First Impressions

First Impressions
by Heather Bruton


Alva

        Paul Callan looked like a man who had stepped to the other side only to be yanked back. Like the world beneath his feet had fallen away. But then, that was exactly what had happened. Across from Alva, the younger man let his face rest against steepled fingers, then jerked up again like he was afraid of the darkness behind his own eyelids. Paul had been sitting there for some time now, letting his coffee grow cold and ignoring the waitress' attempts at conversation. He hadn't even noticed when Alva himself had waited until the booth across from Paul had emptied and then took it himself.
        It was the closest he'd ever been to Paul. He'd watched him long enough, followed him from investigation to investigation to sabbatical, and then that final disastrous trip to Arizona. The events that took place there had shaken the young stranger sitting across from him to his very core. But those events were also turning out to be the event that Alva needed to finally do more than just watch Paul Callan. It was what he'd done with more or less patience since he'd managed to track down Paul. Watching, waiting, biding his time. He hadn't quite been sure when he would be able to make contact. He just knew it would come and that he would recognize it when it did. And now it was here and the anticipation sang through him.
        Alva risked a long gaze at Paul again, not really worrying that the other would notice him watching. Paul had been sitting in his own darkness for quite some time, not heeding the world around him at all. But this time his gaze swung in Alva's direction. Their eyes locked. Paul was almost dazed looking, shell shocked but he still froze at the direct, intense look from a stranger. Alva felt a frission of energy run through him as he met Paul's dark gaze for the first time. The bruises and healing cuts spoke of the ordeal the young man was struggling to recover from. The damage that the accident had done could not be completely healed, even by Tommy's great gift. Paul wore the cuts and ugly colours like he deserved them, like they were some kind of penance or payment for the gift of his life in exchange for Tommy's. Alva could almost feel the guilt that beat down Paul's spirit. For a moment they held the locked stare and then Paul eyes skidded away again, shaking his head as if to escape the momentary spell.
        "Paul," Alva spoke. "May I have a word with you?"
        The younger man started at the use of his own name but shied away, not meeting Alva's eyes again, and climbed stiffly to his feet. "Excuse me, I have to go," he mumbled.
        But Alva knew the words to say to stop him. Blood. And Tommy. And just like that, he had Paul's attention.
        Paul allowed himself to be convinced to sit again and inwardly Alva sighed in relief. Paul was unpredictable right now and if he'd just walked away it wouldn't have been a surprise. A disaster yes, but no real surprise. It didn't take too much to get Paul talking. The young man was aching to talk to someone. And all it took was a sympathetic ear, a shared profession and a confiding voice. Paul's eyes were fixed as he haltingly spoke. Alva kept a tight control on himself, making his words soft, trying not to startle the other man. He couldn't afford to scare Paul, to have him leave when he was starting to get through. He must reach the young man. Make a connection, take him in. He tried not to stare too much as Paul wrote the fateful words on the napkin and with a surprisingly steady hand, he wrote his own. He could feel his breath catch in his throat. It was true, everything he suspected and dreaded. Something was coming and Paul, for good or evil, was going to play a very large role in whatever it was.
        But at least Paul was listening; even more, he was obviously interested. There was an air of almost desperate need about him that grew as they talked. Paul was not merely interested. He needed. His life was in shambles, he'd lost his support structure, his job, almost his sanity. Alva knew in Paul's' mind, he might even be wondering about his soul. Paul had been losing his faith before Arizona and then gained it back again in a strange and disturbing form. He knew what he was offering Paul, or least what Paul thought he was offering. Answers. A new purpose. Some focus when all that had been torn from Paul. When Paul talked about Tommy and the healing, he made the obvious mistake, falling into the trap of his church teachings. Alva lost control of his tightly wound temper. His fist hit the table, his voice a hiss and Paul physically flinched, his face almost crumpling. Alva had won through but in doing so, he'd opened the wound again. To Alva's eyes, Paul teetered on the edge, afraid to take the stop forward or backward. Alva reined in his temper, hid the fire of his own belief behind bland eyes again and allowed Paul to regain control of his own run away emotions. He didn't need to badger, he'd already won. When he offered the last bit of information, he saw the disbelief in Paul's eyes. The uneasy laugh. He'd heard it and seen it before, but Alva never allowed disbelief to stop him. He told the truth as he saw it and cared little for what any others thought of it. Even this young man that he needed so badly.
        He had made the offer, no need to do more. He handed the younger man the card, knew as he did that Paul would take the offer. There was really no other choice for Paul. He felt some tiny flutter of guilt. Knowing he was manipulating the battered young man. He couldn't afford to feel too much for Paul Callan. The stakes were too high. He ruthlessly squashed the guilt. There was no choice for him either. Paul didn't know it but he needed Paul more than Paul so desperately needed him. He refused to feel the flash of triumph when Paul took the card. This was no victory, it was a necessity. But still when he met Paul's open, thoughtful gaze as he took his leave, he couldn't help but wonder what strange paths this man would lead him down.

Paul

        Paul could hear the rain still. It beat a hollow tattoo on the undercarriage of his car. It chilled the heated air and leached away his body heat. It puddled beneath him as he sprawled on what was the roof of his car. It seemed like it should have been a peaceful sound now that the tortured scream of twisting metal and the long, blasting warning of the train had stilled. But the beat of rain seemed to bleed away and all he could hear was the hollow sound of his heart as it slowly beat down. The gasping sound of his lungs labouring to draw in air past shattered bone. He could still hear his strangled "No," of protest when Tommy had crawled into the ruined car. And then the following inarticulate cry as the power of the healing had washed through him. The desperate, despairing sound still rang in his ears. He jerked his head up from his hands, pulling himself back from the night of his death. He didn't want to think about that right now. Didn't want to see Tommy's pale, ravaged face through the dark fall of rain.
        He wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting in the nondescript diner. Time had an odd habit of speeding up and slowing down on him since Arizona. He felt detached half the time, like his life swayed on the end of a fraying rope over a black and bottomless crevasse. It was shock, he thought numbly, though he thought he was past the physical shock. It was emotional. Or spiritual. Or some twisted combination of both. All he knew was that his life was spinning out of his control and he seemed powerless to stop it. His head ached. The healed bones in ribs, thighs and arms ached. The fire of Tommy's healing had burned through him like lightening, sweeping broken bones, torn flesh and damaged organs before it. Paul had been caught up by the rapture, tossed between ecstasy and agony. He thought he might have screamed but he had been deaf, dumb and blind. His soul begging Tommy to stop, to take it back knowing the terrible price. But he wasn't answered, instead he'd been healed. The lingering pain was only now beginning to fade. It was like his body was holding onto the aching, to some kind of penance. He hugged to him the bruises and scabs, the throbbing in recently healed bones. It seemed the only way he knew that he still breathed, that Tommy's sacrifice was not in vain.
        The coffee was long cold, his stomach too churning to even consider eating something. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. The waitress had come by three times that he could foggily remember. Whether she was hinting that he should make an order or just looking for someone to chat with in the middle of a boring shift, he couldn't say. He couldn't even remember what he's said to her. He'd been here too long, he decided. There were no answers in the bottom of an indifferent cup of coffee or the solace of being alone in a crowd. His gaze swung to the side and was pinned squarely by the man sitting in the booth across from him. The other man didn't just look at him, he stared at him, into him. It wasn't a casual impersonal glance, the other man SAW him. Knew him. Paul floundered, frozen by the obvious recognition. For what seemed like a long moment the two of them stared, like the locked gazes had completed some kind of circuit. Then Paul shivered, both physically and mentally, shaking off the strange sense of recognition as meaningless. He had other worries.
        "Paul, may I have a word?" The man's voice was soft, lightly accented.
        It was surreal, Paul thought dazedly. To have this man suddenly accost him, to speak of things he'd spoken of to no one else. To offer this connection. He allowed himself to be convinced to sit and listen because he really had no where else to turn. Life had thrown him so many curve balls lately that he's just stopped swinging. The following conversation rated as one of the oddest in his life. In ten minutes, Alva Keel turned his already topsy turvy world for another loop. And to his surprise he heard himself telling the other man things he hadn't even told Poppi. Things he'd been afraid to tell Poppi. Things that he'd been afraid to even think about, but somehow, Alva Keel made real. For the first time since Tommy, the world momentarily steadied. And then Keel talked about the blood and the writing and the bottom fell out again.
        But Keel did seem to have some answers and Paul grabbed at that promise like a drowning man. The part of his mind that enjoyed his investigative work struggled to awake again, grasping at the puzzle of the hemography, reaching for some kind of pattern to emerge. And not liking what did. Tommy's death could not be any part of a loving god's plan. How could it? Paul floundered, unable or unwilling to accept that Tommy's death was anything but a tragic mistake. "Tommy, " he thought in despair. "Did you know I was your death? Is that why you were so scared of me, when we first met?"
        When Alva Keel struck the table top in front of Paul, it was like a physical, openhanded slap. He flinched back, his already tightly wound nerves quivering as if to snap. Alva's eyes were hard on his, searching, demanding. The older man's intensity alarmed Paul, while at the same time he was drawn to it. There was an undeniable light about Alva Keel. An aura that said that the older man knew the right questions if not the answers. And that was something that Paul needed desperately. Behind the firm belief and intense focus of the other man, Paul could sense something else too. Some whiff of a suspicion that he could almost sense. Keel needed too. And to Paul's unease it seemed to him that Keel's need had something to do with Paul himself.
        To Paul's eyes, Keel burned with an almost religious fervour. His odd coloured eyes blazing as he spoke, though his words were soft, sometimes almost whispered. In another age he might have been a holy man, so intent he was on his quest. Lost in the storm of his torn beliefs, that sureness was enthralling to Paul. When Alva offered him the card, he took it, his eyes flicking down to the Latin text on the front and flipping it over to scan the number on the other side. Keel made no promise other than the offer that they might help each other. But behind those simple words there was the unspoken offer of answers. And Paul felt he would walk through fire to just have one of the thousands of questions in his soul answered. But could he work with this man?
        There was little more said, or at least Paul thought there wasn't. Moments later, Alva Keel was gone, and Paul was left staring at the small square of printed cardboard. He didn't know what the Latin said. But he knew how to find out. If only his decision could be as easy. He stared at the door that Alva Keel was long gone from, and Paul knew he wouldn't appear again. The next move was up to Paul.

Evie

        The call had come when Alva was out. Evie knew who it was before Paul Callan identified himself. She knew Alva had made contact. The soft, hesitant voice that came over the telephone line brought a surge of adrenaline, but she kept her voice calm as she gave him directions and hung up. Alva would be rather upset that he hadn't been there to take the call, but Evie thought it was all for the best. She had immense respect for her brilliant if erratic employer, but he was occasionally a bit intense. And lacking in tact. And rather uncaring for other people's doubts. It would be best if Evie was alone to welcome the young man they'd been following so closely.
        She looked thoughtfully at the thick file with Paul Callan's name neatly typed on the label. She flipped it open and glanced at the neat stack of photos that sat on the top. It showed a young man with dark eyes and a face that seemed to always be searching. Here a photo of him stepping out of a dark car, his face turned up to the light, looking like the graveyard angels that towered above him. The next, he knelt by an open grave, brow knotted in thought. Arguing in the next, with an angry woman waving a rosary. Walking down the street with an older man, a priest. And the most recent, a close up taken with a long lens. Paul's face, pale and bruised, eyes wide and shadowed with a pain that was more than physical. The photo made her uneasy, the naked emotion too personal.
        She flipped the file closed and then took it away to be filed. It would be disastrous if Paul saw it. She knew little of Alva's plans for Paul, and even less of what Alva suspected about Paul's nature. She might do a lot of the research for their two man team and a bit of the filing (heaven forbid she should interfere with Alva's bizarre filing system!), but when it came to Paul Callan, Alva kept much of it very close to his chest. She tucked the file under three others in a teetering pile on the extra chair in Alva's office and glanced around the rather shabby room. "Not exactly going to make a big impression on their newest recruit," she thought wryly. But there was nothing she could do to freshen up the place, it was what it was.
        When the knock came she took a deep breath and went to answer. It was odd to finally see Paul Callan face to face, to meet his eyes and see him looking back. He blinked like he was facing a harsh light, his glance holding hers then skidding away. "He's so shy," was her first clear thought as Paul's head ducked down at her greeting, his lashes dark on pale cheeks. He was taller than she'd thought and oddly awkward for such a slender young man. It seemed like he was uncomfortable in his skin. The bruise that spread over high cheekbones, and lurked in the corners of his eyes made him seem all the younger. But even battered and unsure, there was something about Paul Callan that was very compelling. Something that stirred her protective cop instincts.
        He met her smile with a hesitant one of his own, and she could see a flash of surprise and appreciation cross his mobile features. It was a look she was used to. In her line of work it seemed that most people expected to meet a mousy, bespectacled woman. She could admit she got a certain satisfaction out of the surprised looks. Just like the one now on Paul Callan's face. Her smile grew wider and she stepped back, indicating with a motion of her head that he should enter.
        "Please come in," she offered and stepped back, leaving Paul to linger hesitantly in the doorway. She moved away, further into the blatantly shabby office, leaving Paul to make his own decision with no pressure from her. He was like a wild animal, ready to turn and leave at the slightest danger. One second, two, and behind her she could hear his first unsure steps into the room, and then the soft click of the closing door. She smiled and moved to the coffee maker.
        "Would you like a drink?"

Paul

        On some level Paul knew as soon as Alva Keel left him that he would come to Sodalitas Quaerito. He really didn't have any where else to turn. He had few real close friends. The Church was tainted by the Monseigneur's indifference. He couldn't even bring himself to talk to Poppi about the words written in his own blood. He had to have answers, and right now, Alva Keel seemed the only place to find them. The voice on the other end of the line was not the soft accents of Alva Keel, but a light, airy woman's voice. But there was someone at the address and now was as good a time as any to take the plunge.
        The outside stairway to the office, reached through a side alley, didn't make the best impression. The long steep stair made his healed hip ache, but for once he didn't let it drag his mind back to Arizona. The door was swinging open and there was a woman on the other side. She wasn't at all what he expected. He wasn't really sure what he expected, but not this Latina Madonna. Beautiful women always made him uncomfortable, and he ducked his head away at her direct, appraising look. When he looked up again, he could see her eyes track over his bruised face, slide over the cuts that the imbedded glass had left on his cheek bone. He stuttered his name and then almost kicked himself. Of course she knew who he was.
        Her smile seemed somehow sympathetic, like she could sense his nervousness. She radiated a sense of strength, of stability. A feeling of refuge that washed over him like warm water. Keel made him nervous while at the same time drew him. With this woman there were no reservations. Some part of him trusted her immediately. He distrusted that impulse, like he seemed to mistrust every impulse now, but still it soothed him. She stepped back, turning into the room and leaving him standing poised in the doorway. "Please come in," she offered. He stared at her straight back, the shining fall of her hair, then tracked to dart around the not well lit room. Shabby and rather dark, it seemed like every surface was covered in books or papers. Newspapers were stuck to boards and he could see the strange shape of an old printing press across the room.
        He hesitated on the threshold, one breath, then two. If he stepped inside he was committing himself. He would be putting himself into a stranger's control. The thought was not the most comforting. But to Paul's mind he really had no choice. The woman still had her back to him, not urging him inside, but knowingly giving him the moment he needed to gather himself. The consideration warmed him, steadied him, and, taking a deep breath, he stepped into the office and back into his life.


Finis

Comment on this story by e-mail


Back to The Stories