knock at night like a door
put your ear against it
hear hello timid
on the other side
& too near
knock at night like a door
put your ear against it
hear hello timid
on the other side
& too near
There’s a feeling a guy gets when the creases in his pants are straight, and the part in his hair is just right. His shoes are shined and his tie is knotted into a perfect Windsor. He walks down the street and everyone smiles, and when they do he knows that they’re smiling with him.
It was the autumn of 1947, and my first hit single had made it onto the radio. It was called Samantha Samantha, and it was recorded by the Atticus Chips Orchestra with vocals by Ignacio Esposito. Samantha Samantha was on every radio and in every jukebox in the free world my agent said, and was being played by every band in every club and dance hall from here to Okinawa. The royalty cheques were rolling in, and the record company and the song-pluggers were screaming for more.
So on that late September morning, I was standing on the curb looking like a guy smitten with the world. A month ago I’d decided to purchase what a guy like me needed most, a brand new 1948 Cadillac. And now I was trying to hail a cab to take me to the dealership where I would finally take delivery.
I’d chosen the Series 62 from a brochure filled with elegantly portrayed models of the car, cruising down limitless summer sunny highways with jubilant drivers and joyous passengers all headed toward some undiscovered place worthy of their wholesome American euphoria. Other brochure models were depicted sitting fat in front of luxurious sky-high burgundy draping beneath massive gold, red white and blue Cadillac crests. And still others were parked in front of rustic heirloom Connecticut churches, very old and of obvious Protestant significance with drivers and passengers standing on roads admiring their cherished vehicles with their backs turned to God in His Yankee-built Temples.
The 1948 Cadillac represented the finest lines in ultra-modern design. It possessed a luxurious interior, and was propelled by the precision-built 90º V type 8 engine. It was going to be a joy to possess for a guy who half a year earlier was eating one meal a day of dry toast, sitting at an out of tune piano in a cold water walk-up. I was ready for a little bit of joy, so I’d chosen the two door convertible in Madeira Maroon. It was sporty, and oozed swank. Just like me, my ego said, inflated and ready to pop.
Now if I could get a cab, I’d be on my way to the Bean & Flintch Cadillac Land dealership to pick up my new baby. I finally caught the attention of a Blacktop stuck at a red light, and got in.
“Howdy, partner,” the driver said. “Call me Jimmy. Where to?”
“Bean & Flintch,” I said
“That’s that Caddy joint, ain’t it?”
He engaged the metre.
“You gettin’ yourself a Lac?” he asked.
“I’m taking delivery.”
“Hey that’s swell,” Jimmy said. “You must be some kinda operator. Them cars ain’t cheap.”
I thought about that for a minute – some kinda operator – and heard in my mind the down beat and chorus of Samantha Samantha, remembering the months it took to get it right on paper and then what it took to convince my agent and the studio that it would be a hit. Then there was the executive who’d said he was unable to discern the line between melody and harmony, insisting I was too young for a hit.
“Mozart was young, too,” my agent had said, pleading almost on his knees. Then there were the bribes and payola.
“Nah,” I said to Jimmy, “I was just lucky.”
Bean & Flintch was in the heart of the city and my previous trips by cab had been quick, but the traffic was heavy that day and Jimmy seemed to be taking all the wrong turns.
“You sure this is the right way,” I said, after he turned north onto Granville Street.
“Just enjoy the ride, Mac.”
“But you’re driving like a tourist.”
“I’ll get you there for less than two bucks,” Jimmy said. “Or I’ll eat my hat.”
His hat was a faux military style officer-looking number, with a brass Blacktop shield on the front. He wore it tilted on his crewcut head, with a taxi licence badge pinned on one side.
“That hat would be a mouthful,” I said. “And hard to swallow.”
“Then take my word for it, and relax.”
We stopped in a stationary line of traffic and he turned up the a.m. radio, and after an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Samantha Samantha came on. I sat back and listened. It wasn’t my best work, but it was going to pay the bills for a long time to come.
Almost instantly Jimmy said, “That’s a red tune.”
“Red?” I said. Samantha Samantha had been called a lot of things, but….
“Yeah sure,” he said. “It’s red—pure commie. Just listen to the lyrics.”
“I have. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s been on the radio for weeks. Just sounds like a jukebox ditty to me.”
“That’s what they want you to think,” Jimmy said. “But it’s actually mass subliminal conditioning.”
“Mass subliminal conditioning?”
There was a lot of this going round. Cheap intrigue was in the air. Screw-loose politicians, pulpy postwar science fiction, and the dawn of the A-bomb. No more Great Depression, WW2 had been over for two years and the dead had left the room. People now had time on their hands and there was a fear vacuum, rapidly filling up with manufactured panic.
I lied: “I don’t get it.”
“You heard of a guy named Joe McCarthy?” Jimmy said. “He’s the new Senator of Wisconsin.”
“I read the papers.”
“Well,” Jimmy said, “McCarthy claims that there’s Communists and Soviet sympathizers inside the US. In the government and everywhere. And I figure the worst of ‘em’s gotta be the intellectuals and show people, like the crumb who wrote this song and the homo who’s singin’ it.”
Ignacio Esposito, a homo? What would his ever-orgy-ready teen-aged bobby-soxer harem say?
“Interesting.” I hoped it would end there.
“I mean it, brother,” Jimmy carried on. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics?”
“Well I know ‘em by heart. I made a point of learning ‘em.”
Jimmy turned down the radio.
“Listen,” he said, then he began to sing —
Share with me your selfish love
Don’t leave it on a shelf above
In a jar where it can never be seen
Don’t keep it private property
This is my manifesto
I want to be love’s virtuoso
Let’s not show caution
And share all we have in common
Jimmy said, “What do you think, huh?”
“You have a lovely voice.” Actually, he didn’t.
“You gotta agree; if that’s not some kinda commie malarkey I don’t know what is. All that sharing! — and a manifesto! — jeez!”
“And that’s just the first verse and the chorus. You wanna hear the rest?”
“No,” I said.
“Too bad, but I guess I got you convinced.”
“It’s free, by the way,” I said.
“What?” said Jimmy.
“First verse, third line is: In a jar where it can never be ‘free’. You sang it, seen.”
“Yes,” I said.
“You a Soviet sympathiser?” Jimmy looked at me in the rear view mirror, suspicion in his eyes.
“No,” I said.
“‘Cause I don’t want no Soviet sympathisers in my cab. I didn’t fight in the war to drive Soviet sympathisers around.”
“Would a Soviet sympathiser be on his way to pick up a Cadillac?” I said.
“He might.” Now he looked unsure, the suspicion momentarily gone.
“What colour is it?” he said. “Your Cadillac, I mean.”
“Madeira Maroon,” I sighed.
“Maroon? That’s like red, ain’t it?”
“As close as it gets, this model year.”
His look of suspicion returned.
“Red,” he muttered and shook his head. “Mass subliminal conditioning.”
Then he dropped the bomb. Others had before him. Now it was his turn —
“You fight in the war?” he said. “Asia or Europe? How many Japs or Nazis did you kill?”
“None. I wrote Allied propaganda in Toronto, for pamphlets, posters and movie trailers.”
“So you sat it out,” he said. “And now you’re making the big bucks.”
He was right. I did sit out the war. My talent for antipathy and jingoism had earned me a job writing debauched conflict dogma. The work was crucial, they said. So I ate in restaurants and slept in warm clean beds, often warmed by lonesome war brides, while other men did the fighting. Mine were the soft disgraceful hands of a propagandist. I’d always believed apologising for it would be insincere, but things change.
“Since the end of the war,” I said, as though it mattered. “I’ve tried to make a living as a song writer, living in slum hotels, starving, murdering cockroaches and using a communal toilet down the hall. Maybe that’s my meā culpā.”
“You don’t look like you live in a slum,” Jimmy said.
“I’m sorry. Things change”
“Say, what’s your name?”
“Wyatt Ziegler,” I said.
“So you wrote that song, then!”
“Yes I did.”
“You ain’t got no shame, fella.”
When we pulled up to the main entrance of Bean & Flintch the metre read $2.83, not two bucks.
“Are you going to eat your hat?” I said, pulling bills from my pocket.
“You’d like that wouldn’t you.”
“It’d be something to see,” I said. “Worth the extra eighty-three cents.”
“Get outta my cab,” he said. “Go get your Cadillac and run it into a wall.”
I handed him four dollars.
“You know,” I said, “maybe what I wrote for the war made a difference. Maybe I helped end it early, saved a few lives.”
“Maybe,” he said, staring at me deadpan in the rear view mirror, telling me without words to vacate.
On the lot, a man named Daryl was washing my new car. Tobias Flintch had escorted me from the office. Daryl was rinsing away the soap suds with a hose, using it to make unhurried figure eights. He was humming Samantha Samantha.
“It’s a pip,” Flintch said, grinning and holding out both hands as if to say, ta-da!
“Yes it is,” I agreed, quietly. “A real pip.” I weakly touched a whitewall with the tip of my Florsheim.
“Where are you going to drive her first, Mr Ziegler?” Flintch said. “I hear Oregon is nice in the autumn.”
He was a gaunt but dapper old man, coughing hard as he lit a cigarette. He wore a Masonic ring, and had a Rotarian pin on his lapel. But if removed from his dark suit and tie, and put blue bearded into unwashed plaid and dungarees, he’d look like any other bum I had to step over to get into my old hotel room. It was his thin cloudy smile and poorly disguised cruelty that set him apart from the rest of humanity. That, and all he’d left unsaid over the course of his sixty plus years. He didn’t give a shit where I drove my new car, now that he had my money. Tobias Flintch just wanted me to get it the hell off the lot, the same way Jimmy wanted me out of his cab.
“I don’t know where I’ll drive it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just park it at the curb and shoot at it from my apartment window, with a .22.”
“Ah,” said Flintch. “Well, remember to bring it in for servicing.”
Flintch was now re-inhaling through his nose the thick smoke slowly issuing from his mouth, like a pimp in a tattoo parlour.
“Why don’t you take these?” he said, handing me a set of keys on a Bean & Flinch Cadillac Land key ring. His fingernails were sharp, and too long.
“This car doesn’t seem so important to me anymore,” I said.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Finish it up, Daryl. And you have a pleasant day, Mr Ziegler.”
“Yeah,” I said, watching him walk away.
Daryl waited a moment, then said, “Flintch sleeps in a coffin.”
“That seems possible,” I said.
“And never sneak up on his left.”
“And never try to hand him anything made of pure silver.”
“Is my car ready?” I said.
“You know, a guy form the eastside bought one of these a week ago,” Daryl said, changing the subject and peeling the wrapper off of a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Right off the lot. No options. No custom work. Paid cash. He said that his wife had been foolin’ around behind his back, and that she’d fit real pretty into the trunk. Then he laughed like he was gonna choke, just so the salesman knew he was jokin’. But he wasn’t jokin’.”
“What? How do you know?”
Daryl stared at me a second like I was daft, like I wasn’t keeping up. Fear vacuum, I thought. The authentically dead had left the room.
“I guess,” he said, “that a Cadillac is never the same thing from one buyer to the next. The tank’s full of Hi-test, Mr Ziegler, and I’ve checked your oil. You’re ready to roll.”
“Thanks.” I tipped him a couple of bucks.
That evening I drove up into the north shore mountains, and watched the sun fall into the Pacific. Before the daylight vanished completely, though, I checked the trunk to make sure it was empty. It was. No Tobias Flintch rising from the dead. No bodies of cheating wives. Only an upholstered crypt too huge for my meager life, where a jack and a spare were buried like artifacts. Ignacio Esposito was on the radio, singing (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.
I had this to consider as I fell: that to be pushed from the eleventh floor of a slum hotel, in the end, is no different than being pushed from the eleventh floor of the Ritz-Carlton. The outcomes will differ very little.
* * * * * *
It was 2:27 a.m. on Wednesday.
I woke the way I sometimes do, like someone just pulled my trigger. Bang! Eyes open wide in the middle of the night, remembering something I forgot to do, like set a mousetrap or put my compost into the freezer.
But this time, I had a weird feeling that someone was standing on the threshold. I sat up and looked across the room at the sliver of light that comes in under the door from the main corridor. Shadows were moving there. Feet on the other side. Big square cop shoes. Shuffling back and forth. There…
View original post 2,176 more words
The staircase was golden, and allowed for one way traffic only. Ascending, a sign said, and there was an arrow pointing up toward a platform bathed in light, from which the ascender would have to either jump into radiant emptiness, or stand forever. But neither Abigale nor Loomis were ascenders. Loomis turned away, holding a hand over his eyes to block the light.
“This isn’t what you said,” said Abigale, fingering two tiny, but bulging, plastic envelopes in her coat pocket, each containing the promise of an immaculate high. “You said that this was just a flophouse, that you had a room, that we could get high.”
“It wasn’t like this an hour ago,” Loomis said. “It was just bedbugs and bare lightbulbs.” He peeked through his fingers into the glare. “I’ve been flopping here for a year. This’s never happened before.”
The Hotel Copenhagen was actually more than a flophouse, but not much more. It had seen happier days in the age of zeppelins and flappers. The grand marble staircase had always been one of its best features, but now it had undergone a bizarre change and the rough couple stood in the ramshackle lobby made golden by it. Behind them were the bevelled glass doors that led out into rainy midnight.
“Well,” said Abigale, her voice rising, “it’s pissing out, and I’m starting to jones. I don’t wanna cook ‘n’ shoot this shit up in the rain, then trip all night in a back alley. You said you had a place. That’s why I came.”
“I do—I did—it’s on the third floor.”
“Then let’s take the elevator.”
“It’s busted,” said Loomis. “Has been since I moved in. We’ll have to take the stairs.”
“I ain’t going up there.”
Then they heard a ding. “What the fuck?”
Abigale grabbed Loomis by his collar and pulled him toward the sliding doors. When they slid open, the two of them saw a tall woman in a dark blue uniform with gold trim and matching pillbox hat sitting on a stool next to a panel of buttons. Her skin was white and her smartly done-up hair was black. Her lips, the colour of a bullet wound. The inside of the elevator had been transformed from its former ruined state into a plush chamber of oak and brass.
“Will that be down?” she said.
“Up,” said Abigale. She took a step forward, but Loomis held her back.
An overpowering reek was coming from the car. Loomis held his nose.
“Sorry for the Eau de Sulfur,” said the operator.
“Who are you?” Loomis said. “I’ve never seen you before and this elevator’s been busted since I arrived over a year ago.”
“Well then this is your lucky night, fella,” said the elevator operator. “Going down? The lower floors are very nice.”
“Up,” Abigale said again.
“There is no up.”
“Then the elevator’s still out of service,” Loomis said.
“Nope,” said the operator. “It’s working just fine.” She smiled like a reptile.
“We want the third floor,” Abigale said.
“Then take the stairs, if you like.”
“But the stairs lead up into some kind of blinding nothingness.” Loomis couldn’t believe what he’d just said.
“You’ll have to make up your minds,” said the operator. “Up or down, up or down.” She pulled a cigarette from her pocket, and lit it with the tip of her tongue.
“Maybe we should just go back out onto the sidewalk,” Abigale said. “We can wait for a few minutes, give this all a chance to reboot, and then come back in.”
“Won’t make a bit of difference.” The operator blew smoke out of her nostrils, dragonishly. “I’ll still be here when you come back.”
“And the staircase, too?” said Loomis.
“What’s this all about?”
“It’s about the smack, baby,” said the operator. “Round here, it’s always about the smack. Or in your case, the China-girl.”
Abigale felt a surge of panic. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the little envelopes that were so full moments ago, but found them empty and balled up. She took them out of her pocket, and stared at them in her fingers.
“Where is it?” She gasped.
“Gone,” the elevator operator said. “It’s so so gone and so are you. But I don’t blame you for being a little confused. Fentanyl’s some lethal shit.”
“I….” Loomis looked lost.
The operator said, “You don’t get it, right?”
Abigale stiffened suddenly. In an inner room somewhere in her head the movie of her life began threading through a projector, and onto a screen. Child abuse, the pain of blows. Penniless Christmases. The desert of her empty belly, a razor blade pain, the pale watercolour hurt of hunger. An abandoned little girl shivering in the cold and gloom of an empty house. Rape, dark doorways, alleys and empty eyes. Debauched street preachers. Hateful parents. Alienation. Running until there was nowhere else to go. Men with fists. Tweekers and boozers and cops with sticks. The roomless huddled against storefronts, injecting on the street. A show for all of the good people of the city to see. The rain that wouldn’t stop, the anguish and the filth. Finally, her gaunt colourless face in a mirror.
She’d bought the powder from a plump little fucker named Brian, who’d driven in from out of the neighbourhood, trying to look bad with his clean shaven dealer face, wearing his new jeans and high-tops. Then she’d tracked down Loomis, ready to exchange some of the shit for a room to get high in, out of the rain.
But some part of her plan had failed. She frantically pulled layers of sleeves away, up to her elbow. There was a spent syringe there. She watched it drop out of her vein onto the floor. Blood ran down her inner forearm, past the wrist like a river seen from space. Loomis looked at his arm and saw the same thing; he swatted it away like a fly.
“When?” she said. “I don’t remember….”
“When no longer applies. You were too impatient,” the operator said. “And you shot poison into your vein. A lot of that going round. Don’t worry, Brian and I will be meeting soon enough.”
Abigale let her arm fall at her side. A lone and final drop of blood dripped from a fingertip.
“So it’s you or the mysterious staircase,” she said. “I guess I know where your elevator goes.”
The operator smoked, and tapped a finger impatiently on her knee.
“Choice is a wicked thing,” Loomis said. “Not that I’ve had much experience with it. I never knew it could get so weird.”
“Okay all right, look,” said the elevator operator. She snuffed her cigarette out under a black suede pump. “Just take the damn stairs. The boss ain’t gonna like me telling you that, but you two chumps are depressing the hell outta me, so to speak. I hear it’s all sunshine and lollipops up there, if that helps—yada yada—no more wet clothes, no more burden of self, all of that kind of shit. I’ve seen some real pricks take those stairs, so why not you?”
“What if it’s a trick?” Loomis said.
“It can’t be worse than this lobby,” Abigale said, kicking her syringe into a corner. She saw the torrential rain through the glass doors. “Or out there.”
For the first time, Loomis saw graffiti etched into the plate over the elevator call button: No one here gets out alive. He took Abigale’s hand.
“Let’s go,” he said, and she went along.
The elevator operator shrugged, and watched them go.
They ascended the staircase and vanished into the light.
“Can’t win ’em all,” she said. Then she adjusted herself on the stool, produced a sandwich and an Elle Magazine out of nowhere, and took her lunch break.
it is the small insanities
that are unforgivable
the ones without glamour
in the mirror above the sink
where your handsome hand
three fingers on your cheek
all is karma but nothing is
and yet another week
I know from the lines round my eyes
that all of those departed winters ago
when every fallen leaf was a sawbuck
and cigarettes and pretzels were free
any old key would open any old door
on any cold December night
and the pride of shelter would be
any old man’s to have
in the hospice
from further down the hall
past a woman crying
with a child past
where a corpse lay disguised alive
and further even past
the nurse and nun smoking
cigarettes next to one small window
allowing in the only light she heard
the voice of a man
singing a fragment of a song of
small bones and she
walked the hall so long to find him
it must have taken hours
before she saw the pale old man
in a room of rust and
shotgun pellet holes—tiny stars round
if I suggest a sickly part of me somewhere die
and it slowly fades
into a place past a horizon of anatomy
is it murder or assault
or a gift of broken pieces?
August 10, 1944 — 02:00
She knew it from the moment she left the curb, by the headlights in her rear view mirror. It was too late for unauthorised road traffic on the blacked-out London streets, and the stalker’s intent was entirely unambiguous. Natalie Falls had turned and turned again, accelerating where possible, relying on her Jaguar’s speed and turning prowess, even on the wet streets, but the headlights remained in the mirror. The Navy dockyard was more than a mile away, and she was being forced further in the wrong direction.
Falls had already taken the automatic pistol from her satchel and was now accelerating along Whitechapel Road at speed. Her pursuer’s car was as fast as hers and he was an expert driver. The chase had to end; where and how was up to her.
Turning right onto a nameless narrow lane, she braked past the intersection. The Jag slid on the wet pavement, grazed a hoarding and stopped at a ninety angle, blocking the road. Opening the door she stepped out and took aim with her handgun. The car behind had taken the turn hard, and swerved onto the sidewalk to avoid impact with Falls automobile. It stopped short of colliding with a lamppost.
Her car was positioned so that its headlights shone into the other car. She’d a clear shot, if she wished to take it. The driver, a grim looking man, stared and smiled out of the widow.
“You’re chasing the wrong woman, mister,” said Falls, holding her aim. “I’m not the sort of person people question when she kills a man.”
Then spinning his tires, the grim man drove off down the sidewalk and onto the road. A pre-war MG Roadster. Red with Black fenders and spoke wheels. The number plates, unreadable.
The chase had ended in front of a block of row houses. A second floor window opened and she saw the dim glow of a single candle.
“You on the road,” a man called down, “you alright?”
Now she heard other windows opening. “Yes fine.” She pocketed her pistol.
“What’s all the noise?” said another voice. “Why you parked like that?”
“An unexplainable event,” Falls replied.
“Woman driver, if you ask me.”
“No one asked you, Norman,” a woman said.
“Where’s the coppers?”
Squadron Officer Natalie Falls wondered that too. She got back into her car, and started the engine.
“Hey, you can’t leave.”
She might be late for her appointment, but the war would carry on nonetheless.
* * * * * *
She drove slowly up to a barricade, and handed her identification to a guard. He consulted a clipboard. No salute passed between them; she was in civilian clothing. The guard handed back the ID.
“Pin this on your lapel, mum,” he said, handing her an official visitor pass. “Now, left at the next intersection and onto the wharf. Ultra will be at the end, on your right.”
He spoke in a low voice, as though the existence of the Royal Dockyards was a secret.
The barricade arm rose, and she drove on.
Falls had been told that the HMS Ultra was a small submarine, that its small size was its greatest asset. As she approached, however, it seemed impossibly large. Its profile was too high, its deck gun too obvious in silhouette. This was meant to be a covert mission. Natalie Falls parked her car a few yards away from the dimly lit gangplank, and got out.
“You there, on the wharf,” a man called from above, “state your business.”
Falls looked up at the conning tower. A pale faced man in a pea coat looked down at her.
“Squadron Officer Natalie Falls of the Special Operations Executive, to see Captain Findlay.”
“He’s asleep, miss.”
“It’s Ma’am not miss, if you please.” Falls checked her wristwatch. “Our appointment is at 02:15.”
“But it’s only 02:10.”
“Look, it’s bad enough that I have to keep to Navy time. Please wake him, and tell him I’m here.”
“Oh he won’t like that, miss.”
Fall called up, “Name and rank, sailor.”
“Seaman Quinten Kennedy, miss. But it won’t change nothin’.”
“Well, Seaman Quinten Kennedy, do whatever you must to summon your Captain, immediately. And since I out rank you by some considerable amount, I suggest you refrain from calling me miss. Now scramble your arse.”
“Don’t look like no Squadron Officer to me,” Kennedy mumbled, as he keyed the intercom. “Is the Fin about down there?”
“He’s in the mess with a cuppa cocoa,” a voice crackled back.
“Someone’s here for ‘im.”
“He just woke up. Says to keep an eye open for some SOE bird, whatever the SOE is. Probably some crusty old maid.”
“That might be who this is, says so anyway.”
“I tell ya mate, I just can’t keep up with all this SOE and SACE malarkey.”
“I can’t help there. I’m just tellin’ ya she’s here.”
There was a brief silence. Then—
“Officer on deck says send her aboard. Don’t know why we’d have a scrubber on board, though. It ain’t right. Nothing’s right no more.”
Seaman Kennedy looked a little sheepish, as he keyed off.
He called down, “Permission to come aboard, miss.”
As Natalie Falls stepped into the full light of the gangway, the Seaman noticed for the first time that the Squadron Officer was indeed no old maid.
“Ain’t you somethin’ for sore eyes,” he said, and nearly whistled.
“I said please proceed with caution up the gangplank, miss.”
The interior of the sub was warm, close and smelled like it needed a bath. It was a tunnel of pipes and brass gauges, of bulkheads and oily hatches. The untidy sailors were sallow in the low yellow light. A Lieutenant greeted her as she came aboard. He asked to see her identification.
“We don’t get many ladies down here,” he said, examining her credentials.
“I imagine you get none at all,” said Falls.
Captain Findlay sat in the mess with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He was reading logs, and sat back as Falls entered.
“Sit,” he said.
A Midshipman stood nearby.
“Coffee?” said the Captain.
“That would be very nice.”
“Coffee for our guest, Billy.”
The Midshipman waited a moment.
“Black,” said Falls.
“You have something for me?” Findlay said. “Orders? Or does SOE issue orders by conventional means? Perhaps I should listen for them in Morse code, tapped on the hull.”
“Official paperwork would be inconvenient in this case.” She took an unmarked file folder from her satchel, and placed it on the table.
“What’s this, then?”
“A plan—time line, rendezvous coordinates, passenger manifest.”
“Anything else?” the Captain said. “An explanation? Something to motivate me?”
“It’s top secret,” Falls said. “You don’t need to know anything other than what’s in the folder.” Then she took a book from her satchel and placed it on the table. “You’ll be within radio distance throughout the mission. You’ll receive instructions along the way, based on outcomes. These are your codes.”
“So, you expect me to place my men and my boat in jeopardy, without official orders.” He opened the folder, and read the single page it contained. “This is very unusual. Some would say that it’s a mutinous act, to sail without orders.”
“You can be assured that I’ll protect you from any of that.” Falls couldn’t mention Churchill or the petty conspiracy that had led to his involvement, and therefore couldn’t mention that the operation would take place with the Prime Minister’s blessing.
“Reassuring,” Findlay said, closing the file. “But you’ve nothing else?”
“I have one thing to add.”
“On the evening of Monday June 10th, 1940,” Falls said, “you were approached by a man in a pub in London. It was when you were still a Lieutenant Commander. He was a fat, bearded man, and identified himself as a Mr Finch. Do you remember?”
“Maybe.” He lit his cigarette.
“He sat at your side at the bar,” Falls continued, “and drank three shots of Jameson whiskey. You’ll recall that he struck up an odd conversation with you in which he said that as an officer in the Submarine Service you may be approached one day in the future, and asked to participate in a clandestine operation. He said that he didn’t know when or where, or under what conditions, or that there was any certainty that it would ever even happen. But if it did, you were to ask for a certain phrase. A code phrase that would confirm the validity of the request—that it was of the utmost importance and that it came from the highest echelons.
“You thought it nonsense, of course, but you could never forget that code phrase. It repeats itself in your head, over and over. It’s the first thing you think of when you wake, and it’s the last thing you think of before you go to sleep. That’s how it works—implanting a phase code in this way comes with some unfortunate psychological side effects. The process isn’t perfect.”
The Midshipman placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of Natalie Falls, and exited the mess.
“You’re mistaken,” he said.
“I don’t think so,” said Falls, and began to recite: “Chrome colour lights spectral colour spectral colour the dark.”
The Captain looked startled, then severe. A switch had been thrown. How could she know? He barely remembered meeting Finch, but the phrase had repeated again and again inside of his head every day since. It was maddening at times. He realised now that he’d been made a puppet, long ago and without his consent. He felt rage. “I’m not a fucking errand boy,” he said.
“No,” said Falls. “You’re an asset, and an Officer in the Royal Navy. Sworn to serve.”
“Am I the only one, or are there others you’ve done this to? Good men made robots, waiting to be activated.”
Falls sipped her coffee, and made a face. “This is dreadful.”
“That fat bastard, Finch,” Findlay said, “he didn’t pay his bar bill. I had to pay it. He just walked away when he was done with me. I’m owed half a crown.”
Falls took some coins from her satchel and placed them on the table.
“These two passengers,” she said, placing her hand on the folder, “they’re precious cargo. You and your crew will be put on furlough until further notice, but it won’t be long. You’re to remain in London. We want you nearby, not out at sea when the moment comes. Tell the crew no drinking, no shore leave violence or melodrama. And there’s certain information in this envelope you must memorise by morning. Then it must be destroyed. The paper dissolves in water. Flush it down an onboard toilet.”
Paris, August 10, 1944 14:45
The dwarf sat at the foot of la columna Vendôme, and nodded in appreciation as passersby tossed coins. He played his small guitar surprisingly well, in the style of Django, in spite of the arthritis that gnarled fingers. Crispin Dench approached and dropped a franc into the small man’s hat. Benoît Le Géant, an agent in La Résistance française, stopped playing and smiled broadly.
“Ah, Dillinger,” he said. “That is very generous.”
“I know it,” said Dench. He was dressed in a dark tailored suit and fedora.
The two men spoke freely in the bustle of Place Vendôme.
“I thought that you and the lovely Trudy Parr were at work elsewhere,” the dwarf said.
“We thought so too, but we were called back. We thought Trudy had put the fear of castration into Becker, that he would disappeared. Now we believe that he never left the city.”
“No, he has not,” said Le Géant, “and he is close to closing a deal with the Russians.”
“London’s annoyed. Trudy should have gutted him when she had the chance, but she and Becker have a romantic history. I should have intervened, but I’m getting tired of all this. I just want to go home and sit on the fire escape, listen to the radio. But now we have to finish the job.”
“I don’t know,” Dench said. He dropped his cigarette into the gutter. “I’m not sure she’d survive peacetime, if it ever comes. They never should have sent her here. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll let her go home.”
“That is war, my friend.”
“Tell me where Becker is.”
“Everywhere,” said Le Géant, with a shrug. “He thinks it’s better than going underground, and he may be correct. You may even see Becker on the street, chasing the ladies. Perhaps he’s watching us now.
“The Nazis know they’ve lost control of Paris. Their discipline is breaking down, but they just won’t admit it. That makes them dangerous in ways they never were before. Many of them hate Hitler. Some are looting, and others are lining up their cyanide capsules. Either way Becker’s no longer a priority. But if I were you, I’d check an apartment above 12 Place d’Italie.”
“What about the Russians?” Dench said.
“There is talk of diamonds, payment for plans to the something called the Manhattan Project, whatever that is. Naturally, those holding the diamonds would rather keep them, kill Becker, and obtain the Manhattan information without paying. Interesting, no?”
Dench checked his wristwatch.
“Where is she?” said Le Géant.
“I don’t know,” Dench said. “But we’re supposed meet at Hôtel Meurice in an hour.”
* * * * *
She sipped coffee in the hotel lounge, reading Les Cloches de Bâle. A shabby string quartet played Beethoven on a small stage. Turning a page, she looked up and saw him standing there.
“Good afternoon, my dear,” Becker said.
Trudy Parr put down her book.
“You’re as good as dead,” she said, smiling politely. “You played me for a square. No one does that.”
“Well, then this should be an interesting ending to our war.”
“I’m calling you out right now,” she said. “Let’s step outside. We’ll go out back, through the kitchen.”
“You’re not indestructible,” Becker said. Once again, he was amazed at the rage so tightly coiled in her slender body.
“Then finish me off.”
“Come in on this with me, Trudy,” said Becker. “I need a sly little tough guy like you. In a couple of weeks, we can be in Brazil. With all of the money in the world.”
“King and country, correct? The Maple Leaf Forever.” The latter he said in a flat tone. “You know that when this all over, people like you and I are going to be shit out the other end. Can you imagine going back to that little backwater, what’s it called?”
“Vancouver.” She spoke too fast. She shouldn’t have spoken at all.
“Vancouver, that’s it. What are they going to do with you there?”
“I look forward to finding out,” she said. “But now we have something to finish.”
“That’ll have to wait.” He nodded toward two men looking out of place in the threadbare-elegant surroundings, the Maître d’ looking very worried. “My Russian gorilla entourage,” said Becker. “They have an interest in keeping me alive, for now.”
“So the deals not done.”
“That gives me time, then,” Trudy Parr said. “This will be our last gracious exchange, Mr Chicago. Next time we meet, it’s fatal.”
This morning He was here again. Jesus, sitting in the lotus position on my nightstand where my clock radio is supposed to be. I don’t know how I know it’s Jesus. I just do. He doesn’t look like any of the pictures you see. Instead, He has a kind of Taliban or Al-Qaeda look about him. He rarely speaks, just stares ahead at empty space. Sometimes he hums little tunes. He has a fondness for ABBA tunes. When he does speak, it’s cryptic, mysterious, usually a single word like butterfly or cyclamate or microfiche. This morning, though, He said a little more. He looked at me and said, “Watch your head.” Then He vanished, leaving my clock radio unplugged on the floor. When the Lord our Saviour says things out of context that routinely defy understanding, I guess it’s easy to see why humanity is in such a desperate state.
The peephole in my apartment door provides me with a fisheye view of things. I don’t have a TV. So, I watch through the peephole as people walk down the hall, past my place, as they get bigger and bigger then smaller and smaller. Then they disappear as mysteriously as they appeared. I stand there looking out with my forehead and cheek hard against the door, drinking warm beer through a straw, wondering from whence and to where. Usually there’s a clue, the sound of the elevator or the stairwell door opening. Sometimes though, there’s just silence. They go missing, like Jesus from my nightstand.
There’s a woman who walks past my door every day. She’s younger than me, maybe by twenty years. She’s blonde and has a yoga sort of body, pleasantly soft yet defined. The weather’s been cold lately so she’s been wearing sweatpants a lot, and a kangaroo jacket. They call kangaroo jackets hoodies now since everyone wants their clothing to sound dangerous. Hoodie doesn’t sound that dangerous, I admit, but it does have a meaner, race riot ring to it than kangaroo jacket. People’s lives are blessed, but their fashion has become hopelessly inner-city. Poverty and desperation have become dernier cri for the privileged, and now even yoga girls are gangstas.
I know when the woman in the hoodie is coming even before I see her. Hers is a rapid step, and she comes down hard on her heels. When she comes from the right—bigger bigger bigger, smaller smaller smaller—she’s coming from the elevator. That’s when she’ll have groceries, a backpack with a rolled up yoga mat or she’s carrying a satchel and is dressed in business clothes. It’s when she comes from the left – bigger bigger bigger, smaller smaller smaller—that she’s more likely to be wearing more casual tough-chick clothes. That’s when she has her trash or a bag of laundry. She’s heading for the basement. That’s where the laundry room is. It’s also where the trash is stored until garbage day so poor people can’t steal it. Our building manager has very strict rules about who may and who may not lay their hands on our garbage.
The hoodie woman’s name is Jessica. I found out by accident once when I was getting my mail. Sometimes she’ll put out return mail for the mail carrier to pick up. It’s stuff that was meant for other people who lived in her apartment before her. I take it to read later if no one is around to see. It’s mostly LL Bean and Victoria’s Secret catalogues. Sometimes, though, there’s a birthday card. Once there was a fifty dollar bill in one from someone’s mother. I bought some beer and KFC.
But that’s not how I found out her name. One day she was at her mailbox, a few feet away from mine. I kind of know when to be in certain places so I can see her up close, not just through my peephole. Like once or twice a month, not too many times so she doesn’t think I planned it or anything, I go down to the laundry room a few minutes after she passes by with her laundry bag. Sometimes I glance at her putting things into the washer. Her dirty laundry is very clean. Then sometimes she sits on a bench across the street from the building and reads. She reads weird shit. Titles like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. I got them both from the library; they were crap. At least the first three or four pages were. Anyway, when she does that I occasionally go out there and sit nearby and pretend to read something, like one of the tracts I get in the mail from Christians in American or the latest Awake Magazine. I figure, maybe if she sees me reading that stuff she’ll know I’m okay.
So, when I first heard her name it was from this guy I see in the building sometimes who thinks he’s something real special. He comes up to her one day at her mailbox and says, “Hey, Jessica. How you doing?” Real soft and casual like you’re not supposed to get what he’s up to. The neighbourhood’s gotten real gay lately, so I figure he’s trying to sound queer so she gets this false sense of security. But he ain’t gay. I think he’s stalking her. His name is Randy. I wonder how many women he gets that way, pretending not to be interested. Inviting them up to his place to trade recipes and then jumping their bones. Pervert. Meanwhile, good guys like me go through life ridiculed and alone, watching endless reruns of X-Files. Mulder’s such a dick.
So, the other day something different happens. I watch through the peephole and see Jessica wheel a new bike down the hall. It’s a yellow, modified 70s vintage Peugeot with the single speed high torque gears. Terribly hip, I guess. But you have to be a tri-athlete to pump one up a hill. After she passes by, and I hear the elevator doors close, I put on my jacket and follow her out. On the street, there she is talking to Randy who has a similar bike, only his is a purple Apollo. It’s five degrees centigrade, and he’s wearing cut offs. If that doesn’t prove that he’s trying to pretend to be gay, I don’t know what does. And he’s wearing a tee-shirt under this obviously real expensive lightweight micro fibre jacket and a pair of pricy riding shoes with the metal cleats. But what’s really made obvious by its absence is his helmet. Randy is clearly too cool to bother with head protection, and so, apparently, is Jessica who is also without a helmet.
For a moment I think that they may just be talking and not planning to ride, after all. But then it happens. Randy throws his head back and laughs at something Jessica has said. It’s this real phoney laugh. What a fraud. Then he bends over both bikes and kisses Jessica on the cheek. Then, after polluting Jessica’s pure pink cheek with his perverted lips, they mount their bikes and ride off toward the park—helmetless.
I have a 1975 Ford Pinto. It’s a beautiful dark mossy green colour that doesn’t show the dirt, but the hubcaps are gone. It’s a good car, a combustible classic, a legend. I got it real cheap at an estate sale along with a toaster that lowers the bread automatically into the slots. It happens kind of slow and makes this calming mechanical buzz. It makes toasting bread real fun. Sometimes if I get bored, I make a lot of toast just to listen to it hum and watch it lower the bread.
Anyway, my Ford Pinto is parked nearby on the street. You need a special pass to park in my neighbourhood so people from other crappier neighbourhoods don’t take over. But it costs $15 a year, which is like way too much in my opinion. I never buy one which means I have to move my car every two hours. Sometimes I end up parking it a long ways away. But this time the Pinto’s right there, so I get in, start it up and follow them.
I stay back about half a block. My Pinto wants to go fast. It’s in its nature to perform. But I drive real slow because they’re riding real slow and talking and Randy keeps throwing his head back and laughing that real fake laugh of his. My hands grasp the steering wheel real tight. I’m thinking bad thoughts.
Off to the right, through the trees, is the lagoon. It’s a pond really, a small lake. But some poet chick from the cowboy days tagged it Lost Lagoon, and it stuck. I guess it does sound better than Lost Pond or Lost Lake. It ain’t an accurate description, though. But whatever, I figure that’s where I’ll dump Randy when I’m finished with him. I have chains in the trunk in case it snows, but I’ll gladly sacrifice them to weigh his body down.
“Watch your head”, Jesus said. Maybe He was trying to warn me about something. Maybe I’ll have to be real careful dealing with this creep.
I accelerate and pass them and drive ahead about half a click. Then I pull over, get out and pull up the hood. I don’t really have a plan, except that I think I’ll stab him with a screwdriver. I have a nice long skinny one that I bought at Walmart. It looks more like an ice pick. Only problem is that Jessica will see, and it might be hard to convince her I’m okay after she sees me stab Randy with a Walmart screwdriver. I’m just starting to think that I should maybe wait until I get him alone when the two of them come into view. My right hand grips the screwdriver.
When they ride up to my Pinto, they’re all like, “Oh, hello. Don’t you live in our building? Having car troubles? Is that really a Pinto?” “No,” I say. “It’s a fucking Porsche.” I can’t help it. It just comes out like that. I’m confused for a moment, and then bend over the engine and pretend to be adjusting something. Meanwhile Jessica and Randy look at each other kind of surprised. Then Randy pipes up, “Can I help?” Oh sure, I think. First he’s trying to be all gay and now he wants to fix my car. I figure this is it, time to stab the little prick. Jessica will just have to learn to love me in spite of it.
I move fast. Suddenly I’m a natural born killer. But I stand up too fast and slam my head into that hook shaped thing that hangs down from the hood and locks everything into place when you close it, and now my head’s stuck. I’ve hit the hook so hard that it’s embedded in my skull. It feels weird, but there’s almost no pain. “Holy shit,” Randy says, as I twist my head this way and that, trying to dislodge. “I’m calling an ambulance,” Jessica says. “No,” I shout. A trickle of blood finds its way down my forehead, between my eyes and drips off the tip of my nose. There’s a dark red splat on the radiator cap, then another. Meanwhile, Jessica’s calling 911. Shit! Fire and ambulance. Probably the cops, too. If I want to waste this Randy bastard and have time to get away, it has to be now.
I swing the screwdriver in a horizontal arc. Randy jumps out of the way just in time and says something brilliant like, “Hey!” with a real stunned look on his face. Finally I twist and yank the hook out of my head with a sloppy wet popping sound, step away from the Pinto and quickly reassess the situation. “It went in about eight or nine centimetres,” Jessica is saying on the phone. Suddenly I feel dizzy. “Yes, a lot of blood. And he’s starting to act kind of violent.” I spread my legs a little further apart and get my bearings. Then giving my head a shake, I spray blood everywhere. “God damn,” Randy says, wiping it off of his face. “You don’t have anything blood-born, I hope.” I know what he means, like I would have some communicable disease. The lippy little s.o.b. That makes me attack him with everything I’ve got, but miss again. Randy’s a slippery character, I’ll give him that. Then he says, “What’s your problem, pal?” How come people you’re trying to murder always call you pal?
And now’s when I stumble forward and fall onto the road just as this fat black Escalade with its stereo on full blast playing rap music rumbles out of nowhere, clearly exceeding the speed limit. I remember looking up and thinking how clean it was, even underneath, as it ran over me like I was a speed bump. Fuck I hate rap music.
Anyway, the hospital’s a dump. This is where people come to die, and I don’t want to die. But the Escalade messed me up, bad. Besides that, they tell me that I sustained a severe brain injury when the Pinto’s hood hook penetrated my grey matter. It’s the brain injury that they say accounts for my irrational and violent behaviour toward Randy. So, there’ll be no charges. I’ve been forgiven. Even Randy, whose throat I’ll cut next time I get a chance, has given me a pass. Jessica visits me every evening after work. She sneaks in KFC even though she says it’s poison. I’m building up the courage to ask her out. There’s a second run movie theatre in the east end that’s having a Dirty Harry marathon.
Jesus has taken up residence in the bed next to mine. “‘Watch your head.’ Good one,” I say. He’s on a respirator and plugged into a dozen machines. Angels surround him 24/7 singing ABBA songs. I like their renditions of Mamma Mia and Knowing You Knowing Me. They kind of sound like this album of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir I bought at an estate sale once. Sometimes He speaks, but the respirator makes it difficult to understand what He’s trying to say.