Angel Falling Softly

Chapter 18

A man's known by the company he keeps

The stressed-concrete entranceway to the Japanese restaurant was tucked in between the parking garage and a movie theater. Steven pulled into the parking garage and said, “Are you sure this is the right place?”

Milada looked again and replied that it was.

“When do you need to be picked up?”

“I should be fine for the evening. If not, I will call a taxi.”

Once she got inside, Milada felt more reassured. The sharp scent of shoyu and boiled rice at once brought back a decades-old memory of strolling through Shibuya a quarter-century ago, before Japan’s real-estate bubble burst.

The sushi chef called out a greeting from the bar. The floor area, crowded with tables, wrapped around the varnished pine sushi bar. A waitress, a small Japanese girl, bowed to her.

“I’m here to meet a Mr. Troy Ellis—”

“Milada!” Troy stood and waved. Seeing the eager young Mormon again, all square jaw and broad shoulders, she knew he was the boy who as a child sat through all the elementary school self-esteem courses and believed every word he heard.

The waitress led her over to the table. Troy came around the table to hold the chair for her. The waitress gave her a menu.

“Did you find the place all right?”

“My driver has a talent with addresses and directions.”

“The sushi’s quite good. Take your pick. I usually go with the tuna roll or California roll.”

Milada nodded. She put down the menu and took a sip of water.

“So,” said Troy, “how’s your knowledge of Mormons coming along?”

“It’s still pretty much confined to what you don’t do. I’m up to tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.

“Technically it depends what the caffeine comes in. Coffee—that’s a given. Diet Coke—that’s how you separate out the true believers.”

Milada smiled. She wasn’t certain whether the boy was trying to be funny on purpose. The waitress returned and took their orders, picked up the menus, and left.

Troy toyed with his water glass, spinning it around on its coaster. “Not to get too personal, but do you consider yourself a religious person?”

“No,” Milada replied bluntly.

“You mean, you haven’t ever thought about, say, whether you existed before you were born, whether the soul continues after death—”

“Those are as much philosophical questions as religious questions.”

“Then do you consider yourself a philosophical person?”

Milada said again, “No.”

Troy gave her a guarded look. “Not even the purpose of life? Your place in God’s creation?”

“A long time ago, I spent a century thinking about it. Not any more.”

“And what conclusion did you come to?”

“The purpose of life is business.”

Troy raised his eyebrows.

“I am serious. Religion preaches values, ethics, love of your fellow man. But where do those virtues touch everyday life? Other than in our own homes? In commerce. Yes, we aspire to loftier pursuits—to art, music, literature. To the priesthood. To lives of charity and self-sacrifice. And how do we pay for them? What must we sacrifice at the end of the day? Not only our lives and honor, said Thomas Jefferson, but our fortunes. The Good Samaritan, when he asked the innkeeper to watch over the man he rescued along the road to Jericho, he left the man with an expense account.”

Troy objected. “But business by itself is hardly virtuous. Without a foundation of belief, isn’t life reduced to little more than a series of economic transactions?”

Milada nodded. “Yes, business is hardly virtuous. Neither am I. It is not the place to expect sainthood. Or even fair play. But it is the place to practice. Immediate gratification tempts. But patience rewards in the long term. That and the miracle of compound interest.” She smiled to herself. “Now, if you are looking for a more Manichean philosophy of life, I would have you ask Zoë.”

The waitress and busboy arrived with the dinners. The two set out the sushi and tempura, miso and rice. Troy thanked them in Japanese. The waitress grinned and bowed in return.

Milada cradled her miso bowl and sipped the hot, salty tea. She hadn’t tasted miso in a while. She had forgotten how much it reminded her of blood.

Troy dipped a slice of the sushi roll into the soy sauce. He used chopsticks with a practiced dexterity. “Zoë?” he said, picking up the thread of the conversation.

“The younger of my two sisters.”

“What does she think the purpose of life is?”

“Killing people she doesn’t like.”

The surprised look on his face was followed by a suspicious expression that his leg was being pulled. Milada shrugged. “She battles evil, if you like. Rather haphazardly. I agree, I can think of better occupations.”

“Is she a police officer or soldier or something like that?”

“Something like that.”

The sushi wasn’t bad, Milada thought.

“So you believe in evil then.”

“I believe people can be bad, can be cruel. Perhaps can be clever enough to be evil. But even the clever ones eventually end up against the wall like the Ceausescus. Or erased from history like the Gang of Four. Evil accumulates. It eats away at the core. It destroys its host. For evil to survive, it must find some good that justifies its existence. Some higher purpose—if nothing else, making the trains run on time—or else it collapses almost as soon as it begins. So kingdoms rise and fall. In the meanwhile, a well-run corporation outlasts any government. And most nations.”

“Which means you do or don’t believe in the devil?”

“I believe there is evil enough in ourselves. I’ve never met the creature myself. I have met a few of his foot soldiers. And in their time most were thought to be—and thought themselves to be—good and decent men.”

Troy nodded.

Milada said, “I knew someone once, a person who did evil with purpose and intent.” Briefly, she looked past Troy, through the window at the shadowed sidewalk, at a man and woman pushing a stroller, a boy coasting by on a skateboard. “She thought she was doing the right thing. Or perhaps was doing the only thing she could do. Or perhaps was merely frightened. Fear and ignorance are so easily confused in the moral imagination.”

They ate in silence until Troy asked, “What about God?”

“Were I to believe in God, a personal God, as Christians would have it, I must believe in a God who values life much differently than we do.”

“But in the end, good triumphs over evil.”

“No, my experience is that mediocrity triumphs over all. Hence the need for grace, would you not say?”

He conceded the point.

Milada finished off the last of the tempura. “This is quite good.”

“As good as what you can get in New York?”

“Hardly Nobu Matsuhisa. But not bad.”

Troy checked his watch. “We’d better get going.”

He paid the check at the front desk with a Platinum Visa card. They arrived at Troy’s car, a red Jeep Wrangler. Milada’s initial reaction was dismay, and she didn’t stop it from showing.

“Don’t worry,” Troy said, “I keep it clean.”

The Jeep was indeed tidily kept. Milada’s concern had not so much to do with cleanliness. She had a phobia of convertibles, regardless of the time of day. It was light, though the sun had settled safely behind the Oquirrh Mountains. Get a grip, she told herself and buckled herself in.

Steven had pointed out Abravanel Hall on their informal tours of downtown Salt Lake. It stood kitty-corner from Temple Square, southeast from Energy Solutions Arena. If she were still around later in the year, she should take in a Jazz game.

Salt Lake’s Brahmins mingled together on the polished tile below the glass façade of the concert hall. A line of gushing fountains along the edge of the plaza cooled and moistened the air. Milada spotted a few tuxedos and evening gowns, here and there a black-felt Stetson on top of starched cotton and pressed jeans. It looked like a collision between prom night and Sunday school.

And Milada found that comforting. She had worn her black Mondi to work that day—she’d given her gray to Rachel Forsythe—and though it was a ridiculously expensive outfit, it was cut for utility, not show. Had she appeared at the Met thus attired, the immediate question would have been whether she was dressing down on purpose or by accident. No one cared here, and what a relief that was.

They collected their programs and found their seats. First tier, stage left. A brief inspection told Milada they were just behind the best seats in the house, the corporate patrons. She opened her program and said, honestly surprised, “Keith Lockhart?”

“He splits his time between here and Boston.”

A couple came down the aisle along the railing. The man saw Troy. “Hey, Troy,” said the man, “didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”

“Brother Newhall.” They shook hands. The man said, “So who’s this fine young woman you’re with?”

“This is Milada Daranyi.”

“Sister Daranyi, I’m Greg Newhall. My wife Cynthia.”

Milada shook Cynthia’s hand and then Greg’s.

Greg said, “By the way, Troy, how’s the press run on the new Monson book coming along?”

“We begin shipping to the bindery tomorrow.”

“Good, good.”

The Newhalls continued up the aisle to the corporate seats. A few minutes later, a man came walking back down the aisle, a man who knew how to wear a tuxedo. He made a beeline for them, for her. He said, “Milada Daranyi, I presume?”

She didn’t contradict him. He introduced himself. “I’m Russell Stander with Piper Jaffray.”

“Mr. Stander.”

“I hear you’re making a play for WMI. We all know that Daranyi doesn’t buy into positions just to run up the price. Besides, you gotta know by now that the only way in is through the old man.” Russell chuckled. “Good luck cracking that nut. Say, you still with Garrick Burke? We can give you better margins at Piper Jaffray.” He flicked out a business card.

Milada took it and gave it a cursory glance. “We’re very happy with Mr. Burke.”

“Can’t blame me for trying.”

Milada smiled politely.

Russell Stander moseyed back to his group. Troy said, “What was that all about?”

If she had meant to impress the boy with her importance, she had succeeded all too well. “Blood in the water, as Garrick says. Sooner or later the sharks start to circle.” She handed him the business card. “Here. I do hate throwing away these things myself. Bad luck or something.”

The house lights dimmed. Keith Lockhart strode onto stage. The concert began with Ravel. They didn’t play Bolero, thank God. Instead, Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and the Piano Concerto in G. The soloist who performed the latter was proficient and the conducting competent, and passions were kept in check. The orchestra was saving its best for last.

The pianist bowed, the musicians were acknowledged. Mr. Lockhart left the stage. The lights came up for the intermission. Milada excused herself.

The plaza outside the hall was almost devoid of cross traffic, vacant compared to New York. She took out her cell phone and dialed Garrick’s number. The tall granite spires rising above the high walls of Temple Square were lit up in the blue-green glow of the mercury vapor lamps. The Angel Moroni shone like Gabriel at the Second Coming.

She got Garrick’s answering machine. “Garrick, it’s Milada. I’m at the Utah Symphony. Did you know they have Keith Lockhart out here? Anyway, a Piper Jaffray rainmaker picked me out of the crowd and started chatting about Wylde Medical. Told me we’ll have to deal with the old man. Meaning Darren Wylde controls fifty percent. Worst-case that scenario, please. I do not want to be blindsided by a proxy war. I’ll check back with you on Monday.”

When Milada returned to the balcony, Troy was talking with the man she had been introduced to before, Mr. Newhall. He saw her and said, “Ah, Miss Daranyi.”

So her religious status had been amended.

The house lights dimmed. The audience found its seats. Mr. Lockhart appeared again, turned to the orchestra, and raised his baton.

Milada closed her eyes, steeled herself for that great explosion of brass that begins the prelude to Scheherazade, a fanfare that bursts out, recedes, dies, fades to near silence before the solo violin echoes the theme, the small, soft, seductive voice of the storyteller herself. The prelude always struck Milada as Rimsky-Korsakov’s ironic reply to the excruciating foreplay in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the waiting, waiting, waiting for the climax. All classical music was about sex. Or death. Or death and sex, if it was Wagner.

None of that for Rimsky-Korsakov’s sultan, who hops in the sack and gets it over with first thing. Then it’s up to Miss Scheherazade to entertain him for the next, oh, thousand and one nights. Talk about having to be resourceful in bed.

The music burrowed into the recesses of Milada’s mind, into the places where memories moldered like rotting corpses in forgotten graves. It turned over soil and brought up bones on the blade. She could remember so much if she wanted to, and she did not want to. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Or the year, the decade—or, frankly, the whole bloody century. The past was the past, and she didn’t live there anymore.

She opened her eyes. The one thing even the best of recordings on the best of sound systems lacked—all that movement. The weave of the baton, the stroke of the bow, fingers blurring on glittering brass. A symphony was a life lived in exaltation and killed with triumph. Eternity made the best of music monotonous, the best of lives meaningless. The performance was made wondrous by the fact that it would end. Dramatically. She lived in that moment and died with the last, fading notes, in the vanishing echoes before the applause.

She preferred experiencing death in music. She’d experienced too much of it in real life.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.