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[UPDATE] Strangely enough, there seem to be only Brits looking at this post. I am strangely proud of that fact. Nobody loves British literature more than me.
BOOK ONEYOU CAN NEVER LEAVE
in the master’s chambers,
they gathered for the feast
they stab it with their steely knives,
but they just can’t kill the beasts
THE EAGLES, HOTEL CALIFORNIA
“Not a place I would have picked.”
“For a meeting?”
“You didn’t pick it.”
“Just saying that I wouldn’t have.”
The suit blocks my view. The suit is tall, black, looks expensive, and comes with a smile made for board rooms. The suit has a name.
I don’t care what it is. It’s a suit.
He sits down in the seat next to me. Looks at the view. Doesn’t appreciate it. Nobody does. Not unless they are somebody like me.
“Not in a long time.”
“All the time.”
The view. Long stretches of tarmac. Blue skies. Me, on the inside, looking out. Separated from it all by glass. The view, through panorama windows. Panels of glass that shake every time, tremble enough so I can feel it underneath my fingertips. Every time it happens. Airplanes, taking off and landing. Going somewhere. Coming from somewhere else. Arrivals. Depatures. LAX. As far as I was going to go. As far as they allow me to go. Watching the birds. Flying free. Punishment. A life sentence.
“Who sent you?”
“Somebody who recommended you.”
“Somebody with a name?”
“A name you willing to share?”
The suit, a board room smile.
“You know how it goes.”
“You been around long enough.”
Both of us, sitting. Not looking at each other. That’s how these things work. Two guys. In an airport. Strangers. No names. No past. No future.
“Did you really know him?” the suit asks.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Because everybody asks me. May not be the first question. Not even the second, maybe, but eventually, all of you ask the same thing.”
“And? Did you?”
The suit, disappointed. I smile.
“Didn’t think they’d send somebody from DC to ask about ancient history.”
“What makes you think somebody send me?”
“Not made for Los Angeles weather. Too dark. Too heavy. So you can’t be one of the local boys. Then there’s your shoes. White rims on black leather. Snow marks. Recent. City shoes. Not made for walking, at least not for more than a quick distance, say, from a car to an office and back.”
I nod up at the Arrivals.
Flights delayed. Flights cancelled. Flights landing. East Coast. East Coast. East Coast. Snow storms, slowly shutting down the Eastern Seaboard.
“Or from the Los Angeles airport’s baggage claims to a cab. Seven flights that landed in the past hour. Only one from Washington, DC.”
I nod at the suit.
“No suitcase, meaning that you have no intention to stay too long. Not even long enough to leave the airport, maybe.”
I smile again.
“Oh, and yes,” I said. “You knew who I am.”
“A lot of people do.”
“A lot of people know my name. Doesn’t mean they know who I am. You’d need top secret clearance to know that. That narrows it down, just a little.”
The suit laughs.
“These days in DC? Top secret would only narrow it down to about 800,000 people.”
“What you call them then, these days? The people who know who I am?”
Me, quiet, then – “Yeah.”
I get out a smoke from my jacket. The suit nods at a NO SMOKING sign. I nod at him. Fire from an old gas lighter. The tip of a small cigar, burning up. Smoke that drifts into my mouth, washes over my tongue before going down into my lungs. Some of the people around give me stares. Some give me shit. Some give threats to call airport security.
I give them the finger.
“You’re not what I expected,” the suit said.
The smoke, leaving my body through my nostrils. Words, coming out with it.
“Yeah. That’s what he said, too.”
“So you did meet him?”
“If you would like to call it that, yeah.”
“What was he like?”
Silence. This time it’s him. He waits. Wants to know more. All of them do. After they have read the files. The ones the people I had served in a war still fought in black and white buried in long file cabinets at undisclosed locations, together with all the other things nobody is supposed to know.
They had hoped to bury me as well, these people, decades ago, an unmarked grave, maybe, no service, no medals, no gun salute.
No such luck.
“You haven’t changed,” the suit says.
“Since then, I mean. Except for the hair.”
The hair had been the first thing that had changed., of course. By the time they had finished with me, in their laboratories and secret facilities, it had become white. The difference between then and now? I no longer color it. Now it’s a wild gush that comes out from my scalp, its skin just as white.
“They never been able to do it again, you know.”
The suit is suprised. First time for everything.
I have seen that look before. This here isn’t the first of these conversations, not for me, and they all more or less follow the same path. “Thought you were no longer in the game.”
“Thought they retired you.”
“Long time ago.”
“Before I was born.”
“Long time before you were born, kid. Looking at you, I’d guess a long time before your parents were born, too.”
“1969,” the suit says.
On the other side of the panorama window, an Airbus 800 slowly rolls onto the tarmac, engines minutes away from howling for their freedom.
Growling against gravity.
“When my parents were born,” the suit says. “One small step for man, one giant leap for humanity.”
I flick the rest of my cigar. A mother glares at me. I wave at her daughter. The mother glares. Drags the child along.
“It wasn’t Armstrong, you know.”
“Who said it?”
“Who was the first man on the moon.”
“You telling me you believe we had them locked down in a television studio somewhere in Arizona?”
“Not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that Neil Armstrong wasn’t the first man on the moon. We were there in 1954.”
Another sign of surprise. Good.
“You’re shitting me.”
“Had to do it before the Russians had their Sputnik up there, had to do it in secret, three men crew, that much they got right when they did the remake for the civilians.”
“1954? You’re shitting me.”
“I look like I do?”
“No. Just... well, shit, I never would have thought something like this, something this big could have been kept a secret.”
“You’d be surprised.” He looks at me. One of these secrets that should have been too big to be kept. “Last year, it’s been seventy years. And how many would have had to know about me?”
“You were different,” the suit said.
“It was the war. Easier to keep secrets in a war. Especially the one back then.”
“Nothing’s easy in a war, kid.”
“You were the fourth man.”
“I was the fourth, yeah.”
“The one who survived.”
“They’ve never been able to do it again.”
“So you keep telling me.”
“If it were, you wouldn’t be here.”
The suit grins. Muscles, under his white shirt. Moving. Flexing. Enhanced. Pumped up. Waiting.
“What gave it away?”
“You’re not the first, kid.”
“Want to take it outside?”
The suit puts on sunglasses. In them, I look at my own reflection. White. Pale. Tired and retired. The suit’s grin. White. Perfect and All-American.
“Think we should,” I say. “Don’t want to cause a scene, do we?”
“Think you still could?”
“Cause a scene?”
“What do you think, kid?”
“I think you’re almost a century old.”
“And yet, I’m still here. Should give you cause to consider what you’re about to do. Why they sent you to me. Should give you a reason to think.”
That grin, continuing to split his face.
“I know why they sent me. So do you.”
LAX airport, all around us, still busy. Civilians. Collateral damage, waiting to happen. I get up from my seat. The suit follows.
“You think I can go to the restroom first?”
“Already pissing your pants?”
“You get my age –”
Through the crowds, I let him follow me. Breathing down my neck. Noisy. These kids they send these days, they all are so damn noisy.
The restroom. At the end of the corridor. Urinals, stalls and Muzak. Pissing to elevator music and soft lights. Despite the crowds outside, empty. Lucky.
Lucky old man.
“You want a helping hand?”
The thing about restrooms. Modern ones, like this one here at LAX, they have mirrors over their urinals. Piss and watch, boys and girls.
Behind me, the suit. In front of me, his reflection. Three steps behind, two steps to the side. Trained. Weight on both feet. Military. The suit, just another uniform. Waiting for me to finish.
Young. Arrogant. Stupid.
The restroom. Close quarters. Close combat. The kind that wouldn’t allow for any major enhancements to be useful. Drugs, maybe. They had him probably pumped up on them. Would explain the twitching muscles. Neural feed, most likely. Easiest way to enhance an operative. Cheapest way, too. All about cutting down budgets, these days.
It took them three years and more than two billion dollars to build me. 1941 dollars, not the cheap paper shit of today. Still, less than to build Fat Man and Little Boy. Then again, if they had dropped me down on Hiroshima or Nagasaki, all I would have been able to do? Kill Japs one by one.
Too expensive to be a weapon, even back then. And too dangerous to be a symbol, especially when the American public became aware of what the Germans had done. In their laboratories.
And what we had done. In ours.
To men like me.
“You know why they started up the program again? Why people like you even exist?” I ask. “Publicity. The bad kind. See, that was the problem with the atom bomb, the moment we decided to drop it. Bad publicity. Don’t get me wrong, you drop it on somebody, you do a lot of damage. Can end a war. Can end the world, even. But it makes you look bad. Makes you look like a coward, not like a cowboy, even if the press, they called it cowboy politics for most of the Sixties, some of the Eighties, too.”
Me, taking a piss in the urinal. And on that kind of thinking. Watch for that metaphor, boys and girls. Shake it loose, shake it, squeeze it to the last drop. And don’t forget to wash your hands after.
“Wars today, they get fought in cities. building by building, street by street. That’s what they were building me for. What they hoped they were building you for. I was your age, boy, they dropped me on Berlin. Single plane. Single man. Couldn’t allow the Russians to take the man alive, now, could we? Not with all the shit he knew. Same with their scientists. You know how we managed to get all the way up to the moon by ‘54? Nazi technology. Not something you’d like to advertise, no. Not even if it would have made the Russian piss in their pants.”
“You done?” the suit asks.
A tone that told me to zip it.
Not as fast as I used to be. Still, fast enough. My elbow, connecting with the suit’s face, now no longer just a grin splitting it. The suit’s nose breaks. Two steps to the side, but now tumbling back against the stalls. His blood a streak of deep red, following him. His voice is an angry gurgle, his hands reaching up, instinctively, to stop the bleeding.
One second. Two. Three. Spinning. Moving. Close combat. That’s what it’s about. Movement. It’s what these kids today don’t know. Don’t understand.
These kids, they have buttons to push, screens to watch, drones to fly. Decisions, made thousands of miles away from their targets, pixelated realities.
The suit drops against the stalls.
Wiping the blood from his face. Looking at me through a red haze or rage. Pumped up muscles. Neural charges releasing adrenaline.
The suit gets his fists up. Rushes me. Stupid. Angry. Stupid. No way to fight. A fist streaks past my cheek, breaking nothing but the speed of sound.
Got to give them that.
They are fast, these days. Faster than I ever was.
And a lot more stupid.
I spin around into the zone between arm and chest. There’s no cover there. My second blow goes to his chest. It should have crushed his ribcage.
I hit something hard and flexible. Poly-carbonated bones, most likely. Read about that.
Got to keep up with the times, if you’re like me. You want to keep on living, you better do like a good little nerd and google your balls out.
Tech porn, war porn, science porn.
Survival, all in the details.
Poly-carbonated shit, they tried that on some of the mutants in the 1960s. Somewhere in Canada, I thought, tried to pump them full with it, hoped that their genetics would make their bodies swallow it up without killing them first. Way folks told me, most of them died with black goo coming out of every pore of their bodies.
Looks like they had finally gotten it right.
That’s progress for you.
It stops my fingers reaching into the suit’s body and rip through his heart. It doesn’t stop the impact. The shock makes the suit exhale.
Lucky old man.
Still needs to breathe, the bastard.
Good. Lucky. Good.
A second thrust, this time again to his face.
Open hand, palm against his chin.
Snapping back his head.
Still breathing. Shit.
He gets his first punch in. Not good. Blind and angry, still, but close enough that a punch at the right spot might do me some damage.
The next punch. I feel it,
That’s what you get when you’re getting old. You get to live long enough to fight Americans.
I never liked fighting Americans.
It was easier with the Nazis.
You didn’t feel bad about killing them.
All around him and me, security cameras. Digital feeds pick up blurs, two shapes out of sync with the rest of the world.
Feeds tapped into by the ones who have sent the suit. Sitting in a bunker. Secure. Scientists and suits. Gathered around monitors and fast food.
Enjoying the show.
This is us, in slow motion.
Play. Fast Forward. Rewind.
Muzak, played for fists hitting flesh and bone.
Watch. Watch and learn.
That’s what they’re doing. Would be doing for the following days, weeks and months, down there in their bunker, breathing in filtered air and thinking filtered thoughts. Watch and learn, boys and girls.
The suit’s fist passes me. Hits the tiled marble wall. Cracks and craters it. Concrete rain, spat out around his knuckles, drifting into the air-conditioned room.
I take it into my lungs with my next breath.
So does he. Useless. This is useless.
Breathing heavily, both of us.
Freeze frame it. Look at it. Look at me. The old man and the suit. Standing. Both still standing. Breathing. Look at him. That’s right. Breathing.
For all his enhancements, the bastard still needs to breathe. Think about it. Act on it. Snap out of it. Out of the moment. Take him out. Take him down. Don’t play defense. They are still bits of him not protected, still bits that are human.
I take out his eyes. They are wet and soft, and burst underneath my fingertips. Another scream follows, no longer filled with rage, only pain.
The throat comes next.
The scream ends. The suit drops to the floor. On his knees. His hands rising up. Prayer, in progress. God isn’t listening. The suit dies quietly.
Lucky old man.
It takes me minutes teaching myself how to breathe again without wishing to throw up whatever is left of my breakfast.
It takes me even longer to twist and turn my body, trying to get everything back into the right places. All of which is very painful. All of which is good. It tells me I am still alive.
I look at the suit, not quite a Pez dispenser now, his empty eye sockets staring at the ceiling. I get his cell phone out. They all have one. I call them. Look at the cameras. Hear them pick up.
“Better luck next time,” I tell them.
They never reply. They never talk. They just listen. They just watch. They watch me drop the cell phone. They watch me spit out blood. They watch me light up. They watch me leave.
They watch me.
All the time. And one of these days, they will send somebody again. To see if they got it right that time.
They haven’t, so far.
I’m still breathing.
Outside the restroom, people see me. People point at me. The cleaners are already in place. Suits, all of them. They know me. I don’t know them.
We pass each other. We nod at each other.
I don’t look back.
Outside LAX, california.
Where nobody has a past, and everybody a future in a sunburnt reality. Harsh and bright, like a modern television show, overexposed and in need of a good public relations manager.
Outside LAX, celebrities.
Caught in lenses of the paparazzis. Look over here, give us a smile, baby, yeah, just like that, look, look at us. I pass through a crowd of them, starlets and stars, busy and buzzing, three, four, five clicks away from the tabloids, on their way to stardom, on their way out, but always on their way.
Outside LAX, cars.
Coming and going, on parking lots, on streets, on highways, on triple fast lanes that grind them to a halt, with me driving on them, returning to my cage. My free range prison. The city of angels.
Google earth it, boys and girls, that yellow brick road from LAX, heading back to LA, cutting through a sea of cancerous concrete, where everything is always a thirty minute’s drive away.
My car, a dinosaur, like me.
A 1958 Plymouth, top down, red and white, the American Dream on wheels, with a V8 engine that roars against climate change.
Me, giving the finger to the rest of the planet.
I call my handler.
He picks up.
He is not happy.
Bad vibes, bouncing off satellites, and reaching me before he says something. I give my code clearance. He doesn’t need it. I give my name. He knows it. I give him small talk. He doesn’t care for it.
Skip forward, get to the part that matters.
“They’re not happy,” he says. “Know how much money they spent on that guy?”
“I don’t care.”
“The GDP of a couple of small countries.”
“Any of them countries that matter?”
A voice shrug through the phone line.
“Eh. Probably not.”
“They should have thought of putting the money to better use, you ask me.”
“You should have,” I say. “How much?”
“Not including my cut?”
“The usual ten?”
“You should have been an agent.”
“Used to be.”
“Not that kind of agent.” He gives me Las Vegas laughter, a city hopper flight and a couple of casinos away. Calculating the spread, giving me numbers. Good numbers, too. The kind you can live on.
“It’s roughly 500 k,” he tells me.
“Not bad for three minutes work,” I say.
“Longest fight I ever seen you do.”
“They get better.”
“One of these days –”
Unspoken, the understanding that my time would be running out, sooner rather than later. One of these days, they would create a better, faster and stronger version of me, wrap him in the flag like they did with me, and have him kill me as his final test. There are moments when I wish for that day.
“But not today,” he says.
“No,” I say. “Not today.”
Today, I made a killing. It’s not quite like wrestling. Not quite like the bets you can place on baseball and football teams, but you can bet on anything in Vegas, even on an old war horse like me.
People in my community, they get bored. People in my community, they get their kicks out of things like this. Betting on fights like this. Win, lose, it’s all about the kick. That much we still have in common with the rest of the world.
We like to get entertained.
“I’ll have the money wired to your account.”
“Not a problem.”
He hangs up. He doesn’t say goodbye. I drive down the 105 and think about ways to spend the money. I plan to spend a lot of it on getting drunk and pity myself. I look at the sky, through mirrored shades.
It is a not perfect blue.
I’m thankful it isn’t.
I look at myself. Three minutes, stretched to fifteen, on flatscreen televisions a the walls.
The lounge lizards start to clap when they notice me. The lounge lizards smoke, against regulation and Californian laws. The lounge lizards count the money I made them.
Everybody likes a hero.
Behind the counter, Jordan sets up shot glasses.
Olive skin, just a bit too dark. Fingers and nails, just a bit too long. Teeth, just a bit too sharp. Hair of rusty red, untamed, like her. Yellow eyes, twinkling behind horn-rimmed glasses.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, you wonder where you are? Right here, unknown, undercover, under the radar of everybody who wants a piece of her. Which, last time I checked, was about everybody living in Jordan’s former Kingdoms, placed three dimensions to the left and seven down to ours.
Jordan pours me a shot of vodka.
Jordan pours herself a shot of steaming hot blood.Pig’s blood, she swears she hasn’t sucked down on a human in years, not in the way it matters, legally.
“You look like shit,” Jordan says.
“You look like a lizard,” I say.
Jordan kisses me on my cheek. A rough tongue, forked and dry like the desert, licking off my scent, savoring it, the fact that the blood underneath my skin pulses just that little bit faster. Lips, not soft, but deep, dark olive scales that scratch me.
I down the vodka.
“And that’s Princess Lizard to you,” she says.
“Could have been Queen Lizard.”
She laughs. “Should have been Queen Lizard. If it hadn’t been for the other 173 eggs hatching first.”
“Didn’t stop you from trying anyway, if I remember correctly.”
“Must suck to have such a big family.”
“Sucks eggs, I tell you.”
“What is it with Royal families?” I ask.
“We like to fuck.”
“For what?” she asks.
“For telling me.”
“You owe me one.”
Jordan sets me up with another vodka. I smile at my warrior princess. She smiles. We do the dance.
“You owe me that anyway.”
“I’m an old man.”
“I’m older than you.”
“But you’re a lizard.”
“And you’re an asshole.”
I down the vodka.
“Seriously, though, Jordan – thanks.”
Jordan tilts her head. She looks like a snake. She looks beautiful. She looks ferocious. Royalty, measured in favors. I owe her too many. She never calls them in. She says –
“I just was the one who picked up the chatter. Fucks in Washington, they can’t keep their mouths shut, never could, remember all those posters they had in our time? Loose lips sink ships? More than sixty years later, the whole damn town is still like gossip central. Only now they do it all electronically. Time for a new poster. Keep your mouths shut, keep your emails locked. Or something like that.”
“Yeah. Still –”
“Oh, hush,” she says. “Can’t let them get you killed, now, can I? Who would I be talking to, if you were no longer here?”
She stops. Observes my cuts and bruises. I don’t heal as fast as I used to. This? This here? Would have already been a memory in the old days.
The good old days.
When I had worn the flag. When Jordan had worn her battle armor. And we both had fought our way through storms of steel, bullets and blood and held the line, on the beaches of Normandy against men in black, men in uniforms who worshipped death and wore it proudly, as silver skulls, on uniforms and caps, while they barked orders in German.
“How bad was it?” she asks.
“Nobody is thankful anymore, these days.”
“But that’s not what you mean.”
“You mean, truth and justice?”
“The American way.”
“Different times, princess,” I say.
“They would speak Hun now, if it hadn’t been for us, all those fuckers in Washington –”
“– Hun or Trotski, you know it. You seen any of them got called up before McCarthy? You seen any of them got told they were un-American? Or that they were illegal aliens?”
“They don’t like us, Jordan.”
She knows. I know. Everybody locked up here in Los Angeles knows. The reason. We just don’t talk about it. Most of us had been around when it happened. We remember it.
So do the people who had put us here.
“They had parades for us, Nathan.”
“They had parades for a lot of people. I think they had one for Oppenheimer, too, in 1950, before they called him a commie.”
“I don’t seem to recall that they had tried to kill any of those fighting in uniform.”
“Because they could go back,” I tell her. She curls her lip. Her fangs burst through the gums and drip venom. Green drops. Anger, in liquid form.
“Back to being normal.”
My warrior princess stares.
Decades of exile. Decades of prejudice. They’ve all left scars. They left wounds. Some of them you can see. Some of them you can still feel.
“They could go back home,” I say.
“To white picket fences and snotty-nosed kids,” Jordan says. “That’s not a home, that’s a prison. A small life for small minds, and that’s what we bled for. What we died for. All so they could lead small lives. ”
“Not our call,” I say, “to tell them how to live.”
“Do you ever think about it?”
“Thinking about him?”
“He was crazy, Jordan.”
“So they say.”
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” she says.
“What they say about us.”
I turn my back to her. I lean against the counter. And I look at us, here in the lounge. At some of the ones who survived.
The experiments. The wars. The cover-ups.
We are not many, not anymore.
Worshipped. Feared. Imprisoned.
Reduced to rumors, to pulp fiction, to ghosts on the internet, to a crackpot conspiracy theories, made up by madmen on message boards.
Dying out. Maybe that’s for the best for all.
Or at least for this little planet of ours.
We must not remind them.
Of what we are. Of what they could be.
In a booth, the scientist who got too close to the detonation of a fractal bomb that has him now see every alternate reality at once, multiversities in his mind, all of them, shaped like a mathematical flower in full bloom inside his brain.
The scientist. He cries in his drink. He talks to invisible people. He laughs like a madman. He curses us. He curses himself. He drinks vodka. He drinks scotch. He drinks coke.The flower in his head, spiking through his skull, rotating realities around him.
We must not remind them.
In a booth, the archeologist who had been trapped inside a tomb, now wrapped in bandages, a heavy coat and gloves. Dead. Alive. Rotting slowly, but never dying.
Silver coins, where eyes should be. Surrounded by us all. And still, alone. Humanity, kept at a distance. Some say he is a god now.
We must not remind them.
In a booth, the engineer who had built weapons and rockets, machines of doomsday nightmares, his hands shaking with guilt.
The engineer. His boyish eyes, surrounded by wrinkles of old flesh, his lips moving silently as he invents, as he smears paper napkin after paper napkin with formulas, with algorhythms, with thoughts that could save the world or destroy it.
We must not remind them.
Of what we are.
“Gods and monsters,” I say to Jordan.
“Bullshit,” says Jordan.
Outside, Sunset. Both the time and the Boulevard. I’m drunk enough to appreciate where I am. Drunk enough to miss what I have left behind. Los Angeles sheds its skin. The sun loses its grip on the city.
Leaving behind, another day.
I stopped counting them.
Leaving behind, Jordan.
Behind a counter, behind on my payments, behind on her dreams and wishes for herself and me.
I put on my shades.
I walk upright. I walk like a man. I walk away from her. I walk away from my past.
I am drunk enough to care.
It all was a long time ago. I shouldn’t have come here. Shouldn’t have talked to her. Shouldn’t have let her remind me.
I owe her.
To give her credit, she never brings up it up. But it’s there, that debt, and whenever I’m with her, drunk or not, I can’t think of anything else. How much of your life can you put on tab? How much of your past can you drown in booze? Before you feel sick, before you feel them, for old time’s sake, thrown up, and leaving a bad taste in your mouth.
Last call, everybody. Last call, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
“Bullshit,” she said to me.
She was right.
That’s all this was.
I don’t sleep often.
I’m afraid of it. Sleep. Dreams. Memories. So this is me, on evenings, stretched out to early mornings. Smoking. Drinking. Waiting. Hoping for the sun to come up as soon as possible.
I have a house in the Hollywood hills. The house has a terrace flooded every morning with sunlight. The house’s style is Bauhaus, blown out of proportion. The house hugs the hills like a clingy lover and overlooks Los Angeles. The house is mine.
I paid for it it in cash, when Frank Sinatra worked the mob, and Dean Martin the cocktail lounges.
Above and below it, the cold light of stars.
Can I get a hallelujah?
The house has a hot tub on the terrace. The house has futuristic furniture that is decades old and still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up to its promise. The house has one occupant. Me.
I watch the stars below. Electric flickers of light, a carpet, a mirror of what was above, stronger and brighter, light that is polluting the darkness. No law against that, not yet, but I’m sure somebody somewhere is working on it.
Save energy. Save the world.
The sound of the city, rising up towards me, with its smell, its tastes follow. Mixed and remixed, none of it original, a celebrity perfume of its people and citizens. It’s like oily metal in my mouth.
I don’t miss Jordan.
I don’t think about her.
I check my messages.
I screen my calls.
I delete offers of a lifetime, from cable companies and phone carriers. I once agreed to an offer a lifetime. And this is it. What I got.
It’s on the wall.
In the living room. I don’t look at it.
It’s a Hollywood prop, a Halloween costume.
I don’t look at it. It’s behind bulletproof glass. It has spotlights below it, put in the floor that bathe it in golden glow glories.
It is torn and ripped up, like me.
It survived, like me.
I don’t look at it.
The helmet is in front of it, in a glass display case reserved for museums and collector’s items. The helmet is white and blue and dented.
The gloves are laid out next to the helmet, waiting to be put on again. The gloves are red leather, untouched, unworn, unwanted.
I don’t look at it.
I go out onto the terrace. I take a bottle of Jack with me. I sit on a chair. I drink.
I hear Los Angeles.
I wait for the scotch to drown out its noise.
I wait for sleep to catch up with me.
I wait for the dreams and nightmares.
They will come to me soon enough.
None of this is real.
I know it’s a dream, because when I wake up, I’m cold, weary and bathing in frosted air and red light. We are maybe forty minutes out and close to crossing the German border.
I am not a virgin.
Three of the others are.
They talk. They joke. They try their best to keep their minds off the reality of the sitation. They are young. They are Americans. They are looking up to me. The legend. The myth. The man.
We are not in a tin can. It just feels that way. Tin soldiers. Neatly stacked up, side by side, freezing. Give me a count, soldier. One, two, three.
There are eight of us.
On a wooden bench, at 12,000 feet.
The Ju 52 is lurching forward, through bad winter weather. The Ju 52 is not shaking, that’s us. The Ju 52 is reliable. The Germans know their engineering. The Germans know their shit.
The virgins are not so sure.
The virgins are fresh out of boot camp.
The virgins are jumpy.
I give the virgins a thumbs up.
They smile. They sweat. They talk fast. Their voices sound the same, barely rising above the sound of the plane’s engines. I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want to see them as people.
I close my eyes.
“Listen, okay? She’s standing at a street lantern, for fuck’s sake.”
“Doesn’t make her a whore.”
“Makes her a whore, son. You tell me last time you saw a good girl standing at a street lantern, in the middle of the fucking night.”
“For her fucking John, that is.”
“She’s German, see? So it can’t be a John.”
“Or a Tom or Harry.”
“But sure as a hell a Dick.”
“Fucking Lily Marleen.”
The virgins get the joke.
The virgins laugh.
I hear a familiar voice.
A voice like a rock. Old. Scarred.
“Sure as hell wouldn’t fuck any of you pussies. Come on, ladies! Grab and prep time! Thirty minutes, everybody! Check the ‘chutes! Think of them as the fucking finest silk panties you’ll never get to wear! Mission time, everybody!”
“Bet he never fucked anybody,” says one of the virgins. The other virgins stay quiet. The other virgins start checking their gear. The other virgins know that it doesn’t take much to die.
The scarred voice –
“And somebody here wake up sleeping beauty.”
I’m wearing it. I’m the symbol. I’m the legend. I’m the fairy tale the grunts tell each other in their foxholes. I’m the guy they count on to bring them home.
“I am awake.”
“Sir?” one of the virgins asks.
I open my eyes.
It’s the virgin next to me.
I check his uniform. I check his face. I check his name tag. I give him a smile. I give him confidence just by knowing his name –
I move. I stretch. I clench my fists. I shake the cold from my muscles.
“We are ready, Sir –”
“No need to call me Sir, kid.”
The old, scarred voice, from the front of the plane, knowing the drill. The man the voice belongs to, an old friend, a veteran of the Great One, a soldier who has lost his virginity in the trenches of France. Here to finish the job, a quarter of a century later.
“You call him Sir, soldier, he likes it or not.”
There are eight of us. Seven soldiers. And me. I am the target. I am the decoy. I am –
“The American Spirit,” says Private Johnson. He checks his gear. He shakes his head. “Didn’t think I would ever ever have the honor to fly a mission with you, Sir.”
“Honor’s all mine, kid.”
“Don’t let all that hero worship go to your head, soldier,” says the old and scarred voice. “I don’t need you spazzing.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” says Private Johnson.
The Sarge and me, having each other’s backs, lying to them. The Sarge, caring about the kids more than he lets on. The Sarge, with dog tags that tell his blood type, his serial number, all parts still running smoothly and ready to go.
I don’t need to read the name.
“Going to be easy, Lewis” I tell him.
“Like a walk in the park, Nate,” he says.
“Like the last time.”
The last time, three casualties. The reason the virgins are here. Three out of eight. Acceptable losses. If you sit in a comfortable chair at HQ in London.
If you look at the bigger picture.
If you swallow shit with Churchill. If you look at maps and numbers and tell your citizens that we are fighting them on the beaches, we are fighting them on the landing grouds, the fields and the streets.
That’s right. We are.
We are the ones who fight.
We are the ones who die.
We are the ones who remember that all it takes is one bomb, one grenade, one bullet. We are the ones who sit in a tin can made by Nazi slaves and thought up by Nazi minds and that is crossing the German borders now.
The Ju 52 sinks lower. The Ju 52 sinks into the clouds. The Ju 52 takes cover. Our tin can starts to rock and roll. One of the virgins, not Private Johnson, throws up, biscuits and coffee, liberated.
The others laugh.
The others have empty stomachs.
The pilot shouts. The pilot has a mustache. The pilot looks like a walrus. He wears a RAF bomber jacket. He sounds like he should be attending a tea party with Queen Mum –
“Ready for the first drop, chaps!”
“They’re playing my song,” I say to Lewis.
“You sure you know how to dance to it?”
“You asking me out?”
“You ain’t my type, Nate.”
“You want me to hurt you, you can always ask to get my boot up your ass.”
“I bet you say that to all the guys.”
“No. Just to that nice English fellow I met in London the other week. He was a weird one. Nice, but definitely one of the weird ones. You know how the English are.”
We both smile.
“Don’t ask,” Lewis says.
“Don’t tell,” I say.
He tousles my hair. Big, bad grizzly paws. I put on the mask. I put on the helmet. I put the two Thompsons around my shoulders. I get up.
I slap Lewis on the shoulder.
The Sarge slaps my ass.
Below us, the Germans wake up. The Ju 52 drops out of the clouds and into enemy airspace. The Germans hear it. The Germans look for it.
Sharp beams of light, fingering the winter’s sky.
Any moment now.
I walk past the men. I wish them luck. The light goes green. I open the hatch. The winter’s air kisses me with snowflakes and icy turbulence.
Any moment now.
“Give them hell, Sir,” says Private Johnson.
The pilot shouts. Go. Go. Go.
I jump into the darkness.
Below me, the fingers of light cut through the air.
I’m in free fall.
Above me, the Ju 52 kicks its engines into high gear. On its way back into the clouds. Below me, the fingers of light still try to find their focus.
Come on. Come on.
I’m the target.
That’s right, you Nazi bastards.
The plane is nothing. Don’t bother with it.
I’m the decoy.
Below me, the Germans shout. The Germans aim their artillery. The Germans sound the alarm.
Dozens of guns, loaded and ready.
I’m in free fall.
I don’t open my parachute.
I count the seconds. The spotlight, still not on me. The ground, rushing towards me. I light the flares. Hold them in my hands. Let them see me. Red fire that gushes into the night.
Below me, Berchtesgarden.
The best security this side of Berlin.
Hitler’s summer home, a short tank ride away.
I let go of the flares. They tumble upwards. I’m the snow. I’m the wind. I’m what the Wehrmacht doesn’t want you to know. I’m the horror stories your brothers in arms have told you about.
Look at me.
I drop into their spotlight. I provide them a good show. I do what I’m supposed to. There are dozens of them. Guns that start to fire. Shouts that rise up to me. Hot metal hail, against the laws of physics.
I’ve had worse times.
A drop from 9,000 feet like this is nothing. A drop like this is a day at the office. The Germans shoot at the flares. The Germans shoot at the clouds.
I drop like a stone.
I cross the line.
This is going to hurt.
I snap the grenades from my shoulder straps.
This is nothing.
I let the Germans have it.
Four grenades, an early Christmas present.
I pull the string. The parachute opens. Blue silk, catching the wind, catching my fall, four, five seconds too late to be effective.
In my head, a drill instructor’s voice, all the way from boot camp in New Jersey. Too late! Too late! The impact will kill you, soldier! Do it again! In the field there are no second chances!
In my head, I tell the voice to shut up.
I know what I’m doing.
I was built for this.
On the ground below, the grenades go off. One, two, three, four mushroomed explosions, doing a lot of damage. Blowing up ammunitions depots. Engulfing Nazi soldiers in death.
And heating up the air.
Hot winds, meeting me halfway, getting caught in the parachute. The blue silk above me flutters, finds its full shape, breaks my fall. The leather straps bite into my shoulders. The parachute yanks me up. The winds, barely strong enough.
Here I come, still too fast.
This would kill a normal man.
I let the parachute go, a jellyfish in the black-ink German night now, free of me, free of my weight. The final sixty feet is all me, all by myself. I hit the ground, cobble stone and concrete. Let my body take the impact, absorb it, roll with it.
There’s pain. A lot of it.
The scientists, they made me stronger, faster, they changed my muscles, my bones, my body, back in those secret laboratories, back when they turned me, improved me, tested me, but they didn’t think about the pain.
It greets me, an old friend.
It rushes through my body.
I roll with it. Accept it. Move on. Move up. Get up. It’s pain. It doesn’t kill you. The Germans can. The Germans are in the streets. Are on the plazas. Have this whole town under lockdown.
Have you surrounded.
There are no civilians here.
It makes this easier.
Two more grenades, thrown against a machine gun nest and curses, only marginally better than poorly done Hollywood impressions.
“Raus! Raus! Raus!”
The explosions stop the shouts. Another wave of heat, filled with chunks of bodies and blood. A Germans gets his hand on me. It takes a moment before I realize the rest of the man is missing.
I skid down the street. Get on my feet.
Face them all.
Find the triggers of my two Thompsons.
Catch my breath.
Introduce myself –
“Honey, I’m home.”
I’m on my terrace.
I’m in my chair.
I’m hung over.
The sun frenches me awake. The sun is high in the Los Angeles sky. I feel it before I open my eyes. I feel the pain and guilt of last night, sharpened to sticks behind my eyes by booze and nightmares.
I get up.
I get the first smoke of the day.
I get lightheaded.
I get a visitor.
It’s nobody I care to see.
I see him on the security monitor in my kitchen. I see him black and white. I see him the same way he sees the world. Black and white. I envy him for that. I pity him for that.
I don’t want to talk to him.
I’m hung over.
I don’t answer the door. He doesn’t leave.
He knows I’m here.
It’s what he does. He knows.
He is blind to everything else.
He is blind. He wears shades to pass himself off as normal. He wears the casual friday’s, every day of the week. He carries a stick, just for show. He carries two guns, too, that he never shows. He knows I will come down to the door, will open it, will let him in.
He has already seen it.
The future. In black and white.
I pull on my cigar. I pull myself together. I walk down the staircase to my door. Why delay the inevitable? I open the door. I blow smoke in his face. I see him wrinkle his nose.
I know he hates this.
I take another drag and do it again, just out of spite. His expression doesn’t change.
“Hello, Nathan,” he says. “Have not seen you in a long time.”
“Not since the accident, no.”
“What are you doing here, Carter?”
“I’m here because of what will happen.”
Shit. Here we go.
He smiles. He knows. Futures, played out, a million variations, in his head. Fates, reduced from possibilities to probabilities to certainties.
“What if I just closed the door, Carter? Didn’t talk to you at all? Would that change anything?”
I think about closing the door. I think about going back up. I think about getting drunk all over again. The hangover makes thinking hard. I give it up.
“Come on in, then,” I say.
“I am sorry,” Carter says. “If it is of any importance to you, Nathan, I want you to know this.”
“That you are sorry?”
He comes in.
He walks up the staircase, never missing a step. He walks with the confidence of somebody who knows. I walk with the limp of somebody who got nearly beaten to death a day ago.
“No, thank you,” Carter says, answering a question that I haven’t even asked yet.
Shit. I hate this.
“You want a drink?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. Has already answered. The headache I have is no longer just the result of my hangover.
“I heard about it,” Carter says.
“They were bound to try it again.”
“Jordan tell you?”
He probably saw it, long before. He had not been considerate enough to tell me, to warn me, to be my friend. I must remember this.
We are not friends.
“Yes,” he says, again answering a future question.
“Yes, I saw it.”
“Must suck to be you.”
Carter laughs. It is a sob. It is a giggle. It is the sound of madness.
I wish I could hate him.
“You have no idea, Nathan,” he says.
Carter adjusts his shades.
I catch a glimpse of his eyes.
They are fire, they are the sun, they are burning, have been burned away by what they see. In those fires, the future, so bright, you had to wear shades.
The most dangerous man on the planet. Fugitive. Chased. Hunted. Tracked down. Never there where you might expect him. Fifteen years, still free. Still loose. Stuck in the present, living in the future.
And in my house.
They gave him a code name
They gave him a cell, much smaller than the ones they have given the rest of us. They gave him a job. They gave him a choice. Work for us, or we work on your family’s funeral arrangements.
Good guy. Ghost. Government property.
In my house.
Standing still. Counting the seconds.
Possibilities. Probabilities. Certainties.
“I think I will have that drink now, Nathan.”
“On the rocks.”
“Early for that.”
“Later than you think, Nathan.”
I look at the wall. I check the time. It is afternoon. It is a good time to have a drink. I get crushed ice. I get a new bottle of Jack’s.
I get two glasses and fill them.
I get a bad feeling about this.
Carter takes the glass. Carter drinks up. Carter tells me to fill him up again. Carter doesn’t drink, not like this. I fill him up. I brace myself.
“Fate,” he says.
His code name. One word. One man. He hasn’t said it in over a decade. I haven’t believed in it for many more. He drinks. He remembers. He tells the story. He tells the truth. Black and white.
“Did you ever wonder why I let them catch me in the first place, Nathan? Why I allowed them to lock me up and have me be their fortune teller? Picked the right stocks for them, the right wars to start, the right people to kill?”
I wondered. We all did.
“Fate,” he says.
“You know –”
“Yes. Yes. You never believed in it. Costume or not, faith or not, there’s one thing that never changed about you.”
“And what’s that?”
“You believe in choice, Nathan.”
“I believe we all have one, Carter.”
“Yes. Freedom of choice. One of the big ones. Almost as good as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Tell me, Nathan, how does it feel? I’ve been trying to remember that, how it must feel , but –”
“I can’t do it anymore, you know?”
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Yeah, me too.”
Both of us, quiet.
“I let them lock me up, Nathan,” he says, “because it was the only way out. That’s what fate is, you know, when it comes down to it. A situation in which all other choices lead to the same outcome. An outcome you can’t live with.”
“You could have run.”
“If I remember, that’s what you did. Run.”
“They killed them, you know.”
“Four years, I was in that – what do they call it? Ah, yes, facility. And when I wasn’t making them rich, making them powerful, I could see it. I don’t even know how they did it, when they finally did it, in the end. But I had seen it so many times that it didn’t matter, not really.”
“Four years, every waking hour.”
He chews crushed ice.
“I saw her coming to the door of that little government-sponsored suburban dream they gave her, and there was one of their men, all polite, and I saw how he put a bullet in her head, then walked up to my daughter’s bedroom and did the same to her.”
He talks about futures past.
“I saw how one of their men wired her family van with enough explosives to take out an entire city block, followed her as she picked up my son from school and blew her up, watching it in a rented sedan, from a street corner.”
His sunshine eyes brighten behind the shades. Fate, looking at me.
“Sometimes, Nathan,” he says, “that man was you. Not all the time, no, but sometimes –”
“I didn’t –”
“You could have.”
“Carter – “
“I didn’t say it was you. I said that – under the right circumstances – it could have been you.”
I remember the files.
I remember his powers.
I remember how to fear for my life.
“I never knew your family, Carter.”
“That’s why it could have been you.”
“Fours years, Nathan. Four years I saw it. Four years, in which I tried to change it, little things, little things matter, you know, they put that on greeting cards, they put that in the self-help books, because – like it or not – it’s true. Little things, in a cell. If I picked them the right stock to invest in. If I talked to the guard who brought me my breakfast in the morning. Little things. It’s exactly like those scientists say. Butterfly effect, they call it. Heard about it?”
“The beating of a butterfly’s wings, causing a storm on the other side of the globe. Four years, I hoped to be that butterfly,” he says. “And then it stopped. One morning, it – stopped.”
Possibilities. Probabilities. Certainties.
“They were dead.”
“Yes. In the end, it didn’t matter what I tried to do. In the end, they died. In the end, that’s all that mattered. That’s what fate is, in the end. Something you cannot change.”
“I’m sorry, Carter.”
He finds the bottle.
He pours himself more.
He grins, almost like a boy.
He cries fire. It runs down his cheeks.
It hisses. It pops.
It frightens me.
“Yeah, that’s what they said. That they were sorry, no, very sorry, that it was an accident, that nobody could have done anything to prevent it.”
“Why are you here, Carter?”
“I killed them, Nathan.”
“All of them. One after another.”
I have an idea why he is here.
I have to be sneaky.
Carter, with his back to me.
I just might have a chance.
“If it makes you feel better,” he says, “you can pick up your guns now, Nathan. The one you keep underneath your suit. The old ones. They are loaded, I know. Pick them up, if you want. I’m not saying that it will change anything, but if it makes you feel any better, be my guest.”
“You’re in my house.”
“Ironic, then, for me to say that, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t kill them, Carter.”
“Yeah. Also, what they all said.”
Carter Hawke, telling me what he has done the past fifteen years, since he escaped from his cell, not once coming close to being captured. Killing his way through every man who potentially could have murdered his family.
Me not included. Not yet.
Carter Hawke, being thorough. Being responsible for 719 counts of murder. Being on every front page of every newspaper. Being America’s most wanted.
“They are watching my house, Carter.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I’m here because I have no choice.”