Камбург Роман Аронович

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  • © Copyright Камбург Роман Аронович (moskovsky2003@yahoo.com)
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  •   Lifeline
      by Roman Kamburg
      Translated from the Russian
      by Konstantin Pozin and Jacob Kohav
      Chapter 1: The Meeting
      Emily sat on the sand at the edge of the surf and gazed at the orb nearing the horizon. She did not notice that some of the waves were almost reaching her feet, or that the sand around her had long ago become wet. Through tiny foam earphones, she was listening to Bach. The deep, sonorous chords of the organ permeated her head as if they were waves, creating a feeling of perfect harmony with the sea that had been overheated by the daytime sun, and with the approaching sunset. It occurred to Emily that the setting of the sun was only a sign of the eternal rotation of the Earth. In today"s encounter between the sunset and Bach, there seemed to be something ritual, almost pagan. How quickly it rotates; I can almost feel it physically- and right in the middle of the thought, a thick voice with a hint of hoarseness interrupted her.
      "You"re about to get completely soaked - look what waves are coming in."
      The voice belonged to an older gentleman, dressed in traditional beach attire, with Bermuda shorts just below the knee and a bright orange sleeveless shirt. Emily"s Bach-sunset mood was abruptly cut short. Suppressing her irritation, she removed her earphones. Why did I think he was old? He looks quite young. Ah, yes, the usual illusion: anyone older than me is an old man, and anyone younger is a teenager.
      "Come on, move away from the water and over here toward me," he insisted.
      "I"m not sure that"s a good idea. Look how much space there is on the beach." Emily nodded to the right, in the direction of the snow-white Colony Beach, and then to the left, where the glass restaurant Fish jutted out into the sea.
      "Well, something must have pulled us together in this sea of sand by the sea of water," he said. Although her annoyance hadn"t yet subsided, she took note of the stranger"s successful wordplay.
      "Want a smoke?" He reached out, offering her a yellow, camel-adorned pack of Camels.
      "I suppose, sure," Emily accepted, and somehow it turned out that just as he had asked her, she obediently moved away from the water and sat down next to him. Now both of them, puffing on their cigarettes, stared at the giant orange on the horizon. They were silent. And they were both conscious of this slightly prolonged pause. Because a beginning usually must be followed by a continuation; such is the game of meeting new people. But just now they didn"t interrupt the silence; he only threw Emily wordless glances, which seemingly continued the pair"s connection, while she contentedly caught them with that peripheral vision that is so well developed in women. Her irritation had long left her.
      "Look, it"s about to touch the horizon."
      "Well, I think that the horizon will touch it."
      "Oh! Aren"t you the philosopher!"
      And again there was a pause, as they sank into their contemplation of the sunset"s fusion of two bodies - the Earth and the Sun. Half of the solar disk had already hidden beyond the horizon. They exchanged some insignificant remarks about the sky and the celestial bodies, then about the sea and the beach, about her tan, and finally, about her hand and palm.
      "Let me look at your lifeline," he offered, and, without waiting for an answer, took her palm and turned it upward. She didn"t pull her hand away, just smiled pensively, recalling how, many years ago, her ex-husband had gotten to know her in the same manner when they had met.
      "A magnificent line... Deep, clear..." He was saying something else, but she had already stopped listening. Back then, after the palm reading, they had first kissed. Right now, Emily didn"t want to kiss. Understandably so - she had gotten older and had done enough kissing.
      The sun set behind the horizon and it instantly got darker. They still hadn"t introduced themselves.
      "When am I supposed to die?" asked Emily.
      "In a hundred years or so," he joked.
      Suddenly, she interrupted their little game, and, seizing the initiative, replied, "Thank you for the prediction. Let"s go have dinner. I"ve become terribly hungry. Fish over there is not too far; I wouldn"t make it to that other restaurant. I"d die of hunger right now, rather than in a hundred years. So lead me there quickly, so that your prediction will come true."
      He gave her his hand. "My name is Daniel - Danny."
      She had already given him her hand once for the fortune-telling, but now she extended it to him again - for a handshake.
      "Emily, but friends call me Ellie."
      After a couple of minutes, they were approaching the restaurant, which resembled an aquarium. They still needed to walk 40 or 50 yards along the promontory extending into the sea and descend through a small, dome-shaped glass hall down a spiral staircase. The sea"s underwater inhabitants were visible through portholes - colorful fish, shells, snails, corals, crabs, seaweed.
      "Who is observing whom, we them or they us?"
      "Now I am thoroughly convinced that I am in the company of not just a charming lady, but also a philosopher," Danny remarked.
      "Thank you for the compliment, Daniel. And your name has a divine presence - where there"s an el, there"s Elohim."
      "Then your name is God himself, Ellie!"
      "What do you know, two gods side by side."
      "Not quite: a goddess and a god."
      They hadn"t yet glanced at the menu, but a waitress in black slacks and a black uniform blouse labeled Fish was already awaiting their selection.
      "You"re talking my ear off so that I"ll die of hunger after all!" Ellie then addressed the waitress, "I don"t have the energy to peruse the menu. Give us a recommendation."
      "Order the swordfish. It"s the dish of the day. It"s very juicy, boneless."
      "A sword it is, then."
      "And what side dish?"
      "For a sword, I want a side of shield. But seriously, potatoes, baked in foil."
      Danny ordered Spanish paella - marine delicacies in rice.
      "Anything to drink?" asked the waitress.
      "Water," responded Ellie.
      "And a bottle of good wine," added Daniel. "To celebrate having met."
      "Do you think we need wine?"
      "You don"t?"
      "Why, of course I want some. Especially since you and I watched the sunset together, and you examined my hand."
      The waitress briskly ran off, as if sensing Ellie"s hunger.
      "Do you know what brings people together really well?" he asked.
      "Misfortune, yes. But that"s a dramatic event. What about something ordinary?"
      He chuckled and was even a little flustered by her forwardness.
      "Regarding bed, I agree. But right now I wanted to say food, a shared meal..."
      Ellie returned home around 3 am. It had been ages since she"d stayed out that late on a date. And had it been a date? Had Daniel stirred up feelings in her? She couldn"t tell for sure. They hadn"t even kissed. And he had only touched her hand twice - when he told her fortune and when they introduced themselves. In a few hours, she would already need to be at work, but sleep wouldn"t come. Ellie lay under the covers and remembered the past.
      Chapter 2: Lifelines
      Between the two endpoints of a brief human life, birth and death, one can draw a great multitude of lines. Straight and thick ones, like major chords. Barely noticeable dotted ones. Sine waves with ups and downs. Parabolas and hyperbolas, soaring away into infinity or infinitely approaching zero. Broken, spiral, ornate ones.
      Ellie had begun to grasp life"s geometric foundations in her childhood. Her parents" modest little house was set right on the coastline. In the mornings, when she went out into the backyard, the ceaseless roar of the surf could be heard. The sea didn"t smell, but the air here was completely different from the usual city air. As the years passed, whenever Ellie visited her mother and father, the house would seem ever smaller and more modest, as if it were shrinking the way that people shrink as they age. Yet the further she moved away from it in time, the closer and dearer it became for Ellie. She could clearly remember herself at age eleven or twelve, when life"s durability had seemed unshakeable. Her parents had protected her from everything bad. And somewhere nearby, like another wall against any misfortunes - her grandparents. It was then that she had first learned what death was. That is to say, Ellie, of course, had seen dead trees, the bodies of cats, dogs, beetles, lizards, birds. She had heard from friends that some relative of theirs had died. But this was far away, as if it did not concern her. And children"s impressions usually amounted to fear of a dead body, or dread at entering a room with a corpse, perhaps scary stories about a graveyard. But when, at barely twelve years old, young Ellie saw the motionless, waxen body of her grandmother, lying on a table - when just a week earlier, her grandmother had been rosy, loving, constantly spoiling her granddaughter - Ellie"s heart filled with a chilling terror and pain, as if a part of herself had died. She sat down, drained, on a chair next to her dead grandmother and looked at her, even through her, still a child and not realizing the inevitability and irreversibility of death.
      After two or three years had passed, her mother took her to the cemetery. Ellie had asked then, "Mommy, what"s down there, underground?"
      Ellie"s mother was taken aback and hesitated, deciding whether to make something up or quickly tell some sort of story, but remembered just in time that her daughter was already fourteen years old, and, with a heavy sigh, said, "Just bones and hair, little daughter, from our grandmother." Her voice broke off and she started crying.
      "Come on, Mommy, don"t cry, you shouldn"t. You"re not going to die, I know. You"ll always be with me. Tell me, you won"t die, right?"
      Her mother didn"t say anything, but only shook her head, no, I won"t leave you.
      Another two years later, Ellie became sad, having somehow understood, after the latest book she had finished reading, that not only her dear mommy, but even she herself, would have to leave this best of worlds. A melancholy settled in her for a long time before her eternally busy mother finally noticed Ellie"s condition. She started questioning her, "What happened?" until the daughter, unable to stand it any longer, burst out sobbing and told her everything. Her mother stroked her hair and said, again and again, "Calm down, my darling, soon scientists will come up with something, a cure for cancer and the other horrible diseases, and then people will live for a long, long time, almost forever." This naïve, touching fiction had been told to Ellie"s mother by her late grandmother. The fairy tale had probably been passed down from generation to generation.
      A few hundred days flew by as if in an instant, and Ellie"s sadness dissolved, making room for a first, unforgettable love. One evening, the young woman, all aflame with passion, suddenly remembered her past sadness and thoughts about death, and burst out laughing, thinking what a banal thing it was - to get depressed about mortality. Yes, love had probably been created just to not have to think about death.
      This is how she remembered her lifeline through age eighteen. Outside, the first birds had already begun to sing when Ellie sank into a brief pre-dawn sleep.
      Chapter 3: Enrique
      Her first love had been Enrique. A first love, like the most precious diamond, lies in each person"s jewelry box of memory. Only, as the years pass, people look inside it less and less often. She and Enrique had met in the pre-Internet days, when people would simply meet at university parties, at the movies, at their friends" places. Much Spanish blood flowed in the young man, manifesting in an unrestrained temperament that had immediately captivated Ellie. He was tall and well-built, like a deer. The most interesting thing was that back in their first autumn, he had seemed to her to be woven entirely of good qualities. One of Enrique"s friends joked: Enrique, like Narcissus, revels in his own beauty and takes care of himself like a woman. Indeed, he had a long, pitch-black ponytail, almond eyes, dark, smooth velvety skin. All of this attracted Ellie. And sex with him was like a drug to which you develop a tolerance and then want more and more of. He completely won her over when he suggested a visit to California. She obviously had never been there, but Enrique concluded condescendingly, "I don"t like Florida, it can"t hold a candle to California. We"ll drive to Lake Tahoe and spend some time in San Francisco."
      She was holding his hand, looking upward, nodding along, "Yes, yes, I also want to go to California, especially with you."
      Immediately upon arriving in California, Enrique rented a gigantic American car half a block long, and in that they began their tour. That evening, Enrique was sparkling with wit. They were driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to the music of the Eagles.
      "Dear, look to your left. Those are the lights of nighttime Frisco," using a local nickname for the city. "Look to the right. That there is the Pacific Ocean - the biggest ocean in California."
      Ellie was laughing, not letting go of his right hand for the duration of the ride. For the hundredth time that day, she was telling him how much she loved him. Enrique was keeping up, showering her with compliments.
      "I think that if the Pacific Ocean is the biggest in California, then you are the most beautiful girl in this amazing country."
      That evening, they were going to an unbelievably fashionable party, the kind that Ellie had not been spoiled by at all.
      Enrique donned a black satin bowtie and an heirloom ring with a giant ruby. Ellie"s innate taste hinted to her just how pretentious the ring was, but love drowned these hints out. Ellie wore a dress the color of black stockings.
      "I want you to wear gloves," said Enrique, but there were no gloves, so a couple of hours before the party they drove to a store and he bought her expensive elbow-length gloves. Everything was going wonderfully. And Ellie and Enrique"s mood fit the occasion. At the event hall, pineapple, strawberries, and champagne were being served. After a few speeches by some parapolitical figures, the dancing commenced. Ellie and Enrique"s first dance was entrancing. He was hugging her, whispering something in her ear, while she melted at his closeness and continuous compliments. Meanwhile, servers started bringing out trays with California wine, shrimp, and sushi.
      Enrique started chatting with some gentleman and introduced Ellie to him. Their conversation continued while Ellie walked off a little bit to the side. When the small orchestra"s music sounded again from the corner of the hall, a short and pleasant young man approached Ellie and invited her to dance. She glanced around looking for Enrique, but he was standing with his side to her, proving something to his companion. Ellie gave the young man her arm and they launched into a dance. No more than a minute had passed when Ellie felt someone else"s hand on her bare shoulder. As she continued the dance, she looked around and saw Enrique"s face, distorted with rage. At that very second, his precise knockout blow to the jaw felled Ellie"s partner to the parquet floor of the hall. Blood splashed from the man"s mouth. The music skipped a beat, stopped. People stepped aside, and two cops pinned Enrique"s arms, marching him outside. It all took just seconds and looked like a cheap Hollywood action flick.
      Ellie took a taxi to the hotel, called her mom from the room, telling her what had happened. Enrique had been a hero in her eyes. But her mother said dryly, "My daughter, it"s dangerous to tie your fate to a person like that. He is unbalanced, unrestrained, please be careful..."
      At this Ellie exploded. For the first time in her life she started yelling at her beloved mommy, "You don"t understand anything! He"s the best! The most handsome! And he loves me like Romeo! While you"re just wishing me unhappiness! You"re stupid and narrow-minded!"
      On the other side of the ocean, her mother hung up the phone, and Ellie started sobbing in despair. In the morning, there was a knock at the door, and Ellie, after a sleepless night, ran to open it. Enrique had been released by the police on a large bail.
      "This is what"s going to happen to anyone who gets close to you," said Enrique. "So be careful, baby."
      "You"re right, sweetie, you"re right. Forgive me for going off to dance with him. But it was boring, and you were talking to someone for so long."
      "I ran into my friend and former associate."
      Thus, they had concisely and amicably explained themselves.
      The days after this incident were spent on the road - and in fits of passion.
      Enrique had a sudden fantasy of renting a yacht for a couple of days and taking a little cruise along the West Coast. The yacht turned out to be fashionable, with several young couples their age. Two nights flew by in amorous delights, and two days in continuous diversions. They returned to San Francisco in order to depart from it in the morning.
      It was a pleasant evening, a gentle Pacific Ocean breeze wandering the streets of the city. Ellie was in the hotel room reading a local magazine, while Enrique had gone out. He had been away for about twenty minutes. Ellie decided to look for him and took the elevator downstairs to the lobby. As she came out of the elevator, she immediately saw him sitting on the hotel"s red leather couch at some lady"s side. One of Enrique"s hands was on her knee, while with the other hand he was adjusting her hair behind her ear and on her temple.
      Chapter 4: The Halo
      Jealousy instantly deprived Ellie of her senses. She rushed back into the elevator, repeating to herself, "Bastard, bastard! Liar!"
      It was good thing that no one could see her in such a state, running amok, her face streaming with tears. Upon entering the hotel room, she started feverishly dumping things into her suitcase, zipped it up. The recently purchased gloves remained lying orphaned on the table.
      "Let him know that I don"t need him, the scoundrel!"
      Enrique still hadn"t returned.
      "Very good! I don"t want to see him!"
      She entered the elevator with her suitcase. To avoid running into him, she rode upstairs and exited by the dining room. She put on a deliberately calm look to avoid arousing the unnecessary curiosity of those around her, and ordered some coffee. She checked the time. Ellie"s mind remained completely blank. She didn"t yet know what she was supposed to do with herself now, but she knew for certain that she was leaving Enrique forever.
      There are two options. She slowly started to calm down and think. Either go directly to the airport and buy a ticket home, or move to another hotel.
      Just then she recalled the face of the lady sitting next to Enrique. It seemed that the woman had sailed with them on the yacht.
      After sitting for a while in the café, Ellie risked going down to the lobby. Just don"t run into him. The thought throbbed in her temples. No, Enrique was already gone from the lobby. Ellie quickly rolled her suitcase outside. There, a liveried porter attentively opened a taxi door and dragged the suitcase into the trunk.
      "Where are we going, miss?" asked the driver.
      "I need an inexpensive hotel downtown."
      "Everything"s expensive downtown, but I can recommend the Isadora, behind the park."
      "Okay, let"s go to the Isadora."
      As she exited the taxi, she immediately bumped into a porter, nearly indistinguishable from the one who had escorted her out of the Excelsior.
      Damn, am I having hallucinations? Maybe I"ve come back to Enrique?
      "Give me your suitcase, miss, I"ll help you."
      "Wait a minute," she said. "I need a taxi."
      "But you just let a taxi go."
      "I need another one."
      "Okay, okay, here"s one standing nearby."
      And Ellie repeated the maneuver, switching hotels again in case Enrique started looking for her. It was already 1 am. Barely alive with exhaustion and worry, Ellie collapsed into sleep.
      She described her own morning mood as "funereal," as her grandfather used to say. Indeed. She had said nasty things to her mother on the phone, defending a scoundrel who then went and cheated on her. Before going down to breakfast, Ellie found nothing better to do than to take two little bottles of vodka out of the minibar and gulp them down without even a bite of food. Then she sat down on the unmade hotel bed and lit up a cigarette, thus trying to numb the pain of two breakups.
      In the restaurant, she sat detached, mechanically chewing her food. Suddenly, a dark-skinned man sat down at her table. He started to talking to her, wished her a good morning, and introduced himself: Nicholas, Nick.
      "Tonight there"ll be music and dancing at the hotel."
      Seeing that she wasn"t responding to the hint, he invited her directly.
      "Nick, thank you, but I"m not in the mood to go dancing. And I"m not sure that I want to spend the evening with you."
      "I"m not insisting that it should be with me. A lot of my friends will be there, so you"ll be able to choose any of them, if you want to, of course."
      "Okay, I"ll think about it. Goodbye."
      Ellie returned to her room without finishing the coffee. During the day, she dealt with her ticket, postponing her flight by a few days. She took a long time gathering up the courage to call her mother.
      "Mommy, forgive me for being rude," Ellie said. "Everything is over with Enrique, so you are right, as always. I"ll tell you the details when I get back. Everything is okay with me. I want to stay in San Francisco a bit longer."
      After lunch, she slept without getting undressed and woke up when it was already dark. She washed up, turned on the TV. She looked at the clock and suddenly remembered that morning"s invitation to the dance. It was starting in twenty minutes.
      And why not, exactly? She wanted to continue enjoying life! Her boyfriend had betrayed her, so she had the complete right to betray him. And besides, she had to spend a few more days at this hotel before her flight back. Surely she didn"t need to die of boredom in such a beautiful city?
      She answered herself by quickly throwing off her clothes and jumping into the bath. Then she spent a long time applying make-up, and even she herself thought that she had overdone it. She dressed extravagantly, even provocatively. The party had already started, but Ellie decided to be a little late. To pass the time, she turned on the TV. She couldn"t sit still; neither a cigarette nor whiskey could calm her down today. As she headed downstairs, she thought that she had started smoking and drinking a lot while in San Francisco.
      Downstairs, the music was already blaring, it was crowded, loud. Nick appeared almost immediately and started introducing Ellie to his friends. She didn"t remember a single name, her mind remaining blank from fatigue, worry, whiskey, and cigarettes.
      Around 2 am, after non-stop dances to trance music, Ellie went off into the corner of the room and got a glass of water. One of Nick"s friends, Samuel, approached her.
      "Want a smoke?" he asked.
      "I wouldn"t say no."
      "Just so you know, these cigarettes have an additive."
      "What kind?"
      "A very light one. Marijuana."
      "I tried it two years ago, didn"t feel a single thing."
      "Try it now, maybe it will start working in two years."
      She started smoking, greedily inhaling the smoke and trying to feel the drug"s effect.
      "No, everything"s just like last time."
      "Smoke another one if you want to understand marijuana."
      Ellie smoked a second cigarette in a row, and after a while it seemed to have started working. A sense of relaxation washed over her, a lightness in the body. She was ready to dance again.
      Over the following three days she continuously smoked marijuana, given to her alternately by Nick and Samuel. For some reason she no longer wanted to return home. She contacted the agency again and postponed her flight by a week. She chain-smoked two cigarettes for courage and dialed her mother"s number. The conversation with her turned out rather difficult. Ellie used all of her eloquence to reassure her mother, who had immediately suspected that something was off.
      That same evening was the first time she was given ecstasy to try. A week later, Ellie was calling the agency again, requesting that her ticket be postponed by a month this time. This required a hefty fee, and Ellie was forced to use up a large portion of her money. Apart from that, she needed to figure out her living situation - she couldn"t stay at the hotel any longer. Nick helped her rent an inexpensive studio apartment.
      Where am I drifting off to? The unwelcome question would arise occasionally, but she would drown it out with another helping of marijuana. In the past week, with the help of new friends, she had already tried crack.
      One morning, Ellie went out to buy coffee. A couple of tall men were walking in front of her. Ellie was feeling pretty well after a long sleep, and was even humming a little tune. And suddenly, she saw an ellipse around the head of one the people walking in front of her, vaguely reminiscent of the glow around saintly faces in icons. Only the color was somehow strange, disquieting, with shades of crimson and gray. Ellie didn"t turn off into the shop, but instead continued walking after the pair. For some reason, she suddenly had a terrible urge to see the moment when this strange "halo" would disappear. She walked and thought that the words halo and hallucination had the same root.
      She walked behind the men for another 300 or 400 yards, passed by an insurance office, a bank, stores, and suddenly the guy with the halo quickly opened his little briefcase, took out some contraption, and dashed off to the side. Ellie started screaming, realizing that something bad was happening, but no one responded.
      Maybe I"m already losing my mind from the drugs? she thought.
      Having lost sight of the men, Ellie turned back toward home, not forgetting to buy her favorite coffee. Today I won"t smoke. Enough, I have some willpower, after all. I"ve smoked so much I"m already seeing some sort of wonders, halos. There was nothing there, in reality. Good thing I didn"t go into the bank, or they"d have taken me off to the nuthouse.
      The day in San Francisco had turned out to be unusually humid, and Ellie was about to get in the shower, but first, as she usually did, she automatically turned on the television. For her, the TV was like having another person in the house: sounds appeared, loneliness retreated - a well-known illusion of the television era.
      But now, police sirens were making the noise from the TV unbearable. Ellie turned up the volume. The sirens, it turned out, were blaring not only from the TV but also outside. A special bulletin was being broadcast. Just a few minutes ago, two unknown persons had burst into a bank and, at gunpoint, had carried out more than twenty million dollars in cash. The security camera had worked, and here they were - photos of the thugs.
      "My god!" exclaimed Ellie. "That"s them! And there he is, that guy with the halo!" That means she hadn"t seen that ring around his head for nothing. Like some sort of science fiction!
      "Anyone with information about the incident is asked to contact the police by calling..."
      She had to go, but what could she say? The truth? No one would believe her, and if they found out about the drugs...
      Chapter 5: Wein"s Hypothesis
      Only a few days had passed since the memorable sighting that she, in the end, had reported to the police, when she got a phone call at home. A soft male baritone voice asked, "Ms. Cohen," (this was Ellie"s last name), "could you spare me a few minutes of your time?"
      Seeing as Ellie, despite all of her adventures, remained a proper and obedient girl who remembered her mother"s teachings, she agreed almost without hesitation to meet at a café near her home.
      The man who had called her actually turned out to be a very ordinary, practically standard American. His appearance was completely unremarkable. He showed her his badge right away, but stuck it so close to her eyes that she couldn"t read anything, and she did not dare to ask for more details. But he clarified everything on his own.
      "We"re not the FBI, but we work in close contact with them."
      And then, he casually added in good Hebrew, "Ve-ma aht mitkavenet le-asot kahn?"[ "Ve-ma aht mitkavenet le-asot kahn?": "And what are you planning to do here?" (Hebrew)] and switched back to ordinary, unaccented American.
      "Ani,"[ "Ani": "I" (Hebrew)] Ellie stammered in surprise, "ani..."
      "English, please," he quietly corrected her.
      Despite all her inexperience and naïveté, Ellie pulled herself together, pretended that nothing had happened, and nonchalantly resumed the conversation.
      "I"m planning to return home, but for now I have some temporary financial difficulties, so I"ve postponed my flight."
      The conversation was short and somehow vague, non-specific. Only at the end did he say, "All right, I"ll think about how we can help you, Ms. Cohen. Here"s my phone number just in case. But I"ll call you tomorrow or the day after."
      As she was returning home, Ellie did not notice anything around her because of the thoughts and emotions that had overfilled her young head. She couldn"t figure out the main thing: Did they want to catch her with the drugs? Or were they sneaking up on the whole Nick-and-Sam crew? She got scared. Nick and Sam were probably buying or selling, and that was a serious crime. My god! she thought. What do I do, tell the guys that the intelligence agencies are already close, or no? Still, she decided to wait for the agent"s next call. The next morning, he called her to set up another meeting at the same place. Ellie had prepared well, playing out the anticipated conversation in her head.
      "What if I don"t want to keep meeting you?"
      "That is completely your right. But I only fear that if you don"t make contact, people might suffer, a lot of people."
      She wasn"t ready for such a turn of events.
      "Please explain," she requested, surprised at her own arrogance.
      "I will answer any question you might have, Ms. Cohen, but only when we meet."
      And without letting her take a breath, he said, as if it were already decided, "We will meet today at five at the same café, and there will be one other person with me. Don"t be afraid, he"s a respectable professor, you"ll like him. See you soon."
      And, without listening to her objections, he hung up.
      Ellie lost her cool. She didn"t even realize that he had given her a number at which she could call him back. And there wasn"t anyone to ask for advice. Suddenly, she clearly understood that she was alone, completely alone. And why would there be a professor at the meeting? All of this seethed inside her, and she couldn"t concentrate on a single question. Thus, the day passed, or rather flew by. For some reason, during the last hour before the meeting, an entirely feminine question tormented her: what should she wear? In the end, ten minutes before leaving, she put on the simplest thing - jeans and a black blouse. And, without putting on any make-up, she ran outside.
      This time, she was less worried for some reason. Apathy had taken over her, burnout, as they say. Or perhaps it was the influence of the tall, white-haired man of about sixty. His name was Wein, Professor Wein. At the beginning, just like the first time, the conversation was about nothing in particular. Ellie decided to give the agent and the professor a little test. As if by chance, she suddenly wove in a Hebrew interjection, "Ma ikhpat li!"[ "Ma ikhpat li!": "What do I care!" (Hebrew)] and shot a quick but intent glance at the two men.
      "Hu lo meyvin ivrit,"[ "Hu lo meyvin ivrit.": "He doesn"t understand Hebrew." (Hebrew)] the agent said calmly, emotionlessly, and continued the conversation.
      "We"ve carefully studied your police report after the bank robbery."
      A weight was lifted off Ellie"s chest. So it"s not drugs, thank god!
      "Professor Wein is a famous expert in the study of the brain, memory, human emotions. We asked him to meet with you."
      Wein had a face that was cut by deep wrinkles and therefore looked stern. But the eyes! Ellie had been struck immediately by his eyes, but now, when the professor started speaking to her, the blueness of his eyes began to resemble pieces of a clear spring sky illuminated by the sun. He also addressed Ellie calmly, but not indifferently like the agent had.
      "I know your whole "halo" story. The police recorded it on tape when you called. Interesting, extremely interesting! I have been studying similar phenomena for many years, and am now a consultant to their agency." He nodded toward the man sitting next to him. "I have several curious theories about these things that many call paranormal. I don"t like the term "paranormal," no one knows exactly what the norm is when it comes to the psyche. By the way, I"m ready to share some thoughts with you, but first I have one request. I would like you to come to my laboratory and undergo a not particularly long, completely harmless examination."
      "I"m scared to. I"ve read how intelligence agencies zombify people by affecting their brains. But tell me, what kind of test is it?"
      "It"s a type of electroencephalography that I"ve developed. It allows us to record and then analyze the so-called minor rhythms of the brain. I think that"s where the issue lies in the case of your halo, as with other similar phenomena."
      Although Ellie hadn"t said so yet, yes, she already trusted Wein. Subconsciously, it seemed to her that a person with such eyes couldn"t do any harm.
      And then Wein used the same psychological trick as his predecessor. He didn"t start arguing with her or proving anything, but simply said, "I will expect you in the laboratory in exactly two days. Here"s a business card. I only ask that for the entire 48 hours, you don"t drink any alcohol, nor take drugs or psychotropic substances. By the way, take this sheet - it says what to do." He handed Ellie a little flyer with the universally known picture of a brain in the top corner.
      The most interesting thing was that Ellie"s recent interests (aside from Enrique, of course) had included psychology and psychoanalysis; she had even been reading Jung and Adler in the original. Of course, the breakup with Enrique had led her to drugs, but now he, or perhaps fate, had brought her to Wein. The professor had immediately won her over. She had even forgotten about the intelligence services, the agent, her "halo" - there was so much that she wanted to ask Wein.
      Wein"s hypothesis had lain almost on the surface, accessible to every mortal, but only he, the sky-eyed genius from Ohio, had been able to grasp it. While Ellie was resting after the first part of the examination, the professor was sitting nearby, leafing through a magazine, sucking on a pipe, and expounding to his subject that which he told in his brilliant lectures at the university.
      "There are two important points in every case of paranormal phenomena. An internal predisposition, which exists in approximately one percent of people in the world, and the second - a stimulus capable of arousing an unusual ability. For example, the ability to sense the temperature of an object with one"s fingers. There"s nothing unusual about it. But, my dear Ellie, one individual"s temperature sensitivity might allow him to discern half a degree; another"s, two degrees. About one percent - again, note that magic number - can distinguish down to five hundredths of a degree! Science fiction, right? But these people are already able, under certain conditions, to reveal an unusual ability to perceive heat waves. Take my word for it, but it"s a similar situation with radio waves, for example, or with magnetic fields. Can you imagine that a person feels radio waves? I can"t. I experimented for almost two years, thousands of experiments. And found them. True, there are fewer of them than in the case of temperature, but two or three in a thousand are such geniuses of sensitivity! Then we looked at their receptors and the brain"s ability to process information. That was when I discovered the minor rhythms. In all the textbooks, you"ll only find a description of the four main brain rhythms. But it"s the minor rhythms that determine the ability for paranormal perception. I have bored you, my dear."
      "No, not at all, it"s like I"m listening to a fantasy story..."
      "Its second part relates to the so-called resolving factors. It turns out that in only one person with hypersensitivity out of a thousand, certain situations are able to manifest this sensitivity. Let"s resume the test, Ellie."
      "Before I sit down in your encephalograph, tell me, Professor, did I calculate this correctly? The probability of my situation is one in several hundred thousand?"
      "Almost. In fact, it"s about ten times smaller, one in a few million. I"ll explain it to you later, but now you"re not surprised that your intelligence agencies immediately started looking into you. In your small country, there are probably only a handful of people like you. Even we don"t have very many."
      Wein sat Ellie down in an armchair, put the electrodes on her head, and turned on the device...
      Three days later, Ellie and Wein were sitting on a comfortable old-fashioned bench on Russian Hill, silently looking at Alcatraz and waiting for James. That was the name of the agent who had become so unusually interested in her super-abilities. He was supposed to arrive at any moment; in the meantime, the professor was telling Ellie the results of deciphering her encephalogram.
      James approached them from the side quietly, so that they didn"t even notice. They greeted each other, and he immediately handed Ellie an envelope.
      "There are two important papers here. One is your plane ticket, and the second is a contract between Ellie Cohen and our agency. The ticket, you can take right away. The contract, you should sign, having read it first, of course."
      Ellie was a little dizzy because after the examination, the professor had put her on a methadone-like substance that replaced drugs and allowed one to gradually abandon them. She pulled herself together and started reading. In the meantime, Wein and James had walked off to the side, quietly talking about something. The contract contained lots of things written in formal, complicated legalese. Ellie understood that she would need to collaborate with the agency for a minimum of three years. The salary was to be kingly, equal to about four times the median salary in her country. Bonuses were allotted in the event of achievements. After a few minutes, James approached Ellie.
      "I let the professor go, he"ll call you, but you and I need to finish up the formalities. Do you have any questions about the contract?"
      "Do I! First of all, you"re already talking about it as if it"s been decided. From what"s written in there, I haven"t even understood what you want from me."
      "Ms. Cohen, if you go back, you"ll be drafted into the army almost immediately, won"t you?"
      "Yes, I"m already eighteen and a half, and I received a deferral before the trip to the States."
      "So, instead of serving in the army, which protects the country from hostile surroundings, you"ll serve with us and carry out special assignments of a defense nature."
      "I got the idea, but I don"t get how..."
      "We want to use your exceptional abilities for exceptional purposes, for example, for capturing dangerous enemies, spies, terrorists. So recall what I said earlier: if you refuse, many might suffer."
      Damn it, he knew which buttons to push in Ellie"s soul and which strings to tug. To seal the deal, James reminded her about the salary.
      "With us, your monthly income will be equal to your annual income in the army, and to be honest, I think you"re worth more. I"ve separately included bonuses..." But Ellie had tuned out and wasn"t listening to him talk about the bonuses. The best thing she could think of was to ask him to let her think about it, but she already knew that instead of studying with Wein as she wanted, in the coming years she would be working for James.
      Chapter 6: Everything Depends on Your Decision, Girl...
      That memorable autumn had turned out unfavorably for the country. And what season, what year, was ever calm here? A few soldiers had been captured and no one really knew their fate. Numerous but fruitless negotiations were being conducted through intermediaries, secretly and directly. In the morning, Ellie was summoned to the chief. Balanced as always, he started describing the essence of the assignment calmly, with professional detachment. Ellie had become accustomed to his style. In the beginning, she had been annoyed by the unhurried pace, the repetitions, but one time, noticing her reaction, he explained the importance of logic, cold calculation, and repetition of the most important, tricky points.
      "As always, you have a special role," rumbled the chief"s voice. "You will enter the operation at point Dalet.[ A code name in this operation; the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.] The difficulty is that this is in the very depths of the territories, and naturally, they will have the numerical superiority. There is evidence that both of our soldiers are located here. According to one version, they"re being held in a simple house like all the other houses around, but they"re not staying in any one place for more than two or three days; they"re wandering. Tomorrow, they"re supposed to be at Dalet. We have a few people there now. You have to know them by face. Look." He laid out photographs.
      "This guy is 26 years old. He works in an auto repair shop in the neighborhood. Here"s his shop, and this is his car, a Renault. We"re planning to drive the boys out in this pickup. The guy"s name is Salem. You"ll be spending the night in his shop, in this little storage room. There"ll be a lock on the outside. There is a second exit, but you will only use it in life-threatening circumstances, understand? Around 3 am, Salem will open the door and will back up the pickup right to the door. You"ll climb in. He"ll take you to the place, it"s close by, a six- or seven-minute drive. This is where your real mission will begin. Salem will stop. By our calculation, they must have someone standing here - a guard or a lookout. Salem will exit the car and start chatting with them. In the pickup, there"s a narrow opening. You have to look at whoever"s talking to Salem and figure out whether our boys are here or not. The operation will depend on your decision."
      Eli was breathing heavily and remained silent.
      "Are you scared, girl?"
      "No. But I"m somehow not used to it yet. I"ve never worked with them."
      "Salem is absolutely reliable, like a rock. They took his two brothers as shahids[ "shahid": "martyr" (Arabic)]. He"s next in line. We"re going to try to hide him right after the operation, so that they"ll never find him. But while there is time, albeit little time, we have to use him. Everything depends on your decision. You"ll knock on the truck cabin when Salem gets back and sits behind the wheel, not earlier and not later. One knock - the boys are here; a few knocks - they"re not. And now go concentrate. We"ll meet one more time after lunch. And then you"ll be picked up around 6 pm."
      Two hours remained until dawn. Ellie was frozen to the bone. She had been sitting in the corner of the dark, ice-cold storage room of Salem"s repair shop, waiting. The wait, which had dragged on torturously, would now come to an end. Ellie took out Wein"s pill, which would take the brakes off her supernatural abilities at the right time, and swallowed it. She remembered that the chief, wishing her luck before she left, had said that experts estimated the success of their operation at seventy percent, and had added, "But you, girl - or rather, you and I - don"t have even a single percent for mistakes."
      In the thick silence of the night, the sound of an approaching car was heard. Ellie had practiced, but while she was climbing through the tailgate, she nonetheless got tangled up in her unfamiliar long clothing and nearly fell. She was finally inside. She only saw Salem"s sparkling eyes for instant as he was closing the tailgate behind her. They drove briefly, just as the chief had predicted, maybe five or seven minutes. Ellie was shivering, probably due to the tension as well as the cold. She sat near the narrow horizontal opening, sweeping her gaze across several houses and the dim lights near them. Salem applied the brakes, got out without turning off the engine. She watched him walking, remembering the duo from San Francisco. Two people came out towards him. Ellie"s thoughts raced like galloping horses.
      One of them had a machine gun, but that didn"t mean anything, many of them had guns. How was he holding it? At the ready, or no? Oh god, I"m trying to analyze the situation like a normal person, when they"re counting on my supernatural powers. There"s little time, oh how little time! Her mind suddenly went blank. She could neither think nor feel. And suddenly, above the head of the one with the machine gun, something appeared. It didn"t look like a "halo," but resembled some sort of waves, distinct waves, like eddies of invisible air. As if a magnet was accelerating particles. Seconds passed, and Salem turned toward the car. Ellie ducked down so that no one would suspect anything, god forbid, moved on top of the bench up to the cabin, and when Salem had climbed inside, knocked once on the cabin wall. Salem yelled something and climbed out with a thermos. Everything was going according to plan. The three of them poured tea into little cups, started drinking it outside, and then went into the house. Ellie lay down on the bench in exhaustion. It seemed to her that an eternity had passed. She awoke either from sleep or from unconsciousness, upon hearing a noise and rapid footsteps. Salem opened the tailgate and almost forcefully shoved two strange figures in toward Ellie. Moments later, the car started moving, quickly accelerating on the highway toward the north.
      Ellie knew that the tea that Salem had poured for the guards contained a strong, fast-acting sedative. She wasn"t supposed to talk with the rescued captives, the main reason being her dress and their psychological condition. That was the chief"s instruction. But Ellie violated it. First she pulled off her cloak and burqa. And then, in their familiar mother tongue, she quietly but clearly said, "Congratulations on being freed, boys."
      The shackles on the prisoners" feet clanked in reply, and one of them hoarsely responded, "Thank you."
      There was a pause. And suddenly a series of gunshots tore through the night. Salem turned the truck sharply, threw open the cabin window, and yelled, "Get down on the floor!"
      Ellie was trying to figure out how far they had to the border, but new shots rang out, and a searing pain in her leg made her lose consciousness.
      Everything good and bad in the world has a tendency to come to an end, and these almost fantastical events have passed into history. The whole world talked for a week about the captives" rescue. Two people were wounded in the shooting - one of the boys and Ellie. But no one wrote about Ellie anywhere. The operation had been conducted in secret, so no one was supposed to know about Ellie"s paranormal abilities. The nation and its well-wishers were proud of the army and the intelligence service. Its enemies were preparing new plots. Salem was hidden, and Ellie never heard of him again. Both of the rescued men and their families obviously gave Ellie their blessings. She received flowers from them on every holiday, they invited her to all their family events: bar mitzvahs, brit milahs, anniversaries.
      As for Ellie, soon after Operation Dalet, she completed her memorable San Francisco contract early, and started studying psychiatry with Wein. She got a master"s degree and then opened a private clinic. She married, had children, divorced. Never again in her life did she have any more visions. At some point, Wein had recommended that she not even consume alcohol.
      Her cellphone woke her up with the familiar tune of Frank Sinatra"s "Strangers in the Night." Danny"s thick, slightly hoarse voice prevented the irritation that always arose whenever she was woken up in the morning by phone calls.
      "Do you remember my prediction, dear?" he asked.
      She couldn"t avoid a woman"s reaction.
      ""Dear" already? A bit early, isn"t it?" Ellie smirked.
      "I understand. But I"m not willing to wait a hundred years. I want to now, and that"s it," he insisted with masculine firmness.
      She gave in to this confidence and strength, not typical of many modern men.
      "All right. But right now is impossible. I have to leave for work in forty minutes."
      In the evening, Daniel was waiting for Ellie with a giant bouquet, in which snow-white gladioli reigned. She accepted the flowers and said admiringly, "What a beauty! They"re heavy..."
      He didn"t let her finish, hugged her together with the bouquet, kissed her once, and kissed her for a long time. When she caught her breath, she heard, "I missed you so. We hadn"t seen each other in nearly twenty hours."
      "Me too," Ellie replied. They held hands and went off.
      "Today I"ll tell you about a lifeline," she said.
      To herself, she thought happily, A lifeline and twenty hours apart. I"ve probably started to love again... When it came to love, Ellie, her whole life, knew only how to love for real.

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