Cross roads, p.1
Table of Contents
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This story is dedicated to our grandchildren, each a unique reflection of their parents, each their own universe unexplored, carriers of delight and wonder, infecting our hearts and lives profoundly and eternally. One day when you read this story, may it be a small window through which you better understand your Grandpa, your God, and your world!
A CONGREGATION OF STORM
The most pitiable among men is he who turns his dreams into silver and gold.
Some years in Portland, Oregon, winter is a bully, spitting sleet and spewing snow in fits and starts as it violently wrestles days from spring, claiming some archaic right to remain king of the seasons—ultimately the vain attempt of another pretender. This year was not like that. Winter simply bowed out like a beaten woman, leaving head down in tattered garments of dirty whites and browns with barely a whimper or promise of return. The difference between her presence and absence was scarcely discernible.
Anthony Spencer didn’t care either way. Winter was a nuisance and spring not much better. Given the power, he would remove both from the calendar along with the wet and rainy part of autumn. A five-month year would be just about right, certainly preferable to lingering periods of uncertainty. Every cusp of spring he wondered why he stayed in the Northwest, but each year found him again asking the same question. Maybe disappointing familiarity had its own comforts. The idea of actual change was daunting. The more entrenched in his habits and securities, the less inclined he was to believe that anything else was worth the effort if even possible. Known routines, even though painful at times, at least had their own predictability.
He leaned back in his chair and looked up from the desk cluttered with papers and into his computer screen. With each tap of a key he could watch the monitoring feed from his personal properties; the condo in the building adjacent to where he sat, his central workplace situated strategically in downtown Portland midway up a midsized office scraper, his getaway house at the coast and larger home in the West Hills. He watched and restlessly tapped his right index finger on his knee. All was quiet as if the world was holding her breath. There are many ways to be alone.
Although people who interacted with Tony in business or social situations would have thought otherwise, he was not a cheerful man. He was determined and ever in search of the next advantage. That often required an outgoing and gregarious presence, broad smiles, eye contact, and firm handshakes, not because of any true consideration, but because everyone potentially held information that would be valuable in positioning for success. His many questions created the aura of genuine interest, leaving others with both a sense of significance but also a lingering emptiness. Known for gestures of philanthropy, he understood the value of compassion as a means to more important objectives. Caring made people that much easier to manipulate. After a few halting attempts he has concluded that friends of any depth were a bad investment. So little return. Actual caring was inconvenient and a luxury for which he had no time or energy.
Instead he defined success in real estate property management and development, diverse business ventures, and a growing investment portfolio, where he was respected and feared as a severe negotiator and master deal maker. For Tony, happiness was a silly and transient sentiment, a vapor compared to the smell of a potential deal and the addicting aftertaste of the win. Like Scrooge of old, he took delight in wresting the last vestiges of dignity from those around him, especially employees who toiled from fear if not respect. Surely such a man is worthy of neither love nor compassion.
When he smiled, Tony could almost be mistaken for handsome. Genetics had gifted him with a six-foot-plus frame and good hair, which even now in his mid-forties showed no evidence of leaving even though the lawyer’s gray had started to salt his temples. Obviously Anglo-Saxon, a hint of something darker and finer softened his features, especially noticeable during rare moments when he was transported out of his customary business demeanor by some fancy or unhinged laughter.
By most standards he was wealthy, successful, and an eligible bachelor. A bit of a womanizer, he exercised enough to stay competitive, sporting only a barely sagging belly that could be sucked in appropriately. And the women came and went, the wiser the sooner, and each feeling less valuable for the experience.
He had married twice, to the same woman. The first union, while both were in their early twenties, had produced a son and a daughter, the latter now an angry young adult living across the country near her mother. Their son was another story. That marriage had ended in divorce for irreconcilable differences, a poster story of calculated disaffection and a callous lack of consideration. In only a few short years Tony had battered Loree’s sense of worth and value into barely recognizable bits and pieces.
The problem was she bowed out gracefully, and this could not be counted as a proper win. So Tony spent the next two years wooing her back, throwing a magnificent remarriage celebration, and then two weeks later serving her divorce papers for a second time. Rumor was these had been prepared even before the signatures were inked on the second set of marriage certificates. But this time she came at him with all the fury of a woman scorned, and he had financially, legally, and psychologically crushed her. This certainly could be chalked up as a win. It had been a ruthless game, but only to him.
The price he paid was losing his daughter in the process, something that rose like a specter in the shadows of a little too much Scotch, a little haunting that could soon be buried in the busyness of work and winning. Their son was a significant reason for the Scotch in the first place; over-the-counter medicine that softened the ragged edges of memory and regret and tempered the painful migraines that had become an occasional companion.
If freedom is an incremental process, so, too, is the encroachment of evil. Small adjustments to truth and minor justifications over time build an edifice that would never have been predicted. True for any Hitler or Stalin or common person. The inside house of the soul is magnificent but fragile; any betrayals and lies embedded in its walls and foundation shift its construction in directions unimagined.
The mystery of every human soul, even Anthony Spencer, is profound. He had been birthed in an explosion of life, an inner expanding universe coalescing its own internal solar systems and galaxies with unimagined symmetry and elegance. Here even chaos played her part and order emerged as a by-product. Places of substance entered the dance of competing gravitational forces, each adding their own rotation to the mix, shifting the members of the cosmic waltz and spreading them out in a constant give-and-take of space and time and music. Along this road, pain and loss came crushing, causing this depth to lose its profoundly delicate structure and begin to collapse in on itself. The deterioration rippled on the surface in self-protective fear, selfish ambition, and the hardening of anything tender. What had been a living entity, a heart of flesh, became stone; a small hardened rock lived in the husk, the shell of the body. Once the form was an expression of inward wonder and magnificence. Now it must find its way with no support, a facade in search of a heart, a dying star ravenous in its own emptiness.
Pain, loss, and finally abandonment are each a hard taskmaster, but combined they become a desolati
Those who recognized him on the streets nodded their greetings, the more perceptive spitting their disdain onto the sidewalk once he passed. But plenty of others were taken in; fawning sycophants awaited his next directive, desperate to win a scrap of approval or perceived affection. In the wake of alleged success, others are carried along by a need to secure their own significance, identity, and agenda. Perception is reality, even if the perception is a lie.
Tony owned an expansive house on acreage in the upper West Hills, and unless he was hosting a party for some advantage, kept only one small portion heated. Though he rarely bothered to stay there, he retained the place as a monument to vanquishing his wife. Loree won it as part of their first divorce settlement but had sold it to pay her mounting legal bills relating to their second. Through a third party he bought it from her for pennies on the dollar and then threw a surprise eviction party, complete with police to escort a stunned ex-wife off the premises on the day the sale closed.
He leaned forward again and switched off his computer, reaching for his Scotch, and rotated his chair so he could stare at a list of names he had written on a whiteboard. He got up, erased four names and added one, and then slumped back into his chair, the horses in his fingers again tapping their cadence onto his desk. Today he was in a fouler mood than usual. Business obligations had required attending a conference in Boston that held little interest for him, and then a minor crisis in personnel management meant he was returning a day earlier than planned. While it was annoying that he had to deal with a situation easily handled by subordinates in the company, he was grateful for the excuse to withdraw from the barely tolerable seminars and return to the barely tolerable routines over which he had more control.
But something had changed. What began as a hint of a shadow of uneasiness had grown to a conscious voice. For a few weeks Tony had felt a nagging sense he was being followed. At first he dismissed it as stress overreaching itself, the fabrications of an overworked mind. But once implanted, the thought had found fertile soil; and what began as a seed easily washed away by serious consideration spread roots that soon expressed itself in nervous hypervigilance, sapping even more energy from a mind constantly alert.
He began noticing details in minor events, which individually would draw barely a wonder. But together they became in his consciousness a chorus of warning. The black SUV he sometimes spotted shadowing him on his way to the main office, the gas attendant who forgot to return his credit card for minutes, the alarm company that notified him about three power failures at his home that seemed to affect only his property while his neighbors’ remained undimmed, each outage lasting exactly twenty-two minutes at the same time three days in a row. Tony began to pay more attention to trivial discrepancies and even how others looked at him—the barista at Stumptown Coffee, the security guard on the first-floor entry, and even the personnel manning the desks at work. He noted how they glanced away when he would turn in their direction, averting their eyes and quickly changing their body language to indicate they were busy and involved elsewhere.
There was an unnerving similarity in the responses of these disparate people, as if by collusion. Theirs was a secret to which he was not privy. The more he looked, the more he noticed, so the more he looked. He had always been a little paranoid, but it now escalated to constant considerations of conspiracy, and he lived agitated and unnerved.
Tony kept this small private office complete with a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, its whereabouts not even known to his personal lawyer. This was his retreat down by the river just off Macadam Avenue for the times when he simply wanted to disappear for a few hours or spend the night off the grid.
The larger property that housed this hidden hidey-hole he also owned, but had years before transferred the title to a nondescript shell company. He had then renovated a portion of its basement, equipping it with state-of-the-art surveillance and security technology. Other than the original contractors, who had all been hired at arm’s length, no one had seen these rooms. Even the building blueprints did not disclose their existence, thanks to construction payoffs and well-placed donations to local governmental chains of command. When the proper code was entered in what appeared to be a rusty telephone junction box keypad at the back of an unused janitorial closet, a wall slid sideways to reveal a steel fire door and modern camera and keypad entry system.
The place was almost completely self-contained, tied to power and Internet sources independent from the rest of the complex. Additionally, if his monitoring security software discovered any attempt to backtrace the location, it would shut and lock the system down until reset by entering a new and automatically generated code. This could be done from only one of two places: his downtown office desk or inside the secret lair itself. As a habit, before he entered he would turn off his mobile phone and remove its SIM card and battery. He had an unlisted landline that could be activated should there ever be the need.
There was no show here. The furnishings and art were simple, almost spartan. No one else would ever see this place, so everything in these rooms meant something to him. Books lined the walls, many he had never opened but had belonged to his father. Others, especially classics, his mother had read to him and his brother. The works of C. S. Lewis and George MacDonald were among the most prominent of these, childhood favorites. An early edition of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was prominently displayed, for his eyes alone. Crammed into one end of the bookshelf were a plethora of business books, well read and marked, an arsenal of mentors. A few works by Escher and Doolittle haphazardly hung on the walls and an old phonograph player sat in one corner. He kept a collection of vinyl records whose scratches were like comforting reminders of times long gone.
It was in this hidden office that he also kept his critically important items and documents: deeds, titles, and especially his official Last Will and Testament. This he frequently reviewed and changed, adding or subtracting people as they intersected his life and their actions angered or pleased him. He imagined the impact of a gift or the lack thereof on those who would care about his wealth once he had joined the ranks of the “dearly departed.”
His own personal lawyer, different from his general counsel, had a key to a safety-deposit box secured in the downtown main branch of Wells Fargo. This could be accessed only with his death certificate. Inside were instructions revealing the location of the private apartment and office, how to gain entry, and where to find the codes for opening the concealed safe buried in the foundation floor. Should anyone ever attempt to gain access to the box without a certified death certificate, the bank was required to notify Tony immediately; and as he had warned the attorney, if such ever occurred, their relationship would terminate without consideration, along with the healthy retainer that arrived promptly the first business day of every month.
Tony kept an older Last Will and Testament, for show, in the safe at the main office. A few of his partners and colleagues had access for business purposes, and he secretly hoped that curiosity would overtake one or the other, imagining their initial pleasure at knowing its contents followed by the sobering event of the reading of his actual will.
It was public information that Tony owned and managed the property adjacent to the building that housed his secret place. It was a similar structure with storefronts on the first floor and condos above. The two buildings shared underground parking, with strategically placed cameras that seemed to blanket the area completely but actually left a corridor that one could invisibly pass through. Tony could quickly access his hidden re
In order to justify his regular presence on this side of town, he publicly purchased a two-bedroom condominium on the second floor of the building next to his hidden office. The apartment was complete and lavishly apportioned, a perfect front, and he spent more nights here than at either his West Hills house or his getaway at the coast near Depoe Bay.
Tony had timed the walking distance between the condo and his secret sanctuary through the parking garage, and knew he could be sequestered away in his special sanctuary in less than three minutes. From the security of this enclosed and protected asylum he was connected to the outside world through recordable video feeds that monitored his personal properties and downtown office. The extensive electronic hardware was more for self-protection than it was for advantage. But nowhere had he hidden cameras in bedrooms or bathrooms, knowing that others would occasionally use them with his permission. He might have been many things distasteful, but a voyeur was not one of them.
Anyone recognizing his car driving into the garage would simply assume, and usually correctly, that he was coming to spend the night in his condo unit. He had become a routine fixture, part of the background noise of everyday activity, and his presence or absence sent no signal, drew no attention, which was just the way he wanted it. Even so, in his heightened state of anxiety, Tony was more cautious than usual. He altered his routines just enough that it would allow him to catch a glimpse of someone who might be tailing him, but not enough to create suspicion.
What he couldn’t understand was why anyone would be following him in the first place, or what might be their motivations and intentions. He had burned bridges, most bridges actually, and he supposed that therein he would find the answers. It has to be about money, he surmised. Wasn’t everything about money? Maybe it was his ex-wife? Perhaps his partners were preparing a coup to wrest his portion from him, or maybe a competitor? Tony spent hours, days, poring over the financial data of every transaction past and current, every merger and acquisition, looking for a pattern that was out of place, but found nothing. He then buried himself in the operations processes of the multiple holdings, again looking for… what? Something unusual, some hint or clue that would explain what was happening? He found some anomalies, but when he subtly raised them as issues with his partners, they were either swiftly corrected or explained in a manner that was consistent with the standard operating procedures he himself had created.
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