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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Thriller / Scifi

Chapter 15

Although Knox came fully awake unable to see where he was, he did know he was in motion, half sitting, half lying on a giant sack of croutons or a large cushion. From the way he swayed when the vehicle he was in took a curve, Knox guessed that he rode in the back of a truck, a fairly large truck. Distracting him was a strong chemical smell, but during unexpected spurts of uncontaminated air, Knox also caught a scent he could almost identify. By focusing on that familiar odor, Knox started getting himself more oriented. As his eyes became used to the dim light, he could tell that he had a cloth bag over his head. The thought flashed through his mind and whole digestive tract that he was a hostage.

Immediately, he realized that if he was a hostage, then Levinthia must also be one. He tried to push himself into a less reclined position, but his hands were bound behind him so all he wound up doing was thrashing around. In his struggling, he grabbed a handful of whatever he sat on and was surprised to find that it felt like fairly heavy duty vinyl. Given the crunchy sensation he experienced when he moved vigorously, he realized that he might be sitting on a beanbag chair. As soon as he acknowledged that his struggles were causing him to sink more deeply into the chair, into an even more horizontal position, he calmed down.

A gentle pressure on his arm made him spasm with surprise. It didn’t feel like the touch of a kidnapper. Then a hand cupped itself behind his neck, shifting him to a more vertical posture. Now he could actually get his feet more firmly planted on the floor and keep himself from sliding onto his back. Another scent echoed off the inside of his nose, Levinthia’s perfume.

“Levinthia?” Knox tilted his head back slightly to find the direction of the person wearing the perfume.

The gentle pressure on his arm was repeated. “Knox, I’m sorry you have to be tied up and blindfolded.” Levinthia’s voice sounded husky and plaintive. “But I could tell that you weren’t ready to volunteer. “ She grasped his arm more tightly. “I’m sorry. I was supposed to get you cooperative enough or curious enough to at least come in on your own terms, but I got so confused whenever I thought I was ready to make the proposition I was supposed to.”

“What are you talking about, Levinthia?” As the words were coming out of his mouth, Knox could hear his irritated husband’s voice turning his question sour.

“In the barest details, Knox, this is a business deal, an employment opportunity that’ll let you come back to your hometown to stay and finally do what you’ve always wanted.” Levinthia touched his neck with two fingers and held them there, apparently monitoring his pulse.

“What have you got yourself mixed up in?” Knox slumped into the bean bag chair. If kidnapping was the way Levinthia’s partners set up appointments, what sort of methods did they use to settle labor disputes?

“It’s not what you think, Knox. Nothing that you can imagine.” Levinthia caressed Knox’s hair.

“Yes, finding myself handcuffed and blindfolded after spending the night with my ex-wife does qualify as well beyond my imagination.” Taking a deep breath, Knox was upset to feel a tremble at the bottom of his lungs. “Levinthia, am I in danger?”

“Not a bit.” Levinthia removed the sack from his head.

After confirming that the woman who kneeled beside him was indeed his ex-wife, Knox glanced around and realized he was riding in the back of his own truck. He could see that his art reproductions were stacked along both sides of the truck, but now they shared the back with several large plastic barrels.

Leaning to one side to expose his bound hands to Levinthia, Knox said, “Please get these handcuffs off me. My fingers are going numb.”

For a couple of seconds, Levinthia rubbed Knox’s shoulders then pulled him back down. “For the time being, I think I’ll keep you restrained.”

Knox studied Levinthia’s face. Her expression didn’t belong to a woman in the process of taking sexual control of her ex-husband. No matter how indignant Knox wanted to feel, the regret in Levinthia’s features made him want to understand why she had taken him hostage. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t formulate the question that needed to be asked. Had he done something to offend her? She would certainly have let him know at the time he committed the offense. Had she been plotting revenge for these last three years because of the divorce? She had instigated the divorce proceedings. Looking back, Knox wondered if he should have taken more seriously those touched up paintings that he had found so amusing yesterday morning in Levinthia’s store. After all, she had painted his face onto the body of a Bosch demon. Maybe because his situation at the moment seemed so absurd, all of his questions also seemed absurd. Then he thought maybe if he nibbled at the edge of his confusion he might find his way to the core of Levinthia’s bizarre behavior.

“Did you know who had my truck the whole time?” He felt a gleam of satisfaction when he saw that his question caught Levinthia by surprise.

“Yes.” Levinthia turned her face away from Knox to stare at one of the large barrels a few feet away.

“Is it the Hawaiians up front?”

“They’re Tahitians.” Levinthia ran her hand through her hair. “If you got to know them, you’d like them.”

“If they hadn’t stolen my truck—with your help—I might have tried harder to want to spend some time with them.” Knox felt himself slipping down in the bean bag chair. “Whose idea was this chair?”

“Iakopo made all of the arrangements.” Levinthia pointed toward the cab of the truck. “He’s the man you talked to yesterday at the fruit stand.”

“And the woman I talked to in your shop yesterday?”

“That’s his wife Alofa.”

“And how did they talk you into the truck stealing racket, Levinthia?” Knox suspected more was going on than two Tahitians wanting his truck. “Couldn’t they have just stolen it and kept it hidden until I had to go back to Atlanta?”

“Stealing your truck is only a small part of Iakopo and Alofa’s plan.”

“But why did you have to make me part of it?” Knox rolled on his side to get a closer look at Levinthia’s expression. She seemed genuinely sad. But Knox nervously admitted to himself that she could be sad for all sorts of reasons, some of them possibly involving a tragic accident to her ex-husband.

Leaning over, Levinthia kissed his temple. “You’re going to be all right.” Obviously exasperated, she jerked her head back to look at the truck’s ceiling and bit her lower lip. “If I had just known how to tell you what’s going on, this moment could have been much less frightening to you, Knox.” She slid closer to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “I have missed you these last three years. And being intimate with you has been all that I’d hoped. You’ve got to believe me when I tell you that all we’ve felt for each other over the last twenty-four hours has been real. Don’t doubt that. No matter what goes on around us, what goes on between us is absolutely real—more real than anything that happened when we were married. But I want us, need us, to be married again.”

Unable to keep himself from smiling, Knox leaned back to make sure that Levinthia didn’t have a mocking smile on her face. “Levinthia, is this your way of proposing to me?”

Even as Levinthia laughed, she rubbed tears from her eyes. “In a way, Knox, it is. I am proposing that we get married, but I also need to make you another proposal. It’s the one I’ve been trying to make all the time we’ve been together, but I knew you wouldn’t believe me if I just came right out and told you what we’ve been asked to do.”

“So why don’t you tell me now?” Awkwardly, Knox planted his heels on the floor and tried to wiggle to a sitting position.

Moving behind Knox, Levinthia grasped him under his armpits and pulled him upright. Then she came back around and squatted in front of him. “I know you’re still not completely ready for the whole proposition, but everything I’m about to tell you can happen, is happening already, and can continue to happen for the rest of our lives.”

“Do you mean like making love in your van all night, then on your kitchen floor in the morning, then being kidnapped right after our shower?”

“Before you start confusing the issue, Knox, just answer me honestly. Since we got back together yesterday, has your life ever felt so exciting, so fully engaged?” Levinthia rested her hands on Knox’s knees. “For a moment, forget about being kidnapped. If I had been better at my part of this plan, we wouldn’t have needed to kidnap you. And by the way, you really aren’t kidnapped. Think of yourself as just being involuntarily transported.”

“Well, that’s what I was hoping you’d say.” Knox tried to cross his legs, but the bean bag chair didn’t allow him to get the right angle. Still, disregarding his present restraints, his evening and morning with Levinthia had made him feel rejuvenated. Just sitting beside her, eating barbeque, filled him with a completeness he had never experienced. Their lovemaking had been the fulfillment of all his most improbable fantasies—not the acts themselves so much as the intensity of his and Levinthia’s mutual pleasure. Every touch they shared provided deep and poignant surges of satisfaction. Just recalling Levinthia naked aroused him despite how numb his hands had grown.

“Can you tell me where I’m being involuntarily transported?”

“We’re going to the Loomis house.” Levinthia stood up rather unsteadily, swaying with the truck’s motion.

Disbelief made Knox’s body go slack. If not for his clothes, he thought he might completely melt into the bean bag chair. Lucy was an invalid. Her parents had to be ancient by now. Were Levinthia and the Tahitians holding them hostage as well?

“What have you done to them, Levinthia?” Knox wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know. Being handcuffed by her could just be an ex-wife turned lover prank. But he couldn’t justify to himself frightening two old people and a woman in an iron lung.

“Knox, I’m very glad to see how concerned you are.” Levinthia bumped into one of the large barrels and seemed unnerved by the contact. As she regained her balance, she stumbled back to where Knox sat. “Darling, Iakopo, Alofa, and I are doing all of this for the Loomises.”

“And what is it you’re doing for them?” Knox wasn’t sure, but now Levinthia sounded relieved, as if they’d finally gotten to what she really needed to be talking about.

“They need our help, Knox. Yours and mine.” Levinthia kneeled, her knees nudging into the bean bag chair, crowding Knox’s thigh. She had to steady herself by holding onto his shoulder. “They’ve chosen us, Knox.” She rested her head against his chest.

“But they chose you first so you could talk to me, get me in the mood to cooperate?” Knox had to control his breathing. He was dubious. He was still a little frightened despite Levinthia’s reassurances.

More and more, his suspicion grew that maybe Levinthia was crazy. Maybe whatever had made her crazy was now in the process of making him crazy. That might be one explanation for the sex they’d had last night and this morning. He tipped his head down so he could bury his face in Levinthia’s hair. It smelled like linen and the citrus of the soap they’d used when they bathed. He could be crazy with this. But what about the two Tahitians driving the truck? Headed to the Loomis’s house. That was another kind of crazy.

Knox lifted his face only slightly from Levinthia’s hair. “What are we going to do when we get to the Loomises’?”

Almost sleepily, Levinthia raised her head. “It’s probably going to seem complicated at first, Knox.” She sat up but kept one hand on Knox’s shoulder. “We’re operating on several different levels. By the end of the day, I hope you will know everything that’s going on. But part of our plan depends upon you not knowing everything at first. That’s why I’ve had so much trouble getting you oriented.”

“Are you all right, Levinthia?” The idea flashed across Knox’s mind that Levinthia might be a hostage herself. But on one of those different levels she mentioned.

Levinthia leaned over and gave Knox a lingering kiss. When she pulled away, she cupped Knox’s face in her hands. “My painting is the best it’s ever been. My health is the best it’s ever been. My business is the best it’s ever been. These last twenty-four hours have been the best I’ve ever been.” For several seconds, she stared into Knox’s eyes. “Am I making myself clear about how well I’m doing?”

“Sounds like you’re doing okay.” Knox nodded once.

Returning his nod, Levinthia reached into her pocket and pulled out a small, tubular key. “What I’m doing, Knox, and what I want to help you do, is live up to your potential.” She slipped to the side of the bean bag chair, rolled Knox onto his side, and unlocked the right bracelet of his handcuffs. As she rubbed his right wrist, Levinthia twisted the left bracelet so the unlatched bracelet hung against the outside of Knox’s arm.

Shaking his hands, raising them over his head, then rubbing his wrists, Knox was so grateful to be able to move his arms that at first he didn’t wonder why Levinthia had unlocked only one bracelet. “Thank you.” Now the world started to make a little more sense.

“You mustn’t feel like we’re trying to coerce you, Knox. Our plan really needs you to be an enthusiastic member.”

“Levinthia, what you sound like right now reminds me of an interest meeting I attended shortly after our divorce, after the furniture market disappeared, and I thought maybe I could be happy selling Amway products.” Knox tried to decide if he should attempt to escape. They couldn’t be too far from the Loomis house. He certainly would know the neighborhood wherever he might jump off the truck. Would the Tahitians have actually locked the door at the back? With Levinthia back here? Then again, they might have assumed that Levinthia would leave on the handcuffs and the head bag.

“I guess I do sound like a new cult convert, don’t I?” Levinthia crossed her arms and smiled at Knox. “I hadn’t thought of myself as belonging to a cult, but I can see how you’d think this was a cult activity.”

“But it’s not?”

“I’m committed to what we’re doing. But this is about art. Mine and yours, Knox.” Levinthia stepped closer to him.

“Do you mean the art I lease to office managers?” Knox pointed at the reproductions stored along the walls.

Resting her palms on Knox’s chest, Levinthia tapped her fingers in rhythm to her words. “That’s not your art, Knox. That’s your business. Your art is something different. Think. What is your art?”

When he didn’t answer, Levinthia disappeared into a corner of the truck but returned in a moment carrying a rectangular, leather case. She held it out to Knox. “What do you think this is?”

Not needing to see the Selmer medallion on the side of the case, Knox knew Levinthia was handing him a trumpet. He started to sit on one of the large barrels, but Levinthia caught his arm and pointed toward the bean bag chair. Shaking his head, Knox kneeled down and, placing the case on the floor, snapped open the latches. Somehow, Levinthia had found a Selmer Concept TT Series trumpet. It was the same model he’d taken with him to college. The same satin finish on the brass. For a second, his mind flashed back to the table in the back of the truck at the fruit stand. He felt the odd conviction that the trumpet nestled in the black velvet lining of the case wasn’t just the same kind of trumpet he’d played his last two years of high school and in his first year of college. Levinthia had brought him that same trumpet. The one he’d sold after he gave up on being a music major.

“This looks familiar.” He lifted the trumpet out of the case and picked up the mouthpiece.

“Let me hear how you sound.” Levinthia grasped his wrists and made him raise the horn to his lips.

Backing away from her, Knox lowered the trumpet. “Levinthia, I haven’t played a note in seventeen years. You got to have an embouchure. Toned lip muscles. And that takes months and months to develop.” He couldn’t stop admiring the soft glow of the metal.

“I appreciate what you’re saying.” Levinthia moved close to Knox. “An artist has to practice his craft. “But I’ve had a chance to observe your lip muscles recently, and I think you’re in better shape than you realize.” She pressed Knox’s hands between hers and slightly raised the trumpet again. “C’mon. Give it a try.”

“I doubt if I can even play a chromatic scale.” Knox tested the pistons, their pressure pushing against his fingers with a nostalgic insistence.

“See if you can still play ‘Sleepy Lagoon.’” Levinthia took a few steps back and pointed at Knox.

Making sure he had his feet far apart enough to keep his balance in the swaying truck, Knox licked his lips and raised the trumpet to them. For a few seconds, with his eyes closed, he actually heard the Harry James Orchestra playing the introduction to his solo, the shimmering of a piano and a flute, then he started very softly playing the arpeggios that led into the melody. The vibration of the truck became the rhythm of the dance floor Knox could see behind his closed eyes. Halfway through, during what would have been a break in the trumpet’s solo, Knox dropped down half an octave and played the trombone solo that he heard. Not only was he amazed by how sure his fingering was, but he knew he had never improvised this well even when he was practicing three or four hours a day as a music major. And when it came to hitting the high notes at the end of the song, Knox knew exactly where to tilt his head so the notes came out sweet and pure. This was the way he had been able to play in his dreams after he’d sold his trumpet and become a business major.

Briefly, he wondered if that’s what he was doing now. What if he was actually driving his truck down I-85, heading back toward Atlanta, and he’d fallen asleep at the wheel? What if he opened his eyes and found himself barreling toward the piling of a bridge or about to slam into the back of a bus full of school children? Keeping the trumpet to his lips and starting the song over again, Knox opened his eyes. If he was going to crash, he wanted to have “Sleepy Lagoon” usher him out. But he was still standing in the half light of his truck, Levinthia standing in front of him, tears running down her face, her hands covering her mouth. At that moment, Knox thought about dropping to his knee in front of her and proposing. He had just played the best solo of his life, half of which he’d spent selling furniture or leasing art reproductions, and he realized that Levinthia was the only audience that mattered to him. She’d heard him play the way he’d always wanted to play, and that was all he wanted.

But as he lowered his trumpet and took a step toward Levinthia, the handcuff on his left wrist slipped just enough to clang against the brass of the horn. He slumped, almost losing his balance. They had to be close to the Loomis house by now. “What is all of this about, Levinthia?” He looked closely at the trumpet, first to see if the handcuff had dented it and second to reassure himself that it was real.

Sensing that Knox’s mood had changed, Levinthia wiped her eyes and straightened her shoulders. “Okay, let me see if I can give you some straight answers, but first tell me honestly if you’ve ever played like you just played?”

“Never.” Automatically, Knox raised the trumpet to his lips, opened the spit valve and blew water out of the instrument. “How did I do it?” He removed the mouthpiece and held it up to his eye, studying Levinthia as if through a telescope. “Did you give me some kind of artistic steroid while I was asleep?”

Almost losing her composure, Levinthia smiled and took a step toward Knox. But then she caught herself and assumed a more serious expression. “No. Your playing was in no way artificially enhanced. That music is yours, Knox. Always has been.”

“I want to believe that, Levinthia.”

“Oh, you’ve got to believe it, Knox.” Levinthia moved directly in front of him and took his arm with both hands. “If you’re going to believe everything else that I have to tell you, then you’ve got to believe that you should have always been able to play as well as you just did.” Levinthia kept looking into Knox’s eyes as if expecting some confirmation. “You can accept that you just played that trumpet beautifully and you felt good about how you played, can’t you?”

“Best musical experience I’ve ever had,” Knox held up his left arm, “handcuffed or unhandcuffed.”

“And can you accept that the time we’ve had together over the last twenty-four hours has been the most satisfying time you’ve ever spent with anyone—including the me you knew three years ago?” Levinthia stepped back and locked her gaze on Knox’s face. Then she laced her fingers together, hands in front of her chest.

“Best experience I’ve had.” Knox lifted his left arm again. “Handcuffed or unhandcuffed.” Then he dropped his gaze and cupped his forehead in his hand. “But I’m beginning to think you’ve drugged me. I’ve very suspicious of that cantaloupe.” He looked back into Levinthia’s eyes. “Did you know your Tahitian friend gave me cantaloupe at the fruit stand?”

“I’ll explain that later. But can you accept that it was the best cantaloupe . . . “

“Best cantaloupe I’ve ever eaten,” Knox interrupted. “But what is all this accepting supposed to add up to?”

“Proof of the reality I’m going to ask you to accept.”

“What reality is that?”

“One that can give you and me the kind of pleasure minute by minute that we’ve had over the last twenty-four hours. You’ll be able to get flavors out of food like never before. You’ll be able to play any song, any piece of music that comes into your head. As a matter of fact, you already can.” Levinthia took a couple of deep breaths. “All of these feelings, about each other, about your musical ability, and about my painting, about the way that cantaloupe tasted—all of that is truth, Knox. It’s not an illusion or a drug hallucination. And just as it’s truth, Knox, it’s also something good that’s in you and me.” She motioned toward Knox then toward herself. “You’ve got to feel that as well. Even with the handcuffs.” She dropped her hand by her side and smiled.

Unable to resist returning her smile, Knox nodded.

“If all that’s happened between us and between you and your trumpet is some insane conspiracy how could it feel so good? Yes, you’re trapped in the back of a truck that your ex-wife and two Tahitians stole from you, and you were deprived of sight and movement of your upper arms, but admit that you do feel clear-headed—not drugged or abused or threatened.”

“Well, I felt threatened at first, and I’m still confused,” Knox caressed his trumpet, “but I do genuinely believe that you’re going to explain all that’s happened and is happening.”

Levinthia came over and hugged him. “I am. But I want to do it carefully, darling.” She led him back to the bean bag chair. “Let’s sit down. For you, your involvement started back that first time you visited the Loomis house singing Christmas carols. So, in a way, you’ve been part of the conspiracy much longer than I have.”

Cautiously, Knox lowered himself onto the edge of the chair. He didn’t want to lose his ability to move quickly, in case Levinthia’s revelation turned sinister. “What did I do?”

“You were kind to a little girl in an iron lung. Telling her that her iron lung was a space ship. You didn’t know it, but that kindness imparted an energy to her that she had never experienced before, although she had encountered kindness in her life, she’d never had a six-year-old boy speak to her the way you did.”

While Knox thought he might have mentioned Lucy Loomis and her field to Levinthia when they were married, he was certain he had never told her exactly what he’d said to Lucy. However, as soon as Levinthia repeated his comment, he knew those were his words from thirty years ago. He could feel his whole body radiate with a pleasurable embarrassment.

“Then you started playing for her at the edge of her field.” Levinthia leaned against Knox.

“So she did hear me.”

“After a couple of years, she started recording your practice sessions.”

“Oh no.” Knox shook his head. “Please don’t tell me she still has the recordings.”

“More than that. She still listens to them.” Levinthia patted Knox’s arm. “And I’ve listened to some of them myself.”

Searching around on the floor, Knox found the cloth sack that had covered his head and put it back on. “I think I know now why you needed to bring me in as a hostage.”

“You’ll have to hear them. Lucy’s favorite is ‘The Indian Love Call.’ Do you still remember how to play it?”

Pulling the sack off his head, Knox raised the trumpet and closed his eyes. He was there in the north woods with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Softly, he played the ghostly melody that first caught Jeanette MacDonald’s attention. After a few moments, to give Nelson Eddy enough time to explain the story about the two doomed Indian lovers, Knox played the call again. After a second, he dropped a quarter of an octave to sound like Nelson Eddy teaching Jeanette MacDonald the melody. Knox had never been able to change voices on his trumpet. Again, he forgot that he was in the back of his truck, but he was confident he could trust Levinthia. As he played, he found himself hoping that he’d have a chance to let Lucy hear how much better he was than when he was a teenager.

When the truck jerked to a stop, Knox sprawled backwards into the bean bag chair. He was careful to keep the trumpet elevated.

Levinthia jumped to her feet and pulled Knox out of the bean bag chair. “Okay, we need to put your trumpet away.” Nervously, she hovered over Knox as he blew spit out of the instrument and fitted it back into its case. “Now, for the next two or three hours, you have to go back to being a hostage.”

“I thought we’d gotten beyond that.” Knox stood up, but he didn’t know exactly what to do.

“No, this is the part that I wasn’t supposed to talk about. We have to leave you in the dark until the ATF agents arrive.”

“ATF agents?” Knox decided he should see if the door to the back was locked. He pushed past Levintha.

Close behind, she grabbed his arm, forcing him to face her. “No matter what happens or what you hear or what you see, just know that I’ve told you the truth. You and I belong together. If you find yourself doubting what I’ve told you, just remember the music. Only something very good could let you find that music—and me--again.” Levinthia pulled his face close to hers, about to kiss him, but when the rear door of the truck banged open, Knox jerked around.

The large Tahitian smiled, then jumped into the truck next to Knox. “You were playing some beautiful music. I’m really sorry I won’t get to hear more of it.” He spun Knox around and before Knox could react, he felt his arms pulled behind him and the right bracelet of the handcuffs clamped around his wrist.

Reluctantly, Levinthia handed the cloth sack to the Tahitian. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”

Knox didn’t know what to say. He felt the Tahitian lift him as if he planned on carrying him over the threshold.

As Iakopo climbed from the back of the truck, he said to Knox, “You have every right to feel angry with all of us, but if you have to use the bathroom, you should say so because you’re going to be sitting in a chair for two or three hours.”

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