Jonas started and ended each day on the deck. It was his solace, his balm, his energy. Sunset was always impressive from that large redwood platform. The home, carved into the upper ridges above Stenner Canyon, was where Dr. Jonas Heathcoat could take in the picturesque views over San Luis Obispo, the rolling California hills and on clear days, the Pacific. Sunrise was just as spectacular in the opposite direction, down into the often fog-shrouded valleys cradling U.S. 101. The hilltops would poke through the low marine cloud layer first and then the white veil would quietly dissolve by the second cup of coffee. The house itself was large, impressive. The décor was masculine, obviously a bachelor’s touch, but with a refined good taste and elegance. Looking more like a plush ski resort with its A-frame, glass architecture and cathedral ceilings, it had been featured in more than one high-end design magazine.
Tonight, however, even the tranquility of a gathering dusk and the impressive march of a distant storm line encroaching from the ocean didn’t assuage his agitation. Events were escalating, actions were required. There was no desire now to sip his wine and let the workday’s pace ebb away into an evening comfort. Ever since Chicago the week prior, Jonas had been feeling this pressure, this foreboding. He was pacing in and out of the house to the deck, fiddling with his Blackberry, jabbing at his computer keyboard, muttering.
Everyone in town was watching him. He saw them all, felt their stare, heard their whispers behind his back. He sensed they were after him; he just knew it. How many times had he checked on the safety of the data, the security around the files? No matter: check again. Things change, things happen. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist and professor emeritus at Cal Poly, thumbed off an e-mail on his hand-held. His eighty-something year old fingers still had the dexterity of a teen. Perhaps his best salvation now lay across the country with a colleague. She needed to be here. She needed to understand the entire consequence of his research before it was too late. Hadn’t he seen that same man again on campus this morning? He sure looked like the one in Chicago last week. He sure looked like the one with Nico Correlli who had followed him everywhere at the meetings and banquet. Dorothy laughed at lunch in Chicago when he mentioned him to her. Paranoia, she’d implied. Perhaps, but Jonas’s instincts had served him well over the years with both his science and with people.
The temperature was dropping noticeably as the now faint and small orange disk of a sun was swallowed by the storm clouds on the western horizon. Jonas pulled on an old, soft cardigan and pushed the sleeves half-way up his forearms. His Rolex read a little after seven; too early to retreat into bed to escape the distress. The breeze picked up and he smelled the coming rain. Screw the Pinot Noir. A stiff scotch, or two, that’s what was needed. The impressive bar was just inside the large sliding glass doors from the deck. The bar was more for his frequent entertaining than his own personal use. He reached for a simple blended whiskey. Pouring a generous tumbler over ice, his hand shook, the cubes rattled. This startled him and he put the drink aside untouched. “What the hell is happening?”, he demanded out loud He checked his Blackberry’s in-box. Nothing. Then again, it was after ten in North Carolina. It might be too late tonight for her to answer. Should he call her? He pondered some more when finally a positive thought struck: A brisk walk before the rain hit, that should help. Exercise might throw off some endorphins, calm things down a bit, ease the tension.
A myriad of foot and bike trails spidered across the ridge lines where Jonas lived. He knew them all after years of enjoying their vertical challenge or horizontal serenity. Just a quick, invigorating stroll to get the heart rate up, then maybe review the security protocols on the system before retiring. Catching himself, he fought back the impulse. No, damn it. The security is fine.
It was still barely light enough to see. Jonas jumped on a vigorous tempo. His feet knew the rocks and turns by rote and just minutes into it he was already feeling better. This was one of the favorite activities that kept the old man sharp physically. Twenty minutes later, sensing the weather closing in, Jonas started his return. “What was that?” he caught himself. Knowing these hills intimately, Jonas could easily discern a jack rabbit or coyote moving through the foliage. That sound was neither. It didn’t belong here. It wasn’t natural. Something was wrong, out of place. Visibility was nearly gone, but what he’d heard sounded like a two-legged animal. Someone slipping, someone not as familiar with the rugged terrain. Someone close. Jonas picked up his speed, trusting his knowledge of the ground and his experience with rough trekking. No longer using the easier, circuitous path, but heading on a more direct route back up the hill, Jonas kept an eye on the lit house and an ear to the darkened brush. Once safely inside, he realized all that hike accomplished was not only to raise his heart rate, but aggravate his suspicions and angst. Maybe now that scotch he left on the bar?
The ice had melted and tamed the fiery liquor into a milder drink. It was still cold, however, and tasted good. One last peek at the computer, he decided, run another security test, then catch the beginnings of the storm from the deck . The wind was picking up and the stars were now gone from overhead, covered by the arriving clouds. Jonas stepped to the rail and looked about, deeply inhaled the air, hoping to relax.
It hit.The pain was agonizing. He grabbed his chest, dropped the glass, and staggered backwards. Never before had he felt pain so excruciating. His consciousness detached from his body, as though he were dreaming, only dreams never hurt like this. His arms and shoulders were on fire, he couldn’t breathe, and his head was exploding as though a huge hammer was pummeling him. His once sturdy and powerful legs were rubber. He was losing vision and all he could hear was a thunderous roar. His hand caught the arm of a deck chair and he reflexively pulled himself into it. But seated, the pain unbelievably increased. It was unbearable. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe.