Edition 19: The Meet by Geoffrey Collins
This is the place where it will go down. Where back-up is not a precaution; it’s a requirement. Lines are drawn in the sand, in the face of oncoming darkness and despair. SY
In every evening there is a time when the city takes a stops to take a breath. The five o’clock exodus is over and the workers are home deciding what to be instead. Shop doors are closed and locked, streetlights blink on. As the tide of the day runs out, in the ebb of its last waves, you can find things that are always there but usually hidden.
I had found a neon sign with a name in Bauhaus script that pulsed red in the puddles on the sidewalk below. The sign fronted a bar, a sub-street level affair with a grey-stone office block squatting on top of it, a narrow courtyard in front with dwarf hemlocks in terracotta pots and some wrought iron settings with the sunshades dropped, chairs resting against the tables.
For a week I had been watching the place like a hunter in a blind, subsisting on coffee and bagels from the kosher delicatessen on the corner, skulking back to a bolt-hole hotel room before dawn. People came, people went; I watched. After a few days I had called for back-up, hoping I wouldn’t be thought overly cautious. When I saw who had been sent, I knew I needn’t have worried.
“You’ve become soft,” said a voice in my ear. “I could never have come up on you before.”
He stepped around in front of me; a tall, lithe figure, graceful even in so simple a movement. I had forgotten how piercing his gaze was. It’s possible to forget even so striking a detail as that, given enough time. I hesitated only a moment before taking his hand.
“I’ve been looking forward to working with you again,” he said. “We made a good team.”
“Effective. I’m not sure about good.”
He nodded, acknowledgment and dismissal, and looked at the sign across the street. “This is the place?”
“It seems so.”
“Mephisto’s,” he read. “That’s clever. They’re always clever. Do you want point or guard on this one?”
“I’d prefer to do the talking.”
“Be my guest.”
I lifted my collar and darted through the traffic. On the far side of the street I glanced back. The sidewalk was empty, but in the shadows of the alley beyond a match flared behind a cupped hand.
The entrance to the bar was through the courtyard and down a short flight of slate steps. An ex-pug in a dinner jacket waited there like a troll under a bridge. He put a hand the size of a shovel against my chest and examined me down the ruins of his nose. “Could I take your coat?”
“I doubt it,” I said.
I pushed past him, down more steps and into the haze of stale cigarette smoke and tired conversations. The interior was low and close, with ersatz timber beams across the ceiling and a wide horseshoe bar on which liquor bottles paraded like ranks of guardsmen in full dress regalia. A pianist with a three o’clock shadow was covering Fats Waller on a baby grand, and doing a fair job of it too, but his tip glass was as empty as a promise from the morning after.
I ordered a rye on ice from a barman who didn’t like me any better than the doorman had. The crowd was light. A few souls were stacking coins at the bar, like penitents making offerings at a gloomy shrine. At one of the tables some intellectual types were hissing at each other over glasses of absinthe, maybe about politics, or maybe nothing more than who was going to stand the next round. A middle-order whore trolled about, trying to tempt the early drinkers with a sad imitation of what was missing in their lives. Later, when the shows and restaurants emptied, the place would do good business, but for now the only money to be made was from people beached here by the currents of their own misfortune.
In one of the booths towards the back of the place a man was eating a meal, a big man with a van Dyke beard and hot, black eyes. He was wearing a tan brushed-felt overcoat, still buttoned, and between its broad lapels a canary-yellow tie with a knot the size of an egg. On the table next to his plate lay a pair of pigskin gloves, and in front of them was a glass of red and an open bottle, with a cigar set carefully to one side.
I finished my drink and went over.
The big man was giving his full attention to an inch-thick sirloin, so rare it was almost floating in its own blood. He ate methodically; slicing the steak, smearing the portions with horseradish, chewing so that the muscles at the corners of his jaw bunched like walnuts. He took his time. When he was done he leaned back and patted his lips with a napkin.
“So,” he said, in a voice that came from somewhere near his shoes. “One of them. But which one, I wonder?”
“I’m hoping this won’t take long enough for us to get familiar.”
“Pity. Take a seat anyway.”
I sat down. The big man regarded me mildly. I saw myself through his eyes; damp trench coat and dented fedora, three days out from the last shave or a decent night’s sleep.
“What shall I call you then?” he asked. “Marlowe, perhaps?”
“Fine. That way, you can be Kurtz.”
He liked that; he almost smiled. “Not bad, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist. It’s reasonable that I should know who I’m dealing with.”
I took a card from my coat pocket and flicked it onto the table. He read it where it lay.
“My, my,” he said. “It’s an honour.”
He waited for me to ask his name in return. The silence got fat, and I let it. I’d met a hundred of him before, under a hundred different rocks, and I’d stopped taking names a long time ago.
“I had hoped,” he said, “that we could maintain some degree of professional courtesy.”
“Let’s clear that off the table for a start. I’m not interested in witty conversation. I don’t want to see pictures of the grandkids or hear whatever the fuck you did last vacation. I’ll deal with you if I have to, but in my perfect world you and everyone like you would crawl back into the pit you came out of.”
The big man picked up his glass and swirled it so that the wine glowed against the sides of the bowl. “But it’s not a perfect world, and you do have to deal with us. So what’s on your mind—Mike?”
“You’ve been moving into this town in numbers,” I said. “We’ve noticed. You’ve been trying to keep it quiet, but some of your people aren’t all that bright.”
“Correct on both counts, unfortunately.”
“We want to know what you’re doing here.”
“I imagine you do,” he said. “In fact, I’m a little surprised we haven’t heard from you before now. Makes me wonder if someone higher up might have taken their eye off the ball.”
I’d had the same thought myself, but I wasn’t about to voice it. In my line of work, the higher you get, the further you have to fall.
“Strictly speaking,” he went on. “I don’t recall reading anywhere that I’m obliged to explain myself to the opposition, but in the interests of maintaining a working relationship, I’ll play along. What we’re doing here is business. The usual things; booze, sex, dope—all that good stuff your lot get so flustered about.”
“Oh, there’s always more, isn’t there? For those prepared to meet the price. People will make their own decisions. We just offer…options.”
“Save your breath,” I said. “All you offer are tailor-made dead ends.”
The big man picked up the cigar and split the cellophane wrapper. Without looking, he snapped his fingers at a waitress on the other side of the bar. She weaved through the tables as though he had her on a rope.
“Bring me a cognac, honey,” he told her. “And tall, gaunt and handsome here will have another of whatever he’s drinking.” “All right, Mike. Perhaps you’d like to explain exactly what it is your side have got to offer the great unwashed, because I’ve been straining to understand for quite a while.”
“The usual things,” I said. “Order, meaning, laws—all that good stuff your lot get so flustered about.”
“Laws,” he said, tasting the word. “I had some time for them myself, once—read the book from cover to cover. Lots of pretty language there, but do you know what it distils down to? You ban what you don’t like and compel what you do. Hey everyone, it’s a free world, and here’s the rulebook.”
“What would you have instead?”
“I would have it that people are able to make their own choices, free of an imposed morality and the guilt and fear that comes with it.”
“The trouble with you birds,” I said, “is that you only sing the one song. You sell dissipation and call it fulfilment. You cut people adrift and tell them they’re free. I’ve been hearing it forever, and it’s still bullshit.”
“Maybe so.” He held the cigar to the candle on the table, turning it carefully in his strong fingers. His nails were manicured, but unusually long. “Then again, I know you by reputation, Mike. Is there so much daylight between us? We both have a sense of purpose, we both hold hypocrites in contempt—”
“You hold all things in contempt.”
The waitress reappeared with drinks on a tray. She was wearing a red satin dress that flowed like ink against her body and didn’t make a lot of demands on the imagination. The matching gloves covered her arms to above the elbows. When she set down the big man’s cognac he casually cupped the inside of her thigh and ran his hand up slowly between her legs, watching me for a reaction.
Her eyes stayed empty, the irises thin coronas around the darkness of her pupils. I had seen eyes like that before, everywhere from rat-infested needle joints to cliff-top chateaus; eyes free of fear, free of pain, free of hope.
“Off you go, honey,” he said. “Be seeing you later.”
She swayed away. The big man drew on his cigar and lifted the brandy balloon to his lips, watching her. Smoke streamed slowly from his nostrils, floated in the glass above the liquor, then, with a sharp inhalation—phtt—it was gone.
“Do you really think she wants your laws?” he asked. “She doesn’t. All she ever wanted was a choice.”
My mouth was beginning to taste as though something had slept in it for the winter. I had to fight not to reach for the whisky.
“Who’s got your back on this trip, Mike?”
“I don’t need any help dealing with you,” I said.
“Perhaps not, but you’re somewhat in the lion’s den here. Don’t tell me you haven’t got a plan B in case things go bad.”
I thought the name might rattle him, so I said it. He didn’t rattle worth a damn.
“Really? I haven’t seen Sam in the longest time. Always liked him, too. Practical fellow, doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty once in a while. Be sure to say hello for me.” He examined the glowing tip of his cigar. “Look, it pains me to watch someone of your stature struggling, so I’m going to toss you a bone. We see something in this town, a certain zeitgeist, if you will. There are all kinds of people here: people who do nothing and have more money than they could spend in a dozen lifetimes; people who work fourteen-hour days and can barely keep body and soul together. Within a stone’s throw of here you can find the best nightlife in the world, or kids sleeping in alleyways.”
“Like any big city,” I said.
“No, Mike. Like the kind of big city you get maybe once in a hundred years. It’s the people. They’re starving for something to believe in and they’re ready to take anything that’s thrown their way.” He nodded towards the absinthe drinkers. “You see those idiots over there? Communists. They think the world needs saving from self-interest and religion, humanity’s two greatest motivators. That urbane looking gentleman at the bar is a writer, turned up a few years back with an English poet—” He rolled a finger, as though trying to reel the name from his memory, then surprised me by quoting: “Whole cities are swept away to perish in space, or the flood that scalds to death—”
“Auden,” I said.
“Well done. And the writer’s name is Isherwood, I recall. I imagine he’ll write a book about this city one day, pontificating about social decay and hedonism. It will probably end up on Broadway. Do you want to know the real reason the two of them turned up here? Boys. Between them they must had their fun with half the lads in town who are inclined that way. And possibly a few who aren’t—poverty can create interesting opportunities for the man who retains some liquidity until the right openings present themselves.”
He laughed around his cigar, cords of mucous clicking in this throat.
“The way I see it, his kind should be thankful it’s us in the driver’s seat. Leben und leben lassen. Better than having the thought police go all Sodom and Gomorrah on them, like the last time you and Sam got together—at least, that’s the story I read.”
It was a guess, but his kind has long practiced stabs in the dark. My practice is in sitting like a Tobacco Indian until the thunder in my ears subsides.
“Maybe you shouldn’t believe all you read,” I said.
“Well, damn me, it’s finally official! Can I get that in writing?” He slapped the table. “Anyway, I’ve been sent in to establish a presence. Boots on the ground, so to speak. I’ve identified people I can work with, dispensed a little largesse—you know the game.”
I knew the game. Move number one was to get some local politicians in the pocket. “That would explain the lunatic I’ve been hearing on the radio.”
“Correct. I do all my best work from behind someone else.”
“It’s generally the best position for knifings and arse-kissing,” I said. “Tell your boy his Elders of Zion routine has been done to death.”
“He’s not exactly an original thinker, I’ll grant you, but he seems to be getting some traction. Actually, I’m with you people on all that sort of thing—it makes no sense to me why anyone would want to debase their fellow man on the basis of skin colour or what church they go to. Then again—” He spread his hands. “So long as the job gets done, what’s to complain about?”
For the first time since I had walked into the place, the doors opened. A group spilled in from outside; three couples dressed well but not formally, friends looking for a quick drink before dinner and the theatre perhaps. Something more than cigarette smoke dissipated in the fresh air and laughter that came with them.
I hadn’t learned much, and nothing that I hadn’t already guessed. I rose to my feet.
“Leaving already?” the big man asked. “Well, you know where to find us. Drop by any time. We’re going to do good business in this town, very good business.”
“Maybe we’ll have something to say about that.”
“I’m sure you’ll try, Mike, but we both know you’re at a disadvantage. Much as you dislike the rules, you’re obliged to follow them. We aren’t and, frankly, we like our chances.”
“Don’t be so sure I’ll stick to the rules,” I said. “I’ve been known to get all emotional over the smallest things. It could happen right now. That foot soldier on the door couldn’t handle me. Who does that leave…You?
“Be careful, Mikey,” he said. “I’ve got someone behind me too, remember?”
I put my hands on the table and leaned towards him, close enough that he could have blown smoke in my face. He didn’t.
“I remember who’s behind you, all right,” I said. “I remember my foot on his throat.”
We hung there in the half-light, seeming to all the world just a couple of barflies having a minor disagreement over nothing much at all. His smirk didn’t slip an inch, but I saw the faintest glitter of perspiration on his forehead. It would have to be enough. I straightened, threw a note on the table next to my untouched drink, and left.
Outside, a drizzle had set in. Samael was standing on the sidewalk with an oiled silk umbrella over his shoulder, in the middle of a pool of muted illumination, which might have puzzled anyone sharp enough to notice there wasn’t a streetlight within twenty yards. I came up beside him and hunched into my coat.
“How did that go?” he asked.
“Not good. They’re up to something big.”
“They usually are. Who was the contact?”
“Never met him before. He knew you, though—said to say hello.”
“Yeah?” He looked interested. “What else did he say?”
“General stuff. What they’ve been up to, where it’s going.”
“His left hand—a tattoo, something like that?”
I thought for a moment. “A ring, embossed with an eagle.”
A young woman passed, hiding a sideways glance. Samael was almost as tall as me, far better groomed.
“Sounds like Balaam,” he said. “One of seven princes of Hell. Speaks the truth of all things past and future, hawk on his left fist, rides a bear.”
“I didn’t see any bear.”
He kicked the tyre of a low convertible on the kerb. “1931 Stutz Bearcat. Close enough.”
I closed my eyes and pulled in a breath of cold air, and with it the city flowed into me. I could see the lights on the Oberbaum Bridge bleeding into the waters of the Spree, smell the fallen leaves on the Unter den Linden, hear the tumult of the kabarett at the Wein-Munchen. And although I have no gift of foresight, I thought I saw also the spectral gleam of polished jackboots and everywhere the eagle of Balam’s ring, printed on flags and imposed on sandstone edifices, its claws sunk into a hooked cross, a corrupted symbol of the eternal God.
In that moment I wanted nothing more than to cast off my skin and flesh and stand bare while the city burned for a score of leagues in every direction, swept away, perishing, the flood that scalds to death…
“Like Sodom and Gomorrah,” Samael said, watching me. “That was just a job, Michael. This is only another.”
“You always were more comfortable with the death and destruction side of things,” I said.
“Maybe this time they’ll handle that part for themselves.”
“I have a feeling you may be right. We’d better get moving. Someone’s waiting for a report.”
We walked off together, the night gathering around us.
Geoffrey Collins is a creative writing major studying externally with Murdoch University. He currently lives in Ramingining, a traditional Aboriginal community in the Arnhem Land region of north-western Australia. When he is not compulsively re-reading everything ever written by Ursula K. Le Guin and Raymond Chandler, Geoff enjoys hunting, fishing and generally enjoying everything this remote and beautiful area has to offer.
Geoff was a finalist in the 2014 Northern Territory literary awards for with his short story “The Tunnel”. Unfortunately, as the ceremony was in Darwin – seven hours away across dirt tracks – he missed out on the wine and cheese.