The Forbidden Door
At first the breeze was no more than a long sigh, breathing through the Texas high country as though expressing some sadness attendant to Nature herself.
They were sitting in the fresh air, in the late-afternoon light, because they assumed that the house was bugged, that anything they said within its rooms would be monitored in real time.
Likewise, they trusted neither the porches nor the barn, nor the horse stables.
When they had something important to discuss, they retreated to the redwood lawn chairs under the massive oak tree in the backyard, facing a flatness of grassland that rolled on to the distant horizon and, for all that the eye could tell, continued to eternity.
As Sunday afternoon became evening, Ancel and Clare Hawk sat in those chairs, she with a martini, he with Macallan Scotch over ice, steeling themselves for an upcoming television program they didn’t want to watch but that might change their lives.
“What bombshell can they be talking about?” Clare wondered.
“It’s TV news,” Ancel said. “They pitch most every story like it’ll shake the foundations of the world. It’s how they sell soap.”
Clare watched him as he stared out at the deep, trembling grass and the vastness of sky as if he never tired of them and saw some new meaning in them every time he gave them his attention. A big man with a weathered face and work-scarred hands, he looked as if his heart might be as hard as bone, though she’d never known one more tender.
After thirty-four years of marriage, they had endured hardships and shared many successes. But now—and perhaps for as long as they yet might have together—their lives were defined by one blessing and one unbearable loss, the birth of their only child, Nick, and his death at the age of thirty-two, the previous November.
Clare said, “I’m feeling like it’s more than selling soap, like it’s some vicious damn twist of the knife.”
Ancel reached out with his left hand, which she held tightly. “We thought it all out, Clare. We have plans. We’re ready for whatever.”
“I’m not ready to lose Jane, too. I’ll never be ready.”
“It won’t happen. They’re who they are, she’s who she is, and I’d put my money on her every time.”
Just when the faded-denim sky began to darkle toward sapphire overhead and took upon itself a glossy sheen, the breeze quickened and set the oak tree to whispering.
Their daughter-in-law, Jane Hawk, who was as close to them as any real daughter might have been, had recently been indicted for espionage, treason, and seven counts of murder, crimes that she hadn’t committed. She would be the sole subject of this evening’s Sunday Magazine, a one-hour TV program that rarely devoted more than ten minutes to a profile of anyone, either president or pop singer. The most-wanted fugitive in America and a media sensation, Jane was labeled “the beautiful monster” by the tabloids, a cognomen used in promos for the forthcoming special edition of Sunday Magazine.
Ancel said, “Her indictment by some misled grand jury, now this TV show, all the noise about it . . . you realize what it must mean?”
“Well, but I think she’s got evidence that’ll destroy the sons of bitches, and they know she’s got it. They’re desperate. If she finds a reporter or someone in the Bureau who maybe she can trust—”
“She tried before. The bigger the story, the fewer people she can trust. And this is as big as a story gets.”
“They’re desperate,” Ancel insisted. “They’re throwin’ all they got at her, tryin’ to turn the whole country against her, make her a monster no one’ll ever believe.”
“And what then?” Clare worried. “How does she have any hope if the whole country’s against her?”
“Because it won’t be.”
“I don’t know how you can be so sure.”
“The way they demonize her, this hysteria they ginned up in the media—it’s too much piled on top of too much. People sense it.”
“Those who know her, but that’s not a world.”
“People all over, they’re talkin’ about what the real story might be, whether maybe she’s bein’ set up.”
“What people? All over where?”
“All over the Internet.”
“Since when do you spend five minutes on the Internet?”
“Since this latest with her.”
The sun appeared to roll below the horizon, although in fact the horizon rolled away from the sun. In the instant when all the remaining light of day was indirect across the red western sky, the breeze quickened again and became a wind aborning, as if all were a clockwork.
As the looser leaves of the live oak were shaken down, Clare let go of Ancel’s hand and covered her glass, and he shielded his.
There was no privacy in the house, and they weren’t finished counseling each other in matters of grief and hope, preparing for the affront that would be the TV program. The wind brought the dark, and the dark brought a chill, but the sea of stars was a work of wonder and a source of solace.
Ten miles from Hawk Ranch, Egon Gottfrey heads the operation to take Ancel and Clare Hawk into custody and ensure their fullest cooperation in the search for their daughter-in-law.
Well, custody is too formal a word. Each member of Gottfrey’s team carries valid Department of Homeland Security credentials. They also possess valid ID for the NSA and the FBI, though they work at those two agencies only on paper. They receive three salaries and earn three pensions, ostensibly to preserve and defend the United States, while in fact working for the revolution. The leaders of the revolution make sure that their foot soldiers are well rewarded by the very system they are intent on overthrowing.
Because of Egon Gottfrey’s successful career in Homeland, he was approached to join the Techno Arcadians, the visionaries who conduct the secret revolution. He is now one of them. And why not? He doesn’t believe in the United States anyway.
The Techno Arcadians will change the world. They will pacify contentious humanity, end poverty, create Utopia through technology.
Or so the Unknown Playwright would have us believe.
The Hawks will not be arrested. Gottfrey and his crew will take possession of them. Neither attorneys nor courts will be involved.
Having arrived in Worstead, Texas, shortly after four o’clock in the afternoon, Egon Gottfrey is bored by the town within half an hour of checking into the Holiday Inn.
In 1896, when this jerkwater became a center through which the region’s farms and ranches shipped their products to market, it had been called Sheepshear Station, because of the amount of baled wool that passed through on the way to textile mills.
That’s the story, and there’s no point in questioning it.
By 1901, when the town was incorporated, the founders felt that the name Sheepshear Station wasn’t sophisticated enough to match their vision of the future. Besides, snarky types routinely called it Sheepshit Station. It was then named Worstead, after Worstede, the parish in Norfolk, England, where worsted wool was first made.
Anyway, that’s what Gottfrey is supposed to believe.
More than fourteen thousand rustic citizens now call it home.
Whatever they call it, Egon Gottfrey finds it to be a thin vision of a place, incomplete in its detail, much like an artist’s pencil study done before proceeding to oil paints. But every place feels like that to him.
The streets aren’t shaded. The only trees are in the park in the town square, as if there is a limited budget for stage dressing.
Near sunset, he walks the downtown area, where the buildings mostly have flat roofs with parapets, the kind behind which villains and sheriffs alike crouch to fire on each other in a thousand old movies. Many structures are of locally quarried limestone or rust-colored sand-struck brick. The sameness and plainness don’t allow the chamber of commerce to call the architecture quaint.
At Julio’s Steakhouse, where the bar extends onto an elevated and roofed patio overlooking the street, Paloma Sutherland and Sally Jones, two of the agents under Gottfrey’s command, having come in from Dallas, are precisely where they are supposed to be, enjoying a drink at a street-side table. They make eye contact as he passes.
And in the park, on a bench, Rupert Baldwin is studying a newspaper. Wearing Hush Puppies and a roomy corduroy suit and a beige shirt and a bolo tie with an ornamental turquoise clasp, he looks like some nerdy high school biology teacher, but he is tough and ruthless.
As Gottfrey walks past, Rupert only clears his throat.
On another bench sits Vince Penn, half as wide as he is tall, with a flat face and the big hands of a natural-born strangler.
Vince holds a handful of pebbles. Now and then, he throws one of the stones with wicked accuracy, targeting the unwary squirrels that have been conditioned by Worstead locals to trust people.
South of the park stands a two-star mom-and-pop motel, Purple Sage Inn, as unconvincing as any location in town.
Parked in front of Room 12 is a bespoke Range Rover created by Overfinch North America, a vehicle with major performance upgrades, a carbon-fiber styling package, and a dual-valve titanium exhaust system; it’s a recent perk for certain members of the revolution. The Range Rover means Gottfrey’s two most senior agents—Christopher Roberts and Janis Dern—have checked in.
Counting Egon Gottfrey and the two men who are at this moment conducting surveillance of the entrance to Hawk Ranch, ten miles east of Worstead, the team of nine is complete.
In this operation, they are not using burner phones, not even Midland GXT walkie-talkies, which are often useful. In some parts of the country, Texas being one, there are too many paranoid fools who think elements of the government and certain industries conspire in wicked schemes; some are in law enforcement or were in the military, and they spend countless hours monitoring microwave transmissions for evidence to confirm their wild suspicions.
Or so the Unknown Playwright would have us believe.
As Gottfrey continues his walk through town, no longer to confirm the presence of his team, merely to pass time, the sinking sun floods the streets with crimson light. The once-pale limestone buildings are now radiant by reflection, but they appear to be built of translucent onyx lit from within. The very air is aglow, as if all the light in the invisible spectrum—infrared and other—is beginning to manifest to the eye, as though the illusion that is the world will burst and reveal what lies under this so-called reality.
Egon Gottfrey is not merely a nihilist who believes there is no meaning in life. He’s a radical philosophical nihilist who contends that there is no possibility of an objective basis for truth, and therefore no such thing as truth, but also that the entire world and his existence—everyone’s existence—are a fantasy, a vivid delusion.
The world is as ephemeral as a dream, each moment of the day but a mirage within an infinite honeycomb of mirages. The only thing about himself that he can say exists, with certainty, is his mind wrapped in the illusion of his physical body. He thinks; therefore, he is. But his body, his life, his country, and his world are all illusion.
On embracing this view of the human condition, a lesser mind might have gone mad, surrendering to despair. Gottfrey has remained sane by playing along with the illusion that is the world, as if it is a stage production for an unknowable audience, as if he is an actor in a drama for which he’s never seen a script. It’s marionette theater. He is a marionette, and he’s okay with that.
He’s okay with it for two reasons, the first of which is that he has a sharply honed curiosity. He is his own fanboy, eager to see what will happen to him next.
Second, Gottfrey likes his role as a figure of authority with power over others. Even though it all means nothing, even though he has no control over events, just goes along to get along, it is far better to be one through whom the Unknown Playwright wields power rather than to be one on whom that power is brought to bear.
The room illumined only by the netherworld glow of the TV, the vaguest reflections of moving figures on the screen throbbing across the walls like spectral presences . . .
Ancel sitting stiffly in his armchair, stone-faced in response to Sunday Magazine’s lies and distortions, the program mirrored in his gray eyes . . .
Clare couldn’t stay in her chair, couldn’t just watch and listen and do nothing. She got up and paced, talking back to the screen: “Bullshit” and “Liar” and “You hateful bastard.”
This was nothing like any previous edition of Sunday Magazine. Always before it had avoided both puff pieces and vitriolic attacks, striving for balance, at times almost highbrow. But this. This was the worst kind of tabloid exploitation and alarmism. This special, “The Beautiful Monster,” had one intention—to paint Jane as an evil angel, a traitor to her country, who wasn’t only capable of horrific violence but who also perhaps took pleasure in wanton murder.
At the half-hour break, the program host teased the blockbuster revelation that they had been selling in the promos for days. In a portentous voice, he promised to feature it in the next segment.
As the first commercial played, Clare perched on a footstool and closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around herself, chilled. “What is this, Ancel? This isn’t journalism, not one iota of it.”
“Character assassination. Propaganda. These people she’s up against, they’re veins of rot runnin’ through government and tech companies, hell-bent to destroy her before she can tell her story.”
“You think people are still going to defend her after this?”
“I do, Clare. These fools are hammerin’ too hard, makin’ her out to be some girl version of Dracula and Charles Manson and Benedict Arnold rolled into one.”
“A lot of stupid people will believe it,” Clare worried.
“Some stupid. Some gullible. Not everyone. Maybe not most.”
She said, “I don’t want to watch any more of this.”
“Neither do I. But that’s not a choice, is it? We’re one with Jane. They blow up her life, they blow up ours. We’ve got to see what’s left of us when this show is done.”
After the break, Sunday Magazine harked back to Jane’s photo taken on completion of her Bureau training at Quantico, where she’d met Nick when he was assigned to Corps Combat Development Command at the same base. There were wedding photographs: Nick in his Marine dress uniform, Jane in a simple white bridal gown. Such a stunning couple.