Sunday, September 01, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Fifty

Rex Under Glass, Part Five

It was perhaps emblematic of his profession that Evan Dashmore stood in the shadows. Petrin Tower, a miniature Eiffel, loomed above him like a steam-punk rocket ready for take-off.

Rex was late. Fatigue, psychological manipulation, or a misjudgement of time? Probably a dash of each.

He withdrew a silver cigarette case with an etching of Ireland on the front and popped it open to withdraw an expensive cigarette in brown madura paper from behind the elastic restraint like a rifle from a gun rack. He snapped it shut and looked around him as he pocketed the case and withdrew his lighter. A puff of gray smoke lingered before him like incense, and then Rex emerged on the pathway in the far distance as if from a magician's sleight of hand. He was walking slowly towards him, a cigarette in his right hand. They were like two gunslingers meeting on a hilltop. Something out of an old western.

Evan blew smoke towards the sharp edge of the sun and slowly returned to his patio table under the umbrella. He opened his Czech economic newspaper, Hospodarske noviny, and pretended to read, but his thoughts blinded him to the text. Remembering the personnel information his contact had sent him, the pieces were fitting together. Rex had no formal post-secondary education. An escapee of small town Ontario to become a gambler of great ability when young, so good, his system on the roulette table got him banned from Las Vegas the night Vernon Smythe was serendipitously vacationing in Sin City. Rex was like a joker whose moxie and gumption were qualities Smythe had recognised as marketable, and it didn't take him long to screen him for possible freelance work and take him into the fold. He glanced over his paper at Rex: short dark hair glistening with product, expensive fashionable dark jeans, dark leather shoes, black leather jacket and open necked Oxford button-down shirt over a white crew-neck t-shirt. Rex seemed a hardened type, as if all consonants, no vowels.

Evan watched as he passed him without a glance and make his way towards the entrance to the Tower.

Rex stood beside the open door and pretended to read the gold letters on the black sign. He wasn't quite certain Evan was the man sitting at the table. He looked more like a university professor with his thick black hair slightly greying at the temples, dark-rimmed glass frames, moustache and goatee, corduroy jacket with leather elbow pads, colourful tweed waistcoat and scarf, and comfortable brown leather walking shoes. A soft, slightly rumply professor of economics. His cover perhaps, though his education and background fitted the look: born in 1958 to a good Montreal middle-class family, Lower Canada College with honours, then an Ivy league University in the States, before returning to Canada and employment in Ottawa. He glanced over at the man at the table who was now sitting with his legs and arms crossed in an urbane fashion, looking directly at him. He dropped his cigarette to his feet and ground it out and made his way over to the man.

“Roger Parker I presume,” Evan said, standing up to greet him.

Rex felt his real name hit him like a wild pitch to the mid-section. “Harris?” he countered with a half smile.

They shook hands hesitatingly as if one of them might be harbouring a joy buzzer.

“So,” Rex began, “what's it all about . . . Evan?" 

He offered a question for an answer, making him think of a chess gambit. “How's our Vernon these days?”

Rex shook his head. “He seems lonely in that large empty house of his.” He shifted his attention to a crowd of late season tourists emerging from the tower like gumballs from a candy machine.

“Ah, you've had the honour of the invitation. Hmm, did you happen to meet Sir Atkinson Grimshaw?”

“If he's a ghost, I didn't meet him.” Rex felt like an archer whose quiver was now empty.

“I'm sorry Rex. Grimshaw, you see, is a gold-chested, indigo-winged, zebra-faced Macaw, whose limpid all-knowing eyes were keen on Mandarin oranges. He's quite intelligent and playful, the dear pet of Vernon's wife Dorothy who left her husband last year. I imagine she took old Grim with her.”

“Ah,” he said, “it looks like she took most of the furniture with her too. What happened to the marriage?”

“Well . . . I used to know Dorothy when the Smythe's were based in Ottawa. Vernon was often abroad and . . . well . . . we had an affair. She's much younger than Vernon. A beauty still,” he said with a sigh. “We had much in common.”

“Ah, I see?”

“I was young. After a three year affair I became reckless. I was trying to teach old Grim a few lines from an Auden poem but gave up and started trying 'where's Harris' as a joke, not realising Grimshaw would take it up so easily. I think he missed me. 'Where's Harris? Squawk! Where's Harris? Squawk!' I miss old Grim. Always a good listener." Evan laughed to himself. "Next thing I knew, I found myself assigned to the Embassy in Venezuela.”

“And they stayed together?”

“Oh, yes. Important to have a wife for official occasions. Life went on for old Vern and Dot. I was a . . . casualty of causality, traceable back to the big bang I imagine. Out of sight, out of mind, under a tropical sun.” He paused looking into Rex's eyes. “I'm not fond of tropical heat.”

“I'm sorry, but I'm a bit confused over what the hell I'm doing here. Vernon sent me to retrieve information from you. Something that was of . . . what's the phrase he used, 'audacious reticence.'”

Evan laughed. “That was my phrase. Vernon likes to turn things around, a master of circumvention. And you were going to sneak in and find this,” he fingered a small thumb drive on a chain attached to his waist jacket pocket, “and fly home like a passenger pigeon?”

Rex rolled his eyes. “I don't suppose a guy can get a beer at this place?” He looked up at the iron web-like construction of the tower. “What'd they use, old railroad tracks? Looks like an amusement park ride.”

“I guess when you were here in '94 you didn't have much time for sightseeing. Come on, let's go over to the spiegelsaal and I'll let you know a bit more.”

To Rex, the miniature bohemian castle structure concealing the mirror maze appeared through the autumn trees like a Disneyland vision. They lined up behind the gumball tourists and Evan payed the entrance fee.

“There's an excellent mirror maze in Lucerne, much larger, and the glass is extraordinarily sharp and clear.” The group in front of them took out their cameras or smart phones and were filming their peripatetic meanderings. “It's a common sight isn't it. Tourists holding a device in front of them, rather than enjoying the experience itself. More digital graffiti for Twitter I imagine.” Evan shook his head. “There's something more tangible about intangible memory. People are losing their memory skills.”

“It's nice to have a reminder though,” Rex said, taking out his smart phone and filming himself walking towards his replications.

“I once got to know an employee here, and she let me come in before opening while they were cleaning. I told her I wanted to listen to Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel on my iPod while walking around unhindered by tourists. It happened she was a fan of Part. I gave her a nice gift in exchange.”

Rex nodded his head not knowing who he was referring to but it reminded him of the release party of Armin van Buuren's Mirage at the Amnesia club in Ibiza two years ago. A little progressive trance music would be kind of fun here, though it might break the mirrors with the pounding rhythms. He could envision the place packed with suntanned beautiful people abandoned to the beat, hopping up and down, arms in the air, puffs of stage smoke, hand-held light sticks. He remembered thinking as van Buuren put on that wonderful show that if clubs such as Amnesia were in every city of the world, it could break down all the divisiveness of cultures. The world dancing together in trance-like joy like those whirling dervishes.

Evan stood before a diorama depicting the defence of Prague during the the Thirty Years War, thinking how different the world would have been if Rudolph II's reign had survived and flourished, what scholarly innovations might have swept Europe instead of that devastating war. Rex left his replicants and joined him looking past the diorama towards the selection of distorting mirrors nearby, mirrors that reminded him of the country fair that passed through his rural hometown. They stood in front of a pair of mirrors, he was now fat and leonine like his father, and beside him, Evan was a thin scarecrow. The thought occurred to him that Vernon could be the Tinman.

Outside Evan offered Rex one of his expensive brown paper cigarettes and they walked towards a bench dressed in autumn leaves.

“There was a man,” Evan began, “who started life under the name Louis Charles Adélaide de Chamissot. He was born in north eastern France to an aristocratic family, but due to the French Revolution, they found refuge in Berlin—.”

“Has this got something to do with why I'm here?” Rex said, interrupting the flow of Evan's story.

Evan drew on his cigarette and looked up at the fair weather clouds thinking how pleasant it would be to lie back, like Bolkonsky at Austerlitz, and look up at their flocculent forms passing silently overhead. He would have to do this soon. For his mental health. “No, but . . . neither does this bench we're sitting on, but it supports us as we rest our feet. Relax.”

This seemed to mollify Rex who, crossing his legs at the ankles, said, “Fine, I'm with you.”

“After the hostilities, his family returned home, but Louis Charles stayed in Germany and reinvented himself through a military career and university studies. He became a botanist and writer under the name of Adelbert von Chamisso. A new language, a new life. During a difficult time, however—Napoleonic history affected so many lives—he didn't feel he fit in anywhere in the society he had adopted, and, as a result, he wrote a tale called The Wondrous Story of Peter Schlemihl in 1813, and published the following year. This Peter exchanges his shadow to a mysterious man in grey—who, we learn later, is the Devil—for the Purse of Fortunatus which would provide endless coins of gold But without his shadow he is estranged from society, for a man without a shadow is an outcast, without community. The Devil shows up later to offer him his shadow back in exchange for his soul, but Peter refuses, and leaving the purse behind, goes off to make a new life for himself. He thinks he could work in the mines where his missing shadow would not be remarked upon and so he buys a pair of boots from someone who is perhaps a guardian angel, for they turn out to be seven league boots and he is able to traverse the world and find a life for himself.” Evan looked over at Rex for an inkling of discernment.

“So, Vernon's the Devil and we're the shadowless Schlemihls?” he said.

“I've been making a new life for myself here in Prague. A new language, a new life. I haven't worked for Vernon for awhile now. When you're in the service, you become shadowless, distant from community, alone, adrift. Canada's no longer my home. Vernon has poisoned the water for me there. I can't go back.”

“What does Vernon want then? What's on the thumb drive? What's this 'audacious reticence?'”

“State secrets? Naval plans? No, nothing so dramatic. Dorothy sent me the thumb drive which has the sad story of a young man ruined by her husband. This young man had an affair with her as well, and paid the price. His name is unimportant, but he met her at the history museum where he worked. Just an average guy. Vernon went too far. Power in such hands can destroy a human life. The thumb drive contains pictures of the young man and Dorothy, and his journal extracts which read like a story out of Kafka.”

Evan finished his cigarette and stubbed it out on the iron leg of the bench.

“Classic character assassination techniques combined with acoustic weapons, finished off with the latest horror called 'NIP,' or, nucleus implant provision. When the subject develops physical pains due to the effects of acoustic weapons destroying sleep patterns and releasing chemicals which stress internal organs, a procedure of gastroscopy is recommended. Yes, even doctors can be coerced. A device is implanted which has chemicals that can be released via wifi at the discretion of the controller, different chemicals depending on the what they want to target, heart, liver, genitals, whatever. They destroyed the young mans life. A slow torture. His journals reveal moments of calm when he believed those powers he sensed were working against him had finally realised they had the wrong man, made a mistake, and then it would start all over again. Cycle after cycle, breaking him down, morally, psychologically, physically."

"What did he do?"

"He killed himself. Dorothy was bequeathed the information and I have it here, attached to my waistcoat like the merest trinket. Isn't life wonderful?”

“Poor bastard.” Rex said grinding his spent butt into the leaves at his feet. "What am I going to do then?"

“I'll tell you, over a drink. I know a fine bar that serves an Absinthe the proper way, with the slow water drip and not the flashy flame. It'll do us both good. Did you leave your rental on the Strahovoska?”

“No, I used a taxi. Wasn't sure what I was getting into.”

“What did you expect? Ninjas in the trees? A sniper on the roof of the Stahov Monastery? A scenario from a film perhaps?"  Evan bumped his elbow playfully against Rex's arm. “I watched a film the other night on local television. A bald guy with a bar code on the back of his skull, The Hitman I think it was called. There was a beautiful actress that made it worth watching but . . .” Evan rolled his eyes and laughed. “Yes, films would be quite boring if they were true to life.”

“Maybe I should move to Ibiza?” Rex said after a long pause. “Live the good life. Leave all this craziness behind.”

“Sounds like a plan. But first we'll have to deal with Vernon. I've got some ideas.”

The two walked down the path towards the funicular, their shadows faint in the late autumn light.

© ralph patrick mackay

No comments: