At the beginning of October, the apartment phone rang and Rachel answered it to hear a voice she recognised immediately. A nervous flutter hit her stomach.
"Rachel. It's Paul."
She took a deep breath to calm herself. "Paul. Good to hear from you."
"Very well, thanks. And you?"
"Oh, I'm OK. Bit tired from living out of a suitcase and banging my head against a brick wall, but a few days at home will work wonders."
"Ah." He really sounded a bit down. "People not listening?"
"Some are. Most aren't. Anyway, how about that get-together I promised? Can I take you to dinner one evening? Then we can talk."
You bet, great. "I'd like that."
"Good. How about tomorrow evening?"
Not tonight? "Sure. That would be fine."
"OK. I thought we'd try Verticelli's?"
Verticelli's? God that's supposed to be terribly expensive, but I love seafood. "Sounds terrific, Paul. If it's OK with you."
"Of course. Then, say I pick you up at around eight?"
"I'll be ready," and waiting. "See you tomorrow, Paul."
"I'll look forward to it," and he'd rung off, leaving her to spend the next hour rummaging through her wardrobe and trying to decide what to wear. She was still at it when Vanessa returned home.
"What are you doing?" Ness asked upon seeing Rachel's clothes strewn all over her room.
"Paul's asked me to dinner tomorrow, and I can't decide what to wear." Rachel felt flustered. She'd felt that way since he'd rung off, despite urging herself several times to calm down.
"Hey, relax. If there's nothing that takes your fancy, you can look around the boutiques in the morning. Go for something red; red looks good on you."
Rachel nodded somewhat absently, then clenched her fists. "What's the matter with me, for goodness sake? I'm never like this before a date, and this isn't even a date in that sense. It's only so Paul can tell me more about the Institute."
"It's not a date in that sense for him, perhaps." Vanessa's voice was remarkably serious, making Rachel look up in some surprise, "but it is for you." She walked into Rachel's room and started to gather up the strewn garments and hang them in the closet. "Relax, gal. We'll put these away and draw up a battle plan for tomorrow --"
"A battle plan?" The comment made Rachel feel better, and she even laughed. "I'm not declaring war on him."
"You know what I mean. A trip to the shops in the morning, and you can get your hair done in the afternoon." She glanced at her watch. "Ring them now; they should still be open."
Rachel forced herself to take a few more deep breaths. She began to feel less tense.
Next morning she visited a boutique that Nessie had reminded her of; one where she'd seen a red dress that she quite fancied on their last shopping trip. To her relief it was still in the window, and it was in her size. Display dresses usually were: she'd come to appreciate that some years ago. She had her stylist pin her hair up, with ringlets falling at the back, and wore a matching red bow.
"You look real cool, Rae," was Vanessa's comment when Rachel finally emerged from her room.
Rachel gave a mock curtsey, then caught her breath when there was a knock on the front door. "Oh, my God. He's here," she whispered.
"Relax. I'll get it."
Rachel watched Vanessa move to the door and open it in such a way that neither Paul nor Rachel could see each other.
Ness held out her hand somewhere on the other side of the door. "Hi. You're Paul. I recognise you from the TV. I'm Ness, or Nessie, Vanessa. Whatever takes your fancy."
Rachel smiled as she heard his reply. "I'll settle for Nessie, if that's OK. Good to meet you."
"Yeah. Me too," drawled Vanessa. Come on in." She stepped to one side and opened the door fully as she spoke. "Your date awaits."
Paul stepped through. God, thought Rachel, I thought that cliché about going weak at the knees was just that, but it's true. He was wearing a dark tuxedo, and looked swell. There was the slightest hint of a pause in his movements as he caught sight of Rachel, but he recovered quickly and walked straight over to where she was standing.
He took both of her hands in his and stood back a little, leaving their arms outstretched. "You look fabulous, Rachel."
"Thank you." That sounded inadequate, but she was getting flustered. Although an effort, she managed, "It's kind of you to say so. I'm all set."
He gave her one of those disturbingly warm smiles, replying, "Then we'll go," and taking her arm, led her towards the door, pausing briefly as they reached Vanessa. "I'm pleased we've met, Nessie. I'll bring her back safe and sound."
"Sure," muttered Vanessa, then she lowered her voice to a whisper as Rachel passed her. "Nice butt."
Rachel nearly burst out laughing, but the comment brought her out of her semi-trance and she immediately felt good. She gave her friend's arm a quick squeeze. "See you later, Ness."
"Yeah. Have fun, Rae."
Verticelli's was located in its own grounds on the outskirts of Beverly Hills. When they'd arrived, Paul grabbed Rachel's jacket before leaving the limo, and handed it to her as she walked to join him. "Thank you," she said, "but I was going to leave it in the car."
"You may need it." He held out his arm, and she slipped hers through his. This felt good.
"Good evening, Mr Lander, Miss Starr." They were greeted by a guy whom Rachel later learned was one of the proprietors. "I have reserved your usual table, sir. If you will follow me..."
"How come he knows my name?" whispered Rachel.
"That's down to me," replied Paul. "Unless I'm hosting a large party I usually let them know my guests' names."
They were led through the main restaurant to an outdoor area at the rear. Rachel gazed around appreciatively. The area was illuminated by a series of lanterns that together spread a warm glow over their immediate surroundings, and there were candles on all the tables. In the dark skies above, a host of stars twinkled ceaselessly.
"Wow, this is great," Rachel said, as their host pulled back her chair.
He took Rachel's jacket from her as she sat down. "I'll hang this close by, miss, just in case it turns chilly."
She nodded. "Thank you." Then she turned towards Paul although continuing to look upwards. "Just look at all those stars. They're so beautiful." She was about to add 'what a romantic spot' but stopped herself in the nick of time. It's not that kind of date, idiot.
Paul's reply caught her off guard. "Yes, but the most beautiful Starr is down here on earth." She found herself holding her breath. He'd paid her compliments before, but that had simply been out of courtesy, hadn't it? In that case there would have been no need for his last remark. Could it be...? "Flatterer," was all she said, though it was accompanied by an ear-to-ear smile.
A waiter appeared at her side. She glanced up, expecting to be handed a menu, but he was carrying a dish: seafood cocktail.
"I hope you won't mind, Rachel," Paul explained, "but I took the liberty of ordering in advance. If there's anything you object to you must say so and we'll get you something else."
Rachel had been looking forward to seeing the menu and selecting her favourite dishes. To have that luxury denied her was a disappointment. She glanced quickly at Paul. Her face must surely have betrayed her feelings, but he showed no sign of having noticed. His expression was more one of concern, and she relented. In any case, seafood cocktail was one of her favourites.
She managed a grin. "I'll let you off, this once. What have you selected next?" She'd been thinking of lobster.
Paul shook his head. "That will be telling." She pulled a face at him.
The cocktail was delicious, especially the delicately flavoured sauce they'd used.
As they ate, Rachel brought the conversation round to the Institute. "What makes you so concerned for the future, Paul?"
He grimaced. "Promise you'll stop me when you've had enough?"
She laughed. "Yes, I promise."
"OK. So, have you ever heard of computer modelling?"
Rachel's ringlets flew as she shook her head vigorously. "Don't ask me anything about computers. They leave me cold."
Paul smiled. "Fair enough. Well, with computer modelling you give the computer a load of information about this and that, and it tries to predict what will happen given the conditions that you have stipulated."
"A bit like weather forecasting?"
He shrugged slightly. "In a way. When I was younger, I helped to develop a technique that could be used to predict what might happen in the future given various environmental conditions. The results were grim."
Grim? Rachel was watching Paul's expression. That was an apt description. Rachel knew that he cared passionately about the environment, but seeing his face now, it was more than that, though she couldn't quite come up with the right word for it.
"Stuff like global warming and the thinning of the ozone layer?" She asked after placing her spoon beside the now empty dish. "That was delicious.”
"Sure, those are part of the story. In their case they are both cause and effect."
Rachel digested that comment. "They'll cause further problems, but are themselves the effect of what's already happened?"
"Exactly. Many believe that both have come about by mankind's persistent habit of doing something and only worrying about the consequences afterwards."
"You say, many believe this, but you sound as if you're not really convinced, yourself."
Paul smiled. "Very astute, Rachel. I agree in respect of the thinning of the ozone layer, but I have yet to be persuaded that mankind is totally responsible for global warming, though we certainly haven't helped. But I do believe that we must learn to think first and only act if we're absolutely sure there'll be no disastrous effects."
"But can we always know for sure?"
"Not always, perhaps, especially with advances in science and technology. But we must give it a shot, at least."
"OK, but if what you say is true, how grim and how soon?"
"Very grim, and much sooner than everyone expects."
Whilst they'd been talking, one waiter had removed their empty dishes and another now presented himself, carrying a huge oval dish. Rachel gasped in amazement when she saw the contents. Two scrumptious-looking lobsters complete with all the trimmings.
"Hey," she gave a huge smile in Paul's direction. "Lobster is my absolute favourite seafood. This is great." She noticed that he was watching her face. "What's the matter?"
He shook his head. "Nothing. I was watching your features. It's no wonder you'll make a great actress, you have one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen."
She grinned. "I'm not acting now."
"No, I know. Anyway, I'm glad you approve. Tuck in. Enjoy."
Which she did.
"Very grim, you were saying. Like what?" asked Rachel before taking a mouthful of the delicious fleshy meat.
"I have a list of climatic and geological events that computer modelling has predicted over the next two hundred years or so, if we take no action now."
"Goodness, that sounds heavy." She nodded to the waiter who was offering her wine. "Please.”
"It is. I won't bore you with the details, but in one hundred and fifty years time over thirty percent of the present world's land will be under water, the atmosphere will be a hostile mix of toxic rain and dust falling on largely barren land. All that will be left of the world population will be but a fraction of what it is now, and they'll have to dwell in towns that are enclosed in some form of covering as protection from the hostile environment."
Rachel dipped her fingers in a finger bowl and then wiped them on a small towel. "No wonder you're concerned. In this country, too?" She tried the wine. Great. With food and drink like this it was hard to pay too much attention to future climatic disasters. But as soon as she'd thought that, she felt guilty, and tried to concentrate more on what Paul was saying.
"Yes. Here too." He fell silent for a moment to sample his wine. "I'll give you an example of what's in store. You know of the Great Lakes, up on the border with Canada?" Rachel nodded. "They'll merge into one vast inland sea. A single great lake, with one or two small islands. And all of the existing cities, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and so on will disappear beneath its waters."
"What about Florida?" asked Rachel, thinking of home.
Paul shook his head. "Florida and most of the neighbouring coastal states will be beneath the Gulf of Mexico."
She shivered a little. "That's horrible. But these are only predictions. How can you be so sure they're accurate?"
Paul shrugged. "I just know. Every single predication for the period from 1990 to the present time has proved accurate. I no longer regard them as predictions, but as ordained events."
"Ordained by whom?" asked Rachel quietly.
"Mankind." Something in his voice caught her attention. It was a simple enough response, but it sent a chill through her body.
Paul reached over and took her hand. "Don't let it get to you. Let me worry about it. That's what the Institute is for."
She sighed. "But it's such a huge task, Paul. What can you possibly do?"
"I have a number of things in mind. I have to persuade enough people to believe what I'm saying; enough to make us reevaluate how we're treating the planet. Besides, it's by no means just down to me. I'm a small cog. There are many environmental groups out there doing excellent work, if governments would only listen to them. The Institute, with its modelling skills, might be able to add gravitas. It's not too late if we can change our ways."
"How will you know if and when that happens?"
"Ah. That's a surprisingly easy question to answer. The day that one of my predictions proves to be false will be the day when I can start to relax; just a little."
Rachel studied Paul's face for a moment or two. There was one aspect of all this that bothered her. Insignificant really, but she had to mention it.
"Under the circumstances I'm surprised you use a limo. That hardly seems environment-friendly." She gave a quick laugh. "Don't get me wrong. I'm glad you do. I sure wouldn't have fancied riding pillion tonight.”
He grinned. "Don't let your eyes deceive you, Rachel. It might look like a typical limo; heavy and gas guzzling, but it's far from standard."
He nodded. "The Institute has a small investment in a company that specialises in designing environment-friendly transport. They let me use one of their prototypes to check it out. It's much lighter than you'd expect, using space-age technology in the construction. And there's a dual power source. Such units are gradually becoming more popular since Toyota introduced their first production models using such a combination, a few years back."
"I hadn't heard of such things."
"No, and you're not alone. Most people would say the same. There'll be a better appreciation of them in a few years time."
Rachel gave a mischievous grin. "And there was I, thinking you were going against your own beliefs."
Paul glanced across at her. His features were sombre, but as he studied her own expression he smiled. "No. As I think you very well know, I take such issues extremely seriously. It's one of three obsessions that I have."
Obsession. That was it. That was the word she'd been searching for earlier. "Yes. I can see that." But he'd mentioned three. "What are the others?"
It was his turn to grin. "They are all connected, but I'll tell you another time. When it's more appropriate." Rachel was intrigued, but decided not to pursue it further. Besides, the 'another time' sounded promising.
Paul had ordered strawberries and cream for the next course; yet another choice that Rachel would probably have made had she ordered for herself, and she was enjoying those when, out of the blue, she asked, "Have you ever been married, Paul?"
She'd wanted to ask for some time but the question caught him with a mouthful. He nodded and then waited until he could speak. "Yes. Some time ago." Rachel was studying his face. It held a strange expression. Not sad exactly, more wistful, but there was most certainly an unmistakable hint of tenderness that, for a moment, gave her a tinge of jealousy.
"A boating accident. Well, more of a mystery really; it disappeared without trace."
"That's terrible. I'm so sorry. Perhaps you'd rather not talk about it."
He gave her another odd, wistful look, but nevertheless smiled happily. "These things happen. I've been around long enough now to realise that there's often little obvious reason why some things do and others don't. It was an immensely happy period of my life, and I'm grateful to have experienced it.”
"Did you have children?"
"No, no children." His voice fell a little. "But that's all in the past. Well --" He paused, looking thoughtful. "Yes, all in the past." Rachel reached over and took his hand. She received yet another disturbing smile before he added, "We have to live in the present.”
Standing on the restaurant steps whilst waiting for their limo to be brought round, Rachel was once again gazing up at the stars. "I'd forgotten how marvellous the great outdoors can be. We have a decent yard back home, but since coming to Hollywood I've not been able to simply sit out there and enjoy it all, without taking a trip out to somewhere or other.”
"I know what you mean. I think we often take all this for granted. Still, that's not a problem," answered Paul. "You must treat Larches as your own. If you'd like to, that is. Come round whenever it takes your fancy. Even if I'm not there, you can still sit out on the terrace or elsewhere in the grounds. Anderson will look after you.”
"I couldn't do that, Paul. It's much too much of an imposition.”
"Nonsense. We can also chat more about the environment, and what to do about it.”
"Well, I'll think about it." She hugged his arm. "But thank you, that's real sweet.”