Every good story, irrespective of the genre, is always a tale of human interaction…in all of its infinite complexities and variations. This last preview…before the novel’s release in December…really lays a good deal of the foundation for the novel’s dark atmosphere and deals with themes that transcend the horror genre and touch upon many of the prevalent emotional currents that characterize all lives as we age and begin that painful process of reconciling with the inevitability of our own end. This chapter delves into many of the dark themes that will power the infernal engine of The Final Converging: An Immortal Heart Asunder…
Without further preamble….
Chapter Three: Jagged Pieces of an ill-fitting Puzzle
The room was steeped in near perfect silence…its totality broken only by the hypnotic ticking of the antique grandfather clock that stood in one corner. Contayza Simpson sat alone in a dove gray wingback staring through the living room window that looked out over the quiet street. The street was deserted on this mid-afternoon weekday in this affluent Boston neighborhood where Contayza had lived the last forty-eight years of her life. As was the case with increasing frequency of late, Contayza passed her day in solitude…alone with the metronomic ticking of her beloved clock and eighty years of memories for company.
Even at eighty-two, Contayza was still a vibrant and attractive woman and though she labored mightily to maintain a sharp mind and a healthy body, she found herself slipping into long periods of wistful reminiscences more and more of late…losing herself in an aria of ghostly whispers from a lost life.
‘This is what it is to be old, Contayza,‘ she told herself with uncharacteristic melancholy. ‘You’ve come to that point in your life where the future holds very little attraction and the past offers a refuge from the bitter truths that come with old age.’
Contayza shook her head in rueful exasperation, loathing these maudlin musings that colored everything in the sepia tones of an old photograph, while eschewing the joy of being alive to enjoy each new day.
‘Ah, but what a glorious life you’ve lived Contayza…more wonder and drama than most people experience in a thousand banal lifetimes. How can you not help but be drawn back through the river of years to the days of soaring elation and yes, sinking despair. These moments…so vivid…so visceral…they embodied what it meant to truly be alive. They are all gone now…leaving you with naught but faded echoes of the passion with which you once lived your life.’
Again, Contayza frowned as her gaze swept the lavishly appointed interior of the large house of which she had long been the sole occupant. It would be a gross misrepresentation to say that her life was empty. After all, she was seemingly blessed with her beloved daughter, Imirya…who had been the pride and joy of her union with Nathaniel. At the age of fifty-five, Imirya Simpson was perhaps the most renown neurosurgeon in the United States…a giving, devoted woman, who at times shamed Contayza with a compassionate sensibility that her mother had never developed.
And then there was Rebecca…the granddaughter who at twenty years old bore an uncanny resemblance to the young woman who had waged war with the minions of a dying communist regime nearly sixty years ago. Contayza conjured the image of her granddaughter’s exquisite face and a smile broke over her own visage like a rising sun…though this smile held a hungry, feral aspect of which she was unaware. Rebecca had been named after the descendant who had lived her life in the service of the reviled monster…Cynara Saravic and like Contayza, Rebecca possessed a rare and powerful gift that had long run through the Prowzi bloodline…though the power remained dormant in the young girl…much to Contayza’s eternal consternation.
Contayza shifted her gaze to a delicate crystal vase that presently perched on an equally fragile display table. Contayza inclined her chin slightly and the vase abruptly leapt into the air and began to spin like a frenetic gyroscope. With a petulant flick of a slender wrist…and a slight flexing her telekinetic muscles…she sent the vase flying across the room, where it shattered against the wall, showering the ceramic tiles with a thousand glittering shards.
The passage of time had done nothing to diminish her power and Contayza had gleaned that young Rebecca possessed enough power to make her own appear inconsequential by comparison. ‘If only Imirya was not so damnably obstinate on the matter.’
Contayza’s increasing exasperation with her daughter’s damnable obduracy was a symptom of the festering bitterness that had long ago soured their relationship. That resentment found its root cause in the subject of Rebecca and her heritage, the two women had been locked in a decade old dispute that had threatened to inflict irreparable damage on what was otherwise a loving relationship. Even now, the thought that Imirya adamantly refused to allow Contayza to apprise the girl of the gift she possessed roused Contayza’s ire. To deny one’s heritage…to willingly eschew the gift this heritage bestowed…Contayza regarded these as unconscionable acts of betrayal of her own lineage. Still, Imirya…a woman firmly rooted in the shallow soil of science and reason…had expressly forbidden her mother to speak to Rebecca of the talent that resided…quiescent and waiting…within the girl’s mind. To Imirya’s inflexible way of thinking, the old ways were a needless anachronism that had no place in the twenty-first century.
‘The girl is of an age where you need no longer adhere to her mother’s coddling wishes, Contayza,’ she told herself, but understood that…should she elect to ignore her daughter’s explicit wishes on the subject…Contayza could well end up permanently alienating Imirya. ‘Could I really endure an estrangement…give up my own child to propagate old ways that seem to have no real place in this world…a world that I can barely understand. What would Rebecca truly gain by being apprised of the power that resides in the sealed vault of her mind?’
“It is her birthright, damn it!” Contayza spat truculently and that was inarguably true. Rebecca had every right to be informed of her heritage and the power that had been bequeathed to her. If she decided to forego its use…well that was a decision that was entirely within her right to make…but she should not be deprived of the chance to even decide for herself.
Cursing in frustration, Contayza rose from her chair and strode briskly over to the window. Despite her advancing age, her spine was ramrod straight and her shoulders were square…as if she was immune to the ravages of old age. That was a delusion, of course…time would come to claim her, but for now, it was a barely perceptible thing that circled the periphery of her awareness…like a storm on the distant horizon.
‘Take the girl home, Tayza. On the old soil, her power might awaken of its own accord and Imirya could not reasonably hold you accountable,’ the voice of her defiant spirit advised, evoking a particularly bitter grin. It had been five years since she had last stepped foot on Romanian soil. The last trip to the land of her birth had left Contayza feeling despondent and sorrowful. Decades of enduring poverty had robbed the country of what little spirit had remained after the loathsome communist swine had fallen from power. Contayza could glean that the fundamental vitality had been leeched from the collective soul of the people who lived in the once proud land of forests and mountains. The Roma in particular had struck her as a sad and broken people who had lost their affinity with the majestic land, which in turn seemed to have lost much of its luster and glory as if it too had been drained of its vitality.
An image…stark and depressing for all of its clarity…came to her then. It had been a warm August day some five years past and Contayza had stood with her hands wrapped in a the chain link fence that delineated what had once been the Saravic estate on the outskirts of poor, dismal Chevru. The house had the abandoned appearance of a soulless corpse…awaiting interment. It had been here that Rebecca Prowzi had endured decades of torment under the Baroness Saravic’s evil fist and it had been here that Contayza had waged her grim battle with the same vile demon on the night Cynara had slaughtered Jimmy Simms. Jimmy Simms had been the only man that Contayza had truly ever loved, though she would rather have died than confess that to another living soul…especially Imirya, who had adored her father above all things.
The recollection of that final climactic battle had burned in Contayza’s mind with the magnitude of an exploding sun…every terrible detail rendered in excruciatingly vivid colors and hues. Yet, standing before that long abandoned mansion, Contayza could divine not the slightest echo of the momentous events that had occurred on this blood drenched patch of land. Even her memories had seemed oddly washed out and listless…as if she had experienced them vicariously…or imagined them entirely.
Feeling virtually diminished by the experience, Contayza had literally fled her homeland…vowing steadfastly never to return. Instead, she returned to the sedentary life of the retired widow…who passed the time engaged in charity work and evening bridge games with other retired teachers all whiling away the hours until the earth reclaimed them. Now, Contayza thought that that she should perhaps consider reneging on that vow and bringing Rebecca to Romania…purportedly on a bonding trip with her gifted granddaughter. This consuming need seemed to find its origins in a deep-seated desire to leave behind some manner of legacy…a genuine purpose with which to spend whatever days remained to her. She doubted that her incisive daughter would be deceived by this shallow pretext, but there was little that Imirya could do to actually prevent it, should Rebecca agree to go.
‘When did I become such an incorrigible sentimental…locked in this cavernous house with memories and wistful regrets,’ Contayza wondered. That single interrogative evoked memories of her deceased husband, Nathaniel. Contayza was surprised and bemused by how seldom she conjured the memory of the man with whom she had shared the majority of her life. Though his picture still sat on her night stand, it had sunk to the level of a scarcely noticed fixture…faded greenery from another time that was irretrievably lost. She had loved Nathaniel…in her own way, but the man she had loved had died on dreadful night in the rainy quagmire called Seattle when the world had tottered on the crumbling edge of the apocalypse. The man who had returned with her from the cataclysmic night was a pale facsimile of the Nathaniel Simpson she had married and though she had still loved him after a fashion, Contayza understood implicitly that the integral part of him had followed that hateful bitch into the grave. The Nathaniel whom she had laid to rest twelve years ago was a sad and dispirited man who had lived much of his life with a quiet regret from which nothing could rescue him. In his defense, he had loved Contayza and Imirya unremittingly, but the loss of his mother had left him with a void that nothing else in his life had been able to fill.
The last few years of their lives together had been characterized by extended periods of silence in which she had often forgotten that he was present in the room. She recalled the afternoon that Nathaniel had died. They had been sitting together in this very room…she had been reading a book while he had been staring through the front window in the absent fashion that had become his habit. Some prescient instinct tickled her mind then and she had glanced up at Nathaniel. A tumble of bright sunlight spilled through the window, framing him in golden effulgence and for the briefest instant…Nathaniel Simpson appeared just as he had before that vile witch had returned to throw a pall over his life. His hair was a lustrous gold and his eyes were the clearest blue of warms waters and Contayza had felt her heart leap in her chest at the sight of this beautiful apparition.
Then a cloud had scudded across the sun and that delightful illusion had been shattered…leaving behind the weary shadow, staring out over the empty streets as though in search of whatever spark of vitality he’d lost. Contayza had sighed longingly and went back to her novel. Minutes later, Nathaniel had stirred from his reverie, rose on stiff legs and came to stand behind her chair. Bending forward, he had placed a lingering kiss on the top of her head and declared softly, “I’m feeling a bit tired, Tayza…I think I’ll go up for a nap.”
She recalled vividly how he had then bent forward and kissed the top of her head one final time, inhaling the scent of her hair as he used to do long years before. Her only response to this nostalgic gesture had been an absent, inarticulate murmur. She continued to read her novel as he had straightened and shuffled away. In the prevailing silence, the heavy trudge of his footsteps as he climbed to the second floor seemed unusually loud.
On the rare occasions when Contayza Prowzi opened herself to the unpleasant process of honest introspection, she would invariably be drawn back to that single moment and wonder why she had been incapable of properly acknowledging his gesture of affection…much less returning it. This would inevitably lead to contemplation of how often she might have withheld her affection over the last two decades of their marriage and the cumulative toll this absent denial might have taken on the man who loved her without reservation.
Such self-illuminating exercises were contrary to Contayza’s forward-focused nature and thus she indulged them infrequently.
It had been some hours later before Contayza realized that Nathaniel had not come back down even though it was close to dinner. She remembered distinctly that what she had felt then had been nothing more than curiosity as she had moved to the foot of the stairs and called, “Nathaniel, I’ll be starting supper…are you coming down?”
When he did not reply, her brow had furrowed and she mounted the stairs…thinking that he had fallen into a heavy slumber. That impression was dispelled the instant she had opened the door to their bedroom. Nathaniel was lying curled on his side, clutching a pillow to his chest. Her glance shifted to his slippers, which sat neatly beside the bed and she knew unequivocally that they would no longer be necessary.
Upon Nathaniel’s face there lingered the ghost of a smile and his blue eyes were open and staring into a realm that she could not see. Even now, she wondered what it had been that he had gazed upon in his last moments and whether he had found a measure of contentment in the final moments before his solitary death.
She languished for a moment longer, but did not venture over to the bed. Instead, she had left the room and descended to the main floor where she commenced the process of becoming a widow. Only once in the days immediately following Nathaniel’s death had she cried. She had been standing in the graveyard with Imirya, just after the conclusion of the grave side service, and the immensity of her devastated daughter’s grief had finally shattered her reserve. She had sobbed unabashedly then, but in retrospect, Contayza realized that she had been crying more for her daughter’s loss than for her own.
She came back to herself with an audible gasp, shocked to find that she was standing in the doorway to their bedroom with absolutely no recollection of having climbed the stairs. She was further bemused when she dragged the heel of her palm across her eyes to find that it came away wet with tears. Shaking her head in consternation, she muttered, “You crazy old woman…why are you exhuming these pointless memories?”
The question had been disingenuously posed as Contayza Prowzi was perfectly cognizant of what had motivated this uncomfortable trip through her tumultuous past. Of late, she had been plagued by odd, discordant dreams that came nightly, despite their ludicrous improbability. The two distinctly separate images manifested themselves in her mind’s eye, though she found the notion that these individuals could ever be linked insufferably abhorrent. The faces of beautiful, free-spirited Rebecca and the loathsome countenance of Elizabeth Simpson chased each other through her nocturnal dreamscape like hounds playfully nipping at each other’s tail. The idea was absurd of course…the hateful bitch was fifty years in her well-deserved grave and could pose no threat to precious Rebecca.
Yet, despite the inarguable logic of this, the dream of intermingling was relentless in assailing her nightly. She was contemplating this annoying puzzle, when she first heard it…like the snippet of a childhood lullaby that she would have thought long forgotten. Her heart abruptly seized in her chest at the memory this melody evoked and for a brief instant, she feared that it might not restart, but then she drew in a deep, quivering breath.
The lilting strain came again and this set her into motion…understanding that this was not the echo of a memory, but a sound originating in the tangible world…the mundane here and now.
She stumbled down the stairs, fortunate to retain her balance in her present state of distraction and as she entered the living room, the forlorn melody of a recorder was louder than ever. With her heart thundering precipitously in her chest, Contayza threw back the sheer and peered out into the street.
The cry that escaped her lips was part terror and part incredulity. Standing on the otherwise deserted street, directly in front of her home, was a man dressed in traveling clothes from another era. His wide-brimmed hat was pulled down over his eyes, obscuring his face, but she required only one glance at the scuffed wooden recorder and the canvas bag that was slung over the man’s shoulder to know exactly who was standing before her house…like a specter arisen from her tumultuous past.
“Gregory?” She whispered and was startled when the man abruptly stopped playing and lifted his gaze…staring directly at the spot where she cowered. He raised a hand and waved a gesture of greeting as if encountering an old friend after a protracted absence.
“Greetings sister…it has certainly been a space of years since last we met,” he declared in his rich, gregarious tone. “I must say that it would appear as if the years have been kind to you, sister…but then again, very often the facades we erect are shockingly thin and fragile.”
“Why are you here…what could you possibly want with me after so many years?” She demanded through clenched jaws that belied the trepidation his sudden appearance evoked…though the possible answer filled her with an atavistic dread.
“I have come as a friend, sister…a friend who once tried to see you through a period of intense darkness. There is a storm coming sister…though I would suspect that you were certain you had seen an end to the storms in your life. If it is any consolation, you can be assured that this will be the last. I would advise you to prepare yourself…to make peace with the restive ghosts that plague your shadowed soul. Perhaps then, Contayza Prowzi…daughter of the gypsy wind…you may find the forgiveness and contentment you so desperately crave, but fear to acknowledge.”
“I…I don’t understand!” Contayza sputtered truculently. “What storm…why now, after so many years?”
Beneath the golden sunlight of day, this reluctant creature of the night offered her the sad, wistful smile she remembered from their first encounter. “The answer to your query can be found in your restless dream, sister.” He fell silent and peered along the street with a yearning expression on his rugged face. “We will not meet again, sister, but I will offer a fervent wish that you find the happiness which you have been denied through so much of your life. May the enduring spirit of your people sustain you through what is to come.”
With this, Gregory lifted the recorder…his one true companion…to his lips and began to play as he slowly drifted away.
Contayza Prowzi continued to stare into the deserted street long after the final strains of his timeless melody had faded to silence.
“So you’ve exhausted every venue?”
“We have,” Doctor Andrew Mcammon confirmed, his pinched expression conveying how expensive this concession of defeat had proven to be. “My team has explored every option and has pushed the science right to the very edge of ethical medicine…frankly, we’ve strayed well over that boundary in the past six months. Even the DNA modification and recombination therapy has yielded no meaningful results…despite the astounding degree of success we experienced in the two sets of trials. We’ve made enormous strides in the field of genetic modification in the last three decades…including DNA regeneration through artificial modifier strands, but this field is still in its relative infancy and it may be some years before we can actually completely regenerate crumbling DNA structure…and even then, it will still remain a branch of the field with very intransigent limits. Nature is intent on not allowing us to efface the finite limits of the life cycle. I can’t begin to tell you how thoroughly defeated and sorry I am to be making this concession of defeat.”
Sir Ian Barrows acknowledged this earnest apology with an absent nod. In truth, he had expected as much when Mcammon had embarked upon this last round of highly experimental (and blatantly unsanctioned) treatment…undertaken in strictest secrecy at the Barrows Institute for Genetic Research. The man standing beside Barrows hospital bed and delivering this dismal news had won three Nobel prizes for his work on DNA modification and restoration therapy over the last thirty years. Doctor Andrew Mcammon was regarded as the father of anti-aging bio-genetics, but even this intrepid scientific visionary had met his match in one hundred and sixteen year old Sir Ian Barrows.
“What is your realistic estimate of the time I have remaining, Andrew,” Sir Ian inquired in a voice that quavered with weariness. The voice, like the body from which it had issued, was beyond simply old…it was decrepit in the extreme…reminding Mcammon of the sound wind might make as it blew through the remains of a desiccating corpse. The skin that covered Barrows’ gaunt face was gray-tinged and hideously wrinkled. There was a smell that wafted from the old man’s wasted body that evoked impressions of ancient tombs. It required all of Mcammon’s well-practiced discipline not to flee in screaming horror from the gruesome parody of a human being now lying before him.
“The biggest problem we’re facing is your body’s refusal to accept any further implants or organ re-spawning bio-pods. To put it in basic laymen’s terms…your basic genetic material is simply worn out and is now rejecting nearly every attempt to either repair or enhance it. Even rudimentary transplant procedures will no longer work because your body seems determined to reject every new implant.” Mcammon paused for a brief moment so that Barrows could absorb what he had just been told…the declaration of the approaching end for a man to whom the very notion of death seemed to be intolerably abrasive. “The most realistic prediction I can offer is that…with the tricks I still have up my sleeve and your willingness to forego any further experimental therapy…which is merely taxing on your body and has no hope of success…I think you can expect to see the age of one hundred and seventeen, but nothing beyond that.”
Sir Ian absorbed this dire forecast with a wheezing grunt that segued into a harsh coughing fit that lasted for several minutes. When it finally subsided, Barrows was left feeling extremely tired and haggard. Only his expressive gray eyes showed the slightest hint of lingering vitality. They burned in the hollows of his skull like flaming torches…proof that the mind trapped within the rapidly deteriorating vessel of flesh was still keen. “What is your opinion on the matter of sentient relocation…to your mind is it in any way credible?”
Mcammon scowled, regarding the controversial field of science as a fool’s endeavor…a hot bed for charlatans looking to swindle millions of research pounds from desperate wealthy patrons. Still, one would have to be a reckless fool to utter such an uncompromisingly harsh opinion in front of Sir Ian Barrows…a man who did not suffer impertinence lightly. Choosing his words carefully, Mcammon offered, “It might seem odd that I…of all people…would be a skeptic, but the notion of implanting a living consciousness into an artificial intelligence receptacle simply isn’t plausible. Everything has tangible limits, Sir Ian…and borders that cannot be contravened. A conscious mind requires an organic brain to provide it with a physical residence…because consciousness is an extension of the organic vessel…the two are inextricably linked. Sentient relocation is the stuff of science fiction, Sir Ian…and that is what it will remain.”
The room descended into a charged silence as Ian Barrows pondered the grim ramifications of what he had just been told…a devastating pronouncement that his end was rapidly approaching despite his every effort to forestall its arrival. At last, he shifted his unsettling regard to Mcammon and remarked in a hoarse whisper, “Thank you Andrew…for everything you’ve done on my behalf over these last forty years. I’ve made provisions to insure that both the institute and its star researcher are lavishly provided for. You spoke of finite boundaries…but I believe the day will come, old friend, when you will find ways to knock down barriers even you believed were insurmountable.”
Profoundly touched by Sir Ian’s unexpected and effusive praise, Mcammon faltered to find the appropriate condolences. “Thank you Sir Ian…I wish there was some way of giving you more time…giving me more time. I’ll never lose sight of the fact that everything I have and all that I’ve accomplished was due in large part to your patronage and generosity.”
Barrows waved this off with a weak gesture of his piteous thin left hand. “Think nothing of it, Andrew…I’ve lived a long and robust life. Giving back is an obligation for the privilege. Now, if I can impose upon you to make the necessary arrangements…I will be returning to Warrington house in Mayfair as soon as you’ve done so.”
Doctor Mcammon greeted this disclosure with undisguised alarm. “I would strongly advise against that, Sir Ian. As I’ve mentioned, I still have a full spectrum of tools to make the last months of your life as comfortable as possible, but you must remain in the facility to insure that you receive treatment in a timely fashion.”
With tremendous effort, Barrows reached out and touched Mcammon’s right hand and again the doctor marshaled all of his mettle not to flinch beneath that repulsive touch. “Don’t concern yourself old friend. Warrington house is better equipped than most hospitals in London and I really have a great deal of work to do. As wealthy as I may be, time is at a dearth and I can’t afford to squander anymore here. Now make the arrangements and let me have a word with Cedric if you would be so kind.”
Barrows then offered Mcammon a hideous facsimile of a grin that exposed black, cankerous gums.
Mcammon frowned and spared a brief glance at the glacial visage of Cedric Drury, who never failed to evoke an intense shiver of disquiet in the doctor’s heart. Drury’s unlined face was devoid of expression and his eyes reminded Mcammon of a dead carp. The doctor nodded absently and fled the room, suddenly and unaccountably relieved to be out of the presence of these two daunting men.
When they were at last alone, Barrows turned his daunting death gaze on Drury who very likely would not have blinked if confronted by Satan himself. Drury had been Sir Ian’s personal assistant for the past thirty years, but in the final accounting, Cedric Drury would have more accurately been described as a living vessel of Barrow’s inexorable will. During those long decades, Drury had performed deeds on Barrows’ behalf that strayed well beyond the pale of ethical human conduct…and he had done so without question or reservation. Drury was neither surprised, nor outraged when Sir Ian issued his next instruction. “Failure is never an acceptable outcome, Cedric…especially when that failure can be tolled in the billions of pounds I’ve committed to this facility. In the not too distant future, the good Doctor is going to meet with a most unfortunate accident…and this facility…his legacy…is going to burn. See to the arrangements and I’ll give you the word when I would have them implemented.”
Drury acknowledged this with a slight nod as if Barrows had simply asked him to make some mundane business arrangement. Barrows lapsed into a contemplative silence, his burning eyes narrowing into speculative slits as he considered his next course of action. Mcammon…the traitorous bastard that he was…had just pronounced what was effectively a death sentence on the richest man in Europe. Ian Barrows, however, was not a man to readily accept the imposition of external realities, when his was the will and means to forge his own. Perhaps the limits of conventional science had been reached, but rather than resign himself to the inevitable death that came to all human beings, Ian Barrows merely turned his focus on the unconventional…the eclectic.
“I want Beyarov here this afternoon…and Cedric, should he inquire as to why he is being pried away from his collection of expensive toys…tell him that I need him to save my life,” Barrows disclosed and this cryptic remark drew a rare frown from the undeviatingly inscrutable Drury.
Suceava, Romania: “I love my children…you must understand that!” Mikaela Trescu declared vehemently as she wept and wrang her thin, scarred hands in her lap. Her gaunt face was the very portrait of living misery and carried with it the indelible scars of the thirtytwo years she had lived like a roadmap through the ugly terrain of human torment.
“Of course you do…of that I have absolutely no doubt. I am certainly not here to judge you, Mikaela…only to help you through this dark time…to guide you toward making the best decisions …for both you and your children,” Simona Bayonescu assured the distraught mother in a voice that was rife with commiseration and concern.
“If there was any other way, I would not have come…you must know that…it’s just that I…I…” Mikaela’s vehemence faltered and she resumed her study of her scarred hands, which reminded Simona of pallid spiders. The plump, matronly older woman furtively studied the mother as she waged her pitiable battle between hopeless addiction and crushing guilt. She need only one glance into that sallow, skeletal face, with its fevered brown eyes, to understand the woman’s motivations perfectly…just as she could predict with unequivocal certainty that Mikaela Trescu would be dead in a state pauper’s grave within six months. She had witnessed an unending parade of such women wind their way through the doors of this adoption agency over the past fifteen years; enough to recognize someone caught in the two inescapable snares of penury and addiction.
There were occasions…though mercifully few…when Simona would contemplate the true nature of the transaction that was being executed in this squat, nondescript building on the outskirts of this moldering city. She would wonder whether women…such as the woeful Mikaela Trescu…might reconsider their actions had they been aware of what awaited the children they had come to surrender. From her position of trenchant cynicism, Simona was clearly skeptical. Desperation had effaced the last vestiges of humanity from these wretched creatures’ souls and they wanted only to be free of obligation which they could, in all truth, never meet.
Still, this tragic farce was an elaborate charade in which adherence to the prescribed roles must be rigidly observed and so Simona reached across the desk and gently squeezed Mikaela’s frail right forearm. “These times are cruel Mikaela and they force so many into impossible and agonizing situations. Who has the right to judge you…if they have not walked in your shoes…have not seen their own children go hungry day after day? If they have not looked on helplessly while their precious babies sicken and deteriorate with not a helping hand to be extended, how can they condemn your action? We both know that a mother must do what is best for her children and that is why you have come…because you love your son and daughter and you would see them granted the chance at a life that you’ve never had. Is this not so, Mikaela?”
“You speak the truth, Simona Bayonescu,” the wretched creature declared solemnly…as if the ferocity of this hollow declaration could somehow lend it credence. “A mother must do what she thinks is best for her children!”
Simona offered the woman a warm smile and sat back in her chair, its ancient wooden frame creaking wearily under her considerable bulk. She produced a flawless forgery of the standard government form and laid it on the pitted blotter before the younger woman and then placed a pen beside the form with the requisite gravitas, knowing that the document would find its way into the teeth of a shredder the instant the woman left the office. With a reassuring, motherly grin, Simona offered the final well-practiced enticement, “This is the first step in providing your son and daughter with that future, Mikaela…a step that only a woman who genuinely loved her children would ever have the courage to take.”
To her credit, Mikaela…who had been without her fix for the last seventy-two hours…dithered for several minutes, before finally snatching up the pen and scrawling her name across the designated consent line. She threw the pen down as if it was something vile…which, when one considered the heinous evil it had been employed to enact, it was. With the signing of the document, the last flickering spark of vitality was extinguished in Mikaela’s dull brown eyes. This too Simona had witnessed on occasions too numerous to account. With this last uncoupling of any ties to normalcy or responsibility, there went the final resolve to do anything other than self-destruct. Seeing the pall of despondent resignation that now hung over this broken woman, Simona revised her estimate…Mikaela Trescu would be dead by the onset of winter.
The woman sat back in her chair and intoned morosely, “What will happen now?”
Simona conjured her most compassionate smile, nuanced with just the right degree of solemnity. “Today you will go home and spend the afternoon and evening with your children and show them all of the love you can and try to emboss their faces in your memory. If there is a particular place they love to go, take them there and simply bask in their company, Mikaela. Tomorrow, you will bring them to the agency along with their clothing…and a keepsake so they might always remember their mother and how she loved them very much. They will be taken to the central orphanage in Bucharest and I promise that it will not be long after that they can begin their new life.”
Simona’s flawlessly delivered speech had the desired effect…the proper blend of emotions that seldom failed to reduce the mother to tears. Mikaela buried her thin face in her callused hands and began to weep. Simona rose and came around the desk where she bent and drew the shattered wretch of a human being into a hug, though there was something repulsive about the woman’s gaunt frame that reminded the older woman of a bundle of dry sticks. “Come now Mikaela, you must be strong for the sake of your children. Dry your tears and find solace in the certainty that your sacrifice will insure that these two beautiful children will find the happiness they both deserve. Draw your strength from that knowledge.”
“They won’t be separated…Gregori is frightened and lost without Emilia’s comforting presence?” the mother inquired, clearly horrified by the prospect that her two children…the only things that her life had yielded of any appreciable worth…might be torn apart by a decision which she understood was ruthlessly selfish.
“As per your wishes, they will be placed together. I have already contacted the central agency in Bucharest and they have assured me that there is a long list of prospective parents who are extremely interested in adopting siblings.” Simona then dangled what she knew would be the ultimate carrot for a woman whose perspective of the world was based on total ignorance. “The majority of those parents are Americans.”
“America!” Mikaela echoed fiercely as though giving voice to an incantation to ward against all evil. Finally, she drew a deep and tremulous breath and pushed herself heavily to her feet. Simona tracked her shambling movements as she made her way to the door and the dreary summer afternoon beyond. In a rare moment of sentimentality, Simona wondered if the beleaguered creature had ever experienced a genuine moment of happiness. Mikaela paused at the door and shifted her gaze back to Simona and in her red-rimmed watery eyes there capered something sly and furtive…the ugly addiction that craved fulfillment. “Will my payment be ready?”
“You will be provided with your chip card upon turning the children over to our custody,” Simona said, scarcely able to repress the bleak sigh that the dismal truth of this charade always evoked. Mikaela glared back at the older woman for a moment, her face contorted into a discordant expression of shame and defiance.
Then she was gone.
Simona closed her eyes and for a brief moment, she could feel the full, crushing weight of her cumulative ignominy drop upon her shriveled conscience like the collapse of a mountain. She was alarmed to discover that only the sound of the rear door opening prevented her from bursting into tears.
“Executed with your customary aplomb, Simona,” a heavily-accented voice declared with just the slightest suggestion of condescension. Simona shivered and peered up into the inscrutable eyes of Peytor Estrovitch whose angular face appeared to have been chiseled out of granite by a sculptor who was patently unsuited for his art. In Estrovich’s daunting presence, Simona long ago decided that stoicism was the best policy, so she accepted this sardonic compliment with a slight nod. The man radiated menace and the potential for brutal violence like no other living being that she had ever encountered, but even this was not what filled Simona Bayonescu’s inured heart with atavistic dread.
The mere recollection made her want to cry out and flee the room in terror, but she could not purge it from her thoughts however badly she wanted to. Whenever the Russian cast his baleful gaze over the pictures of what he referred to as the collateral, his brown eyes would flare a brilliant red that conjured vivid images of peering down into the pits of hell. That was utterly ridiculous or course, but her mind had been unable to repudiate what her eyes insisted was the unembellished truth and now Simona had become convinced that her employer was a monster in the truest sense of the word.
She was grateful that his back was turned to her as he snatched up the two photographs of Gregori and Emilia Trescu. After a brief consideration, Estrovitch rendered his dreadful judgment. “The girl is fetching in her own crude way…we will send her to England.”
Simona fetched a silent sigh of relief which quickly curdled to horror when the monster disclosed the boy’s fate. “It’s appalling how repugnant these inbred whelps can be. This one can serve only one possible purpose…arrange to have him transported to Chelyabinsk.”
He then slammed the photographs down on the desk and left the office as though the entire affair held no further interest for him. Simona’s gaze was drawn involuntarily to the photographs. The first showed a pretty eleven year old…who would spend what life remained to her in the rapidly burgeoning world of sex slavery in Western Europe. As repugnant and cruel as that fate would prove to be, it was compassionate in comparison to the unspeakably abysmal future that awaited the boy. Simona’s gaze locked on those light brown eyes and then slid to the mottled and misshapen face of unfortunate Gregori Trescu…who could have easily been spared this marring deformity by rudimentary medical treatment.
He was destined for a secret warehouse facility in Chelyabinsk…where humanity’s forgotten and unwanted children were kept alive in cages as fodder for the thriving illegal organ harvesting trade.
Despite the impregnability of the vault in which Simona Bayonescu had sequestered her heart, the old woman began to weep.