Winona Kent - Skywatcher
Christopher Robin Harris leaned on the counter, stuck his chin on his fist, and stared at his face in the bathroom mirror. He'd always thought there was more of his father there than his mother. But where had the rest of it come from-the rather delicately boned cheeks, the blue eyes,the mass of blond, somewhat unruly hair? Not from either side, as far as he could see.
He straightened up, eyeballing his reflection with the same intensity his father had mastered on television twenty years before: the look that could kill at thirty paces. Much had been made of the blazing, green-eyed Evan Harris glare. Women had mobbed him over it. Women had torn out handfuls of his hair. Robin slung his knapsack over his shoulder and flicked off the bathroom light. Too bad his mother hadn't been one to share their enthusiasm.
He let himself out of the house and trudged up the steep driveway to Creekdene Road, shivering slightly in the February morning air. They'd been married fifteen years, his mother and Evan; they had produced three sons - he was the youngest; and they had managed to get themselves disconnected and unrelated, officially, neatly, and in fine California tradition, on the morning of his second birthday.
He unlocked the door to The Wreck, slid inside, and started the engine, making note of a new and rather odd-sounding noise, then drove into a cul-de-sac a hundred feet away to turn around. This high up in the British Properties, the houses clung to the hillside, anchored to the rocks like absurd engineering feats, defying the natural forces that brought down the winter landslides and intermittent bursts of creek water from the snowfields above. The view was great. The controlled slither he had to negotiate every morning to get down the mountain was the pits.
He tested The Wreck's brakes on a notoriously slippery patch of road. You never knew, with this car. Things alternately worked and didn't work, according to some obscure astrological clock. There was bubbled rust around the sills and fenders; radiator hoses mysteriously burst and brackets fell off his muffler assembly in the middle of traffic; the right rear seat belt had never advanced more than three inches out of its holder; and the parking brake warning light was permanently on, even though the brake itself had ceased to function three days after the vehicle had been presented to him on his nineteenth birthday, the September before.
And as for Christopher Robin ....Christopher Robin was going to be late for classes if he didn't step on it.
* * *
Rosie Mladenovicki struggled across the grassy square,the pointed heels of her black granny boots sinking into the soft, damp turf that sucked at her feet. Damn. Why had she worn them today? Why not sandals? Why not running shoes? Who could foresee that she would be running? Who could foresee anything?
Out of breath, she reached the concrete sidewalk that skirted the metered parking stalls, mustering her last pool of energy, turning toward the relative shelter of SUB, the Student Union Building. Telephones-where were the telephones?
A bank of them had been installed beside the ride board, across the hallway from a shop that sold gourmet cookies and steaming almond milk. The delicious odor of chocolate, baking, nuts, and espresso wafted out to envelop her, tantalizing her nostrils as she rammed her quarter into the slot and punched the numbers with hot, slippery fingers.
Heart pounding, she waited for an answer, watching beside her, behind her. Where are you?
"Me," she said into the receiver. "Rosie. He is coming to here, yes? Tell him-I give to Tigger-No. No time. You tell. I go. I am caught. I go."
hung up, watching again as the hoards of students sauntered by her.
Looking, searching. She fingered the object in the pocket of her
dress, feeling the cool, hard plastic, the edges, the crannies, the
bumpy bits. I give to Tigger.
Where was he? Where would she be likely to find him at this hour?
With a nod at her wristwatch, she slipped into the ebb and flow of scholars, and disappeared from the building forever.
* * *
Robin was actually ahead of schedule as he pulled onto the university campus. He began a slow tour of the grounds, looking for a place to park. There was a Wreck-size space on Northwest Marine Drive, which he seized,pulling a U-turn in the middle of the road. He locked the car and trudged onto the campus down East Mall.
He'd been thinking about his father, and his father’s old TV show. It had been called Spy Squad, the "Squad" being a dozen or so multi-talented undercover agents who ventured out once a week to save the world from imminent destruction.
While these minor spies were busy rotating roles,three major characters appeared in every episode. Mandy was a beautiful English girl with long blond hair and a kick that could kill or maim any counterespionage agent who happened to get in her way. Huff (it was short for something-Huffnagel or Huffnitz) was the son of a New York rabbi, who did intelligent things like program computers to blow up the buildings where the counterespionage agents hid after Mandy had done them irreparable damage. And then there was Evan's character, Jarrod Spencer, whose major feature was that he was good-looking and reasonably able to act-which was more than the English girl or the guy from Brooklyn could do.
Spy Squad had hung on from 1967 to 1970, after which it had disappeared into the annals of television history, to be resurrected for brief runs only when some bright-eyed program director capitulated to nostalgia and a sackful of letters from the local contingent of the Evan Harris Fan Club.
Robin smiled to himself. He wasn't absolutely certain where these diehards hung out, except he knew that his middle brother, Anthony, had surreptitiously become a card-carrying member, his "Special Agent Identification" prudently made out to one fictitious Tony Raymond. Their father, for his part, tried to have as little to do with the Squaddies as possible.
Robin stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and sauntered down East Mall toward Buchanan Tower. The air was blowing in fresh from the sea. Behind him, in English Bay,several rusty freighters were riding at anchor in the blue water. As he strolled past E Block, ankle-deep in dead oak leaves, his attention was diverted by a woman whose hair had been cemented into a dozen wicked-looking spikes dyed platinum blond, shocking pink, electric green, and Saskatchewan sky-blue. This multicolored topping was a sharp contrast to her black costume, which consisted of a very long sack dress, a pair of tights that ended midway down her calves, and pointed granny boots.
Robin's first thought was that she played with a band,and that she was on campus to do a gig in the Pit, the somewhat sleazy student pub, or a dance at the Grad Centre. She was not, however, heading in the direction of either place. In fact, she had quite an alarmed look on her face and seemed to be trying to decide between dashing into the library via the fire exit and hurtling across the street into the Student Employment Centre.
Robin gave her what he thought to be a reassuring smile-nothing could be that desperate to a woman who had the nerve to wear her hair like a costume-shop fright wig-and turned into the complex of Buchanan buildings.
There was something about her. He glanced over his shoulder. Her eyes were fixed to his face. Obligingly, he waited. Perhaps she was somebody's cousin. God, he’d probably gone to his high school grad with her sister.
She ran up to him, out of breath, her face white."There is little time," she whispered, reaching into the pocket of her dress. Robin couldn't place her accent. She pulled out a small, battery-operated toy robot and thrust it into his chest. "Take!"
"Why?" Robin asked, puzzled.
"Do not ask ridiculous questions-take!"
She hurled it at him, then fled, scrambling through the drifts of dead leaves, disappearing down the Mall.
Robin looked at the cheap plastic toy. It was red and white, two fists tall and one fist wide, with bulging eyes and no mouth - the sort of thing you'd buy in a drugstore for the nephew of a not very good friend. Why had she been so insistent? What was so important about a toy?
Shrugging, he dropped it into his knapsack and went inside for his English class. Maybe it was one of those weird initiation rites from the sorority house down the way. Or one of Anthony's numerous girlfriends, practicing The Role: Interpretation and Characterization, as a continuing assignment.
Either way, it didn't matter. All this dawdling had made him late again. What, he wondered, was he missing? The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County? Selected quotations from A Midsummer Night's Dream? Guy de Maupassant? or another wretchedly ponderous novel by Thomas Hardy? Tess of the D'Urbervilles had been bad enough. He really didn't think he was up to Jude the Obscure at this hour of the morning.
The red-and-white plastic robot sat on the coffee table in the darkened basement, clear bubble eyes glued to Snake Dance, Evan Harris's most recent project for television. Behind it, on a chesterfield draped with a woven Mexican blanket, lounged Robin and his oldest brother, sharing a bowl of popcorn and a large bottle of root beer. Feet up and arms folded, they assessed their father's latest offering, a deranged psychiatrist who 'was studying the mating habits of snakes in order to better understand the sex lives of his patients. TV Guide had rated it below average.
Ian scratched his head. "This is really revolting," he said. "I mean, really revolting."
"Poor old Evan."
Ian grabbed a handful of popcorn. Interesting taste. Robin had dumped half a packet of Uncle Dan's Milk Recipe Southern Salad Dressing Mix on it. "He's kept his looks, though."
"And his teeth."
Ian glanced at Robin humorously. There was a ten year difference in their ages-a chronological gap that often seemed like an unbridgeable chasm. Ian was variously amused, annoyed, and confounded by his youngest brother. At times, he found himself under all-out attack, an attack that would end as suddenly and inexplicably as it had begun.
Anthony he understood. He could hold an intelligent conversation with Anthony. With Robin, he seemed to be at perpetual odds. Dialogue was merely the necessary medium of toleration.
"Evan's flying in on Monday," he said now to Robin. "He called me at work. It's been scheduled for quite a while-he forgot to tell us."
Robin didn't say anything, and Ian wondered what that meant.
"It's for that movie they were talking about on the news last night. Blockbuster. He's the star."
Robin hugged a pillow to his stomach. "You going out to the airport to meet him?"
"Can't. I've got a lunch."
Ian worked in an ad agency. A yuppie ad agency, Robin had decided with considerable distaste. Lunches were "important."
"Why don't you go?"
Robin looked at his brother. "I hardly even know the guy."
"Sure you do. He knows you, anyway. You're the little fellow who used to go paddling in the tub in your bright red rubber boots when he had his bath. You remember that, don't you?"
"No," said Robin.
He hadn't seen his father all that many times in the intervening years. There had been a few trips, usually in the company of either Anthony or Ian; there had been a week long visit the previous year, crammed into Evan's Toronto apartment with two obscene parrots and a woman named Susan.
Susan. The Significant Other.
Susan. Who threw pots.
Susan - who threw other things, too. On the last day of his holiday some minor disagreement had exploded into a full-fledged argument right in front of him, and a barrage of objects had been hurled at Evan, along with a string of Italian obscenities. The Italian part Robin had actually quite enjoyed-they always sounded so passionate, those Mediterranean women, and it was a source of endless fascination to him that they could get all that stuff out without twisting their tongues around their teeth. Still, he couldn't help feeling at the time that at least some of the handmade objects Susan was aiming at Evan's head were worth something. Sentimental value, if nothing else.
"Never mind," Evan had said, nursing an injured thumb in the bar at Pearson Airport. "She'll make some more. We've had six new fruit bowls in the last year alone."
Robin smiled to himself. In spite of the fight, and the parrots, and the fact that he'd had to camp out on the living room couch like the last inebriated guest at a party, it had been a comfortably chaotic visit. A definite contrast to the placid, routine-filled existence up on Raymond Mountain, anyway.
"Go," Ian said, coaxing him. "He's all excited about seeing you again." He nodded at the TV screen. "This is one of my spots."
Robin looked. It was an ad for home satellite systems remarkably uninspired, considering. Straightforward and to the point. The only thing original was the name of the company: Star Tech Industries.
"Spock land you that account?" he said, raising an eyebrow.
Ian ignored his attempt at humor. Or altogether missed it. Robin wasn't sure. "They're really cheap, but that's only because their components are put together in South Korea. Nothing wrong with the product itself." He laughed, still watching the screen. "The Hyundai meets the world of parabolic antennas."
"You're sure they'll work?" Robin checked. "I mean, you wouldn't want to be right in the middle of a segment of Millionaire Maker, only to have your dish go zapping across the universe in search of four new hubcaps, would you?"
Ian threw a handful of popcorn at him.
Robin tried to get interested in Snake Dance again, but it was a losing proposition. Evan was staggering through a script that sounded like it had been written by engineering students, and the pythons were getting all the good close-ups. He left his older brother to scan the breaks fur his new account, and took the toy robot upstairs.
His mother and stepfather were in the living room. Bespectacled, tall, and slightly overweight from too many after-hours drinks with his radio colleagues, Gwennie Harris's second husband had a Vancouver Sun spread open across both knees and the latest copy of Broadcaster turned upside down over the arm of his chair. He was watching the nightly business report on CNN. Rolf Raymond was not the sort of person to do only one thing at a time.
He had a degree in psychology and at one point in his life had been with the U.S. Marines. He owned Vancouver's top rock radio station. He liked playing Program Director, too, and was, Robin thought, just a little too fond of the technique known as Creative Dismissal. You never actually came right out and fired anybody. You simply made life so miserable for them, they quit.
Robin paused in the doorway. Rolf was not above employing the same manipulative theories at home. Anthony was his current target; Ian had walked out years ago.
He wondered when it would be his turn. Or his mother's.
On the opposite side of the room, on a soft leather chesterfield, sat Gwennie, knitting. She glanced up briefly to acknowledge the presence of her youngest son. It looked to Robin as though she was making a pullover with a fairly complicated Fair Isle design. He wondered who it was for, and then decided it was probably best not to ask, since it was very likely his Christmas present.
He walked through to the dining room, where Anthony's disgusting cat was drinking the water out of a vase of flowers on the round oak table. Why was it, he wondered, that domesticated animals preferred almost anything to the sanitary water dish on the kitchen floor? Mrs. Peel's standby favorite was the downstairs toilet, but their mother had lately taken to putting blue cleaner in the tank, rendering it much less palatable. Robin supposed this attack on the vase of flowers was by way of revenge. Mrs. Peel could be quite spiteful when she set her mind to it.
He placed the robot on the table and gave it a shove with his finger, so that it whirred and clicked and turned its silly head from side to side.
The cat looked over with only partial interest. She was sitting on top of a bundle of mail, her tail sweeping the table in a slow arc. Robin recognized the large brown envelope on the bottom of the stack; it was his brother's newsletter, The Squaddie Lifeline. Quite honestly, he couldn't understand why Anthony bothered. He'd been all of seven years old when Jarrod Spencer & Co. had ended their secret agent careers on prime-time television. Robin doubted Anthony had even been allowed to stay up that late in those days.
Perhaps it was just the novelty of the thing. Every three months the fanatics from New Jersey or New Mexico or wherever they hung out faithfully dispatched their missive, stocked on every page with the most fascinating items of trivia: what their favorite stars were doing now (the English girl sold real estate; the computer expert was directing a cop show); funny little short stories extrapolated from the series basics (Jarrod has both eyes poked out and has to spend the rest of his life translating top secret Spy Squad files into Braille); want ads ("Wish to buy old Dr. Kildare photos and Spy Squad bubble-gum cards") ....
And Anthony, it seemed, was their best customer. That much, at least, Robin thought, was hysterical. If these people had any idea who Tony Raymond, Agent 18, from Canada, was, Anthony would have been swamped: long-distance telephone calls, registered mail containing photo-booth snapshots, proposals of marriage....
As it was, The Son of Spencer had already systematically collected every paperback, coloring book, T-shirt, comic, game, button, poster, script, videotape, record, and bumper sticker that was available. He was covertly trying to get a replica Spy Squad gun into the country without arousing the interest of Canada Customs. And he seemed to have every episode memorized. It was enough to incite their stepfather to inquire, at least once a month, when the hell Anthony was going to grow up and move out and start to pay his own way in the world.
Robin looked up as his mother came into the room, carrying her knitting.
"How was the program?" she asked. "Is it over already?"
She'd hung onto her English accent, cultivating it, Robin used to think, until he'd realized that things like that never really disappeared altogether.
"It's not over, it's terrible," he answered, giving the head of the robot a twist. It beeped, protesting. Mrs. Peel glared at it with button-box eyes.
"Bad story?" Gwennie guessed.
"Bad everything: script, production, direction. It's not Evan's fault, he's doing the best he can with what they gave him."
Gwennie sat down at the table and continued with her knitting. The saga of troubles associated with that aspect of show business was no longer her concern. She had asked, Robin supposed, only out of her need to stay in touch.
"Did Anthony happen to mention to you what time he'd be in this evening?"
Robin shook his head. "He's trying out for a play. It could be hundreds of years."
The knitting needles tapped out a. rhythmic pattern. Mrs. Peel extended one black paw and took a tentative swipe at the robot.
Down in the lower part of the house, Ian suddenly shrieked with laughter.
"Robin!" he hollered up the stairs. "You're missing the best part. It's horrible!"
"Excuse me " Robin said to his mother. "I have to go watch my father make an absolute fool of himself."
He abandoned the robot to Mrs. Peel, swung around the banister and plunked himself down on the blanket-covered couch. The snake psychiatrist, for reasons unknown, had crawled onto a window ledge ten stories above the street and was carrying on a deranged conversation with an uncaged rattler and two cobras that had slithered out to join him.
"Watch," Robin said, "he'll lose his balance."
Evan's character's knee slipped off the narrow parapet. He clung to the crumbling concrete shelf with desperate fingers.
"Think he'll fall?"
"Snakes'll get him first," said Ian.
There was a long shot up from the ground. Robin checked the clock on the wall by the staircase. "He's only got two minutes. Can you die from snake venom that quickly?"
"Maybe somebody down below'll shoot him and put him out of his misery. He's rabid, you know."
"God, I missed that part."
"He was attacked by a bat," Ian said, trying to keep a straight face.
They watched in fascinated silence as Evan's character scrambled to the corner of the building, lost his balance again, and hung off the edge by only the tips of his fingers.
“Thirty seconds," said Robin. "The snake or the street?"
"Snake," Ian maintained.
With moments to spare, the rattler sank its fangs into Evan's hand, precipitating a hundred-foot plunge, complete with agonized screams, to the pavement below. The camera pulled back for a full view of the neighborhood in the dark, the ambulances, police, floodlights, rain, extras.
"There's Susan," Robin said. "Dressed up like a hooker."
Ian threw a pillow at the TV. "Rank nepotism. She'll have lines next." He folded his arms. “Anthony should ask him about being an extra in Blockbuster. What's he auditioning for tonight?"
"Waiting for Godot," Robin said.
Ian made a face.
On cue, the bright beams of Anthony's Austin-Mini cut through the darkness at the bottom of the driveway. He switched off the engine and wandered into the house through the lower patio doors.
"Hullo," he said, flopping down on the couch. The credits and closing music were rolling by on the screen. "What did I miss?"
"Nothing," Ian answered.
Robin glanced at his older brother. Last year, at the very end of the winter term, Anthony had sauntered through the front door wearing a punk army brushcut and a diamond stud earring. The parents had not been impressed. This year, the earring was gone, and most of Anthony's hair had grown out again--coarse and slightly wavy, and a bit less mouse-colored than before the trendy razor-wielders on West Tenth had got hold of it. The big thing now was an intriguing little braid, about half an inch thick, tied up with a length of black ribbon dead center at the back. Their mother didn't like that much, either, but Robin thought it made Anthony look rakish, in an Errol Flynn sort of way.
"Did you get a part?"
"Uh-huh." Anthony appeared to be very pleased with himself.
"Vladimir or Estragon?"
"The Tree," he replied.
Robin looked at him. "I wasn't aware Waiting for Godot had a character called The Tree."
"It didn't," Anthony said, "until we got hold of the script." He dangled his legs over. the arm of the couch. "Can you imagine the concentration this role is going to require? It's a very demanding part.”
"I'll bet " Robin said. "What are you going to do on stage for two entire acts, Ant--exfoliate?".
“Are you a willow, a shrub, or a mere bush? Ian inquired, from the other end of the chesterfield.
"A diseased elm," Robin suggested, helpfully. “A flowering maple with spider mites-"
"A two-hundred-year-old Ponderosa Pine," Anthony replied, "about to topple over and crush two very small upstart seedlings."
He looked at the TV set.
“Check out the local news. There was a suicide on campus tonight. A jumper. Gage Tower."
He paused for effect. The student residences were visible on the university bluff from all the way across English Bay.
"She made quite a mess."
"Anybody we know?"
"Don't think so. She looked like one of those cases who spare-change people out along Granville Mall. Incredible hair - orange, pink, white-"
"No!" Robin exclaimed.
"Yes-and vivid red where her face got mashed."
"No ... I mean ... I know her. Knew her. Sort of. I met her today. She gave me something."
"Ian, this is serious."
Robin jumped off the couch and bolted upstairs.
Mrs. Peel was on her back under the dining room table, the robot trapped between all four paws, the head locked in her teeth.
Robin crawled beneath the table and yanked the toy away.
Mrs. Peel glared at him, then rolled over and stalked off, tail flicking.
Robin sat on the floor, cradling the little robot in his hands. What did it mean? What had been the significance of a $9.99 bit of plastic, thrust at him by someone he'd never before met in his life?
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