Deb gave a reassuring look to her scowling companion, climbed from the jeep, falling in behind the guard. They splashed along a trail toward a larger building at the far end of the compound.
“So,” Deb said. “I can’t help but notice that you’re wearing military fatigues.”
The guard glanced over his shoulder at her. “This is a dangerous land. We must defend ourselves, yes?”
“Is that all you’re defending?” Deb asked.
The guard averted his gaze. “These are the private quarters of the First Follower,” he said, indicating the building ahead of them. “It is an honor that he offers you this opportunity.”
“I’m very appreciative.”
Another pair of armed guards admitted them through a set of steel fire doors. Deb followed her guide down a narrow hallway illuminated by fluorescent lights overhead. The air conditioning chilled the sweat on her skin. She passed several more doors, all of steel, all closed, on both sides of the hallway before being ushered through a second double doorway into a squared, low-ceilinged room. This had the appearance of a large den, with several sofas and chairs, a stereo system, a wet bar and numerous bookshelves.
“Sit down and wait,” the guard said, excusing himself.
Before Deb had a chance to comply, a side door opened and two men entered, one in a wheelchair, pushed by the other.
“Ms. Ashemoore,” the seated man said. “Such a delight to meet you. I am a great admirer. Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Dr. Selivanov.” Deb returned the greeting. Konrad Selivanov wore a tan business suit that looked too big for his thin frame. His legs reminded Deb of a scarecrow’s, stuffed with straw. His longish grey hair had been combed into an immaculate coif.
“This is my assistant, Charles Drenth,” Selivanov said, his voice carrying the traces of an East German accent. “Charlie, please get Ms. Ashemoore a drink. What is your pleasure, my dear? Wine? Coffee?”
“Ice water would be perfect, thank you,” Deb said, claiming a leather recliner.
“Of course,” Selivanov said, guiding his wheelchair to a stop a few feet from her. “I hope that your journey out here was pleasant, though I doubt that was the case.”
“Not really,” Deb answered. She pulled a tiny tape recorder from her pocket and clicked the button into place. “You’ve chosen a rather remote site for your compound, sir. Remote and dangerous.”
“We prefer to call it a ‘community,’ Ms. Ashemoore. ‘Compound’ sounds so, I don’t know, militant, don’t you think?”
“The armed soldiers might give that impression,” Deb said.
“Ah, but they are not soldiers. They are private citizens, members of our community.” The light reflecting from the dark lenses of Selivanov’s glasses reminded Deb of the eyes of an animal at night. “As such, they are sworn to uphold the precepts of peace.”
“Sure,” Deb said.
Drenth had returned with Deb’s water. She faked a smile as she accepted the glass, all too aware of his gaze exploring her body. Tall and heavy, with thinning hair tugged back into a ponytail and eyes sunk deep into his fleshy face, the man looked so out of place in his pressed slacks and starched white shirt that it bordered on the absurd.
“I sense a skeptic among us, Charlie,” Selivanov said. “I do hope, Ms. Ashemoore, that you haven’t been listening to any ugly gossip involving our mission here.”
“I’m capable of making up my own mind, Dr. Selivanov,” Deb answered. “But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t heard the rumors. Are you, in fact, running some sort of doomsday cult out here?”
Selivanov chuckled. “Your reputation for unflinching directness is well deserved, I see. A ‘doomsday cult,’ you say? Ms. Ashemoore, nothing could be further from the truth. We focus only on the good to be found in all things, the goodness inherent in the universe. It is our sole reason for existing.”
“But you must admit, most people would find it curious, Dr. Selivanov,” Deb continued. “An organization founded by a scientist and businessman of your standing, yet you set up headquarters in the middle of a war zone and guard it like Fort Knox. Why the remote location, Bongavi of all places? And why all the secrecy?”
“Who is to say there are secrets?” Selivanov asked. Charlie placed a glass of scarlet wine into his hand and Selivanov took a loud slurp. “None but you and your kind, Ms. Ashemoore, seeking to sell newspapers. In reality, there is nothing either secretive or sinister about our Order. The Followers exist for no other purpose than to spread the lessons of peace and unity in this struggling world.”
Deb shifted in her chair, sipped at the water. “Your message, Dr. Selivanov?”
Selivanov smiled as Charlie wiped his chin, dabbing bloody wine from where it had dribbled into Selivanov’s kempt beard. “True enough. It has been twenty-five years since I first experienced enlightenment. I have been fortunate. My message has found fertile ground in which to grow during the subsequent years.”
“So why hide yourselves away, then? Wouldn’t you be able to proselytize to greater effect out in the public eye?”
“Ms. Ashemoore, we chose this location because it is here we are most needed.”
“It is commendable that you have opened your compound–excuse me, community–as a refugee camp. But I can’t help but wonder, where are the refugees, Dr. Selivanov?”
“Ah. Please do not be offended, Ms. Ashemoore, but they have no real reason to trust you, do they? In their eyes, I mean. A white woman, an outsider, a newspaper reporter? During the last period of unrest here, the media seemed more interested in filming the atrocities than in halting them. Is it so surprising, then, that they would prove a little, oh, camera shy?”
“Okay, we’ll chalk it up to being camera shy, for now,” Deb said. “Let’s talk about you, Dr. Selivanov. Most would say you’ve lived a life of extreme ups and downs. From an emotional breakdown and suicide attempt, to a millionaire industrialist and entrepreneur, to a spiritual guru. That’s quite a trip.”
“Yes, yes,” Selivanov chuckled. “I have played out some several roles in my lifetime. These days, of course, all my energies are directed towards our mission.”
“Right,” Deb said. “And what are the specifics of that mission?”
“In a word, Science,” Selivanov answered. “You see, all the mythologies and philosophies of this planet, all the various religions that have developed since the dawn of Humanity, all these have hinted at what is an instinctive, a collective awareness buried within the human psyche. An awareness that there is something greater out there. But all attempts at contact with this Presence, at transcendence, have failed, contaminated by the personal prejudices and whimsical notions of human interpretation. This in no way, however, diminishes the fact that, with each passing day, modern Science points more and more towards the probability–no, the certainty–that a higher Intelligence exists. I believe that it is Science which will lead to contact with this Entity, and I feel a personal responsibility to direct my efforts to this end.”
“Well, all that sounds impressive,” Deb said. “But you didn’t really tell me anything.”
Selivanov chuckled. “The devil is in the details, eh, Ms. Ashemoore? Very well, though I fear I may end up going a bit over your head.”
“Oh, I’ll try to keep up,” Deb replied.
“Have you ever heard of Ley lines?” Selivanov asked.
“Ley lines,” Deb said. “Something about imaginary lines on a globe.”
“Imaginary? Not quite.” Selivanov drained his glass and held it out to his side. Charlie, who had been standing behind the wheelchair, took it. But his eyes remained on Deb. “Primitive peoples of the world knew many things that are lost to modern man,” Selivanov said. “They were well aware of these lines. All the great spiritual centers are constructed along them, with an almost perfect precision. The pyramids at Giza, Soloman’s Temple in Jerusalem, Stonehenge, Tiahuanaco in South America. Don’t take my word for it, Ms. Ashemoore. Take an atlas and a ruler and see for yourself.”
“Go on,” Deb said.
“Modern scientists have no explanation for this phenomenon,” Selivanov said. “So they choose to ignore it. The typical response of my peers, I’m afraid. They relegate it to the realm of pseudo-science and New Age poppycock. Hence the term ‘Ley lines’ has come to be used with a certain derision.”
“So what are these lines, then?” Deb asked. “How could ancient peoples have been able to measure them?”
“Oh, they were not measured in the sense you imply,” Selivanov interrupted. “The lines are simple channels of energy. Primitive man knew of this energy and strove to erect his holy monuments upon these channels.”
“Okay,” Deb said. “What kind of energy?”
“The philosopher has long filled the role of the scientist in this area,” Selivanov said. “The Greeks proposed the ‘Music of the Spheres’ thousands of years ago. Similarly, the Chinese have long sought to master Ch’i–life energy–along the ‘Spines of the Dragon.’ Planet Earth, if you will.”
“Sure. Feng Shui,” Deb said.
“You’re on the right track.” Selivanov smiled. “All early forms of spiritualism, all of them, allowed that the Earth has its own life force, its own ‘soul.’ The Greeks called this force Gaea. Neo-pagans worship it even today. Yet modern science has never been capable of measuring this energy, nor even of proving that it exists.”
“But you intend to,” Deb said.
“More than that,” Selivanov answered. “I intend to translate this symphony of Creation.” He clenched his left hand into a fist. “Imagine, Ms. Ashemoore, for the first time, mankind will be able to understand the song of God!”
As if on an ironic cue, Deb’s tape recorder clicked off, the tape jammed. She thought of replacing the cassette but decided against it. There were more questions to be asked, but Deb had grown uncomfortable with Charlie Drenth’s unflinching gaze and cryptic half-smile. One of her counterparts could conduct the follow-up interview.
“I think that’s all I need,” Deb said. “Thank you for your time, Dr. Selivanov.”
“So soon? Very well. Charlie will show you out.”
“Oh,” Deb said. “That won’t be necessary.”
“I must insist,” Selivanov said. “As a gentleman.”
Charlie fell in step behind Deb. She slowed her pace, hoping he would move into position beside her, but Charlie slowed his own as well, following her down the hall.
“You like Dr. Selivanov?” Charlie asked.
“He seems like an intriguing man.”
“He’s a genius,” Charlie said. “Will you be coming back to see us?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Deb said. “I doubt it.”
“Too busy,” Charlie said.
“Yes, very much so.” They stepped out into the heat and sunshine. Charlie paused. “Maybe you’ll come back.”
“There’s my driver,” Deb said, leaving Charlie behind. She felt Charlie Drenth’s eyes on her as she walked away. Ibrahim had gotten out of the stifling car and sat cross-legged on the ground. He stood, dusting himself off.
“Not very hospitable to you, were they?” Deb said.
“Who is that man?” he asked, pointing past her.
Deb turned. Charlie Drenth stood as though turned to stone, watching her. Deb shuddered.
“Never mind,” she said. “Just get me the hell out of here.”