My doorbell chimed as I whizzed around my art studio, organizing for the next class. I figured it was the delivery of a new easel I ordered. Little Billy was disrupting the class again, this time breaking his station’s easel. I considered sending the bill to his parents, who believe their mini Van Gogh is without flaw.
The children’s next class was to be focused on cubism, collage, symbolism, and surrealism, with an option to choose their project from one of these themes. Given that I like to display my own work, the rendition of Picasso’s La Paloma will be set on an easel in front of the room.
The painting’s striking white dove contrasting against a black background fuses my emotions—what emotions I’m not sure. Perhaps America’s white supremacy against black suppression. Or something more abstract: like our political system on the dark side, hidden behind a symbol of peace.
All I know is that my emotions are stirred like a witch’s brew bubbling within a cauldron.
I was in no rush to answer the door. Typically, the guy rings to alert me to the package’s arrival, followed by a bang of the box being set on the step. But what came next was not the usual clunk of a delivery box.
Knuckles pounded the wooden door of my loft, disrupting my thoughts. I tried to fake oblivious, returning to the task. I needed my young students focused on their projects rather than this mess—so the Space to Create décor on the wall doesn’t give way to little Billy making space to destruct.
And there’s no reason this guy needs my signature for art studio furniture—be gone!
It came again. Thump, thump. My pulse quickened.
I sat the polish on a nearby table, breaking from my shine and shimmer mission. I wasn’t imagining the sound. It was there.
The unmistakable presence of someone lingering at the front door barreled me back to the moment. Given recent revelations, my imagination was running wild and uninhibited. Another fed agent? My chest tightened.
The knocks came faster and louder now, drilling a sense of urgency into me. Knock-Knock-Knock! My throat got dry.
A soft voice cried out, “Anna, are you home?”
You’ve got to be kidding me. Now I regretted the thirty seconds I had waited. I dropped everything and dashed to the front door, flinging it open.
There, at my threshold, stood Ava Ramirez: the girl who helped rob my art gallery. The girl whose father killed my security guard. I had recognized her voice behind the door. I wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise.
The sheer image of her blew my mind. Tears ravaged her blouse. Trails of crimson spilled from each nostril. Her right eye was swollen shut. Blood dribbled from her lower lip, and the side of her face was shadowy in a blackish purple. She wore one sandal, the other going without, her feet blistered.
What the fuck is she doing here? Then again, I’ve invited her to my home and a coffee shop to talk openly about her part in the art theft and lifelong family hardships inflicted by her dad. Why wouldn’t she trust me?
“They’re after me,” was all she spilled out in a shrill, panicked tone. She collapsed at my feet. I reached to help her and a ticket fell from her pocket. Golden Gate Transit. Good, she took a bus and didn’t run the whole way.
Carrying her into Jared’s room, I realized she weighed no more than 90 pounds soaking wet. I fanned dark strands of hair away from her bloodied face. She whispered, “Please don’t call 9-1-1. Nobody would understand.”
I stared into Ava’s brown eyes; the amber hue of a fine cognac. Then a flashback—only the eyes staring back at me were no longer hers. They were eyes as blue as the sea—sparkling and thrashing and churning. A purity of soul reflecting back from an anguished young man that tragically, accidentally struck my twelve-year-old daughter thirteen years ago.
I elevated her head with pillows. “No…no Ava I won’t call anyone. Hold on, I’m going to take care of you.”
My hands were a tree in a violent storm. I rummaged through the medicine cabinets, snatching sterile bandages, instant cold packs, ibuprofen, a wet face cloth, and water.
Back at the girl’s side, I squeezed the cold packs then gently wiped her face. “Let me know if I hurt you, and take these.” I handed her two ibuprofen and a glass of water, which she gladly chugged down.
Looking around my girls’ former room, a calm washed over me. I seemed to hear my daughters’ voices. “You’re doing the right thing, Mom. Take care of her.”
The branches of a camellia tree scraped against the window, like bony outstretched arms. The wind picked up and whined a mournful note—emotional and desolate.
Odd…here’s a girl lying in my deceased daughter Bianca’s bed. A girl who helped steal then destroy my art—my livelihood—what I was so absorbed in at the precise moment Bianca was killed riding her skateboard.
Yet…I knew that just as condemning Brandon Garth would never have brought my daughters back, treating her with anything but tenderness would not restore those art pieces.
Forgiveness. Compassion. Acceptance. Concepts often lost in a world of strife with twists and turns—where reality and fantasy are dangerously blurred. I wanted her to rest, but asked softly, “Who is after you, Ava?” But I knew…. My gut knew.
Her one good eye found me, staring through me. “My dad. He wants to kill me.”
Even though she’s twenty, she appeared - and sounded - so small. Fragile. Broken. Like an unnurtured child.
I asked, “Why?” But I also knew why. I just didn’t want to believe it.
“I told my dad I was planning on letting the cops know they’re bad guys.” Ava’s voice cracked and her bloody lips trembled.” They advertise that mind control lab in the city as a way to help kids to be their best and prepare for a career. They call it America for Success.”
“That’s…are you talking about the place where the kids were strapped to tables?”
“Yes! The kids enter thinking they’ll get more career options than at their high schools. It starts out with paperwork and seems legit. Until they’re told they’ll be given a drug that helps relax them for admissions tests for college.”
They’re building their sales pipeline of prospects for future profitable war games. I kept the thought to myself.
Ava looked better already. I was happy she wasn’t as physically hurt as I had first thought. I directed the cold pack over her wounded eye. “Keep this on to help the swelling go down,” I advised. I stroked Ava’s hair, moving a few more strands off her face.
She nodded, like a sad puppy. Helpless, I knew I couldn’t call anyone. Any law enforcement would think I sounded as nuts as Julie. What would I say? I have a girl from Tiburon that helped rob my art gallery to pay for college. Her dad is a rogue CIA agent trying to kill her.
Which reminded me of her father’s partners in crime. “Ava, who did this to you? Who is working with your dad?”
Her fists clenched. She turned away and chomped her lower lip, causing it to unleash fresh blood. High-pitched laughter escaped before she spoke.
“My darling father beat me up, but that’s nothing new. I’m used to it.” She hiccupped and started to cry. Gaining a little composure, she said, “His long-time army buddy who is a big-wig at a huge private security company is one of the guys—he goes by the name Vanquisher.”
Ava wiped her eyes with her sleeve, trailing a line of black mascara over her torn white blouse. Her hands were shaking violently. “His real name is Victor Prince. He’s like the immoral Ironman made out to be keeping us all ‘free and safe.’”
Ava continued, as I handed her a tissue to blow her nose. Blood soaked the tissue and she looked down at it with another nervous laugh. “The other guy is a top defense dog. He’s brutal, the one that shoots the kids up with opioids or whatever the fuck is in those IV drips. Even that’s kept secret.” She sobbed into the fresh tissue I handed her.
Furrowing my brow, I leaned toward her and gawked into her unhurt eye, I could feel her emotional pain, just as I'd felt Brandons.
“Ava, you don’t need to talk about it now if you don’t want—”
“I need to talk about it, it’s killing me keeping it all inside! The drug…the drug they inject into our veins makes us feel euphoric while they have us watch violent videos of military ops. It’s like they try to get us addicted to heroin or something… and digital warriors.”
The power of the poppy, I thought, has conquered contemporary America. That, and the power of the digital revolution and violence. Follow the money.
Glancing out the bedroom window, lay a gorgeous field of little orange California poppies. I thanked God these were not the opium brand.
I tapped a button on the top of Jared’s Apple HomePod, turning up the relaxing music. Violins, flutes, and pianos flowed along with the ethereal vocals, neatly and artistically tying the words together.
Ava’s facial expressions relaxed until her eyes found something outside the bedroom door. I tracked her gaze, to my La Paloma painting leaning across the hallway.
“I’m sorry.” Her eyes begged for forgiveness, brimming with remorse. “I didn’t mean to do it. My dad…he—”
“Masterminded the entire thing,” I answered for her with an understanding smile.
Ava nodded, an empty, haunting expression on her face. She tore a hole into the tissue in her hands, then ripped it to pieces with twitching fingers. In a tentative voice she asked, “Did you ever clean off my writing on the back?”
I grabbed the painting and swiveled it around. “I kind of like it and will show it to the children in my art class tomorrow as a lesson in symbolism in art. After all, it’s Picasso’s quote.”
The girl grinned; the first time she’d shown a smile. I handed her a fresh tissue, which she used to wipe the blood dribbling from her lip. Picasso’s quote, written in black against a light beige canvas, shouted its message:
I stand for life against death. I stand for peace against war.
Ava seemed somehow transformed. As if the internal black hole of yearning was starting to get filled with an ounce of love and acceptance.
More confidently now, she asked, “What about the other art pieces, the statue of the nude woman and the battle painting. I really did a number on those. God, I am so sorry.” She grimaced and twisted her lips into what looked like a forced smile.
My mind was telling me I should be angry at Ava for the destruction of a few of my prized art possessions. My heart was seeking hope and understanding, not hate. I couldn’t think how to answer, so I gave a weak, “It didn’t end all bad.”
Ava’s hands started doing another tremor as she looked down at the floor. She stuttered, I …I guess I wanted to play my dad’s game and use art as a political weapon—but against violence rather than for violence like him.”
This yanked my attention. “Hold on, I want to show you something.” I scrammed to my art studio, and grabbed my rendition of the Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People.
The minute I carried it in, Ava exclaimed, “Wow, it’s as good as new!”
“It’s amazing what a good art restorer can do,” I remarked. I decided not to mention my artistic eye can see where the torn parts were, or that my bronze Pradier statue will never be restored.
We stared at the painting of the bare-breasted flag-waving woman wielding a gun and leading a charge through battle depicting the French Revolution. Ava piped in, “Kind of reminds me of the Statue of Liberty.”
“Yes, that association is often mentioned in the art world. Of course, ‘Liberty’ is not an actual woman. It’s an abstract force.” It dawned on me the enlightened connection of these 18th and 19th-century art pieces to modern global warfare.
My personal motivation to paint versions of Picasso and Delacroix was driven from the same passion for peace that inspired Picasso to paint his works—using depictions of the brutality of battle then contrasting the dove of peace.
Both artist’s works are about deceptions of war and social change. I had thought also about attempting the brushstrokes of Picasso’s Guernica, which reflects the horrors of battle. But after the girls’ deaths, I needed something uplifting, which birthed my art gallery.
Almost thinking out loud now, I asked Ava, “Do you think it was a coincidence your dad grabbed these specific pieces to use as political weapons?”
The girl looked straight at me and said without emotion, “It’s no coincidence. I saw the artwork the CIA has at Langley. Including Kryptos…”
Kryptos. I’ve researched Sanborn’s works of encrypted sculpture, trying to figure out this secret code. The artist is as mysterious as the Kryptos itself. I left this alone for now. Too complicated to get into with the clock ticking…
Looking at Ava, I could see that talking this through was helping, not hindering her progress. She had trailed off, so I asked, “Did you know the original Delacroix painting was defaced in Northern France in 2013? At the Louvre Lens, a woman scribbled a cryptic code with a black marker, ‘AE911.’’
At this, Ava jerked straight up, the good eye almost popping from its socket. “Yes, I read about it, it’s a message how 2200 architects and engineers insist 9/11 was self-inflicted by America’s historic war machine. I think the woman writing that message was sickened by paintings glorifying wars that cause such consequences.”
“Did that woman’s actions give you the idea to write on my painting?”
Ava shook her head. “I…I don’t’ know. But I overheard my dad saying the CIA withheld information that may have stopped the attack. I was only three when it happened, but I remember. He thought I was asleep.”
“Your dad worked for the CIA back then?”
Ava grabbed a wet wipe from the nightstand and slowly rolled her head while cleansing her face and hands. She answered, “No, he was fresh out of the army and offered a position with the huge search engine company, DataRodent.”
Which got funding by the CIA. Ava’s expressions softened as she discussed this. “So resentment towards your dad motivated you to mark up my dove painting and cut apart my Delacroix with scissors?”
Ava hesitated, twisting a ring on her finger. “Maybe, I don’t know. I went on a rampage with your art because of my anger with my dad dragging me and Paige into this mess—my anger towards my dad for his part in stifling my attempt at revealing the secret underbelly of the CIA’s illusions onto the people.”
She looked less nervous now, maybe even relieved. She continued, “I think K4 of Kryptos even has a subtle message of how the passages and time of our history is untrue. I took my anger out on your art and I was wrong.”
I knew she was onto something with the dark code of the Kryptos art sculpture, but I needed to focus on prepping for the kid’s art class and getting her to rest before Pierre takes her away. This was getting too deep for me—so I simply asked, “Is Paige still in prison?”
“No, she’s out and doing community service.” Ava concealed her face behind a trembling hand, eyes zipping away from me. I waited.
After a moment, she broke the silence, “Paige’s only guilt was being with me. She never even touched the art. It’s me that should be punished. I’m the one that grabbed the art with my dad…I’m the one that vandalized your business.”
Ava’s hands shook with fiercer intent. I reached out and closed them in mine, whispering, “shhh, …it’s okay, Ava—”
“No! It’s not okay! My powerful dad bails me out of jail to control me, gets immunity from murder as a top CIA guy and Paige gets the watchful eye.”
A vicious rage boiled inside me; He gets impunity from murdering Johnny. “Your dad should be in prison.” I spat out, rather tactlessly.
Ava pondered this, twisting the ring on her finger even more, until it came off. I motioned for her to continue:
“No, he’d be a danger to other prisoners. He belongs in a mental institution with the rest of the crazed military torchbearers. He was once a gentle, kind soul—now drugging me to make me forget about how I can crack the final code in Kryptos—trying to kill me to silence me—”
Kryptos. There it is again. “Ava, nobody has been able to crack the final code—”
“You think you can?”
“Yes, I’m a wizard at math and have overheard too much. His team is socially engineering me to silence me.”
I realized she was even more emotionally damaged than I first considered. Remembering she said her dad would never pay for her college education and that she believed he killed her mom, I mentioned,” It came to my attention your dad’s choice to bludgeon Johnny to death—the Pradier bronze statue of a naked woman as a heroine—may be symbolic of his misogynist ways.”
At this Ava squeezed her eyes shut, and said nothing.
I realized I may have pushed her a bit far. “Ava?” Her eyes were closed. “Ava look at me.”
She inched open her eyes. The injured one wasn’t as swollen as when she arrived; time was good to this swelling. I locked my eyes on hers before giving her what she so desperately needed: “I forgive you.”
It was Brandon Garth all over again.
“She’s been asleep in Jared’s room for three hours.”
Nervous energy turned me into an Olympic house cleaner. I emptied the dishwasher, mopped the kitchen floor, and wiped down the countertops within ten minutes.
Pierre paced back and forth, a glass of bourbon in his hand. He ran fingers through his silver-streaked hair. “We can’t let her stay, ma chérie, they might follow her here. Think of Jared’s safety!”
“She has nowhere to go—”
“Come on! She must have friends!” Pierre thumped down the glass so hard, amber liquid sloshed from it and spilled onto the table. We stared at the puddle, a splash of tawny shimmer, trying to find humor in it.
“Pierre, her friend’s homes would be the first place they’d look for her. Her best friend has already been to prison and back due to this guy’s actions. This is her own father we’re talking about.”
My husband’s mouth opened, his eyebrows reached for his hairline. “The log cabin!”
“I thought of that, even though we’ve yet to use the cabin ourselves.”
We’d acquired a small log cabin in South Lake Tahoe at a bargain price, figuring it would cost us less to ski more. Renting condos didn’t come cheap.
But we assumed we’d have time to christen the cabin before providing a retreat for a girl we hardly know—before giving her a safe-haven from dark and hidden American power.
I glanced toward the hallway leading to Jared’s room, and added, “Why must I always feel other people’s emotions as if they’re my own?”
“That’s what I love most about you, ma chère. If I possessed this level of empathy, we would never have been apart for six years.”
What could I say to that? My heart buckled and split as I chased away the pain of losing precious years of our marriage.
“I’ll take her to our cabin and will have my new teacher’s assistant Paula stay there with her,” Pierre suggested. “Paula’s single and loves Tahoe. She’d be happy to work from the log cabin for a while. It would give Ava a chance to sort out her rather toxic life—and get her away from our home.”
I sensed Pierre’s internal hesitancy to have anything to do with Ava. “How can your TA work from Tahoe, she helps with your students—”
“There’s plenty for her to do with paperwork, and I thought of something else! You said Ava is interested in sculpture. I’ll have Paula take materials up to the cabin with her. Let’s see, I’ve extra supplies of chalk, brass, copper, pewter, clay—”
“Just clay to start, she’s a beginner—don’t go overboard with this.” It struck me we are discussing the possibility of teaching art to Ava. The emotionally distressed girl that shattered my art business and killed her own pet doves. But I realized why I’m trying to save her; I couldn’t save my own girls.
Besides, providing her with a creative outlet, art therapy, might be the best thing for her. She’s damaged goods—the product of an evil father. Soul searching would do her good.
I added, “Too bad you don’t teach encrypted sculpture. She’s taken an interest in the corporate art at Langley—the sculpture. Says she can crack the code.”
Killing her doves, Ava had explained to me, was a symbolic mockery of our violent militaristic culture right down to the sacrificial lamb mentality. The second dove resembled the US Seal, with the serene dove replacing the Bald Eagle—a bird of bad moral character. It carried the message that war could never bring peace.
“Kryptos? The sculpture outside of CIA headquarters? You’ve got to be kidding me, nobody’s been able to crack the last code,” Pierre muttered. “Shhh…I hear her moving around in the room. We don’t want her hearing us talk about her.”
I whispered, “We need to be sure she’s not here tomorrow when the children come for art class. I don’t want to endanger them.”
The bedroom door squeaked open, then the bathroom door shut. A moment later, water sprinkled from the showerhead echoing all the way to us.
“Great!” I exclaimed. “She’ll feel better after a hot shower.”
“Yes, but then we need to talk to her about the cabin. How long has she been here?”
My eyes found the kitchen clock. “Three and a half hours, maybe four.”
“Shit. Do you think Diego Ramirez could track her to our house?”
I didn’t want to say I’d been fretting about this. After all, she robbed my art gallery, inscribed a pro-peace quote onto the back of my painting and I’ve reached out to her. “No, unless she mentioned to her dad that I’ve spoken to her. I have the impression she’s too smart for that.”
Pierre mumbled under his breath, a faint whisper barely audible. “Maybe she’s smart but something is odd. Why did she use your art gallery as the subject of violence, theft and destruction?”
I nodded my agreement, while whispering back, “She was manipulated by her renegade CIA dad looking to use my art for political gain.”
“No matter, I am not happy with getting involved with this—”
I raised my hand…” Shhh, she’s coming.”
Ava teetered into the kitchen, her head cocooned in a fresh white towel. What a difference a nap and shower made. The bruises hadn’t changed a great deal, but her eye was no longer swollen shut, and her skin glowed pinkish rather than the pale-like death she wore upon arrival.
“Did you have a nice nap?” I asked.
She smiled her appreciation, then said in a scratchy voice, “I feel much better. Thank you. May I have a glass of water please?”
Pierre grabbed a glass and moved toward the refrigerator dispenser. “Ice?”
The girl nodded while flashing another award-winning smile. She brought the glass of water to her lips and took a sip. She swished the liquid in her mouth before spitting it into the sink.
She grimaced. “Sorry about that,” she began, “but my mouth is dry as dust.”
I grinned. “No worries.” Taking in her clothing, my eyes rested on her torn blouse and blistered bare feet. “I have fresh clothes, shoes and an unused toothbrush. We seem to be close in size.”
“You are so kind. Especially after I was…anything but kind to you.”
A gentle breeze shook the deck windchimes, bringing soothing melodic tones to my senses. I smiled at Ava. “I believe in the power of kindness. If you hurt me, it’s because you were hurting yourself.”
Ava drank small sips of the water, closing her eyes while seeming to savor the blissful moisture in her mouth. She eventually looked up at us. “Thanks.”
“You must be hungry.” Pierre nudged a bowl of fruit in front of her. “Eat.”
Ava’s face crinkled as she announced her lack of an appetite over the last few days.
“You must eat, Ava. You need nourishment.” I saw a tormented soul in her that hadn’t been fueled by any love for too long. Her body needed to compensate.
She picked at the fruit, slowly at first then grabbing by the handful. “Wow, guess I did need to eat. These are the freshest berries, even better than the organic fruit at the store I work at.”
“They’re from our garden,” I answered. As Ava enjoyed the blend of raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries my nerves tightened. I glanced at the clock. 5 pm. Time was ticking by, as was our likelihood of remaining hidden from a barrage of awful men.
Pierre sensed my urgency, directing a question at Ava, “Is there any way your dad could track you here?”
Ava forced a mouthful of food down and shook her head firmly. “I never told him I talked to you, Anna, so at least I don’t think so.”
Pierre glanced at the girl’s cell phone shoved into her back pocket, shaking his head. “Anyone can track people’s mobile phones these days…your dad’s a spy Ava.”
I shuffled forward, grasped both of Ava’s hands, and gently pulled her toward me. “Ava, we need to get you to safety. For your sake, for our grandson’s sake. For all of us. Pierre will take you to our lovely new little log cabin in Tahoe—”
“No! I have a job. I wasn’t there today and don’t want to be fired. I’m finally getting my shit together!”
“You’ve got to be kidding, right? You should be more concerned with your life than getting back to work—”
“I’m broke! I live paycheck to paycheck and have to survive!”
“You need to survive by not getting killed first! We can lend you money.” Pierre’s sternness pulled his face taut, likely at me for getting so involved.
“Where do you work?” I asked. No doubt, the girl seemed a bit naïve to be more concerned with keeping her job over staying alive.
“Nugget Market in Tiburon. I like it, they like me and even might make me Assistant Manager! I can’t fuck this up—”
Pierre piped up, “Ava, we will go there personally ourselves if we need to, and explain you are in danger—”
“I can’t tell them I’m from a family of spies.”
“We won’t mention details, just that you are being chased by people who want to hurt you. Look, Ava, we need to leave soon.” Pierre was adamant, his voice unbending to any other choice.
Fear sparked in Ava’s eyes, like tiny streaks of lightening flashing in her pupils.
As Pierre was readying further encouragement to ignite rationality and motivation into Ava, a loud pounding came from the door, stopping us all cold.
They’ve found us.