It was eight o’clock on that stormy Thursday night when three figures huddled together against the driving storm, broke rank and scattered, each to their own vehicle.
Windshield wipers flogged out a loosing battle against the torrential downpour and headlights barely dented the smothering blanket of sleet. They stopped once to collect supplies, then, never braking convoy, the three vehicles picked their cautious way out of the city, on into the wooded suburbs.
On reaching their destination the occupants disembarked at their own timing, bolting for the safety of unity and the warm comfort of the palatial villa.
“Have you ever seen a night like this?”
“Never! And—my word—I have never seen a house like this either Catherine, never a house like this!” Without yet venturing beyond the entrance hall, Leon was already in awe.
During Catherine’s hospitalization, after her fight with Jacky, he had been to the house, but on that occasion the house had been like a construction site; a shambles charged with a negative repulse, and he had been utterly focused on the unfolding saga, taking none of the surroundings in.
He was stunned to see how it had changed, transformed its mood with lights on and the zest for life re-injected.
Nancy completed the trio as she came skidding through the door, pursued by another squall. She was drenched to the bone from her short dart across the few feet of distance.
After deserving hot beverages had been served and gladly wolfed down, Nancy took Leon on a tour of the rest of the house.
When Catherine called “Dinner’s on the table", they returned to partake of another Oriental delight bumped from its cardboard container, garnished by a good dollop of Catherine’s apologies.
The Bishop’s ranting had fired the bogeyman into one and all and they had not discussed the details any further, none of them wanting to further fray the exposed nerves that his outpourings had tweaked.
The unabating storm had created the ideal excuse to mill about in the hospital’s foyer, none of them wanting to return to lonely dwellings apart. Even Leon, the seasoned veteran of things mysterious, had not escaped the supernatural horror that seeped into the stormy nights tone.
The longer they had stood in the hospital’s foyer listening to the crashes of thunder in the heavens above and watching the backlit sheets of rain lashing the windows, the more the tang of apprehension brewing within each of them grew.
“I don’t know about you lot, but I’m not going home alone. Either you follow me or I’ll follow you,” Catherine’s voice had quavered.
A chance lightning bolt had punctuated the end of her statement, and it had swung the vote unanimously in favor of her large white walled rooms and modern decor.
The meal was over and a round of coffee had been served as they cautiously waded into the murky waters of the pontiff’s parables.
Catherine checked her watch. It was nine forty... Jacky should have been in some time ago, she thought, hoping that the storm wouldn’t delay her in-bound flight. She felt uneasy, a dreadful boding trying to suppress her mood yet further. Then again, it always felt like this when Jacky was up in this weather, she reminded herself.
“I told you that the tongues were television, remember Leon—you laughed at me... I told you. Just call me brilliant,” Nancy tentatively kicked off the proceedings.
“All right, ... Miss Brilliant... then tell us what a goat with tendrils having his way with me... or whatever it was that he said... what does that mean?
The statement had terrified Catherine, she dealt with fear by challenging it—it was a gauntlet thrown down at fate.
“Stop it Catherine!” Nancy admonished her. The tempting of fate scared her to death and on this dark night, with Fernando’s direct predictions so fresh in her mind, her willingness to continue was deflated.
“Stop what?” Catherine laughed out of fear, not humor. The laughter a surrogate for tears.
“Don’t be silly, Cath. Let’s not fool around with our emotions... they’re raw, far too raw.”
Even Leon was uneasy with the affair, struggling to get a grip on his own galloping emotions. He took Catherine’s hand;
“We’re all edgy tonight, we should talk through everything and plan the best solutions, but there’s no need, between friends, to put on a brave face.”
Suddenly and with no warning Catherine lost control, bursting into sobs of terror.
Leon and Nancy moved as one to embrace her.
Moments later the door blew open, admitting an apparition wrapped in an icy blast of wind.
The tight huddle of three spooked in unison, then Catherine broke away and ran toward it the instant she recognized the sodden thing;
She halted short, “Jacky?” she called, hesitation suddenly in her voice.
“Sorry Cath, did I scare you?” She dropped the drenched jacket held over her head aside, “...I was wondering whose cars... oh, it’s Nancy.”
The hand of fear that had gripped them was broken and Catherine moved quickly to Jacky, hugging her furiously, overjoyed to know the ill omen of impending disaster was taxied and safely parked out of stormy skies.
Jacky headed off to shower and top-up beverages were poured.
When Jacky returned, they played her the recording to get a more objective opinion. The peculiar sounds proved meaningless to her, but the recorded voice of Fernando and the content of his ravings chilled her to the core.
Foul Balms triggered Catherine; “Darn... someone remind me to contact Kevin tomorrow to see if he’s found anything in the patch.”
“Ooh... sorry Cath, I chatted to him last night,” Jacky piped up, “forgot to tell you, he said he’s found something that ‘doesn’t seem nutritional’... mean anything?”
“Is that it?” Catherine quizzed.
“He’s still trying to refine it... thinks he might have more by the weekend. I hope that it wasn’t too important?”
“Is this something to do with the missing patch?...!” Leon puzzled.
“Yikes... I’m busted,” Nancy laughed, “You heard about it?”
“Heard about it? I had to put up with Ken’O for three days... totally off his head about it... crazy.”
“I know... new protocols now—they’re weighing packages to the gram... both ends. Every patch getting a RFID tag. They were already three short from Kampala, I thought a fourth wouldn’t do much harm.”
“It’s been a witch hunt alright, a real witch hunt.”
“I know, I copped it too. Really sorry, I had to keep it quiet. The excitement seems to have blown over.”
“Not really... at the last Board Meeting Ken hit the roof about security... we’re outsourcing to offsite CCTV monitoring round the clock now. Big Brother all the way, Nance... all the way.”
“Sorry for the shop talk...” Nancy apologized, “we interrupted... nutritional results?”
“Yes... and something about adrenaline and endorphins. It went over my head.”
“What time is it? Do you think that I should call him?” Catherine asked, checking her watch. “What...! It’s almost eleven!” She was stunned.
Opinion was divided whether to phone or not, but curiosity was too strong a persuader and Catherine took the less intrusive option and messaged;
“Per the patch… Plse call ASAP regardless of time. Wont be sleeping. Plse don’t forget VERY important”
When Catherine hit ‘send’, Leon was on his feet;
“I’m off to club duvet, ladies... where the pillows are playing... definitely club duvet.”
There was a general round of dissatisfaction that the star analyst was deserting. Jacky, the most superstitious of all, was also the most vociferous;
“You do know what tomorrow is?”
Leon laughed at the suggestion; “Friday the thirteenth; what poppycock Nancy... utter poppycock.”
“Come on, Leon. It’s a bad one out there... don’t tempt fate. We’ve got five bedrooms, under floor heating... breakfast in bed...”
“I’m off, cheerio,” he was already half way to the lobby, pulling on his jacket. “I’ve left the recordings... don’t want to spoil your fun, now do I?”
“Oh, Leon!” Nancy scolded him. “Come and sit down here at once! You’re not going to be able to sleep anyway.”
“Is someone going to make sure that I close the door properly?” he called back. “Nance, please don’t forget to bring the recordings to the office.”
They could hear his hand turning the door handle. Like a man possessed, he was unstoppable, almost obsessed;
“Toodeloo,” his farewell sounded like the last post of a bugle note.
Catherine had given hot pursuit to see him out, she smiled and shrugged as she returned; uncharacteristically he hadn’t even stopped to hug her goodbye.
The sound of his departing engine left them in a cloud of dread.
“More coffee... cocoa... something stronger?” Catherine offered, lifting the light dimmer to its maximum intensity. A severe uneasiness had crept in and it took a while for them to ease back toward the conversation.
“What I’ve been most curious about is this General who is also a Bishop,” Jacky posed, “I thought that’s a strange Karma. I mean... from a reincarnation perspective... you’re supposed to improve as a person with each passing life? Does it mean then that a soldier is a click above a priest in the hierarchy…? I mean, he’s back as a soldier…”
“I’m sorry that Leon’s gone, Jacks. He explained it so well,” Catherine took up the challenge of explaining it. “Your spirit amounts to more than just your brain and the chemistry that gives you thought and memory. Your spirit is you. It’s what makes you who you are. That’s why you are not me.”
It sounded so silly now that she’d said it. She racked her brain a moment, searching for Leon’s exact words and excellent examples;
“Look, if my body’s organs are transplanted into you, then they will become part of you, they won’t be part of me anymore. If they ever get brain transplants right, then we’ll be able to answer whether we really do amount to more than simple chemical reactions. But...”
She stalled, running out of facts, second guessing whether it was anywhere close to what Leon had said—or just what she’d hoped he was saying;
“...I don’t know. It sounded simple when he explained it.”
The dead of night was pierced by a siren, the threads of its wailing woven into the howls of the wind through the trees, until the sound was swallowed by a ferocious volley of hail against the window pains.
In spite of the central heating Nancy pulled her cardigan tighter about herself;
“I’ll be using a room if you don’t mind.”
“No chance of that, you’ll sleep in our bed!” Jacky insisted, confirming it with a nod from Catherine.
A strange scent wafted into the room, it smelled for all the world like lilacs. Three sets of nostrils flared, testing its odd appearance against the improbability of its existence. Catherine was the only one to verbalize their collective thoughts;
Nancy took the next turn at trying to pick up on the explanation that had defeated Catherine;
“Karma says that the personality that you are, in spite of your experiences in this life, is an indication of who you were before. Your experiences during this lifetime will alter you in certain ways and you’ll then carry those traits that you learn now... your loyalty and aggression... hunger for power, onward to your next life.”
“But that doesn’t answer how Roger, the General, could have slipped from the apparently higher ideals of Fernando the priest,” Jacky insisted.
“I’m getting there,” Nancy said, and then hoped that she would. “Roger... the soldier... was born to a country at war, and even though he’d apparently been a shy and gentle child, the discipline and authoritarian side of his former personality turned him into a natural warrior leader. Killing is wrong, according to Fernando’s insight in the spirit world. Despite that, it hadn’t given him any qualms about burning people at the inquisition’s stake during his own lifetime! At that time he had been operating according to, and a victim of, the prevailing wisdom of his age.”
Jacky was bewildered by the complexity of the nebulous hypothesis and seeing this, Nancy tried to sum up her explanation as concisely as possible;
“The spirit world is like a locker room where you review what you’re going to do on the playing field of terrestrial life. You plan your strategies of how to achieve the goals. God is...”
“Good is...” Catherine corrected her.
“You’re right, Cath, sorry. Good is the prevailing wisdom that holds together the team, comprised of the rest of us. Good invented the game and made up the rules,” Nancy indicated all of creation symbolized by the game. “And, like in a locker room, the character that we hope to be when we’re planning to be brave and strong and smart, is not necessarily the player that we discover that we are when we’re faced with all the problems that life throws at us. Money, religion, power.... Whatever it is that motivates us can be represented by a ball in this parable. But the ball doesn’t always bounce exactly right and our team mates don’t always pass straight or defend properly...”
Since they appeared to understand, Nancy pressed onward;
“…Sometimes when our game’s over, we think we’ve won according to our rules and we win in the eyes of other’s who have the same rulebook. Yet in reality, according to the true rule book which we don’t get to see during our terrestrial lives, we might have lost.”
This wasn’t how Leon had explained it, but Catherine thought that it had nonetheless been a fine analogy. She spurred Nancy for more understanding;
“So, according to the Gospel of Saint Nancy, we’re all... and I mean all of the teams... errrr... all the nations and religions of the earth, we’re all playing without being able to refer to the total rule book here on Earth? We only get to discover whether we’ve won, lost or been disqualified once the game’s over and we’re back in the locker room of heaven?” She frowned.
“Yes... sort of... I don’t really know, because I’m making this up as I go along,” Nancy admitted.
“And... all that without a nightcap... it sounds pretty bloody inspired to me. Perhaps Leon’s jumped into you,” Jacky teased.
“Let me continue then... why don’t I...” Nancy assumed Leon’s voice and mannerism.
When they were again done laughing, Nancy went back to her ad lib narration and amateur philosophizing;
“...Perhaps all the world is playing the game with extracts from the rule book. Each team, or religion or nation, has got some chapters. Some of the rules overlap, others appear to contradict one another. But if they could all be condensed and put into perspective, then the whole thing might work out...”
She thought for a moment, finding a universal example to illustrate her point better.
“...If you took the tennis rule book and divided it up between various novice players, you’d be sure to have confusion. Assume they knew nothing of the game. One fellow’s rules would state categorically that hitting the ball into the tramlines is out. Another would have the rule about serving. It would speak of a ball bouncing beyond the service line also as being out. He would also be correct in applying that rule.”
A light bulb illuminated in Catherine’s head and she filled in the end of Nancy’s explanation. “But hitting into the tram-lines is in, if you happen to be playing doubles. And hitting beyond the service line is okay if...”
It was silly talk now, and they all knew it—lighthearted fun; something to take their minds off of the storm and forbidding gloominess of the afternoon’s events and the weeks that preceded it.
Jacky wasn’t to be left out either, she leapt to over-ride Catherine, completing the final sequence of the parallel;
“...provided that you’re not serving! Dead right, Nance! We should launch a new philosophy, Tennissssaism. No, better yet, make it a religion! Launching a religion is the best way to make money out of desperate people.”
It put them all into fits of laughter.
“What we need to do is compare our various parts of the rules. That way we could get on with the game and quit fighting about the rules!”
“Definitely! That’s why, up until now, this game we call life has been a fiasco. We keep on perceiving opponents and calling their ball ‘out’, or ‘foul’, without bothering to assess how their rules relate to ours...”
Nancy laughed at the goofy ideas that kept rolling forward, but somewhere in them were nuggets of truth.
“...The problem is that the referees are corrupt and they’ve got no intention of helping us piece the game together. Remember that those in control of the game are getting paid by the hour. The longer they sustain the confusion, the more wealth they accumulate; the more of the game they own.”
“And the more irreplaceable they’ll appear to be,” Jacky added, “...sorting it all out for us.”
“Sure... they’ve also got the microphone and you can never argue with the person who has the microphone,” Nancy observed.
“So what we need is a players organization?” Catherine suggested.
“Organizations are committees and committees always get hijacked because it’s back to money. Is there a ‘democracy’ around this globe where the umpires don’t siphon money away into private accounts?”
Nancy’s words brought their high ideals of moments earlier crashing into the dusty earth of reality. They sat in silence, each considering the world’s problems through the prism of tennis.
“What’s the solution?” Catherine eventually posed aloud what they had all been thinking.
“Individual players must wake up to the fact that it’s a game with one overriding aim. Playing together makes it all worthwhile. Rules will always be necessary in order to play but the rules are not the object of playing. Religion is not the reason for living, it is supposed to be a way of achieving a better life on earth. And there need only be one overriding philosophic teaching; uphold that which is productive, fair and just,” Nancy paused.
Catherine picked up the baton of wisdom that Nancy had carried thus far;
“Umpires need only be obeyed if their calls are fair, not simply because they benefit one side for the moment... the next bad call is likely to go against you, because the umpire’s playing to always be umpire, he doesn’t care whose on court... who wins and who loses... divide and rule.”
They were pondering the impossibility of the world overcoming the odds, when the phone rang.
The caller ID said it was Kevin, and Catherine answered.
She went serious, monosyllabic, frowning—and then she got up and began to pace with the phone at her ear.
When she came to sit down, she had worrying news;
“He’s isolated something which I can’t give you many details about because it’s all Greek to me, but there’s definitely something in the patch that isn’t kosher. It’s powerful and it’s highly compatible with the body’s own adrenaline. He said it’d therefore be almost impossible to trace in the blood. And guess what... from what he could see it seems to be highly volatile. I don’t know what that means, but it doesn’t sound good.”
They went on, poking and prodding at the fresh subject, and by the time their discussions were at an inconclusive end, it was the very early hours of Friday morning, far too late to tackle the originally intended subject of Fernando’s hypnosis session.
Catherine had determined that she would follow the matter of the narcotic through to its legal conclusion. She would subject herself to a more rigorous medical examination and have Leon advise the military to do the same.
In addition, she would brief her attorney to prepare documents to sue both Kenneth Torrington and LifeGames Corporation.
When the exhausted trio finally bedded down together, the perfume of lilacs was still lingering in their nostrils.