Pure darkness receded and light returned. It took some time for him to focus. Something moved above him, far in the distance. The green and yellow light swayed above him with gentle a rustling, swish, swish, swish, like his breathing. He was out of breath. Why? The dappled sunlight on his face was warm, but cool all at once. He was surrounded by the green and yellow. The air smelled like… dirt and moisture, clean and unpolluted. Unpolluted by what? Who?
And silence. Not silence exactly, just the absence of something else. But there was something unnatural about the lack of noise around him.
He sat up and took a look around. The sun was still high in the sky, the silhouettes of leaves moved back and forth across his hands and face. He felt his face, it was damp with sweat. He could feel it all over his body, his clothes sticking to his back. He looked at his hands. They were dry, cracked and calloused in the palms with scars on most of the fingers and across the backs, a band-aid around his index finger.
The chatter of the forest was muffled, like it had been shut up in a box. The scurry of squirrels on bark and the flapping of birds wings had been stilled by something, someone. Him? But that wasn’t all. His ears rang with residual sound like after being at a rock concert and your hearing is muffled for hours afterwards.
Looking over his shoulder there was a steep slope going up for about fifty yards full of trees and covered in under growth, rotting leaves, and rocks. A clean path of fresh dirt streaked down the last part and ended right where he found himself sitting in a mound of dead leaves and fresh dirt. Would falling down a steep slope have these results? He wasn’t sure. It wasn’t the fall itself, but what preceded the fall. Whatever had happened before was important but he could not say why.
He tried to remember the thing that had happened before he found himself staring up into the trees. Black. Not blank. Black. Like when you first turn the lights off and it seems as if it is pitch black until your eyes adjust. You know everything is still there. You can sense it around you and you have a pretty good idea where everything it is. All your furniture doesn’t disappear just ‘cause you can’t see it any more. The memory of the event, of everything seemed to be waiting in the wings to appear on stage but they were waiting for their cue. If only he knew what it was.
He had a general sense of who he was: hard worker, reliable, well liked, and a few lifelong friends to boot. He looked at his left hand. No ring. That was disappointing, but expected. He wore heavy khaki trousers, covered in dirt and leaves; some of the stains seemed worn in. Tan leather boots, scuffed at the toes, the treads on the soles were worn down some. Finally a dark blue, button down, flannel shirt, torn on the shoulder in one place, fresh blood darkening in the gap.
On instinct he reached back and felt a familiar lump in his back right pocket. What came out was a brown leather wallet, broken in and worn on the corners. Flipping it open he was confronted by a rectangular badge.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He stared at the small piece of plastic:
Name: Andrew James.
Eyes: Blue eyes
Height: 6’ 1”
It was his picture all right. He didn’t have a mirror of course to make sure but it felt right. He was sure that if he had a mirror he would see the same face as the one in the photo. Brown hair. He wasn’t sure about that but close enough.
“Andrew James,” he said aloud. “The man with two first names.” He chuckled to himself, he’d heard that one before. Maybe he only thought it to himself whenever someone said his name. Who knows. He liked the name. He was glad it was his.
He looked back up the slope. Something waited up there. His truck? He searched his other pockets; a Swiss Amy knife in one and a set of keys. It was a modest set of keys. A Chevy key, a few normal size ones to the house maybe, and some smaller odd-looking ones, most likely to various kinds of equipment. In the other pocket he discovered some loose change and a receipt from Save Mart Gas for eighteen plus gallons of gas, a deli sandwich and a fountain drink. The receipt address and driver’s license were from different states. So he was away from home, but he wasn’t even sure by how far.
The hushed quite of the trees prevailed. There was a tension, a penned up expectancy. It was unnatural, but as far as he could tell he was the only unnatural thing around. He did not belong here. He did not feel he was alone. He fell down that slope for some reason. Was he pushed? Chased? Was it a desperate, last ditch effort to put distance between himself and whatever was still huddled in the shadows waiting for him? Why was he in this forest and where is this forest? His innate sense of danger simply was not there. The danger had passed perhaps but there was still an apprehension. These sorts of things should concern him but it just didn’t seem to think there was anything to worry about. Things would work themselves out. He was alive and that was saying something.
That being said, sitting here was not going to accomplish anything. Tucking his legs up under himself he stood. Everything tilted suddenly and spun. With a hard thud he found himself looking up at the trees again. He blinked a moment trying to figure out what had just happened. The sound of his heart thumped in his ears. This was not going to be easy.
He took a moment to catch his breath and gave it the ol’ college try again. This time the trees and ground pitched and rolled but somehow he managed to remain standing. Mustering all his power of concentration he turned toward the slope and looked up to ledge. He considered the possibility of maybe an easier way up, a less strenuous path had to be somewhere but for now he figured the direct way would be the fastest. That was where he had come from and that was where he needed to go. He lunged forward and pushed himself up. Shadows crowded the edge of his vision. Everything grew bright white, overexposing his retinas and a stabbing pain into his head. Brown leaves and overturned soil rushed up on him. He reached out for the nearest bush but fell short, face down where he had stood.
* * *
The drilling sound of a woodpecker on a nearby tree drew Andrew out of his stupor. He felt as if he may have been awake for a while but was only just now aware of it. Again he was staring up into a tangle of tree limbs that framed a steel colored sky. All color had drained out of the world. It was cold, a slight breeze blew across him, he shivered. Birds called in the distance, and he could hear the scratching of tiny claws on bark.
“Young man?” A man’s voice asked.
Andrew turned his head toward the sound. A man crouched nearby, his forehead damp with perspiration. “Young? I’ll have you know that I’m forty- seven.”
“True,” the man’s expression neutral. He had short hair was a dark gray with flecks of black mixed in. While he seemed to have aged well he was aged. It was easy to see that his experience exceeded his years. “I’m Gregory.” He held his hand out.
Propping up on his elbow Andrew regarded the stranger. He wore outdoor clothing, but they looked new. His demeanor was of total calm, reserve. No, control. Andrew had the idea that there was nothing that could shock this man. Emergencies are what happened to other people. No event that would shake him off balance. With nothing to lose Andrew shook his hand. Gregory’s grip was powerful but not chauvinistic.
Andrew looked around. This was not where he had been before. They were on a plateau, wait, it was a road, a dirt road. Deep grooves worn through the grass and cutting through the foliage. The edge was formed by a steep drop off, the one he had gone done. There was a green jeep a few yards away. Next to it he could see there were fresh tire tracks, maybe where his car had been.
Looking back at Gregory, “Did you…carry me out of that gorge?”
Gregory smiled grimly. “I did.” He stood up. “Now that I know you are okay we can get you to some medical attention.”
“How did you find me, how did you know I was here?”
The astonishment drained out of him. There was no danger, he was sure of that, but this was not dumb luck, he was too practical for that. “Now how is that you know who I am when I don’t even know that myself.”
“Your injury is unfortunate. It will be dark very soon we should get you out of here before we can no longer see our way out.” Gregory bent down supporting Andrew’s arm and back. “You ready?”
Andrew nodded his head and braced himself. Standing was still a challenge. He felt dizzy. Gregory waited for him to recover. Once ready they hobbled to the car. Gregory opened the door for him.
Climbing into the driver’s side Gregory started the engine. “Mr. Moore’s personal physician will make sure you are okay.”
“Much obliged.” Andrew rolled down the window and put his arm out. “Should I know ‘im?”
Gregory turned the wheel and started down the road. “Mr. Moore has been expecting you.”
“Is that a fact?” The jeep jumped and jerked as they drove over fallen rocks and potholes left by rain. “And he would be?”
“Really? What’s with the reunion then?”
Gregory kept his eyes on the road. “What Mr. Moore does is his business.”
“Blind obedience, is what you do?”
“As you can see, Mr. James, my eyes are wide open.”
“So I can,” he smiled and watched the road. There was nothing around that he recognized. “Can’t wait to meet ‘im, again.”
“He feels the same.”
They drove in silence. As they progressed the road became smoother and widened. Eventually it dumped them out onto a main road, by the width of the road and the total absence of businesses he would have to say it was a highway. The jeep pulled out onto the road.
The cool smell of a pine trees at the close of day was a welcome scent to Andrew. He took a deep breath and instantly felt at peace. Gregory only drove, leaning back into the seat, this was a familiar route for him. It was as if he had forgotten all about his passenger, he was on autopilot. Like his clothes the car conveyed a message of belonging to the area. There were no personal effects in the car. No fast food containers, travel mugs, or printed off sheets of unneeded directions. But it was top of the line everything. Leather seats, wood paneling, Bose stereo, electric everything. All weather tires, four-wheel drive, rope wench on the front and yet the leather seats looked as if they had never been sat in. It almost had that new car smell.
Rising above the tops of the trees was the white peak of a mountain. It was snowed covered and even in the fading light Andrew could see that it was steep and jagged in places, deep canyons and sudden drop offs. The road appeared to be heading straight for it. The took a steady climb into the trees, no other signs of civilization except for an occasional road sign indicating they were in National Park land. The road curved and wiggled higher and higher. One side of the road was a deadly drop off and on the other a wall of rock, with each new turn these switched sides. The car slowed slightly as the came around a sharp bend and shooting off to the right was a road, barely visible. If you did not know it was there you would miss it. It was such a subtle separation that it blended into the landscape. Turning off of the highway onto the road with a severe turn and up a sudden incline.
Feeling his back press into the seat Andrew could see that there was something on the road ahead. The car chugged confidently forward. As they neared, he realized it was a gate that spanned across the entire expanse of the roadway but was in the process of opening inward. Gregory had not made any motions; both his hands were on the steering wheel and his eyes focused on the road. How did the gate open? Did someone see them coming? Andrew could not see anything that would indicate like a lookout or guardhouse, then again, there was just the thinnest bit of light left. The gate had somehow recognized the vehicles that belonged there, some sort of GPS or homing signal. He thought about any car that might take the turn by mistake, the way down would be treacherous, but the road was only one car wide, whoever came up here would have to back their way down.
Once through the gate they continued up the winding incline. The trees were thinning out and the road became lined with natural stone and well- placed shrubs. The road widened in to a large flat plain and suddenly bare rock jutted out, teetering on the precipice of black granite was a house. Built right up against the mountain. All he could make of it in this light was wood and glass. The wood looked almost black, like the rock or trees, maybe even the same dark hue as the trees around them. A pinnacle of wood and glass jutted up into the sky. The huge panes of glass looked out over the valley behind them. It was a paradox of an unnatural thing looking like it belonged there.
Gregory took the car around the side where house came out over the path. Again a door was already in the process of opening right up out of the rock. They drove into the side of the mountain and into a lit garage. There was one car width of space. There they stopped. The garage went further in. There was one car in from of them, a larger, heavier vehicle with large tires. Next to it was an oversized snow blower. On the side where Gregory got out was a black sedan, Bentley.
Andrew followed his lead and stepped out of the vehicle. The floor of the garage was polished concrete. It felt like a clean room in an electronics factory. Except where they had just driven in there was no indication of dirt. He doubted there were oil stains on the floor. There were shining red Craftsman cabinets and hooks on the wall holding all kinds maintenance tools. It was warm too, a pleasant kind of warm but a little stuffy.
“Guess you have to be self-sufficient up here. Would cost a fortune to have someone come out.” He looked around the immaculate, well stocked and organized space. “Not that cost is factor for someone like your Mr. Moore.”
“If you will come with me.” Gregory started to walk to the back of the garage. In the concrete wall beyond the SUV was a pair of stainless steel doors. Using a key the doors opened up to an elevator. Gregory waited for Andrew to go in.
Andrew felt his pockets and looked back at the car before getting in the elevator. “Feel like I’m forgetting something.” He looked at his host and chuckled.
Gregory used the same key to activate the elevator. It was smooth ride. Slow and gentle.
“No stairs, huh?”
“There are, but with your injury this is the best option.”
“Yeah, that,” he felt the back of his head. He could feel there was a bump back there, it throbbed like hell. His hair was matted with dirt and he guessed blood. Don’t take a hit like that without some blood. “I appreciate all of this, but are we even friends?”
Gregory turned to him. “No.” He went back to looking at the doors.
“How about this Moore fella?”
The doors opened. Gregory stepped out first and waited for Andrew. He stepped into a hallway. The cream colored carpet was thick under his feet, so much cushion gave a little bounce to his step as he followed Gregory to the end of the hall. Warm track lighting illuminated an oil painting of the mountain as well as the corridor. Everything was hushed and enclosed. It smelled like pine. A Wainscot of polished wood slats that glowed under the lighting ran down the full length of the hall on both sides. Opening a heavy wood door they came into another hall, this one a little more traveled than the last, wider too. There were other doors. The smell of burning wood and a tinge of smoke hit him.
A memory fluttered on the edge of his consciousness. A fire pit. There was a dog. Black lab. Was it his? He felt he was a dog person. Other than the familiar sense of the trees around him, there was nothing more specific. Was that because he was hurt or because he had done it so many times his brain had generalized all the times into one stock memory? Whoever has his truck has his dog and if he finds out something happened to either there will be hell to pay.
The room opened up suddenly into a steeple of glass. Had to be the room he had seen from the car. Wood rafters came together maybe twenty-five feet above his head. There was a simple glass chandelier hanging from the center. The world outside was dark now. To the right a fire flickered in a free standing pit. There was no chimney, had to be gas then. The pit was at the center of a hole. There were steps down creating a circular bench all around. Pillows were scattered about for comfort.
If this fire was from gas source, where was smoke coming from?
“Dinner is almost ready.” Gregory announced. “Pork roast. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Well frankly, I don’t know.”
“Get yourself a drink.” His eyes flicked to the far end of the room. A free standing wet bar was stationed near the glass overlook. A sliding glass door close by. “Make yourself at home.” He waved his hand to whole room. In addition to the fire pit there was another sitting area of oversized couches. The cushions plump full of filling to bursting. The material slightly shagged, with throw blankets of natural wool.
“When will I be meeting my host?”
There was no response, only the fire on fake logs with its continuous sigh.
Andrew looked around, Gregory had disappeared like that.
Make myself at home. Home. He thought about the word as he walked over to the bar. There were a couple small refrigerators. Of all the liquids on offer the larger seemed the most appealing. Popping the cap off, he took a swig. Good stuff. Hopefully it went with pork. Putting his forearm against the glass he rested his forehead against it and looked out. The dark line of the forest against the navy blue sky. A few stars twinkled in the sky washed out by the light behind him. He knew there was a city down there. A couple. Small communities surviving on the edge of wilderness.
He sighed. His breath fogging the glass. Home. He’d only been an amnesiac a few hours and he felt he was doing pretty good so far. All he had to do was find the light switch and then he would know. A square of reflected light hit the glass. He turned around to see a woman coming toward him with a tray of food. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a bun. “Where would you like to eat, sir?”
Andrew blinked dumbfounded. The door opened again and another girl came out with a platter of condiments. A1 Sauce, salt and pepper, a variety of salad dressings. She could not have been much more than ten or eleven. Her small chin and slender hands resembled those of the woman holding his dinner.
“Sir?” The older woman waited.
“Anywhere is fine with me.”
The woman’s brow knitted together. Her eyes blinked faster. “Can I recommend the fire then?”
“Sure, recommend away.”
She carried the food over to the edge of the pit. Cautiously she stepped down onto the bench and then another until she was at the bottom. All the way around the fire pit was a black marble ledge. The woman placed the food on it and beckoned for the girl, taking the tray of condiments from her she placed it next to his food. Crawling out of the pit she looked at him. “Will you be needing anything else?”
“Some answers would be nice.”
Her eyebrows bunched up again, she pursed her lips, and folded her hands in front of her. “I… I—“
“Don’t worry about it darlin’.” He smiled.
She smiled and the two of them quickly scurried back through the door they had come.
Andrew chuckled to himself. He felt bad for her. He didn’t mean to embarrass her. He really did want to know. Everyone seems so serious and/ or mysterious around here. It had been unfair to ask her.
The smell of the flame broiled meat and the white wine sauce on the vegetables made his stomach grumble. Who knew the last he had eaten. Had to have been hours. Lowering himself into the pit he seated himself on the bench with some pillows in the small of his back. He stuffed the silk napkin provided into the top of his shirt and balanced the tray of food across his knees. All signs indicated this would be a class act meal. He doubted that he ate this lavishly at home, wherever that was.
* * *
Gregory took the main stairs. They were the showcase of the entry way if anyone ever used the front door. Hand carved railings and a painstaking cross patterns imbedded into each step from the bottom step to the top step. Wide enough for a production number, the broad steps swept upwards parting in the middle for a large mirror and diverging in opposite directions. Taking the right fork to the library he passed the game room, the movie theater, and cocktail room. When he thought about this estate the word that dominated was peace. So far removed from human activity. The surrounding towns were relatively close together but because of the tracks of forest separating them you would never know it. No buildings were more than two stories high. From the right elevation you could see the highway cutting through the trees but otherwise all humanity was invisible.
The main room, where he had left Andrew, faced west and when the sun hit the glass it would shine back, he had people in town comment on it every now and then. This house was not the only one above the valley, but it was the biggest. And of course the most important since it was so intimately tied to the history of the area.
More than any other room in the house, the library was the most secluded. It was practically at the center of the house. In place of natural light false windows and a pair of French Doors were lighted in a way that mimicked natural light even to the point of dimming and brightening corresponding with the real time outside light. To add to the light of the rooms the bulk of the walls were painted a sunny yellow with the ceiling and beveled panels in white. It was an almost round room, double height, with two levels of built in book cases from floor to ceiling, which only served to further insulate it from all noise. Several speakers were imbedded all around the room so that if you sat in the middle on the strategically placed couches, sound literally surrounded you. It was a compact room with different kinds of seating, high backed Louis XV style arm- chairs surrounding small pine tables to accommodate tea or water. If you wanted something less formal there was plumb couch with matching armchairs on each side. Along the back of the couch was a long table with a chair and everything one would need for writing a letter.
Climbing the nearest of the two tight spiral staircases to the second tier of shelves he crossed over to the middle and paused. On this level the shelves had been alternated with beveled panels. This center one was different from the others. Leaning on the right side with his weight he heard a slight click and stepped to the side. The panel swung inward without a nefarious creaking. He slipped in through into the next room, pushing the door shut behind him. There was no chance of anyone else coming in behind him since only Mr. Moore used the library but habits should remain regardless of who was around.
This room was called the observatory for many reasons. It had a reinforced glass roof. It was heated so that there was never any snow build up. It had an automated feature that after some much weight had accumulated the heating would kick in. It was a rare occasion it snowed so much that Mr. Moore had not already turned the mechanism on. Mr. Moore ended most of his evenings here where he could contemplate the night sky while music floated all around him.
There was a steep stairway that led to a deck higher up (the highest point of the house) that put you within a few feet of the glass dome. You could see most of the rest of the exterior of the house from this vantage including the road leading up to the house. There was also an adjunct security suite where you could monitor the array of camera angles.
Gregory looked around. A tray with Mr. Moore’s Earl Grey tea sat untouched, still steaming. He could see the silhouette of Mr. Moore against the skylight on the top level. The standing order was he was not to be disturbed if he did not give you his immediate attention. Gregory turned to leave, Mr. Moore would know where to find him. He pulled on the handle of the false panel.
Gregory closed the panel and turned around, looking up. “Yes, Mr. Moore.”
Mr. Moore was leaning on the safety rail with his elbows, the night sky hovering over his head. “Did you manage to get to Mr. James in time?”
“I did, he was injured, but not fatally.”
“Is he secure?”
“Yes, Mr. Moore.”
“And his injuries?”
“Hard to say, Sir. He seems to have amnesia. The doctor should get in tonight to examine him.”
There was no immediate response. Mr. Moore continued to lean over the side but made no movement. The slightest move of head was barely visible in the near darkness of the room. “When she arrives tell her to join me for breakfast on the veranda.”
“Any sign of who may have done it?”
“Just some fresh tire tracks.”
“Damn,” he cursed under his breath and banged his fist on the rail. Mr. Moore stood straight and walked away from the rail. Gregory knew that was the official conclusion of this conversation. He slipped back into the library. Dinner was foremost in his mind, but he still had to get Andrew settled in. It had been a successful day and he was looking forward to the reward of a nice meal paired with a red wine.