They take me to a rented room on the second floor of a pawn shop. The floorboards and walls sag, the ceiling drips plaster flakes and the whole place is one big room, with its depths cordoned into sections by hanging sheets like temple curtains. About ten feet back from one of the big windows stands a single chair with a pair of binoculars hanging from the backrest. Sandwich wrappers and crumbs crowd around its feet.
Mitts sits me down on a stool near the door, then follows Jenny behind a hanging.
“Yeah, sleep,” she says, and what sound like very cheap bed springs make a squeal.
“Allright,” Mitts replies, and emerges from the behind the privacy curtain.
Someone else, of whom I can only see black penny loafers from under the bottom edge of a hanging, approaches Mitts.
“He’s stable for now, but he should be in a hospital,” says whoever’s wearing the loafers.
“Can he talk?” asks Mitts.
“Sure, but he won’t.”
“The Joe by the door is Mark, he might have been given a dose.”
“Can you draw some blood? Run some tests?”
“Yes. Well, not here, of course, but I had better get it right downtown.”
“As fast as you can then.”
The fella in the loafers thrusts the curtain aside and we look each other over. His spectacles are neat and his sleeves rolled into tight bundles, but his hair is messy and there’s a smudge of something dark on his ear. He has an upturned nose.
“Hello,” he says.
“Hello,” I reply.
He pulls a rolling cart from the other side of the curtain, laden with implements of the medical trade, and comes next to me with a bit of rubber hose in his hands.
“Have you had blood drawn before?” he asks in a tone I’m sure he thinks reassuring.
“Use my left arm.”
He sits, rolls up my sleeve and ties the strip of rubber around my upper arm. The dark stain on his ear is intriguing.
“Is that blood on your ear?” I ask, as he rubs a bit of iodine over my inner elbow.
“What?” He touches his ear and examines his fingers, then sighs. “Hah! Look at that. A fine first impression. There’s a gentleman in the other room who was shot several times yesterday, I’ve just saved his life. Would you believe I seem to have missed a bit of cleanup?”
“You mean Nash.”
He frowns. “Could be. Hold still.”
His hands are sure, and the needle goes in without a fuss. My blood, migrating into the glass vial, seems infused with an impossible green radiance. It dances behind the glass, pulsing in arrhythmic convolutions of color.
“Funny colors,” I remark.
“What?” He studies my shoulder where class cuts make a road-map of scabs.
“I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”
“I’ll get to your shoulder in a minute,” he says, with a note of uncertainty. “But first I have to ask, are you experiencing any unusual effects?”
“How did you sleep last night?” His eyes behind the oval glasses are brown, sharp, and genuinely curious.
“Pretty deeply,” I say.
“I fell asleep with a bullet hole in me, on the dirt of Zeigmere street, and woke up without one, in a fresh dug grave up by Archer Avenue.”
On the other side of the curtain, Jenny’s cot squeaks once. Loafers removes the needle from my arm, then swabs and bandages the spot.
“Would you mind describing that experience to me?” he asks.
“It might be important,” he says.
“Flash flash, extra extra.”
He rolls his eyes, and his smile patronizes. He’s finished filling a class tube with my blood. “Mark, did you say your name was? You can trust us,” he says, standing. “We’re the good guys.” Then he departs behind the curtain.
I let my tired shoulders sag against the wall. It’s warm in here. Somewhere in the room a steam radiator whistles quietly against the background rush of falling water on and partly through the roof. A flake of plaster lands on my chest. Habit moves my hands to the pack of cigarettes in my pocket, but I don’t want one.
Hell with it. I get up and follow Loafers through the curtain. David Laurence, who will forever remain “Mitts,” sits on a three-legged stool next to a metal-framed cot that looks like it cost about ten cents at the pawn shop beneath us. The white sheets of the cot bear several stains, and under them is a man I’ve seen recently.
Nash looks bad. His wrinkled face, before remarkable, has sunk into a bizarre caricature, like a goblin-shaped novelty cake left out in the rain. He breathes slowly but regularly. Several tubes run to bags of fluids. His eyes are open, and when they hit me, his fingers, pale green and prunish, curl. All of his wrists and ankles are handcuffed to the cot. It seems a little excessive.
Mitts stands up and the floor groans.
I point to Nash: “You plan he’s gonna tell you something?”
“They always do. You know this man?”
“He shot me, I shot him, we go way back.”
“How far back?”
The rain against the windows marches tear-stains of light down the wall and bed. Nash looks like he’s about as deep in the shitter as anybody can get. Then again, maybe he deserves it. I don’t know.
“Mind if I talk at him?” I ask.
David shrugs. “Go ahead.”
I sit on the three-legged stool. The raisin-faced man watches me without moving his head. There are clocks in his eyes, and distinctly, a black chain winding around his whole body.
“So,” I say, “You really are hard to kill.”
His body shakes as he coughs a laugh that sounds like death. “Damn.” His words are a croak. “Got a cigarette?”
I look at David. He shakes his head.
Loafers says: “I could go buy a pack.”
“No one on the street,” says the gentle giant, always the angel of mercy.
“Get bent,” croaks Nash.
“You guys want to give us a minute? He’s not going anywhere.” I gesture to the sundry handcuffs.
Mitts has scales in his eyes, but after a second they tilt my way. He shrugs and retreats behind the curtain, taking Loafers McBlood-ear with him.
Nash and I consider each other. The waterlogged windows make everything look to be crying.
I produce a cigarette and light up.
“Ass.” Nash’s voice croaks the insult like a bullfrog drowning in tar.
The smoke tastes like pain and poison. I want to like it, but I don’t. It feels utterly foul and I can’t get the smoke out of me fast enough. That’s not normal. I file it under ‘things different since dead’ and then slide the cigarette between Nash’s teeth. He takes a slow breath and lets out a deathly fog. After a couple of seconds, he says: “Who?”
“Me?” I smile. I like this part: “Marcus Summanus, professional adventurer.”
He squints. “What?”
The rain rattles the window. A pipe groans in the wall. He says: “Not with Agafya?”
“No. Not with anybody really.”
“Then the hell you want?”
“I don’t know fella,” I run my hands through my hair. “I fell out my window after a dame. One thing led to another.”
“That’s the one.”
He coughs out an awkward, pained sound which might be a laugh. “Good luck.”
“You know her?”
His nod is solemn. He clears his throat, but doesn’t say anything for a while. When he finally does, it’s barely audible.
“She’s a doll.”
“I guess you didn’t get your drug,” I try.
He grunts. “Was supposed to be a diamond. The dreaming diamond they called it. Size of your fist. They come back with some weird schmeck instead. Don’t need schmeck. Have plenty. A diamond the size of your fist… now that’s a thing.”
Mumbling trails off to pained silence. The cigarette burns down like incense of death. Plaster falls off the wall in a little shower.
“Dammit!” He barks. He’s been twitching a bloated finger at me to come closer and I didn’t notice. I lean in. His breath smells like the inside of a camp toilet.
“I got people,” he grunts in barely a whisper. “Daisydew club downtown. I tell you how to find your dame, you tell my people how to find me.” His crusted-red eye still glitters. With his sagging skin and handcuffed hands, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Nash. He looks like a victim.
“You have a deal.”
“I believe you.” He sighs. “Bangkok, Siam, Agafya. Bitter Flower. Fight. They’ll find you. Give’m a black eye for me.” The effort of talking exhausts him. His eyes fold shut and he takes a deep breath. The cigarette almost falls into his mouth but I catch it and stamp it out.
Outside the curtain, David and Loafers wait with questions. I make to stand, but Nash has one last contribution: “Hey, to hell with feds.”
“Sure,” I tell him.
Thunder rattles the windows and knocks more plaster from the ceiling. The patter on the window turns to the tattoo of hail. Dammit it’s August. To hell with Chicago.
“Get anything?” Mitts rumbles, as I emerge from the curtain.
“He says he’s sorry he shot me,” I reply, locating my suitcase and checking its contents for a coat. No luck, only a wrinkled sweater. “And if there is ever anything he can do to make it up, I should write it into his will.”
“Unh,” grunts Mitts. “Mr. Simmons I’m prepared to offer-”
“Did Loafers head to the labs?” I interrupt, noting the other guy’s absence.
“His shoes. Never got his name. You were a boxer right?”
He rewards my question with a furrowed brow and five seconds of silence, then: “Trinity college.”
“Yeah but you went pro, didn’t you?” I’m guessing, because of the transparent boxing gloves still hovering about his hands, but he tilts his head to the side with a face so impossibly wooden I have to be right.
“Third round knockout, right hook,” I guess, knowing the odds of this happening at some point in his career are high.
“It was a bigger guy. Irish name.” I snap my fingers as if trying to search my memory. All boxers are big. There are tons of Irish.
“Cobb?” he says, slowly, “Donald Cobb. Tough guy. I can’t believe you remember that fight.”
“How could I forget?” I show him my teeth and offer my hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Yeah,” he says, ignoring my hand. “Do you sign things?”
“Sure. Do you?”
He snorts, dismissing the concept, and then produces a copy of Child White Hand from a pocket. He must have been carrying it around all afternoon. He peels open the cover with the care of a toy-maker and offers me his pen.
“My kid loved this book,” he says.
“Grown up now?” I ask, scrawling my version of Mom’s Hancock on the page. “What’s their name?”
I’ve almost started writing “to Dead” on the cover when I don’t. That would be bad. Thinking for a moment lets me carefully avoid meeting his eyes. The air prickles on my neck and armpits. My shoulder itches. Rain patters through the roof. I write something else. He takes the book back and glances at my inscription. His lips twist with nothing like what you might call a smile.
“Save the world,” he reads.
“Your job,” I reply. “Not mine. I’m going home.”
“Are you? That would be a shame.” He taps his thumb on the cover. “Mr. Simmons, what is your job?”
His question catches me as I’m lifting my suitcase. “I suppose I get into trouble and then write about it.”
He tilts the book at me and says: “That’s a little like what is described in here. Except it’s not true, is it?”
I stand up straight, resting my wrist on my shoulder so the heavy case bumps my back.
He keeps talking: “This book was published in 1926, and likely written in 1924 or before. You would have been somewhere in your early teens? You have been, I think, taking credit for someone else’s work. Not to mention that Marcus Summanus is not a real person and never was, and yet here you are, claiming that name. What does that make you?”
I swallow on a dry throat. Not the first time I’ve had this conversation, but it’s the first time I’ve had it with the law. “I don’t know fella. What’s it make me?”
“Some would say a phony, a fake, a con man, or just mad as a hatter.”
“That’s funny I was almost certain you were about to ask for my help, but now I’m not so sure.” He’s blocking the way to the door, and his hands, though held casually before him as if still considering the book, look an awful lot like a fighting stance. But, I don’t get a sense of violence, more like polite interest.
“It doesn’t bother you to be called a liar?”
That makes him smile. He turns the book over and opens it to the publishers page. “Hazzard Press, New York, New York. I spoke with a Ms. Taroh this morning, by phone, at the Hazzard Press office. She informed me that you are the son of a Mrs. Semira Ase Senay, who was the originator of the franchise.” He closes the book with a snap. “Why are you trying to be the character your mother invented?”
“On account of her being dead, and me being not. Why are you trying to be Sigmund Freud?”
“The character in this book is a hero, not a mercenary.”
“Stop. You don’t have to worry about my character because I don’t work for flags. Flags make a thousand times more trouble than I’ve got any interest in, and once one has been planted in you, it’s a bloody business getting it back out again.”
“You say that as though it’s based on personal experience.” He raises his eyes from the book cover. “From the age of fifteen you were enrolled at St. Mary’s Preparatory School for Young Boys, an excellent student but expelled for fighting. You attended City College of New York City from 1930 to 1933, again expelled for fighting. That leaves only the last two years for professional employment, in which I doubt any government agencies have offered to hire you. That is, until now.”
“Damn fella you’ve really got the goods. Learn all that from my publisher?” His face is a wall, so I keep talking over a very dry tongue. “Would it sit better if I said, ‘Marcus Summanus’ doesn’t work for governments? It’s a rule my mother made and followed. Yes she did create the name and character. Who am I to argue?”
“If you’re trying to honor your mother’s work, shouldn’t you consider finding ways to help others, like her character does?”
He nods. “It isn’t so different. More meetings and fewer ancient ruins for me, of course, but the outline is the same. I travel, observe, dig up secrets, sort out the naughty from the nice, and engage my powers in pursuit of the greater good.”
“I can see why your kid liked the book. He must have been your biggest fan.”
His smile trembles. “Thank you.” In the other room, Nash sighs like a dying horse. A car passes on the street outside, and a dove coos in the eve outside the window. Finally the spy says: “Very well. I won’t detain you, but please don’t go far. If I have more questions, I’ll find you.” He steps out of the way.
“But you won’t stop me?”
“I work for the good guys, Mr. Simmons,” he shrugs. “Give me reason to believe you aren’t one of them, and yes, I’ll stop you.”