Rex Under Glass – Part Seven
Sitting on the black leather banquette framed in bronze upholstery tacks, Evan Dashmore, his legs urbanely crossed, looked up from the dark marble table with its fingers of phantom white, one swirling galaxy of many, and rested his eyes on the high row of windows facing the street, the glass reflecting the interior of the Café with its cascading chandeliers, white walls accented with gold, milk chocolate coloured wooden panels, vertical light sconces, mirrors, tables, customers, and themselves, shapes of abstract darkness within the glow of the golden warmth. He let his eyes dis-focus to capture the widest angles and he began to feel as if he was part of some fantastic confectionery in the imagination of Alphonse Mucha. An unusually early snow had begun to fall, large flakes slowly descending to the sound of Cars and Girls by Prefab Sprout issuing quietly from the hidden speakers around them. There was a transparency to the evening, as if the snow was falling within. He remained silent, feeling that any words would fail. Beside him, Rex was in the final stages of diminishing his slice of chocolate cheese cake, a methodical process, having worked his way from the point of the isosceles triangle slice towards the crust-less edge as if preoccupied with some Pythagorean conundrum. He felt he was with a younger, less sophisticated brother. In a way, he was, but one whom he could imagine excusing himself to go to he men's room where he would find a package left by an accomplice, a revolver, or a syringe with a deadly substance.
“I forgot to ask how your hotel room was,” Evan managed.
“Fine,” Rex replied, tapping his foot, wiping his lips with the soft napkin. “Very nice.”
“I tend to rate hotels by their soaps. There are the cheap dives that provide one piece of soap the size and shape of a tea biscuit, and just as absorbent. The first suds-less sweep up the arm and it breaks in two. Zero star. Hotels with a spa treatment equivalent would be the five stars.”
“Yeah, I've been to some of those too, the zero stars. Depressing as hell. Driving back from Las Vegas once, I remember a place that had a diner attached with a menu offering items like, Big Foot Club Sandwich, and Fettuccine Sasquatch.” He turned sideways to look at Evan. “You don't want to know.”
“I guess Alfredo met his match.” Evan smiled and then sipped his coffee and looked at the pretty waitress pass by. “I imagine many of those small motels have vanished, the big chains having filled their place with generic and consistent drabness. Quirkiness and eccentricity outmoded with safety and sameness.” He smiled at the waitress as she retraced her steps, her hands laden with spent offerings. “Though I bet you could still come across a few on forgotten roads, at the edges of forgotten towns, on the fringes of forgotten dreams: Avalon Inn . . . Shambhala Motel . . . Seventh Heaven Cottages. Might make a good road trip. And a book too. In Search of Lost Motels, or Remembrance of Motels Past by . . . Sybille Roust.”
Rex began to preoccupy himself with his smart phone oblivious to the references.
“Are you on that intravenous drip known as Twitter?” Evan asked looking over his shoulder at Rex.
Raising his chin briefly as if from the distraction of a fly, Rex shook his head. “No, though my girlfriend is. I'm just checking her messages. She's booked a Caribbean cruise, a special one devoted to dance party music. The best Dj's doing their thing. Looks like we'll soon be trancing and dancing to the edge of the horizon.”
How horrible Evan thought. He imagined himself as an albatross flying silently towards the cruise ship, the bright lights and reverberations echoing out across the water, the beat of the music in sync with the rhythm of the engines, human forms moving in unison, jumping, gyrating, multicoloured light sticks wavering in the air above them, the wake of the ship like a wound slowly healing. It seemed as alien as a space ship. He flew off thinking of the medieval ship of fools colliding with this literal ship of fools at the horizon's edge, an image which brought back to him his childhood pastime of making small wooden boats with his friend Fergus, boats they would construct at his friend's basement work table, all coping saws and cotter pins, balsa woods and heavy twines, bench vices and miter boxes, pin size nails and glutunous glues, hand drills and ball-peen hammers, button headed slot screws and flat headed Philips screws, (the ones that made them think of cartoon eyes punched out by Popeye the sailor man) and the sublime odours and feel of sawdust. They used to secretly scale the stairs to the second floor bathroom, careful not to disturb Fergus's father in his cork-lined study where mysterious academic studies were being pursued, and fill the tub halfway and float their sail boats on their pretend ocean, colliding them with their own God-like swells, where the circumference of the bath had been their porcelain horizon, one that shrank as the water ever so imperceptibly diminished, the rubber stopper relenting to the pressure.
“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned,” Evan quoted absentmindedly, almost to himself.
Rex pocketed his smart phone and looked at Evan wondering what he was talking about. “It'll be fun. Meet new people, make new connections. Drink, dance, eat, forget the world. No shuffleboard and badminton like in your day.”
Evan laughed. “Yes, I was lucky they ran out of tickets for the Titanic.” He finished his coffee imagining himself seated in the grand saloon of the unsinkable vessel, ready to have a final cigarette outside with John J. Astor.
“I'm just going to find the men's room,” Rex said.
Evan nodded. One for the lifeboats he thought as he watched Rex walk away. Badminton? On the Titanic? Possible, but unlikely. Badminton. Battledore and Shuttlecock of yore. Was it Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? He always confused them somehow. Yes, he remembered now, it was Hunt, he'd been imprisoned for libel and one of his many visitors had been Jeremy Bentham who'd found him playing battledore and shuttlecock. He visualized the poet and the philosopher batting the birdie back and forth between interrogative and declarative sentences, the intuitive imaginative poet and essayist, and the empirical philosopher. Hunt used to walk around his prison confines with his young son in hand, pretending they were in the countryside or on the busy streets of London. Excursions in imagination. Like coming across a lighthouse in the desert. There was another case like that he thought. In Kierkegaard's works. His pseudonymous author, Johannes Climacus, had a father unwilling to accompany his son out of doors, but would take his hand and lead him around the room, describing the wonders to be found, market stalls, conversations with passers by, sounds, smells, sights. Divine imagination. The centrifugal imaginings of an introvert. So different from the empirical, centripetal demands of the extrovert. He thought of Napoleon in the latter position, the arranger of geography, the mapmaker of homelands. Evan looked up to the plaster details on the ceiling thinking how ironic it was that Napoleon had died in his bed like a scoundrel, poisoned by the wallpaper at the age of forty-five, while Kierkegaard had passed away peacefully at forty-two, in the hospital, joking about acquiring wings and, like an angel, singing from the clouds.
“Nice bathrooms,” Rex said as he slid back in his seat.
Evan thought he should finally discuss Vernon Smythe and his modest proposal. “Don't you find it unusual that Vernon would send you all this way just to retrieve a thumb drive, this dongle hanging from my waistcoat?”
Rex looked surprised. “I tried not to think about the job itself. Money talked. I listened.”
“Yes, but now you know the details concerning my past dealings with Vernon, and the tragedy of the young man who had an affair with his wife and paid the price.”
“What's your point?”
“It's likely Vernon is taking out two birds with one stone. If something were to happen to one of us here in Prague, the other would be seen as responsible. Two birds, one stone.”
“You're suggesting this is a setup?”
“He could have hired a third man to take you out at the hotel. Evidence would link you with me, and presto, Evan Dashmore, alias Harris, suspected of murder. Vice versa as well.”
Rex's complexion seemed to acquire a yellowish pallor. “What do you suggest?”
“Well, I'm sure my wife wouldn't mind a house guest for one night. We could set you up in the spare room. You're not allergic to cats I hope.”
“Yes, she's a professor of economics at the university. I'm also an occasional lecturer there with a course on philosophy and history. There can be life after Vernon. Have hope. Although, be warned, it's a world just as rife with injustice. The wrong people hire the wrong people, the best are overlooked, office politics pepper the private and public sectors and everyone sneezes. Hard work and loyalty doesn't always pay off. The academic world seems especially riven with such dysfunction. Anyway, I suggest you rearrange your flight home. Fly to Amsterdam, spend a few days, and then catch a flight to Toronto.”
“But I left my car at the airport in Montreal.”
“Ah, that's a complication. Hmm. Well, fly to Montreal then, but give your car the once over. Tomorrow we'll mail this thumb drive to Vernon with a note in your hand. If he looks at the files on the drive, it will activate code to monitor his computer from here. Worth a try.”
“How can I trust you? Maybe your wife's the third man.”
Evan's laughter aroused glances of reproach from a few of the other customers. “Well, she certainly has the mind of three men. Relax. I've moved on as I've told you. Intrigue and secrets are like a cancer. They'll destroy your life. You're still young. Make a new start.”
As Rex played with the unusually shaped sugar packet, shifting it round and round between finger and thumb like worry beads, Evan was thinking of scenes from Carol Reed's film The Third Man. He closed his eyes and rested his head and watched the black and white images flit by. The chase scenes in the sewers from the end of the movie always came first, flashing lights, distorted shadows, echoes of the pursuit, the feet running on wet brick, the shouting voices resounding off the claustrophobic convexity of their surroundings. Then the increasing series of Dutch angle shots and large shadows cast like an Egyptian shadow play of the dead. Grandiose apartment interiors, grand spiral staircases, characters with poker faces, crumbling exteriors, and poor, innocent hayseed author, Holly Martins gradually loosing his energy and vigour, rendered off kilter, out of place, alienated and ultimately disillusioned with the revelations of the miserable nature of man. Still images passed through his mind: the cat, as innocent and naive as Martins, discovering Harry Lime, its owner, in the shadows; Dr. Winkel (Vinkel!) in his apartment; Baron Kurtz with a dog so small, the rats in the sewers beneath their feet would make of it a meal; Calloway and Paine and their stiff upper lips; Crabbin, his propaganda front and his alluring and mysterious assistant; Lime on the Ferris wheel, all dots and cuckoo clocks, and the beautiful Anna Schmidt in the final long shot, walking towards, and past Martins, leaves falling from ruined trees, the zither playing her out.
“What about my things at the hotel?”
Aroused from his interior film, Evan pursed his lips and then asked him what he'd left there.
“Well, not much. An overnight bag really. Spare set of clothes, shoes, shaving kit.”
“I'll drive you over in the morning before checkout and cover your back.”
“Thanks,” Rex said. “So, you have cats?”
Evan had risen and was adjusting his scarf. “Annika and Zina. They're very friendly. Though they might scratch at your door at six in the morning.”
“Do you live far?”
“It's the Vinohrady neighbourhood south east of here. Don't worry, I'll pay for the ride.”
As they stood on the corner smoking their cigarettes waiting for their taxi, Evan wondered if Rex was ready for a new life. “You know that Vernon will throw his weight around. The character assassination techniques you've taught will come back to haunt you. Slander, traducement, fabrication, acoustic weapons. If you try for regular employment he'll be there with a word in the ear or a favour offered, and it'll be, I'm sorry Mr. Packard, we chose someone else for the job. That's what happened to the poor bugger who slept with his wife. Ruined.” He coughed and drew his collar up around his neck. “It's a fact of life that if you don't have an iron in the fire, people will hit you with theirs. Change your name. Try to get on with life.” His advice seemed as weak as a two day old tea bag.
Whisked away from the bright lights of the Kavarna Obecni dum, and a few words in Czech between Evan and the driver about the snow flakes, and they settled back in their seats and relaxed, fatigue beginning to overcome them. Mozart's Laudate Dominum from his Vespers issued softly from the car speakers easing their nerves with its soothing melismatic voicings, making Evan think of Brahms's Alto Rhapsody, the words Aber abseits wer ist's? rising to the surface of his thoughts.
After the short Mozart piece had finished, Evan opened his eyes and looked out at the narrow streets thinking how malleable life could be, how many springs one could drink from, how many reflections one could see on the surface of the waters. He cleared his throat and looked over at Rex who was staring listlessly out of the window. “There's historical precedent for people changing their names,” Evan began, the eyes of the driver scanning him in the rear view mirror. “You've heard of Lawrence of Arabia?” Rex said he'd seen the movie. “T. E. Lawrence was his birth name. Thomas Edward Lawrence. But his father's true surname was Chapman, and he was from a titled Anglo-Irish family. He had a wife and three daughters, and then he began a liaison with a young Scottish maid and a child was born.” The driver nodded his head slowly as if he'd heard the story of his life. “Well, his wife discovered the affair. But what did Chapman do? Did he follow upper class protocol and send the maid off to Scotland with a stipend? No, a lover and his lass, he left behind his wealth, his good name, his title, and scuttled around the fringes of English society trying to avoid the stigma of recognition. He adopted the name of Lawrence and his new wife gave birth to five boys in all.”
Rex wondered how this story could shed light on his future.
“Somehow, T. E. Lawrence discovered this family secret when he was young and he ended up creating fake names himself. After his glory and failure in the Middle East, he tried to enlist as a private in the army under a different name. He also translated and had published Homer's Odyssey using the name of Shaw. He was riddled with personas. His life was a veritable shattered mirror.”
Rex closed his eyes. His real name, Roger Parker, seemed more of an alias to him now than Rex Packard. Was he already a shattered mirror?
“Then there was the elder brother of Napoleon. The one who'd been made the King of Spain,” Evan continued, a song loop spinning briefly round his memory. “When Bonaparte's empire crumbled, his elder brother and family escaped to Switzerland with the crown jewels. Literally. Not feeling at ease in Europe, worried he'd be assassinated, he buried half his treasure on the land of the Swiss estate, and with his trusty secretary, Louis, made his way to America under an assumed name. And once there, began a new life under another assumed name and used the treasure to live the grand life in Bordertown, New Jersey. A Corsican in New Jersey. Sounds like a movie.”
“New Jersey? You kidding me?”
“No, not at all. His daughters followed him to America but his wife remained in Switzerland. I believe he had an American mistress who gave birth to a child. America at the time was full of radical thinkers and scoundrels. Bonaparte tried to escape to America before being sent to Elba. Imagine Napoleon Bonaparte in New Jersey or New York. The danger of political unrest, the foment of a rebellion in Lower Canada with their sensitive French/English problems at the time. His ultimate home on St. Helena, remote and inhospitable, was necessary, for all considered. Millions of lives ruined, currencies devalued, economies in collapse, such were some of the effects of the man and his dreams.”
The taxi driver banged the steering wheel lightly, and looking over his shoulder towards Evan, said “Stalin and Hitler too, eh, bastards all of them.”
Rex and Evan, surprised, nodded in agreement, “Yes, yes, bastards all of them.” They exchanged looks and nods between the driver in the rear view mirror and themselves, a triangulation of shared sentiment in a small space. It felt good. Cathartic.
Melisande finished her apple and put Pavor's work in progress back into the manila envelope. She wasn't sure where he was going with his Rex and Evan characters. She felt his style had changed. Less hard-boiled than he used to be. Less Scandinavian noir. The character of Evan Dashmore had shifted the narrative. She generally read his work and helped him rewrite an awkward phrase, catch spelling mistakes which he was prone to, suggest a name, and bemoan the fact he'd killed off a sympathetic character she wanted to hear more from, but she was unsure of what to say about these preliminary chapters of Rex Under Glass. Very good she would say. I want to hear more. She liked the word melismatic, so close to Melisande. Almost a secret reference. She'd be positive, supportive. She wasn't sure what his editor would think though. She wasn't sure.
© ralph patrick mackay