The journalist didn't know anyone in Ardmore, Nebraska, let alone someone named Claire. The name, written in cursive, was the only word in the upper left-hand corner of the beige envelope. "Not much of a return address,” the writer mumbled while walking across the road from his mailbox to the front door of his condo on the beach of Pensacola. At noon, the high blue sky was almost washed out, but a brisk wind came off the Gulf, moderating the ninety-degree temperatures common in July. He glanced at the postmark again. Yep, Ardmore, Oklahoma, a town he'd never heard of. It probably had a stoplight, police station, post office, and feed store.
He tossed the envelope, the size of Hallmark greeting card, onto his desk with a few bills and pieces of junk mail. He settled into his desk chair and hit a few keys of his Remington electric – he'd tried an Apple word processor, but the screen kept freezing up – but stopped to look obliquely through the sliding glass door leading to the wooden deck. It had been a day such as this, warm and sunny, when he'd spied Irene standing in the surf, looking up at him, beckoning him to join her in the blue waves rolling onto the pristine white sands of the beach. Then, as today, the glare of the white sand and the sun reflecting from the wave crests farther out at sea made him squint, but he'd had no doubt that it was Irene calling and waving to him. "Jim! Jiimmmm!" Strange how a person could be in a precise spot one moment, measured by geographical coordinates if one wanted to be absolutely clinical and scientific about the matter, and gone the next.
James Capwell jerked his head back so as to concentrate on the typewriter keys before him. Irene had disappeared three years ago, and time and tide – and editors, too – waited for no man. "Gotta live in the present, James," he told himself. "Gotta put food on the table and a few beers in the fridge." The Remington's keys struck the platen like a cap pistol discharging rapid-fire shots, vowels and consonants popping onto white paper, hammered into reality by James' logical, well-ordered thoughts.
Well, not so well-ordered today perhaps. His eyes kept drifting to the beige envelope. Okay, so I might as well open my mail now since I'm a curious reporter, and besides, between memories of Irene and the trip to the mailbox, I've lost my train of thought anyway. "Let's see who you are, Claire from Nebraska." For an instant, James smiled and thought he sounded like Larry King taking the next caller. His index finger slipped under the flap and peeled it away from the envelope. He usually ripped open his bills and credit card statements, but this – this was a curiosity, a pleasant mystery that had landed on his desk. That's the way it had been when he'd worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune four years earlier. Sometimes you dug for stories, and sometimes they sailed into your life, unsolicited, like a paper airplane gliding through an open window. The contents on the single page, neatly folded in the middle, deepened the mystery.Dear James,
I know we only met once, but you were such a sweet man that I Think of you often. Do you ever think of me?
James had never known anyone named Claire in his life. "No, Claire," he said, eyebrows raised, "I don't think of you at all. I guess you have too much time on your hands up there in . . . " He put down the vellum sheet and looked again at the front of the envelope to make sure the handwriting of the note matched the penmanship of the address. "Ardmore," he said, finishing his statement. That's when he noticed the misspelling of his last name. James didn't miss the obvious very often – certainly not James Capwell, the reporter with the steel trap mind – but most any reporter worth his salt, really, had to pay attention to details, just like a police detective poking around a murder scene. The letter had been addressed to James Copewell. James let out a belly laugh. Yeah, right. I've coped so well for the last three years since Irene did her disappearing act.
But here was the strange thing, the really strange thing: the address was correct. Whoever had dropped the letter into a mail slot a thousand miles away in the heartland of America had known that a guy named Jim lived at 2417 Beach Road in Pensacola, Florida. Forget about the slight spelling variation of his last name. That the letter had reached him and no one else couldn't be a mistake, no way. No way, no how, as Irene used to say.
"Goodnight, Irene," he said, the usual mantra he used to refocus his thoughts onto work. He was working on several stories, and he wanted to finish two before the sun became a slightly flattened orange ball sitting on the watery horizon at sunset. The first he wanted to wrap up was about a Chinese student at Ole Miss who'd stood outside the Student Union to show his solidarity with the protesters who had defied tanks in Tiananmen Square a few weeks earlier, in May. The Chinese government had crushed the demonstration for democracy, but before they did, a college student had stared down an approaching tank – and won. The picture of his defiance had been run by every news service in the world.
His mother had told him not to marry Irene. Had told him that something wasn't quite right with her – his mother, who claimed to be psychic, to pick up on subtle vibes in the ether even though she worked as a librarian and not a Tarot card reader. But what twenty-something man listens to dear old Mom when it comes to advice on whom to date or marry? Irene seemed perfectly charming. She was witty, intelligent, beautiful. James could still hear the "I told you so" speech from his mother when Irene was gone, and—
He was doing it again. "Good night, Irene," he repeated.
The college student at Ole Miss had proclaimed that he wasn't going to move until the Chinese government lifted martial law. The latter, of course, wasn't going to happen, and the administrators at Ole Miss had sent in campus security after the nineteen-year-old young man had stood his ground for five days, drinking water and Gatorade given him by friends. He'd had to sit a few times – sometimes dozed off – but each time he climbed back to his feet and stood at attention. James liked the story. It was man against the authorities, and he could sell it to any number of magazines or papers outside of the deep South, where such defiance didn't play awfully well among old families with a lot of money in the bank and traditional values in their brains. James was thirty-one, born in 1958. A little too young to have been a hippy in the grand, wild sixties, but he was an iconoclast by nature, and if he'd been born just a decade earlier, he might have been marching in the streets for civil rights and other causes.
Born too late? Not really. James didn't know it yet, but he'd have to make a stand against authority in the not-so-distant future. It would be a brief stand, but one that would affect the rest of his life.
Three hours later, he'd written -30- at the end of each piece, the old-fashioned way of writing "The End" for editors. He stood, stretched, and decided to jog for an hour along the beach. He was slender but muscular, and he kept in good shape. Fifteen minutes later, the six-foot-two freelance journalist was running along the shore, the sun sinking fast into the Gulf. An evening breeze ruffled his short brown hair.
Who is Claire? he wondered again and again. How does she know who I am or where I live? She wants to know if I ever think of her. No, not at all, but she made sure that I would, starting now. Or maybe she's crazy, a stalker. It's not like it hasn't happened before.
A few years earlier, James had been doing a story about the New Orleans Mafia. A prostitute had started babbling one night about a one of her former boyfriends in organized crime, one who had been part of the Kennedy assassination. James had dropped the story after encountering a man in a parking garage – a "deep throat" kind of encounter – who'd told him to focus his considerable talents on other matters, which he did.
He shook off the thoughts of the mysterious Claire. He was jogging to clear his head. He allowed the sounds of the surf to speak to him. It was the only language that spoke in unequivocal, dependable syllables. The tide came in and the tide went out. The earth spun through space, tugged at by the moon, which produced tidal swells that you could bank on. As a writer, James admired any language that always told the truth.
After half a mile, however, the gentle surf seemed to be whispering Claire, Claire.
The second note arrived in the mail two days later and was a bit longer.
You gave me such hope when you handed me that penny. You told me to keep it as a good luck charm since the words In God We Trust were stamped on it. It's little things like that which give us hope sometimes. I thanked you at the time, but I wanted you to know that I still look at that penny frequently. I'm still hoping.
It all came back at the mention of the penny. James now remembered who Claire was. Earlier that year, on March 24, the Exxon Valdez had run aground on Bligh Reef off the coast of Alaska in Prince William Sound. The tanker spilled over 314 million gallons of crude oil into the sound, killing or wounding countless seals, birds, fish, otters, and other animals. The Times-Picayune had put James back on the payroll temporarily and sent him up to Alaska since he'd covered dozens of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and had written extensively on coastal erosion in southern Louisiana as well as the environment of the swamps and marshlands. He was uniquely qualified to ascertain what kind of ecological damage had been caused in the postcard-beautiful waters in the northwest.
News and film crews from all over the world had gathered at the site quickly, filling up hotels in nearby Anchorage, so the closest James could find lodging was in the small town of Seldovia, Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula, east of Cook Inlet. On most days during his three-week stint in the area, he rode the Seldovia Ferry to the town of Homer, Alaska, from which he could travel north and then east to the media camps near Prince William Sound and see the oil slick that seemed to drape the land and water like an enormous sheet of black satin.
It was on the Seldovia Ferry one evening that James had stood on the top deck, leaning against the railing, next to a woman who had sighed heavily before stifling a few sobs. Her elbows were propped on the railing as she stared straight ahead. James never got a clear look at her face since the brisk evening wind, causing choppy blue waves in the inlet, blew long blond strands of her hair out over the railing, shielding most of her face. At the time, he guessed she was quite young, maybe twenty-five, twenty-six tops. Their conversation had been brief.
"Is everything okay?" James asked.
"Just having a bad day," she answered.
"Anything I can do? Are you feeling ill?"
Claire shook her head. "No, nothing like that. Hard times. Sorry if I bothered you."
James respected her privacy by also looking straight ahead except for brief sideways glances. He took a shiny penny from his jeans' pocket. It was a good luck charm Irene had given him two years earlier. It obviously hadn't brought good luck to James or his wife.
"In God we trust," he said, holding the coin between his thumb and index finger as he offered it to Claire. "Take it. Sometimes things have a way of working out. I'm a reporter, and I've seen things turn around for people in a scrape." James wasn't sure he believed this humble philosophy any longer, but if it would help the young woman, why not give her the penny. It was a random act of kindness, and who knew – maybe he would earn a little positive karma.
"Thank you," said Claire, taking the coin. "You're very kind."
"No problem. I know what it's like to go through a rough patch. Don't give up, though."
He pointed to a gull riding the stiff air currents thirty feet off starboard. "Notice how the bird doesn't fight the wind. It just spreads its wings and tried to keep steady. It trusts the invisible."
Claire nodded and sniffled. "Interesting point. I'll remember that."
The ferry had docked and James went to his rented apartment in Seldovia and slept for two hours before getting up for dinner at a local restaurant. He'd been beat after hiking the rocks at the north shore of Prince William Sound. He never saw Claire again. She'd hurried off the boat and blended into the dozens of passengers going ashore.
James didn't know what kind of burdens Claire had been carrying in her soul, but he reasoned that they must have been considerable if his single small act of kindness had made such a difference in her life.
Her rough patch. Yes, James knew all about those. He'd been at The Times-Picayune for two years before Irene began to exhibit the first sign of her troubles. Her "troubles" – a vague term he'd begun using, just as the clashing factions in Northern Ireland, the Protestants and the Catholics, had called their violent cultural and political differences "the troubles." Irene had indeed been someone who seemed to be at war with herself.
Life before the troubles had been pretty good for James. Excellent, in fact. He had a lovely wife, and he was doing what he'd dreamed of for years, which was reporting the news. In high school he'd written an article about the principal after the head honcho had been caught having an affair with his secretary. It was a major scandal, and James had written a column on hypocrisy – he'd listened to all those damned assembly speeches during which Mr. DeRitter had droned on about family values – and two months before graduation, the moderator of the school newspaper ran James' story. The moderator had already been hired by a neighboring school district, and as for James, he knew he would be dropped from the staff of the paper, but that was just fine since he had one foot out the door himself and knew he would be majoring in journalism at LSU.
The joy of digging for facts and uncovering the truth only grew during his college years. Stories were everywhere, and tracking down the info to make sense of them was like assembling a grand jigsaw puzzles. He learned that good reporting involved a lot of research, cold calling, legwork, blind alleys, and, more than anything, an intuitive sense that made you willing to gamble, to play hunches. Pressing a source that was stonewalling was a fine art, not a guerilla tactic. And questioning someone at the periphery of a story because gut overruled logic and told you that a man or woman was somehow germane to the facts – well, that was something you couldn't learn in the classroom.
James Capwell loved it all: cluttered desks, piles of notepads, a jar of nubby pencils, overdue library books, news clippings, late-night calls from anonymous sources, and the endless cups of coffee that kept the typewriter talking even when the darkening stubble on his chin and cheeks clearly indicated that his body needed some R and R.
It had been at the Picayune when Irene's crying spells had started. After six months, his editor on the city desk told him he couldn't keep running home to check up on the little lady, as he'd called her. Irene's "troubles" had begun. A local shrink could find no cause for the tears, so James moved to Pensacola and went freelance, a precarious way to put food on the table. But James was good – very good, in fact – and published pieces in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. From then on, he usually was able to place his material in solid newspapers and slick magazines with glossy covers, both national and regional, and it wasn't unprecedented for editors around the country to ask James to handle a story. When the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef, James' former editor in New Orleans called him immediately. There had never been any bad blood between the two men since James knew that the Picayune editor couldn't have his rising star playing nursemaid every day. Three years before the oil spill in Prince William Sound, therefore, James had been politely asked to hand in his resignation. Ironically, Irene's troubles had ceased as soon as the couple had exited, stage right, the city of New Orleans. In time, James thought that he'd be able to get back with a big paper, maybe The New York Times if his resume and portfolio continued to fatten, but that's not how things played out. The troubles were destined to return.
He'd continued to freelance after Irene had left the building, so to speak, and he never looked back. Now he was confronted by something as ethereal as a woman's silhouette, a ghost of sorts from the Seldovia Ferry that plowed the icy waters of Cook Inlet. She obviously had troubles, too – serious ones, he figured, since she was clutching to the words engraved by the United States Treasury on its most common coin of the realm. His brief encounter with the enigmatic Claire, coupled with her brief missives, proved that a story was hiding somewhere in Ardmore, Nebraska, assuming the young woman wasn't a transient, but James thought that unlikely. He wanted a response even though she had not provided a street number as part of her return address.
But how could she expect a reply without giving James a simple number to grab – 125 Maple Street, 55 Elm, 3314 Prairie Drive – anything that would allow him to answer her question: Do you ever think of me?
James knew the answer. The letters were bait. She wanted more than a reply courtesy of the U. S. Post Offfice. She wanted James, a seasoned reporter, to track her down. Ah, that was the rub: how did she know James was a veteran reporter with the necessary skills to accomplish such a mission?
The answer was a no-brainer. She'd gone to the library and found his work, perhaps paging through hundreds of recent periodicals looking for his byline. It wouldn't have been hard to find, especially if she'd begun her search by looking for stories on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And all because he'd dropped a single phrase into his rather hollow consolation (or so it seemed to him): I'm a reporter, and I've seen things turn around for people in a scrape.
He wasn't going to get in his SUV quite yet. He'd wait to see if another letter from Ardmore showed up. Maybe Claire would call him. His number was in the directory in case a reluctant source wanted to start singing a few bars of "This is what really went down, Mr. Capwell." No, he'd wait and see.
"Some other time," he said aloud.
"I think you should leave for Nebraska right now." It was the voice of Irene, even though there was no one in the house but the journalist.
James hated when his ex-wife spoke to him.
James walked absentmindedly along the beach, rain clouds boiling up from the horizon. The atmosphere over the Gulf was surrealistic, with the sun still casting golden-yellow light onto the sand while several shades of dark gray hung over the water. Lightning scratched through the impending storm, slicing a black thunderhead in two.
"I've always loved you," Irene said."
Yes, I know," James said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Now would you mind leaving me alone?"
"I think I'll keep you company for a spell," she said in her lilting Alabama accent that had so charmed James, who was originally from Washington, D.C.
"Look," he said, turning sideways, "I'm getting very tired of —"
He froze. For a split second, he saw a woman walking by his side, a woman looking straight ahead toward the dune grass twenty yards in the distance. A woman whose hair streamed forward from the gusting wind, creating a blond curtain so that he couldn't see her face.
And then she was gone. Neither Claire nor Irene had been there, of course. Irene's voice resided somewhere in James' cerebral cortex and represented his ongoing puzzlement at how a person can just drop out of reality so quickly and thoroughly. His reporter's instincts wouldn't let go of Irene's lilting voice, pale skin, red lips, and bewitching hazel eyes. Maybe one day she would say something inside of his head, something that would help make sense of it all.
But why had Claire assumed Irene's roll at the last minute, a spectral stand-in?
"Because my mind can't figure that one out either," James told himself while picking up a large conch shell. Holding it to his ear, he heard no feminine voice, only the roar of the waves, which was growing louder as the thunderheads drifted towards land. The waves crested, foamy whitecaps falling forward like soldiers assaulting a beach.
James reversed his course as the first few drops hit his face and the beach, turning the white sand to ever-larger patches of brown and gray. He hurried into his condo and poured a cup of coffee in the tiny kitchen before settling into the worn leather chair at his desk.
Fortunately, there was no response.
James needed to write two follow-ups to stories he'd filed with the Picayune, which had given him the title Special Correspondent to go beneath his byline. The city editor who'd canned James, Travis Keener, always tried to throw James as many journalistic bones as he could since the beginning of Irene's troubles. It was as if he knew that most families have an unsolved mystery or two, as if he knew that few couple were able to completely able to avoid troubles of one kind or another. Moreover, Keener seemed to sense that any attempt to actually articulate said troubles would, in some cases, make no sense to the listener. Context was everything. You see, I saw the ghost of my father, King Hamlet, and he told me that my Uncle Claudius poured poison into the king's ear in order to marry my mother Gertrude.
The first story James tackled as he sipped from his coffee mug concerned Julian Washington, the eight-year-old son of prominent New Orleans blues John Washington, who went by the name of Wailing Jack Washington. Most just called him Wailing Jack. Julian had been abducted two months earlier, on May 22, 1989. Neither the NOPD nor the FBI had been able to locate the child, and Wailing Jack had turned to James, who was fond of listening to Jack play his Fender strat and sing in in the French Quarter music clubs. After a little commonsense investigative work, James found that the authorities had dropped the ball in searching for the missing child. James, with some help from a local P.I. had traced all sales of Wailing Jack's records – he was a regional performer, which made the task far easier – and by looking at simple credit card transactions listing Jack's records, a trail led straight to a barn in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mississippi state troopers found Julian bound and gagged in a horse stall a few feet away from a stash of narcotics and firearms. Two good ole boys were apprehended in the adjacent farmhouse, in the very process of printing a crude ransom note asking a hundred grand in exchange for the safe return of the boy.
An anonymous source at the NOPD would later confirm that federal and local authorities didn't much care about Julian's predicament since his father had been busted for possession of cocaine ten years earlier. Never mind the fact that the two kidnappers were bad honchos compared to a local celebrity who'd gotten off the path for a briet time a decade earlier – prejudice and pettiness were alive and well in the twenty-first century. It was this departmental and bureau corruption that James was chronicling in his follow-up articles. Hopefully, his pieces would lead to some indictments and a little law enforcement housekeeping courtesy of Internal Affairs and some congressional outcries. James wasn't a wealthy writer, but he knew that his work sometimes made a difference.
The other story he was working was about the return of Halley's Comet in 1986 and how astronomers were suddenly interested in a phenomenon called earth-crossing asteroids. Rogue comets were of interest, too. What would Planet Earth do if a giant cosmic snowball or large chunk of nickel-iron was spotted on a trajectory that would smack our blue-green home upside the head? The dinosaurs had learned the consequences sixty-five million years ago, and with renewed interest in the detritus of the solar system, attention had been focused on more serious searches of the night sky since scientists claimed that it wasn't a question of if the earth would be hit by a cosmic bullet, but when. James really become interested in astronomy when an astrophysics major at college let him look through the larger telescopes at the university observatory.
As his fingers drummed the keys of his Remington, James couldn't help but think that Claire was a rogue comet that had done a quick orbit around his life up in Alaska before heading back into deep space. But Comet Claire hadn't forgotten him – no how, no way. And if the metaphor held any truth at all, she would return unless he sought her out first.
The matter was decided when the noon mail arrived with a third note from Claire wedged between an Office Depot catalog and a check for a piece he'd written for the Sunday Supplement of The Dallas Morning Star.
This will be my last letter to you. Something terrible has happened. I'm not sure whether or not I'll be staying here much longer. I tried to trust in God, but I guess he's too busy for the likes of me. I am keeping the penny, at least for now. It didn't bring me any luck, but it still reminds me of you and your kind words. Be well.
Was the "terrible thing" that had befallen Claire related to the woes that made her cry on the Seldovia Ferry, or was she one of the unhappy few whose destiny was to be knocked down every time she tried to stand up? Maybe she had encountered her own rogue comet, something that had marked her life with a bull's-eye and then burrowed into her soul. Whatever had happened, James could see that her self-worth was quite low since she didn't think God had much time to consider her plight, and his thoughts once again returned to the hypothesis that she might be plagued by an abusive husband or boyfriend. Either way, he was familiar with the feeling of abandonment. When looking through powerful reflecting telescopes back in college, he felt certain that a divine hand had shaped a universe with so many galaxies and deep-space objects, jewels against the black velvet of night. After Irene's troubles, however, he became one of the very people he'd detested most of his life: someone who, because of personal pain, questioned why God would create a world of suffering. He's always believed that people caused suffering, not God, and to blame a creator for the ills of sinful, power-hungry mankind was just too simplistic. And yet his anger and confusion had brought him to this exact question uttered by millions around the world: "Why, God?"
It wasn't a question he could answer, but maybe there was one that he could satisfactorily address. He decided to leave for Ardmore, Nebraska, the following morning.
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