He checked his watch: they should have come into view by now, curving around the jut of granite that the guidebooks coyly referred to as Devil’s Thumb but that the Indians knew as Devil’s Cock. Maybe the climb had proven steeper than they had anticipated, or maybe they’d stopped to admire that patch of blue wildflowers, he didn’t know what they were called, near the ranger station. He could begin the descent now, meet them a little lower on the trail or wait for them at the spot he’d picked out. But that wouldn’t be quite good enough.
A bird shot straight into the sky just behind the stone phallus. He trained and refocused his binoculars: a hawk, or maybe an eagle. The bird banked into an ascending spiral, its arc gradually flattening and widening until it reached some invisible limit where its trajectory leveled off. The raptor soared in a circle high above him, subtly tilting its long black wings as it rode the thermals, the tips reaching out with what looked like feathered fingers. The bird glanced at him, unmistakably, in its aerial gyre: a vulture, he decided. When he restored his original sightline he saw the three hikers rounding Devil’s Cock, heading steadfastly upward toward the falls. Rapidly he wound back down the trail into their approach.
His course intersected with theirs just before they reached the waterfall. Sustaining stride and trajectory he approached the woman walking the outer edge of the trail, tall and with a severity of bearing sharpened by the exertion and the rugged terrain. He reached into his satchel and extracted a small box wrapped in white paper and tied with a gold string. As she accepted the object the woman’s lapidary features expressed neither surprise nor delight but determination, as if the uniformed man enigmatically appearing before her on this remote trail had just issued her a command to accomplish some dangerous but important mission. “Sign here please,” he said to her, holding out a clipboard and a pen. He tapped the brim of his cap when she handed him the bills she fished from her wallet. As her two companions watched her unwrap the small parcel he continued his descent toward the trailhead where half an hour earlier he had parked his car.
Back in his rooms, the Courier unlaced his boots, giving them a quick swipe with his handkerchief as he placed them by the door. He emptied his pockets onto his desk before folding his uniform across the swivel chair: first the piped trousers, still holding their crease, then the jacket, reminding himself that he’d need to restitch the right epaulet button in the morning. The white shirt he tossed on the floor. From the armoire he extracted a pair of black jeans and the old black-and-purple striped t-shirt he’d nearly thrown away the last time he did his laundry. He laid them out on the bed: it had been hot in the car this afternoon, plus he’d made that climb for his last delivery, so he thought a shower would be nice before heading down for dinner. Grasping his satchel by the bottom he dumped its contents onto the desk: plastic sunglasses in their plastic case, clipboard, extra pen, roster of today’s scheduled deliveries, three pouches for tomorrow’s rounds that he’d taken out of his cubby before heading upstairs.
He looked inside the smaller pouches first: each contained the usual small rectangular box wrapped in white and accented in gold. According to the manifests one parcel held a shell pendant, to be delivered right here at the breakfast table tomorrow morning, while the other, an ouroboros chain with a first pendant attached, was scheduled for a garden handoff at a Station fifty miles south, where he’d pick up the pouches for the afternoon circuit. The third pouch contained a larger parcel wrapped in brown paper, about the size and heft of a hardback book. There was also an envelope in the pouch, unsealed, and even before he picked it up the Courier knew it was money. He counted out the hundred-dollar bills: seventy of them. He felt around the inside of the empty pouch: no manifest. The brown parcel bore no name or address or instructions for delivery, no return address; neither did the envelope. He’d have to ask Aardmann what he was supposed to do with it before he started his morning rounds.
“Did you hear what happened to Parker?” The Courier looked quizzically up at Rik, who had personally carried the plate of moules frites out from the kitchen and set it in front of the Courier just to ask him this question. “Me neither,” Rik acknowledged, responding to the Courier’s silence. “Neither does anybody else.”
“Meaning Parker is gone, nobody knows where, nobody knows why. We thought maybe you’d heard something.”
Rik’s expectation wasn’t an unreasonable one. Of all the staffers only the couriers moved Station-to-Station on a daily basis, making them a prime source of information along the Pilgrimage trails. Their paths crossed regularly, and they liked to leave little surprises in each other’s cubbies. Last Thursday the Courier dropped off a basket of solid dark chocolate Easter eggs for Parker. He left no signature: it was part of the game to guess who left it and why, then return the favor in some personally relevant way, maybe next week, maybe in a month or two. Occasionally a formally commissioned parcel would need to be transported to some remote location, so the first courier might hand it off to a colleague at the far reaches of his territory to complete the delivery. In a subculture that didn’t make much use of more up-to-date channels of communication, the courier network was the most reliable source of gossip.
“How long has she been gone?” the Courier asked Rik.
“No sign of her all day.”
The Courier pried a mussel loose from its shell and forked it into his mouth. “Ask me again in a two weeks, maybe I can show you some photos from Parker’s unscheduled vacation after she comes home.”
“Okay, Mister Smug, but listen. She never said anything about leaving, never even picked up her delivery pouches this morning. Does that sound like Parker’s usual M.O.?”
“What were her scheduled deliveries for today? Where to?”
“The usual, I suppose,” Rik shrugged.
“So what’s the theory?”
Wiping his hands on his apron, Rik glanced around the intimate dining room, empty now but for the Courier. “Go ahead and eat, I got other fish to fry. You don’t know anything, so that’s that. The main reason I came out is, Parker dropped off a parcel here yesterday at lunchtime, a third shell for some engineering professor on sabbatical I think it was. So obviously we wondered if she left you a note or anything.” By now the Courier had evidently shifted his attention entirely to his dinner. “Ask Aardmann when you see him,” Rik said over his shoulder as he headed back toward the kitchen. “He probably knows more than I do.”
In the morning the Courier packed an overnight bag and put it in the trunk of his car before stopping in at the Salon. Seated behind his desk, Aardmann capped his pen and with it gestured for the Courier to take a seat. As the local Proprietor reached behind him to look for something, the Courier placed on the desk the roster of the prior day’s deliveries: six lines, six signatures.
“You’ve heard about Parker?” The Courier said nothing. “And you want to know what I think?” The Courier waited as Prop Aardmann placed three white-wrapped, golden-beribboned boxes in three separate pouches bearing the embossed nautilus shell insignia of the Pilgrimage. “I think she’s gone over to the other side,” he said as he slid the pouches across the desk. “You got any blank log sheets?”
Watching his boss’ impassive demeanor as he prepared the daily paperwork, the Courier tried to discern whether Aardmann regarded Parker’s alleged mutiny with alarm or indifference. The other side. He had heard the rumors. Prostitution rings. Covert surveillance and wiretaps. Hush money. Ruined reputations and lost fortunes. Suicides. But also artist collectives, educational co-operatives, anarchist homeless syndicates, maybe even networked cells of armed guerrillas. The Insurgency seemed to generate no concrete evidence even of its own existence, let alone of its agenda. In some lights the Insurgency looked like the anti-Pilgrimage; in others it flashed the radiance of the true way. Mostly it remained cloaked in shadow – the Black Path, some called it. The Courier considered the possibility of Parker’s defection. Diligent, serious, reticent, a bit awkward: did Parker seem like the anarchist type? Is there a type, or is it a conversion, or even a diversion? Or maybe the Insurgency is a way of stepping fully into some variant of the person you already are, an alternate self that’s been lurking in the background for years waiting for you to come around.
The Courier glanced at the manifests. “Who’s handling Parker’s deliveries? I mean, until she shows up or Szabo finds a replacement.”
“I’ll ask Szabo. Better yet, why don’t you ask your central dispatcher.”
“I’ll tell dispatch that I can handle Parker’s drops for Szabo’s Station last thing this afternoon.”
Aardmann rocked back in his chair and looked out the window into the overhanging tree branches. “You’re going off to look for her, aren’t you?”
“Why would I want to do that? Anyhow, I’ll take care of these,” the Courier assured Aardmann, shoving the paperwork and the pouches into his satchel with the others he’d picked up last night. “If I’m not back by tomorrow night I’ll send word through the usual channels. If you don’t hear from me, well then you can count me as a deserter too.”
“Get in touch anyway. If the Insurgency is that persuasive I might want to join up too.”
The Courier hefted his bag over his right shoulder. “Oh, one more thing. Did Parker, you know, finish up before she left?”
“You mean pack up her stuff, collect her last paycheck? Nope.”
“I mean did she make all of her deliveries before…”
“Hey, wait a minute. Did Szabo courier you this information, I mean about Parker going missing? Who brought it?”
Aardmann pulled a mobile phone out of his pocket. “I shall await your call from wherever it is you end up.” He was jabbing a thumb at the tiny keyboard as the Courier walked away.
* * *
Prop Szabo didn’t seem surprised to see the Courier rolling a suitcase into her Salon early that evening. “You’re going to need a room?” The Courier nodded as he set on her desk the completed signoff sheet for his day’s deliveries. “Take Parker’s, upstairs on the right, second from the end. She was a friend of yours?”
“Still is, I hope. But no, we’re not close or anything. We run into each other out there, share a lunch or grab a coffee once in awhile.”
“Karas has his people on it.”
“I figured.” If Szabo was right about Parker, then Gene Karas would suspect her of having worked for the Insurgency all along, passing covert messages to her comrades about likely marks for their extortion schemes – Pilgrims with money and stature and hubris who with a little coaxing might get a bit too reckless out there on the Trails. But if Parker had been a double agent, why would she blow her cover now by taking off? Had somebody identified her? Or had she found out something big, some hot nugget of information she had to carry personally to Insurgency HQ? But then again the leaders of the Insurgency probably kept on the move to avoid detection, so there would be no central command center. The organization would be transient, ephemeral, invisible – not unlike the network of Pilgrimage couriers, but without the Stations serving as anchors. No wonder the Insurgency seemed to exert a nearly mystical allure on the Pilgrimage staffers.
“Would you like to know the source of my suspicion about Parker? Of my accusation, I suppose?” Szabo opened her hand and held it out for the Courier’s inspection. In her palm was a small black flat rectangular object: a domino. “I found a little package on my bedside table when I woke up yesterday morning. Black paper, black ribbon – I didn’t have to open it to know what it was. When I went down for breakfast she was already gone, out making her rounds. I probably should have…”
Szabo handed the domino to the Courier. It felt surprisingly heavy in his hand. The front displayed two sets of five white pips. He turned it over: just as he’d heard, the back of the domino was decorated with a swarm of intertwined snakes. “Is there a code? Five and five means what?” Szabo shook her head. The Courier flipped the domino in the air like a coin, catching it in his other hand: tails. “What if she was abducted? Maybe whoever took her left you this thing as a calling card, like they’re taking credit. Maybe the Insurgency is moving on from extortion to kidnapping. Maybe in the next few days some courier will bring you the ransom note.”
Szabo sputtered a brittle laugh. “I’d have heard the struggle wouldn’t I, when they took her? My God, all she had to do was roll over and I’d wake up. At first I thought it was a token, a keepsake. Now I just think she was rubbing my nose in it.”
“But Parker wasn’t like that. At least I never saw that side of her, nothing even close. Of course we never talked about…”
“Well why don’t you sleep on it, maybe something’ll come to you. Her room has already been searched so there’s no need to bother. Maybe Parker left some residual aura of herself in her room so she can visit you in your dreams, whisper her secrets straight into your brain. If so, do me a favor and keep it to yourself. Anyway, most likely you’ll forget all about it before you wake up.” The Courier tried to hand the domino back to Szabo but she kept her fist closed. “You can keep that too. Maybe it’ll open a door for you somewhere. Did you know that Insurgency sympathizers used to hang a domino on their ouroboros along with the nautilus shells? Of course you do.”
The Courier had been hired after the purge, but even the amped-up paranoia hadn’t kept staffers from reminiscing and speculating. The Home Office had issued a directive: all Proprietors are to warn each new Pilgrim about the Insurgency as part of the general orientation to the Pilgrimage. New staffers received even more explicit instructions, along with a hotline for reporting rumors and suspicions. As best as he could tell from listening to the Props and the Riks and the Sams along his route, the Insurgents’ likeliest marks also tended to be the least cautious. Outside of his formal duties the Courier didn’t have much direct commerce with civilians, so although he had occasionally harbored suspicions he had no confirmed knowledge of Insurgency spies posing as Pilgrims working entrapment schemes at the Stations. Supposedly there was a cadre of counter-espionage moles working the Trails and reporting directly to Karas; again, he’d never encountered one for certain. As for the double agents and the deserters, Parker was the only one he knew personally. Alleged double agent, he reminded himself. He slipped the domino into his pocket with his spare change, where it added its distinctive wooden clack to the metallic jangle. “Maybe that’s how they recognize each other now,” he suggested. “The sound in the pocket.”
Szabo shrugged. “The box didn’t include an instruction sheet. File a goddam report if you find out. Better yet, ask Intelligence when you get to the home office, they can probably tell you.”
“What makes you think I’m going to HQ?”
“Follow me.” Szabo walked out of the Salon, past the reception desk, and into the local installation of Rik’s Café, this one outfitted with a Harlem Renaissance glamour. “You want a drink?”
“Two Gibsons please, Mike,” she said to the bartender as the two of them passed by. She stopped at the piano, a standard feature of every Rik’s, imbuing even the most ordinary décor with a sheen of sophistication. This one was a beauty: a black baby grand gleaming under the blue-filtered ceiling lights. It was cocktail hour, and the local Sam was improvising on a theme by Hoagy Carmichael, or maybe it was Fats Waller, for the pre-dinner crowd. In most of the places where a Station had been set up the local Rik’s was one of the best eateries in town and usually the only one to feature live piano. The Courier figured it was a good marketing angle for the Pilgrimage. Sam nodded to Szabo as she and the Courier approached.
“Give me the folder, would you Sam?” The pianist kept the melody going with the right hand while he reached under the piano lid with the left. He extracted a slim nine-by-twelve manila envelope, sealed, and held it out to Szabo.
The Courier nodded respectfully to Sam. “Just like in the movie,” he observed to Szabo as she slid the envelope into his satchel. “Letters of transit.”
Mike brought their drinks on a silver tray; Szabo handed one to the Courier, then took a sip from her own. “I hope you won’t mind,” she said to the Courier, “but I’m calling it a night. Tomorrow you’re to take that envelope to HQ, deliver it to Karas, his eyes only. Not that you need to know, but it’s our dossier on Parker, as you might have guessed. I’ll tell Aaardmann you won’t be back for awhile. Oh, and if you’re a meat-eater I recommend the hickory-smoked pork roast. Rik serves it with cheesy garlic grits and some kind of black bean-eggplant-pepper sauce, vegetable du jour on the side. Not to be missed.”
“Well, Sam,” the Courier said as he watched Szabo, drink in hand, elbow her way through the kitchen’s swinging door, “what’s the word?”
“I’d say…” Like a telegraph operator transmitting in Morse code, Sam was tapping out the staccato rhythm of an old television spy series theme song with his right index finger. “…that if I was you…” His left hand added a counterpoint as he scanned the room with a practiced cosmopolitan nonchalance. “…I’d watch my back.”
He could have made the drive in two days if he pushed it, but Parker’s dossier wasn’t going to solve the mystery, and getting it to HQ was more a bureaucratic formality than a hot lead in the case. The Courier was in no hurry. It had been years since he’d done the classic American cross-country road trip, and even though this time he was going only half way it took only a couple of hours behind the wheel for him to feel the familiar current, the incessant pull of the western edge channeling itself down the highway. The Pilgrimage’s trails now stretched along three east-west corridors, with seven Stations positioned strategically between Szabo’s place, and the HO, at any one of which the Courier could have roomed and boarded for free. But he wanted to eat at roadside diners and fast food joints, he wanted to sleep in generic chain motels. Mostly he wanted to avoid talking with anyone associated with the Pilgrimage until he had to.
He didn’t notice anyone following him out of town. Before he left he had gotten two new front tires and a front-end alignment. He’d asked his mechanic to check for GPSs or other gizmos attached under the chassis somewhere: nothing. But the Courier had no schemes to hatch en route, so from his standpoint it didn’t really matter if Karas’ spies were tracking him. He was more curious about whether someone else was going to try something.
Parcels. He was carrying two of them. One was known to the Pilgrimage authorities, entrusted specifically to his care. Then there was other one. Who was it from; who was it for; what was it? So far he had no reason to dismiss his original speculation, even if he couldn’t quite understand the motivation behind it. Parker. She was supposed to deliver the parcel to somebody in the Insurgency, but somebody from the Pilgrimage had caught on to her. If she tried to make the delivery she risked being intercepted and losing the parcel. Or they might let her complete her mission just so they could track her to the secret hideout of the intended recipient, almost surely someone of importance. So Parker dumped the parcel when she felt that she wasn’t under surveillance, maybe even before her trackers knew that she was carrying.
But why dump the parcel on him? Was Parker hoping to throw suspicion off of herself and onto someone else? Was she hoping that he’d figure it all out and take the responsibility upon himself to complete her mission? To jump ship and join the Insurgency without knowing anything about it? Without knowing where he was supposed to take the parcel? Somewhere outside of Louisville Kentucky another idea came to him. Maybe Parker had expected him to give the parcel to Aardmann. But why? Maybe it’s a decoy, a false message intended to throw Pilgrimage off the scent. An explosive device? Hell no; this was just Pilgrimage, not the CIA or the World Bank. Or was Pilgrimage secretly stepping up its game?
Then there was the money, the envelope stuffed with seven thousand in cash. Was it supposed to be delivered along with the parcel? If so, why wasn’t it tucked inside the parcel instead of practically falling out of a second, unsealed envelope? Maybe the money was meant for Parker as compensation plus expenses for completing the delivery. But seven K? Would this job require buying airplane tickets and hotel rooms, maybe even making some payoffs? Or, the Courier wondered, is it hazard pay?
And just what is the hazard? I’ve got the unlabeled parcel in my satchel, the Courier considered, plus the money. And now I’ve also got the domino in my pocket. Is the Insurgency looking for me, waiting for just the right opportunity to intercept me? Or am I being set up? Szabo – she says she didn’t know about Parker, but what if she did? And now she’s given me that sealed envelope for Karas so I can get next to him. Parker’s dossier, she said it was, but is that all it is? An automatic detonation mechanism in the parcel, triggered by GPS coordinates or a circuit broken when the parcel is opened? I’ll leave the dossier in the car when I first meet with Karas. The unmarked parcel too of course. Better yet, dump them both by the side of the road and just keep driving. Hang onto the money though. The bills are probably marked…
* * *
The Courier had not really expected the Pilgrimage Home Office to loom on the horizon like a medieval cathedral magically transported to the American Great Plains. The compound was discrete, built low to the ground, subtly landscaped, indistinguishable from the surrounding farms and ranches until you reached the gate. The Courier showed his Pilgrimage ID; the gatekeeper logged in his name and license number and gave him directions to Karas’ office, parking out back.
“Doctor Karas is in a meeting right now. He should be available…” Karas’ young assistant checked her calendar. “How about four fifteen? Fine, I’ll put you down. And it’s Mister… Well please feel free to explore. I don’t believe you’ll have time for the tour, but if you’d like something to eat or drink – you might have seen our Rik’s Café as you were driving in? You’ll want a room: would you prefer the main building or a cabin? Fine, I’ll arrange that for you. And is there someone else you’d like to see while you’re here? Yes, I believe she’s on campus today. Did they give you a map at the entrance? Very good, so… you’re just here, you see? Now you’ll want to follow the covered walkway through the vineyard – Doctor Karas likes to call it the pergola…”
The Courier had met Victoria Chandra twice before, both times on the same day. Someone had been commissioning inappropriate deliveries along the Eastern seaboard Trail, and Chandra had been brought in to quell the disturbance. It was the only occasion during the Courier’s tenure on which a whole host of his associates had been gathered together in one place. Chandra had met with each of the couriers separately, confirming proper protocol. She had quizzed the Courier on the details of one unauthorized drop to a seasoned Pilgrim at the Appamatox Substation: a standard ouroboros chain with a pendant depicting the iconic image of a woman wearing a coronet on her head, a five-pointed star on her chest, and a smirk on her face. At the post-meeting cocktail reception, held of course at the local Rik’s, Chandra had asked the Courier where he was from, how he had first heard of the Pilgrimage, how many shells he himself had collected (one, then as now). Now at their Home Office reunion Chandra’s memory of these two encounters seemed preternaturally precise; the Courier presumed that she had reviewed his file in anticipation of his arrival. He wondered if she had recently discussed his background with Aardmann, with the head of security, perhaps with Karas himself.
“I’d like to talk about the Code,” Chandra announced solemnly after she had gotten him a cappuccino and they had exchanged pleasantries. In addition to the occasional directive and the monthly statistical reports, Chandra distributed at irregular intervals memoranda conveying her thoughts on couriership, not just as a job but as a calling, even as a universal metaphysical category or principle. In these writings Chandra referred frequently to the Code, the implicit normative standard by which true couriers have traditionally performed their responsibilities and lived their lives.
“I haven’t really kept up with the memos,” the Courier acknowledged. He typically skimmed and tossed Chandra’s communiqués, but he knew that some of his colleagues, usually the four-shell types and above, regarded them as inspired epistles, compiling them in binders and annotating them based on their own experiences on the job, the routines and the high points and crises that erupted without warning, their beliefs and their doubts about being professional intermediaries.
“A courier acts on behalf of the sender,” Chandra began, not didactically but as if she were trying to remind herself, or perhaps rehearsing her next memorandum. “A courier is not just a messenger boy. A courier carries not only the message of the sender, or the gift, or the curse. A courier bears the full authority of the sender. A courier stands in for the sender – the sender made present to the receiver, and to anyone the courier meets along the way. A courier is an emissary, a delegate, a shaliach. Angel means messenger – courier. The prophets were couriers: thus saith the Lord. Moses was a courier. He was skeptical: I am slow of speech, slow of tongue, a man of uncircumcised lips, obviously the wrong man for the job. But Yahweh gave his self-doubting emissary an ego boost: I shall make you god to Pharaoh, he assured Moses. The one sent is like the one who sent him, writes the rabbi about Exodus in the Mekilta Midrash. Jesus too was a courier, passing on Yahweh’s word. But then we’re told that Jesus was the Word, not just the messenger but the message, given the name above every other name, all power and authority granted to him by the one who sent him. Apostle means one who is sent forth, messenger, courier: as I have been sent, so send I you, Jesus told them. Whatsoever you do, it in my name. Also the Greeks. Hermes, messenger of the gods, intermediary between gods and men – he too was a god, son of Zeus. Jesus was a hybrid, a mongrel, Son of God and Son of Man – Nephilim. Is Yahweh or Zeus the original source, the sender? Or is the most high god also a courier, representing the Olympian council of the Elohim perhaps, or perhaps one of its dissenting factions? An infinite regress, no originator, no sender, no messages before there were messengers. But tell me: why did you become a courier?”
“You asked me that once before.”
“Did I? I suppose I must have. This time I really want to know.”
The Courier had started out as a weekend Pilgrim. Though most of the early Trails traversed Europe and Asia, market research bore out the general impression that most of the Pilgrims were American. Word of mouth was effective among the core demographic – Americans with the time, the inclination, and the money for extended foreign travel – but the Home Office decided to rev up the US domestic presence. A number of stand-alone Stations were established in or near population hubs in the Northeast. A new batch of Proprietors was recruited from among experienced multi-shell Pilgrims: they were given a month’s training and a modest but guaranteed one-year salary, augmented by significant bonuses for volume. Chefs and pianists were hired to be the Riks and the Sams. Mo Coleman, who previously had designed the European Pilgrimage, developed an abbreviated program for would-be Pilgrims who weren’t prepared to commit to an extended theotic voyage but who craved a taste of transcendence. The scheme had proven successful, generating not just traffic but sizable contributions from big donors. More Stations were launched, spreading south and especially west, the reach extended by satellite Substations offering hostel-like accommodations without dining facilities, serviced one or two days a week by circuit-riding Proprietors. The cross-country Trails were laid out, anchored by hubs that could catalyze multi-regional expansion of the Pilgrimage.
A full-service Station had been opened less than an hour’s drive from the Courier’s apartment, so he didn’t even have to spend the night to attend one of the weekend Pilgrimage overview workshops. He’d spotted the job posting on the bulletin board: the Station’s courier, an accomplished resophonic guitarist, had accepted a position at the newly-launched Austin Station where, in addition to his courier duties, he would join the local Sam, a master of both honky-tonk and stride piano, in forming an experimental bluegrass combo to play at Rik’s on weekends. The Dobro-playing courier’s last formal duty before heading to Texas had been to deliver an ouroboros and a first golden nautilus shell pendant to his replacement. It was still the Courier’s only shell.
“Do you keep in touch with Jamie?” Chandra asked him.
“I did. Haven’t heard from him lately though. Did he…”
“He left. Relax, it’s nothing. Actually it is something. He went back to school, master’s in international relations as I recall. One day he showed up at the Istanbul Station, stayed a week, collected another shell. Now he’s Prop at the Dubai Station. Since he’s been on board quite a few oilmen have made the Middle Eastern Pilgrimage circuit. Even a Sultan or two, from what I’ve heard. It’s been open season for the Insurgency out there too or so I’ve been told, though probably most of those cowboys and sheikhs would be too butch to admit getting taken for a ride. No doubt they have their own ways of getting even.”
“I guess it’s been longer than I realized,” the Courier acknowledged.
“I was wondering – do you see couriering as a career path? Aardmann says you’re efficient, reliable, resourceful, inventive. Keep to yourself mostly. The other couriers and Props have nothing but good things to say about you. But you’ve never applied for transfer or promotion.”
“It suits me for now.”
“Do you see any other trajectory stretching out ahead of you?”
“So this is, what, some sort of performance review? Where do I picture myself in five years? If I’d known I could have prepared.”
“Sorry.” Chandra reached under her desktop. The music, so quiet it had been nearly subliminal, amped up into recognizability: Poinciana. He wondered if Chandra had turned off the microphone at the same time, or maybe turned it on. “I’ve drifted away from the Code, haven’t I? I suppose I’m asking you the questions I try not to ask myself. I spend most of my time on personnel and logistics, not to mention the usual ass-covering and ass-kissing that goes along with any central management job. The Code is what keeps me going. I write about it on airplanes and trains mostly. I’ll probably write some tomorrow.” She took a sip of coffee. “On my way to Szabo’s Station.”
“Too bad. I was just there, maybe I could have taken care of it for you, whatever it is. Or vice versa – you could have saved me the trip, picked up Szabo’s parcel, brought it back here with you, delivered it yourself.”
“Efficiency is important,” Chandra conceded, “but at its core the Code is not predicated on efficiency. Nor was this assignment a test of your loyalty, to see if you’d make a run for it. And no, I’m not sending you on a secret mission, special delivery into the heart of the Insurgency. All is as it seems to be.”
“How does it seem?” the Courier asked her.
There are those, Chandra told him, who regard couriership as the true Pilgrimage. Miguel Obispo had been a messenger of the gods even before he walked the Stations, before he staged his own death, before finding his way to this place on the plain where the buffalo used to roam, where settlers traded and fought with Comanches, where in dusty streets and chaotic saloons famous lawmen and famous outlaws gunned each other down, where Texas cattlemen driving their longhorns up the Chisholm Trail crossed paths with stolid wagon trains and twitchy adventurers headed down the Santa Fe Trail to try their luck, where Chinamen and Irishmen pounded spikes and lay rails to haul the beef and the gold and silver back East. Miguel Obispo had been a performer then and in a sense he was a performer still, drawing audiences to the moving venues engineered and outfitted by Gene Karas and Mo Coleman. But the true Pilgrimage, the Via Sanguina? It courses channel and branch through Miguel’s body. Miguel Obsispo is the Pilgrimage.
And Miguel Obispo is the Courier. His HemoBoy act was the true sacrament. This is my blood, but it is also your blood: I give it back to you here and now, on this stage, on this altar, and in the rite of the infusion, mediated by the sacred vials and needles, you return it to me again.
“Did you know? Before the Pilgrimage, while he was still plying the alternative theater circuit, Miguel trained a cadre of hemophiliacs to replicate his show?” The Courier said nothing; his expression remained impassive. “Karas orchestrated it,” Chandra went on, her outrage tinged with admiration. “Young men, pale and beautiful and tragic. They learned to bleed at will, even if most of them relied on a hidden swatch of sandpaper in case their will power happened to let them down. Some even learned to stop the bleeding, though none ever mastered the trick like Miguel had. Then of course Miguel abandoned the show, hid out here on the prairie for awhile, only to emerge as the patron saint of the new Pilgrimage. But what about the trainees, the acolytes of that staged redemption show, deserted now by the chief redeemer and his impresario? Miguel’s highly publicized transformation effectively closed off the other HemoBoys’ access to the stage. But the stage? That was never the point really, at least not for Karas.”
Victoria Chandra slid something across the desktop, positioning it in front of the Courier. The photo on the front of the postcard depicted a ramshackle adobe building slapped down on the edge of a flat and endless field of dried and ragged stalks. A forlorn old-fashioned windmill leaned against the right of the frame. “Flip it over,” Chandra told him. The message scratched into the back of the card looked to have been made by a fountain pen that was running out of ink: TRUE PILGRIMAGE BEGINS HERE.
“It’s blood, isn’t it?” The Courier turned the card back over to scrutinize the photo more carefully. “Dried blood. Where is this place?”
“I want you to deliver a parcel to this place,” Chandra said.
“Didn’t you just get done telling me you had no secret mission for me?”
The North American Director of Courier Services for the Pilgrimage gave a nearly imperceptible smirk. “It’s in the Code: don’t believe everything the sender tells you. You’ve heard the legend,” she said, tapping the postcard with her index finger. “Miguel Obispo performs his last HemoBoy show, bleeds all over his hotel room, everyone thinks he’s dead, then three days later he turns up out here on the Great Plains like Jesus risen from the tomb. But just before all that: do you know that part of the story? He’s on his way to the gig, driving his old Saab across some flat dry nowhere to the next gig, which as fate would have it turns out to be the last gig. He notices a cantina on the right.” Chandra tapped the photo again. “He stops to get something to drink. Four black-clad women are walking the Stations of the Cross that line the inside walls of the cantina. The youngest of the four asks Miguel if there is someone he would like them to pray for. Miguel limps back out to his car, finds one of his HemoBoy brochures, hands it to the woman, and drives off to meet his destiny. The brochure is still taped to the wall of that cantina, below Station Seven, or so I’ve been told. Surrounded by photos, mementos, icons – there were dozens, now there are hundreds, maybe thousands. And the blood. Sprinkled on the lintels and doorposts, sprinkled on the Stations and the mementos and the icons made of cardboard and plastic and tin.”
Chandra slid a snapshot across the desk: a segment of rough and whitewashed wall festooned with jumbled photographs and short texts and small objects, all of it spattered liberally in dark red – all, that is, except for a rectangular patch low on the wall and slightly off-center in the frame. And then another photograph: a close-up of the isolated rectangle on the wall: a handbill promoting a performance that took place years ago: a photograph incorporated into the handbill: back to the camera and flooded with white light, a man stands with feet together and arms spread above his head, palms held out toward the crowd of enraptured onlookers.
“You don’t happen to have hemophilia?” Chandra asked; the Courier made no reply. “I knew that would be too much. Any other serious health condition? Cystic fibrosis, an untreatable brain tumor, HIV…”
“You’re trying to figure out why you’ve picked me,” the Courier said to her.
“There is a convergence. Are you an outlier? I don’t have the gift to identify. Karas relies on empirical methods I know nothing about: ask him if you want. Nothing in your background, at least nothing we know of, would suggest…”
“Tell me more about this,” the Courier said, arraying the three images side by side like a triptych.
“Evidently the women in black are not pleased. But the cantina is doing great business these days, so the owner is very pleased indeed. Two of Miguel’s hemophiliac trainees serve as blood sacrifices for the devotees. I don’t know if they get paid a salary or work for tips.”
“But what do they want, the people who go there?”
“The pilgrims? They want Miguel Obispo to repent. They’re convinced that he sold out, that he’s in it for the money now. Pilgrimage is a rich man’s game they say, controlled by sons of gods with money and power and time on their hands – blood too, for some. They have a point.”
“And after he repents?”
“Well I guess then he can lead the parade into the Apocalypse.”
“Who’s they, besides the HemoBoys?”
Chandra shrugged. “People just seem to show up.”
“Who knows? Our marketing people don’t get the impression that the cantina is draining energy out of our Pilgrimage. But see, it’s precisely that sense of us versus them that poses the threat. A hint of defensive self-doubt creeps in. “
“And Miguel Obispo?”
“We presume he knows about it. The media hasn’t been particularly eager to cover the cantina, probably because it looks too much like a publicity stunt. If the cantina pilgrims sent us a postcard written in blood you can just imagine what they send Miguel. Still, it is possible that he doesn’t know. We get complaints that he doesn’t respond to his mail, wondering if we screen it. We don’t. I pass some of the complaints on to Doctor Karas, the ones that come from celebrities or big donors mostly. And it’s true that Miguel does receive plenty of correspondence. Probably he doesn’t reply to fan letters because he doesn’t read them. So maybe he never read whatever the cantina people sent him.”
“Maybe that’s why he doesn’t respond to your correspondence either. Or Karas’.”
“I was just guessing. I figured you must have asked Miguel about the cantina at some point.”
“So will you do it? Will you deliver a parcel to the cantina?”
“What’s in it? Sorry – none of my business”
“Maybe they’ll show you when they open it.” From her desk drawer Chandra pulled forth a package, unlabeled and wrapped in plain brown paper and twine. She placed it carefully on the desktop above the three photos. On top of the package she put an unsealed envelope. “For your time and trouble.”
The Courier scooped up the parcel and the envelope and slid them into his satchel. “Are they expecting it?”
“Will they be happy to receive it?”
“You mean will it put you in danger? The Code: as Courier you are acting as my emissary, my representative, my virtual presence, as if I were delivering it myself. To place you in danger would be to place myself in danger. Did you ever read Hamlet?”
“In high school.”
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern served as couriers from the King of Denmark to the King of England. I wrote something about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in one of my communiqués.”
“I’m pretty sure I missed that one.”
“Probably just as well.”
* * *
Half an hour after his scheduled appointment with the Courier Gene Karas charged into his office suite. “Goddamn that Coleman!” he bellowed in the general direction of his receptionist. “I told him today! Not tomorrow. Today!” Finally he noticed the Courier sitting on the sofa. He glanced at the receptionist, who gave him a nodded confirmation. “Sorry to keep you waiting. You had a long drive, probably ready to get this over with, freshen up, have a drink, have a meal. Listen, why don’t you stay another day? I don’t know, ride a horse or something, other visitors seem to enjoy it. Lois, did you fix him up with a cabin? Great. Come on in. Gene Karas, good to meet you. Remind me of your name again? Can Lois get you something?”
Karas’ office looked like a conference room, centered around a huge table and walled with marked-up sheets of paper torn from flipchart pads. A clutter of work papers and coffee cups and food wrappers sprawling across one corner of the table demarcated Karas’ workspace. He motioned for the Courier to take a chair across from him. “You brought me something?”
Reaching into his satchel, the Courier pulled out the package Szabo had asked him to deliver. He pushed his delivery across to Karas. Karas gave the parcel a cursory glance before tossing it onto his pile on his corner of the big table. “You know what’s in this,” he said to the Courier, not as a question but as an assertion of fact. He scrawled indecipherably across the Courier’s clipboarded receipt page. Left-handed – the Courier always noticed. “Oh that’s right, it’s Parker’s dossier. Chandra has already grilled you about her I suppose.”
“Fine. Look, I want your opinion about this,” Karas said as he swept his arm widely around his office. “Mostly Mo Coleman’s work – you know Mo?” The Courier shook his head. “Yeah, I don’t know as he’s ever toured the American Stations. Head of European operations and chief architect of the Pilgrimage worldwide. This here, this crap stuck to the walls, is Mo’s proposed redesign for the American operations.”
“I don’t even know much about the old design.”
“Why not? You’re here now, you’re part of the old design. Hell, you’ve lived it. But in the new regime? Well, let’s have a look.” He pointed to a diagram sketched on one of the pages taped to the wall. “Station infrastructure: Salon, Rik’s Café and kitchen, guest rooms, reception. Do you see any staff quarters? You don’t. Coleman proposes that the Proprietors live off-site, free up more room for Pilgrims. And what about couriers? He says we don’t need them – a romantic luxury, he calls them. Just have the Proprietors hand out the chains and the shells instead of arranging for the couriers to do it. Special deliveries? Parcel post, commercial carriers.”
The Courier made no reply, although if Karas had been a more perceptive person he might have noticed the sudden breaking off of eye contact, the quick exhalation of breath through the nostrils, the slight downturn at the corners of the mouth. The Courier found that the favorite part of his job was choreographing the deliveries. He might, for example, find out through the grapevine that a recipient was planning to take a commercial flight that night, maybe home or to another Station. The Courier would make a point of being at the airport, in full uniform, small white-and-gold parcel in hand, when the designated recipient’s limo arrived. As the Pilgrim walked toward airport security the Courier, approaching from the opposite direction, would make his unexpected but formulaic introduction: “Sign here, please.” Though the Pilgrims were never sure when, or even whether, they would earn their next gold nautilus shell, they found the creative deliveries not only charming but nearly mystical. Occasionally during cocktail hour at Rik’s the Courier would overhear the experienced Pilgrims recounting to one another, and to the novices, the circumstances surrounding their receipt of the tokens representing their incremental demiurgic ascent.
The Courier liked living at the Station. At every Station he’d visited the support staff lived off-site while the core crew – Proprietor, Innkeeper, Rik, Sam, Courier – occupied a wing of the facility or a separate building on the grounds. Aardmann had a wife who lived with him and a son in college who would stay at the Station over the summer and on holidays. Though the Rik and the Sam had separate quarters, they spent most of their time together in Sam’s rooms. The Courier pretty much kept to himself, his personal liaisons being discrete, brief, and always with outsiders. He didn’t socialize with the Pilgrims. Some of them dismissed him as no more than a bellhop – those, paradoxically, were the ones who gave him the biggest tips. Others must have seen what Chandra tried to cultivate: an iconic presence, a carrier of the mystified withdrawn essence of whoever sent him, reaching up and back to the gods themselves. The first time a Pilgrim propositioned him he had been surprised, embarrassed, maybe a bit shocked, certainly flattered. After awhile he’d gotten used to it. Though none of his colleagues would acknowledge a secondary allegiance, the Couriership was rumored to be a strong and supple vector of the Insurgency interweaving through the Pilgrimage.
Would Parker have slept with the clientele? Others did, ignoring stern warnings of reprimand and possible dismissal. Would Parker have blackmailed the rich ones? He could imagine the Insurgency’s recruiting pitch: join us and you get a cut of the take; refuse us and we expose you to your boss and you get canned. The Courier presumed that the Stations’ guestrooms were all bugged and probably the staff’s as well, so it would have been difficult for her to claim to be the innocent victim. But proving harassment or forceful assault wouldn’t be necessary in implicating well-heeled, well-respected family men whose reputations were worth a lot of money. For proof she’d have needed her own surveillance cameras, most likely portable and temporary installations since the Pilgrimage’s spooks had probably planted antibugs for detecting unauthorized recording and transmission equipment. She’d have to be in and out quickly, so to speak. And it would have to be a one-shot affair, since by next morning Security would have been crawling all over the place. If she really had turned a trick for the Insurgency, Karas would have known about it even if Parker’s unwitting john never blew the whistle on her.
But what did the Insurgency use the money for? The Courier had never actually met anyone, either inside the Pilgrimage or out, who claimed allegiance to the Insurgency. No artists or teachers, no propagandists or terrorists. Maybe it was just an organized crime syndicate, a decentralized, anarchistic, profit-sharing extortion cooperative owned and operated by the extortion artists themselves. He wondered again why he himself had never been approached by one of their agents. Maybe he didn’t fit the profile. If he’d gotten a reputation for sleeping with the customers maybe someone from the Insurgency would have tried to recruit him. Did Parker fit the profile? She emitted a subtle allure, and a certain sort of Pilgrim would have been further enticed by the nearly military formality of the courier uniform. Almost surely there were more opportunities for women than for men in the covert seduction department.
“So,” the Courier said to Karas, “Coleman is trying to reduce the moral hazard.”
“Very good! That’s part of it. Physical separation of staff from Pilgrims, plus greater consolidation of core capabilities. And that opens up more rooms for the customers, hopefully most of them paying customers. I’m not sold on Mo’s proposal yet, seems to sacrifice mystique for logistics. But now” – Karas spun his chair a quarter-turn to the right, facing a different quadrant of the wall – “here’s the good part, the important part. The Pilgrimage itself. Standardization, scalability, intensification.” Karas got up and walked to the wall. “It starts here,” he said, pointing to the upper-left panel on the wall to the left of the door, “and wraps all the way around. Here, I’ll walk you through it. You are staying the night, right?”