Authors: Ron Childress
a novel by
East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet.
Nevada, Somalia, Florida
They are twined, all but, she and Voigt. He is leaning over her shoulder, his forearm atop her chairback. His lips are so close to her ear that each breath he exhales roars like a gale. This is all she hears inside the dim trailer. The glowing screens before her keep them immobile. They are frozen except for the motion of her hand as she centers the camera. The moment is near. This time he is going to let
“Aldridge. Are you ready for your first?”
“Yes, sir,” Jessica tells Colonel Voigt. They are inches apart. But Sergeant Jessica Aldridge is also eight thousand miles away, ten thousand feet in the air, and she feels so near to the figures on the ground below her that she might reach down and pick them up like dolls.
They are five, outlined by their jalabiyas and the scarves that circle the glow of their faces. Jessica's squadron has been tracking them, a band of brothers, for the past two weeks as they acquired the rudiments of a device they are constructing in a desert hut miles from the nearest village and forty from Mogadishu. Tonight they must imagine themselves protected by a moonless darkness that even a hawk's eyes could not penetrate. Yet they are visible to Jessica. Irradiated by their own heat, each man appears to her as a distinct if ghostly blur.
A buzz returns Jessica to the trailer. Her eyes flick toward the noise, talk from Voigt's earpiece.
“That's it. We have a confirm. Go the angel,” her commander says, releasing her to arm the “angel,” their unit's euphemism for a missile.
As Jessica watches from the desert sky, the men cluster below her. Her partner, Airman Bob Sanders, at his parallel station, locks the men's coordinates. A touch of Jessica's hand will give them twenty seconds to live. They are beyond mercy.
“Fire at will, Sergeant,” Voigt, standing behind Jessica, says. And then he waits for her to show him what she, the first enlisted airman to pilot a drone strike, will do.
But Jessica takes Voigt's “at will” seriously as
will and she hesitates. She senses something in the positioning of the men. That they are all, for once, traditionally dressed signifies the impending culmination of their mission. But that they have not dispersed to various tasks in or around the hut, that they stand near to each other at some informal attentionâas if huddling themselves to be most effectively blasted to bitsâthis gives Jessica pause. Is their mission to be martyrs to anti-American propaganda?
“They're waiting, Colonel,” Jessica says.
“Right,” Voigt replies. “It's like they're waiting for
And so in the trailer they also wait . . . hovering another half hour until a three-car train of SUVs stops alongside the battered pickup that had carried their initial targets to the hut.
“It's Yarisi,” Voigt says. Through his earpiece he's been receiving and relaying information to which Jessica is not privy. But she knows Jabir al-Yarisi. He is a person of interest, a Yemeni suspected of bombing the British embassy in Addis Ababa. Lately he is believed to be recruiting rebels in Somalia, where Jessica's drone is. “This is the big time, Aldridge,” Voigt says. “You up for this?”
“I am one hundred percent up for this, sir,” Jessica answers.
“Good. We'll wait for a visual ID. Yarisi'll be the tall one.”
Men with guns exit the front and rear SUVs. After searching in and around the hut they lead the men in jalabiyas to the central vehicle. Airman Sanders relocks the coordinates. A minute passes.
“Yarisi's not dismounting,” Voigt says, his Carolina accent resonant. He leans closer to the screens and the glow of the monitors paints his crew cut blue. “Okay. We have a passive ID on the caravan,” he says quietly. “Take the shot.”
Just as his command comes, a side door opens in the target SUV. Jessica's trigger hand lets two seconds pass and she sees someone hop out of the vehicle, a slight figure who is followed by her twin. Their heat outlines show them to be dressed in burkas. Jessica can even determine that the pair are also wearing niqabs, leaving only a slit for the eyes. Al-Yarisi is known to travel with his wives, some being girls not of high school age.
“They're kids!” Jessica hears herself say.
“Screw my eyes,” Voigt responds, and then he presses his earpiece against a shout even Jessica can make out. “Fire,” Voigt says, almost whispering. “That's the goddamn order out of Langley.”
Jessica's stomach turns. She feels a “But, sir!” rising to her lips.
“Fire,” Voigt repeats.
Jessica's hand squeezes the launch switch and the screen hiccoughs as the angel takes wing. In the moment before the camera refocuses she imagines one of the young men in jalabiyas looking up at a shooting star that cuts through the night sky at a strange angle. He will shout a warning in the twenty seconds that remain. Everyone will scatter. Even the invisible man in the SUV will dive out and roll to safety. In her fantasy all this occurs.
But in life it does not.
After a dozen seconds Voigt quietly begins to count down from eight, as if the three of them in the trailer are all supposed to shout “Surprise!” at zero. When Voigt reaches “one,” the silence is anticlimactic. The SUVs, the armed men, the boys in jalabiyas, and the two figures in burkas are engulfed by a soft, impenetrable halo. The heat of the explosion has blinded the drone's thermal eye. Not until dawn will anyone completely see what Jessica has done. She never will. Strike analysis is above her security classification.
Your last letter puts me beside you at your command station. And even up with you in the desert night. But where do I start about all you have written except to say that ANGEL is a strange name for a missile.
Do you remember when I used to call you Angel? You might. You were six the last time your mother and I tried to reconcile. From your letters I do not think you have changed much. You could not stand to see me squash an ant. So about you wishing that those men would have seen your angel. Your shooting star. I say that was no misguided dream. It was only your natural impulse not to harm other living creatures. You must keep those feelings alive.
Beyond that I cannot judge what you have done. You accuse yourself of taking two innocent lives. But I can only tell you to think of the people you have stopped who would murder a hundred innocents for their cause. Above all you must remember it is not you alone who fires those angels. It is all of us. This whole country. But we are hiding behind you. You take the heat and we do not get burned. There is plenty of guilt to go around so dont take it all on yourself.
And do not worry about me either. I am heartened by the truth that though I have done many bad things in my life they are not the crime that convicted me. I am no first degree murderer so my appeal and some other possibilities are progressing. In the meantime I read and exercise and work. The lye from my job in the laundry has burned off my cuticles but soon I hope to be shelving books in the library. In the meantime the days here in Seminole City tick by quicker than the nights. And the nights come too fast. Already I see I have just a minute before lights out to finish this letter.
Bless you for coming back into my life. And thank you for the cigarette cash as you call it. But I hope this old habit of mine is not yours as well. My one wish is for you to travel a long and happy road.
Your loving father,
September 2011 â August 2012
New York City
“Yes!” Zoe says.
It is a minute into the new year and a significant event of Ethan Winter's adulthood has just occurred. Spontaneously he has asked his girlfriend to move in with him. Immediately he begins to register misgivings.
How much does his twelfth-floor, glass-walled apartment and a nearby subway line convenient to the UN, where Zoe is applying for a postgrad internship, have to do with her
? Is he just her steppingstone into adult city life, another course for her to take and pass before she moves on?
He analyzes the raw dataâher appearance against his. Height-wise they are compatible. Zoe is five-ten to his six-one. But from here they diverge. Zoe has large emerald eyes, thick blonde hair that fans girlishly over her shoulders, a fine nose with a tiny aristocratic bump that gives her distinction. She is not thin enough to be a model but would be after a week of lettuce dinners. And she has excellent postureâunlike Ethan's. He could add another inch to his stature if he did not hunch. But he cannot break the habit even though posture is more easily correctible than his other shortcomings. His head he believes is too small for his height, his eyes too close set. His nose he fears resembles an unshelled peanut. And adolescent acne has left his complexion the texture of a Persian melon. Yet, at other times, from certain angles in a certain light, and usually when he is in the company of Zoe, who says he looks like a man should, he feels “almost handsome”âjust like the Peter O'Toole character said he did in the sixties comedy he and Zoe watched the other night.
Of course there is more to attractiveness than appearance, and Ethan works for UIB, United Imperial Bank, a Wall Street behemoth. This is impressive. However, Ethan's job parsing numbers, aside from the paycheck, is hardly charismatic. And his social network of financially fixated co-workers with whom he shares Friday beers is no plus either. Ethan leads a downtown life, but not the cool one he had dreamed of as a teenager in New Jersey. Basically he works all the time. This leaves him with one asset by which to attract a woman as captivating as Zoeâthe stuff he owns. Most notably, his corner-unit condo on the Hudson.
But Ethan does have another selling point: his interest in culture, art in particular. Though they are not the Picassos and Basquiats that the hedge fund billionaires collect, canvases fill his minimally furnished apartment. They make it and his life seem fuller than they are.
“That's great,” Ethan finally replies to Zoe's “Yes! Yes I'll move in with you.” She kisses him again. Then, with her head resting on his shoulder, they return their gazes to the starbursts over the harborâthe New Year's fireworks, which are conveniently visible from his living room couch. Now, his and Zoe's living room couch.
“HERE SHE IS,”
Alex had said.
It was a sunny September weekend and many young women crowded the city campus, but Ethan instantly knew whom Alex meantâthe young woman crossing against the signal at Houston and Mercer, head down, hands at half mast, thumbs tapping a device. She was oblivious to the cab bearing down on the green light, and Ethan's heart raced at her peril. But it was too late to shout a warning. Too late to save her.
With the light beckoning, the cab neither beeped nor swerved. Its tires though, at the last millisecond, bit pavement, and Zoe Leston, in high-heeled clogs, clomped safely past. Noticing the commotion she'd caused, she lifted her sunglasses at the turbaned cabbie and flashed a goofy smile that had melted Ethan's heart.
Their introductions were brief. Alex and Zoe were going to the Angelika for a film. Zoe invited Ethan along.
“It's supposed to be really freaky,” she said. “Or is that the name of it?”
,” said Alex. “A classic. Double billed with
“Uh,” Ethan hesitated before pointing his eyes farther downtown. “I need to catch up at the office.”
“You work Sundays?” Zoe said. “
“Ethan's always working.” Alex said. “And it's always on something top secret. You'd think he was CIA planning a hit on the next Osama bin Laden. But he just crunches data for one of those too-big-to-fail banks. What do you call yourselves? Quacks?”
“Quants,” Ethan replied, not to Alex but to Zoe. “Maybe next time,” he added dismally.
The pair, holding hands, left Ethan, who crossed the street into a glare reflected from the windows above a Jamba Juice. He was melting inside, hollowing out, going empty. He was already desperate to see Zoe again.
The next day, Alex, Ethan's friend since college and seven years on still the struggling painter, started describing his evening with Zoe. Ethan told him to shut it, not jokily but with a fury he had never before felt toward Alex.
Alex had smiled. “Is that jealousy?”
Ethan felt his left eye twitchâthe same tic his mother displayed when she was seriously irritated.
“That's beautiful, man. Pure unadulterated postadolescent desire. I was beginning to take you for a cyborg lately. How about I get you two together? Zoe's more your type anyway. Pure in her own corrupt way. She's just finishing a poli-sci degree. What a match you two'd make. The banker and the politician. Your kids'll definitely grow up to be our overlords.”
“Right,” Ethan said, feigning indifference to this imagined scenario.
“So, want to go for it?”
Alex was always trying to fix Ethan up, but he had never gone so far as to set him up with someone he was currently dating. “Sure,” said Ethan offhandedly because Alex must have been joking. His heart, though, surged with hope.
“Done. Now check this, bro.”
They were standing in Alex's tiny Rivington Street studio, in front of a paint-stained sheet that hid something propped on an easel.
“VoilÃ !” said Alex as he uncovered the canvasâa tic-tac-toe of black lines and mysterious scribbled ciphers, a painting of the kind that Ethan was likely to wander into and get lost in. If Alex was pandering to his predilection for art that resembled algorithms, Ethan did not care. He was high on his dreams of a future with Zoe and he took out his checkbook.
THREE MONTHS AND
thirty-two sleepovers with Zoe later, Zoe moves in. Though both of them are busyâZoe finishing her degree, Ethan programming for his bankâthe winter passes happily for him. There in his bed every night is someone warm, someone he can sense beside him in the dark even when he is too exhausted to make love, which is more often than not.
And then spring break arrives and Zoe has more time.
“We need to go out more,” she says one morning, tousled in bed, while Ethan is dressing for work.
“Don't worry, things will slow down at the bank in summer.”
“The summer,” she says. “That's months.”
“I know. But I've been under a lot of pressure lately.”
And then, surprisingly for Ethan, it is summer and Independence Day arrives. The evening is not too humid and he and Zoe are seated at a sidewalk table in Little Italy. Later they intend to wander back to Ethan's condo and from the building's roof deck watch the fireworksâfireworks that, Ethan imagines, might become a tradition for them.
Alex has met them at the restaurant with his latest girlfriend, black- banged Lola, a performance artist who claims to have studied magic.
“Observe,” Lola says and holds her finger, steadily and impassively, over the candle on their table.
They all watch as Lola's finger turns black. Excruciating seconds pass and when the smell of singeing flesh rises, Alex grabs away Lola's hand.
“Excuse us,” says Alex and escorts Lola toward the bathroom.
Ethan admires Alex's coolness in such situations, even if his friend's confidence is founded on his movie-star looks.
“Wow!” says Zoe.
Ethan shakes his head. “There're some crazies out there. Makes me glad I'm no longer dating.”
Zoe gives Ethan a blank look. Is it because they never fight? Because they share cooperatively in the housework? Because they stay out of the other's way when work calls? Because they have comfortable sex two or three times a week? Is Zoe's empty stare, in other words, accusing Ethan of making her one-half of a dull couple?
He hopes not. They have been living together a bright six months in Ethan's glass-walled Battery Park condo and lately he has been imagining his sun-swept days with her repeating endlessly into the future.
Their mornings usually begin with a cup of Nespresso near the corner windowâthrough which can be seen growing the upper skeleton of the Freedom Tower, only a few blocks away. Being slightly myopic, Ethan generally limits his focus to the steam rising from his cup. The blinkering enables him to speak about their life together in a way he cannot when he looks at her lovely faceâa face that he still cannot believe rests next to his every night.
This morning, after mentioning that Alex wanted to introduce them to his newest “friend,” Ethan tried to turn the conversation back to themselves. Looking into his latte he'd said: “I've calculated the tower's solar transit. When the top floors go up we're going to lose thirty minutes of afternoon sun. But only in January and February.” When Ethan looked up at Zoe she
looking at the tower, but her gaze was empty. It was as if she had not understood what he was implyingâthat they would still be a couple at the building's completion, that by then, in a year or two, he would be ready to suggest a permanent commitment.
. Perhaps even
Alex and Lola return to the sidewalk table where Ethan and Zoe have been silently waiting. Lola's finger, swaddled in beige gauze except for the tip, resembles a miniature papoose.
“The cook shared his first-aid kit,” Alex says.
“So, you're okay?” Zoe asks Lola.
“It's all magic,” Lola says. “Nothing can hurt you if you don't let it.”
“Uh-huh,” says Zoe.
“The manager took one look at Lola's finger and comped our meal,” Alex says. “
“Ha-ha,” says Lola and goes petulantly silent. With her uninjured hand she fiddles with an odd little spike pushed through the top of her left ear.
Alex turns his attention to Ethan. “So, given any thought to the loft?”
“What loft?” Zoe asks.
“A floor in an old paint warehouse off Canal,” says Alex.
“Right. I'll just go write a check,” Ethan says sarcastically, even though he could do exactly that.
“Sell the condo,” Alex says. “River Terrace is so close to New Jersey you might as well still be living with your parents.” This is Alex's standard joke about Ethan's apartment, usually made when he visits to hang a new painting of his that Ethan has bought. “Plus,” he adds wryly, “you're running out of wall space there.” Alex turns to Zoe. “If Ethan puts up the money I can do the renovation. Build out a studio for myself and an apartment for Ethan. He'll have twice the square footage.”
“That would be
great,” Zoe says. “Ethan, why haven't you told me about this?”
Ethan would like to say to Zoe, “Because Alex wants to build a bachelor pad and I'm no longer single.” Instead, he says, “The neighborhood's still pretty rough.”
Alex comes back at him. “It'll turn. Then your investment triples.” He winks at Zoe. “That's how you talk to bankers.”
“Fine,” Ethan says, employing his voice of reasonâhis Gregory Peck cadence. “But in the meantime we'll have to live there. And I just don't think it's safe.” His voice, which is higher than Gregory's, makes the sentiment sound more wimpy than wise.
“Jesus, man, for once in your life take a chance,” Alex says. “Be a real New Yorker.”
“It does sound cool,” Zoe says.
Now even Lola joins in. She crinkles her face and looks at Ethan like the decision is a no-brainer. “If I had the loot I would jump on that like it was Chris Hemsworth.”
Ethan's three dinner companions aim their eyes at him as if their gathering has become an intervention.
Ethan is getting angry. “You saw those needles in the alley. There're probably addicts squatting in the building,” he tells Alex.
“Who's going to mess with you? You're nearly six-three when you stand up straight.”
“Okay. I'd be worried about Zoe then.”
Now something goes wrong. Both Alex and Zoe look away as if conspiratorially embarrassed.
Lola breaks the silence. “I've lived in some pretty crappy hoods. You just have to watch your back.”
Ignoring Lola, Ethan looks from Alex to Zoe. “What? What is it?”
“Ethan,” Zoe says quietly. “I've told you that I've been looking for work in Washington.”
Ethan tries to swallow. His mouth is dry. “Oh?”
!” she says, annoyed that his out-of-itness might be real.
Actually, it is. Lately Ethan has become ultrafocused on his algorithms. Certain new possibilities are emerging. He has been preoccupied. He allows that Zoe must have mentioned her job searchâhow could she not have since her two-month UNIFEM internship is almost over. This is logical. Ethan clenches his hand. His face turns to stone.
,” Zoe saysâher word for Ethan's brooding expression, which he displays regularly enough for her to have named it. “Now I've gotten your dandruff up,” she adds sympathetically. She puts a forgiving hand on his.
“Dander,” Ethan corrects, noticing some flecks on his sleeve that most likely come from his scalp. He had put on a black shirt for tonight because he wanted to feel cool. Now all he feels is humiliation.
THE WEEK FOLLOWING
the Fourth of July Ethan puts in eighteen-hour days working on his own version of fireworksâa modification to UIB's currency trading algorithm, which currently monitors volatility in relation to news reports of terrorist activity. His new concept focuses on antiterrorist activity and has been okayed by his manager. This is what makes him useful to UIB: his combination of technical skill and real-world imagination, his ability to see connections that neither the pure programmer nor the pure trader is likely to see. He binges on coffee and Provigil to keep alert.