The front door was as red as a brothel lampshade. A power tie for a suit of stone and brick. Rex Packard walked up the curving flagstone path to the house on the large corner lot and noticed something scurry on the lawn towards the well-trimmed shrubbery which girdled the house like a sound-proof barrier. How a salamander came to be on the lawn of a mansion on a quiet street in Upper Westmount was beyond him. Nature wasn't one of his things. Above the door, a stained glass entablature of green leaves and red flower petals supported the numbers 31, the address Vernon Smythe had given him. He hesitated before the choice of the bronze lion's head doorknocker on the mullion which beckoned to him like a windup key for a music box, and the simple self-effacing plastic doorbell button on the fluted door jamb to his left. Push or pull. He rapped three times. Loudly. The door was as solid as the knocker and the sound waves reverberated inwards as if into a vast cathedral. Three knocks were sufficient he thought. One knock could be interpreted as a mistake, two knocks, reluctance, four knocks or more, impatience. Three was just right. Firm. In control. Three knocks. He listened, his left ear—his good ear—turned to the lion's head as if waiting for a whisper of acknowledgement. A brief buzzing sound followed by a click was his reward. He looked up and made a salute for a possible hidden camera and then made his way in. A broad, long entrance hallway lay before him, empty but for a framed painting with its feet in the dust. A wide spiral staircase rose from the far end of the hallway, while two large Gothic arched double doors stood guard on either side of him a few feet away. He looked down to see he was standing on a finely woven WELCOME mat which had been turned over, the lettering visible through the back of the weave as EMOCLEW to his eyes. Footsteps echoed down the staircase, slow, easy steps, leather soles, heels as hard as hockey pucks. First the shoes, black patent leather, then the pant legs began to appear. Rex stood firm with his feet over the letters M and O while he watched Vernon Smythe make his way down the stairs and towards him from the far end of the hallway. The old oak floorboards provided the dry conversation as Vernon approached, his right hand adjusting his watch strap as if signalling Rex was late. He stopped beside the painting looking down at it while pursing his lips.
“Do you like Georgio de Chirico?”
Rex thought it sounded like a drink. Would you like a glass of Georgio de Chirico? Ice cubes? One or two? He approached Vernon and looked down at the painting which stood about four feet tall by two feet wide. A white tower, the base surrounded by columns on two tiers, an orange roof with flags aloft, an orange foreground with two figures and their shadows. Simple. Childlike. Rex didn't respond knowing Vernon's tendency to ignore answers.
“It's unfortunate it's a copy. Well done but . . . a fake nonetheless.” He turned to Rex and put an arm around his shoulders giving him a brief squeeze as if he were a Father welcoming a son home. “Come along Rex, all shall be revealed.”
He followed Vernon down the hallway to the staircase.
“Do you hear anything Rex?”
Cocking his good ear to the spiral above him Rex shook his head. “Nope, just you.”
“They say the house is haunted. Voices in the stairwell. Silver shadows at night. They can't sell it for love or money.” Vernon imitated Rex with his ear to the spiral. “Such a load of rubbish. Come along, follow me.”
Up the stairs they climbed passing an empty round-arched niche. “They say the niche held a fine porcelain funerary urn for many years. Imagine passing that every time you went to bed. 'Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass,' he said, the stresses of his footsteps in time with his voice, a voice having shifted to one of oracular intonement. Rex had known Vernon long enough to sense he was quoting lines from literature, lines learnt by heart as an avid student, the qualified memory of an Oxonian. What led him from Oxford to intelligence work in Canada he'd never discovered.
Reaching an expansive landing with many closed doors, they continued up a further flight, a further niche. Rex envisioned a voluptuous marble female nude in its place rather than another funerary urn in need of dusting.
“Do you wander the house at night?” Rex asked, looking at Vernon's right hand slide up the banister before him, a few liver spots and wrinkles, rites of passage written on the skin, its signet ring on his little finger, connections beyond concealment.
“Hmm, yes, I've been known to wander at night. 'Close the door, the shutter close, Or thro' the windows we shall see, The nakedness and vacancy, Of the dark deserted house.' Vernon scattered quotations like seeds upon a wasteland, his voice echoing in the stairwell before sinking into the twisting aperture beside them. “There is a sense of liberation in an empty house Rex, especially if the walls are all eggshell in colour, clears the mind of unborn thoughts. You can breathe deeply. Freedom from reference, from the signified and signifier.” They were approaching the final stairs, a bounty of light spreading out towards them. “And yet, it's also egotistical, reducing and merging all to one, one to all.”
“I didn't know you were a philosopher?” Rex said.
“Secundo piano nobile,” he said, stamping his shoes on the oak floorboards. The third floor was an open space with six foot windows hooded in rounded alcoves, quiet sentinels of light. An antique desk, compact, leggy, with leather inlay, was positioned near one of the windows; a lamp, a tea cup and saucer, books, and an open laptop computer were positioned upon it like a still life. In a corner, an upholstered high back chair of indeterminate age and an upright lamp completed the decor. “Avail yourself of that chair and join me over here,” Vernon directed. “At my age Rex, if one hasn't become philosophical, then one's likely philosophically . . . dead.”
Rex looked at the lamp and chair and thought of Bert and Ernie, tall and thin, short and stout. He managed to manhandle the chair over, and as he passed one of the windows, he watched a pigeon on the window ledge walk back and forth as if impatiently waiting for an appointment. Vernon settled himself in his elegant leather chair before the desk with a sigh. “Sometimes Rex, I think we're all in the dark, all in the dark.”
“So, what's it all about Vernon?”
“How long have we known each other Rex?”
Rex looked at Vernon noticing the loosening of the skin around the jowl and neck. “I met you when I was nineteen.”
“Twenty years, yes. Fleet of foot the hours have passed. Well, Rex, we have a rogue on our hands.”
“Did someone jump ship with a whistle around his neck?”
“Do you know what a whistle blower is Rex? . . Someone tooting their own horn. They see the sharp wedge of light from a crack in the door and are seduced. They have Jason Bourne in their minds, travelling the world looking over their shoulder, visions of romantic romps, renown, money, their name in the media, picture in all the papers, in the history books. Then there's the other whistle blower, the one with a grievance, their career crumbling, nothing to lose.” Vernon crossed his legs and looked at Rex like a sheep dog staring down a lone wolf. “The relationship between a whistle blower and Joe Public is symbiotic. Good old JP knows deep down their freedoms and benefits are resting on certain foundational necessities. Whistle blowers pull the curtain away and good old JP starts pointing their finger of self-guilt at the Father in charge. No, not a whistle blower telling the public what they already know deep down. It's someone with a . . . with an audacious reticence.”
Rex raised his eyebrows. “Audacious reticence?”
“Have you ever heard of someone called Evan Dashmore?” Vernon asked, pressing a key on the laptop computer.
Rex thought in earnest, but had never come across such a name. He shook his head.
“That's what I always liked about you Rex. Information about staff and their personal lives never interested you. Too much liability involved. Anyway, Dashmore was a field man, used the name of Harris occasionally. No recollection?”
“No, our paths never crossed. I remember hearing about a certain Harris though. Reputation of being a bit of a Casanova.”
Vernon, with his reading glasses on the end of his nose, was typing, two index fingers pecking away like starlings in the lawn. “He's just a few years older than you. Currently he's in . . . Prague.”
“Ah, that's what you meant by nostalgic.”
“Yes, 1994, a successful operation. Promotion for the both of us I seem to remember. Since you know Prague, I thought you'd do nicely.”
“Well, what did he do?” Rex looked around him, “Steal the furniture?”
Vernon ignored the sarcasm, reached within his finely tailored pinstripe suit jacket and withdrew a long envelope. “The flight leaves tonight. Gives you the afternoon to arrange yourself. I do hope you have your passport?” Rex didn't move so Vernon laid it upon the desktop. He opened a drawer and withdrew a thick envelope. “Cash. Hotel is all arranged.”
“Why aren't you availing yourself of internal leather gloves? Why an outsider like me?”
Vernon looked over his glasses at him. “It's a case that has . . let us say . . . considerable outside interests.”
“What do you need from me then?”
“Evan Dashmore has damaging information and photographs on a USB flash drive. We need it. Simple, clean document retrieval operation. One man job Rex. In and out.”
“Sounds like a dangerous job. Perhaps he knows of me. Knows my face.”
“Highly unlikely Rex. He spent most of his career abroad.”
“What steps have been take against the man so far.”
“We've used the three step CA system. We began with THAW, then moved on to SIFT, and applied RAMP at the same time. He was breaking.”
Rex was sick of the three step program. The Russians praised him for teaching them these methods, but he sensed they would never adopt such time consuming techniques. Their methods were more abrupt. Rex felt he'd changed, his morals and ethics had begun to be exposed due to the erosion of his indifference. Such psychological character assassination techniques were now more unsettling to him. The slander, the fabrication, the isolating, thwarting traducements. He'd heard of the abuse of them by organisations outside of intelligence.
“Is Evan Dashmore a threat?”
“No, not at all. No worry. He thinks he's Scot-free. You'll figure out a way without physical contact I'm sure. I've included Dashmore's info and photographs in the envelope with the airline tickets.”
“I don't know Vernon, this doesn't have a good feel to it.”
Vernon held the thick envelope open so Rex could see the thickness of hundred dollar bills like rings on a freshly cut tree trunk. “Think of your kid's tuition Rex.”
“I don't have kids.”
“I would never have hired you if you did.”
Rex made his way out of the empty house, each door tempting him with its apparent emptiness, but he contained his curiosity. He could consult a reference book at the library to find the address and discover whose house it was. As he approached his SUV parked on the street, he turned around and looked up to the third floor of the Renaissance Revival home and saw Vernon standing before one of the windows like a representation of a 20st century man captured behind glass at a wax museum. He waved but Vernon wasn't looking at him, his sight was further off, over the trees towards the city below and the horizon to the south. The big picture.
The sharp-edged cornice of the Palazzo-inspired architecture cut the blue sky like a prow of a ship. Rex climbed the old stone stairs of the library and quietly entered the foyer and made his way across the pink marble floor towards the reference desk. The librarian, a young woman with brown hair and dark glasses, was on the phone. She nodded to Rex and raised the one minute finger, a common gesture in librarianship. “That's right ” she said looking down at a large book open before her, “the equivalent I Ching hexagram for the Zodiac sign of Scorpio, is one long line upon two stacks of five short lines. . . . Yes, that's right. . . Not at all. Anytime Mrs. Whipple. Glad to hear you're feeling better. Goodbye.” She hung up the phone. “Can I help you,” she asked Rex, closing the book on her desk as if embarrassed by its contents.
“Yes, I hope so. I think you have something called Criss-Cross, a book listing addresses to names.”
The young woman looked from Rex towards the corner of the reading room, resting her gaze upon a little man hunched over a table, his books and papers surrounding him like a protective fort.
“The book's presently in use I'm afraid.”
Rex followed her gaze to the man in the corner of the reading room, and as they gazed together at the scene of a mind gone astray, the little man looked up from his books and papers like a prairie dog scenting the approach of humans.
“I'm sorry, I don't have much time. I'm off to Europe tonight. It will only take a moment to look up one address.”
She smiled up at him. Europe. Escape. Freedom. “I'm sure we can convince Mr. Musil to lend us the book for a moment.”
She wore a patterned dress which reminded Rex of honeycombs. She was not tall, coming only to Rex's shoulder, and as he followed her through the maze of chairs and tables, he felt like a Knight accompanying a Queen to meet a mad archivist.
“I'm sorry Mr. Musil, this patron needs to consult the Criss-Cross for one address only. We won't take it from you.”
“But, but the connections can't be broken you see. It's all connected. We are immersed in truth like a vast ocean. All the names. All the addresses. All the phone numbers, yes, all connected.”
The librarian nodded wearily, her shoulders sagging with the weight of such dusty thoughts. “It will only be a moment, we'll use the book over there on the corner of the desk, and bring it back to you here. It won't leave your table.”
Rex had wandered off to the periodicals not wanting to upset the man by hovering nearby like a menace. He noticed an advertisement for a music venue featuring The Sylphs, Ariel and the Psychic Overtones, The Paranoids and Zizek and the Detectives. Damn, he thought. Some good old retro rock for the weekend and he'd be in Prague skulking around corners.
“Excuse me sir,” the librarian said, coming up to him. “The window of opportunity is open.” She pointed to the large thin papered tomb on the corner of the table. The little man was standing up holding his hands before him imploringly, anxiety at the corner of his eyes.
“Thank you so much, Miss . .”
“Mary, not at all. Glad to help.”
Rex nodded to the man as he approached. “Thank you very much. I'll just be a sec.” He bent down to search for the address, the sound of thin pages being turned was like the sound of waves breaking upon a shore. The little man was pacing back and forth nervously as if worried Rex might abscond with the volume. Rex put his finger on the address and ran it across to the name . . .V. Smythe. A number in parentheses beside the name indicated how many years at that address: (30).
* * *
Pavor Loveridge let the papers slip from his hand as he closed his eyes and rested his head deeply upon the pillow. Thirty years. He was seventeen thirty years ago, the age when he first met Victoria at a party held at the Baie d'Urfé Yacht club. Victoria Ondine. From Pointe-Claire. Victoria would be his age if she had lived. He reached over to the lamp and turned it off. He conjured images in the dark of the next stage of Rex's adventure. Feet on the ground, running, fragments of scenes, buildings, the river, the bridge, rooftops. Pavor's chest rose and fell with the sweet ease of sleep.
© ralph patrick mackay