Sunday, December 18, 2011

Unwound by Matthew Cherry

Unwound   by Matthew Cherry

    The beer was good, although it was cold. Mr. D knew they both preferred it warm: hot, in fact. It was Guinness, and though D's personal experiences with the Irish, especially during the 20th century, had not been pleasant, he had to admit that they produced a fine beer.

     "How much of it did they believe?" said the man sitting across the booth from him. In the thick, smoky barlight, D's companion could have been any age, any age at all. His suit was well-tailored and dark. The fingers that curled around the glass before him were very long and somewhat pale. There was a small yellow button pinned to the right lapel of his jacket with the words "How's your pork?" printed in bold black letters across its shining metal face; Mr. D was sure this was some kind of cultural or literary reference, and equally sure that he had no idea what it meant.

     The young these days, Mr. D thought.

     “Most of it,” Mr. D said. He took a sip of Guinness, set down his glass, reconsidered. "All of it. None of it." He shrugged to demonstrate the importance of this answer.

     "How much of the truth did you tell them?" asked the man with the yellow button.

     "Some," said Mr. D. "Most of it was bullshit, but then, that's the part they really want to hear."


     "Mind if we take a break?" Charlie asked. "If you'll pardon the expression, I've gotta make like a racehorse. All this coffee, I suppose."

     "Not at all," said the plain man. His accent was mild and faintly Germanic. "In fact I think I shall join you. It will save your partner the trouble of monitoring me on that clever little camera you have so professionally attached to the underside of the desk, there."

     If Charlie was surprised by this, he didn't show it. He smiled, and the plain man thought his smile was genuine: not an effort to cover the small embarrassment of having his little spy game revealed, but an authentic show of mirth.

     "It will, at that," Charlie said. He was sitting caddy-corner on a student desk, one black loafer planted in the blue plastic seat and the other on the floor. He was tall but his guest was taller, and though the files that Interpol had faxed over from Budapest listed the man's age at 37, he had one of those faces that frustrated Charlie's attempts to place either his age or his ethnicity.

     The plain man rose, adjusted his scarf - it was red silk with an exceedingly-thin gold lining, expensive-looking, and though he had unwound it upon entering the building he had never actually taken it off - and followed Charlie out of Room 213 and into the hallway. His guest moved past him with the same smooth gait that Charlie had observed from the start of their brief relationship. Charlie, whose real name of course was not Charlie, had once dated a senior at Julliard and she had moved with that same grace, even while off the ballet floor; she had been noiseless, something a man in Charlie's profession could respect, even envy, and she had almost seemed to glide across the floor. The plain man moved that way. Even in the shadowy silence of the hallway, he moved across the waxed tiles without a sound. His tall silhouette was dark against the windows at the hall's end, which were clouded over with the white breath of the storm. Charlie pulled the door closed behind him and hurried to catch up.

     "Why Mr. D?" he asked. Moving abreast, they turned a corner and went down a bald stairwell; the University of Central Iowa, in its endless wisdom, had deemed a second set of restrooms cost-ineffective and thus the only johns were on the ground floor. "Don't tell me it's short for Dracula, like in that anime movie or some old Agatha Christie book, because I gotta tell you, that would be pretty lame."

     The plain man looked at him sidelong, adjusting his cufflinks - they were gold, like the lining of his scarf, and Charlie had often thought that D's habit of touching them was either a nervous tic or some kind of tell - then pushed open the door to the restroom and waved Charlie in. Charlie went, noticing as he did the angle at which D had approached the door; he had put his palm to it less than six inches from the edge, on the side that hinged to the frame - the side upon which he would have to exert much more pressure to open the door than if he had pushed, say, on the shiny metal push plate bolted to the door's swinging edge. Also, the door was one of those automatic jobs with a thick metal box on top attached to a steel folding arm, made to open when handicapped kids - or lazy fuckall kids - punched the blue wheelchair button set into the wall at hip-height beside the restroom entrance, and those doors were always harder to push open manually than free-swinging doors.

     Mr. D pushed open the door at that strange angle with the ease that one might push open a spiderweb. The tendons on the back of his hand did not stand out as he did so.

     Charlie noticed all of this in the half-second it took for him to brush by his guest and enter the restroom. He lined up at the farthest urinal and unzipped. Mr. D, instead of choosing any of the three empty urinals at the other end of the line, as any normal human being would have done, picked the one right beside Charlie and reached for his fly.

     "You are wondering why I did not give you the courtesy space of choosing a toilet farther away from yours," the plain man said.

     "Actually, I'm wondering why you have to go at all. Aren't your kind supposed to be above bodily functions? Shouldn't you be dead?"

     Mr. D laughed. "I am on a liquid diet and you ask me why I pass liquid waste? My body, which your comprehensive medical screenings have confirmed is very much alive, is also very old, and very efficient, but even it is not capable of complete digestive efficiency," he said. "There is always waste."

     Charlie considered this in silence.

     "Did you know that when we fought against Vlad Tepes we pissed on the corpses of his soldiers? We stood," here Mr. D reached a white hand above the little partition between their urinals and moved it back and forth to indicate the smallness of the space between them, "shoulder to shoulder we stood, with blood on our spears and sweat and blood and excrement on our clothing and armor, and hiked our mail skirts and pulled down our trousers and pissed on their bodies in the mass graves. He was called the Impaler, you know? Vlad the third, Vlad the Tepes? I mention him because your reference to... Dracula-" the plain man pronounced it oddly, with an extra syllable at the end - "reminded me of him. Vlad was Stoker's model for the monster, is this not so?

     "We had seen the things he did to his enemies and to his own people: seen the bodies on poles, sliding down the poles, as we marched into his lands, and we thought that the men who fought for such a king must be demons, so after we killed them and rolled them into our latrine pits, we pissed on them to keep their souls from coming out of the earth after us.

     "So why, Charlie," Mr. D said, and his tone was the tone of a man performing a Tuesday deposit transaction at his local bank, "why would a man who stood hip to hip with stinking, bloody soldiers and pissed into a mass grave be less than comfortable sharing a friendly little leak next to an American government agent with a Sears tie and a lovely brunette wife named Laura?"

     Charlie shook off and zipped up. He had been a handler for a long time, and had been goaded by his guests before, though none had ever told him his wife's name. Still, he handled it pretty well, he thought. He turned toward the row of porcelain sinks on legs that suddenly felt a little wooden and said, "Vlad Tepes lived five hundred years ago, D. You really want me to believe you marched into Wallachia with the Ottoman Empire half a millenium ago and stuck Vlad the Impaler with a fucking halberd?"

     And how do you know my wife's name, you stiff son of a bitch? He thought but did not say. Counterintelligence was not Charlie's ballpark, although after this little shebang was over and done with, was he going to kick in a few doors back at the office and talk this question over with people who did play in that ballpark? Oh yes, friends and neighbors, yes indeed.

     Mr. D joined him at the sink and began to wash fastidiously. Charlie noticed that the man waited until the water was hot - steaming, in fact - before putting his hands beneath the tap.

     "We did not have halberds," the plain man said, frowning. "They were new back then - at least it was the first I had ever seen them - and we were too low on what you might call the food chain to be blessed with such modern weaponry. We had simple spears. Also, I did not kill the Impaler. I never even saw the man, for which I am grateful." He finished washing and moved to the wall to the left of the sinks, where he eschewed the hand dryer and pulled a brown paper towel from the dispenser.

     "I would have liked a halberd," he said.

     "You know I can't DNA test you because of your diplomatic status," Charlie said. "But that would make this whole charade much simpler."

     "Indeed it would," agreed his guest. "As to my age, what can I say? You moderns like to say, 'diet and exercise,' do you not? Let me assure you most sincerely of the former."

     Charlie looked at him.

     "My diet," said the plain man, "has been most sanguinary." He smiled, and Charlie saw that his teeth were very clean and very straight.

     "Your choppers don't look abnormal to me, my friend," Charlie said. "If you are what you told us you are, why not show me?"

     Mr. D led them out of the restroom, pushing the door from the usual side this time. "If I met you on the street, and I asked you to show me your cock to prove to me that you are a man, would you do it?"

     Charlie followed him into the hall. "No," he said. "I wouldn't." He sighed. Outside, the wind echoed him. A thick skirt of snow rapped against the hall windows and flew away, ghostly in the falling dark.

     "Look, Mr. D," Charlie said, "it's thirty till five, and this weather isn't going to let up. Let's call it a day and Burks and I will take you back to the hotel on the way to the office. We can pick up tomorrow, same time."

     Mr. D stopped outside room 213. "I must admit that your century is much better at treating prisoners like guests than those previous. My prison even changes my sheets every morning and has free HBO." He said the last three letters delicately, as though unfamiliar with them and endeavoring not to trip over the acronym.

     Charlie sighed again. "You're not a prisoner, sir. Our office is simply taking advantage of your embassy's unfortunate delay in expediting your passports to chat with you in the hopes of clearing up some discrepancies in the events of the previous two months - events, I might remind you, in regard to which you signed three separate nondisclosure agreements."

     Charlie ducked into the room to retrieve his voice recorder and both cooling cups of coffee, a process that took perhaps seven seconds. He heard no noise through the open door of the classroom, but when he emerged, the man who called himself Mr. D was fifty yards down the hallway, most of the way to the stairs at the south end of the building.

     "Hey," Charlie said. "Hey, D, wait up!"

     Mr. D, who was moving at a brisk but unhurried pace, did not slow. He reached the stairs and as he began to descend, he turned and gave Charlie a single, cold glance. In the dusklight filtering in through the snow-filmed windows, his pale skin shone, and the one eye that regarded Charlie, rich brown like the plain man's brushed hair, burned in the dark. In that instant, Laura's husband knew, on some atavistic level, that he was beholding the countenance of something both incalculably old and so far removed from what he thought of as humanity that it might as well have been sleek and reptilian.

     Then Mr. D spoke, and his voice was the same as always: mellow, amicable, with just that faint touch of Europe underneath.

     "Fare you well, Charles."

     Charlie said nothing else. For a heartbeat, that image of D turning and fixing him with one baleful Poe's eye held him in thrall.

     Then he ran.

     Two environmentally-friendly paper Starbucks cups hit the floor behind him; the voice recorder went into his jacket pocket. Charlie tore down the hallway of the music building of the University of Central Iowa at Langford ("Why a university? Why a music building?" Charlie had asked. "Because a school is neutral ground," Mr. D replied. "And because that is what I have done for the last one hundred and forty years. I teach music. Not such an oddity, really; music speaks to our hearts, to our blood, and the blood makes music of its own, here." Mr. D had reached forward to touch two fingertips to Charlie's right wrist, and had his touch been cold? No, surely that had been an effect of the winter storm, or of Charlie's imagination.) and by the time he had reached the stairwell, Mr. D, though he had not been running or even in a hurry, was gone.

     Charlie hurtled the first flight, planting one side of his rump on the smooth handrail and surfing the rest of the way to the landing like a sophomore headed for the first bright blue day of summer freedom. He rebounded palms-first against the wall, spun, and took the second flight four steps at a time. His left ankle creaked as he hit the first floor and threatened to spill him hell over breakfast onto the cold tiles, but he caught himself and turned to the south doors, the leftmost of which was closing slowly in the wake of Mr. D's passage.

     Charlie could see nothing beyond the double wall of glass doors; the foyer between them was darkening and the outer layer of glass was mostly frosted over. Panting, he took two giant steps, caught the handle of the left door just as it clicked back into its latch and hauled it open. He leaned into the foyer beyond and was slapped back by an icy gust that carried with it great cloudy flakes of snow; the outer left door was open, held agape by the howling wind.

     He pushed through the inner door and crossed the foyer, not realizing that his right hand had slipped into his suit jacket and was curled around the grip of the Springfield semiautomatic. With his left, he propped the outer door just as it began to sway shut. More snow blew into his hair and eyes, and a sudden shot of wind pulled the door open again, tearing it from his grasp.

     Blinking hard, Charlie stepped through the door and into the storm. A white candy wonderland spread out before his eyes: nothing but snow between him and the high fenceline at the edge of Athens Park across East University Drive, where he could barely make out the great shadowy figures of sleeping oaks and a tall hedge marching away north on a diagonal. The space between East U and Charlie was unspoiled save by the sleek grey outline of his government sedan, parked halfway down the empty student lot - it had grown a fuzzy crown of snow atop its hood and roof and might have looked at home next to the lamp post outside Mr. Tumnus' burrow - and four deep footprints in the new snow leading away from the door. There was no sign of Mr. D.

     Charlie looked around, sure that the man would be hiding in a corner outside the doors. Nothing. There was nowhere to hide, anyway; the plain brick building extended all around him, forming a short box canyon onto which the south doors gave access. His breath steamed away from him in a hot mist and was stolen by the hungry wind. Above him the sky was a frowning sheet of steel.

     Nothing. Nothing save those four deep footprints, leading some ten feet out into the eight-inch drift that piled unbroken as far as Charlie could see. Nothing except a pair of golden cufflinks and a red silk scarf, fallen in a shallow S-shape and already half-hidden by the deepening snow.


     Matthew Cherry is a graduate student of English Creative Studies and a Teaching Assistant at the University of Central Oklahoma, and a veteran in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. His fiction has been published in Calliope magazine. His true loves include Chimay Blue and any English word with all five vowels in alphabetical order. Give up yet? 'Facetious.'

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