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Authors: Michael Cadnum

Skyscape

BOOK: Skyscape
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Skyscape

A Novel

Michael Cadnum

for Sherina

If only one could possess it all and keep it, one would be a god.

—Bernard Berenson

PART ONE

BURN HEAVEN

“What a beautiful day,” we say. But what of that emptiness, the sky?

—Bruno Kraft,
Essays

1

The big dead lake was glowing.

The sun was up, but Patterson could look right at it without hurting his eyes. He held on to the dash, the armrest, anything he could reach. There was no road, nothing but rubble. Bishop worked the Range Rover back and forth over the sharp rocks, the jagged boulders and the splinters.

It was hard going. They were crazy to be this far out. The vehicle lurched, rocked to one side, recovered with a whine from all four wheels. Even within the air-conditioned cab Patterson could feel the heat coming, the hard heat.

They swung up, and balanced on a ridge. The vehicle teetered, Bishop fighting the wheel. The man was brilliant with machinery, but he was battling the folds and wrinkles in trackless stone, struggling to avoid tearing out the bottom of the Rover. By now they were miles away from the oasis.

The reason Patterson was having just a little trouble being patient was that Bishop was a man who did not like to say much. He just did what he was told. But Patterson would like to ask. He would like to know what they were doing.

The sun was too bright to look at now.

The vehicle lunged downward, almost out of control. Bishop gunned the engine, and brought them full power to the top of yet another ridge. Bishop slipped the gear into neutral and let the engine purr.

The stillness was a relief. They both enjoyed it for a moment. Then Bishop said, “I think it's over there.”

Patterson hadn't been able to come down to his estate in the desert for months. The first chance he had and what happens—Bishop has a discovery, something bad, something that can't wait.

“I can't see anything,” said Patterson.

There was nothing but rock, and the expanse of salt flat off to the north. The truth was, he didn't really want to look very hard.

Bishop didn't say anything more.

And Patterson was reluctant to ask. “You could see it from the air?”

“I was flying the Vega,” said Bishop. “I could see a reflection off a window. Circled down to take a look. I had a bad feeling.”

“I still don't see it.”

“Between those big black rocks.”

Patterson squinted. He tried to tell himself that he didn't see it, but he did.

It was a light pickup truck, sand-white, resting there with an air of expectancy. Maybe there was a little hope. The driver was off relieving his bladder or taking dawn photographs or just soaking all of this in.

Except it was virtually impossible to get where the truck was, and if you did it was even more difficult to get out. Even with a practiced eye and skill with machinery it would be luck alone that would see the Rover back at Owl Springs without a ruptured tire, and the Range Rover had off-road steel-belteds. Nobody got this far out into Patterson's land. Nobody at all. And yet there was this little truck, this life-size toy. What made people think they'd be safe in a thing like that?

“People are fools,” said Patterson. The down-sized pickup was at the edge of the salt pan, stuck.

When Patterson made no further response, Bishop said, “The lake is so hard you wouldn't see any tracks.”

“It's like pavement,” said Patterson. “Salt and boric acid.”

Bishop worried Patterson by switching off the engine. Patterson never turned off his engine out here.

“The Vega's a real airplane,” said Patterson, as though they had struggled all the way out there to talk about vintage aircraft. But it was true: it was better to talk about airplanes and the lake bed and hope that there would be a sign of life from the little truck.

Who could they be? Who would have the blind ignorance to churn across the Naval Weapons Testing Center, a vacant, silent expanse, all the way to this empty place. It was summer. Patterson routinely worked with people who seemed impervious to common sense, people who planned murders, molested children, played around with lethal, mind-twisting chemicals—people who were certain nothing bad could ever happen. But this was different. The cute truck was perched there like an ad for Japanese imports.

“It can't be them,” said Patterson.

There was a touch of exasperation in Bishop's voice. “It has to be.”

“Then why didn't you call the sheriff?”

Bishop had the slightest smile, a grim purse of the lips. “I knew what you wanted.”

Bishop had come far in recent years. Once, he had been a haunted man.

Patterson gave him a nod. Bishop was smart.

“I know how much you have on your mind,” said Bishop. “How you need your rest.”

“Rest is what I need,” Patterson agreed.

Patterson picked the canteen off the floor. Then he put his hand on the latch and popped the door.

Desert hit him. The soft hush of the air conditioner vanished and he was surrounded by It, the way he always thought of this beautiful waste in the Eastern Mojave: It.

Each footstep rumbled. Each breath was loud. It was so quiet here the silence itself was blaring. The sun was climbing now, and it was white, the heat pushing Patterson, solar wind from the core of the solar system colliding with his body.

Patterson loved it here, but not so far out, not out by the dry lake. This was a bad place, this was where you could sweat out two liters an hour and be beef jerky by sundown. Patterson hitched the canteen to his belt, taking his time, and then he called out.

It was the puniness of his voice that stopped him. He was used to body mikes and sound checks, and was not accustomed to hearing himself sound small.

“Can anybody hear me?” Patterson shouted, and the air soaked up his voice, the dead walls of air killing the sound.

Bishop tugged a billed cap down over his head, shading his eyes. Patterson had left his hat in the car. Patterson loved desert because it made you think about simple things: water, headgear, shoes.

It made you think: make a mistake and I won't make it until dark.

Patterson had seen a lot, but he wasn't looking forward to this.

Bishop had seen some things, too, and he didn't want to lead the way. It was Patterson's land, Patterson's life, really. Bishop was just an adjunct.

They found the first one leaning against the front bumper. Patterson even spoke to him. As he did he realized the absurdity of his effort, so his “Hey there” came out very quiet.

The man's teeth were white and exposed in an exaggerated smile. His skin was blackened, and the light wind stirred what was left of the blond hair.

And to think, mused Patterson wryly, that I was ready to use my neglected skills as a physician. Look, he wanted to tell this unhappy camper, I brought you some water.

The other one was in the bed of the pickup, fetal position, sun-ebony, auburn hair fastened behind with a fourteen-karat clasp. Her expression was that of a woman gazing into sun, eyes all but shut, lips parted with the effort of concentrating against the light.

Patterson had seen this in photos of Rommel's Afrika Corps. A few men wandered off, lost in the North African desert, and were found years later, preserved like this. It was wrong to talk. Not just pointless—the human voice violated this place. Better to stand there and let everything be just the way it was.

“I remember when they were lost,” said Bishop.

The canteen was in Patterson's hand, the weight of the water potent, like the heft of a pistol. The water tasted vaguely of the plastic lining of the container. Bishop took a pull, too. The line from a dozen old Westerns occurred to Patterson: don't drink it too fast.

“The sheriff's department Cessnas circled around for a few days,” said Bishop. “Then they forgot about it.”

They forgot, Patterson told himself. People were good at forgetting.

“Remarkable preservation,” said Patterson. Only he didn't say it. There was an awe that kept him from speaking, the way he felt when, as a boy, he had seen a stallion servicing a mare. Majesty and obscenity were sometimes one. These corpses had a kind of beauty.

“Four years ago,” said Bishop.

Four years. For four years this couple had been at rest, all the while my own life, my career, have been so hectic I have scarcely had a single day of absolute peace in months. Years. Maybe for the entire four years these sleepers have been here. It was chilling—he found himself envying them.

The couple had covered the pickup with a large plastic dropcloth in an effort to buy shade. It was this plastic sheet that had kept overhead aircraft from spotting them, although the likelihood of being observed from the air was slim anyway. Patterson tugged the plastic covering back into place, and anchored it with two heavy chunks of igneous rock. Carefully, he added a few chunks more. Then he turned away. Sometimes that's how it was. You did what you could, and then you walked. Bishop's voice had no hint of an apology when he said, “I wanted you to see.”

Sometimes there was something quietly independent about Bishop. Patterson did not respond until they both sat in the Range Rover. Patterson had a devilish insight: the engine wouldn't start. If the world is just the engine won't start.

It started.

“What's the craziest thing you ever did in an airplane?” asked Patterson.

“I don't do crazy things,” said Bishop. “Sometimes I fly down below sea level, over at Salton Sea.”

“So do I. That's not crazy,” said Patterson. “That makes sense. Maybe these people deserve what happened.”

The desert had them, bodies committed to it lost and preserved at once.

Bishop tried to back up, tried to go forward. Beautiful, thought Patterson. We're stuck. Pebbles and sand churned up into the air outside.

Then, with a lurch, they were moving. Gradually they worked their way around the scattered boulders.

Patterson did not say anything more. He held himself steady as the Range Rover rocked and the air conditioning fought the heat.

What the desert has it can keep, he thought. We don't want a bunch of people out here looking around. You never knew what else they might turn up.

2

Margaret stepped into the studio and stopped, putting a hand to her throat.

The new, empty canvas was huge. It was so white, so completely empty, that it radiated an airy, fresh color back into the room, and it would have been a cheerful presence except that Margaret knew what it meant.

Curtis had been working in here for several days, and for several days Margaret had been curious but had not asked. For years people had been wondering when the new big painting from Curtis Newns would make its appearance, the first truly grand painting since the monumental
Skyscape
of nearly twenty years before. She had hoped that this time, after so long, Curtis had begun something.

The starling in its cage made an electric, startling whistle. Margaret said hello to the bird, aware as always of its alert presence. Curtis was in the kitchen making coffee, and Margaret had a few moments to herself in this large room.

She found the cube of art gum eraser, and turned to go when something caught her eye, tucked into a blank tablet of drawing paper. She reached out to touch it, but withdrew her hand as the object rotated on the flat white surface of the drafting table.

It was a straight razor, old-fashioned, pearl-handled, and she had never seen it before. Curtis shaved with an electric razor, and when he had something that needed to be cut with a knife he had his old, favorite blade. This razor was new. It closed up with a snap, and when she held it in her hand it felt warm.

It was with a straight razor like this that Curtis had tried to slash his wrists at that party in North Beach years before. Five men had struggled with Curtis, getting the razor away from him.

But surely there was some other reason for Curtis to have an instrument like this, she tried to reassure herself. She was silly to be in such a panic.

Margaret moved quietly, carrying the razor to her dresser, hiding it in the bottom drawer among thick winter socks she kept there, rarely used and rolled into balls. Even there the razor did not look innocent, the glittering handle clasping its secret.

“I didn't know you had a bird,” said Margaret's mother.

“For the time being,” said Curtis.

“Is it sick?” asked her mother, looking sideways at Curtis.

“I certainly hope not,” said Curtis with a laugh. “It's just that we have a little dispute over whether to let the bird go or not.”

“We found it,” said Margaret. “Well, rescued it, actually.”

“From what?” her mother asked.

“From life,” said Curtis. “From death.”

BOOK: Skyscape
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