chuckled. “Bye, Mickey.”

Watching him shuffle away, Michaela looked sad. “Growing up, we called him Dumbo because for one thing, he’s way too nice. The other kids bullied him. But he’s smart and Chuckie listens to him. That ring should be quite the prize. Queen Noru said it’s many hundreds of years old.”

“I’m still thinking about what you said,” Charlie grumbled, “about how I don’t fit in because I didn’t grow up around here.” 

“This is America, Charlie, a vast grand pair of continents, ‘sea to shining sea,’ always tribal. It’s in the air from back in the days that the Indians were either scalping each other or smoking pipes together. Don’t take it personally.”

They hurried ahead to the main hospital plaza. A flurry of people was passing through the central crossing despite the late hour. A marble fountain gurgled next to the glittering 24-hour gift shop.

“Michaela, Charlie,” a voice behind them made them jump. Turning around, they saw David Campbell. 

Speechless, staring at him in shock, they were also aghast to see Lucky.  In scrubs, she sat on the low wall edging the pool around the fountain. 

“Charlie,” Michaela accused. “Why is David here?”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” Charlie replied.

Wheeling a Pandolf LifeCycle, a four-wheeled robot that transported patients of any age, Lucky joined the group.

Glaring at Charlie, she said, “Weren’t last weekend’s antics enough? What were you thinking of?”

“Dr. Malone, we need help,” Michaela interrupted, “I’m … uhm…do you think this baby is OK?”

Lucky helped Michaela to  slowly disentangle Ahmat from her carrier. 

“He’s warm, breathing, moving.. Lucky said. “And there’s another healthy sign. Something smells bad, did you bring a diaper and fresh clothes?”

Michaela shook her head. 

“Thankfully,” said Lucky,  “The gift shop is well equipped.”

To Campbell, Lucky said, “Michaela and I are going to the ER to have him checked out and will see you and my brother there.”

“Why can’t I come with you?” asked Charlie. 

His sister did not reply. 

Campbell looked down at the dark head of the sleeping boy, now strapped into the LifeCycle, the closed eyes and long dark lashes resting on fat round cheeks. 

He leaned over and whispered into Lucky’s ear. “I want you to have my baby.” 

Her mouth dropped open. It wasn’t the response he had expected. 

“Another time, we need to talk about that.”

She kissed him and left with Michaela and the baby. Lucky’s lab jacket, Pandolf badge, and scrubs made her look official.

Charlie asked, “Whatever did you just tell her?”

“None of your business. Now,  I think you have something that belongs to Dr. Garcia. Let’s go to my car and put it away. What were you thinking of, bypassing security checkpoints?

“Charlie, George called me and told me everything. That’s no way to treat a friend. You owe him a sincere apology.”

They walked to the parking lot. “Michaela has her resting stony face on again,” said Charlie. “She thinks I’m a traitor. How did you know where to find us?”

Campbell smacked Charlie’s lower back, harder than he had intended. “You’re wearing your Coach Dot.”

“Oh,” Charlie said. He was back to unperturbed and grinning, “Yes, I forgot about that.” 

The sports Dot on the base of his spine tracked his performance on various Pandolf High varsity teams with precise locations.

“This is drama,” Charlie said. “We’re doing ‘West Side Story’ in Theater class, there’s Michaela and me, different tribes and you as the New York City cop.” 

Charlie moved away from Campbell quickly, dodging another harder blow.

“Hey, why can’t you take a joke?” asked Charlie.

“This is not a joke, Charlie,” said Campbell.

The two faced each other. Campbell looked into Charlie’s eyes, as calculating as carefree. The boy’s  handsome bristled face was a rough adolescent male version of Lucky’s delicate features. 

Was this adventure-seeking boy even capable of regret about stealing his friend’s gun, he wondered? George wasn’t going to get the weapon back, either. 

“You idiot,” Campbell planned to tell Manny Garcia. “Why would you leave a lethal, mass-murdering weapon with a teenager?” 

Maybe after living in Saburia, he thought, this was the new normal for Garcia. Like Charlie and George, the youngest soldiers on the Saburian military base were also barely breaking into manhood.

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

NOVEMBER, 2026

In Chicago, Sichet abruptly ended his meeting with Kochanski at the Spirit and Stone.

 “It’s so loud in here,” Sichet said, “I didn’t hear all my beeps. Got to go now. Trouble.”

As Sichet rushed out, Kochanski heard him talking on his phone, “Yes, honey, that was a client who called our home by accident. Now go back to whatever you were doing.”

Briefly turning around to nod a goodbye, Sichet said, “Nothing like the home emergency number for an important client to be sure to find me. This has to do with Saburia. So no more drinks please —  I may need your help.” 

Kochanski poured himself another shot of Dew anyway. The waiters knew to just leave a bottle in ice at his table. He had been at the Spirit and Stone since finishing dinner with Alex Marion and then caught up with many regulars — until Sichet arrived. 

He tapped on his phone screen and pulled up the digital poster Alex Marion had designed for the Dew vodka brand.

During dinner, Alex had said, “It’ll appeal to people who like that cold bitter bite of Lake Michigan wind.” 

Callie’s smiling face and flirty smile appeared in the foreground of a wintry background with the Chicago skyline. “You don’t have to pay for that model,” Alex added. “She’ll do it gratis for you.”

“It’s charming.”

Alex laughed. “Is that just the pizza talking?”

“Maybe, Alex,  and maybe I also feel grateful to you and your family for taking in outsiders like Oscar and me.” 

“We like having you around too,” Alex said. “I want to pick your brain about something else. I have been talking to Callie about a job offer in Oregon.” 

He detailed a package of salary, bonuses and benefits at a marketing company. “I think she likes being close to her parents in Illinois. But she’s considering the idea of moving. For me, my artistic career has plateaued — putting it kindly — and I need to make a living and take care of my family.”

Kochanski nodded. “You can work on my digital ad campaign from anywhere.”

But he had already heard about Oregon from Callie, in his most recent visit to their house. Kochanski had bought the children medical action figures from the latest A’50 movie about an asteroid collision with Earth. Excited shouting filled the upstairs as they played. 

Alex got up after a dinner of Chinese take-out. “My turn to put the kids to bed.”

Before leaving, he asked, “How’re you liking our new kitchen? Nice to no longer eat in the living room. That’s next to be updated.”

After her husband left, Kochanski confronted Callie. “Where’s the money coming from for these renovations? Why would showing foreign visitors around Chicago be so lucrative?” 

She got up from the table to clear it away. Except for the crystal wine glasses, everything else was paper and plastic and went straight into a trash can. 

“Not environmentally friendly,” she admitted. “Come stand next to me while I do the dishes so you can hear me.”

She turned on the loud tap. Banging of pots and pans followed.

 “I miss Marcella since she left for college,“ she said. “This new sitter seems more work than it’s worth. She left me this sinkful.”

Her voice dropped low as she confessed,  “Jim likes games. I go along. I don’t want to give all this up.” 

She looked  around the kitchen with its new granite countertop and smart stove.

“What kind of games?” 

She looked down, not meeting his eyes. “It was Jim who grabbed my scarf that night outside the door. It turned out he was angry that I was involved with the forgery.

“Another night, after I saw your painting in his studio, Jim waited for me here in the house. No one was home. I walked into the living room and turned on the light. There he was with questions for me about what had happened when Oscar used to visit our house.” 

He leaned in to hear her better, his cheek to hers, bristly against creamy skin, close enough to see the fuzz where it met her hairline with its sweep of choppy dyed hair. 

She sighed. “I guess that before he died, Oscar told Jim made-up stories about coming here to our house: him, Alex and me — open marriages — all for some spiritual purpose.” 

He pulled back. “Callie, Oscar was good about mixing his fancies with fact.”

“Yeah,” she said, “remember how I really believed Oscar had traveled to all those religious places. I told Jim that Oscar just made stuff up.”

“Callie, how did Jim say he heard Oscar’s version of things? He told me he had never met Oscar.”

“I don’t know more.” She turned off the water. “That was over a year ago when Oscar last visited us. Back then, Alex was really down…well, what do artists do?

“Things got a little wild around here with the drinking and all, but nothing like that ever happened and no harm done until…”

He finished her sentence. “Until Oscar disappeared,” he said.

He was now wiping the dripping pots and pans and putting them away. 

“OK Callie,”he said softly. “What exactly is going on between you and Jim? I thought he had a girlfriend, Angela.” 

“He does. Nothing else is going on between us,” she said.

“As for Jim’s girlfriend, Angela,” she said, shaking her head. “I hear she meets him in Rush and Division bars and pretends that he is a stranger picking her up. Still, I get the impression that Angela’s nearing the end of her shelf life for Jim.”

“Do you want to take her place, Callie?” Kochanski scolded. “There are words for that.”

“It’s OK, the world’s oldest profession, I won’t be the first or last woman — person — to do something like that.”

 “Don’t even think about it. You’re dealing with violent people. What about Alex?”

“Oh, no, I haven’t told him anything. He’s so sensitive, and it would break him,” she said. “Still, I don’t think you need to worry about my safety. Jim’s not psycho.” 

She shrugged. “You should know better than most that we do what we have to do. You have told me some of your stories from Poland.” 

She no longer smiled like she used to. That confidence was gone. She turned off the tap and started wiping the counter.

Kochanski turned on the robot vacuum. Over its whine, he said, “Callie, the thing is when I found myself in a dark place around your age, I used the little luck and brains God gave me to get out. You can do it too.

“I’m still running from the past,” he added.  “God’s an infrequent visitor. Maybe you’ll be luckier.” 

“Thanks,” she said. “Michael, sometimes there is no going back to what used to be. I no longer fit in my old home down in the country either. I must look ahead. There’s always Oregon.”

“Oregon?”

“Yes,” Callie said nodding. “We’re going to make a road trip out there to see Marcella’s college and maybe not come back. Still, that would be so far away from my parents.”

“Running away doesn’t fix things.”

“You ran away from Poland. Don’t tell me this is different.”

“You need to tell Jim to leave you alone.”

She looked over at the gutted dining and living room and the construction tools stored near the door. 

“If I tell him that,” she whispered, “he’ll feel rejected or think I just want more stuff. Alex could lose his job.”

“Ask Jim to marry you if he likes you so much.”

Both had turned around, watching the door, listening for footsteps on the stairs for Alex’s return.

She looked amazed. “What!”

“That’ll make him run the other way.” 

She laughed, “That’s even better than that old kid trick, picking one’s nose to turn a guy off.”

Kochanski leaned into Callie. “Tell Jim it’s what you need to be happy. You now have feelings for him. You’re not that kind of woman. That is the truth. You want him to put a ring on it. 

“Callie, you’re an actress. Cry, act broken-hearted, scare him that you’ll stalk the Mrs. … talk about all the marital troubles you have with Alex and how you don’t love your husband anymore.”

She was laughing merrily now. “Those are all lies. You have a crazy imagination. Jim won’t believe it.”

“Oh, yes, Jim will believe that you’re in love with him. He’s got a big ego. The last thing he’ll want is for Alex to lose his job and drive you further into this ‘crazy woman’ idea for the two of you to run off together and get married. Then maybe he’ll move on.”

“Michael, you really are serious. I’ll think about it. You know, I feel sorry for Jim. That’s the only ‘feeling’ that I truly have for him.”

Kochanski shook his head incredulously. “Why? Callie, that’s a man’s oldest trick in the book: to get a woman’s sympathy.”

They heard steps on the stairs and then Alex walked in. “Glad to see both of you are having a nice talk,” he said.

“I was just telling Callie something my daughter had said,” Kochanski mumbled.

Katya had recently visited him in Chicago. At the Spirit and Stone, she shook her head at its transformation of the chapel. 

“Glad you kept the stained glass windows and wood inlays, Dad,” she said in English. 

Sheraton joined them for dinner, the first meeting of the two women.

Afterward, Katya said Sheraton was “OK.

“Dad,” she said, “If you get into a relationship with her, she won’t be like those young women you dated before — hormones steaming out of their ears, ready to pop out a few more Kochanskis. 

“I remember the story you told me about Mom and her stepmother, how Mom had to take care of her little baby half-brother instead of going to school. That was awful.

“With someone like Elise, you won’t be dealing with a demanding younger woman who doesn’t understand you and then supporting a second family in your golden years, on Medicare by the time the kid you have together — who’s autistic because you’re an old father by the way — graduates from high school.”

He was quiet.

She went on relentlessly. “Smart old men with young girlfriends don’t have children with them or marry them.

“Still, my friends tell me to make sure that if you get remarried, there is a prenup to protect my interests.”

“You have cynical friends,” he finally said. She had a new boyfriend, a French student he hadn’t met yet.

Katya was right, he was getting old. Age had bought him cunning that sliced deeper than any knife?  In another infrequent visit, God might give him the chance to use his wisdom on Sichet — in a mission for revenge —  for Oscar, Callie and himself. 

But he had changed.  No more that surge of power that led to the joy of the kill, instead time had brought a fuse box for his passions.  A conscience? Cowardice?  Fatigue? Or the knowledge that Oscar and Callie — even himself — were foolish souls to let blow away in the wind? 

A strange softness now surprised him, welling within, old as the call of a Saburian lyuma and pure as the glow of a star in the East African sky. Callie’s words echoed about feeling pity for Sichet, along with the image of a killer’s empty eyes, once his own. Hate washed away. 

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