Better intervene before he starts getting caught in a downward spiral. “Uhhh, Ross, I’ve met a lot of spirits in my day, and there’ve been a lot of them who died ‘good deaths,’ real ‘blaze of glory’ stuff. Every one of ’em mentioned how stupid it was after all, you know, big picture stuff. I don’t know if there is a right way to die. But, they all have had regrets about their lives . . . the real heroes and the regular joes.”
“Hmm. Yeah, well, I guess I have a lot to think about, and a lot of time to do it.” Ross turned, and pulled the cigarette from his lips. “So now I get the chance to change things, huh? Fix what I shouldn’t have been in at all. Fine.” He threw the cigarette down and ground it out. “I’ve wanted to quit smoking for twenty years now, and never could. I’ll be damned if I’ll do it when I’m dead. Don’t start drinking or smoking, boy.”
Tannim smiled and said, “Yeah, the stuff’ll kill you.”
Ross bent down before the concrete pillar, and reached a translucent hand towards a sparkling shard of glass. He crouched there a moment longer and smoothed the dirt over it, then strode towards the Mustang, leaving his death behind him.
* * *
The Alan Parsons Project’s “Don’t Answer Me” played on the tape deck as the wind rushed past the Mach 1, its engine thrumming in mechanical symphony. The breeze from the open windows made the young driver’s hair stream back against the seat-covers, and that same breeze blew right through his passenger.
Ross Canfield put his hand to his chin, shifted to lean his arm against the sill, and put his arm through it. He withdrew and tried again, this time successfully resting his arm against the vinyl. “Shit, this is gonna be hard to get used to.”
Tannim chuckled and leaned forward to tap a sticking gauge. “You’re doing fine, Ross. Just remember, things in my world may or may not affect you. It’s mostly a matter of what you want to be influenced by; for instance, you could, if you wanted to, fall right out of this car doing seventy now by simply deciding that seat won’t affect you. Then, you may choose for the road not to affect you, and you wouldn’t be hurt by the fall. But you missed the armrest just now because you forgot to ‘want’ it to affect you. Tricky, huh?”
“Kinda like—what’d they used to say? Mind over matter?”
“Exactly.” He nodded with approval. “Now, until you learn spirit-traveling, you’re limited by your old human abilities. One day, you may be able to fly cross-country by will alone, but for now, if you fell out of the car, I’d have to stop and pick you up, ’cause you couldn’t run fast enough to keep up with me.”
Ross chuckled. “Yeah, but I can run faster now that I’m dead. No wheezy lungs from smoking, no beer gut.”
“Yeah, and you can play tennis with dead pros to keep in shape.”
Ross and Tannim both laughed. “You know, I never thought being dead would be so damned entertaining. And it seems like I should be more upset about it.”
Tannim kept his eyes on the road, but he smiled to himself. Ross Canfield was coming along very well—a lot faster than Tannim would have thought. “Well, seriously, Ross, there are a lot of ways to deal with it, but you’re running on instinct. Your subconscious was aware you were dead, but your superconscious wasn’t ready to accept it, so you stood there sucking a butt for a couple of years. Now, it’s kind of a relief that it’s out in the open, and you’re able to get to the decisions you’ve been building towards all this time. And as for it being entertaining, kissing a bridge at lightspeed drunk off your ass is a grim thing, but there are a lot of things about being a ghost that are damn funny, no matter what the circumstances are.”
“Like fallin’ through doors,” Ross supplied.
“Uh huh. So, deal with it now with a laugh, because there are plenty of things in the future that’ll make you cry, make you scream—” now he turned to look at Canfield out of the corner of his eye “—make you wish you were more dead than you are.”
“Huh. As you can tell by the two-year wait, I don’t spook easily.” His face cracked with a smirk.
“Ross! I’d never picked you for a punster!”
“Yeah, well, that’s why I’m not in Heaven right now.”
Tannim grinned and thought about the turn of a friendly card. Maybe they were both lucky they’d met.
“Seriously . . . what do I do now? How’m I supposed to learn all these ghost things, and how do I get outta bein’ one? This shit’s gonna get old eventually.” Now Ross looked uncertain. “I don’t suppose you’d teach me—”
Tannim shook his head. “I can’t, Ross. The best I can do is what I just did—break you out of the stalemate you were in and get you started. Like most things, Ross, you have to get out and practice. Learn by doing. Talk to other ghosts, pick up the tricks. I can’t show you what you need to know; I’ve got too many other irons in the fire, and I’ve got problems enough with people trying to make me into a ghost.”
At first Ross snorted; then he looked around, and squinted. His eyes widened, and Tannim figured he had started to see some of the protections on the Mustang. It was enough to impress him—even if he wasn’t seeing more than a fraction of the magics Tannim had infused the Mach 1 with. “There are a couple of other things I can tell you: just like you can let the rest of the world affect you, with practice, you can influence what happens in the physical world—or; more accurately, the world I’m in right now. Like back there, when you touched that piece of glass, buried it . . . there’s a lotta different kinds of ‘physical.’ Making a change in this one means discovering how to make yours interact with it. That thing with the magnetics is an example of one you can’t control; there are others you’ll pick up soon enough.”
“Got some simple tips?”
“Sure. Stay away from things that make you tired, don’t fiddle with walls that won’t let you pass, and if anything tries to eat you, hurt it.”
“Tries to—eat me?” Ross’s eyes widened again.
“There’s a lot of unfriendly things out there, including some that used to be human. Remember, don’t attack first. Until you have the experience to tell friend from foe, be cautious. It’s always easier to hold a defensive position anyway. And there are a lot of things out there that aren’t human at all; treat them fairly, they can become very close friends. My best friend isn’t human. Pretty simple. Otherwise, things are similar to living. You can have sex as a ghost, ride in an F-15. Fly on the Space Shuttle if you want, if you can find room. It’s very popular. Enjoy it, and learn. That’s the key to moving on—knowledge and maturity are important.”
“But, what about moving on? How—”
Tannim shook his head. “I can’t tell you; it’s different for everyone. You’ll know when. If you didn’t know how, you’d have never seen the bridge back there; that was an important move. It shows you’re finally ready to accept what you are.”
Ross was silent for a while, and the miles ticked away as the skyline of Savannah came into view. Finally he spoke. “Tannim . . . thanks.”
“No thanks needed, friend,” Tannim said, slowing as he approached the city limit. “You ready to take off on your own?”
Ross nodded. “If you need anything, call. I’ll find a way to get there. I guess this is dangerous work you’re doing, and I owe you for this,” he said through teary spectral eyes. “I’d better get out there. I lost enough time getting shit-faced before, and I want to see what I missed.”
Tannim looked sideways at Ross Canfield, nodded, and turned his eyes back towards the highway, pulled to the shoulder and stopped. The city lights illuminated the car, the driver, and the empty seat beside him.
“Be sure to visit River Street while you’re here, Ross. Always a party. Good luck. Here’s your exit.”
The ghost stepped through the door onto the shoulder, and Tannim watched him in the rearview mirror, an ordinary enough guy, watching the Mach 1’s taillights recede into the night. Ordinary—except that only Tannim could see him.
And only Tannim could hear him, as clearly as if Ross still sat beside him.
“You need me, you call.”
“That was Georgia’s own B-52s, with ‘Rock Lobster,’ ” said the radio announcer, his cheerful voice murmuring from the sixteen speakers of Doctor Sam Kelly’s home-built quadraphonic system. “Next up, Shriekback, the Residents, the new British release from George Louvis, and an oldie from Thomas Dolby, but first . . .”
Sam hit the “mute” button, and the commercial laded to a whisper. The timer would bring the volume back up in another sixty seconds, and by then the station should be back to music. Doctor Samuel Sean Kelly might have majored in metallurgy, but he had minored in electrical engineering; sensing, even back in the ’40s, that the time would come when everyone had to have some understanding of electronics. After all, hadn’t he grown up on H. G. Wells, and the science-fiction tradition that the engineer was the man who could and would save the universe? “Not bad, for an old retired fart,” he chuckled to his Springer Spaniel, Thoreau, who raised his head and ears as if he understood what his master was saying. “I liked Elvis in the ’50s, I liked the Stones and the Fuggs in the ’60s, and now, sure, I’m on the cutting edge—right, boyo?”
Thoreau wagged his stub of a tall and put his head back down on his paws. He didn’t care how eclectic his master’s taste in music was, so long as he didn’t crank up those imposing speakers to more than a quarter of their capacity. When Sam retired from Gulfstream, he’d held a party for his younger colleagues that was still the talk of the neighborhood. There had been complaints to the police about the music from as far away as five blocks, and poor Thoreau had gone into hiding in the back closet of the bedroom, not to emerge for three days.
The desk-top before him was preternaturally clean, with only a single envelope cluttering the surface. Sam fingered the letter from “Fairgrove Industries,” as the radio volume returned to normal, and Thomas Dolby complained of hyperactivity. He sat back in his aging overstuffed recliner, surrounded by his books, frowning at the empty room and wishing wistfully that he hadn’t given up smoking. Or that he hadn’t agreed to talk to this “Tannim” person.
It had seemed very harmless when he first got the letter; this “Tannim”—what sex the person was he hadn’t known until the phone call came confirming the evening appointment—wanted to talk to him about a job as a consultant. He had offered Sam an amazing amount of money just to talk to him: fifteen hundred dollars for an evening of his otherwise idle time. Sam had said yes before he thought the consequences through—after all, how many retired metallurgists could boost their income by that much just by talking to someone? But later, after he’d had lunch with some of the youngsters at Gulfstream and heard some of the latest news, he began to wonder. There was a lot going on over there right now; the joint project with the Russians, a lot of composite development and things being done with explosive welding and foamed aluminum. None of it was exactly secret, but there was a lot of proprietary information Sam was still privy to—and more he could get clandestine access to, if he chose. What if this “Fairgrove Industries”—which was not listed with the Better Business Bureau, and not in any industrial database that Sam had access to—was just a front for something else? What if this Tannim was trying to set him up as a corporate informant, or looking for some “insider trading” type information? Sam had loved his job at Gulfstream; they were, as he joked, a “growing, excited company.” He liked the people he worked with enough to socialize with them, even now, when he had been retired for the past several months. He wasn’t interested in doing anything that would hurt the company.
Sam tapped the edge of the envelope on his desk and made up his mind about what he was going to do, now that he had realized the implications. “Well, Thoreau, if this young fella thinks I’m some kind of senile old curmudgeon he can fool with a silver tongue and a touch of blarney, he’s going to be surprised,” Sam said aloud. “If it’s looking to make a fool of me he is, I just may be making a fool of him.”
If this Tannim was trying to set him up as a corporate informant, Sam decided, this old man would turn the tables on him. There was a break-in camera under the eaves; it took snaps when the burglar alarm went off, but it could be operated manually. Very well, then, he’d snap pictures of the man’s car and license tag when he arrived. First thing in the morning, he’d call his old bosses, give them the number and the young man’s description, and let them know exactly what had gone on. Looking for a corporate informant wasn’t illegal, exactly—but the fellows at Gulfstream could certainly put a stop to anything shady.
And Sam would still have the fifteen hundred dollars.
Not bad, when you stopped to think out all the implications first, rather than backtracking in a panic. Assuming of course, the check didn’t bounce.
But planning ahead in case things did go wrong was what had made Sam one of the best in his field.
“Or so I like to tell myself,” he said aloud, smiling at his own conceit.
The doorbell rang, and Sam reached automatically for the modified TV remote-control that, through the intervention of an old Commodore microcomputer, handled gadgets throughout the house. The poor old thing was useless even as a game machine these days, but it was perfectly adequate to mute the radio—or take pictures of the young man and his car before Sam even reached the door. He made his way to the door with a shade of the limberness of his youth, and opened it, catching the stranger in a “listening” pose that told Sam the man had been trying to catch the sound of his own approaching footsteps.
“Doctor Kelly?” The man at the door was illuminated by the powerful floodlight Sam had used to replace the ridiculous little phony carriage-lamp that had been installed there. And he was a very young man, much younger than his deep voice had suggested. He nodded in a noncommittal fashion and the man continued. “I’m Tannim—we had an appointment—”
He was carrying a dark leather folder. Sam first took in that, then the wild mop of curly hair, cut short in front and long in the back, the way a lot of kids on MTV cut theirs—a dark nylon jacket, with a good shirt underneath, and a soft scarf instead of a tie—dark slacks, not jeans—boots—the first impression was reasonable. But not exactly fitting the image of a corporate recruiter. The face was good; high cheekbones, determined chin, firm mouth, fine bone-structure and curiously vulnerable-looking eyes. The kid looked like a lot of the hotshot young engineers Sam worked with. But not like what Sam had been expecting.
“I remember,” Sam replied cautiously. There was something about the young man that suggested trustworthiness, perhaps his eyes, or the curious sense of stillness about him; but Sam knew better than to trust his first impression. Some of the biggest crooks he had ever known had inspired that same feeling of trust. And some of them had been just as young as this man.
“Can I come in?” A quirky grin spread across the man’s bony face, transforming the stillness without entirely removing it. “Or would you rather earn your retainer standing here in the doorway? Or would you like to go somewhere else entirely?”
Well, it wouldn’t hurt to let the youngster in. Sam moved aside, and Tannim stepped across the threshold. Sam noticed that he walked with a limp, one he was at pains to minimize; that he moved otherwise with a cat-like grace at odds with the limp. Sam was no stranger to industrial accidents and their aftermath. This was someone who had suffered a serious injury and learned to cope with it. That moved him a little more into the “favorable” column, in Sam’s mind. Con artists tended to emphasize injuries to gain sympathy—con artists tended not to get injured in the first place. “Follow me, if you would,” Sam said, leading the way to his office. This was going to be more interesting than he had thought.
Tannim cocked his head to one side as he entered the office, and caught what was playing softly over the speakers. The playlist had migrated to the outré. His eyes and his smile increased a trifle. “Doctor Kelly—I’m pleasantly surprised by your taste in music.”
Sam shrugged, as the Residents gave forth their own terrifyingly skewed version of “Teddybear.” He took his seat in the recliner behind his desk and waved at the two identical recliners in front of the desk.
But Tannim didn’t take a seat; instead, he put the folder he had been carrying on the desk, and beside it, a set of I.D. cards he fanned like a set of playing cards.
“Before we talk, Doctor Kelly, I’d like to assure you of something. Fairgrove Industries is a brand new entity insofar as the rest of the world is concerned—but we’ve been around a long, long time in the private sector.” Sam looked up to see that Tannim’s smile had turned into a wide grin. “We’ve been around a lot longer than anyone knows. I know what you’ve probably been thinking; that I’m a corporate raider, that I’m a front-man for industrial espionage, or that I’m looking for information on your former employer. Actually, I don’t usually do this for Fairgrove, but the folks back at the plant thought I’d be the best person to approach you.”
“Oh?” Sam Kelly replied. “So—just what is it that this Fairgrove does that they want from me?”
Tannim tapped the folder with one long finger. “We build racecars, Doctor Kelly. We have nothing to do with aerospace, and I doubt very much we’ll ever be involved in that business. But you have skills we very much need.”
Sam looked back down at the top photo I.D., which was, unmistakably, Tannim. And listed only the single name, oddly enough—no initials, no first or last name. It was an SCCA card, autoclub racing, sure enough; beneath it was a SERRA card (whatever that was), an IMSA card, an I.D. card for Roebling Road racetrack, and beneath that was his Fairgrove card. That particular piece of I.D. listed him as “test-driver/ mechanic,” which Sam hadn’t known was still possible. Not these days, when either profession required skill and training enough to overwhelm most ordinary people.
But Tannim didn’t give him any chance to ask about that—he opened the folder, and began describing just what it was that Fairgrove wanted from him, if he would take the job.
“We need you as a consultant, Doctor Kelly,” he said, earnestly. “We’re working on some pretty esoteric technologies here, and we need someone with a solid background who is still flexible and open to new ideas. You were one of the best metallurgists in the country before you retired—and no one has ever accused you of being stuck in a rut, or being too old-fashioned to change.”
That surprised him further, and embarrassed him a little. He was at a loss for a response, but Tannim was clearly waiting for one. “Oh, I would’na know about that,” he said, lapsing briefly into the Irish brogue of his childhood.
“We would,” Tannim said firmly, nodding so that his unruly mop of dark, curly hair flopped over into one eye, making him look, thin as he was, like a Japanese anime character. “We’ve looked very carefully at everyone who might suit us, and who could legitimately work with us without compromising themselves or their current or past employers. You are the best.”
Sam felt himself blushing, something he hadn’t done in years. “Well, if you think so . . . what’s the job, anyway?”
“Metallurgy,” Tannim told him. “Specifically, fabricating engine blocks and other high-stress parts of non-ferrous materials.” He flashed that grin again, from under the errant lock of hair, calling up an answering smile from Sam. “Like your music, we’re on the cutting edge.”
“I don’t know,” Sam replied, slowly, as Tannim finally took his seat, leaving his host free to leaf through the Fairgrove materials. Most of them had the look of something that had been produced on a personal computer, the great-great grandchild of the one that helped Sam run his house, and the cousin of the one on the workstation behind him. The specs Fairgrove had on their “wish list” were impressive—and as unlikely as any of H. G. Wells’ dreams of Time Machines. “I don’t know. Engine blocks—you’re talking about a high-stress application there. You want a foamed aluminum matrix for internal combustion, with water-cooling channels, air-cooling vanes, and alloy piston sleeves? In five castings for the main block? I don’t know that it’s possible.”
“Ah, but you don’t know it’s not possible, do you?” Tannim retorted. “We aren’t going to pay you on the basis of whether or not common wisdom says it’s possible—we’re doing research. Applied research, yes, but when you do research, you accept the fact that some of your highways may turn out to be dead ends. That’s life. And speaking of payment—” He reached into his jacket, and pulled out an oak-tree-embossed envelope, which he laid on top of the Fairgrove folder.
Sam thumbed it open. There was a cashier’s check inside, made out on his own bank, for fifteen hundred dollars. Until this moment, Sam had not entirely believed in the reality of this retainer. Now, holding it in his hands, he could find no flaw in it—and no real flaw with what Fairgrove, in the person of this young man, proposed.
Except, of course, whether or not what they wanted was a pipe-dream, a Grail; desirable, yes, but impossible to achieve. . . .
Or was it? These people certainly had a lot of money to wave around. And there were some problems you could solve by throwing money at them.
“I suppose I could take a look at this place,” he ventured. “I could at least see what you people have to work with.”
If anything, Tannim’s grin got wider. He spread his hands wide. “Sure! How about—right now? We’re all night owls over there, and it isn’t that far away.”
Now? In the middle of the night? That wasn’t an offer Sam expected. Did they expect him to come? Or did they expect him to say no?
If he showed up now, surely they wouldn’t have time to put on a big display for him . . . and that might be all for the best, really. He’d see things as they were, not a dog-and-pony show. As for the lateness of the hour, well, one of the advantages of being retired was that he no longer had to clock in—and he didn’t have to follow the company’s time schedule. He’d always been a night owl by nature, and although this was the “middle of the night” to some people, for him the day was barely halfway through—one reason why he’d set this appointment long after a “normal” working day had ended.
And besides all that, if he was going to take a look at this place, he wanted to see all of it. That meant the metal shops, too. This early in the fall, daytime temperatures were still in the nineties, and no matter how good their air-conditioning was, the shops would be as hot as Vulcan’s forge during the daylight hours. Metal shops always were, especially if these people were doing casting work.
“All right,” he said, shoving himself resolutely out of his chair. “Let’s go. No better time to see this miracle place of yours than right now.”
“Great!” the young man answered, sliding out of his chair and getting to his feet with no more than a slight hesitation for the bad leg. “Want to take my car? We’ve used it to test out some SERRA-racer modifications; y’know, suspension mods, rigidity, a little composite fiddling. It’s street-legal—barely.”
There was something challenging about his grin, and Sam decided to take the dare. “Sure,” he replied, taking just enough time with his remote to tell the house to run the “guardian” program. He slipped the remote into his pocket as an added precaution; without that, no one would be able to disarm the system. Not even cutting the power would make a difference; the house had its own uninterruptable power supply, and a generator that kicked on if the power stayed off for more than half an hour. He’d installed all that during the Gulf War terrorist scare, when high-level people at a lot of industries, including Gulfstream, had been warned they might be targets for kidnapping or terrorism. He’d gotten into the habit of arming it whenever he left or went to sleep, and it didn’t seem an unreasonable precaution still. Maybe he was paranoid, but being paranoid had saved lives before this.
Thoreau sighed as he saw Sam reach for his jacket. Sam reached down and ruffled the dog’s ears, promising that even though “daddy” wasn’t going to be around to beg a late-night snack from, there would be a treat when he got back. Thoreau accepted this philosophically enough, and padded alongside, providing an escort service to the front door.
There, Sam was briefly involved in locking the door, and wasn’t paying a great deal of attention to the car behind him. Then he turned around.
Sam had been around hot-rodders all his life; seemed to him that for every four techies at Gulfstream who were indifferent to automobiles, there would be one who cherished the things. Now he was looking at a machine that would impress any of them. It was parked with the front wheels turned rakishly, and he made note of its distinguishing features. Dark metallic red; three antennas. Scuffed sidewalls. Dark windows. It was hardly the “company car” he was expecting.
Tannim was wearing that sideways smile of his, and thumbed his keyring. The Mustang rumbled to life, and its doors unlocked and opened a crack. Despite himself; Sam’s face showed his interest in the electronic gimcrackery. Tannim gestured to the open passenger’s side door with a flourish, and went around to the driver’s side as Sam pulled the door open and got in.
Sam pulled the seatbelt snug as Tannim slid into the driver’s side, noting as he did so, that these were not standard American windowshade seatbelts, which tended—in his opinion—to allow far too much freedom of movement for safety. And as Tannim closed the driver’s side door, he noted something else. . . .
Something besides the door had closed, sealing them inside the protective shell of the Mustang. It had sprung into being the moment Tannim’s door closed, and covered car and occupants. It wasn’t tangible, like the seatbelts or the roll-cage—it wasn’t even visible to ordinary sight. But it was there, nevertheless. Tannim pushed a worn tape into the dash deck, and turned down or switched off most of the suite of other instruments there—the CB, high-end channel-scanner, an in-dash radar detector, and—what was this, a police-repeater sensor? Sam looked over the interior a little more, noting the various boxes in the back seat. Some more electronics gear. Hmm. There was also a trash-box stuffed with candy wrappers, a tissue box, allergy tablets, fire extinguishers mounted next to crowbars, two first-aid kits . . . and an embroidered tape-case. As he peered at it, Sam thought he could almost see words in the threads, and familiar symbols. This vehicle was not just a very unusual car; there was more to it than that. There was a great deal of power under the hood—and there was far more Power of a different sort infused into it.
The differences might not be visible to normal eyes, but Sam had a little more to use than what his granny had called “outer eyes.” Sam had not been gifted with the ability the Irish referred to as “the Sight” to neglect using it, after all. Nor had becoming a man of science interfered with that. If anything, he was too much of a scientist to discount a gift that had granted him knowledge he might not otherwise have, with fair reliability, over so many years.
Interesting. Very interesting.
“So,” he said, as Tannim pulled out smoothly onto the darkened highway, the headlights cutting the darkness ahead of them into areas of seen and half-seen. “Tell me about Fairgrove. Why did they decide to get into manufacturing? And why nonferrous materials?”
Tannim fiddled with the tape deck for a moment before replying. He had put in a Clannad tape, and made a show of ensuring that the volume exactly matched that of the radio in Sam’s office, stalling a little. Sam knew a stall when he saw one.
“Before I tell you about Fairgrove, I have to explain SERRA,” he temporized, paying closer attention to the road ahead than it really warranted. “In some ways, they’re almost the same entity. Virtually everyone working for Fairgrove came out of SERRA, and the president and board of Fairgrove actually helped found SERRA. Uh, their families did.”
Sam was pretending to watch the road, but he was really watching Tannim out of the corner of his eye. And that last, about the board founding SERRA, had been a real slip. Tannim hadn’t meant to say that. But what made it a slip?
“So? What’s this SERRA?” he asked.
“South Eastern Road Racing Association,” Tannim replied promptly, and with enthusiasm he didn’t try to conceal. “It’s an offshoot of the SCCA—Sports Car Club of America. Part of the problem for us was that SCCA doesn’t allow the sort of modifications we wanted, and the folks in SERRA wanted to push the envelope of sportscar racing a bit more, more ‘experimental’ stuff. Fairgrove also supports an IMSA team, running GTP, but that’s for pro drivers, guys who don’t do anything but drive, and we’ve only just started that circuit. Some of us—like me—still race SCCA, in fact, I drive for the Fairgrove team. There’s things to like about both clubs, which is why Fairgrove still maintains a team in both.”
“You don’t drive in the Fairgrove SERRA team?” Sam said. Tannim shrugged.
“We’ve got some drivers as good as I am on the SERRA team, drivers who can’t race SCCA cars. Since I could do both, I opted for the SCCA team, and left rides for the other guys.” He grinned. “Don’t worry, I get plenty of track time in! If I had the time, I could spend every weekend and most weekdays racing.”
Sam had no doubt that Tannim was a professional driver in every sense of the word, despite the disclaimer; the way he handled this car put Sam in mind of an expert fighter pilot, of the way the plane becomes an extension of the pilot himself, and the pilot can do things he shouldn’t be able to. There was an air of cocky competence about the kid, now that he was behind the wheel, that was very like a good pilot’s too.
“That’s not cheap, fielding several teams—” Sam ventured.
“Three teams, each with several cars, and no, it isn’t cheap,” Tannim admitted cheerfully. “The founding families started out independently wealthy—inherited money that survived the ’20s crash—but they’ve been making racing pay for itself for a while now. Not just purses and adverts—they’ve been farming out their experts—” he grinned again “—like yours truly, and opening up their shops for modifications to whoever was willing to pay the price. But that could only go so far. Now we’d like to hit the bigtime. Indy-style, Formula One, that kind of thing. Getting right up there with the big boys—maybe even have the big boys come to us. But to do that, we have to have something better than just mods. We have to have original advances. That’s where you come in.”
He braked, briefly, and Sam caught the flash of a bird’s wings in the headlights. An owl; a big one. Most drivers wouldn’t have known it was going to cut across the car’s vector. Most drivers wouldn’t have bothered to avoid it.
“Maybe,” Sam replied, feeling his way. “I don’t know; this sounds like it could be very risky business. . . .”
“Your part won’t be,” Tannim promised. “Fairgrove will pay half your consultation fee up front, before you even pin on a badge, and put the other half in escrow in your bank.” Then he named a figure that would have given Sam cardiac trouble, if not for watching his diet and cholesterol. It was considerably more than his salary at Gulfstream had been. Of course, one of the disadvantages of staying with a firm for years was that your salary didn’t keep pace with the going rate for new-hires with similar experience, but—this was ridiculous; they couldn’t want him that badly! Could they?
“What about disclosure?” he asked, when he could speak again.
“We’ve got a tentative non-disclosure clause in your contract, but we can modify it if you feel really strongly about it,” Tannim said. “We based it on the non-disclosure clause at Gulfstream, but we made one modification, and that’s in the area of Research and Development in safety. Anything that’s a significant advance in safety is immediately released, and patents won’t be enforced. Think you can live with that? Even if it means a loss of income?”
Since that was the one area where Sam had himself had several heated arguments with his own bosses over the years, he nodded. “Some things should be common knowledge,” he said grimy. “That’s in a Mercedes ad, but it’s true for all of that.”
He asked many more questions over the course of the next fifteen minutes, and although Tannim never refused to answer any of them, he kept getting the feeling that the young man was doing a kind of verbal dance the whole time—carefully steering him away from something. It wasn’t where the money was coming from; at least, this wasn’t the kind of youngster or the kind of operation Sam would have associated with money laundering and organized crime. And car-racing wasn’t the kind of operation that would lend itself to that sort of thing anyway. It wasn’t what he would be expected to accomplish. It was nothing that he was able to put a finger on. But there was some skillful verbal maneuvering going on here, and Sam wished strongly that he could see at least the shape of this blind spot, so he could guess at what it was hiding.
Tannim pulled off the highway onto a beautifully paved side road, and stopped at a formidable gate, punching in a code on the keypad-box just in front of it. The gate-doors retracted—
And just on the other side of the gate, a miniature traffic signal lit up—the yellow light first, then the green, and the radar detector under the dash lit up. Tannim turned toward his passenger with a sparkle in his eye, and a grin that bordered on maniacal. “Did you know that there’s no speed limit on private driveways?” he said, conversationally. Then he floored the accelerator.
Once again, it was a good thing that Sam had been watching his diet for years—and that he was well acquainted with “test pilot humor.” As it was, by the end of that brief but hair-raising half-mile ride, he wasn’t certain if Tannim had added years to his age, or subtracted them by peeling them off; with sheer speed as the knife-blade. One thing was sure; if Sam’s hair hadn’t already been white, the ride would have bleached it to silver.
Tannim pulled up to a tire-screeching halt beside another miniature traffic light. As they passed it, Sam noted—faintly surprised that he still had the ability to notice anything—that going in the opposite direction, the light was red as they passed it. It turned yellow well after they passed, then green a moment later. A wise precaution, if people used the driveway as a dragstrip on a regular basis. A board lit up with numbers, and Tannim laughed out loud. “Elapsed time and speed, Sam.” He cocked his head sideways like an exotic bird. “Not my best run, but not bad for nighttime, and with a passenger weighing me down.”
They rolled up to a driveway loop at a sedate pace. In the center of the circular cut-out was a discrete redwood sign reading “Fairgrove Industries.” The building itself looked like Cape Canaveral before a shuttle launch, with hundreds of lights burning. Evidently these people were night owls.
Tannim pulled the Mustang into a parking slot, between a Lamborghini Diablo and a Ferrarri Dino. “Expensive neighbors,” Sam commented. Tannim just chuckled, and popped his seatbelt.
He led the way through a series of darkened offices; the clerical staff was evidently not expected to keep the same hours as the techies. The offices themselves gave an overall impression of brisk efficiency with a touch of comedy; although the desks were clean and orderly, there were toys on all the computer terminals and desks, artwork and posters on the walls, and so many plants Sam wondered if someone had raided a greenhouse. Most of the artwork and toys had something to do with cars. These people evidently enjoyed their work. And these were working offices; had been for some time; there was no way you could counterfeit that “lived in, worked in” look. Whatever else Fairgrove was, it had been in existence for some time. This was no façade thrown up to delude him.
Tannim brought him to a soundproof wall—Sam recognized it as the twin to one at Gulfstream, that stood between the offices and the shops—and opened a door into bright light and seeming chaos.
There were cars in various states of disassembly everywhere, each one surrounded, like a patient in intensive care, by its own little flotilla of instrumentation and machinery. There was a lot of expensive equipment here: computer-controlled diagnostic devices, computer-controlled manufacturing machinery behind the cars on their little islands of activity—
There must have been several million dollars in cars alone, and about that in equipment. Oddly enough, though, no one seemed to be using any of the latter; they all seemed to be working directly on the cars. The machinery itself was standing idle. In fact, given the sheen of “newness” on all that expensive gimmickry, most of it hadn’t ever been fired up.
Why buy all that stuff if you weren’t going to use it?
Tannim was looking for something, or someone, craning his head in every direction. Sam was unable to get his attention, and really, didn’t try very hard. There was definitely something odd about this place. There was a facade—and it was in here, not out in the offices.
Finally, as a little group of people emerged from behind one of the cars and its attendant machines, Tannim spotted whoever it was he was looking for among them. He waved his hand in the air, and called out to them.
“Yo!” he shouted, his voice somehow carrying over the din. “Kevin! Over here!”
A tall, very blond man turned around in response to that shout, green eyes searching over the mass of machines and people.
And Sam felt such a shock he feared for a moment that he’d had a stroke. Those eyes—that face—they were familiar.
Hauntingly, frighteningly familiar, though he hadn’t seen them in nearly fifty years.
He knew this man—
—who wasn’t a man.
It was the same face—not a similar face, the same face, the same man. Identical. There was no confusing it, nor those green, cat-slitted eyes.
Inhuman eyes; eyes that had never been human.
Sam fell back across the decades, to his childhood, and his home, and one moonlit, Irish night.
Sam stumbled along beside his father, miserable right down to his socks, and wanting to be home with all his five-year-old heart.
“Da—me tum hurts,” Sam whined.
The full moon above them gave a clear, clean light, shining down on the dirt path that led between the pub and John Kelly’s little cottage. A month ago, they wouldn’t have been on this path. A month ago, Sam’s mummy, Moira, would have made them a good supper, one that wouldn’t have hurt Sam’s tummy the way the greasy sausage-and-potato mix the pub served up did. In fact, a month ago, John wouldn’t have been anywhere near the pub, and the pint of whiskey he had in his back pocket would have lasted him the month, not the night. He would’ve had tea with his good dinner, not washed bad roast down with more whiskey.
But that was a month and more ago, before Moira took a cough that became worse, and then turned into something awful, something called “new-moan-yuh.” Something the doctor couldn’t cure, nor all the prayers Sam and his Da had offered up to the Virgin.
She’d taken sick on a Monday. By the following Monday, they were putting her under the sod, and the priest told him she was with Jesus. Sam didn’t understand any of it; he kept thinking it was all a bad dream, and when he woke up, his Mummy would comfort him and everything would be all right again.
But he went to sleep at night, and woke up in the morning, and it wasn’t all right. His Da was drinking his breakfast, and leaving Sam to make whatever breakfast he could on cold bread-and-butter and go off to stay with Mrs. Gilhoolie, since he was too young for school. John Kelly was going to work smelling like a bottle, coming home smelling like a bottle, and taking Sam to the pub every night for a bad supper and more bottles.
It was cold out, and Sam had forgotten his coat “Da,” he whined again, knowing that he sounded nasty but not knowing what else to do to get his Da’s attention. “Da, me tum hurts, an’ I’m cold.” The wind whistled past them, coming around the Mound, and cutting right through Sam’s thin shirt and short pants. The Mound was an uncanny place, and Sam didn’t like to go there. The Fair Folk were supposed to live there, and they weren’t the pretty little fairies in the children’s books and the cartoons at the cinema; Sam’s granny had told him about the Fair Folk, and she had never, ever lied to him. They were terrible, wonderful creatures, taller than humans, handsome beyond belief, and many were utterly unpredictable. The best a human could do was steer clear of them, for no human could tell whether a man or woman of the Folk was kindly inclined towards humans or dangerous to them. Even when they seemed to be doing you favors, sometimes they were doing you harm, the bad ones. And the good ones sometimes did harm with the idea of doing good.
But right now Sam had more immediate troubles than running into one of the Fair Folk. His tummy hurt, he was so cold his teeth chattered, his head hurt, his Da was acting in peculiar ways—
And oh, but he missed his Mummy—
“Daaaaa,” he whined, holding back tears of grief. When his Da said anything about Mummy, it was to tell him to be a man, and not cry. But it was hard not to cry. The only way he could keep from crying, sometimes, was to whine. Like now. “Daaaaaa.”
There was no warning, none at all. One moment he was stumbling along beside his Da, the next, he was sprawled on the cold ground beside the path, looking up at his Da in shock, his face and teeth aching from the blow his Da had just landed on him. The moonlight showed the murderous look on his Da’s face clearly. Too clearly. Whimpering, with sudden terror, he tried to scramble away.
He wasn’t fast enough.
His Da grabbed the front of his shirt and hauled him to his feet, then off his feet, and backhanded him. Sam was in too much shock to even react to the first two slaps, but at the third, he cried out.
There was no fourth.
John had his hand pulled back, ready to deliver another blow. Sam struggled fruitlessly in his father’s iron grip, crying—
Then there was a tremendous flash of light; Sam was blinded, and felt himself falling. He flailed his arms wildly, and landed on his back, hard enough to drive the breath out of him.
He wheezed and rubbed his eyes, trying to force them to clear. The sound of someone choking made him look up, squinting through watering eyes, still trying to catch his breath.
What he saw made him forget to breathe.
A tall, terrible blond stranger, dressed in odd clothing, like something out of the pantomimes of King Arthur, was holding his father by the throat. John Kelly was white-faced and shaking, but was not trying to move or fight the stranger. This was no one Sam had seen in or near the village, and anyway, most of the people around here were small and dark, or small and red-haired. Not tall and silver-blond. The man looked down at Sam for a moment, and even though the only light came from the moon overhead, he saw—clearly—that the man had bright, emerald green eyes; eyes that looked just like a cat’s. And long, pointed ears.
This was no man. This could only be one of the Fair Folk, the Sidhe; and the fairy-man’s eyes caught Sam like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a motorcar.
Sam couldn’t move.
John Kelly made another choking noise, and the stranger turned those mesmerizing eyes back towards his captive.
“John Kelly,” the terrifying man said—with a gentleness made all the more terrible by his obvious strength. “John Kelly, you’re a good man, but you’re on the way to a bad end. ’Tis the luck of your God that brought you here tonight, within my reach and my ken, for if you hadn’t struck your lad just now, I wouldn’t have known of your troubles and your falling into the grip of pain and whiskey. Now get hold of yourself and get your life straight again—for if you don’t, I swear to you that we’ll steal this lovely boy of yours, and you’ll never see him again, this side of paradise. Remember what your mother told you, John Kelly. Remember it well, and believe it. We did it once within your family, and we can and will do it again, if the need comes to it.”
There was another flash of light. When Sam could see, the man was gone, and his father was sinking slowly to his knees. Sam still couldn’t move, numb with shock and awe, and feelings he couldn’t put a name to.
For a long, long time, John Kelly lay in the dirt, his shoulders shaking. Then, after a while, John looked up, and Sam saw tears running down his Da’s face, glistening in the moonlight.
“Da?” he whispered, tentatively. “Da?”
“Son—” John choked—and gathered Sam into his arms, holding him closely, just the way he used to. Sobbing. Somehow that made Sam feel both good and bad. Good, that his Da was the man he loved again. Bad, that his Da was crying.
Sam said again. “Da, what’s the matter? Da?”
“Sam—son—” John Kelly wept unashamed. “Son, I’ve been wicked, I’ve been blind with pain, and I’ve been wicked. Forgive me, son. Oh, please, forgive me—”
Sam hadn’t been sure what to say or do, but he’d given his father what he asked for: Forgiveness, and all the love and comfort he had.
Eventually, John Kelly had gathered his son up in his arms, and taken him home. And from that day until the day he died, he never touched another drop of alcohol.