This is a pink and gray town which sits very small on the North edge of Africa. The coast is bone white and the sirocco comes through any time it wants to blow through. The town is dry with heat and sand.
The sirocco changes its character later, once it has crossed the Mediterranean, so that in Sicily, for example, the wind is much slower, much more moist and depressing. But over Okar it is still a very sharp wind. It does not blow all the time but it is always expected, fierce with heat and very gritty. The sand bites and the heat bites, and on one side the desert stops the town and on the other the sea shines like metal.
None of this harshness has made the inhabitants fierce. Some things you don’t fight. There are the Arabs there and there are the French. Once, briefly, there were the Germans, the Italians and the English, and a few of these remained. The people move slowly or quietly, sometimes moving only their eyes. This looks like a cautious, subdued way of living, and it is. Anything else would be waste.
There were not so long ago five in Okar who moved differently, perhaps because they forgot where they were, or maybe they could not help what happened; none of them is there any more. They were Remal, the mayor, who also did other things, and Bea, who did nothing much because she was waiting, and Whitfield, who was done waiting for anything, and Turk, who was so greedy he couldn’t possibly have made it. And Quinn, of course. Put simply, he came and went. But that’s leaving out almost everything…
“You got me out of my bath, you know,” said the clerk.
“Mister Whitfield,” said the captain, “this is your pier.”
“Because of this bleedin’ box you got me out of my bath.”
“Mister Whitfield. I’m tied up at your company’s pier, and in order to lower the box I need your permission.”
“If Okar isn’t the destination, why lower your box? And during siesta,” the clerk sighed.
“I’m sorry I interrupted your sleep.”
“I take a bath during siesta,” said the clerk. He did not seem angry or irritated, but he was interested in making his point. It reminded him of the bath and he smiled at the captain, or rather, he smiled just past his left ear.
The captain thought that the clerk did look very clean-Englishman-clean-and he thought that he smelled of gin. Take an Englishman and give him a job where the sun is very hot and he soon begins to smell of gin. Perhaps this one, for siesta, bathes in gin.
The captain squinted up at his ship which showed big and black against the sun, much bigger than the tramper actually was, because the pier was so low.
“The winch man dropped a crate on the box down in the hold,” said the captain, “and something cracked.”
“I can understand that,” said the clerk because he felt he should say something.
He looked at the captain and how the man sweated. How he sweats. Why doesn’t he shave off that beard? Siesta time and I must worry about his cracked box. Such a beard in this heat. Perhaps a Viking complex or something.
“So the crew in the hold,” said the captain, “two of the crew down there, they went and took a look and next they came out running and screaming. Uh-about something bad,” said the captain and looked the length of the empty pier.
The empty pier was white in the sun and much easier to look at for the moment than anything else, such as the clerk, for example, and his patient face. And why doesn’t he sweat-?
“Eh?” said the clerk.
“And they described a smell. A bad smell.”
The captain looked back at the clerk and went rasp, rasp in his throat, a sound to go with the beard.
“Now, you understand, don’t you, Whitfield, I can’t have something like that down there in my hold.”
“You’re Swedish,” said the clerk.
This sounds like nonsense, thought the captain, all of this, including Whitfield’s unconnected remark, because of the heat. Otherwise, everything would make sense. He made his throat rumble again, out through the beard, and thought a Swedish curse.
“Is your crew Swedish, too?” asked the clerk.
“Those two from the hold, they are Congolese.”
“And they described a strange smell. And perhaps a strange glow? You know, something wavering with a glow in the dark, eh?”
“Goddamn this heat,” said the captain. “Don’t talk nonsense, Whitfield.”
“Captain. You know how ghost-ridden they are, those Congolese. Very superstitious, actually.”
“Whitfield,” said the captain. “I understand you want to get back to sleep. I understand…”
“I take a bath during siesta.”
“I also understand about that, Whitfield, and that this is an annoyance to you, to come out here and sweat on the pier.”
“I’m not sweating,” said the clerk. His blond hair was dry, his light skin was dry, and the gin smile on his face made him look like an elderly boy. “However,” he said, “I wish you would take your box to destination. It would save us so much paperwork.” Then he thought of something else. “And I’m sure the smell doesn’t reach topside and nobody lives in the hold anyway.”
The captain looked way up at the sky, though the brightness up there hurt his eyes. Then he jerked his face at the clerk and started yelling with both eyes closed.
“I must look at the box and repair the box! I can’t repair on deck because of the freight lashed down there! All I request…”
“Heavens,” said the clerk, “how big is this box?”
“Like a telephone booth. No. Bigger. Like two.”
“Jet engine,” said the clerk. “I’ve seen those crates when the company had me in Egypt.”
“They-don’t-stink!” yelled the captain.
“Of course. Or glow in the dark.”
But the clerk saw now how the siesta was being wasted. With the gin wearing off on him under the heavy sun he got a feeling of waste and uselessness, always there when the gin wore off; when this happened he would take the other way he knew for combating these feelings, these really cosmic ones, in his experience, and he became indifferent.
“Very well,” he said. “Lower away, if you wish. Gently,” and with the last word he again and for a moment found his own dreaminess back. He smiled at nothing past the captain’s left ear, and then up at the ship where a box would soon be swinging over. For a moment, inconsequentially, he thought of a childhood time in a London mews; it was so clear and still, and he saw himself walking there, eyes up and watching his green balloon. How it floated.
All this went by when the captain roared suddenly, giving the clerk a start of fright and alertness. Someone roared back from the high deck of the tramper and then the winch started screeching.
“What was it this time?” said the clerk.
“The papers,” said the captain. “We need a bill of lading and so forth. Someone will bring them.”
“Ah,” said the clerk. “I should think so.”
The winch started up again but because of the strain on it the sound was now different. It mostly hummed. From the pier they could see the black line of the gunwale above, and the boom over the hold, the boom holding very still while the humming went on. The clerk, for no reason at all, felt suddenly hot.
“I’ll be glad,” said the captain, “to weigh anchor tonight.”
“Load, unload, go. Nothing else here.”
“In Okar?” said the clerk, feeling absent-minded.
“What else is here?”
“I don’t know,” said the clerk. “I don’t even know what is here.”
It’s the heat, thought the captain, which makes everything sound like nonsense, and when a seaman came off the ship, bringing a clipboard with papers, the captain grabbed for it as he might for the coattails of fleeing sanity.
“Where did you load this thing?” asked the clerk.
“New York.” The captain kept flipping papers. “And your route?”
“Tel Aviv, Alexandria, Madagascar, New York.”
“Find the destination of your thing yet?” The clerk looked up at the sky where the boom was, swaying a little now and all stiff and black against the white sky. Then the box showed.
“Just a minute,” said the captain and licked his finger. The box also looked black, because of the white sky. It was very large, and swayed.
“Where to?” the clerk asked again.
“New York. Un-”
The boom swung around now and the black load hung over the pier.
“New York is port of origin,” said the clerk. “You mentioned that earlier.”
“Just a minute-”
When the box was lowered the winch made a different sound once again, a give and then hold sound, a give then hold, a sagging feeling inside the intestines, thought the clerk as he watched the box come down. It grew bigger.
“New York,” said the captain.
“My dear captain. All I’ve asked…”
“Destination New York!” said the captain. “Here. Look at it!”
The clerk looked and said, “Queer, isn’t it. Port of origin, New York. Destination, New York.”
They both looked up at the box which swung very slowly.
“What’s in it?” asked the clerk.
“What’s in it. One moment now. Ah: PERISHABLES. NOTE: IMPERATIVE, KEEP VENTILATED.”
The clerk made a sound in his throat, somewhat like the captain’s rumble, though it did not rumble when the clerk made the sound but was more like a polite knock on a private door.
“That’s a very queer entry, captain. They do have regulations over there, you know, about proper entries.”
The captain did not answer and kept riffling the papers. The box was low now and really big. It no longer looked black, being away from the sky, but quite stained.
“And you know something else?” said the captain and suddenly slapped his hand on the clipboard. “There’s no customs notation here anywhere!”
Now the winchman above kept watching the seaman who stood on the pier. The seaman made slow signals with wrists and hands to show when the box would set down. He is an artist, thought the clerk, watching the seaman. Sometimes he only uses his fingers.
There were also two dark-looking Arabs who stood on the pier and waited. One held a crowbar, resting the thing like a lance. The other one had an axe.
The box touched, not too gently, but well enough. It just creaked once. A pine box, large and sturdy, with legends on the outside to show which side should be up. The side panels, close to the top, had slits. The top panel was crashed down at one end.
“It does smell, doesn’t it?” said the clerk.
“Christus-” said the captain.
The seaman by the box undid the hook from the lashing, fumbling with haste because he was holding his breath. When the hook swung free the seaman ran away from the box.
“Look at those Arabs,” said the clerk. “Standing there and not moving a muscle.”
“And in the lee of that thing yet,” said the captain.
Then the hook went up and the winch made its high sound. No one really wanted to move. The clerk felt the heat very much and the bareness of everything; he thought that the box looked very ugly. Siesta gone for that ugly box. It doesn’t even belong here. That thing belongs nowhere. Like the winch sound, the screech of it, which doesn’t belong in siesta silence.
Both Arabs, at that moment, gave a start.
“What?” said the captain.
The winch stopped because the hook was all the way up. The boom swung back but that made no sound.
“What?” said the captain again. He sounded angry. “What was that?”
But the Arabs did not answer. They looked at each other and then they shrugged. One of them grinned and rubbed his hand up and down on the crowbar.
“Goddamn this heat,” said the captain.
“Sirocco coming,” said the clerk.
They stood a moment longer while the captain said again that he had to be out of here by this night, but mostly there was the silence of heat everywhere on the pier. And whatever spoiled in the box there, spoiled a little bit more.
“Open it!” said the captain.
Some of the crew did not care one way or the other, but a lot of them were on the bridge of the tramper, because from the port end of the bridge they had the best view of the pier. They could almost look straight down into the box, once it would be open.
The captain stayed where he was and the clerk stayed with him, away from the box. Just the two Arabs went near it now because they were to open it and did not seem to mind anything. The seaman who had thrown the lashings off the hook was now back by the warehouse wall where he smoked a cigarette with sharp little drags.
“They’re ruining it, including the good parts of the box,” said the captain.
“You wanted it open,” said the clerk.
The Arabs had to cut the bands first, which they did with the axe. Then they used the axe and the crowbar to pry up the top, which took time.
“Well-” said the captain.
“Let it air out a moment,” said the clerk.
They waited and watched the two Arabs drop the lid to the ground and then watched them looking into the box. They just looked and when they straightened up they looked at each other. One of them shrugged and the other one giggled.
Up on the bridge the men leaned but said nothing. Perhaps they could not see well enough or perhaps they could not understand.
“All right,” said the captain and he and the clerk walked to the box.
I am probably, thought the clerk, the least interested of all. Why am I walking to somebody else’s box? I am less interested than the Arabs, even, because they get paid for this. I get no more whether I look or don’t look, which is the source of all disinterest, he considered, because nothing comes of it.
He and the captain looked into the box at the same time, seeing well enough, saying nothing, because they did not understand anything there.
“Shoes?” said the clerk after a moment. “You see the shoes?” as if nothing on earth could be more puzzling.
“Why shoes on?” said the captain, sounding stupid. What was spoiling there spoiled for one moment more, shrunk together in all that rottenness, and then must have hit bottom.
The box shook with the scramble inside, with the cramp muscled pain, with the white sun like steel hitting into the eyes there so they screwed up like sphincters, and then the man inside screamed himself out of his box.
He leaped up blind, hands out or claws out, he leaped up in a foam of stink and screams, no matter what next but up It happened he touched the clerk first. The clerk was slow with disinterest. And when the man touched he found a great deal of final strength and with his hands clamped around the clerk’s neck got dragged out of the box because the clerk was dragging and the captain tried to help drag the clerk free. Before this man from the box let go they had to hit him twice on the back of the head with the wooden axe handle.
“I need a bath,” said the clerk.
“Do you have any gin at home?” asked the captain. “I thought perhaps if you had any gin at home…”
“Yes, yes,” said the clerk, “come along. You have the gin while I have the bath.” They walked down the main street of Okar which was simply called la rue, because the official Arab name was impossible for most of the Europeans and the European names of the street had changed much too often.
“That isn’t much of a hospital you have there,” said the captain.
“The Italians built it. For the ministry of colonial archives.”
“They were hardly here long enough.”
“Look at the hotel,” said the clerk.
They looked at the hotel while they kept walking along the middle of the main street. They could not use the sidewalk which was sometimes no more than a curb. When it was not just a curb there would be chairs and tables which belonged to a coffee house, or stalls with fly-black meat where the butcher was, or perhaps lumber because a carpenter worked on the ground floor. It was that kind of a main street, not very long, and the hotel was the biggest building and even had thin little trees in front.
“It reminds me of Greece,” said the captain. “I don’t mean really Greek, but I can’t think of anything closer.”
“The Germans built it, and they were here less time than the Italians.”
“In America,” said the captain, “it would be a bank.”
“It was a Kaserne. You know, garrison quarters, or something like that.”
They talked like that until they came to Whitfield’s house, because they did not quite know what to say about the other matter. The clerk showed the way up a side street, through an arch in a house where a breeze was blowing, across the courtyard in back, and to the house behind that.
“The French built it,” he said. “They were here the longest.”
“The Arabs didn’t build anything?”
“There are native quarters,” said Whitfield, with his tone just a little bit as if these were still Empire days.
His two rooms were on the second floor and there was even a balcony. The captain looked at the balcony while the clerk yelled down the stairs for his Arab to bring two buckets of water and some lemon juice. There was no view, the captain saw, just rooftops and heat waves above that. And the balcony was not usable because it was full of cartons.
“You do have gin,” said the captain.
“Those are empty.”
The clerk turned the ceiling fans on, one in each room, and then went to the landing again to yell for the Arab. He came back, taking off his clothes.
“I don’t think he’ll come,” he said and threw his jacket on a horsehair couch. The couch was not usable because it was full of books.
“Who, the mayor?”
“No, Remal will come. He said so in the hospital.”
“I don’t understand why he wanted to see you and me.”
“That’s because he didn’t say.”
The clerk kept walking all this time and dropping his clothes. When he got to the second room he was quite naked.
There was a brass bed in this room, a dresser, and a tin tub with handles.
“I’ll just have to use the same water again,” said the clerk, and stepped into his tub.
“Did you say you had gin, Whitfield?”
The clerk sighed when he sat down in the water, reached down to the bottom of the tub, and brought up a bottle. The label was floating off.
“This way it keeps a degree of coolness,” he said. “There is ice only at the hotel. You see the glasses?”
The captain saw the glasses on the dresser and then was told to fetch also the clay jug from the window sill. The gray earthenware was sweating small, shiny water pearls which trembled, rolled over the belly of the jug and became stains shaped like amoebae.
“It’s a sour wine,” said the clerk. “Very safe,” and he uncorked the gin bottle.
They mixed gin and sour wine and the glasses felt fairly cool in their hands.
“ Min skoal din skoal,” said the clerk for politeness.
The captain didn’t recognize the pronunciation and said nothing. He made himself another glass while the clerk watched from the bathtub. There was a deep cushiony valley where the captain sat on the bed and the clerk thought, He looks like an egg sitting up, beard notwithstanding. I am drinking too fast “What a sight,” said the captain. “That creature we found there.”
The clerk stretched one leg out and put it on the rim of the tub. He looked at his toe, at the big one in particular, and thought how anonymous the toe looks. No face at all.
“I can’t remember what he looked like, do you know that?” said the captain. “All that hair and filth.”
“When he came to,” said the clerk, “the way he kept curling up.” He said it low, and to nobody, and when he thought of the man on the hospital bed he did with his toes what he had seen on the hospital bed. “God,” he mumbled, “the way he kept curling up-”
They said little else until the mayor came and they did not hear him because of the soft, native shoes he was wearing. Or because of the way he walked. Remal came straight into the bedroom, a very big man but walking as if he were small and light. Small steps which did not make him bounce or dip, but they gave an impression as if Remal could float.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said in English, and this also confused the impression he made. Remal looked as native as a tourist might wish. He had an immobile terra cotta face, with black female eyes and a thin male mouth. He wore a stitched skullcap which the clerk had once called a yamulke, to which Remal had answered, “Please don’t use the Jewish name for it again. Or I’ll kill you.” This politely, with a smile, but the clerk had felt sure that Remal meant it.
“I’ll fix you one of these,” said the captain, and looked around for another glass.
“Don’t,” said the clerk. He put his leg back into the tub and curled up in the water. “He’s Mohammedan, you know, but he won’t kill you because he’s also polite.”
“Please,” said Remal. He made a very French gesture of self-deprecation and smiled. “I’ll have something else. Where is your man?”
“Couldn’t find him. Disappeared. Captain, you might fix me a Christian-type cocktail.”
Remal left the room and went out to the landing and then the two men in the bedroom could hear him roar. “What was that?” and the captain stopped mixing.
“It’s a kind of Arabic which a European can never learn,” said the clerk.
When Remal came back he brought a chair along from the other room, flounced the long skirt of the shirt-like thing he was wearing, doing this in the only way a long, shirt-like thing can be handled, and sat down.
“Ah, Whitfield,” he said. “How relaxing to see you.”
“Stop flattering me. I will not give you the bathtub.”
An irreverent way, thought the captain, for a thin, naked man to talk to a big one like this mayor, but the light talk went on for a while longer while the captain sat in the valley of the bed and wondered what Remal wanted. Perhaps five minutes after the roar on the landing the clerk’s Arab came running into the room with a tray. It held a pot and a cup and the tea smelled like flowers. After everything had been put on the dresser, the clerk’s Arab ran out again very quickly because Remal had waved at him. Then Remal poured and everyone waited.
“That was a remarkable coffin,” he said when he was ready. “I looked the entire thing over with interest.”
“Custom-made,” said the clerk.
“It would have to be,” said Remal. “Few people would want such a thing.”
“About the man,” said the captain. “You wanted us to discuss…”
“Dear captain,” said the clerk. “Our mayor is being polite by not coming to the point. You were saying, Remal?”
“Yes, yes. This coffin had everything.”
“I don’t think so,” said the captain. “Not by the smell of it.”
“Perhaps,” said Remal, and drank tea. “But I was thinking, to lie in your own offal does have a Biblical significance, doesn’t it?”
“And the box man is a Christian fanatic,” said the clerk. “You better watch out, Remal.”
“This is ridiculous,” said the captain. “I want…”
“You are interrupting Remal,” said the clerk. “You were interrupting one of his silences.”
In a way, thought the captain, this Arab is taking a lot from the clerk.
“There were remarkable arrangements for a long journey,” said Remal. “A great number of water canisters strapped to the side of the coffin…”
“Can’t you say box?”
“Of course, Whitfield. And a double wall filled with small packets of this food, this compressed food the American soldiers used to carry.”
“You think he’s an American?” asked the captain.
“Of course. Didn’t you load him in New York?”
The captain put his glass down on the floor and when he sat up again he looked angry.
“I got papers which say so and I got a box which looks like it. That’s all I know. The way it turns out, the damnable thing did not go through customs, my crew didn’t see the damnable thing coming on…”
“Didn’t they load it?”
“Crew doesn’t load. Longshoremen do the loading.”
“Ah. And port of origin and destination, I’m told, they are both the same. Americans do things like that, don’t they, Whitfield?” asked the mayor. “Perhaps a stunt.”
“A Christian-fanatic stunt,” said the clerk. He took water into his hands and dribbled it over his head. “I name thee Whitfield,” he murmured.
“As fanatics,” said Remal, “we would be more consequential.”
“Bathe in the blood of the lamb, not water.”
“I beg your pardon?”
I’ll get drunk too, thought the captain. That might be the best thing. But his glass was empty and he did not want to get up and squeak the bed.
“Yes,” Remal continued. “In the coffin, there were also those pills, to make the fanaticism more bearable.”
“The doctor analyzed them?”
“That will be a while,” said Remal. “I gave one or two, I forget how many, to my servant, and he became extremely sleepy.”
“Your scientific curiosity is almost Western,” said the clerk. He waited for something polite from the mayor, something polite with bite in it, but the mayor ignored the remark and quite unexpectedly came to the point. It was so unexpected that the captain did not catch on for a while.
“This person,” said the mayor and smoothed his shirt, “is your passenger, captain. I don’t quite see the situation.”
“Eh?” said the captain.
“I hardly see how he can stay.”
“You don’t see?” said the captain. He himself saw nothing at all. “Well, right now he’s in the hospital,” he said. It sounded like the first simple, sane thing to him in a long time.
“Yes. You put him there, captain.”
“I know. Just exactly…”
“Why don’t you take him out?”
“Take him out? But I’m leaving this evening.”
“Take him with you.”
“But he’s sick!”
“He’s alive. And your passenger.”
The captain made an exasperated swing with both arms, which caused the bed to creak and the glass to fall over.
“Whitfield,” he said, “what in hell-what-”
“He wants you to take the man from the box along with you,” said the clerk. Then he took water into his mouth and made a stream come out, like a fountain.
“I will not! ”
“And stop calling him my passenger!” yelled the captain. “He’s a stowaway and there’s no law on land or sea which tells me, the captain, that I must transport a stowaway!”
Next came a silence, which was bad enough, but then the mayor put his teacup down and shrugged slightly. This made the captain feel gross and useless.
“Dear captain,” said Remal and looked at his fingernails, “you are leaving tonight, you say?” Then he looked up. “I could hold your ship here for any number of reasons. Mayor in Okar, I think, means more than mayor in Oslo, for instance. You may find I combine several functions and powers under this one simple title.”
“Just a minute!” His own voice shocked the captain, but then he didn’t care any more. “I’m not taking him. I’m not even taking the time to show you the regulations. I’m not even taking the time to ask why in the damn hell you’re so interested in getting the man out of here.”
“My interest is very simple,” said Remal. “I would like to avoid the official complications of having a man land in my town, a man without known origin, without papers, arriving here in an insane way.”
“You are worried about something?” said the captain with venom.
Remal began a smile, a comer of his mouth curving. Then suddenly he turned to the clerk. “He landed on your company’s pier, Whitfield. The responsibility…”
“You interrupt, Whitfield.”
“I know what comes next. I should persuade the captain to get the paperless lunatic out of the country.”
Remal waited but this turned out to be of no help.
“Head office of my shipping firm is in London. I can’t telegraph for instructions and get an answer before the captain leaves. I can’t ask him to stay-his ship isn’t a company vessel. My company leases both pier and depot from your state; it’s a small shipping point only, which is why I am executive clerk on this station.” The clerk sat up, feeling ridiculous with the pomp of his speech. He therefore put his arms on the rim of the tub, sat straight, and imagined he was sitting like this on a throne.
“Whitfield,” said the mayor, “how can you refuse all responsibility for a sick man who lands on your pier?”
“Oh, that,” and the clerk let himself slide back into the water. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “Of course I will visit him in the hospital.”
There was more talk, polite talk guided by Remal, but it was clearly tapering-off talk. It showed how flexible Remal was. It showed, perhaps, that the mayor was thinking of another way.
“Perhaps it will all be very simple,” he said and got up.
“Perhaps the man will die?”
“Of course not, Whitfield.” Remal smoothed his tunic and took a deep breath. This showed how large his chest was. “He will wake up, talk, and explain everything.” And Remal walked out.
The man from the box did not talk for several days.
At first they thought that he was in a coma. He was extremely unresponsive, and of course there had been the blows on the head with the axe handle.
They washed him and shaved his face and put him to bed.
Then they thought of it as a deep sleep, due to extreme exhaustion. But for that diagnosis he slept too long. Catatonic stupor was suggested, but that did not fit either. When they sat him up he collapsed again.
They let him lie in bed and attached various tubes.
They were French nurses and the older one was in his room because she had to switch glucose bottles. The younger one always came in a few times each day to see how the man was doing.
“Look at him,” said the younger one. “How he looks.”
“You look at him, Marie. I know how he looks.”
“Marie,” said the older one, “he does not look like a baby. With that face.”
“He’s just thin.”
“You talk about babies a great deal, Marie.”
“Don’t you think he looks gentle?”
“Well, he’s asleep.”
“I think he looks gentle. I think that he probably is.”
They watched how he tried to turn in his sleep…
He tried to turn in his chair but the man behind him cut the heel of his hand into the side of Quinn’s face, not hard, but mean nonetheless, and effective. I’m not going to make more of this than it is, Quinn thought, this is just meant to be one more of his talks. With trimming this time, but just a talk.
Quinn kept his head straight, as he was supposed to do, and looked at Ryder behind the leather-inlaid desk. How a fat bastard with a sloppy mouth can be so hard, thought Quinn. How? I’ve got to find out. I must find this out.
Ryder sat still in his chair on the other side of the desk and the window behind him showed a very well defined stretch of electrified skyline. That’s why he looks so impressive, thought Quinn. That and the red silk bathrobe. And the desk, and the tough guy behind me.
“You got maybe a lot of education,” said Ryder, “but you ain’t smart, Quinn.”
“Can’t get over it, can you, that you never got past reform school?”
Ryder shook his head at the man behind Quinn’s chair and said, “Don’t hit him again. That’s just smart-aleck talk.”
“Smart-aleck lawyer talk,” said the man behind Quinn. “They’re all alike.”
“No, they’re not,” said Ryder. He coughed with a wet sound in his throat. Then he lowered his head, which added another chin. And suddenly he yelled, with a high. fat man’s voice. “This one ain’t smart enough! You, Quinn! You were hired to be smart in this organization, not stupid, you shyster, not stupid enough to try and slice yourself in!”
Ryder closed his eyes and sat back in his chair. He wheezed a little, which was the only sound in the room.
Quinn said very quietly, “I’m not slicing myself in. I’m improving the organization.”
“Hit him!” said Ryder without opening his eyes.
Quinn got a jolt on the side of the head, and when he tried to get up the man behind him cut the edge of his palm down on Quinn’s shoulder.
Quinn exhaled with a sudden sound, like a cough almost, and bent over in the chair. He bent and stayed there. Of all the things he wanted to do-mostly violent and some quite insane-he did none of them. He held still with the pain in him and felt he could actually see it. A red wave with blue edges. Don’t move, don’t move, because that way, Ryder, that way I’ll get you later for this.
“Those unions are mine,” Ryder was saying, “and that sews up the waterfront. I think you’re trying to undo that for me, Quinn.”
“All I really did…”
“You’re lying, Quinn. You reshuffled the North end docks so that I got less say-so and you got more. And clever too.”
“Shyster clever,” said the man behind the chair.
“No. Not crooked at all. That’s where he got me. Never occurred to me to look for a straight way I could get robbed.”
“Okay, Ryder,” and Quinn sat up. “The set-up is still yours and the fact that you’re making less money has to do with the racket squeeze and nothing with me.”
“Then how come you’re making more money, Quinn?”
“Should I hit him?” said the man behind the chair.
“Shut up. Quinn, you listen to me. You been working good the two years you’ve been over to my side, good like a real hustler. But do it for me, not for you.”
Nothing else came and there was just the wheezing from Ryder, and then a clink. When Quinn looked up, he saw that Ryder had put his false uppers into the water glass. He was going to bed.
“You mean you’re done?” said the man behind Quinn’s chair. “He’s walking out?”
“Sure,” said Ryder. All the words made a flabby sound. “He’s smarter now than he was.” Ryder bunched his empty mouth, then let it hang again. “And he knows we got methods-”
My God, what a face, thought Quinn. And I wish I had hit him and his face looked like that because I had done it to him.
“Out,” said the man behind the chair. “You got the message.”
After that, on the street, Quinn just walked. But it wasn’t enough moving for all the holding still he had done. He concentrated on a dream that came out ugly and strong, red, with blue edges-and then I go over, cool as cool, I don’t listen any more. I am cool as cool, fire inside though, fire in fist now, and suddenly ram that into the executive pouch-poof! plate jumps out, face collapses, fat lips hanging down, and I step on the plate, a crunch of pure pleasure “No, Ryder, you shut up and you listen because I pulled your teeth. No, Ryder, why hustle for you? And why is it I can make more than you but hustle for you? And why is it I’m smarter than you but it makes no difference? Why try being like you and get pushed for it, not being like you? Answer me, Ryder. Don’t flinch when I’m screaming. Just answer me. What’s the big answer-Ah, forgot, you haven’t got any teeth.” And then cool with my rage inside me, I hand him his plate, pink and white stuff that’s left of it, something like splintery gravel, and let it dribble into his water glass. And I leave and laugh. I want to laugh very hard, this is funny, I laugh harder, this could be so funny, why in hell can’t this be funny…
“I don’t know, Marie. Would you close the windows for me?”
“Look. He’s sweating.”
“I know. The first time. Close the windows for me, Marie, while I strap this.”
“But the heat…”
“Sirocco coming. Doctor Mattieux put a note on the board.”
“Ah. I hope this one is short.”
“They are sometimes the strongest.”
“How the last one screamed, you remember? How that sand can scream.”
“You have pinched the curtain in the window.”
“Oh. Why are you strapping him?”
“Mattieuxs order. He has been too restless.”
“Perhaps he wants to wake up?”
“In the meantime the straps, so he cannot cut himself on the needle.”
“Why doesn’t Mattieux wake him up? Perhaps just a little ammonia, perhaps no more and he would wake up.”
“Doctor Mattieux said, perhaps he is in this coma because he needs to be.”
“You know, Renee, he doesn’t look gentle today. He looks very much as if he were suffering.”
They watched how he tried to turn in his sleep…
He did not dream of the good times, the times when he had reached out and touched success; only the failures became important. He didn’t dream how he had gone ahead and split the organization right down the middle, the sweet sight of the power running right out of Ryder’s hands, the sweet sight of Ryder himself full of threatening talk, sweet silence from Ryder while he, Quinn, felt the better man, because he was worse than Ryder.
He dreamt how he tried to turn in his bed and couldn’t.
“Who in hell…”
“That’s all right,” said another voice from across the dark room. “Let him get up. So he’ll know.”
Quinn knew who it was even before he was out of the bed and before he could see well enough. He said, “Ryder, you son of a bitch! Ah, there’s two more? The strong arm? You don’t think…”
“I don’t have to, Quinn, and as for you, it won’t do you any good.”
“You have those goons lay a hand on me, Ryder, and you think I don’t have the set-up to make you float down the river by six in the morning?”
“Tut, tut, such violence. Show him, Jimmy.”
There were, after all, two of them and they hadn’t just woken up. They got him without a punch. A silent, panting affair. A wrestler. Not one punch but all wrestler, and the other one could murder me any place, any way, with his buddy’s grip crippling me out of shape. And he’s just standing there, doing what “Ryder, listen to me. I’ve got a call coming in, five in the morning, and if I don’t answer…”
“I’m not interested, Quinn. Whyn’t you watch what he’s doing?”
What is he doing? — Ryder wiping his sloppy mouth, the gorilla behind me not moving a muscle and neither can I, and the other-knife? No. Fountain pen? I should sign them a document?
“I left standing orders, Ryder, I told you once, that should I get roughed up…”
“No violence, Quinn. Look.”
Damn, this grip on my back, my arms like worms, and the waiting, the waiting, and why don’t you hit-ah, the other one heard me think, coming over “Ryder, for God’s sake-”
“Doesn’t hurt, Quinn. Just a little sting.”
And the man comes over and carries the syringe and a needle. A small, cold-looking thing like that and I’ve never been so scared in my life.
“Ryder, what in hell- ”
“No violence, Quinn, nothing like it. But you’ll end up a changed man.”
“Where’ll I put it?” said the one with the needle.
“Any place. What’s the difference?”
“Come on already,” said the one holding Quinn doubled over. “He’s trying to struggle or something.”
“Ryder! What is it? ”
“Trip around the world for you, Quinn. In a coffin. Ever hear of the method?”
“My God, Ryder-”
“You’ll be a changed man, Quinn. Maybe a better one. Give it to him, Jimmy.”
Ryder, for heaven’s sake-and I didn’t even feel it, didn’t feel anything at the start of such an important-Letting go of me now? You let go too soon. Watch what I mean by you let go too soon-too thick this air, too thick in the brain, but you, Ryder, I get you, don’t float away, Ryder, oh my God please don’t leave…
“How he sweats.”
“But he’s lying still now. Put the fan in the door, Marie.”
“Mercy, how that sirocco screams.”
“Not yet, really. It will get worse…”
Dead. Dead? Nonsense. I wouldn’t ask if I were. But this nonsense of not knowing what’s up or down. Drug in the head explains it, explains everything. Yes. Feeling fine. Feel fine with gray cotton inside of me and black cotton outside of me. Ah, not cotton at all but space to move. Black space to move. Closet? Of course, of course. Everything else is pure nonsense. For the moment I can only remember sheer nonsense. Everything will be all right- all right! There must be a door, must- I must stop screaming Fine now. At the bottom of panic it is very quiet. No, no. There is no need to move. Careful now, leisurely so as not to frighten. I am not frightened. I can say it. Say box. You see? Since box, by any other name, still makes no sense-Easy, please, please And I remember as a matter of fact that a Seventeenth-Century nobleman who had displeased his king was made to spend nine, was it nine? Was made to spend all those years in a cage, having fewer conveniences, fewer water cans. I am sure, no little cabinets full of provisions, no little pills. And for example once a child was found in a closet without light, the child moon-white and lemur-eyed, but it got out! Got Out! Got to get out!
— How dull inside my head. But better this way, much better and thank you, little pill. And though dull, I will check again, check the entire universe, all the cans, all the boxes in boxes what blessed certainty One, two, three, five… Watch it.
One two, two, three… No! I insist on the right count, left count, right, twoop, threep, foa, one twoop, rip, rip to pieces, I am ripping apart!
— And cannot stand the screaming any more, I can’t any more, can’t, though wish I were more tired. Dead tired. No! Don’t go out! Please, little flame, don’t go out! And please stay little inside your egg and then sometime when it cracks, little flame, you can leap more-Crack? Wait! Don’t go out, little flame, jump a little Jump, little one, JUMP!
“Call Doctor Mattieux! Quick!”
“What is it?”
“He’s violent! Call Mattieux!”
And then Renee, the older nurse, waited for the doctor. She had prepared the morphine injection, but when Doctor Mattieux finally arrived, he decided, no, I think this time we shall let him be awake.
Three days after Quinn woke up, Whitfield came to see him in the hospital. Things had been a little unusual-the sirocco, for instance, and a great deal of dull time with no dock work possible-and therefore Whitfield walked carefully with a three-day hangover. He felt that he carried it very well and only hoped that Quinn would not be difficult.
“Is he ready?” he asked the nurse in the corridor.
She said he was ready and that his clothes would be brought into his room. Then Whitfield went to see Quinn.
Whitfield, of course, did not recognize him. Only Quinn’s hair, which was thick and black, seemed familiar.
Quinn sat in his bed, doing nothing. He wore a night shirt which was split down the back and his hands looked bony and his arms were thin. Not really thin, thought Whitfield, but rather lean, because there are all those muscles.
Quinn crossed his legs and leaned on his knees. He watched Whitfield come in and said nothing.
Empty eyes, thought Whitfield, but then he changed his mind. I’ll be damned if they don’t look innocent.
“Eh, how do you do?” said Whitfield.
“I’m Whitfield. We met, you know. You don’t remember? We met at your-uh-resurrection.”
“I couldn’t see too well.”
“Yes. A blinding day.”
“You the one that hit me?”
“Oh no. I’m the one whom you choked.”
When Quinn did not say anything else Whitfield, unexpectedly, felt embarrassed. He took care of that by thinking of Quinn as an idiot. The way he stares, he thought, and then of course that thick hair. All the idiots I’ve known have invariably had this very thick hair. All this while Whitfield smiled, but when Quinn did not smile back or say anything else, Whitfield went to the window as if to look out. He could not look out because of the sun shutters, so he looked at the window sill. There was some sand lying along the edge of the frame.
“Some blow we had there, wasn’t it?” and he turned back to the bed.
As expected, Quinn was looking at him. Talk of the weather, thought Whitfield, and now I feel like an idiot.
“Are you from the police?” Quinn asked.
“Police? Oh no, nothing of the sort. They have been here, haven’t they?”
They had been by Quinn’s bed several times, and only afterwards had it struck Quinn how docile he had felt towards them and that somehow cop hadn’t meant cop to him, the way he had been used to it in the past. I’m still a little bit weak, he had explained to himself, not quite myself. And he had started to answer everything: name, James Quinn; occupation, lawyer; residence, New York.
Then, the matter with the box. At that point, Quinn had slowed down. His hands under the sheet had started to tremble a little, but it had not been the thought of the box so much as the thought of Ryder. So he had left Ryder out, and told them the box thing had been an act of revenge, something cruel dreamt up by a man who, however, was dead now. Quinn had wished this were true.
“How do you know this, Mister Quinn?”
“He was dead before, before I left.”
“Who was he?”
“You wouldn’t know him. Besides, there were several.”
“Are you trying to confuse us, Mister Quinn?”
“Of course. Understandable. Tell us, Mister Quinn, is this type of-uh-punishment usual in your circles?”
“You are a criminal, aren’t you, Mister Quinn?”
“I have no record.”
“Hm. A very good criminal then, eh?”
Quinn thought that with no record he was either a very good criminal or no criminal at all, and perhaps it came to the same thing. He had not been very much interested in deciding on this because other things meant more to him. Whether he had been smart or stupid, for example, and here the decision was simple. He had been very stupid with Ryder, but that, too, was a little bit dim, since he, Quinn, was here and Ryder was not. Maybe later, more on this later, but now first things first.
He sat up in bed and said, “I’m here without papers. Illegal entry and no identification, you told me. And that is all the business you have with me, isn’t it?”
He wondered what had made them ask if he was a criminal.
“Did I talk in my sleep?” he asked.
“We understood very little, except perhaps the word racket. We understood that.”
“I told you I’m a lawyer.”
They had just smiled and then one of them had said, “We’ve asked around, of course, and have learned about this box method. It even has a name, doesn’t it, among criminals?”
Quinn had not answered, and not all the vagueness on his face had been faked. Only the simplest things did not make him feel vague.
“You must get papers, and then you must get out.”
“Yes. And I need clothes.”
They were pleased he was tractable, and then they had left.
Now Quinn looked up from his hands at Whitfield, who was the first stranger since the police had been there. I think he smells of gin, Quinn thought.
“Feel up to a little trip?” asked Whitfield.
Quinn thought for a moment and then he said, “I don’t have any papers.”
True enough, thought Whitfield, and for that matter you don’t have any pants either, and so forth. And not much brains left, is my feeling, and I must say a sad shock you are to me and my cinema knowledge of an American gangster.
“You don’t have any papers,” he said, “which is why I am here. Ah, the clothes.”
The nurse Marie brought a suit, shirt, and the other things and put them on the bed. She smiled at Quinn and held it a while, wishing that he would smile back. She has a sweet girlish face, thought Quinn, and a lot of old-fashioned hair. How does her little cap stay on? But he did not smile back at her.
“These are not the clothes in which you came,” she said. “These are not cut like your own, but I hope you won’t mind.”
“I don’t mind.”
He was easier to look at when he was asleep, thought Marie, and when she left the room she wished he might stay a while longer and sleep here again.
Quinn got out of bed, took his nightshirt off, and started to dress. Whitfield said nothing. He is definitely not an official, thought Quinn, and he looks a little bit dreamy.
“Did you want something from me?” Quinn asked suddenly.
“Uh-want? Oh, no. Quite the opposite,” and Whitfield giggled.
Quinn buttoned his pants which took him some time. He was used to a zipper.
“And you’ll get me papers?”
“Well, it’s like this. I’m going to drive you to the American consul so that you can start getting your papers. We’ll drive to Tripoli.”
“Because Okar is too small for a consul.”
“And you are with the consulate?”
At last, thought Whitfield. I myself would have asked that question first.
“No,” he said. “It’s like this. I run the pier-I’m with the company at whose pier-how to put this? — where you were unloaded.” Whitfield smiled again, but Quinn was looking down. “This circumstance,” said Whitfield who suddenly felt he could not stop talking, “this event, you see, gives me a sort of proprietary feeling about you, don’t you know? I mean, if you’ll picture the circumstance, you being delivered to me.” Whitfield had to giggle again.
I have rarely felt so uncomfortable in my life, thought Whitfield with distraction, natural of course, with a man who has no sense of humor. Apt to happen, of course, when boxed. I will cultivate a note of compassion. But then this thought was startled right out of Whitfield when Quinn said the next thing. Quinn did not look up from buttoning his shirt when he talked and perhaps this helped startle Whitfield. For the first time it struck Whitfield that Quinn was talking to him without looking him straight in the face.
“Something stinks here,” said Quinn.
“Uh-I beg your pardon?”
Quinn reached under the bed for his shoes, and when he straightened up again he sighed. Then he put his shoes on.
“Look,” he said. “You run this boatyard, you are not a cop, you take me traveling from one town to another, and all this traveling with me having no papers. That stinks.” Quinn straightened up and looked past Whitfield at the window. “I don’t care,” he said, “but I’m not stupid.”
That you aren’t, that you aren’t, thought Whitfield, but how confusing. How can anyone with eyes open like that have a cunning brain? How confusing. And yet how uncunning to be so confusing. At which point Whitfield gave up, feeling that the thread of his thoughts was escaping him. He shrugged, because he, like Quinn, did not care too much either. What he explained next therefore turned out to be the truth.
“The mayor,” he said, “is anxious to clear all this up. Let me say, he wants to expedite all this, so that you can get out. You do want to leave, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” said Quinn, because everything that had been said to him since waking up had been about leaving.
“Now, the mayor, being also chief constable and a friend of mine, has asked me to take you, being his charge, on police business to Tripoli. And then I bring you back. Simple?”
“It sounds very simple,” said Quinn.
But you don’t sound simple, oh no you don’t, thought Whitfield. He said, “Button up and off we go.”
“I did already.”
“You missed one.”
Quinn buttoned up and then stood there, looking at Whitfield. He did that like a child, thought Whitfield. What to think of him? Whitfield smiled at Quinn but then looked away, so as not to see in case Quinn did not smile back.
“You know, Quinn-uh, how to put this?”
“How to put what?”
“Of course. That’s the problem. What I mean, coming out of this thing-”
“Yes, that’ll do it. Coming out, it’s sort of like starting at the bottom. New chance and all that. You know, all new, everything. I mean, you look like that sometimes.”
“Do I?” and Quinn did not know what else to say.
The two men walked out and Quinn remembered that Ryder had said it would make a new man out of him.
The narrow main street looked pink and blue to Quinn, pink on the side where the sun hit and blue on the shadow side. There were not many people. There was an old woman who scraped camel dung into a basket. When Quinn passed he saw that the woman was a man. Three children looked at Quinn, because he was so pale, but one child looked with one eye only, because the other was covered with flies. And a man stared down from a balcony, watching the stranger walk. The balcony was birdcage thin and a little water dribbled down to the street. The man was holding a wet rag to the back of his head, and when Quinn passed the man closed his eyes again.
“Peaceful town, eh?” said Whitfield.
“I don’t know. Just lying still doesn’t mean peaceful.”
Whitfield looked at Quinn for a moment but said nothing. Before driving out of here I’ll have a gin fizz. With ice this time.
“We turn in here,” he said.
Quinn saw the little trees on either side of the steps, and the big stone facade.
“It’s the hotel. Between ten and two our mayor is at the hotel.”
“He owns the hotel, too?”
“Oh no. Owned by a Swiss couple. They always own hotels, you know.”
“I didn’t know.”
I must stop making these little remarks, thought Whitfield.
There was a yellow dog on the bottom step, belly turned sunward. This was a thin, yellow dog, Quinn could see, and only his bare belly looked meaty. Quinn did not feel right about the dog.
“Thin enough to survive,” said Whitfield.
“They eat them, you know. When they’re fat. You like dogs?”
“I’ve never eaten one.”
Now I surely must stop, Whitfield thought.
They went from the dry heat into a hall which was tiled and cool, thin brass columns going up and up, past the second-floor balcony which ringed the hall. They turned through an arch into a large room which seemed filled with nothing but little round tables. Then Quinn saw a big Arab get up in the dark corner. Somebody else sat there at the table with him.
“Ah,” said Remal, and bowed. “Our strange traveler,” and he offered his hand like a European.
When they got to the dark corner Whitfield said, “This is he, Beatrice, this is Quinn, and you’ll probably be disappointed.”
Quinn saw a fine-shaped woman who looked up and shrugged, but she smiled with it. “What he means,” she said to Quinn, “is that he thinks I expected something non-human.”
“I didn’t mean anything of the sort,” said Whitfield and sat down at the table. “You were wishing for something non-human. I think I’ll have…”
“I know what you’ll have,” said Remal and clapped his hands. “And you, Mister Quinn?”
Still feeble-minded, thought Whitfield, and confused, thought Beatrice, and Remal reserved judgment while he kept smiling at Quinn. The smile meant, I’m watching you but you can’t see me.
“What would you like to drink?” Remal asked.
“Scotch. And water.”
“I don’t suggest water,” said Remal. “Try Vichy.”
“All right,” said Quinn. He did not care.
“Don’t you want ice?” said Whitfield.
“Then you have to ask for it, Quinn.”
“Maybe Mister Quinn hasn’t traveled much,” said Beatrice. “I mean, not counting your last trip.”
“That trip didn’t count, educationally,” said Whitfield.
Quinn did not think of his trip, because to him there had been no trip. There had been the box. He thought of the box and had no idea if it counted or not. Altogether, his recollection was vague, or perhaps of no interest, the way a meal eaten, a cigarette smoked, an argument finished, an arrival completed, of no interest any more.
When the drinks came there were only two-one for Quinn and the other for Whitfield. The woman, Beatrice, still had her own, and Remal was no longer at the table. And then Whitfield took a long gulp from his gin, which was cloudy with lemon juice, got up and said that he would be right back.
“Are you staring, sleeping, or thinking?” said the woman to Quinn.
“Uh, I’m sorry. None of those things,” and Quinn picked up his drink.
“But you were looking at me.”
“Oh yes. I was looking. Just that.”
She did not entirely understand that, but it was all Quinn had been doing. He saw that she was probably European: she had honey-colored hair, and she wore something short-sleeved and white, a cold white next to her skin which looked warm with tan. He looked down the row of little blue buttons on her front-how they ran down her round curve in front, tucked out of sight under her breasts, went straight down to her belt where the buttons ended.
“I feel touched,” she said.
He did not know why and had nothing to answer.
“I meant by your look. By your looking just now.”
“Oh. I wasn’t thinking anything.”
“I know you weren’t.”
She sipped her drink and looked beyond him. Quinn could see her neck, a nice round neck which showed a soft beat, a soft shadow which came and went to one side where her dress collar started. Then she sighed and looked back at him and smiled. Suddenly she seems very slow, thought Quinn. Like a cat in the sun.
“Mister Quinn,” she said, “are you always speechless like this?”
“I’m not speechless. I can talk.”
“Then talk to me a little.”
“Are you with this Turk?”
“With what? You mean Rental? He’s not a Turk,” and she had to laugh.
“Are you with him?”
She smiled and looked at him, as if she did not mind being asked such a question, or answering it, though she did not answer it.
“I meant something else when I asked you to talk. I wanted to hear about you.”
“You know about me.”
“Do you mind talking about it? I’m very curious, I’m really curious about you inside that box.”
“I don’t mind talking about it but I don’t know what to say.”
He meant that, she thought, and picked up her glass to take a slow sip. Quinn said nothing else. He looked out of the window where he could see a small slice of sea between the walls of two houses. This is just about like starting up from the bottom, he thought. When nothing happens it doesn’t matter, but sitting here it isn’t so easy. He felt annoyed and suddenly the light outside the window hurt his eyes. He thought that was the reason why he was annoyed. He looked briefly at the arch behind his back and then humped over the table and looked at his hands.
“They’ll be right back,” she said.
“Oh.” And then he said, “I asked you about you and-what’s his name?”
“Remal, the Turk.”
“I asked you about you and Remal before but I didn’t mean do you go to bed with him.”
“Oh? Why not?”
Then he knew why he felt annoyed. The two men’s sudden departure felt like something secret. Something I can’t deal with, he felt, something shut instead of open. And this was his first moment, since waking up in Okar, that he thought there must be some habits, old and dim right now, something to make all this newness less hard.
She saw that he had changed just a little, that he said just a little bit less than he thought.
“What I really wanted to know, I wanted to know why you’re sitting here at this table.”
“I wanted to see you.”
“I’m no zoo.”
“And I brought my car. You’re going to use it going to Tripoli.”
She waited a moment but Quinn said nothing else. He thought, Whitfield is a friend of this Remal, and she is a friend of this Remal. Everybody is a friend of this Remal. He has no enemies.
“Just a friendly gesture,” she said. “Mine is the only good car in town, aside from Whitfield’s two trucks. You wouldn’t care to ride in one of those, on these roads. Quinn, you’re staring again.”
She shrugged and smiled. “What did you see?”
“I like your tan.”
She did not answer anything but closed her eyes for a moment and kept smiling. She sat still like that as if feeling her own skin all over. Now she also has a face like a cat, thought Quinn. I can see her lie in the sun like a cat, the way they lie and you want to touch them. And the cat face, very quiet and content, with cat distance.
“You know,” she said, and opened her eyes, “I like to be looked at.”
Quinn finished his Scotch, put the glass down, and felt light-headed.
“In that case,” he said, “you, looking the way you do, should have a good time of it all day long.”
She laughed, because a laugh was now expected. This is the first time, she thought, that I’ve heard him say something flip. Maybe that’s how he used to be.
“Clever of you to say that,” she told him, “but you’re forgetting this is Okar.”
“You must have picked it, and not because of being broke or anything like that.”
“What made you say that?”
“You told me you got the only good car in town.”
“Oh.” She wondered whether he was being flip again. Then she said, “Yes. I’ve got enough. I’ve been married enough.”
“Often enough or long enough?”
Quinn looked the length of the hall again and wished he were leaving. He would have to leave anyway and Okar meant nothing to him.
“With your dough,” he said, “why sit here? Why not Rome, Madrid, Paris? That kind of thing.”
“Why here?” She had her hands on the table and looked at the backs of her hands and then turned them around and looked at her palms. “I don’t know why. Confusion. I came the way you came. In a box. What do you know when you come in a box?”
This stopped the conversation so abruptly that Beatrice felt she had to do something immediately.
“Anyway, what did you used to do, before nothing?”
“I was a lawyer. Which also means nothing. Right now I’ve got to know what to do next.”
“You’ll hang around. We all do.”
“I have no papers. And no money.”
“Money?” She looked at him as if she disliked him. “Well, there must be something you can do while you wait for papers. Don’t you Americans always have something to sell?”
He shrugged and didn’t answer.
“I used to be an American myself.” She felt embarrassed and laughed.
“All very confusing.” She sipped from her drink without liking it.
“You are sort of confusing right now.”
“I was born in Switzerland,” and she sounded like a document, “but I’m not Swiss. Parents from the States but I lived there only like a visitor. My last name is Rutledge, because of the British husband. Also Fragonard, because of the French one.” She took a breath and said, “I know. That’s only two of them.” But Quinn didn’t answer her.
“I could sell my cans,” he said.
“What was that?”
“The water cans I had in the box.”
Quinn, sitting opposite her, was as surprised by his sudden thought about the water cans as was the woman who did not know him at all.
The mayor and the clerk came down the stairs in the main hall, and when they could see Quinn and the woman from the arch that led into the dining hall they stopped, or rather the mayor stopped, holding the clerk by one arm.
“You understand, Whitfield,” he said, “the quicker the better.”
Whitfield peered along one leg of the arch at the couple in back and then straightened up again.
“You’re now worried she’ll go to bed with him.”
“Don’t be trivial, Whitfield.”
“All right,” said Whitfield, feeling bored. “I shall pressure the government of the United States of America to expedite this stowaway’s removal, because the mayor and so forth of Okar-I’ll have to explain to them where Okar is-that the mayor feels a certain shakiness in his position and…”
“You ignore this,” said Remal. “I am not shaky in my position and, besides, the outside officials are gone. But you ignore this. Our traveler was clearly part of a large organization. And they punished him. Or they tried. Once they find out, dear Whitfield, that he did not complete his tour, his tour of penitude…”
“I think you mean penitence.”
“His punishment, Whitfield, then they will look to see where he is.”
“And you would sooner have the officials hanging around than those American organization men.”
“Officials I can buy.”
“My fizz is getting warm, Remal.”
“Go take care of him,” said the mayor, “while he is still here.”
“No problem. He’s a lot like a child.”
Remal did not answer and left after making his habitual bow.
Whitfield went back to the table and sat down. He saw that Beatrice had her chin in her hand and was smoking her cigarette too short. He found that his fizz was warm, and he saw that Quinn sat with his hands in his lap, quiet and patient.
“I want to sell my cans,” said Quinn.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I want to sell my water cans, the ones I brought in the box.”
A child, thought Whitfield. A child with the brain of an operator.
They first walked to the house Beatrice had because the car was parked there. The car was a Giulietta, small and fast, and an Arab from Beatrice’s house stood by the garden wall to see that nobody stole anything out of the car or took off the wheels. The garden wall was very solid and high and the house behind was not visible.
“Come in for a drink,” said Beatrice. “You’ll have a long drive.”
“Which is why I don’t want to come in,” said Whitfield.
“I want to go down to the pier first,” said Quinn.
“All right,” said Whitfield.
“I think you could use the drink,” said Beatrice.
“Never mind, never mind. Siesta going to be shot and everything if we don’t get cracking.”
“I can drive,” said Quinn. “You can sleep in the car.”
“I take a bath during siesta. I don’t sleep.”
Whitfield got behind the wheel in a fair state of irritation, and when Quinn had slammed his own door Whitfield got the car down to the main street in something like leaps and bounds, as if inventing a new way to shift gears.
“You’re not turning towards the water,” said Quinn.
“I want to check on those cans.”
“Preserve me, yes.”
“But you’re not turning…”
“Quinn, baby, listen. I must first stop by a store.”
“A preservative.” And then Whitfield shot down the main street until it petered out and stopped at the mouth of an alley where no car could enter.
“Native quarter,” said Whitfield. “Note the native craft of whitewash, the rustic filth on steps and cobbles, the aboriginal screams of joy and of anger as they chat in the street. Wait here, I’m buying me a bottle of wine. If you please.”
Quinn watched Whitfield go into a door. Or into a window, thought Quinn, because Whitfield had both to stoop down and step over a high stone sill all at the same time. Quinn got out and leaned by a stone wall and smelled the street and looked at the confusion of people. There were windows in the walls reminding one of gunslits, and a goat sat in the middle of the street looking at a butcher shop.
“Ah, the new one,” said somebody next to Quinn. Quinn gave a start which was close to fright.
“You’re Quinn, no?”
The Arab had a young face but an old-looking mouth because so many teeth were missing in the front. But he smiled just the same. He wore pants and an old army jacket.
“Now what?” said Quinn.
“I mean you just came, right?”
“You seem to know everything.”
“If I know your name, wouldn’t I know you are here?”
That sounds like an old Arab proverb, thought Quinn. And the guy looks like a cadaver which is still young. Quinn could think all this but he didn’t know what to say.
“Call me Turk,” said the Arab.
“That’s a fine old Arab name.”
“My good Arab name you couldn’t pronounce.”
“You want something?” asked Quinn. “You live here?”
Which he said to get just something or other straight.
“I live,” said Turk and kept smiling.
“Where’d you learn so much English?”
“Like this,” said Turk, and counted off on his fingers. “I once drove for the French. Then I went to France. There I soon moved to Paris. In Paris are Americans, and I learn to speak.”
“How’d you know who I was? You a friend of the mayor’s, too?”
“That seems strange. All I ever meet…”
“He doesn’t trust me. Not at all,” and Turk laughed.
Quinn looked away to see if Whitfield was coming back yet.
“It always takes fifteen minutes,” said Turk. “Because of the talking you do with the purchase.”
“You sound like a guide,” said Quinn.
“Oh I could. Would you like to see the streets?”
“The mayor and I both don’t trust you,” said Quinn.
Turk shrugged and leaned by the wall, next to Quinn.
“You have a cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke,” said Quinn.
“I meant for me, not you. Ah well,” and he scratched himself. “Anyway,” and now he looked earnest. “If you do want to see the native quarter, you know you should do it now.”
Quinn waited because he did not follow the man.
“You know that Remal won’t let you come here again.”
“What’s that?” said Quinn. He understood even less now. But somehow he felt he understood this Turk rather well, not the man perhaps, but the type. New arrival in town, little sucker play, a quick piaster or dinar or franc or whatever they use here, that type, and Quinn felt familiar with it. Not the pleasure of familiarity, just familiar “You don’t know anything, do you?” said Turk. He folded his arms, looked at the doorway Whitfield had taken, then back at Quinn. “You are a stranger,” said Turk, “and have upset him. Him, Remal.”
Quinn frowned and looked at the doorway again, wishing that Whitfield would show up.
“Leave me alone,” he said to the Arab. Quinn was almost mumbling.
Then Whitfield appeared, stepping through the doorway like a crane toe-testing the water. Quinn suddenly thought, What’s keeping me from asking what in hell Turk is talking about?
Whitfield waved at Quinn to come along, and when he saw Turk he nodded at him and Turk smiled back.
“What’s this about Remal?” said Quinn. “What’s he got here that he’s worried I might upset it?”
“What’s he got here? Almost everything.”
“Quee-hinn!” called Whitfield.
“Like everything what?” Quinn asked again, feeling rushed.
“He’s coming back,” said Turk and nodded towards Whitfield. “See you again, eh, Quinn?” And Turk moved away, smiling with his young face and the old gums where the teeth were missing. “You’ll be here a while, anyway.” Then Turk left.
Whitfield held a moist jug of wine by the neck, and when Quinn reached him he turned and walked back to the car.
“Fine friends you have,” he said to Quinn. “Did he ask you for a cigarette?”
“Yes. Who is he?”
“Did you give him one?”
“Ah, saved,” Whitfield said. “Will you drive, please?” And he stopped at the car.
“You don’t think I followed any of this, do you?” said Quinn.
“You didn’t? That’s only because you don’t know Turk.” Whitfield opened the car door. “ If you had given him the cigarette,” and Whitfield interrupted himself to sniff at his jug, “then I would now ask you to look up your empty sleeve to determine if something at least were left in it. In short, he is not trustworthy.” And Whitfield got into the back of the car.
Quinn got behind the wheel, slammed the door, and when he had the motor going he let it idle for a minute.
“How come he doesn’t like Remal, that Turk?”
“What gave you that idea, Quinn? He loves Remal.”
“Look, Whitfield, I just talked…”
“We all love Remal, dear Quinn, but some of us more, some less. But Turk loves him most of all, would love to be Remal altogether. He would steal Remal’s teeth out of his head to have a smile like the mayor’s; he would cut his heart out, I mean Remal’s, to have a big heart like that. But — Swig of wine, Quinn?”
“No, thank you.”
“But Remal does not like him. And I’m sure that’s what Turk told you and no more. Drive, Quinn. We U-turn and go straight out of town.”
Quinn shifted and drove back down the main street.
“Do we pass the place where you keep my cans?”
There was no answer from the back-just the hissing and gurgling which came from the jug.
“Did you hear me, Whitfield?”
A deep breath sounded from the back, as if Whitfield were surfacing, and when he talked he sounded exhausted.
“Quinn, baby, I realize you don’t have any money, and if I can be of any assistance while you…”
“Are you stalling me for any reason?”
“Turn right, the next street,” said Whitfield. “This wine gives me a headache. While you look at your bleeding cans I’ll just dash into my office for a headache potion I keep there.”
The side street ended on a cobblestone square of which one side was open to the long quay. There was just one warehouse and Quinn pulled up next to it. The two men got out, and on the water side of the building they walked along the white pier.
Quinn saw the place for the first time but it did not interest him. The cement threw the heat back as if the sun was below them. There was a small tramper tied up where the warehouse doors stood open, and a barge lay at anchor a little way out. It had a single lanteen sail furled in some messy fashion which made the yardarm look like a badly bandaged finger.
The box had been moved. It lay on its side at the far end of the pier and the splintered edge of the top gave a ruined impression. A mouth with no teeth, thought Whitfield. It gapes, after spitting out.
And somebody had cleaned the inside. There was not much smell, which was also because of the sun. And all the cans were gone.
“Where are they?” said Quinn.
“Ah yes,” said Whitfield. “Obviously gone. Quinn, look here. My company and I will reimburse you, all right? Theft is common around here, you know, but in view of, ah, yes.” He petered out that way and squinted with the sun in his face. This is new, thought Whitfield. That look on his face is no longer simple. Maybe this is how he used to be.
“All right, just a minute,” said Whitfield, and then he turned around and yelled something in Arabic.
Two Arabs were carting boxes from the tramper into the warehouse and one of them put down his load and looked over at Whitfield. They yelled at each other across the distance, Whitfield and the Arab, and since the language was meaningless to Quinn, and since they had to yell at each other because of the length of the pier, Quinn could not tell if there was anger in all this, or even excitement. They stopped yelling and Whitfield turned to Quinn.
“I have good news for you,” Whitfield said, looking as if good news were no news at all. “Your bleeding cans have not been stolen, he knows where they are…”
“Quinn, there’s a storage hut which we own on the trackless wastes of the North African coast. We can’t drive there in this car, I won’t buy the cans from you till evening when we get back, and in the meantime they will bring your cans to the warehouse, so you can count them, so we can bicker about them, and so you can make your profit. Please, Quinn, doesn’t that sound nice?”
“Don’t treat me like an idiot,” said Quinn and put his hands into his pockets.
But for the first time Whitfield thought that perhaps Quinn was an idiot, in some ways.
The bottle which Whitfield got from his office turned out to be gin. He sat in the back of the car while Quinn drove, holding the jug on one knee and the bottle on the other. Now and then Whitfield sighed, which was always at the end of having held his breath while drinking from one or the other of his two bottles. A practiced drinker, he was proud and content with his skill in handling the situation, and he neither sank into drunken befuddlement nor rose into painful clarity. I am a man of proportion. And highly adaptable. I don’t even miss my bathtub.
“How long will all this take?” Quinn asked.
Whitfield, having been elsewhere, gave a small start. He didn’t mind conversation, but he was in no mood for questions.
“What, for heaven’s sake?”
“Till I can get out of here, with papers and all.”
“I don’t know, Quinn. Your State Department does move in mysterious ways, you know. Want a drink?”
“No. I’m driving.”
“Your answer shows you don’t know how to drink, Quinn. Done well, drinking can open your eyes or, if need be, close them. An advantage only available to the fearless, or the tippler.”
Quinn hardly listened. Every so often he could see the Mediterranean when the gray rocks or the gray humps of dry ground fell away, and there would be the water with a sharp blaze like glass. But most of the time the road was a band of dust with no view.
“Take the goat, for example,” Whitfield was saying. “Strange eyes, you know? I know their eyes by heart. Some wine?”
“Remember the goat sitting in front of the butcher shop? Watching his nanny’s meat turn blue in the dry air. That would make anybody’s eyes strange, wouldn’t you say so?”
“You’re drunk, Whitfield.”
“I am not!” There was silence, then the sigh after the bottle was down. “Quinn,” said Whitfield. “You have eyes like a goat, somewhat.”
Quinn felt himself become tense, not liking the remark Whitfield had made. Nor did he like the image of the goat. Being all new, he thought, is not easy. It must have been easier, before. The thought was vague and the memory was without interest. He thought of the Arab called Turk, and of Remal.
“The creep who talked to me by the quarter, he made some remark or other about Remal. That he wouldn’t allow me to walk around or something like that.”
“Sounds very vague to me.”
“That’s why I’m asking you about it, goddamn it.”
“ Please, Quinn. Don’t jab the accelerator like that. You made me spill and I shall now smell of gin.”
“God forbid,” said Quinn. “And you haven’t answered.”
“But I told you, dear Quinn. Turk loves Remal and Remal does not love him back. This causes tension, don’t you see, this causes pauses-oh, for heaven’s sake-”
At this point, Whitfield realized that he had misjudged his siesta capacity with the two bottles, which, as a matter of pride, distressed him a great deal. Stands to reason, however, he thought to himself. Bathtub alters temperature exchange, rate of metabolism and so forth, and me here with all the experimental controls shot to hell in the back of the car, so naturally. He felt better but wished he were asleep.
Quinn asked nothing else. He drove and slowly became aware of the muscles in his back. It was not a pleasant awareness and he had to think of the shell of a turtle. Going nutty, like that Whitfield back there. And without benefit of drink. He felt cramped and withdrawn.
This got worse during the hour or two he had to spend with the consul. He withheld information, faked dates and invented places, which, all in all, came surprisingly easy to him. But when he left and went out to the car where Whitfield was waiting, he felt sullen and stiff.
“Ah!” called Whitfield. “How was it to be back at the bosom of mother country?”
Quinn did not answer and walked around to the driver’s side.
“I didn’t mean to embarrass you with the question,” said Whitfield. “All I meant…”
“Stop talking a minute, will you?”
Whitfield had a headache. When it came to drinking, he felt a great deal like an athlete in training, and a headache to him was tantamount to a disqualification. And now Quinn, on top of all this, acting churlish and sullen. He watched Quinn start the car and felt ignored.
“You’re unhappy, I’m unhappy, and perhaps your friend the consul wasn’t happy either. That’s all I meant to say.”
“One month,” said Quinn. “He says it’ll take one month for investigation and papers.”
“I’d like to have a month of absolutely nothing,” said Whitfield. He had an impulse to reach back for one of his bottles, but turning his head he felt a sickening sting go through his brain. He felt out of training.
“You’ve got a month of nothing every siesta time,” said Quinn, but the joke did not interest him. The month ahead seemed like a vacuum to him, or like a view without focus.
Goat-eyes looking, thought Whitfield, and he turned his head straight, to look out through the windshield.
And all Quinn could think of, at first, was what he had been told, that he must get his papers and must get back to the States immediately.
The consul had said nothing about leaving. He had only said to comply with the local rules while awaiting his papers.
And why go back? Because the police had said so while he, Quinn, sat half dumb in the hospital bed?
There was a bend in the bare road and behind that bend came a small village. Quinn knew this but did not slow down. He leaned the car through the bend and pushed through the short village, leaving a big ball of yellow dust in the air.
Go back there for Ryder? The question seemed almost meaningless. As if long ago he had screamed all the rancor out of himself, struggled it out of himself, and had been left blank.
But what to do, what to do, staying a month in a truly foreign place, where no one meant anything to him, or everyone was somehow beyond him? How did I do it before, what did I do, filling the time and finding some tickle in it? A month of nothing-Quinn wiped his face.
“Listen, Whitfield, the boat that brought me, where is it now?”
“Oho!” and Whitfield folded his arms, closed his eyes. “That does worry you, then.”
“How come you never answer the first time you’re asked a question?”
“Because I’m a conversationalist, Quinn. Are you concerned, then, that whoever shipped you will want to finish the job once they find out where you are?”
It was put so crudely that it hardly fit, though Quinn himself could not have been more specific. But he knew he was sweating for more than the remote possibility that Ryder would send down a goon to pack him in a box again. He felt a bigger anxiety, which waved and wove about, obscuring the feeling of his helplessness, his worry that he had somewhere been wrong but did not know why. At the bottom, from somewhere, came the notion that he must always defend himself or he would sink away, and that would be fine with everybody.
He felt his back again, as once before, and how stiff his wrists were now.
“Quinn, you have a positively boxed-in look. Stop thinking. You don’t seem to be used to it. Weren’t you going to ask me something else?”
“You still haven’t answered the first thing I asked.”
“Yes. Where’s the boat? I don’t know. Ask someone else.”
“Is it back in New York?”
“Out of the question. With the run she had, I’d say she’ll be two months out yet.”
“Two months,” said Quinn.
“I follow you,” said Whitfield, and then he felt he might say something witty to make this more like conversation, but Quinn didn’t let him.
“Maybe you know about procedure in a case like this. What happens when a captain finds something irregular with his, let’s say, with his cargo, and he’s away from home port when he discovers the irregularity?”
“He dumps the mess as best he can, as he did you.”
“I don’t mean that. Does he report it to somebody?”
“Yes,” said Whitfield, “he reports it.”
Quinn said something which Whitfield did not catch, but it sounded vulgar.
“I want to know what he reports,” said Quinn.
“In this case that’s up to the captain. He’s an independent. Otherwise there’d be a company policy, such as ours, where a stowaway matter, for instance, goes out by short wave to the closest office, and the office handles the red tape from there.”
“You mean this captain who brought me has nobody to report to on this?”
“Yes, he does. Immigration, customs, that sort of thing.”
“He didn’t, by any chance, ask you to send out a report for him back to New York?”
“No. And he left the same day he came, you know.”
“And for two months he won’t be back in New York.”
“He might report by letter,” said Whitfield, “from his next port of call. Tel Aviv, I think he said.”
Quinn asked no more questions. A report on him from the consulate would get to the States long before the captain would check in, but it wasn’t at all likely that Ryder had an ear in the State Department. Only the captain, reporting to harbor authorities right in New York-He hung onto that thought for a moment but then shook his head, almost as if snapping a whip.
Farfetched, all of it. The captain was gone, glad to be rid of his troubles, New York four thousand miles away, and the Ryder thing was really over.
But why would Remal forbid me the streets? And who’s trying to steal my cans? And why does everyone think that for one month I’ll dry out in the sun in Okar, goat-eyed, watching myself turn dry and blue?
Must learn to think clearly again. He felt sly and secretive.
Until they slowed down in the square by the warehouse Whitfield did not look over at Quinn. Whitfield had a headache and felt he should leave well enough alone. They slowed in the square and rolled to a stop by the warehouse, and Whitfield looked at Quinn sitting still for a moment, holding the wheel.
He used to look like something dumped out of a box, thought Whitfield, but no more. Something wide-eyed, maybe a little surprised, but not any more.
Because this was the first time that Quinn no longer felt entirely new but had the help of some of his of habits.
A late half light was over the town and in a very short time the sudden dusk would fall and then night. Quinn stretched when he got out of the car, slammed the door. He watched a dog run away Run, he thought, or you’ll get eaten Whitfield still sat in his seat. When Quinn bent down to look into the window, Whitfield had the wine jug on his lap where it was making a stain.
“Dear Quinn,” said Whitfield, “this may surprise you, but in addition to everything else I am extremely hungry. Eat your headaches away, is what my sainted aunt used to say. You should have seen her. Which is to say, Quinn, can’t this entire maddening transaction with the goddamn cans wait till morning?”
“We’re here now.”
“I’m just afraid you might haggle with me.”
“Look,” said Quinn. “None of this means a damn to you. To me it does. Suddenly, to me there is nothing as important as getting what is mine. Those cans are mine. And any more…”
“Please, please. You’re quite right. None of this means anything to me,” and Whitfield got out of the car.
It was still fairly light over the water, the sea black and yellow, zebra striped. Inside the warehouse the bulbs had been turned on, six hard lights in clear glass, like hard, shiny drops on black strings hanging from the high ceiling.
“Ah!” Whitfield said, and his sigh was strong and genuine with the relief he felt. “Here is your treasure.”
The canisters, ten of then, lay in a corner. Whitfield sat down on one of them. Quinn stood and counted them, as he had often done before, though he couldn’t remember this. Now they were completely his and worth money, and even if it was pennies only, the difference was big. He had back one of his habits, namely, to let nobody think they could take advantage of him.
“Well, now,” said Whitfield, “I’ve heard about cases of this sort, of course, being a fascinated student of your country’s folklore.” He waved his arm and looked bright. “Here lies the start of it. The bent, bumped and humble beginnings of a great fortune, no less. And there you are, born in a box, raised in a gutter. Next he owns the gutter, next he owns everything that floats, crawls or swims in that gutter-Stop me, Quinn, something is making me feel ill.”
Surprisingly, Quinn smiled. He had no quarrel with Whitfield. Most of all, he did not take him seriously. He looked at his canisters which were lying around in a puddle of water. How considerate that they should have washed the cans.
“Let’s say a buck apiece,” said Quinn.
He didn’t look at Whitfield when he said this, but picked up a canister and turned it over. A little water ran out.
“My dear Quinn. A buck is a dollar. I understand, and in view of that fantastic price let me ask you what in the hell you think I’m going to do with all these cans.”
“I don’t know,” said Quinn, “but I need the money.”
He does sound simple again, thought Whitfield, but I no longer believe it. He watched Quinn pick up another can, lift it and hold it for a while with a look on his face which Whitfield thought was almost dreamy.
“Let’s say I give you five dollars for the lot,” said Whitfield, “which is a veritable fortune in Okar. And all because you were, so to speak, shipped to me and I feel responsible in a way, though don’t ask me why. It would sound too sentimental. I do, however, feel responsible, as I might, for example, were a little bird to land on my window sill, exhausted from travel.”
He liked that image and thought about it with his eyes closed. Then he heard Quinn laugh. But when he opened his eyes and looked at Quinn, he did not see a simple laugh, simple enjoyment of a tender comparison to a tired bird; in fact, the smile and the face were complicated. By God, thought Whitfield, if this simpleton isn’t getting amazingly versatile with his features. He watched the smile fade off and Quinn put the can back down.
“Price just went up, I think,” said Quinn.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Let me check first,” said Quinn, and he picked up three more canisters at random, one after the other, and seemed to hook into the open tops. “Yes, yes,” he said, “price went up.”
Whitfield waited, being sure that there was an explanation for all this somewhere.
“You drink, don’t you, Whitfield?” said Quinn and straightened up.
“Now Quinn, are you trying to reprimand me?”
Quinn smiled at Whitfield as if with affection. “I’m eight feet away from you, Whitfield, and you stink like a distillery.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Of course. I take it back because I was mistaken and you don’t smell like a distillery. Here, catch.” He reached for the can at his feet and made it sail in a slow arc toward Whitfield.
Whitfield caught the can because he did not want to get hit. He held the can in both hands and caught the damp wave of alcohol odor which came out of the hole in top. Goddamn those sloppy Arabs, he thought.
Quinn held out another can but Whitfield shook his head. Goddamn their disregard for the most elementary rules of cleanliness, such as to smell clean after cleaning.
“Explain this to me,” said Quinn and leaned against the wall.
“Very well. As you know, Quinn, I am a drinker. As a matter of fact, I have been a trained drinker…”
“Not from five-gallon cans, Whitfield. Your supply comes in a bottle, capped and sealed, like the one you brought from the office. Besides,” and Quinn nudged a can with his foot, “this smell here is alcohol, pure and simple, not gin.”
“I mix my own. I am a trained…”
“Not trained well enough,” said Quinn, “not enough to cover the racket I smell here.”
“Your instinct for the illegal is uncanny,” said Whitfield. “You must have been an excellent lawyer.”
Quinn smiled again and enjoyed it.
“Small port on the North African coast,” he said, looking up at the ceiling. “Dock clerk and Big Brother Remal are natural friends. Ten useless cans lie around and get filled with raw alcohol. I want my cans back, so they quick get washed out-almost washed out-so they’re just cans again and not contraband carriers.” Quinn looked down at Whitfield and said, “Right?”
A lot, Quinn thought, depends on Whitfield’s answer. I have only conjectures, and they have holes. But Whitfield has a habit of not caring much “Uncanny,” said Whitfield, and he hurried to his office.
He was sipping a little bit of straight gin from a teacup when Quinn found him. And now he’ll crucify me with further questions, propositions and reprimands, Whitfield thought, making me feel like a schoolboy caught smoking for which I thank him not, the bully. Bottoms up.
Quinn watched Whitfield upend the cup and waited for him to catch his breath after the maneuver. He, by all accounts, is probably the weakest link in the chain, Quinn was thinking, and the nicest. I could like Whitfield a lot and don’t care to know why. But I won’t badger him any more. Besides, I might look elsewhere.
Old habits were stirring in him, rising like snakes uncoiling. Quinn felt relaxed, confident and no longer pressed. And if feeling friendly was not one of his old habits, it had always been an old wish. He let it show, not feeling worried about Whitfield.
God help me, thought Whitfield, he has either gone simple again or that smile is genuine.
“Back to business,” said Whitfield, as if he were somebody else.
“You can sell me the bleedin’ cans for eight dollars the lot, an outrageous price as I told you, a love price, Quinn. But then I don’t love anyone anyway and so can afford it. Deal?”
“Preserve me. Let’s go home.” Whitfield turned on his heel and walked to the door.
First they drove to the garden wall of Beatrice’s house, where the servant stood by the gate, waiting for the car. No, he told them, Missus Rutledge wasn’t in, and Whitfield said they could say goodbye to chances for a normal dinner. Home then.
They walked away from Beatrice’s house and smelled the night smell coming out of the garden. Between two houses, they took stone steps which went up to another street, and on that street they came to a corner where a strong odor of roasted coffee hung in the dark air, a warm smell lying there like a pool.
“It’s always here,” said Whitfield, “because of that roasting house at the corner.”
Quinn saw no roasting house-only dark walls and the sky overhead, like a gray upside-down street.
“Which means,” said Whitfield, “day or night, drunk or sober, I can always find my way home by the odor cloud at this corner. Doesn’t that make you feel weird? Makes me feel like a dog, Quinn, going home by scent, and that does make me feel weird.”
“I don’t like to feel like a dog. They get eaten around here, you said.”
“Well,” said Whitfield. “Well! I thought I was being weird.”
At Whitfield’s apartment Quinn saw the two rooms, the two ceiling fans paddling around and around with an oily motion, and the tub in the room where the bed stood. There was water in the tub and in the water swam a label which said GIN. While Whitfield changed his shirt Quinn looked at the balcony through the French doors. Then he opened the doors and looked at all the cartons out there. He saw all the regulation gin bottles there, not cans, not odd bottles, and each of them the same brand. True, the labels of some were missing, but Quinn knew how that had come about. He closed the balcony doors again and thought, if there is no sweet racket here, smuggling this and that, then there sure as hell ought to be.
He sat down on top of the books on the couch and watched Whitfield come back with a handful of bills.
“I’ll have to give you your money,” said Whitfield, “in local currency. It’s a pile, like I told you,” and he put it on the table. “Now, watch this. Bottle of wine? A dollar to you, I should think. Here, fifteen cents. A meal. Dollar-fifty or more? Here, ten cents and up, to maybe fifty cents, figuring your kind of money You follow?”
“Yes. Cheap spot here.”
“There is an additional point: carry no more than one of these bills on you, which is about fifty cents. You don’t need more to get through a day or so. This way it won’t be too likely that you’ll get robbed.”
“All right,” said Quinn and got up. He absently stuffed all the bills in his pocket and then he hitched his pants.
“You can sleep here tonight,” said Whitfield. “I forgot to mention it.”
“All right,” said Quinn and walked to the door.
“I say, you do sound absent-minded, Quinn.”
Quinn stopped at the door and opened it. He hadn’t been listening.
“And I say, are you going out?”
“Yes. I’ll be back in a while. Got to go out and think.”
“But you mustn’t!” and Whitfield ran to the door. He touched the door and then he took his hand away. He blinked at Quinn but did not quite understand the expression he saw on his face.
“And of course Remal will be over shortly. To find out how it went with the consul, to arrange for your accommodations…”
“And to tell me I’m confined to quarters after dark?”
Whitfield raised his hand once more to touch the door, but then he just dropped it. He said, “Oh, hell,” and stepped back. What’s happened to my baby from the box, he thought, and why the hell should I try to handle it Quinn walked out and down the stairs. He stood in the hall downstairs for a moment and wondered why he hadn’t heard Whitfield close the door all this time, but he didn’t dwell on it. He walked out, found the roasting odor, made his turn in the dark. He walked in the dark, except when crossing the main street. In the darkness again he occasionally watched the sky street overhead, and sometimes the blind walls of the houses. He felt alone and liked it. He felt he was growing up again, old habits, new habits, no matter what, and this feeling was like a tonic, the way recklessness can be.
At the end of a street was the long quay with the sky now very big overhead. The Mediterranean was black. It was here only a licking sound and a wet smell, but not an ocean.
The warehouse was dark and Quinn went there. At both ends of the building a fence closed off the company dock, a wire mesh fence, where Quinn hooked his fingers into the loops and stood looking. He saw a junk with a light swinging somewhere inside and he saw a motor yacht tied to the pier. Then the wire mesh moved under his hands, a give and a sway, making Quinn think of a net.
“Yes?” said the man.
Quinn saw that the man stood by the fence the same way he himself was doing it, hanging his hands there from hooked fingers. Big, white teeth showed in the man’s very dark face and Quinn wondered if this was a smile.
“Yes? Yes?” said the man, always showing the smile.
“Yes what?” said Quinn.
It’s the only English he knows, thought Quinn, and he is a beggar.
“Yes?” said the man again and this time he laughed. He swayed the fence a little and laughed.
“I don’t know what you want,” said Quinn and turned away.
He looked through the fence and wished that the man, who might also be an idiot, would stop swaying the wire mesh. The mesh swayed more and suddenly gave a wild jerk, hitting Quinn in the face.
The man laughed again even though Quinn turned with a sharp motion, full of anger.
What to say. How talk to an idiot who knows one word and laughs all the time. And then Quinn saw that there was another man.
Then he realized why he had not heard either of them. One of them was barefooted and the other, the grinning one by the fence, had rags wound around his feet, giving them the shape of soft loaves.
The barefooted one came from the water side and the grinning one also came closer. Then the barefooted one leaped.
Quinn smelled a terrible stink from the man, and for that first moment Quinn struggled only because of that. But then the grinning one hurt him. He had his arms around Quinn’s middle and his hands dug Quinn in the spine. For some strange reason, Quinn could suddenly hear nothing. The man let go, stepped back, hit Quinn in the face. Quinn felt confused and therefore weak. Even the slap in the face did not arouse him. He found no anger, no strength, no clear-cut emotion. He wanted to say “Why?”, and he wanted to ask this for most of the time that he was still conscious.
It was a strange fight and it did not last very long. Quinn hit back and saw the man laugh. He could hear again in a moment and heard the dry skin sound of bare feet, the lick sound of the water, cough sound of the idiot laugh, twang sound of the fence, which gave like a net when the three men rolled against it. Quinn did not hurt much while they fought nor did he enjoy much what he was doing. Then he tasted blood and then his head jarred and he went out.
When he woke up he thought that he was on the junk with the light inside. He saw the light swaying and felt his insides turn over with nausea and thought, I’m seasick. But then he felt the stone floor under his hands and the hard weave of the fence pressing into his back. I’ve been out less than a minute, he thought. He knew this for certain because there was still the hard muscle pain in his stomach where he had been hit and the blood was fresh and warm on his lip. Also, his breathing was still going deep and heavy.
The other thing he knew for certain was why he had been jumped. He put one hand on his thigh, feeling the money wad still in his pocket. They hadn’t been beggars and they hadn’t been robbers, but Whitfield was in on this thing and the strong-arm business told him, Keep away from the pier. Here in Okar. Not back home, but here in Okar.
He looked at the lamp and saw how close it was and then he looked up and saw who was holding it.
“Are you all right, Mister Quinn?” said Remal.
Quinn set his teeth and did not answer. He heard footsteps running and saw Whitfield come around the side of the building. He was carrying a wet rag. He ran over to Quinn and crouched next to him and offered the rag to him. He tried to say something or other but nothing came out. He was also trying to smile and frown at the same time but was too upset for either.
“Put it on the back of your neck,” said Remal. “It will clear you.”
Clear enough, thought Quinn. Everything is very clear, except that the instinct has gone out of me and I sit here and feel so clear that I’m empty.
“Quinn? Uh, Quinn, I’m most terribly sorry…”
“Let Mister Quinn get up, if he wishes,” said Remal.
Quinn got up. He did this carefully, hooking his fingers into the fence and working up that way like a slow-moving monkey. When he stood he took a deep breath and looked at the other two men. Whitfield looked nervous and even embarrassed. Remal smiled. Quinn felt that he did not know about Remal yet.
“Can you walk?” said Whitfield. “If you can’t, just sit down again. Or come sit in my office.”
“Why sit in your office?” said Quinn, and, “Why are you here?”
“Remal wanted to talk to you,” said Whitfield. “You remember I told…”
“You had left when I came,” said Remal, “so we went out to look for you.”
“Here?” said Quinn.
Remal lifted the lantern he had in one hand and held it so the light shone on Quinn’s face. Remal looked closely at him and squinted a little.
“Bad cut,” he said. “Does not look very good,” and he put his free hand out and poked at the cut with two fingers, causing a sharp pain. “Yes, yes,” he said.
Quinn jerked his head back because of the pain and then wiped one eye, which had started to water. He felt confused again, and therefore weak. The instinct’s gone out of me, he thought. Damn all of them, but I’ll get it back Then they went around the long warehouse and into Whitfield’s office. The walking was not so bad.
Remal held the lamp and Whitfield found the switch on the wall for the light. Remal put the lamp on the floor but did not blow it out.
The office was a place with chairs, files and a desk, but it was not an Okar place, thought Quinn. This is a lot like a picture I’ve seen, illustrating something by Dickens. The desk had a pigeonhole back and there were ledgers with red leather spines. The swivel chair, Quinn thought, will probably creak.
Remal sat down in the chair and made it creak. The big man flounced his long shirt, crossed his legs, and touched the stitched skullcap on his head. This spoiled the illustration of something by Dickens. The Arab did not belong in such an office, the office did not belong in Okar, and Quinn, inconsequentially, thought of the upside-down street which had followed him overhead on his way down. His left eye still watered. That’s why I can’t find a focus, he thought.
“Yes, well,” said Remal, and looked at his hands. Then he folded them and looked at Quinn. “So it seems,” he said, “that your own consul has, one might say, committed you to my care. Does it hurt?”
Quinn took his hand away from his face and looked at his fingers. There was a small stain of blood there and he felt it by rubbing his fingertips together.
“I didn’t like it when you hurt me like that,” he said. “It felt like on purpose.”
“I apologize. Really, Mister Quinn.”
“Was it on purpose?”
Whitfield felt as if the air was suddenly getting terribly heavy. Quinn hasn’t moved and Remal hasn’t moved, he thought, but something has. A mood in Quinn. Everything he hasn’t done while he was getting his beating is now starting to move in him. Like a very slow waking up “Of course not,” said Remal. He even smiled, but without looking at Quinn. Then he said, “What needs to happen now, Mister Quinn, is to take better care of you while you are still here.”
“I don’t need any…”
“Please. You just got beaten up. I also apologize for that.”
“You didn’t do it.”
“I am the mayor. I do feel responsible.”
Whitfield sighed and sat down on a chair. Remal was acting official, which somehow took the black mood out of the room. Or perhaps now the mood could be ignored, the way Remal seemed to be ignoring Quinn. He talked to Quinn as if about routine business.
“And feeling responsible, Mister Quinn, here is how we shall handle this.”
Quinn leaned back in his chair, very slowly and cautiously it seemed to Whitfield. Then he saw Quinn stick out his tongue and touch the tip of it to the cut which ran down to his lip. Quinn did that very slowly too.
“As long as you have no papers,” said Remal, “you must stay here in town. This you know. And as long as you stay in this town, Mister Quinn, you must observe a few rules of safety.”
“Like don’t go out after dark?” said Quinn.
“Why, yes,” said Remal and smiled. Then the smile went again and he cleared his throat. “That is point number one. Point number two, please do not go into the Arab quarter. You are unfamiliar here, unfamiliar with ways and with people. They will find you strange and you will feel the same about them, which is always dangerous. It is best you have nothing to do with them.”
There was a small silence and then Quinn said, “Was there a third point?”
A silence again and Whitfield fingered his chin. He wished he were some place else.
“Yes. Point number three: Do not go near the waterfront after dark. I don’t think I need to explain why.”
“No. That you don’t.”
“After all, you are still suffering the consequences.”
Quinn got up from his chair and stretched himself carefully. He did this mostly to learn where he was hurting. Then he walked to the window which looked from the office into the warehouse, but it was dark on the other side and he saw only his own head reflected.
I don’t know, I don’t know, he thought. I give up Ryder and now I get this. Like a clear jinx riding me. Jinx in the box.
“And now that we understand each other…” Remal was saying, when Quinn turned around from the window.
“Have you got any idea why you don’t like me?” he said to Remal.
When Quinn heard himself say this he was as startled as the other two men. He turned back to the window. Got to get out, out of here. Go see Turk, he thought. See what there’s to see. I need more than my guesswork about cans smelling like booze “I really don’t know what you mean, Mister Quinn, seeing that you and I hardly know each other.”
We don’t, we don’t for a fact, but still I have this feeling “I have no feelings about you, Mister Quinn. Perhaps it is that which offends you.”
And he may be right. He’s the one who makes this vacuum around me, with no feelings one way or the other. I lost the instinct-Get a beating, get the runaround, get the law laid down to me. And nothing happens inside. I’ve lost the instinct “However,” said Remal, “I have not finished. There is this fourth point. If you do not obey…”
“Obey?” said Quinn.
“Perhaps my English is inadequate.” Remal shrugged.
“I think it is good,” said Quinn. “I don’t know what else to think of it but I think it is good.”
Remal looked at Whitfield and frowned. Quinn’s talk was confusing him. Perhaps, this Quinn person himself was confused, he thought, and he’d best put a halt to this quickly now.
“To finish,” he said and got up, “as I gather from the police officials and by inference, you are familiar with the rules of disobedience. I have talked to you, Mister Quinn, and I wish you no harm. But I have talked to you about rules and I am now finished talking. Whitfield, take him home.” Remal turned and walked out the door.
He left Quinn speechless and Whitfield worried. Whitfield did not think Quinn would stay speechless or dumfounded like this for very long.
After the sirocco comes through and then disappears over the water, there is often a motion of slow, heavy air. Nobody feels it move in, but it is there, like a standing cloud, a mass of heat. This phenomenon, in a Western climate, might mean a thunderstorm and release. But not in Okar.
Quinn walked out into the street and felt it. He felt the still heat inside and out and how nothing moved. Something’s got to happen, he felt, something He walked next to Whitfield, ignoring him, aware only of the heat which did not move.
“Quinn, not so fast. Please,” said Whitfield. “The steps, you know,” and Whitfield puffed a little, which he blamed on breaking training with the two bottles in the back of the car.
Quinn stopped a few steps ahead of him, where the street leveled out again, and touched the side of his face.
“I wanted to tell you I am most awfully sorry about what happened to you tonight. Please believe me.”
Nothing’s happened yet, thought Quinn. He felt himself breathe and how hard it was. He almost began to count. Like a count-down, he thought, except I don’t know how many numbers to go “Believe me, Quinn, I had no idea. What I mean is, I was most terribly shocked coming upon that scene there by the fence. Really, Quinn.”
“I believe you,” said Quinn. He was suddenly bored with Whitfield. “I really do, Whitfield,” he said in order to make his point and stop talking. He wanted to get away. Whitfield would soon start meandering again and that had a dulling effect. Like getting drunk on Whitfield, Quinn thought. Got to get away now. Nothing holds as still as I’ve been holding still and I don’t know how but it can’t be much longer.
They crossed the main street and Quinn stopped under a light. “Whitfield, listen. I’m not going home yet. I’m nervous.”
“Fine. We can go to the hotel, where they serve…”
“Not that kind of nervous. When you get home, leave the light on for me.”
“What’s that you said?”
The question was stupid because Whitfield had understood well enough. He stopped and watched Quinn walk off. Sighing, he watched Quinn’s back lit by a lamp, then dark in shadow, then lit by a lamp, the footsteps getting fainter.
He’s batty, thought Whitfield. Now he’s going to the Arab quarter. But I’m going home. The last time I told Remal where Quinn might be, Remal had the poor thing beaten up. I feel shaken about it even now. I must plan something soothing at home The Arab quarter, Quinn discovered, was not very large. He walked the narrow streets slowly and twice ended up in open country where he could see no roads. The quarter was not large but it was complicated, and Quinn knew he was lost almost immediately But that did not bother him. He knew with an uncomplicated certainty he would find his man. Or Turk would find him. It was also very simple in his mind why he had to see Turk. There is a rat here whom I can understand. And maybe I can use what he knows. Quinn had no clear notion what this last thought really meant, but he did not question it. Remal, of course, had pushed him around, but the fact was, he had not yet reacted to it.
Maybe it never rains here, he thought, and the heat just hangs, just stays this way-He broke out in a sudden sweat, as if frightened. The noise got to him just as suddenly as if there had been silence before, which was not true. Some Arabs were arguing, or perhaps they were just talking, but they yelled, and children yelled, and a dog howled. Even the light makes a noise, thought Quinn. The yellow light in the doorway wasn’t still but jumped and gutted.
Quinn took a deep breath and smelled the warm oiliness of something cooking. All right, I’m hungry. That’s what all this is about, and he walked through the doorway into a long, crowded room with long tables, short tables, and men sitting on benches. The men stared at him but kept eating or talking. They looked at him as if they knew who he was.
Quinn sat down next to a man who was slurping a stew. He was an old man who seemed to have only one tooth and his jaw churned wildly while he ate. When Quinn looked up, there was a boy standing next to him who said something in Arabic.
“You the waiter?” said Quinn. “Eat,” and he showed what he meant by pointing at the stew the old man was eating.
“Don’t order that stuff. It’s not any good.”
Quinn turned and saw Turk standing behind him. Turk smiled quickly, as if it were expected of him.
“Why? Is it dog?”
“Not the point, friend. That dish is very cheap. The price goes by how rotten the meat is.” Then Turk said something to the boy, and when the boy had gone Turk sat down opposite Quinn. “I ordered for you. Okay?”
“You were looking for me, huh?”
Quinn felt an unreasonable annoyance at the remark, but then he admitted, yes, he had been looking for Turk. He wanted to ask, how in hell did you know I was looking for you, but felt cramped with his anger and said nothing.
“He beats you up, he beats me up, so of course we meet,” said Turk, and his smile made it sound like a stupid joke.
“You’re talking about Remal,” said Quinn.
“Of course. He who had them beat you up.”
“You seem to know everything.”
“Is that how you lost your teeth, he beat you up?”
“No. I was speaking in a manner of speaking,” said Turk. “He beats me in some other way.”
“What way?” said Quinn, but his stew came at that moment, and while the boy put the bowl down Turk did not answer.
“In what way?” Quinn asked again.
“How does a strong man beat a weak one?” said Turk. “He ignores the weak one. He beats me in that way.”
That’s got nothing to do with me, and the thought came to Quinn in a rush of anger. He took a spoonful of stew and burnt his mouth.
“I would do an errand for him here and there,” Turk was saying, “and I would see how badly run all his business really is.”
“Yes. And I would make suggestions, try to advise him on how to do better, more money, more everything. Ek-” said Turk with a shrug and a face as if avoiding the touch of something disgusting, “and he would ignore me.”
“You’re a sensitive bastard, aren’t you?” said Quinn, but though Turk answered something or other, Quinn did not hear him. The night’s beating, the off-hand treatment by Remal-all that came back now as a clear, sharp offense, like a second beating, not of the body this time, but something worse.
Like I didn’t exist, it struck Quinn. And this time, without moving a muscle, a cold hate, which seemed very familiar, moved into Quinn, settled there and started to heat.
“He could be somebody to admire,” Turk was saying, “but, well, ek-” and he made his gesture again.
“You poor bastard,” said Quinn with a lot of feeling. “You poor bastard,” and he started to eat his stew.
“Oh?” and this time, with a smile, Turk laughed. “What about you, man from the box?”
The stew was over-spiced and had some offensive flavors in it, but Quinn didn’t taste a thing. He swallowed without chewing very much and stared at Turk.
“All I meant was,” said Turk very quickly, “here you are now, here you come innocent like a lamb…”
“Tell me something, Turk. Why do you hang around me?”
“Oh that? Well, you were new in town, I heard about you and…”
“Stop crapping me. What do you want?”
Turk shrugged and said, “Perhaps money Perhaps company. Perhaps nothing else to do.”
“Money. That’s the only thing that makes sense in your answer,” and Quinn thought, I can use this bastard. I can maybe use him “It is really simple and no mystery and no double-talk,” Turk explained. He felt he had better say something solid now and no more grinning and crapping around, as the American had expressed it. “I have heard, of course, about your background. Or at any rate, the talk that has been about you, that you must have been somebody with the big-business criminals in your country.
“And, as you did find out this night, how Remal is perhaps worried about you…”
“An unusual arrival draws unusual attention.”
“I never did anything to him.”
“Ah, that is Remal. He anticipates.”
Quinn felt suddenly dangerous and important. He felt like an embarrassed boy about this, but the sense of drama remained.
“I felt,” Turk went on, “that if you are pushed, you push back.”
“You haven’t told me yet what you want.”
“Ek-” said Turk. “I would like to see how a man like you deals with a person like Remal. That’s all.”
You left out the money, thought Quinn. And for that matter, so have I, so have I-A month or more in this burg with really nothing to do, and there’s some kind of set-up here, no mistake about it, and maybe a thing to be made. But the thought did not really interest him.
Quinn touched the side of his face where he had been cut in the beating, and he touched there to feel the burn and the sting. He touched there to feel just how much he had been hurt.
And then, eating stew as if nothing else mattered, he got back more of the old habits. It happened that smoothly. The old habits of grab and kick, of anticipate, the sharp, quick decisions to be ahead of the game, any game, or somebody else would be playing it his own way which means, Quinn, you’re out!
“The strangest thing,” said Turk from across the table. “You look like a new man,” and of course he grinned.
For a brief moment Quinn felt confused, and then lost and sad. But it was too fast and he knew nothing clearly. And of course neither he nor Turk understood that there was nothing new about Quinn now, that he was no longer new at all.
They left the place because Quinn couldn’t stand the smell any more, after he was done eating.
“The hotel?” asked Turk, because he would have liked to go there.
“No. Some place here is fine. But I don’t want to have to sit on the same bench with everybody.”
“Ah. You have secrets.”
“No. But I want to ask some.”
They walked down the street, deeper into the quarter.
“I don’t get this,” said Quinn, “how a smart man like Remal will pull such a primitive stunt. He gets me beaten up right there where he doesn’t want me to look around, and then when I wake up he’s standing over me with a lantern.”
“Why do more?” said Turk and shrugged. “He just wanted you beaten. If you should want to know about Remal and his business, you can always find out. He did not try to hide things from you, but he tried to tell you what happens if you interfere with him.”
“He’ll have to do better than that,” said Quinn.
“He can,” and Turk laughed. “However, at first, he is polite. We go in here.”
They walked into a cafe, a small room with small tables, and this time there was no grease smell and food smell but heavy clouds of blue smoke and coffee odor. Through an arch they went into a second room which was much like a basement, with one slit of a window high up, and the walls bare stone. Not many people sat here. Each round table had only two chairs, which looked intimate.
“To keep their secrets just a little bit longer,” said Turk, “merchants come here, and the traders from across this or that border.”
They sat down and leaned their elbows on the table. The waiter appeared and nodded to Turk.
“You know,” said Turk, “they have good little cakes here. Would you like some with a glass of liqueur?”
Quinn thought that sounded revolting and asked for a pot of tea.
“I’ll have the liqueur, with permission,” said Turk.
They ordered and then they sat, looking at each other. Obviously, thought Quinn, he and I want different things and we don’t know how to get together. He wants to import a Made in USA gang-organizer, which is ridiculous, and I want to be left alone by the likes of this Remal, and that sounds ridiculous too. I want more.
Quinn stopped there, feeling sick of thinking. He sipped his tea and looked at the other tables. The faces were shut, the gestures were fast. The heads were close to one another over the tables so that the talk would not go very far. They hiss like snakes, thought Quinn.
“Does Remal come here?” he asked.
“Sometimes. But not tonight. Tonight he is elsewhere.”
“And naturally you know where.”
“It’s no secret. He sleeps with the foreign woman sometimes. How is your tea?”
“Like hot perfume.”
“ Salut,” said Turk, and tilted his little glass.
The liqueur was red and smelled like sugar and the tea was yellow and smelled like flowers. And I belong here, thought Quinn, like I belong in a box. Both don’t fit. But he didn’t think any of that through and asked something else.
“About Whitfield,” he said. “Is he very important? I mean, when it comes to Remal and his business.”
“I like Whitfield,” said Turk, “but I don’t like the other one.”
“I didn’t ask that.”
“ Salut,” said Turk and finished his liqueur. “I admire Whitfield because he knows how to live with limitations. Remal does not, nor do I.”
“I asked you if he is important.”
“Whitfield is a dock, a very good company name, and he has a shortwave radio, all of which is important. Whitfield, however, is not. I like him,” and Turk put down his glass.
Bad Mohammedan, thought Quinn. He drinks.
Bad Westerner, thought Turk. He sits and does nothing, like me, but he feels badly about it.
It was then Quinn got up. “All right,” he said. “Show me the way out of here, Turk.”
“You are going home?”
Quinn paid the old man who waited on tables, slapped Turk on the arm, and said, “I want you to show me the quarter.”
“In Paris,” said Turk, “that type of remark used to mean only one thing.”
“I’ve never been in Paris. Come on.”
There was a second door which led from the room and Turk went that way. After the door came a passage which smelled dry and spicy.
“They belong to Remal,” said Turk, “some of these bundles.”
The passage had hemp-wrapped bales all along one side and the bales were tied with fiber.
“Contraband?” said Quinn. “I didn’t know spices were still smuggled.”
“It isn’t all spices. He smuggles everything.”
“Everything what? Tobacco, silk, alcohol, drugs, what?”
“Everything. These things here go tonight. Come.”
A wide-open set-up, thought Quinn. Remal, not being stupid, must he very powerful The passage led to the outside, but Turk stopped at a door between stacks of bundles. He opened it and went inside.
The room was for storage, Quinn thought, because of the barrels which were stacked by the walls. There was an oil lamp on top of a barrel and all the men standing around seemed to shift and move, though they stood quite still. The light dipped and bubbled and constantly changed the shadows. The men did not talk and only their clothes made small sounds. They were waiting.
Quinn sucked in his breath, trying not to feel shocked.
There was a small, low table and a very young girl lay on top of it. Quinn could tell that she was very young because her long robe was pushed all the way up. It was bunched up under her arms and under her chin where she held it with her hands. She had small, brown hands, like raccoon paws. One man stood at the end of the table where he held the girl by her hips.
“All of them?” said Quinn, and he heard himself whisper.
“It’s all right,” said Turk. “She goes on the boat.”
“Tonight’s boat. I told you that Remal trades in everything.”
The man at the table wore a wide burnoose which covered all of him. When he leaned more and gripped the girl hard, his shadow suddenly flapped up the wall like a bat, up the wall and over the ceiling. Then it collapsed again and went away. The man stepped away and there was shifting and murmuring. The girl stayed on the table.
“You are a guest,” said Turk. “They say if you would like to he next then you don’t have to wait.”
“No. Thank you,” said Quinn.
He didn’t say anything else but felt pressure inside from the sight he saw there-the girl on the table who acted as if she were not there, the men in the room, and things like ropes and wires, perhaps the most delicate parts of which they were made.
And Remal trades in this. I drop out of a box, thin-skinned like a maggot, and a cold bastard like Remal, moving the ropes and wires inside his anatomy, steps on me.
“Let’s go,” said Quinn, and looked for the door.
There was a door to the outside and Turk pushed it open. The girl looked up at Quinn when he walked past and then closed her eyes. There was sweat on her forehead and one of the men, with the end of his burnoose, gave a dab to her face.
And that doesn’t change anything either, thought Quinn. It looks almost human, that gesture, but it changes nothing.
He stood outside in the alley, wishing he could smell the desert which was not far away There probably is no smell to the desert, he thought. He shivered with a sensitivity which was painful. Like a goat, that’s what she looked like. Even after she closed her eyes. That’s how he treats everybody, like Quinn the goat, like a piece of meat hanging down from a nail “Perhaps you would like…” Turk started, but he didn’t get any further.
“When are they done in there, with the girl?”
“Done? I don’t know. The boat, I think, doesn’t leave until after midnight. If you would like…”
“I want her.”
“Alone? All right. But I could get you…”
“Shut up. Get that one. Borrow her. Pay the captain for the loan of the cargo he’s got on the table there.”
“That won’t be necessary, I don’t think. Just a little token, perhaps, but there is no real price.”
“But there will be,” Quinn said to no one in particular. “There most certainly will be,” and he wiped his face because he was sweating again, feeling a sharp, sudden anger.
Turk, of course, thought all along that Quinn meant to sleep with the girl.
“I understand,” he said, “how you, a civilized Westerner, might feel shy with a woman whom you love. But this one?” and he pointed at the girl who was walking between them. “This one, as you saw on the table…”
“Stop talking a minute,” said Quinn. “Now listen close.” They were leaving the quarter and turned down the main street, walking towards the lights which started a few blocks away. “You and me,” he said, “maybe we’ll do a thing or two together, and then maybe we won’t. I haven’t got a plan, I haven’t even got anything that amounts to a notion. All I’ve got right now is a bug itch and an annoyance.”
“If you’re worried about not having any money,” Turk said, when Quinn interrupted again.
“And don’t try doing my thinking for me, all right?”
“All right,” said Turk, “All right,” and he shrugged.
“I was going to say, if you and I should maybe do something together, seeing I’ll be here a month or so, then I’ll need your help.”
This was nothing new to Turk, but he was happy to see how Quinn, though still fresh out of the box in more than one way of speaking, how he was starting to move and think in a way Turk understood. Turk had known how Quinn would need help. What he hadn’t known came next.
“I’m not interested in money, Turk. I’m interested only in being left alone. I feel bugged and I itch. When I scratch myself it isn’t to make an income. You got that?”
Turk got none of it.
“All I want from you are two things. One, information.”
“What do you wish to know?”
“Nothing right now. Just listen, huh?”
Turk didn’t understand that either.
“And two, I might need another set of eyes, like in the back of my head, so I don’t get jumped in some dark alley.”
“Ah, you are already afraid of Remal.”
“I got jumped once already,” said Quinn. “In return, seeing as you’re a greedy bastard, maybe I can help you in getting a slice or two out of Remal’s racket.” Quinn sighed, feeling tired. “I have a little background for it,” he said.
And so he had made another small move, still without seeing which way he was tending.
Quinn showed the way to Whitfield’s house, and when they got there he told Turk to wait downstairs, in the dark yard. He is shy with that child, thought Turk, as if she were a woman and he not too sure about being a man. It is a Western disease.
The light was on in the room with the couch and the door to the bedroom was closed. This meant, Quinn figured, that Whitfield was drunk and asleep in his bed and that he, Quinn, was to use the couch for the night. The couch was still full of books. The girl, who looked amorphous in her big, loose robe, stood in the middle of the room waiting for Quinn to show her what to do next.
“Sit down,” he said and waved at the couch.
She went to the couch and started to take the books off, to make room.
“No, no, just sit there, goddamit, sit,” and he showed her by pushing her down.
Her face stayed as always, mouth closed, eyes big and dumb. Her face was thin, which made her look old, and the skin was smooth, which made her look young. Quinn didn’t concern himself much with any of this.
“Now stay put. Sit. And no sound.” All this he showed her.
From the next room he heard a wild splashing. And then, “I say there, is that you, Quinn?”
He even sleeps in that tub, so help me “Yes, it’s me,” he said, “I just got in.”
“Are you dumping the books? I’m terribly sorry I forgot about those books.”
“That’s all right. Sorry I woke you.”
“Not at all, not at all. But you’ll need a pillow and a blanket. I say, Quinn, would you mind terribly getting the stuff yourself. Open the door.”
“I don’t need anything. Go back to sleep.”
“Don’t he ridiculous. Open the door.”
Quinn went and opened the door. The light was on in the bedroom, too, and of course Whitfield was not in his bed. Everybody seems to know about this boat tonight, Quinn thought, and looked at Whitfield in his tub, face wet, knees drawn up to make room for the black-haired girl who was in the water with him. This one did not have a child’s body. She was full-fleshed and she glistened. Quinn thought of wet rubber.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Whitfield was saying, “but you’ll forgive me if I don’t get up.”
“I understand fully,” said Quinn, and them he meant to tell Whitfield to go on with his bath and that he himself hadn’t meant to go to sleep right now, anyway. But Whitfield at that point spotted the girl on the couch and he was shocked.
“My dear Quinn! But forgive me, and while I don’t wish to impose on your own good judgment-eh, where did you pick that up?”
“In the quarter.”
“Now, Quinn, please, let me try and be friendly. We have, you don’t seem to know, a terrible disease problem here, and unless you are very sure…”
“Forget it, it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter? Please. Quinn, send her away and in no more than half an hour I will send you this one. I’m quite certain of this one and I’m really trying to be friendly.”
“I can hardly think of anything friendlier,” said Quinn. “But I’m not sleeping with the one on the couch.”
“Oh? Tell me about it. What do you do?” Whitfield showed polite interest.
“Look. Friendliest thing you can do for me right now is yell across to her to stay put here till I get back. I won’t be long.”
“Well,” and Whitfield shrugged, “not that I understand it.” Then he yelled across at the girl to stay put. He spoke in Arabic, but the girl didn’t answer or even open her mouth. She only nodded. Quinn started to close the door.
“No, leave it open,” said Whitfield from the tub. “I don’t want her to steal anything.”
Quinn stopped, then smiled at the picture. He went downstairs. In the dark yard Turk stepped up to him.
“No,” said Quinn. “Just starting.” And then he told Turk to stay in the yard and see that the girl did not leave.
“She won’t,” said Turk, “not if you told her to stay. Besides, I feel you may need the eyes in the back of your head tonight.”
“I doubt it. Yet.”
“Mister Quinn,” said Turk, “I won’t tell you how to think, but please do not tell me what I feel in the air. What I feel is getting darker and thicker. So I will watch out.”
“I’m only going to…”
“I know where you are going. Since you did not sleep with the girl, it stands to reason.”
“Maybe you also know why I brought her up there.”
“No,” said Turk. “In some ways you do not think as clearly as I do. This makes it hard to understand your reasons. But you go,” said Turk, “and I will watch out.” He disappeared in the shadows again.
Quinn wasn’t sure what Turk intended. Walking in the darkness, he felt a strange sense of safety which he knew was connected with nothing real.
Bea’s house sat in a dark garden and no light showed anywhere. Like a midnight visit which once happened to me, it struck him, but then he rattled the gate to make a noise because he could not find a bell. Nothing happened for perhaps a minute, but when Quinn got ready to call out a servant came running up to the gate. He spoke no English but understood that Quinn wanted in. He opened the gate because there had been no orders to keep it closed.
He took Quinn to a downstairs room where he lit a lamp. After that, nobody showed for about fifteen minutes.
The room looked dull, drapes too dark and heavy, furniture dark and heavy. There was also a vase of large flowers, but they did not make the room gay. He saw a box of cigarettes on a round table and without thinking about it took one, lit up and smoked. He watched his hand, how it held the cigarette, flipped ash. The damnedest thing, he thought. It’s really the damnedest thing to forget that I used to smoke. And what else did I forget-When he was done with the cigarette he felt tense and hostile. He could recall nothing else which he might have forgotten, but it had suddenly struck him that he had no clear idea of what he wanted with Remal. Then he heard the footsteps coming down a hall. I’ll let it go till I see him, he thought. That should help But when the door opened it wasn’t Remal who came in. Beatrice smiled at Quinn as if she was really pleased to see him. She brushed her hair back with one hand. She wore no make-up and looked as if she had been asleep.
“What exciting hours you keep,” she said.
And you too, he thought. And she’s not wearing a thing under that dress, which is why she looks this soft and slow. Or the no-lipstick face does it. A real face in bed on a big, deep pillow “I didn’t come to see you,” he said without any transition.
She sat down on a couch and didn’t know what to say. But then she laughed. She took a cigarette from the boy and kept eyeing him.
“It was about the last thing I expected you to say, Mister Quinn,” and she gave a low laugh again. “Not the way you were looking at me.”
“So am I. Do you have a light?”
He lit her cigarette for her, watching the end of the match and nothing else.
“If Remal is here, I’d like to see him for a minute.”
She leaned back and blew smoke.
“You must have been talking to one or the other of everybody, seeing that you know exactly what goes on in my house.” She made a small pause and then, “He won’t like it.”
“I know he won’t,” and Quinn smiled.
She had not seen him smile before and had wondered, after the one time she had seen him in the hotel, how he might smile. She had speculated what a smile might do to his face which she remembered as looking still or indifferent, the eyes in particular. That’s the difference, she thought. The eyes changed. They had not been looking for anything, but now they were. And the smile? It smiles at something I know nothing about, and that’s why it bothers me She got up and said, “I’ll get him for you.” When she was by the door, she added, “I thought you were on a curfew?”
“You must have been talking to one or the other of almost everybody, too,” said Quinn.
“No. Just Remal.” She came back into the room and stubbed her cigarette out in a tray. “Quinn?”
I wish she’d go, he thought. I don’t know what to think of her. She’s less simple than anyone here “You know, it would be easier if you had come to see me. I’m much easier to see.”
“I wouldn’t come because you’re easy.”
He had said it without thinking. She started to smile but then didn’t because he was not smiling. They looked at each other with an unexpected quiet between them. Then she took a quick breath and turned away. Of course, he wants to see Remal. And I want anything I don’t know. So, of course She walked out and Quinn did not watch her. He did not have to watch her to know what she looked like, how she walked, how she felt. She feels like me, he thought. Or the way I did those first few days here-And Quinn almost felt as if he had lost something.
When she got to the bedroom she saw Remal standing on the other side of the open French doors. He stood on the dark balcony and was stretching, and at the end of the stretch he made a sound which was a lot like a purr. He is a big cat and needs a jungle. No, he is too sly and too educated but he is a big cat in bed. I like him there but nowhere else. A big cat in bed. What a way to think of a man: a cat.
“ Cheri,” she said, “it’s for you.”
He turned and when he saw her he smiled and came into the room. “For me? What is it?”
“Quinn is downstairs.”
She thought she could hear something snap when his face changed. The smile was gone, as if his thin mouth had bit into the smile and made it break into pieces, and his black female eyes became black the way Chinese lacquer is black and cold. He said nothing and walked past her, out the door.
Remal’s face had not changed at all when he walked up to Quinn, and Quinn saw the same thing there which Beatrice had seen. But he reacted differently than she had-not with a fright which was kept still with silence, but clear dislike. Remal kept standing.
“Since you left your quarters after dark, I will place you under house arrest, Mister Quinn.”
I don’t exist for him. Except as a violation of law “Sit down, won’t you,” Quinn said. He was surprised at his own calm.
“This can’t possibly take long. I’ll stand.”
Quinn shrugged. He said, “I’ll be here about one month, no more. If for that length of time you want to stand like that, look like that, then suit yourself. Except I don’t like it.”
“I’m too polite to laugh,” said Remal. “However, I will have you jailed.”
“I don’t think you can afford that,” said Quinn.
“Are you blackmailing me?”
“Of course.” Quinn got up, walked around the small table.
“And you want?” said Remal. He said it only because it was the next logical question, but not because he was really concerned. He must go, of course. Perhaps I will have him killed.
Quinn stopped walking and turned. It was suddenly all very simple. And if the mayor can feel as straight as I do now, all this can be over. It felt almost as simple as coming out of the box.
“I want you off my back,” said Quinn. “You understand the expression? I want you to leave me alone.”
“Are you leaving me alone?”
“It comes to the same thing,” said Quinn. “I want no part of your troubles. I want no part of your schemes. I’m not interested in you.”
“You make me sound like I don’t exist,” said Remal, and he thought again, I may have to have him killed.
“I wish to hell you didn’t exist, that’s a fact,” and Quinn meant it. “But while you do, I don’t want to get jumped in the dark, I don’t want your curfews. That’s what I mean by getting off my back.”
It was that simple. Quinn took a deep breath and knew this: if he gives the right answer now then he is off my back. I don’t even feel angry any more. He can be of no importance. If only he gives the right answer now Upstairs, Quinn could hear someone walking, then the sound of a chair. That’s the woman, he thought. What if Remal were not here at all “I don’t think you finished,” said Remal. “You didn’t say ‘or else’. Your kind always says ‘or else’.”
The bastard, thought Quinn. The ugly bastard “ ‘Or else’ what, Mister Quinn?”
Quinn sat down on a chair, put his arms on the table and looked at his hands. He didn’t give the right answer. He’s still on my back, no matter if I put him there or if he jumped on by himself, and now-He didn’t finish the thought. He didn’t have to. He felt the dislike creep in again, like cold fog. The straight talk is over. I didn’t know I could talk that straight, but it’s over now and back to the conniving.
He looked up at Remal, and this was the first time that the mayor really saw the other man. He had missed everything that had gone before. He might have been looking at Quinn some time back, somewhere in New York, and there would have been no difference. I’ll kill him, of course “Mayor,” said Quinn. “For my information: let’s say a man, some man who lives in the quarter, comes up to you and says, ‘Sir, give me ten dollars or I go to the authorities and tell them everything I know about your shipping business.’”
“Who knows about it?”
“Don’t be naive. Everybody does.”
Remal let that go by. He conceded the point by closing his eyes. When they came open they were on Quinn again, taking him in with great care and interest.
“What would you do if some man came up to you like that?”
“Kill him,” said Remal.
Quinn smiled. He was starting to like the game.
“Now let’s say I come up, just like that rat from the quarter.” Quinn stopped smiling and leaned over the table a little. “You think you can do the same thing to me and get away with it?”
Remal thought for a moment because he had never considered that there might be a difference.
“I’m under official protection,” said Quinn, “of official interest. I’m a citizen of another country. I’m an active case with my consulate, and then suddenly I disappear.”
There was a silence while Remal folded his arms, looked up at the ceiling. When he looked back at Quinn, nothing had changed. Neither Quinn nor Remal.
“Yes,” said Remal. “You will just suddenly disappear.” He shrugged and said, “It has happened before. Even in your country it happens, am I right? And you have so many more laws.”
Now the bastard is laughing at me and he’s right and I’m wrong.
“Was that the blackmail, Mister Quinn?”
“No. And all I wanted from you…”
“Come to the point.”
There was a magazine on the table and Quinn flipped the pages once so that they made a quick, nervous rat-tat-tat. Then he looked up. “I’ve got some of your merchandise.”
“Also a thief, I see.”
“And this merchandise talks. She was going out on a boat tonight, white slave shipment to some place, which would interest anyone from your local constable to the High Commissioner of the Interpol system.”
This time Remal sat down, but he was smiling. “All this, Mister Quinn, so I don’t put you on a curfew?”
“That’s how it started,” said Quinn, which he knew didn’t answer the question. That’s how it started, he thought, but I don’t know any more. I might like to go further.
Remal threw his head back and laughed loud and hard. When he was done he did not care how Quinn was looking at him.
“You found her where, Mr. Quinn, on my boat?”
“In the quarter.”
“Ah. And she was being used, no doubt, somewhere in an alley.”
“The point is I have her.”
“Was she thin and young, Mister Quinn?” And when Quinn didn’t answer, Remal said as if to himself, “They usually are, the ones Hradin brings in.”
“Maybe you didn’t get my point, Mayor.”
“Oh that,” and Remal sighed. Then he said, “More important, you’re not getting mine. I know the trader who brought her, I know from which tribe she comes, and I know something else which seems to have escaped you. She, her type, has been owned since childhood. One owner, two, more, I don’t know. Uh, Mister Quinn, have you talked to her?”
“I don’t speak Arabic.”
“Neither does she. But have you talked to her?”
“Get to it, Mayor.”
“I will. The ones Hradin brings in, the women of her type-” Remal, in a maddening way, interrupted to laugh. He got up and kept laughing. “Mister Quinn,” said Remal from the door, “when or if you see that little whore again, ask her to open her mouth. She has no tongue, perhaps not since she was five.”
Remal slammed the door behind him, but even after that he kept laughing.
First Quinn sat, and it was as if he were blind with confusion. But this did not last. He sat and was blind to everything except his hate for the laugh, and for his own stupidity. Because, for a fact, Quinn was not new to this. Neither to the contest with the man, Remal in this case, nor to the simple, sharp rules of the game: that you don’t go off half-cocked, that you don’t threaten unless you can hit.
Quinn got up, left the house fast. His teeth touched on edge, as if there were sand there and he needed to bite through the grains. The garden gate was locked. He went back to the house, stumbled once on a stone in the garden.
“Quinn?” he heard in the hall.
One light was on over the stairs and Beatrice stood on the first landing, no longer looking half asleep. She came down, saying his name again.
“Open the gate for me,” he said. “It’s locked.”
She stepped up to him and put her hand on his arm. “Perhaps-” She didn’t seem to know how to go on.
“You got the key or not?”
“He’s gone,” she said. “He went out the back gate. If you like, you can stay here.”
He looked at her and felt surprised that she could seem so hesitant.
“What did you do?” she said. “He came back cold as ice.”
“I asked him to get off my back and he laughed.”
“I’m getting out. I’ve got to.”
She misunderstood. “Can you leave town? If you let me help you…”
He stepped hack, not to feel her hand on his arm. He felt sorry he had met her like this and had a small, rapid wish-it only leaped by, nothing more-that she might be elsewhere, and himself, too. But then he sucked in his breath to interrupt, because unless he knew why he had this wish about her, he would not permit it.
He thought he knew, of course, why he felt anger with Remal, so he stuck to that.
“I’m going out there and don’t worry. Open the gate.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked and ran after him into the garden.
“Have you got the key?”
She went back into the house and brought the key. She said nothing else, brought nothing else, just unlocked the gate and let him go out. She wished she knew what to say, what she wanted. Then she locked the gate.
It was no darker now than it had been before, but as Quinn walked hack to Whitfield’s he thought it was darker, and colder. I have to see Turk and set something up, he kept thinking. Whitfield? No help there. But I’ll need help. Either because of what the mayor does next or what I want to do next. What? I’ll see. First, check out that girl, check out Turk, even Whitfield-he knows the mayor, he can help make this clear if I’m imagining that something’s going to break He walked fast, which preoccupied him, and got to the yard out of breath. He stood for a moment there in the dark and called Turk. There was no answer. There was only the pump sound of his blood and the hard sound of his breathing. You listen to that long enough, he thought, and you get scared.
Nothing. He’s with the whore, of course.
Quinn ran up the stairs and the first door was open. The light was on inside and the room was empty. No girl, no Turk. In the next room, Whitfield was asleep.
Quinn did not know what to think and did not care to think. He ran to the bed and started to shake Whitfield awake.
“Listen, listen to me,” he kept saying, until Whitfield opened his eyes.
There was an empty gin bottle on the floor and Quinn kicked it out of the way.
“How was she, huh?” said Whitfield. “Okay?” He sounded thick.
“Shut up and listen to me.”
“Once a week. Back next week. Okay? Nice girl-” Quinn tried a while longer but was too anxious to give Whitfield a chance to come out of his drunk. Quinn was so anxious he could feel himself shake inside.
Everybody gone, he thought. I’m imagining something, but not this. Everybody gone and me alone here. End up dead in an alley this way. That’s no imagination. Like the first time wasn’t imagination. End up dead in a coffin, next end up dead in an alley. That’s twice. That doesn’t happen to me, twice-And he let go of Whitfield as if he were a bundle of laundry. But Quinn didn’t race out. He felt alone but now this did not give him fright but strength. He picked up the gin bottle and left Whitfield’s apartment. In the yard he cracked the bottle against a stone wall and held onto the neck. He looked at the vicious jags on the broken end and heard his own breathing again.
“Turk?” he called once more.
Only his breathing. It didn’t frighten him this time, only made him feel haste. He left fast, to go to the only other place which he knew, which was Beatrice’s house. He didn’t get there.
On the way he saw shadows, imagined shapes, and fright played him like a cracked instrument. He bit down on his teeth, held his bottle, and with a fast chatter of crazy thoughts going in and out of his head, he had to stop finally or come apart.
It was very quiet, and except for a cat running by some little way off he seemed to be alone. His jitters embarrassed him now, but not much. Stands to reason, he thought. Stands to reason getting worked up like this, but no more now. Ninety-five per cent imagination. Try sticking with the other five for a while. He wished he had a cigarette, and the wish was ordinary enough to take the wild shimmer off his imaginings. In a while, standing by the wall of a house, he felt better. He moved on.
As he turned the next corner, he stumbled over a man lying on the ground.
Quinn saw everything very fast. The man was dead and bloody, throat all gone, and something went padding away, fast, in the dark. The sound wasn’t a dog or a cat. It was a person running.
But no panic this time. The act was so clearly wrong it pulled Quinn together. He ran after the sound of the feet.
At the next corner Quinn slowed. He did not think he was making a sound and then he saw the man waiting by a wall.
Knife, thought Quinn. He could see it. That would be twice, wouldn’t it? But not for me, Jack the Ripper, not for me-In great haste Quinn thought, why run after him anyway, why think he means me with that knife, why think that the dead man in the street has anything to do with me Suddenly the man with the knife stepped away from the wall and slowly moved towards Quinn. He said something in Arabic and stopped. He spoke again and came closer.
“And the hell with you, too,” said Quinn and didn’t wait any longer.
He thought the man was startled, that he moved back, but then the man with the knife never had a chance to start running. Even before he got his weapon up Quinn was on him like an animal and with a sharp hack tore the bottle across the dark face.
The man jerked like something pulled tight with wires, spun and screamed. He screamed so that Quinn swung out to cut him again. He felt so wild he heard nothing until the last moment.
He heard fast footsteps, then the voice. “No, Quinn. No!”
It was not the man with the ruined face. Quinn spun around and saw Turk. Confusion and Turk. Bloody face falling down on the stones, knife clatters, and Turk now.
“Come on. Run,” Turk hissed. “ Run. Now the others will come-”
Quinn hadn’t meant who are the others, he had meant who was the man whose face he had cut and who was the man who was dead just yards away and who in this night town knew anything to explain anything And there wasn’t any more question about anything when two more Arabs came running. At first Quinn could only tell they were there by the white rag wrapped around the bead of one of them and the long white shirt fluttering around the other. And he felt how Turk tensed. They ran.
The other two got distracted by the man in the street whose face had been slashed, and when Turk stopped sharply and turned to run up the stone steps between two houses, Quinn looked back quickly and could tell what the two others were doing. They stooped over the man on the ground, a motion of white cloth and then they leaped up.
Quinn followed Turk up the steps and saw they were in a dead end. There was a blank wall and a door which was recessed deeply.
“In here,” said Turk. “It’s all right. You’ll see.”
They squeezed into the doorway and watched the other two come up the stairs.
“You got a gun?” asked Quinn.
“Too noisy. Besides, they can only come up one behind the other.”
They did. They seemed to know where Quinn and Turk must be hiding. They were going more slowly now.
“You know how to throw a knife?” said Quinn.
“I would lose it.”
“When I throw the bottle we jump them,” said Quinn.
Turk only nodded. When Quinn stepped out, to block the steps, the two men below looked up and stopped. It was slow and weird now, because Turk talked to them and they talked back.
“What goes on?”
“I am bargaining.”
“The one in front says he’ll let us run again and the other one says he doesn’t care. They are both lying.”
Quinn suddenly threw the bottle. He threw the bottle because a new figure had showed at the bottom of the stairs and startled him. The bottle hit the first Arab’s arm and the man gave a gasp. He staggered enough to get entangled with his friend. Turk rushed past Quinn now, knife field low.
When Quinn got halfway down the steps the two Arabs were scrambling, or falling-it was hard to tell which-back down to the bottom. One lost his knife, the other was holding his arm. Turk was over them and the third man stood there, too. They were talking again when Quinn got there. Then the man with the rag around his head made a hissing sound and Turk pulled his knife out of him.
Quinn sat down on the bottom step, head between his knees, and threw up. When he looked up again only Turk was there and he was smoking.
“Better?” he said.
“Gimme a cigarette.”
“I thought you didn’t smoke.”
Turk gave him one and explained, “Remal sent somebody for the girl right away It was stupid of you to take her to Whitfield’s house. Remal figured as much. But no matter.”
“She had no tongue. Did you know that?”
Quinn put his head down again but nothing else came up.
“I didn’t know it either or I would have told you. Anyway, here we are.”
“What else happened?”
“I sent a man with you. All the time. A friend of mine. Didn’t you know this?”
“You cut his face. It’s too bad, but then you didn’t know.”
“Who was the dead man in the street, the first one?”
“One of the three that Remal sent after you. He waited for you, he had seen you, but then the one whom you later cut, my friend, killed him there. It was very unfortunate that you hurt him.”
“You should have told me.”
“Yes. Would you like a drink?”
“And the two who came up these steps, they were Remal’s men?”
“Yes. One is dead, the other, you saw, is with us now.”
“And the one at the bottom of the steps, that last minute?”
“Another friend of mine. He and Remal’s man are now cleaning up.”
“The dead must be disposed of. Everything will be much more quiet that way.”
Quinn threw the cigarette away and thought, yes, how nice and quiet.
“Except when Remal finds out,” he said.
“On the contrary. What does Remal gain by making a noise over something he already knows? He will soon know that you are not dead, that two of his men are dead and he has lost another.”
“Yes. Good old reasonable Remal. Now he’s scared and won’t lift a finger anymore. I’m sick laughing,” Quinn said.
“You need a drink,” said Turk.
“Where is Remal now?”
“He is busy. He has to attend to the boat.”
“What else? Naturally. Must attend to inventory.”
“You need a drink,” Turk said again.
“And Whitfield slept through it all?”
“I told you Whitfield knows how to live within limitations.”
Quinn nodded and got up from the steps. He felt shaky and hollowed-out. He steadied himself by the wall for a moment and took a few deep breaths. He thought how he had started out on this walk and where he had been going. I was going to her house, but just as well. She probably would have been asleep. And of course going to her house would have meant ignoring everything else. And that can’t be. That can’t he any more.
“Turk,” he said. “I’ve got to plan something now. Find a place where we won’t be disturbed.”
They walked off.
At this point Quinn had just about everything back that he had ever had.
Where the main street ended and the quarter began there was also a dirt road which went down to the water. They went down to the water, past the rocks, and sat in a black shadow. Only the night sky seemed to have light. Turk said nothing because he was waiting and Quinn said nothing because he was trying not to think. I’ll start with the first thing that comes to my mind “I’ve changed my mind,” he said.
Turk didn’t know yet what that meant, but the voice he heard next to him in the dark was hard and impersonal. It was impersonal with an effort and Turk felt uneasy.
“I told you once I’d help you to a slice of Remal if you helped me.”
“I know. I remember.”
“You came through and now I’ll come through. Except for this.”
Turk bit his nail and wished he could see Quinn’s face.
“I want a slice, too,” said Quinn. “I really want to carve me one out now.”
Turk grinned in the dark, grinned till his jaw hurt. He was afraid to make a sound lest he interrupt Quinn or disturb him in any way.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes, yes! I see it. I can see how…”
“You don’t see a thing. Now just talk. Tell me everything that goes on with this smuggling operation. And don’t be clever, just talk.”
Turk went on for nearly an hour. Where the girls came from and where they went. It was, Quinn found out, a fairly sparse business and needed connections which he could not make in a hundred years. He learned about the trade in raw alcohol, black market from American bases, and how it left here and then was handled through Sicily. And watches which one man could carry and make it worth while. And inferior grain, sold out of Egypt.
None of the operations were very big and there wasn’t one which was ironclad. Remal, with no competition and with his thumb on a lethargic town, ran matters in a way which looked sloppy to Quinn-unless Turk told it badly-and ran them, for the most part, pretty wide open.
Quinn smoked a cigarette and thought of chances. He thought business thoughts about business and once he thought of Remal who was an enemy. But he stuck mostly to business.
Taking a slice here or there was ridiculous. Remal would hit back. But to roll the whole thing over, and then leave Remal on the bottom “Stuff leaving here goes mostly to Sicily?”
“Yes. Not tonight. Tonight there are just the women, and they go just up the coast. And the silk…”
“Never mind.” Quinn picked up a pebble. “Does Remal run the Sicily end, too?”
“Oh no. He never goes there. Sometimes the Sicilian comes here.”
“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know. He sees Whitfield. Sometimes Remal.”
This could mean anything. It could mean Remal runs the show at both ends, or the Sicilian comes down with instructions for Remal, or he comes just to coordinate. Turk didn’t know. Quinn couldn’t tell.
“Is it important?” said Turk.
It is most likely, thought Quinn, that the two ends are run independently.
“Remal ever send anybody over there?”
“No, he never does.”
And put that together with the Sicilians and their reputation in a business like this-It is likely, thought Quinn, that they’re bigger at the other end.
“Now tell me again about the alcohol. All the details,” said Quinn. “You mentioned something about tonight.”
“Yes. Tonight he went down…”
“But there’s no alcohol going out tonight, you said.”
“I know. I said twice a month, like tonight. Remal goes down to the warehouse to see about the alcohol in cans. It comes in by truck and goes out by boat.”
“Does it come in tonight?”
“No, it comes in and goes out, all in the same day. Tomorrow.”
“Then what’s Remal doing down there tonight?”
“To send the driver out to the pick-up point. Remal always counts the empty cans, and when the truck comes back the next day he counts the full cans or has Whitfield count them. And he gives instructions to the driver, about little changes in plan.”
“What kind of changes?”
“Little changes, like time and place and so on.”
Quinn sat a moment and started to play with a pebble. “On the truck,” he said, “there’s just this one driver?”
“Kind of careless, isn’t it?”
“Who would dare interfere?”
Quinn nodded. Who indeed. “As far as I know,” he said, “there are only two ways out of this town. One east, one west, and both along the coast.”
“For trucks, yes.”
“Which way does this one come and go?”
“Both ways the same way, west. Because the alcohol is black market from Algerian ports. It comes overland, and then this driver picks it up out of town.”
After that, the talk became more and more detailed, about how many cans and how large, time schedules and distances, and while none of it came out as precise as Quinn might have wanted, it was enough. Enough for a fine, hard jolt.
“Now something else,” Quinn said, “and this time I don’t have questions but you do the listening.”
Turk noticed the difference in Quinn and paid attention.
“With no more effort than you put out now, doing nothing, you can pick yourself off the street and no more handouts, like the kind you’ve been taking all your life.”
“Oh?” said Turk, because he had not understood all the slang.
“Here’s what. You told me Remal picks his help as he needs it.”
“This is good enough when there’s no competition, but not good enough when the opposition is organized.”
“Are you discussing a war?”
“Just shut up a minute. Remal doesn’t have a gang. I’m going to make one.”
“A few men, always the same men, working their job not for pennies, but a cut.”
“Ah,” said Turk. “No war. You are talking now like a brigande.”
“Call it what you like. The point is we run it a new way. This leaves out the knife play in the street, it means picking our men with care, and it means no talk whatsoever. Everybody knows of Remal’s operation. Nobody knows of yours and mine.”
“Ah,” said Turk. “Anything.”
“For a start we’ll need three men. Whom can you suggest?”
“There is my friend,” said Turk, “the one who you saw by the steps.”
“Can he be trusted?”
“Absolutely. He is my friend. Then,” Turk said, “there is the man whose face you cut. He has…”
“Not him, he will not be able to help us for a while. I was going to say, he has two brothers…”
“They’ll work for me?”
“They will not hold it against you that you injured their brother. Especially after I explain that it was an accident and they hear there’s money to be made.”
They then talked details about what they would do in the morning. What most impressed Turk was that Quinn would start all this new life immediately in the morning.
“Can you have the men ready on time?”
“Of course. I have already thought about…”
“Don’t of-course me. Remember, we’re not setting this schedule ourselves. We’ve got to follow one.”
“Make sure your help understands it.”
Quinn threw the pebble away and got up. “I’ll stay at the hotel tonight. You got somebody to watch me?”
“Of course. The man who got hurt in the arm. He is a very good watcher.
“You’re of-coursing me again. He just came over from Remal and he’s going to watch me sleep tonight?”
“Well. I feel…”
“And he’s going to sit there in the hotel with blood all over his arm?”
“I have a great deal to learn, about watching in hotels.”
“Then say so in the beginning and don’t make stupid suggestions instead.”
“Don’t be. What you know you know well, I think. Walk me over.”
Turk walked with Quinn to the hotel and they said nothing else. I could love him, thought Turk. If he’d let me. I really could-And after Quinn had gone into the hotel, Turk got a boy from the quarter who had only one eye. He told the boy to sit in the street all night and to kill anyone who went into Quinn’s room or he, Turk, would dig out the boy’s other eye. He forgot to explain how the boy was to know, while sitting in the street, who would be likely to go into Quinn’s room.
At ten in the morning Quinn had an Occidental-type breakfast downstairs, and while he was drinking his coffee Remal walked in. He came up to the table and asked if he might sit down. Quinn nodded.
“And how are you, Mister Quinn?”
“Yes, I heard. And now I see.”
“No, thank you.”
“You see what, Remal?”
“I see you in a new light, Mister Quinn.”
“In the cold light of dawn?”
“You make small talk almost as well as our Whitfield. Only less amusingly.”
“Then let’s drop it.”
“Very well.” Remal folded his arms on the table and looked out the window. “You have indeed demonstrated,” he said, “that you can draw attention.”
“We cleaned up all the mess lying around.”
“Yes. Thank you. That was thoughtful of you and, I suppose, in the manner of a beau geste.”
“You could have left the bodies there and made it difficult for me to cover things up. It was generous of you.”
“Welcome, I’m sure.”
“And of course the meaning is that it will not happen again, but the next time you will draw as much attention as possible.”
Quinn hadn’t thought of the last night’s corpse-dumping that way but he let the impression remain. He said nothing.
“And of course, in the same night’s work you have demonstrated something else I had not known, that you have help. Rather good help, as it turned out.”
“Yes. We discussed that,” and Remal wiped his mouth. “I have learned to be flexible in my position, Mister Quinn, and will make a new proposal.”
“We are not friends, but we are not yet enemies. Let us choose something in between.”
“A gentlemen’s agreement.”
“The thought is new to me, but go on.”
“You sit still, Mister Quinn, and I will sit still. You stay in sight and you will come to no harm. Maybe I can harm you with more success than I had last night, but for the moment why risk it? In the meantime, I will do what I can to expedite what needs to be done to get your papers and pas sage.”
“For the moment.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Why? Because I no longer underestimate you.”
They parted as politely as they had talked, each wishing that the other would do nothing else.
At eleven Quinn met Turk. This was different. No hotel hush, no polite conversation, no touch of imported European culture. The narrow streets of the quarter were so full of screaming that Quinn thought something terrible was about to happen. But the noise was normal-only he felt excited. Neither he nor Turk talked at all. They walked. They left the street after a while and went through a courtyard, through an arch, then more courtyards, through a house once, and then came out into the open.
This was the back end of the town where the desert started. It was not all sand or large sand dunes, the way Quinn had thought of the desert, but there was gray and black rock strewn around and the sand was not really sand but rather bare packed dirt with nothing growing in it. The last sirocco had blown sand against the backs of the houses, fine and loose like dust, but the expanse of the desert was hard, hard as the light and as hot as the air.
“The jeep is here,” said Turk, and they walked to an oval passage which had no gate.
The jeep still showed army markings. It showed no signs of care and at first glance looked like four over-sized tires with two seats and machinery hung up in between. There was no windshield and the fenders were gone.
But the motor worked. Turk drove and Quinn sat with his eyes squinted tight. Turk was whistling.
The trip, Quinn knew, would not take very long. A short trip across the desert to catch the West highway away from town. Turk whistled and drove like a lunatic. Quinn appreciated the breeze but not much else.
“Look. You got all this land here. All this open space, like air to fly in. Stop going back and forth in zigzags like this was fun or like we had all the time in the world.”
“I am going the shortest way,” said Turk.
He spun the wheel and made Quinn fly sideways and almost out of the jeep. “I will explain to you,” said Turk, and drove straight for the moment. “Open your eyes more and look at the colors.”
Quinn opened his eyes and in a while he saw the colors. The sand was not yellow. It was brown, grey, whitish, and-a trick of light-sometimes blue.
“The colors show the way.” said Turk. “Some are too hard and some too soft and that big patch there, you can drive in it without sinking in but you can drive only in a very slow creep. All right?” and Turk laughed. Then he said, “I drove oil trucks for the French, from the Sahara fields to the coast, in Algiers. Then came the fighting, so I left,” and he laughed again.
Quinn grunted something. He held onto his seat and tried to squint the sun out of his eyes. A lieutenant I got, a real right-hand man. Then the fighting came and I left, haha.
But he did not worry the thought and just kept squinting, which drew his face into a constant grin. In a while he grinned for real. He was starting to look forward to the thing he had set up.
Turk swung the jeep around a large boulder and after that they could see the road. The heat on the road turned the air to silver which shimmered, waterlike.
Turk bounced the jeep on the road and drove North a short while until they came to a ruined house. It was four broken walls by the side of the road and the roof was gone. Turk left the road again and drove into the walled space by ramming the jeep through the door frame which had no top and one incomplete side. Turk let the motor die.
Now the air was very still, like water in a pond. They could not look out and from the road they could not be seen. It was important that the jeep should not be seen.
A dirty burnoose lay in one corner and a large pile of skin bags which were full of water. On the rubble floor of the house was old camel dung.
“You brought the tool?” Quinn asked.
“The tool? Ah, the tool, yes,” and Turk reached under his seat and came up with a wrench.
“And the rag,” said Turk.
Turk did not have a rag. He had seen no reason for a rag and so had forgotten it. But then he went to the corner where the dirty burnoose was lying and tore a piece out of that for a rag.
They had time and Quinn smoked a cigarette. Then Turk got on top of the jeep and from there to the top of the wall. He sat there and looked. Quinn wrapped the rag around the wrench.
“I can see the camels.”
He could see three camels walking, one behind the other. They were crossing where the jeep had been driving and then they disappeared behind the boulder. Only one camel came out on the other side, head up in an angle of disdain, knock-kneed lurch of a walk. It went slowly, as if thinking about other things, but the Arab who was leading the animal had to trot to keep up.
Turk stayed on the wall and Quinn went out to see. The camel and the man had stopped on the other side of the road. Those two figures stood there and Quinn stood opposite. Nothing else happened-only grit itch prickled Quinn’s back.
“Tell him to put that beast down, the way we said,” Quinn called to Turk.
Turk yelled Arabic and the man with the camel walked into the road. He left his animal and walked alone to the middle of the road where he put his hand on the pavement a few times and then walked back to the camel.
“He says it’s too hot. Ah! I saw the truck for a moment!”
“Tell that goddamn animal…”
“He won’t listen. He says it’s too hot.”
Quinn started to sweat a new sweat, which was thin and rapid. He did not argue or curse now but ran back into the broken house, then came out again with a water skin. He ran with it, so that there was a gurgle sound from the skin. The skin was black and moist and made inside water movements under his arm so that it felt alive. On the pavement Quinn pulled the wooden plug out of the bag and let the water run out. He trained the stream all over the road and pressed pressure into the stream with his arm.
“You see him?” he called to the wall.
“No. It means now that he will come out of the dip when I see him the next time.”
Quinn licked sweat from the side of his mouth. The moist pavement was starting to steam.
“Get off the wall,” he said.
The skin was limp on his arm now and the water sputtered. Turk got off the wall.
“All right,” said Quinn and stepped back. “Tell him to put that animal down now. It isn’t hot any more.”
The Arab brought his camel over and made it stop in the middle of the road while Quinn ran into the broken house. He came back with the dirty burnoose on his arm, and with the wrench.
“He says you are very clever,” said Turk. “Very clever about the water.”
“Tell him to put that goddamn animal down. And you come over here and help me with this sheet.”
Turk showed Quinn how to wrap the burnoose and the Arab with the camel was hitting the animal’s front legs with a stick. This made a wood on wood sound and in a while, like a building collapsing, the camel folded down and sat in the road. It showed its teeth and made a groan like an agonized human.
There was nothing else to do now except wait. The Arab talked to the camel, or cursed the camel, Quinn stood inside his sheet, and Turk was gone, inside the house.
The truck, Quinn saw, was a Ford pick-up. Because there was a camel in the road, the truck stopped. The driver came very close, made the brakes and the tires scream, but he stopped. The talk, which came next, was all in Arabic and Quinn did not understand a word. But he knew what was supposed to go on and he could see how the screaming got more and more violent. The point was, get that camel off the road and, I can’t get the beast to get back on its feet. And then the driver, in an excess of violence, was supposed to jump out of his cab to give the camel a kick or to give the man with the camel a kick.
But the two men just kept screaming. Quinn stood by and sweated under the big burnoose. What else could go wrong now? The driver backs up, leaves the road, and bumps across the desert. Or he just keeps sitting there and screams for another hour. If that idiot with the camel would stop tugging that halter rope, would stop putting on such a convincing show-At that moment he did. Quinn was sure the man had worked himself into a genuine rage and only at that point did he think of the next thing. He dropped the halter rope, threw up his arms, screamed something which was probably very obscene, and then he too sat in the road, legs folded. It took another second before the driver decided to get out of the cab.
Quinn stood still by the truck and watched the door fly open. He stood still while the driver jumped out, turned toward the camel, and then Quinn hit him.
He let go of the burnoose flap with which he had covered his face, got his right arm free, and tapped the wrapped wrench on the back of the driver’s head.
It is hard to judge the right force of a blow like that, unless the purpose is murder. Quinn wanted the man out cold for perhaps half an hour. This was important, because the man should later drive his truck for the rest of the trip.
When Quinn caught the man he turned the head up and saw that the eyelids were fluttering.
From here on in, a number of things were supposed to happen like clockwork.
Quinn put the man down on the ground, slowly, leaned the man back and felt the tension. This was the natural tensing of trying to balance oneself while leaning back. Quinn hit the man again because he had not been entirely unconscious. He used his fist this time, a sharp uppercut, feeling much more certain about what he was doing now. When the man sagged in the right way Quinn was done.
Turk, by the house, was whistling.
The man with the camel got up, yelled at his beast, and tapped his stick under the animal’s chin.
Quinn dumped the driver on top of the canisters in back of the pickup, got into the cab, and maneuvered the car off the road and behind the ruined house. When he got there Turk was ready with the tools.
So far, nice and smooth. Quinn felt nervous and happy.
While Turk pushed the jack under the front axle Quinn started to undo the nuts on one wheel. By then the first camel came around the corner of the house, and then the other two, each led by a man. Quinn did not know any of them but they’re working out, he thought, maybe they’ll work out. He hardly looked at them, no time now for this, and told Turk what he wanted each of the others to do. Then he took the first wheel off. He let the air out of the tire while he took off the second wheel. He let the air out of that one too. Turk was coming back out of the house.
“Check the driver,” said Quinn.
Turk went to the back of the truck and said, “Do you want me to hit him again?”
“I said check him! I want to know if he’s still out.”
Quinn did not ask how Turk had made sure. He only told him to put the driver into his cab and they should get busy with the cans on the truck. The three Arabs came out of the house, carrying the skins. One camel was lying down by itself, one stood, and one was grinding its teeth.
Then Quinn pounded the tires off the front wheels, and then he bolted the bare wheels back on the wheel-drums. After that he got the jack out and put it under the rear of the truck. There he did the same thing he had done to the front. He took the tubes and tires off the wheels and then put the bare wheels back in place. Make them think there’s a gentleman thief around. Puts the wheels back on, after the deed.
Turk and the three others were pouring alcohol into empty skins and water into empty canisters. Quinn smoked a cigarette, standing back a little. It smells like a hospital, he thought, or a brewery. I can’t decide which.
The men put the canisters full of water back on the pickup and they tied the skins full of alcohol to the packsaddles of the three camels. They were all scratching themselves and they were grinning while they stood around because none of them knew what this was all about. Quinn checked the driver again and then walked to the Arabs.
“Tell them what I say, Turk.”
He gave all of them a cigarette and they all smoked. Turk smoked and so did two of the others. The third split the paper open and ate the tobacco.
“Tell them they can sell the tires as soon as they wish. And I don’t care to whom they sell them or where.”
“The best place…”
“Shut up and listen. Make it clear that it will go badly with them, if Remal finds out who stole his tires. Tell them.”
Turk told them and they all talked at once. Then they listened again.
“Tell them that I will do nothing to them, if the tires get traced, because Remal will take care of them good and proper if they aren’t careful.”
“That will be difficult,” said Turk, “to sell the tires and Remal knows nothing about it.”
“It can be done.”
Quinn picked up sand from the ground and rubbed it in his hands. It took some of the grime off and then he wiped his hands on the dirty burnoose.
“I want them to figure that out by themselves. Because I can’t use them if they can’t sell stuff without getting traced. Tell them.”
Turk told them and there was much discussion while Quinn got into the truck. He leaned out and told them to move the camels out of the way, he wanted to back up. Then he said, “Do they know about the alcohol?”
“Oh yes. They are to hide it, not sell. They know.”
Quinn nodded, kicked the starter, geared into reverse. It was a clanking, hard maneuver without tires on the wheels, and gave a weird motion to the truck. Once the truck hit the highway, it sounded like a tank clattering over the pavement. Quinn stopped with the truck pointed towards town. It had been twenty minutes since the driver had gone under and Quinn was a little bit worried. He propped the man up and then got out of the cab. Behind the house the Arabs and Turk were still arguing.
“Since it might take them a while to figure a way of selling the tires,” said Quinn, “give them this as an extra.”
He handed bills over to Turk which amounted to about one dollar apiece. Then he said that the three men and the camels should go.
Quinn did not watch them leave but sat in the jeep, inside the ruined house, smoking. He said nothing when Turk came and thought, I hope I did that with a sufficient, imperial touch, stalking off that way.
“Quinn,” said Turk and started the motor, “did you like the men I picked?”
“I don’t know yet. We’ll see how they’ll work out with the tires.”
“That was very clever of you, Quinn, and they too thought you are very clever. And generous.” Turk drove out of the building and crossed the highway.
“They’ll make more, if they stick.”
“Yes, but they thought you very generous. They know how much you got for the cans which you sold to Whitfield and that you have no other money.”
Quinn did not care to show that this irritated him and said nothing. When the jeep was on the other side of the road Quinn looked back, worrying about the driver in the pick-up truck. The man sat in the cab as if he were asleep.
“And they want to stick with you,” Turk was saying, “because they believe you will do great things.”
“That’s very devoted of them, I’m sure.”
“They know how little money you have and they are sure your greed will make all of us rich.”
The jeep bumped and leaped and made so much noise on the rough terrain that Turk could not hear how Quinn was cursing.
Quinn got some of his humor back when he stood on the pier and heard the noise come from the distance. It was a clattering metal noise which nobody could place.
“How come you’re still here?” said Quinn. “Isn’t it siesta time for you?”
Whitfield looked up from his clipboard and said, “I never saw you smoke before. When did you pick up that habit? I’ll be damned, Quinn, if that doesn’t sound like a tank.”
“It does sound like a tank. A sort of tinny tank.”
“Odd,” and Whitfield did checks and crosses on the forms he held.
“How come you’re still here, Whitfield, and not home in bed?”
“I take a bath, for siesta.”
“How could I forget! Yes.”
“Some damn transport is late. Wait till I talk to that man.”
Quinn thought about this and grinned. Then he said “I think the tank is coming this way, by the sound of it.”
“He’s on the cobbles. All along the piers we have cobbles, you know.”
“I’m going around the building,” said Quinn, “to see what the cobbles are doing to the tank.”
“To the driver. Can you imagine that driver?” said Whitfield.
Quinn said no, he could hardly imagine such a thing, and the two men walked from the pier through the warehouse and out on the cobbles.
“Oh, sainted heart!” said Whitfield.
The wheels of the pick-up were still round, but this had no visible effect upon the truck as a whole. Each spring-there were four-worked like a pogo stick, and no pogo stick would have anything to do with any of the other pogo sticks. Inside the cab a man was fighting to keep from flying into the roof. What kept the canisters in back from rocketing away was the thick tarp that had been tied across the bed of the pick-up, and this tarp was ripping through at one end. When the pick-up stopped by the warehouse there was a silence of exhaustion.
“Quinn,” Whitfield said quietly. “We are both seeing the same thing, aren’t we? Say yes.”
“Quinn, have you ever seen anything like it before? Don’t lie to me, Quinn.”
“I won’t lie. I’ve only seen this once before.”
“Thank you, Quinn. I now need my siesta, but first,” Whitfield cleared his throat, “first I must speak to the sainted driver.”
The sainted driver had not yet come out of the cab. He was sitting behind the wheel, gripping the wheel, as if uncertain that the ride was over.
“You can come out now,” said Whitfield. “You’ve made it.”
The driver did not move.
“You can let go of the wheel,” said Whitfield, “and nothing will happen, really.”
The driver moaned, and then got out of the cab. He moved with care and disbelief. Then he closed the cab door carefully and sat down on the running board. Seen from the top, there was a visible lump on his head.
“Will you look at that,” said Whitfield. “Must have struck his head against the roof for some reason or other. Now then, Ali. I say, Ali?”
The man looked up carefully. This showed a bruise under his chin.
“Must have struck his chin on the wheel, repeatedly,” said Whitfield. “Ali, can you hear me?”
“You have no tires on these wheels, Ali.”
“Will you tell me where they are?”
“They took them.”
“The two who took them.”
Whitfield breathed deeply. Quinn said, “Must have struck his head against the roof repeatedly.”
“Don’t confuse matters, Quinn. Ali?”
“Did anything happen that you can explain to me?”
“The camel wouldn’t get out of the way and then he hit me.”
Whitfield nodded. Then he took a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. “Naturally,” he said. “It would be a he. A female camel would never beat a man over the head. Now then. Ali.”
“That’s all I know, sir. Everything.”
“Well,” said Whitfield, and slapped the clipboard against his thigh, “it is now clear to me that somebody stole the sainted tires.”
And then he thought of something else and went quickly to the back of the pick-up. He unlashed the tarp, pulled it back, and sighed when he saw the canisters. He reached over and lifted two of them at random and sighed again.
“Thank you, sainted heart,” he said.
“Didn’t touch the cargo, is that it?” said Quinn.
“What is it, liquid gold?”
“No, but it’s convertible. Ali, drive that stuff into the warehouse. Do you realize you’re two hours late?”
“Please sir, please-” said the man on the running board.
“I think he doesn’t want to drive any more,” said Quinn.
Quinn drove the truck into the warehouse. It is, he thought to himself, only poetic justice that I should do this. What with the jumping and the rattling, all of which was transmitted directly into his skull, it took him all of the fifteen yards which he had to cover before he had formulated the whole thought.
When he got out of the cab he could see the driver walking slowly away from the warehouse, slow like a farewell walk, but straight and steady, as if he would never come back. Then Whitfield came around a stack of bales and brought two Arabs. They immediately began to unload the canisters and wheeled them out to the pier on little wagons.
“Tell me,” said Quinn. “Where’s Bea this time of day?”
“Hotel most likely. It’s just before her siesta.”
Quinn smiled and left the warehouse. Two days, he thought, with hardly anything to do.
She was drinking something orange and oily and when she saw him coming to her table she was not sure whether she liked seeing him or not. Of course he was new. But it seemed to her there had been something else before, something she missed.
“You looked,” she said to him, “as if you were heading straight for my table.”
“I was. May I sit down?”
She nodded and watched him sit.
“You look positively like you’d had a good day at the office.”
“I did,” he said.
They did not talk while the waiter took his order, and when the waiter was gone they still had nothing to say. Bea sipped and then licked her lips, which were sticky and sweet. She concentrated on that, trying to forget the platitude she had used on him, and that he had answered it in kind. Quinn lit a cigarette.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” she said.
“Now that I’m in civilization I’m taking up all kinds of civilized habits.”
She put her glass down and looked at him. “You say that without a smile and it sounds nasty. You say that with a smile and it sounds cagey.”
“Which did I do?”
“Don’t you know? You did both.”
Quinn waited till the waiter had put down the drink and left the table. He made out to himself that this was the only reason he didn’t say anything right away. Then he folded his arms on the table.
“You know what you sound like, Bea?”
“As if I disliked you.” She gave a small laugh and said, “Strange, isn’t it? I don’t know why.”
Quinn did not know what to do with that answer and looked into his glass. He drank and thought, how did I used to do it? I don’t remember ever sitting like this, not knowing what next.
“And then again,” she was saying, “if you were to ask me right now, now I don’t dislike you at all.”
This did not help him at all. He lost all touch with her and felt only suspicion.
“Look,” he said. “Naturally you don’t like me. First of all, you don’t know me from Adam. Second of all, what you do know you got from somebody else.”
“What was that?”
“You’re thick with the mayor, aren’t you? So naturally, listening to him-”
He knew he had missed as soon as he heard himself say the sentence. Bea sat up and looked at him as from a distance.
“You know something, Quinn?” She flicked one nail against her glass and made it go ping. “I just caught why I don’t like you. When I don’t like you.”
“I’m interested as all hell,” he said. The anger he felt seemed to swell his face. She went ping on the glass again and that was the worst thing about her, he thought idiotically.
“Here you sit talking to me, but not with me. Oh, no. It’s not even about me. It’s about the mayor. You have some thing with the mayor and nothing else matters, and when you get around to going to bed with me, that will probably be from spite too.”
Quinn sat hunched with his arms on the table. Then he pushed away and picked up his glass. He kept looking at her when he tipped up the glass and let the ice cubes slide down so that they hit his teeth.
“You don’t have to look at me like that,” she said.
He put the glass down and lit a cigarette. I’ll give her this silence, he thought, so she’ll be as confused as I am.
“And now I’ll tell you why I like you when I do like you,” she said, but he could not let her finish. He did not want to hear what she had to say about liking.
He exhaled and said, “Are you drunk?”
“No.” She frowned, and he thought it could have been anger. “I’m not drunk,” she said, “but I think I’m going to be.”
“You’re sweet,” he said. “Oh, are you ever a sweet female.”
“Reserve judgment, Quinn. Wait till I’m drunk.”
He now found that everything went very much easier. It was now easy to show her his anger, though he had no idea what he was angry about. He made out it was she who caused the anger and that game was fine with her. It was fine with her because now she felt animated. She was not bored. She ordered another drink for him and for herself and tried to insult him by paying for them. He let her pay for them and so insulted her back.
“For a pushover,” he said, “you sure do all the most repulsive things.” The liquor was starting to scramble his thinking and he sat wondering what he had meant by the remark.
“But I’m no pushover,” she said. “For that you’d have to ask me to go to bed and then I’d have to say yes, just because you asked. None of that has happened, you know.”
“And it won’t either.”
“You are very drunk, Quinn, very drunk,” and she looked slightly past his left ear. Then she got up. “I’m going home,” she said.
“And you’re not going to ask me if I want to come?”
“No. You’re no pushover, Quinn. You’re a hard man of principles.” Then she laughed and walked away from the table.
He watched her walk away and how her hips moved under the dress. The dress made a fold over one hip and then over the other. Quinn suddenly felt he had never seen anything more exciting in all his life.
He sat and wondered if it was the liquor making him dull and stupid, letting her walk out this way, letting her hit him in the head with her lousy insults, swapping insults back and forth like two idiots. He sat a short while longer and enjoyed disliking her. Then he left.
When the servant showed him into the room she did not even look up. She sat on a very red couch in the sunlight, because she had opened the shutters. The sunlight made a glow in her hair, it caused round shadows under her chin and her breasts, and the brown liquor in her glass looked almost like gold. When the door closed behind Quinn he felt the heat in the room. She did nothing about it. This heat was just there.
“God,” he said, “you look sullen.”
“I’m getting drunk.”
He swore again, feeling stupid. A bottle of bourbon sat on the window sill and when he picked that up she nodded her head in the direction where he could find a glass. He poured straight liquor which felt warm. Then he walked around in the room.
“More small talk?” she said. “You working up to more small talk?”
“No,” he said. “It’s simple. I don’t want to be with you and not have you talk.” He took a gulp from his glass and felt the liquor make a hot pathway inside him.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Get nasty. I invite it. Always do.”
He turned around and saw her drink from her glass He watched her throat move.
“You don’t invite a thing,” he said. “That’s why you irritate so.” He listened to her exhale after the drink, a heavy breath making him think of moisture, and he felt excited.
“All the time,” she said. “All the time like that,” and her sullenness fit the warm room, went with the body curve which she showed sitting there. “You bastard,” she said. “Why don’t you go away!” She never raised her eyes but kept looking down, past her lap where she held the glass.
Quinn went to the couch and sat down next to her.
They did not touch and she did not look up. “Listen,” he said. “Let’s start all over.”
“What’s ‘bah’ here?”
“Let’s start all over. That’s all I ever do, Quinn.”
“Listen. I didn’t mean any big discussion by that.”
“I know. Just little remarks for you. Just nothing.”
He suddenly felt like reaching over to touch her, to touch her with an unexpected emotion. He wanted her to feel comfort from his hand. But then she looked up and he didn’t move.
“Bea,” he said.
She looked half asleep. She looked at him while he put out his hand and then he touched her arm. He put his hand around her bare arm and after one slow moment of this touch she closed her eyes and tears ran out. They rolled down her cheeks and glittered in the sun. Quinn pulled his hand back as if he had been bitten.
She opened her eyes and just stared at him.
He drank from his glass, finishing it. “I don’t know why I pulled away like that. I’m even sorry. You know that?” He shook his head, to get rid of the fog. “I’m even sorry. And I’m sorry that you have to cry.”
She nodded her head but said nothing. She leaned way over the arm of the couch and reached for the bottle on the window sill. Quinn watched how her body stretched.
“You pour,” she said and gave him the bottle. “I need to get drunk.”
“No,” he said. “You don’t need to.”
“Yes, I do. Because I know why I’m crying.”
She was not actually crying but there were still tears in her eyes, though she seemed to pay no attention to that. She held her glass out and said, “I’m crying because I have absolutely no idea why I am here. You understand that, Quinn?”
He poured for her and then for himself and then he took a swallow. For a moment there was a muscle fight in his throat but then he swallowed.
“I was going to ask you,” he said. “Why you’re here.”
“I told you. I don’t know. Do you know why you’re in this town?”
“I came in a box.”
“What makes you think I didn’t come in a box? What makes you think everybody gets out the way you did?” She gave a drunken smile. “Anyway, for a while it looked like you got out.”
“What’s that you said?”
“You think anybody comes here of their own free will? Everybody comes here to get rid of what’s best left behind. That’s why Okar is so dirty.”
“I wish you’d said that while I was sober,” he said. “I really do. Or not at all.” And he took a long swallow.
When he looked at her again, he thought she was going to start crying again, not because of her voice or some look in her eyes, but because he thought she was on that kind of a drunk. But she had not been drunk when she had cried before, and now instead of crying she started to laugh. Now she was drunk. This made Quinn angry again and he watched her throat while she laughed. Her throat came in and out of focus and it moved with her laughter, as if a large pulse was pumping in there. Quinn watched this and felt there had never been anything so exciting. He put his hand on her throat and she stopped laughing immediately.
It was very quiet now and again very warm and the throat moved under his hand like a pulse.
“Quinn,” she said. “Not so hard.”
“No,” he said. “Gently,” and moved his hand gently. She leaned back so that he could move his hand on her.
“You have a heavy hand,” she said. “I like your hand. Hold still.”
He held still and felt the fabric between his hand and her body and for a moment he had the serious thought that he might now go crazy. Then he clamped his hand into her and the feeling went and became excitement.
“Quinn,” she said. “You’re too quick. This is the Orient. Slow, Quinn. Slow.”
He laid his hand on the round of her thigh and imagined that his hand was sleeping there. It was not sleeping, but it was something to imagine this and to be so awake. He took liquor in his mouth and let it run down his throat. He thought of hot oil. She suddenly reached for him and ripped the front of his shirt. She only moved her arm and her hand, doing this, and then she put her hand on his chest so that it lay there very quietly, like a bird sleeping.
“You,” he said. “Listen.” He put his glass on the floor very carefully, hoping not to get dizzy. “This slow is too slow.”
“Yes,” she said, “open me up.”
“Yes. Not here. Where’s the other room, the other, goddamn it-”
“I like you on this couch, Quinn. Your black hair on the red couch.”
The heat poured into the window and made the couch seem more red than it was. He leaned over to open her dress and felt her move under him. He fumbled and saw that his hands were shaking.
“Take my glass,” she said. “I’ll do it,” and gave him her glass.
He took the glass and threw it across the room while he watched her. She tore something but could not get the dress open and then he grabbed her and said, “To hell with the dress,” but that turned into a fight. She scratched the back of his neck and then he found that he was biting her arm. From somewhere the anger was back now, or a weird mixture of muscle strength and sex strength and they held each other apart, trying hard to focus. This might have been because of the liquor or because of a true confusion, and they had to let go of each other. I’m breathing like an animal, he thought, but an animal wearing clothes. He hunched on the red couch and watched her get up. She went to the door, rattling it before she got it open. Then she yelled something which he thought was like a scream. All this Arabic is like a scream in the ear, he thought, and therefore I don’t understand the language-He shook his head and wanted to get up, go after her, when he saw that she was back in the room and the servant was with her.
He was an old man, with beard stubble looking very white on his prune-dark face, and his fingers were nothing but bones.
“Hold still, Quinn,” she said. “Any minute now.”
And then Quinn saw what the old man was doing. He was opening her dress while she stood there and then he peeled it up and over her head. He now walked around her, to her back, looking like a crab. He unhooked her bra and slid it down off her arms.
What else are servants for, Quinn thought, yes, yes, what else when the lover is too drunk to move. Those bone hands are rattling on her, goddamn it. He looked at her body, and his eyes were stinging.
“Listen,” he said. “You.”
She was kicking her shoes off and the old man went after them, again like a crab.
“Listen,” said Quinn. “You going to send him out or what?”
“You look weird, Quinn.”
“I look weird!”
“I’ll send him out, if you want,” and then she laughed. If she comes close now, if she were close now, and he felt his arm jump and his fist get hard.
Then she stood by the couch and her belly looked soft. The old man was gone or the old man was not gone. Quinn remembered shaking his jacket off, and then the touch of her up against him, standing or lying, except that the red of the couch hurt his eyes, and then a blood roar inside him when they came together. The drunkenness was like veils between them but they came together.
Quinn did not leave that day. The first time he woke up he saw Bea asleep on the couch and his hangover was as bad as a disease. He closed the shutters of the window, took one violent drink straight from the bottle, then managed to go back to sleep.
The second time he woke up the shutters were open again and he could see the sun, low and red. He sat up carefully and localized the pains. One was in his head and one was in his back, but there was no more malaise like the first time when he had come to. He was alone in the room and sat looking at his clothes on the floor. They lay there in various ways, flat and wrinkled. I feel like they look, he thought. He put on his shorts and sat down again. The sun, he thought, was turning blue.
Bea came into the room holding a wrap around herself. She had a cigarette in one hand and when she closed the door she had to let go of the wrap. She did this without special haste, and without special slowness. The movements were simple and Quinn’s reaction was simple. She is beautiful, he thought. Then she came to sit on the couch.
“Bad?” she said.
“Not too bad. And you?”
She shrugged and smiled. Her face looked quiet and the eyes were a little bit swollen, but bright. She looks like a cat again, thought Quinn. She sits like a cat.
“I feel suddenly helpless not knowing the time,” said Quinn.
“Fifteen minutes and it will be dark. The light falls quickly now.”
“I came at noon?”
“Later.” She pulled on her cigarette and then did not exhale. When she did, she made a bluish feather of smoke and a sigh. “We drank, and argued, and made love, and then slept, and woke up, and Whitfield was here, and now we’ll have coffee, if you like.”
“Whitfield was here? You mean in here?”
“He comes sometimes.”
Quinn smelled the smoke from her cigarette and rubbed his nose.
“He comes sometimes,” be said. “Did you sleep with him too?”
“He was too drunk. You feeling nasty again, Quinn?”
“ He was too drunk. Ha.”
She said nothing to that and just smoked. The smoke had an odor which reminded Quinn of queer teas, sweet liqueurs, and strange candies.
“Is that a reefer?” he asked.
“A local kind. Want one?”
“No.” He looked at her and how her skin showed through the stuff of the wrap where the wrap was tight over her. “No,” he said again. “I don’t think I want any more interference.”
He touched her arm with two fingers and stroked down the length of her arm, over her wrist and the hand. She watched, moving only her eyes, and then she did a sudden thing, like the one she had done once before with his shirt. She moved her hand and was suddenly holding his fingers. And then, like that other time, she was done moving as suddenly as she had started. She sat holding his fingers with no more pressure than to make him feel the warmth in her hand.
The old man with the bone hands came into the room and brought a tray with cups and a coffee urn. Nobody talked while the old man was there. He made sounds with his robe and once he made a sound when his hand touched the low table. It did sound like bones, thought Quinn. Then the old man closed the door and that sounded like wood.
“You going to pour?” said Quinn.
“Not yet.” She sat holding his fingers and watching smoke.
“You keep working that smoke like that,” he said, “and pretty soon you’re going to go up like that smoke.”
“Oh no. Try?”
“I told you why not.”
“It’s no interference, Quinn, it just slows everything down. Sometimes it slows things so much, nothing runs away any more.” She closed her eyes and held his fingers.
The sun was now halfway into the water, far away, very big and rich-looking, but far. The room was in shadow already.
She put out the cigarette when it was very short and had turned brown and then they drank coffee. She said a long ah, and that she enjoyed coffee more than anything now. Quinn looked at her over his cup, wanting her.
“You look greedy,” she said.
“I am. I like nothing better right now than feeling greedy.”
“Good. Because you owe me one.”
“When we made love, you left me way behind.”
“I don’t remember, you know that?”
“You were full of tricks but it wasn’t any good.”
“Tricks,” he said and drank from his cup.
She put one hand on his leg just as the old man came back into the room. She left her hand there and pressed while the old man said something in Arabic and then he left the room.
“Whitfield is back, maybe?”
“No. He said he fixed the bath.”
“You got one of those tin things, too?”
“No. Mine is tile and all black. I look very white on the black,” she said and got up.
The sun was no sun any more but was all red water. She wanted to look out for a while or wanted to close the shutters, but he took her arm and said, “Come on. To hell with the shutters, come on,” and they went upstairs.
That room had a big white bed and was very dim. In a while Quinn did take the drug she had smoked and he smoked that while she took her bath. Quinn stayed that night, and the next day, and the night after that, but he knew this only in the end. What he knew was that the room was dark, that the room was light, that the woman smelled warm, that she was there or wasn’t. Once there was wild laughter, and then there were screams. He was sure he saw Whitfield one time and there were other people. He was holding a woman once and she turned out to be somebody he did not know. Then Bea came back again, crying, then laughing. God, you didn’t leave me behind that time, she said, then wept again. I feel like slush. God, how I hate slush. Some of this came and went in a way which reminded him of the time in the box, except this time it was really the opposite.
The first thing Whitfield saw from his bed was Quinn, shaving. Whitfield did not have a hangover but he did have a delicate routine in the morning and the razor sounds went through him. He broke routine and started to talk while still lying in bed. This way he would not hear the razor sounds.
“Ah! Good morning!”
“Hum,” said Quinn, doing his chin.
The good morning had sickened Whitfield and he wished he had said hum instead.
“Why are you shaving?” said Whitfield. “Got a date?”
“Lend me some money.”
“How will I get it back?”
“When I get my job.”
“You’re getting a job?”
“Today, if the thing is on schedule.”
The exchange left Whitfield a little limp and he had no idea what it was all about.
“Why do you need money?”
“Because I got a date.”
Which is, of course, Whitfield thought, how we started. And better avoid confusion and not ask how come a date at this hour in the morning.
Quinn was toweling his face and Whitfield closed his eyes. There was too much activity. When he opened his eyes again he saw Quinn stand by the bed.
“You look terribly awake,” said Whitfield, feeling threatened.
“You going to lend me that money? Five bucks or so.”
Whitfield sighed and closed his eyes again. “I’d rather not,” he said, “though it seems I might, any moment.”
“You’ll get it back, Whitfield. Really.”
“I point out to you that you are not permitted to hold a job in this country, not with your status, and I point out to you that it is barely daylight and no time for a date at all, and if it’s Bea, then of course you actually don’t need any money at all. This exhausts my arguments. I am exhausted.”
“I haven’t got a date this early in the morning but maybe I haven’t got time to ask for the money later. And don’t tell me about legalities. You know they don’t mean a thing around here.”
“All right,” said Whitfield, “all right,” and then he got out of bed. He gave Quinn some bills which actually came to about three dollars and then said he was not too interested in discussing legalities, not with an active-type crook such as Quinn, he himself being a passive-type crook only, and that there was a great deal of difference. He, Whitfield, did not enjoy the activity as such but only the rewards, and that was quite different from Quinn’s situation. And would Quinn please leave now, so that he, Whitfield, might wake up in peace.
“Be seeing you,” said Quinn, and left.
Whitfield thought about the way Quinn had grinned, and about this disturbing electric quality which the man could muster at this hour of the morning. And I’ll not be seeing you, not today, if I can help it.
But Whitfield felt apprehensive from that point on without bothering to try and explain this to himself. He knew that he could always find explanations for anything, several explanations for anything, and that it did not help him one bit. He went apprehensively through the entire forenoon, consoling himself with the thought of his siesta.
He was reasonably busy with bills of lading, and at eleven the cutter came in. The cutter had tear streaks of rust down its sides and looked to be built about fifty years ago. Which was true, except for the engine. This was the cutter from Sicily and eleven o’clock was a very nice time of arrival-the cutter did not always come in on schedule-but eleven was fine with Whitfield because by eleven-thirty he could start his siesta. With this thought Whitfield forgot his apprehension for a while and watched how the cutter sidled up to the pier.
Then Whitfield saw the Sicilian. The man stood, arms akimbo, where the gangway would come down from the ship’s side and Whitfield went back into apprehension. Oh no, he thought. First I lose five dollars, while still in bed, and now this has to happen. That man there never comes along on a trip unless there is trouble, or at any rate, hardly ever unless there is trouble, and of course there is trouble today. I feel it. I know my siesta is shot all to hell. Why did I have to be in such an exciting business like shipping in Okar.
The Sicilian was the first off the gangway and came across the bright pier to the warehouse door where Whitfield was standing. Let him walk all the way over, thought Whitfield, I am used to apprehension and besides, that one loves to walk.
This seemed to be true. The Sicilian walked as if preceding an army. He also reminded one of a bantam, except that his face was a monkey face. He wore an Italian suit, the jacket leaving some of the rear exposed in fairly tight pants, and the shoulders flared out as if there were epaulettes. He walked, flashing his shoes. Where an American buys a showy car, Whitfield thought to himself, a Sicilian buys that kind of shoes.
“Whitfield?” said the Sicilian, as if he did not know whom he was talking to.
“How are you, Cipolla,” and Whitfield smiled, hoping that this might influence fate.
“You got troubles, Whitfield. Come on.”
Cipolla talked English whenever he could. He did not talk English, according to Whitfield, but a type of American. Cipolla had learned the language during his few years in New York, before he had been shipped back for illegal entry.
Since the Sicilian went to the warehouse without saying another word, Whitfield had to follow. When he got to his office, Cipolla was sitting in the only chair.
“What kinda monkeyshines goes on here?” said Cipolla.
It would be useless to try to answer that, so Whitfield said, “I beg your pardon?”
“And don’t hand me that Boston accent. You know what you done?”
“No, and you are here to tell me. What I done,” said Whitfield.
“That shipment of alcohol-you know what shipment of alcohol?”
“Yes,” said Whitfield and rubbed his forehead. “The one without tires on the wheels, I’m sure.”
“Never mind, and you needn’t give me any of your Sicilian accent, please. It affects me similarly as my…”
“I’m gonna tell you your troubles, Whitfield. That alcohol, friend, was just like water!”
Thank God, thought Whitfield, no alcohol is just like water, and let us soon be done with this dismal day. “In fact,” Cipolla yelled suddenly, “it was water!”
“And besides, it still is water!”
“Oh no,” said Whitfield. “I knew it-”
“You knew it?”
“ Will you stop crowing at me!” and Whitfield got up from the window sill.
For a moment he felt pleased for having known that of course something bad would soon happen. How could one ignore the signs, being of average intelligence: the five dollars lost while still asleep in bed, the truck without tires, the creature from the box, the bad run of siestas. And now it had all come true. Whitfield knew well that there was trouble, but before he could get depressed he thought of a bathtub and became indifferent.
“Come on,” he said. “Might as well see Remal.”
Quinn had just one highball, even though he had to sit with it for almost an hour. He did not want to feel dull, or feel happy, or indifferent. He wanted to sit there for whatever time it would take and feel sharp like this, nervous like this.
When Bea walked into the hotel he seemed glad enough to see her come up to his table, and he gave her a quick smile.
It was too quick, she thought, but then I’m too apprehensive. She sat down, looking at him, wishing he would look at her too so that she could tell how he felt.
“Buy you a drink?” he said.
“Thank you. Is yours Scotch?”
Quinn did not answer but waved at the waiter and called Scotch across the room.
“I wanted to say something to you about this morning.”
“There’s Whitfield,” said Quinn and pointed out to the lobby. “Who’s that with him?”
“I don’t know. He’s a Sicilian. Quinn?”
“I guess they’re not coming in for a drink,” said Quinn. He folded his arms on the table and looked at the woman. “You were saying something?”
He even smiled, but she did not feel that the smile was for her, not for anyone even, it was that kind of a smile. She took a deep breath and said, “I wish it were morning again.”
She made a small sound which was almost a laugh.
“I wish I knew myself what I’m saying.”
“Listen, Bea. Here’s your drink. You excuse me for a moment?”
She watched him get up and said, “Are you coming back?”
“Sure.” He was buttoning his jacket.
“Quinn, I don’t know exactly how but I’m trying…”
“Later. I’ll be back, huh?”
He waved at her, or he waved at the chair, and when he walked out he was not thinking of the woman at all.
He went to the desk in the lobby and put his hands on the marble top. This felt cool, and he felt cool. He said to the clerk, “Would you tell me where the mayor is?”
“He is talking business at the moment.”
“I know, and I’m late. Where do I find him?”
The clerk told Quinn to go up the curved staircase to the only room on the next floor which had a double door. That was where the mayor was talking business. Quinn went up and the brass railing on the staircase felt cool, too. He did not go very fast and he did not delay either. Just about now, he felt, they should be in the middle of it.
He came to the double door and both wings had open slats, for ventilation. He could hear them talk in the room. Quinn knocked once, heard the silence, and walked in.
Quinn had no trouble at all in sizing up what went on in the room. Even without foreknowledge. The Sicilian looked most actively interrupted. Little Napoleon laying down the law, thought Quinn, little punk with big shoulders which he bought from the tailor. Whitfield had a crestfallen look, but Whitfield had never very far to go in order to look that way. And Remal, Quinn saw, was not wearing his cap. First time Quinn had seen the Arab without the cap on his head. It was on Remal’s knee and his left hand was making nervous plucks along the stitching.
“Who in hell is that?” said Cipolla.
Quinn looked at the Sicilian the same way he would look at the furniture. He ignored Remal. Let him stew, good for him, and then he used Whitfield for his wedge.
“I’ve come to help you,” he said to Whitfield. “I thought you could use a hand.”
“You have? You can?” said Whitfield and his face lit up with total belief.
“Now just a minute…” Cipolla started to say, but Quinn said for Cipolla to be quiet and never looked at him while he said it. He sat down at the table and then he looked at the Sicilian.
“My name’s Quinn. I’m new here and you and I don’t know each other, but maybe if you get off your horse for a minute, maybe there’s something in it for you.” Quinn did not wait for an answer but turned back to Whitfield, “This is about that alcohol shipment, isn’t it?”
“God, yes. Never in my entire…”
“What in hell do you know about this?” said Cipolla, and then, to get the meeting back under his own thumb, he was going to say something else.
Quinn interrupted him again. “I stole it.”
Cipolla got up from his chair and sat down again. Whitfield giggled and Remal let go of his cap. He started to frown very heavily which was about the most intelligent thing anyone did at the table.
“Mister Quinn,” he said, “I have underestimated you. My original impulse about you was correct, but then I did nothing about it. I underestimated you.”
“You can have the stuff back,” said Quinn.
“I know that. I know the shipment as such is of no interest to you.”
“Of course. I no longer underestimate you.”
Now, thought Quinn, for the first time, the man is getting dangerous. Now we start. Quinn sat back in his chair and felt right.
“Before anything else,” said Cipolla, and his voice was too high, “I want to know what in hell goes on around here and what’s the doubletalk around here.”
Whitfield translated doubletalk for Remal and then Remal explained to the Sicilian.
“Mister Quinn is here temporarily. He is nevertheless interested in business, that is to say, in my business, and this is his way of involving himself.”
Remal seemed to be on the point of saying more, but then he looked at Quinn and Quinn felt certain that the other man was puzzled. Then Remal looked away and said, “That is all.”
There had been no rancor and there had been no sound of danger, and Quinn could not gauge Remal any more. Remal was down and Quinn could not gauge him. He hunched his shoulders and put his arms on the table. He hooked his fingers together and for a moment imagined that one hand was he and the other was somebody else and these two were having a fight. Then Quinn relaxed, and now Remal did not puzzle him any more. Just watch him. This isn’t his dance, but mine, and he knows it. He’s just learning that now and isn’t sure what to do yet and that’s the reason why he doesn’t show something clear-cut, like anger.
Cipolla, in the meantime, got everything just as wrong. He got it wrong in a different way and for different reasons, and the most important thing was that nobody should think they could gang up on him.
“Hold it,” he said. “Just a minute.” He squinted his eyes because he wanted to show that he too could be conspiratorial. “I’m getting an ugly picture,” he said. “I’m getting an ugly feel here like you two are cooking up something around here, something between you two, and maybe you think I’m gonna get left out.”
Remal was too surprised by this diagnosis to say anything, and Quinn sat still.
“All I get from the doubletalk with you two is that one steals from the other, and the other one knows it, and the other one says you can have it back, and all that polite crap with nothing else showing, to me, you know what that looks like? Like maybe you two are trying to pull something over on me. And when that happens…”
“Really, Cipolla,” said Whitfield, “you must be quite wrong.”
“I must? How?”
Whitfield did not know how and shrugged. “Quinn,” he said, “before he speculates us all into a disaster, would you kindly explain what goes on here?”
“ He should explain?” and now Cipolla felt he had his feet back under him. “I took the run over here to get it straight from you and Remal how in hell you ship water across and don’t even know it. And I’m here with the message…”
“Before you give the message,” said Quinn, enjoying his trick of interrupting the other one, “I’ll explain it. They couldn’t explain it because, like you said yourself, they didn’t even know what they were shipping.”
“So?” said Cipolla. He was not sure whether he had been corrected, or reprimanded, or what.
“I hijacked the alcohol and sent along the water. How I did it isn’t important. What is important-and this is why you are here-is the fact that it was possible to cut into the line of supply.”
Cipolla said, “So,” and waited for more.
“You got a sloppy set-up over here, on this side of the run. I’m here no time at all and pulled this thing off without any trouble. I can do it again. I can do it in different ways. But the main thing right now, Cipolla, the set-up here stinks.”
“Who sent you?” said Cipolla.
“Who sent him?” said Cipolla to Whitfield this time.
“Well, in a manner of speaking he was sent, though the explanation wouldn’t help you a great deal. In Quinn’s sense of the word, of course he was not sent, though…”
“I’m sorry I asked,” said Cipolla. “Where you from, Quinn?”
“Who you with?”
“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do, Cipolla. I’ll talk to whoever you are with. Okay?”
“Listen here. When it comes to trouble-shooting…”
“All you got is troubles. You got nothing to shoot with. You got a wide-open line of supply at this end, and I can run it better.”
The tone of the talk decided Cipolla to pick another victim for the moment. He looked at Remal and said, “What have you got to say about this?”
Remal sighed and put his skullcap back on.
“Mister Quinn,” he said, “is of course right. At the moment I cannot say much more. I have two problems here. One is you, and the other is Mister Quinn. I am frankly confused at the moment and don’t know what else to say.”
Cipolla took a cigar out of his pocket and looked at it for a moment, so that he would he doing something. When he started to talk again he talked at the cigar.
“All this time,” he said, “we been thinking you were running things over here. Remal is a pretty good end at this point of the line. We been thinking that. Now, what turns out, he sits here and is too confused to know what to say or to know what goes on.” Cipolla looked up and talked straight at Remal. “I’m gonna go back,” he said, “and explain to cut you right out of this set-up. We got other ways, you know that, and right now you look washed up to me.”
There was some more talk back and forth, but Quinn wasn’t listening. He had the fast image of Remal becoming a nonentity in this thing, a collapse much too fast, the whole thing self-defeating. He saw it this way, that with Remal out there would be no deal for Quinn. He did not think beyond that, but thought only that his whole effort in Okar might now go down the drain. No Okar set-up, no nothing. No Remal, and nothing.
“You got it wrong,” he said to Cipolla. “You don’t know what you’re junking here, what part’s good and what part’s bad.”
“But you know, huh?”
“Yes,” said Quinn, and then the rest came out as smoothly as if he had practiced this kind of thing for a very long time. “I can give you the details some other time, but the no good part in the set-up isn’t that big.”
“Whitfield here. That’s all.”
Whitfield gaped. He sat up in his chair as if he hadn’t heard right and then he started to stutter something, but Quinn was not looking at him. Quinn was looking at Cipolla to see if the right impression was made.
“Quinn,” Whitfield got out, “what did I ever do to you?”
Quinn did not answer. He kept looking at Cipolla and then he said, “Well? You going to go hog wild on this thing or am I going back with you and set this thing straight?”
Cipolla put the cigar back into his pocket and got up. “Okay,” he said. “We’re leaving after dark.”
They all seemed to be leaving the room alone because nobody looked at anyone else or talked. Quinn stopped on the landing and lit a cigarette and then walked down the stairs slowly. No rush now, and feeling a little bit tired. But it had worked. He was getting in, right on top of Remal, and the little panic of losing this thing was now almost forgotten. When Quinn got downstairs the Sicilian had gone and Remal was walking out the front door with Beatrice. She looked back at Quinn and then away again. Her face had not changed while she had looked at him but Quinn had not seen too clearly, or had not cared too much. He watched the two walk down the street but he actually saw only Remal. Then he walked through the arch to the bar.
Whitfield was there and when he saw Quinn he quickly tossed down his drink and started to leave.
“Hey.” said Quinn. “Listen a minute.”
Whitfield stayed where he was because very quickly he felt too indifferent to argue.
“You know there was nothing personal in that, you know that, Whitfield. Buy you a drink?”
Whitfield pulled his empty glass towards himself and said very slowly, “Damn your bleeding eyes, Quinn, I have never seen anything more contemptible in my life. And I hope you get yours.”
“You won’t get it from me, because I’m not the man or the type and don’t understand any of this anyway, but let me make clear to you, Quinn, I despise you.”
“I cannot say that I dislike you. That would involve some sort of activity on my part, and any sort of activity on my part is of course rare. But I despise you. I would go so far as to spit. Thank you, I’ll buy my own drink,” and Whitfield waved at the waiter.
The two men did not talk while the waiter first made a gin drink for Whitfield and then poured Scotch over ice for Quinn. After that Quinn had to haul himself out of a deep, heavy dullness in order to say something or other to Whitfield. He wished the other man would understand him.
“Whitfield, look here. Maybe you’ve heard about business. I know you’ll have nothing to do with it but you must have heard of it.”
“Spare me,” said Whitfield and looked away.
“Don’t you know I have nothing against you?”
Whitfield looked back at Quinn and said, “That’s what makes it so surprising.”
“Look. When I get over there and talk to whoever runs that end of the line, I’m going to make it my business…”
“Stop saying business to me.”
“I’ll see to it they don’t get the wrong impression about you. Only reason I used you for the goat up there in the room was to keep that idiot, what’s his name…”
“Cipolla. It might interest you to know that’s Italian for onion, and perhaps you shouldn’t bite into that one too hard.”
“I know his type from way back, Whitfield. Don’t worry.”
“But I am worried!” Whitfield took a hasty drink and then he talked with more animation than Quinn had ever seen in the man. “You know his type from way back,” said Whitfield, “and you’ll be sure to use that type very properly too. And any other types which you may meet around here and which may prove handy. See here, Quinn. In this half-blown-over town we all lead a fine useless life. All the people I know lead a most useless life. And we are bastards, and we cheat, and there’s all manner of laxness and laziness for all of which you have one highly developed nose. And now I will even tell you what’s going to happen and since I never do anything about these things which I know ahead of time, they therefore usually happen. Here’s all this no-good worthlessness which I’ve been describing to you. Very well. Not much harm done. But you, Quinn, you’re going to organize all of that! You’re just apt to take advantage of all the worst in us and organize it, you rotten-rotten something or other from a box!”
Quinn felt surprised and angered and agitated by Whitfield’s long talk. He felt like saying a great number of things himself, about how right Whitfield was and how wrong Whitfield was, but he felt unsure and said nothing. He thought, the only thing he’s left out is some preachment about Remal not being such a bad sort, as Whitfield would put it, and why don’t I lay off Remal? Because I got sucked in and I’ve had it. Simple answer.
Whitfield finished his glass and then he finished his speech. “And that’s why I much prefer to remain drunk because then I’ll never be organized. Good night, Sir,” and he left.
When Quinn got outside he saw Whitfield standing with Bea. Then Whitfield started to walk again and waved his arms once or twice, which seemed to have something to do with finishing the conversation.
First he, now she, thought Quinn. Naturally, she’ll wave this way in a moment and then it’s either of one or the other: let’s go to bed, or, what kind of a bastard are you anyway, Quinn.
Quinn fumbled for a cigarette and found that he had none. He then discovered that he had only stood fumbling there to give Bea a chance to look up and see him before he, Quinn, would turn away. Why not, he thought, I’ve got nothing else to do until evening.
She waved at him from the distance and he waved back. Then he stood by the steps and waited for her, watching her walk.
“What’s gotten into you, Quinn?”
Yeah, yeah, sure, he thought, and to hell with it, this is all about what a bastard I am.
“You know I like Whitfield?” she said, and stopped in front of him.
“You got a cigarette?” he said. It did not sound tough or off-handed and was not meant that way, but he did not know what else to say at that moment so he said the prepared thing.
It surprised him when she said, yes, and nothing else and he waited while she felt around inside the big pocket on her skirt and then pulled out-this habit she had-just the one cigarette.
“This will surprise you, Quinn,” she said, “but I like you too. Only you make it hard for me to show it.”
“Oh hell,” he said, and threw his cigarette away.
She gave a yank on his arm which made him stop and she had stopped too. “Look at me Quinn. Not down the street. You’re like that thin dog running there except you want to run and be fat.”
He nodded, not knowing why. He knew he felt a direction when talking to Whitfield, or to that bum from Sicily or to Remal or anyone else, but not with her. Not with Bea, no direction with her, but he did not want to leave.
“I don’t know why you’re running or what got you into that box because you never mention either one or the other,” she said, “but then again maybe you never had to mention a thing but made it clear just the same. Just by doing all the things you’ve been doing. Whatever got you here, you never made that too clear, Quinn. But somehow, when you came out of that box, you looked like you were well out of it.” She took a breath in between, without talking, as if she might shout next, or as if she might just sigh the rest away. Either would fit. But then she just talked again, though it sounded as if she did not like this ending. “And now,” she said, “you’re going right back into that box.”
When she let go of his arm the change startled him. She had told him something and had now left him alone with something which felt harsh enough to remind him of the truth. He took a deep breath, the way she had done a short while before, but he did it to brace himself.
“Don’t ever say that to me again.” He was surprised to hear that his voice was hoarse.
“Quinn,” she said, and started to put her hand out to him. Then she dropped it when she saw how he moved back. “Quinn,” she said again, “please don’t run from me and please don’t jump on me.”
“All I said…”
“But you were listening to me this time, weren’t you?”
He looked away, down the street, and this meant yes both to him and to her.
“You remember how you came out of that box, and never used to look away:
He looked back at her and then down, as if thinking about what to say, or how to say it.
“Bea, listen. When all this is over-” Then he thought some more.
“When?” she said.
“I was just thinking when.”
“Any time, Quinn.”
“Just a minute, just a minute,” he said. “Don’t screw me up now. Any time what?”
“You thinking about yourself or me?”
“It doesn’t make any difference, the way I was thinking, Quinn.” Then she said, “I would like to leave with you, Quinn.”
He looked down at her and then put his hand to the side of her face because now she was turning away. There was a great deal of warmth in his hand and he felt she must feel this.
“You know,” he said, “you say this to me and you still call me Quinn.”
“That doesn’t matter to me. It can be strange and it can be right all at the same time.”
He put his hand down and said, “I can’t leave because I don’t have any papers.”
The remark was as asinine as it was correct and he wished that he hadn’t made it, because of everything it left out.
“You know I saw Remal before,” she said. He was glad she was talking, but now he did not want to listen.
“Where is he?” Quinn said.
“I was just going to tell you. He’s phoning. He’s making all kinds of calls…”
“Like, maybe Sicily?”
“Sicily?” she said. “Your consulate. I don’t know about Sicily.”
Now Quinn tapped himself for a cigarette again and she held one out to him. He took it without looking.
“Sure,” he said. “Sure that’s one way of trying to get ahead of me,” and he did not see her hold out the lighter to him. “Where is he?” he said again.
“I was to tell you he’d like to see you in the hotel a little later.”
He looked at her now and saw her hold the lighter but ignored it.
“You came running down here just to tell me that?”
“Am I supposed to be stupid?”
“Yes you are! I did not come down here because he sent me. He didn’t send me, Quinn. Please!”
“But if you just should happen to run into me, is that it, you should give me this kindly message to show up at the hotel and get the good word from Remal himself about all the preparations he’s made about keeping me here in the country, with the help of consul and what not, and then, that failing, what preparations he’s made for my Sicilian reception, once I get over there.”
“Oh my God,” she said and turned away.
She walked back up the street, toward the hotel, and he followed her, walking next to her. They did not say another word. They went into the hotel; he went to the bar and stopped. She did not stop but kept walking to the back of the big room; she sat down at the round table where he had seen her that first time. He looked at her once from the bar. She did not look like the first time to him, or like any other time. In fact, he hardly saw her at all, only something sitting there. He looked away and hated her guts. He was not done with his first Scotch when Remal walked in and that was just fine with Quinn, that was just fine and as expected.
“I’m glad you waited for me, Mister Quinn,” Remal said as he stepped up to the bar.
“Your messenger got to me just in time. Just as I was walking out of here to do something dangerous and heroic, she came running and begged me to wait for you instead. To lie down under a table here and wait for you. You’d come over to the table and give me a soft little nudge with your soft little slipper and then I’d know it was you, come to talk to me.”
“Are you very drunk, Mister Quinn?”
Quinn, in fact, did feel drunk, but knew no reason why he should be, on two widely-spaced Scotches.
“I would like us to sit down,” said Remal. “I have some good news for you.”
I can’t tell whether or not he’s hopeful or worried, thought Quinn. Maybe he’s neither. And I’ll take another Scotch, on him, and might as well catch up drinking to the way I feel drunk.
He ordered the drink and sat down at a table nearby and Remal did the same. Remal looked back and forth from this table to the one in back where Bea sat alone, but said nothing. I bet he’s puzzled as all hell, thought Quinn, and can’t understand how anyone can take offense at a woman for any reason at all. Such a gentleman, this one, and with good news yet.
Quinn picked up his fresh glass and Remal said, “I would like to tell you and discuss the news before…”
“Before I get any drunker?” said Quinn, and then he took a good swallow from his glass.
Remal said nothing while Quinn finished. When Quinn had put down his glass Remal said, “If this was meant to offend me, Mister Quinn, you cannot offend me.”
“Like you wouldn’t be offended at a dog that pissed on your rug because that would be just too foolish, to think of the brute as if it were a human being.”
Remal sucked air through his nose. It’s just like he’s sniffing this whole thing out, thought Quinn.
“It’s precisely this kind of remark, Mister Quinn, which keeps me from understanding you. I’ve been wondering whether or not you do it on purpose.
“What’s the good news?” said Quinn.
“Yes. It is better to talk about that.” He smoothed his skirt affair and then he looked up. “I have been on the phone, Mister Quinn, to inform myself and to expedite.”
“Yes, yes?” said Quinn, and thought of the Arab who stank so much and had a donkey face.
“I spoke to your consulate, and a passport has been issued to you!”
Goddammit, thought Quinn. He’s smiling!
“Mister Quinn?” and Remal cocked his head. “I thought you would be pleased.”
Quinn picked up his glass, looked at Bea in the far corner and, for a moment, held his breath. Then he put the glass to his mouth and drank all the liquor down.
I stick the pig and make it, he thought. I stick him good and he’s down!
Then why do I feel like the pig that got stuck. Why now, after making it!
“Mister Quinn. I do not pretend to understand you, but I do understand this. You and I cannot be friends, though there seems some hesitation about our being enemies. I do not pretend to know why. Or you may reverse the sentence and it comes perhaps to the same thing. Under the circumstances, for you and for me, the best has really happened. You now have your papers. You can now leave.”
Quinn still did not answer. Something just went down the drain, he thought. I’m drunk. Or something just opened up and like only once before I can be rid of him. He looked up when he heard the heels on the tile.
“I just told Mister Quinn that he has his papers,” Remal said to Bea.
“Yuh,” said Quinn. “He just gave me my traveling papers.” He watched Bea sit down.
“Yes, as I just said,” Remal added.
“He didn’t mean it that way,” Bea told Remal. “The way he used the phrase, it means you just threw him out.” Then she turned to Quinn and saw how he sat there, as if hiding behind drunkenness. “On the street,” she said, “you told me you couldn’t leave. You had no papers.” She put her hands on the table but didn’t know what to do with them. She put them into her lap. “But now, Quinn, what is there to decide?”
“You don’t even know my first name,” he said and felt really drunk.
“Please-” she said.
Remal coughed. He understood little of this but suspected it was some private language, the kind lovers might have. He got up, smoothed his shirt.
“I will leave you alone,” he said. “I will leave the papers at the desk of the hotel. In addition, I will leave you some money.” And then he added the part which made everything wrong for Quinn, though it made him suddenly sober. “Because I want you out.” He made his bow and left.
Quinn watched him go out and then turned back to the table. He felt small and pushed and he felt he looked ugly sitting there, but that Remal looked large and the woman, Bea, was terribly beautiful.
“I’m thinking,” he mumbled, “that it was easier in the box.”
She got up and took his arm. “Walk with me,” she said.
He got up and they walked out.
With unusual suddenness the white light of day had changed into the yellow light when siesta is over. Okar was no longer quiet, empty-looking, but full of voice sounds, feet sounds and motion. But Quinn heard mostly the sounds inside: indecision like a squeak, anger a noisy scratching getting louder, and the hum, the constant hum, of his tenacity. To stay put and not jump.
But this is the time to decide, he thought, and please, Bea, do not interrupt me. To leave or to stay. And to go with Cipolla means no new change at all.
They walked down to the quay, saying very little.
Once he said, “Maybe I look like a bastard-”
“I think you act like one, yes.”
They walked the length of the quay, away from the warehouse and the town. Quinn remembered having been that way once, with Turk.
“You want to know something, Bea?”
“Sometimes I don’t enjoy any of this, you know that?” She nodded, which was enough.
They walked through the rocks and then on the pebbles. He held her arm and said there was a scorpion, she should step around it. They walked around it and when they were by the water the reflections jumped and darted at them and they turned away. There was a rock big enough for a black hood of shade and they went there and sat down. The water had been full of sun flash but on the rocks which tilted away the sunlight seemed gray. Sun-gray, he thought. All day long like a heat death under the light and now everything is ashes. I’m tired.
“You asked me if I thought you were a bastard, you remember? I don’t like the word and feel awkward with it and only used it because you did. And to tell you that I don’t think you are now.”
“I don’t feel like one now.” And he looked at the rocks and they did not remind him of ashes any more. They were just rocks. “And I want to tell you something else,” he said. “Not for apology or anything like that, because what’s done is really done, but that thing I did to Whitfield, using him like that, it happened so smoothly and I did it so well I’m frightened about it.”
“Because I didn’t like it. Not even when I was doing it.”
She looked at him but said nothing.
“I hurt him and didn’t care. All the circuits were set, and then after pressing the button it’s out of my hands, because that’s how I’m set up. You know what I’m talking about?”
“No. Not yet.”
“I’m talking about Remal. I’m set for him, all set up, to get him down and out of my way, and then I press the button and after that nothing can be done about it.”
“And tonight,” she said, “you’ll take the boat to Sicily.”
“Yes,” he said. “For the same reason.”
She saw now that he had never acted from nastiness or because he was stubborn, or from total blindness, but that this was something else.
“You sound like a condemned man,” she said.
He waited a moment, not looking at her, and then he said, “Yes, that fits.”
She said nothing else to that, though she wished she could tell him, there are other ways, even better ones maybe, and why don’t you try-She dropped that, because it made her feel like a hypocrite. How much did she herself try, and still ended up with the same things she had done before, a hundred or more times.
She took his hand and put it over her breast, holding it there. They sat like that and looked at the gray terrain tilt away.
“You know what will happen to you, if you go through with all this?” she said. It was a real question, the way she asked it, not an admonition or a trick introduction for working up to a lesson.
“I probably do,” he said, “because it’s happened before.”
“Back into the box,” she said and gave a small, disconnected laugh.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been out of it.”
He got up and brushed at his pants. Then he held out his hand for her and helped her up. When she stood next to him she put her hands on his arms and her face into the side of his neck. If there were nothing else now but to feel the skin warmth there, she thought, his and mine, and other simple things like that “You’re wrong,” she said. “Once, at one point there, you were out of it.”
She stepped away from him a little, to see his face when he would answer, but he did not say anything. He isn’t saying anything, she thought, because he’s afraid to say yes, I’ve been out of it, I can be out of it.
Her hands were still on his arms and she curled her fingers into him very hard for a moment and said, “Please stay.”
It was as artless as anything which comes at the wrong moment, which comes too late.
His face was in the sun now, the sun yellow now and his face looking not very alive. His eyes were closed. “And what do you want from me?” he said, but even when be opened his eyes he was not looking at her.
For a moment she did not know what to answer, feeling helpless trying to make sense.
“What?” he said and looked at her.
“I don’t want anything, Quinn,” she said. “I love you.” He held her for a moment. It was as artless as the phrase she had used.
After the sun had gone down there was still light for a while, a very fugitive light to which no one paid much attention because it would soon be gone. On the pier the lights went on and made an immediate night even though everything still showed where the orbs of the lights did not reach.
And then, when he stood with her on the pier, he had one other chance.
“Have you heard about Turk?” she said.
“Some children found him behind the town, in the desert. They recognized him by the army jacket. The dogs had already been there.”
All the softness went out of Quinn with the shock. And then he stayed that way, stiff and hard.
“Never mentioned a word, did he, the mayor? Too polite. He could have said, take the passport or else. For example, like Turk or else. But no. Much too polite to pressure a man right to his face.”
“Quinn, you don’t understand him. He is not playing word games and he doesn’t think that way. He kills Turk because Turk is staying. He tells you nothing because he does not even assume that you might stay.”
“I’ll show him,” said Quinn. He looked over her head, at nothing.
“There is nothing to show him, Quinn. Don’t you understand? Look at me.”
He looked at her, not really wanting to.
“Don’t go with the boat,” she said. “Go with me.”
He was stiff and cold and made no decision. Making no decision, he muffed his chance. And he saw this.
“And you,” she said, “you can’t be shown anything either, can you, Quinn?” And she walked away without waiting for an answer.
The water was black and slick like hot tar and the sky was losing the red of sundown and moving into the no-color dark, a very solid dark of night sky without moon. There would be no moon this night. In this shift of color there is the point where the sky is a heavy gray, gray being no color at all but still light, so that on the other side of the bulbs on the pier Quinn could see the fences where the warehouse ended. There was a child at the fence at one end. Quinn was sure it must be a child because of the size. It hung on the fence like a spider and seemed to be looking at him. The child made no sound and there was just the wet slap and suck of the water now and then, under the pier.
At the other end of the warehouse, on the pier, lay the box. It was on its side, as before, with one edge broken, as before.
Quinn smoked and watched the sky turn from gray to blue, and then it was dark.
No one saw him off because after all, he would be back.
When Cipolla came, he did not say anything but just went to the edge of the pier where he whistled for someone on the water to come rowing across to the pier. They had moved the boat when the loading had been done and it lay somewhere in the dark. There were no lights. Quinn walked over to Cipolla and listened for sounds.
“How long does she take, to Sicily?”
“Why?” said Cipolla.
In the afternoon, when Quinn had walked in and interrupted the conference, there he might have felt uneasy about this. Here was Cipolla being suspicious in order to add character to his store-bought status. But now on the pier Quinn felt bored with the man.
“I just asked,” Quinn said, and listened for sounds from the water again.
“I mean,” said Cipolla, “so far you’re not taking over anything, Quinn, so why in hell should you know how fast she can make the trip.”
Quinn did not discuss it, feeling as before. The lights on the warehouse wall were behind him. They showed the bare pier very clearly, but beyond that they reached a limit which was much like a wall, so that Quinn could see nothing at all on the water. He thought he heard oar sounds now.
“She doesn’t look it,” said Cipolla, “but it takes just a night and part of a day.”
Quinn could see the rowboat now. It came out of the dark and a man stood in the bow, skulling. He came out of the dark the same way he might come gliding out of a curtain.
“For the whole run, from here to the South coast of Sicily,” said Cipolla.
“Fine,” said Quinn.
Cipolla had his cigar out and was fingering it with small, rapid movements. Quinn was not watching.
“You got any kind of interest in this thing?” said Cipolla. “Don’t it strike you funny we get there in the middle of the day?”
When he was five, Quinn thought, I bet he was a brat and used to whine.
“That’s all fixed up,” said Cipolla. “We got that all fixed up. Yessir.”
“You’re shredding your cigar all to pieces,” said Quinn, and then looked elsewhere.
Cipolla started to curse to himself for any number of good reasons and then the rowboat bumped the pier where the ladder went down to the water. Cipolla climbed down first and then Quinn.
Now the pier was really empty. There was no child hanging like a spider on the wire fence any more. The two men no longer stood at the edge, and not even a dog trotted out, to watch or to look for something.
This was the first time Quinn had been on a boat since the time in the box and the motion underfoot reminded him of it. Then the motion no longer reminded him because the boat, once out of the bay, revved up to a great speed and seemed to lunge through the water rather than roll or sway. A black wind cut into Quinn on the deck and he went below, to a small space with a leather couch and a table and a desk in one corner, captain’s quarters perhaps. The captain must be on the dark bridge, thought Quinn. He had not seen anyone else either. Cipolla was in the cabin, but when Quinn walked in Cipolla left. Quinn sat down on the couch. It smelled of office-a small country office for an old lawyer, perhaps-or like a photographer’s waiting room. In the same country town. Quinn did not think of the country town and stretched out on the couch.
There was a vibration in the stuffed leather. Two big diesels, he thought. Two big diesels in the root cellar of the same country lawyer’s house in the small town. I once had a relative. I called him uncle. I know he wasn’t my father. He lived elsewhere. He was a lawyer and the uncle was a lawyer and every Christmas he gave me five dollars. God, I’m tired. And once, later, when I really needed money, he said, wait till Christmas.
Quinn took his jacket off and put it under his head so he would not smell the leather so much. When he closed his eyes there was the motion again, and more of the vibration, and it reminded him of the box. It was not the same motion and not the same vibration, he knew that, but he was reminded. Without transition Quinn went to sleep.
Cipolla looked in once and muttered something and left again. Once the captain came into the cabin, wanting to lie down on the couch, and he left. At one point there was a sudden drop in speed and the boat wallowed and rolled with the water motion entirely. Then came a surprising jump in speed with no let-up for a very long time. The pitch of the diesels was new now, which Quinn could have felt through the stuffed leather, except he slept. He woke up once and ate with three other people-one was Cipolla, he saw-but that waking did not make much of a difference. In fact Quinn was unaware of the light from the portholes, unaware whether it was day or night. Then, as long as the boat was in motion, he slept again.
Once he knew he was sweating inside his clothes and once he knew that he was dreaming. That stopped the dream. He knew he felt cold from the sweat on his skin and right after that his sleep became deeper and he no longer knew how he felt but just lay there, on the couch.
The trip lasted longer than Cipolla had said and they did not dock until sundown. When the engines stopped Quinn woke up and when he went topside he saw the pier next to the boat. The sun was down just behind a black line of mountain, and with the half light in the cool air Quinn had a moment’s impression that nothing had happened since the time he had stood by the warehouse in Okar, waiting for the day to be over and for the trip to start. This lasted a moment and then Quinn saw what there was.
The pier and the railroad track were close together; the dominant building was the railroad station. It was timeless with ugliness and could have fit Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Bangor, Maine. Though here it was uglier, trying to put the rest of the town to shame.
There was not much of the town. Narrow-chested gray buildings clapped up against the drop to the sea, all this on the North side of the bay, so that gloom seemed built into the town. Quinn saw how everyone stared on the pier, but then he decided it was the national habit. They stared at each other too. Police in blue and police in gray; they most likely had different jobs but they also just stood and stared.
“You going to unload whatever you got on this boat right here in the open?” Quinn asked Cipolla.
“While you were asleep,” said Cipolla, wishing to make a point of that, “we transferred at sea. I told you we got it all set up. Come on.”
They walked down a gangplank and then along the pier.
“For all I know,” said Quinn, “we could be in Scotland. I haven’t heard a word of Italian yet.”
“They know their place,” said Cipolla.
“This is Mafia country.”
If this was an explanation, thought Quinn, it was a pretty gruesome one. Cipolla, the way he walked down the pier, seemed to take pride in his sentence, but the short, black-eyed men and the thick, leather-skinned women who stood around with their stares depressed Quinn and made him wish that he were some place else. Any place else, he thought, any place that’s not on the North side and where somebody screams now and then.
They walked down a narrow street, dank like a back alley, but full of the shops and stores which showed that this was a main street. Now there was noise, of course, men talking in cafes, women talking in shops, but to Quinn there was no ring to the sounds. There was no space for sound, really, on this North side of the mountain, and the eyes staring and the mouths hanging open, they said more, actually, thought Quinn, than any sound.
“Happy little community,” he said. “You like it here?”
“Lots of money around, if you know the ropes.”
If this is an explanation, thought Quinn, but then he dropped the thought. They stopped at a cafe with an awning over the sidewalk. If the headman holds forth here, Quinn thought, I’m going to be reminded of Remal in his hotel. Though the hotel looks better.
Cipolla talked to one of the waiters-it was rapid Italian or perhaps rapid Sicilian-and then they walked again.
“He told you what today’s password is, right?”
Cipolla only shrugged.
They walked. Lights went on in some windows and in some of the stores, the naked bulb usually, and sometimes a kerosene lamp which threw more shadow than light.
“We’re almost out of town,” said Quinn. “Where does he live, in a cave?”
Cipolla stopped in the middle of the street, and if there were enough light, thought Quinn, his face would now show red like a turkey’s wattles.
“You listen to me, bum,” said Cipolla. “You come down here knocking this place right from the start and you don’t get nowhere. I like this place. People here like this place, and if you know what pride means…”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Quinn. “When you’re poor and dirty you can always say, I got pride. Lead the way.”
Cipolla said something filthy in Sicilian-the language, Quinn had noticed, did not have the ring and the sing of Italian. Quinn thought, you can probably say something filthy better in Sicilian than in any other language. They walked, and Quinn wondered whether the man they would see knew as little about Quinn’s coming as Quinn knew about the thing he was going into.
There was a big wooden door which opened right from the street into somebody’s windowless apartment. They walked through that past a woman in black who stood at a stove and past an old man in a bed who was looking at a lit candle which stood on a chair next to the bed. They walked out through a back door scaring five cats away from a garbage pail, and, on the other side of this yard which was made by the backs of old houses, a yard like the bottom of a shaft, they walked into a whitewashed kitchen. This kitchen seemed as naked as the bulb which hung from the ceiling and the place smelled only from the damp. No food around, no smell of food, no sign of use.
“You wait here,” said Cipolla, and walked on through a door.
This could definitely not be some place in Scranton or in Brooklyn or any other depressing place I know, Quinn thought while he lit a cigarette, but this could definitely be the place which all the others-with bad light and bad air and bad altogether-have used for a model. Patience now, he said to himself, patience. Wait till you meet the educated animal that lives here.
Cipolla opened the door and jerked his head and then disappeared again down a dark corridor.
When Quinn walked into the room at the other end he thought, yes, now this on the other hand could be in Scranton or in Brooklyn. There was mail-order furniture and there was a big console TV. Then the man got up from the maroon couch and Quinn was really surprised.
He was short, just like everyone else seemed to be in this town, but he had a pink face, white hair, and he was smiling. He said, “Hi, there,” with no accent at all and held his hand out in the friendliest way. Only wrong note, thought Quinn, is that ring there. Big diamond with collar of baguettes, all on one little finger. Santa Claus wearing jewelry.
Quinn shook hands and said he was Quinn, and the other one said, “Yes, I know. My name’s Motta. Just like the ice cream.”
Quinn did not know that Motta was an ice cream but he thought that was a nice, innocent comparison to make and who might Motta be.
Cipolla came and went while Motta and Quinn sat down on the maroon couch. The couch creaked and it smelled of moth balls. Quinn smelled the moth balls and looked at the antimacassars on the arm-rests of the couch, wondering who the woman in the house might be. There was a brown photo of a couple on the wall and behind the framed photo somebody had stuck a palm frond at a slant. This palm frond was as brown and yellow as the young couple in the picture. The man was stiff with starch and waxed mustache, and the woman stiff with whalebone and laces.
“Mother and Dad,” said Motta. “They died in the States. Poor as church mice, but proud. Never took a dime from me, rest their souls.”
The woman who came into the room now looked like the grandmother of the couple in the picture, though she was really the daughter and Motta called her Sis.
Sis put three espresso cups on the round table, a small pressure pot full of hot coffee, and a white jug which held hot milk. Cipolla came in with a bowl of sugar and then the old woman left without having said a word.
“Half and half?” said Motta. “I take mine black.”
Quinn took half milk and half coffee and Motta took half coffee and half sugar. Cipolla had nothing. He sat and watched.
“Well,” said Motta, and smiled into his cup. “Here we are.” He slurped coffee and said, “Ah!”
The dead TV screen looked gray and shiny and Cipolla’s skin looked like a dry leaf. A wind had started to whistle outside. If there’s fog, thought Quinn, I wouldn’t be surprised.
“Yessir,” said Motta. He looked like the most alive thing in the room. “I do miss the States some, now and then, but they sure never learned over there how to make coffee. Like it?
“Born and raised right here, Quinn,” said Motta, “but got took to the States when I was maybe three years old. Those were the big immigrant days. Everybody poor tried to get there.” Motta laughed. “Then, them who got rich got throwed out again. Hahaha!”
It wasn’t a stage laugh but sounded like real amusement.
“Yessir,” said Motta and put down his cup. “Made my own way over there. Just like you, huh, Quinn?”
“I didn’t really make it,” said Quinn.
“But you got deported just the same, huh, Quinn?” and Motta laughed again.
Can’t get sore at that kind of a laugh, thought Quinn. How can you get sore at Santa Claus?
“You heard about that,” said Quinn.
“Oh sure.” Motta folded his little hands on his stomach. “While you were asleep on the boat, Cipolla told me some, with the radio. Some of that TV over there,” said Motta, “is a short-wave. TV, of course, we ain’t got yet, down here. Not that I miss it.”
“I miss it,” said Cipolla.
“He’s not taking his deportation with deportment, like me,” said Motta, and the way he said the sentence, Quinn was sure he had used it before. “Not that I wasn’t low and all that when I first got here. I mean, it’s my home town and all but what’s that to me, after all these years and having made a life for myself in the States. I mean, Rome let’s say, okay. Naples. Okay. Palermo even. But no. They got to stick you with a home town that nobody even twenty miles from here ever heard of.” Motta sighed at the TV and then he nodded. “Well, then it turned out all right, after all.” He smiled and looked at Quinn from the rim of his coffee cup. “Gotta get your hand in, you know, Quinn? Like, I come down here and pretty soon it shows there’s a real set-up, a real opportunity. That’s what the States taught me, boy. How to spot opportunity. Get your hand in.”
He put the coffee cup down again-it had been empty for some time-and looked at Quinn with real interest. No smile, this time.
“That’s why you’re here, right, Quinn? To get your hand in.”
“Yes,” said Quinn. “That’s just about it.”
“You walked in over there and spotted a real opportunity. Right?”
“Stared me right in the face,” said Quinn.
“Good,” and Motta got up. “You and me, Quinn, maybe you and me can get along, huh?”
When he walked by Quinn he gave him a little pat on the shoulder, nothing overdone, just a friendly pat. Then he went to the bureau with all the vases and shepherd figures inside and took a cigar out of a box on top. Cipolla came up with a match, and while Motta got his cigar started he discussed things like, what time is it, time for an aperitif at the cafe, dinner still two hours off, and more small talk like that.
Here, thought Quinn, is a strange break, but a break perhaps, nonetheless. Old gangster deported from the States, running a little thing for the action of it, and to keep in his hand. Out of boredom. Boredom in a town like a handful of mud thrown against the side of a mountain, and twenty miles away nobody knows about the place, and Motta, by the terms of his deportation, must stay in his home town. Apt to drive a man crazy. Like being nailed into a box. Except that Motta has managed it differently, has kept his pink complexion, his easy ways, his good temper. This one, unlike Cipolla, thought Quinn, might well be the man with whom he, Quinn, could work. Finally. Quinn felt a small kick of excitement.
“So they gave you the trip around the world, huh, Quinn?” and Motta came back to the couch, sat down, puffed a blue cloud which smelled like clubs and good leisure.
“Yes,” said Quinn. “Except I got out ahead of schedule.”
“Must have been bad, huh?”
“I don’t remember too well, Motta. I think I’m glad I don’t remember too well.”
Motta shook his head slowly and watched a blue cloud make a belly and then turn into lace.
“I never thought much of that treatment,” he said. “Heard about it, of course, but, well-” and he shook his head again. “Who did it?” he asked next. “I been out of the picture in the States for a long time-how long is it, Cipolla?”
“Twenty-nine years,” said Cipolla. “On the fifteenth, next month.”
“Long time,” said Motta to the picture with the young couple who were his parents. “Who was you with, Quinn? It’s been a long time for me, lots of changes over there, but maybe I know.”
“His name is Ryder.”
“The numbers and unions. New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and some Illinois.”
Motta shook his head. “There’s a new crowd, I guess.”
“Maybe Ryder’s isn’t much of an outfit,” said Cipolla. “I just been outa the States five years and I never heard of him. And I was in New York.”
“The big ones, Onion, don’t get seen by the little ones,” Quinn said to Cipolla. He was starting to feel hopped up.
“You must be an educated man,” said Motta, to change the conversation. “I mean, listening to the way you talk, things like that.”
Quinn shrugged and thought about his education.
“You been to college?” Cipolla asked.
“I’ll bet he was. What was you in?” asked Motta.
“Hey, that’s funny!”
“Yes. It was.”
“And from that maybe labor relations or politics and from there, well, you either get to be a politician or a crook, right, Quinn?” and Motta laughed again.
It was the same laugh as before, showing good humor, and Quinn did not mind it. He did not like to think about the subject they had been talking about, especially when Motta had guessed fairly well how he, Quinn, had drifted from one intention to another. Though it had not really been so much a matter of intention, but almost all drift. There had been no zest, not much zest at any rate, in his switch in direction or in his taking a new one. Except, of course, the matter of clawing his way ahead, in spite of Ryder. That had been the spice. If he and Ryder had been in the leather business, in the paper business, it would still have been the same.
“Well,” said Motta, “what say we go down to the cafe and talk business, huh, Quinn?”
Quinn had wondered when they would get to it and if Motta was stalling. But Motta simply did not care for speed; he had his evening routine, and business is discussed over a glass in a cafe.
“You notice,” said Motta and got up, “that I just lit this cigar, and if you know anything about cigar smokers who care about the product they smoke, you’ll have noticed they don’t like to walk around with the cigar in their mouth. Cipolla, find me the cane with the bone handle, huh?”
Cipolla left the room to look for Motta’s cane.
“I was saying,” and Motta smoothed his vest down in front, holding the cigar in his mouth, dead center. “Now, I’m the kind of cigar man I’ve been describing to you, Quinn, but here you see me walking out with more than half of the Havana still good.”
“Yes,” said Quinn, a little bored with the gentle small-talk.
“I do this,” said Motta, “in fact I do this every day this time of evening, because of the humidity.”
Cipolla came back with Motta’s hat, which was big-brimmed and light colored and had a black band-this hat, thought Quinn, no doubt goes on the head dead center-and also brought the cane with the bone handle. It was a beautiful, shiny handle, and there was a little silver band where the bone joined the wood. Maybe he’ll have forgotten about the cigar talk by now The hat went on the head dead center and the cane went in the left hand, because the right hand was for the cigar. Motta looked like somebody happily retired, modestly happy and entirely done with the rat race. They walked out to the street through somebody else’s apartment, the same way Quinn had come. Outside it was dark now and miserably damp.
“This dampness,” Motta said, “slows the smoke, cools the coal, and brings out tobacco flavors like you don’t get in any other way. That’s why I do this.”
Then they walked. Every time they passed a corner there was a street lamp sticking out from a wall and around the light there was always a milky halo of dampness.
“Very important for our operations,” said Cipolla, who had been suffering from not saying anything. “This fog every night is like part of the business set-up.”
“Now, some would say,” Motta went on, “that a cigar, damp like this, gets to be like rotten leaves or the comer of a basement or something like that.”
“Of course,” said Quinn. “And nonetheless, they keep cigars in a humidor.”
Motta ignored that. “But I say, and I think there’s something to this, Quinn, I say, don’t you eat cheese and like it, and that’s rotten? Don’t you grow mushrooms in a basement, and that’s delicious?”
Quinn got the impression again that Motta had rehearsed this. It did not sound like his usual kind of talk, and of course it did not fit the Santa Claus thing any more. Santa Claus, Quinn thought, would not talk about cigars like this. Somebody who collects butterflies might talk this way, or someone who collects recipes from Greenland and Ceylon, or maybe instructions on how to grow mandrake roots without benefit of gallows and moonlight.
The cafe had an outdoor part and an indoor part. In spite of the weather there were few people inside. Most of them were at the little round tables which stood by the sidewalk. The men were wrapped in their overcoats and the table tops were damp from the evening fog, but to sit inside would mean not to be able to see anything. They sat with their hands in their pockets and stared at the street, at the leaves dripping on the potted tree, at each other.
“Tell me something,” said Quinn, “you use any local people in your organization?”
“Christ, no,” said Motta, and then he crossed himself.
They walked to the inside of the cafe where two waiters started to scurry as soon as Motta showed in the door. They pushed tables, they jabbered, and they bowed like two pigeons doing a mating dance.
Motta was affable about all of this; he nodded his head, he nodded his stick, and when he took off his hat and one waiter lunged for it Motta smiled at the man and said something in Sicilian.
They took a table which had been pushed to the fireplace, where Motta could warm his back and look at the rest of the room which was almost empty. The usual bare bulb hung from the ceiling, a velour curtain with grease on it covered the kitchen entrance, and the tables were the same as those outdoors-warped wood tops and rusty legs. On Motta’s table was a white tablecloth.
The waiter brought wine without being asked. He poured from the same bottle for Quinn and Cipolla, and all this, Quinn felt, was the usual routine, a nice evening, a nice fire, and a cold fog outside. Maybe, thought Quinn, I shouldn’t have anything to drink.
Motta held the wine in his mouth and then he swallowed it. While doing this he dipped the end of his cigar into the wineglass, just the tip of it ever so gently, and when he swallowed the wine he immediately put the cigar into his mouth. And now, Quinn thought to himself, something else about new taste sensation.
“So tell me, Quinn,” and Motta took the cigar out again. “Our set-up on the other side, what’s it look like to you?”
“It’s making a lot of money for us, Quinn.”
“If I can shake it up…”
“Did you?” said Motta.
“Well,” said Quinn, “just a little tilt. Enough for you to sit here with me and talk about it.”
“That’s true,” said Motta. “That’s true.”
“I’m not here to shake anything up for you,” Quinn said very slowly. My own Santa Claus voice, he thought. Listen to the kindly rumble. “But I am here, Motta, to tell you that the other end of your operation can slide right out from under you, make less money, you know, instead of more.”
“You think it can?”
“Slide out from under me.”
“Motta, look. I was over there for a few days and saw enough and did enough to start up a take-over, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Motta sighed, stretched, and stroked his vest as if he were stroking a baby. Then he patted it some.
“What I’m asking, Quinn, do you think we can do a job together?”
“I don’t know,” said Quinn. “I can’t answer that because I don’t know enough about your operation.”
“ Right answer!” said Motta. “Very good, boy. Very good.”
Cipolla spat on the floor next to his chair and stepped on it. Quinn lit a cigarette.
“Now I,” said Motta, “got naturally an idea of the set-up, me having made the set-up, but before we go into that, and before you make suggestions-you got suggestions about the other side, don’t you?”
“Before any of that, Quinn, let me ask you a question.”
“Go right ahead,” said Quinn, feeling hopped up from all the delay.
“This is about how well you covered your tracks. You got dumped by an independent tramper, didn’t you?”
“That’s what I’m told.”
“That’s what I was told. You know the name of that captain?”
“No. I was…”
“Name of the tub?”
“Why do you ask? I don’t know the name, but why do you ask?”
“Simple reason. By rights, that captain has to report what happened, back home.”
Quinn sighed and then he said yes, he had thought about that too. He didn’t think the matter important. He wanted to start talking business. He wanted that more than anything in the world so as to be done with waiting, and doubting.
“And what did you do about it?”
“Not much. Just some questions. Upshot was, I didn’t think it very likely that the captain would report back the whole irregularity, just for his own sake.”
“Makes sense,” said Motta. “That makes sense.” He nodded his head and sipped a little wine. This time he did not keep it in his mouth but started to talk again right away. “Reason I bring this up, Quinn-what if you start operating out of Okar and then your friends from way back move in on you, not the operation, I mean, but on you?”
“Should that happen,” said Quinn, “I expect to be set up by then in such a way-there are ways-that no outsider can do very much to rock my boat. Speaking of the set-up on the African side, what I’d like to discuss…”
“Later,” said Motta.
Then he waved at the waiter and ordered a meal. Quinn had no idea what was being ordered and did not care. He sat smoking and looking around while Motta went through a long ritual, as if this dump, Quinn thought, was Maxim’s or Antoine’s, unless Antoine’s is a hairdresser’s and I got the names mixed up.
When Motta was done ordering he threw his cigar into the fireplace behind him and folded his hands on his belly. He smiled at Quinn and stroked the belly twice.
“I know you got ways,” he said, as if nothing had interrupted the conversation, “but on the other hand, Quinn, couldn’t any of this interfere with our operation on this side?”
Quinn thought for a moment and then he explained that he did not think so. He thought, first of all, that no one from the States would come looking for him, second, that he could take care of any eventualities, and third, that none of this would interfere with the business, Motta’s business, Quinn’s business, any business. Quinn sighed when he was through, feeling like a schoolboy who had gone through a recitation. And when a schoolboy recites, the teacher always knows everything ahead of time, so this whole talk was sham and useless. Quinn lit another cigarette and felt he smoked too much.
Motta, he was sure, had something entirely different on his mind. I’ll just have to wait, even if I bust.
“I was thinking this,” said Motta, and poured more wine. “I was thinking this because I know the whole operation, of course, and maybe once you do, you’d see it the same way I do, but I’ll explain the details some other time. Antipasto,” he said, and watched the waiter come with the big plate.
Quinn did not wait for the waiter to get done.
“I didn’t understand a word you said,” he told Motta. “Maybe because I don’t know the whole operation?”
Motta laughed and put a pickled cauliflower in his mouth. He kept it there and sucked.
“Ever taste it the way it tastes when you suck?” he mumbled.
No, said Quinn, he had never tasted it the way it tastes when you suck, and what exactly was Motta talking about before. Quinn rubbed his nose because it had started to itch nervously.
Motta swallowed-Quinn had not seen him chew-and talked again. “I was thinking this,” he said to the ceiling. Then he looked at Quinn. “I think I can use you on this side better than on the other. Maybe Cipolla told you, but I can drop that Remal character any time, and ship out of other ports.”
“Work with you here?” said Quinn. “It’s a proposition. Tell me more.”
Quinn reached over to the antipasto plate and picked something up which looked green and wrinkled. He chewed it and did not like the sourness. He himself felt prickly.
“And I tell you,” said Motta. “If I were you, Quinn, you know I’d just keep worrying and worrying about that captain floating around some place, and who knows what he’ll do about this queer business with the undeclared box.”
Motta talked more, always between mouthfuls, and by the time the pasta and meat sauce came, Quinn was worried. Santa Claus has a strange effect, he thought. Like a snake charmer.
During the veal the talk shifted to Remal, and who knows what a foreigner like that is up to, and what would the reception be, if Quinn were to go back. Ever think of that yet?
And maybe, thought Quinn, no longer tasting his food, maybe there’s an entirely different reason behind all of Motta’s pink-cheeked advice. Maybe all of this has to do with his wish to keep Quinn nearby, to keep Quinn under close check. He doesn’t act like Ryder, and he doesn’t act like Remal, but who knows Motta, except that he likes moist cigars?
The greens were served separately from everything else and Quinn now had to eat a plate full of greens. They were not very hot, they were warmish, and very slippery with oil.
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” said Motta. He burped behind his napkin and explained that this green stuff always made him burp, but how healthy the green stuff really was.
“I’ll give Whitfield a call,” said Motta, “with the shortwave, and find out from him where that tramper has his ports of call.”
“I know that already. Tel Aviv, Alexandria, and then down to Madagascar. From there, home. I don’t know if he goes around the Cape or how, but I remember those ports.”
“Well,” said Motta, “I think Whitfield will remember better. It’s business.” He sucked his teeth and spat something out, all done discreetly behind the napkin. “That is, if you want me to, Quinn.”
“I don’t know what good it would do.”
“If that captain is still in the Mediterranean basin, I can maybe get in touch with him. I got friends here and there, and with a bottle of something or other, maybe we can get it out of him if he’s reported about you in that box, if he intends to do so, and we could even explain to him he should better not report anything, just like you were figuring.”
Quinn nudged his plate away and wondered why Motta was so interested in all this.
“The reason I’m worrying, besides from being a worrier,” Motta said, “is because I’d like to be sure the guy I work with is gonna be as safe as me, seeing he and I, what I mean is, you and I, will be sort of hitched up with each other. Which is true if you work on the African end or here. Right?”
Yes, answered Quinn, he could see that point of view, and he agreed with Motta so he would drop the matter. It was not business.
“Cipolla,” said Motta, “you’ve eaten enough.”
“You get on this right away, Cipolla, and see if you can raise Whitfield this time of evening and we get this thing rolling. Okay, Quinn?”
It was now okay with Quinn. Cipolla seemed to be used to this kind of treatment, as who wouldn’t be, with Motta pink-cheeked and smiling-a retired hood who likes to be friends.
Cipolla left. Motta ate the next thing, which seemed to be something from the sea, and Quinn sat in the dim room, angry at having to wait through a revolting meal.
“How long will all this take?” Quinn asked.
“If he’s still in the Mediterranean, Quinn, maybe just a few days, you know?” Motta looked up and smiled, to give reassurance. “My guess is we can still catch him. Those tramps are slow. And besides,” he said, with the next piece of gray-looking stuff on his fork, “the next run out of here isn’t for five days anyway, so you’ll be stuck here till then whether you decide to take Okar on or whether you decide to team up on this side.” Motta nodded and said, “I still wanna talk business with you, you know. A few days, you and me, and we might do each other some good.”
Then he ate.
The next morning Quinn was surprised to find that the sun was shining, as if sunshine did not belong here and it was a mistake. There was finally business talk with Motta, and that went very well. When Motta talked business he talked only business, he did not insist, the way Cipolla did, that he, the speaker, was the big thing in the talk. The smuggling setup, Quinn found out, was extremely well organized, and the reason Motta had allowed Remal his own slipshod methods was because there was no point, at the Africa end, to be any more careful. However, should Quinn take over there, they could make much more money. Quinn worked on plans as if studying for an examination.
The captain had not been located.
On the second day Quinn slept until late in the morning. There was no point in getting up early, but there was a point in staying asleep. The subject of the captain and what his reporting might do to Quinn had become a bothersome worry.
On that day the sun turned watery by noon and Quinn sat in the cafe and missed Bea. This surprised him, and by late afternoon Quinn was drunk.
At ten that evening, at the end of Motta’s meal, Cipolla came into the restaurant and reported that the captain was tied up in Alexandria.
On the third day Quinn woke up very early because the captain was now an insistent preoccupation.
Motta was reassuring. They discussed where Quinn should work. Quinn wanted Okar. Motta thought Sicily better. He said he liked Quinn and his hustling ways.
That evening, in bed, Quinn thought of the box for the first time with any feeling. He lay sleepless for a very long time, with the window open and the light turned on.
I had not thought about the box, it came to him, because for a while that matter was really finished. I am thinking of the box now because for the first time it’s clear now, clear and true, the way Bea explained it, that I’m not out of it.
But that no longer matters. In this business, I know my way. I’m not bucking anyone and I know my way. He said this like counting sheep and fell asleep. He fell asleep the way a body falls off a cliff.
On the fourth day Quinn saw in the mirror how his collar was loose around his neck. The sleeplessness, he said to his face. The goddamn sleeplessness of lying in bed with thoughts and without any feelings. This eats me up.
At noon that day Cipolla had a talk with Motta in the cafe, and when Quinn walked in Motta waved to indicate Quinn should wait just a moment. Then Cipolla left and Motta waved again, Quinn should come over.
“Good news,” he said. “I got a friend talking to the captain in Alexandria, you know, friend talk with a bottle, and the captain says he hasn’t reported the stowaway thing and he’s got no intention of reporting it, that it’s too much trouble.” Motta grinned and folded his little hands on his belly. “What do you think of that?”
Quinn felt weak. “Am I relieved!”
Motta laughed and slapped Quinn on the back, causing a pain like a cramp on one side.
“You’re free!” said Motta. “Just think of it!” Motta’s laugh went stab, stab, stab inside Quinn’s car.
Then Motta bought Quinn a cognac and left.
Quinn did not get drunk that afternoon but had only one more cognac which he charged to Motta. He charged it to Motta because he had no more money. And because he, Quinn, felt that Motta would not mind. He is a Santa Claus after all and if I drink more I shall cry At four in the afternoon the sun came out, surprising Quinn. He sat where he had been sitting because Motta had sent word he was busy.
The threat of the captain reporting the box, that was gone. But Quinn felt on edge, as ever.
I must decide about here or Okar. Makes no difference to Motta. Fine. Does it make any difference to me? Now that Remal is out anyway, the way Motta described it On the fifth day Quinn woke up, having decided. He would run the Okar end of the business. It was underdeveloped, and there was more sun.
By four in the afternoon, Quinn had still not been able to discuss things with Motta. Santa Claus was out of town.
Nerves, thought Quinn. I’m beginning to imagine a plot. He had decided on Okar, but-it struck him-he felt as jumpy as before.
Half an hour before the boat was to leave, Quinn stood on the pier. The fog was there as expected. Nobody else was.
Then a car rushed down. Motta, with hat and cane, leaped out and hurried onto the pier.
“Quinn boy, I’m sorry. This other thing couldn’t wait. Now look, we went through all the details, all about this end and the other end, and if you wanna stay here…”
“I want the Okar end. You don’t need me here.”
“Now boy, I wouldn’t say that.”
“We talked about how I can build it up.”
“Right. And about your friend the mayor?”
“I’ll not only take my chances, but I’ll take your advice.”
“What was that, boy?”
“I like people, you said. I’m going to tell Remal I like him, or else. He’s going to like me or I move the operation to the town of Tagen.”
“The one we talked about, yes.”
“Quinn, I like how you work. Best to you over there.” Cipolla came running up but Motta waved him off.
“I’m talking,” he said. And then, “Quinn, lemme ask you something personal. You mind?”
“No, I don’t mind.” Quinn felt nervous about getting away.
“Lemme ask you, may I, Quinn?”
“Yes, sure, sure, go ahead.”
“Have you got a woman over there? I haven’t seen you looking at any women over here and the way you been acting like a young un and rubbing your nose and not talking much, I mean not very much after all the business detail talk we been through…”
“No,” said Quinn. “No, its not that.”
And I’m a liar, he thought, for leaving out Bea, this one woman over there who knew what I went for. The one who knows how it feels to build a box and that the worst things that happen are the things you do to yourself. And if you have to-she knows this-and if you have to go and take it like a sentence, then I have respect for you, that’s what she might have said. Respect for you because you know how you’re under a sentence, your own, which is the worst. And I respect you for knowing what you do, and I won’t interfere because, she might have said, I don’t know right or wrong any better than you do. Bea never said all of this but she did all of this. And I’ll be here, she might have said, if you come out of it.
“Time to go,” said Cipolla.
Motta held out his hand and smiled. “I like to see a man with a serious interest, and that’s you, Quinn. Hate to lose you. Goodbye,” and Motta walked off to his car.
Now that was a queer thing to say, thought Quinn, but then there had also been the smile and the shrug and the nice pat on the arm, touch of tolerance, good old Santa papa, and to hell with you, too.
Why so irritable, having decided everything?
“Let’s go,” he said to Cipolla, and the two men went to the end of the pier and the boat.
On this trip he did not sleep.
There was part of the fake cargo on deck: several rows of large drums with cheap wine inside, destination a legitimate port which was one day’s run from Okar. The Okar stop, on the books, would be for engine repairs.
At first the drums were wet because of the fog off the Sicilian coast, then they were dry because of the fast blow during the night, then they were moist again, making the black metal look a great deal like velvet. Just south of Malta they met the sirocco. Dry again, all day under the sun, and then toward evening Quinn did not watch any more. He knew how many drums there were, having paced back and forth where the rows were strapped down, back and forth, back and forth, like counting his canisters in the dark, and for the same reason, to know all there was to know, just as long as it was simple.
But by the next night he had quit the pacing. He felt cold and clear and he thought, anyway, it’s good that it’s clear. Shame though that it also has to be cold.
There was a perceptible change in the temperature as they got close to Okar, but Quinn paid little attention to that. Thinking about cold had nothing to do with the temperature.
The boat slowed before Quinn knew why but then he saw the lights of Okar, far away, just a few lights, which slid out from behind the land tongue which made the bay. There was also a beautiful moon. Quinn did not notice. Another half hour of deceptive distance and then Quinn could make out the pier.
The first one Quinn recognized was Bea. There were other people on the pier but Quinn saw Bea first.
Some people, he thought, look stupid waiting, or they look somehow silly, or like cattle standing around.
I’ve always thought she looks beautiful. She looks exciting now, and she must be excited the way she stands there in the light, she doesn’t see me on the dark boat, but she looks for me.
The boat docked and the first one down the plank was Cipolla. He headed across the pier towards Whitfield who stood by the warehouse with the clipboard under his arm.
At first Quinn went fast, going down the plank, then slowly. He wanted to see everything, he wanted to see everything there was to see in the way she stood, walked toward him, waited.
At first they stood close by each other, not touching, then she put her hands on his arm the way she always did, and then he bent to put his face into her hair. He put his hands on her waist, feeling her, and then straightened up again.
“You’re back,” she said.
Maybe she had said it as a question? He said, “Yes.”
But as soon as they had started to talk, the words had taken over for him and he found everything difficult. She is too beautiful and perhaps that’s why, he thought. Why do I have to think this and not say it to her.
“Warm here,” he said and felt the sweat creep out on him, from the sheer awkwardness and stupidity of his remark.
“Quinn,” she said, “are you done?”
“Hell, yes, I’m done over there.”
“Done working for Santa Claus. You should see him.” She did not understand him and waited. “I’m staying here, Bea.”
“It’s the best I can figure. It’ll be all right with Remal. I think I can handle him now and I got a good relationship at the other end.”
He thought she was going to cough, the way her breath went, or perhaps she could not get any breath for one reason or another. How can anyone catch a cold in this place, it went through his mind. But she was not coughing or gagging at all. It had been a deep painful breath, all dry, no tears, a dry shaking inside her, so that she sounded hoarse when she talked, and he almost had to guess what she was saying.
“My God, Quinn,” she said, “I thought-maybe you’d be done and, and it’s over, but you’re only starting all over.”
She stepped away and then she walked away.
“Just a minute now,” he said and caught up with her. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going away, Quinn.”
She did not answer. There were several people on the pier and the boat made low sounds against the pilings but Quinn knew only the pier in the spotty light, big stretch of pier, and black, quiet night. Then he saw the box. Bea was gone and there was the box.
The first thing he had seen had been Bea and now the first thing he saw was the box. It was as if having a choice of one first thing after another.
The box was upright and the crack had been repaired. There was a new lid, all white wood, set to one side and the box was still open.
Everything that happened next happened, in a manner of speaking, without any succession. Everything that happened next was all life and death. Something that is always immediate, that does away with all past and future. There is only now, and so there is no succession.
All the things that came next happened with Quinn and there was a death in it every time.
To lay all of it out, there was a dead man who floated by the pier in the water. There was a dead man lying face up on the rocks where the desert started. And then there was a dead man who lay curled up in a box which was shipped to New York.
The way fever makes the vision shimmer and draws all the color and sharpness out of seeing, that was how Quinn saw the pier in a moment. Everything was holding still and there was no meaning anywhere, until Whitfield happened to drop his clipboard. This made Quinn jump. He did not jump visibly but on the inside in some way.
“You dropped your clipboard,” said Quinn.
Quinn smelled the gin. He watched Whitfield pick up the clipboard. It was now all very quiet again and Quinn felt no haste. And now, he thought, now for the finish. And I care very much how it turns out.
“Whitfield,” he said. “You know where anyone is?”
“If you mean just anyone, then the question…”
“Whit, don’t just talk. Not this time.”
Whitfield looked at Quinn and immediately took him very seriously. It felt a lot like respect.
“Only the box is here,” said Whitfield.
They both looked at the box which stood by the edge of the light. White, new wood on top, the rest stained as before. The contrast was obscene.
“What do you know about it, Whitfield?”
Whitfield took a breath, feeling the air was too thick.
“Quinn,” he said. “I know they fixed it, I saw them. That’s all. Quinn, I even want to know less than I do know.”
“Yes. You’re always like that.”
Whitfield wiped his face. “I never sweat. I think I’m afraid. What do you do when you’re afraid, Quinn?”
Out of nowhere Quinn felt a very clear affection for the other man, so clear that he was sure it must show and therefore he need say nothing. Perhaps Whitfield caught this. He wanted to say something, but the habit of keeping things dullish and pleasant made him think of some platitude. He did not want to say it and kept still.
Then Quinn turned, walked to the box. He moves like a cat, thought Whitfield. When Quinn reached for the crowbar which leaned by the box Whitfield held his breath with sudden excitement.
Quinn hauled out the iron bar very steadily for a long, wrecking smash into the side of the box, but then he never hit. He suddenly spun around and stared at Whitfield.
“Out of the way,” said Quinn. “To the wall.”
Quinn wasn’t looking at Whitfield at all and when Whitfield had moved, as if hypnotized, he saw where Quinn had been looking.
Cipolla was coming out of the warehouse. He walked slowly, as if wading in water, and the water was very cold.
“Spread out,” he said, and then Quinn saw the two sailors whom Cipolla had brought along.
Quinn was not winded but he now started to breathe in an inhuman way. He crouched forward a little and breathed with a sound which was deep and loud. He reached back with one hand and touched the box behind him. He barely touched and then pulled his hand away.
“It’s no good,” he said, “unless I’m alive. You know that, don’t you, Cipolla?”
“That’s why,” said Cipolla. “That’s why you’re still standing there.”
“You going to take me alive, Cipolla?”
The small man didn’t answer. He showed his teeth for courage and he swung his arms like an ape, a big ape twice his own size. For the moment he did nothing else. What crazy eyes, thought Cipolla. And he moves like a cat and maybe got nine lives “Ah,” said Quinn and smiled very slowly. It was hard to tell by the high bulb light over the pier what the smile meant, but Whitfield, by the wall, thought the smile was sad. “Ah,” Quinn said again. “And Santa Claus knew Ryder all the time, didn’t he?”
“I told you that was Mafia country,” said Cipolla. The remark made him feel strong and no longer alone. “All right!” he said to his helpers.
Whitfield, by the wall, closed his eyes. He was therefore almost startled out of his skin when the box gave a sudden drum bellow of a sound because Quinn had swung the crowbar into the wood.
“Now!” Quinn yelled. “And remember, Cipolla, whatever is going to happen now isn’t going to happen to my corpse! Try me!” and he hit the box again, sharp and heavy, breaking wood. He spun back around to Cipolla and held the bar in both hands. He stood like that and looked like a killer.
The two sailors, with the true hireling’s caution, hung back and looked everywhere except at Quinn.
“Rush him!” yelled Cipolla.
Quinn laughed. He stood with his back to the box and laughed.
“Rush him!” Cipolla again.
“Shut up,” said Quinn, and then, talking quietly, “Shut up and turn around.” His smile was back. “You’ve got friends there.”
To Cipolla, of course, this was the oldest trick in the world. Except that Whitfield looked past Cipolla and gasped.
“Or maybe I’m wrong,” Quinn said. “Maybe you’ve got enemies.”
Cipolla couldn’t wait any longer and had to turn then. He saw Remal standing there very quietly. Remal had one Arab along and held a gun. He was holding it down by his side, as if it were not important.
“Cipolla,” he said, “you will please step aside.”
“ What? ”
“He’s mine,” said Remal and made a small flick with the gun in Quinn’s direction. Aside from that he hardly looked at him.
Oh God, thought Whitfield, what do you do when you’re afraid? Then he began to tremble. And then, because everything happened so fast and so violently, Whitfield started to scream. He stood by the wall like a child and screamed.
It seemed to Quinn that nothing mattered for the moment but Whitfield’s screaming and his fright and that he, Quinn, must now give that man a hand. The thought struck Quinn as weird and out of place even while it happened, but it was also true that with Whitfield full of fright, Quinn felt none. After that, it went fast.
One sailor got knifed by Remal’s Arab, Cipolla whipped out a gun, Quinn threw the crowbar and saw Remal stagger. And there was a shot and Quinn ran.
He had Whitfield by the arm and yelled, “Run, Whit, run!” and when they were in the warehouse there was another shot back on the pier. They ran across the cobblestone square when Whitfield started to cry.
“Run, Whit, I’ll help you-I’ll help you-” Quinn kept panting while Whitfield cried like a child, not like a drunkard, because no drink was strong enough for what Whitfield went through.
“I can’t-I can’t any more-”
“Run, Whit, the quarter, shots no good there, Whit, let me help-”
They ran through the quarter, one way or the other, and came out into the desert where the moon was like a white stone in the sky.
“Oh God,” said Whitfield, and Quinn let him stop. “God, I’m too tired to be afraid any more.” He could hardly breathe, but he made a small laugh. “And so sober,” he said.
There were two shots. In the open like that it was simple murder, though with the light as it was it was hard to tell who was shot But as if to a magnet which never lets go he had to come back to the box a while later. He went slowly this time, creeping through shadows, though by the time he crossed the square he no longer cared if he were seen or not. Because it was almost over and he was almost there. I’ve got nine lives, he thought, and I’m going to use all of them In the warehouse he could hear the voices and walked no further than the nearest stack of bales.
“He’s out there,” said the voice which was panting hard.
“You shot him and left him? Did I tell you to shoot, you son of a bitch?”
“Listen, all you said…”
“Shut up and get the tools and get the thing fixed up!”
Voice high and tense like a mouse and then Cipolla’s hard step on his extra-high heels, that too a high, tense sound coming closer.
No haste now, thought Quinn by his bale. He’ll freeze all by himself.
Cipolla did. One chopped heel sound and he stood very still by the dark bale. Quinn did not hit him. He reached out and dug his hand into Cipolla, high on the neck. This was pure satisfaction. There was no talk.
Cipolla, though small, turned out to be very strong. He started to see life and death come and go, nine lives come and go, and he now had all the strength of all his hate for everything he had ever hated.
It seemed to Quinn that he cared less than the other man. The silence of their grip on each other was much like a drug to him. I see nine lives go, he thought, and don’t care. I only care that I have none left over Then came a death, slow like a sigh.
When they found the body in the desert, very dry and the eyes staring up, there had been no doubt about this one because of the hair. Nobody in Okar had had hair like that; only Whitfield had blond hair, which was the only thing which had not changed on the corpse.
The one with the hole in the skull, the one who had been in the water for such a long time, there was some delay and some doubt about the identification, because so little was left. But of all the ones missing, only Remal used to wear the long shirt which was still floating around the thing.
And much later, in New York, where Ryder made a special trip for the occasion, there had been no doubt or delay when the box was opened. Ryder gave one look, stepped back quickly, and said, “I thought he was going to get back here alive.”
“Accidents happen,” said somebody.
“Stupid punk,” said Ryder and got into his car. “They don’t shrink that much, you idiot. That one’s maybe half of Quinn’s size.”
Okar, except for the missing people, did not change very much. There was talk for a while, but no change. About where the woman might be, the one who had left suddenly after having known everyone, and where the man might be, the one who had come in a box.