Aaron knocked on the door of the brick-walled, repurposed utility shed where Ranger Dan lived. There was no answer, but the door was unlocked, so Aaron went inside. Dan’s open living and dining rooms were empty, as were the others.
No answer. Aaron figured that meant the man was on the foundry floor amid his moths. Aaron retraced his steps and returned outside, then headed to the immense brick building next door that housed Dan’s babies. A faint tune drifted on the air. It was something old and although Aaron didn’t recognize it, he thought it must have been big once, probably played in countless elevators, cafes, or offices, so it had burrowed into his memory unnoticed. Steel guitar, a tremulous woman’s voice: Dolly Parton, maybe?
His hand on the foundry’s back door, Aaron hesitated. Above him, a half-dozen canvas-like bags hung from the arm of one of the lights flanking the door. They were smaller than his hand. He reached up and gingerly touched one. It twitched at the contact and he recoiled as if burned.
Inside the foundry, a vintage horn loudspeaker perpetuated the music. Now it was something by . . . Willie Nelson? Hank Williams? Aaron had to squint to make the speakers out, tucked as they were into the rafters twenty feet above him. He had helped install the sound system a few months after the foundry was renovated so Dan didn’t die of boredom watching his cocoons all day. Who needed a ladder? Aaron had simply scaled the steel trusses and pulled whatever cables he needed with him, scrambling among the rafters like a weightless spider.
The foundry was our biggest Moth Farm renovation to date. It was built a hundred years ago — a steel frame encased in concrete and thick brick, twenty or so feet high and over twenty-thousand square feet. At some point, it had housed a real foundry and ghostly furnace outlines were still visible when we broke up the concrete floor and carted it off, returning the main area to the packed earth it had sported in 1926. Atop this, we built twenty-one cages, each twelve feet in diameter with fifteen feet high frames, covered in charcoal fiberglass mesh screens. Each cage had, as its base, a raised, cylindrical planting bed three feet high containing a dwarf maple and such incidental accompaniments as made it into the building despite our best efforts: grass, clover, and endless dandelions. Man-sized egress panels were built into each cage for maintenance. The tops of the cages were hooked to a sprinkler system that ran off a battery powered by thermal collectors on the roof. We’d made a foundry-cum-greenhouse, all for Ranger Dan’s silk moths.
If you saw the building from the outside, you’d never have guessed its dingy, faded exterior seethed with a hundred thousand lives within. As Aaron walked down the nearest aisle, it was difficult to believe it now.The moths had long since disappeared and the caterpillars they’d left behind had gorged themselves all summer and retreated to the cocoons in which they overwintered. Aaron noted the maples had recovered, the foliage they’d sacrificed renewing itself as late as September. The trees were known for their resilience. Aaron loved their wispy leaves, variegated with purple, blood red, or dark green.
He passed a loudspeaker. A wire dangled from it with several cocoons attached. It was impossible to confine the intrepid beasts to their cages. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, except predators also made their homes inside the foundry. Behind the tinny crooning coming from the speakers was the steady chirping of birds. Their numbers were no match for the caterpillars, fortunately.
He made it to the front of the foundry without any sign of Dan. That was odd. He moved into another aisle and headed back toward the rear of the building.
Aaron was shocked into a crouch by the gun blast. It reverberated through the building, magnified and monstrous in the cavernous space. Before it died out, Aaron was off. He ran down the aisle toward the source of that terrible noise.
No answer, except Johnny Cash from the speakers. Aaron stopped frequently and called.
Aaron, where is Dan? What happened? I transmitted silently.
Aaron realized he must have broadcast his fear to me.
“Oh, no. Oh, no,” he whispered as he rounded the far end of the aisle.
I saw in his mind only one image: a soldier eating his shotgun. Where was Dan?
Running like crazy, Aaron almost missed it. He froze mid-run, skidding a little on the dried dirt beneath his feet. He sniffed the air.
What’s happening? What are you doing?
Aaron had to tell me outright, since one of the oddities of our link is that, unlike anxiety, scents don’t communicate.
Cigarette smoke, nearby, he thought to me.
Three cages later, Aaron found Dan, just far enough behind a cage so he wasn’t easily seen. The man seemed fine. He carried his shotgun on his lap, as he often did, but if it had been the source of the explosive din, the target hadn’t been himself.
Aaron moved beside Dan, who took a heavy drag of his cigarette before acknowledging Aaron’s presence.
In some sort of bizarre coincidence, “I Fall to Pieces” started up. Patsy Cline’s soprano lilt warbled clear and crisp through the air in spite of the subpar speakers.
Aaron cleared his throat. “Hey, old man. Everything all right?”
Dan exhaled slowly, smoke obscuring much of his weathered, tan face. Through wispy white, Aaron could make out a smirk. “I got him.”
Dan gestured toward the floor, then took another voluminous drag.
Aaron knelt. The nearest cage showed signs of damage. Bricks were cracked and crooked near the stone lip. Some of the mesh was pocked with holes and one of the cage supports was dented. There was also damage not made from the shotgun. Something had chewed a fist-size hole into the mesh. Aaron realized some of the red smears on the limestone rim of the planter were blood. His gaze followed a dirt trail from the chewed hole to the maple trunk, where a lump of what used to be an animal lay, perhaps a racoon, or a very large rat.
“That a racoon?” Aaron asked.
Dan nodded, mid-suck. His cheeks hollowed against his shifting dentures as the smoke filled his mouth and lungs. “Fucker was eating my babies.”
Aaron blinked several times, saying nothing.
Dan frowned. “I guess I’ll have to clean that up.”
“Nah,” Aaron said. “I’ll get someone on it. No worries.”
Dan swiveled his wheelchair so he could stare directly at Aaron. He didn’t ask what Aaron wanted, but the question was there in his face.
Aaron pulled a fat envelope from the back pocket of his jeans. “First October cash. Two thousand, same as always.”
Dan took the envelope and tucked it into his hunting vest, saying nothing.
Make sure you ask him about the rents, I transmitted.
Aaron didn’t answer. We handled all the Moth Farm’s finances. We boiled the complexities of the twenty-acre, multi-use, constantly changing site down to two-thousand in cash twice a month for Dan, for whatever he wanted to buy for himself. He hated accounting, administration, or anything else that might involve math or a computer. He trusted us with all of that, preferring cold, tangible cash in his gnarled hands.
Aaron had grown to love this aging, reticent eccentric like a father. We could go bankrupt ten times over before he would stop bringing Dan his allowance. It didn’t matter if any of the books actually added up.
Aaron glanced at his watch. He had to leave if he had any chance of making Cathedral’s pet blessing before afternoon prayer. Dan hadn’t seemed to notice the baby carrier hanging from Aaron’s chest.
Rent! I tele-shouted. Ask him about the damn rent!
Aaron sighed. “You know, sir, some of the rental contracts are coming up for renewal.”
Dan took a drag, blowing smoke out from the side of his lips into the hazy cloud around them. He said nothing.
Aaron cleared his throat. “Those rents haven’t been, uh, adjusted in a while.”
“Adjusted?” Dan’s eyes narrowed.
“Well,” Aaron eyed a random point on the nearest cage. “They haven’t been cost-of-living adjusted since 1984 when you inherited the site.”
Dan seemed to lose interest in the conversation. His attention returned to the animals beside them: thousands of encased living beings dangling above one unfortunate dead one.
Aaron shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Cost-of-living was about half of what it is now back then.”
Dan stared at the shotgun in his lap, dragging heavily. “So you want to raise it the other fifty percent or something?”
Fifty percent? Jeez, Aaron. He doesn’t understand. Explain it to him.
“Something like that,” Aaron said.
Tell him they at least need to double, ideally more, because —
The man gave his legs for our country, Tamara. I’m not correcting his freaking arithmetic.
Dan frowned. “Fifty percent sounds like a lot. So, if some guy is paying two hundred, he’d need to start paying . . . three hundred?”
“Where’s the man going to get the other hundred from? It don’t grow on trees.”
“Well, his income would go up with inflation, too.”
Dan exhaled from both sides of his lips. Smoke framed the watery, gray eyes intent on Aaron’s face. “You think he’d have another hundred in his paycheck but this time, then?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” Aaron said.
Dan’s frown deepened. “It still seems like a lot.”
Aaron was silent.
Christ, Aaron, I thought. We’re so far in the red for this site. Does he have any fucking —
In his mind, Aaron saw a medieval door of iron and redwood with “Tamara” branded into it. He slammed the door shut and cut me off.
Dan said, “How about half of that? Twenty percent?”
“That’ll be fine, sir,” Aaron said.
Dan fished in his pocket, bringing out a crushed box of Winstons. As he shook a cigarette from it, his other hand searched his pockets for his lighter. “Anything else, boy?”
“That’s it, sir. Thank you.”
Dan nodded. Aaron turned and walked away, his departure regaled by brooding honky-tonk
North of the foundry was a giant courtyard of gravel and crumbling tarmac marking the north-east corner of the Moth Farm. A large circle of concrete anchored an eighty-foot flagpole bearing a thirty-foot Old Glory. Exhilaration filled Aaron at the sight. Freedom wasn’t a far-off ideal. It was right here, in the shadow of that fluttering beauty. No overcast sky, no drizzling rain could dull the colors of that flag.
To the south began the dog pens. Barking and yipping drowned out Ranger Dan’s music as Asher approached. He waved to a couple of trainers in the pens.
Matthews No-Kill Animal Shelter and Veterinary Clinic consisted of two townhouses and the quarter-acre pens behind them. Access from Constitution Street was through the north building. Aaron liked to see the inscription etched in limestone above the transom: Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.
Despite his philanthropic nature, Aaron was not particularly modest. He craved the swell in his breast at the sight of his deeds, at the symbols of his strength in that beautiful flag, or this timeless epigraph.
A woman Aaron didn’t recognize was behind the counter in the reception area. She had long black hair and large amber eyes. Her v-neck nurses smock hinted at considerable cleavage and her shapely bottom rounded into the seat of her padded chair. Aaron subtly appreciated her body while looking straight into her eyes.
“Are you new? I come here fairly often and I don’t recall seeing you,” he said.
She blinked several times at him before answering. “I . . . just started last week.”
He extended his hand over the counter. “Hello, then. I’m Aaron.”
She took it, pressing lightly into his palm before pulling away. “Lilian.”
They made small talk for several minutes, then she all of a sudden seemed to remember she was supposed to be receiving him. She eyed the baby carrier hanging from his shoulders.
“Are you here to pick someone up?”
Before Aaron could answer, Dr. Noble came out of an inner office. Upon seeing Aaron, she came right over.
“Mr. Gold! No one told me you’d arrived.” The silver-haired veterinarian glared at the young receptionist, who turned bright pink.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Noble. He just arrived, and —“
“Never mind.” The indomitable silver-haired woman waved her hand dismissively then beckoned to Aaron. “Follow me. I have the perfect puppy for you. Quiet as a church mouse and docile as a doormat.”
Aaron let himself be led away. He twisted so he could look back at Lilian and waggled his fingers at her. “Nice to meet you,” he said.
Lilian, for her part, had obviously realized that Aaron was, in fact, the owner of the compound — the one who wrote her paychecks and whose prowess in real estate and philanthropy preceded him. She looked as if she wished the counters surrounding her would fold up and swallow her whole. She didn’t reply to him, instead being occupied by the pencil cup she’d managed to knock over, spilling its considerable contents all over the counter and onto the foyer floor.
Aaron stared at the furry, happy dog sitting on the exam room table.
“Wow. Is that a Saint Bernard?”
Dr. Noble scratched the dog’s head. “Yes. He’s not quite eight weeks.”
The puppy seemed huge already and most likely over the twenty pound weight limit for Aaron’s baby carrier. He came closer and studied the dog. He petted him and the huge ball of fluff licked and nuzzled his hand. With floppy, dark brown ears and gigantic brown eyes, one ringed with tawny fur, the puppy was one of the cutest Aaron had ever seen. The Bernard’s broad snout was brown colored, freckled with black. His body was snow white with thick, downy-soft shag everywhere.
“I know he’s a bit big, but he’s very quiet. No one here has even heard him bark yet, and I asked all the techs. And, he’ll do whatever you say.” She turned to the dog. “Lie down, Sherlock.”
The puppy immediately flopped onto his back. Aaron tickled his incredibly soft, gently pudgy belly, impressed the dog didn’t mind being stroked in such a sensitive area by a stranger.
“What do you think?” Dr. Noble’s brown eyes were almost as wide and eager as Sherlock’s.
Aaron took a deep breath. “I think I’m going to need a bigger baby carrier.”
Outside, Aaron checked his watch yet again. Traffic had picked up on Constitution Street and Madison Avenue, meaning even if he did take the bus, which he never did, he wouldn’t make it back to drop Sherlock off before the Mincha started at Temple Bess. That meant he would be bringing Sherlock with him and testing Rabbi Rach’s tolerance. Aaron checked his supplies. Water and treats in his waist pack, check. Twenty-five pounds of dog in the carrier on his chest, check. Sherlock’s tongue lolled from his mouth as he, too, silently surveyed the city spread before them.
Aaron watched a silver Humvee turn the corner and crawl along Madison. He supposed if today resulted in another ejection from a house of prayer he would be lucky he had only committed a year to them.
He lifted his head to the northeast and a translucent laser beam in fluorescent green that only he could see followed his vision down the avenue. He moved his head and the trace followed, delineating the straightest line he could imagine to Cathedral of Christ, taking only marginal notice of intervening city structures. He couldn’t see his destination, but he knew it was there, and he knew that his green line would take him there much faster than any combination of public transportation ever could. His imaginary green trace pulsed to the city rhythm, like a metronome clicking the shortest time between two points.
This was training. Aaron imagined he was carrying a child. A hunted child, and if he didn’t make it to the Cathedral in twenty minutes, something horrible would happen: parents would cry, crowds would despair, heaven itself would shudder. Adrenaline rushed down the back of his neck in anticipation of the race. The traffic slowed to a stop and the only route clear was straight in front of him, leaping drain grates, trash cans, up the side of a law office building and along the flat roofs behind it. Beyond that, who knew? Aaron believed in the green line and knew it would click out the way. It always did.
A slight movement of the dog’s head indicated yes, I’m ready. They ran and Aaron raced against the clock, took to the skies, and tested the limits of what a man can do with his body against the urban impediments in his way. Traffic resumed as the light changed and someone might have honked, but Aaron was unaware, focused as he was on his green trace, and the life-or-death scenario in his head.