A Congregation of Storm
The most pitiable among men is he who turns his dreams into silver
Some years in Portland, Oregon, winter is a bully, spitting sleet and
spewing snow in fits and starts as it violently wrestles days from
spring, claiming some archaic right to remain king of the
seasons—ultimately the vain attempt of another pretender. This
year was not like that. Winter simply bowed out like a beaten woman,
leaving head down in tattered garments of dirty whites and browns with
barely a whimper or promise of return. The difference between her
presence and absence was scarcely discernible.
Anthony Spencer didn't care either way. Winter was a nuisance and spring
not much better. Given the power, he would remove both from the calendar
along with the wet and rainy part of autumn. A five-month year would be
just about right, certainly preferable to lingering periods of
uncertainty. Every cusp of spring he wondered why he stayed in the
Northwest, but each year found him again asking the same question. Maybe
disappointing familiarity had its own comforts. The idea of actual
change was daunting. The more entrenched in his habits and securities,
the less inclined he was to believe that anything else was worth the
effort if even possible. Known routines, even though painful at times,
at least had their own predictability.
He leaned back in his chair and looked up from the desk cluttered with
papers and into his computer screen. With each tap of a key he could
watch the monitoring feed from his personal properties; the condo in the
building adjacent to where he sat, his central workplace situated
strategically in downtown Portland midway up a midsized office scraper,
his getaway house at the coast and larger home in the West Hills. He
watched and restlessly tapped his right index finger on his knee. All
was quiet as if the world was holding her breath. There are many ways to
Although people who interacted with Tony in business or social
situations would have thought otherwise, he was not a cheerful man. He
was determined and ever in search of the next advantage. That often
required an outgoing and gregarious presence, broad smiles, eye contact,
and firm handshakes, not because of any true consideration, but because
everyone potentially held information that would be valuable in
positioning for success. His many questions created the aura of genuine
interest, leaving others with both a sense of significance but also a
lingering emptiness. Known for gestures of philanthropy, he understood
the value of compassion as a means to more important objectives. Caring
made people that much easier to manipulate. After a few halting attempts
he has concluded that friends of any depth were a bad investment. So
little return. Actual caring was inconvenient and a luxury for which he
had no time or energy.
Instead he defined success in real estate property management and
development, diverse business ventures, and a growing investment
portfolio, where he was respected and feared as a severe negotiator and
master deal maker. For Tony, happiness was a silly and transient
sentiment, a vapor compared to the smell of a potential deal and the
addicting aftertaste of the win. Like Scrooge of old, he took delight in
wresting the last vestiges of dignity from those around him, especially
employees who toiled from fear if not respect. Surely such a man is
worthy of neither love nor compassion.
When he smiled, Tony could almost be mistaken for handsome. Genetics had
gifted him with a six-foot-plus frame and good hair, which even now in
his mid-forties showed no evidence of leaving even though the lawyer's
gray had started to salt his temples. Obviously Anglo-Saxon, a hint of
something darker and finer softened his features, especially noticeable
during rare moments when he was transported out of his customary
business demeanor by some fancy or unhinged laughter.
By most standards he was wealthy, successful, and an eligible bachelor.
A bit of a womanizer, he exercised enough to stay competitive, sporting
only a barely sagging belly that could be sucked in appropriately. And
the women came and went, the wiser the sooner, and each feeling less
valuable for the experience.
He had married twice, to the same woman. The first union, while both
were in their early twenties, had produced a son and a daughter, the
latter now an angry young adult living across the country near her
mother. Their son was another story. That marriage had ended in divorce
for irreconcilable differences, a poster story of calculated
disaffection and a callous lack of consideration. In only a few short
years Tony had battered Loree's sense of worth and value into barely
recognizable bits and pieces.
The problem was she bowed out gracefully, and this could not be counted
as a proper win. So Tony spent the next two years wooing her back,
throwing a magnificent remarriage celebration, and then two weeks later
serving her divorce papers for a second time. Rumor was these had been
prepared even before the signatures were inked on the second set of
marriage certificates. But this time she came at him with all the fury
of a woman scorned, and he had financially, legally, and psychologically
crushed her. This certainly could be chalked up as a win. It had been a
ruthless game, but only to him.
The price he paid was losing his daughter in the process, something that
rose like a specter in the shadows of a little too much Scotch, a little
haunting that could soon be buried in the busyness of work and winning.
Their son was a significant reason for the Scotch in the first place;
over-the-counter medicine that softened the ragged edges of memory and
regret and tempered the painful migraines that had become an occasional
If freedom is an incremental process, so, too, is the encroachment of
evil. Small adjustments to truth and minor justifications over time
build an edifice that would never have been predicted. True for any
Hitler or Stalin or common person. The inside house of the soul is
magnificent but fragile; any betrayals and lies embedded in its walls
and foundation shift its construction in directions unimagined.
The mystery of every human soul, even Anthony Spencer, is profound. He
had been birthed in an explosion of life, an inner expanding universe
coalescing its own internal solar systems and galaxies with unimagined
symmetry and elegance. Here even chaos played her part and order emerged
as a by-product. Places of substance entered the dance of competing
gravitational forces, each adding their own rotation to the mix,
shifting the members of the cosmic waltz and spreading them out in a
constant give-and-take of space and time and music. Along this road,
pain and loss came crushing, causing this depth to lose its profoundly
delicate structure and begin to collapse in on itself. The deterioration
rippled on the surface in self-protective fear, selfish ambition, and
the hardening of anything tender. What had been a living entity, a heart
of flesh, became stone; a small hardened rock lived in the husk, the
shell of the body. Once the form was an expression of inward wonder and
magnificence. Now it must find its way with no support, a facade in
search of a heart, a dying star ravenous in its own emptiness.
Pain, loss, and finally abandonment are each a hard taskmaster, but
combined they become a desolation almost unendurable. These had
weaponized Tony's existence, equipping him with the ability to hide
knives inside words, erect walls protecting the within from any
approach, and keeping him locked in an imagination of safety while
isolated and solitary. Little true music now existed in Tony's life;
scraps of creativity barely audible. The sound track of his subsistence
didn't even qualify as Muzak—unsurprising elevator melodies
accompanying his predictable elevator pitches.
Those who recognized him on the streets nodded their greetings, the more
perceptive spitting their disdain onto the sidewalk once he passed. But
plenty of others were taken in; fawning sycophants awaited his next
directive, desperate to win a scrap of approval or perceived affection.
In the wake of alleged success, others are carried along by a need to
secure their own significance, identity, and agenda. Perception is
reality, even if the perception is a lie.
Tony owned an expansive house on acreage in the upper West Hills, and
unless he was hosting a party for some advantage, kept only one small
portion heated. Though he rarely bothered to stay there, he retained the
place as a monument to vanquishing his wife. Loree won it as part of
their first divorce settlement but had sold it to pay her mounting legal
bills relating to their second. Through a third party he bought it from
her for pennies on the dollar and then threw a surprise eviction party,
complete with police to escort a stunned ex-wife off the premises on the
day the sale closed.
He leaned forward again and switched off his computer, reaching for his
Scotch, and rotated his chair so he could stare at a list of names he
had written on a whiteboard. He got up, erased four names and added one,
and then slumped back into his chair, the horses in his fingers again
tapping their cadence onto his desk. Today he was in a fouler mood than
usual. Business obligations had required attending a conference in
Boston that held little interest for him, and then a minor crisis in
personnel management meant he was returning a day earlier than planned.
While it was annoying that he had to deal with a situation easily
handled by subordinates in the company, he was grateful for the excuse
to withdraw from the barely tolerable seminars and return to the barely
tolerable routines over which he had more control.
But something had changed. What began as a hint of a shadow of
uneasiness had grown to a conscious voice. For a few weeks Tony had felt
a nagging sense he was being followed. At first he dismissed it as
stress overreaching itself, the fabrications of an overworked mind. But
once implanted, the thought had found fertile soil; and what began as a
seed easily washed away by serious consideration spread roots that soon
expressed itself in nervous hypervigilance, sapping even more energy
from a mind constantly alert.
He began noticing details in minor events, which individually would draw
barely a wonder. But together they became in his consciousness a chorus
of warning. The black SUV he sometimes spotted shadowing him on his way
to the main office, the gas attendant who forgot to return his credit
card for minutes, the alarm company that notified him about three power
failures at his home that seemed to affect only his property while his
neighbors' remained undimmed, each outage lasting exactly twenty-two
minutes at the same time three days in a row. Tony began to pay more
attention to trivial discrepancies and even how others looked at
him—the barista at Stumptown Coffee, the security guard on the
first- floor entry, and even the personnel manning the desks at work. He
noted how they glanced away when he would turn in their direction,
averting their eyes and quickly changing their body language to indicate
they were busy and involved elsewhere.
There was an unnerving similarity in the responses of these disparate
people, as if by collusion. Theirs was a secret to which he was not
privy. The more he looked, the more he noticed, so the more he looked.
He had always been a little paranoid, but it now escalated to constant
considerations of conspiracy, and he lived agitated and unnerved.
Tony kept this small private office complete with a bedroom, kitchen,
and bathroom, its whereabouts not even known to his personal lawyer.
This was his retreat down by the river just off Macadam Avenue for the
times when he simply wanted to disappear for a few hours or spend the
night off the grid.
The larger property that housed this hidden hidey-hole he also owned,
but had years before transferred the title to a nondescript shell
company. He had then renovated a portion of its basement, equipping it
with state-of-the-art surveillance and security technology. Other than
the original contractors, who had all been hired at arm's length, no one
had seen these rooms. Even the building blueprints did not disclose
their existence, thanks to construction payoffs and well-placed
donations to local governmental chains of command. When the proper code
was entered in what appeared to be a rusty telephone junction box keypad
at the back of an unused janitorial closet, a wall slid sideways to
reveal a steel fire door and modern camera and keypad entry system.
The place was almost completely self-contained, tied to power and
Internet sources independent from the rest of the complex. Additionally,
if his monitoring security software discovered any attempt to backtrace
the location, it would shut and lock the system down until reset by
entering a new and automatically generated code. This could be done from
only one of two places: his downtown office desk or inside the secret
lair itself. As a habit, before he entered he would turn off his mobile
phone and remove its SIM card and battery. He had an unlisted landline
that could be activated should there ever be the need.
There was no show here. The furnishings and art were simple, almost
spartan. No one else would ever see this place, so everything in these
rooms meant something to him. Books lined the walls, many he had never
opened but had belonged to his father. Others, especially classics, his
mother had read to him and his brother. The works of C. S. Lewis and
George MacDonald were among the most prominent of these, childhood
favorites. An early edition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian
Gray was prominently displayed, for his eyes alone. Crammed into one
end of the bookshelf were a plethora of business books, well read and
marked, an arsenal of mentors. A few works by Escher and Doolittle
haphazardly hung on the walls and an old phonograph player sat in one
corner. He kept a collection of vinyl records whose scratches were like
comforting reminders of times long gone.
It was in this hidden office that he also kept his critically important
items and documents: deeds, titles, and especially his official Last
Will and Testament. This he frequently reviewed and changed, adding or
subtracting people as they intersected his life and their actions
angered or pleased him. He imagined the impact of a gift or the lack
thereof on those who would care about his wealth once he had joined the
ranks of the "dearly departed."
His own personal lawyer, different from his general counsel, had a key
to a safety-deposit box secured in the downtown main branch of Wells
Fargo. This could be accessed only with his death certificate. Inside
were instructions revealing the location of the private apartment and
office, how to gain entry, and where to find the codes for opening the
concealed safe buried in the foundation floor. Should anyone ever
attempt to gain access to the box without a certified death certificate,
the bank was required to notify Tony immediately; and as he had warned
the attorney, if such ever occurred, their relationship would terminate
without consideration, along with the healthy retainer that arrived
promptly the first business day of every month.
Tony kept an older Last Will and Testament, for show, in the safe at the
main office. A few of his partners and colleagues had access for
business purposes, and he secretly hoped that curiosity would overtake
one or the other, imagining their initial pleasure at knowing its
contents followed by the sobering event of the reading of his actual
It was public information that Tony owned and managed the property
adjacent to the building that housed his secret place. It was a similar
structure with storefronts on the first floor and condos above. The two
buildings shared underground parking, with strategically placed cameras
that seemed to blanket the area completely but actually left a corridor
that one could invisibly pass through. Tony could quickly access his
hidden refuge unnoticed.
In order to justify his regular presence on this side of town, he
publicly purchased a two-bedroom condominium on the second floor of the
building next to his hidden office. The apartment was complete and
lavishly apportioned, a perfect front, and he spent more nights here
than at either his West Hills house or his getaway at the coast near
Depoe Bay. Tony had timed the walking distance between the condo and his
secret sanctuary through the parking garage, and knew he could be
sequestered away in his special sanctuary in less than three minutes.
From the security of this enclosed and protected asylum he was connected
to the outside world through recordable video feeds that monitored his
personal properties and downtown office. The extensive electronic
hardware was more for self-protection than it was for advantage. But
nowhere had he hidden cameras in bedrooms or bathrooms, knowing that
others would occasionally use them with his permission. He might have
been many things distasteful, but a voyeur was not one of them.
Excerpted from "Cross Roads" by Wm. Paul Young. Copyright © 2013 by Wm. Paul Young. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.