My second novel, The God Particle, is a blend of science and suspense, where a high-energy physicist searching for the underlying structure of the universe finds truth in an unlikely place–the mind of a man who survived a near-fatal head injury.
I always fry a few brain cells whenever I think about how strange and amazing the universe is, that we’re even in it. So I decided to write a book that reads like I feel about the whole thing. The central question explored in The God Particle is posed in the following exchange between two characters in Chapter Two:
“…when you think of the interaction of all those particles and energy, and gravity collapsing matter into stars, and some of those stars exploding, ejecting heavier elements that eventually end up as planets orbiting stars, including at least one that somehow produced an organism complex enough to ask questions of the universe that spawned it–hell, I don’t know if ‘miracle’ is a big enough word to describe something like that.”
“…all that randomness, all those accidents.doesn’t that seem a little–I don’t know–coincidental to you?”
There is a divine spark within us all. In one man, that spark is about to explode.
American businessman Steve Keeley is hurtled three stories to the cold cobblestone street in Zurich. In the days that follow, a doctor performs miraculous surgery on Keeley, who wakes up to find that everything about his world has changed. He seems to sense things before they happen, and he thinks he’s capable of feats that are clearly impossible. It’s a strange and compelling new world for him, one he quickly realizes is also incredibly dangerous.
Meanwhile at a $12 billion facility in hardscrabble North Texas, a super collider lies two hundred feet beneath the Earth’s surface. Leading a team of scientists, Mike McNair, a brilliant physicist, works to uncover one of the universe’s greatest secrets-a theoretical particle that binds the universe together, often called The God Particle. When his efforts are undermined by the man who has poured his own vast fortune into the project, McNair begins to suspect that something in his research has gone very, very wrong.
Now, these two men are about to come together, battling mysteries of science and of the soul-and venturing to a realm beyond reason, beyond faith, perhaps even beyond life and death.
Steve isn’t stupid.
He can tell by the way she keeps stealing glances at him, by the way she follows everything he says with squeaky titters, by the gradually shrinking perimeter of his personal space this afternoon, that Serena wants him.
He’s known about her crush for months. Frequent visits to his office with no real purpose. Hemlines and necklines drifting inexorably toward each other. Projects stretching into evenings, into weekends, into fuzzy, indeterminate hours that find the two of them alone with the soft rumble of the air conditioner and the laboring hip-hop bass signature of her portable CD player. Serena is familiar with her product offering, after all, and she markets it well.
But Steve isn’t stupid. He’s withstood her voluptuous body and subtle signals because sleeping with his administrative assistant would be more trouble that it’s worth, because he’s never cheated on a girlfriend in his life. And if Serena has figured this out by now–tomorrow they’ll be flying back to L.A. after a full week in Switzerland–it hasn’t stopped her from making a last ditch effort this afternoon.
Which is remarkable, considering that he spent his entire morning searching for an engagement ring. Up and down the sidewalks of the Bahnhofstrasse, beneath the overcast Zurich sky, weaving between men and women dressed in outfits that cost more than Serena makes in a month. Around lunchtime he found a winner, a stunning three-carat solitaire set upon a thousand year-old band forged somewhere in the Alps to the east, a uniquely-European item he purchased for just under thirty thousand Swiss francs.
The ring is for his girlfriend, Janine. She’ll be waiting for him at LAX in less than twenty-four hours, one expectant face in a field of them beyond the post-9/11 security checkpoint. A smile and a kiss and a seventy-five-minute drive to Valencia. A dip into the Jacuzzi tub with a Sports Illustrated. And a few minutes later she’ll bring him a lime-garnished Corona, join him in the tub, and he’ll be waiting with the ring.
Serena knows he plans to propose tomorrow evening. She knows because it’s all they’ve been talking about since he met her at the train station and showed her the ring. He even told her about Lucerne, a beautiful lakeside city here in Switzerland, where he plans to take Janine for their honeymoon next summer.
And still Serena casts smoldering glances at him, brushes against his arm a little too often as they walk along the shadowy Limmat River. She takes his hand as they hurry across the rail tracks, just beating an oncoming commuter train.
During a life spent pursuing women, predicting their behavior well enough to have scored more often than most men, Steve still doesn’t understand why women do what they do. Why is Serena so attracted to a man eight years her senior, a man with a serious girlfriend? Why is she more attracted as she listens to him talk about that girlfriend? Perhaps the exotic setting has something to do with it, their visit to this ornate and historic European city. The odd warble of police sirens, the constant rush of intercity trains, the ancient texture of cobblestone streets under their feet. But it’s more likely that Serena’s aggression is driven by the overpowering attraction a woman feels for something denied to her. This isn’t the first time he’s met one who suffers from a fixation on unavailable men.
The two of them pass the train station again and make their way toward the Niederdorf, a touristy sliver of Zurich where claustrophobic streets have been closed to all but foot traffic, and multilevel buildings advertise all manner of food and drink and sex. Serena keeps going on about her obsession with Italian food, so Steve is directing them toward Santa Lucia, a busy restaurant with a chef who is a master of masonry-oven pizzas.
Rain begins to splatter the cobblestone street as they push through the Niederdorf crowds. Serena spots Santa Lucia and takes Steve’s hand, compelling him to run. With his other hand he pats the side of his overcoat, reassuring himself with the slight and squarish bulk of the ring box, and groans as he notices a clot of wet and hungry folks in the restaurant’s entryway. He could locate a cab in sixty seconds, after all, and find shelter in the warm, dry bed of his hotel room thirty minutes after that. Instead, he watches as Serena wriggles her way inside, leaving Steve and an elderly Germanic man to brave the rain.
Fifteen minutes later they’re seated in a dark corner of the restaurant. Steve is thoroughly soaked.
“I hope this food is as good as you say,” Serena says. “I’m starving.”
She chatters on while they wait to order, and Steve struggles to guide her away from the deeper waters of intimate conversation. He reveals the imminent acquisition of a new product database. He asks her opinion about moving the U.S. Web servers to Zurich. Serena responds by asking whether he prefers Merlot or Chianti, but before he can answer she grabs a passing waiter and orders something that doesn’t sound like either one.
“Janine is going to be so surprised,” she says, turning back to him. “I mean really. Three carats. She is so lucky.”
“Well, it wasn’t the size of the stone I was after so much. I was just looking for something unique.”
“I know, silly. But you have to understand girls. Rings are very important to us. Engagement rings, I mean.”
Steve smiles politely. He’s not sure what else to say.
“Let me see it,” Serena says.
“Come on. Just a peek.”
Steve retrieves the box and places it on the table. He tries not to notice how dark it is in this corner of the restaurant, how candlelight twinkles in Serena’s face as she opens the box and removes the ring. He wishes Janine were here. He wishes she were sitting across the table from him, twirling the ring between her fingers, smiling. He wants to reach out and snatch the ring back. He wants to wipe that dreamy smile right off Serena’s fleshy face.
Instead she presses the ring against her left hand. “Do you mind?”
Steve glares at her, startled.
“It probably won’t fit,” she says. “But I just want to see what it feels like. May I?”
He looks again at the ring. The stone is nearly pure in its color and clarity, a supernova in the candlelight.
“Actually,” he says, “I’d like to put it back now.”
Serena’s smile withers. “Right. Don’t want to tarnish the precious ring with my cooties.”
“Serena, it makes me nervous to have it out. I paid a lot of money for that thing.”
“Money, money, money. Is that all you ever think about, Steve?”
Predictable as they are, Serena’s mood swings constantly amaze him–from sunny skies to tornado warning in an instant–but such volatility has its place, and he’d guess (were he interested in such a thing) that she probably makes love like a monster, probably screams and moans and shouts obscenities that curl paint. But he can’t be interested in such a thing, because tomorrow he’ll be in L.A. with his soon-to-be-fiancé, and any guilt Steve incurs here will undoubtedly follow him all the way home. It will taint the first sight of Janine’s smiling face and forever color his memory of the proposal. Serena might even tumble off her precarious ledge of good judgment and fall into the Fatal Attraction abyss.
“Are you going to answer me?” she asks him. Her eyebrows are arched perfectly above heavy liner and green irises. Red lipstick over straight white teeth. Her pink tongue dancing–
“I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Jesus, Steve, are you so lovesick that you can’t even listen when I ask you a question?”
“I’m sorry. I’m really tired. What did you say?”
She slides the ring box across the table. “It doesn’t matter.”
The waiter arrives with their entrées, and Serena plows immediately into her spaghetti, washing down every other mouthful with a swallow of wine. Steve’s Pizza Dante blisters the roof of his mouth before he finishes the first bite. Their entire bottle vanishes in minutes, and Serena orders another as she uses her fork to chase the last orphaned bits of spaghetti around her plate.
“What’s the matter?” he asks when the waiter takes away their empty plates.
“Come on, Serena. You haven’t said a word in ten minutes.”
“I stopped talking because you weren’t listening.”
“I said I was sorry,” Steve says.
“Answer my question, then. Is money the only thing you ever think about?”
“Of course not. Money is just a means to an end.”
The waiter appears again, and Steve requests the bill.
“Why are you asking for the check?”
“So we can pay. Did you want to stay here all night?”
“Jesus, Steve. Do you ever have any fun?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I paid this much. Bring the check now. It’s inefficient to remain in the restaurant any longer than necessary. They don’t bring the check, Steve, because they expect you to sit here and have a conversation. That’s what people do over here. They don’t rush home from the restaurant to watch American Idol.”
“We can have a conversation in the cab ride back to the Hilton.”
“Cab ride? I thought we were having a drink after dinner.”
“We have a ten o’clock flight tomorrow morning. We have to be at the airport three hours early.”
Serena stands. “Fine. We better get plenty of sleep now. Wouldn’t want to doze off during the thirteen-hour plane ride to L.A.”
Steve tries to say something, apologize, but she’s already heading for the door. He drops two hundred francs on the table and takes off after her. In the entryway he is confronted with an array of black overcoats, all seemingly identical to his own, and by the time he finds the right one, Serena is long gone. It’s dark now, and the crowds have dwindled to a few umbrella-toting stragglers. Steve has no umbrella. He turns right and walks in the direction of the nearest road, hoping to find a cab quickly. Wet cobblestones glisten beneath his feet. Rain pours from his hair in tickling streams.
Someone grabs him.
He turns quickly, ready to strike, but it’s Serena. She has stepped out from a narrow opening between two buildings, and mascara streaks her face like black ink. She pulls him into the alleyway. Her brown hair is now jet black and draped over her shoulder like thick rope.
“Are you happy, Steve?” she asks, breath humid with garlic and red wine.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s a simple question, honey. Are you happy? Because you don’t seem like it.”
She’s holding him by his upper arms. Her face floats mere inches from his.
“I’m fine. But I think you need some rest.”
“I don’t want you to be fine. I want you to be happy. Ever since I met you–it’s been two years now, do you realize that?–you’ve been so serious, so driven. You think you’ve got this plan, that you’ve got life all figured out, but life is flying right past you and you don’t even realize it. I’ve waited for you to open your eyes, for you to see this for yourself, but you won’t. You can’t. Life isn’t about staying on schedule or making money or retiring by a certain age. It isn’t about marrying some girl just because you think it’s time.”
“What are you–”
“Life is like this,” she says, kissing him with her mouth wide open. Steve is ready to push her away, immediately, but the combination of her lipstick and the wine and the garlic is so human, so organic, that for a split second he enjoys the moment, finally enjoys it. Then he pushes her away.
“No. Stay away from me.”
A percussion of rain envelops them. The nearby buildings seem to shrink even closer. Footsteps of passersby grow louder, then fainter. She stands there, chest heaving, her overcoat wet and clinging. He can’t help but notice the swell of her generous breasts.
“You wanted me,” she whispers. “I could feel it.”
Steve steps out of the alley and she follows him.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Why can’t you just live, Steve? Live! Enjoy yourself. All I want is to see you happy.”
“Then leave me alone. That would make me happy.”
She blinks once.
“You’re an asshole,” she says.
“I’m going to be engaged tomorrow. What kind of person would I be if I betrayed Janine tonight, the day before I propose to her?”
“But she’s not right for you, Steve. Can’t you see that? She only thinks about herself. You need someone who will put your needs first, who knows how special you are and will love you for that.”
“You’re drunk. I’ll get you a cab. Come with me so I can put you in a cab.”
“Come on. Let’s get back to the hotel. I don’t want you to miss the flight tomorrow.”
“I can’t sit next to you on a plane for thirteen hours now! I poured out my heart to you and you crushed me. You hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Yes, you do.” She’s crying hard now, shivering, and though Steve’s instinct is to reach for her, comfort her, he holds his ground.
The street bends a few feet ahead, and she quickly disappears. Steve knows he should run after her, but Jesus Christ, this isn’t high school. Even drunk, Serena had to know the odds of seducing her boss were against her.
He stands in the rain. He knows he should take his own advice and head back to the hotel, but he can’t stop thinking about Serena’s kiss. About what she said.
Are you happy?
You’re always so serious.
You live life like you have a plan.
As a matter of fact, he does have a plan. A written plan. Because he knows that people who don’t have plans don’t succeed.
He’s sure Serena will find a cab and go back to the hotel. She’s afraid of Europe and doesn’t know the city well enough to do anything else. And her kiss, her hands on him–the desire for more sings unexpectedly inside him, electrifies him. Right now, he wants her. Right now, he would have no problem at all accepting her offer.
Which means he can’t go back to the hotel. Not yet. There’s a decent bar about a half block away, a small place with tropical décor. Maybe have a couple of drinks, wait out the itch, and then return to the hotel. For the sake of his engagement.
He leans into the rain and starts walking.
Inside the bar, an eclectic assembly of patrons sit at tall, round tables, exhorting each other in German and French and English. Isolated molecules of fresh air choke their way through rivers of cigarette smoke. He approaches the bar, and orders in German a Red Bull and vodka from a dark brunette with brown eyes and silver earrings.
In his limited European experience, the women of Zurich are the most like the women of America, both in appearance and personality. Like Iris, for example, a blonde he once met here at the end of two weeks of budget meetings. He remembers her sparkling eyes, her penchant for sarcasm, her perfect breasts shaped by a Jewish plastic surgeon in Miami. In her black BMW, she assaulted his ears with Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock; back in her apartment, she very nearly wore him out.
The interlude with Iris came just over a year ago, back when Janine was still the cute blonde who sometimes wore glittery eye shadow and always showed up at Bobby’s Tap with the six-foot-four behemoth that Steve and his friends named Cro-Mag. Janine had seemed so different to him, so mercifully different–her infectious laugh, her obvious confidence, the way Cro-Mag followed her around like a puppy. Steve wanted to date a woman like that, a woman who could perhaps pry his fingers loose, interrupt his fierce grip on life. A few weeks later, he got his chance. Janine showed up without Cro-Mag and Steve left with her phone number. She was a real estate agent, she told him, the top closer in her office three years running, with designs on opening her own practice. Never married and few relationships because most men couldn’t match her thirst for success.
Steve said he understood what she meant.
The date ended with sex, sex that quickly became a habit. She liked to talk and made squeaking sounds when it was particularly good. But over time the animality gave way to something more human, and he watched, fascinated, as Janine changed and enriched his life. When he decided to refurnish his living and dining rooms, he enlisted her help–not because he couldn’t decide for himself, but because he realized her opinion was important to him. One morning, he awoke from a dream of her in a hospital room, legs in stirrups, giving birth to their first child. A boy, to be sure. Steve Jr. He had nearly laughed out loud with joy.
And though the last few months had been hectic as they gathered the assets and information required to launch her real estate office, his mind had grown calm the way it always did when a watershed event was imminent. One of the major goals of his life–#4, actually-was in his grasp: Marry a grounded woman with whom he could forge a new and fruitful life. And achieving #4 meant that #5–fathering four wonderful and well-adjusted children–would become a real possibility.
So he decided to propose. And, since his visit to Switzerland was only a few weeks away, he figured he could wait to find a spectacular and unique ring that would properly dazzle her. But tonight, when Serena asked to try it on, something snapped in him. Something powerful and alien made him want to slap her when she fingered the ring and smiled that faraway smile. How dare she, even for a moment, assume the identity of the woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with? How dare she suggest that he loved her?
He loves Janine.
Steve loves Janine.
For a moment he is overcome with an impulse to grab the stinking fellow next to him and reveal what is obviously life’s elusive and essential truth. Or perhaps the female bartender would be interested to know. To know that it isn’t the ring that matters, it isn’t that Janine can help him fulfill goal #4 (and #5), but that he is in love with her. That he wants to spend the rest of his life with her because he cannot imagine continuing on otherwise. In this moment he realizes that Serena is right, that life isn’t about making over two hundred thousand dollars a year before his thirty-fifth birthday (goal #3), it isn’t about the VP position that will be his by the end of the month, it isn’t about any of those things. He realizes that his numerous disposable sexual relationships have amounted to nothing, have in fact pushed him away from this fundamental truth, the search for someone to love, someone for whom he would sacrifice his life, someone with whom he could set about the quest for–
His cell phone rattles against his chest, jerking his attention back to the smoky Zurich bar. When he pulls it from his pocket, the phone glows phosphorescent in the dark and announces: CALLER ID UNAVAILABLE. For some reason, telephone numbers from the States never display properly. He answers and then presses the phone hard against his ear.
“This is Steve.”
No one seems to speak on the other end.
He thinks he hears something this time, but can’t be sure, not with electronic music obliterating his ears. His options: Disconnect and wait for the caller to try again later or head outside and get wet all over again. Steve decides to brave the rain. After all, it might be Janine.
The door is twenty or so feet away, and he weaves toward it through a dense crowd of velvety women and serious-looking Swiss men. Steps out into the sprinkling silence.
“Hello?” Steve says.
He can hear something now, a muffled voice perhaps. Mostly what he hears is shuffling sounds. Rustling. As if a cell phone in someone’s pocket has inadvertently called him. This sort of thing has happened before–the accidental bump of a friend’s cell phone calling him with the one-touch function–and the first time or two he listened closely, for some reason certain he would hear a scandalous tidbit of information unintended for public consumption. But of course he hadn’t. Life, after all, isn’t a soap opera.
The rain plays with his hair, soaking into his turtleneck, and Steve is about to give up on the call when he hears the voice again. This time it’s louder and a little clearer. A woman’s voice, perhaps. He pushes the phone harder against his ear and closes off the other one with his index finger. The female voice rises and falls between intermittent bursts of static. Then another sound–another voice–eclipses the first. This one is most certainly male. The guy is cheering.cheering or grunting. Now the female joins him, yelping with predictable and hurried regularity. But she isn’t cheering.