The Wind Guardian
The shadows of the two lovers danced awkwardly on the bedroom wall. Their images projected like giants, stretching halfway across the ceiling. On the nightstand by the bed was a clock radio blaring out the classic Rolling Stones tune, Sympathy for the Devil. And there, on the bed, beneath a woman ten years younger, lay Jack Garner. The woman, straddling above him with palms pressed against his chest, rolled her hips in rhythm with the music.
Jack turned and looked over at the clock.
The blue digital numbers read: 8:30 p.m. He smiled.
Plenty of time, he thought.
The young woman was not pleased by his distraction. She reached down with her hands, turned his head back toward hers, and stared down at him wrathfully. In a single motion, she rolled and pulled Jack on top of her, and with her arms snaking up behind his neck, she pulled him down against her bare body. Rolling again, she came back on top, straddling once more, and she kissed him deeply.
Outside the bedroom window, dusk settled over the small coastal community of San Roque. Like every other California beach town, it had the typical storefronts which lined its beach promenade, known as Front Street. The cafés, which were most active during the summer months, were idle now. Beyond the promenade were the roof-tops of many apartment complexes, and further out were the vibrant green coastal hills, soon to be singed brown by the coming summer sun.
The Coast Road, which dissected the town, approached from the south winding through small coastal hills along a creek filled with sycamore trees.
To the north the road followed the coast for two more miles to a great promontory where mountain cliffs dropped precipitously to the sea. Near the end of the promontory a huge rock jetty fingered out into the Pacific, which served as a breaker for both the beach at San Roque and for the small port of San Miguel. At land's end was a still functioning, nineteenth century lighthouse, one of the original California light stations. As it had for over one hundred and fifteen years, its perennial light flashed every six seconds sending its beam across the ocean to ships up to twelve miles out.
Beyond the promontory lay an isolated strip of rugged coastline, one of the few undeveloped pieces of property left on the central coast of California not owned by the military or State Park system. Here, twenty miles of green hills and windswept marine terraces had remained virtually unblemished since the time of the Chumash Indians. Though development had spread rampantly in the southland, especially over the past ten years, it had not yet stretched its covetous paw into this place. The P.A.P.C.—Pacific Alliance Power Company—made sure of that. They had leased the land in a tricky transaction from a cattle rancher to build a nuclear power plant, and had since gained ownership through an eminent domain suit. In doing so, the nuclear power plant served, in an ironic way, to ward off resort development along the coast. Now by virtue of federal trespassing laws meant to protect nuclear facilities, the area had become a virtual wildlife reserve. Aside from a few cattle ranchers grazing herds on the western slopes, the Plant's operational crew and security personnel were the only ones to step foot within the Protected Zone. It remained now as a sanctuary only to coyotes, seals, dolphins, and whatever other natural wildlife had always thrived there.
From a couple miles south, a pair of headlights snaked along the road, following the twisting inlets of the creek. The vehicle came around the last long bend, lined with poplar trees, turned on Front Street and turned again on Second Street before settling into the parking lot of the Sea Gypsy apartment complex. The driver stepped from the vehicle to the faint sound of music coming from the small house across the street.
Inside, the shadows of the two lovers still danced awkwardly on the bedroom wall. Jack and his young companion were deep in their love throes, indulging in the intimacies of physical love. It is why they did not hear it when the Visitor first knocked, until the knock came again.
“Did you hear that?” Jack then asked.
The young woman did not answer, but the expression on her face said that she did. Jack turned and looked over at the clock radio. The blue digital numbers now read: 8:45 p.m.
It’s early, he thought. He was expecting no one. His ride wasn't due for another hour.
Again came the knock.
He reached over and lowered the volume on the radio.
“Someone's here,” he said, flatly.
He pushed the young woman off of him, dragged himself from the bed, slipped into a pair of trousers, and grabbed a light-blue shirt from the chair. As he staggered down the hallway, slipping into the shirt, the knocking became more persistent.
On the porch the Visitor stood waiting, patiently, neatly dressed in a regal-blue uniform with shiny black dress shoes. His hair was meticulously slicked back and on his chest was a gold badge which glistened from the street light.
Jack flipped on the porch light and swung open the door, surprised to see a familiar face, but not the face he was expecting.
“What's up?” he asked.
He turned and glanced at the mantel clock on top of the desk in the front room. As he did so, he pulled the corner of his shirt over his shoulders. And in that same millisecond, the Visitor pulled a gun from behind his back. Its barrel came up quickly, up against Jack's chest, and before Jack's head swung back around, two shots fired out, muffled by a silencer.
Jack fell back into the front room, dead before he reached the floor. Stepping forward, quickly, the Visitor advanced into the room, closed the door behind him, walked over to an end-table, and turned a lamp on. He removed the silencer from the tip of his firearm, tucked it in his back pocket, and holstered the gun. Scanning the room, he grabbed a towel from a pile of laundry on a couch and tossed it over Jack's face. Then, kneeling beside Jack's dead body, he cast a careless glance over him. The two bullets had struck just below the sternum, less than a centimeter apart. The holes were bloodless and seemed to be already closing, though blood was already streaming from Jack's back, and the Visitor could see it streaming out onto the hard-wood floor.
The Visitor searched Jack's shirt pocket and found nothing. Then he rolled him over and checked the pants pockets as well. He glanced around the room, searching everywhere; the end-table, bookshelf, cabinet and couch. Near the door was a bookcase cluttered with encyclopedias, novels, and magazines—there was nothing of interest. On the television was the usual collection of junk, a TV controller and some DVD cases. The sofa chair was likewise piled high with miscellaneous items, laundry, some magazines, and a couple pairs of jogging shoes. Finally his eyes came upon a small roll-top desk against the far wall. On top was a small, ornamental palm tree, a key-stand from which hung an assortment of trinkets and keys.
He leaped to the desk, glanced through the items, and quickly pulled from the tree stand a photo I.D. badge, to which was clipped a plastic card.
He held the card to the light. It was about the size of an ordinary credit card. Upon it was the familiar symbol of three spinning atoms along side the name: Jack Garner. Angling the card to the light revealed several metallic, anti-counterfeit strips inside. Placing it flush against the desk-lamp so that it was fully backlit, revealed a tiny rectangular chip inlaid in the bottom right corner.
The Visitor clasped the card tightly in his hand, and for a moment just stood there, holding it. He seemed content just to stay there, holding the card all night.
Then an unexpected noise drew his attention to the hallway.
A voice called; that of the young woman.
With the same predatory instincts he had displayed earlier, the Visitor drew his gun, the barrel flashed up, pointing at the hallway, and he waited, quietly.
“Jack?” the voice repeated, closer now.
With his free hand, the Visitor slipped the card into his shirt pocket, gripped the pistol with both hands, and stepped slowly forward toward the hallway opening.
From the bedroom, the young woman entered the hallway, slipping into a bathrobe. She stopped midway to tie the band around her waist. Now, raising her head, she glanced up and saw a dark figure standing at the end of the hallway.
“Jack, who is it?”
The front room was dimly lit so she could not tell who it was, nor see the gun leveled at her chest.
There was no answer at first. Then the pistol spoke loudly, without the benefit of the silencer.
A bright double power-flash spit from its barrel. The woman staggered backward as if clubbed in the chest, and fell to the floor.
The Visitor advanced down the hallway, keeping aim on the woman. He could hear sound coming from the bedroom. He carefully stepped over the woman, straddling her for a second, glancing down at her dead face, then, swinging his gun barrel around, he entered the bedroom. His aim locked in the direction of the clock-radio, as if ready to shoot it. Realizing it was only a radio, he quickly swung the barrel to the other side of the room. It was clear. Then he eased back calmly, holstered the handgun, walked over to the radio, and turned it off.
At the window, he looked out for a moment. It was now completely dark outside. There were only two street lamps, a vacant lot next door, and across the street, not many lights were on at the Sea Gypsy Apartments. Except for the flashing neon that featured a gypsy woman holding a starfish, and the 'vacant' sign which blinked on and off, there were little signs of life. He looked down the street. The street was essentially barren. He drew the curtains shut.
He pulled the card from his pocket and gazed upon it once again. It looked no different than a hotel keycard, but, in truth, was quite different, he knew. It held all the information he needed. Of that he was certain.
He placed the card safely in his wallet, in a side compartment. Then he stepped out of the bedroom, over the dead woman, and returned to the front room. He clicked off the lamplight, and the porch light as well, and exited the small house, locking the door behind him.
Cameron Taylor gazed quietly at the image in the broken mirror.
Only twenty-eight years old and already burnt to dust!
For him, waking up to an 8:30 p.m. alarm clock was just the start of another night's work. Stuck on the midnight shift at Mal Loma Nuclear Power Plant for the past eight months, he was still trying to adjust to his capsized schedule. Having answered a newspaper ad hiring 'Armed Responders' to protect a nuclear power plant 'from acts of terrorism and industrial sabotage,' he was initially enthused by the prospects of his new job. But the position turned out to be a boring routine of mundane security procedures and endless hours marching with a rifle on blacktop. Truth was, guarding a nuclear power plant from “acts of industrial sabotage” was simply not what it was cracked up to be, nor what he expected.
He stared into the mirror, naked except for a pair of white boxers.
Nothing had changed, he thought.
The time on the small, fold-out digital clock sitting on the shelf beneath the medicine cabinet was 9:20 p.m. Beside it, the tube of tooth paste, still with cap off, remained lying exactly as he had left it the night before. On the shelf beside that, carelessly discarded facedown was his badge.
Here I begin my upside-down world, he thought. While the 'real' world sleeps, I drape on my armor.
From the very start, his body had rejected the time change. He tried giving up caffeine, took Ambien to no avail. He had even purchased a yoga CD thinking the gentle sound of waves might help lull him to sleep. For some it came easy. For Cameron it seemed, adjusting to night work was next to impossible.
He reached in, turned on the shower, and climbed in with a million thoughts rushing through his head, none of which where any good. In less than five minutes, he stood fully clothed before the mirror with his hair slicked straight back. He donned a regal blue uniform. On the shoulder was a telling patch—the insignia of three spinning atoms in counter-orbits. Bordered across the top by the word “Nuclear,” and arched across the bottom with the words, “Security Service.”
He picked up his badge and held it to the light. He never imagined the treadmill it would eventually become.
It had all started out ambitious enough just eight months before. Cheerful at the prospects of his new job, Cameron was thrilled to have passed the initial interview. He took on the challenge of the physical agility tests like a school boy at a track meet.
The requirements included a four-hundred-meter dash in less than seventy-five seconds, a one-hundred-and-fifty-pound-sack-of-sand-drag across fifty-yards of blacktop, and a ten-foot-wall scale with a dummy rifle strapped to his shoulder, all of which he passed easily enough. Next came the security clearance and background investigation, which put some light on the enormity of the position. They wanted to know every detail of his past life, even what grammar school he attended.
They're absolutely serious about this stuff, Cameron remembered thinking.
First there was the fingerprinting—a LiveScan digital-ten-print which fed directly into the FBI's mainframe in Washington DC, and into the Department of Justice Office in Sacramento, revealing Cameron to be clean except for a few speeding violations. This was followed by an eighteen-page background questionnaire, confirmed by a polygraph test and scanned into N.O.R.A.—Non-Obvious-Relationship-Awareness, a 'next-generation' cross-referencing software capable of linking members of terrorist cells and crime groups in more than seventy-five countries. Lastly was the MMPI—the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which was evaluated, analyzed, and followed-up via an interview with a Pre-employment Consult Psychologist.
He was an odd-looking guy, Cameron had thought, bald with glasses, the picture perfect scientific type. Cameron anticipated trouble coming when he was handed the read-out of his MMPI. The first sentence read:
You lied when taking this test to make yourself look better to your prospective employer.
“Is it true?” The Psychologist asked pointedly.
Cameron hesitated. He knew enough about the MMPI to think twice about faking it. He had researched it ahead of time. The test was said to be capable of identifying an alcoholic with ninety-seven percent accuracy and to fish-out the major symptoms of social and personal maladjustment with prophetic-like accuracy, and was the primary screening tool used by employers for candidates for high-risk public safety positions.
“Sure it's true,” he replied, staring at the computerized print-out. “I need a job.”
The psychologist nodded his head and scribbled in his notepad.
“Okay then,” the psychologist said. “Next question: If you could be anyone in the world other than yourself, who would it be?”
Cameron had to think about it for a moment. Frankly, it was a bit weird being asked this question by a psychologist. The first thing that came to his mind was how therapists are crazier than their clients. And besides, what does it have to do with employment at a nuclear power plant?