1. The Last Hero
The Last Hero
'Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where's the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?'
Holding Out For A Hero, Bonnie Tyler
A small child wails on the sidewalk as the limousine pulls up to the curb in front of a five-story brownstone. The old apartment house, a collection of spacious flats built in the early days of the previous century, has seen better days. They don't make them like this anymore, but occupying such prime real estate as Chicago's Lincoln Park West, the building will soon see the wrecking ball to make way for a twenty-story condo block unless it can find a savior with more architectural taste than good business sense. Such is the way of the modern economic world.
The driver's side door swings open and out steps a young man with platinum hair. He walks around the front of the car to the curbside to open the rear passenger door with brisk efficiency. Two men unfold onto the sidewalk, blinking in the sunlight and eyeing the building appraisingly. The cool interior of the lobby awaits, although the doorman who at one time would have ushered them in has recently been given his early retirement.
A piercing shriek makes the taller of the two passengers turn his head to notice the child and the young woman holding her hand.
"Is everything all right here?"
The woman's eyes narrow at a question from a stranger. The hair on all of them -- long, covering the ears, and flowing to the shoulder blades -- is the sort usually seen on rock stars, bikers, and other disreputable types, but the burgundy Mercedes with its chauffeur in his green and brown uniform, the fine cut of the cream colored summer suit on the taller passenger, and the presence of a tweed-clad personal assistant carrying a clipboard and a discreet leather briefcase all mean money. She is impressed by wealth.
Her expression softens. "We seem to have a little problem."
"Kitty inna tree!" the little girl screams and points upward.
"Yes, Cameron, the kitty is in the tree," the young woman carefully enunciates. Her lack of parental warmth as she corrects the child's speech suggests that she is not the mother -- just one of many nannies out with their well-guarded charges on this lovely warm afternoon.
"Kitty!!!" the child repeats and waves her stubby finger even more emphatically.
The tall man turns his blond head upward along the indicated line of sight, and sure enough, a tiny black speck can be seen clinging to the topmost branch of a Honey Locust that grows in the narrow strip between sidewalk and street. Over the dull roar of traffic, police sirens, wind off the lake, and the indeterminate babble of voices that make up the background noise of the great metropolis of Chicago, comes the faint mewling of feline distress.
He turns back to the child. "Don't cry, sweetie. I'll get the kitty down for you."
"Uh, Aaron," the assistant remarks, "I don't think that's a very good idea."
The chauffeur takes one look skyward and nods in agreement. It is a very tall tree for an urban specimen. "I think we should call the Fire Department, Mr. Rivers," he says, reaching for his cell.
"And tie up traffic with a hook and ladder truck? Not to mention terrifying the poor animal in the process. Don't be silly."
"How many cat skeletons have you seen in trees?" the assistant points out. "It will find its own way down. You'll break your neck."
"Please, Glenn, the day I can't climb a tree is the day when I give up and admit I'm old," Aaron scoffs, although to the casual eye he looks anything but old. "Here, make yourself useful and hold my coat."
He proceeds to strip off his suit jacket and tie. His elegant silhouette, slim hipped and broad-shouldered as he stands in his shirtsleeves, elicits a surreptitious once-over from the nanny. Meanwhile, the little girl's sobs subside into hiccups now that a rescue is at hand.
Glenn continues to scowl, grumbling only, "Don't say I didn't tell you so," as Aaron hands over the jacket and walks over to the tree, dusting off his hands and eyeing his upward route with critical appraisal.
A quick leap, and he shimmies up the trunk like an acrobat climbing a pole, until he reaches the first lateral branch and pulls himself into a standing position. "See? A piece of cake," he says with a flash of white teeth.
"I knew that second glass of wine at lunch was a mistake," Glenn mutters, and the chauffeur quickly looks away and begins to study his shoes.
"I heard that," Aaron says good-naturedly and begins to climb. The going is easy at first, until a sharp branch catches the back of his trousers, exposing a length of pale thigh and a flash of grey foulard-print silk boxers.
"Drat," Aaron mutters, while Glenn snorts below and the nanny covers little Cameron's eyes. She continues to make good use of her own, though, staring upward in rapt fascination.
Toward the top the branches become thinner, until it seems impossible that they could support a grown man. Only inches remain now between the tip of Aaron's outstretched fingers and the mewing bundle of dark fur.
"Come on, come down to me . . . Ahh, then I'll just have to come up to you. Hold still." Those below hear an ominous crack and the treetop begins to sway as he steps up the last few critical inches. "Almost there, almost there . . . Gotcha!" Then . . .
"Owww! Son of a . . . The little sucker bit me! Nailed me right through the thumb!" It is plain from his tone that he almost lets slip a stronger term than 'sucker', and the nanny's lips narrow into a thin line. She grips her charge more tightly.
"Splendid!" Glenn remarks to no one in particular. "It's been ages since I've been called upon to get bloodstains out of white linen. I'd hate to lose the knack." The chauffeur continues to stare at his shoes, but the corners of his mouth are fighting a twitch.
Meanwhile, by some miracle, Aaron has kept hold of the cat. "Easy now. Easy. Avo osto. You're all right," he murmurs. Carefully, he lowers the hand, now streaming blood down over his cuff, with the cat, and cradles both to his chest.
"Should I call the Fire Department now, boss?" Glenn yells up.
"If you do that -- if I see my picture on the front page of the Tribune getting plucked out of a tree by a cherry-picker -- I will make you very sorry," Aaron says through gritted teeth. "You too, Hal. Don't even think about it."
The chauffeur shakes his head. Having worked for even more difficult employers in his day, the thought has not even crossed his mind. Still, he quietly joins Glenn underneath the tree in order to be in a position to catch the plummeting cat or the boss should the worst occur.
However, the worst does not occur. After some alarming shimmying at the very top, Aaron is able to back his way down one-handed. With the kitten still clutched against his body, he drops from the crotch of the tree to land lightly on the pavement with the grace of an athlete.
With a smile of triumph, he holds the kitten out to the little girl. "Here you are, sweetheart. Your kitty is all safe and sound."
The nanny pulls her charge back in horror. "Whatever gave you the impression it was our cat? Cats shed, and they carry all kinds of diseases. Most of Cameron's playmates have asthma. Oh, no -- that would never do!"
"Then why . . .?"
"She's tenderhearted, of course. Cameron's parents have taught her to have empathy for the less fortunate, haven't they, Cameron dear?"
Cameron nods, all smiles now. "Kitty safe."
"I can't begin to thank you, Mr. . . . Rivers, was it?" The nanny barely waits for his numb acknowledgement before continuing. "I never thought I'd get her to budge, and Cameron has Suzuki violin lessons at 2:00, Baby Swim at 3:00, and her Mommy and Me class at 4:00. We must be going now."
She takes the child by the hand and the two of them head south on down the block as Aaron stares after them looking -- there's no other word for it -- poleaxed. Cameron turns to wave just as a stray gust of wind lifts his long hair away from the side of his head for a split second.
"Elfs!" the little girl exclaims, grinning and pointing in delight.
"Don't be silly," her nanny tells her without bothering to look back. "You know what we say about making up stories. There's no such thing. Now come along. We'll be late."
Aaron is left standing on the sidewalk, cradling the tiny black ball of fur, with his shirt bloodstained and his pants letting in a draft. "Well I'll be . . ."
"Don't say it," Glenn remarks. "I think you can let the cat loose now, Aaron."
"No, I can't."
"Why not, other than it seems to have its claws in your neck?"
"It's purring, Glenn." He pauses to turn the now docile kitten over for a quick look. "He's purring. How can I abandon something that's purring?"
"Then I suppose the Humane Society is out of the question too?"
Aaron nods. "I think we should take this little guy back up to Lake Forest and get things straightened out."
Glenn jerks his chin in the direction of the brownstone apartment building. "What about our meeting?"
"The marble fireplaces and the solid oak wainscoting and the owner eager to sell will be there tomorrow. That's the great thing about being rich -- you can set your own schedule. Besides, I prefer to do business without my ass hanging out."
Glenn looks at the kitten. "He'll probably pee all over the interior of the Mercedes."
The chauffeur lets out a discreet sigh as he opens the rear door for he two of them.
"And we'll have to take him to a vet to get checked for a microchip and put a found pet ad in the personals."
"I know that too." But between the two of them is the unspoken understanding that no chip will be found and there will be no answer to the ad. The cat in Aaron's arms is scrawny. It has been a long time since he had a home, if ever. And tonight, after being given a careful bath and combed for fleas by the longsuffering Glenn, the kitten will sleep curled in a ball on Aaron's chest -- as indeed he will for many years to come, once he has tripled his weight and his fur has grown out into a cloud of luxurious black silk.
The two of them settle into the tucked and rolled leather upholstery of the back seat, and Aaron switches the kitten into his left hand, calmly holding out the right while Glenn wraps it in a handkerchief. Looking down into adoring yellow eyes, Aaron smiles and says, "I think I'll call you Tevildo."