Sips of the next books

“ONE”

 

It wasn’t a cell phone that rang but a stationary one. A huge old unit with metal buttons that occupied half of the nightstand. Molly gave it to me, having pulled it out of the depths of her designer’s treasury.

I perceived it as parts of the furniture, not as a means of communication. But it was it that sounded that night. Cozy and not at all alarming continued to rustle in the dimness of my bedroom. Sweetly stretching myself, I turned on my side. Most likely, someone made a mistake with the number.

However … It could be Bob Sykes. We had a couple of awesome dates about a month ago. And he, poor fellow, persistently didn’t want to understand that “all the good things”, as Molly liked to repeat, “must end sooner than get bored and become bad.” I couldn’t help smiling. Still, half asleep, I reached out my hand to the device.

“Hello …”

“Thank God!!. Linda, my girl!…” — the handset croaked so loudly that I even opened my eyes and rose on the pillow. We must admit that America of the 80s knew how to make phones…

The voice of the man who called me by name wasn’t just hoarse. So, unnaturally loudly, with gurgling, pirates in children’s cartoons talk.

“You … You must come … Right now! Do you hear me?.

“Well, wait,” I thought with a smile. Having no doubt that one of Molly’s friend was wheezing to me. And she herself chuckled in the pillow next to him. She adored all sorts of a spoof like a child. Not having thought up anything witty, I asked like a fool:

“Who is it?”

“It’s me, Uncle Joe …”

“Who?! … — I was stunned.

“Your uncle Joseph …”

The hoarse voice coming from the handset turned to a long painful cough. As if a man at the other end of the line choked. And when I heard it again, I caught a note of irritation in it

“I’m Joseph Barrows, your uncle! You … You must remember me! … You must … You were already a big girl …

“Yes … I remember … I think …”

I was already sorry that I took the phone off.

“I’m at Sloan-Kettering Center… Do you hear?. It’s on Cormack Road… Come immediately, Linda…

“What time is it now?. I muttered.

“I don’t know… I don’t know what time it’s!!. It doesn’t matter!!.

He cried it almost with hatred but quickly calmed down.

Now no longer demanded, but begged with the flour in his voice:

“Understand… You must come!. And now… I’m dying… There’s something you should know… Otherwise, they may decide that you… No, not on the phone… Come right now…

The last words he gasped exhausted. As if he fainted.

***

A human being is an animal. I never felt it as clear as in those hopping seconds. Yes, all of us, such as erudite and spiritual, going to the church and talking about the “21 Grams” of the immortal soul, practicing yoga or studying Kabbalah. We all become animals in the face of death, which, as everybody knows doesn’t exist. On the empty night Lane, I wasn’t a proud creature of God, but a lump of raw meat. That lump had only one desire, to survive. Not to die here and now. I’m not even sure I knew who I was. Animals have no names.

I wasn’t even screaming. There was no sense to wake up the sleeping world. It wouldn’t have time to save me. Even if it wanted to. I didn’t hear the steps of my executioners. But they were close, somehow I could feel it. Or I knew it. In the language of animals, these words mean the same thing.

Having reached an intersection, I jumped over the low curb and ran across the lawn of the local park. There was no sense, no logic in it. If the street at least accidentally could pass a taxicab or a police patrol car, the park at night was empty. At the end of the lawn across which I was running, was a beautiful deep pond. A perfect place to kill. Ahead, on the alley, a silhouette flashed. And I realized that it was Mrs. Cubby. No one else ever walked in our area at night. Mrs. Cubby was neither a fool nor insane. But since her husband and two sons have died at the same time on September,11 something has happened to her. During the day she remained a charming old lady, but at nights often walked through the park, quietly telling young ash trees and lindens their own, special mysteries. The mysteries of a New Yorker, who in an instant lost everyone she loved. I knew the old woman would be killed. Because she will see my death and the faces of my silent executioners. But I didn’t care about this. As well as the trees tired of her night confessions.

That moment I learned forever that nature knew neither cruelty nor compassion. It didn’t care.

***

… Two or three weeks ago, sitting on the carpet with candles in the apartment of our friend Sinclair White, charming, cheerful, gay, geek and philosopher, I with a sinking heart was listening to invited guru. He was convincingly telling that the world around was a fragile convention, which we quicken with our own subconscious.

That evening, I didn’t utter a word, but how much I could tell this nerd now! This morning I woke up being a carefree adorable Lynn. My subconscious happily tossed me, like a sunbeam.

Now, sweaty and trembling, I was sitting on the bank of the night’s pond and watched how the broad-shouldered street bandit in an army jacket was stuffing in his pockets the guns of the killers, whom he just killed. They, who a moment ago was the embodiment of death, still lay side by side staring at the night sky.

At that moment I could doubt many things, but not the reality of the world. Yes, it was ugly, dangerous, and rude. It hurt and killed, but it was as real as the silicone brick.

***

“You must be sorry you took up this business, Julian?” — I asked at the end of the conversation.

The lawyer shrugged his slender shoulders.

“The cases I lead are rarely simple. It’s different … “He lowered his voice, although there was no one around.” Tell me; what is this strange place, Linda? «Do you feel normal here?

I nodded.

“And I, to put it mildly, no — admitted Pierce — A pack of wolves, a gardener, looking like a sad gravedigger, some witch … I have a feeling that I got into some cartoon where everything isn’t real.

“It seemed to me that you admired Mitchell sincerely,” I remarked.

“That’s right,” Julian nodded. “The Colonel is an outstanding personality.” Tell me, did he really easily deal with two tough guys from the “League of Law”?

“Not really,” I shook my head. “They just hit Mitchell like a brick wall and fell dead.” And he himself, without haste, lit a cigarette and began to admire the starry sky.

“Fuck — the lawyer muttered respectfully. “And he’s not even a general.”

***

“Nothing specific, sir.” Barton smiled confidently. “I like to watch the Jews myself.” First, they aren’t like us at all. But, strangely enough, in the photographs, it’s especially noticeable. I’m not kidding. Look carefully. They have nothing in common with us. It’s another biological species. They’re ugly submissive creatures.”

I could, of course, have asked Mr. Barton what he would have looked like if he had been driven for months in an overflowing wagon for cattle, occasionally they have given him a spoonful of slops and would beat him every day. But I didn’t come here to re-educate the muddy-eyed Nazis.

“I already said that the most interesting is in the details. When you stand like this, very close, you can learn to distinguish them. I’m not kidding.

“Take for example … Anyone of them. It doesn’t matter.”

He stopped in front of a photograph of a man who had not yet been tortured and didn’t starve to the state of a submissive walking skeleton. Therefore, he had the most ordinary face. Except for the printing of doom that surely was already laying on it.

The photo itself reminded those that used to be done in police stations. The scattered scale to the left and from above. The date. The surname.

“Holstein …” Barton smiled wryly. “Lord, they didn’t even hide their nicknames!” They continued to live among people, to ride on trams, buy bread and wine. You just imagine, it” — he poked his finger in the face in the photo — “it was living among people, not hiding that it was Holstein! It was wearing pants, sitting in a cafe, going to the movies. And it never occurred to anyone that a creature who acknowledged itself that it was Holstein, simply couldn’t be a man…”

I didn’t have time to understand what Mitchell did. It seemed he habitually moved his shoulder. A little sharper than usual. as if it had become numb. And I distinctly heard a crunching sound. Nothing changed. All three of us continued to stand side by side. Only Barton abruptly fell silent, having fixed a dull look in space. As if he turned into a statue. Dan, a little crouched, peered into the face of the long-dead poor fellow on the Gestapo photograph. Like he was trying to learn or remember him. It seemed he had completely lost interest in Luke Barton. And soon I realized why. In ten seconds or so. When from his nostril a narrow stream of dense blood flowed out. And he, without changing his facial expression, crashed to the floor…

***

He easily got to his feet, went to the backpack lying in the grass and took out … a chicken. An ordinary white chicken with a red comb and the dots of eyes. There was something so circus-like in it I almost laughed.

But I didn’t have to laugh.

For some reason, Dan gave the chicken to me. Then he pulled out of his backpack and spread on the grass a large square of dense cellophane. Before I had time to ask about something, a folding knife snapped in his fist.

“Hold it.”

“What for?” — I asked, stumbling.

“Cut off her head — Dan put a comfortable handle in my palm — Just hold it tight. Best of all, for the paws. They flutter and sometimes even run around. Do it accurately, on the mat. Well, go ahead! What are you waiting for?

He wasn’t joking.

“But why is it necessary?

I said this for to say something. I was confused. “There are two reasons — calmly answered Dan — first, you’re having it for dinner tonight. Second, this is a part of the training you need.

“Actually, I wanted to learn how to shoot,” I reminded.

“To shoot means to kill — snapped Dan — In real life, it doesn’t look like in the movies. I would say a little more realistic.

I stupidly froze embracing a chicken and with a knife in my hand. I couldn’t believe all this was really happening.

“A man, Linda, even though he’s created in the image of God, is full of chitterlings. Brains, guts, cartilages and all that. When you slash him with a sword, all these things fall out of him with hot pieces. These pieces, moreover, often smell disgusting and strange. For those who aren’t ready for this, it’s better not to touch the weapon.

***

Twenty yards away stood a man in a black suit and a snow-white shirt. Old-fashioned haircut, short pants, boring pale face. On the battlefield, he looked like a sore thumb.

Nevertheless, he was playing with hanging on his shoulder M-16 with joyful ease. On the trunk of the machine was a beautiful long silencer. “Grasshopper”…

The corpses of our enemies were scattered on the glade.

Having saw Dan, the lean came closer. They didn’t embrace. They didn’t even shake hands.

“Hello, Mitchell — the voice of the stranger was as colorless as himself — You look gorgeous. Resemble an aging gay activist.

“I try to be in shape. And you, Mosley, have become even more like an office boy.”

“You know I’m an office boy.” Who are these dudes in cheap suits?

He nodded at the corpses lying around.

“League of Law”.

“Ah, these punks …” the stranger said indifferently.

It seemed that he didn’t notice me and the lawyer. As if we didn’t exist.

“Did you come alone?” — the Colonel asked.

“No, with the National Guard battalion,” Mosley answered sourly. “Who do you think you’re, Mitchell?” You better tell me, how do you manage it?

“What are you talking about?” — Dan asked.

“About your fucking luck, old werewolf! I was in Brussels for seven… for almost eight days. A wedding message from you I got twenty minutes ago. Having gone down the ladder. How do you do it, son of a bitch? All your life!

“By the way, this is Linda and Julian — said Dan instead of an answer. It sounded like he remembered about us just now.

“Listen, this is already a diagnosis!” — our savior briefly laughed. Why are they all Lindas?” Today I’ll tell the secretary to send you a list of women’s names. Well, there, Catherine, Margaret, Anne, Sarah … — He finally turned to us — Hi, I’m Mosley.

“Julian Pierce” — introduced himself the lawyer.

“I’m Linda,” I said. And rigidly added — And I was called so at birth.

Mosley merely shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

“It happens.

“Wait, a minute” — Dan walked away and quickly returned, carrying a few full pistol clips.

He handed one of them to me.

“Take it. To the victor go the spoils.

I drove the clip into the “Glock” and asked:

“Can I take the bracelet? Just as a memory.”

“Don’t be crazy! As a memory … Don’t even look back at her. No matter what happens. I’m not kidding”.

I didn’t argue. I didn’t look back. Because he wasn’t joking.

“Okay, I have to go” – Mosley said in a nasty voice.” Good for you, but I’m a modest civil servant. I need to write a report till night. A boring one and long, like “Ulysses”. To bring it tomorrow by 10 a.m. to Camp David.”

We went to the road. One of the “dudes” showed the weak signs of life, and Mosley, without even turning, broke his head with a short burst.

***

They were very close. Dan stood with his back to me, Julian in half a turn.

I squeezed my back against the trunk of the old tree and froze.

“My intuition is weaker than yours once in five hundred, sir …”

It didn’t matter that I didn’t recognize the lawyer’s voice at all. I knew it was he who said it.

“But it never fails. If I feel something, then so it is. With no options!

Julian was clearly expecting questions. But Dan was silent, and he had to continue.

“I used to have strong enemies, believe me. But this is quite another matter. This is a quite another floor and a completely different scale. It’s not my level of evil. … Why are you silent?”

“I’m listening to you.” Mitchell’s voice sounded serene, and this absolutely knocked Pierce out of the rut.

“Stop it! You know that I’m right. We faced something so huge that only a madman can resist it! You said it yourself yesterday! Using other words…”

He fell silent, again clearly waiting for an answer. This time Dan decided, not help him.

“Okay, I’ll say differently — Pierce spoke more quietly, but no less firmly — Fighting with a strong enemy is courage. Trying to stop a tsunami or to keep a falling building is madness. I’m not a coward, sir. But I’m not mentally ill.”

“Good for you,” — answered Mitchell -” As for me, not a single medical commission has ever had a common opinion… “

***

Mitchell wasn’t exaggerating. He obviously had a deep and complicated relationship with death.

Because the blank wall of the forest to the right of the road suddenly disappeared. As if God had moved a thick curtain, making the world a little lighter.

We saw a vast clearing. It wasn’t even a glade, but something incomprehensible. I don’t know who and what for knocked out a square a thousand square yards in the middle of a dense forest. Bumpy, covered with brown stumps of not uprooted trees, the square looked like a small tank firing range.

Mitchell turned at it with such willingness as if he knew about its existence since childhood. The squeal of the brakes behind our backs was shrill and fierce. Evil furiously squealed from his own helplessness.

It was unreal to move behind us in squat, armored cars, light cars. Even our tractor crawled along a strange square slowly and with difficulty. The pimples of rotting stumps kept scratching the bottom. Several times we were about to overturn.

“We’ve got a hit, haven’t we?” – noted Dan.

“It doesn’t express it, sir — Julian wiped his sweaty forehead — But why don’t they shoot us?”

“Out of philanthropy, I suppose,” replied the Colonel.

***

The professor said this with sullen anger, but Dan pretended not to hear anything.

“Let’s start with the main thing, Professor,” he said casually. “Shall we have to torture you, or you will show hospitality?”

The professor looked up. I already knew he gets soberer only from fear and not for long.

He took turns looking at each of us. That helped him to make a wise choice.

“Ask … — swinging, he answered — What the fuck is the difference?.

“There’s a lady among us, be courteous — Dan asked him — or I’ll correct the doctors’ forecasts a little.

“I say as I want to,” muttered Reynolds. “Stop scaring me.” You need me alive. Otherwise, you will have to look for a needle in a haystack.

“There’s nothing easier,” Julian said.

“Really? — Professor raised his eyes — Come on, share your knowledge, my black brother …”

He seemed to feel the interest for the first time in the whole conversation.

“Why do you need this? said Mitchell vindictively to take it to the grave?”

This time Reynolds pretended not to have heard.

“You burn a haystack,” Pierce said abruptly. “And then move a magnetic bar over the stain of ash.”

I jerked of feeling the blade-sharp teeth on my wrist. The touch was very gentle. The piggy-killer wasn’t going to tear off my hand but just reminded me of itself. I stroked it on a flat skull and heard a blissful grunting.

“Your friend is at least an erudite cynic, Mitchell — the professor looked at Dan with a sneer — and you’re just an old thug …”

***

I began to understand what Dan meant when he said that he had «some questions” to God…

“Here’s the cavalry,” Julian said without a smile.

Hid behind the thick bushes, like kids, we were looking at the car driving along the shore.

Of course, on the lake, hidden in the backwoods of an abandoned reserve, there could be several old berths. Nevertheless, we chose the right one. The Universe was for us. God loves infantry.

Black Mercedes stopped at some fifty yards from us. Its headlights went out. The door gently clicked.

The car looked like its owner. The same low-key self-confidence, the same impetuosity without a hint of fussiness.

Tall, steady and lean, Castle’s looked much younger in life than on the TV screen. Women surely liked him. The black, combed back hair. Expressive eyes. Not a single vulgar trifle. Good old Boston. Expensive simplicity in the tenth generation.

He didn’t look tense, but Dan was right having decided not to smoke. Too much of the wolf was in the guise of a beautiful and young Senator Castle.

Not seeing a friend, he glanced at his watch. Then, unhurriedly, stepped on the creaky planks of the pier and, going up to its edge, for a few minutes was admiring the melting dawn haze.

When he turned around, Julian, Dan, and I were already on the beach…

“ONE”

 

“Happiness #1”

Looked like I’d done it. Gotten things started anyway.

Time to pity the world.

No other way to put it, I was gonna unleash a plague…

But I felt nothing even remotely like remorse. Mother Earth would get exactly what she deserved. The bitch. She’d given me nothing but sloped shoulders, a flat chest, a flabby ass, and legs like bowling pins.

Plus wispy white hair, skin as pale and thin as toilet paper, and a slit for a mouth.

And she expected me to feel something like shame or compassion?! Really?

Only Mother Earth’s favorites wish her well.

But this isn’t about me…

I stopped and looked around. The subway station I’d left twenty minutes earlier had faded into the background. I was alone. It was near dark. The street’s old warehouses had been scooped up and soon would make way for cushy lofts. But, at the moment, it wasn’t a pretty picture. The ruins were fading to black in the early February gloom. Boarded-up windows and doors howled in the wind. Phantoms haunted the crooked chimney tops.  A rat scurried across the street…

“Happiness #1”

I worked in a completely unorthodox way. And with a strange, hysterical conviction to see it through to the end. But, at the same time, with cold calculation. If that’s inspiration, then it’s far from the most pleasant sensation on Earth…

Everything turned out to be more complicated than I anticipated. But no cobwebs of doubt could cling to my brain, swollen as it was with chemical formulae. I hadn’t known that such conviction was possible. Pitiless, absolute, and a little evil… As if I truly were a witch.

When I realized my idea had worked, it was either dawn or sunset, I couldn’t tell, and I had no idea of the day or date. Staring dully ahead, I felt neither joy nor relief. Nothing like I should have. After sitting in a stupor for some time, I went into the bathroom on trembling legs. I craved a hot bath more than anything, but feared I might drown. So I just stood under the shower for a while. I somehow managed to towel myself off and fall on the unmade bed.

But I didn’t sleep right away.

“A name… The name is very important, like christening a ship…”

My tortured brain refused to work. The decision came by itself. Out of nowhere.

“Happiness! Of course, happiness. Happiness No. 1…”

“Happiness #1”

Going up the narrow stairs I could feel how tired I was. My legs screamed, unaccustomed to long walks. First in springtime Manhattan. Then through a Brooklyn industrial zone – dismal, a dungeon. Now, even the thought of observing the lucky bum seemed crazy. I wanted one thing: a bath. To lay down in hot water, close my eyes, and feel my aching body return to normal.

Jingling my keys as usual, I stepped into my apartment.

I didn’t quite make it as planned. Because the world suddenly became unbearably evil and unpredictable. I was almost deafened by the sound of a gunshot. Then heard a couple of loud howls, and a horrible crunch. I found myself, for some reason, on my back with a stabbing pain. Unbearable, searing, pulsing.

“Lord, what agony!” flashed through my spinning head.

I probably lost consciousness. How did I manage to see everything that happened in those few seconds, compressed to an instant, in the half-darkness of my single?

Little Jorge, dead eyes bulging, was slumped up against my old refrigerator. A second guy, one I’d never seen, with short hair, was sprawled across the floor next to my lab table. And the long-legged bum, calm and businesslike, like he was fixing a stool, broke, with a twist, dull-eyed Manolo’s neck. In the bum’s paws, Manolo seemed even skinnier than before.

“Where did he come from?” I wondered dully. I left him on the other side of the street, next to the news stand. That part I remembered precisely.

Manolo’s neck broke with the dry snap of seasoned kindling, which would probably have made me puke. Except for the boundless pain, which left room for nothing else, even the queasiness and horror.

“Let’s go. Move it!”

After dropping Manolo’s body on the floor like a dirty rag, the bum grabbed me by the hand. Got me on my feet. Dragged me down the stairs.

Running toward us, skipping steps, pistol in hand, was the thug whom Jorge had called Tommy. He raised the weapon. But the “orangutan” grabbed the thug’s wrist, twiated it, and jammed the pistol’s barrel in his mouth. Then he decorated the stairway wall with a greyish-red nimbus. Did it all deliberately, but instantly, on the fly.

“That’s not possible,” I sluggishly thought, already feeling the cool of the

street on my face.

“Happiness #1”

 

“I have only one question,” I said, trying to speak a bit more politely than earlier. “How did you know they wanted to kill me? Why did you follow me at all? Was it a coincidence?”

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Dan said, shaking his head. “Nothing in this world happens accidentally.”

“Then how did you find out?! You simply couldn’t have known!”

After a moment’s hesitation he pushed away the papers and lit a cigarette.

“How did I know? I sensed it.”

“How could you sense it?! That’s ridiculous!”

The colonel shrugged one powerful shoulder, just a bit.

“You learn a lot of things in the army. Sometimes – strange things. I, for example, sometimes know that events will happen.”

He raised his eyes in my direction. It felt like I was bathing in a cool stream. I sat across from him, intending to leave quickly. To stay firm, I angrily asked him straight out: “Where are my clothes?”

“Are you kidding? I tossed them in multiple garbage cans 15 miles from here. It’s bad enough that they’re covered in blood. They might have narcotics. And I won’t bring narcotics into my home.”

“How law abiding.” I laughed ironically and nodded at the neatly folded clothes. “You right about the sizes? You sure?”

“They’re fine, don’t worry. Like I said – you learn a lot in the army.”

“Happiness #1”

 

“Linda, if you think that I spoke about your friend lightly or disrespectfully, I ask you to forgive me. He died like a real man. He died like a hero. We’ll avenge his death.”

And then he sat right back down, relaxed, and lit a cigarette. The ceremonies were over. I finally somewhat understood what funerals are like in our unending, anonymous wars. When they bury the latest American kid in yet another jungle.

But Dan’s words had surprised me.

“Excuse me, did you say ‘avenge,’?” I asked timidly.

“Yes,” the colonel was terse.

I was irritated and slightly angry.

“Dan, what are you saying? Whom can we go after? How? Stop it. You yourself said that right now the main thing is to lie low.”

“That’s right. That’s what I said. But circumstances have changed. Saving your life is our primary mission. But life can become meaningless. Believe me, you will not be able to live normally, knowing that you could have avenged your friend’s death and didn’t.

He said this all without pity. Like we were discussing the weather. I became confused.

“Hold it. How do you intend to find the murderers? Whom will we punish? It’s nonsense. And, frankly, I am far more worried about Daisy…”

“Don’t you worry.”

That sounded a bit dismissive. But, before I could open my mouth to protest, the colonel continued, “Drink some coffee and, please, get a grip on yourself. It’s very important to me that you listen carefully and think quickly.”

“Happiness #1”

Dan grabbed him by the wrist, sharply turned him (it reminded me again of Seagal) and kicked him hard with a boot between the legs. Very hard.

Kicks like that can kill, I thought, surprisingly calmly.

But the guy didn’t die. Just fell on his bony knees, his eyes bugging out, mouth gasping for air. Like a fish thrown on the beach.

“So here’s how it goes,” Dan said precisely, without emotion, “I ask. You answer. Who tortured and killed Jack Fiedelman? You and who else?”

“Fuck you…” hissed the thin bandit, on his knees with a broken arm.

Here, the colonel did something unthinkable. Though I didn’t see any unusual movement. The thug, panting, howled, and his eyes reddened instantly. His legs drummed spastically on the floor.

“I didn’t hear you.”

This time he talked, choking on his words. Feverishly, showing a kind of fear that was both childlike and bestial. More than anything on Earth, he was terrified that what just happened to him could be repeated.

“No, I… swear to God… Don’t, just don’t! It was Ernesto’s idea. Ernesto. He likes to hurt people.”

“Well, that must make you Mother Theresa,” the colonel said quietly. “I saw how good you are at hitting girls in the face.”

“Don’t… I just… She’s the one who gave up… Fiedelman…  She even rang the bell so he’d open the door. And today she promised us the cow who rented the place where Jorge and his people were killed. She’d already split. Oh, don’t—”

“Where does Ernesto live?” Mitchell asked in the same quiet, flat tone.

“Here. He lives here!” the skinny cried. “Don’t do that again, please. He’ll be right back, just went for cigarettes… Momma—”

“Say ‘Jack Fiedelman’,” Dan ordered.

“Jack Fiedelman,” the prisoner repeated obediently and fell dead to the kitchen floor. The colonel had made one more incomprehensibly-quick twisting motion. I couldn’t imagine that people could move so quickly. But I did manage to see the skinny thug die with my friend’s name on his lips. Suddenly, the bloodbath made sense. If you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll see for yourself. Until then, take my word for it.

“Happiness #1”

 

“Yes, I know what his organization does!” Dan interrupted, loud and unfriendly, “And I know that his real name is about as likely to be John West as mine is to be John Lennon. But, nonetheless, you are my guests. So, please, have a seat. Whiskey?”

The sofa was old but strong. They don’t make them like that anymore. But, for a moment, I was horrified, as if I’d gotten an electric shock. I imagined that the two big strong men would sit on the sofa and crush me like a bug.

“No, thank you,” hissed the Fox. “We just dropped in for a minute. I, frankly, don’t quite understand your aggression, colonel.”

Apparently, he glanced at his military companion, who spoke up:

“You know, Dan, that you’re supposed to get checked.”

“What kind of damn checkup? The office can’t wait to declare me a schizophrenic? And hide me away in a nut house for the rest of my life?”

John West, the Fox, sighed heavily.

“You need to understand us, colonel. You’ll agree that the service has reason to be concerned when an officer of your rank lives in slums and empty lots. And, even if that cannot be avoided, we at least need to be convinced, if you’ll excuse me, that you are in fact of sound mind. Before you have another relapse, that is, and decide to sleep in a park beneath a bush.”

He went quiet, apparently expecting a reaction from Dan, who remained eloquently silent. Even pinned between the sofa and the floor, I knew what his eyes were like at that moment.

“You have very powerful protection, colonel,” the Fox’s voice rustled secretively. “Unusually strong. Essentially, though, it’s not surprising. You, without a doubt, are a national hero, but… Even I don’t know how best to put it. National security is our top priority. You certainly understand that. Oh, and who is the young lady who’s been visiting you? Or is she perhaps living here?”

“None of your business,” the colonel answered calmly.

“Obviously,” ‘the Fox’ agreed unctuously. “Your private life and all that… It’s just that your personal files says that you loved your wife unreservedly. And never betrayed her, not even after she passed. So does homelessness act so strongly on one’s beliefs?”

A pause hung in the air.

“Dan, please,” the military visitor said in an admonishing tone.

“Listen here you, John, or whatever your name is,” the colonel said quietly, and precisely. “If you show up here again, I’ll break your spine. And my, as you call them, ‘powerful protectors’ will confirm that you were like that when you arrived. Understand? Now get the fuck out of here. And you, Wesley, don’t bring any more scum around here. I might have expected it from someone else, but not you. Better to come alone. We’ll sit and have a drink. Talk about the old days.”

“Of course, Dan. Certainly.” The military visitor obviously felt that he had not carried out the mission he’d been assigned.

“I was warned, Mitchell, that this wouldn’t be easy,” the Fox hissed, already at the door. “But, honestly, I didn’t think it would be this difficult. And I have to disappoint you, but we won’t be leaving you alone. And you’ll be examined, willingly or not.”

“Happiness #1”

“What is there to understand?” he said, calmly lighting a fresh cigarette. “You need I.D. Real, official documents. Registered according to all the rules. As they should be. Only with a new name and the corrected age. The right ones.”

“Is that possible?”

“Why not?” the colonel shrugged an enormous shoulder. “I served my country faithfully for many years. I don’t think it will refuse me such a trifle.”

“A trifle maybe for you,” I thought. But I remembered what I’d heard when pressed to the floor beneath the couch. And immediately I realized what was what.

“Your ‘powerful protectors’? The ones that horrible guy mentioned? Please don’t tell me that the President of the United States is going to take care of my new I.D.!”

I was joking, of course.  But the colonel responded completely seriously and calmly. As if we were discussing something entirely possible.

“No. I haven’t met the current president. Didn’t even vote for him. And I don’t much like what he’s been up to.

Dan looked like he was about to reach for another cigarette.

“You’re smoking too much,” ripped out of me involuntarily. For the first time in a month that had seemed like a year. And completely unconsciously. As if, to say this, I had needed to cross some invisible boundary. What sort? Intimacy? Loyalty? Gratitude? Trust? I hunkered down, expecting an explosion. But the colonel’s voice sounded gentler than usual.

“Yes! I adore the smoke of the aromatic tobacco leaf.”

“It’s not good for you,” I said timidly.

“That’s enough, Linda. It was always considered normal, but now it’s not good for me. Less than 100 years ago, drugstores sold headache pills made with cocaine. And drinking whiskey was strictly forbidden. During the Second World War, every American soldier, every day, was issued six amphetamine pills. But now, as you see, we have to smoke marijuana, not tobacco. The latest fad. Civilians love to complicate life.”

“I don’t want to upset you, but people die from it,” I was getting more daring, and refused to surrender.

The colonel was silent for a moment. Then said, with no self-pity, “You know, I’ve had plenty of chances to see how people die. From bullets, of course. From bayonets, from mines. But from a cigarette – never. I mean for someone to be sitting there, having a smoke, and then suddenly fall down dead. No. I’m lying, I did see that once. Right next to me, actually,” the colonel said, taking a drag with obvious pleasure. “A lieutenant lit a smoke at just the wrong time. An enemy sniper was in position on a nearby hill…”

“Happiness #1”

 

“Dan, you could live in a house. Simply live, like a human being.”

The colonel’s forehead wrinkled.

“Listen, Linda, stop will you? How do you imagine that exactly? That I’d fry bacon and eggs in the morning? Gas-up the car? Plant rose bushes along the front path?”

“Why not?” I shot back his favorite question.

Mitchell didn’t respond right away. His eyes seemed bottomless.

“Because it only makes sense to do things for the sake of someone else,” he finally wheezed quietly. “What was it that you called your narcotic garbage? ‘Happiness’?”

“‘Happiness No 1,'” I corrected him.

“I think that happiness is living and dying for the one you love.”

Come with me to Europe, my beloved, blue-eyed idiot! I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs until I lost my voice.

But I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t dare take this strong person away from a memory that hurt constantly, like an amputated leg. From his tender ghosts. A man who had accepted me as I was. And put up with me for almost a month. Lord, only a month! It seemed like years.

“I don’t know a word of Swiss,” I offered, if only to avoid thinking. [major non sequitur.]

“There’s no such thing as Swiss, as a language, that is” Dan responded, without a hint of ridicule in his voice. “They speak three languages: German, French, and Italian, I think. But that’s not important.”

“Why not?” I didn’t understand.

“Because, when you have more than a million dollars in their bank, those gnomes are prepared to speak Mongolian, not to mention English.”

“Happiness #1”

I kept silent and, therefore, he was compelled to continue. “I don’t know who you think your new friend Dan Mitchell is, but he’s schizophrenic. A sick man. And this is not a metaphor, it’s the opinion of specialists. Moreover, his mind split long before his personal tragedy. Before his wife and daughter perished. While at war. Unfortunately, I can’t share certain details. But believe me, he is very dangerous. In the past eight years, he was found three times during sweeps of the homeless. And each time, instead of being hidden away in a loony bin, he was placed in an elite military hospital. For testing, you understand. Though he’s as strong as a bull. The President of the United States himself has more than once has mentioned ‘my friend Dan Mitchell.’ And don’t tell me, Miss Bush, that you haven’t noticed his… oh, how can I put it delicately? His peculiarities…”

“That’s it! It’s Dan. They need Dan!” I felt my heart beating painfully with alarm.

“The degenerates in the Pentagon, who did not want to force his retirement from the army in a timely manner, should be court-martialed.” Sanders said it so convincingly that it seemed he really believed it. “Those fools with their stupid hats. In their tiny brains, personal courage and the ability to kill make up for everything!”

“But isn’t that true?” I needed to understand his intentions, yet still, I didn’t.

“Stop,” Sanders said, frowning. “Psychotic killers are also feared, but cops shoot them down like rabid dogs. And rightly so.”

He again rattled his candy tin. And I realized that, in two years, his desire to smoke hadn’t gone away.

“Sorry, but I… how can I help you?” I asked, refusing with a shake of my head another raspberry candy.

“We agreed to be open with one another, right?” He looked at me, eyes wide and friendly. “I can help you Miss Bush. We can work with the cops to get your new I.D., move you to the other side of the country, get you a good job. And you, you could help me a great deal.”

“Me, help you?!”

It sounded too wild to be true. I lowered the window, feeling like I couldn’t breathe.

“And how, just out of curiosity, could I possibly help you?”

Sanders coughed a bit, troubled by a candy.

“Let’s just agree from the start that you’ll react calmly to what I say, okay? You’re a grown woman, Miss Bush, and you know that oranges don’t grow on pine trees. And that Santa Claus is really just played by costumed college kids and unemployed actors. Moreover, in your position, you really don’t have much of a choice. You’ll excuse me for reminding you.”

A rather long introduction, I thought with growing alarm.

“Colonel Mitchell knows too much for a fool living with the homeless and crawling around the empty lots of  NYC. Yes, today he’s living in a house and playing some sort of a game to save you. But no one knows what will come into his head tomorrow. He is mentally ill, Miss Bush. Mentally ill, and knows countless  military secrets. He’s a time bomb. A threat to American security.”

“I can reassure you in that regard, Mr. Sanders,” I interrupted. “Dan has not revealed a single military secret our entire time together. You have my word.”

“I believe you.” Looking directly at me, the agent had eyes that were honest and clear, which made me very uneasy. “I believe you, Miss Bush. But who can predict the behavior of a man who is mentally ill? You? Me? No one! I am officially responsible for keeping tabs on him, but I’m bound hand and foot. I know a great deal, but there is nothing I can do! He has many influential friends. Congressmen, senators, generals, ex-presidents. Even within our organization, many consider him a living legend.” He reached again for his candy, angrily changed his mind, and rolled his soft, clean palm into a fist. “I am powerless. Powerless, you understand?”

“Right now? No, I really don’t get it,” I confessed. “What do you want from me? You want me to what, kill the colonel before he blabs the country’s military secrets to the Chinese or the Russians?”

I laughed nervously at the joke. But only after seeing Sanders’s reaction did I feel a chill run up my spine.

“I’m glad you said it first, Miss Bush. Your friends, drug dealers, and other such filth, are the ones who commit murder. Those who serve their country usually prefer the word ‘liquidate.'”

“Seriously?”

The world again rocked beneath me, making me nauseous.

“I won’t get another chance like this,” Sanders said, no longer looking at me, but straight ahead. “That psychopath is on the brink of a crisis. He’ll put you out in the street. Then, he’ll disappear, like he has so many times before. First, you’ll end up in the paws of the police. Then, you’ll be found underneath some bridge with your throat slit. Mitchell will hang out at brothels and flophouses, spewing state secrets. And the geniuses who today forbid me from laying a finger on him will destroy me for mucking up my assignment! A marvelous future! Does it suit you? Me, not so much.”

“So, how do you imagine it would go down?” I said, of course, not intending to kill Dan. I was just curious.

“I’ll give you a pill,” Sanders’s voice had lost any hint of emotion and weakness and resumed its confiding, quiet tone. “A remarkable pill. Will he take it from you? Of course, why am I even asking?”

“Great idea! But I’d become—”

“You won’t become anything, relax. The target dies instantly of a heart attack, and all traces of the poison disappear within four hours. You can confidently affect boundless grief, play it any way you want.”

Neither of us said anything for most of a minute. Understandably, I gave in first.

“Mr. Sanders, do you even understand what you have proposed?”

“I told you not to behave like a girl,” the agent growled. “You’re, in essence, already dead. All I have to do is take you to the nearest police station. And whether you die an agonizing death in a cell there, or in Brooklyn, is merely a technicality.”

“Can I think about it?” I for some reason asked.

“There’s nothing to think about,” Sanders said, cutting me off. “This is your only chance to live. Let’s not delay the liquidation. Get the job done first thing. Here’s the pill.” He carefully took, from an inner pocket of his coat, a small, clear plastic bag containing a tiny white tablet. “Put it in anything at all. Whiskey, coffee, tea, milk, soup. It makes no difference.”

“Happiness #1”

Philip wrote in beautiful block letters.

Linda, my love,

Here we are, far apart. I can’t touch you. So, I have nothing left but words. And I’m not very good with those, sorry.

I fell in love with you the moment I saw you. I honestly felt a chill run through me. For the first time in my life. I had no idea that could happen.

I knew so little before we met. I had not known true pleasure or desire. And I honestly did not believe in love.

You are the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me. You’re probably out there in California laughing at me. Well, that’s fine. I still remember every square inch of your delightful body. And always will.

I’m convinced now that our separating was the worst possible mistake. But, no, I understand everything. Who am I anyway? No money, no connections, not a single building to my name, and no clear plans. But I’ll earn money. And, God willing, I’ll build dozens of projects. But we’ll never meet again. The thought that you’ll touch another man (not just one, of course) makes me want to jump off a bridge. No joke.

I don’t know why you paid me any attention at all. Pity, maybe?

I’m not fated to meet anyone like you ever again. Because there is no one else like you. You are the most beautiful, the sexiest, the gentlest, the most desirable, the most… I can’t find the right words. I warned you that I wasn’t a writer.

Your father is an amazing man. I’ve never met anyone like him either. He hasn’t got a shred of hypocrisy. And not a bit of cynicism. He was the one who told me you liked me (only don’t tell him I told you, okay?). He called that night to let me know you’d be at the club. Said I could try my luck. I’ll be grateful to him until the day I die.

I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes now with this letter. Thinking about whether to confess to you or not. I decided to tell you. I don’t want to have any secrets from you. Your father loaned me five thousand dollars. I got myself into a total mess in New York, honestly. But there’s no reason to think I’m a loser. Please. I’ll pay your father back very soon. Again, don’t tell him. I promised not to tell you about the money. He thinks that such things should stay between men.

That seems to be all I have to write.

Goodbye, my tender miracle.

I love you and will never forget you.

                                               Phil

“Happiness #1”

 

“Well, it’s time. God loves the infantry.”

“And what about you?” my lips quivered.

The colonel shrugged a mighty shoulder in his familiar way.

“I don’t know. But it’s going to be interesting to find out…”

“Let’s fly away together!” I never thought that I could shout without a sound. It turns out it’s actually possible.

“Stop it,” the colonel said, trying to be stern. It didn’t work. “That’s enough. Go. Good luck.”

His mighty hands peeled me away. I picked up the bag and the case and stepped to the door. And suddenly realized that this was not a movie. That I was leaving Colonel Dan Mitchell forever. The man who had shown me how to live. Who had patted my head in a bedroom smelling of a happy childhood. And who now was left alone at dawn in the middle of the forest, surrounded by music and the singing of birds. Left to die. Just so I could get on a plane flying to Paris or somewhere over there.

The taxi impatiently blinked its lights.

And I tore back, dropping my bag and the valuable case and threw myself against Dan’s chest and hugged him with all my strength around his massive neck.

“Dad!”

Of course, I didn’t really say that. I would never have dared. The Earth, suffering along with its orphans, silently exhaled it. Hundreds of millions of its children who could not remember their fathers’ shoulders. Which meant they’d never experienced the comfort of this quiet happiness. Which all can enjoy. But is given to so few.

There were tears on Dan’s cheek. Hot and salty.

The music got louder and more beautiful. Lord, what kind of world is this where you can’t say the most important things to those you love without Chopin?

“Thanks, young lady.” Despite everything, I heard and understood Dan quite well. “I don’t care what anyone says, but I think you found the real formula for happiness in the end. No. 1. Well, that’s it. Now it really is time to go. Who knows when these geniuses will show up? Farewell.”

I stepped back and lifted my bags. It was awkward to look up, but I did. And met a calm, spring water gaze. Which was not shedding a single tear. Of course, the tears I’d tasted were my own. If Colonel Dan Mitchell ever cried, it had been long ago. Very long ago…

“Happiness #1”

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