He opened his eyes and found himself lying upon a small bed in a small room. He noticed a porthole above him framed with dark smooth wood. Kneeling upon the pillow, he looked out but could only see a fog of shifting patterns spinning slowly like a kaleidoscope of café au laits.
Out in the hallway, the walls were wainscoted and featured polished brass hand rails, and beneath his bare feet, a carpet runner leading to a set of narrow stairs. As he made his way to the top stair he could see a large wood-panelled room with four figures seated around a table. Approaching, he recognized Yves wearing a captain's hat and puffing on a pipe, and beside him, Melisande and Thérèse dressed in dark suits, white shirts and black ties, and beside them, Jerome in brown rags with a cigarette behind his ear. They looked up at him.
“What's put on a table, cut, but never eaten?” Jerome asked.
Duncan didn't understand.
They all smiled as Yves produced a pack of cards and began to shuffle the deck while he hummed the tune to Gilligan's Island. His navy pea jacket sported a crest with a large fish. Duncan turned around and saw Amelia in a long evening gown with pearls around her neck, Hugh at her feet. She waved to him. Nearby stood Tom wearing a long green overcoat and holding an umbrella in one hand and a swinging pendulum in the other.
“Don't worry Dunc,” Tom said, “I've brought my ultrasonic weapon in case we need to break down any walls. We'll find your old friend David Ashemore don't you worry. Have a drink, relax.”
Standing to his left he discovered P. K. Loveridge in a butler's outfit holding a tray with shot glasses arranged in a spiral formation. He took one, drank it, and found himself out on the deck of the ship. The life saver read: SS Qupode. Leaning on the railing, he looked down but neither saw nor heard any evidence of water, only foam. They were floating on foam.
“How deep is the ocean?” asked Yves who now stood beside him puffing away on his pipe.
“A stone's throw,” replied Tom, standing on the other side of him, swinging his pendulum out over the railing.
Yves took the pipe from between his lips, the smoke rising from the bowl of fading embers, and tossed it into the fog. “I feel we're close to L'Isle de Mont Lautré. It shouldn't be long now. Tabarnac Dunc, you'll be fine, just fine.”
Duncan felt extremely fatigued, and turning around, found himself back in his childhood bedroom, the den over the garage. The large twin windows were open and he was lying on his bed looking at the night sky, the strobe light of Place Ville Marie swept the underside of the clouds. He began to count slowly to eleven. One, two, three, four, five . . He remembered those early years going to the library with David to take out Tintin books. He could see the small, white clap-board library, the steps down to the children's library section, the Librarians at the desk, the colourful books, the path home through the park with its benches with elderly people feeding squirrels and pigeons. The path home. The light swept the clouds once again. One, two, three, four . . . The hidden lighthouse searching for lost souls. He breathed in the scent of rain. Petrichor Amelia had said. From the Greek petros for stone, and ichor, for the golden blood of the Gods. Petrichor. He looked beside him and there was the National Geographic map from his youth tacked to the fake wood panelling, a map he would gaze upon for hours dreaming about the Mediterranean Sea from the straits of Gibraltar to the port of Jaffa where Jonah set sail, and everything between, the place names magical, mythical, romantic. He could see the pencil lines he'd made as a youth, the supposed route of Ulysses according to some book he'd read and long forgotten. How ridiculous he now thought. How ridiculous. The light from Place Ville Marie swept past once more. He began to count, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . .
The Doctor checked the vital signs monitor and then looked down at the chart of test results. The Glasgow Coma Scale looked promising: GCS 11= E4 V3 M4 at 7:10 this morning. Eye response at 4 points: spontaneous eye opening. Verbal response at 3: random words exclaimed: haddock? Cupid? Motor response at 4: withdrawal from pain stimulus.
That was promising she thought. She lifted Mr. Strand's left eyelid and noted the condition of the pupil and then with two gentle movements, brushed his brown hair back from his forehead thinking he didn't look his age. There was something about his chin and the curve of his lips that seemed familiar. She rearranged the bedspread and held his right hand and bent down to speak softly into his right ear. “Hello Duncan, my name is Doctor Julia Yee. You're doing fine. Your wife Amelia was here with you and will be back soon. We're taking good care of you. Don't worry. You'll be fine.” And with that she gave his hand a squeeze. There was a slight response in return. Then, with the soft edge of her thumb, she swept a stray eyelash off his cheek.
A fragrance of sandalwood and jasmine overcame him. Memories were evoked, memories of Montreal's Chinatown and the Chinese soap he used to buy when he dated Yiyin, the Bee & Flower brand, so beautifully wrapped and labelled, everyday exotics, golden emblems of their time together. He was now sitting across from her in a booth at the Tean Hong Café, the restaurant that had burnt down years ago. She was explaining the various Dim Sum dishes to him while he practised his chopsticks. The waiter, a young student in black dress pants, white shirt and black bow tie, brought them a pot of Chinese tea, and she began to pour.
The light from Place Ville Marie swept by once more, and he began to count again. One, two, three, four, five, six . . . .
Melisande sipped her tea and looked out the window. She could see Pavor scraping frost from his windshield and then brushing it off. He looked up, noticed her, and waved. She smiled and waved back. A few moments later, she watched as he pulled out from the curb and made his way east along Sherbrooke Street on his way to her apartment to feed Clio, and to stop by St. Viateur Bakery for a dozen sesame seed bagels and hummus. She felt somewhat guilty for not being there to feed Clio her early morning meal, but inversely, she luxuriated in the freedom from responsibility. Looking back to the parking space Pavor had vacated, she noticed an oily slick, circular rings of orange, then indigo, light blue and back to dark orange and the blues once more. Her Mother used to say such spots were evidence of rainbows touching down. She sat at Pavor's desk and stared at the small antique brass compass resting on a stack of leather bound notebooks and wondered if he'd ever witnessed a rainbow from this window.
She put her tea down and opened the central desk drawer, and slipped out the latest instalment of his work in progress. He'd told her it was there if she wanted to look it over with her keen-eye for typos, faulty grammar, factual mistakes, and implausibilities, and give him what he called his much needed 'elaborative and corrective reinforcements.' Rereading his own work was the most creatively draining task of any day, 'like retracing my steps across a beach looking for a cipher in the sand.' It was a sentence he often used. If she'd come across the sentence in his work, she might have to put brackets around it and add a question mark in the margin.
She opened the binder and began to read:
Rex Under Glass, Part Eight
Rex parked the Venetian green sedan in an unlit spot around the corner from Vernon Smythe's house. The digital numbers on the clock glowed like binary poison, 11:00. Too late for people to be walking their dogs. Most residents were likely preparing for bed, checking their emails, or hypnotized by the litany from the late night news. He folded the car rental papers and pushed them into the inside pocket of his jacket. It was a good time for him to make his surprize visit. With his collar up around his neck, hands in pockets, and a dark ball cap on his head, he counted the steps as he made his way to Vernon's front door: forty-two. As he pushed the door bell, he thought he saw something move on the lawn to his left. There was a faint hint of skunk in the air. A shiver rippled down his spine.
“Yes, who is it?” Vernon demanded, his voice sounding more annoyed than perplexed as it issued from the small intercom speaker above the doorbell.
“I come bearing gifts from the old city of Prague,” Rex said. He waited in silence, casting worried glances at the shrubbery. Then he heard footsteps approach the door, a hesitation as if he was being viewed on a video screen, and finally the door opened.
“Well Rex, you've caught me on my movie night. Come in, come in.” Vernon sniffed a few times. “A bit skunky out there tonight isn't it. Or is that one of your gifts?” He stood there dressed in a long, richly woven brocade house coat and matching slippers. “Have you ever seen the movie, The Dark Corner, 1946?”
Rex shook his head.
“Don't worry Rex, few have.” He motioned to the half open door revealing a fully furnished drawing room. “Please join me. Don't worry about your shoes. Yes, The Dark Corner, quite a film. You've arrived just as the camera panned away from the great Eddie Heywood on the piano in the High Hat Club. Ah, those were the days, elegance, savoir faire.” He motioned to Rex to take a seat at one of the two highback upholstered chairs facing the large flatscreen television on an antique table. The film had been paused leaving a still shot of an attractive actress sitting at a nightclub table wearing a striking black jacket with white stripes in a V design. “Lucille Ball,” he said, gesturing to the actress on the screen. “Perhaps you know of her from old reruns of I Love Lucy? The famous scene in the chocolate factory with the conveyor belt conveying confections unremittingly. Oh, my, such hilarity is rare indeed, rare indeed. How we laughed.”
“What's The Dark Corner about?”
“I'm sorry Rex, I didn't offer you anything to drink. You must be jet lagged and dehydrated. What can I offer you?”
“I'm fine. No need.”
“Well, if you change your mind, the bar is over there,” he said pointing to the corner. “Beer, orange juice, tomato juice, ginger ale, water. Help yourself.” Vernon sipped his Cinzano Rosso and crossed his legs. “So, The Dark Corner is a lesser known film noir. A private detective played by Mark Stevens—a part more suited for Alan Ladd but alas, he was busy with The Blue Dahlia, another film noir which came out the same year—the detective is framed for the murder of a playboy lawyer who was having an affair with the younger wife of a wealthy older art dealer. The art dealer set it up using a thug to do his dirty work. Lucille Ball plays the detective's secretary. Quite simple really, but the writing is decent, and Lucille Ball provides a very good performance.” He picked up the remote control. “I can start it from the beginning if you'd like to watch.”
“Evan Dashmore told me about the young man who had an affair with your wife, the files on the thumb drive, and how you were essentially responsible for his death.” Rex withdrew a thumb drive from his jacket pocket and held it in his open palm. “Evan wanted to mail this to you. He advised me to avoid you altogether. Change my name. Start a new life.”
Vernon sipped his drink and rested his head back as he contemplated this revelation. “William Powell might have been good for the part as well, but I imagine he was on contract for the Thin Man films. Yes, good old William Powell,” he said, looking up into the darkness seemingly lost in nostalgia. “Jean Harlow, such a tragic loss. Love of his life, dead at 26. And then his son, a suicide. Yes, Rex, even the high and mighty have their afflictions.”
“What's the truth Vernon? Did you drive the young man to his death?”
Vernon placed his tumbler on the side table and rested his hands on the arms of the chair. “Rex, Rex, Rex. Evan has played you. He's taken the shark out of you. The young man in question worked for the service and was planning to reveal certain secrets about our contracting of certain operations. He was discredited and fired. As for having an affair with my wife, that is neither here nor there. As for myself, I have been retired from the service for a year now. The private contract companies I oversee provide solutions for international problems. We use finesse, not hit men. We provide training and techniques, expedience and methodology. Today's science and technology has made our work much more efficient. You've worked for me, not the service. Cash on the barrel. You should have no quarrel with me.”
“Maybe I'll have that drink.” Rex walked over to the bar and opened the small fridge and took out a bottle of orange juice, popped open the cap and drank deeply. “Evan thought you might have sent me to Prague to set us up like your film noir detective.”
“I think Mr. Dashmore has been reading too many European spy novels.”
“Why did you send me to Prague?”
Vernon directed the remote control towards the television screen reducing it to a dark shadow. “If you must know, it was sleight of hand. I needed someone to draw attention away from the man I sent to Prague on your flight, make it look like you were the courier. Information was purposely leaked concerning your connection with my interests. Did you notice extra attention to your passage through customs, the taxi driver, the hotel workers. Probably not. They're very good.”
Rex reviewed his memories of the trip, his arrival and subsequent movements, and could now see how people's interactions with him could be reinterpreted. He'd been followed and watched. “What about Evan? Won't he be under suspicion now?”
“Evan works for Czech intelligence. I imagine he's now recognized he's been played. You were my smoke screen. Your final payment is in the second drawer, on your right.”
Rex opened the drawer and took out a legal size envelope. He placed it in his jacket pocket without looking at the contents. “So what about the thumb drive?”
“A souvenir.” Vernon drank the remnants of his vermouth and stood up. “The world we inhabit Rex, has a custom of misfortune. Civilization is a thin topsoil easily swept away by barbarity. Stoics cultivated the soil for the nihilists to sow and religious extremists to waste.” He walked towards the bar, hands in his house coat. “This is not a world for jaded postdocs, cynical ambivalents and hip divines. You may think I have an endless Rolodex of disreputables, but really my work is the very syntax of international cooperation. The sand in the mortar that keeps the masonry of relations intact.”
“You know Vernon, I don't know who, or what to believe anymore. I don't think I'm suited for your world.” Rex placed the half-finished orange juice on the bar and taking the thumb drive from his pocket, dropped it into the wide opening of the bottle. They both watched it sink to the bottom, a shadow in the glass.
Vernon looked at his watch. “Ah, 11:30, half-past hanging time. I want to thank you Rex for your work. If you have second thoughts, you know how to contact me.” He held out his arm as a sign to escort him to the door.
In the foyer, Rex noticed the painting leaning against the wall, “Why don't you put that up on the wall?”
Vernon turned his head sideways. “Ah, yes, de Chirico's The Nostalgia of the Infinite. A decent copy, but a fake as they say. Those two figures in the foreground and their dark shadows are us Rex. The tower and its flags dominate our lives. We're just shadows in the sun.” Vernon approached the painting. “Why don't you take it. It requires a new home.” He picked it up and held it out towards Rex.
They shared eye contact for ten seconds, then Rex accepted the gift.
Vernon opened the front door and Rex stopped, and held out his hand. “Good bye Vernon.”
A brief solid handshake passed between them.
“Not at all, not at all,” Vernon said. “Careful as you go . . . mind the skunks.” He watched Rex meld into the shadows of the street and then closed the door. He walked towards the staircase and stood with his hand on the ornately carved newel post, one foot on the lowest stair, and listened. Nothing. Not tonight he thought, not tonight. He would not see his ghostly double tonight.
He entered the main floor powder room to pee, and standing before the mirror, noticed the two vertical lines that rose between his eyes to meet the horizontal wrinkles of his forehead, a crossroads which produced an outline reminiscent of the outstretched arms of Christ the Redeemer, the one that loomed over Rio de Janeiro on Corcovado Mountain. Looking directely ahead, he rested his gaze upon the bags under his eyes, crescent shaped dumplings, puffy, plump. He stared at them until they brought to mind the rounded scales of a balance, weary with the weight of decision. How ravaged his face seemed. How grim. In another dimension he was certain he'd found a sense of the sacred, lived a life of beneficence, of honours, and one night that munificent soul would be waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, and would lead him away.
© ralph patrick mackay