Choice

I don’t like leaving Jenny, but she’s in deep with the government guys and they gave me a queasy feeling.

The rain has become hail the size of split peas.  It’s August, dammit.

My suitcase makes a heavy hat to keep the pelting ice off my head, but my legs are cold and soaked from the knee down.

Even if I could make a pitch to Jenny right past Mitt’s nose, what would it be? “Sorry about your sister. The bad guy said she was headed for Siam and I didn’t tell the police because your handler’s fists remind me too much of my dad, and no good will come of him. You should definitely trust me not him, though. I’m completely trustworthy. I promise.”

Never mind that it’s all true, it doesn’t make a compelling case.

The scent of deli meat catches my nose from a grocery by the EL stop and I pause with one foot dangling mid-step. Holy hot hell, but am I hungry. The knot in my gut twists tighter and identifies itself. “I require food,” says my stomach in an acid voice. “You have only given me mayonnaise in the last 48 hours.”

The cramped grocery crowds with empty bins, only a few spotted fruits or produce, and a glass counter neck high which stretches from the big window down to musty, box-filled depths.

A grocer named Bill grumbles about making change for a five, but provides me with a sandwich.

“No mayonnaise,” I tell him, and he complies.

I sit on my suitcase and feed the beast. The first sandwich vanishes. The second has flavors – ham, tomatoes, onions, everything. Knots begin untying under my ribs and something very important pushes its way up my arms and legs. This body is alive, bursting with a blood beat I can hear in my ears.

Bill opens a bottle of Coca-Cola and sets it on the floor by my feet. I order a third sandwich. A manic grin twists my face. I forgot about my car. If they found Nash then the Wandering T is probably in police impound by now. Hell with it. The police can sell it for scrap. The last strip of lettuce from the third sandwich crunches between my teeth.

Sylvia. Bangkok. I’ve been to Bangkok. That was the last place I saw either of my parents. Come to think of it, the word they were using for the drug, Leụ̄xd, might have been a butchery of the Siamese word for ‘blood,’ as in bodily fluid but also ‘pedigree’ or ‘heritage.’ So, that’s something I know. Apparently, Sylvia gave me a dose of a drug called Blood. File that in the ‘uncomfortable’ folder.

Nodding goodbye to Bill, I assail the rain. My steps are measured, steady. Unlike Nash, this body is whole and hale. I have legs and a stomach full of food. The third sandwich was a mistake. It hurts, but I have no regrets.

Mitts. That bastard promised me answers but didn’t deliver a dime. I’ve got more questions than before; he’s a spy who’s afraid to take a suspect to the hospital, or to a precinct, so afraid he won’t let his doctor out for a pack of cigarettes. He was using Jenny, probably to get close to Sylvia. It’s a cold move. Spy stuff. State Department. So what’s Sylvia into that has guys with dart guns kicking down my door? Darts! The dart still waits in my pocket. The drug in the payload might tell me something if I were a chemist with a laboratory, but I can guess it’s probably a muscle relaxant designed to make me pliable for capture. I throw it away.

I can’t go home. The guys who came knocking will knock again and I need to know why.

For the first time I can remember, I feel like my own person. There’s someone out there who needs help. Sylvia didn’t have to give me the dose that brought me back, and if things had gone alright then Jenny would have heard from her. Suspicion eats at me that the dose she gave me somehow got her in trouble. I don’t know why, but I feel responsible. The thing is, ‘responsible’ is the best feeling I’ve had in years.

Sylvia. Bangkok. Bitter Flower. Fight. They’ll find you.

I’m going. Of course I am. It’s what I do.

But how?

The EL platform has a metal roof which holds back the hail. I pause for a moment, waiting for a train. It hardly matters which.

I could take a passenger airplane. There would be a lot of stops. The ticket would cost more money than I’ve ever seen. When I used to bounce around the world with my parents, we spent a lot of time on boats. I was too young to worry about where the money came from, but there was always somebody who wanted their help enough to pay for it.

A train rattles into the station, screeching and moaning in the way I’ve come to love hearing from below.

Mitts would have money. If I sign his enlistment papers and take the flag stamp he might get me there. Or then again, he might ask his questions then dump me in an asylum. He seems the type.

“Hold your horses.” The voice is Jenny’s.

She’s leaning against a roof-pole, and she’s changed out of her ragpicker outfit, but the makeup left a haze on her face. Now she’s wearing an ankle-length blue coat and cap.

“St. Mary’s Preparatory School for Boys?” she asks, quirking an eyebrow like smoke over green fire. “I thought you said you had shot and been shot?”

“Yeah, right,” I say. “Where they prepared me into the icon of temperance and Christian virtue that you see before you. But your fella got it backwards when he figured my life started when they sent me to that school. That’s when it ended.”

“Not when you were shot?”

“Well then too. What can I do for you?”

She lingers a moment, studying my face. Then she stands away from the pole and takes a couple of steps my way. “Sorry about your apartment,” she says. She’s got an envelope in one hand. She taps it once against her palm, then offers it to me.

“What’s this?” I ask, taking it.

Her head tilts. “It’s going to take David a couple of days to figure out where you’re going,” she says. “But I figure I hear better than he does.”

“Yeah, but what’s this?” I ask.

Her eyes twinkle. “What I owe you. And some more. Contact info for a family friend, and a note from me. The friend will get you a mail seat on a flyer headed for Hong-Kong. You’ll have to sort out how to get on from there, but I recon you’ll manage.”

“You heard what Nash said to me? My my what nice ears you’ve got.”

“The better to spy with.” Her smile fades.

The train whistles. A few locals get on, a few get off. Nobody pays us much heed. Neither of us knows what to say. She’s a funny mix of wiles and nerves, this one. Half the time it seems like she’s on the rhythm to a fight she knows well, the rest like she’s a lamb in a city of wolves.

I wave the envelope at her. “Why this? Worried David’s not got all his cards on the table?”

“Sure I’m plenty worried about that,” she quirks an eyebrow in a look that might be amusement. “Because I know it’s true. You’re crazy, but I don’t think you’re playing sly, and I know you need the money. Besides, you’ve been to Siam before right?”

“Learn that from my publisher too?” I frown.

“Don’t be too mad at her, it’s not every day you get a phone call from J. Edgar Hoover.” She flaps a hand. “You really speak sixteen languages?”

“No,” I say. “Ms. Taroh wrote that because it looked fancy. I can manage four of the colonials, English, Italian, Portuguese, and French, plus a thin scattering of whatever it was wherever we were. Or at least I could, back when I was there.”

“Like Siamese?” she asks, evidentially impressed.

You’ve got to be an American to think four languages is impressive. Some of our guides were fluent in dozens, my father could do almost twenty in some fashion or other and my mother never met a dialect she couldn’t sort.

“Yeah,” I say. “Like Siamese, which they call Thai by the way. ‘Siamese’ is a nonsense word made up in America. You’re worried David will sell you up the river once you get to Bangkok if it means he gets a swing at Sylvia’s employers.”

She nods, her eyes narrowing.

“You’re thinking maybe it would be nice to have somebody around who’s not on his payroll, maybe somebody who owes you a favor.”

She nods again. “Just so, buster. I’m the bait, but once he’s got her on the hook all bets are off. I don’t think he cares if she lives, or if I do.”

I can’t stop myself looking around, suddenly feeling watched. We’re alone on the platform except for an old lady in a bonnet with a trunk by her feet a few benches down. A ghostly dog lays curled at her feet, watching her with adoring eyes. Its leash goes to her hand, which closes tight around nothing. I shake my head to clear my eyes but the image won’t go away. I don’t think the old lady’s a spy.

“I take it you don’t buy his ‘we’re the good guys’ act?’” I ask Jenny.

She drops her chin and chews a fingernail. “No, I do believe it. He says he’s the good guy because, well, he is. He’s a good guy. Maybe a great guy. But he’s got his eye on winning. If feeding me and Sylvia to the coyotes is what it takes to win, he’ll do it. He’ll lose sleep about it, but he already does that.”

After a few seconds I unclench my jaw.

“Ditch him,” I tell her.

“Not your call, brilliance,” she replies, and her eyes dance with laughter. “So you still want the job?”

To work the tension out of my fists I open the envelope. Inside are a couple of notes and a thick stack of greenbacks.

“There’s a little more than eight dollars in here,” I say, breathlessly. “How do you figure I care to go half-way around the globe? I could take this money and not go there. This is a lot of money.”

She studies me like a cat would a snake.

“We’ll just see,” she says. “Stay near Bangkok and leave your particulars at the embassy. Pay is four dollars a day, ten any day there’re bullets, and consider what’s in the envelope a hiring bonus. The same when Sylvia’s home safe. Don’t try to contact me. I don’t want David knowing about you if we can help it. I’ll pick the time and place. And get yourself a gun.”

“That’s a lot of confidence,” I say with a grin. “Are you ready to believe I am who I say?”

“Nah. But why’d you go back to the warehouse, Mark? You’d been shot. I saw the blood. Most people I know would consider that a deterrent.”

I blink. “I don’t know. It seemed like the thing to do. Does it matter?”

“Yeah,” she wrinkles her nose and gives me a wink, then turns her back and walks away. Her voice echoes from a rain-tapped tin roof: “I’ll see you in Siam.”

One Reply to “Choice”

  1. Laura Moos says:

    I’m liking Jenny better and better with each passing chapter. Still not sure we have the whole picture on her, but she’s got her wits about her, and I appreciate that.

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