There’s something in my right hand. I’d almost forgotten the projectile I swiped from the gutter. It’s a dart, oozing with some chemical payload. That explains why the gun was so quiet: low velocity, probably compressed-air powered.
The dumpster reeks of decaying fruit, a vinegar smell that makes my hungry gut churn. I poke through the trash for something to wrap the dart in. The bag I find has an oily stain that smells faintly of cologne. Cologne plus vinegar sums to the smell of heroine. I’m back in my New York office, feet up on a cheap desk, a syringe in my hand and sweet shivers through my body.
In the confused memory, Sylvia watches from the hall door. But Sylvia wasn’t there. She wasn’t.
“Weak,” she whispers.
“No, year,” I reply. “Two years, almost, since any needle touched my veins. What did you put in me?”
But the mirage doesn’t offer any answers, so I swallow the almost-memory with a shiver. The dart and its sharp end get wrapped in paper and pocketed. When I look up, Jenny is trotting down the street with my suitcase over her shoulder.
Northbound on the El, the train sways and clatters over iron tracks. We have a whole car to ourselves, smelling like cigarette smoke, workday sweat and vaguely of soap. Humidity whistles in at the door jam. Evening turns the city blue. We sit across from each other on benches, I with my legs crossed. She keeps re-arranging the bottom of her coat as though hoping to hide more leg. I wear my bare chest with pride but I keep an under-shirt from my bag pressed to my cut-up shoulder. The bleeding shows no sign of stopping but it isn’t bad. It’s going to take tweezers and time to get the glass out, but none of it went very deep. The smell reminds me to spend a nickel out of my fiver on a pack of cigarettes before we leave the station.
“I have this feeling there are things you neglected to tell me,” I say. “Important things.”
“You too,” she responds.
“What are you doing?” I ask, as she fidgets.
“What?” her eyes flash.
“This disguise. Your pistol. You shot Nash. Now you’re watching my house? What are you doing?”
“I told you. I-”
“Yeah you told me some stuff,” I cut her off. “But you didn’t tell me the truth.”
She tries to glare. Her head tilts back a degree and her jaw thrusts out. “I aint working alone, brilliance. I never was.” she says. “But I don’t appreciate being accused of withholding by a fella who invited himself to begin with.”
“Yeah alright,” I concede. “But tell me this, what was that priest up to?”
“On the street?”
“That’s the one. Cossack, rosary, bible. Possibly a sword of some kind.”
“A sword?” she asks, frowning. “He didn’t have a sword.”
“Sure. You talked to him right?”
“Yeah. He wouldn’t tell me anything. I don’t know what he was doing. I think he thought me a moll.”
“Can hardly blame him since we’re having such a ball.” I sit back and stare at the ceiling. “Too bad you couldn’t mollify him. I’d have loved to know what he was doing there.” Jenny’s eyes narrow dangerously. “So who is it you’re taking me to? A boyfriend?”
“Listen, let’s get one thing straight.” She points a finger at me. “I’m not slicking, scab boy. My sister’s life is jokers so I ain’t in this for dancing.”
“I’m so glad we got that straight,” I respond, bewildered.
She fixes me with a glittering scowl. “I wasn’t waiting for you. And just because I hired you doesn’t mean I think you’re sly. Pay is in dollars. Do you understand?”
“Your cash your rules,” I shrug, then squint as I think through what she’s just said. “Do you often hire people who think you mean to pay in kisses and pets?”
She returns my stare for a few seconds, then points hers out the window, slotting her chin into her palm like it was made to fit.
Fat raindrops tumble in reckless waves. They overwhelm my shirt in the first six seconds of our walk from the Van Buren station to a little cafeteria across the street. Behind us, Grant Park is an empty empire of falling water tossed by the ever-present breath of the lake.
A flickering yellow bulb hangs inside the diner’s door, in which light I search my bag for a tie. At a booth in the corner, we order coffee. The air greases my skin and the food smells like America.
“This is the place?” I ask.
“Just make like Chaplin in City Lights,” she replies.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It’s a movie. Charlie Chaplin shows a blind girl the city and-“
“Yeah. Your guy is meeting us here?”
She sighs. “Yeah he’s meeting us here. Sit on your mits.”
“In this metaphor which one of us is blind, and which is the clown?”
The door jingles open, letting in the rushing sound of falling rain. The man who enters has a knee length grey coat that would fall to my toes, and a black umbrella. His collar is turned up. His hair is thin across the top and he’s got two extra jowls, but his shoulders are wide and his hands large. He shakes his umbrella like a fencing rapier, scattering rain. Shimmering as if barely glimpsed through a foggy window, red boxing mitts cover both his fists. They’re not really there, but he moves as though he’s surprised by the gloves’ absence: carefully closing and folding his umbrella, strapping it shut with thumb and index finger, and then tapping it against the floor three times.
His eyes crawl across the empty diner, checking every nook before resting on me, like I’m a treat saved for last.
He sits down next to Jenny, blocking her into the booth, which groans, but she doesn’t. Her eyebrows wiggle as she points at me, and a glint in her eye seems to say: “look, I did it.”
“This is your guy, I guess.”
He judges me silently. Jenny fidgets with her coat sleeves.
“I’m Mark,” I offer, with my hand. “I take it you know Jenny.”
“Good to meet you.” His voice is deep, gently cultured and pleasant. “Do you need medical attention?” He reaches for my offered hand. The ghostly boxing glove brightens momentarily before he unclenches his fist. I expect to feel the leather of the glove under my fingers, but instead my hand is engulfed by soft, uncalloused flesh. His grip is easily strong enough to crush mine, but he doesn’t.
“Not immediately,” I reply. “Can you provide?”
“Yes,” he says, “but if it isn’t pressing, I would like to have a few words with Jenny.”
Jenny nods that she’s all right with this, so I shrug and get up. “Yeah, fine with me.”
“Don’t go far,” he says, with a polite smile.
Something about the smile makes me want to smear it off his face with a fist. His beetle eyes touch on my knuckles before I notice I’ve clenched them, and a long-suffering look passes in a twitch across his brow. I back away.
There’s a booth under the big windows, with a view of the park. I sip my coffee there while the two of them chat. I can’t make out what they say. As they grow absorbed in talk, the mitts fade from his fists.
The coffee smells like turpentine and tastes like engine oil. The walls have wood panels, and the waitress wears an ankle length woolen dress and inch-thick sweater. The light above the door keeps flickering. I pass the time picking the rest of the glass from my shoulder. It stings a little, but it’s really not so bad. Glass cuts bleed like crazy, but none of these are so wide as a church door, nor so deep as a well. A gauze pad and an antiseptic and I’ll be fine.
Heels click on asbestos floor tiles as the two of them cross to my table.
“I appreciate your patience,” Mitts says, drawing a small pad of paper and a pencil from his breast pocket as he sits.
“Sure,” I reply. “Shame I didn’t bring any cards.”
“To play patience. What do you want?”
“Here in America we call that game Solitaire.” A smile flickers on his ruddy face like the broken light behind him. “I understand you’re probably bursting with questions. First, let me assure you, you’re talking to the right man.”
From behind the pad of paper he produces the leather fold of a document wallet, and shows me the contents. It’s a paper with lots of little words. Among the words are: David Laurence, State Investigation, Department of State. Next to his picture the federal seal of the United States of America spreads its eagle wings.
“Alright Mr. Laurence,” I say, taking it from him to look closely. “You have my attention.”
“Why don’t you start from the beginning?” he asks, pen poised over the paper.
“Not without my lawyer here,” I reply, trying to keep the ass out of my smile.
“Mark-“ says Jenny.
“You didn’t tell me you were working for the government, Jenny. Jesus, what have you gotten me involved in?”
“I didn’t get you involved,” she replies, a tad snidely. “You did. Answer his questions.”
“I want immunity,” I try, frowning. “I’ll tell you what happened but-”
The big man cuts me off: “Mr. Simmons. I am not a detective for the Chicago police. My department does not prosecute crimes, or offer immunity from them. We hunt spies, and tend to other matters of grave national interest. If your knowledge is valuable, I will happily overlook reporting any minor infractions you may have incurred. However, make no mistake, if you do not cooperate with me, it will not be the State Department that kills you. It will be our inattention. We have no need to threaten you. We have only to look away, and those who already do, will have you.”
I take a deep breath.
Never met a state investigator. Not sure what they do, but something formidable crouches in this man’s calm eyes and big hands. His gentle voice is a lie; he’s no gentleman.
“Do you know where Sylvia went?” Jenny asks, flatly.
“No,” I tell her. “I didn’t see.”
“But you did see her? Did she tell you anything?” Jenny persists, leaning toward me and clutching at the table-top.
“I saw her. She didn’t tell me anything.”
Breath goes quickly into her, and as quickly out. She turns to the big fella next to her.
“This bean doesn’t know anything,” she says. “I told you! He’s a mook. You made me sit with him all the damn night and I’m telling you he doesn’t know anything.”
“Peace, Ms. Brent,” growls the tall one. “I would like to hear his side of the story.”
“It isn’t long,” I say, and tell the story, omitting only my participation in the gun fight. In my edited version, the big German Hilda turns his gun on me without provocation.
“Talking pretty well for somebody with two holes in him.” Jenny stares hard enough to reopen my wounds.
“What happened next?” asks the investigator.
My words won’t line up, no matter how I shove and cajole them. After a few seconds, all I can say is: “I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Sylvia put something blue into me. Blue or maybe white. And moving.”
“Blue?” asks Mitts.
“And moving. It moved.”
“White. Empty. I think I died.”
“Sure,” says Jenny, “You look dead.”
The rat eyes and pencil both freeze. Mitts leans forward: “Can you remember any detail, anything at all before you blacked out? Was Sylvia carrying a suitcase?”
“No, no case.”
“Case?” Jenny raises her eyebrows at Mitts while he writes down my words.
He asks a few more questions to which I don’t know the answers, then Jenny says: “What happened to my gun?”
“It was in my hand when I- It was in my hand. Sylvia might have taken it, or one of the goons who scraped me off the road.”
Jenny’s lips make a long, unhappy line.
“Sylvia knew it was yours,” I offer, remembering the custom carving.
“It’s time we go somewhere else,” David interjects, standing. “Mr. Simmons, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“I do mind,” I reply. “What happened to Sylvia?”
“I can’t say. The barge you spoke of was stopped by the harbor patrol. None of Agafya, Hilda or Sylvia were onboard.”
“She would have found me by now if she could have,” says Jenny, “She’s gone again.”
For a moment her face is egg-shell thin.
“I am sorry, Ms. Brent,” says the jolly grim giant. “You did your best. I intend to pursue her further, but it will only become more dangerous. If you wish to retire-”
“Like hell,” she almost spits, and there’s a gas fire in her eyes that burns bright enough to shine through the skin of her face. “If she went back it’s because they dragged her. The goon knows where they went, maybe-”
“There is some paperwork,” Mitts cuts her off with a staggeringly soulless expression on his flat face, “that I need Mr. Simmons to fill out. If you would both come with me?”
“Yeah,” she sighs, and stands up next to him. “Sure.”
“I don’t get it.” My accusative tone pauses Mitts as he reaches for his umbrella. “State Department? ‘Spies and matters of grave national interest’ you said. But a drug smuggling ring should just be a police matter. What’ve they done to get you involved?”
He folds the umbrella into his armpit and his boxing gloves take such a solid shape they almost glow, but his eyes fix on the floor with the far-away look of someone about to carefully not answer my question: “It’s funny, but not humorous, that we call police ‘guardians of the peace’ but the ultimate breach of the peace, war, is not a crime. Real peace keeping is not a police matter at all. It’s a game in which everyone wins, or everyone loses, yet the difference is often made by choosing carefully what to care about. Today, the calculus of power cares about you.”
“You mean to tell me the men who kicked down my door were foreign spies?”
He doesn’t nod, and doesn’t say yes.
I gesture my surrender. “Everybody seems to think I got my hands on the drug Sylvia stole. I didn’t.”
He blinks. Jenny crosses her arms and says: “Oh?”
A sinking sensation accompanies the memory of the needle Sylvia put in my neck. I look down at my hands, still wrapped about with spectral regrets.