Had the river always looked that dark or is it that water reflects everything, including our souls? It looked old, heavy, threatening and treacherous, cold, final; as inescapable, deep and sinister as quicksand.
“Miss, would you take our picture?” asked the young guy with Asian eyes. He was small and lithe. Tan and thin fingers passed the digital camera on to her hands. “We’re on vacation”. He rushed back to join wife and two boys, all with cheeeeese smiles frozen on their faces. “One more, yes?” and the boys, identical twins, hopped on to the parapet; one by Dad’s side, one by Mom’s. “Thank you, thank you very much.” Dad smiled his shy foreign smile again, taking camera and grateful family away.
In seconds another group of tourists halted at the exact same spot – Cleopatra’s Needle and its two sphinx guardians – for holiday photos. The sixty foot, two hundred ton granite obelisk was presented to Britain in 1819 by the Turkish viceroy of Egypt, and it took over five decades to make its way to London, while its twin found home across the ocean, in New York’s Central Park, near the Metropolitan Museum. No sooner were they gone than a couple and their toddler (so bundled up one could barely see his or her eyes) stopped by, taking turns by the baby’s stroller, in front of the North-African monument.
“That could be your baby.”
She did not answer at first because she did not think he was talking to her.
“Couldn’t that be your baby?” the stranger repeated, not moving any closer, not taking his eyes off the muddy river. He might be talking to himself for all she knew. “Couldn’t it?” the stranger insisted, now looking at her.
“I have no kids.”
“It could be just like your family. One day.”
She was in no mood for meaningless chatting with strangers. Although something about him caught her eye half a heartbeat from turning away. He was so well dressed, had a fine face, handsomely strong features and nice hair, elegant hands in dark gloves. He shone. Where had she seen his face?
“Do I know you?”
“Everybody knows me but most people never remember I exist.”
Batman’s Riddler, she thought in dismay. That was the last thing her awful morning missed.
“I remember faces very well. But not names. Where did I see you just the other day?”
Two more noisy groups came and went by Cleopatra’s Needle while she stared at his profile against the fast running waters.
“Got it ! You’re an attorney. Correction: barrister. I’m not British. Saw you picture on the paper, first page. Something to do with this new political scandal. You nailed them.”
“Damn,” he said as if to himself. Then he cleared his throat. “My apologies. He told me… My tutor, I mean…I was told not to pick anyone currently famous. My fault.” He shook his head and moved a few steps closer, one hand holding a cane; one on the stone wall that ran along the river. His eyes were a shade of blue so liquid and resplendent it was surreal. “Lord Thomas Barristan is a good man, I can assure you. Honest as few. I like his taste in clothes. That’s why I picked him. He looks dignified and elegant and kind. And courageous and bold and trustworthy. All things I needed this time around. Dark eyes and hair like yours. The Thames is old, I agree. And muddy when it rains so heavily. But not treacherous and threatening.”
She looked for her own watch under the winter coat sleeve. Had she spoken out loud without noticing? It wouldn’t be a first.
“Next time I’ll follow the manual: pick a face and a body no one knows. Stay away from real people; it may cause unwanted confusion, I know, I know. I sincerely thought you would not recognize Barristan, considering – well, considering the whirlwinds of your mind. I like his face. An intelligent face, don’t you think?”
“Lord Barristan, I mean, you, look very elegant,” she admitted. Better not get the Riddler cross. “Like a model in a magazine, sir.”
“I saw him in court, with the powdered wig. He really knows his law. I wish I could practice the law too. In a way, they say we do, but it is not the same thing. It lacks… something. And the powdered wigs.”
All the time Thomas Barristan talked, she kept looking into his eyes, too puzzled to articulate any educated comment or question.
“I see that you noticed it. That’s the one thing we cannot change: the iris color. I wanted brown eyes but we are on a budget these days. Anything extra, besides clothes and transportation, requires special authorization. It could take forever. Literally. “
“Red tape, right?”
The accent was British enough, the gestures, the posture, the facial expression – a gentleman from head to toe – complete with the antique and expensive looking cane and camel hair overcoat. So tall, civil, sophisticated… and so absurdly awkward. Her fear and suspicion were subsiding, replaced by a sudden curiosity. There were dozens of people around, after all. How bad could that be? Or maybe just to be on the safe side, should she start panicking and cry for help?
“No need for that; you are perfectly safe with me,” he reassured with a wave of his aristocratic hand as if he had followed her thoughts.
“Dear God, how do you do that?”
“Clever choice of words; politically correct too. We’ll soon kick off a campaign to encourage the use of similar expressions in day to day situations. But I digress. Last time I was here, in this very city, I came as Leonard Kupfer.” He looked at her inquisitively. “Ring a bell? No? Well, captain Leonard Kupfer, to be correct. A pilot I picked from our records a few decades ago. I thought my choice appropriate, since we are always in touch with the control tower. See the analogy? Tower, flight, pilots ? The man was a hero. Saved almost a hundred lives landing his MD-11 on a lake in Switzerland. Perished saving others on that same evening. It gave me goose bumps to be him at least for a while. I shouldn’t have picked someone from recent news now; I know. It may trigger an internal investigation; they may delay my next mission. You see, we do have our Internal Affairs too. I should have thought of that. I’ll learn. I’m still new in this business. Relatively speaking. However,” he continued, tossing the cane hand to hand, in good spirits, “I knew that if I dressed and looked sophisticated I would have a better chance to engage your attention. It’s a human fallacy we learn to consider; people feel less threatened by properly attired individuals. I shall use this argument if Internal Affairs questions my Lord Barristan move. Unfortunately, it is a knife that cuts both ways. That human fallacy, I mean. The other team knows it too. They use and abuse it; they have no shame.”
“I think I should be going now, Lord Barristan. Good luck with Internal Affairs – ”
“I talk too much, my apologies. Don’t be afraid. You have nothing to fear. Actually you are one of the very few with stars – pretty blue stars – across each page of your… records. This exact same blue,” he motioned to his own eyes. “All-stars as we say. Leonard Kupfer was one too. You guys don’t show up very often. You are highly praised and coveted. Interacting with an all-stars is a major deed. Your grandiosity makes us grand. You’re our raison d’être.”
“Wouldn’t that be time for you to take your medication perhaps ?” she ventured. “Would you like me to call anybody for you? Your… doctor? A family member?” Almost noon. Too bright and busy for Jack the Ripper to be wandering the streets of London.
“Ah, that’s another expense we are no longer allowed: mobiles. We employ a different type of… satellites for long distance communication. Well, it’s useless now. We cannot call home anymore once we get here. We’re on our own; we must learn to be self-sufficient. It’s the new policy Risk Management came up with. No ET- phone-home anymore as soon as something turns slightly wrong or if the competition shows up, no sir. They can hack into our systems when we are on line. And it is so very costly to clean their mess. So much glorious work goes to waste; so many good ones get hurt and lost. Cannot call the control tower anymore for help once we’re here. No more chatting with air traffickers. Anyway, I thought control tower would make more sense in your world of airports, flight plans… good-byes.”
He had walked even closer now, and the eau de parfum he was wearing overcame all other scents around. She took a deep breath.
“Good, I thought you would like it too. It’s on your chart after all. It’s up to us to make the best possible use of all the information compiled by the charts, creating an experience as enjoyable and unforgettable as possible. The more senses we can engage, the less prone you will be to forget. Human Resources is as hot as Risk Management these days. They’re on a roll with their psychological stuff.”
“You’re killing me” she whispered nearing despair.
“God forbid. I meant it. Especially an all-stars charter like you.”
“I didn’t understand one single word of what you told me so far, Mr. Barristan. Lord Barristan. Sorry.
“Actually, it’s Gabriel. Most all-stars end up calling me Gabe. I like it. Very down- to-earth.” He smiled and it was as if the sun had suddenly broken through the clouds to shine on his face.
“Candid Camera is back!” she exclaimed, looking around anxiously. “Right? Or some type of reality show?”
“Technically, every single minute of your life is on camera. But that’s another type of camera. Very candid though, granted. Lies don’t work with those cameras, let me put it this way. Ours is the ultimate reality show.
“So where is it? Where are your camera people hiding?” She turned on her heels, looking for a TV van, microphones, wires, anything to make the entire scene believable.
“Oh, the cameras are not here. They are… at the control tower too; yes, at the tower. It’s a good analogy. I don’t operate the cameras myself. They are on sort of …auto-pilot. You flying creatures have perfect names for everything!”
He sounded so jovial and enthusiastic this Lord Barristan. She began to notice a certain disconnect between his serious, professional, gentleman-like, spotless appearance and tone of voice though. Barristan appeared to be in his mid forties but sounded like a twenty year old. Something was amiss. She bit her lip.
“I am a flight attendant. Not a bird.”
“I did not mean to compare you to birds. There are many types of – winged creatures. Sphinxes have winds,” he motioned to the two Egyptian statues flanking the obelisk.
“Here you go again with the riddles. Can’t you talk normally?”
“What do you mean, normally?” Lord Barristan seemed alarmed for the first time. “I thought we did an excellent job, that we sounded just like -”
“Don’t get fixated on details. The devil is in details, believe me. Try seeing the big picture, as vast as eternity itself. “
“I hear my stomach roar… Nice riddling with you this morning. Have to go.”
“You are not hungry.”
“But I am. Left the house before six without breakfast.”
“That was silly. Since then you’ve been roaming the streets on an empty belly and a mind full of non sense. Well, it’s taken care of for now.”
She paused, searching for the empty stomach sensation, as uncomfortable as it was annoying.
“If you are trying to tell me you did away with my hunger, whoever you are, you should fly yourself into one of those starving third world countries and do something about it.”
“There have been… debates about it. If truth be told, we are not that strong yet. The world wars drained us. God only knows how long until our… resources can be restored to pre-World War II levels. Speaking of that, did you know these sphinxes were damaged during the first bomber raid in 1917? The carving of the hieroglyphics used to be sharper on the column but the northern climate has eroded it. I digress – again. Actually, nowadays most of our strength comes from all-stars. The more of you we lose to the competition, the less our skills here work. Everything is deeply connected and therefore too complex to put into words. The software designer himself cannot undo the fire walls he built into the system; the algorithm so elegantly written he cannot go back to prior versions…So we always move forward; each seemingly isolated event is always for the best and evolution cannot be halted. The system refreshes itself and expands inexorably. Well, it’s the expert’s master piece, it is known. The competition is well aware too. It hurts their pride to publicly acknowledge it, so they prefer to ignore the master piece. And the designer. “
“Who is the competition?”
“Cannot say their names. It’s unpronounceable to us.” Lord Barristan tapped the cane’s tip on his shiny shoes. “We call them the crimson team.”
She was determined to understand his point. The chatting had been going on for too long now for her just to turn away from Lord Barristan/ Gabriel.
“Why are we having this conversation? I don’t enjoy exercises without purpose.”
“It’s on my chart too.”
“You learn fast.”
“I’m an all-stars.”
“You are. Thrilled to be of your service,” he bowed slightly, almost imperceptibly, and his voice faltered for a moment, between your and service. She thought she saw a spark flicker on the liquid blue of his eyes – tears? – but he looked away. From the top of his muscular six-feet-plus, Thomas Barristan, the latest news-darling then smiled a smile that brightened up the cloudy day.
“How did you do that?”
“It’s just a bit of technology. Special effects. For show. You love sunshine. Always did. You used to zigzag the streets on your way to school just to walk in the sun, away from the cold shade.”
“Please… How do you do that? Are you one of those psychics that touch someone’s hand and can see her entire life?”
“I never touched your hand.”
“You scare me.”
“But I’m here to help. He knows everything about you.”
“The software designer. Our nature prevents us from bragging so I cannot use the designer’s real name. But your brother asked me to say, and I quote: ‘don’t despair; there is much life left yet.’ “
“My bother passed four years ago,” she found a tiny voice to say. “It should have been me instead.”
In the future she would not clearly recall how he had managed to recount her life so briefly, with such clarity. In seconds, with only a handful of words it had seemed, but then again she sometimes doubted any words had been truly spoken. She remembered the warmth of his hand on her shoulder and the infinitely kind smile of Lord Barristan. Had he talked for hours or minutes? And how could have so much been said and explained and healed and made right? How did he know so much about her? Things past and things to come of which she had never dreamt. But even that very question was answered the moment it crossed her own mind. She had the answers and the full understanding immediately, at light speed; all at once and not a single doubt remained. Gabriel was right. He was known by all and remembered by few; every day fewer and fewer. The longer his warm hand stayed on her shoulder, the lighter her heart felt, until hope and happiness swept over her.
“Thank you,” she said, giving him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, breathing in his heavenly cologne. “I’ll never forget you, Gabriel with magic blue yes. You know you saved my life.”
He did not return the embrace, too surprised and stiffened to react. They always got him off guard with such emotional displays. So much affection and gratitude, so heartfelt it dazzled him to the core; it rendered him speechless time after time, no matter how many millions of instances it happened. How warm and wonderful they all were. He waved good-bye to his all-stars too and smiled Lord Thomas Barristan’s smile. He would have tipped the brim of his hat at her too, had he been wearing one. He was fond of hats. And antique walking canes, cool shoes, dark eyes and hair. When he looked up to the sky, sun rays were breaking through gray puffy clouds again and making the Thames twinkle. No scheduled special effects this time; no one to whom to perform. “I prefer brown eyes,” Gabe whispered to himself and Lord Barristan disappeared into the Embankment Underground station.