Burb Rocking
Thursday, February 12, 2009
  Chapter Two: The Shore

[Writer’s Notebook disclaimer: Welcome to the online version of a work in progress, a writer’s writings as they’re written and — inevitably — rewritten. The chapter below, ‘The Shore,’ is now an ex-chapter. Magicians don’t generally like to show how they actually do their tricks, but writers sometimes do. Rewriting means, of course, that some of the original writing will be kept, the rest left out by the curb. So be prepared to see some of the abandoned chapter below reappear in its successor, the new second chapter currently titled ‘The Capture.’ And read at your own risk, for this chapter is no longer part of Corwin’s return to our world. This never happened. Might be a good idea at this point to visualize a penguin from the ‘Madagascar’ Disney movie now, waving his flippers hypnotically as he disappears into his hole in the ground, and to remember these words: ‘You didn’t see anything.’]

CHAPTER TWO

“I know you,” my son said.

Whoever had hung around past the retirement of the Tarots, whoever had missed the finality with which the harp had been laid aside — anyone left could see something personal had begun, a private affair. These were New Yorkers, naturally, blessed with a reputation for being pushy and unsympathetic, too self-centered to be nice. Somewhat true, of course, as it is for so much of humanity. Overlooked, maybe, is their willingness to give you your space in what at various times has been the most crowded place on Earth. People near us moved on and left us alone.

“Perhaps better than I know you,” I answered. “My activities may have gotten better coverage than yours. Your uncles Random and Bleys only said you’d gotten close to something. Close enough for lives to be very much at risk, including your own. The picture so far is incomplete, with two people missing from it, maybe gone forever. An artist is needed to fill the rest in.”

Someone in the park had begun playing a guitar. Cooing nearby, some pigeons anxiously flapped their wings as they hurried along the ground, frightened, but not enough to take to the air. Over the city, possibly down by the harbor, a helicopter’s blades slapped the sky. All part of the context in which the two of us were embedded, and all but ignored by us in the tension of an increasingly overstretched moment.

“Which would be you,” I prompted. “To avoid any confusion on the point, in the present conversation, you are the artist. And I am the critic. So dazzle me.”

Somewhere in some other history of Corwin, among the worlds that might have been — should have been — words tumbled forth from my son, marvelously meaningful in their import, signifigant, bearing directly on all our problems, full of the promise of solutions. Sadly, as is usually the case, the best of all possible worlds wasn't in today. And who could blame anyone for that? A gorgeous summer day, ordered up expressly for taking time off.

No, instead something else happened.

“Carl Wynne!”

That was the name I’d adopted this time around.

“Carl Wynne, I’m callin’ you out!”

There he was. Big guy, long yellow hair falling to his broad shoulders, carrying a bit of a beer belly, but otherwise in admirable shape, the beach bum who kicked sand in the face of the 98-pound weakling in the old get-in-shape ads. Boldly shirtless, sporting a gold cowboy hat studded with rhinestones, high-topped gold-bossed cowboy boots seamed with flashing diamonds (or zircon — who would know?), otherwise covered only in gold lamé underwear. He carried an old banjo over his right shoulder, and gripped the neck of a big golden guitar (comfortably perched on the afore-mentioned gut) as if it were a weapon. Which he probably thought it was.

He was pointing a finger straight at me.

The Guitar-slinger.

I stood up, and faced him.

“Are you talking to me, Slinger? Because I don’t see anyone else here. So you must be talking to me.”

The Guitar-slinger threw his head back to yell his answer.

“Oh, yeah, I’m talkin’ to you!”

Some people had started to turn our way.

So I shrugged, said, “Okay.”

“What?!”

“So talk,” I elaborated. “Say something.”

He puzzled over that answer. But only for a moment. Then he bellowed.

“Why don’t you take your cards and shuffle off!”

For some reason, that pissed me off. Maybe because it was not a bad comeback.

“Yeah, why don’t you put some clothes on?”

“It’s Summer!”

“Well, not for much longer.”

Lame, I know. Hadn’t had my Wheaties that morning, and was still waiting for my sandwich. So I tried again.

“At least put on a wife beater, you narcissistic, over-compensating Bengals reject.”

He blinked rapidly a few times, then shouted:

“You’re on my pitch!”

“Haven’t seen your name on any park benches around here,” I observed.

“You’re on my pitch!”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“This!”

He strummed the guitar.

“‘Devil went all the way to New York,
Lookin’ for a musician’s pitch to steal!’”


I turned for my guitar. Merlin surprised me by handing it to me. I passed the guitar-strap over my head, struck a chord.

“‘Devil was a Kentucky boy from the swamp,
Who had some trouble keeping it real.’”


The Guitar-slinger curled his lip in a convincing Elvis snarl.

“‘Then the Devil came upon a golden Guitar Hero from the South—’”

Grinning, I windmilled the guitar, and tossed off:

“‘And the Devil said, “Country boy, you sure got a real purty mouth!”’”

There was laughter at that, and I saw the Guitar-slinger go beet red. Then he took three long strides in my direction, and I was pretty sure he was ready to forget the musical duel so he could try his best to beat the crap out of me.

“Hey, that’s my banjo!”

It was Maio, as furious as I’d ever seen him, that crazy light in his eyes which I had only seen once before, charging through the crowd, heading straight for my rival.

The gilded cowboy took one look at his accuser, his expression one of stark surprise.

Then he turned and ran like hell.

While I stood there agape with my own version of surprise, the crowd clapped loudly. They’d figured the whole thing for a staged performance, I gradually realized. Unhooking the guitar, I passed it back to Merlin, who laid it back where it had been. To my amusement, bystanders dropped bills and change into the case. The fame was predictably fleeting, and after about a minute — no second act to the duel showing any sign of being in the works — the audience dissipated.

“Thanks,” I acknowledged belatedly, with that word including both Merlin and those kind enough to offer donations, as I sat back down. “And where were we? I think I’d asked you to impress me with your artistic talents, to fill in the blank canvas. And you were saying?”

Waiting, I contemplated the man who was my son. Merlin resembled me in certain ways, of course. Dark hair, light eyes, and (whatever may be said of his father) not a bad-looking youth. But in other ways different, as might also be expected. Slim build, which likely came from his mother, fair complexion — not much sun in the land of his birth (or, really, any at all). Yet he might be more at home here in Washington Square than I was, more a chess-player, less a swordsman. Which could be a good thing.

Today he carried a maroon pack on his back, the same we’d tracked through city streets the day before. He seemed at ease in the jeans he wore, his shirt the color of red wine. Symbolically stepping into the role of a young man in any city anywhere on the shadow Earth, he even had on a pair of sneakers. It was the sneakers that made me smile.

“I know you,” Merlin repeated, “but I don’t...remember.”

His eyes were on mine, searching for something.

“You don’t remember?” I heard myself say. “Gods, Merlin! What did they do to you?”

He glanced up at the sky, and I followed his gaze, where a large bird soared on the wind, very high up.

“Merlin...yes, my name is Merlin.”

I stared at him, wanting words, finding none. With my right hand, I reached out, gripped his shoulder, squeezed a little, as though hoping to wake him.

“There is a place where the ground moans,” he went on. “Your mind burns. Like fire...and then ashes, ashes. Thoughts go away, and don’t come back. You forget.”

“But you found me, Merlin,” I reminded him, watching my artist metaphor fall in tatters, trying to fill in the gaps myself. “How did you manage that? What do you remember?”

He was shaking his head.

“I followed the dog,” Merlin said, and drew his brows together. “Or I followed something. Through shadows and mists, until we came to this sky.”

“Which still doesn’t explain how you found me.”

“I don’t remember much about you. I remember the song about the place with the silver towers.”

“Avalon.”

“I remember Avalon. I think...I think I’ve been there.”

“You have. Your” —for a heartbeat, I hesitated— “uncle Benedict watches over the place.”

Running footsteps coming toward us. I looked. It was Maio, cutting across the square, clutching a paper bag.

“We gotta go!” was all Maio said.

Maio snatched up his harp, grabbed his other stuff. I hoisted my guitar case onto my shoulder, held out my hand to my son.

“Come.”

Merlin got to his feet. We started walking fast, to catch up to my friend.

“Maio!” I called out. “What’s the trouble?”

He whipped his head around and pointed behind me. So I turned for a look. They were pushing through the crowded park, looking for something. Or someone.

New York’s finest.

I began to move more quickly.

Maio waited for us at the edge of the square. When we got there, I took another look at what was going on. The cops had stopped some of the students, were questioning them.

“So what is this?”

“Class B misdemeanor.”

“What the hell’s a class B misdemeanor? Unfiltered smokes?”

“Unlicensed fortune-telling.”

“Oh.”

Maio was walking again. At a brisk pace. Before I followed him, I chose to take one more gander at the boys in blue.

They were looking our way.

Maio yelled, “Hey, c’mon!”

Deciding he had the right idea, we fell in behind him, merged with the other people moving along the sidewalk. Without checking to see if we were following him, Maio brandished the stained white paper bag in the air.

“Hey, c’mon!” Maio said again. “I got lunch!”



At first, the heat made the air on the highway undulate, as though the sun were shaking it out like a rug, scattering brilliance rather than dust. Because we did not leave till that afternoon, the airy rug was permitted to settle back onto the landscape when the sun tired of the chore and grew restless, hurrying west. And, in our way just as eager to cover ground, we put the departing sun at our backs as Maio hurtled us across Fairfield County in his little white sedan.

Events hadn’t progressed quite as I had envisioned, but at least they were progressing.

The idea of Maio as the man behind the wheel had seemed a good one at the time. Freeing Merlin and I to talk or sleep, so we’d be rested and up to speed by the time we got where we were going.

Then we got to Maio’s place and had a look at his car.

“Hey,” I had said right away. “I’ve just had an idea. We can rent a car. That way, we avoid putting any hard miles on your own vehicle.”

My friend had frowned and asked, “What do you wanna waste your money for? I just changed her oil this week, and she doesn’t get driven much anyways. A road trip is just what she needs.”

I noticed he’d referred to his car less as an inanimate object, and more as a pet.

“That’s not a four-cylinder model, is it?”

Merlin, who had been mostly quiet up till then, had volunteered, “Two-liter engine.”

His remark had surprised me a little. Until I’d remembered he had spent time in this Shadow before, hunting gadgets and ideas for Random.

“Two-point-two!” Maio had chimed in. “This car don’t need much power, on account of her size. I get great mileage. Get in!”

“Not sure I can fit.”

Maio’s pet was a Chevy Cavalier. Two-door.

He had scrunched his face into a skeptical expression, giving me a bemused half-smile.

“Maybe you’re not so big as you think. The bigger door makes it easier getting in and out. I’m going inside. Back in a minute.”

Merlin had walked over and pulled open the passenger door, climbing into the back. With a sigh, I had decided to follow him, taking the passenger seat in front.

In my mind, I had replayed the day so far while sitting there, smiling as I kept getting stuck on my friend chasing the Guitar-slinger out of the park. Probably because that image was more pleasant than the other, the one my imagination supplied, where memories were somehow burned out of Merlin’s mind. Something similar had been tried on me once, and I’d been fortunate enough to recover most of my lost memory. But some of it was gone forever, and I sometimes wondered what had been taken from me.

After a few minutes, the shaman of Washington Square had emerged from the small yellow house, jumped in and started up the car. And that had been when the front door had flown open, and a young woman — curvy in her lavender halter top and pink skirt, blonde, nearly as tall as I was — had come running out to the car to pass a mini-cooler through the window to our driver.

“You almost forgot!” she had said, laughing.

She had favored Merlin and I with a friendly glance, giving us a radiant smile. Then she had run back inside, and Maio had backed the car out onto the road and started us on our way.

I had looked my question at him.

“My daughter,” he had told me around his grin, and then had begun chuckling at my expression.

“Doesn’t look much like you.”

“Takes after her mom. Strawberry blonde when she was little, swear to God.”

I’d seen enough of my friend and his ways to know that anything was possible, that he might well be lying. He could really turn on the charm when so inclined, and was still quite fascinated by the fairer sex, old though he might be. In the short time I’d known him, I had already seen him squiring around two of his girlfriends.

I had shrugged. Whatever, it was none of my concern. So I had returned my attention to the course he’d begun charting out of the Bronx. And had realized one thing as he leaned on the gas, working the stick-shift like a toy: Whatever Maio drove, he’d be driving it fast.

The Cavalier carried us along the road less traveled, up the Merritt Parkway, thereby avoiding the snarl of I-95. Privately, I questioned this choice. The Merritt wasn’t built for modern congestion. And also took us out of our way, as we were aiming for the shore.

So the sun rolled west, and we rolled east. And we passed through the pretty towns.

Maio sometimes hummed, sang songs, patted the steering wheel to the beat of rhythms running through his head. He was frequently interrupted by the demands of contending with other drivers. When I glanced behind me, I saw Merlin either dozing, or staring out the window, in the quiet company of his thoughts.

It had been a long time since I’d been out this way, where New England begins. Made me wish for some smokes, but they had been left behind back at the Square during our hasty exit. It was nice to do nothing for awhile, though, just take in the scenery.

So it sort of snuck up on me until I noticed it, and then, once noticed, commanded my attention.

“Do you hear it?” I asked, after listening for several minutes, to be sure I was hearing what I was hearing.

“What?” asked Maio, looking concerned. “Is it the brakes?”

“No. Listen, listen carefully. Do you hear...music?”

“Radio’s off.”

“I know. So you don’t hear it?”

Maio cocked an ear, frowned.

“What’s it sound like?”

“Like an orchestra warming up. Lots of strings, maybe some winds. Instrumental, though possibly with some choral accompaniment. Very faint, rising and falling. Classical, if I had to guess, but it also sounds a little like Christmas music heard at a distance. When it’s coming from a different store, somehow carrying itself over the noise. You don’t hear it?”

Merlin was sitting up now, listening for it, too.

“I’m not sure,” my son answered slowly.

“There’s not enough of it to get what style it is,” I added, trying to help. “The way it seems to oscillate, it’s almost as though it were coming from something spinning, like a carousel. The notes of instruments, minus most of the structure. Romantic, or impressionistic, maybe the intro to a rock opera.”

Maio’s right eyebrow was raised. He had one eye on the sky as he drove, as though trying to look beyond it into some other dimension where music danced naked.

“The treads biting the road?” my friend tried. “Maybe a little of the brakes? ‘Cause maybe I hear something, I dunno.”

“It reaches you like a breaking wave — there’s more behind it your ear can’t quite catch,” I tried one more time, deciding to give it a last shot. “It starts to build toward something, subsides a little, comes back stronger again, while never fading out. Like a far-off flag waving in the wind.”

“Do you hear it?” Merlin asked from the back seat. “Do you hear it right now?”

They were quiet while I sat still to listen.

“Yes.”

In fact, I noticed, so long as I reserved some portion of my awareness for it, that it could still be heard under the noises of the car, the highway, our voices.

Very odd, I decided.

“Well, forget about it,” I suggested. “Probably a result of my recent re-infatuation with music. And I could doubtless use more sleep. Chalk it up to tiredness.”

Maio was giving me a sidelong look.

“What?” I asked.

“Warriors sometimes hear this music.”

“What do you mean?”

“Right before battle. Or ambush. Death comes close to the warrior, close enough for him to hear the music.”

“What music is that?”

“The song of the Otherworld, the voices of the ancestors.”

“We’re not going into battle.”

“Then it’s an ambush.”

“Or I’m just hearing things.”

Maio shrugged, kept driving.

We crossed the Sikorsky Bridge, the bird's-eye view of the Housatonic doing its best to give us the feeling we were ourselves up in one of Igor's helicopters. The connector to I-95 was right after that. Merlin dug into the cooler and split the last sandwich with me as we merged with the Interstate. The New Haven skyline loomed ahead, backed by a long ridge and traprock cliffs. Maio mentioned some deal the Quinnipiac had made with the Puritan settlers (around the time I'd arrived in London, I realized) as we raced right up against the city's southern flank. It struck me that New Haven was like an iceberg broken from the metropolitan floe we had left behind us. Then the old town was disappearing in the rearview mirror.

“Damn,” I cursed, more with mild regret than any real anger.

Maio glanced my way, asked, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing. It’s just that I lost my cigarettes and could really use a smoke about now.”

Behind me there was movement. Turning, I saw Merlin holding an object out toward me. It was a pipe. With his other hand, he offered me a tobacco pouch.

“Thanks,” I said, taking the items, filling the pipe, lighting it.

After I got it going and drew on the thing a few times, I sighed happily.

“Ah, that’s much better.”

“There’s cigarettes here somewhere,” Maio informed me as I puffed. “Maybe under the seat.”

Smiling, I shook my head to let him know I was fine. And kept puffing, saying nothing for a minute or so, thinking.

Then I said, “Merlin, I see you’ve gotten some tattoos.”

Actually, I had noticed the tattoos on his forearms back when we’d shared our sandwich. But hadn’t realized how far they extended till he gave me the pipe.

They ran right out onto his palms.

“You didn’t have them before,” I continued. “When did you get them?”

The muscles around his eyes tightened as he squinted at the memory.

“We got them a couple of years ago.”

“‘We’?”

“Martin and me.”

He had answered me automatically, without troubling to search his mind. Encouraged by this, but not wanting to call attention to it just yet, I said simply, “Let me see.”

My seat was already as far back as it would go, but I reclined the back just a bit before turning to my left. He turned his hands up, leaning forward as he did, and I reached over to take hold of his right wrist.

The design was indeed curious. Starting near the inside of his elbow, a long slender branch, wound about with ivy, budding with blossoms, stretched down to his palm, where it spread out a fan of five oval leaves.

On each leaf was the picture of a place.

Releasing his right wrist, I now reached for his left, looked over the design imprinted on that arm and palm.

The same thing, only on each leaf of the left palm there was instead a face. I recognized all of them. After all, one of them was me.

“Martin’s are the same?”

“Yes, they are.”

“Your idea?”

“No, but we thought it was clever. Maybe even better than mine.”

“Whose then?”

“I...don’t know.”

“Random’s perhaps,” I suggested, overtaken by a sudden wave of affection that swept over me, causing me to delay for the barest moment my letting go his arm.

Then Maio said, “Which way?”

We were at the bottom of an exit ramp, sitting at a red light.

When I had departed Earth what seemed like ages ago — the ‘70s — to make good my claim on Amber’s throne, there had been computers. Big, clunky machines that filled air-conditioned rooms, using for memory in their giant drives disks nearly the size of spare tires, critical files backed up on spools of tape, information often fed into them on punch-cards. A network originally put in place for the DoD — the ARPANET, sometimes called DARPANET — had allowed computers to communicate over large distances at slow speeds, using phone-lines.

Those days lay far in the past.

In my Manhattan hotel room there was a connection to the ARPANET’s much faster successor, which I had learned was now known as the Internet. For any guest’s personal portable computer. There was also a business center, where I could use a computer provided by the hotel to access the Web of computers that stretched across the entire world, linked together by the Internet. For Earth’s inhabitants, this had all become unremarkable, a normal part of life as the Millennium came and went. For me, however, it still blew my mind that the world’s libraries, newspapers, magazines, art, music and more could be browsed with ease from a hotel, a home, or an Internet café. A laptop computer carried like a small briefcase was all that one needed.

In my time, there had been talk of colonies on the Moon, in orbit, even on Mars and the moons of other planets. Progress in spaceship technology had nearly ground to a halt, though. Instead, the computers which had, at least in part, been developed to handle the complex calculations required by space missions, had moved out into every corner of life, expanding their presence at the same rate they had shrunk in size.

The future had not turned out as expected. But it had sure made getting the phone number and directions a lot easier.

“Turn right,” I said, and fished out of my pocket the folded piece of paper with the directions printed on it.

Down the twisting old roads — showing their age all too well, not being in such wonderful shape. Was Connecticut having trouble funding its Department of Transportation? Maio assured me this was not so, and offered a one-word explanation: winter. Craftsman style houses, Colonials, Tudors, as well as more modern dwellings, went by as we wound our way toward the shore. Past a big awning the color of Merlin’s shirt and a wide breezy porch hung on a long brown clapboard building — “Antiques,” “Bakery,” “Pizza,” and “Market” under the awning or off the porch — the village center. The place did feel like it had been minted around the same time as New York. Still very much in evidence was the presence of the Old World in this part of the New, joined in time though separated by three-and-a-half thousand miles of ocean. We bumped along, me reciting directions, Maio sharing a couple of tidbits of history, Merlin singing softly to himself in the back seat.

The sun was rappelling down the walls of the world, generously scattering fistfuls of heavier, dimmer coppery rays, as a king would toss pennies at the feet of the commoners in the street. The sun went down, and we coasted up the driveway. And it was strange to see two eighteen-wheelers parked along one side of it. Things were somewhat cleared up by the lettering on the sides of the trailers: Tarot Trucking.

But it was still on the strange side.

Maio let out a wolf whistle. No pretty girl was in sight, but the pale blue old Victorian up ahead sure was something to stare at, with her turrets, cupolas, conical roofs, and impressive stature, proof a man’s home — or a woman’s — sometimes really is a castle.

A greensward stretched before the place, hemmed by pines to either side — for privacy more than a love of trees, I guessed. The drive split in two, wrapping about a small grassy hill crowned by a white gazebo. At the top of the loop, where a walk led up to the front door, the drive widened to surround a low circle of stone holding enough dark soil for a bed of white roses and one apple-tree.

We pulled up across from the apple-tree, next to the walk. Maio shut off the engine, and we got out, striding up the walkway toward the mansion.

I rang the bell.

A dark-haired woman opened the door and asked, “How may I help you?” in a thick accent that was Polish, or possibly Russian.

“If the lady of the house is in, you can let her know we’re here.”

“And you are?”

“Her brother Carl.”

She looked past me.

“And her nephew Merlin.”

“But who is he?” she wondered, still looking behind me.

“A friend.”

“Please come in,” she said, and we did, stepping into the oval-shaped vestibule where the chandelier divided the sunlight into pretty colors and cast them upon the cream-colored walls.

“Is she expecting you?”

“I always like to think so.”

“Please wait here.”

The woman went into another room, and I took a look around. A curving stairway to our left swept up to the next floor. The ceiling was high. Lots of windows. To our right was a large sitting room with a wide fieldstone fireplace, stiff-backed furniture, low tables, shiny bare wood floors, some Persian rugs, and a grand piano.

A moment later, the gal returned, said, “She will be right down,” gestured toward the sitting room in almost exactly the same way showroom models used to indicate Door Number Three on an old game show, and added, “You may wait in there,” before departing again.

Maio was walking in a slow circle, taking everything in. I heard him say, “Nice place,” as he peered through the arch into the room where we had been told to wait. Then he turned in my direction, squinting at me with his head tilted to one side.

“Why are we here again?”

We never got to hear my snappy comeback (something about Maio being ten minutes late for the Bertrand Russell seminar down the hall on the left).

She was descending the staircase. The short sleeveless dress matched the blue in her eyes. It was a revealing number with a plunging neckline, arousing a twinge of brotherly disapproval in me. Her orange-blonde hair wasn’t as long as I remembered, just touching her shoulders.

This time Maio’s soft whistle had nothing to do with anything old or Victorian. Though she was wearing blue.

“Corwin,” she said, smiling, stepping off the bottom stair.

Coming toward me, she opened her arms, embraced me, kissed me on the cheek. I kissed her back.

“Miss Evelyn Flaumel,” I said, stepping back from her, “May I call you Flora?”

“Is there any way I can stop you?”

“Indulge my eccentricities, and I will indulge yours.”

Then she went past me to Merlin, threw her arms about him, hugged him tightly, pinning him for almost a minute. Well past the ref’s count of three. While I was mentally giving her the victory on the metaphorical wrestling mat, I turned to admire a painting on the wall, amused by my own surprise. Selfish, vain Florimel, overcome by fondness for my son? Giving up the painting, a reproduction (or was it?) of Music in the Tuileries, I regarded them again. She was just pulling away, and, with her arms still about him, she drew him down to plant a wet kiss on his forehead.

“They’re saying you’re dead!” she announced. Then, looking from Merlin back to me again, she added, “You, too!”

“And you believed them? Hyperbole and the subject of my demise have often dined together before, and always leave without paying the check. Don’t you know by now that we princes of Amber are insured against the Grim Reaper?”

“Oh, is that so? When was the last time you told that to Eric? Or Brand? And what about Osric and Finndo?”

“They weren’t smart enough to take out policies,” I answered with a shrug. “But you are. That’s why you’ve helped me in the past. And why you’re going to help me now.”

Eyebrows lowered, shaking her head slowly to give me a scolding look, she said in a low voice, “You never change.”

“You sound disappointed, Flora. And I have changed. I’m not here for me.”

My glance flicked to Merlin, then back to Flora again.

Her expression relaxed a little, and she said, “Come with me,” leading us into the sitting room. And then through it, down a hallway, through a small parlor, down another hallway lined with doors and French windows, and out onto a screened-in porch. A table spread with a white table-cloth was waiting there, white chairs arranged about it. Toward the back, near the screen door leading outside, was a green divan, a low coffee table, a sofa, and three red upholstered chairs. Beyond the porch I saw a lawn, a line of shrubbery, then beach and after that the Sound. Waves lapped the white fifty-foot caramaran moored to the private dock. The porch — like the beach, sea and clouds beyond — was soaked in the waning glow of the departed sun.

“Please sit,” Flora said, tucking a leg beneath her as she lowered herself to the divan that was canted a bit toward the beautiful scene outside.

“By the way,” I told her, waving toward Maio as I took one of the chairs, “This is Maio, a friend of mine. He’s a musician, also part bloodhound, who helped me find Merlin.”

“Maio?” Flora asked. “Is that your first name?”

“Last,” he replied, grinning. “Now you’re gonna ask what’s my first, right?”

“Well, I...all right, what is your first name?”

“Raffy,” Maio said, his grin, if anything, widening.

Flora drew her brows together, puzzled as to the source of Maio’s amusement.

“Short for Raphael?” she guessed.

“For ‘riff-raff,’” I told her flatly.

Too late, though. Flora had been sucked in, barely sparing me a glance as she stayed focused on Maio, waiting for whatever he would say next.

“For ‘raffle,’” my friend said, laughing. “Carl never gets it right. Funny story, too. See, my dad grew up in the back end of nowhere, place called Kayenta. Ran off to Vegas soon as he was old enough—”

“Ignore him,” I instructed, catching Flora’s eye, “I don’t know how funny the story is, but it’s always a different one. The name of his family’s old village, Riofrío, in his ancestral Portugal. He rode a raft as an infant, just like Moses — ‘raft,’ ‘Raffy.’ He’s even tried telling people he was named after Iranian president Rafsanjani.”

Flora’s dark-haired employee reappeared just then, stepping out onto the porch with a crowded tray. She hesitated near the table, but Flora cleared things up with, “We will take our drinks here, Anya.” So she brought the tray over, parked the drinks on coasters she efficiently distributed one-handed upon the coffee table, rotated the tray out of the way, and asked, “Will there be anything else?”

“Dinner in one hour, please.”

Anya jerked her head once in the affirmative and then turned to go. But not before Maio had won a shy smile from her with one of his conspiratorial winks.

Merlin opened a bottle and poured four glasses of wine, then passed one to his aunt.

Not interested in standing on ceremony (neither Merlin nor Maio had their glasses ready), I reached for the glass nearest me, raised it toward Flora.

“To your health.”

“And yours.”

We both drank. Good stuff.

“Corwin,” Flora said, after taking another slow sip, “Why have you come here, now?”

“‘Corwin’?” Maio repeated.

It was the second time she had called me by my real name.

“That’s right,” I admitted, seeing no point in denying it, while also realizing I had my own “princes of Amber” remark to answer for. “I have as many names as some have stories about how they got theirs. You wouldn’t understand—it’s a shaman thing.”

Maio laughed, leaned forward, reached past the wine to pour himself a whiskey, and said, “Okay,” before tossing it down.

“Hey, don’t forget your friends,” I reminded him.

“You’re drinking wine.”

“For now.”

Mystified, he shook his head, but complied and poured a glass for each of us. He knew nothing of the stamina of Amberites, and Flora, Merlin and I weren’t even the best examples. My brothers Caine and Gérard could, individually, empty a cask of the storied Amontillado before feeling a buzz.

“I know,” I chuckled. “It’s a wonder some of us still have working livers. Sorry, Flora. You were saying?”

She’d wrinkled her nose, as though she smelled something of which she disapproved — time wasted with Maio? — and had me in the cross-hairs of that scowl.

“Everyone’s saying you’re dead. You could have gone anywhere. Why here? Why me?”

“‘Why,’ Flora? That’s the question? Lots of reasons. How about: People really are dying? And I don’t feel like joining them just yet.”

Her, “We tried your Trump,” sounded defensive.

“Really? Starting when?”

Flora frowned a moment, thinking back.

“A week ago. It was Saturday.”

“Only a week ago? I’ve been out of the game a whole lot longer than that. What prompted the sudden concern?”

She was staring at me, lines appearing on her brow, at the corners of her eyes.

“I don’t understand.”

“Who is ‘we’? Who brought up the fascinating subject of Corwin? Who said whatever it was that was said for you to want to try my Trump?”

She pouted. I’d pushed too hard.

“I don’t know why you are so upset, Corwin,” she protested, her voice higher than it had been, miffed. “You are alive. Merlin is alive. You’re both fine!”

My own temper rising, I set the wine-glass down on the table between us before answering. When I did respond, I spoke softly.

“‘Fine’? That’s how you think things are, have been? Fine? Let’s start with me, then. My own personal hell began considerably before a week ago. Months in the outside world, at least. For me, though, an eternity in a studio apartment. One-room efficiency. Big window, no doors. The ultimate in simplified plumbing: a wooden bucket in the corner. Prime location, too—the bottom of a lake.”

She blinked.

“Well, none of us knew that. I didn’t know that.”

“Hang on, there’s more. Has anyone heard from Martin?”

“He and Merlin are working on something for Random. Aren’t they?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Not anymore. Martin’s not been seen for, well, years.”

“Oh, my.”

“Then there’s Bleys. Any news on him?”

She didn’t say anything, began to slowly shake her head.

“I thought not. I’ve been avoiding the Trumps myself. Which is part of the answer to your question as to ‘why you.’ You’re closest. But I have tried the Trumps. Twice. Once for Bleys, once for Martin, for an hour each time. No answer. They’re either dead or in hiding.”

“Corwin—” she began.

“Hear me out, Flora. We’re almost at the end of my little speech. Lastly, there’s Merlin. Look at him. And tell me what you see.”

Now she set her glass down, too, getting up and slowly walking to where my son sat beside me. She held out her hand to him. He hesitantly extended his own hand in response, and she clasped it in hers.

“Merlin?” she asked quietly. “Merlin, are you all right?”

He studied her face, concentrating.

“You are Flora, my aunt,” Merlin said after a moment. “I know I have been here in your house before. But it’s faded for me, like an old dream. You fed me, too. And someone else was there.”

Flora’s mouth opened, closed. And then, instead of speaking further, she leaned closer to Merlin and hugged him. Merlin seemed puzzled by her response. He began to put his arms around her to hug her back, but she straightened then and calmly resumed her seat. She regarded me.

“He’s you.”

“As I was when I visited you that time at your old place in Westchester? Yes.”

“I am?” Merlin wondered, turning to me. “You went there, too? Beyond the river of smoke and steam, to the lake’s fiery shore?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” I said, understanding better this time why he searched my eyes, what he hoped to find. “Except my lake was cold, wet, and meant to permanently solve the problem known as Corwin. And, instead, my dip in it signaled my good-bye to amnesia. The key similarity between the two, however, is that both lake encounters brought us here.”

“But now that you are here,” I heard Flora say, “What will you do?”

Facing Flora again, I reached for my glass on the table. Not the wine this time. The whiskey. And threw it down the hatch. Placing the glass back on the table, I stood.

“We’re doing it right now,” I informed her.

“What we are doing?”

“Stimulating his memory.”

“How are we doing that?”

“It’s simple, Flora,” I said, walking over to the screen door to stare across the glimmering waves into the blue-gray-yellow dusk, noticing the houses anchored to small islands out in the harbor, then turning. “When I came to you years ago, being around you, talking to you, seeing your Trumps — everything — sped the recovery of memories I didn’t know I had. This time, it’s Merlin who stands in need of such triggers.”

Flora was looking toward Merlin now. He was very still, and held his wineglass before his eyes, peering into it, seeing something there that was not in the room.

“It won’t work, Corwin. With you, it was different.”

“No, it’s very much the same,” I countered, adding as I walked to the other side of Merlin’s chair, “And it’s already worked.”

“But he barely remembers me, Corwin,” Flora protested. “I cannot tell you the number of times he and Martin have stayed here, running errands for Random. Staying up late, loud music playing, strange phone-calls, professors, students from universities, C.I.A. agents, and...”

“Yes?”

“Beer bottles everywhere!”

“Can she back any of this up, Merlin?” I asked, bending down to pick up the backpack resting on the floor by his chair.

“I don’t know.”

I was already walking away from them. When I got there, I dropped Merlin’s baggage upon the white tablecloth. I untied the leather laces — no zippers anywhere, though some of the pockets were sealed with strips of gray burrs, stuff like Velcro.

“As the oft-misquoted saying goes, ‘The proof is in the purple backpack.’”

They got up, walked over and joined me at the table.

With everyone gathered round and looking on, I opened the pack up. As all of us had expected, there was stuff inside.

Some of it was alive.

copyright © 2009 Lokabrenna @ Blogger (JTB)
 
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