ADVENTURE THE 61ST: GARTERS AND GUTS
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Therefore, if you scroll down or visit the archives in future months, you will be able to read this continuing drama in the manner and order it was intended to be read.
For this reason and purpose each subsequent adventure in the ‘Eddie Mars’ serial will be marked by a number. If you follow these numbers marked at the top of each chapter in their numeric order - eg ‘Adventure the 1st’ - you will be able to follow this continuing saga.For those savvy to the blog world – this disclaimer may seem redundant, and for that no apology is made.
This disclaimer is meant to better acquaint new readers in how the entries in this blog will be posted and how best to follow the series from this point on. And now…
ADVENTURE THE 61ST: GARTERS AND GUTS
Live for today. It's an adage we've all seen on billboards, T-shirts and cheap, sentimental greeting cards that wind up in the ash can ten minutes after they're read. Live. For tomorrow you may not and what a waste today would be if it were not spent with every last second dedicated to the greater likeness of being.
I never learned that trick of experiencing from moment to moment. Instead, the moments usually crept upon me while I was either looking ahead or back, like a rabid coon, devilishly eager to gnaw off a finger or toe. When you really stop to think about it, the seconds in a minute are deceptive. They pass, one after the next in an endless march of time, consciously whittling away the moment, the minute, and finally, the hour until the measuring glass of life is more than half empty than it is full.
And death is not just some clinical term that one thinks about in a vacuum as just the final, mysterious passage from life. No, it's real, with definable features; clawing away at the edges of skin, bone and hair until they sag or decrease in density and fall out like a great cacophony of scattered bristles from a well worn broom. When I was a boy, the sands of time were a myth. But over time, their granules have grown.
I wish I were a young man again. I'd know how to do things - perhaps not better, but differently. The road not taken, always the most attractive in life's journey. I wish I were younger. Not a boy. Childhood is so unrepentantly cruel. It lulls us into believing that the summer will never end, that the best is yet ahead and that the learning curve will always remain in our favor.
Lies. All of them. For one Spring morning you awake on a train bound for Innsbruck and realize that the only thing fresh about the morn is the air. It's still sweet and crisp, but now it seems almost too painful a reminder of the fact that the best has come and gone and that you've no more knowledge to gain that will enrich or advance your understanding of the great beyond. There is simply more, left largely untouched by your hands. Instead, you observe as the generation behind yours comes up with lightening speed and the audacity to identify your mere existence as a quaint old relic of the ever distant, moldering past. Goodbye, little yellow bird...so long Piccadilly, farewell Lester Square.
. . .
The next few hours pass like a flash of Saint Elmo's Fire. Snapshots of panicked passengers - more nosy than anything else, with their own set of overlapping questions whispered greedily in hushed tones add their curiosities to the conductor's tally of inquiry.
"Who was the man you killed?"
"I didn't kill him," I explain, "He followed me home from the Cafe Gritsch. That is, after he drugged and kidnapped my...uh...wife."
"Where is your wife now?"
"You guess," I say, "I'm out of ideas."
I'm also running out of patience.
"Our staff do not moonlight as waiters in cafes," I'm told, "You say this man has kidnapped your wife. That he followed you both first from Paris to here and then from the cafe back again?"
"Yeah. Persistent little bugger, isn't he? We made chase on the roof. But Mother Nature wiped him from the slate of time with her own brand of charm and cruelty."
I'm told my statements will have to be verified when we make our next stop. By 'who' and 'how' are questions that don't get answered. And a good thing too, because I'm bleeding from a cut on the shoulder that I wouldn't mind tending.
"These questions are absurd," I hear a familiar voice call out from behind.
The crowd of onlookers part and Fertuk takes center stage.
"A man is dead, monsieur," the conductor reminds us, as if reminder were needed, "He must be accounted for. His family must be told of his demise."
"What family?" Fertuk reasons with an air of disdain, "You said yourself, there was no wallet on his person. No identification of any kind. It's obvious to anyone with the I.Q. of ferret that this man did not wish to be known to anyone but himself."
"That may be," the conductor replies, "But the body will have to be examined by a coroner at Innsbruck."
"Good luck with that," I reason, "Paid assassins don't keep books."
"Then it is your claim that this man was hired to killed you?"
"Why? By who?"
I'm at a loss. You would think I could come up with something of half assed intelligence to quell the mystery - but no. I just shrug my shoulders and leave it at that. The conductor's clearly displeased with my nonchalance. Oh well, we all have our shortcomings. Mine aren't any more or less pronounced than then his.
"I'm waiting for your answer, monsieur," he says.
"...and I'm sure one'll be forthcoming...in a week to ten days or your pizza's free. Until then, learn to live with disappointment. I have!"
My insolence has misfired. After clearing the crowd from the open door the conductor informs me that he intends to lock me in my compartment until we reach Innsbruck at which time he will personally hand me over to the authorities.
Outside a light drizzle has begun to fall, turning the already decapitated mess of remains belonging to my assailant into a soggy pile of dislocated lumps. A couple of junior pull men wrap what's left in an oversized tarp and load it into the baggage car. I watch as the younger of the two turns fifty unhealthy shades from rigor mortis gray to salmonella green, then leans over the side of the caboose to donate his lunch to the tracks below.
I feel pretty strong, if not in stamina than in my commitment to preserving the secrecy of Jess' mission. But once inside Fertuk's private car my head begins to do the helium dance. My limbs feel disconnected as I recline on the pullout, Fertuk grabbing my legs and tossing them up to rest. He sits on the edge of the pullout, unbuttons my collar and peels back the blood saturated cotton/silk blend of my dress shirt to reveal a fair sized gash.
"Lay back," he instructs, reaching for a bottle of peroxide and a cotton patch, tenderly tapping the wound until it starts to draw tingles down my spine. "My friend, what have you gotten us into?"
"I wish I knew," I tell him honestly, "And what do you mean 'us'? Who's askin' you to tag along. Be gone, Jiminy Cricket. I'll let my conscience - such as it is - be my guide. I absolve you of your guilt."
Fertuk shakes his head.
"My friend, you are lost," he tells me.
So there it is. The unvarnished truth. He's right of course. Lost, am I? ...even to myself. Where shall I find me. At the bottom of a ravine or the next available bottle of scotch. It all seems suddenly so pointless. I think how grand it might be to have gangrene set in and take me cross the River Styx to nowhere I might find myself. I repeat the fantasy over and over as I drift in an out of conscious thought. The sting of peroxide brings me back to clarity.
So, I tell him the rest. About Jess, and the money and our rendezvous at the Ryugyong Hotel in North Korea.
"I've not heard of the Ryugyong," Fertuk tells me.
"Actually, there's no reason you should," I explain, "It's a hundred and five stories of nothing that never opened."
Fertuk looks confused and I don't blame him. The Baikdoosan brain trust that began the Ryugyong twenty years earlier must have let the altitude go to their heads when designing this behemoth. Begun in 1987, the project consumed a third of North Korea's gross national product until financing ran dry a decade later, bringing construction to a grinding halt and leaving the landscape scarred by a truly hideous monstrosity. Shaped like a gigantic pyramid with three bat-like winged towers melding into one imposing super point rising 1,083 feet from the ground and clearly visible from space, the Ryugyong was easily communism's most ambitious miscalculation.
That in recent years Egypt's Orascom Group had taken a personal interest in the fate of the Ryugyong seemed to bode well with that totalitarian urge to at last open the hotel to world wide acclaim rather than ridicule. In fact, over the last ten year's North Korea's government had even attempted to deny that the hotel existed at all. When no amount of conventional dynamite - short of a nuclear bomb - could be used to demolish the tower, North Korea simply hired a skilled airbrush artist to obliterate it from the landscape featured in their postcards.
"Because something's buried on the one hundred and third floor, inside one of the seven revolving restaurant's that tops that sucker," I explain.
Well...I've come this far in the story. Why not?
"A diamond," I mutter.
"A big one?" Fertuk inquiries, his curiosity peaked like a Pekinese whose just been promised the Holy Grail of juicy bones.
"No," I condescendingly reply, "A little one. In fact, forget diamond. Cubic zirconium with an attitude is actually more like it. A guy from the Liberace museum in Vegas promised me free tickets to Celine Dion's Caesar's comeback and a chit for their all you can eat buffet if I deliver that oversized rhinestone to him before the fourth of July."
Fertuk digs the peroxide soaked cotton into my wound to exercise his displeasure. It pinches and I get the hint.
"Sorry," I tell him, "It's just that I never fancied myself a fortune hunter, that's all."
"For that we have to find my...uh...wife."
Fertuk raises a curious eyebrow in my direction.
"My friend," he wearily exclaims, "How much longer are we going to pretend?"
After what I've put him through he'd have every right to just turn me over the authorities and walk away with his Good Samaritan badge. The fact that he's still interested in what happens to me is refreshing...touching, even. After all, I hadn't given any thought to making new friends along the way. I guess the years of lumping it alone have made me sort of impervious to any notion that someone could care and not want something from me in return.
At Innsbruck, the rain comes down in windswept curtains that billow between the naked slit of rooftop that separates the station from the platform, just like the tempting veils of a belly dancer with little to hide. The conductor makes sure I'm well escorted from the platform to a waiting police car parked just beyond the station. Fertuk carries both his and my luggage.
"I'll follow you in a taxi," Fertuk explains, shaking my hand heartily as though it were for the last time.
I don't know why, but I get a jolt of great courage from this poetic gesture, ripped from a code of ethics from some other forgotten time. I believe in him.
But as the police car pulls away from the station I get an even greater sinking feeling in my gut. It doesn't help matters that I lose sight of the cab Fertuk promised he'd take and arrive at the police station alone in a torrential downpour.
When we've come to a full stop the officer exits his driver's side door and opens the back for me to get out. We walk side by side down a narrow cobblestoned passage with high walls closing in from both sides.
Inside the station the atmosphere is less ominous. In fact, it reminds me of a cozy Motel Six, except for the imposing front desk and the two dour detectives who sit in pre-judgment as I approach them.
I'm fingerprinted, of course, photographed left, right and centre against a plain white wall, then given a nice warm flannel suit of stripes to change into. At first I think it's prison garb, and, it is. But after I've been locked away in a cell for about an hour my sticky, blood stained wet clothes come back to me, washed, pressed and neatly stitched by expert seamstress hands. I'm told by the officer who gives them to me to get dressed. I confess I've never been quite so happy to trade the comfort of flannel for the cold rub of silk in my life.
The cell is chilly and I feel rather naked even after I've been restored to my former, reasonably fashionable self. I find myself unable to think of anything clearly. Nothing seems to matter...or maybe it does and I'm just too stupid to realize it. I watch as the hands of the clock on the opposite wall tick away another hour and a half. No Fertuk. Figures. I've been duped again. Or so I think.
I listen to the storm rage outside and suddenly find myself feeling grateful that I'm in a cell without a care in the world...except, perhaps, for the electric chair. I settle down on the bunk provided and close my eyes tightly to blot out the mild sting of concentration. I'm about to drift off to sleep when the sound of keys turning in the door down the hall alert me to the fact that someone has come for me.
"My friend," I hear Fertuk's familiar voice, "My Friend!"
And I realize that he is - my friend, that is. He hasn't forsaken me. As I raise my head up from the pillow to see him animated with delight, smiling from ear to ear, his sweaty hands nervously rattling the bars with giddy excitement I suddenly feel quiet humility and an epic sense of gratitude overwhelm my senses. Things are clearer once more. Happy days are here again!
Fertuk's accompanied by a poker faced constable who reluctantly unlocks my cell door.
"You're free," Fertuk exclaims.
"Come. Come." Fertuk reasons, a hurried hand locking around mine and tearing me from the cell as though someone from the home office might change their minds at any moment and send us both away for life.
I walk with crooked, spread feet apart like a recovering glassy eyed drunkard whose just been asked to donate a pint of blood and maybe Gin to the Red Cross. You'd think I'd been in jail for sixty years hard time.
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"Anyplace but here," Fertuk reasons.
I agree. At this point I think that even the slums of Calcutta have their beauteous appeal.
I'm ushered by Fertuk to a waiting taxi, the rain coming down with even greater intensity as the driver pulls away from the police station.
"Zwei fünfundzwanzig Volker Straße," Fertuk tells the driver.
There's a few moments of caustic silence as the driver turns and glares at us both.
"Eilen! Bitte, bitte!" Fertuk reasons with a commanding wave of his hand.
The driver shrugs his shoulders before turning the corner.
"Where are we..." I start.
But Fertuk just gives me a polite 'shut up and be patient' glance. I settle in for a short ride.
Turns out 225 Volker Street is Innsbruck's red light district; a veritable pick n' save of human depravities catering to the rough trade, the forgotten and the might as well be dead. I should feel right at home, only prison has made me pious and a bit of a prig. The taxi pulls curbside down a narrow alley leading to what once might have been a great old house, but that today is something of a cross between the Brothers Grimm meet Scooby Doo.
Fertuk tips the cabbie and tenderly pushes me once more into the gale. We quickly move in from the rain onto a rickety front porch. Fertuk gives the worn door knocker three light taps followed by one heavy thwack. A small sliding window near the top of the door opens a moment and a woman with a face like a tube of calking peers out with modest disdain at we two weary travelers. A moment later the slider gets bolted and the door is unlocked.
I was too kind in my initial assessment of the lady of the house. She's Madame DeFarge's twin sister, with enough girth between her shoulders and hips to plug the BP oil spill all by herself. Just a drop of spittle from her sweaty, endowed cheeks could weld whole chunks of metal together. I'm afraid to look back lest I turn to a pillar of salt. With a shock of hair grossly pasted across her forehead - possibly with real lard - and tattoos of the most obscene nature cascading from the top of her lumpy shoulder to the bulbous fatty deposits loosely draped about her elbow and wrist, she's the poster child for why charm school ought never have been abolished.
"Goldene Schauer, elf fünfundzwanzig," she starts, waddling like a pregnant platypus and leading us down a dark hall into a parlor full of moth eaten furniture with dark red velvet curtains drawn across all the windows, "Anal nur von Mädchen gebe ich an. Gerades Geschlecht fängt an sieben, achtzehn an. Lösen Sie Vorderseite ein. Und keine Ausnahmen Hinzufügungen sobald hat die Partei begonnen!"
My German's a little rusty but from what I gather this Babe, Pig In The City is offering us a special on today's kink. Funny, I didn't figure Fertuk for this kind of thing, and I'm a little put off by the thought of having to perform on cue after I thought I'd turned over a new leaf - and not to be spanked with it either!
"Sie werden ihn lassen sich schämen," I hear a soft familiar voice call from the top a long staircase, "Ich kann es von hier nehmen."
I look up and can't believe my eyes. It's Martinique, rather conservatively dressed in a long black housecoat drawn tightly up to her neck.
"Angel," I find myself saying, "How..."
"Get your ass upstairs, Mars," Martinique commands, "And bring Shorty there with you."
I'm about to say something in Fertuk's defense when I notice him raising a polite hand to silence me.
"It's okay," he reasons with a smile, "I've never been a lady's man."
"Don't sweat it," I mutter as we hurry upstairs, "I don't think these ladies are particular."
A vacuum of blackness swallows us whole at the top of the stairs. There's only one crusty light bulb burning in the middle of the hall but its smoker's yellow hue barely casts enough of a glow to make out Martinique in silhouette as she leads us to a door at the end of the hall.
"Go inside and lock it behind you," she tells me, "Whatever you do, don't unlock it for anyone. I'll let myself back in."
"Yes ma'am," I shoot back, finding Martinique's Gestapo-like spank rather erotic.
Still, I'm unprepared for what I find on the other side of that door. As I step into the room my eyes take another minute to adjust to even dimmer lighting, this time in the form of a small table lamp on a nightstand with its dusty reddish purple shade half cocked to cast light across the adjacent bed. There, weak and lying semi-unconscious under a billowy comforter is darling Jessica. The creak the door makes as I close it kindles a small but sharp twinkle in her eyes.
"About time you got here," she mutters through the thick speech of sedation.
And she's so right. God help us, we've found each other once again.
Take everything with a grain of salt - including the fact that Eddie Mars will be on Summer Hiatus until Sept. 4th, 2010.
@Nick Zegarac 2010 (all rights reserved).