UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 04/2012
It was a bum case. I knew that from the beginning, not that I had ever had a case before. Up until then all Uncle Sam had ever asked me to do was to edit news copy coming back from Korea, but I knew what dead ends looked like.
When they called me to the general’s office, when he wasn’t there, I knew. Only me and a nameless man in plain clothes with loose ideas. At best, this was going to be busywork. At worst, it would be a suicide mission. Twelve senior officials incapacitated. No links. No leads. Just a file with the names and best guesses on current locations. Just the mystery man and me, a kid. A smart kid with a secret and two choices, take the case or face the court marshal. I didn’t think then that he knew what to discharge me for, only that he would figure it out if he had to. I took the case, or whatever it was.
There was virtually nothing to go on outside of guesses, and in the Pentagon, in 1955, the best guess was always Russia. Some sort of super-weapon. Chemical, psychological maybe. Whatever it was, it was selective. Twelve men so far. Everyone a major player. I might not have been a real investigator, but I had read enough dime store novels to know not to guess without evidence so I started down my list.
General McLuhan, my former superior. Victim zero. Last known address: 75 West Fourth Street. No answer at the door. I let myself in, called his name once or twice, then heard the creaking from the study. There he was, with six feet of finality tethering him to the rafters and the four legs of a stool laid down beneath. No smell. He hadn’t been there long. Pants on. Belt buckled. No accident here. No games. Just a man, his rope and one less name on my list.
Phone it in. Close the door. Move on.
The next two names were easy enough to track down. They were sharing a room at the only place in town without an exit door. When Mr. No-name gave me this case, I wondered what exactly “incapacitation” meant. I was beginning to get the idea.
Why they even wasted a padded room on these two was beyond me. To say they were not violent would have been a joke. They were nearly catatonic, just sitting there. One Indian style, one with legs splayed out. Eyes glassy. Their lips were the only moving parts, but they were not moving well. A gear was slipping somewhere. Gibberish probably. A few repeated sounds. Jot it down. Could be Russian for all I know, but not likely. No one who talks like that could be considered a serious threat to the state.
No, I don’t need to go in. I can see all I need to from the window. Just cross off two more names and turn away. Save the tears for when you get back to Franklin Street where boys are allowed to cry. Boys do a lot of things back there. The kinds of things that might make all this a little easier to handle, but they’re also the kinds of things that get good soldiers court marshaled, and I have work to do.
I praised god out loud when Secretary Haynes answered his door. Finally, a lead. A real person who would be able to tell me something. He motioned me inside with a hand that held a long, slender brush. There must have been a thousand of them in there. Paintings. Everywhere. They covered every wall in the old brownstone. They stood in high stacks in the hallway and on the furniture. They dangled precariously from every ledge. It was like one of those cautionary tales mothers tell their children. Now Johnny, if you don’t clean your room, you’ll end up like old Mr. Haynes, crushed in an avalanche of his paintings.
It might have been bearable if not for the singularity of the work. Blue orb, black slash through the center. Blue orb. Black slash. Over and over. Be cool. Don’t spook him. Blue orb. He may be your only lead. Black slash.
“So you’re a painter,” I say but receive nothing.
“Come on man.” I grab him. “Give me something.” I shake him but there is nothing to be had. Only a vacant set of eyes and silence as he turns away, back to the painting.
Great. One corpse, two nuts and a mute. It might have made a fine joke had I been back at the Blind Pig with the boys, but I was right there in the middle of it, and it wasn’t funny.
I packed up my worries and headed home. Past the Blind Pig. Past the festive awnings of Franklin Street. Up the stairs to my room. There would be no socializing tonight. These thoughts are not the kind you share. I’ll see the mystery man again tomorrow. I’ll run down a couple more leads. Maybe I’ll have something to tell him.
New day. Up with the sun. I never could sleep in, even before all this. Shower, shave, and out the door, but it was no use. The leads were shit. Just two more bodies. A couple weeks ago they had been men of power and influence, world shapers. Now they were just bodies with nothing to say and nothing for me to tell mystery man.
There was time left in the day so I drove out to Fredericksburg for one last lead. Colonel James Randolph. Not a real Colonel, more of an honorary title. He had been to Germany, and Korea, and Cuba, unofficially of course. Now he was the President’s right hand man, staring down the Russians and anyone else rude enough to challenge the state. I skipped ahead on the list to get to him. Too many bodies. I needed to see a living man. If he was half as tough as the talk about him, he would be my best shot.
I made the drive, but he wasn’t there. Just the family. A wife. Two kids. He’s lost his shit she says, and gets offended when I’m not surprised. Sorry lady, if you wanted surprise, you should’ve caught me yesterday. She says he’s gone to their place in the city. They have a place in the city? A wasted drive. They had better comp my travel. But I don’t have a travel account yet. More and more I think they don’t expect me to claim anything, or to make it back at all.
A penthouse apartment, and it’s on C Street. I could have walked. No answer. The door is locked. Kick it in. The lights are off, but I see him by the open window. Dress blues. I’m just in time for the show.
“Hold it,” I yell and draw my pistol. Pull back the hammer. Play the badass. Hope he responds, but no, just laughter.
“I heard the new kid was green, but you’re something else.”
“Step away from the window sir.”
“Sorry kid, but you’re the one who needs to hold it. If you want me splattered on the sidewalk half dressed, take another step, and I’ll oblige you. Otherwise, I’d like a moment to finish up with this brass.”
“Fine Colonel, just tell me why. What happened to you?”
“Sorry kid. If you’re lucky you’ll never understand.”
“But I can stop it, if you help me.”
“Have you ever loved a good woman?”
“Good for you,” he fixed his cufflinks. “Most kids your age can’t think about anything else, but I’ll tell you this. There is nothing special or impressive or noble about falling in love. Anybody can do it. It’s as easy as quitting cigarettes or passing gas. The trick is hanging on, making it last.” He fixed the last chevron. “We only get so many nights.” He snugged his tie knot. “Don’t spend any more alone than you have to.” And he slipped out the window.
The last name on my list. The toughest man in uniform. A pile of guts on the street.
I went to the bar early and waited for the man without a name. Whiskey. Rocks. Dangerous thoughts. What was I going to say? What did he expect me to? Surely others before me had been assigned this, and surely they had failed. What happened to them? Are they on the list now?
I thought about the orb. The pale, icy blue orb and the black that divided it like a rift in the sea. I thought about Colonel Randolph. Whatever this thing was, it was big. Too big for me and probably for mystery man too. The others were pitiful and strange but they didn’t hit me like Randolph. Maybe it was being there in the final moment. Maybe it was watching all that strength wash away. What the hell could do that? What could turn a man like that into a sappy old coot, rambling on about his family? What secret was he keeping? It wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t persuade my nameless commander. Succeed or fry. That much had been clear from the start. He wouldn’t have to look hard for a reason to pin me. The eyes are always there to see and the lips there to speak. Even here they watch. They see. Screw them. I’ll make my case and take my chances. It has to be better than this. I can’t unsee the bodies, but I can sure as hell keep from seeing more.
“Who let you in here?” The words came softly from my right. “This is supposed to be a place for fun, but your heart is so heavy I can feel it from here.”
A smart girl she was. Beautiful and exotic. Long and tender with a hungry smile. Every man’s dream, no doubt.
“I could help you lift it. That heart of yours. My room is just upstairs.”
Scan the room. No sign of mystery man. Just the watchful eyes. If I’m going to face the court marshal, I’d better start building a defense. I follow her hips up the stairs and almost want to. There in the room, pressed together against the bar, I want to talk. She doesn’t.
What about that accent? From a far away place that doesn’t want her anymore, she says. I ask about her employer. She laughs and says that she makes her own hours. Then I see it. The black tress that falls against her pale blue eye. She pours the wine but I don’t worry. There’s nothing toxic, not in the bottle.
Clarity. In all of it. What Randolph was talking about. Who he was protecting. What the nameless man knew all along. Why I was chosen. The Russians didn’t make anything. They just found it. Pushed it off on us as much to protect themselves as to do us any harm. Nothing here is new. It’s the stuff myths were made of. Beauty, desire and the insatiable thirst. A natural weapon. More human than human. Too much to bear for those sad souls in the padded room, and those in the grave. Too much even for her I hope. Either way she won’t have to go through it again.
She pulls me in, and I welcome the touch.
Press lips against lips and barrel against flesh. Squeeze the trigger and release the final breath.
“Why,” she says slumping into my arms, the cold lovely eyes now shocked, maybe for the first time.
“Shhhh. It’s okay now.”
“Why don’t you love me?”
“Shhh,” I say again, “You can rest now.”
“But they all love me.”
“Baby, you’re not the only one who’s special.”
I hold her close and feel her leave. Together we slide down to the floor. I lay her head on my chest and close my eyes. Franklin Street will still be there tomorrow. We both deserve some company tonight.
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