The Club

A Short Story by Marcus McGee

Percival Pettigrew died on the operating table when his heart faultered and stopped. Dr. Assagai had given up all hope even as he requested the final burst of electricity that restored the steady beeping accompanied by the bright green spiked line on the EKG monitor. Percival had rested between life and death for seven minutes, in that undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns. He was dead for seven minutes before being resurrected by the instruments of modern technology.

Though his heart stopped beating for four hundred twenty seconds, his mind remained active. Oddly, he knew everything that was happening in the operating room. He could hear what the doctors were saying, he could see the instruments and the blood and he could even see his own body convulse with each burst of electricity delivered from the defibrillator.

His eyes were wide open. His outstretched, flailing arms were numb and unresponsive. He felt a tremendous weight bearing down on him. He could feel his mind fighting to survive, his body battling for life, his chest struggling to reanimate its heavy master.

In the moment his heart began beating again, he forced a triumphant smile for a nurse who seemed shocked as she nervously averted her eyes and turned away. In that instant he knew he had conquered death and what little fear he had ever felt in his thirty-three years of life.

He knew he would rise from the table with a new resolve and drive to accomplish his lifelong goals: the accumulation of immense wealth and the complete mastery over his own fate.

There was no one waiting in the recovery room and not a single visitor as he recuperated for seven days. His parents in New Jersey had no idea he had undergone the elective appendectomy. During pre-surgery considerations, he had signed a release, which held the hospital free from liability if he died as a result of the anesthesia, and ironically it was the anesthesia, or the inattention of the anesthesiologist, that caused the sudden cardiac arrest he suffered on the operating table.

Six hours before the surgery, he drove himself to the hospital and checked himself in. On the eighth day of recovery in the fourth floor hospital room from which he would be released, he sat sullen in the uncomfortable bed, saddened, reflecting on the life he had lived.

The reason no one had come to visit was that he had no friends, no one he was close to, no one who cared about him. Why? He admitted to himself that no one cared about him because he had lived his life not caring about anyone else. He had been selfish. He was a driven man who thought only of himself and his intense desire for wealth and freedom.

“When I’ve achieved all my goals,” he always imagined, “then I’ll have time to make real friends. I’ll be able to take good care of my friends, once I make them.”

            On the day scheduled for his release, the short, pretty, red-haired nurse, who constantly insisted she was happily married, came into his room and told him he had a visitor. Sitting up, he ran his fingers and palm over his short black hair, trying to appear presentable.

There was something familiar about the man who entered thereafter, though Percival could not discern what it was.

            “You were dead for seven minutes, Mr. Pettigrew. How do you feel?”

            Percival balked, suspicious of the man bundled in the huge gray overcoat.

            “Who are you?”

            “Oh, I’m sorry. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Lucius Crossland Haydes.”

            Where most people would have extended an arm for a handshake, the shivering old man remained bundled, though Percival had extended his own hand.

            “Your experience interests me, Mr. Pettigrew. I went through something very similar when I was young like you.”

            Percival looked around at all the beeping, blinking computerized instruments and then skeptically toward the old man. After a moment, Lucius Crossland Haydes smiled, understanding.

            “Of course, there wasn’t all this technology back then, but believe it or not, I was resurrected. I was brought back from the dead, just like you.”

            Percival shuddered, sensing something eerie in the old man’s last three syllables.

            “Why? What do you? Why did you come here? What do you want?”

Gray-black beard framing his round face, the old man neared the bed, his voice taking on a somber professional tone.

            “I’m a businessman of sorts with an interest in young up-and-comers like you. And this resurrection you experienced—it only confirmed my initial impressions about you. You’ve definitely got what it takes.”

Percival leaned forward, interested. Anything involving “business dealings” was certain to get his attention, but he didn’t need the old man to tell him what he already knew. Disguising his interest, he played the game.

            “Of course I have what it takes. Now, if you’ve come to offer me a job, you’re out of luck. I’m a Stanford Business School graduate. I’m an MBA. I don’t need a job.”

            The old man smiled again, winking an eye.

            “Of course you don’t. And I don’t have any jobs to give away.”

            Lucius turned toward the rain-splashed, misted window, glancing out at the gray, gloomy October sky, clouds hanging just above the treetops. The pause was intentional.

            “No, I didn’t come here to offer you a job, and I’m not here with an offer to invest in your little business project.”

            Percival studied the intense eyes behind the round spectacles.

            “So what do you want?”

            “From you? I want the answer to a question,” replied the old man. “The question, Percival, is this: Now that you’ve defeated death, what is it that you want?”

            Percival thought for a moment before responding.

            “Nothing’s changed,” he said to himself, and then to the old man. “The fact that I was dead changes nothing. I want the same things I wanted before.”

            “You want success?”

            “Of course I do. Doesn’t everybody?”

            The old man nodded.

            “Many people do, but not like you. You have an unnatural thirst for it. You’ve sacrificed for it. You have no friends. You’re in deep debt. You have no wife, no children, no warm, comfortable house to go to. Other people value those things, but you’ve put them off and invested everything you’ve ever owned into your little computer chip implant business, the one you call GTO.”

            Percival glanced up at Lucius in amazement. The information about his business was public knowledge, but his personal sacrifices? How did the old man know? Nevertheless, he answered.

“That’s the way it’s done. Ask any successful person how they did it, and they’ll tell you. You have to make certain sacrifices. Isn’t that what you did?”

            Lucius closed his eyes, smiling, as he nodded.

            “Of course. It’s just like you said. That’s the way it’s done. It’s the sacrifices we make, for the success we want.”

            The old man walked over to the door and shut it, wedging a chair under the knob to prevent interference, before returning to the patient’s bedside. His voice was almost a whisper.

            “But Percival, in spite of all the sacrifices you’ve made in your thirty-three years of life, nothing’s paid off for you, right?”

            Percival nodded as Lucius paused and continued.

            “And it isn’t because you’re not working hard. In fact, you work much harder than anyone you know. You’ve been close, you’ve been damn close, but there’s always been something, maybe just one piece of the puzzle, something that has always been missing. Once it was bad timing, and then the next time someone beat you to the punch. Another time, your financing fell through and then there was the lawsuit. It’s always been just that one thing that came between you and your success. Isn’t that how it’s been?”

            Percival stared at the old man in bewilderment.

            “How do you know so much about me?”

            Lucius smiled.

            “It’s like I told you. It was the same for me until my little accident. I fell to my death and I came back to life. After that, things got better.”

            “How? What happened?”

            Ignoring the questions, the old man pulled a chair close to the bed, sat and leaned toward Percival, whispering.

            “What if I were to tell you that if you made one more sacrifice, just one more—you would be successful in anything you ever attempted, successful beyond your wildest imagining. Would you be willing to make one last sacrifice?”

            Percival did not answer. Instead he leaned away, his eyes scrutinizing the old man. He wondered to himself if he was dreaming or awake, if the old man was nothing more than a by-product or reaction to the handful of pills he had taken that morning.  He caught the flesh between the index finger and thumb of his left hand and pinched hard, wincing as the pain shot to his spine. He was awake all right.

            “Well Percival, would you be willing to make one last sacrifice?”

            “What, what type of sacrifice are you talking about?”

            “Naturally, a substantial one.”

            In that moment, abrupt and angry banging on the door startled both men from the intensity of the discussion. From without, an angry voice shouted.

            “Open this door! This door should never be shut! Open this door right now!”

            Lucius winked at Percival.

            “We’ll talk later. You think about that one last sacrifice. Next time we talk, you let me know.”

            The bundled old man rose and went to the door, opening it to a barrage of complaints and warnings from the red-faced nurse who didn’t seem to see him. When Percival turned and looked toward the hallway, Lucius was gone.


            He had the procedure performed on himself to demonstrate how simple and risk-free it was. The benefits, once the population realized them, would far outweigh the minor irritation that accompanied the three-quarter inch incision in the left armpit.

            The computer chip, a dime-thin, perfect one-half inch square, was a barely noticeable irregularity under the skin once the tiny sutures were removed, but the advantages it offered were nothing short of phenomenal.

Powered by body heat and an emergency back-up battery, it could be guaranteed for the lifetime of the user. Password protected and activated through a secure server, all its functions would be programmed and directed by the person who subscribed to the service. The cost for the chip: $299. The cost for the implant surgery: $159. The cost for basic service: $24.99 per month/ $275 pre-paid for a year/ $1,299 pre-paid for five years. Subscribers could use the service, which he called GTO (Global Tracking Options), to monitor up to five chips. 

Initially, it would be a basic global tracking device, linked to the Internet through satellites in space. Parents with concerns for the safety and well-being of their children could track them to and from school and positively know if they had attended classes.

In abduction cases, children and other victims could be located and rescued. Missing skiers and hikers could be discovered regardless of weather conditions. Victims of boating accidents and airplane disasters could be recovered and positively identified within minutes. To many financiers, his business plan seemed potentially profitable, but even the most enthusiastic bankers balked when considering the provision for government regulation.

Percival would need support from the Federal Communications Commission, the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration. After four years of haggling with the FDA and another five years of testing, the agency had finally signed off on the project, but according to investors, the FDA was much less a concern than the other two.

In fact, the AMA seemed disinclined to endorse and provide required restrictions and guidelines for such implant technology because “it did not serve to save, better or prolong human life.” Furthermore, the FCC director opposed the plan, claiming that its implementation would be prohibitively expensive and would unduly tax the commission’s already strained time and resources.

Percival faced further challenges from the public, the most notable of them a U.S. Senator from Colorado who called the plan “an engraved invitation and welcome mat for Big Brother.” There were a few groups who endorsed the technology: these included the national PTA, several state school superintendents and the lobbies for many state prisons. The greater public, however, had been conditioned over the years to view new technologies in the “give it to me for free, and I’ll see if I like it” mindset. Thus Percival and a key financial backer were convinced that if the technology did become available to the public, and if the public was given an opportunity to realize the device’s advantages and the privacy security measures in place, his company and GTO could quickly grow to Intel and Microsoft proportions.

 He had recovered from his near-death experience one week after he returned to his apartment, one week after he had met the strange old man. Absorbed in his work, he hardly gave the episode at the hospital another thought. He had legal documents drawn, he tweaked the business plan and attended meetings with various contacts on a daily basis.


In December, he sat to dinner with two FCC board members in Washington at a meeting that proved to be another frustrating setback. One member asserted that even if the FCC initially approved his plan, it would be eight to ten years before an actual license could be granted.

Eight to ten years in the high-tech industry, an incredulous Percival argued, might as well be ten thousand!  Unsympathetic, the impassive members apologized, paid for the dinner, and left the grief-stricken MBA in a pronounced state of catalepsy.

Percival sat motionless at the table for forty-five minutes, ignoring questions by the busser, two servers and, finally, the maitre d’. The first feeling began to return to his body when a warm tear ran from the corner of his left eye and streaked its way down his face. Startled to his senses, he was reminded for a fleeting instant of the moment his pulse returned as he lay on the operating table, a unique moment of clarity.

He glanced around the restaurant at other guests and noticed some were staring. Though he wanted to leave, he realized he really had nowhere to go. His flight back to Sacramento wouldn’t leave until 8:20 a.m.

Out of money, he had planned to sleep at Dulles International in one of the uncomfortable black chairs near the Continental terminal, but it was only 6:30 p.m., much too early to head on over there.

Then he remembered. The FCC board members had told the server to bring him whatever else he wanted and to bill it to their house account. He thought to order another dinner, but he didn’t feel hungry.

So instead, he ordered a Belvedere vodka martini on a stem and sat at the table, sipping solemnly, frustrated that this enterprise, more than all the others—this plan, which had put him on the verge of the greatest success, was bound to become another vexatious defeat.

            “You know, even if smiling wouldn’t make you feel better, it might make you look a little better.”

            Percival first noticed her eyes. They were large, expressive and intense.

            “Excuse me?”

            “Your face,” she laughed. “You just got some bad news. Face tells the story.”

            He smiled, his eyes falling toward an empty seat at the table. She understood the cue, nodded and sat.

            “Truth be told, I just got some bad news too. I’m blown away, but I’m laughing.”


            “Because I was just so stupid! I was so naive! Is that a martini you’re drinking?”

            A few minutes later, the server had placed two new drinks on the table.

            “By the way, my name’s Karen. And yours?”

            He extended a hand.

            “Percival Pettigrew. And you’re Karen?”

            “Bright. Karen Bright.”

            She sipped the vodka.

            “That’s the original name, the one I use now.”

            “So you’re divorced?”

            She smiled.

            “That’s what the court calls it. Truth is I got screwed for seven years. Know what I mean?”

            He studied her face. She was such a pretty woman with well-proportioned, delicate features. Yet he could tell that though she feigned toughness, she was on the verge of tears.

            “So, what happened to you tonight?” he asked.

            “Met a girlfriend here for dinner… Or someone I thought was a girlfriend.”

            She stared toward the table where she had sat for dinner, replaying the recent past in her memory as she spoke.

            “Without making the story too long, she told me she had been a stripper when she met my husband at his bachelor party, and apparently they had an affair the entire time we were married.”

            As he discreetly examined Karen’s shapely body, he wondered how any man, after having the privilege of enjoying such a treasure at his disposal, could want for anything else.

            “Any kids?”

            “Thank God, no. And what about you? You married or attached?”


            “You gay?”

            “No, do I look gay?”

            Sensing he had taken insult from the question, she explained.

            “It was a compliment. All the best-looking guys are gay. It’s a proven fact. By asking I was kind of indirectly saying I think you’re good-looking.”

            “Thanks, I think.”

            She flicked the bell of the glass with a polished fingernail. It resounded with a soft ping.

            “Can we get me another martini?”

            When the drink came, she gulped it down.

            “That’s it for me. I think I’m getting drunk.”

            She reached across the table, taking his hand, rubbing his fingers.

            “So Percival, enough about me. What’s your bad news?”

            He started in, stuttering, but he stopped.

            “Aw, nevermind. You wouldn’t understand.”

            Suddenly, she sounded sober.

            “What do you mean I wouldn’t understand? You think I’m dumb? You think because I got big tits and a nice ass I’m too dumb to understand your problem?”

            “I, I didn’t say that.”

            She continued in an angry tone.

            “You know what my job is? You know what I do?”


            “I work for the Senate Majority Leader. Graduated law school at Yale. I write the legislative foundation for the laws that govern you and the rest of this country, and you think I’m too dumb to understand your pathetic little problem!”

            She stood, opening her purse.

            “You know, I came over here thinking you were a nice guy. I thought we could commiserate. I thought that after I had my teeth kicked in, it’d be nice to just talk to someone, but once again, I picked the wrong guy. I have a knack for that, you know.”

            She threw money on the table and would have turned away if Percival hadn’t grabbed her wrist.

            “No! Please Karen, don’t go! I’m sorry. You’re right. I may have made some assumptions about you. That was wrong. Look, I do want to commiserate, share with you if you, you wouldn’t mind listening.”

            He spent the next hour telling her about his life, about his struggles and sacrifices, about his ambitions and the unavoidable disappointments that he suffered. Then he told her about GTO and about the news from the FCC board members earlier. She listened, saying little, until finally she volunteered.

            “Sounds like you need an angel.”

            “An angel?”

            “Yeah. Could be me, could be someone else who can get you over those last hurdles that always trip you up.”

            As they conversed, he began to feel drawn to Karen, and it had more to do with her attitude about life and her insights than it did her beckoning figure, more to do with her unique views than her beauty. She was intelligent, spontaneous and spiritual as she exuded an unmistakable positive energy.

“You know, I minored in English Lit. Did you know Percival was the virgin knight?”

            He wasn’t sure whether he felt embarrassed or amused.

            “Yeah,” he intoned in saracasm, “and I pride myself on my virginity.”           

            After he admitted that he had run out of money and didn’t want to impose by charging the extra cocktails to the FCC, she paid the tab for the drinks and invited him to stay the night at her apartment.

            “Just so long as you know that if you’re a virgin now, you’ll still be a virgin when I drop you off at the airport tomorrow morning.”

            They talked through the night. They watched the snowflakes twinkle as they spiraled toward the ground at sunrise.

            “An angel is someone who can empower you to change your own fate, show you that you have the power to control your own destiny, and somewhere along the line, an angel can lead you in the direction of truth and clarity. In your lowest moments, your angel gives you hope and light to see.”

            Percival placed his hand on hers, smiling.

            “And where do I find this angel?”

            Karen examined his expression, not certain whether or not he was being patronizing. She withdrew her hand and heart into her lap.

            “Oh, you don’t find angels. They find you.”

            They stood together in the terminal until the flight attendant called for final boarding. Percival peered into Karen’s large, watering eyes as the two embraced. For the first time since he looked into them, he saw their deep sadness and pain. Blinking back the tears in his own eyes, he felt so much attraction and compassion for her that, for a moment, he found the boldness to sketch the present design of his heart.

            “Karen, I know this sounds silly, but I, I feel like changing my destiny right now. I feel like not getting on that plane. I feel like forgetting everything I was doing in California and staying here with you.”

            She stepped back, holding him at arm’s length.

            “Think about it. You can stay if you want to. I welcome you, but is that what you really want, Percival?”

            He looked into her haunting eyes and then toward the loading doors as the last of the passengers boarded. That’s when he realized he couldn’t stay. He had left so much unfinished business at home. He had responsibilities toward his business associates. And then there was GTO itself. He hadn’t poured his entire life into the project only to throw it all away for a girl. He couldn’t stay. He bowed his head, answering.

            “No, no. You’re right. I want to, but I can’t.”

            Disappointment registered on her face. Her gaze fell to the floor.

            “That’s all right. I knew you wouldn’t stay. It’s your choice.”

            Nervous about missing the plane, he grabbed his briefcase.

            “I’d like to, but I can’t.”

            She smiled, and lowering her eyes, she sighed.


            “Let’s stay in touch. I can come back, and you could come out and visit me at Tahoe.”

            She paused and signaled negation.

            “I don’t think so.”

            He tried to kiss her lips, but she turned away.

            “You better go. They’re closing the doors.”

            Percival turned to see the attendant pulling the first of the two doors shut. Alarmed, he sprinted across the floor and got to the door just in time to plead his way onto the plane. Karen watched from where she stood. He never looked back.


            Percival lived on the California side of the lake, near the base of Mount Heavenly, but he did the majority of his business in Sacramento and Los Angeles. He visited Sacramento to handle governmental affairs, while Los Angeles was to serve as his test market.

            The day after he arrived home, he sent certified letters to all the FCC board members, begging the board to reconsider the matter and put it to another vote. No answer was returned, and neither were Percival’s daily phone calls.

A week passed, then two and then two more. It seemed that with each week that went by, once-enthusiastic investors began to flake off one by one until only two remained. He had hoped to offset his mounting debt with the first wave of sales, so as the months went by and the projected release date was pushed further and further into the future, the creditors, the state Franchise Tax Board and the Internal Revenue Service were on the verge of forcing liquidation of his inventory in order to secure payment.

He considered bankruptcy as an option. While Chapter 13 offered protection from creditors, it did nothing to address the state and federal tax liens posted against his corporation and against his person.

            One morning in March it happened. An agent from the IRS showed up at his apartment with a levy notice against Percival’s four hundred thousand GTO microchips, assessed at $130,000 for the combination of the technology and the raw materials, about ten percent of their market value.

            Percival owed a little over $110,000 to the federal government in back taxes and penalties. After delivering the levy notice, the agent stationed a guard to sit outside the warehouse containing the microchips to make certain they weren’t sold, traded or otherwise removed.

If Percival wasn’t able to pay the taxes in full after forty-eight hours, the agent said the chips would be taken away and stored for thirty days, after which time they would be sold at auction. Any balance left over after the taxes were paid would be returned to Percival, unless the Franchise Tax Board, whose lien amount was $30,000, petitioned for payment.

At worst, Percival would lose all his chips, any hope of ever launching GTO and still owe the state $10,000 plus penalties. The $80,000 he owed in unpaid personal and commercial loans was another matter altogether. He had forty-eight hours to produce.

            He considered his options. At that stage, any promise he could have secured from the FCC board may have been helpful. If the FCC board made an assurance that an emergency license could be granted within ninety days, Percival could have been able to go to either of the two investors left with a realistic release date and he would have been able to enact his marketing plan, based on an actual start date.

The investors would then be more inclined to pay off his debts. Pre-sales and the big Internet advertising campaign could begin and the impending flood of sales would start as a small, steady, swelling stream. Notwithstanding, the secretary for the FCC called to make it clear that though the board thought his situation was “regrettable, the necessary research and processing could not be rushed for any reason.”

Percival also considered cutting some sort of a deal with the IRS or the agent bringing the action. Unfortunately, the agency, after having granted him extension after extension, was unwilling to engage in any further protracted deliberation and the beadle of an agent in his face was above bribery.

He also considered staging his own suicide, having someone pay his debts off with the death benefit, and returning under an alias to launch his program. As the hours went by, he became more and more desperate for an expedient solution, consequences be damned.


            The Hyatt concierge had said it was the best Chinese restaurant in Sacramento. It was just down the street, a block and a half from the Capitol. The place seemed a little dark inside, and it didn’t seem very busy on that Thursday night. There were a few women at the far end of the bar shaking dice. They seemed familiar with the hulking Caucasian bartender, Tony, who dwarfed the Chinese servers.

Percival had come to town in a last-ditch effort to persuade one of the investors to loan him money for the taxes, but the man balked, indicating he was involved in too many other financial transactions at the moment. He offered $55,000—half the money required, deliverable in seven days, only if Percival could persuade another investor to come up with the balance. The other investor, who lived in San Francisco, informed Percival during a phone call that he was no longer interested in the project. Thus with only 18 hours left, Percival had run out of ideas.

Everything was lost, his credibility gone. He had no life, no one who even cared about him. He thought of Karen then. He had been too busy and caught up in business to ever call her as he had promised.

She was special, but she was probably angry or disappointed with him for not calling. Sifting through credit card slips in his wallet, he found her number and stumbled his first few steps from the bar stool toward the pay phone, glancing sheepishly back at the bartender who had poured the offending martinis.

He dialed the number, waited and listened as he heard the wonderful, comforting, familiar voice on the answering machine.

            “Hi, it’s Percival. I, I just called to say ‘hi.’ I think I’m drunk. I need you.”

            He felt foolish about the message he left. If she hadn’t known he was a loser before, the bungled message would have convinced her. He staggered back to the bar and ordered another vodka martini, a double. Tony hesitated.

            “Okay man, but this is gonna hafta be your last unless you get yourself somethin ta eat, man.”

            Percival wasn’t thinking of food. Rather, he thought of the hotel design. There was a high second floor veranda overlooking the main lobby and a restaurant downstairs.

            Earlier, he had leaned over the railing and cringed as he considered the horror of falling over its edge. Death would be certain and immediate, especially if he went over headfirst. But he would need more than a double martini—maybe two or three more. Hopefully, this bartender could be persuaded to cooperate, so he slid a twenty toward Tony and winked.

            “Keep the change.”

            Even as the room began to blur, he thought he felt someone tap him on the shoulder.

            “Mr. Pettigrew?”

            The short maitre d’ had placed a gentle hand on Percival’s back.


            “Mr. Haydes said you’d be here. He’s waiting for you in the back. Right this way.”

            Without thinking, Percival stood and followed, struggling to understand who would know him in this restaurant of all places. The dining room he negotiated as he went deeper into the gut of the building seemed askew, slightly off the horizontal plane. Through a haze, he saw a woman who bore an incredible resemblance to Karen Bright at one of the tables. In fact, he stopped briefly, wanting to approach her, but he lost his nerve in the last instant and staggered after the dark maitre d’.

After going through what seemed like a tunnel, he was conducted to a large booth on the right where he saw a face that produced immediate sobriety. It was the first time he had even thought of that conversation in the hospital.

 The man who sat at the table, Lucius Crossland Haydes, was the bizarre man who visited him in the hospital, the same who knew so much about him. As Percival hesitated by the table, considering whether or not he even wanted to sit, the old man smiled.

            “I suppose I owe you an explanation, Mr. Pettigrew. So why don’t you sit down?”

            Percival’s eyes darted about the secluded area and returned to the table where a flattened, golden brown bird of some kind rested on a silver platter. Next to it was a plate with a brown sauce, some green onions and white, doughy, still-steaming buns.

            “I took the liberty of ordering for us. It’s Peking Duck, probably the best thing on the menu. Undoubtedly the worst for your health, but the best on the menu. Sit down, please.”

            Percival took a deep breath, sighed and slid into the booth across from the old man. He watched as Lucius stuffed a piece of duck into one of the buns.

            “What is it with you? Have you been following me?”

            Lucius swallowed the juicy mouthful of duck, onions, sauce and dough.

            “No need. But I have been watching you.”

            Percival was clearly irked.

            “Why? Are you the one behind the IRS coming down on me?”

            The old man shook his head.

            “Absolutely not. Mr. Pettigrew, believe me, I come as a friend.”

            He squinted at the old man.


            For a moment, Percival thought he had put it all together:

     Lucius Haydes had come into the hospital because, as an investor, he was interested in the GTO project; he had been “watching” Percival for a sign of weakness; he found out about the tax liens and had somehow manipulated the IRS in order to get the chips and technology seized. When the liens couldn’t be satisfied and the chips went on auction, Lucius Haydes would buy them for pennies on the dollar and launch GTO himself under a different name!

            “You’ve wanted my chips all along, haven’t you? You didn’t want to be an investor because you just wanted to take them outright?”

            Lucius laughed.

            “Your thinking reflects something diabolical in your own nature because that is not the case. I don’t want your chips, I don’t want the technology, but I will make you the same offer I was prepared to make to you before.”

            “And what offer is that?”

            “After dinner. I think you need to eat something to clear your head.”

            Percival enjoyed the Peking Duck, he enjoyed the New York steak and onions, he enjoyed the walnut shrimp and he enjoyed the asparagus steamed with ginger, garlic and light soy. In fact, he couldn’t remember having a better meal in years. After the table was cleared, Lucius, shivering, ordered hot tea and sat back in the booth, blowing, sipping.

As Percival studied the old man, he wondered again why the man was so bundled up. Inside the hospital, Lucius Crossland Haydes had worn a huge overcoat, thick gloves and a woolen scarf, and here he was, in a warm, cozy, restaurant, bundled up in the same way. He had removed one of the gloves in order to eat, but aside from that, he was wrapped up tightly.

            “For some reason, Mr. Haydes, I don’t think you ever got around to making any offer when I was at the hospital.”

            Lucius placed the teacup on the table.

            “No, I didn’t. I was prefacing the offer by reminding you of the many times you had come close to success and of the spoiling factors that have always seemed to come between you and your goals, like the necessary FCC approval now.”

            Annoyed, Percival glared at Lucius and stiffened his jaw.

            “Go on.”

            “I asked if you’d be willing to make one last sacrifice, a substantial sacrifice that would make you successful beyond your most ambitious imagining.”

            Frustrated, Percival lurched forward toward the old man.

            “What do you want from me?”

            Lucius hadn’t recoiled, though Percival’s forward motion had toppled his teacup, spilling the scalding tea on the older man’s wrist and hand.

            “Simply put: an answer. Would you be willing to make one last sacrifice? Are you willing to do what is required to change your destiny?”

            Percival paused, considering his hopeless predicament. Finally, he conceded and answered.

            “Well, let’s not play games here. You obviously know about the situation I’m in. You know about the IRS, about the State of California, the FCC and the AMA. Are you saying you can help me?”

            Lucius re-poured the tea.

            “Nothing of the sort. I’m simply asking if you’d be willing to make that last sacrifice.”

            “Yes, yes!” Percival shouted. “Of course I am! I have no choice. Okay, so what sacrifice are you talking about?”

            “Those two.”

            “My fingers? What do you mean?”

            Lucius reached over and grabbed the ring finger and smallest finger on Percival’s left hand.

            “That’s the sacrifice—these two fingers. To me, it doesn’t matter how you remove them, as long as it’s done. And when you’ve brought them to me, you can finally look forward to getting everything you’ve wanted.”

            Percival snatched his fingers out of the old man’s gloved grasp.

            “You’re sick! I don’t think so. I mean, why would you want me to cut off my fingers? What do you want with them?”

            Lucius smiled.

            “The act itself is symbolic, representing a commitment much deeper within you.”

            Percival sighed, still incredulous.

            “Why my fingers? And why those two?”

            “You’ll know that in good time.”

            Still bewildered, the young man continued.

            “Well, how do I know it’s going to happen like you say?”

            He leaned closer to the old man.

            “I mean, let me get this straight. Are you saying that if I cut off my fingers, I’ll all of a sudden be successful?”

            Lucius’ face signaled disappointment.

            “No. You’ll still have to work. In fact, you’ll have to work your ass off. Only once you’ve made the sacrifice, any effort you put forth will pay off. You’ll taste the success you’ve always craved. I can personally guarantee you that.”

            Lucius patted Percival on the shoulder.

            “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. It is entirely your choice.”

            He signed the slip and rose.

            “It’s probably best to think about it for a while. I’ll leave you to yourself for that.”

            As Lucius turned toward the exit, Percival called out, his voice shrill as he stared toward his trembling fingers.

            “What if I decide to do it? How do I get a hold of you?”

            Lucius winked and smirked, self-assured.

            “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll find you.”


            The ancient Romans believed there was a relatively important vein called the vena amoris that ran directly from the fourth finger of the left hand to the heart. For that reason, the finger has long been associated with love, and by affinity, with marriage. Percival rubbed the finger, reflecting that he’d always fancied having a ring on it.

And the finger next to it—he had never given the digit much thought, since that finger had never given him any trouble. It was a finger that just sort of always fell in line like a good, reliable soldier. It never screamed for attention by being slammed in a door or sprained on the basketball court; it never got in the way of a descending hammer or accused anyone of anything or even developed a hangnail. No, it consistently did its job whether it was typing or writing or skiing or whatever he happened to be doing. The finger simply did its job.

Yet after over twelve hours of deliberation and a half-liter of vodka, it had become a foregone conclusion: both fingers would go. The only question involved was “how?”

            He had considered paying a doctor to remove them surgically, but he didn’t think he’d be able to convince a medical professional to ignore the potential liability for malpractice and amputate two perfectly good fingers.

Then, he thought about buying a table band saw, turning it on and dragging his hand, the two fingers extended, through the whirling blade. It would be quick and painless, but as he worked out the details in his mind, there existed the potential of injury to or loss of his middle finger.

No matter how he held his hand, it seemed the middle finger would not be completely out of the way. If he was really going to sacrifice his fingers, he figured, they would have to be cut at the base, a precision cut that would be difficult with an electrical saw. No, he would have to cut them with a blade.

The best device, he figured, would be something like a guillotine, a blade that would come down fast and sudden, separating the fingers from the hand. Eyes closed, he could just let gravity cause the blade to fall and it would be over. The only problem with the plan involved actually finding a guillotine in the eight hours he had left before the government confiscated his chips.

He called hardware stores, suppliers for magicians and even the gothic and Dungeons and Dragons cult stores, but the only place that sold them was the hobby store, and guillotines were out of stock there until Halloween.

As the deafening seconds ticked inexorably by on the dusty, scarred grandfather clock in his living room, he became so anxious that he could scarcely breathe. Panicking, he rushed to the kitchen and snatched a knife from the drawer.

Cupping its hilt in his hand, the blade aimed directly toward his heart, he stood there, shivering, struggling within himself to find the courage or the brash temerity to act. It was a defining instant, one of those moments in life of rare clarity. Thus relaxing his fingers, he let the knife fall to the floor where it clanged, echoing.

Eyes glazed over, he walked to the front door and opened it, going out toward the stairs. Thoughtful, he went down those stairs and made his way to the apartment landscaping where a series of small boulders were used to contain garden soil. He took a clean, hand-sized stone with a flattened bottom upstairs into his apartment, placing it on the kitchen counter.

Reopening the drawer, he sorted through the cutlery and withdrew a large heavy cleaver and placed it next to the boulder. Stoically, he grabbed the vodka bottle and first took another big swig, and then, placing his left hand on the counter, he poured the vodka over his fingers.

Then, taking a loaf of store-bought wheat bread, he cut through the packaging with the cleaver so that the blade rested vertically between two of its dense slices. He placed the last four fingers of his left hand on the edge of the counter, and then he tucked his index and middle fingers down so that they rested against the counter’s vertical edge.

 This left two fingers, the fourth and fifth, alone on the counter. On those fingers, he placed the loaf of bread containing the cleaver. Through a series of minor adjustments, Percival was able to maneuver the blade of the cleaver so that it was over the place where the fingers joined the hand. Then he took up the heavy stone in his right. He studied the position of the cleaver and closed his eyes. He raised the boulder.

            “I choose success!”

            It was a direct hit as the conflict of metal and stone rang aloud in the room. It was done. Percival had pulled back slightly in the last second, but he knew where the fingers had been severed—not more than a quarter inch away from the hand.

Curious, he raised the gushing, spurting hand toward his face and studied. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt as much as he thought it would. In fact, it hardly hurt at all. He was worried about the bleeding though. Somehow, he would have to contain it until he could drive to the hospital for medical treatment.

Eyes never leaving the mutilated hand, he reached over and grabbed a white terry cloth towel on the counter with his right. Taking the towel in his teeth, he draped it over the gushing stumps and hand, anchored it between his left wrist and his chest and wrapped it tight with his right hand. He kept it pressed in his right armpit to maintain pressure against the wounds.

Blood had begun to run from underneath the loaf of bread on the counter. It had welled against the edge and had begun to drip to the floor. By this time, his left hand, throbbing, pulsing in the crimson red, soaking towel, began to burn. Panicking, he knocked the loaf of bread aside and stared at the discolored, still-twitching fingers, soaking in blood. He lifted them and transferred them into a sandwich bag, which he wrapped and slipped into his pant pocket.

Becoming dizzy from the blood loss, he located his car keys, hurried out the door, stumbled toward his car and fell in. He smiled as he drove toward the hospital. It was done. He had made the sacrifice. Success was just around the next corner.


            “I’m sorry, Mr. Pettigrew, I realize you’re in a great deal of pain, but can you explain what happened one more time for the record?”

            “I, I was cutting frozen meat in the kitchen, and the knife slipped.”

            The gray-haired doctor’s face registered confusion and reluctance to record the explanation.

            “I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it. I mean those cuts couldn’t have been any cleaner if someone did them on purpose.”

            The doctor removed his glasses.

            “And you say you don’t know what happened to the fingers? If we had them, there’s a good chance we could reattach them. They just disappeared?”

            Percival nodded.


            The stubby ends of Percival’s abbreviated fingers had been cleaned, trimmed down, drawn together and sutured. Early on, a local anesthetic had been applied to the wounds, and a nurse administered a generous dosage of codeine to diminish the pain.

The doctor gone, he sat on a cot, staring at his left hand, appalled at how ugly it seemed. He thought of all the things he would no longer be able to do with that hand: tinker on a piano, make a fist, count to five.

He felt deformed. Then he remembered some of the mutilated people he had seen in his lifetime and the way their disfigurements repulsed him. Tears in his eyes, he was already beginning to feel like a freak. But the saving grace—his deformity was not in vain. It was for something, for success.

When he was a young teenager, a friend of his got lost in a snowstorm. When rescuers found the boy, his feet were badly frostbitten. He lost three toes. During high school, another kid was goofing around in auto shop. His hand got smashed under an engine block and had to be amputated. Those guys got nothing for their losses, but Percival’s sacrifice would yield the success he had always craved.

Then all at once, the existence of an unsettling possibility crept into his conscious thought. What if for some reason the old man was not what he seemed? What if he had convinced Percival to chop off his fingers for some other malevolent purpose? What if Percival had mutilated himself for naught? What if he had been abused, only to be damned?

Yet even as he worried there, he sensed a warm presence and turned in its direction to see Lucius Crossland Haydes, sitting across from him, shivering, bundled in the huge overcoat and scarf.

            “Congratulations, Percival. You’ve just become a member of an exclusive club. Your life, as you’ve known it, will never be the same. From this point on, you’ll be successful at anything you attempt.”

            Percival stared at the old man in silence, unable to respond. Lucius reached out with a gloved hand.

            “The fingers, Percival. I’ll need the fingers.”

            Eyes never leaving the man across from him, Percival’s right hand fumbled about in his right pocket and withdrew the bloody bag containing the cold, stiff, truncated appendages. He placed them in Lucius’ open glove, closing his eyes as he let go. Still shivering, Lucius smiled, tucked the bag into the coat pocket, patted Percival’s shoulder and stood.

            “Welcome to The Club.”

            Percival stared at the empty place where the gloved hand had closed around his lost fingers for a full minute. They were gone. When he looked back up, Lucius Crossland Haydes was also gone.


            The call came shortly before five o’clock a.m. Startled up from sleep, Percival had actually forgotten about the injury to his left hand until he banged it against the nightstand while reaching for the phone. After screaming an obscenity, he cringed, shivering from the pain, rolled over and lifted the receiver with his right. Notwithstanding, the voice on the other end said something that changed his disposition. Bolting up, he stood, responding.

            “Oh really? No problem. That’ll be no problem at all! I’ll be there tonight!”

            He spent the early part of the next day with lawyers who had been negotiating with the IRS. There were several important faxes sent out at 10:30, conference calls at 11:00 and 11:15 and an eagerly anticipated e-mail from an investor at 11:30. By noon, Percival was in a recklessly driven taxicab racing for the airport.

            The restaurant was located just two blocks from the White House, not far from the Kennedy Center and the National Theater. According to the stewardess, it was a favorite hangout for political insiders and celebrities. After tipping the driver, he hurried toward the restaurant facade and slipped in.

His eyes played on the glitter from the brass and beveled glass in the bright dining room as he stood just inside the door, hoping to recognize a familiar face. He wore his best dark suit, the navy Boss, along with a starched burgundy shirt and a maroon and white patterned tie. His hands trembled in new leather gloves as he placed one on the podium where a young and pretty hostess stood.

            “Hi, I’m looking for a, a Mr. Marlowe? He said something about a Cabinet Room?”

            She smiled.

            “Oh yes! And you must be Mr. Pettigrew. They’re expecting you. Follow me.”

            They walked past mahogany and velvet booths, past antique vases and marble slabs, down a hall to a lacquered wooden door, which the hostess opened.

            “Mr. Marlowe. This is Mr. Pettigrew.”

            Marlowe, who was seated at the head of a long table working to separate a live Crassostrea virginica from a half shell, didn’t look up. He merely nodded. At his flanks sat persons who were familiar: the majority of the FCC board, though perhaps one or two were missing. An empty spot had been reserved on the table’s opposite end for Percival.

Clearing his throat, Percival squared his shoulders and walked toward the seat. He could hear his own footsteps in the silent room and the surreal loud screech as he pulled out the chair. Only after he was seated did Marlowe look up. He scrutinized Percival for a moment, his eye pausing on the young man’s gloved hands.

            “You can take off the gloves, Mr. Pettigrew. It isn’t at all cold in here.”

            At once, all eyes in the room locked and focused on Percival’s hands. Sitting straight up in the chair, his armpits were moist and his breathing became shallow as he struggled to manage a response. Compromise seemed appropriate. He answered as he removed the right glove.

            “Thank you. I injured my left hand recently, so I’d like to keep it covered if you don’t mind.”

            Marlowe nodded and almost smiled.

            “You like oysters?”

            John Marlowe was an older man in his seventies. He had chaired the FCC board for the last fifteen years and had a reputation for being both shrewd and lethal. He inspired fear and respect wherever he went in Washington.

            His face was narrow and pinched, but the most conspicuous feature about him was the black patch he wore over his right eye. He was a demanding, no-nonsense chairman with old-fashioned values. His word was “platinum” and his handshake was more reliable than a legal contract.

Because he didn’t believe in mixing business with pleasure, no one at the table spoke a word except for orders to the server. The room, throughout dinner, was eerily quiet. Marlowe had the calf’s liver with bacon and caramelized onions.

All the board members followed suit, but Percival, because he hated liver, opted for the grilled T-bone pork chop instead. After doing so, he was frowned on by several members who were apparently offended that he had broken one of their unspoken rules. Upon Marlowe’s cue, fresh fruit was served as dessert. Then came coffee.

            After the meal, a middle-aged woman, who had sat at Marlowe’s right, rose and worked her way around the table as she placed a pamphlet in front of each person except Percival. Marlowe tapped on the gavel.

            “Let this meeting come to order.”

            He took up his pamphlet, scanned the front page and tossed it aside.

            “For those of you who didn’t receive my voicemail and email, the gentleman dining with us tonight is Mr. Percival Pettigrew. He wants us to clear the way so he can get his project off the ground. This afternoon, I took the liberty of having a convoluted motion prepared that will allow him to do that. Would someone care to put that motion to the chair?”

            The man seated at Percival’s left spoke up.

            “Mr. Chairman, I move that the proposal we have before us, relating to Global Tracking Options, be adopted as written.”

            “Is there a second?”

            A woman at middle left seconded.

            “Very well. All in favor of the motion, signify by saying ‘aye?’”

            A pasticcio of “ayes.”

            “All those opposed?”


            “Then by a unanimous vote, the motion is approved.”

            Marlowe looked toward Percival.

            “Mr. Pettigrew, it is done. Now it is necessary for you to leave us so we can get on with the rest of our meeting. Good luck.”

            Percival sat there stunned. It happened so fast that he still wasn’t sure it had really happened. Was that it? Was it that easy? Marlowe spoke again, his voice this time taking on an irritated edge.

            “That means you have to go, Mr. Pettigrew.  Now move along. You’re wasting this board’s time.”

            At once concerned that wasting the board’s time might cause the motion to be rescinded, Percival rose, thanked the board and rushed toward the door. As he glanced back, his eyes met Marlowe’s eye. Marlowe winked it and nodded, though he never allowed himself to smile.


            The publicity around the event could not have been any better if it had been staged. Holly Sinclair, a waitress from Rancho Cucamonga had been part of the first group to receive the chip implants.

            She had recently divorced her husband, a horrible, violent man who had raped her and sent her to the hospital with a broken nose and a fractured ulna. He was in prison for 18 months and got out two weeks before the divorce was final. Angry about the action, he insisted that she drop the divorce and “honor the marriage.” Her refusal to do so angered him even more. She lived with her parents and her four-year-old daughter, working her way through college with the restaurant job.

When she heard about GTO, she thought the technology was “innovative,” “secure,” and “just a good idea.” She had chips implanted in both herself and her young daughter, and she made sure her parents knew how to access the service.

Then one day, the day care providers phoned her parents to tell them no one had come by to pick up the little girl. When Holly couldn’t be reached on her cell phone, her parents became worried and called the police who were not helpful at all. According to the desk clerk, a person had to be missing 48 hours before they could be “officially” considered missing.

Holly’s father, fearful and frustrated, finally managed to get a sergeant to listen to him. Reluctant at first, the sergeant allowed him to use a computer and watched as her father accessed the service, activated the chip and located his daughter on a street in Montclair. The sergeant contacted Montclair law enforcement and upon confirmation, a SWAT team was dispatched.

Holly’s husband was arrested when he went out to his car to get the bag he planned to put her in after he killed her. On seeing the police, he pulled a gun from his jacket and officers responded, riddling him with bullets. If the police team had arrived any later than they did, Holly would have been dead.

It was an international news event, and naturally, news agencies worked every angle imaginable, exploiting the public’s interest in the story. Demand for the chips and the service was immediate and mind-boggling: one million, four hundred thousand chips were ordered in California alone. Suddenly, Global Tracking Options was a household word, and its founder, Percival Pettigrew, was bewildered by how suddenly fame and wealth had overtaken him.

            It took lawyers a little over a month to prepare for the public offering of Global Tracking Options stock. Because of Percival’s business background, the event had been planned in excruciating detail. Two weeks before the release date, he had been featured in a Wall Street Journal article, where a financial feature writer touted him as “the next high-tech billionaire.”

            Then one week before the release, his face appeared on the covers of People magazine, Money and US News and World Report. Trader interest in the stock issue was nothing short of phenomenal. It opened on a Monday at $17 a share and had shot up to $43 by Friday.

Even before the Holly Sinclair story broke, Percival had moved GTO headquarters from his apartment to a business complex on Lakeshore Boulevard, but now even the new offices were too small, so construction was planned for a GTO complex right next to the lake. When he asked his accountant how much money he had earned since the chips and service went on sale, all the overworked man could say was “Lots! When I catch up, I’ll let you know.”

            But his ambition for Global Tracking Options went far beyond the locator chip, which was merely the first phase of his plan. Percival and programmers were working hard to develop other applications for the technology, including a remote interface transmitter/receiver utilizing digital technology.

            Because each chip had a unique signal, Percival’s marketing team pitched a plan to global business that would provide for added security. A tiny chip, implanted between the thumb and index finger of the right hand, would allow a computerized security system to recognize employees and grant or deny access or information based on company protocol.

            There were also plans for chips that could monitor bodily functions, which included temperature, glucose levels, heart rate and blood alcohol percentage. Thus in spite of his remarkable success, Percival worked even harder than before.

            As founder of Global Tracking Options, he was an invited guest at a growing number of social functions. Initially, he resented public appearances because they cut into time that could have been better spent working, yet he realized the business importance of being seen and networking.

            He was always surprised at how many people knew so much about him. Once at a party in Washington, the amazing Bill Gates himself came by and struck up a conversation about government regulation. Percival was so awestruck that he almost forgot everything he knew. Mr. Gates’ confidence and demeanor, however, made dialogue comfortable and efficient even as he hinted at the future possibility of a shared project.

His social success was equally astounding. On a quick trip to England, Percival was invited to Buckingham Palace where he met the Queen and other members of the Royal Family at dinner. He partnered with Tiger Woods at a celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe.

Realizing his growing importance in the state of California, the governor and other public officials were always eager to take his calls and gave him occasional access to government perks, including a trip to Jerusalem. When he supped in chic Los Angeles restaurants, the movie stars and other celebrities knew who he was. He considered his own celebrity status tentatively at first and then he embraced it robustly. After all, he had earned it through hard work and sacrifice.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t until after a one-on-one guest appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show that his bachelor status became a minor obsession with the nation’s women. In a spontaneous declaration, he had told Oprah he was looking for “that right person who could be a Mrs. Pettigrew.”

Two days later, the mail clerk brought him more than one thousand letters from women who wanted to interview for the job. A month later, a People magazine article described him as “perhaps the world’s most eligible bachelor.”

 The mail kept coming and the women he met at social events and restaurants grew bold beyond belief. Some women would wait outside the GTO complex in hopes of meeting him, while others got themselves inside under the guise of doing business. A pretty UCLA Law School graduate seemed genuinely offended when he declined to hire her to perform mundane housekeeping duties at his home.

All the attention was flattering, especially since Percival never saw himself as “attractive” before and didn’t think women in general did either. Now the most attractive women he had ever seen were begging for any attention he might be willing to give them, even selfish attention. Yet he always declined the offers. The right woman was somewhere out there, he thought, and he believed that for all his sacrifices, he deserved nothing less than the best.


            The solo name, Tyler, seemed indefinite, but the woman who possessed it was one of the best-known personalities in the fashion and entertainment world. Her father was a renowned cardiac surgeon from Santa Barbara and her mother was a Broadway actress.

            At the age of fourteen, she was discovered by a Revlon executive and given a three-year contract. She was a pretty girl who had become a beautiful woman. Her strict father had always been draconian about academics, and for that reason Tyler, the honors student, was a UCLA Business School graduate, summa cum laude.

An international supermodel by the age of nineteen, she adjusted her work schedule to accommodate school. By the age of twenty-three, she was CEO of a company called TYLER INC. She had been lucky—in the right place at the right time, with the right looks and the right background.

At twenty-eight, she was still one of the hardest working models in the business. She dated infrequently, though even her most casual male acquaintance inspired gossip.

            They met aboard the private Lear jet belonging to Maxwell Lipp, a lawyer they had in common. Max was entertaining his most valuable clients by treating them to a gambling weekend at the Grand Beach Resort & Casino in Aruba. Percival was placed next to Tyler at dinner Friday night.

Of course, Max dominated the conversation at dinner, but Percival and Tyler did have an opportunity to share a brief exchange. Percival told her he enjoyed her acting in a recent film, and she joked, telling him she wanted to be “implanted” with one of his GTO chips.

Later in the casino, they sat at the same blackjack table for three hands. The next day, she stopped and took a seat next to him at the baccarat table, asking if he’d show her how to play. Percival wasn’t sure how to take the attention he was getting from a woman as remarkable as Tyler.

At first he thought she was just being friendly, and then he wondered if his own secret fantasies about her were making him imagine clues that just weren’t there. She told him on two separate occasions that she wasn’t dating anyone seriously. She point-blank asked why he wasn’t married or involved.  She smiled and touched a lot.

But when she leaned over and kissed him as the jet descended on John Wayne Airport, he almost leapt from the seat in excitement, finally having it confirmed that Tyler the supermodel/actress was coming onto him.

So struggling to remain calm, he asked her for a phone number and invited her up to Tahoe for dinner and to take a look at his operation. Smiling, she accepted and the two planned their first date for a week from Friday.


            They went to a great Mexican place on the boulevard in Incline Village and then to a dance club down the street. Tyler loved dancing, and yet while Percival did his best, he felt a little self-conscious and foolish dancing with such a beautiful woman. After a few songs, he retired to a table, leaving Tyler out there content dancing by herself.

It wasn’t long before the men in the club began to migrate toward the floor, each stalking forward like lions on the hunt. Finally, one very tall, handsome man gulped down a tequila shot, walked onto the floor and tried to dance with her, but she excused herself and left the floor.

Sighing, she slumped into the seat next to Percival.

            “Leave it to men to ruin my fun.”

            He seemed confused.

            “Why’d you stop dancing?”

            She turned and pointed a finger, matter-of-factly.

            “One thing you should know about Tyler. If she goes out with a guy, he’s the only guy she dances with, drinks with or does anything else with. The rest of the losers out there can kiss her ass.”

            Percival nodded, not sure about how to react.

            “Would you care for a cocktail?”

            “Tyler does not drink alcohol. It dries the skin. But a glass of juice would be nice.”

            The tour of the GTO complex had gone well, the conversation over dinner had been wonderful and a little dancing was a perfect way to finish the night. He found Tyler much more down-to-earth than he ever imagined.

            She understood business and she understood people. She was intelligent, though she seemed a little maladjusted psychologically, or maybe it bothered him that she referred to herself in the third person. He just wasn’t sure about how to address her.

            “Would Tyler like to go to my favorite place for coffee and dessert?”

            She laughed.

            “Sure, I’d love to. I absolutely love coffee. But Tyler can’t have it—ages the face.”


            The waitress brought him his regular espresso despite the fact that he’d been loath to order it. Even as they sat down at the table, he had been conscious to sit to her left so that his body would be between her and the deformity of his left hand. Whenever Tyler was around, he tucked the hand in a pocket or otherwise hid it. He could tell she was curious. Her eyes stealthily followed the hand whenever it left the pocket. After they had eaten dessert, he held her left hand with his right, thanking her for making it “such a memorable day.” She smiled and turned his face to look into his eyes.

            “You know, when you marry Tyler, you are going to have to stop hiding that hand. What happened anyway?”

            He never heard the question.


            “Don’t act so surprised. I’ve known it from the start, from the day we met. You want to marry Tyler, and Tyler wants to marry you. The rest is all ritual and detail, that’s all.”

            He laughed to himself.

            “When, when is this going to happen?”

            She sighed, sitting back, staring straight ahead.

            “About a year and a half. Marketing for a wedding of such grand proportions takes time. We’ll make it the biggest event of the new millennium. It’ll be good for both of us.”

            He was suddenly nervous, stuttering.

            “But do, do you think we’re compatible?”

            “Of course we are. As compatible as any of the rest of them. All men are cheaters, you know that?”

            “They are?”

            She gave him a look of incredulity.

            “Look, Tyler’s been hit on by pious little old priests, by preachers, by every married man she’s ever met, by public officials and even by presidents. You all cheat. Some of you are blatant and crude about it. The rest of you have a neurotic way of rationalizing that you’re not hitting on women even when you know you are.”

            Tyler stopped herself, laughing.

            “I guess I sound a little cynical, don’t I?”

            “A little?”

            “It’s just the work Tyler does. I get so tired of the way men treat me sometimes. I’m sorry.”

            Embarrassed, she wiped a tear from the corner of her left eye.

            “Are you going to tell me what happened to your hand there?”

            He pushed the hand further into his pocket as he struggled to reply.

            “It, it was an accident.”

            “Really? What kind of accident?”

            Percival remembered how skeptical the doctor had been about the dubious kitchen knife explanation. Since that time, however, he had labored to fashion a better story. He put the hand on the table.

            “Shark fishing in San Francisco Bay. Hooked a five-foot seven gill, got it on the deck, thought it was dead. I went to tie it so we could take it off the boat, but it all of a sudden came to life, whipped its head around and got the fingers—lucky it wasn’t the whole hand.”

            She cringed in the seat, appalled and terrified.

            “I’m going to have nightmares. Tyler is deathly afraid of sharks.”

            She looked toward the mangled hand.

            “I’m sorry.”

            He studied her face.

            “Does my hand repulse you?”

            She couldn’t stop staring at it.

            “Yes. If that ever happened to Tyler, she’d probably kill herself. I mean, I bet you’d give up all the money you’ve made your whole life long to have those fingers back, wouldn’t you?”

            He returned the hand to the hiding place in his pocket. Thoughtfully, he answered.

            “No. No, I wouldn’t.”


            By the time the fabrication facility was marginally operational, GTO had over fifteen hundred full-time employees. The new product line, a remote hand-held tracker, was completely fabricated and assembled at the facility.

            On the sales front, Percival was under negotiations with General Motors, the Ford Motor company, Nissan and other car manufacturers about a heat-resistant chip, insulated and placed near the engine block, that could be accessed in the event of car theft or in the wake of accidents or disasters. It doubled as a hi-speed microprocessor that ran a powerful on-board personal computer. Within the year, he hoped to launch the first satellite of a Global Tracking Options Satellite System.

True to what Lucius Crossland Haydes promised, Percival was successful at every project he attempted.  He was so successful, in fact, that he was forced to select lieutenants who could be trusted to handle entire divisions of the company.

He designated Trace Markus, his second-in-command, to handle the implementation of networks, sales and technical support for tracking systems purchased by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the local agencies at the recommendation of the American Probation and Parole Association.

The Internet sales division of the company was entrusted to Ronda Antiope, his number three. She was an aggressive marketer who had made the reputation of a ubiquitous on-line retail company. Ronda was chosen because she was one of the shrewdest individuals Percival had ever met.

Akiro Watanabe, a man whose Korean-based fabrication company Percival had bought, along with software genius Bart Scott, were selected to head up research and development. The four were not only his most trusted employees, but the personal relationship he held with Trace was the closest he had ever come to friendship.

            Unlike Percival, Trace had come from a privileged, “old money” family. Raised on his father’s estate just outside Cambridge, Maryland, he possessed an impressive curriculum vitae: high school at the Army and Navy Academy, Carlsbad, CA; undergrad at Annapolis Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD; and MBA at Harvard University. His first job was at the Pentagon, where at twenty-four years old, he worked for the Secretary of the Navy.

Two years later, Trace accepted a production management entry-level position at the General Dynamics Corporation, where he worked on the initial F-16 project, and he moved to Lockheed when that company took over production of the fighter jet. At Lockheed, he became fascinated with “computer-assisted human potentials,” or computer-enhanced performance. With much effort, he managed to get himself reassigned to the computer division, where he worked in “pilot controls/pilot interface.”

In 1975, he began hearing stories about a peculiar undergrad he remembered meeting while he was doing his MBA. Apparently, this young man had dropped out of school to start up a software company. Inspired by the kid’s gumption, Trace almost left Lockheed to launch his own human performance enhancement interface software business, but his wife threatened to divorce him if he ever quit his job, so he never got the nerve to do it.

As a result, he continued with the F-16 and other projects until he met Spenser Caroll, one of Percival’s recruiters. Spenser was successful at recruiting Trace where many others had failed because he appealed to Trace’s sense of adventure. By joining GTO at its near-inception, Trace was able to experience the wonder and excitement that accompanied the birth and rise of an empire without assuming substantial risk.

Though he was some twelve years older than his boss, Trace actually enjoyed watching the young chairman at the helm, creating realities from “what-ifs” and the strange, eccentric notions he often expounded upon for hours at a time. In the beginning, Trace was a chauvinistically loyal lieutenant, but over the course of the months they worked together, he felt he and Percival had developed a genuine, yet odd, friendship.

Sometimes he accompanied Percival to trade shows, conventions and media events. He even sat beside his boss on the two occasions Percival was asked to testify before Congress. Best of all, he had watched success transform an introverted, apprehensive and unassuming “kid” into a confident visionary with the power of the future at his command.

The friendship, like Percival’s moods, had its limitations, however. There were times when Percival seemed resentful and angry at the human race for no apparent reason.

There were rare times when he’d say he was alone against the world, like Timon of Athens. There were times when he’d rail against humanity, declaring he had no friends and would never have any friends, much to the disappointment and confusion of his solo audience.

Days later, he’d apologize to Trace, reaffirming the affection and the limited friendship he felt, though he admitted he and Trace did not possess “kindred souls” and could never be “true friends.” Trace tried to understand the distinction, though he sensed that Percival’s soul was either profoundly sad or missing something—something that was related to his reclusive left hand and the two fingers it was missing.


            “You ever think about just walking off and leaving it all behind?”

            “Leaving what?”

            Tyler’s eyes panned, scanning the posh living room from left to right as she answered.

            “This! All this stuff. All this commitment. All this pressure!”

            He paused from his eight-fingered typing on the laptop, glancing sidelong at the woman.

            “I’ve sacrificed a lot for this stuff.”

            “I know. But sometimes, don’t you think it’s all bullshit?”

            She walked to the huge window, yanking open the drapes.

            “I mean look at that.”

            Percival turned toward her.

            “At what?”

            “That’s just it. It’s there, but you can’t even see it.”

            “See what?”

            “The sunset, the most glorious thing that happens every day, and it’s free. It’s no better for us than it is for anyone else. Only, some people actually get a chance to enjoy it. We don’t.”

            Percival rose, smiling. He walked over to where she stood, gazing out the window of his beach house at Monterey. Standing behind her, he slid his hands around her waist. Then he pulled her close, resting his chin on her shoulder.

Outside the window, the red-orange sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean. There were actually two huge images burning at the horizon: there was a bright red sun glowing at the edge of the twilight sky, and then there was a muted, cooler, almost purplish sun that floated on the water. Yet together they were one sun.

At such a distance from the water, he could barely detect the motion of the gentle, gray-capped waves as they crawled up the white beach. Even more subtle were the gossamer silhouettes of gulls and pelicans playing in the fading summer skies.

He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath and kissed her neck. Over the course of three months, he had grown accustomed to the eccentricity of conversation with his pretty girlfriend, and this was one of her rare moments of vulnerability. This was the woman he adored.

            “It would make a great screen saver.”

            She shrugged to get his chin off her shoulder and pushed him away.

            “No, I’m serious. Sometimes I just want to quit. I’m so tired of this! I just want to go somewhere where no one knows Tyler. Maybe to Tahiti like Gauguin. I’d lay in the sun, stop shaving my legs, stop taking laxatives after every meal, stop with the drugs. Just let it all go. Don’t you ever feel that way?”

            He sighed, withdrawing.

            “Sometimes, but do you know how impossible that would be for me?”

            “Yes, I do—no more impossible than it would be for me, but I have a way.”

            Confused, he responded.


            “I have a way to do it, to leave all this, to get away.”

            “Really? And how’s that?

            “I have to get rid of Tyler. I have to kill her. That’s the only way.”


            Not long after he started dating Tyler, he realized that the company of an attractive woman made the man she was with more desirable to other beautiful women. As a result, Percival became a popular target for other supermodels and celebrities who flirted and came on to him, and these were remarkably beautiful women, women he could have only fantasized about less than a year earlier. Tyler didn’t seem to mind the blatant coquetry. In fact, she seemed turned on by it.

Public reaction to their sudden wedding engagement announcement was splashed across the covers of all the tabloids, complete with rumors of a Tyler pregnancy. Two of the rags depicted Percival as a rugged, high-tech playboy with a penchant for swinging and multiple partners. But nothing could have been further from the truth.

Percival was practically a virgin. Notwithstanding, it wasn’t that there hadn’t been opportunities. During his senior year of high school, he had chosen to abstain from women indefinitely, swearing to maintain celibacy until he achieved the success he craved, and thus Tyler was the first person he ever dated.

            He wasn’t sure if it was the protocols of dating or the fact that he was going out with a supermodel, but the whole ritual was awkward, bordering on the ridiculous. It seemed dating was a big game in which dishonesty was more desirable than truthfulness, a practice in which openness indicated weakness, a struggle in which the threat of infidelity was the ultimate trump card.

Tyler was his teacher of sorts. “Don’t marry the person you love,” she quoted her mother as saying, “Marry someone who loves you.” She insisted to Percival that it would be his job to care about her, to make her happy, to make her feel loved.

Inexperienced at such matters, he worked hard to become what she wanted. He lavished her with gifts, he took her on exotic adventures and he let her shine at all the social events they attended together. When she seemed to come on to other men, he understood that “flirtation is a big part of a supermodel’s career.”

He ridiculed himself for feeling jealous when Tyler left him alone at a table for hours at a time while she discussed business with agents and directors over innuendo, laughter and drinks.

Yet after a while, he began to feel sad and unsatisfied with the relationship. What little intimacy they shared involved him catering to her whims, her moods and her direction. The only saving grace was that other person, the wonderful person he saw in rare glimpses when Tyler was somehow “gone” at times.

During such moments, there was something strangely familiar about her eyes. He felt connected to her. It was as if he had known her from before. This other person was sweet, profound and real. Her vulnerability and honesty made her strangely powerful, and those qualities made her threatening to Tyler.

This was the person Percival began to love, but her appearances were beginning to become increasingly rare. The relationship between them was an enigma he would have never tried to explain to anyone, and yet it made sense to him. So even if no one else understood what she meant when she said she wanted to “kill” Tyler in order to be free, Percival certainly did. In fact, he was willing to help her.


            Trace hadn’t reported to work for two weeks in a row, citing “family problems” as the reason for his absence. He had Ronda cover for him at an important meeting with the “prison people,” but he failed to properly brief her about the specifications on the new I-3 hacker-proof/tamper-resistant chip, scheduled for release in the spring. The omission resulted in an embarrassing fiasco of a presentation for the meticulous Ronda and an incensed complaint to Percival.

Fortunately, Percival was able to reschedule the meeting, allay the board’s concerns and finalize the order, but not without conceding slightly on wholesale prices and shipping costs. Furthermore, the board reduced the size of the order, electing to spend money to test the stability and reliability of an up-and-coming competitor. In the end, Trace’s problems cost GTO millions of dollars in lost revenue and a lesser share of the market.

Both angry and concerned, Percival insisted on an immediate meeting with Trace. They met in a corner of the huge, largely dark boardroom at GTO headquarters at midnight, their voices echoing in its cold vastness.

            “She doesn’t believe I love her, says I’m never there for her when she needs me. Says she no longer wants to be married to a man who’s married to his work.”

            “Do you realize that woman is what’s been standing between you and any real success? Did you tell her you’re one of the vice presidents of a firm that does over a billion dollars in annual sales?”

            Trace nodded.

            “She knows that. That’s not important to her.”

            Percival’s voice took on a stern tone.

            “Look Trace, the company needs you. You know how this business works. We have to be here, absolutely ready for our customers when they need us, in every way they need us and for as long as they need us. We have to anticipate their needs, their concerns, the politics and the market. We’re creating the future here.”

            In a daze, Trace’s response was listless.

            “You’re right. I’m not like you.”

            Percival’s eyes snapped over, his inflection signaling confusion.

            “Excuse me?”

            “I care. You don’t.”

            Percival put a hand on Trace’s shoulder.

            “No, no. It’s not that I don’t care. I just know what I have to do, and I do it.”

            Tears swelled in Trace’s eyes.

            “Unlike me. I think I know what I have to do, but I’ve always had a hard time doing it. I get confused. I never know if I’m doing the right thing.”

            Percival’s eyes narrowed as he responded.

            “You have to know. Success is a result of conviction. You have to see every issue for what it is, you have to know your convictions and you have to act on those convictions.”

            Wiping a tear from his face with the back of his hand, Trace laughed to himself.

            “Yeah, right. Did I ever tell you about my experience with the Peace Corps?”


            “There were four of us kids in the family. My old man had this thing about the Peace Corps, ya know. In the 1960 election, he and my mother were real big Jack Kennedy supporters.”

            The emotion gone, it was evident Trace was retelling a story he had told at least a few times before.

            “It turns out they were at the University of Michigan in October when Kennedy came out and proposed this thing. He wanted young Americans to advance the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.”

            He poured and swigged another shot of gin before continuing.

            “You weren’t even born then. I was five—the youngest. Anyway, my father got the notion to go. He knew it was what he wanted to do, so he just left us. My mom—bless her soul—she actually encouraged him. He went to Tanzania and stayed there till I was ten. Came back missin a foot. Lost it to a crocodile on the Sibiti.”

            Trace smiled, amused that Percival seemed interested in the story.

            “Said he had no regrets. In fact, he got it in his head that all his kids were supposed to volunteer a minimum of two years after college. Oldest brother was killed by a hippo while trying ta save a native girl on the same river where my father lost his foot. Literally ripped in two and mauled to a pulp. Bloody, gory scene. Took a tusk through the forehead. They sent back pictures and all.”

He batted his eyes and continued.

“Sister got malaria in Ghana. Still has problems because of it—chills, fever. Next brother came back in pretty good shape, but he had bowel problems for two years after. He was in Bangladesh for three years.”

            He shot another gin and slammed the glass on the counter.

            “So then it came down to me. I volunteered, but I didn’t want to go to Africa for obvious reasons. I kind of figured the Philippines would be an easier assignment for me. I thought I could go over there and help save the mangrove forests, but during the initiation I started hearing the stories about god-awful parasites and deadly snakes and fungal diseases I never knew existed. I got all freaked out, so I ran. I never went.”

            His eyes swelled with tears.

            “Old man was pissed! Never talked to me again, never again till the day he died. Cut me out of his will.”

            He turned back toward Percival.

            “So that’s the story of my life. I should have gone, but I didn’t. I can’t go back and change that. I’ve wished I could a hundred times, but I can’t. Things would’ve turned out different. Maybe I’d be in control of my life. My wife wouldn’t be holding me over a barrel.”

            Percival interrupted.

            “I’m sorry, but what do you mean when you say she’s ‘holding you over a barrel’?”

            “If I don’t start spending more ‘quality time’ with her and the family, she’s going to take the kids and leave me. God, I love her! We’ve been married 18 years. I couldn’t imagine life without her.”

            He busted out in tears, choking on his words.

            “I don’t want to lose her, goddammit!”

            Percival placed a firm, comforting hand on the broken man’s shoulder.

            “The question, Trace, is simple. What do you want? Do you want to continue to be a part of GTO and the future of the world?”

            Trace straightened his back in the chair, answering in spite of his sniffling and a stiffly held jaw.

            “Yes. Yes I do.”

            “Then the answer is also simple: you have to choose. It’s no different now than it was with the Peace Corps. If you want to be here, then decide to be here, and that means if your wife is really choosing to leave you for having the determination and conviction to follow your dreams, then you have to prepare yourself for the pain of losing her and you have to let her go. You have to move on without her. It’s a no-brainer.”


            “Well, well, Mr. Pettigrew. I knew from the first moment I saw you that you’d be enormously successful, and as strange as it may seem, I knew you’d eventually come back to me so we would have the conversation that we’ll be having tonight.”

            He raised the glass, smiling.

“But for now, care to join me in a cognac?”

            The ancient, ivy-covered mansion in venerable Arlington, Virginia was enormous, and the scent emanating from the massive cherry wood log aflame in the fireplace lent a spirit of peace to the private room inside. The spacious chamber’s walls and ceiling were aged mahogany while the floor was polished oak.

The room, a conglomeration of an eighteenth-century dining table and chairs, nineteenth-century armchairs, throw rugs and oil paintings, a huge twentieth-century overstuffed black leather sofa and a twenty-first-century mainframe computer, possessed a warmth that produced a feeling of ease and euphoria in the young man who stood at the fireplace, enchanted by the dancing of the flames.

John Marlowe handed him a warm snifter of the fragrant spirit and directed him to one of the armchairs that sat directly before the fire at a forty-five degree angle. Marlowe sat in the armchair across from Percival at an opposing though complementary angle. He drew a nose full of essence from the snifter and sighed amorously.

            “Fortunately I’m not so old that I can no longer enjoy the pleasures of cognac.”

            Percival sipped and almost coughed. He smiled, clearing his throat as he spoke.

            “So you know why I came?”

            “I know that, my boy, even better than you.”

            Silence. Percival studied the old man as he alternately sniffed and sipped the golden-brown liquid.

            “I was going to—”

            Marlowe interrupted.

            “You were going to ask me about my eye, but you really came here to know more.”

            Percival glanced from his left hand to the black patch on Marlowe’s face.

            “Yes. So, so what happened to your eye?”

            “Cork from a bottle of champagne. That’s what I tell people. Makes a good story. I like watching them shudder and cringe as I go into the bloody details. But you and I know that’s not what happened.”

            Marlowe turned toward Percival, setting the snifter on a table.

            “Truth is, when I was twenty-one, I was a proud member of the U.S. 1st Infantry.”

            The old man’s eye stared blankly into the fireplace flames.

“Well, on June 6th, 1944—date probably means nothing to you. On that day we were assigned ta storm Omaha Beach at Normandy at 0600. Lotta good men died that day. I was shot three times before I fell into a trench and passed out. When I woke up, I was under a pile of four still-bleedin bodies and I was wounded, so I couldn’t move. I could hear gunfire farther up the beach, but I couldn’t get up. I was there for two days before the medics found me. Bastards couldn’t believe I was still alive. With all the blood loss, I should have died.”

            “So that’s how you lost your eye?”

            Marlowe’s voice took on an irritated edge.

            “You didn’t let me finish. Anyway, I was in the hospital recuperating when I met an old man who congratulated me for defeating death. He asked me what I wanted and I told him. I said I wanted power, the power ta punish my enemies and ta help my friends.”

            “So he asked for your eye in exchange?”

            Marlowe flipped the patch up, exposing the fleshy, empty socket. It blinked.

            “Gave it to him on the spot. Took a small knife, stabbed it, squished the jelly out and cut the rest of it off right there.”

            “And you got the power you wanted?”

            “My very life is the sequel. I’ve punished alotta enemies and helped alotta friends over the years. I’ve known every President since ‘45 personally, and every last one of them owed me a few favors by the time they were sworn in. Power—I got it, just like the old man promised. He said I would see him again, and when I did, I’d know.”

            Percival was both intrigued and uneasy.

            “Has it ever frightened you? I mean, do you think you’ll have hell to pay eventually?”

            Marlowe laughed.

            “My life is hell. My life has always been hell. I’d be right at home in hell.”

            He took up the cognac again and sipped. Looking at Percival, he laughed.

            “You’re much too young to be concerned with the end of it all. Now’s the time for you to enjoy what you’ve earned.”

            No answer. The young man’s thoughts were lost in the flames.

            “You know, Percival, you and I are members of a very exclusive club, but we’re not the only members. Check your history: Abraham at Jehovah-jireh, Jacob at Peniel, Alexander at Cilicia, Julius Caesar at the Rubicon, Brutus at Philippi, Napoleon at Elba, me at Omaha Beach, Martin Luther King at a New York City hospital in April 1958. Look to the people the world admires most. They’ve all had moments where choices had to be made, and they chose to join. Except for Brutus—he chose not to join.”

            Marlowe cleared his throat, sipping the cognac and swallowing his fate.

            “Me? I’m at the end of my time. I’ve played the game from start to finish. I made my choices and I’ve lived with them. Now, I’ve got no choices, really.”

            Percival peered over as the old man readjusted the eye patch.

            “Okay, so what’s the end of it all? What’s the overall benefit to being in?”

            Marlowe laughed, sarcasm reeking more than the cognac.

            “That’s just it. There is no benefit. When it’s over, we die like the rest of them die, but at least some of us, if we’re lucky, realize that we have lived.”

            “Please explain.”

            Marlowe finished the final remnant from the snifter, sighing sensually.

            “Tell me, Percival—you ever have a moment of complete clarity?”

            “I don’t know what you mean.”

            “A moment of complete clarity—a fleeting instant in which the three elements of universe, time and reality come into one sharp focus. In that moment, you understand what it’s all about, and you, you accept it. It’s a rare instant that redefines your past, present and future. It gives them sense and purpose.”

            Percival thought immediately back to that memorable night in his kitchen, to the brief minute or two before he severed his fingers. He remembered the fleeting sense of calm, purpose and unity he felt in that instant. It wasn’t a moment of complete clarity, but it made him realize such a state of being was possible. He innately knew Marlowe was yearning for a more profound sense of the feeling he experienced right before stabbing himself in the eye and squishing out its contents.

            “How do you get there?”

            “You keep living and you wait for the moment to come around again. You recognize it and you take it.”

            Marlowe slumped in the chair, a sense of sadness overwhelming him, his glassy eye lost in the flickering flames.

            “You’ll know what you have to do.”


            He caught himself staring more often than he wanted to admit, and he couldn’t understand why. His eyes would follow the hand and lock in on the fingers, the ring and fifth fingers of the left hand. Then he would gaze on his own hand, so mutilated and deformed.

He could vividly remember the first time he became conscious of the peculiar obsession. His secretary, Anisette, had wonderful hands, which she had an unconscious habit of modeling whenever she talked. Her hands were perfect, her fingers slender and delicate. All while she spoke, his eyes followed that left hand.

He would hold his breath, hoping the hand would rest in one place long enough for him to get a glimpse of the fingers. He would remember their exact juxtaposition on such occasions, even hours after she had left the room. He yearned to touch those fingers, to caress them, so he struggled to suppress his urges when she was present. In fact, she intimidated him because her fingers were so beautiful—so much so that he began avoiding any interaction with her.

In his mind, even Tyler, for all her fame and beauty, was no match for a woman with such wonderful fingers. Yet realizing such sentiments were a potential liability, he transferred Anisette to an assignment far away, with no possibility of a return.

Then he realized it wasn’t just Anisette’s fingers. Once at a party he was hosting, he began to look around and notice everyone’s hands. He was the only person at the party missing fingers.

They were all laughing, swilling expensive champagne and enjoying an event he was paying for, an event that would have never been possible without the immolation he had endured. They had sacrificed nothing, and yet they were benefiting from his self-mutilation.

He noticed how several of them reacted at seeing his hand, how one couple had cringed and backed away, afraid that the deformity might be contagious. He saw others whispering and pointing, apparently repulsed by the sight of the disfigurement. It was enough to make him angry.

These dullards were supposedly the best society and the world had to offer. They were the premiere socialites, the up-and-comers, the jet setters, the names that would redefine corporate America.

But in truth they were shallow persons who had sacrificed nothing! Would never sacrifice anything! Who did not understand the significance and importance of sacrifice! It was why they had fingers and he did not. Disgusted with their ilk, he shut the party down and ceased to host or be present at other such events.

Further, he cut back on the regular fêtes he attended with Tyler. Yet with each day that passed, his obsession with the ring and smallest finger of the left hand grew more pronounced and his resentment grew more profound.

            Fortunately, the demands of business provided an escape from the realization of the growing obsession and the sense of bitterness that accompanied it. Owing to Percival’s knack for organization, GTO operated smoothly, profits were better than projected, and the company continued to grow.

In the spring, GTO launched its own Internet Service Provider division with more options and greater access for customers subscribing to tracking services. The company ran so smoothly in fact that Percival’s presence was unnecessary for most day-to-day operations. His vice presidents and managers handled all but the most sensitive negotiations and decision-making, leaving Percival to operate in the capacity he had fashioned for himself: the leader, the visionary in whose hand rested the future of the technical world.

He further escaped the ghost of his lost fingers by traveling the world in search of greater knowledge. He visited India and wandered down the paths that Sidhartha once walked. He visited Israel and traveled the roads the son of Mary traversed. He considered the footsteps of the Prophet on a pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca.

Yet when he returned, all the knowledge he had gained was vanity. The minute he walked into GTO corporate offices, all he saw was hands, perfect hands with no missing fingers. He could not escape the obsession.

He was angry and irrational, so he determined to affix his anger on a single person rather than on all of humanity. He chose the person carefully and for cause. This person became for him the embodiment of all the human cowardice, incertitude and selfishness he resented with such an implacable passion. This person became the bête noire, the anathema. Thus by directing his hate, anger and resentment toward one man, Percival was able to contain his utter contempt for the world at large.


            He sat at his desk many nights, murdering the man over and over. He imagined the knife, the hot gushing blood, the expression on his enemy’s face, the guttural groan, the eyes set in their sockets as the spirit of life flew from the quivering body.

            “Take that, evil old fiend, for what you’ve done to me!”

            He laughed as he imagined cutting off all the man’s fingers and tossing them wildly into the air. Then he wept. He wept for the loss of his ignorant innocence, for his abused fingers, for his self-proscribed damnation.

            When morning came, he recovered his composure by immersing himself in a new software project. He almost felt content, until one morning he came face to face with the object of his scorn.

            “Trace, I need to talk to you.”

            Trace hesitated, his eyes attempting to peel back the impenetrable shroud from his boss’ face. There was something troubling in the tone of Percival’s voice, something Trace had heard on perhaps one occasion before, except it had never been so grave.

            Yet the resonance of the silence that followed was unnerving and familiar. Obedient, he headed toward his office with Percival following. Once inside, Trace turned on his antagonist, angry.


            “What the hell are you doing?”

            Trace looked into the hallway where, in a reception area on the left, his secretary was no doubt eavesdropping. He walked over and slammed the door.

            “I’m working. What the hell does it look like I’m doing, asshole!”

            His office was the second largest in the complex, some five hundred square feet less than Percival’s.

Trace’s obsession with Picasso was recognizable to most people who entered the room. It looked more like a gallery than an office. A large, oil on canvas copy of Guernica was centered on the long wall just across from his immaculate, dust-free ebony wood desk.

An oversized framed, matted print of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon was displayed next to the large window. On the desk and about the room, there were small-framed duplicates of various drawings and paintings and there were miniatures of several three-dimensional works by the artist.

Yet the largest of all the Picasso copies in his office was a photograph of a mural from a Paris building. Trace even included the title on a lacquered wooden plaque next to the piece. It was called La chute d’Icare or The Fall of Icarus.

            “On your own you’ve decided to work four days a week instead of five, is that it?”

            “They’re fourteen to sixteen hour days! I’m giving you better than full time.”

            Percival turned toward the window to control his overwhelming sense of hostility. He took a deep breath and answered, never looking at Trace.

            “You know how many straight employees give me 14-hour days and more? You’re a vice president—you’ve got percentages—you’ve got a great package here. Yeah you earned it, but I ought to be able to expect more from you.”

            Trace flinched in anger on hearing his father’s final barb.

            “Maybe you expect too much of us! You got hurt. You lost, and now you want all of us to lose too!”

            “No success comes without sacrifice.”

            “Success? Is that what you call it? It’s mutilation. It’s not sacrifice—it’s self-mutilation.”

            Bold, Trace stared toward Percival’s hand.

“There was no crocodile.”

He sighed aloud.

            “Benefiting mankind? You know, I think you’re miserable about what you lost and you want the rest of us to be just as miserable. You go out and think you’re really doing somethin special, you’re helping humanity an all, but you know what it all boils down to? You’re the real losers! Sometimes we admire you for bein able to put it on the line when we can’t. Sometimes we even envy your success and the deliberate way you go through life. But most of the time we pity you. You’re distorted individuals. You’re freaks! You condemn me as weak, but what kind of husband were you?”

            Trace shivered, closing his eyes a moment before continuing.

            “What kind of father were you? You threw away your family to help humanity! Something I can’t do! And that somehow makes you better than me?”

            Percival interrupted, answering.

            “You don’t have a clue, evil old man. You think you’ve got me. You think I’m so far in that I can’t get out of it! But you’re wrong. I’m going to beat you! You came to me and you took. You put the choices before me. You made me go through with it. Now it’s your turn.”

            Trace was confused.

            “What are you talking about?”

            “I had to choose between success and losing something very dear to me. For all of us, that’s what it comes down to. Only most people don’t recognize the moment when it’s right there. Most people don’t even understand they’re making choices even when they are. You chose not to go, remember?”

            “I wanted to go. I couldn’t go. I knew I’d suffer like the rest.”

            “You suffered anyway. Only, they benefited and you lost. Your choice.”

            Though he batted his eyes to control the emotion, a tear streaked down Trace’s face as he exploded.

            “I know! Don’t you think I know that! Do you know how many times I’ve gone back to that? It’s ruined my life. I wish I could go back to that moment. I would have gone if I had it to do again!”

            “But you can’t. So now we have a new moment.”

            He placed his right hand on Trace’s shoulder.

            “You and your wife have separate destinies. You know that deep inside. You know you’ll never be successful as long as you stay with her. If you continue with her, you forfeit your future. If you cut her out of your life, you’ll have all the success you’ve ever craved. We’re at that point, old man.  Few people get second opportunities to make that choice, but here we are. You made me chose. Now it’s your turn.”

            Trace then recognized Percival’s actual motivation for the meeting.

            “No. You can’t. You want to make me chose between my job and my wife? I can’t do that.”

            Percival approached Trace, peering into two troubled eyes.

            “You already have. You have forty-eight hours to vacate the premises. Ronda will be taking over for you beginning on Friday.”


            “There’s just no easy way to put this, Percy, but your value to Tyler has exceeded its usefulness. When we first announced the engagement, it was big news. That lasted all of about six months, and then they went back to doing the stories about the was-beens and the wanna-bees. Tyler got a movie out of it, though.”

            She outlined her lips in plum pencil, adjusting a small circular mirror to maintain perfection.

            “Then the pregnancy rumor got us an extra six weeks, but I really don’t see much of a future for us. I mean, you’re not the kind of guy who’s going to go out and get arrested once or twice a year. You don’t go out for wild nights at strip bars. You don’t slap Tyler around, ever. Then you don’t go before the press and insult Bill Gates or your other competition even after Tyler begged you to. When Tyler met you, she was just expecting a little more.”

            He watched as she applied the wine-colored lipstick and closed the compact. Taking her hand, he pleaded.

            “I love you. Do you know that? I love you—not Tyler. You can’t let her do this to us!”

            “Tyler’s a star, you’re a dweeb with missing fingers. Your heads are in completely different airspace. Tyler just doesn’t believe you’re the right guy.”

            “Of course I’m not the right person for her! But I am for you! We love each other.”

            She returned the compact to the small purse on the table without looking at him.

            “Tyler regrets that you’re being so immature about all this.”

            Frustrated, he sighed aloud, wagging his head.

            “So the engagement is off? Tyler doesn’t want to marry me anymore?”

            She blotted her lips with the linen napkin, sighing.

            “It’s just that, the wedding would be big. Outrageous, actually. But what happens after that?”

            She patted the back of his hand.

            “You’re just too nice a guy, Percy. Tyler needs a bad boy—someone who can keep it exciting, make it interesting, stay on the front pages. You need to find someone a little less high-profile, a little more boring… like you.”

            He peered into her eyes.

            “I thought I did. I thought I found the person for me.”

            “That’s the whole problem with you. You’re boring because you always know what you want. You take risks, but you don’t take chances. Taking a chance means having it all, and being willing to throw it all away for a not-so-sure thing—like love.”

            The server cleared the table, removing everything but Percival’s coffee cup. He attempted to make eye contact with Tyler, though without success.

            “Percy, what if I were to ask you to get up right now and run away with me—to leave it all behind and start all over again, together. What would you say?”

            “I’d, I’d say you can’t be serious. Knowing you and knowing me? Our schedules?”

            She interrupted.

            “Wrong answer. You just don’t get it, and that’s why Tyler has decided to extend the courtesy of letting you break things off with her. This weekend, she will go into a New York nightclub, have a little to drink, and get involved in a steamy affair with a certain pop star. You’ll naturally get mad, call her an insipid little tramp publicly and break off the engagement.”

            He stared at her in disbelief.

            “No, I won’t do that. I’m not going to do that.”

            “Then Tyler will dump you for being the insufferable little bore that you are. Either way, it’ll be big news.”


            There were hundreds at the graveside service, despite the fury of the worst storm of the season. At the church on 10th, the head usher estimated that over two thousand had attended the funeral.

            Among the crowd of mourners were two former U.S. presidents, a vice president, a dozen senators, various congressional representatives, an envoy from the British Parliament, along with the prime minister, and other heads of state. The District of Columbia in its entirety seemed to pause for a moment to pay tribute to a man who had been a luminary, a figure of mythical proportions.

Arguably, decorated WWII veteran John Marlowe had been one of the most powerful Washington insiders ever. During his career he had chaired the National Security Council for fifteen years, the Federal Communications Commission for eleven years, and he had been director for the Central Intelligence Agency for seven years.

He sat on the Federal Reserve Board, was an advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he had been appointed to special committees by eight U.S. presidents. To the end, he was a fiercely patriotic guardian of the nation’s most valuable secrets. His obituary read like a Hollywood movie story line. Percival sat silent in the audience, listening to all the comments, the anecdotes and the legends surrounding John Marlowe.

He mused that of all the long-time friends and close acquaintances crowded in Kennedy Center for the nighttime memorial, perhaps no one knew Mr. Marlowe quite the way he did. No one else knew what it felt like to be a part of the club. No one knew the kinship Marlowe felt for Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon. He wondered about Marlowe’s last moment, wondered if he had reached that point of complete clarity.

The circumstances surrounding his death were irregular for a man of his age. According to stories from the newspapers, he was in a fistfight with a “bundled-up” old man in a tavern over a debt he owed the man. They wrestled on the floor and they exchanged blows, but then suddenly Marlowe froze and turned ghastly white, leaning against the bar rail, his one eye wide open. Marlowe’s antagonist then clutched him, his face against Marlowe’s, as the spirit left his body.

The owner called for an ambulance and for the police, but in all the commotion, the bundled-up old man somehow disappeared. Marlowe was rushed to an emergency room where the attending physician pronounced him dead on arrival.

The announcement and story of Marlowe’s death shocked Percival, who had imagined his ancient colleague perishing in the armchair before the fire, cognac in his hand as he savored that last moment of complete clarity.

Percival felt the loss perhaps more than anyone in the room. Marlowe had never married and had no children, so there was no family, except for Percival, in a way. Percival was a fellow member of the club, and Marlowe, by virtue of guiding him and educating him on its history and the opportunities and dangers it offered, seemed like a father.

Yet Percival wondered if he had any brothers or sisters in attendance, any other fellow club members. If they were out there, he wanted to meet them. He looked for other mutilated individuals in the crowd, but he found none.

Then as he was exiting the building, he realized a mistake he had made on a subconscious level: He had slipped his hand into his coat pocket the way he had always done in public. If any other member had looked, seeking to identify him by his distinguishing mutilation, the hand was hidden. It was a missed opportunity and he didn’t know when or if he’d ever get another chance to meet another member of the club.


            The phone call came at 3:30 a.m., startling him awake. His personal secretary was weeping pitifully as she spoke. She had received an angry and hysterical phone call from Grace Markus, Trace’s wife. Two days after being “let go” by Percival, Trace had locked himself in his room at home, placed a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, spattering skull fragments, bones and bits of brain all over the bedroom wall and ceiling. Grace was threatening to sue Percival for “murdering” her husband. When he called Grace to apologize, he wasn’t prepared for all the anger, hate and blame she would direct toward him. She cursed his name, declaring he’d “burn in hell” for what he did to Trace.


            And then, if the news about Trace wasn’t distressing enough, the morning newspaper headline made Percival sink to his knees in grief even as he took the paper from the sympathetic bellman’s hand. In a banner across the top, the copy read, SUPERMODEL TYLER, DEAD AT AGE THIRTY.

It had been three months since the official break-up, so he hadn’t spoken with her for at least seven weeks. His stomach churned as he read the story. According to the rags, Tyler became a party-girl after the break-up. She even began drinking real cocktails and getting drunk in public.

She was on a yacht with a group of other models and their dates off the Florida Keys two nights before. One of the girls said she had just “done some Ecstasy,” a drug that enhanced sensory perception in pleasurable ways. The friend said everyone heard a splash about three o’clock a.m., but they had all drunk so much that no one got up to investigate. When Tyler was missing the next morning, the Coast Guard was alerted and a full-scale search was conducted.

Volunteers found her ripped, bloody shirt and one of her shoes that afternoon. Her body was never recovered and the possibility of finding it grew more and more remote as the hours passed, especially since the area was home to thousands of hungry crocodilians, several species of sharks and other carnivorous fishes.

Though her parents wanted to prolong the search, authorities assured the public, reciting the details from previous incidents, that if the body hadn’t been recovered in twenty-four hours, it had been completely consumed by the denizens of the keys.


            Thus it was that within the course of three days, Percival had lost the three most significant people in his life. Sitting alone in a Washington, D.C. hotel room, he realized that earlier in his life, while he was pursuing success, he had been sad, disappointed and lonely. It was only then, after attaining “success,” that he learned the meaning of misery.

Misery made success irrelevant, it made freedom irrelevant and it even made choice irrelevant. Misery made life itself irrelevant. He reflected on that night many months before, when he had considered getting drunk and falling to his death over the railing at the Hyatt in Sacramento.

He had chosen success instead. Now more than ever he wanted to end it all, to leave it all behind. He alternately drank brandy and slept for two days, neglecting to eat, shower and shave.

On the second night, he threw on a wrinkled shirt, zipped the pants he had slept in and stumbled into the hotel hallway. He never bothered to tie his shoes or button the shirt. The maitre d’at the hotel restaurant would have never allowed such a slovenly dressed person to take a table, but he recognized Percival and seated him in a dark remote corner of the room.

 There, Percival determined, he was going to have his last meal. Then he was going to head over to Columbia Heights, pick a fight with the biggest, meanest gang member he could find, call him a few choice names, maybe insult his mother and gladly suffer the consequences.

He ordered a double vodka martini, gulped it down, and then he ordered a porterhouse steak. He never ate the steak, because he passed out on the table. When he awoke, his vision was hazy. There was someone sitting across from him, nudging him, calling his name. When the image sharpened, he drew a deep breath and sat up, blinking his eyes, feeling sober.

            “You? I dreamed about you! And now you’re here!”

            She smiled, squeezing his hand.

            “Of course I’m here. You called me. Is that a martini you’re drinking?”

            Percival ordered her a drink and re-ordered dinner for two. Without a prompt, he began to tell her about his life since that poignant moment they shared at the airport. He told her about the problems with the IRS, about the call from Marlowe’s secretary, about GTO’s incredible success, about Tyler, about Trace and about his misery. He told her about everything but the fact that he had taken a cleaver and chopped off the ring and fifth finger of his left hand. In fact, he kept the hand hidden.

She listened all while he spoke, rubbing his right hand at moments where he fell apart and wept. Finally, after he had emptied his soul into her heart, she reached into his lap, took the mangled hand and kissed the nubs that had been his fingers.

            “Everything will be all right if you want it to be.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “It seems now or very soon, you’ll have to answer a very important question.”

            Strangely, he didn’t feel uncomfortable with her touching the abbreviations. Her touch brought him comfort.

            “What question?”

            “Now that you’ve achieved the success you thought you wanted before, what do you really want?”

            Bowing his head, he looked toward his hand, and then he looked into her large, expressive wonderful eyes.

            “Two things. I want my fingers back. I’d give up everything just to have my fingers back.”

            “But you can never have those back. They’re gone. Unfortunately, some things done in life cannot be undone.”

            He caressed her hand.

            “And you. I want you. There have been so many times when I’ve been sad or lonely, and I’ve thought about you. I always think back to that last moment at the airport when I was ready to change my destiny and stay with you. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished I had done that.”

            She smiled.

            “I know.”

            “I made the wrong choice. I should have stayed. I want to stay right now. I want to stay with you and never leave.”

            She paused and signaled negation.

            “I don’t think so. That moment is passed and gone. You made a choice. For better or for worse, we can’t undo the choices we make.”

            She clenched his hand before releasing it and sitting back.

            “Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you a few things you might not know.”

            “Like what?”

            “The day you left me at the airport—I went to one of the men I worked for, the Senate Majority Leader, and I told him about you and your project. He really liked the idea. A few weeks later, at a private dinner with John Marlowe, he urged John to give your tracking chips a fair chance. That’s why Marlowe’s secretary called you.”

            Percival was stunned. Thus recalling the experience with great severity, he told her about Lucius Crossland Haydes and the three times he appeared. She was the only person he had ever told about the strange old man and the peculiar bargain he offered. Oddly, she didn’t seem fazed by the bizarre story.

            “Either way you chose, you would have been making a substantial sacrifice. If you had chosen me, I would have never gone to my boss, and Global Tracking Options would have never happened. Choices are funny that way—a sacrifice at either side.”

            He stared at her in silence before speaking.

            “How do you know so much about sacrifices?”

            “The rules aren’t very difficult to understand. Whether you see it or not, any success, whether it’s money or power or happiness or a long life, comes at its owner’s expense. You all try to hide it, but you’re all victims of self-mutilation. You’re all maimed, disfigured.”

            She watched him tuck his hand away, and she continued.

            “John Marlowe was missing an eye. He lacked the balance to see how much good he could have accomplished with the power he possessed. He used it selfishly and died without ever understanding that. Your friend Trace took self-mutilation to the ultimate level. In every suicide there is a martyr. In the end, he out-sacrificed his father. Who can argue with that?”

            She leaned forward, almost whispering.

            “And then there’s Tyler, the one you loved. She was probably the most mutilated of all, though she was as close as anyone could come to physical perfection. There’s always a price to pay for success. She put the choice before you, and you chose.”

            “When? What choice?”

            “Didn’t you tell me that on the last night you saw her, she asked you to ‘leave it all behind’ and start over again with her?”

            His eyes widened as he remembered.

            “Yeah, but—”

            “And you chose. You chose not to. Don’t you see? It’s not very different than it was with me at the airport. There’s a certain consistency to the choices you have made in your past, so if you’re miserable, you really need to consider the choices you’ll have to make from this moment on. Existence is about choice, otherwise that tree would have never existed in the garden. You can’t have both.”

            As he took and squeezed her hand, he felt a sudden flash of clarity.

            “I know.”

            “So we’re back at the beginning. The question, Percival, still is: What is it that you want?”

            A flash, and then a complete, wonderful moment that transcended time, space and reality.

            “You! You’re—”

            She stood, looking to the door.

            “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’m late.”

            He stood and reached toward her, clutching her shoulders.

            “Wait! Will I see you again?”

            She smiled and kissed him on the lips, amused before becoming serious.

            “You’ll see one of us. That will all depends on the choices you make.”


            Only after two months did he realize how difficult a thing it was for a billionaire to divest himself of all wealth. He’d give away millions at a time to various charities, but the money would always return in the form of tax breaks, incentives and in other uncanny ways.

            He would have sold the Internet division of GTO to a competitor, but profit on the transaction would have been prohibitively high. More than anything, he wanted to get rid of the money.

Thus he donated to the Peace Corps, to the Heart Foundation, to the Cancer Institute and a long list of other such organizations. After consulting an expert private accountant on the matter, he prepared to sell his outstanding GTO shares to other shareholders and use the money to benefit humanity.

He would create a Trace Markus foundation, dedicated to the prevention of suicide, an organization that provided regular medical care for poor children and a dozen more charitable trusts.

Every penny from the sale of GTO shares, from his houses, from his other property and investments, from his stock portfolios, from his art collection, from his cars, his yacht and his savings—every penny would go to one benevolent foundation or another.

He would reserve the right to intervene if any foundation or trust failed to follow the directives of its charter. In the end, all the wealth he had worked so hard to acquire, the very success that he sacrificed two fingers to achieve, would be gone, save $783.41.

            His retirement announcement resulted in losses on traded shares, as investors grew concerned and uneasy about who would take over the helm at Global Tracking Options. However, once it became clear that Percival’s successor would be Ronda, his second-in-command, prices stabilized and most of the initial losses were recovered.

Investors had great faith in Ronda’s leadership and in her abilities, though there was some concern about her physical condition. Weeks earlier, she had taken time off for medical reasons. She told her staff she would be undergoing a procedure to have a lump removed from her right breast.

 When she returned, she confirmed that doctors had actually performed a radical mastectomy, but she asserted they had given her “a clean bill of health.”

Over the course of two months, Percival sold everything he owned and donated the money to organizations dedicated to benefit humanity. Thus he was no longer in debt.


            The streets outside the airport in Sacramento were quiet on that heated Saturday morning. The skies were hazy and gray, though there was not a cloud in them. Ronda’s silver Lexus slinked around the gradual curve of the main road, followed the signs leading to the terminals and came to a gentle stop.

            “Well, here you are.”

            He smiled.

            “Yes. Yes, thank you so much for the ride.”

            She placed her right palm against his cheek.

            “Not even a suitcase. Are you sure you know what you’re doing? I mean, where the hell are you going?”

            He nodded.

            “Yes, and I’m not saying.”

            He opened the door, got out, closed it and walked around the car to her side. She rolled down the window and leaned out to kiss his lips.

            “You know Ronda, before I go—I just want you to do something for me.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Ask yourself a question. You don’t have to answer it now, maybe not for a couple of years, but you have to keep asking it.”

            She squinted in confusion.

            “What’s the question?”

            He leaned close, speaking into her ear.

            “What is it that you really want?”


            Inside, the terminal bustled with activity, though no one seemed to be in much of a hurry. Re-examining his notes as he walked, Percival looked up occasionally to scan the names of airlines as he passed customer service counters. Finally, he found the name of the small carrier.

Because there was no line at all, he wasn’t sure if the young woman seated at the counter was taking reservations. Unfolding a sheet of paper, he handed it to her. She read the sheet, put on a pair of glasses and began typing on the computer. She stopped a few times and read the screen, only to begin the typing again. At last she stopped and waited for the printer to finish.

            “Okay, that’s the 10:35 shuttle into Oakland, out on flight CRL940, departing Oakland at 12:28 and arriving at Tahiti-Faaa International at 3:35 p.m. One-way. Anything else I can assist you with at this time?”

            He sighed.

            “No, that’ll be all.”

            “Can I help you with any luggage.”


            She presented the chit.

            “Okay, that’ll be seven hundred eighty-three dollars and forty-one cents.”


            He sat on the soft, powdery, white-sand beach, his green pareos shirt flapping in the warm breeze as he watched the sun set on the edge of a cerulean horizon. It had been a week of incredible sunsets, a week of peace, a week of solitude.

            For seven days, the only sounds he heard were the roar of the ocean as it broke onto the beach, the cacophony of a million birds on the shore and in the skies and the random thuds from coconuts as they dropped thirty feet from their treetop nests.

He had hiked over three miles from the village in order to reach the secluded strip of sand on the western side of the island. For provisions, he had swept and mopped a local merchant’s floor in exchange for a sleeping bag, a large pouch of dates, a loaf of bread, a shovel, a used pot, a knife and several books of matches.

He ate fish and crabs mostly, supplemented by fruits and nuts he foraged from the forest. For seven days, he hadn’t heard the sound of a human voice, not even his own. He set up camp in a small clearing, not far from the lagoon, where he spent the nights in the sleeping bag next to a fire. He realized that he’d eventually have to go back to the village, back to the world and back to reality.

He knew he’d have to apply himself to some employment as he fashioned a new life for himself, but for the time being, he was content to sit on the beach and watch the birds squabble overhead, he was content to sit at the water’s edge twice a day and watch the tiny creatures patiently adjust to the tide’s ebbs and flows at the lagoon, he was content to marvel at rainstorms and sunsets and rainbows and fish eyes. All these things were free.

For the first time in his life he had the freedom to enjoy them. He never thought once about his hand, never once about his missing fingers. He felt complete. Though the clarity he felt during that moment in the restaurant became less and less distinct with each day that passed, he knew he had made the right choice.

            He fancied he saw a figure walking along the beach the next morning, headed toward him as he sat on a rocky perch watching the sun outline the mountains along the eastern edge of the island. As it drew nearer, he realized the human form in the distance was no phantom at all.

It was a woman in baggy jeans, an oversized coat and a large straw hat. Apprehensive, he stood, anxious about encountering the first person he had seen in more than a week.

Then, when she came within the outer reaches of detailed eyesight, he began to recognize the familiar idiosyncrasies: the way she had been trained to walk, the proud way she held her chin, the exaggerated way she swayed her hips. But it couldn’t be! Hesitant, he descended the rocky lookout, stumbling onto the beach.

He walked toward her even as she walked toward him. Then just as they came eye-to-eye, noses almost touching, both stopped. It seemed like her. Only this woman was perhaps 12 pounds heavier, there was more color and life to her skin and she wore no make-up.

He remembered the eyes. Her eyebrows were fuller, her butt was a bit bigger and her nails weren’t done. Yet she was still pretty. Her hair was pulled back under the hat, but a few unruly curls had escaped to dangle at her forehead.

He closed his eyes, struggling to reconcile the image of the woman before him with the woman he remembered. He did not understand.


            “Tyler’s dead.”


            Her voice was insistent.

            “Yes. Tyler’s dead. She fell off a boat and drowned. She was eaten by sharks. I’m just a woman who lives and works on this island.”

            He smiled.

            “Really? Well, what kind of work do you do?”

            “For now? I paint beautiful sunsets.”

            “Are you any good at it?”

            She laughed, shrugging one shoulder.

            “Not really, but who cares? I get better with each day that passes.”

            She took his hand.

            “The villagers told me a man had come, and when they described him, I knew it was you. I’m glad you decided to take a chance.”

            “It wasn’t a chance. It was a choice.”

            “All the better.”

            They sat on the beach and watched the sunrise in awe and wonderment, hardly speaking a word to each other for an hour.

            “I have a small place on the southern side of the island not far from the water. Isn’t much, but it’s big enough for two. We can hike out on the isthmus every day and watch the sun set.”

            They had walked a mile down the beach, shoes off, jeans rolled up, breakers rushing over their feet, when he stopped.

            “Okay, Tyler’s dead. So who are you? I mean, what do I call you?”

            “You can call me by my real name. It’s Karen. Does it suit me?”

            He laughed to himself. Then he put his arm around her waist as they continued strolling down the beach. He smiled, glancing toward the glistening blue and white horizon.

            “It’s fine. The name suits you just fine.”