Refuge

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CHAPTER 2 – A Good Place for Today

INTERSTELLAR SPACE

After a period measured by only a few rotations on their axis of most rocky planets, the great armada was near enough to their objective to begin deceleration. With carefully calculated adjustments, the navigators eased their grip on that piece of the universe that had brought them across space, and the fleet began to lag. Smears and streaks of radiation from far below infrared to far beyond ultra violet and every imaginable color in between marked the uncountable stars swarming past, their true images obliterated by the changed nature of things in still faster-than-light travel.


MARIN HEADLANDS

GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATIONAL AREA (NRA), CALIFORNIA

WEDNESDAY (five weeks later)

Is it time, Beth? I always thought I’d know when it was time.

Maybe he could have waited.

In his mind, Jason could still see Eric stomping about among the debris and flailing the shovel handle. But, maybe Eric would have stopped his final charge and put down the shovel handle as ordered. Or, maybe he could have disarmed Eric—all two hundred and fifty or sixty pounds of mean, pissed off muscle—and then subdued him until the cover units arrived. Sure. Maybe he would have survived being bashed with the same force Eric had used in destroying the patrol car. Maybe Emmie wouldn’t have been made an orphan—just, at the tender age of ten, the daughter of a crippled ex-cop who would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair or flat on his back in a bed.

These five weeks since the shooting had been one interrogation or interview after another between which he toiled at one administrative task after another at a desk well away from the public. Now he had hopes that they—the FBI, the California Attorney General’s office, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, the sheriff’s department, and his own police department—all appeared to be satisfied that he had had no choice but to shoot Eric Morgan. Eric’s father would probably file a wrongful death civil suit, and the city would probably settle out of court just to be rid of it. And it sure hadn’t helped that they held the body so long before releasing it to the family. But at least with all the experts agreeing, he could begin to truly believe, within himself, that the shooting was justified. He had believed from the beginning, intellectually, that it was righteous, but emotionally, he feared he would always have doubts.

No, dammit! I was justified! Of course, I was...wasn’t I? Still...maybe it’s time to hang it up, huh, Beth? …They’re burying him today, you know.

Memories of that other funeral over three years past pushed into the forefront of his thoughts, and how, as much as he loved working in law enforcement, he had made a promise to a stronger love. On that day he stood over the gaping hole in the ground and faced the flower-draped casket perched above it, and he wondered if his emptiness would eventually turn to hatred. The fourteen-year-old robber didn’t even know Beth. She was just another shopper in the mini-market out in their Chicago suburb. But, when the proprietor yelled and lunged at him instead of emptying the till, he panicked and started shooting instead of dropping his gun and running like any sensible punk. The kid’s bullets did no harm other than chipped paint and holed walls, except for the chance hit on the side of Beth’s neck that ripped open her carotid artery. Jason’s heart had still not filled with hate, and he hoped it never would, but forgiveness was also yet to come. He could almost smell those long-since wilted flowers as he repeated his silent promise to her lying there, that he would always put the welfare of their daughter before any other consideration.

Then he asked himself for the umpteenth time what less risky vocation would he be willing to devote the rest of his life to, that he would be able, at his age, to become as good at as he was in his present one, one that could give him as much of a feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day? Waiting for an answer he suspected would never come, he let his eyes probe the low hills beyond the water as though an answer lingered there.

Just a couple of miles across the strait from his vantage point at the Hawk Hill Vista Point, the city stretched from bay to ocean: San Francisco, that beautiful City by the Bay where falling in love was as easy as strolling along the marina. To sit across the table from her...occasionally touching hands, just brushing fingertips between sips of wine... To catch the sparkle of a lone, single tear from some foolish, long since forgotten argument that died quietly in the tenderness of a kiss never to be forgotten. ...Laughter that infected both—like giggling school children, they had walked hand in hand, smiling shyly at grinning passersby that turned heads to watch them skipping on down the street. A picnic beneath...

A light touch on his arm propped up over the back of the bench brought Jason out of his reverie. He turned his head and looked straight into Emmie’s face while the wide brim of a floppy, brown Fedora shielded his eyes from the July sun. Emmie called it his Indiana Jones hat. Big, hazel eyes sang to him just as her mother’s had done.

“You were thinking of Mom, weren’t you?”

His mind stumbled back to the present like a man feeling his way in a darkened room, back from its hidden chamber of memories. There was no reason to feel guilty for remembering Beth. Still, he felt a twinge. This was supposed to be quality time with Emmie. He owed it to her after the nightmare of these past weeks. Was their world to be turned upside-down again?

He took her hand in his and held it for a moment before answering, “Uh huh.”

“I could tell. I can always tell.” With a touch as soft as a mother’s kiss, she wiped a drop of moisture from the corner of his eye before it had a chance to grow into a tear. “I think about her a lot, too.”

He stroked his daughter’s long, golden hair that so reminded him of her mother’s. Her pug nose and fading freckles added a Tom Sawyerish look to her face with its wide, expressive mouth and impish eyes, but they seemed to all change minutely each week, becoming an echo of her mother’s beauty that had always taken his breath away.

“Here,” he patted the bench beside him. “Come sit with me.”

She walked around the end of the bench as she gazed out over the strait and sat next to him. The loose, plaid shirt tucked into the waist of faded denims fluttered against her slim, ten-year old body with the gusting breeze.

“Did you and Mom ever come up here?”

Jason’s thoughts flashed again to Beth and to the many things they had done together in the time they had here in her hometown before they were married, and then afterwards until he returned to Chicago with his new bride. Long, chilly walks along beaches in the moonlight... The variety of cuisines from half hidden and exotic restaurants... The iconic cable cars... Shop-hopping in China Town... Nights spent in each other’s arms...

“No, Sweetheart, this was one place we never got to. Sure wish we had, though. Nice, isn’t it?”

“You can see so far!”

Far below, four-foot high swells rolling through the strait seemed no more than endless ripples on a pond. To the northwest, the great expanse of water ended at the boundary of a fog bank a few miles off-shore that curved in to enshroud the north coast. The view to the south and southwest was clear, and details faded away in the miles that stretched to the edge of the earth. Far to the south a pencil-line smudge of a ship marked the boundary of water and sky. Two other ships, a tanker and a cargo container carrier, made arcing approa2ches to the bay entrance. The tanker still hung six or seven miles out when the container carrier passed Point Bonita with its lighthouse, the westernmost point of land that marked the mouth of the strait between ocean and bay.

At the eastern end of the strait, the Golden Gate Bridge spanned more than a mile-wide expanse of wind-whipped and tide-torn water. Scrub covered hills and rocky cliffs at the north end of the bridge formed the headlands at the southern end of the Marin County peninsula.

Compact, prickly bushes covered the ground on the steep slopes between precipitous crags. Here and there, near the tops of the hills, small clumps of wind sculpted, twisted, and stunted conifers offered scant shelter against the constant wind. Still capable of stirring imaginations were the stripped remains of several huge, underground gun emplacements—little-used coastal defense relics of a war over sixty years past. Two such emplacements were located just below the summit of Hawk Hill where a series of tunnels pierced the hilltop to provide secure storage of munitions and supplies as well as safety for personnel beneath tons of rock during anticipated but never occurring attacks. A wide, curving path led to the top where the ruins of smaller, stone and concrete walled bunkers for anti-aircraft and machine-guns from that same, far removed war and later replaced by Nike missiles, also long gone, squatted in the sunshine. Crumbling walls bore ugly scars from the artistic endeavors of countless graffitists. At the south edge, behind a safety railing, Jason and Emmie sat on a bench facing out over the surf pounding the rocks far below.

“How high are we, Dad?”

Jason gazed across the mile of open space between them on their mountaintop perch and the bridge to their left before answering. “Well, I’ve heard those bridge towers rise to about seven hundred and fifty feet above water level. We’re looking down on ’em, so I’d say we’re close to a thousand feet up. Maybe more.”

“Oh, wow! We were about this high in that building in Chicago, weren’t we? But this is different. And, it’s so clear! I’m glad we moved out here. Illinois was either too hot or too cold. I feel like I could just reach out and touch those little houses and cars over there.”

But was it a mistake, Beth, giving up almost eleven years on the Chicago PD to come out here just to be near where you grew up? Can Emmie and I really build a new life this close to your beginnings? What was I thinking? Was I thinking, darling, or just feeling—grasping.

Emmie peered across at the rows of houses on the ocean side of San Francisco. “Can you see Mom’s house from here—the one where she grew up?”

Jason looked across the strait to the rows of box-like structures lining tiny ribbons on which ants seemed to crawl. If I had stayed here instead of taking you back to Illinois, you’d still be alive. …Or would you? Maybe we wouldn’t even have had the few years we did have. Maybe Emmie wouldn’t even have been born if we had stayed here. What kind of world would it be without Emmie in it? How could I have survived when you were killed if Emmie wasn’t there?

“No, she lived way down by the zoo. Beyond the park; that’s those hills with all the trees.”

“Will you take me there, someday? I mean just to drive past. I know Nana and Grandpa aren’t there, anymore. I’d just like to see the house.”

Jason’s arm draped around her shoulders tightened briefly in a hug. Emmie had lost her maternal grandparents in a car accident just over a year after the shooting. Jason’s parents had both been gone for over ten years, and neither he nor Beth had siblings. It was just the two of them, now. “You bet, hon. How about we swing by there on the way home? I know where there’s a great place for pizza down that way. Pizza for dinner okay?”

“Mmm, sure!”

They sat in silence for several minutes while watching the approach of the tanker from the open sea into the strait, bound for one of the oil refineries on the east side of the bay. The container ship, en route to the Port of Oakland, had long since disappeared behind the double span of the Oakland Bay Bridge and the cluster of high-rises of San Francisco’s financial district.

Emmie stood and gave the brim of his hat a slap. “Come on, Indie, let’s explore some more.”

“Indie? I’ll Indie you!”

Jason jumped up and vaulted over the bench to head her off. She slipped past just beyond his reach and ran squealing and laughing down a slope toward the nearest anti-aircraft bunker.

Grinning, he gave chase. His dash became a slow saunter as he followed her into the dark shadows of the interior. This is a good place for today. Peace and quiet—far from the hectic chaos of the world falling apart and all its problems. Problems can’t reach us up here.

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