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Cafe Oriental

In a new feature, we collaborate with Darby O’Shea, who will pick one of her delightful photographs for [untitled] to be inspired by and to write on. Check out the cross-posting over at I Have a Lot of Fond Memories of That Dog!

It hadn’t been the pain that he liked, but the sympathy. Even as a child. Crawling beneath the splintered oak table in his parents’ kitchen and emitting a howl more befitting mortal injury than a scratched kneecap or stubbed toe. He was the boy who cried wolf, and his mother and father had come to realize this. In the end, even their sympathy had ebbed away.

Cafe Oriental, Hamburg

As a teenager he had been told by a psychiatrist—a school psychiatrist (he corrected himself)—that he had masochistic tendencies. Lying when the man asked him if he knew what that meant, he had huddled under the very same table later that day reading over the definition of the word in a battered dictionary. He had still failed to understand the connection between this fine print and his present predicament.

But at right that second, none of this mattered. He was more distracted by the pain searing between his shoulder blades, a soft pulsing whip extending the length of his spine and into his neck muscles. He wouldn’t mention it when she arrived; he was, after all, on vacation. New career in a new town. He didn’t need Sandra’s sympathy, however freely it might be offered.

On the table in front of him, topped with a perfectly flat layer of foam, was an unbreached cappuccino. It seemed wrong to take a sip. When Sandra got here, she would notice the dent in the coffee’s armor, would know that he had started without her.

Just a couple of days before leaving the States, he had emailed her to tell her he was coming to Hamburg ‘on business’, to ask if she was free for a coffee or a beer. There was nothing in between the three lines of her reply. They were just words, and ordinary ones at that.

sure. how about café oriental, marktstrasse, on wednesday? see you there around 13.00?

Nearly four years had passed since he had last seen Sandra. She had upped sticks and settled in Hamburg, a town full of American émigrés. The edges of the café in which he found himself were sketched with lines of people that could, he thought, have been transported from a New York City bar.

“I just want to… get away from this American narrative, you know?” He had nearly burst out laughing when Sandra explained all this in her farewell speech. “Away from all these things I’m supposed to give myself over to: drugs, TV, big, shiny electronics…”

“Men?” he had ventured, half-smiling.

“Don’t act the jilted lover, Jonathan.”

Crying wolf, his tears had eventually turned real.

It was already ten after one, but the thick red drapes that covered the Café Oriental’s windows made the place into a den, lit only by a single candle on each table. He placed his hands around the coffee cup to warm them, and tried not to think about what he would say when Sandra arrived.

A month after she had left, he had taken a job at the local newspaper, selling advertising space to large, inanimate conglomerates selling smaller, equally inanimate products. He imagined millions of Sandras flipping pages, pausing, intrigued by the prescription narcotics and the addictive home electronics on brightly-colored two-page spreads. But after two moves away from his department—not promotions, just motions (he had joked to his colleagues)—he had had enough of the windowless desk spaces and hollow office building.

Finally, he lifted the perfectly-sculpted cappuccino from the table and took a sip, replacing it with one hand. A crescent of coffee was visible beneath the foam. Leaning back, a spasm ran up his back toward his neck and he cringed. Just forget it, he told himself. It was, more than anything, a physiognomic reaction to this bizarre turn of events. Exotic streets full of foreign speech and peculiar movements from one road to another, snaking out of his hotel and—sure to keep going lest he stop and begin to worry—trailing the German streets until he had found the café.

Though he and Sandra had frequented places much stranger than Café Oriental back in New York, he had felt twice removed from reality when he came to the place. This sunken café-bar, its quilted interior and low windows blocking much of the light, a kind of a velvet-draped harem, he thought.

He reached a hand around to his shoulders and dug fingers deep into the flesh. The pain increased and, like a white flash in front of his eyes, became total for just a moment. He bent double over the table, trying to massage away the knots and resting his forehead on the table top.

“Jonathan!”

He rushed upright. Sandra was making her way to his table. She was less changed than he had expected—her hair was shorter, was no longer colored platinum blonde, she was slimmer—but all the same the criss-cross of twinges on his back was forming a network of pain.

She said it was good to see him. Likewise, he assured her. She asked him how the business trip was going, and he told her the truth.

“You quit your job?”

“I quit.” He nodded.

“Wow…” she paused and looked extra lost. No coffee, no words. The half-moon sip he had taken from his cappuccino had grown in size; the walls of foam had surrendered to the liquid beneath and sunk into the coffee cup. It was time, he thought, to crawl out from under the table.  [ends]

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An Audio Trilogy: The Detectives Book Club, The Vanishing Act, The Kestrel

A new addition to [untitled], for your enjoyment, readings of three short story posts.

The Detectives Book Club

The deans of hard-boiled noir, Raymond Chandler & Dashiell Hammett, meet in a mystery bookstore.

Click here to listen to The Detectives Book Club

The Kestrel

Washed-up superhero the Kestrel moves into the neighbourhood.

Click here to listen to The Kestrel

The Vanishing Act

In misty Victorian Edinburgh, author Jonathan Strangeweather takes a tour of the Scottish underworld.

Click here to listen to The Vanishing Act

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[untitled]

Gaston & the Guard

This post is a side-note to two previous posts on the Ministry of Emissions.

The man could not help the guard. This perfectly normal string of English words sprang into Gaston’s mind as he approached the figure clad in a typical combination of black vinyl and reflective material. There were halogens far above which glanced light off the guard’s chest. The doors to Gaston’s right were closed, deadbolts no doubt tunnelled deep into the ground. It was 5.39 p.m. and the office was closed.

“Misterrr… Savinelli,” Gaston said, reading the embroidered badge stitched onto the guard’s chest. Savinelli did not move.

Just over the guard hung a carefully positioned lamp, its purpose not to illuminate the man in the uniform but to shine a light onto the ground several feet in front of him. Gaston tried to step around the yellow circle on the tarmac, but simple automaton magic kept the spotlamp focused on his feet.

“Look, err—all I need is a W72-BR for my wife, so you think I could creep in and grab one?” Gaston’s Brooklyn accent was rounded a little by softly-inflected vowels.

The guard could not help the man. This time, Gaston’s mind played back a range of scenarios based on this sentence. Mr. Savinelli might gesture behind him and the spotlamp might flicker off; they might then enjoy a beer in the building’s foyer before Gaston picked out his W72-BR and drove home; or Savinelli may crack the barrel of his revolver across Gaston’s cheekbone, leaving a stripe of bluish bruising; he might be dragged across the courtyard and out into the street by Mr. Savinelli, his face blushed with red and black, his jacket torn and his flesh cold against the slipwalk.

But none of these things happened. In a monotone the guard said: “The housing office is closed.” The lamp above his right shoulder angled itself to shine against Gaston’s chest and he felt the prickle of goose flesh against the inside of his clothing.

Look, Gaston said to himself. He was able to formulate perfect sentences only in solitude, paragraphs of meaning transparent and yet multi-layered; whereas in front of a black, reflective sculpture like Savinelli his vocal cords became paralysed with anxiety. “Look,” he said. “She’s ill—my wife—and we need to move up to quarters with health facilities. And, you know, they have some in our building down on Fifth. It isn’t a problem. I work for the Ministry of Emissions, and I…I just need a W72-BR.”

The guard didn’t say anything, the spotlamp squeaked a little, and Gaston took a step backwards. He looked up at the halogen lights overhead, small strips from this distance but measuring ten by three feet per unit when constructed in the Ministry’s basement.

In poorly illuminated creases and folds the guard was trapped. Gaston thought he could make it. He buried his right foot into the faux marble floor and sprung, spindly and imprecise, towards the housing office doors.

One step. He knew that deadbolts and hydraulic locks vacuum-sealed the doors.

Two steps. But if he could not force them open—

Four steps. –his wife and he…

Six steps. Nearly there, and the spotlamp was turning.

Ten steps. He reached the doors and collapsed breathless against their bronzed handles. The lamp struggled to focus on the glass like a lost searchlight. Savinelli had not moved. Digging a hand into his pocket Gaston extracted a plastic, lenticular card and swiped it across the base of the handle.

<Ministry of Emissions, Robidoux, Gaston>

The tinny voice jumped out of the speaker and seemed to float in the spotlamp’s light for a moment before the doors clicked, whooshed a waterfall through their hydraulic joints, and pivoted open against the man’s weight.  He darted in, panting and panicking, perspiring against the goosebumps on his arms, thought Gaston.

The guard could not help the man. Collapsing against the inside of the office doors, Gaston twisted his head and caught a diagonal glimpse of the housing office lobby. Against the glass and steel front of the building a spotlamp roved, illuminating guards—or maybe Synthetics—who were entering the foyer cloaked in a winter darkness. The halogens, still and silent high above, cast strange glows on to their dark uniforms.

He breathed in the sulphurous air and was assailed—suddenly, as all endings must assail us—by a spiralling vertigo which fractured then tore his sentences in two. He crumpled to the floor as the guards reached the Housing Office. The guards could not help the man. [ends]

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Fragments of an Untitled Apocalypse

9.04. a.m., September 2nd, USA

Meta?” he says. “I’ve never even heard of her.” The pockets of laughter are unenthusiastic at best. At worst they speak to a deep-seated worry that, in fact, he has no right to be teaching this class.

Three days earlier he had been planning—or pretending to plan—this lecture while sitting in a streetside cafe, chomping some urban pastry and sipping espresso as though he were still at home. Opposite him, Andrew had said: “You’re Umberto Eco.” This was true, but it did not alter the fact that coffee and sugared confections were much more succulent and fulfilling than anything he could write in the margins of his notebook.

“You’re a name,” the American said, “and much like the university itself, you’re appealing because of what you represent rather than what you do.” He leaned back in his chair and feigned distraction as a handsome undergrad strolled past.

The joke is weak. He was hoping for sublimely awful. Such high standards, he tells himself. On the screen above there appears the lecture’s title, caught between a parenthesis: [untitled].

1.20 p.m., September 3rd, Scotland

To those who visited the weather-beaten outcrops high above the town of Dromanagh, it was never more than a peculiar arrangement of shapes nestled below Devil’s Point. Situated as it was in a valley deep within the Cairngorms, the town was—so far as its inhabitants were concerned—perfectly unremarkable, but to the urbanites whose travels in the more mountainous regions of the north were interrupted by the startling realisation that life did indeed continue even in such demanding conditions as these, it provided mystery and intrigue that was difficult to dispel.

Descending the slopes with a concern that marked him immediately as an intruder, Milo Finbar watched the roofs of Dromanagh become increasingly distinct, separating into squares of grey shingle and earthen stone, as he reached fifty, then one hundred feet from the trail and from his forty-person hiking tour. A small ledge appeared beneath him. The granite was unusually flat and hollowed out into a grotto to one side of the miniature plateau. He jumped several feet from the crags above onto the outcrop.

Above him the tour, each member carrying a staff and bearing absurd equipment on their back, was tracking the path cut through the Point by glacial ice. Milo retreated to the shelter of the rock as the figures above disappeared into a ravine. Below him lay Dromanagh. Outlines in pastel worked on land neatly divided into lines of plants and various crops.

Relieving his shoulders of their burden, he squatted and slid his hiking equipment—rucksack, stove and one fortieth of the tour’s camping paraphernalia—as far into the grotto as possible before turning back to examine the town and its indistinct inhabitants. One man—his gait signified his sex even from this height—was tipping a container of liquid, drowning the mossy grass with waste and water. Another figure rounded a wooden structure and Milo watched its head move in silence as it addressed the first man; the first man waved in response.

It was growing darker, the puffs of cloud overhead white and static, when Milo leaned back into his makeshift shelter and fell asleep. Below, Dromanagh burned its gaslights, precious in the winter months, until the town was suddenly extinguished.

4.47 pm, September 3rd, England

Merlin’s Keep, the sign read. I had thorns in my legs. Nettle stings nestled behind my knees. But the tangles of wildflowers and weeds had yet to fully obscure the entrance. As I looked back, I could barely make out the gravel drive below and the metallic roof of the car parked against a shock of greenery. In front of me, and almost buried among fallen plaster and shards of glass, was the large sandy portico of Merlin’s Keep.

I swung the thick wooden branch that had served as both scythe and staff on the tumble up the path. Cutting in with a crescent-shaped movement, a fan of ferns gave way to the entrance. The door must have reached ten feet, and it overhung steps which were cracked beyond a mason’s ministrations. Roots and nests of insects waited just below the surface to burst into the miniature jungle.

I needed only creak the knotted wood ten or twelve inches forwards before I could squeeze through the crack and into the mansion. A musty odour hung almost visibly in the air, and a puff of dust granules swelled out through the gap and into the sunlight.

A flashlight would have been helpful, I told myself. Shafts of light hitting the windows to my right gave some warmth to the entryway, burning more brightly in several spots as the naked sun made its way through holes in the window panes.

I stepped further into the house, peering around into the main room and placing a palm against the wall to my left. Plaster came away, leaving my hand dusted and clammy. With its vaulted ceilings and the faux Greek arches in each corner the room would once have been resplendent, opulent even; in its decay it was now little more than a relic.

A staircase spun from one wall up onto a second floor. Amid the dust and plaster, splinters and pockmarks there was little else intact in the room. I moved to the bottom of the stairs, the dust crunching statically under my feet, the wooden floorboards moving tectonically.

7.24 am, September 3rd, Scotland

A scratching, fingernails on piano strings, thought Milo, but organic. He opened one eye, squinting the other, and looked across the ledge—now parallel with his prone body—towards the drop off to the incline beneath. Scrambling upright he narrowly avoided cracking his skull into the concave interior of the hollow and crawled to the same lookout point he had used last night. Halfway between Milo and Dromanagh there was a bird—large, an eagle, he suspected—clawing at something obscured in a spring-greening bush. Its wings were in motion, slowly beating a lateral force against whatever it had clasped with its feet.

Eventually the bird prevailed and pushed the air downward, downward until it could bear aloft a white, spherical object roughly the size of a cricket ball. Milo barely waited for the eagle to disappear behind the next wave of rock before clambering and sliding down toward the plant. Before he reached it he saw, hidden behind an undulation, the better half of the eagle’s cricket ball.

Several feet in height, pockmarked and moss-covered but standing watch over Dromanagh was a marble statue of an angel. Its wings were spread almost as wide as the bird’s had been, chipped at the ends but purposeful and—so Milo, thought—somehow dauntless. But the angel had been cruelly mutilated. Severed at the neck, it stood headless, eyeless, like the victim of a highland Medusa.

Milo clambered up the rock and grass, palms scratched and bloodied before he reached hi s flat outcrop above. Gathering together his belongings, he filled the pack and tossed the empty containers from his various climbing rations together into a misshapen Russian doll before stuffing them as far back beneath the concave rock as they would go.

At the edge of his lookout he paused, gazing down into Dromanagh, now just waking from its sleep. He thought for a moment that he heard a distant music on the edge of sound, but dismissed this as nonsense before sailing over the edge onto the path towards town.

[September 4th]

10.23 a.m., September 5th, Vatican City

The Rector turns to look back across the courtyard. The line that once graced the horizon—the dome and the rising point of the obelisk—is now broken, jagged, much like his career all but in pieces. The cracked paving stones spread between here and the cathedral—just behind the obelisk itself—are ripping up the land underneath. Seeds and leaves, brown earth and insects of every species have begun to creep into the open for the first time in decades.

Victor is clambering across the grey speckled rooftop as the Rector reaches the main entrance to the radio station. As the Italian disentangles himself from the cables at the base of the tower, the Rector waits beneath expectantly. “Any better?” he calls up the ladder. Victor descends from the roof, braces his hands and feet against the rusty metal and arches his back to jump the last few steps to the ground.

“Sorry Mr Duggan,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s so close—to the wall, you see—we can’t pick up anything.”

The tower is taller than ever, perhaps the only edifice that has grown with the tiny city-state’s decline. He and Victor stand beneath it. This is, they know, the only point from which the enormous mast is invisible, and for a time they say nothing and just stand there. Across the skyline there is a red, indelible scar. [ends]

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The Kestrel

When The Kestrel moved into the triple-decker across the street, his broken life-sized wings were a moth-eaten attraction to both housewives and the unemployed of Myrtle Street. Borne aloft by burgeoning though aged muscles, the wings were feathered and plastic, ratty but somehow still imposing.

Christian, a small blond boy whose angular features were almost those of a comic book hero, struggled to peer over the porch railings next door as he watched the Kestrel carrying boxes, shelving units, several guitar-shaped cases and handfuls of mismatched kitchen utensils from the rental truck into the house.

In a front yard across the street a woman hung limp laundry on a plastic washing line, catching glimpses of the vigilante between mismatched socks. Christian would realise only much later, of course, the impact of the Kestrel’s arrival on his prepubescent mind.

Black Star Comics published the first of the Kestrel’s adventures in The Astounding Tales, featuring the permanently burned and therefore earthbound superhero investigating various and nefarious crimes committed by his nemesis, the Seraph, when I was eleven years old. Moth-eaten issues of The Astounding were, I knew, buried and decomposing in the loft of my parents’ house in Newton. Between the pages the Kestrel valiantly fought his war and usually won his battles; but it seemed that, beneath the wings, he was just another middle-aged, permatanned man.

A trail of furniture and rugs was strewn for two full days in front of the tiny house, our cul-de-sac slowly accumulating a living room on the lawn. But the following Friday, the Kestrel—as he did each weekday—hulked slowly along the Myrtle Street sidewalk until he disappeared behind his screen door. I turned back to the computer monitor, content to watch flickering cursors between glances outside the window.

A tinny shrieking came, eventually, drifting through the gap between the sill and the pane, and leaning my nose close to the window I saw Christian gesticulating toward the Kestrel’s apartment and calling to an invisible parent inside. At the third storey balcony across the street a tear of movement like a mini-tornado of feather signalled the donning of wings, the Kestrel pulling onto his shoulders the vast off-white shapes which had made him famous.

With the tattered wings on his back, the Kestrel was forced into a strange sideways walk across the deck, the slats audibly creaking even behind my office window. His crab walk ended and he leaned on the railing before pushing off, a great whoosh accompanying a movement of feathers and plastic. Airborne now, he crunched his legs up over the railing and with slow but graceful beats of his wings he forced the air downward and rose in the air, hovering for a moment in front of his apartment’s bay window before floating to the ground.

Over the next half hour the Kestrel beat a lateral force against the crumbling sidewalk until he could bear aloft kitchen chairs, bathroom scales, a hole-ridden armchair and, finally, a boxful of papers and books dampened from the morning dew. Each time I marvelled at his manoeuvring through a tiny balcony doorway with just the hint of rustling and pressure against his feathers and against the wood and upholstery and cardboard.

The evening fell, silhouetting the Kestrel against the last drops of sunlight, his wings a heart-shaped outline on the deck, the glowing embers of a cigarette moving in front of him until they dropped to the grass below. [ends]

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The Indomitable Schnayman

Albert Schnayman was feeling under the weather. It was Monday, and this was typically his under-the-weather day. The sidewalks beneath his office building burgeoned with slushed greying city-snow as he walked along 57th Street. The umbrella he held habitually too far above his head (the better, so he thought, to protect his woollen trilby from the elements) was spattered with rain. Schnayman always held his umbrella in his right hand; in his left was a half-full briefcase made of faux leather.

Schnayman had once read that the French tried to ‘seize the moon by the teeth’ when they attempted the impossible. This idiom he had never forgotten, unlike the convoluted verbal protuberances his mother and aunts had used around him as a boy. As he carefully took the three tall steps to the revolving doors he mused on the idiocy of idioms, though only for a moment.

At the fifth floor he stepped out of the elevator to the chirruping of fax machines and printers, and the smell of over-brewed caffeine, but as he reached his desk he felt the attendant settling of his neurons. Small, grey-walled with a lopsided pinboard, his workspace (Alcocell had recently vetoed the word ‘cubicle’) was empty but for a computer the colour of curdled milk and a plastic tray filled with invoices that were days—or weeks—old.

Several hours were spent cataloguing individuals—most of whom were unlikely ever to encounter Schnayman or, if they did, to recognise him—before his neurons lifted their metaphorical heads from the screen. The third white tile from the front wall of the office, perched as it was just outside of its frame so that Schnayman could see into the ceiling cavity when the sun hit it at 11.15 a.m., was leaking.

He stood and turned his saturnine face upwards toward the tile. It was not that something was leaking through the tile; the white synthetic corner of this weird quadrant was itself leaking, disintegrating and dropping like a viscous fluid onto Albert Schnayman’s keyboard. In a final, paste-like splatter the corner of the tile hit the desk in front of him, and small globules of the stuff sprung onto his arm, sticking to the fine downy hair and making Schnayman feel slightly nauseated.

For the remainder of the day, he worked at an empty desk. The speckles on his arm, in spite of the lowest common denominator bathroom soap, could not be erased. It was Monday, and Schnayman felt under the weather.

*       *       *

Drifting snow filling the gutters and disguising the danger of dormant ice had little impact on Schnayman’s Tuesday morning. Subdued by the single note sonata of the coffee machine and its counterpoint, the printer, he reached his desk early, sat down to a clean keyboard and waited for the tubes in his old monitor to warm up.

He tilted his head back to examine the misplaced tile and heard a shuff-thump from behind. Swivelling around, he realised that he had dislodged a narrow wedge of snow from his trilby onto the floor. He removed and examined the powder-covered hat as though it were some foreign body. Why, thought Schnayman, didn’t I take this off at the door and hang it on the coat stand? More to the point, Albert, he thought, where is your umbrella?

He mentally reversed his routine and moved toward the coatstand to hang his hat over his navy blue jacket. Returning to his desk, his mind spun with figures, disembodied names and anonymous spreadsheets.

Soon Schnayman’s head began to thump, drawing his gaze away from the monitor and in the direction of the small corner which passed for a kitchen. He could smell the coffee dripping into the pot, taste the tupperwared lunch he had stored at the back of the refrigerator.

He turned back to the monitor.

Thump.

Morton Prince, Millerstown, WA.

Thump.

Jon McGregor, Palo Alto, CA.

Thump.

Robert Holtet, Warrensburg, MO.

Eventually, like an expanding bubble of sensation, the vessels beneath his eyes seemed to pop. Not without some ill-movement, noticed though not commented on by colleagues in neighbouring workspaces, Schnayman stepped away from his desk and stumbled to the bathroom.

He looked in the mirror. Above his right eye there was a noticeable bump, a protrusion as foreign to him as his beloved trilby had seemed that morning. There was no doubt that the pulsation was nestled there, and though Tuesdays were his good-frame-of-mind day, he was having difficulty living up to the schedule.

He rolled up his shirt sleeves to his elbow and cupped his hands beneath the faucet. Schnayman doubted the efficacy of this method of washing his face, but he had seen it countless times on television and felt that there must in fiction be at least a grain of truth.

After tossing the water onto his face and subduing at least some of the pounding in his skull, he found himself staring at his right arm. In three spots, in a row so perfect that coincidence seemed to be mocking him, were dirty white pustules. Hairs protruded from one of them, hairs unlike his own and yet attached, burrowed into his skin as though they had always been there.

Schnayman dry-retched, then— having gathered his frayed neurons up from the bathroom floor—pulled his shirt sleeves back down and exited. For the rest of the day he tried to maintain as good frame of mind as possible.

*       *       *

Like many American workers of a specific oeuvre, Albert Schnayman suffered from what some liked to call the ‘midweek blues’. Wednesday was Schnayman’s day for the blues. Beneath the arid winter sky he made his way down 57th Street watching on the periphery of his vision the shapes shovelling snow from the sidewalks. As they scraped and shunted, so too did he.

Unencumbered by an umbrella or briefcase, he was making good time. But the welt above his eye had grown overnight. A protuberance of similar proportion adorned his left brow and reached far enough across to kiss its mate on the right.

Schnayman crashed through the revolving door indecorously and made it to the elevator. A colleague greeted him, Schnayman growled indistinctly in return. It was Wednesday, he told himself, he could be cantankerous.

In the glass front of the elevator he caught the hint of a reflection and looked down as though for the first time at his own person. His appearance, usually so particular, was dishevelled and disturbed, foreign much like the welts and woollen trilby. He wore the same shirt as yesterday, his tie loosened and twisted into an unseemly knot. His unbuttoned sleeve cuffs were dressed at the edges with a coarse white hair.

Albert. His colleague was looking at him. Albert didn’t seem well, and should he be at work? he was asking. Beneath his swollen brows Schnayman could see, intermixed with concern, a hint of fear. He pushed past and headed for his desk. Under the mottled white tile, its crumbled corner still missing , Schnayman’s cubicle was waiting for him.

Whatever had happened on Monday, it had started with this unremarkable square of plastic and plaster holding the dust, cobwebs and splinters in the ceiling. Schnayman pulled out his chair, climbed on it and pushed the tile inwards until it clattered against the air conditioning vent.

Kicking off his shoes he pulled himself up using the ventilation shaft until he was three quarters into the cavity. The shoes thumped against the desk in time with his brows and he heard the dull distant roll of voices like thunder below him:

Albert—Al —what the—Alb—Schnayman—Jeez—Mr Schn—c’mon Albert— In all its permutations, his name was unfamiliar.

Like a flashlight a yellow beam had pierced the cracks in the slatted wood above him and illuminated the dusty inside of the ceiling, the splinters and the dead bugs, the mirror image of the office below. It was, Schnayman thought, 11.15 a.m.

Stretching and bursting a shirt seam, he jumped two feet from the desk chair to the ground, breaking his fall with his hands, and stared so intensely at most of his colleagues that they moved away muttering soliloquies to invisible audiences.

Shoeless, torn-shirted, Schnayman made his way to the bathroom next to the elevator. Rolling up his sleeves he brushed dirty fingers against white hairs. Bristling now not only from the pustules all over his right arm but also from his left wrist up to his chest, Schnayman was swathed in fur, a pelt that seemed—as far as he could tell—to cover all of his upper body. From the tears around the side of his shirt the same white patches, matted in places but clearly trying to burst through the rips in others, had sprung up from his skin.

Schnayman reached once more for the faucet. In the mirror above the sink the reflection of a face loomed. Not his own, thought Schnayman, tilting his head to the left and then to the right as though he believed that it was an optical illusion, a trick of the mind.

Running fingers across his scalp he drew away his dark hair with blackened nails. His hair was thinning, greying like the wintry skies, and his five o’ clock shadow was more like a five a.m. shadow grown from talcum-white whiskers. The welts above his eyes had drawn closer, grown—if anything—larger and gristlier than ever.

In his sunken eyes, he felt lost. He careened out of the bathroom and arced like an animal ballerina through the west stair case door. Grasping the railings he took three, five, more steps in one measure, past a petrified colleague climbing to the fifth floor and pushed through the exit door into a flurry of newly-falling snow.

On 57th Street, against the concrete and snow, the slushed city sidewalks and greyscale flakes on the ground, Albert Schnayman—for it was he—left in his wake an outline, a footprint and little else.  [ends]

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Ray Delaney & the Case of the Neon Molar

In the gas tank of the absurd American motorcycle across the street Dr Niels Never was  being observed, reflected in the chrome bike as though in a funhouse mirror or a fisheye lens. He was lean and long, had the illusion of no waist and was stretching with an inhumanly long hand a brown paper envelope toward a beige middle-aged German.

From a vantage point provided only by perfect coincidence—and unbeknownst to the Teutonic MD and his faceless colleague—Ray Delaney was recording their movements with his once-eidetic memory. Delaney felt particularly sore that these holes in his head affected his craft; the perfect record, mental or otherwise, was admissible in court.

The cul-de-sac that the pair stood in ran just off Schönhauser Allee and was invisible to all but those who passed directly in front of its ingress. But Delaney’s seat at the open-fronted café across the street faced Never’s motorcycle at precisely the right angle in the midday sunlight to afford something of a view of this unfamiliar transaction. He only wished he were a little closer, a little younger and a little more comfortable with this strange city. He absently turned a page in the newspaper.

Dr Never’s figure seemed to have disappeared when Delaney looked back up. But soon the funhouse doctor stepped out of the alley, haloed in graffiti and trampling loose newspaper pages in to a light breeze. He lifted his helmet from the end of a bike handlebar and struggled to push it over his chin, kicked up the bike stand and swung a leg over the machine. Delaney threw a five euro note onto the wicker café table, rose and headed toward the U-Bahn a few hundred metres down Schönhauser Allee.

*      *      *

At Eberswalder Platz he tugged the train door open and exited. His shirt sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms and around his wrist where his watch strap met his clammy pores the sweat was chafing his skin. He took the steps with a haste his friend Herr Tarpenbek would call auffällig. On the street he barrelled past a young couple pushing a stroller; amidst the plague of other couples with brightly dyed hair and tattoos they were an exercise in rebellious conformism. He crossed Schönhauser Allee and took a left on Danziger Strasse.

The street was busy but negotiable. At the next intersection, several hundred metres ahead, he thought he saw Dr Never’s motorcycle making a turn. Several minutes passed as he feigned nonchalance, but after briefly consulting the card in his wallet, Delaney came to Lichtstrasse. He took a left and walked no more than a hundred yards before he saw what he was supposed to see.

A small, low-set door with peeling paintwork and unappealing graffiti was built into a porch area protruding from the stocky house. The final two letters of the carefully stencilled phrase vonkriegzufrieden crossed the door jamb and overlapped onto a gilded plaque reading “Dr Niels Never – Zahnarztpraxis“. In the window set back and to the right of the doorway was a large white plastic ornament, hollow and lit from within, in the shape of a tooth. A molar, Delaney thought. I know too much about dentistry, goddamnit, Delaney thought.

*      *      *

“Haben Sie einen Termin?” said the tightly-dressed German.

“No, no appointment.”

“I am sorry, Dr Never is not here.” She smiled.

“I just saw him arrive, Heidi,” Delaney glanced at his watch and raised an eyebrow. She smiled some more.

In the office off to the right, the room which must have housed the illuminated tooth, there was an audible rustling of fabric on some harder substance, followed presently by the emergence of a diminutive man in a checked shirt and white lab coat. Dr Niels Never was balding but with close-cropped hair and sideburns. He wore round, rimless glasses in a style favoured, Delaney found, by Germans entering middle age. He looked the stranger straight in the eyes before passing him and pushing through a door labelled PRIVAT.

“Excuse me, I don’t speak German.” Delaney held the door with his hand and scanned Dr Never’s study. “But I do have a few questions for you, Doctor.”

“Hrmph. Who are you?” He elaborately removed from a drawer in his desk a metal object Delaney took to be an instrument of torture. Next he peeled off his jacket and swung it onto a coat stand in the far right corner.

“My name is Ray Delaney. I work for Michael Tarpenbek, whom I think you know.” Tarpenbek, a German police officer in his late 30s, was also a patient of Never’s.

“Mr Delaney.” His English was a hop away from perfect. “My name is Dr. Niels Never. My father was a German politician; my mother was a Danish woman who lived in East Berlin all her life. Since 1985 I am a dentist in Berlin, and I have had a lot of patients. Four days in the week I have office hours, three days I do not. I make the most perfect cosmetic dentistry which,” he paused, “you could never possibly afford.”

He walked past the detective, nodded politely and pushed his way into the foyer. “Never say never,” Delaney said. [ends]

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