High above the crystal water the deserted lighthouse hung, like an ornamental pendent on a woman’s breasts, on the cliff top overlooking the narrow entrance between the two rounded bluffs which gave entrance to the secluded bay that formed her lap. The palm trees that lined the snow white hem of sand were over 100 ft tall and picture perfect.
The Castillo Blanca was a massive fortress of stone. Luxuriant, royal purple bougainvillea cloaked the starkness of its whitewashed walls, suspended at the brink of a raging waterfall which crashed down through the lush jungle to roil the azure bay far below. To those entering the cove from the water the scene was a post-card perfect picture of tropical paradise.
From the helicopter I got an entirely different view: the satellite dishes, the radio towers, the up-links and the down-links, the gun turrets, the missile launchers, the bull's eye circle of the helipad. On the sprawling roof top black clad guards paced warily with matte black Uzi’s at the ready.
“Mr. King, this is Signore Blanconegro. Signore Blanconegro, Robert King.”
“Signore King, how do you do?”
“Very well, thank you.”
Signore Blanconegro was a tiny, perfectly formed, patrician with steel gray hair. A proud but gentle smile rested easily on his sensual but aristocratic lips. His smooth, unlined face glowed with health, vitality and happiness.
“You enjoyed the flight, Signore King?” he asked quietly.
His gentle, cultured voice was devoid of all accent. Only his olive skin and sparkling black eyes suggested that his background wasn’t some small mid-western town. He might have been somebody’s neighbor in Waterville Iowa, but he wasn’t. He was The Godfather. The greatest of them all, even now, after years of invisibility, he was still a legend.
He was also an old friend of Charlottes.
“I suppose. I’m glad it’s over though. Helicopters always make me a little uneasy. I find it difficult to travel. Although I normally love it when I do, someone always attempts to steal my fun from me. They say they want to protect me but I think it’s because THEY like to travel. I don’t get enough practice, unless I escape, and then I feel like I’m roughing it. That’s almost as bad.”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“Ahh, I understand how you feel. That is one of the drawbacks of power, is it not? There is always someone standing between you and the world. Even if it is only for one’s own protection, still it does separate one from life, do you not agree?”
“I never thought about it like that. I suppose it does.”
“Well, perhaps for you, being in the position you are in, it is for the best. Those not quite so important, or old men like me, regret more of what we missed after it is too late and we are too old to enjoy what remains. Unfortunately, those, such as yourself, are forever unable to be a part of the world around them. That is the curse of the seer in any civilization. Perhaps it is that separation that allows you to see the truth where others see only the beautiful dresses on the body of the truth. Perhaps beneath the dress the body is not so beautiful? Ah, but, what do I know? It has been so long. My world is gone.”
He took me by the arm.
“Come, let us enjoy the coolness of the evening.”
He guided me onto the patio. We stood at a black wrought iron railing that protected us from a precipitous drop to the rocks below.
“It is beautiful here, is it not?”
“Yes, it is. I love the tropics. It’s the only place I feel like I can relax.”
“Ahhh. You are, perhaps, of Mediterranean ancestry?”
“No, I’m from Iowa, why?”
“Oh, I pride myself in recognizing the nationalities and heritage of those I meet. Somehow I have the impression that you are of Italian, even Sicilian ancestry.”
“No, just a farm boy made good in the big city.”
“Unusual, I am not normally mistaken, but, you are a man of many contradictions, as I have been told.”
“Really? Well, life isn’t simple, if that’s what you mean.”
“Excuse me a moment.”
He turned to the doorway where a dark skinned beauty in white stood silently.
"Signore, with your permission, may I call you Roberto?” He asked, as he again clasped my shoulder gently.
“If you’d like.”
“Thank you Roberto. Please, call me Candido. If we are to know each other this is no time for formalities. Would you like something to drink, Roberto?”
“Some lime water would be nice.”
“Ahh, a man after my own heart. You too know the value of the common lime.”
“It always seems appropriate in tropical countries.”
We sat down, facing each other, on plush white couches. I leaned back and closed my eyes. In the distance I heard the solitary song of a bird; a beautiful, haunted sound.
“What kind of bird is that?”
“Bird? Ahh...” He paused to listen. “...it is a nightingale. I love their song. It always reminds me of my childhood.”
“I remember cicadas, locusts we called them in the mid west. That high, whining shrill. It always gave me a chill. It still does.”
“Ah yes, we have them here. You will, perhaps, hear them later in the evening. I hope the memories they recall are pleasant.”
“As pleasant as any. I was raised on a farm. I used to lay out in the cornfield in the dark and dream about them being the sound of flying saucers coming to take me away.”
“An interesting dream.” He said, and chuckled softly as he nodded his proud head. “Perhaps this is part of what makes you a visionary? This otherworldly desire?”
“Perhaps. Anything is possible.”
With ghost-like silence the dark woman entered carrying two tall crystal goblets filled with ice water. A slice of lime decorated each rim. She bent down and handed me one. Her eyes held mine. With a faint smile she turned to my host with a glass, then bowed her head and backed away into the shadows.
“She is beautiful, is she not?”
“Are you interested in her?”
“If you mean do I want her, no. I have enough mystery in my life as it is.”
He laughed heartily and slapped the arm of the couch.
“Roberto, you are a man after my own heart. Now, tell me, how can I help you?”
“I don’t know if you can. Charlotte suggested I meet you.”
“For what purpose?”
“Maybe it was to see how somebody that was in your position managed to maintain your sanity.”
He studied me carefully as he attempted to gauge my meaning.
“And this is all? You wish to know how I remained sane? A strange request, considering that there are so many other things we might speak about that could perhaps be of more profit to you.”
“I’m not interested in profits, at least not in the way you mean. I’m just trying to shine a little light into some dark places within myself.”
“I see. And you look to me to be a...a lighthouse to illuminate your darkness?”
“Excuse me for saying so Roberto but it would seem that one such as yourself, with all of the resources you have at your disposal, would not need one such as myself to guide you. I am honored that you have come to me but I do not understand how I can assist you in your quest. After all, I am just an old man, enjoying his last few remaining years in peace.”
We both smiled as we enjoyed the joke.
“I don’t know either. Maybe that’s a good start. Much of the time I arrive at what I seek by accident or inspiration.”
“How did you arrive at my doorstep?”
“I was a mess.” I paused. “I mean, I am a mess. Someone I loved very much died and, I suppose, my world collapsed. Charlotte suggested I talk to you. She said it would do me good to investigate how other men who had attained unlimited power dealt with it, and, how they escaped it. I didn’t have anything to lose.”
“Intriguing Roberto. I am honored. In my youth I too was a seeker after the truth. Unfortunately, in those days there were none to whom I could go in search of the answers you have come seeking from me. The other men of my time were, sad to say, hard men- without imagination. Perhaps that is why I had my way for so long. Tell me, why do you think I have answers of significance? After all, our worlds are quite different.”
“No, not really. We both deal in temptation. The soul is weak and it is in that weakness that we have found our calling. The exterior form might appear different but it isn’t really. You don’t know much about me do you?”
“As much as it is possible to know Roberto. I learned what I could but, unfortunately, much of it appears to be knowledge created to hide whatever truth it exists to protect. Farther I could not go. That was enough to intrigue me enough to grant your request for a visit to my paradise.”
“I am retired, did you know that?”
“How did you do it? Get out I mean.”
“Why?” He asked with a gentle smile. Do you contemplate retirement? You are still a young man.”
“This business ages one rapidly.”
“I see...so this visit is in the nature of a philosophical quest?”
“You might say that.”
“I am honored that you chose me. An old man who has lived a long life, especially one in such a business as mine was, must appear to have answers that those as young as yourself do not yet have the experience to understand. Unfortunately, those answers might not be the ones you wish to know. Mine was a brutal world Roberto. I was fortunate to live as long as I have with the ‘wisdom’ I have attained. Many of my contemporaries fell along the way. Our crosses became more than our souls could bear. Or else our enemies devoured us in hopes of obtaining our imperium. Are you familiar with the term? It’s origins are with classical Rome.”
“Yes, I am. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Burdens greater than the soul can bear.”
“But yours is the business of salvation of the soul, is it not Roberto? Mine was a world of money and men’s greed. I trafficked in the corruption of the soul.”
“And mine isn’t? And I’m not?”
“I do not know. I understood you to be the leader of a very popular religion Roberto. Vital and full of the power of youth. It has not as great a tradition perhaps as that of my church but it is still young. In youth there is always the time and opportunity for obtaining tradition, and knowledge. Although today the Church of Rome is not what it once was, it still has a great tradition. Perhaps, through the coming alliance with you that I hear rumors of, it will regain some of it’s former vitality and lend you some of it’s nobility. But I do not understand you. You intimate that you are not what you seem to be.”
“Is anyone?" I asked, with a bitter laugh. “You say our worlds are different. It is obvious you know nothing of what we really are.”
“I do not understand.”
“Is it the name THE CHURCH OF GLORY that confuses you? Would it be better if I called it THE DEVIL’S ROAD?”
He scrutinized me carefully as if trying to read something in me that my words did not contain. This unprepossessing man once ruled a world-wide dynasty that lasted for decades. It was because of his intuition and fore-sight that it became what it did. Forged out of such disparate elements as existed when he began, he managed to create a machine of unequaled power before he mysteriously vanished.”
“What do you want from me?” He asked.
“Come Roberto, let us walk. I have not visited my tomatoes yet today and the hour grows late.” He gripped my arm and led me down a long, broad flight of marble steps to the ground floor and out into a broad expanse of variegated foliage. The garden was lush and green. On either side of a wide, central, flagstone isle rose beds of vegetables interspersed with brilliantly hued flowers of all varieties. He led me among the fragrant beds to a corridor of mammoth tomato plants. Each one was tied neatly to a stake. They towered over us on both sides of the aisle. Huge tomatoes gleamed, overburdening the verdant vines. Bees flew among the flowers.
“Amazing.” I said, softly.
Rich aromas perfumed the air.
“You appreciate true beauty Roberto.”
He stretched out his arms.
“These are my children. I love each of them as much as I would a human child. Perhaps more because they ask so little of me. I give them my love. I protect them from the weeds and the bugs. I water them when they are thirsty and look, look what bounty they give me in return.” He picked one. It was as big as a grapefruit. It smelled fresh and hot.
“Taste it Roberto. But here, wait.” He reached down and carefully broke a leaf from a bush beneath the tomato plant. "Eat it with this.”
“What is it?”
“Fresh basil. The herb of the gods. Manja! Manja!”
“Eat Eat!” He said, as he clapped me on the back with a hearty laugh.
“It’s wonderful.” I said, my mouth full of juice.
I envied this man. He found a way through the fire and escaped.
“It’s wonderful.” I repeated as juice dribbled down my face.
“What more could a man want from his children than that they please him and those he loves? Here, take one for later.” He handed me another one, warm and red as a living heart.
He led me to a low stone bench in the center of the garden and we sat down, our knees barely touching.
“Tell me Roberto,” he asked softly as he gently rested his hand on my shoulder, “why are you so troubled?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He shook his head compassionately. Suddenly I Knew it was impossible to fool him.
“I’m troubled because I have given birth to a monster that’s going to destroy the world.”
“How can that be? Religion is there to raise man above the darkness.”
“Don’t you understand?” I nearly cried as I spoke. “This is not religion. It’s far worse than anything you did in your darkest moments. At least those whom you dealt with knew they were dealing with the devil. People come to us in need. We take that need and use it to overpower their spirits. We use it to attain power. Our intention is to rule the world. Not in the name of God but in the name of Robert King. People look to me for their salvation and, instead, I’m like a pied piper, leading them down the devil’s road.”
He weighed my words as he searched my eyes.
“I know your heart Roberto. I see it in your eyes. I hear it in your voice. Nothing within you hides itself from me. If what you say is true, how can you live with your burden? At least I could console myself that those who were destroyed by what I did deserved to be destroyed. I always protected the innocent and the weak. That was what I brought to my business. A sense of honor.”
“I’m weak! I’m at the mercy of my own weakness. I allow others who have no soul to use whatever it is that makes people take heed of my ideas to corrupt what I create. I love a monster. I am a monster. I can’t escape what I am. I don’t even know how to try so I do anything that comes to my mind. I came to you out of that same madness that causes me to do everything else I do. I don’t know how to stop what I have created.”
I bared my soul to him as if to a priest.
“Why? I don’t know why, any more than I know anything else about what I do or why I do it. If Dominique were here she could make sense out of it and make everything all right but she isn’t and I realize, finally, that this is why I have never been able to escape. Dominique has always made perfect sense out of everything. She has always been able to know my soul well enough to turn whatever it is that is happening to me into a perfectly acceptable reality. I’ve been too lazy I’ve been willing to accept her interpretation. No matter what I have created, she has made it possible, made it acceptable, made it too enticing for me to turn away. She is the artist here, not me. Her art makes the devil's road appear to be the highway to heaven.
When I was finished, we sat in silence and listened to the breeze rustle the leaves of the palm trees.
Finally he spoke. His voice was stern.
“You must start somewhere Roberto. Fate either leads us down its path or we seize fate by the cajones and force it where we will. That is the help I offer. To tell you that it is within you to do that which in your heart you know you must do. If these things you say are true and in my heart I do not feel that you are lying to me, then you yourself know what must be done. This is what I offer you. Be a man”
He stood up.
"Now let us enjoy a good meal and speak of more pleasant things."
As the helicopter rose above the sanctuary of the silent harbor, I looked down at the tomato, held carefully in my hands. It was still warm to the touch.
My last glimpse was of the lighthouse. On it’s upper deck, in front of the sun glazed window, the old man waved good-bye.