Jars kept the Land Rover pointed northwest, heading to Cooperstown where he’d spend the night before continuing on in the morning after breakfast. If he was still alive. He’d opted for a leisurely, scenic drive along State Route 28, one that would carry him from Highland to Cooperstown, sending him through the picturesque Catskills where the mountains were gearing up for their annual show with a sporadic display of early color as some of the green leaves gave way to browns, yellows and smatterings of red. It would have been almost festive if not for the gray of an overcast sky which had so quickly displaced the earlier sunshine. The dreariness of it was an all too common sight in Jars’ opinion. He supposed if upstate New York wanted the sort of clear, sunny days prevalent in places like Arizona they’d have to build a dome over Lake Ontario.
He didn’t doubt the human race would give it a try someday if they lasted that long. Whatever might be imagined could and would, sooner or later, be pursued. It just took patience and persistence. Granted, dreams sometimes had to be handed over to another generation when technology and the empowerment it offered lagged behind. But inevitably, what once seemed impossible came within reach. Give people enough time and they could do anything they put their minds to. That is, if they didn’t wipe themselves out somewhere along the way.
As far as Jars could see, the twin demons of greed and power were constantly dogging society. Even Synapzius had felt the pressure. It was part of what bothered him. It were as if he could see the company’s path as it proudly sauntered into the future. He’d had big dreams but found that big dreams took big money to propel them to realization. That kind of money meant opening up Synapzius to public investment. Only public investment wasn’t that public. Not really. Sure, anyone with money could buy shares of a company’s stock. But the kind of money it took to influence an enterprise was a luxury limited to maybe one percent of the people inhabiting the planet. That one percent held the world’s rudder in their hands and planet Earth sailed in the direction they alone decided. A direction Jars couldn’t get behind. One in which power, profit and control were everything.
For all his premonition of what lie ahead Jars found himself incapable of doing anything about it. It was as if the world danced to a single tune and if you wanted to get anywhere you’d better learn the steps. Insist on having things your own way and the system would run right over you. It was more than discouraging.
The pointlessness of it all had played a big part in his decision to undergo the operation implanting the modified pacemaker into his chest. Maybe the constant exposure to imminent death would prod him to look outside the box far enough to make sense of life. If it did he would at least spend a few days beyond despair’s grasp. If it didn’t he’d soon be out of his misery. Either outcome was better than the kind of life he’d been living. He couldn’t understand why so many people went about trying their hardest to prolong life, as if breathing in and out was, in itself, worth perpetuating. Life would have to have a value beyond what he had experienced so far before Jars would ever cast his vote for giving it an unlimited term!
The operation had been on Tuesday. On Wednesday he’d interrogated the unit from his private suite at the hospital and, finding everything in satisfactory order, had activated the Colt 45 Peacemaker program. The program had a built-in delay making Saturday the first morning where the device would actually be armed. No sense in pursuing the experiment if he wasn’t going to give himself at least a couple days head start on death. Sue Barrows had dropped by to look in on him and return the envelope Jars had left in her keeping. When she had asked if the accommodations had met his expectations he had assured her of his gratitude by handing her a generous check, reminding her of his desire for continued privacy. A Friday morning flight delivered him to the Hudson Valley’s Stewart International Airport and from there he’d driven to his meeting on the Walkway with Sten.
Spending the day with Sten had proven a good choice. The soreness from the small incision in his chest was all but gone and it had felt wonderful to be outdoors. In Sten he had both a trusted friend and first-rate attorney. In the event he never saw him again he would at least have spent one of his last days with someone who cared about him. Besides, he needed a trusted ally to manage the transition of Synapzius from a vibrant, pulsating enterprise poised to join the world’s elite corporations to the status of a dying star. No one would be more dedicated to fulfilling Jars’ wishes than Sten.
It was dusk by the time he reached the hotel, a sprawling Federal-style building on the southern shore of Lake Otsego with imposing thirty-foot Neo-Georgian columns supporting the front portico. He’d chosen it more for the anonymity it afforded over any desire for creature comforts. It was a sizable place, popular among visitors traveling to Cooperstown to take in the National Baseball Hall of Fame three blocks away.
He opted to have dinner in the hotel’s grill, preferring a casual atmosphere over the more formal dining room. When offered his choice, Jars pointed to a table with a view of the lake. Although darkness was settling in, here and there he could see lights twinkling in the distance. He couldn’t say why but the lights were comforting, making him less lonely.
Now that Sten and the time spent on the Walkway was behind him, Jars felt a familiar sense of isolation creeping back into his psyche. In the past his work had been everything, filling his days with excitement and purpose, capable of overruling the nagging questions that occasionally managed to fight their way to the forefront of his consciousness. At first he had dismissed them as the sort of musings that come with the approach of mid-life, an annoying but inevitable stage to pass through and be done with.
At the forefront was the question as to the meaning of life. For years, Jars had considered the idea of life’s having purpose as being the result of some deep-seated need humanity had for wanting their efforts to count for something. He had sided with the materialists; life had simply sprung up countless millennia ago out of the primordial soup. Give time and chance the needed raw materials and elbow room and they would serve life up on a platter. Brought about by their blind whims, life didn’t have a purpose. It just was. The only part religion had gotten right was that we all came from dust and would return to it. Beginning and end of story. But there were two things nagging at him.
First, the science that had been his compass for so many years was revealing, as technology improved and provided greater insights into the world of atoms and molecules, that it was increasingly naïve to suppose the wonders found at the cellular level could have arisen on their own no matter how many millions of years chance was granted. There was too much complexity, too much data. More than poor Darwin, hampered by the crude tools of his age, could ever have imagined! The evidence for intelligent design was becoming overwhelming. The only question was whose intelligence?
Then there was the existence of the deep-seated need for relevance pervasive throughout the human race. Where did such a yearning come from?
Jars supposed that these were the sort of questions that had given rise to the world’s religions. Desperate for answers people couldn’t find, religion invented some. Well, he’d like to get at the bottom of things too but he wasn’t about to blindly jump into religion’s arms. If there were a God then he had created Jars with a brain. One that he wouldn’t have to toss overboard in order to believe.
He opted for seared Yellowfin tuna with wild rice and red curry coconut sauce from a menu offering an assortment of tantalizing fare. He even ordered a beer, something he seldom did, usually opting for water with a twist of lemon. Water was important to good health and Jars drank plenty of it. But under the present circumstances a beer wouldn’t hurt. A glass of Black & Tan appeared and with it another guest being seated in the adjacent booth so that the two of them, Jars and the newcomer, found themselves facing one another separated only by the tables in front of each and the low-backed bench seats meant for companions neither had.
The newcomer was a woman, close to him in age but likely a few years younger Jars thought given her soft, unlined complexion. She was wearing brown pants and a celery green sweater that, to him, spoke of someone comfortable with the outdoors. She had dark, shoulder length hair and olive skin suggesting a hint of Mediterranean blood. Jars sipped his beer noting that the woman had slipped on a pair of reading glasses as she surveyed the menu. Glasses that only added to the intelligent look and natural beauty of her face. As she set the menu aside she caught Jars looking at her. A smile passed between them, an attempt by both to soften the awkwardness of being seated in such a manner as to be forced to either stare at one another or avoid looking straight ahead.
“May I join you?” Spurred by a sudden impulse to avoid being alone Jars had risen to his feet. “I don’t want to seem forward but perhaps it would be more comfortable to make a new acquaintance while sharing a meal instead of two strangers trying hard to avoid eye contact.” He offered his hand. “Jarius Mason.”
The woman hesitated briefly before extending her own hand. “Nicole Clark.”
Her face mirrored his own smile and was absent of the sort of flirtatious nuances he’d often seen in previous encounters with women traveling alone. Jars had the sense she was slightly amused. “And, yes, I think you’re right, please…” She motioned to the seat opposite her own.
A moment later and Jars was settled into his new location. If this were to be his last meal on earth why not spend it in the presence of an attractive woman? He smiled. “What brings you to Cooperstown?”
“Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.” She grinned. “I’m a die-hard Yankee fan.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed. You’re minus the hat.”
Nicole reached into her pocketbook, extracting a baseball cap emblazoned with the trademark Yankee logo. “Voila!” she trumpeted. “I wouldn’t want you to remain a doubting Thomas. And,” she continued, diving once more into her pocketbook, “I give you the privilege of touching the crown jewel of my collection.”
Jars found himself holding a baseball, an obviously old one. Turning it in his hand revealed several signatures.
“It’s from the ’27 Yankees,” Nicole announced triumphantly. “It’s been signed by the first six hitters in their lineup.”
“Murderers Row,” Jars murmured. “Combs, Koenig, Ruth, Gehrig, Meusel, Lazzeri.”
“I’m impressed. You know your baseball. Perhaps you are a fan of the Great American Pastime and we find ourselves in Cooperstown for the same reason, the Hall of Fame beckons?” She giggled.
“I wouldn’t want to sail under false colors. I’m more of a history buff than a baseball fanatic.”
Nicole feigned offense. “Excuse me?”
Jars found himself off balance. “It’s just that I’ve seen where, in any sport, there are those who live and breathe their teams as if their personal well-being depended on how the season is going for their favorite club.” He lowered his head, pretending to be deadly serious. “You aren’t that fanatical…are you?”
Playing along, Nicole dipped her own head, allowing her eyes to connect with Jars’ in a classic stare-down, Jars noting mischievous glints dancing in the brown eyes looking back at him. In one swift motion, Nicole jammed her Yankee cap down on her head. “You bet I am! Go Yankees!” she cried, pumping a fist into the air.
The good-natured teasing was interrupted by the appearance of dinner. Nicole had likewise ordered fish, pan-seared Red Snapper, and for a time the two turned their attention to their meal with conversation following the usual course when two people first meet. Jars related his love of science, saying he was involved with a technology engineering firm that dealt primarily in the health care industry but avoided mentioning his ownership of Synapzius. He didn’t know if Nicole even knew of the existence of the firm but didn’t want to take any chances. He was enjoying getting to know the pretty brunette sitting across the table. She struck him as more authentic than most of the women he’d met and, for a time as their conversation wandered across a diverse landscape of topics, he almost forgot the sober thought that the meal might be his last.
As it turned out, Nicole was on a two week vacation from her job as a nurse. She hadn’t said where she was from and Jars didn’t ask. He supposed that for some reason, like himself, she was keeping certain things private. It made perfect sense seeing as how they had only just met. Although his own reasons for privacy might differ from hers he appreciated that neither felt a need to press the other for details. If during the course of conversation they found their new acquaintance side-stepping a question they graciously changed course, content with what the other chose to share.
Somewhere during the meal Jars had gotten Nicole to call him by his nickname. She agreed as long as he promised to respond in kind saying her friends called her Nikki.
“How long will you be staying in Cooperstown?”
If she had asked him the question earlier, Jars would have told her that he was leaving right after breakfast. After all, he did have somewhere to go. An appointment he didn’t want to miss. Of course it all depended on the luck of the draw. The deadly device in his chest might have other plans.
“I’m meeting someone up north tomorrow,” Jars answered slowly. He thought he saw a flicker of disappointment pass over her face. “It’s my son,” he added. “We haven’t seen each other in some time.” It was the first mention of family by either of them.
“Then I hope the two of you have a wonderful reunion,” Nikki said softly.
A few moments of thoughtful silence passed before Jars spoke again. “Nikki, would you have breakfast with me before I leave?” It was taking a chance but it was a risk he found himself wanting to take.
Nikki smiled. “I’d like that.”
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Back in his room, Jars reflected on the invitation he’d extended. Sure, the odds were in his favor he would live to keep his breakfast appointment come morning but it was far from a certainty. What would happen if he didn’t show up? He didn’t know her that well but guessed she wasn’t the type to just write him off as a no-show and go about her business. There was more to her. Jars grabbed his cell phone and punched in a familiar number. The voice of his friend greeted him.
“Sten, I need you to do something for me.”
To some, it may have seemed a strange opening line to hear from a man you’d just spent the afternoon with only to later learn he had what Sten supposed was a terminal illness. But to Sten, his friend’s matter-of-fact tone was typical. If Jars wanted to talk about his condition he would do so at a time of his choosing. At the moment, he was coming across as all business. Sten would match it in kind. “Go ahead, I’m listening.”
“I’m in Cooperstown. I met someone over dinner and we’re supposed to have breakfast together in the morning.
“As you might suspect from the reading material I sent you I can’t be sure of attending. Not a hundred percent, anyway. So here’s what I want you to do.” Jars went on to explain that he would let Sten know by seven-forty the next morning if he was set for meeting a Ms. Nicole Clark for breakfast. If Sten didn’t hear from him he was to call the hotel and advise Ms. Clark that Jars was sorry but wasn’t able to keep their appointment.
“And Sten, I know you have questions. But right now I need all the space your friendship can extend.”
Sten swallowed. “Okay, Jars. I’ll see to it. Take care of yourself. I’m here whenever you need me.” He wondered who Nicole Clark was then decided it wasn’t worth speculating about. It was hard at times to be both the guy’s attorney and his best friend. He’d admitted as much once to Jars who had replied that, in the end, the two roles were complimentary, each enhancing the other. Sten shook his head. Right now, the two seemed on a collision course.
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Nikki slipped into bed, turning off the lamp on the nightstand as she slid between the white Anichini Egyptian cotton sheets. At just under four hundred dollars a night her staying at such an upscale hotel was a luxury she rarely experienced. Although her income as a highly-skilled surgical nurse allowed her to live comfortably she still considered her vacation an indulgence—albeit one she had been looking forward to for some time.
Dinner with Jarius Mason had been quite a surprise. A widow now for nearly four years she’d come to terms with living life alone. The loss of her husband while serving in Afghanistan had shattered her world sending her to the edge of darkness, to a place where she would never have returned save for God. He had refused to let her sink into an abyss of despair and depression. Out of her pain had come new perspective and a deep appreciation for the frailty of life. God had shown her that all you had was the moment you were in. Nothing more. So you had better make the most of every precious second.
She could tell Jars hadn’t recognized her. How could he? She was only one person in a room full of professionals assembled together to put a pacemaker into the chest of a mysterious Mr. Smith. Mac had let his team know the operation was at the request of the hospital’s administrator and had something to do with a VIP who was a generous contributor. He didn’t like the circumstances any more than they did but it was a command performance and a relatively low risk, minor procedure.
Because of her faith, Nikki knew better than to attribute to coincidence running into the man she now knew as Jars several states and a few days later in a small village in upstate New York. No, there was a reason behind their meeting again. Normally, she would have quickly declined any invitation to dine coming from a stranger. But when Jars had approached, something inside had prompted her to accept his offer.
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